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Rain Taxi calls Birdseye Bristoe, "one of the most impressive debut volumes in recent memory"

Updated January 16, 2013


BIRDSEYE BRISTOE
Dan Zettwoch
Drawn and Quarterly ($19.95)
by David Kennedy-Logan

There’s an elderly man who lives in my neighborhood named Wally. He’s slow-moving, meticulous, set in his ways, and tends to be mildly grumpy. When I chat with him, he gives the distinct impression that all of the changes he’s witnessed in the 40-plus years he’s been living in our neighborhood have been categorically for the worse. Nonetheless, Wally takes an interest: he makes it his business to maintain an encyclopedic knowledge, in granular detail, of the goings-on around our block. He thinks more than he speaks.

In all of these ways, the title character of Dan Zettwoch’s accomplished and affecting debut graphic novel, Birdseye Bristoe, reminds me of Wally. Named after the townships Birdseye and Bristow in south-central Indiana, where he was born and lives, Birdseye, like Wally, is a curmudgeonly old man who takes an interest. His hard and abrasive exterior is a shield to protect a quick mind and a tender heart. And, although he’s a resourceful and inventive individual—evidenced by the plethora of ingenious devices he’s crafted out of bungee cords and empty plastic soda bottles—he is no fan of progress for progress’s sake.

Unfortunately for Birdseye, in the summer of 1998, progress comes with a vengeance. The town is getting its very first cell phone tower, and in the literal and figurative shadow of this looming symbol of modernity, convenience, and “connectivity,” Birdseye’s great-niece Krystal and great-nephew Curt come to visit. Their ensuing daily adventures—harvesting nightcrawlers, exploring ancient broken-down billboards, drinking Uncle Birdseye’s “Red Cow Hot Blood” ice cream shakes, and passing the time with Tump Junior, Carlene “Hippie Chick” Clay, Sonja Pike, and other residents—are captured by the author in a series of delightfully engaging free-standing vignettes. (In effect, the book is closer to a collection of very short graphic stories than a graphic novel.)

As the trio go about the business of their lives, their dorky, earnest, and tender souls are revealed in every lovingly rendered panel. The story begins as amusing, lighthearted fare, but by its conclusion has become something much deeper and more significant. As with David Lynch or Raymond Carver, the quirky genius of Zettwoch’s storytelling lies in his affection for his bizarre characters, and in how they face the risk of deep spiritual trauma in the very shallowness of the circumstances of their world.

Zettwoch eschews clean, flowing brushstrokes and tasteful ink washes in favor of a scratchy, brightly colored art brut style: his tools are basic ballpoint pen and whiteout. Visually, the work is reminiscent of Gary Panter or Ben Katchor (although Zettwoch also shares Chris Ware’s obsession with diagrams and blueprints.) But for all the homespun appearance of the visuals, Zettwoch is clearly a gifted draftsman with a mastery of the tropes and techniques of comic storytelling.

With this book, the author has captured the melancholy and heartache of childhood, adolescence, old age, rural life, and family ties; the casualties of the inexorable and unquestioned march of “progress”; and the bravery of the people who wage their own private battles against it. The treatment is entirely unsentimental and powerfully effective, making Birdseye Bristoe one of the most impressive debut volumes in recent memory.
 
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Featured artist

Dan Zettwoch

           Featured product

Birdseye Bristoe




  Comic Book Resources calls Birdseye Bristoe "gorgeous"

Updated January 15, 2013


ZETTWOCH GOES DIY IN "BIRDSEYE BRISTOE"
Thu, November 8th, 2012

St. Louis-based cartoonist and illustrator Dan Zettwoch has been creating comics and mini-comics for years, gaining a reputation as a great craftsman. His work has appeared in "The Best American Comics," in addition to anthologies like "Kramers Ergot," "Drawn and Quarterly Showcase" and magazines including "Arthur" and "Vice." Earlier this year, Drawn and Quarterly released Zettwoch's first full-length graphic novel, "Birdseye Bristoe."

The book is a gorgeous oversized hardcover that tells the story of two kids who spend a summer with their uncle who's leased his land to a company building the world's tallest cell phone tower. It's about invention and creativity, and it's also a lot of fun. CBR News spoke with Zettwoch about the book, his work process, and his love of info graphics and diagrams.

