Category: Reviews

The Last Guardian redux

So yeah, I’ve been playing more video games during this global pandemic, remote teaching, constant fires, nihilistic political world we’re in.

Recently, I played the 2018 remake of Shadow of the Colossus. I was mildly disappointed by it. For one, I just don’t think you can ever recapture the wonder of the first playthrough of the game. But I also didn’t like parts of the graphics, especially the faces. The rocks and sky were amazing, however. And maybe I’m just letting time put a nostalgic halo on my memories, but it really felt like the camera and controls were worse than in the original.

So that took me back to The Last Guardian, the game I bought the PS4 for. I was also originally disappointed by this game (as I wrote about before). Looking back though, part of that was due to the years and years of expectation. Well, now that I’ve let that go and am also playing this game in a world of social distancing, my feelings for the game have gotten much warmer.

What really got to me this time was Trico and the relationship that develops between this creature and the boy whom you play. It just struck me how incredibly detailed and realized Trico is. His movement, his sounds, all of it just bring a sense of life to the game. Often I would switch off the game, pet my own dog, and see the similarity in his reactions to those of Trico. It was uncanny. And then there is the bond that develops between Trico and the boy and the fact that the game lets you accentuate that bond by having a command that allows you to pet and stroke Trico. Again, maybe it’s due to social distancing, but this felt warm and life-affirming.

The other thing that stuck out to me this time was how much this game is about letting yourself ask for help. So many times in this playthrough, I tried to get my character to free himself from situations on his own. I would try and try, and start to get frustrated. Then I would remember and call Trico. And the big dog-bird-cat would come over and release me from my hard-headed obsession with self-reliance. And again, maybe it’s the time we’re in, but this felt right, like a lesson that I needed to learn.

Also, looking over my previous review, I made a mistake about the controls. I thought that you had to hold the triangle button down to hold on. Maybe I made this mistake because I was coming out of Shadow of the Colossus where grip is everything, but as it turns out, holding is automatic in The Last Guardian. The boy does it any time he’s near something that he can latch onto. So I didn’t find the controls quite so frustrating this time around. They are still not always perfect and the camera is often annoying in tight hallways (though not as much in the Shadow of the Colossus remake). Still, I wanted to append my previous critique.

So overall, I like this game much better. It has its faults, sure, but it’s a wonderfully realized world with an incredible companion that you get to snuggle. Such a great game choice in this pandemic world.

Comics I Enjoyed in 2019

Alay-Oop, William Gropper

NYRB reprinted this book this year, but it was originally published in 1930, the year after Lynd Ward’s God’s Man and the same year as Otto Nuckel’s Destiny and Milt Gross’s He Done Her Wrong. So it comes out of that tradition of one-image-per-page wordless books. Alay-Oop is a love story that begins in a circus, but spans the years afterwards and the changing emotions of its characters. It’s a wonderful little story told in bold and expressive linework.





Floral Sounds, Hue Nguyen

I found this book at VanCAF. This isn’t a story. Instead, it’s a series of colored pencil floral drawings and over those drawings are acetate overlays illustrating the sound waves of the bioelectric impulses of the flowers depicted. It’s just a unique and beautiful little mini. Unfortunately, you don’t seem to be able to get it from Nguyen’s site. Maybe through an e-mail.






Glenn Ganges in: the River at Night, Kevin Huizenga

This is a collection of Glenn Ganges stories, but instead of being just an accumulation, these stories work off each other and build a larger narrative. This book reminds me a bit of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy in that it’s a story that keeps interrupting itself and is habitually unable to move forward, yet is both funny and thought-provoking. Ostensibly, the book is about how Ganges is unable to go to sleep, but Huizenga uses that simple device to explore the vagaries of consciousness, the nature of thought, and the passage of time. I need to read this book again.





The Hard Tomorrow, Eleanor Davis

I keep thinking that I’ll write about this book. There is so much packed into it and it rewards multiple readings. Besides the timeliness of the story itself, Davis’s cartooning is at its height here. The line work is sumptuous and she deftly transitions from cartoony abstraction to rendered realism.







Laab Issue 4, Ronald Wimberly et al

I loved Laab #0 and while this issue isn’t as groundbreaking, it’s still a thought-provoking collection of comics and articles. There are pieces by Richie Pope, Emily Carroll, Ben Passmore, Hellen Jo, Sloane Leong, Jonathan Djob Nkondo, and, of course, Wimberly himself. There is also a great little essay about Frankenstein.

And check out this interview with Wimberly.






Making Comics, Lynda Barry

Starting with What It Is, I have loved every single how-to book that Barry has published through Drawn & Quarterly and this one is no exception. Barry is so wise and her interest is not in technique so much as it is in getting at where stories come from. So her approach to art creation is completely human and unique. And the book itself, like the others, is like the platonic ideal of a creator’s notebook. It’s a wealth of generative inspiration. Barry is just a treasure.






Upgrade Soul, Ezra Claytan Daniels

This was published in print by Lion Forge in 2018, but I didn’t read this book till this year. The version I read was through ComiXology, but the book has its own app (pictured left). This is not simply an ebook, but a reworking of each panel to give it a sense of depth along with a creepy soundtrack. Apparently, Daniels feels that this is the definitive version. I know some people hate to read on a device, but the app is really cool. The book itself was probably the biggest surprise of 2019 for me. It’s just an incredible work. I already wrote a short review.






