Tuesday, January 3, 2017

ALL STAR RECOMMENDS FOR JANUARY 3RD : BEST OF 2016 EDITION



Happy New Year! We made it, everybody! You and me, we did it! 2016 is no more and, miraculously, we're still around to toast its end. As happy as I am to see the dawning of 2017, it's been a challenging thing to look back at the year that was and actually put this list together. Last year's Best Of List was tough, but this one was a nightmare. 2016 was stacked, from beginning to end, with the highest quality comics imaginable. From the high-end long-awaited reprints of Moebius, Guido Crepax, Alex Toth and others to the arrivals of debutants like Nick Drnaso and the return of revered figures like Daniel Clowes, 2016's list is a murderers row of titles.

Like last year, I've got fifteen honourable mentions and fifteen Best Of books. There could easily have been more, many of them could easily switch places. As always there are omissions. I feel strange putting Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows' Providence in here only because it's the only thing I read in single issues and everything else is in book/one-shot format that has always been this columns preferred formats. I've yet to read Tom Hart's Rosalie Lightning, Ta-Nahisi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze's Black Panther and about a dozen other things I probably should have. Sorry, it's impossible to catch everything in time.

Still, screw it, it's just a list. Let's not get too serious. Here's to an amazing year of comics just gone, and another just arrived. 


HONOURABLE MENTIONS 
(in no particular order)


The Complete Wimmen's Comix by Various (Fantagraphics) 

Murder By Remote Control by Janwillem van de Wetering and Paul Kirchner (Dover)

Clean Room volumes 1 & 2 by Gail Simone and Jon Davis-Hunt (Vertigo)

Patience by Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics)

Beverly by Nick Drnaso (Drawn and Quarterly)

Equinoxes by Cyril Pedrosa (NBM)

Criminal: 10th Anniversary Special by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Image)

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny Liew (Pantheon)

Nod Away by Joshua W. Cotter (Fantagraphics)

Worry Doll by Mat Coyle (Dover)

Highbone Theatre by Joe Daly (Fantagraphics)

The Moebius Library: The World of Edena by Moebius (Dark Horse)

Wonder Woman: The True Amazon by Jill Thompson (DC)

New Lone Wolf & Cub volumes 8-11 by Kazuo Koike and Hideki Mori (Dark Horse)

The Boys of Sheriff Street by Jerome Charyn and Jacques de Loustal (Dover)


THE BEST OF 2016 
(in no particular order)


GOODNIGHT PUNPUN VOLUMES 1-4
By Inio Asano
Translated by JN Productions
Published By Viz

(Taken and edited from All Star Recommends for June 14th)

After multiple attempts, I’ve realised that there is no way to succinctly describe Inio Asano’s Goodnight Punpun. First published in Japan between 2007-2013 as Oyasumi Punpun, Goodnight Punpun is a coming of age story. It’s a teen drama. It’s the banality of modern Japanese life gone dirty realist. It's as thorough an examination of depression as you're likely to find. It’s surreal, psychedelic, funny, perverse, awkward, grotesque, voyeuristic, sweet, sad and, despite the fact that its protagonist is scrawled out by Asano as a cartoon bird, incredibly realistic. 

In Goodnight Punpun, Everyday life is revealed in all its banality but commonplace events and encounters are given disturbing twists and turns, revealing, ultimately, a sickness at the heart of adulthood. Early on, teen adventure and romantic entanglements are given a sinister spin thanks to grown-ups, such as when a porn video found on the street by the book’s randy teen boys reveals a pre-recorded murder confession, or when a certain illicit relationship reveals a tortured family history, a “shameful” abortion and actual forced imprisonment of a minor. Adult role models, such as teachers and parents, are neurotic, disturbed wrecks all in need of some serious psychoanalytic help and are in no way fit to guide the youths they mentor or parent into adulthood. Asano has said, “The older we become, the more we try to hide or forget about aspects [of ourselves that we do not like]. I, however, explicitly try to depict them in my manga.” This statement is crucial in understanding the world the manga’s youthful characters find themselves in and the one in which, as the book progresses, they inevitably become entrenched in as they grow.

Another attempt at definition: Goodnight Punpun is like every high school TV show turned into a Lynchian nightmare. No, that’s not quite right either – it has too much exuberance, too many moments of true sweetness for that description to stick. At the heart of it (whatever it actually is) is Punpun Punyama, a real boy in a real Japan who just so happens to be drawn in the style of something you might doodle whilst on the phone. Punpun’s mother, his father and his uncle are all drawn similarly, but everyone else is drawn in Asano’s typically slick, seductive blend of exaggerated manga and absolute realism. Punpun and family’s appearance is made even stranger through Asano’s use of photographic reference in composing most of his backgrounds and the result is that the family literally appears as though torn from some child’s art book and pasted into another world. Initially discombobulating the reader even further is the fact that every other character perceives Punpun to be human and that Punpun and family are given such striking depth and dimension that they read (and very quickly feel) just as real, if not more so, than anyone else populating the story. Strangely, Asano’s own editor, in discussing the battle Asano had with both her and the publisher in getting Punpun approved, describes Punpun as a “faceless protagonist,” showing a fairly baffling lack of understanding and appearing astonishingly dismissive of both Asano’s immense talent and just how expressive sketchy little Punpun actually is.

You only really need to look at the work of Kitaro creator Shigeru Mizuki (or, to a lesser extent, that of Astro Boy’s Osamu Tezuka) to know just how long manga has been blending the real with the cartoon. Mizuki worked similarly, giving his backgrounds an astounding amount of realistic detail but his characters a cartoonish bounce. Asano, an admitted admirer of Mizuki’s, takes this technique and completely updates it, inserting it into a kind of hallucinogenic Japanese Degrassi Junior High (Again: not quite right). Yet despite how seamlessly Goodnight Punpun works, the hesitation on the publishing side to pull the trigger on the project is understandable from a commercial viewpoint – it remains a strikingly odd choice for an artist capable of such beautifully human characters, coming off a mega-hit with the poppy dramatics of Solanin, to turn arguably his most human creation into a squiggle-blob with stick limbs and a beak (and later, as his depression and isolation becomes consuming,little more than a triangle). How does Punpun “really” look? That’s totally up to you and me. He is briefly described as being handsome at one point, but aside from that throwaway moment he is exactly as the reader chooses to envision him. Imagine him tall, short, fat, whatever. As a protagonist – he is yours to make. Being quite anthropomorphically inclined, I’m personally quite happy to take him at face value, pun intended. 

Despite how he’s drawn, Punpun’s really just an average boy in school. Sure, he sees God in the form of a perpetually grinning, afro-wearing, bespectacled Japanese man who says some pretty intense and disturbing things to him, but he’s ultimately just another kid, sweet and meek and awkward. Punpun’s shy, he has good friends that he struggled to make, his hormones are raging, he’s in love with a girl named Aiko and he has an extremely troubled family life. His father is abusive towards his mother and his uncle Yoichi is forced to move in with him and his mother (Yoichi’s sister). Punpun’s mother shows her young boy no love or even much affection. Again: adulthood is a horrible thing in Goodnight Punpun, a world filled with mental illness, closeted horrors, violence, failure, uselessness and intimacy turned sour, all personified in the forms of Asano’s clammy, leering, twitching grown-ups existing a state of extreme repression.

Reader sympathy naturally will gravitate toward the kids in early volumes, travelling inevitably into unfortunate maturity that will be explored as the series continue. Sympathy will likely extend to shiftless Uncle Yoichi who, in his early thirties, may be the “cool uncle” but struggles with becoming a fully-functional adult, works part time in a video shop, suffers through a loveless relationship and is haunted by a past affair of a sordid, distressing and destructive nature (detailed in possibly the most compelling hundred-odd pages of comics I’ve read this year in volume two). Ironically, it’s probably Yoichi’s lack of maturity that makes him both relatable and sympathetic – in resisting the trappings of adulthood, he’s avoided the craziness it seems to create. 

Goodnight Punpun is not a static work with a status quo, as found in many a project with quirky anthropomorphic families up front and centre. In Asano’s world, people grow and change on the page as they do in real life and the cruel inevitability of Punpun’s (and by extension our own) eventual arrival into adulthood lends the comic an extra cloud of sadness. At various points, things get personal to the point of reader discomfort – you will feel incredibly intrusive about halfway through volume two, I guarantee it. The need to step away and let the characters impossibly maintain some kind of private dignity on the page is quite acute but I was, guiltily, too engrossed to stop reading, voyeuristically peeping in on the events of these lives even as Punpun becomes so mentally unwell he retracts into his triangular shape, a cocoon from which he struggles to break free.

