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A Public Service Announcement! ;)

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Review of Dalrymple's *The Wrenchies*

One of the tropes of Chris Claremont's run on the Uncanny X-Men was the "fever dream," a narrative which took a character or characters to esoteric, often frightful depths of soul searching and offered events which a reader was never sure were real or imaginary, the reality or possible realities or real alternate realities. Reading Farel Dalrymple's The Wrenchies feels like one of Claremont's fever dream arcs. Indeed, many of the main characters of the book are teen fighters, some with superpowers, who are described as the best at what they do. Some characters even seem to be visual homages to Marvel's merry mutants, especially in their punk or "Days of Future Past" days. Like Wolverine, they're the best at what they do...

And what they do is...serve some nebulous purpose which seems to be a commentary on comics and the creative process itself. Sherwood, a leading character, is a comics artist who created a comic book called The Wrenchies, which is discovered by another band of gifted, down-on-their-luck, roving, fighting youngsters, which calls itself the Wrenchies after that comic. This takes place in the graphic novel by the same name we are reading.

Meta-meta-meta-meta? Who knows.

Eventually, members of both Wrenchies teams and a kid who seems to inhabit the same "base" universe as Wrenchies creator Sherwood team up to save a world where kids are eventually killed (?)/transformed (?) by evil beings like zombies, wizards, and shadowsmen. The Wrenchies' goal? Kill the source of the evil, Sherwood himself.

I see evidence of an author working through issues associated with Plato's cave allegory, existentialist angst, Freudian sublimation and Jungian concepts, but the book often seems as much a plot hodgepodge as it does a critical one. Dalrymple isn't just playing through multiliniarity in comics narratives; he's toying with the concept of a single, clear-cut driving narrative itself.

Make no mistake, the book is gorgeous. Dalrymple's visual detail and storytelling are as exciting and fresh as they've ever been, even in muted palettes, and the arcane, weird vibe of his previous work is intact, even if often the images are grotesque and violent. Characters like Hollis and Scientist are easy to like. Motivations are endearing and piteous. But the book feels tangled, a knot of meaning and reflection perhaps too abstruse to appreciate, a text as confused as it is confusing.

Still, if you're a fan of the recherch√© and  post-apocalyptic sensations and don't mind a read where you're probably never going to have a full sense of what is going on or even why the narrative exists (as in what deep, dark need it served for the author), The Wrenchies offers a twenty-side die of  a read, the  graphic novel as icosahedron. Revel in its mysteries, teases and taunts, but don't expect easy answers in terms of plot or presence.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Review of Tamaki & Tamaki's *This One Summer*

Nothing nestles one out of their plans to review a book like learning it just won a Caldecott and a Printz, but that's what happened with me and This One Summer, a 2014 release from Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki, who some may remember from their 2008 graphic novel Skim.  

I started reading This One Summer months ago. The book details a particularly eventful -- in a subdued sort of way --  family vacation to Awago Beach for young Rose, a teenager teetering between liking girlish joys and being thrilled and titillatingly confused by the provocativeness of dabbling in more adult realities, some of which feel like confronting an adulterated abyss and others which feel like the pangs of pubescence. Rose is a domestic detective eager to place together clues about her family life and the lives she might want, and Awago Beach is her beat to canvas.

As she grows weary of her parents' bickering and emotional isolation from each other, Rose finds some comfort (and some vexing too) in her younger friend Windy, who provides a vehicle for reflecting on the word of girlhood versus a new, more aware existence where sex is real, boys are...?, mother nature's a bitch (and named as such), and just getting by alive, much less well, can seem like the greatest of successes.

But as much as I enjoyed the story and worried alongside Rose about what exactly was up with her despondent mother, the thing that kept me from finishing the book for so long, kept me hoarding it to myself, is its mastery of the comics form. I wanted to keep it to myself. 

This One Summer offers a low-key, domestic plot which manages to tap into the universals of living and growing, so it is never boring even though its topics are mundane, but ohmygoodnesstheART! 

The Tamakis know their comics craft, and they offer us a mastery of panel work and emanata as not just story framing but story telling like few graphic novelists I've seen. They are in complete control of what comics making affords them and utilize unique elements of sequential art so adeptly I'm not surprised the honors have rolled in. I couldn't keep this book to myself if I tried. Someone was bound to recognize its brilliance. What gets me as someone who has metacognitive awareness of comics' affordances and applies it to readings, though, is that the plot and those elements so impressively used are never at odds. I never felt so impressed by the artistry that it took me out of the story. The story is the artistry. 

Panel work can seem banal, for example. Comics are always framed -- by readers, by pages, and by cells or panels within the page. Even open panels with full bleed still reside within the space of the page. But the Tamakis show even the basic elements of comics can be art, not just artifice. 

In one panel, for example, Rose holds up a jellied candy, peering through it and noting the distorted image of reality it offers, a chaotic frame within the frame which creates for the reader the experience of seeing the physical real as it is, as it could be, and as it is comprehended in Rose's mind. 

A series of panels in which Rose looks through the slits of a high wooden fence into the yard of local, working-class teens offer another amazing bit of formal mastery. Again, the scene works to give Rose a glimpse of another lifestyle or realism, one more grown-up than she's used to. The vertical, rectangular slits in the fence are already bordered by traditional comics panels but also become comics panels, and the angle work -- another strength of the book -- creates a dual perspective and multi-framing effect which draws the reader into Rose's psyche while also helping us experience her angst, excitement and nervousness about noting worlds beyond her own lived experiences. It's not just the plot, but the form which snags the audience.

As well, the creators spin onomatopoeia and diegetic and nondiegetic sound into high art. In one panel, the word "slut" weighs heavily on Rose's mind and intermingles with her physical surroundings to replace the sound of walking on crunching leaves.  When Windy practices inhaling and exhaling, her breath has body. 

When Windy and Rose listen to tunes, the music, visually represented as notes in the air -- not a new trick, but never one so accomplished as it is herein (seriously, Schroeder, if you saw how well music was expressed in this comic, you'd feel the full weight of working for Peanuts!) -- seem tangible, movable, customizable, even, as if the air itself becomes a workshop for creation and expression. When Rose swims and we need to feel the depth of the water, we are placed half-submerged behind treading Rose, and the panels are long and horizontal. When space itself becomes daunting or dangerous, splash pages full of ink help readers see when space itself can become daunting or dangerous, and every single element, from line work to angling to panel work to use of emanata and onomatopoeia, seems essential. 

And so they are. 

The Printz and the Caldecott and whatever other awards are coming don't make This One Summer a masterpiece, of course, and I do wonder if folks have gotten so keen to the comics scene that they are aware of all the artistic work going on in the book or just sort of "felt" its specialness without being able to note the formal command at work. The book would be a magnum opus of comics art regardless. I am sure it will be studied and explicated for years to come. It's a true exemplar. I suppose the book is a credit to the success of comics as a medium which has full respect among many within the literati now. But award recognition alone doesn't adequately describe how rare and special is This One Summer.