The year is almost gone...

*Bookstore Sightings Dept: Chris Ware’s design for the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Voltaire’s Candide is one of the funniest things I’ve seen from Ware in months; sure, the gags in Acme Novelty Library #16 (review coming soon) were nice, but this is just a superb little piece of wit. A lot of the talk I’ve heard surrounds the front cover art, and it’s a nice cover indeed, offering up a quick summary of the entire story in comics form, hopefully providing some informative enticement to the curious classics-wary browser, and cannily mixing Voltaire’s satiric drive into Ware’s own artistic worldview (it might have seemed impossibly self-inflating on Ware’s part, were it not such a very nice fit) - however, the fun extends to all corners of the book.

In particular, don't miss the hilarious back cover text (which, if not written by Ware himself, is provided by someone aping his prose style marvelously), extolling the virtues of Michael Wood’s introduction as a homeroom cramming guide, providing positive and negative quotes from various noted personages, sagely noting that Theo Cuffe’s translation will be great for those who can’t read French, and generally being wry (“The satirical scourge of 1759, now in paperback!”). There’s also bonus comics on the cover flaps, including a character guide, a disease-themed puzzle page, gag strips starring Voltaire himself, and so much more. I was kind of skeptical about this idea when I first caught wind, but Ware has not disappointed; it’s funny, fitting, attention-capturing work.

*And here's a fitting final review as the hours of 2005 expire. Come back tomorrow for our annual special, The Official, Authorized, Completely Unfair Jog - The Blog 10 Best Comics of 2005 List Which Does Not Contain Works I Have Not Read, Like Black Hole. It'll be quite a zinger!

Solo #8

Very good issue here. That’s not an unexpected observation, given the generally high level enthusiasm surrounding this series; despite its very nature - different talents with each edition would seem to suggest some major fluctuations in quality - the book almost always remains an appealing read. This is good enough when dealing with firmly established talents; I don’t really expect Paul Pope or Howard Chaykin to screw things up too badly, to be perfectly honest. But when the title showcases a less visible creator, affording that talent a fairly large stage upon which to strut their stuff before one of the bigger potential readerships in pamphlet-format Direct Market comics, the effect of high quality can be much greater, as the reader truly feels that they’ve gained something new and valuable from the experience. It’d all fall apart if the talents involved were lackluster, but they haven’t been. And in Teddy Kristiansen’s case, this one being his issue, the talent is formidable, even more so than expected.

Born in Denmark, Kristiansen has consistently skated around the edges of visibility in DC-published comics. He worked on the first-ever DC-authorized, entirely non-US Superman book (1990's Superman and the Tale of Five Cities, written by Niels Søndergaard). He was artist on the 1995 Sandman Midnight Theater one-shot, a ‘crossover’ between Vertigo’s two Sandman series, written by Neil Gaiman and Matt Wagner (Kristiansen has also done some work on various Grendel books). He teamed with writer Steven Seagle in 1996 for Vertigo’s 25-issue House of Secrets revival, with a 2-issue follow-up (House of Secrets: Facade) released in 2001; the pair reunited in 2004 for the highly visible Superman-inspired Vertigo graphic novel It’s a Bird, which is probably the source of most of Kristiansen’s current popularity. You’ll note that Kristiansen acts as artist for these projects; indeed, in this book Kristiansen is teamed with two of those prior collaborators, Seagle and Gaiman, the latter of which will doubtlessly bring along a few extra readers, despite the rather low-key publisher hype (perhaps to keep the focus on Kristiansen? I’d forgotten Gaiman was even in the book until I opened it up). But of the five stories herein, Kristiansen writes three of them himself.

And that is where so much of the impact of this book stems from. This is arguably the most impressive issue of Solo that I’ve read (and I’ve real all but the Tim Sale debut), simply because I had no idea how Kristiansen would fare as a writer, and it turns out he’s very good - he handily outshines his more visible collaborators in the scripting department, though the book as a whole remains remarkably cohesive. There’s an omnipresent mood of life’s ephemeral quality, with special attention paid to the mortality of love and creation, though the betrayals of the human body come into play as well. Death reigns supreme in these tales (just look at Deadman staring out on the cover), and all of humanity’s endeavors will eventually succumb. It’s far more brooding material than this title has seen before, heavy on contemplation and handsome allegory, with visuals all the handsomer.

