Monday, May 27, 2013

diary of a guttersnipe 05/27/2013: bullet points

by Shawn Starr

Me and my brother drove about 12 hours from Boston to Toronto a few weeks back to attend the Toronto Comics Art Festival (or TCAF for short) and hang out with sometimes site writer Rick Vance. Here are some thoughts, observations, and reviews of what I purchased:

The Trip

My brother does not respect the posted speed limits of any state or country. He also does not appreciate Canadian drivers and their general non-asshole driving style.

In Canada you fill your gas tank before you pay for it, this concept confounded me and every non-Canadian i told about it.

The border crossing was fairly painless, except for when we tried to explain what we were doing in Canada. When the guard seemed to confuse a “comic convention” with a convention of comedians i corrected him by saying “no, the funny books, not the funny people” because i am an idiot.

Luckily no one searched our bags at the border because explaining why i had 'The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame' on my persons would have been awkward.

There are no tolls in Ontario. None.

The first joke i heard in Canada was about the Leafs beating the Bruins in Game 5. Proving Canadians do love their hockey. Also good jobs blowing a three goal lead in Game 7 Leafs, i appreciate it.

Rick Vance has free beer at his house. Free. Beer.


I went to TCAF with US currency (a.k.a. real money) and just had all the american dealers there (aka 90% of them) give me change in Canadian (a.k.a. fake money) so i did not have to pay to exchange currencies. This system worked well.

The first booth i went to was Koyama Press because i have learned Michael DeForge tends to sell out of whatever mini’s he brings; and most of them are only purchasable from him at shows. I got 'Lose' #5, 'Loose' #3 (his sketchbook), and 'X-Mas Comics', along with Jesse Jacobs 'By This Shall You Know Him'. I’m not 100% sure, but i may have bullied  Jacobs later in the con into buying Josh Simmons 'Flayed Corpse'. I apologize / you’re welcome.

'Loose' #3 is a really interesting mini, it’s just a random collection of pages from his sketchbook, but in between the seven layers of  detailed drawings each page contains, you can see how small ideas of his grow, like a tiny Superman sketch that he later posted a finished version of on Tumblr or the preliminary drawings of the Youth In Decline logo. I think he only printed like 200 of these, so no one who reads this will ever get their hands on one. So jokes on you.

After Koyama Press, I went over to the Dash Shaw signing to pick up the mini’s he’d been selling on his recent tour promoting 'New School'. He had a short one about the Real World cast during 9/11 which was interesting but really only functioned as a series of Dash Shaw portraits, 'New Jobs' and '3 New Stories' though were fantastic. I flipped through 'New School' while he was doing some sketches in each comic and it looked good, i didn't expect it to be so big.

----review interruption----
3 New Stories (Fantagraphics)
by Dash Shaw

'3 New Stories' is a comic which explores the juxtaposition and superimposition of images within the structure of text/drawing based comics (a.k.a. traditional comics) as a means of underlining the thematic nature of it's stories. Similar to Blaise Larmee’s recent work on Tumblr, where Larmee utilizes photo’s of teenage girls as both a coloring element for the art and as an image to haunt the background of his GIF art, Shaw codes the pages of '3 New Stories' with layers of visual subtext that work as an interesting color palette and also through their existence as “images”, create additional layers of meaning to each page and the narrative as a whole.

The first of Shaw’s stories,'Object Lesson', is about a recently out of work criminal investigator (closely resembling Sherlock Holmes) who finds out his High School degree is invalid because his class did not meet the required number of school days to graduate. His lack of a degree makes him unable to find work, forcing him to go back to school to finish out the remainder of his school year, where he finds several of his old classmates in a similar predicament.

The idea of money runs throughout 'Object Lesson', it is a decidedly post-Recession piece, with work, education and monetization becoming the stories central themes. The opening page of 'Object Lesson', in juxtaposition with the first “page” of '3 New Stories' (an advertisement for Fantagraphics new Uncle Scrooge collection) shows the story of a man (Scrooge “The Richest Duck in the World”) jumping into a pile of gold coins next to a starving beggar being handed a few cents while taking up residence on the sidewalk (the sidewalk, while not depicted, is shown through a ghost image of a phone booth in the background). This image becomes even stronger when one looks at the bottom half of the Uncle Scrooge advertisement which shows The Beagle Brothers sitting hungry around an empty table. Both The Beagle Brothers and the beggar take on, in this story, the idea of failing to change to the new model, they are hungry because they did not learn to succeed in the new world order. Robbers, beggars and barons.

In contrast to this failure to change, we have our protagonist attending his first day of school, where he is exposed to it’s new for profit nature, book rentals and meal plans. “Public schools have really improved since our time”  he is informed by a cab driver dropping him off for his first day, a thought often repeated by his former/new classmates. After a few days of attending classes though he starts to wonder “This isn't how i remember High School at all...most of the school work is just filing and office work. It is as if we’re paying them to let us work for them. For no pay.” It is from these sentiments that our detective begins to investigate and unravel the new structure of work and school, the new form of beggars and bank robbers lampooned in the book’s opening pages are shown to be the interns of today. Graduates that upon completing their degree must go back to school to finish out their missing semester performing free office work for massive corporations.

