Saturday, December 29, 2012

Reviews: Building Stories, Marbles and more

Building Stories. Chris Ware. Pantheon.
This massive multi-media presentation includes traditional books, pamphlets, magazines and booklets — 14 in all — with new and previously published material from The New Yorker and other places. Ware’s craftsmanship is obvious, of course, but his gentle storytelling is also up front and central. In this massive collection of connected and semi-detached tales, some of the stories resolve and other sort of trail off, and Ware provides a recommended, though not mandatory reading order. It’s not for everyone but if you’re among the legions of his admirers, this one’s required reading. 
The Nao of Brown. Glyn Dillon. SelfMade Hero/Abrams. 208 pages.
Dillon’s earlier career as a comics prodigy was decent enough but not stellar. He migrated to storyboarding and advertising art, eschewing comics until a few years ago. This is the result. Meticulous and vibrant, his stellar depiction of a young British-Japanese woman’s struggles with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is one of this year’s best graphic novels. Extra kudos for Dillon’s hand-colored art, which imbues each page with his story’s shifting moods and mélange of emotions.
Happy. Grant Morrison and Darick Robertson. Image. 4 issues. 24 pages each.
This odd and sleazy yarn, featuring an unapologetic cop-turned hit-man, has already been optioned for a movie, announced just after this first of four issues appeared. The other star is the title character; an imaginary anthropomorphic feathered flying unicorn-bunny who is only visible to the nominal protagonist. Though bloody and visceral, with a profusion of F-bombs, Morrison promises a warm and fuzzy tale. Co-conspirator Robertson, who’s previously collaborated, most notably, with star-writers Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis, and was also responsible for some of the better issues in DC’s weekly 52 series, turns in a masterful and nuanced performance, ably abetted by colorist Richard P. Clark.
Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo, and Me: A Graphic Memoir. Ellen Forney. Gotham. 256 pages.
Does a novel about boredom have to be boring? Forney’s exhilarating and enlightening autobiographical portrait of her bipolar disorder (otherwise known as manic depression), takes the reader on an emotional rollercoaster, an authentic evocation of the author’s journey. Some autobiographies are unnecessarily ponderous; their authors undeserving of the spotlight in even their own stories, but Forney is a great character, definitely worthy of the focus, and well-served by her own prodigious craft. Her clear and thoughtful art provides a powerful, effective and brilliant illumination of this unforgettable adventure.
Fashion Beast. Alan Moore, Malcolm McLaren and Facundo Percio. Avatar. 10 issues. 24 pages each.
Adapted from a near-forgotten script for an unproduced film by Moore (from McLaren’s pitch) written around the same time as his epic Watchmen, this update of the Beauty and The Beast fairy tale is set in the world of urban fashion. Unfolding over ten parts, the stage-setting first two chapters showcase exquisite art by Percio and the promise of a unique and interesting tale.
Superman: Earth One Vol 2. J. Michael Straczynski and Shane Davis. DC Comics. 136 pages.
It’s pretty clear that Straczynski is forging his own continuity for the venerable superhero, well apart from the current mythos of the monthly comics and every earlier iteration. As with the previous volume, this is a modern re-imagining that’s far better than his ill-regarded run (which was really more of a walk) on the comic series, issued just prior to DC’s 2011 reboot of their entire line. Davis’s art is modern and serviceable though hardly memorable. I wish I liked it more. Not surprisingly the story, which picks up shortly after the previous volume, soundly sets up Straczynski’s next chapter, too, signaled by arrival of a pair of lurking Lex Luthors in its closing pages.
Taxes, The Tea Party and Those Revolting Rebels: A History in Comics of the American Revolution. Stan Mack. NBM Publishing. 176 pages.
Mack’s old Village Voice cartoons of overheard real-life conversations held no clue that he would come up with in this terrific all-ages book about the revolutionary roots of American history. The tea party in the title bears no resemblance to the current voluntarily put-upon crew of racists, xenophobes and naysayers who want everyone’s benefits cut but their own. These protestors are colonists who rebelled against the tyranny of corporate rulers and repressive anti-competitive taxation. Mack provides a ground-level view of American history, stripped of platitudes and political correctness. It’s an entertaining and revealing way to learn of our true revolutionary heritage.
Drawn Together: The Collected Works of R. and A. Crumb. Aline and Robert Crumb. Liveright. 272 pages.
This collection of collaborations between husband and wife is a hoot. There’s plenty of sex and randiness, of course, that’s laugh-out-loud hilarious, but there are also gems like “Our Beloved Tape Dispenser,” a heartfelt and lovely story devoted to their actual packing-tape dispenser. Most of the art herein is by Robert, who’s as great a craftsman as ever. But Aline’s humor is fearless and her drawing is quite solid and warmly expressive. What a pair!

