The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects

By: Mike Mignola (with help from Katie Mignola)
Genre: short stories (fantasy, adventure, folk tale stuff)
Context: originally published in all sorts of places by Dark Horse; collected in a pretty hardcover in 2010

Mignola is best known for his Hellboy comics, and at the rate I’m writing these reviews, there will eventually be months of reviews of those books. As much as I love them, though, I will never love them as much as this book. Mignola has said that he came up with the Hellboy concept by throwing together all the stuff he loved to draw: monsters, folklore, statues, and so on. However, once those books became a constrained universe, I think the raw creativity was lessened. Don’t get me wrong — I think the Hellboy and BPRD stories are great, tightly-crafted plots. They’re just not as good as these short stories.

Actually, I’ll go so far as to wonder why this isn’t hailed as one of the best collections ever. If someone like Paul Pope or Brandon Graham had released this book, I think people would still be going crazy about it. (And maybe people are going crazy about it and I’m just out of the loop.)

Anyway, the titular story is one of the funniest comics I’ve ever read. Here is a page:

That’s a story on its own. Like I mentioned in my Abe Sapien review, there’s a relentless rhythm to a Mignola story, and that’s in full force here. The “RUNG RUNG RUNG” of the death zeppelin’s engine strums behind the page like an ominous bass line. The lettering and the positioning of the figures lead you perfectly across the page, even when you’re supposed to read (unnaturally) right to left. Here is my bad diagram:

And every page is that good! After “Screw-On Head,” there’s a charming and heartbreaking story about friendship (between a snake and a wizard), a violent and baffling folk tale (baffling in the way that all true folk tales are), a sad story about how our fates are often decided by people with more power than us (only it’s about puppets and the devil), and a couple galleries of great single images.

I don’t know if my critical abilities work when talking about this comic. It’s just so good.

Almost Silent

By: Jason
Genre: humor remix of horror icons with romance and literary stuff, all with funny animals
Context: originally published all over the place; collected by Fantagraphics in 2008

I don’t want to get to thinking about Jason’s art too much since I’m pretty sure I have three more books of his to read as the project winds on. Instead, I want to try to say something specifically about this book. It starts of with a number of shorter strips — gag strips, I guess. Some are a page or two long. Some are literally strips, just three or four panels. Across them trot zombies, vampires, skeletons, Frankenstein’s monsters, and even a couple The Terminators. As the strips go on, these characters meet up and mix until the final pages of the first section become a sort phantasmagorical clip show of archetypes, taking off masks and seeing each other and TV and blending into one another.

It feels like Jason emptied out his toy box and kept his Ninja Turtles together and his GI Joes together and so on… until he realized he could play with them all together. And there is something posed about his art and his storytelling, almost like he’s taking high-contrast photos of people he’s directing.

Then there’s the masks and the blending. It gets really weird at times. In Jason’s art, a dog person and a duck person are only separated by a few details. A beak versus a muzzle, or a spiky crest of feathers or fur on the back of the head. At first, these are details that serve to differentiate characters. However, once dogs start donning fake beaks (that, in Jason’s minimalist style, look exactly like real beaks), any sense of confidence I had in who these people were became undermined. I became suspicious.

Once all the weirdness is done, there are longer stories. They seem to have an overriding theme regarding one’s insides being what’s important. The monster and the hunchback are good, the scientist is evil, and love, if it’s strong enough, persists even when the lovers become zombies. This is oddly consistent with the earlier part of the book. Outsides shift and change, but that doesn’t change a person’s identity. Maybe. I don’t know. I’m still a little weirded out.

Alien: The Illustrated Story

Writer: Archie Goodwin
Penciller: Walt Simonson
Genre: sci-fi horror
Context: originally published in 1979 by Heavy Metal; reprinted by Titan in 2012 in a regular version and a crazy big artist’s edition

I almost never buy adaptations. I’m not sure who does. It’s my suspicion that they’re probably all purchased by well-meaning relatives and significant others to give as presents. Every once in a while, there will be an adaptation that interests me purely because of who’s involved. Al Williamson drawing Star Wars and Blade Runner? Bill Sienkiewicz drawing Dune (and you can read it all for free online)?

These things are akin to the Incredible Hulk being the new drummer of my favorite band, and even if they aren’t books I come back to over and over, they’re things I like to look at and I’m glad that, at some point, someone thought it was an awesome idea.

However, I will never be able to bring myself to give a damn about a Halo comic that seems to only exist because there are people out there (I assume) who will buy (or be given by their relative) anything with the Halo logo on it… unless Bill Sienkiewicz draws it.

