Issue #171

Oh well, there's always 2005. Ironically, DC's manufacturing a new CRISIS for next year, but there hasn't been a year in the last decade when the business wasn't in crisis. So I guess that's business as usual now too. If you'd like a real year-in-review summary, I recommend Paul O'Brien's, at least for "mainstream" comics.

If you'd like to see your own artwork in TWO HEADS TALK, just follow these simple instructions:

  1. All panels should be 3" wide x 6" tall jpgs, 150 dpi.
  2. All panels should be head and shoulder shots of original characters. No trademarked characters of any sort please. (But don't worry: copyright will be assigned to you.)
  3. Head and shoulder shots should fill only the bottom 3" of the panel. Leave the top half blank, please. (You can put color there, just not figure work.)
  4. One head per panel, thanks. Color or black and white, your choice.
  5. Don't put any borders on the panels.
  6. Email it to me, with "Head" in the subject line so I know don't think it's a virus, because I'll trash an unknown attachment in a heartbeat.
  7. Include a website or some other contact information so that your new legion of fans will be able to find you.

And that's it. All heads will be used eventually. Can fame and fortune be far behind?

BUGTOWN #1 (of 6) by Matt Howarth, 32 pg. b&w comic (Aeon;$2.95)

I've raved up Matt Howarth before, and while I'd love to do it again, let's just say this is a nearly perfect introduction to Howarth's core heroes, the sweet-natured idiot savant Savage Henry and the hilariously sociopathic Russ & Ron Post; to the whole concept of Bugtown where no law holds sway and nothing dies forever; to other players like the nuclear goddess Hiroshima, the Caroline clones, and the malevolent Boche; to Howarth's underlying fascination with social politics and his unexpected, often mordant humor. On top of that, he writes good stories and he's a good, expressive cartoonist. Find this. Buy it. If you like actually enjoying the comics you read, I mean...

FRED THE CLOWN by Roger Langridge, b&w trade paperback (Fantagraphics Books;$16.95)

This is a strange, very entertaining book. Langridge mimics a variety of comics and animation styles as he brings us various adventures of the malodorous, lovelorn idiot, Fred The Clown, who nonetheless comes off as a Chaplinesque sweet idiot, washing up on all the shoals of the human condition. Very funny, too, but in shrewd and often ambiguous ways. This is the second time in as many months I've seen an entire history going back to 1900s comic strips for a fictitious character, but Langridge's pastiches of Winsor McCay, Dr. Seuss, Max Fleisher, Chic Young, Jack Kirby and numerous other artists and animators (in one strip, he simultaneously apes Walt Kelly and Maurice Sendak!) are a riot, like pretty much everything else in the book. Langridge's weirdest feat is to mimic all of them while steadfastly maintaining his own very polished, appealing style. Good book.

THE COMICS INTERPRETER Vol 2 #3, edited by Robert Young (The Comics Interpreter;$4.95)

Another good issue, full of good reviews, articles and interviews, highlighted by an excellent, well-illustrated examination of the collapse of Alan Moore's greatest unfinished project, BIG NUMBERS. THE COMICS INTERPRETER is sort of THE COMICS JOURNAL without the perceived chip on its shoulder. Curiously, this issue, among interviews with James Jean and Tak Toyoshima and other features, includes a lengthy section of anti-Administration comic strips, most of which are pretty entertaining. Not that I mind, of course; I'm just surprised. This is worth tracking down - try their website.

BLOOD ORANGE #3 edited by Chris Polkki, 48 pg. b&w comics magazine (Fantagraphics Books;$5.95)

I briefly had a roommate in college, an art major who artlessly doodled overwrought scribblings with no noticeable point and little discernable form. He called it psychedelic art. He missed his calling. He should have been a contributor to BLOOD ORANGE, whose only notable feature is Jeffrey Brown's autobiographical reminiscences of failed romance. And even those make you wish someone had whupped him upside the head and told him to walk away from her.

A YEARLY TREAT by Sean Frost & Wendi Strang-Frost, 8 pg. color mini-comic (Hula Cat Comics;$1.50)

The Frosts cleanly get in and out of a nice little Halloween ghost story that's as much a lesson in economical, focused storytelling as anything else. A good concept, tight dialogue and excellent artwork put this heads and tails above most mini-comics. Seek it out.

