Review: Art Schooled by Jamie Coe

art-schooledCollege (or university or your otherwise geographic equivalent) is a transitional time for most of us. It’s our first taste of freedom and adult responsibilities in a mostly low-risk environment.

Jamie Coe‘s Art Schooled (2014, Nobrow Press), focuses on this exact time through the eyes of Daniel, a young man from a small English town who goes to (you guess it!) art school in the big city. While it sometimes indulges in the expected navel-gazing young man stereotypes, Coe’s look at the ups and downs of the artist life is both sweet and satirical. While it’s not necessarily going to defy your expectations, there are surprises to be had here.

Our protagonist Daniel is a shy and awkward but completely normal young man. He comes into conflict with his roommates, embarrasses himself and quickly comes to realize art school is full of ridiculous people — both students and teachers alike. The book is told mostly through anecdotes — small vignettes about the creepy male model who poses for classes, visiting art galleries, the pretensions of other students.

The book is full of asides — Daniel offers up detailed portraits of the types of art students you’ll find, “person on the street” features where students answer questions such as “What’s the worst thing about art school?” for examples — and they give depth to the slightly generic plot (Daniel goes to art school! He meets a girl! He has self-doubt! He then finds his voice as an artist!). It was a wise choice on the part of Coe, letting Daniel’s inner life shine through in a playful way.

While Coe’s art does invoke a lot of the previous generation of indie-comics masters (you know who I’m talking about), he does shine with his ability to capture personalities through fashion and body language. His faces have a life of their own, revealing raw emotions clearly.

But the most striking part of Art Schooled is Coe’s inspired use of color and layout mark him as a distinctive talent. Greens compliment times when Daniel is smoking pot with his roommates, orange haze brings to mind the late-night glow of city streets. Tiny, multiple panels push fast-moving conversations and wide, page-filling images give space to smaller, quieter moments. Coe definitely understands the emotional language of comics.

As his first full-length graphic novel, Art Schooled announces Jamie Coe as an exciting talent. This book is fun. It will be even more fun to see what he does next.

(Coe will be Short Run in Seattle this weekend. I won’t be since I’m on the wrong side of the country and no one is paying to fly me out there.)

Review copy provided by publisher.

Briefly noted:
  • REM Pt. 1 by M.R. TrowerREM begins M.R. Trower’s dystopian sci-fi epic (I assume it’s going to be an epic, anyway). It’s one part Moebius, one part punk rock. Trower’s art is surreal and sensitive and the world feels fully developed. (You can catch up online but I just like print.)
  • Magical Beatdown Vo1. 1 & Vol. 1.5 by Jenn Woodall — Woodall takes the magical girl genre to its inevitable conclusion — super violence! — and the outcome could not be more delightful. Purposefully ridiculous and over-the-top, the swearing and the gore actually comes across as charming, and Woodall’s pastiche of manga tropes is fun. The two color printing (blue and hot pink) add nicely to the effect. I love this more than I should.
  • The Art of Cooking with Michelle, Chloe and Mia by Liz Brizzi — Liz Brizzi pointed me to her Kickstarter for her comic cook book. It looks super cute and I’m a huge fan of comics about food/recipe comics. There is about two weeks to go and she still needs about $5,000. She has a good selection of reasonably-priced rewards.

Movie Review: We Are the Best!

we-are-the-best

We first meet Bobo, sitting sullenly in the corner of her mom’s rambunctious 40th birthday party. Awkward and androgynous, she’s appealing and out of place. This is not a a world she wants to be a part of, but you immediately want to be a part of hers.

It’s 1982 in Sweden and everyone keeps telling Bobo that “punk is dead.” Bobo knows different. Punk isn’t a genre of music. It’s a feeling you have in your heart.

Lucas Moodysson’s We Are the Best!, based on his wife’s, Coco Moodysson, semi-autobiographical comic, Never Goodnight, is the punk-rock movie you didn’t know you wanted but absolutely needed. It’s one of the few movies that gives absolutely respect to the inner life of girls. There is nothing here that makes fun of them. They are treated as the absolute forces of nature that they are.

