September 30, 2014

Comics: Librarians Choice

Comic Book Month wraps up today, though as with all good comics, it's just a matter of waiting for the next issue! As a final treat, here are a few personal recommendations from some of the comics fans who work at Auckland Libraries: Michelle and Blair from the 2014 Comic Book Month team; Baruk, creator of our new Comics NZ blog (check it out); Stanley from Collections, and myself! Enjoy!

Adamtine by Hannah Berry

This is the first horror-themed graphic novel I have read. Although I admire the artists' skill, the violent gore scenes typical of this genre are a bit much for me. But I do enjoy a good scare, and with this graphic novel I wasn’t disappointed. It is horror with a difference, with the artwork creating a sense of foreboding and darkness. In fact, I have become a big Hannah Berry fan. The artwork is clever and emotive, supporting a captivating, frightening story line that really does keep you guessing. This is a graphic novel requiring more than one read, with each reading revealing more of its mysteries – most of which are hidden in plain sight. It is definitely a thinking person’s graphic novel... oh, and beware the last page!

-- Michelle, Titirangi Library

Faction 1  ed. by Damon Keen, Amie Maxwell

syndetics-lcQuite simply, I liked this enough to buy my own copy, and that doesn't happen often. Especially not when it is also available for free (legal) download!

Faction 1 is a Kiwi comic anthology, from 14 very different writers/artists. One of the joys of anthologies is the unlikely juxtaposition of very different styles, and Faction does not disappoint. The artwork moves eclectically from Ned Wenlock's bold primary colours, through Damon Keen's delicate shading or Ralphi's yellowish-greenish-brownish and Karl Wills's detailed black-on-white, to Mark Holland's lush, painterly style. The stories very well matched the artistic styles used to tell them.

Faction was created through crowdfunding, and it is nice to see contributors named on the back page (dammit, I missed my chance at fame!). The Faction website has links to individual artist websites, and a free subscription to the (digital) anthology. Auckland Libraries also holds Faction 2 and Faction 3.

If you like anthologies, you may also enjoy Syncopated, an anthology of non-fiction picto-essays. Or not.

And if I sound like a fanboy, that's because I am.

-- Baruk, Digital Services

Shaolin Burning by Ant Sang

Shaolin BurningFull of graphic martial arts action and mayhem, Shaolin Burning is a thrilling and fast-paced adventure through Qing dynasty China. The plot centres on Deadly Plum Blossum’s journey to challenge The Monk Who Doubts, who has been terrorising China. Events like the destruction of the Shaolin Temple, and the legend of the five surviving elders place this in a time of kung-fu legends and martial arts monks.

The illustrations of BroTown’s Ant Sang skillfully capture the chaos of the combat; the parries and thrusts of the sword, feints and blows of the fighters come through in the black and white shading and ink, and deftly illustrate the action.

I found the characters a highlight. They are unique and intense figures with legendary pasts, and equally awesome names. I also like the subtle humour that runs through the book, with skillful plays on words, quirky names like The Benevolent Laughing Monkey Palm Gang, and the tiger-costumed group The Killer Tongs. Still, the themes running through this work – the need to control desire, the perils of revenge and the sacredness of life – make it more than just an entertaining read.

-- Stanley, Collections

The Sandman (The Absolute Sandman Vol. 1) by Neil Gaiman

syndetics-lcWidely considered one of the greatest comic book series of all time, The Sandman tells the story of Morpheus, Lord of Dreams, as he escapes from captivity and seeks to rebuild his realm. Along the way, Morpheus is forced to deal with the enormous changes within both himself and his realm. The Sandman is a wildly imaginative series that manages to be as effortlessly entertaining as it is thought-provoking. Its dark, adult story set the tone for DC Comics’ fledgling Vertigo imprint. The Sandman is a story about stories, and should be read by anyone who loves them.

(This Absolute Edition format collects issues #1-20 of THE SANDMAN and features completely new coloring on the first 18 issues, as well as a host of never-before-seen extra material. It is the first of four volumes.)

