This Week’s Reading Round-Up : 10/15/2017 – 10/21/2017

Plenty to look at this week, so let’s dive right in —

Berserker #1 is a recent sci-fi anthology from Breakdown Press in the UK that seems to be aiming to combine the sensibilities of 2000 A.D. with those of American “alternative comix.” Edited by Tom Oldham and Jamie Sutcliffe, it’s an impressive 64-page volume with a high-gloss cover that’s printed on heavy paper stock and is roughly evenly split between comics and text pieces. On the comics front, far and away the strongest strip is Anya Davidson’s “The Night Timers In : No Rest For The Wicked,” the first installment of a topical and dynamic long-form series that successfully splits its attention between genre action and “real-world” social and economic concerns, while Jon Chandler (with colorist Sarah-Louise Barbett) contributes an interesting “virtual reality” conversation strip that comes up a bit short in terms of its execution in “Sword Of Sorcery,”, Lane Milburn’s “The Gig” serves up a nicely-illustrated and just-as-nicely scripted tale of a video streamer who’s working freelance for a decidedly unsavory content provider, Hardeep Pandal’s “Bang Bros” is batshit crazy in the best possible way (a pacifier-headed entity in a death race to the top of the Statue of Liberty? Wow!), “Odnal’s Pral” by Lando goes the wordless route as it delineates a surrealistic and highly imaginative sequence that demands the context that future chapters will hopefully provide, and Benjamin Marra’s “Drug Destroyers!” — well, it does what Marra pretty much always does, only far less successfully. Props to Leon Sadler for his interesting watercolor work on the strip, though.

Whew! As far as the text articles go, my favorite was Sutcliffe’s overview of Alan Jefferson’s amateur sci-fi electronic music opus “Galactic Nightmare,” complete with several previously-unpublished concept illustrations, but Sammy Harkham’s interview with visionary illustrator Robert Beatty ranks right up there, too, as does Phil Serfaty’s conversation with techno-biological artist Joey Holder. Adham Faramawy’s overview of Octavia Butler’s Xenogensis trilogy of novels is interesting, if foreign territory for me, and Peter Bebergal’s account of golems and his own attempt to create one has really gotta be read to be believed.

All in all a fascinating package sent my way courtesy of the aformentioned Ms. Davidson (thanks so much, Anya!) whose generosity, I assure you, didn’t sway my view in any way. I hope we’ll be seeing issue two before long here.

I wasn’t as impressed with Koyama Press’ collected edition of Sophia Foster-Dimino’s Sex Fantasy mini-comics as I gather I’m meant to be, given the absolutely glowing notices it’s received elsewhere, but that may be down to pure economics. As individual publications selling for a buck or two (or whatever) apiece, Foster-Dimino’s clean, smart, visually literate illustrations alone would be enough to justify the price, but for $18.00, this book, while certainly thick, offers very little value for money given that each page is taken up with a single-panel drawing. The material improves as the book progresses, with the first three issues/chapters being devoted to overly-cutesy celebrations of individuality, uniqueness, and the inviolate right to one’s own agency (all noble themes, to be sure, but as played-out at this point as intentional irony), the middle chapters/issues offering interpretative strips that touch more directly on subjects  connected to the publication’s title, and the last few coalescing into less-abstract and frankly thoroughly absorbing relationship narratives. I like what Foster-Dimino is doing, don’t get me wrong, but from here on out I think I’ll be picking up her ever-evolving and increasingly-challenging work in single installments.

Laura Kenins’ Steam Clean is another one that actually came out a few months back (courtesy of the Retrofit Comics/Big Planet Comics co-publishing venture) but that I’m just getting around to now, and it’s a reasonably evocative and absorbing piece about a group of queer women (as well as one individual in the midst of gender transition) who rent out a sauna for a private party and end up with an unexpected guest — the Latvian goddess of fertility. Kenins’ figure drawings are quite good and her use of colored pencils and pastels gives this 84-page (damn, I’m gonna say it, sorry in advance) graphic novel a unique and striking look, but her narrative is let down by some weird pacing choices, ill-handled scene transitions, and clunky, expository dialogue. The women have a lot to say — all of it important — about unfair challenges they face in the workplace, sexual harassment, and other subjects, but many don’t have much by way of an individual voice and Kenins seems to struggle not so much with what she wants to say but how she wants to say it. Worth a read, absolutely, but worth a buy at ten bucks? I can’t quite go that far.

