Eric's Top Shelf Graphic Novel Reviews: Blankets, Any Empire, Infinite Kung Fu
Published: August 25, 2011 - 1:11pm
While breaking hearts or bones, Top Shelf premiers two new graphic novels this month and re-releases one of Time Magazine's Top 10 Graphic Novels of All Time. With around 1500 pages of content among the three titles, the publisher gives reason to clear space on that dusty bookshelf and add to one's collection.
Comics as a medium can almost be characterized as a big attempt to produce cool entertainment (which isn't a bad thing in and of itself). While this is most evident in the superhero genre with its Batmen and Wolverines, the preeminent authors of the indie world, such as Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, carry with them a coffee house, beatnik allure which is dressed in all black and smells strongly of clove cigarettes. With this in mind, the sobering autobiographical experience that is Blankets is both sobering and welcome. As Craig Thompson's opus and one of Time Magazine Top Ten Graphic Novels, this book has been out a while, but Top Shelf has decided to give it a resized softcover and hardcover re-release, which is an excellent opportunity for new people to check it out and warrants a revisit for review.
In short Blankets is wonderful because of its sentimentalism and poignancy, which creates a nearly universal portrayal of a child growing up in a fundamentalist religious setting, falling in love for the first time, and moving on past it all. It's all about finding meaning within the temporal without dwelling on it. The bulk of the story captures Thompson's first real relationship and pseudo-sexual experience. A big theme here is managing this (and the hormones of adolescence) against a Christian interpretation that threatens eternal damnation for fornication. It's a brilliant internal struggle that is conveyed with a certain subtlety, but it still might be too much for the faith sensitive as the young man questions and denies the belief system of his youth. Less, however, would diminish the whole by neglecting the sense of honesty present that makes the tale substantive. It is important to note throughout that although definitely relatable, this is the story of someone else. It is also commendable that the book goes beyond sentimental saccharin to actually attempt to challenge the reader all the while challenging its characters, which adds depth to the whole thing without coming off as pretentious. Above all, it is never stagnant, which is an important moral to the story. Rather than being singularly defined by one life-changing moment, the characters build from that.
With all of the romance and such, Blankets may get pingeonholded as a “girlfriend book,” which is appropriate at a certain level, yet the power with which the story is told and the male protagonist's perspective make it reach beyond being a book purely for the ladies. That said, this is the comic that pretty much sets the standard for love stories in comics.
There is much more praise that can be lavished upon Blankets. The art style's beautiful black and white sketches are accompanied many times by doodle-like borders that accentuate the personal nature of the plot and the religious imagery against the more reserved works creates a great narrative juxtaposition. Did I mention that there are DC Comic character underoos featured? For fear of rambling, it's one of those books that one just needs in their collection/library. It's beautiful and amazingly heartfelt that reaches beyond the oft coveted label of cool (which it could be described as well).
Story: Craig Thompson
Art: Craig Thompson
Cover: Craig Thompson
(Hardcover) $39.95 (Softcover) $29.95
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Nate Powell's Any Empire is a difficult book to review because of its heavy reliance on the artistic side of the medium to get its story across and is, thus, more open to varying interpretation. To some it might be a profound statement against of the generational effect of violence; to others it could be a seemingly random assortment of well made images that sometime coalesce to form a story. That is the beauty and the bane of the whole thing. For those willing to put in the work to connect the pieces, the intersects between boys committing sadistic rights of passage (here in the form of mutilating turtles) and the similar comradeship found within the military for fight wars is well formed with varying bits of symbolism and coming of age anecdotes. This violent mentality goes through logical stages beginning with play, then moving on to dabbling with animal abuse, and finally finds institutionalization utilizing millions of dollars of arms, vehicles, personnel, etc. It's important to note that this transition doesn't happen with every character and doesn't devolve into a coarse blanket statement (i.e. Soldier toys are bad.). An important facet of this is that the creator keeps his attention on his protagonist who grows up in the South (rat tails and all), whose “friends” primarily come from military families, and who is in an environment obsessed with toughness and secret clubs. At different points within the book, one might find themselves laughing at the juvenile slanders exchanged from one child to another or the lyrics to “Ice, Ice Baby” in the background of a party scene. While Any Empire is definitely an “art” comic almost to a point of being experimental, these little bits bring some well-needed grounding and familiarity to the piece and allow for a setting that is recognizable on the widest scale. For comic nerds, the protagonist laments, at one point during a move, that the local comic shop near his new home is more of a DC place when he is a fan of Marvel. (When will the eternal struggle end?)
