Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Comics Review: Speak of the Devil, Gilbert Hernandez

This is a slightly revised version of a review that was originally published, in somewhat abridged form, in The Comics Journal #298 (May 2009).

One can’t help but worry about Gilbert Hernandez these days. For over two decades he’s been one of the accomplished and dependable cartoonists working. But apart from a collaboration with his brother Mario, his contributions to the first issue of Love and Rockets: New Stories were an embarrassment: a series of undeveloped, one-off strips best described as sketchbook fare. I rationalized my disappointment in an online review by convincing myself that he was coming off a full-length project with Speak of the Devil and needed to recharge his batteries. However, I hadn’t read Speak of the Devil at that time. I’ve since sat down with it, and my reaction is one of shock. It is, by far, the worst extended effort by Hernandez that I’ve read. If it weren’t for the fluid assurance of his cartooning, this inchoate mess of a story would have me wondering if he’s lost all sense of pride in his work.

The main character of Speak of the Devil is Val Castillo, a champion high-school gymnast. Her parents are divorced, and she lives with her father and stepmother in suburbia. She’s also developed a strange compulsion. At night, she dons a devil’s mask and black clothing and heads out to peek in windows throughout her neighborhood. Her favorite is the window to her father and stepmother’s bedroom, where, at various times, she watches her stepmother masturbate, have sex with her father, and walk around half-naked while talking on the phone.

Hernandez never takes the reader inside Val’s pathology. The story doesn’t develop; it just gets more convoluted as it goes. Val’s stepmother, Linda, is turned on by the knowledge that a peeping tom is watching her. And Val’s boyfriend, Paul, abandons his hesitations about their relationship after he discovers that she and the peeping tom are the same person. As the story continues, Paul dresses up as the peeping tom in order to seduce Linda. Val quickly discovers the two of them have begun an affair, but once she gets past her initial jealousy, the three decide to become a team and head off, willy-nilly, on a gruesome murder spree. The latter scenes are an orgy of bloodletting that would make most splatter movies seem restrained, with stabbings, a beheading, throats being cut, and most often, eyes being gouged out. We also get a fight to the death between Val and her mother that mixes up knives and gymnastic kicks.

Hernandez kills off virtually the entire cast before he’s through, and he ends with a final “twist”: a gymnastics rival of Val’s is shown carrying the peeping-tom devil mask in her athletic bag. The cycle of perversion and death begins anew--in other words, the most hackneyed ending imaginable. It’s bewildering to boot. Hernandez doesn’t offer any real insight into what started Val down her path, so why should one care if this rival, whom the reader has been told next to nothing about, follows in her footsteps?

The book feels like Hernandez was making it up as he went, without any consideration as to whether what he shows makes any sense. When Val discovers that Paul and Linda are having an affair, she attacks him with a knife. All the stabs and cuts are underneath his clothes, but there’s enough blood loss for it to be splattered all over the room. Why isn’t an ambulance called once Val is subdued? One would think it imperative, as that much blood means at least a vein or artery was cut. Professional medical attention is going to be required to get the bleeding under control, including stitches. But Paul’s not much worse for wear; Linda just takes him into another room and bandages him up. Hernandez seems to want to have his cake and eat it too with the violence in this scene. He wants the sensationalistic charge that comes from showing a bloody knife attack, but he doesn’t want to inconvenience the story with the logical consequences of it. In real life, with even a fraction of the amount of blood shown, Paul would have been hurt badly enough to require hospitalization. There would be an inevitable police investigation, with Val all but certainly ending up in a psychiatric ward or the juvenile justice system. It’s also safe to say that Linda’s infidelity to Val’s father would become known. But if Hernandez had played out the aftermath of the attack realistically, he wouldn’t have much of a book left.

