Stan Sakai

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

Sakai’s been making Usagi Yojimbo on a near-monthly basis since 1984. I’ve read them all, and it remains one of my favorite long-form comic narrative. Usagi is a Medieval Japanese samurai story with the occasional fantasy element. Sakai does heavy research to accurately portray everyday life, from how soy sauce gets made to what ceremonies people perform. It’s also a rollicking adventure, an reiterative travel story, and a slow-burn cultural apocalypse. Oh, and everyone’s an anthropomorphic animal.

But what’s most impressive is Sakai’s consistent clarity. It’s always perfectly clear what’s happening in a panel, but it’s in no way plain; his inks are textured and emotive, and his characters have layers that emerge naturally and slowly. It’s been amazing to see his skill develop across over 200 issues, and I’m always excited when a new single issue rolls in.

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From Usage Yojimbo #150.

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2dcloud

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

The first draft of this list had a lot of books and cartoonists that didn’t quite make it to this version. Part of that slimming down was realizing that nearly a dozen of the entries came from one publisher: 2dcloud. Despite being a legitimately small press (editors past-and-present Raighne Hogan, Kim Jooha, Maggie Umber, and Justin Skarhus and an additional staff of two? maybe?), 2dcloud publishes a truly impressive range of genres and formats: humor, horror, sci-fi, poetry, non-narrative, hardcovers, minicomics, and everything in between. And in a time when indie publishers often resort to backwards racism and misogyny to cast themselves as edgy or challenging, 2dcloud is honestly pushing the boundaries of what comics can look like while centering artists that much of the comics community ignores. I learn more from reading 2dcloud than I do from any other publisher.

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From Out of Hollow Water by Archie Bongiovanni

 In the library (a sampling):
Rudy by Mark Connery
Out of Hollow Water by Archie Bongiovanni
Yours by Margot Ferrick
Someone Please Have Sex With Me by Gina Wynbrandt
Architecture of an Atom by Juliacks
Sound of Snow Falling by Maggie Umber
Turning Japanese by MariNaomi

Escapism & Comics

[This post originally appeared on Hazel & Wren, and it might still be viewable there with the accompanying images.]

My reading habits have been sporadic and random lately. I’m like a springtime forager just eating whatever blooms and stalks I see after a winter of being too busy to choose my reading carefully.

51XgN9rx7FL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection by Scott McCloud(Harper, 2008)

Zot! is the comic that probably put Scott McCloud, famed comics scholar, on the national map. It was his longest fictional work, and it was completed as he was starting Understanding Comics, the first of his books about comics as an artform.

I confess to an inflated expectation, then, in regards to McCloud’s formative work—would it employ all of the formal tactics he codified in his critical writings?

The answer, surprisingly, is yes. Zot! has great pacing and playful structuring, often breaking the narrative into interesting slices of time and point of view:

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Unfortunately, the story that these tricks serve vacillates between bland and melodramatic. It follows teen science hero Zot, paragon of a parallel Earth, and his romance with pessimistic Jenny, stuck in our humdrum world. Her negative outlook is only exacerbated by knowledge of Zot’s fantastic utopia, and the tension in their relationship comes from her desire to escape her everyday life and Zot’s insistence that any world, any culture, is beautiful and worth saving. It’s a good starting point, but it often boils down to Jenny yelling or weeping while Zot looks on stoically. His childish naiveté fits his character, but it also means that no one really tells Jenny why leaving the less lucky of her world for the fantastic sci-fi life would be a gross exercise of her privilege.

McCloud himself notes that some of his morals come off a little heavy-handed, comparing them to afterschool specials. This sentiment is coupled with a dismissive attitude toward the superhero aspects of the story, namely Zot and his super-science. However, the exceptionally melodramatic aspects of the series only get worse as Zot’s world is phased out and McCloud focuses on the everyday.

It turns out that when a kid is flying around with a laser gun and rocket boots, it’s easier to mythologize the story—since there are aspects that readers know aren’t real, it can be fun to draw parallels and assign allegories to the cast and the story. When McCloud decided to take things in a “literary” direction, his characters and dialogue began to crumble under the weight of the issues he was tackling. Maybe the problem lies in writing toward those said issues—crime, coming out, divorce—instead of focusing on the characters.

descender_coverDescender: Tin Stars by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen (Image Comics, 2015)

As a standalone volume, Tin Stars wasn’t great. It introduces a futuristic sci-fi galaxy that hates robots after a mysterious mechanical attack. One of the last robots, a boy-shaped droid named Tim-21 who was made for friendship, might have connections to the event that kicked off the robot genocide. He and his dog-bot, then, are on the run from two factions in the galactic government. Who will catch him? Are their intentions what they seem? And what is Tim-21’s link to the giant robots that have irrevocably damaged galactic culture?