Asano has built his reputation in works such as Solanin and A Girl on the Shore on the heartbreak and inter-personal relationships of his young characters. Even the psychological horror of his Nijigahara Holograph put its characters at the forefront of the story. Yet Punpun, a character that he may well have first drawn with his eyes closed, is as expressive and fleshed out as any of them. Famed for his “pretty” art and visually emotive characters, Asano has stripped it away with Goodnight Punpun, bravely, crazily, brilliantly proving that comics can do literally anything. I can’t imagine Goodnight Punpun translated into another medium with any real success – it’s the flexibility of comics and the fluency of its readers familiar with the medium that allows it to succeed.

Having a look at Goodnight Punpun’s Wikipedia entry, it appears as though Asano himself was unhappy with attempts to categorise the work as either “surreal” or an example of utsumanga (“depressing manga”) because those descriptions do nothing but “pigeonhole.” The experimental willingness to take on seemingly every single available genre and mash them into a comic about a teenage boy growing up takes remarkable confidence from its creator. It’s unsurprising Asano resents attempts to pin it down – I once again admit my failure to do so meaningfully. It’s an overused expression, but there is nothing, *nothing* else like Goodnight Punpun. It’s a Frankenstein mélange of a story that just should not work, let alone be as genuinely riveting in every aspect as it is, from its drama, to its horror, to its romance, to its surrealism, to its heartbreak, to even its badminton matches. My only complaint is that the wait between these Viz two-in-one volumes is far, far too long, even as with each subsequent volume arriving, poor Punpun grows, ages, changes and eventually and probably tragically, becomes a man in 2017s concluding volume five.



BIG KIDS
By Michael DeForge
Published By Drawn & Quarterly

(Taken and edited from All Star Recommends for August 30th)

Kafka’s gone teen angst and pop art, Big Kids is the latest longform work by Michael DeForge, the prolific Canadian comics creator (Lose, Ant Farm, First Year Healthy) and Adventure Time animator and, like Goodnight Punpun just above it, it's a hallucinogenic journey into the teenage tipping point of heartbreak and subsequent personal evolution. Alex is a normal rebellious teen in a normal town who suffers a breakup with his (secret) lover Jared. The very next day, Alex awakens much like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, completely metamorphosed into a different state of being. Yet while Samsa is a figure of absurdity and existential terror those who see his transformation into a giant bug, Alex is welcomed into a world where he, and others like him, are apparently the “evolved” species. 

Alex has actually become a “tree” in a world is divided up between “trees” like him and “twigs,” or those who have yet to manifest the change into tree. Twigs perceive the world as trees formerly did, or as you and I do, I suppose, but once the change hits a twig and they “grow” into a tree, everything is different, the world heightened in ways unimaginable to us twigs. There is no particular reason for the change from one form to the other. Clearly, Alex’s transformation was triggered by his emotional pain – the “change” now inherent in both his life experience and internal character. Yet trauma or heartbreak is not the sole reason for change, nor is the onset of puberty as many adults remain twigs and some, in certain cases, have moved back from tree to twig.

The world is now a radically different place to Alex the tree, abstract, vibrant and alive in ways he never could have imagined before and visually capitalised on by the artist in asudden riot of colour. The real beauty of DeForge’s work is highlighted in scenes depicting these new sensations as Alex comes to grips with this new world around him and how everything is now perceived and expressed by his being -- sounds, feelings, tastes, smells, sensations all take form and shape. In Big Kids, a song is a multi-legged insectoid, emotional pain is a red cloud shooting spurs into the sky – everything internal or ephemeral is actualised and given new life and expression by the artist. It’s a frankly remarkable use of the medium’s potential.

DeForge’s narration is matter-of-fact and introspective but his pages are shockingly vibrant, filled with clashing pinks and yellows, greens and reds, bursting off the page. His “tree world” is full of objects such as televisions and cars taken to the ultimate in surreal abstraction. Physically, Big Kids is a little object, a bit smaller than your hand, but it’s remarkable just how easily DeForge makes his quirky cartoon figures and their corresponding emotional states, just launch off the page. Scenes of tree characters coupling like the intermingling root systems of alien plants are somehow both tender and virtually sensual as well as being oddly hypnotic in their curling abstraction. Most remarkably, thanks to the grounding the narration provides, at no point whatsoever does any of the story feel remotely ridiculous. Just like Asano’s Goodnight Punpun, just like Kakfa's Metamorphosis it just simply is.

Further tempering all this strange visual wonder is the fact that it’s not really made clear whether or not existence is actually any better for the trees than the twigs, echoing real world doubts over changes and regrets we all feel and experience. DeForge says, “Big shifts in perspective seem monumental at first, especially in adolescence, like you’re leveling up—but in the end it’s a little disappointing and anticlimactic. I wanted to show that a number of the trees were ultimately ambivalent about the change, and a little wistful for how they viewed things before.”

Bittersweet and beautifully inventive, Big Kids cements DeForge’s place as one of comics' most unique modern voices. The heartbreak and the subsequent induction into adult emotional life that we’ve all experienced have never been explored quite like this in our medium before. A beautiful little book.



PANTHER
By Brecht Evens
Published By Drawn & Quarterly


Disguised as a children's picture book, Belgian artist Brecht Evens' Panther is anything but innocent. Loaded with as much unease and discomfort as anything you'll likely encounter this year, the book's gorgeous art, bright colours and landscape-formatted pages lure the reader in with both visual and tactile reminders of childhood reading and then shreds it all, cleverly subverting the joy of the children's picture book, and with it the joy of childhood itself, through high tension, genuine cerebral horror and moments of creeping perversity.

Little Christine's beloved cat has died and her father is unable to comfort her. Retreating to her room, Christine is suddenly visited by a massive, anthropomorphic "big cat" that emerges from her dresser drawer. The cat calls himself Panther and proclaims himself to be the king of Pantherland, a magical realm populated with all manner of fantastic creatures. Consoling Christine over her loss, Panther begins to tell her stories of his homeland, but something's off almost immediately as inconsistencies and horrors are hastily retold and eliminated based on Christine's reaction to the tales. It's clear that Panther is contriving these stories on the spot. Panther, chameleon-like, shifts form constantly during his storytelling - he can appear sphinx-like, cartoonishly adorable, austere and noble, fierce and deadly, and Evans shifts his vibrant painted colours to match. Panther soon becomes Christine’s best friend and she begins to retreat into her room more and more frequently, ever closer to the Pantherland awaiting her on the other side of her dresser drawers. Christine’s father, unaware of this new visitor, leaves his daughter to her grief, giving her the space she needs to heal. Christine's interactions with her single dad add real warmth to the book and further heighten the ever-increasing inappropriateness of Panther's secret friendship with this charming, imaginative little girl. It does, however, raise some questions -- if, IF, Panther is an imaginary "friend," Christine has been through some trauma...

The book grows ever darker as the pages turn and I refuse to reveal any more plot as so much of the story is carried by the interactions of the two main characters. Suffice it to say that as the increasingly nightmarish intensity is built up to near nail-biting levels you will genuinely worry for Christine - her state of mind and her physical safety both -- and it's a testament to Even's storytelling skills that he's able to create so much dread and unease on the page with such subtlety. The lack of true resolution and explanation may frustrate some readers but to others (like me), who feel the impact of the book on them once the covers are finally closed and dig through Panther's symbolic and narrative possibilities, will find will have plenty to ponder.

Fully painted, Panther is a visual knockout. From the near Escher-like qualities of the interior of Christine's house, to the shape-shifting Trickster that is Panther himself, to full double splashes of Christine's bedroom when the lights go out and the space is filled with all manner of otherworldly creatures, Evens is somehow is able to lace his dreamy, pretty art with absolute menace - a rare gift. Gridless pages are filled with both lush colour and masterful use of negative space - the crisp white of the paper making Evens' subsequent colour-bomb splashes all the more potent to your eyeballs:

Panther is probably the year's most singular new work, a strange storybook horror show packed with a truly surprising amount of suspense. While I personally do not want to go where these particular wild things are, there's no doubt in my mind that Panther is the year's most affecting and unlikely slice of mind-bending comics psycho-horror. An absolutely flawless piece of comics and a simply beautiful and stylish book from content to format to design, the fact I have to stop myself from continuing here should speak volumes about the height of its quality. 



