The Ambiguity of Excellence: Kazu Kibuishi's Daisy Kutter


As promised, here is the second review no longer available at the Fantasy Magazine website. 


The first Daisy Kutter book, The Last Train, was pressed into my wife's hands by a good friend and I finally read it yesterday. I knew very little about the book before reading it other than the gushing praise it has inspired For example, on AICN, Superhero described this book as "perfect representation of sequential art . . . . the pinnacle of characterization, storytelling and art" (cite). 

So I liked it. Yes. How could I not? I love Kibuishi's art, I love Daisy --- she's beautiful and spunky and wry. I love steampunk and these are some nice robots. In terms of timeline, it's more future-set Cowboy Bebop than steampunk-retro Wild Wild West(1999), but tonewise it is very near classic westerns--only with robots. The first page is a deliberate nod to one of the greatest old cowboy films,  High Noon. But when the clock hits noon, the eponymous hero is not engaged in battle; instead she sighs.

Daisy Kutter
She's a gunfighter--one of the great train robbers--and she is retired.

The Last Train is the story of how she gets back into the game. 

Daisy's old boyfriend and partner-in-crime is now the sheriff, and he keeps offering her a deputy position to supplement her storekeeper's income, but that's one step to far into respectability. But being stuck in the middle is not a comfortable location for Daisy and when an offer comes to rob a train, then comes again, well, she can only say no so many times. Especially when the man offering the job owns the train. And especially after he wins her store from her in a game of Texas Hold 'em. Preserved integrity and desperation --- hard to fight that.

Daisy's world is peopled with goofy robots and threatening mechs and men in small round glasses and dusty saloons and giant shotguns and steam locomotives. And though Daisy can dodge bullets as well as James Bond, her compatriots are not so lucky. And as the nefarious plot behind the job comes clear, she will have to rely not only on her own stellar skills, but also upon those she cares for, leading her not only to a satisfactory conclusion to the job, but an emotional reconnection to other people as well.

But wherefore all the gushing over The Last Train? Don't get me wrong: I liked this book and I would be happy to read more about Daisy Kutter, but what are people finding in this story that makes them rank it among the greatest comics ever written? I don't see it, can't find it, don't know.
Where is the line between good and great? Is excellence ultimately a matter of personal taste only? Or can it be something more than that? Is there an objective standard to excellence somewhere? When a book like The Last Train garners as much praise as this one has, I feel there must be such a standard, but having finally read the book, from where I stand, the sands of excellence seem purely subjective.

Let's consider other universally praised comics, comics such as Maus or Watchmen

Maus I can't quibble with. I find it to be a pure example of comics potential as an artform. Watchmen, however --- I'm back on the fence.

With the release of the movie earlier this year, I reread Watchmen and found it better than my memory regarded it. And it's clear to me why we find it excellent.

Although comics are not a new artform, serious consideration of comics is new. And so we take our standards from the most similar art we see --- that other paper-and-glue art, literature. And Watchmen looks very much like what we want literature to look like.

When Time Magazine selected Watchmen as one of their top 100 novels, the reviewer, Lev Grossman, said this:

Watchmen is a graphic novel—a book-length comic book with ambitions above its station—starring a ragbag of bizarre, damaged, retired superheroes: the paunchy, melancholic Nite Owl; the raving doomsayer Rorschach; the blue, glowing, near-omnipotent, no-longer-human Doctor Manhattan. Though their heyday is past, these former crime-fighters are drawn back into action by the murder of a former teammate, The Comedian, which turns out to be the leading edge of a much wider, more disturbing conspiracy. Told with ruthless psychological realism, in fugal, overlapping plotlines and gorgeous, cinematic panels rich with repeating motifs, Watchmen is a heart-pounding, heartbreaking read and a watershed in the evolution of a young medium.

Ignoring the snide remark "ambitions above its station," note the traits of a great novel --- "ruthless psychological realism . . . overlapping plotlines . . . repeating motifs" --- then take a glance at the other 99 books on the list to see that what Watchmen did right was to taste like Orwell and Heller and Woolf. And, come to think of it, so does Maus. And so does Jimmy Corrigan. And, now that we can step back and look at it as a whole, so does Peanuts.

But the people singing the praises of The Last Train aren't the same people who spend the rest of their time debating whether Lolita or Infinite Jest is the greatest novel ever, then congratulating themselves for letting a four-color superhero comic into their club.

The people who love The Last Train are people who have developed a reply to What Makes Great Comics based on their reading of comics.

Now I love comics, but I must be honest and admit that I'm trained to assign worth in storytelling according to the centuries-long traditions developed in literature.

But maybe that's a mistake. Maybe comics deserves its own set of standards to be judged by. We don't judge Picasso in comparison to Beethoven; why should we judge Kibuishi by the standards of Hemingway?

Maybe it's time we, I, stop.

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