CBR News: Where did "Birdeye Bristoe" start for you?

Dan Zettwoch: It's one of the stories that's been rattling around in my mind for a while. Once I sat down to draw it I made the book in less than a year. The genesis of the book was lots of driving back and forth between my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky and where I live in St. Louis. I make this drive dozens of times a year and this story incubated for a few years whenever I would make that drive.

Was the landscape key to the story for you?

Yeah, there's actually not a lot there but every time I would drive it, there would be a new cellphone tower being built on this particular stretch -- to the point now where it seems like there's one every hundred yards or so. Just imagining what that process is like or the process of being a person who owns a farm or a gas station along the highway that leases their land for that to happen to it.

This is your first graphic novel, though you've made numerous comics and mini-comics. Did you know this was going to be "graphic novel" as opposed to a "comic."

[Laughs] Yeah, I think so. There was a point where I was going to do a mini-comic series of this story. The thing with Drawn and Quarterly came about and they've been bugging me for a while for something that would work as a book and this seemed like a good time to do something a bit more sustained. I didn't think they would ever go for it because I wanted to do this fold out which is something I do in my mini-comics a lot. I thought, there's no way a publisher will ever go for a fold-out. They called my bluff because they went for it and it sealed the deal.

If any publisher would say yes, it would be Drawn and Quarterly. Didn't Kevin Huizenga's "Gloriana" also have a fold out?

Yeah, they both came out about the same time and Kevin and I, because we both live in St. Louis and are friends, we did some signings and things together.

I'm curious about the structure of the book. Not to give anything away but you open with the ending and then the last page of the book takes place right before the first.

This is sort of an idea I didn't really carry through, but I had the idea that the story would be sort of a "whodunnit" where there's a crime revealed at the beginning, the collapse of the tower. The rest of the book would be selections of moments and short pieces that precede that and hint at some of the things that were going on that would eventually cause it to collapse. I just didn't want [the collapse] to be the climax because I really didn't feel like the story is about the tower collapsing. I guess I wanted to put that part at the beginning just to get it out of the way basically and maybe also hint that there was some sort of inevitability that that's what would happen.

It's easy to describe the book as about these two kids who spend the summer with their uncle, but that doesn't explain what the book is about.

When I try to explain it to my family or at Thanksgiving I say it's about a period of time when there's a big boom in cell phone tower construction. There's a transitional phase where everyone's getting cell phones and parts of this rural area that's being built up more. It's about transitions between city to country and transitional points geographically. That's actually more than I would say at Thanksgiving. I would say it's about the construction of the world's largest cell phone tower. [Laughs]

Was the design of the book part of your plan from the beginning?

Part of it had to do with this conversation I had with Tom Devlin at Drawn and Quarterly. At one point we were talking about doing a collection of all my short stories and anthology pieces and he suggested something that would a "Popular Mechanics"-style digest and I got it in my head that I would like the book to have the feel and size of a "Popular Mechanics" or "Mechanics Illustrated," these old pulpy magazines that have a mix of diagrams and weird stories and stuff like that. The ads and the cover are directly pulled from or inspired by stuff you would see in the original DIY magazines.

The heart of the book is about how things work and a lot of your comics are about that. On some level a diagram or series of instructions doesn't seem to be comics but you combine the two quite well and in interesting ways.

There are some things that diagrams and infographics are good for and other things that they're not. They're probably not the best to tell real straightforward emotional character situations or stories, but I think I try to use them in a way that resonates with emotion based on who's telling them or who's reading them. Mostly I like them because they're fun to draw and they're the kinds of things I like to look at and the kinds of things I've liked to look at since I was a kid. I have this deep seeded thing about wanting to know how things work. Being a visual person, the way that I learn how things work are usually from looking at schematics and flow charts and maps and graphs and that kind of thing. I really embraced that as my thing and the devices I'm going to use to tell those stories.

You said this may not best way to tell emotional character-based stories, but the structure of the book, opening with the tower collapse and then going back to tell the stories going on around it, lends itself to a story examining how things work.

