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On the One Hand: The Art and Graphic Stories of R.O. Blechman / On the Other Hand: The Writings of R.O. Blechman Published and Unpublished

R.O. Blechman. Fantagraphics, $45 trade paper (488p) ISBN 978-1-68396-434-6

Illustrator, cartoonist, and animator Blechman (The Juggler of Our Lady) gets the coffee-table book treatment with this witty and comprehensive double-sided volume collecting both his cartoons (on “one hand,” or side of the book) and essays (found on the other side, flipped). His energetic and loose line informs his trenchant satirical comics, such as reimagining Shakespeare’s career or Goethe trying to chase down his youth. Blechman’s career doing illustrations for advertising no doubt informed his parody of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, wherein Kafka himself wakes up one morning turned into a cartoon and only earns respect because an insurance logo walked into the strip. His retelling of “The Pied Piper of Hamlin” is a masterpiece of minimalist drawing and a satire of conspicuous consumption. The collection also reproduces his colorful, scratchy, and witty gag covers for Story magazine. The flip side pulls together essays and interviews with such artists as Saul Steinberg and David Levine, in which Blechman proves just as nimble and playful in prose as in cartooning. The final essay, “I’m Not Finished,” a meditation on aging, is also an act of defiance against the concept of retiring as an artist. This well-designed work is both long deserved and a spectacular showcase for Blechman’s storied career. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 12/03/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The True Story of the Unknown Soldier

Tardi, trans. from the French by Jenna Allen. Fantagraphics, $19.99 (64p) ISBN 978-1-68396-513-8

Befuddled and traumatized men float in disconsolate confusion amid baffling, violent events in this collection of two avant-garde comic classics of the 1970s. In “The True Story of the Unknown Soldier,” Tardi (Goddamn This War!) sends a buggy-eyed author of “thriller novels that were simplistic and deplorable, but outrageously popular,” in ill-fitting Chaplin garb, shambling through a string of stock surrealist backdrops: sumptuous palaces with fine gardens and classical statuary appearing at random intervals. His baffled encounters with suspicious men and lascivious half-dressed women lead to a bloodbath that seems nonsensical until the conclusion’s tragic Twilight Zone reveal. The mix of lewdness, blood-splattering violence, and nightmare panics informs the similarly erratic plotting of “The National Razor.” Another bowler-hatted man (this one returning home “after a too long journey through horror and fear” that he does not detail) stumbles past inexplicable events (murder, suspicious figures, naked women) before being sent to the guillotine in front of a jeering crowd. Tardi’s artistry is top-rate throughout, his exquisitely drawn buildings studded with creepy details and dramatic shadowing. Though modern readers may find his eagerness to shock occasionally juvenile, Tardi can still captivate with a pulsating sense of existential dread. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/03/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Many Deaths of Laila Starr

Ram V and Filipe Andrade. BOOM! Studios, $14.99 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-1-68415-805-8

The opening pages of this dynamically drawn but unevenly scripted graphic novel by V (Grafity’s Wall) and Andrade (the Rocket Raccoon & Groot series) brim with explosive energy before losing momentum. Mrs. Shah, in labor and trapped in a Mumbai traffic jam, screams at her husband over the phone. A disinterested young woman named Laila Starr reclines on the ledge of an open window several stories above. And “in a high place, far beyond mortal clouds,” the goddess Death prepares for an uncomfortable meeting with her boss. These three story lines collide when Laila leaps, Shah gives birth to her son, Darius, and Death is unceremoniously fired—because Darius is destined to discover immortality. But Death, now in the resurrected body of Laila, sets off to eliminate Darius, only to be hit by a truck, then resurrected again. Laila and Darius meet at intervals throughout his life, which unfolds through a series of staid recaps. Darius tells Laila of recent events, most of them tinged with loss and guilt, and, predictably, Laila/Death starts to respect the sanctity of human life. The sudden shift in pacing kills the narrative momentum, even if Andrade’s kinetic art captures both the busy chaos of Mumbai and meditative moments alike. But despite cool art, these mortal and immortal characters don’t live up to their promising start. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/03/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Our Little Secret

Emily Carrington. Drawn & Quarterly, $29.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-77046-546-6

