Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Best Comics of 2014


The year 2014 has been over for awhile, and I thought I should do a best of the year list, regardless of how late I am. So here it is, my favourite comics of 2014. I wrote them in the order I remembered them, not in any sort of be-all end-all accurate list of what the best comics were. I found it almost impossible to quantify what was the best book, the best comic, I've read this year. I try to base it off the one that had the biggest impact on me. I've a read a ton of books that I thoroughly enjoyed, but didn't leave as big of an impression. I'll provide a description on why I think the titles selected mattered or a link to a longer piece I did when available.

COPRA #14, Michel Fiffe

Michel Fiffe slows down the pace for a muted and discomforting story about one of Copra's team members. A tale of alienation, murder and quiet violence amidst family drama. Clever page design and an eerie beige colour scheme representing boredom.

Everywhere Antennas, Julie Delporte (Drawn & Quarterly)

I'll actually wait to talk about this book more in-depth. This is the book club book for February and I'll have a longer post about it at that time. I saw Julie Delporte's work at TCAF 2014 for the first time. I got her book Journal from the Koyama Press table and I thought it looked splendid. I read it that night and went back to grab her newest book Everywhere Antennas the next day, hoping to be able to meet her and hear her talk about her process, her colours, everything. I'll have a longer write-up once the book club has a chance to weigh in. It's superb, the soft colours and raw emotions are simply fabulous.

Wicked Chicken Queen, Sam Alden

Sam Alden had a very good year, with It Never Happened Again and various other projects. Wicked Chicken Queen turned out to be a revelation, for the book, but also for Retrofit Comics. I had seen a handful of other Retrofit publications, but they never struck me as being as excellent as this one. 2014 was home run after home run; a year of solid gold for them. I haven't reviewed any of their books yet because I'm still insecure about talking about books I truly enjoy. Theth and Debbie's Inferno were phenomenal and deserve to be read by a large audience. Back to the topic at hand. Wicked Chicken Queen was a fantastic exploration of myths, cultures and modernity. From cover to cover, this book was fanastic.

Hellberta #3, Michael Comeau

The final issue of one of the best Canadian political statements in Comics form ever made.

A mini comic by Box Brown, an in-depth exploration of colour, technology, religion and depth itself. 

Through the Woods, Emily Carroll

The most hauntingly beautiful book of the year. Long Live Emily Carroll.

She-Hulk, Charles Soule, Javier Pulido & (particularly) Ron Wimberly

A consistantly fun and innovative superhero/Ally McBeal hybrid comics. Surprisingly published by Marvel Comics. Jump in now before they cancel it and kill the fun. Oh wait...Damn it. Well, now at least you can read Charles Soule's essay on the series right here. This series was the most enjoyable superhero comic I've read in a really long time. And Ron Wimberly's issues were fantastic. Look at those angles!

Ritual #3: Vile Decay, Malachi Ward
A thoughtful sci-fi exploration of surveillance, government control and uneasy feelings at the heart of rebellious behaviour.

Horror Vaccui, Jono Currier

Jono Currier, whoever you are, wherever you may be, don't stop making comics and art.

For as Long as it Rains (Les Deuxièmes), Zviane

A man and a woman are on "vacation", and as the rains pours outside, they find themselves unable to go out. Yet underneath their words lies something else. This book is set to be translated and released around May. Seek this out!

The Wrenchies, Farel Dalrymple

The story, the design, the world, the colour, the characters, the themes.

Believed Behavior #2, Michael Deforge, Anya Davidson, Lyra Hill, Lale Westvind & Sophia Foster-Dimino (Edited by Andy Rench)

A collection of short stories available on a very attractive platform online and on paper. The comics themselves were good, particularly the one from Lyra Hill and the one from Sophie Foster-Domino. The online platform to read the comic is sharp and allows the reader to pick the way they want to read it (panel or grid) and provides a short biography of the author. It is also a bold statement on publishing: to print on newsprint paper, a dying medium in it's current paper form, while giving the reader multiple ways to access the content. It was both innovative and surprisingly well done.

