Lizz Lunney’s “Big Bonerz” Isn’t What You Think — Even When It is

At first glance, UK cartoonist Lizz Lunney’s Big Bonerz, a 44-page collection of her black and white Street Dawgz strips collected between two riso-printed covers by J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books, appears to be a sort of “edgy” or “confrontational” updating of the venerable “funny animal” genre, but the thing with preconceptions is — pun only slightly intended because, frankly, it’s not a very good one — well, they can be a real bitch.

And that goes double, as it turns out, when they’re right. This is, you see, a very funny comic — and it’s a crisp and incisive kind of funny, one that reflects real-world concerns and all-too-human foibles and frailties, even if it features a group of canine protagonists who are operating in “our” stead as they grapple with issues ranging from debilitating depression, class struggles, celebrity worship, and anger management to drug dependency, internet addiction, lethargy, and homelessness. So what, then, is unexpected here? I’m glad you asked —

While characterization is admittedly scant within these pages and frequently leaned upon/developed as pretext in service of “gag” set-ups, there is a narrative “through-line” of sorts that Lunney is pursuing, and it’s got a lot of heart to it. Her cardboard-box-dwelling “dawgz” are more than figures to poke fun at and/or feel sorry for, they’re actually pretty damn easy to relate to — especially if you’ve either known junkies/addicts (particularly homeless junkies/addicts) or, no judgments here, been one yourself. You want authenticity? You’re actually going to find plenty of it on offer in this modest little book.

That being said, you needn’t worry — if you’re pre-disposed to be concerned about such things — that the overall tone of the proceedings here is “too heavy.” It’s not light-hearted, by any means — these are some serious topics being tackled, after all — but Lunney succeeds in, if you’ll forgive the term, humanizing skid-row-level travails, most especially “crack bone’ addiction, by serving them up with a generous helping of gallows humor deployed at just the right moments. Indeed, her comic timing is nothing short of pitch-perfect, and while the laughs we get don’t exactly “defuse” the often-harrowing scenarios that the book revolves around, they do make them seem less alien, less unrelatable, less other. Thanks, again, to a bunch of self-consciously “hip” dogs.

As far as Lunney’s cartooning style goes, my guess is that it will generally divide people into polarized “love it” or “hate it” camps, with very few readers falling somewhere in-between — and I’m happy to say that I’m part of the “love it” crowd. I freely admit to being something of a sucker for art that conveys a maximum amount of visual information with a minimal number of lines — I think it’s a genuinely rare and under-appreciated skill — and this comic keeps it lean, mean, and decidedly unclean. Rapid-fire “squiggly” lines and precisely haphazard (trust me when I say that only sounds like a contradiction) pen-strokes give each character a unique look and feel, convey a sense of place with economy and skill, and bring out a surprising amount of expressiveness in faces and body language. This isn’t elegant “funnybooking,” by any means — nor should it be, given its central conceits and concerns — but it is undeniably smart and effective. And that, come to think of it, isn’t such a bad summation of the comic itself.

******************************************************************************

Big Bonerz may not appeal to all, but if it sounds like the sort of thing that will appeal to you, then it’ll appeal to you a lot. For my part, I’ve read it three times and can easily foresee giving it a go again both in the very near future, as well as every so often (hey, you know how it goes) in the years to come — so that makes it seven bucks well spent in my estimation. It can be ordered directly from the publisher at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/products/big-bonerz

Advertisements

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 07/08/2018 – 07/14/2018

It’s a veritable cavalcade of first issues this week, so let’s skip the stage-setting and get right down to the business of telling you which of these new series are worth your time (and, more importantly, money) to follow —

The major “event” book of the week is, of course, Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen : The Tempest #1, which marks the beginning of the end not only for this two-plus-decade-old franchise, but for the legendary comics careers of the two creators behind it (although, at least in Moore’s case, we’ve heard that before). “Going out with a bang” seems to be the operative philosophy behind this six-parter, as well as settling every possible score on the way out the door, but this is, as you’d  no doubt expect, far more than simply a combination vanity project/victory lap — although elements of both are certainly present and accounted for. Roll call, then, of undeniably  positive attributes :  the latest all-female iteration of the League is certainly more than timely, one could even argue necessary, for the #MeToo era; nods to Shakespeare’s final work (from which, of course, the series takes its name) abound, particularly structurally; and our Bearded Wizard seems to want to use his last hurrah to, admirably, shed some light on the plights of various ripped-off cartoonists of years gone by. Throw in some heavy Silver Age references that look and read like a British version of 1963, a delicious deconstruction of the James Bond archetype, and Woody Allen getting shot through the head and what have you got? A comic as visually- and narratively-jam-packed as we’ve become accustomed to from this tandem, sure, but also something of a love letter both celebratory and somber to the medium they’re leaving behind. O’Neill’s art is deliriously good, of course, especially on the B&W comic-strip-style pages, where the detailed intricacy of his linework really shines through. Do you need this more than you need the $4.99 Top Shelf/IDW is asking for it? Oh, yes. Oh, God, yes.

Meanwhile, Moore’s former editor, Karen Berger, kicks off what’s being touted as the “second wave” of her Berger Books imprint at Dark Horse with writer Christopher Cantwell and artist Martin Morazzo’s She Could Fly #1, a four-part mini-series not so much about the flying female in question as it is about a teenage girl with an acute case of debilitating OCD who is the ostensible super-heroine’s biggest fan — and maybe even, somehow, connected to her in ways as yet to be determined. Or is that all in her head? The Berger Books output has been decidedly up-and-down to this point, but this is as “up” as it gets : a heartfelt rumination on adolescence and the pain of trying to “fit in,” a gripping and authentic family drama, and an honest exploration of mental illness, all prepared and persented with obvious care. Cantwell’s script is brisk and clutter-free, cutting right to the bone of every character and situation on hand, while Morazzo, whose work on Ice Cream Man over at Image has been blowing me away, delineates the proceedings with such a clean, polished, precise style that it’s honestly hard not to be taken aback by the leaps and bounds his art is making right before our eyes. This one, again, retails at $4.99 and is, again, more than worth every penny.

Speaking of Image (even if, fair enough, I mentioned it only in passing), our final two debuts for the week come our way via their publishing auspices, the first being Farmhand #1, written and drawn by former Chew artist Rob Guillory. I really wanted to like this one given my appreciation for Guillory’s bright, expressive, and decidedly tongue-in-cheek style of illustration, but it seems like he’s not entirely comfortable yet with his own admittedly creepy and inventive premise, that being some unethical corporate skullduggery taking place at a “factory farm” that organically grows human body parts and organs. Maybe layering a family estrangement subplot on top of it is too much, too fast, or maybe he’s just not sure how to translate a nifty (God, did I just say that?) idea into an actual story yet, but I found the plot here decidedly lacking, the characters less than involving, and the overall trajectory of the narrative haphazard at best. The art’s great, don’t get me wrong — Guillory is bound and determined to pull out all the stops on that score and manages to do so with considerable aplomb. But whatever chance I may have been willing to give this book going forward (I was thinking another issue, at least, before deciding whether or not to drop if from my “pull”) flew right out the window when this comic’s “climactic” three-page epilogue landed with a resounding thud. If I hear good things about future installments I may give the inevitable first-volume trade a go (from the library, mind you), but this marks the first and last time I fork over $3.99 of  my own cash for this series.

And, not to give away the game right at the outset, but — I felt much the same about Die! Die! Die! #1, a new Skybound/Image co-venture from writer Robert Kirkman (with a co-plotting credit going to Scott M. Gimple, former “show-runner” on The Walking Dead) and artist Chris Burnham better known at this point for its unorthodox marketing strategy (it was a “surprise” release unannounced until literally the day before it hit shops) than anything going on between its covers. Burnham’s a terrific choice to illustrate a bloody ultra-violent yarn about purportedly “strategic” assassins who work behind the scenes to murder key individuals in order to either set about or curtail key series of socio-political events, but Kirkman seems to have no real grasp on what he wants to do here story-wise other than his best Garth Ennis impersonation — which, as it turns out, is actually a really lousy Garth Ennis impersonation, given that this comic carries none of the philosophical heft or knowing self-deprecation of Ennis’ best works. It’s not that it takes itself seriously, mind you — it’s just that there’s no real brain or heart behind the OTT absurdity it wallows in, just forced pseudo-cleverness, and the fact that the Skybound titles have finally joined their other Image stable-mates at a $3.99 price point means that there’s absolutely no reason to pick this thing up, despite some pretty stellar artwork.

