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#61 [Dec. 5th, 2008|09:57 am]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#61 POGO – Walt Kelly
(Post-Hall/Simon & Schuster)


“It is my firm legal opinion that A: he doesn’t know, B: either, or, C: else.”

Walt Kelly’s Pogo ran in newspapers and occasionally in comic-book form from the 1940s through to the 1970s, chronicling the lives of Pogo Possum and the rest of the animals living in the Okefenokee Swamp (one of those real names so perfect you couldn’t make it up), their misadventures affectionately parodying the foibles of everyday folk. Their dialogue is a mixture of hillbilly malapropisms and ignorant inventiveness. In swamp-speak everybody is everybody else’s uncle and new words are invented on the fly to suit the situation better than any real word could, especially where cussing is involved. Falling into the lake after an accident with a diving board made out of a rock on a plank, Albert Alligator cries, “Who took the slambangin’ rock off the dadwaggin’ froghoppin’ divin’ board so that it sprong at me and dumped me into the deep stabbin’ blue?” Looking on and bemoaning his guilt, Grizzle Bear wails, “What hath I dood? WHAT HATH I DOOD?

The human qualities of the animals – their greed, boastfulness, laziness and gluttony in particular – gave Kelly years of material, though he celebrated the last two just as often as he criticised them. Shirking work, tooling around the swamp in flat-bottomed boats and going fishing by taking a long nap with a fishing rod set up somewhere sort of nearby are shown to be the most commendable of activities. Even Albert’s consumption of the other animals’ food, and occasionally the other animals themselves, is never malicious. After swallowing a porcupine he agrees to unswallow the critter, though admittedly only after the porcupine in question threatens to back out, prickles extended.

The changing conventions of comics gave Kelly a lot of material to work with as well. When the swamp’s more nefarious characters team up to work on the crime of the century – stealing holes to sell to the Swiss so they can put them in their cheese – the Sunday strips take on all of the characteristics of crime comics. The balloons get wordier, to the point where they obstruct the characters’ view and they have to peer over them or push them up so they can see what is going on, and descriptive captions start appearing everywhere. Beauregard the hound dog and policeman, impersonating Dick Tracy, realises something is up when he finds a sign with “Meanwhile” written on it. Of course, something particularly nasty must be going on if it’s happening in meanwhiles.

As the years went on Kelly’s parodic focus broadened to include politicians as well as ordinary people. His most pointed humour was reserved for the likes of Senator Joseph McCarthy, portrayed as Simple J. Malarkey. Malarkey so offended one newspaper that they threatened to cancel the strip if his face appeared again, so Kelly covered it with speech balloons. President Richard Nixon, never seen and referred to only as ‘The Chief’ by his bulldog agents and information-gatherers, is portrayed a paranoiac who communicates via cryptic messages so secret not even he seems to understand the code. Along with Kelly’s love of nature and strips depicting the effects of pollution on the swamp, these political satires led to Pogo being appropriated as a symbol by hippies, but you can’t hold that against him.

The political specifics are unnecessary for enjoyment of the strips. When Okefenokee Swamp’s local representative, Congersman Frog, insists on being present at the opening of every facility including another diving board made with rock and plank, it’s funny whether Kelly had a particular self-aggrandising congressman in mind or was just having fun at the expense of a general type. Those ever-present diving boards are the perfect symbol of Pogo – as the thrown brick is to Krazy Kat, the wagon hurtling downhill to Calvin And Hobbes – simple and ingenious at the same time.
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#62 [Nov. 26th, 2008|10:10 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#62 CRÉCY – Warren Ellis, Raulo Cáceres
(Avatar)


"We're not a very pleasant people, the English."

In 1346 an outnumbered English army outfought the French at the Battle of Crécy, using longbows to defeat the French knights before they could close. In that early example of a battle fought at long range, Warren Ellis and Raulo Cáceres’ comic finds the prototype of modern warfare – the back cover blurb even goes so far as to refer to the English army’s “shock and awe.” What could have been a dull history lesson about the death of chivalry and the roots of modern massacres-at-a-distance is kept lively by the conversational narration of the main character, an archer in King Edward’s army. His blunt style of talking directly to the reader – as if he knows he’s explaining all this horror to someone from the future who is looking back queasily – is spirited and gripping.

