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jody_macgregor

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#11 [Feb. 13th, 2011|10:42 am]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#11 GLACIAL PERIOD – Nicolas De Crécy
(NBM Publishing)


“And apart from children, what beings are naïve enough to express themselves through drawing, in your opinion?”

In a distant, frozen future a team of archaeologists trek across a landscape of glaciers and seracs in search of the treasures of the past. With them are several genetically engineered dogs, who have been enhanced with pig DNA to make them more human without actually making them more human, because that would be creepy. One of them has also been given a sense of smell so powerful he can ‘smell history’. That comes in handy when they discover a cache of artwork from the Louvre.

Glacial Period was one of a series of comics commissioned by the Louvre, which means Nicolas De Crécy had free rein to incorporate its art into his own. As the team of squabbling academics explore, they try to deduce what the past was like based on this art and often are hilariously wrong – one comes to the conclusion that we must have had thick skin, like walruses, to survive the cold in such thin clothes. Confused by the strange concept of hanging images on walls they presume a sequence, and try to construct a story from them. Essentially, they try to read the Louvre like a comic book. As they do, famous paintings become the panels of the comic we’re reading. But the story the historians create is their own; they see what they want to see rather than what’s there. Even when they come across pieces that are literally able to speak across the centuries to them, the future re-shapes them to become whatever they need.

It’s a message so clear it doesn’t need to be examined further or explained, one that might just have a chance of surviving the centuries and any frozen apocalypse to come.
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#12 [Feb. 12th, 2011|09:42 am]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#12 RANMA ½ – Rumiko Takahashi
(Viz)


“She’s really a very sweet girl. She’s just a violent maniac.”

Pretending that the setup of Ranma ½ really matters would be beyond me, so I won’t. Let’s sum it up quick and dirty: teenager Ranma is a star of the School of Indiscriminate Grappling who suffers from a curse. Cold water turns him into a girl; hot water turns him back into a boy. Boy or girl, he’s almost undefeatable in a fight. This leads to violent solutions to the love triangles beyond counting he/she is trapped in. Also his father is sometimes a panda.



In Ranma, everyone solves their problems with challenges. If two girls like the same boy, then obviously they have to resolve this with a rhythmic gymnastic wrestling match. If someone steals your pet pig, that’s an issue that can only be dealt with by a combat skate-off. Even something as simple as noodle delivery becomes The Anything Goes Miss Martial Arts Takeout Race. You know how in dance movies every problem in the world can be solved by dancing? Particularly if it’s some kind of dance-off in which somebody gets ‘served’ and then somebody else ‘steps up’ in extreme cases ‘to the street’? Ranma is like a dance movie with martial arts instead of synchronised boogying. There is no difficulty that cannot be overcome by finding someone’s weak point or kicking them through the ceiling.

As kung-fu heroes, the characters in Ranma ½ can catch swords with their bare hands and balance on poles, but their ability to perform ridiculous feats is taken even further. Every kick sends someone into the sky and punches come by the hundred (per second). When Ranma is almost pushed out of the ring during a bout by a gush of water from a firehose, he fights back by swimming upstream through the torrent. The laws of physics are violated as casually as in a Looney Tunes cartoon, and Rumiko Takahashi draws it as cartoonishly as one.

Those characters who aren’t heroes know it. One thug carries a stopwatch so he can time how long it takes for him and his mates to be defeated, since it’s obviously inevitable. Even the locations seem to understand what’s expected of them and self-destruct spectacularly whenever it’s time for another round of escalation.

For all that, it’s also a romantic comedy (with gender-swapping) that artfully juggles a massive cast of confused characters, all of whom have reasons to be in conflict with everyone else. Those characters just happen to be incredibly skilful violent maniacs.
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#13 [Jan. 21st, 2011|05:14 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#13 THROUGH THE LOOKING-GLASS – Lewis Carroll, adapted by Kyle Baker
(Classics Illustrated)


“Kitty, let’s pretend that you’re the Red Queen.”

