What Is “What Is A Glacier?”

There are few cartoonists who get so much from so little as Sophie Yanow. I offer as an example of this assertion  her latest autobio work, the Retrofit/Big Planet-published What Is A Glacier?, which clocks in at just 32 economically-scripted pages, is illustrated in a much looser and more free-flowing style  than her previous (equally exemplary) works — one that puts a premium on extracting maximum emotional “punch” out of each line, whether straight or squiggled — and yet it’s packed with more sheer information, both personal and global, than most comics that are three, even four, times longer. How packed, you might ask? So packed that even after six consecutive readings I’m still trying to figure out whether or not I’ve not so much caught everything, but absorbed it all.

Juxtaposition is our word of the day here, and the brilliant way Yanow utilizes it allows her to explore two intersecting narratives at one, both of which have any number of intriguing and compelling tributaries flowing into, through, and out of them — on the one hand, we have our author’s trip to Iceland, where she meets up with her friend, Hannah, who’s on her way to visit family in Europe ; on the other, we have her reflections on her now-concluded relationship with her last girlfriend. The two may seem incongruous at first glance, but as the comic progresses, we discover that they’re anything but.

Now, about those tributaries : Yanow’s post-mortem on her break-up deals, in minimalist but excruciating detail, with her own anxiety and how it hampers all aspects of her life — while said anxiety also comes into play in her observations about Iceland and the effects global warming, “eco”-tourism, and the influx of foreign capital and investment are having on this unique, yet far- less-remote-than-it-used-to-be, locale. But that’s really just the — shit, sorry for this, but — tip of the iceberg : Yanow’s memories of her father’s fatalistic attitude, her internal debate regarding whether or not she should spend a semi-sizable amount of money to see a glacier up close, her theorizing about if and/or when we may have passed the point of no return to do anything about climate change, her complicated relationship with the coping mechanisms she’s developed (some more successful than others) to deal with life’s stresses — these are all key issues she touches upon with an amazing amount of depth in the space of, in most cases, just a handful of panels.

And speaking of those panels : while they’re uniformly arranged in a rigid six-per-page grid, the fluid immediacy with which she delineates the scenes contained within their hand-drawn borders creates a wonderful natural tension between function and form that is felt from the outset even while its full effect takes a good few pages to sink in. In other words, this is cartooning that “hooks” readers well before they’ve fully figured out why.

In that respect, both audience and artist are of the same mindset — Yanow reveals herself to be a consummately introspective thinker, someone who questions just about everything about just about every subject. A scene wherein she gets sidelined from her task of making a salad to explore potential answers to the comic’s titular question drives this home with perhaps the most force, but she’s literally always obsessing over something, and invariably communicates those obsessions in such a way that you’ll be sharing them in no time yourself. Her progression from ruminating on various individual apocalpyses (is that a word?) to the literal end of the world, then, not only makes perfect sense, but presents itself as the inevitable “Point B” to the “Point A” she starts at.

All that being said, this isn’t an especially morose or gloomy work. Yanow certainly doesn’t seem to be an optimist by any stretch, but the way she thinks and feels her way through everything, and the acceptance with which she’s able to take on board the reality that she can’t have the answers to all her questions is, in its own way, at least slightly hopeful, simply because you get the sense that a compulsion (moreso than a love) to learn will always compel both her, and humanity, forward — for better or worse.

None of this goes very far in terms of alleviating the profound sense of grief and regret that Yanow feels about her past, both recent and (relatively speaking) distant, nor the intense loneliness she feels about her present — to say nothing of the foreboding she feels about the future — but she uses each to provide context for the others, and as a result transcends the merely confessional in favor of a far more brave, and honest, holistic viewpoint that’s as understandable as it is challenging, as sympathetic as it is alienating (and alienated), as clinical and distant as it is emotive and heart-rending. To simply call this comic “extraordinary” is, therefore, to sell it far too short — this is singularly unique and powerful storytelling that will stay with you forever.