When I Arrived at the Castle, Emily Carroll

My favorite works by Carroll are probably her wordless series based on Fallout 4 and “Some Other Animal’s Meat,” but this book is a beautifully printed work and like Beneath the Dead Oak Tree depicts a much more violent story. It reminds me of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, especially her second reworking of Beauty and the Beast, “The Tiger’s Bride.”






on-line reads

Here are two things I read on-line this year that I really enjoyed.

“Being an Artist and a Mother,” Lauren Weinstein

“How to Draw a Horse,” Emma Hunsinger

• • •

See my 2018 list.


Frictional Games

I like sci-fi horror and the initial videos of Soma looked really cool. But while I was excited to play the game, I was also wary. Frictional games are hit-or-miss with me. I liked Penumbra: Overture and Penumbra: Black Plague had some great moments, but Penumbra: Requiem was a disappointment and Amnesia struck me as overwritten and silly rather than scary. So when I started Soma I was worried. I didn’t like the voice of the main character, Simon Jarrett, at first and the set-up of the game seemed like a mash-up between the other Frictional games and BioShock. Yet when I talked with my first robot who didn’t know he was a robot, I realized that this game had more going on. As Soma progresses, it provides a story that is surprising and thought-provoking. And, remarkably, it all fits together logically. So many games sacrifice logic to make game mechanics work. For instance, in Soma you get to hear the final moments of dead characters. In many games, you get this information through journals which beg the question: how did the character write this if they were dying? In Soma, the moment is recorded by a black box that everyone has embedded in their brains. Why your character, Simon, is able to access these black boxes is likewise made clear. While not all elements of the story are spelled out for you, you can piece them together through reflection.

The story is the real strength to Soma. It’s what draws you in after a slow start and what addicts you and keeps you wanting to play even though the horrific environment makes your stomach churn. Yet as the game goes on, another element comes to the fore: Simon’s relationship with Catherine. Catherine is Simon’s guide through the world of Soma. And instead of being a simple computer construct or a manipulative puppet master, Catherine is a three-dimensional person (metaphorically speaking) full of flaws. As Simon and Catherine encounter horrors together a bond forms between them . This is not some hasty romance, but a friendship between two people alone and afraid. They support each other, but also yell at each other and get into arguments. This very human relationship at the center of the game both adds depth to what you experience and underscores the themes the game is exploring.

Basically, the game questions what makes us human. Is our consciousness part of our human bodies or can it survive outside our flesh? And if so, at what cost? And if we entrust more and more of our safety to machines, what will it mean if those machines don’t understand the humanity they are trying to preserve? I have read some reviews that have panned these questions and felt they were too overdone. But I liked them and found their placement in the game to fit really well with what was going on. And I appreciate a game that attempts to make me think as well as feel.

The other main criticism I have seen of Soma concerns the monsters in the game. Some found them disappointing or too repetitive in how you overcome them. While many of them can be dealt with by simply moving slowly and quietly, I thought the various monsters were delightfully creepy. They all had different behaviors that made them feel unique even if, in effect, all I was doing was crawling around to avoid them. While the monsters created some pulse-pounding moments, the creeping dread that permeates the rest of game is the main horror in Soma. This dread is created by the environment, especially the sounds. Yet it is largely conveyed through the story itself, the tale of what happened and what people had do do, what you, as Simon, have to do, and the realization that the only glimmer of hope is a hazy reflection of humanity. It’s a dark game, but dark in an existential way. How many video games can make that claim?

Overall, Soma won me over and drew me down into its depths. I love horror sci-fi, but I’ve found many horror sci-fi games either frustrating to play (Alien: Isolation) or full of incredibly obtuse puzzles and cringingly overwritten characters (Stasis). Soma is a well-thought-out work that provides you with an immersive experience that that gives you plenty to feel as well as think about.

. . .

originally posted February 24, 2016

The Cage by Martin Vaughn-James

Martin Vaughn-James, The Cage; 1975.

Like many graphic novels that were published before the term even existed, such as Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660, Martin Vaughn-James has created a work that is more akin to a picture book than a comic book. By this I mean that neither Okubo nor Vaughn-James uses multiple panels on a page and both set the text separately from the image. And neither uses the tropes associated with comics: word balloons, motion lines, onomatpoeias, etc. Vaughn-James goes even further and also gets rid of human characters. The Cage is a visual novel (his term) focused completely on objects and architecture. While Okubo uses art to reclaim the human reality of an inhumane situation, Vaughn-James uses art to show the inhuman reality in the structures around us. The objects we have created to surround us and with which we fill our lives cannot give us meaning. The fact that no people appear in this book underscores that idea.

The introduction that Vaughn-James provides helps us to understand his intent: “my purpose is not so much to illuminate reality (as if reality was an object and art merely an aesthetic flashlight) but to reinvent the narrative form.” Like the deconstructionalists, Vaughn-James is denying the mimetic possibility of art. For him, art does not reveal external truths–it does not “have something to say about a certain issue”–it is its own system, the signs of which relate to other signs within that system.  The signs do not relate to signifieds that are outside of the narrative. For Vaughn-James, the classical considerations of narrative are “anachronistic” and “irrelevant.” And he believes that this worn-out system of language correlates directly to a worn-out society, “a stagnating culture.”

