Bob's Comics Reviews April 2011 Arrows


Nick Bertozzi: The Salon

Here's the recipe for this book: Take the salon centered on Gertrude and Leo Stein in 1907, add in a murder mystery, and if that's not enough, the magical element that the drinking of absinthe actually allows one to enter into paintings.

The best introduction to this milieu is Gertrude Stein's own memoirs, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein for once drops her own incantatory experimentation for a readable and funny slab of gossip about herself and her friends in painting and literature. It's a great little book, which I've borrowed from myself.

Bertozzi's book doesn't have the extravagant cast of characters that Stein's does, though it does rack up quite a few. He treats them with a affectionate cartoonish touch: Leo is neurotic and foolish, Alice is a seductive vixen, Gertrude is formidable but melts in the presence of Alice, Picasso is impulsive and rude and mangles the language, Georges Braque is a big man-- good for the detective work-- and passionate about rethinking painting. The sections where he and Picasso argue and collaborate about capturing the essence of capturing perception in paint are a fascinating attempt to explain the genesis of cubism.

It'd be odd to write a story about modern art using a realistic style; Bertozzi instead uses a stylized, caricatured line. Almost all the panels are starkly colored, a mixture of one shade for the foreground figures and one for the background (more precisely each color appears in two shades). The absinthe explorations are imitations of the paintings involved.

The murder mystery itself is strongly reminiscent of Tardi's Les aventures extraordinaires d'Adèle Blanc-Sec: a dash of the occult, and a stolid detective in moustaches and bowler hats; the joke here is that detective hates the new art and prefers the Corot and the Academics.

All in all, it's fun and very different.

Brian Vaughan & Pia Guerra : Y: The Last Man
Suppose one day-- simultaneously-- every male mammal in the world drops dead... with the exception of one man, Yorick, and his pet monkey.

That's the high concept behind this series, and it always sounded... well, a little too obvious to me, like something that hatched inside a Hollywood exec's brain. But actually it's pretty good, largely due to Vaughan's quirky sense of humor.

That starts with Yorick, who to begin with is far from being heroic; in fact he's unusually dweeby and immature. Fortunately for him, his mother is a Congresswoman, and assigns a highly trained, highly badass agent, known only as 355, to take care of him. They meet up with Alison Mann, a cloning specialist who may have ideas on figuring out why he's still alive. The heart of the series is the relationship between these three, which is full of ironies: the man takes the damsel in distress role; he doesn't get to sleep with either of them; and there's nothing special about him-- the immunity from the plague was conferred on him by his monkey.

The Last Man (that's a fine title, I don't think the Y adds anything) is an interesting twist on the apocalypse genre: it's a half apocalypse. Half the population is dead, and regions vary in how well they deal with this. The US seems to fall apart entirely, and the three take literally years to get to the west coast; Japan, on the other hand, seems to be functioning pretty well. Israel has gone on a rampage, and indeed supplies the main villain, an amoral commando who wants to secure Yorick for her country.

The gender theme allows Vaughan to deal with various aspects of gender politics... for instance, he has another set of villains, the Amazons, who go so far as to cut off a breast (why?) in imitation of their namesakes, and whose man-hating seems to be all the more intense when their targets have disappeared. Quirky factoids provide hinges for interesting worldbuilding: e.g. only those nations which trained women in combat roles still have a strong military.

On the whole this nearly-male-free world is more violent than ours, which places him less with Sheri Tepper and more with Nicola Griffith on how nice a female-only society would be.

If this makes it sound heavy, it really isn't. It's basically an action adventure with a great alternative history, and at the center a growing-up story (and Yorick has a lot of growing up to do).

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