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#31 [Apr. 26th, 2010|09:00 am]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#31 CASTLE WAITING – Linda Medley
(Fantagraphics)


“Taking care of babies isn’t the stuff of legend. It’s not heroic.”

Castle waiting is a fairytale that begins after the point where the story normally ends. Happily ever after hasn’t turned out the way it should for Lady Jain, who flees her home and her marriage, pregnant and covered in bruises, for the safety of Castle Waiting. The castle provides sanctuary for a cast of characters who are refugees from stories of their own. Simple Simon, Iron John, Dr Fell, the goose – well, hen – that laid the golden egg and a variety of misfits of Linda Medley’s own invention live together in the castle that was once home to Sleeping Beauty. Here they can be safe from the ups and downs inflicted on them by the Brothers Grimm and other sadistic authors.

Castle Waiting is all about the wonder of the mundane. The characters raise a child, renovate a home, tell each other stories and play skittles. The child is only half human, the home is a castle full of secret passages and infested by mischievous sprites, the stories are about bearded nuns – the skittles are just skittles, though. In spite of the fantastic trappings, Castle Waiting is so civilised you can forget it’s medieval. It’s a comic that can spin entire plotlines out of finding clothes to fit a foundling and replacing a staircase that’s unsafe for a young mother to climb. Although the characters aren’t all human and the magical is everyday, Castle Waiting focusses on a kind of cheery domesticity that’s a pleasant reminder of why the word ‘homely’ was once meant as a compliment.
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#32 [Apr. 24th, 2010|11:25 am]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#32 DUNGEON: THE EARLY YEARS - Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim, Christophe Blain
(NBM)


“It’s impossible to write and live adventures at the same time!”

The first volumes of Sfar and Trondheim’s fantasy epic, Dungeon, follow a young nobleman – well, noblebird, since everyone in Dungeon is an animal of some kind – named Hyacinthe as he travels to the city of Antipolis to be educated. Hyacinthe comes from a line of goblin-bashing heroes but he’s more of a refined and romantic soul, which causes trouble when he discovers Antipolis is a pit of corruption and the uncle charged with his education is a crime lord. Dungeon has a lot of fun inverting the clichés of the fantasy genre – Hyacinthe’s education largely involves being taken out for a drink and vomited on and when he does save the day it’s not with a magic sword but a pipe. In later volumes this inversion becomes the focus as the setting moves underground to the titular Dungeon where foolish adventurers are lured so they can be mobbed and eaten by a cast of colourful monsters in an explicit parody of Dungeons & Dragons.

In case you forget Dungeon is French, it’s also frank about its characters’ sex lives in a way you don’t often see in funny-animal comics this side of Fritz The Cat. It’s all a part of Hyacinthe’s broader education, his troubled romantic escapades just another part of his gradual exchange of naiveté for cynicism. His first reaction to the open vice of the city is to become a masked vigilante called ‘The Night Shirt’ who runs around declaiming about justice, but by the end his ideals have been eroded as he acclimatises to the very modern Antipolis, which is the antonym of everything he’s been taught about heroism. Dungeon is the fantasy equivalent of a treatise on the relative merits of laissez-faire capitalism and enlightened self-interest – just in case you forgot it was French again – only one that’s so funny you don’t mind at all.
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#33 [Apr. 15th, 2010|08:35 pm]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#33 FUN HOME – Alison Bechdel
(Houghton Mifflin)


“At the fun home, Dad would take a break from his grisly chores to tweak the stiff arrangements delivered by the florist.”

Fun Home is Alison Bechdel’s memoir of the difficult relationship she had with her father. The Fun Home of the title is both the family’s cute abbreviation for the funeral home where he worked part-time – he was also an English teacher – and an ironic moniker for their family home. Her parents fought constantly and Bechdel almost never draws either of them with a smile, but there’s humour to be found even so. As a child she identifies with the Addams family because her father has restored their Pennsylvania house with gothic frills and drapes everywhere – too young to read the captions she doesn’t realise the characters are supposed to be odd, assuming they’re an ordinary family just like hers.

Each chapter follows a theme, examining and repeating the story as seen from a new angle rather than simply enumerating the next event in sequence. It circles like a vulture, which is apt both because of the funeral home and the death of her father at Fun Home’s centre. In one chapter we see everything through the lens of literary comparisons, because a love of books was one of the few things father and daughter shared. Another chapter is about her obsessive-compulsiveness, especially as expressed through her diary, which has the end result of filling her story with detail, both architectural and historical. One of the most fascinating chapters is about homosexuality – something else they had in common, as Bechdel discovers in one of those absurd twists real life specialises in.

