Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I read, in an interview with Renee French (maybe this one with Tom Spurgeon? That's got other bits to recommend it) that she doesn't think of herself as good with comics pacing, and that's why her current approach does the thing a couple Chester Brown books do, of having only a couple panels to a page. But, looking at this Marbles In My Underpants collection of her early work, I find a couple comics that I think are impeccably paced, as an accumulation of horrors and force.

These are comics drawn in Renee's old style, marked not just by the presence of a six-panel grid, but by being in stark black and white. Currently, she draws using black colored pencil, rather than ink, and it allows for more shading and tone. It feels like her drawing got softer, from the harsh voids of crosshatched black, around the same time her stories got a little friendlier. They also got quieter, with a few silent comics giving way to comics where what dialogue that is available is not present in word balloons.

(She also has a style of plain tiny, simplified line drawings on display in her book Micrographica and a minicomic I saw the last time I went to Atomic Books. And Corny's Fetish, which closes Marbles In My Underpants, uses greytones in addition to line drawings.) (Both tiny line-drawings and gorgeous pieces of shaded pencil work are on display at Renee's blog.

But those stories done in plain black and white have their own momentum to them. I am particularly fond of the serial "Silktown" and the short "Mitch And The Mole." These comics are all over the place in terms of their plotting, weird cascades of cruelty and fetishism that keep the reader off-balance, with this sort of detached tone- It's empathetic for some characters, but there's enough details that make you think "what the hell is going on here" both in the strange distance of the dialogue and little details to panel composition, like a loaf of bread leaning against the outside of a bathtub, followed by a panel showing the table with a jar of peanut butter on it on the bathtub's opposite side. "Mitch And The Mole" sort of wavers its grid- it's there as a standard, but the panels adjacent to each other are not the same size, and what panel is bigger than the other see-saws from right-to-left with each tier. Um, not consistently, but the overall effect aids in the disorientation.

But "Silktown" is the comic I really wanted to talk about. It pretty much opens the book, and throws down a tough gauntlet to get past of fairly shocking material. Everything about this comic feels horrific, and each scene plays out fairly slowly. Some are scenes of conversation, with little details lingered on- a chocolate eclair, a dangling chain to turn on a lightbulb- while others are scenes of fast-paced violence, but the drawings freeze them and linger on them- reaction shots of people in pain or suffering trauma. It's beautiful to look at, for its textures, but its textures are also repellent, sweating and boiling on the page. It feels like a Richard Corben comic if Richard Corben were a woman, drawing David Lynch-style suburbia rather than barbarian worlds. It also kind of feels like Brian Chippendale's Maggots, actually, in terms of how it dedicates equal amounts of interest to acts of violence and more common movement. (Also cock.) But there's more depth of field here, and that allows for more shifts in the vistas being depicted.

Marbles In My Underpants rules. It's not a complete overview of the comics done in this style, and some of the selections I would replace, and it's out of print, and the cover makes it look like it contains some kind of Slave-Labor-style goth comics, but if you see it, get it. It's got other comics- like The Ninth Gland, which is pretty great too, despite having a kind of broken pace that does make it hard to read- from later in her career, so you can see how her artistry shifts, and see that the things that I highlight about "Silktown" aren't even really what makes her a compelling artist.

Monday, December 15, 2008

More best-of-2008 listmaking mania:

Best comics:

I really didn't read very many comics this year. I didn't read anything from Japan (besides Hanakuma's Tokyo Zombie which was mediocre) or Europe. There were a lot of comics I would have liked to read if money were no issue. The Rory Hayes collection, Where Demented Wented, looked particularly appealing: Outsider horror comics including a porn comic drawn before the cartoonist lost his virginity? Sounds great! On the other side of the coin is Lynda Barry's What It Is, which I am strongly considering buying my mom for Christmas. Then there's Kramers Ergot 7, which is the book I would most want for Christmas.`But there are still some critical standards at work, as there are still a lot of comics I read and didn't like at all, and even more that I know my interests enough to know probably would not crack a list.

For me, the best comics of 2008 were written and drawn by Dash Shaw. His Bottomless Belly Button graphic novel was astounding, mining similar territory as a number of indie movies, but with more technical skill and greater emotional resonance. I don't feel the need to mention Margot At The Wedding on a best films list because of the superiority of The Bottomless Belly Button. If you kind of like comics, but haven't read it, do so. As far as "graphic novels" go, it's the book to beat. The fact that it was produced by someone just out of college is deeply inspiring. Meanwhile, Bodyworld was a webcomic I read every week, as it went online. A new type of serialization for a comics culture where solo-artist anthologies aren't really economically feasible, that also works for a diffuse community: In the absence of talking about comics at a comic book store, to tell my animator friends about how good this comic is over AIM, e-mails, and blogs, is quite fitting. Put them at the number one and two slots of a list. I didn't read his short story contributions to Mome or Meathaus, or his Bottomless zine Picturebox put out. (Actually, I think I read a Mome story or two, but I didn't spend much time with them.) I did read his Cold Heat minicomic, and while it was cool as a display of another format for him to play with, it still didn't display the strengths of Cold Heat that I'm really into that I will have to wait until next year to read and talk about.

