One of the first images in Darwyn Cooke’s latest Donald Westlake/Richard Stark adaptation, Parker: The Score (IDW), is of a soldier. Because of Cooke’s snazzy retro art, it’s not immediately apparent whether the drawing is of a real soldier or a toy; and the ambiguity is probably intended, given what Cooke explores in the rest of the book. The Parker graphic novels and stories that Cooke has adapted thus far have all been about who this ruthless criminal who calls himself “Parker” really is, and how he’s different from other men. Parker may change his appearance, but as one longtime compatriot notes in The Score, he can’t change his style. His brusqueness, his coldly analytical approach to planning a caper, and his willingness to kill another human being to avoid complications is all handled with such rationality that it makes Parker something of a freak in the world of hotheaded criminals. Let others play pretend; at his core, Parker’s legit.
With The Score—as with 2010’s The Outfit—Cooke is getting into the meat of what Westlake’s creation has to offer. The original Parker novels aren’t self-consciously literary; they’re terse, tough crime stories, distinguished by Westlake’s prose, his way with a twist, and his willingness to empathize with a sociopath. The Score has a particularly nifty plot, as Parker gets roped into helping manage a job that entails cleaning out a small mining town nestled in a remote canyon. The complexity of the plan allows Cooke to have some fun drawing labels and mapping out locations, guiding the reader through what’s happening and who’s who. And the setting allows Cooke to illustrate a landscape and scenario that the book describes as like something out of science fiction.
Mostly, The Score maps out and illustrates Parker. A consummate pro, Parker becomes a smooth-running machine when he’s on the job: eschewing “dames” and working to assure that his confederates are on their toes and that the civilians are kept calm. He’s so thorough and efficient that one of the other crooks on this gig grumbles that they “may as well be working for a living.” And that’s at the crux of the Parker books, both in Westlake’s originals and in Cooke’s stylish graphic-novel versions. One of the characters in The Score bounces around the canyon town like an over-eager soldier in a World War II movie, while Parker has to figure out how to accommodate loons like this and how to make sure that he himself comes out of the other end of this job alive and with some money. If Parker keeps having to muscle around his colleagues, it’s only because he knows that their whole operation will collapse without some kind of structure. But people generally don’t become thieves because they like bosses and orders. That’s a real problem, and one that Cooke has done a fine job of understanding and dramatizing in his Parker stories thus far.
Oh, and that drawing of a soldier at the start of The Score? It was a toy, plain and simple—part of some would-be master criminal’s makeshift model of a “perfect” job. It wasn’t Parker, in other words.
When the first volume of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s three-part third volume of League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen—titled “Century”—debuted in 2009, it seemed like an attempt to bring the series back to its more high-spirited pulp-adventure roots, having some fun with old literary characters for a change rather than trying to blow readers’ minds. But then 2011’s second chapter of LXG: Century turned out to be considerably wilder, taking vampire hunter Mina Harker and her associates Allan Quatermain and Orlando and sending them through the darker side of swinging London in 1969. And now The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century—2009 (Top Shelf) shifts the story into the present(ish) and gets even more bizarre, referencing The West Wing and the Harry Potter series as an apocalypse looms.
Given Moore’s public irritation with DC for using his Watchmen characters in new, non-Moore-approved comics, his own use of other people’s creations in books like Lost Girls and LXG (and, let’s face it, Watchmen) has come under scrutiny lately. But there’s a difference between just sticking an existing character in a new adventure and using those characters for purpose of comment. Now that the entirety of Century is complete, it’s clearer what Moore is up to with this volume. He’s connecting popular culture—especially British popular culture—to what’s going on in the real world, tracking what he apparently sees as a decline in the quality of both over the past 100 years. Motifs recur throughout all three Century chapters—the unifying power of popular balladry, the curse of immortality, the misuse of magic—but for the most part, this League volume has been one long game of spot-the-reference, laced with a heavy dose of, “Oh by the way, everything’s turned to shit.”
