Comic Review – „Blankets“ by Craig Thompson

© Top Shelf

Reading a Classic

Do you know that feeling when a book or another piece of art is valued so highly by a certain group of people that one is almost hesitant to pick it up? It’s as if all the expectations or assumptions create a barrier to the work itself, at least that’s how it feels to me sometimes. This winter, I tried to leap over some of those gaps, first by reading the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman and, more recently, Blankets by Craig Thompson.

Blankets, which was originally published in 2003 by Top Shelf Productions to much critical acclaim is an autographic (an autobiographical graphic novel) about the artist’s childhood and adolescence in rural Wisconsin. The plot begins with the early years of Thompson and his younger brother Phil in the Christian community of their hometown, then gradually transforms into a romantic account of Thompson’s relationship with Raina, a girl he meets as a teenager at a ski camp. This relationship takes up most of the space of book and casts a warm light on the otherwise grim portrayal of the artist’s childhood, which is filled with bullying, depravity and religious doubt. In many ways, Blankets is a comic-turned-love-letter as it relates the meeting of the two misfits, Thompson and Raina, at a pivotal time in their lives, and how their relationship shifted their perspectives.

What struck me the most about Blankets is how it captures the intensity of falling in love for the first time. Romantic love as the subject of fiction is a tricky affair because it threatens to dissolve into cliché, into an emotional language that everyone knows, and no one really believes in. And while Blankets can get quite sentimental at times (perhaps even kitschy), it mostly feels like a highly personal story and reminded me of similar experiences I made as a teenager. The book somehow captures the force of those feelings, the proximity and long conversations that feel special precisely because they are experienced for the first time. It’s like stumbling upon a secret too big for words, like a written note from a crush that you kept tight in your sweaty palm when you were a kid.

As an autographic, Blankets lacks the complex meta-narrative of, say, the work of Alison Bechdel or Art Spiegelman. But that’s okay because the book brings the reader closer to the memories themselves instead of weaving them into a broader life story. Blankets zooms in on momentary feelings that constitute Thompson’s memories, from the way a kiss or a piece of fabric felt, to the view of a snowy sky from below.

© Top Shelf

Of course, the book mostly radiates these feelings because of its drawings: Thompson’s lines fly boldly across the page, rending characters and their faces in a highly expressive way. Bodies and objects seem to stretch or shrink with emotions of the characters, and ornamental imaginings of heaven and hell accompany renderings of childhood fantasy worlds.

The dynamic nature of Thompson’s art also applies to the composition of panels on the page. In an interview, cartoonist and theorist Scott McCloud elaborated on how Blankets was quite innovative for its time, and I can sense why. As with the drawings, the panels underline the characters’ emotions. Sometimes things seem to jump out of the images, sometimes they blend into each other as lovers embrace. Finally, the book is littered with skillfully placed blank spaces that act as pauses in the comic’s rhythm and say more than any image could. Thompson’s playful compositions still feel fresh 17 years later and it is not hard to see their influence on the work of other cartoonists. All in all, Blankets comic worthy of its renown and I will continue to recommend it to anyone who needs a story to get through the cold winter days.

Craig Thompson
Top Shelf

Comic Review – „Rusty Brown“ by Chris Ware

© Pantheon

Spiraling Into Infinity

Some time ago, I came into an argument with a friend. We were talking about life after university and the difficult choices that go along with it. “Well”, she said, “all things considered, control is definitely an illusion”. I asked her to elaborate and she replied that because our world is so very complex and we only have a limited set of information to work with, all our decisions are necessarily flawed. We may think we are being rational and in control, but we are more or less like kites in the wind, moved by the forces to which we are oblivious. While I did not necessarily agree with her line of argument, I was strongly reminded of it while reading Rusty Brown, the new comic by Chris Ware.

Throughout his work, and especially in his much-acclaimed graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, US cartoonist Ware has exhibited an acute sensibility for the complexities of life. His comics trace the vast web of causalities in which we are entangled as individuals, including our family histories, upbringing and the mental idiosyncrasies of our times. This panoramic mode of storytelling is inseparably linked to Ware’s unique visual style: his drawings are ‘cartoony’ with clear, yet unadorned lines and flat colors that add up to an artificial, sometimes almost sterile appearance.

