September 2007

Jeff VanderMeer


Balanced Between the Blot and the Boys

After a hectic summer of teaching, compiling anthologies, and vacation, I’m back refreshed and re-focused. I hope you are, too. Some very cool stuff has come in over the summer, and I’ve reviewed the best of it below, along with a one dud. As always, send comments, complaints, and mutterings to vanderworld at Materials for review should be sent to Bookslut and to me at: POB 4248, Tallahassee, FL 32315.

Blots, Bookhunters, Boys, and More

Out, out damn blot, but it won’t come out -- it just keeps growing. That’s something of the premise behind The Blot by Tom Neely (, one of the most bizarre and original graphic novels I’ve read this year. In a crisp, clean, yet utterly surreal drawing style, Neely depicts the odd adventures of an Average Joe whose face is periodically ravaged by a giant ink blot. The man tries to escape the blot, control the blot, even meets a woman who helps him understand the blot. A giant black wolf attacks the man and woman. A suffocating froth of black blot comes out of the man’s mouth. Throughout the narrative Neely uses, at most, five words. The story is all conveyed through the sometimes stark but always dynamic art. Black-and-white panels are supplemented with limited use of spot-color to accentuate an emotion. What starts out as semi-humorous and absurdist gains depth and poignancy -- a luminous quality, a quality of something pulled whole out of the subconscious, permeates the latter portions of The Blot. This quality is accentuated because the characters have been drawn in what I’d call a classic comics style, so when they are naked, when they are vulnerable, when the narrative opens up into a kind of surreal psychological portrait, it’s that much more effective. It’s as if Popeye suddenly had an existential crisis, and stood revealed as a three-dimensional person. Days after reading The Blot, I was still thinking about it. So far, it’s one of my favorites of 2007.

Notes for a War Story by Gipi has been called this Italian artist’s masterpiece. It follows three boys as they navigate the edges of a Balkan war by falling under the influence of an opportunist named Felix. Felix sells drugs and leans on people for protection money, and the boys soon become his muscle in an anonymous Eastern European city. The war rages all around, but the city is calm. Gipi does a good job of depicting the boys’ descent into thug-dom and avoiding many cliches about war. The art, a kind of bold watercolor approach, in black-and-white, has the stark quality required to best serve the narrative. I have no qualms about recommending Notes for a War Story, but I do have one caveat: there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before in novels, memoirs, or movies. This creeping familiarity seeps into the narrative at times and detracts from the amazing art. Overall, however, in the careful character studies and dialogue, readers will find much to savor in Notes for a War Story.

Bookhunter by Shiga, set in the 1970s, has the high-energy impact of a big budget Hollywood thriller trapped in the context of a theft from a library. This genius meshing of high-concept with low-key setting results in a funny romp, with Shiga taking the idea as far as it can go. A perfect prologue, in which a book thief is tracked down by the Library Police and shot before he can put the hostage books to the torch, lets readers know they’re not in Realityville anymore. What follows is a meticulous and exciting investigation of the disappearance of a rare book at the Oakland Public Library. It’s quite an achievement by Shiga to make the examination of a card catalogue pulse-pounding. Shiga invests the details of book creation, collecting, and preservation with an urgency and fascination that defies description. A bold, broad illustration style in sepia tones both creates a sense of the action occurring in the 1970s and invests the action scenes with extra power. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but Bookhunter might just be one of the best action graphic novels of the year. In any event, it’s a delight and readers should pick it up immediately.

The Boys (Volume One: The Name of the Game) by Garth Ennis and Patrick Robertson might be a guilty pleasure, but it’s actually a pretty highbrow one. Taking as their basic premise that some superheroes are too arrogant or predator-like to conduct business unimpeded, Ennis and Robertson have postulated a CIA-backed team that counteracts thoughtless and premeditated abuse by the wearers of spandex. In this first story cycle, the team takes on a group of younger superheroes who are living a lifestyle close to that of Caligula’s. The level of violence, sex, and everything else is turned up to “11” in The Boys, but I say it’s highbrow for one simple reason: Ennis and Robertson have really thought about the concept and fleshed it out to its maximum potential. The excesses here serve the plot and the context of world they’ve created to house the plot. The bold, in-your-face art style helps accentuate those excesses. I don’t know if I’m just odd for liking something like The Blot AND something like The Boys, but there it is, folks. Apparently I can hold two opposite and opposing thoughts in my mind at the same time without my skull exploding.

