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Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cockeysville Library's Graphic Novels



Thursday, July 8, 2010

After hearing my friend (and unofficial "Mayor of Cockeysville" - not to mention self-styled "King of Men") Dave Cawley rave about the newly renovated Cockeysville Library's Graphic Novels selection, I stopped by this "Poster Child" branch of the Baltimore County Public Library system to see for myself. I wasn't disappointed.


Cockeysville Library

See, I work for BCPL's inner city rival system, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, where our graphic novel collection is merely OK. But Cockeysville's is, in a word, awesome. Yep, Cockeysville's collection blows ours away on virtually every level, from display sense to browsability to, most importantly, breadth and depth of collection. As they say in soccer about superstar players, it is "World Class."

It helps that every single book is in one easy-to-browse section, arranged by author on bookstore magazine-style shelves with the covers either face-out or spine-out for crowded areas. Now at Pratt, all the graphic novels are housed upstairs on the mezzanine area of the Humanities Department on the 3rd Floor. None of them are on a display shelve. Rather, they are hidden away in two separate "stacks" areas - one for oversize books (begging the question: how would a patron know to look there?), the other for "normal"-sized books. Furthermore, they are filed not by author name and title, but by the user-unfriendly academic-based Library of Congress classification call number system. In other words, you basically have to ask the librarian for help! This is one of the reasons my friend Dave has such a hard time finding graphic novels at the Pratt. Once you pick up on how our labyrinthine system works, all's fine and dandy, but it's that initial brick wall first-time browsers hit that makes one appreciate the old axiom: you don't get a second chance to make a first impression. And our first impression is: Huh? (a polite variation of WTF?)

Now, the Humanities Department has many fine and essential books dealing with literature, language and the popular arts, but I'm always surprised at how little we promote what is probably the most popular genre in the entire collection, especially since libraries are so keen these days to court the Youth Market and be cutting-edge hip. Did I mention that the insanely popular Otakon Convention is just around the corner at the end of the month? The mind boggles at how much material we could circulate if only it was readily visible for the estimated 25,000 locals and out-of-towners who will be "foot-trafficking" it through downtown Charm City at the end of July.

Anyway, I was excited to check out the new Pete Bagge book that Dave Cawley had just returned (he's a model library patron who always returns his materials on time!), but gathered up so many graphic novels that tickled my fancy that I didn't know what to do. See, I was all set to read the graphic novel my manga mate Chris Schatz loaned me, Osamu Tezuka's mammoth Swallow the Earth (1970), but now my attention deficit and OCD were kicking in with the over-stimulated, vertiginous buzz of too many choices.

Here's a partial sampling of the books that now constitute my Summer Reading List:

***

I love hard-boiled crime fiction and film noir in equal measure (some say they go together like sex and handcuffs), so the minute I saw the following two books, I had to grab 'em.


Tumor
by Joshua Fialkov and Noel Tuazon (illustrator)
(Archaia)

Tumor tells the story of Frank Armstrong, a washed-up private eye with a terminal brain tumor who starts uncovering clues to his wife's murder from 20 years before during a job to find a missing mob boss' daughter. Apparently the same writer and illustrator previously teamed up for the Harvey Award-nominated graphic novel Elk's Run, which is currrently being developed into a film. (Speaking of films, this graphic novel remided me a lot of Christopher Nolan's Memento, especially with it's now-and-then flashbacks/flasforwards as Armstrong fades in and out of consciousness between the past and the present.)

But I got hooked when I read the intro by Duane Swierczynski, which touched on one of my favorite cliches of "hard-boiled" detective fiction: the time-honored "sharp blow to the head that makes everything go bye-bye." It's a staple of the American School, from Carroll John Daly and Raymond Chandler right up to contempos like George Pelecanos, and Swierczynski calls the genre out on it: "...such blows to the head are completely ridiculous. It's not easy to bounce back from a severe concussion." (Especially when they occur every other chapter!) Swierczynski points out that Tumor turns this time-honored convention on its head, giving it a brand new bump on the noggin: "Like Phillip Marlowe and Three Gun Terry before him, P.I. Frank Armstrong is reeling from a blow...however, Frank's blow is much more realistic...and for that reason, utterly horrifying."

Yup, he's invented Cancer Noir. Ain't that a kick in the head!



There are a number of "extras" including at the end of the story (storyboards, interviews, a Frank Armstrong short story), but my favorite is Fialkov's essay about Tumor's setting, Los Angeles; this essay proves that, like Chandler and Ellroy before him, he understands that his main character is the city itself.

But the most interesting thing about this book, I later discovered, was that it bucked industry tradition by becoming one of the first graphic novels to be released digitally on Amazon's Kindle before any ink was put to paper! Yup, it completely reversed ye olde print-to-digital model.


Richard Stark's Hunter
by Richard Stark and Darwyn Cooke (illustrator)
(IDW Publishing)

Cinematically, Donald Westlake had me hooked by Parker with Lee Marvin in Point Blank and with Mel Gibson in Payback - though the author specifically stipulated that the name "Parker" could not be used in these screen adaptations. Now he's got me graphic novely hooked, thanks to Darwyn Cooke's metallic blue-steel cool pictures.