What makes the artwork so appealing, however, is the way in which Ware arranges his panels on the page. His work often features exhilarating compositional experiments with vast numbers of images sprawling into different directions. Ware’s groundbreaking Jimmy Corrigan from the year 2000 is exemplary for this as it featured complex tableaus that lapsed remarkably from conventional layouts. The book pointed to the fact that, yes, comics should be treated as a “visual language” of their own and that there is still much room for exploration.

© Pantheon

Rusty Brown, the new comic by Ware, published in 2019 by Pantheon Press, is in many ways less experimental than Ware’s previous work, which makes for a different, but no less dazzling read. The book, which is around 350 pages in length, revolves around a snowy winter day in 1975 Ohio. In a style that parodies old soap opera TV series, we are introduced to a colorful cast of characters. There’s the ginger-haired Rusty Brown, a painfully introverted boy who is convinced he has superpowers, his father, a melancholy schoolteacher, his new friend Chalky White who just arrived in town, Jordan Lint, a teenaged long-haired troublemaker, and many more.

At first, the lives of all these characters cross in a way reminiscent of high school dramas: there’s a dose of teenage angst, the fear of not belonging, heartbreak and half-hearted rebellion. But there are also adult characters stuck inside their own routines, caught in the daily drudgery. Just as one has gotten used to Rusty Brown’s mode of narration, the tone shifts again. The snowy day in Ohio is not so much as the setting of a scene but the starting point of a spiral into different characters’ lives.

Just as a snowstorm is comprised of countless individual flakes, the narrative of Rusty Brown dives into the lives of people first introduced in passing. Each episode features a distinct visual style which points both to the characters’ inner life and Ware’s development as an artist. While the stories span a variety of subjects and genres (including a pinch of science-fiction), they also share a particular flavor of melancholy and sadness. Like the perspective presented by my friend in the opening anecdote of this review, Ware’s characters often find themselves dazed by the complexity of life while at the same time dreaming of more.

© Pantheon

At its most touching, Rusty Brown deals with forms of regret. The episode of Jason Lint in particular, is a devastating roller-coaster ride that sees its character going through a many-stage metamorphosis, from an angry teenage firecracker to family father. It is a character on the run, who trying to escape his own abusive past while involuntarily causing hurt in others. That Jason still feels like a coherent figure undergoing life changes and not a cluster of ideas on paper is evidence of Ware’s strength as a writer and cartoonist. It also matches his own views of seeing art as a medium of empathy.

Rusty Brown is an incredibly ambitious work because it achieves the balance of both relating entire lives of its characters while remaining attuned to the more ephemeral texture of experience, the seemingly mundane and trivial details that constitute our existence. Despite veering away from formal experiments, Ware still proves he is a master of composition and space by presenting unusual and appealing layouts. All in all, Rusty Brown feels highly atmospheric and emotionally charged. The colors are rich and underscore the shifting moods of the different stories and perspectives. Yes, the complexities of life may make any claim of control seem ludicrous. But thankfully, we are not alone and have artists like Ware who can trace our patterns in the void.

Rusty Brown
Chris Ware

Comic Review – „Off Season“ by James Sturm

© Drawn & Quarterly

It took a while, but fall has finally reached my German hometown. As the days get shorter, I turn to some of the more somber books on my reading list, beginning with Off Season by US cartoonist James Sturm. Published in the beginning of this year by Drawn and Quarterly, the comic caught my attention early on because of its appealing art style and its references to the 2016 US presidential election. I’m glad I finally read it and can safely say that Off Season is among my favorite books of 2019.

