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#71 [Sep. 18th, 2008|10:35 am]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#71 V FOR VENDETTA – Alan Moore, David Lloyd
(DC/Vertigo)


“All is misrule.”

V For Vendetta opens with a scene that’s common in comics – a young woman, a dark alley, menacing figures and a costumed saviour. The difference is that the dark alley is in an England that’s become a surveillance state, the menacing figures are secret police and the costumed saviour is a terrorist named V who wears a Guy Fawkes mask; a questionable hero with a flair for showmanship and speechmaking who is so theatrical he often talks in iambic pentameter and delivers an entire chapter as a musical number complete with its own score.

What begins as a costume fantasy for people who read Orwell evolves as it continues, becoming less a fantasy and more a treatise, a political education in comic-book form. Fortunately, Moore and Lloyd create a cast of compelling characters rather than just mouthpieces for competing political manifestos. In V For Vendetta’s dark future of the late 1990s (the comic began publication in 1982), England has turned to fascism, which only the anarchist V stands against. His ruthless tactics make him an uncomfortable protagonist, whose motives and methods are questioned both by Evey, the young woman he rescues, and Finch, the detective tasked with tracking him down. These three are the main focus, but they’re supported by a wealth of characters from all walks of life, from the gutter to the head of state. Each character has a viewpoint that’s explored to slowly build up a picture of an entire society and how it’s gone horribly wrong. Some are complicit and corrupt, some are merely opportunistic and others show their willingness to stand up for what they believe in.

Like 1984 or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, V For Vendetta’s concern with a government’s reaction to terrorism makes it seem more relevant than ever today, but even without that its underlying message hasn’t aged. Where 1984’s moral is ultimately pessimistic, that anyone can be made to betray their ideals with the right motivation, V For Vendetta dares to hope and to show that there are some people – and not just the ones who wear masks – who will not be broken.
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#72 [Aug. 31st, 2008|02:49 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#72 Y: THE LAST MAN – Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra
(DC/Vertigo)


“All of the men are dead.”

Imagine that everything with a Y chromosome dropped dead simultaneously, right down to the last sperm, leaving a world bereft of males bar two – an escape artist obsessed with pop culture named Yorick and his pet monkey, Ampersand. As setups for a story go, it doesn’t seem promising at first. Actually, it sounds extremely corny, but Vaughan and Guerra manage to create a convincing and fascinating world out of this sci-fi cliché.

As is traditional in post-apocalyptic stories, marauding bikers roam the roads, but otherwise it’s a grounded setting that follows through on its promise. Half the people behind the wheels of cars die simultaneously, so the highways become clogged with car wrecks and corpses. A higher percentage of the world’s soldiers, politicians and priests are gone as well, all with consequences. The world’s space programs and nuclear power plants, primarily run by men, begin falling apart. Israel’s female soldiers suddenly become the middle east’s primary military force while Australia’s rare submarine-trained female officers find themselves in charge of a dominant Naval power. Presumably the audience for comic books falls drastically.

Y: The Last Man doesn’t romanticise its world run by women, which isn’t magically free of violence overnight, but nor is it a dystopia. As Yorick and his monkey travel in the company of a bodyguard and a bioengineer searching for an explanation, a cure and his lost girlfriend, they find plenty of places where the women who are potentially the world’s final generation just get on with their lives competently and fearlessly. It’s funny too; Vaughan has a gift for witty dialogue that never turns into one of those standup comedy routines, “Hey everybody, have you ever noticed men and women are different? Ha ha!

Guerra draws the mainly female cast simply and with clear lines, while Vaughan adds depth by dedicating chapters to most of the characters, even seemingly inconsequential ones. Filled with flashbacks, these focus issues break up the cliffhanger-filled multi-part storylines while enriching the world by showing that it has plenty going in it that only tangentially involves its surviving males. Most of the questions readers will inevitably have (What about cloning? Sperm banks? Astronauts?) are foreseen and dealt with, showing that more research and care has gone into its creation than might be expected from the goofy initial premise of an apocalypse that stops halfway.

