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ADD on A Treasury of XXth Century Murder: Lovers’ Lane - The Hall/Mills Mystery

What else is there to say about Rick Geary’s Treasury of 19th/XXth Century Murder series, published by NBM? The series has been going on forever, every volume is a delightful and offbeat look at a genuine historical murder mystery, and Geary is probably one of the three or four most talented and accomplished North American cartoonists alive today. If sales were based on quality alone, each new volume in this series would be selling millions of copies. For surely millions of readers would enjoy this literate and visually stunning series, the overarching subject matter of which has informed untold successful movies, TV series and novels – murder.

From Cain and Abel in the Bible, to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell to Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s Criminal in comics, from Agatha Christie to Donald Westlake in prose, murder has long been probably the second-most consumed form of entertainment after pornography, and sometimes the lines are blurry between the two. Certainly both can deliver titillation and spectacular climaxes, although stories about murder can contain subtlety and nuance few works of pornography would ever aspire to. At its best, stories about murder, both fiction and non-fiction, can tell us something about ourselves and our world.

And of course, there are nearly as many ways of telling a story about a murder as there are murders themselves. But few artists have created such a powerful and engaging niche for themselves with this genre of storytelling as Rick Geary has. For as standard as many of his storytelling devices seem to come with every project he tackles, the strangeness of the stories and the sheer, unadulterated joy he takes in telling them make the Treasury of Murder series indispensible for lovers of true crime, and for aficionados of top-notch comic book storytelling. None of these volumes has ever disappointed me in any way. Whether as seemingly well-known a tale as that of Lizzie Borden or the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to the virtually unknown-to-me stories about The Bloody Benders, or this one, about the Lovers’ Lane murders of a man of the cloth and his mistress, Geary always delivers an astonishing amount of information. Because murder is messy and real life isn’t fiction, we don’t always find out who exactly dunnit, but I think it’s safe to say no reader has ever closed one of Geary’s murder books feeling that facts were left out, or that the whole story wasn’t told.

In this new volume, Geary introduces a bizarre murder scene and then establishes the various suspects and motivations. Given the nature of the killings, there’s little doubt that it was personal, and primarily spurred by the relationship between the two lovers. But many questions can be asked about the killer or killers, and precisely what it was about the illicit affair that made murder inevitable. As always I am most fascinated by how Geary ties in the moral standards of the day and the reaction to the world at large to both the murders and the secret events that led up to them. And, as always, I am blown away by the meticulous beauty of Geary’s artwork; though he employs many, many lines in creating the worlds in which he immerses us, never does a line feel unnecessary, extraneous or flamboyant. Somehow, every line Geary lays down, every silhouette he chooses to use, is perfectly placed to tell just precisely the story he wants to tell us, in just the manner he wants to tell it in. Few writer/artists in the history of comics have show such sustained control over their instrument, while at the same time offering up exquisitely produced comics again, and again, and again. 

Some of the books in this series leave little doubt who the perpetrator or perpetrators was or were. Some of the facts in some of the cases introduce so much doubt that Geary can only present them and ask the reader to render judgment, or not. But the delight in these books is not in the solving of a mystery, or the closing of a case. The delight in Geary’s ongoing investigations into some of the weirdest murders in history is seeing how he gathers his facts, and how he lays them out for us, and the little touches he injects along the way that add gravity, legitimacy and often whimsy to his reflections on the darkest of all human impulses.

Alan David Doane 

Seven Funnybooks That Changed How I Saw Comics

Sometime this year, and I am not exactly sure when, I passed a milestone of having read comics for forty years. The first time I remember being given a stack of comic books was at the age of six, recovering from having my tonsils out. Ice cream and comic books in the recovery room — yes, America, our health care system has really deteriorated since 1972.

Over these four decades, some comics have blurred into obscurity to me. I am pretty sure that that first stack included Spider-Man and Archie titles, but I can’t pinpoint which particular issues they might have been. I suspect the Spider-Man was an Amazing Spider-Man in the 120s, but that’s as close as I can get it.

Other comics stand out in my memory like they came out yesterday. Some because they were so good, others because they were somehow significant in some way to my development as a comics reader. Here are the most memorable of those comics.

 

* Daredevil #181 - In the 9th grade, my best friend Donny and I shared a love of comics, and there was no comic we looked forward to more every month than Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s Daredevil. Miller had begun drawing the book with issue #158, really started to cook art-wise around #164, and when he took over as writer with #168 (first appearance of Elektra, true believer) Miller began a long ramp up to the explosive, apocalyptic #181. I remember the cover blurb word for word — “Bullseye vs. Elektra…One Winss. One Dies.” And for once, it wasn’t just hype.

Bullseye had bedeviled Matt Murdock since, I think, #159 (back when Roger McKenzie was still writing the book), and the climax of this issue sees the assassin murder Daredevil’s first love Elektra in as brutal and final a manner as had probably ever been depicted in a Marvel comic up to that point. Elektra’s death, brief as it was (she was resurrected in Miller and Janson’s last issue together, #191), felt much more realistic and portentous than the usual superhero comics death, and although she’s died and come back a number of times since, no one could ever hope match the visceral gut-punch Miller and Janson delivered with this issue.