What Is A Glacier? is something you need to own, and six dollars for work this compelling is an absolute bargain any way you slice it. You can — and should — order it directly from the publisher at http://retrofit.storenvy.com/collections/936408-retrofit-comics-print/products/19381849-what-is-a-glacier-by-sophie-yanow



Cartoonists And Readers Both Can Learn A Lot From Alex Nall’s “Teaching Comics : Volume One”

When no less an authority than legendary indie cartoonist John Porcellino says that a particular book is “as good as comics get,” then said book is clearly worth paying attention to — but also has some very big praise to live up to. Whether that means such a glowing endorsement is actually something of a double-edged I guess I’ll leave to you to determine — shit, if it was my book, I’d take it — but any way you slice it, “as good as comics get” is far more than simple, or even effusive, praise. Indeed, it’s positively glowing.

But, then, so is the book we’re talking about here, Chicago-based cartoonist Alex Nall’s self-published collection Teaching Comics : Volume One. Autobio strips that capture life’s quietly beautiful and poignant moments are nowhere near as “sexy” or “arresting” as autobio confessional stuff, it’s true, but for my money they take far more actual skill — anyone who can draw can give you way too much information about their masturbatory fantasies or their collegiate heartbreaks, after all, but it takes a supremely deft touch to communicate the simple wonder in the accidental wisdom of a child’s statement or the serenity and contentment that comes from walking home along a familiar route without coming off as being overly-precious or cloying. We all love perceptive cartooning (don’t we?), but most of us can do without smarmy sentimentality.

In Nall’s one-page strips he not only gets the balance exactly right, he does so consistently.  His stories about his experiences teaching in the Chicago public school system are charming, insightful, heartwarming, and at times even painfully funny, but never do they insult your intelligence or force their hand. His cartooning is as unassuming and free of pretense as his students, and I’m prepared to go out on a limb and say that takes more than talent, it takes at least a little bit of genius — and that’s a term I like to think I never use lightly.

A good chunk of Nall’s artistic success here comes from the easy-going editorial viewpoint he takes throughout — he’s self-deprecating without being so to a fault, and the end result is a clear and honest look at the daily life of a guy who knows that he’s learning from the kids he interacts with every bit as much as he’s teaching them, and one that suffers from none of the “messiah complex” that sometimes accompanies those who take their responsibility to future generations maybe a little bit too seriously. Nall’s evocative and expressive linework — done in a wonderfully loose and fluid style by means of color markers (!) and ink — suits this “serious but not self-serious” tone to a proverbial “T,” and there’s none of the “disconnect” we sometimes see between subject matter and art that many autobio cartoonists struggle with to one degree or another. This stuff just plain flows.

The longer I go on here the more likely I am to run out of superlatives, so maybe I’ll just cut myself off in a rare display of critical discipline. I racked my brain to try to come up with some quibbles, no matter how small, in this work in order to balance things out at least a tad, but you know what? I’m coming up empty. Nall is a master craftsman and storyteller operating at the absolute peak of his abilities. As very near to a flawless book as you’re going to find — and further proof, as if any were really needed, that John Porcellino always knows what he’s talking about.

The very best thing you can do with that $20 bill in your wallet or pocket or purse right now is to order yourself a copy of Teaching Comics : Volume One directly from the artist at http://alexnallcomics.storenvy.com/products/17023551-teaching-comics-volume-one



Weekly Reading Round-Up : 03/04/2018 – 03/10/2018

What did I learn this week? I learned that Vertigo-style comics are still alive and well, they’re just not being made by Vertigo anymore —

Case in point : The Highest House #1 re-unites the team of Mike Carey and Peter Gross from The Unwritten at IDW, and their new publisher is clearly pulling out all the stops, publishing this in an oversized magazine-style format with heavy, glossy covers and slick, high-quality paper. The art is certainly worthy of the presentation — Gross’ detailed, intricate illustrations positively sing from the pages, aided and abetted in no small part by the lush, gorgeous color palette of Fabien Alquier, and the story, centered around a slave boy named Moth who works in a Gormenghast-style eccentric magical castle is old-school Vertigo “high fantasy” all the way. The set-up is fairly simple : Moth makes a deal with a potential devil named Obsidian who promises freedom and advancement, but what price he’ll have to pay remains to be seen — and until we figure that out, Carey’s gonna go heavy on the world-building and character development in equal measure.

