Month: July 2018

my comics history

For people of my generation, the common comics history they tell is that they started with superheroes and then sometime in late high school or college grew tired of the tights and serendipitously discovered Love and Rockets or Eightball. And that was it. My story has always been different. Yes, I read some superheroes, but not much and not for long. And I didn’t discover the Hernandez brothers and Clowes until much later. And my comics reading history follows a weird time in American comic books when Maus hit the main stream and people were starting to see the possibilities of the medium. Yet at first, most of those new publishers wanted to publish really crazy sci-fi or fantasy stuff, and so just swapped the superhero genre for other genres, but did not essentially reimagine the medium and how it could tell different kinds of stories in different ways. Still, a lot of wild things came out of the 80s.

But my story starts humbly. The first comic book I remember encountering was Hulk #115. A favorite babysitter of mine gave it to me when I was about five or six. In my mind, I can still see the weird jello-like cage the Hulk gets trapped in. But this issue didn’t lead to others. It would be a few years until I began reading comics regularly.

In the meantime, there were comics in my life, if not traditional comic books. My parents had collections of cartoons by B. Kliban and Edward Gorey. I often read these and they had a big impact on me. I mentioned Gorey before.

When it comes to comics books though, basically it all began at my twelfth birthday party (1985) and it all began with David Mazzucchelli. I had gotten the idea in my head that I should have favors for the guests at my party and I was convinced that they should be comic books. So I asked my mom to take me to the local comic book store, Comics & Comix in Sacramento. I remember seeing the cover of Frank Miller’s Ronin and really being drawn to it, but thinking it looked too violent for me. So instead I turned to Daredevil. At that time David Mazzucchelli was doing the art and I was instantly hooked. While I gave each person at my party a comic, I made sure I had enough extra, and specifically the ones by Mazzucchelli, for me to keep. And so it began. Daredevil got me to go back to the comic book store.

While I did eventually start reading Daredevil regularly and also started X-Men, the comic series I jumped into when I returned to Comics & Comix after my birthday was Alien Legion. At the time, Marvel Comics had its Epic Comics line. These books were outside the Marvel universe and tended to be sci-fi and fantasy. I was much more interested in these genres than superheroes. In fact, I stopped reading both Daredevil and X-Men a few years later, but I continued with Alien Legion. Alien Legion was originally written by Carl Potts with art by Frank Cirocco. The stories were kind of American Vietnam War stories in outer space. But there were also a lot of politics and character development. But it suffered the fate of many comics. Actually, one of its characters, Jugger Grimrod, followed the same trajectory as Wolverine. Both characters started out as killers with personality disorders, but who, over the course of years, transformed from the disturbing outcasts in their respective groups to wise-cracking fan favorites whom the other characters turned to for leadership. When that happened, I jumped off the Alien Legion train.

This was also the era that later became known as “The Black-and-White Boom.” There were a lot of odd little publishers popping up, putting out crazy little books. This is where Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came from, for instance. But the publisher that I was attracted to was Aircel, a Canadian publisher who did sci-fi and fantasy stuff. Their early work was black-and-white, but they soon did full color books. And this is where I jumped in and the book that I feel into deep was Guang Yap’s Dragon Ring. How can I describe this book? It was a martial arts sci-fi book with lots of occult elements and punks. The series was more build-up than pay-off, though. In the story, there were several rings that gave their wearers powers and the main hero, Kohl Drake who wore the dragon ring, was headed to a conflict with all the living ring bearers. That conflict never actually happened before Guang Yap left the book. It was taken over by other artists, and Kohl Drake changed from a kind of blonde Corto Maltese/Bruce Lee to an annoying Arnold Schwarzenegger wanna-be. And I was out.

Two things occurred soon after this time. One, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle money was used by Kevin Eastman to start Tundra, a comic book publisher who put out high-end books (at least in terms of printing). Two, manga were starting to be translated and introduced into the American comics market. And so, at almost the exact same time, I discovered Dave McKean’s Cages and Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind. Even more coincidentally, both series ended at almost the same time. I wonder if I’m the only person who noticed that. Anyway, Cages blew me away as a young teen. One issue was almost entirely page after page of panels depicting the subtle changes in an old woman’s face as she told stories about her life. It hit me like a revelation. Nausicaä was a revelation, too, but of a different kind. The visual storytelling was so captivating, the story so vast, and the emotions so moving that Nausicaä was the first comic book to make me cry. I had been excited by comics before, been captivated, even aroused, but I had never felt any real deep emotion. And I certainly had never cried. I realized that in the hands of a master, comics really could be as powerful a story-telling tool as any other medium.