Our hero, while discovering this system, is unwilling to overthrow it. Instead he finds a job in the school with gold plated lockers teaching World History to forty year olds and living comfortably, because he was able to, like Uncle Scrooge, monetize his education.

The following two entries in '3 New Stories' are shorter pieces, but Shaw continues to manipulate the issues advertisements and his own ghost backgrounds to reinforce his narrative purpose. 'Acting Is Reacting: Girls Gone Wild' follows Shaw’s previous forays into animating and illustrating “reality” shows (The Wheel of Fortune, To Catch A Predator, Blind Date);creating a possible 'The End Of The Fucking World' (previous pages ad) scenario to both the female depicted and her parents. Narratively speaking, this is a straightforward story, a foreign exchange student is “interviewed” by a Girls Gone Wild cameraman as they convince her to disrobe on camera. But by removing any geographic signifiers in the girls speech,  and featuring a shifting map in the background of each page, Shaw takes the idea of the “Foreign” Exchange Student, which one would typically attribute to an individual from outside the US, and turns it into a catch all for any female student residing in the U.S..

The final story, 'Bronx Children’s Prison', is about, as the title suggest, a prison for small children. These children are forced to work in the fields or risk harsh spankings, eventually these punishments reach the point that the prisons population stages an attempted break out, in which all but one is gunned down. Each page is colored by a unique set of dot matrices, from general polka dots to jelly beans to Jawbreakers, these images create an almost pop aesthetic to the the story which makes the harsh treatment of the children even more disturbing. The final page of the story though offers a sliver of hope. In a bit of self promotion, Shaw allows one child to get over the wall, finding freedom “ No friends left, but i’ll find more.” which is followed, on the book's final page, by a full page advertisement for his new book 'New School' which features an illustration of a boat, leaving the reader hoping the child is on board (I guess you’ll have to read 'New School' to find out though).
----interruption over----

The first floor seemed to be where most of the artists / publishers i cared about were housed, the second seemed more regulated to children's books and webcomic artists although i did find some guy from Providence selling Mickey Z comics and Jim Rugg was up there. By mid-Saturday there was a twenty minute line to get into that room so i may just not be with it.

----review interruption----
RAV #8 (Self-published)
by Mickey Zacchilli

I have heard Mickey Z refer to it as a cyclical wandering story, stuff keeps happening but it’s all happened before. That idea really highlights the stories existence as a romance book, which have the tendency to repeat and fall back in on themselves because of the limits of the “will they or won’t they” trope. Anyways, some guy talks to a cat and then some lady rips a person limb from limb. Also, other shit. I like this book.
----interruption over----

After the initial walk around we (me/rick/chris) made the trek to The Beguiling. The store actually inhabits two floors, the first is more of the “book” section, with a collection of just about everything in and out of print  you could ever want. My brother commented that he could drop a $100 there without thinking, and he’s not a big comics guy to start with. The store is also littered with original art that makes you want to cry, i saw a Mazzucchelli Batman sketch just tucked away in a corner like it wasn't hot shit for example.

The Beguiling’s second floor is a completely different store, the first tip off to this would probably be the music, the first floor had “classic rock” playing, while the second was some form of Dubstep that i could never identify the creator of. It was loud and i guess littered with samples of things people find cool. The second floor housed more manga and quality back issues than i could ever look at. Rick found an issue of the 'Negative Burn' anthology in the Paul Pope bin with a Godzilla short by Alan Moore and Art Adams in it, which i hope they use as the basis for the next Godzilla movie just so I can hear Alan Moore denounce it.

After leaving The Beguiling, we went to some random burger joint on the way back to TCAF and flipped through what we had bought so far.

Rick had a 'Heavy Metal' issue with a short story from Guido Crepax in it. I’d never seen Crepax in color before, it was weird.

There is a place near The Beguiling called Honest Ed’s which i guess is a giant outlet store. The alleyway next to it had neon lights dubbing it Honest Ed’s Alley Way and this did not reduce my fears of walking down it.

Rick and Chris ended up going to a panel on Moebius at the Hotel TCAF was using as an off site venue. I used this opportunity to go to the Los. Hernandez signing which was surprisingly empty, i was later told by people that their signing the previous night was stuffed to the gills so i guess that explains the short line on Saturday. I flipped through Jaime originals while he was signing my books which were awe inspiring. I regret not buying one, but i was scared of talking to him because Holy Shit! the Hernandez Brothers! (I had a similar dumbfounded reaction of Clowes/Ware).

After staring at the Hernandez brothers for five minutes i went up to the first floor and finally got the WiFi on my phone to work (The WiFi at the library was really patchy, but a room full of comic fans will do that to any server). I was greeted by 2-3 tweets asking about my whereabouts. My favorite was a concerned DM from Joey Aulisio “Shawn, you alright? people are looking for you” That dude sure does care about me. #Swoon

Before meeting up with the people on twitter concerned about my well being though, i got my copy of 'The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame' signed. The difference between Tagame in person, and what you would picture him being based on his work is staggering. He’s like a big teddy bear. He even drew one in my book, a fucking teddy bear, right next to the picture of a guy having his anus prodded with a finger.

