16 July 2006

CBC Quickees: On Pirates and Expatriates

The Left Bank Gang
By Jason (Fantagraphics, 2006; $12.95)

Why Are You Doing This?, an enthralling Hitchkockian mystery with a big heart, was my first exposure to the Norwegian cartoonist Jason, and it firmly put him on my list of creators from whom I'll check out anything they do. Unfortunately, for me, his English translations are published by Fantagraphics and I rarely find myself in their corner of the comics shop, so I hadn't gotten around to checking out any of his other work before The Left Bank Gang came out a couple of weeks ago. Originally published in France as Hemingway, its premise -- positing Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and James Joyce as struggling cartoonists in 1920s Paris -- is an intriguing one, and for the first half of his rather slim but not slight story (46 pages), Jason humorously plays up the writer/cartoonist angle while clearly establishing each of his lead characters and their relationships to one another, before setting his real story in motion, a Rashomon-style tale of double and triple-crossing as the quartet come up with a plan to solve their respective financial and, in some cases, marital woes, real and imagined.

As in Why Are You Doing This?, Jason's anthropomorphic characters and clean, European style make for an odd but effective complement to his cynical yet hopeful story, giving the whole affair a much more human feel than the more straightforward noir approach other less self-assured creators might have taken. Jason fans will be pleased, and newcomers will be intrigued by the discovery of an immensely talented creator with a solid backlist to explore further. Grade: B+

East Coast Rising, Vol. 1
By Becky Cloonan (TokyoPop, 2006; $9.99)

Smart comics retailers should have had copies of East Coast Rising prominently on display next to their cash registers the past couple of weeks, taking full advantage of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest's pervasive marketing onslaught -- McDonald's inflatable swords with every Happy Meal, despite the fact that the movie is far from kid-friendly, was genius! They could recommend it as a similarly manic, contemporary spin on pirates, featuring a colorful cast of characters, sea monsters, a flooded East Coast and, of course, a hidden treasure. Becky Cloonan puts a lot of energy into this first-of-three-volumes story, introducing her large cast of slacker/hipster characters, establishing some of their intertwined relationships while hinting at others, and setting up what appears to be more than just another treasure hunt. Not unlike Pirates of the Caribbean. East Coast Rising isn't a PotC clone, though, as Cloonan has her own story to tell and it's a fun one that stands on its own merits.

Disappointingly, her artwork doesn't hold up its end of the deal as the decision to 'color' water black instead of shades of grey too-often makes page after waterlogged, manga-style page indecipherable, especially during the many chaotic scenes of battle between ships, people and sea creatures, all blending into each other, and, worse, the water itself. Judging by the more legible sketches in the book's bonus section -- "The World of East Coast Rising" -- as well as memories of her exceptional, and varied, work on DEMO, this is presumably Vasilis Lolos' fault, who's credited with "tones". Issues with the art aside, it's an entertaining read that actually gets better on the second pass, and if its "tone" improves in subsequent volumes, I'll be picking them up. Grade: B-

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