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#91 [Feb. 26th, 2008|01:59 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#91 A LESSON IS LEARNED BUT THE DAMAGE IS IRREVERSIBLE – Dale Beran, David Hellman
(http://alessonislearned.com)


“Alcoholic Rabbit, are you sure you know how to drive this thing?”

For the first couple of strips A Lesson Is Learned But the Damage Is Irreversible was a well-coloured and painterly but otherwise unexceptional webcomic about two slackers named Dale and Dave who were making a webcomic. A week later a strip appeared that was unlike the simple real-life-with-more-jokes scenes that had seemed to be Dale Beran and David Hellman’s focus; a strip about a mad scientist who had discovered a green flame that turned everything it touched into reptiles. From then on, each update showed the comic spiralling further into the surreal, ignoring gags in favour of oddity, philosophical ramblings and bizarre landscapes. The style of the art and lettering shifted constantly, sometimes within the same strip, and the tone of the writing changed just as frequently. Resembling nothing so much as the over-sugared fever dreams of someone who has passed out while playing video games, the strips featured characters like Alcoholic Rabbit and the legendary ghosts of Mafia bosses, trips to heaven and The Forbidden Forest Of Fresh Cuts And Jams and magical objects like the Power Pyramid Manipulative and Bluerazz Sourpower Snackattackpacks.

After a couple of years A Lesson... evolved again. Dale and Dave disappeared from the stories completely and, though the new strips were similar in appearance to what had gone before and each was self-contained, on closer examination they formed an intricately interwoven sequence of events. Like a single night of broken sleep filled with fragments of dreams, this beautiful nonsense took on a significance at odds with its silliness.

A Lesson... is currently on a hiatus that may prove permanent. It’s a shame to have to end these strange and colourful miniature sagas, but you have to wake up some time. Alcoholic Rabbit is late for a very important date and we shouldn’t let him drive again.
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#92 [Feb. 19th, 2008|02:02 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#92 ACTION PHILOSOPHERS! – Fred Van Lente, Ryan Dunlavey
(Evil Twin Comics)


“Plato smash!”

Comics with an educational bent have an edge over books in that they can tie the dry facts of their subject matter to entertaining images, making them more memorable than they would have been if presented in plain prose. Action Philosophers! takes advantage of that to the fullest, detailing the lives and ideas of philosophers by presenting them not just in the format, but in the idiom of comic books. Plato, who was a wrestler in his youth (his name literally meant ‘broad shoulders’), is therefore shown wearing a Mexican wrestler’s mask and defeating his intellectual opponents with chokeholds. Karl Marx demonstrates seizing the means of production with an M-60 and St Augustine’s defeat of the Pelagian heresies becomes a boxing match.

Humorous touches in the artwork like these are plenty enjoyable, but what makes Action Philosophers! truly worthwhile is the way that, as the title suggests, it focuses on the philosophers rather than just their philosophy. There’s as much doing as there is thinking. Telling the stories of their flawed lives and the ways they failed to live up to their ideals – like Thomas Jefferson keeping slaves – and the ways that their philosophies were often specific reflections of their life experiences – like Ayn Rand founding objectivism because her dad lost his business – puts them in perspective. They go from being historical figures to actual people, without becoming any less fascinating.

As an introductory work it does its job perfectly, summarising in an engaging way that leaves you wanting to know more. The further reading section in the back of each issue suggests a few ‘proper’ books worth seeking out to that end, but what you really want to read next is another issue of Action Philosophers! as good as the last one.
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#93 [Feb. 13th, 2008|05:56 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#93 LI’L ABNER & THE BALD IGGLE – Al Capp
(Kitchen Sink Press)


"Yo' wants a $2.00 weddin'? -- But, thet's "Th' Cheapskate's Speshul"!! -- full o' sly insults, an' contemptuous remarks!!"

In the early days of Li’l Abner its storylines often revolved around attempts by the town of Dogpatch’s local beauty, Daisy Mae, to make Li’l Abner her husband. According to Dogpatch tradition, any bachelor caught by a spinster on Sadie Hawkins Day had to marry her. The strip was so popular – 70 million readers at its peak – that Spinster’s Balls in America became known as Sadie Hawkins Dances. The other half of the stories typically involved city slickers trying to outsmart the good-natured but dumb-as-planks rednecks of the town of Dogpatch.

The Bald Iggle storyline features both the annual Sadie Hawkins race and the untrustworthy big-city visitors, as Inspector Blugstone and other blustering officials arrive in pursuit of the Iggle. The Iggle’s a national danger, see, because anyone who looks into its eyes has to tell the truth. As the government warns, “[It] makes it impossible to carry on any kinds of courtship, many businesses, and most political speeches.” The blameless creature even makes an old critic admit he’s down on young people because he’s jealous.