I talked with Ryan Sands, he had a mild line so I flipped through 'The Strange Tale of Panorama Island' which he had a display copy of (following its almost immediate sell out) and it looked beautiful, I’m kind of shocked Maruo was able to garner such a luxurious release. Anyways, Ryan Sands is a very nice person, which i guess is why everyone who matters in alt-comics contributes to his various projects.

I saw Box Brown taking hits out of a flask at his booth, the Retrofit booth was across the aisle from Picture Box so i was expecting a Brown/Nadel throw down later that day, but sadly that never occurred. But I did get 'Snake Oil' #7 from Charles Forsman....

----review interruption----
Snake Oil #7 (Retrofit)
by Charles Forsman

My brother said this book needed another page of the main character getting punched in the face, i’m not sure if it’s because he just hated the main character or didn't feel the events following the beating were in keeping with what we were shown. Besides that, he enjoyed it.
----review interruption----

After giving credence to the Charles Forsman rumor that i was a made up person created and maintained by Alec Berry and Joey Aulisio by going unseen for the first few hours of the con, I then went and hung out with him for a while until they kicked everyone out of the library because it was closing. Conversation highlights include:

Flipping through the proof copy of 'The End Of The Fucking World', which looks very nice. I know someone who has a pull quote on it.

Talking about our mutual love of Josh Simmons and how his wizard throat rape comic was originally going to be published in a Jeffery Brown edited anthology but they couldn't find a way to make the story publishable.

Me insulting various comics people and him politely nodding his head.

The recently re-posted Groth/McFarlane interview on TCJ, i pointed to this particular exchange:

MCFARLANE: ...My only point was, that out of those 200 kids, eight of those guys are going to turn into Fantagraphics fans someday. But because you insulted them, one of them might not. That’s your audience.
GROTH: I’ll accept the odds, yeah.
MCFARLANE: Whether you want to accept it or not, they, and the guys that are buying 'Spawn' today are your future audience, and you’re going after guys who are actually going to be your allies some day.”

I found this really interesting in the case of Forsman and the current crop of alt-comic artists emerging right now whom Fantagraphics would possibly wish to publish at some point who have some early Image influence. This was followed up by talking about Stephen Platt and Tim Vigil.


Sat around waiting for The Doug Wright Awards to start, then for another 40 minutes as a fire alarm went off once the show began seating. Chester Brown and Tom Spurgeon sat in front of me, which creeped me out a bit.

The awards were fine, little long but i assume every awards show is. If the whole fire alarm thing didn't happen it probably would have been quite a briskly paced show. The highlight was, as everyone else said, the David Collier speech which went through about five stages of funny/not funny/ funny again.

After the awards we went to the after-party bar thing. I had a couple beers, talked to Jim Rugg at the bar while he was waiting for his drinks about how hard it is to even get a basic grasp of everything that's at a show until two weeks after when you missed it. We then went home and passed out hard. I don’t walk that much.


We showed up late for the second day of TCAF and left early, it was more of a “oh shit i forgot to get this” day. I got a Patrick Kyle book that I've wanted for a while but refused to pay the shipping to import to the US, and Tin Can Forest’s 'Wax Cross'. Those two guys were in this weird side room on the first floor i didn't know existed until i stumbled on it trying to get a WiFi signal on my phone.

----review interruption----
Wax Cross (Koyama)
by Tin Can Forest

Didn't understand it, but it looks pretty.
----interruption over----

We went to the panel about the death of comics blogging which was mostly asinine. Someone gave a speech in the form of a question which made me want to drink, sadly the bar which the panel was housed in didn't seem to be serving at the time. Tom Spurgeon seemed to possess the correct level of disdain for the panel, although i learned he had woken up a few minutes before the panel later. But i’m a fan of contempt for any reason.

In contrast to that panel i really enjoyed the Dash Shaw talk. He has some interesting idea’s about art and his own work.

I think that was it for Sunday at TCAF...yep.


Saw a double bill of "Room 237" and "The Shining" at a theater far too nice to be showing them. "Room 237" seemed like a really interesting documentary you’d find playing around on Netflix at 2 am trying to find something to sleep to. It was basically a series of semi-interesting internet essays about "The Shining" that there various authors read over the various scenes they were referring to. Most seemed to extrapolate a lot of stuff based on little inconsistencies which could easily be explained by the hotel being built on a Indian burial site. "The Shining" was very good though.


Friday, May 24, 2013

1987 and all that 007: pack vs. crack (and other childhood tragedies)

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Power Pack #28-33 (Marvel)
by Louise Simonson, Terry Shoemaker, Jon Bogdanove, Val Mayerik, Hilary Barta, Dan Green, Glynis Oliver, Christie Scheele, John Wellington, Petra Scotese, Joe Rosen, Ken Lopez

Kids want to be adults. And there is a tendency among adults to respond to this desire hand-wavingly, because kids aren't given the credit they deserve. At the same time, there are absolutely aspects of life that children are not ready for and should not have to deal with. The massive, unsolvable problems of the world, the unfairness and bottomless cruelty, can’t even be handled by many grown-ups. I’m not one to advocate over-protection or needles sheltering, but it’d be nice if people’s childhoods could be unsullied by such despicable things. Of course, that’s not always going to be the case, which is at the center of Louise Simonson’s 'Power Pack'. Dealing with extremely adult problems in believably childlike ways, the kids of the titular team prove themselves to be more mature than the adults of their world may think, but not yet as grown as they’d like themselves to believe.