Y: The Last Man is only half an apocalypse, not just because only half the population kicks the bucket, but because it’s as much about imagining how we might create a new world as destroying the old one.
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#73 [Aug. 21st, 2008|11:18 am]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#73 A SOFTER WORLD – Joey Comeau, Emily Horne
(asofterworld.com/Loose Teeth)


“In the caves behind my house I found a softer world.”

Weekly repetition cemented the formulas of comic strips long ago. The typical three-panel gag strip has one panel for setup, one panel for elaboration and one panel for the punchline. Sometimes there’s an ironic counter-punchline delivered in the third panel or a fourth; sometimes the setup will be so outrageous that the second panel will be entirely silent to let the reader pause for a moment and have time to be shocked by it. There are permutations and weekend variations on the formulas, but at its most basic this structure is invaluable to the cartoonist trying to be funny on a deadline. A Softer World treats that structure the way sonnets and haiku treat the rules they follow – as boundaries broad enough to contain worlds. It’s poetry in the form of a comic strip.

Each Softer World is based on photos taken by Horne. The images are then cropped, repeated or otherwise toyed with by Comeau, so that a given strip might show the same photo three times at different distances or three entirely different shots. The photos, often Canadian landscapes or portraits of people gazing off into the distance, lend A Softer World an appropriately arty ambience. Comeau’s text, layered in to look typewritten, either enhances or subverts that ambience. Though the strips are sometimes hysterically funny, they are just as often insightful or wistful or frightening. A Softer World is rare among strip comics in that it doesn’t aim to grab hold of your funny bone and shake it every single time, and rarer in how often it succeeds at evoking other emotions by cramming an entire world into three panels.

In Reinventing Comics Scott McCloud talks about the potential webcomics have to break free of the formats imposed on comics composed for the page, how they can be interactive or stretch so wide you have to scroll for a week to see the end of them. A Softer World does something only a webcomic could do, but nothing so extravagant. Images on websites can have brief descriptions called alt text attached for those unable to view them – the words that pop up when you mouse over a picture. The alt text of A Softer World has evolved into a part of the comic, a series of explanations, confirmations and cheerfully ironic one-liners that act as imaginary fourth panels of their own. Delivered in ordinary browser text rather than the faux-typewritten font of the strips themselves, they read like plain talk delivered at a distance.

A quirkily poignant strip shows a woman at an angle that makes her look like she towers over the scenery. As the viewpoint wanders up and into the sky the text says: There will always be people taunting me / laughing because I tower above them, a giant. / Pointing with fingers that have never touched a cloud.

The alt text continues with a wink – never slapped five with god.
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#74 [Aug. 6th, 2008|07:44 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#74 YUMMY FUR – Chester Brown
(Vortex/Drawn & Quarterly)


“Hmn... can’t seem to stop.”

Yummy Fur was as much a backup for the contents of Chester Brown’s head as it was a comic book, the result of a compulsion that kept him writing whatever was on his mind no matter how deep into his subconscious or his personal life he went in search of material. During its 30-issue run he filled it with stories about subjects as diverse as toilet paper taking over the world, horrible incidents happening to a clown named Ed, his own youthful fascination with Playboy magazine and a retelling of two books of the Bible.

The early issues are home to the most unconventional stories, most of them clearly made up as he goes along and filled with the scatological humour of the kind that would make psychiatrists throw up their hands in disbelief. Brown shows a deft ability at tying together the most outré elements of these stories so that they reach something approaching conclusions, even managing to explain and bring to something resembling closure a storyline in which Ed The Happy Clown discovers that the head of his penis has been replaced with the shrunken, talking head of Ronald Reagan. (This is the point at which our imaginary psychiatrists throw up their hands.)

The Biblical stories that begin as backups in issue four contrast sharply with the more outlandish strips, in which random blasphemy is common. With a surprising degree of restraint Brown retells the books of Mark and then Matthew, drawing Jesus as two entirely different figures to emphasise the differences between their portrayals. Only in a few moments does the serious, scholarly, footnoting façade he adopts slip, such as when characters switch to modern parlance for a cheap gag. For the most part it’s an earnest and plain attempt at coming to grips with its subject.

