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THIS WEEK IN COMICS! (10/19/11 – Pure Metaphor)

I’ve spent all of my comics-reading time over the last few days picking through Craig Thompson’s recent doorstop opus Habibi, so the premise of this column would logically direct I post something from that at the column header. However, since this site is going to run some other Habibi-related stuff in short order, I thought I’d actually present something a little less known but not unrelated – an image from publisher First Second’s 2009 release of Korean artist Kim Dong Hwa’s The Color of Earth, published domestically in ’03. And while it seems a little odd to characterize anything from as big a thing as a Macmillan imprint as “a little less known,” I suspect this particular book got a bit lost in the publishing shuffle; truthfully, I don’t recall it being terribly well-received at the time of its release either, although I’ve always considered it one of the more fascinating, even eccentric exhibits of non-specialist publishers dipping into the Asian comics scene.

Put in the simplest terms possible, The Color of Earth is a long series of chapter-divided poetic associations drawn between various bucolic phenomena — flowers, rains, fruits — and the sexual characteristics of women, specifically a young and rapidly-growing girl based on the artist’s mother. There is no particular fuss made of it; the book is drawn in a simplified commercial style, setting mildly stiff character drawings against the occasional photo-referenced background, but more often just zones of blank space. This makes it an enormously easy comic to poke fun at, yet the very unassuming nature of the artist’s story — heavy on the unthinkingly intimate, caring relationship between the girl and her mother — gives a powerful directness to its central metaphor: that a woman’s sexuality is as natural a thing as any other aspect of the living world.

In contrast, few would cite Habibi for a lack of fuss; chapters are drawn vice-tight with visual metaphors and mystic allusions and pregnant icons. Yet there’s a similarity between these works, as Thompson endeavors to track the sexual desires of his primary male character, Zam, across a series of recurring images ranging from the book’s master symbol of a flowing river to the attuned senses of a serpent to a mighty tree standing unmistakably tall. Needless to say, it all comes down to the tilted stroke of the Arabic alif, its cosmological and psychological implications granted its very own penultimate chapter in commemoration of the controlling force of sexuality in the character’s personality and, broadly, the book’s central romantic struggle and fuzzily anti-capitalist political concern. Candidly, I found such density of association to be laborious and sometimes self-sabotaging, if often also quite entertaining in the moment – I’d find myself then drifting back to this work of white space — not nearly so common a phenomena on Thompson’s pages — and simple, unfettered, unbothered intent, with two sequels (The Color of Water and The Color of Heaven) eventually following.

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PLEASE NOTE: What follows is not a series of capsule reviews but an annotated selection of items listed by Diamond Comic Distributors for release to comic book retailers in North America on the particular Wednesday, or, in the event of a holiday or occurrence necessitating the close of UPS in a manner that would impact deliveries, Thursday, identified in the column title above. Not every listed item will necessarily arrive at every comic book retailer, in that some items may be delayed and ordered quantities will vary. I have in all likelihood not read any of the comics listed below, in that they are not yet released as of the writing of this column, nor will I necessarily read or purchase every item identified; THIS WEEK IN COMICS! reflects only what I find to be potentially interesting.

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SPOTLIGHT PICKS!

MetaMaus: A Look Inside a Modern Classic, Maus: Your book-on-comics for the week comes first this time, and that’s mostly because I’m never not delighted by hyperlinked multimedia packages that present a complete work while allowing the browser to delve off at will into any number of visual or textual supplements – Bryan Talbot has one for his Luther Arkwright books, mostly focused on Heart of Empire (and a sample chapter is now online), and Voyager used to have for one for Art Spiegelman’s Maus, though its Mac-specific makeup won’t function anymore on current machines. Enter MetaMaus, a new Pantheon expansion of the old Voyager edition, adding a bunch of added dvd-format content and encircling it with a 300-page book of supplementary text, most notably a Spiegelman interview by Hillary Chute. Expect audio content featuring the book’s subjects, period video, preliminary sketch versions of finished content, etc. Note that Pantheon’s homepage (and a few Amazon reviews) make(s) note of potential if thus far unexplained glitches regarding dvd playback on some equipment, offering software replacements if necessary; $35.00.

