Well, maybe that's a little too harsh. The art eventually moves towards solidity after starting rough. The jokes come just often enough to motivate continued reading, and the characters are clearly, if thinly, defined. The main thing that I can offer in the way of buying advice is this: If you recognize the reference on the cover (pictured here), and the names Avail, Maximum Rock N Roll, Kid Dynamite, Joe and Monkey, and Questionable Content mean anything to you, you will probably enjoy this book (or more likely already own it). This collection of comics originated on the web, and works best while filling its niche.
Note: The following text was written starting in January 2008, when I had finished the book discussed here. I picked up the draft and finished it in March 2009. The copy of the book that I read was an advance preview, and while I think there were few revisions before publication, it should be noted.
I had heard about some static about this book when I was a quarter the way through reading it and I decided that I didn't really need to read about it. I knew I was going to finish the book, so I thought I might as well finish it while judging it solely on its merits. When I finished the book, and I thought, "well, I had better write the review of it first, then I can follow up on the scuttlebutt." So here's my take, before I read the talkback:
The book takes an interesting theory — Schulz wrote his own autobiography in fifty years of strips — and takes it to a logical, if impossible to prove, conclusion. Michaelis writes his prose, then inserts Peanuts strips to support his narrative. He does a fine job, but it begs the question of how often he had to bend his narrative to synchronize with the strip at hand.
I frequently read non-fiction, but almost never read single-focus biographies. It may be that I don't understand the expectations of the form, but it seems that the best the author can do is to research his subject fully and make his best guesses about the meaning of the subject's life. Michaelis seems to have done his legwork, finding stories and anecdotes, recorded and retold, from those closest to Schulz. I am sure that the story he builds focuses on those tales which best support his hypothesis, but any reader should always assume that a story is told from the perspective of the teller, even a biography. The greatest support I found for the telling of this tale is the samples offered and cross referenced from the 50 years of comic strips that Schulz created.
Michaelis provides numerous reprints of strips from Peanuts run, inserting them directly into the text to provide illumination to the stories, theories, and facts laid out in the writing. As a reader who firmly believes that an artist who creates a lasting work of art (something that I credit Charles Schulz with doing), I agree that the tales of Charlie Brown and company can offer illumination as to the inner life and personality of Charles Schulz.
The greatest testament I can offer as to the author's evenhandedness is to say that he offers a reading of a life, not a definition of one. Michaelis certainly offers his perspective on the life of the legendary cartoonist, but never reaches hyperbole that dictates that this is the only perspective. This might say more about your reader, since I read journalism with the same skepticism, and it serves me well. Charles Schulz is an artist who has a significant amount of literature focusing on his life, and I think that this book offers a unique, insightful perspective to add to the expanding light which illuminates his life.
I have been to San Diego Comic Con every year for the past 18 years, and I sold comic books for most of those. In a business like comic book retailing, at an event like San Diego, you meet people that you tend to run into year after year, and if you share a common interest, you tend to continue the same conversation year after year. There are many such people that I see in San Diego, but there are few that I enjoyed speaking with as much as Jay Kennedy.
I first spoke to him about seven or eight years ago, and while I ran into him at a few other comic shows, he and I spoke at every San Diego in recent memory. Our conversation started because of a common interest, independent and underground comic books, and when I realized that I had read and referred to his book regularly, and each year we picked up where we left off until it the conversation continued down other avenues, both personal and professional.
The people that you see, many of them come and go, and you rarely know why the leave or where they go. Many of them you never learn about, and many of them you don't even remember. Jay happened to be famous enough that I heard about his death the day after it happened (on The Beat), and he had made enough of an impression on me that I was struck with sadness. People don't bother writing reminiscences like this if they don't have anything nice to say, and here I have nothing but nice things to say.
Jay was one of the very nicest people that I met thanks to San Diego, and talking with him about comics (books or strips) was always a conversation I looked forward to, and this summer won't be the same without the chance to see him.
(If you would like to read more about Jay, I recommed this or this, care of Tom Spurgeon)
I've always hated the idea of Dr. Strange. Anything having to do with "the Mystic Arts" or spellcasting or magical worlds or other dimensions or blah blah blah has always turned me off.
I've always enjoyed the creators that work on Dr. Strange. Steve Ditko, Bill Everett, Marie Severin, Gene Colan, and even the recent Defenders series by DeMatteis, Giffen and Maguire.
