It’s time once again for Not By Manga Alone! This month Megan tackles cyberpunk, graphic memoir, and vampire comics.
Vampires, it turns out, are easier than people.
The Strain | David Lapham, Mike Huddleston and Dan Jackson | Dark Horse Comics — When the preview for issue five showed up in my inbox, I thought it would be a good time to get caught up with this eight issue mini.
A plane touches down at JFK Airport. It goes silent. Lockdown. HAZMAT and CDC teams investigate: all but three of the passengers are dead, and it’s not immediately apparent how they died. So begins a vampire outbreak that will sweep the world within two months. The tagline reads: “They have always been here. Vampires. In secret and in darkness. Waiting. Now their time has come. In one week, Manhatten will be gone. In one month, the country. In two months, the world.” It’s a tall order and The Strain, so far, manages to live up to that ominous promise, at least in terms of tension and creeping dread.
The Strain is a graphic adaptation of the Guillermo Del Toro vampire novel of the same name. The novel received mixed reviews, but still managed to achieve best-seller status. Two sequels followed, and achieved similarly impressive sales. Many of the problems commonly cited in reviews of the series–directionless interiority, a wandering plot, occasionally cliche and lifeless prose–are solved by way of a change of medium.
Gone are any issues with prose and character voice–Lapham’s workmanlike script keeps the action moving forward, and doesn’t dwell on any of the large cast’s individual angst. The art too, is efficient and unshowy: focused on delivering information and plot points quickly and cleanly. Huddleston doesn’t try to ape the horror comics masters. That’s both a strength and weakness for The Strain. Tension is built up primarily through the unfolding mystery of the plane and outbreak; the script doesn’t lean on the art to create atmosphere and is perhaps stronger for it. On the other hand, I sometimes found myself aching for some Mignola inks, or Templesmith shadows. Huddleston is at his best when he’s doing crowded rooms or cityscapes; empty skies seem to be a problem for him–they lack character or emotion. Give him a panel full of things though, and his pencils really come to life.
Despite the scientific trappings of the CDC investigation, The Strain’s sensibility is distinctly old school. The vampires here are more Nosferatu than Twilight: they travel by coffin in the soil of their homeland, and they’re devoid of human sexuality, existing only to consume. By the midpoint of the mini, we’ve met two kinds of monsters, and a third has been hinted at. Vampires who survive initial infection maintain–at least for at time–their intelligence and some personality. Vampires who ‘die’ and then revive, once the infection has run its course, have a bit of ghoul in them. There’s a third kind that has yet to have any page time, although it’s been hinted at: master vampires who jump from body to body, operating with fierce, malevolent intelligence. It’s this last kind who is introduced in The Strain’s fairy-tale prologue. It’s this kind that “broke the truce,” as one of the characters warns.
The chief invention of the novel is the vampires’ feeding proboscis, borrowed perhaps from the Geiger nightmares of Alien, and the vampires in Guillermo del Toro’s Blade 2. These vampires have a prehensile, hooked tongue, in addition to a mouth full of fangs. It might be a bit of dramatic stakes raising, but it hit me in the hindbrain, just as it was meant to–the moment of revelation is horrific and disgusting in equal measure.
The Strain has gotten off to a strong start, and I’m eagerly awaiting the final issues. So far, I’m a convert. Time to pack a bugout bag. — Megan Purdy
Channel Zero: The Complete Collection | Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan | Dark Horse Comics — I read Channel Zero, its sequel Jennie One, and all the short stories and one-offs collected in this edition in one sitting. It was kind of a bruising experience. It’s a beautiful book, and the extras, from design work, to covers, to unused pages, make it truly special; it’s the kind of in depth treatment comics so rarely get. The Complete Collection invites us into Wood’s creative process, going all the way back to the original, self-published Channel Zero single that Wood shopped around ComicCon. The extras help to contextualize Channel Zero and Jennie One as not just a cyberpunk-activist stew, but a vital reaction to the politics of the day.