But let’s start from the beginning: Off Season is an episodic comic that tells the story of a family caught in the turmoil of a disintegrated marriage. The events are set in New England during the snowy winter of 2016 and narrated by Mark, a freshly separated husband and father of two kids. From the very beginning, we get the sense that he is struggling, not only with the end of his marriage, but also with financial issues and personal mental health. While their emotional wounds are still sore, both Mark and his estranged wife make efforts to reach some form of agreement in order to take care of their children. Apart from their private struggles, the family is also shaken by the ongoing 2016 US presidential elections and the growing political divide of the country. Mark and Lisa were both avid supporters of Bernie Sanders, one of the Democratic candidates in the primary election, but later disagree on Hillary Clinton as the Democratic Party’s final candidate.

© Drawn & Quarterly

What is immediately striking about Sturm’s comic are its drawings and its layout. Off Season’s plot is utterly realistic but its characters are anthropomorphic animals drawn with clear lines and a grey wash reminiscent of watercolor. This gives the images an appealing depth and contributes to the generally melancholic atmosphere of the story, especially during the winter scenes in the later episodes. In addition to its drawings, Off Season also features an unusual format and layout: the book has a rectangular shape and each page consists of two panels of the same size. As the artist explained in an interview, he originally drew the single panels on index cards. While the simple two-panel comic-strip layout sounds like it would impede any form of advanced storytelling, it works surprisingly well in practice. Sturm accomplishes the feat of making each episode feel significant on its own while still advancing the overall narrative. This is also due to the superb writing: Off Season packs an emotional punch, but it never feels overburdened by its themes.

Sturm deftly intertwines the personal and the political in his work while also addressing the growing economic rifts within the United States. Reading Off Season made me feel the intense strain of its principal character who works in construction and is trying to get by, despite being taken advantage of by his employer and supplying for his kids. Ultimately, Off Season invites to be read as a story about the modern struggles of masculinity, fatherhood and the genuine difficulties of family life after separation. It is a great comic and one I will surely return to in the wintry days ahead.

Off Season
James Sturm
Drawn & Quarterly

Comic Review – „My Friend Dahmer“ by Derf Backderf

© Abrams

Chasing Shadows

In the realm of pop culture, the stories of celebrities tend to develop a life of their own. Rock stars, famous rappers and activists are all shrouded in a mystical halo, making everything they ever did either point to their inevitable success or failure. The same applies to famous criminals. It would be naïve to assume that our perception of convicted murderers and rapists remains unchanged as soon as they are dipped into Hollywood limelight, wrapped into layers of representation, the faces of actors superimposed upon their own. One interesting question to ask is why people who commit such atrocities even spark fascination in the first place. Why even dive into that rabbit hole of human abyss?

The answer of Derf Backderf, the U.S. cartoonist behind the 2012 graphic memoir My Friend Dahmer would probably be relatively simple: He knew the guy. Backderf went to the same high school as Jeffrey Dahmer, the teenager who would later in his life murder, rape and mutilate 17 males before being killed by a fellow inmate in prison in 1994. Backderf’s comic looks back to a time before these horrible crimes were committed, to his own high school days in 1970’s Ohio in order to get closer to Dahmer as a person. As stated in the comic’s foreword, the intent of the work is not to excuse the actions of his school friend but to contextualize them, to show that the transformation of the shy and severely troubled teenager into a mass murderer was not set in stone and could perhaps have been avoided.

This attempt to humanize a person whose later actions were unspeakably violent and deranged, to add a perspective to the story that suspends judgement and strives for understanding, is constantly under threat within the comic. This is a memoir, not a psychological report, and despite a visible aim for clarity, Backderf’s graphic memories of Dahmer and his high school days are always steeped in emotion and presented by a very prominent narrator. One might even say that there are two conflicting perspectives within the comic: there is one in which Backderf recounts his own personal memories of Dahmer as a teenager, who traces their parallel trajectories from adolescence to adult life, recounts their shared time in hallways, during lunch breaks and car rides. And then there is another in which the narrator attempts to ‘fill in the blanks’ with the help of criminal records and interviews to understand the struggles of Dahmer and the events to which Backderf was oblivious at the time.

