Thursday, 4 December 2014

Samuel Cantin's Vile & Miserable: Sadness & Comedy

Vile, Miserable, Shallow and Funny

With the ongoing Pow Pow Press Kickstarter campaign to translate a portion of their catalog in English, I thought I should weigh in and write about one of the books they are aiming to translate. Samuel Cantin's Vile & Miserable is a bizarre comedy which follows the adventures of Lucien Vil, a sad and miserable bookstore employee. His store shares space with Linguine Used Automobile. The book chronicles Lucien's life in 4 days (October 31st, November 1st, January 6th & February 2nd). The premise is more than a little ridiculous; Lucien is a demon who sells used literature in a used car dealership. I'll leave it at that. The interesting aspect of the book is that when you sift through this ludicrous premise, you discover a very thoughtful portrait of sadness and how it can affect one`s life. 

Halloween is the most wonderful day of the year. Not Christmas. Christmas Sucks.

The comedic aspect of Vile & Miserable comes from the tone and situation in which the characters evolve. The characters' voices are distinct and very modern. Cantin has a good understanding of the way people talk and adapts it for the page very nicely. You can understand the character's education and social class based on the way they talk and what they talk about. For example, Lucien is more educated (or at least well-read) and is more sarcastic, frequently making numerous books and extra-textual references to their authors. His psychologist is also educated, but comes from a lower class area. He is crude, surprisingly so, swears often and talks in slang. I found this to be quite refreshing. The comedic elements aren't limited to language, but they are facilitated by it.

Let's just add this mustard on your sandwich

Vile & Miserable are two signifiers that seem to apply for all the characters in the book. The protagonist, Lucien Vil, is sad man. Abstinent for over 40 years, he carries with him his repressed sexual desires and hopelessness at fulfilling them. He lashes out against his colleagues and co-workers frequently. Sylvain Linguine, the owner, is a nicer man, but completely delusional towards his business prospect (The used car industry is dying and he thinks he should start making a living out of the book industry instead?) His new assistant is a nice enough kid, but he's ignorant and a little clueless. These characters all combine organically within the awkward situations they are projected into. This creates absurd situations where they all appear disfunctional, delusional, and miserable. No one goes unscathed in this book. 

You're a real groupie ass kisser spending all your time online checking out author`s shoe sizes. No one gives a crap. Who had syphilis or not. They all had syphillis, every single one of them. 
My only negative comment is the book`s portrayal of women. Unfortunately, none of the female characters (of which there are very few) are portrayed positively. The secretary of the dealership is referred to as an old hag. A woman on the bus is objectified with a ridiculous amount of vile mentions of her pussy. The psychologist secretary is a dumb underage bimbo. Granted, the male characters don't fare much better in terms of being portrayed positively, but their "problems" appear to be more complex than the women. The psychologist's secretary that appears in the third act of the book proved to be very problematic. She is a 16 year old girl who's in love with a man who seems to be 4 to 5 times her age, she's stupid and doesn't have a problem with being objectified in front of perfect stranger. This characterization just seemed too easy to me. The psychologist though is just as miserable a character. He was attracted to "her juvenile charm" when she was only 14 years old. Some might find it funny, but I felt it was lacking the smart spark of the first act and seemed to be just weirdly out of place.

Overall, this book was quite funny. Cantin manages to mix sadness and comedy very well. It didn't land completely with me, but I've read it twice and will gladly read other books by this artist. I encourage everyone to consider Pow Pow Press Kickstarter campaign. The other books on offer Mile End by Michel Hellman and For as long as it rains by Zviane are absolutely fantastic. It would be a very nice addition to anyone's collection and a breath of fresh air for the English comic book market. 

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Gerry Alanguilan & Arlanzandro C. Esmena's Where Bold Stars Go To Die: The Fading Light of Love and Memories

Fleeting Memories
One can always recall the people one had strong feelings for. I remember the first time I really liked a girl. She was in my class when I was 7. She was cool, and she liked the same things I liked: Batman and biking. But as time passed, I forgot more and more. Such is the nature of memories. They are fleeting and untraceable. I can't remember her name anymore, just that she was a tattoo artist`s daughter. But these memories, these feelings, they affect us. Where Bold Stars Go To Die, much like Sam Alden's "Hawaii 1997" is about being attached to the memories of someone we liked, loved even. Some of us will spend our life looking for this love, while most of us will move on. But the memories, as fleeting as they are, will remain, forever trapped in amber, until they disappear within our subconscious, internalized and accepted as a part of us. 

Where Bold Stars Go To Die is a touching story about love and the memories of love. It traces the story of Daniel, a young man and his passion and love towards a Philippino porn actress. He becomes obsessed with this "Bold Star" and this obsession intertwines desire, lust and dreams. In this book, the Bold Stars remain alive in an idyllic dream environment, sustained by the desire of those who once admired them. The Star he liked, however, is remembered by no one else and her light will soon be extinguished. As much as I objected to the fact that women can only seem to survive if they are sexualized, the story goes beyond that aspect fairly quickly. It doesn't mean it's not problematic from a gendered perspective, but it's not only about this. It's a book about obsession, intimacy and loneliness. It is also a mature, thoughtful and honest reflection on sexuality. In fact, one could argue that despite their status as exploited actresses, they hold the power over the men, who are driven to the point of insanity by their obsessive lust for them. One can read the story in many ways. It is about the nature of memories, lust and dreams after all, I don't think there's one correct answer on the matter.

