Review: ‘My Most Secret Desire’ by Julie Doucet

If Julie Doucet was a man, she would have a girlfriend with huge breasts. She would throw her down on the hood of a car and have her way with her. She would look similar to the woman version of herself, but with more of a V-shaped torso. She would zip up her pants and chuckle. Or maybe she would discover that she had grown a penis, and then shake her male member gleefully.

This is the sort of thing that crops up when the longtime cartoonist is asleep. The “If I was a man” premise creeps into her subconscious along with other super whacky dreamscapes in her collection My Most Secret Desire.

There is also the teeth-falling-out-of-the-mouth dream, the I’m-still-in-school dream, and the I’m-an-astronaut-dream. Each is told in this heavy-handed, darkly etched, highly detailed way that is dark and grisly and delicious. You wish you had dreams like this — meeting Micky Dolenz, for instance.

In another gender bender, she discovers that she has a penis and considers the usefulness of it. She can pop the top off of it and carry things inside of it. Magazines, a toothbrush, condoms. She can stick a flower through the hole at the top or use it as a third leg. She can harness it and pretend it’s a mustang.

One dream-within-a-dream finds her pregnant, sitting in the bathtub with her boyfriend. The child escapes through her stomach. She wakes, thinks that was weird, then proceeds to give birth to a cat that she breastfeeds in her bed.

Early in the collection she is an astronaut who is being sent into space. But first her mom stops by the space shuttle to deliver masturbation cookies. Julie strips down, tests them, breaks the fourth wall to smile at the reader.

This is some wicked stuff. Hilarious and detailed. Layered and interesting. A sort of R.Crumb if R. Crumb carried tampons. Julie Doucet seems to be that fantastic girl doodling dicks on her notebook.

This review was originally posted on June 24, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘The Alcoholic’ by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel

The answer to the age-old do I like him or do I lump him Jonathan Ames riddle is this: He is at his best when he is collaborating with someone else. Done. Signed. Sealed. Sent.

Now I just have to take a stand on Chelsea Handler, and my life will make a lot more sense.

Ames’ graphic novel-ish The Alcoholic is a words-by-Ames, visuals-by-Dean Haspiel story of a rapidly balding man named Jonathan A. and how he got to this moment: Emerging from a black-out drunk, in the backseat of a dirty car with a very old woman (and her cats) who wants to make sweet, sweet love with him. When policemen bust in on the scene, Jonathan A. takes off on a mad sprint through Asbury Park and ends up hiding out, buried in sand, beneath a boardwalk. Then comes the introspection.

He starts with his first pulls off the bottle as a high school student who spends weekends getting wrecked with his best friend Sal, all while deceiving his parents by getting good grades, getting into Yale, playing sports. Relations with Sal go south (Ha!) when they engage in some drunken bumbly fumbly one night and then vow to never speak of it again. “It’ll be better with girls,” Sal tells him.

Then Sal starts running with a new crowd and Jonathan mourns the loss. He graduates, his parents die together in a car accident, he lands in New York where he navigates the drinking life, the writing life, a misadventure as a writer in residence at a school with at least five randy coeds who want to tag-team him and, mostly, a relationship with a much younger woman that is first exhilarating and then IBS causing. This break up finds him staring at his telephone, leaving unanswered messages on her machine, weeping into his vodka, and boring his aunt — his only living relative and own personal wise old sage — with his tales of romantic torture. She eventually jolts him awake with the words “No one gets everything they want. That’s the way it is.”

He wakes up hung over on the morning of September 11, and here the story deviates into something new, both helping a widowed neighbor and simultaneously worrying about what will happen when he tries to donate his Cocaine-flavored blood. This part of the story is a strange digression that feels inset and doesn’t really jibe with the rest of the story so well. It also includes cameos from Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton — not at the same time.

In all of the ways Jonathan Ames has chosen to tell his life story — and there have been plenty including columns for alternative publications, essays, novels loosely based on his life and even his television show “Bored to Death” which is peppered with instances of autobiography.

Haspiel has plenty to do with this effectiveness of this graphic novel, sometimes humor-fused drama of addiction and loss and self-destruction. It’s black and white with purposeful shading that gives the book a real dark-side, rock bottom feel, with a touch of noir — specifically when it comes to the ladies. He’s also unflinching in the face of sexual positions, episodes of irritable bowel syndrome, and depicting the sort or morning after that includes a cab driver who sidelines as a drug dealer and Jonathan A.’s head lodged into a garbage can.

