In Cold Blood : Daniel Clowes – “Ice Haven”

“You want to know why we did it? Because we damn well felt like doing it.”

In 1924, two seemingly well-adjusted young men from “good families” abducted and murdered a 14-year-old boy because they were convinced they were bright enough to get away with it. They were indeed bright, perhaps remarkably so, but Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb got caught almost immediately, their “perfect murder” botched in a way that would be laughably idiotic if the circumstances weren’t so horrifying. (To wit, Leopold dropped his custom-made glasses at the crime scene! D’oh!)

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The Crime of the Century long before O. J. Simpson, the Leopold and Loeb case is at the chilling core of Daniel Clowes’ “Ice Haven,” a “comic strip novel” about the small titular town, where a boy named David Goldberg has disappeared. Has he been done in by a local L&L admirer?

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If Lloyd Llewellyn , “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron,” and “David Boring” are, at least nominally, surreal mysteries, “Ice Haven” is more about what happens on the periphery of a mystery: David’s disappearance is an excuse to look at the lives of his family, his neighbors, his schoolmates – the surprisingly expansive circle of people touched by the loss of this most insignificant of lives, (and it’s no slight; David himself embraces his own insignificance with stoic pride.)

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Clowes, like most of his peers, is a child of the comic strip, and it’s in the Sunday Funnies format that “Ice Haven” unfolds; but although there are Schulz parodies here, (and “Nancy” and “Little Lulu” allusions and, heck, even nods to “The Flinstones”) these strips are mainly riffing on their own Daniel Clowes-ness.  That would be self-parody if “self-parody” didn’t usually suggest creative bankruptcy; to the contrary, there’s wealth in this slim volume. Think of it as Clowes’ illustrations for “Our Town” as inhabited by Nabokov characters. A listing of the novel’s wacky cast would read like a chapter index, and give too much away. Go saunter through “Ice Haven,” and meet its denizens. In the words of Random “Not Thornton” Wilder, (the town’s bespectacled, self-proclaimed bard): “It’s not as cold as it sounds.”

RATING: COOL! Perhaps too brief for MASTERPIECE!!!

P. S.:

“While prose tends toward pure ‘interiority,’ coming to life in the reader’s mind, and cinema gravitates toward the ‘exteriority’ of experiential spectacle, perhaps ‘comics,’ in its embrace of both the interiority of the written word and the physicality of image, more closely replicates the true nature of human consciousness and the struggle between private self-definition and corporeal ‘reality.’ ”

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4Koma Soma : Kiyohiko Azuma – “Azumanga Daioh”

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The Japanese comic strip proper, (the “yonkoma” or 4Koma) obeys rules that differ only slightly from the traditional American funnies, (in the Charles Schulz mode). We still have four gag panels, but stacked atop each other to conform to Japanese reading directions; typically (not always) the punchline is in the third panel and the fourth offers some reaction to the preceding twist, whereas American comic strips tend to shove the punchline and any reaction to it on the last panel.

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“Azumanga Daioh,” by Kiyohiko Azuma (who also created “Yotsuba&!”), is the 4Koma par excellence, tracking the progress of a group of girls through most of their high school years. The crew contains child prodigy Chiyo (she of the detachable ponytails); reckless Tomo and reasonable Yomi; country-bumpkin Osaka; athletic Kagura; and my personal favorite, Sakaki, who always tries to conceal her (unrequited) passion for pets. In dubious charge of their education are Miss Kurosawa and the wildly irresponsible Miss Tanizaki. The friendship between the characters is warm, even though it sometimes reveals itself through rivalry; if the designs are not too distinctive (non-alert readers might well lose track of who’s who) the charming, subtle humor makes up for it.

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ABOVE: Oh, Sakaki, when will you be loved?

Carry On, Campion : Margery Allingham – “The Crime at Black Dudley”

ABOVE: That is one hideous piece of architecture, made even more hideous by the shadow that can only be explained by the imminent arrival of a UFO.

Although they’re both detective mysteries, and the years of their production overlap, you wouldn’t want to wade in the gulf that separates the Albert Campion series by Margery Allingham and the Maigret series by Georges Simenon. That gulf gets dramatically deeper and much murkier on its French side.

But there’s some shallow, water-splashing fun to be had in the British shore. When Allingham created Albert Campion (a seemingly vapid Wodehouse escapee), she meant him only as comedy relief (and a red herring) in “The Crime of Black Dudley.” Popularity forced Campion to the foreground of 19 novels, which saw him evolving beyond the initial parody of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. Many of the novels were adapted for the British series from the late ’80s-early ’90s… You know, with Peter “5th Doctor Who” Davison! And with a jaunty theme song!.

ABOVE: Campion and his brilliantly named sidekick, Magersfontein Lugg.