It’s also upfront about the characters’ prejudices. They simply are, a fact that is presented and explained without being apologised for. Crécy feels no need to depict its characters as ahead of their time for the sake of placating our tender sensibilities, but instead presents them honestly, medieval warts and all. As the narrator blithely puts it, “I am, of course, a complete bloody xenophobe who comes from a time when it was acceptable to treat people from the next village like they were subhumans.

This is illustrated by Cáceres in a style somewhere between that of medieval woodcuts and the grimier kind of fantasy novel covers, filled with muck and dirt like the Monty Python middle ages where you can only tell someone’s the king because he’s the one not covered in shit. His style moves from atrocity to physical comedy with ease, as adept at drawing piles of mutilated bodies as he is at cheeky grins.

The chatty tone and the humour don’t mean you won’t be taught something by Crécy, however. The level of detail about archery makes it a kind of longbow pornography for those with an interest in the subject and the controversy among historians about exactly what happened on the day is also dealt with frankly. This specific kind of comic-book presentation of history can’t really be compared to anything else. There have been excellent comics about historical events like From Hell and works of journalism about war like Joe Sacco’s books, but this kind of documentary in comics form is without predecessor or peer.
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#63 [Nov. 6th, 2008|03:36 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#63 THE WALLFLOWER VOLUME ONE – Tomoko Hayakawa
(Del Rey)


“Did it just get dark suddenly?”

Tomoko Hayakawa takes exaggeration and makes it into an artform. The Wallflower is a teenage soap opera where the usual cartoon short-hand of manga, like the nosebleeds that for some reason indicate sexual attraction, become distorted, stretched by appalling gravities and blown out of all proportion. Each discrete blood drop becomes a spraying geyser of gore, the thunderclouds that appear over the heads of angry people terrify those around them and eating the perfect meal washes the entire dining room away and replaces it with a calm ocean sunset so blissful it has the diners moaning for their mothers. Hayakawa’s artwork is every bit as exaggerated as these short-hand storytelling devices. The characters switch between detailed extreme closueps, rounded caricatures and outlines so basic they look like the ghosts from Pac-Man – sometimes all three within the same panel.

The typically ludicrous setup has it that the four cutest boys in school live together in a boarding house where they are promised free rent if they can transform the landlord’s niece from a wallflower into the perfect ideal of Japanese ladyhood. The wallflower in question is Sunako, the school outcast and a goth of the uncool kind who mutters crazily to herself, refuses basic hygiene and is obsessed with splatter movies to the point of demanding she be buried in a plot between Freddy and Jason. Flowers shrivel and die in her presence, lights flicker and dim when she walks into rooms and at one point her desire to escape back to her beloved darkness and away from being forced into having a social life is strong enough to summon an actual black hole.

Hayakawa knows what’s important in this kind of storytelling and it’s not naturalistic dialogue and original plotting – every volume essentially tells the same story in a slightly different way, so there’s no real point reading them all – what matters are entrances so dramatic they’re literal tsunamis and people screaming at each other so loud the book should come packaged with earplugs.
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#64 [Oct. 30th, 2008|12:39 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#64 SCARY GO ROUND – John Allison
(http://scarygoround.com)


“Life’s like a horse wearing a suit and smoking a cigar: hard to explain.”

The main appeal of Scary Go Round is hard to explain because it’s based on the unusual way the comic is written. John Allison’s characters have their own unique personal dialect of chirpy British-isms broken by occasional blasts of brash smack-talk, staid Victorianism and creepy Cockney. (“As he lays dyin’ of course I’ll be stealin’ all his money. It won’t be like he’s usin’ it, I mean. ’Cept maybe for bleedin’ on and gurglin’ at.”) There’s a distinct rhythm to it as well as its own slang; his characters eat sammiches lest they starve and turn into skellingtons and figure a vampire man’s just a kind of leathery monkey.