Postcards: True Stories That Never Happened, edited by Jason Rodriguez and including contributions from Harvey Pekar, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Michael Gaydos, and Philip Hester is, unfortunately, a shining example of a novelty project gone wrong. Rodriguez got his contributors to brainstorm story ideas off of vintage postcards -- either the image or what someone wrote on them. Villard has done a wonderful job with the book in terms of production values and presentation. Each postcard inspiration and story is given space to breathe. If looking for a compact coffee table book, you could do much worse. However, the stories are mind-numbingly boring for the most part, and so short that they either fade out or contain a (usually unsatisfying) twist at the end. Often evocative and bold, the art cannot save the narratives here. To give just a couple of examples, Harvey Pekar’s self-referential approach doesn’t really work in the cramped space he’s given here (seeing a panel where he’s being prepped for Letterman, all I could think was “Who cares?”) and “Blue,” based on a postcard of an elephant hotel, has amazing art by Gia-Bao Tran but a trite non-story by Chris Stevens. I really wanted to like Postcards, but have to suggest readers pass on this one.

The Blot by Tom Neely
I Will Destroy You
ISBN 9780974271583
180 Pages

Notes for a War Story, Gipi
First Second
ISBN 978-1-59643-261-1
118 Pages

Bookhunter, Shiga
Sparkplug Comics
ISBN 9780974271569
144 Pages

The Boys, Garth Ennis and Patrick Robertson
Dynamite Entertainment
ISBN 9789133305466
152 Pages

Postcards: True Stories That Never Happened, edited by Jason Rodriguez
ISBN 978345498502
150 Pages


Mentioned in Passing...

A few items from the mail worth a mention include: Thunderhead Underground Falls by Joel Orff (, with its evocative and moody artwork in support of a perhaps underdeveloped relationship narrative; Broken Lines by Standard Design, with its gonzo mix of story and art, both confusing and oddly effective; The Expendable One (Volume 2: The Boob Versus the Boobs) by Jason M. Burns, with its indestructible but often maimed hero navigating a hostile world, sometimes in hilarious fashion; Poison the Cure by Jad Ziade and Alex Cahill, with its cheesy science fiction premise wedded to a block print art style; and Comics from Mars #1 by Paul Pope.

A Correction

Kate Fort writes in with the following correction: “In this last comic Bookslut column, Jeff VanderMeer wrote that The Adventures of Rabbit and Bear Paws was created by the Anishinabek Nation, and represents authentic Native American customs and traditions, which makes it doubly worth seeking out.’ While I am thrilled that a First Nations author is getting some attention, I'd like to point out that the Anishnabek Nation of Canada is a group of many different First Nations. In addition, the book is not created by the Anishinabek Nation, but by an author who is Anishnabe and a citizen of the Ojibway First Nation of Ontario.  As far as I can tell by his website, his book is created by him, not by the Nation. While it likely does represent ‘authentic Native American customs and traditions,’ saying this book is created by the Anishinabek Nation is like saying the United States is the creator of all books written by U.S. citizens.” I believe I was just quoting from the book’s press release.

Final Thoughts

Next time I’ll be reviewing a slew of Tokyo Pop titles, with additional insight provided by my fellow Eisner judge Robin Brenner.

Speaking of the Eisners, I was somewhat disappointed in some of the winners. In the major categories, I don’t think my top vote would have gone to any of the winners except Gumby (seriously strange), Fun Home, Tony Millionaire, Absolute DC: The New Frontier (maybe), and possibly Fables for Best Anthology. (Batman Year 100 is a worthy winner in its category, but still not my top choice.) My single favorite fantastical comic of the year, Dungeon, didn’t make the list, and my second favorite, A.L.I.E.E.E.N., didn’t win. I also loved Scarlet Traces. Also, I didn’t mind that American-Born Chinese won, but I thought it was overhyped, frankly. Although Fables was a good anthology, “A Frog’s Eye’s View” was not the best “short story” of the year. Nor was the Left Bank Gang the best US edition of foreign material. Old Boy’s not a terrible choice for the Japanese category, but it wasn’t the best thing nominated. And them’s me final comments on what was, all in all, a really wonderful judging experience.