I dunno, I should probably be more cynical about this sort of Gaiman-derivative (and his stuff was pretty derivative itself) storytelling at this point, but Carey’s undoubtedly a skilled, if decidedly unsubtle, technician, and what this comic lacks in terms of inspiration it more than makes up for in terms of execution. Certainly $4.99 is a more than fair price for a book this lavishly-formatted, and if you’re looking for a series that can still get some mileage out of a vaguely Sandman-esque lineage, odds are this one will end up doing a better job of it than the recently-announced Sandman Universe slew of titles will. Obviously, if you’re looking for something new under the sun you should be looking elsewhere, but if “formulaic” isn’t a dirty word in your vocabulary, then I think you’ll find a lot to like here. For the time being, I’m more than happy to see where Carey and Gross go with this.

The entire premise behind DC’s Young Animal imprint seems to be a sort of updating of “classic” Vertigo properties for the 21st century, but I’m thinking that Gerard Way’s four-color baby must be showing signs of being a problem child sales-wise because, apart from Doom Patrol, the various titles are all re-launching with new first issues coming out of the recent (and frankly pretty lame) Milk Wars cross-over event. Shade, The Changing Woman #1 is first out of the chute, and sees Steve Ditko’s character (or, more accurately, an extrapolation thereof) in a slightly older body than last time out, but with the same creative team of writer Cecil Castellucci and artist Marley Zarcone chronicling her exploits. I like Zarcone’s art quite a bit — she cleaves to the off-kilter temperament of Ditko while giving everyone/thing a look and personality all her own — but there’s not a tremendous amount happening here story-wise, with the same basic identity questions (how does an alien from Meta adjust to being a human on Earth?) that were reasonably intriguing at first now seeming, well, kinda old hat — and apparently there are no answers to these metaphysical queries forthcoming. The pages where Castellucci plays to her artist’s strengths and side-steps linear narrative altogether are the best things on offer here and maybe in future they should just say “fuck it” and go for the psychedelic trip-out vibe on a full-time basis with no real concern for a “story arc” that’s barely advancing in any appreciable way anyhow? I dunno, but at $3.99 a pop it’s probably not worth hanging around a whole lot longer to see whether or not they figure out what the hell they’re doing with this comic. Of all the DCYA titles, this seems to be the one that’s having the hardest time distinguishing between being nominally “experimental” and just plain “floundering.”

The last “might-have-been-a-Vertigo-comic-five-years-ago” book of the week is Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino’s Gideon Falls #1, the opening salvo in what looks to be something of a slow-burn horror series. Certainly this creative team has cranked out some fan-favorite stuff in the past with their runs on Green Arrow at DC and Old Man Logan at Marvel, and given free reign to cut loose and do their own thing at Image, who knows? Maybe they’ll really pull out all the stops and craft a series for the ages — but it’s too soon to say whether or not this will be it. Lemire seems to be bobbing and weaving between two separate storylines — one focused on a Catholic priest whose career trajectory is headed straight down, the other on a disturbed young-ish recluse looking for clues to a city-wide conspiracy in its garbage — that will no doubt intersect sooner rather than later, but there aren’t enough “hooks” (either character- or situation-based) to really stir the interest at this early juncture. What’s perhaps most surprising, though, is that he doesn’t give you a very strong sense of place yet with this comic, and that’s been a Lemire staple going all the way back to Essex County, and continuing through subsequent works like Royal CityRoughneck, and Sweet Tooth, to name just a few. Certainly in a comic named after a fictitious locale you would expect said locale to play a major role — and no doubt it will in fairly short order — but it doesn’t in this debut. Kinda puzzling, that is.

On the plus side, though, we’ve got Sorrentino’s darkly evocative and cinematic illustrations, which look like a million bucks when paired with the pitch-perfect hues of superstar colorist Dave Stewart. Visually, these guys knock it out of the park here and this extra-length issue is worth its $3.99 cover price for the art alone. At some point, though, the story’s gonna have to earn its keep, as well, so while I hesitate to have a quick trigger finger, I do find myself putting this series on a much shorter leash than, in all honesty, I was expecting to.

One more Image debut this week worthy of note, probably because it’s being optioned for TV as we speak, is Robert Kirkman and Lorenzo De Felici’s Oblivion Song #1, released under Kirkman’s own Skybound studio imprint. Not being a fan of Kirkman’s work in the least I wasn’t figuring to be impressed by this, but what the hell — to bizarrely paraphrase ESPN’s Chris Berman, that’s why we read the books, and I’m actually pretty glad I read this one. The quick plot hook — an extraterrestrial/interdimensional incursion of some sort resulted in a big chunk of Philadelphia being violently transported to a deadly, monster-filled realm known as Oblivion, the US government devised a barely-explained kind of sci-fi means of going there to rescue its people, but hey, that was ten years ago and no one gives a shit anymore apart from one lone scientist/adventurer who’s trying to find his disappeared brother — grabs you more or less instantly, the broad-stroke characterization gives you as much info as you need to know about these people and what’s happening with them, and De Felici’s art is an absolutely gorgeous blend of high-concept imagination and free-flowing, “cartoony,” batshit craziness. Think 2000AD with an underlying Euro-comics sensibility and you’ll be right in the ballpark in terms of trying to classify it. This first issue goes out with extra pages under a heavy cardstock cover and is well worth four of your dollars. I never thought I’d say this in my life — and who knows, I can certainly see myself eating these words if it all goes to hell in a handbasket — but as of this writing I’m all in on a fucking Robert Kirkman comic. Surely that has got to be a sign that the apocalypse is fast approaching.

And that’s enough, I should think, for this time out —looking through next week’s advance solicits there’s nothing that’s absolutely grabbing me by the throat and screaming “buy me!,” but who knows? I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked a couple of comics this week, and there’s no reason it can’t happen again — join me back here in seven days and I’ll let you know whether or not it did!

One Very Full “Dust Pam”

One of the crazier things to come down the pipeline in recent months — as well as one of the most endearing — has to be Thu Tran’s Dust Pam, a compact little 72-page Risograph-printed book published by Sweden’s Peow Studio that in many ways defies expectation, classification, perhaps even description. But around these parts we’re pretty goddamn hard-headed, so we never let that stop us from trying —

Presented in various gradations of white, mustard yellow, mouthwash green, and salmon pink, the aesthetics of Tran’s book are as singular as its subject matter : our protagonist is an anthropomorphic dust pan/cat hybrid who’s obsessed with keeping both her home and her workplace (Best Snacks Factory, where she cleans up cheese dust all day) absolutely spotless, but is constantly at war with a veritable army of insects that seem to pop back up as soon as she removes them. Things happen in her life, no question about that — perhaps the funniest/creepiest of which is when she strikes up a friendship with a dog/broom and they go back to her place to engage in cleaning-as-allegory-for-sex (complete with awkward one-night-stand goodbyes after all is said and done) — but the short vignettes that make up the contents of this comic can’t really be said to constitute a “narrative” so much as a series of events that could very probably be arranged and presented in almost any order, which has the oddly unsettling effect of making audiences feel more like voyeurs than readers per se. It takes a little while to get with this flow, or at least it did for me, but it works once you’re willing to “buy in” — and most of that is down to Tran’s utterly charming cartooning.

Deceptively simple on its face, the artwork in Dust Pam‘s border-less panels is almost brazen in its sheer confidence : Tran has developed a hermetically-sealed reality that more than likely can only be communicated by the means she’s found to do so, namely quick-but-precise linework flowing into pleasingly abstract shapes and vaguely-recognizable figures accented by dulled “day-glo” hues — a kind of visual language I certainly had never conceived of before (nor, frankly, had anyone else, prior to this), but if you’re looking to make something unquestionably alien by definition feel almost instantly welcoming and familiar? This is the way to do it.

When you’re going “all-in” on weirdness, there’s no point in being shy about it, and while the “funny animal” genre in a general sense is perceived to be non-threatening, the distinctly “lived-in” ethos Tran adheres to goes one better by making you feel like you must have seen cartooning like this before — even though, if we want to be absolutely precise about things, you haven’t. The jubilant attitudes of her characters is one thing (Pam’s OCD mindset should, by all rights, be grating, but damn, she enjoys her myopia so much), but it’s the drawing that does the real heavy lifting in terms of making the non-sensical entirely sensible. There’s a keen awareness in every motion line, every dust mote, every billowing cloud, every bizarre industrial machine, every — shit, everything. Tran might be telling a fun little series of stories here, but she’s deadly serious in her intention to lay out her vision on the page.

