New graphic novels come out all year long, but they take on extra significance during the holiday season. Here are a few that crossed my desk recently that could find a place on your gift list:
“Chasing Echoes” (Humanoids, $19.95): Will Eisner’s “A Contract with God” and Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” are significant milestones in the creation of the graphic novel, so there’s something almost traditional about a GN involving the Holocaust and the search for meaning and identity by the Jewish survivors. In “Chasing Echoes,” that search is literal.
“Echoes” follows an extended family whose members travel to Poland in search of a flour mill where a family picture was taken, before most of the people in that photo were killed by the Nazis. All of the 11 Blooms and Solomons on this trip are descendants of that original family, so the mill means something to all of them — not the same thing to each, of course, because these are all very different people. But the quest means that this clan, whose members have mostly drifted apart, are forced into close quarters for extended periods. Cue the fireworks.
Which is one of the joys of this book, not only in how Dan Goldman writes them, but also how George Schall draws them. I’m not much of a fan of the cartoony style in use here, but it is perfectly suited to wry humor and facial expressions. Goldman gives each member of our ensemble a distinctive voice, while Schall gives us the necessary visual information to instantly know one character from another. From clothing to body language, Schall keeps us as familiar with these characters as they would be with each other.
Meanwhile Goldman mines the rich territory of frictions and resentments that all families have, with all shenanigans occurring in the shadow of the Holocaust — an event still shocking, horrifying and bewildering all these decades later. Now, in the present, one character has become an atheist. Another is super-religious, and lives in Israel. A third can’t seem to grow into a functioning adult. All of these things are possible in any family, but with the still-raw chunks taken out of this group by Nazi genocide, they seem almost inevitable.
But the book is by no means a gloomy dissertation on one of history’s blackest moments. Instead, the book is almost joyful in the way it sets up its quirky characters, and then sets them loose to eat and bicker their way across eastern Europe. After all, the subtitle is “A Graphic Novel About Generations of Survivors Surviving Each Other.”
It’s a family that is unique in that all families are unique, but familiar in the way all families are familiar. They worm their way into your heart before you know it.
Even that judge-y one, who’s just like the judge-y one in your family. You know who I mean.
* “Blossoms 666” (Archie Comics, $17.99): Ever since Archie Comics blazed its way into horror with “Afterlife with Archie” (about a zombie apocalypse in Riverdale), they have gotten progressively mo’ transgressive, mo’ daring and just plain mo’ better at being bad. “Blossoms 666,”starring twins Cheryl and Jason Blossom, is the proof.
The Blossoms, who are teeth-grindingly obnoxious in “our” Riverdale, graduate to flat-out evil in this one. Their parents, no angels in any iteration, are members of a Satanist cult, and have raised their kids to be the Anti-Christ. Of course, like the Highlander, there can only be one — so Cheryl and Jason compete for the title by abusing, manipulating and, um, snuffing their fellow students.
In a clever twist, it also turns out that Cheryl and Jason aren’t twins, but triplets! The long-lost Julian appears in their midst, sort of like all those Cooper siblings who keep appearing on “Riverdale,” to join the competition. Which raises the ante — and body count — considerably.
All this nastiness comes from the pen of Cullen Bunn (“The Damned,” “Harrow County”), who is no stranger to horror. Bunn is terrific at making his audience hold its breath in terrible anticipation, and there’s a lot of that here. But there’s also, you know, some awful stuff right there on panel.
As to art, I have nothing but praise for Laura Braga. Modern comics artists generally eschew the heavy rendering of their predecessors, to allow today’s computer coloring to shine. That takes a huge tool out of the penciller’s hand, who must draw anatomy and perspective without covering their imperfections with black shadows and intricate feathering. Today’s artist must stand nakedly before the reader with clean, attractive storytelling — which is what Braga delivers.
“Swimming in Darkness” (Arsenal Pulp Press, $17.99): Do you like your noir with fewer hard-bitten gumshoes, and more, how you say, je ne sais quoi? You’re in luck, because this French import has all the earmarks of great film noir, only with a Continental spin.
In “Darkness,” Pierre, a former French architecture student — he dropped out after a breakdown — travels to Therme Vals, the famous hotel and spa complex in the Swiss Alps. Yes, it’s a real place, but in this story, our hero finds that the walls and spaces don’t add up right. And then there’s that local myth about another kind of space — a “mouth of the mountain” that opens every 100 years to swallow a foreigner. A foreigner like Pierre. Or perhaps like the other visiting Frenchman, who is also obsessed in the spa’s secrets.
Or maybe Pierre’s just going mad.
Yes! An architectural mystery! And it’s good! Suspenseful, somewhat surreal and … sexy. (It’s French. So there’s sex.)
“Swimming in Darkness” is written by Lucas Harari, who also draws it in the pleasant, inoffensive Franco-Belgian style. Which can still be spooky, especially when the ordinary suddenly seems threatening.
“Blade Runner 2019” (Titan Comics, $16.99): I loved “Blade Runner,” the original movie with Harrison Ford, so any effort to milk that IP had better be doggone good. In fact, it better pass the Voight-Kampff test.
And doggone if “Blade Runner 2019 Vol. 1: Welcome to Los Angeles” isn’t pretty perfect. Published by the UK’s Titan Comics, this graphic novel collects the first four issues of a new series, and it really captures the spirit, the feel, even the look of the classic movie. And, although few remember this detail, it takes place at the same time as the original movie: 2019.
“BR 2019” stars Detective Ashina — Ash to her acquaintances, whom I would not call “friends” — who is on the hunt for a missing child that somehow involves replicants, for both personal and professional reasons. Yes, Ash has some secrets, too — because of course she does! It’s detective noir!
Anyway, we follow Ash through the grimy, perpetually raining, neon hellscape of dystopian Los Angeles on her mission, as she shoots and gets shot at. Sure, somewhere across town Rick Deckard is doing much the same thing, but we don’t meet him. Instead, Ash is an excellent substitute, similar enough to scratch the Blade Runner itch, but not so close as to be a pale copy.
That stands to reason, as one of the writers of “Blade Runner 2019” is Michael Green, who wrote the screenplay for “Blade Runner 2049.” And the gorgeous art of Andres Guinaldo is properly cinematic — but never forgets that this is comics, not cinema, and never once did an artsy shot make me lose track of what was going on.
“Blade Runner 2019” takes all the best bits of its inspiration, but heads off in a different direction, world-building as it goes. If this is the beginning of a long-term franchise, count me in.
(Find Captain Comics by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), on his website (captaincomics.ning.com), on Facebook (Andrew Alan Smith) or on Twitter (@CaptainComics).)
©2019 Andrew A. Smith
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