And then another thing happened. At least one publisher, Catalan Communications, tried to bring European graphic novels into the U.S. I still remember their ads in the issues of Heavy Metal I was starting to buy from the corner grocery store. But I guess it didn’t go too well for them, because they quickly went out of business. Somehow, I was sent a Bud Plant Comic Art Catalogue and in its pages I saw that all the books published by the now out-of-business Catalan Communications could be had for five bucks a pop. As a young heterosexual male, I was titillated by some of the covers, especially those by Milo Manara, so I bought a bunch of them. But Catalan published more than European comic porn. And so I discovered Christin and Bilal’s The Hunting Party, Charyn and Boucq’s The Magician’s Wife, and Lorenzo Mattotti’s Fires. The Hunting Party, while being a bit too short for what it was trying to do, showed me that comics could tackle serious fiction. Bilal’s use of visual metaphors also impressed me. The Magician’s Wife was a dream-like story filled with Boucq’s incredibly detailed art and fleshy people. Fires showed me a fine art approach to comics and the idea that color could be used to express conflict resolution. Really, these graphic novels completely changed my vision of what comics could do.

And on and on. I went to college, kept buying European graphic novels, but also discovered Sandman and later Eightball. Also, I was in Oregon, so came across a little comics anthology titled Top Shelf. And I was off and running, with so many different types of comics to explore. And I’ve never stopped.

The Last Guardian

I bought a Playstation 2 because of Ico. It proved to be a good choice; I absolutely loved that game. It reminded me of dreams I used to have in which I wandered through strange architecture. And the relationship that develops between Ico and Yorda really captured my emotions. I’d never had a game that made me feel responsible for someone. So of course I was excited about Shadow of the Colossus. And while I missed the camaraderie of Ico, especially with the vast emptiness that greets you in SOTC, the concept was daring, the gameplay was more exciting, and the story itself was deeper. In order to win the game, you, who had just faced insurmountable odds sixteen times in a row, had to just give up.

So yeah, I was really looking forward to The Last Guardian.

And I was really looking forward to it for years. And years. So long that I kind of lost enthusiasm.

But then it was finally released and I waited to hear the praise. And basically there were crickets. Sure, I read a few reviews from the normal sites, but the excitement that was generated by SOTC just wasn’t there. Still, I wanted to play the game. So, now, I finally have.

Yes, the game is beautiful. Yes, it’s dreamlike and vast. But it seems less thought through than the other games. For instance, your character, a young boy (as in Ico), gets knocked unconscious twice in a row right in the beginning of the game and again a third time not long after. And this recurs over and over and over, with you, or both you and Trico (the creature you befriend), falling and getting knocked unconscious. It seems like that could have been edited a bit. Overall, the game is more in the mold of Ico than SOTC. While you do hold onto a beast’s back, climb vines, and leap pillars that remind you of the ones in SOTC, the story is about a trapped young boy who must set another individual free so that the two of them can solve a series of obstacle puzzles to escape a huge and decaying castle. Basically, it’s Ico with Agro from SOTC merged with Yorda and blown up to the size of a house. And so the game, while being beautiful, feels a bit like a step backward.

The (completely avoidable) frustrations of the game also add to this feeling. The first annoying aspect to the game is the camera. First, it seems set too close to the main character. There’s no way to reset this or vary it as far as I could tell, and so your view of the wonderful environment is hampered by the close perspective. Then of course there’s the camera’s movement. It tries to fly around you as you move and sometimes gets caught in certain places, or crosses the axis of the action abruptly, causing you to have to switch the direction you’re moving the joystick in. It also suddenly decides to move on its own, usually when you are carefully trying to line up a jump. Really, I haven’t experienced such an annoying camera since the early days of Tomb Raider. When people say that The Last Guardian feels more like a PS2 game than a PS4 one, I think this is one of the things they mean.

Then there are the controls. They weren’t too bad a first. But problems cropped up soon and got worse in the last half of the game, as if all the bugs weren’t worked out. Most of the issue, besides being unable to tell what ledges were actually grabbable, is the redundancy of the controls. For instance, there’s a push button, which is only useful  a handful of times in the game, but when you walk into something, you automatically start pushing. Why make it automatic and also have a button? Also, when you push and something doesn’t move, you end up pushing yourself backwards and falling over. Which means that any time you walk into something too hard, you fall over. I get that the character is a kid, but this got pretty annoying. It happened when I tried to jump, too. If I hit something that I couldn’t grab, I’d fall over. Yet the biggest issue I had was with getting on and off Trico. This may be partly my own inadequacies, but it’s also, again, the button choice. The jump button and the hold button are the same button, the triangle. So this means I would often try to jump off Trico and would instead hop a bit and then cling back on to him. It got pretty annoying, especially in situations with a time constraint. And in fact, I never found a graceful way to dismount Trico.

