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Nexus Graphica
by Mark London Williams

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Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
Holly Black
Ted Naifeh
Ask the Dust
Day of the Locust
Los LAYAs
Dark Horse Conan zone
Rabbi Harvey
Thomas Ott
BEA
ALA
Recent Books of Interest

The Good Neighbors, Book One: Kin by Holly Black (script) and Ted Naifeh (art) (Scholastic). The Good Neighbors, Book One: Kin
Slated for release in October, this was one of the ARCs that Scholastic was giving away at ALA. It's part one of a longer series, and finds Holly Black, of goth magick and Spiderwick renown, back in her familiar turf of Lovecrafty environments chock-a-block with dark faerie magick and eldtrich vendettas, and in this case, the lithe, sinewy bodies that seem to be the birthright of practicing faeries, clearly delineated by Naifeh, of Oni's Courtney Crumrin fame, among other projects. The story here involves a teenage girl named Rue, who is faced with a sudden crisis between her parents that reveals previously hidden -- or known and denied -- aspects of her own past. And birthright(s). It's a solid Goth YA adventure, though doesn't get truly interesting until the very end, when some long-held secrets of Rue's parents are revealed -- blending the notions of counter-culture sensibilities and (literal) magical possibility that Alan Moore was after in some of his Promethea books. That the book ends on its strongest note bodes well for the rest of the series.

Conan: Born on the Battlefield by Kurt Busiek (script) and Greg Ruth (art) (Dark Horse). Conan: Born on the Battlefield
This hardcover is the proverbial "handsome volume," and it collects some formerly disparate stories from the first run of Dark Horse's revivified Conan franchise, and here, assembles them as a single narrative about "Young Conan" -- his birth, childhood, and a swaggering teenhood that Robert E. Howard doubtless would've wanted for his own (but then, what boy doesn't really want to cut through all social complexities with a broadsword, while bedding the local lasses in the nearest stable?) If you're looking for a clue on how Conan became Conan, well, a single, psychologically-revelatory moment isn't in this long "origin issue," though there are several turning points where he is forced, steadily, into a life of increasing violence, culminating with some war atrocities against an invading city/state by book's end. It's scarcely a "wistful" coming of age story, but it's certainly a riveting one. Ruth's art is raw and splendid, and matches Busiek's prose expertly.

Rabbi Harvey Rides Again by Steve Sheinkin (Jewish Lights Publishing) Rabbi Harvey Rides Again
Here's a mini-interview with creator Steve Sheinkin, on his trickster-like Rabbi, who dispenses sage advice on the Colorado frontier:

Did you always want to do comics?
Back in high school I used to draw comics starring my teachers (some loved them, some definitely did not). I've always loved doing comics, but it's only in the past couple of years that I've really tried to make comics a part of my actual professional life. I'm still learning. One great thing about graphic novels is that each one looks entirely different, and having a distinctive drawing style that fits the story is more important than being the world's best draftsman. That's what I tell myself, anyway.

How do you view the balance of image/text in the stories?
I'm still figuring out the whole comics-making process, so I sort of make it up as I go along. I draw rough storyboards, then think about how much text would look good in and around the drawings. I like having a few text heavy pages here and there, especially when I feel like Rabbi Harvey has something important to say.

And the Rabbi does always have something important -- or at least illuminating -- to say. Sheinkin draws on Jewish folk tales, fables, and other sources -- often combining several in a single adaptation -- as Harvey manages to use drollery, wit and empathy, instead of a six-shooter, to make his way through the Old West. The 2-D folk-style art -- a kind of inked simulacrum of a woodcut -- suits the material well, and it is very large-hearted material at that.

The Number by Thomas Ott (Fantagraphics)
The Number
The Number
My second "handsome volume" of the column, as you immediately like this wordless, spooky tale as an artifact, since this black-and-white hardcover is so well packaged/produced by Fantagraphics. The Zurich-born Ott, trained in art and design, doesn't "write" graphic novels, so much as design them. And in this tale, a sequence of numbers, discovered by a prison guard after an execution, seems to bring good fortune, when viewed/used correctly. Or does it? There's always a "Monkey's Paw" payback in these tales, and The Number is no exception. It's a fun, Twilight Zone-like ride (and a bit sobering if you actually use words to create stories, the way some of us do!), and whether it rises to the lingering resonance of some of the best Zone episodes may depend on how much one puts into subsequent readings, and scanning the panels for critical -- and inexorably mounting -- details.

The Summer Knows. Kind of.

Book Expo of America
American Library Association
I don't know if we could call this the Summer of Love, exactly, what with the violence everywhere (though 1967, as a lead-up to 1968, was hardly free of turmoil itself -- at least the ice caps weren't breaking apart), but here in L.A. at least, it has been the summer of books.

No, not because everyone here in the Pueblo of Angels is suddenly cracking open copies of Ask the Dust or Day of the Locust to unearth their town's own literary history, but rather, because the two main gatherings of the book industry -- the Book Expo of America (or "BEA") and the American Library Association's annual gathering (or "ALA" for short) -- were held here.

Or, strictly speaking, the BEA was held in the L.A. convention center, end-of-May/early June next door to where the Lakers play, and the ALA was held a month later in neighboring Anaheim, whose convention center is -- of course -- across the street from Disneyland.