It almost goes without saying that Hernandez hasn’t researched his characters. Val is supposed to be a top high-school gymnast with a solid chance of winning the state championship. However, Hernandez clearly doesn’t know much about high-school athletics. He certainly has no idea what the life of a top competitor would be like. Val’s daily routine wouldn’t be as brutal as the kind endured by elite gymnasts like Nastia Liukin or Shawn Johnson, which makes Marine boot camp seem like a picnic, but she’s not going to have much in the way of leisure time. A typical day would be school and three to four hours of practice and training, with hopefully enough time to finish her homework before she has to go to bed. She’s also going to be on a fairly strict diet. Alcohol is a major no-no, as it can play serious games with one’s metabolism. But the practice sessions in the story are portrayed so offhandedly that they feel like last-period gym class during balance-beam week. Hernandez also doesn’t appear to find it the least bit peculiar when Val heads off with a group of boys to hang out and drink beer. (I was surprised they would even have her along. I was friends with a champion swimmer in high school, and everyone was conscientious of her training needs without having to be told.) Linda is a ditz, but no matter how dumb she is, it would be pointed out to her that she shouldn’t be constantly offering to fix Val something to eat. The life of a champion high-school gymnast would make big demands on Val and everyone around her, but Hernandez is oblivious to that and everything it implies.

These complaints may seem pedantic, but they point up the fact that Hernandez’s laziness cuts him off from opportunities to give the story some depth. Couldn’t there be a connection between Val’s compulsive and violent behavior and the pressure she’s under? Fellow students and school personnel invariably treat star athletes like celebrities, with almost everyone looking to vicariously enjoy their success. It’s not unusual for them to feel like they live under a glass for everyone to see. Might the voyeurism be a way for her to turn the tables on everyone? Everyone just does what they do, and she gets to be the audience for a change? Perhaps Val’s deteriorating sanity might be reflected in problems with grades or substandard performances in practice or competition? (A twisted ankle sidelines her at one point, but the cause is unknown. It doesn’t appear to be the result of her neglecting her training.) Val’s coach is barely a presence in her life, which is also strange. One would expect the two to have a significant relationship. For someone like Val in real life, her coach would almost be more important to her than her parents. What might we discover about Val from the coach and their interactions? Hernandez doesn’t dignify the role gymnastics plays in Val’s life, so I don’t know the answer to this or any of the other questions. He cuts off a major avenue of insight into her character. It raises the question of why he made her a gymnast in the first place. I suspect the answer is that he just wanted to draw muscular girls in athletic poses.

That sort of attitude might explain some other odd elements, such as why Linda is shown working as a Playboy-bunny-type server in a local nightclub. Val’s father is well off enough to afford a good-sized suburban house and go golfing on Sundays. If suburbanites are conscious of anything, it’s appearances. He’s not likely to be tolerant of his wife working in a place where part of her job is to be ogled, no matter how tight the household income. Her work outfit is also an anachronism. Clubs haven’t had their wait staff dress like that in decades. But hey, it’s fun to draw voluptuous women in one-piecers, complete with fishnets, faux tails and high heels, so why not?

Hernandez can’t even keep his mind on what he presents. At one point, Paul recounts a horrific discovery while helping his father clean up an abandoned house. It’s clearly intended as a metaphor, which one expects to lead to an epiphany about Paul or the other characters in the book’s second half. But the epiphany never comes. Hernandez seems to forget about it in the midst of the massacres. Speaking of which, the ineptitude of the police investigation into the murder spree is beyond belief. The killings have almost identical m.o.’s, but the investigating detective can sincerely say “We’ve no conclusive evidence that they’re all linked.” He even says Val is not a suspect. However, forensic specialists are nowhere to be seen, much less the FBI, which is generally called in to investigate serial killings. In the age of CSI, with all the attention given to the ubiquity and exactitude of modern forensic investigation work, how does Hernandez expect anyone to accept what he shows? Val can’t even bother to wipe for her fingerprints.

