OFF THE MAP

After a few weeks of listless, desultory superhero comics I wasn’t sure what to do with this space; write about Jughead (still excellent) and Paper Girls (still okay) again? Pretend to be excited about the new Frank Miller co-scripted Batman book, which apparently retails for fully six dollars an issue? Just get super angry about unreadable bullshit like The Darkseid War and Secret Wars?

So rather than do any of that, which all felt kind of depressing, I decided I’d cast my net a little wider, and return to some older stuff I’d been meaning to read, and see what happened. It was a good idea.

Eric Shanower and Gabriel Rodriguez’s LITTLE NEMO: RETURN TO SLUMBERLAND is one of the purely prettiest comics I’ve read in a few years; it feels a lot like the old Greyshirt strips Rick Veitch used to draw in Alan Moore’s weird, doomed anthology book Tomorrow Stories – cursory plots (Nemo falls asleep, has an adventure) accompanied by stunningly beautiful, crazily inventive layouts and finishes. One chapter has Nemo running through three different MC Escher paintings and several eye-popping two-page spreads with rotational symmetry – the top left corner turned upside down matches the bottom right corner and the dialogue in between explains how the characters get from one to the other. Added to that, it’s kind of a sweet story about a little boy who learns that little girls don’t have cooties, perfect for kids but as carefully crafted as a Tintin comic.

I’d actually never read anything by Michael DeForge until this week, when I picked up the latest issue of LOSE, #7. I can understand what the fuss is about; the longest story in the book is a really carefully observed investigation of how one woman’s relationship with her father falls apart under very strange circumstances. DeForge’s drawing style is interesting; I’m not sure where he’s going with it. It’s a lot like Chris Ware’s work in the sense that it uses its own intentional flatness against the clear depth of the characters, but DeForge’s layouts are inventive in a very different way. Big flat blocks of color and expressionless (or underexpressive) faces are quite trendy at the moment, which isn’t really something I like very much as a reader. It’s reasonably effective but Ware in particular is capital-G Great because he’s so good at finding other means to express emotion. DeForge is in this same category, but he’s clearly still finding himself, stylistically. I hope he evolves in a different direction from Ware; we only need one of that guy.

The editor of Kramers Ergot, essentially the Paris Review of comics, is a guy named Sammy Harkham, whose own cartooning work is some of my very favorite material anywhere. Harkham’s style, like DeForge’s, is simple, but his stuff is gorgeously expressive. Anyway, CRICKETS #5 is out and it’s very good; if you’d like to be at ground zero of a terrific graphic novel currently being in progress I highly recommend picking this up. It’s thrilling to read it as it’s being completed.

I’d been meaning to read Roz Chast’s CAN’T WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE PLEASANT? for a year or so; this week I picked it up at a used bookstore while I was out on assignment, because while the subject matter made me itchy, I’ve always admired Chast’s cartoons and liked the way she didn’t look like anyone else working. It’s one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read, full stop. It is fucking astonishing. It’s so good I’m actually not going to tell you what it’s about, because that will make you not want to read it. I’m just going to say that it’s hilariously funny, it’s drawn with a level of skill, especially in the last dozen pages, that is beyond anything I’ve seen in recent indie comics, and that it’s about 60/40 comics/prose (if you know Chast’s New Yorker cartoons, you know what I’m talking about). It was shortlisted for the National Book Award. It’s on my shelf next to Watchmen, Ice Haven, Black Hole and Fun Home now.

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