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Leonard Cohen: On a Wire

Philippe Girard, trans. from the French by Helge Dascher and Karen Houle. Drawn and Quarterly, $24.95 (120p) ISBN 978-1-77046-489-6

Canadian rocker-poet Leonard Cohen’s tumultuous life and career gets an oddly muted replay in this graphic biography from Girard (Haiti). Framed in mordant fashion by Cohen’s final thoughts as he lays dying on his bedroom floor in 2016 (“All alone, like a dog”), the narrative cuts to postwar Montreal, where Cohen pursues his priorities (“wine, women and song”) with a dour determination. Wandering from London to a small Greek island, he plucks away at a minor poetry career before turning fully to the guitar. Trying to break through as a singer-songwriter in 1960s New York, he hobnobs with some rock stars (Lou Reed) and romances others (Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin). The ups and downs are narrated in a straightforward, episodic fashion with simple character drawings, often layered with a depressive torpor appropriate to Cohen’s musical mood. Girard hits all the major touchstones, from the surprise late-in-life fame from Jeff Buckley’s hit cover of “Hallelujah” to Cohen’s manager defrauding him out of millions, and the artist going into a Zen monastery. Girard’s focus on Cohen as a complicated man is well detailed, but it leaves limited space for untangling the complexities of his musical and literary output. All the necessary elements are in play, but they’re not quite in tune. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Dracula: Son of the Dragon

Mark Sable and Salgood Sam. Dark Horse, $19.99 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-5067-2442-3

“Much of what we know of Dracula is a lie,” suggests this satisfying comics history of the real-life Vlad the Impaler from Sable (the Miskatonic series) and Sam (Dream Life), which mixes in fantastical elements with the known events of the historical figure. Vlad and his younger brother Radu were born into their father’s ruthless political power struggle for control of Europe’s Wallachia and Transylvania (both now Romania). Banished to Bucharest’s Scholomance (a fabled devil’s academy, a kind of Hogwarts from Hell), Vlad learns of dark magic and a cult that drinks blood to revive their energies. Setting his sights on his late father’s unfinished goals—total authority over the region—he rides out in battle to seize his birthright. Sable scripts an intricate narrative with ample characters and double-crossing, and it buzzes along vigorously. Sam’s art lays out the scenes and figures in a gothic, almost woodcut style, with vibrant action punctuating quieter moments. Extensive endnotes that examine the connections between the real life Vlad Tepes and the character in Stoker’s novel offer a bonus for the vampire lit buffs. It’s a vivacious adventure tale of the greatest monster of fiction—and history. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Shadowman, Book 1

Cullen Bunn and Jon Davis-Hunt. Valiant, $14.99 trade paper (112p) ISBN 978-1-68215-374-1

This reboot by Bunn (the Deadpool series) sends its macabre superhero on a series of gleefully spine-chilling adventures that gradually build to a more menacing plot. Jack Boniface’s bond with a voodoo spirit gives him the ability to cross between the human world and the Deadside—plus a cool skull face and a glowing scythe with which he dispatches dangerous Deadside spirits. Guided by the sardonic, untrustworthy Baron Samedi, Boniface travels the earth, taking on a secret blood cult in New Orleans, a haunted ghost town in Arizona, and supernatural threats in Barcelona, London, and Port-au-Prince. Between fight scenes and action-hero bon mots (“All those murder-parties usually wreak havoc on property values”), Boniface and the Baron find themselves on the trail of a spreading evil called the Blight, as well as a mysterious, powerful woman. The detailed art from 2000 A.D. alumnus Davis-Hunt rolls out a spooky, atmospheric setting, gruesome and bizarre monsters, and plenty of gory magical battles. Jordie Bellaire’s glowing, jewel-like colors lend beauty to the creepiest creatures. Combining horror, urban fantasy, and a touch of superheroics, this fast-paced adventure is a sure bet for fans of all three genres, out just in time for Halloween. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Original Sisters: Portraits of Tenacity and Courage