Writers love to bring out the darkness and insanity of the Alice stories when retelling them, but a straightforward adaptation is plenty dark and insane because there’s so much of madness in them already. Alice’s virtue is her common sense, a clever child’s understanding of the rules of the world, and in every chapter of the books it’s shown to be useless in a world that doesn’t realise it’s supposed to follow any sort of rules at all. Nonsense beats common sense, and outnumbers it too.

Where Wonderland is a daydream place Alice falls into while lazing around on a summer day, Looking-Glass Land is a place she explicitly and consciously creates, laying down its boundaries while talking to her cats. Alice is the kind of child who has a vivid internal world, which is the sort of thing people say about children who are asocial and neurotic. Her opening monologue flits from topic to topic with as much connection between them as the locations in a dream: “That’s three faults, Kitty, and you’ve not been punished for any of them yet. You know I’m saving up your punishments – Suppose they saved up all my punishments. What would they do at the end of the year? I should be sent to prison, I suppose.

Alice is a crazy cat lady in training. In 40 years’ time, she’ll be eating pet food on toast. In 60 the neighbours will wonder why nobody realised she was dead until the cats had been eating her for a week. She’s a cranky always-knows-best in training who spends the story constantly being confronted by people who earnestly believe incredibly stupid things but will not be convinced that they’re wrong.

Kyle Baker’s artwork is perfectly suited to witty back-and-forth banter between bigmouths, it’s exactly what Why I Hate Saturn is all about, and here he also gets to play with sudden reversals in tone and expression of a cast of nursery-rhyme caricatures. His Humpty-Dumpty in particular is a triumph of smug shiftiness.

At the end of Alice’s journeys there’s a puzzle, another of the book’s existential quandaries about the nature of dream and reality. Of course, like most of Lewis Carroll’s riddles, no answer is given. There isn’t one. There’s nothing but the staring eyes of a cat who'll never care how mad you've gone.
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#14 [Jan. 19th, 2011|06:30 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#14 THE PIRATES OF CONEY ISLAND – Rick Spears, Vasily Lolos
(Image)


“It’s those damn comic books. They rot the brain I tell ya--”

Gangs of street kids with colourful themes brawl with each other and hijack cars while a Cadillac everybody wants that casts no reflection cruises past in the background. Sounds pretty simple when you sum it up like that, but The Pirates Of Coney Island is all about its style, not its plot. It’s a self-described “manual on how to be awesome” with all the attitude of a sneering high-schooler’s pencil case covered in pictures of knives and skulls.

Garish fairground purples, greens and reds dominate the colours. Zip-A-Tone dots ripped out of punk zines cover the backgrounds. The sound effects are big and comedic – everything goes brrmm! or hurgle! or especially kung-fu shaaa. The bad guy is so heavy metal that his sound effects have umlauts. Everybody carries a signature weapon, from slingshot to shuriken, and the violence is both cartoonish and gut-churningly grotesque.

The Pirates of the title are an all-boy gang who lapse into Arrr-speak while driving a van that flies the Jolly Roger and engaging in turf wars with the Cherries, an all-girl gang who rob stores between pyjama parties. It’s like Tank Girl having sex with The Warriors while Repo Man watches. As pretty a picture as that just painted for you, there’s a down side to reading The Pirates Of Coney Island. It’s an unfinished symphony, six issues out of a planned eight, and the final two have been delayed so long they’ve become lost treasures that may never be dug up. Welcome to the world of comics, breaking your heart since you learned to read.
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#15 [Jan. 2nd, 2011|10:52 am]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#15 COMIC BOOK COMICS – Fred Van Lente, Ryan Dunlavey
(Evil Twin)


“This comic is a work of historical scholarship.”

