At the Small Press Expo last weekend, I found myself immersed in an existential conversation with an artist of my acquaintance. She was in the midst of finishing a long book that would dominate essentially all of her free time for the rest of the year, dividing everything between comics work and her day job. That this is not an uncommon situation for comics artists will come as little surprise, but it is similar to the experience of some comics readers. I began writing — blogging — about comics because there was nobody in my daily life who shared any of those interests.
It’s basically the same today, and, in splitting the space of my life between the live interaction of daily work and the online interactions that mediate almost all of my reading, I’ve come to see myself as both waking and dreaming. Having a job is being awake, I told her, and comics is like sleeping; the experiential qualities of each can feel similar, and they are both, of course, cut from the stuff of life, though there is a very sharp division between them. It doesn’t hurt that I usually write these columns very late at night, and when I write for too long the ‘sleep’ of comics usurps actual sleep.
Relatedly, I’ve long been interested in the non-comics-related writing of people I associate with writing-on-comics. It’s not a crowded field, but lately there’s been activity. Bob Levin, for example, is now anticipating the publication of his long-gestating novel The Schiz, in an illustrated edition touched by many cartoonists. Daniel Raeburn, who authored the great 1997-2002 zine The Imp, released a memoir earlier this year – Vessels: A Love Story, expanded from a New Yorker piece of ten years ago. And then there is Carter Scholz, one of the defining critical voices for the first decade of The Comics Journal, and an occasional contributor to this website; his newest book, Gypsy, was released late last year by PM Press.
I did not get a chance to read Gypsy until very recently, and I expect my reaction was colored very much by my state of mind as discussed at that weekend comics show. I greatly enjoyed it. Some of you may have read Scholz’s preceding book, the 2002 novel Radiance, a fictionalized account of life and work at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California; among its subjects was the chimera of perpetual research toward advanced weapons, first as an adaptation of scientific research to a readily capitalized form, but ultimately as an expression of human progress superseding the necessity of individual humans and their tiny, short lives, distracted and sick and horny in the midst of a political and economic apparatus that will outlive them all. In that book, Scholz’s prose would tumble among sensory expressions, its dense thatches of conversation flowing readily into surrounding sounds or the input of reading – great spans of time pass in the midst of paragraphs, collapsing ready experience into the process of working, whole days burned, nights forgettable in the midst of the great project that tethers you to its swollen heave.
Gypsy shares some territory with Radiance; again, we see scientific research pressed into defense applications by dint of economics. But unlike its predecessor, Gypsy is a plainspoken and tightly regimented work – straightforward and full-throated “hard” SF, set mainly on a spaceship voyaging to Alpha Centauri, grounded in the reality of physics, fission, hibernation, math. The story is divided into six sections, each set in a different year of the long trip; an expository prelude introduces relevant historical and scientific background for each, and then we are left to follow one member of the crew per section. They are only awakened from hibernation individually, and only when necessary to resolve a problem detected on board. As a result, each of the six sections present modular (but accumulating) puzzles for the crew members to solve alone before returning to sleep.
But Scholz is not concocting a tale of ingenuity and pluck a la Andy Weir’s The Martian and its blockbuster film. Instead, as in Radiance, he emphasizes the interrelation of specialized work and everyday living, now acutely divided between plain text interstellar ‘puzzle solving’ and long italicized passages detailing the pasts of the crew members: an outdoorsy Californian who traded arts for research when money got tight; a minority Chinese keenly aware of the systems of control that have manipulated the path of her life; an Eastern European astronaut who found himself in position to steal orbital fusion bombs for a fuel source, since nobody could ascertain the data flow faster than he could act; an Indian scientist in despair over the inequalities of the world and the arrogance of its elites; an Altadina student radical turned physicist, contemplating the narratives she’d devised for her life, for this heroic longshot journey. It is a difficult thing to wake from hibernation — and it grows more vividly difficult as the years pass — and we are told that the crew members sometimes lose consciousness or doze off during their sunless days of toil; as such, the work/puzzle/non-italicized sections can be read as waking experience, while the background/memory/italicized sections can be read as sleeping and dreaming, if not simply recalling.