As stated in the previous paragraph, a large part of this story is told purely with art. A benefit to this is that the visuals are really good. As an “artsy” title, it is almost a requisite that it be in black and white, but it fits the feeling of retro/introspective that permeates the book. Powell shows a deft hand at angling his panels in just the right way to find resonance emotionally and intellectually. It's all skewed to invoke thought, which is accomplished well. He also shows versatility penciling not only angst ridden youth in desolate fields, but also fabulous military scenes complete with scared civilians and fake G.I. Joe panels in a more traditional style. It's all well done and shows a thoughtfulness/workmanship with each and every picture.
Of all that it is, Any Empire is not explicitly lucid or passive entertainment, but it doesn't have to be. It's artful, thought provoking, and seemingly true to its intent. It's not for everyone, but the same could be said of Picasso or Van Gogh (both of which many won't get what the big deal is). It is true art and as such is up for interpretation. For this reviewer, the result was largely positive.
Story: Nate Powell
Art: Nate Powell
Cover: Nate Powell
304 Pages/B&W (Hardcover)
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Infinite Kung Fu
Infinite Kung Fu is Kagan McLeod's first major foray into comics and he hits the proverbial ground running in this 464 page marital arts/horror epic. Given the recent outpouring of zombies in media, one might be wary of undertaking yet another graphic novel with the shambling corpses, yet its the adherence to its namesake that the book really shines. The former is actually handled really well with a new take on the subject revolving around reincarnation, an army of entitled souls, and some mixed up deities. This whole thing is almost secondary to the tale of Lei Kung and his journey from a base soldier caught up in the temporal to a true spirit warrior Kung Fu legend. The writer takes great care to respect the history and depth of the Chinese based genre and it shows. From training by a mysterious elder to sociopolitical themes centered around imperialism, physics defying fights, etc., this comic has the look and feel of something befitting the best of Hong Kong cinema. While it explores this, it manages to never get the sense of exploitation. There are bits of comedy strewn throughout the many pages, yet it never seems at the expense of the culture from which it derives. On the contrary, it is able to ride a current of such a storied tradition. The result is not only an entertaining read, but a really rich experience. Underneath that is a layer of horror that serves the Kung Fu and never vice versa. It is allowed to blend well and is able to outstay other zombie prominent work. Beyond this, there are some genuinely surprising twists and turns that stretch the genre and our hero to its limit.
Almost as interesting to the comic pages is an introduction from Toronto Film Fest exec and all around Kung Fu guru Colin Geddes and an afterward by the author himself explaining their respective love for the genre. One might do well to read both before delving into the meaty saga as these pieces of text give an amazing amount of context to the book and the culture from with it comes. They also will no doubt add to anyone's Netflix queue. McCleod's work even comes with a short bibliography. The man has an affinity for the material that is both infectious and informs the reader. Also, within the book's beginning is an illustrated forward explaining each of the immortals, their fighting styles, characteristics, and students. It makes the comic truly immersive.
With his art McCleod again does an excellent job to emulate and pay homage to martial arts films of yesteryear while retaining his own sense of style and ownership. While it would be almost impossible to capture the balletic movements of those films, he goes a long way in accomplishing the task with a focus on fluidity of movement above anything splashy. Fights are truly epic affairs taking up several pages and panels to have work that feels almost animated. There's not a heavy focus on environments, but what is there is nicely portrayed. Most of the action is close-up hand-to-hand. Thus, pulling out to see the view isn't always appropriate or necessary. The only regretful thing here is that there is the feeling that this book would be so much more enticing as a color title. It doesn't greatly diminish the entertainment level of the whole, but such great effort to match so many aspects of Kung Fu films could have only benefited from that 1970s technicolor muted color palette. Other than that, it is a visceral and fun time. Not to mention some excellent scenes of mutilation and dismemberment!
Story: Kagan McCleod
Art: Kagan McCleod
Cover: Kagan McCleod
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