September 29, 2011 | Graphic novels


For years we’ve waited.

And waited.

Seven excruciatingly long years have passed while Craig Thompson quietly crafted the follow-up to his universally acclaimed graphic novel, Blankets.

But as soon as you begin reading his new book, Habibi (Pantheon, 672 pages, $40), the reason why we’ve waited so long becomes instantly clear: work of this astounding depth takes years to achieve.

Habibi (Arabic for my beloved) is magnificent, sweeping and lavish with a level of detail that is frankly staggering. Thompson takes readers from the introspective journey of Blankets to a spiritual one, as he beautifully blends cultures and faiths into a mesmerizing love story.

As with Blankets, Thompson pulls no punches and puts his heroes — young slaves Dodola and Zam — through some nightmarish trials. But the journey is well worth taking as the star cartoonist delivers another triumph.
(This article first appeared in the Toronto Star)

Craig Thompson interview

September 29, 2011 | Interviews


Craig Thompson couldn’t seem to find a way to get out from under Blankets.

The cartoonist’s award-winning 2003 graphic novel was a seismic event. The touching autobiographical tale of his adolescence and first love dramatically changed the landscape of how people view this type of visual storytelling — and it shook Thompson’s life to the core.

After getting swept up in a media frenzy and with legions of new fans and a sprawling book tour that crossed oceans and took more than a year, Thompson was left physically and creatively exhausted.

He needed time to heal the constant pain in his drawing arm and to let the ideas for his next story blossom. He retreated to his home in Portland, Ore., and, for all intents and purposes, disappeared.

“I’ve been in almost a (J.D) Salinger mode for the last six, seven years,” Thompson told the Star during an interview prior to a speaking engagement in Toronto last week to promote his new book, Habibi.

And the longer he was gone, the more pressure he put on himself to deliver a novel that could rival Blankets.

“It was paralyzing at times,” Thompson said. “It’s not necessarily a method I would recommend to another cartoonist.”

Not that taking this long was planned.

“Certainly, in the beginning, I was completely naïve to how long it would take,” he said. “I did have modest goals in the beginning — I thought it would be a 200-page book that I finished in two years (instead of 665 pages and almost eight years).

“There were these marked moments along the way where I was just lost in the labyrinthine tangle of it all and didn’t know if I’d ever make it out.”

On the surface, Habibi, released last week, appears to be a departure for Thompson, a work of fiction featuring Arabian palaces, desert landscapes and far-flung fantasy. But it is sure to have a familiar tone for many of his longtime fans.

“There’s a theme in a lot of my books of two people finding shelter within each other in the middle of a lonely and ugly world,” he said. “That happens again here, but hopefully it delves deeper in Habibi.”

Following the lives of two slaves, Dodola and Zam, from childhood to adulthood, Habibi is filled with metaphor and intricate art that highlights the ties that bind us.

“Definitely, the thematic focus was to zoom in on the connections — the connecting threads between faiths and people and cultures,” Thompson said.

“I (also) definitely wanted to juxtapose ugliness and beauty — or at least the sacred and the profane.

“It was deliberate to create a mash-up between the sacred medium of holy books and the vulgar, pulp form of comic books.”

The new graphic novel was inspired, in no small part, by the desire to work on something visually different, the creator admits.

“After Blankets, I was definitely sick of drawing myself and sick of drawing these mundane mid-western snowscapes,” he said.

“I wanted to craft something bigger and outside of myself and was considering two trajectories: either a fantastical epic that might be typical of the comic book form — but playful and fun — or something non-fiction and journalistic like Joe Sacco’s work.

“Habibi ended up meeting in the middle.”

As for how his readers will respond to his latest effort, Thompson said he’s hopeful they’ll embrace it just as strongly as they did Blankets.

“It’s been seven years and that’s how long it takes for every cell in your body to regenerate, so I’m a new person and I expect a lot of my readers to be new people,” he said.

“I’m hoping my fans have also grown up in a way that this might speak to them more for where they are in their lives.”
(This article first appeared in the Toronto Star)

Mister Wonderful

May 6, 2011 | Graphic novels

Mister Wondeful

Marshall is a loser.

He’s divorced, balding, bespectacled and definitely past his prime and is such a dead-end that he is the punch line in his own interior monologue.

He’s even enough of a loser to wait around for an hour to see if the blind date he’s been set up with will actually show at all.

And then she does.

And, for once in his life, it’s magic.

Daniel Clowes, who has proved himself master of the loveable loser with past classics such as Ghost World and Pussey, treads somewhat familiar ground in his latest effort, Mister Wonderful (Pantheon Books, 80 pages, $22.95).

In an effort originally serialized in The New York Times Magazine in 20 parts from 2007-2008, that is economical in the way of the best short stories, we follow Marshall on the night of his life as he attempts to woo the lovely, if equally flawed, Natalie.

While regular readers of Clowes’ work wait patiently for the other shoe to drop, and it does, there is a surprisingly low level of cynicism for one of his books and even the possibility of, dare it be said, a happy ending.
(This review first appeared at www.thestar.com)

Paying For It: A Comic Strip Memoir About Being A John

May 6, 2011 | Graphic novels

Paying for it

It’s pretty clear that Chester Brown is a robot. Well, to be fair, he could also be at least part space alien.

Even some of his closest friends and colleagues agree.

Either way, he’s clearly not like the rest of us and is definitely marching to the beat of his own drummer. But since the Torontonian is also one of the most unique and gifted graphic novelists in the world, most people aren’t too worried about investigating the origins of his construction/hatching/etc.

Perhaps the best argument for Brown being built and not born comes in his mesmerizing new autobiographical book, Paying For It: A Comic Strip Memoir About Being A John (Drawn & Quarterly, 292 pages, $24.95).

The story begins in 1996, when his longtime girlfriend, media personality Sook-Yin Lee, tells Brown she’s falling in love with another man — but doesn’t necessarily want to end things with him and certainly doesn’t want them to stop living together.

With glasses covering his eyes and his slightly gaunt visage betraying no emotion, Brown agrees she should pursue the object of her affection and he calmly tells his friends, Seth and Joe Matt (the other two thirds of Toronto’s Holy Trinity of cartoonists), he doesn’t feel jealous at all.

Then Sook-Yin starts sleeping with her new beau — in the room next door.

But Brown, while he admits his sexual relationship with her is over, says he’s still not angry or jealous. In fact, he’s quite proud of that fact (not that his facial expression changes in the least).

Then the new boyfriend moves in with them.

And that’s when something changes (though not with Brown’s unfailingly stoic face). After witnessing (or at least hearing through thin apartment walls) the ups and downs of a monogamous relationship, he becomes convinced that he never wants to have a girlfriend again; that he’s done with the idea of romantic love.

Clearly, it does not compute.

There’s only one hitch in his plan: Sex.

After nearly three years of celibacy, Brown eventually begins to ponder the concept of prostitution. He believes it could be the perfect solution for a socially awkward man who has no interest in love and no ability to pick up random women.

With a little coaching from a book by sexpert Dan Savage, an emboldened Brown decides he’s willing to pay to satisfy his needs.

And, after a little bit of investigation and effort to overcome paranoia, he finally makes it happen. (Although his facial expressions still don’t belie his feelings about it.)

While most people would be trepidatious to ever discuss going through with this act, Brown, who describes the experience as transformative, proudly shares the details of his first encounter with his friends — including Sook-Yin.

While facing the inevitable barrage of question regarding safety, morality, ethics and the like, Brown counters every blow with his own reasons why this works for him. It’s a pretty impressive evolution from the guilt-wracked young Brown readers first encountered in 1992’s The Playboy.

What follows is a shockingly frank account of the all the prostitutes he saw — 22 in total, usually about one every three weeks — over the next five years.

And while Brown takes very specific care to never show the faces of the women he saw or reveal anything about them that could make them identifiable, the candour with which he approaches this generally taboo subject frankly redefines the graphic part of graphic novels.

Now there is simply no doubt this book is going to be controversial. The open advocation of partaking in the services of prostitutes as an alternative to monogamy likely isn’t for the faint of heart. And while Brown’s rather thorough appendix and notes — most of which read like excerpts lifted straight out of the Libertarian handbook (he’s been the federal party’s candidate in Trinity-Spadina the past two elections) — do make a good case for decriminalization of prostitution, it easy to see how his stance opens him up to criticism.

Brown’s odyssey is undeniably engaging and readers longing for his return to autobiographical tales after the radical departure of 2004’s award-winning Louis Riel are sure to have smiles on their faces — even if he never will.

Thor Omnibus

March 20, 2011 | Comics

The Mighty Thor Vol. 1 Omnibus

British director Kenneth Branagh’s vision of Marvel’s classic hero, Thor (starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman and Anthony Hopkins), hits movie theatres on May 6. Two new books make it clear why this beefy, blond Norse god is worthy of his very own blockbuster:

The Mighty Thor Vol. 1 Omnibus (Marvel Comics, $112.99, 768 pages) collects the first 39 appearances of the hammer-wielding hero from the mid-1960s by comic icons Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in one vibrant and beautifully restored package.

Thor by J. Michael Straczynski Omnibus (Marvel Comics, $72.99, 520 pages) assembles one of the most recent takes on the character – courtesy of the longtime Amazing Spider-Man writer – an epic yet playful tale that sees the hero reborn only to find his homeland of Asgard floating over rural Oklahoma.
(This article was first published in the Toronto Star)

Women of Marvel: Celebrating Seven Decades Omnibus

March 20, 2011 | Trades

Women of Marvel

They are strong, confident, capable and often complex – not a damsel in distress in the bunch.

They stop bad guys, save lives and sometimes even the planet.

They’re the mighty female heroes of Marvel Comics and they’ll take a backseat to no man – although they just might be taken a little more seriously if they didn’t always charge into battle sporting leopard-spotted bikinis, skin-tight (and often low-cut) spandex and occasionally nothing at all.

As the topselling comic book company around marks a milestone anniversary, graphica and comic book fans get to enjoy a rather intriguing look back at some of the most notable (and truly obscure) female characters it has spawned in Women of Marvel: Celebrating Seven Decades Omnibus (Marvel Comics, 1,160 pages, $140).

First, let’s be clear: Amidst the 48 issues collected in this whopping 3.3-kilogram (7.5-pound) tome there is just one issue from the 1940s, one from 1991 and everything else is from Marvel’s most prolific era from the 1960s through the ’80s, so the “seven decades” part of the title might be a tad misleading. What does make the cut is an interesting cross-section of comics – many long overdue for reprinting.

Most significant are three short-lived series from the early 1970s that prominently featured female creators and were spawned in a fairly transparent effort to try to lure female readers: Night Nurse, The Cat and Shanna the She-Devil:

Night Nurse follows the lives of three young nurses at Metro General Hospital in New York City, far outside the super-hero-filled Marvel Universe. It was among the leading edge of comics that took aim at social issues in a rapidly changing America – touching on such subjects as class warfare, feminism and race.

The debut issue – the entire four-issue run was written by Jean Thomas (then married to then-Marvel editor Roy Thomas – thoughtfully hones in on a heart-wrenching dilemma as one nurse is forced to choose between her career and the man she loves.

The Cat makes its mark for being both written and illustrated by women. Linda Fite, whose work pops up in several places in this volume, pens the adventures of young widow Greer Nelson, who becomes a costumed adventurer after volunteering to be the guinea pig for an experiment designed to help women reach new heights of mental and physical acuity. Marvel legend Marie Severin illustrated the first two of this four-issue run, while Patty Greer drew No. 3.

Carole Seuling plotted the first four of the five-issue run of Shanna – the leopard bikini-wearing heroine – who was on the leading edge of animal rights and environmentalism as she helped protect the jungles of Africa from poachers, warlords and other ne’er-do-wells.

While the early 1970s introduces us to these strong female characters that reflected the growing strength of the women’s rights movement, Marvel also took the liberty of pushing the notion to its extreme with such characters as the Cat antagonist Man-Killer – the embodiment of radical feminism, who turned evil after crashing in a ski race against a cheating, sexist male and utters such gems as: “He’s a man, baby – and men are dirt!”

As the work in this omnibus moves into the 1980s, we get three noteworthy graphic novels and a memorable limited series.

Up-and-coming actress (and sometimes super-hero) Allison Blaire is outed as a mutant in Dazzler: The Movie, a poignant look at the fickleness of fame and the lengths people will go to achieve it. A young girl teams up with four of Marvel’s premier heroines – Storm, She-Hulk, Tigra and Wasp – to teach the people in her small town a lesson about faith and determination in The Aladdin Effect.

The Sensational She-Hulk, written and illustrated by Canadian comic book hall of famer John Byrne, is still widely considered one of the best of Marvel’s graphic novels and the seminal work on the character, though it’s startling, 26 years later, to encounter a number of unpleasant number of racist remarks directed at the mighty green heroine’s aboriginal boyfriend.

Rounding out the best of this volume is Firestar, a four-issue series illustrated by Mary Wilshire that shows what can happen when someone with sinister intent manipulates a person with great power.

Women of Marvel is a bit of wrist breaker (do yourself a favour and employ an ottoman to hold it for you) and can be a tad disjointed, but when paired with the recently released Girl Comics (Marvel, 136 pages, $22.50), the first-ever mainstream book entirely crafted by female creators, it is a refreshing tip of the hat to the past, present and future of women in comics.
(This article was first published in the Toronto Star)

MAD’s Greatest Artists: Sergio Aragonés, Five Decades of His Finest Works

January 16, 2011 | Trades

MAD Sergio Aragones

Sergio Aragonés has made a living for almost 50 years off the idea that a picture is worth 1,000 words. This is perfectly illustrated (pun intended) in MAD’s Greatest Artists: Sergio Aragonés, Five Decades of His Finest Works (Running Press, $36, 272 pages), a breathtaking and gut-busting collection of the Mexican pantomime master’s output.

Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics

January 16, 2011 | Leftovers

jerry robinson ambassador of comics

There’s little in life that Jerry Robinson loves more than talking about comics.

If you’re lucky enough to meet this 89-year-old legend, he might talk all about how he came up with the idea for perhaps the most infamous villain in comic book history – the Joker – back in 1940.

Or he may talk about carousing in New York City with the who’s who of the golden age of comics and his relationships with the likes of Batman creator Bob Kane and Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

He may even tell you about the time in 1941 when he and five fellow creators spent an entire weekend churning out an astonishing number of pages to make deadline for a new comic as New York was buried under one of the wildest snowstorms to ever hit the city. (This yarn is so good that author Michael Chabon adapted it into his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay).

Fortunately, art historian N.C. Christopher Couch has given us a barrelful of Robinson’s life to savour in Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics (Abrams ComicArts, 224 pages, $42).

The book examines the artist’s life – in his own words, accompanied by page after beautiful page of his work – from humble beginnings in New Jersey to his chance encounter at 17 with Kane that led to his first job as the art assistant on Batman and into the fascinating world of comics in the 1940s and ’50s.

The legendary Joker story is in here, and that snowy weekend, too. Going back in time to that era with Robinson as your guide is a true treat.

After he left comics in the late 1950s, Robinson was a lauded newspaper comic strip illustrator; a successful magazine and book illustrator; an award-winning editorial cartoonist who was invited to meet with four different U.S. presidents; and the creator of the Cartoonist & Writers Syndicate, a highly successful company that exists to this day.

He has also been at the forefront of the battle for artists’ rights, helping Siegel and Shuster get credit and compensation for co-creating Superman and has worked with the likes of Amnesty International and the United Nations on issues of human rights and free artistic expression around the world.

It’s truly fitting someone finally has chosen to honour him.
(This article first appeared in the Toronto Star)

Charles Burns interview

October 31, 2010 | Interviews


Charles Burns has proved over the past two decades that his graphic novels are well worth waiting for. And it looks like he’s ready to put that theory to the test once again.

X’ed Out, the long-awaited follow-up to Burns’ multiple-award-winning opus, BlackHole, hit bookshelves this week, prompting two immediate questions: Will readers have to wait 11 years for the whole story like they did with his last effort. And is he actually working in colour?

“It’s not that I’m turning my back on doing things in black and white, because I’ve always enjoyed that, obviously. I think every comic I’ve done so far has been in black and white, ” Burns, a featured guest at the recent 2010 International Festival of Authors, tells the Star via phone from his Philadelphia home. “(But) it’s like having another set of tools to use.”

Burns also notes the use of colour helps emphasize the differences between this book and his past work.

“I had a couple of false starts (on X’ed Out) and I think I realized that at first I was kind of imitating myself, which is pretty typical, ” he says. “I think whenever you’re done with a long project, you end up kind of falling back on what you know.

“I really wanted to do something different or push myself in a different direction. I took on this format, I took on a colour comic all with the idea of having this, not experimental, but different style of storytelling; just trying to put together ideas in a different way.”

The result is a highly unconventional, though extremely intriguing tale, which revolves around a young man named Doug, who sports a bandage on his head, is taking handfuls of opiates and has some of the weirdest dreams you’ll ever see.

“He’s obviously had some sort of physical, and what seems like mental, trauma take place, ” says the 55-year-old Burns. “The story focuses around him and his struggle to come to terms with that trauma.”

Being the first volume in a series, and a mere 56 pages, X’ed Out may seem like just an appetizer to those hungry for more, but he insists the payoff will be worth it.

“The first book really introduces a lot of pieces, a lot of conflicts, a lot of mysteries, ” Burns says. “There’s all these little threads that are introduced that will be followed through on in the following books.”

As for the first question on readers’ minds – how long a wait until the next volume? – Burns says not to panic: He’s got a plan.

“The style of it, or the look of it, is based on the kind of Franco-Belgian album format, like Tintin, and the idea that it be a series of books, ” he says. “Originally I was going to do two, so it would be like Tintin in Destination Moon and then Explorers on the Moon. As I’ve been working, I realized that I’ll need three volumes to put everything together.”

The second volume is already “well underway, ” he says with the tongue-in-cheek caveat, “But I am slow. In many ways.”
(This article first appeared in the Toronto Star)

Chew: The Omnivore Edition Vol. 1

October 17, 2010 | Trades

chew omnivore v1

Reading Chew will turn your stomach. That’s not exactly the ringing endorsement the hottest new comic of the past year deserves, but it’s the honest truth for this delightful hybrid of Fear Factor and Law and Order. Having to witness U.S. Food and Drug Administration agent Tony Chiu noshing on everything from a decomposing finger to a cremated human being to a serial killer’s face is enough for the hardiest stomach.

The twist in Chew: The Omnivore Edition Vol. 1 (Image Comics, 264 pages, $36.95) – a deluxe hardcover collection of the first 10 issues of the series that claimed both the 2010 Eisner and Harvey Awards for best new series – is that Chiu has the rare ability to get psychic visions about everything he consumes. This makes him the perfect man to solve crimes no one else can. In a world where 23 million people have died from avian flu, eating chicken is a crime and the black market for eggs and poultry is booming, he’s got a lot of work on his plate.

The talented tandem of writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory have served up something special in Chew. It’s worth skipping lunch for.
(This article first appeared in the Toronto Star)