This satirical parable has a much more complicated plot than the newspaper strips of today, with the two simultaneous chases and interference from notorious criminal Hatpin Harriet and those citizens most dependent on lies and exaggerations – scammers, politicians, advertisers, columnists and fishermen – who have formed hunting parties of their own. Something else unlikely to fly in today’s papers is the brutal, but inevitable, ending. Al Capp’s satires preferred to end with bite rather than heart-warming chuckles and this one's no exception. Sadly, in his later years Capp went from authority’s enemy to one of those old critics he’d parodied, dragging the strip downhill with him, but at his best he helped to show that newspaper strips were capable of social relevance and genuine wit. Contrasting that with the strips of today is left as an exercise for the reader.
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#94 [Feb. 5th, 2008|09:40 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#94 GHOST WORLD – Daniel Clowes
(Fantagraphics)


"This is the Mona Lisa of the bad, fake diners!"

All too often teenagers in comics talk like either actors in pimple-cream commercials or beatniks from the days when Mr Burns was young. The fact that Daniel Clowes perfectly captures the voices of teenagers in Ghost World’s Enid and Becky would be praise-worthy on its own, but what really makes it special is what he says with those voices.

The two girls are stuck between high school and adulthood, preferring to fantasise about the secret lives of their dead-end town’s misfits and weirdoes rather than talking about what, if anything, they’re going to do with their own lives. While there’s genuine pathos in their inability to face the possibility they might sincerely want something out of life because of the thick armour of protective sarcasm they’ve had to build to survive high school, there’s more going on in Ghost World than just the angst over lost innocence the plain colour scheme of sad blue-green might suggest. There’s genuine and hilarious comedy to be found in the interplay of the two girls, whether it’s the way they torment local nice boy Josh (“Why do you spurn us?” they ask after mockingly offering themselves to him), or react excitedly to anything that suggests life is less boring than it seems, even if it’s just a pair of pants on the street that no one picks up (“Look! It’s the pants!”). Clowes lets us in on their in-jokes as he lets us in on their personalised slang, built out of shared obsessions rather than some phoney universal teen-speak.

When you’re young it’s easy to live in your own world with its own signifiers, but part of growing up is joining the larger world and adopting some of its ideas about what’s important. No matter how you try, you can only retain a part of what you used to have and who you used to be. However, the mythology of Enid and Becky’s personal world, where creepy people are definitely Satanists and possibly incestuous, corny diners are the best places to eat and Joey McCobb is God, is preserved forever like an insect in peculiar blue-green amber. Through the time machine of Ghost World, you can revisit your own youth as well as theirs.
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#95 [Jan. 29th, 2008|01:11 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#95 MAUS – Art Spiegelman
(Pantheon)


"It would take many books, my life, and no one wants anyway to hear such stories."

Art Spiegelman’s father Vladek survived Auschwitz and, though the first book is subtitled “My Father Bleeds History”, Maus is as much about the author’s relationship with his father as it is about the Nazis. Seeing the everyday distance between father and son illustrated by their disagreements over how the story should be told and Art’s insecurity about including details of his argumentative father’s epic stinginess and closed-mindedness, enriches and grounds the more dramatic episodes like fighting for Poland, hiding in secret rooms and, finally, the struggle to survive a concentration camp.

This humanising element is especially necessary because of the conceit of the book, which depicts the Jews as mice and the Germans as cats. Vermin and predators, it’s a perfect illustration of the way they perceived each other and of the foolish simplicity of dehumanising people. The metaphor is aware of its own ridiculousness – mice disguised in pig masks are hunted by cats holding dogs on leashes – and is one of the things Spiegelman agonises over in the second volume as he shows the media circus being attracted by the series after the success of his first volume.

Another way that metaphor that proves vital to Maus is by casting these events, over-familiar from books, movies and every second documentary on the history channel, in fresh light. These childlike depictions of atrocity and inhumanity are made shocking again because they’re rendered in a way we haven’t been desensitised to, combined with something we can’t help but associate with innocence. The cartoonish non-humanity of the characters ironically makes them easy to identify with, just like it was when we watched cartoons as children ourselves.
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#96 [Jan. 22nd, 2008|05:11 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#96 TRANSMETROPOLITAN – Warren Ellis, Darick Robertson
(Vertigo)


"You're miserable, edgy and tired. You're in the perfect mood for journalism."

