Thursday, September 18, 2008

Comics Smorgasbord

I've been reading more and more during the last few weeks. It's gotten to the point where I stay up late reading, and the first thing I want to do when I wake up the next morning is grab a book. I've even been late to a few appointments because of this, and I've been putting off writing, and I've been sitting indoors a lot more than normal. I think it springs from boredom and some dissatisfaction with my life, and a desire to escape. Sort of like a substance abuser, with books as the substance.

Yesterday I wanted to get out into the city, to visit some places I used to frequent, and do some people watching. Sort of an attempt to get me outside and away from books. So I jumped on the downtown train right after work, planning on getting off on Powell. Instead I got off at Civic Center, wandered over to the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, and checked out ten graphic novels.

In some ways, graphic novels are like a more potent "escapist" substance. They're easier to engage with than prose form writing, because of the pictures, and they're shorter than novels--jump into a new story a finish it in less than an hour. Instead of taking a day off from the vice, I was going on a bender.

The first comic I read was A MAN CALLED KEV, by Garth Ennis. I read it standing in the aisles, before I even got to the check out desks. Ennis's PREACHER series was one of the best of the VERTIGO line, I think. KEV has a lot of similar aspects to it, including extreme violence and crude humor, but it's missing a lot of what made PREACHER great. First of all, the topic is more mundane. PREACHER had all kinds of religious and metaphysical wierdness going on, with a Texas Tough Guy angle, and an old Western feel. KEV is just a black comedy, with lots of gore, about a retired S.A.S agent with incompetent enemies. PREACHER had its share of crude humor too, but it also had some poignancy to it, especially in its portrayal of the friendship between Custer and Cassidy. KEV is noticeably lacking in anything poignant, its just blood and sex jokes.

After finishing A MAN CALLED KEV, and shoving it back on the shelf, I went to the check out with the other ten books, and then got out on the street. It's kind of ironic that San Francisco's Civic Center, with so many of its grand structures (like the library and City Hall), is surrounded by some of the sleaziest streets in the downtown area. I left the library, with its natural light and clean-lined architecture, and its massive selection of books, and the first thing I saw on the street was a young pimp-wannabe trying to hit on some fat hooker while she threw her trash out into the street.

From there I went on up Market, and then took a right on Powell. Smack in the middle of one of San Francisco's tourist epicenter. While I walked up Powell I crossed in front of Rasputin music, which brought to mind COMETBUS 51, a stellar issue giving a history of some of the local Bay Area businesses, such as Rasputin. Apparently, the guy who started the business is a real wacko.

Up at Union Square I took a seat and cracked open DUNGEON, by Joann Sfar. I'd seen it around in a few places before, but never picked it up. On the back cover there's a blurb saying the series has been a "best seller in several countries." I wonder which countries those are. In any case, it was a pretty good read. The cover art made me think it might be oriented toward a young audience--it even seemed a bit sloppy to me at first, not nearly as sophisticated as the some of the stuff you see other artists produce, but as I worked my way through the comic I came to appreciate the Sfar's whimsical style, and the obvious care she puts into her backgrounds--but the comic had enough substance to keep me interested. Like PREACHER, DUNGEON hits a few poignant notes relating to friendship, and like PREACHER it often uses violence for humorous effect, but in most ways you couldn't find two more different comics. I also give the series credit for embracing so wholeheartedly a setting generally ignored by the market.

Once I'd turned the last page of DUNGEON, I put it back in my pack and started up Stockton, the market street for Chinatown. I stayed on that all the way through to Columbus, in the Little Italy section, and stopped in at Buster's for a cheese-steak sandwich. While I ate my sandwich, I read the first volume of A JEW IN COMMUNIST PRAGUE, by Vittorio Giardino.
The copy I'd picked up from the library was the most battered book on the shelf, and that combined with the look and tone of the comic made me assume it was an older work. Turns out Giardino published it in the 90s, not so old after all. AJICP is pretty classic in its feel. The art is meticulous and the story's delivery makes me think of a few European literary novels, like CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, but not as dark. I also found the story compelling: imagine that the government is set on making things hard for you, that you've been singled out for no real reason, and with no way to control it. One day, out of the blue, there's a knock at your door. Your father opens the door and police rush in, accost him, and ransack your house. All of your mother's attempts to find out what's going on are met with scornful indignance on the part of the authorities. Meanwhile, she's fired from her job and not allowed to pursue work. Two years later you find out that your father has been declared guilty, without trial, of counter-revolutionary activities, and sentenced to a ten years in prison. Meanwhile you're prohibited from continuing your studies, and forced to earn money for your family, at the age of 13. It all might sound like some cold-war propaganda story about communist countries in the 50s, but keep in mind that the exact same things are happening today, and that the American government is doing them. We've got prisoners in Guantanamo who have been detained for more than six years now, and still haven't had charges made against them. It's the same fucking thing.

I finished the first volume of A JEW IN COMMUNIST PRAGUE in Buster's, and then went to Washington Square to read the second. Giardino is masterful in his artistry, especially in his depiction of the protagonist growing older, though I did feel like he overdid it with the protagonist's mother. I also felt like the art might have been a little overdone--we don't need a full background for every shot--and it sort of feels like it outweighs the story in points. The second volume sort of reminded me of the movie Les Quatre Cents Coups.

The North Beach Branch of the SF Public Library system is just a few blocks down from Washington Square. I walked up to it and dropped off the comics I'd already read, and then I found a coffee shop and started reading THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, by Jason.
I've read a few other comics by Jason, like THE LEFT BANK GANG, and I really like his work. He's got a very simple art-style, drastically different from Giardino, but it works well for his subject matter: finding relationships in the city. THE LIVING AND THE DEAD takes that "finding-relationship" theme into the realm of zombie horror, but does it in a pretty light-hearted and humor based way. Jason is clever, but not in an overly showy way. His books are good stories, nice to read. I finished THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, and then read I KILLED ADOLF HITLER while riding public transit home.

When I finally got home, I started reading IT'S A GOOD LIFE, IF YOU DON'T WEAKEN, by Seth. If this was a true memoir, I'd call it one of the best memoirs I've ever read. Instead it's an account of Seth's life, including his quest for meaning and his battles with loneliness, bent around a fictional plot-line of him researching a failed cartoonist from the fifties. A lot of the story is delivered in monologues as Seth walks around his city, or in staged dialogues with his friend Chet. That sort of "neurotic/hyper-aware/depressed artist" stuff can be a pretty tedious, ego-driven form of solipsism, but Seth manages to defray such effects by imbuing his character with genuine appreciation for his friends and the other good things in his life. In the end, he brings the book to a profound and masterfully understated moment of resolution, in which we're given reason for an optimism tempered by our acknowledgment of life's difficulty. The art-style in the book, a distinct nod toward strip-art from the 50s, also works as an interesting second-layer of meaning by paralleling the art the author has found so heartening. Great book.

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