“The Man Without Talent,” by Yoshiharu Tsuge

“The Man Without Talent,” by Yoshiharu Tsuge. New York Review Comics, February 2020. 240 pp. Paperback, $22.95. Adult.

Thanks to Fables Books, 215 South Main Street in downtown Goshen, Indiana, for providing Commons Comics with books to review.

COVID-19 UPDATE: Please help your local small businesses stay afloat! At the time of this post (Tuesday 3/24), you can still order books from Fables and arrange to pick them up curbside or have them delivered. Contact the store at fablesbooks@gmail.com or call (574) 534-1984 to order.

If you can afford it right now, you can also support Fables and Goshen’s other downtown small businesses by ordering gift certificates from them now, and then going on a big spree later on, when we’re all allowed out of the house again.

Note: New York Review Comics sent me a free copy of this book.

Contrary to the title of “The Man Without Talent,” Sukezo Sukegawa, the book’s main character, is exceptionally talented. His problem—which becomes the problem of his wife and young son as well—is that he insists on starting his own business in an entirely different field. If Suzeko lacks talent, it’s as an entrepreneur, not an artist. He and his family live in poverty as he tries and mostly fails to sell attractive found stones, old cameras, and other assorted junk. When he visits his local bookstore, however, the bookseller practically begs him to write more comics. His wife does too—not out of love for his comics, but out of desperation.

Witnessing Sukegawa and his family negotiate his aimlessness can be, at times, sad and frustrating. This guy is maddening: he refuses to act as the “hero” of the story, which likewise refuses the narrative a standard trajectory.

Part of the story’s point, however, as you soon figure out, is the failures of its inert protagonist—although, fortunately, there’s also more to the book than that. Much like the work of Frank SantoroSeth, or John Porcellino, “The Man Without Talent” will slow you down as it repeatedly rejects your expectations—you can’t speed from one plot milestone to the next. Once you give in and let the book shift you into a lower gear, however, the level of detail in the landscape is a reward in itself:

Continue reading ““The Man Without Talent,” by Yoshiharu Tsuge”

“Hot Comb,” by Ebony Flowers

 

“Hot Comb” by Ebony Flowers. Drawn and Quarterly, June 18, 2019. 184 pp. Paperback, $22.95. Teen to adult.

Thanks to Fables Books, 215 South Main Street in downtown Goshen, Indiana, for providing Commons Comics with books to review. Visit the store or contact them at fablesbooks@gmail.com to find or order this or any book reviewed on this blog.

Quick note about upcoming workshops with comics artists I’ve reviewed: Frank Santoro, whose “Pittsburgh” I reviewed last month, will be giving a one-day free workshop in that city in March. And across the pond, Gabrielle Bell, whose “Everything Is Flammable” I reviewed in 2017, will be teaching a workshop in the French Pyrenees in June. That one’s not free, but surprisingly affordable given the setting, and scholarships are available.

 

With her debut “Hot Comb” topping “best of 2019” lists at outlets from “The Guardian” and “Publishers Weekly” to “Forbes,” you might think that Ebony Flowers must have been a kid prodigy doodling incessantly, making zines, and setting her sights on becoming a cartoonist. The real story is that she drew her first comic only eight years ago, in 2012, when she signed up on a whim for a class taught by comics grande dame Lynda Barry.

Flowers had just landed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, and signed up for Barry’s class on a whim. She ended up writing and publishing sections of her dissertation in comics form. She now calls herself “cartoonist, ethnographer, teacher” on her website.

“Hot Comb,” a collection of short stories with a good dose of autobiographical content, reads nothing like a dissertation. As you might guess, all of the stories center on hair. “It’s hard for me to disentangle my experience as a black woman . . . in America from my experience with hair,” Flowers explained to the “Chicago Tribune.” The stories address stereotypes, microaggressions, and structural racism, but also joy, self-love, and the way hair can help forge positive bonds between women of color, especially black women.

Flowers especially highlights that positive-negative tension in the segues between her stories, where she inks one-page parodies of the hair care advertisements that used to fascinate her as a child:

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“Rusty Brown, Part I,” by Chris Ware

Thanks to Fables Books, 215 South Main Street in downtown Goshen, Indiana, for providing Commons Comics with books to review. Visit the store or contact them at 574.534.1984 or fablesbooks@gmail.com to find or order any book reviewed on this blog.

”Rusty Brown, Part I” by Chris Ware. Pantheon, September 2019. 352 pp. Hardcover, $35. Adult. 

“Sprawling” is an adjective frequently applied to the visual and narrative style of vaunted comics master Chris Ware. The above image is only a section of the unfolded cover of his new book, “Rusty Brown, Part One,” but it well conveys the nested, insular, and almost maddeningly complex narrative mapping for which Ware is famous. (See my review of his 2012 book in a box, “Building Stories.”)

“Depressing” is an adjective frequently—perhaps most frequently—applied to Ware’s characters and their stories. In “Rusty Brown,” however, though the characters’ lives are often bleak, the book culminates in an expression of the type of hope and determination that keep Ware’s characters—and, really, the human race—going, even in the face of despair. “Books can’t tell us how to live,” he explains in a recent ”Guardian” interview, “but they can help us get better at imagining how to live.”

As well as how not to live, as some of the characters in “Rusty Brown” suggest. The book runs one by one through the stories of seven protagonists, introduced at the start of the book with film-like credits. The names are all very similar: for example, “W.K. Brown as W.K. ‘Woody’ Brown.” All of the characters either teach at or attend a small private school in Omaha, Nebraska. Though the real-life Chris Ware is associated with Chicago—he lives in the suburb Oak Park, populated by Frank Lloyd Wright buildings and patterns that echo throughout his work—he grew up in Omaha. “Rusty Brown” could be an alternate, “what if?” universe for Ware, especially since an art teacher at the school shares his name. Continue reading ““Rusty Brown, Part I,” by Chris Ware”