And so this book is full of “worn-out” objects and decaying symbols. We see spotted road signs, crumbling pyramids, sand-filled rooms, and cracked buildings. And the objects that do appear don’t always conform to our expectations. Doorframes and doors swirl together in a passageway. Sheets twist and snake their way through rooms and halls. Plants spring up from floors. Vaughn-James plays with our expectations about representation as well. For instance, we see a painting of a camera, a typewriter, and other objects on page 107. Then on page 108, the same objects are no longer within the frame of the painting and are instead littered upon a bed. This jumping back and forth of an object being an image or being part of the diegesis happens several times. Of course, in all circumstances, nothing actually changes about the object being depicted. The object looks the same in either circumstance and is still a drawn image in the book. It is just the presence of a frame that changes our understanding of that object. Vaughn-James takes this play even further by “tearing” the image plane. The panels on pages 114 and 115 look as if they were ripped and placed back together. The panels are not windows to “reality.” Vaughn-James constantly reminds us of the artifice of everything depicted. And of course, the idea that the panels are torn is itself an artifice.

The images defy mimetic expectation, and the text is similarly disconnected. At times, the text seems to correspond to what is being depicted, yet at other times it is oddly dischordant. On page 36, the text begins describing a noise. This noise builds throughout the following pages. Yet even though the noise is described as a “barrage” and a “cacaphony,” the accompanying images are serene (37, 36). Later the sound comes in “epilectic waves,” but again the image does not depict this. All we see are two dilapidated doors, split to reveal plants growing behind them (48). In other words, the noise is never depicted visually and this creates an odd disconnect between the image and the text. It is hard to mentally place the sound into the images depicted. This disconnect grows when the narrative in the text contradicts what is being shown in the corresponding image. On pages 68 and 69 we are shown the cage. The bars of it are bent and the barbed wire is twisted. It seems broken. Yet the text says “the cage stood as before… immune to chaos and decay.” But obviously it isn’t immune (this of course assumes that what is depicted is “the cage”; it may in fact be something else). And later, the text describes that everything is set within a cylinder and that the cylinder is rotating. While the images show a jumble of unconnected objects, they are often simply strewn on the floor or on the bed. Things do no appear to be tumbling as the text implies. To what is the text referring? Is it nonsense or is there meaning? This is the question the reader must answer.

Visually, the entire book occilates between violence and sedate decay. At times, there is the impression that we are viewing the same scene at different moments in time. Buildings and structures seem more broken as the book progresses. But again, this implies a narrative progression of time than Vaughn-James denies. For instance, we are shown a Mayan pyramid in decay on page 15. All of a sudden on page 16 it appears clean and new. Have we gone back in time? No, because on pillars leading up to the pyramid are modern objects looking as though made of melted black plastic: a typewriter, a phone, a camera, etc. Such objects did not exist when the pyramid was new. The image is intentionally anachronistic. Later in the book, the room depicted on pages 98 and 99 is the same room as on pages 100 and 101. The layout is the same, as is the perspective. Yet on pages 98 and 99, the door is bricked closed and cracks stretch across the pillars. On pages 100 and 101, the door is unblocked and the pillars are clean. Also, the pile of clothes on page 99 has been replaced by a pile of books on page 101. These changes do not seem to be simply the effects of time, but instead seem to be variations on a visual theme. The compositional elements are the same, but the actual details have changed. In other words, the pattern is not temporal, but graphic. Still, while there is no clear narrative, the violence and destruction seem to increase as the book progresses. Objects shatter into more pieces, buildings are more dilapidated, and an inky black mass appears more and more in the scenes. This symphony of destruction culminates in the last view of the cage, which is now, ironically, perfectly formed. All the posts are straight, and all the barbed wire is attached. Yet the last image is not of the cage. We seem to enter it on pages 178 and 179, but then we seem to go through it and are left only with an image of the empty plain on pages 180 and 181.

And so what we are left with is the inability of symbols to signify anything. The objects in this book do not conform to expectation, nor does the narrative. There is no plot, no real characters. Is the cage our system of symbols? Are we trapped within a structure that cannot give us meaning?

I think that looking for a theme like this is perhaps the wrong thing to do with The Cage. It doesn’t seem to be what Vaughn-James wants us to do. As he says, it is “not so much the aim of the narrative which interests [him] but the process of its evolution.” So it’s more important that he defies any narrative expectations, since all such expectations rely on a system that he feels is out of date. He desires to evolve “a new language of signs.”

In the end, I don’t really know what that means and so I don’t know how successful Vaughn-James is. The Cage is fascinating intellectually and visually, but in the end it’s a tiring book. The text is uncomfortable to get through. The fact that it often doesn’t relate to the images increases the pointlessness of it. I think if the text were intriguingly written or captivating in some way, then the book would be more interesting. Actually, I’d prefer this as a wordless novel. The images are definitely intriguing. Still, they are often repetitive. We often see the same images and places, just in different combinations. Like language perhaps, the same symbols get assembled in different ways. And while the observant reader can find these repetitions and see the patterns, the act of doing so seems to be the only reward. Since Vaughn-James doesn’t believe in external referents, the connections are all internal and don’t lead to anything outside the book. It is a puzzle set within a moebius strip. So while The Cage is fascinating and I’m sure I’ll open it many times in the future to look at the drawings, it is a strangely sterile and inhuman book.