It's forensic, in a way, to lay all this stuff out. That's what a comic is; it lays a bunch of different kinds of information out in front of you -- information about characters and information about spaces and information about time–and creates clues and maps so hopefully if you read all this stuff and study all this stuff, it makes a picture of a world and a time and place. It's also just visually important for me to make a thing that's fun on a basic kid-like level.

Is that how you think about comics? That narrative isn't your primary concern, but that there are other things you're primarily interested in?

I think that's fair. I am interested in the characters and the story, but from a much more oblique angle, I guess. One of my favorite comics of all time is this comic by the legendary underground [cartoonist] Justin Green. He did "Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary" and he made this book called "The Sign Game." He was a commercial sign painter and he had a comic strip that ran every week in the sign painting trade journal and he did it for fifteen or twenty years, I think. When you read the collection of all these strips it's all this real technical information about how to actually paint signs and paint letter forms and mix your enamel paints and what to do to make it weather proof, but somehow over the course of those years he worked on that strip, there's such a strong narrative hidden about him personally and the changing world of how sign painting technology changes to people not even painting signs anymore they're all computer vinyl printouts. There's this really touching and amazing narrative that's hidden in all this technical stuff. I think that's the kind of thing I'm trying to capture in a shorter time span. I hadn't really made that connection until you just asked that, but I like that idea of burying the narrative underneath a bunch of stuff.

Or, if not burying it, then the narrative is not the primary focus.

I think that's fair to say.

Is "Birdseye Bristoe" composed primarily of things you like to draw?

Essentially. I knew that I would never be able to maintain the momentum or interest in drawing an entire book unless it was full of stuff that I was excited to draw. The construction stuff with the tower, local folklore and little pieces of semi-rural mythology, tackle shops. It really is a story that's built around a lot of stuff that I'm interested in visually or tonally. I really tried to engineer the story around that stuff. Which again probably reveals a certain weakness on my part as a writer but it's really the only way I know how to do it.

"Birdseye Bristoe" was all done by hand. You didn't use a computer for the art or color?

No, that was my major breakthrough. I came upon this working methodology where I was drawing right on typing paper with ballpoint pens and colored pencils and white out. Just scanning the pages and doing minimal digital touchup. Looking at the book, it's almost like you're looking at a stack of the originals which is something that was important to me from kind of a philosophical standpoint but also just that's kind of what I had to do to know that I'd be able to draw sixty-four pages in this amount of time and get it finished.

The idea of scanning in inked pages and playing with color in Photoshop didn't appeal to you?

No. That's traditionally how I'd done all my comics and I even started this book that way. I did the first section of the book, or maybe just the first twelve pages where I was penciling and inking then scanning and sitting in front of the computer in photoshop and I sit in front of the computer so much for my day job as an illustrator that just the idea of spending all my free time in front of the computer coloring this comic was just so exhausting for me to think about, so it was nice to get away from that a bit.

That ties into the book's theme about the value of creating something handmade.

Yeah, It's about the difference between handmade production and a more corporate -- not that cartoonists who use computers are corporate -- but I did want to draw a distinction between modes of production in the book. The difference between making a bird feeder out of three liter bottle and a giant corporate conglomerate building the world's tallest cell phone tower. Definitely the modes of production were an important thing to try to get at with the actual art styles.

Is the book roughly the same size as the pages you drew?

I think I shrank them down a tiny bit just for margins, but they're pretty much the same size -- 8.5" by 11" sheets of typing paper with whiteout left on there.

I enjoyed the white out.

Yeah I thought I would go back through and take those out but actually there were fewer of them than I thought there would be and in some ways I like the weird thing that happens when you can see someone fixed their own mistake. That guy, he changed the word there and that's interesting because then you can think, "Oh, the character changed a word in a word balloon." It's like he's editing himself, so I decided to leave that kind of stuff.

You mentioned that you were talking with Drawn and Quarterly about a collection of your short comics.

That was originally what I was talking with those guys about and I was just feeling like I needed to make something new. I felt like I hadn't made my thing that felt totally like my thing enough for there to warrant a collection of smaller stuff. I was definitely much more excited to make a new book.

Are you still planning to create a collection of your short comics?