Sailor Twain: Or The Mermaid in the Hudson. Mark Siegel. First Second. 400 pages. 
Sieigel’s idyllic tale of Mark Twain, Hudson River sea spirits and a wounded mermaid is charming and sublime. The narrative leisurely unfolds but builds progressively into a gripping page-turner. It’s a lyrical and fascinating fable, full of love, magic and grief.

Philosophy: A Discovery In Comics. Margreet de Heer. NBM Publishing. 120 pages.
Comics may be fine medium to educate, but a heady subject like Philosophy wouldn’t seem to lend itself to this visual medium. Wrong! Heer does a wonderful job of explaining philosophy and philosophers in a clear and highly entertaining manner with words and pictures — an impressive achievement!
Originally published in The Miami Herald

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Graphic novels find a home at Miami Book Fair

Growing presence of graphic novels and their creators

By Richard Pachter

As graphic novels and comics grow in acceptance and influence in popular culture and literature, their prominence at the Miami Book Fair International is also rising.

The fair’s diversity has always been impressive as a go-to event for statesmen, scholars, academics, novelists, and, with increasing prominence, graphic novelists. Especially recently, the fair shines a bright light on writers and artists who tell their stories by combining words and pictures on the page.
Programmer Lissette Mendez works with her staff to select authors and also collaborates closely with fair founder Mitchell Kaplan. “He’s been very supportive of including graphics novel creators at the fair,” she said.

She’s also aided by her personal passion: “I love all kinds of books and literature — that’s why I work on this. But I’m also a fan — as is my husband — so I know about the world of comics and graphic novels, too.”

Early appearances of artists and writers were few. Art Spiegelman presented in 1991, just before receiving the Pulitzer Prize for Maus, the groundbreaking visual depiction of his parents’ Holocaust experiences. He shared the presentation room with prose novelist Patrick McGrath, who read from his most recent book, Spider, a brilliant work but an odd pairing, to be sure.

But when Mendez came on board in 2007, she began working on expanding the presence of graphic novels at the fair. As a result, the fair has welcomed dozens of artists and writers since then and hosted panels on groundbreaking auteurs such as Will Eisner and Harvey Pekar.

“It’s a great experience,” said Brooklyn-based writer and artist Dean Haspiel. Along with collaborator Inverna Lockpez and editor Joan Hilty, Haspiel presented original graphic novel, Cuba: My Revolution at the fair in 2010. “We really appreciated that we had an opportunity to not only talk about our book and interact with readers in a personal way, which is not something we often get to do, but we also were able to display our art in a gallery-like setting, which was awesome,” he said.
“Seeing so many graphic novel people at such a huge international book fair helps cement the idea that GNs deserve a spot at the table, along with fiction, poetry, cookbooks, memoirs, reportage and other recognized, respected areas of publishing,” said Russ Kick, editor of the three-volume Graphic Canon series, via email.

This year, the fair has a number of graphic novel creators as guests, including Ellen Forney, Charles Burns, Derf Backderf, Aline Crumb, Chris Ware, Mark Siegal, Kick and Chip Kidd.
Joan Hilty

Crumb, who lives in France, will be talking about her own work in addition to collaborations with her legendary husband, cartoonist Robert. Backderf will discuss his book on his classmate Jeffrey Dahmer, the serial killer. Tackling issues of social change, racism, revolution and GLBT issues, Marjorie Liu, Dan Parent, Ellen Forney, Stephanie McMillan and Riva Hocherman will comprise a panel moderated by editor and cartoonist (and returning guest) Joan Hilty. Legendary writer-artists Burns, Kidd and Ware sit in on a much-anticipated free-ranging panel discussion on comics and life.

