Never News: Books and Comics

The Literature review section of Never News

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Fantastic Butterflies - James Kochalka

In his usual sophomoric fashion, Kochalka tackles an emotion–the immense feeling of loss.

Kochalka hits again with his insane sense of inspiration. Best known for his epic daily diary strip, American Elf (, James is no stranger to writing about whatever the hell makes him happy (or sad, or angry, or full of love, or orgasmic). Fantastic Butterflies reads sorta like a Raymond Carver story, sorta like a third-grade assignment, which aids us into loving every character he sets down before us. It takes a relatively new genre (that of the autobiographical graphic novel) in an understated, sparse new direction; herein, our protagonist (and cartoonist), James Kochalka experiences loss and wonder through the actions and activities of his usual band of cohorts (who, of course, he knows in real life). He does this with just the right measure of magic realism (VersperTime time machines, Cancer Robots, a once-robot, now-dog best friend) and just the right sense of naivety.
The art is made up of his usual scrawl made intense; sharp contrasts fill up whole pages, images as simple as a glass being filled with wine become monumental. The writing, too, moves from his general meanderings into a well-paced, deliberate act of reflection. Faced with a world of hurt (a cancer-eaten friend, a bar fight, depression, a burst testicle), Kochalka resorts to a sense of wonder at the good things (music, dancing, beautiful girls, beer) in a sort of blind optimism that sometimes feels a bit heavy-handed and forced (I mean, this is the guy who, blazingly cynical, wrote The Perfect Planet). This near-forced revelation doesn’t come without its backlashes, though, and is book-ended by somber moments of loss and hurt.
Jason X-12, always a perk of any Kochalka book, wanders the night feeling horrible, and James just can’t get through to him; whether this is a real-life reflection of Jason or a metaphoric expression of emotional entrapment, I don’t know. I’d like to think it took equal parts of both, as well as a good dash of accident, to create the narrative.
At any rate, Kochalka had grown as an artist. Gone (mostly) are the day of frog erections (Fancy Froglin) and skipping work (Quit Your Job), come are the days of real visions. He’s ceased being the indie-artist who could and has become the indie-artist who does. And thank god for that, mates. He’s gained another fan.

Every Girl is the End of the World for Me, Jeffery Brown


Maybe I'm just obsessed with other people's lives. Maybe it's that I really, really just want to live off of my art and these guys may not be doing that exactly, but at least they're putting shit out.

Okay. Maybe it's just that Jeffrey Brown has an odd, disconnected way of telling the story of his life. 'Every Girl is the End of the World for Me' is yet another of his little masterpieces where you can feel the discomfort. In a lot of his earlier work, you're stuck with the idea that he's an angsty guy (because, really, he is), but with 'Every Girl' we're treated to a sort of collage of his hits and misses with girls over the course of a year—from the cute waitress to his ex, Allyson—and how he drifts through his days without any real direction (in terms of romance). He flirts and is flirted with a total of nine girls throughout the narrative and, essentially, still ends up alone.

Fun stuff.

Of all of the little one-shots I've been picking up by cartoonists, I have to say that Jeffrey's are some of the few that will stay in my library; often I get a tip on some 'really good' issue by some teenage girl cartoonist, buy it, and realize that it's a waste of my time—to some people (myself included), cartooning is a journal method. To others (Brown and Kochalka) it's a way to express your world your way, however mundane. I don't want to spend thirty panels reading about post-pubescent, pre-world love life when Jeffrey can show us the same emotion, thought, and detail in six.

Moral: be warned when people recommend comics. Unless Captain America is involved. Cap is always good.

Conversations, James Kochalka, Jeffery Brown, Craig Thompson


which I got in the Top Shelf package. These books may be a little self-indulgent for the cartoonists (Kochalka with Craig Thompson and Jeffrey Brown), but that doesn't make them any less important to the artists that read them; first of all, you get to see them play with each other's style, not to mention 'hear' a back and forth discussion between three of the best autobiography cartoonists in the field today. The first issue (with Craig Thompson), focuses on why we create art—and what it is to us—in a world so complex and stacked against us, while the second issue features Brown and Kochalka focuses on how the art is meaningful to us and us alone, if not for the people who read/ingest it.