Probably. I do have a ton of stuff that's been published in small stuff or online that I could probably get a book together of all that stuff. I'd be excited to spend a little time working on that for somebody. We'll see. In some ways I made a pretty big shift in my drawing style and working method with this book, which I ended up liking a lot, but to go back to some of that older stuff I might have to come to terms with how that stuff looked.

Have you started working on or thinking about the next project?

I just made a new mini-comic that I had at SPX. It was fun to just draw something in a few weeks and xerox it and staple it myself. I'm working on a new comic for Oily Comics, Chuck Forsman and his outfit of mini-comics. I'm working on one of those, but after that I don't know. Nothing too grand yet, I guess, in the works.
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Featured artist

Dan Zettwoch

           Featured product

Birdseye Bristoe




St Louis Post-Dispatch on Dan Zettwoch and Kevin Huizenga

Updated November 20, 2012


August 18, 2012 6:00 am • BY CLIFF FROEHLICH •
Imaginative graphic lit from St. Louis and beyond

Dan Zettwoch’s “Birdseye Bristoe” (Drawn & Quarterly, 64 pages, $19.95) is the most anticipated of them, the first book-length work by one of graphic lit’s most innovative talents. The eponymous protagonist is an iconoclastic old feller who, for opaquely religious reasons, allows the controversial erection of a sky-piercing cell tower on his land. The construction coincides with a visit by his great-niece Krystal and her cousin Clint.

The teens’ and Birdseye’s interactions with one another and the tiny surrounding community constitute the slender “plot,” but the main pleasures of Zettwoch’s work derive not from narrative per se but from the imaginative ways in which he tells his stories. A practiced hand at infographics — i.e., information conveyed through visual means — the artist makes complex use of maps, diagrams and extensive annotations.

The book thus alternates more traditional story-driven interludes with frequently hilarious (but dead-on) explorations of arcane subjects, including a primer on how to harvest nightcrawlers and an exegesis on blood blisters. There’s even a foldout, “Birth of a Cross Section,” that cannily simulates a newspaper graphic offering an “anatomical overview” of the cell tower.

Zettwoch uses these narrative strategies both to provide a richly furnished environment for his characters and to reveal with striking economy their quirky obsessions, memories and feelings. A Rube Goldberg construction of marvelous intricacy, the book begins in dreamlike confusion — starting with the apocalyptic destruction of the cell tower before flashing back to its origins — and assembles its crazy quilt of seemingly stray details into a wonderfully organic whole.

Drawn in a faux-primitivist style — nicely appropriate to Birdseye’s own handmade, down-home inclinations — and colored with a muted palette that emphasizes yellows and reds, “Birdseye Bristoe” merits careful study. Though relatively thin in page count, it’s dense with meaning and allusion.

Zettwoch’s running buddy Kevin Huizenga — a major figure in contemporary cartooning — is similarly interested in fresh ways of constructing narratives. “Gloriana” (Drawn & Quarterly, 118 pages, $19.95) would generate serious excitement if it weren’t simply a repackaging of a 2001 self-published minicomic (“Super Monster” No. 14), which had already received an upgrade in 2004, when it was published in slightly revised form as the second issue of the Huizenga series “Or Else.”

The latest iteration features hard covers, higher-quality paper and an incrementally larger size. If you own one of the previous versions, there’s frankly no reason to invest an additional $20, but if you’re a “Gloriana” newbie, buy the book posthaste.

Starring Huizenga’s recurrent characters — everyman Glenn Ganges and wife Wendy Caramel — the comic features four interlocking vignettes of quotidian events: daydreaming at a desk, putting away the groceries, watching the sun set and the moon rise. Huizenga vamps on these superficially inconsequential moments and makes them surprisingly large by stretching and fragmenting time and by experimenting with different representations of how thought is processed.

Huizenga veers into abstraction in one long stretch, culminating in a glorious four-page gatefold of sometimes baffling imagery. He also deploys his own version of Zettwoch’s infographic approach in a bravura sequence — no doubt influenced by his stint at the St. Louis Science Center — explaining why the moon sometimes looks “blood red.”

In addition to its linked pieces, “Gloriana” even provides a bonus story: a brief, lovely autobiographical piece on the Huizenga family and basketball in Illiana, Ill....
 