Additionally, with a few decades reflection, I’ve come to believe that this issue marks Miller’s absolute peak as an artist (his peak as a writer was either Batman: Year One or Daredevil: Born Again). After this, every comic book Miller drew seemed to be an exercise in experimentalism, or just seeing how far he could get his head up his own ass (culminating in the graphically bankrupt Dark Knight Strikes Again). These days I can’t find any interest at all in anything Frank Miller is involved with, which is amazing to me when I look back to Daredevil #181 and remember how very much it seemed like a new high for comics, and certainly a signal moment for Frank Miller as a writer/artist. 

 

* New Teen Titans #1 - To say I was a huge fan of George Perez in the late 1970s and early 1980s would be a colossal understatement. The only two comic books I ever subscribed to through the mail were Avengers and Fantastic Four, both at the time being regularly drawn by Perez. So when he moved to Marvel and overhauled Teen Titans with writer Marv Wolfman, I was all over that book from the moment the preview story appeared (in DC Comics Presents, I think?), and my interest really sustained itself for a good long while — certainly through The Judas Contract, which had the somewhat shocking revelation (for a DC comic of that era) that the 50ish Deathstroke was sleeping with the 15ish Terra.

If you were the right age and reading comics, it was almost impossible not to fall in love with Claremont and Paul Smith’s Kitty Pryde, or Wolfman and Perez’s Tara Markov. The difference was, of course, that Terra was designed from the get-go to turn on the Titans, and Wolfman’s long-term planning of Terra’s story arc struck me at the time (I was in my mid-to-late teens) as extraordinarily sophisticated for a superhero comic book. When New Teen Titans split into two titles, one in the regular format and one in the Baxter Paper format, I think my interest began to wane, and by the time Perez left as artist, I was gone too.

But for quite a few years, New Teen Titans was THE monthly superhero book, stealing a lot of thunder from Marvel in the fan press and in the minds of readers. These days the books seem hopelessly overwritten and the melodrama is all a bit much, but the truth is, those comics were written for 12 year olds, and as such, they provided an exciting, seemingly more mature look at what was possible within the superhero sub-genre.

 

* Reid Fleming, The World’s Toughest Milkman #1 - “78 cents or I piss on your flowers.” If that means nothing to you, you weren’t there, and I can’t help you. Literally the funniest thing ever published in a comic book, and that line sticks with me, all these years later. David Boswell was an outsider artist creating a comic unlike any other before or since, and Reid Fleming’s world needs to be experienced by everybody, everywhere. 

 

* Uncanny X-Men #137 - My first issue of Uncanny X-Men had been the one where Mesmero brainwashed the team and turned them into carnival acts, with Magneto showing up at the end in probably the most impressive full-page panel I had yet encountered — I mean, dude looked scary. I had very little clue who most of the characters were, but I was instantly engaged by Claremont’s writing (slightly better than Wolfman’s, but certainly as wordy if not moreso) and more urgently by the artwork of John Byrne and Terry Austin.

Although the team was around a few months after #137, this double-sized issue really was the climax of the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne/Austin era, with stunning superhero battles, heartbreaking drama (I was hugely invested in Scott and Jean’s relationship, for some pathetic adolescent reason) and a sense at the end that a genuine drama had played out and a price had been paid. I was fascinated a few years later when Marvel released the original version of the story in a Baxter Paper edition (also included in Marvel Masterworks: Uncanny X-Men Vol. 5) including a roundtable discussion among the creators and then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, who had demanded that Jean Grey be punished for her misdeeds as Dark Phoenix. I never get tired of re-reading such Claremont/Byrne/Austin classics as The Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past, and apparently neither does Joss Whedon, who pretty much borrowed those storylines whole for his TV shows Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Dollhouse, respectively.

 

* Thor #337 - In my early years reading comic books, it was a fascinating process to learn to discern different art styles. Gil Kane and Vince Coletta were two I learned to spot almost immediately, one because he was so dynamic and skilled, the other because he turned almost everything he touched to shit. I’ll let you guess which is which, although it should be said Coletta Thor appropriately rustic natural blah blah blah BULLSHIT oh my, God, Colletta was a horrible fucking inker.

But anyway. Walter Simonson and Howard Chaykin I noticed both about the same time, from their work on DC books, and in Simonson’s case, especially on Manhunter with writer Archie Goodwin, which, just, there’s almost no words for how good their Manhunter was. Almost the perfect comic book story, regard in its time as a classic and it has only improved with age, a claim few other series from the 1970s can claim. So by the time I heard Simonson was taking over Thor, I was ready for some gorgeous comics. What I wasn’t ready for, had no idea I’d be getting, actually, was the wit and invention Simonson brought to the writing end of his writer/artist tenure on the book.

There was buzz on #337 from the moment it hit the stands, and I can remember having to search high and low to find a copy, I think, in a drugstore somewhere in Saratoga Springs. The book sold out fast, and for the first year or so, Thor became something it had never been, the toast of superhero comics readers everywhere. Simonson is a talent that has continued to grow in his decades in comics, never soured like Frank Miller or gotten too baroque for the audience like Chaykin has sometimes managed to do. Thor #337 was a big, dividing moment in 1980s comics. There was everything before, and there was everything after. 

