Monday, November 30, 2009

Anders Nilsen Trilogy, Part 1 of 3

Nilsen, Anders. Monologues for the Coming Plague. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2009.

Nilsen's collection of single page drawings is, at best, absurdist. There is no sense of plot structure to the first collection of three graphic novels containing what he calls "automatic art." Thought at times, there is some idea that gathers the images together. He does lump a series of images under a headings like "Semiotics" and "Into the Wilderness."

I'll be honest: I didn't get everything in the book. There were moments I laughed out loud, but for the most part I looked at each page for a few seconds, shrugged my shoulders and move on. I had this odd feeling that I was reading something interesting, but I can't really put into words why. With that said, Nilsen is interesting when one considers how the text and images come together to create meaning on the page. There were moments when the two crudely drawn figures would not change for pages (save the exact shape of the hastily drawn lines that blotted out one character's head), but the words would change. Oddly enough, the text would change the way the reader interpreted the image. Nothing had changed accept the words, but the entire page carried a different meaning.

All in all, if you want to read a collection of single page comics that lay on the fringe edges of the graphic novel, that Monologues of the Coming Plague is as good as anything else. If you want something by Nilsen with more of a story, than look to his incredibly good Dogs and Water.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

New Avengers Vol. 1-10

Bendis, Brian Michael. New Avengers. Vol. 1-10. New York: Marvel Publishing, 2007-2009.

After the House of M, the Avengers disbanded, leaving New York and all of America without a premiere superhero defensive force. The X-Men were limited in number after the decimation, there were several B-Level hero groups (New Warriors, the Runaways, the Young Avengers, etc.), but the heavy hitters (save the Fantastic Four) were split and dealing with their own concerns. After a breakout at Rykers Island, Captain America convinced Iron Man to reform the New Avengers: Spider-Man, Luke Cage, Spider Woman, Wolverine and the Sentry. Daredevil was at the event that catalyzed the group, but due to personal issues in his own life had to turn down Captain America's offer. The group remained intact until the Civil War split the Avengers down the middle and pro-registration heroes signed up for the Mighty Avengers. Dr. Strange, the Immortal Iron Fist and Ronin (at first Echo, then later a returned-from-the-dead Hawkeye) joined Spider-Man (now in back in the black uniform), Spider Woman, Wolverine and Luke Cage to continue fighting crime and the Registration Act while Iron Man recruited Ms. Marvel, Black Widow (Natalia Romanova, if you know your Black Widows), Ares: God of War, Wonderman and Avenger original the Wasp to join Sentry as the government controlled Mighty Avengers. Captain America was killed between the Civil War and the formation of the Mighty Avengers while awaiting trial for his crimes during the Civil War (more on that in a later post). The two Avenger groups fought each other for some time until a Skrull Invasion made this already convoluted plot that much more confusing (again, more on that).

Bendis has his hands in all of it (including the Secret War which started all of this, both Avenger Groups, the Initiative, and the Secret Invasion, Dark Avengers and eventually it is rumored the reformation of big three in the Avengers: Thor, Captain America and Iron Man). The Bendis Avengers, both groups, are interesting. The group was initially formed to fight evil. It was hailed as "the Earth's Mightiest Heroes" banding together to fight Gods and streets thugs alike. Over the course of history, everyone (let me stress this...EVERYONE) has been an Avenger, including several reformed villains (Quicksilver, Hawkeye, even Wonderman was once the construct of the Baron Zemo and the Master's of Evil), and the history became muddled and cluttered. The formation of the West Coast Avengers, legal and governmental issues, financing troubles and the minutiae of continuity forced Marvel to shut down the Avengers. No longer the symbol they should be, Thor and Iron Man parted ways and the world, for a brief time, was without a superhero super team.

With Bendis at the helm, the Avengers returned to their original mission: fight evil. After the break out of Rykers Island, the Avengers had a list of 42 super bad guys released back into the real world, so the Avengers main concern was, in fact, a tangible list of evils to correct. It seemed like a black-and-white, good-vs.-evil world for a time.