If you’re unfamiliar, 'Power Pack' consists of Alex, Julie, Jack, and Katie Power, four elementary-to-middle-school-aged siblings. Their superpowers were given to them by an alien who told them they must use their abilities to save the world. So their powers and the accompanying responsibilities were thrust upon these kids by an external source without preparation, training, or experience. Just a group of four average, underage brothers and sisters who’re suddenly expected to know how to be superheroes. On top of that, they stubbornly refuse to tell their parents about it, as a group, anyway. Individual members of the team often think that revealing the truth would be the right move, but nobody ever pulls that trigger because they can’t agree unanimously. That means they are entirely on their own, relying on Alex to lead them by default since he’s the oldest, though even he only just started junior high.

Point being, these kids aren't exactly qualified for the job they have. Possessing power does not necessarily mean you know how best to use it, and Power Pack often end up tackling obstacles they’re not entirely fit to deal with. Drug epidemics, kidnappings, disturbed teenagers…all of these things are beyond the scope of a group of children their age, yet they charge in headfirst and try to save the day anyway. Noble though their intentions may be, they have at best mixed victories, doing but a small bit of good in places of immense evil. Heroes, no doubt, but tragic ones.

Most of these issues (#29-32) are connected through a storyline about the Pack attempting to get crack cocaine out of their neighborhood. It is primarily Alex’s cause, and what he’s forced to learn over the course of the arc is that it is a futile one. Though he and his siblings make a few solid blows against nearby dealers and producers of the drug, they cannot stop it in any permanent fashion, even locally. In the meantime, other kids die, and our heroes meet a team of child villains called Trash that serves as a smaller example of the Pack’s tendency to bite off more than they can chew. Trash are the guards at the first crack house Alex decides to demolish, and they work for a dealer/super-villain called Garbage Man. A team of poor, broken-down street kids, Trash do not necessarily want to be working in the drug trade, but they feel like crime is their best or only chance at making a real living, and Garbage Man has them thoroughly intimidated and controlled. Not until Power Pack show up as part of their anti-crack campaign are Trash able to push back against their maleficent leader and get out from under his thumb. And in that moment when the two young teams join forces against a larger evil, it does feel like a win for Power Pack. They take down a big-time dealer, and rescue a group of kids in the process. Or so it seems.

Once Garbage Man is out of the way, though, Trash are less willing to keep playing hero. Their individual circumstances and histories have not been improved merely because they defeated their former boss, which means that they are still stuck with no money, support, or future. The lives that pushed them to become drug runners and guards are still theirs, and though Power Pack makes a sincere attempt to convince Trash that continuing their criminal activity is the wrong decision, ultimately nothing changes. Just as the Pack hasn't wiped crack off the face of the planet simply by taking out one dealer, they fail to improve Trash’s world in any lasting way. Even when they have won a battle, the war continues on without them.

These are the kinds of half-successes 'Power Pack' regularly has to live with, and so do their readers. In issue #28, the kids return from being captured by aliens, reunite buddy Franklin Richards with his family, and are returned to their own parents as well. Seems likes a cut-and-dry victory, no? Yet their unwillingness to tell their parents the truth about their superhero activities means the Pack can’t tell the whole story of their kidnapping, which in turn means they don’t get to heal properly or fully after the experience. Keeping such big secrets, and keeping track of them all, is a lot of pressure for the young siblings, and the downside of their ongoing deceit is evident throughout these issues. Jack begins to enjoy the act of lying as its own reward, to the point that his brother and sisters openly voice their concern over his behavior in issue #33. And all four of them strain under weight of their lies, but are too afraid of losing their parents’ trust, respect, and love to say anything. As with their attempt to solve a widespread drug problem, this familial drama and dishonesty are too adult for the kids to handle. But they stumble their way through them all the same in the name of heroism.

If their age makes them somewhat inept, it is their continued and deeply earnest efforts to use their powers for world-saving good that turns this ineptitude into something endearing. We root for these kids in spite of their lack of experience and because of their wealth of sincerity. The combination of these attributes is what sets this series and its stars apart from other cape comics. It’s plain to see these children have the powers and personalities to make truly great heroes, but they aren't quite there yet due only to their youth. Watching them grow into their potential, even with mistakes along the way, is a compelling journey to follow. Their accomplishments, however small, are still impressive for a group of unsupervised kids, and though their failures can be rather disappointing, their unflappable hope is twice as inspiring.