The oddball Ed The Happy Clown stories fade away to be replaced by serious autobiographical stories in the later issues, and you can feel a sense of shame radiating from the last, hurried Ed strip in which Brown brutally ties up some loose ends and tries to kill off the strip like Arthur Conan Doyle doing away with Sherlock Holmes. The autobiographical material, however, is entirely shameless – almost unhealthily so – unflinchingly delving into Brown’s memories of his youth. The Playboy stories are narrated by a present-day version of Brown, who draws his adult self as a devilish winged tormentor, whispering temptations in his boy-self’s ear to keep him buying pornography and the story moving along. His younger self is disturbingly emotionless, able to display guilt and a little fear but never empathy, too busy in his own head to respond to those around him – his mentally ill mother, for instance.

There’s a limit to how much of Brown you can take and peering into his head for 30 issues makes you feel like you know him far too well. There’s a certain bravery in that willingness to open up his head like he’s tilting a rock to show us just how many bugs are crawling around, but you wouldn’t leave him alone with your children afterwards and you’d wash your hand after shaking his.
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#75 [Aug. 2nd, 2008|09:57 am]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#75 BLANKETS – Craig Thompson
(Top Shelf)


“Let’s begin by rocking out for Jesus!”

There’s an entire subgenre of Christian rock called ‘Jesus is my girlfriend’ songs. On the surface they sound like typical pop songs about love, but a scan of the lyrics shows that all the love and devotion and yeah, baby is being directed at Jesus. Blankets is an autobiographical story about growing up in the ’90s, but it’s also a bit of a ‘Jesus is my girlfriend’ song and like the better class of pop songs it’s bittersweet.

Young Craig Thompson and his brother are raised by somewhat strict Christian parents, shown as oversized giants when angry, who box in and tower over the young narrator while chastising him for drawing a naked woman or not being able to share a bed with his brother without fighting. As Thompson grows older and more distant from his family and everyone else around him he focuses on two things for solace and security – both depicted in imaginative, hallucinatory sequences where angels sing and snow falls in elegant swirls – the girl he’s falling in love with and the religion he slowly begins questioning.

Although these burning and fevered obsessions result in a lot of time spent in Thompson’s internal world the people around him aren’t short-changed. Blankets breaks one of the rules of autobiography by showing events Thompson is absent from, private moments that are nonetheless captured believably and add to a sense of a world going on around the narrator even when he’s being too self-centred and adolescent to notice it. Pulling back from the author gives Blankets a depth more monomaniacal autobiographies often lack, distancing us so that when the focus pulls in on the personal moments they feel more intimate for it. It’s those intimate moments that are the heart of the book. While Thompson spends a chunk of the book losing his religion, in the closeness of a shared blanket – whether with a brother or a lover – he portrays moments that feel truly sacred.
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#76 [Jul. 17th, 2008|04:12 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#76 THE JUNGLE BOOK – Harvey Kurtzman
(Ballantine/Kitchen Sink Press)


“Who said you can’t kill yourself? I give my executives complete freedom as much as possible.”

Mad magazine has three things to teach the young. 1) Don’t trust anything you see on a screen. 2) Don’t trust people in authority. 3) We haven’t come as far down from the trees as we’d like to think. When Harvey Kurtzman, Mad’s founding editor, left the magazine he kept teaching those same lessons. Someone at Ballantine Books gave him his own paperback and it was another opportunity to spread the good, irreverent word.

Kurtzman’s Jungle Book doesn’t contain any actual jungles, but its four stories are full of people acting like animals. His take on the decadent southern gothic, Decadence Degenerated, shows a redneck town called Rottenville where the peoples’ main hobbies are spitting, forming lynch mobs and waiting for dogs to fight. Everyone in the town talks in a thick hick accent: “We may cuss an’ spit and raise a little hayl ... but whey women is concerned we gennulmen!

The run-down buildings of Rottenville are drawn as little more than boxes with signs on them to differentiate the shops. The people who live there are almost as sketchy. Kurtzman’s artwork and lettering is practically doodling, as if he can’t wait to finish each panel and get to the next joke. Most of his women are just lips, hips and tits while the men are leering and monstrous apes.