Other writings about The Cage:
Kristien Jacobs
Domingos Isabelinho

this was originally posted June 21 2009

Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms by Fumiyo Kouno

I first read this book as a scanlation, but Last Gasp has published an official translation.

If you know nothing about this book, a quick glance at the cover might be misleading. The soft pastels and open lines may give you the idea that this is a book about the tender and quiet sides of life. This isn’t entirely incorrect, but the focus of this graphic novel is the long-term effects of war, specifically the effects on people years after the dropping of the hydrogen bomb on Hiroshima on August 6 of 1945. Yet, this is not a dark and fatalistic book either. The tension between the open, almost sweet art and the serious, horrific subject matter is one of the strengths of this book. The one serves to temper the other and keeps the story from veering too far into melodrama. Kouno further manages to avoid an overbearing reading experience by focusing on the small details of everyday life. Obviously, many details are ones Kouno has observed, but many are also due to her research. In the notes at the end, Kouno shows us the scope of this research. But unlike a lot of literary fiction, the research doesn’t overpower the story. Kouno’s focus is on the human experience inside all of the facts and dates. For instance, the fact that the character on the cover is shoeless is due to something Kouno read in an autobiography. It’s a very specific detail concerning how the survivors of Hiroshima rationed everything they owned, since there was little industry and little money to get bare necessities such as shoes. This being a graphic novel, Kouno doesn’t have to talk about the act; she can just show it. Details like this create a level of realism and authority to this work.

As the comma in the title suggests, there are two stories in this book, but they are interrelated. The first story, “Town of Evening Calm,” is set ten years after the blast. The main character lives in a shanty town next to the river and signs in the background let us know that the residents are in danger of being evicted (we actually see the same location in the second story, but I’ll get to this later). The main character, Minami, is a young woman trying to live a normal life, but unable to do so. The main reason for this is the survivor’s guilt that she feels. It not only stems from having lived while so many, including family members, died, but also comes from the belief that she could have helped more people than she did. Minami doesn’t obsess about this; we only see these thoughts at certain moments. One time is when she is at a bath and all the women there bear the scars and blemishes of having survived the blast. An artist using a more realistic style would focus on the physicality of these wounds. Yet since Kouno employs such a simple style, we understand the sisterhood that these marks create while not being disgusted by them. Her style choice also serves her well later when she depicts a bridge strewn with corpses. In Kouno’s hands, the corpses are not much more than stick figures and the scene becomes about Minami’s mindset, not about the horror of the bomb blast. That horror is a given; Kouno’s focus is on the personal and social repercussions of that horror. This story also has the most formalistic play of the two in the book. Kouno uses full-bleed panels, panels turned on their sides, and empty panels to incredible effect. A lot of manga employ similar tricks, but only to enliven the page design. And these, like similar effects employed by their American counterparts in superhero comic books, only serve to kill the visual narrative. Kouno, on the other hand, uses these tricks sparingly to reinforce the story itself. In her hands, such simple little formal changes have a lot of impact. I’d give you examples, but I don’t want to give away more of the story than I already have.

The second story, “Country of Cherry Blossoms,” takes place even longer after the bomb. A new generation is growing up and Hiroshima is more like a regular city. Yet the effects of the bomb still linger. Sometimes these effects manifest themselves in poor health or death, but Kouno again is more interested in the social and emotional effects. What this story deals with, through the eyes of a girl (who becomes a young woman in part two), is how people have come to see the survivors of the blast. It is not talked about much in the open, but survivors of the bomb and their children are a kind of untouchable class. You never know when they may die or if your offspring with them may be tainted, so it’s best to avoid them. It is Kouno’s honesty about this social shunning that caused the book to be controversial in Japan. And this is a side to the experience that I’ve never read about before.

As I mentioned above, the two stories are interrelated. Part of the joy in the reading experience is discovering these connections, so I don’t want to give too much away. One thing I will say though, is that you should pay attention to names. But the biggest effect of having these two stories appear together is that you understand the long-term effects of war as well as the fact that people always move on. The shantytown of the first story is now a riverside park in the second. Yet even though the bomb happened a decade or more ago, people still continue to die, sometimes suddenly. And pain and sorrow are etched into the social interactions. Yet in spite of all this, people sing popular songs, argue with their family members, and fall in love. The endurance of the human spirit, no matter how petty or how lovely, is what comes through here. Putting this into words oversimplifies it and perhaps makes it seem trite. But as you read the story, this theme is anything but trite. This is partly because characters simply up and die. Personal tragedy is placed side-by-side with generational progress. This is a book that chills you at the same time as it warms you.

Since I first read Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms on-line, I’d like to compare the two translations. In the Kotonoha scanlation, the sentences are longer and more nuanced. I assume (I don’t read Japanese) this is a more literal translation. The sentences in the Last Gasp translation are shorter, but they read more easily. The cadence is less stilted and lines flow better from one to the next. So I think the Kotonoha scanlation is more exact, but I prefer reading Last Gasp’s version. Another nice decision is that they put all the notes on the text at the end. Most of the notes are Kouno’s, but editorial ones are sprinkled in for U.S. readers. This means that there are no distracting asterisks or footnotes in the story itself. This is a common practice in scanlation, and when stories are released at about ten pages at a time it makes sense. These notes help, but they do distract from the story itself. I prefer having them at the end for me to refer to if and when I want to.