Author, artist, designer and editor Kidd is a return guest, having last visited in 2010.
Chip Kidd

“I love it,” he said. “I love books, just being around them, meeting readers, talking to them and signing books. Did you know that signed books make great Christmas presents?” he said with a laugh, and added, “Seriously. It’s a tremendously positive experience.”

Haspiel agrees. “I love the fair. It’s wonderful to meet and talk to readers, but I’m a reader too, and it’s a thrill to meet and hang out with the authors, and hear what they have to say.”

Originally published November 2012 in The Miami Herald.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Comic Wars

Comic Wars: How Two Tycoons Battled Over The Marvel Comics Empire — And Both Lost. Dan Raviv. Broadway Books. 320 pages.

By Richard Pachter

The business of comic books is a fascinating one, in many ways a microcosm of American industry. It all began in the early part of the last century as a means of using otherwise idle color presses. Its original "content" was compilations of previously published newspaper cartoons. But when these compilations sold well, a new industry quickly formed, and original material was required.

With the success of its first genuine star, Superman (whose strip was a cut-and-paste job originally intended for newspaper syndication), the need for new strips exploded. Scores of new publishers seemed to appear overnight. Assembly-line principles produced thousands of pages of comics by editors, writers, pencil artists, ink embellishers and colorists in "bullpens" based mainly in New York City, the center of the American publishing industry.

Fast forward. By the late '40s and early '50s, this once-thriving business hit on hard times. The number of publishers were down to a handful, decimated by wartime paper shortages, then a politically motivated attempt to tie comics to a rising youth crime rate — as if "juvenile delinquents" were avid readers! The growing popularity of television didn't help sales either. By the 1960s, most of the survivors sold out to larger corporations. And as consolidation continued, one of the largest remaining comics companies, Marvel, was a ripe target.

The scene is then set as Dan Raviv's book, due out next week (on the eve of the release of the Spider-Man movie), opens:

"Ronald O. Perelman — America's richest short, bald, forty-six-year-old chain-cigar-chomper — seemed to have a delicious deal when he bought Marvel Entertainment Group in January 1989. This was not a hostile takeover. It was simply a matter of negotiating a fair price for a property that seemed to have untapped potential.

The owner dumping Marvel was New World Entertainment, a Hollywood production company that garnered very limited payoffs from made-for-television movies featuring the Incredible Hulk and other Marvel comics superheroes. New World had gone flat and wanted to pump itself up with new genres of TV and movies. So Marvel was on the auction block, and when Perelman saw that half a dozen companies were making bids he hardly needed to check his credit line. He simply outbid the others at $82.5 million. The delicious part was what Wall Street calls leverage: He had to put up only a small percentage of the money. All the rest was somebody else's."

It's an interesting account — up to a point. The problem is, the book is about deals. Raviv relishes the subject, but most of the, well, color of the comics business is essentially missing. The various wheelers and dealers (Ronald Perelman, Carl Icahn, Isaac Perlmutter and Avi Arad) are a bunch of rich guys playing with bonds, zero coupons and leverage: boring stuff irrespective of the specifics of the business.

Raviv, a distinguished journalist whose distinctive — and breathless — reports for CBS Radio are always sharp, unfortunately fails to elicit much interest from the reader as he describes interminable exchanges of faxes, attorneys' letters, impromptu meetings and the like. Also absent is any real knowledge of comics on the part of the author. For example, not even journeyman artist Sal Buscema's mother would call him "one of the great Marvel artists" as Raviv apparently does.

Similar errors appear throughout, but that's not the big problem with Comic Wars. Although a current Marvel exec recently confided that he's having a lot of fun with the book, the rest of us will have to look elsewhere for tales to astonish. 

