When you describe the personality of a city, I don't think you are talking about its inhabitants. There's something about the conglomeration of buildings, the interaction between concrete and green space, the angles at which the sun casts shadows down long main drags, the smell that pervades right before a rain storm. Each city is an individual, and each city has a history. In the new graphic novella A City of Whiskey and Fire by Daniel Landes and Noah Van Sciver, Denver is a city that was born and burned on the same day.
What starts off as a recitation of some seemingly fictionalized account of the burning of Denver, Colorado on April 19, 1863 becomes, by the end of the book, a rumination on the nature of place, on the sense of home.
As a storyteller, Landes knows what he is doing. He brings us in by building tension and speaking in images. Once he has us in what should be the denouement, he addresses us directly, puts his arm around us, makes us feel comfortable. We have a bond. It is safe. It is then he talks about himself and his relationship with the place he calls home. Because we are together, we know that as he talks of himself, he's talking about us too.
From the Concierge: Having conquered Britannia in their review of Eel Mansions #4, Mssrs. Elkin and Silva have been informed that their crusty brand of effusive braying was beginning to rub the youth of today as poppycock and the gibbering of toothless old fools who still clung tightly to their convictions that musicians like Barbara McNair, R. Dean Taylor, and The Hit Pack inform contemporary music. Hoping to skew younger, the editorial staff at ComicsBulletin.com thought that they should bring into the critical fold the non-crusty perspective and youthful vigor of young David Fairbanks.
In a somewhat desperate and certainly embarrassing desire to appear hip and relatable, Silva and Elkin celebrate the addition of Fairbanks and have found themselves infused with the energy of youth. The editorial staff at ComicsBulletin.com have since explained to them that, at their age, the liberal use of the phrase, ''Dang, son'' and bandying about words like 'jacked' and 'wanksta' was both ridiculous and pathetic and would subsequently be edited out of any final copy. To this end, Silva and Elkin have agreed to comport themselves in accordance to their age, provided it be well established that neither of them is a coffee table.
Daniel Elkin: So, gentlemen, we have before us the penultimate issue of Derek Van Gieson's Eel Mansions and issue 5 reads much like the love child of Willy Loman's sad reveries of happier times and David Foster Wallace's footnotes to his ''Dear John'' letter. Things move fast and frenetically in this book, pushing toward an ending with increasing velocity while Tokyo Drifting into new areas of madness drowned in the soundtrack to a “supernatural kind of noir kind of thing”.
You could dance to it if you could just keep the beat. Give it a try:
Eel Mansions #5 looks to wrap up through moving the narrative forward while gazing ponderously behind. This is the first issue without Armistead Fowler, while having Fowler's backstory be the centerpiece of everything that is going on. Hmph. Still. When will the sub-plots be revealed to be functioning in tandem? Van Gieson is keeping everything up his sleeves, but they are poking out teasingly from beneath that plaid smoking jacket he so fashionably is styling. He's been looking good so far sporting that thing, but has he been wearing it so long it's now torn and frayed and seen much better days?
No. Eel Mansions is still dernier cri and by golly if Van Gieson ain't still his own kind of Lizard King.
To whit: Janet Planet has set her ''way out'' in motion, Bert and Chee Chee (sort of) are that much closer to their confrontation with Armistead, Record Store Guys continue to ''do their thing,'' the Negative Orphans are still pondering ''life's deep questions'' and 'Doomin' gets more abstract while 'Tales of Abstraction House' gets more non-sequitur (if possible). And then there's even more 'Milk City,' where the grass is green and the seagulls regret ''yesterday's late night drunken quest for burritos.''
We're set up for closure here, boys, but it's closure on Van Gieson's terms. As Janet Planet says, ''Everything's all commercial (sic) now. They're squeezing the Golden Goose. Now we're gonna squeeze back.'' Because this is love, brothers, love for the artistic intent.
Giampaoli: I don't know, you guys. Shackleton: Antarctic Odyssey seems to fit in this nexus of genres that I didn't even realize I was drawn to, which may best be described as "Historical Exploration Fiction." I love books like Image Comics' current hit Manifest Destiny (chronicling Lewis & Clarks' Corps of Discovery Expedition mashed up against the supernatural), Nick Bertozzi's own superb Lewis & Clark previously published by First Second, Ben Towle's daring Midnight Sun (chronicling the adventures of a lost Italian dirigible exploring the North Pole), T. Edward Bak's Island of Memory (charting a Russian Expedition from St. Petersburg to the Kamchatka Peninsula), or even the slight historical bits about McMurdo and Amundsen that play as the loose backdrop for Greg Rucka & Steve Lieber's old Oni Press hit Whiteout. The snowier, the better. Man seems to have an innate desire to explore, just because the thing is there, a primal drive to bring order to chaos by making the unknown known, and Shackleton rests nicely in this storytelling milieu.
