'Story of Lee,' 'Bookmobile' have warm, offbeat charm

By Andrew A. Smith

Scripps Howard News Service

 

March 8, 2011 -- Maybe I’m just a sap, but two new graphic novels made me feel warm and fuzzy this week.

 

The Story of Lee (NBM, $11.99) is a shojo (romance) manga about a Hong Kong girl and a Scottish boy stumbling over language barriers, family complications and cultural roadblocks on the way to maybe, possibly, could-be love. Do they get together? Will they? Can they? It doesn’t seem possible throughout, and – without spoiling the end – there’s definitely room for a sequel.

 

As novel as this situation might be for readers, it’s oddly familiar territory for the creators. Writer Sean Michael Wilson is a Scot living in Japan, and artist Chie Kutsuwada is a Japanese living in London. Their familiarity with the turf wars gives this unpretentious East-meets-West, boy-meets girl story an easy, breezy sense of verisimilitude.

 

And, OK, Lee and her Western boyfriend Matt make a cute couple. There, I said it.

 

Meanwhile, the warmth of Abram ComicArts’ The Night Bookmobile ($19.95) is chilled a bit by the suggestion that the joy of reading is a mixed blessing.

 

The van of the title is one found by a young woman named Alexandra as she takes a late-night walk in Chicago after a fight with her boyfriend. Within the bookmobile she finds, amazingly, every book she has ever read, including her childhood diary. The dreamlike nature of this treasure trove is accentuated by the heroine’s inability to find the bookmobile when she seeks it – instead, it appears when she least expects it, according to its own obscure rules.

 

This celebration of the written word has a dark side, though, as Alexi becomes obsessed with finding the bookmobile, and perhaps becoming a night bookmobile librarian herself. The current custodian hints darkly at the price one must pay to do so, which ratchets up the anxiety as the years pass and an anxious and lonely Alexi races to her goal.

 

Written and drawn by Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife), The Night Bookmobile is a short story illuminating the wonderful and terrible seduction of the written word. As Neil Gaiman says in a foreword, it’s “a cautionary fantasia for anyone who loves books.” And, like The Story of Lee, it practically cries out to be a series.

 

REPRINT ROUNDUP

 

* I thought I was familiar with most of Marvel’s superheroes back when it was called Timely in the 1940s, so I was surprised when Marvel revived a dozen of them in a 2008 maxiseries called The Twelve, and several were strangers. Now that I’ve read Marvel Masterworks: Golden Age Mystic Comics Volume 1 ($59.99), I’ve discovered where characters like Dynamic Man and Mastermind Excello came from – and why they are deservingly obscure.

 

Most comics from the 1940s are pretty amateurish, but some had a rough charm and an infectious enthusiasm. Not so the substandard Mystic Comics, produced primarily by the second-rate Harry “A” Chesler Studio. Mystic never produced a legitimate star, and you can see why from this Masterworks, which collects the first four issues. It is unadulterated drek.

 

* A British publisher named Rebellion has embarked on reprinting in chronological order the adventures of perhaps the most famous British comic-book character. However, I have to say the first two volumes of Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files ($19.99 each) aren’t for everyone.

 

That’s probably because “Judge Dredd” never seemed to know what it was. Sometimes it was straightforward adventure fiction, other times it was a parody of adventure fiction. As a reader, I was never quite sure whether I should laugh or not. And given that “Dredd” was originally published in five-page increments (in the weekly 2000 AD anthology), most stories weren’t long enough to find out. And Dredd the character is rigidly one-dimensional, which – while presumably part of the joke – is boring in large doses.

 

These books do contain two of Dredd’s longest and most famous adventures (“Luna One” and “Cursed Earth”), plus the story of Dredd’s clone Judge Rico, which was the basis for the ill-fated Sylvester Stallone movie. The longer serials give the writers room to flourish, but the art is wildly uneven – especially since artists can change every five pages!

 

It is interesting to see the superhero genre through a British lens, where the benign authoritarianism that is the subtext of American costumed heroes is exaggerated and ridiculed. But that alone may not be enough to sustain interest for the casual reader through these 300-page, B&W behemoths.

 

Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

Views: 258

Comment by Cavaliere (moderator emeritus) on March 11, 2011 at 11:27pm
Maybe Goodman didn't like the alliteration. Stan sure would have.
Comment by PowerBook Pete, the Mad Mod on March 12, 2011 at 12:09pm
"Mystic Mystery" is redundant?
Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on March 14, 2011 at 8:47am
That would be my guess.
Comment by Mike Williams on March 14, 2011 at 11:30am

I'm guessing the Dredd collection is also missing the Jolly Green Giant sequence from Cursed Earth as well, for very similar reasons.

