I just read Shoplifter, a graphic novel by Michael Cho. I’m ambivalent about it: I like everything about it except the main story.

She may have stolen that cat

She may have stolen that cat

It’s about a young Korean-Canadian woman, Corinna, who works in advertising but has misgivings about it, especially when she’s asked to help market a perfume for nine-year-olds.

What I like most about it: the art. It’s printed in two colors, black and hot pink. I always like this choice, also seen in Ghost World and Fun Home; it clarifies otherwise black-and-white drawings without taking on full-color realism, which can be dull. Plus Cho often leaves out contour lines, which adds an elegant touch.

Also: there’s a story, it’s well paced, and punctuated by little art vistas and occasional jokes.  (I liked the bit where there’s a live news account of a plane crash,which turns out to be less and less tragic as the report continues, with the screen crawl changing accordingly.)  Corinna is cute and her problems are approachable.

What leaves a bad taste is the resolution of the story. Corinna realizes that she really wants to be a writer.  So (SPOILER) she quits her job and, on the very last page, goes into a store to buy some writing notebooks.  Oh come on, Mike.

When you’re a teenager you can get away with thinking “I’m a writer because I want to write.” By the time you’re in your 20s, you should amend that to “I’m a writer because I write.” By her own admission Corinna hasn’t written a thing but ad copy in five years. Aspiring creatives are warned, “Don’t quit the day job.” Corinna does so before she’s even done anything creative.

As Nick Hornby put it,

When I’m reading a novel, I have a need… to believe that the events described therein are definitive, that they really matter to the characters.  In other words, if 1987 turned out to be a real bitch of a year for Winston Smith, then I don’t want to be wasting my time reading about what happened to him back in ’84.

The real story of Corinna is likely what happens after she makes her decision. Can she in fact write?  How does she live while attempting to do it?  Can she still afford the nice apartment she had as a copywriter?  What does she write about?  How does she make anyone care about her writing?  (At least she’s Canadian, so she doesn’t have to worry about health care.)

(Why the title?  Because Corinna is a minor shoplifter.  It turns out that this is a symptom of the falseness of her life.)

It’s nice that Corinna has progressed in her self-actualization, but it’s bothersome that Cho is suggesting that the only thing standing in the way of an artistic career is the determination to get started. And the thing is, he knows this, because he’s published a couple of books himself and done a webcomic. “How I did this” is usually a better story than “How I decided to do it.”

Also— though this may possibly be intentional— I don’t find any of the characters completely likable. Corinna’s misgivings about ads comes off as a bit priggish… it’s perfectly understandable for an outsider, but she’s been doing this for five years, is this the first time she’s faced what advertising is like? Her boss hears about it and basically threatens to fire her, in a very smarmy and polite way. Yet she thanks him for the job at the end. Well, that’s wise— don’t burn your bridges— but it doesn’t make me like the guy.

But, eh, it’s a first novel and, like I said, very well done.  And really fiction doesn’t have to give you good advice.  The story captures the feeling of drifting through your 20s very well, even if it’s not very realistic about what the alternatives are.

I’ve just read a good swath of the New 52 Catwoman, written by Ann Nocenti, drawn by Rafa Sandoval, Jordi Tarragona, Patrick Olliffe, and Tom Nguyen.

Isn't that kind of uncomfortable?

Isn’t that kind of uncomfortable?

On the plus side: it’s very well drawn. I prefer the more minimalist line of Darwyn Cooke, but I can’t complain about the art (as I did with Hellblazer), especially Sandoval’s. Well, actually I can: I like the way the artists design the whole page, and yet they don’t make a pleasing whole in the way that J.H. Williams can do effortlessly, and they rarely offer the sense of wonder  offered by John Cassaday. Plus it kind of bugs me that the artists think people can talk with their mouths closed.

Drawing Catwoman in particular is tricky. On one hand, she’s supposed to be sexy, and she dresses head to toe in black latex. On the other, she’s a badass heroine, so she shouldn’t look like a bondage model. Again, Cooke got the balance right, seemingly without effort. Your mileage may vary, but I’d say these books, in their choice of poses and camera angle, err a little too often on the side of senseless cheesecake.  The shot above is a mild example: is that a pose a rational person would use to get within ten feet of the Joker? (Curiously, though, she keeps her suit zipped up these days, and she wears underwear beneath it.)

