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#41 [May. 20th, 2009|02:50 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#41 MUSHISHI – Yuki Urushibara
(Del Rey)


“Simple yet mysterious.”

Mushi is a Japanese word for bug that can also have other meanings. Yuki Urushibara uses it to refer to ghostly life forms so close to the top of the evolutionary ladder they barely exist. Intangible and invisible to most people, they’re like the primordial ancestors of souls. These mushi can only be seen by a select few, like the mushishi, ‘mushi masters’ who deal with them when they get out of control and begin haunting and infecting people like supernatural diseases. Ginko is one of these mushishi, a wandering hobo with a peekaboo bob and often no shoes, his feet touching bare earth to show how in touch with nature he is, who chain smokes magic cigarettes made out of captured mushi.

Travelling Japan’s villages to cleanse them of mysterious ailments like a cross between a doctor, an exorcist, a detective and a pest exterminator, Ginko pits his brain against the strangeness using an encyclopaedic knowledge of bizarre cures, which often follow their own kind of poetic logic. A cloud-like mushi can be exhaled if you climb to a high enough altitude for it to float away; a mushi that takes the shape of an ink-coloured birthmark can be reduced by writing. Ginko cures possessions as if he’s curing diseases. It makes a kind of sense – germs are just as invisible as ghosts after all.

The mushi bugs look like things you might see under a microscope or floating across your eyeball, though sometimes they appear as ghostly people, animals or patches of rust that spread across the skin. They’re infinite in variety; enough to fill volumes with spooky little stories of Doctor Ginko’s extraordinary remedies. The villagers who suffer from the effects of the mushi are less varied and often interchangeable. Urushibara saves her characterisation for Ginko, who receives about one story per volume doling out titbits of his curious past as he travels from place to place in a very isolated version of Japan. A rambling man who is himself cursed by the mushi so that whenever he settles down they flock to him, Ginko is a magnet for strange phenomena who tries to lessen the world’s quota of dangerous weirdness. Removing himself from the area at the end of each story is the most important part of his cures.

Ginko is also a man of peace, his solutions rarely combative. Although the mushi are certainly spooky they’re only rarely horrifying – crawling in and out of people’s orifices they can be pretty creepy – and Mushishi is about finding ways of living in harmony with the darkness, treating supernature like any problematic part of life that in the long run will only strengthen us.

Except for occasionally when it eats somebody.
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#42 [May. 11th, 2009|09:30 am]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#42 PLATINUM GRIT – Trudy Cooper, Danny Murphy
(Shadowline/platinumgrit.com)


“Great news! Weird stuff! An’ everything!”

In the glory days of ancient times, a period of about five years that started in 1993, a boom in independent comics publishing meant that black-and-white comics brought out by suburban operations could fight for space on the newsagent shelves between Batman and X-Force. Platinum Grit was one of the best of these, an Australian series about the lives of a timid inventor in a Foreign Legion hat named Jeremy and a professional blonde bombshell named Nils, drawn with perfect screwball comic-book comic timing and expressive faces.

Each of Platinum Grit’s plots is more absurd than the last. In the first storyline Jeremy discovers he’s about to inherit his Scottish family’s castle, incongruously placed in rural Australia, but only if his psychotic, immortal cousin, Dougal Mackwikkening, doesn’t kill him first. It’s a sort of parody of Highlander, with Dougal driving around listening to a version of Queen’s We Will Rock You that instead goes, “You will / you will / kill them.” From there it launches into a hard-boiled private eye yarn when they are investigated by a suspicious detective unable to keep fiction and reality straight and a science fiction story that begins with their abduction by aliens.

While this is going on, there’s a lot of very funny cruelty to animals and dialogue full of baby talk and thick accents. Jeremy’s mad Aunt Lotte even writes in a Scottish brogue, ending a letter, “Afore aught else gangs agley, cam oop tae the castle an’ see me. Ere I die would be guid.” Platinum Grit’s humour has the absurdity of British sketch comedy and a touch of the manga love triangle; later it introduces a cynical journalist named Kate who is obsessed with Jeremy, believing no one could actually be that gormless and timid. The awkward relationship between Jeremy and Nils – he of course secretly loves her, which she callously manipulates for laughs – is what holds the comic together. Apart from that, everything is up for grabs.
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#43 [May. 8th, 2009|11:43 am]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#43 DISAPPEARANCE DIARY – Hideo Azuma
(Fanfare)


“It’s harder to draw stuff realistically, and it makes things gloomy!”

