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Downfall

Inio Asano, trans from Japanese by Jocelyne Allen. Viz, $14.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-974709-36-6

Asano (Dead Dead Demon’s Dededede Destruction) investigates artistic self-absorption in a melancholy standalone manga featuring a comics artist struggling with conflicted desires. Kaoru Fukazawa has just finished his manga series spanning 10 years, but despite a small but dedicated fan base, dwindling sales prevent him from rejoicing in his accomplishment. He feels neglected by his manga editor wife as she becomes more involved with one of her artists, leading him to turn to the affections of young sex workers and subsequently ask for a divorce. He becomes particularly obsessed with Chifuyu, a young woman with “eyes like a cat’s.” Despite insisting that he is still working on ideas for his next manga, he lays off his assistants. He never tells his mother about his separation from his wife, going so far as to not talk to her for six months. Fukazawa lets his obstinacy destroy his relationships, all while burying his discontent with his life and his work in the arms of Chifuyu, who proves to be just as selfish as Fukazawa. Asano’s richly detailed, semirealistic artwork and signature visual and narrative moodiness are on display, such as in the black word panels framing Fukazawa’s anxiety about drawing again. This dour tale provides an antiaspirational cautionary narrative of a creator adrift. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Machine Never Blinks: A Graphic History of Spying and Surveillance

Ivan Greenberg, Everett Patterson, and Joseph Canlas. Fantagraphics, $22.99 (136p) ISBN 978-1-68396-282-3

This stark warning about the digital scrutiny of contemporary lives opens with a Ralph Nader foreword fulminating against private industry spying on netizens (“Your information floats around the world in unseen hands”). But Greenberg (Surveillance in America) tends to be more focused on how systems of power curtail dissent. The first part of his illustrated history—whose line drawings are distractingly goofy and YA-oriented in a Larry Gonick–esque manner—reaches back to ancient times to show how stories like that of the Trojan horse explain methods of enacting and circumventing “social control.” The linkages aim for thought-provoking but founder, while his argument that “forms of surveillance in the Bible have paved the way for acceptance of surveillance in our modern lives” can be hard to swallow. Greenberg is on surer footing taking readers through government abuses of civil liberties via intrusive snooping in episodes on COINTELPRO, the McCarthy-era blacklist, and Occupy Wall Street. He arrives at a declaration that today’s CCTV-studded “security cities” and Panopticon-like social-media data mining are bad trade-offs (massive privacy loss for negligible security gain). While impassioned, Greenberg’s limited perspective (he only looks at America) and rushed edu-comic style too often trades analysis for fulmination. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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The Rough Pearl

Kevin Mutch. Fantagraphics, $22.99 (172p) ISBN 978-1-68396-284-7

Mutch (Fantastic Life) draws readers into the full bloom of mental breakdown in this viciously satirical graphic novel. Adam Kline, a struggling digital artist in the mid-1990s, teaches part-time at a New York fashion school and is stuck in a loveless marriage with another professor. Mutch skewers both the academic and art worlds that misanthropic Adam moves between as he quells his anxiety with so much Ativan that he suffers frequent hallucinations and blackouts. He acts on an ill-advised crush with a student, develops a paranoid fixation with a new colleague, and flirts with potential professional success after a gallery owner takes interest in his work. But Adam is adept at undermining himself, often waking from a blackout to realize he’d inadvertently done something horrible. When fully conscious, he worries so fervently about saying the wrong thing that he inevitably blurts out the worst. Mutch’s black-and-white drawings render these situations as uncomfortable as they are laugh-out-loud funny; he’s skillful at illustrating people who can barely hold their emotions in check. It’s exhausting being inside Adam’s head, yet the cringe humor keeps this darkly funny graphic novel from getting bogged by his despair and paranoia. The sticky mix of surrealism, satire, and situational comedy makes this deeply discomfiting graphic novel hard to put down. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Giant

Mikaël, trans. from the French by Matt Madden. NBM, $24.99 (120p) ISBN 978-1-68112-253-3

