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Willie Nelson: A Graphic History

Edited by T.J. Kirsch. NBM, $19.99 (88p) ISBN 978-1-68112-262-5

This anthologized graphic bio packs the eventful 60-plus-year career of the deceptively laid-back dynamo musician Willie Nelson into such a slim package that the attempt can’t help but fall short. Taking a uniformly upbeat approach, Kirsch (Pride of the Decent Man) and a half dozen other artists (each illustrating a chapter in styles ranging from moody to simplistic) start with Nelson’s small-town Texas childhood and his wandering, “sometimes wildly contradictory” young adulthood during which he taught Sunday school and began enjoying marijuana. Despite his laconic persona, Nelson is a scrappy hustler, singing and playing guitar in seemingly any bar with a stage and shilling his DJ recordings. After years of struggle, he moves to Nashville and grinds away as a songwriter, finally getting a hit when Patsy Cline records “Crazy.” Uncomfortable with the Nashville industry machine’s “forced polishings,” Nelson returns to Texas in the 1970s, where his eccentric style brings together “hippies and rednecks” and helps birth the “outlaw music” genre. Nelson’s later decades—founding Farm Aid and supergroup the Highwaymen, and hitting setbacks such as owing the IRS more than $16 million—are flatly recounted (though marital affairs add some drama). It’s a just-the-highlights approach, which, despite evident enthusiasm for Nelson, can’t quite capture the enduring appeal of the “elder statesman” of country. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The City of Belgium

Brecht Evens. Drawn & Quarterly, $29.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-77046-342-4

Evens (Panther) returns with a dreamlike, rambling, and fragmented narrative buoyed by eye-poppingly colorful visuals. The loosely plotted story crosscuts between three 20-somethings, each of whom spends an evening taking in the nightlife of an unnamed Belgian city, in hopes of transcending their mundane day-to-day. There’s Jona, a designer with a shady past who is moving to Berlin to join his wife; Rodolphe, a shut-in who takes “eight showers a day to distract” himself from health issues and who transforms into a dashing, philosophical satyr over the course of the night; and Victoria, who tries to extricate herself from her over-protective sister and her husband to have some real fun. Each manages to pair up with friends as they seek adventure, find trouble, and discuss their lives. Through it all, the city itself looms as a character, seething with alluring colors and nightclub denizens on the prowl, and the promise of salvation (or damnation). Some particularly stunning set pieces include the fully revived Rodolphe arriving at Club Harem to dance, and Victoria’s surreal cab ride after she has ditched her family. Some may find Evens’s story frustratingly opaque, even while admiring his audacious visuals. Fans of Olivier Schrauwen and other challenging avant-garde comics will be amply rewarded. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Solutions and Other Problems

Allie Brosh. Gallery, $30 (529p) ISBN 978-1-98215-694-7

Brosh follows up bestseller Hyperbole and a Half with a gut-busting volume of autobio comics. Her wobbly, wall-eyed avatar regards the world with bafflement as she hurls herself into one bizarre situation after another. As a toddler, Brosh gets trapped in a bucket, invades her neighbor’s home through a cat door, and later becomes a suspect in the mystery of how horse poop keeps materializing in the house. As an adult, she tries to build character by getting deliberately lost while on drugs (“I’m like 99% sure we aren’t inside the moon right now”), and unveils more complex stories of medical, psychological, and family ordeals. Like a millennial James Thurber, Brosh has a knack for seeding a small, choice detail that snowballs into existential chaos, such as when a bird’s mating dance leads her to question reality itself. Brosh’s spidery and demented digital portraits, a visual expression of fun-house mirror anxiety, fits her material perfectly. In piecing together the many turns of her life, she reflects, “Sometimes all you can really do is keep moving and hope you end up somewhere that makes sense.” This achingly accurate and consistently hilarious comic memoir finds Brosh moving forward and becoming a stronger, braver storyteller page by page. Agent: Monika Verma, Levine Greenberg Rostan. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Contradictions