By the end of Tin Stars, I found myself not really caring about the answers to these questions. Nearly all of the characters felt like bland stereotypes: the naive artificial boy looking for his human friend, the cute animal sidekick, the soldier woman with something to prove, the deadly thug with a heart of gold, the pig-like villains with no morals—it felt like an outline for a summer blockbuster. It didn’t help that the book was riddled with typos, from misspelling characters’ names to freely swapping out exclamation points and question marks.

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Future volumes might develop these characters more. Indeed, the one character who gets an extended flashback, Dr Quon, becomes an interesting, flawed, and driven guy once his secrets are exposed. I’m just not sure I’m ready to wade through the typos and stereotypical dialogue to reach that point.

It’s too bad, too, because the art by Dustin Nguyen is beautiful. He makes even the most cluttered pages readable, and he uses spare brushstrokes that convey a surprising amount of information. His designs and facial expressions do a lot of the heavy lifting in the character development department.

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The story reads fast enough that a collection of 10 or 12 issues wouldn’t have been intimidating. If the characters get some development in the next few chapters, I’d have happily kept reading. Are these things considered by collection editors?

autumnlands_coverThe Autumnlands: Tooth & Claw by Kurt Busiek, Ben Dewey, and Jordie Bellaire (Image Comics, 2015)

All I knew about this comic going in was that it was about animal people. On that level, it did not disappoint. In fact, the book did not disappoint at any level.

Despite having a cast of dozens, Busiek and Dewey use an inseparable combination of character design (animal choice, clothing, posture) and dialogue to establish personality and motivation quickly and firmly. The world—a place of dying magic, floating cities, and aristocracy and oppression—is explained at a natural pace.

Some fantasy and sci-fi can feel like being led through a museum of the creators’ ideas; their worlds are static, relayed through bursts of exposition. This is not the case with Autumnlands. These toys aren’t precious to their owners, and they’re freely deconstructed, deposed, and disposed of. There’s a central conceit to the story—a sci-fi twist to the Wizards of Redwall status quo that I hesitate to spoil—is almost just set dressing for the drama and politics of the rest of the book.

Dewey’s art is slick and clear with lush ink work, and it’s impossible to talk about it without mentioning Jordie Bellaire’s color. There are a lot of sepias and earth tones, but it’s far from muddy; Dewey’s sharp lines keep things clear, and Bellaire uses splashes of bright color for the rich clothing, magic spells, and (spoiler warning) blood.

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2015 favorites

[This post originally appeared on Hazel & Wren, and it might still be viewable there with the accompanying images.]

It was a really good year for comics! Or it was at least a really good year for me getting to read good comics. In looking back at what came out and looking forward to what I’ll inevitably reread, I was surprised at how many books were funded via Kickstarter, often having been serialized online for free beforehand. I don’t know if anyone still has negative preconceptions about crowdfunded books, but this year’s crop is, for the most part, polished, sturdy, and comprehensive. They’re indiscernible from books published through traditional means.

Speaking of traditional publishers, I bought fewer monthly pamphlets this year than I have in the past. I have too much stuff, and I’ve been actively culling my bookshelves and boxes down to just the books I know I’ll read again someday. I realized I was buying a lot of monthly books on the promise of what might eventually happen in them; they rarely turned out as good as I hoped, though, and then I had a bunch of mediocre books sitting around my house. No more!

So with those trends in mind, here are books I think I’ll read over and over. (Many of them can be read for free online; click the titles to read them!)

Reprints & Collections

supermutantmagicacademySuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki (Drawn & Quarterly, 2015)
SuperMutant Magic Academy is what happens when teens with powers don’t fight other teens or adult authorities. These fights serve as overblown and violent metaphors for growing up, and they usually eclipse the personal, internal struggles that fill our school years.

Using mostly one- and two-page scenes, Tamaki zeroes in on that emotional turmoil: awkward anxiety, deadpan disgust, pipe dream romance, and more. But it’s real funny too.

Mighty Star and the Castle of the Cancatervater by A. Degen(Koyama Press, 2015)
A penny dreadful superhero fights cloudy allegories amidst somnambulist landscapes in a hectic and wordless comic. Degen’s art captures a sense of herky-jerky movement, as if the whole thing is an automated toy in a shadow box with someone turning a crank to make it wiggle.

O Human Star by Julie Delliquanti (self-published, 2015)
Famed roboticist Alastair Sterling wakes up to a world that isn’t what he remembered. He learns that he died but had his consciousness uploaded into a perfect robotic replica. In trying to figure out who brought him back and why, he moves in with his old lover/business partner, Brendan, and Brendan’s robot daughter, modeled on Alastair before she decided she was a girl.

