Monsters in pop culture are cyclical, with media fixating on a particular type long enough for audiences to get sick of it before moving on to the next one. For a while it was vampires, and for the most part creators are hitting the tail end of zombies as a reasonable plot device. Soon it will be aliens again, or swamp mutants, or they’ll reboot Teen Wolf (again) and start a whole new obsession.
Though there’s certainly a lot of vampire comics out there, for the most part they lean more heavily on violence and mayhem, leveraging the visual elements to create horror and gore. Letters For Lucardo (Iron Circus Comics) focuses more on the ramifications of immortality—closer to Interview With The Vampire than 30 Days Of Night or Twilight. Writer and artist Otava Heikkilä created a story that’s full of unexpectedly emotional and sympathetic characters, building a world and a cast that’s evocative and fascinating. The titular Lucardo is a centuries-old vampire who was turned in his early 30s, handsome and good humored, if a little feckless given his relative indestructibility and his noble position. Heikkilä’s storytelling is paced slowly enough that it takes some time to unfold Lucardo’s story, which leaves the slender graphic novel feeling weighty for how small it is.
Lucardo isn’t even the primary protagonist. That’s Ed Fiedler, a human and an employee of Lucardo’s family. Ed is a little uptight and conservative, but after a confession on Lucardo’s part he quickly becomes the vampire’s lover. As the plot slides gracefully along, Lucardo becomes more sympathetic to both the reader and Ed. It’s easy to see how Ed would develop feelings for the vampire, and vice versa; Heikkilä’s skill at making the reader’s emotions track along with Ed’s is remarkable, and not something often seen in comics. The heartbreak comes when Ed, in his 60s, begins to consider just how much Lucardo will inevitably lose when he gets older, frailer, and eventually dies, spurred by pointed words from Lucardo’s father and family.
Letters For Lucardo is erotica, explicit enough that it won’t fit in with the average work from large publishers. But Iron Circus Comics has built a reputation for excellent, creative, queer- and female-friendly erotica that’s driven by plot and character just as much as sex, and this is a prime example of why. Ed and Lucardo are fully fleshed out characters and the intimate moments they share range from filthy to funny. The book is printed in grayscale and Heikkilä’s art is painterly and soft. Some of the facial expressions look almost like Miyazaki movies, and her skill with portraying emotions without any dialogue is remarkable.
Letters For Lucardo is only the first book of four, which is a touch heartbreaking. The plot is paced so beautifully that, since it’s a quick read, the temptation to reread immediately is high. The book ends on a note that’s both hopeful and not, the perfect cliffhanger for an emotional story; the next installment can’t come soon enough.
With Doom Patrol #6 (DC) Gerard Way and Nick Derington bring the first arc of their relaunch to its conclusion. Doom Patrol is by default the flagship of Way’s Young Animal line, dedicated to recreating the vibe from the earliest days of the company’s Vertigo line—from back when a few weird superhero books like Doom Patrol, Animal Man, and Swamp Thing were shuffled out of the DC Universe proper in order to allow them some legroom to be weird. Nostalgia for early Vertigo only seems premature, but it’s been almost 25 years.
The problem with Way’s Doom Patrol has less to do with the book itself and more to do with its relationship to its predecessors. Doom Patrol is a book with a lot of history, after all—one of DC’s weirdest properties even back to its origins in the early ’60s as a book populated by “freaks” who banded together to use their powers to fight evil. It was resurrected in the 1980s as an uninspired superhero book before being recreated by Grant Morrison as something else entirely. If you know two things about Gerard Way, you probably know that he used to be the lead singer of My Chemical Romance, and that he holds Morrison—particularly the early Morrison who wrote Doom Patrol—in high esteem. Accordingly, what he and Derington have produced is less a new iteration of the Doom Patrol, and more a continuation of one specific run on the book. Although the book is called Doom Patrol, it might well be called Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol for the long shadow cast by the Scotsman.
That’s not completely a bad thing. No version of the team has hit quite so hard—not Rachel Pollack’s thoughtful follow-up, certainly not John Arcudi’s woefully underrated run. Going back to Morrison’s version makes sense, but it remains to be seen whether or not Way has anything more to say here. Whereas Morrison’s run was weird and complex and full of interesting and disturbing themes, the theme of Way’s first arc appears to be that Grant Morrison’s run was very cool. Six issues are spent bringing all the old crew back—Cliff Steel and Larry Trainor from the original team, Flex Mentallo, Danny The Street, and Crazy Jane from Morrison’s tenure. There’s a few new characters as well, including the first arc’s ostensible protagonist Casey Brinke, a superhero brought to life from the pages of a magic comic book.
It’s an attractive book. Derington’s art is clean and appealing, and a good match for Way’s pellucid script. Of especial note are Tamra Bonvillain colors, bright pastels that pop off the page. It’s a good book, but these first six issues are very obviously still set-up—putting all the characters back and setting up a new status quo, one which just happens to involve a (at one point literal) walking tour through Morrison’s run. The whole thing purrs along quite nicely. There are lots of good ideas here, and lots of new ideas and mysteries that could eventually take flight and give the book a more distinctive feel. Right now it still reads like a mash-note to Way’s favorite comic book writer. At the core of its premise the Doom Patrol is about reinvention, but this doesn’t yet reach the level of a reinvention. More a recitation, albeit one that holds great promise for the future should this team stay together long enough to find their legs.
