Friday, November 17, 2017

Adapting Crime Fiction is a Heady Game: Jason Sacks Reviews HEAD GAMES from First Second Books

(Editor's Note: This is now the FIFTH of what I hope to be many contributions to this site from other writers writing about off-the-radar small press books being published today. Today, Jason Sacks talks about the perils of adaptation. When you finish reading this piece, also check out these previously published pieces: Austin Lanari writing about š! #26 'dADa', Nick Hanover writing about GORO by Sarah Horrocks, Alex Hoffman reviewing the anthology NOW #1 from Fantagraphics, and Josh Hicks on RIPPLES by Wai Wai Pang.)

First Second Books recently published a graphic adaptation of Craig McDonald’s noir detective novel Head Games. The new comic book version, written by McDonald with art by Kevin Singles and Les McClane, is a rare work that stands on its own as a literary work. In doing so, it reflects the ambition of the original while also showing the potential of the comics form.

Head Games is a deeply haunting journey through dark back-alleys of 20th century America. As the first of McDonald’s stories starring policeman-turned-novelist Hector Lassiter, and thus the first to appear in comics form, this book is the ideal introduction to the gritty world Lassiter inhabits. In his books, McDonald presents a view of American history that illuminates dark corners of our shared past while providing thrilling plots and fascinating characters. This new adaptation is a captivating counterpart to the original work. McDonald’s meticulous prose and detailed storyline combine with empathetic artwork to deliver a book that combines the best of comic art with a novelistic structure to deliver a uniquely powerful book.

Illustrated by Kevin Singles and Les McClaine, Head Games, the graphic novel, is an often labyrinthine work that successfully combines thematic density with the sparse storytelling virtues of comic books.

McDonald’s original novel twists several urban legends around a series of fascinating plot threads that result in a high-octane thriller that also reveals a darker side of American history seldom reported in newspapers. Set in 1957, Head Games revolves around popular crime novelist Hector Lassiter who has retired from a life of action and adventure. However, when he journeys South of the Border for a chance find of the skull of Pancho Villa (rumored to have a map to a buried treasure), Lassiter drags himself back into a life of violence for one final adventure. With the help of poet Bud Fiske (assigned to profile Lassiter for Fact magazine) and Alicia Vicente (former Hollywood actress and hanger-on), Lassiter follows a trail through the American Southwest that leads him to encounters with 1950s Hollywood royalty, Mexican mercenaries, and members of the Harvard Skull and Bones Society.

That latter group is led by Senatorial candidate Prescott Bush. Throwing Grandpa Bush into the story is a fascinating and delightful bit of stagecraft which allows McDonald to add an additional level of historical heft (or outright historical slander) by bringing the father of two American presidents into this outrageous but realistic-seeming story. In fact, George W. Bush has a quick cameo as part of Skull & Bones, an inclusion that had an odd effect me. Readers can look at people like Orson Welles through a historical lens, but we all feel we know Bush well. Incorporating him into the story feels transgressive and moves this tale from a historical exploration to a piece with contemporary echoes.

The pulpy elements of McDonald’s concepts provide a nice meta-textural flair to the comic. They reflect the types of crime and revenge stories popular in the 1950s comics, full of double-crossing gangsters and world-weary private dicks. But Head Games transcends that juvenilia with a storyline that adds smartly designed characterization that transcends cliches. Those elements may not have been in the original novel, but they live as a quiet heartbeat in the adaptation, allowing the comic version to expose unexpected resonances.

These historical references provide a lot of the thrill of reading this book. McDonald includes some delightful anecdotes about Villa, name checks Ernest Hemingway, and drops readers on the set of Orson Welles’s doomed film Touch of Evil, among other things. These ground the work in a definitive past, one in which we can easily tie the terrible and haunting events of McDonald’s historical insertions as small touchstones. It made me want to go back to watch Touch of Evil to investigate some of the rumors McDonald shares.

