Clyde Fans & Scrapbook Reviewed in The LA Times Book Review

Pictures with a story to tell

Los Angeles Times    |    Louise Roug    |    December 5, 2004

The grand old man of the form, Will Eisner, calls words and pictures strung together on the page "sequential art." As a genre, sequential art -- comic books and graphic novels -- increasingly occupies a prominent place in the popular culture. The cartoonist has to master dual disciplines -- art and storytelling -- and in the best books, the two elements are seamless.

And so it is with "Mother, Come Home" (Dark Horse Books: 128 pp., $14.95) by 27-year-old Paul Hornschemeier, a story almost Scandinavian in its bleakness. Thomas, a 7-year-old, loses his mother, who, just before she dies, gives him a plastic lion's mask. "My mother loved to give presents," narrates the adult Thomas in the next panel, which shows the boy standing in the snow at her grave, his father next to him. The two are not holding hands.

In response to the loss, the father slowly withdraws from the world. One long, dreamy sequence depicts him suspended in the dark purple morass of his mind, searching for his lost wife. Soon, the young Thomas (nicknamed "Aquinas") imagines himself "the groundskeeper," watching over his father's retreat while trying to control the weeds that threaten their garden, wearing -- inevitably -- the cheap lion's mask.

The story is miserable but never maudlin, in part because of the tightly reined visuals. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but tragedy beats with the cruel heart of pithiness. Clean-swept and slow, "Mother, Come Home" is so sparse that certain panels are pure abstraction. One shows simply a wall phone, recognizable only in the context of panels before and after. The world is seen through the eyes of someone just tall enough to reach that phone but who nonetheless imagines himself the protector of a sadly shrinking household. When the world comes apart (again), it's a small world getting even smaller.

Art Spiegelman's "In the Shadow of No Towers" (Pantheon: 42 pp., $19.95) hints at economy in its page count. Each page, however, is cardboard thick and broadsheet wide, like the book itself: sprawling, oversized and dense. It fits the large subject: Spiegelman's experience of the events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath. His black-on-black New Yorker cover, with the ghostly outline of the World Trade Center towers, was the magazine's first after the attacks.

In the book's prologue, titled "The Sky Is Falling," Spiegelman writes: "Before 9/11 my traumas were all more or less self-inflicted, but outrunning the toxic cloud that moments before had been the north tower of the World Trade Center left me reeling on that faultline where World History and Personal History collide -- the intersection my parents, Auschwitz survivors, had warned me about when they taught me to always keep my bags packed."

The winner of a Pulitzer Prize for "Maus," his groundbreaking graphic novels about the Holocaust, Spiegelman lived near the twin towers with his wife, Francoise Mouly, a New Yorker art editor, and their children, Dash and Nadja. The book begins near the towers on the morning of the attacks. Using a variety of styles, Spiegelman's pace is frantic as he depicts his and his wife's search for Nadja. Taking issue with those who capitalize on the symbolism of ground zero (the Bush administration), as well as with facile readings of its import ("irony is dead"), his tone is equal parts panic and sarcasm.

Created as a series for the German weekly Die Zeit, Spiegelman's story uses characters from early newspaper strips (Little Nemo, the Katzenjammer Kids) to make a kind of meta-comic book -- a rumination on the cartoon form and its political uses, his alter ego alternating between Hapless Hooligan and a Maus-like mouse. In the epilogue, he quotes W.H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939" -- "The unmentionable odour of death offends the September night ... " -- before concluding across three panels that show the skeleton of the towers, first glowing, then fading into black. "The towers have come to loom far larger than life ... but they seem to get smaller every day.... Happy anniversary."

I have limited patience for stories of middle-American mall rats and adolescent pressures to conform. (Grow up. Move to New York.) The suburban ennui peddled by cartoonists after Daniel Clowes' 1998 graphic novel "Ghost World" evoke in me the experience they purport to depict: boredom. But Clowes' own work stands out among the plethora of hipster angst on paper. His characters are both haunting and hilarious as they veer from normal to dysfunctional to, in this latest case, sociopathic.

The newest installment in his 15-year series, "Eightball #23: The Death-Ray" (Fantagraphics: 42 pp., $7), is a satirical spin on the superhero genre of Jack Kirby and Spiderman. Peter Parker was transformed from teenager to superhero by the bite of a radioactive spider; Clowes' Andy is endowed with superpowers when he smokes his first illicit cigarette.

Growing up an orphan (as superheroes are wont to do), Andy lives with his frail grandfather, Pappy. Discovering his powers, Andy begins sporting sad, saggy tights and carrying a death-ray gun resembling a large, yellow hairdryer. And he doesn't grow into his superhero tights but, rather, keeps using his superpowers in not-so-super ways. With his unpleasant sidekick, Louie, he becomes a vigilante, eventually turning into a serial killer, lethally punishing those around him for minor infractions. Even Louie is zapped when he suggests that Andy moderate his random exterminations.

The adult Andy, who grows up in a long flashback, is as disaffected and estranged from the world as he was as a teenager. A creepy, self-righteous loner, he lives in a nondescript apartment building with his dog, a couple of failed marriages behind him. The reader can choose one of three endings: "A. Andy zaps everyone in the world until he's the only one left. B. He turns the gun on himself and the world goes on without him. C. He continues to live much as he has for the past twenty-five years.... At some point he dies, probably of lung cancer."

Seth's "Clyde Fans, Book One" (Drawn & Quarterly: 156 pp., $19.95) is the Arthur Miller-esque story of the Matchcard brothers who inherit a Toronto fan business. The narrator, Abraham, is the primary businessman. Simon, his bruised brother, fails miserably at sales, unable to connect to the world around him. But neither of them are really "closers," and the story is one of disappointment and loss. Working in the 1950s, they don't see the air conditioner coming and its arrival destroys their business. Seth tells the story as an extended flashback, with fluid brushwork and gray-blue wash. (The story was serialized in the comic book Palookaville.)

As the book begins, Abraham contemplates his surroundings, the purchase orders, invoices and receipts stacked around him: "[f]ragile pieces of paper scattered all around the province. Yellow bits of scrap with my name signed on them. Those fragments prove to that world out there that I once existed. It occurs to me that those papers probably have a more meaningful relationship with the outside world than I do." By this time, his brother is presumably dead and Abraham is a lonely old man, wandering the dusty corridors of his broken business.

When Adrian Tomine began self-publishing his comic book Optic Nerve at 16, his stories and style seemed to have come into being fully formed. Tomine quickly found an audience. Although "Scrapbook, Uncollected Work: 1990-2004" (Drawn & Quarterly: 204 pp., $24.95) collects work other than Optic Nerve as well as sketches and commercial illustrations, it is still a treat for fans of his easy and elegant naturalist style.

Sometimes the work is autobiographical, often it is humorous but it is always slow. Inspired by "Love & Rockets," the brilliant series by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez about Maggie and Hopey and the rest of the punks of Palomar, Tomine's work tends toward blue rather than sad, toward longing rather than boredom and that, combined with his stylish pen, is ultimately what makes his work so satisfying. *

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