Monday, August 3, 2015

Okko: The Cycle of Water

by Hub

I'd read the second and third Okko miniseries when they were published by Archaia in the 00's, but never saw the first volume, The Cycle Of Water until recently, and was happy to get the chance to read it.

Okko is a French comic set in an imagined Medieval Japan, where magic, spirits, demons, and combat puppet suits are common.  Okko the character is a ronin and demon-hunter for hire.  He travels with a large, demon-masked man and a drunken monk.  At the beginning of this series, they are hired by the younger brother of a geisha who has been abducted by strange people, in exchange for his service.

Their journey to rescue the young woman is fraught with danger, and when they find the floating fortress to which she has been taken, they discover some very disturbing things.

Hub's art is fantastically detailed and impressive.  The smaller scale of the North American comics page does not fully do it justice, as it feels a little cramped and hard to read at times.  Still, this is a very good read, and now I need to try to track down the fourth volume, The Cycle of Fire.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Black Hand Comics

by Wes Craig

I've been a big fan of Wes Craig's work on Rick Remender's excellent series Deadly Class, and first saw the potential in his art when he drew a few issues of the good Guardians of the Galaxy run, but had never read anything he had completed on his own before walking past his table at TCAF this year.  I thought it wasn't much of a risk to take a chance with Black Hand Comics, his collection of three stories that were originally released online.  The book is a wide, narrow hardcover, and each story shows off a very different approach by Craig.

The first, The Gravedigger's Union is a fun story about the real work of cemetery maintenance crews, which is mostly done after dark, when the dead get up.  It's told in black and white.

The second story, Circus Day, is a bit of a coming of age story about a boy who visits a travelling circus with his sister, after being forbidden to do so by his father.  The kid wants to see the freakshow, despite not having enough money to enter.  When his sister goes off with one of the acrobats, he gets up to some mischief.  Visually, this story is closest to Craig's work on Deadly Class, although he uses more painterly effects, and has some fun with sound effects.

The final story, The Seed, is the creepiest, and best shows off just how good Craig can be.  The story is slight; it's about a man who is fleeing from some people who took him in and helped him, but who seem to be a part of a cult.  There's a darker aspect to this, but I don't want to spoil it.  Here, Craig tells the story in a mix of flashback and present, and it's easy to envision these pages being spread in a straight line around a gallery wall.

This is a very impressive book, although it is frustratingly finished too soon.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Memetic #1-3

Written by James Tynion IV
Art by Eryk Donovan

James Tynion IV is probably best known for his Batman work, supporting Scott Snyder since the New 52 relaunch in a number of ways, but he is also building a name and following for himself with his excellent body of work being published by Boom!  His The Woods is one of my favourite ongoing comics, and I've been enjoying UFOlogy lately.

This is why I decided to give Memetic a shot.  It's a three-issue mini-series, but each issue is oversized, and therefore Tynion has a lot of space to play with his themes.

In this story, a picture has gone viral on the Internet.  It's an image of a happy little sloth, with a background of concentric circles.  It looks exactly like the type of thing that people put funny sayings on.  What makes this particular image different, though, is the way it makes people feel.  It induces a sense of elation, and creates in people a form of mania that encourages them to pass it on to others, and to spend hours looking at it.

Our point-of-view character for most of the series is Aaron, a young college student with a number of issues.  To begin with, Aaron is completely colourblind, and wears a hearing aid (which becomes instrumental to the plot later on).  When he looks at the picture, he feels nothing, and is having a hard time understanding why people are so obsessed with it.  He'd rather worry about the fact that his boyfriend is not returning his calls.

Anyway, it doesn't take long before we realize that there is a lot more going on with this picture, and that it is rewriting the human brain somehow.  Another person who has figured this out is a retired officer in the Army, who used to specialize in information-based attacks.  He suffers from macular degeneration, and is therefore also unable to see the image properly.  He attempts to rally some of his old contacts, but is hard-pressed to find anyone in charge who hasn't seen the image.

