Percy Gloom and Hieronymus B.

by John Holbo on May 17, 2008

I haven’t been doing enough comics blogging. But I just read a couple titles that seem to go together:

Percy Gloom [amazon], by Cathy Malkasian. You can visit the book site here.  Not too much there.

… And

Hieronymus B., by Ulf K. [amazon]. Top Shelf has a generous preview.

I really liked them both while feeling that both could be better. It’s a bit hard to put my finger on it.

Let start with the visual basics. We have two somewhat hapless protagonists – characters to whom things happen, mostly, rather than characters who do things. They are both prematurely aged children/innocently child-like old men. They both have big round heads and little bodies. I’m starting to think that Charlie Brown is an archetype. The bald-headed kid who gets the football yanked, but who somehow salvages some degree of philosophic dignity. Maybe there is something Charlie Brownish inherent in the comics medium. A simple circle face on a stick body. It really doesn’t get more iconically economical than that. Chris Ware, anyone?

Percy is a middle-aged son, still living with his eccentric, inventor mom. (His father slapped himself to death when Percy was born. It’s a ‘Gloom tradition’.) He wants to be a ‘cautionary writer’ and the events of our story are occasioned by receipt of a letter, inviting him for a job interview at Safely Now. Which does not go well, but he gets the job:


When asked what he has that all the other applicants do not, he blurts out in tears: ‘My Mother!’

He’s like a cross between Elmer Fudd and Kafka’s Hunger Artist:


But he has his oddly effective side, as well. His head lights up like a lightbulb when he remembers to screw it on (his mother has to remind him.) He solves problems for his friends and learns important life lessons about taking risk. It’s sweet. And I like the art. But it’s also hit-and-miss. The Gloom family auto-death-slap fits with the obsessive questing for risk in the mundane, the better to shun life. There’s a good thread there. But other jokes just seem like by-the-numbers wackiness. He had a wife, Lila, who joins the funnelheads and kills herself in a silly way. Eh. It’s written as though this is all a metaphor for something, but I must be missing it. But it’s fun.

Hieronymus B. is slender – on 60 pages. And mostly wordless, which makes it a very fast read. It’s like Owly visits Kafka’s Castle. It’s paranoid, but in an oddly sweet and gentle way. Weird things just happen at the office; he can’t deal with them, but it doesn’t matter. He has weird dreams and walks into paintings in museums, in a Calvin-like way. He’s passive, not aggressive, but occasionally oddly effective. (Not the theologian, Calvin. The other one.)

One thing I find a bit odd, thinking about these books, is not just that ‘sweet and gentle Kafkaesque storytelling’ turns out not to be an oxymoron. What’s odd is more that my sense this kind of Kafkaesque isn’t so hard to do, so you should do it really well. Just make a hapless round-headed bald kid/old man, to whom random but portentous things happen. Writes itself. So you have to write it really well. (But even if you don’t, it will still be lots of fun. It’s a winner of a sub-genre formula.)

And by the by. I’m organizing a book event around Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics [amazon]. A fine book, in my judgment, soon to come out in paperback. It will be hosted loosely at the Valve but, this being the internet, anyone with their own soap box who wants to join the converation is probably welcome. We haven’t settled a date yet. Maybe 4-6 weeks? But it’s definitely going to happen. I have some freebie review copies to give away. I’ve decided to give a few to anyone who sends me an email out of the blue, explaining why they deserve a free copy. Or, alternatively, leaving an impressively clever comment to the post, achieving the same. (By bothering to read to the end of this post, you have already passed the first test, grasshopper. Clearly you have some interest in comics.)



David Weman 05.17.08 at 4:59 am

“And mostly wordless, which makes it a very fast read.”

I find wordless comics to usually be pretty slow reads.


Katherine F. 05.17.08 at 2:17 pm

Whether a worldess comic takes more or less time to read depends for me on the density of the visuals: a complex image with no words is harder to parse than a complex image plus words, since the words give you a sense of which details you should be paying attention to. If the images are simple, especially if the artist’s style tends towards the abstract end of the spectrum rather than the photorealistic, the absence of words doesn’t make it harder to figure out what’s significant, and it gives you one less thing to read.

