Eric Haven Delivers A “Compulsive Comics” Reading Experience

You’ve gotta say this much for Eric Haven — he may wear his influences clearly, obviously, perhaps even proudly on his sleeve (Jack Kirby, Winsor McCay, Charles Burns, Fletcher Hanks especially), but he filters them all through a singular lens that first blends, then morphs and metastasizes them into a “sort of work” that can well and truly be called his own. Omnipotent otherworldly forces, ancient terrors, Walter Mitty-esque dream lives, mutant super-creatures, high-flying adventuresses, and present-day ennui may seem, at first glance, to be incongruous (to say the least) storytelling tropes when presented in relation to each other, but the sporadically-active cartoonist finds a way to make them all not only work together, but to do so in such a naturalistic fashion that you can’t see them not functioning as precisely-placed elements in a kind of “slow-burn” absurdist crescendo.

That requires a deft touch and a singular commitment to an equally-singular vision, but in Haven’s latest Fantagraphics-published collection (featuring strips culled from a variety of “smaller-time” publications released over the past decade or so), Compulsive Comics, he demonstrates both with something approaching elegance — his cartooning is smooth, richly-detailed, and eminently professional, each illustration something its creator can not only be proud of, but that he clearly spent a hell of a lot of time on. Meticulous cross-hatching, fluid linework, and expertly-rendered small details are ever-present, and when he adds color to the mix (as a fairly generous section of this book does), few can match his successful channeling of “Golden Age” aesthetics by means of a distinctly modern sensibility.

Of course, crafting a book that’s easy on the eyes is only half the battle, but rest assured — Haven’s storytelling skills are uniformly strong throughout here, as well. Whether we’re talking about Dan Clowes and Adrian Tomine coming back from the dead to exact vengeance upon their mutual (if accidental) killer (who just so happens to be Haven himself, or a near enough analogue), a polar explorer making a reality-shattering discovery, or a channeled history of the eons-long secret war between mammals and reptiles that comes to Haven in the form of a mid-afternoon reverie, certain themes underpin everything : man’s insignificance in the face of an uncaring universe, the temporary nature of our place as Earth’s ostensible “top dogs,” and the existential dread that knowledge of both these truths instills being chief among them. He’s got a point of view, no question about that, but he doesn’t clobber you over the head with it — instead, it’s just inexorably woven into the “DNA” of his strips from the outset, as ever-present as in the world(s) he delineates as, say, losing seasons for the Cleveland Browns or Trump administration scandals are in ours.

Don’t let that the relative “heaviness” of any of Haven’s obsessions fool you, though : he is, first and foremost, an exceptionally funny cartoonist. His humor is dry and understated, to be sure, but it’s either right there at the forefront or, at most, bubbling just barely beneath the surface. Maybe it’s the influence imbued by his years spent in showbiz (he was an executive producer on the long-running “reality” TV series Myth Busters), but he seems to have admirably blase attitude when it comes to the subject of life’s ultimate pointlessness, to wit (and I promise this is going to be the only time you’ll see John Mellencamp referenced on this site for any reason) : nothing matters, and what if it did?

Unless, of course, it does — Haven’s “god,” for instance, may not give much of a shit about people, but he does love comics; the “good” and “evil” sides in the mammals-vs.-reptiles conflict are easy enough to figure out, even if never stated explicitly; dreams are presented as a source not merely of escape, but of enlightenment. Maybe, then — just maybe — existence does have a point. You simply need to be willing to find it hidden in the oft-romanticized “little things” — the proportions of which are indeed shown to be quite small in these pages, with the entirely un-ironic result of that ending up being, of course, that their import looms larger than ever.