It's the story of Ernest Shackleton's third go at Antarctica, this time attempting to craft a new record with a transcontinental expedition after Roald Amundsen beat everyone to the South Pole. Nick Bertozzi's rustic aesthetic captures the harsh conditions of the WWI-era endeavor, but his slight lines are also effervescent enough to lend a swift sense of energy and unpredictable danger. It's really the perfect balance of artistic impulses. I also love the diagrammatic ability he uses to compose a page. Some of my favorite parts of the book were the schematics of the ship, the crew listings (complete with a list of all the intrepid dogs!), and where the Shackleton expedition lies in the historical procession of previous attempts. His intended plan to traverse the continent is documented with this cartographic glee as well, and it allows things like the roster entry of the stowaway on page 21, a visual callback which has already been coded for the audience. What I like about Bertozzi's work in general is his willingness to lace the concrete factual elements with entertaining fictional extrapolation. His historical fiction then Venn Diagrams its way into the educational space as well. I've got a lot of teachers in the family, so it's always great to see instances where comics can bridge the gap to the classroom. Elkin, could you-would you-have you used texts like this in your day job?
Let's be honest. Here in the middle of 2014 it's hard to write a review about a comic book with words like "chiaroscuro", "Kafkaesque", "meta-textual", and "vexing" without coming off as some sort of pretentious thesaurus thumbing ponce. I shudder at the thought of such a misreading, but I am inescapably drawn to these very words when consideringDepartment of Art #1 by Dunja Jankovic.
Jankovic is an artist first, beyond any other consideration of her abilities as a cartoonist or storyteller. Her pages and panels flow in an out of clarity – her lines tighten and release – her characters morph yet retain identity --- her mazes lead back to themselves. Jankovic's art is at war with negative space as lights and darks fight with each other for dominance. In that fight the viewer sees the beautiful choreography of chiaroscuro.
Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2013's When Jews Were Funny, directed by Alan Zweig.
Jason Sacks: So there was a problem with an infestation of mice in a synagogue. The place was teeming with the rodents and it was difficult to clean it up. In despair, the maintenance man went to the rebbe. "How can we get rid of the mice, rebbe?" "It's easy," the holy man replied. "Give the mice yamukles and then give them bar mitzvehs. Then we'll never see them back at Temple again."
Elkin, I don't know much about your upbringing but mine is a very typical Jewish story. My grandparents on my father's side of the family moved to America in the 1920s, one from Poland and the other from what then was called Palestine (my paternal grandfather Saul fought against the British in a Palestinian Jew liberation group). On my mother's side, her great-grandparents migrated to America from Russia and Poland.
Both sides of the family settled in East New York, in what then was a boiling soup of ethnic kids – Italian and Jewish, mostly, with some Irish and German mixed in. The grandparents all spoke Yiddish, and my parents did too (they often spoke Yiddish in front of my sister and me when they didn't want me to understand them). My maternal grandfather was apparently a runner for the Jewish Mafia before I was born. I wish I'd been able to hear his stories, but he tragically passed away, a decade before I was born, of a heart attack.
My parents had a classic ethnic upbringing, but in the years before I was born, the old ways shifted and the Jews of East New York started moving up. Some of the family moved to New Jersey and to Brooklyn; we moved to nearly-suburban Rosedale, Queens, before we moved to various different suburban communities around the country (my dad had a bit of wanderlust). We were raised ethnically Jewish, but also with secular values. We seldom celebrated Passover or Yom Kippur and sometimes traded presents on Christmas. And like with many Jewish families, the Jewish side of the bloodline ended with the third generation son, namely me, who married a shiksa and had kids with her. Though my sister now practices her religion, I grew up and remained secular.
In many ways When Jews Were Funny was all about me, or at least my family and the stories and laughs that we shared growing up. A compilation mainly of interviews with great Jewish comedians (and a few vintage performances), Alan Zweig's documentary is a kind of elegy for lost Jewishness in the entertainment industry.
This documentary celebrates the elements that made Jewish comedy special through interviews with an all-star group of comedians: Shelley Berman, Gilbert Gottfried, Shecky Green, Howie Mandel, Bob Einstein (a.k.a. Super Dave Obsborne), Judy Gold, Marc Maron and many others. Each interview partner tied their hardest to help decide what makes Jewish humor special. Some of the interview subjects are insightful (I'm now a fan of Osborne) and some are funny (I loved Shelley Berman's confusion) but all struggle with the core question of the documentary.