Here's a new series of a character that I don't like written and drawn by creators that I do like. I enjoy Marcos Martin's art. He has a clean style that focuses on design and layout and never relies on flashy rendering. He has a confident brush line and seems to get very lucky with confident and attractive coloring work. And I've discussed my respect and admiration for Brian K. Vaughan here, here and here.
I picked up the first issue of the new Dr. Strange mini-series, and except for a tiny bit of that mumbo-jumbo that I dislike so much, I think it's great. The art is simple and confident, with Martin's strong brush backed up by crisp, straightforward coloring that his art deserves. The plot is simple so far, but removed enough from the mystical silliness that I wasn't punted out of suspension of disbelief-ville. I look forward to the rest of the series, and I'm interested enough to wade through the spellcasting and astral projecting that is sure to arrive.
Aren't you glad that not every mainstream comic has to have those inane narrative segue captions.
Every decent human being under the age of 40 knows that wearing a mustache is a sign of the dastardly deeds the wearer is capable of, that's why they named the villainous cartoon character as such. This fact is supported by the costumes that this kit suggests are possible. No decent human being would want to be known as any one of these characters. "The Hollywood"? Please, when was the last time any self-respecting actor would have worn that mustache non-ironically in public. 40 years ago? And even then?
The problem with the ironic mustache is that it's not really ironic. Only an asshole would wear an ironic mustache. A generation ago they were the ones who would have worn it proudly without irony anyway.
By the way, I would add one to the list for the girls who feel left out. The Frida.
There are many comics these days that can be categorized as crime comics, but most of them include another genre convention. They involve super-heroes or former super-heroes, they investigate something supernatural or fantastic, or in the most famous case, Sin City, they are set in a world that never seems real, but never decides on how much unreality it should include. There are some traditional crime comics, set in an approximation of the real world, that eschew the fantasy that most mainstream comics, crime-related or not, participate in. This series appears to be one of those.
Many of Brubaker's past series have used the trappings of the crime genre in telling their stories: Sleeper, Daredevil, Catwoman, and Gotham Central to name the most popular. Some of his other series featured characters who were criminals, such as Deadenders and Lowlife. This book looks to live up to its title and avoid all the distractions from other genres. Straight-up criminals committing straight-up crime.
The first issue provides a promising set up for the series. We're introduced to our main character, Leo, and given just enough background to sympathize with this hardened criminal. The real joy here is the prose itself. Hardboiled without being overdone, Leo as narrator avoids the Mickey Spillane schtick that Frank Miller does so well and each supporting character is given a distinct voice in the the few pages that they appear. The foundation for the plot is laid, and my hope is that Brubaker can hold it together until the pay-off. A story like this can sometimes be masterful for the first two acts, then fall apart with a weak ending. I'm hooked from this issue though, and trust that my investment will be rewarded.
The storytelling is fluid, thanks to the comfortable rapport that Phillips and Brubaker have built up over their last collaboration, Sleeper, and they know when to get out of each other's way. In an issue that is 90% talking heads, Phillips manages to create an easy flow to the pages and keeps the reader in tune with the right amount of scenery changes and his unique rendering style. A Phillips character looks like a Phillips character, but he manages to keep them all distinct with his art as well. The issue carries a gorgeous cover, blood red and chunky orange, and the interiors are held together by the heavy blacks that allow Phillips to be good and fast. Phillips is a craftsman to be sure, but his pages hold the love of art and the search for truth.
This is a new children's book from an artist that has drawn comics, works as an illustrator, but is probably most famous online for his collaborative effort, Happy Tree Friends. I picked this book up at SDCC, but I admit that I probably wouldn't have if I didn't have a nine month old daughter. My book "collection" before my daughter was born did contain a few books that are conisidered children's books, but they were few and far between. This book, however, I would recommend to anyone who is a fan of illustrated books at all.
The story is as simple as could be, in fact it's perfectly simple, a story pared down to poetry, yet the idea is so expansive that it sets the imagination free, allowing for you to carry it with you long after you put down the book. The text is carved down to deliver the essence without losing the rhythm that a children's book needs, being so commonly read aloud. With a minimum of effort, the script allows you to feel confident that you are reading the words with the conviction of the greatest of Shakespearean actors, no mean feat for a story that consists, textwise, of only 123 words. This expressiveness, the appealing sound the words create in the speaker's mouth, are the first thing that make this book the favorite of my daughter. She need only hear the first line of the book, "High up in the sky lived a lonely little cloud boy," for a smile to cross her face.
