Sunday, April 19, 2015

Review: Sing No Evil

I was going to write a review about Corto Maltese, because there are two new editions out – specifically, I was going to tell you how much better the large format, black-and-white edition is than the smaller, color edition — but then I realized I was starting a habit of reviewing comics that really don't need it. Instead, I want to talk about Sing No Evil, by JP Ahonen and KP Alare.

In a way, this book needs no review either, because it's so accomplished. But it's from Finland, and it's not about superheroes, so people may not have heard of it. Sing No Evil is about a progressive metal band. Aksel is their lead singer; he writes trailblazing music, but he also has crippling stage fright that makes him stutter.

The line-work is incredibly smooth and assured. Both the writer and the artist have been working in comics for years. The style is cartoony enough to show evocative facial expressions, but realistic enough to render a believable urban landscape. It all works together seamlessly. The characters can be desperate, neurotic or sexy, and it makes sense. The strong forms bounce the story along.

The story has fantasy elements in it, but it makes most sense to take in the plot as a slightly exaggerated version of what could happen to any band. Yes, there's a supernatural conflict, but it takes a long time to reveal itself. And, yes, the band's drummer is a bear. But he's really just the archetype of the phlegmatic, non-verbal drummer. Kervinen the bassist is the ultimate low-key, mellow bassist. Mostly, the story is about these characters – and Lily the artsy keyboardist, and poor Aksel, and new guy Aydin – trying to make music that will rock you. Aksel has notes in his head that he's trying to capture, and what musician hasn't had the feeling that such elusive notes might have mystical power?

The day-to-day scenes tend to have a slightly muted, amber quality. But when the music is playing, the panels skew, the colors turn to bright greens and reds, and the compositions become hugely dramatic. The artist makes you feel like you're in a club in front of a huge amp. It's a difficult thing to do (I remember Terry Moore's difficult attempts to work music into his comics), but Ahonen and Alare make it work beautifully.

If you want to understand how a comic can blow you away like a power chord turned to eleven, pick up this book.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review: Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell

A few things to know about Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell by Jacques Tardi:

  1. It's set in the early '70s, but it was published in French in 2011, and just published in English by Fantagraphics this month. 
  2. Although using panels from the inside to decorate the front cover, back cover and frontispiece is great graphic design, do your best not to read any of them, or else they may give too much away. 
  3. Tardi's style for drawing people may look cartoony, but they're grounded in reality, and this is a hard-boiled, messed-up noir story.

Jean-Patrick Manchette was France's Raymond Chandler. In '72 he wrote Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell. As a result, this adaptation contains effortless little (and sometimes regrettable) markers of the period that might be hard to recreate deliberately. Manchette's lean works are full of trenchant criticism of France's society, and his stories follow characters that most of his readers had forgotten about: the poor, the disenfranchised and the crazy.

Tardi, following Manchette's lead, takes the characters at face value. We follow along inside the mind of a practiced killer, or a neurotic and disaffected woman, without apology or self-consciousness. Once you get used to the drawing style, the characters are as blunt and stark as in any crime movie.

(That drawing style is Tardi's version of the French ligne claire ("clear line") style, which puts simply-drawn figures in detailed backgrounds, using realistic props. The line has a uniform weight, and there's generally no hatching or shading, just flat black areas. Hergé pioneered and perfected the style with Tintin.)

Sometimes, the narration's terseness left me confused: A couple of the scene transitions were hard for me to notice, since there's no inflection between one third-person narrator and another.

Without giving away anything about the plot, I'll just say that things really get nuts. Before long, the story picks up the momentum of a runaway train. You can read the whole story in one feverish night (like I did). The violence is sudden, brutal and cathartic.

At the end, you're left with characters who are compromised, with outsiders still on the outside, and with a really weird take on innocence.

Monday, January 19, 2015


I'd never heard of O Human Star until yesterday, and I notice that its first Kickstarter was already funded this past fall, so maybe this review will be old news to some of you. But to those who haven't discovered this interesting treat before now:

O Human Star by Blue Delliquanti is a long-form, ongoing story available once a week (five times a month, to be precise) at It's a science fiction story wrapped around a three-character family drama, grappling with compelling questions of identity.