The skill of the cartooning belies the laziness, stupidity and lack of depth in the story. As one expects from Hernandez, the characters are visually distinctive, the action is clear, and the pacing never lags. He probably enjoyed drawing it, which could have been all that mattered to him. But for a reader, Speak of the Devil is a terrible disappointment. The release of the giant Palomar collection a few years back prompted claims to the effect that only Robert Crumb, Jules Feiffer, and Art Spiegelman ranked him among living U. S. cartoonists. His more recent efforts have one wondering if he is going the route of Bob Dylan, who responded to similar plaudits by foisting album after album of self-indulgent crap on the public. Dylan’s fans ultimately saw it as contempt, and they responded by turning their back on him. After a few more works like Speak of the Devil, one would expect Hernandez’s fans to do the same. I never thought I’d say this about him, but these days he’s just filling up pages and cranking it out.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Fiction Review: "Painted Ocean, Painted Ship," Rebecca Makkai

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

This superbly written short story is a hilarious and moving tale of bad luck run amok in a young English professor's life

Rebecca Makkai’s “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship” is a sleekly written and beautifully developed short story. It’s part comedy-of-errors tale, and part character study. The protagonist, a young English professor named Alex Moore, suffers one mishap after another--most of it the fault of her own insecurities--until it seems her life is an irredeemable shambles. The experience, though, forces her to reassess everything about herself: her attitudes, her relationships, even her views of her scholarly project. She comes out the other end wiser--more aware of her own faults and what’s worth holding onto in her life. As luck would have it, her misfortune sets the stage for a more professionally and personally fulfilling life. Makkai catches the reader up in the rather farcical runaway train of Alex's travails, and most impressively, she manages the happy ending of pulling that train safely into the station without it feeling contrived.

The story opens with an article in a campus alumni magazine about Alex’s misadventure over the summer. While duck-hunting with her half-brother in Australia, she accidentally shot and killed an albatross. It’s a misadventure with special meaning to a professor who teaches English-lit survey courses. As all readers of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner know, such a deed is a harbinger of misfortune. And Alex gets hit with it right off the bat: the albatross is a protected bird, and she has to spend a good deal of her vacation time dealing with the Australian authorities. She ends up having to pay a hefty fine. Her troubles are only beginning, too. A thoughtless remark in which she mistakes a fifth-generation Chinese-American woman for a Korean exchange student turns into a full-blown campus scandal. To add to that, her doubts about her impending marriage overwhelm her, leading her to put her engagement in jeopardy. The life one can spend years building for oneself is a fragile thing, and Alex’s is splintering and shattering. Like Coleridge’s mariner, she’s got the albatross around her neck, and the reader can’t help but wonder how she’ll ever get it off.

What pushes the narrative beyond rather dark farce and into the realm of character study is that Makkai treats these mishaps and other aspects of Alex’s life as consequences of a weakness in Alex’s personality. She’s a control freak, determined to impose her perceptions and attitudes on everyone and everything around her. The remark to the Korean exchange student is prompted by her frustration with the young woman, a student who will not speak up even when Alex demands it in an after-class meeting. Alex is both rationalizing the student’s behavior, and using that rationale to browbeat the woman into doing what she wants. Alex jeopardizes her engagement largely because her fiancé can’t be bothered to reinforce her vanity about her looks. She can’t even read the alumni magazine article without complaining that the punctuation in her quotes is inappropriate and doesn’t reflect her intended tone. Makkai doesn’t have Alex whine about why-oh-why couldn’t that albatross have been the goose she thought it was when she shot it, but there would have been no surprise if it had been included.

Makkai weaves everything together with an outstanding sense of both construction and pace. She breaks the story down into a collection of succinctly written episodes, all of which are crafted to end on a note of epiphany, irony, portent, or even shock. The story’s momentum comes from the rollercoaster-ride structure created by the use of the latter three, but the use of epiphany is what gives it resonance. I was especially struck by the meditation on the relationship between poet-painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his model/muse Jane Morris. (In the story, this is the subject of Alex’s dissertation, and a focus of the seminar she teaches on the Pre-Raphaelites.) Alex contemplates the discrepancy between Morris’s actual appearance and Rossetti’s idealized portraits, and she wonders if confidence and happiness is found in acceptance of another’s idiosyncratic views of oneself. This ties into Alex’s thoughts in the story’s coda, when she looks back on all that happened and concludes that the moral is not to jump to conclusions. She senses that this isn’t adequate, and the Rossetti meditation highlights what’s she’s missing. The point to be gleaned is to just accept things, whether it’s the irritating behavior of a taciturn student, or happiness from the attention of a lover who sees you as more beautiful than you feel you are. It’s what gets one through the rough spots, including the hassles that come from killing a protected animal. Accepting things is necessary for them to fall into place, and it’s Alex’s ultimate embrace of this that gets the albatross off her neck and allows her luck to turn.

