12.01.2009

Graphic Novel(s) Of The Month

Driven by Lemons (AdHouse Books): Josh Cotter’s follow up to the indomitable Skyscrapers of the Midwest comes at us as a pseudo-sketchbook, feeling informed by the design sensibility of Gary Panter, but with a touch of Tony Millionaire’s figure work. While that might sound like high praise, just wait, I saved the criticism for later. I think Cotter sort of philosophically takes the stance that if life gives you lemons, and those circumstances drive your life, this is how one might attempt the proverbial lemonade by navigating existence. What I enjoyed the most about Driven by Lemons was that it’s still recognizable as a “comic,” but his experimentations with the form and structure of the book make that definition highly malleable. There’s a playful level of interaction with the reading audience, the invention of communication devices like blue triangles and red squares that symbolize the very paradigm shift his work tends to comment on. I thought Skyscrapers was largely a comment on the collapse of the American ideal, the disintegration of the “Red State” ethos, in favor of a more “Blue State” liberal acceptance. I get the same vibe here, though it’s much more subtle. Those opening scenes tell me that this is a post-9/11 piece of work, susceptible to implausible types of occurrences, more interested in the idea of the American Heartland potentially looking like downtown Beirut than a Republican Utopia. Am I getting too political? Shit, I feel like I’m getting too political. Let’s talk about the text. It would be easy to dismiss this as “John Doe” (see Kevin Spacey in Seven) style ramblings, but they’re more. They’re not quite rhyme, but they are rhythmic: “Piston. Gravel. Ice cream headache. It moves from the lower left, pulsing neon invertebrae.” Man’s existence being reduced to attempts at navigating a sense of pervasive chaos is presented visually as well as verbally. Some of the panels and actions remind me of Tom Neely’s work on The Blot. This is a new school of visual communication; symbols, actions, and lateral movement all become a language in lieu of the traditional alphabet. During the section entitled Scope Creep, I felt that the story was being informed by the type of Big Brother Orwellian Paranoia found in The Prisoner, as society moves toward homogenization and the individual personality is systematically subdued. My one big gripe is that Driven by Lemons isn’t super-accessible by any means, it requires conscious effort to surrender and not cling to the need for a more straightforward “story.” But for those who are up to the task, you’ll find thematic notes on the cycle of life and death, and the elusive search for the meaning sometimes lost in between. Grade A.

Luna Park (DC/Vertigo): If there’s one thing that Danijel Zezelj knows how to do, it’s capturing the essence of a city in ink. In his book REX by Optimum Wound, he captured a media saturated, pre-apocalyptic urban wasteland. Here in Luna Park, he’s able to capture the dreamy new world of hopeful and desperate New York City, specifically the out-of-time ethereal wonderment of Coney Island. Novelist Kevin Baker lays down some great prose, with a sort of “triple cadence” that I really enjoyed. “Every day he walks out to the beach, and every day he walks back, past the stands with their shut-up summer mirth.” That line sounds sort of sing-songy to me, and I don’t mean that as a pejorative, it’s lyrical and beautiful. This tale of a low level mob enforcer with a heart and conscience is bleak and beautiful. It’s full of that dichotomy, dreary but vibrant, a complex world full of simple base choices. That framework suits the exploration of the gray and rejects simplistic notions of it being a black and white reality. Baker truly gets the dynamic duality of the medium; for example, there’s a shot of a heroin needle with the line “Sometimes he needs something more” in unison. There are the (we assume) drug induced flashbacks, the “memories” of past turmoil and warfare, with beautiful lines like “Is all our life nothing but an empty dream, heaven’s jest?” Baker also juggles metaphor interestingly, we see Coney Island in transition, symbolic of Marina and Alik, and man’s interaction with the eternal constant of change. Baker gets certain details down pat. The juxtaposition of Coney Island and Brighton Beach being contrasting sides of the same coin, Anastasia’s Club being the epicenter of Eastern European culture, fortunetellers succeeding in large part due to their slick skills of observation (Alik is a soldier because of his regimental tattoo). There are several themes Baker plays with that are interesting as well, soldiers feeling lost without a country to fight for, the meaningless nature of war in the modern age, Feliks as the devil making deals, war and love continually being connected for Alik. Then there’s the sudden ethereal magical twist of Alik being reborn and with his parents, a child doing his life over, but a generation in the past. Is it a dream? Has he died and gone to heaven? Has Eastern philosophy invaded and provided some reincarnation? I enjoyed this twist and the thought-provoking questions it introduced. Luna Park itself was portrayed as magical in the figurative sense, so this literal mystical time portal, dooming the protagonists to repeat the mistakes of the past throughout history was fantastic. The nightmare cycle was being fueled by betrayal and base motivations, entangled with the wars that were used as backdrops. “America is an illusion of change.” Yes, I was enjoying it all... You’re waiting for the “but” aren’t you? Well, in an odd move, and I mean abrupt, more than unexpected – seemingly random – without a complete spoiler, umm, this all gets connected to the JFK assassination. Really? Wow. It’s almost as if this disconnected idea just popped into the writer’s head and was begging to be used no matter how disparate an element it created when juxtaposed with the remainder of the story. I felt strongly that the magical reincarnation motif was already enough of a twist ending that another was not necessary. It doesn’t quite fit the pattern of war/love/betrayal that all the other story threads inhabit. It’s jarring, and while it doesn’t derail the whole affair by any means, it did really push me out, and was a sour way to end something that I was really enjoying up until that point. Why is it a Graphic Novel of the Month, then? Two words, Danijel Zezelj. I don’t think his work has ever looked more beautiful, he really outdoes himself here, and it’s worth picking up for that alone. Luna Park is near perfect, an absorbing but flawed book, and if not for the one isolated big odd narrative choice, it would have scored higher than Grade A-.

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