It is very interesting as it talks about a cultural aspect I never ever considered before; Bold Star, and softcore pornography in the Philippines from the 60's to the early nineties and it's influence on comics. Interestingly, there was a whole style of comics "Bomba Komiks" that became really popular during that time. I'll let you read the article I linked to if you feel like getting more information on the matter. What is interesting is that this became a cultural artifact of sorts, one that many use as a source of inspiration.

The real draw here is the art and the letter Gerry Alanguilan wrote on the artist Arlanzando C Esmena. It is unfortunately the only book by Esmena, as he passed away from cancer in (INSERT DATE). The mastery on the page is nothing short of impressive. Esmena is able to depict the nature of a fantasy in a very interesting way, particularly in the first few pages. The way he used breaks and angles to show how fantasies are not linear is quite clever. The panel distribution also reinforces this aspect. The panels are broken up, showing almost no fluid movement, but fragments of specific moments in Daniel's fantasy narrative. The "Eden" of the stars is truly remarkable. We feel the depth in the forest and the landscape. He is quite skilled at executing shadows. He uses proper lighting and shadows with different angles throughout the book. He is also very adept at drawing the human form, and in particular the human face. 

I read the book multiple times, very carefully each time to appreciate the craftmanship of each panel. I'd recommend it for the art alone, but Alanguilan's thoughtful essay at the end of the new edition on Philippino comics and his friend and colleague Arlanzandro is truly touching. The pin-up gallery alone is worth a look. A lot of contributors to this gallery will be familiar to those who read american superhero comics: Leinil Francis Yu and Philip Tan in particular have provided some amazing contributions. It's an interesting and heartfelt book and will remain a testament to the fading memories of those who we once loved, and those who disappeared too soon.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Dash Shaw's Doctors: Social Accountability and Depression

Out of control
What does it mean to be a doctor? And as a society, what do we expect from our physicians and specialists? A doctor is someone who practices medicine, helps to cure and treat the ailments, injuries or pains of his patients. As a society, we want them to be competent, pluripotential and for them to be able to respond to the healthcare needs of the community. If they are specialists (ranging from surgeons, pediatricians, neurologists or anything else), we expect them to be efficient, knowledgeable and excel in their functions. The last century has seen major changes and increasing demands on healthcare systems. We live longer and our health care needs have changed. We face challenges to improve quality of care; to be equitable and effective; and to provide care in various locations and conditions across the country without reducing the quality of care. This means that our doctors are required to deal with increasingly challenging environments than they were before. We need our doctors to be socially accountable. We need our doctors to provide quality health care to a diverse and under-served population. They need to be able to meet the numerous needs of various patients in this increasingly medically complex world. 

Dash Shaw's Doctors was a very interesting read for me. Improving medical education is what I do for a living so this tied my career and my hobby together quite nicely. One of the main struggles of the book is to balance the requirement to meet society's needs and being socially accountable while remaining loyal to your immediate environment. 

A team of Doctors operates clandestinely using a machine called the "Charon". It allows it's user to invade the brain of a dying patient minutes before dying as they are creating the afterlife they want, or feel they deserve in their final moment. While in the brain, they try to bring the person back to life, away from the light at the end of the tunnel, if you wish. We follow Dr. Tammy Cho (daughter of the inventor of the Charon) as she attempts and eventually succeeds at bringing a woman named Bell back to life  But bringing someone back doesn't mean that they are cured and all survivors suffer from severe depression after being reanimated. And how could you not? In a way, after seeing what is waiting for you on the other side, be it love or despair, you would know it to be eternal. Wouldn`t that be incredibly depressing no matter the outcome­? We read of Dr. Cho's struggles to reconcile her father's control over the machine and its use for profit as they embark on a dangerous operation. We also follow's Ms. Bell's attempt to recapture what she saw in the afterlife and her failure to live up to her final dream. 

The opposite of social accountability
One of the main struggles for Tammy is to find, not only meaning in what she does, but also how to make sure it benefits society. She is well aware of the potential benefit of the Charon and that it should be used more widely. She asks her father: "Why aren't we a charity?" Why aren't we helping out society? Why are we unaffordable? The search for profit might not be the only thing that matters she seems to say. She genuinely wants to help and provide better treatment to her patients. She knows of the severe depression her patients suffer after being revived (p.45). She knows that it should be part of their duties to help their patients deal with the trauma. What is the point of reviving someone if you know that, without a doubt, they won't be able to handle their return?

Her father, Dr. Cho also has a ludicrous number of misconducts that relates to his career. For him, being a doctor is a success in and of itself, and to be successful, you need money. He cannot consider that in a situation of need, he would be expected to help someone for free. He even let in to his friend that he wouldn't save him for free. When his friend Clark jokingly says "With you around, I don't have to worry about dying." Cho simply answers "Don't push your luck". He also measures his success in terms of how many patients he brought back from life, not their survival rate, which is abysmally low. When Miss Bell breaks his car window, he mumbles that "She broke the car she paid for. She's gonna die soon anyway". Reading this, I felt that he must have known that his conduct was severe malpractice. He operates clandestinely, without supervision of any kind and he constantly worries someone will tell on him. When his daughter asked him why they weren't a charity, he answered that "it wouldn't work. The Catholics would shut us down." I think he meant any sort of health care regulatory body would shut him down.