Anyway, the comic here is Alien, which is a movie I don’t think I’ve ever watched all the way through. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen every scene in it. I’ve just never watched them all in order in one go. So why bother with the comic?

Goodwin and Simonson. Goodwin is my favorite comic writer from, say, before 1985, and Simonson, still in his early years here and showing lots of influence from his studio-mate Howard Chaykin, is definitely one of my favorite artists ever. Together (and with letterer John Workman), they accomplish a sense of pacing and scale that transcended the comics around it at the time and still stands above most genre comics today.

Someone (Mike Mignola? Mark Waid?) has said that making scary comics is very, very difficult. There’s no way to jump out and startle readers in a way that approaches movies, and it takes a very talented artist to replicate a novel’s ability to have the reader take a hand in creating the horrors. Everything sits there, visible the second the page is turned. Mignola’s answer to the problem is a sort of compositional ambiance where the horrific aspects of the atmosphere stretch slowly across a whole book, expanding slowly across a page like slow, ragged breaths.

Simonson’s technique in Alien is much more staccato. He breaks the horror into sequences of images where very little time passes between each, almost like film on a reel. The effect it has on a reader is to slow them down: instead of one image of an alien eating someone, there’s a whole row of panels, and each one has to be “read,” strobing the event across the page.

The only complaint I have is that there are a few pages full of sci-fi jargon, specifically when the engine of their ship is messing up as the crew descends onto the planet/asteroid thing where they find the alien. I understand that the jargon helps make the world feel real, but comics have a harder time dealing with this specific situation. In a movie, the dialogue can be delivered quickly, surrounded by explosions and jarring. In a novel, exposition can be done outside of dialogue, or the dialogue can be condensed into exposition. “He was screaming something about the engine’s malfunction,” versus “‘The B-12 is taking a hit in it’s lateral blah blah blah.'” In comics, especially older comics, it’s much harder to indicate to a reader that a piece of dialogue is not important to the plot or character. It sits there on the page in the same size as the “more important” dialogue; to shrink it down might indicate a whisper or a mumble.

Some modern comics have found interesting ways around this. Matt Fraction/Gabrial Ba/Fabio Moon’s Casanova will occasionally have bracketed phrases in word balloons (something like [macho posturing]) or even blank balloons, indicating that someone is talking, but maybe the words aren’t as important as the actions. Other comics (and I can’t think of a specific example right now) will have sentences running past the boundaries of the balloon, so the balloon serves as a window into what their saying, becoming an indicator of context without trying to relay all of the content.

And maybe Goodwin wanted to do something like this but it was too radical for 1979. I don’t know. If my only complaint about a book is that there were a few pages where there was a bit too much dialogue, it’s still a good comic.

I was going to go on a rant about modern superhero comics using full-page splashes to artificially confer importance to an action or event and compare it to how Simonson only uses them for actual physical scale and manages to confer importance/drama with pacing, color, and so on, but I’m not sure I have it in me. Instead, here is an awesome two-page spread from Alien. Do yourself a favor and click it and view it at full size.

Alice in Sunderland

By: Bryan Talbot
Genre: history
Context: published as a big ol’ hardcover by Dark Horse in 2007

Another long book! I didn’t read this book until a couple years ago. I recall seeing a number of reviews saying that it would make the “Best Of” lists the year it came out, but I paged through it in a comic store and was turned off by all the computer effects used in making the many collages throughout the book. I also thought it was a remix of Alice in Wonderland coupled with a biography of Lewis Carroll.

When I finally did read it, I was working part time in a library and not doing much else, so I grabbed Alice almost only on the basis that it was a comic book and I had time to read comics. I was still a little turned off by the computer filters on a lot of the art (there are a number of pages online if you want to see what I’m talking about), but I think that’s just a personal quirk of my tastes that comes with growing to maturity alongside Photoshop. Talbot’s more traditional cartooning is present throughout the book and is as good as its ever been, and since the guy has collaborations with Neil Gaiman and Ed Brubaker under his belt, you can assume that’s pretty good.

I was very happy with what Alice was actually about. It’s sort of a remix of Lewis Carroll’s book in that someone goes on a phantasmagorical journey. It’s sort of a biography of Carroll himself. In its fullness, though, it’s really about the history of human encounters with outsiders and the stories we tell ourselves in order to understand that history and place ourselves in it.