Delliquanti gracefully balances sci-fi concepts with intersections of gender and sexuality. Come for the high concepts; stay for the well-developed characters and masterful pacing.

Eat More Comics by Matt Bors (editor) (The Nib, 2015)
Chances are you’ve already seen comics from The Nib. They’ve made the rounds on social media because they’re the best editorial comics being made. This collection is a very nice package, but it isn’t without its problems. There are a number of typos, such as misspelling some of the contributors’ names. Also, a tier of panels is printed twice. If these things bug you, wait for a corrected printing. In the end, though, it’s worth having these comics around despite the small flaws. Check out some of my favorites:
– “The Highgate County Fancy Chicken Show” by Eleanor Davis
– “Lighten Up” by Ronald Wimberly
– “Not All Men” by Matt Lubchansky

tjandamalThe Less Than Epic Adventures of TJ and Amal by EK Weaver (Iron Circus Comics, 2015)
Weaver’s road trip/romance comic began serialization in 2009, and it finally gets the book treatment it deserves. Inside a handsome cover, TJ and Amal get high, get in fights, get busy, and eventually get where they were trying to go. Weaver excels at trapping her characters in well-defined spaces like car interiors and hotel rooms; she contrasts these tight quarters with sublime American vistas. This physical squeeze-and-release mirrors the ebbs and flows of the titular characters’ growing relationship.

Orion Omnibus by Walt Simonson & friends (DC Comics, 2015)
Originally serialized from 2000 to 2002, Orion finally gets the collection it deserves. Almost. Sort of. The series is a tightly plotted sci-fi superhero book that draws inspiration from Greek tragedy: success leads to hubris leads to a fall and, because it’s a modern superhero book, comes back to redemption. Simonson is an expert at seeding multiple plots and cleanly tying them all together, and Orion is him at the top of his abilities.

The original issues had a lead feature and a back-up feature that spoke to the main feature in some way: sometimes it revealed past events, sometimes it followed a character that split from the main narrative, and sometimes it was world-building. Unfortunately, the omnibus collection puts all the back-up stories in one chunk at the end of the book, leaving a number of plot points unexplained if one reads the book straight through. Boo.

New Work

Well Come by Erik Nebel (Yeti Press Comics, 2015)
Nebel’s three-panel comics are boldly colored meditations on biology, relationships, metamorphosis, and cause and effect. Some feel anxious, as though the changes are unexpected and unwanted. Others are calming, with strange beings accepting a strange world. Nebel’s book gives him a chance to showcase longer work, stringing strips together until it feels like wandering through a dreamlike retro sidescrolling game.

Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis, Brooke Allen, & more (Boom! Studios, 2015)
A girls’ camp overrun by myths and monsters! Deep secrets of camp bureaucracy! The power of friendship! Also romance, good jokes, and neat merit badges. Look at the fun they’re having:
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Captain America & the Mighty Avengers by Al Ewing, Luke Ross, Iban Coello, & more (Marvel Comics, 2015)
This was almost a real good comic! It had a multi-ethnic, multi-generational team of cool people with cool powers that sometimes argued but then teamed up to fight bad guys that represented bad things in the real world, like racism and corporations. It had snappy dialogue and clear storytelling. It had a grumpy wizard. It referenced Nextwave: Agents of HATE, the greatest superhero comic ever (or at least the vinegar reduction of superhero comics).

Unfortunately, Ewing and company had to tie their book into the events playing out in the rest of the Marvel universe, shoehorning in random plots that displaced the fun character work of Mighty Avengers. Then it got canceled because the Marvel Universe got destroyed (I think).

futchi perf coverFütchi Perf by Kevin Czap (Czap Books, 2015)
Czap shows us a comic mixtape about a small-scale utopia where every party is as fun as you hoped it would be. It’s beautifully printed in sherbet tones of blue, pink, and purple. Czap’s lines undulate like friendly sound waves. It’s fearlessly optimistic, like a love letter from the future.

Grease Bats by Anna Bongiovanni (Autostraddle, 2015)
In a world where Archie Comics gets an avalanche of good press for acknowledging that gay men exist, Anna Bongiovanni is doing the real work of portraying queer besties and their daily struggles. The emotional range of the strips is great, from small, everyday worries (combating summer funk by perfecting your chair dance routine) to the wider concerns of queer culture (like the straight gentrification of queer events). There’s also the ever-present concern over romance, crushing, and Tinder-swiping.

