Funny Book Review Revue
by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel
Jonathan Ames is probably one of the funniest personal essayists alive, and his 2004 Wodehouse-humping novel Wake Up, Sir proves that he's probably one of the few real wits in the business today. You'd think this comic, loosely based on Ames's experiences as a hopeless alcoholic, would be painfully funny and honest, perhaps along the lines of Augusten Burroughs's Dry. But why is his script for The Alcoholic so bland?
Dean Haspiel is a very fine comic creator in his own right. His Billy Dogma comics are a bizarre commingling of Jack Kerouac and Jack Kirby, of romance and action. The Alcoholic marks Haspiel's second collaboration with a well-regarded writer—the first was the 2005 snoozefest The Quitter with Harvey Pekar—and the result is equally dull.
A well-written comic book takes full advantage of the blending of words and images. There's none of that here. "Jonathan A," an Ames look-alike, narrates much of the book while covered in sand underneath a pier, ostensibly hiding from the police after a particularly vicious bender. Unfortunately, Haspiel can't draw sand, so it looks as though Jonathan, like the plot of this book, has been stuck in a block of concrete. Haspiel's great strength—melding action with the cerebral—is entirely wasted by this talky bore of a script. There's no wit here, nor are there any compelling reasons to read the thing. The collaborators—especially Haspiel—would be well advised to stick to their solo work.
Edited by Lynda Barry
(Houghton Mifflin) $22.
The shocking thing about last year's Chris Ware–edited Best American Comics 2007 anthology was that it was bad. Ware, who had already edited one phenomenal comics anthology with McSweeney's Issue 13, turned in a collection of weird, abstract stories that didn't come anywhere near representing the best comics made last year. Critics speculated that the formalist Ware was overrepresenting the other end of the artistic spectrum for fear of being proclaimed biased.
Thankfully, Lynda Barry doesn't seem to have any such fears. Her selections—fiction and nonfiction from sources as varied as the New Yorker to handmade minicomics—are only alike in that they're each completely different from the other. Evan Larson tells a cartoony story about Cupid taking a holiday, Sarah Oleksyk shares a relationship she developed with a junkie who frequented her all-night copy shop, David Axe and Steve Olexa relay the terror of being an embedded reporter in Iraq.
Even the failures are interesting: An extended story by Lilli Carré called "The Thing About Madeline" is about a woman living a mundane life who is suddenly replaced by a doppelgänger. The story goes nowhere, and it doesn't find any new purchase on this well-traveled ground, but the impressionistic whorls and blue palette of the art make the aimless voyage a beautiful one. In the introduction, Barry explains the proper way to read comics: "For best results, it is good to read something twice so you can misunderstand it at least once." All of these stories can be enriched by rereading, and even the least exciting of them deserve that level of inspection. Thanks to Barry, future editors finally have a good example of what the Best American Comics series should look like.
by Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell
(Hill and Wang) $35.
by David Rees
(Soft Skull Press) $15.95.
One good, weirdly specific rule of thumb for comics creators: You can't fit more than 37 words into any given comic-book panel. Even one word more makes the panel look like a block of text with a tiny, unnecessary drawing crammed in.
The creators of the graphic-novel adaptation of the U.S. Constitution never heard this rule. Text is everywhere: great big imposing curtains of it, on every single page. The art, when you can see it through the holes in the dense script, is muddy and brown and flat. In addition, the book doesn't even come with a copy of the full text of the Constitution, forcing the reader to simply trust the author's interpretation. There's simply no reason for this book to exist, besides as a kind of Chick-tract porn for government wonks and Ron Paul fanatics.
Readers who are interested in learning about rights guaranteed in the Constitution (and their recent snuffing) are instead directed to the collection of the first seven years of Get Your War On, David Rees's weekly clip-art letters of outrage to the citizens of America. Singly, the cartoon has never done much for me, but it functions as a powerful indictment of the Bush administration when compiled into one giant omnibus. As an added bonus, a reader could keep a running, dated tally of civil liberties that have died in the days since September 11 in the margins of each page. The funny thing about GYWO is that, since the characters are all clip-art office drones, normal cartooning concerns, like plot and character development, simply don't apply, making the strip more like a series of one-liners. This enables Rees to break the 37-words-per-panel rule with impunity, and his fist-shaking anger still makes you care. It is the exception that proves the rule.