Eugene Weekly : Winter Reading : 12.15.11

Winter Reading 2011

Winter Reading Book Reviews

Staff Picks

Oregonians Getting Graphic Graphic Novels by Oregonians, for Oregonians


Oregonians Getting Graphic

Graphic Novels by Oregonians, for Oregonians

What is it about Oregon that makes our state such an incubator for the creative imagination? Is it the natural beauty? The fresh food? The history of pioneering exploration and countercultural experimentation? 

Whatever that X factor may be, it isn’t limited to genre or form: Out in the wider world, our fair state has a reputation as a mecca for creators and fans of comic books and graphic novels. So it comes as no surprise that three of 2011’s noteworthy works of sequential art were crafted by Oregon residents. Taken together, these three books (all of which are more appropriate for teen and grownup audiences than they are for kids) demonstrate the breadth of talent and creative impulse inherent in the Beaver State.

The leader of the pack is the charming Dear Creature (Tor Books, $15.99), written and illustrated by Jonathan Case. It’s a surprisingly gripping effort for a graphic novelist early in his career. 

Case’s hero is Grue, a sea monster with the heart of Romeo and the appetite of Jeffrey Dahmer. Grue loves capturing and eating the young couples that hang out (and make out) on the beaches of a small town in midcentury Southern California. Inspired by Shakespearean verse he discovers floating in bottles in the ocean, Grue vows to curb his proclivities and devote his life to love, beauty and locating the person transcribing the words of the greatest writer in the English language.

At the heart of Dear Creature is the interplay of base desire and reasoned response. Grue’s entertaining quest to identify the sender of his Bardic bottles somehow makes time to comment on B-movies of the 1950s, Cold War hysteria, prejudice, immigration and the enduring powers of art and romance. 

Another graphic novel dealing in large part with a menace to a coastal shoreline is Oil and Water (Fantagraphics, $19.99). But this book couldn’t be less like Dear Creature, tonally or in execution. This nonfiction work is written by Oregonian columnist Steve Duin and illustrated by comic artist Shannon Wheeler of Too Much Coffee Man.

Oil and Water follows a group of real-life, concerned Oregonians (including a couple of Eugeneans) who visit the devastated Gulf Coast in the wake of last year’s Deepwater Horizon spill. Upon hitting the Southern-fried states, the small band of Northwesterners witnesses firsthand the consequences, ecological and economic, of the disaster. Encountering church ladies, wildlife rescue volunteers, shrimp boat captains and even a voodoo practitioner, the trip becomes personal as the protagonists encounter a culture shock that parallels the environmental shock they see in ruined marshes and oil-slicked coasts. 

Reading the book feels a bit like watching a juicy reality show, with all the romance, bickering, homesickness and other familiar aspects of group dynamics, culminating in a surprising eleventh hour decision by the unlikeliest of the group’s members. 

In the modern detective story Stumptown (Oni Press, $29.99), writer Greg Rucka and artist Matthew Southworth cast that great city to our north as a venue for criminal intrigue and gangland violence. The story follows Dex Parios, a wry, rough-and-tumble female private detective on a case that could forgive her substantial gambling debts, or run her afoul of a crime family, casino owners and the Portland Police Department. 

The Parios character demonstrates a believable degree of humanity that is refreshing in a comic book heroine, and by the end of the book the reader (this reader, at least) develops a real fondness for her strengths, failings and adventures. 

Rucka and Southworth do a great job of constructing a compelling, noir-ish Portland one suspects might be just under the surface or hidden away in shadow, and effectively mix real-life local landmarks (Mount Tabor Park) with fictional ones (the beachside community of Coast City). 

Oh, and Stumptown also features a cameo by a Voodoo Doughnut. Yes, really.