Rip Kirby Complete Comic Strips 1946-1948 By Alex Raymond and Ward Greene Published by IDW Publishing. $49.99 USD
IDW has done remarkable work the past few years with their imprint The Library of American Comics collecting so many of the great newspaper strips like Dick Tracy, Little Orphan Annie, Terry and the Pirates and so on. Rip Kirby is one with which I had no familiarity before reading this volume, which collects the first couple years of the strip. After years of apprenticeship, doing inking and background work on strips like Blondie and Tim Tyler’s Luck, Raymond got his big break with Flash Gordon, Jungle Jim, and just a few weeks later, Secret Agent X-9, that one written by pulp writer Dashiell Hammett.
It’s interesting to learn that Flash Gordon was created to compete with then-popular science fiction strip, Buck Rogers, and Jungle Jim was assigned to Raymond to create to package with Flash Gordon, and was greatly influenced by Frank R. Buck’s novel, Bring ‘Em Back Alive, which also inspired a movie. It’s not a value judgment on Raymond that his first works were born with such commercial concerns and all derivative of already-popular works—he was 24 and trying to make a name for himself. But aside from the suspense generated by Hammett’s X-9 scripts, the main reason any of those strips are remembered today is Raymond’s artwork.
With Kirby, Raymond takes his experience drawing modern settings and what he sees in the Expressionist/Impressionist lighting and staging of the noir films of the time to create a new kind of detective strip. It’s a talky strip much of the time, and often set inside or during daylight hours, but Raymond is a master at spotting blacks for contrast and depth. One can argue it’s more personal in that Raymond had used his increasing fame to strike a deal for majority ownership of it, or that Kirby draws more on Raymond than his previous characters as far as a combination of urbanity and recklessness (Raymond, a sports car enthusiast, died in a car wreck in 1956), but it’s still an idea as commercial as all get out: tough but smart and sensitive private detective with a fashion model girlfriend—a combination to draw both male and female readers.
While readers today are denied the experience of reading these strips in their original time and context, commenting on the fashions and changing social mores of the day (certainly Kirby galpal Honey Dorian hanging around him so much without a wedding ring or any clear, public stance on their relationship would have raised some eyebrows in real life), or in Honey’s case, depicting the new fashions, inspired by Dior and others. This must have been a treat to read before work for the Des Moines shopkeeper or after the kids had gone to school for the Tallahassee housewife. The reader today will appreciate the wide array of fashions Raymond depicts, and the handsome decor and vibrant settings, because Raymond’s level of craft is so high that the strip is enjoyable to look at even if not much is going on.
It’s not often that there’s a lull here, though. Raymond quickly gets past shots of an idle Kirby practicing putting in the den and onto a murder case, and as each serial lasts at least a month, there is ample room for plot twists and the development of colorful villains and supporting characters. Honey Dorian and Kirby’s relationship with her is rather patronizing—despite being a fashion model in much demand, she spends a good deal of time helping Kirby with his cases or fretting over Kirby’s feelings towards her. And no wonder, since he takes pleasure in withholding affection. Occasionally, she does prove to be a valuable asset rather than toy or damsel in distress, and at least once Kirby does regret playing her.
The third serial, “Enter: The Mangler,” introduces competition for Honey in Pagan Lee, whose name, dark locks and demeanor have her pegged as a femme fatale, but she’s ready for a new role. Her attraction to Kirby, and his belief in her, lead her to reform and shut the door on her criminal past for a Hollywood career. Given these complications, she ends up more sympathetic than Honey, whose only real struggles in life are Kirby and the Kirby-related trouble she gets into.
That storyline finds Raymond working in a great balance of reasonable detective work, suspenseful plot churning, soap opera romance and memorable character design. The Mangler’s face is grotesque but believable, not like a Dick Tracy villain at all but nearly as memorable. Raymond is terrific not just because he can come up with an interesting, realistic face but that he can reproduce it, again and again, from any angle. In purely visual terms, “The Doll’s House” is the most fun, featuring a horrible, spiteful villainess with an unforgettable face and lots of fighting in jungles and caves and on beaches.
Ward Greene doesn’t get much mention, but as Raymond’s editor, he and Raymond would meet once a week to hash out the beats for the next week’s continuity. This may explain why some stories wind along longer than others, as things were going well and new ideas were opening up. Greene was also a successful novelist and this may help explain the more sophisticated storytelling. There are degrees of guilt and punishment here. The bad don’t all die and many aren’t so bad. Murderers are caught or killed, of course, but Pagan Lee is allowed to slide for past offenses by showing she can make good now, and a rich couple of kidnapers, motivated by love, are shown the best solution for all parties concerned by Kirby. With his pipe, spectacles and broken nose, Raymond’s design for Kirby perfectly captures that this is a detective who can mix it up if he has to but wants to listen and consider first before making a judgment.
A masterpiece of artistic skill but also intelligent, amusing and occasionally thrilling in its storytelling, Rip Kirby is a valuable addition to the serious comics reader’s library. I hate to end on a bum note, but the cover design, with the teal background, orange logo and blurry Photoshop shadow effect, is awful. But I like the book.
Diversions of the Groovy Kind has a nice group of splash pages from Keith Giffen’s 1977 run as penciler of Marvel’s The Defenders. It makes me kinda want to read them, which I think I have somewhere, but what struck me first is not so much what Giffen brings to these pages but what you get from Klaus Janson. Giffen and Janson are credited as the “artists,” which can cover a wide range of things, but clearly Janson is not just faithfully putting ink where Giffen’s pencils were. Janson has always been an overpowering inker, but he’s so good that usual works out fine, just different. Many prefer John Byrne or Frank Miller inking themselves, but Janson’s inking over them resulted in some of my favorite comics art.
What you see here is a young Giffen who hadn’t quite found his style yet. Not that he’s ever settled on one style for very long, but he’s not as confident here, judging by the results later when he’s inked by Chic Stone. Chic Stone is an inker who will generally diminish the power of one’s pencils, and we see an awkward Namor image for the issue where Stone inks Giffen. And earlier, once Janson has left the book, we see that what Giffen is most comfortable doing at this stage in his career is aping Jack Kirby’s style. It’s right there in the splash to #48 with a Kirbyesque Scorpio, Giffen and Dan Green doing a credible imitation of Kirby’s distinctively jagged contour lines, while in the next issue we get an excellent, Kirbyesque Moon Knight. No surprise, as frequent Kirby inker Mike Royer inked this issue. Still, I much prefer a Janson job than another Kirby knockoff.
I think it was appropriate for Brandon Soderberg at ComicsForSerious to call out Brendan McCarthy’s Spider-Man: Fever #1 for a scene that he finds to be “insanely racist.” I’ll be honest, I didn’t think anything of it at first, and even as I started to post this I was disagreeing with Brandon. I mean, “thass” is a stereotypical pronunciation of “that’s” because that’s how some black people pronounce it. Not all, not most, but enough that it’s become part of the stereotype for the urban black guy. I think there are probably enough guys in NYC who talk like this that it’s not racist to choose one as a small character in a scene set in an NYC apartment building. An old couple on the street below might speak with some Yiddish inflection, the hot dog vendor might sound Italian with his extra a’s at the end of words. You want characters to have a bit of zest to their dialogue, and as long as that ethnic shorthand isn’t used to enforce stereotypes, no problem. My black California friend Steve speaks differently than my white New Jersey friend Jay, but not a lot, and in a scene you may exaggerate differences a bit for dramatic effect, so each character sounds different. A twenty-two page adventure comic doesn’t lend itself to developing supporting characters or even having them speak much like real people. You try to make it as quick and punchy as you can.
It also threw me off that in writing about stereotypical dialogue, Brandon kind of undermined himself with this ramped-up patois that he has no problem avoiding later in the piece:
See, back when those shits were sorta hard to find and I had like my Comics Journal issues and maybe one or two dusty-ass collections from my local, suburban library and that’s it, the idea of Ditko (or Kirby or Moebius or even, Frank Miller) bubbled-up into something no artist could never live up to.
It’s also not that big a deal that the black character is dressed somewhat anachronistically. You could leave it at McCarthy not doing his homework and being out of touch. But that leads me to ultimately agree with Brandon in wondering just what McCarthy’s point was in using this character. The joke in the scene is that after Spider-Man defeats the Vulture in the guy’s apartment, he dials 911 from the guy’s phone, and when Spidey tells him this, the guy looks all worried because he’s going to now have to deal with cops. Brandon surmises that McCarthy is implying the black guy must be a criminal to be worried. I think one could also interpret his reaction as concern that, guilty or not, having police in his apartment, taking a statement, could just be a huge hassle, and certainly the stereotype exists of the police who needlessly hassle black people because they can. But however McCarthy intended his punchline to be interpreted, there’s undoubtedly a racial component that isn’t very funny and should have been changed to be less potentially offensive. Maybe make it a white, hippie-looking guy, so the impression is that the police might find drugs in his apartment or something. Sometimes a black guy is just a black guy, but in the context this one is used in the book, it’s hard to defend.
Damn you, Kevin Pasquino and your well-written review! I agree with all of it. Not as good as the first but well-done and pretty character-driven. More than ever, you equate bad boy Tony Stark with bad boy Downey but his momentary fall from grace is justified in the film. That was an uncomfortable scene, drunk Tony in his suit, especially as I think it featured the late DJ AM. Wasted potential indeed.
Yes, Black Widow’s presence didn’t make a ton of sense, and between all the action sequences and other plot points the opportunity for a good love triangle between Tony, Pepper and Natalie/Natasha was wasted. Vanko/Whiplash knowing Stark would be driving didn’t make sense, nor did it make much sense that one dude could get all those drones together plus a kickass new set of armor in what appeared to be a couple days. Still, I can’t say that the logical failures didn’t all lead to some good action scenes, although I did find IM2’s climax to have much less real threat and personality than the one in the first film.
As far as acting, Downey is still great, a delightful rogue who mostly has the right idea but doesn’t have time to explain it you. Some of the best scenes find him spitting out big chunks of dialogue while fidgeting, preening, always trying to seduce whoever he’s speaking to, whether an individual or crowd of thousands. Cheadle brings little to James Rhodes, ScarJo is mostly wooden and her hair looks weird. Clark Gregg and Garry Shandling are suitably unctuous. Rockwell is great as the Stark wannabe, and Paltrow makes the most of her meager chances. You really do feel like she’s someone for whom you’d want to improve yourself. Rourke does his best with his inexpressive, ruined face, bad Russian accent and beer gut. He seems to have shown up on set with his own clothes and cockatoo and talked director Favreau into using all of it. Actually, Favreau seemed to want to make up for Rourke’s mug by letting the hair appliances and dye, costume, bird, constant toothpick and tattoos do the acting instead.
It’s not that the film really answers the question of whether the greatest inventions and weapons of modern times should be entrusted to one spoiled genius fairly—the answer is yes here because Downey’s charisma will charm a yes out of you. At least it asks the question, though. A question the movie raised with me, though is why Gene Colan (along with Bob Layton, John Byrne, the Romitas, Matt Fraction and others) gets a Special Thanks in the end credits but apparently within the millions spent on the film and its promotion, no one can kick in a few grand to take care of his medical bills. I’m not talking about a creator credit, ownership or anything like that, just a small bit of money. It’s a well-made film, however.
It's not the suit, it's the man in the suit: Kevin Pasquino on Iron Man 2
It’s an interesting experience, watching a movie based on a comic book when the only thing you know about the comic book is what you’ve learned from the movie.
It was surprising for me to realize that given all my years of comic book collecting that the only “Iron Man” comic book I had read before seeing the first movie was the classic Demon in a Bottle storyline. And even that storyline I knew more for its historical context rather than actual story itself. It’s not like after reading that story I sought out other comics or collections with the character. As far as I was concerned Tony Stark was just a spoiled Batman with a somewhat cooler suit. But Batman had the much cooler villains, so as far as I was concerned Batman would kick Iron Man’s ass.
But the first Iron Man movie certainly made the character captivating. Here was an egomaniacal narcissistic playboy who re-invented himself as a hero. He assumed the role through necessity and there was the sense that he was just playing a game of dress-up and make believe when he pulled on the armor. It was his heroic voyage of discovery that made for a great movie.
And with great movies comes great responsibilities for great sequels.
Iron Man 2 manages to re-unite the main cast with the original director and also add a handful of new inevitable action figures – sorry, I mean “New Characters”. The story involves Tony Stark’s resistance to the American government’s request for the Iron Man technology, the arrival of a new villain and Tony dealing with the burden of being the world’s first unmasked super-hero.
Iron Man 2 is a very good sequel. It manages to continue some of the subtle themes of the first movie (What is the moral responsibility of the wealthy? Can a modern industrialist ever be more than just a war monger? Is it possible for a powerful man to redeem himself and become a better person? And, is it ever okay for the boss to sleep with his secretary other than in “Mad Men”?). But the movie always remembers to deliver enough slam-bang action to keep most fans cheering.
The movie’s main hero and its secret weapon is actor Robert Downey, Jr. It is simply impossible to imagine another actor doing as good a job as he does with the title role. There is the sense that Downey has lived the character’s life, with all his real-life bad boy shenanigans and the lost years of productivity due to his debauchery, and in the same way that many people hoped that Downey (the actor) would overcome his failings, the audience hopes that Tony Stark (the character) will rise above his as well. We like, we are amused by and we perhaps even envy the swagger, the arrogance and the decadence of the character. But Downey makes us hope that Tony Stark will mature a wee bit but at the same time still remain a bit of a cad.
For comic book fans the movie has knowing nods and clever winks to other Marvel characters and there is even a scene that was somewhat awkwardly borrows from the Superman movies as Tony experiences a Jor-El type moment. But the movie manages to remain subtle when inducing those moments of comic geekasms. Even the appearance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his Avengers Project was established in the first film: comic fans will know what’s being foreshadowed; movie fans will just get a sense that there are more heroes to come.
The film’s only flaw, and it’s a problem that many comic book sequels have, is something I like to call The Star Wars Action Figure Expectation: Yeah, sure, it’s a great film, but where are the new toys?
All too often the sequel to a big budget action movie has to populate itself with too many new characters in order to ensure there are enough new licensing opportunities. Batman and Robin had Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, Batman, Robin and Batgirl. Spider-Man 3 had Venom, The Sandman, Gwen Stacy, Mary Jane, Eddie Brock and Spider-Man. That’s a whole lot of characters for your McDonald’s Happy Meals.
Iron Man 2 only slightly suffers from having too many cooks in the kitchen. But at least most of them manage to add some spice to the final presentation.
To this movie’s credit they never refer to Mickey Rourke’s character as the goofy sounding “Whiplash”, so it’s the muscular and angry (and villainously named) Ivan Vanko who forces Tony to re-examine his continued role as a weapons
manufacturer and the legacy that his father has left for him. Rourke is adequately creepy and menacing in the role, but I’m not sure if the Russian scientist turned bad guy will make a very interesting action figure.
The same thing can be said of Sam Rockwell’s depiction of military industrialist Justin Hammer: while he’s a great character (and almost manages to steal the movie until his character’s rather wimpy exit from the story), I can’t see any child fighting for the special limited edition three-piece suit exclusive ComicCon action figure.
But if those two characters are not perfect for the toy shelf, the next two are almost certainly designed for multiple packages.
James Rhodes returns in the sequel (with Don Cheadle assuming the role) and he manages to grab an Iron Man suit and make an action figure debut as War Machine (although, like “Whiplash”, the character is never referred to by the comic book character’s name).
The movie has a (somewhat sadly predictable) showdown between Tony and Rhodey as they both armor up and bash the crap out of each other. While the filmmakers try to justify the reason for the two men to duke it out in super-heroic fashion, the battle sequence feels forced and heavy-handed. It’s as if things were slowing down a bit in the story and someone f elt that it was probably a good time to squeeze in some action.
But at least their battle and Rhodey’s actions make some semblance of sense within the story. Scarlett Johansson’s role in the film serves no purpose at all. Her character is there largely as window dressing until The Big Reveal and quickly after that scene she is once again shuffled into the background. She is given one action scene in the movie, but it makes no sense in the context of the story other than ‘Wow, that looks cool.’ And in a movie that does its best to rise above comic book clichés, her appearance (in black skintight leather and with super-spy miniaturized weaponry) is an intrusion in a story that is surprisingly character driven.
Because in the movie we grow to like Tony Stark and we end up cheering for him. He defies the government and manages to stay patriotic at the same time. He’s naughty but likeable, egotistical but flawed. The action sequences in the film and the Iron Man suit become secondary to his character. Because it is a big budget summer action movie there have to be crashes and explosions and repulsor beams, but it’s Robert Downey Jr. who really keeps things moving.
And it’s because of the man in the suit rather than the suit itself that people will come back for another sequel. Because anyone can be Iron Man, but only Robert Downey, Jr. can play Tony Stark.
Oh, that and the fact that no one else can make eating a donut look so cool.
I hope you’ve been enjoying Guest Reviewer Month, which has obviously extended on into May due to some delays on our part here and there, plus our general no-post-on-the-weekend rule. We actually have a few guest reviews still to go, so check those next week and then we’ll be well and truly done.
Working on some bigger books for next time, so just a few short takes this time out.
Amazing Spider-Man #630
Writer - Zeb Wells
Artist - Chris Bachalo
I haven’t seen any Bachalo art for a while, so this was kind of coming full circle for me. Not full circle as in I was as excited by it as I was forever ago when he was making a name for himself on Generation X, but I found I still like his style and he kept himself controlled enough not to let any excess derail the storytelling. I’ve largely enjoyed the rotating creative teams and weekly schedule, but this storyline (the first of a four-parter called “Shed”) probably won’t be one of my favorites. It’s not badly written—Wells finds an interesting voice for the lizard brain part of Dr. Curt Connors, while Harry Osborn gives Peter some much-needed advice to stop being a jerk and just ask out the cute cop who’s really a good match for him. But whereas the prior stories have been exploring either new versions of Spidey’s rogues’ gallery or finding new layers to the original members, this seems to just be the same “Connors loses control and becomes the Lizard” story. And to be honest, I kind of just want the guy to get a handle on it and just raise his on and just be Peter’s occasional science consultant or something. Let somebody else be The Lizard. But if you want a more violent, gruesome Lizard story, with Bachalo lovingly drawing every shiny scale, here you go.
Brightest Day #1
Writers - Geoff Johns, Peter J. Tomasi
Artists - Lots
I ripped the entire Blackest Night mini a couple weeks back, but I don’t see the point in going on and on in the same vein here. Suffice to say, I realize it’s really my fault for thinking that calling something Brightest Day meant the grisly doings of Blackest Night would give way to something more hopeful, a miniseries that was in some way about rebuilding, even if there was a requisite menace to face. But no, this seems to be more of the same, with stabbings, throat slashings, a dead squid, a dead shark eating a guy, a trident puncture would, strangulation and attempted child rape. None of the heroes smile or seem like they enjoy being around each other. None even seem happy that some of there heroic friends are back from the dead. Even Deadman seems miserable not to be dead anymore. Two positives, though: 1) Despite multiple artists, the book looks a bit more consistent (if less indulgent) than Blackest Night, and 2) there’s a panel where a pissed-off Sinestro is going to throw a yellow ring facsimile of a police car on top of some cops, and he has the pride? lunacy? brand consciousness? to put his Yellow Lantern symbol on the car’s door. I think I’d prefer that kind of superhero stupidity to the deadly serious grind going on in the rest of the book.
I, Zombie #1
Writer - Chris Roberson
Artist - Mike Allred
Cool twentysomething chick who happens to be a zombie, in a hip town that also has vampires and other monsters. She’s got a ghost girlfriend who likes to hit the town with her. A were-terrier has a puppy crush on her but she’s not into him. She eats brains to keep non-shambling and irreverent. She works as a gravedigger, giving her access to the cemetery after hours.
Roberson seems to be writing this under the impression that the reader won’t be able to figure out the girl, Gwen, is a zombie until he reveals it at the end. Dude, the book is called I, Zombie, she’s the lead character and the cover shows her with a half-rotten face. Also, she has a lavender skin tone throughout the book that gives away that she’s not normal. Allred’s always fun to look at, but aside from lots of different supernatural types I’m not seeing much originality here yet.
Guest Reviewer Month - Steve Hockensmith on I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!
If someone tries to tell you Fletcher Hanks was a genius, don’t believe them. If someone tries to tell you Fletcher Hanks was an important figure in the development of superhero comics, don’t believe them. But if someone tries to tell you Fletcher Hanks was one strange, f-ed up bastard who created some of the weirdest, creepiest, and (entirely by accident) most revealing comics of the Golden Era, that you can take to the bank.
As Ed Wood was to the Hollywood of the 1950s, Hanks was to the comic book industry of the late ’30s and early ’40s. Actually, that comparison’s a bit of an insult to Wood, who managed to have a hand in an array of horrible-yet-beloved cheapies over the course of a decade. Hanks’s career as a comic book writer/artist barely lasted two years. During that time, he cranked out crude, repetitive, simplistic filler for also-ran publishers. Then he disappeared. Doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff of coffee table reprint collections, does it?
Yet in 2007, Fantagraphics Books published I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!, a collection of Hanks features compiled by cartoonist Paul Karasik. Read any one of the book’s 15 full-color stories, and you’ll know immediately why Hanks has been rescued from obscurity. The mo-fo was just too damn twisted to go quietly into the dustbin of history.
Every story follows the same formula. Grotesque, grimacing bad guys perpetrate sadistic misdeeds on a grand scale, sometimes in the jungle (if the protagonist is Hanks’s Sheena-meets-Kali heroine Fantomah), sometimes in New York (if the protagonist is huge-muscled, tiny-headed “super wizard” Stardust). When Fantomah/Stardust learns what the villains are up to, she/he warns them to stop. “Attend to your business!” the heavies scoff. Or perhaps “Confound that meddler!” Whatever the case, the evildoers keep on doing evil. And that’s when the real fun begins — or at least the real fun as Hanks seems to have seen it, for his tales invariably end with two or three pages of elaborate, baroquely demented comeuppance meted out to the deserving by the artist’s god-like good guys.
An example: A mobster named Destructo decides to take over America by, well, killing a bunch of people. When Stardust learns of the plot (he’s watching Earth through a telescope on “his private star”), he does what any self-respecting superhero would do. He “transfixes” Destructo “with a superiority beam,” shrinks the crime boss’ body so that he’s nothing but a huge head, flies through space until he finds a headless giant, hurls the Destructo-head at it, then watches in satisfaction as the villain is absorbed into the giant’s body while screaming for mercy the whole time.
Wait. Did I say that’s what any self-respecting superhero would do? My bad. Obviously, it’s what any self-respecting superhero would do provided they were created by an embittered, paranoid son of a bitch with a persecution complex and an obsession with revenge.
And indeed, that’s what Hanks seems to have been. I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! includes a haunting postscript: an illustrated story by Karasik that explores his obsession with Hanks as well as his encounter with the artist’s son. Fletcher Hanks, we learn, wasn’t just the odd duck one would expect. He was a brutally violent alcoholic who terrorized his family before finally abandoning them. He died broke and alone in New York City, freezing to death on a park bench in the winter of 1976.
And one could say, “So what?” For decades, Hanks was entirely forgotten, and it would be easy to make the case that he should have been. His art is vibrant and bold, but rudimentary and stiff, too. His plots are so basic and unvarying they can barely be called plots at all. And characters? There are no characters, only victims and two flavors of victimizer: villain and hero. Aside from the fact that the stories are bizarre and unsettling, they’re really not worth remembering…or are they?
Sorry, yes, that was a cheap rhetorical question unworthy of Leonard Nimoy hosting an In Search of… about “ancient astronauts.” What I really meant to say was yes. These stories are worth remembering — or at least reflecting on. Because when boiled down to their essence, the stories of Stardust and Fantomah aren’t really as singular and peculiar as we might like to think.
When she’s punishing the wicked, you see, Fantomah looks more than a little like a B-cup Lady Death. And Stardust’s intricate, arcane tortures aren’t really all that different from the punishments the Spectre and Dr. Fate used to hand out, back in the day. These are Old Testament superheroes — judgmental and all-powerful and blithely cruel. And that’s the foundation for all the spandex-sporting do-gooders we know and love today.
“Beware of those in whom the urge to punish is strong,” Nietzsche once wrote. Or maybe it was Goethe. It depends on who you want to believe when you plug it into Google. Tell you what — why don’t we pretend it was someone else entirely? Let’s say it was Fletcher Hanks’s psychiatrist.
“Be careful,” we can imagine him telling Hanks’s son…or Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent or Peter Parker or Frank Castle. “That urge is in your DNA.”
Steve Hockensmith is the author of the New York Times bestseller Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. You can learn more about him and his other books at www.stevehockensmith.com. For a taste of the not-so-wonderful world of Fletcher Hanks, you can go to http://www.fletcherhanks.com/HOME.html.www.stevehockensmith.com. For a taste of the not-so-wonderful world of Fletcher Hanks, you can go to http://www.fletcherhanks.com/HOME.html.
I’m a fan of the first season of this Comedy Central series, but never got around to watching the second or third seasons. The network pulled the plug after the third season, which prompts the events of Drawn Together: The Movie: The Movie!