To be fair, Dredd only really started finding its feet with that arc, as Mike McMahon drew most of the sequence.  The second collection, which should include Judge Caligula, sees Bolland coming on board as the main artist, which is when it really started going places.

Comment by Captain Comics on March 15, 2011 at 3:16am

I want to hear more about Dredd, and I hope you'll provide the perspective, Mike. I'm an AMERICAN, which means I don't know anything, but think I know everything. So I appreciate any guidance you can provide.

 

And Feargal has also promised some info about Dredd, but I don't see him yet. (Hint.)

Comment by George on March 15, 2011 at 4:13am

"The second collection, which should include Judge Caligula, sees Bolland coming on board as the main artist, which is when it really started going places."

 

Bolland's art makes these comics a feast for the eyes. Maybe I should give Dredd another chance.

Comment by Figserello on March 16, 2011 at 7:19am

As a onetime proud Squax Dek Thargo, I have to report that you've kind of missed the point of Dredd's greatness.

 

It's funny to see you put your finger on each of those points above, but interpret them as negatives rather than the reasons why Dredd built such a loyal following, and became something of an insititution.

 

That’s probably because “Judge Dredd” never seemed to know what it was. Sometimes it was straightforward adventure fiction, other times it was a parody of adventure fiction.

 

This was central to what Dredd - the comic strip - became.  In Dredd they found a storytelling tool that could be used to tell both those kinds of stories you mention as well as parodies of modern life, cautionary fables of where society might be going, pastiches of Hollywood greats, and heartfelt studies of wasted lives, amongst other things.  Judge Dredd the strip is really an anthology series.  Dredd himself is the fixed point around which all the craziness spins, and Mega City society is so extreme and lunatic that the reader needs something simple and stable at the centre.

 

This also addresses you other comment:

 

And Dredd the character is rigidly one-dimensional, which – while presumably part of the joke – is boring in large doses.

 

Perhaps you have read these stories expecting a superhero-style narrative.  Dredd really doesn't grow or change, at least not for the first 15 years or so.  This turned out to be a very wise move on the creators' part, as he doesn't have to make u-turns and become stupid again after learning his life-lessons, the way superheroes have to.  (Judge Dredd stories have happened in real time btw, which makes Joe a real gnarly old b*s&a%d by now!)

 

We didn't really read Dredd to see the character grow and change.  Dredd is the mesmeric authority figure we all fear, hate and sorta need to give us boundaries.  There are whole theses to be written on him.  The wonderful Pat Mills, who had a large hand in his creation, wanted him to be a villain, representing the oppressive power of a fascist state, but was dismayed to see that the readership developed a respect and fondness for ol stoneface.  It says something not too gratifying about human nature...

 

As a reader an American, I was never quite sure whether I should laugh or not.

 

Fixed that for you!!  :-P

 

Seriously, practically every frame of Dredd was dripping with the blackest of humour (with two 'u's).  Most of the stories exist right on the line desperate lives tread between tragedy and farce.  From the get-go, Dredd's brand of justice is way too blunt an instrument to deal with the complicated messy lives of the vulnerable nobodies of our future cities.  It's overkill and everything follows from that.

 

And Dredd's usual stoic one-dimensionality meant that the handful of times he did show any emotion or humanity were incredibly effective.

 

It is interesting to see the superhero genre through a British lens, where the benign authoritarianism that is the subtext of American costumed heroes is exaggerated and ridiculed.

 

There might be something in this, but I'd see the comparison with US superheroes more in the wider societies that threw up these two very different approaches to boys sci-fi adventure stories.  Superheroes are fundamentally a product of a society that is (was?) positive, forward-looking and idealistic.  Dredd is a product of an old-world country that thinks of its best days behind it, and has seen folly and stupidity played out too often and repeatedly on its historical stage to have too many illusions about the perfectability of man.

 

Europeans also feel that where the US goes today, we will all follow in the coming decades, so Dredd is also a gape in horror at many aspects of US culture.

 

But the tales of Mega City One are as much about the aimless, meaningless lives of its citizens, as about Dredd.  Wagner and Grant, who gave us most of the early classic Dredd, were from the working class parts of Glasgow, in Scotland, where unemployment and its social ills were rife.  Judge Dredd is as much about life in Thatcher's Glasgow as it is a gobsmacked view across the Atlantic.

 

The longer serials give the writers room to flourish, but the art is wildly uneven – especially since artists can change every five pages!

 

2000Ad trained its readers to appreciate wildly divergent, highly individualistic artwork from week to week and story to story.  Most 2000AD stories depended on a signature artist to give it its flavour.  That Dredd could be the marquee story in 2000AD and still be drawn in such different styles practically every week, tells you something about the strength of the concept.  McMahon, Esquerra, Bolland etc are all top drawer practitioners of their craft.  The changing styles may be jarring in a long story, but who can complain about any of them on the page in front of you?