Anita Kunz. Pantheon, $30 (320p) ISBN 978-0-593-31614-6

Kunz (Another History of Art) delivers a soulful survey of notable women that spans the prehistoric to Vice President Kamala Harris in this visually arresting collection. The profiles and thumbnail profiles are arranged alphabetically by name, and while design elements such as lettering and ornamentation reflect the shifting time periods, the lack of thematic organization can leave the achievements of these women unmoored of context. It also results in some jarring juxtapositions. Alice Ball, the African American woman who developed a treatment for leprosy precedes Melitta Bentz, the German woman who invented the coffee filter, and the Osage dancer Maria Tallchief, the first Native American prima ballerina, directly follows Peggy Jo Tallas, a white bank robber; the sequencing can leave the accomplishments by women of color feeling diminished when placed next to a curiosity factor. Some laurels, meanwhile, are rumored or unproven, such as Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, who was possibly the real creator of Duchamp’s urinal. Kunz describes wanting to paint women who were “not known” but curiously includes Queen Elizabeth. As the artist calls it, even this expansive list offers “only a beginning.” Indeed, it’s a solid primer and works as a jumping-off point for further reading. Agent: Allison Devereux, the Cheney Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/08/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Walking Cat: A Cat’s-Eye-View of the Zombie Apocalypse (Omnibus Vol. 1–3)

Tomo Kitaoka, trans. from the Japanese by Caleb D. Cook. Seven Seas, $24.99 trade paper (552p) ISBN 978-1-64827-611-8

Kitaoka’s offbeat debut manga proves that even a zombie apocalypse can be bearable with a cute cat sidekick. Jin Yahiro is searching the wastelands for his wife when he comes across a white cat named Yuki, and adopts him as a traveling companion (saved narrowly from a pair of kids who try and eat him). Yuki’s feline intuition helps out as the pair make their way to an island rumored to be a safe haven, but which proves perilous when a mother refuses to kill her infected child, and survivors are forced to seek shelter back on the mainland. Gory misadventures abound, drawn often via a cat’s-eye view. Long stretches of silent panels and low angles help readers identify with Yuki’s perspective as he travels through the reanimated-corpse-infested world. Moments of levity inject this bleak survivalist narrative with personality, such as Yuki’s quest for a female cat to mate with, but other attempts at humor (like cats stealing a virologist’s glasses) fall flat. There’s a crowded cast of secondary characters; notably the drama between a teenage survivor and her mom’s abusive new boyfriend feels jarringly out of place. Despite some narrative bumpiness, the interspecies friendship makes for an oddly empathetic entry in the undead-hordes category. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Discipline

Dash Shaw. New York Review Comics, $27.95 trade paper (312p) ISBN 978-1-68137-569-4

Shaw (Doctors) crafts a harrowing but nuanced Civil War epic framed around the letters sent between a Quaker soldier and his sister. Seventeen-year-old Charles goes against the wishes of his family in Indiana to secretly join the Union army, feeling that the evil of slavery could only be eliminated through force. He experiences firsthand the capricious savagery of war and finds its honorifics to be hollow, though he values the camaraderie with his fellow soldiers. His sister Fanny, meanwhile, has to cope with his absence, a family tragedy, and faith-testing temptations of her own. The theme of discipline threads through both the military rigor Charles trains in as well as the concept of Quaker discipline; in the leaderless Quaker meetings, there are nonetheless admonitions to resist the sinful behavior of outsiders. Shaw resists easy categorization as a comics formalist, and his black and white drawings flow into each other without a grid, mimicking a scrapbook, employing cursive for the Cox siblings’ letters as another art element. The blend of mournful and contemplative musings from Charles and Fanny, along with the raw, ugly, details of life during wartime, combine into a searingly grim yet insightful study. Shaw artfully captures the timeless crisis of idealism meeting painful reality. Agent: Duvall Osteen, Aragi Inc. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Red Room: The Antisocial Network

Ed Piskor. Fantagraphics, $22.99 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-68396-468-1

Piskor (the Hip Hop Family Tree series) luxuriates in gruesome, abundant violence in this collection of torture-porn horror. The dark net proves the perfect background for a modern chiller: interconnected stories of murder and torture, via live webcasts where victims are graphically disemboweled, flayed, or ground up in machinery, all fueled by Bitcoin contributions from bloodthirsty online fans. Each of the four chapters focuses on a different cast and perspective of “Red Room” broadcasts, but running through is the descent into depravity of corpulent Davis Fairfield, a fan of—and later participant in—the Red Room. “It’s hard to admit out loud to being... so damned evil,” Fairfield muses, and he’s not alone: corrupt cops, cocksure hackers, and violent thrill-seekers are all sucked into this ghastly world. Piskor cites in the intro his antecedents, including splatterpunk 1980s comics like Tim Vigil’s Faust series and slasher films such as the banned Cannibal Holocaust, and 1950s EC classics. In this tradition, there are no heroes to be found and no morals to glean, just the requirement of strong nerves and a black sense of humor to appreciate sordid satire. This one’s for deep horror fans eager for ultimate gross-out nightmare material. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank

Eric Orner. Metropolitan, $25.99 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-250-19158-8

Orner (The Completely Unfabulous Social Life of Ethan Green) makes his graphic novel debut with an astute, richly detailed profile of political and gay rights icon Barney Frank. Frank emerged from humble beginnings to become a long-serving Democratic Massachusetts congressman. Though often gruff and impatient—adviser Jimmy Segel once said, “You gotta love Barney Frank to like him”—Frank was a passionate advocate for working-class people throughout his career, and popular enough to weather a sex scandal in 1989, during which he finally came out publicly as gay. Orner was Frank’s former press secretary, and he leverages this insider access to paint a witty, empathic portrait of a brilliant but lonely and conflicted politician who finally learns to reconcile his professional and personal lives, achieving something of a state of grace through coauthoring the landmark Dodd-Frank Act of 2010—and marrying his partner, Jim. Orner has a gift for capturing a sense of place, be it the halls of Congress, Boston streets on a sultry summer’s evening, or a depressed whaling town, all rendered in archly funny, colorful cartooning. He also clearly takes pleasure in caricaturing political villains, as in his deconstruction of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Orner achieves an exceptional balance of poignant biography, warts-and-all character study, and salty political satire. Political bios don’t get much better than this. (May.)

Reviewed on 10/01/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Failure Biographies

Johnny Damm. The Operating System, $34 (182p) ISBN 978-1-946031-92-1

Damm (The Science of Things Familiar) upends the usual fare of celebratory biographies of successful lives by finding inspiration in artists who tried and failed to change the world around them. Using collage techniques to mash up vintage horror and sci-fi comics like Tomb of Terror with WPA photography from the Great Depression, Damm documents forgotten lives and plumbs great meaning via unusual, macabre visuals that manage to jibe with their real-world subjects’ lives. Readers are treated to such unexpected portraits as Lorenza Böttner, an armless transgender woman who turned her own body into “exhibitionist” performance art; the “Tucumán arde” artists who attempted to foment popular resistance against the Argentinian military dictatorship in 1968; and Superbarrio Gómez, the Mexican real-life superhero who fights his own never-ending battle against the tyranny of evictions. Each section is followed by “Bodies in Space,” a series of unsettling liminal spaces and in-between moments compiled and edited from old comics. Drawing on Jack Halberstam’s theoretical framework in “The Queer Art of Failure,” it’s Damm’s goal to subvert the “neoliberal vision of ‘success’” in favor of a more attainable and holistic worldview. It’s a heady concept at which he—ironically enough—wholeheartedly succeeds in accomplishing. It’s a weird and engrossing volume for any reader who operates on this creator’s wavelength. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Too Tough to Die: An Aging Punx Anthology

Edited by Haleigh Buck and J.T. Yost. Birdcage Bottom, $20 trade paper (320p ) ISBN 978-1-73315-094-1

Punk’s still kicking in this massively entertaining anthology in which fans who came of age in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s ruminate on what the scene means to them at middle age and beyond. The comics range from hilarious to harrowing, from unabashedly nostalgic to refreshingly critical, and the inclusion of many artists who are women and people of color provides welcome perspectives on the racism and misogyny that sometimes infect the punk milieu, such as Ayti Krali and Fred Noland’s recollections of dealing with skinheads as Black punk teens. Hyena Hell thanks the Dead Milkmen for saving her life; Krali rediscovers political action as a gardener; Liz Prince recreates her favorite basement music venue in Animal Crossing; James Spooner crafts an irreverent guide to hairstyles and shoelace color codes; and Haleigh Buck tells her life story in concert fliers. Some repetition accumulates, but the pieces are consistently heartfelt and unflinching, and despite an oft-voiced commitment to grungy DIY ethos, showcase a high-level of artistic craft. Though the artists don’t shy away from the problems of punk, they remain inspired by its sense of freedom and space to create radical change. As Jordan Jeffries writes, “I can stay old and angry until the day there’s no more need.” This is one awesome and introspective ode to rebellion. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/24/2021 | Details & Permalink

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