But what gives this book much of its power is the complexity of its leads. Lassiter is the kind of hero you can imagine portrayed by Robert Mitchum in an old crime film, all 1950s masculine swagger tightly wound like chain-mail armor around an inner pain too horrible to contemplate. The poet, Fiske, is no shrinking violet but instead quickly finds himself compromising his morals because of the roughness of the world to which he is exposed.The descent of Fiske has a brutal power. We witness Fiske perform his first killing, watch him engage in subterfuge and espionage, and watch as his exposure to the vast conspiracy takes its physical and emotional toll on him. The woman, Vicente, likewise shows her inner grit, a strong, angry woman who defies 1950s stereotypes by being an equal partner to her two alpha-male companions. These pulpy heroes echo back the era with characterizations that surf close to cliche but meticulously avoid it, a counterpart to the “murderous wife” crime stories that were so popular in comics and pulps at the time.

Cartoonists Singles and McClaine deliver the story in an art style that provides a nice match to the story they’re telling. As McDonald discusses in his Afterword, the artists take McDonald’s literary approach and transform it into something different, a work that stands on its own as a comic, following rules and expectations of a work of comic art while remaining true to the literary and novelistic roots of the book they are adapting.

In fact, most of all I was struck by two aspects of the art. First, Singles and McClane provide just the right amount of detail. They never overpopulate their backgrounds with endless detail that distracts from story. Echoing McDonald’s writing, the details Singles and McClane emphasize have significance and add to the life of the work. The vastness of the Arizona desert, the desultory features of a sleazy hotel room, and the facade of a seemingly glamorous film set all come to life wonderfully by the artists. Secondly, I was struck by the amount of life given to these characters. Singles and McClane deliver people with life, verve, and energy, while also allowing the reader space in which they can see their own interpretation of these characters. Facial expressions are often enigmatic rather than on-the-nose, which often gives readers a sense that these men and women are thinking ahead, planning their next moves on the metaphorical chess board.

Head Games is one of those unique graphic novel adaptations that does not diminish or demean the original. McDonald, Singles, and McClaine avoid common pitfalls by remaining true to the spirit of McDonald’s original book. They deliver a work with smart complexity that features characters who transcend stereotypes and become three-dimensional as we explore their increasingly ramshackle lives. Head Games, the graphic novel, shows that when empathetic creators work together to create a complex story, they can deliver a uniquely satisfying experience.


Jason Sacks is the former Publisher of Comics Bulletin. He writes books about comics history, including Jim Shooter: Conversations and The American Comic Book Chronicles: the 1970s, when he’s not hiking, working in the software biz or tracking down lost treasure.

Monday, November 13, 2017

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 11/617 to 11/12/17

Highlighting some great small press comics criticism being published, as well as other random things that have caught my eye over the past week.


* Rob Clough reviews Anders Nilsen's TONGUES, which he says has "the potential to be Nilsen's best work yet" -- which, if you know Nilsen's work, is high praise indeed.

* AJ Frost writes this really great review of CARTOON CLOUDS by Joseph Remnant, "a testament to the art of the subtle, as well as a bold thesis about the inanities of the millennial experience."

* Carta Monir introduces us to TITTYCHOP BOOBSLASH by Higu Rose, "an extremely good, extremely trans comic" that could be "an excellent resource for any young trans person navigating the healthcare system."

* Shea Hennum reviews RUN FOR IT: STORIES OF SLAVES WHO FOUGHT FOR THEIR FREEDOM by Brazillian cartoonist Marcelo D'Salete (translated by Andrea Rosenberg) about the Brazillian slave trade. Hennum writes, "D'Salete constructs a space of immense humaity. That is, characters and communitess are here afforded depth, complexity, and a multituted of simultaneous emotions. He peoples his stories with love and loss, joy and struggle."

* Phillipe LeBlanc reviews STAGES OF ROT by Lienna Sterte, which "creates a fully realized world just odd enough for us to feel destabilized, yet familiar enough to understand it."

* Angelica Frey writes about I'M NOT HERE by GG from Koyama Press, a book whose "relative visual silence and quiet emphasize the sense of uneasiness that seeps from the pages."

* Tom Baker reviews two books from Glasgow-based small press publisher O Panda Gordo (which has to be one of the best named small press publishers in Glasgow), MONEY WORRIES #1 by Joao Sobral and SPARE ME by Disa Wallander in a piece with a headline that includes  the phrase "Adventures in Capitalism and an Escape in Nature".

