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Doomsday Clock, Part 1

Geoff Johns and Gary Frank. DC, $24.99 (224p) ISBN 978-1-77950-120-2

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen series inspires a second spin-off (after 2012’s Before Watchmen) in this world-colliding encounter between the Watchmen characters and the DC Universe. Launching from the revelation that DC’s 2011 “New 52” Universe was created by the big blue Dr. Manhattan, Johns (the Green Lantern series) leaps ahead to an even more dystopian post-Watchmen world from which Ozymandias, a new Rorschach (and villains the Marionette and the Mime, fundamentally the Joker and Harley Quinn of Earth-Watchmen) leap across universes into the world of Superman and Batman in search of the missing Dr. Manhattan. Frank (the Shazam! series) adeptly mimics Gibbons’s original design of mirrored and complementary panels and pages, as well as his well-choreographed sequences, such as when the Owlship bursts through clouds displaying the shadow of the Bat-Signal and crash-lands in an abandoned Gotham City amusement park. With copious violence, gore, and adult language, this series isn’t appropriate for younger fans—nor is it aimed at anyone who hasn’t already immersed themselves in the Watchmen lore. Notably, it was also created without Moore’s involvement or consent. But, despite whether Moore would approve, Johns and Frank treat his legacy with care. This highly entertaining metaphysical mash-up packs a wallop. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/13/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Reincarnation Stories

Kim Deitch. Fantagraphics, $29.99 (260p) ISBN 978-1-68396-261-8

Gloriously mad and bordering on nonsensical, this graphic novel from underground cartoonist Deitch (Shadowland) bounds around like it’s composed by Carlos Castaneda crossed with Fritz the Cat. It stars Deitch himself as an old man, suffering from the aftereffects of retinal surgery, who falls down the rabbit hole of his past after remembering an incident from his childhood: when a drunk D.W. Griffith mistook him for one Sid Pincus, a writer who came up with a creativity aid called the Plot Robot. Deitch feverishly slaps out tangled tales that weave biographical realities—he did draw cartoons in 1968 for the East Village Other, and his dad once ran the Terrytoons cartoon studio—with unlikely fuzzy childhood flashbacks about meeting old Hollywood stars (he claims to be very mistrusting of “the memory game” overall) and layers of outright psychedelia mixed with Hindu-inflected mysticism. In between, he follows long tangents, including a madman’s story of being raised by an extraterrestrial-worshipping band of monkeys and that of a whacked-out lost screenplay. Deitch’s signature crowded, heavily cross-hatched stiff figures with goony expressions mesh well with the reality-hopping stew of cross-dimensional riffings and reincarnations. This ribald Rubik’s Cube of a book feels both like paean to 1960s alternative comix, which Deitch helped define, and gleefully ignorant of any tether whatsoever. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/13/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Invisible Empire: Madge Oberholtzer and the Unmasking of the Ku Klux Klan

Micky Neilson, Todd Warger, and Marc Bostel. Insight Comics, $24.99 (112p) ISBN 978-1-68383-447-2

While this historical graphic novel has noble ambitions, dramatizing the true story of a brutal 1920s crime that ignited a backlash against the Ku Klux Klan, the execution is cringe-inducing. Madge Oberholtzer, portrayed here as a relentlessly sunny young educator, briefly dates D.C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan and operator of a far-right political machine. After she leaves him, he and his cronies kidnap and rape her. Prosecutor William Remy takes on the case against Stephenson, challenging the Klan’s power. The story is clumsily scripted and drawn with cartoonishly evil, ugly racists sneering at attractive Brylcreemed heroes. The creators never surmount the inherent problem of telling a story about racism by focusing on the suffering of a white woman and the heroism of a white man. Instead, they surround the white heroes with minor black characters who inspire them (“It’s only when we use all the colors in the palette that the canvas really comes to life,” a friendly black artist tells Oberholtzer in a painfully unsubtle scene) and cheer them on. The overly photorealistic art is awkward, with photostatted backgrounds and characters who pass into the uncanny valley. This stiff, didactic, and overly sensationalistic attempt at illustrating history is one to miss. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/06/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Death of The Master

Patrick Kyle. Koyama, $19.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-927668-71-9