If you’re not familiar with Drawn Together, the premise is that a group of cartoon
icons are living in a house making a reality TV series. As the movie begins, the series has been taken off the air and the housemates come to realize, as their swearing is no longer bleeped and their nudity no longer blurred, that they are no longer on TV. A little detective work shows that they’ve been replaced by the South Park-like Suck My Taint Girl, a filthy cartoon with a message, unlike Drawn Together, which is just, you know, filthy.
If you are familiar with Drawn Together and not offended by its politically incorrect and joyous embrace of filth and obscenity, there’s little doubt you’ll love the movie version. The freakshow antics and uninhibited sex and violence are all amped up way past 11, but the characters are intact from the TV series and the events proceed in quite a logical, if dirty as hell, manner. New character Suck My Taint Girl is a welcome addition to the cast, and the robot assassin I.S.R.A.E.L. (voiced by Family Guy's Seth McFarlane) provides all the hilarious and apt political subtext you could ask for. Comic book fans may appreciate (or be infuriated by) a superfast look at how some more familiar icons, like Aquaman, Batman and Robin and others have interacted with the world of Drawn Together. Hint: There is a blumpkin involved.
I liked Drawn Together: The Movie: The Movie!, although I can understand and even respect anyone who prefers to give the entire thing a pass. It’s wicked, dirty entertainment with nothing wholesome on its mind. It made me laugh a few times and smirk a few others, and it is a worthy companion to the TV series. The special features are well worth checking out if you’re a fan, especially for the look you get at the voice actors who portray the characters. They all seem to be having a great time, and some even seem eager to make more Drawn Together. That would be okay with me.
— Alan David Doane
A copy of the DVD was provided for the purposes of this review.
Guest Reviewer Month - Bob Temuka on Alice in Sunderland
Alice In Sunderland
By Bryan Talbot
A truly great story is like pure energy: it can’t be destroyed, only transferred into new and strange forms.
Using this dubious analogy, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland are nothing but energy. Lewis Carroll’s clever, witty and imaginative tales have shown up in all sorts of versions, always all-new, always all-different, but still the same.
The latest movie adaptation, and there have been literally dozens, sees Tim Burton staple on some of his wonderfully weird action sequences onto Carroll’s world in a fashion that has inevitably upset Alice purists, but still holds fairly true to the original idea, at least in a visual sense.
No matter what they do to the story—adapt it into a silent or animated film, or rip off characters for comic book villainy, or staple it onto other genres with adaptations that link Alice with Jack the Ripper—Alice survives her adventure and remains pure. It emerged from centuries of English tradition, while building up an air of myth and mystery around its own telling.
This is a subject worthy of closer examination.
* * *
Non-fiction comics confuse a lot of people. They can often show up in the fiction section of the local library—piercing journalistic works like the comics of Joe Sacco can sometimes be found sitting next to Dan Simmons’ vast star-sagas.
They’re not graphic novels or fictional sequential narratives but they can be bloody brilliant. Comics that delve into the deep, dark depths of history are often rewarding and illuminating. Comics that tell us something about the world we all live in will always find an appreciative audience.
The Big Book Of.. series, published by DC’s Paradox Press in the 1990s, are some of the best real life comics ever produced. Each book is dense with information and massively entertaining art from idiosyncratic creators, and they all remain great reading, fifteen years after they were published.
Rick Geary has also found rich rewards by doing his own thing, dredging up past murders and mysteries that still resonate; Warren Ellis’ Crecy is arguably the best thing he’s ever written and Harvey Pekar’s comics will be treasured as a snapshot of an ordinary life.
Sacco is a goddamn master at true journalistic comics and, like Pekar, people will be reading his books for centuries—a scholar of harsh lives at the turn of the 21st century who balances humour, righteous fury and an abnormally keen reporter’s eye.
And then there are those that mix up their history and the fictions, and find there isn’t really any difference. Alan Moore got his facts and mysteries all mixed up in From Hell and gave into the chaos, embracing it as a central theme. Further up the coast from the horror of Whitechapel, up in the North–East, Moore’s ridiculously occasional collaborator started digging into the dirt of his latest home town and came up with Alice In Sunderland.
In a professional career of breath-taking quality, Bryan Talbot’s 2007 book might be the best thing he has ever done.
* * *
The comic is built on the framework of Carroll, his young friend and their wonderful little story, As well as talking about their lives, it covers all the weird ephemera that surrounds it, and in a country like England and a place like Sunderland, there is a lot of crap to mention. Even if Talbot manages to cram a lot of it into a cabinet in his house.
At first, Alice in Sunderland looks like a hard read because of all that information, and it can be, with pages and pages of dense and informative text. But there is a lot of ground to cover often literally - and Talbot is there in several different incarnations to hold you by the end and give you a lift when you need it.
In looking at the influences that fed into Alice, it’s necessary to look at the cultural make-up of the country and people who inspired the tale. Talbot goes all the way back to the time when woodlice ruled the world, digresses into the origins of a particularly English brand of bawdy humour and gives brief lessons on the British comic strip that goes back centuries.
Because of these dense info dumps, the artwork often slips into collage comics photos and caricatures and historical artifacts all jumbled around the page, surrounded by the running commentary.
Fortunately, even though Talbot has been doing comics long enough to avoid the dryness that history texts often encounter, it’s still surprising how entertaining his presentation is. There are jokes, changes of pace and mood and a sense of general good humour, making it an immensely likable book, especially with the open sense of design and anything goes attitude that fill the pages.
This means Talbot can cover the big questions of mortality and legacy, but also allows him to have Scott McLoud show up as the Venerable Scott McComics-Expert in a blaze of divine rightness, or indulge in happy pastiches of Baxendale and Herge.
* * *
For a while there, it looked like Talbot was having trouble finding a publisher for his book. The fact that they can publish 150 issues of Robin without any real need for it, but Bryan Talbot has trouble finding somebody to print his work, is a sad and troubling one.
It’s staggering to think Talbot’s brilliantly overcooked masterpiece ran into that obstacle. How could anyone doubt that Talbot would produce another intelligent, thoughtful and gorgeous piece of work that would find an audience hungry for some meat on their comic?
This creator did the best existential Batman story ever in two issues of Legends of the Dark Knight, gossiped like a Sunday tabloid in the Naked Artist and produced an intelligent and genuinely emotional story about a poor girl hiding from abuse in the fantasies of Beatrix Potter.
Alan Moore and Grant Morrison and Garth Ennis all read Luther Arkwright when they were young and impressionable, and the influence is there to see. Last year’s Granville was a sharp and entertaining badger-fuelled slice of Victorian ultra-violence that confirms to Talbot’s English whimsy, infused with a flair for the grotesque.
And Talbot can draw some excellent monsters: if you ever get a chance to read Talbot and Pat Mills’ Torquemada story in Diceman #3, take the opportunity—it’s an extraordinary choose-your-own-adventure in the Hell of Bosch’s garden of earthy delights that is still a worryingly enjoyable experience.
Beyond that, Talbot has been doing extraordinary things with light and timing since his early years and tackled worthy subjects within that experimentation. His work is always, always good.
* * *
Personal interjection: the first time I saw anything from Alice in Sunderland, it was the original pages hanging on the wall of the Cartoon Museum in London, just around the corner from the British Museum. This was a spectacular introduction to the work and I bought my copy from that museum two months later. It remains one of my favourite souvenirs from a trip right around the world.
* * *
Alice in Sunderland is such a dense read, and so full of stuff, that there is something new every time the reader goes back to it.
It’s a free-wheeling wonder ride. It’s a deep love for British pulp culture, stretching back decades, stretching back centuries – a straight line between the dirty jokes in the dance hall and the deep mining of myth seen in modern issues of 2000AD. Alice in Sunderland isn’t just An Entertainment, it’s an entertainment at the end of the pier, in the drunken singing in the dark, the shits and giggles on stage.
And it’s also the mediation on mortality inherent in any thoughtful look at history. When it comes to our mysterious ancestors, all we have to go on are the things they leave behind to tell the world; “they were here, they did something.” In the grand span of history, death ends all the stories, and there has been so much of that.
And that’s the thing about life. It’s all so fleeting. Talbot is certainly getting older and the creeping dread of the end is getting louder, when time has gone by so fast. There is the universal truth that life goes on—Talbot is the same age his grandmother was when he was born, and he can see the next generation coming through, and there is joy to be found there.
But there is always that fear of being forgotten. So we leave our mark in the places we live, in the correspondence of architecture and the street names that get left behind.
It’s there in the stories that live between fact and fiction, the ones that get blurred in the whispers that pass between generations. Talbot’s unique geographical study of the Sunderland area is heavy with unlikely myth and tall tales that get passed down as fact, until it’s hard to tell the difference between the Lambton Worm and Jack Crawford and Alice in Wonderland.
It doesn’t matter if these stories happened or not, or how they happened. It can be fun retelling them all over again, but the truth is overrated in this topsy-turvy world of wonders.
* * *
Down the rabbit hole we all go. It’s a bit scary, but we always come back with wonderful tales of nonsense and humour.
This is a subject worthy of closer examination.
* * *
Bob Temuka lives in New Zealand, where comics cost a lot, but that just means he gets even more obsessive over it all. He is meant to post about comics every three days or so at the Tearoom of Despair, but has taken the month off to recharge, read and masturbate. He will come back. The name of his blog is supposed to be ironic, cos he is just full of love.
Guest Reviewer Month - Chris Mautner on Bringing Up Father: From Sea to Shining Sea
Bringing Up Father: From Sea to Shining Sea, the Cross-Country Tour of 1939-40
By George McManus
IDW Publishing $49.99
George McManus’ Bringing Up Father is a wonderland of Art Deco goodness. The venerable comic strip, as sampled in this hefty new book from IDW, is all clean, sleek, thin lines meeting at perpendicular angles. You could put your eye out on the lapel of Jiggs’ coat. The colors in the Sunday strips pop out in vibrant yellows, blues and oranges. It always feels elegant and precise, even when its chronicling the haphazard adventures of some big-nosed fop. I don’t know if Herge and the rest of the Claire Ligne crowd were serious McManus devotees, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if they were.
The book, subtitled “From Sea to Shining Sea, the Cross-Country Tour of 1939-40,” takes a rather interesting tack on the current clamor to reprint every memorable comic strip from the past, whether it holds up to modern eyes or not. Rather than attempt a complete, multi-volume collection—which would take up scads of books since the strip ran for decades, and would be a tricky sale since it isn’t as fondly remembered as Peanuts or Prince Valiant—IDW opted instead to collect one of their most famous “runs” instead, a period in which the “Father” in question, the venerable, newly minted, nouveau riche Irishman Jiggs and his wife Maggie take their daughter and new son-in-law on a tour of the continental U.S.
This sort of thing happened a lot in the comic strips of that period. A lot of strips and syndicates found it a good marketing gimmick as local papers eagerly pledged to promote their strip for the chance to even get a mention of their city in the occasional word balloon. Even Winsor McCay had Little Nemo circumnavigating the globe in the hopes of winning newspaper attention back in the early days.
One wonders, though, why McManus and company went to all that trouble, as a number of the strips simply have Jiggs or Maggie saying “Well, here we are in Cleveland” from their hotel room, without any attempt to drawn the particular skyline of that city. No doubt a good deal of that was done in an attempt to save time and energy (the introduction notes what an exhausting project this was for McManus) but it happens with such alarming frequency that the reader can’t help but feel a bit cheated? What would a McManus-drawn Jefferson City street scene look like anyhow?
No, the funniest and best strips in the collection are located in the first half of the book. These also play apon the more traditional set-up—in spite of his new wealth, Jiggs wants to keep eating corned beef and cabbage and kicking back beer with the boys at the nearby saloon, and Maggie will have none of it. McManus also gets good mileage out of a number of other scenarios that play upon issues of class and family though. A couple weeks of strips involving Maggie’s wastrel brother—who is so lazy that we never see more than his reclining back—are especially amusing. McManus’ strip is best when dealing with the vagaries of upper middle class life—pushy shopkeepers, annoying house guests, and of course, angry wives.
And while we’re on the subject, there’s no way to put this nicely: Maggie is a monster. A shrewish, vain, howling social climber of a woman, who when not heaping verbal or physical abuse on her husband, is inadvertently making herself look as foolish as possible. Many of the jokes, for example, rely upon how utterly clueless she is about her utter lack of talent, or that her family is nothing but a bunch of crooks and layabouts. Indeed, a constant running gag involves her exclaiming how her sibling or cousin is the greatest thing since sliced bread only to discover that they’re in jail or have stolen the silverware.
The amazing thing about the strip is that Jiggs seems to genuinely care for Maggie. While he might cast an eye towards a pretty girl, he doesn’t chase after other women, at least not in this volume, and he frequently attempts to mollify her and do right by her. It’s perplexing since she doesn’t seem to think very much of him. What’s more, her ire doesn’t seem to come from the fact that he’s leaving her alone at nights so much as that he’s hanging out with the former lower classes she now rejects (Her love of the opera doesn’t come from any genuine appreciation but an understanding that that’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to enjoy when you’re wealthy.). In short, she doesn’t deserve him.
The book comes with two very nice essays—one by Brian Walker on the history of the strip and the significance of this particular run, and another by Bruce Canwell that provides some useful information on McManus’ assistant during this period, Zeke Zekley. It’s rare that assistants like Zekely get any time in the sun so it’s nice to see some attention paid to his contribution.
Bringing Up Father may not be a strong enough strip to deserve the full, multi-volume treatment—the gags rely heavily on a familiar routine and the occasional rote punchline, and the inherent sexism in Maggie’s depiction will no doubt prove distasteful to some modern readers. But it’s a gorgeous and lively enough strip to warrant a lavish publication such as IDW has done, and I hope it can find another stellar “run” to follow up with sometime soon.
Chris Mautner is a regular contributor to Robot6 and TCJ.
Artists - Marco Rudy, Greg Scott, Cliff Richards, Michael Avon Oeming
Publisher - DC Comics
Something I’ve been meaning to do is just take a contemporary series and run through the first year, give or take. I must admit, I do have a soft spot for the second tier superhero books, the ones about B-and-C-listers who will likely never have huge commercial success. One reason I tend to give books like this a chance is that they generally are less reliant on past continuity. It would be hard to name five Iron Fist villains or the five best Booster Gold stories, so why shouldn’t the current creative teams feel free to come up with something new? Which brings me to the second reason I give books like this a shot, which is that you often find creators trying things out, sometimes displaying a more personal identification with their heroes than they do later, when they’re established. The third reason is, these out-of-the-way sorts of books can sometimes be a little more self-contained.
That doesn’t always hold true, though. I didn’t pay much attention when DC announced a relaunch of the Red Circle characters into a few new series, and I avoided the J. Michael Straczynski-scripted one-shots(re)introducing each characterissues for each title because that seemed like a cynical gimmick. Why have a famous name write these initial stories and then hand the series off to other, lesser-known talents? If there was a story Straczynski really felt like telling, one would think he’d want to stay on, right? S
The first issue establishes one Lt. Joe Higgins as the new Shield, an Army soldier chosen to be a combination of Captain America and Iron Man. He’s in a patriotic “cutting edge” warsuit that can do just about anything he needs it to, and there’s plenty of military and technical jargon—suit efficiency at 82%, hand-to-hand combat protocols engaged, etc.—for those who like that sort of thing.
Combining Captain America and Iron Man is a fine idea but the execution is off. Lt. Higgins, our hero, is pretty dull, a straight shooter soldier who seems to have no interior life and not much personality. Aside from performing the missions given to him, he wants to find his missing father, and he’s a little suspicious about his boss, General Latham. But aside from a nice scene in the first issue, where he tries to win the hearts of some Kahndaqi children by handing out superhero comic books (DC characters, of course), it’s hard to get a feel for his personality beyond the fact he’s not a bloodthirsty soldier. He doesn’t give Cap-like speeches, but his occasional attempts at one-liners during fights are ham-handed and unbelievably redundant (when beating someone/something, he has made three variations on a “void your warranty” joke, which I have to call as a tic of Trautmann’s and a lack of attention from editor Rachel Gluckstern. You don’t read the script and send an email asking for a different line? And sometimes, Trautmann seems to put a joke in because it sounds like an ironic superhero line, without thinking about if it makes any sense. Example: Shield tells headquarters he’ll be “entertain(ing) our guests,” when the prior issue had established that he’s the one out of place, causing an incident on Chinese property in Brazil. He’s the guest/intruder.
I will give Trautmann the benefit of the doubt that his take on The Shield as being a soldier rather than a superhero was heading towards something before the title was cancelled. Likes like, “And there’s nothing tougher to beat than an American soldier with a weapon” sound crass, but the first story arc, with Shield trying to rescue missing soldiers from a DC Middle East country called Kahndaq (a reference to Jenette Kahn?) at least presented a character with an anti-American viewpoint who wasn’t a villain. He was just a boy who had seen too many of his people dead because of American interference. It might have been an interesting direction to follow, the super-soldier carrying out orders that increasingly ate at his conscience. But that’s not where the book goes.
Instead, and I can’t believe this was Trautmann’s idea, The Shield runs into a number of minor DC superheroes, none of which would give him a sales boost. Sure, it’s understandable he would work with The Web quickly, and later run into new versions of The Jaguar and The Comet—they’re all old Red Circle characters, too. But Magog? The Great Ten?
The Magog issues were part of the aforementioned story set in Kahndaq, Magog (a character I don’t really know) portrayed as an obnoxious, kill ‘em all jarhead, contrasting with Shield’s compassionate, levelheaded and resourceful approach. Well, sort of resourceful. When you get past all the technobabble, most of The Shield’s plans are really simplistic. To get into the fortress where he thinks the captured soldiers are, he takes off his nanosuit (it’s there but looks like regular clothes), gives himself up, and of course is taken to the leader, a mind-controller who is in turn being controlled by Gorilla Grodd. And look, if your first story arc has a team-up with Magog against Gorilla Grodd, then this is probably not a book that’s going to last.
The next storyline involves The Shield trying to recover some technology in Brazil that has fallen into the hands of one Baron Gestapo, a cheap old Nazi villain with corny, ’40s style robots. His name is so ridiculous I assume he’s an old Red Circle character as well. The Great Ten, as I understand them here, are a Chinese superteam made up by somebody who knows a lot about American superheroes and maybe Googled a bit about Chinese mythology. The leader is basically imperious Chinese Iron Man, there’s some mystic type we don’t see much of, and a guy who multiplies as Seven Deadly Brothers, which is basically the same idea as Marvel’s The Collective Man. The couple of confrontations Shield has with them are inconclusive and uninteresting, probably in part because they have their own series and it would be dumb to make them come off badly, although, you know, Magog does, and he’s got his own book somehow.
One of the bright spots throughout most of the run (there was a fill-in issue or two) has been the development of artist Rudy. He draws from Tony Harris, J.H. Williams III and perhaps Jim Steranko for page compositions, often using a circular panel as a central image from which other panels radiate. While these bold compositions are sometimes distracting from the storytelling, overall it makes for a compelling, modern-looking book, his art doing its best to disguise the pedestrian content. Certainly having veteran inker Mick Gray, a frequent partner of Williams, accounts for some of the similarity.
Another positive in the run, and likely a reason some readers stuck with the book a little longer, is the work from Brandon Jerwa and his artists on the backup stories, which are often a bit longer than traditional four-to-six pages in length. His first serial, broken into a four-parter and then a two-parter taking place right after those events (probably an indication that the book was in trouble and Jerwa had to move onto other business) features Inferno, a flaming character whose facial features are different when he’s on fire, and who has no memories of who he is or how he got these powers, though we learn as we go that he apparently laid backup plans in case of this memory loss. Greg Scott draws these, and while I haven’t been following his work much since Sword of Dracula years ago, he seems not to have grown much since then. It looks competent but obviously Photoshopped, page composition in thrall to the reference material. In the hands of another artist, Inferno is something I would give a try to as its own book.
Better yet is the subsequent Fox backup, as Jerwa is joined by the reliable Oeming, who always brings solid storytelling and a certain stylistic swagger to his work. For his part, Jerwa brings a welcome sensitivity to his portrayal of the lead character, a movie star in Japan seeking answers to the murder of his father, which brings him into his father’s world of double agents and ninjas. Familiar territory for Oeming but who better to have on-board, and there also aren’t many artists who could bring such an elegant, Toth-like simplicity to the design of The Fox.
The final story arc for The Shield has begun more promisingly than the others, with The Shield now leading a team of soldiers against a high-tech terror outfit called Black Seven. Even better, he’s forced to team up with The Brain Emperor, a creepy mind controller with tentacles coming off is head who was previously used by Grodd against him and the other U.S. soldiers. So, as with the Magog story, it’s a bit of a buddy movie, but seems to have a bit more edge and purpose to it, maybe because Trautmann knows the series is winding down. In just a couple months, the series will end and The Shield and the other Red Circle characters become third-stringers in the DCU.
I’ll savor the remaining Fox stories and it appears the main Shield story will be enjoyable enough. Ultimately, while Trautmann failed to impress with dialogue and characterization, a good deal of the blame for the series’ lack of success has to be placed at the editorial end. We have a super-solder in a “lethal” warsuit who avoids killing, where the emphasis is on his amazing technology, but this wondrous suit leaves the top of his head exposed. The Shield shows some doubts about his role here and there, but the rest of the time is portrayed as a true-blue, unquestioning soldier, his government seen as justified in the various incursions he’s assigned to carry out. There is no supporting cast to speak of and only a hint of a larger story to be told about The Shield’s father that is always subordinate to one weak sister guest star after another. No one ever seemed to be quite on the same page and only Jerwa, Rudy, and probably too late to matter, Oeming, seemed willing to dig deeper to try to make the package work.
There are as many reasons for reading manga as there are manga to be read. I have lots of different ones and could go through my library and explain which interest sets coincided in the decision to take on each series in turn. There have been few manga published in English push so many of my pleasure spots at once as Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki’s Oishinbo. Please do not equivocate a statement like that for one that might have read, “I think Oishinbo is the greatest manga ever created” because I’m certain that it isn’t. But it is so damn satisfying to read!
Let’s start again. Oishinbo is food manga. Oishinbo may well be THE food manga, given that it has been serialized non-stop in Big Comic Spirits magazine since 1983. The premise is disarmingly simple. A major Tokyo newspaper gives a few of its cultural reporters the duty of compiling the “Ultimate Menu,” a single meal that demonstrates the very essence of Japanese cooking. The project is led by food critics Shiro Yamaoka, a humorously sullen anti-hero for the ages, and Yuko Kurita, his cheerful colleague who eventually marries the poor bastard. In order to prepare this menu, they are to travel around to different parts of Japan, sampling the local cuisine and comparing the relative merits and aesthetic differences between the various offerings. A rival newspaper has hired Yamaoka’s father, Yuzan Kaibara, one of the most venerated food and pottery critics in all of Japan, to prepare a menu of his own. Yamaoka is estranged from his father due to their inability to tolerate one another and, predictably enough, these food duels between father and son often take center stage as they contrast different ideas about cooking and eating across a broad range of different kinds of food.
The English language editions, published by Viz Media out of their Signature line, are collections of several thematically related stories, often focusing on a specific food or element of Japanese cooking. The prospect of reading Oishinbo sequentially is intriguing. It would have allowed readers to make observations about the ebb and flow of different storytypes and the rise and fall of importance in various characters (as we can in the Collected Peanuts Editions) over the course of time. The realpolitik of marketing a series like Oishinbo to a non-Japanese audience dictates the pragmatism of the Viz editions and the reading experience hardly suffers anymore from the occasional narrative timestamp that shows that years have passed between subsequent stories than one might expect from reading any two Archie comics from 1975 and 1985.
While there is no shortage of food manga already available in English, most rely on histrionics that should seem equally familiar to fans of Iron Chef and Dragonball Z alike. Many, like Iron Wok Jan or the otherwise charming Yakitate Japan, rely on a never-ending series of escalating cooking battles won by superhuman cooking techniques.
Oishinbo, in contrast, derives its sense of conflict from a variety of sources that vary in their emotional intensity. More importantly, that sense of stake in the outcomes of the various cook-offs is measured in fundamentally human terms though often exaggerated in their importance to offset the terrible narrative loss implied by not being able to produce fire through one’s nostrils. Often, Yamaoka and crew will help a struggling business turn around by showing them the error of mishandling a vital ingredient to their menu. Even if only patiently explaining how minor differences in procedure or food quality can effect a given dish, Oishinbo reveals its most important function; namely, holding a sustained and very personal dialogue between writer and audience about the nature of food and our relationship to it.
These themes become more pronounced when Yamaoka and his father tangle in one of their many bouts with neither naturally assuming either a progressive or conservative ideology in regards to what the essence of Japanese cooking might ultimately be.
Of the seven volumes currently available in English, each offers its own unique charms and can be read as self-contained works. The first one, Japanese Cuisine, is the best place to start as it establishes the status quo that underlies most of the series as well as introducing the Western palate to some of the fundamental techniques that shape all Japanese cooking. For those seeking density of information, the fourth volume, Fish, Sushi and Sashimi is fully capable of educating anyone that feels socially awkward about eating and ordering sushi for the first time and features an epic battle between Yamaoka and Kaibara-sensei. The fifth and sixth volumes (Vegetables and The Joy of Rice respectively) are information rich and ably encapsulate the Oishinbo experience.