Trauma is also another recurring element of this book. For Tammy and her father, their trauma stems from the loss of the mother. She died during a robbery that went wrong. The killer was found and killed, but the wound never healed. She was the emotional core of the family and once gone, her family lost their happiness. Now the pain has hardened Dr. Cho, and only the pursuit of his work can soothe the pain. In a lot of ways, his personal life stopped when he lost her. For Miss Bell, the damage that came with her revival is unbearable. In her afterlife, she fell in love with the pool boy, a young man who loved her despite her age and fortune. He simply loved her for who she really was. The shock of coming back to life and losing that happiness is intolerable. The depression that sets in afterward is overwhelming and insurmountable. Those traumas define the characters and only the tragic circumstances at the end of the book will allow them to move on.

Depression is not only the plight of the survivor, it is also the plight of the living. Both Tammy and Will struggle with everyday life. The toll of working on the edge of the afterlife is particularly impactful for them. Tammy is constantly wondering whether she`s alive or not and checks regularly for sensations (like heat) that she wouldn't feel in the Charon. A constant reminder that she is still alive. She also struggles to reconcile the dichotomy of her work. She wonders whether she is ending up like her patient Ms  Bell, "Drifting through life, waiting to die" only to end up with delusional thoughts of self-importance to justify living through another without sinking deeper, "I'm like a magician Our work is going to be famous and studied for centuries". She's unable to make meaningful connections and spends her nights lost in the game "The Sims", where her avatar is a surgeon so she "can really be helping other sims". Will is not much better. He reflects on the Egyptians' view of the afterlife, struggles to find love and thinks dark thoughts about the inevitability of death and the collapse of civilization. "Eventually your consciousness sputters out. You dissipate. You fade to Black. Just like how eventually our whole world, every culture, will explode and we'll all just be fucking cosmic dust. We'll all dissipate. We'll all be nothing and everything. What's more spiritual than that?"

Dash Shaw also makes good use of color. Each page is of a single color and this adds depth to both the drawings and the tone of the story being told. This is also helped with the way that the story is told: all through vignettes of 1 to 2 pages. The color helps convey information on feelings and the tone for each page., The effect works much better here than in his previous work "New Jobs", The goal was the same in both books, but the effect was different due to the length and size of the page. "New jobs" was a single panel per page, and a small page at that. In Doctors, the story is displayed on multiple panels and it allows for the feelings to be conveyed more effectively. The color permeates the narrative of the page, creating feelings of melancholia, nostalgia, dread or light-hearted moments.

Dash Shaw created a remarkable book that is relevant to modern issues in medicine. It addresses mortality, spirituality and depression in a colorful package. I'd highly recommend this to anyone regardless of your interest in health care. 

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Malachi Ward Ritual #2: The Reverie: The Most Powerful Wish Dimension Ever Discovered

A Dream Machine
Malachi Ward's Ritual #2: The Reverie is a fantastic look at dread, loss and family trauma. It organically integrates it's science fiction element and allows the reader to focus on the drama that unfolds. I was thoroughly impressed by this comic book. I read it this summer in San Francisco (Thanks to the amazing inventory skills of Mission: Comics & Arts) and it has been in the back of my mind ever since. 

We follow the story of Lina and Stevin, two siblings whose life is told over 22 years. We see them grow from mischievous kids to blasé teenagers. As a teenage boy, Stevin didn't really care about listening to his dad on a "take your kids to work day", where he talked about the exciting sci-fi complex where he works. We feel their pain as young adults they lose their mother to a serious illness (most likely cancer). Their family is shaken so solidly, that they are never quite able to move on. Their father has been completely swallowed by grief and time would not heal his wounds. Six years after their mother's passing, when Lina returns home to visit her brother Stevin, she notices her father sitting silently in the dark living room, completely overcome with grief. Three years after that and the pain still bleeds like an open wound. After a party where he drunkenly mistakes his sister-in-law for his wife, he retreats and disappears completely, leaving Stevin and Lina struggling to locate him.

Open Wounds

The pieces all come together in the second half of the book as Stevin and Lina attempts to rescue their father. He has taken refuge in The Reverie, "The most powerful wish dimension ever discovered". He had access to this machine at his work and his friend, unable to refuse him access after seeing his pain, allowed him to take refuge inside for months. Stevin and Lina venture into the machine to retrieve him, and I will give no further details. Needless to say, this trip ends poorly for all involved.

The Reverie
The book is divided into two sections: the first uses a condensed time frame and follows a strict form, while the second is on on white paper and is much looser in terms of page structure. In the first half, each page has 12 panels, black gutters and black paper. The strict adherence to this form seem to represent history: a dark immovable, unchangeable past. The dread and family trauma forever permeats the children's formative years. The second half`s looser structure indicates the present and it's mutability and uncertainty.
Flexibility of the Present

Ward manages to create recognizable characters from childhood to adulthood. They evolved and are recognizable over time. Stevin matures through the story. We see him evolve from an aimless troublemaker to a son who genuinely cares about the well-being of his family. His physical form also matures throughout the story, yet he remains recognizable throughout. The creation of the dream landscapes were nice to see, but what really struck me was how well the characters were handled throughout the book. The focus, both from the story and from the art emphasize that this is first and foremost, a character study in depression, grief and family trauma.