PEPLUM
By Blutch
Translated by Edward Gauvin
Published By NYRC

(Review taken and edited from All Star Comics Recommends for August 23rd)

"An old passion is just an ulcer." -- Petronius, The Satyricon

Since its English language release, Peplum, by French creator Blutch (the pseudonym of Christian Hinckler) has proven to be the year’s most divisive comic. Two critics, both whom I respect, got into an online argument about it that turned quite bitter and more than a little weird. Other reader reviews have conveyed a complete sense of bafflement at the book’s immense stature and the near reverence that surrounds its creator or, contrastingly, total agreement with the book’s stature and further celebrated Blutch's whopping talents.

Obviously, I stand with the latter group or I would not be bothering to blather on about it here, but the criticisms of the haters are largely understandable at a surface level. Peplum, which originally began serialisation in 1996, will not be to every reader’s taste (what book is?) but it is a complicated, endlessly fascinating and beautiful work, rich in re-reading potential and real comics alchemy. It's not pretentious in the slightest and it's packed full of action, drama, stunning character design (those pirates!) and moments of unsettling brilliance. So what exactly is it? 

Translator Edward Gauvin, in a terrific introduction, tells us that Peplum is the "European term for the sword-and-sandal subgenre." Blutch's book is generally, mistakenly, regarded as an adaptation of Petronius’ The Satyricon, a book written in first century AD that has survived in fragments. Indeed, as currently arranged in my Penguin Classics edition, it's possible that certain scenes are not even in their original place. Ostensibly the bawdy, offbeat adventures of Encolpius, a man struggling with his own impotence, The Satyricon makes for truly odd reading for the modern reader and not just for its abrupt scene shifts and fractured nature. Gauvin, again in his introduction to Peplum, quotes from Blutch who says that The Satyricon is "...a literary UFO from the fourth dimension, because you don't really get what's going on, people are laughing and you don't really know why, things you find sad, they think are funny...it's like life on another planet." Blutch hits the nail on the head here, it's a quote so apt that the people at Penguin should stick it on the back of the next edition. The Satyricon is a bizarre piece of fiction, with homosexual rape, murder, robbery and drunken debauchery at every turn. It's overloaded with excess - excessive scenes, excessive characters, and even excessive prose. Yet the struggle to survive is real and gap between rich and poor is otherworldly in scope.

Despite this literary debt, however, Blutch's Peplum is about the furthest thing from an adaptation of The Satyricon as you are likely to find. Gauvin, again in his introduction, calls Peplum a “remix” of this piece of classical literature, but this doesn’t even go far enough for my liking. Sticking with a musical analogy, Peplum samples from The Satyricon, lifts a line here and there, an idea here and there, uses original moments and characters and layers entirely new story and sequence over the top, creating something wholly new from one of the world’s oldest (and still oddest) pieces of literature. In stitching together this new "song" Blutch, that literary magpie, has even thieved from Shakespeare and a 1953 ballet called The Lady in the Ice, the influence of which, as we shall see, cannot be overstated. Blutch: he's like The Avalanches of comics.

A group of bandits, led by the exiled Roman knight Puplius Cimber, discover a beautiful woman frozen in a block of ice. Struck by her loveliness, they decide to take her and keep her (mocked by a murder of crows as they haul her free), but disaster strikes and the group is cut down to a conniving sole survivor who may very well be The Satyricon's Encolpius. Taking Puplius Cimber's name, our protagonist becomes obsessed with the woman in the ice and so begins his strange, violent and surreal misadventures in order to possess her and keep her away from all who become similarly smitten with her. In the bowels of a merchant ship that Blutch scratchily, inkily draws as if its the bowels of hell, the sea-scared Encolpius/Cimber faces nightmarish breakdown and pirate raids; in a dusty landscape, he is stalked by chattering, giggling children and a tribe of women with no hands; if his obsession with the lady in ice the will allow it, true love comes his way in the form of a "little brother" who is the companion of a fellow thief our protagonist murders and, like Encolpius in The Satyricon, Cimber struggles with his own impotence. On and on Peplum goes, in wide-open and gorgeous pages, culminating in a visceral, wordless, bloody battle that feels both ancient and yet somehow post-apocalyptic. There's a real tension between past and present in Peplum that's in keeping with the source material. The only other thing remotely like it in comics form is Tardi and Picaret's Polonius (long suffering readers may recall this from my early Heavy Metal recaps) which, although created some two decades earlier than Peplum presents a similarly strange, distinctly, excessively Roman dystopia that's also a literal piece of future SF.

A wonderful Guardian review of Peplum suggests that the woman in the ice has cursed Encolpius/Cimber. My own reading is that he's so besotted that he's unhealthy obsessed. She is his complete, ruinous passion. The destructive memory of and all-consuming desire for her possession thwarts his happiness at every turn and eats away at him both mentally and physically. She has cursed him, bewitched him, but it's a curse of his own making and choosing.

J.P Sullivan, in his translation of The Satyricon, writes, "As we have it now, the text is interpolated, corrupt and fragmentary." In keeping with the original text’s fractured nature, Blutch completely abandons all transitional scenes and sequences. One moment, our protagonist is cast into the ocean after pirates scuttle the ship he’s aboard. The next he’s back on land, being terrorised by a savage tribe of natives. Do we, as readers, need to know how and why he was rescued from the ocean? No. Who cares. By deliberately cutting to the chase in the manner, Blutch not only mimics the fractured nature of his chief “source”material, but also adds an aura of, by turns, dreamy and nightmarish logic to his story and excises any potential superfluous narrative.

And the pages. Oh, the pages. How any comics lover could not find themselves almost transfixed by Blutch’s composition, his beautiful representations of anatomy in motion, the bug-eyed terror in the eyes of Encolpius/Cimber during scenes of horror, the construction of his chopped-up sequences, even the choice of moments left *off* the page, I can’t imagine. Publisher NYRC has given this volume a generous size and some beautifully thick and creamy paper to showcase Blutch’s black, smeary nights and stark days. It’s a beautiful book. A masterclass in comics construction, from both a visual and a written perspective, in its structure and execution, Peplum may prove controversial to some, but to me it’s more than worthy of the praise its admirers have heaped upon it, and hopefully, it’s the start of a lot more translated Blutch work to come.



LAID WASTE 
By Julia Gfrörer 
Published By Fantagraphics 

(Taken and edited from All Star Recommends for November 22nd)

Laid Waste is Julia Gfrörer's follow up to her 2014 Fantagraphics debut, Black is the Color. Both books are sleek, beautiful little things, ethereal and gothic in content, bleak but heart-achingly tender. Their plots are as slender as their page counts and ask their readers to actually do some work -- Gfrörer is not one for artists holding the hands of their readers -- and as in all true art, the evocation of emotion through vision, character and setting trumps exposition at all times. 

Laid Waste is set in a village decimated by plague. Agnes is losing everyone around her and clings on to a semblance of routine existence even as the bodies of her family and neighbours are fed to large fires or taken to mass graves. Agnes is somehow physically unaffected by plague symptoms and a brief prologue hints at a supernatural gift that she may in fact possess. Begging for death as loses everything around her, Agnes finds some measure of comfort and relief from grief in the arms of her neighbour, Giles. Right away, the common themes should already be apparent: suffering, pain, loss, and most importantly, the absolute necessity of human contact and compassion. 

One of the problems I have with the Gothic is that the humanity does have a tendency to get somewhat lost amidst all the phantasmagoria and spiralling insanity (Exhibit A: Poe's "The Fall of The House of Usher," which I do utterly love, by the way). Not so with Gfrörer's work, which always puts the humanity of its characters front and centre. The fragile emotional states and often matching delicate physicality of her creations is explored not just through dialogue, but through their gentle contact with one another that can play out for as roughly as long as a fight scene in a superhero comic. Her characters hold hands with spidery fingers desperately entangled, they embrace, they make love, always with the need for contact and consolation. 

There's sensitivity at work in Gfrörer's work, a high level empathy, operating at a level other creators do not or cannot touch. There is warmth amongst the quiet horrors and personal apocalypses of Gfrörer's worlds, a desperate need for kindness as things are ripped from those that populate them, or as they wait to slip away into whichever worlds come next. Ironic for a creator who boasts that her heart is "black as jet" and reminds readers that her name "rhymes with 'despair.'" There's a fragility to Gfrörer's art with her lines frequently as delicate as her characters. She's also fond of holding her shots over the course of a page or more - In Laid Waste, a close-up Agnes' a tear-streaked face runs eight panels over two pages, altered only by the character's movements as she writhes in despair within the limits of the fixed panels, begging to be taken by the plague next. Gfrörer wrings the emotion from her characters in these sequences or - alternatively - mines moments of punishing stillness for as many beats as possible to highlight time's crawl. These sequences evoke a sense of personal haunting for those inhabiting them.