-- Blair, Central City Library

Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salt Sea by Hugo Pratt 

syndetics-lcI was turned on to Corto Maltese long ago when I went to live in his home country of Italy, where the fumetti (Italian for comics) about the sailor with the pierced ear had attained cult status. Fumetti means puffs of smoke, that being what Italians saw where we saw speech bubbles or word balloons, as well as all around themselves. Everyone smoked, and everyone read comics, and Corto Maltese was everyone's favourite. The art work is brilliant -- the scene where an underwater Corto is drawn with squiggly refracted lines which grow ever more boldly abstract as the panels progress leave me in awe -- and the rhythm is intense and filmic. So are the characters. Corto casts a spell over everyone, men and women, in that Humphrey Bogart kind of way.

“Who knows why you make me think of that Arola’s Tango I heard in the Parda Flora Cabaret in Buenos Aires?” “Maybe there was someone there who looked like me?” “No! It’s precisely because you don’t resemble anyone that I would have wanted to meet you anywhere”. Are those tears on Corto’s chiselled face?

The original drawings were all in black and white, while this edition uses colourised drawings which, as with colourised movies, somewhat detracts from the artistry. But Pratt is such a genius that they are still great. If you like comics, you owe yourself a sail with Corto.

-- Karen, Books in the City 

September 27, 2014

Banned Books Week

My award for Best Headline of Banned Books Week goes to Melville House Publishers for "Texas school district thinks 'Banned Books Week' means they’re supposed to ban books this week", with which they called attention to the decision on the part of a school district in Texas to pull a new crop of books from the school curriculum. In other words, the school board doesn't subscribe to the sentiment voiced by the great, banned-in-his-time writer and philosopher Voltaire: "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too".

I must say it's good to see Banned Books Week getting ever greater, and wittier, attention in the media, as well in that old stalwart, libraries (it is, in fact, an initiative of the American Library Association).

I'm proud to have two personal ties to Banned Books. The first is that it was my 10th great-grandfather, William Pynchon, who wrote the first book to be banned in the New World. It happened in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1650, and the book was called The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, Justification, etc. It refuted the Puritan belief that punishment and suffering were the price of atonement, and as such the order went out for it to be burned -- by the colony's executioner, no less -- the very next day, on the Boston Common.

Its author, perhaps because of his standing as an important businessman (exporter of beaver pelts) and a magistrate, was given time to retract-- or be tried for heresy and receive the same treatment as his book. He wisely precluded the need for either by heading back across the sea to England, where he continued to write tracts until his death 12 years later.

Nine copies of the book survived and here is one of them, held at the Congregational Library in Boston. The blog where I found it, History of Christianity, points out that this is one book which the Puritans could have judged by its cover. Just look at that subtitle: Clearing it from some common Errors. Seriously?

My other claim to banned books fame is having smuggled Henry Miller through US Customs at the tender age of eight. Not Henry Miller in person, but a number of books by him which my father had purchased in Paris (Olympia Press's aptly named "Traveller's Companion" editions, as pictured) while the American courts were still debating whether they were obscene or not, and popped into his daughters' little tote bags for the re-entry onto U.S. soil and into U.S. jurisdiction.

I was just remembering with my sister this weekend the heady moment when, tired out by standing in line at LA airport, and perhaps from lugging her tote bag (no cute little wheeled suitcases back then!), she began feeling faint and our parents were frantically trying to get us through before she keeled over and drew the agents' attention to us. She remembers the books as being by DH Lawrence, so it looks as if each daughter might have carried a different banned author.

It was the attempt by Grove Press to publish Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer in the United States which led to the obscenity trials that tested American laws on pornography. Witnesses for the defense included a professor of medieval literature at Harvard, who testified (quoted in The Harvard Crimson), about the "meaningless and irrational" social conventions around the use of some words: "Words of Latin and French derivation referring to the sex act and bodily organs are acceptable in English, Bloomfield testified, but words of Anglo-Saxon origin with identical meanings are tabu." Indisputably.

