So really, what is it good for?

*I finally got to see “Maria Full of Grace” the other day, and I liked it a good deal. It’s about a young Columbian girl, about 17, who decides to quit her dead-end (potentially life-long) job at a local rose factory to make some real money and develop some life experiences. This culminates in her becoming a ‘mule’, a person who consumes dozens and dozens of narcotics-stuffed plastic caplets, flies into the US with the lucre within the belly, and for lack of a better term shits them out at a secure location later. The pay is amazing, but the work is tough.

And it was the work that really captured my attention. The pool-hall deals with young girls and world-weary cocaine suppliers felt fascinatingly authentic, and everything surrounding the execution of the trip was truly captivating, like the preparation of the throat for consuming the capsules. There’s a marvelously queasy flight sequence that extracts maximum discomfort from the performances of the cast (and the squeamishness of the participatory audience, myself included) without resorting to any sort of flashy camera movements or special effects. Excellently grueling stuff.

Of course, complications ensue, and several characters wind up in difficult positions. I don’t want to ruin anything, but I really admired the spirit of the filmmakers in playing up natural audience sympathy for the charismatic, attractive teen heroine, who frankly makes a lot of very stupid decisions, yet this viewer didn’t really notice until near the ending, where it becomes clear exactly how much fire has been played with. The final scene was a small point of contention with me; it felt like a natural place to stop the film, but it had an alternative benefit in preventing the need to explore some of the implications of Maria’s final decision. I was left wondering over the closing credits about how certain characters are going to react to a decision like the one that’s made, but oops, we have the veto of the ending crawl, and that is that. Still, a very good film, with some particularly visceral sequences. Written and directed by Joshua Marston, his first feature. In Spanish and shot largely on location in Columbia and New York.

SPX 2004

A couple, nervous young adults, sweat into the coffee. They exchange hushed affirmations of their mutual terror, but the male (the boyfriend?) assures the female (his lover?) that their ‘driver’ is the best. The driver appears, a leather-clad stubbly hipster, and tells them it’s time to go. They take off, and the young pair ask the driver why he’s helping them. “They took my wife and two sons,” he intones, his face reflecting all the gravity of a frat-boy being informed that the beer store is fresh out of Keystone Light and he’ll have to get something more expensive. But wait! A military blockade! The driver’s consummate skill, doubtlessly forged through years of pizza delivery, buys them just the way out, another toll on already borrowed time. Finally, eyes light up. “We’re about to cross the border,” the driver declares. And there it is:

Welcome to Wisconsin, Patriot Act Free since 2006

Well blistering fucking barnacles, it looks like the war has come home!

That was the worst story in this year’s Small Press Expo anthology, a $10, 184-page benefit book for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, although it looked pretty good. Matt Bellisle mixes some decent line art (if stiff in character expression) with b&w photography, some of it computer-altered from the looks of it. But it’s all in the service of this groaningly obvious vignette that doesn’t seem to have the slightest idea how silly it is. And I usually like silly things, but not silly things that take themselves so very seriously. The only serious competition the story has is Winston Rowntree’s awkward 'shock' story that evokes a 1941 massacre of Jews in the Ukraine to make a well-worn Bush = Fascist comparison. I’m sure the intent was to extract disturbing power from the dissonance between the cutesy-pie opening and the abrupt brutality of the ending, but it struck me as an overwhelmingly heavy-handed means of highlighting an already stale talking-point.

Most of “SPX 2004” is comfortable, settling even, which might not be the best emotions to evoke in a war-themed anthology. I certainly wouldn’t have expected it from Steve Lieber’s fine cover art, a mighty tank trundling through a fallen battleground of dead newspaper comics icons (with a few others thrown in). The stories within encompass biography, personal narrative, allegory (either to current events or 'war' as a concept), historical fiction, and more, but few entries manage to stand out, and the good is counteracted by the bad, almost as if by impulse. For each amusing bit of commentary, like Federico Reggiani and Angel Mosquito’s story about a praying soldier in the heat of battle who’s confronted by a frothing, sputtering God who slaps him around and demands that he “Kill the bad guys!”, we get something with a soldier wandering through a foreign land, where everybody speaks a foreign tongue that’s really English terms spelled backwards (ekil siht) and oh gracious if only all people understood how close we really are as humans! We get a refreshing fart of bad taste from Bartley Johnson, sending a fuzzy Vietnam vet bear through a burlesque on the Iraq prison scandals. And then we get Jeff Smith’s sketchy contribution, which extends absolutely no farther than filling us all in on what exactly Jeff Smith thinks about our most recent military conflict. At last, we can exhale.

There’s stories about people building up train tracks only to have them torn down - BY WAR! There’s narratives by the next evolution of Earth dwellers reflecting on the extinctions of the species of the past - THROUGH WAR! It seems autobiographical cartoonists can’t even watch the news anymore - NO THANKS TO YOU, WAR! But don’t get too down, gentle readers. There’s two truly excellent entries on display. Maybe they’re worth the $10 alone.

I’ve already spoken about Bruce Mutard a little, since he’s got a new graphic novel, “The Silence”, coming from Image. His story here regards Sir John, a Christian knight fighting the Crusades. We bounce back and forth through time, as Sir John witnesses all sorts of cruelties and tries to justify them in the context of his deeply held faith. It’s drawn in a lovely classical style, like the spirit of vintage newspaper adventure strips joined with grounded, tight layouts. It’s very handsome in its efficiency, and it’s a good, worthy story to tell.

But perhaps my very favorite piece in the book is Kurt A. Belcher and Philipp S. Neundorf’s “White Death”, a short biography of Tero Toivanen, a wildly effective sniper, working in the Finnish resistance to Soviet aggression in the years prior to WWII. But Tero was never comfortable with being regarded as a hero; a soldier should fight well, and then the war should end, and then normal life should resume, but really you continue to grow older, and the war you fought in doesn’t go away, it becomes a commodity, a curiosity to the young, a public relations chip for politics, a source for books, a whiff of sex appeal, the beauty of the sniper. Here we see a perfectly just battle, a wholly good and necessary war. But wars don’t cease to exist when the guns are dropped, and even the most needed conflict creates life-long scars. The viewpoint of story’s subject is well-conveyed through the art, a blocky, shadowed zone, with hasty type spitting out the (imagined?) life stories of each soldier felled, another twenty-something years of experience dispatched into ether from the trees, with a dollop of metal. It is here that reach something profound regarding the nature of war; the necessity of some degree of conflict at some point chafing against the sheer waste of it all. People fighting for good things, for inarguably good things, and the pain is still there. Nobody smiles just a bit as the score swells up and whispers “It was worth it.” Nobody arrives at a calming realization that what they did Is Right. There is blood and then shadow everywhere, then shadow all through life, and shadow over the grave. And it continues.

Is that the uniform experience? God no.

But I think it's worth bringing up.