comics


The best Catwoman comic may not be a Catwoman comic at all.  Of the ones I’ve read, I liked Darwyn Cooke’s the best. But I found a book that is just what I think Catwoman should be: Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover’s Bandette. It started as a webcomic, but it’s now available in two hardbound volumes.

bandette rembrandt

Bandette is a Parisian teen girl thief.  (Her real name is Maxime Plouffe.)  The first two chapters set the tone: she breaks into a mansion, steals some Rembrandt minatures, gets seen, escapes, helps out her police friend with the aid of her teen irregulars, talks to her rival (whose nom de vol is Monsieur), flirts with her friend Daniel, and earns a death sentence from a villain named Absinthe.

It’s fun, it’s well done, and it’s completely weightless.  No grimdark at all, at least in volume 1– Absinthe seems no more dangerous than Mr. Rastapopoulos in Tintin. Can you tell I’m sick of grimdark?  Not long ago in the DC universe, Joker apparently cut his face off.  And then his face became a McGuffin for awhile, and then he got it back again.  Back on his face, that is.  I guess that’s pretty crazy, but a) it’s a steal from another media property; and b) it’s really pretty dumb. It’s grimdark as the camp body horror other half of Batman 1966.

I’m guessing Tobin has read some French BDs… the fact that the police inspector’s name is BD may be a clue; also the Tintin-level mixture of humor and adventure. Bandette also owes something to Irma Vep, classic catsuited French thief.  Tobin has everyone talk as if poorly translated from French:

Daniel: But what is this list?

Bandette: Is it not obvious, Daniel?  It is a mischief list!

Daniel: A mischief list?

Bandette: Yes, it’s very exciting! It’s a listing of items owned by Absinthe.  …It would be the height of folly to attempt to steal them.

Bandette aims to do just that, of course– she has a very high opinion of herself. Which in a real person is not a very attractive quality, but she somehow pulls it off, perhaps because the fun she’s having is so contagious.  (When she visits Monsieur, to propose a mutual challenge, she starts off by asking if he has any cookies.)

I picked it up on the strength of Coover’s name– I loved her Small Favors, and few artists are so good at drawing cute girls. But she can draw much more: big-nosed Parisian cops, middle-aged master thieves, Parisian rooftops, etc.  It’s stylized but beautifully drawn; it fits the story perfectly.

I think what goes wrong in most of the Catwoman books I’ve seen is precisely the lack of lightness.  It’s fine if things go wrong– that’s what makes stories.  But I want her to be smart, witty, resourceful, a little cocky, and graceful and admirable as a thief– like Bandette.  There’s no need to give her the same traumas as Batman.

(I was at the library today and volume two was unavailable.  So these remarks are based on volume one.  If she runs into Joker in the next book, it’s not my fault.)

The one DC book that captures some of this lightness is Amanda Conner’s Harley Quinn. A recent episode had Power Girl hit by a space alien and lose her memory.  She wakes up in Harley’s back yard, and Harley convinces her that she is actually her loyal sidekick.  Wacky is hard to pull off, but Conner gets just the right balance, I think.

Which is of course Le Bleu est une couleur chaude, by Julie Maroh. I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, and the library had it (unfortunately only in English).

maroh

It’s the story of Clem (for Clémentine), a high school student who, to her surprise, falls head over heels for another girl, an art student with blue hair named Emma.

Clem is also dead. This isn’t a spoiler, as we find out on page 1. The framing device has Emma coming to Clem’s house and reading her diaries for the first time— learning all the bits of Clem’s life and mind that, she says, she was unable to tell Emma while she was alive.

The power of the book is that it’s all emotion. Everything hits Clem hard: confusion over her first feelings of love (and why she doesn’t feel anything for her first boyfriend); shame and loneliness; the joys of her immediate infatuation with Emma and her frustration that Emma has a girlfriend, Sabine; the anger and bitterness of her best friend turning out to be a raging homophobe; withdrawal and depression; the ecstasy of her first time in bed with Emma.

Emma is centered and solid, at peace with her sexuality; Clem is all teenage all the time, a storm of hormones, completely given to her passion for Emma, yet perfectly capable of punishing her for a month for not paying enough attention to her. It doesn’t help that not only her schoolmates but her family is homophobic. (She does have one steadfast friend, her gay pal Valentin.)

Toward the end of the book, Clem grows up— in two pages.  But we only see a few images from a 13-year relationship. Admittedly this fits the conceit of the book— Emma is reading Clem’s words, filling in what she didn’t know about her; plus perhaps a transition to a very different kind of story— something that recorded 13 years of togetherness— would have been jarring.  Instead of that, tragedy strikes, and then a few pages later, tragedy strikes again. This is perhaps the one flaw in the book: to maintain the emotional roller coaster, the book becomes melodrama.