© Abrams

The way that these levels blend into each other may be one of the comic’s greatest strengths. Backderf draws parallels between his life and Dahmer’s and thereby asks meaningful questions concerning the forces that shape us in our upbringing and the extent of our own personal freedom. By describing to the peculiarities of 1970’s rural Ohio he points to the paradox of a tight-knit neighborhood that is simultaneously inert when it comes to helping people who are obviously in desperate need, whether this be Dahmer himself or his severely ill mother. In the comic, Dahmer is presented as a vulnerable and isolated figure, neglected by his self-absorbed parents, and isolated from his peers first by his growing mental instability. However, he is also an enigma, a person retreated to far into himself that his personality is hardly more than a small shadow in the corner of a room. The only time Dahmer drew any attention in school was in his role as ‘class clown’ who briefly amused high fellow students (including Backderf) with his antics.

The inscrutability of Dahmer is mostly conveyed by the drawings which present the face of the troubled teenager as a cold mask, almost devoid of any emotion except for the grotesque grimaces during his pranks. In general, Backderf’s drawings are cartoony in the best way, the detailed and clear fineliner art reminding me of the work of Joe Sacco. The comic presents characters, objects and landscapes in an angular and weird fashion that is both clunky and appealing despite its simplicity.

© Abrams

Like the drawings, the narrative structure of My Friend Dahmer also shows Backderf’s skill as a cartoonist. The story has a distinct arc as it zooms in and out of Dahmer’s and Backderf’s lives, sometimes comparing their upbringing in juxtaposing panels. At certain points, however, the comic seems too absorbed by its own meaningfulness. Comparing Dahmer to Jack the Ripper in one unfortunate panel, or making references to the “hellish future” that awaits him are unbecomingly sensationalist and divert attention from the events as they unfold. In keeping with the advice “show, don’t tell”, My Friend Dahmer is at its best when it is at its most personal. Many of Backderf’s drawn memories are certainly haunting and bear the regret of not having known enough.

© Abrams

While this is certainly a graphic memoir worth reading, the question remains whether My Friend Dahmer can contribute to the demystification of its subject or merely adds yet another layer of representation to his story. While the passages that recount Backderf’s first-hand memoires certainly feel genuine and thought provoking, it is only too telling that the cover of the book’s newest edition already points to the next medium, the 2017 film of the same title. The photographed boy on the cover of my comic’s edition may look like Dahmer, but beware, it is in fact actor Ross Lynch.

My Friend Dahmer
Derf Backderf
Abrams ComicArts

Novel Review – „On Earth We‘re Briefly Gorgeous“ by Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong is not a new name for me. Back in 2016, I stumbled over his poetry collection Night Sky With Exit Wounds while browsing NPR’s Book Concierge on the search for holiday reads. What caught my attention at the time was the name (what better word to encapsulate depth and uncertainty than ocean) but also the cover which displays two women sitting at the sides of a small boy in a faded and slightly ominous photograph. The poetry of the US-Vietnamese poet struck me. Vuong’s vivid, yet enigmatic pieces dealing with family, cultural heritage and same-sex desire left a dent in the back my mind, deep enough that I was excited to hear that he had released his debut novel this year.

My expectations were not disappointed: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a fragmented yet beautiful work, the novel’s 240 pages feeling not long at all but condensed and sharp. Plot-wise it is a difficult book to pin down, however. As the falling leaves on the cover of the radiant UK edition suggest, Vuong’s novel deals a lot with transformation and loss. Written as a letter from a young man named Little Dog to his mother, the novel invites to be read autobiographically as the narrator shares many traits with Vuong himself, including his childhood immigration from Saigon to Hartford, Connecticut.

There are many different narrative strands in the book, from the experiences of Little Dog’s grandmother in South Vietnam during the war to the tragic story of the narrator’s drug addicted first love Trevor, who lives with his father in a trailer on the outskirts of town. What binds many of these strands together is that they revolve around different types of trauma and their effect on the body. The physical and mental wounds inflicted during the Vietnam war have painful repercussions in Little Dog’s life, from the schizophrenia and flashbacks of his grandmother to the violence and frustration of his mother.

