Three Rocks by Bill Griffith 

This is a long meditation on Ernie Bushmiller and his Nancy comics. It took me days to read, unlike the average graphic novel, which you can often breeze through… Griffith gives you your money’s worth. A lot of the biographical elements in this graphic novel mirror the biographical detail found in Paul Karasik and Mark Newgarden’s How to Read Nancy, which I also just read this year. In the biographical sense, there isn’t a lot new here (maybe nothing new), if you already read the biographical sections of that earlier book. Luckily, Griffith isn’t too focused on Bushmiller’s biography, and it’s a much more pleasurable and entertaining read than How to Read Nancy (which is a great book too, but overly academic, though that is sort of its point, yes?). 

The best part of Three Rocks is the fairly large sample of Nancy strips scattered throughout, though they are reprinted a little too small, like thirty percent smaller than in the Fantagraphics daily collections that came out a decade or so ago. I also really enjoyed reading Griffith’s riffs on Nancy, where he sort of imagines Nancy into strips that help push the Bushmiller biography forward. Or uses them to explore different ideas about what makes the Nancy comics so much fun. I especially enjoyed the long (thirty-page) epilogue imagining Nancy, Sluggo and the whole gang as elderly retirees. A beautiful, funny, and touching way to close out the book.  

That said, I’m not the biggest fan of Bill Griffith as an artist, like his drawing in Zippy, here the art is functional, clear and readable, but doesn’t really wow you. It’s tough though, most cartooning is going to look kind of so-so rubbing up against all those perfect Bushmiller (or his assistants) comics. There’s a perfection to Nancy that can’t be beat. It’s so weird that we’ve got at least two very good books about the Nancy newspaper comics released, but only haphazard reprints of the comics themselves (I noticed NYRB Comics is putting out a 152 pages Nancy collection in May of 2024, though I hear it’s mostly just reprinting strips that were already in the Kitchen Sink reprints from the 1980’s).  

Baby by Patrick Kyle

This book collects (all?) five issues of Patrick Kyle’s Baby. It feels like it possibly read better as single issues? Each issue is its own self-contained story of Baby, but all the issues together don’t really tell a complete or interconnected story. What I mean is, the five issues don’t read like chapters of a book, but more like individual short stories centered around the same character, so the first issue seems the most inventive, but as the book goes along, it doesn’t get more interesting and doesn’t really have more than one basic joke, so feels too repetitive, and for me, the collection somewhat runs out of gas about halfway through. The best part of the book is the early joke, featuring “baby” interacting with his “parent” in an unusually advanced and disagreeable way. When I think about it, I guess the joke is maybe in the same vein as the Look Who’s Talking films? Obviously more arty and, somewhat psychedelic feeling. Across the different issues we see “Baby” grow old, grow young again, live for ten-thousand years in a deep cavern, be reborn multiple times, and finally transform into a new kind of creature and escape the home nest once again. There’s something funny and abstract to this off kilter examination of the cycle of birth death and rebirth. It’s interesting, but also weirdly light and playful feeling. For me, I just wish it came together into something a little more solid. 

I do like Kyle’s artwork, but feel like as the book goes on, his somewhat minimalist cartooning is just a little too simple and to really hold one’s interest. There’s not enough variety or character there, and the drawing is a little too abstract to really grab this reader (it all starts to blend together after a while), maybe similar to the somewhat abstract cartooning in all those endless Michael DeForge books.  

To keep it basic, I loved the first couple of issues, but there wasn’t enough here to love over a hundred and forty pages of story. There’s a lot to like in these pages, so it’s not a bad book, but also not a great book. I’m sure I would have been plenty satisfied with picking up just the first couple of zines (if I’d known about them when they were available). 

Steven #4 by Doug Allen

Somehow over the years, I’d sort of forgotten about the weekly comic, Steven. Apparently the strip ended in 1994? Fortunately, some months back, I stumbled across the interview with Doug Allen in the latest issue of But is it Comic Aht? and remembered how much I used to enjoy reading Steven in the weekly papers, and I used to have at least some of the Kitchen Sink issues that collected the strip. Now they’re all out of print and somewhat expensive and hard to come by, but I luckily found issue four for eleven bucks and grabbed it up.

This hefty issue collects eighty strips that originally ran from 1989 through 1991. For me, these are flawless comics. Exactly what I’m hoping for when I pick something up to read, funny, memorable, unique. Despite being over thirty years old, these strips, at least to me, still read as completely fresh – they haven’t seemed to have aged a day.

