Monday, February 22, 2010


Jon D. W. throws down a good bit of his hard-earned cash on comics. (And sometimes, as in the case of Essex County, he borrows the comics from friends. Or, in the case of You’ll Never Know Book One, he checks the book out of the library.) Here, he spills the beans on whether or not it was worth it. But to paraphrase LeVar Burton, don’t just take his word for it--you should read comics too.

Harvey Pekar: guest editor
Anne Elizabeth Moore: series editor

Joel Priddy, “The Amazing Life of Onion Jack”; Kim Deitch, “Ready to Die”; Anders Nilsen, “The Gift”; Lilli CarrĂ©, “Adventures of Paul Bunyan & His Ox, Babe”; David Lasky, “Diary of a Bread Delivery Guy”; Ben Katchor, “Goner Pillow Company”; Alison Bechdel, “Only Disconnect”; Joe Sacco, “Complacency Kills”; Justin Hall, “La Rubia Loca”; Chris Ware, “Comics: A History”; Rebecca Dart, “Rabbithead”; Ivan Brunetti, “Untitled”; Jonathan Bennett, “Dance With the Ventures”; Jaime Hernandez, “Day by Day with Hopey: Tuesday is Whose Day?”; Esther Pearl Watson, “Busted!”; John Porcellino, “Chemical Plant/Another World”; David Heatley, “Portrait of My Dad”; Lloyd Dangle, “A Street-Level View of the Republican National Convention”; Hob, “The Supervisor”; Gilbert Shelton, “Wonder Wart-Hog: The Wart-Hog That Came in From the Cold”; Olivia Schanzer, “Solidarity Forever”; Alex Robinson, “Thirty-Three”; Jessica Abel, “Missing”; Seth Tobocman, Terisa Turner and Leigh Brownhill, “Nakedness and Power”; Rick Geary, “Recollection of Seduction”; Tom Hart, “The Executive Hour”; Kurt Wolfgang, “Passing Before Life’s Very Eyes”; Jesse Reklaw, “Thirteen Cats of My Childhood”; Lynda Barry, “Two Questions”; Robert Crumb, “Walkin’ the Streets”

Right off the bat, I hope everyone can agree it’s a given that anything purporting to contain the “best” of something is always going to be subjective and ultimately somewhat arbitrary. So long as you’re alright with that, Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Comics series is well worth reading. Most importantly, I appreciate these books for introducing me to work I often haven’t heard of or am only vaguely of aware of. Granted, not everything included floats my boat, but again it boils down to the individual tastes of the readers, and both the “good” work and the “not so good” can be eye opening in what it reveals about comics’ potential. As noted above, Pekar serves as guest editor, and his own penchant for stories “from off the streets” shines through in many of the selections. From the political to the personal, this book has something for just about everyone. (Hell, Priddy’s “Onion Jack” is even a superhero story!)

Lynda Barry: editor
Jessica Abel and Matt Madden: series editors

Graham Annable, “Burden”; David Axe and Steve Olexa, “War-Fix” (Excerpt); T. Edward Bak, “Trouble”; Alison Bechdel, “Proxy War,” “A Terribly Civil War,” “Life 2.0,” “Scandal in the House,” “Who’s Your Daddy?” and “The Uses of Intelligence”; Nick Bertozzi, “The Salon” (Excerpt); Lilli CarrĂ©, “The Thing About Madeline”; Martin Cendreda, “Hopscotch”; Shawn Cheng and Sara Edward-Corbett, “The Monkey and the Crab”; Eleanor Davis, “Seven Sacks”; Derf, “The Bunker,” “Pressure,” “Strange Thoughts for Strange Times,” “The Man” and “Wal-Mart”; Rick Geary, “Part II. The Benders Arrive”; Matt Groening, “’Fraid Monkeys,” “Daddy I Got a Haircut,” “Important Questions About Monsters,” “King of Monster Island,” “Movies I’m Going to Make When I Grow Up,” “Will and Abe’s Guide to Bali, Parts I, II and III,” “Will and Abe’s Guide to Superheroes,” “Abe and Will in The Dinner Conversation” and “My Class Went on a Field Trip”; Eric Haven, “Mammalogy”; Jaime Hernandez, “Gold Diggers of 1969”; Kaz, “Underworld Strips”; Michael Kupperman, “Cousin Granpa”; Joseph Lambert, “Turtle, Keep it Steady!”; Evan Larson, “Cupid’s Day Off”; Jason Lutes, “Berlin” (Excerpt); Cathy Malkasian, “Percy Gloom”; John Mejias, “The Teachers Edition”; Sarah Oleksyk, “Graveyard”; Kevin Pyle, “The Forbidden Zone”; Seth, “George Sprott (1894-1975)” (Excerpt); Chris Ware, “The Thanksgiving Series”; Gene Luen Yang, “American Born Chinese” (Excerpt)

