Recommended Reading: Richard McGuire’s Here

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Richard McGuire’s Here imagines, in the pages of a comic, the same thing that I often have: what happened here, in this spot – our house, our town, the grocery store, the lake, the highway – one hundred years ago, one thousand years ago, one hundred thousand years ago? What did it look like? Who, or what, stood in the same spot as I do now, in the year 2016, on the brink of the year 2017? What did it look like before Europeans set foot on these shores? What did it look like before any humans lived here at all? Who lived here? Fell in love here? Died here?

Looking out from my own window, I often imagine what people have stood in the same spot as I do, looking up into the sky, or down onto the yard which stretches out to a small lake. And it is not only at home that I think this, but at work, or when I travel as well.

I do not believe this to be a terribly common type of thinking – or at least, it does not border on obsession for most people – but regardless, McGuire’s beautiful book, as all one’s favorite books do, feels as if it were written directly for me, personally.

The book takes place viewed from one angle. Often, this view shows us a living room. Sometimes it is painted different colors. A year – 1957, for instance – is set in the top left corner. But then other windows open in the living room. Some of these boxes show us other times, with other people – or maybe the same people, only aged – in the living room. Other boxes show us a forest. Or a view of another house, up to the right, in the distance. Some show Native Americans trading with European colonizers. Some show dinosaurs. Or dancing. Or melting ice cream. Or family disputes.

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McGuire orchestrates these scenes in a way that sometimes seems random, only to have the various random instances begin to line up, to harmonize, in a kind of symphony of time. He has taken brief moments from the years and years of time that have passed here, in this spot, and given them meaning through their mosaic juxtaposition with other, disconnected moments. Divorced from the context of their time, these moments gain force and sublimity when placed alongside other, disconnected images because they establish a kind of fraternity between all these people, and all these slices of time, which are separated by degrees on the linear spectrum of space-time. Looping back and forth between past, present, and future, McGuire demonstrates the connectedness of everything not through some corny anecdote about all these people being related, or all of them remembering everything that has happened in this spot (they surely don’t, as they are attached, like all of, primarily to their own existence) but through the simplicity of shared, finite space which stands in contrast to the infinite march of time.

McGuire illustrates the book to reflect this. The living room is solid, blocks of color and definite lines. But the people who move through it are often fuzzy, not quite defined. And the further into the past we go, the more the people, and the space itself, begin to blur. The space itself (sans living room) becomes a lawn with a scribbled house in the distance. Then, further back, a forest, which becomes murkier and murkier as we are transported further into the past, until it becomes primordial ooze, ill-defined space, but still our space, the space we see when we look into the living room. In the future, the house is gone. Overtaken by the ocean. Then dried out, but unlivable. Then slowly but surely, life emerges again.

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A late foray into the future: where a group of tourists enter the frame, led by a guide who begins to explain some customs of the 21st century – the carrying of wallets and keys, etc. – and then uses a device which gives the onlookers a view of the past, a view not dissimilar from the one McGuire has given us in the pages of his comic. This breaks, somewhat, the spell of the book – as if McGuire is trying to explain the magic of these windows into the past and future. For a moment, the imaginative and metaphysical experience of watching the pages of time flip, seemingly at random, is understood as merely a function of some future device, meant to intrigue bored tourists. But then that window collapses, and the chorus of voices, the painting of rooms, the noise of television and radios, the waves of future seas all come crashing in again overwhelming the tourists (of which we are now one) with the weight of time and the countless lives lived in these brief windows into the past and future.

McGuire’s book is a kind of miracle in that I cannot imagine it taking any other form. He uses the medium of comics to do something only comics can do – utilizing the boxy frames so often associated with comics to stunning effect. It is an elegy and a celebration of time and space and the moments we find together in the madness of the here and now, and the moments that led up to this one, and the infinite moments that will follow our forgetting.