Tying her ending to the realization that one should deal with things through acceptance is what helps Makkai contrive a happy ending that doesn’t feel contrived. Another aspect of what makes the ending work is that it isn’t entirely happy. More specifically, Makkai includes discords. Alex’s confusion over how to make sense of what happens during the course of the story is one example; the recalled suicide of a sympathetic supporting character is another. (Alex doesn’t understand why it happened, but a reasonably attentive reader won’t be.) The ending emphasizes that life is chaotic and organic, and I rather enjoy the irony that Makkai’s extraordinary craft and control are what make it so vivid.

"Painted Ocean, Painted Ship," by Rebecca Makkai, was originally published in the Winter 2009/2010 issue of Ploughshares. It is featured in The Best American Short Stories 2010, edited by Richard Russo and Heidi Pitlor.

Short Take: "Black Telephone," David Trinidad

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

David Trinidad’s short poem “Black Telephone” might best be described as “Five Ways of Looking at a Telephone,” although I don’t think Trinidad has as much on his mind as Wallace Stevens, at least not here. The poem is essentially an exercise. It focuses on a single object--here an old-model telephone--and spins analogies and other associations from it. The first two “ways” focus on the telephone itself, while the latter three are concerned with the telephone’s parts, namely the cord, dial, and receiver. Trinidad’s two “ways” of looking at the whole of the telephone are the most interesting. These combine an awareness of the device’s obsolescence with a portrayal of how contemporary eyes might see it. Specifically, one would look at the telephone and its ring as a story element in a period movie, or as an antique of interest to a collector on eBay. The latter depiction comes with an enjoyable irony. Trinidad notes that in its new role, the telephone will have to be shipped “the distance it once / miraculously bridged.” The treatments of the telephone’s parts aren’t as sophisticated. These only focus on obsolescence, although he does manage to evoke a feeling of portent from each one. Tropes such as “web of / dead roots,” “a circle / of interminable clicks,” “a lead weight / pressing cold / dead silence” may seem rather histrionic, but I still like them. They do remind one that all objects contain multitudes. The poem originally appeared in Tin House #42, Winter 2009. It is also featured in The Best American Poetry 2010, edited by Amy Gerstler & David Lehman.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Comics Review: The Arctic Marauder, Jacques Tardi

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

This early effort by French cartoonist Jacques Tardi is a diverting entertainment--part Hergé, part Jules Verne--dressed up in gorgeously detailed though easy-to-read art

A couple of years ago, in a review of José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo’s Joe’s Bar, I said some disparaging things about the major European cartoonists of their generation, such as Jean “Moebius” Giraud and Hugo Pratt. I wrote that the “principal distinction of their work was the extraordinarily high level of the graphics; one often found the material was considerably more rewarding to look at than to read.” This isn’t entirely fair; it denies that escapist entertainment has its place and value. I’m certainly more than content to sit down with a volume of Giraud and Jean-Michel Charlier’s Blueberry or Pratt’s Corto Maltese. They’re first-rate examples of adventure comics, and it’s enjoyable at times to put aside one’s highbrow predilections and get caught up in the sweep of an unpretentious, well-crafted narrative and elegantly bold visuals.