This is a potent approach, because it is not merely a stage for narrative; the story itself is suffused with a particular terror of the world’s situation – that our present day is something that will only be sustainable in memoriam. Scholz’s “hard” SF cuts two ways. He searches for a plausible means to travel among stars, yes, but he also expends a great deal of speculative energy on the worsening state of a near-future Earth. The concept of “oil reserves” is a financially expedient sleight of hand comparable to the missile defense project in Radiance; within our lifetimes, all of it will be irreversibly gone. The resulting energy panic will hasten environmental decline. Economic systems will not regain stability, political violence will rise, and still the global population will balloon. The Alpha Centauri project is spearheaded by a prominent and vastly embittered fusion researcher whose plans for clean energy became redirected into new and advanced weapons, hugely proliferated; over the years, he concocts “dual use” schemes to promote scientific projects that seem pragmatic by the terms of the Earth, but can most truly be utilized for an escape into space. The terms of Earth must be rejected. We are too far gone, he thinks; we must abandon everything and start over. The world is such shit, such shit. It cannot be saved.
This is the basis for Scholz’s division between present and past, wakefulness and sleep. On the ship, trying to solve problems — and, not to spoil too much, but the crew’s ranks definitely thin over the course of the mission — the characters are distracted from the state of the world. They are literally in flight, and every action they take is to ensure they stay that way; absorbed in labor, they can avoid dwelling on awful truths. But eventually they must stop, and when they think and sleep and dream, all they can see is what happened, and what brought them there. Gypsy is Scholz’s most politically severe book, perhaps because its overt genre devices encourage a cataclysmic perspective, though it could be the author is simply more grave – the main story is not very long (just under 100 pages), so the book is filled out with supplemental materials, including a new essay, “The United States of Impunity”, in which Scholz castigates the U.S. normalization of criminal activities through its failure to meaningfully address misbehavior by those in cushioned enough seats of power. This marks Gypsy as a rather traditional work of SF: a warning for today from the world of tomorrow. Elsewhere, there is an interview with Scholz by the editor Terry Bisson, in which the author discussing hiking trips in California; a like-minded author’s photo provides the book’s cover art.
I imagine, then, Scholz himself on board the ship, in the person of the Californian outdoorsy type who traded poetry for research. Metaphorically, he writes of a fantasy voyage, but cannot truly escape the Earth. By the end of the story, the dreams take on the character of nostalgia. A long italicized list of flowers. “So long for us to evolve. So long to walk out of Africa and around the globe. So long to build a human world. So quick to ruin it. Is this, our doomed and final effort, no more than our grieving for Earth? Our mere mourning?” And who will remember, but us?
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 identified in the column title above. Be aware that some of these comics may be published by Fantagraphics Books, the entity which also administers the posting of this column, and that I also run a podcast with an employee of Nobrow Press. 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. You could always just buy nothing.
Equinoxes: The last Cyril Pedrosa translation to see print in English was Three Shadows, a digressive and lopsided but emotionally potent fable about parental fears for the safety of children, released by First Second in 2008. It was well-received for the nimble state of its art, its Disney-honed illustrative clarity taking on and shucking off smoky charcoal smears as if anxiously inhaled and blown away. However, Pedrosa’s next major work in translation did not arrive until seven years later, with a digital-only edition of Portugal, a graphic novel of cultural and artistic reawakening, via the Europe Comics platform; in recent weeks, the same venue has posted Hearts at Sea, a much earlier work in what seems to be of a similarly inspirational personal journey type. Now NBM returns him to paper, with the newest of his longform works – a 336-page color original from 2015, following a group of characters “captivated and tormented by the enigmatic meaning of life” across a year’s four seasons. His style now varying among monochrome hatches, colored line painting and watercolors over thin inks, Pedrosa at least remains expertly restless. Your French comics pick of the week, a 9″ x 12″ hardcover. Preview; $44.99.
BLAME! Master Edition Vol. 1: In contrast, we have not gone very long at all without Tsutomu Nihei, whose recent Knights of Sidonia series found him kneading his work into its most commercially malleable form, newly redolent with anime space opera flavor and winsome character dynamics. This book has none of that. Instead, it begins a new reissue of the work that made Nihei’s name, a 1997-2003 SF action comic best understood as an extended recital of personal aesthetic. Kyrii is a quiet man with a very powerful gun, and his world is an endless city maze of metal, wire and meat, which he navigates without pity to Meet His Objective. There may not have been any more single-minded an action comic anywhere on planet Earth in the late ’90s, the basic facts of its viability an inspiration to western artists fascinated with motion in space and costume-as-environment upon its initial English release by Tokyopop in the mid-’00s. Now Vertical brings it back with a new translation in a larger and thicker format, 7.2″ x 10.3″ and 400+ pages, doubling up the original volumes for what I think will be a total of five books; $34.95.
Mooncop: A very different type of SF here, a melancholic fancy about working a dead-end job on a depleting lunar colony from Tom Gauld, among the prominent UK cartoonists of today. However, as with several past works such as Goliath (2012) and You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack (2013), the publisher is Canada’s own Drawn and Quarterly. Preview; $19.95.
