This one’s way overdue, I know, so I’ll skip the preamble and proceed with the amble.
When I first got on the Internet about a thousand years ago, one of the first things I did was start looking for websites that featured illustrators…because I’m just inquisitive like that, I guess. Then, porn. But I digress. I like looking at art, plain and simple. It’s the frustrated artist in me. One of the first non-established comics pro webpages I found was that of Miss Brosgol, way back in 2002; her work just blew me away with its open, playful figure drawings and clever ideas. I’ve watched her career progress ever since, even commissioned a little art from her from time to time (she’s super nice and affordable, too), and have observed her style grow and change via outlets such as the Flight collections as well the influence made evident through her paying work in animation. This is her first published book, and it will probably come as no surprise that in my trying-hard-to-be-objective opinion, it’s a keeper.
Anya is a precocious and not especially likeable young lady whose family comes from Russia (hmm…) and is trying to fit in over here as best she can- she mentions several times that she’s worked on losing her accent, for example. She’s still viewed as an odd duck by most of the other kids at her private school (this gives Vera the opportunity to draw our girl in school girl uniforms, you see), and spends a lot of time slacking off, yearning to be popular, especially so with this one really handsome guy who goes with the most beautiful girl in the school, and being alternately affectionate and ashamed of her mother, who hasn’t left all of her old country mannerisms and accent behind. Pretty much your basic teen misfit scenario, we’ve seen it at least a hundred times before, albeit with a Russian twist. However, Anya’s spiritual literary second cousin is Coraline (Miss Brosgol was part of the storyboard staff for the animated film version), they share a lot of personality traits…and also get caught up in supernatural goings on with another Young Readers favorite, the Ghost Story. Anya takes a frustrated walk in the woods after school, falls into a deep hole. When she comes to, she realizes she’s not alone- there’s a skeleton in there with her! And soon after she finds out there’s a young girl’s ghost attached to that skeleton. With the ghost’s help, she manages to get out of the well and tries to carry on her regular routine- except she soon discovers one of the skeleton’s fingerbones in her backpack, and the young girl’s ghost right along with it. At first, this is pretty cool- it gives Anya a new friend, and this new friend helps her cheat on exams and gives her advice on her clothes and makeup and such. Anya even offers to help solve the ghost’s murder. Problem is, as is so often the case in these situations, there’s more to the at-first friendly ghost than meets the eye, and things get complicated before the self-affirming ending. Vera ramps up the tension when Anya realizes what’s really happening, and the story shifts into a different gear entirely, which really got it over for me. Artwise, she applies her animation-honed expressive style to good effect; she’s also very good at spotting blacks and creating mood, something you need when bringing people stories about ghosts and “evil spiriks”, as Popeye would say. She works with a very limited color palette, all grays, blacks and dirty purples…it does give the proceedings a darker mood than you’d think necessary but does balance out the inherent lightness of Vera’s style.
No surprise Neil Gaiman gets the cover quote; this sort of thing is squarely in his fanciful wheelhouse, and no doubt Coraline is a big influence, as is Tim Burton’s animated projects. Not that this is any sort of Goth wallow, though I’m sure those into that sort of thing will find much to like, as will anyone who likes young adult fiction or ghost stories well told. Pick this up for the precocious, sullen teen you may have one of these days. Go here for a preview; reviewed from an advance copy provided by publisher.
Anthology titles have always been such a hard sell, and I suppose there’s no shortage of reasons why, although I myself, being in actual possession of an attention span, have always rather enjoyed them. One of the foremost practitioners of that disfavored format was Dark Horse, who published a lot of issues of Dark Horse Presents back in the day- the first time I read such great features like Art Adams’ sadly missed Monkeyman and O’Brien, Frank Miller’s Sin City, or Mike Mignola’s Hellboy was in those very pages. I first saw Paul Pope’s work in a DHP, I forget which one. Problem is, the darn things just don’t sell for crap, regardless of the publisher (though it hasn’t stopped DC from keeping the licensed property title Weird Worlds in play by publishing it recently) so despite its healthy 100+ issue run throughout the 90’s and into the Aughts, Dark Horse had to pull the plug eventually. But it apparently is too attractive to the decision makers at the Horse to lie fallow for long, since they at first published it as a webcomic series on MySpace of all things, and now it’s back on dead trees. And picking up where it left off, with an eclectic mix of creators and genres.