I didn’t group Jacques Tardi with Giraud and Pratt in that essay. I wrote that he instead deserved to considered alongside of the Muñoz & Sampayo team and Joost Swarte. He was a cartoonist who aspired to more than just creating escapist entertainment; his “literary focus was more concerned with the human condition.” As it turns out, this was sometimes true and sometimes not. The material of Tardi’s I was familiar with at the time was the short “Manhattan” (featured in the inaugural issue of editors Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s RAW) and It Was the War of the Trenches. These were certainly the work of a cartoonist with ambitions beyond creating enjoyable suspense stories with dazzling visuals. But a good deal of Tardi's career has been devoted to turning out material that doesn’t strive for anything more than keeping the reader happily turning the pages. And that’s not a disappointment.

The Arctic Marauder is the earliest of Tardi’s works to be released in English thus far. It was originally published in France in 1974, and is the only volume of an apparently aborted series starring the Jérôme Plumier character. The story begins in 1889, on a passenger ship making its way through the Arctic en route to France. Plumier is a Parisian medical student traveling on board. When the ship encounters a wreck perched atop an iceberg, he volunteers to join the boarding party. While he and others are exploring the shipwreck, their own vessel is inexplicably blown out of the water. Plumier is among those rescued a few weeks later, and he returns to Paris only to be confronted with news of his favorite uncle’s death. While going through the uncle’s house, he finds a laboratory that appears to be the setting of all sorts of strange experiments. He’s bewildered by what he finds, but he’s quickly distracted by the discovery that his ship was only one of several to be destroyed while traversing that particular region of the Arctic. He joins an expedition that’s investigating the phenomenon, and he discovers that the rash of destroyed ships and the bizarre goings-on in his uncle’s laboratory are related. As the story progresses, he joins up with a pair of mad scientists who are bent on revenge against the world. And their nefarious activities aren’t just confined to the Arctic. The book ends with the three traveling to the Amazon jungle, in what is a clear set-up for a follow-up volume.

Tardi is obviously trying to create a Tintin-style feature here. The twists are that the protagonists are villains, and that Tardi takes a mildly parodic tack. (The parody elements are minor: deliberately overripe narration and occasional snarky asides directed at the characters and goings-on.) The guiding premise is the same as Hergé employed in Tintin: use a roving set of characters as the anchor for a series of adventures in exotic locales. It’s the Arctic in this episode, ostensibly the Amazon in the next, so on and so forth. Tardi borrows heavily from Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea for his particulars: the two mad scientists are essentially grotesque reworkings of Captain Nemo, and they even have their own version of the Nautilus submarine. The feature is derivative, but its tone is different than its predecessors, and it has the makings of an entertaining serial.

Central to that enjoyment are Tardi’s remarkable skills as both illustrator and storyteller. His panels are extraordinary; they flow beautifully as a continuity while remaining compelling to look at as single images. His strategy is again rooted in the approach that Hergé took with Tintin. The settings are elaborately drawn, but the character designs are quite simple. One’s eye can easily track the characters no matter how detailed the pictures. But Tardi also reimagines this technique in his own terms. He eschews Herge’s ligne claire style in favor of a more densely rendered approach (The Arctic Marauder was drawn using scratchboard), and he largely limits the idiosyncrasy of the character designs to the faces. These are actually the only element of the panels that he keeps simple. The contrast with the surrounding ornateness makes the faces stand out all the more; one essentially reads the story by following them. One is aware of the immense detail in the art, but it doesn’t distract from the narrative. It’s only when one is done with the story that one feels compelled to go back and savor the gorgeousness of the individual pictures. The Arctic Marauder isn’t as visually compelling as many of Tardi’s later efforts--the art in the seafaring sections is a bit too obviously inspired by Gustave Doré’s illustrations for The Rime of the Ancient Mariner—but it’s still a fine piece of eye candy.