So, yeah. Maybe it's self-indulgence. But I was just as much indulged.

Will You Still Love Me If I Wet the Bed, Liz Prince


The packages were stuffed with stuff. My Top Shelf package was, mostly, all Kochalka stuff that was on sale in celebration of his song, Hockey Monkey, being selected by Nickelodeon.

The ironic thing is that I got WIll You Still Love Me If I Wet the Bed from Mayhem, and not directly from Top Shelf. Shame on me.

Liz Prince is, indeed, of the same ilk of James Kochalka and Jeffery Brown; she draws autobiographical comics. That's the only real connection.

Here's a graph:

Angst Median Love.

Now, let's place the three cartoonists on the same graph.

Brown Kochalka Prince

See, where Kochalka lives in the middle, equally reveling in angst and happiness of his life—comics about fights with his wife, Amy along side comics about making out with his wife, Amy. The stress of the Nickelodeon deal next to comics of funny things his son, Eli, says. Kochalka is living life and loving it, no matter what happens. Kochalka's the guy you read when you're happy.

On the ends of the spectrum, there are Brown and Prince. Jeffery's comics are centered in his unsure ways—his anxieties are as equally aired on the page as his daily problems, whether they be love related or otherwise. Brown's the cartoonist to read after a break-up.

Liz, though, proves with this collection that she's the master of collecting the tiny moments of love and transforming them into an equally bizarre and delectable pallet. Each comic centers around her relationship with her boyfriend, Kevin. Every page you're expecting something monumental, and each page you realize that things like boners and special kisses are monumental—Prince has, somehow, created the perfect sounding board to point out the importance of the mundane. Love is, in reality, made up of these strange little moments when you make your lover make a funny sound during sex or find the special spot on their lip that is yours and yours only. So Prince is the cartoonist to read if you're in love.

There aren't many autobiographical cartoonists that I can really get into; the Top Shelf stable pretty much hits it for me—and I'm glad Prince is now a part of that pie.

Hell, even my own diary strips aren't that interesting to me.

Desperate Characters, Paula Fox


After finishing all of the books in my briefcase (and after spending all of a day each with both Lockpick and The Colorado Kid, I stopped in to Iconoclast Books in Ketchum, Idaho, and started looking for something to fill my time. I ended up, for no real reason, with Paula Fox's Desperate Characters.

Having no idea who Paula Fox was or what the novel would offer, I just set into it. And, wow.

Originally published in 1970, the book had lapsed into obscurity until, in '99, Norton republished it and, consequentially, I ended up with a copy.

It's one of those 70's novels where nothing happens but, really, everything is happening. Each small moment is shaping the very whole of the characters.

Pretty much, the book is centered around Sophie, a middle-aged woman whose husband is a rigid, unemotional man and whose life is bereft of anything meaningful at the moment (or so she thinks); she's not working on anything, she's not happy. Then, her husband (Otto) finds himself with a partner (Charlie) breaking away. Sophie is bitten by a stray cat. There's a party. There's a late-night visit from Charlie. There's a slip of tongue and Sophie accidentally mentions her ex-lover to Charlie. There are kids who aren't at all like Otto and Sophie were, very liberal teens protesting the war. Charlie's wife is experiencing her own sexual revolution. Rocks are thrown through windows. The bite becomes infested, Sophie doesn't want to see a doctor. The cat keeps coming back.

And all of it is adding up to Sophie's sub-concious decision of whether or not she's happy, whether she loves Otto or her old lover, whether she can be happy anymore.

I devoured this one just as fast as I had the other two books, and I'm going to be re-reading it fairly often, I think. It's a goddamn gem and, really, I was amazed that such a subtle and meaningful book could just, almost accidentally, end up in my library. Rad.

