Weekly Reading Round-Up : 11/11/2018 – 11/17/2018, Three Beginnings And An Ending

This week, we take a brief side-step away from our usual small-press “turf” to have a quick look at four high-profile mainstream comics now available on your LCS shelves — three are alphas, one’s an omega.

The Green Lantern #1  marks DC’s latest attempt to revive the flagging critical and commercial fortunes of their premier cosmic super-hero, and while the sort of “back-to-basics” approach being undertaken by writer Grant Morrison and artist Liam Sharp may be precisely what the character needs (not having read a contemporary GL story is probably a couple of decades I’m really not in much position to judge), a dose of some sort of ambition would probably go a long way, and this book has precisely zero of that. It’s hard to believe that the same guy responsible for such thought-through and intricate mind-fucks as The InvisiblesThe FilthFlex Mentallo, and Nameless could be so lazy as to write a dull and hackneyed pulp-adventure pastiche such as this, but that’s precisely the case, as Hal Jordan, “space cop,” goes after some meddling aliens intent on using a quasi-mystical device intended to bring its owners good luck — and very little else actually happens. Liam Sharp’s art is flashy and reasonably inventive in terms of his page layouts, panel designs, etc., but if you check out Hal’s weird, elongated neck on the cover, you’ll see that human anatomy is not his strong suit, and the problem is only exacerbated on the interior pages, some of which actively border on the hard to look at. This comic has one huge saving grace in the form of the coloring by industry legend (for good reason) Steve Oliff, who not only hasn’t lost a step but is still a good few paces ahead of most who have followed in his wake, but the hues alone in no way justify this book’s absurd $4.99 cover price (DC having apparently decided to tear a page from the Marvel playbook and charge an extra book for debut issues with maybe 6-10 extra pages). I went in to this one not giving a shit about the title character but hoping for the best given that Morrison is still capable of some thought-provoking, thoroughly engaging high-concept stuff —  and I walked away from it still not giving a shit about the title character, nor what these marquee creators do with him.

Hex Wives #1 marks the debut of the second non-Sadman title in the umpteenth relaunch of DC’s once-venerable “mature readers” Vertigo line (now re-branded, for what it’s worth, as DC/Vertigo), and again, one issue is all it takes to let me know that what’s going on here isn’t likely to be of much interest to me. Writer Ben Blacker is clearly trying to author the next feminist genre hit, and good on him for that, but this story of a group of amnesiac immortal witches held captive in sham suburban marriages by the men who have been tormenting them for centuries seems like it’s doomed to run of gas pretty quickly, as these ladies would have to be pretty stupid indeed to believe that their husbands go to work all day while they stay home and clean, prevented from going anywhere by the fact that none of them drive, and that there are long-running forest fires off in the distance that make the prospects of ever leaving town seem pretty remote indeed. I dug Mirka Andolfo’s clean, smart artwork, but the point of parables is that they’re already obvious enough for a child to understand, and I fail to see how layering a few on top of each other is going to do anything other than leave readers feeling pissed off that their intelligence is being insulted by something this painfully obvious as far as metaphors go. I laid out $3.99 for this comic from may own pocket, and I assure you that I have no intention of making that mistake again.

Bitter Root #1 sees the reunification of the acclaimed Power Man And Iron Fist creative team of scribe David F. Walker and artist Sanford Greene, this time plying their wares at Image Comics,  where both gentlemen ( joined for this project by co-writer Chuck Brown) appear to have not lost their strides at all, as this “Harlem Renaissance
take on the conflict between a likable-but-eccentric family and the vaguely Hoodoo-esque monsters they’re tasked with protecting their city — hell, their world — from” hits the ground running and never lets up. There’s still a veritable fuck-ton of details to be worked out as things progress, mind you, but this is a prime example of how slipping in social and political themes can often elevate a work at least a little bit beyond its genre trappings, given that these characters’ real chief nemesis is bigotry and intolerance. Yeah, it’s about as unsubtle as the just-reviewed Hex Wives, but in the hands of a triumvirate of creators as accomplished as these folks, who are clearly firing on all cylinders, the tried and true can still seem reasonably fresh and exciting — as this comic does. So, that’s $3.99 added to my pull list on a monthly basis — maybe it’s time to balance the scales by dropping one title for each new one I jump on?

