ACADEMY AWARD SEASON: TWO FROM PICTUREBOX
On the Friday night of New York Comic Con, a couple of weeks back, I was talking to Funnybook Babylon's Chris Eckert about Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon's "Daytripper," and how it was certainly one of the best comics of the year. He said, "Yeah, but now we're entering Academy Award season." I may be paraphrasing, since it was late and I don't remember his exact words, but he said something along those lines, and then talked about how these next couple of months were going to see a parade of art comics releases that could be poised to knock "Daytripper" off the Best-Of map.
He mentioned the new Chris Ware, the new Charles Burns, the Darwyn Cooke. The kinds of books that would get the critical acclaim – deservedly so, I'm sure – to bump the strong comics from the first half of 2010 off the radar of all of us who bother to rank things and argue about what ends up as the Best of the Best.
I mean, it's practically meaningless. A bunch of reviewers and critics making lists. But it's not quite meaningless. It's a way for each of us, individually, to say, "this is what mattered this year. This is what marks this moment in time, in comics. This is what was worth it all."
And Eckert was right. Not about "Daytripper" being bumped from anyone's memory, necessarily, but about the quality of books hitting the shelves in these final months of 2010. Or, if not the shelves – because my local shop doesn't tend to carry these books, most of the time – then at least my front porch, dropped off by the friendly-neighborhood UPS guy. He dropped off a nice box last week, and that's what I'm here to talk about.
Two books from PictureBox. The long-awaited follow up to "Ninja," Brian Chippendale's "If 'n Oof." And volume 3 of "Powr Mastrs," by C. F. Are these two of the best comics of 2010? Yes. So let's take a look.
POWR MASTERS VOLUME 3: C. F. RETURNS FOR MORE
I've written about "Powr Mastrs" at CBR before. I reviewed volume 2, back in December of 2008, and that book subsequently cracked my Top 10 list of that year. I described it as "bizarre Tolkeinesque fantasy scenarios mixed with oodles of absurdity and artistic primitivism." That's a fair description, but it leaves a lot out. It's what you'd see on the surface, if you were to crack open the book and read a sequence or two. But that description makes it sound like a PictureBox version of "Skullkickers," and that's not what it is at all. While recent-internet-hype-machine-darling "Skullkickers" takes the gaming archetypes and blends them into a grinning, winking, violent romp, C. F. builds worlds.
The allure of "Powr Mastrs," and I will say that I found Volume 3 a bit weaker that the previous two volumes, mostly because of the digressions from the already-digressive central plot, comes from its familiar strangeness. It has an iconic power, it evokes connections to basic story archetypes – the storyteller, the questing hero, the mystic, the prisoner, the group with the mysterious agenda – and yet its narrative is paced at a tempo that keeps it slightly out of sync with what we've been conditioned to expect as consumers of story.
It's not just a rejection of the comics-as-storyboard-for-the-inevitable-movie approach that has become, understandably, popular, but it's a rejection of the traditional interaction between characters in narrative space. The grammar of comics isn't upended – if anything, the panel-to-panel continuity is the easiest, most comfortable part of the reading experience of "Powr Mastrs" – but the action and interactions are often puzzling. And that shocking sense of uncertainty and even anxiety – what do these characters want, exactly, and why are they doing what they're doing – creates a distinct sense of wonder.
I don't mean that as a joke, in the sense that we wonder what the heck is going on, although that is partially true, but in the sense that the world of New China, mapped out by C. F. obliquely in the opening pages of the volume, is a bizarre and unfamiliar place, even though it feels familiar because of the archetypal characters and cleanly-designed pages. For me, it resonates because it recalls the very thing that drew me to comics as a young reader, that sense that within a given issue you can only see a corner of a much larger fictional world, and all of the character interactions are strange because the years (or decades) of history only hinted at.
C. F. replicates that experience by evoking more than he identifiably describes. It helps that he's established a large cast of diverse characters and they are all drawn distinctly, almost to the point where they look like they each inhabit a different fictional universe (and maybe they do, and their interaction is cross-genre blending that helps to give a sense of scope to what is a dream-like fantasy world of the future).
I won't try to summarize the plot of "Powr Mastrs" for those of you who haven't yet read it. The plot may matter by the time the series concludes (at volume 6? Or 10?), but it doesn't yet. As I've tried to advocate so often in my writing for CBR, it's not the what that matters, but the how. And the how of "Powr Mastrs" Volume 3 is strangeness and uncomfortable beauty. It's stories within stories, narrative derailments that recall thematic concerns, if not plot-driven ones. It's declarations of art: "If you want to leave your mark," says Ajax Lacewing, as he lightly punches another character, "why bother with devices? Just reach out and do it!" It's reflections on humanity: "I feel how difficult and painful it will be to change myself," says Subra Ptareo, as he immerses himself in a transformative black tarp, which draws upon his memories and hides him from the world outside.
It's all of that and, yes, it might be a bit less compelling than the previous volumes, but it's one that I will certainly reread again soon. Like the other books in the series, it has a haunting quality, not because there's anything horrific or frightening in its pages, not traditionally so, but because it hints and teases and then pulls away. It has an unsettling emptiness at its edges, and a powerful, iconic core.
