A Column By Patrick Markfort
This week, I’m paying tribute to my favorite publisher, Fantagraphics, by reviewing three of their recent releases.
The Comics Journal Library 6: The Writers Book One: I’ve been a big fan of this series of collected interviews from The Comics Journal since the first volume on Jack Kirby. It’s very nice to have this material collected, particularly for someone like me who came rather late to the magazine. This volume collects interviews with mainstream comic book writers between the years 1975-1985, an interesting time for American comics, as a growing level of sophistication in comics storytelling seemed to be pointing towards something, although nobody seemed to have any idea just what it was pointing towards. The writers featured here (including Chris Claremont, Harlan Ellison, Alan Moore, and others) were the last generation of American comics writers to work in the medium before the idea of the “graphic novel” had become a viable alternative to the monthly superhero comic book, and it is fascinating to examine their thoughts in regards to the medium. This quote from Steve Englehart captures the tone of this volume perfectly: “If you did a 250-page comic book novel, would people buy it or would they just throw up their hands in despair and not touch it at all?” The Harlan Ellison interview will be the big draw for most people. It is somewhat infamous in that Ellison’s vitriolic comments lead to a lawsuit against both Ellison and The Comics Journal, as well as a long standing feud between Gary Groth and Ellison. It is also a long, very good interview, with both Ellis and Groth in rare form in discussion of a wide variety of topics. The surprise favorite interview for me was Denny O’Neil, a writer who’s work I’ve not had much experience of, but who proved to be a well-spoken, highly intelligent and articulate subject. Alan Moore’s interview closes the volume, with the British author’s discussion of his Swamp Thing work providing a natural jumping off point for this first volume. Editor Tom Spurgeon has done a really nice job putting all of this together, and I’m eager for the second writers volume. Highly recommended.
Night Fisher by R. Kikuo Johnson: It seems to me there was a lot more discussion of this “comic book novella” before it was released than after, which is puzzling because it is an extraordinary debut from a highly talented young cartoonist. A coming of age story concerning a young man, Loren Foster, and his experiences as a high school student living in Hawaii, Night Fisher really impressed me with it’s invocation of a very particular time and place. I couldn’t help comparing this work to Craig Thompson’s Blankets, I suppose because both feature male protagonists of about the same age (with similar physical characteristics, come to think of it), drawn in a similar style, with realistic black and white artwork and masterful figure drawing. Comparing the two works, I have to say I actually prefer Night Fisher, as it avoids the sentimentality Blankets indulged in a bit too often for my tastes. In any case, R. Kikuo Johnson is definitely someone I’m going to be keeping my eye on, and you should too. I believe he’ll be appearing in Fantagraphic’s literary anthology, Mome, in the near future.
Ganges #1 by Kevin Huizenga: This is the first of Fantagraphic’s “Ignatz” books that I’ve purchased. I really, really like the format - an oversized comic book with high production values and dust jacket priced at $7.95 and delightfully blurring the line between “comic books” and “graphic novels.” Ganges presents us with several short stories revolving around Huizenga’s cartoon alter ego, Glenn Ganges. His wife, Wendy, is also featured in several of the stories, all of which are quiet, slice of life tales usually involving Glenn ruminating on some subject or other while performing some common, everyday task. For example, the first story finds Glenn on his way to the library. When he casually wonders about how many times he has walked this particular route to the library, it leads to a rumination on the nature of time itself. Another tale features Glenn’s imaginings as to the fate of a boy he observes littering. All of the stories are illustrated in black, white, and blue, in Huizenga’s spare, cartoony style which is somehow perfect for these types of stories. While Huizenga employs a lot of formal experimentation in his comic book series Or Else, here he is more restrained, presenting most of the stories in a more or less straightforward manner, and I think they are stronger for it. Huizenga is one of the brightest talents around right now, and this debut issue is a perfect showcase for his talents.