All of which means, of course, that it’s very nearly impossible not to have a really good time with this book. It has a breezy, near-weightless quality to it that, in a pinch, could be described as “dreamlike,” but for its creator, it has to be much more like a dream come true — I can’t explain what goes on in Thu Tran’s mind, but she’s found a way to express it, to get it out there in front of people, in what I can only assume is more or less the exact way she envisioned it. That’s a quietly remarkable feat right there — just as this is a quietly remarkable little comic.


The Peow Studios website is currently down for maintenance, and Dust Pam appears to be sold out from most other outlets, but last I checked a few copies were still available from the Retrofit Comics Store, so if you’re interested I would suggest not dawdling and making tracks over to http://retrofit.storenvy.com/collections/936423-comics-from-friends-of-retrofit/products/20862701-dust-pam-by-thu-tran

What The Heck Is A “Combed Clap Of Thunder” ?

Fair warning at the outset : that question I pose in the headline for this review? I’m not sure I can answer it. But it’s not for lack of trying.

New York-based cartoonist Zach Hazard Vaupen’s Combed Clap Of Thunder (to my knowledge his first “solo” book, his previous material appearing in a handful of multi-creator anthologies) is a comic I’ve been poring and puzzling over since its release by means of the Retrofit/Big Plant Comics publishing partnership six or seven months back. It’s an engrossing work, to be sure, but not one that lends itself to clear-cut analysis. Which isn’t to say that the triptych of thematically-not-dissimilar stories are somehow oblique affairs — in point of fact, while they’re certainly (sorry to invoke the term, but) surreal in terms of execution and expression, they’re relatively straightforward narratives : “The Lonely Autocannibal The Scientist” is an internal monolgue on the —errrrrmmmm — virtues of human flesh consumption delivered by a guy who’s put a lot of thought into it and appears to be ready to take the plunge; “Bodhisattva” is the tale of two identical twins, one of whom is possibly imaginary, the other of whom harbors deeply suicidal impulses (and has, it would seem, since birth), but can’t get her “other half” to go along with the idea; “The Real Jesuses” is set against the backdrop of a literally Biblical rapture/apocalypse, as humankind is being sucked up through the sky to meet their maker, with our titular messiahs playing a key role when it comes to greasing the heavenly rails. All three tales have what are clearly intended to be “surprise” endings, but your mileage there may vary — what absolutely can’t be denied, though, is that the final plot “beats,” whether you consider them legit “twists” or not, are decidedly impactful and take some time, and perhaps several readings, to fully absorb.

So, yeah, this is some powerful cartooning that Vaupen is doing here, aided and abetted to no end by his dramatically understated visual aesthetic : smooth, clean linework is juxtaposed with subtle and rich facial expressions and body language, emotive, intricately-detailed backgrounds, sharp and fine cross-hatching, and deep, inky blacks to form an immersive and cohesive “look” that runs through every story while allowing for plenty of individual idiosyncrasies to give each a “variations on a theme” type of “vibe” — which is also the case, as you’ve no doubt already gleaned, with the narratives themselves. That takes a lot of smarts, to be sure, but also a hell of a lot of confidence is one’s craft — and Vaupen is self-assured for very good reason.

After all, not everyone can communicate ideas this disturbing, or at the very least unsettling, at their core with this level of efficacy —Eddie Campbell is somebody who certainly can (even if his natural impulses as a cartoonist tend to lean more toward the humorous), and it’s fair to say his influence is both seen and felt, but Vaupen skews that influence by at least 180 degress, at times turning it on its head altogether. The end result is something singular, something undoubtedly true, and something that leaves a scar on the psyche. Only a storyteller in absolute command of everything in his or her metaphorical “toolbox” can make you see the “sense” in cannibalism, or create a sense of empathy for a girl who tries to convince others (any others) to join her in a mutual end-of-life pact, or delineate a darkly comic rapture scenario where even angels fear to tread. The “kickers” at the end drive the point home, twist in the knife, put an exclamation point on the proceedings, but you’ve gotta be good and “hooked” well in advance for any of them to work — and if there’s one thing Vaupen demonstrates an uncanny ability to do, it’s to “hook” you early, no matter how bizarre-on-paper the premise.

But it’s perhaps the lingering questions and impressions the cartoonist leaves you with that are the most impressive thing about Combed Clap Of Thunder : are any of our protagonists engaged in actions that are inherently “right” — or are they only “right” to them? And if they are “right” to them, then how can the idea that they’re “wrong” be anything other than an entirely subjective judgment? And what makes the reader’s subjective viewpoint “superior” to that of the character’s? I’m still working all that out. I may be working it out for some time to come. Shit, truth be told, I may never it all figured out. But any work that can pose such deep and abiding quandaries with this level of natural and entirely unforced integrity is indeed an immensely brave one — and it’s no exaggeration to say that Vaupen has created a comic that, like it or not, you will always remember.

Combed Clap Of Thunder is available for the criminally reasonable price of dollars from the publisher at http://retrofit.storenvy.com/collections/29642-all-products/products/20070080-combed-clap-of-thunder-by-zach-hazard-vaupen




Weekly Reading Round-Up : 02/25/2018 – 03/03/2018

Looming nuclear war with North Korea! Looming cold war with Russia! Looming trade war with every other country on the planet! What have we got to take our minds off all this potential conflict? Why, comics, of course! And this week offered plenty of distraction — some good, some decidedly less so.

The Beef #1 is the opening salvo in a four-parter from Image that has apparently been in the works for quite some time. Co-writers Richard Starkings and Tyler Shainline, of Elephantmen and Liberty Justice, respectively, join forces with living legend (as far as I’m concerned) Shaky Kane to serve up this story that appears to be part character-study of a lonely middle-aged “nobody,” part examination of small-town generational entrapment, part super-hero parody, and part polemic on the merits of vegetarianism. Kane’s art and colors are, needless to say, absolutely magnificent — larger than life and twice as bold, he’s the nearest thing in style and spirit to Kirby these days — and I’ll be damned if the narrative isn’t instantly involving, as well. It’s all done up in OTT broad strokes — alienated protagonist trapped in the same cattle-slaughtering gig as his old man before him, still tormented by the same bullies (one of whom is the Mayberry equivalent of Donald Trump Jr., given that his daddy owns the meat-processing plant and the fast food joynt while he plays “dudebro” at age 40) that have been making his life hell since high school — and laced with plenty of entirely un-subtle commentary on the evils of anti-immigrant prejudice and carnivorous eating. Yes, they really did make a label out of Kane’s cover art and stick it on a can of SPAM-type meat “product;” yes, our ostensible “hero” appears to turn into a freaky super-human “meat man” at the end; yes, the asshole bad guys really do set a charging bull on a shapely young lady who wisely won’t give either of them the time of day; and yes, this book is every kind of awesomely deranged fun you can imagine. Highest possible recommendation ain’t high enough — buy this comic and remind yourself why you still, stubbornly, love this beleaguered medium.

The One #1 kicks off IDW’s year-long run of Rick Veitch reprints (Brat Pack will be following suit), and offers prima facie evidence that, once upon a time, super-hero deconstructionism wasn’t such a bad thing at all. Originally published under Marvel’s Epic Comics imprint, this has been (correctly, in my view) heralded as a thematic precursor of sorts to later, more-celebrated works such as Watchmen and The Dark Knight returns, but without the self-seriousness of either/both. Veitch is positively brimming over with ideas here, the comic is lavishly illustrated and beautifully colored, and consumer excess comes in for just as much scrutiny within its pages as does the notion of the super-powered vigilante. It’s been a hell of a long time since I read my B&W trade collection of this series, but I’m more than pleasantly surprised by how utterly relevant it remains — shit, I won’t even say that it’s “aged well,” as it’s more a case that the capes n’ tights scene is even more desperately in need of Veitch’s thorough-going, critical examination than it was 30-plus years ago. All the tropes that he wryly dissects are more entrenched — and frankly more nauseating — now than they were in the early 1980s, and even though “revisionism” has been done to death over the past few decades, this book still feels like a breath of unbelievably fresh air. $4.99 may be a little steep for what is essentially a standard-length comic, but for material this smart, incisive, and respectful of its own targets? Shit, it’s an absolute bargain. We’ve seen the problems inherent in this genre laid bare by any number of folks who have disdain for it — Veitch’s deconstruction comes from a place of, dare I say it, love, and he’s much more concerned with elevating costumed crime-fighters to where he thinks they should be rather than taking them down another peg or two. If you’re looking for a story with heart and humor that examines super-hero comics without making you feel like an asshole for still reading them, this is (insert audible groan here) the one.

