What I've been reading
It's several days into 2009 as I return to blogging, and I hope everyone had a great holiday season. I've been doing a lot of traveling and entertaining, none of which has permitted a great deal of listening to new music. I have, however, been able to catch up on some graphic novels that I have put off for a while. Here are the books I have read over the past couple of weeks:
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel (2006, Houghton Mifflin)
This widely praised and very popular autobiographical graphic novel tells the author's story of growing up, and manages to be moving, provocative, and a real artistic achievement. Bechdel's story focuses on her family, but especially on her father -- a gay man living a straight life while running the community funeral home. The author also writes of her own homosexuality and how it relates to her father, with both rationality and familial love evident throughout. A great example of what graphic novels are capable of at their best.
The Best of the Spirit by Will Eisner (2005, DC Comics)
The Best of the Spirit collects 22 key stories featuring the seminal character that originally appeared from 1940 to 1950. I read this in preparation for Frank Miller's The Spirit (a well-intentioned but very flawed film, to say the least), as I had little knowledge of the character beyond a few issues of Darwyn Cooke's recent series. Each tale is compact with subjects ranging from ordinary crime capers to a flying man and alien invaders. The Spirit's adversaries include a number of ordinary punks, a few ambitious baddies such as The Octopus, and a lot of stunning women.
Eisner's splash pages to begin each story are a consistent highlight, with wonderful art often more memorable than the stories themselves. The comics are entertaining enough, and often quite funny, but the format and pacing may be jarring for modern readers; I found the book more enjoyable when reading a few stories at a time rather than straight through. Modern readers should also be prepared for some racial characterizations that have not aged well, to say the least, as is common for comics of the era. I can see why The Spirit is adored by many comics fans and creators, but I won't be rushing to get too much more of this material for my personal library.
Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert (2005, Marvel Comics)
Attaching Neil Gaiman's name to a comics project increases the level of expectations a great deal, and while I enjoyed Marvel 1602 I don't think it reached the heights I had hoped. The premise of this series, which ran from 2003-2004, is a reworking of the Marvel Universe and many of its key characters set in the year 1602.
Sir Nicholas Fury (Nick Fury) and Dr. Stephen Strange are cast as aides to Queen Elizabeth, struggling here with King James of Scotland eager for her throne, while supporting players including Peter Parquagh (Peter Parker/Spider-Man), Matthew Murdoch (Matt Murdock/Daredevil), and others have key roles. Marvel's mutants show up as "Witchbreed" battling for survival, and key plot points revolve around Marvel's first family, a mysterious Native American hero, and a little girl who may be the source of Armageddon. The story is complimented by Andy Kubert's art and terrific scratchboard covers by Scott McKowen. Gaiman is even ambitious enough to make the story fit within Marvel continuity, something I did not expect when I began the book. A fun read all around, though I thought it fell a little flat toward the end.
Essex County Volume 1: Tales From The Farm by Jeff Lemire (2007, Top Shelf Productions)
Jeff Lemire has been a breakout star in the indie comics set for a few years now, but this was my first effort to read his best-known work. Tales from the Farm is a story of young Lester's life in rural Canada, embracing his imagination and a troubled older friend while struggling with his mother's death and his uncle's efforts to be a surrogate parent. The highlight here is Lemire's stark and distinct art, with chunky lines and a lack of color emphasizing the intended mood. My only reservations are with the book's ending, which is somewhat ambiguous but sees Lester take a step toward better days.
New X-Men, Vol. 1, by Grant Morrison and various (2008, Marvel Comics)
New X-Men, Vol. 2, by Grant Morrison and various (2008, Marvel Comics)
New X-Men, Vol. 3, by Grant Morrison and various (2008, Marvel Comics)
As a relative newbie to Morrison, his stuff has been a bit hit or miss for me. This 2001-2004 run on New X-Men, in which he revitalized the X-Men franchise, is fantastic. I managed to read all three thick volumes in a short time frame, which only added to the feeling of one great ride. Morrison gathers his team of choice, has them face off against three major villains and a number of minor enemies, and contributes several important events to the ongoing story of the X-Men.
The stories are best when Morrison is paired with artist Frank Quitely, though I also enjoyed the art by Phil Jiminez toward the end of the run. My favorite arc is probably the "Assault on Weapons Plus" story (New X-Men #139-145) in which Wolverine, Cyclops, and Fantomex combine forces -- I would really like to see more from Fantomex in the future. Although the art is a little uneven and some stories are more consequential than others, this is a great run by Morrison.