BLACK HOLE #1-12 by Charles Burns (Fantagraphics Books;$4.95@)

There's supernatural horror in comics, and slasher horror, but almost no one does decent existential horror. Charles Burns' work drips with it. BLACK HOLE is a creepy, maddening graphic novel set in what I'd guess is some Pacific Northwest town in the '70s, where sex, drugs and alcohol are the only diversions for a teenaged population ravaged by a weird disease, known only as "the bug," that marks each victim with a different disfigurement. Some may see in "the bug" an AIDS metaphor, but the series' psychology works at deeper levels: it's actually a metaphor for teenage alienation, and the characters, not the "menace," are the focus here. There are no easy answers or safe returns to the status quo in BLACK HOLE, just an exceptional horror story with unusual heart. It's terrific.

DREAD RECKONING by Michael T. Bradley with SEBa, 174 pg. b&w graphic novel (Holy Nightmare Productions;$15)

I'll say one thing for Michael Bradley: he's certainly ambitious. Unfortunatley, DREAD RECKONING, a sort of slice of life horror fantasy, is a good argument that new talent shouldn't start with graphic novels, or issues-spanning stories; whatever interesting ideas may be hidden in the book are crushed by inept writing and art. There's so little actual craft at work here it makes consideration of any other level next to impossible. Nice front cover, though.

TOKYO BABYLON Vol. 4 by Clamp, b&w trade paperback (Tokyopop;$9.99)

One of the earliest works of Japan's popular Studio Clamp, TOKYO BABYLON is of interest mainly as a preamble to Clamp's later sprawling magic-horror saga, X/1999. Hero Subaru Sumeragi is supposedly Japan's mightiest sorcerer, though he mainly seems to be an exorcist, and he spends his days fighting off occult threats, sporadically attending school and fending off pseudo-advances from an older man, Seishiro Sakurazuka, who's actually the villain of the series. That didn't need a spoiler; it was clearly evident in the first volume, though Subaru hasn't figured it out yet. And that's the problem with the series. The stories are decent enough - here Subaru tries to stop a revenge killing by invoking a woman's murdered daughter, and investigates a religious cult preying on teenagers, and both are entertaining because neither is predictable - and the characters are good, but Subaru's continued ignorance of Sakurazuka's disguised malevolence, especially when the latter seems to control the outcome of almost every one of Subaru's cases, makes the hero seem addled, at best.

LUBA #9 & LUBA'S COMICS AND STORIES #5 by Gilbert Hernandez, 24 pg. b&w comics (Fantagraphics;$3.50@)

All kinds of things happen in LUBA #9, as Hernandez pushes the Luba saga toward its apparent finale next issue. As usual, he does a great job of mixing serious drama with screwball comedy, aided by a great cast of funny and complex characters on the prowl for romantic, personal and professional satisfaction. Splitting the story into seeming random fragments, Hernandez creates a magnificent tapestry and gives the impression of a huge volcano about to blow as pressures hit the point of no return. If everything seems to suddenly be happening in LUBA, nothing much happens in LUBA'S COMICS AND STORIES, but it's not really meant to. These are side stories of the Luba characters, fleshing out the relationships and world; it exists not to push the overall story forward, but to amuse and illuminate, and it does a great job of it.

MEMORIES OF PARADISE by Gary Kato, 48 pg. b&w graphic novel (Rorschach Entertainment;$4.99)

At one point, Gary Kato was a relatively hot property in comics. He seems to have Ditko-ized the hell out of his art since then, in the style of Ditko at Charlton Comics when other people inked him. It has the strange effect of making this book look like a 35 year old reprint, which is too bad because Kato generated a fairly intelligent science fiction story about an art historian traveling the stars to track down an artist and the source of his virtually mystical paintings. But it never quite breaks loose, or deals with anything besides its narrow subject. If you're hungry for retro science fiction, it's not bad, but if you're looking for something modern, best keep looking.

