Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Graphic Novel Super-Review

I have a tumultuous relationship with graphic novels: the first time I picked one up was in 2010, after years of speaking out against them. My first was Watchmen, which I thought was good but not that good. I continued and found some that I really loved, most which weren't serial comics: Habibi, Blankets, Asterios Polyp, Stitches. At the end of the year, I basically threw in the towel, convinced that I had read every good comic that there was to read.

Each year, there would be a graphic novel or two that piqued my interested, and I'd read it: Sailor Twain (Mark Siegel), Daytripper (Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá) and Building Stories (Chris Ware) stand out, but it was much quieter on the visual narrative front for me. 2014, however, saw a redux in graphic novels for me; I became obsessed with reading them again, starting new series and revisiting old ones. Since it's hard for me to muster up more than a paragraph per book, I thought I'd collect some of the highlights of my year here:

Graphic Novels
Ant Colony (Michael DeForge)
This is my favorite graphic novel of 2014. DeForge takes us into an ant colony to share with us the struggles and turmoil of ants. Of course, they're more than ants: they're sentient, aware of the true-life weirdness of what it means to be an ant. They question the authority of their queen, they ponder existential questions, they have hopes and fears and dreams and sex. I have really fallen in love with DeForge's art style, which I imagine is frequently compared to Chris Ware's--that must get tiresome for him. It's lots of solid blocks of color and simple shapes, and I don't know how to properly express that I love how much it adds to the overall book. This is a treasure.
My rating: 5/5

Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel (Anya Ulinich)
This is a story about Lena Finkle and her love life. I have never used the word "chatty" before, but Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel seems like a good place to start. I have never read a graphic novel with so much text. I wondered more than once if "graphic" was the format this book should have been in--it would have worked as a straight novel, since the panels are mostly dialogue anyway. But how's the content?

Good, for the most part. Parts three and four in particular are packed with plenty of heavy, emotional stuff. Lena Finkle is a great character. But that leaves parts one and two: the first part is a SLOG that feels unconnected. It gets caught up in immigrant identity (Lena's family immigrates from Russia when she is young), which could have been interesting if the graphic novel wanted to focus entirely on that, but it's clear from the direction of the rest of the novel that this is not its main preoccupation. I felt like I was shuffling through 75ish pages of dead weight before I got to the meat of the novel, especially because the events of and characters in that first section are rarely alluded to again.

There's a real memoir flavor to this book, which would explain the strange diversions and reflections, but it's not! It's a novel about a fictional character, and that makes all the extra material hard to forgive.
My rating: 4/5

Seconds (Bryan Lee O'Malley)
As soon as I heard the premise behind this graphic novel, I was IN. Katie runs a restaurant (rather successfully) and her plans to open a new one are going well. Then a bunch of bad things happen: her ex-boyfriend shows up, her on-staff love affair falls apart, and one of her hires gets burned on the job. A creepy, mysterious girl shows up in her bedroom and offers her a mushroom, a mushroom that gives her the chance to start over and fix all the things that went wrong.

And then Katie finds more of these mushrooms, and she can't seem to stop undoing everything. I'm a sucker for stories where people can go back and try to fix things (see Life After Life), so I was bound to love the book just on that principle alone. But I liked it for other reasons: O'Malley knows his way around characterization (have you read Scott Pilgrim?), and it shows here. Katie is a really tough-to-pull-off mixture of vulnerable and cool, and she's executed wonderfully. Perhaps the only complaint about this book is its ending: it's not so much Seconds' fault as it is the narrative technique it relies upon. How does one conclude a book when every other ending can be undone? There isn't really a satisfying answer, and it shows at the climax of this book, but it's well-worth the journey.
My rating: 4.5/5

Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? (Roz Chast)
This is a memoir from Roz Chast about her very old (in their 90s!) parents--her emotional turmoil as she watches them decline, decides where they have to live, and figure out how to pay for it. It's very emotionally powerful, and when Chast wants us to feel, we DO. It's not a narrative that is ever bossy or demanding of the reader's feelings, but nonetheless, YOU WILL FILL UP WITH DESPAIR. I withhold the final star because there were moments that felt uncomfortably exploitative--for example, there are a few pages where we are shown actual photographs of how messy her parents' apartment is once they move out of it. The mess is described in passing a few times, but there's something squirmy about seeing it for real. Perhaps it's meant to frighten us, to force us to look old age in the eye and realize it for what it is; to me, it just felt like something embarrassingly private. Nonetheless, Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant? is a stunning portrait of senescence and pain.
My rating: 4/5

Through the Woods (Emily Carroll)
I came to this under the impression that it would be a collection of fairy tales illustrated by the author, but that's only half the truth. Through the Woods is a collection of fabular tales, original pieces written by Carroll that will remind you in all the right ways of your favorite scary folktales. The highlight of this book is the artwork. It's like a more elegant Salad Fingers, if that means anything to you: creepy and stunning and arresting. The stories, of course, are loads of fun, full of weird, tiny terrors that overtake you and drink your blood.
My rating: 5/5

Ongoing Series
I also read several ongoing series this year, collections of stories that originally ran as individual-issue comics. I read several first collections and a few that are more advanced in their run.