After I had read the scanlation of this book, I decided to support the artist and buy a copy of the original, even though I couldn’t read Japanese. This wasn’t entirely a selfless act; I also wanted to be able to closely examine the art. What I want to mention though is how identical the original and the Last Gasp editions are. The Japanese edition has yellow endpapers and the cover is a removable dust jacket, but beyond that there are not many other differences between the two versions. What this says to me is that Last Gasp was committed to providing an edition that reflected as closely as possible the artist’s original intent. I applaud them for this.

This is a quiet little book that I can see easily slipping beneath most people’s radar. And that’d be a pity, because Kouno has given us such a wonderful reading experience. She is a master craftsperson with a keen eye on the strength and fragility of the human heart. Her kind of artistic honesty will always be needed, but seems especially poignant for people in the U.S. these days.

The above was first posted May 14, 2007. It received the following comment:

August 8, 2007 at 2:22 am

Information from Japan

I have read your blog very interesting.
I will be glad if you enjoy some information about the comic.

In the original edition, there is an illustration of paper cutout below the cover.
It was a book jacket of publication on her own account.

What was the difference of clothes between Minami and colleagues?
The story of the Town of Evening Calm started on July.
(You can find date on the postcard stamp from Asahi)
It is very hot season, but Minami always wear long sleeve shirts.
She intended to hide the scars on her arm.
Can you find when she stopped hiding the scar for Yutaka?

Why Nanami Played baseball eagerly?
Her father loved it, however his son couldn’t play it.
Because Nanami felt loneliness about relationship between the father and she, she wanted to gain a praise from him.

August 8, 2007 at 6:35 pm


Thanks so much. I hadn’t noticed the bit about the long sleeve shirt. On page 2 of the story (page 6 of the book), Minami looks at a dress and says she won’t wear it. I had assumed it was because she doesn’t want to pamper herself with nice clothes; she feels like she doesn’t deserve them. But the first panel accentuates the fact that the dress is sleeveless. Then, as you point out, we see on page 15 that she has scars on her forearms. So yes, she’s been covering them up all this time. And we don’t see her scars again until the final panel on page 34. I hadn’t noticed that.

I had noticed the baseball connection. Though I don’t think that Nanami plays baseball only to be closer to her father. Yet I’m curious if there’s any significance to the fact that when Nanami gets hit with a ball (page 42) the coach asks if any fourth graders want to replace her, but Nanami’s a fifth grader. Is it because she’s a girl? Because she’s a bad player? Or do the younger kids only get to play when an older kid is injured or absent?

Also, on page 51 we learn that Toko had stayed up all night rewriting her essay about her dreams for the future. Is that because she knew then that she wanted to be with Nagio? Or because she had decided to be a nurse? Or both, maybe.

Thanks again for your comments. It makes me want to reread the book more closely. It’s such a rich piece of work. I hope more people read it.

the following was originally posted January 28, 2010

Town of Evening Calm, Country of Habitual Denial

Over at The Hooded Utilitarian, Ng Suat Tong has a review of Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms. He has a very particular take on the book, situating it into a larger context of books about Hiroshima in Japan. His main thesis is that Kouno’s graphic novel fits a self-pitying pattern in Japanese depictions of Hiroshima, a pattern that completely ignores Japanese culpability. I haven’t read all the same books Tong has, so I have trouble getting as hot under the collar as he does. Still, I have seen how the Japanese, at least the Japanese government, has time and again denied its own role in some of the atrocities of that war. For instance, Japan has denied or distorted its alleged role in the Rape of Nanking. Likewise, Japan has also denied its alleged treatment of Koreans, especially Korean “comfort women.” On a personal note, I once had an older student who had grown up in Japan who exhibited the same mentality. In the class he was in, we read Native Speaker which briefly mentions the Japanese mistreatment of Koreans during World War Two. This student, though he had left Japan years ago and in fact was unhappy with the Japanese government, wrote an entire essay about how I was a brainwashed American promoting lies about the Japanese because I had students read this novel. So it’s interesting to me to see this denial as a larger cultural mindset and seeing Kouno as being part of it.

Still, I like her book. Jog’s response (number 15) to Tong’s review matches my own sentiments and he words his thoughts much more respectfully than I could.


Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan Daniels

Upgrade Soul
By Ezra Claytan Daniels

The common belief about Frankenstein is that it is a monster story. The focus is on the Creature’s hideousness. This is ironic given the central heart of the novel in which the Creature makes it clear that he wanted to be a benefit to humanity but was denied that option because people looked on him as a demon. So he took the only narrative available to him. While the revenge that the Creature exacts is of course vicious, as readers we are left to ask if the real monster may instead be his creator Victor or perhaps society itself for its inability to accept difference. I bring all this up because as I was reading Upgrade Soul it struck me how the comic was a spiritual successor to Mary Shelley’s novel. Besides a contemporary take on scientific hubris, the comic also explores what it might mean to live as a creature, how others may perceive you, and how you may begin to perceive yourself. At its core, Upgrade Soul is a story about identity.