When the world got too much for manga artist Hideo Azuma and even his constant drinking wasn’t enough to keep it at bay, he disappeared into the woods outside of town to become a bum. The saga of his ensuing homelessness, menial labour and alcoholism is all drawn in the same comical style as his cartoons, giving him a jaunty look as he wanders the streets at night scavenging for food and smoking the butts of discarded cigarettes. The distance created by taking his moments of deepest hopelessness and abject patheticness and rendering them like jokes lets him tell a story that might otherwise be too painful. It begins with an inept and drunken suicide attempt – he can’t even kill himself properly – drawn in the same light-hearted style as the rest of the book.

Living off nothing but wild radishes for two weeks while shivering in the woods, he discovers that he can change the flavour by changing how much of the skin he removes. This is presented as a major breakthrough in hobo technology. It’s a life of simple pleasures like scrounging decent food or staying warm for a night. He adapts to this new lifestyle quickly, cutting away most of his dignity layer by layer like the skin of his radishes.

At first there’s no attempt to rationalise why Azuma wants to disappear from his life. After returning home to his wife – his poor, long-suffering wife who is also his art assistant – and his career for a while, he abruptly vanishes again, walking away with no explanation bar, “Something growing out of my head made me do it.” And yet, when he’s given the chance to work as a pipe fitter he takes it, adopting a pseudonym and starting a new life on his own. When the company newsletter advertises for cartoons he even starts drawing them, inadvertently stumbling back towards his real life.

At the end of describing this second period of disappearance he goes back to his younger days to explain his manga career and alcoholism and how well the two went together for a time, all-night deadline shuffles and binges going hand in hand. Comics – they’ll drive you to the drink. Over time, Azuma sees that he’s repeating himself in his desperation to churn out all the product required of him and it gnaws away at his insides. What drives him to escape is the pressure of creating escapism for others and the end result is a story that instead is painfully real in spite of the artifice. It just happens to be funny as well.
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#44 [May. 1st, 2009|11:58 am]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#44 KABUKI: METAMORPHOSIS – David Mack
(Image)


“After they take away all they can, what remains is you.”

In all honesty, David Mack’s Kabuki didn’t start out with a lot of promise. In the glut of 1990s’ bad girl comics, in which abused women with dark pasts dressed like hookers to take violent revenge on men, Kabuki seemed like more of the same only with artwork that was slightly more intent on communicating a story than showing off a series of centrefold poses. Kabuki was a member of the Masks Of The Noh, a team of female assassins in leather fetish gear who worked for a shadowy government organisation tasked with eliminating Japan’s organised crime bosses. In Mack’s futuristic Japan, the Noh hide in plain sight as media idols, acting like a cross between theme park mascots and public service announcements while terrorising the underworld.

By the time he’d reached Metamorphosis, the fifth volume in the series, Kabuki had turned renegade and was being pursued by the rest of the Noh. She was simultaneously hidden and trapped in an insane asylum where ‘defective operatives’ are taken to be rehabilitated. Surrounded by crazed spies, she went through an identity crisis of her own and as she reinvented herself, Mack reinvented the comic.

Over the course of the Metamorphosis the pages gradually transition from panels to full-page paintings and the text begins to seep out of the balloons and boxes to become part of the pictures. The asylum’s other inmates are introduced via a tag-team game of crazy-person Scrabble in which each of them adds words to the board while also adding design elements to the pages, as if their personal delusions are blossoming out of their heads and warping the space around them. Watercolour washes begin to replace the detailed backgrounds so that by the end it looks nothing like a traditional comic.

Kabuki’s guide through this transformation is a fellow inmate named Akemi who communicates between cells via notes written on toilet paper (in a homage to V For Vendetta), which are then folded up into origami animals. Though the two agents are attempting to escape, the comic is more concerned with exploring the characters’ psyches than their adventure. Each volume of Kabuki contains some kind of retelling of the first one, but in Metamorphosis Mack takes the opportunity to do more than a token summing up and instead uses the chance to rewrite it with a few years more experience and perspective, taking his simple plot and drawing out deeper meaning, like a psychoanalyst delving into the secret causes of the story’s neurotic tics.

When action does occur it’s all the better for Mack’s more thoughtful approach, as when he renders Kabuki’s strategy for fighting a phalanx of guards by mapping it from above with arrows and dotted lines like a complicated sequence of dance steps. Still, he’d rather devote an entire issue to a conversation in a bathtub and the thoughts and memories it triggers in his characters. From the chrysalis of the asylum, Kabuki – both the character and the series – unfolds like origami into a startlingly different and far more fascinating form.
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#45 [Apr. 23rd, 2009|03:19 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#45 GREEN MANOR – Fabien Vehlmann, Denis Bodart
(Dupuis/Cinebooks)


“The unhealthy pleasure with which you dissect human dramas, only to give yourselves delicious shivers.”