As fond as she is of these lingering single-shot sequences, Gfrörer is as adept with her dialogue, showcased particularly in Laid Waste, which contains some utter poetry. Giles tells Agnes, "There's nothing holy about suffering. The stories of the martyrs illustrate their faith because in spite of what they endured they did not suffer. A saint always dies smiling." 

"And will you die smiling, Giles?" Agnes asks. 

"I'm not a saint," comes the reply. 

It's strange to call such grim material beautiful, but here's the rub: it absolutely is. There is real loveliness amongst these quiet apocalypses and the moments of connection between characters made all the more real and potent by the inevitability of their upcoming end, the despair found in their surroundings. And this, finally, is what we are left with as readers, as humans -- connections found, connections lost, hands held, love made, things not to be taken for granted, the specialness of the moment, no matter how simple, how mundane and everyday each encounter, each action may be. Treasure everything. Ultimately there is nothing more real, or perhaps even uplifting, than that. 



SUNNY VOLUME 6
By Taiyo Matsumoto
Translated by Michael Arias
Published By Viz

(Taken and edited from All Star Recommends for December 13th)

Concluding in magnificent, tear-inducing fashion is Taiyo Matsumoto's Sunny, a series that, by manga standards, may seem slender at a mere six volumes but had depth and scope far greater than its total page count would appear to allow.

It's 1970s Japan. At Star Kids Home lives a group of children who have either lost or been abandoned by their parents. It's a combined orphanage/foster home of sorts, and the kids who reside there try to move on with their young lives even as they pine for families they no longer have. When the going gets tough for the kids, the tough kids get going. At least their imaginations do. On the property is an old Nissan Sunny and the kids, escaping the world and its perpetual angst, drive it as far as their dreams and their imaginations will allow in spurts of lovely magic realism. The car itself is something of an outcast, left to sit neglected on the property. A quick Google search will reveal the vehicle's generic, boxy design which may hold some retro appeal now, but looks essentially like any other '70s car, unremarkable and average -- it's great "casting" by Matsumoto, the perfect car for the kids to transform into something special through their imaginations and to use as a place to retreat from the world and feel safe in the confines of its chassis.

Volume 5 ended up on last year's Best Of list and it's been a long wait for the arrival of this concluding volume. Based, in part, on Matsumoto's own childhood experiences, there's a tremendously authentic feel to the project as a whole and the author's ability to get inside the minds of his young cast is remarkable. The kids are essentially a gang of misfits, the oversized, mentally challenged Taro, the rebellious, white-haired Haruo, the nerdy, bespectacled Sei, among many others, bound together in a semblance of family, and yet individually each is something of a societal castaway. It's heartbreaking, made even more so by just how lovingly each page is drawn.

Haruo's troublemaking tendencies reach critical mass in this final volume, with a group of local men travelling to Star Kids Home to tell long-suffering supervisor/father figure Mr Adachi to get him under control. "None of these kids is here at the home because they want to be," Adachi responds before bowing in apology to his unsympathetic visitors, "Sure, on the outside they're laughing and singing, but on the inside they're hollowed out. They're miserable because they feel alienated..." The reader is, of course, well aware of this fact, but Adachi spelling it out for his visitors reveals the emotional disconnect the world at large has with these forgotten kids who we are now so very close to. The men, of course, do not care. They have said their piece and, job done, are off to drink some beers.

Earlier in the volume, the kids are taken to Kiddyland on a daytrip. It's chance for them to indulge themselves, have fun and create some new, happier memories. The sprawling theme park, however, has the opposite effect, with the kids finding themselves surrounded by prototypical nuclear families. They rebound emotionally by playing Happy Family, acting out parental and grandparental and sibling roles for one another. It's yet another heart-punch in a book and a series full of them.

Considering the overall tone, it's a clear challenge for Matsumoto to end things upliftingly without squashing the overall realism with some optimistic plot contrivance. Enter, for the final time, the Nissan Sunny, this most unremarkable of cars, for a final trip, a final escape and one of the most singularly perfect images Matsumoto has ever made. Visually beautiful, rich in character, literary in writing, heartbreaking but radiating true warmth, I will miss this book and these very real characters dearly.



5000 KM PER SECOND
By Manuele Fior
Translated by Jamie Richards
Published By Fantagraphics

(Review taken and edited from All Star Recommends April 19th)

In Italian creator Manuele Fior’s beautiful 5000 Km Per Second we are introduced to Piero and Lucia, two young Italians whose intimate connection will remain unbroken across decades and continents no matter how hard they try to snap it. This is no Hollywood romance, however, as Fior explores the couple’s “almost love” story in this tale of two very human characters whose meeting defines who they are and partly who they will become, even as the years whizz by at blinding speed (particularly for the reader) and both the physical distance and emotional separation between the pair increases.

Piero and Lucia first meet as teens, Piero instantly smitten with his striking new neighbour. From this moment, however, Fior rips through the years, first picking up with Lucia in Norway and then Piero in Egypt before taking them both all the way back home again, wisely letting his readers fill in many of the narrative blanks along the way. 

Fior’s watercolours and deft seemingly ‘60s inspired cartooning are simply gorgeous. The palate shifts as does the location and season, the characters living and breathing and ageing on the page, their expressions vividly captured in his panels in all the sweetness, confusion, enraptured love and ill will that occurs when a romance simply refuses to work but is never truly dissolved. 

A feverish Piero’s fifteen-hour train journey across Egypt is a beautiful and hallucinatory highlight, with Piero’s nightmarish cross-country trip expertly told by Fior as real time and fever dream collide into a single reality. Peiro, given a sickly green pallor, vividly conjures Lucia before him as he longs for the comfort of her body, the peace of her presence at the time when he could literally not be further from her. 

Lucia’s isolation in Norway is explored during another stunning sequence in a book stuffed full of them. Fior shows us a lone boat adrift in a sea of white, unmoored, seemingly drifting – the perfect visual metaphor for Lucia at this stage of her life. The boat docks as her decision to return to Italy is made, turning from a symbol of loneliness into a literal vehicle for her escape.

“I always think about you,” Piero confesses during a call that spans Oslo to Cairo as the inevitability of another meeting hangs in the distance between them. But with even more time and even more space separating them, it’s a meeting with inescapable sadness and even a degree of closure – as close to a goodbye as Fior could conceive for this couple, forever entwined, as shaped by their young love as they were by all the time, travel, experience, complication and journeying that life threw at them in the subsequent years. 

5000 Km Per Second is honest and oh so bittersweet. It is real, cruel in how real it feels at times in its intimacy and heartbreak. We all could be either one of these characters, so much so that I daresay that if you find no connection with them or their circumstances whatsoever then you’ve got a great deal more life to live. 

Sad but oh so, so beautiful, 5000 Km Per Second is a triumph of the art form and a beautifully designed example of it (typical of Fantagraphics’ stellar design standards) for readers to return to again and again.



INJECTION VOL. 2
By Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey & Jordie Bellaire
Published By Image Comics

(Review taken and edited from All Star Recommends for August 16th)

You like sandwiches. I like sandwiches. Everyone likes sandwiches. Just not as much as Vivek Headland likes sandwiches. Headland, genius detective and sandwich connoisseur, is the member of the cross cultural contamination unit who takes centre stage in this second volume of Ellis, Shalvey and Bellaire's Injection and it's hard not to imagine that he's totally stolen the show.

If you're coming in cold to this series, you can pop over and read my review of volume one if you like, which neatly tied in with another classic modern SF mind-bender, Frederik Peeters' Aama. Both series describe the birth of what are essentially A.I's created through what Peeters handily labelled "techno-natural creation processes." In the case of The Injection, invented by Headland and co., that entailed a dash of science, a pinch of technology and a helping of magic, with the resulting creation then "injected" into the Internet in an effort to speed up human progress. The Injection has been toying with us ever since, re-writing the rules of physics and re-creating the mythical. It's a techno-trickster god, learning and experimenting as it increases its influence over whatever it is that we call "reality."

Now, that's all rather heady SF stuff and you maybe can't be bothered with it. That's okay, because enter this creative team, packing pound for pound more comics swagger than possibly any other current collaborative comics unit and who, like The Injection itself, really decide to have some fun with their world with no prior knowledge of the series required for new readers. Seriously, all you really need to know is here and it's all essentially self-contained. Structurally, for such an ambitious book, that's impressive. 

