When Words Collide: Four Comics Walk Into Tim's Office...

Mon, November 18th, 2013 at 2:58pm PST

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
1

FOUR COMICS: NABOKOVIAN, CLAREMONTIAN, SERLINGESQUE AND SENDAKY.

As usual, I haven't read many comics recently, so I grabbed a stack from the floor of my office and pulled off the top four to see what the world of graphic narrative had to offer me. Turns out, I have opinions about all four of them! Let's see what I have to say about what I read in this newest installment of Tim Read Some Comics And Now You Have To Listen To His Deep and Meaningful Thoughts (If You Want To)!

"Picnic Ruined," by Roman Muradov (Retrofit Comics, 2013)

Box Brown sent me this one to read. Part of his Retrofit Comics line, which has been a consistently high-quality batch of comics since its Kickstartered inception, "Picnic Ruined" is minicomics size but with a glued binding and a glossy cover. A nice-looking package. I thought the cover depicted a weird red alien creature overlapping with a skirted human -- and I continued to think that until I read the book and realized there are no aliens involved. Just moments of not-quite epiphany.

The protagonist of the comic is named as one Mr. Broman, though I thought he was a female until his name is declared by a bookstore employee. Muradov's art style is light and airy, until the thick blackness intrudes on Mr. Broman's life as he fails to find enlightenment, but the whole thing feels dreamlike and indistinct. Broman himself feels the same way, apparently, as he drifts from a garish, pornographic (literally or metaphorically, or maybe both) bookstore performance to panic in the park to the strange messages that seem to emerge from the license plates on the city streets. It's the story of a quest to find meaning, and Muradov shouts the intention of the story in the opening scene when Mr. Broman recalls the autobiographical story of the writer/artist Fallotin who tried in vain to recapture a lost, perfect moment. Broman seems fixated on finding such a perfect moment of his own, and his epiphany at the end may not exactly be what he expected to find.

It's a lovely, poetic little book, but it's also not as brave as it needs to be. It's slight. Muradov's art unravels into abstraction near the climax of the story and then reforms, but the playfulness of the imagery evokes a lack of commitment on the part of the storyteller. Perhaps that's the point, but it's a frustrating one when the book comes so close to the Nabokovian wordplay and lyrical attention to the strangeness of the mundane that would make it a beautiful piece of narrative. Instead, it's a mostly-narrative on the verge of something spectacularly powerful. And I wish for more.

"Wolverine and the X-Men" #37, by Jason Aaron, Guiseppe Camuncoli, Andrew Currie, and Matt Milla (Marvel Comics, 2013)

This is one of the monthly superhero comics that I continue to buy, and it's also one of the superhero comics that I haven't read in about a year. I have no idea what's going on in the "Battle of the Atom" crossover, and this bills itself as Chapter 9 of 10. So it probably seems like a terrible place to jump in and see what's going on, but I like my superhero comics to have a level of insanity that I barely understand. That's what drew me into the genre when I first started reading them. So many characters, so much context hinted at, like the side of a hurling meteor, carved with strange symbols, whooshing by as you try to make sense out of it all and everything is about to explode.

This comic feels that way, definitely. I'm not going to count them all, but there feels like 100 characters in this one issue. Three or four versions of every X-Man. (I'm not really exaggerating much. There are several Beasts from various timelines, and a bunch of Ice Men too. One has a cloak and a staff, like frozen Gandalf. Another is a hulking ice construct who has become self-aware. None of them have do-rags.)

The plot is something about Evil Mutants from the future -- including a new Xorn who is Jean Grey, maybe -- trying to catapult the original X-Teens back into the past where they belong while Cyclops of today tells people what to do and they sort of listen and then everyone has a huge fight about all of it, leading to a double-page spread with the assembled 100 variants of the X-Men in gleefully serious combat. I love double-page spreads, and I hate that the advent of digital comics has made them mostly obsolete. I say take back the double-page spread, comic book creators. It is yours. Don't let the digital audience command your aesthetic. Their taste is fleeting.

So is this comic any good? Sure. It's what I wanted. It threw me right into the middle of something I didn't really understand but I could mostly follow what was sort of going on and I liked seeing all the character designs. I have come to the conclusion that I mostly like superhero comics because of the costume designs, and without costumes, superheroes are just boring television shows. This is not a boring television show. Not for even a second.

"Lloyd Llewellyn" #3, by Daniel Gillespie Clowes (Fantagraphics Books, 1986)

Hey, this comic is 27 years old! What is it doing in my pile of hip and relevant comics of today?

I picked it up in a dollar bin a couple of months back, that's what happened. And I've never read any of the Dan Clowes "Lloyd Llewellyn" issues -- which were printed magazine-size, like the original "Love & Rockets" and "Neat Stuff" if you didn't already know. I like Dan Clowes a lot. "Death Ray" and "Ice Haven" are two of the best comics of the 21st century and that's a fact that has been reported by multiple sources, including me. But, yeah, I've read most of Clowes -- all of "Eightball" (except issue #13, which I could never find) and everything since -- but I've never sampled a full issues of the comic that launched his career. I didn't even know Lloyd Llewellyn was a hard-boiled detective comic. I thought it was just about hipster weirdos.

Great news! It is about hipster weirdos from some sci-fi/horror version of the 1950s, and it's also a hard-boiled detective comic, only with Clowes telling the tale the narration read less like Sam Spade and more like Rod Serling.

Issue #3 is about murder and bad stand-up comedy and a man who dresses like a boy and teenage punks from Jupiter and Lloyd Llewelyn has to straighten it all out. I love the angularity of this early Clowes stuff, and if it's all stiff and mannered, and it is, then that's just fine because Lloyd Llewellyn is a stiff and mannered guy. I'll take my Clowes distant and stylized, thank you very much. It works. This is one of the best comics I have read this year. Bravo, 1986, you've done it again!

"Fata Morgana," by Jon Vermilyea (Koyama Press, 2013)

One thing I definitely have trouble appreciating are wordless comics. I like art books. I like looking at art. I like comics. But I like my comics to have words. I think of it this way: do I want my comics to have all words and no art? Nope. So I don't want the reverse either, because I am old and grumpy.

So if a comic dares to throw wordless art my way, for page after page, it had better be pretty amazing for me to even care about the project at all. Jon Vermilyea almost pulls it off. Okay, he does pull it off, against my grumpier judgment.

"Fata Morgana" is Jon Vermilyea's "Little Nemo in Slumberland" by way of "Where the Wild Things Are" with a taste of "The Neverending Story" resounding at the edges. And in the middle. It's a nightmare/dream journey of a boy and his toy robot pal and a series of tableaus that look like a Wacky Packages factory exploded in neon-land and the heroes must make it out alive. Sure, maybe this book doesn't have much of a narrative progression beyond one scene after another of the kid and his blocky robot navigating a bizarro crazyland, but Vermilyea overpowers the reader with his visuals and you (meaning "I") have no choice but to submit, and enjoy. His color choices are often ugly and blindingly discordant -- so much so that my wife, walking past me as I was reading, asked, "Are you supposed to wear 3D glasses for that book?" -- but it's distinctive and vibrant and exactly what I need to convince me that I should drop my prejudices about wordless comics and embrace them for what they are: immersive worlds.

And, get this: the book is nothing but double-page spreads. Take that, digital age! Jon Vermilyea and Annie Koyama have no patience for your nonsense.

In addition to writing reviews and columns 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.

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TAGS:  when worlds collide, wolverine and the x-men, fata morgana, picnic ruined, lloyd llewellyn

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