Ritual appears to be self contained. I've read Ritual #3 and although some sci-fi elements are included, it had no relations to the previous issue. If you are so fortunate as to find a copy of Ritual anywhere, grab it. You will not be disappointed.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

The Hellberta Trilogy: Wolverine, Canadian Identity & Subversiveness

The Hellberta Trilogy

One of the constant struggle in Canada's history has been to define its identity. It's been debated long before I was born and will probably still be debated after I die. Canada is so vast, that to clearly define a single identity is ludicrous and impossible. We constantly struggle to determine this "Canadian-ness" because of our history and because we are so close to the Unites States of America. When standing next to their clearly defined symbols and defining traits, it is understandable that we may be unsure. I won't try to define what they are, we all know and have a pretty accurate picture. Yet when it comes to Canada, the answers aren't simple. 

I come from the province of Quebec, where language and history play very important roles. Because of it's French heritage, Quebec`s culture is different from other provinces. Montreal, for example, is a multicultural, multilingual environment with a combination of centuries old history and modern day metropolis. Yet Quebec as a province is quite different from Alberta, or Prince Edward Island. Different geography, language and many other factors makes all of Canada's provinces unique. From coast to coast, from North to South, we struggle to define exactly who we are. Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian communication scholar and intellectual once said that Canada is one of the only countries in the world that knows how to live without an identity. I'm not sure we're entirely without an identity. We can boast some broad traits: inclusiveness, welcoming, a tendency toward compromises, politeness, Tim Horton's coffee (though I never understood that one, it's not that great). Defining our identity is important, possibly unachievable and a constant struggle.  

Our Canadian "heroes" emanate from history and politics, not really from culture, and especially not from a pop culture perspective. Terry Fox, Romeo Dallaire, Chris Hadfield, Pierre Trudeau, David Suzuki, those are all recognizable names for us Canadians. When it comes to fictional superheroes, most of us know that the creator of Superman, Joe Shuster was Canadian (Superman has been on our stamps and money!). We know Wolverine is Canadian, some people may know Alpha Flight, but that's about it. Talk about Captain Canuck, Nelvana of the Northern Lights, Reid FlemingAtomic Betty, Scott Pilgrim, Johnny Canuck and the number of people who know who these are goes down drastically. Our Canadian superheroes, those that are instantly recognized by the public, are surprisingly American-born (except Superman, you can argue about Superman). 

Canadian Messiah
I met Michael Comeau at TCAF 2014 and it has taken me 6 months to come to properly articulate what I wanted to say about Hellberta. Talking with Michael, you could sense the artist`s struggle to reconcile many aspects of Canadian identity, his conception of Wolverine as a "Canadian" hero in spite of its American corporate owners. Additionally, he explained that the current atmosphere in Alberta has changed drastically over the past several years. The development or the Oil Sands (or Tar Sands) has created a huge rift in the province. It's difficult to extract the oil, requires a lot of water and emits a high quantity of CO2. Its destructive, and most likely irreversible. The economical benefits for Alberta are immense, but so is the fallout of the operation. Michael moved out of Alberta years ago and has been questioning Canada, it's identity and politics ever since. Hellberta is a thoughtful exploration of these themes. It doesn't offer any answer, but plenty of questions and avenues for discussion.

Wolverine VS Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Crucivixens

First of all, Hellberta is one of the most meaningful and interesting Wolverine comics I`ve ever come across. There's really only four important texts about the character anyways, Chris Claremont's early run of Uncanny X-Men (which I define as Giant Size X-Men #1 to Uncanny X-Men #150 though you might not share my opinion), Claremont and Frank Miller's version in Japan, Weapon X and Origin. Everything else has just been filler. Do you remember when Wolverine went to Hell? Or the countless times he fought people he didn't want to but kept pushing him in a bar (like in every other Wolverine story it seems)? Or when he was not a mutant but from a race Lupine or controlled by Roulus? Who cares, all of it is garbage anyhow and doesn't add anything meaningful to this character. Hellberta, however, adds something more to the character. Comeau recasts Wolverine in the first issue as a sort of Canadian Messiah. No longer able to idly stand by as the destruction of the environment caused by the Tar Sands continues, Wolverine decides to stop the polluters by going berserk against an extraction plant. His plans are thwarted by none other than Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister of Canada, and his Crucivixens. Wolverine is crucified and the pain and destructions are stopped by the cleansing of Jean Grey, the Phoenix. Wolverine comes back from the dead to lead the survivors to a brighter future of enlightenment. Michael Comeau turns his political indignation into art. It is impactful, it is subversive, it is sublime.

Holy Cleanse

Hellberta #2 changes gears dramatically and puts Wolverine on the backburner in favour of Michael Comeau's Canadian road trip. He still explores themes of identity, but this time, he also tackles the dichotomy between rural and urban landscapes, and he is also exploring the struggle between the profane and the holy. Canadian landscapes are beautiful and strangely perfect for introspection. It takes forever to get anywhere and this gives you a lot of time to think about life and the issues that affect you. Comeau contrasts the seemingly endless landscape of mountain range with angelic battles and city streets littered with the monstrosities. Comeau's first page perfectly demonstrates what he`s attempting to do: "This book mirrors the plodding march into the gaping mouth of Hell we created for ourselves". He also adds that "The Oil Boom radicalized a generation. Those who embraced the grotesque entitlement contrast those who would not or could not in an environment intolerant to the queer and weird. Family values and hospitality quickly changes to contempt. Never before have I witnessed such a quick change from "Hey Bro!" to "What's yer fucking problem".