This dialect is common to everyone in the quaint little town of Tackleford, which appears to be a popular holiday spot for the supernatural set as well as the just plain inexplicable set. Robot ambassadors from Robotania sometimes visit, as do devilish jellyfish and Grim Reapers. It’s a bit like Sunnydale from Buffy The Vampire Slayer only with less vampires and grr arrg and more goblins and silly.

The town’s less other-worldly characters are the stars, like the perpetually meddlesome and giddy Shelley Winters, professional winsome redhead, and a rotating cast of supporters who change positions whenever John Allison gets sick of drawing them, which is often. Tackleford’s version of Scooby Doo and friends, they are always on the lookout for trouble when they are not actually the cause of the trouble itself. Their problems are usually solved through applications of extreme nonsense, a kind of whimsical brute force.

That word, ‘whimsical’, is the most appropriate kind of word for Scary Go Round’s atmosphere, a blend of the mildly spooky and the very cute with no added common sense. Allison’s artwork is also an important part of that atmosphere, changing over the years but always rounded and quirky. Diagrams and explanatory pictures floating around the characters illustrate the complicated concepts they grapple clumsily with like the possibility that throwing a paper plane in a moment of youthful vigour could have caused a butterfly effect and been responsible for the death of the king or the triangle of fear, which measures drunkenness against likeliness to run away. Anything is possible in Scary Go Round and everything is pretty damn funny.
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#65 [Oct. 20th, 2008|10:15 am]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#65 KILLER PRINCESSES – Gail Simone, Lea Hernandez
(Oni)


“In the early days of America, everybody got along great except for slaves. Then this big jerk guy from German Europe named Hitler got mad at the Olympics and started the Holocaust.”

If you thought Charlie’s Angels was a triumph for feminism, Killer Princesses is probably not the comic for you. Its princesses are three all-American college girls who alternate their studies with undertaking missions as butt-kicking action babes, but completely amoral and empty-headed ones. They’ll just as happily execute the good guys as the bad, so long as they can look stylish, deliver some quips and beat up a legion of goons while they’re at it. Lea Hernandez draws those goons with almost-identical faces during the gun-fu action sequences, showing them as essentially unimportant props standing around waiting to be kicked, shot and exploded.

There is a lot of kicking, shooting and exploding, in addition to stabbing with kitchen implements, dangling down elevator shafts, general kung fu and bone-breaking in X-Ray vision in Killer Princesses. Basically, everything you could want from an action movie where tough heroes bounce from one set-piece to the next and foil a mastermind’s plot with some snappy one-liners.

Gail Simone’s comics are aimed at the young, but they sneak in plenty of things that parents don’t usually expect comics to have in them. Those things include smutty innuendo, extravagant violence, titillation and swearing – everything a 13-year-old loves about comics – all of which Killer Princesses has in spades. But it also includes an unexpected and perhaps unwelcome message, stated plainly. As one character puts it, “The idiots are winning.” It’s a valuable lesson in a world that likes to congratulate itself because Bill Gates is rich, as if proving we value intelligence. But one rich nerd doesn’t mean the shallow and stupid won’t inherit the earth. Killer Princesses’ ditzy protagonists are the more likely future, our illiterate mall-spawned overlords whether it’s guns or tiny dogs they’re carrying in their Louis Vuitton bags.
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#66 [Oct. 12th, 2008|07:16 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#66 LIKE A VELVET GLOVE CAST IN IRON – Daniel Clowes
(Fantagraphics)


“I didn’t know they made movies like this.”

A man named Clay is captivated by a bizarre movie that seems to be nothing more than a collection of surreal scenes strung together, especially when he realises that one of the actors is his lost love. Inspired to track her down with nothing more to go on than the names of the studio and the town where the movie was shot, he sets off into a surreal road movie of his own. His trip becomes something straight out of the mind of David Lynch or maybe Russ Meyer, like the movie he’s just watched, Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron – the title’s a quote from Meyer’s Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Along the way he encounters a parade of freaks including a potato-shaped fish-girl, a Manson-esque doomsday sex cult, a dog with no head and a group of conspiracy theorists obsessed with the secret meaning of a kitsch corporate logo.