Sophie Yanow. Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-77046-407-0

Yanow (War of Streets and Houses) captures with wit and insight the conflicts inherent in being young and remaining idealistic in her Eisner Award–winning autofiction. A queer 20-year-old, Yanow starts off her college foreign exchange program in Paris waiting for life to get exciting: “So far I felt I had few stories worth telling.... If something was going to change, surely this was the place for it.” Financially strapped and unsure of herself, she befriends a woman named Zena, who introduces her to anarchist ideals such as veganism, squatting, worker-owned cooperatives—and shoplifting. The pair then embark on a spring break road trip, hitchhiking through Amsterdam, Ghent, and Berlin. Though Yanow initially admires Zena and tries to emulate her, including going “vegan for the trip, like in solidarity,” tensions soon arise, as Yanow realizes that walking their idealistic talk trips up on complicated realities. Yanow’s invigorating clear-line cartooning, which recalls Otto Soglow, matches perfectly with her deadpan, observational storytelling. Her angular, long-limbed characters bound about from minimalist white-space panels to carefully detailed European cityscapes. Appealing both to indie comics fans on the cusp of coming-of-age to those looking back decades to their own youthful follies, this assured, smart chronicle is a winner. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Come Home, Indio

Jim Terry. Street Noise, $16.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-951491-04-8

Terry, as a child growing up between households and cultures—his Irish American father’s in the Chicago suburbs and his Native (Ho-Chunk) mother’s in the Wisconsin Dells—gets told off by his dad: “You’re too sensitive, Indio.” But fortunately for readers of this raw and intimate graphic memoir, Terry never fully lets go of his youthful vulnerability. Terry begins his chronicle of his lifelong search for belonging with stories of being raised by parents whose good intentions are undermined by alcoholism and anger, and continues through his euphoric discovery of drinking as a teen and subsequent grim, drawn-out battle with his own addiction, before ending with his activism and spiritual awakening on the campgrounds at the Dakota Access Pipeline. Terry notes his attachment to Will Eisner and friendship with artist James O’Barr (the Crow series); their influence is evident in his expressive line drawings and distinctive shading. While he poignantly recalls his teenage girlfriend, he deliberately silhouettes adult romantic relationships, including a broken marriage (seemingly both for the women’s privacy and to represent how they were overshadowed by his love affair with alcohol). In a stylistic shift, the sections around his travels to the pipeline, in which he processes the inherited trauma of his Native ancestry, are elaborated in full pages of text with atmospheric landscape and portrait drawings. Reckoning with sobriety requires connection and humility, as Terry makes the case for with sincerity and beauty, as he ties his recovery to his spiritual homecoming. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Nineteen

Ancco, trans. from the Korean by Janet Hong. Drawn & Quarterly, $21.95 (176p) ISBN 978-1-77046-410-0

Ancco (Bad Friends) shows off her narrative range in this gritty collection of short comics. In episodes documenting young, contemporary Korean life, a high school student juggles exam prep while tending to her alcoholic mother; a young woman tries to connect with her isolated grandmother; and friends on a New Year’s bar crawl gossip about a homeless woman. “Nineteen,” the longest piece in the collection, homes in on Ancco’s favorite subject, rowdy teenage girls, as they smoke, drink, draw smutty comics, hang out in an abandoned house, and privately worry about their futures. Another powerful piece, “The Life,” dramatizes an anonymous online post by a young man living with HIV. Between these scenarios, Ancco sprinkles loosely inked autobiographical shorts in which she learns the guitar, feeds stray dogs, and gives her boyfriend a disastrous haircut. Her rambling, lived-in-looking city streets and scowling, exaggerated, faintly grotesque characters recall the art of North American indie cartoonists like Julie Doucet and Hellen Jo, but with a sensibility wholly of her own place and time. “I don’t know who the weirdo is—me or everyone else,” says one of her characters, summing up the mixture of rebellion, cynicism and wonder that permeates her work. Fans of smart YA drama and iconoclastic autobio will want to venture into Ancco’s broody imagination. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Kusama: A Graphic Biography

Elisa Macellari, trans. from the Italian by Edward Fortes. Laurence King, $19.99 (128p) ISBN 978-1-786277-169

Macellari’s splendid biography of Yayoi Kusama brings the artist’s neurotic obsessions to life. Growing up in a small Japanese town, Kusama is plagued by unsupportive parents, severe anxiety, and hallucinations. Art is her only and constant solace. She discovers Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings and their “magical power” and corresponds with the artist, who encourages her to come to New York. Kusama does so in 1957 and eventually connects with N.Y.C.’s Warhol-led avant-garde. Headlines about the naked performance pieces she directs find their way back to Japan, and after her fraught psychological state intensifies, she checks into a mental hospital and is nearly forgotten by the fickle art world. Other events in Kusama’s life, including her chaste but emotionally intimate affair with artist Joseph Cornell and her eventual return to international prominence, are documented. Throughout, Macellari privileges storytelling through imagery over cramming in biographical details, employing a color palette of vivid red, turquoise, coral, and lilac, and a geometric array that includes circles, squares, and the neat curves of traditional Japanese paintings. Macellari’s comics interpret and mirror Kusama’s art in a way that honors it but doesn’t imitate it. This satisfying glimpse into Kusama’s world reveals a place both tidy and trippy. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Titan

