Getting right to reviews this week:
DICK TRACY Vol 1: Dailies & Sundays 1931-1933 by Chester Gould ($29.99)
When I was a kid, DICK TRACY was close to the weirdest comic strip in the paper, an insane blend of mobsters, billionaires, hillbillies, moon maidens, crazy technology, etc. But this collection, beautifully packaged in a variant of what must now be called the hardcover PEANUTS format, goes back to the earliest, purest days of the strip, when it was pure hardboiled cops-and-criminals stories. It's great, and in its brutal authenticity (Gould was no stranger to the Chicago of Al Capone) it's easy to see where the strip was a major influence on coming comic books, particularly material like BATMAN. The volume begins with Gould just barely passing as a writer and cartoonist - he's not bad but there's nothing particularly special about his work aside from the subject - but the speed at which he transforms into a confident stylist is revelatory. And 75 years after first publication, it still reads beautifully. Again, for historical or entertainment value, it's great.
From Strip For Me:
A mini-comic apparently collecting work from the website. The first is less a comic strip than a granular prose story of a woman's adult life, punctuated by strips of obscurely related illustrations. Very nicely done, with good controlled writing, and the effect is unsettlingly dislocating. Which makes the subsequent issue a disappointment, since it presents more traditional material, like a superhero parody, in more traditional styles, a sequence of abrupt vignettes that come and go with little effect except to show off just how not good Noble's art can be. But he obviously can write well when he wants to, so let's hope in future issues he wants to.
From Titan Books:
MODESTY BLAISE: CRY WOLF by Peter O'Donnell & Enric Badia Romero ($16.95)
After all these years, MODESTY BLAISE remains a model of what an adventure strip should be - sexy, exciting, a little tongue-in-cheek, a little vulgar, with literate scripts and sharp art - and a model of what will likely never be allowed again, at least in American papers. So get your fix here. If you're not familiar with Modesty Blaise she's an ex-master thief turned adventuress and occasional spy, and possibly the perfect action heroine. This volume, the latest in Titan's Complete Modesty Blaise collection, features three adventures pitting Modesty and hunky sidekick Willie Garvin against "flying saucers," "witches," and the KGB; despite being a product of the '60s swinging London mentality, the work still reads modern and undated.
CHARLEY'S WAR Vol 3 by Pat Mills & Joe Colquhoun ($19.95)
If there's anything generally considered a true classic to come out of British comics, CHARLEY'S WAR is it: a savage portrayal of the bloody horrors of unromanticized war that spat in the face of the "cheerio, stiff upper lip and all that" English war comic tradition. Unrelenting, it singlehandedly transformed Mills into a major comics writer and "mainstream" British comics, previously synonymous with pap, into a vehicle for adult expression, paving the way for things like 2000 AD and WARRIOR. It's not hard to see why, as Charlie finally escapes the army and the extended awfulness of the trenches to return to a London beset by jingoism, callous stupidity and Zeppelin attacks. Strong, direct work that humanizes the sheer inhumanity of World War I, and, by implication, all wars. Now I'll have to go find the earlier two volumes...
From TwoMorrows Publishing:
THE KRYPTON COMPANION ed Michael Eury ($24.95)
In case you haven't been paying attention: Superman does nothing for me. Absolutely nothing. Never did, except for a stretch of about a year when I was 8 or 9 and joined the Supermen Of America and got an ACTION COMICS subscription, all for a dollar. Outside of that, eh. Dull character, ugly costume, and even now it surprises me how many people seem to worship the guy. If you're one of those, believe me, this is the book for you. While hardly exhausting the subject (even 240 pages is too short for that) Eury, through an array of art, articles, talent interviews, memoirs and sidebars, mines and colors in the character's development over 70 years, as well as his influence on both comics and in the real world. (The quote from Khrushchev that "the Man Of Steel cannot get through the Iron Curtain" cracks me up.) Like most TwoMorrows books, the writing is pleasantly light and straightforward, and the art selection is terrific. Too bad Superman comics aren't this interesting.
I'm just going to have to do quicker reviews or we'll be doing this for weeks. So...
