THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS
Edited by Lynda Barry
Houghton Mifflin, $22
For the latest Best American Comics anthology, guest editor Lynda Barry has selected works that are richly literary, deeply felt, and boring. In her introduction, Barry praises "story power!"—which, based on the evidence, seems to mean narratives that make you sit up and say, "Wow! I've read that already like a million times!" Seth does his usual riff on the bittersweet humanity of aging, nerdy white guys. Alison Bechdel does her usual riff on the bittersweet humanity and political acuity of lesbians. And Jaime Hernandez does his usual riff on the bittersweet humanity and rich ethnicity of Hispanics. Newer talents like Gene Luen Yang and T. Edward Bak throw in their slice-of-life bits (the humanity of Asians, the humanity of teenagers), and for variety, Derf and the team of David Axe and Steve Olexa criticize the Iraq war—just in case you were wondering where alternative comics artists stood on that conflict.
There are some pieces I like. I'm a sucker for superhero parody, and Eric Haven turns in a fine example of the form, with overwrought pulp-pastiche art, damsels getting blown serendipitously out of their clothes, and the furry hero Mongoose locked in eternal battle with evil reptiles. Michael Kupperman's werewolf-battles-mutant-flower piece showcases his stilted yet precise surrealism, even if it lacks the satirical bite of his best work. Clearly a fan of children's-book illustration, Barry includes several pieces that point to that world, the best of which is a lovely fable in concentrated watercolor dyes by Eleanor Davis (who also painted the dust jacket), filled with appealingly ghoulish monstrosities that seem to have waltzed out of Bosch by way of Jeff Smith's Bone.
Overall, though, Barry's choices are wearyingly predictable. Lots of familiar names, no American creators working in manga style, no pulp that's not thoroughly ironized, nobody influenced by the boisterously messy high-art experimentation of Gary Panter or Fort Thunder. What you've got here is safe, solid, middlebrow meaningfulness. The book provides little that startles, ravishes, or delights. But if you want edifying cultural uplift—well, here it is.
SIGNS OF THE APOCALYPSE/RAPTURE
Edited by Christine DiThomas
Front Forty Press, $65
There's a ton of fine work in Front Forty Press's Signs of the Apocalypse/Rapture, a coffee-table collection of pieces on the title themes by 74 visual artists and solo musicians, ten bands, and a Web site. In the "Apocalypse" section, painter Till Gerhard's "Pink Apocalypse" depicts seven apparently undead kids, knee-deep in water while pink light seems to rain down around them—a funny, classically composed conflation of gay utopia and zombie Armageddon. Emilio Perez's "Born All Over" shows swirling, goopy abstractions mingling and rushing together, with twisted faces almost but not quite taking shape in the muck. Over in "Rapture," Francesca Sundsten's oil-on-canvas "Birdland" is a serenely creepy mix of Magritte, Boccaccio, and Audubon—a nude, bird-headed woman in a natural landscape, surrounded by formally posed, rather dead-looking fowl.
The sonic material is on two CDs curated by David Castillo, Front Forty director Doug Fogelson, and Robert A.A. Lowe. It's a little disappointing: an end-of-days compilation should include some bluegrass, gospel, and satanic death metal, dammit. Barring that, though, I was happy enough to listen to Om's doomy trance sludge, Jana Hunter's spooky, twee harmonic weirdness, and even Sonic Youth being Sonic Youth.
And yet, despite the massive volume's many pleasures, I couldn't help feeling a bit miffed, and then downright irritated, as I worked my way through it. Yes, apocalypse and rapture are fine and sturdy subjects for art—but it's still incumbent on the curators to pull the material together in some way. Why did they pick these particular pieces? How do they connect to one another? What was left out? Why are there so many blank pages in the book? And why did editor Christine DiThomas think it was a good idea to include over 80 pages of transcripts from Worldview, Jerome McDonnell's show for Chicago Public Radio?
Signs of the Apocalypse/Rapture ends up seeming ill-thought-out and padded. In his introduction, Fogelson—who curated the visuals with Ryanne Baynham—assures the reader that as far as apocalyptic visions go, "we don't judge the merit of such viewpoints in this work." But if you're not interested in brutal distinctions, maybe the Final Judgment isn't your subject.
BEASTS! BOOK 2
Edited by Jacob Covey
In Jacob Covey's follow-up to last year's Beasts!, 90 artists contribute portraits of monsters, cryptids, and other creatures that have stumbled out of folklore to go bump in the night. Gene Deitch's adorable cartoon version of a Finnish sea beast called Iku-Turso looks a little like the anime duck Bats-Maru with red eyes, spikes, and a bad temper. Australian Anthony Lister supplies the Ajattar, a giant—also Finnish—that seems to coalesce from a dramatic landscape of white space and boldly scribbled lines. Brian Chippendale, a veteran of Rhode Island's Fort Thunder group, turns in a brightly colored, gloriously messy portrait of a big, horned, carnivorous rabbit devouring some sort of uniformed Christian strike force. On the other extreme is Julie Morstad's lovely, entirely unfrightening Selkie, painted in watercolor with sharp delicacy against a white background. Chicago native Chris Kerr limns a two-headed Libyan desert serpent thing and an attendant bloody corpse using the simple shapes and bright pastel colors of a children's book, while Tomer Hanuka conjures an evil ogre in a style that suggests both Japanese prints and classic pulp comics.
Featuring artists of such widely varying backgrounds and nationalities, Beasts! Book 2 ends up being as much about the range and diversity of contemporary illustration as it is about fangs, teeth, and bizarre feeding habits. Not everything is great, but the hit-to-miss ratio is very high, and you're likely to discover more than one artist you've never heard of, setting loose something that will devour your still-palpitating innards.v
Care to comment? Find these reviews at chicagoreader.com.