Set during the construction of Rockefeller Center in the 1930s, this spectacularly drawn historical epic brings Depression-era New York City to riotous, romanticized life. At the center of the sprawling narrative is Giant, a hulking, closemouthed steelworker who joins a crew of fellow Irish immigrants, “sky boys” working hundreds of feet off the ground on the rising edifice. Giant harbors secrets carried over from the old country, and he begins an epistolary relationship with the widow of a sky boy (pretending to be her husband, as he can’t bring himself to reveal to her that he’s died). But the storytelling is more about the new world: the personal dramas of Giant’s crewmates and tenement neighbors, as well as the city itself, the graphic novel’s most shining character. Mikaël draws bathhouses, brothels, Catholic churches, and Hoovervilles with enthusiasm and attention to period detail. The rich, classical illustration style, colored in sepia tones, respectfully recalls the art of old N.Y.C.’s great draftsman, Will Eisner. Set pieces, including a trip through Ellis Island and a visit to one of the early Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades, are rendered with panache. The translation by Madden brings the operatic story down to earth with colorful period dialogue. This melodrama lives up to its inspiring setting, a muscular young city in a nation of immigrants, brimming with stories to tell. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/07/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Everything, Vol. 1

Christopher Cantwell and I.N.J. Culbard. Dark Horse/Berger, $19.99 trade paper (104p) ISBN 978-1-5067-1492-9

The second comic book miniseries from Cantwell, cocreator of the TV series Halt and Catch Fire, plunges from its opening pages into trippy retro weirdness. The year is 1980, and Everything, a megastore promising to serve every conceivable need and desire, has just opened in the quiet suburban town of Holland. At the same time, the town is inundated with strange phenomena: bug infestations, spontaneous human combustion, music from nowhere, “color harmonics,” and physical and mental degradation among the townspeople. Lori, new in town and starved for human connection, joins the few locals investigating the mysteries of Everything, only to be seduced by its cultlike employee culture and relentlessly upbeat manager (and possible android), Shirley. Culbard’s clean art and flat, bright colors are almost magazine-ad generic, appropriate to the theme of commercial artificiality eating away at reality. The fast-moving plot is engrossing but often confusing; a baseline for the book’s fictional universe isn’t established, for instance, by the time a talking teddy bear shows up. As the narrative ends with a plot twist, it’s not yet clear if the comic’s many threads will pull together toward a satisfying resolution. Though Cantwell aims for the fun-house fearlessness of lit-pop comics creators such as Grant Morrison, at times the barrage of ideas threatens to numb rather than awe. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Mitchum

Blutch, trans. from the French by Matt Madden. New York Review Comics, $24.95 (232p) ISBN 978-1-68137-444-4

French cartoonist Blutch (Total Jazz) dazzles in this surreal comics collection, which employs American and other cultural tropes and history as a kind of mythological inspiration. Blutch’s warped American dreams fixate on the darker side of Pilgrim and Western imagery, with sex and violence lurking throughout. “Hoboken” features a caricature of the actor Robert Mitchum as the menacing preacher character Harry Powell. “Parisse” is a slice-of-life romance story with staggeringly beautiful figure drawings. “I Want You” riffs on sexual tensions between artists and models with a funny twist ending. “Tina Mexico” seeks to capture the flavor of a small Mexican town, with a local dance building to a fever pitch as the drawings become increasingly abstract. Blutch modulates mood and tone with swirling blacks and intense scribbles as he juxtaposes stories featuring cartoony drawings with those capturing an almost romantic naturalism. Some of the stories, however, feel perfunctory and clichéd compared to the sumptuous visuals. Blutch’s exquisite art remains the primary attraction in this collection of fantasies and fragments. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Fire on the Water

Scott MacGregor and Gary Dumm. Abrams ComicArts, $24.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-4197-4116-6

