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Good Read Column for April 21, 1998

House of Java

By Mark Murphy
80 pages, NBM Comics Lit, $8.95 (TPB)

(of a possible five)


Andrew Smith, a reporter for the Memphis Commercial Appeal who has a weekly comics column that moves on the Scripps Howard feature wire, panned this book last week, calling it of interest only to "twentysomething slackers who inhabit Seattle's ubiquitous coffee shops."

Well, what do you expect from a man who calls himself "Captain Comics" and treats Star Trek novels as a legitimate form of literature? (Actually, to be fair, the pan is in a column full of praises for other NBM books, and the Captain is not as superhero-worshipping as some.)

For the record, this fortysomething Midwesterner who drinks decaf thoroughly enjoyed this slim little volume, and is looking forward to much more from newcomer Murphy, who even Smith admits is an accomplished storyteller. This book is all the more remarkable for being a debut - Murphy may be NBM's first legitimate discovery (they've "discovered" a lot of Europeans in the sense of introducing them to Americans, but they were established in their own countries; the Americans they've published have mostly been those with established reputations like P. Craig Russell and Rick Geary).

This collection of short stories features mostly slice-of-life stories, though there is one strange story with its roots in the old EC horror comics or the Warren magazines of the 60s and 70s that imitated them. That story, "Rest Stop," has a haunting quality but was overall weaker than the others, in my opinion.

The title story essentially drifts through a coffee shop eavesdropping on conversations at different tables, giving a variety of characters center stage for a few panels at a time. It's an effective device, and the characters are well-drawn, but there's little substance to it.

Better is "Welcome to Seattle," about a girl from the Midwest who comes to visit her boyfriend. He decided to spend the summer in Seattle because he had to "do something crazy" before he had to settle down. The story opens with her at the airport. He was supposed to pick her up, but he's not there. Nor is he at the hotel he told her he was staying at, which is actually a youth hostel. With nowhere else to go, she checks into a room and meets two young women who have traveled all over the world. They are happy and self-confident and independent, and she feels very provincial and inadequate in their company at first. But they draw her out, and in the course of her short visit she becomes a different person, able to handle the inevitable confrontation with her boyfriend.

The stories remind me a lot of the kind of stories Adrian Tomine does in Optic Nerve, but Murphy is a lot warmer than Tomine, especially visually and to some extent thematically as well. He pulls you in and involves you with his characters, where Tomine stands off and observes. The cold, clinical method Tomine uses to dissect his characters has its value, but Murphy's style is easier to like.

A friend of mine who is a professional artist and cartoonist but whose exposure to comic books comes almost entirely through me picked this up and immediately liked it. Just flipping through it, he said, "This guy's really good." (He rarely says things like that about my comics.)

NBM has found a very talented young man in Mark Murphy - who does not, by the way, live in Seattle (the press release says he lives in the Dallas area). I predict we'll be seeing much more from him.

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