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Featured artists

Kevin Huizenga
Dan Zettwoch

           Featured products

Birdseye Bristoe
Gloriana




  Giant Robot reviews The Making Of, Birdseye Bristoe, Gloriana

Updated August 27, 2012


Comics reviews: The Making Of, Birdseye Bristoe, Gloriana

Martin
Aug 15 2012

A lot of you left Comic-Con with the latest scoop on movies, TV shows, and toys. But what about comics? I finally finished my stash of advance and new titles from my favorite page pushers out of Montreal, and here are my takes. Of course, you should buy own copies at Giant Robot on Sawtelle or your local indie bookstore.Comics reviews: The Making Of, Birdseye Bristoe, Gloriana
Martin | 15, August 2012 | MW, News, Reviews Publications | No Comments


A lot of you left Comic-Con with the latest scoop on movies, TV shows, and toys. But what about comics? I finally finished my stash of advance and new titles from my favorite page pushers out of Montreal, and here are my takes. Of course, you should buy own copies at Giant Robot on Sawtelle or your local indie bookstore.



If you read the interview with Brecht Evens that I posted a couple of weeks ago, you already know about his painterly style, colorful aesthetic, and deceptively loose panels. It turns out that his artwork is beautiful to look at and fun to talk about but belie the Belgian artist’s formal composition and masterful storytelling. The Making Of tells the tale of a liberated artist who is expected to liven up an uptight art festival. The story addresses art, partying, and sex, and the effect is not cautionary or sordid but liberated. The subtly playful tone–as well as the subtle randomness, slapstick, and artfulness–remind me more of Blake Edwards’ The Party than any comic book that I’ve ever read, and it’s as much of a page-turner as it is a mind-blower.D. Zettwoch’s Birdseye Bristoe isn’t exactly bedtime reading. Every over-sized page is crammed with images, words, and references, and the point of view not only shifts between the main characters but smaller ones as well. To further challenge skimmers with short attention spans, the saga about a high-tech cell phone tower being erected in a small, rustic town is complemented by an unending barrage of asides that range from science fair projects to science fiction. (In the spread above, you can see not only a reference to the geodesic form that appears on the Suicidal Tendencies debut album but a footnote to Gamera movies.) It’s a testament to Zettwoch’s skill as a storyteller that the barrage of information enhances the mood and builds up the tension rather than diffuse or distract from the plot.The stories in the brand-new hardcover expanded collection of Glen Ganges strips by Kevin Huizenga typically begin with everyday events that trigger existential and scientific daydreams. As you read each story, you can feel the pacing quicken as the protagonist’s mind begins to wander and his fast-moving logic mutates into fantasy. History, astronomy, writing utensils, basketball, and Gamera (again!) are only some of the topics that are mixed and matched as simple errands lead to the end of the world. However, Gloriana never becomes close to boring or pretentious, as Huizenga is as self-deprecatingly committed to the humility of mini comics as he is to pushing the possibilities of the form.
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Featured artists

Kevin Huizenga
Brecht Evens
Dan Zettwoch

           Featured products

Birdseye Bristoe
Gloriana
The Making Of




Birdseye Bristoe reviewed by Paste

Updated August 23, 2012


Comic Book & Graphic Novel Round-Up (7/25/12)


July 25, 2012
BY HILLARY BROWN, SEAN EDGAR AND GARRETT MARTIN

Birdseye Bristoe
by Dan Zettwoch
Drawn + Quarterly, 2012
Rating: 8.4
...The clear comparison for Dan Zettwoch’s graphic novel Birdseye Bristoe is Kevin Huizenga’s Gloriana. Both artists have a near fetish for diagrams, a strange gift for constructing a narrative around information-focused material, and an original mind. Zettwoch’s book is rendered in a very limited color palette of (red, white, and black on tan) that bleeds into the story, shaping it as well as rendering it, and, like Huizenga’s, it’s worth spending some time on. Ostensibly the loose tale of a summer with an odd-bird uncle, it seems to have some bigger things to say—about connection with humanity, about the homogenization of American culture, about technological hubris—but it comes at them obliquely rather than obviously, and it gives you a lot of tips about what to do with empty soda bottles along the way. It also doesn’t wallow in nostalgia, and its appreciation of singularity comes from a genuine place off the interstate, not a well-paved attempt at being different. (HB)...
 