Little-known passages in the history of Cleveland in the 1900s inspire this earnest fictionalized tale of life and death among the “sandhogs”—immigrant workers who dig tunnels to bring clean water to the city. The account is rife with relevant themes—ecological disaster (typhus outbreaks are common due to Lake Erie’s fetid waters), anti-immigration sentiments, and racism among them. Some characters are based on real life figures, including Benjamin Beltran, inspired by inventor Garrett Morgan—whose fire-fighting creation the “smoke helmet” is laughed at because he’s African-American. Another thread follows Rodger Clarke, the Irish foreman on Crib #5, one of the tunneling projects made potentially fatal by subterranean gas pockets near the work site. Their paths intertwine—along with various others, including the corrupt mayor and project supervisors, and struggling sandhogs—in a conflagration known as “1916 Waterworks Disaster” that sees Beltran’s invention put to dramatic use. MacGregor and artist Dumm (American Splendor) are both native Clevelanders, bringing shared passion for their local history. But the effort is somewhat undermined by Dumm’s occasionally plodding art style, with stiff and overly similar character art, and by MacGregor’s overreliance on patois and accents. Well-meaning if not sparkling in execution, this nonetheless presents a plucky tale of survival and heroism. (May)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Supermom: Expecting Trouble

Gordon McLean and Caio Oliveira. Action Lab Entertainment, $14.99 (128p) ISBN 978-1-63229-564-4

In this affable, sitcom-esque superhero comedy, Jade Faraday uses her electric powers to fight crime as the superheroine Voltra, with her mom and teenage sister as backup. The family business is disrupted by Jade’s unexpected pregnancy, the result of a fling that turns out to have been a very bad idea. Not only does Jade have to hide her baby bump while confronting supervillains, the pregnancy begins to sap her powers. The narrative, while loose on plot, is peppered with clever banter and maternity jokes, including an ob-gyn who specializes in the unique challenges of super-pregnancies and a visit to a superhero baby shower. Most of the characters are familiar genre types, though Dischordia, a villainess, has unusual music-based powers (a concept that goes underused). Unfortunately, the uneven, by-the-numbers art isn’t a great fit for the lighthearted, character-driven story; action scenes and monsters are drawn effectively, but too often the human characters have ugly, distended faces with awkwardly exaggerated expressions. The result is a good-hearted, sporadically entertaining comic that starts with a promising idea but struggles to develop it effectively. (May)

Reviewed on 01/31/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Doctor Mirage

Magdalene Visaggio and Nick Robles. Valiant, $14.99 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-68215-346-8

Visaggio (Strangelands) introduces paranormal investigator Shan Fong Mirage—or Doctor Mirage—whose power lies in her ability to communicate with the dead, in this first volume of a cerebral and otherworldly series. Mirage is confused when the dead seem to have gone silent, including her deceased magician husband, Hwen. But then 16-year-old Grace Lugo shows up at her door, claiming to have been sent by Hwen, and reveals that she and Mirage are dead and in hell themselves—and Doctor Mirage has to pierce the veil between the present and the afterlife in order to answer the question: how do you investigate your own death? The series opener is ripe with delightfully psychedelic twists, rooted by tropes of mythological tragedy (they seek out the cult of Goddess Isis for guidance). Robles’s dynamic artwork brings the dead back to life through creative use of broken panel borders and mixed media texturing, with cartooning reminiscent of both Bill Sienkiewicz and Fiona Staples. The blend of fantasy, mythology, and a serious look at grief give this genre-bending series plenty of room to grow in its future installments. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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Long Story Short: 100 Classic Books in Three Panels

Lisa Brown. Algonquin, $14.95 (80p) ISBN 978-1-61620-503-4

Brown (The Phantom Twin) condenses classic and contemporary literature into summary comic strips, usually (though not always) three panels long in this feather-light collection. Sometimes she achieves the laugh: Interview with the Vampire is summarized as “It’s all fun and games until you have a kid”; the Walden strip pokes fun at Thoreau for living in Emerson’s backyard; and boiling the entire Bhagavad Gita down to three panels could only end in absurdity. But more often, each strip states the book’s premise or quotes a line without adding special perspective beyond the accomplishment of diminishment. Serious, hard-to-joke-about works like The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Beloved are reduced to pithy platitudes (e.g., “The legacy of slavery is haunting” superimposed on a ghost at a gravestone). There’s nothing wrong with the literal approach to this exercise, per se, but the Cliffs Notes level of commentary can be disappointing, and the better strips leave the rest paler. Brown’s simple but playful and boldly colored art carries off a visual unpretentiousness that suits the erudite-lite material. The result is a cute gift book with just enough going for it, though it could do with more punch. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/24/2020 | Details & Permalink

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