Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review: JOSEPHINE BAKER by Jose'-Louis Bocquet and Catel Muller

JOSEPHINE BAKER
Written by: José-Louis Bocquet
Art by: Catel Muller
Published by: SelfMadeHero
Available HERE

Daniel, Josephine Baker was a fascinating woman. Her life was one of incredible highs and even more unbelievable lows. As an African-American woman growing up in St. Louis, “the northermost city in the South,” Baker witnessed her home being burned down by an angry mob and experienced deep racism nearly everywhere she went in our country. But Baker was a transcendent star far from the institutionalized hatred of the South. Her light shone brightly in the theaters of Broadway, and Baker became a towering figure on the world stage when she moved to France in order to pursue her career.

All of this intense real-world drama would make for a spellbinding graphic novel exploring the ideas of racism and international relations, or broken marriages that lead to massive adoptions, or the story of the rise and fall of an incredibly talented woman, or all kinds of fascinating stories people have told over the years about Josephine Baker.

Too bad this book doesn’t tell any of those stories.

Josephine Baker by Catel and Bocquet is an illustrated Wikipedia article, a dutiful and occasionally charming chronicle of an important life presented in a plain and ordinary manner, with high moments and low moments all chronicled with the same sort of steadfast monotony and midlevel distance.

Though Catel Miller’s art is often sweet and empathetic, it also is in service to a pedantic presentation. We want to get inside the head of this most marvelous musician, but instead, this graphic novel actually distances the reader from Baker. It makes her more mysterious and less relatable. We watch these events happen, but we are placed far from them, as if writer Jose-Luis Boucquet is having Baker parade across a stage, reciting facts and incidents about her life, but ultimately never revealing herself to the reader.

The back of the book is filled with a timeline (of events we just read about) and an eye-popping eighty (yes, eighty!) pages of biography about incidental characters in Baker’s life, from her mother and sister to ex-husbands and admirers like Man Ray and Le Corbusier to people like Charles De Gaulle and Martin Luther King who require no biography. I was scratching my head at the pointless placement of these sketches. Isn’t it the job of a good narrative to fill in these blanks for the reader?

Daniel, I wanted so much to love this 500+ page tome. Instead, I was dreadfully bored by it, as if I was watching a performance by a second-rate Josephine Baker imitator who narrated her songs rather than singing them to me.


Sacks, you may have been dreadfully bored, but I was just exhausted by the end of this thing. A biography should inform you about the subject, enlighten you to the inner workings of the mind of this individual, and give you insight into how the forces of history helped shaped their accomplishments. You should put down a good biography and feel that you have come to understand who that person was, not feel like you’ve aged 68 years as you have plodded through every damn moment of Josephine Baker’s life.

I chose the word “plodded” with great intention here. As you have pointed out above, Sacks, this book has the pacing you need to climb a mountain -- slow and steady -- and yet it never offers the rewards of a magnificent and expansive view from the top.

So why make the journey at all? Because it was there? Pffffffffftttttttttt….

And all that backmatter there at the end of the book? Geez. Why include it as it only repeats what came before and points to the fact that this bio probably would have functioned better as a solid prose piece, not a graphic collaboration?

I firmly believe that you can be exhaustive without being so exhausting.

For example, I’m currently reading Calvin Tomkins’ Duchamp: A Biography. It’s 465 pages of text, followed by 40 pages of Notes, a two-page Appendix, 12 pages of Selected Bibliography, two pages of Acknowledgments, and 22 pages of Index. And yet, at 548 pages total, it’s gripping, explorative, fully realized, and fascinating to read. Both the artist and his art are evoked with clarity and lucidity, and I have a hard time putting it down when I get started into it. Tomkin’s work is exhaustive and exhilarating. It beautifully demonstrates the possibilities of telling a great story through great storytelling.

And this only highlights the failure of Catel and Bocquet’s Baker biography. A rich and important life such as Baker’s should lend itself well to comics, as her image was so tied into her talent. Much like that Bowie book we reviewed earlier, Sacks, this one missed the mark entirely (interestingly, both of these books are published by SelfMadeHero).

I respect the amount of work these creators invested into bringing this book to life. As well, I really wanted to like this book because of the power that Baker’s biography could impart in our modern times. Unfortunately, all I got was a heavily researched, painfully plodding, missed opportunity.


