This Week's Cartoons

David B., Shel Silverstein, Posy Simmonds, Jaime Hernandez, Bob Callahan, and Ho Che Anderson

Epileptic

By David B. (Pantheon, $25) From suffering, art. Yet someone else's suffering is a different matter. Graphic novelist Pierre-François Beauchard takes up the challenge presented by his older brother, Jean-Christophe, whose chronically deteriorating health prevents him from telling their family history himself. Writing under his comic-book nom de plume, David B., Beauchard relates how his family suffered under the weight of Jean-Christophe's malady during the '60s and '70s, how the disease gradually became a presence of its own—almost a person—with a shape and personality like some monster in the night. Young Pierre-François regularly meets with such monsters in the forest outside his home; Epileptic freely allows the boy's imagination to meld with the grown artist's pen. Long-beaked creatures and talking skeletons out of Mexico's Day of the Dead gather by moonlight with Aztec serpents, only their advice is no more consoling to Pierre-François than his parents' hippie homeopathic remedies are to Jean- Christophe. They try macrobiotic cults, New Age gurus, and Ouija-board séances with the same fervor that Pierre-François applies to his early drawings. ("Unbeknownst to me, this flood of absurdities takes root in my brain. Images are born.") Their loving yet increasingly irrational efforts for their older son make them pariahs, roaming from one charlatan to the next. The imaginary becomes their reality, and Beauchard's black-and-white line work is infused with such superstitions and the occult. Varying from one to nine panels per page, his memoir loops back from boyhood incomprehension and resentment of Jean-Cristophe's condition to an adult's understanding of the difficulties his parents faced. As he depicts his brother, epilepsy becomes a mountain endlessly climbed, a slumbering giant, an invading army of Mongol hordes. His art is an escape from the oppressiveness of disease and family, but it's also a symptom. Yet he worries, "I wonder if I didn't smother him with my endless outpouring of work." With adolescence and numbing medications, Jean-Cristophe becomes an almost alien presence within the family—sometimes violent and in need of institutionalization. The panels blacken and line strokes thicken at such times; during his seizures and outbursts, Jean-Cristophe's features grow and contort. He can no longer respond to or appreciate the delicacy of normal family relations or of his brother's art. Disease coarsens him, which both horrifies and inspires his brother: "He's drowning. He's my raft. I observe him. I study him. I cling to the idea of not being like him. But the bulwark is not always effective against solitude." Feelings of survivor's guilt and disgust aren't always easy to distinguish when it comes to serious illness, and Beauchard attempts no such clean, easy distinctions in Epileptic. No artist wants to feed off misfortune, especially in his own family, but even if Beauchard would reject such base inspiration, in this book he's created something genuinely moving and inspired. BRIAN MILLER Different Dances

By Shel Silverstein (HarperCollins, $29.95) The cover of this prettily republished 1979 book of cutely smutty existential cartoons depicts a figure frantically clawing the air with six hands and sprinting on 10 feet. That about describes the perversely polymorphous career of the hardest- working boho bum the counterculture ever cultivated. Best known as a best- selling author of puckishly, sketchily illustrated books for kids like Where the Sidewalk Ends, Shel Silverstein (1930–1999) also copped a Grammy and an Oscar nomination by scribbling plays and movies for the likes of David Mamet and punny ditties for the Top 40 ("A Boy Named Sue," "Cover of the Rolling Stone," and "The Unicorn Song"), and served as the rare Playboy cartoonist not forced to draw moronically repetitive titty toons with groaner-pun captions. In fact, Dances is mostly delightfully light on its fleet little feet. With a line as economical as a whip snap, Silverstein skewers targets in a deft, daft style that resembles Jules Feiffer and may have influenced B. Kliban (and, through him, Gary Larson). In fact, a cartoon included here about Jesus, centurions, and nail trouble is much like the one in Larson's unpublished notebook. Fans of his nervy PG kids' comics may raise an eyebrow at the Playboy-oid sexual brio of these brief sermons about swinging low, though they're prim by modern comix standards. They're gimmicky, like his pop lyrics, and Playboy Philosophy preachy: Moses can't carry the 20 Commandments, so he chips 'em in half, carries off the 10 we know, and omits the good ones: "Thou shalt not judge. Honor thy children. Thou shalt not lay guilt upon the head of thy neighbor." A blow job transforms the guy into a cloud led on a string by the smiling female. In "The Bank Robber," the robber works his way up to bank president before pulling off the heist. Bigotry is physically placed by a parent into a kid's head, and religious zealotry sucked out of the guru's skull by a straw. Several figures go through quickie life cycles with ironic results. Lovers do things symbolizing possessiveness (feeding a gal through a meat grinder; slicing off a man-of-her-dreams' appendages). Silverstein's kids' art is precocious; his grown-ups' art is jejune. He's smarter than the average playboy, but still sort of simplistic and crass. When he's good in this collection, he's as good as "A Boy Named Sue." When he's bad, he's as bad as the Irish Rovers crooning "The Unicorn Song." TIM APPELO Gemma Bovery