from Upgrade Soul page 100

The set-up to Upgrade Soul is that Hank and Molly Nonnar decide to undergo an experimental “gene cleansing” which promises to make them the best versions of themselves. Since they are getting older and still have so much to accomplish, they volunteer for the procedure. It, of course, doesn’t go as planned and Hank and Molly end up looking like Tina from Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. The scope of the mistake is larger than this, but I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that the procedure makes the couple question themselves and their relationship. If you fell in love with a person for their wonderful potential but also for all their little flaws, are they the same person you fell in love with when those flaws are taken away? Is the person you love gone? So like Frankenstein, Upgrade Soul is more than a horror story. Besides its exploration of identity, it is also a story about a family and, more fundamentally, a marriage. So even with the body horror that fills the book, there is a deep foundation in the human and this is what gives the comic its power. 

from Upgrade Soul page 136

There are other minor themes that run throughout the book, such as ruminations on race. This is especially reflected in Hank’s work and the fact that one white character kills the wrong person because she can’t tell two old black men apart. It also explains a bit of Hank’s (or Henry’s) ability to deal with the prejudice of others and his desire to push back. In other words, there is a lot to consider here and that makes the comic very satisfying.

from Upgrade Soul page 152

That said, the book starts a bit slowly with a lot of talk about scientific discovery and the marketing hype that goes along with it. Yet these scenes are intercut with jumps in time that create an uneasy tension that draws you into the book. Once the story fully gets going and all the characters revealed, the comic is engrossing, full of great dialogue and creepy interactions. The color choices are also nice, often favoring festering yellows and sickly greens. You can sense all the thought that went into every decision. This is a well-crafted piece of work.

Overall, I was blown away by this book. It is not only good speculative sci-fi, it’s a good book period. It’s the kind of comic that you could recommend to almost anyone. It is definitely on my list of favorite graphic novels.


You can get it from Lion Forge.

Comics I Enjoyed Reading in 2018

As is traditional these days, here is an end-of-the-year list. These are not necessarily comics and graphic novels published this year, though many of them were, but a list of what I read in the past twelve months. This is, as it must be, a partial list. I am sure I read things this year that I am forgetting. And since this is a best of list, there are many things that I’ve read that are not here at all, and some of those things were good. Still, this became a longer list than I was anticipating when I first came up with the idea of doing this. And that’s not because I’m reading more. If anything, I feel like I’m reading less. There are just more good books out there, more quality publishers, and more artists. Long gone are the days when the only good books were shoved into the back of the comic book store next to the porn, and there only one or two I actually wanted to read. I can check out graphic novels from my library these days. On-line. While lying in bed. And that’s why I think lists like this can be helpful.

This list is organized alphabetically by title.


Arsène Schrauwen and Parallel Lives by Olivier Schrauwen
I discovered the work of Olivier Schrauwen this year. It started with trying Arsène Schrauwen out through Hoopla. Then I went and bought Parallel Lives. The final story in Parallel Lives is a different take on a classic sci-fi trope: discovering a new world. In a way, it reminded me a bit of the beginning of Moebius’s Aedena, but the characters in Schrauwen’s work, while having god-like power through their technology, are not being deified by their creator. They are average people who are excited by their discoveries, but oddly blasé about their personal safety.


Beneath the Dead Oak Tree by Emily Carroll
I’ve been getting the ShortBox packages for a little while now. Every one has at least one book that I really love and several others that I appreciate having been published. If you don’t yet know about ShortBox, check it out. Emily Carroll is one of those comics artists whose work I buy sight unseen. Her color work is gorgeous and her sense of line is sensuous, which contrasts nicely with the horrific nature of her subject matter. Beneath the Dead Oak Tree is a short book, but shocking in how quickly it devolves into unbridled evisceration.


Calamity Jane by Christian Perrissin and Matthieu Blanchin
This book surprised me. I usually don’t like biography in comics. It’s a difficult genre to do well and many comics biographers oversimplify their subjects. But the character of Calamity Jane is full of exuberant contradictions. And while the actual story presented here may not be true, it offers a glimpse into what life was like on the U.S. frontier, especially for a woman. And the art is sketchy and evocative. If you ever consider what graphic novel to give to someone who doesn’t normally read graphic novels, this is a title to add to your list.


The Case of the Missing Men by Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes
I bought this for the cover. I admit it. But what I discovered was a very creative mystery story. At times, it tries a bit too hard to be odd and there are some distracting non-sequiturs. Overall though, the story is really entertaining. If you want a fun read, this book is it.


Eight-lane Runaways by Henry McCausland—part-1.html
I read volumes 2 and 3 this year. Basically, Eight-lane Runaways is like an Olympic event from your most fevered dream. The art is the first thing you will notice here. The line is clear and the composition is evocative, favoring the panoramic. The story itself, such as it is, pivots on acts of nature and strange devices and articles of clothing. The book seems less of a race and more of a quest that the characters are on to fully know themselves or at least find where their lane ends.


Equinoxes by Cyril Pedrosa
Another book I checked out from my library digitally through Hoopla. Pedrosa’s books sometimes are all mundane detail and not much story. But his art is always amazing. Equinoxes managed to move me, partly because it intermeshes the lives of several characters so we don’t get too bogged down in any one place. And there are some interesting stylistic choices in the book that make it engaging formally, as well.