Mister Miracle #12 is our “omega” this time out, in that it represents the final installment of writer Tom King and artist Mitch Gerads’ much-celebrated revival of Jack Kirby’s venerable Fourth World escape artist, and while the comic is (as has always been the case with this series) quite pleasing to have an extended “gander” at, I found the story to be somewhat uninspired and would like to humbly point out that I called this out as “Mulholland Dr., only with super-heroes and the suicide attempt the beginning” way back when I reviewed the first issue — and whaddya know, that’s not a bad description at all when thinking about the series in its totality. I’m also more than willing to bet that this finale will be hard-argued-over in many a fan circle for years to come, and that DC will iron out where this story fits into their corporate continuity long before the question of whether or not it even “really” happened is resolved to the satisfaction of crusty, pedantic funnybook-obsessives the world over. For my part, I thought it worked reasonably well for what it was — but what it was proved to be more or less exactly what I was expecting. I generally found that I felt like readers got their four bucks’ worth out of each issue in this run, but if you weren’t following it monthly you’d d be much better off waiting for the trade collection, which I would imagine is only a short time off, rather than hunting down the back issues. As you’ve no doubt gathered, I was considerably less effusive with my praise for this title than a lot of other critics out there who absolutely (and, frankly, embarrassingly) fawned over it, but it’s not like it was bad or anything, and I’m looking forward to having the time one of these days to sit down and re-read the whole thing in one go with an eye out for anything I may have missed.

And so ends another week of comics reading. Next week’s column will focus on — shit, it’s late, get back to me on that.

 

Daria Tessler’s Book Is Anything But “Accursed”

The whole package — you probably know it when you see it.

So, let’s run this hypothetical by you, shall we? You encounter a book with lavish, surreal, jaw-dropping art, presented in full, rich, eye-popping color. It features 18 pages, and a 26-inch center foldout, all riso-printed on heavy-duty recycled paper. The cover boasts foil-press embossing and a die-cut “window,” and the binding is hand-stitched, complete with beads and bells in the upper corner. Would that sound like the proverbial “whole package” to you? It would to me.

And that’s precisely what Daria Tessler’s remarkable Accursed, released earlier this year by the modern masters of truly deluxe small-press publishing at Chicago’s own Perfectly Acceptable Press, is.

Still, it’s all for naught if the contents of said publication don’t manage to live up to — hell, don’t prove themselves worthy of — their magnificent presentation. Especially when the asking price is a whopping $32. Thank goodness, then, that what we have here is the work of a true visionary.

I’m not sure why or how the idea to artistically interpret a series of ancient Greek and Roman curse tablets excavated from various archaeological digs comes to a person, but Tessler has long followed her creative muse into hitherto-uncharted (maybe that should even be hitherto-unimagined) territory, and not only is this no exception, it may even be fairly said to represent the culmination, even the apex, of her well and truly singular evolving aesthetic project. For some, the sky is the limit — for Tessler, it’s merely one more boundary to transcend, to overcome, to blast the fuck right through and leave eating her dust.

Seriously, my humble eyes have been well and truly privileged enough to have feasted upon many a visual marvel over the years, but this is in a class by, and unto, itself. Hallucinatory hellscapes of angst and torment may not lend themselves quickly or easily to being called “beautiful,” but these unequivocally are, and while their accompanying texts are no doubt archaic and sadistic in equal measure, there is also a starkly unforgiving poetry to them that the painfully harrowing, fever-dream illustrations magnify, amplify, transmogrify. This is suffering as art, as transcendence, as apotheosis. It hurts to look at and to read, but once you’ve done both, the idea of going back to a time before you’ve seen it becomes an act of cruel and unusual punishment to even consider.

Is there a lesson to be learned from this non-narrative assemblage of debilitating pain made cosmic in its scope and potential? Probably not in the strictest sense, but that in no way precludes this work from achieving “lasting impression” status in any given reader’s mind. That we exist in a world where the desire for “payback” can be so strong that it inadvertently finds its ages-old verbal expression transformed into something this unbearably gorgeous is strange thing to wrap one’s head around, indeed, but it’s nevertheless the reality we are confronted with as we make our through this phantasmagoria of wished-upon-the-stars hurt, and come out the other side with something akin to awe and wonder at the power — and frankly the timelessness — of revenge as a formerly-abstract concept made concrete, made inescapable, made immediate. Time may not diminish anger, but it can redirect its expression in ways entirely, and gloriously, unforeseen. This is all the proof you’ll ever need of that.

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Accursed is, sadly but completely understandably, sold out on its publisher’s website, but Daria Tessler herself has precisely one copy still available at her Etsy shop. Now, then, would be a good time to stop dawdling and get over to https://www.etsy.com/mx/listing/536722566/accursed-book

 

“One Dirty Tree” : Noah Van Sciver’s Very Own — And Very Personal — “Book Of Mormon”

The past is another country — except when it isn’t.

