Readers of The Lost Art

American Virgin vol. 1: Head

August 28th, 2009

American Virgin vol. 1: Head

Writer: Steven T. Seagle

Artist: Becky Cloonan.

Reviewer: Louise 


“American Virgin” is an interesting little tale, with probably the best title for a new comic I’ve seen in some time. It tells the story of Adam Chamberlain. The son of a fervent right-wing Christian in the US, Adam is the likeable poster boy for a Christian movement promoting chastity among teenagers, going on TV and giving interviews about how he and his girlfriend are going to wait until marriage. Despite scuffles with his cousins (who definitely aren’t Christian), and arguments with his brother (who definitely isn’t chaste),  Adam is fundamentally happy with his life, including his friendship with his smart-mouthed (and also not chaste) female cousin. Until his girlfriend is kidnapped whilst volunteering in Africa, and Adam must venture there in search of her… 

This is an interesting, if slightly flawed story. It’s a very good set-up; it’s probably a safe bet that many of the readers of “American Virgin” aren’t going to share Adam‘s outlook on life, yet he himself is quite a likeable individual – not perfect, but sincere in his views; he wants to have sex with his girlfriend, but believes they should wait. There’s an ongoing tension there that the story could exploit. Do we, as readers, want to see Adam change his views? The abstinence movement in America isn’t a topic I’ve seen addressed in comics before, and seeing it explored through the experiences of a character we can empathise with would be good, particularly since his cousin’s and brother’s viewpoints are sufficiently different to provide a contrasting outlook. And let’s face it, the “will they? won’t they?” erotic tension plotline is a tried-and-true way to keep the reader’s interest. 

Unfortunately, once the plot moves to Africa these potentially interesting issues get sidelined. Whilst yes, it is interesting to see how Adam copes with a very different culture (whilst at the same time trying to cope with what he learns about  along the way), it did feel rather like a remix of two very old plots: the hackneyed “white man finds his beliefs challenged in the darkest continent” plot and the standard blockbuster “man tries to rescue his girlfriend” plot. 

Overall, though, it is an interesting read with high quality artwork by Becky Cloonan, and, as it’s an ongoing series, there’s room for the characters to develop and the issues to be explored. Recommended. 


Paperback: 112 pages

Publisher: Vertigo (Nov 2006)

ISBN-10: 1401210651


August 20th, 2009



Writer: Brian Wood

Artist: Ryan Kelly

Reviewer: Alex 


What defines a place? What defines a person? These are the two questions that Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly seek to investigate in Local

Local was produced using a similar structure to Demo (another project of Wood’s from a year or two prior): twelve fairly self-contained stories with a common linking theme, initially published one at a time as individual issues before being collected into a single book. 

In Local‘s case, the theme concept was to base each story in a particular location and have that location inform the nature of the story; not just in terms of referencing landmarks or particular local details, but in terms of using the ambience and character of the place to suggest the nature and style of the human story told there. 

Without being a local of any of Local‘s localities (which are spread across the U.S.A. and Canada), it’s difficult to assess the accuracy of their portrayals. However, in a way, it doesn’t matter; each story does have a distinctive tone that seems to come – to some extent – from the setting. That Wood and Kelly have succeeded at all in this interesting and ambitious notion is to be applauded, but Local is worthwhile reading for many other reasons too. 

The second linking factor for the series is a character, Megan McKeenan, who was initially intended not so much as a protagonist, but more just as a narrative device to link the examinations of the locations together. However, as the series went on, Wood found his stories gravitating increasingly towards Megan, and since the stories are set with intervals of approximately a year between each of them (starting in 1994 through to nearly the present day), the reader gets to see a lot of Megan’s life – in brief moments but over an extensive period of time. Her development becomes the point of the series, crystallising the thematic ideas about place into something substantial and meaningful centred on one person. 

Megan starts issue one in Portland (Oregon), being pressured by her drug addict boyfriend to defraud a pharmacy, and the resolution of that story sets her on her way to what proves to be a transitory young life spent travelling extensively. She is something of a lost soul, never staying too long in one place, constantly seeking an identity for herself. 

When reading Local as individual issues one at a time when each was first published (fairly spaced out over the course of around two and a half years), Megan could come across as a rather unsympathetic character, somewhat arrogant and self-destructive perhaps, making mistakes in her life then upping sticks to try again. However, when the whole series is read together, there’s a much greater sense of progression and it’s easier to understand her journey and what it means. 

It is also important to note, though, that Megan is by no means the main focus of all twelve stories, in fact some of the best stories only feature her tangentially – a personal favourite is ‘Theories and Defences’, which examines the personal stories behind the breakup of a band. 

Throughout Local, Wood skilfully demonstrates excellent understanding of human character. All the stories except the last are around twenty-two pages long and they’re generally quite decompressed (regularly featuring big splash panels just evocatively illustrating the locality), but characters are very well developed in these short spaces, with believable nuances of human behaviour captured subtly and astutely. It’s difficult to describe the genre and tone of the stories with any precision – they’re often more dramatic and focused than ‘slice-of-life’ might suggest, but they never resort to melodrama, they’re simply brief but compelling snapshots of flawed human beings at various points in their lives. 

Wood’s scripts are made to work by Kelly’s excellent black and white art. Whilst some of his characters can look a little alike, his evocation of emotion through expression is well executed, and the variation he manages in the visual feel of each story, deftly adapting his style within the restrictions of working only in black and white, is very impressive. 