The Colorado Kid, Stephen King


I will never deny it. Stephen King is one of my favorite authors in the modern writing world. It's not something I can say around my high-lit friends and professors. It's not something I should admit to when I, myself, have three books collecting dust on my hard drive. Really, it's not something that anyone in the artistic community really has any right saying around peers.

But that's not fair, I think. King inspired me to write, after all, when I was in the fifth grade and read It. He has the ability to get right to the heart of relationships, to make you feel close to characters (even antagonists), and he continues to create heart wrenching and gripping stories that leave me helpless but to bow to his ability.

I think that people give him a low-brow stigma due to his cult status. They say that he has no distinct voice; that he writes in a bland type of way. But I'll argue with that—it's not that he isn't distinct in his voice. It's that his voice is so ingrained in our culture that it's hard to call it anything but commonplace. None of the other chart-toppers have his voice, and, very rarely, can they out write themselves at every outing. Tom Clancy is boring as shit. Danielle Steele should just be dead already. I want Stephen to survive forever.

And, in actuality, he already is. The Stand has been inducted into The Modern Classics, and his novels will be (like Dracula) record holders as to being some of the longest of our era to never stray into the realm of 'out-of-print'.

He's one of my favorites. The end.

Now onto the book at hand.

The Colorado Kid was a big step for publisher Hard Case Crime, who deals mostly in small pulps or out of print pulps being revived. They are, actually, a pulp fiction publisher. An independent pulp fiction publisher. That King sent them the Kid is huge news—for one, it's his first time straying from the big gun publishers (not counting his experiences in online fiction). Secondly, Hard Case Crime hadn't really dealt with anyone that big before.

But I'm not going to get you all excited about it--The Kid is, essentially, a middle of the road book. King highlights his fantastic ability of suggesting relationships, he gives us characters that we really like even if we don't know them.

Then, he gives us a sub-par 'mystery'. He puts forth the evidence and circumstances regarding the Kid, keeps us in his grips as he continues to tell us more and more bizarre facts surrounding the kid's death. Then he gives us some trite ties to the possibilities, sets up our heroine Steph's future, and leaves it at that.

Certainly, if you're a Kingphile, you know all about his history with both islands off the coast of Maine and the area in and around Boulder, Colorado. You know that he spent a lot of time with these subjects, and you know that each character has a lot of weight for him.

But you also know how much more he has in him.

And that's what my problem with the book is. I'll be keeping my copy (on the shelf next to my 12 King hardcovers and 15 King paperbacks), and I'll, no doubt, re-read the book. I'll compare and contrast the book to the others, trying to find the threads that may or may not link it to other happenings in the King universe (Hallorann in It, the creature of Derry in Tommyknockers, Flagg, etc.), I'll spend too much time with it.

But, as of now, I'm neither impressed nor disappointed in the book. Mostly, I'm middle of the road.

Lockpick Pornography, Joey Comeau


Getting away from vampires, I got a copy of Joey Comeau's Lockpick Pornography. For those of you who don't know, Joey does the writing half of A Softer World, which has become one of my favorite new(ish) online comics out there.

The book wasn't at all what I was expecting (after reading ASW, I imagined the book would be more experimental-prosey, one-sentence constructed stuff). What I got was a strange amalgamation—if Ellis and Palahniuk had a love child, this is what it would be like.

Our protagonist is a radical gay-rights advocate, lost in trying to decide if love is hormones or actually deserves monogomy; caught up in an Ellis-like world where characters never can say what they want and, as such, the miscommunication is outrageous, he decides that the best course of action is to take a radical step in helping the world come to terms with gay life—by writing a children's book and distributing it by disguising himself (and his friends) as supposedly gay cartoon characters and breaking into schools to leave it among the other books on the shelves.