DR. DEBUNKO, DEBUNKER OF THE SUPERNATURAL ($3.95)
Writer-artist Chris Wisnia isn't the best artist in the world, but his work, wry twists on '50s-'60s comics standards, is hilarious. This mock-EC comic collects stories of a paranormal investigator who keeps finding perfectly logical and ordinary explanations for crimes and events that are flagrantly ignored by people bent on blaming them on supernatural forces. Close to a dozen short Dr. Debunko stories here, each with basically the same joke - and somehow it never gets tired! A terrific book. Track it down.
From Bohemian Press:
Slice of life comics about a young American pursuing a comic art career while working at an animal shelter and trying to juggle a romance and deal with his family and the various animals he rescues from extermination, with not particularly rewarding results. Young's a good writer and a decent artist, and the work holds up in collection. Worth a look.
From Crack Comics:
BANANA MAN #6 by Jim Cracchiolo ($.50)
A health teacher dresses up as a superhero to teach students about nutrition, with questionable results. It's a cute idea, but I'm unsure what else can be said for it. I wish the art on this mini-comic were better, because, while there are plenty of aspiring artists whose work shows no promise whatsoever, Cracchiolo's is just good enough to indicate it could be a lot better. And it should be.
From Boom! Studios:
SECOND WAVE #6 by Michael Alan Nelson & Chess ($2.99)
Continuing Boom!'s continuation of HG Wells (or is it Steven Spielberg's) WAR OF THE WORLDS, with the Martians returned and now immune to the common cold. Except now we find out differently. Nelson and Chee keep things interesting enough - Chee's starting to draw action scenes almost as well as he draws faces - but despite lots of action and plenty of dialogue as the small but intrepid band of survivors gets bigger and keeps running, it just doesn't feel like there's as much in these episodes as there ought to be. Which is a widespread problem in comics these days, except most don't even have lots of action and plenty of dialogue.
THE SAVAGE BROTHERS #2 by Andrew Cosby, Johanna Stokes & Rafael Albuquerque($3.99)
Post-apocalyptic zombie funnies in the ultraviolent comedy mode. Content-wise, it's like a Garth Ennis comedy with mostly perfunctory dialogue like "Put out the fancy china, Dale… cause we got company," the hillbilly zombie-killing heroes are vulgarly charming and Albuquerque's got such great comic timing in his artwork he makes the book sing it'll be a shame to see him wasted on BLUE BEETLE.
WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?! MONSTER MASH-UP $1 by various ($3.99)
Mocking rewritings of old (to all intents and purposes ownerless) comics stories. Joe Casey massages an old Steve Ditko tale of a frogman encountering an undersea race into a tale of sexual obsession, while Keith Giffen, Johanna Stokes and other Boom! regulars similarly molest other monster tales by mostly unknown artists. But while the concept of comedy rewriting old stories really paid off in the first WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!! what they seem to be thinking in this one is that the concept was funny enough that they didn't have to worry about making the writing itself funny. And the concept is good, but the execution's listless.
X-ISLE #3 by Andrew Cosby, Michael Alan Nelson & Greg Scott ($2.99)
Scientists and adventurers trapped on a lost island of monsters have a civil war. The logic on this one's a little weird - searching for his daughter, the lead scientist finds her tied sneaker and decides that means she dropped it on purpose. Hey, man, it's a snap to pull off a sneaker without untying it. I hope his scientific papers have better reasoning than that. Aside from that, the issue, especially Greg Scott's art, is good as far as it goes. It just doesn't go very far, doesn't even introduce or resolve any elements aside from an indicator the island has been there a long time, making it a neutral episode, and who has time for that? One other thing puzzles me: why does Boom! charge $2.99 for this when all their other color comics are $3.99 or more?
TAG #2 by Keith Giffen & Kody Chamberlain ($3.99)
People rid themselves as a form of something that's slowly killing them by passing it on to other people to deal with. The basic idea is interesting but the development's almost too slow to follow. Art's pretty good.