Clockwerx (&) Metabarons Genesis: Castaka: These are not newly translated European comics, but reissues of prior releases by Humanoids. Clockwerx hails from 2008-09, when the French company was pretty aggressive about recruiting international crews for their projects. The writers are Jason Henderson, Tony Salvaggio (both Americans) and Guillaume “Izu” Dorison (French), while the artist is Jean-Baptiste Hostache. It’s kind of a steampunk-y adventure thing, 112 pages, now in softcover. Castaka is a prequel to writer Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Metabarons (itself a spinoff of an earlier series, The Incal), with art by Spanish specialist in the grotesque Das Pastoras. I reviewed the first English release of the book back in 2014 – fundamentally, it’s a western, high-energy and often entertaining, but somewhat hamstrung by the necessities of serving as a tie-in to a rather self-contained work; $19.95 (Clockwerx), $29.95 (Castaka).
Britannia #1 (of 4): I’m not all that familiar with the revived Valiant Entertainment, though I know they’ve attracted a pretty loyal following for superhero and fantasy-action revival fare with origins in the 1990s – never did read anything of the originals past the point when Jim Shooter and Barry Windsor-Smith were out the door myself. Nonetheless, I’ve liked comics from writer Peter Milligan in the past, and artist Juan José Ryp is a longtime favorite of mine in the department of snarling excess-that-is-nonetheless-salable-in-most-comic-book-stores, so sure, I’ll look at an ancient Roman supernatural detective comic by the two of them. Colors by Jordie Bellaire. Production art samples & interview with the principles; $3.99.
Ape and Armadillo Take Over the World: Toon Books has a slew of releases coming this week, including a Geoffrey Hayes reissue and a new one from Barnaby Richards, but I am going to single out this latest comic by James Sturm, alt comics veteran and co-founder of the Center for Cartoon Studies, now on his second children’s release of 2016, which may tempt ride-or-die readers into considering the whole affair an unofficial new solo series. The premise this time finds a pair of funny animal characters plotting global control but discovering empathy and friendship instead. A 6″ x 9″ hardcover release, 40 pages in color; $12.95.
Goodnight Punpun Vol. 3 (&) Master Keaton Vol. 8: More manga, both from VIZ, and both continuing translations of accomplished and popular artists who probably don’t require much in the way of introduction. Goodnight Punpun is Inio Asano’s signature series — a proposition that elicits contemplation and nostalgia in readers who can recall back to when Asano didn’t necessarily have a signature series, i.e. me — following a melancholic boy on his life’s path, touched with severe drama and surreal elements. Master Keaton is an older (’80s/’90s) episodic mystery-adventure series fronted by Naoki Urasawa, who recently finished his Billy Bat serial for Kodansha, and is now in the midst of a third season for his NHK mangaka interview show Manben (on which Inio Asano has appeared). Ryōichi Ikagami! Eek, swoon; $24.99 (Punpun), $19.99 (Keaton).
Doctor Strange Omnibus Vol. 1: GUESS WHAT? There’s a superhero movie based on a Marvel Comics character coming soon to theaters. In fact, it is set to release in North America on November 4, two days after the 89th birthday of Steve Ditko, whose 1960s Strange Tales shorts debuting the character became one of the most singular bodies of work in the superhero Silver Age, an altered reality tangential to Marvel’s NYC where booming struggles between good and evil occurred on an undulating plane of curling smoke and jagged energy. Read in the context of Ditko’s body of work, a superhero comic like The Amazing Spider-Man feels distinctly collaborative; not this stuff. Stan Lee, Roy Thomas and Dennis O’Neil may have worked on the strip at the same time, in varying capacities, but Doctor Strange has never been entirely divisible from Ditko. This 456-page hardcover collects what should be the entirety of his work on the character, in case you want it all in one place; $75.00.
From Hell: GUESS WHAT? Alan Moore published a new prose novel recently, so why the hell not reissue the best comic with which he has ever been involved, a magisterial psychic map of urban Victoriana, drawn by Eddie Campbell and serialized between 1989 and 1998. I get the impression this book has become sort of jostled into the background lately given the high visibility of superhero characters and Moore’s continuing (involuntary) influence on such, so it will be nice to see a fat hardback with new Campbell cover art bowing the shelves. From Top Shelf; $39.99.
Peter Kuper: Conversations: Finally, here is your book-on-comics for the week – a 240-page University Press of Mississippi collection of interviews with the World War 3 Illustrated co-founder and alternative press mainstay, among the most instantly recognizable illustrators active in the United States. Edited by Journal contributor and comics studies expert Kent Worcester; $40.00.