Clay’s a passive observer to most of the comic’s inexplicable events, initiating little and avoiding confrontation compulsively, as if he sees how like a movie his life has become and is resigned to watching it unfold while idly munching the popcorn. There’s no deeper significance behind Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron; it’s a dream transcribed onto paper. There’s enough going on to make it feel like a puzzle that adds up to something meaningful, but when you organise the pieces just right all you see is nonsense. While that might make for a frustrating experience while sitting in a cinema, it’s perfect for comics. It can be puzzled over at length or skimmed over as breezily as you like, appreciated only for its moments of oddly whimsical humour and Clowes’ deft caricatures of hideous Americans – when Bill Clinton makes a cameo his big-chinned visage fits perfectly. Disturbingly, he looks just like a Clowes character in real life.
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#67 [Oct. 1st, 2008|12:26 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#67 BOOKHUNTER – Jason Shiga
(Sparkplug)


“Library police! Freeze!”

There’s an episode of Seinfeld where Jerry is accused of not returning a library book and then harassed by a hard-boiled, literature-obsessed detective named Lieutenant Bookman. Bookhunter basically takes that character and makes him the star of the story. It’s set in the early 1970s, the glory days of Dirty Harry whom the squinty, sardonic and ever-suspicious Special Agent Bay, Library Marshal, shares a few personality traits with. Bay also shares his name with Michael Bay, who directs exactly the kind of action movies the comic borrows a lot of its tropes from.

Bookhunter’s imitation of the genre is flawless, with needlessly dangerous driving, punchy dialogue and smirking one-liners delivered right at the climax of ballets of destruction. True to type the story begins by showing the star in his element, raiding the apartment of a potential book burner and defusing a ‘hostage crisis’ in the most senselessly violent way imaginable. It’s glorious and if Bookhunter ended at the close of this 12-page introduction it would still be worth reading, but the fact that it manages to maintain its perfect imitation throughout an entire book is what’s really impressive. Even the exposition scene where a more serious crime is examined – the forgery and theft of a bible that’s 500 years old – plays out exactly like something from CSI only with the forensics jargon replaced with book-speak. Shining one of those coloured lights on the book, the expert says, “Moving on, the inks appear slightly variant under IR filters. This means he probably buys his ink in concentrate and thins it out himself.” “It also means he opened another can halfway through the run!” Bay observes. “Bingo!” Cue music, end scene.

It’s funny, both as a spot-on parody of crime fiction and as a work of cartooning. Shiga’s bug-eyed and dumpy characters look hilarious waving guns around and leaping across rooftops. Bookhunter’s strongest appeal is for hardcore book-lovers though, people who fantasise about a better world in which we care about books enough to make spine-breaking punishable by life imprisonment and there’s a detective out there willing to risk his life by leaping from a speeding Bookmobile just for a chance of catching a hardened library thief.
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#68 [Sep. 29th, 2008|05:53 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#68 X-FORCE #116-129 – Peter Milligan, Michael Allred
(Marvel)


“It’s about media manipulation. It’s about merchandise. It’s about money.”

The X-Men comics and their spin-offs found a powerful metaphor in comparing being a mutant to being a minority. There’s only so far you can go with that comparison, however. While in some places telling your parents that you’re gay or telling them that you’re technically a different subspecies would amount to the same thing, being gay obviously doesn’t involve flying around the world in your own jet saving the world from The Brotherhood Of Evil Gays.

Peter Milligan and Michael Allred, given the task of overhauling one of the more forgettable X-Men spin-offs – a very ’90s affair with big muscles, bigger guns, gritted teeth and costumes that had too many pouches on them – rewrote that metaphor. In X-Force being a mutant may make you a freak, but the kids love it. Mutation became a metaphor for modern celebrity, where fame comes from a sex tape or a reality TV show and the job of a celebrity is finding increasingly desperate ways to cling to that fame. The members of X-Force make the news because they can teleport or breathe fire or conduct electricity through their sweat, but to drag that 15 minutes into a career they have to make themselves newsworthy again and again, even if that means having to do questionable things. Those questionable things include extravagant mutant slugfests because that’s what the form demands, but they also include staged trips to rehab, endless press conferences and pre-planned internecine squabbling that gives the guys designing the computer game based on the team an excuse for their CG equivalents to beat each other up.