Sex Criminals (Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky)
This is the story of Suzie, a woman whose orgasms can stop time. I know that sounds aboslutely ridiculous as a premise, but it's pulled off with more than enough energy to make it worth your time. She meets Jon, a man who has the same power, and they bond over their shared ability to stop time...and plot to rob a bank. It's everything I could possibly want out of a first collection: it presents an interesting premise, it has some of the most beautiful art I've ever seen, it teaches us a good deal about our lead characters, and it gives us just enough plot to confirm for us that this is a series worth following. I can't wait for more exploits.
My rating: 5/5

Alex + Ada (Jonathan Luna & Sarah Vaughn)
There are few things that interest me as techno-love--I don't mean guys who love their computers like their children. It's a new genre, where people fall in love with a robot (which is, based on what I've read, the plot of this series) or their operating system (Her, one of my favorite movies). Luna & Vaughn don't cover a lot of territory in their five issues--there's a fair amount devoted to establishing the world, which is pretty robo-phobic, but it's enough to have intrigued me and what we do get is very well-done.
My rating: 4.5/5

Hawkeye (Matt Fraction)
After reading Sex Criminals, I needed no more convincing that Matt Fraction is great. I'm not a superhero comics reader, but I figured if there were ever a time, it would be now: I've heard so many great things about Fraction's take on the Hawkeye series, but after reading it...I'm not sure I understand the hype. People praise the characterization, plotting, and artwork, but I'm starting to wonder if perhaps this is less a reflection about the quality of THIS series and more about the state of superhero comics in general. I have read at least six other series (Sandman, Saga, Chew, Sex Criminals, Y: The Last Man, and Fables at the beginning of its run) with characters or stories as good (or better) than what I found here. Certainly it's a fun series, but I miss the lack of a story arc to unite a volume. I'm going to keep up with it because I am entertained more than I thought I would be. But I will admit that I'm discouraged from other superhero comics if this is considered a revolution--it just feels like home to me.
My rating: 3.5/5

Saga (Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples)
Anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of the contemporary comics world can tell you that Saga is the best thing going right now, and they're right. This space romance epic has yet to produce an issue that's lackluster. In 2012, I read the first volume, but this year I read all four from the beginning. It's such a fun ride, a gorgeous vision of art and plot that feels so refreshingly together. There's no dead space in this series.
My rating: 5/5

Ms. Marvel (G. Willow Wilson)
Another superhero comic! Weird. This one has been getting a lot of buzz because it features a female character who is Muslim--basically a unicorn of a superhero character. The promise of a more diverse comic drew me in--I'm not sure how I feel about it now. I'm disappointed that the comic is letting the urge to tell a conventional story overwhelm it: there's a male character who is obviously in love with our heroine, and he'll spend at least the next 20 or so issues pining for her until she realizes what she has had in front of her the whole time. I would have appreciated this series more if it were free of a romance, at least for the time being. I want to keep reading, because our main character is fun, but I don't know how much generic storyline I can take.
My rating: 3.5/5

Chew (John Layman)
I read the first few volumes of Chew a number of years ago, and I thought it was a lot of  fun: Tony Chu is a cibopath, which means he can get psychic readings from the food he eats. His world is one devastated by an epidemic spread by chicken, so he's employed by the FDA (now the most powerful agency in the United States government) to bust illegal chicken trading. What I love about this series is how drastically things can change from one volume to another: of course, what I have described above is the underlying premise of the narrative, but it's not long before we've involved vampires, aliens, and government conspiracy. I will go on whatever journey Layman wants to take me on.
My rating: 5/5

Pretty Deadly (Kelly Sue DeConnick)
Western gunslinger tale meets...pseudomythology? I'm not sure how to explain the plot of this one, and maybe the comic doesn't know how to explain it, either. I feel silly saying that this reminds me of Neil Gaiman, because that's what everyone says, but it does. The problem, though, is that I wasn't reminded of that until the last two issues. I had no idea what was going on, and scrolling through reviews tells me I wasn't alone. I shouldn't have to go through three issues completely baffled by the characters and story. Maybe I'll pick up volume two, maybe not. I'm curious to see where it goes, but I had a hard enough time understanding where it went.
My rating: 3/5

The Wicked + The Divine (Kieron Gillen)
Every 90 years, the gods take human form and live among the people, adored and admired. Laura is one of their fans, obsessed with meeting them all. She falls in with Luci--that is, Lucifer--who has allegedly murdered a judge. I am definitely attracted to the underlying storyworld of this series; it's not entirely clear where we're headed, and I think I'm okay with that. I'm along for the ride as long as subsequent volumes are as well-made as this one. The only thing that sticks out as an issue is how contemporary this comic wants to be: there are references to Vine, for instance. Calm down, before you've dated yourself to this week.
My rating: 4.5/5

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