Two at Three -

Comic Book Feature Review

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  • Editor: Chris Oliveros
  • Publisher: Fantagraphics
  • Price: $24.95
  • Grade: B-
  • Editor: Eric Reynolds
  • Price: $16.95

Two at Three

We take a look at two very different comic book anthologies with their third issues

By Mike Whybark     July 08, 2002

DIRTY STORIES #3 blends frank subject matter with the comic book medium.
© 2002 Fantagraphics
The comic book world encompasses a wide range of material, from the familiar four-color fantasies that send superheroes to the stars and right next door to the more esoteric collections that concentrate on technique and subtlety of storytelling. Below, we take a look at two examples of the more unfamiliar end of the spectrum for many readers. These two anthology series have both reached a third issue, making it over that sophomore slump, but as much as they represent a certain category of comic book, they couldn't be more different from each other. And be warned, one of them is a bit racy...

French Angouleme winner highlights great anthology

The standard-bearer in North American serial narrative anthologies turns in another triumph for highbrow comix in its third issue. This beautifully produced, square-bound paperback features a remarkable tribute cover by the forever astonishing Chris (ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY) Ware, in which he ghosts GASOLINE ALLEY's Frank King and at the same time executes a completely new variation on his trademark mind-bending space-and-time compositions. The rigor and perfection with which he accomplishes this is what's most reminiscent here of his work on JIMMY CORRIGAN. His line work and color palette on this piece is utterly astonishing, elevating the ghosted tribute to levels that no other comic artist has even dreamt of.

Once one is able to move beyond the experience of the cover, the usual assortment of comic history and impressive contemporary work is presented. The standout is the centerpiece of the book, a complete English translation of the French graphic Novel "Monsieur Jean," by Philippe Dupuy and Charles Berberian, which is credited with a 1999 victory as Best Comic Album at Angouleme. Without having seen the competition, it seems clear to me that the recognition was deserved. I found this work to be deeply satisfying in a way which is rare in comics. I laughed; I cried; I was moved. The creators' complex use of layered symbology in the service of the narrative dramatically enhanced the emotional resonance of the tale - a story of a French baby-boomer, a writer in Paris facing the onset of, well, middle-age.

The Ware cover is called for by a long appreciation of Frank King's GASOLINE ALLEY. There are some amusing pieces by Matticchio, including one, "The Pillow," which is based on the Surrealist work "The Glove." The second-strongest piece in the book, an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" by R. Sikoryak, is executed entirely in the graphic and narrative manner of early, gothic-period Bob Kane Batman. The lineal relationship of Raskolnikov (here shortened to RASKOL and conflated with the Bat-logo) and Batman is both clear and strikingly original, and arguing it in this amusing, straight-faced adaptation of the novel proves worthwhile.

There's a story about being the son of a typesetter in '70s Canada, some Seth drawings, an adaptation of a Jewish folktale, and one or two other features as well. In summation, the book's a bargain for its' two master classes in what is possible using the tools of comics. It's also enjoyable throughout.

Literate smut crossover title proves mixed bag

The third volume in the Eros/Fantagraphics series DIRTY STORIES represents a continued effort by Groth and Co. to tackle a perennially problematic area and scale the last unconquered peak of literature, straddling the line between pornography and erotica. This is a tough area for creators and a profitable one for publishers; but no one will be surprised to hear that if a publisher simply shoots (so to speak) straight for the porn, they make more money. Nonetheless, authors, filmmakers and of course cartoonists continue to experiment with cracking the nut of raw sexuality backed by thoughtful, nuanced creative work. It's a challenge, and that's what makes this book interesting.

There's a wide mix of approaches in the stories presented here, from Ellen Forney's frank and distinct pinup drawings of Mary to the S. Clay Wilson- and Hieronymous Bosch-inspired mutagenic orgies of Cephalopod Productions. There's a bit of scholarly work on the Tijuana Bibles of the '30s, and a fairly journalistic piece on a movie producer in the American adult industry. I'm certainly not going to go into detail here, but this was the piece in the book that echoed in my head the longest after reading it. You won't want to talk about this with your Mom.

In addition, there's a predictable selection of autobiographies, anecdotally driven material and sophomoric humor. Interestingly to me, a consistent theme in the works emerged for me in the light of the movie producer's story. It's easiest for creators to incorporate thoughtfulness and artistic depth into works dealing directly with sex and sexuality if the work emphasizes the squirming discomfort which depictions of sexuality can invoke. The stories which attempted to maintain a sex-positive perspective tended to come off as somewhat thin, while those that exhibited a horrified, somehow disapproving fascination with their subject afforded greater traction for the artists who brought them into the world.

The range of artistic approaches and subject matter and the obvious fun most of the creators had in working with the material more than rectifies the inherent difficulty in crafting satisfying work in the genre. Only through the wild experimentation seen here is there the slightest possibility of developing a mature formal vocabulary with which creators can effectively work with the most primal and private of human experiences. Until we can work with the subject matter effectively, our efforts to incorporate sexuality will always be communicated in stuttering, stammering fragments that fail to carry the depth of the experience.


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