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

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

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

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

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.

Batman’s Junk

Batman: Damned #1
DC comics, $6.99, 48 pages
2018

Ok then. The arrival in DC’s new line of “mature” titles featuring their biggest characters starts with an expressionistic take on the dark, forbidden knowledge portion of the Batman mythos. Not that it’s a new idea, Bats has been something various writers have stretched as far as editorial will let them after what, 75(?) years of Batman stories. Where do you go from there? In it’s quest to reinvent itself for a new generation and relevance in today’s pop culture, DC has decided a more original, adult approach is supposedly an idea whose time has come.

After reading the story, which features a trio of DC mystical characters that cameo in Bats attempt to help with the books plot, facing an unknown part of his life, that provide the impetus here. Sadly, not much is really new or different. Lots of overly used metaphors abound, along with John Constantine’s new and annoying, mysterious
narrative dialogue that pretty much abandons his former accent and smart ass attitude.

Lee Bermejo’s art, while technically accomplished, seems odd in places, perhaps with a tad too much realism to get the viewer fully engaged, being more distracting than complimentary. The Elseworlds approach used to always display to the reader this was a different type of story, not necessarily bound to the established canon with the characters. This quite often was a successful approach, with an inner sense of logic that would satisfy, and got you from point a to b in a satisfying manner.

Not that there isn’t craft of some sort operating here. It’s just that it’s not particularly original or well serviced, with a slightly askew dc universe different from the others just because it can be. All the characters seem off, not really themselves, and by not knowing a purpose for this interpretation, keeps me at a distance to care. I’m not sure where the story aims after 48 pages, and other than an interesting take on Zatanna, I’ve still got nothing invested after reading it. Murky stories and hyper realistic art aren’t a substitute here for a story I can get enthusiastic about, or even keeping me curious enough to want to read the second issue.

Then there’s the “mature” part of the story, really the only “mature” part of it, and it doesn’t add to the proceedings at all. To give this new “Black Label” an edgy, adult look and feel, we’re forced to see Batman’s full frontal junk in three shots (that I can tell, anyway), that seem ridiculously gratuitous in their inclusion. I didn’t know Bruce walked around the Batcave naked, and not sure I needed to.

Why this even exists in a Batman story is totally beyond me. I’m not a puritan, and if you gave me a valid reason to see Batman’s John Thomas I’m sure I’d go along with it. Sadly, this isn’t it. The only reason I can guess is that it gives you a reason this week to buy the new Batman comic.

Adding fuel to the fire, the week the book came out, that’s really all folks could talk about, simply because it was the only thing that made this Batman comic different from the rest. Not better or even equal, just different. The cheesy mechanization that led to this editorial decision for attention and sales elude me, and it seems this just creates more questions and problems going forward.

This brings up imaginary scenarios of my former life as a comic book retailer, where more than once I’d be confronted by a parent whose child reads Batman and wonders why this comic wasn’t out on the racks for little Joey to peruse. Following would be me demonstrating the graphic content, with the inevitable hopeless defense of why they’d make Batman inaccessible to anyone under 21 in the first place.

After all, once you get to see Batman’s junk, what’s next? Selina’s stuff?

Pass, unless you’re investing in it for speculative purposes. Even then, sell quick, cause you know this won’t be the last time we’re going to see this new, mysterious, provocative portion of Batman’s life at 7 bucks a pop.

How The West Was Really Won. At Least In Comics

DC Showcase #76

DC Showcase #76, Bat Lash #1–7
DC Comics, 12–15 cents ea. 1968

Ah, Westerns.

For me, Westerns have always been that convenient, handy, all purpose source of fiction that utilizes Americans utopian, noble, and utterly romantic interpretations of ourselves and our history. A uniquely North American period of time, Westerns give forth the vision of how we wish to depict ourselves, generally in the best fashion, to the rest of the world. Filled will grandiose stories featuring our self imposed spirit, they can be not only ironic, but a glimpse into to the American psyche itself.

The timing of their popularity comes in the 50’s after the Second World War, and was solidified in pop culture by films, the expanding cultural icons of television, and the handy and cheap format of the comic book.

While it could be said the best representations of the American Western themes succeeded the most where the big money was, with films by John Ford far out-lapping the rather pedestrian fare found on episodic television shows.