The history of comics is full of fascinating stories. Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey’s Comic Book Comics tells them in the same style they used in Action Philosophers! – narration focussing on the facts while the art plays it loose like a ragtime melody, mischievously lagging half a beat behind and poking fun at the characters you’ve just read about. They’re drawn like political cartoons: Walt Disney is a mouse with a moustache; the slow-working Harvey Kurtzman a tortoise. The story of one of the founders of Crime Does Not Pay being arrested for murder is drawn in the style of one of his book’s own true crime exploitation strips, which it resembles right down to the ironic twist.

It’s hard to imagine another way to tell some of these stories. When Will Eisner refused to perjure himself during a copyright infringement case – he’d worked on a Superman-ripoff called Wonder Man owned by Fox Features Syndicate – his former boss, Victor Fox, tried to have revenge by hiring away all of Eisner’s art staff. Fox placed an ad under the name of a made-up editor to advertise the jobs, not realising that Eisner’s art staff were all made up as well, pseudonyms he adopted to make his studio sound more impressive. It’s a story of secret identities that begs to be accompanied by a picture of Wonder Man being give a cease-and-desist by Lawyer Man and Lady Justice.

Comic Book Comics shows that the stories behind the creation of comics are sometimes as interesting, and as unbelievable, as the ones that take place within them.
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#16 [Dec. 30th, 2010|02:19 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#16 PLUTO – Naoki Urasawa, Takashi Nagasaki
(Viz)


“He said that when his time came... he just wanted to be chopped up, melted down and recycled...”

Pluto is a chopping up, melting down and recycling of a famous Astro Boy storyline: ‘The Greatest Robot On Earth’. The original is about a villain hunting the world’s seven best robots, who of course include Astro Boy. This remake takes one of those robots, a German-made android detective who is a minor character in the original, and makes him the protagonist. In doing so, it becomes a murder mystery.

What it keeps from Astro Boy is the sentimental tone. The cartoon’s sad violin music would play for two-thirds of every weepy episode, and a similar soundtrack would suit Pluto. Its robots make touching attempts at being human by taking the jazz musician’s advice, “fake it till you make it,” and applying it to everything. They copy people by drinking tea, eating ice cream, even crying, all in the hope that eventually they’ll figure out why we do these things and in doing so what it means to be human.

Meanwhile, the only robot to ever achieve ‘perfection’ is also the only recorded robot to have murdered a person; a mechanical Hannibal Lector who is visited in prison by our android detective, Gesicht, for advice when the killer begins targeting humans as well. The human victims are all former UN weapons inspectors, which is where Pluto veers into politics. In the war between a thinly disguised future USA and future Iraq that they failed to prevent, all of the seven robots served as peacekeepers of varying kinds. This allegory mostly exists to give each of the seven an opportunity to make some variation on the Iron Giant’s “I am not a gun” speech, each of them suffering some kind of trauma from the war and none of them emotionally equipped to deal with it.

Their attempts at learning by copying resemble children copying adults, made most obvious through the character of Atom, who is Pluto’s version of Astro Boy. While he’s the most advanced of all the robots in terms of human-ness he’s also stuck in the body of a child. Likewise, Pluto the series is a murder mystery that explores themes of identity – it’s basically Silence Of The Blade Runners – that’s still a kids’ story about robots. Without that child-like innocence though, it wouldn’t be able to get away with its almost mawkish side, which tugs on the heartstrings with a ruthless effectiveness.
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#17 [Dec. 10th, 2010|05:05 pm]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#17 SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY – Grant Morrison, J. H. Williams III, Frazer Irving, Yanick Paquette, Doug Mahnke, Cameron Stewart, Simone Bianchi, Ryan Sook, Pasqual Ferry
(DC)


“Stay with me. I know it’s a lot of information, but that’s the way I work. Everything at once.”

A musical fugue contains multiple voices – whether instruments or actual singers – all clamouring at once in what would seem like a chaotic mess if the themes hadn’t been highlighted at the start so that later the listener instinctively picks them out of the din, making sense of the messy whole by focussing on only part of it at a time. Seven Soldiers Of Victory is a fugue in comics form. It’s also a crossover.