As for the stories— I dunno, they’re grim and ultraviolent (autocorrect wants me to say ultraviolet) without any concession to realism. Nocenti’s Catwoman is a little more immoral, more of a loner, than before the New 52. More like Batman, then, but that doesn’t feel like a good move for her— her greater empathy and real concern for the East End were solid pluses.

Gotham City requires a weird balance too. Batman grew out of noir, and his enemies are goth exaggerations of ’30s gangsters. I think Catwoman works best when she’s planning an elaborate heist, or confronting the gangs directly. E.g. there’s a pretty good arc where Penguin sends drone bombs after her, and she directs them back at him.  It’s always fun to see Penguin going in a few seconds from arrogant to sniveling when his bodyguards are stripped away. There’s at least a little grounding in reality here— the book doesn’t have anything to say about gangsters, but at least they’re based on something real.

But Nocenti amps up the wackiness, and I think that doesn’t work so well. Joker plays some mind games with her… eh, that doesn’t make sense; he’s too much the anti-Batman; he was designed to illuminate Batman’s methods and thought processes, and can’t do the same with the Cat. There’s an extended sequence in the remarkably spacious and well-populated underground of Gotham City… it’s just fantasyland with fourth-tier supervillains. Then there’s a competition for Best Thief, which sounds like something from the ’60s Batman TV show. First, if there really were elite thieves, they’d find this sort of reality-show competition beneath them, or too high-profile to be worth it. Second… jeez, one whole issue is devoted to a Mad Max style race in the desert, it’s just goofy. And this arc is narrated in such a fractured way that it felt like pages were missing. (On the plus side, it had one nice idea: during the actual burglary competition, one team almost wins by stealing a bunch of gold; Catwoman wins by stealing a set of documents that’s worth more. A nice touch establishing her greater sophistication.)

Well, Big Comics has to fill dozens of titles every month, and it’s hard to have good ideas each time. But I wonder if grimdark isn’t a little played out. Gangsters and psychopaths are powerful narrative elements, but they don’t constitute an injection of realism any more— quite the opposite, Gotham City’s villains have just been banging around inside their own lurid bubble for eighty years. I don’t have any bright ideas on how to fix it, except to suggest that the most satisfying Catwoman stories tend to be those that downplay the supervillains entirely, and make use of her intelligence and social skills.

Cartoons are universal… sort of. They often have words in them that need to be translated, and a context, and a cultural tradition. Here’s a cartoon by the French cartoonist Cabu:


They’re listening to the Marseillaise, with its bloody lyrics: “May impure blood overflow our furrows!” Sarkozy, in the center, pointedly adds “Unemployed and immigrants, you’ve been warned!”

Cabu was murdered by terrorists yesterday, for making cartoons like this.

I find this shocking and insane. I love French comics; I have a page on them. One of the cartoonists on that page is Wolinski… I didn’t have a very high opinion of him, but he was murdered as well, and I feel personally affronted. I had one of his books, and ran into some of the other Charlie Hebdo cartoonists back when I was reading Fluide Glacial. Here’s a cartoon from one of the other victims— Charb, the editor:


The guy is saying “I’d hire you, but I don’t like the color of… um, your tie.”

What’s almost as upsetting is the victim blaming I’m seeing in many places. They deplore the shootings, but after all, weren’t the victims being unwise, being offensive, mocking religion, distributing “hate speech”, being racist, upholding the power structure, maybe even being “neo-Nazi”? It’s left-wing gotcha culture at its most unattractive.

Note, many of these same people would be offended if anyone suggested that Trayvon Martin was holding that pack of Skittles in a threatening manner. Generally when people are murdered in cold blood, you don’t second-guess the victim, at least for a few days. Hell, even if the victim was a criminal, he’s dead now, what other punishments do you want to apply?