The very meta-comics collected in this issue are mostly centered around Steven’s efforts to fire all the other characters in his strip, because he hates them. The supporting characters are all hilarious, and their efforts to keep their jobs on the strip are wonderful (even after Steven cuts off one of the supporting character’s head). I have a special fondness for the strips featuring two comic book editors who live in a mental institution. A touch of Count Screwloose from Tooloose by Milt Gross?

Both the language of these strips, and the drawings are so much fun, I can’t believe I’d somehow forgotten about it. I feel like Doug Allen should be considered as one of the very best cartoonists. I’m looking forward to trying to track down affordable copies of the rest of his work, ASAP. I kind of can’t believe there isn’t a nice, complete collection of his comics in print or coming soon.

Talk to My Back by Yamada Murasaki

Talk to My Back collects a bunch of short comics drawn by Yamada Murasaki from 1981 to 1984 that were originally published in the Japanese alternative comics magazine, Garo. These are an unusually domestic set of mostly minimalistic pieces, centered on a young mother’s perspective as she tries to find her way, raising two daughters with a seemingly not very involved husband. The stories often focus on a very small, very normal incident, and often end right when you think things are going to get interesting. In that sense, I would say, most of the stories collected here have a vague and poetic feeling, more than a concrete arc… though a couple stories are a little more direct, and almost didactic. The kids slowly get older, the main character thinks about getting a job outside the home, the husband drifts further away, she takes a job for a couple of years, while still managing the household, her kid’s mini-problems, loses her job, decides to stay home, decides to start her own business.

Overall, I found the stories collected in the book to make for a refreshing and enjoyable read. I can’t imagine there were many comics being published in the 1980s that examined the homeworker’s complicated perspective so deeply. Even today, it’s not a very explored topic, is it?

At times, the art in these comics is great, but at other times, I found it a little too sketchy / minimal to grab me – the art occasionally seems to have the slightness of a rushed phone doodle sketch. I mostly found the uneven quality to the art fairly easy to overlook, due to the uniqueness of the subject matter, and simply pleasure of reading most of the short stories. The translation seemed to flow a lot better than your typical Ryan Holmberg translation. Holmberg also has another longish essay in the back of the book, I assume to provide some background material on the stories and on Yamada Murasaki, but I’m ashamed to admit, I never can make it past the first couple paragraphs of any of his essays before I start to fall asleep.

The Lie and How We Told It by Tommi Parrish 

At its most basic, this is a story of two once close teenage(?) friends, now twenty-somethings(?), who run into each other again by chance, some years after drifting apart. After one character gets off work at a grocery store, they end up drinking a bottle of stolen wine, then getting some food together, going for a walk, and going to a bar… all the while having a pretty restrained, banal conversation about what they’ve been up to. One has supposedly recently broken up with someone, while one is supposedly soon to be married. They also talk a little about their shared past. Twice this main story is interrupted by a more poetic feeling, and somehow even more vague and uninteresting story (drawn in black and white, with only one panel per page and one short paragraph of text per page), apparently the contents of a mini-comic found by one of the main characters on the ground. This second story seems to be about a stripper and an ambiguous romance.  

There’s really very little to either tale I felt I could sink my teeth into, and the whole sparsely written graphic novel probably took less than thirty minutes to read. 

On first glance, the artwork, especially the color artwork, looks extremely appealing, but over the course of the book, it also becomes a weakness. There’s a lack of variety (a sameness), a certain ambiguity, an expressionlessness and lack of character that becomes overly apparent, and ultimately left me cold. All the artwork manages to accomplish is to add to the boring and banal feeling created by the flat text. Maybe it’s intentional, but intentionally boring the reader isn’t a great storytelling strategy. Characters are all drawn with big clunky bodies and tiny, usually expressionless heads (including the background characters), which sometimes makes it hard to identify with what’s going on, who is who, and even harder to feel anything for these lumps. Like, as single illustrations for a New York Times article, these drawings would be great, but in service to a graphic novel, with panel after panel of them, it becomes deadly dull. 

This book seems to be part of a trend of, on the surface, attractive looking books, but when actually read, somewhat lacking in content and interest, and definitely lacking in humor. Luckily, I borrowed this one from my library, as if it was a purchase, I would feel pretty ripped off.