Bongiovanni’s scratchy line is perfect for protagonists Scout and Andy’s adventures, from stoopin in the sunshine to drunkenly stumbling through a club, and I love the recent dips into spot coloring to highlight lovingly embroidered butts and last-minute jelly bean costumes.

bigpussy-731x1024Big Pussy by Gina Wynbrandt (2dcloud, 2015)
When it’s time to become an adult, you must participate in the time-honored tradition of trying to get some cats to give you superpowers but then just hanging out with them, drinking and fornicating, until you end up on a daytime talk show. Big Pussy is the weirdest, funniest comic I read all year. The scariest thing that happened all year was that I thought I lost my copy, so I bought a second one, but then I found my first one, so I left it out on my coffee table. My roommates and their boyfriends read it and couldn’t comfortably discuss it. Wynbrandt’s photo-referenced art approaches an uncanny valley, feeling like a kid kept posed for a photograph for too long; and I mean that in the best way, since it perfectly fits the awkward demands of bully mentor cats with human meme faces.

Well, everyone, that’s 12 comics for you to buy and parcel out to yourself over the next year.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

[This post originally appeared on Hazel & Wren in two parts, and they might still be viewable there with the accompanying images.]

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Volumes 1 & 2, The Black DossierCentury) by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill (ABC/Top Shelf, 1999-2009)

I set out to reread all of Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. It comes in at just under 1,000 pages of comics, prose, maps, and paraphernalia published between 1999 and 2014. It’s a lot of comics, second only to Moore’s time writing Swamp Thing and much longer than Watchmen, V for Vendetta, or From Hell. It was an ill-advised goal, and because of that, this review will be split into two parts.

The main conceit of the series is that almost all of the fiction ever created exists in a single world. The early volumes, taken singly, seem to be simple adventure stories; Moore and O’Neill build a team of adventurers (Wilhelmina Harker/Murray, the Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo, and Allan Quatermain) for the British government, and they go out and stop threats to the Empire. By smashing the volumes together and ignoring what I see as the false climaxes of each book, I’ve come to believe that League is an attempt to teach empathy, fight against masculine and colonial narratives, and save the best bits of story for the future. I would say it mostly succeeds, but its failures, when they occur, are somewhat drastic.

The conceit I mentioned—all of the fiction existing together—means that Moore and O’Neill can pack panels with references, both visual and verbal, to the sources of the main characters and other fictions contemporary to the League:

That's Dickens's Artful Dodger leading ancestors of the Watts and Mitchell families from The EastEnders while referencing the future Blitz of WWII.

This method of world-building is often seen as “fanwank” in certain circles; that is, it’s a way off—a private wink and nod to anyone following along or a prideful testament to the creators’ knowledge.

The references, though, are artfully amassed in such a way that they don’t impede the story. The antagonists of The Black Dossier, for instance, are a bunch of selfish, cruel spies working for British intelligence. Their names, their goals, their personalities, and their relationships are clearly established. Is there an extra layer to their words and interactions if you know all the ’50s espionage fiction they come from? Yes, definitely. That entire genre is a gap in my reading history, though, and I find the entire story perfectly compelling without that outside knowledge. The references don’t seem to be hiding any weaknesses in the storytelling.

So if it’s not for showing off, why build a world in such a way? It’s my opinion that the density of background references serve the subtly didactic goal of the whole series: teaching people how to be humane.

In a typical piece of fiction, crowds are faceless things that can serve a number of functions: setting detail, Greek-style chorus, or symbolic. They are usually distinctive from both protagonists and antagonists, who both regularly distance themselves from crowds for various reasons. In League, though, as soon as a background character is shown to be, say, the Artful Dodger, a reader might stop to consider each crowd member. What book are they from? How did they get from the events of their source story to the events of League?

This results in a sort of forced consideration, and even if a reader doesn’t want to figure out who each face in the crowd is, the implication of hundreds of stories, each with a different protagonist is there on the page.

If League is at least partly about empathy, where else can it be found? Many of the characters possess a distinct lack of empathy in one way or another: Nemo is a misogynist, Hyde is a murderer and racist, and Quatermain is so worried about his own life that he has to be talked into any unselfish acts. Wilhelmina Murray, however, the only character to appear in and survive all the non-Nemo books, is an understanding and compassionate person.

Murray, counted amongst the monsters of the team due to her victimization at the hands of Dracula and subsequent divorce from Jonathan Harker, is shown to be repeatedly empathetic to the sufferings of others, and she seems to be one of the few characters driven by a moral compass defined by keeping others from suffering. She’s appalled by the decision to bomb the Chinese-settled neighborhood of Limehouse in volume one, and in volume two, she shudders at the idea of using an engineered disease against invaders from Mars. She’s the only one who seeks to understand the murderous Mr. Hyde, which angers him to no end.