The Green Manor is a gentlemen’s club in Victorian London where sleuths gather to share stories of their adventures over brandy and cigars. It’s the place where Scotland Yard inspectors, Holmesian consulting detectives and amateur gentleman enthusiasts come to rub shoulders and peer over their monocles at each other, but mostly what they do is brag. Over the course of elegantly constructed seven-page stories they amuse, challenge and shock each other with boasts and speculations about famous cases that cut straight to the heart of the mystery genre.

Extraneous elements like character development are ignored completely; the disposable detectives are replaced in every story rather than developed over time with the usual host of quirks and oddities. The witnesses and suspects and victims are little more than footnotes and the only real detail is lavished on horrible crimes and clever solutions. Nothing else matters to the club’s members, drawn by Denis Bodart in his classically French style as a collection of overly enthusiastic old mutton-chopped fruitcakes. The detectives are often the victims themselves; falling prey to hubris they all think they’re the heroes of stories just like those written by their beloved Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, when really they’re just set dressings with fancy top hats.

Over the years the Green Manor is visited by almost as many murders as murder enthusiasts, and the crimes are often planned and even committed within its walls. The building itself is the only recurring character over the course of the series, soaking up the murders as well as the morbid fascination with them until eventually it can’t help but become a killer itself.
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#46 [Apr. 16th, 2009|09:15 am]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#46 PYONGYANG: A JOURNEY IN NORTH KOREA – Guy Delisle
(Drawn & Quarterly)


“Do not do anything on your own. Refer to your guide or your interpreter for advice in all situations.”

Pyongyang is an account of French-Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle’s time working at an animation studio in North Korea’s capital city; two months of living in a hotel and explaining to his co-workers through translators why he wants so many retakes. His first experience of the country is having to explain his copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and an Aphex Twin album to a security guard in the darkened airport, its lights dimmed to conserve electricity. Rarely allowed to go anywhere without at least a guide and a translator, he tries to explore the city to get a glimpse of the real Pyongyang, but is constantly frustrated by his chaperones and their half-hearted and disingenuous answers to his questions. Upon spotting a group practising shooting at targets shaped like Japanese and Americans, he’s told they’re playing a game. What kind of game? No idea. Move on.

Delisle imagines himself living in Orwell’s Airstrip One or dressed as Number 6 and trapped in The Village from The Prisoner, though his experiences, while bizarre, are obviously nowhere near as awful as those of the locals. Occasionally, over the cultural and linguistic divide, he gets to understand their feelings, such as their terror when he wanders off in case he takes a photo of something he shouldn’t, which they would be punished for. The divide is deep though, and just as often he’s baffled by their unshakable belief in the doctrine of their glorious leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. When he points out that he’s seen no disabled people in Pyongyang it’s explained to him that this because North Koreans are just naturally born strong and healthy.

Before that though, there’s the more obvious culture clash to deal with – he’s horrified that they all smoke in cars with the windows up, all the food swims in oil, he’s increasingly desperate for small luxuries like proper ice cream and coffee. His co-workers are just as confused by his taste in music and his attempt to explain what “Ooh la la!” means.

Whenever they can get a Sunday driving pass approved, his guides take him to approved tourist locations. Spotlights shine on icons of the two Kims everywhere they take him. Whenever possible he and his co-workers ditch their guides by visiting a foreigner-only restaurant or a Chinese-run casino or just by hanging out with aid workers who are afforded greater freedom within the city. Whenever Delisle sneaks off, the next day his guide knows exactly where he’s been.

Denied access to more than a little of the city outside his hotel and the studio, he instead explores those locations thoroughly, seeing in them a microcosm of the culture. Visiting the floor where the local animators work he’s surprised to find a rack of guns in their studio – all wooden, strictly for training purposes. After a while he becomes an expert in this little Pyongyang that he’s allowed to see, so that when a friend of his arrives at his hotel he can show off the depth of his expertise: when the lights are on in the restaurant and they serve fruit for breakfast that means there’s a foreign delegation visiting.

Though limited to peeks over the top of the wall, Delisle’s brief and limited journey through Pyongyang is as close to North Korea as most of us are going to get, a fascinating glimpse at how everyday life in a dictatorship works. Most of his stay is like that first experience in the airport, kept in the dark where the only things with lights trained on them are monuments to the glorious leaders, but Delisle sees them differently. Presented with a class of schoolgirls playing accordions in frightening synchrony he sees past their fixed smiles to the weeks of training to attain such useless, robotic perfection. It’s a glimpse that’s engrossing and alien.
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#47 [Apr. 14th, 2009|03:29 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#47 THE NIGHTLY NEWS – Jonathan Hickman
(Image)


“The Voice says: Are you tired of being lied to?”