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Featured artist

Dan Zettwoch

           Featured product

Birdseye Bristoe




  "Gloriana" and "Birdseye Bristoe" both reviewed in the A.V. Club

Updated July 25, 2012


Graphic novels & art-comics—June 2012

By Noel Murray
June 25, 2012

Dan Zettwoch and Kevin Huizenga are both St. Louis-based cartoonists in their mid-30s whose comics combine straightforward storytelling with strange interludes: some abstract, and some more like diagrams cribbed from an instruction manual. While the two men have some commonality in their approach—and both produce very good comics—the kinds of stories that they tell differ. Zettwoch’s new book Birdseye Bristoe (Drawn & Quarterly) concerns eccentric characters clustered in a colorful rural community, where the strange becomes normal; while Huizenga’s Gloriana (Drawn & Quarterly) is set in a more familiar suburbia, where the normal sometimes seems strange.
Gloriana continues Huizenga’s “Adventures Of Glenn Ganges” series—or more accurately, it collects a few Ganges pieces previously published in mini-comics. In one of the longer stories, Glenn imagines becoming a father; in another, he encounters some neighbors who are spooked by a full, red moon, and he considers the scientific explanation for the phenomenon. As with all of Huizenga’s Ganges stories, the particulars of what’s actually happening to the hero matter less than what’s going through his head. Huizenga has a gift for depicting distraction: showing what it’s like to be kept awake by nagging worry, or to have difficulty completing a thought because other ideas keep elbowing in. The book culminates in a sequence of densely illustrated pages—connecting astrophysics to optical illusions—complete with charts, labels, and helpful arrows. It’s a powerful contrast to Glenn’s reveries earlier in Gloriana; the hero has difficulty describing how a sunset makes him feel, but he has no problem explaining why a moonrise looks the way it does.
Birdseye Bristoe is also big on explanations, as Zettwoch breaks out schematics to show how his characters live. The book’s eponymous protagonist is an elderly landowner who spends a summer looking after his niece and nephew while trying to convince his neighbors to sign off on the giant cell-phone tower he wants to let a telecom company build on his property. Zettwoch begins at the end of his story and never completely circles back around, letting the reader fill in some of the gaps. But as with Huizenga, Zettwoch doesn’t seem to consider clear narratives to be his primary artistic goal. Birdseye Bristoe is more about Zettwoch’s detailed cross-sections of Uncle Birdseye’s home, where nearly everything is made out of bungee cord and empty 3-liter pop bottles; and it’s about the place the hero lives, which is one of those just-off-the-interstate nowheres that consists of a bait shop, an adult bookstore, and a few scattered farmhouses. There’s both love and awe in the way Zettwoch draws people surviving in a place with no name and no resources, beyond what some corporation chooses to dump at their doorsteps.
Both Gloriana and Birdseye Bristoe feature a fold-out section: In the former, it’s an elaboration of what’s going through Glenn Ganges’ mind as he watches the sunset; in the latter, it’s an annotated drawing of the giant cell tower. In the context of their respective books, both foldouts depict human imagination: one as inward and inarticulate, the other as bold and foolhardy. But in the context of comics as a medium, it matters less what the foldouts say than that they’re there at all. They’re examples of Huizenga and Zettwoch unifying content and package, and considering new ways of presenting information. Even Huizenga’s introduction to Gloriana is clever, presenting Huizenga’s scrawled-out notes rather than an actual intro, as if acknowledging that some ideas are too unwieldy to be contained by mere words on a page.
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Featured artists

Kevin Huizenga
Dan Zettwoch

           Featured products

Birdseye Bristoe
Gloriana




Publisher's Weekly reviews "Birdseye Bristoe"

Updated July 24, 2012


Birdseye Bristoe


07/23/2012


Intricate diagrams, local legends, and eccentric characters fill the pages of Zettwoch's debut graphic novel. The title character, his niece, and his nephew chronicle the construction and collapse of a huge cellular tower in a rural, middle-of-nowhere community. But though the illustrations are clear on the recipe for a red cow shake, they are not at all clear on why the tower was destroyed, leaving readers to wonder about the fate of the main character--and the point of the story. Zettwoch's illustrations are so full of detail they appear cluttered, and the lettering, sometimes whited-out for effect, has to squeeze between his complex diagrams. The style is appealing when it is legible, but without a comprehensible context behind the what and why of the tale, the conclusion may leave readers scratching their heads. Others will simply enjoy the imaginative and zany level of detail as an end in itself. (July)
 
