Wimmen's Comix, Feiffer's Cousin Joseph, Ancient China, "Threadbare," & More | Graphic Novels Reviews, May 15, 2016

An essential Comix collection to engage both amateur and professional culture critics; a fresh serving of classic noir from Feiffer; a compelling, nuanced treatment of Alan Turing; Zapico's enjoyable, valuable introduction to James Joyce

Eisner’s Eyes Will Eisner Week is celebrated annually in March, but readers can honor the cartoonist’s influence year-round. William Erwin Eisner (1917–2005) was a Bronx kid who loved to draw. In 1936, he set up his own studio to peddle all-new material to comic book publishers who had been mostly reprinting newspaper strips. As comic books took off, newspapers expanded their coverage and Eisner landed a plum contract that led to his innovative and long-running superhero adventure series The Spirit. He pioneered instructional comics for the U.S. Army, adapted classical plots for all ages, announced his 1978 publication A Contract with God as a graphic novel (a term rarely used at the time) to emphasize its gravity, distilled his skills into cartooning manuals still used, and inspired hundreds of noted creators from Jack Kirby and Jules Feiffer (both worked for him) to Neil Gaiman and Scott McCloud. ­

Eisner advocated for serious consideration of graphic narrative as early as 1941, and in his final work, The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (LJ 5/15/05), debunked an infamous “weapon of mass deception.”

The most recent entrée into Eisner’s legacy is Paul Levitz’s elegant Will Eisner: Champion of the Graphic Novel, an asset to any public or academic library for entertainment as well as research and collection development. Rich with insight and boasting a bibliography and index, the book also displays a striking collection of Eisner’s art.

Now in its 28th year, the annual Will Eisner Awards for comics reward outstanding achievement in numerous categories. Among the prizes’ judges, one is generally from the library world. This year, evaluators include Jason Poole (Webster P.L., NY) and Carol Tilley (LIS, Univ. of Illinois). In June, the American Library Association will announce winners of the third annual Will Eisner Graphic Novel Grants to Libraries, bestowing stipends of $4,000 for comics-related expenses plus a collection of Eisner work and the year’s Eisner Award nominees. Consider applying for 2017 grants!—MC

The Complete Wimmen’s Comix. 2 vols. Fantagraphics. Mar. 2016. 728p. ed. by Trina Robbins & others. ISBN 9781606998984. $100. women’s studies

completewimmens.jpg51616Not the first comic created by women cartoonists, San Francisco’s Wimmen’s Comix, written by the Wimmen’s Comix Collective, followed a single issue of It Ain’t Me Babe (also featured here) and the puckish Tits & Clits Comix from Los Angeles. Noted graphic gals contributing to Wimmen’s 1972–92 run included Robbins (Pretty in Ink; Chicagoland Detective Agency), Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, Julie Doucet, Joyce Farmer, Melinda Gebbie, Phoebe ­Gloeckner, ­Roberta Gregory, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Diane Noomin, Sharon Rudahl, and Carol Tyler. There’s something of everything for anybody, and the black-and-white art runs from sketchy, newbie work to expert draftswimmenship. As reaction against male-drawn misogynist underground comix, the stories capture the cultural struggles of the period, when “women’s liberation” grew from niche activism into the mainstream, yet the universal themes remain relevant. Plots touch on female/male role reversals, double binds, harassment, straight and gay sex and love, exploitation and revenge, unplanned pregnancy, menstruation, abortion, and women heroes both real and fictional. VERDICT As frontline reporting on the gender issues closing out the 20th century, this essential collection will interest and engage both amateur and professional culture critics. The adult content includes plenty of ­explicit sex and language.—MC

Falk, Lee (text) & Phil Davis (illus.). Mandrake the Magician: The Hidden Kingdom of Murderers (Sundays 1935–37). Titan Comics. Mar. 2016. 160p. ISBN 9780857685728. $39.99. F

With his magic powers, tuxedo costume, and crime-fighting mission, there’s a strong argument that the debonair Mandrake, introduced in daily newspaper strips in June 1934, was comics’ first superhero. Created by Falk (The Phantom), with artist Davis, Mandrake starred in a 1939 movie serial and a 1980s cartoon (Defenders of the Earth) and inspired a host of imitators, including DC’s Sargon the Sorcerer and Zatara. In this oversized, full-color hardcover (originally announced for 2012), Titan collects the earliest Sunday strips. Mandrake travels widely here, righting wrongs and smoothing the course of many a true love, accompanied by his superstrong African sidekick Lothar (who speaks broken English and wears a fez and a lion skin). The magician’s ostensibly hypnotism-based abilities stretch to encompass levitation, teleportation, and other skills as circumstances require. The stories and artwork are similar to, though not as polished as, those in Mandrake’s contemporary Flash Gordon, featuring exotic locales, damsels in distress, even unknown races and sf. Reproduction and color restoration of the strips are variable in style but solid. ­VERDICT A ­second-tier choice for fans of ­classic adventure strips.—SR

Feiffer, Jules. Cousin Joseph. Liveright: Norton. Jul. 2016. 136p. ISBN 9781631490651. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781631490668. f