 

* Nexus #1 - This one came seemingly out of nowhere. I had never heard of the publisher, the writer, or the artist. Even the format — oversized, like a magazine, for the first few issues, and black and white to boot — sent a message that Nexus was not your average superhero funnybook. But for all its more mature concerns — betrayal, obligation, fascism — Nexus felt very purely like comics, in the same way Lee and Romita’s Spider-Man did, or Englehart and Rogers’s Batman. If I could go back and whisper in Baron and Rude’s ears, I would say things like “Never use a fill-in artist,” and “Never renumber the book.” If, retroactively, I could make those things happen, I probably would always have kept up with the adventures of Horatio Hellpop and his wild gang of friends and enemies and frenemies. But no, somewhere what made this book got lost, and I lost track of it, and we’re probably both the poorer for it, Nexus and I. 

 

* Cerebus #1 (Counterfeit) - This was probably the single most significant single issue of my formative comics-reading years. In one weird moment, my interest in artcomix, my fascination with the Direct Market and my love of comics in general all came together. Cerebus had been gaining in popularity for a while — I think around this time it was in the mid-20s to mid-30s numbering-wise, and everyone was reading it. There had never been anything like it. I can’t remember if the Swords of Cerebus collections had begun yet, but the early issues were going for serious cash on the back issue market. A plot was hatched by unknown conspirators who went from one northeastern U.S. comic shop to the next, telling the same story to each shop about how they had stumbled across a stash of Cerebus #1s. (I know Roger Green will correct me if I get any of the details wrong here.)

It wasn’t long before the shops realized they’d been had, that the books were fake, and they were stuck with God only knows how many copies of Cerebus #1, The Counterfeit Edition. In a move that could never, ever happen today, my local comic shop, I believe with the consent of Dave Sim, offered up the fake #1s (with signage making it clear they were fake) for, if I recall correctly, ten bucks each. Later there would be guidelines that became known so buyers could determine if a copy was real or a phony, and these days I don’t have either, but I kind of wish I had held on to my counterfeit Cerebus #1, because in all my four decades of reading comics, I think that was the strangest and most surreal incident I can recall. And also the one that really clued me in that comic shops were businesses, and businesses obviously vulnerable to fraud and wrongdoing, at that. Previously I had just thought of them as a little slice of Heaven, right here on Earth.

— Alan David Doane

ADD on The Dark Knight Rises

So, The Dark Knight Rises. I had zero desire to see the movie based on the incomprehensible trailer. I had not much cared for Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and felt pretty strongly that the director had failed to truly confront or address the issues he danced around in his second Batman movie, the Heath Ledger one. (Was it called The Dark Knight? I feel like it was but can’t remember for sure, and I feel like that in itself is significant in some way.) I’d spent some time evaluating reviews and deciding that Roger Ebert’s 3 and a half star review nonetheless indicated that the movie isn’t very good and doesn’t hold together well.

Oh, by the way, there will be spoilers herein.

So I had no intention at all of seeing TDKR. Then my best friend from high school, visiting from Japan, where he’s lived since the mid-1980s, says to my wife and me yesterday, “How about a movie?” The next thing I know, we are at Albany’s superb independent movie theater The Spectrum (they spell it theatre on the tickets — we were in theatre 3 in case you’re wondering) getting our tickets, me, my wife, and my best friend from high school (who was also the only person I knew in high school who read comics — we used to breathlessly discuss the wonders and merits of Miller’s Daredevil, Simonson’s Thor…but I digress).



I don’t know that it’s a smart movie — it feels quite run-of-the-mill in its intentions and execution. In their best stories, villains like Bane and Ra’s Al Ghul and his daughter Talia are motivated in the comics by fairly sophisticated ideas compared to most comic book supervillains. Bane’s drive here seems simpatico in a way with the Occupy movement, but far more violent and nihilistic, and perhaps capitalistic, since he and Selina Kyle talk about the equitable redistribution of wealth (not that they ever use that term) and the movie shows the excesses of the rich to the detriment of the poor, yet you never really get the feeling that Nolan cares much about the issue, which actually is one of the most important questions of the 21st century. He’s far more wrapped up in showing us the suffering Bruce Wayne has endured for eight years, since the death of ol’ what’s-her-name in the previous Batman movie. 

Nerdy Batman fans will inform you that Batman’s paralysis here, lovingly demonstrated through Bruce Wayne’s complete lack of knee cartilage and failure to continue funding orphanages (I wish I was kidding — and by the way, doctor, can you really walk with no cartilage in your effing knees?) demonstrate a profound failure to understand Batman as a character. But that’s understandable, since there are so few comic books about Batman. How was Nolan to know any better?

Once Catwoman starts doing her stealy thing and it quickly turns out (surprise!) she’s somehow connected to Bane (as is everyone in the universe, apparently), Bruce Wayne straps on a magic cartilage thingy on his thigh, shaves off his utterly unconvincing goatee and washes that gray right out of his hair. Then shit gets real, lots of stuff blows up, and why is Robin called John Blake? I bet someone thought that was an awesome reveal. And it might have been if he had, at some point, say, the end of the movie, come face to face with the Robin costume, say, in a big glass case. At some point costumes in the Batcave stored in big glass cases became all portentous and thrilling, so how could Nolan have dropped that particular ball?