Recidivist Vol. IV, Zak Sally

I'll have more to say about this in a separate post once I wrap my head around it. Recidivist is bold, innovative, blending it's themes to it's form. It's an immersive experience the like of which I have rarely seen before. Read more about it on Zak Sally's weblog

Monday, 23 February 2015

Book Club Report: Marvel Knights: Spider-Man by Matt Kindt & Marco Rudy: Extreme Highs and Lowest Low

Excellence & Mediocrity
It's been awhile since our group met for Comic Book Book Club, November was cancelled, and December, well everyone's busy in December so that was also cancelled. So here we are, in January 2015, with our first book of the year. This is one of the rare occasions in which we've done a superhero book. We tend to stay away from those for a variety of reasons. They're repetitive, stale, and often time limited in their perspectives. We've done Batwoman: Elegy about 2 years ago as a way to discuss LGBT and style and we haven't done any superhero comics until today. We looked at the terribly uneven Marvel Knights: Spider-Man. The members of the group had very mixed opinions about the book. Some loved it and praised it's artistic boldness, while others hated it, with myself fitting in the latter category. It was an interesting discussion because the book is flawed beyond belief, but there are also some incredible moments within. Let's take a look.

I don't normally split reviews into different components of "art" and "story", but I feel I must in this case. Mostly because superhero comics have long ago compartmentalized those 2 aspects. The focus is usually first placed upon writing the story, and then a group of people will be tasked with illustrating it, often trying to respect the publisher's house style. Specifically here, the story accounts for most of the problems of the book. What is this book about? Well, the book seems to have 2 subtitles, Fight Night and 99 problems. I couldn't tell which one was the correct one, maybe they were both correct. Anyway, Spider-Man (Peter Parker, not any of those guys) is drugged and must fight his way through his entire rogue gallery for no apparent reason or purpose. The back cover says 99 villains, but I honestly couldn't tell how many there were. Not that it matters much anyway. It could have been one elongated fight sequence against 1 enemy and it would have achieved the same effect. Spider-Man is the underdog and he wins, I guess? He goes from one set piece to the next to fight villains, then collapses and wakes up in a new environment where he dukes it out with more villains. Repeat for 120 pages and you got yourself a book! It's revealed in the last couple of pages that it was a bet between the Kingpin and his nephew to see if he could survive fighting 100 people. Are they part of the 99 or are they the people who started this, so 101? That's it, that's all it is. 

The glorious art!
Unfortunately, this is the only thing you'll find in this book. There are no themes, no effort has been put into making this any more than it is. It's really as exciting as an old school video game without cut scenes. It's empty. And yet, this is the first point where our group disagreed. Some of us were thinking, is it enough for a book to simply have a confused guy fighting other guys for 120 pages? Can we expect more from a Spider-Man book than a constant rehash of his concept? Yet some of us, not necessarily superhero comics reader, thought it was just fine. As a standalone comic, it works perfectly well. If it's a standard action plot, should we be expecting more than what we got here? And can we see this book, as an artist showcase and nothing else? I will leave this to the readers to decide. None of us found the story to be particularly good, even those who adamantly defended it. What was surprising was that the writer was Matt Kindt, who most of us knew for writing Mind MGMT and his Top Shelf Spy books. All of his other work we were familiar with is incredibly superior to this. This felt like a wasted opportunity as we were all certain that it could have been much better than it was. 

Pain and memories, Spidey can't manage his mind...
What we could all agree with, though, was that this book was saved by Marco Rudy's incredible art and page design. This is truly what sets this book apart. Rudy cleverly designs his page to reflect the state of mind of our protagonist. At first, when he is stressed out by his life, the page is full and very crowded. When he is drugged, the page design becomes more fluid. It's a mix of painting and standard art. We'd have love to have a longer version of the book with some process pages at the end. 

