If anyone can tell me what Jamie Tanner's "The Aviary" is about, please do so. This is not to say I didn't like the book -- in fact, I loved it. But a good man knows when he's down and "The Aviary" has put me in the place of being a very good man.
An aviary is a large, enclosed place to keep birds -- like a house-sized cage -- and the characters within cross each other's stories so often that one gets the feeling that they do inhabit an enclosed space, the walls of which are the edges of the pages of the graphic novel. With no other space to wander into, no life beyond that which Jamie Tanner allows them to exist in, they are left little choice but to run circles around each other's existence. The characters' movements hint that there is some sort of meaning to their imprisonment, but they may just be the inevitable things that happen by dropping people in a confined space and seeing what happens.
It's a cartoon version of the Big Brother house mixed with the sensibilities of "Waiting For Godot."
Tanner's tale revolves around a little toy doll of a bird with a human body, dressed up in a suit and sporting a special "blinking eye" novelty, as manufactured by the Casualty J. Organ Company. The bird's part in the tale comes and goes, though Casualty J. Organ himself figures into what unfolds, as well as his secretary, an ape-faced collector of pornography named Heinrich Bruno, a robot, a comedian with no arms and legs and a penguin child. The characters parade through a variety of short pieces that work as self-contained curiosities, but also add up to something more bizarre. They link, but what the links add up to will tease your brain afterwards.
Add to my befuddled but enthusiastic explanation the fact that the story has the feel of having been written by someone with Tourette's Syndrome and you pretty much get the idea.
For all its obscurity, "The Aviary" is a hilarious venture in surrealism. And one fact is obvious throughout -- Jamie Tanner is going to be a major talent in the world of graphic novels. His ideas and presentation are uniquely his own and watching how they grow further in his work will be a great pleasure.
Gentleman Jim by Raymond Briggs (Drawn and Quarterly)
Through books like "The Bear" and "The Snowman" Raymond Briggs has met with acclaim largely for books aimed at kids that have a dark edge to them. They stop short of actually being depressing, but the humor they disperse has a bite, peppered with an outlook that is not wholly sunny. Briggs has also branched out in his career with works like "Where the Wind Blows," a fable of nuclear war that plunges to the depths of sadness.
Somewhere in between these extremes lies "Gentleman Jim," which takes the forlorn of a life wasted and the inability to crawl to higher heights and adds a childlike whimsy to the proceedings. In this way, it plays to both audiences -- more importantly, it serves as a funny tale that may just lodge itself in a kid's brain, a lesson learned to be applied at the crossroads we all face.
The book's title refers not to the main character Jim, but to a roving masked highwayman that Jim pulls from his favorite escapist literature. Jim wants to be Gentleman Jim, but is in reality a bathroom attendant long past his prime, though not too old to dream of changing his life. Daydreaming on the job and spouting off ideas with his patient wife, Jim goes through a litany of career and life change plans before settling on highwayman. Unfortunately, Jim is naive to the point of idiocy and not only can he not tell the difference between reality and fantasy, he also has little intuition on the way things work in the real world.
Much of the humor of the book is pulled from the inability of Jim and his wife to understand the world around him and the spectacle of his schemes falling apart thanks to society's rigidity. On one hand, Briggs seems entirely on Jim's side -- on the other, there are aspects to Jim and his wife which shows a cruelty in Briggs' writing and an anger in his conception. This is not so much a criticism as an observation of Briggs' usual tone and it's place in this story -- the rounded, ruddy-cheeked people born of his art style sometimes imply a sweetness to his stories that don't necessarily exist. As the characters unfold, they become as much an examination of Briggs' psychology as their own.
As the story winds down, the hostility holds far less strength against the humor and "Gentleman Jim" turns out to be something that a kid might enjoy without perceiving the negatives. Briggs's concoctions are always filled with emotional depth and good laughs -- "Gentleman Jim" is that best kind of book, one that grows with the reader and reveals previously hidden aspects that are found through maturity.