Comic-book crossovers rarely work very well. They sell a lot of copies because the more characters are involved in a story the more chances somebody will be invested in some of those characters – Pride And Prejudice And Zombies appeals to people who like Mr Darcy and people who like shambling corpses, right? – but they’re often a mess of creators working at cross purposes. Every creative team wants their hero to be central to whatever massive, unwieldy plot contraption had to be contrived to draw them all together, but that’s impossible in practice. That’s not to mention the jarring changes in tone and style, plot holes and the inevitable deux ex machina ending.

“Threadbare and ragged...the work of too many hands to ever fit properly...”

Seven Soldiers avoids that clash of cross purposes both by being the work of a single writer and by not having most of its main characters ever meet. Between two bookend issues, Seven Soldiers is actually seven different miniseries about seven different characters whose stories overlap and inform each other to varying degrees, but never actually get together to say, “Let’s go fight off that invasion!” and then pose for a dramatic double-page spread in brand new costumes.

They do fight off that invasion, though. The invaders are the Sheeda, and rather than being aliens or interdimensional monstrosities they’re our descendants from the distant future, a decadent Earth at the end of days called Summer’s End. Bored and jaded, they romp through time hunting the best humanity has to offer at civilisation’s peaks – the last time they were here King Arthur was around – and stealing our innovations to rejuvenate their own debauched and listless culture. Basically, they’ve come from the end of time to steal our trends.

“Can you see the pretty metaphor I make of this combat, Spyder?”

There’s a metatextual element here, as that’s an apt summary of where mainstream comics are in the 21st century: rapaciously pillaging the back catalogue for characters and concepts to dust off and revive for another round of nostalgic adventures. Amusingly, the Seven disconnected Soldiers who are our last defence against the Sheeda are all denizens of the back catalogue themselves. Klarion The Witch Boy, outcast from a secret underground society of Puritan witches, is a reimagined version of an old Jack Kirby character, as is the escape artist Mr. Miracle. The Bulleteer and the Manhattan Guardian are legacy heroes, taking on the mantles of older characters. Zatanna the magician is a DC character who’d been repeatedly pulled out of the box to go through some trauma and then shoved back in. The Shining Knight is a time traveller from Camelot and Frankenstein is, well, Frankenstein’s monster transposed to the modern day and given some of Hellboy’s attitude. The only protection against a future that wants to steal our ideas is a collection of old ideas revamped and freshened up, made relevant with a new coat of paint.

And maybe a brand new costume, because Seven Soldiers is a comic that wants to have its cake and eat it too. The Bulleteer is a satire of the way female superheroes are sexualised who nevertheless is drawn bending over provocatively as often as possible. The villains steal ideas from the past, which is exactly what Morrison is doing by writing these heroes. And if it didn’t end in a blatant deus ex machina, it wouldn’t really be a proper superhero crossover at all.
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#18 [Nov. 23rd, 2010|05:44 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#18 BERLIN – Jason Lutes
(Drawn & Quarterly)


“Berlin was built on a marsh. I hope it will add up to more than a pile of stones.”

Between World War I and World War II Berlin was second only to Paris as a centre of European culture. Jason Lutes explores the city through its inhabitants, showing it through the eyes of an innocent new arrival and a worldly old cynic. Those two central characters, the ingenue and the cynic, are an artist and a writer respectively. They neatly compartmentalise the two halves of Lutes – and the two halves of comics – In two people.

As well as their perspectives, we see those of dozens of passing strangers. Each is followed for a page or two – the thoughts of a traffic controller, an artists’ model, a policeman, passengers on a train – all their dreams and everyday thoughts about what’s for dinner laid bare. (The traffic controller is constipated, the model uncomfortable holding a pose, the policeman troubled by memories of being a soldier.) Historical details are just as thickly layered as these everyday ruminations, events like the Blutmai massacre and cabaret songs about objectivity and poems about jazz all running through the story in a chaotic jumble that reflects city life perfectly.

