Sunday, February 03, 2008

Catching up on comics everyone else in the entire world has already read

Like most everybody, I really like to be on top of things when it comes to pop culture, or at least the elements of it I’m interested in. I like to see movies the weekend they’re released (if I haven’t already seen ‘em for review purposes), I like to hear about the cool bands before they sign their big record contracts and appear on Letterman or Saturday Night Live, and, whenever possible, I like to read comics and graphic novels on Wednesday afternoons.

However, there’s certainly something to be said for coming to something—particularly serial entertainment like comic strips, books or TV series—long after the rest of the world. Sure, it might mean that you can’t always participate in the water cooler conversations at work the next day, and you might lose some with-it points or geek cred, but, on the other hand, the thing you’ve been missing out on for years has had time to pile up, so that when you’re ready for it, there is a lot of it to be enjoyed.

For example, my lack of interest in/ability to afford premium channels meant I missed Curb Your Enthusiasm until five seasons of it were available on DVD, but I could watch it pretty much all at once—an episode or two or three a day. I was too young to “get”Twin Peaks when it was on TV, but on DVD, I could follow the entire Laura Palmer investigation in the course of a week or three. The instant gratification that comes from being able to watch, say, Neon Genesis Evangelion or Boston Legal without having to wait for commercials, week’s between episodes or new seasons to start is a wonderful, wonderful pleasure.

The same goes for comics. Some of my favorite reading experiences have involved catching up on completed series I’ve never read a bit of, like Preacher, which I didn’t even start reading until after the last issue shipped, or Starman, which I started reading in trade as the last arc was winding down in the monthlies. It’s a neat feeling, knowing the cliffhanger between stories or volumes will last only as long as you allow it to, and being able to read a single, complete, several thousand pages long story in the course of a few weeks, you know?

This past month, I’ve set myself to catching up on a few comics, of varying kinds and off varying degrees of my being way behind of. The four comics below have pretty much nothing in common, except from the fact that they’re all things I took a little too long to sample for myself, and that I’m cramming them all into the same long-winded post.

The first is the biggest work, and the one I was farthest behind on and, not coincidentally, the one I’m the most embarrassed—hell, ashamed—it took me so long to experience and appreciate. Particularly considering that one of my jobs and one of my—I don’t know, what is this site? A hobby?—hobbies is talking about comics.

But here goes: I never really read Achewood until the dawn of the new year.

(Ray, Onstad and Roast Beef, in an image that ran with this Onion AV Club interview)

I have an excuse, of course, but it may not sound like a very good one, particularly since I’m making it on a web log, but I’m a straight-up old-fashioned Luddite, and have a pretty strong aversion to web comics. The problem with web comics, you see, are that they’re on the web. And thus reading them involves using a computer, and that’s something I associate with work, not comics reading.

As much time as I spend in front of computer screens, when I want to read a comic, I want it to be something I can hold in my hands, or take in the bathroom or bathtub with me. I want it to be something I don’t mind eating while reading, or falling asleep with my face on. And I’d like it to be something that won’t give me cancer or hurt my eyes.

My resistance to computers is slowly breaking down, of course.

There was a time (the late ‘90s), when I still did all my writing with pen and paper, and would later transcribe it on my typewriter, or, later, a computer, although I’ve since learned to write right on the keyboard.

I used to read newspapers, now I get all my news from the computer.

And the fact that none of the papers around me carry some of my favorite comic strips has slowly gotten me used to reading strips online.

The other thing that kept me from Achewood was that it was a little overwhelming—look at how much information there is available on the page and, also, that I didn’t have a clue what it was about.

I’ve heard about how awesome it was for a long time, of course, and would occasionally follow links back to it. I remember the Comic Sans strip making the rounds, for example, and the one about Ray’s nephew's little pants, but I was having some conceptual difficulties.

Why was it called “Achewood,” for example? What were the various animals…bears or cats? Why did Todd not have any features? If he was a squirrel and Roast Beef was a cat, how come Todd was so much smaller, as if Beef were human-sized? And how come everything is scale to the cats, except when it’s not? And what’s up with that all-white, angel thing that’s sometimes with Todd? If Phillipe is only five, why doesn’t he live with his mom?

I tried reading several strips in a row on a couple of occasions to make them make sense, but these questions still bugged me. (I’ve similarly tried to force myself to enjoy a lot of newspaper strips over the years in this same way; like, “If I just read Mary Worth long enough to know who everyone is, it will eventually start being entertaining.” It never worked).

Okay, yes, these are all stupid-ass questions, and, looking back, I can see thinking about these things casts me in the befuddled old man role of, say, my grandfather trying to make sense of an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force he’s just walked in on, or, I don’t know, Walt Disney’s grandfather having his mind blown by his grandson’s day job (“Why isn’t that duck wearing any pants? Why’s the mouse have pants, but not shirt?”)

