Over the past month and a half, as I’ve been making my way through several Woody Allen-related texts, I’ve also been reading quite a number of comics. Many of those have been superhero or mainstream, and I’ll discuss those in a future posting. But three of the non-mainstream comics (or graphic novels, although I hate that term) I’ve read that really stand out are Gilbert Hernandez’s Love from the Shadows, Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland: An Entertainment, and Chester Brown’s Paying for It: A Comic-Strip Memoir about Being a John.
First, Beto’s new book. Lately, Gilbert Hernandez has been focusing most of his energies on stand-alone, non-serialized graphic novels that supplement his work in Love and Rockets. (His other non-Love and Rockets work, such as Citizen Rex, Speak of the Devil, and the older, yet just-released-in-book-form Yeah!, were originally serialized.) What’s more, these recent books have all been “adaptations” of the films that Fritzi, Luba’s half-sister, has starred in and mentioned in the Love and Rockets series. First was 2007′s Chance in Hell, then 2009′s The Troublemakers. And now the latest installment, Love from the Shadows. My reaction to this one is similar to the one I had with The Troublemakers: it’s strange, I’m not sure what to make of it, and I need to go back and re-re-reread it to get a fuller appreciation of it. I really enjoyed Chance in Hell, and even wrote about it in an essay I published a couple of years ago on Hernandez’s comics and the issue of serialization. But the latter two Fritzi B-movie books are more surreal and “out there.” I appreciate what Hernandez is attempting to do….I just need to take the time to study more what that attempt actually is. I’m currently doing some work on both Gilbert’s and Jaime’s more recent comics–especially their work during the second volume of Love and Rockets–and once I finish with that, I want to move on to the more recent stuff…especially what Gilbert is doing. The guy is certainly prolific.
A work that completely bowled me over was Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland. I got that book when it first came out, hearing so many good things about it, but I kept putting off reading it and then just set it aside. What caused me to finally pick it up is a peer reading assignment I received from the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, where I serve as an editorial board member. I was asked to read a contribution on Sunderland, but felt that I couldn’t give a fair assessment until I first knew the text. And I’m glad I got that assignment, for Talbot’s book is one of the most impressive stylistic feats I’ve read in a while. The subject matter is surprisingly mundane…”surprisingly” given the elaborate style that showcases the content. Everything is centered around the town of Sunderland, and Talbot gives us a history of the place. In many ways you could call it a magical mystery tour of his home region. One of the best things about the book is coming away with a sense of how so many things are connected. Here’s where the mundaneness comes in. His topic is relatively simple and humble–stories surrounding his home town–yet engaging, nonetheless. It’s amazing how Talbot has blown from his humble source such an elaborate and spectacular narrative. Its execution is marvelous, and his style of storytelling is what makes the book so successful. It’s been one of the reading highs of the year.
I’ve been a Chester Brown fan for a long time. In fact, I have a fond spot for that triumvirate of Canadian cartoonists, Brown, Seth, and Joe Matt. All three tend to write highly personal narratives, memoirs or autobiographic fiction. And not the kind of memoir that seems to be getting much of the attention in comics studies today. As Gilbert Hernandez once told me in an interview I conducted with him a few years ago, now it seems that almost everyone is writing comic memoirs. It’s gotten to the point of asking, what’s so special about that? But Brown and his compatriots have always been able to pull it off, for me, and the latest book is no exception. At first, I wasn’t sure what to expect of Paying for It, knowing that it was a memoir about frequenting prostitutes. But I instantly got into the book, and I wasn’t able to put it down until I was finished. Not only is it an honest (I assume) account of how Brown’s relationship breakup and the events that led him to begin seeing prostitutes, but it’s a philosophical treatise on the morality surrounding sexual behavior and our socially constructed attitudes toward it. After reading Paying for It, I now have a new appreciation for Brown’s viewpoint (not that I would have condemned him before…I’m fairly liberal when it comes to things like this…whatever gets you through the night, as John L. once sang). And I’m convinced of his arguments. Furthermore, I’m impressed at the amount of thought and research that went into this book. The Notes section at the end of the book is filled with contexts, explanations, and counterarguments to his own. This includes sections where Seth was invited to respond to the way that he and his arguments were presented in the book. After reading Paying for It, I can see where Brown may be an enthusiastic advocate for his position–perhaps even to the point of being tunnel visioned–but it’s an enthusiasm that is very convincing and compelling. I’m with him on this.