PIRATE STORIES #1 by various ($6.99)
Pirates, like zombies, are one-trick ponies, and Boom! Has milked enough fleeting new life out of zombies that they must have figured why not pirates too? The result is a set of mildly amusing pirate stories that all melt into each other. They're all decent, what stands out stands out for the wrong reasons, like a female pirate in Johanna Stiles & Julia Bax's story being able to effortlessly bend a sword with her hand. The best thing in the book is John Rogers & Lee Carter's tale of modern pirates attacking a cruise ship, which is marred only by a badly telegraphed punchline. Many of the zombie stories felt inspired; this feels like a lot of very talented people scraping for inspiration.
From Red Flag Publishing:
Again, art good enough that it could be a lot better, but it's pretty good for someone just starting out. The stories hang together pretty well too: the first chapter of a kidnapping story with wider implications, and a vignette about a killer-by-assignment. Not bad for the price.
LITEROTICA Summer 2006 by James Hitchcock ($2.00)
Soft pore corn by Hitchcock. Hitchcock's art is interesting, but there's a remoteness to the material, both the comics and his text pieces, that robs it of any immediacy or effect. If the point was to draw naked women, he managed that, but it's not remotely erotic. The writing's not bad either, but it reads more like the work of someone who wants to be in a bad relationship than of someone's who has been in one.
PREMILLENNIAL MAAKIES by Tony Millionaire ($24.95)
I have a feeling being stoned or very drunk helps appreciation of this stuff immensely. In occasional exposure Millionaire's work is funny, but piling shaggy dog story on top of shaggy dog story like this - Millionaire apparently adores the non sequitur anti-punchline - just makes you ask "Who cares?" I'm glad the New York Times thinks highly of him and all, but man...
THE COMPLETE PEANUTS 1961-1962 by Charles Schulz ($28.95)
Introduction by Diana Krall?!!! By this point Schulz has fully developed the style that takes him through the strip's end (while he continues to simplify it over the years, only Snoopy changes much past here). But the humor has also moved away from the childish savagery of the early years and into the more mature and morning paper-friendly stoicism that became the strip's earmark. Now more whimsical than genuinely funny (though Snoopy has yet to become the merchandise icon that TV PEANUTS specials will make him) this volume feels like a tombstone for Schulz' inspiration and the birthplace of the shtick that carried PEANUTS to comics immortality.
OLD JEWISH COMEDIANS by Drew Friedman ($14.95)
Friedman superrealistic caricature art sort of the logical evolution of those old Jack Davis celebrity drawings that used to grace TV GUIDE covers, and artistically he's on his game, but unless you're a huge fan of pinups of old farts, content-wise this is a wash. While Friedman's drawings are technically good, there's nothing in the drawing, composition or development of the supposed subject matter to suggest the slightest insight or anything hovering beneath the surface. Pass.
THE MAGIC BOTTLE by Camille Rose Garcia ($14.95)
An illustrated prose children's book, for older children, part 1. A girl travels to the Peppermint Islands with a talking octopus to become a pirate, but aside from that not much happens. The art, like Charles Addams doing Dr. Seuss, is grotesquely lovely, though. This'll probably be better collected than serialized.