Elkin, I wanted very much to enjoy this film because I had hoped it would bring me closer to my heritage and bring me closer to the wonderful world of Jewish humor that my dad especially loved so much. But this film is so focused on talking heads – entertaining talking heads but talking heads nonetheless – and his attempts to get good answers to his undefined question that I was more bored than entertained. And that's a bit unforgivable in a film with these sorts of hilarious people involved with it.
Elkin: I, too, wanted to like this film for many of the same reasons you mentioned above, Sacks, but I think it fell short for different reasons than you. I'll get into that into a moment.
Andre the Giant: Life and Legend Most People Don't Understand The Big Picture
Elkin: Say what you will about Pro Wrestling or Sports Entertainment or whatever you want to call it, at its
best it is high form American Theatre spinning tales that reach into our collective unconscious, telling us our stories again and again, bearing witness to the passions of the imagination, serving beauty in its brio, mining our fears, transcending our aspirations while thudding on the the canvas wearing short shorts. At times, Pro Wrestling can equal Shakespearean heights of pathos, Homeric moments of heroics, and Dali-like surrealist absurdity. It is soap-opera. It is high brow done low brow. It is story-telling. It is myth making. And it has captured the imagination of fans in ever-growing number throughout the world.
I am one of those fans.
Apparently so are a number of comic book fans and creators. Someday we will all band together and create a small army whose sole mission is to put crooked politicians in the camel clutch. Anyway, one of those comic book creator fans is Box Brown. Wrestling has been part of his comic milieu for years now, and his fandom has culminated in his book, Andre the Giant: Life and Legend, the focus of this review.
Now, the normal first step in a review of this sort is to talk about who Andre the Giant was and why he is worthy of a graphic biography. But this is the age of the internet , so I'll let you do all the searching you want. Also, it's Andre the fucking Giant, and if you don't know who he was you have been living under some sort of polystyrene enclosure with your fingers plugged into your ears humming the hits of 1953 in a nasally baritone.
So let's talk Andre the Giant: Life and Legend.
As Brown says in his introduction, “I took some unavoidable liberties – and used some artistic license– in the storytelling of this book.”Andre the Giant: Life and Legendis as much about the choices Box Brown makes as it is a narrative of the life of Andre. Choices such as what is the narrative focus, how to frame the story, what to leave in, what to leave out, perspective, line-work, shading, all of these stand as testament to Brown the artist, not Brown the biographer.
There's a certain ironic genius to starting a biography of Andre the Giant with a 2010 interview with Hulk Hogan, one that ends with “Most people don't understand the big picture.” Then follow this to a flashback to Andre's childhood challenges and the day he got a ride to school with playwright Samuel Beckett. It's about setting a tone through choices and demonstrating artistic intent through that act.
This is a big book about a big man. As an artist, Brown is trying to both humanize and mythologize his subject at the same time. I guess my question to you, Lilley, is, does he succeed?
Wunderlich: If I was going to sum up Rai nice and quickly, I’d call it a Japan-centered Blade Runner with major Akiraand Elephantmen vibes. It’s a cool book with huge potential that’s written well, with simple yet effective dialogue and a plot that’s interesting from panel 1.
Your enjoyment of this book, however, will depend on two factors. First, you must enjoy the art of Clayton Crain. Personally, I’m torn. Some panels draw attention to his overly digital painted style with muddy faces, unnecessarily blurred backgrounds and sporadically rushed looking character work. Other panels are gorgeous, with deep details and rich textures, perfectly accentuating the mood of the page. It’s a hit and miss effort that leaves me wondering what future issues will look like. If rushed, this book’s look could go downhill quickly.
Elkin: Taking a look at the cover of Shadowman: End Times #1, all I can think of is Shadowman: High Times #1, amirite?
That's about all the levity you’re going to get out of me for the rest of this review, Wunderlich.
I was all aboard Milligan's Shadowman way back when – I remember being so agog about issue #13way back in December.
But something happened in the interim. I know I've been changing, but dammit Milligan, you've been changing too. What started off with such promise seems to have embarrassingly soiled itself somewhere along the way, and now everyone is uncomfortable sitting next to it unsure whether to flee in disgust or extend a hand of assistance.
What was once taint-tightening horror has become elbow moisturizing dull. What had bubbled with a certain level of excitement now has gone flat like a Pabst left open two weeks in the sun. What crackled with the fire of artistic intent has been suppression foamed to the point of OMG that cliché is still cliché.