-- Daniel Elkin (@DanielElkin)

Sunday, May 21, 2017

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 5/15/17 to 5/21/17

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

COMICS CRITICISM

* Leon K on Keren Katz's THE ACADEMIC HOUR, "one that is tender and conflicted and which pushes the material towards a type of whimsical theatricality that favours an exploration of the emotional exchange at the heart of this romance over the foregrounding of the abuse of power."

* Rob Clough continues his look at the work of SIMON MORETON, this week, focused on Moreton's self-published SMOO # 8 - 10.

* John Seven reviews THE INTERVIEW by Manuele Fior, which ends with Seven drawing the conclusion that "[t]he human condition becomes a constant quest for meaning, and each time that quest is solved, another one inevitably takes it place, because meaning is not a tangible item you can hold in your hand."

* Sam Ombiri on SPIDER MONKEY by Austin English and Jesse McManus, "a fantastic read, and it continues to be an even more fantastic comic to keep re-reading."

* Aimee Levitt unpacks Kristen Radtke's new book, IMAGINE WANTING ONLY THIS, which "explores the idea of loss."

* Austin Lanari on 2dcloud's latest anthology release, MIRROR MIRROR II, "an outright challenge to your own personal space."

* Greg Hunter takes a look at ON THE CAMINO from Jason, his surprising new autobio comic. 

* Philippe LeBlanc reviews THREE COMICS FROM TCAF 2017Smartphone Comics #1, Baba Yaga's House, and Slomeau.

* Andy Oliver on DIRTY ROTTEN COMICS #10, an "introductory taster to the fabulous talent of the UK small press scene."


* Robert Kirby presents an excerpt from SUNBURNING by Keiler Roberts.

WHATNOT

* Dean Steckel interviews EMMA HOUXBOIS, resulting in one of the most erudite and enjoyable reads I've had in awhile.

* Chase Magnett on DOCTOR MANHATTAN'S DING-DONG, which features the line, "There's not a thematically significant point being made in Watchmen about tallywhackers."

* Kim O'Connor's reflections on SPENCERGATE

* Kieran Shiach's IS MARVEL'S FASCIST CAPTAIN AMERICA LOSING COMMAND OF HIS FANS?

* HOW TO GO FREELANCE: NEED-TO-KNOW ADVICE FROM CREATIVES WHO MADE IT.

* Kenneth Steven writes about THE POEM THAT ENDED NORWAY'S CONSTITUTIONAL BAN ON JEWS

* Two FLASH FICTION pieces by Frederick Foote.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 5/8/17 to 5/14/17

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

COMICS CRITICISM

* Ally Russell reviews Eleanor Davis' YOU and A BIKE and A ROAD, "a remarkable achievement for both the cartoonist and the amateur cyclist behind it."

Rob Clough continues his look at the work of SIMON MORETON, this week looking at What Happened from Kilgore Books, and his self-published Rain and Other Stories.

* Rachel Davies on YOURS by Sarah Ferrick, a book that "seems concerned with yearning, mostly." 

* Andy Oliver looks at GOATHERDED by Charlo Frade, a book "replete with loose metaphor that actively solicits interpretation from its audience; a comic for the individual reader to make their own connections with and take their own meaning from."

* John Seven reviews THE CHRONICLES OF FORTUNE by Coco Picard, which "stands as a confirmation of the misfit's path in life."

* Alenka Figa takes a look a Jen Lee's GARBAGE NIGHT.

* Robert Boyd on Jesse Jacobs' CRAWL SPACE, where "he supplies the reader with eyeball kicks while warning against their easy pleasures."

* Alex Hoffman reviews DIANA'S ELECTRIC TONGUE by Carolyn Nowak, "a visually and emotionally compelling masterwork."

* Chris Kindred on Wai Wai Pang's RIPPLES, "a Lynchian mystery, where elements of the absurd are casually framed within the mundane."

* Dan Schindel reviews MIRROR MIRROR II, the new anthology from 2dcloud, which he says is "like a porn stash you'd find in the cupboard of a medieval demon."


WHATNOT

* Philippe LeBlanc interviews ALABASTER PIZZO. 

* Jason Sacks interviews JASON SHIGA.

* Not small press, but worth a read: Rosie Knight's NICK SPENCER, THOR'S HAMMER, HYDRACAP, AND SUPREMACIST ICONOGRAPHY.

* And, while we are on THAT topic, Kim O'Connor has put together A PRIMER ON NICK SPENCER'S SHITTY POLITICS.

