Of Blankets and Batman

Summer so far has very much been one of comics, although it seems like few are willing to call their work such. I can't decide if this is a good or a bad thing. Anyway, kicking off the list is Blankets by Craig Thompson, an ´illustrated novel' weighing in at a whopping 580 plus pages.

The drawing in Blankets is so awesome it makes me want to weep. There is such a surety to Thompson's line that is perfectly balanced with a fragility, a supreme sympathy for what he's drawing; imagine Modigliani drawing comics and you're getting close. This means that Thompson's panels are full of a sensitive confidence that is mind-blowing. The writing is fantastic too, and Blankets is a richly veined voyage of (self) discovery in which Thompson explores themes of family structure, first love and religious observance with a tenderness and a self-effacing charm that is uniquely beguiling. There are numerous passages which are hypnotically, breathtakingly beautiful; passages that leave you spell bound and utterly in thrall to the visions set in ink before you; passages that will break your heart; passages that will make it sing.

Blankets sits right up there in the pantheon of greats, is on my top shelf with Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, Daniel Clowes' Ghost World, Chester Brown's I Never Liked You, Dylan Horrocks' Hicksville and Seth's It's A Good Life, If You Don't Weaken. What more recommendation do you need?

Since we're on the ´literary' tip, what about Give It Up!, a collection of nine Kafka short stories illustrated by the very wonderful Peter Kuper? ´Classics Illustrated' this is most assuredly not, and Kuper's work does a marvellous job of interpreting Kafka's dark humour instead of simply acting as pictures in support of words. The art reflects early 20th Century German Expressionist woodcuts whilst retaining a personal identity; with lots of skewed perspectives and exaggerated scales, Kuper's work is as richly rewarding as Kafka's.

Jeffrey Brown's Clumsy announces itself on the cover as simply ´a novel' and includes a hand drawn ´parental advisory - explicit content' ´sticker'. I guess the ´sticker' refers to the many sex scenes which permeate this scratchy document of a year long relationship - sex that seems to be almost the only thread holding the whole relationship together and which is maybe the reason it can't last. It makes for uncomfortable reading and to be honest I found it a bit irritating, which maybe is the whole point. Reading other people's sex stories is a bit like reading their drug stories, or having them tell you about their dreams; just not really all that interesting. I like Brown's drawings much more than I like Clumsy as a whole; his edgy, naąve style communicates the whole obsessive nature of this kind of self-indulgent documentation well, although I just wish he'd written more about things other than sex.

James Kochalka supplies a ringing endorsement on the cover of Clumsy, but I'll forgive him his indiscretion for the joys of his Sketchbook Diaries (I was delighted - and not a little surprised - when I found volumes one and three in the local comics store) and the truly delicious Robot Vs Monkey. The Sketchbook Diaries are exactly what they say; short daily comics documenting the details of everyday life, and as such are addictive and illuminating bursts of observation. The printed collections are available on the Top Shelf imprint, whilst the on-line version is available at James' terrific American Elf site. Robot Vs Monkey, meanwhile, is one of Kochalka's many comics featuring intriguing, imaginative characters. A dialogue on the conflict between technology and nature, Robot Vs Monkey is full of gloriously fluid, deceptively simple drawing that tells its story with only the occasional written word. Instead, its insistence on visual language means that Kochalka manages to communicate the gravity of the issues with a voice that is appropriately serious yet light. No mean feat.
On the back of volume one of the Sketchbook Diaries there is a line of praise from Frank Miller. Comics afficionadoes of course know Miller from his work on Daredevil and the legendary The Black Knight Returns trilogy of Batman stories, and in fact this summer I've finally given in to a nagging, latent obsession with that mythic beast of Gotham City. I had a copy of the Black Knight Returns on my shelf for over a year, sitting there unread. I started it once before but quickly put it back on the pile, mainly because there was something about his and Klas Janson's style that I found off-putting. Looking at it again this summer I can't imagine what it was, but who cares, because I devoured The Black Knight Returns in one rapt sitting and immediately headed off to the comic store for more. There I discovered another Miller title, the enormously enjoyable Year One, in which Miller gives his version of the birth of the Batman. Miller uses his version to make an excellent character study of a young(ish) Jim Gordon, and illuminates corruption and tolerated crime within a city's legislative system. Both books of course are essential elements of Bat lore. Also in the comics store were copies of Batman - No Man's Land, of which I picked up volume one. This too turned out to be a treat, and I'm eagerly awaiting delivery of the following four volumes, all of which will no doubt also be devoured speedily. Naturally all these Batman stories are a million miles away from the camp nonsense of Adam West or the later Joel Schumacher movies and are suitably dark and threatening. They fill a void left by my exhaustion of Ross McDonald novels, and that's really saying something.

The whole history of Batman is clearly immense and circuitous and whilst I've barely scratched the surface, I can nevertheless feel myself already being sucked into that strangely timeless, elliptical narrative. And maybe this is what's so appealing about such comics, about such characters and their illusory environments; they don't age. Or if they do, they are able to leap off at a tangent and then loop back to a start again, beginning afresh; reborn with a whole new history in the making.

© 2003 Alistair Fitchett