Review: Marie Antoinette Phantom Queen

I’m going to break editorial kayfabe and reveal that Marie Antoinette Phantom Queen has been up for review for as long as I’ve been writing for this website. Every week when I’d sign up for which release I’d review, this book would be nestle towards the bottom of our column reserved for only the most indie of indie comic books. Days went by, and it was there, then weeks and same result.

Then one day I threw myself into the pile of very indie titles and found this beautifully drawn, wonderfully colored comic. I couldn’t believe this had gone untouched for so long, that this went un-reviewed. I made a vow that when I had a week with fewer reviews going on, I’d read this one.

Now that I’ve read this book, I can tell you why this wasn’t talked about for so long. The answer is that, well, it’s French.

European comics took a stylistic turn away from the rest of Western comics at some point in history. They moved away from narrative, moved away from dialog and character and became more about the presentation of art and its visual juxtaposition of ideas.

Marie Antoinette Phantom Queen reads like a pastoral daydream. The line work is immaculate, the colors so soft and war they’re almost like watercolors. When a page portrays a rolling landscape or pristine neo-classical structure, the image could be enlarged and placed on a wall in a museum.

Marie Antoinette Phantom QueenDespite being enthralled by the art, I could never stop being tripped up by the narrative. Here we follow a painter in the 1930s as she inadvertently becomes the spiritual medium for the ghost of Marie Antoinette.  The art so strongly captures each period in vivid detail with particular attention to capturing the beauty of the settings’ styles of dress and with colors that provide this rich texture I’ve never quite seen in other comics.

The story’s pacing moves at a rhythm I could never match. Some scenes felt like they moved through too quickly or with too little connective tissue. Then while there is a horror and tension to Marie Antoinette’s history and imprisonment during the French Revolution, I kept expecting a sharper and harsher visual edge that I never found. The present story of the painter moves at a much more docile pace where events that should cause drama ended up sorting itself out. The internal narrative structure never matched my expectations. When I expected a scene to linger, to indulge in a character moment it was already over, but then when a scene might have traditionally been simply quick exposition connective filler, the pages waited here a little longer. Marie Antoinette Phantom Queen was a story that never match that narrative formula of Western comics but not in a way that challenged it but rather just different.

Here the narrative presents two different women who are turned victims of circumstance by simply existing as women in restrictive periods. Marie Antoinette was tortured, executed and desecrated for simply being born into her life—a life where she had no say or influence on political systems of royal France.

While in the 1930s, Maud becomes the target for her deceased husband’s son as he tries to steal her inheritance. Both women end up helping each other, but the story never has the sharp dramatic beats I expect. Maud’s former step-son tries to institutionalize her, but every effort comically fails, Maud has to find Marie Antoinette’s true remains but doing so turns out to be relatively easy due to her ghost friend’s powers.

There’s still a delight in this story. Maud and Marie Antoinette build a charming and beautiful friendship, and the story’s closest thing to a villain is legitimately funny as everyone one of his attempts at ruining Maud’s life fails. This could be a story that lingered on the cruelty of history especially towards women but instead focuses its content to empower.

I can’t blame a comic, however, for not doing something it isn’t trying to do. Marie Antoinette Phantom Queen invites you a fantastical, lazy afternoon story—one you might read on a porch overlooking a field or read over a cup of tea on a quiet rainy morning. This is a story you breathe in slowly rather consume, a story that’s beautiful and funny and moves at a pace you discover rather than one tied to a formula. Most importantly, however, a story that takes a tragic history and forces us to remember and engage with it so that we can create a better future.

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Marie Antoinette Phantom Queen Writers: Rudolphe & Annie Goetzinger Artist: Annie Goetzinger Publisher: NBM Publishing Price: $17.99 (Print); $9.99 (Digital) Format: Hardcover; Print/Digital


Review: Breaking the 10

In my Warship Jolly Roger review, I clarified the difference between four-star books and what I usually would define as a five-star book. Usually, for me it comes down to a sharply handled book that has artistic ambition, either to move the medium forward in some way or to tackle subjects that go beyond the purview of general entertainment. Breaking the 10, a Western comic illustrated in a manga style, has ambitions. It is, at its heart, an exploration of the intersection between society and faith, a borderline blasphemous dialogue about the existence or non-existence of God, and the core question that seems to define for so many people the extent of their belief in a higher power: with all the pain in the world, does God even care? While the intent seems to come from a place of devout Christianity, Breaking the 10 cuts for the edge of faith, with crime, sex, and sacrilege brazenly displayed by our main character in his search for meaning. It aims to be more than a simple story, full of big questions with possibly unobtainable answers. And this may be the dumbest comic I've ever reviewed for Bastards.