Nursery Rhyme Comics: 50 Timeless Rhymes from 50 Celebrated Cartoonists: But getting back to First Second and Craig Thompson, both fearsome entities are involved in this new 128-page project, the former as publisher and the latter as one of 50 artists presenting two-page color comics adaptations of nursery rhymes famous and obscure. Definitely the kind of project where a resourceful editor (Chris Duffy, of the late Nickelodeon Magazine) can put together one hell of a list of contributors while the attentive reader can years later excerpt something from a favorite talent and have everyone going ‘what the fuck, Mike Mignola did a Solomon Grundy comic, like the rhyme?’ Yes, like the rhyme. Featuring Thompson, Mignola, Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez, Jules Feiffer, Kate Beaton, Roz Chast, Gahan Wilson, Tony Millionaire, James Sturm, Stan Sakai, Richard Sala, Lilli Carre, Jordan Crane, Theo Ellsworth, Cyril Pedrosa (man, I’d like to see more of him, Three Shadows was really cool), Vanessa Davis, Eleanor Davis, Rebecca Dart, Raina Telgemeier, Nick Abadzis, Mark Martin, Aaron Renier, Patrick McDonnell, Richard Thomson, Gene Luen Wang, Sara Varon and YET MORE. Samples; $18.99.

PLUS!

Neonomicon: But really, if there’s any one comics figure that Habibi most immediately recalls it’s actually Alan Moore, specifically through his sprawling fantastical epics of symmetry and literary simulacra. With its mystic arithmetic and stories-of-stories (and diagrammatic, shoot for the moon visuals), Thompson particularly recalls the J.H. Williams III-fronted Promethea, and while Habibi lacks much overt fantasy content beyond its troublesomely miscellaneous setting I’d go so far as to declare it the first major graphic novel by a writer/artist to really evoke Moore’s studious approach outside of popular genre comics publishing. I can’t even think of anyone else.

Habibi also shares Moore’s concern for sexual violence and exploitation as a comprehensive threat to women, though I think it’s revealing that the often brutal content of Habibi left me still somewhat distanced from the characters, while this utterly notorious Moore project from Avatar left a wide swathe of readers repulsed by its central rape scenario, although that might say less about the writer’s way with characters than the sadistic, claustrophobic nature of the sequence, much of which is actually kept off-panel. Yet maybe the real horror is in the sickly inevitability of this self-referential tale of an FBI agent who begins to suspect her investigation exists inside some odd enclosed space of H.P. Lovecraft references, and perhaps that all of the pain and neuroses of her life were just beckoning her to a symmetrical world of evil power in between real spaces — the gutters between comic book panels — approaching toward a burning center. Some have viewed this as Moore’s poisoned valentine to the ill implications of comics as an industry, but to my mind such darkness has infested his very command of the form. A perfect Halloween treat, provided the recipient will not get you arrested. Drawn by Jacen Burrows, who also illustrated The Courtyard, a related prose-derived comic also included in this package; $19.99 ($27.99 in hardcover).

The Metabarons – Deluxe Hardcover: Also, did you know Blankets was a loose remake of The Metabarons? Probably not, since I just made that up, but Humanoids is nonetheless releasing this 9.25″ x 12.3″, 544-page slipcased all-in-one edition of probably Alejandro Jodorowsky’s overall best comics series, a 1992-2003 expression of his “psychomagic” theory of therapeutic shamanism relating the family saga of a caste of interstellar super-mercenaries, the direct threats to their lives ultimately of no comparison to the legacy of pain and sadness each parent’s fabulous adventure leaves for their yet more inhumane child. Very nice painted art by Juan Giménez, capturing the heart of cartooning under that lavish spackle; $129.95.

