Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Fancy Comics

Between X-Mas gifts and gift cards, plus other unforeseen bonuses to my comic habit, I've picked up a few graphic novels from off the beaten path. In the case of gift cards, I always like to use them to try new stuff, or stuff I've heard good things about, but somehow never got around to purchasing.

I've been picking my way through Best American Comics 2006 from Houghton Mifflin (a new variation of their annual "Best" series). It's exciting for me that comics get this kind of recognition, and especially from a yearly anthology series. I've seen some of the included material from other like-minded literary collections (McSweeny's springs to mind), but none with the kind of personal influence of the editor(s). Harvey Pekar guest-edits with series editor Anne Elizabeth Moore. I especially liked Pekar's introduction, which shows both his enthusiasm and worry for the medium.

Of what I've read so far: Joel Priddy's The Amazing Life of Onion Jack is a great opener in that it is a helpful transition from the superhero genre into that of the more independent, personal bent of the book. Plus, it made me laugh out loud and I cried a little at the end. Rabbithead by Rebecca Dart takes Chris Ware's method of breaking page layouts into parallel, diverging timelines and literally runs with it. Thirteen Cats of my Childhood by Jesse Reklaw came so close to my own personal experiences that I feel as if he read my mind.

Those were just a handful of stories I've read so far. The rest are just as impressive, personal and accomplished. I highly recommend this volume.

Peanut Butter & Jeremy: Best Book Ever by James Kolchalka - Purchased at Earth-2 Comics through their great "Buy 10 trades, get 1 free" policy.

Like a lot of Kolchalka's work, Best Book Ever reads like a children's book that grownups can enjoy. It's the story of a sweet cat, who thinks she works in an office, and scheming crow that's constantly trying to trick her. Fairly simple, yet there are little bits of business that hint at deeper characterizations of the two. The book is divided into shorter stories that repeat themes of friendship and anxiety, with a little slapstick here and there. It's a great way to escape for a little while and indulge the kid in you.

Goodbye, Chunky Rice by Craig Thompson - I've heard good things about Thompson's other title, Blankets, but its size has been a little intimidating. I decided to warm up with the more manageable size of Goodbye.

This is a story for anyone who has ever had to say goodbye. The best way to describe it is that it reads like a poem. It has an internal sense of rhythm, and treads a line between the cuteness of anthromorphic cartoon animals and the darker areas of human nature (loneliness, hopelessness). Thompson draws the whole thing in lush ink strokes, which is refreshing. I always prefer to see the artists hand at work as opposed to the polished perfection of so many mainstream comics today.

Part of me wanted to see the story continue just a bit longer, which isn't a bad thing. Maybe I am ready for Blankets.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang - I really enjoyed this book when I finished it, though as time has passed, I've started to wish it had a bit more meat to it. Maybe its the National Book Award nomination... that kind of thing can screw with expectations.

The story is told on three tracks, all tied by issues of identity and an unexpected twist at the end. I liked the end for what it tried to do, but after some thought, it felt a little forced. Forced, but then totally appropriate for the medium. I don't know, my opinion changes from moment to moment on this.

The book does an excellent job of showing that awkward phase in everyone's life where they try to take control of their own identity. There's plenty of embarrassment and guilt to go around, and it's detailed fairly effectively. Add issues of race and culture, and the stakes get raised even higher. It's a good read and worth seeking out, despite my reservations about the end.



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