The renowned illustrator and graphic designer continues his series of classic adaptations, with diminishing returns.
When Chwast, a very influential stylist in visual communication, published his adaptation of Dante’s Divine Comedy (2010), he set the bar very high, with an irreverent triumph of the imagination that was somehow both true to the spirit of the source material and totally original. The next year’s similar transformation of The Canterbury Tales was less revelatory, and this third in the series fails to fulfill the epic’s promise. It is playful but slight, like a cross between Flash Gordon (complete with space ships and rocket burners) and fractured fairy tales. He concentrates on two set pieces: The hero’s romantic island idyll with Calypso (in her beach chair and bikini) and the repeated efforts by his wife and son to fend off suitors—who multiply alarmingly, like cockroaches. Penelope and Telemachus hope that Odysseus has been long delayed in his return but fear he is dead. Eventually, he does return, in disguise, with help from the gods (and goddesses), and virtue triumphs. Otherwise, the narrative is both skimpy and fast-paced, barely pausing to take a breath for such dramatic staples as the Sirens and Scylla and Charybdis. The artistry (especially the larger scale panels that dominate a page) continues to dazzle, but most of the moral of the story is left to the framing. “The Odyssey is more about what happens after battles end,” explains Homer in the Prologue. “In those days, only men fought in wars. But this story shows how they affected everyone—women too. My story tells you a lot about human nature.” And then, at the end of the tale, his listener realizes, “Getting into trouble and out of it again is really everyone’s story, isn’t it?” And so the universality of the age-old epic asserts itself.
A quick, breezy read through a cornerstone of literary tradition.
What’s black and white and red all over? This harrowing revenge piece that blends globalization anxiety and the Sino-American struggle for global dominance with acute violence and technology run amuck.
Debut creators Roman and DeWeese use the teachings of the ancient Chinese general, Sun Tzu, as the foundation for an epic dystopian story of brotherly love and corporate greed set in a nightmarish American wasteland circa 2032. Our nominal hero, Kelly Roman, has come home from the military prison where he served time for a friendly-fire incident that has scarred him body and soul. Worse, Kelly discovers that his brother, Shane, has died in the service of a resurrected Sun Tzu, whose mastery of warfare now extends into a heavily armed global financial market controlled by his company, Trench. To get things started, Trench’s human resources manager neatly snips off Kelly’s hands just to prove that he won’t succumb in battle. (Lots of things get sewn back on in the future, apparently.) In Manhattan, Kelly mentors under Sun Tzu and clashes with the general’s daughter, Qing, all while maneuvering against a mysterious competitor, Vespoid, whose leader, The Prince, competes fiercely against Trench. There are also enough sci-fi high-concept ideas to fill a kitchen sink, from genetically-engineered soldiers to militarized black holes to the integration of insect biotech to produce more accurate algorithms. Much like James O’Barr’s bestselling graphic novel The Crow, the art here is purposefully rough, incendiary and ugly at times, with a provocative style that dares readers to keep flipping to the end. It would fit in well with the likes of Vertigo’s Army @ Love or even the black-and-white visions of Brian Michael Bendis’ Torso or Goldfish graphic novels, but there’s something about the immediacy and volume of the single narrative that lends this martial nightmare a little something extra.
A bold, messy conflagration that revels in all of the trespasses and heroism of which only human beings are truly capable.
A treasure trove of graphic artworks—they’re too complex to be called comics—from Ware, master of angst, alienation, sci-fi and the crowded street.
At 44, Ware (The Acme Novelty Library, 2005, etc.) is old enough to remember the day when you could stick a few dollars in an envelope, send it off and have a box full of strange goodness come to your door—a mystery box, that is, with puzzles, games, gag items and maybe one or two things worth keeping. Opening the oversized box that contains the many pieces of this book is a kindred experience: It’s not quite clear what’s inside, save for brightly colored paper in various forms, from foldout poster to ultrathin, small notebook to sturdy hardcover. Each package contains a story set, as the title suggests, in or near a teeming city. How the reader reads these seems not to matter, for the box is like a river, if that’s not too mixed a metaphor, into which one steps where the current seems safest; there’s no beginning to it and no end. One thing is clear: Not many of Ware’s characters are happy, even if they live in buildings that are overstuffed, like this box, with things. One young woman, for instance, recounts, “There were whole stretches of days where I never even left the house at all...never saw or talked to another human being...I just ordered pizzas, watched TV, and read books....Of course, I went grocery shopping, and a couple of times I walked to the ‘downtown’ of the suburb and ate dinner by myself, just for variety’s sake.” That’s a humdrum existence by any measure—especially the being stuck in the suburbs part—but considering the likely fate of the little honeybee, Branford, who is the hero of one of the little books, it’s not to be dismissed. And anyway, try finding a four-room flat for $650 a month in the city these days—one in a building that, in Ware’s surreal inventory, has seen 13,246 light bulbs, 725 roasted turkeys and 158,854 lighted matches—all of which add up, one suspects, to the number of ways in which one can read this puzzling tome.