And then things start to change.  The people who have looked at the picture begin to change into 'screamers', and things get very weird.

Tynion does a very good job of setting up this plot, and extrapolates nicely from our current obsession with social media.  He lifts some ideas from zombie and Apocalyptic stories, and then gives us a big finish that will leave the reader looking for more information.

Eryk Donovan is not an artist I'm familiar with, but he's very talented.  His work reminds me a little of Sean Murphy (it's the noses, which I've always thought of as Chris Bachalo noses), but is a freer artist in a lot of ways.

This series is thought-provoking and very effective.  I recommend it, and anything else that Tynion is doing at Boom!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Lunarbaboon Vol. 1

I picked up the first volume of Lunarbaboon as a bit of an impulse buy at TCAF this year.  It's a collection of webcomics that focus on the joys and tribulations of fatherhood.

The father has a young son, Moishe, and, one presumes, a very patient wife.  Many of the strips, which never run more than two pages, fall into the standard structure for this type of thing, showcasing the funny things that kids say, or describing humorous observations that occur to the cartoonist.  These are often pretty amusing.

Even better, though, are the strips that really make use of the freedom comics allow.  The cartoonist often shows great imagination in layout or in portraying the world through either the child's, or the very creative dad's, eyes.

There is a poignancy to this book, and it is often very sweet, while also often very truthful, and occasionally, even harsh.  Not knowing if the payoff for each strip is going to be a punch to the gut or a laugh is a big part of the fun of reading this book.

Once again, proof that just about anything you buy at TCAF is going to be good...

Monday, July 6, 2015

Wild Blue Yonder #1-6

Written by Mike Raicht, Zach Howard, and Austin Harrison
Art by Zach Howard

I'd heard some good things about Wild Blue Yonder, a science fiction series from IDW, and jumped at the chance to pick up a full set recently.

This is a very good sci-fi adventure comic for fans of Mad Max.  In the future, most of the Earth is uninhabitable, due to radiation and other environmental factors, and the luckiest people are the ones who live in the sky, on flying fortresses.  Cola and her people live on the Dawn, which apparently is able to keep flying without fuel (this is never explained), which makes them a target for pirates and others who want to break themselves of dependency on fossil fuels (which are squeezed out of the Earth by a frequently mis-treated servant class).

Because of the violence inherent in this world, mixed with the lack of resources, especially ammunition, the fortresses have developed an interesting method of defence.  Pilots like Cola fly their planes, and transport 'bullets', jetpack-wearing warriors who often go into battle with axes.

When the series opens, Cola is looking to recruit a new bullet after her previous one died on a mission.  She finds Tug, the son of a miner, and we see the Dawn and its systems through his eyes.  We quickly learn that things are not good between Cola and her mother, who runs the place, and that Cola's independence and flying skills are a problem between them.  Worst of all, they both blame Cola for the previous bullet's death.

As the series progresses, we learn that the Judge, the commander of a large fleet, has his hopes set on taking the Dawn, and he has a variety of plans in place to make that happen.

This series is gorgeous.  Zach Howard's art reminds me a lot of Sean Murphy's (in fact, comparisons to The Wake wouldn't be inaccurate), and his air battles are pretty incredible.  Nelson Daniel's colours work very well; you can almost feel the heat off the various fires that fill the last two issues.

There's a fair amount of sticking to genre tropes in this story, but at the same time, in just six issues the writers had me caring about the characters and their world, and the art really made this book stand out.  Recommended.

Monday, June 15, 2015

West Coast Blues

by Jacques Tardi, adapting a novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette

I am always up for a Jacques Tardi graphic novel, and got a lot of enjoyment out of reading West Coast Blues, the translation of his book adapting the novel Le Petit Bleu de la Côte Ouest, which was originally released in 1976.

The story is about George Gerfaut, a salesman who one night, while driving around Paris aimlessly and a little drunkenly, sees two cars speed past him, as if they are chasing one another.  He follows, and soon finds one of the cars wrapped around a tree.  The driver is injured, so Gerfaut takes him to the hospital, and then leaves him there.