* Three Poems by TARA DEAL.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Quick Reviews of books by Theo Ellsworth and Luke Howard

AN EXORCISM
By Theo Ellsworth
Published by Kus!
Available HERE


Like so many of Theo Ellsworth’s comics, his new release from Latvian publishing house, Kus, is about exploring the self and the potential healing power of that process. An Exorcism consists of “mind projections -- hand traced onto 210 paper slides, 180 half size - 30 full size arranged onto 120 pages” documenting, wordlessly, the step-by-step process of Ellsworth’s complete self-exorcism. When Ellsworth goes deep inside to purge his demons, you know it’s going to be a journey. Intricate linework and raffish coloring are again, as to be expected in an Ellsworth comic, pushed to the forefront as his particular style demands. There is a sequential juggernaut to the narrative of An Exorcism, as everything unfolds, blossoming from one panel to the next, taking the reader further down the rabbit hole of Ellsworth’s imagination into undulating patterns of our own self-doubts and the evils that posses us. If you’ve never read a Theo Ellsworth comic before, this is the perfect opportunity to correct that imbalance in your life. Exorcise those demons and enjoy the ride.


DEAD-END ROB #1 and #2
By Luke Howard
Available HERE


Can you imagine your life being “so dull and devoid of meaning” that, before you even die, your own soul comes back from the dead to haunt your friends and family? This is the premise of Luke Howard’s Dead-End Rob, the story of Robert and his sister Ambria and her friend Trip (oh, and additionally, Robert’s soul returned from the dead before Rob dies). Straddling somewhere between a slice-of-life comic and something much more dark and sinister, Howard’s comic reads quickly and his visuals bounce along with his tone, featuring rounded faces and detailed backgrounds that drop thickly when Howard starts drawing Death and its realm. There seems to be an underlying theme of dealing with regret deep in this book, but it is still in process, still revealing itself. It’s hard to predict where this series will eventually go, but the first two issues are setting up something that could end up anywhere. I’m in. Let’s go.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 5/1/17 to 5/7/17

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

COMICS CRITICISM

* Leon K reviews Jake Terrell's EXTENDED PLAY, "a collection of comics that read like a dream state transmission of ideas and memories about youth, love, friendship, and change."

* Hillary Chute on Guy Delisle's new book, HOSTAGE, which "beautifully demonstrates the aptitude of comics for representing time and subjective experience."

* Annie Mok has a short review of GARBAGE NIGHT by Jen Lee, where "bright colors and bouncy drawings carry this story of friendship, trust, and fear."

* Rob Clough on Nathan Jurevicius' BIRTHMARK who's "aesthetic is powerful and unapologetic in the way it portrays the grotesque quality of its characters and backgrounds." 

* Rob Clough also reviews on of my favorite books, Simon Moreton's PLANS WE MADE.

*Jenny Robins reviews Cathy Malkasian's EARTHA, and says it contains "soft, swooping vistas seen from a variety of perspectives and frames as rich as the diverse and eccentric cast of characters, and epitomizing the message of the small and local and true being truly the biggest things."

* John Seven also reviews EARTHA, and calls it "a metaphor for the 21st Century experience of taking in information, a situation that has the amount of data going on burdening the passages of anything on its way out, at least in theory." 

* Jon Hogan on Emily Ferris' MY FAVORITE THING IS MONSTERS, "a rich tapestry full of hairpin turns in style and content that would allow the narrative to continue indefinitely." 

* Alex Hoffman reviews ANGEL OF A ROPE by Adam Buttrick, a "work that defies easy explanation, one of its many intriguing features."

* Zainab Akhtar lists some UPCOMING BOOKS OF INTEREST to pique your interest (and if Zainab thinks they are interesting, you can trust that they are).

* Meg Lemke introduces us to Julia Alekseyeva's SOVIET DAUGHTER.

* Alex Mansfield on GHOSTS, ETC. by George Wylesol.

* Oliver Sava reviews KAIJUMAX: SEASON TWO from Zander Cannon.

* Sam Ombiri shares his thoughts on Sammy Harkham's CRICKETS #6.

WHATNOT

* Robin McConnell interviews THI BUI about her debut memoir, The Best We Can Do, about her parent's immigration from Vietnam.

* Hillary Brown interviews GUY DELISLE about Hostage.

* Zack Soto and Mike Dawson talk to JULIA WERTZ about her new book, moving across the country, and all sorts of other things. 

* YOU'RE NOT GOING TO BELIEVE WHAT I AM ABOUT TO TELL YOU.