Still, there is a palpable sense of partnership that develops between you and the huge creature that has come to trust you. While I loved Ico, Yorda was not much more than a key and you had to look out for her much more than she helped you. Well, in TLG this is almost reversed. Trico is much more powerful than your character is and much of the game involves removing obstacles so he can do what he needs to do. You play support. And I have a feeling that this may be what caused some people to get so frustrated with Trico. I’ve read reviews where people said they spent long periods of time trying to get Trico to do what they wanted. While I found him to be stubborn on occasion, I didn’t really have this problem. Maybe because I thought of me supporting him and not the other way around. I just didn’t try to tell him what to do too much. Mostly I chose to pet him. I am not sure that this is what made the difference, but it’s entirely possible. Given that SOTC shows that all your work was probably folly and that to succeed you had to give up, I wouldn’t be surprised if the intention in this game was to make you more of a passenger than the driving force of the narrative. And again, the relationship that develops between you and Trico is touching and makes for some tender and sad moments later in the game. This magic of partnership, which Ico had, is also present here. Though the frustration of the game mechanics often cut the feelings short.

In the end, the game feels like an echo. Trico is amazingly rendered and that care to detail makes him utterly charming. The environment is incredibly designed and sumptuous in its detail. Yet the continual little frustrations in the game undercut its charms. So it feels like a game that reminds me of the wonder and emotion of Ico, that harkens to the scale and excitement of SOTC, but never takes off and becomes it’s own thing. My sense of wonder kept being robbed by the limitations of the camera and the muddiness of the controls. I still like the game, though. And now that I’ve played it I can relax a bit and just take things in. If only the camera were better…

The games ends with nostalgia, which seems apropos. The narrator of the game is the boy you are playing and at the end we finally see him grown up. A group of children have found the mirror that you use in the game and so you tell them the story. “I once had an adventure…” Which is exactly how The Last Guardian works for me, reminding me of the time I first played Ico. “I was once sacrificed to an evil queen and had to escape her crumbling castle, leading a sickly young woman by the hand…” In the end, I’m glad to have these memories.

new version of “Lounger”

After saying that I was not going to go through with this story, I’ve been working on it. I thumbnailed the thing and started pages to see how it looked. I’m still kind of discovering the story and trying to find the right mood in it, a contrast between the dialogue and the environment. I also am playing with color, but this is the gray version. You can contrast it with the older version below.

lounger page 1 by nick mullins

lounger page 2 by nick mullins

lounger page 3 by nick mullins

 

And here’s the older version:

Arsène Schrauwen

Arsène Schrauwen
Olivier Schrauwen

Arsène Schrauwen reminds me a bit of the work of Ben Katchor, with his blocky businessmen engaged in endeavors that seem just outside the real. The book also reminds me of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, in the sense that expectation is often thwarted and any sense of narrative tension is drained by the inanity and passivity of the main character. I make these comparisons to Katchor and Sterne so you understand that this is a book aimed at a particular sensibility, at a reader who enjoys the absurd and the structurally inventive.

So we get a story of the artist’s grandfather, a man-child who moves to a colony- a place that is never named, inhabited by a people we don’t get to see until late in the book- and who spends most of the “adventure” hiding in his bungalow, too afraid to venture out. This is not the story of a hero, nor does it seem to be a critique of colonialism. It’s an anti-story the way that Tristram Shandy is. Yet things do happen. There is an obsession that may be love. A character is committed and receives electro-shock therapy. People get lost. Leopard men come out of the jungle. A city is built. Still, a decisive climax is avoided and all the grandiloquence of the project the colonialists undertake is undercut by the needs of capitalism. At the end, we see Arsène bicycle into the darkness, no more a solid character than he was at the outset.

Besides his playfulness with the absurdity of the story, Oliver Schrauwen is also playful with the layout and drawings of his comic. Colors shift between blues and reds, grids give way to double-page spreads. Schrauwen also uses visual metaphors. When Arsène is arroused he turns into a donkey, like a Belgian Bottom. At other times he becomes a young boy, at others his penis is a bird. Most of the other characters in the comic don’t have faces and instead have simple spheres for heads. At certain moments, their faces emerge, but often quickly disappear again. This may be Schrauwen’s style, but it underscores how little the titular character thinks about other people.

I found the playfulness of this book to be funny and charming. The whole thing was constantly inventive and engaging. At the same time, I can see how this book isn’t for all tastes. Also, I was a bit troubled that a book about a colony in Africa doesn’t have any black people in it. Reality is not Schrauwen’s game here; he is playing more with the European narratives of the great artist and the great adventurer. Still, the lack of a native perspective was at times an unnerving hole in the book.

I read Arsène Schrauwen through my library on the Hoopla app. So if your library has a similar service, you can try it out that way. Or you can get the book from Fantagraphics.