Recent Reads – February 2018

Here are a few quick thoughts on some comics I’ve recently read:

Neonomicon by Alan Moore and  Jacen Burrows

If you read this blog and/or follow me on Twitter, you know I’m a big fan of the recent series Providence by this same team. Providence is the last of three works by them that focus on things H.P. Lovecraft-related, with Neonomicon being the second and The Courtyard (also included in this collection, but inexplicably not really noted as such anywhere in the trade dress) the first. Given how much I enjoyed Providence, I was really looking forward to Neonomicon. Unfortunately, though, Neonomicon (and The Courtyard for that matter) are far lesser works than Providence. They’re both slight works that function mostly as gross-out cop stories layered over some Lovecraft pastiche. If anything, reading these has further cemented my belief that one major flaw of Providence is that it’s not a stand-alone work–the characters from these early stories appear toward the end of Providence and are a bit baffling if you’ve not read the earlier stuff. Also: Neonomicon is hard to get through because of Moore’s (by now expected) inclusion of rape. While I’d argue that the one instance of sexual violence in Providence ties in with the narrative and character in a way that serves some overall purpose, the rape element here is portrayed gratuitously and is just kinda gross. 


Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham

I’d been looking forward to reading this book for a lot of reasons: a) Scholastic was seriously hyping it at the most recent school book fair, b) LeUyen Pham is one of the absolute best cartoonist/illustrators working in kids lit today, c) ditto Shannon Hale but for writing, and d) my daughter read it and said it was good. Well, it is good–really good. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was for it to be so gut-wrenchingly, trenchantly brutal in its depiction of how cruel children can be to one another. If I had to compare it to another book, it reminds me a bit of the prose novel Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. Well, it’s for sure not that bleak, but it pulls surprisingly few punches–and it’s apparently autobiographical. Pham’s cartooning, as usual, is spectacular, particularly her ability to draw children–their expressions, gestures, even clothes. 


The Little Red Wolf by Amélie Fléchais

This is isn’t a comic–although Amélie Fléchais does comics as well–but, rather, a picture book. I noticed this book last year when I saw a review of it on an Italian-language comics review site and had intended to eventually buy a French edition.  I never did and luckily there’s now an English translation. When I initially started reading, though, and realized that the story was a riff on Little Red Riding Hood but with a wolf as the main character I immediately became dubious. I truly loathe most of those swapped protagonist-type premises. (“It’s Moby Dick, but from the whale’s point of view!” Ugh.) Thankfully, that’s not what’s going on here at all. Without giving any plot away, I’ll just say that–somewhat like True Friends–this (children’s) book addresses some pretty heavy emotional topics in a surprisingly engaging way that doesn’t shy away from the darker/scarier side of things. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that of the three books on this list so far, the two that are ostensibly for children are the ones exploring difficult emotions and scary situations in a way that’s not shallow or gratuitous.  

Oh, I should also probably mention that the artwork here is just gobsmackingly gorgeous


Diana’s Electric Tongue by Carolyn Nowak

This book–which won an Ignatz award last year–packs a ton of thematic punch for its size–meaning both its relatively small trim size and its modest page count. Diana’s Electric Tongue employs SF for what it’s best at: taking a futuristic concept (in this case, companion and/or lover androids as high-end consumer goods) and using it to explore a down-to-earth topic (loss, separation, failed relationships). This makes the story sound heavier than it is, though. In other hands this could have been a depressing slog, but Nowak’s often hilariously true-to-life dialog and her beautiful cartooning (check out the colors as well as several great isometric cut-away panels of house interiors) keep things chipper enough that when there is an emotional punch (that ending!) it hits hard, as it needs to.  


Gus Tome 4: Happy Clem by Christophe Blain

Admittedly, I’m coming at this one having missed the previous volume (I read the collected, translated volumes one and two from First Second, but got a hold of volume four, not volume three, next) but Happy Clem seems quite different tone-wise than the first two volumes. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just different. Happy Clem is less madcap and less goofy than the first two volumes–and, as hinted at by the title, it focuses almost entirely on Clem, not Gus. Clem’s settled down into domesticity in San Francisco running a hardware store… but as you can guess, this state of calm doesn’t last long. I wasn’t sure what to make of the numerous “guest appearances” by figures from American Western films–people like DeForest Kelley, Sam Huston, Gene Wilder, etc.–that were rendered expertly but also somewhat distracting. (Total respect, though, for including the distinctive Star Trek site from Arena where Kirk fights The Gorn!) Speaking of expert rendering, this book is 100% worth buying just to look at the art. Every panel is a miniature masterpiece. If there was ever any doubt that Christophe Blain is the greatest living cartoonist working today, this book should settle it. A word of caution though: the French in this book was way beyond my meager skill level and you’ll likely struggle unless you’re a much more accomplished French reader. There’s tons of text in nearly every panel and the language is peppered with odd colloquial expressions (not to mention a lot of cussing) that took some digging for me to translate.  


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