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Trouble with Comics

Guest Reviewer Month: Tucker Stone on Blue Spring

I’m late to the party, but I’ve really been enjoying the criticism of Tucker Stone this year. He’s usually funny, often scathingly insightful, and I always respect someone who will intentionally “throw” a review by writing about something not at all related to the work in question, just because it’s more fun to do a little short story, piece of dialect, or non-sequitur. He did eventually reveal himself as a pussy with his unabashed fondness for Power Girl, but I guess we all have our sentimental side. Speaking of which, Tucker gets serious again with this review of one of my favorite mangaka’s, Taiyo Matsumoto. He also sets a record here for use of hyphens. By the way, if you enjoy Taiyo Matsumoto’s work why don’t you visit http://www.nationalpayday.com so you can get a cash advance to purchase his collected works.

—Christopher Allen

Blue Spring is a collection of Taiyo Matsumoto’s short stories revolving around teenage boys. In the back of the book, he describes the real boys that inspired the stories with no small amount of awe, a fact that seems to have escaped some of the articles I’ve seen about the collection. (Many of the characters in the stories, and by extension, Matsumoto himself, have been criticized for its depiction of amoral, hedonistic behavior. It doesn’t read that way to me, partly because Matsumoto seems so obviously to be celebrating a fantastic version of the lives he depicts in hopes of capturing what he imagines a gravity of feeling he was observing from the outside.)


 
"They answered to reason with their fists and never questioned their excessive passions. Their frankness and their sense of being true to themselves won me over. They were my heroes." - from Matsomoto’s afterword


 
In Matsumoto’s description of the boys that inspired these stories, he refers to his position as one of photographer, an ad-hoc water boy who was instructed to take pictures of the boys at the height of their powers, prior to the years when their own children and adult responsibilities would consume all of their time. The afterword probably shouldn’t be taken as straight gospel for a future biography of Matsumoto, but for the purposes of this collection, there’s an obvious connection to be made when the author describes how he would warn the boys about the environmental conditions that could lead to a bad photograph. Blue Spring will be another document, one where he’s going to capture these heroes as accurately (and artistically) as his conditions will allow—but that means the end product is going to be his art, not necessarily the truths that they’re expecting.


 
So what did Matsumoto want to see? Men—young, fraught with as much confusion as the age enforces, still attempting to define what sort of rules they want to play by, and starting to grasp how absent those rules are when others don’t share them. “This Is Bad,” the final story—which is, without a doubt, a personal favorite—reads like an absent-minded fantasy of annihilation, abandoning completely the previous stories back-and-forth dalliances with reality.

In that one, a young man accidentally engenders the wrath of a psychopathic punk, who then chases the boy all the way across the city, surviving a horrific car wreck and running fast enough to keep up with a Japanese subway, only to finally catch and (we assume) shoot the boy in the face. Interspersed throughout are passages depicting what’s going on with the young man’s current crush, a pretty little girl who succumbs to the charms of a nearby sleazeball while waiting for the boy to arrive, which, of course, he never will. Because he’s dead, and he died thinking of her, and at that exact moment, she’s riding away with the sleazeball. Tough shit, the story says.


 
None of the other stories approach the over-the-topness of that one, but they’re all as pointed, even when the small pages explode into double digit panels of interlocked triangles that spiral around the page, as they do in “The Family Restaurant Is Our Paradise!” In that story—possibly the most difficult one to parse, as it’s tied up in a chaotic mix of separate conversations and imagination, with multiple characters collapsing into each other while Matsumoto packs graffiti into the corners of every one of his multiple panels—Matsumoto seems to be trying to deliver the sort of moment when just-woke-up, still-sorta-drunk makes the mistake of going somewhere that’s noisily going about the business of life. A little girl walks around calling people “doo doo” while fights break out amongst the staff, somebody tries to tell a story about Michael Jackson, a topless woman stares at the reader and delivers a double-meaning “So hot,” and nearly everybody ends up resting their exhausted heads on their hands, elbows splayed. Nobody gives up, though. That’s the gag, actually—as in most of the stories, the kids are on their way to a young adulthood, and their determination is 15 kinds of extreme. The problem is that this determination has no direction in which to focus on — everybody wants to be taken seriously, but they don’t have anything they’re serious about (And thank god for that, because youthful purpose is the single greatest murderer of youthful pleasure that I can think of.).