Originally published in The Miami Herald

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Another batch of short reviews
League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009. Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill. Top Shelf. 80 pages. $9.99.
If all you know of LOEG is that dreadful film, you’re missing one of the richest and most-entertaining series in comics, which also serves as a powerful commentary on decadence, the necessity of a diverse culture and its relevance to life. This final chapter in the third volume of stories continues Moore’s heady blend of occult, politics and adventure, culminating with the coming of the antichrist and the subsequent arrival of … well, that would be telling.
As usual, there’s an all-star assemblage of borrowed characters, though few are specifically named. The identity of the antichrist drew a bit of contrived controversy when this book first appeared in the UK, but the presence of this corrupted persona is well within the traditions of literary satire. Century 2009 is a mostly satisfying conclusion to this volume, nicely setting up Moore’s next tale — a visit with Captain Nemo set in an earlier time, due in 2013.
Get Jiro. Anthony Bourdain, Joel Rose and Langdon Foss. Vertigo. 160 pages. $24.99.
Chef, author and TV personality Bourdain’s manic parable posits an epicurean dystopia with bloodthirsty chefs and food to die for. The violent fable deftly skewers feckless foodie pretensions, especially in California, and Foss’ well-done art imparts a delicious and tasty sizzle.
Batman: Earth One. Geoff Johns and Gary Frank. DC Comics. 128 pages. $22.99.
Though no one yearned for yet another retelling of the beginnings of Batman, Johns and Frank deliver a startlingly fresh take that incorporates many elements of the first origin of the Dark Knight while adding some smart and engaging emotional beats. Frank is one of DC Chief Creative Officer Johns’ go-to guys, and he once again rises to the occasion with powerful and effective pencils, ably delineated by Jon Sibal.
Jerusalem: Chronicles From The Holy City. Guy DeLisle. Drawn & Quarterly. 320 pages. $24.95.
Another eloquent and sensitive cartoonist attempts to explicate the conundrum that is Jerusalem, the Holy City of three religions. If you’re unfamiliar with the complicated and conflicted landscape, DeLisle brings the divergence down to ground level. The Canadian’s art is simple and effective, and he doesn’t preach or proselytize as much as gamely attempt to explore and find meaning in the mundane and ordinary aspects of life in this far-from-ordinary setting.
The Lovely Horrible Stuff. Eddie Campbell. Top Shelf. 96 pages. $14.95.
The From Hell artist and Alec auteur’s painfully honest and often hilarious look at money, relationships, life and art delves deep into his family history and world explorations. Campbell is quite a character, and his experiences and insights on how we deal with high and low finance make for a funny, rewarding and frankly educational experience.
Gone To Amerikay. Derek McCulloch and Colleen Doran. Vertigo. 144 pages. $24.99.
Master storyteller McCulloch’s wise and poignant tale of Irish immigrants coming to America, weaving three different time periods in parallel, is soulfully illustrated by veteran artist Doran. It’s a heartfelt and genuine story of human emotions and drama; nothing post-modern, snarky or ironic here, just believable behavior depicted with lyrical dialog and rich imagery. You’ll want to re-read it as soon as you finish to savor and reflect upon the transcendent intelligence and artistic vision responsible for this masterpiece. Highly recommended.
Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde: The Happy Prince. P. Craig Russell. NBM. 32 pages. $16.99.
Wilde’s beloved allegory is beautifully and smartly adapted by master craftsman Russell. The story, timeless and relevant, centers on a statue of a chastened prince who aches for his poor subjects and aids some of them with the help of a friendly, anthropomorphic swallow. The tale of the lifeless boy and the faithful avian is conveyed sweetly and with great heart. Special mention to Lovern and Jesse Kindzierski for their intelligent and sympathetic coloring.
Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland. Harvey Pekar and Joseph Remnant. Top Shelf. 128 pages. $21.99.
In this, one of the American Splendor creator’s final projects, the reader experiences an intimate portrait of the late Pekar’s life and work. Considering the autobiographical focus of almost all of his stories, it’s pretty amazing, but the casual revelations about himself and his beloved city are bracing and revelatory. More than a coda, it’s a wonderful conclusion to one of the medium’s great bodies of work. Remnant’s art is fresh and familiar, and one of the best of a long series of collaborations between Pekar and other expert and simpatico illustrators. Harvey lives!