All of this is captured on film by Doop, a marketably adorable floating green mutant blob, and the edited highlights are sold to pay-per-view where they’re lapped up by a legion of adoring fans. The fans don’t care that the members of X-Force are blue, green or covered in spikes and they certainly aren’t bothered about whether they’re black or gay. They care about who is sleeping with who, what they’ll be wearing to the next awards ceremony and what drugs they’re on.

Having characters who are bizarre freaks being treated as celebrities goes beyond being an apt metaphor, because in the 21st century that’s exactly how fame works.
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#69 [Sep. 26th, 2008|02:04 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#69 NAT TURNER – Kyle Baker
(Image/Kyle Baker Publications)


“I looked on him and my blood curdled in my veins.”

Kyle Baker’s comic book tells the story of Nat Turner, leader of the largest slave rebellion in America's antebellum south. Baker traces the story back to Africa, beginning with the capture of Turner’s mother and the gruelling experience of the Middle Passage, telling the grim tale of six months spent crammed into an overcrowded, leaky, rat-infested boat almost entirely without words. Baker’s cartooning background serves him well and he composes striking images by capturing exactly the right moment whether it’s a chain tightening around a neck or a body contrasted against the sky as it’s carelessly flung overboard.

Nat Turner is an uncomfortable read, as a book about slavery should be, but it’s not just about the evils of the slave trade. The armed rebellion Turner leads is examined every bit as unflinchingly. Turner is an intelligent and charismatic man whose wife and child are taken away from him, but he’s also a religious zealot and a baby-killer. The looks of bloodlust on the faces of whites watching a hanging are mirrors of the faces of gleeful black rebels putting on dead men’s fancy clothes.

Most of the book’s text is taken from the transcript of Turner’s confession, running outside the panels as a commentary and confirmation. When speech balloons do appear, they have added potency because of how sparingly he uses them. Baker’s version of events leaves a lot unsaid, but all it takes to condemn is a look.
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#70 [Sep. 22nd, 2008|11:52 am]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#70 THE PERRY BIBLE FELLOWSHIP – Nicholas Gurewitch
(pbfcomics.com/Dark Horse)


“I’m tired of living in this happy fantasy world.”

When the cartoon mice of Art Spiegelman’s Maus experience the horrors of the Holocaust we feel for them despite their cartoonishness; perhaps even more so because of it. We’re not expecting innocent cartoons to be shown burning in ovens or hanging from the ceiling like meat. Nicholas Gurewitch’s Perry Bible Fellowship strip plays on the same effect, the horror of child-like characters in pain – but it does so purely for laughs. It’s very black humour, baby-in-a-blender stuff, and it’s certainly not for everyone, but when it works it’s painfully effective. Knowing you shouldn’t laugh at something only makes you laugh harder.

The characters in The Perry Bible Fellowship, whether Gurewitch’s distinctively doughy people, sickeningly cutesy animals, 8-bit computer game sprites, anthropomorphic board-game pieces or transforming robots, are embodiments of innocence and childhood nostalgia. Many of the strips involve them saying or doing terrible things or suffering for our amusement. And they really do suffer horribly. They undergo needless surgery, are crushed into pulp, eaten by dinosaurs, stripped and paddled and transported to dimensions of unfathomable fear. It’s a little disturbing how funny it is to let loose the part of us that always wanted to see the Coyote catch the Road Runner and tear him into meaty pieces.

Gurewitch has an excellent sense of colour and he knows exactly when to burst someone in an explosion of red, rot them to sludgy yellow or leave them to wail in shades of grey while all the magic in the world races away in the shape of a purple flying pony they just wagered all their money on. He’s also a skilled imitator able to copy styles like those of The Family Circus, Atari games or cartoons from the ’80s, twisting them until they mesh with his sick sensibility. Only a strip in the style of Edward Gorey doesn’t subvert the original’s intent, instead homaging Gorey’s similarly morbid approach.

The Perry Bible Fellowship would grow stale if every joke was the same and there are plenty of strips that are simply cute or clever or creepy, getting their laughs via sexual innuendo or bizarre juxtapositions. The humour to be found in others’ pain is a deep well though, and Gurewitch draws it like nobody else.
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