When he flies solo, Ames has a tendency to fall into the edgy pre-teen habit of hiding his writing talent behind shock jock-ery in a way that doesn’t seem as real as this, which is probably as close to his real life as anything else he does. The moments are still there: The Coke, the six-some, the soul-sucking moments of getting fired while wearing just a single shoe. But it’s tempered here and genuine. Hard to tell if it is maturity or making psychological space for Haspiel’s illustrations that makes this the most palatable thing he has done.

This review was originally posted on June 15, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘Cecil and Jordan in New York’ by Gabrielle Bell

Imagine a linear story. Now imagine cartoonist Gabrielle Bell studying it with her hands on her hips. She takes a giant scissors, the kind used by mayors at ribbon cutting ceremonies, and makes two incisions into the tale. A snip here, a snip there. What’s left is a short story without context, unfettered by fatty back story and neat closing statements. Like walking into the middle of a conversation and then leaving before it ends — or before being told, for instance, it was all just a dream.

Cecil and Jordan in New York is a collection of graphic novel style short stories by Bell. It’s a mix of real low-impact slices of life, twisted tales in which a woman transforms herself into a chair or a giant man plucks a woman out of thin air and keeps her in a cage in his home, eventually filling it with a pet and a friend, an artistic re-telling of a Kate Chopin story, and seemingly autobiographical coming-of-age stories.

This review was originally posted on June 12, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

These stories are all told in the same steady no-panic voice — whether a woman is getting a potty-mouth bird caught in her hair or an artist is tutoring another artist’s neglected young son. At the center of these stories is usually a woman who stands unblinking in the face of the absurd or cruel, almost aware that in three panels things might change again.

The best of the collection is “Felix.” It opens with an art class in which an instructor is talking about negative space. When he lands on Anna’s painting of a nude woman with her feet in water, he describes it as “… Everything I dislike in painting.”

A visiting professional artist’s young son, Felix, digs Anna’s work, though, so the professional — who can pull in a cool million for an egg-shaped sculpture, hires her to help the kid make art. Anna’s unsure how to respond to a 12-year-old boy, so she lets him tag along while she works with a nude model. They work on flower arrangements. In his spare time, Felix works up portraits of Anna, which he stashes under his mattress. Things get wonky when Felix overhears his arty father telling Anna about how neither he nor his ex-wife wanted a child.

Gabrielle Bell is my favorite of favorite graphic novelists. Her brain lacks boundaries and you get the sense that she can get real weird with herself. The ordinary moments slant to wonky digressions. Then, like in the case of “I Feel Nothing,” the sort of bizarre encounter between a morning drinker who owns a trendy bar and the normal friendly girl downstairs, everything just goes back to normal.

Review: ‘Ghost World’ by Daniel Clowes

I just stopped hating Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel Ghost World like 7 minutes ago. Literally. I’ve had a long history of hating the listless bitches Enid and Rebecca and their ironic diner hopping, misfit hounding, and personality contriving. But it just went away. Like a decade-old hate fever that finally broke.

Fact: My boyfriend and I rarely fight. So rarely that I can remember that we did have a fight in 2007 while watching the movie “Ghost World” about how much I hate the movie “Ghost World.” It was a lot of me ranting, not unlike Enid, and him confused at my outburst.
Other fact: I was drunk.

When a person decides to pull up a chair up to the whole graphic novels table, and when a person explains that this new interest probably won’t include books with Super Werewolves and Masked Crusaders, people already at the table will recommend Ghost World. If a person adds a few graphic novels to her Amazon Wish List, Amazon will recommend Ghost World. It is, apparently, part of the canon. It might be the most readily available of graphic novels.

I got about a quarter of the way into Ghost World about two weeks ago, sighing and eye rolling all while getting really stoked about finally reading something I hate. I could really get in there and hate it super hard all over the internet. It’s been far too long. I’ve been cursed by a steady stream of three-star or better book picks. Blerg. Boring.

I set Ghost World aside for whatever reason and when I picked it up again I started at the beginning. And … nothing. No throbbing forehead veins. My blood didn’t simmer. No eye rolling. I thought about Enid, her ever-changing hair and style statements, following people she believes are satanists around the grocery store to see what satanists eat and having a snarky comment and mean-spirited nickname about every person who falls into her field of vision.