Now authors at these events are either heralded -- if your publisher is behind you and staking you to an in-booth signing, say -- or regarded as louche troublemakers, if you've been midlisted and ignored by the marketing department and wind up showing up at these key industry gatherings anyway, trying to buttonhole editors, bookstore owners, etc.

And to be sure, I had some trouble of my own to get into, with the locally located LAYAs -- that SoCal group of YA scribe -- but such things aren't the main import of this column.

Rather, dear reader, being the dutiful reporter I am, I scouted out the graphic novel scene for you at each of these events, to try and chart how sequenced panels, four color printing, and voice balloons were being received in the halls of literary marketing.

And you'd think, since BEA, in particular is about the commercial aspect of the book industry (analogous to perhaps the Sundance or Toronto film festivals -- art's okay, yeah sure, but where are the hits? -- and the ALA, representing institutional buying, also has a commercial aspect, though that assumes libraries will somehow continue to have budgets), that it would be all about the comics.

Or to use an L.A. analogy, how much money did the last Marvel comics movie make versus the last film version of a Philip Roth novel?

And yet, the galley for the new Roth book was the hotter item at the BEA. I don't mean to imply that by making its quadrennial relocation west, the Expo should succumb to what everyone blithely assumes is the local philistinism (and maybe it is, and I've been here too long to see it clearly) -- since the Expo is more often found in places like New York. And that is perhaps as it should be.

Publishing is too much like the TV and film bizzes already, with Barnes & Noble "pre-orders" standing in for overnight ratings and weekend box office. Don't let them fool you: New York has its share of philistines, too.

But I digress. The point is, the BEA was attempting to welcome the Graphic Novel officially, proclaiming a "Graphic Novel day," which turned out to be a loosely connected series of booth give aways and panels (and not always on the same day), as well as a Graphic Novel section or "alley" in one of the two exhibition halls, where various publishers -- Dark Horse, Marvel, et al -- held court, exhibited their wares, gave out some single issues and various collections.

But these weren't the only comics publishers there! "Nay!," as Thor or Galactacus might say. DC -- now owned by Time Warner, of course -- was in a Warner-affiliated area in the next large hall; manga publishers were scattered throughout.

And some of the more interesting ARCs ("advanced reading copy" in the argot) of graphic novels were being given out by publishers still getting into the game -- I got one from Scholastic at BEA, and another at ALA (see sidebar), and I'll be talking about some of these in-the-pipeline releases in the columns to come.

But the literal scattering of graphic novel publishers replicated the place/space comics occupy in publishing and retailing as a whole -- are all comics just... comics? In other words, should a graphic novel about a boy in volcano, or famous female historical characters (both of which I picked up at BEA, at booths many aisles apart) be shelved in that aforementioned Barnes & Noble because of the medium (comics) used to tell their story?

Isn't that a little like shelving everything under a "prose" heading if only words are used to tell the story?

Movies, after all, are visual, but you still manage to find them under different categories in a DVD section (even within a big box bookstore, and yet, by and large, every single "graphic novel" will be shelved together in these same stores).

So while comics are certainly no longer ghettoized by the book biz at large, "book publishing" isn't quite sure what to do with them yet.

And that's because "comics" are no longer "one thing" (that "one thing" being -- shall we just say it? -- a superhero yarn).

It may take awhile to sort itself out. Formerly prose-only authors are trying their hands at comic scripting -- though one only hopes this won't replicate the mostly hideous trend of celebrity "picture books," since celebrities assumed writing a great picture book was easy, and you could, you know, have a book to your name that way.

As for ALA, well, librarians, especially the kid lit and YA librarians, have been hip to graphic novels for a long time, mainly because their clientele were already reading them, and they are a way to draw those (often boys) identified as "reluctant readers" into the world of literacy and printed stories.

This is no diminution of the complexities inherent in, say, Alan Moore's From Hell, but if you've never picked up the reading habit at home or in your infrastructurally-challenged school, are you likelier to tackle Melville or Wolverine, once you're able to focus for twenty minutes?

So librarians know all that, and the publishers at ALA -- a smaller base than those represented at BEA -- likewise had their graphic novel offerings, such as they were, scattered around. It was more about the idea of graphic novels, rather than a serious push to give them "face time," so to speak.

Though again, Scholastic even had a GN signing -- namely Holly Black's current dark faerie opus, about which, I again refer you to the sidebar.

So "sequential art" is definitely in the mix at these trade shows, even if the bastions of the biz are still tinkering with what that mix should be.

The day is coming then, when "graphic novels" may erupt into multiple sub-categories, or find themselves shelved in different areas of your local bookstore, where more and more non-comics readers can discover them.

And of course, with this coming explosion, there will be -- as with books themselves -- many more not-very-good ones, along with the few gems.

But they won't have to be segregated into their own "day." They will be free to be not-very-good on any given day of any publishing industry trade show!

Equality, indeed.

Next up, the capper to SoCal's summer of lit shows, with a visit to the always regionally based -- and now mythic -- San Diego Comic con.

Copyright © 2008 Mark London Williams

Mark London Williams writes the Danger Boy time travel series, and works as a journalist covering both entertainment and politics, for Hollywood trade paper Below the Line. He's also written videogame and comic scripts, and plays, and hopes his floor pass for the exhibition area is still good.


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