* Bryony Stone presents TONY MCGEE ON SHOOTING DAVID BOWIE

* Chase Magnett's beautiful and heartfelt LEADING QUESTIONS: AFTER YOU SAY "I DO".

* Not Small Press, but worth a read: Lindsay Smith's THE CAPTAIN AMERICA WE NEED.

* And, while we are on that topic, Nick Hanover writes WHY MARVEL'S SECRET EMPIRE MESSAGING MATTERS MORE THAN HOW THE STORY ENDS.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 4/24/17 to 4/30/17

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

COMICS CRITICISM

* Greg Hunter talks about THE NECROPHILIC LANDSCAPE by Tracy Auch, "a bracing work, compelling both in spite of and because of its incompleteness."

* Alex Hoffman reviews BOOK OF VOID by Viktor Hachmang, a book which asks "a specific question about destruction; is it possible for destruction or violence against a piece of art to be beautiful?"

* John Seven reviews both KUS MONO #3: AN EXORCISM by Theo Ellsworth and RESURRECTION PERVERTS BOOK ONE: HUNTER'S POINT by Danny Hellman.

* Oliver Sava presents a preview of Noah Van Sciver's FANTE BUKOWSKI TWO over on the AV Club. 

* Andy Oliver reviews THE FACTS OF LIFE by Paula Knight (part of their week-long look at books published by Myriad), "a graphic memoir that doesn't just communicate the issues involved and question the assumptions surrounding them, but crucially also acts as an accessible repository of shared experience for those in a similar position."

WHATNOT

* Simon Moreton writes about his development in comics, making art about death, and the divided opinions regarding autobio comics in his post, TEN YEARS ON: AUTOBIO AND MINOR LEAGUES 3.

* Alenka Figa talks to Silver Sprocket crew member AVI EHRLICH "about moving the punk music scene to visual arts, their experience trying to engage with Redbubble, and the very easy and free solution Redbubble could implement to curb art theft."

 * Teddy Jamieson interviews GARETH BROOKE about his new book, A Thousand Coloured Castles, "a vision of the abnormality of everyday existence made even stranger by Brooke's decision to use crayon as his medium."

* Neil Bennett interviews GEORGE WYLESOL about his background and his new book from Avery Hill, Ghosts, Etc

* Not Small Press, but (as usual) Brian Hibbs methodically and logically follows the long tail in his TILTING AT WINDMILLS #259: WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH MARVEL ANYWAY?!?!

* THREE POEMS by Michelle Chen.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

ICYMI -- Small Press Comics Criticism and Whatnot for 4/3/17 to 4/9/17

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

COMICS CRITICISM

* Andy Oliver takes a look at KATZINE: THE FACTORY ISSUE by Katriona Chapman, and calls it "a love letter to a place and period of Chapman's life now lost to all but memory, a eulogy to relationships and people now dispersed and scattered, and a reminder of the vital importance of those lives that our own, however briefly."

* John Seven reviews James Albon's HER BARK AND HER BITE which "pulls from a fantasy version of an older era, but manages to do so in a way that is neither entrenched in the era it evokes or lodged in the present."

* Kim Jooha waits until early April to give us her amazing BEST COMICS OF 2016 (part 1) -- and it is well worth that wait!

* Rob Clough on DEMON VOLUMES 1 AND 2 by Jason Shiga, "a book about strategy and lateral thinking as much as it is about anything else."

* Nick Hanover reviews SPENCER AND LOCKE by David Pepose and Jorge Santiago, "a ghoulish and mean-spirited work".

* Jason Wilkins reviews Teva Harrison's IN-BETWEEN DAYS, a "memoir chronicling her life as a metastatic cancer patient" which "is graphic medicine at its finest."

WHATNOT

* Naomi Fry interviews VANESSA DAVIS.

* Cara Bean's THE ART CLASS IS A SANCTUARY CITY.

* J. A. Micheline's on-point observations in her op-ed piece for The Guardian, MARVEL SUPERHEROES AREN'T JUST FOR WHITE MEN -- TRUE DIVERSITY COULD BOOST SALES.

* Logan Dalton's 20 YEARS LATER: CHASING AMY IS A NICE TRY FOR A STRAIGHT GUY.