Channel Zero is set in the near future, now past, of 1990s New York City. The country has gone into hyper-religious, paranoid lockdown. The media as we know it has been disassembled, and reconstructed as a Christian, conservative, state media–perfect for a country now bent on an empire of ideological purity. The Americans are massing troops on the Southern border, and have doubled down on their Latin American campaigning. They’ve graduated from the often shadowy wars on terror and drugs, to out and out police actions. Mexican cartels, government and ordinary citizens have joined forces to prepare for the coming invasion. Domestically, Americans have moved to crush dissent, first by seizing control of the media, next by turning the full force of the militarized police on ‘deviant’ elements of society–artists, minorities, the poor–and finally, by cracking down on petty crime, through a special division of the police called Ceaners. They keep the city clean–by summarily executing anyone foolish enough to litter, tag, or protest.
Much of the rest of the world has turned its back on the US. Canadians use payphones to help dissident American friends access the free media. NATO has been transformed into an anti-American alliance, welcoming Russia and India into the fold. They’re leery of US saber-rattling; seemingly ready to meet them with military force. The world of Channel Zero is perched on a terrible precipice, and the most horrific thing in all of this, is how comfortable most Americans are with it all.
Our heroine, artist turned activist Jennie 2.5, wants her fellow citizens to wake up. She’s going to help them along the way back to consciousness by hacking the media. It’s in the first section detailing Jennie 2.5’s escalating efforts, that Channel Zero most shows its age. The technology, of course, and the means to co opt it, are both dated. This is a pre cell phone, pre Web 2.0, America.
Jennie’s civil disobedience is part squatter punk, and part performance activism, infused with both the hacker ethic, and a raw hunger for attention. Jennie begins her campaign by hacking an overseas broadcast signal with short commercials for free thinking, but eventually ups the ante by hacking the US government signal with a longer, more substantive broadcast, just before she’s hunted down by the cops. Her tools include payphones, desktop PCs, and cumbersome 90s (barely) handheld cameras. As dated as the technology is, it adds a certain already retro charm to a still vital artistic and philosophical critique. This is present tense science fiction that’s interested in the possibilities of emerging and contemporary technologies, turned to new purpose.
When, in an interview, Jennie is asked about her heroes, and her own personal ideology, she’s exposed as not too deep of a thinker. Jennie’s fond of Che and Mao for their revolutionary spirit, but she has little to say about their ideas, or more importantly, about her own. In Jennie One, we get her origin story. Jennie goes from apolitical, nose-to-the-grindstone student, to tatooed, outcast activist, while the world goes to shit around her. The Jennie of Jennie One is no more philosophically sophisticated than one we meet in Channel Zero. Her rebellion is more feeling than philosophy–but that has it’s own power. By the end of Channel Zero, (Spoiler Alert!) Jennie decides that it’s time to pass the torch to the next wave of angry, comparatively innocent kids, because she knows it’s these hardline kids who have the energy to do the kind of dramatic activism she no longer can. Jennie wonders if she’s a fraud, if her selfish motivations have poisoned her altruistic ones. But it’s her messiness that makes her such a perfect contrast to the ideological purity of the new American order.
Warren Ellis wrote the foreword to The Complete Collection. It’s a good fit. Channel Zero and Jennie One are full of cyberpunk futurism, a critique of capitalist consumption and representation, and the sometimes nasty intersection of religion and politics. It doesn’t get any more Ellis-y (not without cigs and swears, anyway). But where many of Ellis’ science fiction stories are frenetic, both Channel Zero and Jennie One take their time. Wood isn’t afraid to slow things down for some introspection, or for a history lesson, or even for a gorgeous, atmospheric tableau. There’s a tremendous amount of information packed into every page of Channel Zero, but Wood’s dramatic, black and white inks rule everything. While the pages are littered with advertising slogans, a city colonized by signs, populated by bodies that have become symbols, this is a stark comic. The sloganeering is forced to hug the margins of most pages, or find corners to hang onto. It’s background hum to the baseline of all that black and white.