Which is fine, by and large. O’Neill’s art is still so dense with detail that it’s fun to puzzle over, and Moore’s breadth of knowledge and passion for his subject matter always make him worth reading. But as a storyteller, Moore has over the past half-decade or so developed the unfortunate traits of being obscure when he should be obvious, and vice-versa. Century starts getting confusing in the middle of the 1969 chapter, and while it rallies toward clarity some in the final issue, it says something about how muddled this series has become that when a hundred-eyed Harry Potter shoots lightning out of his penis, it’s less a “Wow” or “WTF” moment than just something else that happens. Worse than that, though, is how when Mina and Orlando arrive at the ruins of Hogwarts, Mina actually says aloud, “Maybe this magical landscape mirrors the real world. Perhaps that’s why it’s so awful.” (Gosh, you think?)
Again, it’s not that Century isn’t a rewarding experience. There are flashes of classic Moore wit throughout all three chapters, and the appearance of a Mary Poppins figure at a key moment toward the end crystallizes brilliantly what Moore seems to be saying about the changes in entertainment geared toward children, from “you have responsibilities” to “you are special.” But Moore used to be able to make points like this in comics that were also pleasurable to read. And this one has been more of a hard slog.
A new graphic novel by Michel Rabagliati should be one of those “drop everything and read” moments in comics culture, but not only is Rabagliati’s The Song Of Roland (Conundrum/BDANG) arriving with little fanfare, it’s also hitting the U.S. market three years after it became a sensation in France and French-speaking Canada (where it was called Paul À Québec). Apparently Rabagliati has had a tough time reaching audiences in the States, because his work is so unapologetically French-Canadian, from its cultural references to its characters. But it’s hard to imagine that any reader—comics fan or otherwise—wouldn’t be able to push past Rabagliati’s references to poutine and the Quebecois separatist movement to get to how he illuminates life’s transitions, via his autobiographical character Paul.
Previous Paul books have dealt with growing up, going to school, getting a job, finding a mate, and having a child. Now The Song Of Roland considers what it’s like to lose a parent, as Paul watches his father-in-law succumb to cancer. As with the other Paul books, though, The Song Of Roland isn’t about just one thing; Rabagliati also shows Paul buying a house in a new neighborhood and adjusting as his commercial-art business adapts to new technologies. In short, this is another Rabagliati book about changes both big and small, reflected upon in hindsight. (The Song Of Roland is set 10 years ago, in keeping with Rabagliati’s habit of using his Paul stories to look back.)
The art is lovely, as always, combining appealingly cartoony figures with backgrounds just filled-in enough to reflect how the characters’ lives—and the country around them—are evolving. But Rabagliati employs a more focused narrative structure this time out, starting out by making huge leaps in time to tell the story of Paul’s in-laws and his big move, and then slowing down as Paul’s father-in-law nears death: spending entire chapters on a single month, and then a single day. The Song Of Roland is a tearjerker, but it’s never depressing, because Rabagliati honors the moments that slip past so quickly—by recollecting them and drawing them in such a way that every detail rings sweet and true.
