Border Crossing

COMIC: Safe Area Gorazde
Joe Sacco

Fantagraphics Books -- 2000

Joe Sacco has carved out a niche in comics, which, if not necessary wholly unique, is one he's most certainly made his own. Sacco is the foremost practitioner of the unlikely genre of comics journalism, and in his hands, you'll start to wish that more journalism was presented this way.

Safe Area Gorazde is the central piece in a series of books and stories Sacco produced from time spent in Bosnia during the war. Sacco spent months going between the cities of Sarajevo and Gorazde, the latter of which is the primary concern of this book. Gorazde was a U.N. designated "safe area," one of six enclaves supposedly protected by U.N. forces, and the only one in eastern Bosnia not ultimately overrun by the Serbs (though not for a lack of effort).

Whereas most journalists would ride in with the morning convoy, get their soundbites, and ride out with the afternoon convoy, Sacco spent time living with the people of Gorazde, seeing how they survived, hearing their stories, getting a sense of the personalities involved. As a result, Sacco's writing has a breadth and depth conveyed by no other reportage of the Bosnian war that I've ever encountered.

The chapters in Gorazde fall into three loose categories (which often crossover effortlessly); Sacco's first-hand experiences with the people of Gorazde, the stories of war and survival that they share with him, and some pretty straight, uncomplicated history of the region and conflict.

 To the vast majority of Americans, the "war" in Bosnia was just more backward people killing each other in places with hard-to-say names. Granted, neither the mainstream press, nor the U.S. government, nor even the U.N. did a consistent or accurate job in conveying the facts of the situation. Sacco remedies that. By telling the stories of the people who lived through it, and showing them, at home in their battered environment, he gives not only a face and voice to the people, but a context and framework for understanding. Safe Area Gorazde is potent journalism for anyone who ever wondered what "the whole Bosnia thing" was all about, as well as anyone who followed the situation closely and wants to add some meat to the bare bones of mainstream journalism.

Sacco's illustration isn't the kind of polished technique-fest that readers primarily accustomed to mainstream comics will be used to, but his talent for observation, texture and character give Gorazde a palpable sense of place and feeling. The passion and detail that he puts into Gorazde's shell-pocked streets, burned and blasted homes, scarred and wounded refugees and their desperate, weary faces lend his storytelling authenticity and credibility.

Joe Sacco is one of comics' truly unique and visionary talents, and Safe Area Gorazde is a masterful achievement in an already admirable career.

Crosspost Classic!  8.10.2007

Gaiman Knows Fairies

COMIC: Stardust
Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess

Vertigo/DC Comics - 1998

Stardust may or may not be an actual "comic" depending on your definition. It's a storybook, in prose, punctuated with paintings an illustrations, which many people wouldn't consider or recognize to be comics, but according to Scott McCloud's definition in Understanding Comics (see Sequential Smarts) it qualifies. Furthermore, both Gaiman and Vess made their reputations in comics, and it's published by a comics publisher, so there you have it.

Gaiman and Vess previously collaborated on one of the standout stories from the Gaiman-penned Sandman comic series, in which William Shakespeare encountered the denizens of the realm of Faerie who would inspire A Midsummer Night's Dream. Gaiman presented these characters as Shakespeare did (albeit in a somewhat intensified form), as petty and meddling creatures who were bound to the strict letter of their agreements, but who were more often motivated by cruelty and self-interest. Stardust, while being an unrelated project, feels like a return to, and expansion on that same interpretation of "the lands beyond the fields we know."

Foremost, and quite literally, Stardust is a fairy tale in the most traditional sense. It maintains the sense of danger and the macabre that the sanitized and Disneyfied fare we've become used to throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. It's an adventure and a romance which gives Gaiman another chance to explore these worlds through the eyes of his characters, and leaves the reader wishing he would have explored it even more.

Gaiman's strength has always been creating fascinating worlds and telling stories within them, and he does that here in satisfying fashion. What Gaiman, for my money, doesn't do as well, is create interesting characters with sympathetic motivations. Every one is an archetype who behaves accordingly, providing no surprises and very little insight. In a book like this, that isn't a fatal flaw, but the slim bit of development we do get from the principals just left me hungry for a larger helping. But that wasn't the thing that bothered me...