Reading a second volume of Best American Comics really helps reveal the voice the guest editor brings to the collection. Barry’s comics mix tape (so to speak), while still featuring some of the same political concerns presented in Pekar’s ’06 collection, ultimately demonstrates a zany streak absent in its predecessor. (My apologies for not including the Chris Ware-edited ’07 edition; Borders didn’t have it on the shelf when I bought these two.) There’s an undeniable sense in this collection that comics can be fun. And yeah, they can also have a deeper social point to them. But, damn it, they’re fun!

Story by Harvey Pekar
Art by Gary Dumm

Setting aside his autobiographical work (including American Splendor and The Quitter), Pekar here tells the true story of Michael Malice, a young anarchist who’s done surprisingly well for himself by refusing to play by anyone’s rules but his own. His story is admittedly a remarkable one, but I’m ultimately left feeling he would have been more interesting as a recurring character in Splendor rather than the subject of his own book. Primarily, I feel his youth somewhat undermines the sense of victory at story’s end: Malice wasn’t yet 30 years old when this book was made, and I can’t help but wonder where he’ll be in another decade or three. Despite the book’s abrupt denouement, which strives to tidy all of the loose ends, I suspect Malice has a lot of life yet to live. Nevertheless, Dumm--a Splendor veteran--presents some terrific art that serves the story well and interacts nicely with Pekar’s often dense verbiage. Indeed, despite my other reservations, the most frustrating thing about this book is that Dumm receives no credit on the cover (unless you count the artist’s “G. Dumm 2K6” signature on the illustration, which, frankly, I don’t). Overall, it makes for an entertaining read, but it falls short of Pekar’s autobiographical work. (It might be interesting, though, to see Pekar tackle some fiction at some point…)

Jeff Lemire

Comprising three parts--“Tales from the Farm,” “Ghost Stories” and “The Country Nurse”--Lemire’s Essex County traces the connections amongst multiple generations within a fictionalized version of the eponymous Canadian county where the author himself actually grew up. This collected edition’s bonus content also includes Lemire’s two Essex County minicomics, “The Essex County Boxing Club” and “The Sad and Lonely Life of Eddie Elephant-Ears”; originally intended to be included in the main story, it’s easy to see why they were ultimately excised, although for completion’s sake it’s nice having them here. None of that, though, says a thing about the devastating, beautiful book itself. Lemire’s characters are all so damn human, they all feel so alive, and they make all the mistakes that go along with that burden. The characters’ missteps themselves are rarely the focus, though; Lemire has the good sense to dwell instead on the buildup and the repercussions. His artwork, too, is perfect for the task, presenting the story in stark black and white (save a few flashback pages that mix gray watercolor with a thin black line), but in a loose style that itself seems to evoke the personal recollection of water that long ago flowed under the bridge. Also, there’s lots of hockey.

A Graphic Memoir by C. Tyler

Writer/artist Carol Tyler’s use of the name “C. Tyler” on the book subtly underscores how this is both her story and that of her father, Chuck Tyler. A number of months ago, I’d downloaded a free sample of the first 10 pages from Fantagraphics, and ever since I’d been eager to read this “graphic memoir” of the elder Tyler and his experiences in World War II. What I wasn’t expecting was the raw survey of Carol Tyler’s own life, including her messy separation from her husband. She manages to weave her own story and her father’s together seamlessly and in such a way that each complements the other--and each becomes all the more heartbreaking for it. This is very much a family history, striking at the essence of what it is to be related to someone, and in particular capturing the larger-than-life impression a child has of her father (both Carol’s view of Chuck and Carol’s daughter’s view of her estranged father). Better still, the work captures this sense in a very down-to-earth way; it feels rather like your next-door neighbor has stopped by for a cup of coffee and wound up spilling her life story. There is no pretension here, even though a close study reveals how well thought-out and planned the book’s presentation was. The horizontal orientation of the book itself adds to the feeling of looking through a scrapbook or photo album, and working with that in mind, the author pays great attention to detail; everything illustrated serves a purpose, and extraneous details are left to the imagination. Even the often hash-marked backgrounds suggest a cloud of memory swirling--or boiling--about the characters. It was no doubt difficult to put such a personal book together, and I’ll understand if we don’t see You’ll Never Know Book Two soon, but whenever it’s finished, I’ll be anxious to read it.

All images copyright their respective publishers. Text copyright Jon D. Witmer/The Danger Digest.

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