Don’t be fooled by the title of Jennifer Hayden’s The Story of My Tits (Top Shelf). Although, yes, much of the book is devoted to chronicling the life and times of the author’s titular (no pun intended, honest) breasts, there’s a lot more going on than “merely” a story of Hayden’s body parts. It would be more accurate to say that Hayden’s body forms only one part of a much larger story, through which she illustrates the story of her large extended family from the moment of her birth to the present. Hayden is an immediately likable narrator, equal parts self-deprecating and compassionate. Her style, a hybrid of Roz Chast and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, is well suited to wry family drama. Although her perspective naturally makes her the central thread, she is at great pains to illustrate the ways in which her family obligations extend outwards to create a much larger tapestry.

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The story begins with Hayden as a child, jealous of her older female relatives for their breasts. Despite her best wishes, she passes through her adolescence and teenage years singularly unendowed. But then a funny thing happens: toward the end of college her breasts finally show up. She jumps two cup sizes in her early 20s. Her joy is short lived. Right after her graduation she learns that her mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer, and was in fact already scheduled for the lumpectomy that would become a mastectomy.

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From this moment Hayden regards her own breasts as potential double agents, not merely (as she puts it) “sexy flesh mountains,” but potential agents provocateur. But life goes on. Her mother’s brush with cancer serves as the catalyst for Hayden to expand the scope of the narrative, moving from her own immediate concerns outward to her and her future husband’s families. To her later shame she flees home as a result of the pressures of dealing with her sick, maddeningly stoic mother, combined with the unpleasant revelation that her father has been conducting a long-term affair with a woman for whom he would eventually divorce Hayden’s mother. She has the rest of her life to regret these actions, and much of the book is devoted to her long journey to make good on these early stumbles.

The scope of Hayden’s story enables her to eventually forgive her father, and to forgive herself. In the succeeding years there are births, deaths, marriages, and illness. College boyfriend Jim—who the reader initially writes off as a flake—hangs in there and eventually gets his act together, becoming husband and father. Her mother never relapses, but eventually Hayden herself is diagnosed. She undergoes a double mastectomy in order to avoid her mother’s fate of never quite finding a prosthetic bra that fit exactly right (as well as saving the trouble of the likelihood of another painful procedure further down the road). By the end of the book Hayden, with the help of yoga and the timely intervention of the goddess, has made peace with her new artificial breasts, as well as the various branches of her families. She’s even got a new career: Having discovered graphic novels during her recuperation, Hayden transforms from children’s book illustrator to cartoonist. It’s a lateral move, and the results—capacious and engrossing—speak for themselves. [Tim O’Neil]

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As Jeff Lemire continues what appears to be his attempt to overwhelm the comic book industry by sheer quantity of production, the stories he’s creating have begun to go off in completely different directions than what readers have seen from him before. Plutona #3 (Image) may share a publisher with Descender, but it’s closer in tone and feeling to Animal Man or Trillium—very distinct from the other books Lemire is putting out right now.

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Plutona is a book that has very little to do with the eponymous character, a female superhero who stars in short vignettes at the back of each issue that Lemire himself draws. If you were to take Stand By Me and toss it into a blender with superhero comics and a dash of Iron Giant, you’d get Plutona. Five young kids, most of them just on the cusp of adulthood, discover Plutona’s dead body in the woods, and as the story unfolds they struggle with the responsibility of deciding what to do and how to keep their hometown safe. It’s an interesting question, and a heavy weight for kids of any age to bear: What happens when the bad guys find out the good guy is dead? Lemire is at his best when he’s tackling thorny moral questions like this, focusing on character-driven plots with ethical quandaries that don’t have easy answers. But the older kids are cruel in the way that almost-adults often are to each other. Lemire’s done a great job capturing just how painful that age is, but it can also make the story difficult to read. Underwater Welder struggled with some of the same problems, presenting readers with a protagonist that was theoretically likable, but often couldn’t get out of his own way enough to earn it. Mie, Diane, Ray, and Teddy don’t seem like bad people, but they’re cruel to themselves and each other and it makes it hard to care about what happens to them in a meaningful way.