Strike-breaking, corrupt cops, anti-­Semitism, and sexual precocity all figure in ­Feiffer’s juicy prequel to 2014’s Kill My Mother. Good cop Sam Hannigan is happy to rough up suspected “Reds.” But when he sees he’s been manipulated against his ideals, Hannigan switches sides and confronts his nastier partner on the force, the entire police hierarchy, and the mysterious Cousin ­Joseph. Amid minimal backgrounds, the characters predominate, including greedy industrialist Hardy Knox, his difficult daughter Valerie, barkeep Addie—whom Sam underestimates, to his peril—and resourceful kid Archie Goldman. All come across as relatable and realistic while still unpredictably goofy as the plot lurches in unexpected directions. Feiffer keeps his loose-limbed, elastic style honed through his Village Voice work, fight scenes choreographed in the form of his famous dancer figure, and all with pale color enhancements. The message here—how people with the best intentions can go astray—and Feiffer’s writing remain excellent. ­VERDICT This fresh serving of classic noir with a social justice flavor is larded with Feiffer’s trademark wit and neurosis, which will captivate his many fans. The forthcoming Archie Goldman and the Decline of the West concludes the trilogy.—MC

Guggenheim, Marc (text) & Justin Greenwood with Ryan Hill (illus.). Stringers. Oni. Apr. 2016. 160p. ISBN 9781620102916. pap. $19.99. F

While the stars of action plots are often lawmen or spies, this time a couple of loose-cog Los Angeles–based videographers come into focus. The sensible Paul plus wild card Nick make an unlikely freelance team who churn out network-worthy city crisis footage despite interpersonal squabbling and edge-bending driving, earning grudging respect from hard-ass news boss Michelle. But when the team blunders into a covert deal between drug dealers and cops—or are they?—both sides want the duo’s evidence and their hides. Writer/producer ­Guggenheim (Arrow) crafts the dialog with up-yours snark, more than matched by Greenwood’s (The Fuse) well-designed, kinetic grittiness. Greenwood pulls major drama from the high-octane car chases, and his facial work dramatizes the dark humor of the characters. Hill’s color choices—tans through reds, adding blues for certain settings—keep the action striking and clear. For a change, the novel’s sound effects are run-on descriptive phrases such as “BallsOutChaseAt90MPH” rather than onomatopoetic standbys such as ­“VRROOOM.” VERDICT The stringers’ irreverent exploits will delight both fans of TV police dramas such as The Shield and other readers fond of dirty-edged urban crime with lots of mayhem.—MC

Jing Liu. Foundations of Chinese Civilization: The Yellow Emperor to the Han Dynasty (2697 BCE–220 CE). Stone Bridge. (Understanding China Through Comics, Vol. 1). May 2016. 168p. maps. ISBN 9781611720273. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781611729184. HIST

In 1907, an American missionary in China named Arthur Smith lamented that “Chinese history is remote, it is monotonous, obscure and worse than all there is far too much of it.” Fortunately, today the graphic nonfiction format provides an accessible way to introduce and explain unfamiliar material, a goal ably met here by Liu (managing director, Moli Design). First self-published in 2011, then revised and expanded in 2014, this retitled mass-market edition is the first volume of Liu’s four-book series. Augmenting simple and effective black-and-white cartoons with maps and charts, the work provides an overview of the rise and fall of China’s early dynasties from the perspectives of both the rulers and the ruled, including the origins of the Great Wall and the Silk Road trading route. Along with his accounts of political, military, and economic conflicts, Liu concisely explains various schools of Chinese philosophical thought and incorporates occasional personal narratives, including the lives of Confucius and of Cai Lun, the inventor of paper. VERDICT This direct, appealing introduction to the foundations of one of the world’s oldest civilizations is recommended for teens and adults.—SR

Moore, Anne Elizabeth (text) & the Ladydrawers (illus.). Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking. Microcosm. (Comix Journalism). May 2016. 160p. ISBN 9781621067399. pap. $13.95; ebk. ISBN 9781621063544. SOC SCI

threadbare.jpg51216As Moore (Unmarketable) relates, the variety and quantity of cheap clothing offered to consumers in developed countries comes at a price. Relying on factories in poorer nations allows distributors such as H&M to sell items at lower costs. These workhouses employ largely women, providing them with needed income yet at meager wages and in miserable, nonunionized environments—true also for some U.S. fashion industry jobs. Here 22 graphic vignettes delve into exploitative conditions in the United States, Austria, and Cambodia, and then summarize impacts spanning countries. Narratives relate to fashion models, factory workers, salespeople, international trade agreements, foreign-trade zones, antisex trafficking efforts, and the vicious-cycle interplay between working in the garment business vs. the sex industry. The six artists from ­Ladydrawers (a webcomics collaboration on truthout.org) intersperse content from interviews with background information in a variety of styles, all enhanced by single-tone highlights in the rose-orange spectrum. While little content addresses possible remedies, or equivalent problems with male employment, these pieces tellingly demonstrate what harmful effects may be associated with this type of overproduction and overconsumption. VERDICT Useful and engrossing for fashion watchers and women’s issues activists, teens, and adults.—MC