And, with that, we come to the end of another Round-Up column. Next week we’ll either talk about some new-ish minis that have come my way in recent days, or we’ll take a look at a book or two I’ve been looking forward to with a reasonable amount of anticipation that’s scheduled to hit shops this coming Wednesday (I’m looking at you in particular, Euthanauts). Maybe both? Join me back here in seven days and we’ll see.

August Lipp’s “Roopert” : Smarter Than The Average Bear

There’s no doubt about it : “funny animal” comics aren’t what they used to be.

Then again, they never really were, at least not the good ones — one way or another, they were always at least a little bit subversive, and whether we’re talking about Walt Kelly’s open socio-political commentary in Pogo or Carl Barks’ knowing winks to the audience showing that he understood, accepted, and derived something very much like joy from working around, the limitations of form and function supposedly imposed upon his limitless imagination in his various “Duck Books,” our anthropomorphic stand-ins have always been one of the very finest means by which skilled and inventive artists communicate largely-unspoken truths about ourselves to ourselves.

In that sense, then, Philadelphia-based cartoonist August Lipp’s late-2017 Revival House Press release Roopert carries on an already-proud tradition — but this 56-page oversized magazine (a real bargain at ten bucks, trust me), ingeniously presented as a mock line-ruled school composition book (on faux-yellow paper complete with “holes” along the side, no less), is no mere updating of tried-and-true tropes, nor is it yet another deconstruction-hidden-in-plain-sight. Rather, this is something wholly, entirely, at times even ecstatically new — main-lined right into our brains via a “delivery system” we’re all quite familiar with.

Subtitled “Miss Julienne’s 6th Grade Annual,” Lipp’s comic is deliberately and smartly “juvenile” in its execution, but the keen intelligence and wit behind it are evident from the moment we meet Roopert and Benji Bear (no relation, near as I can tell), Henrietta Hippo, Clyve Badger, Timothy Frog, Hannah Fox, Clarissa Crocodile, and the other students — as well as long-suffering faculty — of the most batshit-crazy elementary school you’ve ever seen. The guardrails are off from the outset here, and each subsequent plot contrivance that Lipp pulls out of the deep well-spring of his subconscious ups the disaster ante with unrestrained glee. The story starts with Miss Julienne telling the kids in her class about her summer trip to Honduras — and it ends with all of them (plus the principal and the art teacher) actually sailing there on a magically-grown ship extracted from the inside of a bottle.

At this point, I’m sure, you’ve got a million questions about how in the hell Lipp’s motley ensemble gets from “Point A” to “Point B,” but I’m not giving away a thing : what makes this book so much fun is how every page delivers multiple unexpected twists and turns, the haphazard surface trappings of the narrative and the art throwing a thick, heavy disguise over what is, in actuality, a highly intricate plot structure and a packed-to-the-gills visual extravaganza that encompasses everything from lamely-believable acronym posters to, believe it or not, a hat-tip to Steve Ditko. You want clever? Roopert is so clever it hurts — but don’t blink, or you’ll miss some minor detail, some blissfully spot-on background element, that gives away just how clever it really is.

Even the problematic elements in this comic are deliberately so : the character of Anthony Monkey, for instance, could be read to re-inforce the ugly racial stereotypes of “funny”books gone by, but like Moore and O’Neill’s Golliwog from The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the intention is clearly to “de-power” such imagery by pointing out its absolute absurdity right out in the open. The depiction of an overtly “human”-esque monkey flinging shit against walls won’t sit well with all readers, of course, and I most certainly respect those who will take exception to it — but this isn’t an echo of, say, the disturbingly casual racism of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, but rather an obvious acknowledgement and, crucially, refutation of it.