* Someone over at Pipedream Comics pens this plot-heavy, open-faced review of GEIS BOOK 2: A GAME WITHOUT RULES by Alexis Deacon, which I link here not for the quality of the review, but because Geis is series more people should know about.

* Ryan C. is genuinely surprised by how much he enjoyed Brian Canini's THE BIG YEAR and does a pretty good job here explaining why. Ryan also features some interesting books on his WEEKLY READING ROUND-UP, notably Mark Beyer's Ne'er-Do-Wellers and Plastic People by Brian Canini.

* Robert Kirby has mini-reviews of the latest four releases of MINI KUS! COMICS which "underscore what makes this publisher a unique, exciting, and valuable branch of the indie comics scene."

* JK Parkin previews Josh Simmons and Patrick Keck's TWILIGHT OF THE BAT.

* Sean Edgar previews the final volume of Jason Shiga's DEMON from First Second.


* Mike Dawson and Zack Soto interview SARAH HORROCKS about her new series, Goro, plus "her writing and drawing process, philosophy of pacing both within a story and a page, mark making vs. legibility, and staying true to the emotional content of the work over traditional styles of representation."

* Matthew James-Wilson interviews JESSE JACOBS about his new book, Crawl Space, as well as "nature, drugs, religion, and how to avoid making the same work twice."

* Hillary Brown interviews BRIGITTE FINDAKLY and LEWIS TRONDHEIM about their book, Poppies of Iraq.

* Over on the Comics Alternative, Derek interviews JOSEPH REMNANT about his new book, Cartoon Clouds.

* Alex Dueben ALSO interviews JOSEPH REMNANT about Cartoon Clouds.

* Tom Spurgeon has this brief interview with the new CAB co-curator MATTHEW JAMES-WILSON.

* The Spring 2018 lineup from CONUNDRUM PRESS seems to be filled with some interesting books. Check it out.

* Lucy Bourton talks about the amazing ANIMATION ABOUT BI-POLAR DISORDER created by Uncle Ginger for TedEx.

* Phyllis Chesler puts forth this amazing bit of writing on Angela Sells' new book, SABINA SPIELREIN: THE WOMAN AND THE MYTH, "a case history of pathological patriarchy, anti-Semitism, Stalinism, Nazism, and genocide. It is also the story of an incredible pioneering thinker whose ideas were freely 'borrowed' by the Great Men of Psychoanalysis whose followers conspired in defaming and demonizing Spielrein's character and all traces of her subsequent 30-year history of intellectual and clinical work."

Friday, November 10, 2017

Case Closed: Josh Hicks reviews RIPPLES by Wai Wai Pang

(Editor's Note: This is now the fourth of what I hope to be many contributions to this site from other writers writing about off-the-radar small press books being published today. I'm especially excited to publish Josh Hicks, as he is an amazing cartoonist in his own right, and I'm always fascinated when cartoonists review comics, as they bring to the table so much of their own experience. Hicks is no exception to this rule, as you will see. When you finish reading this piece, also check out these previously published pieces: Austin Lanari writing about š! #26 'dADa', Nick Hanover writing about GORO by Sarah Horrocks, and Alex Hoffman reviewing the anthology NOW #1 from Fantagraphics.)

I think the thing that makes detective stories so compelling is our basic, innate nosiness. It’s natural for us to want to know what’s going on, and where, and why, and by whom and to whom. We want to know it all. Or I do, at least. I want to know everything from the important facts to the less important ones; I want to know about the murder weapon and I want to know about what the killer had for breakfast (and what else was on the menu at the breakfast-murder place). I’m nosy -- and that’s why I like detective stories, and it’s why I especially like Ripples.

Ripples is British cartoonist Wai Wai Pang’s long-form comics debut, published by Sweden’s Peow Studio in the summer of 2017. A teenage boy has gone missing from a lakeside community, and intrepid Big City detectives Pan and Kylie have been tasked with discovering his whereabouts. Ostensibly made up of sketched excerpts from Pan’s personal diary, the book follows the two detectives’ investigation of Big Lake to the last detail -- from maps of the area, to detailed schedules of characters’ whereabouts, to annotated diagrams of the local wildlife -- as the pair attempt to get to the bottom of things and return the kid home safe and sound.