Noah Van Sciver has long been one of the undisputed modern masters of autobio comics, to the extent that even his most famous fictional character, Fante Bukowski (whose trilogy of books recently concluded with A Perfect Failure — reviewed a few weeks back on this very site) is obviously liberally populated with (admittedly exaggerated) people, places, and events from his own life — but a close look at one’s upbringing and how it continues to inform life right up to the present day, well, that’s quite a thematic evolution from, say, My Hot Date and similar works, is it not?

Which isn’t meant as a slight against his earlier, Ignatz-winning work, mind you — anything but! That comic more than earned its near-universal praise. But how the kid we met in its pages grew into the man we’ve seen in strips such as “Wall Of Shame” — that has generally remained uncharted territory for this most introspective of contemporary cartoonists. Enter One Dirty Tree.

Near-evenly-split between the mid-1990s and 2015, Van Sciver pulls no punches here in his depiction of growing up in a dilapidated New Jersey house, second-youngest (if memory serves correctly) of a huge — and highly dysfunctional — Mormon family torn between hewing to the notoriously patriarchal rules of their faith and recognizing stark economic reality. On the one hand, yeah, the most obvious surface-level manifestation of this is mom slowly realizing that she’s going to have to work outside the home in order to help make ends meet, but when you throw in a father struggling with acute (albeit undiagnosed) mental illness and a gaggle of kids at varying stages of development, each with different needs, mom’s two-way debate with herself takes on a whole raft of determining factors and potential consequences. Unflinching coming-of-age memoirs, though, even ones as superbly executed as this are, let’s face it, a dime a dozen. What makes this “novella” (so described by Van Sciver himself, and at 100-ish pages that seems a pretty fair categorization) worth you giving publisher Uncivilized Books 20 of your hard-earned dollars? I’ll be glad to tell you, but you’ve probably already sussed it out —

Breakups are a motherfucker, are they not? I’m not sure, looking back, which sort I “preferred” : the slow-burn, inevitable sort, or the brutal and immediate explosion/implosion. Van Sciver’s split with his most recent girlfriend, Gwen, which forms the backbone of the “present-day” segment of this book, was the former, which definitely makes for very interesting (and, yeah, voyeuristic, who are we kidding?) reading. but it sure must have hurt like hell to write and draw it all out.  The narrative transitions between “then” and the nominal “now” are so smooth as to be essentially seamless here, and that subtlety carries over from the visual side of the ledger to the written, Van Sciver never hammering the “timeline-jumping” over readers’ heads by means of hackneyed and heavy-handed parallel events or emotional reactions to same — instead, the truly expert pace at which he lays out each “half” of his story quite naturally complements the other as he “toggles” back and forth between them, the resultant effect being something akin to a slowly-dawning realization that of course this is how things were going to play out now, given how they went then.

Van Sciver’s relationship with his faith comes in for the same deft treatment, as his family drifts from its more ludicrous tenets over the course of his youth, while concurrently becoming more and more dependent on its charity as their financial situation deteriorates. It’s probably no surprise, then, that the adult version of Noah has gone the “non-practicing” route, but at the same time, when his girlfriend’s old college roommate puts him “on the spot” about various well-known LDS practices, he reacts about as well as someone “called out” on their belief system would be expected to, his calm demeanor temporarily giving way to a passionate defense not so much of his religion, but of the impact it left upon his core values. You get where he’s coming from while also implicitly understanding why he has strayed from the path, given that Mormonism, in a very real sense, may have helped his family through some tough times when he was a kid, but was also the cause of those tough times given their belief in large families, man as head of household, etc.

Throw in some of the usual trepidation about turning 30, some of the usual frustration with low-wage service work (Van Sciver punched the clock at a Panera Bread until somewhat recently), some of the usual casual estrangement one develops with certain family members as you go your separate ways in every sense, but particularly geographically, and you’ve got a pretty full plate of concerns (all rendered in Van Sciver’s highly distinctive, humanistic style, elevated here to unprecedented levels of visual fluidity thanks to his increasingly-confident use of color), but it all comes back to his formative years — culminating in an emotionally-resonant epilogue wherein Van Sciver and his older brother, Ethan (himself a reasonably famous mainstream comics artist —- hell, some would say an infamous one given his prominence within the reactionary fan “community” known as “comicsgate”) return to their childhood home and find that it’s changed — yet somehow, in some crucial respect, remained exactly the same.

Which, come to think of it, is probably a fairly nice summation of One Dirty Tree‘s central thesis. I should say, though, that even though the past always informs the present and future, it needn’t necessarily hamper either — and with each successive book, the future looks increasingly bright for Noah Van Sciver.