One of Michel Rabagliati’s biggest influences is the French cartooning team of Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian, and in particular their character Monsieur Jean: a struggling writer fumbling his way through adulthood while observing his friends, who run the gamut from settled couples to roguish bachelors. The 2000 Monsieur Jean book The Singles Theory (Humanoids) offers a more direct comparison between Jean and his chums, as the hero finds himself saddled with his pal Felix, a walking catastrophe whose boorish pontifications on what women want don’t make him any more attractive to the opposite sex. As Jean and Felix go to parties, ditch work, and inadvertently offend acquaintances and relations alike, Dupuy and Berberian ponder whether maturing is worth all the anxiety—and do so via a story loaded with amusingly weird digressions. The anecdotal quality of The Singles Theory will appeal most to those already familiar with M. Jean, since the book doesn’t exactly work as standalone graphic novel. But the situations and relationships aren’t too foreign, and Dupuy and Berberian are skilled enough cartoonists that The Singles Theory should be easy enough to read even for those who have no idea who any of these characters are…
Anouk Ricard’s Anna & Froga: Wanna Gumball? (D&Q) belongs to the class of recent children’s comics that look and feel like they could’ve been created by kids—albeit clever, precociously talented kids. Anna & Froga is one of the best of the bunch: a genuinely funny, unshakably adorable set of stories about a creative little girl and her mischievous animal pals, as they paint, sing, and play pranks. Ricard punctuates the comics portions of the book with full-page illustrations that look like they were copied directly from an old picture book, adding to the overall feel of inspired, imaginative play. It’s hard to explain exactly what Anna & Froga is; the best comparison might be the anarchic Belgian animated puppetoon A Town Called Panic, crossed with a yellowed hardback that’s been sitting on some cool grandma’s shelf since the ’50s…
Since 1992, P. Craig Russell has been periodically adapting Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, in which Wilde purposefully explored the power of narrative simplicity; and Russell has been matching Wilde’s prose by scaling back his more florid impulses, keeping the characters and backdrops big and clean. With Fairy Tales Of Oscar Wilde: The Happy Prince (NBM), Russell finally gets to what may be the best-known of these stories: a sweet, sentimental piece about a swallow that commits itself to do the bidding of a gold-plated, bejeweled statue, flitting about the city taking pieces of this “prince” to people in need. The timing of this book couldn’t be better, speaking as it does to what the citizens of a well-off community value, and how they shirk social responsibility. The lesson is plain, yet sensitively and elegantly rendered…
As welcome as it’s been to see Howard Cruse’s work return to print over the past couple of years, The Other Sides Of Howard Cruse (Boom! Town) is something of a mixed bag. About half of the book—over 100 pages of it—is dedicated to Cruse’s early ’70s strip Barefootz, a cloying, trippy mash-up of Nancy, Doonesbury, and Love Is that is very much a product of its times. The cartooning is typically wonderful, but Barefootz is mainly significant for its place in the history of underground comix (as a lighter alternative to the “alternative”), and for being a dry run for Cruse’s much more entertaining and socially relevant ’80s strip Wendel. The back half of The Other Sides contains some of Cruse’s experiments with drug comics, autobiography and social commentary, which range from the gross (such as the two-pager about how semen makes great toothpaste) to the visually potent (such as “Quick Trim,” in which an opinionated barber cuts off a customer’s eyes, ears, and mouth). Newcomers to Cruse should start with the graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, then move on to the Gay Comix anthology From Headrack To Claude, then pick up the collected Wendel—three books that should be in the collection of any comics fan. The Other Sides just fills in more of the Cruse picture, for those interested in the steps he took on the way to becoming one of the greats…
It’d be easy to take Michael Kupperman for granted for the way he reliably delivers strange and hilarious issues of Tales Designed To Thrizzle (which is one of the last remaining single-artist, comic-sized anthologies). But that would be a mistake. Tales Designed To Thrizzle #8 (Fantagraphics) shows Kupperman in peak form, from the increasingly violent and sexually explicit “Train & Bus Coloring Book” that opens the issue (“Seeing two trains making love is a very special, very rare sight. Be sure to do it justice with your coloring.”) to the closing ad for “Roman Pizza Garden Style Ranch Dressing,” starring a lusty bottle of talking salad dressing (“You won’t believe your salad dressing can give you syphilis!”). It’s as though Kupperman has internalized and synthesized 50 years of underground comics, from Crumb to Cruse to Clowes, keeping only the parts that are gut-bustingly funny…