THEY FOUND THE CAR by Gipi ($7.95)
A nicely done little crime story full of allusions and ellipses, as two small time crooks try to wipe out evidence of an error and descend into a Tarantinoesque discussion on God and morality while they wait for opportunities. The decent ending is foreshadowed too obviously but a good read with good artwork otherwise. (Fantagraphics/Coconino Press)
INSOMNIA #2 by Matt Broersma ($7.95)
A man wanders a city alone, and gets arrested for approaching a showgirl, then has to decide whether to reject the memories haunting him and ruining his life. It's more intriguing than it sounds, but the second half is marred by stock characters and a distracting subplot. Since the 32 page magazine-sized format of the Coconino books makes a difficult challenge - injecting enough content to make $7.95 feels like value for such a slim volume, creators can't afford to piss away any pages. (Fantagraphics/Coconino Press)
An episodic childhood memoir focusing on war, the presence of death and the vagaries of the medical profession, BABEL is a brilliant example of value for money in the format. Dense and lush in detail, character and perspective, it stands fine as a separate work but fits as a section in the continuing graphic novel, which is difficult to pull off. Excellent. (Fantagraphics/Coconino Press)
boabab #2 by Igort ($7.95)
Continuing Igort's graphic novel about a South American cartoonist in the early 20th century. It's interesting, as the cartoonist's dreams are thwarted by circumstances again and the heroine takes ill and undergoes a spiritual transformation - but I can't for the life of me remember what happened in the first issue, and I've a feeling this one won't be much more memorable, even though the work is very good in the moment. (Fantagraphics/Coconino Press)
NIGER #1 by Leila Marzocchi ($7.95)
A strange little fable about a young female worm/caterpillar/whatever that falls under the protection of a semi-mystic force and aided by the birds that would normally eat it. The art is very nice, reminiscent of Maurice Sendak. Not sure what the point is so far, though it reads very nicely. (Fantagraphics/Coconino Press)
REFLECTIONS #1 by Marco Corona ($)
The problem with reading the Coconino material in sequence is that the storylines and Eurosensibilities blur, so one book becomes difficult to tell from others. There's nothing wrong with Corona's REFLECTIONS, except it's yet another elliptical childhood reminiscence, whose hero has an ill twin brother. There's a dream quality to the action, but the dreamlike way all the events recede from each other and shift from moments of lucidity to moments of dream logic are frustrating. (Fantagraphics/Coconino Press)
BARDIN THE SUPERREALIST by Maxx ($19.95)
Ordinary guy Bardin is given the power by the Andalusian Dog (yes, there's a story attached) to see the world as symbolist art. The ensuing comic strips, both fleeting and epic, are hilarious, particularly his metaphysical battles with a cosmic, three-eyed Mickey Mouse and a dramatic, fatalistic knight's quest to slay his personal demons. Maxx's work is sharp, sure, clever and funny, especially if you know the culture he's referencing. Excellent, go get it.
PASSIONELLA AND OTHER STORIES by Jules Feiffer ($19.95)
One of the great arguments for atheism is how Feiffer (who began as a writer on THE SPIRIT - he turned out some of the best scripts in the run - and was the pre-eminent satirical "counterculture" cartoonist in my youth, at least until Robert Crumb reached ascendancy) has receded into relative obscurity. Yet Fantagraphics trudges on meticulously with their Jules Feiffer Library, and this collection of short plays, illustrated stories, spot illos and long form comics stories demonstrates why that's important: no one else has ever had a view of the human condition that so successfully blended jaundice and sympathy, and it's great fun to see him punch huge holes into all sorts of human inventions like competitiveness, cultural fads and the compulsion to believe in something. Comics fans will find his take on Superman twice. Another excellent volume from a ridiculously overlooked, pivotal talent. Get it right now.
I was in a comics shop a few weeks ago where Gilbert Hernandez was scheduled for a signing the next day, and one customer was surprised to see it scheduled, praised the Hernandez Brothers and asked why they stopped doing LOVE AND ROCKETS. So clearly Fantagraphics has a promotion problem with this comic. They shouldn't have. LOVE AND ROCKETS was once a breakthrough comic that launched tons of interest in alternative comics, not to mention a couple average rock bands, and neither Jaime nor Gilbert Hernandez have dropped a stitch since then. Maybe it's because they've continued their same characters - the Luba/Palomar crew for Gilbert and the Maggie/Hopie axis for Jaime - but that's quite an accomplishment too. Or maybe it's hard for critics to come up with any new superlatives to describe their work, and saying "this issue is just as good as the last one" loses its impact after dozens of excellent issues. This one's no different. You should read it.
SLOTH by Gilbert Hernandez ($19.99)
If Gilbert's familiar work isn't getting him the notice he deserves, how about a new original graphic novel from a different publisher? A young man goes into an inexplicable coma for a year to learn that his dreaming life now impinges in strange ways on his real life. Again, it's completely up to par for Hernandez, traveling a teen angst milieu he hasn't mined in a long time. Apparent mysteries and twists are just a backdrop for the emotional and psychological gyrations of the characters, and the story becomes an intriguing mix of surreal motifs and shifting perspectives, with an ending that feels perfect and inevitable. Check it out.
