Holiday Good Times

*Well, at least I finished my Christmas shopping. Other than that, last week wasn't a great one for getting anything done, although I maintain I would have gotten part two of that con thing up if the words had only worked like they're supposed to. I'm now consulting the manual.

*Theatrical Shorts Dept: Oh, I did see the new Coen Brothers movie, A Serious Man, which I liked a hell of a lot. Although I think I was misled by some of the reviews - this is much more of a comedy than anyone seems to be talking about, in that there were laughs just about straight on through. I thought it was a lot funnier than Burn After Reading, for example, which landed for me as another not-quite-there Coens attempt at deliberate farce (I haven't seen The Hudsucker Proxy, though, the most infamous of those efforts, albeit an infamy of an earlier, different time). Maybe I just find them funnier when the weight of their effort isn't on the comedy?

I particularly liked how much its of a piece with other Coen pictures, how it adapts the chaotic universe outlook of (just sticking to recent work) diverse stuff like the literary adaptation of No Country for Old Men and the all-star spoofing of Burn After Reading to some deeply-felt religious struggle. By which I mean how the landscapes of No Country are neutral ground for human misdeeds and the control of fate offered by the flip of a coin won't stop you from being hit by a random car, and how the conspiracies and intrigues of the Burn cast are all self-absorbed, mostly fantasy playing out in an uncaring world - how all that mirrors the religious person's agony at how when things go wrong you don't weep in thrall of an immediate God.

Ah shoot, I'm gonna have to get into spoilers. If that's not your thing, skip down to the bold letters.

I took the primary theme of the film as physicality's interaction with spirituality/the supernatural, an old concern for sure. The opening Yiddish fable is a synecdoche; the husband accepts the physical nature of things while the wife views the home's situation in supernaturally religious terms, with no conclusion reached after Special Guest Star Fyvush Finkel gets shanked - the departure of the 'threat' to the house leaves the husband convinced that his wife is crazy, while the wife is content in having obviously saved the day.

The film proper reestablishes this setup right in front, with the titles and the title tune literally flowing into the ear of young Danny, preventing him from hearing his lessons (and happily suggesting that the movie itself will probably only confuse and distract from genuine religious concerns), cross-cut with Larry's physical examination, the scientific results of which are of course incomplete, a fact the Coens underline by going for the great old 'smoking doctor' joke. No surprises here.

And as Larry's life proceeds to spend the remainder of the film falling apart in a Job-like manner, he's mocked by the fact that his trials are fairly logical as far as things go, that his three 'friends' (the Rabbis) can only embody different ways of confronting struggle under the eye of God, and certainly that no divine answer appears to be forthcoming. Granted, I've seen some readings of the film cast the finale as God's 'answer' to Larry's moral failure (in contrast to Job's success), but I see it less as explicit punishment than human physicality finally, ironically begging questions of deeper contemplation that can otherwise be put away like paying for records by mail.

Consider how the film's ending mirrors its (post-Yiddish) beginning, again cross-cutting between Larry and Danny, except this time Larry's old body is clearly in bad shape from within, and he must contemplate not social or economic meltdown but the reality of death. At the same time, Danny tries to pay off the bully that's been chasing him for the entire movie, but here at the end he's standing still, as they both watch the storm swirling, suddenly aware that there's bigger things than them in the world, real physical smitin'.

Naturally, none of this mandates a belief in divine power; you can read the whole movie as a study of silly characters running back and forth crazy from superstition in the nihilistic world, in the same way that you can read, say, Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker, as an avowed agnostic's intellectual survey of variations on faith. The context would argue otherwise -- and you'll notice I'm not reading the Coens' film in the specifically Jewish context it's planted in, so I'm possibly on thin ice myself -- but that multiplicity of readings is going to be present with subject matter that explores such doubt without blinking. Although I daresay that denying A Serious Man's, er, seriousness in exploring these deeply-felt theological basics involves holding the characters at more of an arm's length than the filmmakers themselves.

But yeah - funny movie, a really sharp, clever treatment of topics near and dear to probably a lot of people the Coens knew/know. Lots of love in this picture, great touches, etc.


(Do note that while the awesome-looking Eddie Campbell collection Alec: The Years Have Pants is set for imminent release according to some lists, such as Midtown Comics', it is not on Diamond's list for the week... so basically, keep your eyes peeled at the shop, since it might be there but maybe not.)

Footnotes in Gaza: Straight up from the footnote-like region of the Merchandise section of the Diamond list comes a popular recent pick for your stop-the-presses-here's-a-book-of-the-year talking point - the new 432-page(!) hardcover work by Joe Sacco, honed in on the town of Rafah at the bottom of the Gaza Strip, and the 1956 killing of over 100 Palestinians that embodies the area's living conflict.

Every time I see a new Sacco comic I'm struck by how out-of-time he seems; with his in-story avatar furiously scribbling down the action, his caption narrations topping many a panel and his subjects frequently turning to address YOU the reader, a pretty fucking straight alt comics line can be drawn back to American Splendor, or even Justin Green's stuff, to an extent, which isn't something that can be said at all for contemporary lit comics superstars of Sacco's stature. His innovation, I think, is in refining these storied techniques in pursuit of a subject matter that both benefits from the comics form -- particularly in evoking the faces of displaced people, and their bodies and living spaces and posture too, but the faces are very very important -- and conflicts with it in terms of tone, if a bit from the formal characteristics Sacco adopts. In other words, I'm never surprised that the back-of-cover quotes on these things continue to marvel at the sight of comics as journalism, because Joe Sacco's comics look like comics as anyone who's read Archie can recognize.