The glorious art!
I'm not so sure we would recommend this book. In fact, we would recommend an equally gorgeous superior hero book by Frank J. Barbiere and Marco Rudy. New Avengers Annual #1 is the story of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) as he is asked by a group of techno monks to rescue a young girl who's been possessed by a demon. The story draws parallel with the character origin. Dr. Strange was an arrogant surgeon who, after a car accident, was unable to use his hands again. He began dabbling in the mystic arts and became the Sorcerer Supreme. He had to learn to be humble and discover that there were lots of things he didn't know. Yet to win against this demon and save the girl, he must set aside his humbleness and be confident in his own ability; if he wavers, he will fail. A book about humbleness and hubris, and the art is superb as per the example below. We highly recommend it. It's cheaper too, and your comic book store retailer will be happy to unload copies of back issues. Everybody wins.

New Avengers Annual #1
New Avengers Annual #1

Friday, 6 February 2015

Le Démon du Hockey: Short Stories on Hockey by a talented group

Last year, I discovered Zviane's work and I've been meaning to read more of her books since. Bestiaire des Fruits was hilariously phenomenal, Les deuxièmes (soon to be published in English as For as long as it rains by Pow Pow Press) and Apnée were also incredible. What better way to discover new work than by using the public library. I entered Zviane's name in the Ottawa Public Library system and I came across this book, Le Démon du Hockey. It's a collection of short stories with the ice skating, rubber-slapping sport as it's central theme. These stories are the winners of a contest launched by Hachette publishing in 2008 and was later published by Glénat in 2011. Zviane and Luc Bossé contributed a story. 

I came to this book with a set of expectations. Some were met and some were shattered. The stories were surprisingly varied, ranging from the standard "Hockey is a magical happy thing for all" (which was the opening story of the book) and some less expected like "postapocalyptic world Hockey fight". In each case, the artists have infused their stories with what Hockey seems to represent for them, whether it be violence, comedy, family or drama. 
Hockey Demon
The six stories here were interesting for the most part. The art is superb in all cases and surprisingly varied. We go from a minimalist free flowing page with simple colours in Claude Auchu's story "Le démon blond" to an eclectic trash, ultra kinetic work with Richard Suicide and Denis Lord's story "Gump Worsley était un plat régional patagonien". The colouring throughout is phenomenal. In particular, Richard Suicide and Denis Lord use of bright yellows, purple and greens contrast nicely with the typical colour of the ice skating rink (white with red and blue lines). I'd love to see the original uncolored pages for Mathieu Lampron's story "La classique hivernale". The details of the linework is phenomenal.

In spite of all this, I didn't really care for this book. The subject matter didn't interest me much so it was hard to invest myself too much in the book. I'm not a big fan of Hockey. I have no skills or balance on skates and playing with people who are faster and more skilled than I am at manipulating a stick is not something I enjoy. I like to skate, but leisurely, on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa at my own pace, sometimes with a drink in hand. But a team sport while skating is not for me. I recognize the appeal, but I'm indifferent to Hockey. I recognize Canada's long history with the sport and the place it has in our lore (or culture*?%&*W?&$%&). The Canadian winter cannot be avoided, so might as well put all of this ice to good use. 