Emi Lenox—who worked with Lemire on Sweet Tooth previously but is probably most recognizable for her autobiographical work—draws incredible scenes on these pages. She collaborated with Lemire on the story, and her love for it shows. The art is expressive without being overwrought, drawing just enough detail to make the panels feel like they have real weight to them. Ray’s face, and in particular his reaction shots, is a highlight in this issue.

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Jordie Bellaire, who’s worked on titles from pretty much every major publisher with a wide swath of collaborators, does what she does best, using color to add lush texture without getting in the way of the art or the story. She’s one of the best in the business, and the result of her and Lenox’s collaboration is rich visuals with elements that echo Lemire’s own style and penchant for water color without imitating it. It makes for an awesome experience from start to finish, and the turn the story takes toward the end of this issue reveals that the fourth and final book may upend everything the audience knows to this point and send it in a very different direction. It’s a mystery worth waiting for, however impatiently. [Caitlin Rosberg]


The comics of Sasaki Maki force you to think about the medium in a totally different way. The cartoonist hit his creative zenith in the waning days of the 1960s, and through the early ’70s he published a number of mind-bending “stories” in the pages of the avant-garde magazine Garo. Ding Dong Circus And Other Stories, 1967-1974 (Breakdown Press), a collection of 15 of his short works, is his first appearance in English, and like editor-translator Ryan Holmberg’s other imports (Masahiko Matsumoto’s The Man Next Door, Seiichi Hayashi’s Gold Pollen, etc.), the work is deeply rewarding, if challenging. There are only three or four comics in the collection that could reasonably considered narrative, and even those are visually disorienting—in the most delightful way.

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Maki’s style is somewhere between the collage aesthetic of Tadanori Yokoo and the pop-art surrealism of Shigeru Sugiura, so even the most cogent of his work is rife with polysemous images that require interpretation. The emotions of characters are commented on with subtle juxtapositions, humorous thought-balloon interludes, and abrupt, abrasive transitions. The emotional prison that two characters find themselves in “The Ballad Of Henri And Anne” is represented as a physical prison. But, as he explains in “Still A Cartoonist,” an autobiographical essay that concludes the book, Maki sought to upend conventional notions of comics paneling as an intrinsically temporal and/or spatial relation. Most comics are organized in linear succession, left to right (right to left for manga) and top to bottom, with one instance following the next in a discernible sequence. Maki, however, conceived of a paneling that’s more poetic and juxtapositional. Comics don’t need to be a narrative; each page can be a collage, each panel existing in a separate space and a separate time from the one before and after it. Images don’t need to be related literally, as long as they resonate intellectually or emotionally.

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This leads to some intensely obtuse results. “Sad Max,” for instance, is the closest a comic has ever gotten to ineffable. Maki plays with incredibly dense pages, overflowing with images that threaten to drown you in their unceasing silence. Unlike poetry, which you have to read, interpret, and then intellectually respond to (a micro-second of mediation, maybe, but a mediation nonetheless), Maki’s visual poetry doesn’t need to actually be understood. His are comics that defy you to articulate a meaning; their import is found in how they make you feel, and how deeply they make you feel. “Sad Max”—devoid of characters, narrative, ideological argumentation, even representational iconography—is a nonsensical comic, but it’s also a very sad comic—a sadness you cannot help but empathize with.

Maki’s style, however, reaches an apotheosis in “The Vietnam Debate.” Maki constructs the work out of non sequitur images that resemble the crudely printed photographs you might find in early Vertigo comics. Uncanny and disturbing images of people smiling, holding hands, and cheering fill the pages, and they all suffer from logorrhea; unpunctuated strings of Vietnam-era buzzwords pour out of their mouths in a syntax best described as Burroughsian. The comic, a classically constructed détournement, goes on way too long and by the end of it, you have been totally inured to the discursive horrors of a truly ugly realpolitik. With this “story,” Maki finally gets at the heart of what his cartooning is all about: a total upset of how images and words can be combined for maximum affect. [Shea Hennum]

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