A Typical Canadian Landscape

Comeau's struggle in this issue is to reconcile what it means to be Canadian amidst drastic change. As someone from Quebec, I can understand what he goes through. Our province has gone through multiple exercises of sovereignty referendums since the 1970's. This has broken families, destroyed lives and effectively reshaped the entire political landscape. It created a new axis in the typical "Left-Right" political sides. To separate or not to separate from Canada. This is the "Up-Down" axis and all must play in this new arena. But it is not all inclusive and many are not satisfied with this (myself included) and must find a way to reconcile this new landscape amidst conflict, increasingly polarized public opinion and friends and family. I can see how difficult it must be to be from Alberta as a skirmish is occuring because of the Tar Sands. There is no clear way of handling this issue, but Michael Comeau just throws it on the page for you to react.

Downtown Core
But it is not all gloomy reflections on Canadian Existential Dread, there is a glimmer of fun when Wolverine and Puck are going out to drink at a bar. Puck hopes there won't be any trouble as Logan spent a drunken night with Big Brianna, and her seven brothers may not be happy about it. There is a bit of excitement, but Wolverine, being the best at what he does, just tells these guys to fuck off otherwise he'll just kill all of them. Mercy is not one of his virtues. Oh and also, Wolverine is actually Neil Young!

The third issue of Hellberta is yet another different beast. Not a comic, nor a road trip diary, this issue tackles the underlying issue in idolizing a character such as Wolverine. He's portrayed as an exaggeration of his normal self, a wise-cracking irreverent loner. His love for drinking, which is portrayed mildly in the comics, is now expanded to see the underlying current of alcoholism running through him. The first part  of Hellberta #3 is a photo comic where Kitty Pride and Jubilee talk about their relationships with Logan. They discuss his rough maneurism and complete lack of empathy and it is remarkably accurate. He marks his territory, he's inappropriate even during ninja fights and he has a bizarre sexual relationship with Yukio. Everyone, this is your idol. Seven movies have been made about Wolverine and it's important to look back  at the text and the subtext to understand the appeal of the character.

What's the appeal?
The second half of the comic deals with his berserker rage and alcohol abuse. The tone shifts as we see him and Puck drink at a bar and the other patrons encourage his behavior. They all like to see his decadence and how low he can sink. No one understands the cry for help that this represents as they all leave him to regenerate after his self immolation. As he wakes up and wards off the wolves eating his flesh in the woods, he contemplates his own condition. "My resurrection gets cheaper each morn". "Is the monster you know better than the one you don't? Is my humiliation a condition of my acceptance? A profanity of nature".
Drunken Mess
The series is also wonderful to look at on paper. All the issues are risographed. I had to look into this since I didn't really know what this was. It prints on unwaxed paper one layer/one colour at a time and must pass through the machine a few times for each colour and layer. It uses soy-based ink and natural fiber stencils. I found that PEOW!Studio have a very good explanation of the process. The end results for those comics is just wonderful. The palette of colour is limited, but used effectively. I'm not quite sure what the proper term is in English, the pages ends up with what I could describe as a radial gradient, but it's more of an "Aplat".  The pages have a single colour with varying levels of density and sometimes multiple colours with various densities to create varying effects. Regardless of the proper terms, it looks phenomenal. (I`ve since learned the correct term and it`s monochromatic).

Moving on
Sadly, this series has had such a limited print, it is almost nonexistant and extremely difficult to find a copy. I was lucky enought to find a copy of the first two issues at The Beguiling last year and got the third issue at TCAF this year. I've shared them amongst friends and will continue to do so. Hopefully, it will be reprinted at some point and will be more widely available. Hellberta is a wonder of Canadian culture.

You can read the first issue here on Michael Comeau's Tumblr


Michael Comeau informed me that he is not from Alberta, but from Ontario. He lived (live) and travelled with ex-Calgarians.

A collected Hellberta is coming soon

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Book Club Report: A Discussion with Sam Alden on It Never Happened Again

Longing and Belonging

I'll always remember the day I was first introduced to comic books. One of my dearest childhood memories was walking (6 blocks exactly) to the independent video rental place near my family's house in Quebec City. It was a cold but sunny spring day and my grandmother took me there to get one comic book. She was over for the weekend and wanted to encourage me to read in English. My entire family is French. I went to a typical French school, and the English language was not commonly spoken in that part of town, or even in the town in general. She understood the value of learning a second language, even though she never learned one herself. She knew I enjoyed cartoons and figured that I would at least be interested in the medium of comic book.

I must have been no more than 6 years old at the time. We got there and I stared at a single spinning rack of comic books for a while. One comic book felt huge. There were so many to choose from. What was I supposed to pick with all of these 18 choices? I browsed and I picked a Batman comic. I will never remember which one it was, but I will always remember the feelings it evoked. Walking home, my grandmother holding my hand, the sun landing on my cold face and also importantly, the feeling of paper on my fingers. It was the first comic I remember reading and it became an important part of my life. I will always be grateful to my grandmother for it and to my parents who supported this addiction. It changed my entire life. 