Damn Puck
However, the two major things I take away from this book are the following. Hiscam Absa's work looks fabulous. I will seek out more of his work. His story, the postapocalyptic world story "Maudite rondelle", had a distinct dynamism that I rarely see. The movement and flow of the world he created is quite astounding. This is again enhanced by the colours, which are expected for the type of setting (postapocalypse is somehow brown and grey) yet is truly cleverly handled. The second major thing is that the work of Zviane and Luc Bossé borders on genius. Their collaboration on "Devenir grand", loosely translated as "growing up", is simply astonishing. I expected yet another story on the power of sport, team spirit and boring explorations about feelings and being a better person through Hockey. What we have instead is a touching story on child abuse and the broken family structure which fails to recognize real issues. We see the story of a boy who doesn't want to go to Hockey practices anymore. His coach is too rough on him. His brother acts like a jerk to him and insists he just doesn't like the coach. His mother encourages him to persevere because the coach is only rough to teach him valuable lessons. Besides, you may not like it, but it's all part of growing up. At practice, Coach gives a pep talk to everyone, but keeps our protagonist in the change room. He closes the door, then turns off the light. 
Growing up
One can read this as many things, but sexual abuse seems to be the first that comes to mind. It could also be on the difficulty of receiving criticism from someone you don't like much. I'll leave the reader to interpret it as they please. However, the red palette found throughout the story seems to emphasize this dark theme. It adds to the eerieness and outcast feelings of dread the child has. His life forever changed by whatever happens behind closed doors. I also read it as a commentary on Quebec's difficult history and tense relations with the clergy. Hockey being the new altar at which people pray, the priests of this sports religion, the coaches, take advantage of their power to abuse the innocent youth while we are too blind (or cowardly) to confront the truth. Quebec's history with the Catholic church and sexual abuse is long and painful and this story tackles this in a new inventive way. I saw "Devenir grand" as a fantastic multifaceted work that was much better than it had any right to be in a book celebrating Hockey. 

Overall, an interesting book that I'd recommend mostly for 1 phenomenal story, 2 good stories and 6 competent tales by French-Canadian cartoonists. 

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Jupiter's Tanking (Spoilers)

Worst of 2015?

Oh Jupiter Ascending, What a boring mess you are. I went to see this last night with a friend; we had won free tickets. Thank heavens I didn't pay for this movie, which is basically a piece of shit. The only positive thing about this movie is that it’s such a dull and annoying mess, it feels twice its length. Good value for investment I guess. 

What happens in the movie? Well Mila Kunis plays Jupiter, the reincarnation of a space female Conrad Hilton/Princess Diana (although at no point is it explained how that happened) Her kids are trying to gain more power by acquiring planet Earth (which belongs to their dead mom/Mila Kunis) to transform people into money. Since the movie is “subtle”, time is money, so people are harvested and transformed into goo that is time and that is the space currency (what? ) The only people who seem to have money/time are those three siblings. The rest of the people are bureaucrats, robots and cops and it doesn’t seem like they would benefit from having this type of currency at all. What are they going to do with more time? More work? The guy who processes insurance claims for a living seems like he would be in eternal misery (which is a thing the movie actually makes a point of showing in a 12 minute sequence of boredom). Anyway, somehow the siblings know she’s alive and hire Channing Tatum to get her back. Channing Tatum plays a Space Marine/ Angel Wolf who lost his wings after attacking someone and ripping out their throat. He must retrieve Mila Kunis for one of her space millennial children in order to get his wings back. His only motivation is to get his wings back so he can fly again. Even though he can already fly due to his gravitational space rollerblades (or ice skates?). In fact, through most of the movie`s action pieces, which take place in cramped corridors, he wouldn’t be able to use his wings. So there’s that. 

It doesn’t matter what happens in the movie. You’ve seen this story unfold a thousand times before. In fact, you can watch it right now in under 3 minutes, because the Bros at Warner posted a trailer which is the entire story in chronological order minus the ending. This is a generic “regular person is a special person, but all they really want to do is be normal” story except this time, Channing Tatum is shirtless! He’s a space angel wolf! This time, it’s dumber and LOUUUUUUUD! It took exactly 49 seconds and 2 lines of dialog for me to figure out this movie was going to be a contender for worst movie of 2015. There are so many dumb things in there I don’t even have enough time or energy to describe them all. I was bored and annoyed the entire run time. One scene has one of the siblings, technically Mila Kunis` son (so many layers), trying to trick her into marrying him so that he can keep her safe. He keeps repeating that ,outside of Earth, marriage isn't about love, it's about politics, so she reluctantly agrees. Yet the VERY NEXT SCENE, she is wearing this expensive luscious dress in front of thousands of people with petals falling from the sky and it's the most over-the-top wedding ceremony in cinematic history instead of a small civil service where they just sign documents. Which isn't too crazy to believe because before the marriage, there is 12 minute long sequence where she actually HAS TO SIGN PAPERWORK AT CENTRAL `BUREAUCRACY`. 