Ditto for Hazel Newlevant’s Sugar Town (which has also been out for a month or two now), a genuinely charming little book from Alternative Comics that addresses issues of polyamory, BDSM, and relationships between bisexual and heterosexual partners with disarming frankness and honesty, and even weaves a bit of a spell over readers — but damn, it’s over all too quickly. Newlevant’s breezy, expressive, anime-influenced illustrations are fun and help put the reader at ease with unfamiliar (for square old-timers like me, anyway) situations fraught with fluctuating boundaries (to the extent they even exist), but each of the four “chapters” (which lead me to believe this was serialized elsewhere previously, probably online) is a two- or three-minute read, and $9.99 is a lot to pay for a comic that has just over 40 pages of story and art. I loved it, no question about that, but it’s not worth the hefty price tag.

Okay, that’s it for this week! Next time out I promise to try to keep things confined to “brand new” publications, if at all possible.

 

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“Kid Lobotomy” Is First To Don The Black Crown

When Shelly Bond was let go by DC as head honcho of their Vertigo label, it marked the end of an era — the last member of that venerable imprint’s original crew had left the building, and its future was suddenly looking very uncertain indeed.

Truth be told, it still is — Jamie S. Rich took the reins for a time, and now they’ve been passed on to, if memory serves me correctly, Mark Doyle and Andy Khoury, so we’ll just have to see what happens there. Bond, though, for her part, landed on her feet pretty quickly — IDW offered her a line of her very own to oversee, and after a year (-ish) of planning and preparation, Black Crown is finally here. But for those either hoping or worried that a simple Vertigo redux was what we were in store for here, it’s time to get stressed or relax accordingly, because this looks to be a very different beast, indeed.

Black Crown’s scope seems equal parts ambitious and grounded — various and sundry creator-owned titles that tell very different stories about very different characters? I’m all for that. Setting them all in an interconnected “universe” — hell, an interconnected town or even neighborhood — with the titular Black Crown Pub (I think, then, it’s fair to assume these series are all taking place in the UK)  in the middle of the street so they can all meet up on occasion, share a drink, and maybe get in some trouble together? I’m taking a “wait and see” approach on that conceit. As long as it doesn’t limit the kind of stories on offer, chances are that everything should be fine, and Bond is on record as saying that she wants to imbue her new range with a “punk rock sensibility,” which I find a promising (if malleable) statement, but let’s be honest — I’m in my forties, and an ethos of that sort is pretty much guaranteed to appeal to me. Will these books have any “drawing power” for readers younger than me, though? I guess that depends on who’s making them.

In that sense, then, kicking things off with a series scripted by veteran “British Invasion” author Peter Milligan is something of a curious choice. Milligan’s responsible for what I still contend is the best thing (as well as one of the first things) Vertigo ever published, Enigma, and he had a solid decade or so of nothing but quality creative output, but things have been pretty hit-or-miss with him in recent years. The Names, for instance, was a tense and multi-faceted conspiracy thriller, but New Romancer and Terminal Hero were decidedly middling affairs, and the less said about The Discipline the better. What, then, are we in store for with Kid Lobotomy, Black Crown’s debut offering?

Well, one issue in, I’m not really sure we have much of an answer. Milligan’s on comfortable, Kafka-esque “mindfuck” grounds here — his best work has always combined elements of the surreal, the post-modern, and the absurd — but our eponymous Kid doesn’t offer much to latch onto as a character, and what little we firmly can piece together doesn’t necessarily seem likable. He’s got an unhealthy sexual fixation on his sister — who may or may not exist, just like everyone else here — but I guess that (god, I don’t want to phrase it like this, but) runs in the family given that their father (known only as “Big Daddy”) does (or did?), as well. The old man’s infatuation with his little girl didn’t prevent him from passing on his dilapidated hotel, simply branded as The Suites, on to his mentally and emotionally unbalanced son, though, so yeah — what we have here is a rich reprobate in the hotel business who wants to fuck his daughter but is very much an obvious sexist in matters both business and personal. Next stop, the White House.

All of which makes Kid, what? Our stand-in for Donald Trump Jr.? Somehow, though, I don’t think any of Trump’s dipshit kids would be dropping the Burroughs and Bowie references that our protagonist does here, nor would they be opening the family’s hotels to the bottom rungs of the economic ladder the way Kid does, so I might be stretching the analogy past its breaking point, and that’s even before we get into the shape-shifting maid. It all seems like it could be so very intriguing — the only thing missing is a “hook” to make us care about these characters (imagined or otherwise) enough to be intrigued by them.