Breaking The 10Let me clarify, dumbest, not worst. The plotting and pacing of the book are pretty competent, the first volume not a conclusion to the story but ending in the right place, the story building over time. The art, while sometimes lumpy and lacking meticulous definition, has some decent character work in it, and can't be credited as a detriment to the overall story. No, I've read worse. I've read E.P.I.C., Lone Star Soul, and you know, Zenescope. But search my memory banks with all the keywords you like, I honestly couldn't find a dramatic example of a comic that aimed so high intellectually and yet landed delicately like an innocent wind-plucked leaf in a field of philosophical ineptitude. Honestly, the next closest thing I could grasp for comparison is the socially conscious thrillers of Las Vegas architect Neal Breen like I Am Here...Now and Fateful Findings. Breaking the 10 isn't nearly as incomprehensible as Breen's work, but the blunt tone, shocking lack of grasp on its subject material, and most importantly, hilarious dialogue, made this book not a pain, but a unique joy to read, making me laugh more often and more deeply than any comedy so far this year, in any medium. Read this book. If you have time and a few bucks burning a hole, read it.

The book concerns an upper-middle-class schmo with a big house, a job that can afford him vacation time off, and one big problem: his wife and son just got killed in a car wreck by a drunk driver. A devout Christian, this sends him into an existential spiral, filled with resentment and rage aimed at the seemingly uncaring God that would ruin his life this way. His plan implemented immediately, is to lure God into revealing his existence (or non-existence) by methodically violating the Ten Commandments, sussing him out into the open with blasphemy and sin. This means committing petty crime, orchestrating adultery, all building up to the most memorable sin of all, which undoubtedly will serve as the climax when he attempts to kill the man who killed his wife and kid. All the while, his life is invaded by a pair of monochromatically themed slackers, each representing the dual extremes of piety and anti-authoritarianism, who engage him in lengthy debates on morality, faith, atheism, communism, capitalism, the moral obligations of those that reject civilization, and jokes about boobs.

Now here we get to the fun part. Nothing conceptually so far is awful, kind of on the nose, but a talented writer could eke something interesting out of it I imagine. There's a sort of tightrope walk between blasphemy and faith in the idea and presentation, sort of like what Kevin Smith worked with in Dogma, only with a joyless seriousness about the subject matter and without Smith's lifelong meditation on his Catholic faith. Here, you get a semi-Socratic dialogue as if conducted by Mac from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. To "covet you neighbor's wife," he forces himself to get a literal hard-on for his female neighbor, who he then seduces with pity and broken jokes, where we are then treated to a sex scene where we get lines like ,"Then shut up and kiss me some more, sexy!" For a craven image, he somehow buys an enormous block of marble, learns how to sculpt marble, and carves a Berniniesque statue of God plowing a woman in the ass while drunk. Sounds amazing, but it's presented with an utter lack of humor, a deadly serious scene that is intended as a dramatic affront to a higher power. Broad statements are made like "all anarchists are atheists, but not all atheists are anarchists" and that the difference between communism and anarchy is negligible (are you aware of what these words mean?), with all of the confidence and arrogance of a teenager who just read the cliff notes to Beyond Good and Evil. My first impression was the book was written by a lifelong devout Christian, the tone, and rhetoric comparable to Chick tracts, but by the end I couldn't tell what the experience the author had with the religion, as a fellow Bastard pointed out to me that the story seems to misunderstand parts of Christianity that are dealt with in Sunday school. As evangelical as the book comes off as (despite the sin and sex contained), it feels written by a born-again convert who found God yesterday and immediately started badgering his coworkers about going to church. All the while we are supposed to feel pity for this infantile schmuck of a character because his wife and kid, who we never meet, died in a cliche-crash. Tears are shed over graves and family photos, followed tightly by howling at the sky, demanding attention from a higher power, before robbing a collection box at church and stuffing lace panties in an altar. This is a teenager's reaction to the unfairness of the universe, not someone exploring the meaning of life. These are all questions a pastor has answers for, and when it comes to the existence or non-existence of god, you just want to slap this guy and tell him to shit or get off the existential fence.

Full disclosure, atheist here, which some might see as a disqualification for reviewing this wreck, but here's the thing: nobody grows up in America not having questions about God unless you were sheltered from doubting doubt by evangelically progressive parents. I talked to God even after I stopped fully believing in him up to my late teen years, not religious but incapable of truly internalizing alone in the universe. Having walked my own spiritual journey to absence, I can appreciate stories told by believers without relating to their conclusions. Faith in creators is a vital part of the human experience for most of mankind, an integral part of nearly every culture in history, and an unavoidable component of the fabric of the world today. Were it not for the avoidance of anything divisive to the beige entertainment consuming audiences of this country, it would be surprising we don't get more stories that address faith as a factor. That has no bearing whatsoever on this book. I only have a passing familiarity with the scripture, and even I know almost everything in here is bunk, from the extremity of the crimes (licentious thoughts can count as adultery in some readings of the Bible) to seeming to misunderstand the definition of the word "graven." There's at least a surprising attempt to clarify the position of moral atheists/anarchists near the end, which seemed out of character for the book's bluntness, but of course, this is handicapped by the equivalating of LaVeyan Satanism with secular humanism, but hey, potato poh-tah-toh. Right?