Saturday, April 8, 2017

People, Places, Ourselves

THESIS
By Arta Ajeti
Available by from the artist directly at: Arta@ajeti.com

Fluidity. It’s the first thing we feel, floating in our mother’s womb, and what we felt long ago as single-celled amoeba floating in the sea. It’s also the main sensual component of lucid dreams and metanarratives. Arta Ajeti’s Thesis captures fluidity in all its strange ways, from floating in space, to dizzying breaks in reality, to the awesome and terrifying process of becoming someone new while still identifying as the same person. “How have I always remained me?” the narrator of Thesis asks, “Why am I still here now?”

Thesis is shaped and emphasized by four colors: black, white, pastel pink, and varying shades of greenish blue. It’s the blue, with its association with water, that strikes the most powerfully. It drips within a black and white subway station, it becomes a pool and then a bath in which the narrator submerges, and then it infects everything. As it breaks into an implied infinite number of the same simply-detailed, profiled face over and over again and Ajeti’s penciled drawings of diverse individuals swim in between, one gets the same sensation as they do when within bustling city streets. We are just one of many.

And we are one of many in not only this crowded Earth, but in ourselves. This concept culminates in Ajeti’s most magnificent page, which is of the human eye. The blue iris is no regular iris, it’s of that same simple profiled face repeating four times. In the center, instead of a pupil, sits not a profile, but a full face in white. Staring out at the reader like a reflection in a mirror, the basic composition of its features form a quality as universal as the blue water. Here I am, it says. I am me now, but I am destined to grow and shed and leave someone anew behind me. So shall you.

Reading “Thesis” is to swim through it. And while swimming, to consider the fluidity of water and the fluidity of humanity. We are ever growing, ever changing, ever more than a little bit horrified by it. But it’s sometimes nice to see the experience of our existence understood in a book rendered in black, white, pastel pink, and greenish-blues.

-- Ray Sonne @RaySonne

GREY AREA: OUR TOWN
By Tim Bird
Published by Avery Hill
Available HERE


There’s a path. By the river. Behind the retail park. We followed it through the woods. Along the back of the houses. To the gap in the fence.”

So begins Tim Bird’s latest comic from Avery Hill Publishing, Grey Area: Our Town. It is that last line, “the gap in the fence,” that resonates and informs everything that happens in this book.  “Place. Memory. Stories. Lives” -- this is a book about time and connection and creating. It is about getting old. It is about us.

In 32 pages of mostly 12-panel layouts, Bird quietly spans a man’s lifetime, focusing mostly on the relationships he has built. The most significant relationship is with a woman he meets, a woman who has been blanketing his town with hundreds of carefully folded, red origami cranes. He seems to fall in love with her not only for bringing beauty into the world, but also because of her relationship with the place so important to him as a child, the place he flew his red kite with his father, the place beyond “the gap in the fence.”

There is no mistaking that the red kite and the red cranes are meant to echo each other.

Place. Fenced in.

But is a fence a fence if it has a gap in it? The answer is the same one you must come to when you contemplate whether an origami crane is still a piece of paper. Transforming objects through the simple act of rethinking is the same as how we define our relationship with others and the places we’ve been. Your hometown is still your hometown, even when you see it after having been away for a long time. Echoes of your former connection with that place remain, undulating through your current understanding of what that place has become. New buildings are erected and old haunts are transformed. But your memory of what was once there still exists and acts as a lens to your perception. Your memory is a filter, superimposing time onto space.

So, too, is it with those with whom we connect. The person you fall in love with is still the person you see, always, no matter how much they have changed. The past and the present is a mental balance you constantly strive with and for and against the longer you are together. In that way, people, too, are places in our heads, moments of our lives, signposts in our development.

Bird speaks to these issues through his art in these pages: characters abstracted, objects tight in their lines, everything awash in greys and blues and browns, punctuated (always punctuated) by a crimson red. His theme plays out like a poem, lyrical and rhythmic, each artistic choice carefully considered, each panel full and absolutely necessary to the rest of the piece.

Who we are is always who we were no matter how much we change. A place is a place no matter how it is transformed. A fence, though? A fence is no longer a fence if there is a gap in it. It is an invitation, a doorway, an opening to whatever comes next. A piece of paper, once folded, is no longer what it was., Depending on how it is folded, it can become a beautiful bird, one that brings us together, or one that flies away.

There’s a path. By the river. Behind the retail park. We followed it through the woods. Along the back of the houses. To the gap in the fence.”

Place. Memory. Stories. Lives.

Tim Bird’s Grey Area: Our Town is a snapshot of all of this. It is also a mirror we can plant at a distance and see everything that encompases us, reflected.

-- Daniel Elkin @DanielElkin