My favorite volume, however, has to be Volume Two which deals with nothing but sake. Now I don’t know about y’all, but my experience with sake prior to reading this book amounted to some piping hot fluid that tasted like someone had boiled a band-aid in a dirty bed pan. What I discovered was that sake is a complex and singular alcohol experience that draws on centuries-old brewing techniques to achieve a near miracle. I also discovered, on my own, that it can deliver a deceptive punch when imbibed among friends in superfluous quantities. While I can think of many comics, manga and bande dessinee that have inspired me to think or write over the years, Oishinbo is the first that ever got me to throw a party.
Hanasaki’s character designs are very simple, standing in stark contrast to the food porn that he is asked to draw in each episode. While his layouts are more functional than dynamic, his visual storytelling is very clean and clears the basic hurdles of rendering believable human bodies in a wide variety of clothing as well as grounding them in credible environments. Though Kariya’s narrative voice is very strong throughout Oishinbo, it is a testament to Hanasaki’s skill that so many scenery and character demands are met without visible strain on the cohesion between picture and story.
If reading manga about Japanese food sounds completely unappealing to you, it may well be that Oishinbo is just not your cup of green tea. As a long-time fan of the original Iron Chef series as well as American food programs like No Reservations, I was able to discover, in Oishinbo, a much richer resource than either of those aforementioned foodie classics. Oishinbo blends just the right mix of fiction and fact to make each new volume a delicacy worth relishing again and again.
Rob Vollmar is the author of the Eisner-nominated The Castaways and Bluesman, both with Pablo G. Callejo, and has been a long-time, invaluable contributor to Comic Book Galaxy in its various incarnations.
Humans, we get on with it. Whatever befalls us, we tend to do our best to get back to our comfortable routine, what we do well or enjoy doing. Tragedy strikes, and before long the baseball player is back on the diamond, the actor out of the house and back making movies, the guitarist back playing the blues. In a couple of those occupations, I’m picturing real people, real men who suffered the ultimate horror of outliving a child. And now we have Willy Linthout, Flemish cartoonist, opened his front door to neighbors informing him his own son had jumped to his death from the roof of their apartment building. This is how Years of the Elephant begins, and from that point on it chronicles Linthout’s struggles to hold onto his sanity in the face of terrible grief, guilt and regret.
Linthout’s career up to this point was primarily as a humor cartoonist, so his dumpy, goggle-eyed little everyman is at first disconcerting: is this how one honors a dead son, with old hat cartooning tricks like worry lines and beads of sweat shooting off the character’s forehead? Linkhout mitigates his standard style by leaving the pages in pencil form, emphasizing their urgency. The reader understands this is not about craft but about catharsis, and so much can be forgiven if not every sequence sings or flows seamlessly into the other.
Much of the book is a series of hallucinogenic episodes, Linthout’s grief attacking his mind in different ways. He sees multiple versions of his insensitive boss. The chalk outline of his son’s body appears before him, while his son’s spirit seems to be trying to communicate to him in Morse code. He acts out in ways understandable but also shocking, even criminal. He takes longer to start to pull through than many, his delusions involving his son bringing him some small measure of comfort that may be lost if he starts to heal. There is no truly accurate timetable for the stages of grief, and so there was probably not much of an outline for the book. It takes as long as it takes. It’s a harrowing journey where hope takes a long time to appear, but eventually it’s there, in as simple a gesture as slightly changing the art style to represent the passing of something.
Guest Reviewer Month - C. Tyler on Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary
Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary by Justin Green
Reviewed by C. Tyler, long time Binky fan.
There are two boxes of the just reissued Binky Brown in his hallway. Sent by the publisher, they are Justin’s complimentary copies. Still in the boxes, yet unopened.
It’s not surprising. Those two boxes will probably remain like that for quite a long time. You see Justin is perpetually reticent about his great work. Sending copies to people, marketing, promotion — it’s
just not his thing. In fact, this whole reprint project spearheaded by Art Spiegelman with McSweeney’s has made him feel uncomfortably exposed again, as it did when he created Binky almost 40 years ago.
Why is this, you may wonder. Well when you read this book you will have the answer.
This underground classic from the comix era has held up. It remains a “ray” of pure genius. It is considered to be one of the most significant, groundbreaking contributions to comics history and Justin
is considered the Father of the Autobiographical comic. It has earned this designation not only because of its humor, artistry and craftsmanship but also because of its honest, unflinching appraisal
and confrontation of one’s personal truth.
In support, I have listed here 5 salient points, in no particular order, that explain a little more why this is.
Innovation in form
Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary was produced during the early days of the San Francisco Underground, when artists departed from the norm (DC/Marvel) and reinvented the form. Emphasis was on ‘anything goes’ in terms of subject matter, creator owned content produced with no editorial input. Justin was on the forefront of this energy. Without contract or provocation, he produced this remarkable work. Printed by Last Gasp, it was the first comic to grind away at the problems of self.
Despite the overwhelming compulsion/revulsion it took to produce it, Justin tackled sensitive, difficult and (for that time) stigmatized subject matter, i.e. mental illness. His foray into this taboo subject
matter was a first of its kind and opened the door to the flood of confessional/self-referenced style comics that have followed.
Some people think that Binky Brown is a “fantastic” story in the sense of having a manufactured intensity, that Justin had tweaked the truth here and there in order to intensify the drama of his situation.
Nothing could be further from the truth. This is an honest and painful work, representing Justin’s reality then as it still does today.
When I first read Binky almost 30 years ago, I loved it for the places where it intersected with my own experiences: the 50s, Catholicism gone awry, the Chicagoland area. But I also loved the personal feel of the work. Right away, I felt empathy for him, the author/character. I couldn’t believe how the story jumped off the page and shot directly at me — I had never had this experience from a comic book before.
Binky is impressive in its literacy. It’s amazing how skillfully Justin orchestrated the tone and timbre of language and expression, juggling the erudite with the colloquial in a manner that seems
effortless. The narrator’s voice is memorable and the emotional range of the character as expressed through language is significant, melding perfectly with the visual language, which brings me to …
Funk meets tradition
Binky Brown has an awkward elegance, drawn with a mastery that is rooted in the print tradition. Justin created a totally original visual lexicon, balanced it with traditional drafting skills and then goosed it with a raw twist of funk. His pages are structurally sound, the figures and details artfully and succinctly describe Binky’s world. The lettering – superb. No wonder that Justin went on from this comic to become a master sign lettering man.
Justin is the real deal. He doesn’t follow the trends. He risks. He gets in there and yanks out this incredible stuff, root canal style. He is the ultimate idiosyncratic artist. A loner. A creative genius. A
madman. That’s what you want out of an innovator and a National Treasure, which I believe he is.
So if you haven’t yet read Binky, smack yo’self up-side the head and go get a copy. It is a bookshelf essential. Along with his other works, like Sacred and Profane, Show & Tell, The Sign Game, Musical
Legends and many others.
On the back of Binky Brown it proclaims the book to be ‘Must reading for Neurotics of All Creeds’. No doubt, this is a mandate for all of us.
C. Tyler is a comics creator who was first influenced by Binky Brown back in the 1980s. An Eisner nominated artist/writer, Ms. Tyler is the author of three solo books, The Job Thing (1993), Late Bloomer (2005) and her current project, a trilogy entitled You’ll Never Know. Book I: A Good & Decent Man was published in 2009. YNK Book II: Collateral Damage is due out July 2010, with YNK Book III: Soldier’s Heart scheduled for 2011. All published by Fantagraphics
Ms. Tyler is an Adjunct Professor of Art at the University of Cincinnati DAAP School of Art. Comics, Graphic Novels and Sequential Art is the title of her course.
Guest Reviewer Month: Blake Bell on Golden Age Marvel Comics Omnibus Volume 1 (Or, “Why Bill Everett is the most important comic-book creator that you don’t know about.”)
“If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.”
—William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
Everything you don’t know (and should) about why Bill Everett made the single most important contribution to superhero comic-book history can be found in Marvel’s Oct’ 09 massive hardcover release - Golden Age Marvel Comics Omnibus Volume 1 – $125 and 70 years in the making.
Reprinting Marvel Comics #1 and the subsequent eleven issues of (the renamed) Marvel Mystery Comics, the volume is more than a historical touchstone for the company that would become known as Marvel. Featured within all twelve issues is Bill Everett’s seminal creation, the Sub-Mariner – resetting the superhero archetype barely a year after it had been set – setting in four color a template for all comic-book creators to pillage: the modern anti-hero.
2009 set the table, and now 2010 will be the year fans dine out on a massive helping of Everett’s legendary Golden Age superhero work, his Grade A 1950 Horror material, his hand in the creation of Daredevil, and the beauty of his 1960/70s inks and pencils, illustrating how Bill Everett was peaking (again) just as he left us.
Who is Bill Everett? William Blake “Bill” Everett was born May 18th, 1917 to an upper-middle class Massachusetts family. Everett (a descendant of poet William Blake) navigated the murky waters of New York and Chicago advertising before near-poverty forced him to take up residence at Centaur Publications in 1938, a year before Superman would make his debut in Action Comics. Noted for a comparatively long run on his creation, Amazing Man, Centaur editor Lloyd Jacquet would take Everett and others with him to form “Funnies Inc.” that became established as a comic-book packager for publishers looking to quickly capitalize on the burgeoning comic-book market in the late 1930s.
The first client for Funnies Inc. was Martin Goodman, owner of Timely Publications, who wanted to incorporate comic books into his pulp publishing empire. The product of the collaboration was Marvel Comics #1, highlighted by Everett’s Sub-Mariner twelve-page strip. Although watered down by the end of the 1940s (and in many present-day incarnations) – his raison d’être circumcised, left to fight generic thugs on the streets of Manhattan – the Sub-Mariner present in this volume defines for 70 years worth of comics the template for the anti-hero, setting the course for a long lineage of other writers who would create popular half-hero/half-villains, often misunderstood, a product of circumstances who would have to come to peace with straddling the line between social mores and their own alienation. The most popular example of this was unveiled in the 1970s; the X-Men’s Wolverine, still as popular today as ever, now the star of his own movie franchise.
In Marvel Comics #1, Everett quickly moves to set the Sub-Mariner apart from any comic-book hero present on the market. The character’s origins are unveiled in his murderous first appearance, the character unwittingly killing two surface dwellers that get too close for comfort to what remains of the Sub-Mariner’s race of underwater fish-like humanoids nestled in the South Antarctica. Even his birth was a product of savage death – a plot to prevent the genocide of his race from the “white people” who had started performing thunderously explosive scientific experiments on the seas over their kingdom. His mother had then been sent to glean information from the ship’s captain, Leonard McKenzie, but fell in love and married him. She did this all the while giving information back to her people to mount an attack, but before they could, the humans unleashed their latest barrage, all but wiping it the underwater city. Now, this half-breed, this “Sub-Mariner,” was to venture forth and wreak vengeance on the earth dwellers and lead his people to victory. For the year of 1940, the Sub-Mariner was no superhero, instead fighting humanity as much as the character fought within him to justify his actions as he began to see humanity through his own eyes not as villains but as a misguided and misunderstood people.
On top of Everett creating the first anti-hero in comics, he also set the table for what became the norm in storytelling from the 1960s onward. The first twelve issues of Marvel Comics/Marvel Mystery Comics reads as the industry’s first graphic novel, each issue leading into this next with a definite conclusion to the story in issue twelve. Everett’s contribution as a creator should not overshadow his designation as comics’ best writer-artist of the Golden Age. The narrative pacing in these twelve issues is phenomenal, a whirlwind of the Sub-Mariner’s frustration and angst over being half-human, half-amphibian, belonging nowhere to no one. Issue six is a particular highlight, featuring the Sub-Mariner tied to the electric chair for his crimes against humanity, receiving all the voltage New York City has to offer, setting up the epic battle two issues later between the Sub-Mariner and his elemental opposite, the Human Torch.
And while many artists of the day sped through their artwork, caring little for the medium, waiting only for the call to a big advertising company or life as a syndicated artist, these twelve issues represent Everett at his early 1940s peak. The first two issues border on elegant, the rendering incredibly polished. Done before the influx of clients at the Funnies Inc. shop and the other books they’d put out for Timely, the evidence is clear that Everett slaved over these pages longer than any others that he produced during this period.
As well, Everett—always the innovator—decided to see if he could elevate comics beyond their four-color palette. He wanted a third-dimensional, or a painting-type effect to capture the feeling of being underwater, and used a Craftint Board in which chemicals bring out cross-hatching for tonal value. But these were primitive days in the industry, and with the printer’s acumen being far below Everett’s artistic vision, the experiment was abandoned after two issues. The majestic quality that Everett imbues in the Sub-Mariner in issue one gives way in issue two to a less regal and more fierce-looking Sub-Mariner that comes out of the watery depths to attack humanity with years of pent up rage.
Bill Everett passed away too early, in 1973 at the age of 55 – his body paying the price for too much hard living that only ceased in the last few years of his life. As such, the Golden Age Marvel Comics Omnibus Volume 1 – the only reprinting of its kind – stands as an important reminder of why he will always be remembered, with a little prodding, as an industry trailblazer, the first “five-tool” creator (a respected letterer and colorist as well) in comic-book history, the man who brought the anti-hero to comics, and the man with enough narrative vision to foster the first continuing narrative in superhero comics.
Blake Bell is the author of Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko and editor of Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1. Fire and Water: Bill Everett, The Sub-Mariner, and the Birth of Marvel Comics, his latest book, will debut at this July’s San Diego Comicon and will (as part biography, part coffee-table art book, made in co-operation with the Everett family) detail the rise and fall and rise again of the only artist in the Golden Age of comics that truly swam upstream in a sea of imitators and hacks.
Guest Reviewer Month - Tom Spurgeon on The Early Morning Milk Train
I don’t want to talk up Tom Spurgeon too much, for a couple reasons: 1) It’s pretty self-evident by this point how good he is at what he does, and 2) I don’t think he really likes people talking about how good he is at what he does. His humility is part of his charm, and his economy is part of his charm, and his wide knowledge of comics is part of his charm, and his way of a subtle but devastating one liner that destroys his target and yet still leaves him looking affable is part of his charm. Oh, well, I guess I went ahead and talked him up. I’ll just close and say another part of his charm, for me, are the judiciously distributed—he might say unpacked—bits about how he has related to his father through comics, which is something I would like to have had. There is some of that here, within the body of an examination of work that may have escaped the notice of most of us if not for Tom’s efforts.—Christopher Allen
The Early Morning Milk Train: The Cream of Emett Railway Drawings Rowland Emett John Murray, London, (UK Edition) 1976.
By Tom Spurgeon
Rowland Emett (1906-1990) was best known as a kinetic sculptor. He created Rube Goldberg- (or, if you prefer, Heath Robinson-) type machines that actually worked – just as long as someone paid to have them built. A string of corporate and festival sponsors eventually did just that. Starting in 1951, Emett’s devices were put on display in high-profile venues like the Festival of Britain, the movie Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang (he supplied the inventions of Caractacus Potts), the Smithsonian and the Ontario Science Centre, not to mention places of pride in various business headquarters. They sported ridiculous names like “The Forget-Me-Not Computer,” “The Aqua Horological Tintinnabulator” and the frankly awesome-sounding “The Featherstone-Kite Openwork Basketweave Mark Two Gentleman’s Flying Machine.” Their sensual unlikelihood and awkwardness satirized the asserted, streamlined perfection of modern invention. They giggled at technology’s remove from human hands, and left whoopee cushions upon which the self-proclaimed empire-builders might sit. Emmet’s machines are almost without exception deeply whimsical in a way that shames that word’s application elsewhere. It’s a better world for their having been brought into existence.
Before he was a maker of things, Rowland Emett was a creator of cartoons. He was a highly successful cartoonist, as a matter of fact, one of the more popular artists working in Punch during the late 1930s (he first published in the magazine in 1939) and through the 1940s. A marriage in 1941 proved beneficial to his ambitions: the former Mary Evans became his manager as well as his wife. They built a concurrent book career for the cartoonist in the traditional manner, Emett illustrating a few volumes during the war from prose authors and then moving onto solo showcases as his star at Punch continued to rise. His publisher was Faber & Faber, as respectable a house as any going.
To a great extent, Emett owed the majority of his transition from cartoonist to “dream machine” maker to profiles and assignments from the magazines Life and Sports Illustrated. It’s hard to imagine with the diarrheic explosion of media opportunities today, but an artist’s appearance in certain high-profile publications at mid-20th Century could drive interest and commissions for years on end. Not only was Emett capable of remarkable, inventive creation, he looked the part, like a genial wizard from a live-action Saturday Morning network television show, youthful and spry and friendly-faced. As more of his models and machines leapt from concept to physical existence, Emett’s cartoon work faded from both magazine and book publication. There was a brief revival of Emmet interest in the 1970s, collecting many of the old Punch watercolors and drawings. Only one book in that run had both a UK edition and one in the U.S.: The Early Morning Milk Train, released in 1976 overseas and 1977 in North America.
It’s difficult to recognize some seventy years later just how important the train remained in the imagination of everyday people up until the 20th century’s mid-point. From the late 19th Century on, the train was for many folks the mightiest machine with which they had daily interaction. They were commonplace leviathans. In Emett’s England, the railway was the major connection between rural and urban communities in a culture that took more slowly to cars than North America. Trains were the past and the future.
Emmet can’t get enough of the torpedo-shaped bull in the china shop that is the standard railway transport among the rickety fences and queer mustachioed gentlemen and wobbly-looking tracks that are rural tracks and station. He crashes his trains through these lines and into private space. He builds them into impossibly unwieldy things that have to ride the think track lines as gracefully as any sidecar. He subjects them to local custom and kindnesses that thwarts their power. In some of the most beautiful cartoons collected here, Emett starts with the twin lines that make up a railroad track and sees the parallel markings splashed throughout the countryside: a train that might go up a tree, or have to be held onto narrow tracks through the human act of leaning in the other direction, or that totters across a gossamer thin bridge, an idea of a train rather than its reality, the gentle intrusion of man into nature.
Those more fanciful strips obsessed with line are the one in which you can see early signs of Emett’s genius with rickety, working construction. He turns cars on their sides, adds ornate elements where none are necessary, suggests a greater sway and fragility than any train might bear. Yet there are also multiple variations at work here that didn’t become three-dimensional at a later date. There are several well-presented jokes about the lunatic lengths to which railroads were desperate to add luxury to train service, visually-driven jokes about boy scouts getting to a train via a quickly-assembled rope bridge or a train suggesting music to a few back yard composers; one even uncovers a few gags about fare hikes. It’s also surprising how much Emett shifts between media: several flatly painted pieces bereft of color in this volume, more traditional pen and ink work with a variety of line thicknesses and black space moving the eye from place to face, and the wonderful spider web-like lines of Emett’s more famous tableaux.
The construction is second place to the quality of the imagination displayed, but reading a bunch of Emett at once confirms he was an odd cat in terms of the way he approached the page. The eyes are almost always slammed to the bottom of an Emett page like an angry yank used to close a blind. From there, a typical Emett allows the reader to float left to right as the line of the cars might lead, or even up and into any smoke the train creates. One wonderful trick he employs is to depict the trains and their surrounding countryside with the same line consistency. This in itself seems a satirical point about the intrusiveness of the iron horse – many of the trains look like they could be punched off of their tracks if you put your shoulder into it – but it also allows the eye to wander into any number of chicken-fat style pleasures the rest of the drawing may hold, or to capture any atmospherics specific to a single drawing that Emett intends.
The Early Morning Milk Train was the only comics-related publication in my late father’s collection of books that I had never heard of or seen before coming across it packing his belongings for a final time. My dad was a train kid, working at the local station during the summer for quarters and receiving a pre-Social Security number that were given out to railroad employees a couple of years before everyone else got their nine digits. He pressed for a political appointment at the very early AMTRAK, our family’s road not taken. Dad would read old timetables in the bathtub the way I read Gerry Conway JLAs. For him it was likely enough to see trains over and over and over again, the idea of the train shorn of most of its mass, progressing here and there across Emett’s made-up countryside at the behest of their ridiculous porters and engineers. It’s difficult to imagine someone relating so wholly to a piece of outmoded expression like the train as fully as my father did, and as fully as he likely treated this book. Then again, I’m that way about cartoons.
Tom Spurgeon maintains the essential, Eisner-nominated blog, The Comics Reporter, prior to which he wrote for and edited The Comics Journal and co-authored the definitive biography of Stan Lee.
Guest Reviewer Month - Andrew Farago on The Sanford & Son Saga
This isn’t the Big One, Elizabeth, but it’s a fun piece nonetheless from Andrew Farago, presenting a world where we might have seen a Winter Sister-in-Law or Junkman: Year One, all spinning out of the male empowerment fantasy that is Sanford & Son. Thanks, Andrew. You big dummy. —Christopher Allen
Notes from a world where comics dominated popular culture
Fall 1972: Sanford and Son premieres on CBS, and soon becomes the most popular show on television.
Fall 1974: Series star Redd Foxx, dissatisfied with his contract, does not appear in the first three episodes of the new season of Sanford and Son. Grady, played by popular supporting actor Whitman Mayo, is given a larger role during Foxx’s absence. The final episode of the 1974-75 season is a preview of Grady’s spinoff series, Grady.
Late fall 1976: The phenomenal success of Grady convinces CBS to put all of its resources into the bourgeoning junkyard comedy genre, and begins production on eight new midseason replacement series in this format.
Fall 1982: With the cancellation of 60 Minutes, CBS completes its transition to an all junkyard comedy network.
Spring 1985: Concerned that the plots of Sanford and Son and its spinoffs have become too complicated, producer Norman Lear announces that every CBS program will re-start in the winter of 1986. All CBS shows airing from September through December 1985 compose a single, massive storyline, called “The Big One,” that is intended to streamline the network’s programming.
Summer 1985: NBC hires Demond Wilson, who plays Foxx’s son, Lamont, as their Chief Creative Officer, as they ramp up their own plans to become an all-junkyard network.
Fall 1986: Redd Foxx is fired from CBS, and Richard Pryor is given the role of Fred Sanford. Eddie Murphy declines to play Lamont, and the part is given to up-and-coming comedian Damon Wayans.
Winter 1987: On-set arguments over the direction of the show leads to the creation of a spin-off series for Wayans, entitled And Son. Pryor’s daughter, Rain, replaces Wayans, and the original series is retitled Sanford and Kid.
Fall 1989: Due to the success of CBS’s Sunday night series Classic Sanford, which airs reruns of the original series, the network brings Redd Foxx back in a recurring role as Pryor’s father.
Fall 1991: A massive shakeup leads to the firings of Foxx, Wayans and the entire Pryor family. Demond Wilson returns to CBS and takes on the role of Fred Sanford.
Winter 1993: Ratings skyrocket during the controversial “Death of Fred Sanford” story arc that spans the entire CBS Thursday night lineup for seven weeks.
Spring 1993: Fred Sanford returns during the controversial “Death of Bubba” story arc. Ratings continue to rise.
Winter 1994: “The Death of Aunt Esther” story arc is met with a lukewarm reaction, and diminishing returns from the death-and-replacement trend lead CBS to become more experimental in their programming. Demond Wilson is given a new haircut, and a holographic foil version of Grady is added to the regular cast.
Spring 1994: The season finale of Sanford and Son is filmed through a polybag. Television watchers are warned that the quality of the episode will deteriorate upon viewing, and are encouraged to store copies of the finale away for investment purposes.
Fall 1996: Ratings for CBS plummet. The network’s decision to offer its programming only at junkyard specialty shops through the Diamond Satellite System is cited as a likely cause.
Fall 2001: Cedric the Entertainer stars as Fred Sanford as the 30th season of Sanford! launches. Classic Sanford, Young Sanford and And Son round out the Thursday night lineup on CBS, whose top programs reach up to 100,000 viewers each month.
Summer 2004: Sanford: The Movie premieres in July. Despite worldwide ticket sales totaling nearly one billion dollars, ratings for the television series are largely unaffected.
July 2006: The annual San-Ford-ego Comic-Con International sells out for the fifth straight year, as 125,000 fans descend on the San Diego Convention Center. Purists complain that the show is no longer the driving force of the convention, as the presence of junkyard comic publishers has increased steadily over the past decade, relegating Sanford and Son to a small area of the convention center known as “Actors’ Alley.”
December 2009: Disney purchases CBS for four million dollars. Production on all junkyard programming comes to a halt. Classic Sanford and Son will be distributed through iTunes, and the more lucrative Sanford characters will appear at Disney theme parks beginning in 2010.
April 2010: New iPad app “iGrady” premieres, and is downloaded over nine times in its first eighteen months. “iSmitty” launches the following month, but companion program “iHoppy” is held up in court due to possible copyright infringement.
Fall 2012: Mayan apocalypse leads to renaissance of actual junk shops. Executives ponder relaunch of Sanford and Son, but lack of electricity and accompanying technology presents a large stumbling block.
Andrew Farago is the Curator of San Francisco’s Cartoon Art Museum and has written for Marvel Comics, The Comics Journal, The Comics Reporter and Animation World Network, among other publications. His upcoming book The Looney Tunes Treasury will be published by Insight Editions in fall 2010.