And candy is really the right word for a work like The Arctic Marauder. It’s tasty, it goes down easily, and it gives one a little buzz. It doesn’t offer the more demanding (and rewarding) pleasures of a more substantial effort any more than a candy bar can compare to a gourmet meal. But sometimes, like a candy bar, a work like this can be what one has a craving for. The fun of getting caught up in a story that’s convoluted for its own sake, or the dazzle of pictures that preen the skill and effort that went into crafting them--they’re the hallmarks of a book that one reads to relax. Books that require an effort are ultimately more satisfying, but the smaller satisfactions are occasionally what one needs. The Arctic Marauder is fun, and it was nice to sit down with it after a long day.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Poetry Review: "On the Waterfront," B. H. Fairchild

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

B.H. Fairchild’s lovely poem both evokes the longing and highlights the absurdities found in movie-inspired daydreams. It also subtly challenges the reader to ask the value of those daydreams for oneself

As one can guess from the title, the 1954 film On the Waterfront, one of actor Marlon Brando’s signature vehicles, is central to B.H. Fairchild’s 2009 poem of the same name. The movie functions as a trope for the teenage narrator’s insecurity about his own identity, specifically his longing to define himself in terms apart from his small Kansas hometown. And Fairchild, fine poet that he is, uses this central trope as a stepping-stone to deeper questions about living life.

The time is the 1950s, and the narrator sees the film repeatedly in his job as an usher at the local movie theater. He identifies it with the New York City of his dreams, a place where

… bebop and blue neon lights
would fill my room, and I would wear a porkpie hat
and play tenor saxophone like Lester Young

The irony is that none of this has anything to do with the film, which is a brutal melodrama about organized crime’s control of the longshoremen’s union in Hoboken, New Jersey. Fairchild subtly emphasizes the disconnect, such as having the narrator quote dialogue from the film that has no relevance to his musings. Fairchild also hits notes that a reader familiar with the New York City area will understand as discords. Identifying the locale of the film as New York is one, and locating the waterfront of the title as being on the East River instead of the Hudson is another. The film is only of interest to the narrator as a springboard for his fantasies, a role it fills just as well as Fairchild’s complementing tropes of the gas masks at the local Army-Navy store, or of a town veteran’s Purple Hearts.

But Fairchild stays ambiguous about whether these fantasies are a bad thing. He begins the poem with the epigram “Know thyself,” Socrates’ famous dictum, and near the end the narrator has the Latin equivalent, Nosce te ipsum, said to him by another character. The poem ends with him acknowledging that he doesn’t know what it means. The surface implication is that he doesn’t understand the Latin, but the deeper one is that he doesn’t know what the saying means for himself. The reader is left wondering about the latter: is the narrator being told to put these fantasies away and accept small-town life, or should he recognize them as seeds for ambitions beyond it? The answer, I suppose, lies in whether one feels daydreams take one away from oneself, or bring one closer. It’s the best type of ambiguity--one that reads the reader at least as much as it does the text--and it’s a fine ending for this resonantly wistful poem.

On the Waterfront,” by B.H. Fairchild, was originally published in the Winter 2009 issue of Sewanee Review. It is featured in The Best American Poetry 2010, edited by Amy Gerstler & David Lehman. Fairchild also included it in his own collection, Usher.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Fiction Review: "World of Gas," Bonnie Jo Campbell

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

This selection from Bonnie Jo Campbell’s celebrated American Salvage collection tells of a single working mother taking all comers. Along the way, it also offers a tartly funny view of Y2K silliness and masculine folly, all grounded in the universals of everyday adult dilemmas.

One could easily denounce Bonnie Jo Campbell’s short story “World of Gas” as misandrist, but doing so would only betray one's humorlessness. Campbell’s stunning eye for social and character detail are on fine display: the story’s sketches of men as irresponsible and folly-minded ring unerringly true. It’s outright male-bashing, but it had me laughing from one end of the story to the other. The laughter Campbell prompts is one of recognition; I challenge any male reader to go through this story and not see shades of the dumbassery on display in himself. But one will also find an identification that goes beyond gender humor and into the universal.