Indeed, as most of the League dies around her and the remainder, granted immortality, trudges on, Murray is the only one to adapt to the changing times as she meanders from 1899 to 2009. In the ‘50s presented in The Black Dossier, while Quatermain is terrified of robots and spaceflight, Murray is delighted. In 1969, while Quatermain and Orlando make fun Murray’s dress and how she has peppered her speech with contemporary slang.

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This adaptability is seen as a weakness; Murray has failed to somehow stay true to herself. However, the characters that stay to true to some sort of externally defined morality, whether it’s the uptight superiority of the Victorian era or the “do what thou wilt” detachment that Orlando has developed since his birth in ancient Greece, end up looking foolish or, well, being killed. These philosophies all depend on an Other—for the Victorian men, it’s anyone who isn’t a white male, and for Orlando, it’s anyone who isn’t a laissez-faireimmortal. Murray seeks to understand the Other and incorporate herself with them (and them with her).

Her power of understanding is often linked with the act of reading, which shows that empathy can be developed by both narrative fiction alongside fact. In volume one, she’s the only character who has read the stories of Nemo, Quatermain, and Sherlock Holmes. She’s the only one that reads all the files that the government assembles for the team, which always grants her an advanced understanding of the selfish goals of the men they work under.

This idea of the saving power of stories is further exemplified in the Blazing World, the half-there archipelago where the League has found refuge since the time of Prospero. The Duke of Milan holds the islands as a place to preserve the good and weird things that might inspire the world.

Put on your 3D glasses now.

It’s a bit corny, but it’s an idea that comes up in a lot of Moore’s work (such as Supreme and Promethea). Interestingly, though, at the end of Black Dossier, the Blazing World has a visiting ambassador from the Lovecraftian Old Gods. These part crustacean, part octopus things have been recurring protagonists since the prose back-up in the very first volume and on through multiple vignettes present in Black Dossier. They exist as a sort of ultimate Other—beings from outside our universe whose geometries and psychologies we literally cannot understand—and worst of all, they keep trying to invade and take our place. But in the Blazing World, we can parley with these things, seek to understand them, and even come to peace with them due to the presence of all our good and empowering stories.

Back to Murray, there is one case where she seems less-than-charitable to the to the world around her. That era is 2009, when she, Orlando, and Quatermain are seeking to stop an apocalyptic plot. Mired in the fecklessness of the populace and the intense state security, she mentions that 1910 seemed better than the present.

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Is this an example of failure of empathy? Is it a cultural critique on our modern times by famed crusty Moore? To counter those potentials, I offer that Murray was, from 1969 to 2009, confined to a sanitarium after suffering a bad trip at a concert. Orlando and Quatermain don’t even try to find her. Drugged and alone for 40 years, she hasn’t been able to adjust to the times. In her haze, she’s been reliving a strange trip to the moon (related in the text back-ups of Century), and she’s suddenly woken by the people who left her to rot and shoved into a frightening, new world. It’s enough to cause anyone to want to retreat to the past.

Speaking of Murray’s trip to the moon, it’s there, in those text back-ups, that Moore and O’Neill’s empathy fails. The pilot that takes Murray skyward is the Galley-Wag, an attempt at reworking the racist children’s story of the Golliwog. Both of the authors are on the record as saying that they wanted to reclaim the term and make it positive, but the Galley-Wag remains a black-skinned, thick-lipped stereotype who tries to have sex with every woman he meets. The history of the term and the problems with Moore and O’Neill’s approach are covered with impressive depth and knowledge at And We Shall March.

By the end of Century, the League has transitioned from a team composed mostly of men working for a male government into a group of mostly women in active rebellion against the government. The world of 2009 is very similar to 1899, at least when speaking morally. White men are still in power, still colonizing what they perceive as different, and still trying to hide any information that could tip the scales of power.

The world that Moore and O’Neill present from volume one through Century is a world that puts to bed the idea of societal advancement. That is, things are not getting better in the world, and we are not on a linear path to a nicer, smarter culture. No matter what social structures are created, someone will find a way to collect power and wield it violently.

What the League offers, at least in the case of Murray, is a way to exist inside a system that, overall, can’t really get any better. Murray’s selfless empathy and quest to better herself in the face of a world that has not gotten any better across her almost 200 years of life is a form of resistance. Whether she and the now-all-woman-League (except for Orlando, who is only sometimes a woman) has any effect upon the world at large remains to be seen. Is personal betterment enough in the face of oncoming fascism? Or do people have a responsibility to address the needs of those more prosecuted?