Neil Gaiman takes a hard line free-speech position: you have to support everyone’s right to produce offensive speech, because if people can silence the kind you dislike, they will inevitably also silence the kind you like. He’s mostly speaking about the law, but let’s be honest: the only reason some people, left or right, can’t use the law to shut down free speech isn’t because they lack the will, but because they lack the votes.

For radicals who think Charlie Hebdo went too far, I’d like to ask two questions.

  • Did Diane DiMassa also go too far with Hothead Paisan, Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist? The title is pretty descriptive, but to refresh your memory, she has scenes where the title character goes out murdering and castrating random men.
  • Did these Muslim satirists also go too far by mocking and satirizing ISIS? Are you really maintaining that everyone, including Muslims, has to pull their punches to avoid offending jihadists?

Here we’re likely to get a lecture about “punching up” vs. “punching down”. Now, on the whole, “don’t punch down” is great advice. Afflict the powerful and comfort the afflicted, and all that. But I don’t think it’s very clear in all cases who’s up and who’s down. In this particular case, I remind you, the cartoonists were firebombed, then murdered. I think mocking armed thugs is always “punching up”. It took courage for Charlie Hebdo to stand up in the face of very real violence, just as it takes courage for those Muslim writers and comics to stand up to ISIS.

So far I’ve been concerned to defend anyone’s right to free speech, even if we don’t like them. In the case of Charlie Hebdo in particular, I’d go much further: these were the good guys. They aren’t racists and neo-Nazis; to say so is profoundly ignorant and hateful.

I chose the cartoons above to help illustrate this. They both poke fun at xenophobes, racists, and right-wingers. Cabu invented the trope of the “beauf”, more or less the French equivalent of Archie Bunker. Wolinski was deeply influenced by the May 1968 movement and was for some time staff cartoonist for the left-wing L’humanité. They loved to make fun of the French right-wing. Don’t be one of those people who get all upset with an Onion article not realizing it’s satire. Some people have defended Charlie Hebdo as “attacking everybody”, but that’s a misrepresentation. They felt that nothing was sacred, but their particular target was always authority figures, particularly reactionary ones.

When it came to caricatures of Muslims, their targets were not Muslims, or Islam, but jihadists– the people who’ve killed thousands of Muslims, the people who bombed their offices, the people who finally murdered them. This collection from Vox should make it clear— e.g. Charb’s cartoon “If Muhammad returned”, showing the Prophet being executed by a jihadist. One of the stories teased on that cover is also relevant: “French Muslims are fed up with Islamism.” Charlie Hebdo was perfectly able to distinguish between Muslims and Muslim terrorists.

But weren’t those caricatures ugly and nasty? Yes, like all their cartoons. French humor isn’t American humor. It’s closest to our ’60s underground cartoons (like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton– and DiMassa fits into that line as well), but that element is far more mainstream in France. The Charlie Hebdo style is vicious, dark, deliberately provocative and obscene. And if you’re shocked by it, they’ll double up and do it some more.

To anyone who thinks that art they don’t like must be suppressed… I really wish you’d think about that, in the light of this attack. These people were suppressed. They were shot down with machine guns. Oh, you didn’t want to do it that way, but how did you want to do it?

But but but solidarity with Muslims… yeah, yeah, did you ask any Muslims what they thought? Here’s an interview with an Algerian cartoonist, Ali Dilem.

It’s joking around. There’s nothing nasty about it. It’s not weapons that we’re carrying; we’re not there to do evil. When there were drawings on Muhammad, I was one of those who defended the Danish cartoonists, saying that there’s no need to cut people’s throats because they drew a caricature. There’s things in life that are a little more serious than that. Here [Algeria], there have been massacres, including in editorial offices. In the paper l’Hebdo libéré, people killed the editorial staff in 1994. I knew that they were capable of that, of such an extremity. But to hit cartoonists like Tignous… you can’t hurt someone like Tignous. Cabu, he’s the one who made me want to take up a pencil, who made me dream of being a cartoonist.

He goes on to say that he tries never to enter the premises of his newspaper… for fear of a similar attack. He’s been put in jail for his cartoons.  He knows what dangers he’s risking. But he’s going to go on cartooning.