Read more here:

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Graphic novels reviewed in The Miami Herald

Dreams, Teens, Swords and Serial Killers

By Richard Pachter

His Dreams of Skyland. Anne Opotowsky and Aya Morton. Gestalt. 312 pages. $31.95.
It opens with a scene of furtive, hurried sex, as the protagonist prepares for his first day of work at the post office, a very prestigious position, apparently. But this astounding tale, by veteran screenwriter and journalist Opotowsky, belies its prosaic beginning. With its well- drawn characters, naturalistic storytelling and cultural explorations, it’s a stunner. Set in China’s fabled Walled City of Kowloon, the breathtaking illustrations by Morton are more like fine art than toonage, and this large and very lovely book would not be out of place on any tasteful coffee table. The rollicking narrative unfolds fairly leisurely and the characters interact in very human ways. As the first part of a planned trilogy from these American creators (and Australian publisher), one can only hope that the stratospherically high quality can be maintained in subsequent chapters.

Jinx. J. Torres, Terry Austin and Rick Burchett. Archie Books. 112 pages. $16.99 (hardcover) $9.99 (paperback).
Archie Comics continues to upgrade its line by introducing new characters and shaking the rust off their old ones. They’ve also upgraded their creative staff, adding new and old writers and artists. Jinx is an old character, originally appearing in Lil Archie books in the 40s. Here, grown into a teen, just starting high school, the team of J. Torres, Rick Burchett and Terry Austin launch her into the 21st century. It’s hardly edgy but there are plenty of typical teen dreams, angst and cattiness, all fairly sterile and safe, told in the Archie-esque manner.

Flex Mentallo:  Man of Muscle Mystery. Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. DC/Vertigo. 128 pages. $22.99.
Grant Morrison’s original 4-part 1994 miniseries — a spin-off of the Doom Patol comic — allegedly withheld from republication due to a legal tiff with supposed parody subject muscleman Charles Atlas, has finally been complied in a single volume. Morrison has always been fascinated with the ongoing bleed between fiction and reality, as evidenced in his other works, most notably The Invisibles and Final Crisis. But Flex is one of the most autobiographical manifestations of this trope. Whole chunks of Morrison’s childhood and upbringing are depicted within. The story, such as it is, relies heavily on the brilliant art of frequent collaborator Frank Quitely, who breathes visceral emotion, life and humanity into the discursive and somewhat convoluted imaginings and recollections.

Silent Partner. Jonathan Kellerman, Ande Parks and Michael Gaydos. Villard. 128 pages. $23.
The overriding challenge in adapting a prose novel to the screen is conveying anything interior; thought, dialog, time and emotion. As a kinetic and visual medium, if you can’t show it and have to say it, it’s going to be a boring movie (My Dinner With Andre notwithstanding). Not so with graphic novels, which can freeze time and space and use words to express the things film cannot. Parks and Gaydos do a masterful job here with Kellerman’s original prose. Conflicted relationships, repressed characters and ambivalent morality are all on hand, along with the patently bittersweet California noir vibe. The story, featuring Kellerman perennial Alex Delaware, replete with the required murder, sex, wealth and psychology, unfolds quite nicely, leaving one longing for further Kellerman adaptations by the pair.

 My Friend Dahmer. Derf Backderf. Abrams ComicArts. 224 pages. $24.95 (hard cover) $17.95 (paperback).
Sounds like the makings of a very sick joke but cartoonist Backderf was actually well acquainted with notorious serial killer, necrophiliac and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer during high school in the 70s. Well aware that his entire book foreshadows the discovery of a series of horrid and unspeakable acts, Backderf uses the knowledge with studied restraint and avoids cheap shots and undue sensationalism. He’s an interesting artist but a better writer, frankly, and his list of sources at the end of the book reinforces the book’s authenticity in recounting the banality of evil, up close and highly personal.