I've been reading Gaiman's comics for almost as long as he's been writing them. I was one of the people who told all the other people that they needed to be reading Sandman during its original publication. More recently, however, he's been made a name for himself as a writer of straight prose fiction. I've had more than a couple friends ask if I've read his novels, and subsequently question why not. Rereading Stardust, nearly 10 years after its original publication, I'm reminded why I've avoided his other work. While I enjoy his storytelling; free of the strictures of traditional comics, I find his narrative voice to be overly affected. While I have been assured that this is not the case with his other writing, it took me a good quarter of the series (Stardust was initially serialized as a 4 book series, and later collected into a single volume) to get past it. Now I'm perfectly aware that this affectation was deliberate, with the book intending to emulate the classic age of Victorian fantasy writing, but it struck me as excessively self-conscious.

Charles Vess' art has always been something of a mixed bag for me. He is a masterful stylist and a skilled craftsman, but I've always found his anatomy to be somewhat hit-or-miss. The faces of his characters are often flat, with their eyes appearing too high, or the domes of their skulls too shallow. With his more fanciful creatures, this is rarely a problem, especially since many of them have grotesque, gnarled faces with beakish noses that counter this effect, but for his barefaced human (or nearly human) characters, I'm occasionally left with the echoes of a high school crafts fair.

There are also places in Stardust where Vess seems not to have been given -- or not to have read -- Gaiman's text; where the textual descriptions (which frankly are a little more specific than I found necessary in an illustrated book) don't match the illustrations. More than once, the hair color described in the text doesn't match the one shown. While this could be a result of palette choices for a given scene, there's one in particular that isn't. In Chapter 3, the text describes the dying Lord of Stormhold with his sons gathered about him, the living on the right, and the dead on the left, while the accompanying painting clearly shows the opposite arrangement. Of course, most people aren't going to catch this, but it just seemed to me to be symptomatic of the way that a stronger editorial hand could have guided this to a stronger package.

All petty complaints aside, however, Stardust is an enjoyable entertainment, and I would have liked more of what both creators do well; more rollicking exploration of the Realm of Faerie from Gaiman, and more big, beautiful paintings (allowing for fewer of the less thrilling spot illustrations) of it from Vess. It's for these reasons that I'm looking forward to the film version, which will naturally be more visual, and less reliant on the narrative voice.

Crosspost Classic!  08.14.2007

Cruse in Control

COMIC: Stuck Rubber Baby
Howard Cruse

Paradox Press

Howard Cruse's graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby is not an autobiography, but it doesn't feel far off. The book's central character, like Cruse, grew up amidst the tumultuous civil rights era of the 1960s in the American South, and, like Cruse, had to learn to accept and process the reality of his own homosexuality. I suspect Cruse's main purpose in writing a piece of fiction similar and yet separated from his own life was the freedom to tweak characters and relations for dramatic effect, and to place his character in more pivotal and volatile situations than most people would have ordinarily found themselves in.

These are just my own suspicions, however. As a piece of fiction, Stuck Rubber Baby feels a little bit like made-for-TV fare, albeit fairly good made-for-TV fare with an honesty more apt to appear on PBS or cable than the networks. As a work of comic art, however, this is fairly new ground to cover, and Cruse gives the reader a sense of being enriched with a sense of a particular time and place, as well as a timeless sense of what it is to be a young adult at odds with oneself and one's place in the world.

Cruse's art (which, to be honest, I really was not familiar with before this book) has previously been somewhat-to-very cartoonish. Here, his characters still have a certain rubbery quality, and to almost a one, feature Leno-esque oversized chins, but Cruse covers every page with such fine, almost pointillistic crosshatching that gives his art a lush weight that anchors his places, characters and things in a believable world.

It's clear that this was a labor of love for Cruse. Evidently it took him 4 years to create, and it shows.