Later, when Gerfaut and his family go to the coast for a holiday, two men try to kill Gerfaut in the water.  He manages to escape them, but his nerves are shot, and he begins to believe that someone is looking to kill him because he helped that injured driver.

It's not paranoia, though, when you're right.  Gerfaut leaves his family and returns to Paris, trying to decide what to do.  The two men, Carlo and Bastien are hired killers, employed by Emerich.  They begin following Gerfaut, who becomes more and more desperate to escape them, even going so far as to get a gun for protection.

An encounter between the men at a gas station on a lonely stretch of road leads to some killing, and Gerfaut's being completely lost in the wilderness.  He decides to abandon his former life and begin living as a hermit, but it's not all that long before he's back in Paris seeking his own personal freedom from Emerich's attention.

This is a well-written noir story, and Tardi does a great job of pacing it, and showing difficult things in beautiful settings.  I like the way Tardi (or Manchette) constantly let us know what music the protagonist is listening to, providing a bit of a soundtrack to the book throughout.

The pacing of this story is very different from what one would find in an American thriller, but that's a big part of what makes it work, since it's harder to predict.  In all, another very solid (and well-designed) Tardi comic from Fantagraphics.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Russian Olive to Red King

by Kathryn Immonen and Stuart Immonen

Of all the books I bought at TCAF this year, I think that this is the one that I will treasure the most, mostly because Kathryn and Stuart Immonen really take their time when signing a book.  Kathryn copied a number of words out of a Chekov novel to run perpendicular to the book's title on the title page, beneath which Stuart drew a lovely sketch of Olive, one of the book's protagonists.  It took a little while, but made this a unique purchase.

Russian Olive to Red King is a lovely, lovely book.  It's about a couple, Olive and Red, who live in a large city.  Red is an art writer, while Olive is a researcher.  We are given very few details of their life together, beyond meeting their dog, and learning that Red is not the most communicative of people outside of their relationship.

Olive leaves town for a while, to do some field work, but when flying into (I assume) Northern Ontario, the two-engine plane she is in goes down, and the pilot is killed.  While she is all alone in a wintry environment, Red is left all alone in their apartment, and the rest of the book charts the emotional journeys they take separately, but together.

This is a very poetic book (it was reminding me of The English Patient long before the scene with the cave), and Stuart reveals the story slowly through large, open panels showing landscape and sunset.  Towards the end of the book, the story switches into a section of prose, or prose poetry, more accurately, with sequences of abstracted drawings below them.  The connection between image and words, and how this whole section relates to the rest of the book, is not revealed until the very end.

I feel like I might have appreciated a little more clear resolution at the end, but by saying that, I also think I'm just being a little simple-minded.  This is a powerful and beautiful book.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Pitiful Human-Lizard #1

by Jason Loo

I love my hometown, Toronto, which is a serious comics town.  I am often surprised by the high calibre of local talent in the comics industry, from big-name Big Two stars to quality independent writers, artists, and cartoonists.  For a city that is well-represented behind the scenes in comics, it's not often a a comic showcases the city itself.

Sure, Alpha Flight comes to mind, but even when John Byrne was drawing it, Toronto was never a character.  It was in Scott Pilgrim, though, but now, Toronto has its own superhero, the Human-Lizard (apparently he's a little pitiful).  At TCAF, creator Jason Loo compared this hero to the city's sports teams - lots of good intentions, not very impressive results.

Anyway, this is a very solid debut for this series.  We get to know our hero, who is a Kick-Ass style superhero wannabe with access to his father's excellent glue and gimmicks from his own hero days.  Lucas Barrett has a boring office job, and generally sucks at jiu-jitsu, but really wants to be a hero.  After signing up for a drug company experiment, he gains the ability to recover from any injury, and realizes that perhaps his time to be a hero has come around.