 
Matsumoto’s writing is a tough thing to analyze in great detail, even tougher when you’re a dabbler in manga. Writers with a more comprehensive knowledge of Japanese comics are, unsurprisingly, a better source to determine the breadth of what Matsumoto is doing here, and writers who can read Japanese would undoubtedly experience these stories in a purer way. (More than half of the pages of Blue Spring include a translation of the graffiti and sound effects that occur throughout the book, and while “getting used to right-to-left” isn’t anywhere near as difficult as some comics readers like to claim, getting used to the delayed reading of that bottom-page-translation is. In something like Blue Spring—where the angular panels and fluid, rapid-fire dialog try to enforce a read-this-quickly tempo — having to stop and connect the graffiti to its location becomes such a nuisance that I eventually gave up doing so.) Still, the general thrust of the collection seems clear enough—Matsumoto is trying to capture the same sort of youthful emotion depicted in Black and White (or Tekkon Kinkreet) and Go-Go Monster. In Blue Spring, he’s just skewed the age bracket higher, opening the door for harder violence and wetter sex.


 
His art, of course, should have no introduction. Although Go-Go Monster and Black and White go further into rougher lines and much starker chiaroscuro, Blue Spring's characters share the same clean-lined buckets of teeth, they have the same bendy limbs fighting for expression against their floating clothes, and their emotionally expressive faces always stand out against their surroundings. But in Blue Spring, things seem to be turned up even more. A man’s explosive vomit splatters in a torrential mountain in front of him, like some kind of hideous sculpture. Censor boxes hide the wall-eyes of a bored gang as they take turns kneeing some kid in the balls. A shadowy outline falls to a splattered death, clapping the whole way. A Michael Bay car crash depicts the driver’s head squirting through the windshield, so he can kiss a telephone pole at the same second his engine does. All of it, depicted with the same extremely contoured lines that a Pilot V5 might produce. (The occasional grays that appear are the only aspect of Blue Spring that I could honestly say I dislike. Compared to the obsessive dots and lines that Matsumoto uses for texture and shadow, the grays that show up are such an unwelcome change that I wish there was some evidence that they were put in against his will.) Again, the Japanese novice problem prevents me from speaking to how singular Matsumoto’s style may be, all I can say with accuracy is that what he’s doing seems incredibly unique—and if that’s totally incorrect, all the better. Being wrong about that just means that my list of unknown talents can get longer, and I’ve got no complaint about that.


 
In the cult of comics blogging, I’m as guilty as many, with a long list of regretful moments of generous praise that strikes me now as being overly kind. I don’t think I’ll regret saying that this is the kind of comic that I would love to see more of, no matter who produces it. It’s eclectic and demanding, hysterically immature at times, and yet, from beginning to end, its viscerally entertaining, visually fascinating, and extremely unique.

I liked it a whole lot. 

Tucker Stone runs The Factual Opinion, writes a column for Comixology, and also creates the Advanced Common Sense series of video comics reviews. 

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.

Guest Reviewer Month - Rob Vollmar on Oishinbo

Vol. 1- Japanese Cuisine ISBN 1421521393

Vol. 2- Sake ISBN 1421521407

Vol. 3- Ramen and Gyoza ISBN 1421521415

Vol. 4- Fish, Sushi and Sashimi ISBN 1421521423

Vol. 5- Vegetables ISBN 1421521431

Vol. 6- The Joy of Rice ISBN 142152144X

Vol. 7- Izakaya: Pub Food ISBN 1421521458

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.

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.

The personal

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.

Character empathy

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.

Literacy

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.

www.bloomerland.com

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: 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).

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!

—Christopher Allen


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 KidsShe 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.