Panel Patter Quick Hits on Van Sciver, Gilbert Hernandez, Doctorow/Wang, Knisley, and Pham

It's 2015! Time for a new feature! We at Panel Patter read sooo many good comics, we can't possibly talk about them all at length. Starting with this column, we're debuting Quick Hits, where the team gets together and says a few things about books we've read recently. It's a chance to offer our thoughts in a brief fashion, to highlight things we wanted to talk about, but maybe not in a 1500 word opus. Sometimes this feature will have a theme, sometimes it will just be a round up of interesting books.

Without further ado, here's the first column! This one's an open call of books from 2014, leading off with a Panel Patter favorite, Noah Van Sciver, and his diary comics collection...

I Don't Hate Your Guts  
Written and Illustrated by Noah Van Sciver 
Published by 2D Cloud

The back cover promises "30 days in the life of Sad Noah Van Sciver."  Below that, Van Sciver's cartoon alter-ego tells us "I'm 29 and still trying to figure out who I am…" Inside this 32-page diary comic (featuring entries from February 24th to March 25th, 2014) we see him struggle to balance his artistic output with a couple of day jobs, including a crummy one in food service, muddle through daily life in general, and begin dating a sweet-natured, smart woman named Leah. In the closing pages his relationship with her appears to be getting serious. The straight talking, hardworking, funny-sad Van Sciver is one of the brightest lights in the Millennial Cartoonist firmament, and this beautifully produced full-color mini is a real treat. I love the loose, improvised feel of Van Sciver's line here; his decision to leave in scribbled-out typos and taped-over corrections adds charmingly to the spur-of-the-moment diary form, and his colored pencil work is lovely and atmospheric. Van Sciver has demonstrated versatility in other storytelling forms ranging from biography to fiction; I finished this wanting to read a lot more of his diary comics. (Review by Rob Kirby)

An Age of License
Written and Illustrated by Lucy Knisley
Published by Fantagraphics

Creator Lucy Knisley takes us on her trip to Europe, in which she combines an event invitation with some family time to explore another continent as much as possible. Over the course of the pages, she not only shows readers her outer experiences but also the inner workings of her mine, both in the spur of the moment as well as when she has had time to reflect on what happened. It's an open honesty that makes for a great autobiographical work, and Knisley understands this. It's especially true as she forms a romantic link to a man she knows she can't stay with long-term. There's a sense of self-discovery that builds over time, which she talks about in the closing pages, making this more than just a travelogue, but also a monologue, which readers of a certain age should be able to resonate with strongly.

Knisley's art style features thin line work and an ability to roll her thoughts and images across the page in a free-flowing, but not abstract manner. It's not unlike what you might see in a zine, and the book's nearly square-size also enhances that effect. She's not going to give you intricate details, but you form the impressions of the places she visits, the look of the people she sees, and the memories that Knisley has taken home with her. Lots of little notes run across the page as well, helping the reader understand what they're looking at. This was a lot of fun to read, and reminded me a lot of my gold standard for travel comics, Craig Thompson's Carnet de Voyage. (Review by Rob McMonigal)

In Real Life

Story by Cory Doctorow 
Art and Adaptation by Jen Wang
Published by First Second

I wanted to like In Real Life more than I actually did. I am a fan of Cory Doctorow's writing and have read several of his novels; I am also a fan of Jen Wang's lovely drawing style, which I first saw in her debut comic Koko Be Good. Much of In Real Life actually takes place online, in a fictional massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (or MMORPG) called Coursegold. Anda, the main character, loves playing Coursegold- it allows her to create a bolder-than-life avatar, have adventures and talk with users from all over the world. One of the users than Anda meets is a Chinese teenager working as a gold farmer- a user who collects in-game items for the purpose of selling them to other users for real cash, practice both common and forbidden. Much of the plot of In Real Life focuses around Anda's growing friendship with the gold farmer and the murky morality of the situation.

Here's the thing. Cory Doctorow's novel For The Win, published back in 2010, explored these same issues with much more depth, excitement and finesse. For me, reading In Real Life was like reading a water-down version of For The Win, accompanied by excellent illustrations. However, for someone who had not previously read any of Doctorow's novels, In Real Life might present an interest and fairly well told exploration of a new topic. So I would still recommend it, though mostly to new readers, not to long time Doctorow fans. (Review by Maia Kobabe)

Written and Illustrated by Gilbert Hernandez
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Gilbert Hernandez takes his distinctive art style to a a small town and several small-minded individuals in a story that didn't seem to know whether to stay closer to reality or move off into a crazier world. Using a small group of recurring characters, Hernandez makes it clear they're all very broken people, including a cougar teacher who romances a former student, an impotent man who boasts of fake sexual conquests and a business owner with designs on one of her employees. They weave in and out of the narrative, usually to be horrible to each other, and in the end, several romantic entanglements lead to heartbreak and tragedy.

It's not a bad story, and the interlinking plotting works well. The problem for me is that I didn't feel like there was any reason to really care about these characters. They're not three-dimensional enough, a fact that's made worse by the visuals. I know the gigantic breasts is Gilbert Hernandez's thing, though he only uses it on the older teacher here. Sometimes things look it's meant to be set in our world, and at other times, the people feel as if they're pulled from old newspaper strips and tossed together in this world--another issue of reality-vs-fake warring with each other in the graphic novel. My disappointment here is similar to my issue with more recent Daniel Clowes comics--if the people are just unpleasant without being interesting, it's no big deal when bad things happen to them. If you like that sort of thing, you'll enjoy Loverboys a lot more than I did. This is one I'd only recommend to hardcore Hernandez Brothers fans. (Review by Rob McMonigal)

Epoxy 5
Written and Illustrated by John Pham

2013's Epoxy 4 was a break with previous entries in John Pham's long running one-artist anthology both from a narrative perspective and with it's overall look and feel, but Epoxy 5 picks up where 4 left off.  It's confusing why these two issues of Epoxy are even called Epoxy.  The "main" story in both of these comics is a continuation of "Deep Space" which first appeared in Pham's other one-artist anthology: Sublife.

In Epoxy 5 the three-"man" crew has crashed landed their submarine looking spaceship on a planet whose surface resembles shattered fiberglass broken up by an occasional volcano.  The whole thing is printed with gorgeous blue and orange hues with the orange running the gamut from peach to pumpkin.  The colors look like they were printed with painstaking iterations through a risograph.  But Pham was using very nearly the same colors as far back as his "221 Sycamore Ave" in the early issues of MOME, so there is more going on than just messing around with printing techniques.  Pham's cartooning occupies similar territory as Chris Ware and Kevin Huizenga, everything on the page is deliberate and thought out in the way that is contributes to the overall affect.

Embedded within the comic is a smaller comic, continuing the episodic adventures of Jay and Kay.  Jay and Kay are two girls who navigate a late capitalist quasi-magical world of teenage insecurities and awkward social situations at the mall.

Like a comics babushka doll, there is yet another even smaller comic embedded within the "Jay &Kay" minicomic.  This one is an issue of a periodical called "Cool Magazine" which is referenced in "Jay & Kay" as a favorite of the girls. It has mazes, fictional record reviews, advertisements etc.  It even has a very small subscription / correspondence card addressed to Cool Magazine at John Pham's home address which is not much bigger than a postage stamp. (Review by AJ McGuire)