 

Recommended Reading: From Hell

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Welcome to October here at Deja.Revue. If you have not noticed already, I tend to be a fan of the creepy, the weird, and the left-field in comics. So I though October would be a perfect time to indulge those predilections even more than I already have. Horror, as a genre in comics, has always been just off to the side. Less flashy than superheroes, and something of a mutant child of crime comics, the genre has a breadth and depth which is, in my opinion, almost unmatched. I do not hope to cover the whole diverse range of the genre in the coming month, but I do hope to give you a survey of some of my favorite works on page and screen. If you would like to read further, Paste has an excellent list of horror comics you should read. For further reading on the history of horror comics, check out Mike Howlett’s essay in the back of this excellent horror anthology that I will not have the time or space to write about this month. If all goes according to plan, I will have a column each Monday for you, culminating, fittingly, with Halloween at the end of the month. Don’t forget to turn off the lights.

It has been three or four weeks since I put down the heavy copy of Alan Moore’s From Hell that I borrowed from the library. It was nearing 2 AM, and while the tome sits silently on a shelf in my house currently, the real weight of the book has pressed on my mind almost constantly since I finished reading it.

Moore is a giant of comics who also has no trouble voicing his skepticism and impatience with the direction of the medium. He has essentially disowned his two best-known works, V for Vendetta and Watchmen, over the cash-grab way in which the film adaptions of each were brought to theaters (it is also important to note that Moore sees his work as fundamentally unadaptable, that is, he made them comics for a reason and comics they should stay – but that is a topic for another time). Lately, he has moved away from comics altogether. In a recent interview with Vulture promoting his new novel Jerusalem – a nearly 1200-page post-post modern novel that seems to share more than a little DNA with From Hell – he said, when asked about the influence of his superhero work:

I am really in a bad mood about superheroes. I’m not the best person to ask about this. What are these movies doing other than entertaining us with stories and characters that were meant to entertain the 12-year-old boys of 50 years ago? Are we supposed to somehow embody these characters? That’s ridiculous. They are not characters that can possibly exist in the real world. Yes, I did Watchmen. Yes, I did Marvelman. These are two big seminal superhero works, I guess. But remember: Both of them are critical of the idea of superheroes. They weren’t meant to be a reinvigoration of the genre.

The irony of much the current superhero-saturated climate is that it ostensibly owes a great debt to the aesthetics and moral weight of Moore’s work, yet it misunderstands and misinterprets that work – much as if one had taken the wallpaper from a house, pasted it on a billboard, and claimed to have reproduced the house.

One need only to read Moore’s other work to recognize that his interests and fascinations lie almost entirely outside of the (to him) childish realm of caped heroes. From Hell is the ur-text for understanding where Moore is coming from. The book mixes deeply researched history with conspiracy, the occult, penny-dreadfuls, architecture, Nietzsche’s theory of eternal return, melodrama, freemasonry, and the poetry of William Blake (to name only a few touchstones from which the book takes its flight). One of the great pleasures of reading the work is pouring over the dense endnotes after finishing each chapter to discover what Moore made up, what he speculated on, and what is cold fact. In the endnotes we find Moore the scholar as well as Moore the author. These notes are casual, even conversational, in tone and they are bunched at the back of the volume that I read. However, they served as a much needed breather after the densely packed pages of each of the 16 chapters.

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Not only is each chapter dense with detail, but most are terrifying in an apocalyptic sense. The book, on its surface, is about the Jack the Ripper murders which plagued London toward the end of the Victorian era. To this day, the murders remain unsolved and, as a result, an entire culture of amateur investigation and conspiracy has grown concurrently with the Ripper legend. While Moore cobbles some of these theories together in order to form the central plot of the book, this is the opposite of a whodunit. Moore does not hide the murderer or his work from the eyes of the reader. The killings are depicted in harrowing detail as the work of William Gull – royal physician to Queen Victoria – who, on the one hand, carries out the murders to cover up an embarrassing royal family secret while, on the other, turning this bit of dirty work into a grand pagan sacrificial ceremony with the city of London serving as the altar. The book explores Gull’s life, showing the events that lead to his rise in social standing and seeing him through to the murders and on to his ultimate fate. Moore also follows the victims, investigators, and various accomplices (both witting and unwitting) who are all tied intricately and disastrously with the bloody business. Gull (through Moore) sees himself as a prophet of the century to come – the chosen one tasked with the business of birthing the 20th century with all of its wars, its famines, its depressions, its industries, and its revolutions.