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Featured artist

Dan Zettwoch

           Featured product

Birdseye Bristoe




  Comic Book Resources reviews 3 Drawn and Quarterly releases

Updated July 19, 2012


One of these things is not like the others: Three new Drawn and Quarterly books


July 10, 2012
by J. Caleb Mozzocco

Here are three June releases from Drawn and Quarterly: Kevin Huizenga’s Gloriana, Chester Brown’s Ed The Happy Clown and Dan Zettwoch’s Birdseye Bristoe.

They have several things in common, aside from the fact that they are all hardcover releases from the same publisher. They are all handsomely designed, for example, they all make lovely coffee table and bookshelf-filling objects, and they are all more or less important comics releases.

One of them is different in several significant ways, however.

The Brown book, which collects a series of strips that quickly evolved into a complete graphic novel from the pages of Brown’s 1980s cult classic Yummy Fur, lacks any fold-out pages.

Gloriana, which features several Glenn Ganges stories, has a four-page, horizontal fold-out of a key sequence in a story that deconstructs a moment in a time down to a molecular, cubist-like level, practically atomizing the comics page into a sort of Guernica of a comic book.

Birdseye Bristoe, the debut graphic novel of a promising new talent about the construction of a gigantic, Tower of Babel-sized cellphone tower in a small rural community, features a vertical, two-page fold-out diagram of the tower.

The Brown book, which does feature plenty of fairly fantastic-to-the-point-of-insane visual subject matter (ghosts, vampires, cannibal pygmies, Frankenstein, mad scientists, a severed self-ambulatory hand, naked ladies, a man who can’t stop defecating, a talking penis with the head of President Reagan who Brown draws to look nothing like Ronald Reagan, etc.), contains absolutely no drawings of Gamera, the giant turtle monster who starred in the 1960s cycle of Japanese giant-monster films.

This fact, on its own, isn’t too terribly remarkable, as a lot of comic books do not feature drawings of Gamera. However, Gloriana and Birdseye Bristoe both do.

In Gloriana, Huizenga uses Gamera as an example of an extremely large object when discussing how the human eye and perception work during a story in which his protagonist Glenn Ganges explains why the moon looks huge and red to some neighbors one night:



In Birdseye Bristoe, Gamera appears in a panel illustrating part of character Clint Murgatroyd’s report on geodesic domes:



Brown’s Ed The Happy Clown differs from the other two books in another, perhaps more relevant to our purposes here, way: I didn’t care for it at all, while I really loved the other two.

Gloriana is another example of Huizenga doing what he does best, extrapolating epic events and consequences out of the most mundane subjects one can imagine: Carrying groceries in from the car, talking to your spouse while unpacking the groceries, having a phone conversation with a friend, noticing the moon one night. The aforementioned sequence, the one that’s so expansive it includes a fold-out, is summarized in a single line of dialogue: “Earlier I was at the library and the sun was setting.”

Birdseye Bristoe is probably the most tremendously exciting of the books, as it is from a relatively new creator, and is big, bright and colorful — the artwork, as well as the characters and storytelling. A cellphone company wants to put a tower into the titular area, and the old guy who owns the land they want to put it on agrees, so long as they meet a few conditions. Meanwhile, his great-niece and great-nephew arrive to spend the summer with him. Zettowoch tells the story by repeatedly breaking it into sections and running gags, usually presented as something appearing in the journals of one of the two teenagers. Krystal draws maps and illustrated lists, offers a tour of her uncle’s bungee cord and two-liter pop bottle inventions and interviews various characters. Clint makes little reports on various subjects. Zettowoch includes recipes and quizzes. The narrative is fast, funny and propulsive, but the experience of reading it is even better — it’s fun.