As for the one actual human in these pages, the aforementioned Miss Julienne, she’s the most hapless of all participants in the proceedings, but even then there’s no hint of tragedy in her “arc” : like everyone else, she’s called upon to go with the absurdist flow and somehow keep her head above water — literally, as it turns out. But by the time everyone’s survival skills are put to the test, the idea of a happy ending, whatever that may be, is already a given — Lipp gives Kurtzman, Crumb, or (hey, these guys again!) Moore and O’Neill a run for their money in terms of sheer denisty of material per panel, but it’s all in service of something inherently, dare I say it, happy. You just know that everything’s gonna work out great because, hey, the whole damn thing has been considerably more than great all along.

******************************************************************************

Roopert is one of the most wholly inventive comics it’s likely ever been my pleasure to read, no exaggeration, and it can be ordered directly from August Lipp (who will personalize your copy on request) at https://augustlipp.tictail.com/product/roopertpreorder

 

 

 

 

Eurocomics Spotlight : “The Strange”

Namelessness. Anonymity. Invisibility.

For the protagonist in Jerome Ruillier’s new Drawn+Quarterly-published graphic novel, The Strange, these three things are inextricably linked — and while all of them are, to one degree or another, imposed upon him by society and circumstance, the first two are undeniably de-humanizing (even if, fair enough, he’s a dog), while the third is key to, if not his freedom, at least his continued survival in the country he is attempting to scratch out a subsistence-level “living” in.

And sticking with the theme of anonymity, it permeates this book throughout : not only is its central character never saddled with a name, neither are the countries of his birth and residence. This could be happening anywhere. To any immigrant.

Ah, yes — immigration. As far as issues go, they don’t come much more timely and topical than that, do they? In the last few years, as an unfortunate wave of nativism and xenophobia has crested in the West, life has gotten damn rough for our brothers and sisters who arrive within our borders from parts afar, and while the natural enough assumption for readers to make is that Ruillier, who hails from France by way of Madagascar, is telling a “European” story here, in truth there is a harrowing universality to the experience he’s relating : his dog, seeking a better life for his family, undertakes a lengthy journey — fraught with heavy peril and even heavier financial cost — from the dark alleys and foreboding high-rises of his homeland to a nominally more prosperous nation where he and his fellow immigrants are referred to, both simply and derisively, as “stranges.” It’s not a great situation for our downcast canine, as I’m sure comes as no shock — but is this really his story?

It’s a valid — if perhaps unexpected — question, if only because Ruillier, who delineates the series of short-form vignettes that make up his long-form narrative with stark and “sketchy” colored-pencil illustrations that employ a deliberately limited (and therefore quite dramatic) palette, is primarily concerned with conveying experience rather than character, to wit : what we know about this canine in a land of wolves and mice (among other species) we learn by way of both what happens to him, and how those around him treat him.

Employers, landlords, fixers, cops, cab drivers, even passers-by — their attitudes and actions literally define and delineate reality for Ruillier’s central character, and for an undocumented immigrant this is no doubt true no matter what country they happen to be in : one sideways look to the wrong person, one perceived act of disrespect, one step out of line in the eyes of someone else — they can all lead to the one phone call. The one that gets you arrested and/or sent packing. It’s a life constantly spent on the precipice of losing what very little you have.

To his immense credit, Ruillier’s definitely done his homework here — he worked with French non-profit Reseau Education Sans Frontieres to gather up the stories of actual migrants and parsed out the common elements in them before filtering these irreducible commonalities through his bold and unique artistic lens. The struggles here are authentic. The fears palpable. The loneliness, desperation, alienation, disaffection far more personal and immediate than the third-hand narrative accounts would lead one to believe — and the same is true of the acts of kindness, generosity, and empathy that shine through both the darkness of prejudice and the dimness of uncaring bureaucracy.

In these politically- and rhetorically-charged times — and the manner in which  “macro” political political realities filter down to the “micro” of everyday life is one of Ruillier’s primary narrative concerns — it can be all-too-tragically common for people to just plain overlook the fact that so-called “illegal” immigrants are flesh and blood (and, in this case, fur), and have the same needs for compassion, understanding, and respect as any of us — needs that are compounded by their precarious circumstances and often-harrowing past experiences. The Strange is a necessary reminder of this fact that comes at just the right time.

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 07/01/2018 – 07/07/2018

Still reeling from the shock of losing Steve Ditko here, but nevertheless, the show must go on, even if it feels like it shouldn’t. Is there any time afforded us, in this modern world, to slow down, catch a breath, and take stock of where we are — not just individually, but as a people? Funny you should ask —

Tom Kaczynski has clearly been giving this very subject a great deal of thought, and in Cartoon Dialectics #3, the latest in an occasional series published by his own Uncivilized Books (pride of the Minneapolis indie cartooning scene, I assure you), he reflects on the siren-call power, and dangerous trappings, of nostalgia, and examines how yearning for an entirely mythologized past led us to where we are today — which means, of course, how it managed to get us stuck with Trump. Danish cartoonist Clara Jetsmark is his writing collaborator for this “main feature” strip, but a secondary one focused on nostalgia in a more general sense, and a third centered around life in an antiseptic future featuring a character who lives out his days entirely within a series of interconnected skyways (something we know all about here in the Twin Cities) are shot through with similar themes of alienation — from the world in general, and our own lives in particular. As always, Kaczynski’s loose-but-precise linework is expert at conveying just the right amount of visual information in each drawing, and expanding from mini-comic to half-size with this issue really gives the art much more room to breathe and increases the effectiveness of pages that utilize a generous amount of negative space exponentially. The choice of purple as a “third color” along with the requisite black and white is an interesting one, and gives the proceedings an interconnected look to go along with the uniform tone. This is astonishingly smart, literate cartooning well worth the $6 asking price — but you don’t even have to pay that much since Kaczynski is offering it on sale at $4 right now. Jump on the following link and order it if you know what’s good for you :http://uncivilizedbooks.com/

Sticking with Uncivilized — and with broadly anti-Trumpian messaging — we next turn out attention to Jenny Schmid’s awesomely-titled White Supremacists Are Human Farts, a concise but heartfelt look at what it means to raise a young child in the shadow of all the hateful right-wing bullshit that’s going on right now. Schmid’s adopted daughter Sinee is also an immigrant, so this is understandably personal for the both of them, and starting the (standard-sized, with heavy cardstock cover) comic off with a visit to the Anne Frank Museum sets the tone for all that follows perfectly — which isn’t to say that it’s all doom and gloom, as there are some genuinely touching and humorous instances of mother-daughter interaction on offer here that actually make this comic as charming as it is topical. Schmid’s cartooning is richly-detailed and saturated under a veritable layer of gorgeous, heavy inks in a manner at least a little bit reminiscent of Phoebe Gloeckner, but it’s also infused with a subtle but ever-present undercurrent of visual optimism that matches the narrative tone of these short vignettes perfectly. $8 is admittedly a lot to pay for a 16-page comic, but this one if worth every penny. Available from the same website as above.

If you need a genuine “feel-good” comic to escape from the reality our first two books concern themselves with, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Joe Casey and Ulises Farinas’ New Lieutenants Of Metal #1, released this past Wednesday from Image. Casey is at his most interesting lately when working through his “mid-life shit” (if you’re reading this, Joe, there are a lot of us who still want to see the long-promised return of Sex), and that’s exactly what he’s doing in this deliriously fun mash-up that’s part love letter to Image’s foundational titles (specifically Youngblood), part Kirby tribute (especially as far as the dialogue goes), and part celebration of ’80s “headbanger” music. There are some welcome nods to contemporary social attitudes with the book’s positive portrayal of gender fluidity and its inherent understanding of the absurdity of the (bloodless, it must be said) ultra-violence it revels in — robotic monster trucks trashing a city is never gonna be a “mellow” scene — but for all that this is a comic that is neither terribly preachy nor especially stupid. It’s just fun — thanks in no small part to Farinas’ bright, energetic and, yes, “cartoony” art. This is slated to run four issues, I believe, and if they’re all this good, I won’t mind forking over $3.99 a pop for them in the least.