The story starts with Alastair Sterling, the father of the robotics revolution, dying and then waking up years later in a synthetic body that mimics his own in every detail. Who preserved his memories and installed them in this body is a mystery that drives Al to find his old partner. Things take off from there.

The book is drawn in an economical style that is cartoony enough to portray the characters' emotions, but detailed enough to show off science-fiction gadgets when the story needs them. The character designs show clearly-defined individuals with rich emotional expressions. (Even the robots look charming: a short valet robot, Gimel, has a face consisting only of a rectangle with two small circles for eyes, but manages to show eagerness as well as dutiful attendance.) As the story jumps back and forth in time, the characters age realistically. They also are clearly of several different ethnicities and backgrounds, which Delliquanti evokes well, in about as few lines as necessary. I've seen much more detailed superhero cartoonists (e.g., the team of Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary) who couldn't draw a consistent southeast-Asian face from one panel to the next (e.g., the Wasp in The Ultimates -- is she Vietnamese? Korean? Anglo? depends on the panel!).

Sometimes, a simple drawing style without lots of detail is a crutch for a lazy artist. I was initially afraid of that here, but the lines on the page effectively show a rich, complex world and its varied inhabitants. Then they get out of the way of the character interactions. Delliquanti's hub site ( shows other comics with other, sometimes more detailed styles, like the war-journalism comic she's drawing, "War is Boring."

Delliquanti's writing is engaging and subtle, and, like in the best comics (most expertly, Jaime Hernandez's stories in Love and Rockets), much of it is conveyed without words. The characters' faces and stances show conflicted emotions and buried pain struggling to the surface. The few, brief dream sequences go by without heavy-handed explanation. In any science-fiction story, exposition is a necessary evil, but Delliquanti limns her world in a few deft strokes, in story as well as in art. (It helps that the main character wakes up abruptly in this world and needs to be introduced to it along with us.) The author carries us along confidently from the very beginning, always appearing sure of where she wants to go.

There are thorny questions of identity swirling through the book: Is it harder for a robot to pass as a girl or as a human being? If a woman's prosthetic robotic legs are convincing enough, are they her "real" legs? Is a man gay if he only ever falls in love with one other man? How many genders can there be, and then what if people come in "organic" and "synthetic" varieties? Delliquanti explores the issues by presenting us with characters and situations we can empathize with, never becoming didactic.

The book is told in two very simple color schemes: blue tones over black lines for present-day sequences, and red tones over black lines for flashbacks. This works well with the simple line art. A few key things in the story get a more complex color treatment, again with a light touch that almost subliminally suggests their fraught significance. I've seen a few isolated drawings in color on the Kickstarter page, which tell me a few other things (like that two of the main characters have red hair), but mostly it's not needed.

Cartoonists looking to find an audience could learn a few things from Delliquanti's presentation: For example, in her Patreon page, she talks about how we can enable her to create comics that we will enjoy. It's not about her getting something off her chest; it's about us, the audience. I always appreciate that. Also, her drawing and writing styles are consistent from the beginning of the book, showing that she did a lot of prep work that we don't see; she's not figuring things out as she goes. I know that I (and probably a lot of us creators) are impatient to get our stuff out there, and to find our audience, but it shows more respect for that audience when we put something out only when it's ready. I do wish that her online store were updated, making it easier to find and buy hard copies of the book now that the Kickstarter is over, but I expect that will come in time.

The website dumps you at the latest page, so if you're just starting to read it, skip to the bottom of the page and click the "<<" button to get to the very beginning. I could wish for a more convenient "Start Here" button. Despite that, there are other things that I like about the website -- basic things, like that the author bought a domain name that is devoted to the comic, which allows access to the author's main site but puts it in the background. Also, although there are navigation buttons at the bottom (first, back, next, latest), clicking anywhere on a page will advance you to the next page -- hard to give readers a bigger, more convenient button than that. As is common on webcomics, there is an extensive comment-and-reply section below each page. I like being able to interact with authors this way, and it's always interesting to see just how much discussion a single page can generate. As a creator, this is a real treat, since it took a lot more time and work to make that single page than it took to read it, so it can be nice to dwell on it with readers.