Geis: A Matter of Life & Death by Alexis Deacon
I’m not a big reader of fantasy, but the art of this book drew me in. Often, that’s a trap and I get stuck reading a poorly written piece of inhuman drivel. But Geis has an engaging story and an engaging cast of characters who seem real, not like poor copies of characters from some other fantasy story. What I tend to dislike about fantasy is that it is so often, ironically, unimaginative, preferring to regurgitate genre conventions instead of being actually fantastical. But Geis is different. It’s like a fairy tale from another age, though modern in its concerns and pacing. I look forward to reading more of the story.


Gonzalo by Jed McGowan
Another ShortBox book. I had never seen McGowan’s work before I received this ShortBox. Gonzalo is a post-apocalyptic story told from the point of view of a robot bear. Besides being about survival, it’s a story about the environment and the doubts of parenting. It’s a beautiful little sci-fi story.


Houses of the Holy by Caitlin Skaalrud
This isn’t a book I would recommend to just anyone. Personally, I love it, but you have to be willing for forgo plot and embrace poetry and personal metaphor. And you also have to be willing to go to some dark places. Skaalrud’s book is about suffering and moving through it. In some ways it reminds me a bit of Martin Vaughn-James’s The Cage, but while that book lacks any human subjects, Houses of the Holy is all about the human. Because of that, it’s moving in a way that The Cage simply can’t be.


John, Dear by Laura Lannes
The story here has echoes of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” even featuring a partner named John whom the woman feels compelled to defer to since society extols the virtues of men like John. And therein lies the trap. Instead of the horror playing out on the walls, it plays out on the narrator’s body. The dark and life-like drawings are disturbing and haunting. Since this book is composed of narration and attendant single-page images, the reader is encouraged to linger over the pictures and see what wriggles there in the darkness.


The Ladies-In-Waiting by Santiago García and Javier Olivares
I’ve liked Javier Olivares’s art for a long time, but never fully loved the books his art graced. But this take on Velázquez’s famous painting and the stories surrounding it is the perfect vehicle for Olivares’s bold, geometric art. And the art shifts in styles to match the change in time and subject of the chapters. It’s just a great book.


Land of the Sons by Gipi
Gipi is one of my all-time favorite comics artists. So, yeah, I am biased. This book is in some ways a traditional post-apocalyptic story where people have to give up a part of their humanity to survive. Yet by focusing on the point of view of kids who have grown up in this world, there is a level of mystery and longing to everything. The boys may lack a moral sense, but they still yearn for the things all children want. That conflict drives the emotional heart of the book.


Out in the Open by Javi Rey and Jesús Carrasco
This is one of those books I bought on a whim on ComiXology. The story here is of a type you may have seen before: a young person ventures out in a harsh world, only to meet a tough but caring older person, and by the end it becomes clear that the young person will later become that old person; they are but different generations of the same individual. Still, the art is so spare that it really matches the story and makes the reader work. It’s like some quiet foreign film that you love but can never remember the name of.


The Perineum Technique by Florent Ruppert and Jérome Mulot
This book may have a suggestive title and be about sex, but the actual scenes often take place in a kind of on-line game iwhere an orgasm is depicted by people jumping off a cliff with swords in their hands. While at times the imagery may be wild, the dialogue is wonderfully real. This is a funny and engaging story about trying to find connection and love in our wired world.


Pretending is Lying by Dominique Goblet
To be honest, I have some reservations about this book. Like many memoirs, it is often a series of scenes that don’t always add up to something larger or are analyzed in any way. And I have trouble with memoirs where the main character/artist has a partner who is a complete schmuck. Still, Goblet manages to capture dialogue and body language amazingly well. And I really like her drawing style. The ending of the book is very poetic.


Sound of Snow Falling by Maggie Umber
I had seen people discussing this book on-line, so I finally got it. It’s a beautiful meditation on the life of owls, kind of like a quiet nature documentary in comics form. It reminds me a lot of a children’s books The Secret River by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Owl Moon by Jane Yolen and John Schoenherr. But, as I say, it’s more nature documentary than kids’ book. But the thick painted images make the book as much about the art as its subject matter. It’s just a beautiful little piece.


Through a Life by Tom Haugomat
I love wordless comics and this book, with its carefully designed pages of one image per page, is just beautiful. The story itself, while being about space exploration at one point,  doesn’t transcend its human story. That’s both a blessing and a curse, as the book ends with a whimper. But sometimes that’s life.


Why Art? by Eleanor Davis
I always love Davis’s work. The concept of Why Art? is so good and, of course, her art is simple yet beautiful in its graceful line and full forms. Just read it.


Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures by Yvan Alagabé
This book is a classic, so worth checking out for that alone. But Algabé’s art and the way he approaches narrative is something any serious reader of graphic narrative should study. Then there is his subject matter, which takes on immigration, race, and sexual desire in France. This is an important book.

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.

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.

Comics and Language: Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form by Hannah Miodrag

The subtitle of this book is more accurate than it’s main title; Miodrag examines what she sees as common assumptions and mistakes that comics critics make. She points to lack of precision, sloppy reasoning, and confirmation bias. While at times the arguments are a bit belabored and redundant, her book is a needed amendment to the patterns of a lot of critical thought about comics.