All this is not to say I didn’t enjoy watching The Dark Knight Rises. Despite my never, ever buying into Christian Bale as Batman, despite the plot holes here and there (how did Bruce Wayne know exactly when the bomb was going to blow, upon returning from his 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness? How did he survive a nuclear explosion?), the sheer will of Nolan to end this thing, and a soundtrack that is astonishingly LOUD LOUD loud propels us to the end of the movie. And no, dear, there’s no after-credits teaser scene — that’s Marvel, honey. I know Avengers had one. No, that’s Marvel. Yes, and Amazing Spider-Man. Still Marvel. Batman’s DC. They’re different. Yes they are, believe it or not. (I was hoping for an after-credits scene with the aforementioned glass costume case revealing Robin’s duds or better yet Terry McGinnis’s, but no).

It’s more watchable than I expected. It’s longer than hell, and it’s noiser than an elephant fart to a gnat hanging on the ring of its anus, but it’s watchable and Michael Caine, Gary Oldman and Morgan Freeman always make these movies seem more important and meaningful than Nolan ever remembers to actually make them.

In the end, after three overblown and undercooked Batman movies, the only thing we’ll remember, the only thing that felt right and transcended genre, was Heath Ledger’s Joker. I hate all the goofy Batman villains like The Riddler and The Penguin and The Joker, preferring above all Ra’s Al Ghul in all his moral and ethical shades of gray. But Nolan’s Ra’s, interpreted by a poorly-chosen Liam Neeson, never did it for me. Ledger’s outsized Joker felt terrifying and awful and like chaos itself embodied in one sick, random psychopath. Ledger’s Joker made you feel something, which is the only time that happened for me at all in Christopher Nolan’s three Batman movies. I like movies that make me feel things, and that honestly earn the right to make me feel those things. Maybe the next guy who directs a Batman movie will get that part of it right. Because that’s how truly classic movies, timeless storytelling, works. Nolan’s made some great and intriguing movies, and he’s also made three Batman movies, and that’s about all I can tell you.

Alan David Doane


 

David Mazzucchelli Daredevil: Born Again Artist’s Edition

There’s one page in this magnificent volume that has a caption that says something like “This single page is the only one in this book not reproduced from the original art.” It’s a cover image of reporter Ben Urich, made small in his terror, having been brutally attacked and his hand broken by an enormous, evil nurse sent by the kingpin.

Somehow the presentation of the book is made more pure by the upfront admission that one page out of so many here isn’t reproduced from the original art. “Who cares?” I thought to myself, admiring the art of that page nonetheless. “The rest of it is, and it’s incredible.”



It’s possible you weren’t there when Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli seized the reins of Daredevil after a long spell that had its ups and downs but never reached the heights Miller and artistic partner Klaus Janson reached in issues #168-181. When we (the readers) found out Miller was returning to write a few more issues starting with #227, we were disappointed Miller would not also be drawing and Janson would not be inking. That disappointment was gone by the end of Miller and Mazzucchelli’s first issue of the Born Again storyline, because it was clear that Mazzucchelli was more than up to the task of illustrating this story; it was clear that it was something he was born to do.

And Mazzucchelli had already been around a while, too, that’s the amazing thing, looking back. If you pick up the Daredevil TPB “Loves Labors Lost,” you’ll see how awkward Mazzucchelli’s art was when he first came on the title, and you’ll see how amazingly quickly he developed some serious chops. In his introduction to IDW’s Artist’s Edition of Born Again (a seven issue storyline plumbing the psychological depths of both Daredevil and his arch-enemy during Miller’s run, The Kingpin), Mazzucchelli, now long-removed from superhero drawing, reflects honestly and in detail about his skill-level in those days, who influenced him (primarily Gene Colan), how he met Miller, and what their working relationship on this masterpiece was like.

It may be heresy, but I don’t think there’s a better story ever created for Marvel Comics than Born Again. That’s why this Artist’s Edition has been so eagerly anticipated by me — as I said to my son last night, driving home from the comic shop, it’s like having every page of original art of the very best comic book ever, and I can look at it whenever I want, for the rest of my life. So IDW and David Mazzucchelli and Scott Dunbier and Chris Ryall and whoever else made this happen? I am seriously grateful for your work in making this book a reality. Thank you.

I’ll be honest and tell you, in unpacking this giant book from its cardboard box and laying it out, I didn’t re-read every word Miller wrote. Not this time, although I may in the future. But the truth is, I have read this story at least 50 times since it was originally published, and I almost know it by heart. No, seeing this Artist’s Edition for the first time, I just wanted to take in the art, and I did. A number of things stood out as I went slowly through the pages:

* The overlays. Oh, my God, the overlays. If any pre-publication publicity mentioned them, I didn’t notice it. Much of the original art had vellum overlays for the purposes of colour holds, so the images of the art for those pages was combined in layers to create a single final image. Most of the overlays, we learn in the text, have been lost. But a handful remain, apparently, and IDW faithfully reproduces the technique. So we get maybe half a dozen pages with vellum overlays, which is just an extraordinary added value, in my mind. It’s a way of deepening the sense of examining the original art, as well as allowing the reader enormous insight into both Mazzucchelli’s artistic process and the reproduction challenges of the era (the 1980s). Gorgeous.

