Monday, February 6, 2017

ALL STAR RECOMMENDS FOR FEBRUARY 7TH



Happiest of belated birthdays to All Star Comics which turned six last week. Such a cute age. 

Oops! Seems I totally forgot about last week's Image Day. Ah, well. At least I didn't forget about this weekend's Festival of the Photocopier 2017! Go early, is my advice, as my recollection is that Town Hall got a touch stuffy by mid-afternoon last year and I wanted to curl up under somebody's table and take a heat-nap.


COMIC OF THE WEEK : BEYOND PALOMAR : A LOVE AND ROCKETS BOOK
By Gilbert Hernandez
Published By Fantagraphics

For 35 years Gilbert, Jaime and, very occasionally Mario, Hernandez have chronicled generations of characters in their Love and Rockets comics. Arguably the greatest ongoing comic of all time, it's a daunting task for new readers to know where exactly to begin. Complicating things further for the newbie, Gilbert and Jaime work individually, their worlds are separate, distinctly individual places populated by characters ageing in real time along with their authors. There is no status quo in Love and Rockets, no reboot, no alternate universe. The series has seen a number of relaunching points (having recently relaunched yet again as a quarterly series in place of the annual Love and Rockets: New Stories) but the one constant in the series is that there is no constant. If you've been reading anywhere near the length of time that I have, the cast feel like flesh and blood, like friends you drop in on from time to time and when you don't see them for a while, you wonder what exactly they are up to. This is true particularly of Jaime's work, as he spins stories of his now middle-aged characters going to punk gigs and feeling old. It's all so terribly relatable. Gilbert, however, wavers far more often in the nature of his stories - he embraces genre far more frequently than his younger brother, pushes further and further away from the tag "The Gabriel Garcia-Marquez of comics" which came with his early L&R work, the legendary "Heartbreak Soup" stories. 

Gilbert is also the brother far more keen to break away from his Love and Rockets cast and create new characters, new worlds all for different publishers. Fatima: The Blood Spinners was an SF zombie shoot-em-up from Dark Horse, for example, and Grip: The Strange World of Men a Lynchian headtrip originally from Vertigo. Gilbert is creatively restless and the manner in which he's simplified his artwork reflects the ability with which he's been able to speed it up. We can argue the quality of 1985 Gilbert versus 2017 Gilbert all day, but instead let's talk about where to begin with such a body of work. 
Rules: You have to choose a Love and Rockets book (Marble Season would be my non-L&R Gilbert pick, that one came out through Drawn & Quarterly). You have to ensure that it is accessible, digestible to as broad a readership as possible but also embody as much of the creator's particular "flavour" as possible.

We could start with Heartbreak Soup, the earliest and (let's face it) most acclaimed stories of his career and that would be perfect. However, I've got an alternative choice -- Poison River, his 190 page graphic novel currently found in The Love and Rockets Library's Beyond Palomar book. Poison River is an epic. It's a prequel to the Heartbreak Soup stories and it's also the real moment where Hernandez opens his world and his work up to other more "lowbrow" genre influences. 

Poison River is at its core a crime comic, a gangster story. It's also one that remains supremely literary and experimental even if it just so happens to be populated with exploitation film fodder - transsexual strippers, gay gangsters, odd sexual fetishes, internecine criminal conflicts - and it largely plays out in a South American city being torn apart by deep political unrest, even the right-leaning gangsters are weeding out communist influences in their ranks. Poison River slices through years at a clip and, for a medium that increasingly becomes more and more decompressed, is a beautiful example of just how tightly but fluidly a comics creator can construct a page and just how much visual information can be packed into a sequence. Individual chapter break pages wonderfully encapsulate the pace of the story, each with a character's name and several illustrations from that individual's life, from childhood to the moment we readers encounter them. Life moves quickly, too quickly, and one of Gilbert's real gifts is his ability to encapsulate a character's total existence in often not many pages and yet create wholly realised beings in the process (see his extraordinary Julio's Day for perhaps the greatest example of this). And probably most importantly, Poison River is also the origin story of Gilbert's most celebrated, long-lived and complex creation, Luba. 


Hernandez began work on Poison River in 1989 and it was serialised in the original Love and Rockets series until 1993. Readers apparently struggled with the back half of the story's ever-increasing density and this actually makes perfect sense - it's not a story to read in quarterly serialised chapters; too much happens, the cast is too large, the labyrinthine twists in plot create complex entanglements of character and event, time passes too rapidly - but collected into a single volume, Poison River reveals itself to be nothing short of classic. 

Spanning three entire decades, Poison River opens with Luba as a baby and ends right at her arrival in the village of Palomar, the setting for Hernandez's Heartbreak Soup stories. Flashing back and forth across decades, however, Hernandez weaves in not only Luba's origin, but much of her mother's as well, weaving the lives and histories of both women together brilliantly. Hernandez's "editing" builds masterfully as the story progresses, condensing more and more information into his pages. In the story's final third, Hernandez cuts between scenes and between characters often three times or more on a single page, creating a superbly dense tapestry of comics. 