Transmetropolitan is set in the future, but like a lot of the best science fiction it’s really talking about the present. Darick Robertson draws its futuristic, bustling American city made out of bright plastic and filthy metal, full of weird-looking people and advertising everywhere you look, just like the real ones of today. The people include a subculture who genetically alter themselves to look like aliens and the advertising comes in bombs that invade your dreams, but it’s still recognisably our world that’s being exaggerated in Transmetropolitan’s fairground mirror.

Part of this backdrop is a political race that slowly becomes the foreground of the story as Spider Jerusalem, a journalistic cross between Hunter S. Thompson and a William Gibson protagonist who is our tattooed and drug-fuelled guide, becomes caught up in it against his better judgement. Spider is a bitter cynic, but like most cynics he’s an optimist who’s been let down by the world too often. The battle between his disdain and hate on one side and his compassion and idealistic belief in truth on the other is as fascinating as the war of words, media skulduggery and bowel disruption between him and his opponent. That opponent is a politician so vile he manages to combine Nixon’s arrogance, Blair’s vapidity, Clinton’s rampant horniness and even quotes Bush with the slogan: “Because there ought to be limits to freedom.”

Several of Transmet’s everybastard characters are loosely analogous to real people, but fictionalised and sanded down to timeless archetypes. Using Spider as his megaphone, Warren Ellis harangues them and most of the rest of the world for their failings. If the world has ever disappointed you enough to want to piss on it from the rooftops like Spider does – or you’re considering a career in combat journalism yourself – this is your handbook.
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#97 [Jan. 16th, 2008|04:05 pm]
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#97 PALESTINE – Joe Sacco
(Fantagraphics/Random House)


"Someone wants to know what I'm here for..."

The Palestine/Israel conflict is often presented with weariness by Western journalists, a mopey sigh of, “Why can’t they all just get along?” After that comes a pithy observation about the likelihood of the survivors of this latest clash or bombing retaliating and inevitably repeating the circle of revenge. This is a useful handwave for us watching the news in our comfy homes; it’s a signal telling us not to bother trying to understand the conflict and its causes because it will never end. We’ll see it come around again next news-cycle.

That wasn’t good enough for Joe Sacco. A journalist who returned to his hobby of cartooning after growing bitter at his newspaper-work’s inability to make a difference, he spent two months in the Middle East talking to everyone he could and drawing everything he saw. In Palestine he invented a new comics journalism, a kind of documentary without video cameras.

Palestine is unflinching in its portrayal of the people and of Sacco himself. Unable to distance himself from a story in which he sees a clear right and wrong, he becomes part of it. Self-consciously drawing himself as an unflattering rubber-faced goon he stumbles around like a guilt-racked tourist of sadness, nevertheless unable to stop himself from perving on female Israeli Defence Force soldiers. He documents and sympathises, showing himself stage-whispering understatement into a Palestinian’s ear, “This occupation thing looks pretty harsh.” Though that’s all he thinks he can do, by sharing his story in an engaging and easy style that educates without ever stooping to teaching us lessons, he manages to do something that actually matters after all.
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#98 [Jan. 8th, 2008|04:04 pm]
jody_macgregor
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100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)



#98 FROM HELL – Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell
(Eddie Campbell Comics)


"I made it all up, and it all came true anyway."

Murder stories often begin after the good bit – the murder – and work their way towards solutions that are as neat as a game of Cluedo. From Hell, however, tells its version of the Jack the Ripper murders in a way that’s never as simple as “It was the Queen’s physician in Whitechapel with the blunt force of historical inevitability.” Taking the explanation of the killings from Stephen Knight’s books, it widens its focus and lets its belt out far enough to encompass the police investigation, the drab awfulness of the victims’ lives, the murderer’s descent into madness, his accomplice’s feelings of disgust and guilt, the newspapers’ complicity in sensationalising of the story and London society’s grim fascination with every sordid and trivial detail. Along the way it touches on the birth of the twentieth century, has cameos from historical characters like the Elephant Man and Oscar Wilde and works in a Masonic conspiracy. Each chapter was allowed to swell to whatever size it needed to be to cover all the ground and still it needs its two appendices.

The first thing to note about From Hell then is that it’s fucking huge and the second that it’s fucking dense. It averages seven to nine panels a page, filled with architectural detail and vertical lines almost as stiff as the repressed society they show. Bleakly black-and-white, it looks like it’s been pulled out of a chimney by a starving Cockney orphan. “’Ere you go, guvna. ’Ave some refreshingly stark ’istorical comics. Get that in ya.”