Comics tread a similar path, with the best of the form saved for the better paying, self copyrighted newspaper comic strips, with outstanding examples being Rick O’Shay by Stan Lynde, or The Cisco Kid, by Jose Luis Salinas. This level of craft was later supplanted by the Belgian/French series Blueberry, by Jean Michel Charlier and Jean Giraud, their mastery of the American Western period perhaps the apex of the form for me.

In 1968, while the popularity of superhero comics was hitting its peak, DC and Marvel were expanding their empires of comics publishing, adding ever more titles to compete with each other and starve off rack space from the second tier publishers. They tried a lot of odd, sometimes goofy approaches to comics, throwing lots of stuff at the walls to see what would stick.

While many of the “bronze age” of American comics were still mired in commercial and semi conservative boundaries, this was a good time to grow, trying many avenues of approaches to see if there were readers of comics outside the tried and true superhero genre.

And among these oddities was Bat Lash.

Brainchild of gag writer Sergio Aragones (of the Mad magazine border cartoon fame), scripter Denny O’Neil (whose English and command of dialects was better than Aragones), and house artist Nick Cardy (whose art style didn’t need to change no matter what he was drawing), came yet another attempt to revisit the Western comic book.

Bat Lash, neither fish nor fowl of the typical Western epic and characters, brought a new game to it. While most American Western comics were visually flat and dull as dirt with leads and stories to match, Bat Lash always gave his cowboy a chance to shine, utilizing the typical attributes of the old west, yet adding some spice to it. Bat Lash was a handsome devil, he had an unerring direction towards the ladies, providing a continuous weak point for his goals, as well as being a bit of a selfish cad. As much as he liked the females, Bat Lash never prioritized them over the creature comforts of money and the opportunity to move on to the next one. In fairness to the apparent misogyny here, it can be said that most of the females depicted had the same attitude towards Bat, moving on once his usefulness to them was over with.

The world of Bat Lash is populated with a stereotypical cast, but one used effectively in relation to the lead, who was selfish in the extreme, yet highly appreciative of beautiful women and a gourmet meal. While demonstrating a typical Western drawl, he also possessed a vocabulary far beyond the yoklesque townies.

First published in an issue of DC’s anthology title Showcase, he then went on to a short lived seven issue series, each one a complete tale, but giving clues about Bat and his history along the way. Aragones provides great plots as only a lover of the Western genre can, O’Neil flourishes it with dialogue thats genuine and unique to each character, and Nick Cardy’s art perfectly compliments the proceedings, utilizing a messy brush that depicts the dirtiness of the old west, but also using fine pen lines to soften Bats features and give the women a delicate sweetness that put Bat Lash’s weakness on constant display.

Another feature in this series that gave it spice was its constant dedication to humor, an almost non existent entity in Westerns, at least on this level. Never quite taking itself too seriously, yet also providing grit in the realistic manner of how life could be cheap and over soon. It balanced the inevitable violence of the drama with a warm sense of humor that smoothed out the edges and make it an entertaining, positive read.

While not quite on the aesthetic level of Blueberry, this is one commercial comic book with a sense of identity in its hands that was consistent throughout. It’s never overly serious, yet always fully involved in its need to tell a story compellingly. You can’t accuse it of being a work of high art, but Bat Lash is certainly a work of high craft. Lovers of Westerns will recognize all the familiar elements here, mixed with added ingredients that provide fresh zest for the meal, as Bat Lash would surely appreciate.

Of the eight issues produced, my faves were issue two with Bat as a reluctant father figure, along with some of the best art found in a commercial comic; issue five, with a mirror themed antagonist comically named and depicted as Sergio Aragones with double crosses supreme, and the sixth issue, featuring none of the usual humor in a story that relates how Bat Lash come into being, with an ever present sadness that’s absent in the rest.

Perhaps the best thing about Bat Lash is that you really don’t have to have a soft spot for Westerns to enjoy it. But while its execution in style and craft overwhelm any need to adhere to a genre formula, it instead relishes in its submersion and loves it.