We open with Maria, Luba's mother, fleeing her wealthy husband. He has learned that Luba is not his daughter and wants both Maria and child gone. Luba's father, Eduardo, a poor, blue-collar worker, struggles to keep both Maria and Luba happy and fed. Maria struggles with her sudden poverty and disappears one night. Eduardo suffers chronic headaches after a brutal assault left him penniless one night and he and Luba, destitute, take to the road, leaving the village for the city, where they panhandle to survive. Hernandez paints a stark portrait of poverty - children sniffing glue to keep hunger at bay and the cruelty of the upper class towards those suffering misfortune are on display.

Eventually, Eduardo and little Luba (drawn by Hernandez as a lively, bubbly child) arrive in a small coastal village where Eduardo's sister lives. Here we meet Luba's cousin, the wonderful Ofelia, a rock solid and decade-long presence in Hernandez's comics. Ofelia's care of Luba is stern, but motherly, sweet and at all times protective. Ofelia is politically engaged and the reader learns much of the scary political climate in which the characters live - Ofelia and her leftist friends have secret meetings to discuss communists and those suspected of being communists disappearing and being found murdered.

Luba's chance to escape her provincial life comes in her early teens when she meets Peter Rio, a conga player with ambitions to become something greater. Sweeping the barely teenage Luba off her feet, Rio returns to an earlier life of crime, working his way up a network of criminals overseen by the ganglord Garza. As the cast begins to spread and personal histories revealed, hints are dropped about certain characters' links to Maria and as Luba begins to spiral into self-destruction and drug abuse, her life becomes endangered and escape is the only way out. 

It can't be overstated just how cleverly Hernandez pulls the strands of this epic together. Poison River needs careful attention and close reading. There is work to be done here. Its surprises - both in plot and narrative diversions - are many. Its density is to be lauded. Its construction is impeccable and ironclad. Best of all is the art, which is dark and lush, full of little flourishes echoing Hernandez's influences - Steve Ditko chiefly among them here -- and supremely detailed, especially considering the amount of information both visual and textual on any given page. Gilbert Hernandez made readers wait years for Luba's origin. The iconic, hammer-wielding character is one of the true icons of alternative comics, a forceful, imposing figure. I doubt many readers at the time could have imagined just how intricately Hernandez had her backstory planned or just how special it would truly end up.

Beyond Palomar also includes Hernandez's other work of the period, Love and Rockets X. Equally as sprawling as Poison River, Love and Rockets X is also distinctly different. Set in '90s L.A, the story involves a punk band called Love and Rockets and an enormous cast of racially and sexually diverse characters (including Luba's daughter Maricela) surviving against a backdrop of serious racial tension. Scenes are condensed, much like in Poison River, but stripped of the weight of three decades of history, are much easier to digest. It lacks the pulp-thrill urgency that powers much of Poison River, but again stands tall as a remarkable comics construct built around the interaction of vastly different characters and like all of the Love and Rockets library, Beyond Palomar comes with the highest possible recommendation.


WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : BOREDOM: DAYS AND NIGHTS OF BLEAK ISOLATION
By Daniel Clowes

Here is a scan of an apparently very rare board game made by none other than Daniel Clowes. I'd never seen this before so I'm assuming you haven't either. Titled "Boredom," the aim of the game appears to be...well...I'm not sure...endure the crushing isolation and banality of a certain kind of existence? Grimly hilarious in a typically Clowsian way, Boredom doesn't look like a ton of fun to actually play, but as a comics curiosity it's a gem.




COMICS VIDEO OF THE WEEK : RIVERDALE TRAILER

Functioning, at least tonally, as something of a midway point between the rebooted Archie comics and the balls-out Afterlife With Archie horrorfest comics is Riverdale. It's a TV show that, on the surface, should not work, mixing Twin Peaks-like strangeness and small town secrets into a skewed Archie-world that feels very wrong, but oh so right. We all need to have more faith in the people behind all of Archie's endeavours, frankly. Afterlife With Archie is a terrific book that easily transcends the gimmickries of its premise and thus far so does Riverdale. The project is helmed by Afterlife... writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa who turns in taut, intriguing scripts, ripe with melodrama and just the right dose of should-the-target-audience-really-be-watching-this edginess. Really, the worst thing about the show is the ridiculous spray job required to make Archie actor KJ Apa into a redhead. But if that's the worst thing you can say about a show, well that's not bad at all. Riverdale is on Netflix with new episodes airing weekly. Here's the trailer. It's actually much better than this trailer makes it look.Would I watch it if it wasn't comics-related? Eh, probably not, but it's fascinating seeing these wholesome characters treated this way. Does it have serious legs? Not sure, but down to find out. Incidentally, Mrs Ashley has become obsessed with the show and looks set to devour nothing but Archie for the foreseeable, so as a gateway drug, its Grade-A China white.



See you next week. Love your comics.


Cameron Ashley spends a lot of time writing comics and other things you'll likely never read. He's the chief editor and co-publisher of Crime Factory (www.thecrimefactory.com). You can reach him @cjamesashley on Twitter.




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