 

And given that “Dredd” was originally published in five-page increments (in the weekly 2000 AD anthology), most stories weren’t long enough to find out.

 

Some of these stories are masterpieces of brevity, I'd have thought.  Sometimes they got a whole life into those 5 pages.  (literally so, in the case of Adrian Cockroach, aged 13 3/4 - days)  The 5-page done-in-one is the comics equivalent of the 14-line sonnet.

 

Of course, if the stories now read the way you say they do to a new reader, then I can't gainsay it. However, I'd have thought that the incredible creativity of bringing this nightmarish future world to life, the gutsy groundbreaking artwork and that wonderful black humour would outweigh any negatives.

 

As stated above, Dredd took some time finding its feet, as most good long-running strips do.  The Block Wars, and the (awesome) Apocolypse War are in the future books as well as perhaps the Angel Gang if they haven't appeared yet.  Dredd gets a lot better after the first 600 pages!

 

Comment by Captain Comics on March 16, 2011 at 12:58pm

Thanks for the analysis, Figs. As always, I'll try to understand what others enjoy and apply it to my own approach, so I can enjoy it, too. This will be a big help.

 

For the record, I'm not a completely new reader. Decades ago someone produced Dredd collections (Titan?), so I've read some of this material before, as well as some later work. For example, I've read at least two Judge Death stories, which aren't found in the first two collections, and I remember Psi-Judge Anderson (vividly!), who we've yet to meet in the first 600 pages. "Block Wars" and "Angel Gang" sound vaguely familiar too.

 

And I may have been spoiled a bit by those earlier readings, which were mostly by the incomparable Bolling. Esquerra is OK, but Bolling is in another league. And those later stories seemed to have found their footing more than the early ones, too, in that the black humor was much more pointed (and therefore recognizable as such) and Mega City One was indeed a madhouse that you can understand was so (humorously) ungovernable that some kind a wacko far-right response -- like the judge system -- was the likely, if unfortunate, response. In these earlier stories, by contrast, Mega City One seems fairly normal (albeit gigantic), and the citizens just ordinary victims of a fascist state, which is depressing reading.

 

And some of it I simply find unconvincing. Mega-City One is located exactly where an enemy would drop atomic bombs, but "cursed earth" is located where nobody would bother. In other words, whatever nuclear enemy destroyed much of North America opted to bomb Kansas and North Dakota but leave New York, Washington, Boston and Miami alone. And I am completely unconvinced that a hard-liner like Dredd would take Spikes Harvey Rotten on a mission ("Cursed Earth"), whatever his qualifications.  And what was I supposed to make of Fergie? Are we making fun of retarded people now?

 

As I said, the later stories were much more pointed in their social parody, and usually made fun of authority figures, where I could easily join in on the joke. In these earlier tales, I often felt uncomfortable laughing at stuff that seemed to paint Dredd as a sort of Nazi hero, or made fun of unfortunates like Fergie.

Comment by Figserello on March 16, 2011 at 5:14pm

My analysis might have been more focused on when the strip got into its stride and it settled into its most popular era.  I read most of the early Dredd after I'd read the 'Golden Age' stuff of 1980-85, so I would have read it more in that context.

 

Esquerra's art develops too, until he draws virtually the iconic Dredd by the time Apocalypse War comes around.

 

Dredd has always been problematic as 'a sort of Nazi hero'.  There's no way around it.

 

And what was I supposed to make of Fergie? Are we making fun of retarded people now?

Well, not so much 'now' so much as in 1979!  We're not supposed to question political incorrectness in earlier decades, apparently...

 

It has been almost 2 decades since I read early Dredd, so I'd like to have a look at it now, to see how it stands on its own merits.

 

I never thought about The Cursed Earth before.  Good observation.  I just loved how charged and 'biblical' the concept was.  Does it say it was a result of nuclear war?  Or just nuclear power plants exploding and other ecological disasters?  I know it is thoroughly irradiated!

Comment by Mike Williams on March 18, 2011 at 4:37am

I think to understand Dredd in those early days, you need to bear in mind his one-line concept - Dirty Harry in the future.  When you get that, then a lot of his attitude and the way he deals with perps can make a bit more sense.  At any rate, he does grow and develop over time as you learn more of his history, and the world he lives in.

 

You're also right that the humour comes through a lot more in later stories - as does the research.  When I read Judge Caligula for the first time, for example, I had just watched the definitive I Claudius with Derek Jacobi and John Hurt as Caligula, and I got the references instantly.  Others may not.

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