Some important nuances and caveats:

  • Some reactionaries will blame the attack on all Muslims. They’re idiots, feel free to mock them. Charlie Hebdo would have.
  • It’s not the responsibility of Charlie Hebdo to manage global geopolitics. They publish cartoons, for god’s sake. Grave-minded politicians who lecture them to be careful can spend their time far more constructively.
  • I’m by no means saying you can’t criticize artists. Criticism is not silencing, especially where the point is that we want additional viewpoints. Though I think ignorant dismissals of Charlie Hebdo are offensive, there’s a place for an informed critique. And a time, but that time is probably not this week.
  • European societies are not so good at assimilating minorities. (By this I mean that the majorities are messing up, not the minorities.)  They should do better, but Dilem’s advice is on point: cartoonist behavior is very low on the list of things that need to be taken care of.

First off: if you haven’t read Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, go get the first two volumes.  Read my mini-review if you like.

Moore’s basic approach is to mine the sf, fantasy, and thriller literature of a period and create a world where it’s all true. Then he takes the top fictional talent of the age– preferably those with a louche edge– and makes them into a superhero team. In The Black Dossier he applies the technique to a wider time range, and in Century he applies it to the years 1910, 1969, 2009. On the whole Dossier is more weird than satisfying, while Century eases up on the weirdness enough to tell a story.


Dossier is about itself: Mina and Allan, now gifted with eternal youth after finding Ayesha’s pool from King Solomon’s Ring, swipe the Black Dossier from MI5 which sketchily chronicles three hundred years of the League’s history, from Queen Gloriana (an exalted version of the first Elizabeth) to 1958. They’re pursued by the aggrieved agents of the crown, including James Bond and Emma Peel, but mostly it’s an excuse for Moore to throw out various pastiches and to knit together dozens of fictional worlds, from Shakespeare to Jules Verne to Fanny Hill to George Orwell.

It’s clever and ambitious, but for me it doesn’t really work, as Moore for once has neglected to provide a story. There’s a chase scene and some fighting, but there’s no attempt at any danger or change. The book ends with a headache-inducing section in 3-D, which attempts to rehabilitate an old racist British children’s book character, the Golliwog– he’s a black matter alien, you see, and “zijn geslacht is kolossal”. Not the most sensitive rehabilitation of a racist caricature ever.

Anyway, the book ends in the “Blazing World”, a version of the Immateria from Promethea. Moore’s idea is that the world of the imagination is more real than the real world. This is hard to tell a story about; to me, Promethea succeeds and Dossier fails.

With Century, Moore remembers to tell a story. An occultist, Oliver Haddo (from an obscure Maugham novel), wants to raise the Antichrist. Moore often likes to rehabilitate villains (and criminalize heroes), so I should add: this is a bad thing, and Mina and the gang take the whole century to stop it. So something is at stake, though Moore is cagey about what exactly that is. However, he’s willing to punish his characters far more, and that’s the real story of the book. Mina and Allan both go through hell in this volume.

Now, if you haven’t read much Moore, well, go and do that. Watchmen and From Hell are the classics; V for Vendetta gives a heavy dose of his anarchism; Promethea is a fascinating exploration of imagination and magic; Top Ten and the first two volumes of League are fun romps. Century… does not live up to these works. Moore likes to craft exquisite works combining reams of allusion, graphic experiment, and elaborate craftwork. At his best this is all married to passion and humanism. Here it’s more like watching a clever clockwork run. It’s amazing but cold.

(As an example, all three parts of Century feature musical interludes. The first one, based on Kurt Weill, has a certain grandeur, but in general I’d say they show that adding one more layer of experimentation and allusion to the series wasn’t as good a move as it might have seemed. Plus, both books are so crammed with stuff Moore wants to tell you that the characters are constantly expositing to each other. These large volumes read like the summary of an imaginary epic ten times their length.)