Ottaviani, Jim (text) & Leland Purvis (illus.). The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded. ComicArts: Abrams. Mar. 2016. 240p. notes. bibliog. ISBN 9781419718939. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781613129319. BIOG

The secret that earned Alan Turing (1912–54) an Order of the British Empire—that his cryptographic assistance shortened World War II by years—couldn’t be revealed during his lifetime. But the secret that brought his tragic disgrace—his homosexuality—he naïvely admitted to the British police, and it was publicized widely by the press. ­Ottaviani’s (Feynman) three-­dimensional ­portrait ­departs from the similarly titled film in painting Turing as a brilliantly eccentric yet social fellow, with friends and pastimes. His so-called “imitation game” turned on whether a man can be taken for a woman or vice versa—and whether a machine can be taken for a human. Voice-overs supply viewpoints from Turing himself and people who knew him, providing both technical and lay accounts of his accomplishments in mathematics, code breaking, and artificial intelligence. Purvis (Suspended in Language) excels with the numerous characters in a basic yet approachable style, depicting Turing’s youth in lighter watercolorlike tones and his adulthood with more intense hues. VERDICT Those drawn to Turing’s story through the movie as well as others curious about the history of computing will find this nuanced treatment ­compelling.—MC

Ryall, Chris (text) & Tony Akins & Ilias Kyriazis (illus.). Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency: The Interconnectedness of All Kings. IDW. Jan. 2016. 120p. ISBN 9781631405082. pap. $19.99. f

As the quirky “holistic detective” enshrined in popular Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) novels, Dirk Gently takes on multiple crises by pursuing random leads with the confidence that the “interconnectedness of all things” will bring about resolution. Now Dirk has relocated to San Diego, where his crises du jour include reincarnated Egyptians, serial killers, and (as with the first novel) a time traveler with an agenda. The result is great fun, largely because of the idiosyncratic personalities. Everyone has peculiar aspects beyond central casting, from Dirk and his married lesbian sidekicks to the Egyptians, the serial killers, the time traveler, and a homeless man with a golden cell phone. The art somewhat resembles Rob Guillory’s work for Chew but less grotesque, and Guillory contributed several of Gently’s single issue covers. Adams enthusiasts, however, may feel that the plot develops too straightforwardly and that this Dirk bears minor visual resemblance to the original character description. VERDICT Not all aficionados of the novels may find this Dirk caper up to their expectations, but others will enjoy Ryall’s goofy mix of alliances, diverse characters, time-and-space bending, and synergy of all parts at the end.—MC

Soule, Charles (text) & Alberto J. Alburquerque (illus.). Letter 44. Vol. 3: Dark Matter. Oni. Jan. 2016. 160p. ISBN 9781620102725. pap. $19.99; ebk. ISBN 9781620102770. SF

letter44.jpg51616When Stephen Blades became U.S. president, he discovered that his predecessor Francis Carroll had found out about an alien space probe in the asteroid belt and kept it secret. Employing global economic manipulation, Carroll financed the sending of manned spaceship the Clarke on a suicide mission to investigate. Blades told the world about the extraterrestrials and the Clarke—but the resulting chaos, exploited behind the scenes by a still-scheming Carroll, led to World War III. Meanwhile, the Clarke made first contact, but the aliens’ statements and motives proved cryptic. Here the crew of the now-disabled vessel discovers an asteroid on a collision course with Earth and tries desperately to send home a warning, but the aliens are preventing all outside communication. Meanwhile, war rages on Earth and the extent of Carroll’s plans becomes chillingly clear. Heavy drama, high stakes, mystery and intrigue abound—not least surrounding the baby Astra, conceived and secretly born in space aboard the Clarke, whose intelligence is developing much faster than normal. ­VERDICT A very strong entry in the current for-mature-readers sf trend. With nudity and sex.—SR

Zapico, Alfonso. James Joyce: Portrait of a Dubliner; A Graphic Biography. Arcade: Skyhorse. May 2016. 240p. bibliog. ISBN 9781628726558. pap. $22.99; ebk. ISBN 9781628726589. BIOG

Dubliner James Joyce (1882–1941) was notoriously difficult in multiple senses, and Spanish illustrator Zapico (Café Budapest) spares none of the novelist’s personal complexities or contradictions. Full of dodgy schemes as a youth and an impossible drunk and whoremaster as husband to the long-suffering if beloved Nora Barnacle, Joyce crafted some of the most admired if least actually read-to-the-end literary works in English. The expressive ink-wash drawings bring to life early 20th-century Dublin and Europe—indeed, the historical period elements, as well as warts-and-all renditions of Joyce, Irish nationalists, and assorted luminaries, come through visually with intellect-tickling charm. Note that while Zapico reports on the checkered reception of the author’s output, there’s not much about the writings themselves. Don’t expect help in understanding why and how Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are as difficult as novels—evoking praise, disgust, and censorship—as Joyce could be as an associate. ­VERDICT This biography is an enjoyable, valuable introduction to Joyce for students and literary-minded readers, high school and up. See also Mary M. Talbot’s Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, which looks at the Joyces’ ­relationship with their daughter, Lucia.—MC

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