Given the uptick in activity on the local comics scene — with new (or repurposed) work by a quartet of artists — supplies of ink no doubt require restocking in St. Louis.
Dan Zettwoch’s “Birdseye Bristoe” (Drawn & Quarterly, 64 pages, $19.95) is the most anticipated of them, the first book-length work by one of graphic lit’s most innovative talents. The eponymous protagonist is an iconoclastic old feller who, for opaquely religious reasons, allows the controversial erection of a sky-piercing cell tower on his land. The construction coincides with a visit by his great-niece Krystal and her cousin Clint.
The teens’ and Birdseye’s interactions with one another and the tiny surrounding community constitute the slender “plot,” but the main pleasures of Zettwoch’s work derive not from narrative per se but from the imaginative ways in which he tells his stories. A practiced hand at infographics — i.e., information conveyed through visual means — the artist makes complex use of maps, diagrams and extensive annotations.
The book thus alternates more traditional story-driven interludes with frequently hilarious (but dead-on) explorations of arcane subjects, including a primer on how to harvest nightcrawlers and an exegesis on blood blisters. There’s even a foldout, “Birth of a Cross Section,” that cannily simulates a newspaper graphic offering an “anatomical overview” of the cell tower.
Zettwoch uses these narrative strategies both to provide a richly furnished environment for his characters and to reveal with striking economy their quirky obsessions, memories and feelings. A Rube Goldberg construction of marvelous intricacy, the book begins in dreamlike confusion — starting with the apocalyptic destruction of the cell tower before flashing back to its origins — and assembles its crazy quilt of seemingly stray details into a wonderfully organic whole.
Drawn in a faux-primitivist style — nicely appropriate to Birdseye’s own handmade, down-home inclinations — and colored with a muted palette that emphasizes yellows and reds, “Birdseye Bristoe” merits careful study. Though relatively thin in page count, it’s dense with meaning and allusion.
Zettwoch’s running buddy Kevin Huizenga — a major figure in contemporary cartooning — is similarly interested in fresh ways of constructing narratives. “Gloriana” (Drawn & Quarterly, 118 pages, $19.95) would generate serious excitement if it weren’t simply a repackaging of a 2001 self-published minicomic (“Super Monster” No. 14), which had already received an upgrade in 2004, when it was published in slightly revised form as the second issue of the Huizenga series “Or Else.”
The latest iteration features hard covers, higher-quality paper and an incrementally larger size. If you own one of the previous versions, there’s frankly no reason to invest an additional $20, but if you’re a “Gloriana” newbie, buy the book posthaste.
Starring Huizenga’s recurrent characters — everyman Glenn Ganges and wife Wendy Caramel — the comic features four interlocking vignettes of quotidian events: daydreaming at a desk, putting away the groceries, watching the sun set and the moon rise. Huizenga vamps on these superficially inconsequential moments and makes them surprisingly large by stretching and fragmenting time and by experimenting with different representations of how thought is processed.
Huizenga veers into abstraction in one long stretch, culminating in a glorious four-page gatefold of sometimes baffling imagery. He also deploys his own version of Zettwoch’s infographic approach in a bravura sequence — no doubt influenced by his stint at the St. Louis Science Center — explaining why the moon sometimes looks “blood red.”
In addition to its linked pieces, “Gloriana” even provides a bonus story: a brief, lovely autobiographical piece on the Huizenga family and basketball in Illiana, Ill.
Two other members of the Zettwoch-Huizenga circle of comics artists — the husband-and-wife duo of Ted May and Sacha Mardou — have more modestly scaled efforts in stores.
Mardou’s self-published “The Sky in Stereo” No. 1 (mardouville.com, 52 pages, $5), which appears at least semi-autobiographical, recounts teenage life in Manchester, England, in the early 1990s. Although her cartooning skills are still developing, Mardou beautifully captures adolescent drift, with its casual drug consumption, fast-food drudgework, furtive sex, and romantic misunderstandings.
In the main story of “Injury” No. 4 (Ted May/Alternative Comics, 38 pages, $6) — co-written with Jeff Wilson — May explores similar territory from an American perspective. Based on a true story, “A Birdsong Shatters the Still” is a simple but potent distillation of high school, in which a group of Iron Maiden devotees get high in the woods before serving detention. Through precise and evocative cartooning, May communicates both wonder and boredom in almost purely visual terms.
Not all comics emanate from St. Louis, of course, so let’s move from the banks of the Mississippi to the shores of Lake Erie for a trio of books.
Spain Rodriguez’s “Cruisin’ with the Hound: The Life and Times of Fred Tooté” (Fantagraphics, 136 pages, $19.99) gathers together the underground stalwart’s entertaining recollections of his delinquent youth in 1950s Buffalo, N.Y. Perfectly capturing time and place in short anecdotal pieces, Spain hangs with wild man Fred Tooté and diminutive bruiser Tex, grooving to early rock, cruising in muscle cars, gassily philosophizing, and consuming endless pork-barbecue sandwiches from the “famous” Watt’s Restaurant.
In “My Friend Dahmer” (Abrams ComicArt, 224 pages, $17.95), Cleveland cartoonist John “Derf” Backderf recalls his younger days in suburban Akron, Ohio, of the 1970s. Jeffrey Dahmer was a classmate of Backderf’s, and they had a superficial friendship at Revere High School. Concentrating on Dahmer’s early years and his own interaction with the social misfit, Backderf sketches a chilling but not unsympathetic portrait of the budding serial killer-cannibal.
The comics creator most associated Cleveland is the late Harvey Pekar, a lifelong resident whose “American Splendor” series alternately celebrated and excoriated the city. Although famous for his dyspepsia, the writer offers a largely fond, heartfelt tribute to his hometown in “Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland” (Zip Comics/Top Shelf, 128 pages, $21.99). Mixing a history of the city with memories of his own life growing up in it, Pekar free-associates like a jazz player riffing on a melody, and artist Joseph Remnant provides aptly old-timey, Crumb-influenced cartoon accompaniment.
In another of his valedictory works, “Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me” (Hill & Wang, 172 pages, $24.95), Pekar similarly merges the histories of his family and the Jewish people, this time with art by JT Waldman. Though proudly Jewish, Pekar takes a critical view of Zionism’s excesses and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Joe Sacco also addresses the troubled Palestinian Territories in his new compendium of short pieces, “Journalism” (Metropolitan Books, 210 pages, $29). An exemplary reporter and extraordinary artist, Sacco roams the globe in these stories, with stops in the Balkans, Iraq, India, Malta and Chechnya. The relative brevity of the stories prevents them from rising to the heights Sacco scales in books such as “Palestine” and “Safe Area Gorazde,” but this is a fine, sharp work.
Closer to home, Sacco addresses distressed areas of the U.S. in another new book, “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt” (Nation Books, 320 pages, $28). Primarily a prose work by journalist Chris Hedges on “sacrifice zones,” where the dispossessed are exploited in the name of profit, the book interweaves comics and illustrations by Sacco.
Cliff Froehlich is executive director of Cinema St. Louis, which presents the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival from Nov. 8-18.