Good Oaters…

Lewis Trondheim: The Cerebral Cartoonist

Infinity 8 #1

Infinity 8 #1-6, or volumes 1 & 2, 3 issues ea.
Lion Forge comics, 32 pages ea, $3.99, or collected as trades

When thinking about various applications of comics, I often use the term “formal approach” towards particular ones. To me, this term describes a comic where the author has a structured, or formal direction they choose to use as inspiration, or as a springboard.

Some of the earliest practitioners of this method in American comics are Rube Goldberg, who drew outrageously complicated machines to demonstrate how to do the simplest of acts, leading to an absurdist conclusion along with a laugh; Windsor McCay, author of Little Nemo in Slumberland, exploring dreams from the mind in exquisitely designed landscapes featuring characters helplessly led through a series of visual challenges, up to the more recent fare of Chris Ware, whose Acme Novelty Library pushes despair and melancholy of contemporary life in the shape of the meticulously drawn classic old newspaper strips themselves.

Infinity 8 #2

Each of these artists chose a particular method to help direct the narrative, working within a disciplined language unique in comics that both entertains as well as gives marvel in the way they accomplish it.

Lewis Trondheim, a French practitioner of this method, works in this manner in the most successful way. Neither artsy nor intellectual, at least not on the surface, his work gives forth the atmosphere of just another daily cartoon, using simplicity of concept, as well as simple technical means, to achieve this goal. When experiencing Trondheim’s work, you are not reminded of the grand structural goals of the aforementioned cartoonists, you are merely on the ride along with him, whimsically drawn along whatever he’s feeding you with.

Infinity 8 #3

Trondheim, a young master born in 1964, has had an incredible volume of published work in his life so far, and the only drawback for us yankees is that most of it isn’t translated into English. However, thanks to such forward thinking publishers as NBM and Fantagraphics, some of the masterpieces are readily available to those good hunters within our hobby.

Such formal directives as Mister I, a 60 page book consisting completely of 60 panel, one page strips of the protagonist in a universe of situations, where he is doomed at the end of every single one of them. Even more disciplined is the follow up, Mister O, a twin-ish volume of the same structural 60 single page, 60 panels per page use of the title character trying to cross a chasm in each, but spectacularly failing in every attempt.

Infinity 8 v2 #1

Other exercises include A.L.I.E.E.E.N., and the absurdist Mickey Mouse’s Greatest Adventures. These use the “lost” discovery method of unearthed antique masterpieces, offering the left behind comic book of an alien child visitor from outer space; or rediscovered Sunday newspaper comic strips never published with popular Disney icons in an adventure that makes little sense the further you go into it, but doesn’t matter as the journey itself is what keeps you captivated, helplessly turning the pages for more.

His most well known work, Dungeon, a collaboration of many volumes with several European cartoonists, takes shape in the ever present “geographically placed” dungeon, spanning eons and endless dimensions, an ever changing cast of characters, with a couple of hanger ons, in a narrative that while each is individual, they have a familiarity between them all that will captivate lovers of fantasy books as well as gamers. Trondheim, to this point, produces high quality work, regardless of whether he is working solo or as part of a team.

Infinity 8 v2 #2

Infinity 8 seems to be another formal challenge along these lines. While fully ensconced in a modern comic book narrative style, both in terms of visuals as well as storylines, is yet another puzzle he has created for both himself and the reader, entertaining and also seeming cerebral in origin.

The spaceship Infinity 8, on its “mission”, contains an endless variety of cast and crew, all from different areas of space, all with different motivations, directions, and visual cues, with the book itself set up as a series of tales, each one lasting exactly three issues, with its total run set for exactly 8 adventures.

Here, Trondheim sets up a rigid structure that both produces “typical” comic book fare, but told in a pattern that stays true to the challenge he sets himself up with. The first, a post modern horror story, establishes our central character, a female law enforcement officer that seems sucked into the horrid plot of the tale, the second, a prickly review of the Hitler ultimate solution, finds our protagonist is now a different female law officer, remarkably similar to the one in the first tale, yet different in name and visual depiction. This is supplanted and reinforced by the captain of the ship, a powerful alien that can reboot reality back in time after a certain amount of hours, a limited amount of times. This captain, a beautifully depicted alien presence, and his(?) contrasting first operating officer, an overweight, unshaven sad look of a man, who constantly and fruitlessly attempts to court our femme fatale protagonist. Reading only the first two entries to this date, there is a perfect balance between what is consistent and what is changed in each “rebooting” of the stories of the two mini series.

Infinity 8 v2 #3

While I’ve read each story three times each, I’ve got to say even note taking doesn’t give you the entire picture of what’s going on, the sheer basic simplicity of the tale(s) is the highly successful kingpin of the narrative, giving both endless complexity along with a simple driving story that keeps you engaged and wanting more. Infinity 8 for me is the rarest of beasts, then. Something both for everyone, and also for the discerning comic book fan.

Each arc has a selected artist perfectly chosen for their visual talents to each tale, with cartooning skills not too detailed, yet just detailed enough. That perfect balance of story and art, an extreme rarity for those of us that are stuck merely reading American adventure comics, take the tools used in those comics, but shows what masters of the form can accomplish in the same genre. You don’t notice the art or the vivid coloring right away, and that’s the point.

Beware, though. If you’re a fan of modern adventure comics, there is a danger here. To read and enjoy them is a pleasure not easily matched by lesser practitioners, so remember that once you reach that plateau, ordinary comics will forever seem, well, ordinary.

The Bronze Age Cometh! The Amazing Adventures of Killraven

Amazing Adventures #18-39

Marvel Comics, 20-30 cents, 1973-76

#18-20

Hot on the heels of a fury of fantasy heroes such as Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian, Roy Thomas looked for further ways to expand this non-powered concept of heroes. Taking H.G. Wells’s noted novel War of the Worlds and morphing it into a post apocalyptic action series based on the Martians second visit to earth, they’ve totally subjugated mankind, made them slaves, as well as use humans in genetic experimentation to further their goals of dominance.

In the introduction, he creates Killraven, a spectacularly successful arena fighter who’s a rebel with a secret even he doesn’t know. He gives the adventure proceedings a new coat of paint as it were, unique from its fellow fantasy comics brethren.

The first issue, written by Thomas, has some good establishing art by Neal Adams. Good with depicting action and distinct likenesses, Adams immediately gives the series an oomph that would have been difficult for a lesser artist. He makes the first story very successful, establishing the cast and world in a visually exciting manner. Sadly, Adams isn’t available afterwards, but Howie Chaykin steps in admirably. While he isn’t the draftsman Adams is, his forte with fantasy based themes, as well as exotic costuming make this a still interesting read. Continuing in this schizophrenic creative vein, Gerry Conway and Marv Wolfman step in for scripting chores on the next two issues, keeping the action going from what I assume is Thomas skeleton for the series. Regardless, the proceedings are still on track, probably saying more about the method of Marvel comics production and its in-house talent pool at the time than anything else. Don McGregor takes over as the series regular writer next issue.

#21-24

The next four issues feature new regular artist Herb Trimpe. While McGregor’s prose displays an inspired attack, the strip goes more into irony and commentary on the human condition. Whether it’s deadlines, or budget(?), Trimpe’s art gets more and more rushed from the first issue, and by the last two, story content is reduced to 15 pages per issue, with golden age monster reprints filling the book(ugh!). While he’s not able to get past flat, stereotypical characters, the divorce from Marvel reality helps enormously, and the series becomes more a treatise on mankind according to McGregor’s philosophy. The mere 20 cent cover price makes it a bargain compared to the majority of Marvel’s output of super schmucks. Hope the new to comics Rich Buckler’s art next issue can elevate it…ooh, Klaus Jansen inks, too!

#25-28

Well, after the totally underwhelming run of Herb Trimpe on art, newcomer Rich Buckler does a fill in on issue 25, and the possibilities of the book begin to show a bit as it starts to evolve. While Buckler’s figure work is a bit wonky, his emulation of both Kirby and Neal Adams add an excitement to the proceedings that wasn’t there before. The next issue is another fill in by Gene Colan, of all people; he gives this episode a dark melancholy that helps demonstrate McGregor’s story emphasis. This schizophrenic approach to visuals,-(hey, who’s got time to do a Killraven issue?), and the continued use of a mere 15 pages to tell a one off, really hurt McGregor’s strengths in trying to make his point. On one hand, he’s got bigger fish to fry, but can’t do it in 15 pages AND perform the dynamics that Marvel comics demand (editorially, I assume).

Then in issue 27, Craig Russell arrives. Two things happen that make this story work so much better than than the entire previous run. One, Russell’s art is fully ensconced in the romantic and social depths that McGregor’s writing has desperately needed a visual partner for, and Russell’s chops are up to the task. Second, he is able to turn this into a two parter, utilizing 30 pages to tell the entire story, and give it the space and length it needs to be convincing. Killraven’s band here is also given the room necessary to develop their one dimensional depiction so far, and begins turning them into genuine people. The best story of the bunch thus far, both in writing and in physical depiction.

#29-34

McGregor and Russell totally fooled me here. While last issue provided a satisfactory end to the Death Birth Citadel story, this next issue picks up mere minutes from the end of the last, making this project not one of several short stories, but evolving into a continuing narrative, really without a concrete end from issue to issue. I notice as well that Russell not only does pencils and inks, but has been doing the coloring for the last two issues as well. If creators were trying to transform this into quite possibly the most ambitious workload as possible, this comic is able demonstration of it.

Russell’s art complements McGregor’s prose perfectly. While it can be argued McGregor bites off more than he can chew in his socially conscientious narrative, Russell’s art is equal to the task, providing the needed checks and balances, elevating a mere post apocalyptic tale into what can be said is as close to a work of art as Marvel could ever publish.

But commercial publication schedules will have their way, and this one provides more casualties than just McGregor and Russell, as issue 30 provides a frickin reprint of the Herb Trimpe story we just read a few issues ago, Killraven not an old enough property to have enough history of reprints to choose from, so this one is bookended by some character pages by Russell along with a couple of pages of the main villain reiterating what we pretty much knew. Whoop, wait, the character pages provide a couple of tidbits fleshing out some facts hereto unknown about the characters. But otherwise, ugh, pass.

Issues 31 and 32 get things going again, solidifying the continuous narrative McGregor is pursuing, with little advancement in plot, but it doesn’t seem to matter. At this point, Killraven’s story with his crew isn’t about the quest, but more about McGregor’s disillusionment with humanity and its self destructive path. One that the Martians have not only finished, but provide a inevitable exclamation point for. #32 emphasizes this, putting Killraven and his buds into a prewar amusement park that caters to the dreams of the freemen, showing in its conclusion the futility of man’s selfish goals in the first place. These nihilistic threads are balanced by Russell’s exquisite art, giving hope in the form of beautiful fantasies for the freemen. By this issue, he has mercifully given up coloring and handed over inks to the excellent Dan Adkins.

Of course, after two mere issues of overwhelming craft, we fall victim to another fill in. This one written not by McGregor, but Bill Mantlo and drawn by the ever present Herb Trimpe. This issue stands out as a sore thumb scheduled as a fill in, the editor knowing by now this will be the norm. However, astute readers will notice this one should have appeared after next issue. The story itself? Well, let’s just say this. While it was originally published in ‘75, it lands with a thud as perhaps the most graceless way to offer a sliver of continuity with a writer that had little idea of the narrative McGregor is working toward here. Also, even in 1975, this had to come off as fairly racist in its idea and execution. Now it seems little more than a horrible embarrassment in the annals of comic publishing history.

While #33 is pretty jarring in its near complete train wrecking of the series flow, with #34, our intrepid duo manage to right the ship again with perhaps the end(?) of the current storyline, and their ultimate battle with the toughest villain of the series. McGregor provides dramatic sacrifice for his characters, and Russell gives the proceedings a convincing display of an epic finish. War of the Worlds comes full circle here, transforming its narrative of basic action comic into something mainstream comics hadn’t seen before.

#35-39

And here you have it. The final five issues of Amazing Adventures featuring Killraven complete his saga, in a more or less satisfactory manner. The deadlines for the book have at this point convinced McGregor and Russell to limit themselves to more modest, single issue stories, or perhaps McGregor has decided that format suits his needs better. The aim of each issue seems better off for it, primarily since this was a bimonthly comic.

#35 features Jack Abel inks, perhaps the best work I’ve seen by him, no doubt guided by the tight pencil work of Russell. Sonny Trinidad embellishes #36, and #37 has Abel back again, all to satisfactory ends. Each issue’s themes work very well in the 18 page chunks, suggesting McGregor has a bit more of a handle on how to approach his stories. There’s also a nice balance between attempting to tell a story, with the metaphorical flourishes still there, just reigned in somewhat by conventional story standards, and perhaps the better for it. At last, the series, while not as ambitious now, has started to gel somewhat.

#38, being one of those shoehorned in fill ins, features for some strange reason another script by Bill Mantlo, I guess because he did the first fill in. While not as offensive as the first, retreads a theme McGregor has already covered, and is clunkily drawn by Keith Giffen (in his first published work?), whose Kirby influences only hurt his cause, both in terms of the utterly graceless figure drawing, and some pretty insufferable page layouts. Once again, you can pass on this one.

#39, the final issue, has McGregor and Russell depicting what they seem to know would be their last; they made sure they got it done in time for publication, with Russell inking his own work, but in a more simple, flowing style, showcasing what would later become his signature traits. McGregor, for his part, realizes there’s absolutely no way to tie up or finish his plot threads, and avoids them entirely. While visually looking a bit rushed, it’s nice they were at least able to go out on their own terms.

In hindsight, it seems inevitable this series wouldn’t make it commercially, as I can’t imagine the young male audience (for the most part, I presume), having the patience for the all over the place storytelling, and the artistic level set up by the creators here far too labor intensive and prose heavy to keep it them entertained, as well as on schedule. While Killraven never quite grabs you on a personal level (its characters being pretty much vehicles for McGregor’s main interests), the series remains a piece of Marvel Comics history that shows an experiment, that while never standing a chance under the systems it inhabited, at least a demonstration of what could be in commercial comic books.

A smoother read of this series would be pretty much the first couple of issues for set up (#18 & #19), skipping to #25 & #26, the semi successful fill ins, #27 is where Russell comes on board, skip 30 with the reprint, read #31 & #32, skipping the abominable issue #33 fill in, picking it up again at #34-37, skipping the sad issue #38 fill in, and end with the somber finish of #39. This order of experience will give you an uninterrupted, more pleasing read of the series, unencumbered by the commercial necessities of deadlines and interruption of mainstream hack work.

Born Too Late: Fantagraphics’s Dave Sheridan

Dave Sheridan: Life with Dealer McDope the Leather Nun and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers

The other day I saw a news article about a young couple, looked to be in their twenties, that were planning their upcoming nuptials. The bride-to-be stated, happily, “its going to be 70’s themed wedding. My fiancé is all about the 70’s, and we just love that period.” So I thought for a second, in some disbelief, what is it about the seventies that would make someone that didn’t even exist then want to plan their wedding styled after this decade? After all, I grew up in the seventies. As best as I can remember, the biggest identifiers of the 70’s were self awareness, polyester, and disco. Not exactly what I would call factors that would make me theme what was to that point the most important day of my life around.

As best as I can recall, me and my fellow seventies raised brethren wanted one thing when wistfully wishing what we wanted the most: to be of age in the sixties. Now of course, nostalgic trends revolve around the sixties, but we actually lived during the sixties. I was born in the solemn year of 1961. When the sixties were over, I was barely into double digits, but even at that young age, certain aspects of 60’s characteristics stuck with me enough to carry them into my teenage years.

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers #4.

Mostly I have my mother to thank for this. She gave birth to me later in life, in her late thirties, and loved the atmosphere of the sixties, their youth, and the types of counterculture that displayed itself at every opportunity. She loved going into hippie run businesses, particularly those along book store lines, as she loved to read, as well as the scented oils, incense, macrame, and all the trappings that younger people wore and espoused. For me, being a young lad, drug into these dens of escapist freakdom, my recollections consisted of just a couple of strong attractions. One, the young ladies that worked and shopped in those stores, wearing their loose interpretations of what passed for clothing (or lack of thereof), two, the magnificent smell of patchouli oil, and three, the inevitable rack of underground comics I was placed at when she knew would be the best space to allow me to actually enjoy these excursions.

Meef Comix #1.

Leaving a kid next to a rack of underground comics, you ask? Well, let’s just say my parents were pretty liberal types that figured they raised me well enough to know the difference about what to take seriously and what not to. I suppose at the age of nine or ten, I wholeheartedly agreed with this philosophy. Underground comics, were an independent source of the art form, uninhibited by censorship and the more plebeian concerns of middle class decency. And that brings us to the subject of this diatribe, a biography of one of the second generation underground cartoonists, Dave Sheridan. Now Dave, while born in 1948, really matured as an artist in the seventies, although his life and experiences actually were grounded in the sixties. Artists take time to mature and finely hone their skills, and by the time Sheridan hit his stride, the seventies were in full force, the underground comix scene he grew his talents in, was for all intents and purposes, gone.

Dave Sheridan: Life with Dealer McDope, the Leather Nun, and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, a hardcover edited by Mark Burnstein, published by Fantagraphics, 260 plus pages, $35 retail, is a great and wonderful tome that covers his childhood, education, travels, artistic collaborations, and much more in the all too short volume. Too short, you question? Well, sadly, Dave contracted cancer and his life ended at a mere 37 years on this earth. But what years those were. This book delineates, through first hand accounts from those that grew up with and existed with him, the contributions that his talents gave to those of us lucky enough to have experienced them.

Dave Sheridan.

Born in Cleveland, these memories relate his life as a parochial student in through high school, his difficult attempt at normal art type education, and his eventual pilgrimage to the west coast, home of much of the United States countercultural base. From his teaming up with fellow artist and partner in crime Fred Schrier, his first encounter with eventual wife Dava (who was Stanley Mouse’s 19 year old live-in girlfriend (ah, the sixties)), to his life long journeys in artistic heaven, most notably well known as co-author of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers for a time with Gilbert Shelton. His run-ins with famous figures such as Father Guido Sarduci and Hugh Hefner, and his design work that gave Rip Off Press its visual identity. The first sixty pages of this book are jam packed with just about everyone he came into contact with and worked with, and all flow seamlessly somehow into a proper narrative and appreciation of his accomplishments.

The latter 200 pages of the book are an excellently reproduced, chronological reprinting of his comix work, his commercial work, including posters, record labels, graphic design packages, and album covers, with my fave being the complete reprint of The Whiteline Cannonball Express Freak Brothers story he did with Shelton that appeared originally in an issue of “High Times” magazine from 1977. It finishes with a lovely selection from his sketchbooks, to give you an idea of how his complicated ideas would start and bear fruit.

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers #11.

While it could be said that Dave’s strong suit wasn’t his writing, you’d be missing the point. The underground comix movement wasn’t about the perfected series of words and pictures, as much as it was the experience of being into and relating the environment he was living, much the same of most comix artists. Dave’s strengths were in his meticulous illustrative technique, patiently using his design sensibility and luscious ink line work to create a visual world few could compete with. Sheridan constantly set up challenges within his visuals not just to bust his own chops depicting them, but to bring the reader into the world he was existing in, whether it be a drug influenced visual masterpiece, or a sexually influenced dream sequence that would captivate the hormones within my tender loins. His sense of humor put him at the top of the class as well, making you laugh, but also marveling at the wit and verve he conveyed it with.

Dealer McDope. 1984 Volksverlag collection.

Dave’s most well known character, Dealer McDope, is well presented, as are many others, in such greatly titled comix as Meef, Mother’s Oats, and my fave, Tales From the Leather Nun, no doubt inspired by his duration in Catholic schools. This tome presents them all in a loving, mannerly fashion that oozes with creativity as well as ultimate respect for the creator.

While I came to this earth a little too late to grow up in the sixties, their impression on me as a young comix reader cannot be underestimated. My mother, one day, finishing her shopping spree, casually asked me if I found a comic to add to her pile of purchases.

“Yeah, this one”, I said, pushing up a copy of Mean Bitch Thrills by Spain Rodriguez.

“50 cents? Kind of an expensive comic”, she asked. Most mainstream comics at this time retailed for 15 cents.

“It’s a special one”, I replied, giving Mom the look all kids give when they really want something.

from The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers #5.

No questions asked, she put it in the pile, and bought it that day. I suppose I was grateful she didn’t look at its contents, or even her liberal attitudes might have been tested. But to this day, I still have that comic, and the impression it left upon me that gave me a whole new way to look at comic books and what they could achieve, in a way, that the mere Batman and Robin couldn’t.

Thank you Mom, and thank you, Dave Sheridan, for the wonderful memories.

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