Sunday, December 23, 2007

Four Great Stories of 2007

The following is not a best-of list or a series of reviews, but short discussions of why these books are some of my favorites from 2007, and would be favorites in any year in which they appeared. I focus a few things that I find particularly interesting in each story as a way of trying to explain something that I find appealing about the cartoonist’s approach in general.

*Gilbert Hernandez Chance in Hell
One of the things that’s so compelling about Hernandez’s work is its use of striking visual shifts; he often transitions from (in film terms) a very long shot into a mid shot, or alternates directly between shots that imply a dramatically different scope. Moving between these kinds of shots draws a reader’s attention to the ways that various locations, geography, and the characters interact. This is particularly true in Chance in Hell, the first part of which takes place in a wasteland on the edge of a city:

Many of the longer views feature a beautifully stylized, yet almost oppressive sky, which seems on the verge of enveloping the characters:
He also often moves between starkly different perspectives and distances, and frequently uses high angle shots, as in the second panel:
Most eye-level shots assume an adult perspective (the image of the man on the first Chance in Hell page above takes a conventional adult point-of-view.) But in the last panel directly above, Hernandez draws from the child's level.
These different shots, angles, and shifting POVs help to create something that’s very hard to define, in Hernandez’s story or anyone else’s: its rhythm. And a way to get at one of the many kinds of rhythms found in a comic is to look at patterns the artist creates with shots or angles (or with the length of scenes, density of panel compositions, variation in the grid/page layouts, etc . . .). [Some argue that you should not use film terms to talk about comics. But as long as you recognize the many differences between comics and films -- i.e., the comic panel doesn’t frame out reality in the way a camera typically does -- I think you can use them whenever they are helpful.]
Also, note the careful design of the above page: the 1st and 3rd panel switch the placement of the sun and the girl (who is seen in silhouette towards the side of the panel); while the 2nd and 4th panels feature her figure in the center (and not as a silhouette.)
Hernandez has a sense of rhythm, scale, and drama that recalls adventure comics and films of the ‘40s and ‘50s, yet he has a genuine sense of strangeness and unpredictability that separates his work from conventional genre stories.
*Daniel Clowes Mister Wonderful
In a powerful scene from chapter 7, Natalie recounts some of her ‘relationship history’ to Marshall (they are on a blind date):

In the middle three panels, the ha ha (which begins as a line of dialogue and then appears as images) becomes increasingly larger as the panels become increasingly smaller; not only does the ha ha come to dominate the way Natalie thinks about the relationship, it dominates and even overwhelms the confines of the last panel; it is too large to be represented within it. In the third panel of her memory, the ha ha is placed in between the two word balloons and you read it as a part of a sequence of text: her words are interrupted as she hears his laugh in her head and then he asks a question. But you also experience the words as a part of the panel’s picture; they are Natalie’s thoughts, but they assume the shape and presence of physical objects, casting a literal and figurative shadow. Comics is often defined as a medium in which two distinct things - words and images - are used to tell a story. But Clowes’s art here complicates that claim by blurring any boundary between them.
Some of Clowes’s weekly installments have a rhythm in part suggested by their serialization -- a kind of subtle punch-line at the end of each installment; and here the formal inventiveness of the penultimate panel quickly gives way to the traditional comics of the last panel, as Natalie’s emotional recollection is interrupted by the waitress’s mundane comment. Each episode of MW is remarkable for the shift in rhythms it employs, some of which are created by Marshall’s vacillation in moods; his conflicting desire both to confess and to withhold truths about himself from Natalie, the reader, and himself; or from changes in drawing and coloring styles.
[Here’s a different kind of word-picture moment from Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library 18, and one that's equally powerful:]

*Adrian Tomine Shortcomings
Much of the elegance of Tomine’s stories derives from the constraints he places on his comics. There’s a profound clarity in his work that comes from a decision to avoid many of the techniques other cartoonists use. These choices encourage us to focus on his dialogue and accompanying facial expressions and bodily gestures, and Tomine is a master of panel composition with a broad range of subtle poses and positions for characters:

The kinds of things I talked about in Hernandez and Clowes are often absent from his work. Tomine prefers mid shots and medium close ups and only occasionally uses slightly high angles -- this creates a rhythm different than Hernandez’s and yet one that’s equally engaging. Unlike Mister Wonderful, every page in Shortcomings uses either 6, 7, 8, or 9 square or rectangular panels arranged in a traditional grid and has a consistent margin size and gutter size; there are no thought balloons or narration boxes; sound effects are limited to roughly two different types of hand-lettered ‘fonts’ with some, but not much, variation in lettering size (page 43 is an exception); and there are no motion or emotion lines or any similar kinds of effects . . .
While avoiding many techniques, he employs some familiar, unpretentious devices that have long been staples of comics; for example, he repeatedly introduces a change in setting with a conventional establishing shot, often of the restaurant in which in a conversation is talking place or the theater in which the main character works:

He uses the whisper version of the word balloons, in which the balloon is made up of dashes, and the telephone conversation word balloon, in which the tail of the unseen speaker’s balloon takes the zig-zag shape often used to represent electricity:
The storytelling in Tomine is literally straightforward -- the narrative is completely linear and each panel depicts external, objective reality (whereas in Mister Wonderful, for example, Clowes includes flashbacks or panels that features images from a character’s fantasy). Yet the seeming transparency that arises from Tomine’s formal choices is balanced by the story's complex look at issues of ethnicity, sexuality, and identity. And Shortcomings is never burdened by the moralizing that sometimes harms narratives that tackle these kinds of issues.
Overall, his use of familiar cartoon devices in the context of his stripped-downed, austere approach creates a style at once elegant and friendly -- a very unusual combination.
*F. C. Ware Acme Novelty Library 18
Critics have sometimes said that Ware’s comics emphasize design over story, and that his formal innovations come at the price of limiting or obscuring the story’s emotional content. I’ll let this page, which addresses the alienation and everyday routines of the main character at different times in her life, answer those criticisms:

This story is also remarkable for the ways in which it interweaves a series of recurring and connected images -- sleeping people, cut or wilting flowers, a circular birth control pill pack, a clock, the main character’s leg and prosthesis, a quarter, rooms, windows -- and ties them to themes of alienation, sexual desire and frustration, incompleteness, maternity, mortality . . .

More so than many cartoonists, Ware repeatedly focuses on objects, showing how the most mundane item can be invested with emotional weight (perhaps in Ware objects perform the role of geography in Hernandez . . . ). The main character engages in reveries about other people’s lives inspired by seemingly random objects, such as a camera, or in this case, a hook:

Even though the objects are often depicted in small panels (and critics have said that such panels are typically read faster), for me these panel seem to want greater attention; we expect a cartoonist to center on people and places, and so when he focuses an entire panel on a lock we should linger for a moment and consider why.
Every now and then you read a comic in which a character describes or undergoes something unusual and meaningful that has happened to you, and the artist represents it in a way that seems undeniably true:

These kinds of moments are a hallmark of all of the cartoonist discussed above.