Like everything I’ve read from Peow so far, Ripples is a beautiful book. It’s pleasing just in terms of being a printed object, and there’s an obvious care and craft involved with the book design and finish that makes it a satisfying thing to hold. I’m a nerd. The interiors are pretty too. There’s a naive charm to Pang’s line, and a simple, straightforward approach to her cartooning that is belied by an almost obsessive attention to detail; outside of the obvious chart and map stuff, the pages are peppered with beautiful skylines, cluttered rooms, lived-in environments. With its cute characters and provincial setting, Ripples comes across as something like a cop show set in the world of Animal Crossing, or a murder-mystery subplot in a Mother game. Everything is drawn in lead pencil, complete with rub shading and little doodles in the margins, and Pang’s breezy aesthetic works well to belie the potential darkness of the genre and the subject matter.

By far the most interesting thing about Ripples, however, is its use of elements that aren’t necessarily pure panel-to-panel comics -- the aforementioned maps ‘n charts -- to do the brunt of the storytelling. Rather than exist truly diegetically and separately from the comics sections, these diary elements are often fully illustrated and integrated directly with the cartooning, leaving us with something like a hand-drawn comic book/excel-spreadsheet hybrid. This stuff takes up a huge majority of the book and is consistently funny and inventive and a joy to explore.
What these elements do more than anything is to situate the reader directly alongside our lead characters. We sift through clues with them (big, labeled drawings of miscellanea pulled from investigation locations), we study timelines of events with them, and we move through bird’s-eye-views of Big Lake with them. There’s enough material here that the process of parsing it all feels like an almost interactive experience, which is fitting. Perhaps the most satisfying medium for mystery storytelling -- as decided by me, now, as I’m writing this sentence -- is the point-and-click adventure game (don’t @ me, etc.), and in utilising these elements to their fullest, Pang has created as close a pencil-and-paper simulacrum as you could possibly manage without drawing a full-on choose-your-own-adventure book. It’s fun.

These elements also do something that is distinct to the comics medium and one of my favourite things to read. In flooding the reader with detail, Pang builds an entire world that exists on the margins of the main plot. Everything is TMI: Detective Pan keeps note of temperature and cloud coverage, includes comprehensive 360-degree views of every new character she meets, and, yes, even annotates the components of her and Kylie’s lunch (jacket potato and a club sandwich, respectively). This visual bombardment of peripheral information adds up to reveal things about setting, time, character, and plot that would feel distracting or indulgent in any other medium, but works here to create the sense of a fully realized, miniature-scale world existing just outside the edges of the page. I love this special bonus superpower that comics has. It’s something I’m always, perhaps feebly, trying for in my own work -- I’m always sticking maps and status readouts on things, and hell, I’ve even weirdly drawn short pieces featuring a detective and a notepad, though to different ends and lesser extents as in Ripples -- and I always want to see more of it elsewhere. Brandon Graham does great things by working this kind of material into his more traditionally cartooned, densely plotted sci-fi work, and, obviously, it’s kind of Chris Ware’s whole schtick, but it’s great and exciting to see artists find new ways to explore this aspect of comics’ untapped potential.

As Pan and Kylie retrace their missing person’s steps, they become privy to the initiation rituals of a group of school bullies, and they are, ultimately, led on a good old fashioned detective-suspect footchase around Big Lake that we know, thanks to Pang’s handy panel-side timestamps, lasts exactly seventeen minutes. By this point in the book, any sinister notes underpinning the core mystery have evaporated to make way for a melancholy tale of everyday schoolyard cruelty, and when the Big Reveal comes and all is made right, there’s a slight sense of deflation. There are loose ends and a couple of opportunities for interpretation in the mystery’s final unraveling, and the book’s final images implore the reader to go back and retrace their steps to glean more hints about what really went down at Big Lake. While there are enough clues scattered around the place to offer food for thought about a couple of scenarios, there’s not enough to really build a solid thesis on. While the finale is beautiful in its own way, it doesn’t quite satisfy the desire for neat and tidy order that literally everything else prior to it does, and that’s probably the point.