Injection vol.2 is also completely hilarious. Ellis, a writer frequently given to inputting large doses of dark humour in his work, has sharpened his characters' typically pithy verbal barbs to their sharpest possible points. Seriously, this is a funny, funny book. It's Tanaka's Gon funny. It's the best of Giffen-era JLA funny. It's Ellis' own Nextwave funny. Barely a page passes without some impeccably placed verbal zinger or sight gag and, in Headland, Ellis may actually have found the best vehicle for his hyperbolic, frequently ridiculous insults. A quick shout-out to Fonografiks before continuing, as I am frequently harsh on letterers, for his clean fonts and simple but striking design proves not only handsome but also unobtrusive and easily read, allowing Ellis' riotous dialogue to rip along speedily and clearly and staying out of Shalvey and Bellaire's way in the process. Being unobtrusive, I imagine, is one of the hardest parts of lettering - Fonografiks makes it look easy.

Vivek Headland is contacted by John Van Der Zee, a widower who when looking at a photo of his dead wife and son, had visits of an erotic nature from his deceased bride. When the photograph was stolen, the visits unfortunately stopped. With his history and knowledge of his contacts preceding Headland, Van Der Zee rightly believes that the detective is "predisposed to sympathy with the supernatural" (although "sympathy" might be pushing it). Headland of course takes the case, introduces us to his staff of criminal ex-mercenaries, including the wonderful Red who functions as his butler/bodyguard, brings in some contacts from the larger cast and quickly discovers a connection to that engineer of the weird, The Injection. 

Packed with evil cults and gun battles and haunted laptops and accidental cannibalism, it's not just Ellis having a blast with Headland's adventure; you can almost see the whole team chuckling as the pages were prepared. Shalvey, as always, is up for anything - bicep hams, elbow joints exploding at the impact from a bullet, striking night time skylines and polyamorous sexual action, and all of it superbly laid out and framed. On one hand he's lucky to be working with a writer so skilled and generous as Ellis, on the other I can't really imagine anyone else doing as good a job. Ellis writes for his partners on this project, not just himself, and the seams between script and finished page are nowhere to be found. And I mean anywhere. Shalvey's range of expression is also superb, carrying the weight of many an Ellis gag with a deadpan stare or a look of confusion. Lines like, "I am Headland. I am offended by your ham, sir," would have none of the comedic punch they do with characters wearing the wrong expressions on their faces and Shalvey’s on particularly on point here.

Bellaire, who just scooped another Eisner for her growing collection is also superb. She understands that colours are there to round and enhance the linework, to help set mood and, in the case of a book like Injection, convey a sense of realism. Her work is painterly yet subtle, eschewing garishness constantly. If a scene needs to be largely brown, brown it is, yet still she creates textures and mood even as she limits herself. It's really lovely work and it's great to see her become so lauded whilst simultaneously demonstrating such restraint.

I've tried to find something, anything, but I don't have even a quibble about Injection vol.2, I really don't. The only real question is can the series actually top this? As The Injection spreads its influence ever further, tinkering with the world in ever greater ways and the ongoing plot cleverly sprinkled through Headland's adventure sows intrigue for the future, it's clear there's a long way to go. But even in the extremely unlikely event that this series crashes and burns from here on out, "The Adventure of the Elderly Ghost Sexer," as Headland hilariously dubs his case, will remain a high point in the careers of all involved. Injection is inspired, impeccably crafted comics.



THE MARQUIS OF ANAON: THE BEAST
By Fabien Vehlmann & Matthieu Bonhomme
Published By Cinebook

"This is no ordinary predator" - Captain Xavier Poulain-Legoff

It's what's pretty much become a tradition in this column, the arrival of a new Marquis of Anaon book is reason alone for comment. I've not been shy in shoving this product down readers' throats and I'm more than happy to do so again, with the arrival of Jean-Baptiste Poulain's fourth adventure, "The Beast."

A quick summary for newbies: Poulain is a young man with a gift for the supernatural. He's travelled far and wide soaking up various custom and superstition. I've previously described him as an adventurer, skeptic, mystery-solver, occasional coward and possible paranormal magnet. He's also proven himself to be the most bumbling action-adventure hero you've ever seen. He's useless in a fight and has solved "cases" by more luck than any skill or deductive or magical power. The creators have taken their time building up Poulain and it's here, finally, with "The Beast" that our "hero" actually shows some real spine and perhaps becomes worthy of his moniker ("Anaon" means lost souls) and his burgeoning reputation with people as esteemed as French royalty.

Still reeling from the tragedy that happened during his last adventure aboard The Providence, Poulain is tasked to accompany a squad of French soldiers led by his cousin, Xavier, a crack marksman, to exterminate what many believe to be a werewolf prowling the countryside and committing murder-sprees. As good as volume three, "The Providence," was, with its claustrophobic and gothic sea ship interior action, it's a relief to see Bonhomme back to illustrating breathtaking landscapes. His widescreen panels of mountain ranges with windswept flora and sharp, craggy cliffs are absolutely lovely. He's a prodigious talent.

Along the way, in the company of these tough-talking roughnecks, Poulain's constantly teased, mocked and generally emasculated by everyone except his own cousin. The creators once again excel at blurring the line between the supernatural and the happy accident - encountering a band of smugglers, the soldiers and Poulain engage in a firefight with their foes. Poulain appears to miss a shot at virtually point blank range, but his enemy also simultaneously misses -- do both pistols misfire or is their something else at work here? Of course, being unable to shoot a foe in such close quarters only gives the soldiers further reason to mock Poulain who, to his credit, takes some marksmanship lessons from cousin Xavier. Here is the book's main sequence of character development as Xavier discusses what it is to kill a person, either by accident or mortal necessity, and how one must accept and move on from tragedy. A lesson Poulain must sadly learn.

Poulain's knowledge and abilities may seem like foppish nonsense to the soldiers, but as troubles arise and numbers are cut, they soon learn to trust him as he predicts storms by "reading the thistles" or follows bees for direction and aid. Culminating in a showdown with The Beast itself, Poulain and Xavier's hunt takes them seemingly out of this very world, into an undiscovered land of snow, ice and rock -- given stunning life by Bonhomme -- and finally, The Marquis of Anaon becomes a figure of action, driving the plot and its events forward rather than merely being in the right place at the wrong time. In time honoured tradition the roles of predator and prey begin to switch as we head toward the final showdown.

Vehlmann's plotting and scripting is absolutely on point this volume. Poulain truly emerges in this story, which begins with him literally as figure in the background (he does not say a word for the first third of the book), to gradually pushing forward to the forefront of the narrative and driving the action as a true protagonist should. Towards the conclusion, he tells Xavier, "We're in the other world now! It's a region I'm familiar with...I'm almost at home here," literalising his growth.

Taken individually, The Marquis of Anaon books are gorgeous examples of complex, spooky historical adventure comics. Collectively, however, the series is fast becoming a textbook how-to on patient character development. Thankfully, we're not done yet. "The Chamber of Cheops" is up next year, promising one guesses from title alone, more spooky, gothic interior work from Bonhomme and, possibly, the most courageous and confident incarnation of The Marquis of Anaon we've yet encountered. This series is absolutely top shelf stuff and should be savoured and re-read in anticipation of each forthcoming release. 




THROUGH THE HABITRAILS
By Jeff Nicholson
Published By Dover

(Review taken and edited from All Star Recommends for April 5th

This incredibly bizarre, semi-autobiographical graphic novella about a man’s struggles working day in, day out as a commercial illustrator for “The Corporation” hit really close to home, far too closely actually. The first several chapters were so quietly disturbing and eerily familiar, I put the book down and took my dog for a walk. None of the many characters has a name outside of the nicknames bestowed upon them by our similarly nameless protagonist. “The Cat Lover,” “The Doomed One,” “The Temporary Girl” and many others populate the pages of this nightmare that’s a blend of Kafka, Gilliam and Palahniuk. The office our poor narrator works in is filled with empathic gerbils that run through a maze of tubes across the office. The workers themselves are “tapped” like maple trees or beer kegs - The Corporation literally draining their life fluid. Our narrator’s struggles to escape frequently prove futile, for perhaps there is nothing to really escape to? Urgh, it’s grim.

If you’ve ever had, or currently have, a job that feels utterly pointless, I suggest you read this black and white nightmare. Or not, actually, like I say I had to take a break, it felt like bits of me on the page in far too many places. I daresay you’ll feel the same. These poor, literally faceless characters each harbour addictions that grow to, in some cases, destructive levels, addictions that allow them to get through the day. Our protagonist’s alcoholism becomes so dire that he screws a jar to his head, fills it with beer, and tinkers with the levels and mixtures to produce the most useful blend of detached haziness. 

The characters literal facelessness symbolises their metaphorical facelessness to the corporation, their disposability, their slow, self-destruction at the hands of their life-stealing masters and also allows the reader to project their own personal work acquaintance of similar personality onto the page. Originally published in Stephen Bissette’s greatly-missed Taboo horror anthology, Nicholson’s stories may well end up being the most unsettling comics you’ll read – not because of the violence (of which there is little), not because of the shock value that constitutes so much of comics horror (there is literally none of that) but because in its surreal, dreamy, symbolic, harrowing pages, it’s totally ruthless in its examination of just how horrible, pointless and potentially destructive the dream of “employment” can be. It’s a classic - I say that without reservation. Highest, **hiiiiiiiggghhhheeessstttt** possible recommendation. I could go on and on forever about it.



SOFT CITY
By Harrington Pushwagner
Published By NYRC

(Review taken and edited from All Star Recommends for October 11th)

The quiet horror of the modern condition has not been expressed quite as hypnotically and succinctly as it is in Norwegian artist Harrington Pushwagner's astonishing Soft City. Identical men and identical women leave identical homes, get into identical cars and begin the long commute past seemingly never-ending towers and skyscrapers to arrive at their identical office jobs where they sit for the day, quietly daydreaming escapist fantasies. They then return home, only to inevitably repeat the process again the next day and the day after that and the day after that. Welcome to just one of those days, contained within the space of a gigantic hardcover edition and highlighted by a series of astoundingly immersive point-of-view double-page spreads.

Created between 1969 and 1975, Soft City's pages were somehow lost, only to reappear in 2002, first published in 2008 and now officially debuting in English thanks to publishers NYRC. It's a huge comics artifact -- 9.7 inches x 13.6 inches -- and comes with new design and introduction by Chris Ware (Building Stories, Jimmy Corrigan). Ware's admiration for Soft City should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his work, similarly obsessed as it is with size, scope, detail and societal observation, and Ware's summation of Soft City as "The Stanley Kubrick comic book" feels perfectly apt.

Soft City’s anti-consumerist themes are hardly original, even by 1969 standards, but it's Pushwagner's obsessively detailed visual exploration of conformity and banality that makes this project so strikingly unique. Page after page of meticulously drawn buildings, crowding all the way to the horizon and the little people on the ground, packed into their little street-clogging cars,fills this strange, massively-sized book and the slow, inevitable crawl forward down Soft City's choking freeways allows the reader to soak up every little repetitive detail in all its sterile, manufactured state, each little window a panel within set within the confines of a building, the building set within the confines of other buildings, and all of it contained within Pushwagner's pages. 

Life in Soft City is set by the clock - the alarm clock, the clocking in and out of work, the schedule of TV programming for the evening. Presiding over his human drones is Mr. Soft, corporate overlord and near totalitarian leader, who keeps the plasticity of existence and the hum of industry turning endlessly, a most human supervillain, a man who has the masses cowed and docile. As depressing as all this sounds, and it is, Pushwagner's Soft City is one of those rare comics that actually "reads" like an experience -- it is felt as sensation more than it is digested as visual and narrative information and it's little wonder Pushwagner's initial impetus to create the work came following a psychedelic experience. Its huge double spreads, filled with boxy buildings and boxy cars and wide-eyed workers are utterly absorbing. The crude scratchiness of Pushwagner’s art lends an off-kilter, almost uncanny valley feeling - everything is recognisable, yet simultaneously turned up in size and scope but turned down in detail - the clipped narration adding to the strangeness as time seems to slow to a crawl.The death of affect in full-blown widescreen.

As unending apartment buildings spring up around us and our (well, mine certainly) daily commute at times feels like an unending purgatory, it's a shame that Soft City, a book over 40 years old, doesn’t not feel like a cliché from a bygone age. Outside from the fact that far more women are in the workforce than Pushwagner depicts, little has changed for so many of us. Soft City is still our city -- a blander, a little more lo-fi, a little more Sisyphean in its vision of a cycular corporatised work schedule -- but it's still a portrait of life that rings too honestly. Particularly daring readers may want to pair Soft City with another 2016 fave (and yet another book that was seemingly destined to remain out of print), Jeff Nicholson's harrowing Through The Habitrails, for a little bit of extra salt in the wounds caused by everyday routine. Taken alone, however, Soft City is one of the year's most striking and important releases - a reminder to the world at large that at its best, this medium is capital-A Art.Soft City proves, yet again, that there is nothing else quite like comics.



ANCESTOR 
By Matt Sheean and Malachi Ward
Published By Image

(Review taken and edited from All Star Recommends November 1st)

Exhibit A in the argument as to why everyone should be reading Island, the Brandon Graham/Emma Rios curated comics anthology series is here, collected in a single trade paperback and ready to blow your mind. Ancestor is created by Matt Sheean and Malachi Ward, who share writing and artistic duties. Both script and colour, Sheean pencils and Ward inks and letters but the process is far more organic than that division of labour would indicate. Ward, it's also worth noting before moving on, has had a remarkable 2016 with From Now On, a collection of his short SF comics published by Alternative Comics earlier in the year showcasing a clearly restless and adventurous creator. 

Originally published in issues #3, #5, #7 and #11, Ancestor starts something like the comics equivalent of a Black Mirror episode, but ends up morphing into something Jack Kirby and Stanley Kubrick could easily have jammed on. 

It's the near future and the internet is in our heads, with information about those we encounter helpfully aiding us throughout the day, along with pop-ups for various services and programmes you can access that will help you make the perfect cocktail or counsel away your stresses. It's called The Service and it's kind of like staring at a person and seeing their entire Facebook, Twitter and Instagram history floating around their faces. It's undeniably helpful, but the obvious anxieties and pressures that this would manifest are embodied by the character of Peter Chardin, who we first meet running a complex meditative program and who clearly only grabs a brief moment's peace when he "loses" The Service at an event hosted by wealthy futurist and Service-skeptic Patrick Whiteside.

Whiteside has a different plan for technological betterment and The Service has no place in it - the dozens that attend his event find their inability to access The Service initially alarming. Whiteside assures them it's all part of the plan, reminding the attendees that their apprehension is drawn solely from having to rely on their own "feeble" minds instead of the access to instant, Service-provided facts. Naturally, Whiteside's plan is actually quite abhorrent in execution and as Chardin and his friends find the exits of his labyrinthine mansion barred, the creators rapidly escalate suspense and head towards a stunning pivot point. Culminating in mind-bending, epic and cosmic fashion, I'll leave the final quarter of the book for you to discover, but Ancestor concludes brilliantly and intelligently.

Sheean and Ward work as though a single entity. The collaboration feels seamless and the little bonus at the back of the collected edition discussing Ancestor's creation sees creative partners working hand in hand throughout the project. Their art is clean and packed with detail and the tech, from the floating bubbles of The Service to the various gadgetry attached to Whiteside's personal therapy chair, is a highlight. 

In addition, it's worth noting the production of the collected edition, which swaps the glossy paper of Island for matte, softening the colours and providing a warmer, more tactile reading experience although my bias towards matte paper may be showing here. All in all, Ancestor is one of the year's best comics SF experiences. It's also something I hope we see far more -- a single, self-contained story, ending with a virtual mic drop by the creators as they, hopefully, go on to top it. Ancestor is a remarkable comic that's likely flying under the radar in a year swelling with incredible work. If you like your techno-dystopia deep, dark, brain-frying and lovingly made, I encourage you to pick it up.



MOONCOP
By Tom Gauld
Published By Drawn & Quarterly

(Review taken and edited from All Star Recommends for September 27th)

J.G. Ballard once famously proclaimed that the future is going to be boring. Nothing seems to back that statement up more than Scottish cartoonist Tom Gauld's terrific Mooncop, a comic that brings the drudgery of the everyday to the SF Space Opera, wittily undercutting the grandiosity and pretentiousness of Hard SF with the cartoonist's typically droll humour and an injection of melancholy.

First previewed by publishers D&Q as part of this year's Free Comic Book Day, Gauld's latest full length effort is a sweet affair, a beautifully, simply cartooned book in which the romance of space exploration and the notions of the futuristic SF space cop have peaked and crumbled, leaving a virtually deserted lunar habitat patrolled by a single, isolated law keeper. The populace of our moon-city has woken from its dreams of space exploration and the expansion of man's conquest of space and is returning to Earth, to our sun and its beaches, in droves. Stuck here, virtually alone, is a our Mooncop, a police officer reduced to recovering missing museum automatons, lost dogs and battling nothing more sinister than faulty vending machines. He's considered extremely good at his job - as there is no crime, his crime solving statistics are 100%. His transfer requests are denied and moments of undeniably beautiful peacefulness begin to turn melancholy as, bit by bit, his lunar habitat is slowly pulled apart around him.