In a weighty debut graphic memoir rife with visual metaphors, Carrington documents an adolescence marked by sexual abuse and an adulthood consumed by thwarted attempts to heal. Following her parents’ separation, Carrington lived in deep rural poverty with her rage-prone father on Prince Edward Island. Her father’s friend and neighbor, Richard, offered kindness and electricity: “He had a chance to be a hero.” Also, he groomed and raped her. Line drawings, with deceptively simple character designs, depict a life fraught with dangerous omens, carried in metaphorical and real images: flies that lurk in the cracks of a cabin, a wolf catching a fawn in its teeth, a plane that circles but never lands. Carrington doesn’t fully process the events until 27 years later when she spots Richard on a ferry. She pursues legal action only to run into against Canada’s statute of limitations and is plagued by debt, which fueled by bills from an incompetent lawyer. Studying the hero’s journey in a comics class, she wonders when it will be time for her triumphant return. In depicting her abuse and the aftermath with rawness, realism, and a dreamlike final act—in which “Lady Justice” is a temp who’s late to pick up her child from day care—Carrington has done a service to all who navigate trauma without tidy endings. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/03/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Halcyon

Ron Regé, Jr. Fantagraphics, $24.99 (112p) ISBN 978-1-68396-511-4

Regé’s impressive follow-up to The Cartoon Utopia lays out a more detailed backdrop to his ongoing mystic explorations into esoteric spirituality, producing a comic that’s as delightfully challenging to parse as it is wondrous to look at. In the “New Cartoon Utopia,” a towheaded, wide-eyed young man is touched by an angel—in Regé’s rendition, a fearsome and sublime experience—and wakes up driven by inspiration. Elsewhere, in a teeming, futuristic city, a young woman has a revelation of her own and escapes her restrictive high-tech society. In time, boy and girl meet and join a utopian enclave in the wilderness. Regé’s kaleidoscopic narrative fuses fantasy, science fiction, theology, and hermeneutic visions, and the busy, technically precise, but ultrasimplified art is somehow the perfect visual distillation of all. Regé puts to paper angelic battles, dimensional travel, spiritual evolution, and such fleeting experiences as “the feeling of amnesia when falling into a dream in progress.” The densely composed pages dipped in Easter egg colors recall ecstatic manuscript illuminations à la William Blake—or assembly instructions from an Ikea located in heaven. Fans who got turned on to New Age by Regé won’t want to miss this book—everyone else will, at the very least, enjoy peeking into such dazzling art from a dazzling mind. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/19/2021 | Details & Permalink

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ExtraOrdinary

V.E. Schwab and Enid Balám. Titan Comics, $24.99 (112p) ISBN 978-1-78586-588-6

This graphic spin-off from Schwab’s X-men-esque Villains series takes up a promising character, in the in-between chronology of two prose titles, but despite all the graphic potential of moody teenagers wielding super powers, the comic version comes out lackluster. After a fatal bus crash, Charlotte wakes up and finds she’s not only been brought back to life, but can see how anyone will die by looking at their reflections. Her eventual death, revealed to her in such a vision, will be at the hands of the immortal Eli Ever, who’s trying to kill all “ExtraOrdinaries” (EOs) like her, as he believes them to be “an affront to God.” Charlotte determines, rashly, to seek Eli out and face him head-on. After being saved from a trap, Charlotte meets fellow EOs, who bring her into their techie clubhouse and explain that Eli’s in a special superhero prison. But Charlotte’s not going to wait around for him to get out, and instead engineers a jailbreak. These badass-in-theory characters spin too rapidly through the expository-heavy script to develop motivations; whereas Schwab’s novels excel at characterization through action, that level of depth’s lacking in the slim comic (and it doesn’t help that the main villain spends most of it locked up). Balám’s art trends junior, with characters drawn a little too cute and rosy-cheeked, the gore and violence splattered on after. Schwab’s dedicated fan base will still pick it up, but are likely to grumble. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/19/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Art of Sushi

Franckie Alarcon, trans. from the French by Peter Russella. NBM, $24.99 (160p) ISBN 978-1-68112-285-4