'Power Pack' act as a nice metaphor for the common childhood desire to grow up as quickly as possible, and it makes this series excellent if approached as a kids’ book. It’s a good enough comic no matter how old you are, but for younger readers, there are a lot of relatable characters and some very valuable lessons to be learned. If nothing else, Power Pack are realistically childish. They see things in black and white, play imagination-based games, tease each other, and try to act more mature than they really are. Even twenty-six years later, that’s a lot for a real-world kid to connect with, but more than providing a cast to latch onto, 'Power Pack' offers some very subtle but important advice for its younger readers. It is a book about accepting the things you can’t change, living with the achievable victories. Kids want everything their way, and they want it now, but 'Power Pack' shows the impossibility and frustration of that kind of thinking. Growing up means, in a lot of ways, learning what you can’t do, what isn't possible. Power Pack are superheroes, so it’d be nice to think nothing is beyond their reach, but what the book shows is that, powers or no, some things remain always outside of our influence and control. That’s an important if harsh reality, and one that actual children wrestle with in much the same ways as Power Pack. The specifics are obviously different, but the larger truth applies.

I think Louise Simonson knew, somewhere in her mind, that Power Pack worked best as a children’s book. Her dialogue has a tendency to be repetitive and overly expository when discussing the plot, which is due in part to the time in which she was writing, but is also indicative of aiming at a potentially younger audience. It’s helpful to reiterate story points for children to make sure no one is lost or confused, even if it slows things down a hair. Simonson still has plenty go on in every installment, and even when there is a multi-issue through-line like the team’s battle against crack, each chapter is a self-contained tale as well. All of this speaks to wanting children to read this title, which was, I think, the right call to make with these characters. If they’re going to be the believable kids of the Marvel U, might as well target them at readers of similar age, fans who can more directly identify with these particular heroes.

The other thing Simonson makes sure to do, and a technique that improves the comic’s quality for readers young and old alike, is the inclusion of humor. Even when discussing its most serious topics, 'Power Pack' has a lightness to it, an air of goofiness and fun that never entirely goes away. So, for example, the youngest Power children put on their school play while Alex goes rogue and attacks a crack house. There are also jovial family pancake breakfasts, make-believe and dress-up games, parents flirting with each other while the kids are away, fake tummy aches, etc. Again, it’s all very childlike, finding the funny and the opportunities for play in the midst of more serious business. Simonson keeps the book enjoyable and well-paced, and keeps the kids sounding like kids, by including these scenes or even single panels of levity to soften the more intense stuff. And she gets assisted deftly by her various artistic collaborators.

Jon Bogdanove is the penciler for most of these issues, with #28 drawn by Terry Shoemaker and #30 by Val Mayerik. What all three of these artists have in common, though, and the thing that Bogdanove does best, is the blend of grounded and more exaggerated visual elements. Largely, this book looks fairly real. It’s still a superhero comic, so when people’s powers are going off there is a fantastical side to things, but the figures and the settings are generally more down-to-earth. Bogdanove in particular packs in a lot of tiny detail to his backgrounds and costumes, and tends to keep the action relatively restrained, too. Where he goes bigger and broader are the moments of most heightened childishness. Not necessarily the emotional peaks of the stories, but those places where the Pack are most like kids and least like superheroes. That’s a fitting choice, and one that does a lot to help Simonson’s scripts connect. By having the visuals go their craziest when the characters get their most immature, we are reminded of the fact that this series is, at its heart, about exploring what it feels like to be a kid living in a grown-up world.

While on their own the three pencilers do bring a cohesion to the style, five of these six issues are inked by Hilary Barta, so his work is clearly also a major factor when it comes to the series looking consistent. It is Barta who allows the lines to get a little looser when called for, and who keeps them more rigid on the rest of the pages, beefing up the realism of the series overall. He helps the pencilers walk the line between caricature and more lifelike figures, amping up the exaggerated moments and downplaying the others. This back-and-forth in the art is key to maintaining the childlike mood and outlook of the stories, and Barta is an important ingredient in that effort’s success.

That a superhero lifestyle would be damaging to children is an old idea. The violence, deceit, and danger inherent in costumed crime-fighting are not suitable for kids, no matter their backgrounds, which has been explained and examined in the various iterations of Batman’s sidekick Robin, books like 'Brat Pack' and 'Runaways', and countless other stories from various series and creators over time. But what Simonson does in 'Power Pack' is not so much make this argument again, but offer a counterpoint to, or perhaps more accurately, an enjoyable spin on it. She accepts, without saying so out loud, the fact that these kids are leading lives that are far from age appropriate. But their goals and motives are so pure, their points of view so innocent and noble and genuinely, altruistically heroic, that you end up being glad they’re superheroes, even while acknowledging how much it’ll mess them up in the long run. And how haphazardly they pull it off in the present. They are realistic, relatable, admirable children who’re trying to make the best of the adult situations in which they find themselves.

Friday, May 10, 2013

1987 and all that 006: let slip the rats of war

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

The ‘Nam  #8 (Marvel)
by Doug Murray, Michael Golden, John Beatty, Phil Felix

Marvel’s 'The ‘Nam' was not a great series in 1987. The structural concept behind it is sound: each issue takes place one month after the last and focuses on either a specific real event or some broader aspect of life as an American solider in the Vietnam War. That’s actually a pretty cool approach to historical fiction, having a serialized story that moves forward in time at the same rate as its publication, telling standalone tales that come together to paint a larger and chronologically accurate picture of an entire conflict. Problem is, most of the stories told in this specific title—particularly in the way they’re told—just aren't hard-hitting enough to leave a mark.