Guest Reviewer Month - Matt Maxwell on DC: The New Frontier
In a perfect world, or at least a better economy, you’d have more Matt Maxwell comics to read, but I do enjoy his lucid writing about comics, and movies, and whatever else he finds time to discuss. Matt broke about the only rule we had for Guest Reviewer Month of using something old (in fairness, it was only implied and not explicit), but it’s such a good piece, who cares? It’s one thing to champion something obscure or cultish, but quite another to find the real strengths, and even subversive ideas or auteurish touches, of a real mass appeal commercial piece of art, as Matt does here with Darwyn Cooke’s masterpiece. —Christopher Allen
This was written some time ago, more than five years now, but it’s still one of my favorite essays on one of my favorite comics of the last several years. And sure, we’ve got a nice hardcover version, but we still don’t have an affordable one-volume paperback that I can find. Pity. -–mm
Thoughts on The New Frontier
Hmm. This is likely to be a disorganized and messy affair. Quite unlike the book in question, which was painstakingly paced and plotted. True that some commentators complained that the first issues were simply unconnected vignettes, but that’s one of the risks that you run when you read your fiction serially. It’s very easy (and wrongheaded) to criticize the whole based on the first couple of chapters.
That doesn’t prevent us from doing it on a regular basis, mind you…
I see a lot made of New Frontier’s appeal being primarily nostalgic (and some folks take it further and declare that it’s the book’s only appeal) in that it reads like a Silver Age comic. Make that a Silver Age comic written extremely smartly, with deft characterization and spot-on illustration, as well as the space to actually tell the story (Without. Coming. Off. Like. The. Author. Was. Stretching. Things. Out. Needlessly.) Sure it’s just like a Silver Age book, but you forget the political content, not merely subtext, and the opportunities for ruthless bastards to turn around and be revealed as truly heroic (not just to have their actions explained away as “merely following orders.”) And did I mention the whole mature take on your favorite DC superheroes thing?
You simply aren’t going to find darkly-tinged portrayals of Batman and Wonder Woman in Silver Age books. You’re certainly not going to see anything as shocking as Wonder Woman’s actions in issue #2 of New Frontier. Now I’m not talking Identity Crisis or Avengers Disassembled non-shocks. I’m talking about genuine and stirring did-I-just-read-that sorts of shocks. These are moments where real character is revealed, not just poking the reader and saying “Dig this exciting take on things! Isn’t it just HARDCORE?” It’s not about twisting the characters around, but giving them a chance at meaning.
Yes, a great deal has been made about the restoration of Hal Jordan, and his rehabilitation at the hands of Darwyn Cooke (conveniently timed just before his restoration at the hands of Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver). Personally, I could really care less about the continuing adventures of Hal Jordan and Green Lantern (unless in the hands of a master, say, Grant Morrison, though I doubt he’d have any interest), but Darwyn Cooke gave some dimension to the character instead of relying on easy answers or fan knowledge to drive him.
However, Mr. Cooke doesn’t get a lot of credit for the way he handled other, less well-known characters. Much was made of Hal Jordan, but very little was made of Col. Rick Flagg, ultrabastard. We meet him before we meet Jordan, and long before Jordan becomes anything close to the Green Lantern. Flagg (and his more cerebral analog, the Oppenheimer-esque King Faraday) is at least as important in the story as Jordan, and maybe more so. Both Flagg and Faraday are the faces of a ruthless federal government, seemingly bent on maintaining their monopoly on superpowers and generally making life tough on the protagonists. They’re bad guys right?
Wrong. Lee Marvin (and I’m paraphrasing here) was once asked how it felt to always play the bad guy. He answered by saying that he never played a bad man. His characters always had their motivations and always did what they thought was best, which made his acting compelling even when the roles themselves were repellent. Darwyn Cooke manages the same trick with his portrayal of the faces of Government. Flagg, particularly, comes across as a near-psychotic badass who seems to revel in holding the obviously sympathetic characters down and questioning their ideals and finally stomping all over them. You figure that you’d want to cheer when he finally dies, right?
Wrong again. Flagg’s death is a heart-rending moment because we’re finally shown that indeed Flagg was another guy doing what he thought was right, what he thought needed to be done, learning the lessons that his world had taught him. And as hard as his exterior was, we’re revealed in his last moments that he has the same dreams and hopes as the best of us. It’s a powerful instant of identification and sacrifice that for all of its hyperbole of “the planet itself will perish if I fail!” is still one of the most moving in the entire story. We also see why he personally took the one thing that Hal Jordan most wanted and put it out of reach, and in that understanding Flagg becomes truly heroic.
He’s also got a deft hand when it comes to portraying the heroes of the DCU. As noted above, Cooke is a master at adding weight to the proceedings, but he’s equally talented in giving a light touch as well. The Martian Manhunter and The Flash come to mind here. And just to show how well he does it, Cooke starts us off on completely the wrong foot with J’onn J’onzz (the Martian Manhunter, for those of you not versed in DC lore…). We’re given a creepy setting, an observatory draped in shadow and darkness. In it, a man lays on the floor dying, and even though he declares that it’s not the stranger’s fault, we’re given the feeling that the Manhunter is indeed responsible for the man’s death. Then we get the full-page reveal (whereas before we’d only seen silhouette and a pair of red and inhuman eyes) of a creature that may be humanoid, but is distinctly not human. And given these setbacks to reader sympathy, Cooke still manages to turn the Manhunter into a sympathetic and empathetic character. Of course, Cooke knows how to play to the crowd (and even makes fun of it via Slam Bradley.)
Cooke’s take on Superman is a sight to behold, even though he’s taken out of the big fight at the end (but is responsible for putting the big fight into the crowd of heroes). He’s also smart enough to contrast Superman’s Favored Alien status with the persecution that a similar alien (again, the Martian Manhunter here) feels in Red-Scare America. Jonn uses his power to blend in and pass as human (fearing discovery the entire time) and by his very existence, Superman not only draws attention to himself, but reinforces governmental strength, the very power that Jonn fears. They’re opposites, both in power and in status, but in the end, they’re opposites united and made whole.
Moments like this are what make New Frontier worth coming back to, what makes it a great story. Cooke understands that dimension is what separates character from caricature, and that informs all of his work here. Yes, Lois Lane is in love with Superman and she’s an ideal woman. She’s also more than a little manipulative and knows how to get men to do what she wants. And she can be forceful in getting her way (as well, so can Carol Ferris, another strong woman who plays a role in the proceedings). She’s also frail and vulnerable and the panel where she and Superman are reuinted after his apparent demise is one of the most powerful in the book.
Dimension. It’s all about being more than one thing. If you’re unrelentingly good, you’re just as boring as the unrelentingly evil chap over there. Granted, you’re likely to be more sympathetic than him, but not any more interesting. There’s very few, if any, stock characters (well, maybe the eggheads, but we don’t get to see them long enough to get a real feel for ‘em) to be found here. Hal Jordan is both fearless and wracked with self-doubt. Wonder Woman is a liberator and a destroyer, both callous and courageous. Batman comes across as both pragmatic and idealistic, fearsome and troubled.
The same is true of the America that New Frontier depicts. It’s a beacon of freedom and opportunity, as well as a land of repression and fear. It’s a place where bad is done in the name of the common good, where the government seems more concerned with vigilantism than the crimes that inspire it. I’m not going to stand here and argue that it’s precise and nuanced political discourse, but I will say that it’s striving to be a depiction that doesn’t shy away from the shadows at the edges of society. There’s the promise of wealth and ease, and the shadow cast by these isn’t simply ignored by Mr. Cooke. It’s given an uncompromised look. Lynchings and racial repression, such as those that inspired the fictional John Henry, were all-too real. Not that donning a hood and hammering justice into the KKK is a real-wold solution: it isn’t. This is story, more precisely, s superhero comic story. This is a representation of conflict and counter-action, not a model of how to base a struggle for civil rights.
Still, the world feels real (even in the face of impossibilities such as superheroes and prehistoric leviathans that threaten humanity) because it’s visually grounded. Yes, the visuals themselves are idealistic, iconic, and there’s a reason for that. These images are impressed on the American (and Canadian) psyche as part of our history. Again and again and again, Cooke shows that he has a masterful eye for design and a keen historical accuracy that evokes a feeling of Postwar America (even if that America never really existed—not unlike a couple of Englishmen successfully evoking another America that Never Was in the pages of Watchmen.) Edwards Air Force Base, Las Vegas, googie architecture and design, the first stirrings of the space race and the Cold War, sprawling noir cityscapes, newsreels, talking-head public affairs shows, Blue Note record covers, automobile design, commercial design and propaganda are blended together seamlessly into a visually stunning whole.
And Darwyn Cooke can draw the super-heroes, too. Not over-muscled pose-fests, but living breathing (and breathless) action. Cooke taps the power and cosmic majesty of Jack Kirby (and some nods to Steve Ditko in that regard), the shadows of Krigstein, Toth’s powerful simplicity (and expressionism) as well as a daunting knowledge of commercial design. And he makes it his own thing, not just a chance to play spot-the-influences. He’s also managed to take what works about decompression in comics and the “widescreen” format and really use it to its best advantage. No, I won’t lie to you. It eats up pages, fast. But when the pages are this gorgeous and cinematic, infused with a blend of raw power and great finesse, there isn’t much room to complain.
And I’m a guy who generally hates splash pages, remember. But there isn’t a splash page here that isn’t serving the story, whether it’s the best single encapsulation of Aquaman in a panel that you’ll see, or the awesome spectacle of Superman getting sucker-punched by a behemoth from another time.
I’ve seen some comparisons made to Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns in terms of New Frontier’s importance and impression on the superhero genre. As flattering as those are intended to be, I’m not sure that they’re entirely fair. Watchmen, even if the story had been subpar, (which it wasn’t) would be an important work for its mastery of structure, of form. Dark Knight was equally masterful in structure, though in a different way, obviously. New Frontier has its own feel and vibe, but I’m not sure that it’s one that will serve as a template for stories to come. It may not achieve the dizzying heights (or blackest depths) that Watchmen trod, but New Frontier certainly deserves recognition for being a strong story, skillfully told in a visual style that is indeed its own.
I wish I didn’t have to say this, but the above is an exceedingly rare thing these days. New Frontier should be celebrated for that, as well as all the other stuff that I’ve gone on at length about.
Now if only DC had the common sense to put the whole thing together in one affordable package. Oh well. I’m holding onto my floppies and will hold out for the hardcover.
With his cartoons for Hustler Magazine, Dwaine Tinsley attempted to find humor by pointing out the hypocrisies we see everyday from the leaders of our society, and he also lifted the veil from our own desires, delusions and hatreds. This was exactly what his employer, publisher Larry Flynt, wanted him to do, and indeed the entire magazine operated differently from competitors Playboy and Penthouse in that Hustler was less about fantasy than it was showing the ugliness in the world, and reveling in it. It offered gratification at a price. Surely more than a few readers read one of Tinsley’s Chester the Molester cartoons and wondered just what happened to this month’s centerfold girl to bring her to posing fully nude and spread. Was she comfortable with her body, or was she taught from a too-young age that this was all it was good for?
With a history of exposing the peccadilloes of public figures (I still recall the grainy, black-and-white photos of a flabby, topless Jackie Onassis on a yacht they printed), it was with no small amount of irony that Tinsley found himself in 1989 accused of molesting his teenage daughter.
Levin had been writing for The Comics Journal for fifteen years when the project was proposed to him. His subjects were often outlaw cartoonists like Dan O’Neill, B.N. Duncan, Vaughn Bode’, cartoonists outside the norm, in unusual circumstances or pushing the envelope of decency or even legality. He was the natural choice to write the story of Tinsley’s life and trial.
Unlike, say, an Albert Goldman, Levin is not attracted to his subjects just to dig up the dirt on their personal lives. He seems to mostly come to them as a fan, or if not much of an admirer of their work, at least an admirer of their drive to put it out there, to suffer for a vision. That seems to be where he meets Tinsley, as a man who wanted to make his readers laugh but also think. It’s a delicate balance Levin attempts here, as Tinsley’s work is blunt in delivery, not particularly well-drawn and generally designed to offend. And it’s effective at that. The deeper thinking is tough to come by, although Levin does take pains to point out that Tinsley’s Chester character is never depicted heroically, and never seems to have intercourse with any of the underage girls he pursues by various means (often disguising his penis as something harmless like a hot dog or puppet).
But the book is not a defense of Tinsley. Interestingly, Levin comes off undecided, or to be more exact he seems convinced of Tinsley’s innocence, the daughter’s claims chalked up to a combination of cocaine addiction and sociopathy, but by the end he’s less sure there isn’t some real abuse to explain the lasting hatred.
Levin astutely points to the real unfairness of the trial that led to Tinsley’s conviction on a few of the many counts of abuse, in that Tinsley’s cartoon work was essentially used as evidence of his own character deficiency. Is a crime novelist more likely to murder his wife? Even if someone had immoral or illegal impulses, wouldn’t getting to exorcise them in print help prevent that person from acting on them? Still, with a father creating such cartoons, and with his work in the house in pornographic magazines, it’s hard to argue that there wasn’t some negative influence.
Whether that makes Tinsley guilty is up to the reader. Again, Levin is undecided, but to his credit he presents as much of both sides as he can, of the case and of Tinsley himself, a thoughtful man who definitely lived the high life for a time, a loving father who nonetheless was not consistent, at times inappropriate, in the boundary between father and daughter, as far as letting her stay up late and drink with him. Levin wants the reader to come up with their own opinion, or maybe it’s more fair to say it’s impossible not to have formed an opinion by the end of the book. Levin’s is not often a forceful tone; he digs up information and can deliver it in a scholarly enough manner, but also will follow his muse, digressing into dry humor and even an admitted Faulknerian flight of fancy. He’s fully engaged, grappling with the facts and the issues as he uncovers them, and the reader grapples right along with him. It’s a much more compelling book for the fact that Levin doesn’t try to wrap it all up in a bow. Sometimes when we say we forgive and forget, we are forgiving nothing and misremembering. Sometimes we can trace pain to its source, sometimes not. Did Tinsley pass on the pain from growing up with a drunken whore mother to his daughter? Will she pass her own pain on to her own children? Who knows? We can only try to live with our own, to rid ourselves of it or bury it.
Guest Reviewer Month: Jim Rugg Reviews Footnotes in Gaza
Footnotes in Gaza By Joe Sacco Published by Metropolitan Books
In November 1956, Israeli soldiers rounded up Palestinian men in the Gaza towns of Khan Younis and Rafah and according to UN records, killed 275 of them. The incident was not well documented. In 2001, while researching a story for Harper’s magazine, Joe Sacco heard first hand accounts of these events. When his editors at Harper’s magazine cut this section from the article, Sacco decided to return to Gaza to research what had taken place there in 1956.
In 2002 and 2003, Sacco traveled to Gaza to conduct field research; specifically he wanted to interview eyewitnesses to the events in Khan Younis and Rafah. Footnotes in Gaza details those research trips and the interviews he conducted. Based on eyewitness accounts, he depicts the incidents in comic form. He rounds out the book with additional research notes, historical documents, and interviews with Israeli Defense Forces and UN personnel.
The book seamlessly cuts between autobiography, interviews, recreations of the stories told in the interviews (i.e. 1956), and historical notes meant to contextualize the events and details in the interviews. It is amazing. The density of narrative is staggering with many of the layers reliant on the comics medium to maximize the stories’ clarity and effectiveness. It is hard to imagine any medium telling this story better than comics.
Sacco’s ability as a cartoonist keys the book’s success. Sacco draws extremely detailed backgrounds that give the setting a tremendous amount of weight. That detail, especially the historical depictions of Gaza, paints a disturbing picture of the plight of the Palestinian refugees without relying on heavy-handedness or purple prose. He uses an intensive cross-hatching style that creates a wide range of value and texture, giving the setting a rich atmosphere and weight. But when he draws his interview subjects and the people he encounters in Gaza, he replaces a little bit of the realism with caricature. This effect breathes life into the people that populate the stories. It is so subtle and yet vital to the power of the work. It humanizes what could easily be a very dry report. Finally, when he draws himself, he completely replaces the realism with a cartoon icon. And in this slight of hand, he gives the reader their entry point into the story via a technique Scott McCloud details in Understanding Comics. Basically, the simpler the image of a character, the more natural it is for a reader to identify with the character. So to summarize – he creates a hyper-realistic environment, populates it with people using visual cues the way we identify people we don’t know very well (think of someone you’ve only met a couple of times or the way you see a bit actor in a couple of different movies and he/she looks familiar, perhaps you recognize a distinct feature but you can’t quite place him/her), and then allows you to slide into his generic character in order to experience this world and story.
The book explores a polarizing topic, and the politics can be uncomfortable. The autobiographical elements mitigate this potential problem to some degree by using an observational approach that removes some subjectivity. Despite Sacco’s apparent feelings regarding the situation, the story is told in a very straightforward manner.
The tone of the interviews ranges as one would expect from witness to witness. Sacco does a good job keeping the interviews in context. When a number of common elements arise between interviewers, it is captioned accordingly in the comics. And when interviews contradict or vary, that too is noted. For instance, one series of interviews with a family of survivors includes conflicting accounts of which family members actually witnessed which events. When Sacco recognizes these inconsistencies, he discusses them with the survivors. He also questions stories that seem unlikely. When one witness says he was shot in the head from point-blank range 36 times, Sacco acknowledges the problems with this claim. Sacco encounters a variety of obstacles in his interviews, from faulty memories to obstinate old-timers more interested in discussing the 1960s. At one point, he notes his frustration at knowing more about the events than those he interviews. It reminded me a little of Radio: An Illustrated Guide (the Ira Glass/Jessica Abel comic that chronicled the behind the scenes of an episode of This American Life). Anyone interested in documentary work would probably find this book fascinating for its inclusion of the author’s process.
In between the difficult task of trying to find coherent witnesses to a 50-year-old atrocity that are willing to talk to a westerner, we get to see the present state of Gaza. The details he records are just as captivating as the stories from 1956. In one sequence, he drinks coffee and talks to a number of young men while gunshots sound all around them in the night. It reminded me of the tense scene in Boogie Nights, when Diggler and his friends rob a heavily armed, coked up drug dealer while a boy sets off firecrackers intermittently around them. Sacco’s nerves unravel more and more with each gunshot while his companions maintain their conversations as if nothing unusual is happening. During the time he spends in Gaza, he sees a number of homes destroyed by the Israeli Defense Front and talks to various people who have lost homes to the IDF demolitions. His interaction with people in 2003 in Gaza creates one of the most unsettling elements of the book – little has changed since 1956 for the people that survive in Gaza.
It is not a happy story to read. But it is a remarkable comic, a graphic novel in every sense of the phrase. The strength of images in the hands of someone who knows how to wield that power is rare. As a comics fan, I feel lucky that Sacco works in this medium. I am not qualified to judge the book on its journalistic merits, but the transparency of Sacco’s research leads me to believe it is sound in that regard as well. It is a masterpiece by a great cartoonist.
Jim Rugg is the co-creator of Street Angel (published by Slave Labor) and Afrodisiac (published by AdHouse Books).
I’ve only ever seen the first season of Drawn Together, but there’s no doubt it’s my very favourite “reality” TV series; how could you not love all those cultural icons forced to live in a house together, their neuroses and perversions constantly bumping up against each other like twisted tectonic plates?
Guest Reviewer Month - Brigid Alverson on Bunny Drop #1
Manga fan or not, you’ve probably read Brigid Alverson’s writing somewhere, because she’s all over the place. For Guest Reviewer Month (GRM, as we call it here), we really wanted to put a great range of writing, and subject matter, on display. So here we have Brigid adding a touch of class to the joint, and reviewing a book it’s a pretty sure bet wouldn’t have found its way onto TWC if not for her. But it sounds pretty good now!
Bunny Drop, vol. 1
By Yumi Unita
Rated T, for Teen
Yen Press, $12.99
Bunny Drop is that rare manga in which the characters act like real people, even when they are thrust into an absurd situation.
The situation is that old chestnut, the bachelor who suddenly has to take care of a small child. Often the humor in these stories comes from a self-centered single guy who is knocked out of his complacency by the immediate, physical needs of a baby. This is not that book. Daikichi, the bachelor in question, isn’t suave or debonair; he’s good at his job but doesn’t have much of a social life, and he’s a bit insecure. And the child, Rin, is a remarkably self-possessed six-year-old. Daikichi’s challenge is not to take care of her physical needs, although there is some of that, it’s to figure out what she needs emotionally. And that’s a lot more interesting than watching a klutzy guy try to change a diaper.
Bunny Drop does have its ridiculous moments, including the opening sequence, in which Daikichi arrives home for his grandfather’s funeral and learns that the old man had a love child, Rin. The family first learned of this at his death, and Rin’s mother is nowhere to be found. As is common in manga, everyone in the family announces they are too busy to take care of Rin, and anyway, she doesn’t seem to be quite right. The dialogue is lightened up by the convincingly obnoxious antics of Daikichi’s bratty cousin, Reina, who is the same age as Rin.
Meanwhile, Daikichi and Rin are already establishing a bond. Daikichi, it turns out, is the image of his dead grandfather, so Rin attaches herself to him and follows him around. This gives him a chance to see that although she is quiet, she is also smart and intuitive. So when everyone in the family announces that they just can’t take on another burden, it seems natural that Daikichi stands up, tells them all off, and walks off hand in hand with Rin.
The rest of the book chronicles Daikichi’s introduction to parenthood, but while it follows the standard script—finding day care, juggling work and family, and perhaps finding love at the end of it all—the story is rich in detail and texture. For instance, Daikichi must choose between three emergency day cares and then weigh the good and bad points of several permanent ones. Something that could be dismissed in a panel or two gets the full treatment here. Similarly, when Daikichi asks for a transfer at work to reduce his hours, Unita shows him having detailed discussions with his superior and his co-workers about his plans and their possible repercussions. This gives the story depth and also presents a rare (for manga) example of a worker standing up to The Man.
Unlike the girls of shoujo manga, who cheerfully shrug off their parents’ deaths and go off to sleep in the park so they won’t make any trouble, Rin is scared, lonely, and sometimes unable to articulate what she is feeling. From the beginning, she insists on sleeping cuddled up next to Daikichi. This awkward situation is depicted without innuendo, and later on, when Rin starts wetting the bed, Daikichi sees it as a reflection of Rin’s feelings and they have a frank conversation about death. Unita handles this episode with taste and tact, and it’s a moment that many parents will be able to identify with.
Daikichi’s defining characteristic is his good heart. He immediately puts Rin at the center of things, rearranging his life in order to accommodate her needs, and he does this without resentment—he genuinely enjoys her company. Furthermore, he realizes that he can’t just respond to what she says; the interesting thing about this book is that Rin is not straightforward, and Daikichi has to develop genuine empathy to figure out how to take care of her properly.
Unita’s art is simple and linear. She keeps screentones to a minimum, instead using areas of pure black and white to define most of the shapes in each panel. Her compositions are often reminiscent of Fumi Yoshinaga—large, long panels filled with a single head shot. Backgrounds are either blank or crisply drawn depictions of everyday life, and Unita often throws in a surprising detail, such as a male co-worker’s bunny pen. The effect is economical and readable, even for readers who aren’t manga fans.
Bunny Drop follows the becoming-a-family formula but avoids the traps of cuteness, moe, and broad physical comedy, opting instead for a more nuanced story of a developing relationship. At the same time, the tone is light throughout, making this an engaging and unusually satisfying read.
Brigid Alverson grew up reading American and British comics and developed a passion for manga late in life. She is the blogger at MangaBlog and editor of Good Comics for Kids. She also writes about comics for Publishers Weekly Comics Week, Comics Foundry, Robot6 and other publications. You can see examples of her noncomics journalism at her personal site. She lives north of Boston with her husband and two teenage daughters.
Guest Reviewer Month: Mike Sterling on The Comic Reader #212 (August, 1983)
I’d been aware of the idea of the fan press prior to picking this publication off the
newsstand, of course; a letter published with my home address in a 1981 issue of Superman resulted in a slew of mailing and come-ons for conventions and fan-produced magazines and such. Plus, an early ’80s trip to a comic book store in Simi Valley resulted in my being on their mailing list, and getting their newsletter of news and comics gossip. And I’d read the slickly-produced, full-color (well, mostly color) Comics Scene magazine from Starlog Publications.
But this magazine was different.As a child I was fascinated with amateur publications. Not just comic book related ones, though it was a big part of it. But with the very idea of kids my age (or a bit older) producing their own books and magazines and newspapers outside of the “official” and respected publishing outlets. I handcrafted several comics and illustrated booklets of my own as a child, tried (and failed) to get the neighborhood kids to work together on a local newspaper, and sought out similar homegrown items.Now, the folks who produced The Comic Reader obviously weren’t kids, but this was definitely an amateur publication (though a bit more upscale than most fanzines), and I did find it for sale in the newsstand where I regularly bought my comic books at the time, so clearly this wasn’t just something some guys put together for a few friends. Why, this may even have had a print run of hundreds of copies!And like the comic shop newsletter I mentioned, there was news and rumors, but the sheer quantity of it was overwhelming! That newsletter was only a few pages long, but The Comic Reader had page after page after page of densely-packed type and the occasional cover repo and reports and rumors of forthcoming projects, and plenty of info about those small press “indie” titles that were beginning to proliferate and were attracting my attention.The Comic Reader #212 also contained what might have been my first print exposure to fandom discussions outside of the publisher-approved-and-edited letters columns in their publications…well, beyond talking about comics with my friends, which, frankly, I didn’t do too often anyway. Reading missives from folks talking, not just about a specific comic they just had to write a Letter of Comment about, but about a wide range of titles and topics in relation to multiple publishers, and how this issue of X-Men relates to that issue of Green Lantern, and how it all ties in with Hill Street Blues…well, okay, that example was stretching things a bit, but still, it was a side of fandom I hadn’t yet become familiar with. (And now, as a comics retailer and a comics blogger, I may be too familiar with it at this point, but back then, it was still all new and fresh and interesting.)