Freakangels Vol. 6 (of 6): And getting back to Avatar, this week also brings the 144-page final print installment for the publisher’s webcomic experiment, from writer Warren Ellis and artist Paul Duffield; $19.99 ($27.99 in hardcover, $39.99 signed in hardcover).

Marzi: EUROCOMICS CHOICE. I’m glad to see all this superhero consolidation hasn’t dissuaded Vertigo from putting out the occasional standalone project, here a 240-page collection of French comics published since 2005, an account of life in Communist Poland from writer Marzena Sowa and artist Sylvain Savoia; $17.99.

Gandhi: A Manga Biography: Wait – the future of large book publishers’ explorations into Asian comics is happening right now! I didn’t realize this until I looked it up, but Penguin has produced three of these standalone biographical comics (Che Guevara and the 14th Dalai Lama are the other subjects) in association with Japanese artists. I’ve never heard of Kazuki Ebin, but I’d flip through his work just to see how it looks; $15.00.

Black Jack Vol. 16 (of 17): I still can’t believe this much Osamu Tezuka is available. Even this much Black Jack. Vertical will go down in medical adventure funnybook history for this; $16.95.

GATE 7: I’m mostly interested in Dark Horse’s manga this week (although there’s some B.P.R.D. and Dark Horse Presents stuff that’s probably fine), the most prominent of which by far is this new ongoing shonen series from four-person hit machine CLAMP, which the American publisher will be putting out in English as fast as possible following the Japanese collected releases. It’s something about a boy whisked away to a fantasy world of adventure – you know the drill. Preview; $10.99.

Gantz Vol. 19: Mayhem – you know the drill. The next-to-last volume for this particular phase of narrative, if you’re keeping track. Preview; $12.99.

Mutts: Our Little Kat King: I don’t make note of contemporary newspaper strip collections very often — in fact, I’m not even sure how often Diamond distributes them to comics stores — but since Patrick McDonnell is in that nursery rhyme anthology up above I ought to point out that this 208-page fifteenth softcover collection of his daily pursuit is out from Andrews McMeel; $16.99.

30 Days of Night #1: I’ve always felt the series-of-miniseries structure has been the best way to go for a smaller publisher’s comic book franchise; it keeps expectations regimented as to how the book’s supposed to look (since you’re probably not going to keep one artist on it), while honing up to potential delays in production by marking off the ends of storylines as hiatus points. Nonetheless, after nine years, this big bang vampire series for IDW has now become an unlimited series, and I’m mentioning it because Sam Kieth is the kickoff artist, and he’s always worth checking out. With originating writer Steve Niles; $3.99.

Cold War #1: IDW has also been publishing a bunch of John Byrne stuff, so here’s another launch for the week – a spy comic from the veteran writer/artist; $3.99.

Avengers 1959 #2 (of 5): Since I forgot to mention it when it debuted, be aware that this is Howard Chaykin’s new project as writer and artist, a very briskly-paced period jaunt much in the style of his Dominic Fortune miniseries from 2009 (and indeed featuring the character). Preview; $2.99.

DeadpoolMAX 2 #1: Oh, I thought this wasn’t starting until next year. Uh, David Lapham & Kyle Baker; $3.99.

Batman: Odyssey 2 #1 (of 7): Oh come on, you’re relieved. You are! Yes, a little thing like a line-wide relaunch isn’t enough to hold back Neal Adams’ furious tangle of characters, conversations, flashbacks, digressions, gunshots, possessions, explosions and undeniable cockeyed energy, which came to a temporary rest after six pre-relaunch issues with the image of Bruce Wayne laying down on the Batcave floor and going to sleep. This is the beginning of the remainder of the storyline, which I imagine is not an elaborate homage to late ’70s console video gaming, though you can’t take my dreams from me, Batman; $3.99.

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