I'm constantly astounded by how many talented, disciplined, hard-working cartoonists are out there, and the great work that we can find if we look. Blue Delliquanti and O Human Star are one great example. I hope she posts a lot more of it.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Cartoonists killed in France

If you've been listening to the news, then you know that twelve people at the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo were killed today. They included five cartoonists, including the magazine's editor. At least eleven others were wounded.

The cartoonists were Charb (editor Stéphane Charbonnier), Cabu (Jean Cabut), Georges Wolinski, Tignous (Bernard Verlhac), and Honoré (Philippe Honoré).

Wolinski received the Grand Prix of Angoulême in 2005. There's a great article about him, and about cartooning in France, here. I didn't know about him. According to a quick Google search, his cartoons seem to be mostly just really racy.

The always-edgy magazine took pride in knocking over revered figures of all stripes, but its treatment of Islam is probably the most controversial. In 2012, the magazine courted outrage among Muslims by publishing cartoons of Muhammad, causing France to close embassies and schools in over 20 countries out of fear of reprisals (and causing the editor to be guarded by a police officer, who was also killed today). The cartoons were derisive, insulting and in at least one case obscene. And even if they hadn't been, just depicting the face of Muhammad is not done by observant Muslims.

But injunctions like that are to Charlie Hebdo like a red rag to a bull -- particularly where Islam is concerned. France (the white part, that is) has a long and problematic relationship with Islam and Muslims (see "The Battle of Algiers" and the entire 20th century).

The shooting has done little to stir sympathy for anyone offended by the cartoons. Both the French and American governments have condemned the shooting as an act of terrorism and as a doomed attempt to stifle free speech. Thousands of people have chanted or posted "Je suis Charlie!" ("I am Charlie!") in solidarity.

There's a big conversation we could have about the role of cartoonists in liberal democracies. Is a cartoonist meant to knock down anything that someone else puts on a pedestal, out of spite for pedestals? Or does there need to be more to it than that? If a cartoonist doesn't take a swing when she sees an opening, even or especially when it would cause an outcry, is she allowing herself to be censored?

Without excusing the slaughter in any way, I think that Charlie Hebdo (and before them, the Dutch magazine Jyllands-Posten) acted in a childish and oppositional way. Someone said "Don't draw Muhammad," and so they drew the most disgusting cartoons of Muhammad they could think of. Yeah, it's their right, but it's happening in a larger context of French people saying Muslims suck, and that French Muslims aren't altogether French. You don't have to hurl insults in someone's face to establish your freedom of expression. And publishing the cartoons didn't exactly advance the conversation between moderates and extremists -- in France or anywhere else.

But that's academic now. Now, things have gone tragic. Now, twelve people are dead -- including four cartoonists. The world is poorer without them.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Cartoon Crossroads Columbus "Launch Event" in 2015

Happy 2015! There's not a lot of information out there yet about Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC), but here's what I've been able to glean from CBR and their own Tumblr:

CXC will be a four-day festival of comic strips, comic books, editorial cartoons and animation -- pretty much everything you can describe with the word "cartoons."  The organizers are Tom Spurgeon, Jeff Smith, Lucy Caswell and Vijaya Iyer. Smith is the president and artistic director, and Spurgeon is the festival director. Spurgeon is moving to Columbus to help organize the event.

Although the festival starts in 2016, they're having a two-day "launch event" this fall, on October 2nd and 3rd. The first day will be hosted at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, and the second day will be at the Columbus Cultural Arts Center. The second day is a comics expo, with up to 35 exhibitors. Sounds pretty small to me! (Comics creators, I can only imagine that those 35 slots will go pretty fast.)

When Smith spoke about the festival at ICAF, he talked about how most comics conventions happen in a windowless room in a hotel, which the attendees and exhibitors never leave, and how it could be in pretty much any city in the world. He contrasted that with the Angoulême Comics Festival, where the city gets involved and kind of makes it a civic event. He said he'd like Columbus to have something like what Angoulême has. That's a high bar, but the four people behind this know how to get stuff done.

In the initial CXC press release, Smith says he wants to "bring a first-class comics festival to Columbus." There's certainly that the city has to offer, including the Billy, the film theater at the Wexner Center, the Cultural Arts Center, CCAD, and all the comics creators we know and love.