The reserved Bobo and her more antagonistic friend, Klara, decide to form a band on whim — mostly to show up a few jerky teenage boys that made fun of them. Despite not being able to play instruments (or know anything about music), they decide to write a song about how much they hate gym class. In the process, they befriend the talented but conservative Hedvig.
The three girls’ friendship is at the core of the movie. They are all open and sweet, and the three young actresses (Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin and Liv LeMoyne) bring a natural quality to their roles. Some scenes feel improvised and the chemistry between the three is a delight. Even when they come into conflict over boys (stupid boys!), it is such a minor part of their journey. The band is the most important thing! It’s so refreshing to see a movie that celebrates female friendship in such a way.
There is sweetness at the core of this movie — all three girls come from loving families. While Bobo’s parents are separated, they both still care about her. Klara’s family is wild but supportive and while Hedvig’s family is presented as being a bit more uptight, her mother just has her best interests at heart. The lack of conflict grounds the movie. The girls don’t really have much to rebel against, no, but that makes them feel real and honest. Maybe there are bigger problems than gym teachers, but these girls are fighting against what they know to fight against. I’d be excited to catch up with them in a few years.
This is a kind-hearted movie that shows the power of girls to change their worlds. I am not 13 but I still want to go start a band now. It’s never too late to be a punk.
This review was originally written for and posted at Unseen Films.

Review: Skandalon by Julie Maroh

skandalonHow does fame affect creativity and art? That seems to be the central question of Julie Maroh‘s Skandalon (2014, Arsenal Pulp Press). While I know it’s absolutely likely that Maroh started work on this book before Blue is the Warmest Color became an international success, it’s also hard not to see this book as a prescient answer to the pressures of being in the spotlight without really wanting it.

Skandalon focuses on a French rock star who goes by the name of Tazane. He’s talented, gorgeous and moody. He’s also a predator (sexual and otherwise) because he can be. He’s not a particularly likable lead, but he’s one that’s interesting to watch. Readers first meet him when he’s already famous so we don’t see where he came from (although there’s hints about it). Instead, we’re just witnesses to his fall.

While it’s highly allegorical, Maroh does her best to make it feel personal. While it’s hard to feel connected to Tazane himself, her use of color — dark reads, washed out greens, warm pinks, deep blues — to set tone and pace creates a beautiful, sensitive tone. Her panels look like individual paintings and give the story a dreamy quality. For a book about a rock star, there is an astonishing amount of silence in her art. Word balloons often feel like an intrusion as Maroh communicates her story through images alone. Her gift for taking the explicit expressiveness of manga and transforming it into her own style has only gotten stronger. If nothing else, Skandalon is an amazing book visually.

Unfortunately, the story falls short of where it should be. I admire what Maroh was reaching for and while I certainly don’t need to like the main character to enjoy a story, Tazane never quite grasped my empathy. Intellectually, I knew what Maroh was trying say, but I didn’t feel much about anything that happened to anyway toward the end. I missed the visceral, emotional core that Blue is the Warmest Color had. The story was more ambitious but obviously less personal for Maroh, and that shows.

Still, I’d rather see someone reach and fail than not reach at all. I admire that Maroh tried to explore these topics and she’s still a masterful artist. Even if I feel a bit mixed in the end on Skandalon, it still joins the company of books I will continue to think about and revisit. In that way, it’s nothing but a success.

Review: The Best American Comics 2014

best-american-2014I am not going to go into my thoughts on The Best American Comics  since I’ve already covered that pretty well (I flipped through but did not read either the 2012 or 2013 editions). They are what they are, honestly, and that’s more of a good thing than a bad thing.

Except this year, it’s only a good thing. The Best American Comics 2014 (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) is a masterful collection of where the medium of comics is right now. If you need a primer, this is it. If you just want to have all these amazing comics in one volume you can take with you, this is it. This has set the standard for what all the following The Best American Comics books need to be.

Under the guidance of new series editor Bill Kartalopoulos (who, among many other things he does, always puts together incredible programming for Small Press Expo), it does feel like the direction of what these books should be has changed. While I have no problem with what former series editors Matt Madden and Jessica Abel were doing, Kartalopoulos brings a curator’s eye to this collection, seeking out the new and the different, and wanting to highlight new creators alongside the legends. It all goes into a wonderful pool to choose from.

This year’s editor is Scott McCloud, and his background as a comics creator, teacher and thinker shows through. He is obviously excited about comics all the time and his enthusiasm shows through. He organizes the comics here into categories and provides context for each section. It gives the volume a structure and flow that has been lacking in previous ones. Even as much as I know about comics (and many of these creators), I found this to be insightful and informative.