'The ‘Nam' is strangely detached from its cast, never attempting to get into the nitty gritty of their battered and broken psyches in the face of war. They may at times be amazed at what they see, even horrified by it, but at best that reaction is fleeting. There are very few long-term consequences; even when one of the main characters actually dies (most of the “good guys” get to go home unscathed), he is mourned for only a small section of the following issue and then largely forgotten or at least ignored. Also, none of the characters are ever developed or explored fully enough for the reader to have anything solid to latch onto. The closest thing to that is the gradual education of protagonist Ed Marks, who shows up in the debut an ignorant greenie and steadily becomes an experienced and talented soldier, but even in that growth there’s not a lot of emotional payoff. Marks is just never an interesting or three-dimensional enough guy for there to be a reason to get all that invested in his journey.

The in-story month-long gap between every issue does allow writer Doug Murray to discuss a lot of different things, though, and while on the whole the book is less than impressive, it certainly has it's moments. 'The ‘Nam'  #8 breaks the usual mold of the series in a several equally rewarding ways and ends up a far more disturbing, affecting issue than most. A sharper focus, tighter art, actual character development, and finally showing someone being truly, permanently damaged by a wartime experience all make this issue a head above the rest. It’s still not jaw-dropping work, but it’s a solid single issue, using a pair of connected short stories to show one man’s breaking point, and the dire results of pushing him past it.

At first, the issue feels like any other, opening with the usual cast of characters out on a mission, searching for enemy activity or territory. And they find it quickly, in the form of an underground tunnel system, a tactic utilized fairly often by the Viet Cong. So the “tunnel rats” are called in, soldiers who specialize in exploring these tunnels and clearing them out of any remaining enemies or traps. One of them is injured as soon as he gets down the hole though, so a volunteer replacement is needed, and as the main character, Ed Marks steps up so the reader can follow him into the darkness.

All of this set-up only takes five pages, and they’re boring in the series’ typical fashion. Not until Marks and full-time tunnel rat Frank ‘Fudd’ Verzyl get underground does the issue really get going, because once they’re down there everything changes. For starters, the energy shifts, as there is an immediate nervous tension between the two men creeping and crawling through cramped, dark, unfamiliar paths. As the experienced one, Verzyl is constantly chattering at Marks about the right and wrong way to do things, explaining the various dangers of the tunnels as they arise. Marks, meanwhile, is clearly terrified, unsure of himself in this new setting and fully aware of how unprepared and ignorant he is. He makes mistakes, shining his light in the wrong direction and causing too much noise, and Verzyl reprimands him as quickly and directly as possible. Murray writes a nice, natural exchange between them, a sort of incessant jabber that displays their increasing anxiety and at the same time legitimately educates the reader on what the VC tunnels were like.

So Marks and Verzyl eliminate the leftover threats one by one: a bamboo snake, an enemy soldier, a woman who lets them kill her in the hope that they’ll accidentally set off the grenade she has strapped to her body. That last one is a difficult pill for Marks to swallow, the idea of someone sacrificing her life just so she can act as a booby trap. He asks with shock and disbelief if it was really intentional, but Verzyl, having seen it all before, is much more casual in his response. That dichotomy is at play between them for the entire story, and hits a high note here, with Marks staring in wide-eyed sadness at the fallen woman while Verzyl barely pays her any mind and says it’s time to go. Even once outside, Verzyl is able to crack jokes and brush it off, while Marks can only wonder in awe how anyone could be a tunnel rat for a living. It is there the opening story ends, with the two men having survived the same tunnels together, yet walking away with wildly different experiences.

This first part is fairly strong, but it is in the shorter second story that the issue does its best work. Narrated by his commanding officer, it’s another tale of Verzyl exploring a tunnel system, but this time he foolishly does it by himself, and faces an unexpected horror that leaves him a psychologically ruined man. The tunnels in question are abandoned, which is why Verzyl’s willing to go in solo, assuming it’ll be a relatively easy and safer-than-usual exploration. And it is for a while, until he comes upon a boarded up room with some muffled noises coming from it, and assumes he’s found a hidden Viet Cong soldier. He busts through the boards expecting an opponent, and is met instead with a swarm of starving rats that overrun him in an instant. Trapped and alone in a tiny space with a horde of vermin trying to eat him, Verzyl desperately digs to the surface by hand in a total panic. But by the time he gets free, the damage is already done, and he’s been transformed from the daring and capable young man seen earlier into a shattered maniac who can barely communicate.

That would all be bad enough for Verzyl, and powerful enough for the reader, even if it ended there. But Murray is not satisfied enough to merely put Verzyl through the ringer, he wants to leave the character irrevocably destroyed. So an inexperienced lieutenant shows up and, despite Verzyl’s pleas, insists on going into the tunnels himself with the terrified tunnel rat as his guide. The thought of returning to that living nightmare is too much to handle, so Verzyl turns to the only alternative he can think of in the moment: he draws his pistol and kills the lieutenant. That’s quite a rapid, drastic fall from grace, and a truly shocking final turn in what was already an atypical story for 'The ‘Nam'.