This is where Moore expands the scope of the whole enterprise. The book is grotesque, yes (and though Moore is notoriously heavy-handed when it comes to working with artists, Eddie Campbell draws the book with the kind of ugly beauty it requires, making every panel seem as if it were illustrated using soot from a cobbled London street), but this is not what makes the book terrifying – and it is terrifying, being among the very few books I have read which left me wary of the dark corners and late-night creakings of my own home – what makes the book utterly terrifying is the universe-size canvas on which Moore projects his story. The sense that this is all happening now – that it all has happened – that it all will happen again – turns the book into a deeply personal, though still cosmic, kind of horror. It is a book with a bleak view of humanity. Its dark energy saps the hope from your body – the horror is bone deep.

From Hell is not a story of good vs. evil. The book never even whiffs at the illusion that good has any chance of prevailing. We watch, helplessly, as mundane, political evil opens the door for darker, more sinister kinds of evil. We watch as the “good” characters, compromised as they are, grasp at straws in order to stop the murders only to find that, once the crimes have been solved, the few people who care are helpless to do anything to stop Gull. And we watch as Gull’s obsessions grow and, eventually, utterly consume him. This consuming obsession spirals out from the book (there is something of “The Tell-Tale Heart” in this) to engulf Moore’s obsession, as documented in the copious endnotes, and the macabre obsession of Ripper enthusiasts, salivating over a string of murders that terrorized a city and took the real lives of real people and turning them into a hobby. Perhaps this is why the book is so horrifying, because, by the end of From Hell, haven’t we, the readers, become one of them?

Recommended Reading: Descender Vol. 1: Tin Stars

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Your personal opinion may differ (that’s how these things tend to go), but for my money, Jeff Lemire is the most important comic book writer of the past 10 years. There are certainly few writers as prolific as Lemire. I honestly don’t know how the man does it. Not only does he consistently put out great books, but it seems as though he has written for nearly everyone. Since 2009s Essex County, Lemire has written for Top Shelf, Vertigo, DC, Marvel, Image, Valiant, and later this year, he will be publishing a new graphic novel with Simon & Schuster. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, he draws most of his books too.

I could easily do a whole year’s worth of posts on Jeff Lemire, and I guarantee his name will pop up a few more times before the year is out, but for the uninitiated, Descender is a great place to start. First off, the book is ongoing (#15 comes out next month), so you can get in on the ground floor, so to speak. And second, it has its feet planted on the borders of what Lemire does best. It’s a showcase of both Lemire’s singular creativity (it’s a creator-owned title put out by Image) and his ability to collaborate (the book was created with, and is illustrated beautifully by Dustin Nguyen).

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Let’s start with that collaboration. Having read many of the books which Jeff Lemire both writes and draws, I regard his voice and visual style as two sides of the same coin. His thick, almost sloppy lines give a visual texture to his worlds which is inextricable from the storytelling that holds them up. It can be jarring to read a Lemire book without his signature visuals. But Nguyen has an entirely different range and skillset. Within the first few pages of the book, he has to depict a shimmering city of the future, a world-sized world-destroying robot, a deserted mining colony, and the end of the world (sort of). The book moves at a rapid-fire pace, but Nguyen grounds it through his sensitive and meticulous depiction of the world. I did not intend my second Recommended Reading column to share this distinction with the first, but Descender, like Harrow County, is water-colored. It works to beautiful effect here. The range of light and dark, the softness of some faces, the hardened crags of others – the choice of watercolor brings a humanity to the far-off universe of Descender. It calls to mind the enigmatic covers of 50s and 60s sci-fi paperbacks. More importantly, it brings an essential humanity to its protagonist.

The book centers around Tim-21, the boy who is not a boy. In fact, he is a robot, and we learn, after the prologue, that he is one of the last of his kind. He has been asleep for ten years. In that time, giant robots appeared out of nowhere, reaped destruction, and then disappeared, sending the United Galactic Council into complete disarray. Tim-21 may be the key to defending the galaxy and that’s where Dr. Quon comes in. You see, he created the Tim series of child companions – a huge leap forward in robotics – and it turns out there may be some connection between the mysterious Harvesters (those world-sized, world-destroying robots) and the Tims.