The artwork is another aspect of The Comics Reader that fascinated me. There were spot illos from humor cartoonist Fred Hembeck, seemingly ubiquitous in those days, and whose work was already familiar to me. But there were a couple of illustrations by this other guy I didn’t know, Mike Mignola, who also provided the cover, and something about his art style really appealed to me. It was because of this magazine that I started to keep an eye out for future work by this Mignola cat, which of course brought me to his work on Alpha Flight, Incredible Hulk, Cosmic Odyssey, and, best of all, got me on the ground floor of his ongoing Hellboy projects.
Perhaps, most importantly, The Comics Reader #212 was responsible for exposing me to the work of Don Rosa. The ‘zine included, among other strips, a couple of samples of Rosa’s Captain Kentucky superhero spoof, a densely-packed Harvey Kurtzman-esque strip which grabbed my attention, partially for reasons going back to my attraction to amateur “outside the mainstream” projects, but mostly because I thought it was extremely funny. The “important” part of this is that, like with Mignola, I kept an eye out for other work by Rosa. Fantagraphics would publish a two-issue run of Don Rosa’s Comics & Stories (starring Captain Kentucky’s alter ego, Lancelot Pertwillaby), but a few years later, Gladstone Comics, then holder of the Disney comics license, would publish an Uncle Scrooge McDuck comic by Rosa. I was 18 years old when that came out, and that was probably the first Disney comic I’d bought (or, more accurately, that my parents had bought for me) since I was about six or seven years old. It was as funny and adventurous and as delightfully densely-illustrated as those older Rosa comics I so enjoyed…and, here, finally, is that “important” part I keep mentioning…it directly led me into discovering the work of “The Good Duck Artist” Carl Barks, and now, at 41, thanks to the various reprinting projects over the years, I have more or less a complete collection of Barks’ Disney work.
This issue of The Comic Reader was also responsible for my wanting more issues of The Comic Reader. Over the years I’ve managed to accumulate a large portion of The Comic Reader's 200+ issue run, from the earliest mimeographed three-page-long letters, to future DC Comics head honcho Paul Levitz's tenure as editor, to the tiny digests of the ’70s…and each issue providing an insight into the fan's perspective of comics events of the day. As a historical document, it's both fascinating and amusing to see what concerns drove fandom at the time. The fans worrying about, say, violence in comics in 1972, probably would have had heart attacks if they knew what was coming!
Ultimately, I owe a lot to The Comics Reader #212, for how it formed my comic tastes and collecting goals, and showed me a new way of thinking about comics discussion and criticism. It probably wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that it’s even an influence today on my comics blog. And that’s the bittersweet thing…the day of the general-purpose print comics fanzine in the style of The Comic Reader is good and gone, replaced by websites and blogs. Even the most successful comics magazine of recent years, Wizard, is a shadow of its former, pandering, price-guide slinging self. Not saying I don’t love comic news sites and blogs, since, you know, I’m relatively involved in that particular scene…but there’s a bit of sadness in the realization that no one’s going to happen upon an old dusty website in a box in a used bookstore twenty years from now, and discover what comic fans were thinking and doing way back when. Sure, there are web archive sites, but that’s not quite the same…and no guarantee that they’ll be around decades from now anyway.
Anyway, thank you, The Comic Reader #212. You’ve affected my life in many ways, most of them probably good.
Mike Sterling manages Ralph’s Comic Corner in Ventura, CA, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year! He writes about comics at the long-running and generally not-hated weblog Mike Sterling’s Progressive Ruin, vents some steam on his Twitter, is on staff at The Bureau Chiefs, and is a contributor to the Internet sensation Fake AP Stylebook (soon to be a real book from Three Rivers Press). His XBox Live gamertag is “MikesterJr,” if you’d like to shoot him in the face in Grand Theft Auto IV.
I certainly didn’t need any more non-Eisner Spirit comics, but as long as DC puts them in the hands of talented creators, I’ll take a look. In this case, we have Mark Schultz, whose work I used to love on his Xenozoic Tales, though I can’t really recall anything after that, and we have Moritat, of Elephantmen. That’s a good start.
This is the first issue of the First Wave line of pulpy heroes, spinning out of the Brian Azzarello-written miniseries that has only released one issue so far. Odd scheduling. Here we have Central City as a corrupt hellhole where archfiend The Octopus rules with…eight figurative iron tentacles, I guess. Police Chief Dolan is scared to act, losing the respect of his crusading daughter Ellen. The only man willing to stand up against the criminals is The Spirit. He’s kind of an insouciant Batman, driven but droll, shaking down crooks for tips, or gathering info in disguise, striking blows against The Octopus’ operations without seeming to have any real overall plan. The bad guys do, though, sending for European assassin Angel Smerti, a deadly femme fatale.
All this is pretty well in line with Eisner’s Spirit strip, aside from the corruption and general lack of humor. Moritat doesn’t have a great handle on Spirit’s face, but otherwise finds a good balance between modern and ’40s fashions, buildings and cars, and colorist Gabriel Bautista adds some great touches, like a convincing morning haze over the city. The fight sequence where the six panels spelled S-P-I-R-I-T was also done well, though no doubt done before. I also really liked how Moritat clearly drew everything. The city is from scratch, and every building’s contours clearly display the blessed imperfection of human hands instead of photoreferencing. He does a lot of nice work here, although the last page splash of Angel Smerti looks awkward, a group of body parts that don’t quite fit together. A respectable updating, not tremendously fun but enjoyable. There’s also a black-and-white backup story by O’Neil/Sienkiewicz involving two criminal brothers who’ve been estranged for years when one sold the other out. It’s a modest effort for O’Neil but not bad. Sienkiewicz makes a welcome return to interior pencils/inks but for every great panel there’s one that’s just plain confusing, killing the momentum. I like the b&w backup idea from past Batman books used here, though.
Guardians of the Galaxy #25
Writers - Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning
Artist - Brad Walker
I like to pick up a semi-random comic now and then. Somewhere I’d heard this series was pretty good and filed that away, not exactly believing it. So this this issue proudly proclaims itself as the lead-in to The Thanos Imperative, so I figured it’d be a good jump-on point. And I suppose it is, as Abnett/Lanning throw a lot of exposition in there even in addition to the recap page. The exposition comes from a handful of similar-sounding characters, while there’s also a sarcastic, cowardly/pragmatic guy on the team for comic relief, and a huge, strong, dumb guy named Groot for fighting and a little more comic relief. I liked him best because his head looks like an uprooted tree and he didn’t talk as much as everyone else.
I was wondering why there were so many characters, and as the story went on I learned that a couple other teammates had already died in previous issues, so now I get this series: cosmic Suicide Squad, although the team is made up not of supervillains but every ’70s space-faring character Marvel has to offer, from the forgettable (the entire original Guardians), Star-Lord, Rocket Raccoon (yes), Gamora, to always irritating Moondragon and Mantis, plus semi-charming Drax the Destroyer and the aforementioned treeface guy, Groot. I coulda sworn I saw Killraven in the crowd, too.
All those characters makes for some slow going—the issue was mainly just a prolonged fight (everyone taking turns) with a naked, grunty Thanos alternating with all the timestream exposition bullshit. Walker’s got a clean style but isn’t asked to do much here but stage the long and tedious fight. I didn’t think it was bad but can’t come up with much to recommend it.
The Brave & The Bold #33
Writer - J. Michael Straczynski
Artist - Cliff Chiang
Now this is a series I hadn’t heard good things about since JMS started writing it. I can’t speak for his prior issues, but this one’s pretty good, for the most part a very lightweight girls night out kind of story with Zatanna and Wonder Woman trying to show Batgirl a good time. Obviously it’s a past story, as this Batgirl is Barbara Gordon. I won’t spoil it, although it ends up more serious than it starts. It reads quite a bit like something Paul Dini would write, although I think he’d stay away from, well, again, I’d better not spoil it. Chiang’s work is always worth checking out, and he provides very clean, well-proportioned takes on the heroines. All this and a case of mistaken lesbianism. What’s not to like?
As I’ve often written, Comic Book Galaxy has gone through many changes over the years. As we approach our tenth anniversary (on September 1st), I want to look back at some of the highlights of the site’s history. For me, one of the greatest moments was co-writing The Conversation with TWC co-editor Christopher Allen.
We only did three of them, but we had a blast writing them. Here they are:
Part One: Morrison, Moore and The Mainstream’s Inventors and Ingrates. Part Two: The CrossGen Post-Mortem. Part Three: Galactic Navel-Gazing.
That last piece finds us trolling through our memories of the earliest days of Comic Book Galaxy, an exercise in hubris, perhaps, but man, there’s a lot of memories there.
I hope you enjoy taking a look at some of these pieces, and I’m going to try to dig up some other hidden gems in the Galaxy archives as we get closer to the big 1-0.
In September, Comic Book Galaxy will have existed for ten years. We’ve gone through four or five incarnations, but currently the site mainly serves as a gateway to my ADD Blog and the group blog Trouble with Comics, which I co-edit with Christopher Allen.
Looking at our main page, I realize that the site is very desperately in need of an overhaul, one that unifies all our various incarnations and allows easy access to all the great contributions we’ve hosted over the past ten years.
But until that happens, I thought it might be good to provide you with a post that gives you links to the most content-heavy pages on the site.
On the interviews page, you’ll find links to transcripts of many interviews conducted by myself and other folks over the years. There are also a handful of audio interviews that you can download on MP3 and enjoy at your leisure.
If you click some of these links, I think you’ll be surprised just how much writing has been archived over the years at Comic Book Galaxy. I wish I had the time and resources to better aggregate it all into one central (and easily used) location, but in the meantime, this post will have to do. I hope you’ll poke around and hopefully find some good writing you’ve never read before.
Guest Reviewer Month: Timothy Callahan on Nemesis #1
Millar & McNiven’s Nemesis #1
Published by Marvel/Icon Writer: Mark Millar Artist: Steve McNiven Colorist: Dave McCaig Letterer: Chris Eliopoulos Cover: Lucio Parrillo Cover Price: $2.99 Release Date: 3/24/10
You have to admire Mark Millar’s audacity.
No, really, you have to admire it. It’s a requirement. He forces it upon you, whether you like it or not.
Here he is with Millar & McNiven’s Nemesis #1 — yes, that is the official title — and not only does it feature his name at the top, it has the same branding as Wanted and Kick-Ass, the same blocky white font on a field of black, the same “screw all y’all” attitude. Millar’s so sassy that he uses a tagline on the cover of the first issue that mocks his previous series, “Makes Kick-Ass Look Like S#!T,” it reads. Of course, it’s not genuine mockery, it’s just Millar’s way of reminding people that he is, in fact, responsible for Kick-Ass, the movie that’s due to come out around the same time as this completely unrelated comic. “By the writer of ‘Kick-Ass,’” would be a more appropriate label, but that would be lame. Not edgy. Not Millaresque.
This is, after all, a comic that features a character shooting Uzis from atop a speeding Porsche on the cover.
So you know it has to be cool. Who doesn’t like Uzis? Or Porsches? Or dudes with masks and capes?
It’s like the Amazing Stories episode about the kid who had some magic gloop that would make pictures come to life, and he started spreading it around on girly magazines and cheesecake posters. That’s what Millar did to the posters in his adolescent bedroom, and this is the comic that was born.
But that doesn’t mean I didn’t like this comic.
Millar hyped this series, in his early interviews, as a kind of “What if Batman were the Joker?” or “What if Batman was a dude who wore white and went around killing people and Commissioner Gordon was like a super-cop who matched wits with this white-clad maniac?” He’s backed off that kind of talk in the months since, because, well, it’s a comic published by Marvel’s Icon imprint, and nobody likes a lawsuit. (Except lawyers, and if Millar were a lawyer, he would have advised himself not to say the things he says about his comics ripping off other comics.)
And Millar also hyped this series as one of those “simple idea that no one’s ever thought of before” comics, like Kick-Ass, which was such an original idea that it traveled back in time and made Wild Dog forget it ever existed. But while Millar & McNiven’s Nemesis may not actually be that original — the entire character of the Crime Syndicate’s “Owlman” is based on the “What if Batman were evil?” premise, as I’m far from the first to point out — this opening issue has a purity to it. It’s primal. And, yes, it’s simple.
But simple isn’t bad. And at least it has verve. It has an attitude about itself. It can’t help it, it’s a Mark Millar comic.
The story starts with “Player One: Tokyo,” and it’s a game from the very first page. Nemesis (a villain who looks like a Batman in white, minus the ears, but he’s totally not an evil Batman, because that would be a copyright violation) holds the Tokyo police chief hostage, blows up some buildings, and runs a train off some tracks. That’s after the train plasters the chief’s body parts all over its front nose. It’s brutal and violent and establishes that Nemesis is (a) evil, (b) really evil, and (c) so evil it hurts.
Contrast that with “Player Two: Washington,” with the introduction of super-awesome Chief Morrow who blows away some “crack-heads” who have apparently decided to hold up a supermarket that looks like a video store from the parking lot. Morrow’s like the Punisher crossed with Clint Eastwood and James Bond, but as a police chief.
And he’s destined to be Nemesis’s nemesis.
But first, Nemeis jumps on top of Air Force One (in flight), shoots the pilots in the face, takes control of the plane, and lands it on the city streets — I don’t know what city it’s supposed to be, since the in-story cues would signify Washington D. C. but it doesn’t look like Washington and there’s a “petrol” truck that, inevitably, gets blown up. Nemesis has taken the president hostage, and the final page of the issue shows the battered commander-in-chief on his knees, with Nemesis on a white throne behind him, re-enacting a bizarro version of the “Smell the Glove” cover shoot.
If this sounds like a ridiculous comic book, well, it is. But it’s also pure comics.
It’s pure comics in that way that people use the term “comic book” in a derogatory fashion, as in “that movie is so cliché, so broad, it’s like a comic book.” Sure, that’s an insult if you’re looking for depth and subtlety. But if you’re looking for archetypal characters doing ridiculous things, then comic books are a great place to look. Especially superhero comics. Especially ones written by Mark Millar.
This comic is a pretty blatant movie pitch — Millar has positioned himself so that everything he does is a blatant movie pitch at this point — and it’s almost entirely drawn in widescreen panels by Steve McNiven (who, absent Dexter Vines on the inks, doesn’t look quite as good as he usually does), but, as a movie pitch, it makes a good comic book. It doesn’t tell it’s story in scenes. Instead, it uses images. This doesn’t have the substance of a movie, even a big dumb action movie. The manic pace of issue #1, properly filmed, would take about five minutes of screen time. It would be hostage-train-explosion-splat-gunshots-exposition-airplane-hijack-President-as-hostage back to back to back. It’s a music video on fast forward.
That kind of pacing works well in a comic book, when each still panel can freeze the image and give us just the highlights. But a movie would have to show everything that happens between the panels. In other words, the boring stuff.
This comic doesn’t have time for the boring stuff. It gives you the minimum of characterization — Morrow is “Oprah’s favorite cop,” bam, that’s all you need to know — and it doesn’t even try to capture any details of life as we know it. This is pure comics, in the way that Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit was pure comics. In the way that Frank Miller and Todd McFarlane’s Spawn/Batman was pure comics. In the way that Gardner Fox and Howard Sherman’s Dr. Fate was pure comics.
Millar & McNiven’s Nemesis #1 may look like a comic from today, but it’s a throwback to simpler times. When comics were about shooting and punching and blowing up stuff. And they didn’t aspire to be anything else. They just wanted to get your attention for a few minutes before you moved on to something more important, like filling out your tax returns or riding our bike to the corner store to buy a handful of penny candy.
Timothy Callahan is the author of Grant Morrison: The Early Years and edited the recent Teenagers from the Future. His column When Words Collide appears weekly at Comic Book Resources.
A fable set in the early 1900s in an Eastern Europe shtetl, Market Day finds rugmaker Mendleman taking his finely crafted rugs by donkey to market. Though still a young man, he has settled into a comfortable artisanal routine: Observe nature and draw ideas for rugs from it; make rugs in solitude and without interference, with personal expression and high quality the main goals; sell the rugs on Market Day to your appreciative patron, Finkler. But because comfortable routines don’t make for good stories, it’s obvious from the moment Mendleman leaves his house that something is going to be different about this Market Day.
The day begins well enough. Although his ruminations on the trip to market are fraught with anxiety over providing for his wife and child and what horrors might befall them if he wasn’t around, once Mendleman gets to town he is nearly intoxicated by the sights, sounds and smells of the market after his period of solitary labor. It’s obvious that the camaraderie and easy good humor Mendleman enters into with two fellow artisans is one of his favorite parts of Market Day, the timeless bullshitting and ball-busting men experience with each other part of the familiar ritual that leads them to their patron, Finkler, who sells only the highest quality wares and who has pushed the young rugmaker to raise his level of quality in order to be saleable. Mendleman has, then, come to think of Finkler not merely as his customer but as a combination of boss and father figure: he needs to please the man to make money for his family (moreso now that his wife is due to give birth any day now), but he also wants to please him. So when he and his comrades find that Finkler has suddenly and mysteriously sold the business to a young relative and left town, Mendleman feels not just his work routine broken but a deep loss. Sturm spends the rest of the book following Mendleman’s crisis. The proud refusal to sell cheap to the new purveyor is fine for his friends, but he can’t afford to make that choice, and so we witness his desperate journey to sell his merchandise to whoever will pay for it and at a fraction of what he had expected to get when the day began. Again he finds comfort and camaraderie with other men, commiserating over their lots and getting drunk, another timeless ritual, before he eventually must make his way home.
I didn’t mean to summarize so many of the plot points, but I honestly was enjoying spending some more time with the book. There is a meditative, calming quality to a period story like this, spare in text and paced with Old World tempo of footsteps and the creak of the donkey cart. Sturm is very good at slowing the reader down with panels rich in texture to take in. He draws vistas with thick lines and minimal clutter a la Seth, when it suits the story to do so, gets more detailed to indicate the varied activities of the crowd, and always spots his blacks extremely well to convey the seriousness of Mendleman’s situation, the darkness of his mental state.
Color is now a part of Sturm’s toolkit, earth tones naturally dominant, given the setting, the browns and olive changing to yellow variants to heighten physical action or express a moment of hope or the kindness of a stranger. Sturm shows little sympathy for the merchants, but the working men on the street are the salt of the Earth and have to stick together.
I was surprised to learn that Market Day began in Sturm’s mind as a children’s book, given how bleak and hopeless it seems. The ambiguous ending suggests Mendleman may sell his loom and abandon his art entirely, but a second reading, and careful study of the brighter colors suggests that after a night to sleep on it, he may rebound, maybe a little less naive. I guess I have to give Sturm credit for not being too obvious about it, but on the other hand, the book was depressing enough on the first read that I was reluctant to give it another go.
Although camaraderie among men is a common theme in Sturm’s work, so is religion, and so it was unusually absent here, although it’s quite possible that that was Sturm’s intention. When Mendleman exits his home, the mezuza swings from the motion of the door, a possible suggestion that God is involved and maybe testing Mendleman, or alternately, that once Mendleman left the house, he left behind God’s protection. Either way, Mendleman gives little thought to God, even when he meets the rabbi, and when he is at his lowest, he doesn’t blame God, although he does seek guidance from another source, a fortune-teller. Perhaps this is another sign of how lost he is.
Beyond the pleasures of trying to root out symbols and religious themes, there are enough good things here (great drawing, sensitive coloring, tension, unusual setting, well-placed humor to make Mendleman more accessible) that the following may be nitpicking. However, I was a little confused by some of the choices, such as Mendleman picturing sperm surrounding an egg, or his medical journal-style imagining of his own full bladder—would a common man in those days have known what these things looked like? Likewise, although his speech is simple, in Mendlebaum’s narration he uses words like “furtively” and “respite” that seem too educated for a rural artisan. If Sturm was Mendleman, and certainly there are some parallels for an artist bringing his new book to market, I as Finkler might have told him to take some of the fancy, distracting threads out of his rug. But these are minor blemishes on what is otherwise an impressive, involving work made with great care.
Guest Reviewer Month - Bob Levin on Sitting Shiva for Myself
The fact we have a writer of Bob Levin’s stature agreeing to provide a review is due to his kindness and a “it can’t hurt to ask” attitude that I’ve carried through my life with a success rate of maybe 52%. Levin is not really a critic; he’s a journalist whose subject is primarily outsider cartoonists, those who have flouted conventions, rules and even copyright laws (or worse, depending on one’s verdict after reading Most Outrageous, his examination of the life, career and sexual abuse case against Hustler cartoonist Dwayne (“Chester the Molester”) Tinsley). I came to his work first through The Pirates and The Mouse: Disney’s War Against the Counterculture and felt it was an important effort because in my admittedly incomplete experience there hadn’t been many books about cartoonists that were very serious, that had a strong journalistic voice while credibly establishing their subject within the world around them. What was around was fun but fannish, or deadly dull. Levin has a sly wit that shows his allegiance to his subjects. He doesn’t glorify them or necessarily agree with their choices of windmills at which to tilt, but it’s clear there is rebellion in his heart. You get a small example of that in Most Outrageous, when pleads guilty to writing under the influence of Faulkner, or even here, where he offers a review not of a comic book or graphic novel, but of a collection of feuilletons, which he helpfully defines below. Dig the “Who…” paragraph, as he arrives at his own tumbling storytelling rhythm. It’s a great change of pace from his usual male obsessives, not that I can get enough of them.
Pretty as a Picture
When Christopher Allen asked me to contribute a review, my initial thoughts were: (1) I don’t have time; (2) when I do have time, my loyalties are to The Comics Journal; (3) I don’t read many comics or graphic novels; and (4) anyway, reviews aren’t my thing. I believed that list damn convincing. But he’d said nice things about my work, and when your sales figures are dwarfed by Sarah Palin’s dog’s manicurist’s memoirs, you need all the allies in the media you can get.. So I thought I’d review Eric Haven’s Aviatrix,which I meant to read anyway; but, literally, one moment later, I clicked from e-mail to The Comics Reporter, and there was Tom Spurgeon doing a better job than I could ever imagine. (While I hesitate to speak for the Almighty, it sure looked like He was agreeing with me.) Then I had another idea. What if I reviewed the first non-graphic comic? Whatever, Chris (more or less) said.
At least, identifying the FNGC wouldn’t require heavy time in the archives since, as far as I knew, I’d just invented the classification. (If Marcel Duchamp could transform a snow shovel into art by declaring one to be such, I felt no shame in creating my own genre.) And since I had beside my bed a book I wanted to plug – Sitting Shiva for Myself (Regent Press. $12.95), by Renee Blitz, the lap-swimmer at my pool with whom I have discussed Kafka – I figured why let the absence of any glyphic pen strokes forestall me from offing the proverbial dual birds.
The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. It seemed so datedly un-POMO, so small-minded and discriminatory to be a prisoner of such arbitrariness as “comic book” or “novel,” or “mischung der Werbetrager.” In TCJ 300, no less a personage than Art Spiegelman, who has thought about comics as much as anyone, offers his belief that they should “deliver either an emotional charge… or a really new idea…”; and, really, isn’t that what any form of artistic expression is after? When the words alone can’t provide the jolt, pictures may help; but if the words can deliver the juice, why should doodles or Rembrandt be required? And in Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud kvells about the collaboration that occurs between medium and audience in the “space” between the panels, and if space is so blinking important, why rely on other people’s pictures to fill it? Readers who work their own imaginations will get all the wattage they desire by applying them to what goes on between – or above – Blitz’s feuilletons.
Which, Webster’s Ninth Collegiate tells us, are short literary compositions of “familiar tone and reminiscent content.” (Wikipedia adds they are usually reflective, humorous, ironic, and, while focused “on cultural… social and moral issues,” “extremely subjective in their conclusions.”) In “Shiva,” Blitz offers one hundred of the ironic, subjective little buggers in one hundred eighteen pages. Think of them as panels, with words-to-image relationships slightly more than those of Al Feldstein. Think of a narrative no less plotted than Martin Vaughn-James’s The Cage, a recognized illustrated masterpiece, against whose walls I am still banging my head, trying to dislodge the sense within them.
