June 2007

Jeff VanderMeer


Execution Row: Or, Thank You for Your Semi-Autobiographical Account Of... ZZZZZZZZ

Most of what I've read recently has had some kind of autobiographical element, or, at least, something that seems like it should have been based on personal experience. And, to some extent, it hasn't been pleasant. I adore all kinds of comics and graphic novels. I love the fantastical stuff, sure, but I also love the realistic stuff. I love anything from westerns to slice-of-life to surrealism to superheroes to experimental work. I love it all when it's done well. But just because you were born and you experienced childhood and young adulthood does not mean you have a story to tell. If you can't master the fine art of dreaming well, of allowing the imagination to take at least 50 percent of the burden of creation... well, don't expect a uniformly good reaction...

When It Works

But let's talk about the best first, and follow a downward spiral... Red Eye, Black Eye by K. Thor Jensen recounts Jensen's journey across the United States via Greyhound Bus after losing his job. The drawing style is bold and functional, the perfect conduit for the storytelling that makes this book stand out. Jensen's travels are just the frame for recounting the tales told to him by the people putting him up in each city. Some of these stories are hilarious, some sad, some just strange. In a couple of cases, Jensen's adventures in a city become the story. But, for the most part, this is a graphic novel documentary of interviews wherein a series of eccentric and normal people give Jensen their best material. It's hard to pick a favorite from among the stories -- almost everything is a gem. In fact, I don't even care if Jensen made it all up. It's entertaining, fun, and sometimes wonderfully serious.

The genius here, of course, is that Jensen doesn't rely on his own wandering around the country for the main narrative. The focus is mostly on the people he meets, which grounds the autobiographical aspect in something more diverse and ultimately more interesting than just... Jensen.

When It Doesn't Work Quite as Well

Escape From "Special" by Miss Lasko-Gross (Fantagraphics Books), by contrast, follows the attempts of a girl named Melissa to fit in, or to at least understand her own alienation. The art is the best thing about this graphic novel. It's aggressive, with good use of shadow and light. It also has an illusion of depth lacking in a lot of comic art. Otherwise, however, we've seen it all before, in some form, whether in the movies or in novels or short stories. A girl who is eccentric and different, learning to cope by finding an artistic calling, all the while commenting on society and those around her. To be honest, as much as I enjoyed parts of Escape From "Special" while I was reading it, all I could think is, "Does Miss Lasko-Gross know how ridiculously self-absorbed and lacking in empathy Melissa is?" I don't think Lasko-Gross does, frankly, and it's hard to feel anything for such a brat. There's not much irony here, but based on the art, Lasko-Gross could easily create something better next time.

Also falling into the category of interesting but not quite successful: Garage Band by Italian artist Gipi. The watercolor artwork and the line work are amazing; Gipi understands light, and he evokes light perfectly in every panel. Anyone who appreciates the luminous quality this brings to art should buy Garage Band. The story itself is rather less compelling. It follows a typical bunch of teenagers who have formed a band and are trying to make it to the big time despite having to overcome a (possibly affected) Nazi obsession by one band member, and some illegal activities as well. There's a nice lived-in quality to the narrative -- it's very comfortable. But, once again, we've seen it all before. There's nothing original about Garage Band, and the characterizations, while vivid, aren't special enough to elevate this graphic novel out of the ordinary. Is it a case of too much imagination, not enough real experience, or the opposite? I wouldn't care to venture a guess, but the result is the same.

When It Doesn't Work At All

Blindspot by Kevin C. Pyle (Henry Holt) might well have hit my own blind spot. The ugly monotone pages, ranging from army-soldier green to pumpkin-shit brown, don't compel a reader to venture farther than a few pages. The crude dynamism of the illustration is largely snuffed out by those color choices. The story doesn't really make up for it, either. A singular lack of ambition slowly maps out a story of teenagers playing at soldier, having banal experiences in classrooms, and eventually freaking out in the woods. Again, there's nothing here we haven't seen in one of Stephen King's trunk stories or a third-rate coming-of-age indie movie. I doubt teenagers or adults will find much of interest in Blindspot. And here's a thought, honestly: if it's a cliche in some other medium, it's probably going to be a cliche in your graphic novel.

An opposite problem afflicts Peter Kuper's Stop Forgetting to Remember: The Autobiography of Walter Kurtz (Crown). It's too clever by far. The opening pages where "Walter Kurtz" addresses the reader are cheesy and pretentious. Kurtz's reminiscences about everything from sex to 9/11 are pretty standard fare (I'd even argue the stuff about 9/11 where Kurtz's daughter draws pictures on a window to make the towers disintegrating look prettier is beyond tacky, but let's hope for a moment that there's some irony at work in the image.) Every time I went back to Stop Forgetting to Remember, I found myself stalled after a few pages, having to steel myself to get to the end. Peter Kuper just doesn't have anything interesting to say. Still, I really love the strong, often stylized approach to the art and detail work -- here, a subtle use of duotone in some sections really works in a way the monotone in Blindspot didn't. I just wish that I gave two craps about a protagonist who is both too self-aware and not self-aware enough.


Red Eye, Black Eye, K. Thor Jensen
Alternative Comics
ISBN 9781891867996
304 Pages

Escape From Special, Miss Lasko-Gross
Fantagraphics Books
ISBN 9781560978046
174 Pages

Garage Band, Gipi
First Second
ISBN 1596432063
114 Pages

Blindspot, Kevin C. Pyle
Henry Holt
ISBN 9780805079982
96 Pages

Stop Forgetting to Remember, Peter Kuper
ISBN 9780307339508
207 Pages

Next Time

Eddie Campbell's turn-of-the-century train explosion, Impaler, God the Dyslexic Dog, Blurred Vision, Rabbit and Bear Paws, a chocolate hero, and much more.

Contact Info

Send complaints, compliments, concerns, and rambling rants about how wrong I am to: vanderworld at hotmail.com (I’ll assume you don’t mind being quoted in this column if you send me something, unless you tell me otherwise).

Send materials for review to Bookslut and to me at POB 4248, Tallahassee, FL 32315.