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 11/04/2018 – 11/10/2018, George Wylesol And More November Garcia

This week I was mightily impressed by comics both very familiar and anything but, and since I’m feeling slightly adventurous we’ll start with the “anything but” part of the equation —

Sufficiently intrigued by Philadelphia-based cartoonist George Wylesol’s mysterious, abstract, and multi-layered Avery Hill book Ghosts, Etc. last year to give a couple of his self-published minis a go (belatedly, I admit, but hey, I’ve been busy), 2017’s Porn stands out as the “must-buy” item of the two that I did, in fact, buy. Eight bucks is admittedly a bit spendy for what you get here in terms of physical product, but it more than carries its weight thematically, artistically, even philosophically. A series of disparate, perhaps even discarnate, drawings paired with coolly bland texts expounding upon vaguely harrowing scenarios with a disturbing level of clinical detachment, this is astonishingly confident stuff with an utterly unique point of view that frankly will leave you feeling somewhere between “desolate” and “haunted.” I’m still not entirely sure precisely what it’s “about,” but it leaves such prosaic concerns well in its rear view as it establishes a new conceptual territory firmly and entirely its own. One of the most wholly original things I’ve read in goddamn forever.

Considerably less successful — but, oddly, no less intriguing — is Tunnel Vision, a 12-page ‘zine composed of two-color drawings Wylesol apparently did on “his last day on the job as a TV repairman at a hospital.” No connective tissue appears to exist connecting one image to the next, and the brief “statement of purpose” at the end actually serves to reduce whatever cumulative impact one may intuit from the project as a whole, but as nominal “failures” (at least as adjudicated by yours truly) go, it’s nevertheless a fascinating one. I remain more than open to the distinct possibility that my view of this may change and improve over time as there could very well be some sort of “outsider” genius at work here that I’m simply too dim-witted to fathom — but even still, five dollars is a bit much for something this, sorry to say it, slight. Your mileage may vary, however, so it’s worth at least considering tacking it onto your order of Porn when you go over to http://wylesol.storenvy.com/

Our excursion into the realms of “high weirdness” over and done with, then, we return to the tried and true — and blissfully tried and true, at that — with our old friend November Garcia’s Malarkey #3. If the cover doesn’t put you off, you’re sure to be more than charmed by November’s latest collection of poignant and funny slices of life, this time presented in full color, and while her subject matter doesn’t change, I’m forever amazed by Garcia’s razor-sharp observational skills and her ability to see the funny side in just about anything. Each issue of this series has been stronger and more fluid than the one before it, and this is no exception. The esteemed Ms. Garcia sent me this when she was stateside in Seattle for Short Run last weekend, so no idea what the cover price is as it doesn’t appear to actually be for sale anywhere yet, but bug her for a copy at your earliest convenience and blame me for sending you her way with your pesky fucking questions.

Also in my early November package of goodies from — errrmmm — November was her first comic, the Hic & Hoc-published Foggy Notions, which I am embarrassed to admit had been missing from my collection to this point despite it being released early last year. This was the book that drew all the comparisons to Julia Wertz, but aside from some similarities in art style I really don’t see it. These strips chronicle events in Garcia’s life in San Francisco prior to her relocation to the Philippines and are, of course, a series of endearingly-related bad nights out, bad days at work, bad drunken escapades, and bad decisions. Equally interesting both for what it is (or maybe that should be what it was at the time) and for where it stands in her larger body of work now that she’s got her feet more firmly under her as a cartoonist, I would give it a very strong “buy” recommendation if it were still in print and available for purchase anywhere. Maybe when you’r pestering her about how to get ahold of Malarkey #3 you can ask her about this one, as well. Might as well find out by directing your attention to https://novembergarcia.com/comics/

And with that, we come to the end of yet another Round-Up column. Next week I have something a little bit different in store for y’all, but I’m not going to offer any clues as to what that might be since I may end up changing my mind and reviewing an entirely different batch of books than I’m planning on. Guess you’ll just have to come back here in seven days and find out, won’t you?

 

How To Succeed In Comics (At Least Financially) Without Really Trying : Meyer And Canales’ “Iron Sights”

If you’ve been following the comics mainstream on social media (particularly Twitter and YouTube) at any point over the past year or two — especially if “industry drama” is your bag — there’s no way you’ve been able to avoid at least a few passing references to a purported “movement” calling itself “comicsgate.” More than likely, you’ve picked up on the fact that there is plenty of controversy attendant with it, as well, but what it even is — well, that depends on who you ask.