“World of Gas” is told through the eyes of Susan, a single mother of three, probably about 40, who manages a propane supply company in rural Michigan. (I see Frozen River’s Melissa Leo playing her in the movie version.) The time is the latter months of 1999, and the company is getting a good deal of business from Y2K freaks--people who saw the alleged possibility of a worldwide mass computer crash on January 1, 2000 as an impetus to begin living out their apocalyptic survivalist fantasies. Susan is beleaguered on all ends. Not only does she have to manage the installation and maintenance issues for a bunch of yahoos who are likely to blow themselves up, she also has to deal with issues on the home front. Her ex-husband has effectively abandoned their three sons, which leaves it to her to contend with the eldest’s growing incorrigibility. The story is a day-in-the-life portrait, so her problems aren't resolved, but Campbell effectively builds the material to an ironic epiphany. About it, I’ll just say the Y2K calamity might have had its benefits.

Along the way, the reader is treated to one moment after another of hilariously rude rejoinders. Susan has thoughts of retaliation against the unhelpful vice-principal of her eldest son’s high school. She mockingly berates the militia-member buyer of a massive fuel tank (“Try not to let any of your drunk buddies drive into it”), while feeling sorry for his wife (“now that he was preparing for Y2K, Mack had gotten hold of a 550-gallon diesel tank that lay like a big yellow turd under Holly’s clotheslines”). When she finds her 15-year-old in bed with his girlfriend, she gets hit with the but-I-love-her defense. She responds with the stock If-you-love-her-why risk-getting-her-pregnant, but her aside to herself is a beauty: “if this girl means so much to you, then why don’t you turn off the damned TV when you’re in bed with her?” And Susan’s thoughts on the survivalist Y2K nonsense are priceless:

It occurred to Susan that men were always waiting for something cataclysmic—-ove or war or a giant asteroid. Every man wanted to be a hot-headed Bruce Willis character, fighting against the evil foreign army while despising the domestic bureaucracy. Men wanted to focus on just one big thing, leaving the thousands of smaller messes for the women around them to clean up.

Susan highlights the bull in all the nonsense that crosses her path; it’s both bracing and bracingly funny.

The story, though, is more than just a collection of wryly funny responses to the aggravations of masculine idiocy. Besides being a dead-on portrait of its time and place, it also captures the frustrations of someone doing his or her best to be competent and responsible, only to feel surrounded by fools. There is also its evocation of being stuck with the sense that cooperation and respect for one’s efforts are nowhere to be found. It’s a situation that confronts people of both genders. That universality may also contribute to why the story’s anti-male broadsides aren’t off-putting. Campbell’s caricatures have their smaller harmonies, but their discords are no match for the more profound harmony that lies beneath.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Comics Review: The Playwright, Eddie Campbell & Daren White

This review was originally published at Pol Culture.

Eddie Campbell brings his extraordinary cartooning prowess to Daren White's slight though witty portrait of a writer whose professional success walks hand-in-hand with his private defeats.

At first glance, The Playwright, written by Daren White and illustrated by Eddie Campbell, is a witty character study. The protagonist is a writer for the stage, film, and television. He is defined by an irony: his professional success is directly inverse to his private inadequacies. Socially and sexually, his life is a failure, but these personal shortfalls are what drive the creativity that gives him a living and a measure of renown. Amusingly, his dilemma is also a two-way street: the more fulfilled the playwright is in his personal life, the more blocked he is creatively. This clever conceit is all but played out to perfection.

I have to admit the story isn’t quite to my taste, but The Playwright overcomes all misgivings. It’s an extraordinary piece of cartooning. Eddie Campbell is one of the most accomplished visual stylists in modern comics, and he’s in peak form. His cool, contemplative tone is firmly in place. The dramatization maintains an elegant emotional reserve. Campbell never rubs one’s nose in the sadness of the protagonist’s life. One has to feel one’s way into the character’s psyche, and the story is all the more effective for it. The amount of social detail in Campbell’s panels is just astounding; visually, The Playwright is almost as rich a portrait of London in the present day as Alan Moore and Campbell’s masterwork From Hell is of the city in the 1880s. Campbell’s talent for visual tropes is also in full flower; he presents pitch-perfect metaphors for the protagonist’s sexual anxieties and plays them for slapstick to boot. White all but certainly originated them, but the élan of their execution is Campbell's own.

