Dreams and Nightmares: New Comics

There can be few more deliberately conscious writers in the comics field than Warren Ellis. By that categorization, I simply mean that his best independent, non-superhero work is generally a programmatic exfoliation of his theorizing, a loquacious, think-aloud habit he exhibits in entertaining and public fashion in various online forums. This is not to say that his work is arid or sterile or tendentious. Far from it. He’s a regular sparking Catherine’s Wheel of “mad ideas,” (to use critic Steven Grant’s phrase), black humor, operatic emotions, and over-the-top action scenes and plotting, all blended into that distinctive Ellis high-octane comicbook fuel.

One of the prolific Ellis’s most recent projects, in collaboration with artist Paul Duffield, is not only aesthetically and thematically well-conceptualized, but also significantly revolutionary in its delivery mode. FreakAngels, now just arriving between covers, debuted a bit over a year ago as a free weekly webcomic, its six-page installments still appearing at www.freakangels.com. The decision to broadcast his work without charge and hope the largesse builds an audience and incentivizes purchasers of the hardcopy is entirely typical of Ellis’s futurist thinking in these digitally storm-tossed times.

But the series, for all that it’s free, is hardly a makework piece of yardgoods. Rather, it contains some of Ellis’s freshest conceits and best characters, as well as one of his most intriguing future scenarios.

Basically a wild-eyed mashup of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos and Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life,” the tale plunges dramatically into an utterly remade London, where twelve mutant youths with godlike powers and all-too-human foibles map out their eccentric destinies, amidst a general populace of hapless normals. Ellis’s dialogue is sharp-witted, his shifting among the various plotlines deft (weekly seams are invisible), and his pacing luxuriously decompressed. (After 46 episodes, less than 24 hours had passed within the tale.) As for Paul Duffield’s masterful, restrained art, he manages simultaneously to convey quotidian solidity and extravagant fantasticality, his characters as pleasingly memorable as his landscapes and architecture.

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Waltz with Bashir has the distinction of being developed in parallel as both an animated film and a graphic novel. The twin productions offer distinctly separate pleasures. Concerned here with the book, readers might find that while we can savor the tale at a slower pace, allowing it to infiltrate our spirits more deeply, some of the shocking immediacy of the animated version is missing. But in either case, author Ari Folman’s exploration of both the psychic and actual topography of war remains a beautifully brutal and multivalent moral accounting.

Subtitled “A Lebanon War Story,” the tale is a mosaic of illuminating incidents, grotesque or absurd or both, all stemming from the Israeli incursion into Lebanon in 1982, culminating in the infamous massacres by the Christian Phalangists at the Shatila and Sabra refugee camps. Himself a young soldier in the conflict, Folman is motivated by his suppressed non-memories of the war to track down members of his squad and compile their accounts into a matrix for his own fragmentary recollections. The resulting bricolage succeeds in capturing the horrors and absurdities of one specific war — and all wars.

David Polansky’s stylized, almost rotoscoped art calls to mind the film A Scanner Darkly: an atmosphere of crazily refracted verisimilitude. In such panels as that on page 61, featuring a closeup of a dead horse’s fly-swarmed eye, he approaches Guernica-level intensity of imagery.

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After his landmark, multiple-award-winning, wordless graphic novel, The Arrival, artist and author Shaun Tan seems, luckily for us, to have succumbed to the allure of prose once more, producing a winningly curious hybrid in Tales from Outer Suburbia. The book is not precisely a collection of illustrated stories, nor is it wholly a graphic narrative, although that mode is dominant from time to time, most notably in “Grandpa’s Story.” Rather, it’s a unique wonder cabinet of surrealism, whimsy and fabulism, sometimes manifesting as text, sometimes as pictures. And with Tan as sole creator, the two media complement each other perfectly.

Fifteen stories chronicle in drolly understated fashion such outré suburban occurrences as the advent of a tiny leaflike being named Eric; the local prophetic water buffalo; a visiting deep-sea diver in full rig; and neighborhood ICBMs. Tan’s art shapeshifts accordingly. Sometimes, as in the double-page spread on pages 42-43, it resembles the scratchy work of Saul Steinberg. The spread on pages 62-63 recalls the lapidary delicacy of Kinuko Craft. And the image on 72-73 brings to mind a Barry Moser print. But such a chameleonic exhibition coheres by the book’s close into an organic vision of everyday grace and weirdness.