By Posy Simmonds (Pantheon, $19.95) Like Bridget Jones author Helen Fielding, who spun her story off Pride and Prejudice, Posy Simmonds borrowed from Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary when she created Gemma Bovery, which was published in England in 1999. Whereas Fielding's references are fairly subtle (you had to wonder how many caught them—especially when Bridget went to the big screen), Simmonds takes the opposite approach with her unhappily married, middle-class, malcontented heroine; she announces in the title that her story has classic roots. But most of the similarities between the two heroines are imagined—and maybe even created—in the head of Gemma's neighbor, the baker/bookworm Raymond Joubert. Here's where you understand why Simmonds, who began cartooning for the Guardian in the '70s to wide acclaim, works in this format. Her characters' imaginations run wild; Joubert thinks he's orchestrating the Bovery family's drama while Gemma is living in a dreamscape. Without the thought bubbles rising above their heads, their long, lazy days of woolgathering would become tiresome to read as straight prose. The well-read baker spots his neighbors' Flaubert-esque story line right off the bat, and he assumes the role of narrator. Gemma and her husband, Charlie, move from London to the French countryside; and as soon as he learns their names, Joubert sees the round, slightly chubby blonde as a tragic figure. He almost wants her to be unhappy (all the better to create a nice little fantasy about her), but with a husband that dull and a house that dilapidated, how could she not be? Told mostly through Joubert's readings of Gemma's diaries after her death (I'm not giving anything away, especially if you've read Flaubert), the story combines Gemma's narrative, Joubert's fanciful additions, and Simmonds' wonderfully plain, storybooklike drawings, diagrams, and figures. On one page, Gemma's French lover mutters to himself within a cartoon panel, Joubert draws his own gloomy conclusions and forecasts in the margins, and Simmonds adds cutely framed translations and stunningly concise facial expressions. Simmonds has previously illustrated children's tales, and her style does remind you of a storybook, but she also indulges in pretty landscapes and frilly interiors. The slim book works because the references to the French classic—along with the seriousness of Gemma's infidelity and the borderline-stalker presence of Joubert— are offset by the whimsy and purity of Simmonds' drawings and vice versa. Because it's told, in part, by dozens of tiny raised eyebrows and little French phrases that aren't always translated, it transcends the melodrama of a bored housewife who strays. Simmonds makes the bare bums of Bovery's adultery coy and clever despite following the outline of Bovary's tragedy. LAURA CASSIDY Locas: The Maggie and Hopey Stories

By Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics, $49.95) Even as a new generation of cartoonists gets tidily canonized, its work still feels wonderfully messy. Most recently, Seattle's Fantagraphics Books has cobbled together Jaime Hernandez's contributions to the comic book Love & Rockets, a 15-year collaboration with his brother Gilbert, creating a five-and-a-half-pound, 700-page omnibus, the single largest book the comics press has published to date. The stars of Locas (which means, roughly, "crazy girls") are the sassy, L.A.-dwelling Chicana punkettes Hopey Glass and Maggie Chascarillo. The book is sprawling and fractured, dense with flashbacks and fantasy sequences, parties and rock shows and make-out sessions. The result is less a novel than a patchwork of short stories held together by its two recurring characters. When she meets Maggie, Hopey is your garden-variety Bad Girl, addicted to scrawling graffiti and swearing at cops. Maggie wears a crucifix pendant and sports a full head of hair, a sharp contrast to Hopey's baby-dyke sprig. They both crave change, and each is the other's catalyst. While Maggie calms Hopey down, Hopey exposes Maggie to a faster life with fewer boundaries, sexual and otherwise. Hernandez's characters move seamlessly from pop-eyed cartoonishness to muted naturalism. Similarly, he juxtaposes big, intricate party scenes with tiny, stylized silhouettes. He's playful as a storyteller, too, frequently riffing on his own medium. In one 1984 strip, Hopey and Maggie critique his work: "I think we should have a talk with this guy who draws us in this comic," Hopey says. Hernandez indulges his heroines by taking them on a whirlwind tour of genres, from noir to Western to sci-fi, all jumbled together in a surreal story that features some of his most remarkable images. A full-page view of a shed full of robot parts is like a piece of latter-day Op Art; it wouldn't look out of place in a gallery. Plotwise, the book becomes overwhelming —so many secondary characters, alternate realities, and ex/sometime/maybe boyfriends/girlfriends to keep track of—but the sensory overload is fun, since you can jump in anywhere and pick up the thread. Ultimately, Locas reveals the full storytelling power of Love & Rockets, which created its own self-sustaining literary universe. A sort of satellite from that galaxy, this massive, thoroughly entertaining book practically has its own gravitational field. NEAL SCHINDLER The New Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Stories from Crumb to Clowes