Where Alison Bechdel is out and proud, her father lived a double life that, in retrospect, she sees as the cause of her family’s troubles. In one of her recurring literary comparisons she likens him to Daedalus, builder of the Labyrinth, but where he built an artifice of lies she builds one of truth, using Fun Home to meticulously fill in the gaps in her childhood diary where she’d been too scared and coy to mention masturbating or having her first period. Where Bechdel the elder restored a house, Bechdel the younger constructs a memory castle, a maze that loops but never dead-ends, that drags you along on a string that back-tracks and criss-crosses until it meets something profound at its heart.
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#34 [Apr. 5th, 2010|01:40 pm]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#34 STUCK RUBBER BABY – Howard Cruse
(Paradox Press)


“Gettin’ Clayfield to integrate is like gettin’ a turtle to walk on its hind legs...”

Howard Cruse grew up in Alabama as a preacher’s son, which presumably made it especially difficult coming to terms with the fact that he’s gay. Stuck Rubber Baby is Cruse’s fictionalised account of someone going through a similar experience; his protagonist, Toland Polk, lives in the imaginary deep South town of Clayfield, which is experiencing the tail-end of racial segregation while Toland’s denial leads him to segregate his own feelings.

Set in the period between the Cuban Missile Crisis and JFK’s assassination, Stuck Rubber Baby mirrors a personal search for acceptance with one going on in the wider world. In the after-hours Clayfield jazz club Alleysax, gays and blacks are equally welcome, and Toland – trying to ‘cure’ himself by dating a female folk singer – is exposed to a thriving world that’s been hidden to him in his suburban family home. He narrates the story from a distance of years, a can of beer casually held in one hand and his boyfriend fussing in the background as he describes the way he almost accidentally got caught up in the civil rights movement. This distance and its promise of an ultimately happy ending for him at least, removes some of the trauma from the events – there’s something oddly jaunty about the way it deals with death – but the grief remains. A picture of the car wreck that killed Toland’s parents is juxtaposed with a conversation he had with his sister about their parents’ retirement schemes. Hovering over the image of death is the caption, “So much for that plan, Mama!” The characters feel the shock, but we only infer the sadness.

Cruse’s artwork is simple, his people almost all given uniform jutting chins and the backgrounds heavily shadowed in cross-hatching. The black and white is well-suited to the story of segregation, as are the wealth of evocative small details. As Toland talks about wrestling with the yardman’s boy in his youth, his thatched, barb-wire eyebrow arches with more self-awareness than he had at the time, reconciling his past with his present with help from the healing power of hindsight.
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#35 [Apr. 4th, 2010|08:21 am]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#35 DICE MAN #5: YOU ARE RONALD REAGAN – Pat Mills, Hunt Emerson
(2000 AD)


“Don’t say we don’t give opportunities to you layabouts!”

During the Thatcher years British comics became much more politicised than they had been, just like British comedy. The venerable sci-fi anthology series 2000 AD often used its flagship character, Judge Dredd, as a tool of satire and even Dice Man, a short-lived spin-off from the main series that took the choose-your-own-adventure format and applied it to comics, used its final issue to deliver a cutting caricature of Ronald Reagan. In the opening sequence, Margaret Thatcher herself breaks out of the panel boundaries to order the reader, who she assumes is an unemployed layabout, to take over from the president before he foolishly brings about a nuclear war.

It’s not every comic that asks you to choose between bombing Nicaragua, ordering in US troops or sending more aid to the Contras. You also have to aid the buffonish Reagan in his dicey diplomatic dealings with Russia, maintaining his popularity with the fickle American public, defusing a potential nuclear scare and playing with his gunships in the bathtub. Dice rolls add an element of randomness, so that when you try to find connections to the founding fathers in the Reagan family tree to win over the voters you may instead discover you’re related to your pet monkey. During all of this you can’t do too good a job or the CIA will realise Reagan has been replaced by somebody more sane, assume you’re a Russian spy and have you offed. Satire doesn’t get any more pointed than this.

There’s not as much need to exaggerate to make its points as might be expected – as the writer explains, Reagan consulted an astrologer before making important decisions and invited his mother-in-law along on his and Nancy’s honeymoon. Independent of your decisions, the story may well end with a nuclear apocalypse. After reading this, it’s hard not to think it was only luck that saved us from the same ending in real life.
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#36 [Mar. 30th, 2010|08:39 pm]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#36 DEFF SKWADRON – Gordon Rennie, Paul Jeacock
(Black Library)


“Fact is, we just wanted to watch them smug gitz get blown to pieces.”