Kevin Huizenga put out two of the best comic book pamphlets I read this year. Ganges 2 I talked about when it came out, but Fight Or Run is a really weird and fun little book, about nothing but formalism as fodder for laughs. I am astounded at how much better that stuff reads in a collection than scattered in little segments elsewhere. It almost argues for the death of the single-artist anthology, to have a guy like Huizenga working for a slew of different publishers, putting out books as focused suites of work. I didn't like Or Else 5 very much at all- I thought the pacing of the centerpiece story was really off, and the other material only intermittently worked for me.

The two best superhero comics would be All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely and Omega The Unknown by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple with Paul Hornschemeier and Gary Panter. All-Star Superman is not really my favorite Morrison comic, but the issues that came out this year were really solid and entertaining, and a lot of the problems of reading a serialized comic with ads has been fixed by subsequent collection. Hey, speaking of which, maybe they actually give Gary Panter a drawing credit in the collection of Omega The Unknown? Just fun comics to read as they come out. (I also liked the issues of Casanova that came out this year, although I had some complaints about the ending, and only three came out.) That Gary Panter cover burned this kind of disposable intensity, and the near-wordless final issue was an amazing coda that felt near-otherworldly to read. Dreamy comics have a certain pull to them.

Taking up a number seven spot, as well as being the best of its format, would be the Core Of Caligula minicomic by CF. What a compelling thing that was, and really dense for its short size, enough to be satisfying. It's odd worldview and seeming spirituality make it not seem slight.

Speaking of Panter and minicomics, I would've liked to read the $15 8-page Jimbo minicomic that came out this year, too, by the way, or the Dal-Tokyo collection that was slated to come out but got delayed either until next year or is off the Fantagraphic schedule completely. That big monograph was pretty cool, although not a comic. The Shary Boyle and Ben Jones artbooks that came out this year are also probably pretty good. None of these comics listed are reprints of older material, but classic comic strips are really interesting to me, and I liked Heavy Liquid and Scud The Disposable Assassin both the last time I read them. (I actually really want that Scud collection. Talk all the shit you want about people making comics to get into Hollywood, but The Sarah Silverman Program rules, and Rob Schrab will never be allowed to actually make movies like those comics, which are such a perfect crystallization of 1990s culture currents that it's a shame he had to wrap it up this year in a supposedly pretty lackluster fashion.)

Top three film of the year, in order, despite appealing to me for completely different reasons: Synecdoche New York, Wall-E, and The Dark Knight. Would've liked to have seen Rachel Getting Married, Wendy And Lucy, Burn After Reading, The Wrestler, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, a half-dozen mainstream comedies, etc. but that's what DVD releases and the last weeks of the year are for. The possibility that any of those films are as ambitious as the films in my top three is so slim that I have no problem saying those were the best of the year. (Although My Winnipeg might be, and I want to see that too.) Synecdoche, New York is pretty much what I want movies and art to be, just a completely moving/devastating experience, a smart person going further and getting near the top of their game, which happens to be the outer reaches of what most people would find pleasurable. Wall-E is amazing filmmaking, with great animation, and is deeply inspiring to me as someone who studied those things in school, as well as something saying so many things I believe in and agree with in a language children can understand. The Dark Knight has an incredibly forceful and tense middle that is magnetic to watch, thinks in ways the comics it's based on never got around to, and is a fascinating document of what a blockbuster action movie in this modern era is.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Cool bands to see if they come to your town, whose split cassette I would've liked to buy if I had money on me:

Skoal Kodiak
Knife World

Unreleased song to find on Youtube and blow your mind:

Ol' Dirty Bastard's version of Build Me Up Buttercup. Sure, it's excerpted for a Rhymefest song, but this has ODB rapping verses

Cool tape by a cartoonist that works like a comic:

Anti-Matter Alma Mater by Matthew Thurber. From his "book-on-tape" label Potlatch, I Gather, comes this radio-play style soundtrack to an art installation I found really compelling.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

I tracked down a copy of Powell And Pressburger's A Matter Of Life And Death. I love a handful of Michael Powell movies, and got really obsessed with seeing more of them earlier this year, and this was the one classic that was unavailable on DVD. Sammy Harkham loves it, and his post about it is fairly exciting. I am really grateful for that blog entry I linked to, because I feel like it gave me some reference point and grounding about what, specifically, was good and compelling about the film. I kind of feel like it falls apart as it goes on. The ending trial in heaven is one of the most ridiculous things I've seen, in a way that I can only feel really conflicted about at this time of my life.

I also saw Orson Welles' Chimes At Midnight at the Baltimore library fairly recently, shown on rare VHS because the film print was too damaged. That was also fairly disappointing: The bad audio, along with the fast-paced Shakespeare dialogue, made for a tricky combination, and I am not that familiar with the plays in question to know exactly what Welles was doing here.

And yet, both of these films are worth seeing, should they come your way. Until then, why not watch the Orson Welles movies The Trial and F For Fake, and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom and Black Narcissus?