Pretty big, right? Carroll’s place in it all is that both Oxford and Sunderland have “claimed” him as their own. In examining Sunderland’s influence on Carroll and his works, Talbot, a Sunderland resident, gets drawn into the web of Sunderland’s history. What he finds is that nothing ends up being purely Sunderland; everything comes from somewhere else, but nothing goes back out without being changed. From the Picts through the Romans to the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans all the way to contemporary immigrants, the identity of a place gets built by the people who live and die there and the stories they leave behind.

Given this, Talbot’s collages are formally appropriate. His cartooning, already shifting chimerically from British boys’ adventure to Beano-style humor, is layered with and pasted over photographs and paintings. The experience of wandering through Talbot’s reconstructions of Sunderland throughout time is a uniquely comic experience, but its lessons on the building of truths and fictions are universal.

Alec: The Years Have Pants

By: Eddie Campbell
Genre: autobiography
Context: written and published across over 30 years by Tundra, Dark Horse, and more; collected by Top Shelf

This huge book comprises a number of older books along with shorter works and scraps that were never completed. I probably should have reviewed it in smaller chunks. It feels weird trying to analyze 30 years of a guy’s life.

I should start off by saying that I don’t like many autobio comics. I’m not sure why, and that’s maybe a topic for another post. Due to my inexperience with the genre, I may not be properly equipped to analyze this particular book. Why do I dislike most autobiographical books but consistently enjoy Eddie Campbell’s work?

The secret, for me, came unlocked when he began talking about the history of the comic strip. Instead of looking at the same bygone sources as others (Mayan columns, the Bayeux Tapestry, etc.), Campbell says that the artform that the comic is descended from is the graffiti that Romans scribbled on statues and walls.

This seems demeaning. It seems to say that comics can’t exist without larger works of arts. It makes comics seem reactive instead of novel. It’s something that I might disagree with. However, in the context of understanding Campbell’s work, it’s key.

Campbell will often say, “This volume is about [x event],” where that event is his relationship with a woman or his decision to be an artist or so on. However, the books don’t really follow a traditional narrative arc. They stagger here and there, putting a fist through a wall or stepping on tumbled knick-knacks. If you’re reading this book for rising action and a climax, you’re in the wrong book.

Campbell doesn’t try to make himself the hero of any story; he doesn’t even try to make himself the flawed but lovable antihero. Instead, he knows that he (and, by extension, most of humanity) is resigned to trying to get by and, when the spirit takes him, scribbling a little joke on the monoliths of culture.

I hope that doesn’t sound misanthropic. A key theme in Campbell’s work is the memento mori. Change and failure and death are always near. With that in mind, Campbell willfully espouses any moment of quiet repose or celebratory joy that passes his way. No rowdy song, transcendent bottle of wine, or bizarre kid joke goes undocumented.

In almost every element, Campbell walks that careful line. He is not too dour, but not overly saccharine. He allows for plots and patterns to emerge, but he’s faithful to life’s lack of those things. Tipping too far towards any of these options is what puts me off autobiographies. It might seem like dumb luck that Campbell has, over 30 years, managed to remain both entertaining and realistic. Don’t be fooled. The whole thing is an amazing sprezzatura, captured by someone who has truly lived life.

Out of the Odd Box: “The Worst Day of My Life”

It’s been over a week since my last post, and I’m still poring through Alec: The Years Have Pants. I still have about a hundred pages left. (Read along if you want. You can buy all 700 pages for $9.99 at the link above.)

I also read this proto-interview with Dave Eggers the other day. It’s all about selling out and why and how people write reviews, and Eggers sort of argues that negative reviews are worthless, and reviews in general are dishonest unless written by someone who’s worked in the same medium as the work being reviewed. Here’s a quote about considering the Flaming Lips as sellouts:

“That rule is clearly stated in the obligatory engrained computer-chip sellout manual that we were all given when we hit adolescence.

But this sellout manual serves only the lazy and small. Those who bestow sellouthood upon their former heroes are driven to do so by, first and foremost, the unshakable need to reduce. The average one of us – a taker-in of various and constant media, is absolutely overwhelmed – as he or she should be – with the sheer volume of artistic output in every conceivable medium given to the world every day – it is simply too much to begin to process or comprehend – and so we are forced to try to sort, to reduce. We designate, we label, we diminish, we create hierarchies and categories.

It’s sort of a long article, but it’s worth reading, and it’s related, in a sideways way, to why I’m solely keeping track of the comics I like. Believe me, there are tons of of books out there that I dislike, but I’ve never convinced someone to dislike a book they already enjoy, and even if I honestly believed that book was worthless, it would make my heart hurt to have someone agree with me and lose the magic of enjoying a story.

On the other hand, I have turned people on to books they didn’t know about or convinced them to give something a second look, and this has always been a good feeling.

