graphic novel

Stargazer (Vols. 1 and 2)

Longtime readers of this blog might remember my glowing review of Von Allan’s debut graphic novel, The Road to God Knows, a lovingly wrought tale of a young Ottawan’s quest to attend a pro wrestling match in an effort to escape from the doldrums of her otherwise dreary life. Allan’s latest effort, Stargazer, explores similar themes but sees the writer/artist expanding his artistic palette to include strong elements of science fiction and fantasy–and succeeding wildly in his creation of an emotionally complex and touching imaginary realm.

This time around, a young girl named Marni is bequeathed a mysterious artifact that transports her to a mysterious realm along with two of her best of friends. Grieving over the recent loss of her mother, Marni finds herself on a quest that is as much about self-discovery as it is about finding her way back home. Along the way, Marni and company encounter a race of gentle satyrs and their robotic guardians, uncover the mystery of an apparently lost civilization of three-armed lizard men, and confront a terrifying monster straight out of their darkest nightmares.

While Stargazer certainly evokes “little girl lost” tales a la Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, Allan puts a new twist on the formula by sending three friends into the mysterious realm on the other side of the proverbial looking glass. In so doing, he gives his characters the opportunity to come of age even as they bump up against the limits of their friendship. In this sense, the graphic novel is a spiritual and emotional cousin to Stephen King’s “The Body” in that it’s as much about growing up as it is about exploring the unknown.

Of special interest to those interested in the process of creating a graphic novel are the books’ “extras” in which Allan walks readers through his early brainstorming sessions and provides sample pages from the script that eventually evolved into the finished product.

Overall, Stargazer is an excellent graphic novel by an artist whose talent is only rivaled by his heart. Perfect for readers of all ages, particularly those with a love for the fantastic.

-Review by Marc Schuster

Germ Warfare

Cold and flu season is upon us, so what better way to celebrate than with a bit of germ warfare — or at least a copy of Germ Warfare: An Anthology of Comics for Germs and their Generous Human Hosts?

This bizarre collection of comics takes a microscopic look at the world of infectious bacteria and offers, among other things, a germ’s eye view of the atrocities we humans commit every time we pump a dollop of sanitizer onto our hands or take a dose of penicillin.

Other highlights include several visits to the home of germaphobes Stew and Berryl Sterrel as they struggle to remain germ-free despite the best efforts of their baby and a comical retelling of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds.

Overall, this collection carries a strong underground comics vibe — none of the offerings more so than the Mark McGinty penned and Lupi McGinty illustrated “Perched on the Denim Slope,” a graphic homage to JG Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant” whose art is reminiscent of Charles Burns and the Hernandez brothers.

Bizarre, funny, and kind of gross, Germ Warfare is the perfect gift for the germ warrior in your life!

-Review by Marc Schuster

Suddenly Something Happened

I like Jimmy Beaulieu’s Suddenly Something Happened for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that he devotes several pages of his autobiographical graphic novel to explaining his love for the music of Brian Wilson. In this brief passage, Beaulieu’s gifts as a story-teller are on full display in that the artist reveals both his affinity for the self-proclaimed “psychadelicate” pop star and his own uncertainties about his own role as a man and an artist in post-post-modern society. Indeed, what makes Beaulieu’s work so endearing throughout this graphic novel is his willingness to explore all of his insecurities — from his bad luck with women throughout his early adulthood to his long-term ambivalence over living in Montreal.

Throughout the volume, Beaulieu also does some interesting things with narrative structure: in addition to jumping back and forth in time to illustrate the ways in which the past is always with us, he also manages to illustrate the ways in which we’re always in two places at once — within our mental space and our physical space — by offering competing narratives within the space of a single story. A trip to a boutique to help his girlfriend find a dress, for example, becomes two stories in one as the dialogue focuses on the girlfriend’s purchase while the narration reveals Beaulieu’s inner thoughts regarding the state of popular music and his own peculiar guilt and ambivalence over being a fan of the genre.

Interestingly, the author also has the humility to note in a brief epilogue that he’s concerned about “every awkwardly constructed sentence” in the book because English is not his first language. Yet what the written word doesn’t convey as elegantly as the author might like, the image depicts with absolute clarity. In terms of line drawings, Beaulieu is the master of the subtle (and not so subtle) facial ticks that reveal the deepest and most pressing of emotions. Despite the book’s title, Suddenly Something Happened offers readers a glimpse of the gradual blossoming of young artist into adulthood.

Howie Action Comix

I hardly ever laugh out loud at anything I read, but a few nights ago, Howie Action Comix by Howard Chackowicz made me do just that. The culprit in this case was a single-panel cartoon in which a man stands on the ledge of a building contemplating suicide while a police officer shouts up at him, “Don’t jump, you piece of shit loser… We can talk!” If, like me, this kind of thing makes you laugh (or, in my case, cackle), then you’ll love this bizarre collection of comic strips, line drawings, and gag panels. If not, then you might want to forgo this one in favor of the latest Foxtrot collection.

The range of subjects Chackowicz covers in his collection is as wide as it is bizarre. In one strip, a man gets into an argument with his erect member while a commentator in a parallel strip tries to figure out exactly what’s going on. In another, a squirrel lover dons a suit made of bread and lies out in a park to commune with nature. And in a series of recurring strips, Chackowicz turns somewhat autobiographical, depicting himself as a maladjusted overweight ten-year-old who parades around town in his birthday suit.

Beyond being weird for the sake of weird, however, Chackowicz also explores some deeper themes throughout Howie Action Comix. Loneliness is an obvious one in that all of his characters are searching in vain for some way to connect with the world at large. Yet the biggest theme Chackowicz tackles (for my money, anyway) is the meaning of life, a mystery he explores in a vertical strip titled “Sam and Tuna in: Bottomless Pit.”

In this strip, a pair of characters are seen falling, as the title suggests, down a bottomless pit, and Chackowicz depicts them at various points along the fall: two hours, two days, a week, four months, and forty years. Throughout most of the journey, Sam and Tuna are scared speechless, and it isn’t until the last panel that one finally attempts to open up to the other. By then, however, it’s too late: the other has passed away.

The strip, in my humble opinion, is a metaphor for life itself: we’re always in some form of free-fall, trying to make sense of the world around us, and afraid or otherwise unable to communicate with each other until it’s too late. To put it another way, we’re all falling through the bottomless pit that is life — our journey through time and space, through the sliver of eternity that we get to experience — yet we’re so busy chasing our tails (or anything else that the world tells us is important) that we never take the time to appreciate each other’s company.

In many ways, I have to confess that I like Howie Action Comix because it resonates with some of my own work in terms of tone if not style. In relation to more prominent cartoonists, though, I’d say that Howie Action Comix reads like something New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast might write after a night of heavy drinking — or, more accurately, over the course of a month-long binge. It’s fun and weird and crazy and sick, but it also says something about the human condition. All of this is to say that Howie Action Comix is everything an underground comic should be.

-Review by Marc Schuster