When he turns his satirical eye on television and movies, Kurtzman’s parodies are weakened a little by the dilution of time. His send-up of the jazz-detective show Peter Gunn is mostly notable for its excellent title, Thelonious Violence. Apart from that it’s all trumpet sound effects and people saying like and man. Taking aim at westerns like Gunsmoke he hit his target more squarely; Compulsion On The Range’s depiction of a peaceable Zorro and a slow-on-the-draw marshal is still funny today.

The magazine publishing business Kurtzman was intimately familiar with is the target of the most pointed story, Organization Man In The Grey Flannel Executive Suite. His innocent protagonist, Goodman Beaver, goes to work for Shlock Publications Inc, clearly inspired by the real magazine publishers he worked with. At Shlock Publications profit is more important than integrity – in fact, coffee is more important than integrity. To Mad magazine’s three rules, he added: 4) Don’t trust anything you read in magazines, either.
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#77 [Jul. 7th, 2008|10:17 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#77 BONE – Jeff Smith
(Cartoon Books/Scholastic)


“We’re off the map! Get a bigger map!”

Jeff Smith’s characters, the Bone cousins, are pure cartoons somewhere between Walt Kelly and Walt Disney in style. Vague outlines of archetypal people, they have the classic big noses, the ability to burst into flame when over-excited, access to unlimited supplies of small objects (like matches and cigars) whenever they happen to need them and a belief that the wearing of pants is optional.

The three of them – the nice one, the spiteful one and the goofy one – stumble out of the modern town of Boneville and into a fantasy epic. They enter a valley that’s home to talking animals, dragons, a lost princess and prophetic dreams. The dream sequences are one of the elements Smith excels at; each one shown in wide panels overlayed on a blacked-out version of the grid he normally uses as if the world is still going on in the darkness beyond the strange nocturnal visions.

As representatives of the real world the Bones highlight the absurdities of the magical world they’ve discovered just by standing in it. Phoney Bone – the spiteful one – wants to exploit it for profit because there’s always gold and treasure in this kind of place, and of course he turns out to be right. The slapstick and punchlines increasingly give way to dramatic moments as the series continues and fortunately Smith’s art is just as good at imbuing a scene like a chase through a darkened forest during a thunderstorm with the right air of menace as it is at handling the more light-hearted moments.

Eventually the Bones grow used to the world they’ve found themselves in and become involved in the epic plot involving the mysterious prophecy, the deformed and hooded villain, the chosen one and the quest for the magical object that could save the world or destroy it. Like the hobbits in The Lord Of The Rings, who start out complaining about not having proper meals when you’re on a quest and end up carrying magic swords and acting like heroes, the Bones begin to normalise to the world around them. They never completely manage it, however. They stay cartoons and that makes them rub against the serious story they’re in, providing Bone’s most memorable and comical moments. As a heroic fantasy saga, Bone is an excellent cartoon comedy.
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#78 [Jun. 14th, 2008|04:05 pm]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#78 30 DAYS OF NIGHT: JUAREZ OR LEX NOVA AND THE CASE OF THE 400 DEAD MEXICAN GIRLS – Matt Fraction, Ben Templesmith
(IDW)


“Smells like tortilla and dead girl out here.”

In 2003 The Observer published an article about the Mexican town of Juarez, a border town and centre for drug-trafficking populated largely by women who came from the country to find underpaid jobs in its American-owned factories. The women went missing with alarming regularity, and when they were found they were often found dead. The authorities investigated but achieved little and women kept flooding into town, desperate for work. It was a disturbing and fascinating cycle and there probably wasn’t a single writer who read that article and didn’t want to use it. Taking a true story and dramatising it in a way that treats the people involved with the sensitivity they deserve isn’t an easy thing to do, however.

Matt Fraction managed to do it with vampires.

The original 30 Days Of Night series was based on a single clever idea: taking vampires and putting them far enough north of the equator that they could enjoy two entire months of darkness in which to wreak havoc. What made it special was Ben Templesmith’s atmospheric art, with the vampires drawn as inhuman predators, their lips parting to reveal impossible maws overfilled with jagged teeth. While putting the vampires south of the border in Juarez, he maintained that style, and built on it. The juggalo vampires are even more menacing for their clownish makeup and everything looks like it’s been drawn on old newspaper, like the story it’s inspired by.

