And so, on to looking at what's worth reading, graphic novel-speaking, before fall comes calling.
As 2008's sultry midpoint has come and gone, the looming tower of incoming books and comics often begins to attain critical mass. Perhaps it's the approach of the holiday season that spurs the increase, or maybe it's nothing more than the recalcitrant procrastination of the receiving writer. Unfortunately, these books aren't going to review themselves, though hopefully such plans are in the works at Amazon's R&D department. One can dream…
Whatever the truth may be, the year has so far been an impressive one for graphic novels, whether they're of the brooding caped superhero type or your standard-issue shoe-gazer indie introspective. The sheer number seems to grow from year to year, but so too does the quality increase, with a respectable stream of praiseworthy work coming out of a number of the smaller houses, who haven't let the major publishers' forays into the field crimp their style. And so, on to looking at what's worth reading, graphic novel-speaking, before fall comes calling.
Though the two artists would seem to share precious little in artistic style or worldview, if there were a Will Eisner for Japan, Yoshohiro Tatsumi would probably be it. Little known these days in Japan, and even less so here, Tatsumi's work has nevertheless been slowly eking its way back into view, due to Drawn & Quarterly's worthy effort to republish his shorter pieces in a series edited by Adrian Tomine. An implacably dark collection of short stories originally published in 1971 and 1972, Good-Bye has more in common with disaffected American urban novelists from the period like Bernard Malamud and John Cheever than the hyped-up sugar candy manga Japan is better known for these days. Each revolving around a different breed of lonely man (one unhealthily obsessed with the Hiroshima bombing, another anxious to enact revenge on a wife he hates), the stories are suffused with anxious, desperate sex and the dehumanizing greyness of the era's overcrowded and ramshackle cities. While little turns out well for the men and women depicted here, there's an appreciative humanity to Tatsumi's work that begs attention. You can see a .pdf preview of the book here.
One has to throw at least a squib of appreciation towards a book whose first frame reads, "The amazing, remarkable LEOTARD empties his fortitudinous bowels. He combs his imposing, resplendent mustachios. And only then does he make his death-defying LEAP…" Eddie Campbell proved his mettle for dense historical graphic fiction with Alan Moore back when they were creating the masterpiece From Hell, but his sense of humor has rarely been so well displayed as in this hilarious adventure. Theoretically based on the famous acrobat who popularized the leotard, the book is really more an excuse for Campbell, and co-author Dan Best, to goof around with the increasingly outrageous and unbelievable antics that befall a fractious circus troupe trying to make its way at the end of the Victorian era. Campbell and Best rope in everything from the Titanic to Jack the Ripper, talking bears, battling dwarfs, and a giant lion-tiger hybrid called the "Ti-Lion," blasting open the fourth wall whenever they feel like it, and generally having a blast.
Somewhere there's a filmmaker who could make a minor masterpiece out of Nate Powell's suburban nightmare of a book. Equally as informed by David Lynch and Donnie Darko as it is by the darker fringes of indie graphic fiction, Swallow Me Whole initially reads as just another closely-observed mumblecore take on adolescent ennui, with its repressed family and teenage girl protagonist who can't quite connect with anything that's going on around her. But then she starts seeing the hordes of bugs that nobody else notices, and there's the divine messages she starts receiving. It isn't long before the book flies right through the looking glass into a world of drowning black terror that's all the more frightening for how quietly and precisely Powell's pen delivers it.
Everybody's heard about those great teaching jobs one can get in Japan where local language skills are barely necessary, just the ability to stand in front of a classroom and pronounce English. Easy money, in other words. Lars Martinson's autobiographical graphic novel shows just how wrong such assumptions can be, particularly when the protagonist is a dull-faced twenty-something slacker who doesn't seem to have any hobbies besides sleeping, watching TV, and not learning Japanese. Martinson's art has an exquisitely etched, woodcarved look to it that's just a hair shy of being fussy (not surprisingly, Martinson gives thanks to Chris Ware in the acknowledgements). While the book's style can lead to some sameness in facial expression, Martinson's depth of perception renders the aching social awkwardness being portrayed all the more potently. And this is only part one…