Most of Blitz’s feuilletons are written in the first person. The narrator is usually a woman. (Those written in the third person are usually about a woman. Those that are narrated by or are about a man usually concern his relationship with a woman.) These women, nearly always unnamed, share enough characteristics that it is not irrational to think of them as the same. (If you are with me in accepting the feuilletons as panels, think of them as having been drawn by an unsteady hand, as, for example, Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s wavering versions of herself.) The woman is usually (if not always) Jewish. She is usually in her seventies, alone, with two (or three) ex-husbands, discarded for their lack of tenderness or beauty or humor, or for fucking her best friend or not washing before bed. She has an adult daughter (or two) who displeases her for one reason or another – drugs, Jesus, radical lesbianism, the grievances against her they still carry, like snails their shells. She is from New York, a family of leftist butchers and furriers, and has attended Hunter College, when she was hot and young and still displayed the possibility of brilliance. She lives in Berkeley, has had no career, may write. She has (sometimes) a schizophrenic daughter who resides in Section Eight housing and smears feces on its walls. She has (sometimes) an adored dog which shits on the four corners of the white towel on the bathroom floor. She has been in psychoanalysis for five (or seven) years. She eats chocolate croissants, deep fried egg rolls, Twinkies, Snickers, salami sandwiches, instead of crucifers and green leafy vegetables. She is seen at home in a soiled, flannel nightgown, shredded house slippers, old, smelly robe, walking back and forth,” kvetching oy veh.”
Who, when she needs a housekeeper, hires an ex-Thai streetwalker, who may or may not steal her Fieldcrest linen. Who, desiring companionship, invites into her home the entire One World Indignant Family commune, which had, for political reasons, split from the One World Happy Family commune. (It does not work out.) Who, during a psychic reading, hears her husband in the next room cracking chicken bones with his teeth, sucking out the marrow. Who visits a doctor who seems to practice “obnoxious behavior,” not internal medicine. Who hears “the sounds of death coming out of the walls at 3:30 a.m.” Who recalls herself as “a sad young girl, apart, out on a limb, too young for mourning, in my own dream of childhood, my own teddy bear dream of toy drums and erasers, peppermint sticks and love.” Who believes conversation is “only there in the first place to charm, delight, enchant, open the portals away from self-disgust, wretchedness, rancidity.” Who, “watching the time of day go by on the livingroom walls,” thinks “ no one wants to talk about that… Maybe Marcel Proust, but he’s French, they talk about anything.” Who reports herself “traumatized by sight seeing”; unable to know if she has seen the right things and had the right thoughts, she fears that if she “told someone what my good time was, they would run from me, hilarious.” Who asks herself “what have you learned in a lifetime of reading, thinking, conversation, hanging on the phone with mere acquaintances for hours, 1000 Buddhist Sermons on Nothingness, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and your subscription to The New Yorker which, by the way, has run out and needs renewing.” Who instructs us “if you want to write, just remember… no describe, no explain, no narrate, yes to ambiance yes to music, only an impression, no certainty, elusive, disappearing like the Cheshire Cat, like life.”
Sometimes, my wife Adele, the psychoanalytic critic formerly known to my readers as “Ruth Delhi,” says, when dialogue between the characters takes over these pieces, it is impossible to tell who is speaking. Differences break down. Boundaries dissolve. You feel the need each person has for the other – wife and husband, mother and daughter – despite the horrors accrued between them. Having the relationship is better than the alternative – is preferable to the void. Blitz is, Adele believes, “a genius at what she does.”
But what about pictures, you ask. Well, what about “those beat-up middle aged Japanese waitresses tortured by failed love, their black mascara bleeding onto their anguished faces, black hair coiffed in the Japanese manner, red kimonos with huge redflower giant-size poisonous poppy petals open to the ultimate swoon of death, vulvas choking into your throat, everything working together, the sash, the cummerbund, the little flapping pack on their tush running with small feet”? What about the woman with “the rigors of age upon me, the dowager’s hump, the turkey neck, no waistline, flab all over,” hiding in a blanket, trying to conceal herself with red silk panties from the inquiring eyes of her ex-husband’s other ex-wife’s teenage daughter, detailed by her mother to reassure her of the narrator’s decrepitude? Hey, they’re there in blinking black-and-white.
In Shiva Blitz circles sorrow, peaks beneath its covers, measures it, pinches the flesh between its ribs, embraces it, yet resists its call to utter despair. One laughs at the grotesques she reveals at the same time one winces. One is delighted by the rhythm of her sentences, the flash of her ideas, as they pound like nails into one’s foot. She has compressed the ordinary within her vise to highlight life’s irreducible absurd. She has polished the commonplace with sparkling language and dissonant punctuation and Thelonious Monk’s angular glide. She has turned her lyrical ear to loneliness, her anointing eye to grief.
Blitz’s book has been self-published. Until now, as far as I or Google know, it has gone unreviewed. She has been solicited to give no readings. Yet I recommend Shiva highly. Blitz is a profound artist – serious, unique – giving us her best. Check it out. Books without pictures – BOP! POW! – they aren’t just for egg-headed intellectuals any more.
Anti-Semitic literary critics of fin-de-siecle Europe found the form well-suited for Jews, whom, they believed, lacked the capacity to fully analyze and deeply understand the world. And how could we, asked Blitz in one of our conversations. Being locked out, how could we understand the world’s truth and meaning?
Bob Levin is the author of The Best Ride to New York (novel), Fully Armed (biographic fiction), The Pirates and the Mouse (non-fiction), Outlaws, Rebels, Pirates, Freethinkers & Pornographers (essays), and Most Outrageous (non-fiction). His short stories and articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including Massachusetts Review, Carolina Quarterly, Karamu, Spin, New Republic, and Cavalier. His writings have won awards from Pushcart Press, CCLM, the San Francisco Bar Association, and the NEA. He is a long time contributing writer to The Comics Journal.
How long does it take most people to realize that a relationship is no longer working?
I mean a relationship that used to have some meaning — a relationship that shared laughs, thrills and wonder; a relationship that saw both parties grow and change and yet still respect and enjoy one another; a relationship that once had so much going for it.
How long does it take before someone shouts, “Damnit, get me the hell out of here!!”
Or, to put it in a perspective that we can all understand, how long does it take a comic collector to resist the compulsive and near-irresistible need to have a ‘complete set’ and stop collecting a series?
Well, for me it’s taken four years.
Or, to express it in comic book terms, it has been forty-one issues and two specials. Therefore it has taken me exactly forty-three issues in total before I called it quits.
That’s how long it’s taken me to realize that I’m finished with the superhero satire called The Boys.
And for me it’s particularly sad because writer Garth Ennis and I used to have such a wonderful relationship.
I first encountered Ennis via John Constantine. And then the relationship continued with The Demon, Hitman and Preacher.
When Ennis arrived on the North American comic scene he displayed an amazing ability to craft tales filled with wildly obscene ideas but still balance those elements with compassion and camaraderie between his characters.
Preacher would have Arseface and the in-bred descendent of Jesus Christ (the latter well before Dan Brown’s much prettier heroine in The DaVinci Code) balanced with the passion between Jesse and Tulip and their difficult, complicated friendship with the vampire Cassidy.
Hitman had the Ace of Killers, Baytor and zombie zoo animals balanced with Tommy’s relationship with Tiegel and all the guys at Noohan’s Bar.
And in Hellblazer Ennis wrote about the political evils of London, the demons of Hell and a cancer-ridden Constantine — complete with him giving Satan the finger — but balanced it all with the surprisingly poignant relationship between John and Kit.
It was his run on Hellblazer that displayed how masterful Ennis was in his ability to juggle various bizarre and violent storylines with characters who had strong friendships and romances. Before Ennis took over the series, Constantine oozed with swagger and attitude, but Ennis introduced a vulnerability to the character than hadn’t been seen previously. He was still a bastard and was perfectly described when he was told, “You’re a man who inspires the maximum loyalty for the minimum effort” and yet he was surrounded by people who, no matter how awful and dangerous he could be, would still call him a friend. And it was this theme of friendship and its rewards and challenges that would be constant throughout Ennis’ best work.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about Ennis’ popularity is that he managed to gain mainstream recognition without writing a bestselling superhero comic book. The whole notion of Infinite Invasions or a Secret Siege Crisis is alien to Ennis’ style of writing. When Green Lantern or Batman made an appearance in Hitman it was as if the heroes were intruding on Tommy and his friends. And when Superman guest-starred it was a tale told with a uniquely Ennis perspective (the two characters sat on a rooftop and chatted about what Superman means to America) and earned Ennis and artist John McCrea that year’s Eisner for Best Single Issue.
The cornerstone of many of Ennis’ stories consisted of characters simply chatting with each other. They would be funny, strange and wondrous in their conversations. Their stories could be macabre and disgusting, but the characters would be so interesting that it made for compelling reading.
It was an amazing high wire act that few other writers have been able to achieve, but with The Boys it seems like Ennis has lost his ability to balance these elements and has finally come crashing to the ground.
The Boys is (supposedly) a satire of superhero comic books and in the crooked mirror that Ennis is holding we see how twisted and deprived superheroes would be if they existed in the real world. And in the process Ennis gets to mock the X-Men, Justice League, Legion of Super-Heroes and other superhero groups and their clichés.
Because Ennis wrote some of my favorite books, I was initially enthusiastic about this project. His work at Marvel with The Punisher left me cold, but with this book I saw an opportunity for him to work without the restraints of a corporate editor. And when DC/Wildstorm let the book go to another publisher because of its controversial nature, it was an opportunity for Ennis to do whatever he wanted in the series.
And perhaps that is the book’s greatest problem: an unrestrained Ennis is not necessarily a good thing.
It was the mini-series Herogasm that was the first hint that things weren’t working in our relationship. It was a six issue series that had the world’s superheroes faking an interstellar crisis so they could all retreat to a hotel to do drugs and have tons and tons of sex. (And, wow, doesn’t the story sound crass and immature when it’s described that way?)
Issue two actually broke my comic collecting habit: it was early in the issue when two of the prostitutes who had been hired to service the superheroes are talking in a swimming pool. One points over to the other and informs her that she’s bleeding and it’s probably due to all the super-sexual pounding she has been forced to endure. The hooker quickly leaves the pool and does not make another appearance in the series.
I have to assume that the scene was supposed to be a comment on how cruel these so-called ‘heroes’ could be, but at that point I stopped reading the issue and didn’t even bother to buy the rest of the mini-series. I saw no reason to keep reading a story that was on the same level of sophistication as a community theatre production of Showgirls.
But, because of the long relationship Ennis and I share, I persevered with the regular series. I hoped that Ennis had merely strayed off the path with the mini-series. Herogasm was crude and over the top, but I trusted that there would be a more steady hand in the on-going book.
Back at the regular series, the back story of the main characters was slowly unfolding. In comic book terms, he was telling their secret origins. And, after revealing how one of the characters earned his codename, it is then illustrated that to comfort himself he hires hookers and, after having sex, he pays them extra so he can suckle on their breasts — hence the character’s name, “Mother’s Milk”. And there, in living color, we get to watch a grown man nurse on the breast of a prostitute.
For me, after the disappointment of Herogasm, that was strike two.
The final straw occurred in issue #41. One of the heroes explains in graphic detail why he was kicked off his last superteam: he’s a shape-shifter, he wanted to have sex with the leader’s girl friend and so he impersonated him.
The character continues, “Trouble was, she’d never tried anal before. And she ended up liking it quite a bit. So the next time she’s in the sack with the real him, it’s ‘Oooh, do me like you did last night’… and… well. One thing led to another.”
The other character then sarcastically responds, “That’s a lovely story.”
And for me, that was it. Strike three. I’m done. I’m outta here.
Do I really need to read an anecdote about a character impersonating someone and then tricking someone else into having anal sex? Or see a grown man breastfeeding himself with a prostitute? Or read about two prostitutes as they about how insensitive and dangerous (super) johns can be?
I realize that those three examples are little throwaway bits and are insignificant in the grand scheme of the story — but that is exactly what makes them so annoying.
Preacher is populated with a quirky cast of characters with twisted stories and fetishes (the ghost of John Wayne, the astronaut-wannabe who wrote “Fuck You” to the heavens, Odin Quincannon and his love of meat), but there is an overriding theme in the book that the three main characters were trying to find some good – good within themselves, in their friends, in the world. The appeal of that series, and perhaps Ennis’ greatest ability as a writer, is that no matter how weird, violent or fucked-up it all might get, there was always the possibility of acceptance, forgiveness and even redemption.
But I can see none of that in The Boys.
Perhaps by the end of the series (which Ennis says will probably run to sixty issues) there will be some payoff that will have made the journey worthwhile. But I can’t stick around for another twenty issues. Not when he’s asking me to wade through so much puerile and pointless trash.
It is strange to note how Hellblazer, Hitman and Preacher (now all more than ten years old) all read as if they were written by a more experienced writer when compared to his most current work. Ennis once used to push the envelope with his storytelling, but now his stories read like they were written by a self-indulgent frat boy who marvels at the crudeness he creates and can’t wait to show all his friends how naughty he has been.
The Boys is the story of superheroes who are unrestrained in their hungers, ambitions and depravities. Their existence makes the world an ugly and dangerous place. They do unspeakable damage and must be stopped.
And with issue #41 that’s just want I am going to do.
Guest Reviewer Month - Grant Goggans on Charley's War
I like Grant Goggans’ taste, and envy his cool, alliterative name. I also like his writing, which is always clean and efficient, “simple and spoiler-free,” as he says at the beginning of every review. But while Goggans does a bang-up job reviewing just about anything, I most enjoy his reviews of British comics from the ’70s to today. You want to know the best Judge Dredd collection to start with? Check Grant’s blog. Doctor Who? The blog. And hey, you ever heard of this great black-and-white war comic called Charley’s War?
The saddest scene I’ve ever seen in a comic comes when a young soldier loses his best friend to the Germans, and, shellshocked, spends a few heartbreaking panels finding the words to tell an insensitive miltary policeman what it is that he’s carrying. It’s a pivotal scene from Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s Charley’s War, and if you can read it without a lump rising to your throat, then that’s all the evidence needed that you’re a soulless vampire, in need of a stake through the heart.
Charley’s War debuted in December, 1978, in the 200th issue of Battle Picture Weekly, and immediately made a statement that it was going to be a bold and challenging read. As we’ll see, Battle never shied away from controversial characters or issues, but World War One had proven itself a very unpopular subject for adventure-oriented comic strips, and the story’s launch saw the artist Joe Colquhoun removed from Johnny Red, the book’s most popular feature for the previous two years. The easiest decision for Battle's editors would have been keeping Colquhoun on the existing, proven success, rather than putting him on something so radically different.
Battle was launched by the publisher IPC in 1975 and was, from its outset, unlike any comic that Britain’s newsstands had ever seen, mixing hard-hitting war stories with achingly believable characters. True, features with haughty antiheroes were nothing new; in the mid-sixties, characters like the Spider, the Steel Claw and Janus Stark were thrilling young readers by either working outside the law or in opposition to it. There were exceptions, like the square-jawed, heroic, indestructible Tim Kelly, but he seemed to be outnumbered by all the dark and macabre protagonists of these stories. Dollman, a super-genius who controlled dozens of robots, might have been a good guy, but he was also badly needing a padded cell.
None of these offbeat characters, however, operated during wartime. British adventure strips, regardless of who published them, could have been set anywhere and in any time and featured any kind of oddball antihero, but prior to Battle, you could be guaranteed that a wartime protagonist would be a flawless patriot, valiantly defending Britain from the Hun. It took publishers until 1975 to try out characters who weren’t acting as role models during the war. The Rat Pack was made up of four convicts, any of whom might have gone AWOL with stolen Nazi gold at any opportunity. Major Eazy was so laid back and disrespectful to his commanding officers that he routinely drew letters of complaint from outraged kids. Joe Darkie, operating an illegal guerrilla war in Burma, would routinely murder any pressganged Tommy who disagreed with him. Johnny Red was drummed out of flight school after accidentally killing a commanding officer and began his strip swabbing decks on a merchant marine ship, Even the comparatively upright, role-model-type Bootneck Boy spent all of his stories ferretting out black marketers and bloodthirsty American soldiers.
Battle, therefore, knocked convention and expectations for a complete loop. It was a huge success and made D.C. Thomson’s rival paper, Warlord, look stilted and dull by comparison. Yet even with its willingness to challenge young readers by presenting morally shady protagonists, there’s still an underlying respect for the people who act heroically, and a clear antagonist for them in the Nazis. War isn’t glamorized, but it’s shown, believably, as a necessary evil.
Charley’s War was the first strip to stand up and say that actually, it isn’t even necessary, either. It was an emphatic, pointed attack on the establishment that permitted and enabled the chaos. Certainly, including anti-war themes in comics wasn’t a radically new approach - Harvey Kurtzman’s Frontline Combat had taken a similar viewpoint almost 25 years earlier - but Charley’s War took it to new levels for an ongoing strip with regular characters, especially one with characters as sympathetic and wonderful as these.
In the strip’s first episode, we’re introduced to Charley Bourne, a poorly-educated Londoner, sixteen years old, who decides to lie about his age and enlist. This puts him in the front lines just a few weeks before the Battle of the Somme. From there, it’s an exciting, heartbreaking look at life in the trenches, with missions into No Man’s Land punctuated by gas attacks, new technology, cowardly officers, ratcatching, squalor, despair, mud and, somehow, a little optimism and hope.
Bourne’s world is realized by some of the very best art that any war comic has ever been fortunate enough to see. Joe Colquhoun captures everything in his pages, filling his backgrounds with the intricate details of the trenches. There are absolutely no shortcuts in Colquhoun’s compositions; every panel is just packed densely with linework. Nor did Colquhoun ever get around depicting the grim violence of war via panels with a pair of helmets in the air instead of soldiers getting shot, as you often saw in 1970s American war comics.
Pat Mills was very lucky to have Colquhoun to illustrate his scripts. As noted above, the artist had spent two years drawing the adventures of Johnny Red, which was left in the capable hands of John Cooper. Mills himself had actually been away from Battle for some time, after launching the comic and devising its initial seven series, and was writing Ro-Busters for Starlord, later to be folded into 2000 AD, while researching this story. He wrote the series until January 1985, penning 294 episodes before a dispute over researching fees ended his involvement with Battle, leaving writer Scott Goodall to continue the story for a further 86 installments of an older Charley fighting in World War Two.
Mills’ run on Charley’s War is arguably the highest point in a career just full of peaks and pinnacles. There’s a humanity to this series that’s very unique in comics, with both the British and German lines filled with believable, sympathetic, terrified characters. The terror is perhaps the most important part. Fear of death makes people act without logic or sense, and when coupled with power, it turns people into monsters, willing to act with inhuman cruelty towards others. The British officers who happen to be stationed far behind the lines are inured against the carnage in the trenches, but the men they have in harm’s way abuse their power constantly. Charley narrowly avoids being shot in the head for falling asleep on sentry duty at one point, and is sent on punishment detail to be strapped onto the wheels of a huge cannon at another. When the trenches are overrun, Charley’s company, in an underground bunker, is ordered out one at a time for individual executions, a scene of needless brutality that illustrates how desperate men can resort to inhuman cruelty to relieve stress.
Charley’s War is a mostly linear story, beginning in 1916, but it takes a fascinating detour about 18 months into its run to tell the story of “Blue,” a deserter from the French Foreign Legion, and his experience at Ft. Vaux at Verdun, a few months before Charley enlisted. In this storyline, Charley, while on leave, meets Blue in London while he’s on the run from military police, and agrees to hear his story. It’s an amazing tale of desperation, with the men trapped under siege for weeks without reinforcements and supplies running low. It’s so bleak that, when Charley returns to the front, it’s almost as though Mills was showing mercy to the readers.
Titan Books has been collecting Charley’s War in a series of annual hardcover albums, each of which reprint 25-30 episodes. They’re gorgeous editions, and full of supplementary information including new forewords and episode-by-episode commentary by Mills, and historical background to the war. The reproduction is mostly very good, although some of the episodes from 1980-81 which originally had color pages suffer a little bit from the grayscale treatment. The sixth of these books was released in October of last year, and they have been so successful for Titan that they have slowly expanded their line of reprints from the comic’s archives, issuing a Best of Battle omnibus last year, and planning to release the first in a proposed series of Johnny Red hardcovers in the spring. The Charley’s War series is one that every good library should own, and should not be too difficult for curious readers to track down.
It kind of goes without saying, but I’m not really a reader of superhero comics anymore. I don’t really frequent comic shops anymore and most of what I buy, I pick up in collected form from bookstores, usually with something like Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly or Vertigo on the spine. I had been following Grant Morrison’s Batman & Robin series, but it seemed that somewhere during the second story-arc, the wheels fell off. I figured a while ago that if the writers weren’t going to write with a serial or episodic style in mind, there was no reason for me to go weekly when I could just pick up the story the way they seemed to intend it, in one whole chunk, when the trade paperback collection came out. In general, I think I’ve been better off for it. In my mind, no more wasted money on stories that don’t seem to go anywhere.
Occasionally, though, I get a sort of masochistic bent and decide to check out what’s on the racks any given week. This was one of those weeks. Most of the books actually looked kind of horrid, making me wonder why anyone would pay $3.99 for these things. I took a look through DC’s new Doc Savage series, hoping for some sort of pulp feel, but it looked like Howard Porter drew it with his feet. I do hope, though, that somewhere down the line, they collect the Justice Inc. back-up from Jason Starr and Scott Hampton, because it looked like something I’d want to read. I’m just not willing to pay $3.99 just for it. Most of Marvel seems to be stuck in crossover and none of Second Coming, Siege or World War Hulks looked particularly interesting. Hulked-Out Heroes #1, in particular, looked like something a six-year old would find cool, but as you get older, it just starts looking more and more ridiculous. I was almost tempted not to pick anything up, but decided I’d at least get something that I could gripe about later. I decided that Black Widow #1 would be among the most harmless and seemed to have nice art, and the two books from DC brandished with the Brightest Day cover copy, since I’m a glutton for punishment.
I also wanted to see if I could still write single issue reviews. I’ve been slightly out of practice and wanted to see if I could come up with something at all, before I dive into something a wee bit more ambitious. I should note, that while I’m writing this, I’m listening to Nick Cave. So, if some parts seem depressing, or if part way through one of the reviews, a paragraph ends mid-sentence, I probably threw myself out a window. The end result, however, would be due to the comics, not the music.
Black Widow #1 Marjorie Liu (w), Daniel Acuna (a) | 2010 Marvel Comics | $3.99 USD
Well, I like the art.
That’s positive at least, right? Acuna reminds me a bit of Alex Maleev, or the style that Renato Arlem started using back on Hawkgirl. It’s somewhat like watercolours under a Gaussian blur with lots of spotting blacks. Most of the time, it works, giving a dark edge to what’s essentially a mystery story, although there are certain areas where colour choices just tend to make things muddy and confused. I also wouldn’t have recognised Tony Stark or Bucky Barnes if they hadn’t been mentioned by name. Bucky, I can kind of understand not recognising, but Stark has one of those appearances that it’s hard to mistake him.
As a “mystery” that should work to the books advantage, but it doesn’t really. Liu’s initial offering here, shows Black Widow receiving a mysterious rose and ribbon, catching up with an old “friend”, having dinner, threatening an adulterer, and getting attacked by an old woman and a shadowy stranger for some reason related to the rose and ribbon. She’s opened up, something’s taken, but later it seems as though all of her organs are untouched, which I guess heightens the mystery. It all feels kind of boring and by the numbers, though. The most interesting portion actually comes from Black Widow’s confrontation with Black Rose, with some nice character bits. Regarding the mystery, though, my curiosity isn’t piqued.
The “Black Widow Saga” portion at the back of the book was kind of nice to include. I don’t think I’ve read a story with Black Widow since Greg Rucka’s MAX series featuring the other one ages ago, so it was decent to get some history. The main story doesn’t seem to hinge on that history, and I followed it fine without having read this first, but it might be worthwhile down the road. I don’t feel the need to go out and buy any of the collections mentioned, but I did find it somewhat funny that they actually published a comic with a corporation called “Gynacon”.
The Flash #1 Geoff Johns (w), Francis Manapul (a), Brian Buccellato (c) | 2010 DC Comics | $3.99 USD
"Case One: The Dastardly Death of the Rogues"
I think that the last time that I read an issue of The Flash, Geoff Johns was actually writing that too, with art by Scott Kolins. I remember liking that run, so I guess it’s at least possible that I might like this. I haven’t read any of the Blackest Night crossover leading into Brightest Day, so I’m not sure on connectivity or where things lie, but as far as I can tell, this issue seems to stand on its own.
As much as I may have liked that run on The Flash, in more recent years Johns has really become the poster child for the “fan fiction age of comics”. He’s the primary target in a group of modern comics writers that were influence primarily by other comics, and falls into a whole “pop will eat itself” scenario of either circle jerking or bringing back elements from your childhood that you liked, retconning others, twisting it a little bit, and…well, this really is an argument for another time. I’ll address the return of Barry Allen a little later in this review, but the trend from Identity Crisis and its fallout is something that just leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
On its own, I kind of like this. It’s a fairly straightforward superhero comic; opening featuring the Flash stopping the Trickster, introducing the ”new” old work situation for Barry Allen — I don’t know if any of these characters really are old or new, aside from the television series, Barry Allen was dead when I was reading the comic, but it doesn’t really matter — and then moving on to the investigation of a dead “Rogue” that we find out is from the future.Despite the death, the book is relatively light-hearted and has a few funny moments. What stood out for me was Weather Wizard raining out baseball games simply because he’s being a jerk. The book has pretty standard plot with some decent characterization. It’s nothing special, but there’s nothing egregious about it.