I have no need of a review copy, since I reviewed Reading Comics for the Irish Times last year. I’d be delighted to participate in this event, if you’ll have me. I had a lot of thoughts about Reading Comics that I’ve never got round to codifying; I’d appreciate the opportunity to discuss the work symposium-style.


Nabakov 05.17.08 at 3:37 pm

I highly recommend this graphic novel by a friend of mine

It’s a certainly quite a different kettle of fish when it comes to adapting work for the comics genre.


socialrepublican 05.17.08 at 6:10 pm

In an entirely different vein, my friend has a web comic up, ranging in tone from pathos to bathos and back in a handful of images



Ted 05.17.08 at 7:45 pm

I am currently working on a book manuscript about Aesop’s Fables and political thought, and am outlining a chapter on how the Fables are used in the present day. I’m working on tying them to Willingham’s _Fables_ graphic novels, which despite the title actually focus on fairy-tale and folk story characters, and what does that mean about fables as a genre? Anyway, I need to understand more about graphic novels as a medium in order to pull this off. If you think that this is a worthy endeavor, then I am a public benefactor and as such deserve a copy of the book. If not, I would welcome any thoughtful explanation of why so that I can avoid wasting my time.


Giblets 05.17.08 at 7:49 pm

Foolish Holbo! Lila’s death amongst the funnelheads is hardly gratuitous, but is evidence of a wanton disregard of both her own life and of the lives of others, and is presented as an explicit contrast to both the overweening terror of mortality represented by Safely-Now and the Tammy cult and to the acceptance of life’s fleeting nature represented by the goats and Tammy’s parents. Bow before Giblets’s greater comprehension of graphic storytelling! Bow before Giblets’s greater comprehension of graphic storytelling NOW!

Giblets will also take one of your free book things, either in addition to or in lieu of bowing.


John Holbo 05.18.08 at 3:04 am

My God, giblets is totally right. How could I have doubted the funnel wisdom?

Giblets and ted, please feel free to send me your mailing addresses. jholbo-at-mac-dot-com. Katherine, you are cordially invited to participate as well.


lazynative 05.18.08 at 4:30 pm

Shouldn’t we as purists be calling them Graphic Novels and not ‘comics’ :)

One thing that has struck me is the sheer number of very high quality Graphic Novels on political/social themes that seem to be available these days like Palestine, Persepolis, Berlin, Kashmir Pending etc. While back apart from Maus you wouldn’t really see this. The Japanese are, of course, miles ahead of much of the Anglo-Saxon world in this regard; but there is a lot of good stuff coming out of Europe as well these days.


CK Dexter 05.18.08 at 5:22 pm

It’s strange to think that Giblets having a mailing address. I just assumed he inhabited an alternate dimension. I bet it’s something like 11111 Street St, Kingdom of Fafogonia.


novakant 05.18.08 at 9:42 pm

Maybe there is something Charlie Brownish inherent in the comics medium. A simple circle face on a stick body. It really doesn’t get more iconically economical than that. Chris Ware, anyone?

I think people like e.g. Frazetta, Fabry or Bilal would rather disprove this point, they’re masters that can draw anything. The thing is: getting anatomy and perspective right is actually very hard, and having both great drawing and writing talent is rare. That’s why the job is often split between a writer and an illustrator.

I can really recommend this book on graphic novels.


Tom Parmenter 05.19.08 at 5:03 am

One thing I find a bit odd, thinking about these books, is not just that ‘sweet and gentle Kafkaesque storytelling’ turns out not to be an oxymoron. What’s odd is more that my sense this kind of Kafkaesque isn’t so hard to do, so you should do it really well.

The question: Who is Robert Walser?

Kafka and Hesse were among the admirers of his strange, sunny despair. Jakob von Gunten is his best known work, but everything I’ve read by him has fully repaid the attention.


BillCinSD 05.19.08 at 11:42 pm

It seems that there might be some herbie popnecker in these comics too

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