Alarcon (The Secrets of Chocolate) returns to the culinary world with this informative and appetizing comics chronicle covering every aspect of the Japanese sushi experience from growing rice and making soy sauce to the many ways fish are caught and prepared. Alarcon travels from France to Tokyo to the Japanese countryside, interviewing sushi chefs working with both traditional and modern techniques, following fishermen, and meeting artisanal craftspeople from all the industries that help make sushi so delicious. The (perhaps unsurprising) secret? High-quality ingredients and careful preparation. The back matter provides recipes for home cooks to try out, as well as a list of restaurants visited and recommendations for places to buy utensils and ingredients in the United States. The mostly monochromatic art style with spots of color is clear and easy to follow, and though it’s a bit bland (could use some wasabi), it maintains a respectful presentation that avoids exoticizing. This straightforward food-fan comic offers armchair tourism and meal-plan inspiration. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/19/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Afternoon at McBurger’s

Ana Galvañ, trans. from the Spanish by Jamie Richards. Fantagraphics, $16.99 (64p) ISBN 978-1-68396-484-1

Fizzy imaginative layouts paired with soda-pop colors draw readers into this deceptively simple science fiction comics novella from Galvañ (Press Enter to Continue), set in a world that mixes futuristic technology with a retro 1990s aesthetic. Best friends Nuria, Pepa, and Dani visit the fast-food chain McBurger’s for their Once Party, a special promotion they can only request at age eleven. Lucky winners are offered access to a time portal and a five-minute glimpse of their future lives (“there’s no turning back, friends!”). The abstracted, luminescent artwork, crafted from simple geometric shapes and overlapping colors, heightens the pop-art strangeness of the tale. But beneath the touches of surrealistic whimsy, such as singing Tamagotchi-like robots and winking burgers, the girls’ lives are grounded in down-to-earth fears: bullies at school, abusers at home, parents too disconnected to protect their children, and friendships threatened by the test of time. This jaunt into a bizarre but all-too-familiar future leaves lingering impressions. Filled with visual and narrative invention, it’s a small gem of a comic. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/19/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Vagina Love: An Owner’s Manual

Lili Sohn, trans. from the French by Sara Sugihara. Street Noise, $19.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-951491-13-0

Sohn’s English-language debut, a lighthearted but educational delve (so to speak) into the vagina, combines practical information and personable anecdotes. After being diagnosed with breast cancer at 29, Sohn froze her eggs and faced medical monitoring of her reproductive system—which she realized she didn’t know much about. She wasn’t alone, as a summary of cultural myths (the roving uterus) and individual misconceptions (an acquaintance tried to put a tampon “in the back”) reveals. Sohn covers puberty through menopause with sections on orgasms, body hair, toxic shock, and nymphoplasty (plastic surgery on the vulva), and while she’s hardly the first to tackle bodies, sex, and reproduction from a feminist point of view, she offers a refreshingly gender-inclusive perspective alongside bon mots such as “the whole [menstrual] cycle thing kind of pisses me off... like I am just made to make babies.” In cartoony drawings with cheery shades of green, pink, and purple, she draws herself—a bespectacled figure with reconstructed breasts—alongside helpful anatomical diagrams, altered historical images, and a mural of vulvas. The handbook will prove most useful for younger adult readers, but it also serves as a welcome reminder to all that bodies are silly, miraculous, and worth getting to know. Agent: Nicolas Grivel, Nicolas Grivel Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/19/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Prophet Against Slavery: Benjamin Lay, a Graphic Novel

David Lester. Beacon, , $15 ISBN 978-0-8070-8179-2

Lester (1919) captures the overlooked legacy of a fiery abolitionist who became “the most disowned Quaker of his era” in this raw graphic biography. In the early 1700s, the Quakers branded member Benjamin Lay (1682–1759) a “troublemaker” for his tirades against slavery, and protests such as smashing tea cups (“torture” sweetened) in Philadelphia commons. The text that Lester adapts is drawn from a biography by historian Marcus Rediker, who provides context in an in-depth afterword, which helps guide the reader chronologically through impressionistic comics. Lay clashed with colonial American society due to his politics, his class, and his body (he had dwarfism). Living on a sugar plantation in Barbados, Lay observed firsthand the horrors of slavery and spoke out against white plantation owners who called themselves Christians: “Slavery is the devil’s work and you are his agents.” In documenting a life rife with cruelty and passion, Lester’s artwork is aptly grim and features rough linework that’s splashed with gray washes and black ink blots that evoke blood, smoke, and shadows; though digital font clashes with the hand-drawn quality. Lay spent his life fighting for abolition, women’s rights, and equality—causes that he never saw come to light. But, in a coarse hand, Lester captures Lay’s slogan “No justice, no peace!” and how it reverberates across time. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 11/12/2021 | Details & Permalink

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