Ed The Happy Clown, however, is an awful bummer. After a few stop-and-start strips involving the title character, some scientists, some masked policemen and a Chester Brown avatar, a bigger, more ambitious narrative gradually begins to take shape, but it’s pretty tough reading. I made it through Brown’s graphic novel about having sex with prostitutes just fine, despite some misgivings here and there (especially at the resolution and throughout the prose end-section), but a lot of the content here is violent and scatalogical in the extreme.

Brown may draw, say, a room full of feces, or a semen-soaked hand or the head of a bald, jowly man attached to the end of a clowns penis vomiting very well, but that doesn’t really make them things I enjoy looking at. I don’t want to condemn the book purely on content, of course; do note that a cartoonist like Johnny Ryan could draw the same things, or grosser things, and the pictures will come out funny, or at least amusing, because of Ryan’s slick, classic cartoonist style. At this early point in Brown’s career, his style couldn’t really transcend and transform the subject matter, and most of the time, he doesn’t seem to be going for laughs or anything anyway.

I felt kind of defeated by the book, to be honest; I didn’t like it, it was hard for me to read, and I have trouble finding redeeming qualities to it. Aside from the obvious one: It provides a collection of the work of a great and important cartoonist. Certainly its far from his best work, but here it all is, easily accessible, and discussed at great (even tedious) length by the cartoonist himself in copious end notes. Brown’s a cartoonist whose work should all be easily available, to provide context for the rest of it, so I’m glad this book exists, even if I don’t like it.

But more importantly? It could have used a Gamera cameo.
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Featured artists

Chester Brown
Kevin Huizenga
Dan Zettwoch

           Featured products

Birdseye Bristoe
Gloriana




Birdseye Bristoe reviewed by The Comics Reporter

Updated July 19, 2012


CR Review: Birdseye Bristoe


July 16, 2012



I'm about as big a fan of the cartoonist Dan Zettwoch as there is, to the point that I've been worried about the general direction of the entire comics world because Zettwoch doesn't have a bigger place in it. For a time I wondered if we'd get a significant Dan Zettwoch effort intended for a wider audience -- well, the wider comics audience, anyway -- in the same way I wondered after Dave Cooper pre-Weasel. I think Zettwoch has a sophisticated visual sensibility and unique feel for pacing that makes him stand apart from every other maker of comics out there. He also seems ruthlessly smart to me, and tied into an anachronistic and even wholly necessary way of seeing the world from the ground-level, an appreciation for events and moments about which no other cartoonist could give a rip. The news that he had a book coming out from Drawn & Quarterly made me feel fantastic, like the world was a bit more friendly just for having this happened. I cleared my schedule -- such as it is -- the afternoon it arrived at the studio, and I rarely do that for any cartoonist anymore.

It's strange, then, that I don't like Birdseye Bristoe as much as I hoped I might. It could be that I had inflated expectations nothing could have matched. That previous paragraph certainly reads like that may have been the case. Frankly, I'm not sure why I found the experience a bit uneasy. The comics themselves are great. Birdseye Bristoe tells (or maybe just lets unfold) the story of two teenagers' visit to their grand-uncle's uniquely American slice of nowhere one summer just as a massive cell phone tower is being constructed there. The narrative bounces back and forth between various quotidian activities enjoyed by the trio and the nudging effect that the gentle intrusion of this specific project has on them and the others in the area. This is underlined in part by the older gentleman's use of creative, handmade devices that provide contrast in scale, functionality and charm to the ugliness of the towers. I got lost in the comic, and read it twice.

Stil, the story didn't quite cohere as a greater whole, at least not for me or at least not yet. Whether this was a result of Zettwoch's supremely light touch when it comes to pushing certain themes or ideas or if it's just that the comic was in general undercooked, I can't tell. My main feeling walking away form Birdseye Bristoe was that the format -- a hardcover, a fancy hardcover, the first fancy hardcover of Dan Zettwoch's career, and so on -- overwhelmed the story being told. This is in sharp contrast to the Kevin Huizenga book Gloriana collected in hardcover which seems to scramble to every corner of such a presentation, settle in and sigh. By not feeling all the way at home in a bookstore-ready, graphic novel reality, Zettwoch's book remains true to his appealing lead characters. It's the rest of us that are the cell phone users. There's something appropriate to that.
 
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Dan Zettwoch

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Birdseye Bristoe





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