While those who have little to no time for “comicsgate” view it as an inherently reactionary cesspool of retrograde social and aesthetic sensibilities complete with all the racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry you’d depressingly expect from such a, to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, “wretched hive of scum and villainy,” to those who have either aligned themselves with it or are sympathetic to its frankly amorphous aims, it’s ostensibly a consumer revolt against perceived “SJW gatekeeping” in comics, particularly at the “Big Two” publishers. It’s about cleansing the medium of vaguely “leftist” political messaging and “making comics great again” by going back to basics. Differences may arise at the margins as to what “greatness” is, of course, but by and large the artistic tastes of most who either label themselves “CGers” or share their general view of what the medium of comics should be in the business of producing are almost pathologically uncomplicated : big action, big guns, big villains (or monsters, or both), and big boobs. If that sounds a dismissive summation, it’s not meant to be — after spending way more time than any well-adjusted adult should poring through the Twitter feeds and YouTube comments sections of various “comicsgate” folks, I’ve noticed the same things being put forward as “high-water marks” in the medium by hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of them, to wit : these guys love early ’90s Image stuff and they love Larry Hama’s run on G.I. Joe. Some of ’em like sci-fi, some like Silver Age capes n’ tights, some like a lot of different things — but they almost all seem to hold a special reverence for the two things aforementioned, and want comics to “get back” to the ethos established by those eras/titles/creators, etc.

Now, I’m actually old enough to remember that stuff as it was coming out, and even though my own tastes were in a far more formative stage at the time than they are now (hey, I was a kid), I knew garbage when I saw it, and so it probably goes without saying that  I fail to see any sort of nostalgic glow emanating from the dollar (or less) boxes that a lot of the books the “CGers” hold in high regard are found in at countless comic shops to this day — and frankly I find the idea that comics should only, or even primarily, concentrate on a very particular brand of storytelling to be both absurd and vaguely offensive. Still, for the purposes of this review that’s neither here nor there. All that really matters here is whether or not, once the opportunity presented itself and/or was foisted upon them (depending on whose view of the “evolution” of this “movement” you put credence in) to make their own comics, the “CGers” producing said book were able to create a decent representative example of — or at the very least an “it’ll do in a pinch” approximation of — the kind of thing that’s, well, their kind of thing.

As it turns out, though, we may have to wait on that, because the first of the purportedly “big” books to make it from the minds and hands of “comicsgate” -linked creators into the hands of “comicsgate”-aligned consumers is neither the much-balloyhooe’d Cyberfrog by former DC comics “A-lister” Ethan Van Sciver, nor the just-as-much-ballyhooe’d Jawbreakers by popular “CG” YouTube “personality” Richard C. Meyer (probably better known by his social media “handle” of “Diversity & Comics”) and one-time Marvel artist Jon Malin, but a curious item to place in the role of “best foot forward” entitled Iron Sights, scripted by the just-referenced Meyer (with a co-plotting assist from one Carlos I. Silva, which I suspect may be a nom de plume, not that it particularly matters) and with — errrmmmm — “art” by a Spanish “comicsgate” partisan named Ibai Canales.

I say “curious” because this is, apparently, an attempt at a semi-topical modern “border noir,” a rather tiny sub-genre that evidence (in the form of their comic) indicates neither of these creators is terribly familiar with. Which is fine, I suppose, in and of itself — it’s not like Francis Ford Coppola cut his teeth on a bunch of smaller gangster pictures before doing The Godfather, he simply jumped right in, and if there’s one thing (and, I take pains to stress, it’s one thing) I kinda respect about “comicsgate” in general, it’s that when it became clear that the major publishers weren’t going to buckle under to their scattershot and not entirely tangible demands/requests (pro tip — harassing and browbeating writers, artists, editors, etc. may not be the best way to ensure that your collective voice is heard), a handful of them simply decided to make their own damn comics. As a small-press reader and critic myself, not to mention a staunch philosophical opponent of Marvel and DC (although not for the socially and politically backward reasons most “CGers” are), I’m all for anyone and everyone hanging up a shingle and simply doing the writing, drawing, and even publishing of the kind of comics they want to see, and create, themselves. DIY is where it’s at, and has been for a long time — and no, contrary to what many in “comicsgate” seem to think, it’s not new. Nor is crowd-funding an “indie” comics publication.

Still, any way you slice it, the amount of money that the first few “comicsgate”-affiliated books took in by means of crowd-funding has been impressive : Cyberfrog raised something in the neighborhood of $600,000, and Meyer’s two projects tallied up totals in excess of $400,000 (Jawbreakers) and $100,000 (Iron Sights). My understanding is that subsequent “CG” crowd-funders have done a small fraction of the business of these “big three,” but if they’re following the “Meyer method” as exemplified by this first book, they needn’t fear — they could take in six hundred bucks each and still be “in the black.”

