Joe's Graphic Novel Roundup: Fall 2017

Joe's Graphic Novel Roundup, by Hamilton writer and artist Joe Ollmann, is a column dedicated to reviews of graphic novels and comic books.

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I want to talk to you about a serious subject: comic books, people! Comic books for grownups, specifically; graphic novels, if you will. They are real literature.

Seriously.

At some level, we already know this. The ubiquity of mainstream newspaper stories proclaiming, “Pow! Zap! Comics Aren’t Just For Kids Anymore,” is such that The Onion made their own version: “Comics Not Just For Kids Anymore, Reports 85,000th Mainstream News Story.”

So comics, or graphic novels  ¬– a self-important term cartoonists have grudgingly accepted – are real examples of literature for intelligent adult readers. But what to read if this is territory for a neophyte graphic novel reader? That’s where I come in – I wanna be your “cool uncle,” who nudges you in a good direction, so you don’t have to read all the bad comics.  

These are not necessarily going to be funny stories (which is one reason why the name comics has always been problematic). I’ll mostly be talking about comics that are about people, not many superheroes or funny animals. I’m going to try and review graphic novels that hold up to the same criteria as normal literature, as real literature, as book books, which is what we call normal books in the comics world.

Also, I probably won’t be doing many reviews of stuff I don’t like as I don’t want to waste energy crapping on stuff that people worked hard on and doesn’t work for me. Don’t worry, I’m not all sunshine and lollipops and I do have some critical sense and I actually hate lots of graphic novels, you just won’t hear much about them here.

Jillian Tamaki.  Boundless . Drawn & Quarterly. $27.95, 248 pp., ISBN: 9781770462878

Jillian Tamaki. Boundless. Drawn & Quarterly. $27.95, 248 pp., ISBN: 9781770462878

Boundless by Jillian Tamaki, Drawn and Quarterly, 2017

As in the world of book books, short story collections are a hard sell in the comics world. The public – and therefore publishers – want full-length graphic novels, so the short story collection has become less common.  Which is a shame, because the short form story in old pamphlet comics was of course the genesis of the graphic novel, and short story collections have contained some of the best work done in the field.

Boundless is a masterful collection of short stories in comics form. It’s an incredible anthology that is smartly written, beautifully drawn, and full of humanity.

To simply describe the plots of these stories does them an injustice because some are quite fanciful, but even within the fantastical, Jillian Tamaki has the ability to employ the perfect visual and written details to make any scenario plausible and real.

Stories like Darla!, looking back at the world’s first pornographic sitcom and Half Life, about a woman who literally shrinks to subatomic size are whimsical, but function plausibly in their worlds while offering subtle insight into human interaction.

Other stories are more rooted in reality, such as Bed Bug, a tale of a broken relationship charted over the couple in question’s dealing with a bed bug infestation. There is so much going on under the surface of these stories – Tamaki is one of the most intelligent writers in comics – but with the level of subtlety she employs, there’s no artifice and it never feels like a forced structure.

The longer stories in the book are interspersed with shorter, more poetic experimental comics pieces, full-page drawings that evoke George Grosz and Picasso.

I’ve focused on Tamaki’s writing to now, as her drawing – she’s a regular New York Times contributor who has won both the Caldecott and the Governor General’s Award – is highly praised everywhere. Her visual style is impeccable and always adds verisimilitude to her narrative. If you’re someone who draws, looking at Jillian’s drawings makes you feel like how a hippo must feel watching a horse galloping.

All the elements in Boundless complement each other perfectly and this is a one of the finest, most original collections of short stories in comics in a long time.

Lorina Mapa.  Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos, and Me.  Conundrum Press. $18.00, 140 pp. ISBN: 9781772620115

Lorina Mapa. Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos, and Me. Conundrum Press. $18.00, 140 pp. ISBN: 9781772620115

Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos and Me by Lorina MapaConundrum Press, 2017

Lorina Mapa’s autobiographical graphic novel set in 1980s Manila is like an alternative Asian version of an 80s teen film with added political turmoil. It’s a lot about the love in a close family, a detailed study of Filipino history and culture as well as a first hand, compelling telling of the populist movement that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 80s.

Mapa juggles all these elements and tracks her growth from a pampered upper middle class kid to a politically active teen with a love of Western culture, especially 80s music (the book includes a suggested 80s discography.) The book works as a book for adults or as a Young Adult book, both groups will take different things from it.

This is a very sincere and earnest book, and I mean that in a good way; it’s unpretentious and doesn’t shy from showing real emotion. The family story is heartfelt and covers childhood to Mapa’s present day in Montreal. The story of the Filipino revolution is explained in a clear, detailed fashion and it’s a stirring report of common people standing up to a dictator and his army and their tanks and winning.

But, Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos and Me, covers much more material between the stories, from gender and sexual identity and why Filipinos are more laidback than most people, to losing and regaining artistic inspiration.

Duran Duran, Imelda Marcos and Me, is a really nicely-drawn, sad and funny book full of honesty and heart. Mapa’s book is cool because she doesn’t try to be cool, she just speaks from her heart and maybe sincerity is the new irony.

Emil Ferris.  My Favourite Thing is Monsters.  Fantagraphics. $52.99, 386 pp., ISBN: 9781606999592

Emil Ferris. My Favourite Thing is Monsters. Fantagraphics. $52.99, 386 pp., ISBN: 9781606999592

My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil FerrisFantagraphics, 2017

The story of how Emil Ferris made My Favorite Thing is Monsters is almost as fascinating as the book itself. Ferris grew up as something of an outsider with a curvature of her spine and two different lengths of legs. She was often alone, but used her ability to tell horror stories to attract and keep friends.

Years later, while she was a forty-year-old single mom working as a toy sculptor designing toys for McDonalds giveaways and toy companies, she contracted West Nile virus from a mosquito bite. She was paralyzed from the waist down and lost the use of her right hand. So she returned to school, entering an MFA writing program, since she didn’t think she’d ever draw again.

Her drawing ability and her mobility eventually returned and at age 55 she released her first book, the amazing, massive, almost 400-page graphic novel My Favorite Thing is Monsters.

The book is a triumph on every front. It sold out its initial 70,000 print run (sales of 5,000 copies is a big seller in the world of comics), and has been optioned for a film already and Ferris is hard at work on the second 300-page volume to come out in the fall.

My Favorite Thing is Monsters is done in the style of the sketchbook/diary of ten-year-old Karen, a little girl obsessed with monster movies and magazines. Karen sees herself as an outsider; she’s half-Mexican, the daughter of a single mother and she’s initially unsure of her sexual orientation. She feels like an outsider and she draws herself as a monster throughout most of the book.

Ferris illustrates the book in coloured ballpoint pen on lined notebook paper, but the humbleness of the art supplies don’t stop her from delivering virtuosic, elaborately cross hatched masterful drawings that you can’t help but linger over. Her draftsmanship is stunning, and it never feels like showboating. It feels like the exuberance of a much younger artist, reveling in the joy of their abilities.

The book is a murder mystery set in 1960s Chicago, as Karen investigates the murder of her upstairs neighbour, discovering her harrowing back story that twists and turns back to her childhood in Nazi Germany.

This complex story also encompasses the civil rights movement, art history and the importance of art in a complete life, and gay and lesbian rights. Ferris writes in the voice of a ten-year-old believably and in her naiveté and misunderstandings she reveals a great deal about the adult world and its cruelties.

None of the characters are only one thing, Ferris writes with a complex maturity and a deep empathy. That Ferris has felt herself an outsider is apparent in the sensitivity of her story and her characters. Her writing is full of kindness and decency. She also tells a page-turning thriller in this story of intolerance and acceptance that is also at its core a love song to old horror comics, movies, and magazines.

Sylvia Nickerson.  Creation: The First Three Chapters Plus Two Extra Comics . sylvianickerson.ca. $25.00

Sylvia Nickerson. Creation: The First Three Chapters Plus Two Extra Comics. sylvianickerson.ca. $25.00

Creation by Sylvia Nickerson, Self-published, 2017

Creation is artist Sylvia Nickerson’s self-published comic about the newly hot topic of living in Hamilton. It’s an austere autobiographical story of art, family and gentrification. When I say austere, I don’t mean to make the book sound humourless, it’s not. There’s a lot wry humour in there; I just mean Nickerson addresses serious topics in a straightforward, meditative fashion.

She tends to examine both sides of an issue, from gentrification and its effect on the poor of an area, while being honest about the rough aspects of living in an un-gentrified neighbourhood.

She’s equally candid about artistic life before and after kids and it’s clear that showing the monotonous aspects of childcare keeping someone from their artistic practice doesn’t diminish their love for their kids.

I respect that kind of honesty and confidence that the reader can grasp the complexity of two distinct ideas at the same time.

Creation is drawn in pleasant, loose brushwork gray washes. The figures are vague outlines, like hand-drawn pictogram figures, which suit the themes of urban life. They also evoke ghosts, which suits the tone of the book as well.

This version of Creation is an excerpt of a planned longer book, but this part stands on its own and demonstrates all its themes even in the reduced space. I do look forward to reading the final completed book some day.

(Creation is self-published and is available for sale at many Hamilton independent booksellers.)