The novel succeeds in conveying the state of loss and disorientation brought by the family’s move to the US, a foreign country both in culture and language. In one of the book’s many memorable passages, Vuong’s mother is humiliated in front of her son as she tries to buy oxtail for a Vietnamese dish at a local mall. Gasping for words, first in Vietnamese then in broken French, the butcher laughs at her final attempt to communicate with gestures. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous treats the loss of language as a particularly painful wound, a perhaps irreparable blank space between severed connections, a void experienced only as phantom pain.

Many of the novel’s passages feel like memories in the sense that they are carried by a feeling of urgency and visceral sensory experience. This is especially true for the relationship between Little Dog and Trevor which takes up a considerable portion of the book. As the narrator visits Trevor in his trailer, he describes his yearning for the taste of his lover, the flavor of his tongue, the salt around his neck and scent of his fingers. Vuong’s language manages to feel both precise while repeatedly blooming into poetic imagery. In recounting the experience of being bullied during bus rides to school for example, Little Dog remembers pressing his head into the seat in front of him, looking at his electric sneakers which “erupted with silent flares: the world’s smallest ambulances, going nowhere.”

The novel avoids the pitfalls of devolving into a static assortment of such images through its elaborate structure. Vuong skillfully interweaves and juxtaposes different narrative strands, switching from past to present and back in a way that feels like it is creating a meaningful rhythm. At times, the experimental structure of the novel threatens to dissolve the narrative altogether, especially in the middle section where the prose breaks into fragmented sentences that somehow seem unfinished. But it all comes back together in the end, mirroring through its fractured form both the characters and perhaps even the state of the country as a whole.  On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a beautiful novel that I will surely come back to in the years to come.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
Ocean Vuong
Penguin - Vintage

Review – „Les Têtards“ by Pascal Matthey

During a recent family vacation in Brussels, I snuck off to discover some of the comic book stores in the area. Admittedly, I didn’t get further than Multi-BD, a shop on one of Brussel’s main streets with an incredible assortment of French and English independent comics (including all the R. Crumb you can think of). Faced with an impossible choice, I stuck to a shelf of local flavor and picked two books by l’employé du Moi, an independent publisher I had heard about before that is based in Brussels, Belgium.

Among the two books I chose is Les Têtards, a beautiful wordless comic by Swiss-born artist Pascal Matthey. It’s a small book, about half the size of a sheet of paper, with a minimal yet elegant hardcover binding that features the title in green letters superimposed over a drawing of frog-shaped gummy bears. This type of candy, also found in kiosks on every German street corner, reminded me of my childhood and this association is not far off: Les Têtards is a drawn collection of childhood memories, presented in short wordless episodes.

What immediately struck me about the comic are its delicately shaded pencil drawings. Apart from the characters who follow a more cartoony aesthetic, everything is rendered in detail and the still life drawings and landscapes that dominate the book are beautiful to look at. The comic consists of different interwoven episodes that each center on moments of the protagonist’s childhood. These penciled snapshots of time range from the mundane to the extraordinary, there are memories of family vacations in the mountains, of falling in love for the first time, of discovering sexuality but also of marveling at a snail on the roadside. At times, the memories are bound together by a shared theme, specifically the tadpoles that give the comic its name. The child protagonist is fascinated by the metamorphoses of the tiny embryos into frogs while he himself is steadily growing, slowly shifting from childhood into adolescence.

At other times, the episodes of Les Têtards are more structured by means of association. One memory leads to the next and the single images morph into each other. While the layout of the book sticks mostly to a calm 6 panel composition, Matthey skillfully finds a rhythm to his stories by juxtaposing still images that share visual similarities, comparable to match cuts in film. In one of my favorite sequences of this type, the spawn of frogs transforms into a soccer ball and later into marbles. At their best, such sequences not only evoke the memory itself but also the act of remembering.

By taking its time, Les Têtards finds beauty in silent images and succeeds in conjuring up the intensity and wonder of childhood experience. The memories that stay with us over the years, that get carried over the tide of forgetting are significant in their own right and Matthey’s thoughtful, meditative comic honors this act of remembering.

Les Têtards
Pascal Matthey
l’employé du Moi (Belgium)