Strip teases

It ain’t easy being a comics snob these days. Ten years ago, simply pointing out the existential angst underlying Charles Schulz’ Peanuts or knowing that Krazy Kat creator George Herriman was half African-American was enough to set you apart from the unwashed, Garfield-hugging masses. Casually mentioning the Pulitzer that Art Spiegelman won for his Holocaust memoir Maus, commenting on the contribution of Mad’s Harvey Kurtzman to America’s culture of irony or just sitting in a dark corner of a coffeehouse reading the latest Love & Rockets positioned you on the bleeding edge of sequential narrative art. If some aging hippie interrupted your reading to wax nostalgic for the head comix of his drug-addled youth, you told him that Robert Crumb’s work in the ’80s anthology Weirdo was far superior to anything from his “Keep On Truckin’” days. If your neighbor’s kid wanted to show you his Pokemon card collection, you told him to come back after he’d read Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind — all 1,000-plus pages of it. Then you could talk.

Since his film Spirited Away won an Oscar in 2004, though, everyone knows who Hayao Miyazaki is. It seems like every 13-year-old girl in the country has a paperback volume of Japanese comics tucked into her backpack. The shelves at Borders are full of manga, along with tons of other comic books, from silly sci-fi to war zone reportage, from vintage superhero reprints to arty autobiography. (Good grief, did I say comic books just now? I meant graphic novels, a term so ubiquitous no one bothers to define it anymore. “Comic books with delusions of grandeur,” I remember one critic sneering. Ah, those were the days.)

Now, Crumb’s work appears in nothing more underground than the New Yorker, and alternative comics darlings Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan) and Jaime Hernandez (Love & Rockets) have had strips running in the New York Times’ Sunday magazine. Charles Burns, creator of the disturbing graphic novel Black Hole, about teenagers mutated by a sexually transmitted disease, also illustrates Altoids ads. Penguin (the publishing house, not the supervillian) has hired a half-dozen art-comics creators to redesign the covers of some of their literary classics.

If you can’t be bothered with books, a new comics-based movie hits the Cineplex every other week, and they’re not all about masked vigilantes. Even Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, about growing up in post-revolution Iran, is being made into an animated feature film.

A few years ago, Dan Clowes (Ghost World, Art School Confidential) joked that being the best-known alternative cartoonist in America was like being the world’s greatest badminton player. Lately, though, it seems like there are an awful lot of badminton fans around, or at least folks who understand the rules of the game.

So where’s a comics snob to turn to stay one step ahead of the increasingly comics-aware rabble? Europe, of course, where decades of taking comics seriously as an art form have produced much more than Heavy Metal magazine and the Smurfs. Here are a few Euro-rarities worth seeking out that are sure to keep you on the cutting edge — or at least just entertain the hell out of you.

In 676 Apparitions of Killoffer, Parisian comics artist Killoffer depicts himself as a self-absorbed, self-loathing slacker in a rumpled suit, visiting Montreal while on the run from his inner demons. For the first several pages, the hand-written text of Killoffer’s sour, paranoid inner monologue weaves itself around images of himself lounging around his apartment, shopping for groceries or nervously chatting up women in cafés. There are no panel borders, just multiple images of the man wandering through the scenes. It’s a typical comics technique for implying time and movement that the author quickly turns on its head; these multiple Killoffers actually exist, at least to Killoffer. Three of them show up back at his apartment, each with a different woman, looking pissed that the original Killoffer is hogging the bed.

All text disappears as the pages become choked with these splinters of Killoffer’s id. They trash the apartment before turning themselves loose on Montreal, guzzling booze, beating up the locals and raping women as they go. Eventually, they brutally assault Killoffer himself.

The art’s flattened perspective and claustrophobic layouts, with scenes overlapping and figures invading each other’s space, forcefully describe Killoffer’s feverish mental state. The pages look sticky and sweaty; you can almost smell the vomit in the bathtub and the garbage in the sink. Somewhere near the root of the chaos is, of course, sex, with all the resentment, desperation and fear that goes with it. Finally, Killoffer destroys his doppelgängers in a scene of startling violence. We’re relieved on the next page by a graphic breath of fresh air — a large drawing of a jet flying back to Paris. Whether Killoffer is better prepared after his self-confrontation to deal with the problems he faces back home is left hanging.

French artist Frédéric Coché’s comics pages are executed as etchings. Their scratchy lines and smudged gray cast evoke the mood of old master prints. In fact, Coché borrows shapes, symbols and characters from throughout art history, letting them collide, intertwine and trade places until they’re woven into a complex tapestry of meaning, as they are in Hortus Sanitatis, a beautiful book that rewards repeated reading.

Created in 2000 as part of a celebration of the city of Brussels, Hortus opens with a masked pagan parade straight from a James Ensor painting. From out of the crowd comes a skeletal, lance-wielding figure of Death, who destroys a peasant and an armored knight with equal ease. Meanwhile, the Virgin Mary strolls nearby, smiling gently and regarding the angels who herald her as if they were songbirds. Death attacks her next and drives his lance into her pregnant belly — triggering an atomic explosion that rises over the city. But Mary is unscathed, and placidly returns to her apartment. Death, powerless and confused, aimlessly bums around a park (that doubles for the Garden of Eden) before the pagan crowd returns to run him out of town. The mushroom cloud morphs into a towering tree of life, then morphs again into a woman’s genitals, with Brussels nestled safely between her thighs.

Throughout this short book Coché remixes symbols of fecundity, decay, destruction and hope into a mythological mash-up that somehow has both the authority of thousands of years of religious tradition and the bright feeling (and sense of humor) of something new. His 2005 book, the longer and more complex The Hero’s Life and Death Triumphant, employs similar techniques.

Dutch artist Marcel Ruijters’ latest work, Sine Qua Non, is inspired by medieval art, but he plays for laughs. His woodcut-like cartoons, about black-cloaked nuns confronting supernatural creatures, tests of faith and the splendor mundi, look like the Sunday funnies circa 1450. Stigmata and slapstick is an odd combo but Ruijters pulls it off. He clearly has a lot of knowledge about the strange theories held by medieval Christianity, and translating the short Latin exclamations that scroll from the characters’ mouths is fun (“Spucatum tauri!,” one nun shouts at a rival), but his cartoons work as plain old funny gags too. In one chapter, two nuns are dispatched to illustrate a bestiary. After sketching several beasties they spot a fish walking up from the water on legs and inadvertently discover evolution. Excited, they hurry home to share their findings. In the last panel, their severed heads and limbs are catapulted back out over the convent wall.

So if you’re looking to keep the manga girls, superhero nerds and dilettantes at arm’s length, Euro comics are the way to go, and with a number of North American publishers importing great work by Lewis Trondheim, David B., Joann Sfar, Jason, Philippe Dupuy, Charles Berberian and others, now’s the time to get into them. Snug that beret down onto your head, order a double espresso and hunch up over a European graphic novel, while they’re still cool!

Comics can be bought and ordered through Vault of Midnight (219 S. Main St., Ann Arbor; 734-998-1413; or Green Brain Comics (13210 Michigan Ave., Dearborn; 313-582-9444;

Sean Bieri is Metro Times art director. Send comments to [email protected]