This moment was a revelation, both important and fleeting. It happened once and my life was changed forever. I have been chasing down this moment for the past twenty years. Hoping to relive that first high, yet I have never been able to fully recreate it. I'm talking about this because this month, the Ottawa Comic Book Book Club read Sam Alden's It Never Happened Again, and Sam kindly agreed to meet with our group to discuss his book. 

Sam Alden by Sam Alden
Sam Alden is a 25 year old cartoonist and illustrator from Portland, Oregon. He has previously written web comics, comics and graphic novels, which include Haunter, The Man that Dances in the Meadows, Backyard, and many more. Hiw work is generally published online first and printed afterward. His comic Wicked Chicken Queen published by Retrofit Comics, won an Ignatz Award for Outstanding Comic at SPX a few weeks ago

Fleeting moments
It Never Happened again collects two short stories, Hawaii 1997 and Anime. The first is the story of a Young Sam Alden who is on vacation in Hawaii. He goes out one night to see the beach and the stars and meets a girl. The second is the story of Janet, a girl who feels out of place in her hometwon and plans to visit Japan, where her favourite fictional anime character lives to find her place in the world. The themes of longing and belonging are very much present in this book. The Young Sam will spend the rest of his life trying to find the girl, or some version of her, always yearning to recreate this moment. Janet wishes to recreate the experience of Kiki, or even become Kiki as best as she can. She is also looking for a place where she can belong, a goal she may never achieve as the anime paradise she wishes to reach is as fictional as her idol. 

Sam was kind enough to tell us the genesis of Hawaii 1997 and how it was a stepping stone to his current style of drawing. Drawn on notebook pages during a flight back to the U.S, this comic came to life as a sort of personal challenge and as a way to fight the boredom of air travel. The style that came through was, and is, still very distinctive and appealing and Sam embraced it. This took him away from his previous style, a sort of Craig Thompson emulation, and into his own distinctive creative style. We are all the better for it. This book shows Alden's style evolving. The use of pencils is so raw that, as a reader, you try to avoid touching it for fear of scratching or smearing the pencil marks. The look is fantastic and you can find stunning passages nearly everywhere. Of particular interest, when Young Sam puts his head underwater (above) or the map of the unknown town in Japan (below)

In Transit
Language also held an important role in the book. Janet's only silver lining in her otherwise bleak story is when she is complimented by a local man on her mastery of language. We were wondering if language had any influence on Sam's writing. It did in some ways, but not what we were expecting. Language in Anime serves to further reinforce Janet's feelings of isolation. She does not fit in her hometown, she does not fit in in Japan, and even worse, there, the foreign language isolates her from the community even more. This experience was similar to Alden's own trip to Japan when he was younger. The language barrier kept him at a distance from his environment, never quite fitting in. 

Isolation, and the search for a place where she belongs
We were also surprised to hear Sam talk about what influenced him to write this story: a similar trip to Japan with his then-girlfriend as a young adult. Nothing went as planned, not that he had planned much, and the whole fiasco became a real catalyst to the man he grew up to be. Writing Anime also forced Sam to adopt a different point of view on his experience. Our discussion then turned toward gender. By writing a female protagonist, Sam often wondered whether the characters felt true enough. In a way, he distorts his experience and projects them on a woman. In this regard can the text be read as true, as authentic? The group (which consisted that evening of over 80% of women) felt so. 

The theme of longing are present, so is another recurring theme in Alden's work: Haunting. The community Backyard is haunted by the wolfchild, the woman is haunted by The man that dances in the Meadows. In this book, Young Sam will be forever haunted by the memory of the girl. Although it didn't appear that Sam did this consciously, the idea that people are haunted by memories, feelings and even their own mind is a recurring theme in Alden's books. The author did confirm that he does not believe in ghosts.

Finally, we were very interested in hearing about Sam's process in writing for the screen and for paper. He explained to us that he had always intended Hawaii 1997 to be printed. The movement of the kids running translates very well online as well, but that was not the primary goal. The pacing and movement also works on the page as it was intended. The Anime story was also conceived for the page and it truly shines this way. He constantly works to improve the layout and searches to find an optimal pace for the story, both for the online/Tumblr audience and for the page. His new webcomic Hollow tries to integrate those two elements. It will be interesting to compare the final results.

Gazing at the unreacheable wonders of the universe

We were lucky to have such an interesting conversation with a talented young comics author. Not only did it help us gain some perspective and knowledge on It Never Happened Again, it allowed us to learn much about his process and his thoughts on making comics. Much like Young Sam's search for an ineffable girl, or my quest for this very first comics experience, our group will keep looking endlessly for a similarly enlightening discussion on graphic novels. In the meantime, we will value our discussion with Sam and recommend everyone to seek out this outstanding work. 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Yeah Dude Comics 2014 Subscription #5: Box Brown's New Physics

After reading the previous Yeah Dude Comics (Future Masterpiece) left a bitter taste, I decided to wait a few days before cautiously diving into Box Brown's New Physics. I haven't read Brown's Andre the Giant yet, but I found his newest output from Retrofit Comics (the inprint he runs) to be quite phenomenal. I've thoroughly enjoyed Number 1 and Number 2. I wasn't expecting this pink mini comic to pack such a punch, let alone be one of my favourite comics of the year. Brown shows off his mastery of design, colour and storytelling and manages to create a poignant commentary on social media and it's ultimate consequence in this comics.