When it's clear that deeper, more profound action is needed, he takes his friends (one a sometimes lover and two newly-met girls: a lesbian who is sure of herself and a sexually ambiguous 17 year old who can't decide whether she wants to be identified as a girl or a gay man) on a Palahniuk-esque journey to stike directly at the home life of a bigot politician and, more importantly, his kid who is growing up hateful.

The whole book took me under a day to read, and was so hilarious at parts (big-titty eleven year old) that I cracked up in the middle of working (between shooting finish-wood base and trim to door frames and walls in a 600 thousand dollar condo in Sun Valley, Idaho), which prompted my not-so-liberal but still lovable father to shoot me some pretty strange looks. You can't really explain the comedy to anyone, least of all a slight Republican who hasn't even known any gay men or women in his life. Especially when the comedy comes directly from extreme sexual episodes and covert-terrorism.

All in all, I was heavily impressed—not what I expected in the realm of experimental, but very satisfying as a novel about inter- and intra-personal communication. Personally, I'd like to see someone pull half the stuff that is done in this novel; people need to be frightened to understand, I think. And the gay rights movement isn't making as much progress as it should be.

Overall, a brilliant first novel. But Joey: I'm expecting more from the next one.

Dracula, Bram Stoker (Barnes and Noble Classics)


I'm not going to bore you with an actual review of Dracula, as it is one of the great English classics and, if you haven't read it and are not planning to read it, fuck you.

Actually, I was a little ashamed that I hadn't read it myself—that it took The Historian to get me interested to get through it, after several attempts during the 7th grade (oh so long ago). I mean, isn't this one of the books that Harvard lists as one of the 100 books you should have read before graduating high school? (In fact, having lost my cheaply printed, mass-market paperback copy of the book I dug through my second-hand copies of The Harvard Classics trying to find it, to no avail.)

Despite my shame, I ended up picking up one of those deliciously beautiful six buck Barnes and Noble Collector's Library copies, all hardbound and gilt-edged. This I carried around with me, despite the fact that it looked like I was reading a copy of the Old Testament.

I was surprised at how much of the story I didn't even know—I suppose it had been a long time since I had seen either of the film adaptations from my youth—and was shocked when I realized that Stoker's book is made up entirely of journals, diaries, and correspondence between the characters; that is to say, no conventional third- or first-person narratives, just first-person narrative via documentation.

I was also pleased that, despite the fact that the book is well over 100 years old (1897), I still found it frightening at parts; I'm a kid of way too many horror films, which rarely scare me—but, at it's source, the vampire is one of the scariest creations of our race—something that comes at you at your weakest, then dooms you to a (un)life where you must perpetuate the curse. Fuck the Vampire Chronicles, which turns the vampire into a sort of romanticized ubermensch that you want to be like. Dracula strips that sort of feeling away; rather, it was before that concept was created. Dracula is represented as a scourge, a villain, and the worst of his kind.

As well it should be.

And, look, this copy has a forward by Elizabeth Kostova.

The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova


First of all, I started off with The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova.

I first heard about this novel when Ms. Kostova came to Laramie to do a reading from this book. I, like a good lit student, missed it for whatever reason, but filed the book away for later digestion.

When I got a circular from The Science Fiction Book Club via my Wizard subscription, I decided to do the risky and sign up for it so I could, in part, get a copy of The Historian for something like half a buck.

Then the book sat on my shelf for several months.

Realizing that I was going to be in a car for several hours at a time, plus far from house and home (and the internet), I decided to pack up my briefcase with mentally digestible goodies; The Historian was one of these treats.

Surprised at how quickly I was absorbed into the world of history and vampires, I spent a good amount of time with this book.

Kostova, here, captures the delicacy of the Dracula legacy right where it intertwines with the Vampire legends, giving us a stunning portrayal of who Vlad Ţepeş was and how he would be in undeath.