In classic World War II fighter-pilot movies like The Dambusters the heroes are stiff-upper-lipped Brits who keep the Union Jack flying, their chins high and their moustaches waxed while they’re battling Gerry. Deff Skwadron updates those movies to a science-fiction setting where the Brits are replaced by brutes; savage Orks with all the chivalry, breeding and manners of cavemen.

In the never-ending war between the Ork clans of Badthug and Grimlug, Deff Skwadron do their part for Badthug in rusting planes that only have three speeds: stop, fast and ‘Waaagh!’ They consider flying slower than ‘Waaagh!’ to be an act of cowardice. Their guns are designed to carry unfeasibly large bullets and to make as loud a DAKKA noise as possible; accuracy is a tertiary consideration, if that. The dogfights are chaotic, sketchy swirls of ink where engine parts and limbs fly through the air like confetti at a wedding.

The Orks of Deff Skwadron aren’t above taking aim at their brothers in the rival skwadrons of Kannibal and Karnage, in fact it’s encouraged. Other valid tactics include using vicious animals as live ammunition. The use of parachutes, however, is frowned on. Deff Skwadron presents war stripped of any of the niceties of the movies, while also taking away concepts like honour, noble self-sacrifice and grammar. The real thing is probably closer to Deff Skwadron than we’d like to believe, but that’s not to suggest this comic is an anti-war polemic. The real joy of it is that it’s just a comic about watching them smug gitz get blown to pieces.
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#37 [Mar. 27th, 2010|10:03 am]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#37 SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING Vol. 1–2 – Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben
(DC/Vertigo)


“I opened him up. He had things inside him.”

Swamp Thing was originally your standard man-covered-in-mysterious-substance comics character, the only difference being that he was played for horror rather than turned into a hero after being splashed with plot-powered chemical goop. Coated in one of his own experimental formulas, scientist Alec Holland turned into a mucky green plant-man and exiled himself deep in Louisiana’s swamps so as not to be pitchforked by the locals. After taking over this character who, during the early comics, had spent half his time futilely trying to become human again and the other half moping because he couldn’t – “Hamlet covered in snot” was his memorable summary – Alan Moore reinvented Swamp Thing in these two volumes. He began with a literal autopsy of the character, opening him up to find what made him work then putting him back together only better. He made the muck monster less human and in doing so made him more interesting, resurrecting and reinventing him with new layers added by each new story.

As a plant-man it was natural to use him to address environmental concerns, with Stephen Bissette and John Totleben’s vivid gator-strewn swamps as the backdrop. Leaving the swamp they covered the character’s roots in horror with a trip to a Hell full of skewered creatures, bones, screaming faces and, disturbingly, fish. At the other end of the spectrum is an unusual romance told in vibrant psychedelia. The wider DC Universe, of which Swamp Thing was a part, appears both through background superheroes and villains used to demonstrate the stakes and the rich cosmology Swamp Thing explores. Each step of the way the comic matured a little as its protagonist grew, quickly becoming the most grown-up series on the shelf and clearing a path through the murk that’s been heavily walked by the 30 years of comics since.
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#38 [Mar. 13th, 2010|01:51 pm]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#38 PICTURES FOR SAD CHILDREN – John Campbell
(www.picturesforsadchildren.com)


“We’d love to know why you cancelled your subscription to: being alive.”

John Campbell draws characters so simple that they are only one step up the evolutionary ladder from stick figures: staring round-headed people with lines for arms. Everything these crude characters cope with is imbued with a dull horror – working in call centres that deal with suicide hotline overflow, suffering through family weddings and outré performance art, being stuck under things. None of it’s cheerful. One of the handful of recurring characters is a ghost who has no idea what he’s supposed to do with his afterlife and so shuffles back to the job he hated when he was alive because it’s all he knows how to do. When Peter Pan shows up at the window to explain that all you have to do to fly is think happy thoughts, a John Campbell character silently closes the window and goes back to bed to think about his loan repayments and the choices he has made in life that led him to this point.