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I won’t go too much further on plot –one of the pleasures of the book is the amount of twists and turns the narrative takes – but the book is filled with wonderful, classically Lemire-ian characters. A dog-robot. A Hulk-like killer mining robot. An bulbous, wannabe surgeon, space-king. And whole bands of miscreants and ruffians. The book ponders what it means to be alive, to be human, and what we owe the things we create. Lemire and Nguyen also turn an eye toward the past, how we learn from it, or don’t, and explore the self-destructive limits of ambition and fear.

You could start with any of Jeff Lemire’s books, but let me humbly suggest that you dip your toe into Descender. Volume 1 and 2 are available in trade paperback now with Volume 3 arriving at the end of this year.

 

-Ian

Recommended Reading: Harrow County

Recommended Reading: Harrow County Vol. 1: Countless Haints

Recommended Reading is an ongoing feature where we will take a brief look at currently running series worth checking out and catching up with.

 

I spent much of my weekend riding through the hills and mountains of West Virginia and southwest Virginia. I watched one evening as a storm crashed over a mountain, clutching at the valley like a great black hand. On a morning, driving back north, the fog and clouds became indistinguishable – twisting around the highway and switchbacks, rising from the trees like smoke from invisible fires, obscuring the deer lingering on the edge of the pavement only well enough to see, flitting, a bright flash disappearing into the deep, unknown woods.

In retrospect, it was fitting that I had read, and had been thinking about, Harrow County for this column right before descending into the south myself. Harrow County is scripted by Cullen Bunn. The art and lettering are by Tyler Crook. It is published by Dark Horse. You should be reading it. It is still a pretty young series, only the first two volumes are out in trade, with the third arriving next month. You’ve plenty of time to catch up.

The first arc centers on a young girl named Emmy who lives in southern, rural Harrow County with her father. A prologue offers us an immediate look at the darker side of life there. At some point, the residents had turned on a local witch – hanging and burning her. But not before she could offer one last warning: she’ll be back. After an absolutely beautiful two page spread of a gnarled tree in the night, a quiet farmhouse in the background, the book’s title vaporous in the night sky (more on the art in a moment), we are introduced to Emmy. She’s having trouble sleeping. Nightmares in which the tree far outside her window comes alive in flames, opens wide its toothed mouth, and screams “lies.”

Emmy’s 18th birthday is coming, but strange things have been happening. The dreams, for one. A dying calf brought back to life. A complete human skin stretched across the bramble in the woods, moaning and groaning for Emmy to reach out to it. It’s clear from the outset that Emmy and the witch have some kind of connection and as the townspeople become worried, Emmy takes for the woods.

The book examines the burden of inheritance. That is, that where we come from can sometimes determine who we are. Or can it? As Emmy puts the pieces together, she openly wonders what it all means, and whether or not she can be the one who determines her own fate. And this is just the starting place for the series, which also takes a look at the ghouls and haints and townspeople of Harrow County and asks what it means to be a family, a community.

Countless Haints collects the first four single issues of the comic and can feel maddeningly episodic at times. However, the arc mostly holds, even if it is rushed slightly by the end. One of the great things about this comic is how its world offers the capacity for infinite expansion. While there are merits to bringing us into this world with a compact identity drama, what excites me about this comic, and what causes me to recommend it, is the possibility and promise it offers.

The world and characters of Harrow County are rich. And in this first volume, much of what makes them so rich, what makes me want more, are Tyler Crook’s illustrations. The book is stunningly beautiful. Don’t believe me? Take a look:

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Crook’s art is that rare, perfect thing in comics: a choice that is truly bold and daring. There is a great deal of talk these days about doing new and daring things, but Crook doesn’t need to talk, because he’s doing them. As he points out in a brief interview collected in the back of the volume, illustrating with watercolors means no do-overs. What is put on the page stays on the page. As a result, the world feels organic – texture is huge here, the roughness of tree bark, the softness of hay, the slickness of blood-drenched skin. The colors pop when they need to (autumn has rarely been rendered so beautifully in a comic) and the blacks are inky and deep and mix with murky greys and blues to give nighttime its particular mix of darkness and light.

This series is absolutely worth catching up on, particularly if you like the unusual, the peculiar, the beautiful, and the profane.

 

-Ian