* Individual panels always memorable in the comic book now stand revealed, uncoloured and with no veil of bad reproduction between the reader and the art. Matt Murdock sleeping in the trash, his life ruined. The flirtatious look in the eyes of Matt Murdock’s ex-girlfriend as she gets ever closer to his best friend Foggy. The rooftop meeting between Matt and Captain America. The astonishing way Mazzucchelli presented Cap, Thor and Iron Man, reminiscent of how Alan Moore and Steve Bissette and John Totleben presented the Justice League in Swamp Thing: as gods among men.

* The covers. Mazzucchelli’s design sense and ability to bring his vision to life on the page are just astonishing. His covers for Born Again were absolutely masterful. The image IDW chose for the cover of the volume, which was originally thrown away on an issue of Marvel Age (a cheesy self-promotion pamphlet Marvel was publishing in the ’80s), is my all-time favourite Daredevil illustration, and its repurposing as the cover of this volume is further proof that this book was actually, specifically designed to make me deliriously happy.

The greatest thing about the month-by-month release of Born Again in comic book form was that, like with just a few other comics in the 1980s (Moore’s Swamp Thing, Chaykin’s American Flagg, Simonson’s Thor, Los Bros Hernandez’s Love and Rockets), we knew, at the time, how very lucky we were to be getting regular fixes of such incredible comics. Comics that elevated and transcended the industry that they came out of. Comics that changed minds and altered lives and set destinies. People became writers and artists and retailers and critics because they were so mesmerized by the quality and the level of entertainment that they experienced — take it from me, I was just barely an adult when Born Again was originally published, and I had no idea at all that a superhero comic book story could be so good, could reward so many re-readings. After Born Again, I wondered why they all couldn’t achieve their goals so easily, so wonderfully. 

Decades on, I realize that it takes a hugely unlikely intersection of talent, ambition, opportunity and luck to make comics as memorable and unique as Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Daredevil: Born Again. It is given its best possible presentation in IDW’s new Artist’s Edition, made new again by letting us see and feel what Miller and Mazzucchelli accomplished in the most intimate and immediate manner imaginable. Yes, one single page is not reproduced from the original art. Who cares? The rest of it is, and it is incredible.

Alan David Doane 

Scrampance

"Scrampance," a former colleague once told me, was her mother’s word for what was for dinner when the cupboards were nearly bare and you were down to nearly nothing.

Tom Spurgeon’s latest Five for Friday asks, essentially, what are the last five comics buying impulses you would give up? In other words, if you had just about lost all interest in comics, what would be the last five habits you would be holding on to? I didn’t send in any responses, because I was quite sure I am already down to less than five.

My current pull list of floppies (that is to say, whatever is left of the traditional comic book) is Daredevil (for Mark Waid’s writing), Spider-Man (I hated the One More Day reboot, but I have to admit Dan Slott’s writing a character I can actually recognize as Spider-Man, unlike most people who’ve written the character in the past 15 years), Fatale/Criminal/Incognito (because I will buy anything Brubaker and Phillips create together), Star Trek (because it’s stories I recognize as Star Trek and it feeds the hunger for more left in the wake of the 2009 movie), and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

LOEG is written by Alan Moore. The fact is that Moore is the best writer to work in comics in my lifetime, probably ever, and his work has never let me down, with the exception of a couple of Image miniseries that I don’t think he’d mind my not having enjoyed. But the recent anti-Moore tsunami on the part of comics fandom is a disgrace, and has even affected how I view comics as a whole. As an objective fact, it is wrong that DC went ahead with Before Watchmen, and the failure of the market to reject it utterly has left me more disgusted with comics as a whole than I have ever felt in about 40 years of reading them. Knowing that comic shops are carrying Before Watchmen makes me not want to step into one. Knowing readers are buying it makes me want to not ever have any contact with those people at all. Actually seeing the comics on the racks requires an enormous force of will not to pull out a lighter and set them on fire. 

So my comics buying impulses are down to these: Buy anything by Brubaker/Phillips; buy anything reprinting EC work by Harvey Kurtzman, Bernard Krigstein or Wallace Wood; buy anything by Alan Moore.

Pretty much anything else I am reading now is subject to whim. I know creative changes or editorial fuckery could have me cutting Daredevil or Amazing Spider-Man from my pull list tomorrow. As much as I am enjoying them now, we’re still talking about comic books. Creative changes and editorial fuckery are as common as days that end in the letter “Y.”

This isn’t to say I won’t buy any comics in the future that don’t quite fit these criteria; there are a few critics I trust implicitly who could easily convince me I am missing out on something I would like. But after 40 years of reading comic books, my buying impulses these days are very, very mercurial. I am not at all interested in the digital strategies publishers are exploring, and I am not much interested in mail-order. Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, but in my world comic book stores should have rack copies of every new release, and I don’t and won’t go to the bother of pre-ordering everything anymore. I tried that model, and frankly, fuck it. There are a few things on my pull list, but for the foreseeable future I won’t be adding anything new to my regular purchases unless I find it first on the rack of some comic shop smart enough to have comics on the rack for people to browse. I like the thrill of the hunt. I like flipping through a book until I know for sure if it’s destined to come home with me or stay behind on the stands for someone else to buy. I don’t like flipping through Previews every month (it literally gave me a headache every time I did it, and I did it for years, like a fucking fool), and I don’t much care for hunting for stuff after-the-fact on eBay or Amazon, although I will and have done just that, because it’s less aggravating than the Previews pre-ordering bullshit.