A Game of Thrones: George R.R. Martin, Daniel Abraham and Tommy Patterson. Bantam. 240 pages. $25.
This serviceable adaptation of the first part of Martin’s epic series might provide a keepsake for fans of the HBO series, though it would probably not satisfy readers of just the original text. It differs from the source material (as does TV series) when it needs to accommodate the format of the page and its attendant limitations. Since it’s not the same as the original or HBO version, one wonders who would best be served by this sword and sorcery soufflé. Not being overly familiar with either iteration, I found this graphic treatment entertaining though mostly unmemorable.

Inner Sanctum: Tales of Horror, Mystery and Suspense. Ernie Colòn. NBM. 128 pages. $16.99.
Billed as an adaptation of the classic radio show (with no other story credits), veteran editor and artist Colòn conducts a virtual art clinic here, showing his deep mastery of composition, design, figure drawing, expression, use of blacks and more in this collection of hoary guilty pleasures and cheap thrills. Throughout, his art is in service to the storytelling, creating clear narratives with tension and emotion. It’s nothing more (or less) than solid entertainment.
Originally published in The Miami Herald

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

This looks pretty amazing

Here's the press release:
Some are mild mannered geeks, others mad geniuses or street-smart city dwellers driven to action. These are the men and women behind the masks and tights of America's most beloved superheroes. But these aren't the stories of the heroes' hidden alter egos or secret identities...these are the stories of their creators! Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics gives you the truth about the history of the American comic book—straight from the revolutionary artists and writers behind them.

From the founders of the popular comics website Graphic NYC—writer Christopher Irving and photographer Seth Kushner—comes the firsthand accounts of the comic book's story, from its birth in the late 1930s to its current renaissance on movie screens and digital readers everywhere. Kushner's evocative photography captures the subjects that Irving profiles in a hard-hitting narrative style derived from personal interviews with the legends of the art, all of which is accompanied by examples of their work in the form of original art, sketches, and final panels and covers. The creators profiled include Captain America creator Joe Simon, Marvel guru Stan Lee, Mad magazine's fold-out artist Al Jaffee, visionary illustrator Neal Adams (Batman), underground paragon Art Spiegelman (Maus), X-Men writer Chris Claremont, artist/writer/director Frank Miller (Sin City300), comic analyst Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics), American Splendor's Harvey Pekar, painter Alex Ross (Kingdom Come), multitalented artist and designer Chris Ware (Acme Novelty Library), artist Jill Thompson (Sandman), and more.

Leaping Tall Buildings, like comics themselves, uses both words and images to tell the true story of the comic's birth and evolution in America. It is a comprehensive look at the medium unlike any other ever compiled covering high and low art, mass market work and niche innovations. It is the story of an art form and an insider's look at the creative process of the artists who bring our heroes to life.

For a preview of the book please visit:

Christopher Irving is a pop culture historian with a concentration in the American comic book. A veteran of comics history and journalism magazines like Comics Buyers Guide and multiple Eisner Award-winning Comic Book Artist (where he served as Associate Editor), Irving combines new journalism with comics history to create personality essays on comic book creators. Leaping Tall Buildings is Irving's fifth book on comic books. Irving currently edits digital comics magazine The Drawn

Seth Kushner's portrait photography has appeared in The New York Times MagazineTimeNewsweekL'Uomo VogueThe New Yorker and others. He was chosen by Photo District News magazine as one of their 30 under 30 in 1999 and is a two-time winner of their Photo Annual Competition. Seth's first book, The Brooklynites, (with Anthony LaSala) was published by powerHouse Books in 2007. Currently, Seth is working on CulturePOP Photocomix, and profiling real-life characters on and Seth resides in his hometown of Brooklyn, New York with his wife, son and way too many cameras and comics.

Eric Skillman is a Brooklyn-based graphic designer, art director, and writer best known for his work with The Criterion Collection and his design blog Cozy Lummox.