The critical mass of critical praise Achewood and its creator Chris Onstad was racking up as ’07 turned into ’08 inspired me to give it another try and this time really work at it. It was ultimately Lev Grossman’s top ten list for Time that framed it in a way that dispelled all my lingering confusions:

Achewood defies categorization or description, but a brief, futile attempt at a synopsis would go something like this: A bunch of cats, some robots, a bear and an otter who's 5 years old, live together in a fictional neighborhood called Achewood, which you might usefully think of as a grown-up, suburban, stoned version of Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood.

Man, it was light bulb city after I read that description, and armed with that and Dirk Deppey’s statement in his best-of the year list that “Achewood’s strengths are also its biggest drawback, as you really won't get much of the humor without reading six months or so of archived strips,” I returned to, clicked on the “Jump To Story Arc” buttons, and spent the better part of my January evenings reading every goddamned strip I could.

And now ? Well, I’ve seen the light. I hate to even waste anybody’s time here talking up Onstad’s strip, particularly since I’m apparently one of the last people with an interest in comics and a web connection to get into it, but it truly is an incredible achievement in sequential art, serial narrative and funny-ass jokes.

It’s almost scary how fully-realized Onstad’s world is—I mean, ten of his characters have blogs that update more regularly than most comics blogs—and how realistic all of his characters are, despite the fact that they may be, for example, a cat in a thong Speedo and sunglasses, or a squirrel with a drug problem and a tiny little van.

It’s as powerful an argument as you can make for comic strips, I think, regarding the idea that spending a little bit of time on a regular basis with the fictional characters slowly, gradually increases the effectiveness of the entire endeavor. For an extreme example, think of Peanuts—some of us have been reading it our entire lives; some people have read it for fifty years. That shit all added up, to the point where Snoopy could just walk on-panel and you’d crack a smile.

And Onstad’s not working with every day things like dogs and kids, he’s working with a bunch of cats, teddy bears and robots; that is, rather than starting with the familiar and making it more and more familiar, he’s starting with the out-there and making it seem everyday.

If he quit making Achewood tomorrow, I imagine comics historians would look back on it as an astonishing achievement. If he keeps it up as long as Bill Watterson did Calvin and Hobbes or Schulz did Peanuts? My God, man. Future histories of comics are going to have a lot to say about Achewood.

Me, I’m insanely late to the party, but I don’t much mind—after all, I got to spend the last month or so reading them all at once, and it’s made for a great last month or so.

I’m only a few months rather than a few years late when it comes to reading Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (Levine Books) which is, I’m sure you’ve heard elsewhere, really, really good.

I’m not sure if it would have cracked my top ten from last year if I’d managed to read it before December 31st, but it definitely would have made it into the bigger, to-be-considered-for-best-of-the-year list. Tan did an incredible job telling the rather oft-told, classic immigrant story, using essentially the American version of the experience, albeit by inventing a bewilderingly alien culture to plunge the reader into, making the experience easily relatable to American readers, despite the fantastic nature of so much of the story.

I’m of two minds about the art. The designs of the new land our immigrant hero starts his new life in are incredible, and after reading it, I quickly started over, just following Tan’s linework, and sitting in mute amazement at the way he shaped all those little marks into such incredible images. (The pages of the giants with the vacuum guns are really haunting; check ‘em out below).

At the same time, I didn’t much care for the human characters. The expressions often seemed too much like photographs, as if they were more photo than drawing. They’re exceptional drawings, but, as a matter of personal aesthetic taste, I find drawings that look too realistic off-putting sometimes. I do see how this served the story well though, putting all of the fantasy elements in sharper relief.

On the eve of a recent Wednesday, a couple of bloggers mentioned how incredible it was that Dark Horse Comics’ reprint program of the old Little Lulu comics had reached Volume 18 already. Clearly, it’s a publishing initiative that’s working pretty damn well, and it’s high time I at least gave the comics a look.

I checked one out from my local library more out of curiosity than anything else, and I was immediately hooked, racing through all the volumes they carried (Vols. 7, 12 and 13) and then pointing my browser to the next nearest library to find more. Not only are they well-made, fun comics, they’re incredibly addictive (And at the standard manga price point of only $9.99 per volume, they’re a pretty good value, too).

John Stanley and Irving Tripp’s cartooning is incredible and, like those Essential and Showcase Presents reprint volumes, I think the black and white format really accentuates that (although, I should note, the Little Lulu collections are on higher quality paper).

While the character designs of the kids and their parents are sharp, what I really dig about the cartooning is the random adults passing through the panels, the passersby and their reactions to the outsize emotions of the kids and their often strange behavior.

