Spandexless Reads | 06-07-2012 / by Alec Berry

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Another one in the can. Welcome. We're back at it this week.

I, myself, have an essay on Joe Kelly and JM Ken Nimura's wonderful I Kill Giants while Shawn Starr wants to chat about Seth and hopefully inform you. On capsule duty are Joey Aulisio and Chad Nevett, discussing such things as Ted McKeever's Mondo #2 and ... the pirate back-up strip in the new Before Watchmen releases.

Now, Chad makes a point that since these pirate strips feature no capes, they are fair game for this territory, and I can see his point. While the topic is of Before Watchmen, something I've tried to avoid, I do feel uncomfortable not including Chad's review as I don't want to discredit his writing because of a certain topic. So, to represent all sides in this column, I'm running Chad's capsule review. Just wanted to clear that up for any curious readers.

So, here's to another week. The lights are still on.

- - - no nostalgia, no sentiment

Alec Berry / perpetrator

I Kill Giants | Joe Kelly, JM Ken Nimura | Image

the Upfront: I Kill Giants depicts the story of a young girl who lives the life of a social outcast. She goes to school, has an older sister and loves playing D&D. In her free time, she claims to see and kill giants, those mythical beasts we all deem fiction. What starts out as a series undecided as to whether Barbara really does kill giants or not eventually bleeds into a tale about facing one's fears and overcoming them. 

. . .

Comics that resonate entirely because of some sort of emotional beat or somber moment just feel uninspired.  They operate by throwing cheap shots aimed right for the tear ducts, and while you’re left recovering from the blow, the work just sneaks by your critical eye, avoiding all serious judgement.

I’ve romanticized it a bit, but in all truth, getting by just off of sappy content or some heavy subject, at least for me, indicates weak construction. Maybe not terrible construction, through and through, but certainly something  that, when you take away the one, spell binding moment,  reads like any other ordinary comic you’ve seen before.  Well-rounded and  made with layers: that’s the recipe. A reader can give credit to a creator for the tear flow – a feat which surely requires talent – but when the rest of the book reads like any one of those mundane Vertigo Crime Graphic Novels from 2009, well, no one really deserves that pat on the back.

I sort of expected something similar with I Kill Giants. From initial release to now, I’ve only been told the countless tales of how it’s shaped lives and spilled more tears than a mutilated puppy, and even good friend Joey Aulisio, the man who enjoys such films as Antichrist, has said to me, “man, I love that book.” So I bought it - way back when the trade first went to market -  and for probably two years, it’s sat and sat, waiting for the exact time I would care enough to pick it up.

A time like now, when I desire to move piles of unread comics and check them off my list.

Joe Kelly and JM Ken Nimura originally dropped this seven issue mini series in 2008, when Image Comics and Man of Action Studios decided to team up and push a whole new variety of comics onto the mainstream populace. Titles like Bad Dog, Soul Kiss, The Great Unknown and Charlatan Ball hit solicitations, and while most sort of came and went, it was I Kill Giants to chug along and bring with it a fan base somewhat similar to a cult following. This “cult” could be the byproduct of a misty eyes, but after a read through of my own, I’ll say it: I Kill Giants knows what it’s doing. It’s a book that considers all the necessary elements, and the creators behind it put all selfish concerns aside for plain sake of the story they not want, but rather need to tell. Something about that feels a little more true than the standard drive behind most comic book production, making it one of the points I admire most about the book.

Kelly notes in the trade paper back’s bonus material that I Kill Giants went through many years of development and polish before becoming the finalized narrative we know. While there’s little detail in this fact, it suggests a sense of careful craft and patience put into the project, and while I’m sure most comic creators fail to rush in and  hastefully scribble down something (although, you could probably find examples), I Kill Giants really exemplifies this idea of consideration. The comic thrives off the beats and wraps itself in a wholesomeness rather than individual styles or high concepts – though, it does possess such qualities.  It’s this complete package functioning as a unit, and the book represents a true form collaboration. Neither voice overpowers the other. They simply form a bond and become one.

Where Kelly defines a character, Nimura steps in and furthers the definition, and where Nimura furthers the definition, Kelly bounces back with some sort of complimentary situation or scene, emphasizing the characterization.  That’s basically the entirety of Barbara, our rabbit eared protagonist, who both in script and visualization embodies the outcast type. As Nimura describes in the bonus material found in the collection, he voluntarily added the bunny ears, and following suit, Kelly lets the element perform as a marker rather than function in story as a distraction.

Nimura: “They [the rabbit ears] allowed us to individualize her as well as make her much more expressive. Since the original script didn’t say anything about this and Joe wisely didn’t add any latter comment, all the characters seem to find it completely normal. That’s precisely what I like the most, having this bizarre and somehow superficial element in a dramatic story.”