Last up we’ve got Jeff Lemire and Wilfredo Torres’ The Quantum Age #1, yet another spin-off from Dark Horse’s already-venerable (and already-heavily-franchised) Black Hammer series, and while it’s true that they’re milking this particular cash cow for all it’s worth and then some, I’m really not going to argue when the results are this consistently good. This time out the setting is the semi-distant future, and Lemire does a damn fine job extrapolating his concepts and characters into a new and decidedly dystopian setting, while losing none of the inherent charm that has made the (God I hate this term, but) “flagship title” such a favorite with fans and critics alike. There’s nothing terribly original going on here — mysterious protagonist seeks to bring back the (once again) departed heroes to save the world from what it’s become — but originality has never been Black Hammer‘s stock in trade in any of its iterations. Rather, it’s all about well-executed storytelling that breathes a welcome dose of new energy into the decidedly played-out subgenre of superhero revisionism by acknowledging that, much as we may think we’re too “cool” to admit it, these absurd caped adventurers mean something to us — and, furthermore, there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s certainly nothing wrong with Torres’ art here, that’s for sure (not something I’m always willing to say about his work), and when you take his economic, smooth style and pair it with the always-perfect hues of colorist extraordinaire Dave Stewart, the results are very eye-catching indeed. This one’s also a four-parter, and also well worth its $3.99 price tag.

And that should do it for this Round-Up, but there’s plenty to look forward to next week,  including the first part of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s final League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, The Tempest, so join me back here in seven days when we take a look at that, plus whatever else strikes my fancy!

In Memoriam : Steve Ditko, 1927-2018

Okay, here’s the deal : I had this whole thing done — and probably done better — and I scrapped it. This now-meager memorial to the inimitable, irreplaceable Steve Ditko — artist, creator, visionary, iconoclast — initially had a soaring, elegiac title, was loaded with florid and heartfelt prose, and went into his work in excruciating, exacting detail.

It was a good piece. I liked it a lot. It took three-plus hours to whip it into shape. And then I shit-canned the whole thing and started over from scratch because I realized that’s not what Ditko would have wanted.

He was all about letting his work speak for itself, you see — that’s why he famously never gave interviews or appeared at conventions after 1968. That’s why he never wanted his photo taken. That’s why he headed for the exits at one publisher after another when he felt that his artistic vision was being unduly impinged upon. He poured his all into every page he ever drew, every line he ever wrote, and he wanted his efforts to be appreciated and analyzed for what they were, what he put into them, without distraction or obfuscation. This earned him a reputation for being uncompromising, it’s true — but I suspect he was probably quite pleased with that, as well he should have been.

And yet, so many of the other urban legends swirling around this singular genius are, to put it mildly, probably quite exaggerated : far from being a Greta Garbo-esque recluse, Ditko remained listed in the New York City phone book right up until the end of his life, at age 90, on June 29th of this year. He was known to welcome visitors, announced or otherwise, into his studio and engage in lively, friendly conversation with them. He communicated directly with his fans not only by means of his comics work, but through a decades-long series of thoughtful, precise essays laying out his views on any number of subjects, both comics-related and not. He was a well-known fixture on the streets, and in the businesses, of his neighborhood. Why, then, does this image of him as the urban equivalent of a lonely, isolated hermit persist? Well, I have a theory on that —

In short, I think it’s because he walked away — and he did so more than once. This man who created  Captain Atom, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, The Question, The Creeper, Mr. A, Shade The Changing Man, Electro, Mysterio, The Green Goblin, Hawk and Dove — this man who eschewed the Kirby-esque Marvel “house style” in favor of lanky, gangly figures quietly  seething on the inside against an unconcerned, shadow-darkened world — he did something so many among his legion of fans could never understand. He put principle ahead of profit, integrity ahead of popularity, purity of vision ahead of commercial concerns. He ascended to the metaphorical mountaintop — overcoming a devastating bout with tuberculosis, roughing it through a stint in the army, moving from small-town Pennsylvania to the Big Apple in pursuit of his dream to “make it” as an illustrator — and decided that he’d rather do things his way than continue to dilute his ideas and intentions to suit a mass readership.