The artwork from Francis Manapul is nice. He reminds me of a more manga-influenced version of Tony Moore, and there’s an energy and verve to his art that works very well on this book. It’s not as stylized as the Kolins issues I remember, but it feels almost as though they’re going for a similar vibe. There’s the caveat, though, that Central City has a more modern feel to it, contra Keystone City’s industrial tone. The colours are generally bright, with a focus on yellow for the Flash scenes and blue for the Barry Allen/police sequences.
What I do have to ask, though, is: why Barry Allen?
I don’t really have a horse in this race, but there’s really nothing here that couldn’t have been told using Wally West as the Flash. The police element was shown in the previous series through different officers that the Flash had as allies, the journalism aspect taken care of by Linda Park-West instead of Iris Allen, and the villains, well, they don’t seem to care which Flash it happens to be. The characters of Barry and Iris Allen also seem to have been de-aged, which seems to defeat the point. Is it the fact that Wally now has kids that’s somehow anathema and requires Barry Allen? I don’t see a single good, in story reason for Barry’s return.
Brightest Day #0 Geoff Johsn & Peter Tomasi (w), Fernando Pasarin (p), Pasarin/Dell/Smith/Rollins/Vines/Thibert (i) | 2010 DC Comics | $3.99 USD
As I said up above, I haven’t read any of the Blackest Night crossover,
nor do I really have any inclination to do so. Previews, reviews, and general commentary surrounding the thing makes it seem like I wouldn’t like most of it, and personally, the idea of a multi-coloured lantern core sounds patently ridiculous. I suppose that there are some authors out there who could have a field day with an emotional spectrum of coloured powers, but from everything I’ve gathered, the powers seem primarily identical to those of the regular Green Lanterns, just, you know, pink…or yellow. That seems like a missed opportunity to me, but as I said, I haven’t read the stuff, so maybe they did use it to greater effect.
Anyway, in the fallout from Blackest Night comes this new “crossover” and series Brightest Day. After reading The Flash, I’m not sure if crossover is the right term, maybe “umbrella” or “masthead”, since things in that book don’t necessarily seem to have any real connection to this one. Also, it seems as though many of the characters’ stories are being told in other books, as evidenced by the previews at the back of the book for other series. Maybe it’s just a thematic link of “bright, shiny superheroes.” Although, this really is neither bright nor shiny.
It’s not even a story.
It’s a forty some-odd page collection of teasers for other books and other stories, one big long advertisement. As such, I don’t really have much to say about it. It has decent art, but mostly it’s just little vignettes to set up other stories. None of which seem fairly compelling, and only serve to reiterate Johns’ fascination with certain periods of characters; bringing them back in a seeming arbitrary fashion that suits his favourite version of that character. Neither rhyme nor reason.
Process by Jeffrey Brown is not just a mini-comic, it is a packet containing a mini-comic, various notes, actual comic making process paraphernalia and even some original art. It’s certainly worth the $15 for fans of Jeffrey Brown and anyone curious about what goes into making a comic.
Process picks up where Brown’s last book, Funny Misshapen Body left off. FMB was a really fascinating story of Brown’s path to comic success. Process really gets into the specifics of Brown’s medium right down to the type of paper and pens he uses. It’s always interesting to me to see how an artist of any medium works but as a comic artist it’s most fascinating to see how my “peers” work. I found that Brown’s process was a bit more complicated than mine. But, then maybe not. I suggest that the documentation of process would be revealing to the artist as well as the reader. Take a close look at your own process (of doing anything really) and you’ll probably find a lot more ritual than you thought existed.
What’s really interesting about Process is seeing how Brown works simultaneous on so many different projects. It seems he has no less than three different publishers. He’s working on completely different projects all at the same time. From his Transformers parody Incredible Change Bots, to his mostly silent and beautiful cat books (Cat Getting out of Paper Bag and the upcoming Cats are Weird) to his insightful auto-bio works, it’s a wonder they’re not all mish-mashed! It’s funny though because as complicated as his process seems under a microscope it’s really not. He seems to just work on what ever is exciting him at the time, which I’ve found is the best way to work. Nothing makes a comic (or any work of art) more interesting than a creator who is excited about it.
Process is really a little gem that’ll be tough to find. But, I suggest you pick it up if you see it around. If nothing else it’s always nice to see an established creator make a slight retreat to the world of mini-comics. It’s obvious that comics are a labor of love for all involved.
Box Brown is creator of the webcomic Bellen! and manymini-comics. He’s currently working on a “religious epic” calledEverything Dies (recently reviewed by ADD here on Trouble with Comics). You can keep up with his print comics blogand pick up his comics at his onlinestore and at finer comic shopseverywhere.
Ellis discusses Previews and comics piracy, and says “If I were starting out today, I’d be thinking very hard about wrapping my comic into a .cbz container, slinging it on Rapidshare and posting the link on download sites under an anonymous handle.”
That last bit strikes me as funny, because I helped a couple of very big-name creators do just that a couple of years ago. The title is still around, so it can’t have hurt any.
Hey, it’s not a big deal but still kind of cool to me. The latest issue of Powers (#4) by Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Avon Oeming, has in its letter column the interview Tom Spurgeon conducted with me about the book as part of his Best Comics of the Decade interview series around the end of 2009. That shouldn’t be a reason to get the comic itself, since the interview is still free and available at the link above, but if you do get Powers for its own merits (and I am liking the relaunch just dandy), Bendis does have some nice things to say about Tom and the interview (“think piece”); it’s not clear whether he remembers who I am or not, but I guess he liked some of my thinks, so whatevs. Thanks, Brian, and thanks again, Tom, for getting the whole thing rolling in the first place.
On the less self-serving side, welcome to new TWC writer, Kevin Pasquino, who literally gets down to fucking business in his Buffy review. He’s got another good one on tap as well. Enjoy.
Guest Review Month - Chad Nevett on Spider-Man: The Clone Saga (2009-2010)
Writers appeal to me for different reasons. Some dazzle you with their style or ideas, their sheer virtuosity or genius. You know you’re not likely to write anything like Alan Moore, or David Foster Wallace or Bob Dylan. Others are more approachable; when you read Robert Kirkman or Nick Hornby, or listen to Tom Petty, it’s more a feeling of being next to that person on the barstool, having a friendly conversation. Chad Nevett’s writing has that kind of feel to me, and it’s a style I tend to favor in my own reviews. It’s not that there’s no style or ideas, nor that it’s easy, but that it’s uncluttered, the main purpose being communication in as direct a way as possible. And while it has the confidence that good criticism requires, there’s still a very honest and appealing degree of self-doubt. Sometimes when we review something, we just aren’t sure how we feel about every part of it, or why something affects us in a certain way, and I like that Nevett doesn’t gloss over those unsettled areas.
— Christopher Allen
Spider-Man: The Clone Saga #1-6 Written by: Tom DeFalco, Howard Mackie Drawn by: Todd Nauck, Victor Olazaba Coloured by: Javier Tartaglia Lettered by: Dave Sharpe Published by: Marvel Comics Price: $3.99 ea. (USD)
I can’t deny that part of me is somewhat ashamed for buying all six issues of this series. I’m not a believer in the term “guilty pleasure,” since I don’t feel guilty about what I enjoy, but Spider-Man: The Clone Saga would come pretty close to being my “guilty pleasure.” I bought and read every issue in an effort to appease and feed my inner 11-year old. While I’ve grown up a lot since then, he’s still inside of me and he’s the part of me that made me hand over $24.00 for these comics. Since that childish voice doesn’t dictate what I read/watch/listen too much, I figure this little trip into nostalgia isn’t too bad.
Unfortunately, like most things nostalgia, it wasn’t close to satisfying.
In critical circles, there’s much said about authorial intent. Usually, the intention of the author is an interesting fact that you account for in your discussion of a work, but something that’s ultimately meaningless because, when looking at a work, it’s impossible to distinguish between what an author intended and what’s there. Things emerge that the author didn’t purposefully do and, yet, it’s impossible to deny that they’re there. Themes and connections that may or may not have worked their way in subconsciously or unintentionally. So, that’s authorial intent and how it really means nothing.
But, what about reader intent?
When thinking about Spider-Man: The Clone Saga, I can’t help but wonder what I expected to get out of the series. I was never truly under the delusion that it would be good. I knew going in that these would be bad comics. Look at the basic structure: take a story that was originally intended to be, at least, six months long spread out over four monthly titles plus a quarterly book and, possibly, one-shots and mini-series, and tell it in six issues. It wasn’t going to work in the hands of the best writers and artists let alone Tom DeFalco, Howard Mackie, and Todd Nauck, all skilled creators in their own right, but none exactly the sort to win extensive critical acclaim — and rightly so. They’re workman creators. People you stick on books when you want an average, not-too-good/not-too-bad superhero comic.
So, what was I hoping to get out of the series?
Nostalgia certainly played a factor. I was enraptured with the original Spider-Clone Saga, buying as many issues as I could, usually leaning toward the stories focusing on Ben Reilly, the Scarlet Spider, and clone of Peter Parker. Being a fan of alternate versions of characters, a Spider-Man that’s not quite Spider-Man was intriguing to my younger self. How was he different? And what did those differences say about Peter Parker? While the Scarlet Spider’s costume was kind of lame, it was also appealing. I could retroactively say something about it being a criticism of creating superheroes at the point where all the best looks, powers, and names are taken, but that’s 27-year old Chad, not 11-year old Chad. It was just cool to see a variation on Spider-Man. There was a joy and wonder that I took in reading those comics at the time — in reading all comics as kid, honestly — that just isn’t there anymore. Going back and re-experiencing things loved as a child is always a dangerous thing to do, because it can ruin memories, so a new comic telling a variation on those original comics is a way to revisit them without actually revisiting them. If it sucks, that’s because the execution sucked, not the inherent concept or idea. It’s the same and yet different.
If that’s true, why wasn’t I satisfied?
Spider-Man: The Clone Saga didn’t feed that need. I knew it wouldn’t after reading the first issue. I’m not even sure that need is there. After all, I have revisited things I’ve loved as a kid without any negative side-effects. “The Death and Return of Superman” is something I reread not too long ago and enjoyed for various reasons, able to recognise its faults without it damaging my memories. Perhaps I don’t have nostalgia for the original Spider-Clone Saga. Maybe it came too late or maybe I’ve reconciled myself with how it didn’t work and why that was the case. I went into The Clone Saga knowing the original intent of the creators on the Spider-Man titles. I knew what they had wanted to do and what changes were made. My sense of wonder and nostalgia had been killed long before this book was even conceived.
If not nostalgia, what drove me to buy the series?
Spider-Man: The Clone Saga doesn’t tell the “true” original story as intended by the writers. In the first issue, it deviates from the plan in a way by having Kaine shown working for some mysterious figure, a character twist not done until much later, well after the story had been extended beyond its originally planned run. While I didn’t think the first issue was that good, that change gave me a small piece of hope: DeFalco and Mackie could have anything happen in this story. They may not tell the story as originally intended, but they could go one better and tell a story that couldn’t have been told. There were no limits to this story since it doesn’t “count.” They could do anything they wanted. And they did just that. And it still sucked. But, I never seriously expected it not to suck, even with the promise of things happening that couldn’t happen in the regular Spider-Man books. Here, Peter Parker has a kid that lives and gives up being Spider-Man (sort of, by the end, it’s not clear what’s going on with him and Spider-Man) and that would never truly happen in the Spider-Man books. Even during the Clone Saga, that idea was teased but never executed. DeFalco and Mackie do it and it doesn’t make this series any better. They swerve the readers by making the mastermind Harry Osborn instead of Norman and that doesn’t make it any better.
Then why did I keep buying it? Why?
Writing this “review” has made me think of something: I bought it to write about it. Spider-Man: The Clone Saga is a fascinating comic for a few reasons. Firstly, it has made me think about why I bought it. Not many books do that, because I don’t keep buying many bad books. I kept buying this one, so that required examination. Secondly, it’s one of the new breed of nostalgia superhero books that Marvel are producing and they’re flat-out interesting as concepts: comics that look to give readers the ‘proper’ version of the comics they already read, whether it’s a rewriting of the story like this series or supposedly what would have come next had the writer not left the book like in the case of Chris Claremont’s X-Men Forever. It’s not enough for characters and ideas to be brought back in continuity, rewritten and reimagined by new creators, satisfying our need to have every character to ever appear to constantly reappear, appeasing everyone since their favourites are all on display, but, now, we want to go back literally and have the creators of that time rewrite history for us. We want them to create offshoot continuities that we can imagine are what would have happened despite obviously not being the case. It’s an odd mixture of the creators trying to swerve the readers since they’ve all talked about what they would have done differently. With that information out there, they can’t exactly just do what they originally intended to do. That would be boring. Who wants to read a comic written by Chris Claremont where Wolverine is killed and resurrected by the Hand to be their killer? Not only has Claremont stated a thousand times that that’s the story he wanted to tell but Marvel wouldn’t let him, but Mark Millar wrote it already. Of course, the mysterious figure with the trademark Osborn hair is Harry, because we already had the version where Norman was back from the dead and masterminding the whole thing! Of course, Peter and Mary Jane’s baby lives along with Aunt May, but Ben Reilly still leaves town, because that’s totally different! These are nonsensical surprise comics. They’re books that have to both stick to our expectations of what the story should be while providing enough twists and turns that we’re not bored. They have to simultaneously recreate history faithfully and deviate from it extensively. Too far in either direction and it doesn’t work. None of the books to do this yet have been creative successes, but they’re interesting failures.
I knew Spider-Man: The Clone Saga would be a bad comic, but I also knew that it would be an interesting comic. And I was right.
I hope you’ve all been enjoying Guest Reviewers Month, a cheap and relatively easy way for TWC to class up the joint by inviting some our favorite writers-about-comics to drop some reviews. ADD and I have been more than pleased by the great folks who agreed to participate. So far we’ve had Roger Green, Johanna Draper-Carlson, Eric San Juan, Nina Stone, Jamie S. Rich and Jose Villarubia. And frankly, we were pacing ourselves early on, not knowing just how much we had. So expect the rest of April to be pretty packed, close to a new review every day. Thanks to everyone who participated. We owe ya one.
Have Shitty Comics Reached Their Platonic Price Point?
At The Comics Reporter, Tom Spurgeon dares speak the name of overpriced corporate comic books and wonders if a tipping point has been reached. Now, I often quote Tom as saying “The only comics that cost too much are shitty comics,” and certainly most corporate superhero comics are shitty comics, but $3.99 really does seem too expensive for most of what the Direct Market offers up as its saddle-stitched stock-in-trade, even the few good ones.
I think the great equalizer in this question is the pirating of downloadable, zero-day comic books. Because when you’re cutting your comics budget, the bad ones certainly will be the first to be cut, ignoring the crazy fact that a lot of comics buyers do consciously buy bad comics, you know, “to keep their collection intact.” But I’d imagine the easy availability of virtually every new release for free download is making it hard on the average, run-of-the-mill mediocre corporate superhero comic.
My willingness to pay a given price for the comics I want varies due to numerous factors, such as format, reproduction quality, creator(s), and other elements, but I think three bucks is about as much as I am really willing to pay for a floppy, saddle-stitched comic book that I may or may not like enough to bag and board and save for future re-reads. Twenty bucks is about as much as I’m willing to pay for a paperback collection, and forty seems the outer limit for decent hardcover collections. I balked at paying the cover price for that giant Kramers Ergot hardcover a year or two back, and don’t regret missing out on the many comics it contained by creators I loved, because there was just no way to justify it in my comics budget. The most I’ve probably ever spent in one shot on one publication was a hundred bucks for the Amazing Spider-Man Omnibus by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and I trust I don’t have to justify that one to anyone. I know the quality of the comics and the re-readability of the book far outstripped whatever rewards I would have found by coughing up the cash for Kramers.
Ultimately we all have to decide what our breaking point is; in a down-turned economy with no real hope of recovery in sight this decade (or possibly this lifetime), I think $3.99 for 22 pages of Geoff Johns will soon sorely test the resolve of even the most dedicated spandex junkie. I do think many will go online (legally or not) to get that special tingle they get from bad superhero comics, and the canny comics publisher would do well to quickly and capably emulate the ease with which pirated comic books can be obtained. At a very low price point (say, 25 cents or less), readers may be willing to pay for the privilege of reading Marvel and DC’s crap on their computer screen legally instead of stealing it. But the companies need to act fast, because the no-cost alternative to their wares is already well-established and just waiting for a new influx of fed-up super-freaks looking to shave twenty or fifty or a hundred bucks from their weekly superhero budget without giving up any of the weak thrills those comics contain.
Buffy The Vampire Slayer #34 Reviewed by Kevin Pasquino
Writer - Brad Meltzer Artist - Georges Jeanty Published by Dark Horse Comics
Depicting sex in comic books can be tough.
It’s relatively easy when it’s the full-tilt boogie of a Tijuana Bible or the drawings of Milo Manara because then it can be explicit and explosive. There’s no need for subtlety because the images can leap off the page in all their pornographic glory.
But it’s much more difficult to illustrate sex when you can’t show everything. After all, isn’t one of the main strengths of a comic book the unleashed imagination of the writer and the illustrator? — When they are not allowed to show characters “doin’ it”, they have to be incredibly creative and crafty to make it work.
The story has to do with the cosmic fall-out when a vampire and a slayer have sex and how the earth/universe/omniverse (the story flip-flops between the three) will evolve. And change. And be forever altered!
And even though Buffy has had sex with the vampires Angel and Spike in the original TV series, it’s different this time because… Because… Okay, I’m not sure why it’s different.
But these two characters have sex! Lots of sex! And it’s all illustrated in large confusing panels! Very, very confusing panels: Angel is told to lose the coat when he’s already taken it off. Buffy’s underwear changes color from page to page. Tree branches and fence rails conveniently cover up the naughty bits. And Buffy and Angel look like giants compared to everyone else in the story who just talk-talk-talk as the two main characters have the (supposed) sex of a lifetime.
Unfortunately there is a huge chasm between the rather mundane depiction of the actual sex and the overwhelmingly cosmic commentary that the secondary characters seem to be giving. There is such a huge disconnect between the two parts of the story that the book fumbles around like a college student trying to sound profound and insightful as he drunkenly attempts to undo the clasp of his girl friend’s bra.
Depicting sex in a comic book can be tough. When it doesn’t work, it’s un-erotic and boring. And maybe just a little bit silly.
Daily Breakdowns 076 - The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics
The Mammoth Book of Best Crime Comics
Edited by Paul Gravett
Running Press. $17.95 USD (2008)
I don’t really recommend you follow my semi-ironic method of reading this book—in a glass repair shop after your car was broken into—but there are worse things to do in a paneled waiting room with a distracting fountain wall on one side and too-close restroom on the other, and there are worse ways to get over one’s anger and once again find charm in the outlaw.
I don’t know much about this Mammoth series except that there’s a wide range of them, from brain-teasers and conspiracies to pirates and poker. And lots of whodunnits and erotica. As far as comics go, there are also volumes of war, horror, fantasy, and comic quotes, though that last one could just be funny lines for I know. The esteemed critic and author Paul Gravett edited this volume a couple years ago and I just sort of happened on it in a corner of my comics shop.
The first hook for me, as it may be for others, is the presence of a couple hard-to-find Alan Moore-scripted tales. Gravett seems to know this, as they’re the first and last pieces in the book. The first, “Old Gangsters Never Die,” isn’t a story, it’s a lyric from a Moore musical side project, The Sinister Ducks, illustrated by Lloyd Thatcher, alternating high contrast ’40s film noir imagery with more of a wash style, the first similar to David Lloyd’s V For Vendetta interiors, the latter not unlike Lloyd’s covers for the same series. It’s not top Moore, but he’s really high on language and crime movie cliches, and Thatcher’s up to the task of depicting the bullet-riddled fall guys and gin joints and roulette wheels. The card bearing “the Ace of Flames” is a great touch.
The second Moore piece here, “I Keep Coming Back,” drawn by his A Small Killing collaborator Oscar Zarate, is the more celebrated piece but to me a bit less satisfying: it’s like a nicely descriptive journal entry; sharp and immediate but that immediacy and lack of distance prevents Moore from saying much about the oddness of being in a famous Jack the Ripper haunt to talk about Jack or having completed a massive, yearslong book about him, From Hell. And let’s face it, as much as it’s nice to have these Moore rarities under one cover, they’re more comics about crime—or comics about, respectively, crime films and crime comics, than they are crime comics themselves.
Gravett (it may well have been the publisher) plays just a little loose with the cover, as well, which gives crime novelist Ed McBain top billing, although the work in question isn’t written by McBain at all but a story from an unnamed writer starring McBain’s 87th Precinct characters for a short-lived 1962 series. I wish they’d have credited the actual artist of that story, the great Bernie Krigstein. It’s not the same Krigstein style “Master Race” fans will recognize—it’s much looser, and he’s doing something strange with the eyes—but although Gravett reports Krigstein hated the story itself, he still tries hard to come up with some creative solutions, coming off very Ditkoesque with a silent page of the blind painter/murderer all rubber-limbed, ridiculous and yet unsettling. An earlier Krigstein-drawn story, “Lily-white Joe,” is at first glance more in line with Krigstein’s better-liked style, but it’s kind of a stiff, moralistic dud as a story—respectable, cowardly businessman bankrolls a racketeer and ends up paying with his life—while Krigstein’s art is severely disappointing, all hard angles, dead lines and too much negative space. It has to be hard for an editor to get the rights to reprint what he really wants to reprint, so one has to think there were some better choices than this that just weren’t available. Still, there’s already some Krigstein work inside, so what gives?
There are a few other choices that maybe could have been better. In addition to his bestselling Mike Hammer novels, Mickey Spillane wrote quite a few comics, so it makes sense there would be at least one of them included. In fact, there’s two, a “Mike Lancer” adaptation by Harry Sahle that’s trite but full of fisticuffs and gunplay, and the last serial from Spillane’s Mike Hammer newspaper strip that ran pretty much uncensored until such time as it was abruptly canceled (for a woman depicted bound in a negligee, seen here). It seems tame now.
Not tame but mawkish, and suffering from some of the stiffest art around from Terry Beatty is Max Allan Collins’ Ms. Tree story. Ms. Tree was an ’80s crime comic, rare enough just for that, but doubly notable for its female protagonist. Just as Hill Street Blues is almost unwatchable now, Ms. Tree is also overly earnest and clunky. To be fair, it could be that other stories might be a little more fun than this one, which hinges largely on whether Ms. Tree will bring to term the child she conceived with a man she found to be an evil criminal. Maybe if I wasn’t pro-abortion rights, I wouldn’t mind the story so much, but Collins doesn’t entertain any debate on the matter. Tree goes about her business, hiding out from killers, killing them, and then lecturing.
There’s also something of a British bias here, unsurprisingly. Which is fine when you’re including fine talents such as Moore and Gaiman, or Paul Grist’s excellent done-in-one Kane mystery, “Rat in the House,” but less fine when unearthing Colin and Denis McLoughlin’s, “Roy Carson and the Old Master,” which was justly earthed.
Much better ’30s and ’40s work comes, naturally, from those whose names and characters haven’t been forgotten, such as the fine P’Gell story here from Will Eisner’s The Spirit: slyly sexy and funny, and with the bonus being that arch-criminal The Octopus is behind it all. There’s also a “Stories of the FBI” type of Joe Simon/Jack Kirby tale here, “The Money-Making Machine Swindlers,” which is at least quite well-drawn if lacking any real quirks or explosiveness, and Jack Cole’s “Murder, Morphine and Me,” an hysterical story of a life ruined by crime, and it’s also famous for the out-of-context image of an eyeball being threatened by a hypodermic needle, used by Dr. Wertham in book, Seduction of the Innocent, about the dangers comics presented to ’50s youth. While this and, to a slightly lesser extent, the Johnny Craig story, “The Sewer,” shiver with nervous energy in every lurid image, the Dashiell Hammett/Alex Raymond strip, Secret Agent X-9, chugs along in the sequence reprinted here with an unstoppable narrative momentum, slowing down not for the bodies piling up or anything but shorthand notions of character.
There’s a Neil Gaiman short, an oddity about an Arabian sect called the Shaninai, a female-led society where males are rare and prized like horses, sold as prostitutes to the richest of connoisseurs. It’s a nice piece, though not much of a crime story as far as having a clear resolution. Great mood, though.
Other modern stories fare well, such as “The Switch,” a deliciously cold tale of revenge on a cruel cop by Sanchez Abuli and Jordi Bernet from their Torpedo series. Carlos Sampayo’s and Jose Munoz’s Alack Sinner story, “Talkin’ With Joe,” is contemporary (late ’70s/early ’80s?) but suffused with the familiar tropes of American noir as seen through European eyes: booze, cigarette-filled ashtrays, jazz. But as Sinner tells a barkeep his story of a couple bent cops, it keeps going deeper and darker into an unbreakable web of cynicism and corruption and one honest man who can’t win but can at last, finally, look himself in the mirror again for taking his ultimately insignificant stand.
It’s unclear why there’s nothing from the past 15 years reprinted here except the Kane story, especially when that period saw a resurgence in crime comics, led first by Frank Miller’s Sin City and then the Bendis/Oeming Powers and Brubaker/Phillips Criminal, all of which have a short story or two. No doubt Gravett is aware of them all, so perhaps he couldn’t get the rights. That, and a quibble or two about what’s in here, aside, this is a fairly remarkable collection.