A dazzling document, beautifully if most idiosyncratically drawn; in this iteration, sure to become a collector’s item, though one that begs for an easier-to-handle trade edition.
The second volume of a trilogy in which the acclaimed graphic novelist returns to comic-book format while exploring the darkest recesses of the subconscious.
As if the introduction to this series (X’ed Out, 2010) wasn’t hallucinatory enough, this second installment will leave initiates feeling significantly disoriented. And perhaps that’s part of the point, as Burns blurs the distinctions within this anti-narrative among comic books, reality, drugs, masks, nightmare and identity. We’re back in the mind (or life or memory or dream) of protagonist Doug, who pays a visit to the convalescing Lily, hidden in a secret room, where they discuss events or dreams that the other doesn’t remember, and Doug promises to bring Lily romantic comics (with cover typeface in a foreign language) in the Throbbing Heart series. Yet, she (like the reader?) lacks some crucial information, leaving her confused. “It’s so frustrating,” she tells the masked, bandaged Doug. “I’m missing the last two issues and now I can’t figure out why Danny had to leave town!...It drives me crazy ’cause there’s all this new, exciting stuff going on that I can’t figure out.” The craziness extends beyond missing comics issues, as the reader must also contend with gaps, leaps and somersaults in narrative continuity, in a way that subverts the pleasure of reading comics while reveling in the imaginative possibilities. Only nonlinear masochists would want to start with the series here, and only the seriously deluded would anticipate that everything will make sense when the trilogy concludes with its final volume.
A very creative artist lets his imagination loose in the middle of somewhere, where only the most adventurous lovers of graphic narrative might dare to tread.
A visually arresting and verbally cadenced transformation of the Coleridge classic into a timely (and timeless) eco-apocalyptic fable.
Where most graphic narratives tend to be heavier with text, this book debut by an award-winning British cartoonist relies far more on the power of its dreamlike visuals, where subtleties of color and motion suggest psychedelic woodcuts. The words on each page are never more than couplets, sometimes phrases, while there are stretches of pages of indelible images with no words at all. The poetry evokes the spirit of the original, written in a tone of millennial prophecy in 1797, now imbued with greater urgency in a sea of sludge and oil spill, in phrasing that somehow intersperses 18th-century diction with references to email, Blackberry and Tupperware without jarring the reader. It begins with a man who is a bit of a detached dandy and who has just executed his divorce, tossing aside his marriage (his wife is barely mentioned) like he does a plastic foam cup. He encounters a mariner who proceeds to tell him a tale, one that involves a seafaring adventure, the fateful killing of an albatross, a descent through an ocean of pollution into hell and a rescue that allows the mariner to survive and sound his warning. After hearing the mariner’s soliloquy, the divorcé brushes it off, returning “To a world detached of consequence / Where he would not live for long.” The reader will likely find the story far more moving, as the nightmarish imagery trumps the occasional tendency toward thematic overkill.
More than a classic-comics adaptation, this is an original work of art.
What do you get when you cross a Mexican-born Jewish intellectual with the creator of the Rabbi Harvey comics? Surprise—it’s a most unusual conspiracy thriller.
Stavans (Latin American and Latino Culture, Amherst College; Return to Centro Historico: A Mexican Jew Looks for His Roots, 2012, etc.) manages to shoehorn in a host of influences in his latest graphic novel, with spare, nearly amateurish illustrations by textbook author and illustrator Sheinkin (Bomb: The Race to Build—and Steal—the World's Most Dangerous Weapon, 2012, etc.). This murder-mystery digs into the history of the crypto-Jews of New Mexico, who went into hiding after their expulsion by King Ferdinand of Spain in 1492. The story opens with the death of disgraced seminary student Rolando Pérez outside Santa Fe, N.M. Professor Stavans plays himself in this shadowy plot, having just arrived in the city to give a brief lecture, followed by a joyful evening at the famous Santa Fe Opera House. He’s lured into the story by Irina Rodriguez, the cousin of deceased Rolando, and she’s sure her cousin’s death was no accident. There’s a great deal of intellectual theory here—early on, Stavans muses, “The real history of crypto-Jews isn’t in what we know, but in what we don’t. They were members of a club whose existence they would swear didn’t exist,” and so on. But somehow it carries on, from Sheinkin’s almost rudimentary depictions of Santa Fe’s desert austerity, to Stavans’ winking ridicule of his advocacy for Spanglish and self-mocking references to what is a fairly rich and impenetrable religious mystery. “I suppose you’ll turn the whole murky mystery into some preposterous page-turner. The Da Vinci Code, with matzo and salsa picante,” says one rival. Not nearly that blunt, nor as vivid as some readers may wish.