The body of fiction that Moore and O’Neill draw from to build the world of the League (and maybe this is obvious) is work that is available to them. This generally means that the works are produced in or translated into English and at least somewhat available for purchase in England. In practice, this becomes a lot of books by white people from England, France, America, and Germany.

Whether this is on purpose or not, it reflects the way that, for Europe and North America, white people have defined the rest of the world. The stories we consume, whether they be books or television, historical or modern, were created in a white idiom. Education and news are curated by people who grew up in this idiom. Even if we aren’t aware of it, white people have used art and science and religion and everything else to define and reinforce a view of the world that is beneficial to them. (For a deeper yet accessible explanation, please check out the links under the “Topical” heading on the Medieval POC FAQ. Then read the whole blog.)

This is damaging in our own world, and it’s no better in League. The exoticized views of those places outside of Europe and America are made real, and the voices of the people that live there are practically silenced due to the lack of influence of those authors. How can this be addressed?

In the first part of this review, I mentioned that Wilhelmina Murray, by living through her trauma and bettering herself in spite of it, offers resistance to the white men that are trying to own the world. The idea of personal betterment as a form of resistance, though, is sort of a white, neoliberal idea of resistance. “I can’t affect the world, but I can at least affect myself and those around me” is really easy to say when you have access to education and when the system, at least in part, is working for you. Men inflict intense mistreatment on Murray due solely to her gender and sexuality, but things would be worse for her if she weren’t a white British music teacher.

This is where the two volumes of Nemo come in. They aren’t about Prince Dakkar, the Captain Nemo of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. They’re about Janni Dakkar, his daughter. (For clarity’s sake, I’ll be referring to the father as Dakkar and to the daughter as Janni.)

Janni is first mentioned in Black Dossier as the reason that Prince Dakkar leaves Lincoln Island, the home he retired to after the events of the Verne novels. Dakkar is persistently portrayed as a stubborn misogynist, and it’s revealed that he joined the League in volume one because he couldn’t stand to stay on his island home with only a daughter to carry his line.

Janni eventually leaves the island in anger, unwilling to live under her father’s orders. This is our first real introduction to Janni, in act one of Century, and it isn’t long before she becomes a victim of the masculine culture of 1910 London. Unlike Murray, whose class and race offer some standing in that society, Janni finds herself a job as a maid at a tavern and brothel, where she is eventually assaulted and raped by the male patrons.

In trying to escape the tyranny of her father, she finds only more violent males. With no way to navigate within the system—no hope of justice from the people around her—she takes the only recourse she can see. When her father’s advisor comes with news of Dakkar’s death, Janni becomes the leader of the pirate empire her father has established, and with the power of the Nautilus and its crew, she bombards the homes along the docks.

Heart of Ice has Janni taking the same trek through Lovecraftian Antarctica that her father did, navigating it better, all while being chased by a thinly veiled version of Tom Swift, boy adventurer. Where Tom has everything going for him—riches, education, technology—it’s Janni who triumphs.

(Also of note is that the taser is actually a TASER: Tom A. Swift’s Electric Rifle. In besting Swift, Janni has bested a symbol of police power.)

Swift was chasing Janni on the orders of one Ayesha, an immortal queen whose jewels were stolen by Janni and her pirates. Roses of Berlin, set 20 years later, continues the feud. Ayesha has Janni’s daughter and son-in-law possibly killed or captured by Adenoid Hynkel and his Nazis. Janni and her lover fight through the mechanized German metropolis to save them or, if they aren’t able to be saved, to take vengeance on Hynkel and his minions.

In the end, Janni must face Ayesha alongside Maria, the “gynoid” robot created by Dr. Rotwang to serve the new German metropolis. In a callback to the end of Century, only women are left.

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In contrast to Century, though, the women here are an immortal white woman whose power was taken forcefully from Africa and China and a man-created replica of a woman (also named Parody and Delusion in the original novel) who serves an empire of white supremacists. Here, simply being a woman isn’t enough to make one good; Ayesha and Maria lack the kind of empathy that Murray wielded throughout the other books.

And what of Janni? She’s been shown unapologetically looting and killing for about 30 years. Does she possess those traits that made Murray the protagonist of the rest of the series?

Janni’s empathy extends especially to those who have been discarded by the world, those who have been colonized, ruled over, exploited, and forgotten. While Murray might occasionally use violence against the “properly” defined villains who threatened her life, Janni sees the problems lie at a societal level instead of a personal one. Whole civilizations are villains, and they have been stealing and murdering far longer than she’s been alive. These problems are still extant in our society. As recently as this year, Brittney Cooper wrote “In Defense of Black Rage” for Salon. She said, “Violence is the effect, not the cause of the concentrated poverty that locks that many poor people up together with no conceivable way out and no productive way to channel their rage at having an existence that is adjacent to the American dream.” Janni is not overreacting to the world around her; she’s using the only tools left available to her.