I realize I am way, way off the reservation on this. There may not even be one other person who reads this who feels as I do. But after 40 years of reading comics and over 25 years of almost always having a regular pull list somewhere, I am sick to death of the whole rat race. I just want a few good comics that entertain and fascinate me, and I want them on my goddamned terms.

So when someone as smart and canny as Tom Spurgeon asks what my final five comics buying strategies are, I have to honestly admit I’m down to fewer than five. I’m nearly down to scrampance. I don’t necessarily like it this way, but as Walter Cronkite said for many, many years, “That’s the way it is.” 

Alan David Doane 

ADD Reviews Greg Rucka’s Alpha

Greg Rucka’s gifted comics writing, which brought believability and drama to titles as diverse as Queen and Country and Gotham Central, led me to give his prose writing a try. I think I started with the Queen and Country novels, which were very well written and a nice addition to the mythology created in the comics; but it was with the Atticus Kodiak series of novels that my appreciation for Rucka’s writing found its firmest footing.

Kodiak begins his long character arc in the earliest novels as a the head of a bodyguard agency; over the course of the series his life takes one incredible turn after another, so much so that the only thing tying together his character between the first and the most recent novels is Rucka’s ability to gain and keep the reader’s confidence and investment through passionate but practical writing and what must be mountains of research.

The skill and storytelling style Rucka brought to the Kodiak novels is right upfront in his new novel Alpha, the beginning of what will be at least a trio of novels about Jad Bell, a former soldier who in this first volume finds himself placed at a prominent amusement park ahead of a possible terrorist attack on the park. Thinking about it, the events of September 11, 2001 would have been as effective, if not more so, if one of the targets had been Disney World — the emotional toll (and likely the death toll) would have probably been far higher even than the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It’s a horrific scenario that Rucka dives right into, humanizing it through the point of view of his protagonist Bell, and also Bell’s deafmute daughter and even the sleeper agent tasked with carrying out the attack.

We get right into the heads of these characters, and feel the tension, terror and call to action that arises out of the plot against the park, which may or may not be what it seems to be. Along the way we get a feel for what a soldier like Bell must go through, what motivates him and what he endures to save those he is charged with protecting. Rucka makes what could have been purely political highly personal, so that every setback, and every resulting action, feels logical and sensible, no matter how dangerous or incredible.

I recently mentioned on Twitter that after Donald Westlake’s Parker, Atticus Kodiak was probably my favourite continuing character in prose fiction. I’d say Joe Ledger from Jonathan Maberry’s novels is up there, too. And after devouring Greg Rucka’s Alpha, there’s a good chance Jad Bell will nose his way into that exclusive club pretty soon, too.

Alan David Doane

ADD Reviews Fatale #1 by Brubaker and Phillips

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips stretch their considerable creative muscles to make Fatale #1 an electric and delicious start to their newest project together.

I’ve been a fan of this creative team since they first came to my attention on Sleeper, followed them singly and together on pretty much every other title they’ve worked on, and cite their ongoing Marvel/Icon book Criminal as my current favourite ongoing title. “I like it so much I started a blog,” I’m tempted to say.

None of this is news if you’ve been reading me for any length of time at all, so I won’t bore you with further explication of the esteem in which I hold Brubaker and Phillips’s joint comic work; just take it as a given that if they are working together, you’re going to be reading comics in the finest tradition in terms of style and substance. Single issues that read well all by themselves no matter where you are in the storyline, complex characters that surprise and delight; lush, convincing images that invite you in to the world being created before your eyes.

Fatale, like Sleeper and Criminal (oh, and Incognito, too, yes) does all that, and does it all quite well. But it also goes places Entrancin’ Ed and Sure-Fingered Sean never have before; the duo set their new book in a dark world of mystery and horror inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft (another of my favourite writers). This isn’t the icy, brutal sexual terror Alan Moore delivered in his excellent Lovecraft homage Neonomicon, however; Brubaker and Phillips craft a more baroque feel for this new world we’re discovering, all dark corners and unknown terrors that invite exploration. The mood is set from the very start, as a dour group of people gather in the rain for a funeral. Strangers meet, words are exchanged, and questions quickly arise. And just like that, we’re immersed in a new world of darkness and wonder.

The first-person narration of main character Nicholas Lash feels comfortable and intimate, but the strange things that begin to happen to him unfold so quickly that you’re as disoriented as he is by the way the world turns out from under him. As he immerses himself in a story-within-the-story in the form of a previously unknown manuscript brought to him by a beautiful and mysterious woman who may be much more than she suggests. The scenes depicted from the manuscript really give Phillips a chance to show what he can deliver, as we get a luminously noir scene-setting city street depiction so detailed and visually stunning that it’s also called-out for the issue’s back cover illustration. We see truly creepy thugs reminiscent of The Strangers in Dark City or The Gentlemen in the “Hush” episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but by way of Herge’s Thomson and Thompson. Visually witty but still filled with horror and dread. 



How does the story Lash reads relate to the death of his godfather? Who, really, is the beautiful and intriguing Jo? Why does the gore and spatter emitted by a chest-wounded thug seem…wrong, somehow? Lots of questions, and you’ll want to read further and get the answers. Brubaker’s best comics writing by now has the same spare confidence and bravado of a master musician, and Phillips brings a level of detail and verisimilitude to this story that is virtually unknown in regular monthly comics these days.