Kyle (Roaming Foliage) uses a simple, angular line in the service of this devastating satire of religion, industry, and arbitrary authority. It takes place in a society dominated by an eccentric Master, a cult leader whose every nonsensical utterance is taken as a pearl of wisdom and absolute truth. When he dies, an elaborate lattice of lies, contradictions, and pure Dada is unveiled to keep the workers obedient. Kyle mixes in scatological humor that not only humanizes the characters but reveals the sheer banality of the entire society. The action is episodic and character-specific, rotating vignettes between the lives of workers, artists, children, comically evil industrialists, and the Master’s closest disciples. Every one of them is either evil, vain, or deluded. Even the occasional skeptic knows he can’t voice any protest for fear of rebuke. Heads literally burst. When faced with a paranormal event, the effects of a society run on doublespeak make that miracle just another contradiction to absorb. Kyle’s experimental art, with its blobby animal-like characters and long sequences focused on abstract machines and its frequent repeated blank page breaks, is as weird as he’s established in prior books, but this graphic novel is surprisingly accessible. It delivers a savvy takedown, leveraging broad humor to expose the essential absurdity of everyday life spent at the whims of self-deluded narcissists. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/06/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Plummet

Sherwin Tjia. Conundrum, $20 trade paper (160p) ISBN 978-1-77262-040-5

This visually ingenious graphic novel opens with Mel, an ordinary young woman, inexplicably falling through an infinite expanse of sky. With the initial panic out of the way, she settles into her bizarre new existence: sleeping and relieving herself in midair, using her jacket to glide like a flying squirrel, and scavenging food and water from the mundane detritus and household objects and appliances plummeting around her. “Do I just keep falling forever?” she wonders, a question this graphic novel leaves, so to speak, up in the air. The brightly colored, snappy art belies the darkness of the narrative, which develops into absurdist survival horror tinged with grim humor and occasional moments of grace. Above all, the book is a virtuoso artistic exercise, allowing Tjia (The Hipless Boy) to depict an endless variety of falling people and objects and scenarios where they attempt to interact. Mel eats from a falling vending machine, climbs through a tumbling apartment building, scales an upside down tree, and falls through a lake. She also fights fellow survivors (“This whole place is like the Wild West—everyone marking territory, suspicious of strangers”) and eventually finds a friend. If sometimes it all feels more like a drawing challenge than a complete story, the reader is inexorably pulled along the remarkable slide down, in this unsettling fable of life in freefall. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/06/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television

Koren Shadmi. Life Drawn, $22.95 trade paper (168p) ISBN 978-1-64337-571-7

This sharp graphic biography mimics Rod Serling’s gift for mordant trickery without descending into parody as a martini-downing Serling spills his life story to a flirty seatmate on a nighttime PanAm flight. Shadmi (Highwayman) approximates Serling’s clipped and portentous style: “This particular specimen is Private Rodman Serling, age eighteen. A Jewish boy from small town Binghamton, New York,” he writes, describing Serling at the time of his WWII paratrooper service. Crushed by the “futility” of combat, Serling nearly succumbs to PTSD. But the success of his 1956 teleplay Patterns sparked a streak culminating in the 1959 launch of his groundbreaking anthology show The Twilight Zone, whose scripts were fueled by the fears swirling in his “night terrors.” He declares his intent is to dig into America’s subconscious, “harvest dark matter, reshape it, disguise it, and serve it back to the masses.” Shadmi’s art evokes the show’s signature hard lines and stark framing. The subversive series ended in 1964; Serling’s later years were a struggle, lightened by the surprise hit of his Planet of the Apes screenplay. While the book introduces the kind of dramatic final twist its subject would have approved, less attention is paid to the psychology behind why Serling so often concocted them. Nevertheless, it’s a perceptive take, which celebrates and illuminates one of early television’s true artists. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/06/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Making Comics

Lynda Barry. Drawn & Quarterly, $22.95 (200p) ISBN 978-1-77046-369-1

Barry follows up Syllabus by again condensing her celebrated visual storytelling courses into an instructional book that doubles as a work of art. Through her signature nimble comics and collage, Barry provides guidelines for teachers, students, and aspiring artists. These include pragmatic instructions on art supplies (Barry recommends keeping them cheap and simple, and the book itself is drawn on lined notebook paper), class rules and exercises, and theories about the nature and value of telling stories in pictures. “There was a time when drawing and writing were not separated for you,” Barry writes, assuring newbies that “the most lively work comes from people who gave up on drawing a long time ago.” Students are told to experiment with drawing with both hands, to “close your eyes and draw a bacon and egg breakfast,” and to keep a daily illustrated diary. Gradually, the lessons expand into creating characters, drawing comic strips, and the mechanics of making minicomics. Barry’s approach to art instruction is reminiscent of Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and the classes taught by artist Marilyn Frasca, under whom Barry studied; she also builds from Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning: Practice and Philosophy. But these lessons from Barry, like her art, capture her own brand of magic: a synthesis of theory, practice, memory, imagination, and “a certain sort of unlearning.” (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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Smedley