STREET ANGEL #4 by Jim Rugg & Brian Maruca, 32 pg. b&w comic(Slave Labor Graphics;$2.95)

STREET ANGEL's gotten a lot of acclaim as a wild and wacky action comic, with a homeless teenage heroine battling pirates, ninja, mad scientists etc., and, while it's been enjoyable, the homeless angle always bothered me some because writer Jim Rugg never did much with it. That changes this issue in a story light on action and heavy on seriousness, examining skateboarder Jesse Sanchez's tenuous existence on the streets without the slightest hint of glamour, but without bathos either. It really fleshes out the character, and the art on the book, which started out fairly sloppy, has gotten impressively tight. Very good.

ELLIUM: HYBRID by Jason Moser & various, 136 pg. b&w trade paperback (Ancient World Productions;$9.95)

Awhile back, Jason Moser got the idea of splitting up a graphic novel into various chapters and having different teams handle it. If I understand it correctly, it's a sword-and-sorcery/horror story set in the near future, with people using future technology to resurrect ancient evil. The material was first presented, scattershot, in comics form; in chronological order here, it makes a bit more sense. But not much. The sheer volume of talents working on this sort of book - some pretty interesting, some just barely this side of awful - mitigates against cohesiveness, especially where there seems to be negligible editorial guidance. It's like the diametric opposite of the overly-focused MEMORIES OF PARADISE; it's all over the place. A coda "wraps up" the story without resolving or revealing anything, an intended irony that simply renders the rest of the book irrelevant. Despite that, it's an interesting experiment.

WORN TUFF ELBOW #1 by Marc Bell, 40 pg. b&w comics magazine (Fantagraphics Books;$4.95)

Bell gets chops just for having the same name as the first drummer for Richard Hell & The Voidoids (who was also the second for the Ramones). But what appears at first to be a fairly solipsistic exercise in obscurist primitivism turns out to be a relatively complex, biting political satire. Bell's work is something of an acquired taste, and a little of it goes a long way, but, fortunately, WORN TUFF ELBOW makes it fairly easy to acquire it.

PERSEPOLIS 2 by Marjane Satrapi, 188 pg. b&w hardcover (Pantheon Books;$17.95)

Satrapi's PERSEPOLIS was among the best graphic novels of last year, a delightful child's eye view from within the Iranian Revolution that ended with her departure for Europe in her early teens. This sequel is almost as good, as Satrapi recounts her uncertain adolescence in a Europe so hard and unforgiving toward her - old family friends don't want her around to remind them of trauma back home, the locals she's shunted back and forth to consider her an unwashed heathen incapable of civilization - that she ends up longing for (and returning to) the repression of her homeland. PERSEPOLIS 2 never gets preachy, and Satrapi is open about her reactions and unafraid to show herself in an unpleasant light, but it's a heartfelt plea for tolerance of different cultures and against fundamentalist mentalities however they manifest. Read it.

IN MY DARKEST HOUR by Wilfred Santiago, b&w graphic novel (Fantagraphics Books;$14.95)

Wilfred Santiago has a great ear for dialogue and artistic versatility; he can slide from Kyle Baker to Dave McKean at the drop of a hat. On a technical level, this book is fantastic. As a story... it's not bad, but it's hard to get worked up about a quasi-intellectual low-end slacker working a dead end job and trying to hold a love life together in the face of sheer ennui of existence. Much of it's set in the '80s, but there's also an odd, basically pointless coda set post-9/11, as if no story could exist without such a reference point. It's enough of a tour-de-force to be riveting - the style's fascinating in its own right - but it falls short of being satisfying.

HYSTERIA IN REMISSION: The Comix & Drawings Of Robt. Williams edited by Eric Reynolds, 288 pg. large trade paperback (Fantagraphics Books;$29.95)

Another excellent historical tome from Fantagraphics, this one covering the career of seminal (if now mostly forgotten) underground cartoonist Robert Williams from his days in '60s Kalifornia Kar Kulture (thanks, Ken!) through his involvement with ZAP COMIX, and beyond. As biography, it's next to non-existent; a brief introduction by FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROS. creator Gilbert Shelton, a modest summary by Williams himself, and that's pretty much it. No mention of what he's been doing the past 20 years at all. But the book makes up for it with page after breakthrough page of Williams' comix. If you've never read underground comix and don't understand what the fuss was all about, this is a great place to start.

And that's it for 2004. More reviews in January.

Me, I'm going wassailing. See you next year, if not next week.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

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I'm reviewing comics sent to me - I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them - at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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