Nothing. In fact, I laughed.

The story is mini chapters in the life of best friends Enid and Rebecca. They’re droll and bored and boring and they sprawl on beds and talk and bitch about models in magazines and they go to diners and make up stories about the other regulars. Sometimes they wander around and do stuff. But mostly they’re in this limbo between high school and college and so close they wonder if its healthy. They abuse the pushover guy friend. They dream of walking into a sex shop and looking around. At one point Enid really gets into the cartoonist Daniel Clowes. (Okay, that’s still annoying).

Don’t get me wrong. Enid and Rebecca are still unlikable little snots I’m glad I didn’t sit next to in homeroom. But there are some truly great scenes. Enid tries to muster some romantic nighttime feelings for a teacher, testing and ditching out on different scenarios in her head when she’s in bed — including one that finds him fully clothed in the shower with her — before finally falling asleep without consummating the sexy visual. Or, during a conversation about a guy Enid and Rebecca know who is totally into politics, Enid apes a conversation with him:

“Yeah Jason, ever since you stopped eating meat and bathing and started doing grafitti and fucking up ATM machines, the world has become a way better place.”

So I stand corrected. Ghost World isn’t terrible. It certainly isn’t anything to fight about.

This review was originally posted on June 3, 2011 on Minnesota Reads.

Review: ‘The Night Bookmobile’ by Audrey Niffenegger

Audrey Niffenegger has a good thing going on with her lobes. In her graphic novel The Night Bookmobile — which walks like a children’s book, but certainly doesn’t talk like one, Alexandra goes out for a stroll in the streets of Chicago in the middle of the night. She has recently fought with her boyfriend Richard, a ponytailed lover with no time for make believe. She finds a bookmobile blasting Bob Marley and gives the driver a little peek as she walks past.

Robert Openshaw greets her, invites her inside. So many books and she’s read all of them. Paul Auster and Betty Crocker and, gasp, her own diary from childhood. Openshaw hustles her out the door when the sun comes up.

Back home with Richard, she is distracted. He doesn’t believe her story. He breaks the fourth wall with a snarky look at the reader and says “See what I have to deal with here?” She continues to spend her nights searching for the bookmobile — to the point where Richard thinks she is carrying on with another dude. She doesn’t quite dispute that. This magical camper and its rock and roll soundtrack get her full attention.

She returns to the bookmobile a couple more times, more aisles and more books with each visit, always reluctant to leave and damn-near clawing at Openshaw’s pant leg and begging for a job that he can’t give her.

Like The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, Niffenegger has again blurred the lines between natural and supernatural. Her authorial “what ifs” aren’t subject to gravity, which is a pleasure to read. Art-wise, she is more grounded in realism. No dreamy swirls or puffs or anything else to suggest that this is fantastical.

This book is totally a treat and undoubtedly has readers considering their own night bookmobiles: The Judy Blume and Christopher Pike. Veganomicon and issues of Sassy magazine. A barely freshly cracked copy of Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story, the complete works of Chuck Palahniuk, Japanese crime fiction and even this book.

This review was posted on Minnesota Reads on March 19, 2011.

Review: ‘Asterios Polyp’ by David Mazzucchelli

You just like assholes, my boyfriend tells me.

I don’t think this is universally true. But it is probably pretty true when it comes to fiction, and certainly true in the case of that blow hard who is the title character in David Mazzucchelli’s graphic novel, Asterios Polyp.

The story opens with the debt-riddled sad sack’s Manhattan apartment on fire. AP grabs the three things he considers worth saving — a lighter, a pocket knife, and a watch — and ditches out for a new life. He holds up a wad of cash at a ticket window and says “How far would this take me?”

Answer: Small town, USA. A place where mechanics mate with hippies, treehouses are constructed, and picnic food is eaten on the banks of a vast earth dimple.

The story is told in past and present with digressions on duality, philosophy, politics, religion. Asterios Polyp is an idea man — so much so that although he is an award-winning architect, none of his plans have come to fruition. His twin brother never saw the light at the end of the uterus, and presents an invisible presence filled with “What ifs” in AP’s life. In its most charming moments, AP is holding court at a faculty dinner party and making hilarious dick jokes when he becomes interested in a quiet new art professor, Hana, who specializes in installations with found objects. She’s drawn by the spotlight that focuses on his angular face. Thus begins one of those romances where the thing that initially attracts people to each other grows into a caricature of itself and becomes the things a couple loathes about each other. They end up parting.