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Cartoonist Joe Ollmann has lived in Hamilton most of his life. With a career spanning 34 years, he is fairly old. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications including The Paris Review and Best American Comics. He is the author of seven graphic novels, one of them, Mid-life, won a Doug Wright Award for best book in 2007 but several other of his books have lost that same award since then.

Joe's Graphic Novel Roundup: Fall 2016

Joe's Graphic Novel Roundup, by Hamilton writer and artist Joe Ollmann, is a column dedicated to reviews of graphic novels and comic books.

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Rob Kristofferson and Simon Orpana.  Showdown! Making Modern Unions . Between the Lines. $29.95, 144 pp., ISBN: 9781771132725

Rob Kristofferson and Simon Orpana. Showdown! Making Modern Unions. Between the Lines. $29.95, 144 pp., ISBN: 9781771132725

Showdown! Making Modern Unions
By Rob Kristofferson and Simon Orpana
Between the Lines, 2016

One of the perils often shared by academic writing and writing on leftist politics is a dryness that rivals the finest martini in the world. What’s good for the imbiber of cocktails is not so for the reader of these tracts. But–spoiler alert–Showdown!, part of a PhD dissertation on labour studies, is an exciting and animated read. 

The book tells the story of the 1946 strike that brought about the formation of the steel worker’s union in Hamilton.  It’s an incredibly important part of labour history in Canada and a formative influence on the soul of the city of Hamilton.

Kristofferson’s writing is concise and scholarly, telling the complex story in a detailed and accessible fashion. But more importantly, it’s passionate and evokes a living history. It’s immersive and compelling and one gets a sense as you read what the strike must have been like, the solidarity that brought workers from all industries together and the generosity of the people of Hamilton, who donated money, food and resources to the steel workers, helping them to win this victory for workers' rights.

The drawings by Simon Orpana (with additional art by Matt McInnes) evoke the period perfectly and add a lot of humanity and personality to the events portrayed. His loose, brushwork cartooning evokes the best of indie and underground comics styles of the 80s and 90s. Happily, the text and art complement each other and work in perfect synch.

Showdown! is a timely story considering that the corpse of Stelco has been eviscerated by globalization and sold to an international corporation that is straining to strip the last pensioners of the company of the rights fought for and gained in the historic strike detailed in this book.

Sarah Glidden.  Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq . Drawn and Quarterly. $29.95, 304 pp., ISBN: 9781770462557

Sarah Glidden. Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Drawn and Quarterly. $29.95, 304 pp., ISBN: 9781770462557

Rolling Blackouts
By Sarah Glidden
Drawn and Quarterly, 2016

Rolling Blackouts is a book about post-invasion Iraq and pre-civil war Syria and the resultant refugee crisis from this region, but it’s less about these timely, important issues than it is a meditation on modern reporting in the digital age – also a timely, important issue. This is a timely and important book, considering the work involved in writing and drawing a graphic novel (the book took six years) and that the Syrian civil war and refugee crisis are still as prevalent and awful as ever. It’s a serious book and it’s written and drawn with a suitable gravitas, but also with humour and humanity. 

The book follows cartoonist Sarah Glidden (already experienced in comics journalism: see her excellent How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less) as she shadows independent journalists Alex and Sarah on a 2010 news-gathering trip to Iraq, as well as Turkey and Syria. Also joining them is the reporters’ childhood friend, ex-marine Dan who had served in Iraq.

The reporters are freelancers and Glidden studies how they gather stories and work at them to try and find a buyer in broadcast, print or online. We see that modern news can be manipulated by these market forces of ratings and promoting what’s “hot,” and neglecting what’s “not.” They struggle to tell important stories that matter to them, while subtly tweaking the story to get it to market. We see that urgent stories never see the light of day or get enough time spent on them, or stories that are reported on, tsk-tsked over, then never followed up on when public interest fades. 

Truth is an important theme in the book as all the dialogue is taken from meticulous transcriptions of recordings. There’s no way for Glidden to alter the truth of what happens on the trip, apart from what she chooses to excise or what she adds import to. The book feels very honest; Glidden’s hard on herself and the other Americans in showing their shortcomings and American culpability in the chaos of the region they’re traveling in. The fact that Glidden chooses to have two characters named Sarah, instead of fictionalizing one of their names for simplification, shows her attachment to truth.

Dan the ex-marine is a bundle of contradictions. He’s against the Iraq invasion, but enlists to go fight in it. He maintains that he’s proud of all he did in Iraq, but tries to keep the fact that he was in the invasion force from people they meet in Iraq.