Gauld's cartooning is deceptively basic. His pages are perfectly and appropriately still, indicating the slowness of not just movement on the moon, but the passage of time itself. His splash pages of the expanses of space and The Earth so far away, but ever present as a constant reminder of a past life, hanging over his rocky lunar landscapes are perfectly placed throughout the book. At times the splashes function almost as chapter breaks but they also reinforcing Mooncop's isolation and literalise his loneliness. Gauld is most interested in using his drawing as a language to express his ideas rather than "virtuoso mark-making." This is not to imply that there is no craft here - far from it. If drawing is a language, Gauld's "voice" is as clear and concise as anyone's.

Cartooning is the act of simplification, of reducing objects and people to basic but recognisable shapes. Becky Cloonan, during her All Star Comics Masterclass last year, cited Gauld's previous long form work, Goliath, as a perfect example of just how much emotion, how much characterisation, you can achieve with little more than elaborate stick figures. There's much more beauty to Gauld's work than Becky's description would lead you to believe -- witness his subtle, shadowy hatching on his lunar rocks juxtaposed with the emptiness of the space above -- but the simplicity is a point that even Gauld concedes, the deadline-driven haste with which much of his shorter work is produced has led him to an ultimate economy of comics drawing, a "letting go of beautiful images" and Mooncop is perhaps his greatest showcase for this thus far. It's also an oddly relaxing book, showing that with solitude there is also peace. The leisurely pace, open pages and repetitive landscapes may well lull readers into a contemplative, near-meditative state; it's oddly quite like ambient music somehow cross-pollinated into comics. I recommend reading slowly to heighten the book's lulling, peaceful atmospherics. 

Even with its considerable charms, Mooncop also manages to be quietly, subtly dystopian in its discussions of man's self-imposed, technologically-driven isolation from one another and its skewering of a nostalgic, retro space-future. You might also be surprised to hear how much fun it also is. Gauld's jokes are frequent and bittersweet, based largely around the ridiculousness inherent in the Pulp fiction dream of the space hero, faulty technology and nonsensical bureaucracy, balancing the sadness that comes with us witnessing our poor protagonist’s loneliness perfectly. At the end, however, the reader is left with perhaps the book's most potent theme - the world, no matter which world it is, can be exactly what we make of it and that no matter how isolated and lonely you may feel at times, this too shall pass.



QUEEN EMERALDAS VOLUME ONE
By Leiji Matsumoto
Translated By Zack Davisson
Published By Kodansha Comics

(Review taken and edited from All Star Recommends for August 9th)

If you love comics even half as much as I do, you surely have to agree that we are living in a golden age. Yes, the Big Two have their ups and downs, but forget about them for a moment, let's talk about comics as a whole and the utter wealth of untranslated material finally, *finally* upcoming and in many cases already available in English. What we are seeing, incredibly, is the arrival of International comics culture to our shores. The comics deemed museum-worthy by other countries are given the publishing treatment they deserve in our very own language at last. Sure, it's taken decades, but we're getting there. We really are. For a lifer like me it's really an amazing thing to see happen.

The manga "boom" may be considered over by many and that's probably true, but by opening this truly massive area of comics and opening it widely, the reading experiences of comics fans everywhere has changed. Forever. No longer is manga "flipped;" the Japanese right-to-left format is now not only standard but generally considered to be integral to the true manga reading experience. Alt-manga from the arty end of seinen (Planetes, 20th Century Boys) to the full-blown gekiga of the meatiest parts of Osamu Tezuka's career and the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, for example, fills the publishing slates of companies as diverse as Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly and Viz. The classics are coming. If they're not here already.

Case in point is this week's featured comic, the release of which had artists as diverse and distinct as Sarah Horrocks and Ian MacEwan tweeting about its arrival: Leiji Matsumoto's 1978 classic, Queen Emeraldas. Matsumoto has a frankly massive and terrifying body of work, having begun his manga in 1968 (at the rather ripe age of 30) with the last published credit I could find coming in 2014. There's a twenty-year gap in that comics lifetime as well, presumably due to Matsumoto's commitments in the anime world, where he shaped many a child's vision of the future with Space Battleship Yamato, better known in English as Star Blazers, and Space Pirate Captain Harlock. It's a massive anime career perhaps culminating with the celebrated collaboration with Daft Punk, Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem.

Matsumoto's characters, although cartoonish against the realistic backdrops and settings, always appear to be in motion and from Queen Emeraldas' pages alone it’s unsurprising his career in anime is so revered. The strong profiles of Matsumoto's handsome, well-coiffed males and supermodel sleek females along with his vision of space as an impossibly vast blackness lit by the hopeful pinpricks of innumerable stars and supernovas exploding in violent and pink went a long way, with Battle of the Planets, in defining anime for me.Here,if you are curious, is Star Blazers in its entirety. The grungy naval vibe Matsumoto imbued his space operas with still resonates today - you can look no further than Becky Cloonan and Andy Belanger's Southern Cross for that.

Emeraldas cruises the galaxy in her wondrous pirate ship turned interstellar war craft, The Queen Emeraldas, for reasons she keeps entirely to herself, and encounters all manner of human awfulness along the way. Ship and Captain are bonded in ways than go beyond having the same name - they are destined to be with one another. Emeraldas, this super model-lithe space warrior, cloaked in black, is physically marred only by a scar from a gravity-sabre strike across her cheek - a constant reminder to herself that all conflict must be fast and must be fatal. 

The diminutive Hiroshi Umino also seeks solitude amongst the stars, having travelled from Earth to Mars in a homemade space ship. Crashing on Mars, he must scratch and claw his way back to the stars, but he is seemingly cursed to remain grounded forever. Mars, like many planets in this series, is a backwater desert, as gritty as an Italian Spaghetti Western. Wanted posters and violent outlaws prowl the surfaces of Matsumoto's dustbowl environments, drinking in shabby saloons and ruminating on the immensity of their own notoriety. Matsumoto seems to love juxtaposing these arid environments, filled with criminals of all sorts, with his cool, black expanses of space. It's on Mars that Emeraldas and Umino first meet and, from this point, their fates become linked as the stars become the pathway their freedom.

Both Emeraldas and Umino are fascinating character studies, particularly as they were created in late 1970s Japan. "The nail that sticks out is hammered down," is a well-known old Japanese phrase and Emeraldas, in stature as well as attitude, is the tallest nail imaginable. Self-reliant, strong-willed, empowered, suspicious of men (for good reason as her backstory proves) and quick to violent action, Emeraldas maintains a stylish but haunted quality which Matsumoto's art plays up at every opportunity - close ups on her large, long-lashed eyes, gazing far away, placed amongst a backdrop of star-littered space are frequent.

Umino embodies the datsusara spirit - the abandonment of the salaryman life - seeking his freedom in space, becoming eminently relatable to 99% of readers in the process as he crashes and crashes and crashes again. With gritted teeth, clenched fists and a powerful work ethic, Umino sets out to achieve his goal, with Emeraldas as something of an inspirational muse (and occasional patron), and he flagrantly breaks any and every rule he must to get what he needs.

Matsumoto's melodrama-dripping narration and dialogue works beautifully with the gravitas of his stories. His rubbery male figures and impossibly angular females inhabit a comics world of stark blacks juxtaposed with large areas of negative space. Space ship interiors are stark black save for the blinking of highly detailed dashboard equipment. Splashes and double-page spreads are frequently used to give a sense of cosmic scope -- ships or characters are tiny things amongst the immensity of the cosmos, or the dusty swirling of a landmass. Matsumoto expertly uses the black and white trappings of the medium by soaking his panels in black and then opening them up with expanses of white with the flip of the page. 

On the publishing side, Kodansha has done a wonderful job with its English edition, treating the material with the respect it deserves. Over 400 pages fill this first of two hardback volumes with slick but not glossy paper maximising the crisp pop of white against the inky pitch black. I doubt Matsumoto's pages have ever looked so good - his wonderful clouds of explosions burst off the page. On the downside, for such a legendary comic, there's a distinct lack of supplemental material (outside of some bonus short stories) that another publisher, such as Vertical, would have an abundance of. Hopefully next time. All in all though, make a spot on your shelf for Queen Emeraldas and begin the count down to the concluding volume two.



