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Hey, Adults! Comics! Comics that are Funny, Weird, and Profound!

Reviewed: New School, Superzelda, My Dirty Dumb Eyes

By Wayne Alan Brenner, Erika May McNichol, and Shannon McCormick, 10:30AM, Mon. Sep. 2, 2013

They will delight you.
They will inform you.
They will freak your mind the fuck out.

Note: Not particularly in that order.


New School by Dash Shaw
Fantagraphics Books; hardcover, 340 pp; $40.
www.fantagraphics.com

Five Reasons To Read Dash Shaw's New School:

1. Because you enjoy synergistic combinations of words and text, whether they're called comics or sequential art or bande dessinée or manga or whatever. And Shaw most often uses that specific form of communication to tell his various stories, and New School is one of those instances, and his various stories are intimately human and fiercely compelling and brilliantly weird.

2. Because you prefer art that's far removed from the realms of cookie-cutter, lowest-common-denominator production. And Shaw crafts narratives in ways that haven't been done before, seemingly according to whatever manner the aesthetics of what-he's-creating-at-the-time insist. Robert Frost, the poet, humblebragged in verse about choosing the road less traveled; Dash Shaw, the comix artist, whether mum or yammering, ignores any previously blazed trails and heads directly into the woods whenever it seems necessary; and sometimes getting lost among the leaves and the branches is part of the journey's greatest pleasures.

3. Because the story of New School, of two brothers whose father runs a magazine devoted to theme parks, gets really interesting when the older brother goes overseas to work at a sort of pan-historical amusement park called Clockworld and the parents, fearing for their firstborn's safety, send the younger brother to track him down and bring him back. And Shaw knows how it can be for brothers, especially when they're both straight and there's a similarly hetero young woman involved. And he knows that family can be like the topsoil in which a seed of self can grow – or like a strangler vine that chokes off the parts a person needs to breathe with.

4. Because following a relentless artist's career can be even more satisfying than experiencing each disparate work that the artist produces. And Shaw's oeuvre is already rippled with enticing throughlines of displacement, of identity masking – the protagonist's self-representation as a sort of frog in Bottomless Belly Button; the literal displacement of consciousnesses in the psychedelic BodyWorld; the stilted, archaic language of the father and younger son in this New School – and with the whole family-relationship quagmire, and with continuing experiments in colorfield placement, and so on. (Even: A steady increase of the man's basic drawing skills.)

5. Because your mind isn't usually fucked with complexly enough. And Shaw is a master at that. And that has made all the difference.

Wayne Alan Brenner



Superzelda: The Graphic Life of Zelda Fitzgerald
by Tiziana Lo Porto & Daniele Marotta
One Peace Books; paper, 176 pp; $17.
www.onepeacebooks.com

Let me admit: I didn’t know much about Zelda Fitzgerald before reading Superzelda.  I somehow avoided reading The Great Gatsby in high school, and only knew her as a character of some note from the flapper era, married to F. Scott Fitzgerald. So, Superzelda (from the husband-and-wife team of Tiziana Lo Porto and Daniele Marotta) both delighted and saddened me as I learned more about the subject.

From her earliest days, Zelda is portrayed by Lo Porto and Marotta as she charms her family and community alike with her bold personality and razor-sharp wit. As she grows into her teen years, her exploits move from rumored skinny-dipping to sexual dalliances and, eventually, her meeting and extended courtship with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even before her fame, she is iconic and individual, and Lo Porto and Marotta render and describe her as a self-defined firebrand:  A proto-feminist amid the backdrop of a traditional Southern upbringing.

Zelda is shrewd in her self-promotion, and with her husband, manages to parlay a cult of personality into guest editorials, published works, extensive travel, and all the best parties.  As life and the relationship goes on, Zelda’s attempts to create an artistic identity independent from her husband become a source of growing frustration for her, particularly as facets of her personality and writings are used by Scott with great success in his novels. Eventually hospitalized for schizophrenia in her 40s, she maintained a dignified decorum and draw on her spouse even in her final days.

Lo Porto and Marotta work the medium to tell Zelda’s biography in a near-documentary format, with asides from the main characters and peripheral characters delivered directly to the reader, as if using recorded interviews. Visually, the biography unfolds in monochromatic blues and black, evoking a vintage feel from each panel. I read Superzelda in a day and recommend it for casual graphic-novel readers and those who enjoy smart-assed ladies who smoke, drink, and cut up without concern for how they're perceived.

Erika May McNichol



My Dirty Dumb Eyes by Lisa Hanawalt
Drawn and Quarterly; paper, 120 pp; $23.
www.drawnandquarterly.com

Lisa Hanawalt is the most joyously sophomoric cartoonist of her generation. No, check that, she might just be the single funniest cartoonist at work today, irrespective of any generational, gender, or whatever other qualifiers you might want to throw around her or her work. She’s perfected the age-old art of taking whip-smart intelligence and deploying it for a flawlessly pitched fart joke. Despite the averred “dumbness” of the work, you know you’re dealing with a well-read, keen, and irreverent mind when the endnotes of the book contain a list of rejected titles that include A Supposedly Fun Thing That is Actually Pretty Fun and What We Draw About When We Draw About Sex Bugs.

Hanawalt named the book My Dirty Dumb Eyes, though, and that’s what you get; lots of intentionally goofy and just plain oddball gags on bodies and the things bodies do. The artist isn’t content, however, just to channel her inner 13-year-old boy. She also taps into a particularly feminine raunchiness, which gives her comedy even more latitude. There are riffs on fashion, relationships, animals in hats, and, well, boobs and periods and the objectified male body that her cartoonist brethren would have a hard time depicting as authoritatively.

The book is divided equally between three types of works: short narrative pieces, some of which were previously published in her mini-comic series I Want You; list-comics of surreal one-panel images like “North American Wildlife and Hats” and “Rumors I’ve Heard About Anna Wintour;" and a new form she invented and wholly owns – cartoon reviews of movies and TV shows like "The Bachelor" and "War Horse." The latter pieces read like illustrated live-blogs and are perfectly tuned to our media-drenched and Tweet-filled present; they’re also howlingly funny and weird, and are probably the highlight of the book. The short story “Moosefingers," though, contains my single favorite splash panel of any comic put out this decade. I won’t give it away, but the culminating image of what is a simultaneous send-up of and homage to those autobiographical “woe is me, the creative life is so hard” comics (so prevalent in certain quarters of the indie world) packs a devastating amount of surprise and pathos into one picture.

Or hey, maybe you just want to read a comic with a therapist whose face is an actual pancake. Hanawalt’s book has that, too.

If I had one complaint about My Dirty Dumb Eyes, and I don’t really, it would be that it might fly under the radar of those people who want more narrative punch from a booklength collection. There’s plenty of time for that, though. Watching Hanawalt’s future career is going to be interesting. I’d love to see her tackle longer stories, which we’re already getting glimpses of on her actively updated Tumblr. I suspect that – as with another protean master of unfiltered expression, Lynda Barry – we’ll be seeing different sides of her talents for a long, long time. And even if we don’t, let’s not forget that a really good fart joke never goes out of style.

Shannon McCormick

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