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GRAPHIC NOVELS

Neurosis and Firepower

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

EXPLAINERS The Complete Village Voice Strips (1956-66) By Jules Feiffer | Fantagraphics. 546 pp. $28.99

When Jules Feiffer started drawing a weekly comic strip for the Village Voice in 1956, its title -- "Sick, Sick, Sick" -- suggested he was way out on the fringes. By the time he finished, 44 years later, he'd helped to shape modern satire. "Feiffer," as it quickly became known, didn't look much like a conventional strip or political cartoon: It barely bothered to have a recurring cast, and while Feiffer's dashed-off caricatures were often hilarious, the emphasis was on his writing. Almost always in the form of near-theatrical monologues or dialogues, "Feiffer" blew poison darts at Cold War-era politics, sexual mores and America's helpless flailing at the idea of normalcy.

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Explainers, the first of four volumes that will collect the strip, covers its first decade. Feiffer spent a few months nailing down the look he wanted (figures built out of disjointed, wobbly lines drawn with sharpened wooden dowels), but before long he had worked out his favorite gags: a couple doing a pas de deux of emotional abuse, a representative of what the cartoonist called the "Radical Middle" resolutely failing to take a stand, a yam-faced politician summarizing the government's position in a frenzy of doubletalk. The only two real regulars are Bernard Mergendeiler, a nebbishy wannabe hipster who's slowly becoming a prototypical Man in a Gray Flannel Suit, and his acquaintance Huey, a callow meathead whose boorish self-assurance makes him irresistible to women.

A lot of Feiffer's topical humor has lost its sting, although it's still an amusing barometer of bohemian America's concerns in the '50s and '60s (it's particularly fun to see John F. Kennedy satirized from the left). He's more enduringly witty when he channels the voices of little kids caught in the baffling stream of modernity, and his swipes at the way women and men treat each other (which evolved into his "Carnal Knowledge" screenplay) are still scathing. In one strip, a man catalogues his date's beauty and wit while she winces at his touch and silently refutes him, point by point. "I love you, Dorothy," he concludes. "What terribly poor judgment," she thinks.

AMERICAN FLAGG! By Howard Chaykin | Image/Dynamic Forces. Unpaginated. $49.99

American Flagg! was satire of a different kind: loud, sexed-up and hypersaturated with the impossible colors of its '80s heyday. Nominally an adventure comic book about Reuben Flagg, a Russian-Jewish-Martian-American porn star-turned-"Plexus Ranger," it was really an excuse for writer-artist Howard Chaykin to present his vision of total information overload. The story is set in Chicago in the year 2031, as America is still trying to rebuild itself from a 1996 collapse; gangs are going berserk in the streets; reality TV shows like "White Sluts on Dope" (tagline: "Thrills! Chills! Pills!") and "Firefight All Night Live!" are broadcast to an eager public; franchised brothels and ammo shops are everywhere; and advertising (complete with little trademark signs) for products like "Ma├▒anacillin" occupies every available surface.

This volume, which collects the earliest and best issues of the series, is perhaps the sharpest vision of the future of media anyone could pull off in 1982: Chaykin was dead right about the omnipresent video screens, inset images and information crawls that convey most of his exposition. The action plots don't always hold up, but the lunge and snap of Chaykin's language are delightful, especially his punning Pynchonian names: Medea Blitz, Sam Louis Obispo, the Gotterdammercrats. Part of what he was satirizing, though, was the same tough-guy archetypes he couldn't help but indulge in. One of Flagg's many bedmates (every woman in the series seemed to sport '20s glamour-girl hair and garter belts) explains what she likes about him: "It's a vicious streak. A real venality. I guess that's it. You're cruel. . . but fair."

ZOT! The Complete Black and White Collection 1987-1991 By Scott McCloud | Harper. 575 pp. Paperback, $24.95

Before Scott McCloud became the majordomo of American comics theory with Understanding Comics (1993), he wrote and drew the thoroughly charming series Zot!, about the relationship between Zachary T. Paleozogt, a hyper-optimistic teenage superhero from a glorious parallel Earth where it's always a futuristic 1965, and a reserved, introspective girl from our own world. This collection compiles stories originally published between 1987 and 1991 (earlier issues had appeared in color), in which McCloud's vision of the future is much shinier and more hopeful than, say, Chaykin's. There are flashes of terrible darkness here, but as McCloud explains, the villains in the first half of the book each represent a different grim future, and Zot's flair and cheer overcome them all. The focus of Zot! changes drastically in its concluding section, "The Earth Stories": McCloud shelves the sci-fi spectacle to examine the inner lives of the supporting characters as they struggle to understand themselves, their sexuality and their place in a world that might not live up to their teenage dreams -- or, then again, might.

The series's thoughtful joy spills over into its airy, bouncy design sense. McCloud had been paying close attention to the look and storytelling logic of the black-and-white comics coming out of Japan -- in the '80s, that put him far ahead of the curve in the United States -- and both his linework and the rushing flow of his storytelling took a lot of cues from manga. "The Eyes of Dekko," a sequence about a character whose robotic head is, appropriately, a look-alike for the top of the Chrysler Building, is essentially an allegory for the balance between representation and abstraction in visual art.

BOTTOMLESS BELLY BUTTON By Dash Shaw | Fantagraphics. Unpaginated. Paperback, $29.99

The young cartoonist Dash Shaw comes down firmly on the symbolic end of the comics continuum. Shaw isn't much of a draftsman in the conventional sense, but he's got a gift for evoking what things feel like and mean, rather than what they look like. His 700-plus-page brick of a graphic novel, Bottomless Belly Button, chronicles the disintegration of an extended family gathered together one last time before its patriarch and matriarch get divorced, and the sexual awakening of one of their sons, a self-loathing pothead named Peter. Much of the book is concerned with the relationship between space, time and cathexis -- the emotional charge attached to things and places -- and Shaw painstakingly diagrams how everything in the story relates to everything else.

There are codes and symbols throughout the book: Its title refers both to a decades-old love letter written in cipher and to the family bonds that connect all of these characters. Shaw develops his own symbol system here, lingering over abstracted images of water and sand as they combine and separate near the family's seaside home. When he can't quite convey something in a drawing ("tries to open" or "no towels," for instance), he just writes it out as text in the panel; he uses long sequences of images to linger over individual characters' sensory experiences, like standing in the sand as waves come in and retreat. He draws Peter with a goony-looking frog's head for most of the book; a single panel in which he doesn't reveals that this is only how Peter sees himself. All of Shaw's formal experimentation, though, works in the service of the story's emotional impact: It's a sprawling mess, but a fascinating, affecting sprawling mess, whose raw invention and sentimental core justify each other. ┬Ě

Douglas Wolk is the author of "Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean."


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