Here's what the folks at Publisher's Weekly had to say: "Cooke has transformed the first volume of the late Donald Westlake's long-running Parker series (written under the pseudonym Richard Stark), about an indomitable outlaw, into a smashing graphic novel, making its ferocious mood and retro aesthetics the stars of the show. Parker belongs to the bottom of the urban jungle's economic strata, but the top of its food chain—anyone who stands between him and his revenge is doomed, whether they're trying to resist him or just happen to be in the way."

All I know is, Parker is one serious bad-ass with authority issues. An obvious candidate for a Lithium prescription in today's world.

***


Abandoned Cars
stories by Tim Lane
(Fantagraphics Books)

The back cover described Tim's Lane's debut collection of graphic short stories as "noir-ish narratives" of desperate and haunted characters that exist on the margins of society - denizens of what Lane himself calls "The Great American Mythological Drama" and what people like me call People Like Me. That had me hooked, but then I opened the pages and his line-heavy black-and-white images made me think of Charles Burns - and that sold me outright.


All and Sundry: Uncollected Work 2004-2009
by Paul Hornschemeier
(Fantagraphics Books)

I read Hornschemeirer's interesting The Three Paradoxes and I'm sure I've seen his work turn up in the pages of the New Yorker as well as The Wall Street Journal, so I was pre-sold on his work, which is very clean and stream-lined and kind of reminds me of Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine's styles. But what really got me was his "Literature Through the Ages" (shown below), which capsulizes the (de)evolution of communication from primordial cavemen grunts to their modern equivalent, cell phone *texting.* Brilliant!


Literature Through the Ages

Hornschemeier - who also has an excellent blog (newsandheadlice.com) - has done a lot of one-offs and freelance work, like album designs for Luaka Bop and Melanie Pain, movie posters, and experimental strips like the wordless "Huge Suit Among the People" that he produced for a German magazine. But I like his gag stuff best.


Hornschemeier's "Gotta Pay the Bills" strip

***


The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics
selected and edited by Art Spiegelman & Francoise Mouly
(Abrams Comicarts)

Beautiful and unweildly (I'll need two hands to hold it up when reading in bed!) and chock-full of the Golden Age of innocent kids comix: Little Lulu, Little Archie, Egghead Doodle, Nutsy Squirrel, Uncle Wiggily, Melvin Monster, the Tweedle Twins, Powerhouse Pepper, Gerald McBoing-Boing, Burp the Twerp, and J. Rufus Lion! But I must admit, I picked it up for the politically incorrect (squinty-eyed Tibetan ducks!) Uncle Scrooge strip "Tralala" (drawn by the reliable Disney vet Carl Barks) that had the senior McDuck visiting the Himalayas and speaking fluent Cathay, which he picked up when he was a Yak buyer in Tibet!

I really like the old school artistry on display in this collection, edited by Art Speigelman and his missus Francoise Mouly, by such Old Masters as John Stanley (Little Lulu, Nancy and Sluggo, Melvin Monster), the stylish Andre LeBlanc (who worked - uncredited - on The Phantom and Apartment 3-G, as well as his own strip Intellectual Amos), Sheldon Mayer (Scribby, Sugar and Spike), Jack Cole (best known for Plastic Man but here represented by his kiddie strip Betsy and Me), children's illustrator P. D. Eastman (who collaborated with Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel on the comic Gerald McBoing Boing), Basil Wolverton (Powerhouse Pepper), E.C. Comics/MAD magazine legend Harvey Kurtzman (represented here by his strips Hey Look! and Egghead Doodle), and future MAD magazine regular Dave Berg (The Tweedle Twins). And I was amazed at how well and realistically Walt Kelly - best known for Pogo - drew for publications like Fairy Tale Parade comics, especially in stories like "Prince Robin and the Dwarfs."

But my favorite may well be Will Eisner Hall of Fame inductees C. C. Beck and Pete Constanza, whose Captain Marvel adventure "Captain Marvel in the Land of Surrealism!" not only looks great, but also manages to knock the stuffing out of post-modern art ("No! No! Take it away, please!" Captain Marvel cries when confronted by artist Leonardo Vince's Cubist abstract painting, shown below).



***

Oh, almost forgot the whole reason I went to Cockeysville - Peter Bagge's new book!


Other Lives
by Peter Bagge
(Vertigo)

I like Peter Bagge. His comic style may be one-dimensional, but so was The Ramones' music, and I love that. Moreover, I really relate to his post-slacker culture insights, just as I do with that other astute/acute "American Observer," Daniel Clowes. And God knows they're both easier to read that all the experimental graphic novel artists out there like Chris Ware, who though immensely clever and talented and all that, still give me a headache toiling through their multi-leveled work. (I grew up on the Charles Schulz four panel gag strip; there's only so much deviation my Peanuts-sized noggin can handle!)

This one's about bitter writers (agagin, I can relate!) and Internet losers - specifically role-playing Avatar-icon geeks. That part was amusing, but I just finished this one last night and it was a major disappointment. The overly serious ending is unfamiliar turf for Bagge - even coming on the heels of his collected strips from the Libertarian mag Reason, Everyone is Stupid Except for Me (2009). After many graphic novel hits, I gotta say this one represents a serious misfire for Bagge.

***

OK, it's too hot to continue typing; the sweat is dripping off my brow and I feel like an extra in Akira Kurosawa's sweltering summertime classic Stray Dog (1949), which I just re-watched last night. Time to turn on the AC and get my read-on!