New Physics tells the story of Vern, a "desperate hedonist" who turned her life around through social media. She became a sort of social media guru and used it to create "New Physics", a sort of religious cult. Her following grows steadily until a fateful incident that ends the book on a surprisingly grim note. Do not be fooled by the lavish pink colour, this story is dark and disturbing. 

Social media consumption through inhalation
The story is a very interesting commentary on the modern use of social media. Brown imagines a futuristic world where everyone is connected through these see-through helmets that allows them to remain online at all times. Not only do the people of this world use social media constantly, they live and literally breathe it in. Their helmet emits these gases that allows them to be fully immersed in the connection. Imagine a food blog where you can not only see the food, but also inhale it's aromas.

The future setting and the rise of Vern also allows us to wonder if this is the logical end of Twitter and Facebook connections. If we are all connected and are all followers of Person X, reblogging, reposting, discussing Person X's opinions and thoughts, are we not preaching Person X's gospel? Is it that strange a concept to believe that we may see the rise of an organized religion purely through social media? In a striking moment, Vern addresses one of her "High priests" by telling him that he "is truly one of New Physics' Top 10 commenters". A modern religion for a modern age. 

Brown even manages to criticize the mindless consumption of false remedies and promises of salvation promoted by cult-like religions. The idea that, by spending,a bit more money, you'll somehow be more in tune with God is ludicrous. Vern capitalizes on this hawkish behaviour. As a follower, you can even spread the gospel yourself. BUY IT NOW: New Physics Apparel, New Physics Rebalancer. Buy the Concentration Tools of the Godhead. Find redemption through consumption of the New Physics branded products. What would a Torso Reimaginer do anyway?

Colour & Depth
Brown manages to make very efficient use of a very limited palette by using only black, grey, white and pink. The bright pink is used to create depth for the building or numerous vistas we see whether they be exterior or interior. It is also the colour of texts in social media (as in the previous image). It's also used as a stylistic element in clothing and on the New Physics Torso Remimaginer. It is a truly brilliant use of colour.

New Physics managed to become one of my favourite comics of 2014. I'll gladly read it over and spread the New Physics light to all. I'm a New Physics convert.

For further discussion, I've placed some articles on Social Media and Religion below should you wish to delve deeper into the very real possibility of the emergence of a web-based religion.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Roman Muradov: Picnic Ruined: Undeniable Talent, Unbelievable Pretention

Talent and Failure in one convenient package
A fantastic recommendation from the tall fellow at Mission: Comics & Art in San Francisco. Picnic Ruined is my first experience with Roman Muradov's work (he of the Tolstoy Google Doodle from 24/09/2014) and, oh boy, was it a mixed bag. There is clear talent and mastery in the art, but the story it illustrates is so weak, it's painful at times.

Picnic Ruined tells the story of an artist who feels worthless and pathetic. His life is dedicated to art, but his failures are always at the forefront of his mind. Self-loathing seems to be the main motivator for the lead characters. We meet a genuinely annoying man whose sole problem appears to be self-created. He blames everyone and no one for his failure. It all feels terribly banal and full of platitudes. He is smug artist (or someone with artistic inclinations) who thinks he is better than everyone else. He talks constantly about how the world has failed him and how he has failed it. This character`s woes are that he has too much, knows too much and has too much ambition. And yet he suffers because all the doors are open, and he doesn't know which one to take. So desperate from knowing he can accomplish anything, yet he`s not decisive enough to pick. What a trite and dull story.

Fortunately for the reader, there are some redeeming qualities.

The art is superb.

This is a masterpiece in comic-making. Muradov's layout is freeflowing throughout the book. Thoughts are given abstract form. Memories, and the inability to remember somethig properly, are illustrated so well. State of mind becomes visually alive in this book. The use of black and white here is also wonderful. It combines many artistic methods and manipulates them on the same page. The art is expressive and magnificient. Yet as I read Picnic Ruined, one question kept coming to my mind. Is art enough to anchor a comic book? 

I will seek out Muradov's other book cautiously. Perhaps his other efforts at a story won't be as misguided as in this book. I'll come around to reading (In a Sense) Lost & Found in the future. At the very least, it will be pretty to look at.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Moon Knight: Cynicism, Rebranding and Colour

The Look of Cynicism

A little while ago, I felt like reading superhero comics. There is always a ton of options out there, but since I'm not a misogynist creep who likes to see dismembered body parts all the time, I figure I'd better stick to Marvel. I decided to look at the Marvel Now (Or All-New Marvel NOW!) and I actually adopted some monthly series that way, Ms. Marvel and She-Hulk have proven to be good enough to hold my interest for awhile.

I also tried Moon Knight. I like Warren Ellis's stories enough and thought I should check out this new series. I thought it was ok, but something just didn't quite agree with me. I couldn't place it until Ellis announced that he was going to leave the title. In an interview on Robot 6, he mentioned that :"The job has been, simply, reactivating Moon Knight as a productive property for the Marvel IP library". He also mentioned that he wanted to challenge himself at writing stand-alone stories. Knowing that even the creative team were just seeing  this project not as a writing gig, but as an Intellectual Property to be packaged and sold, how does this affect your reading of the book? Let's take a look

Paperwork gone wrong

So what is an intellectual property and what does it have to do with our Moon Knight? Well, an Intellectual Property (IP) refers to creations of the mind, such as inventions, literary and artistic works, designs, symbols, names and images used in commerce. So the character is the property of Marvel Comics and it has not been very profitable them. They hired a creative to reinvigorate the property. What they wanted was to convince you to buy the book. It must be a "productive property" (a.k.a: a brand that sells). How did they achieve their goal? Tell the potential readership that this is a bold move, that they are bringing an awesome character back to life in exciting new ways. It will never be the same...It all begins now... Get excited people! That writer you like will be teaming up with hip new artists for a new take on that intellectual property we want to sell you. And according to Ellis, it's mission accomplished, or at least "a job reasonably well done".