The worst thing about this movie is that, in spite of all the craft that went into making it, the story ruins the entire thing. There is a really neat action scene in Chicago, but it lasts for so long that it actually becomes a frustrating, boring, tensionless, consequence-free scene, as it never seems to freaking end. And just like this, all of the craft and magic of storytelling just evaporates because we don't care about the characters or the plot or anything else. 

I would strongly encourage everyone to avoid this stupid Hollywood film. Do NOT waste your money on this. You, as a person, whoever you may be, deserve better than this. I don’t know you, yet I know, from the bottom of my soul that you are better than this movie. You matter as a human being. Don't do this to yourself.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Bastien Vivès's La Guerre: War, Hypocrisy & Ignorance

War: smash now?

I've heard fantastic things about European cartoonist Bastien Vives, Polina in particular, but some other of his books like Le goût du Chlore. So I decided to work my way through his books. This is one of my comics reading goals this year (among others like reading the entire "L'Incal"). So I decided to begin with this book for some reason. It was available at the Ottawa Public Library. The fifth volume in the Shampooing collection. Each book in the collection focuses on a different theme: Video Games, Love, Blogging, Comic Books and this one, War. This collection is led by Lewis Trondheim (creator of my favourite cartoon as a kid: Fly Tales). 

So what is this book about? It's a series of loosely connected vignettes depicting various facets of war. We follow Julius Cesar as he struggles with the weight of the splendour of Rome. How can he deal with ruling such an awesome empire? We also follow a modern military campaign against women and various other vignettes of war. Not all comics are directly related to war, but they are related by their themes. War is simply the frame on which to hang the stories. What is War for Vives? War is ignorance. Violence is a means of last resort, it is appalling and can be avoided. War is far too often ideolized. All of those are themes Vives discusses. 

The book opens with a soldier who appears to be involved in a nameless campaign on an unnamed pacific island as he meets with the natives of the island. The conflict is not so much the war itself, but the conflict between the man's culture and theirs. The conflict is only one sided as the military man cannot fathom a culture other than his own and he insults and denigrates the culture of the others. In another vignette, two woman are so concerned with their social media profiles and status updates that they failed to hear that Russia was invading their country. 

Ignorance is rampant with the characters of the book. It is used for laughter, yet Vives makes a point to point out the dangerous implications of ignorance. When the UN leaders discuss how to solve overpopulation problems, their stupidity and ignorance is alarming. They try to come up with plans to reducde the world population by 2 billion. They agree to begin bombing large population centers. "South America, nobody knows what they're doing down there anyway...they've been there for years". This ignorance prevents them from understanding the complexity of the world and reduces everything to simple flawed logic. It is deeply dangerous.

Vives' art is wonderful. He doesn't use any official panels, yet he maintains a rigid structure of 2 images per page throughout the book. There isn't much in terms of movement. The action in each vignette is mostly confined to the dialog. The verbal interaction is what drives the action. This further emphasizes the character`s ignorance and lack of forethought. During the vignettes on the military campaign against women, a general manages to say "How did we ended up here friends...So fast. They observed us for over 200,000 years and today they strike... while we were all sleeping". Vives' lines are thick and bold, maintaining a surprisingly expressive style while still being quite minimalistic. Although the figures he draws do not move from panel to panel, there is a certain energy, almost kineticism to them I can't quite describe. It looks phenomenal. 

Vive's book was a thoughtful comedic look at the roots of war. We can only reflect on our world and hope that those involved with the decisions leading to war aren't as ignorant as Vives describes here.