Still, the book ends with an exultant ‘Case Closed’ and leaves all characters involved more or less happy. After all, at its heart, Ripples is a sunny comic, full of trees and grass and birds and geography teachers that are also frogs, and though its core detective mechanics may initially hint toward a more suspenseful or ominous resolution, the book instead opts for one last video-game cliché: fun. Indeed, Ripples seems built from the ground up purely to give joy, and Pang manages it with every floor plan, foot-note, and cross-section. Plus we got to find out what they all ate.

Josh Hicks is a cartoonist from the UK. His Glorious Wrestling Alliance minicomics are available at his store, and his shorts collection, Human Garbage, is published by Good Comics. He got mildly sick while writing this review and wants everyone to know it. You can find him at @ajoshhicks or

Monday, November 6, 2017

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 10/30/17 to 11/5/17

Highlighting some great small press comics criticism being published, as well as other random things that have caught my eye over the past week.


* Brian Salvatore pens this short review of MIS(H)ADRA by Iasmin Omar Ata.

* Keith Silva and David Fairbanks write about KATIE SKELLY AND THE VAMPIRIC PRINCIPLE OF SELF-DISCOVERY over on Loser City, looking at Skelly's My Pretty Vampire and what makes it tick. It's a deep-dive good read that even uses the term, "gestalt default".

* Anna Sellheim on MARLYS by Lynda Barry.

* Whit Taylor presents an excerpt from MK Czerwiec's TAKING TURNS: STORIES FROM HIV/AIDS CARE UNIT 371, "believed to be the first graphic memoir created by a nurse."

* Jenny Robins on A SMALL REVOLUTION by Boum. "This elegantly sketched small world in which our anti-heroine lives and loves deeply holds our complex, unromantic, individualistic world accountable to a simple child's perspective on justice."

* John Seven has this quick review of B. Mure's ISMYRE from Avery Hill Books.

* Jason Sacks reviews DUST ELVES: MISTAKEN IDENTITY by Gordon Harris, in which Harris "creates a world of small secrets and shared imaginations, a miniature universe inside kids' heads where children show their complexity and readers feel a curious mix of nostalgia and empathy."

* Alex Thomas writes down his thoughts on Tillie Walden's SPINNING.

* Henry Chamberlain reviews Julia Wertz's TENEMENTS, TOWERS, AND TRASH: AN UNCONVENTIONAL ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF NEW YORK CITY published by Black Dog and Leventhal, "a dazzling book collecting a treasure trove of insight and information and making it all feel like a carefee conversation."

* Christine Ro writes this short piece called, 3 INTRIGUING COMICS THAT PLAY WITH FORM.

* Over on The Quietus, Pete Redrup and Jenny Robins do short reviews of a veritable shit-ton of great small press comics on their OCTOBER COMICS ROUND UP COLUMN

* Speaking of round-ups (which is what you do in a round-up column, I guess), Ottawa's own Phillipe LeBlanc has his round-up over on The Beat called SMALL PRESS AND INDIE COMICS GALORE, which may be the only place you'll find a round-up of Ottawa Comics News on the internet???


* Mike Dawson and Zack Soto interview TILLIE WALDEN on Process Party, and talk "fiction vs autobio, writing and drawing process, her compulsion to work, career thus far, CCS, subtweeting, trauma, memory, the cruelty of teenagers, and, of course, a little bit about ice skating."

* Alex Dueben interviews GARETH HINDS about his new book, Poe, from Candlewick Press. Poe "adapts a number of Edgar Allan Poe's stories and poems into comics form".


* Monica Uszerowicz reviews Rindon Johnson's new book of poems, SHADE THE KING, published by Capricious, and illustrated by Ser Serpas.