Twice in Century the narrative makes use of sexual assault, and this isn’t a new theme for Moore– it was central to From Hell and Watchmen, and in League vol. 2 he mixed things up with a brutal homosexual rape. He’s always carefully progressive and emphasizes the emotional consequences, but his treatment, and the frequency with which he reaches for this particular narrative tool, seem like they’re about a generation behind. Compare how he motivates Nemo (in vol. 1) and his daughter Janni here. Or how many times McNeill draws each naked. (Hint: Nemo, never.) There are other ways to get female characters going.

Also unusually for Moore, the story of Janni has no real payoff.  She’s trundled back into the sea of tertiary characters.  Orlando, Virginia Woolf’s male/female immortal, also feels underdeveloped, despite getting a lot of page time; her main role is to take part in threesomes with Mina and Allan.  A little too much of the later League books seems like an undress rehearsal for Moore’s book of erotica, Lost Girls.

There’s also a certain mean-spiritedness mixed in with Moore’s playful exploration of literature. Granted, he has to have real villains; and as he likes to elevate the villainous (Mr. Hyde, Dr. Moreau), he also likes to sink the heroic (James Bond, Emma Peel, Billy Bunter). Bond, the quintessential Tory, is fair game for such a kicking, but Century features an extended attack on Harry Potter that’s a bit baffling.

Plus, Moore seems to run hot and cold on the occult and perversity.  In some ways he seems most at home in the ’60s– it’s colorful and hopeful, at least; he has a grudge against the 21st century he never quite explains.  But how is it that Haddo is a villain here, and his model Alisteir Crowley is a roguish hero in Promethea?  Why is Haddo’s rock star friend apparently mocked for being promiscuous, when Mina and her friends are scarcely less so?

If you do like your allusions, of course, the later books will be paradise. It’s entertaining to see how Moore weaves everything together, and the panels are filled with additional caricatures. To make this sort of thing work, though, I think Warren Ellis’s Planetary does better. It keeps the appropriations to about one per issue and restrains the camp factor.

I love the character of Catwoman, and by that I mostly mean the one in Arkham City.  She kicks just as much ass as Batman while being way cooler.

Since playing it I’ve been reading Catwoman TPBs when the library has them in, and in general I’ve been unimpressed.  The low point, I think, was giving her a baby, and then having Wacky Superhero Things happen around the two of them.  The attempted mixture of realism and wackiness just didn’t work.

I read some of the latest Catwoman, and it’s not bad, but I think they made her a little too kee-razy.

But I think I’ve finally found a good Catwoman book: Trail of the Catwoman, which actually has three interrelated stories from 2002-3.  The first story is by Darwyn Cooke, and he has an appealing, very brushy line:


He write a heist story, which is precisely (I think) what you should do with Catwoman.  It’s what she does, what she’s good at, and it’s fun to see her at her most cool and competent.  And I think Cooke does a good job recognizing her sexiness while letting her rise above it.  It’s a tool she uses (though at the same time she can actually care for people, something that doesn’t come naturally to Bats).

The heist itself is ill-advised (stealing from the Mob) and has quite a few holes in it.  (Hint to plotters in movies and comics: you and your scheme are only as secure as the guy you’ve left alone.)  Still, stories only happen when things go wrong, and it’s told well.

The other two stories are more noir, which also fits Catwoman.  Noir started as an attempt to restore realism to detective fiction, but it’s mainly stayed in the ’30s and ’40s at heart, thus becoming a form of fantasy itself.  The stories deal with Mafiosi and rotten cops, and I think they have precisely zero to say about criminality and policing, but that’s OK– the Mafiosi and cops behave as they’re supposed to in noir, and again, an actual police procedural or Mob expose doesn’t really have a place for a femme fatale cat burglar, but noir does.

Robert Steibel has a great post inaugurating a blog which will apparently be all about Jack Kirby.  There’s a little too much for my taste about the man himself, but he really gets rolling when he analyzes a page of The Mighty Thor #147.


What we’re looking at here: this is a rare look at Kirby’s actual pencils… and his writing.  He and Stan Lee would discuss the book, then Kirby would plot, draw, and essentially write it– the marginal notes on the left are his hints to Lee on what’s happening in the panel.  Lee then wrote the florid text to fit what Kirby had already done.