Paul Chadwick starts things with a brand new Concrete story, fittingly enough since he was one of Dark Horse’s first features and certainly has appeared in his share of DHPs. It’s a bit better than I remember the last few Concrete stories being- as I recall, I was really put off by one of those more recent miniseries. Perhaps the brevity works to keep Chadwick focused and the story tight. Next up is a new Chaykin creation called “The Marked Man”, featuring a protagonist who apparently pulls crimes with the help of two gorgeous women, then goes home to his shrewish wife who can’t understand why he’s always gone. This fella’s a bit dumpier looking than the standard Chaykinman archetype, though, and this could turn out to be fun as only Chaykin can do it. Neal Adams follows with some sort of sci-fi/gangsters mishmash called Blood; it’s not as gonzo dopey as his recent Batman work, but it reminds me a lot of something conceived in the 80’s or 90’s, a I Come in Peace sort of thing. At first I thought he was going for an Of Mice and Men homage as well; much of the eight pages is taken up by a running monologue by this “Blood”‘s sidekick Lionel, who babbles as he’s beaten (savagely; there’s a lot of blood and spittle as only Adams can bring it) by some gang boss that is gunning for his boss. That gives way to Carla Speed McNeil’s odd story of a fellow who is now a bicycle courier after apparently being a mob fix-it man…some sort of enhanced abilities may come into play before it’s done, can’t say for sure, nor can I say where it’s going after this first chapter. McNeil, whose Finder is a favorite of many knowledgeable people, has an open, appealing style that almost makes up for its crude, rough ink line. A typically manic but occasionally amusing Mr. Monster strip by Michael Gilbert, an interview with Frank Miller about his upcoming Xerxes, with some sample pages, a Harlan Ellison text piece, a new(-ish, wouldn’t surprise me if it was inventory of some sort) Richard Corben story (he’s still on his game, good to see), a Star Wars story with Paul Gulacy art, just so you don’t forget Dark Horse publishes licensed Star Wars comics- I remain mostly bored by SW, but Gulacy has his moments here, A sweet David Chelsea story about a young girl who magically changes into a “Snow Angel” (maybe she should team up with Nun of the Above and Catholic Girl from Xombi) and a couple of cutesy one page cartoons round out this overstuffed package.
It’s eight bucks, sure, but there’s a lot stuffed in there for your money. I don’t know if future issues will be this big, or that expensive, but if you’ve got the extra cayush then this might be worth a look for you.
Here’s a collected and expanded hardcover release of a story that Clowes did in weekly strip format three years ago for the New York Times Magazine; continuing to explore the mundane ins and outs of adult relationships, he gives us a look into the life of one Marshall, 40-something, recently divorced and full of anxiety and self-doubt as he waits to meet a blind date that he’s been set up with. As so often is the case in these scenarios, the blind date, when she does arrive, proves to be equally as full of neurosis and anxieties and drama, and their evening, somewhat reminiscent of After Hours, makes up the bulk of the story.
While Marshall and date Natalie are far more likeable than the misanthropic Wilson, whose story this kinda seems like a trial run for, it’s presented with Clowes’ usual objective distance, which causes some to think includes feeling of disdain for his principals- I don’t really get that here, though; and if that’s his intent perhaps I’m too dense to get it. I thought Clowes did a nice job of getting me, aka The Reader, interested in what happens to our star-crossed pair, and would even go as far as to say that’s a gift he has, to get The Reader engrossed in the details of these not-especially engrossing people’s lives in deceptively mundane and straightfaced fashion. As with Wilson, and indeed this goes back as far as the Eightball days though he de-emphasized it for a while via the David Boring, Ice Haven and Death Ray period, he mixes and matches cartooning looks, giving us short fantasy sequences done in a more cartoonish (but still mundane and straightfaced, Clowes will never be flashy. At all.) style.
Pulling this trick is not easy, but Clowes does it without much apparent effort. The uninitiated might wonder what all the fuss is about, but I got the bug years ago and remain fascinated by whatever the man does. Not quite as deep or resonant as Ice Haven or Wilson, but still a very good exercise in what he does best.
Your basic All Purpose Review Writing Music List: Todd Rundgren- Something/Anything?; Lloyd Cole- Don’t Get Weird on Me, Babe; T.Rex- Tanx and Zinc Alloy and the Hidden Riders of Tomorrow; Rod Stewart- Footloose and Fancy Free; The Replacements- Let it Be; Bert Jansch- Moonshine; Willie Nelson– Stardust.