The case was heard by the Superior Court of Suffolk County (Massachusetts, again!), which decided that the book was indeed protected by the First Amendment. I love this passage from the opinion:

That a serious work uses four letter words and has a grossly offensive tone does not mean that the work is not entitled to constitutional protection. Much in modern art, literature, and music is likely to seem ugly and thoroughly objectionable to those who have different standards of taste. It is not the function of judges to serve as arbiters of taste or to say that an author must regard vulgarity as unnecessary to his portrayal of particular scenes or characters or to establish particular ideas. Within broad limits each writer, attempting to be a literary artist, is entitled to determine such matters for himself, even if the result is as dull, dreary, and offensive as the writer of this opinion finds almost all of Tropic. Competent critics assert, and we conclude, that Tropic has serious purpose, even if many will find that purpose obscure.

Personally I prefer Tropic of Capricorn, which was the second of Miller's two autobiographical novels but describes his early days in Brooklyn, to Tropic of Cancer, the one written first, which covers the time after his move to Paris, and is I think the more noted of the two, perhaps because it includes his love affair with cult personage Anaïs Nin. I remember as a teenager devouring the very Tropic of Capricorn I'd sneaked through US customs, a full-immersion in Brooklyn in the twenties, as experienced by an irrepressibly high-energy, high sex-drive, very funny, quixotic genius.

(Genius and lust was the name Norman Mailer gave his book about Henry Miller's works.)

Some past Books in the City posts you might enjoy about banned books and censorship:

Mark Twain on banning Huck Finn

Banned Books Week dinner party

A funny story about censorship

September 26, 2014

Timothy Kidd's comics choices

The best thing that happened to me this Comic Book Month was reading the piece Kelly Sheehan wrote for Factional, the Faction Comics blog, about the work of Timothy Kidd. For a second I was going to correct that to say 'the best comic-booky thing', but actually I think it was the best thing, period. It's a wonderful, unstinting exposition, absolutely worth reading.

Timothy Kidd is one of my favourite comics artists, as well as being one of my favourite people, unforcedly original and unfeignedly genuine. I still remember that the first time I talked to Tim about his having written a graphic novel, I saw a twinge of discomfort cross his face. Not, as you may be thinking, because he didn't want to talk about his work. It was because of the terminology I used. "People who make comics don't really like the term graphic novel", he said. "We think of all these (gesturing towards Central Library's graphic novel shelves) as comics."


It made sense to me. Comics was what I had always called them, too, until I went to work in a library, where the first time I heard someone talking about 'graphic novels' I thought it meant books with explicit sex and violence. What, a whole collection? "No, no, it means comics in book form! You know, when they tell a story!"

Well. Years after this conversation, it's still hard for me to think of the term 'graphic novel' as anything much more than a ploy to convince establishment figures such as book publishers, the compilers of the New York Times 'Books of the year' book lists, school boards, and old-school librarians, that comics can rub elbows with Lit-ra-ture! (Here I need a sound clip of Johnny Angel, creator of Afithe first Samoan superhero, the time he was pretending to me he didn't know how to pronounce the word.) Comics lovers don't need to be convinced! It reminds me of the episode in the American comic classic Doonesbury where a survivor of Nixon's "secret bombings" of Cambodia says "Secret bombings? There wasn't any secret about them! My wife knew too! She was with me and I remarked on them. 'Here come the bombs!' I said."

There's not much to add to Kelly's appreciation of Tim's talent. Here instead, for your enjoyment and edification, are some of the intriguing comics recommendations he's written for us over the last few years.

Or, "Here come the comics !" I said.

Very Casual by Michael Deforge (2013)

On the cover is a weird deer. Is it a deer? Maybe not. It is deer-shaped, with deer legs, a kind of deer face, and antlers, all in the right deer places. But something tells me that it is not actually a deer. It seems to be made out of some kind of oozing, red substance and its eye is like a big flat dish. And it kind of has a beak.