Loo makes Lucas a likeable character, and does a terrific job of incorporating the city into his story.  You don't have to be from Toronto to enjoy this book, but there are lots of Easter Eggs and nods to Torontonians that make reading this even more fun.

My biggest TCAF regret of this year (I always have some) was in not buying the other three issues of this series that are available.  I'm going to have to go look for them, because I want more.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Pocket Full of Coffee and There's No Bath in This Bathroom

by Joe Decie

I didn't know Joe Decie's work before this year's TCAF, but he was kind enough to give copies of his newest book, There's No Bath in This Bathroom away for free.  Flipping through it, I liked what I saw, and felt compelled (and perhaps a little obligated) to pick up the other book he had on offer, Pocket Full of Coffee.

Both of these books are slice-of-life books, where Decie takes the everyday and turns it into a book.  There may be some greater profundity hidden within the story, but it seems like he's really just keeping a bit of a journal, and elevating the mundane into art.

Pocket covers a very ordinary Wednesday for Decie.  He worries about marks on his arm, gets his young son ready for the day, hangs out with him for a bit, has dinner with his wife, and paints for a bit before going to bed.

No Bath is a story about last year's TCAF, and hanging out with comics folks after the show.  Decie and his friends end up at a fictional pizza shop with a dirty bathroom.  That's about it.

These books reminded me a lot of Nicholson Baker's writing, with the focus on minutiae becoming the point of the story.  I like stuff like that, so it works very well for me.

Decie's art is very nice.  It looks like he uses watercolours to shade his black-and-white art, and sticks to a pretty realistic style.

Both of these books are very straight-foward, but deceptively so.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Potter's Pet

by Braden D. Lamb and Shelli Paroline

I liked Braden Lamb and Shelli Paroline's work on the excellent Boom series The Midas Flesh, so when I saw that Lamb had this mini-comic on offer at TCAF, I thought it would make a good purchase.

Set in a typical storybook souk, The Potter's Pet is about what happens when you set out to please everybody.  The titular potter is having a bad month, not selling any of his wares.  One day he discovers some plans on a piece of parchment, and builds himself a little robot that dances to amuse him.

Another merchant sees it, and asks if he can build her one that will sort scrolls for her.  Reluctant, the potter agrees to build this for her (he has to smash his own robot to do it) once she offers a price he can't refuse.  When he goes to take the finished product to her, another merchant waylays him and offers more money if he instead constructs a device that will fetch juice.  And then we're off, as each person in succession expects a device that does more, but also pays better.

There is a storybook simplicity to this comic, which is aided by the clean art from Lamb and Paroline.  I can see why the pair's comfort with historically impossible art made them obvious choices for The Midas Flesh, which is about the science fiction implications of the legend of King Midas, and which features a dinosaur in a space suit.

This was a fun little read.

Junior Citizens

Written by Ian Herring and Daniel MacIntyre
Art by Ian Herring

One thing I love about TCAF is the way in which it brings exposure to artists and cartoonists I might not hear about, and I'm always willing to take a chance on lower-priced items that look interesting.  One book that jumped out at me is Junior Citizens, by Ian Herring and Daniel MacIntyre.

Apparently this is a digital comic that can be read on its tumblr page.  This twenty-page comic is the extent of what is available there right now, but I'll be sure to check back for more later, as I enjoyed this comic.

In the world that Herring and MacIntyre have created, it seems that there is a clear caste system in place, with 'junior' citizens having to complete their annual work quota in able to qualify for the benefits of society.  We follow one such junior citizen, sent on her first work assignment, to an agricultural platform which is experiencing an equipment malfunction.

We quickly learn, through a helpful and loquacious robot, that the platform should have been decommissioned, but is being kept in operation by its single chief custodian.  The woman's attempts to fix things do not go well.