There is a lot of tension between Sarah the reporter and Dan as Sarah doggedly tries to get Dan to admit he has some guilt or trauma about his part in the Iraq invasion. She sinks her teeth into this idea – it was why she brought Dan on the trip – and she never lets up on it. She’s equally persistent in questioning a deported Iraqi-American about the reason he was deported. He maintains he was innocent, more of a clerical error, but she never lets up on questioning what he must have done to get deported. It sometimes seems like journalistic skepticism taken too far and she’s trying to push the story in the direction she wants it to go.

There are interviews detailing harrowing stories from refugees and survivors of war, and Glidden doesn’t shy away from discussing hard, awkward topics. She gives a good, brief overview of the confusing history of the conflicts in the region.

Glidden’s drawing style is a pleasant clear line cartooning painted in beautiful watercolours. Her colour palette perfectly evokes the feel of the region and her attention to detail from extensive photo reference adds to the realness.

Rolling Blackouts is a dense book, covering a lot of issues and asking a lot of questions. It’s a good primer on modern reportage and a good example of another new kind of reporting: comics journalism.

Jessica Campbell . Hot or Not: 20th-Century Male Artists . Koyama Press. $10.00, 64 pp., ISBN: 9781927668337

Jessica Campbell. Hot or Not: 20th-Century Male Artists. Koyama Press. $10.00, 64 pp., ISBN: 9781927668337

Hot or Not: 20th Century Male Artists
By Jessica Campbell
Koyama Press, 2016

This book is a Trojan horse. It’s serious feminist theory and a critique of the patriarchal art world subversively hidden behind funny cartoons. And of course I’ve ruined all that by discussing it, like putting a butterfly in a blender to better admire it under a microscope.

I love this book, from the cover, which features silver lottery ticket material that you can scratch off to reveal the Picasso-esque male nudes’ junk, to the pitch-perfect ironic blurbs on the back from comics superstars Lisa Hanawalt and Jillian Tamaki: “These men should be judged on their artistic merit, not their hotness. What Ms Campbell has done here is disgraceful.”

There’s an intro and outro comic and then the meat of the book, a paragraph about each man with the big reveal on the next page, including a portrait showing if they are hot or not. Campbell’s an incredibly smart and funny writer, and the critique concepts of male gaze in art and patriarchal structures in the art world have never been funnier or more effective.

This is a great book to give as a gift to your mom, or niece, or an art student or to an old, established misogynist artist.

Seth.  Seth's Dominion . Drawn and Quarterly. $32.95, 80 pp., ISBN: 9781770462656

Seth. Seth's Dominion. Drawn and Quarterly. $32.95, 80 pp., ISBN: 9781770462656

Seth’s Dominion
By Seth
Drawn and Quarterly, 2016

If the last three reviews have read like political tracts, I apologize. Everything has been political to me of late. But Seth’s Dominion is pure aesthetics! This is D&Q’s gorgeous packaging of the excellent NFB film about one of Canada's and the world’s greatest cartoonists. The package itself is incredibly beautiful; the dvd is folded in a hardcover z-fold book detailing some of Seth’s obsessions spotlighted in the film. 

Besides being a great cartoonist, Seth lives his entire life in a very curated fashion. He dresses in suits and fedoras, changing into a lab coat when he works in his studio. He surrounds himself with a nostalgia for a past that is more his imagined version than the actual past. 

The book (and the film) details Seth’s Dominion city, fictional setting to many of his comics, which he has built a cardboard model of, comprising almost one hundred buildings. We see puppet stages he builds to perform plays for himself and his wife Tania. We get to see the barber shop he designed for Tania, who is a barber. Besides puppets and maquettes of cities, Seth does comics for The New York Times, creates covers for The New Yorker, designs parade floats and trophies for imaginary and real awards, and still publishes his Palookaville comic every year. To another artist, seeing all of this is inspiring and a bit daunting, a prompt to work harder and ignore the distractions of modern technology and social media maybe.

The book includes childhood photos, shots of Seth in his rarely seen long-haired albino wanna-be phase and is filled with shots of the artist in company with the greatest cartoonists in the world. There is also a wide sampling of his comics included. The book and film are not just of interest to comics people. Anyone will enjoy this interesting glimpse into the life of a great Canadian artist.

If you haven’t seen the film, the Art Gallery of Hamilton and Epic Books are bringing Seth to Hamilton in January for a talk with the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Andrew Hunter and a screening/book signing of Seth’s Dominion

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Cartoonist Joe Ollmann has lived in Hamilton most of his life. With a career spanning 34 years, he is fairly old. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications including The Paris Review and Best American Comics. He is the author of seven graphic novels, one of them, Mid-life, won a Doug Wright Award for best book in 2007 but several other of his books have lost that same award since then.