THE LONG CHALKBOARD AND OTHER STORIES by Jenny Allen & Jules Feiffer ($16.95)
This is marketed as a graphic novel, but it's really illustrated short stories very much in the mold of Jules Feiffer's work, which may be why Feiffer illustrated it. A chalkboard rotates through various characters' lives. A possessive children's book author becomes obsessed with another writer's accidentally similar books. A woman's chili makes her unexpectedly famous. They're all nice little stories, but nothing revelatory - Margaret Atwood Jenny Allen isn't - with the chalkboard story the best and least obvious. (The conclusion of the writer story is apparent from about the sixth page, and it goes on a long time.) The illustrations are great, though, and it wouldn't be much of a book without them.
From Image Comics:
ELEPHANTMEN #3 by Richard Starkings, Tom Scioli & Nick Filardi ($2.99)
One step forward, one back. Starkings and co. manage to pull off an actual story in this issue, pitting an elephantine private detective against animal poachers, with less vague than usual hints about the origins of the Elephantmen. But Scioli/Filardi's knockoff Kirby art, while not bad, is a letdown from the slick contemporary look of earlier issues. A manga-inflected vignette by Starkings and Moritat about a human girl giving first aid to hippo hero Hipflask rounds out the issue for comic relief. Not bad, but it leaves you feeling like all the elements haven't yet quite come together.
Caught two more new TV shows for my sins: 30 ROCK (NBC, Wednesdays 8P) and 20 GOOD YEARS (NBC, Wednesdays 8:30P), curiously right about the moment NBC announced they were abandoning scripting programming in the 8-9 hour because advertisers were no longer willing to pay fees large enough to make it financially practical. Gee, I wonder why. I was interested in 30 ROCK mainly because people whose opinions I prize - yes, there are a handful - gave the pilot rave-ups, especially the comedic work of Alec Baldwin. But the second episode was awful; Baldwin's domineering but usually right businessman boss who has taken over a failing, crappy comedy sketch show is easily the best thing in the series, but that's really damning with faint praise. The recurring joke last week was showrunner Tina Fey trying to smooth things over with one cast member or another by insulting other cast members - always next to a live mike that broadcasts her words to the whole studio. And it's dazzling originality like that, not to mention the sheer stupidity of the various characters, that make the show what it is. The best thing that can be said of 30 ROCK is that it was innocuous enough to make sitting through a whole show sufferable. Which can't be said for retiree comedy 20 GOOD, a show that takes John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor (not to mention guest Jane Leeves), people who could make a reading of the phone book a laugh riot, and renders them unbearably unfunny. After five minutes I had to fast forward through the rest of the show to make it to the end, and the good news for 20 GOOD is that the story was completely understandable - the two old farts both fall for the younger Leeves, who offers them a threesome but they're too nervous and ultimately good old fashioned moralistic to go through with it - without hearing any of the words or paying much attention to the performances. But that's the bad news too. No foreseeable future for either show, and possibly STUDIO 60 (NBC, Mondays 10P either, as NBC game show schedule change (all game shows, every 8P) leaves it homeless, at least next week.
I love Nevada politics. Not long ago, the state comptroller was kicked out for suspect business practices, and a couple months ago she died abruptly. It has since been discovered that her fourth husband, a nurse by profession, fixed her up with a paralyzing drug that simulates a heart attack but really causes severe muscular rigidity that slowly suffocates the victim in the event of overdose. Her third husband was considerably older and likewise also died abruptly, of an apparent stroke - while husband #4 was his caregiver. Prior to her death, the woman had been planning to run for another post, and announced for several. The funniest was when she announced she was considering running for Las Vegas City Council - right when a number of city council members were being tried for raking in huge amounts in bribes from a strip club owner.
