Review: Top Shelf Roundup

A month or so ago, Top Shelf Productions was running a great sale on some of their backlist, with an assortment of graphic novels and comix for $1 and $3. [EDIT: The sale is apparently still on, here.] A mixed bag of titles, the vast majority of which I’d never heard of, I decided to randomly pick several that caught my eye and see whether or not any of them could match the subtle brilliance of Craig Thompson’s Blankets, a highly acclaimed Top Shelf publication, which I finally read earlier this year. A rather lofty standard-bearer, for sure, but when your tagline is “Sophisticated Comics for the Modern Age,” you’ve set the bar pretty high for yourself.

One can’t surf the comics blogiverse very long without running into a favorable reference to indie-fave, James Kochalka. While I snagged his American Elf opus at a nice discount, I still haven’t read it yet, starting instead with his deeply discounted Magic Boy & The Robot Elf. Fame has its privileges apparently, as the cover flap’s marketing blurb generously refers to this 10-year old effort as his “first (and highly ambitious) fever dream of a graphic novel,” which my Marketing 101 Decoder Ring translates roughly as, “It’s not really that good, but it’s Kochalka, which means enough people will buy it to make it worth re-publishing.” I’ve had fever dreams before and the majority were more coherent than this muddled tale of pathetic self-loathing and time travel. Summarizing the plot would be misleading, not to mention headache-inducing, as it would imply some semblance of internal logic and consistency that isn’t there. For $3, no big deal, but if this is what I have to look forward to with American Elf, call me unsophisticated but I’m going to be pissed! {Both thumbs down.}

Keith Knight is another name I was vaguely familiar with, though much less so, as I simply remembered him from a jigsaw event that I’d wanted to check out a while back and missed. The K Chronicles: What a Long Strange Strip It’s Been is the third collection of his weekly Salon.com comic strip. One-page, semi-autobiographical snippets of life – frequently socio-political and poignant; occasionally more sobering than funny – Knight is Aaron McGruder’s less self-conscious sibling, but with more range. His humor is effortless and rarely didactic, and his stories frequently overwhelm his simple line art, at times literally taking over a panel or even an entire strip. If you like The Boondocks but think McGruder has an annoying tendency for giving in to unimaginative laziness, you’ll love Knight’s K Chronicles. {Heartily recommended.}

My biggest stretch was Marcus Mawil Witzel’s Beach Safari, translated from German by Brian J. Conner, whose colorful cover featuring a topless surfer girl and a bespectacled rabbit caught my eye. Truthfully, there’s little to translate as Mawil tells the majority of his story visually, and wonderfully so, with a minimal amount of dialogue or exposition, and what there is is more metaphorical than literal anyway. Our hero, the bunny, washes ashore on some unnamed beach and the first third of the story covers his trials and tribulations as he struggles to survive. Darkly comical, the almost total lack of dialogue leaves everything open to interpretation, so much so that the final two-thirds, when he runs into three young girls who befriend him, one particularly so, and the dialogue increases, its true meaning is hard to decipher. The bittersweet conclusion raises as many questions as it leaves unanswered, but the overall effect is both satisfying and thought-provoking. {Conditionally recommended.}

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Guy LeCharles Gonzalez

As in guillotine. Old/new media pragmatist. Sometimes loud, one-time poet, still opinionated. Reading, writing, running, gaming, soccer, beer.

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