So much of race and racism was invented alongside “modern” science and philosophy in the century just before League begins. While Murray’s tale shows a group of people slowly realizing the systematized violence and exploitation that exists around them, Janni, as shown in Nemo, is born into that exploitation. Is she justified in taking up arms against her oppressors? And does this more nuanced portrayal of a person of color somehow “make up” for the racial stereotype of the Galley-Wag in the other League books?

Carnivale

[This post originally appeared on Hazel & Wren, and it might still be viewable there with the accompanying images.]

Carnivale: A Kit Kaleidoscope Story by Nick Mullins (Nijomu, 2014)

Nick Mullins’s Carnivale is all about identity and belonging. As one might gather from the title, it starts during Carnivale, the time of hidden identities and upended roles. However, totemic masks and class-climbing shenanigans are nowhere to be seen. Instead, Mullins uses the annual festival as a framing device to explore gender and sexuality at a deeper, non-binary level. To get one thing out of the way, Carnivale is wordless. Characters occasionally speak to each other, but their words are conveyed with punctuation, simple symbols, and the occasional extended flashback sequence. This makes it somewhat difficult to review since the characters remain nameless, so I’ll refer to the three most-seen characters by their job titles: the painter, the gravedigger, and the musician.

(I assume that one of them is the titular Kit Kaleidoscope, but there’s no indication within the book itself who that is.)

The basic plot of the book follows a potential romance between the painter and the musician. The painter struggles with body dysmorphia and relationship anxieties, and her boss, the gravedigger, tries to help her through them by sharing his own relationship history. This paraphrasing is intensely my own, though, since there are no words in the book.

This forced interpretation of speech plays to the books themes quite well: even when characters speak directly for themselves, it’s implicitly open to interpretation, which means that the reader—the viewer and the outsider—has more voice in how the speaker is defined than the speakers themselves. The musician, in his first appearance, speaks directly to this:

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(My apologies for any funny stuff in the scans here.)

Even though the characters in the song get to define their demeanor with their words (or at least with the things coming out of their mouths, wrapped in speech bubbles), those demeanors are still open to interpretation. Speech is a tool to define the self, but it’s still imperfect. Still, it’s within everyone’s power, according to the musician, to define who they are.

Lack of voice is equally key, of course, whether someone chooses not to talk or has no base from which to define oneself. As the painter falls for the musician, they begin to talk about themselves. The painter, when asked about family, offers an extended explanation involving male and female siblings rent apart by wolves and sewn together by an artist.

We see the painter struggle with sex and gender through her work and her conversation, but readers never get the “objective” portrayal of the her history—no captions or counter-narrator confirms or dismisses the fable-esque telling of her past. Carnivale refuses us that, and it’s an important point: readers might seek a so-called true point of reference, but who are we to the painter? Why do we deserve more than her telling? Should we instead seek to understand her on her own basis? Asking about transgender or hermaphroditism is wrong-minded. Instead, take what is presented and try to understand the painter on her own terms.

The aging gravedigger is the only one who appears to accept the painter as she presents herself. He occupies a similarly marginalized space; he seems to fall in love with an elderly woman at the beginning of the book, but as he presents himself in flashbacks, he’s intimate with a young male writer. The stereotype of the wise old mentor is broken apart to allow for a personal, undefined history of romance. One might ask, is he gay? Is he bi? In a didactic narrative with words, the gravedigger might have been allowed to talk about how he defines himself. In Carnivale, we simply get to see him at one point in his life and “hear” about a tragic point in his past that he still carries with him. Like the painter, he denies definition by outside terms.

Carnivale presents a powerful tension: the characters aren’t given a words with which to define themselves, which could potentially take power away from them. However, with a lack of words, one is encouraged to accept a visual interpretation of themselves that doesn’t succumb to preconceived labels.

The tensions aren’t just present in the plot, though. Mullins takes them to a formal level. His clear, gridded layouts are occasionally confronted and subverted by a battle of curves. Sometimes, the curves are a dangerous and confusing opposition to the grid, such as the example below, where the square panels that fill the pages give way to a wavy pennant of panels that uncurl across the page—a sort of breakdown of a measured understanding of the world that is only saved from greater dissolution by the musician’s note in the bottom right of the fourth page shown. That panel escapes the fluttering chaos over black and reestablishes the more traditional comic narrative.

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Other times, the curves speak to the beauty of art and conversation in a way that defies words. Watch Mullins take the painter and the musician from awkward introduction to a discussion that literally dances and soars across the pages:

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In the end, these curves seem to represent the personal point of view. They aren’t inherently good or bad, but they can be powerful; they can be utilized and woven together in a way that makes them strong.