That’s all prelude. Or tangent. Since I’m still digging through Alec, I thought I’d offer a look at a shorter work from my Odd Box.

That’s the Odd Box. It’s an old fruit shipping box that I keep my minicomics and giant comics and everything in between in. Here’s “The Worst Day of My Life” (click to enlarge, sorry I photographed this instead of scanning it, etc.).

“The Worst Day” came to me through a teacher in Texas who got it from a student. I’ve blocked out the author’s name at the teacher’s request. Here are the teacher’s words:

“I don’t really remember much about the context of the lesson. It was a writing class. I think they had to write something that told the same story but in a different format (traditional narrative writing). I didn’t teach the students anything about comic conventions which is why I was so surprised by [the] comic.

He was probably 13 or 14. I don’t remember anything about him personally except that he was a really quiet kid in school. I hardly ever heard him speak and when I did it was in Spanish. He wasn’t a special education student so I didn’t get to know him as well as the kids on my caseload.

I was impressed by his decision to not show the face of the character. I might have interpreted that in terms of his shyness but I don’t remember.”

I don’t know that I have much more to add. The lack of Kevin’s face is shy and distancing, but I think it also invites the reader to put him- or herself into Kevin’s place. I think most people have had days like this. The strip does a good job of mixing generality (back of the head, bland couch) with specificity (the construction of that big TV… or maybe I’m just too old to accept that big flatscreens are the most common televisions).

I also like the balance between the narration and pictured actions. I’ve talked a little bit about cartoonists making choices about what exact moments to show and from what angle, and I think the choices in this strip really enhance the despondency. The artist could have shown Kevin’s mom yelling, or he could have shown some sense of comfort in being in his room, but no, it’s just that hallway closing in at the end.

Agents of Atlas

Writer: Jeff Parker
Penciller: Leonard Kirk
Genre: pulp superhero
Context: originally printed as six issues by Marvel Comics; collected edition contains a bunch of ’50s stories as well

Here’s the first real superhero book I’ve read for this mission, and it sets the bar high. Agents is tightly plotted with plenty of room for characterization, and while it leaves the door open for future stories, it’s also almost entirely self-contained.

I’m never sure how I feel about plot versus realism. The path towards pure realism can be boring and self-indulgent, or it can be Ulysses. Plot exercised flawlessly can be predictable or lack characterization, or it can be, I don’t know, whatever your favorite detective story is. Plot and realism always feel opposed to me, since the more realistic something is (i.e. as things like bathroom breaks and long, meaningless silences are narrated), the harder it gets to stick to the rising and falling of a plot. It takes a talented writer to craft a plot that mirrors life while staying engaging.

Given that Agents of Atlas is about six heroes from the 1950s (“the secret agent, the goddess, the robot, the gorilla, the mermaid, the spaceman” — a great tagline) getting the band back together to go after their old nemesis across six issues, there’s not a whole lot of room for realism. Parker puts the team through a great adventure, though, where mysteries appear and are solved and characters change and grow, and then ending is surprising and avoids cliche without coming out of left field.

Leonard Kirk helps with the twists and turns immensely. At one point, there’s a traitor to the team, and the villain literally sees through the traitor’s eyes. If you go back through the book, you’ll see that Kirk often gives an establishing shot of the whole team and follows it with a “spying” panel of the villain watching his spy screen. The scene on the screen is exactly what the traitor would be seeing given his/her/its position, which is a great detail once you know who’s doing the spying.

Maybe saying that the series is plot-driven is wrong, though, because the book has a lot of character. Even though the members are ultra-powerful (they regularly toss tanks, control the minds of armies, and do just about anything with high-tech Uranian flying saucer technology), Parker & Kirk take time to develop each member of the team (and the antagonists), giving them all secrets, regrets, fears, and desires. The characters show the chumminess of old friends even in the midst of giving requisite expository dialogue. Parker’s words aren’t wasted, always serving at least two purposes, and Kirk’s expressive lines are similar; everyone has their own posture and expressions, whether they’re fighting killer plants or chatting in a diner. They even manage to redeem “The Yellow Claw,” a Yellow Threat villain from the ’50s.

I also just want to say that the collected edition, as a physical object, is really great. It reprints the six beautiful Tomm Coker covers. After the main story, there’s a section of sketchbook pages, interviews, and an excerpt of prose from an AR game that Parker ran when the issues were coming out. This is followed by reprints of each individual first appearance from the 1950s and the totally weird What If? comic that teamed them up in the ’70s which was maybe meant to be imaginary but maybe not and had a guy named 3D-Man.