30 September 2008

Subway Reading: Recent American Comix

Under Review
Ross Campbell,
Water Baby. New York: Minx, 2008.

Joe Kubert,
Jew Gangster. New York: ibooks, 2005.

Peter Kuper,
Stop Forgetting to Remember: The Autobiography of Walter Kurtz. New York: Crown Publishers, 2007.

I approached Ross Campbell’s Water Baby with low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. Which is to say, the book—based on its packaging and the first few pages—looks like a mindless teen-‘zine comic featuring a cast of scantily-clad adolescents whose ostensible visual appeal are substitutes for developed characters, plot or art. But after the first dozen pages or so, I found myself sucked into the story of a young punk recovering from a shark bite while she deals with her codependent best friend and tries to shake her assholic ex-boyfriend. The end result is mixed—the plot reads like the first half of a good story before petering out and the artwork is proficient, though uninspired and repetitive. But the dialogue has witty moments and the main characters seem believable enough. Good for one Brooklyn to Manhattan roundtrip with a transfer.

I began Peter Kuper’s Stop Forgetting to Remember with high hopes. Kuper’s drawing never fails to surprise and delight and his political visions are appropriately filled with horrifying despair and righteous anger, as evinced by his work in World War 3 Illustrated and the graphic adaptations of works by Franz Kafka and Upton Sinclair. This semi-autobiographical memoir, however, strikes a different note. Here we are asked to spend time with a more reflective Kuper, an updated version of the semi-neurotic persona introduced in his 1990s travelogue ComicsTrips, as he attempts to interpret four decades of scribbling, getting high, having sex and watching the world change. Kuper also uses his biography as an opportunity to mull over a variety of comix styles that have marked his lifetime; on various pages, the discerning reader will find borrowings from and allusions to contemporaries like R. Crumb and Eric Drooker.
The only bother in this book, amidst the wealth of artistic wonders, is the plot. The pacing never seems to strike the right balance, dawdling too long on moments where the reader feels little investment and failing to develop the best vignettes to their full advantage. One wishes that Kuper felt less compelled to fit the whole of his life into the book and simply chose a few important moments. And this reader would have been particularly pleased if Kuper, or his editor, cut out all those endless representations of parenthood as a redemptive transformational experience. I mean, I get it, having a kid changes your life, puts things in a different perspective, etc. The problem is that Kuper has no new angle on this well-worn nugget of perennial wisdom. Throughout the story, I kept on mentally returning to that moment in Six Feet Under when Claire explains to her older brother Nate that his baby has turned him into a driveling idiot. It’s uncharitable, sure. But I can’t help it.
Jew Gangster suffers no such sentimentality, as its title (and artwork above) may indicate. The lines and paneling are all superhero style, and while I’m not a fan, Kubert’s mastery of the form is undeniable, squeezing every possibility of expression out of this genre. The compact story revolves around a Jewish teenager coming of age in Depression-era East New York. The lure of easy money and the excitements of violence turn the kid away from the pious aspirations of his hardscrabble immigrant parents and to the life of a low-level skull-thumper. The story is exactly what you’d expect, down to the all-too-predictable twists. Nevertheless, I found myself lingering over each frame to analyze the different devices and techniques at Kubert’s disposal, forgiving the plot by way of forgetting it.


kg said...

What's uncharitable is not the suggestion that overenthusiastic parents turn into driveling idiots - they very well may - but that equally cliche smug hipster hedonism is assumed to be a priori superior (and more original?) to the sincerity of those who might find their entirely unoriginal dramas transformative nonetheless.

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...


kg said...

Are you "huh"ing the sentence structure or the sentiment? The former may be a bit convoluted; the latter is quite simple. (And obviously right ;)).

BusterPh.D.Candidate said...

My "huh" was an ostensibly more charitable way of criticizing both your diction and your "sentiment," which is indeed quite simple, but a bit of a non sequitur (since you seem to favor the unnecessary usage of Latin, I'll follow your lead). There was nothing in this post extolling the virtues of "smug hipster hedonism." I'd venture to say that you'd have a hard time finding any posts in my archive that do such.

Ergo: Huh?

kg said...

In my humble experience, patronizing dismissal as sappy and overdone of all sentiments to do with the life-changing importance of child-bearing/rearing (let alone desirability thereof) count as symptoms of smug hipster hedonism. I may be oversensitive on the subject, but still I say, QED. Even pace the wisdom of vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas, including the opinions of yours truly :).