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Success has not spoiled Harvey Pekar. Recognition, applause and some financial ease arrived too late in the life of American Splendor‘s cranky Everyman to shift him from his lifelong habit of perceptively dissecting and eulogizing his own innermost weathers and the absurdist panorama of life as he encounters it outside the intriguing boundaries of his familiar balding skull. Originally self-published, American Splendor these days calls the Vertigo imprint of bigtime DC Comics its unlikely yet accomodating home, and the four pamphlet issues from 2008 have just appeared in trade paperback as Another Dollar.

Within these elegant black-and-white pages, the reader will encounter the canonical Pekar at his best: angsting over clutter and bills; relishing simple pleasures; chronicling the triumphs of friends and the failures of enemies. Almost two dozen artists work sympathetically to reify Pekar’s scripts, and the sheer variety of their conceptions of the man and his world, from cartoony to photorealistic, adds to the pleasures of this volume, delivering a warm yet prickly sensation — like hanging out with your favorite crotchety uncle.

At one point in Another Dollar, Pekar laments that lately he doesn’t do much reviewing or writing of historical essays on his favorite topics. The complaint is forgivably disingenuous in light of publication of a meaty new study by Pekar (partnered with editor Paul Buhle) titled The Beats: A Graphic History. Aided by a handful of other writers, Pekar contributes the lion’s share of the text in this illustrated summary of the core movers and shakers of what came to be known as the Beat movement in art, literature, music and film. And Ed Piskor, with his Dan Clowes-like eye and pencil, contributes over half the shining artwork.

Structured as a series of biographies, with such intermittent thematic excursions as “Beatnick Chicks” (script by Joyce Brabner) and “Jazz and Poetry” (Pekar again), this book achieves the goal its creators outline in their introduction: to be a “new and vital treatment” without necessarily being definitive. The creators and controversies and esthetics of the Beats resonate so neatly with Pekar’s whole life that he produces some of his most rousing work, and truly brings a vanished era alive, highlighting both its timeless and timebound dimensions. While Piskor’s documentary-like page compositions serve wonderfully to convey facts and even emotions, it remains for the other artists — particularly Mary Fleener and Peter Kuper — to capture some of the experimental audacity and joy of the Beats, which they do in lively fashion.

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In his magnificent and stunning autobiographical masterpiece, Epileptic, David B. depicts his youthful avatar lying in bed and anticipating a night’s oneiric visitations, however creepy and disturbing, with the thought: “Dreams are the salt of sleep.” Pursuing this notion further in his newest work, David B. moves from exploration of the psychic landscape of his childhood to a look at the specters of his adult subconscious (not that the juvenile and mature states don’t mirror each other, as readers of the earlier book will observe).

Nocturnal Conspiracies comprises “nineteen dreams from December 1979 to September 1994.” In other words, it’s a dream diary rendered in graphic form. Now, generally speaking, the recounting of dreams in prose or orally is a deadly endeavor, guaranteed to bore the pants off any reader or listener. But David B. succeeds in making his renditions fascinating through a number of tactics.

First is the alluring fecundity of his weird art, which, in only two colors, manages to summon up a tangible terrain akin to something out of Lovecraft’s The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. Recalling at times the work of Richard Sala, Boris Artzybasheff, Basil Wolverton and Edward Gorey, David B.’s monsters, objects, people and landscapes possess a hypnotically feverish other-dimensionality. Second, the author has plainly picked the cream of the crop from fifteen years’ worth of dreams. And finally, he resolutely avoids imposing templates of logic or coherent narrative over the raw substance of his dreams. Segues are inexplicable, motives and relationships oblique and opaque, resolutions tentative or absent. Yet a deeper, more powerful, Jungian symbolism does indeed yoke these lurid pulp outings into what David B. calls “my dark novel.”

The dreams can be as droll and simplistic as “The Cat,” in which a Giacometti sculpture comes to life, or as convoluted and melancholy as “A Love Affair,” in which the protagonist must carry around his lover’s corpse in a sack. Taken all in all, these nineteen voyages into the realm of Morpheus have the paradoxical effect of making us feel just how dreamlike everyday “reality” can be.