Which, yeah, is my way of saying that Iron Sights bears all the hallmarks of an exceedingly cheap publication — I don’t have a physical copy, but tweets and photos of the flimsy, glued-binding paperback have been all over the place, with a fair number of customers justifiably bitching about the fact that their books (for which they paid a whopping $20, plus shipping) are already falling apart after just a few weeks. I’m guessing that Meyer, being new to the publishing game, simply went with the cheapest printer he could find for this debut release of his new “Splatto Comics” imprint, but come on — when you take in $100K, you can afford to splurge on at least a semi-decent product. Unless, of course, your definition of “success” lies in how much money you take in, rather than how good the end result of your labor is.

What’s even more inexcusable, though, is that this commitment to “quality” carries over to the scripting and illustration — in fact, “shoddy” and “embarrassing” are the two words that pretty much exemplify not only what Iron Sights looks and feels like, but is. Kelsey Shannon’s cover artwork is at least passable, even if the “sexily”-posed woman looks more like she suffered some sort of back injury, but once you get to the interior contents — all bets are off. This is “next level” bad.

As someone who’s spent over a decade reviewing “B”-grade films, I have a high tolerance for “bad,” though. In fact, I like quite like “bad.” But there’s a big difference between “so bad it’s good” and “so bad it never passes go, never collects its $200, and just stays bad” — and this is the latter, on steroids. It’s risible, sub-amateur, artistically bankrupt stuff that might at least be able to masquerade as a Ben Marra-esque partial spoof on macho, hard-boiled bullshit, but lacks the self-awareness necessary for parody. In other words, Meyer and Canales appear to  have earnestly believed they were making something really fucking cool here — but were too lazy to put much effort into it, trusting instead to some inherent level of competence that neither of them possesses.

Apparently Meyer is a military veteran himself, but that doesn’t mean that his protagonist, a former solider named Ramadi, is written with anything like a whiff of authenticity — bizarrely, his dialogue reads like what a guy without an ounce of experience at being “tough” thinks that a “tough guy” would or should sound like, which again means that in the right hands it could be something like even an entirely unintentional pastiche, but here it just comes off as every bit as contrived and stupid as it is. Ramadi also has no real personality to speak of, but at least he’s in good company there, because the same goes for basically every character in the book. They do things they’re supposed to do in accordance with the sorts of people they’re supposed to be, and that’s about it. Calling them “two-dimensional ciphers” is giving them too much credit — whether we’re talking about Ramadi, late-arriving sidekick Woods, head bad guy Old Man Rodriguez, ethically shady accountant Cancel, or literally anyone else, they read like were written by a 16-year-old with an Elmore Leonard novel in one hand and a gasoline-soaked rag in the other who makes it to page ten, decides “hey, I could do this!,” takes another huff, scribbles some shit down on a yellow legal pad, and then passes out. In other words, we’re not in “burn after reading” territory here — you wanna burn this shit well before you read it. The samples I’ve included with this review are in no way “especially bad” compared to the rest of the comic, I assure you — they’re blandly representative of all of it.

As for the art — damn, where to even begin? Canales seems to bob and weave between sort of trying (but not, crucially, having any actual ability) and flat-out not giving a shit — not only from page to page, but from panel to panel. I get that Meyer was probably only paying him a pittance and that he put forth the level of effort commensurate with what he was being compensated, but seriously — a lot of these pages don’t even appear to have been fully pencilled, much less inked. The one constant running theme is that they look like the sort of thumbnail sketches that many artists do on their first “pass-through” of a writer’s script in order to figure out how they’re going to approach things when they actually draw the pages — it’s just that, for whatever reason, some of these “rough outlines” have a little bit of ink added to ’em, and some don’t. Backgrounds are largely non-existent, anatomical proportions are all over the map, characters aren’t placed in relation to one and other (or even to objects) within space in ways that make any logical sense, facial expressions are either blank (hell, in some cases entirely absent) or overly-exaggerated caricatures, shading effects are haphazardly applied with no thought as to where or why they would be there — honestly, it looks like as much “effort” went into drawing this book as went into writing it, by which I mean : if either of these guys spent more than one or two drunken afternoons “working” on it, then there’s really no excuse for how utterly shitty it all turned out.