“The Crime of Black Dudley” actually stars a certain George Abbershaw, a serious bore of a non-character. He’s invited to the titular dark castle where, after some Gothic nonsense, the guests become prisoners of a silly German villain who’s made to resemble one of those ever popular Beethoven busts, like the one Schroeder used to worship in Charles Schulz’ “Peanuts.” Here is where Albert Campion distinguishes himself, his inane patter masking a mercenaries’ efficiency. The novel loses steam at the two-thirds point, when the guests escape the castle, the villain is eliminated, and Campion exits the picture… but the novel persists on continuing, mistakenly assuming the reader cares.

Allingham can’t deliver one of those those intricate, satisfactory Agatha Christie puzzles, (few can), but “Black Dudley” is a charming enough whodunit, even if it’s done in by the obvious flaw: Campion is much more fun than the dull lead.

Call it “The Case of the Wrong Protagonist.”

RATING : COOL!

Tickled at Knife Point : Ivan Brunetti – “Schizo” #1-4

“A man should swallow a toad every morning, to be sure of not meeting with anything more disgusting in the day ahead.” – Nicolas Chamfort

The jester gives us the bad news about humanity upfront, and we laugh and have a better day for it. 

“I have chosen the path of the clown, cowardly court jester that I am. My work merely offers a brief respite from the horror of living. Reading the comics contained herein is not unlike having your feet tickled at knife point (…) “The mark of any great artist is his willingness and ability to say what everyone else is afraid to even think…”

So goes part of Ivan Brunetti‘s manifesto of sorts for “Schizo,” his classic misanthropic funnies, three issues of which were published between 1994-98. (The fourth issue, stylistically and thematically divergent, came out in 2006.) “Misanthropic” may be the wrong term. Misanthropy is an act of laziness, as Brunetti himself points out in his opening tirade, entitled

“Why Every Single Person in the World Could Be Instantaneously  Obliterated from the Face of the Planet, And I Wouldn’t Turn to Look, Even if There Were a Loud Noise,

Or

I Hate You. I Hate You ALL!”

Why is misanthropy lazy? Because to hate humanity unquestioningly is as absurd as it is to love humanity unquestioningly. Satire is not necessarily misanthropy. Misanthropy is hopeless. Satire offers some hope: it is there as a corrective. Satirists don’t necessarily hate humanity; they love it but are disappointed at its short-comings, sort of like a nagging spouse. (“Why won’t the world just take its trash out, like it’s supposed to do?”)

“I Hate You All” extends over many many pages of sheer flagellation, (self- and otherwise), as we track a cartoonish Ivan through a nightmarish urban landscape littered with syringes and severed penises. All the while, Ivan pessimistically monologues like a  Hamlet who’s read Schopenhauer, debating the nobility of suicide, the shortcomings of humanity, and the unresolvable conflict between nature and civilization. Sometimes he’s drawn naked and fetal, sometimes he’s dressed as Charlie Brown, throughout he’s abused by bullies of both sexes (a representative man wears a Lynyrd Skynyrd shirt; a representative woman throws a brick at his head while screaming: “All men are rapists!”) No matter what, his monologue goes on uninterrupted, its dissertative eloquence juxtaposed with the comically violent, deflating imagery.

The happy, well adjusted funny man is avis rara, and so Brunetti’s disgust fits in with the tradition of Robert Crumb, Harvey Pekar, Chris Ware, and specially Peter Bagge. But his vitriol can be exhausting, and so are Schizo 1-3 as little Ivan goes on hatin’ and hatin’ and hatin’.  Issue #4 is a different matter: Brunetti, (whose covers for the New Yorker really display his versatility) skews autobiographical rants for elliptical biographical anecdotes that touch on the Marx Brothers, Val Lewton, Piet Mondrian, Soren Kierkegaard, Erik Satie, Francoise Hardy, Louise Brooks and J. K. Huysmans ( no relation to Rowling.) Somehow we sense even more of Brunetti’s worries and concerns when he’s not (openly) discussing his life: the “oh god I suck let my misery end let sulphuric acid pour on this planet” rants of cartoon Ivan are, after all, just rants; the way Brunetti portrays the romantic failures of Mondrian or Kierkegaard are much closer to confessions.

But it’s really Charles Schulz that dictates a lot of the rhythms here. Brunetti is a vocal admirer and it’s rare the conversation that doesn’t make the link between the two artists, unlikely as it would seem.

ABOVE: Good grief

I’ve always felt that seventy percent of the Peanuts comics were missing that additional panel in which Charlie Brown attempts to blow his own head off, (and probably fails). Brunetti’s work is about getting us to that obvious place.

ABOVE: “Damn woman, ruining my killing razor!”

Still:

“I’m basically a positive person, I just don’t like admitting it to myself because every time I feel almost ok, life crams a fifteen-inch, AIDS-infested dick down my throat.”

RATING: For someone so badly adjusted, this COOL!