DIE WERGELDER VOLUME 1
By Hiroaki Samura
Translated by Stephen Paul
Published By Kodansha Comics

(Taken and edited from All Star Recommends for October 4th)

"I think you can safely see that this is a manga without any dignity." -- Hiroaki Samura on his Die Wergelder project.

As he fanboys his way through a range of cinematic and artistic influences, it's not hard to understand why a reader might consider Hiroki Samura's Die Wergelder a bit of a hot mess. This follow-up to the artist's mega-hit series, Blade of the Immortal, is a chance for Samura to wallow in the seedier aspects of his earlier epic. Die Wergelder is nasty, overly convoluted, at times almost impossible to follow, cuts between time and location at an almost brain-frying pace and is saddled with a translation that is at times pretty clunky. 

Yes, Die Wergelder is Samura at the peak of self-indulgence. It's his Death Proof, if you will, largely a triumph of style over actual substance. However, when it clicks, Die Wergelder is a thing of comics beauty, recreating and updating the mad energy of 1970s Pinky Violence movies and the striking, confronting imagery of the ero guro movement, both of which form its aesthetic backbone. Samura soaks this work in elements of Japanese exploitation genres and tips his hat to his influences throughout. As a result, Die Wergelder feels like a crazed exercise in attempting to meld the experimentation of '70s Japanese genre film with the comics page. There's a certain something about Japanese genre films of this period - a theatricality, a love of over-saturated colour and visual excess that's almost impossible to replicate on the black and white comics page. But, man, does Samura give it a shot. 

In Die Wergelder, three female characters from different parts of the globe jostle to steal both the lead role and the attention of their readers. Their motives are varied, their allegiances shift and overlap. Each of the three is distinctly costumed by Samura, cleverly milking the now retro-cool of his influences, but given a modern spin in the form of strange weaponry or cybernetic modifications. Each of the three is also modeled on a different type of Asian cinematic "Bad Girl,"each empowered in their own way, despite the exploitation that necessarily must come with stories of this type. 

From Kiebitzenberg, Germany, comes Träne, a striking blonde sniper with a cybernetic hand and a missing eye. Träne is in many ways the engine of Samura's bewildering international plot, a vengeance-seeking furie, spouting lines from Germanic operas as she shoots her enemies with a sniper rifle or uses her metal hand to wrench their faces literally upside down. Visually, in her wide-brimmed black hat and trenchcoat, she resembles a legendary figure from Japanese exploitation cinema - Nami Matsushima: Female Prisoner Scorpion. 

Fittingly, the character of Nami Matsushima, first appeared in comics. Created by Toru Shinohara and first published in 1970, Sasori's manga adventures garnered a substantial female following and, although much less extreme in content than the movies ended up being, creator Shinohara states (in an interview for Arrow films wonderful new Blu-ray set of the films) that his Nami Matsushima nonetheless embodied the "whatever happens to me, I'll always pay it back double" attitude that makes Kaji's cinematic performance so compelling. Shinohara's Nami, physically at least, is world's away from actress Meiko Kaji. In the Sasori manga, Nami is blonde and quite European in appearance. 

With Träne, Die Wergelder's Germanic vengeance-seeker, Samura marries the attitude and fashion sense of Meiko Kaji's onscreen Nami Matsushima with the physical appearance of the manga original, creating an obvious homage to both iterations of the character. Not only that, but Träne takes the alias of Nami Savrasova, clearly marking herself in the minds of knowing readers as the metaphorical descendant of all things Sasori. The iconic hat and trenchcoat, with this knowledge, take on an extra sense of foreboding and ominousness in scenes that otherwise could just look like pretty pages. 

The second of Die Wergelder's femme fatales, Shinobu Aza, is described as a "bad bitch without a home or a job." Originally hailing from the remote island of Ishikunagijima, Shinobu is a tough, homeless heartbreaker, beautiful and manipulative. When she hooks up with a low-rent yakuza who has stolen millions in yen from his gang, trouble inevitably follows our young, chain-smoking delinquent, leading her back to her birthplace, where an insane conspiracy awaits her as well as a confrontation with Träne. Very much the "everyman" of Die Wergelder, brave Shinobu is also very much a sukeban - a "girl boss" or "delinquent girl,” drawing on yet another once-popular Japanese genre.

Jie Mao is a Chinese kung-fu killer contracted to the Hill-Myna corporation, the outfit whose machinations are at the centre of Die Wergelder's labyrinthine plot. From what we largely see of the Hill-Myna workers, they resemble employees from Marvel's Hydra gone medical. Strange white lucha mask/hoods adorn their heads, flowing labcoats and smocks make up their rest of their outfits; they are mad scientists taken to the creepy visual extreme. Jie Mao, their hired gun, by contrast comes straight from a Chinesewu xia flick, her 1920s-inspired outfits a practical, but still elegant "update" to the kind of ornate flowing finery Zia Zhang wore in House of Flying Daggers or Qi Shu wore in The Assassin.

As with her clothing, Samura's wu xia warrior is given a weapons update. Jie Mao can fly like the best of her cinematic wire-fu analogues, but none of them had revolver-nunchaku or electrified slippers to aid them in battle. Her fight scenes are beautiful, her legs and weapons turning to a scratchy whirlwind of motion lines as she throws spin kicks and swings nunchaku, her face ever stoic and composed. Her greatest battle comes when she faces our German Sasori, Träne.

The object of Träne's vengeance is Jie Mao's employer, the Hill-Myna corporation, which has a vested interest in her native Kiebitzenbergas well as the red light districts of Shinobu's home of Ishikunagijima island and China's Hwamei and Guizhou for particularly evil and nefarious reasons. It takes some time for all of the story's numerous plot threads and time jumps to finally entangle, but when the lives and missions of Träne, Shinobu and Jie Mao overlap, Die Wergelder kicks into high gear with beautifully kinetic action sequences, strikingly offbeat plot developments and numerous throwaway moments of ero guro weirdness.

Samura's work has never shied away from S&M and ero guro elements (his art book, Brute Love, is a proof enough of that) and Die Wergelder is no different with its scenes of extreme bondage and fetishised sex. Most strikingly, however, is a scene in which a man makes love to a legless young woman who has been surgically turned into a mermaid. It's virtually a throwaway scene yet it's a cartoonish spin on ero guro, and in direct contrast to the violent bondage-fetish filled sex that fills the rest of the book. 

As with both the Female Prisoner Scorpion and Girl Boss movies, the male characters in Die Wergelder are basically ineffectual, libido-driven buffoons, fodder for the weaponry and vengeance of the females or mere devices added to keep the plot (largely doled out in info-dump exposition) rolling forward into the next offbeat sequence, and the one after that and then - ah ha! - some beautifully choreographed action. Toward the volume's end, an intrepid reporter gets the scoop and is promptly slaughtered. Midway though, various low-rung bandage-covered yakuza congregate in a bar to lick their wounds and lament the fact that they were bested, and violently at that, by a woman. Early on, another yakuza is hooked up to a modified exercise machine and brutally maimed by female torturer, and the book's fourth major character, Soli Kil. 

Stick with Die Wergelder. Kodansha was smart to put this out in omnibus forms, with two of the original volumes sandwiched together. It's really not until the midway point that everything begins to tie together and make anything approximating narrative sense. Samura's art is beautifully messy in its highly detailed scratchiness and, as Sarah Horrocks points out in the suggested reading below, his use of zipatones is remarkable - such a smart way to approximate the extreme lighting, colours and stage effects of his filmic influences and "translate" them into a black and white comic. The fight scenes are a joy and despite the degradation they suffer at times during the narrative, his three female leads are distinct and strong - more than up to handing the craziness that comes their way in ever-escalating doses. It's not for the weak of heart or those with delicate sensibilities; it's potentially offensive and carries an 18-plus tag with good reason. However, if you're a fan of strange films, offbeat horror and crazy action, you'll have a good time it. It's also much, much smarter than it appears. Hopefully Kodansha gets the second (and concluding, I believe) omnibus out soon and we can see just how crazily and passionately Hiroaki Samura signs off his love letter to all things Pinky Violence.




So there you have it. An amazing year of comics and really still only managing to touch on the tip of the iceberg. Hopefully your own Best Of List was as fulfilling us this.


See you next week. Love your comics.


Cameron Ashley spends a lot of time writing comics and other things you'll likely never read. He's the chief editor and co-publisher of Crime Factory (www.thecrimefactory.com). You can reach him @cjamesashley on Twitter.



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