So hey, I dunno, call me crazy — I’ve surely been called worse — but at the end of the day, I found Compulsive Comics (as well as Haven’s most recent wholly original work, 2017’s Vague Tales) to be, dare I say it, a life-affirming work, albeit one that keeps its sense of optimism guarded, grounded : after all, just because you, personally, don’t matter in the overall universal scheme of things, that doesn’t mean you can’t, or shouldn’t, matter to yourself and to your loved ones. I know one thing for certain — this book mattered quite a bit to me, and should you decide to give it a go, I think it’ll matter to you, as well.

 

2017 Year In Review : Top 10 Graphic Novels

And so we’ve arrived at this, our final — and, I’m sure for some, most significant — “best of” list of the year, surveying 2017’s top 10 graphic novels. Quick reminder of our “house rules” : these have to be original works designed from the outset for the GN format, not collected works of any sort, which have already been covered on our contemporary and vintage collected editions lists — and, as always, no real “reviews” here (chances are I’ve reviewed most, if not all, of these somewhere or other online already), just quick summaries of why they’re all so fucking awesome. Okay, let’s do this!

10. Vague Tales by Eric Haven (Fantagraphics) – Long one of the most intriguing, if sporadic, cartoonists around, here Haven constructs a fascinating and surreal overarching story from mostly-silent vignettes featuring barbarians, super-heroes, sexy sorceresses, and monsters that borrow equally from Jack Kirby, Fletcher Hanks, Winsor McCay, and Charles Burns — then he throws it all into a blender, cranks it up to “high,” and serves up something utterly unique, yet somehow eerily (hell, vaguely) familiar. We know all the elements at play here, but have never seen them combined in this fashion.

9. Old Ground by Noel Freibert (Koyama Press) – Amorphous, inky black shapes that coagulate, coalesce, dissemble, and reconstitute themselves at both will and random are the primary visual motifs Freibert employs in this bizarre, humorous, at times even touching tale of gentrification looming down upon a haunted graveyard. Nothing is steady or predictable in this world, every new panel an uncertainty waiting to reveal itself to readers and, it seems, artist — and while a fluid and organic work focused on death and decay may sound like a contradiction at first, it all works superbly and there’s a very real sense that this story is almost making itself up as it goes along.

8. Cartoon Clouds by Joseph Remnant (Fantagraphics) – I thought another art school memoir was the last thing needed in both the “alternative” comics scene and, quite frankly, my life, but Remnant hooked me within a few pages with his crisp dialogue, smart characterization, and meticulous linework — and once he got those hooks in, he didn’t let go. A deliriously authentic “coming-of-age” tale that anyone who’s ever been in their early twenties and at loose ends can relate to easily and completely.

7. Anti-Gone by Connor Willumsen (Koyama Press) – A post-apocalyptic tale like no other that takes dead aim at any number of targets — environmental degradation, hyper-capitalism, youthful lethargy, mass consumerism, virtual realities — and hits them all with stylish minimalist efficiency, Willumsen’s book demands that you spend time looking at it from multiple angles, then trusts you to make up your own mind. Supremely assured stuff that not only requires you to meet it on its own terms, but challenges you to figure out what those terms even are.

6. Spinning by Tillie Walden (First Second) – The “big breakthrough” from an artist who’s been edging toward one for the past couple of years is here, and Walden’s memoir of her formative years — with a special focus on her figure skating education, hence the title — fully delivers on the promise of her previous works, plus interest.  As confident as it is inventive in its visual narrative, this is a powerfully understated shot across the bow from a 21-year-old cartoonist seizing her moment for all it’s worth. If you want to know who’s going to be making the most talked-about comics for the next decade (or more), look no further.

5. Crawl Space by Jesse Jacobs (Koyama Press) – Bursting with kaleidoscopic imagery and psychedelic imagination, Jacobs’ third graphic novel for Annie Koyama continues his ascent toward the throne of contemporary visual storytellers with more envy-inducing sheer originality than ever. This tale of a washing machine that serves as a gateway for children to a Narnia-esque fantasyland may have universal cautionary themes at its core, but the manner in which they’re conveyed is absolutely singular in nature. Taste the rainbow.