The Nightly News ignores most of the language of comics, instead relying on the language of magazine ads. It’s a graphic designer’s version of what a comic should look like, with pages only intermittently split into panels and sometimes just consisting of a handful of dramatically overlapping images. In spite of this, it still impresses itself on your brain with all the clarity of a sniper’s bullet.

It tells the story of The Cult of the Voice, a group composed of disaffected victims of America’s corporate media, people who have been the subjects of smear campaigns or had their lives ruined in an accidental and off-hand way by carelessly researched articles that ignored the facts in favour of dramatic headlines. Building on that motivation, the cultists have been brainwashed by the charismatic, disembodied Voice into believing that only they can see the truth – that it’s everyone else in the world who has been brainwashed by newspapers and the TV. Although they’re clearly crazy it’s also very easy to see their point of view.

Jonathan Hickman’s artwork is so full of symbols it’s tempting to read more into them than is necessarily there. Are the two recurring horizontal lines an equals sign suggesting that what’s happening is a levelling, that The Cult of The Voice’s act of revenge is somehow mathematically justified? Are the diagonal slashes film noir window-blind shadows casting events into moral murkiness? Are the oversaturated colours, oranges and grey blues, a representation of a society saturated by the media? Are the blank signs carried by protesters, their slogans only visible in small-print footnotes in the margin, a literalisation of how marginalised their opinions are? Somebody working on a media studies degree could fill an entire thesis with this book.

Like the plate of mashed potatoes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in The Nightly News everything feels like this means something. Like an advertising campaign, each chapter simultaneously spells out its message while near-invisibly coding its intent behind it. Factoids about the characters sum them up, so that we know the CEO of Vivendi is an über-geek because he can successfully achieve a hostile takeover on a roll of 13 or more on a 20-sided die. Certain characters are represented by their own personal heraldry in the backgrounds; a psychiatric deprogrammer is followed by a map of the brain; members of the cult are represented by appropriate mythological animals. Circles that are sometimes targets, logos, tape reels, the sun, a beggar’s bowl or just meaningless shapes spread across the page like an infection, adding to the hypnotised, brainwashed feeling. The target of a random shooting becomes an icon of a person, dehumanised into symbology like a sign on a toilet. The edges of things splatter, with dirty little hairy ink-splashes showing the moral dirt that’s stuck to everyone and everything. The media’s movers and shakers are depicted as silhouettes, shadowy and impersonal.

It’s tough to feel bad for smug reporters like the newsreader who ends every portentous story with the word “Courage” just like Dan Rather. Watching the people who make you want to change the channel or throw away the newspaper in frustration get what’s coming to them is immensely satisfying. The Nightly News bills itself as ‘A lie told in six parts’ – it was originally published as a six-issue series – but it’s a lie backed up by cold, hard facts presented in glossy infographics about the elimination of fact-checking departments to save money. If you want a lie told in six parts, all you have to do is turn on your television every night from Monday to Saturday and watch the other nightly news.
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#48 [Mar. 24th, 2009|08:04 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#48 THE SANDMAN #19 – Neil Gaiman, Charles Vess
(Vertigo)


“Issa wossname. You know. Thingie. A play. They’re pretendin’ things.”

This issue of The Sandman, as always a story about stories, depicts William Shakespeare and his troupe performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the first time. It’s a story about a story that itself is about stories; a dizzying comic that threatens to leak out of its panels and pour off the page onto your skin.

Neil Gaiman’s version of Shakespeare has made a deal with Morpheus for inspiration and in return must dedicate two of his plays to subjects dictated by the King of Dreams. This is the first of them and Morpheus has requested it be about the king and queen of the fairies and, for its first performance, they and their supernatural subjects will be the audience. The trolls and goblins and pixies watch human actors portraying them and squabble over the accuracy of their performances while unable to help themselves getting caught up in the story. They even argue over its plot, especially the confused four-way romance – a love rectangle – at its centre. The trickster Puck disguises himself as the actor dressed as him and sneaks into the play. Within the play within the play an actor needs to be reminded of his lines just as Shakespeare does for entirely different reasons in the play within the comic. The actor playing Nick Bottom, himself an actor, has ideas above his station and attempts to pad the role just as Bottom does his. Two lovers speak to each other through a wall that isn’t there; by the end of the story the fourth wall between them and the audience has well and truly evaporated as well.