This is a simple enough story, but it has a certain retro charm to it.  Herring's art is blocky, but with a deco style to it, and his use of colour and texture is phenomenal.  As a first issue, this sets up the situation nicely, and has me interested enough to come back for more.  It's worth checking out.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Pope Hats #4

by Ethan Rilly

One of the most thrilling releases at TCAF this year is the new issue of Pope Hats, Ethan Rilly's exceptional series.  I think I've bought every issue of this series at TCAF over the years, and it's a book I relate closely to the phenomenal event.

This issue, which is magazine-sized, does not return to its regular main characters, Frances and Vickie, but instead shares a number of short stories, many only a page or two in length.

At the centre of the book is a long story, 'The Nest', about a pair of aging parents who have to deal with the fact that their daughter has returned home from university unexpectedly, and suffering from a mental illness.  The parents do their best to adapt their lives around having to look after their child - the father takes an early retirement - and they never let their optimism wane.  This is a touching story, and Rilly handles it very well, with sensitivity and humour.

The rest of this book is equally perceptive and enjoyable.  An aging drummer feels ambivalent about having his band reunite for an Asian tour, and then can't complete the tour anyway.  In a science fiction series, a forager continually alienates everyone around him, for no good reason.  The people in Rilly's stories make decisions that are bad for them - they move into basement apartments with difficult people while abandoning their youthful ideals, they play poker on their phone way too late into the night, they destroy their own artwork, and they use time travel irresponsibly.

Pope Hats is a terrific series; I only wish that Rilly worked a little quicker at producing it.

Optic Nerve #14

by Adrian Tomine

It's always exciting when Adrian Tomine releases a new issue of his very occasional anthology series Optic Nerve, but it's even more exciting when that issue is available at TCAF before it's released in comics shops.  This issue is made up of two stories, 'Killing and Dying', and 'Intruders'.

'Killing and Dying' is a story about fatherhood, comedy, and loss.  Jessica is an odd fourteen year old with a stutter who has developed an interest in stand-up comedy.  Her mother encourages her to take a course at the Learning Annex (for $500), while her father's disapproval is palpable.  Her first performance goes well, but her father figures out that her teacher has written all of her material for her.  Later, Jessica decides to try out her own material at an open-mic night that her father sneaks into, and what follows is one of the most awkward scenes I've read in comics.

An undercurrent that is never discussed in this story, but is made clear through Tomine's art, is the mother's illness.  I love the way this story becomes more about what is not being discussed, and how that affects everyone.  Tomine uses a twenty-four panel grid for most of this story, which gives it a tight and claustrophobic feeling, much as the father must feel, trapped in his own head.

The second story, 'Intruders', is about an aging guy who has found himself alone and unhappy in life.  When a chance encounter with a young woman who once apartment-sat for him leads to him having the keys to the apartment he once shared with his ex, he begins a disturbing habit of breaking into his former home on a daily basis.

The guy's actions seem more or less reasonable at first, even though they are deeply transgressive, but as is the way of such things, events escalate.  This story is told with a larger nine-panel grid, and is drawn with thicker lines.

Tomine's work is always impressive.  He creates complete realities in very short amounts of space, and his stories stick with you long after you've finished reading them.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Wayward Volume 1: String Theory

Written by Jim Zub
Art by Steve Cummings

When Wayward, the new series from writer Jim Zub(kavich), whose Skullkickers is a riot of a book, first debuted, I wasn't sure if I was interested in it or not.  I like Zub's writing on the other title, but that is a more comedic comic, and is something I never thought I'd want to read (it's a really special comic).  This looked more serious, but I wasn't sure if it was going to grab me.  Luckily, Image keeps the price low on first volumes of new series when they are published in trade, and since I was standing in front of Zub at a convention, I felt like I had no reason not to buy this.

This series is centred on Rori Lane, a mixed heritage Japanese-Irish teenage girl, who has moved to Tokyo to live with her mother, who she has not seen in a year.  Almost immediately upon landing in Japan, Rori starts to notice reddish lines that connect her to her destinations, that no one else can notice.

