When I was a film student back in the late 1990s, easily three-quarters of my class decided that they were all Quentin Tarantinos, and an ongoing “joke” developed that every student film would feature at least one trench-coated man pointing a gun sideways at the camera, and one dead girl lying in a bathtub. That’s how you could tell that a story was sophisticated and adult, you see.
One of this week’s most intriguing new comic releases, Karmen, features at least one of those images, and it’s been long enough since I was numbed to the trope that I found myself unexpectedly affected by the sight of a gruesome, blood-spattered bathroom.
My eye was caught in general by some particularly dark titles this week (and thanks as always to Phoenix for the recommendations; support your local comics shop please). These are books that present tragedy and troubles in a way that feels far more genuine and mournful than 19-year-old Tarantino imitators whose greatest troubles in life are figuring out how to load celluloid into Bolex cameras.
Why does the sight of a body in a bathtub work in Karmen? Why do the dismemberments in Proctor Valley Road evoke real terror? Why did similar images fall so flat when repeated ad nauseam in film classes? I think it’s because these images are, fundamentally, troubling — not gleeful or fun, as edgy indie projects from the late '90s presented them.
A tormented young woman decides to take her life at the start of Karmen, a translation of Guillem March’s existential Belgian comic. As Catalina grips her bloodied body in a quite gruesome bathroom, a strange skeletal angel named Karmen appears to do a bit of therapy. Not that there’s any way to turn back what Catalina’s done, at this point, but maybe a reflection on her past mistakes — including the one that summoned Karmen — can prepare her to make some better choices where she’s heading. Which is… where, exactly? Issue #1 isn’t clear on that point, but it does hint that Karmen’s planning more than simply ferrying souls; she’s interested in giving them the tools to fix what’s broken. The art in this book is simply breathtaking. The Spanish city and its inhabitants are drawn with a woozy fisheye effect that’s dizzying and tense, even when the characters are sitting and talking. The translation is a bit more verbose than it needs to be (you may need a magnifying glass to comfortably read the tiny-fonted speech bubbles), but the art is the main attraction here; you can get the gist of Catalina’s pain and her hopelessness even if you skip the words.
It’s the 1970s, America is clearly a failed experiment, and four young women set off across the most haunted road in the country to see Janis Joplin. August, Rylee, Cora, and Jennie start their “Spook Tour” unafraid of what they suppose are imagined monsters — as do the hopeful heroes of so many horror stories — but soon encounter some particularly gory bloodbaths that force them to confront the demons that haunt America’s backroads. Some of those demons are literal monsters, while others are baked more metaphorically into the American experience: Racism, war, sexism, and the rotten threads in the country’s heart that readers know, in the aching pit of their stomachs, will continue their slow decay over the decades to follow. A tough but worthy read, made even tougher by the incongruously cute art — flip open to one of the tamer page and you might mistakenly think it’s an all-ages romp. Why is this book drawn so cute? I suppose some dangers look pleasant from the outside.
A cute premise: What if everything the right feared about antifa was actually true? Every weird conspiracy theory, extremist agenda, mysterious technology — it’s all here, all except the thing that antifa is actually about, which is opposing fascism. The Antifa Super-Soldier Cookbook is one of the most complete cataloguings I’ve seen of recent right-wing misinformation. At one point, for example, the comic shows protesters armed with futuristic bionic concrete-milkshake dispensers. The essential joke is that right-wing opposition to antifascism is ideologically (and also regular-logically) incoherent, and boy oh boy is that observation made from every conceivable angle. There’s some good laughs here, but gee whiz I don’t know why it needed to be 64 pages long; I found myself feeling a bit weary to retread the absurd conspiracy obsessions of the right. I’d probably enjoy the story a lot more if I wasn’t also despairing that these bonkers fantasies are only a hair’s width off from what many people — some in positions of power — really believe.
AND ALSO: SEX ED, NAUGHTY X-TEENS, AND COVID CHRONICLES
One of the most attractive new releases this week is Let’s Talk About It, the latest invaluable sexy resource from Portland’s Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan. “If sex ed was actually good” is how the book was described to me. It’s a super-comprehensive sex-positive guide to questions likely on the minds of young adults and teens. Children of the Atom will be required reading for X-Men fans keeping up-to-date with that whole twisted family; and the anthology Batman Urban Legends will be required reading for fans of the growling billionaire who stalks the night. And if you’re ready to reflect on the last year that we’ve lived through (I’m personally still trying to avoid thinking about it), consider Covid Chronicles, an anthology of stories about people affected by the pandemic. (Not to be confused with another anthology with the same name; that one was more big-picture than this more intimate book.)
But wait, there's more! Thor and Loki: Double Trouble is a fabulous and fun story that positions the two characters where they work best, as bickering mismatched brothers. Also great is the second installment of the Aster series — an action-adventure fantasy for young readers that is completely adorable on absolutely every page. And check out The Thud, an amazing and empathetic graphic novel based on a real-life town designed for people with developmental disabilities.