The book begins with a strange collection of monochrome thumbnail images for every page of art in the book, then it’s on to Gaiman’s story, the only ‘superhero’ tale in the book, though it’s about as far as a story get from superheroics while still wearing a costume. Instead, Gaiman seizes upon Deadman’s body-seizing nature as a mystic avenue for thoughts on the futility of romance among tender, mortal humans. It’s framed as a conversation on a staircase with a strange young girl, and peppered with typical Gaiman whimsey, to whatever effect the individual reader might expect from such things. From the vantage of having completed the book, the tale serves largely as a very light appetizer, introducing the book’s predominant themes as diluted by colorful costumes and gentle humor, though the quality of Kristiansen’s visuals are already apparent, with thin and simplified designs filled with chalky skin and pale colors (all color in this book is by Kristiansen himself).

The character art is even simpler in the next story, Seagle’s, with Kristiansen’s lines taking on a certain fuzzy quality, though very few of them are utilized to craft expressions or forms. More dominantly, everything is washed over in various gradations of greenish hue, save for a few particular elements, like a dress or face paint or blood. But even panels depicting a man impaled on a dozen sharp missiles are kept modest, iconic (making the puzzling, unfortunate presence of computer sound effect fonts straight out of Infinite Crisis all the more garish). Seagle’s plot is hardly unique or inspiring - a pair of missionaries run afoul of murderous headhunters out in the jungle, and the imperceptible beauty of art (rather than the evangelizing bluntness of religion) saves the day - though there’s a good complimentary effect at work as per its positioning in the book; once again, the spiritual (here a more realistic uncertainty rather than the fantasy of Gaiman’s offering) is of no assistance to people in hanging onto what they desire, things that cannot last. Only the most imperceptible of beauties (note that the natives merely seem to enjoy the tones of the words spoken) can prevail.

But maybe even this is limited. The Kristiansen-written portion of the book begins with the issue’s centerpiece, a 16-page saga of a young artist, plagued by summer heat, becoming enchanted by a woman he spies reading in a window at night. But she preoccupies his mind, and he finds he cannot sleep. “Here in the darkness, each star seemed cut as a sharp piece of glass, reflecting the passed day’s sunlight.” Seen at night, the woman also reflects the oppressive heat of the day, though her own radiation is a result of our protagonist’s inability to approach her, to solidify her essence into anything resembling a relatable human. He can’t even paint her, so indistinct is her appeal. But time must pass, and he must choose whether or not to approach her, and the heat will never last, as summer gives way to autumn, and dreams fade with time. It’s a melancholic piece, beautifully rendered in dusty colors, the majesty of architecture looming in the distance, as our protagonist looms forward; watch what Kristiansen does with shadows here, pooling a thin mask of darkness across the artist’s face until the end of the story, as if he’s staring at this woman through a veil, dwarfed by grand structures.

Even these cannot stand, though. The next story, my favorite, concerns another artist, one Henry Fielding (not the British author), who is summoned to the estate of a Lord Bastian, architectural legend, on the curious assignment to paint portraits of all the Lord’s grandest cathedrals, but as imagined ruins. The artist becomes seized by nightmares as he imagines the decay of these formidable structures daily, and it soon becomes clear that the Lord is paying for symbolism, surrounding himself with images of accomplishment smashed, to accompany a more personal succumbing. All of this is rendered by Kristiansen in large, mistily painted panels, kept strictly two to a page, always horizontal and identical in size, as if we are viewing a gallery of portraits of portraits, and their creators, and their homes. The artist’s narration is accompanied with a chilled, omniscient voice-of-history counternarrative, as time itself has already swept these characters from the stage, just as they work (in the context of the story) toward documenting that very state. Is it any wonder that Fielding opts to study the human body at the end, seeking to prolong life by the most direct means possible?

It is of little impact. The final story in this ever-expanding study of mortality sees death reigning supreme, as the 35 men aboard a wrecked vessel become stranded in a polar region devoid of habitation. Nature itself denies life here, and the men resort to murder, cannibalism, scavenging, and madness, until only the ice floes are left, hence the title Ice. Kristiansen hardly differentiates the desperate, bearded men here as they fade away, the blue of the cold dominant, the blankness of the spaces profound. “After this there was nothing but the silence of the cold and the cracking of ice.” Those are the final words in this book, all of humankind finally snuffed before the comparative immortality of nature, humans and their lives and cathedrals and infatuations and ambitions and romances. And the playful, Gaimanesque afterlife is apparently of no relief to those that at least used to be mortal.

No, not the feel-good hit of late December, 2005. But the skill behind it is most captivating. I hope that more readers become aware of Teddy Kristiansen through this book, and I greatly look forward to his upcoming Red Diary, a European album-format release, that hopefully will appear in English (guaranteed in English: his next collaboration with Seagle, Genius). And really, that’s one of the greater rewards of reading a successful book like Solo - becoming excited about creators that were barely on your radar prior, after they’ve been given the space and creative freedom to impress. This was space well-spent, and I think you’ll agree.