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They can be created by two people upon first meeting, or they can be woven together by a crowd. On their own, they’re merely signals in the noise—it takes a crowd to make them a bigger force. The basket-like weaving in the pages above illustrates that, and it echoes the subjective point of view that we all form, and the potential danger or joy in creating a belief with a group of people; do they find comfort in similarity, or are they reinforcing dangerous views, becoming a mob or an echo chamber?

Even my only real gripe about the book—that the spine is blank—could just be taken as another meaningful space that I’m forced to interpret on its own terms.

The romances present in Carnivale remain unresolved, which only serves to reinforce the reader’s interpretation of things based only on how the characters present themselves. Resolutions are left off the pages; only wordless points of view are offered. But that’s how life is, isn’t it? How do you understand the people you meet? Is there room in our vocabulary for people who exist outside of the ways we traditionally define each other?

Beautiful Darkness

[This post originally appeared on Hazel & Wren, and it might still be viewable there with the accompanying images.]

Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët (Drawn & Quarterly, 2014)

Beautiful Darkness (story by Fabien Vehlmann and Marie Pommepuy, art by Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset) is, as might be expected, both beautiful and dark. The story is somewhat familiar: a number of naive, childish people are lost in the woods, and as they struggle for food and shelter, hierarchies break out and grisly ends are met.

While this may sound like Lord of the Flies and its imitators, Beautiful Darkness is surprising and novel. Its ensemble cast are spritely, doll-like creatures, ranging in size from a berry to a squirrel, and they live in the woods around the corpse of a girl; some of them even live inside the body.

These grotesqueries are rendered by Pommpuy and Cosset (collectively known as Kerascoët) in lush watercolors, but while the forest environment is realistically rendered, in all its mud and maggots and fur and feathers, the tiny survivors look like they stepped out of a Saturday morning cartoon or children’s manga. I end up feeling strangely removed when, for instance, one of the cuties is eviscerated by a momma bird while imitating a chick.

These little people aren’t real, I think, and then I shiver, because that’s what these little people themselves think as they pluck the legs off beetles or steal each other’s food. The consistent pacing and clear storytelling only add to the detachment.

The truly insidious thing about Beautiful Darkness, though, is how it has infected my mind. It’s a quick read, and the ending is deliciously vengeful, but, like the action that takes place between the panels of all comics, there are a number of unanswered questions lurking behind the plot and between the scenes.

Some of these questions are straight out of the horror story toolbox: when the only vaguely heroic character (heroic inasmuch as we don’t see her doing anything too awful) rides off on her trained bird, the bird returns carrying the selfish and cruel warlord sprite and her entourage. Something happened, but the horror is left to our imaginations.

This is an obvious (and well done) case of implied action. A more subtle narrative is that of the dead girl. While she’s only shown as a corpse, doesn’t that imply that she was alive at point, perhaps at the beginning of the book? Looking back, readers see three of the sprites having hot chocolate and cake on a nice couch, disrupted by falling glop and catastrophe. The characters emerge into the woods, and behind them is the body. Were they literally living inside of her before she died? Did she contain that couch and those teacups and the stove that steamed the milk? We never see anything like that once the sprites set up in the woods; their homes and tools are all salvaged from the dead girl, her belongings, and whatever they can glean from the environment.

And the things they salvage: a fence of sharpened colored pencils, a notebook with the name “Aurora” on it (a name quickly claimed by the point-of-view sprite), scissors, and a pencil case. She was an artist.

And where did she come from, anyway? The nearest human abode, we find out, is a small cabin inhabited by a lone man who we see tinkering away and skinning rabbits. At first, I didn’t connect him with the dead girl at all. He’s never shown in mourning, nor is he acting the way a murderer might, trying to hide the body or assuage guilt. But as the only two humans in the book, one is forced to juxtapose them, and when you start looking for clues, they appear. What is he working on—is that a gun? And why does he have a broken doll in his house? And why does Aurora (the sprite; not the dead girl) love him and call him his prince in that final, haunting page?

It feels banal to try to understand the sprites and couch them in terms either symbolic or realistic. Are they Aurora’s urges, her muses, the aspects of her personality? The sprites’ perfect golden age defies realism—it seems foolish to ask how the girl’s body contained the teacups they drank from—but once you see the little people scrabbling in the dirt and slowly dying of poison, it’s impossible not to place them in the real world and ask how it happened.

But that’s the true power of Beautiful Darkness: it manages to tap into some deep, fairytale concerns but look at the real world with similarly doubting eyes. “Why do we do these things?” it asks. “How can this happen?”