And the expressions on the characters’ faces are just amazing. They all have plain old dots for eyes, but Stanely and Tripp wring an amazing amount of emotion out of them, by merely adding slanted eyebrows, just like you learned to draw mad people when you were a little kid. (Mike Sterling had a great post accentuating the kids’ angry faces recently).

The childhood that Little Lulu, Tubby and the gang share is one I have no real first-hand experience with, and I suspect neither do my parents—I’m removed from it by more than one generation, if it ever actually existed. It seems to be the same golden neighborhood childhood you see in Peanuts, Dennis the Menace and some of the old Archie comics.

And yet I still felt a tinge of nostalgia while reading it. Maybe it’s nostalgia for those other works that the Little Lulu comics reminded me of, or maybe it’s that no matter how different the specifics of their childhoods vs. my own, Stanley, Irving and company capture the essential relationships and emotions of being a little kid.

As much as I enjoyed the kids’ adventures—particularly those involving Tubby as a detective busting Lulu’s dad for some crime, real or imagined—I hate the chapters in which Lulu tells stories to little pest character Alvin. I don’t know why, exactly, as these often give Stanley and Tripp the opportunity to draw dragons, dinosaurs, giants, monsters and the like, but they bug the hell out of me, and I have a hard time getting through them. Maybe it’s the often redundant narration, or just the lack of Tubby action, but I don’t cotton to the imaginary story sequences.

Finally, I finally got around to reading Death Note Vol. 1 (Viz), fully realizing I’m, like, years behind on this multimedia juggernaut. It’s popularity alone always made me curious about it, but there always seemed to be a manga series I was more interested in, and so I just managed to not read it until a couple weeks ago.

Having done so, I’m a little surprised to hear it’s supported a dozen volumes, as the premise doesn’t immediately seem like it would lend itself to too long a series—although I suspect there’s quite a bit of growth possibility in extending the mythology involving the death gods and other character’s touching Light’s notebook.

And I can also see exactly why it’s so popular. Light is a fairly unique-ish protagonist for a manga series (or, you know, any kind of serial fiction), and the fact that it’s so hard to root for or against him (or any of the other characters in the first volume) makes it a very interesting read.

It also has a set of simple “rules” governing it, like a lot of the more popular manga/anime imports (Cardcaptor Sakura, Dragon Ball, Yu-Gi-Oh!, etc.), and is pretty damn suspenseful. By the time I finished the first volume, I was really curious about what happened next, and how the high-stake game of wits between Light and “L” turned out.

Now I think I’m going to go look into this “Watchman” book by Alan Moore and Dave something-or-other I’ve heard so much about…


Anonymous said...

Re Shaun Tan's The Arrival, since you described it as "essentially the American version of the [immigrant] experience" - did you know that Tan is Australian, and that the story is roughly inspired by his parents' experience of coming to Australia? I couldn't tell if you did know and you just left that detail out, or if you didn't know and instead assumed that he was probably American. Either way, I guess it makes an interesting case for the universality of the immigrant experience, huh?

mordicai said...

I still don't "get" Achewood, but I haven't given it a "big push" to just immerse myself & hopefully soak it up. My fiancee likes Deathnote a lot, but again, I haven't. The only manga I have really "given a chance" has been Fullmetal Alchemist.

Anonymous said...

Caleb, if you're not hooked by Death Note with volume three, there's something wrong with your heart. Once L fully enters the equation, the series rockets ahead. It's a great series . . . until the end of volume seven. Then it falls apart. If it had ended with volume seven, it would've been near-perfect.

Seriously, get on it. Can't recommend it more highly.

Jason Quinones said...

i read that same time magazine list and if i remember correctly (or if i'm thinking about the same list) it was "top 10 graphic novels of 2007"

firstly, achewood ain't a graphic novel so how it made the list is beyond my comprehension. probably just riding a wave of hype that i can't understand how it got in the first place.

second, i agree with mordical in that i just don't get it's humor. it's hard to critique the strip without sounding like i'm just hating on it or full of "sour grapes" but here goes...

the art's not that good,which i realize is probably some of the ironic hipster appeal of it,but this is usually saved by good humorous writing which again i don't see here!


Caleb said...

did you know that Tan is Australian, and that the story is roughly inspired by his parents' experience of coming to Australia? I couldn't tell if you did know and you just left that detail out, or if you didn't know and instead assumed that he was probably American.

No, I didn't.

I assumed the story was mean to reflect the typical immigrant-coming-to-America sequence, but that may just be because I'm America. I suppose escaping the Old World's giants with vaccum guns and shadow dragons for a new continent experience must be awfully similar be the destination be Australia or America though, huh?

I don't have the book here any more, but I thought there was a page where the hero sees a big crazy statue in the port, which made me think of the Statue of Liberty.

Anyway, thanks for pointing that out.