Fatale #1 delivers value for the dollar, too; in addition to a longer-than-average story (24 pages instead of the usual 22 or more recent usual 20 in some titles), Brubaker writes an introductory text page, something that is always welcome, especially in a first issue, as it provides context and communication with the reader that is always off-putting when absent. Additionally, the always-excellent Jess Nevins has been tasked with writing an essay explaining Lovecraft and his works, a piece accompanied by a truly stunning and evocative Sean Phillips illustration of Lovecraft and his greatest, most fearsome creation. 

Fatale #1 is exactly the sort of comic readers need; an engrossing story, superbly illustrated, sharply written and with enough substance and ancillary material to justify the cover price. Any publisher wondering how to do it right should explore every aspect of this issue. Any reader wondering why comics don’t satisfy them anymore should compare Fatale #1 to any other book on the stands, because it blows them all away.

Alan David Doane 

Addendum: Ed Brubaker responded to this review on Twitter, saying “You got one detail wrong, but you’re sort of meant to. The ’50s part of the story is not the manuscript he reads.” 

ADD’s 10 Best Comics of 2011

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon) — Nuanced and bold, a new high-water mark for Criminal, which continues to be the best regularly-published comic book around. Check out the Flashmob Fridays reviews.

Incognito: Bad Influences by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon) — Not quite as soaring as the very best of Criminal, Incognito still manages to entertain and provide the sort of thrills corporate comics don’t even bother with anymore.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969 by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill (Top Shelf) — This series has only gotten deeper and better since freeing itself of DC’s control.

Neonomicon by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (Avatar) — There was a lot of outrage and controversy surrounding this title, but I thought Moore conveyed a lot of subtext and genuine horror in this Lovecraft-inspired title, every issue of which had me giddily anticipating more, even as it plumbed the darkest depths of human and inhuman cruelty. 

Daredevil by Mark Waid, Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera (Marvel) — As Tucker Stone recently noted in his interview with Tom Spurgeon, this title stands out simply because it is good superhero comics, and Marvel and DC don’t know how to do that anymore. It is, therefore, a miracle. Flashmob Fridays covered this one recently, too.

Treasury of XXth Century Murder: The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti by Rick Geary (NBM) — If you’re not following this continuing series of self-contained graphic novels centered on true crimes of the past, you are missing out on some of the most entertaining, witty and well-crafted comics being produced in the world today.

Little Nothings Vol. 4: My Shadow in the Distance (NBM) — Whimsical, genuine. Here’s my review.

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight - Marshall Rogers (DC Comics) — My nostalgia gene doesn’t usually express itself, but the Englehart/Rogers/Austin Batman stories were the first Batman comics I ever loved, and my 10-year-old self is very happy this collection exists.

Avengers Academy by Christos Gage, Mike McKone, Tom Raney and others (Marvel) — Not quite as good as Daredevil, but head-and-shoulders above the average, unreadable current-day Marvel comic. And any book with art by Tom Raney gets a look from me, because he is just an amazing artist and brings a great deal to the projects he works on.

Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes by Carl Barks (Fantagraphics) — Quite simply, some of the best comics of all time, in the most beautiful design and format of any book I saw all year.

Five Questions for Box Brown

I first reviewed some Box Brown comics about a year ago, when it seemed like no one had much heard of the emerging cartoonist. I had became aware of him on James Kochalka’s message board, and in the year since I looked at Everything Dies, Brown has fairly exploded into the consciousness of people interested in comics, not least because of his efforts with Retrofit Comics. On Friday over on our new spinoff blog Flashmob Fridays, the [FMF] team weighs in on Brown’s latest effort, The Survivalist. — Alan David Doane

Who are you?

I’m Box Brown. I’ve been making comics of all kinds since 2006. Lately, I’ve been working on a lot of non-fiction comics but The Survivalist is pure fiction so that was an exciting change for me.

What led to the creation of your new book The Survivalist?


When I set out to create The Survivalist I wanted to put a specific character type in the center of the story. Noah is a conspiracy theorist. He’s the type of guy who’s highly influenced by the stories of the Bilderberg Group and the Illuminati and he believes that “big pharma” is to blame for a lot of the world’s troubles. As a skeptic, I’ve become interested in these types. It’s so opposite my own thinking that it just fascinates me. I’ve listened to countless documentaries and podcasts about conspiracies. It was through these podcasts that I became interested in all of the weird products that are advertised to conspiracy theorists (tent, dehydrated food, urine-to-water systems). The book really started out with that character and his things. I really wanted to get into the mind of a person like that.

What is the fascination?

What would motivate someone to become this extreme type? How true to their convictions are they? Ultimately, I think Noah isn’t much different from anyone else really. I still find those types interesting.

Not to give anything away, but it seems like there could be a sequel to this work.

Not sure if Noah will ever reappear, but his favorite podcaster “Dick March” probably will. He was my favorite character to write, even though he appears only as a disembodied voice.

How do you fit The Survivalist into context with your previous comics?

I think people who haven’t read the story though would be surprised that while drawing it, it reminded me more of my old webcomic Bellen! than Everything Dies. A lot of the dialog is between these two major characters, male and female. It’s not a romantic relationship as it was in Bellen! but their dialog is kind of similar. I’m hesitant to get deep into the plot as most people haven’t read it yet.

