Funny Business

Book of the Week: Benji Nate’s Girl Juice, one of the funniest comics I’ve read in a minute.

Hello! I’m trying something new with this post. I read a lot of comics and folks have said they like reading my little capsule reviews of them, so I’m going to be posting more of those, once a week, for the foreseeable future. Consider it a mini-newsletter. I’ll try to keep it professional, post it every Saturday, and produce it nicely, and I hope you’ll enjoy it. I’m going to charge for it—$7 a month, or $75 a year. I will announce it more formally once I have a few posts under my belt, but this is a niche that’s important to me, and so I’m going to find a way to make it work. I’ve tried to do newsletters a few times before; I’m going to give myself four issues before I make it a paid thing, so I know I can keep up the pace I’ve set for myself. This edition is free until the paywall goes up, hopefully in May. It’s also probably on the long side, but we’ll see next week whether the pace of my reading flags. I suspect it won’t diminish by much.

Men I Trust—Tommi Parrish (Fantagraphics, 208 pages)

This book felt like a little less than the sum of its parts, though I love Parrish’s painted art and think their gift for character writing is really notable. The Lie and How We Told It is kind of a masterpiece and thus hard to follow. “Men I Trust,” contra the title, is about female friendship, but what stuck with me the most was the protagonist’s relationship to her little boy. Everything in this book feels really truthful and directly observed. It’s rare for that. It doesn’t quite hold together but its individual parts are remarkable.

The Ruling Clawss—Syd Hoff (New York Review Comics, 184 pages)

I enjoyed these often very funny, scabrous gag cartoons from Hoff’s time at the Daily Worker. It’s a bit like a Far Side collection approved by the central committee, both extremely funny in its own right and also an amazing historical curio by the author of Danny and the Dinosaur, who later denounced these cartoons under pressure. The postscript, in which, emboldened by pseudonymity, Hoff says lots of nice things about Stalin, has to be read to be believed.

The Gull Yettin—Joe Kessler (New York Review Comics, 216 pages)

An absolutely gorgeous wordless book about a little boy and his magic friend. Extraordinarily disturbing in places but the efficiency of the cartooning is just breathtaking. It’s sort of a picaresque, in plot terms, but the plot—which is good—is the least interesting thing about it. It’s almost a David Copperfield-style story about troubled childhood, with our little hero shunted from place to place and seeking protection, with his friend, the gull, keeping him safe but also hurting the people he loves.

Girl Juice—Benji Nate (Drawn & Quarterly, 176 pages)

This one is very funny from the jump but as an achievement—which I think it definitely is—it’s a slow burn. The individual pages are mostly extractable as gag comics but there are some wonderful running bits, notably one roommate, who is attracted to clowns, slowly beginning to dress in full clown regalia. Even funnier, this is the character who looks the most like the author’s self-portrait. The main character, Bunny, becoming a devout Christian in addition to being a shameless bimbo is really, really funny. The cohesive story that backs up the main volume is just fucking hilarious. I’ve gone back to this one already.

Ultrasound—Conor Stechschulte (Fantagraphics, 376 pages)

I was not expecting this one. It looks very experimental and nonlinear but it’s actually a really slick thriller that starts off as a dirty joke and ends up somewhere between between Ezra Claytan Daniels’ Upgrade Soul and Matt Kindt’s Mind MGMT. I’m always leery of reducing things to plot but it’s interesting how formally daring you can get with a story that could be very easily transposed to film or TV (there’s an apparently pretty good movie of this book; I have to say I loved the comic so much I don’t particularly want to see it). The cartooning is often fairly standard but the formal trickery is incredible—the author is clearly part of the Risograph generation.

The Black Diamond Detective Agency—Eddie Campbell (First Second, 144 pages)

Eddie Campbell is a master, obviously. This is a very good graphic novel about a train heist that goes wrong and kills a bunch of people and the guy who gets framed for the deaths and has to find the real perpetrators. It has Campbell’s surrealist influences worked into it really beautifully; the whole thing turns on the idea of a blank page. Like Stechschulte’s book, it has lots of crazy plot twists but the formal weirdness is I would say quite a bit more intrinsic to the story being told. Campbell did a few self-contained graphic novels at this trim size for First Second before it became a YA publisher—The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard and The Fate of the Artist, the latter of which I’ll write about in the next edition—and I think this might be my favorite of them.

We’re All Just Fine—Ana Penyas (Fantagraphics, 112 pages)

This one is in translation from the Spanish in a new edition from Fantagraphics. It’s a very rich text—the cartooning is just gorgeous and there’s enough subtext for several rereadings. It’s both a very careful, lapidary study of aging and womanhood and also a book about what kind of person survived the Spanish Civil War. There’s so much cultural context necessary to understanding it and I’m not Spanish so I don’t have that invisible knowledge one gets from growing up alongside survivors of the Franco regime, and not, as it were, from Orwell. But a lot of that context shows up on reread; it’s a remarkably discrete and dense book despite being fairly short and having all kinds of interesting threads related to Spanish daily life. Not an easy read but a good one, I think.

The Man in the McIntosh Suit—Rina Ayuyang (D&Q, 215 pages)

This one didn’t totally work for me—I liked the colors a lot and I liked how ambitious it was, but it reminded me too much of The Good Asian, another noirish story set in interwar San Francisco’s Filipino community. There’s a lot of very perfunctory-feeling queer representation near the end of the book, and not a lot of interrogation of what that means given the time and place in which it’s set, and the plot frequently feels soapy and contrived. It’s a little indie book and I don’t want to dump on it too hard—I should add that I’ll certainly read the next one in what is apparently a series, and again, the art is very pretty and often extremely clever thematically. Hopefully the plotting comes together a bit and the characters get a little more room to grow.

W the Whore—Katrin de Vries and Anke Feuchtenberger (New York Review Comics, 256 pages)

An odd, affecting, Kafkaesque book about what it’s like to be a woman, told in pages of two panels each—a few have splash pages but rarely for emphasis, mostly at the beginning of a story—and extremely simple, koan-like sentences. I think I admired it more than I liked it; it’s a very harsh book, but it has a lot to say. The lettering has been redone really beautifully, something New York Review Comics always does (their edition of Nicole Claveloux’s The Green Hand is close to perfection). The art is remarkable.