And in the distance is the Third Reich, growing closer month by month, casting its shadow backwards in time to colour all of the events leading up to it. Every moment of carefree abandon or shop-worn worry becomes amplified and every flag hanging from a tenement window, every political affiliation casually displayed in conversation, plays a note of meaning and dread you can’t help but hear.
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#19 [Oct. 31st, 2010|02:10 pm]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#19 ETHEL & ERNEST – Raymond Briggs
(Pantheon)


“Hot water in the summertime! Modern!”

Ethel & Ernest tells the true story of Raymond Briggs’ parents, from their chance meeting in 1928 until their deaths in 1971. Over 40 years of their lives and a decent chunk of the 20th century is condensed into its 100 pages. The story is told almost entirely through their day-to-day chatter, with scene-setting provided by the radio once it works its way into their home. Along with the radio comes a parade of other modernities, like the electric stove, refrigerator and television, each one going from outlandish to commonplace as they adapt to it. Their reactions to these changes are priceless, especially their surprise at television being broadcast for a whole hour and a half - every single night!

While his milkman dad and lady’s maid mum have comically working-class and stiffly British reactions to the advance of technology and culture, mainly seen through Raymond growing his hair and heading off to art school to their horror (“He could have been a foreman!”), they also survive the blitz with the same outlook. Bombers flying overhead are, like the new-fangled gadgets filling their house, just something else they have to deal with. There’s genuine pathos in their ordinary reactions to living through extraordinary times. By the time their story ends the only way it can end, you feel like you’ve got to know them far too well to say goodbye.
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#20 [Oct. 17th, 2010|09:23 am]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#20 CAGES – Dave McKean
(Kitchen Sink/Dark Horse)


“If the artist was trying to say something, surely he would write us a letter.”

Reading Cages is like watching at least three arty French movies that are all happening simultaneously. It’s set in an apartment building that’s home to a painter who is suffering from artist’s block, a novelist in hiding after writing a dangerously controversial book and a jazz musician who knows the secrets of existence. The rest of the building’s occupants form an outlandish supporting cast – the mute art gallery curator, the deaf landlady, the woman who talks to her parrot, the crazy man with a plastic model of the solar system strapped to his head, the cat who gets everywhere – but the focus is on those three artists and their different approaches to creativity. Rather than being about the big montage moment when the painter learns a moral and then turns it into some life-affirming work of art, however, it’s about the creativity of day-to-day living. The most meaningful things they work on are their own lives – forging new relationships, helping each other out and breaking free from their metaphorical cages.

Dave McKean draws with a more restrained touch than his busy cover art collages suggest, though the black ink linework gives way to other styles at various times. When the cat sees the painter lamenting his blank canvas in floods a wealth of rich greys in contrast to that expanse of terrifying white. Talking characters become more abstract as their conversation does and McKean’s dogs are drawn like a cat-lover’s nightmare. Later he slips into colour and montages, usually in the hidden tales that are layered between the arthouse stories, a layer of psychosurreal vignettes that interrupt and interact with the real world. In the middle of Mrs Featherskill nattering to her parrot about herbs and recipes the art abruptly changes again and shows a girl wandering through the woods, finding a field of flowers – here, the pages ripen into colour – at which the viewpoint folds out further, revealing that this is all taking place on the wing of a moth flying into a candle flame. And then we’re back to reality, Mrs Featherskill wondering when her Bill will be home for dinner. These shards of other stories have a mythic quality; several of them are creation stories or explorations of heaven. It’s as if the gods are sharing the same building and occasionally we see what they’re up to, creating their own worlds just to watch them spin as casually as the jazz musician improvises patterns and brings them to a close.

Like improvised jazz Cages teeters on indulgence and you may as well skip the opening to get to the good bits, but this is a weighty, 500-page book that’s full of the good bits.
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