On their own, either of these tales is a success, but by putting them in the same issue, Murray adds depth and meaning to both. The whole of the issue becomes a surprisingly apt study of how trauma (and, specifically, war) can give birth to insanity and instability. Verzyl is the confident leader with all the right skills and knowledge for so many of these pages, his sudden descent at the end is all the more compelling and saddening.

Michael Golden is the artist for most of the first year of 'The 'Nam', and I think he was a poor choice for a war comic. His figures are too close to being caricatures, with their over-sized eyes, mouths, and other assorted body parts.  It makes it hard to take them entirely seriously. His lines are rounded and smooth, which adds an overall softness that only lessens the impact of any action. Battle scenes are Golden’s weakest point, drawn from such strange angles and distances that there’s often no way to tell what’s even going on. Bullets whizz and bodies contort, but who’s shooting, who’s being hit, and where they are in relation to one another is sometimes wholly indecipherable. I don’t know if it’s large casts, combat, or both that trip Golden up, but the results are obscure at best.

In this issue, there is no big fight scene, and most of the pages have only a few characters. There are some guns fired, but always in a small space, intimate firefights between a couple shooters, so clarity is much easier to maintain. When working in a more confined setting, none of Golden’s biggest problems are present, and he is able to do some more careful and emotive work. The tightness of the tunnels isn't only shown within each individual panel, but by doing all of the pages in tight, rigid, five- or six-panel layouts, Golden also brings a strong sense of claustrophobia to the full pages. It puts the reader in the same cramped, darkened physical space as the characters, which also assists in amplifying the tension and nervousness of that scene.

Again, though, like with the writing, the second story is the true highlight of Golden’s art. For Verzyl’s breakdown, having an exaggerated, cartoonish element to the character’s expressions is actually quite beneficial. Yes, even in his darkest moments, Verzyl’s eyes are too big for his head and his face looks like it’s made of rubber, which all looks a bit goofy. But in the context of a story about him losing his mind completely, this heightened style makes Verzyl into the physical embodiment of madness. He may not look realistic, but he does look like the internal process of going insane made human, and that’s much better for the narrative at hand. His inner turmoil is brought to the surface, so the reader gets a better chance to understand it and experience it with him. Similarly, when the rats first attack, Golden manages to make them look more grounded, while at the same time playing up Verzyl’s fearfulness to the extreme. The contrast between his distorted facial features and the rats’ creepy realism is excellent, showing visually the disconnect between his mind and reality that is already beginning to form in that moment.

'The ‘Nam' #8 is not an astounding comic, but it is a well-crafted, heartbreaking character portrait with some real and relevant things to say about war and the human mind. It's also many steps ahead of the issues that surround it, which are all far blander and more distant from the emotional core of their subjects. I may never return to this series or bother tracking down the issues from 1988 and beyond, but I’m glad to have read this one at least, and its stories will certainly stay with me.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

interview 003: ryan sands

by Shawn Starr

I interviewed Ryan Sands months back on my column but for those who are not familiar, he co-edited the erotic comics anthology 'Thickness' and created/writes for the influential manga blog Same Hat. He does other stuff too. In particular Youth In Decline, which is his new publishing company and the focus of our talk.

You have both edited and printed comics and zines before, independent of a publishing house, what made you want to transition to becoming a formal publisher?

I've been making zines the past seven years, and the scope and size of my projects has been changing recently -- from self-published anthologies full of contributors and crazy ideas to monographs and longer releases with a special attention to their printing and production. I'm still planning to continue on that trajectory with the same editorial impulses.

One problem with doing lots of random projects under disparate names is that it becomes hard for folks who like your work to find you or keep track of it all. A main goal for becoming a "formal publisher" is to simply have all these editing/translating/publishing projects under one name, and actually accumulate whatever goodwill or reputation they garner. The general theme for the first year is to do less projects better, by investing a lot of time in the individual creators we publish, as well as in the website and retailer relationships.

What do you hope to accomplish through Youth in Decline? Is there something that you see lacking in comics that you want to fill?

It's a pretty amazing time for comics and art, and there are many fantastic small publishers that I admire and am excited to call peers. My goals for Youth in Decline are to continue to create opportunities for the artists and writers I'm excited about, to tell their stories, to experiment with production and format, and to directly and aggressively compensate artists for their work.

There is a lot of challenging independent work happening now (and much of it outside North America, and on Tumblr) and I'm hoping my weird curiosity and tastes combined with the connections I have made in various scenes like science fiction, European comics, and indie Manga will make for an exciting slate of releases over the next few years.

Youth in Decline is an interesting name for a publisher, I can see it reading a couple of different ways, does it have any greater meaning to you or is it just a cool name?

The best and worst part about undertaking a new venture is coming up with the name!  I have a GoogleDoc full of SO MANY embarrassing ideas I kicked around with friends... puns, non-English words, and some awful ideas that sound like a twee britpop band or the name of a weird hipster barber shop.

The name is mostly just something I think sounds nice, but I did turn 30 in the past year, so perhaps it has a special meaning to me. Really simply, I like that it reminds me of a punk fanzine or Japanese New Wave film title, and that it doesn't have the word "Books" or "Press" in the name.