4. Fire!! : The Zora Neale Hurston Story by Peter Bagge (Drawn+Quarterly) – When a cartoonist sells his fucking house in order to finance his work on a project, you know he’s committed to it, and Bagge’s dedication to an authentic recounting of the life of the most interesting, and criminally overlooked, of the “Harlem Renaissance” authors certainly pays dividends to his readers. Did you ever think that the guy behind Neat Stuff and Hate would become the premier graphic biographer of his generation as the “third act” of his already-storied career? I’ll freely confess that I didn’t see it coming, but now that it’s here, I have to admit that I’m even more interested in seeing who Bagge’s next subject will be than I was in finding out whether Buddy and Lisa were going to kill each other or live happily ever after.

3. Everything Is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized Books) – Long the reigning royalty of diary cartooning, here Bell weaves her daily visual journals into a poignant rumination on the mother-daughter relationship that’s fraught with tension, tumult, toil, and tenderness, the fine line between polite civility and the raw nerves underlying it always mere centimeters away from being crossed, maybe even tripped over. Proof positive that reality is infinitely more complex than anything fiction can dish out.

2. The Customer Is Always Wrong by Mimi Pond (Drawn+Quarterly) – The second of Pond’s “Imperial Cafe” memoirs sees the dark storm clouds of the 1980s gathering over the heads of her ensemble (out)cast(s), but never fear — the whimsy, the moxie, and the heart we first saw from everyone in Over Easy haven’t gone anywhere — and deep reserves of each are going to be needed in order to get through all that’s coming. Sooner or later life takes us all in different directions, but letting go of people, places, and even stages of existence is never easy, is it? And while Pond’s book may be about coming to terms with endings we don’t want to see happen, we should all be damn glad that she’s still working through the implications of this particular phase of her life some 30 years later — heck, by the time this book is over, you won’t be ready to say good-bye to it any more than she is/was. Most comics are lousy, plenty of comics are good, a few comics are great — but this comic? This one’s pure magic.

1. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters Vol. 1 by Emil Ferris (Fantagraphics) – Most cartoonists show up on the scene with a pretty steep “learning curve” ahead of them, and that’s all well, good, and to be expected — but once in a great while lightning strikes and someone arrives “fully formed.” Never, though, have I seen anyone do what Emil Ferris has done here — break into this still-maligned medium of ours with a work that’s light-years ahead of what pretty much anyone and everyone else is doing. By now you’ve read all the raves about her book and seen it atop more or less everyone’s “best of the year” lists — but, if anything, this sprawling and multi-layered tale that’s part youthful memoir, part mystery, part family drama, part Chicago history, and part love letter to Universal’s “Monster Era” has so far been underappreciated for all that it both represents and is. Consider : 15 years ago the West Nile Virus left Ferris unemployed, broke, raising a child on her own, and temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. Today, she’s the author of the best and most important graphic novel of the 21st century (at least to date) — and she drew it entirely with Bic and Flair pens. Permission to be in awe? Fully granted.

And on that note — we’re done here. Go forth and read ye some great comics.

 

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 12/03/2017 – 12/09/2017

Great stuff to tell you about this week, friends, so let’s eschew the time-wasting in favor of getting right the fuck down to business —

Twilight Of The Bat is Josh Simmons’ second “unauthorized” take on DC’s most bankable property, following on from his 2007 mini-comic simply titled “Batman” (later re-christened, no doubt for legal reasons, “Mark Of The Bat”), and this time out he’s joined by artist Patrick Keck for a 20-page ‘zine boasting high-quality Risograph printing and an $8.00 price tag set in a post-apocalyptic G _____ City where “The Bat” and his mortal enemy “Joke-Man” are the only survivors. The true nature of the most psychologically complex hero/villain relationship in comics is laid bare in frank and stark terms here, Kek’s rich and no-doubt-time-consuming linework is exceptional, and damn if this story won’t even make you laugh a couple times in spite of yourself. Yeah, okay, the Killing Joke influence is too obvious to miss, but this is, if anything, even more harrowing and tragic, even if does posit the same (and only)  inevitable outcome for this pair of star-crossed haters/lovers that Moore and Bolland did thirty years ago.