On the other hand, at least based on the book, France is not as evolved on LGBT issues as one might imagine. Same-sex marriage didn’t come until 2013, three years after the book was published; one of the worst cruelties depicted in the book is that the hospital where Emma takes Clem when she falls sick won’t tell her what happened, because she’s not “family”. Julie Maroh has written that she was not writing for lesbians or even for allies; she was writing for those who “have no doubts, who have false ideas without knowing anything, who detest us/me”.  So an extra dose of pathos may have been what was needed to get through to people’s hard hearts.

Maroh’s art fits the book: melancholy, evocative, almost all of it in sepia tones with blue highlights. It’s mostly realistic, but there’s a manga-like willingness to stretch the drawing to communicate more emotion.

There are extra hurdles for Clem because her great love is lesbian; but Maroh easily reaches the universal as well. We don’t actually learn that much about Emma— what kind of art she makes, what she thinks about Sarkozy, why she has blue hair, what exactly she sees in “the little brunette from the main square”, as she calls Clem. But in a sense it doesn’t matter; all that matters is that the coup de foudre hit Clem, she’s in love for the first time, she is miserable when she’s apart from Emma, she feels she would do anything for her. First love makes us feel like angels and act like crazy people and goes a long way to making us lovable (and sometimes the opposite).

I haven’t seen the  movie, but from what I’ve read it’s been substantially changed— starting with Clémentine herself, who’s been morphed into Adèle, after the name of the actress who plays her.  Maroh (from the above link) isn’t bothered by the adaptation, but she was bothered by the inauthenticity of the sex scene, which she called “a brutal and surgical display”. Ouch!  Maybe it would have helped if at least one of the actresses was lesbian, as in Room in Rome.

Linguistic note: The French title is the subtler Blue is a warm color. In Russian it became СИНИЙ – САМЫЙ ТЕПЛЫЙ ЦВЕТ; as Russian famously has two words for blue, it has to specify that Emma’s hair is dark blue. And the Japanese title is ブルーは熱い色 Burū wa atsui iro. I’d love to know why they used the French/English word… what’s wrong with aoi?

 

If you’re under, oh, 40 or 50, Roz Chast’s graphic novel will seem like a story from an alternative dimension… like a love story looks when you’re nine.  But this will all happen to you, pal.

It’s about the last years of Chast’s parents, and having lost both of mine in the last three years, I recognized everything.

rozchast

There’s kind of a secret fraternity of those who have taken care of elderly parents. You watch them tootling through their 80s, a little less vigorous, a little hard of hearing, but still happy and active. Then something happens.  They can do less and less.  They don’t take care of their home as well as they used to. They start getting weak and then positively fragile.  There are emergencies with falls and sudden hospital stays.

Step by step the old relationship reverses, till you are taking care of them. And making decisions nothing has prepared you for: are they insisting on driving when they can’t, do they need help in their home, do they need to move out, is anyone making sure they bathe, what if scammers call them on the phone…

Oh, scammers. One day my sister came to Dad’s house and he wasn’t there. This was extremely disconcerting as he used a walker and simply walking to the kitchen was a big thing for him. He had written a phone number on a piece of paper in the den; I Googled it and found it was a taxi company. We called the company and he had taken a taxi to Walgreens.

Well, he showed up back at the house soon enough, and my sister got the whole story. Someone had called and told him he’d won hundreds of thousands of dollars.  To get it, he just had to send a money card (available at Walgreens) to an address in Nevada, because reasons. They told him not to tell his kids— it should be a surprise!

Fortunately, the clerk at Walgreens was on the ball; he told my Dad it was a scam, and he came home. He was a little embarrassed, though not as much as when he dropped his cranberry juice and one of us had to clean it up.

Point is, you take care of them out of affection and need, yes, and death is horrible and tragic and pathetic, but they’re also exasperating, weird, and sometimes hilarious.

This is all in Chast. I don’t know what you might expect in a memoir about death— it’s occasionally sad or gruesome— but there’s plenty of humor and personal eccentricity. You get to know Chast’s parents, and learn exactly how they drive Roz bats.

When Chast’s cartoons started appearing in the New Yorker, I didn’t like them. They seemed weird and humorless. Eventually I came around. It might have been this cartoon that did it:

Untitled-1

 

Chast has a very dry sense of humor, with an occasional dash of surrealism. Her characters are typically urban, quotidian and a little neurotic, sitting around small living rooms on couches with antimacassars on top… after reading her memoir, I can see her parents and their Brooklyn apartment in her cartoons.