Then, after the New Warriors killed six hundred people in a Connecticut suburb of New York, Bendis raised the question: what is evil? As the adage goes, the road to hell was paved with good intentions, and Speedball had the best intention when he attacked Nitro, which led to the death of 600 people, including an entire school of children. Was Speedball evil, then? The question split the Earth's Mightiest Heroes down the middle. Thus, Bendis had the heroes fighting each other in the name of good-and-evil (all the while a gang of villains was forming and previous Green Goblin Norman Osbourn took control of the Thunderbolts, a group of reformed villains turned heroes). The line between good and evil was blurred.

After the Skrull War, Osbourn took control of the Avengers and filled previously held symbols with villains acting as heroes (i.e. Bullseye played the part of Hawkeye; Moonstone played the part of Ms. Marvel; and so on). The line between good and evil continues to blur.

This is a revolutionary rewriting of superhero legends not seen since Alan Moore's Watchmen and Frank Miller's Batman: the Dark Knight Returns. It is clear in the current climate that what makes a good person good is not just the actions he or she takes, but the intentions, the delivery, and the surroundings. Norman Osbourne, by all rights, is one of the worst villains of all time, but now wears two symbols of heroism. Spiderman, back in the iconic red and blue uniform, fights against the public forces of good. Iron Man is on the run, once the figurehead of all things good.

It remains to be seen what will float to the top after all is said and done. If interested in hero mythology, check out the New Avengers line.

Friday, November 13, 2009


Small, David. Stitches. New York: Norton Publishing, 2009.

Children's book illustrator David Small published his memoir covering his troubled past with his family. At times funny, and often heart-breaking, the book spans his life from six years until his mother dies while he was in college.

This is the latest in a long line of graphic memiors: see, for example, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Blankets by Craig Thompson, Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse, and, of course the Grandfather of all graphic novels, Maus by Art Spiegelman. Like the others before him, Small lived a traumatic life that informs the art of the book. Huge gray and black splotches leak out of the frame, the lines of the images and, at times, comprise the entire page. The adults in his life loom huge with blank eyes, behind translucent glasses. There were few smiles on the pages, and probably in his life.

Unlike the others, though, Small was not as reflective about his own faults in the novel, and his parents became flat, demonized charactures over the course of the novel. Granted their treatment of some events in his life were deplorable, and his life was no cake walk, but the Small never raises any questions about his own responsibility in his life. This is what makes Maus and Persepolis so engaging: both Spiegelman and Satrapi allow their parents to be flawed individuals, but also notice that the artist/author also in an imperfect subject. It would have been nice for Small to realize that his silence and passive-aggressive behavior, especially later in life, is what continued the spiral of negative behavior.

Artistically, this book is worth a look. Thematically, there are better books available.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Faster than a Speeding Bullet: the Rise of the Graphic Novel

Weiner, Stephen. Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: the Rise of the Graphic Novel. New York: NBM Publishing. 2003.

Weiner's book was a short examination of the emergence of the graphic novel as he sees it, stemming from years of interviews and personal interactions with some key graphic artists and publishers.

Though the book is poorly documented, filled with typos, and is, essentially, one man's unbiased opinion, it does present a loose outline of how America developed from the newspaper comic strip to the graphic novel that we see today. There are certainly better studies of how such a phenomenon happened in America, but there are few that are this short. The chapters are short, present Weiner's take on either a social movement or a key book, and then move on quickly to the next decade. He spent two pages talking about the underground comix movement, whereas Hatfield spent an entire 30 page chapter of his book looking at about six years.

If one needed to know a few key texts (again, though, it should be noted that Weiner gives no evidentiary support for his claims that such texts are key) or the general movement from strip to novel, then this book is fine. It would also provide a good introduction to the world of graphic novels, sequential art, comic books, et al for one who has passing interest.

For a more detailed description of the history, Ten Cent Plague: the Great Comic Book Scare and How it Changed America by Hajdu, Comic Book Culture by Pustz or Comic Book Nation by Wright would better better sources.