Damn! Now that I feel positively ancient, I’ll just mention that the inside covers feature pin-up art by Tara Booth and Anders Nilsen, who both contribute outstanding work — even if I can’t begin to decipher what Nilsen’s illustration has to do with the book at all. Well worth a buy, and damn, do these guys ship fast — I got mine in two days. Order yours at http://www.coldcubepress.com/shop/twilight-of-the-bat-josh-simmons-pat-keck

Uncivilized Books wants six of your hard-won dollars for John Porcellino’s South Beloit Journal, and you know what? You should give it to ’em. This is an engaging little collection of diary strips drawn at the low point of Porcellino’s life in the winter/spring of 2011, and if we’re going to measure it on a “diary comics bleakness/hopefulness scale” that has Gabby Schultz toiling away in the doldrums and Brian Canini serving up sunshine and rainbows at the other end, I’d have to say that it falls firmly in the middle. Certainly there is depression, anxiety, and even nihilism to spare, but by the end, things are looking up for Mr. King-Cat, and his shot at potential happiness feels well-eared, if almost nonchalantly arrived at. But then, that’s kinda how life works, isn’t it? Things suck until, slowly but surely, they don’t anymore. Chicken-scratch minimalism doesn’t get much more honest and engaging than this. Get it direct from the publisher at http://www.uncivilizedbooks.com/comics/south_beloit_journal.html or the author at http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/south-beloit-journal-by-john-porcellino/

Eric Haven is a cartoonist whose work first caught my attention when I was a teenager and he was putting out a three-issue series called Angryman for Caliber’s short-lived Iconografix imprint (anyone else remember that one?), and while his Hollywood gig as a producer on Myth Busters has kept him away from the drawing board more than I’d like, on those rare occasions when he does produce some new stuff, it’s always worth checking out — and his latest, the Fantagraphics-published hardback Vague Tales, is certainly no exception. A nearly-wordless collection of interlocked stories featuring super-heroes, super-villains, super-barbarians, and super-sorceresses that’s part Winsor McKay, part Jack Kirby, part Fletcher Hanks, part Charles Burns, and part something else entirely, this one seeps into your brain as you read it and simmers there for days as you try to piece together exactly what it’s all about/in aid of. Big, bold, brash — and yet profoundly subtle at the same time. Seventeen bucks is a bit much, true, but I don’t feel cheated in the least as this is one to re-visit over and over again. Porcellino’s got it at http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/vague-tales-by-eric-haven/

Fantagraphics also serves up our final offering of the week, Michel Fiffe’s Zegas, and this is the point where the spirit of full disclosure compels me to admit that I’ve never quite loved Copra as much as my fellow arbiters of taste breathlessly assure me that I need to. Mind you, I don’t dislike it in the least, I just fail to see what all the fuss is about.

This, though? Yeah, this one’s worth fussing about. Fiffe actually self-published this vibrantly-colored, assuredly-drawn story in serialized form before his more -celebrated (and still ongoing) super-hero homage, and for me this tale of two siblings with vastly different, but equally-compelling, problems trying to make their way toward vastly different, but equally-compelling, goals in a recognizable-but-not-quite city of the future, collected here in one volume for the first time, is supremely confident, visually literate stuff of the highest order. The sci-fi landscape is a tricky one to navigate, but in Emily and Boston, we have two fascinating guides, albeit for distinct — even disparate — reasons. Can’t recommend this one highly enough — well worth the $19.99 cover price, but easy enough to find for less even without resorting to Amazon. So don’t.

Alright, that ought to be enough to empty your wallet for one week — it was for me! — see you back here in seven days for another round!