One trend she sees is how often writers seem obsessed with claiming that elements in a specific comic are universal. As if how the relationships in that comic work, between word and image say, are endemic to the medium itself. I once got on David Carrier’s case for just this issue (Miodrag points out a different one on page 89). In his book The Aesthetics of Comics, he claims that what defines comics are word balloons. Yet if the small selection of comics you read and write about have word balloons that doesn’t mean that it is the defining characteristic of the medium. What about Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660? Or Edward Gorey’s work? Or much of Eleanor Davis’s Why Art? Not to mention the thousands of completely wordless comics out there. The issue is that so many critics are desperate to claim legitimacy for comics that they leap to hasty generalizations. A group of comics may all exhibit the same quality, but that doesn’t mean that all comics have this quality, or must have it to be considered comics. It’s a reductionist view that does nothing to help the medium.

Miodrag also places nice attention to pacing. This is a subject that has been habitually overlooked. Groensteen addresses it and Tom Hart is teaching about it, but these are exceptions. Even books that tell you they will teach you how to create comics often overlook pacing entirely. Miodrag’s analysis of how Posy Simmonds paces Gemma Bovary, for example, is enlightening. Miodrag is a careful close reader and her analysis is one of the strengths of the book.

She also contributes to the argument that comics have more in common with graphic design than any other medium. But actually, that’s more my own hobby horse than Miodrag’s. So I guess you’re just getting a sample of how I may quote from her book later.

While there are all sorts of little things I could quibble with in Comics and Language, my main objection to the book is how sometimes she goes to an odd extreme to make her points, sometimes setting up a straw critic to take down. For instance, in the first chapter she claims that critics don’t analyze Herriman’s Krazy Kat for its literary qualities. Her goal is to point out that in comics criticism, critics confuse imagination and plot for literariness. In other words, they don’t evaluate the use of language. This is a good point but I don’t think it really applies to Krazy Kat. It goes against my personal experience, for one. And there are several public examples. E.E. Cummings wrote an analysis of the characters in the strip and Umberto Eco wrote of the its poetic qualities.

Still, her main point that comics criticism is often very limited in what it means when it uses the term “literary” is an important one. The emphasis tends to be on creativity and storytelling, not on depth of character, complexity of theme, and use of language. With these standards, Michael Moorcock would be a better writer than Gabriel García Márquez. This is why, as she points out, that writers such as Will Eisner and Alan Moore (61) get touted as exemplars. This is something I had always felt but had never articulated, much less as carefully as Miodrag does. I had always been annoyed that certain graphic novels were held up as standards of the medium when they seemed so mediocre, or merely good. Part of the issue, according to Miodrag, is that critics’ notions of what actually make a comic “literary” are very simplistic. In the end, I think this undercuts the very thing that critics are trying to do. They are trying to show that the medium has great works. But by holding up painfully adequate books they are just showing that comics are indeed incapable of being taken seriously. Is Watchmen genuinely as profound as The Sound and The Fury?

The real reason I’m writing all this, besides trying to digest my own thoughts and recommend the book itself, is to take on one argument I have with Miodrag. Again, it’s another example of her saying something a bit extreme to make her point, but in this case it is just wrong. On page 100, Miodrag takes issue with the idea that outside captions always operate differently than in-panel text boxes and word balloons. What I think she’s trying to get at is that the role words are put to in a given comic is more important than any “rule” about how captions or word balloons always operate. But the argument is a bit messy. And on page 101 she states this: “The role words play is not determined by their position.” Okay, I agree that a comic creates its own logic and that this tendency of critics to want to establish absolute rules can actually hinder their analysis, but this is wrong. In comics, position is meaning. It is not absolute- the meaning is always dependent on context- but how the artist choses to place the elements in the comic is one of the ways they create meaning.

We all know that position is meaning when it comes to prose. “Grandma, let’s eat!” has a different meaning than “Let’s eat Grandma!” Same words, but position makes one an invitation and the other cannibalism.

How about this:

mistah dobalina panels

The first panel shows question and response. The second conveys a lack of recognition. Again, same words, different placement, different meaning. The roles are dictated by their positions.

But this quotation I’m digging into comes within the context of captions and if placement within the panel always works better. So let’s look at an example like that:

i am here panels

In the first, the caption sits outside the panel. Here the words seem to be about the scene as a whole. We are invited to see this landscape as where the narrator is. In the next two panels, the caption is placed within the panel. This invites us to read the words in the context of the image plane and so new meanings emerge. In the second panel, the caption is in a text box located over the tree. This implies that the narrator is hiding in the tree. Lastly, placing the narration over the ground makes it seem as if the narrator is dead and buried. Same words. Different placements. Differing meanings.

Just to clarify, I’m not arguing that any one approach is superior or that the relationships above will always exist in every comic. I’m just saying that the position of words affects their role. And I take Miodrag’s point that many critics, such as R.C. Harvey, assume that words within the panel inherently work better. Yet to argue against this I feel she briefly overlooks how the comics medium works. She says that it’s wrong “to confuse position with function”  when it comes to words, that instead it is a “question of [their] role” (101). Yet their placement is their role. Again, that role depends on context, but placement is meaning. To deny that is to deny one of the ways comics functions.

You can read a more chapter by chapter review of Comics and Language here: