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By Wayne Alan Brenner, Fri., Dec. 10, 2004

Big Books

A Few Perfect Hours

by Josh Neufeld

Big Books

www.joshcomix.com, 114 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Josh Neufeld's A Few Perfect Hours is subtitled "... and Other Stories From Southeast Asia & Central Europe," and let me tell you why I think of it as "A Few Perfect Travel Comics."

First, because Neufeld is a damned good cartoonist and has such a nice control over brush and ink that you never find yourself wishing for photos of the foreign locales instead of hand-drawn panels; but neither is his artwork stunning in the way that, say, David B.'s or Charles Burns' is, and so it won't halt the story's progress while you marvel at the design choices, the brilliant chiaroscuro, etc., etc. (This also serves to mark the author as a regular-guy-with-decent-talent-and-a-strong-work-ethic but no comics genius to be eminently revered for all the generations to come until the asteroid hits or whatever. Which is great, because that means he's more like you and me and that guy over there with the backpack; he's a contemporary twentysomething everyman trekking across the world. And, in case that's too gender-exclusive, well, hey – his wife, Sari Wilson, is journeying with him and so provides an everywoman, as well.)

Second, because the stories are not just a cataloging of clever things that happened on some chartered tour, but a faithful retelling of what adventures transpired when choice or chance or pressing circumstance moved our travelers deeper into areas unfamiliar to the typical tourists of these countries.

Big Books

And there are the countries themselves, too, of course, and the cities and villages within them, and the roads, paths, railways, and airlines that sometimes struggle to link them and their diverse inhabitants. Between the perfect-bound covers of one lovingly designed and self-published book (with a tip o' the bande-dessine chapeau to the Xeric Foundation), there are stories told of backpacking through Bangkok and other parts of Thailand (where a little spelunking becomes more harrowing than planned, where shelter is offered by – horrors! – American Baptist missionaries), through Singapore (where our narrators take time to work as on-camera extras for a Chinese-language soap opera), through Istanbul and Prague and Belgrade and, finally, back to the States (where the final story, "Cremation, Cubicles, and Cant," provides, as Wilson notes in her thoughtful foreword, "a dreamlike meditation on boundary crossings – cultural and anthropological – including that final threshold, mortality.")

Neufeld mentions at book's end that he'd earlier learned, from the works of comics writers Harvey Pekar and David Greenberger, "to treasure the strangeness of real life and to appreciate the little details of daily existence." The result here is an excellent collection of comics that anyone, but especially those with wanderlust and a love of good tales well-told, can treasure and appreciate.

Inside Vineyland

By Lauren Weinstein

www.vineyland.com, 76 pp., $5.95

Here's another example of the Xeric Foundation using their powers (or, at least, their money) for good: Lauren Weinstein's collection of her comics from The Stranger, along with new tales of her familiar, forlorn robot character. The single-panel pages are effulgent with the twisted humor of a more punk rock Glen Baxter, featuring sketchy renderings of such things as "Places Where You Still Could Get a Blow Job in My Rapidly Gentrifying Neighborhood," "Everything Crashes Into the Blockbuster in Bethesda, MD," and "People I Did Not Sleep With in High School." If you know someone – yourself, perhaps? – who's ever said "Yo, the world is a really sad and fucked-up place ... and that's so funny," then gifting this collection (and maybe the newest CD from Weinstein's band, Flaming Fire) is the ultimate way to express your pathetic, cloying appreciation.

Conversation No. 1

by James Kochalka and Craig Thompson

www.topshelfcomix.com, 48 pp., $4.95

Like a print-only outtake from Richard Linklater's Waking Life, this little chapbook from Top Shelf Productions is a thick slice of thin philosophizing, yakking about the meaning of life, the meaning of art, and what comics might have to do with any of it. It's truly a conversation, with James "Magic Boy" Kochalka and Craig "Blankets" Thompson sharing both the dialogue and the drawing duties, and the tone and message is replete with the qualities – from dynamic to dippy, from twee to twilight – these two bring to their more serious and sustained work. That our sensitive heroes start out in a windy, seaside park and end up crawling into the vaginal portal of some large ur-matriarchal idol, well, that's for those truly conjecture-hungry about the inner lives of comics artists to consider.

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