As an aesthetic object, Kristen Radtke’s memoir, Imagine Wanting Only This (Pantheon Graphic Novels), is an oddity. Her lines are clean and crisp and simple, but her figures are clumsily composed. Their hair sits too solidly on their heads, and their eyes bulge too far out of their sockets. They appear as photographs inelegantly and incompletely transposed into drawn lines, resulting in figures that are somehow both overly naturalistic and crudely illustrated. Simply put, it appears that Radtke lacks the technical competency to convincingly draw the scenes she’s writing for herself.
And yet, her work evinces an incredible grasp of the comics form—more so than even the most storied of comics memoirists. In scene after scene, Radtke demonstrates incredible storytelling instincts, which reveal themselves in subtle, nuanced ways. The work tells the converging narratives of Radtke’s experiences with her family’s congenital heart defect and her growing interest in ruins. It covers her time in art school and graduate school, and it follows her through a long-term relationship with a one-time fiancé. The whole thing unfolds with ease, and Radtke tells her story with uncommon poise and palpable confidence. On one page, Radtke slowly pushes into the face of her aunt in a series of three panels, moving just a tiny bit closer with each panel. The whole thing is understated, but Radtke’s Aunt Sonia slowly looking up as the reader moves ever nearer is simple and moving in its quietude. Radtke’s use of prose is similarly deft, and she isn’t felled by overwrought prose delivered in exhausting blocks—the most common failing of so-called literary comics.
The whole thing is rather frustrating. Radtke offers her readers ambition, composure, and a deeply felt narrative that unfurls with a grace that most writers only ever dream of. And yet, a juvenile aesthetic interposes itself between the reader and the awe they would otherwise be awash in. It sours and sullies the experience. The convergence of these two opposing qualities is not merely a frustrating experience, however; the chasm is so vast between the deficiencies of the one and the heights of the other that readers may be led to wrestle with the very notion of “good cartooning” itself. That is, the idea that a comic may be good, a comics author may be good, irrespective of their aesthetic competency; that cartooning privileges the sequencing of images, a command of a comics grammar, rather than illustrative prowess. Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder, so this rather philosophical question of aesthetic values and whether or not Radtke’s linework falls within certain poorly enclosed boundaries lays at the feet of each individual reader. But in this odd and unsatisfying way, Imagine Wanting Only This offers an infuriating, exciting, and, ultimately, genuinely unique reading experience.
How does an artist’s work change once they receive recognition for it? Does art become corrupted when it begins to serve outside interests? These might sound like heady topics for a children’s graphic novel, but Lorena Alvarez’s Nightlights (Nobrow) explores these questions with a blend of grounded emotion and fantastic spectacle that challenges young readers while keeping them engaged with stunning visuals. Sandy is a girl with a passion for drawing, but her passion gets in the way of her school work and alienates her from the other students, who play together while she doodles on her own. She makes a connection with the mysterious new girl, Morfie, who showers her with praise, but as Morfie becomes a bigger influence on her behavior, Sandy realizes that her new friend represents a danger to her art.
Alvarez’s story is driven by a lot of metaphors, and while the deeper themes may go over the heads of younger kids, Nightlights is short enough that it can be easily reread, revealing new levels to readers as they gain more knowledge of literary devices. The night-lights that give the book its title are sparks of inspiration for Sandy, and each light contains a new adorable alien creature that she draws the next day. This is all a metaphor for the active imagination of a child, particularly while dreaming, but Alvarez heightens this idea by throwing Sandy into a swarm of these creatures when she enters this creative mindspace.
These back-to-back two-page spreads are a gorgeous showcase of Alvarez’s talent for captivating creature design and rich, vibrant coloring, and there’s an overwhelming sense of joy on the page as Alvarez lets her imagination be as free as her main character’s. Nobrow has some of the best production values in comics, and the oversized hardcover format brings a certain majesty to the artwork in books like Nightlights and the Hilda and Fantasy Sports series. Nobrow regularly works with cartoonists that fill their art with detail, and publishing these comics in a larger size draws extra attention to the thought and care that goes into each page.
Morfie is a malevolent force who wants to exploit Sandy’s talent for her own nefarious purposes, and the creatures in the night-lights become monstrous when they are exposed to Morfie. Alvarez is warning young readers about people who use compliments to manipulate and take advantage, and while Morfie may appear soft and innocent at the start, there’s a darkness inside that begins to affect Sandy’s behavior. That’s one way to interpret Morfie, but she can also be seen as a vision of Sandy’s future. Morfie summons impulses within Sandy that are typically associated with adolescence—disrespect of authority, a desire for personal freedom, the urge to create darker art—and the end of the book suggests that while Sandy may have escaped Morfie’s influence right now, Morfie is still waiting for her down the line.