Another bold, if gratuitous, experiment from an academic with impeccable credentials and a keen sense of the secrets we hold most dear.
Classic literature gets desterilized with the help of the modern world’s most daring graphic artists.
In this first of three volumes, editor Kick (100 Things You're Not Supposed to Know, 2008, etc.), better known for rabble-rousing at Disinfo.com, collects an incredible variety of graphic adaptations of oral tales, plays, essays, sonnets and letters. Starting with The Epic of Gilgamesh and ending with Hamlet, this meaty slab is laced with more wit, beauty, social commentary and shock than one might expect from a book tailor-made for college classrooms. The expected suspects are all here in excerpted or abridged form, including The Odyssey, Beowulf and The Divine Comedy. But there are unexpected entries, too. Tania Schrag turns in a delightfully explicit depiction of the Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, while Vicki Nerino delivers a raw take on an explicit yarn usually expunged from The Arabian Nights. Noah Patrick Pfarr turns John Donne’s “The Flea” into an elaborate lesbian tryst. Robert Crumb does his characteristically bizarre take on James Boswell’s London Journal, with high debauchery intact. More unpredictable entries are drawn from Native American folktales, a Japanese play, Chinese poetry and The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Serious treatments are given to King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, not to mention a museum-worthy portrait by Eric Johnson of a minor character from Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queen. Some of the artistic heavy hitters in this volume include a selection from Seymour Chwast’s outstanding adaptation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Rick Geary’s take on the Book of Revelation, Peter Kuper’s blistering take on Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and the legendary Will Eisner’s view of Don Quixote from his 2003 graphic novel The Last Knight. The infamous Molly Crabapple closes the book with rich portraits of The Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont from Dangerous Liaisons.
If artists, as British sculptor Anish Kapoor famously said, make mythologies, then this volume is genuinely a marriage of equals.
The graphic novel as feminist parable, concerning twin sisters who learn the brutal facts of life, set in New York in the early 1900s.
Jewish daughters of a woman whose reputation makes her an object of scorn on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Esther and Fanya are identical twins and soul mates whose lives take very different turns. Yet they face a common problem in the world they’re poised to enter, and “the root of the problem lies in the overly sexual nature of the human male...It’s men’s drives, you see, that keep Woman reproducing constantly, like a breed cow. Sexual slavery awaits the woman who allows a man to entrap her, either in marriage or in a quick and ugly gutter union.” Such advice is given to Fanya by the female obstetrician she comes to assist in the frequent (but illegal) role as an abortionist. Meanwhile, Esther sees another side of man’s sexual drives, when she falls under the wing of a woman whose burlesque theater serves as a tease for the prostitution business upstairs, with nubile Esther becoming an attraction in first the former, soon the latter and finally something closer to the legitimate theater. (The graphic novel’s title is Yiddish for “Underthings.”) Yet these lines between the worlds of conventional morality and common indecency blur, as the maturing Esther attracts numerous customers who want to take her away and make an honest woman out of her, yet she sees no gain in exchanging the sort of sexual transaction to which she’s accustomed for a less lucrative and potentially more suffocating one. A climactic reunion leads to revelation for the sisters and the reader alike.
Both a work of social realism and a fable with a moral.
An adolescent orphan navigates a subterranean world of magic and technology with the help of an aged detective and his mysterious square-jawed protector.
There’s an appetite out there for these sorts of propulsive, fantasy-rich mash-ups of steampunk and mythic literature, as evidenced by the likes of the video game Bioshock and Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But few combine literary sincerity and fun as well as Mignola (creator of the comic-book superhero Hellboy) and sometime collaborator Golden (Baltimore, or, The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Vampire, 2007, etc.). Here the pair construct a rich world ripe for sequels and prequels. In their version of New York City, a cataclysm flooded the place in 1925, sinking Lower Manhattan in what has become known as “The Drowning City.” An elderly necromancer named Felix Orlov has taken 14-year-old redhead Molly McHugh under his protection. When malevolent gas-masked intruders attack, Molly is saved by an enormous boxer-nosed brute named Joe. It turns out that Joe works for an ancient Holmsian detective, Simon Church, who inspired dozens of stories and novels but whose real work is keeping tabs on the city’s occult activity. “Give me honest ghosts, a vampire hungry for blood, boggarts that eat children…that’s more my area,” says Church. “Not this vast, unknowable cosmic lunacy.” For decades, Church has been hunting the malevolent Dr. Cocteau, a brilliant and elusive villain who’s gotten his hands on a powerful artifact called Lector’s Pentajumlum. Steely-eyed but an amnesiac, Joe instinctually becomes Molly’s protector, but the dreams of this Croatian behemoth are of killing witches, a tidbit that becomes important later in the story. With Jules Verne technology, ghosts, magic and multidimensional monsters, it doesn’t fall that far from Mignola’s Hellboy origins, but it’s an awfully fun way to pass an afternoon.