In the play within the play, one of the actors played by actors suggests a prologue explaining that nothing they have done is true and apologising if their performance has offended the audience. A Midsummer Night’s Dream ends with an epilogue in which Puck addresses the audience and does exactly that. In Gaiman’s comic everything that happens in stories is true in some way and so Puck’s closing speech stops being part of the fiction and becomes a message just for the readers. Delivered to us out of the darkness it stops seeming apologetic and becomes chilling, a sharpened threat rather than a gentle request for applause. It’s helped greatly by Charles Vess’s artwork, making lines on pages into fine actors who perform their roles with aplomb.

Though this issue, like many of The Sandman’s best, tells a story that stands alone it also foreshadows the series’ conclusion, which ends with the second of Shakespeare’s plays about dreams. There’s a web of connections running throughout the series that makes the whole saga read better the second time around – even its best issues, of which this is definitely one.
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#49 [Mar. 9th, 2009|09:43 am]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#49 JAR OF FOOLS – Jason Lutes
(Drawn & Quarterly)


“You’re talkin’ over people’s heads here! You wanna distract ’em, not make ’em feel like rubes!”

In a magic trick the element of misdirection – the disarming patter, flashy gesticulations, fancy clothes and wide smile – are as important as the trick itself. In his tale of two low-life magicians and the down-and-outs they associate with, Jason Lutes gets by without anything up his sleeves, telling his story in the most straightforward way possible.

The viewpoint spends most of its time steadily hovering at head height, only occasionally flicking up or down or into the distance. The progression of time is staid, the events of the story taking place over only a few days. The backgrounds mirror the tone of events, Seattle rain a dreary constant, buildings as beat-up and broke-down as the characters around them and omnipresent telephone wires wrapping the city up like a cage. The conversations are brief. Even the dream sequences and memories are clearly delineated, the panels becoming round-edged before giving way to the harsh, square corners of reality when they end.

Ernie Weiss is an alcoholic magician reduced to fumbling his way through children’s parties, haunted by the loss of his girlfriend and the death of his brother, an escape artist whose demise during a performance may either have been an accident or the ultimate escape. Ernie’s former mentor, Al ‘The Great’ Flosso, is going senile but still remembers enough of his trade to pick the locks and escape from care so he can live with the younger magician, surrounded by his memories of the past as if it never ended. As Ernie tries to solve the unsolvable mystery of his brother’s death while his life crumbles around him, he’s joined by another loser and his dependant, a con man named Nathan Lender and his daughter. Both Ernie and Nathan are trying to do right by the people they’re stuck looking after and both are screwing up royally, scraping by using their hucksterish skill at disingenuity but mostly only able to fool themselves. They’re so distracted by their absent loved ones that they’re pulling a vanishing act on the ones that are still present. Jar Of Fools is simple because there’s no need for heartbreak to be complicated, no trick to making it affect us.
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#50 [Mar. 6th, 2009|10:30 am]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#50 I KILLED ADOLF HITLER - Jason
(Jippi/Fantagraphics)


“Yeah, it’s kind of a long story.”

I Killed Adolf Hitler is set in a Germany where being a hired killer is as ordinary as being a waiter or a librarian and watching someone being gunned down in the street is just as normal. The main character is one such ordinary assassin who is hired by the inventor of the time machine to take it for its first trip and, yes, kill Adolf Hitler.

Traditionally, time travel stories go in one of two directions. Either the changes made by individuals are shown to be ultimately meaningless and the status quo restores itself no matter how much monkeying with the time-stream the protagonists perform, or some seemingly inconsequential event like stepping on a bug has ramifications that completely rewrite history. Either large actions achieve nothing or tiny events change the world. Both of those outcomes are equally trite. I Killed Adolf Hitler is an open letter that reads:

Dear Science Fiction,
Nobody cares about your temporal paradoxes.
Love,
The Readers.

The effect of Hitler’s removal from history doesn’t matter to the story at all. Like the everyday presence of hitmen, it doesn’t bother anyone in anything other than trivial ways. Against the odds, it turns out that I Killed Adolf Hitler is something far more interesting than somebody’s thesis about causality, but instead a melancholy and sweet love story.

The story’s version of Berlin is populated by the affect-lacking animal people the surname-lacking Jason uses in most of his comics, like The Left Bank Gang. These deadpan characters rarely seem startled by anything. Someone just got shot on the street by a hired killer? Oh. You’ve invented a working time machine? Oh. You want me to travel back in time and whack Hitler? Oh. The only things that get through these blank exteriors and register on their faces are the shocks that come from their relationships. Even in a world where you might be packed in a time machine and sent back to kill the leader of the Nazi Party, the twists and turns of love retain their power to open our eyes and surprise us.
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