Like the title suggests, it’s not an upbeat comic, but no one in Pictures For Sad Children is particularly dissatisfied with how bad everything is. Their world is like ours only every single thing in it is demonstrably worse and they just keep going, struggling through the day like we do. Seeing his pessimistic, deadpan characters keep calm and carry on even when abducted by serial killers or crushed by blocks is bizarrely uplifting. They may be fragile-looking sticky people who never smile, but there’s something heart-warming about their indomitableness. And anyway, sadness is just happiness for deep people, right?
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#39 [Mar. 7th, 2010|04:09 pm]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)

#39 CALVIN AND HOBBES – Bill Watterson
(Andrews McMeel)


“Every Saturday I get up at six and eat three bowls of Crunchy Sugar Bombs. Then I watch cartoons till noon and I’m incoherent and hyperactive the rest of the day.”

Where other comic-strip brats like Dennis The Menace or the kids in The Family Circus are vile little shits whose only redeeming moments come when they recite their homespun homilies, Calvin is a believable childhood terror who feels guilt for breaking his dad’s telescope or drowning a bucket of worms, and when he philosophises it’s about something meaningful: death. His brushes with mortality while hurtling downhill on rickety wagons and sleds turn the six-year-old into a font of wisdom.

Most of that wisdom comes out of his mouthpiece, Hobbes. Unlike your typical only child’s imaginary friend, Hobbes is constantly contrary, saying everything Calvin thinks but can’t put into words. Hobbes gives voice to his subconscious – Calvin throws snowballs at Susie, but Hobbes admits he wants to smooch her. Susie has her own animal friend in Mr. Bun the bunny as well as fantasies where she’s a high-powered executive wife. Calvin’s father fantasises about being a manly provider, spending his days fishing and providing for his family. Calvin’s mother fantasises about not being Calvin’s mother. Everybody has their own imagined other life, but Calvin’s overflows.

When Hobbes isn’t around for Calvin to project onto, the boy’s alter egos come out. There’s Stupendous Man the superhero, Tracer Bullet the private eye, Godzilla, a menagerie of wild animals and, most of all, Spaceman Spiff the intrepid explorer. Spiff is always being marooned on a hostile and barren world by malfunctioning equipment given unlikely names like the bizarrotron and the atomic napalm neutralizer. The barren world he’s trapped on is usually his school, where dreaming up atomic napalm neutralizers has no place. Calvin And Hobbes is a celebration of this overactive imagination, of the unchallenged brain working at a speed of megazorks a second with too much freem-drive in the thruster blasters and too much sugar in the cereal.
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#40 [Mar. 4th, 2010|09:00 pm]
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It's been months -- almost a year -- since the last time I posted one of these. I've been thinking about re-launching it in a different format, rope in co-writers, take it off lj, all kinds of things. I still might. In the meantime...

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#40 FRANK – Jim Woodring
(Fantagraphics)


“Visit the palace of horrors.”

Jim Woodring’s Frank looks like a prototype for a cartoon character who escaped from the early-stage design pages of one of half-a-dozen more famous characters. He’s got the de rigeur white gloves along with buck teeth, round eyes and a tail, but he could just as easily be mouse, rabbit, cat or mole. The dialogue-free Frank comics take place in a very well-developed world, however, a vivid, fungal, sickly and psychedelic place full of flying objects that look like spinning-top chess-piece vases and Arabic architecture where almost everything has eyes.

Frank explores Woodring’s world with the child-like mix of curiosity, innocence and cruelty common to old-fashioned cartoons from the silent era. His reaction to many of the encounters he has is gum-baring horror, a constant rictus scream. Frank has a lot more in common with horror than children’s cartoons, with recurring characters like a grinning, moon-headed Devil who memorably tries to brainwash Frank into becoming an assassin and the greedy, corpulent Manhog who is always either eating or being eaten. Anything can turn out to be alive and sentient in Woodring’s wonderland, but rather than bursting into song even the fruit is likely to eat you before you eat it.

Most cartoon characters are infinitely stretchy, able to bounce back from being splatted flat or diced to pieces, but not Frank, Manhog or the rest. Although between stories they return to normal no matter what happened to them in the previous strip, during the stories they’re completely and distressingly vulnerable. Manhog receives a head wound while chasing a bird and then spends the rest of the strip in a druggy hallucination where he skins his own leg, perhaps to get at the bugs underneath, then limps along for the rest of the story until Frank puts him out of his misery by popping his head open with an oar. Frank suffers mutation, aging, cloning and beatings with regularity. Like the X-ray pictures that show how deformed Charlie Brown’s skeleton would look, Woodring’s surgical approach to cartoons has grotesque results, peeling back the skin of the bright world to show the nauseatingly pulsating, insectile organs underneath. After Frank, you won’t be able to look at Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse the same way again.
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