On her first night, she is attacked by a trio of kappa, folkloric turtle-creatures that appear much more dangerous than how they are usually depicted.  A strange girl, Ayane, appears to help her out.  As the story progresses, Rori meets two other kids who have abilities, and stumbles across a plot by some other characters from Japanese folklore, who have evil deeds in mind.  It seems that Rori is a weaver, and this has something to do with her mother.

The easiest comparison to make here is to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  We have the inherited abilities, the idiosyncratic group of peers, and a winking acknowledgement of the story's debt to its genre forebears.

This is an engaging read, with nice art, and a strong sense of place.  I think, had I read these issues individually with a month between them, I would not have made it to issue five.  In the trade, there's a better sense of the larger story, but I'm not sure that there is still enough here to really keep me interested for the long haul.  I would think that this book would appeal to teens, but the level of profanity would keep it from be shelved in a lot of libraries where it would be most welcome.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Sculptor

by Scott McCloud

I knew going in that The Sculptor, the new graphic novel by Scott McCloud, was going to be an impressive piece of work, but I was still surprised by the depth of emotion that McCloud imbued his story with.

David Smith is a young artist who has always dreamed of being a successful, famous sculptor.  An early brush with art world fame fell apart because of the prickly nature of David's personality, and since then, his life has been very difficult.  He can't get proper gallery representation, is about to lose his apartment, and is down to his last friend in New York.  His family is all dead, and he has set himself a rigid set of rules to live by (no handouts or charity, ever, for example).

On his birthday, while quietly getting drunk by himself in a touristy diner, David is surprised to run into his great uncle Harry, who has been dead for many years.  As it turns out, Harry is Death, in a rare human guise.  He asks David what he'd be willing to trade for artistic success, and David quickly offers up his life.  They enter into a Faustian bargain where David is given unparalleled artistic ability for two hundred days, at which point he is going to die.  He readily agrees to this, because he is at a point where he values his artistic legacy more than his existence.

Of course, almost immediately, things begin to change for David.  He has the ability to mold rock or steel with his bare hands, allowing him complete freedom in creating shapes and figures.  That same day, though, he becomes the unwitting centre of a street theatre piece, and meets a girl who is going to change his life.

As the book progresses, a few things take place.  First, we begin to suspect that David's artistic problems are more from a lack of having something to say with his art compared to ability; once he create anything he can imagine, he relies on creating representational pieces from his memory that only have meaning for him.  When he holds a show in his apartment, it is likened to a Polynesian gift shop.  Later, he is barred from returning to his apartment after his works crash through the floor, and homeless and in despair, he is taken in by the girl from the performance piece, Meg, who likes to make projects of helping people.

David pretty quickly falls for Meg, although it takes a lot longer for her to begin to reciprocate those feelings for him.  As the book progresses, David becomes more and more aware of his deadline looming, as he searches for artistic and emotional fulfillment.

McCloud plays with a of stuff in this hefty graphic novel.  The magical realism that allows the plot to take place doesn't feel very forced, although at the end I felt things became a little too comic-book.  The base elements of this story - deals with the devil, finding love just before dying, the frustration of the creator who is unable to create - are not new, but McCloud mixes them very nicely.

His characters feel very real.  David has always been a difficult person, especially after losing his parents and sister at a young age, and having to rely on himself in a very hostile world.  His blind adherence to rules he's set out for himself, and his penchant for speaking plainly to people in positions of influence have put him where he is, and he does not have the tools to get himself out of his situation on his own.  Meg is equally complex - endlessly generous, she suffers from depression and refuses to take medication for it.

McCloud literally wrote the book on graphic storytelling, so it's no surprise that this book is beautifully laid out and illustrated.  He makes interesting use of panel borders, keeping a traditional page structure for most of the book, but bleeding to the edges of the page during scenes of great emotion or stress.

In all, this is a very powerful piece of work.  McCloud really twists the knife towards the end, and while I don't love everything about the conclusion (which, again, gets a little too super-powers/comic bookish), I did feel a genuine ache for these characters upon closing the book.  Read this.