It's the idea behind the book that makes it a favorite of mine. As a child, my parents allowed me access to many of the great children's book of the last century, created by those names familiar to us all, Silverstein, Seuss, Rey, Kipling, De Brunhoff, and others. The very best of these books had lessons that adhered to my brain and remain with me today. Seuss's lessons of inclusion, pride, and achievement, Rey's lessons of adventure, Silverstein's lessons of love and generosity, these are the types of books that one can be proud to share with their children. I hope that my daughter finds that her family encourages creativity and individuality, and I can see this book planting those ideas in her someday. Montijo makes the story so easy to latch on to that the beauty is suffused through the repeated readings.
The illustrations are amazing as well, the iconic appearance of the title character makes it easy to identify and empathize with. The light and airy pictures expand the freedom of the idea, creating the feeling that all the pages take place over a giant tableau, each one being a small snapshot frozen in time, but free in space. This freedom creates a peaceful feeling in the reader, who when reading to others is of course the narrator, and that peace spreads out to the listener.
It won't be too much longer before the words become an imprint in my memory, and the story will be able to unfold in the world whenever I want it to, perhaps under the very clouds that inspired the author to tell this wonderful tale, and it will allow me to use the very creativity that the author hopes to inspire.
The precedent set for anthropomorphic comic books or cartoons is that the animals will, in some way, be illustrated to highlight human emotions and enable a connection with the reader that wouldn't be present from a realistic drawing. Whether it's simplifying the character to a cartoon abstraction as Gary Larson would in The Far Side, or adding human characteristics such as emotive eyebrows as you would find in Disney's lions. It is to the credit of Vaughan and Henrichon that they rely on neither of these.
The art is representational throughout. Henrichon's style is one of the most realistic that you will find in comics. This services the story told as its main characters a small group of lions, the titular Pride. We see the entire story over the shoulders of these lions, and the dialogue is where we get the emoting. Vaughan is capable and adept at deciding how the visual flow of the page should come, in fact he's one of the best out of the list of writer's who exclusively write, it's just that his command of the words allows him to let the art work on it's own rather than as a crutch to support the writing. Of course, great comics aren't made without the art complementing the words, but when trying to compose a story that uses formal play (lions who are in every way animal except for the thoughts they speak to one another in word ballons) it's important to not let the method become the message.
A story set in Iraq in 2003, while Baghdad was being bombed and occupied, is naturally going to be a divisive topic in a country where politics is the ultimate symbol of division. Vaughan mitigates this by keeping his proselytizing to himself. His one overt comment (the last line of the book) is kept covert enough by its careful wording. In this country we're so constantly reminded that artists are liberals and the military is conservative that it is difficult for me to avoid deciding the political stance of a comics author before I read a comic that references politics. And I've read enough Brian K. Vaughan comics to think of him as a liberal. This book, however, does a wonderful job of staying off the soapbox and simply telling a story. He infuses his animal characters with such humanity that I found myself as picturing them as humans rather than the cartoon delineations that we are all familiar with.
The story does feel a bit filled out, as though it could have been told in half as many pages, but Henrichon's art is so strong that it provides a visceral thrill when you take the story out of the occasion. Realistic, but with the immediacy of life drawing studies, he holds control of the page by covering all the bases in what would frequently be a team effort. Normally we would have a separate inker, or at least colorist on a DC comic, but Henrichon handles everything except lettering himself. It allows him to produce some pages with what looks like digital inking, some with what looks like scanned pencils, and others with traditional inks that are colored in the same rendered color as every other page in the book. He has enough control over his computer coloring that he can make pages that are rendered with different techniques flow together seamlessly.
While this book is not quite the masterwork I was hoping for (I believe that Vaughan will one day helm a short work that will match the quality of his outstanding longer works, Y the Last Man and Ex Machina), it is certainly a proud (ugh) addition to my library.
The top (up to) ten comics of 2007 (in no particular order)
The Spirit by Darwyn Cooke Don't Go Where I Can't Follow by Anders Nilssen Atlas 3 by Dylan Horrocks Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris Y The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra The Salon by Nick Bertozzi Houdini the Handcuff King by Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi
The top (up to) ten comics of 2006 (in no particular order)
Crickets 1 by Sammy Harkham Schizo 4 by Ivan Brunetti Atlas 2 by Dylan Horrocks Paris by Andi Watson and Simon Gane Will Eisner's Spirit Archives (ongoing) Batman Year 100 by Paul Pope Castle Waiting by Linda Medley Daredevil by Brubaker and Lark Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris Y The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra