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Familiar Face

Michael DeForge. Drawn & Quarterly, $21.95 (176p) ISBN 978-1-77046-387-5

This allegorical tale from DeForge (Leaving Richard’s Valley) follows a woman who spends her days reading the minor and major complaints of the public, offering a searing, surrealist critique of the culture of technological customization, and an ode to love in the face of overwhelming power. The reality of the unnamed heroine, from the architecture of her city to her own body, is subject to constant “optimization.” (“Maps would rearrange themselves with every update. The street you were driving on would fold in on itself without any warning.”) Her body becomes more and more abstracted as the panels progress. An automated system fields citizen complaints about all of this, and the protagonist is tasked with reading them, but she “never was told when or if a complaint was resolved.” Then her girlfriend Jessica disappears, forcing her to question the very nature of her ever-shifting world. DeForge’s loopy artistic talents are on full display: roads spiral dizzyingly; bodies mesh in tangled heaps of bright, flat color; and subways rush along on fleshy, veined tracks. It’s profoundly disorienting, yet skirts the edge of cuteness. The climax, involving a radical group of cartographers and a massive social protest, however, feels pat and stands out against DeForge’s otherwise staunch refusal of sentimentality. This is a kaleidoscopic vision of the strength of human connection, another artful and clever volume for DeForge’s many indie comics fans. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Dairy Restaurant

Ben Katchor. Schocken, $29.95 (496p) ISBN 978-0-8052-4219-5

Both narrowly targeted and searchingly broad, this religio-cultural-culinary historical deep dive from Katchor (Cheap Novelties) is ostensibly a study of the “dairy restaurants” that once served New York’s Jewish immigrant community. But Katchor ranges much further afield, often but not always in rewarding tangents. Interleaving dense text blocks with his usual sketchy, angular, but somehow ethereal drawings in gray and white, Katchor starts with the mythology of the Garden of Eden, where the drama of Adam, Eve, God, and the forbidden fruit establishes “the relationship between patron, proprietor, and waiter.” From there, Katchor roams through Torah restrictions on the “proper handling of milk and meat,” to the issues that arise when observant Jews ate with Gentiles, how the pastoral ideal merged with the rise of the restaurant, the “complex culture of milk drinking” and “Milchhallen” (milk- and cheese-focused cafes), and Tevye’s role as Sholem Aleichem’s tragicomic milkman. By the time Katchor gets to his loving accounting of New York’s mostly disappeared dairy restaurants, including original menus, he has nearly lost the threads of community, religion, exile, assimilation, and longing for the tastes of childhood that he so ambitiously tried to tie together. Exhaustive and somewhat exhausting, this graphic history shows again Katchor’s gimlet eye for curious connections and obsessive attention to detail. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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I Will Judge You by Your Bookshelf

Grant Snider. Abrams ComicArts, $16.99 (128p) ISBN 978-1-4197-3711-4

This playful, self-aware collection of strips and gags on the joys and frustrations of reading and writing is equal parts lighthearted and sincere. Snider is “writing the great American novel,” and one gets the sense that creating these comics was an escape during slumps. He riffs on literary genres (“Choose Your Own Memoir” displays a MadLibs mash-up of tropes) and the writing process (“The Writer’s Block” offers a Richard Scarry–esque streetscape whose “Publishing House” bears a “No Soliciting” sign). Snider pays homage to bibliophilia via a Haruki Murakami bingo game and a breakdown of bookshelf types that includes “stylish but shallow” and “stuck in high school.” Snider’s relationship to literature runs deep and is fraught with recognizable “Reader’s Blocks,” such as “low curiosity” or “overwhelmed by infinite possibility.” The panels range from gently clever to surprisingly profound to laugh-out-loud. And for aspiring writers in doubt (“What should I write about? Gods of Literature, send me a ray of hope”), Snider suggests looking to the “Three Rays”(Carver, Chandler, Bradbury): “A man. In a truck. By a river,” says Carver. “Murder at a tattoo parlor,” says Chandler. “A computer that can cry,” says Bradbury. All to say, Snider’s got a bit here for every avid reader. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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A Gift for a Ghost

Borja González, trans. from the Spanish by Lee Douglas. Abrams ComicArts, $24.99 (128p) ISBN 978-1-4197-4013-8

The lives of two teenage girls living 160 years apart intertwine in this magical coming-of-age story. In 1856, Theresa, an insouciant young woman with a taste for gothic poetry, is on the cusp of her debut into society and facing the expectations that come with it. In 2016, Laura, wearing a new costume each time she appears (sometimes as a fairy princess, sometimes a skeleton), writes inscrutable lyrics for her all-girl punk band. The mystery at the heart of this evocative graphic novel is exactly what connects these two girls, and the book cannily uses the artwork to provide clues. Teresa’s story appears in muted autumnal colors, while Laura’s is in black-and-white, except where pops of color escape from Teresa’s narrative—butterflies, ice cream, a cat, a costume. Each page is elegantly composed, with flat blacks that invoke a Mike Mignola–esque chiaroscuro. Though the figures are faceless, each character has a distinctive personality and body language that mark them as individuals. The idiosyncrasies of teenage girls’ friendships and sibling relationships are quietly conveyed and thoroughly believable. Combining understated visual storytelling and dialogue with gentle fantasy, this mystical story is wonderfully grounded in real emotion and experiences. (May)

Reviewed on 01/03/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Oak Flat

Lauren Redniss. Random House, $30 (288p) ISBN 978-0-399-58972-0

MacArthur “genius grant”–recipient Redniss (Thunder and Lightning) combines drawings with reportage and oral history to tell the story of America’s decimation of indigenous people and culture in this gorgeous, devastating, and hopeful ethnographic account. Oak Flat, a sacred Apache site in Arizona’s “Copper Corridor” is the subject of a years-long legal battle, beginning in the early 2000s, between the Resolution Copper mining company and an underresourced coalition of Apaches and conservationists. The hero of this far-reaching epic is Naelyn Pike, an Apache teen who testifies to Congress and provides an eloquent account of her Sunrise Dance, a complex coming-of-age ritual for young Apache women. Redniss also interviews miners and non-Native longtime residents of poverty-stricken Superior, Ariz., to reveal that only outsiders are getting rich in the mining scheme. She also documents the long legal war that the U.S. has waged against Native American territories, including the Supreme Court’s 1823 ruling in Johnson v. McIntosh that “‘principles of abstract justice’ could not be factored” into decisions about Native land. Redniss’s glowing colored-pencil illustrations capture the surreal magic of Southwestern landscapes: from a green-eyed ocelot, to the nearly empty Main Street in Superior. The future of Oak Flat and other sacred sites remains precarious, but Redniss effectively conveys the importance of these grounds and delivers a respectful and powerful portrait of people who are down but refuse to be counted out. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 12/20/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Bob Marley in Comics

Gaëts and Sophie Blitman, trans. from the French by Montana Kane. NBM, $27.99 (176p) ISBN 978-1-68112-249-6

Gaëts (The Beatles in Comics) and Blitman interpret the life and career of reggae artist Bob Marley through milestones presented by multiple artists in this somewhat ungainly anthology-style graphic biography. Gaëts and Blitman explore Marley’s story—from his humble beginnings in the Jamaican community of Nine Miles, to his education in music on the streets of Kingston, to his ascension with The Wailers to the top of the charts—along with his family relationships, marriage, and assorted affairs. Religion, political activism, and his love of soccer are also covered. Each chapter is drawn by a different artist, with distinct visual landscapes, beginning with Olivier Desvaux’s pastels and the detailed linework of Ammo and ending with the evocative color palette of Julien Atika and a folk art–influenced portrait of Marley’s funeral by Gil. Some chapters, though, such as the one by Efix, may raise eyebrows for their depictions of Marley in potentially offensive caricatures including goofy, cartoonish emphasis of his dreadlocks and nose . Between the graphic narratives, brief textbook-style sequences reiterate what the comics present with additional facts and (sometimes blithe) commentary in the format established for other titles in this imported series. Though the quality of the narratives varies, it’s a decent surface treatment, accessible for novice Marley fans and younger readers; those wishing for more sophisticated insights might do better with one of the biographies listed as suggested reading at the back. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/20/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Strange Ones

Jeremy Jusay. Gallery 13, $19.99 trade paper (192p) ISBN 978-1-982101-12-1

This arch coming-of-age graphic novel, originally serialized in zines in the 1990s and completed in the 2010s, unfolds predictably unevenly with flashes of poetry. Gen X hipsters Anjeline and Franck meet at a Belly concert and keep crossing paths until they become friends, despite Franck’s scowling pose of disinterest. They swap sardonic in-jokes and explore New York City together, hitting the Cloisters, the Staten Island Ferry, a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and hole-in-the-wall diners. In this gentle, nostalgic vision of the 1990s alternative scene, “strangeness” doesn’t get much more extreme than wearing Army surplus and silly-walking like a Monty Python routine; Julie Doucet would eat these kids alive. The early chapters meander, but gradually the protagonists expose vulnerabilities and face the question of what kind of adults they want to become. Like the story, the art gets better as it matures, shuffling from scratchy alternative-zine hatching to strong, sure inks. Jusay wears his artistic influences, especially clean-line indie cartoonists such as Jaime Hernandez and Dan Clowes, on his sleeve. A comic produced over a 25-year period can’t help but show growing pains, but it’s hard not to share at least some of the artist’s love for the characters and the very particular time and place they inhabit.(Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/20/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Portrait of a Drunk

Olivier Schrauwen, Jerome Mulot, and Florent Ruppert, trans. from the French by Jenna Allen. Fantagraphics, $29.99 (184p) ISBN 978-1-68396-289-2

Schrauwen (Parallel Lives), along with Ruppert and Mulot (The Perineum Technique), spins a good old-fashioned 18th-century pirate yarn filled with depravity, random violence, cruelty, and laughs. Repellent ship’s carpenter Guy alternates between drunkenly accosting people in bars, dodging responsibilities aboard the ship, and occasionally murdering people for money. Guy grudgingly accepts an apprentice named Clement and proceeds to abuse and demean him through both song (“Whose peepee is bent? Clement!”) and actions, as he leaves the boy to saw off a sailor’s leg with no help. Guy’s victims spy on him from purgatory, each one increasingly angry to see him get away with murder. Guy’s fever dreams and the spirits’ vengeance converge in a hilarious comeuppance, rendering him a drooling idiot. The varied visual approaches, from scratchy line work to sumptuous color to swirling blue and black lines surrounding souls in limbo, work to break up the repetitive quality of the slapstick violence and give heft to the book’s self-aware moral allegory. The story’s cheerfully nihilistic approach may not be for all tastes, but it serves up a visceral satire for those that can stomach it. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 12/20/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Big Black: Stand at Attica

Frank “Big Black” Smith, Jared Reinmuth, and Améziane. Archaia, $19.99 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-68415-479-1

Smith (1933–2004) was a prisoner who took a leadership role within the 1971 Attica prison uprising, and this immersive graphic memoir (coauthored by the stepson of his longtime lawyer) illuminates the plantationlike environment that precipitated the hostage crisis—and the bloody siege that followed. The son of a South Carolina sharecropper, Smith was sentenced to 10–15 years in prison in 1965 for holding up a dice game. At Attica, he becomes the yard football coach and bonds with an older prisoner obsessed with da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, an illustration repeated throughout the book to depict Smith’s later torture by guards in retribution for the uprising. The beating of two inmates triggers the prisoner revolt, in which guards and other employees are taken captive, and Smith is named by fellow inmates as head of security. He attempts to ensure hostage safety and manage tensions among inmates as they present their manifesto and appeals to then-governor Nelson Rockefeller. The account also details the 25-year legal battle that resulted in a 1997 settlement to Smith and others for their maltreatment. The stellar artwork by Améziane (Muhammad Ali) includes tabloidlike chapter openers rendered with bold fonts and exaggerated letterboxes. His expressive realism and muted colors invoke a nostalgic 1970s pulp effect reminiscent of Ed Piskor’s work. This penetrating portrait of a broken correctional system and a flawed man focuses on his legacy of courage, which towers over the forces stacked against him. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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J & K

John Pham. Fantagraphics, $39.99 (144p) ISBN 978-1-68396-222-9

Pham (Sublife) crafts a funny and surprisingly affecting story of two slacker friends and their marginal lifestyles. Jay and Kay steal taco rolls from their friend Eggy’s party, encounter Glumpires at the mall, seek out soulless minimum-wage employment, tramp through graveyards, and masquerade as cats and dogs in a Garfield riff. There is a central sweetness to all of the oddness on display; every character deals with sadness, loneliness, and trauma. Even a scene as grotesque as Jay giving “birth” to a pimple-creature they name “Bacne” is rendered semi-adorable in Pham’s hands, thanks in part to his soft day-glow color scheme. The design matches the ephemeral feel of the characters’ existence, floating through a world they don’t quite relate to. Jay, Kay, and Eggy (who is drawn with a face made up of a trypophobia-inducing cluster of lumps) take solace in old magazines, obscure music and video games, and other disposable culture that’s beautiful only to them. Pham includes posters, stickers, a 5” vinyl record, and other ephemera as part of the physical package of the volume, tied to its characters’ obsessions. This jumble of gags and lovable and loving outsiders succeeds through sheer, unrelenting weirdness. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/14/2019 | Details & Permalink

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