IF 'N OOF: BRIAN CHIPPENDALE, NOW EASIER TO READ
It's been a few years since "Ninja," Brian Chippendale's oversized homage/celebration/expansion of his childhood fascination with stealthy little guys beating up enemies and completing densely-packed one-page missions. "Ninja" is extremely difficult to read – it's physically difficult to follow the panels, since he designed them in a non-traditional snake-like flow, instead of the left-to-right reading structure most of us grew up with, and it's more densely packed with linework and deliberate marks than even the most frantically-illustrated comics you've ever seen – but it's still a pleasurable experience compared to "Maggots," Chippendale's comic-over-Japanese-catalog from the 1990s that was published in facsimile form by PictureBox.
Both "Ninja" and "Maggots" have an obsessive-beyond-the-bounds-of-normal-obsessiveness quality to them, and while that makes "Ninja" a charming – if overwhelming – experience to engage with, it makes "Maggots" an art object and little more. There's a story in "Ninja," even if there's not an overall plot, and the page-long (and the pages are huge!) episodes expand Chippendale's world while adding a visceral edge to what was originally begun by the 11-year-old Chippendale as a violent, but innocent, comic of wall-to-wall action. I like the looks of "Ninja," and I enjoy dipping into it and trying to follow Chippendale's idiosyncratic narrative rhythm, but I can't really read "Ninja" in any traditional sense. "Maggots" is even worse in that regard, and I find it considerably less charming to even bother trying.
But "If 'n Oof" is a completely different experience. It not only opens up Chippendale's work to me in a way that hadn't been possible before, but it has caused me to reflect on my struggles with his previous work and consider how visual narrative works and why it fails or succeeds, and how much of that it up to the reader. I'll get back to that point in a minute, but first: "If 'n Oof" is a great, hugely entertaining comic.
It's massive. Not in width and height, like "Ninja," but in page count. At 800 pages, it's certainly the thickest of the "Academy Award season" comics, and its designed to create the opposite experience of Chippendale's previous comics. While his earlier work was unbelievably dense, with dozens of intricately drawn panels per page, "If 'n Oof" is elegant and simply constructed. One panel per page, basically, for 800 pages.
Chippendale has described it as a "manga" approach, by which he seems to mean that it is designed for narrative swiftness. It doesn't linger on tiny mark-making or panel-to-panel challenges for the reader. It whisks the reader along through a streamlined story with only a few central characters (compared to the cast of 50 or more in "Ninja") and a plot that shares some of dreamlike feel of C. F.'s "Powr Mastrs" but with more closure and completeness. It's a post-apocalyptic fantasy quest story, half Jack Kirby, half Disney/Pixar, but with an art scene edge. Yet, like "Powr Mastrs," it doesn't seem to be doing any of this ironically, saying, "Ha, look at how cool we are to make fun of these comics and stories that we liked as kids." It pulls its influences into itself and tries to tell a genuine story within that artistic shell.
And it succeeds, emphatically.
Like my discussion of "Powr Mastrs," I won't bother summarizing the plot of "If n' Oof," even though it would be a much simpler task in this case. I will say that it's basically a buddy story, with a few dream-like yet sci-fi twists and with an adventure in a strange landscape. I referenced Kirby, and, like the work of Gary Panter, it's Kirby's primal physicality filtered through a punk aesthetic. It's "Kamandi" with less attempt at making sense out of a futuristic world, but with no less of a sense of adventure into weirdness.
On its own, it's quite good, but what I find so fascinating about it is how it makes me reconsider Chippendale's earlier comics. No doubt he designed "If 'n Oof" to be a more readable experience, maybe to have more widespread appeal, or at least accessibility, but the use of panel composition and dialogue isn't so fundamentally different from what he produced in "Ninja." Sure, it's a bit more open, and maybe more sparse, but what made "Ninja" so challenging was its page layouts, not the individual panels. So what I'm left with is the idea that by isolating the panel, by blowing it up to fill a single page, I can focus my attention on it and allow myself entrance to the story, while when a panel is just one of dozens, on a page filled with distractions, I cannot follow the narrative effectively.
I don't think I'm alone in that. Graphic design is all about guiding the reader's eye and calling attention to certain visual aspects, and comic book artists have been manipulating readers to follow them in certain ways since the medium began, but Chippendale's isolation of single-panel images in "If 'n Oof" reframes them in a way that challenges my preconceptions about his work. He may, fundamentally, be a different writer in "If 'n Oof" than he was in "Ninja," but it's also that he provides such a different visual context. The how of the comic, in this case, becomes all about openness and speed of delivery, which turns the simple tale of a lost boy and his pal into something compelling and exciting. His previous work didn't have that emotional connection, at least for me, because I was too wrapped up in the dense imagery. It became a text to study, while "If 'n Oof" is a book to read.
I ended up reading it twice already, all 800 pages of it.
It's a fitting release during this austere Academy Awards season we find ourselves in, in all its sloppy, energetic, passionate intensity.
I like both of these PictureBox releases quite a bit, and I'm sure you'll see them mentioned on some of those end-of-the-year lists. Don't be surprised.
In addition to writing WHEN WORDS COLLIDE for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.
Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan