Blast From The Past: American Flagg #1

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Recently I spread the word on Howard Chaykin’s recent series on the history of comics from the inside, Hey Kids! Comics!, being a success for the seasoned comics creator. Within that review, I mentioned his earlier effort, American Flagg, which I believe to be his most successful creation. So lo and behold, here I am at one of the local comics shows, and what leaps into my hand but a copy of AF #1. Didn’t look like it had been read, was in a clean bag and a board, and was for sale for the bargain price of one dollar. Obviously an omen, I had to relive this older favorite of mine.

Chaykin, who’s made his rep depicting high adventure, lusty, cynical, violent hero types, perhaps like many creators, uses his leads as a portrayal of themselves as center actors, living through their characters. Howie is certainly guilty of this, but while his leading males are certainly bigger than life, they are also infused with an everyman sense of how outrageous their situations are, and a sense of indignation for being put there. Rueben Flagg, our protagonist, is an out of work soap opera actor replaced by a holographic projection, and finds himself working a crap job as a law enforcement officer at the local Plexmall, a microcosm of what future society holds for us, excesses and all. It’s midwest based, with the Plexmall inspired by suburban Chicago malls, with numerous local inflections sprinkled along the way.

To Chaykin’s luck and First publisher Rick Obdiah’s credit, Chaykin gets LOTS of leeway on mature content for a comic I could of sworn was on the newsstands. Flagg jumps right into the action, the basic plot and numerous characters introduced at breakneck speed to keep action in the forefront. While they may display a stereotypical slant to them, Chaykin’s self sense of interest leaves a fresh, spicy imprint on all, giving his actors a personal distinctiveness rare among comics, especially right off the bat here. The boundaries of good taste are also pushed a bit, with suggested sex, drugs, and continuous gang violence just the beginning of this ride.

While Chaykin is always on the forefront of narrative graphic panel composition, American Flagg displays an assurance of talent, a mature mastery of eye movement, composition, and the full integration of literal word messaging within the panels contents. Rare indeed are the experimental approach and the common sense of storytelling disciplines working in perfect tandem as they do here.

Yet another strength in Chaykin’s bag of tricks is is an ability to constantly invent costumes and clothing. The thought and detail here should be a visual lesson to any creator of what it takes to produce a multi layered, textural reading environment. This makes the comic repeatedly accessible, each new read revealing previously missed visual cues. I really didn’t notice the “ben day dot” effect till my second read, that gives the figures another easy to achieve level of depth, allowing Chaykin to focus elsewhere within the panel on other inventions.

Big kudos to “new” letterer Ken Bruzenak here, who’s skill at typography and design take Chaykin’s birthings to a new level. There are literally dozens of fonts on display here, encyclopedic in their numbers, yet fully clear with their intent and narrative focus. Flagg incorporates figure drawing, graphic design, and typography to a high level here, and it works just fine. Lynn Varley’s limited palette with its 64 standard printing colors is also a demonstration of what pros can do with skill and limited means. What both accomplish here without computers certainly paves the the way for later practitioners.

While one can quibble with Chaykins manish approach and overtly sexy derring do, it’s obviously what inspires him to do comics at this level in the first place. What he does with 28 pages here is a visual testimony of his skills, and a “restrained” approach for a wider audience. All of the actors here are likable, stylish, and leave a great impression with the reader, despite their role in the drama.

Like the fine arts, comics sometimes are so far ahead of their time, their true value not recognized until much later. This books mainstream accessibility along with its continuous sophisticated display of invention, form a perfect balance of commerce and creativity, easily placing it into my pantheon of favorite comic books.

American Flagg, now over 35 years old, still remains as fresh and different as the day it was published, a superior effort from one of comics modern masters. Quite the bargain at a buck, which was also its original cover price, by the way.

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Hey Kids! Comics! – Howie Chaykin’s History of Comics

Heykids

Howie Chaykin, a writer/artist who’s been on the comic scene since the early seventies, has always been a bit of an outsider. While he’s done his share of the standard and not so standard mainstream hero fare, has generally exemplified his best work among the “anti mainstream” tendencies. After all, a guy’s gotta work, right? But it’s within those oddball, fantasy concepts he reveres and excels in.

Early on at DC, working on the Burrough’s revival Weird World series, the wonderful Sword of Sorcery adaptions from Fritz Lieber; the related creator owned Cody Starbuck from Gary Frederich’s Star Reach label; culminating here on his most successful creation (in my own humble opinion), American Flagg for First comics. About this time he matured, decided to push the envelope on “acceptable” comics, and went off on a series of outlaw concepts for the mature readers Vertigo line, did the nasty x rated Black Kiss series at Vortex, and stayed away from the big two, only dipping his feet in the water for the steady paying work. During a recent reentry into semi mainstream, he collaborated with writer Matt Fraction on the wonderful (but also not fer kids) Satellite Sam series at Image.

While all this time having both steady income and critical praise, he still kept that outsider, trend bucking cynic that picked scabs frequently off those with gentler tastes. Whether brought on by personal experiences or sympathetic attitudes towards his fellow creators, this history in comics has brought him to create Hey Kids! Comics!, a five issue history of comic books and the creators that brought them to life and suffered greatly for the experience.

Chronically depicting the lives of three comic books creators that spent their lives working within our favorite hobby, he covers lots of ground by splitting chapters by decades, showing the aging and growth of our protagonists and the world they inhabit, warts and all. It’s a good way to keep all the misery from overcoming us, done in several page chapters, each issue repeating the format while continuing the main story, as well as some of the more scandalous and heartbreaking tales from its history.

Chaykin spares no expense here in the lives of these creators, as they struggle to continue to earn a living, meanwhile watching the business grow and evolve around them, swallowing decency and mutual friends along the way. The comics business is shown by its soft underbelly, the stuff you didn’t want to know, but knew it existed. The many lives destroyed in its endless conquest for fame and the almighty dollar.

While a decent understanding of comics actual history will provide dividends to those who study such things, the synonyms of those depicted will entertain and horrify any reader. The industry whose products we loved for a lifetime had their origins in stories not far removed from EC horror comics of the fifties. Both sides of the coin are represented and contrasted, the wealthy publishers, the insane editors, and the mercilessly taken advantage of creators, adding up as entertainment for mainstream comic readers that probably didn’t even know they existed for the most part.

Chaykin is in his element here, ceaselessly parading it all for us, never withholding the sordid truths, the monetization of sex, the racism and ever present class warfare, all adding to our precious comic memories, unshielding our eyes from it’s mean and devastating truths.

Aesthetically, one can say Chaykin here has some of his ticks that some readers may find off putting; his slight visual repetitions from one character to another and an expanding list of characters can make you work a bit to keep it all straight. I read each issue a couple of times, then blew through all five for a much more coherent and continuous read. The sheer cynicism on display here could turn off some readers, but its the subject matter here thats off putting, Chaykin’s talents only serve too well the stuff he’s depicting. For me, these ticks can be forgiven. After all, Howie is in his seventies, and he’s producing here an incredible tale- a sympathetic story thats incredibly sad mostly because it is real and the casualties are those we grew to love and admire in our desire for four colored fairy tales.

Chaykin only works with A-list talent, so kudos also to Wil Quintana’s rich, lively colors, and the never ending varieties of Ken Bruzenak’s lettering. Also assisting in his line up are several guest stars, helping him create the detailing that helps give the book life and it’s authentic touch, as well as back matter thats essential.

Despite whether you can stomach the details and the story, the utter lack of ethics or morals portrayed by those in charge that benefitted the most from them, there can be no doubt that (paraphrasing from the book) comic books are truly the ATMs of the media development industry these days.

Howie, you’re a tough read. But somebody’s got to do it, and while I’m sorry its you, you are the best fitted for it. Thank you.

More Formal Comics: Kevin Huizenga

Ganges #5Ganges #5; Fantagraphics; 2016; $8, 32 pgs; in print.
Ganges #6; Fielder Media; 2017; $8, 36 pgs; in print.
Fielder #1; Drawn & Quarterly; 2017; $8, 36 pgs; in print.

As far as results in mainstream comics go, entertainment is the number one priority, generally. But what if a creator(s) wanted to add something else to the mix? More extraneous content, such as a secondary, or plural purpose behind their intentions? Formal comics, as I call them, take into account a creator’s desire to go beyond simple entertainment. Such as adding a “profound” point, or perhaps displaying further inclusions into the author’s mind. Perhaps, dare I say it, comics providing an additional level of sensory experience?

Kevin Huizenga, what one could label a contemporary formal cartoonist, has been working for a number of years now, eschewing powerful fictional leads and situations, and produced some truly thought provoking work, with a talent that still entertains, yet seeks to provide another layer of humanism to the mix.

Initially in self produced “fanzine” formatted mini comics, Kevin has explored subtle questions about a variety of personal interests, pushing the expectations of comics in a uniquely different direction, while simultaneously giving himself aesthetic challenges to what comics depict, as well as attempt to reveal questions that puzzle him and provide impetus to produce comics, and test the mettle of his act of creation.

These examinations look toward the real and the imagined, the easily visible and experienced, as well as the realm of unreality itself. Whether it be a more traditional biographical approach, incorporating the side tracks and inroads towards non visceral, imagined, and theoretical reality as well.

His narrative approach, while seeming scattershot at times, reveals an artist that loves tangents, forks in the road as it were, to explore and develop as he goes along and discovers them, all the while keeping a touch of narrative approach to keep the reader on board. These little pamphlets have the physical ability to be both charming, intellectual, yet never entirely give up on the basic goal of comics themselves: to keep the reader reading, take them on a journey, and prove to them its an interesting journey in and of itself.

Now this approach can be fortuitous with success, or a disaster that leaves the reader lost, whirling in an undefined haze that ditches the needs of the reader for an egotistical self navel gazing mess that no one but the creator is interested in. For every rare successor, there are countless others that have left the witness behind in a surreal dimension that is neither interesting and fails utterly to come close to entertainment.

Yet, Huizenga’s craft level does this, submerging his personal context to keep the oddball topics accessible and even provoking. This is even reflected in his artwork that continues this approach, sublimating any type of recognizable style of rendering for a simple, basic, shape based set of visual icons that doesn’t bombard the reader with fancy visual tricks. It almost could be categorized as a non art type of visual, leaving no overt personality to interfere with the ideas he’s exploring.

Ganges #6

Such mundane topics as cohabitation, video games, sleep disorders, as well as fascinations with historical figures and events are all delivered with an almost generic method of depiction, yet the effect of page layout on the way your eye travels across the page are all done with the utmost care during this process, each with its own set of visual cues that the witness can grasp, and have fun with on this journey.

We comic readers generally all have this “stack” of unread comics we’ve accumulated yet not read, and when I recently purchased a copy of Huizenga’s Ganges #6, and discovered I had a copy of issue #5, they both fell into a two issue examination of the life and experiences of protagonist Glenn Ganges, a character I assume is a metaphor for Huizenga himself. Shortly after, I came across his newest comic, Fielder, that nicely rounds out a good reading challenge.

Ganges #5 explores many domestic topics including his relationship with Wendy, Glenn’s wife(?), their shared careers in creative art, the interaction of family members during a funeral that winds up with feelings of misplaced guilt that pretty much anyone could relate to. All of these topics work within the 12 page story, and despite its all over the place approach, comes off as linear and relaxed. The second, which begins as an overview of James Hutton, the originator(?) of modern geological theory, segues into an existential treatise on the passage of time, and how perception can completely turn around your view in an instant, all the while keeping its narrative focus and avoid being a didactical mess. It’s rounded out by a few pages of short bursts, comprised of little questions thrown at the reader to puzzle and explore.

Ganges #6 significantly ups the ante, utilizing almost the entire issue depicting reflections of Glenn’s perception of reality, seamlessly integrating a more complex set of visual tactics, dense packed with as many things as the brain can handle, yet it still comes off as a structured narrative, with as good a conclusion as we can produce in our own real time. All this and accomplishing a developed set of visual devices while still maintaining a non personal, simple drawing style that keeps the focus on its proceedings. Ganges #6 would have to be one of the more complex comic books I have ever read, yet keeps its identity as an accessible, entertaining exercise in its own right. Incredible.

Fielder #1

Fielder #1, the most recent, entertains, yet provides a half book length exploration this time putting forth his formal recreation of an abysmal third rate 60’s style adventure comic, breaking it down into pieces to examine its elements, and displaying their strengths and weaknesses for us to contemplate. The final set of short stories, one featuring Glenn Ganges and an overview of the mixing of sleeping and waking perceptions, features little reference to personal life pretty much entirely, and another more abstract video game interpretation of creation(?) round it out, except for the final tale, an unmistakable auto biographical foray in to Ganges life as an artist, takes a 180 degree turn as it is realistic, and cannot be confused with anything other than a mature cartoonist at the crossroads of his career and life. It comes off as somewhat melancholy, and discusses in length developments in his drawn work, and is purposely I believe depicted in as personal and realistic(?) manner as Huizenga has ever shown. While troubling, it may signify an end(?) to his previous approach, and sadly to this reader, an unknown sense of whether we’ll see him again. Nonetheless, Fielder #1 remains a solid example of what has come so far, and I really want to see what comes next for this impassioned, thought provoking artist that many can relate to, and of course, enjoy. I also noticed that the time it took me to read these three 32 page comics was just about 2 hours total. Try getting that much experience from three issues of the X-Men.

While Huizenga is not a simple read, he pays great dividends to the comic readers that will appreciate a road less traveled, as well as one that transcends typical storytelling methods for a greater reward, and perhaps an expanded view of what comics can be and achieve.

New Comics Wednesday

I got four.

Had lunch with a friend recently and afterwards went to a comic store with him. While nothing hit me on the the mainstream rack, the indies had me curious. So here, in no particular order, and possibly not as new as “this weeks long underwear books”, is a smattering of what caught my eye, and got me to purchase them.

Pope Hats #4,5– when I got home, I discovered I had issue 4 in my “stack”, so I read ‘em both. Hartley Lin, current master of short stories about everyday people with issues, goes with an anthology style of shorts in 4 with good results. A half a dozen quick narratives are the stomping ground, with a huge swath of characters and some poignant conclusions on them. While each has a distinctness of it’s own, it s in issue 5 where Lin lets his inner talents loose with a lengthy 60 page story all about his well realized Frances, a young lady who’s watched her bff/roomie move away for work, and now deals pretty much alone with her position as a law clerk at a huge firm. While I could say it’s a more complicated version of Betty and Veronica, the love he has for the fate of Frances is more than communicated with a warm, formal, cartooning style that nearly brought me to tears here more than once. I now love Frances, I just can’t help myself.

Black Hammer-Age of Doom #8– while I picked up this middle issue cold, I was still familiar enough with the concept and the group here enough to catch on to the endless reboot theme thats underlying here. While there’s not terribly much meat on this comic, Dean Ormstrom’s art carries it, along with just enough willingness on my behalf for patience to see where Jeff LeMire is going with this. On the edge of teetering from it’s own weighty premises, Black Hammer gives something for those too crazy or stupid to give up on superhero comics.

House Amok #5 – one of those favorite Vertigo replacement series from Black Crown, Chris Sebela manages to take a fast paced crazy family story with likable characters and just about kill all the momentum he built in the first four issues. Not the ending I wanted, but Shawn McManus’ great cartooning helps digesting this mess immensely. Decent first four issues, though, the train wreck that composes issue 5 kills it.

Lodger #2 – Another Black Crown book, noir styled authors Maria and David Lapham relate a story here about a nomadish guy that gets involved with certain peoples lives, mostly for a bad ending for them. Lapham’s experience with down trodden folks and a love for depicting real violence give this one a convincing tone, and makes me curious for another.

All in all, not bad. Makes me want to try it again sometime. The threat of walking into a comic series cold was balanced by enough talent, and for the exception of Black Hammer, the ability to read a copy of something and get a warm fuzzy feeling while experiencing comics again, enjoying the random issues.

New Mainstream Visions: Mark Russell and Mike Feehan’s Snagglepuss

Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles

DC Comics, issues 1-6, or collected $16.99 tp

When considering indie comics, the unexpected is always hopefully expected. When given few constraints, indies can explore paths unthinkable to the person next to you; I guess that’s why they call it art.

But when considering mainstream commercial comics potential, there’s not a lot a writer/artist can work with. The main goal of acceptance with widespread success along with the added baggage of a wholly already defined concept can curtail even the cleverest of minds. Really, how many new Batman stories can be there to tell after 75 years? The best of commercial writers are lucky and skilled enough to surf the demands of the publisher’s needs, yet bring something extra to the table unique to their sensibilities. Mark Russell seems to respond well to this challenge, taking a simplistic concept and giving it more complex textures.

In the relatively short period of time Russell has worked for DC, he has invigorated not only a forty plus year old property –Prez, the story of America’s first teenage president, but also taken the horns on DC’s recent push of their stable of Hanna Barbera cartoon properties as well. His ridiculous amount of success with the Flintstones mini series (with artist Steven Pugh), demonstrated not only could he keep Fred and his cohorts interesting, he could also infuse them with a modern sensibility while examining society, incorporating the animated cave man’s aesthetics along with an updated look at todays foibles. Not only did these provide more entertainment than a hundred superhero comics, but more to the point, took a commercial assignment with highly defined limits and turned it into something fresh, new, and original for today’s readers.

Whether due to this success or just good luck, Russell grabs some more work from DC on their continued push of the HB cartoon characters with Snagglepuss, a character far down the line in terms of popularity from Fred Flintstone. Much to DC’s credit, they gave Russell incredible room to stretch his legs here, reimagining SP (Snagglepuss) as the famous American playwright Tennessee Williams, his struggles surviving in the foreground of 1950’s government investigations of un-American activities to punish him not only for his unorthodox approach towards his art, but using his homosexuality as a tool against him in the public eye.

So how to take this seriously because Tennessee Williams is drawn as an upright pink feline cartoon character? Well, Russell concocts a solution of cartoon animals coexistence with normal “human” looking people, as per demands of the necessities of the comic, with a preconditioned acceptance on our part to go along with it. While I think their contrasts are a bit jarring to be fully comfortable with, I can’t deny Russell’s success in portraying his story in such a compelling manner that it easily smooths out the rough spots of such acceptance, and keeps us fully on track with the narrative, making me want to pursue it to its conclusion. He is also able to seamlessly weave in many real life people (along with other Hanna Barbera characters) into actual historical events, giving the simplistic cartoon characters a sympathetic weight formerly unimaginable.

Artist Mike Feehan is to be credited with a disciplined approach in depicting this shared animated/real life universe, carefully keeping the cast distinct from one another and constantly identifiable. Colorist Paul Mounts brings his usual bright, garish approach to his pages, but here in this “animated” universe, his palette is much more comfortable in its surroundings, adding a visual layer of bouncy electric life to the proceedings.

Here we have quite the successful balancing act, where a writer gives the publisher the goal of a favorable commercial tie in comic, but also a controversial tale, rife not only with convincing cartoon characters, but also a well researched telling of important current history along with a biscuits worth of social vetting and political examination-whew! Sadly, the comics inevitable rough ending (it is based on Williams, after all), is countered by the solemn acceptance of it’s cast, with the promise good things can follow. Which is pretty close to how it generally works in real life. Quite the feast indeed for a comic named Exit Stage Left: The Snagglepuss Chronicles.

Russell continues to impress here, with all three of his first forays into commercial comics writing must reads against all odds of them being so. May he have many more.

The Comics Fondle List of Favorite Graphic Novels Guaranteed to Offend at Least Someone

Crossed – Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows pre-apocalyptic series about man’s evil ID breaking out and dominating humanity. Many sequels by other authors, vol 1 is the best, with a second fave of the series, Crossed +100 by Alan Moore, also damn good, but a much more complicated read than Ennis’ vol 1.

Madwoman of the Sacred Heart– Alexandro Jodorowsky and Moebius. While Jodorowsky is known as a european film director, he dabbles a lot in comics, and with superb artist Moebius, produces his most coherent work here. Great rollicking story about a college professor who’s convinced by one of his students he has the seed for the next Christ, the plot is all over the place like a great chase movie, with a great cast of characters, sex, drugs, and an outrageous plot that travels worldwide. The art by Moebius fantastic also.

Pinocchio– this retelling of the fable by French artist Vincent Paronnaud (nee Winschluss), is quite possibly the greatest. No holds barred, Pinocchio is certainly put through his paces in this jaw dropping, visually disturbing tale with a great formal technique by Winschluss. Lots of fun!

Weapon Brown– Jason Yungbluth’s great story of the end of the earth, where classic cartoon characters are the last to survive. All of the greats are here, transmogrified in a story that keeps going at breakneck speed throughout 350 plus pages. Charlie Brown, little Orphan Annie, Popeye, Calvin and Hobbes are all here. Yungbluth is really inspired, a master of dark humor, and his artistic chops are solid.

Big Man Plans– Tim Weisch and Eric Powell, whose Goon is quite popular, outdoes himself here in this mean spirited, brutal, dark tale of revenge of a midget who worked Vietnamese foxholes as a soldier, and the horrible revenge he seeks against those who where mean to him. Great stuff and very disgusting.

Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers– Gilbert Sheldon’s great 3 Stooges parody, with three hippie brothers that are always looking for the next buzz, and the hilarious methods it takes them to get there. A classic 60’s underground comic.

Neonomicon– Alan Moore’s tribute to the disturbing writings of H.P. Lovecraft. The end of the world is here, and the dark god begins his unveiling on earth. Two stories, the first an introduction tale, based on Moore’s prose, and the sequel, a progression of the authorities pursuit of the evil.

Providence– the prequel/sequel to Neonomicon, begins with a turn of the century writer, and his quest to find Lovecraft and share his sensibilities, is a work of dark horror than has been unmatched in comic books. Not for the squeamish, this book leaves none untouched by its disturbing concepts and visuals that bothered me in my sleep, no easy task.

From Hell– an earlier book of horror by Alan Moore, this one takes everything he can find on Jack the Ripper, and works it into a complex, multi faceted biography that is perhaps his most complex work. Great well researched art by Eddie Campbell only makes it better.

Big Blown Baby– Bill Wray, one of the geniuses behind “Ren and Stimpy,” goes several notches further on the depravity charts, with this hilarious and disgusting story of an alien infant stranded on earth. Wray is also one of the best cartoonists in the business, giving this R rated adventure some serious flavor.

Black Hole– great alternative artist Charles Burns does a great story on a sexually transmitted virus that mutates high school classmates in this David Lynch flavored monster story, with real creepy sexual overtones.

Empowered– Adam Warren’s parody/homage of superhero comics featuring a hot young superhero with serious self esteem issues. Started with a bondage fetish strip that were commissioned drawings that evolved into it’s own, these are perhaps some of the better superhero comics made today. That they feature sexual tension throughout as well as some really suave art make these a fave. Skip the Avengers and read this.

Fade Out– To this date, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips noir masterpiece. A movie starlet is killed in this whodunit in post WW2 Hollywood is one of the better realized stories of our era, and Phillips art along with fully developed characters make this a must read.

Bratpack– Rick Veitch’s perverted, dark look at the REAL lives of teen sidekicks to the heroes was made years before The Boys, and I would say an initial inspiration for it. Not for the squeamish or faint of heart.

Clown Fatale– Viktor Gishler’s b movie plot about a group of women that become circus clowns to later take over the circus drug running and mob operations actually works, and is a fun read, laced with all the good stuff that goes with these things. If this one grabs you, look for his Order of the Forge, a ribald adventure with three of Americas founding fathers taking time off from their debaucherous pursuits to stop a power mad governor from invoking Satans plans on earth during the revolutionary war. Gishler is real good at this b movie stuff, so If this one also grabs you, look for Sally of the Wasteland, another dystopian look at post war earth that stars a hot lass that will go to great lengths to save and love her hillbilly boyfriend.

Livewires– Adam Warren of Empowered did some some straight mainstream work at Marvel with this one featuring a group of female SHIELD LMDs that rebel and take on their own lives is good Marvel all the way. Superior mainstream.

Miracleman– Alan Moore’s take on superheroes didn’t begin with Watchmen, and this earlier study of the genre first started in England, but finished here years later, is perhaps the most realistic and logical of the super mythology tropes. While the art gets a bit weak in the middle, Rick Veitch and John Tottleben step in to finish the saga which concludes in the only way it could. Skip the Neil Gaiman sequels.

Rawhide Kid– back when Joe Quesada ran Marvel, he did wondrous things. One of them was this unusual take on the Rawhide Kid, an old western gunslinger who in this version just happens to be a gay man in the old west. Great humor, and some perfect art by John Severin, who could draw horses in his sleep. Recommended.

Rover Red Charlie– yep, post apocalyptic earth is certainly in enough comics, but if you love dogs, Garth Ennis scores well here featuring a group of canines that fight to survive in a post “Crossed” time situation. Definitely for dog lovers.

Smax– a spin off of Top Ten, Alan Moore’s look at the Superman character that has to go back to his own dimension for a weekend funeral is a great send up of fantasy roleplaying gamer quest type nonsense, with Moore sparring nobody’s feelings.

Ultimate Adventures– again, when Joe Quesada ran Marvel, great books just happened. This over the top parody of Batman and Robin, along with an Alfred type character, entertained me profusely, and much better than regular Batman.

We 3– One of Grant Morrison’s greatest stories, this one involving three lab animals transformed into military killing machines that break their leash is great social commentary, and a good message on cruelty to animals with a great ending. Frank Quietly’s art is a big draw too, blending Morrison’s imagination into reality seamlessly.

Comic Strip Apocalypse: Weapon Brown

Weapon Brown$23, 400 pages
Death Ray Graphics
Mature readers


In my half century plus of devouring comic books, one looks for the occasional diversion from the mainstream highway. The 60’s underground comics scene showed that the language of comics didn’t need to be subverted or limited by the “necessary” publisher of comics. Creative folks could find like minded souls to publish and print their more personal types of work.

In the late seventies and early eighties, printing costs lowered as technology elevated print methods, and was more accessible to individuals, so a plethora of privately published comics started demonstrating what comics creators could do when given absolute authority over their own product.

Not that this venue didn’t produce its share of self indulgent crud; but as always, a few dedicated, talented artists could sneak through and provide content just as professional and even more successful (at least aesthetically), than mainstream publishers.

So somewhere after 2000 comes Jason Yungbluth, with a burning need to create, and a fair amount of talent to go with it. Fused with an ability to draw, and a subject matter to inspire, Weapon Brown is born. Initially done as a series of self published comics, Jason has foisted a collection of them on us, and I am only too pleased to receive it.

The modern apocalypse is a regularly tread story for comics, the optical sturm and drang along with a limitless amount of social issues to draw from, make it indispensable to current creators. How to keep one’s opinions valid while mixing them with an entertaining vehicle remains the challenge.

Yungbluth’s obsessive love for classic and modern comic strips provides him with the grist needed to pull this one out of his hat. And pull it out he does.

Based on a loose framework of characters from Charles Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip, Jason puts them through the wringers of post apocalyptic life a la the flavor of Mad Max along with countless scenes of death and destruction.

Weapon Brown is a transmogrified version of Charlie Brown, pulled apart and rebooted to suit the desires of the evil Syndicate, a group dedicated to the submission of all the remnants of earth. Within this simple concept, Yungbluth’s art is constantly on the move, and always willing to show off his drawing chops like there’s no tomorrow. The strip itself bleeds this immediacy, showing scene after scene of beautifully illustrated carnage alongside a hilarious and bizarre roller coaster ride of a plot, plowing through endless amounts of characters in service of its pay off. Even the most nebulous of pets, Snoopy, here gets a reincarnation that makes him a million times cooler. End of time comics don’t get more dramatic or as funny as Weapon Brown.

The inventiveness and execution are all important here, and Yungbluth not only shines, but we get to see his wonderful evolution as a visual artist as well. The earliest strips show hints of things to come, but by the third chapter, you’re in absolute wonder of how far the visuals develop, and by its end, Yungbluth has shown he’s in the big leagues, easily dispatching many of those whose mainstream work he emulates. Yungbluth makes comics his, depicting characters you care about in a hilariously comedic fashion with some of the most disgusting visuals you can imagine.

The difficult path here may be the relevancy of classic comic strips characters themselves. With the near demise of newspapers, and the ever stagnant condition of modern comic strips at their lengthy end, you would most likely have to be at least 50 years old and have a nostalgic interest in them to even know who these characters are. It’s to Yungbluth’s credit his interpretations don’t need it. They stand as individuals first, with the visual layering of their original associations an added treat to old fogies like myself. Also, the fact that Youngbluth goes through a litany of artistic development and influences, mastering them along the way, teasing the reader waiting for what he’s going to regurgitate next.

With it’s 350 page plus length, you could be tempted to think he may of overstayed his welcome, but the opposite is true; there isn’t a page or a panel “wasted” to gratuitousness that doesn’t contribute to where he’s going with this.

That the extra material demonstrating his creative process, a wonderful pin up gallery, and pages of annotations to mention his influences and what you may have missed the first time through are the sheer definition of necessary back matter as well.

It’s these “one shot wonders” of our art form that occasionally sneak out and grab us, bite us in the ass, and when you’re finished, to just sit back and wallow in the glow that is finishing a story that not only satisfies in its essential goal, but leaves a lasting imprint upon those who experience it.

Despite it’s in your face, nightmarishly disgusting visuals, it’s disrespect towards honoring anything of human value, or the sacrilegious yet hilarious handling of beloved classic comic strip characters, Weapon Brown is one of those rare outlaw masterpieces you should not miss.

War Was Made for Comics: Tardi’s I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War

I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner of War
By Jacques Tardi
Fantagaphics, hc
185 pgs, $29.99

When it comes down to it, War comics have a top tier place in all things comics, with their constant struggle, conflict, and resolution in story format. Never a big genre of our generation, but at a time when physical war between large powers was still possible, war comics held their own as a genre in this hobby. Obviously, the World War Two propaganda lent itself to the dramatic storytelling of comic books, using their aggressive dogma to accept a favorable influence, it was the human element however, that stretched and defined what war comics were and what they could be in this post war lack of innocence period.

During the actual struggle of World War Two, the romantic, psychological, and yes, even patriotic slant fueled the emotional flames of their essence. One rebel with a cause, Harvey Kurtzman’s war books for the EC line of comics of the fifties, let creep out an eerie underskin of war, its effects, and exactly how unromantic war can be to the helpless civilians caught in it. This decidedly contrary attitude marked many of the EC’s war tales, and along with their top level art, made an indelible mark in war comics history.

While during the sixties, hippie comic artists were hardly proponents of war, but their comics didn’t shield readers from what it was and its graphic finishes. While was not a huge driver in underground comix subject matter, Jack Jackson, Greg Irons, Rich Corben, and Spain Rodriguez among others created memorable war stories for the revolutionary in us, both realistic and fantasy inspired.

The introduction to more biographical war stories ascends here with the Japanese series Barefoot Gen (‘73-‘85), an actual first person narrative by Keiji Nakazawa, depicting his own survival of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, with the horrendous tale of the remaining members of his family and their day to day existence.

After the seventies softening up of the mainstream publishers, honest, graphic, and more realistic war stories started taking hold. Sure, you could pit the mindless adventures of Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos against the more pertinent tales of Sgt Rock and Easy Co., but for the most part, war comics in general not only became pretty realistic, but also great narratives for those of strong enough chops to weave a story within them.

From the gritty Vietnam era and an exact respect for military detail not seen since the 50’s EC’s, Dan Lomax’s Vietnam Journal featured a writer that scanned every angle he could to show what life was actually like there in the jungles, to the rough, nasty, post modern Punisher tales by Garth Ennis, who would latter take the modern throne with War Stories, incorporating actual historical wartime events into personal life changing moments of the folks that lived them.

A later example of the biographical strain, where the story is related by the one that lived it, being Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the story of his father’s survival from the German WW II prisoner of war camps. Related visually in a slightly distancing manner that utilizes anthropomorphic animals as upright replacements of humans in a dark cartoonish, expressionist style, its emotional underpinnings are written on its sleeves. Given a Pulitzer for its success, the book is masterful in getting across the wounds of war in a somewhat digestible manner.

Spiegelman, listening to his fathers stories, relays them to us, both as a bit of mental release, worked out from conversations with his father that he recorded, and adapts to comic book form.

In his approach to his own volume, Jacques Tardi also relates his fathers time at war as a POW, depicting some generationally related discussions over the years, but inspiration from the biggest details come from a series of three sketchbooks his father did as a way of keeping it alive.

While both fathers to the artists were prisoners of war, both reacted differently to their time (which makes sense, Tardi’s father being French, and part of Germany’s shared occupation of France with the French, and Spiegelmann’s father a Polish jew), but there we begin to part ways. While Spigelman’s history is related in an highly dramatic, immediate manner on explicit reality, Tardi’s is softer, and slower in tone, gathering many details as it goes along.

Tardi, a renowned French cartoonist in his own right, has practiced quite liberally relating tough war stories on WWI to get to this point. His drawing style, not changing much, here uses three horizontal panels per page, constantly reinforcing the panoramic nature of the camps, and the environments within them. Photo derived at times, they exude a simpler, inkyness to them that keeps the compositions easy to comprehend, yet provides many shapes for the eyes to wander in. Also involved is Tardi’s younger self, walking alongside the tank his father drove, and shared space with a modern version of his father during the camp scenes. They provide a father/son back and forth that keeps the modern perspective in, yet also a reverence for what happened and the respect its reflected in.

A successful mix, the book had me gliding effortlessly throughout its run, its dozens of haunting images hard to take in, but not be scared or scarred by. Tardi is living this period of his Dad’s life with him, and they relive it with different sensibilities, and mostly diplomatically.

Life in the camps gets the full treatment, with its own rules and regulations, laws of supply and demand, and the sheer myriad of personalities that thrive and fall here. Reni’s communicative skills help him survive, and thrive a bit compared to those less fortunate. Tardi also successfully impresses the overall weapon of hunger used against the prisoners, seen as the most potent and painful of all the sins committed against them by the Nazis.

This book performs its service nicely, keeping me curious and wanting for more after every page, perhaps slightly disappointed at the end with the finish promised in the NEXT volume. I guess a 350 page trade paperback may not of been wieldy, but hopefully its sequel will be along soon. Tardi is a modern master of depicting war, and the intertwining of his fathers life gives it half of its punch, an ingredient missing in many lesser war comics.

While the inevitable comparisons arise when two masters of comics tackle almost the same exact subject matter, each comes away with a hard sought, highly labored effort that easily convinces us of sheer amount of work it took from its authors to visually create these stories.

War is hell, and for those involved in its detail, Tardi doesn’t shy away from the facts, but keeps them manageable for even the most casual listener. There’s something about an artist that will take the time to do the research for accuracy, and Tardi helps set the standard for it.

In a round about way, each generation of great artists involved with stories of war were able to step up to the playing field, accomplish something their predecessors couldn’t, and generally elevate the details of war and its effects in ways that real war can’t. Not only entertaining, I, Reni Tardi, takes its place among successful war comic stories, and helps raise the bar for the next one.

Realistic Flintstones: Anthro

DC Showcase #74

DC Showcase #74
Anthro issues #1-6
DC Comics
1968-69 12-15 cents ea.

Deep within the recesses of DC’s late sixties explosion of titles, a unique direction for mainstream comics occurs. I’m referring to Anthro, Howie Post’s take on prehistoric living.

Post, a gag cartoonist, who first started drawing comic books in the golden age, was an animation director, did a stint working on scary stuff for pre-Marvel Atlas comics in the fifties, and is best known for his long running syndicated strip, The Dropouts (1968-81). Just before that he ended up proposing to DC his version of what caveman life was like. Within this framework, he eschews a natural interpretation of history, bringing along dinosaurs, some modern slang, and our protagonist, Anthro, who with his immediate family, venture forth and survive the tests of daily living.

This family unit includes his parents, his grandmother, and younger brother Lark, to complete the set. Post creates an exciting, semi realistic set of challenges for them, along with modern takes on their relationships, including Anthro’s father losing arguments regularly with his mother in law, the dangerous and regular hunt for sustenance, and his continuing distraction with those curved cavemen, known as women, whom his father claims are the most dangerous of beasts to be wary of in this challenging world.

Anthro #1

Each issue tells a chapter of his tale, from his early encounter with thwarted love, helping his father protect his miniature clan from starvation as well as attacks from wild beasts, surviving contact with superior races, culminating in a trek across many lands to avoid the “ice age”, and ultimately, his reunion with Embra, his first contact with someone of the female species of his own age. Anthro is strong enough for the challenges, yet always uncertain of their outcome, and rarely confident in his ability to win the day.

Post provides a galloping ride to the proceedings, never sitting still long before the next menace comes, keeping the plot fresh and fun to follow. His cartooning, a scratchy, yet easy on the eye type of line work, creates caricatures that while type cast, have a certain grubby charm of their own. Post keeps a light feel to the proceedings, despite the ever lurking dangers, as well as a wonderful contrast between the somewhat handsomeness of Anthro, and the primitive, Cro-Magnon look of his father and others. The girls here, are depicted with a similar grace, cute when needed, and realistically homely when the humor demands it. None of the men or women however, are sparred the indignity of at least mild unattractiveness.

Anthro #2

What sets this series apart from your “typical” adventure series is the overall warmth generated by Anthro and his family. Whether they argue about the indignities of “nuclear family” life, or teaming up to protect one another from harm, there is a genuine camaraderie about them that is fully convincing.

Here within is Post’s strong suite, taking the average and mundane, and giving it life to make us care about it. Sure, death is around every corner, but they will face it with the limited skills available, along with the earnestness of a group that really cares for one another. Post manages to tell a legitimate tale of an early family, along with an atmosphere of lightheartedness that keeps you vested in their survival.

Not too airy and not too deep, Anthro is an honest read in its aims to entertain, yet not hit us over the head with it’s wild premises and bends of reality. There is a bit of Post’s personal involvement with all the characters here, and it pays off in a mild mannered, breezy read, that brings you completely into it’s world and keeps you warm and fuzzy. The series only flaw here being it’s premature ending, with solid yet contrasting inks this issue by Wally Wood, most likely brought about from the intrusion of Post’s new gig as a syndicated cartoonist, a step up for artists, with a much better paycheck.

Anthro #6

And that’s plenty for me.

If you’re lucky enough to sample Anthro (not sure its EVER been reprinted), and enjoy it as I have, click on the link here for an interview with Post to find out how exactly alike he and his creations are.

http://twomorrows.com/comicbookartist/articles/05post.html

Anthro. A real charmer of a sixties comic, for those of us that revel in such things, as well as a taste of a comics era that will most likely never be seen again. Sadly, it’s all the poorer for it, I think.

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