As mentioned, that story is handled with surprising delicacy. It’s not really spoiling things to tell you that in this comic it’s not the vampires who are responsible for the most horrible acts, but simple, mundane, human greed. The story’s told through the eyes of Lex Nova (Nova is Spanish for ‘no go’, which is why the Chevy Nova never sold in Latin America), a mentally damaged private detective who hopes to solve the mystery of the missing girls of Juarez if he can stop narrating out loud long enough to follow the clues. Nova’s rambling monologues provide an effective comedic counterpoint to the bleakness and horror of the story that’s being told without robbing it of its impact. Because it should have impact, as much as a blackjack to the back of a private detective’s head, a stake through a vampire’s heart or a headline about the unsolved loss of over 400 people.
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#79 [Jun. 10th, 2008|05:00 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#79 SIN CITY: THE HARD GOODBYE – Frank Miller
(Dark Horse)


“She tried to analyze me once but got too scared.”

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if you’re laughing with someone or at them. Frank Miller’s Sin City is a perfect example. This, the first Sin City comic, is about Marv, a man’s man of the kind you find in hard-boiled novels and old-fashioned action movies; the ex-soldiers, cops, crims and boxers who listen to country music, drink rough booze, know how to fix a car and hang out in strip clubs. Miller’s man’s man is exaggerated to the point of caricature and deformity. Marv’s hobbies include torture, talking about dames, throwing punches, popping pills and narrating to himself. There’s so much grit in him you could use his skin as sandpaper.

Art-wise, Sin City is more gorgeous than any of the underdressed girls Miller fills it with. Working in black and white he accentuates the shadows of things more than their outlines, creating a stark, noirish look that makes every panel seem like it’s just been caught in a prison spotlight. Each image is laboriously composed and filled with motion, every car perpetually leaping into the air as it tops a crest at high speed.

Where the Sin City stories sit in the overlapping Venn diagram of homage and parody changes the more of it you read and the better you come to know Frank Miller, but back here at the beginning the hilariously heavy-handed narration seems to have its tongue in its cheek, whether it intends to or not. Accidental genius it may be, but it’s still a kind of genius.
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#80 [May. 19th, 2008|03:26 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#80 PERSEPOLIS – Marjane Satrapi
(Pantheon)


“Surely not! Politics and sentiment don’t mix.”

Marjane Satrapi’s memoir begins in Iran during the late ’70s, where even as a child she is torn between religion and politics. With a child’s simple devotion she has bedtime conversations with God, who appears in her room as a kindly, bearded man who wants her to become a prophet. Meanwhile, the more revolutionary members of her family inspire her, with the help of a comic book called Dialectic Materialism, to idealise Karl Marx, who appears as a kindly, bearded man who wants her to be a Communist.

When the Iranian Revolution occurs the liberal intellectuals of her family see it as a victory, until the Cultural Revolution follows it and The People disappoint them by turning the country into a fundamentalist, theocratic republic. As religion triumphs over politics in Iran, the reverse becomes true in Satrapi, who abandons God. The political makes way for the personal when she leaves the country at her parents’ suggestion, fleeing to study in Europe where her rebellious and questioning nature won’t get her in trouble. But her nature is a problem in itself. Raised by doting, sheltering parents in a restrictive society, outside the nest she finds the free world is very different. Satrapi is betrayed, just like her country, from within.

Persepolis is about people (and The People) not living up to their own ideals, being measured and falling short, but it’s also about the little victories and the importance of the revolutions that happen in our homes and hearts. For those of us who’ve never had anything as basic as the way we dress or whether we’re allowed to make simple displays of affection in public dictated to us by our government, Persepolis is an eye-opening book, not just because it shows us the abuses we imagine, but the small rebellions we do not. It shows us a world where gestures like buying a banned Kim Wilde tape and wearing a denim jacket can be as important as a manifesto or a thrown rock.
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