Reviews | 'Hip Hop Family Tree,' 'Treasury of Mini Comics' and 'Heroic Tales'

Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor, Fantagraphics Books, 120 pages, $24.99.

I enjoy both hip-hop and reading books about the history of music or nascent art forms in general, so this book fits right in my wheelhouse anyway, but, man, did I like this comic. I liked the way Piskor designed the book, making it look like one of those oversized Marvel or DC "Treasury" books from the 1970s, and even goes so far as to use newsprint-like paper and print the colors slightly off-register at times, all the better to evoke those lap-sized comics of yesteryear. I liked the way he juggles a huge cast of characters, jumping around from one to the next without losing or confusing the reader. I like how he employs some wonderful bits of cartoonish exaggeration (that, it should be noted, never devolves into ethnic stereotyping), so that Grandmaster Flash wears an impossibly large cap, Mellie Mel's afro seems larger than his head at times, and Russell Simmons is a cross-eyed guy with a bad lisp. Piskor seems to know intuitively how to relate the best, most revealing and juiciest anecdotes without bogging the reader down in minutiae. I've enjoyed Piskor's work in the past (most notably with his hacker book Wizzywig) but he's never seemed quite as confident a storyteller as he does here. Can't wait for volume two.

Treasury of Mini Comics Volume One, edited by Michael Dowers, Fantagraphics Books, 848 pages, $29.99.

Minicomics have been an integral part of the indie-comics scene for years, but they haven't been properly documented or examined in any fashion (outside of academia or zine culture) until 2010's Newave! This semi-sequel of sorts collects a variety of of minis -- presented in chronological order -- by people like Jim Woodring, John Porcellino, David Lasky, Dylan Williams and Roberta Gregory. As you might expect, it's a bit of a mixed bag. For every great discovery, like Leonard Rifas' surreal, very early work Quoz, there's a really tired superhero parody or otherwise-lackluster (and occasionally outright dull) work. And while Dowers provides some brief interviews with certain cartoonists, like Leela Corman, he doesn't provide much context. Apart from a (very good) biographical essay on Dylan Williams by Tom Spurgeon, there's little explanation about why these specific cartoonists and comics deserve to be included here. Dowers provides a great sense of the breadth and diversity of the minicomics scene (if it indeed can be called a scene) and there's comics and cartoonists here I'm very grateful to be introduced to (I'm going to have to learn more about Karl Wills and Peter Thompson), but the book also feels a bit shallow and a bit too cursory. It's a mile wide, but an inch deep.

 Heroic Tales: The Bill Everett Archives Vol. 2, edited by Blake Bell, Fantagraphics Books, 248 pages, $39.99.

Unlike the first volume in the Bill Everett Archives series, Amazing Mysteries, which collected most of the artist's earliest comics work, this second volume is more of an odds-and-sods collection, skipping around various eras, from the early Golden Age of the early 1940s to some horror and satirical work of the '50s and then some horror stories from the '70s. Most of that skipping around is no doubt because the bulk of Everett's most influential work (i.e. anything involving the Sub-Mariner) is kept under tight rein by Marvel. There's some really compelling stuff here, especially in the later horror stories and some things that are just genuinely odd, like a gossipy biography of Bing Crosby that wonders what's going on with his wife and then chides readers for prying. Everett certainly knew how to create a striking image, and that's evident even in otherwise dull stories like some of the Chameleon superhero tales. And he had an interest in continuing narrative that was quite unlike most of his contemporaries. At the same time, however, most of the stories in Heroic Tales feel ancillary -- they don't have the narrative pull and thrill that Everett's classic Sub-Mariner tales or "Venus" stories do. There's a lot of slack here -- a sense that we're getting an auteur's B-sides and not their greatest hits. As a result, this book is more for those who are already convinced of Everett's genius. Those coming to his work with fresh eyes should look elsewhere.

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