The Comic Book Club: The Eisner Nominees We Missed

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This is what happens when Techland goes to the comic book store: we end up discussing what we picked up. This week, Evan Narcisse, Douglas Wolk, Matt Peckham and Graeme McMillan talk about a handful of books that were nominated for this year’s Will Eisner Comics Industry Awards that we didn’t review when they were originally released: Jim McCann and Janet Lee’s Return of the Dapper Men, Osamu Tezuka’s Ayako, Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, and Nick Spencer and Joe Eisma’s Morning Glories.

MATT: So it’s like this: To repurpose a cliché, Jim McCann and Janet Lee could paint the phone book and I’d buy a copy. Return of the Dapper Men qualifies first and foremost as a dazzling objet d’art. I mean the book itself, from its meaty heft to its embossed metal-leaf clockwork iconography to the Apple-red clothbound spine. Lee’s decoupage technique (think “collage” art, each page a mélange of pine wood, paint, and paper) allows hills and clock towers and whirling, looping clouds to cast outlying shadows as colored textures underly the scissor-cut geometry, lending pages a liminal three-dimensional feel forced perspective lines alone can’t achieve. Holding this weighty, oversized, 11-by-10-inch tome reminds me why we’re absolutely crack-smoking kidding ourselves if we think the iPad or Kindle could ever supplant the sublime physicality of an art book like this.

(More on TIME.com: Weekly Comics Column: The 2011 Eisner Comics Award Nominees)

Conceptually, McCann’s story’s a bit simplistic: Without time we lose perspective, and without perspective, we lose ourselves. I’d call it curiously anti-Proust in that it’s positing memory is in fact not involuntary, and that to be nearer some vaguely harmonious state requires a sort of ongoing, manual accounting of one’s actions. Not to overly politicize the tale–McCann and Lee have in fact gone out of the way to avoid heavy-handed allegory here–think of it as a fairy tale version of Gore Vidal’s Imperial America: The United States of Amnesia, though the subject matter and backstory are mythically abstruse and omni-cultural, not historically specific. It’s essentially George Santayana’s proverb about ignoring and thus repeating history reified through a glass vaguely Dave McKean meets Heinz Edelmann.

DOUGLAS: I fear I’m going to have to disagree with you on a few counts on Return of the Dapper Men, Matt. Not the part about how it’s a lovely object, which it is–the cloth spine, the gold embossing, the non-standard dimensions, the little trademark sign next to the title (okay, not that last one). Not the part about how eye-catching Janet Lee’s art technique is, either: I really like its color textures, and especially the bits of Winsor McCay and Art Nouveau that sneak into the design. A lot of her actual character designs seem underdeveloped–partway to something interesting, not all the way there. Still, there are some gorgeous individual pages; the one with the organic and robotic birds fanning their wings out, surrounded by a wreath of flowers and four vintage gears, is just ridiculously pretty.

The story itself, though, left me entirely cold. There’s a bit in the middle where something is described as “a massive symbol whose meaning was long lost”; nearly everything and everyone in this book seems to be laden with symbolic weight to the point where it doesn’t have room for literal meaning. And a lot of McCann’s symbol-systems seem either obvious or entirely private, tangled in third-generation Neil Gaimanisms and pseudoprofundities. I don’t think I can give the book credit for being a riposte to Proust–its argument doesn’t seem coherent enough for that. Its characters are glyphs, its plot has to be nudged along at every turn, its worldbuilding is a bunch of details that don’t turn into a sense of place. As an excuse for Lee to do her thing, it’s fantastic–the McCay-ish spectacles (like the arrival of the Dapper Men in their identical pinstripe suits and green bowler hats) are delicious. But there’s never a moment where what happens next seems to matter.

(More on TIME.com: The Comic Book Club: Captain America and Batroc, FF, and Stumptown)

(Also, Return of the Dapper Men gets an extra demerit for the back-cover blurb from Tim Gunn. I understand that one wants to have a nice positive quote for a blurb, but calling this book “a transformational experience, a morality tale that is certain to become an instant contemporary classic” clears the top by a few miles.)

MATT: I’d argue in polite dissent that while I enjoyed it more than you, Douglas, I suspect that’s in part because I didn’t read Return of the Dapper Men as McCann trying to be a profound (or even pseudo-profound) subtext masquerading as an esoteric fairy tale. It’s certainly destabilizing, even mildly disturbing, though in ways Gaiman’s drier, modern-grounded fairy tales aren’t (I’m not seeing that link). And the bit about Proust and Vidal is just me grafting something that resonated in broad strokes, like drawing the Madoff scandal onto a story that riffs on Aesop’s “The Dog and His Bone.”

Stripped bare, the story’s a simple morality play by way of intentionally disjointed and ungrounding–if never quite subversive–imagery. It’s like browsing something written by Roald Dahl illustrated by Richard Scarry–strategically poignant, but only vaguely purposeful or resonant tactically. I don’t see that as explicit weakness here, though as I said above, it is simplistic. That, and I’d listen to an argument about tightening up (or expanding–you could go either way) a few of the actual story beats, some of which do feel indulgent and meaningless (I’m thinking about the Fabre villain thread, which really goes nowhere).

But yes, the introduction by Tim Gunn feels out of place, and he doesn’t help by advising we read “with Google and MerriamWebster.com” to hand. It’s not that sort of book. There’s nary a ten- (or for that matter five-, or even two-) dollar word in sight. It’s a book you read without a dictionary (or, for that matter, a semiotics encyclopedia).

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