In form, her book is a mixture of comics, text, and a few photos. She’s managed something that many have tried with far less success: moving easily between cartoons and text. The key may be that the text is handwritten, and never too long. Blocks of typesetting are jarring in a comic. At the same time, many comics artists try to keep everything in comics, and that doesn’t work, because six or twenty panels of the same thing are boring.

If you’re young, with no elderly relatives around, I have no idea what the book will be like for you. So check it out to learn what this alternative dimension is like, or come back in ten years…

The people in charge of the Angoulême comics festival were recently completely unable to think of any female cartoonists, so I thought I’d help by contributing a list of more than 200.

If your favorites aren’t there… tell me!  Especially if they’re non-English.  I’m especially weak on manga.

As it happened, I was already reading Deborah Elizabeth Whaley’s Black Women in Sequence, which is about black female cartoonists.  It has a whole chapter about Catwoman, so I had to read it.  (Catwoman has been played on the screen by black actresses twice, going back to 1967, so it’s not surprising she has a special meaning for black comics fans.)

The most interesting chapter is on Jackie Ormes, who had several syndicated strips in black newspapers from the late ’30s till the ’50s.  I would love to see more of her work; it’d be a fascinating glimpse into those times.  What’s striking about her elegant, smart characters is simply that they look human, and sexy, at a time when white cartoonists were producing abominations like the Spirit’s Ebony.

Anyway, Whaley’s theorycrafting doesn’t turn me on much, but the introduction to a bunch of artists is worthwhile.  (I kept wanting to ask what she thought of Jaime Hernandez, or what she might think of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new Black Panther…)

 

 

A quarter century ago, Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly put out Raw— a highbrow mixture of underground cartoonists and French BDs where, in general, the id was fully on display.  In Vol. 2 No. 1 (1989) six pages were devoted to a little story called “Here”, by Richard McGuire, which looked a little too clean and cool for its surroundings.  It was also the most mind-bending piece in the whole 200-page issue.

McGuire-Here-1989-p-1

Every image of “Here” depicted the same scene, from the same viewpoint. But that wasn’t the clever bit. The clever bit was that not all the panels showed that scene in the same year. In fact, after a few establishing panels, windows within each panel showed different years. The entire six pages depicted– out of order– a story ranging from 5 billion BC to the year 2033.

Most of the story was concentrated around a single lifetime, from birth (1957) to death (2027). It was a fascinating look at a place, a lifetime, at how moments could be connected not just in linear sequence but by theme: similar events occurring in the same place; a woman’s complaint about cleaning repeated over the years; a tree growing; echoes of action or dialog.

Oh, here. Here’s “Here”. Just go read it. Six pages, light as a feather and dense like lead. It refrains from any sort of comment, and somehow seems to be about everything: time, space, life, humanity. It was just amazing that you could do this in comics.

Now, McGuire has produced Here, a version of the same idea, but 300 pages long, and in color.

Mcguire2014

Before you read the rest of this page, you should open a new tab, order the book, and read it. It expands the original idea, playing with the resonances of time and space, and the color version is spectacular. Plus the corner of the room is in the crease of the book, which is a neat iconic idea: the opened book echoes the shape of the room.

Better yet, get the iPad version, where reportedly you can view the book in multiple ways, or trace a particular thread chronologically.

OK, now that we’ve read it, I’m going to say: it’s neat and I like it, but the 300-page version doesn’t blow the mind at 50 times the rate of the 6-page story. A lot of what McGuire does here, he already did in the previous version. It’s a neat way to play with the medium, but it’s definitely in experimental mode, and in such things the emotional temperature tends to be low.

There’s a set of family pictures that look a lot like real family photographs, and from articles on the book, it turns out they are real photographs from McGuire’s family. Likewise, a bit that seems like rather a stretch– a connection to Ben Franklin– turns out to be literal truth: McGuire’s childhood home in New Jersey was across the street from Ben Franklin’s son’s house. Similarly, a visit from the local archeological society (they want to dig up the back yard for Indian bones) really happened.

The thing is, when you have to read news stories about the book to understand the connections, that’s probably a sign that the artistic method is a little too detached. The book plays delightfully with its concept, but it doesn’t cohere as a story. There are recurring characters but after two readings I couldn’t tell you who they all are.

Oops, I should learn to write these things with the positive stuff at the end.  The 6-pager did seem short– more like a proof of concept.  The book takes it slow, runs the idea through all its variations, is more careful about history (it’s a nice touch that the Native Americans speak an actual Algonquian language), it’s full of quirky juxtapositions, and it’s gorgeous to flip through.

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.

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