Doom Patrol/Justice League Of America Special #1 wraps up Steve Orlando and Gerard Way’s “Milk Wars” DCU/Young Animal cross-over series in confusing and faux-“transgressive” fashion by turning the DP’s Rita Farr/Elasti-Girl into a kind of Christ-like figure who died for comics fans’ sins, only to be resurrected here as the very same sort of living plot device that the narrative ostensibly takes aim at. Orlando and Way more-than-imply that she’s a character who’s always deserved better than what she got — then cynically use her “rebirth” as a sort of deckchair-shuffling device to set the stage for the various soon-to-be-relaunched (just over a year into their existence) Young Animal titles. Some forced caption-box narration about the inherent value of being “weird” and “different” is apparently meant to make us forget what a naked cash-grab this entire venture was (seriously, the three “specials” in the middle of this series weren’t necessary to the proceedings at all — if you want to know what “Milk Wars” is all about, the first and final books are, strictly speaking, all you need) because we’ll all be too busy patting ourselves on our backs for our supposed “coolness.” I guess Dale Eaglesham’s art on the main story is okay if the standard “super-hero look” is your thing, and certainly Nick Derington’s work on the epilogue is every bit as fun and fantastic as his illustration in the main Doom Patrol series, but this whole friggin’ thing left me feeling decidedly unimpressed by the time it was over. Cliff Steele/Robotman is human again, Mother Panic has been thrust into the future, Shade’s got a new body, Cave Carson and crew are now in outer space, a character called Eternity Girl has something to do with something or other (we’ll find out in her own book, I guess) and Elasti-Girl is back. That’s where things stand now. Did it take five comics, each costing five bucks, to get us to this point? Not really, since all the events just mentioned take place on the final five or six pages of this one. Young Animal may pride itself on being some sort of “alternative” DC imprint, but the hustle is exactly the same. Oh, and is it just me, or is the stylized lettering on the Rita Farr “cosmic crucifixion” pages way too small? Mind you, I say this as a guy with 20/20 vision — I can only imagine the strain bespectacled readers went through trying to read that shit.

The Terrifics #1 is the latest book to launch as part of the self-described “New Age Of DC Heroes,” and it occcurs to me that, in addition to these titles being constructed according to the “Marvel Method” (writer hacks out a quick synopsis, artist then turns it into a 20-page story, writer comes back and fills in the word balloons and caption boxes), these are all Marvel comics. Which is fine, I suppose, since Marvel itself doesn’t seem interested in publishing them anymore, but seriously — Damage is pretty clearly DC’s take on the Hulk, The Silencer is a Punisher analogue, Sideways is Spider-Man with a different name and set of powers, and this new team consisting of Mister Terrific, Plastic Man, Metamorpho, and Phantom Girl doing the dimension-hopping bears more than a passing similarity, premise-wise, to the Fantastic Four. Jeff Lemire is scripting this one with Ivan Reis on art, and I was having a reasonably fun enough time shutting my brain off and going with the flow — until the last page, when Tom Strong shows up for the cliffhanger and DC proves, once again, that they’re more than happy to keep strip-mining Alan Moore’s imagination for all its (apostrophe omitted with specific intent) worth just to piss the guy off. Come on, any number of dormant space-faring adventurers would have worked just as well in Strong’s place — Adam Strange, anyone? — but it seems like the Dan DiDio/Jim Lee regime simply can’t resist rubbing The Bearded One’s face in their excrement. At first it was just sad and pathetic that they’d actually prove Moore’s points about how creatively and ethically bankrupt they are for him, but between this and Promethea’s recent appearance in Justice League Of America, it’s actually starting to feel more than a bit mean-spirited. I refuse to play along, and you should to. Drop this title from your pull now or suffer through the V/Batman and Top 10/Titans team-ups to follow. You’ve been warned.

