These reviews are all over the place.

Shouldn’t You Be Working? #2

At this point, I suspect most readers know where they stand on the topic of Johnny Ryan, ultra-bad taste mastermind behind Fantagraphics’ “Angry Youth Comix”. This is the second installment of what can be dubbed a sketchbook series.

The hook behind the first installment of this series was that it was an untouched presentation of doodles Ryan scribbled out during his long hours working at a Seattle urological clinic. It inspired some mixed reviews. This time, Ryan notes in his introduction that he’s amended his piss-clinic drawings with “…some more recent drawings I did on my own time cuz I thought they were funny.

There’s a shitload of shit jokes here. One can hardly turn the page without encountering some sort of crap. Or piss. Or other bodily fluids. And don’t forget the race, sex, and gender gags! But Ryan is simply too intent on striking directly at the lowest common denominator to be offensive. Especially when stripped from any sort of story, as they mostly are here, Ryan’s drawings give off the distinct feel of peeking into a particularly sick classmate’s tablet in seventh grade, only with a higher lever of craft. Ryan’s work in “Angry Youth Comix” has gotten quite attractive; the sketches here are far less polished, if still amusing. There are also a few “Blecky Yuckerella” strips thrown in, and some stuff I think I saw originally on Ryan’s website. I particularly loved the giant-headed mind-controlling Chris Ware, commanding good citizens to kill.

The short strips are a welcome addition; Ryan is simply more funny to me when working his jokes into an ongoing story; I can giggle at an anatomically correct Gumby, or a 'Nerdbrella', but Ryan’s dirty jokes need time to build in order to really deliver some laffs.

At over 80 pages for $6, it’s a decent deal, although it reads very quickly. It’s for established Ryan fans; check out some “Angry Youth” to see his humor in a more effective state. And if you’ve already decided that Ryan is an indelible stain on the publishing record of Fantagraphics, well, keep away.

Drawn and Quarterly Vol.2 #1 (of 6)

And now we coast a little farther back in time. This came out in 1994, as the second iteration of D&Q’s self-titled anthology series (the first had run for ten issues, and selected stories reappeared in “The Best of Drawn and Quarterly”). After these six issues, D&Q would switch the book to a deluxe format, putting out volumes 3-5 as single books (my review of Vol. 3 is here). A whole bunch of these older issues, though, are on sale at D&Q’s website right now.

The book is 48 pages, with cover and endpapers by Seth, who was just finishing “It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken” at the time. There are two 'big' stories of about 12-14 pages each. First we have a selection from Jacques Tardi’s “It Was the War in the Trenches”, an account of various WWI exploits. All of the pages are set up with three rectangular panels each. There is only one word balloon in the entire story, but there are a lot of descriptive captions, providing a constant narration. Some of these captions have almost 80 words apiece, occasionally giving the impression of an illustrated short story as the all-knowing narrator relates that characters‘ thoughts and fills in the backstory. But the art is detailed and ominous, with an excellent lever of historical detail in the uniforms and environments. The faces of the soldiers are most impressive, though. They look immensely tired and dejected, yet still recognizable as young men, the sort you’d see at the gas station when off the battlefield. The story is fast and cruel, and one never gets the impression that death won’t triumph over all. It’s war as totally stripped of action and rhetoric; fighting would disturb the carefully crafted tableaux, and the story is meant to reflect the immediate afterward, the sapped state after the rush of adrenaline and fear.

The other longish story comes from Carol Tyler, a scattered and jumpy account of both her own pregnancy and her mother’s often tragic experiences as a young bride in the WWII era. The plot rambles along like an unorganized, unrehearsed conversation. But Tyler’s art is utterly gorgeous, with a superbly subtle use of color. Faces are minimal, just a few lines and circles, backgrounds often seem sketched, and clothing and trees and flesh are (at times) lushly detailed. A panel of a young woman relaxing with her feet in a lake is marvelously sensual, with the water left a blank white with sepia lines, and the grass made a cool green. The art is evocative of the strange emphasis of memory, and the story fuels itself from such a tone.

Also included is a fluffy, attractive silent number from Avril and Petit Roulet, a typically amusing history from Maurice Vellekoop, and a gag page by Marcellus Hall. It’s all at least visually attractive stuff, and worth the $4 or so D&Q is now asking for it.

Vox by Leland Purvis

An interesting collection of short stories by Mr. Purvis, gathered from his four-issue series of the same name from 1999-2003. Purvis also did a three-issue mini for Dark Horse called “Pubo” (of which I never did find a copy of the final issue), and the art for a 320-page comics biography on Danish physicist Niels Bohr, “Suspended in Language”, released earlier this year.

Purvis uses dark, thick lines to form the creases on his characters’ faces. Their clothes are dotted with shadow. Harsh strokes form the buildings they live in. Sometimes a story is drawn in a simpler, sketchier style. Sometimes the environments become friendlier, with lush trees and rolling hills. But mainly Purvis’ world is harsh and cutting, and you can hardly see around a corner, let alone into your future.

There’s a clear running theme throughout these stories: the triumph of the creative. A group of abandoned old men plan a deadly trap for the youth of their tribe, who abandoned them. Another group of old men, now in a futuristic rest home/prison, plot an escape to enjoy some beer and debate ethics. Alexander Selkirk, the real-life inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, struggles to convince his shipmates that the hull is taking on water. A young bomber plans a deadly game, even as his cohorts become nervous. The respect for creativity (or skill, or intuition, or personal ability) crosses lines of moral righteousness, and crisscrosses from fiction to non-fiction.

The writing, however, is less exact. Purvis is good at catching the rhythms and subtle boasting of conversation over drinks, between friends, but his dramatic scripting often becomes wooden. The aforementioned teen bomber handily snaps the momentum of his story by engaging in a badly stilted exchange of mutual emotional evaluation with his mother:

You think if you make something up it’ll keep my attention?

Better that than you don’t care at all.

I care about the truth.

What does the truth have to do with how a person feels?

And how do you think you’re making me feel?

Oh, but you always tell me how you think you feel and you’re sincere because you know I care.

And so on for another page of junior undergrad one-act play chit-chat. Even more clunky is a story about an eye-less man confronting his inner demons, literally personified by… well… a demon. But then the man learns to face himself, and (wait for it!) his eyes reappear. And he and the demon literally fight. But some of these stories have a way of evolving beyond their immediate impressions. A thudding confrontation between a brilliant scientist and an Evil Drug Company (who will allow innocents to die in order to maximize their profits, naturally) ends with a pleasantly over-the-top theatrical gesture, and a nice corny verbal gag. But I think Purvis is at his best when he lets us sit with characters, and has them share themselves with each other, rather than indulge in declaratory statements of vital import.

It’s a diverse book, with silent dream stories and short text entries added onto the longer stories. There’s a real effort made to diversify the mood and subject matter. And if Purvis is a bit too eager to grant his protagonists the ability to hurl beams of clarity as they shoulder the weight of achievement, he does so within an inky and sharp world, a place in need of rays of light. Stacking the deck? Maybe. But it’s worth checking out to watch the cards dealt.