I think more than anything, the blatant cynicism is what gets me. The mission is to revitalize a brand. Telling a good story and creating meaningful art comes second to the goal of making money. At least I can appreciate Ellis` honesty.

So how does this cynicism bleed into the fabric of the book? It creates a story that is more focused on "cool" and "awesome" moments than anything else. If anything, the story is almost inconsequential. The writer wanted the paycheck. The least he can do is let the artists take over and do a great job. Shalvey and Bellaire`s work shine through page after page in Moon Knight. The art works in perfect conjunction with the colours. The white of Moon Knight is not coloured, which creates a great contrast between the character and his environment. Colours then become the most important aspect of the character. His lack of colour also serves a story purpose as well, since he feels alone and isolated and unable to connect with the outside world. If anything, it's beautiful to look at. 

In the end, I'm glad that there is no pretention with Moon Knight. It is created purely for a marketing and branding purpose. It doesn't hide its most mercantile aspect. I had originally been duped into thinking it was a piece of art. Now I know it's just a piece of corporate garbage.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Book Club Report: A Discussion with Pascal Girard on Petty Theft

The Comic book book club we belong to is an interesting group. We all like reading, but for each member, reading the same book brings a multitude of different interpretations, especially with regards to the subtlety imbued by the particular language of the book. We’re located in Ottawa, Canada’s national capital, and live in a bilingual environment. Almost 40% of the city’s inhabitants are bilingual. English isn’t even my first language, it’s French. Most of us are working, living and reading in both languages.

The book club met to discuss Petty Theft, as we normally do every month. There usually is a sense of fun and anticipation before the meetings. We’ve had a month with our book, we`ve each read it and have had an appropriate amount of time to think about it. This month our discussions proved to be especially significant as it was a special event for the Ottawa Comic Book Book Club: we had the pleasure of welcoming Pascal Girard to discuss his newest graphic novel Petty Theft. He gracefully accepted to join us for an evening to talk about his book, his characters, his process, language, family and construction work.

Pascal is a French-Canadian cartoonist. His Tumblr bio informs us that he was born in Jonquière, in Saguenay (the town with one of the weirdest mayors in Canada, Jean Tremblay). He loves drawing and running and he's in love. This biography relates to the themes of his newest English book Petty Theft. Pascal has written more books in French such as Conventum, Jimmy et le bigfoot, Paresse, as well as some other collaboration work and children's books. Three of his French books have been published in English through Drawn & Quarterly.

Language was at the forefront of our minds when we met with Pascal. We were all very eager to discuss how Pascal's writing may be influenced by language. He mentioned that while he didn't think it affected his first translated book, as he hadn't even considered it, it certainly had while writing this book. It may not have been a conscious consideration, but more as a result of integration and internalizing the idea of a second language and a wider audience for his books.

The title is also quite surprising as Petty Theft is actually called La collectioneuse in French. We noticed it did affect our reading of the book. The English title immediately frames the girl as a thief. It leaves little doubt to interpret her actions. She steals, and therefore is a thief. However, the French title leaves room for more ambiguity. She is a collector. Her actions, although criminal, are somewhat more justifiable as she is not framed as a thief from the get go. Pascal did explain that there was a long process with Drawn & Quarterly to determine the best translation for the title. Choosing to translate word for word "collector" wasn't as close to "collectioneuse" and therefore wasn't as meaningful. In the end, Petty Theft was selected and only those few who know the two titles can determine how this affects them.
Pascal & Kids
Fatherhood is also an underlying theme in this book, not by showing exactly what it meant for the protagonist, but by providing clues into his thoughts. The main protagonist panics and is uncomfortable in the presence of children. Although this doesn't reflect the values of the author, it does affect how we can interpret his character. We have a man who, underneath the pretense of finding his way and true love, doesn't really see a relationship evolving to the stage of parenthood. Now this could be a choice, but when we add the facts that he aims to right the wrongs of the thief, it reveal a very selfish character.

Mental VS Physical labour

The book begins when the main character falls and gets injured while he is out for a run. Forbidden from running, down on his luck and with a broken heart (his girlfriend and him having just broken up), he ends up also reinventing his career. He stops drawing and goes back to construction work. This created an interesting parallel between the physical labour of construction and the mental (and creative) labour typically associated with art. The protagonist`s body having changed, so must his psyche. This created yet another layer in a seemingly easy-to-classify character.

By the end of our meeting, we gained perspective on a multitude of topics: language, fatherhood, characterization, etc. Pascal Girard helped us gain some perspective on Petty Theft and unlock elements which revealed further interpretations and depth to the story. There was so much more to discuss and some of my fellow book club members may wish to add to this in the comments, but we all felt tremendously satisfied reading this book. We'd highly recommend it.