Crosspost Classic!  08.14.2007

Sequential Smarts

COMIC: Understanding Comics
Scott McCloud

Kitchen Sink Press (later editions; DC Comics and HarperPerennial) 1993

It's no exaggeration to declare that Scott McCloud's groundbreaking book, Understanding Comics is very probably the most important book ever written about comics, whether comic or prose. It's certainly debatable, but it's no exaggeration. During the 3 years that I taught comics classes at an art college in Portland, Understanding Comics was the required text for my classes, and although I never lectured from it, I frequently referenced it, and felt no guilt about about making it a compulsory purchase for a class that most students took just for fun. If they didn't "get it" then, at least they'd have it and be able to come back to it, because it's the kind of book that reveals new insight with every re-read; not just about comics specifically, but ways of looking at the world and human thought in general. It belongs in the collection of every person who has moved on to the question of "Why are comics cool?" whether they're coming from the direction of fanboy or skeptic.

I want to choose the right words here, to explain what Understanding Comics is to the uninitiated. I'm tempted to use words like "documentary" and "lecture series" but I'm afraid that the eyes of more skeptical or anti-intellectual readers will instantly glaze over and they'll fail to grasp how entertaining the material is in McCloud's hands. Firstly, Understanding Comics is a comic. It's a 215 page meditation on what comics are and what they can be. McCloud attempts to define what "comics" is, or are -- well, both really. He explores the language, time-bending nature, psychology, mechanics and approaches to comics, art in general, what comics mean, how they work, and the vast potential to which they can be used. He deftly sidesteps the question of whether comics can be "Art" with little more than a "Duh!" and goes on to treat them seriously as such, without bothering to validate such an ignorant question.

[Note to video game fans who are still surly with Roger Ebert for claiming that games can't be art: Rather than worrying about arguing with Ebert about whether or not they CAN be, the onus is upon us to demand more from our creators so the question becomes a moot one due to overwhelming evidence that they simply ARE. But this is a discussion for another day.]

McCloud walks us through the process of arriving at his definition of "comics." What he comes up with is a pretty broadly embracing definition, "Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence." I'm still personally a little iffy on his definition. It excluded things like single panel cartoons, which, as I have argued directly with McCloud, create their own sequence owing to the placement of words relative to the image (example: a Family Circus panel with the text placed on the left of the panel by newspaper editors trying to cram more comics onto a page will not "work" the way it was intended when Bill Keane wrote it with the text appearing beneath the image).

McCloud's definition may also includes things like magazine articles which arrange photos throughout. The images may not tell a story, but they're definitely in deliberate sequence to "convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer" [from McCloud's expanded definition]. Now maybe he intends the definition to be that embracing, although part of me starts to believe that it's so broad that it doesn't really define ("to fix or mark the limits of") anything. His functional definition, however, is "Sequential Art," and that's as useful a handle as anything. With this definition, he's able to explore the impact that the form has had on culture throughout human history, far beyond the commonly accepted late 19th century origins of comics.

It becomes difficult to describe much of what McCloud talks about without turning into a second-rate parroting of all the material he manages so well. It's clear that he spent a lot of time thinking about these subjects, and clarifying his thoughts before he decided to tackle it all in a book. Much like describing the book in total, trying to explain the individual chapters would betray the ease and expertise with which McCloud handles (at first) seemingly esoteric and academic topics. He never speaks down to readers who would ordinarily never touch such a theoretical work as this. He explains things clearly, and makes understand why you suddenly care about things you probably never gave that much thought to in the first place.

By presenting this information in comics form, McCloud not only makes the theoretical more palatable, but he validates many of his points by demonstrating the largely untapped potential of the medium to communicate and enrich. When I taught my comics classes, and in conversations with fanboys online, every once in a while I'll come across someone who'll tell me "I already understand comics." Of course, what they really mean is that they understand what they want comics to be -- specifically, masturbatory nostalgia and/or juvenile reinforcement of male identity imagery -- and they don't want someone coming along and telling them that there's more to the medium that they love (and want to keep trapped in a frozen infancy, like a child who wants their dog to always remain a dependent and controllable puppy) than what they've believed it was since they first huddled under the covers with a flashlight and a stack of hand-me-down issues of Spider-Man. Understanding Comics doesn't make value judgments on content. In fact, it barely discusses content at all. What it does is deepen and broaden the reader's concept of what comics are, and what they can be. That expands the view of the reader (or the non-reader, for that matter) and opens them up to greater experiences, and in so doing, fills them with a hunger for a more refined and adventurous menu of a wider world -- and isn't that what art is supposed to do, after all?