And so we arrive at the end of yet another weekly wrap column, and reluctantly turn our attention back to the real world. At least until Wednesday, when a new batch of floppy, four-color escape valves arrives to take us away from the madness once again—

Eric Haven Delivers A “Compulsive Comics” Reading Experience

You’ve gotta say this much for Eric Haven — he may wear his influences clearly, obviously, perhaps even proudly on his sleeve (Jack Kirby, Winsor McCay, Charles Burns, Fletcher Hanks especially), but he filters them all through a singular lens that first blends, then morphs and metastasizes them into a “sort of work” that can well and truly be called his own. Omnipotent otherworldly forces, ancient terrors, Walter Mitty-esque dream lives, mutant super-creatures, high-flying adventuresses, and present-day ennui may seem, at first glance, to be incongruous (to say the least) storytelling tropes when presented in relation to each other, but the sporadically-active cartoonist finds a way to make them all not only work together, but to do so in such a naturalistic fashion that you can’t see them not functioning as precisely-placed elements in a kind of “slow-burn” absurdist crescendo.

That requires a deft touch and a singular commitment to an equally-singular vision, but in Haven’s latest Fantagraphics-published collection (featuring strips culled from a variety of “smaller-time” publications released over the past decade or so), Compulsive Comics, he demonstrates both with something approaching elegance — his cartooning is smooth, richly-detailed, and eminently professional, each illustration something its creator can not only be proud of, but that he clearly spent a hell of a lot of time on. Meticulous cross-hatching, fluid linework, and expertly-rendered small details are ever-present, and when he adds color to the mix (as a fairly generous section of this book does), few can match his successful channeling of “Golden Age” aesthetics by means of a distinctly modern sensibility.

Of course, crafting a book that’s easy on the eyes is only half the battle, but rest assured — Haven’s storytelling skills are uniformly strong throughout here, as well. Whether we’re talking about Dan Clowes and Adrian Tomine coming back from the dead to exact vengeance upon their mutual (if accidental) killer (who just so happens to be Haven himself, or a near enough analogue), a polar explorer making a reality-shattering discovery, or a channeled history of the eons-long secret war between mammals and reptiles that comes to Haven in the form of a mid-afternoon reverie, certain themes underpin everything : man’s insignificance in the face of an uncaring universe, the temporary nature of our place as Earth’s ostensible “top dogs,” and the existential dread that knowledge of both these truths instills being chief among them. He’s got a point of view, no question about that, but he doesn’t clobber you over the head with it — instead, it’s just inexorably woven into the “DNA” of his strips from the outset, as ever-present as in the world(s) he delineates as, say, losing seasons for the Cleveland Browns or Trump administration scandals are in ours.

Don’t let that the relative “heaviness” of any of Haven’s obsessions fool you, though : he is, first and foremost, an exceptionally funny cartoonist. His humor is dry and understated, to be sure, but it’s either right there at the forefront or, at most, bubbling just barely beneath the surface. Maybe it’s the influence imbued by his years spent in showbiz (he was an executive producer on the long-running “reality” TV series Myth Busters), but he seems to have admirably blase attitude when it comes to the subject of life’s ultimate pointlessness, to wit (and I promise this is going to be the only time you’ll see John Mellencamp referenced on this site for any reason) : nothing matters, and what if it did?

Unless, of course, it does — Haven’s “god,” for instance, may not give much of a shit about people, but he does love comics; the “good” and “evil” sides in the mammals-vs.-reptiles conflict are easy enough to figure out, even if never stated explicitly; dreams are presented as a source not merely of escape, but of enlightenment. Maybe, then — just maybe — existence does have a point. You simply need to be willing to find it hidden in the oft-romanticized “little things” — the proportions of which are indeed shown to be quite small in these pages, with the entirely un-ironic result of that ending up being, of course, that their import looms larger than ever.

So hey, I dunno, call me crazy — I’ve surely been called worse — but at the end of the day, I found Compulsive Comics (as well as Haven’s most recent wholly original work, 2017’s Vague Tales) to be, dare I say it, a life-affirming work, albeit one that keeps its sense of optimism guarded, grounded : after all, just because you, personally, don’t matter in the overall universal scheme of things, that doesn’t mean you can’t, or shouldn’t, matter to yourself and to your loved ones. I know one thing for certain — this book mattered quite a bit to me, and should you decide to give it a go, I think it’ll matter to you, as well.