Friday, November 3, 2017

"Is Now The Future of Anthologies: Alex Hoffman reviews NOW #1 from Fantagraphics Books

(Editor's Note: The following is the third of what I hope to be many contributions to this site from other writers writing about off-the-radar small press books being published today. Check out Austin Lanari writing about š! #26 'dADa' and Nick Hanover writing about GORO by Sarah Horrocks. If you're interested in contributing to this endeavor -- and getting paid to do so -- please read Alex Hoffman's review to get a sense of what I am looking for and then pitch me at or hit me up on Twitter @DanielElkin and let's see if we can work together.)
I’ve been waiting for the release of NOW #1 since it was announced in May. At the closure of Eric Reynold’s last anthology project, MOME, I was still reading manga and whatever shitty graphic novels were thrown my way by well-meaning college buddies. I hadn’t figured out that anthologies existed, that such a concept of comics could exist. A lot of things have changed since then.  

Ten years ago, MOME and the Drawn and Quarterly Showcase were both anthologies of note; Kramer’s Ergot was getting weird, and a small art comics publisher 2dcloud was making their entrance to the scene with Good Minnesotan. For a time in the early 10’s, these projects either died or were put on hiatus as resources were allocated towards long-form work. The graphic novel had finally become king. But over the intervening years, comics anthologies have become increasingly ubiquitous and complicated. More cartoonists are being published through the anthology format every year, and more anthologies get printed every year. Still, there hasn’t truly been an alt/art comics anthology of record for a while. Over the past five years, and perhaps a little longer, publishers have built their entire catalogues on anthologies of young cartoonists, but the work has been, at best, a good wank.

That paucity of good alt comics anthologies is starting to change. kuš! soldiers onward with their regularly released themed anthologies. 2dcloud’s Mirror Mirror, first edited by Blaise Larmee and then by Julia Gfrörer & Sean T. Collins, is a standout that plays with the conceptual framework of how a comics anthology looks and acts. But separate and distinct from these, Fantagraphics is starting to release its new anthology, NOW, which is edited by Eric Reynolds. In some ways, compared to kuš! and 2dcloud, NOW #1 plays into more traditional standards. Reynolds, in an interview with Tom Spurgeon, has stated that he “see[s] the function of this anthology as being a [sic] outlet for cartoonists to experiment in a healthy way, and to gain experience in working for print.” Essentially, NOW is intended to be a vehicle for good artists to work small, and quick, in a world of graphic novels.

Published every four months, NOW is designed to be a showcase of short stories by some comics greats and comics up-and-comers, packaged as affordably as possible. You can see that in the production – most anthologies coming out of the Kickstarter scene have spot gloss, foiling, hardcovers, anything to make the book look fancier. NOW seems spartan in comparison. As a print object, NOW #1 looks like it could have come off a magazine rack, and perhaps from a book-seller’s perspective, that’s the target shelving for this thing. The thin cover stock and glossy paper emphasize its existence as a print object designed to get into as many hands as possible.
Reynolds has brought together a strong selection of comics in this first issue of NOW. The book starts with Sara Corbett’s “Constitutional,” a bright, lovely one-pager full of life and air, and is followed shortly by a one-two punch of Eleanor Davis’ “Hurt or Fuck?” and Dash Shaw’s seemingly autobiographical “Scorpio.” In these two comics, NOW reveals in itself a political bent. Reynolds admits that the 2016 US presidential election had an impact on his decision to start making an anthology again, and it’s clear that the politics of that moment had an impact on the comics that made it into this issue. Shaw’s piece, about having a baby the day of the election, is particularly blunt; the stress of the election is part of the cause for inducing the baby’s birth, and the news of Trump’s win is withheld in those precious first moments. Shaw’s character delays the inevitable as long as possible, wanting to give his wife a moment of peace after an intense labor. The angst and anxiety of the current political climate is rife in “Scorpio.” The things you were worried about are coming true.

The ending of NOW #1 is just as solid as the opening - Breakdown Press stalwart Antoine Cossé has a quick but powerful meditation on desire in “Statue”, and Sammy Harkham delivers a one-pager featuring Marlon Brando. Constant collaborators Malachi Ward and Matt Sheean reinvent the space race with “Widening Horizon,” a comic that falls in line with Shaw and Davis. In changing the facts of our interactions with space, “Widening Horizon” challenges the nationalist American exceptionalism, and addresses humanity’s place in the wider universe.