Both creators have clearly invested a lot of themselves in the project, and one of the many nice things about the collected book is that it retains the short notes pages written by Wood and Kelly that appeared in the original single issues. These offer an insightful commentary on the stories, the creative processes and the stories behind the stories (or at least some mildly diverting blathering). 

So what does define places and people? The answer that Local suggests, as we see Megan develop through her experiences seeking an identity and a place to call home, is that the two elements define each other, that we are all shaped by the places we live and the nature of where we live is a product of the people that live there. So, yes, Local is a book about place, but it works because it provides insight into people. 


Hardcover: 384 pages

Publisher: Oni Press (17 Sep 2008)

ISBN10: 193496400X

Pride of Baghdad

August 14th, 2009

Pride Of Baghdad 

Author: Brian K. Vaughan

Artist: Niko Henrichon

Reviewer: Louise


Based on a real-life incident, “Pride of Baghdad” tells the story of four escaped lions in war-torn Baghdad. Noor, Safa, Zill and Ali, live peaceful, if slightly boring, lives in captivity in Baghdad Zoo. When war breaks out, a bomb shatters their enclosure, allowing them to escape into the ravaged city… 

Is freedom better than captivity? That’s the central question posed by “Pride of Baghdad”. The lions’ escape is an obvious metaphor for what’s going on in their surroundings. Is it better to live a safe, well-fed life under tyranny, or to be free in a dangerous world? That might sound a little simplistic, and indeed if that was the entirely of Vaughan’s approach to the story, it would be. Right from the start, however, it’s pretty clear that there are not going to be any black and white answers, as one of the older lionesses in the pride, reflecting upon the hardships and horrors of life in the wild in Africa, remembers how she lost an eye whilst being brutally gang-raped by a pack of marauding lions. 

I mention this latter to underscore the point that whilst yes, this is a book with talking animals, it’s definitely not for kids, though it would comfortably fit into the “young adult” section (i.e. about 14 up). There’s some violence, swearing and sexual references, although it’s not so graphic it merits an “adults-only” rating. Indeed, this is one of the approaches to storytelling which graphic novels do so well; taking an approach which might seem to be childlike and using it to explore some very adult themes (“We3” by Grant Morrison is another good example, and also highly recommended). 

To a certain extent, though, it does slightly limit the book. There’s only so far you can push a metaphor, after all, and the plight of the escaped lions cannot be entirely comparable to the plight of (human) Iraqis under Saddam Hussein’s regime.  

Fortunately, it’s not all heavy moralising and philosophical musings. The four lions are both very lionlike, and very human; each has their own personality. There’s the odd flash of humour, as well; when Ali the lioncub is told that there will be other animals his own age on the outside, he replies: “Cool; I always wanted to kill a baby goat!” Ultimately, that’s what makes this very affecting .We do feel for the pride, even though we suspect we already know how this will end. The artwork, too, is excellent – clear and beautifully coloured. It’s not easy to convey human expressions on an animal’s face, and  deserves major plaudits for doing so. Overall, it may not be this decade’s “Watchmen” (very few graphic novels ever will be), but it’s a very good book, and worthy of your time. 


Paperback: 128 pages

Publisher: Titan Books Ltd (22 Feb 2008)

ISBN-10: 1845763750


August 7th, 2009



Writer:            Grant Morrison

Artist:             Frank Quitely

Reviewer:        Louise 


Like a modern-day version of Richard Adams’ “The Plague Dogs”, We3 tells the tale of three escaped animals – a dog, a cat and a rabbit – who have been the subject of horrifying experiments. We3 is the collective name for the three animals, once family pets, now modified into living weapons. “Weapon 1” is the dog, “Weapon 2” the cat, and “Weapon 3” the rabbit, all equipped with robotic suits containing deadly weapons. When they escape from their confinement, the US military will do anything to get them back – including unleashing the terrifying Weapon 4…

We3 is extremely violent, but not without heart. It’s hard not to sympathise with the plight of the three lonely and confused animals. Cleverly, Morrison sets up a situation where the experiments have granted them rudimentary powers of speech, allowing them to speak to each other in a strange version of English, half-animal, half-machine. We thus see some of their inner thoughts – “What home?” “Is no more run” – but they are never so anthropomorphised that we forget their essentially animal nature. 

The contrast between the horrendously deadly weaponry they have been equipped with (if you don’t like pictures of rabbits being killed in gruesomely inventive ways, you might want to skip this one) and the pathetically vulnerable animals inside it gives We3 its heart. Yet at the same time, the animals’ determination to find somewhere safe gives the reader something to root for; they are not only victims. Morrison does a nice job of portraying their personalities – the dog’s loyalty to his companions, the cat’s sarcastic nature – and we do sympathise with them. 

The artwork is very high-quality too. It’s not easy to convey emotion on an animal’s face without going too cartoony and anthropomorphic, but Quitely does an excellent job of keeping We3 looking like actual real animals. He also realises Morrison’s nightmarish visions of the weaponry they have been equipped with very well. There’s a particularly effective scene where two scientists discuss the fates of animals where we see in the background a cage full of rats who have had body parts replaced with tools (drills, screwdrivers, etc). Though the premise of We3 is fantastic, we are thus sharply reminded that it’s not all that far-fetched, as the US armed forces have carried out research into using animals in warfare in similar ways. 

Although the ending seems to me to have one loose thread (the animals are dependent on medication to stay alive, which is a plot thread that to me doesn’t seem to be properly resolved), it’s sad but not depressing, and does justice to the rest of the book. The plot cracks along at a fair pace, making this a gripping read with heart. Recommended. 


Paperback: 104 pages

Publisher: Vertigo (Jul 2005)

ISBN-10: 1401204953