In the small town, AP takes a job working with a hearty mechanic who is married to this spiritual hippie sort, and it must be in this place where things change for AP. His ego takes a back seat and he passes off all but one of his three prized possessions. He talks less, listens more, and continues on the road to Most Improved Protagonist.

Anyway, the outlining the plot makes the whole thing sound like a sort of Lifetime Original Movie where everyone learns a thing or two about love. But it’s charming. Funny. Smart and clever. And the drawings are fantastic. Each character’s stylistically different, right down to style of script that comes out of their talk bubbles. In some moments the colors overlap, in others AP fades to dotted lines and more of the suggestion of a character than a physical presence. And it’s all color coded to represent the characters and to differentiate the past and present.

I think I read this entire story with a smile on my face. Including its what-the-hell finale.

This review was posted on Minnesota Reads on February 21, 2011.

Review: ‘Blankets’ by Craig Thompson

In the days after reading the entire Scott Pilgrim series, I, like many people who went nutso for the scatter-brained Canuck in ironic T’s, suffered something like the delirium tremens.

I’m a total tourist in this graphic novel genre, and wouldn’t know where to begin to look for more like it. Everyone from iO9 to geeky friends recommended Craig Thompson’s Blankets as a sort of graphic novel-flavored methadone. And while it was great and charming and I spent large chunks of the 582-page illustrated novel smiling, it just didn’t have the level of “great” and “charming” that I found with Bryan Lee O’Malley’s six-book parade of Ramona Flowers’ evil exes. In fact, if I’d read this first, I probably wouldn’t have bothered ever reading a graphic novel ever again.

Okay. I get that comparing Scott Pilgrim to Blankets is like comparing The Ramones to Bjork. But what I was looking for was a similar level of satisfaction. Becoming entranced.

This one stars Craig, a young Wisconsinite with superstrict, religious parents, who shares a bed with his younger brother Phil. He gets his ass kicked at school; Diddled by the babysitter at home. He finds respite in dreams, drawing, and snow games. Even among the grunts at church camp, he struggles to find friends. Until he discovers a pack of misfits who have banded together. This group includes Raina.

Raina is this beautiful character, from the soft lines, delicate fingers and soft pout she is rendered in, to the way she is holding together her family. Her parents are on the cusp of divorce. The loving way she handles her special needs siblings, and her baby niece. The way she maturely recognizes that she doesn’t want a life like her older sister with a baboon of a husband and skewed priorities. After camp, love letters and phone calls, Craig goes to stay with her family in Michigan for two weeks and they fall into a swirling version of young love. They stare the sky. They cuddle. They write and paint together. They play house. But there are also moments when Raina pulls back and questions the “why bother” of a relationship with someone who lives eight hours away.

I’m just going to put this out there: dude there is a lot of bible in these here pages. Instead of feeling like I was reading one man’s coming-of-age through the filter of religious fundamentalism, I sometimes felt like I was reading light tracts from Jack Chick. And I get that he is laying the ground work for how he went from point A ( high school student considering the ministry) to Point B (adult with no religious affiliation, who masks this from his family by saying he hasn’t found the right church). But the dark lines, panel after panel of bible verses, and scenes featuring heavenly and hellish creatures were a bit much.

It is also overwrought, with metaphors about blankets and trees and the sky. Scrawled poetry that has the embarrassing feel of a teenager’s puppy journal.

“I studied her,” he writes after they strip down to their skivvies and roll around in Raina’s bed. “Aware that she had been crafted by a divine artist. Sacred, perfect and unknowable. And with reverence, I covered her body with the quilted blanket she had made me.”

And then he wanders back to the guest room to stare at Jesus’ portrait on the wall.

I feel like a dick for not liking this book more. It’s certainly something that is relate-able, considering the Midwest setting, and all-consuming young love. The familial relationships, and Raina singing a Cure song in bed. That this is a memoir-y novel type thing, that religion shaped who he was socially and sexually as a teen. A disinterest in the foundation of the plot represents a taste preference, of course. I guess if I’d done my homework better, I wouldn’t be dissing this book. I just wouldn’t have been interested in it to start with, and so I wouldn’t have read it.

Review was originally posted at Minnesota Reads on September 5, 2010.