If NOW #1 was just Eric Reynolds anthologizing quality comics, this would be a hard issue to beat. Comics by Tommi Parrish, Daria Tessler, and Conxita Hererro all felt fresh, and while each artist’s comic was stylistically unique, the three pieces individually made for good connective tissue to tie the anthology together. Parrish’s story of trans shoplifters brought the anthology down to earth, while at the same time experimenting with their usual style. Tessler, in contrast, had one of the weirdest comics in NOW #1, and served as a nice rebuttal to the work of Parrish, Shaw, and Van Sciver. Hererro’s comic is unique to the collection in that it is directly referential to older comics work. I found it a great touch that Gabrielle Bell, whose work Hererro referenced, is also anthologized in NOW #1. These are all young cartoonists, and it’s great to see them published alongside some of their more accomplished peers. Parrish and Tessler look to have upcoming books with Fantagraphics, and hopefully Hererro’s Gran bola de helado from apa apa finds an English publisher soon. While I was aware of most of the cartoonists in NOW prior to seeing the author list (and have reviewed quite a few of their comics), there are a few talented cartoonists that are new to me here that I am happy to follow moving forward.
But NOW #1 is not a flawless anthology. Not every comic in the collection was great, or at least a great fit - Tobias Schalken’s “21 Positions / The Final Frontier” was a flat note to an otherwise rock-solid beginning, and Kaela Graham’s “Pretend We’re Orphans,” while a lovely piece, felt out of sync with the rest of the book.

NOW #1 also contains a comic in translation by J.C. Menu, a prolific cartoonist from the French underground who has been scarcely published in English. “S.O.S. Suitcases” is weird and gorgeously inked. The pages feel almost alive, scratchy and visceral. An unnamed character makes a surreal journey in and out of a travelling train, trying to find lost suitcases. His antagonist, a smarmy poseur that turns out to be a Nazi, has speech bubbles that are mostly blood sucking insects, like fleas and gadflies. Although “S.O.S. Suitcases” is one of my favorite comics in the anthology to look at, it didn’t click for me. Call me an idiot, but I didn’t get it.

Despite Reynold’s desire for the comics in NOW to be experimentative, what’s presented is a group of talented, mostly known quantities, doing work that is comfortably within their collective wheelhouses. Gabrielle Bell’s “Dear Naked Guy…” looks and feels like much like her other short anthologized work. Eleanor Davis’ “Hurt or Fuck?” explores human relationships and their brokenness, using imagery that carries forward in graphite the Edenic quality of the illustration of Libby’s Dad. The cartoonist whose work best exemplifies this tendency is Noah Van Sciver, who tops the pile with “Wall of Shame.” “Wall of Shame” is a comic that feels like a distillation of Van Sciver’s recent short fiction. There’s a clear Blammo-style self-prodding combined with the recent autobio bent of his One Dirty Tree project. Van Sciver’s themes, his exploration of broken family relationships, it all feels familiar. These comics aren’t anything new. But, perhaps predictably, the comics I cited above are among my favorite in the anthology. Still, I’m not surprised by this work, and while I’m satisfied, I’m not delighted.
Despite my enjoyment of most of the comics in this book, the disjointedness of my expectations of NOW’s content and what the anthology actually delivers haunted the first issue. Is this just my baggage? It’s hard to say. There’s a sense that Reynolds is knocking the rust off with this one, that the pieces are getting into place, but aren’t aligned yet. Even with its minor failures, NOW #1 is a hell of an anthology. A mix of Fantagraphics mainstays and fresh faces, the resulting work is a compelling collection that seethes. The potential is there. But, the question is, “Is NOW the comics anthology of note?”

The answer is no. Not yet.


Alex Hoffman is a comics critic and writer. He runs Sequential State, a comics criticism project and cool comics website. His goal as a critic is to explore the world of alt comics with a focus on art comics, comics from independent publishers, zine culture, and comics in translation (including manga). You can follow him on twitter at @sequentialstate.