Jeff McComsey. Dead Reckoning, $26.95 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-68247-276-7

Outside of Leatherneck circles, the name Smedley Butler (1881–1940) may not ring many bells, but this spirited graphic biography aims to bring broader acclaim to the gung-ho Marine general whose service stretched over several wars and took a late turn into political advocacy. McComsey (Son of Hitler) uses the framing device of Butler arriving to speak to the 1932 “Bonus Army”—the Washington, D.C., protest march by poverty-stricken WWI veterans demanding bonuses—only to get sidetracked into trading war stories and solidarity with the marchers. Butler lands in 1898 Cuba as a callow new Marine, then ships out to put down uprisings in the Philippines and, a couple years later, the Boxer Rebellion in China. Later, the lean, quippy, hardboiled Butler follows the Marines into Mexico and Haiti for missions whose purpose he does not question (“I go where I’m told”) and earns two Medals of Honor. Drawn with dense sepia-washed tones, McComsey’s larger-than-life characterizations crackle. Butler’s Bonus Army speech is a rousing stem-winder, while a postscript details his surprising retirement crusade against the military-industrial complex, when he published his treatise War is a Racket. McComsey uncovers a key historical military figure in this graphic narrative; but with ripping combat yarns bookended by shorter-shrift examples of Butler’s activism, it delivers an overall muddled message. . (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The House

Paco Roca, trans. from the Spanish by Andrea Rosenberg. Fantagraphics, $19.99 (134p) ISBN 978-1-68396-263-2

Roca (Twists of Fate) examines grief as an overstuffed house that the bereaved must restore, rebuild, and, ultimately, let go in this touching and pensive ensemble cast graphic novel. Siblings Jose, Vicente, and Carla journey to put their family’s vacation home in order after their father dies. They tease, bicker, and sift through his trophies, garden detritus, and unfinished projects as they confront unanswerable questions: Was their father proud of their accomplishments? And what do they want to do with the legacy they have been left? Roca forces his trio of protagonists to wrestle with the inscrutability of clues their father left behind, from his sun hat to the cracked and mildewed pool they helped him build as children (some remembering loving this labor, others resenting it). The cool-toned colors render even the most cozy parts of the home alien, and Roca depicts the plants and furniture in more detail than the cast of characters, creating a remove that mirrors their father’s distance. In the end, Roca concludes that grief is an active process, one each sibling must move through alone, even as they try to join in decisions together. Though it doesn’t close on a tidy moral, the reader is left feeling that hope lies with the living, despite the mistakes of the past. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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The Life & Times of Butch Dykes: Portraits of Artists, Leaders, and Dreamers Who Changed the World

Eloisa Aquino. Microcosm, $19.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-62106-228-8

Aquino’s quirky, scrapbook-style collection features snapshot narratives of well-known butch lesbians both living and dead. Most are or were working in creative fields, and particular attention is paid to women of color. The opening chapter on Audre Lorde starts the volume off strong with nine different portraits and numerous powerful quotes from her writing. Writer Judith Butler, photographer Claude Cahun, model Jenny Shimizu, and musician Chavela Vargas are also granted in-depth treatments. However, not all of the selections are as cohesive; the chapter highlighting Brazilian pop singers, for example, reads like a gossipy magazine. While some of these figures eventually came out as lesbians, others actively denied queer labels. This raises the question: who gets to decide if someone is butch? The casual art style is simple but effective, with black-and-white figures highlighted by pink and maroon mid-tones pasted into full pages or tucked beside sprawling hand-lettered text—though this intimate diary effect is somewhat disrupted by the clashing digital fonts used for titles. Readers are likely to quibble with Aquino’s idiosyncratic selection and offhand commentary, but her admiration for her subjects shines through in this celebratory volume. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 08/30/2019 | Details & Permalink

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