Crosspost Classic!  08.21.2007

State of Rapid Change

Cedar Rapids - 2011
Written by Phil Johnson
Directed by Miguel Arteta

In a sentence never uttered before in human history; Cedar Rapids is fast becoming my new "happy place."  Not the city, mind you, but the film.  It has joined the ranks of Wonder Boys and Almost Famous as one of my comfort comedies.  Like those films, Cedar Rapids is filled with beautifully flawed human characters crashing into each others' lives and coming out something new.

This is Ed Helms' movie.  The "aw shucks" naivete of his characters from The Daily Show, The Office and The Hangover reach their purest (least obnoxious) and most endearing form here in his character, Tim Lippe.  Tim, an insurance agent from small town Wisconsin, is the far-more-dependent partner in a relationship with his former 7th grade teacher (Sigourney Weaver).  Called upon at the last minute to defend his agency's award-winning status at the regional convention of insurers, Tim is forced to leave the familiar comfort of his town for the eye-opening and corrupting influences of the "big city."

At the convention, he makes a new collection of friends, albeit with varying levels of hesitation.  The first is hotel prostitute Bree (Alia Shawkat from Arrested Development), whose come-on Tim completely fails to recognize, offering her a butterscotch candy instead of a cigarette.  The next is convention roommate Ronald Wilkes (Isiah Whitlock Jr.).  They're joined by obnoxious fellow agent Dean Ziegler (John C. Reilly), who Tim's boss has specifically warned him to avoid.  And finally there's Joan Ostrowski-Fox (Anne Heche) whose brashness intrigues and befuddles Tim, and who is herself intrigued and befuddled by his earnestness.

Throughout the weekend, each of the characters gets an opportunity to defy expectations.  Well, maybe not Bree (who, one must admit, exists primarily as a plot device), although she does bail on a potentially profitable convention night to take Tim to house party, but the four insurance agents each get at least one scene to play against character.

 What struck me most on my recent viewing was that four main characters (Tim, Ronald, Deanzie and Joan) each represent our own anxieties about ourselves.  Tim isn't just earnest; he's the clueless naif we each fear ourselves to be when we make ourselves vulnerable to something new, to the world that is bigger than our own back yard.  Ronald is the boring person we fear we are in small talk.  Dean is the overbearing doofus that we worry others will see us as when we speak with confidence, whether real or feigned.  Joan was a little harder to figure out, but I think she's how lost we can feel in our own lives -- overwhelmed but incomplete by living up to expectations and unconvinced by our own self-assurance.  Together, the four of them create a kind of balance, and their acceptance of each other creates a kind of balance between them.

And mayhem.  Don't get me wrong, it's not all cuddles.  The way they rub against each other leads to all kinds of internal and external conflict, but through it, they learn to accept and rely on each other thus becoming something new, something whole.

The movie is packed with rock-solid character actors.  Beyond Helms, Reilly, Heche, Whitlock, Shawkat and Weaver, Stephen Root (News Radio) and Kurtwood Smith (Robocop, That 70s Show) represent Tim's rock-and-a-hard-place.  Tom Lennon and Rob Corddry both appear in almost cameo roles, but Lennon's character -- and the seamy circumstances of his death early in the film -- thread through much of what happens later.

Cedar Rapids never resorts to the squirmy Comedy of Discomfort that has become the trend in "edgy" and "indy" comedy.  There's shame and embarrassment aplenty, but it's the result of Tim's earnestness coming into conflict with the big nasty world.  He doesn't always do the right things, but he does the wrong things for the right reasons.  His pains are growing pains, and his weekend of confronting his own fears and misconceptions about the world and the wild ride that ensues turn out to be one of those life-changing experiences that strike from out of the blue when we venture beyond the fields we know.