Consider : within months of creating the legendary “lifting sequence” in The Amazing Spider-Man #33 — arguably the most powerful and effective scene ever delineated in a mainstream super-hero comic book — he decided things weren’t working out to his satisfaction at Marvel, the company whose brand he helped build, and he went back to Charlton, the lower-rung publisher where he had cut his artistic teeth in the 1950s,  and where he suddenly found himself afforded the opportunity to create idiosyncratic heroes more in line with his then-fully-developed Objectivist political philosophy, gradually coming closer to realizing the possibilities that came with unifying medium and message. Did it pay less? Sure. Was he happier with what he was doing? You bet.

Still, for all his vaunted consistency, there were numerous — and frankly glorious — contradictions in Ditko’s body of work. A sober-minded rationalist and atheist, he nonetheless delineated the exploits of Dr. Strange with a special zest and zeal for the mystical and psychedelic, turning in page after page that looked like they could only have been conceived of on particularly intense acid trips. For all his stiff-upper-lip moralizing, he shared studio space, and created numerous erotic illustrations both for and with, noted fetish artist Eric Stanton. In spite of his fairly open disdain for decadence and excess, even his most steadfast and unyielding character, Mr. A, often found himself wandering through metaphorical mindscapes positively churning with imagery unleashed from the deepest and darkest corners of the human collective subconscious. Somehow, Ditko made it all work.

Perhaps most interesting of all his contradictions, though, was the fact that, despite having a clearly hierarchical worldview, he was willing to work for pretty much anyone under the right conditions. Concurrent with his late-’60s return engagement with Charlton, he was producing his amazing ink-washed pages for Jim Warren’s black-and-white horror mags Creepy and Eerie. Within a year or two of that, he was creating his first Mr. A strips for Wally Wood’s groundbreaking “pro-‘zine” witzend, while also taking on regular monthly assignments for DC. He went back to Marvel. Back to DC. Back to Marvel again. He had dalliances with any number of publishers during the ’80 indy boom — Eclipse, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics. He certainly didn’t discriminate. Props to him for that.

Sooner or later, though — something would happen. An editor would get too heavy-handed. A production flaw would rub him the wrong way. A plotline developed by a writer he was assigned to work with would run contrary to his Randian sensibilities. And so it’s probably no surprise that this lifelong trailblazer and innovator would find his final, and longest-lasting, publishing home at the company he started himself, along with friend and collaborator Robin Snyder. For the past 30 years, Snyder-Ditko publications has been producing a steady stream of both reprinted and all-new Ditko material, and along the way became one of the first comics publishers to successfully finance their efforts via crowdfunding — a positively ubiquitous facet of today’s small-press scene that they figured out how to utilize well before most.

And at the end of the day, I think it’s that constant groundbreaking innovation — that unwillingness to compromise paired with an eagerness to experiment — that I’ll miss most about Steve Ditko. More than the crazy-fun characters — The Creeper had no real powers to speak of apart from an ability to jump around on rooftops and laugh maniacally, The Odd Man didn’t do anything except look and dress weird — and the bizarre names like Rac Shade and Mellu Loran; more than the impossibilities of form and function that emerged fully-formed from his mind and pencil; more than the moral absolutism expressed as clinical, matter-of-fact logic; more than the colorful floating polka dots and explosively vibrant extra-dimensional planes; more than the desperate faces of men moments away from complete nervous breakdown; more than the slender, coolly glamorous women with long legs and high cheekbones; more than — more than —

Hmmm — come to think of it, maybe I’m just going to miss everything about Steve Ditko in equal measure, because every aspect of all that he did was just so damn incredible. I’m fairly sure I will. Okay, I’m positive. But you know what? Maybe I don’t need to.