Something is wrong with something familiar. Or else something weird is treated as if it was the most mundane thing in the world. This is what Deforge plays around with in this collection of short comics. A faux-natural history comic explains that the creature on the cover is actually a common Canadian quadripedal slug. The narrator in another story is a teenage guy who is super-excited to be hanging out with a cool local band. We the readers see that the band is made up of disgusting meaty blob-monsters, but do the characters notice? No one mentions that the singer looks like a piece of fried chicken. Are the kids oblivious? or brainwashed?... or just living in a world where monsters are pretty ordinary?

This weirdness is so underplayed that it seems all the more weird, and Deforge draws it just right-- in a cartoony, clear line style, so that nothing looks exactly normal. Post-Fort Thunder indie-comics weirdness meets twisted body horror meets goofy bigfoot cartooniness. Weirdness aside, these are compelling stories told in an entertaining way. I really liked this book and I look forward to new things from Deforge.

Everything together by Sammy Harkham  (2012)

syndetics-lcI always try to read every comic Harkham makes but he doesn't always make it easy to be a completist. Most of his strips are published in obscure places-- small anthologies, niche websites, or his own indie comic book, Crickets. I love his stories so much that I have always made (grainy, pixilated) copies/print-outs of them, then read, and re-read those loose A4 pages until they fall to pieces.

So I am happy to say that those short stories have finally been collected in this shiny new volume-- his first book. And it’s great; I think he is the best new cartoonist to emerge in the last ten years. He has figured out the perfect style for comics-- it can be goofy like Popeye, grown-up like Chris Ware, sweaty like R. Crumb, satirical like Dan Clowes, or exuberant like Roy Crane.

I like the way his characters seem to want to be civilized or act like grown-ups, but really are just at the mercy of the random whims and needs that come over all creatures. At some point in a Sammy Harkham story, the façade will crack and a professor will get punched in the nose for blocking another academic’s ambitions (The New Yorker Story), or teenagers will put rubbish bins on their heads and crash into each other (Somersaulting), or one cartoonist will laugh when his dog bites the other’s drawing hand (Clowes+Huizenga). Heartbreaking and hilarious.

Garden by Yuichi Yokoyama (2011)

syndetics-lcIt doesn't have a plot exactly. There are just a lot of oddly-dressed guys walking through a huge landscape filled with weird structures and features. One guy's head looks like the front of the space shuttle, another guy is spiky. They look at the weird things, climb over them, swing, jump, crawl through them and narrate as they go-- "Oh look, it's a river filled with giant rubber balls instead of water" or "The walls are suddenly made of concrete”.

All the strangeness is underplayed, though. The drawing is uninflected and spare -- lines ruled, circles stencilled -- there are no faces to get attached to. It is quite stilted but very fascinating. It looks as if the natural world had been remade out of concrete and water by some faceless architect who had never actually seen the natural world. And the way the reader follows the guys from moment to moment reminds me a lot of platform video games. It is pretty engrossing. I’ve never read anything like it.

Wilson by Daniel Clowes (2010)

syndetics-lcWilson is the kind of guy you would hate to sit next to on the bus-- opinionated, obnoxious and quick to take offence, a middle-aged misanthrope who thinks that he is way smarter than you. Fortunately for the reader, Clowes is a good enough cartoonist to find the humanity lurking within this apparently charmless man. About halfway in, Wilson finds himself alone in the world and goes on an odyssey to try to reunite the family that he has alienated. This plan goes about as wrong as possible for him-- with darkly comedic results. The book is made up of a series of self-contained one page strips, each drawn in a different style. Some of these are individually funny or tragic but taken as a whole they add up to a nuanced and touching story. This approach engages the reader, and gives the book the strange liveliness that is in contrast with its surface blankness. This is an odd book and an odd character but it turns out that Wilson is not so bad.

Auckland Libraries holds these works by Timothy Kidd, published by Comic Book Factory,

Came the dawn. Book One

Came the dawn. Book Two

Came the dawn. Book Three

Powered by Blogger.