You have been a big proponent of paying artists for their work, has this idea held through to Youth In Decline or did you shift to a royalty or pay-via-free-books system. Also has your views shifted at all, now that you’re a publisher, about the current models for paying/not paying artists in comics?

The challenging and fun part of becoming a "real" publisher is that it both gives me stronger footing from which to push for fair creator compensation and also forces me to put my money where my mouth is, in a really real way.  I've been paying some form of compensation to creators since 'Electric Ant' #2, but I'm excited to continue experimenting in consultation with creators on page rates and royalties, and other ways to get to fair compensation.

The hardest part of publishing, and this is obvious Publisher 101 stuff to anyone that's done it, is anticipating the possible sales of a book. From that stems everything on the budget -- the unit cost of printing the books, how much you can compensate the creator, prices for wholesalers and retailers. I'm assuming I'll make some major miscalculations along the way, but hope to learn quickly how to budget and forecast in a way that previous projects had not forced upon me yet.

In your and Michael DeForge’s anthology 'Thickness', each artist had between ten and twenty pages to work with, a noticeable increase from the traditional eight page entries in most anthologies, with 'Frontier' you’re now giving the entire issue over to a single contributor. What lead you to this format?  

My tastes have been moving this way for a while -- as much as I love many anthology-style books and zines, I think the total impact you can have from a 1-page / 1-artist book has a ceiling on it. I'm not excited about the possibilities that much (after doing quite a few of those zines myself) and am more interested in the "monograph" approach that folks like SSE Project in South Korea and the 'Solo' series from DC Comics played with in the past.

It also makes it easier to pay closer to a fair rate when you're working with a single creator. I'm extremely excited to collaborate directly with a single artists on a holistic way and design the entire book together as one thematic object.

Uno Moralez has a very specific style and tone, what made you choose him as your debut contributor to 'Frontier'?

I've been obsessed with Uno Moralez's work for a few years now, and he's been at the top of my list of folks I've been dying to publish for a long time. If you've seen his work before online you know how shockingly fresh, mysterious, and 100% contemporary it is -- there's no one quite like him, and his work appeals to all types of comics, art, and video game fans. The impact of sitting with 32 pages of his work all at once is jarring and extremely exciting to me as a publisher.

Like with when Michael and I licensed and published a Gengoroh Tagame story in 'Thickness' #3, I simply don't think the language barriers between the various indie scenes are legitimate walls to keep us from enjoying and reading these works. I have my friend Roman Muradov to thank for facilitating all communication in Russian, so that the process of designing the issue would be dynamic and painless for me and Uno.

How was your experience translating Uno Moralez’s work to print? You mentioned on your site that the printing and look of each issue of 'Frontier' will change to suite the artist involved, which makes Moralez seem like an ambitious first choice.

It was definitely a purposeful choice, a bit of a shot across the bow to stake out new territory for Youth in Decline, and to challenge myself on the layout, printing, and production side of things. Uno's work is a bit of a phantom in the Internet - showing up in strange places and without attribution on Tumblr and Twitter. I had the pleasure of printing a short comic of his in Jonny Negron and Jesse Balmer's 'Chamelon' #2, and his work translated extremely well to the smudgy, ditto printing that the Risograph creates.

I think the collected work in 'Frontier' #1 plays really well in the printed form, shifting from large full-bleed spreads to frame-by-frame GIF pages, as well as two longer-form narrative comics. In addition to the book, Youth in Decline is also publishing a limited-edition set of "animated prints" using lenticular printing - that type of thing you'd see on some schlocky DVD covers or in 70's pinup postcards, where the image shifts as you move it from left to right.  It presents a really creepy and beautiful way to bring GIF art into the physical world, and I'm extremely excited for folks to see those together with the monograph zine.

In addition to debuting 'Frontier' #1 at TCAF, you’re also going to have advance copies of Suehiro Maruo’s 'The Strange Tale of Panorama Island' which you translated, you’ve worked on scanlations of his work before, what do you see in Maruo’s work that keeps you coming back to it?

It's a happy coincidence that the debut of 'The Strange Tale of Panorama Island' is lining up with TCAF -- it really feels like my formal debut into the high society of comics!  It's extremely gratifying to see just how lush and nicely the book came out -- it's a 270 page hardcover over-sized book, with gold foil printing on the cover. Suehiro Mauro has been a favorite of mine since I first encountered his work in Comics Underground Japan back in the 90's, and I'm happy to been able to work with Last Gasp and Evan Hayden, who handled all the lettering and book design. It's nice to be part of the team to get him back in print for English audiences for the first time in nearly 15 years.

The book is a bit of a departure from some of the more shocking short stories that have circulated in the scanlation scenes for years. Panorama Island is an adaptation of a noir-ish detective fiction novella by Edogawa Rampo from the early 20th century; the grotesque and beautiful style of that era is a perfect match for Mauro's artwork. It's one of the most beautiful comics I've ever seen, and I can't wait for folks to dig into it. I'll have a few dozen advance copies at the Youth in Decline booth at TCAF, and it will be available from Last Gasp in the coming week or so.

You can purchase 'Frontier' #1 here