I’ve been sometimes asked “who were your greatest influences when it comes to
coloring comics?” The answer is easy. Growing up in Spain my two idols were Richard Corben and Moebius. In the 1970s these two giants changed the comics medium, including its colors. It is important to note that these two artists did complete art, including color painted by hand. The fact that they no longer color their own work is a sign of how much things have changed. But in Europe artists still tend to color their own work for the oversize graphic novels that they call “albums.”
A series of fantasy albums appeared a few years back, which stood head and shoulders above all others. Deicide, written by Carlos Portela and illustrated by Das Pastoras is an underrated masterpiece.
The story begins in a familiar set up: in a primitive tribe a virgin sacrifice must be done to appease an evil god. The virgin in this case happens to be the chief’s daughter and there is a love triangle between her and two warriors that pursue her. Predictably one wins the contest for her affection but his actions have dire consequences. The setting brings to mind Bloodstar, the brilliant Robert E. Howard adaptation by Richard Corben. But a mystical aspect is also introduced on the first pages, reminiscent of Moebius’ esoteric work like is 40 Days in the Desert. Soon the story becomes a quest for the lost soul of the beloved, an Orphic voyage though an Oz-like world (the hero’s companion is a twisted version of the Cowardly Lion), complete with deserted vistas, strange creatures, and alien cultures. After 92 pages the story reaches a dramatic cliffhanger. And then… well, the proverbial “To be continued…” That was six years ago and both creators have since moved on to other projects.
Das Pastoras is now working with Jodorowsky in the Metabarons cycle, so the story may never be finished. Yet despite this fact and its somewhat clichéd premise, the execution of Deicide is extraordinary. Each page vibrates with an internal life that I have not seen since Liberatore drew those insane Ranxerox stories in the eighties… Das Pastoras is a true comics master in all areas: his storytelling is pitch perfect, his mise-en-scène is impeccable, like Moebius, Corben and Liberatore, he combines caricature and realism flawlessly, his designs seem like ethnological records from lost civilizations, fully developed and coherent, his creatures are bizarre and familiar at the same time… and his color… well his color is just perfect! It’s a rare combination of realism and subjectivity where line and shape are perfectly integrated. His watercolored landscapes are evocative and inviting. They “feel” like natural environments, even if they are part of alien worlds.
In the U.S., Deicide has had a spotty publication history: in 2002, Humanoids Publishing translated a well-printed oversize hardcover of the first chapter, subtitled “ Rage Against the Gods.” Two years later, DC Comics reprinted the story bundled with the second chapter under the subtitle “Path of the Dead.” This later reprint suffered from having its format reduced to standard American comic size and poor printing where the yellows saturated all the pages. So there is no perfect edition in English to enjoy both of the existent chapters of the saga. I recommend getting the first English hardcover “Rage of the Gods” and the second volume in its French or Spanish editions, where they were produced properly… This is an amazing achievement and a feast for the eyes of any lover of the Fantasy genre, and proves that the revolution Corben and Moebius started four decades ago continues to this day.
José Villarrubia is an artist and illustration professor with extensive comics credits to his name, perhaps most notably two projects with writer Alan Moore, The Mirror of Love and Voice of the Fire, both available from Top Shelf Productions.
Box Brown's cheerily-named Everything Dies has its mind on some weighty philosophical issues. Three stories are split into multiple chapters across the two issues, one called Heart of Stonework that focuses on a Buddhist monk and his student, another called The Book of Job that recontextualizes the Biblical tale into modern times, and a third split into chapters called Alpha and Omega that sort of straightforwardly depicts the core conceits of various beliefs from voodoo to Christianity to Mormonism and Zoroastrianism and, seemingly, everything else in-between.
In the notes at the back of the issues, Brown says he learned most of what he includes in these stories by reading Wikipedia, which I find kind of a pleasingly whimsical way to immerse one’s self into blood and guts of the world’s various and bizarre belief systems. It’s refreshingly loony in Alpha and Omega (the best of these three narrative journeys) to see Scientology’s tenets side-by-side with all the other crazy shit people have chosen to believe over the history of the world, and to include atheism and science as just two more of those systems is both daring and extraordinarily sensible.
I don’t really know what Brown is trying to say with these comics, other than, “Here’s a bunch of stuff people have believed over the past few hundred thousand years.” No one belief or religion is really singled out either for its virtues or its lunacy; everything is simply presented matter-of-fact in Brown’s appealingly open cartoon style (which is firmly in the same part of town that Seth and James Kochalka call home). No grand points are made, although I admit Brown did stop me in my tracks with the panel on atheism that points out that “atheism is the lack of belief in God. Therefore athiests do not share a singular belief in anything by definition.” Whether he got that from Wikipedia or came up with it himself, you have to admit it’s a good observation.
The student in “Heart of Stonework” also learns some important philosophical points, through object lessons from his master that Brown conveys with convincing wisdom and sincerity. I guess Alpha and Omega and Heart of Stonework are the two works that really appeal to me most in these issues; it’s interesting that the Job story is kind of off-putting for the same reason the Biblical tale is: ultimately the point it makes is that God will let Satan fuck with you for his own reasons and all the piety in the world will not change the damage done in the process. Faith is its own reward, for better or worse, or both.
I don’t know if Brown created these comics as an investigation of a faith he believes in, or as a skeptic’s exploration of philosophy and religion. Really, I don’t care why he made them. They’re entertaining and thought-provoking in probably the exact manner he intended, and if a suspicious old athiest like myself could get as much pleasure out of reading them as I did, others will probably find them of interest as well.
Guest Reviewer Month - Johanna Draper-Carlson on Rapunzel's Revenge
When I started writing about comics about a decade ago, Johanna was already an established voice, often of reason and always of authority. I don’t think our tastes overlap much, but I’ve always respected what she had to say, and those who don’t do so at their peril. Because aside from the absolute clarity and efficiency of her style, one of my favorite things about her is the occasional blast of withering scorn she unleashes, like a hurricane tearing up an Iowa cornfield. She always plays fair, though. Fortunately for the authors and publisher here, they were met with approval.
Rapunzel’s Revenge written by Shannon Hale and Dean Hale illustrated by Nathan Hale (no relation) Bloomsbury, $18.99
This twisted take on the fairy tale of Rapunzel sparkles with life, intelligence, wit, adventure, and just plain fun.
For the first time, the story of a girl locked in a tower by an evil stepmother and her excessively long hair makes a certain amount of sense. The Hales give Rapunzel character and motivation—she’s active, making choices, instead of someone bad things are done to. Oh, there’s plenty of that, too, but she works to overcome her circumstances instead of passively waiting for a prince to wander by.
Rapunzel is a young girl who lives in a beautiful villa with everything she could want except freedom. The woman who says she’s her mother has the power to make things grow, an ability she uses to keep those around her under her control. On her twelfth birthday, Rapunzel learns the truth about her life, and as a result, the evil woman locks her away in the hollowed-out top of a tree.
What’s freshest about this story is how Rapunzel gets away. She grows amazingly long braids, which four years later, she uses as rope to lasso a nearby tree and swing to safety…ungracefully, for that touch of humor and realism. The cartooning is outstanding. It’s clear and easy to read, helpful for those new to graphic novels, but full of attitude and expression and movement. That suits the Western feel into which the story transitions.
Rapunzel stumbles into a nearby town, where she learns to work for what she needs and meets Jack, a con man and thief who introduces her to life on the run. They try to rescue a kidnapped little girl, only to discover that the world is full of double-crosses and the selfish, whether they’re officially outlaws or not. There’s a quest voyage and opportunities to help folk they meet along the way, defeating various monsters and threats.
The story is lengthy and rewarding. The book is 144 pages, but with a higher-than-average number of panels per page, at 8 to 14, the story involves you for a long time. That’s a great way to feel like you’re really visiting Rapunzel’s world. The chapters, by contrast, open with lovely full-page illustrations setting the stage for the action to come.
If I’d managed to read this when it came out in 2008, it would have easily been one of my top ten books of that year. It’s hilarious, inspiring, and well worth reading and re-reading.
Johanna Draper-Carlson reviews comics, graphic novels, manga and related subjects at Comics Worth Reading.
This year’s MoCCA was the best ever, in my opinion.
The feedback I got from a lot of people at tables was that traffic was light, but it didn’t seem that way to me. Sunday was much less crowded than Saturday, but that’s to be expected.
Here’s some random highlights and memories:
* Is it just me, or does MoCCA really need to sell coffee?
* Meeting Jaime Hernandez for the first time was a real thrill. I was surprised that he was familiar with Shelf Life and relieved that he didn’t immediately leap over the table and stab me in the neck with his pen when I introduced myself. Actually he couldn’t have been nicer, and as Gil Roth alluded to, I had him sign my issue of Fandom Circus #2, a rare 1978 fanzine that published his first professional story. It was cool watching him flip through the book and reflect to Charles Burns that “this was the story I learned to ink on.” Amazing!
* It seems like oversized newsprint comics are becoming a new trend in the indie scene (if such a scene even exists anymore). No doubt inspired by Kramers Ergot 7 and DC’s underwhelming Wednesday Comics, many artists were showcasing cheaply printed, oversized pages in color, not unlike the original version of Frank Santoro’s Storeyville. I personally really like this format. It allows the artists to work big while keeping the price low, and hearkens back to comics’ newsprint origins. I picked up three such comics, including Pood, an anthology from the crew at Blurred Books,Street Prison and Caboose, both of which were free handouts.
* After procrastinating for years, I finally became a MoCCA patron. I’m looking forward to taking in more exhibits this year, and generally becoming a more active member of the comics scene in NYC.
* The four big purchases I made:
The Art of Jaime Hernandez (this seemed to be the buzz book of the con this year).
Penny Century - the latest phonebook-style collection of Jaime’s post-L&R solo stories. There’s some excellent stuff here, and Jaime was kind enough to do a quick sketch of Hopey for me.
Body World by Dash Shaw. Prediction: this is 2010’s book of the year. Dash was on-hand to sign the books, but was feeling a little under the weather.
Craig Yoe’s The Art ofDitko book. After reading Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger, I couldn’t resist this sumptuous, oversized collection of Ditko’s non-Marvel/DC highlights.
There were many other books I wanted, but for budgetary reasons had to pass on, including Dan Nadel’s Art in Time, Top Shelf’s Swedish anthologies, Craig Yoe’s new Milt Gross and Dan DeCarlo (Jetta) books, Hope Larson’s new book, Mercury, the new MOME, and Newwave and the Basil Wolverton Bible book from Fantagraphics.
* Abrams had promo flyers for Charles Burns’ new book, X’ed Out, which looks absolutely amazing!
* I wish I had been better about pulling myself off the floor to attend a few of the panel discussions, but I always get too excited looking at books and lose track of time. Next year!
** Frank Santoro’s “magic” long boxes were one of the highlights of the show. Like Frank, I revel in the lost classics of the ’80s. I admire the way Frank is single-handedly sustaining the nostalgia of growing up as a collector in the ’80s while simultaneously curating what is considered “classic” from that unique period in comics history. Frank’s hand-picked selections reflect his own personal tastes, including his fascination with the evolution of the coloring process, but there’s a lot of diversity to marvel at in his collection. His boxes included all kinds of comics from artists like Marshall Rogers, Klaus Janson, P. Craig Russell, Garcia-Lopez, etc.
It also was fun chatting with Frank about various comics, although his attention was understandably distracted by the large crowd at his table. I personally bought Silverheels #3 (with that rare backup story by Jaime Hernandez), the first Outsiders annual (with astounding pencils/inks by Kevin Nowlan), a random Dennis the Menace comic from Fawcett (the Spring Special), Paradax #2 (collecting Brendan McCarthy’s stories from Strange Days, beautifully re-colored). Frank was even kind enough to throw in P. Craig Russel’s Elric #3.
* PictureBox also had a stack of back issues from Ace Comics. I grabbed a copy of The Cosmic Book, an obscure one-shot featuring amazing talents including Wally Wood, Pat Boyette, Alex Toth and Fred Himes.
* Here’s some of the other schwag I got:
Eschew #1-2 - The cartoonist Robert Sergel has produced two really nice looking issues of a mini-comic called Eschew. The first is available through Secret Acres and the second through Sparkplug Comic Books. Sergel has a really clean style, with figures that resemble John Hankiewicz only without the obsessive cross-hatching. Sergel demonstrates a strong sense of composition and black/white balance, and is only an extended narrative away from turning some heads in the industry.
Freewheel - This is a collection of the first five issues of Liz Baille’s breakthrough mini-comic into a really lovely, digest-sized book.
I Want You #1 - I couldn’t resist this comic by Lisa Hanawalt, from Buenaventura Press.
Winter - I own everything by the brilliant cartoonist/painter Stef Lenk. Her latest book is a beautiful narrative poem.
I also picked up the two latest minis from her table-mate, Shannon Gerard, as well as a free preview of her upcoming IDW graphic novel, Sword of My Mouth, which looks fantastic.
I Dreamed of You, Mr. Eybyaninch #3 - Is there anything more mind-blowing than Justin Fox’s wild, indescribable psychodrama? It’s like Jim Woodring on speed. Check out the first issue here.
Kevin Mutch is a cartoonist I’ve been fascinated with ever since I read the first volume of the Blurred Vision anthology. He’s also a lot of fun to talk to, always brimming with enthusiasm and ideas about the medium. This time around I picked up the final two issues of his webcomic-turned-graphic novel, Fantastic Life, as well as some older works, including The Revenge of the Lesbian Folk Singer and Captain Adam.
The Last of the Real Small Farmers – This is a sort of oral history by the husband wife team of Robbi Behr and Matt Swanson who run Idiots’ Books.
I also picked up the following books from some very cool cartoonists who were kind enough to trade for some of my mini-comics:
Cragmore Books 2 and 3 by Pat Lewis – I really enjoyed the first book in this four-part story which I picked up at last year’s MoCCA.
Haberdash and Chance Vance by Chris Sinderson
Egg Hard Boiled Stories #2 by Eric Skillman, Ming Doyle, Victor Kerlow, and Evan Bryce
Denia #1 by Daniel Kim and Juan Romera
More Great Moments in Western Civ – a 24 hour comic by Caitlin Cass
Oak & Linden #2 by Pat Barrett
Spy Guy Minis – by Mike Kitchen (something about this book’s art reminded me of Cerebus)
Short Notes on Long Comics by Tim Stout - This is not a comic, but rather a series of critical essays looking at “10 great examples of story structure in graphic novels.” Sounded interesting.
Everything Dies #1-2 by Box Brown
Unpleasant People #1 and Brain Partz #1-2 by Holly Flotz, a student at the Center for Cartoon Studies.
That’s about it off the top of my head. For someone who spends most of my comics-related time alone, reading and writing, it was really cool to meet so many people I know only through the internet in real life. Wish we could do it more often.
Everyone has their own ideas on what critics should be concerned about, should focus on. Some don’t think one should write about whether something is worth the price being charged for it—they might not even list the price. I get that, and that’s something I struggle with and upon which I don’t have a definite stance.
I also struggle with just how useful, or how fair, doing reviews of first issues is. I mean, it’s much less often I’ll review subsequent issues of a book once I’ve reviewed the first issue. Maybe if I liked that first issue, I’ll review a collected edition of that story arc, but often I don’t get around to it. And maybe that book got better. I’ve written negative reviews of books such as Haunt and Vengeance of the Moon Knight, and just maybe they’ve found their groove now and it’s unlikely I’ll ever discover that.
One other part I have trouble with is putting aside that a lot of comics have very little reason to justify their existence, creatively, and that some of your and my favorite creators may be involved with them strictly to pay the rent/mortgage. I guess my solution is just to take the comic on its own merits and if someone’s phoning it in or not doing their best work, regardless of the fact that professionals have to keep working and aren’t always going to be at their best, you call them on it.
I was thinking about this as I read this latest batch of #1 issues. I’ll touch on a couple other books as well. It so happens that these are all Marvel titles, but it’s not like DC or other publishers don’t go through the same thing.
Avengers: The Origin #1 (of 5)
Writer - Joe Casey
Artist - Phil Noto
Casey has quietly become a kind of go-to guy for this type of book, which retells decades-old superhero team origins with some modern tweaks that don’t upset the apple cart of continuity much. He did it with the Fantastic Four in First Family, and less successfully early in his career on X-Men: Children of the Atom. I like Casey, but I think only the hardcore fan is going to follow him everywhere, to stuff like G.I. Joe. This miniseries expands on the plot of the first issue of The Avengers over 40 years ago, slowing down the pace to give some more dialogue to everybody and big panels for Noto to make with the pretty pictures. He does, for the most part, although I’ve never found his style kinetic enough for superhero action, and to my eyes it looks like he’s not quite comfortable with Photoshop or something, because some of the pages, particularly the ones with Loki, look indistinct and bland. I did like what Casey did with Rick Jones and his pals, making them sort of Hulk-oriented phishers/hackers. Casey likes to identify with the smartass rebel characters, so it was inevitable he’d connect with Jones. Not outstanding, but not bad.
Deadpool Corps #1
Writers - Victor Gischler, Frank Tieri
Artists- Rob Liefeld, Matteo Scalera
Liefeld AND Tieri? I know, right? What am I doing with this comic? Call it an drunken one night stand that you’re embarrassed about the next day, except not as embarrassed as you might be since it was still pretty fun. Well, I didn’t like the Tieri/Scalera backup, honestly. I’m actually pretty new to Deadpool and think he’s a fun character but not so much with the ha-ha killing of innocents. Well, I guess these grocery store employees turned out to be terrorists, but he didn’t know that when he shot one for asking, “paper or plastic?” So that’s not funny. I have to say, though, Liefeld’s style is still pretty ugly but not as bad as it used to be, and not inappropriate for an intentionally dumb book like this, where Deadpool now has a team with a female, teen sidekick, dog, and disembodied zombie head versions of himself, going off on a cosmic quest. Liefeld does still draw these pinched, sharp noses that stretch the skin around them like they’re about to burst through it, though, and every forehead is creased with rage or something, even the forehead of the skull on the very Loboesque spacebike Tryco is riding. Gischler is hit and miss with the gags, but I chuckled at some of it. It’s sort of a palette cleanser from all the angsty superhero books.
World War Hulks: Classified #1
Writers - Various
Artists - Various
I picked this up thinking it was the start of World War Hulks, the next Hulk title storyline. Instead, it’s a stopgap special with six mostly throwaway stories, with Jeff Parker the only writer actually involved in the event, to my knowledge. I liked his story about the least actually, which had Rick (A-Bomb) Jones breaking up with wife Marlo because now that he’s superpowered she’d be a target for villains just like Betty Banner was. Makes sense, but if you have a gal willing to stick by you even when you turn into a giant blue armadillo, you hang onto her. Parker also writes a Deadpool story that explains his involvement in the event, and it’s okay. That’s basically the reason for this special, to give explanations and little moments to supporting characters like Cosmic Hulk, Red She-Hulk, Leonard Samson and even Glenn Talbot, who surprisingly has the strongest story here, detailing his torture at the hands of Winter Soldier way back when. As for the artists, they’re all virtually unknown but all okay, with Ryan Stegman and IG Guara the most ready for prime time.
Captain America & Black Panther: Flags of Our Fathers #1 (of 4)
Writer - Reginald Hudlin
Artists - Denys Cowan and Klaus Janson
Routine effort on the writing side—WWII-era story of Hitler wanting vibranium, and the U.S. mission to help Wakanda protect it ends up being the first time Captain America worked with Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos. Hudlin lets Gabe Jones narrate to give this long-underused African-American character some gravity, and I liked the scene where Cap nonchalantly borrows Gabe’s spoon in the mess hall to eat his chow, proving he doesn’t have a racist or germophobic bone in his body. Aside from some posturing and fighting between Cap and original Panther T’Chaka, not much happens. The art was my main reason for getting this one. You don’t see Cowan or Janson that much these days, and here they are together. Still, the inking really doesn’t look like typical Janson. It’s thin and not overpowering; I’m wondering if maybe he did it digitally. Still looks good, just not recognizably him, and I’m not getting the point of the washed-out coloring; well, everything but the Red Skull. Although a professional effort all around, it feels like I’ve been there before.
Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s Black Blizzard is published by Drawn and Quarterly, but looks and feels unlike any of the author’s other works previously released by the publisher. The Push Man, Abandon the Old in Tokyo and Good-Bye were all stately hardcovers, elegant and thoughtfully designed, obviously worthy of the visionary comics they contained.
Tatsumi’s mammoth autobiography A Drifting Life was published in paperback (albeit one the size of a canned ham), but its rambling narrative and epic sweep demanded a different presentation than Tatsumi’s hardcover anthologies of short fiction.
Black Blizzard arrives garish and lurid, feeling cheap and disposable. There’s a
yellow ink applied around the edges of the book that makes it feel like the 75 cent paperbacks people read decades ago, the ones that today are piled up by their millions in used bookstores everywhere. That’s my initial impression of the presentation of Black Blizzard, and I am quite certain the publisher, Drawn and Quarterly, and the designer, Adrian Tomine, intended just that. For the comics within were created a half-century ago by a young manga-ka working at unbelievable speed (the book’s 128 pages were crafted in less than three weeks) for an audience of children buying books like this in the rental book market: garish, lurid; cheap, disposable.
I mean none of these adjectives in a perjorative sense. Like Tomine’s brilliant book design, they are rather intended to celebrate the look and feel of Tatsumi’s work in Black Blizzard. He wasn’t new to comics when he created this book in 1956; rather, he says in an interview with Tomine that this was his 18th such work. But Tatsumi was very far, indeed, from the mature and considered cartoonist he would become in his later years, with work such as that found in Drawn and Quarterly’s other Tatsumi releases.
Let me say that I have them all, and I love them all. I have been fairly eager in my efforts to seek out manga that suits my sensibilities; I have picked up issues of Shonen Jump, I have bought titles like Battle Royale, Oishinbo, 20th Century Boys and many others. I have tried very hard to find manga that speaks to me the way the very best North American comics and graphic novels have from time to time. I’ve liked some and loved a few, but no single manga-ka has caught my attention and fired my senses like Yoshihiro Tatsumi. His work crosses cultural and linguistic divides in a way no other Japanese comics creator has for me. The brutal honesty found in his three hardcover anthologies are unmatched in any comics I’ve read by any other creator, from any continent at all that you’d care to name. Tatsumi’s finest work is as good or better than that by the comics creators I admire most in the world, whether it’s Clowes, Crumb, Ware, or either Hernandez Brother (although he hews closest to Gilbert’s sensibilities if you ask me).
I say all this by way of explaining to you that I knew what I was getting into with Black Blizzard; I knew it was not a “mature” work, and I knew it would not be as “good” as, say, Abandon the Old in Tokyo. I’ve already seen reviews that have definitely cast it in a lesser light or found it wanting. And okay, I get it: Black Blizzard won’t change our world.
But that’s not the point. The point is, it changed Tatsumi’s; Black Blizzard is a landmark on the road to his journey from wannabe comics creator to one of the planet’s greatest living cartoonists. He admits in his interview with Tomine that this new release is “like exposing something shameful and private from [his] past.” And with Tatsumi’s monumental body of more mature and thoughtful work, I don’t doubt that that’s true. But as a record of an important stage of his development, as a key pre-historic relic of a very important part of comics history, Black Blizzard is invaluable.
I’m not saying it’s some boring and bad comic that we should all have on our shelves to prove how much we know about comics. In point of fact, Black Blizzard is a fast-paced and thrill-a-minute crime story about two desperate murderers brought together by circumstance, unaware of their shared secret history, and on a collision course that will allow only one of them to truly be free to enjoy the rest of his life, should he live long enough to do so. In their way stand cops in hard and fast pursuit, brutal cold and constant tension that builds and builds as the story is told.
Oh, to have been a child able to read such violent, pulpy and (yes) romantic fiction whenever I chose! No wonder manga built such a huge and loyal following in Japan over the decades it developed and grew into an unstoppable cultural force. I started reading comics in the early 1970s, and while Tatsumi was busy then crafting some of his greatest works, as a young child in North America I had Richie Rich. I had Archie. I had Spider-Man, but by Gerry Conway and Ross Andru, not Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. I had crap in 1972. In 1956, Tatsumi was giving young Japanese manga readers thrills, chills and the possibility of getting one’s hand hacked off by a desperate, wild-eyed killer with five notches already in his belt. Black Blizzard is occasionally awkward and not terribly well-drawn in places, I’ll give you that. But it’s sweaty, breakneck stuff that absolutely conveys its creator’s passion and desire to tell a thrilling story. Tatsumi says he didn’t get much reader reaction to it at the time, but I can tell you if I had read it when I was ten years old, it would have blown me away and made me love comics far more than Richie Rich and Cadbury’s tame and bland adventures ever could have done.
So yeah. Garish and cheap, lurid and even amateurishly drawn; Black Blizzard is all that. And I had one hell of a good time reading it, and I love how it’s presented and how its creator acknowledges all its flaws, and how its publisher and designer rightly celebrate those flaws and create a conduit through which all Tatsumi’s youthful vigor and muscular storytelling can awkwardly elbow its way through the dismissal of history and the wisdom of those who know there are far better comics than this. But be that as it may, there are also far, far worse comics than this, and there are far worse creative sins than the ones Tatsumi committed in creating Black Blizzard.