That's not to say he's alone in the effort -- I suppose any number of biographical, reportage comics, that 9/11 Report book etc. use the same basic tried-and-true toolkit -- but circumstances have left him as maybe the only A-list longform People Know Him big-time publishing cartoonist in North America today really working an older, just-post-underground brand of comics art, save for Harvey Pekar himself (with various artists, of course). It's really worth comparing with The Photographer, this year's other big comics-as-journalism release, both as immediate in general storytelling posture as Sacco's book but also a bit tricky and formalistic in that (maybe stereotyped) French alternative comics manner. But yeah - look through this book, it's something. The price is $29.95, the publisher is Metropolitan Books.

The Original Johnson Vol. 1 (of 2): And speaking of comics biography, here's the first IDW collection of Thriller co-creator Trevor Von Eeden's webcomic saga of boxing legend and early 20th century media sensation Jack Johnson. It's 128 color pages for $19.99.

The Art of Herge, Inventor of Tintin Vol. 2 (of 3): 1937-1949: Being the $39.95 center hardcover layer of Last Gasp's big (11" x 8.9") collection of drawings and illustrations by the great Georges Remi, picking up with the start of the color Tintin and passing through the WWII years. With text by Philippe Goddin, translated by Michael Farr. It's 208 pages.

The Great Anti-War Cartoons: Or, for more of a thematic arrangement, Fantagraphics has a $24.99, 192-page Craig Yoe-edited collection of international images from across 200 years. Samples.

Sublife Vol. 2: The latest in this annual (or so) landscape-format Fantagraphics series from John Pham, who first came to most readers' attention with the 2000-2002 self-published, multi-format series Epoxy, a really striking fusion of NON-ready lush cartooning with Otomo-like detail action. He later appeared in early issues of the Fanta anthology MOME with his serial 221 Sycamore St., an odder, less satisfying union of Chris Ware-styled storytelling devices and dreamy symbolic interludes reminiscent of David B. The extra-length debut issue of Sublife was greatly devoted to revising that serial, and it will continue into this new 48-page, $7.99 edition, along with a smaller (even more Ware-like) outer space serial, a self-contained story of a more direct pastel & scratching dissonance (samples here) and assorted short strips. Certainly worth flipping through.

Hellboy: The Bride of Hell: The new Mike Mignola/Richard Corben joint, this time a $3.50 one-off comic with Our Boy on the trail of a missing woman promised to evil. What's not to like? Preview.

Detective Comics #860: The last segment in the Origin o' Batwoman sequence, and the final Greg Rucka/J.H. Williams III issue for a while, as the latter takes some time to work on the larger story's concluding five chapters. Or six. Actually, Williams has been firmly hinting that the rest of the story might not even be happening in Detective Comics itself. Regardless, issue #861 starts up a three-part Rucka-written Batwoman side-story with art by Jock, and the Cully Hamner-drawn Question backup, as here, as always.

The Mighty Vol. 1: Tucker Stone once described this Peter J. Tomasi & Keith Champagne-written series as the version of Super-Man in that one issue of The ACME Novelty Library where he gouges out all those eyes on the desert island starring in a proper DC superhero comic, which is worth bringing up. This is a $17.99 softcover collection of the first six issues, which'll be half of the whole series once all is said and done in January. Peter Snejbjerg draws a bunch of this part, so it'll look pretty slick too.

Crossed #8 (of 9): In which Garth Ennis' & Jacen Burrows' end-of-days zombie (or thereabouts) series skips 'n whistles ahead, no doubt with an extra laugh on its lips given the heartwarming events of last issue.

Criminal: The Sinners #3 (of 5): More from Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips. Have a look.

Beasts of Burden #4 (of 4): No more for now from Evan Dorkin & Jill Thompson. Check it out.

Frank Frazetta's Dark Kingdom #3 (of 4): I am bound by statute to identify and log every new Tim Vigil-drawn comic or illustrated prose story in comic form, so there.

Gantz Vol. 8: Seriously, Hiroya Oku will probably keep making this so long as you buy it.

Garth Ennis' Battlefields: Happy Valley #1 (of 3): Marking the return of Ennis' Dynamite strain of war stories with a lil' thing about an Australian bomb crew over Germany in 1942, with art by 2000 A.D. regular PJ Holden. Note that there's only three issues due; as with the last bunch of these things, it's gonna be trilogy of three-part stories coming out monthly, so I think some wires got crossed somewhere and Happy Valley got solicited as a nine-part series, when it's actually just set to be followed by two other three-chapter tales. Preview.

Charley's War Vol. 6: Underground and Over the Top: Ho ho ho, Joe Sacco & Garth Ennis not quite enough for the conflict department of your internal Santa's Workshop? Well why not a $19.95, 9" x 12" hardback shot of Pat Mills' & Joe Colquhoun's vintage battle pictures of the sick futility that was World War One? There's no comics next week, so savor these 112 pages of absurd human ruin while you toast the new year. Be sure, it's fiction, but not too much, and of a period, but really unending. Have a funny 2010!