All that detail, both artistic and historical, is essential, as the movie adaptation proved by dropping it to its loss. In one appendix Moore scrupulously annotates his sources for every event in a conversational fashion, making his aim plain – not to prove the identity of Jack the Ripper but to prove that you can make an equally convincing case for a dozen different Rippers if you put in the effort. With over 100 years of history between us and Jack, any chance of finding a neat solution is lost to us. New attempts to make sense of the crimes are doomed to say more about us, every bit as obsessed with murder as the Victorians, than they do about the killer. That’s the subject of the second appendix, a brief and entertaining history of ‘Ripperology’ that shows Moore and Campbell being sucked into a field of study full of lunatics and charlatans.

Through covering every angle of the story you can think of, From Hell succeeds not only as an autopsy of the murders, but of our enduring fascination with them.
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#99 [Dec. 18th, 2007|02:02 pm]
jody_macgregor
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(This is a slightly longer version than the one that ran in today's issue. It's the writer's cut, ha.)

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



#99 THE NEW ADVENTURES OF HITLER – Grant Morrison, Steve Yeowell
(2000AD/Crisis)

Available on the Internet today.

"And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains green?"

The New Adventures Of Hitler postulates that in 1912 the young Adolf Hitler spent a holiday staying with his half-brother and sister-in-law in England while questing for the Holy Grail. Like most of Grant Morrison’s ideas it is just a little bit out there, but where sometimes his oddity dips towards self-indulgence, here he remains brief and to the point. He’s also graced with one of the best artists he’s ever worked with in Steve Yeowell, and the second printing benefited even further from added colours that veered between a psychedelic wallpapering of entire panels and washes of drab British brown.

At the time it was published Morrison was accused of being a Nazi propagandist by people who hadn’t read the series, which lampoons Hitler constantly and mercilessly. He’s depicted as a buffoon and a lunatic, hallucinating entire conversations over cups of tea and convinced that he’s being remorselessly pursued by a trolleybus full of people with chairs for shoes. He’s as mad as a fish. At the same time he’s portrayed as a limited kind of visionary, finding the seeds of National Socialism in the rich, dark soil of the British Empire while hearing Morrissey and John Lennon singing songs from the future in his wardrobe (Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now and Working Class Hero, respectively). Morrison knew the kind of controversy he was courting, even titling the first chapter ‘What Do You Mean, Ideologically Unsound?’

Like a lot of British comics from the 80s – V For Vendetta and seemingly half the stories running in 2000AD, for instance – the spectre of Thatcher looms over the book. There’s more to it than political ranting dressed in surreal clothes, however. Although it’s loosely inspired by Bridget Dowling’s probably false claim that Adolf Hitler visited her and her husband, Alois Hitler, in Liverpool and it’s told as fiction, The New Adventures Of Hitler nevertheless contains uncomfortable truths about prejudice and national pride, tyranny and government, madness and genius, and the distressingly blurry lines between them all.
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#100 [Dec. 11th, 2007|02:38 pm]
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This was published in today's issue. Somebody screwed up and it got printed twice on two different pages, which isn't the kind of mistake I'm too upset about. Twice as likely to be read, yeah?

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



#100 WHY I HATE SATURN – Kyle Baker
(Vertigo)


"You know, there's nothing like a festive atmosphere to depress the hell out of me."

Why I Hate Saturn is a self-consciously hip story about a self-consciously hip, and also perennially single, New York magazine columnist. If Sex and the City was always as insightful, clever and funny as it sometimes is, Why I Hate Saturn is what it would be. Anne – the aforementioned magazine columnist – smokes and drinks like her life depends on it and lives like a pig; a cosy life that threatens to become an episode of The Odd Couple when her sister Laura shows up to stay. Laura, you see, is a clean-freak vegetarian health nut who claims to come from the planet Saturn.

It is at this point that the story becomes strange.

Kyle Baker tells his tale with a cast of sketchy ink caricatures, drawn as big-mouthed as they talk (they are from New York after all). The dialogue and narration take place outside the frames, almost like subtitles, which takes a little getting used to – you can get so wrapped up in following the text it’s possible to neglect the excellent artwork. Even so, it’s easy to follow and there’s never any confusion as to who’s talking despite the lack of balloon tails, with a lot of the dialogue being the kind of snappy two-shot back and forth that flows easily.

Most importantly, Why I Hate Saturn is laugh-out-loud funny. For 1990 humour it’s aged well, avoiding the cloying air of affected cool that haunts the slacker movies of the period. It achieves that by directing its satire towards its own defiantly non-conformist characters as much as they send up everyone around them, by never condescending to its readers or giving in to the lazier varieties of cynicism.
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