The story is told by three historians in a non-linear fashion. Our primary narrator (historian number 1) finds several suspicious books and papers in her father (historian number 2)'s library and, when confronted about them, he tells the story of his college adviser (historian number 3). Slowly, we begin to see a sort of feverish lineage that is being passed down—historian number 3 receives a mysterious book that sets him off looking for Dracula's tomb. Many years later, historian 2 receives a similar book, and shows it to number 3, who begins to tell his story to number 2, which, eventually sends number 2 off on an adventure to find number 3, who is now missing. Meanwhile, number 1 is, many years later, gleaning this story from number 2, who is not proceeding quickly enough. When number 2 disappears, number 1 is left with letters discussing both number 2's story as well as number 1's, which gives us three separate narrative threads, all bound together.

And never once do you become as confused as you are after reading that paragraph.

We're taken all over Eastern Europe, from Amsterdam to Ţepeş' native Wallachia (not Transylvania, the other part of Romania) to Budapest in the search of Dracula's tomb and, essentially, Dracula himself.

I like to think of this as an essential vampire novel, on the other side of the spectrum from Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles—this is a story of humans versus vampires, like Bram Stoker's original Dracula, rather than the tale of vampires themselves.

The book is very, very literate—never once are you shaken by a poorly crafted turn of phrase; Kostova has in her the ability to create a flowing narrative that is something different from my usual reads of Ellis or Gaiman; in essence, I think this book has the ability to reach that 'modern classic' stigma that you hear so much about.

Andi Watson - Dumped

I just got a copy of Andi Watson's Dumped in the mail today. And read it. It's a quick read, but more than worth it--for 6 bucks, the story is more than engaging, Watson's art is subtle and loose, and the characters are people you wished you knew. I had picked up the first few copies of Love Fights back when they were single issues from Oni, and really enjoyed them--then got too poor to continue. Conveniently, they're in trade form now.

I got Dumped before the LF books simply because it was so cheap and Andi himself said in an interview (that I'm hard-pressed to find now) that he thinks that's a good starting point in his work.

I'm quite impressed and shall be picking up his other works (the famous Skeleton Key, The Complete Geisha {Which I'm really excited for}, Breakfast After Noon, and Slow News Day {not to mention the two Love Fights books}) sometime after the holidays. Check 'em out. You'll like 'em.

Cell, Stephen King


I bought this for my mom's birthday (a co-gift with my father), as she has always been a solid Stephen King supporter and, via that influence, so have I. On a drive from Star Valley to Salt Lake to visit my brother, I cracked it open and found myself immersed, again, by King's straight up narrative.

I should have known from the dedication of Cell that it would be, essentially, Stephen King's take on the zombie genre (the novel is, in part, dedicated to George A. Romero, who spawned the zombie-film genre with Night of the Living Dead and it's subsequent Dead sequels). And does he pull it off?

He's Stephen King. What do you think?

He creates a new, deeper version of the modern zombie; while the name kind of lends itself to Family Guy jokes (“It's about an older couple and a. . . um. . . lamp monster!”), cellular phones are only instruments in creating this newer, more basic zombie. Rather than being the living dead (which, I think, I prefer), the zombies are stripped of their humanity to their deepest core: murderers. And, when the survivors of 'the Pulse' (a coded message buried in cell phone signals that brings about the End of Days) begin to realize that the zombies aren't just humans minus the social awareness, it appears that they're evolving, our merry group of post-apocalyptic warriors (made up of several teens, a gay man, and a graphic novelist) realizes that they must be stopped.

The novel gathers a lot of tone from King's earlier (and more successful) trip to the end of the world, The Stand, and that's where the similarities stop; The Stand is a thousand-plus page novel crammed with characters, details, and struggle. Cell is a sort of bare bones Stand; rather than the super-flu, we've got the pulse. Rather than the struggle we've got the mystery. Rather than the details, we've got. . . what? Gore?

Overall, I'd like to say it was a good book. I'd like to. But I'm not kidding myself; it has the stronger King structure, the propensity of character development, and the right tone of horror. But the characters begin to become interchangable. The climax itself is weak, as is the resolution, but, at the very least, we've got a strong, new Zombie to plague our social anxieties, which is more than I would have expected.