It’s a great move of characterization as well as it’s a great example of an artist taking the script and expanding upon it intelligently. But I also like what Nimura says about the bizarre interacting with the dramatic. Ultimately, that’s the chemistry much of I Kill Giants features and it’s why it manages to escape the usual trappings suffered by dramatic storytelling. Where the giants and mythical factors may act as metaphor, they also contribute to this work’s idiosyncratic tone and give the story this pop song hook to spice things up and make heads bob. Kelly plants this stuff in the right spots and handles things well enough to leave a few bites of ambiguity even when the reader’s confident the giants Barbara sees only represent her fear.

But it’s this quality of interweaving other influences that completes the I Kill Giants picture. The narrative possesses this dramatic core but all around it Kelly and Nimura dress the material with such things as fantasy, manga technique and a somewhat typical outcast of society plot to give the comic its layered appeal. Giants doesn’t really play the one card as it does multiple, yet it still lands the emotional beat near the finale, something that honestly came as a nice surprise.

Even while I knew it was coming, the superficial elements managed to distract me enough so that by the time I hit the climax I was caught off guard, open and vulnerable to what Kelly and Nimura wanted me to feel. Giants, aside from the collaborative effort or mix of influences, makes you feel small, again. It’s good at that. It’s good at reminding you of where you stand, placing you in the grip or reality and letting you know you have a lot to face. But it’s also empowering because as Barbara faces her fear and presses on it reminds you that, well, you can too. You can get by and carry on. Corny, maybe the way I write it, but the work takes you from low to high in such a quick way you can only come away feeling a tad bit traveled, and while the final message may not exactly be original or aw-inspiring, it’s relative and universal enough to hit us all somewhere. Because we’ve all had a giant of our own at a time or two to face, and as we live day to day, we still square off here and there.

But aside from theme, I Kill Giants is a seven issue comic book story, complete with a beginning, middle and end, made by two guys in service of the story. It’s about that. The emotional topping only comes as a bonus.

Yeah.

...

But seriously, guys, I didn’t cry. I’m tough ... *blows nose*

- - - capsules

Joey Aulisio / likes "Antichrist"

Mondo #2 | Ted McKeever | Image

“I don’t have pet peeves – I have major psychotic f**king hatreds” – George Carlin

No quote better summarizes Ted McKeever’s work than that one does. When you read a Ted McKeever comic you don’t really read a story per se, more of a sequence of Rorschach tests designed to toss you into his head space. Every manic line on every page drips with the ink of a man frustrated with the world around him, and he just needs to get that feeling out of him and onto the paper before someone gets hurt.

McKeever slashes through every hot button issue that’s eating at him at that moment whether it's the government, the media, the FDA, or just life in general, it all gets skewered here. What makes this work more interesting though is that the energy of McKeever’s work is filtered through the history of superhero comics. The first issue dealt with that initial wave of excitement with a take on the golden age superhero origin , while this issue seemed to put McKeever more in the head space of the intensity of silver age Jack Kirby (the title character being an obvious reinterpretation of Kirby’s Hulk).   McKeever in the mind of the Hulk is an illuminating experience, one of unbridled expression.

It’s fitting that towards the end of the issue McKeever takes a detour into a three page segment riffing on Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, which was probably the last time superhero comics felt this frenzied and direct before moving into a more “literary” approach (the giant squid on the last page can’t be coincidence).

It was all so simple then ...

Chad Nevett / CSBG, Splash Page

The Curse of the Crimson Corsair, Part One | Len Wein, John Higgins | DC Comics

Is “The Curse of the Crimson Corsair" actually unethical in the eyes of people? I understand the views held by many regarding the Before Watchmen project, but, come on, this is just a pirate strip that has a very tenuous connection to Watchmen. Namely, it had a pirate strip run through it at various points. Throw in the book’s editor on the keyboards and the colorist on the pencils/inks/colors and I guess it has a Watchmen connection? Maybe? I mean, it’s running in every Before Watchmen issue, right? That must make it unethical, too. I think? I don’t know, because no one ever really talked about the pirate strip in all of the lead-up to Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1 where the first two pages of this pirate epic kick the whole thing off. We get some lovely John Higgins drawings and an evil captain who doles out punishment because rules are rules and... well, he doesn’t have much motivation besides that. There’s an obvious dark undercurrent and some overblown melodramatic narration that you could call Moore-inspired, I guess. Really, it’s the first two pages of a pirate story that may be pretty good. And it’s probably unethical by reasons of juxtaposition, the most comic book of all unethical reasoning.