Buy The Survivalist from Amazon.com or directly from Blank Slate. For reviews of The Survivalist, visit Flashmob Fridays this Friday. 

Six Ways to Read Comics for Free

I originally wrote this for iTaggit.com back in 2008. It seems to me it’s more relevant than ever, so I thought I’d dust it off as food for thought for budget-minded readers as 2012 approaches.

There are not too many people I know that are not feeling the pinch right now, and have been for the past several years. The price of nearly everything seems to have increased by up to 200 percent or more, and short of space aliens landing and gifting us with a new, working financial system, there’s no reason to think things are going to improve. If you love comics, now is a great time to explore alternative ways of reading comics. Here are six ways you can satisfy your thirst for great comics without cutting into your household budget.


                                  

Your Local Library
— One of the fastest-growing markets for comics is the library right in your hometown. Librarians talk to each other a lot, and for the past few years they’ve been talking about comics. Now, a visit to your local library may or may not turn up all sorts of graphic novels; mine, for instance, has a sizable manga section as well as great works like The Castaways by Vollmar and Callejo and the entire Sandman collection by Neil Gaiman and company. But they don’t have all the graphic novels I would like to read. What can you do in a situation like that? Luckily, your library is very likely not an island.

Many libraries are part of regional networks that trade books, and that interlibrary loan system opens up your choices to a far vaster array of books than is at first obvious on the shelves of your brick and mortar library. Go online and investigate the options your library makes available to you, or stop in and ask them if they have an interlibrary loan program. If they do, ask how you can access its listings to see what’s available to you. Search for “comics,” “graphic novels,” and of course, run a search for the names of authors whose work you’d like to read.

You’ll also find prose books on the subject of comics, books on how to create your own comics, and DVDs related to the subject as well. You’ll need a library card, of course, but that’s one resource no thinking human being should ever be without. Once you start looking into the options at your local library, and the other libraries they allow you access to, you may never have to spend a dime on comics again!

* Online Comics — Your options for reading comics online are limited only by your tastes and your willingness to experiment with new ways of delivering comics to your brain. Some people will never adjust to reading comics on a computer screen, while others take to the idea like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Newsarama posted an article on the subject, and a LiveJournal writer posted his gigantic list of free, online comics. That list is far from complete, but it will give you an idea what is out there, and take you months to read all the strips if you choose to do so.

And, I have to mention my favorite online strip, American Elf by James Kochalka; his site has free access to the entire near-decade of his daily diary strips, as well as other features, many of which are free. And if you really dig his stuff and have a couple bucks a month to spare (or 20 bucks a year), it’s all yours along with the comfort of knowing you’re helping one of the internet’s online comics pioneers (and most talented cartoonists, to boot) feed his family.

* Have a Seat — Many bookstores, from big chains like Barnes & Noble to your local independent bookstore, provide a comfy chair and a welcoming environment in which you can relax and browse their wares.

This isn’t entirely for the sake of charity, of course — they know a certain percentage of browsers will succumb either to guilt or heightened interest from perusing an interesting book for a while, and those people are more likely to spend some money from time to time. It costs the stores virtually nothing and increases their bottom line.

Now, don’t be obnoxious about it — browse one or two books, keep them clean and salable, and put them back where you found them when you’re done. And if you can afford it now and then, definitely spend some money in these stores to show them that offering this sort of service is a wise policy that pays off in the long term.

* Friends with Comics Benefits — As if my previous suggestion didn’t make you feel enough like a freeloader, here I go, suggesting you borrow comics from your friends. Face it, some of your friends have better taste in comics than you do, and if you promise to treat their comics right, they just might let you take home some great reading material once in a while.

Of course, it’s only fair that you return the favour and let them borrow a few of your comics. I know the very suggestion fills you with dread and sets a dull buzz going in the base of your skull, but come on, they’re only comics. Share, already!

* Torrential Downpour — Have you explored the comics available through BitTorrent? I don’t mean illegal ones, either. Sure, there are plenty of those to be found if you know where to look, but there are also public domain and creator-approved torrents that you can download and enjoy with a clear conscience. Despite what some archaic organizations might like you to believe, BitTorrent is a great way to share files with your fellow internet users. A great program to use is uTorrent, which doesn’t use much of your computer’s memory and has a boatload of options you can tweak to get your BitTorrent experience the way you want it.

Sequential Swap — Finally, a great way to get rid of your old, unloved graphic novels and replace them with fascinating new reading material is Sequential Swap. This site puts comics readers all over the globe together and allows them easy access to the trade lists of all the participating members. I’ve done scores of swaps on Sequential Swap over the years, and most everyone on the site is friendly and fun to swap with. You’ll have to pay shipping costs to get your books to your fellow swappers, but in the US if you send by Media Mail, the average graphic novel costs just two or three bucks to send anywhere in the country, a real savings over the 15-25 dollars you’d otherwise have to pay for the graphic novel you’ll receive in return. 

Believe me, I’m feeling the pain of this economic paradigm shift, too. I’ve tried every method on this list, and they all work. See which ones match your temperament, interests and resources, and explore the wide world of free comics. Let me know how you make out, and if you have any other tips for free comics reading, feel free to email them to me and I’ll pass them along here on TWC.

— Alan David Doane