Becky Cloonan took over art duties in Jennie One and the transition is wonderfully smooth. I had a hard time believing this was her first substantial published work, because Jennie One is a seamless blend of her style and Wood’s. She picks up on many of his visual motifs, but introduces some of her own as well. Her Jennie is softer than Wood’s–a perfect compliment to her younger, softer self.
The Complete Collection is a wonderfully interesting comic. It’s a little piece of the living history comics, and well worth checking out. But best not to read it in one shot like I did–this a book that deserves all of your attention. — Megan Purdy
Are You My Mother? | Alison Bechdel | HMH Books — Fun Home is on my list of desert island top five list comics. Are You My Mother? isn’t quite there, but it might be, after some rereads. Fun Home is a memoir of Alison Bechdel’s father, and their relationship. Are You My Mother? is a memoir of her mother, and their relationship. It’s also a book about psychoanalysis, particularly the pediatrician and analyst, David Winnicott.
She begins with this question: why did my mother abruptly stop hugging me when I was a kid? She arrives at an answer several times–she was too old, her mother was depressed, her mother resented her, her mother just couldn’t. All of these revelations have emotional truth, but none of them is the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. There are no clear or easy answers in Are You My Mother?, because ultimately, it’s a book about relationships–object-subject, mother-daughter, creator-created–and relationships are complicated.
But the book also has Bechdel’s signature self-deprecating, easy touch. Are You My Mother? is a brainy book, and it’s relentlessly internal, but it isn’t a difficult read. Bechdel’s an old hand at making complicated ideas and relationships, engaging and accessible. Her approach to psychoanalysis is unintimidating and it’s presented without a hint of snobbery, as mainly, an investigatory technique, and also as the organizing principle at work. It’s a tool, and early on, she gives you the rundown, so you can use it like she does (though not so deftly, perhaps).
As always, Bechdel’s pencils are clean, and her pages uncluttered. What is on the page, is what needs to be there. She smartly includes infographics, hand-traced pages from Winnicott’s notes and Virgina Woolf’s diaries, and Family Circus style maps. While there’s nothing superfluous in Are You My Mother?, the pages are still packed with loads of important detail.The lo-fi, watercolour pink palate of the book suggests girlhood, femininity, motherhood, and Bechdel’s ambivalence to all of these. It’s also unashamedly pretty.
Visually it’s as easy a read as narratively, it’s sometimes a hard one. The book is nonlinear, organized thematically, rather than chronologically, or in order of therapeutic revelation. In describing ‘the self’, Bechdel says we’re kind of like onions: layers and layers of ‘false selves’, around a hidden, fortified core. If this book is an onion, we’re traveling through it, going from one layer to another and back again, until we reach the core, or to get psychoanalytical, until we reach the book’s ‘true self’.
1. Her mother and their relationship.
2. Her time in psychoanalysis and exploration of that relationship.
3. Her research into psychoanalysis, and Winnicott’s work, and how that affected her course of therapy.
4. The book and how her research into psychoanalysis helped to shape it.
5. And finally the framing device: “I am writing a book about my mother. I don’t know how to write it, or what the story is.”
As much as it’s an intensely personal and internal story, it’s also a universal one. Bechdel asks her mother, also a writer, “don’t you think that by writing rigorously and meticulously about your own life, you can arrive at something universal?” Her mother doesn’t think that. Over and over she decries artists who get too personal in public. She has an ambivalent relationship to her daughters’ work–at once terrified about what might be revealed, and analytical. She offers Bechdel stylistic advice, while holding back the emotional.
Bechdel’s mother is an actor too, and many of Bechdel’s most joyous memories of her, are performances. Ultimately, Bechdel and her mother don’t quite understand each other, and Bechdel is stuck relating to a fiction, a character of her and her mother’s invention. Bechdel says of their mutual narrative creation, “she was composing me as I was composing her.” This is Bechdel and her mother, Bechdel and her analyist, Bechdel and her book, and finally, us and the book we’re reading.
This is a book that will reward rereading, and close reading–I already want to go back and see if certain events hit me differently this time round, and spend some time unpacking the visual motifs. Are You My Mother? is, I think, my book of the year. And who am I kidding? Desert island top five material, for sure. — Megan Purdy