And while we’re at it, “shitty” is a more than fair descriptor of the attitudes on display here, as well — anyone who’s watched any of Meyer’s rambling, elliptical, steam-of-unconsciousness YouTube mouth-foaming will know he sure loves him some racial and sexual hyper-generalizations, and when a guy with a worldview that retrograde decides he’s gonna make a comic book about Iraq vets taking on the drug cartel down on the border (with a pretty girl caught in the middle!), what you end up with is less a “story” than a strung-together series of excuses to indulge in archaic stereotyping. Mind you, my best guess is that Meyer probably didn’t actually set out to churn out a series of overtly offensive cliches here — it’s just that he doesn’t know any other way to write, because he doesn’t know any other way to think.

Obviously, at this point any readers pre-disposed to defend either of these creators could be forgiven for saying “you’re just biased because you don’t like their politics,” but that’s utter nonsense. I’ve written detailed appraisals of Steve Ditko’s work for any number of websites over the years and am a major fan of both the man and his art despite finding his Objectivst political views laughably absurd. If you can’t separate art from artist you have no business being a critic and if Meyer and Canales had made a good comic here, I would suck up my pride and admit it, even if I had to do so through decidedly clenched teeth.

And I dearly hope that clenched teeth is precisely what both of the creators of Iron Sights will have when they leave comics behind forever, and embark on their next career with the words “welcome to Wendy’s, may I take your order”?

 

A True Innovator Gets His Due In “Steranko : The Self-Created Man”

Who better than a multi-talented, groundbreaking, artistic visionary to provide the definitive analysis of — a multi-talented, groundbreaking, artistic visionary?

The answer is as obvious as the question itself, I suppose, and it’s for that reason that James Romberger’s just-released (by means of his own Ground Zero Books self-publishing imprint) Steranko : The Self-Created Man stands out immediately as the authoritative work on the art and legacy of its subject — the iconoclastic, in many respects enigmatic, Jim Steranko : carny escape artist, comics innovator, cinematic conceptualizer, frankly peerless genre-novel cover artist, trailblazing publisher, and raconteur par excellence.

Not that every aspect of the man whose own “real-life” exploits formed the basis of Jack Kirby’s legendary Mister Miracle character comes in for equal treatment in this slim, easily-digestible volume, mind you : this is a book makes no pretenses toward being an absolutely comprehensive biography, nor would such an endeavor play to its author’s strengths : Romberger is, after all, in addition to being a deliriously accomplished fine artist, comics illustrator, and teacher (currently splitting his time in academia between Parsons in New York and Marywood University in Pennsylvania), an art scholar of the highest order, and hones his finely-tuned analytical skills on Steranko’s justly-legendary body of work first and foremost. It’s a wise decision, the end result being 160-ish thoroughly readable pages overflowing with earned, but crucially never haughty and always accessible, erudition.

An introductory sketch of Steranko’s life that does contain plenty of biographical information kicks off the proceedings, but the metaphorical “main course” comes by way of a wide-ranging interview with the artist wherein he catalogues, and expounds upon, the no less than 144 graphic storytelling innovations he introduced to the comics medium between the years of 1966 and 1984, most notably during his celebrated run on Marvel’s Nick Fury, Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D., and an impressive critical appraisal by Romberger of Steranko’s concept art for filmmakers Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Alain Resnais. This is highly academic stuff by its very nature, to be sure, but no less engrossing for that fact — hell, truth be told, I defy anyone to read through it all and not immediately wish to track down more examples of the work in question than are re-produced herein. Romberger has a way, you see, of making you both understand and appreciate the art that he’s so painstakingly breaking down, at every angle and from just as many perspectives, and meticulously placing it all within not only a historical continuum, but the larger social, political, and even philosophical zeitgeist — much of which Steranko’s art not only informed, but flat-out formed in its wake. In other words, they didn’t call this guy “The Jimi Hendrix Of Comics” for nothin’, and Romberger aptly demonstrates precisely why that’s the case.

Perhaps most impressively, though, is that this book, while obviously respectful and considered throughout, never devolves into mere hagiography, and instead recognizes Steranko and his innovations as arising not from some magical and unknowable font of mystic power, but from the artist’s own unique set of experiences and an eminently practical series of responses to various challenges that specific endeavors presented to him — and it’s in this intuitive understanding of the delicate balance that always exists between inspiration and its practical application that Romberger stands apart from, and frankly above, his “fellow travelers” in the field of art scholarship. This is specialized knowledge of the highest order communicated in such a fashion that I honestly feel it will resonate with just about anyone.

