The biggest and littlest comics I bought this past month-- together at last!
Richard Stark's Parker: The Man with the Getaway Face-- A Prelude to The Outfit by Darwyn Cooke (IDW Publishing)
Dimensions: 8" x 12", 24 pages
So there's this local station that hosts a channel called "Retro TV," and every day at 2 pm, they show an episode of Kojak. Imagine one day stumbling upon an episode of Kojak, but one directed by, say, Martin Scorsese circa whatever your favorite Martin Scorsese film is. That's roughly akin to the experience of reading this 24 page prelude to Darwyn Cooke's next Parker project-- an artist at the height of his powers, passionately constructing a piece of genre.
Right out of the gate-- my God, that first page!-- Cooke fires on all cylinders, then skips down to the shop for a few more cylinders and fires on those too. Sure, it's just a fancy credit sequence, but in the vein of Saul Bass. Parker's bandages snip off, one by one, until the title of the piece stands revealed; turn the page, smash cut on Parker in the mirror, not so much admiring his new face as running his fingers through the crags. It's a harder face, a granite face-- compare it to Parker's mug in the previous book, you'll see it's an older, grizzlier face, more gristle than meat, a face like a cauliflower ear. Those cheekbones! Those are Martian Manhunter cheekbones, cheekbones Sylvester Stallone traverses in Cliffhanger. That's the face for a machine of beef and bone, a clockwork criminal tick-tocking toward the next score.
Cooke reduces an entire Richard Stark novel down into 24 pages, but the reduction occurs the way a chef would do it, elegantly boiling the already hard-boiled story down into its densest, most flavorful form. The story's a solid bit of grit, and Cooke often lets pages go by wordlessly, getting the hell out of the way of his art. The art-- dang!-- gorgeous cartooning, awash in black brushstrokes that only pretend to look sloppy, shaded in brown mustard. Cooke makes it seem effortless, not always joining up all the lines, often giving the idea or shape of a thing to the reader, rather than the thing itself. It feels fast and loose, just like the caper, but both are anything but, meticulously designed. Little formal tics-- the caption boxes pointing to the full-page depiction of a letter, the Timex wristwatch panels keeping track of the chronology, the wads of text to keep panels of exposition to a minimum, the small panels of precise action in which the reader can almost hear the tension ratcheting up-- all of it's right there on the page, the techniques of a man who knows what he's doing, a man on top of his game. Just like Parker.
The packaging this thing comes in should not go overlooked. It's an oversized comic, extra inches in either direction from your standard trim size, sucking the reader into its thick, mammoth pages, filling one's nostrils with the scent of Amish carpentry. I love comics as objects, as things-- tell your iPad to shove it, no screen could do what this book does in your hands. Did I mention it's only two bucks? Comic of the month, right here. (Which month? Pick one.)
Rambo 3.5 by Jim Rugg (self-published)
Dimensions: 3.875" x 5.25", 30 pages
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we've got Jim Rugg's new mini-comic, less than a quarter the size of the comic reviewed above, but again an artistic showcase for the cartoonist presenting the work. It also cost two bucks, and you can only find it in a few stores.
Rugg-- having co-written and drawn two of my favorite comics from the past ten years, Street Angel and Afrodisiac-- gives this little comic experiment a tossed-off feel, switching styles every couple pages, sometimes within a page, from Saturday-morning-political-cartoony to photo-referenced portrayals of protagonists George W. Bush and John Rambo. Some panels appear carefully inked while others seem casually sketched out with a pen or pencil; still other segments forgo hand-drawn art entirely, replacing the characters with action figures or reappropriating a few Roy Lichenstein appropriations. Painstakingly detailed guns and lovingly rendered abdominal muscles sit one page-flip away from cartoon Nazis and complete non sequitur sequences such as the "War Faces" page, in which every emotion on Bush and Rambo's faces is 98% the same. Rugg surely had a ball putting this thing together.
Unfortunately, the overall story just isn't fun at all, and often comes off as offensive. The plot is thus-- minutes after the towers are hit on September 11th, President George W. Bush seeks out John Rambo to get revenge on Al-Qaeda (misspelled in the comic, along with the word "Buddhist"), but mostly they eat tacos and talk about guns and dicks. Bush himself comes off like an idiot Nazi, and his delusion ends when he meets the real Sylvester Stallone, who flees in fear of this madman boy President. It's over-the-top, yeah, I get it, but we get sub-sub-Team-America lines of dialogue like "The first time I had sex I accidentally put my penis in the girl's anus," and "I want to sandwich fuck Jenna Jameson with you!", declared by Bush in the heat of battle, whilst Rambo notches a boxing glove arrow with his teeth. The thing with Team America and South Park mensches Parker and Stone is that their juvenile bullshit serves as window-dressing for pointed, highly moral social satire, whereas Rugg just backs the car over the dead horse (or lame duck) repeatedly because he can. I get it, yes, that's the point, completely savaging Bush's post-9/11 macho, flag-waving, wang-tugging swagger, but the words and story flop for me in this context. I wouldn't mind if I got a laugh out of it, but it's easy to fail at this line-crossing asshole humor; guys like Parker or Stone or Louis CK can cross that tightrope, but even they fall off quite a bit. The most subjective part of the body is the funny bone, though, so, as always, your mileage may vary.
That art, though-- that art!