Embers Among the Coals
2008’s fieriest graphic novels
By Aaron Ragan-Fore
Our nation’s economic downturn may well splash cold water on some of the smaller publishers of sequential visual narrative. But before the blaze goes out, let’s gather ’round the hearth of the comics industry and bask in the toasty glow of the wealth of choice in this year’s red-hot graphic novels.
Even as beloved series Y: The Last Man shutters its doors and Fables settles into a deserved middle age, with The Vinyl Underground Volume 1: Watching the Detectives (Vertigo, $9.99), DC’s “mature readers” imprint proves it’s still relevant. A quartet of twentysomething, C-list British celebs leads a secret life as an occult detective agency, their sleazy nightclubbing and tabloid exploits a cover for the defense of London from supernatural forces. Combine one part 90210 and two parts Buffy, add a splash of Scooby-Doo, and stir.
Speaking of the occult, they say that playing a single song at a crossroads at midnight will make you a guitar genius … and all it costs is your soul. Fans of manga and blues alike will respond to Me and the Devil Blues: The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson (Del Rey, $19.95), Akira Hiraomoto’s magic realism account of the early years of the titular bluesman.
I didn’t expect too much of a graphic novel based on a videogame, honestly. But then, isn’t it that sort of attitude that maligns comics in the first place? At any rate, Prince of Persia (First Second, $16.95) turns out to be a dense, multi-layered medieval epic of the divergent paths of three siblings, involving memory, destiny and the repercussions of our actions through history.
The echoes of history also resound in Jason Lutes’ Berlin, Volume 2: City of Smoke (Drawn & Quarterly, $19.95). It’s taken eight years for Lutes’ follow up to Volume 1, but the realistic scene work and meticulous pencil work in this pre-WWII character-driven epic demonstrate why. The rise of the Nazis in 1920s Germany may sound like grim fare for a comic book, but Lutes’ focus on human lives, such as those of an art student and a jazz musician, make the historical tale not only palatable but engaging.
In marked contrast, Eddie Campbell’s whimsical, grownup Victorian romp, The Amazing, Remarkable Monsieur Leotard (First Second, $16.95), re-jiggers history a bit as an acrobat and his traveling freak show performers compete with rival circuses, stage a prison break for a dwarf and rescue passengers of the Titanic.
In What It Is (Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95), cartoonist Lynda Barry provides an earnest, dreamlike meditation on her own girlhood, the artist’s process of creation and the attendant failures of each. The narrative is maintained through a series of visually stunning, symbolic collages composed of grade school assignments, postage stamps and picture book illustrations. If the project sounds disjointed, it is. Just like childhood. Just like art.
The trailer for the film version of the 1980s superhero reinvention Watchmen is already driving sales of its source graphic novel, and fans clamoring for more self-referential superheroes can look to The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite (Dark Horse, $17.95), written by Gerard Way, lead vocalist of the band My Chemical Romance. Way’s sly interpretation of the action genre features a septet of superpowered siblings reuniting at the death of their space alien foster father, but the real focus of the book runs deeper, incorporating elements of family dynamics, adoption and parenting, and an elastic storyline in which time travel, for example, serves as a metaphor for alienation. Plus, a talking chimp wears a levitator belt.
Superhero pastiche is nothing new, of course. This year saw the publication of Herbie Archives, Volume 1 (Dark Horse, $49.95), reprints of a weird 1950s parody comic long of interest to comics scholars, in which rotund, unflappable teen Herbie Popnecker defeats enemies such as Mao and Castro with the aid of lollipop-fueled superpowers. (I told you it was weird.) The historical references will be lost on 21st century kids, and some of the racial stereotypes make it inappropriate for them, anyway. But discerning grownup fans seeking a little holiday levity could do worse.