- - - the slow train

Shawn Starr / some dude with a blog

It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken is fiction in the guise of autobiography and that circles back around and becomes autobiography again. It's one of the most personal works produced in the genre yet is not even a work of the genre. Where other creators needed to contort their lives into historical (Paying For It) or literary (Fun Home) narratives, Seth is able to have a free flowing narrative that conforms to both techniques but is constrained by neither. This creates a work which takes the best of the genre while ignoring its hindrances.

"I owe a debt to the cartoonists of the past...to rescue them before obscurity takes hold"

It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken centers around Seth's search for Kalo, a fictional cartoonist who produced a few scattered gag strips for the New Yorker and faded into obscurity until his rediscovery by Seth in a small bookstore. Seth becomes obsessed with how such a talent can fade away and tries to discover why and how.

Seth's quest to save Kalo reappears throughout his work and life. In Wimbledon Green, the main characters brings the obscure Canadian strip "Fine and Dandy" to the forefront of the collectible market through his critical discussion and meticulous collecting. This reappraisal of Canadian artists also occurs in Seth's real life as his championing of Doug Wright's "The Poet of Suburbia" is found both in his fictional work as well as his book designs. In The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists, Seth devotes nine pages to critically discussing Wright's work within the context of Canadian cartoonists; this piece is supplemented with the career spanning The Collected Doug Wright which Seth designed. The re-evaluation of Wright, by Seth, is even used in It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken to reignite his quest to find Kalo after he had given up.

"No matter how many times I go away, when I come back it's always the same."

Freezing his hometown in time, Seth uses it to create an ideal location, and it is here that Seth is first exposed to Kalo. A fitting setting, a town where time stopped during his childhood, becomes the only place to find a work created during his childhood. This is reinforced with his love of "Nancy" and "Nipper", two childhood strips that his mother and father passed on to him. Kalo becomes an extension of his childhood, and while his previous cartoon obsessions where extensions of his parents, Kalo is his own.

"As awful as things are right now. I'd be more than happy if the world would just stay relatively like this until I die"

It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken is a phrase Seth's mother often uttered, a childhood memory, but through Seth's narrative the title takes on a new meaning. Seth lives in the future, and longs for the past. By pining for the past he attempts to transform the remnants of that era into a sanctuary, but the stasis Seth imposes on his "home" is impossible to retain; it becomes tarnished by the intrusion of time.

The hand-carved "Fish and Chips" sign decays in a storefront window. Seth's picturesque 50's industrial city becomes littered with boarded up shops. Agitated youths. The closing down of Clyde Fans. Even the annoyance Seth feels at his brother repeating the same jokes when he visits illustrates the creeping in of time. He hates the jokes, but the inconsistency infuriates him.

As his self imposed blinders begin to crack, Seth begins to deconstruct his previous outlook, throughout his work.

"For a couple of years, I actually had myself convinced that I'd be happier living in the past – the 20's and 30's specifically...what a joke".

From a parody of himself featured in Wimbledon Green, Seth, or Jonah, "Histories Greatest Comic Book Thief" as he's named in the strip, is chastised for his nostalgia. Jonah is a breed of collector deemed the "nostalgia type ... guys who think everything was better in the past," who horde and steal collectables under a false sense of self-importance. Even Jonah's home, which Green refers to as "a fine example of Vernacular ..." is a dig at his first sketchbook collection Vernacular Drawings which primarily consists of 50's architecture and portraits.

Following this deconstruction, the sense of nostalgia you feel prominent in his work transforms into a sense of reserved reverence. He lovingly renders the periods architecture and dress, but shies away from any idea of it being a perfect world. George Sprottabandons is his pregnant lover, Wimbledon Green is rampant with backstabbing and treachery, and Clyde Fans is run by a coward in the guise of a bully. This all creates a layer of subtlety and depth that distances himself from the definitiveness of nostalgia.

"You really have to come back to those themes, if they really interest you"

It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken works as the Rosetta Stone to Seth's work. In it you can find the kernel to all his future works. His childhood spent watching CBC television, which cemented his idea of Canada existing perfectly in the 50's, is used as a platform for examining a life wasted reminiscing on youthful adventures in George Sprott. His collecting of old books and knick-knacks is taken to a cartoony extreme in Wimbledon Green. Aspirations for the recognition of Canada's contribution to cartooning is explored lovingly in The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists. And his obsession with architecture and the quality of production of the past are the centerpiece to Palookaville’s most recent stories about Clyde Fans and his miniature city.

It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken is the story of a man beginning to weaken, but retaining the good life. It's changed and progressed from what it was, but it has not crumbled. Kalo retires from cartooning to raise a family that he loves. Seth loses his nostalgia and in turn creates a greater work. An essential work. A work of truth.

It's A Good Life, If You Weaken.

- - - exit

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