François Vigneault. Oni, $19.99 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-62010-779-9

Good intentions are crushed by greed in this empathetic rendering of culture clash that unfolds amid the drama of an interstellar class war. João da Silva arrives as manager of a power plant on the moon Titan, imagining he’ll play the role of liberal reformer and improve relations between the 500-odd Terrans, colonists who hold all managerial and security jobs, and the 50,000 Titans, oversize grunt-level workers genetically modified to labor in low-gravity. The Terrans condescendingly see the “trolls” as brutish “giant men on tiny worlds,” while the Titans live by a moral code that values survival over sophistication: “You either take a beating or you give one.” Da Silva is assigned Titan Phoebe Mackintosh as a guide to the machinery, and the pair discover a surprising and sensual simpatico. As protests demanding “Titan for Titans” escalate into multi-planet warfare, da Silva and Mackintosh’s relationship puts both of them at risk. Vigneault makes masterful use of a limited color palette, depicting the rich texture of the industrial space station with hues of pink and black. The soft colors, quiet moments of shared intimacy, and detail in each character’s face create a tenderness unusual in a sci-fi rife with strikes and bloodshed. While many space-age stories warp toward a final frontier, Vigneault turns his characters and their loyalties inward and inside out, begging readers to ask who, in any capitalist society, is the real enemy? This blend of indie art and sci-fi social commentary will appeal to fans of the Bitch Planet and Paper Girls series. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/17/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Sapling (Family Tree #1)

Jeff Lemire et al. Image, $9.99 (96p) ISBN 978-1-53431-649-2

Readers are left guessing at every turn of this offbeat supernatural thriller series launch by Lemire (Frogcatchers) with art by Phil Hester and others. Loretta, a single mom in a small Maine town, is forced to fight for her family’s life when her daughter develops a bizarre disorder: a tree starts growing out of her back. In no time, the town is in chaos and Loretta and her kids, along with her rifle-toting father-in-law, hit the road, fleeing a shadowy organization called the Arborists. This is all played straight as hard-boiled pulp, replete with car chases, gunfights, brutal violence, and copious swearing, as if the creators barely notice how weird it is when plant life engulfs a town or Grandpa talks to his sapient artificial hand. The spare, stylized art, with shapes blocked out in strong blacks and simple colors, reminiscent of Hellboy, helps sell the genre mash-up. The first volume ends abruptly, raising more questions than glimpses of answers: What is the plant plague? What’s behind the dueling secret organizations on the family’s tail? The overall question remains: will future issues answer the mystery in a satisfying fashion? Until then, the opening volume should appeal to curious fans of well-rendered action and supernatural suspense. (June)

Reviewed on 07/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Leonardo da Vinci: The Renaissance of the World

Marwan Kahil and Ariel Vittori, trans. from the French by Montana Kane. NBM, $19.99 (128p) ISBN 978-1-68112-259-5

The Leonardo da Vinci who emerges from this portrait by Kahil (Albert Einstein: The Poetry of Real) remains an enigma, albeit an impressive one. A “bastard” child pitied by his neighbors, da Vinci starts his career apprenticing in late-15th-century Florence. In his youth, da Vinci is imprisoned for consorting with other young men and, after relocating to Milan to “make a lasting impression on the minds of mortals,” he finds patronage with the Sforzas. Kahil portrays da Vinci in this period as a tempestuous (“We’ll meet again in hell, Michelangelo”) multigenre polymath, crafting works like The Last Supper, a somewhat faulty flying machine, and feats of military engineering, while tossing off the Mona Lisa almost as an afterthought. Kahil skips episodically through da Vinci’s life, only glancing at scenarios including his fraught relationship with the thieving apprentice Salai and assisting the Borgias in their military conquests. Despite the dramatic framing of Vittori’s illustrations (some of which mimic the sweep and precision of da Vinci’s sketches), his subject remains somehow remote, even with the reflective framing device in which an elderly da Vinci laments Rome as a “prison of hypocrisy” while workers classify his voluminous codices for posterity. Though visually dynamic, this take on an indefinable genius still leaves too much to the imagination. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/10/2020 | Details & Permalink

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