After all, Ditko — no believer in heaven, hell, or an afterlife of any sort himself — has achieved genuine immortality by the one and only means that he would ever consider appropriate : his work. It’s what he cared about most. What he devoted his life to. Indeed, what he lived for — and it’s never going away, even if its creator, sadly, has.

The World You Know, As You’ve Never Seen It Before : E.A. Bethea’s “Book Of Daze”

Cartoonist E.A. Bethea has been doing what she does in the way that only she can do it for a couple of decades now, and her late-2017 Domino Books collection, Book Of Daze, is a publication that reflects the aesthetic values and ethos of the strips contained within it, to wit : it feels like a found object —specifically, one you might come across in a dusty corner of an abandoned house, or on the table of a waterfront dive bar, complete with dried beer bottle “rings” caked into the cover. How it got there, who was reading it — these are questions no one can answer. Rather like the nature of life itself.

Bethea’s  drawing style is minimalist to the point of looking and feeling rushed, with key figures (up to and including the protagonists of most strips) frequently omitted from view in favor of presenting things from their perspective, yet far more evocative and personal for this (let’s be honest) gutsy choice, affording an intimate look into not just the thought processes of the characters themselves, but how they feel about things : where they’re at, what they’re doing, the circumstances that brought them there, physically and emotionally. Longing is a constant feature — for how things were, for what one was doing last time they were in a locale, yet simple and shallow nostalgia never enters into the equation, these stories (short as most are) primarily concerning themselves with something far deeper, far more universally-observed, but far less understood : a meditation on the nature and meaning of impermanence itself.

Which, in fairness, doesn’t mean that the book — appropriately presented on cheap newsprint that rubs off on your fingertips — isn’t without its lighter passages, even humor, but these are tinged with an understanding that even this moment is one that will be over with the instant it’s happened, never to be repeated again, and that this loss of time adds up, imperceptibly, the only proof that it — any “it” — ever existed a series of unreliable memories informed by one’s highly imperfect perceptive faculties.

And yet there is a perfect way to tell these tales, and Bethea has found, perhaps even stumbled into, it : whether she’s relating the story of a lovestruck young college woman in the 1940s, exploring her own memories of her impoverished former neighborhood in New Orleans, offering up a short-form biography of actress-turned-barmaid Veronica Lake, or pondering over the fate of a disappeared childhood friend, she focuses on the places and things that the people under her metaphorical microscope interacted with, came across, or called their own, the discarded detritus of lives presented as ultimately being of equal value to cherished objects, all of them part of a whole that you, the reader, are trusted enough to fill in the various, and intentional, “blanks” of. Bethea gives you enough information to get the general gist of things, sure, but so much of her strength as a storyteller lies in the fact she leaves many of the specifics up to you to intuit.

Varied subjects and subject matter aside, this is ultimately a remarkably cohesive ‘zine/comic, a feat that’s all the more remarkable for the fact that most of these strips have literally appeared “here and there” over the span of many years. It’s as if Bethea has always known more or less precisely what she wants to do, as well as how she wants to do it, from the beginning, and has simply been honing, refining, dare I say perfecting her technique ever since. These are the observations of a lifelong romantic, but one whose object of affection is human existence itself — with its foibles, its frailties, its finite nature seen not as flaws, but as the very things that make it worth living and loving; a lyrical expression, told in prose as precise as it is fluid, of the sad everyday magic that is found in times, places, and people forgotten; an appreciation of all things forlorn that loves them both for what they are and how they came to be that way. If you think there is no beauty to be found in desolation, 40 slim pages of panel-border-free, yet tightly-formatted, comics have the power to disabuse you of that notion once and for all.

Book Of Daze is something very far beyond simply “remarkable,” and it can — and absolutely should — be ordered for a paltry six bucks directly from its publisher, Domino Books, at http://dominobooks.org/bookofdaze.html