Edited by Bob Callahan (Smithsonian, $39.95) Ever since Robert Crumb published the first issue of Zap Comix in 1967 (issue number: zero), the invisible marker between mainstream and underground comics has been color, or lack of it. After all, Zap made as much of a statement by being printed in black-and-white (apart from the cover) as for anything titillating or confessional in its contents. I mention this because this Smithsonian volume reprints nearly everything in black-and-white, with the exception of the final section, dubbed "A Contemporary Feast," which features strips by Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Jim Woodring, and Ben Katchor. Maybe the first five segments would have felt more feastlike if editor Bob Callahan had chosen to print the stuff that had originally appeared in color the way it was first issued—"Part Two: Silver Age of Superheroes," for instance, features four '60s stories (three from Marvel, one from DC), while "Part Four: Dark Fiction and Deep Fantasy" offers a trio of DC-published pieces (two from 1986, one from 1990). The black-and-white reprints of the stuff in Part Two are understandable enough—comic-book colorists tended not to do their work until the final stages of production in the '60s. But reproducing "Born Again"—from the Batman: The Dark Knight miniseries—in grayscale isn't just puzzling, it's stupid. There's a reason colorist Lynn Varley is co-credited with writer/penciler Frank Miller and inker Klaus Janson (misnamed "Jackson" here): Her use of airbrush, filling in of unpenciled/inked detail, and perilously wide palette reorganized how a generation of comics artists approached color. Undermining that work completely (and gratuitously) misses the point. Unless, of course, we're supposed to be appreciating this stuff as "art"—and made to understand that black-and-white automatically equals "art" as opposed to mere "comics." Too bad, because The New Smithsonian Book is otherwise a pretty decent primer of post-Crumb comics developments. Callahan gets points for not ignoring mainstream comics altogether—surely a temptation for this kind of enterprise—and beginning not with one of Crumb's earliest works but with the scathing malcontentry of "I Remember the Sixties," which sets the tone a lot more realistically. There's top-drawer work from Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, Justin Green, Spain, Clowes, David Mazzucchelli, Alan Moore, and Dave Gibbons, and both Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez. It's a terrific gift-wrapped package of the field. I just wish they'd let some of the best bows stay their original colors. MICHAELANGELO MATOS King

By Ho Che Anderson (Fantagraphics, $22.95) It's tough to pull off a biography in a visual medium. There's the problem of fairness to the subject—figuring out what to include and what to pass over, given the restrictions of a word-to-image ratio—and the problem of fairness to the audience: The substance of even fascinating lives isn't necessarily all that interesting to look at. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life involved a handful of unforgettable images, and the Toronto-based cartoonist Ho Che Anderson's unauthorized comics biography, originally serialized beginning in 1993, makes the most of the march on Washington, the Birmingham riots, and a few other famous scenes. Mostly, though, Anderson's not interested in straight representation; he's using the materials of history as a springboard for his remarkable, impressionistic artwork, and figures out ways to keep even the slow parts visually engaging. Anderson's King is accurate in its broad strokes—every few pages he uses a spackled old photocopy of a photograph as a panel, just to ground the narrative in history—and freely guessed at in its details. The look of his version of history is heavily stylized, too. His characters, even King, are drawn as jagged, ink-flecked, high- contrast abstractions, often half-scribbled, obscured by chiaroscuro, or run through a computer's "blur" filter. The first two-thirds of the book is black-and-white with occasional shocking bursts of color; the final third reverses that scheme. (Anderson also starts color-coding each character's speech balloons, which lets him draw people even more symbolically.) The subjectivity and fragmentation that make King so gorgeous don't serve its storytelling quite as well, though. The book is narrated by a series of "witnesses"—anonymous bystanders who fill in gaps with clumps of exposition. Anderson introduces most of his historical actors with documentary-style captions, then cuts abruptly in and out of their conversations, providing just enough information to puzzle out what's going on. Too often, it seems like he's trying to cram everything into the book's 236 pages, using allusions as shorthand for a lot of important incidents, rather than showing them outright. It's a technique that works well for fictional comics (see Jaime Hernandez's Locas, above), but for a biography, it's a little strange—as if Anderson expects us to first read a conventional King biography before we can understand his reinterpretation. DOUGLAS WOLK

 
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