Then there's Jim Gibbons, current Republican senator and aspiring governor. A couple weeks ago, he was caught in the rain at a restaurant with a number of comrades, and while they were sitting around waiting for the downpour to end (despite living only ten or so miles away, Gibbons was rooming at a motel next door to the restaurant) when they were joined by two apparently uninvited young women. (The story changes depending on who you talk to, and it was a fairly large party to start with.) Sometime later, Gibbons walked out with one of the young women, and, bam. Two days later she's accusing him of accosting her, grabbing her arm when they were outside and shoving her against a wall while suggesting that having sex with him was in her best interests. Gibbons' story (which changed a couple times before reaching its final, official form) was that he was simply helping her to her car since she was having a little trouble walking. Interestingly, despite their widely divergent stories, both used some of the same turns of phrase, specifically talking about "crawling back" (to the motel). Gibbons denied being drunk, having only two glasses of wine and not driving in any case. Needless to say, it has mushroomed into a big todo that is propelling his Democratic opponent, who has wisely decided not to comment on the matter, ever closer to the governor's office, a post she was almost certainly not winning a month ago. Changing his story and refusing to answer questions hasn't helped Gibbons (but, in these situations, what does?), and it's to the point now that whether the married grandfather was trying to score with the young woman or not has almost become beside the point. The incident has called his judgment into question for many voters, apparently; what they're asking is, first, what man running for high office puts himself into that sort of situation, innocently or otherwise, right before an election? There were others there; if he wasn't trying to score, why was he escorting her alone? His response of chivalry doesn't help him any, even if it's true; it just gets people asking who'd help a woman so drunk she's having trouble standing (the Gibbons version is that she stumbled and he only grabbed her to steady her) get to her car on a rainswept night? The story has become a total comedy of errors. When the subject of what constitutes "good judgment" was raised at a debate, Gibbons responded that serving in the military for 30 years - his campaign has apparently decided his military record is his best bet of winning election - creates good judgment, an answer that prompted little more than general eyerolling. This morning the local (Republican) sheriff desperately tried to resuscitate Gibbons' fading prospects by announcing that Gibbons was immediately willing to cooperate with the police investigation of the matter, without mentioning what the upshot of the investigation was. The woman, who isn't pressing charges (at least so far), is holding a press conference with her lawyer tomorrow.
I love Nevada. This crap goes on all the time here.
Out of time again, but I want to thank everyone who wrote to tell me that Bob Dylan's character in MASKED AND ANONYMOUS was Jack Fate, not Jack Frost. The world of the movie is still the world of the song "Ain't Talkin'," though, and there's little doubt that the world of both is our world, as far as Dylan is concerned. I also want to apologize for spoiling THE DEPARTED via the lettercol talk of events in the film, particularly the ending. That part was done very quickly as the deadline rushed toward me, and it just didn't occur to me. I tend not to care if I know how stories end; in my philosophy, films that can be ruined by knowing the ending aren't films that are worth seeing. Interested parties can find some comfort in THE DEPARTED not being such a film, and I'll try to keep such a thing from happening again. (At least within a month of release; if you haven't seen a film you're supposedly dying to see within a month of release, you're taking your fate into your own hands.)
Nothing much to talk about this week, but if you're looking for *free stuff* TwoMorrows is giving a free copy of BACK ISSUE #18 (the Big Green issue I reviewed here a couple weeks back) to the first 500 people who visit their store. I don't know how many copies are left, but go give it a shot.
Congratulations to local boy Justin Newberry, who was the first to determine that last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "money." Justin wants you to look at First Friday, the monthly art fair in downtown Las Vegas. So go humor him, and if you can make it to First Friday, do that too.
Scattered throughout the column are the covers for this week's Comics Cover Challenge. Seven comics, one secret theme connecting them. Be the first one to tell me what it is in an email, and you can promote any website of your choice here. (We reserve right of approval, but that hasn't been an issue so far.) As always, there's a clue hidden somewhere in the column, but you'll have to listen closely this week to find it. As usual, additional hints may be found at The Grand Comics Database.
TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my "Master Of The Obvious" columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.
HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.
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