Comics historian Fredrik Strömberg continues the work he began with his previous books Black Images In The Comics and The Comics Go To Hell with his new Jewish Images In The Comics (Fantagraphics) a square-bound volume that considers the history and culture of the Jews, via annotated excerpts from mainstream and alternative comic books. The breadth of Strömberg’s survey is almost more impressive than what it reveals. Many scholarly studies have been written about Jewish comic-book creators and how they’ve worked aspects of the Jewish experience into everything from satire magazines to The Fantastic Four. But Strömberg also looks at political cartoons, Christian tracts, propaganda, and even the Smurfs. (That Gargamel? Not so harmless a portrait of villainy, with his big nose and gold-hoarding.) It’s a fascinating story Strömberg tells, about how the comics have considered “Jewishness” over the past century, and it’s clear that he’s done enough research to tell it right…
One of comics’ great Jewish creators, Bill Finger, gets his own kid-friendly picture-book biography with Bill The Boy Wonder: The Secret Co-Creator Of Batman (Charlesbridge), written by Marc Tyler Nobleman and illustrated by Ty Templeton. Similar to Nobleman’s 2008 book Boys Of Steel: The Creators Of Superman (about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster), Bill The Boy Wonder explains the early history of superhero comics in plain, clear language, and without sugarcoating what the business could be like. If anything, Bill The Boy Wonder is even more blunt about how a man responsible for characters and concepts enjoyed for decades by millions of people around the world ended up getting far less than his fair share of compensation. But the book’s not sad or angry; nor does it turn Finger into some iconic martyr for creators’ rights. Instead, Nobleman and Templeton depict Finger at work and Finger at home, showing him as a man of varied interests, who tried his best to funnel his life into his comics. Bill The Boy Wonder would make a good conversation-starter—about the realities of art and commerce—for comics-loving parents and their children. It also might give those parents some insights into a man whose name they may have only seen in passing (if at all)…
Because Harvey Pekar was such a prolific writer, and because it took time for his illustrators to catch up with him, new Pekar books keep trickling out, two years after his death. The latest posthumous Pekar is the best of the bunch: Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me (Hill And Wang/FSG), a collaboration with artist JT Waldman in which the two men explore the origins and consequences of Zionism, from both broad and personal perspectives. Structured like a long conversation taking place between Pekar and Waldman over the course of one day in Cleveland, Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me jumps back and forth between a concise history of the Jewish people and a look at Pekar and Waldman’s own evolving views on the various ethnic conflicts in the Middle East. Waldman’s drawing style ranges from replications of ancient art to natural-looking images of Pekar in his favorite restaurants and bookstores. It’s the perfect way to approach Pekar, whose life’s work was always about peering past the powerful’s view of history to get the perspective of the common man. In an epilogue penned by Pekar’s widow, Joyce Brabner, she talks about efforts to put up a statue of him in Cleveland, which she says she supports only if it’s in keeping with Pekar’s mission. She doesn’t want him to become some remote, rigid object of hero-worship. And in a way, that’s what Not The Israel My Parents Promised Me is about too: the danger of an ideal becoming the source of dogma, and then, inevitably, the cause of a bitter, irresolvable disagreement. That’s why Pekar is careful to say to Waldman, “What do I know? I make comic books and write about jazz. I do know the difference between right and wrong, though.” That line could well have served as Pekar’s epitaph…
Frequent Pekar collaborator Joe Sacco has made a distinguished career out of hearing what the powerless have to say, and then drawing it in pieces of comics reportage that strive to be at once personal and fair. The value and limitations of Sacco’s approach are on display in two new books: Journalism (Metropolitan/Henry Holt), a collection of shorter pieces that Sacco has contributed to magazines over the past decade or so; and Days Of Destruction, Days Of Revolt (Nation/Perseus), in which reporter Chris Hedges pens livid prose about American decay while Sacco illustrates the stories of some of the citizens living through it. Journalism is classic Sacco, revealing the human side of the struggles in places like the Gaza strip, Iraq, and India, as seen firsthand by Sacco and the people he’s interviewed. Beyond being a superior cartoonist—able to capture how the world actually looks and imbue it with his own skewed impressions—Sacco is also a quality newshound, willing to follow stories where they lead, getting different sides on the record without ever disguising his own biases. Days Of Destruction, Days Of Revolt, on the other hand, is more like an op-ed piece presented somewhat erroneously as hard news. It’s not that Hedges is wrong to hold reckless capitalism responsible for the widening pockets of poverty across the United States; but his tone is often too strident to be persuasive, and even Sacco’s comic interludes seem more closed-off than usual, taking its subjects’ stories at face value without putting them in a larger context. Days Of Destruction, Days Of Revolt isn’t necessarily inaccurate, and it does contain some valuable big-picture thoughts on the state of the nation; also Sacco’s art is, as always, stunning. But this book’s not Journalism.