This book is a laugh and a half, and if you enjoy the acquired taste for funny bad you should give it a go. I can't wait for a second volume. Even if we don't get sent one for review (which, face it. Why would they?), I'll probably shell out a few shekels of my own to read it. It's usually admirable to try to do something ambitious with small press comics. Lord knows plenty of people are content to chase Bendis's coattails instead, but this is the philosophical equivalent of retweeting a misattributed Gandhi quote as your thesis. Still, when I kneel by my bedside tonight to give thanks to the Almighty, I'll be sure to put a word in for giving me a terrible comic that I could enjoy the whole way through for once.

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Breaking the 10 Writer: Sean Michael Wilson Artist: Michiru Morikawa Publisher: NBM Publishing Price: $11.99 Format: Hardcover; Print


Review: Thoreau - A Sublime Life

One of the rules for writing a good biography is maintaining some emotional distance from your subject. That doesn’t mean you should only be negative about a person, or positive, or even that you can’t make judgments about that person’s life. I would be wary of anybody who wrote a biography of Hitler, for example, without feeling some level of horror or revulsion. But you can’t let that horror stop you from trying to understand your subject. Similarly, you can’t allow love or admiration of a person to stop you from actually analyzing them.

That’s one of the fundamental problems with Thoreau: A Sublime Life. The book is a ninety-page biography of Henry David Thoreau, mostly focusing on his life at Walden Pond and afterward. It focuses on his philosophy, his antiwar activism, and his abolitionism. However, it never delves too deeply into any of those, instead merely presenting them to the reader and then moving on to the next thing. You can read this entire book and get no closer to Thoreau as a subject; at its worst, it just reads as a selection of Thoreau’s quotes with some illustrations. Furthermore, it practically sprints through his writings and life, giving you just a taste of each but not pausing to examine them.

One of the biggest blocks for this book is that there’s virtually no dialogue, at least in the sense of a back-and-forth. So much of Thoreau’s dialogue is taken from what he wrote that you’re basically just reading excerpts for much of it. How can characters respond to any of that? There’s no room for conversation. Even where Le Roy goes off-script so to speak, none of the characters actually seem to speak: when he’s bailed out of jail by his aunt, she utters some complaint about his behavior, and he brushes her off with a quip. That’s all of the dialogue: people either express disbelief or admiration, and Thoreau goes back to narrating. This actually does a disservice to Thoreau’s ideas, which are deserving of some discussion.


Unfortunately, civil disobedience, anti-commercialism, even budding environmentalism are all introduced and moved past at a breakneck pace. This also simplifies Thoreau’s ideas or writings unacceptably in some places. The book shows Thoreau going to Maine and his time in the Maine wilderness, but Thoreau draws different conclusions about nature and man’s place therein than what he does in Walden. Nature could be frightening, “savage and awful” in Thoreau’s worlds, not the pleasant forest excursion it’s made to be here. Likewise, the author makes no attempt to understand to what extent Walden was an experiment in minimalistic living versus a manifesto.

Part of the problem is that there are a lot of weird little details that are just wrong in this book. Admittedly, I’m the kind of person who goes hunting for historical inaccuracies or anachronisms, so maybe these won’t bother another reader quite as much as they do for me. Still, if you’re going to examine a human subject, you ought to get their character right. There’s one page where Thoreau drinks coffee with a neighbor, which makes no sense. Thoreau devotes a fair bit of Walden to decrying the consumption of coffee, saying “I believe that water is the only drink for a wise man; wine is not so noble a liquor; and think of dashing the hopes of a morning with a cup of warm coffee…” Or how about the part when people are congratulating Thoreau on the success of Walden? The book several years to even sell 2,000 copies, and while critics were not hostile to it, it didn’t immediately catapult Thoreau into fame either.

Or, more importantly, why does the author set up a conversation between Thoreau and John Brown? There’s no evidence that the two men ever knew each other, and it’s the kind of thing a children’s history book would do. It simplifies the history and tries to make it easily understandable, which then robs it of the importance it had in the first place. You could do an entire book on Thoreau’s abolition, and it would simply be enough to have Thoreau read from “A Plea for Captain John Brown” and parse people’s reactions to it. That would set up an interesting conversation between Thoreau and other people where they could actually debate the merits of violent activism and how far one should be willing to go in the defense of others or one’s beliefs.

This view of Thoreau is also so uncritical and full of admiration that at times it also reads like a love letter to Thoreau. The biographical essay at the back of the book is actually more useful in this regard because it does at least mention a few of Thoreau's blindspots, such as the fact that he had a pretty low opinion of women's intellects and capacities. None of that is in the main pages though, and you shouldn't have to read the explanatory essay of a biographical comic in order to appreciate the comic in the first place. What about Thoreau's tone, which frequently verges on preachy? That seems to escape both the narration and the dialogue.

I couldn’t help but feel that this might have been more effective if it had focused on one aspect of Thoreau in depth, rather than trying to cover his entire life in ninety pages. As it stands, you don’t walk away knowing much more than you would have just reading up on Thoreau through Wikipedia.

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Thoreau: A Sublime Life Writer: Maximilien Le Roy Writer: A. Dan Publisher: NBM Publishing Price: $19.99 Format: One-shot