Then Vince Colletta (in this case at least) inked the page.  This is what fans actually saw:


The inking is faithful, but loses a certain appealing sketchy quality to the pencils.  (We also, as Steibel points out, lose the little dude to the right of Sif.)  The coloring is pretty awful… what is going on with Balder’s cape?

Steibel gives Stan Lee a pretty hard time, but it’s unfair to compare Kirby’s informal notes with Lee’s finished prose.  Still, the method probably inevitably resulted in overdoing the prose… Stan was not someone to let the art speak for itself.

Kirby maybe gets a little too much adulation… he doesn’t approach the inventiveness of the European masters (Moebius, Bilal, Bourgeon,
Schuiten….).  But he’s kind of the Saints Row of comics: his stuff is big dumb fun– huge muscled heroes and villains, outrageous situations, over-the-top theatricality, absurd and inscrutable machinery, but always fun and accessible.

Part of it is that he was a fantastic draughtsman… Loki’s pose above is convincing as well as convoluted.  (Though that particular pose does raise the question, wearing those tight shorts, where does Loki hide his junk?)

It takes an assured artist to just throw in a horse in the background because he felt like it, to say nothing of the architectural elements… they don’t make any sense really, but they don’t need to– they’re supposed to be an otherworldly realm anyway.

See the post for the rest of the page…

Years ago I picked up a copy of Rius’s Los Supermachos, which started back in 1965. I finally got around to finishing the book.

Los SupermachosIt’s a satire on Mexican life, at the small town level.  It’s only available in Spanish, I’m afraid, which is a pity, since it’s a useful counterpoint to the idealized, feminized world of Beto Hernandez’s Palomar.  Rius’s San Garabato de las Tunas is highly patriarchal, with strong and open class and race divisions.

The comic is apparently hilarious, though I can’t exactly see it.  It’s my fault, though: when I read it to my wife, she laughs at every page.  I don’t have any trouble seeing the humor in (say) Fontanarrosa’s Inodoro Pereyra, so I have to conclude that Rius has a way with words that doesn’t always translate well.

At the time he was creating Los Supermachos, Rius was a communist; this is chiefly noticeable here in a retelling of the story of Adam and Eve as a parable of the Cuban Revolution.  It’s actually one of the weaker chapters, as the satire is much more pointed– and universal– when he focuses on the inhabitants of San Garabato: the pompous and stupid landowners, the avowedly fascist cop, the socialist shopkeeper, the religious old ladies, the local bum, the agreeable everyindian Calzónzin.

One thing that comes across very well is the paradox of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional)– Rius calls it the RIP– the party that had a near-absolute domination of Mexico fro,m 1928 to 2000.  The party began in a revolution and retained the rhetoric of democracy and social justice, and yet was soon taken over by landowners and bureaucrats.  Thus the mayor of San Garabato, Don Perpetuo, is in general a racist rich exploiter, but in his election speeches he’s all about the Revolution and the People.  It’s a rich environment for a satirist.  In one of the chapters, just to drive the point home, Rius introduces an (anachronistic) Villista– an actual revolutionary– who comes down from the mountains to inquire after the revolution, and is disgusted by its current guardians.

He’s more generally amusing when he’s not so didactic, however.  One of the best chapters starts with one of the characters discovering that some canny operator made a ton of pesos by faking an appearance of the Virgin.  This leads to not one but two groups who try to do the same in San Garabato.  Their candidates to impersonate the Virgin are both male and ugly, but nighttime and a coat of paint are expected to take care of that.

Though Rius wrote at least one book on feminism, one weakness of the comic is that he does not have a very evolved view of women.  His female characters basically fall into the categories of naive and silly, old and superstitious, or dominating viragos.

(Another bit that rubbed me the wrong way: one chapter borrows, without credit, some situations and jokes from Jonny Hart’s B.C.  Not cool, comrade.)

One of the fascinations of the book is its attempt to reproduce colloquial mexicano.  Lots of interesting slang terms and sound changes…  (Plus, one of Rius’s gags is how his not-very-educated characters tend to mangle learned words.  Even the mayor is illiterate.)

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