I am very pleased, therefore, to give Steranko : The Self-Created Man a rare unqualified recommendation to those interested in art history, and comics history in particular. It is a volume that I am confident will stand the test of time every bit as much the body of work it considers has. Purchase your copy directly from James Romberger at https://groundzerobooks.com/products/steranko-the-self-created-man?fbclid=IwAR3CruBN2yGWRHrhKZNDyrRcIGufAJbdGyaFTG_nMaI57VvUST85RY2xeaQ

 

Hollywood Owns Us All : Jordan Jeffries’ “The Complete Matinee Junkie : Five Years At The Movies”

For more years than I care to admit, I was a compulsive moviegoer. I can kid myself and say it was all in pursuit of material for my Trash Film Guru blog (still a going concern, although now only updated a couple/few times a month as opposed to all the fucking time), but who do I think I’m fooling? The simple truth of the matter is that I was hooked on the entire experience of heading out to the theater, micro-analyzing whatever film I happened to be seeing, and then coming home and cranking out a review for the edification of whoever happened to be reading, as well as for myself. The bus or train ride home was where I’d get my thoughts together and begin to plan out both what I was going to say and how I was going to say it, and in time I began to realize how flat-out perverse it was that I looked forward to this “postgame” interregnum even more than I did the actual films themselves, by and large, and that it was becoming literally impossible for me to simply see a flick and enjoy it (or not) free from the compulsive need to break it down and “broadcast” my views on it.

In short, I was no longer in control of my ostensible “hobby” — it was controlling me.

All of which is to say that I understand exactly where New Jersey-based cartoonist Jordan Jeffries is coming from with his new book, The Complete Matinee Junkie : Five Years At The Movies, a massive, 288-page tome recently published by J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books that collects all the Matinee Junkie single-issue “floppies” that Jeffries printed and distributed himself, as well as a full year’s worth of all-new material. All told, then, we’re talking about a time period that starts at the beginning of 2013 and runs all the way to the end of 2017. That’s a hell of a lot of movies — that provided the impetus for the creation of a hell of a lot of comics.

Don’t think, though, that what we’re dealing with here is a bunch of strips that are constructed for the purpose of specifically critiquing film a la Rick Trembles’ superb Motion Picture Purgatory. Jeffries does give his thoughts on each flick he saw (as well as on each complete theater-going experience in general), but he also shows how they all fit into, and sometimes even informed, his life. He doesn’t shy away from admitting that his compulsive cinephiliac (is that even a word?) pursuits are a fool’s errand at best, a potential waste of his life at worst, but he presents this potential existential crisis with enough self-deprecating wit to make sure he avoids dull and pretentious navel-gazing. These are comics about movies and life — by a guy for whom movies are life.

Jeffries is certainly a skilled cartoonist, make no mistake — his simple figure drawings are clean and inviting, with a strong emphasis on expressiveness — but it’s also fair to say that he’s not a particularly distinctive one. I don’t personally have much problem with that in this instance as I think material this specific can achieve a greater degree of universality than it might otherwise be expected to by hewing to an easily-digestible, dare I say even populist, style of presentation, but if you tend to dock a few points from a given comic because it looks vaguely like a lot of other comics, fair enough, as this really does come off as half Tom Gauld, half Fred Hembeck.

The book is also probably best consumed in small-ish doses, due to the sheer density of the material on offer : essentially we’re talking about a collection of “Sunday Funnies”-style single page strips here, each with its own beginning, middle, and end (that “end” pretty much always being a joke, or at least a vaguely humorous observation), so do pace yourself accordingly. I know it took me about a month to get through it from cover to cover (in between reading other stuff and, yeah, watching a number of movies myself), but the plus side to this means that you get a lot of reading material for your 20 bucks with this one. Maybe I’ve seen too many Hollywood productions, but from where I’m sitting (which is usually the balcony, if the theater happens to have one) that definitely qualifies as the proverbial “silver lining.”

One thing I think just about anyone who reads this will be hard-pressed not to agree with, though, is that Jeffries is a very informed viewer and critic. I may not agree with his on-the-fly appraisals of each film he sees, but he finds a way to hone in on one or two important “nuggets” about every one of them and work those into the broader context of what’s happening in his life. This may not be the most wholly original cartooning in the world, then, but it’s invariably smart, salient, and usually manages to avoid the easy pitfalls of cynicism and/or irony for its own sake.

Keeping in mind the caveats already expounded upon, then, I’m happy to give The Complete Matinee Junkie : Five Years At The Movies a solid “buy” recommendation to anyone who thinks this sounds like something that would probably be “up their alley.” It’s packed with enough witty and wry observation to satisfy cineastes from the casual to the committed, and who knows? You may even walk away from it with a few new movies to add to your “must-see” list. It can be ordered directly from the publisher at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/products/the-complete-matinee-junkie-five-years-at-the-movies