Pulp Fictions may be on hiatus, but the comics just keep on coming. Here’s what’s been turning my pages recently:
A Drifting Life
Drawn & Quarterly
Lauded for his downbeat short works collected in The Push Man and Other Stories and Goodbye, Yoshihiro Tatsumi depicts his early years of (sometimes) bitter struggle as a young manga workhorse in this massive and mesmerizing 855-page autobiography. Tatsumi, born in 1935, conflates his personal struggle to invent gekiga, a cinema-inspired “manga that isn’t manga,” with Japan’s postwar economic recovery and the labor-intensive grind of producing works for the country’s insatiable “rental manga” market. Hardly adrift as a creator, Tatsumi applies a lifetime of experience to the ambivalent family and professional relationships that background his unflagging imagination and admirable work ethic. Among its countless graphic delights is Tatsumi’s crafty knack for mimicking the creations of many manga peers throughout this sprawling personal epic.
Cecil and Jordan in New York: Stories
Drawn & Quarterly
Gabrielle Bell’s deftly drawn and perceptively written tales may not always take place in New York (certainly not the ones set in a Northern California hardscrabble post-hippie community), but they definitely evoke classic New Yorker short stories by the likes of Ann Beattie and Lorrie Moore. Bell crystallizes twentysomething angst so well that you want to put your arm around her characters and assure them that everything’s going to be just fine, even though you suspect otherwise. You hardly notice how much emotional information Bell crams oh so deftly into her work until you hit something like the page in “I Feel Nothing” that telescopes an entire doomed relationship into nine wordless panels. The book’s 34-page centerpiece, “Felix,” has as much to say about both the contemporary art world as about the hopes and fears of its art-student protagonist.
Britten and Brulightly
One of the great running gags in Hannah Berry’s hardboiled detective graphic novel is that “private researcher” Fernandez Britten is constantly mistaken as French due to the size of his snout. Another is the fact that his partner in investigation is an ordinary teabag. These endearing gambits, however, are but the icing on a labyrinthine plot involving murder, blackmail, suicide, incest, and a children’s book publisher who prints porn on the down low. Set in a dreary pre-mod London where the rain never quits, Berry’s stunning debut hits the Chandler/Hammett nail firmly on its head.
A Mess of Everything
Miss Lasko-Gross takes us into the skankiest basement makeout sessions of our teenage despair in the second installment of a semiautobiographical trilogy she kicked off with 2002’s Escape From “Special.” Lasko-Gross covers promiscuity, anorexia, alienation, intoxicant abuse, and sheer boredom in vignettes that often seem to end just as they hit their stride. Her fictional stand-in figures out how to work the system and achieves redemption through beautifully ugly comics that aptly capture the darker hallucinogenic melodramas of teenage geekdom.
Supermen! The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941
Despite the naive racism, the most excitingly surreal 16 pages you’ll in this wild and woolly collection of pre-Superman supermen is Jack Cole’s “The Claw Battles the Daredevil,” from a 1941 issue of Silver Streak comics. Burrowing under the Atlantic Ocean to attack an isolationist America “stupid enough to think itself safe from invasion,” the demonic Claw is foiled by a Daredevil unrelated to the blind Marvel character. Cole would go on to greater things (in his case, Plastic-Man, as would Basil Wolverton, Jack Kirby, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Ogden Whitney, Will Eisner, and the other creators of these unformed superthings. As Jonathan Lethem notes in his introduction, our appreciation for the bizarre otherness of these characters in retrospect suggests that our contemporary icons might well appear no less “totally opaque and infinitely awkward” to future readers.
All Star Superman Volume 2
Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
There are superheroes and then there is Superman, and no one has embraced the totality of this godlike creation with so full an appreciation of his emotional resonance than Grant Morrison. Volume two contains the latter six issues of the writer’s marvelous collaboration with artist Frank Quitely. And while critical consensus leans toward episode ten (containing the dying Man of Steel’s last will and testament) as the series’ elegiac highlight, episode eight is far stranger. “Us Do Opposite,” Morrison’s dadaist take on Bizarro ethics, features the unforgettable Zibarro, a bizarro Bizarro clothed in a scarecrow collage of Superman’s tights and Clark Kent’s suit, whose tragic lot is to be the only rational member of his contrarian race. The flagging Superman’s creation myth is reenacted when Zibarro helps him return to Earth in a rocket ship made of garbage, constructed to the strains of a Bizarro rendition of our national anthem: “By no rockets blue shade am no shells dead down there, gave no proof all day long that the flag was unwhere.” No play ball.