And Campbell being Campbell, he expands the range of comics’ expressive possibilities as well. The Playwright was originally serialized as a black-and-white strip in the periodical comics anthology DeeVee. Among the revisions for book publication was the addition of color. Campbell, though, doesn’t use the colors in a banally descriptive way. He creates a new set of tropes out of the various combinations to inflect and dramatically enhance the scenes. One has the juxtaposition of yellow and red, which signifies sex-as-lust and sex-as-fun. There is also the juxtaposition of red and green, which is the vehicle for the tenor of longing for romance and family-life happiness. And there is the juxtaposition of green and yellow, which carries associations of sexual and romantic defeat. Purple plays an important role as well, but I won't give that one away. The color effects are rooted in metonymy, which Campbell then builds into continuing metaphors. They add a whole new dimension to the narrative. It’s one of the most imaginative uses of color that I can remember seeing in comics.

To give one an idea of how the color strategies work, let’s examine Campbell’s juxtapositions of red and yellow. He introduces it in the opening scene, which shows the title character ogling a young woman sitting across from him on a bus. The protagonist’s focus is on the woman’s breasts, but the most striking element of the panels featuring the woman is her ascot, which is bright yellow and red. When the visuals take the reader completely inside the protagonist’s sexual fantasy, the woman’s colors apart from those of her hair and skin are the red of her nipples and the yellow of her panties. The image is framed by the bus window, which is shown contained by the bright red of the bus exterior. The red-yellow juxtaposition appears whenever the fun of sex is on the protagonist’s mind. In a scene where he’s surfing Internet porn, a red-and-yellow ball is shown bouncing around the panels. When he’s imagining “some potential young wife” jumping his bones, he pictures her as a shapely brunette in a red bikini and yellow-hued skin. And when he sits down to a first date with a woman with whom he ends up having a fulfilling relationship, red and yellow are of course the color scheme of her dress.

But Campbell doesn’t just use the color juxtapositions to create decorative metaphors; he also uses them to enhance the story's drama and suspense. In one scene, the protagonist finds a rapport with an attractive woman at a resort. The colors render the scene ambiguous. The woman is shown wearing a yellow swimsuit and hat, her hat band is red, and the two sit and talk underneath yellow and red sun-umbrellas. The ambiguity, though, comes from their sitting on green chaise lounges. What does that green mean? Will it join with the red to signify romantic longing, or will it join with the yellow to bring romantic defeat? Campbell builds the suspense in the next scene, in which the woman retains the yellow and red hat but wears a green dress. As things progress, the protagonist imagines inviting her to accompany him out-of-town to an awards ceremony. He sees their hotel room in his mind’s eye, and it’s the rich red and green of romantic longing. He also imagines them in the hotel hallway after the ceremony, and one can tell what’s on his mind: her red dress is juxtaposed with the yellow walls. The green of ambiguity depicts the floor, and is all but overwhelmed by the other colors. But yellow and green dominate the next panel, which includes the narration, “And so he will reserve the adjoining suite to accommodate all potential outcomes.” The color shift visually alerts one to his insecurities asserting themselves. The reader almost doesn’t need the text to anticipate that things will ultimately fall apart. On the next page, the protagonist abandons his interest in the woman after overhearing some gossip about her. As he listens to the scuttlebutt, his glasses are colored yellow, and green is shown taking over the red hues in his face. Sex-as-lust, sex-as-fun gives way to romantic and sexual defeat.

Campbell orchestrates the colors in this manner throughout the story, and he leaves one in awe of the variety and inventiveness of his cartooning arsenal. For him, every element of word and picture exists to create meaning and enrich the material, and he constantly finds new ways to achieve these ends. At his best, he can take a slight though clever script like Daren White’s and turn it into a bravura formal exercise that has one applauding. No matter what one thinks of the libretto, the score is a marvel.