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.

Library Con at Petworth Neighborhood Library & Comics by Women

library-conYesterday, I was a speaker at Library Con at the Petworth Neighborhood Library. It was a small, mostly family-oriented event but well-organized and fun. I am always going to be a fan of events that make comics — of all genres and styles — more accessible to more people.

I first saw Jacob Mazer of Animal Kingdom Publishing discuss his work and the anthology of comics, prose, poetry and criticism he edits. It’s still a young publication, but I definitely think there’s room in the world for more things like this, allowing comics to reach audiences they may not otherwise. Not everything in the second issue is to my tastes, but there is some thought-provoking work in it.

Then I saw Gareth Hinds, whose adaptation of Romeo and Juliet came out last year. He talked about always loving to draw as a child and comics ended up coming naturally to him. He worked in video games for a long time before quitting to create graphic novels full-time. He broke down his process for each book and I was interested to hear he changes techniques and styles for each specific book. He also spoke about the challenges of adapting classic literature.

After that, it was my turn. I talked about comics by women (what else?) and I think it went well for it being such a big topic. My concept was not to give history but offer up titles that people can buy right now. I had a good discussion with the attendees too.

You can download my PowerPoint presentation or a PDF of it, but I’ve also created a list of the creators and titles I discussed below (with links to their websites where appropriate).

I have reviewed some of these books and written more about some of these creators. You should be able to find what you need through the tags.

History/background

 lumberjanesMainstream: Superheroes

Mainstream: Sci-fi/Fantasy

Children and Young Adult Comics

marblesAutobiographical

Manga

  • Kyoko Okazaki: Pink, Helter Skelter
  • Moto Hagio: A Drunken Dream, The Heart of Thomas
  • Takako Shimura: Wandering Son
  • Moyoco Anno: In Clothes Called Fat, Insufficient Direction

UK, Europe and Around the World

  • Mary Talbot: The Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, Sally Heathcoate: Suffragette
  • Isabel Greenberg: Encyclopedia of Early Earth
  • Julie Maroh: Blue is the Warmest Color
  • Marguerite Abouet: Aya series
  • Rutu Modan: Exit Wounds, The Property

strong-femaleOnline comics

Minicomics & cutting-edge creators

Through the WoodsPublishers, groups and events

Top Picks of Comics by Women for 2014