Yes, you’ll still find most of the usual suspects here — the book starts selections from Jaime Hernandez, Charles Burns, Adrian Tomine and R. Crumb — but that’s dispensed with quickly (and wisely). Other than an extended look at Chris Ware’s Building Stories, the rest of the collection is full more recent legends and unknown creators — from Raina Telgmeier (it’s a delight to see Drama highlighted here) to Michael DeForge to Sam Alden (whose gorgeous Hawaii 1997 is included here).

Even crossover favorites like Brian K. Vaughan’s and Fiona Staple’s Saga and Brandon Graham’s Multiple Warheads get nods here. Instead of coming across as “I too like popular comics” on the part of McCloud, it feels more like “These are really great comics and I wanted to share them!”

Did anything surprise me here? I certainly loved that Allie Brosh’s “Depression Part II” is put with all these great comics because it deserves to be there. It’s fun to see an excerpt from Lale Westvind’s Hyperspeed to Nowhere #2 and selections from Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac in this book, too. I appreciate that McCloud didn’t shy away from including more experimental comics from Aidan Koch and Erin Curry.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve read most or none of these comics before. It doesn’t matter if you’re looking to discover new creators or just want to enjoy some old favorites. Whether you know nothing about comics or that’s all you read, The Best American Comics 2014 is for you.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Briefly noted:

I’m still going through my stack of comics from Small Press Expo (and the comics I bought afterward), but I just wanted to highlight a few I’ve read lately and have enjoyed.

  • Weird Me Vol. 1 by Kelly Phillips – Phillips tells her tale of her days managing a Weird Al fansite. It’s hilarious and sweet. Her art carries a good sense of setting and emotion and her page layouts are dynamic. I am looking forward to Vol. 2 way too much (in fact, after finishing this, I immediately went online to ask when it was going to be done.)
  • The Secret of Angel Food Cake by Hannah Lee Stockdale – I have read this comic way too many times and after I failed to see her at SPX, she kindly sent me the print version. There is just something so lovely and quiet about the storytelling. And I like the way Stockdale draws dogs. If you draw good dogs, I like your comics.
  • Hair by Matt Lubchansky – This minicomic is basically just a punchline you can guess from the beginning, but it’s still a good one. Lubchansky’s comic is funny and playful — characters are all wide-eyes and exaggerated movements — and things that could be horrifying just come across as silly. Also, great use of spot color.

Review: Tomboy by Liz Prince

tomboyChildren tend to get reduced to the simplest definitions: Girls like dresses and princesses and boys like trucks and sports. It doesn’t matter how true these things are or not — the pressure from parents and peers (and certainly, society) forces children into pretty narrow roles.

So what happens when you know early on you don’t fit into that?

Liz Prince reflects on growing up as a girl who always identified more with the boys in her sweetly hilarious graphic memoir Tomboy (Zest Books, 2014), taking down gender norms along the way and making her own, more interesting path.

It’s not necessarily a rare story: as a child, Prince shunned dresses and preferred The Real Ghostbusters to playing dress-up. But this caused problems on both sides — elementary school boys rejected girls on principle and Prince didn’t really relate to too many of the girls.

Along the way, Prince makes some friends (boys and girls!), joins Little League and Girl Scouts (she has range!), develops crushes on boys and has her heart-broken a few times. But through some kind and caring girls and women, Prince discovers zines and punk rock.

The book’s pace is episodic and heavy on playful anecdotes and asides about society and growing up, often addressing the reader directly. There are a few darker moments that deal with bullies and cruel friends, but the tone is light overall. Prince has an incredible ability to find honesty and humor in her own life and it shines through in the stories she’s telling.

Her loose, casual art has an airiness to it, like a cool friend telling a funny story in an effortless way. As deceptively simple as her style is, Prince is a master at conveying emotion, movement and places with a few lines. This book is full of life as she jumps from cartoonish sequences to silent, personal moments.

One of the most touching parts of Tomboy comes toward the end, where Prince reads Ariel Schrag’s Definition and says “For the first time I saw myself reflected in a book.” I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to imagine this book doing the same thing for some other girl. This may be Liz Prince’s specific story, but it’s one many of us can see ourselves in.

Copy of Tomboy provided by the publisher.