While misgivings abound on the story side, though, I’m nothing but enthusiastic about the art. Former Rat Queens illustrator Tess Fowler handles pencils and inks here, and her style is matter-of-fact enough to feel comfortably at home delineating scenes both down-to-Earth and deep inside the disturbed id. She doesn’t go in for flashy visual gimmickry, content instead to let her figure drawing and strong characterization (her faces say a hell of a lot) tell a story rather than bowl you over. This kind of ego-free illustration is as refreshing as it is effective, and while her backgrounds can be sparse (bordering on the altogether absent), that’s not necessarily a strike against her in this book, as it helps establish the environment of The Suites as being a vacuous, foreboding space. Lee Loughridge’s colors accentuate mood and atmosphere without, again, upstaging either, and so we needn’t worry about anything on the art front with this series — we’re in very good hands indeed.

Perhaps, then, cautious optimism should be the order of the day here, both with Kid Lobotomy itself and with Black Crown as a whole. Two really effing good covers (A from Fowler and colorist Tamra Bonvillain, B from modern-day legend Frank Quitely), a quality physical product that gives you plenty (glossy paper, heavy cardstock covers) for your $3.99, nice art, and a story that at least could go to places both interesting and uneasy are enough to keep me around for at least one more issue of this book, and I’m downright jazzed to give next week’s Black Crown Quarterly #1 anthology a shot. An unqualified “buy” recommendation would be a reach, it’s true, but if you’re the kind of reader who’s willing to allow a new line to have a few growing pains as it coalesces into whatever it’s going to be in the hopes that said “whatever it’s going to be” turns out to be something very-good-to-great, then hey — now may be a good time to be not just interested in, but downright excited by, the possibilities offered by both this series and this new imprint.

 

 

This Week’s Reading Round-Up : 10/8/2017 – 10/14/2017

Once again into the breach, as we take a look at various items that caught my interest from the past week, whether at my LCS or in my mailboxes, physical and electronic —

Baking With Kafka is Tom Gauld’s latest collection from Drawn + Quarterly, and I’m sorry to say that the shtick is wearing a bit thin. I gather that Gauld is viewed as something of a national treasure in the UK, and that’s all fine and dandy, but $19.99 for a collection of strips that have all been published elsewhere (most notably The New Yorker and The Guardian) is a bit much, unless said strips pack in quite a few laughs — and I’m sorry to say these don’t. I really rather enjoy Gauld’s minimalist style, but it works better for me in leisurely, longer-form narratives like Mooncop. Here he “reaches” for too many punchlines (most of which come up flat), and strains to be topical when his illustrations really aren’t all that naturally conducive to real-world “grounding.” A few years back his stuff really worked for me, but his earnest refusal to break from formula has strained my last nerve. If he does more original book-length work (notice how I steadfastly avoid using the term “graphic novel” whenever possible) I’ll probably check it out, and just as probably enjoy it, but as far as the collected stuff goes, this is the end of the line for me.

All-Time Comics : Crime Destroyer #2 is the second issue (duh!) featuring this character, but fifth (unless I missed one) overall in the line from Fantagraphics, and while I gather that the somewhat fashionable thing to do is to bag on this comic, taking particular note of its (obvious and apparent) shortcomings  when measured against Michel Fiffe’s Copra, I’m not at all convinced that they’re necessarily trying to do the same thing. Fiffe’s playing by exact self-imposed rules according to an equally exact and equally self-imposed schedule, while the principals behind ATC — most notably Benjamin Marra and Josh Bayer, who uncharacteristically aren’t joined by others on the main story here — seem to be making things up as they go along. Five issues in (again, unless I — ah, fuck it) ATC may have a fairly distinct look, but it still feels very much like a project that’s finding its footing. I can understand why lots of folks find that frustrating, but for me it’s exciting, because you literally never know what the next page holds. Too earnest to be labeled a spoof, yet too tongue-in-cheek to be considered pure homage, maybe we’ve just gotta finally take Bayer, Marra, and Co. at their word here and accept that what they’re doing is a fun, dumb, colorful super-hero line in the vein of late-“Bronze Age” Marvel. It seems to me that too many greater minds than mine are looking under every nook and cranny for signs of intentional irony here and, finding none, walking away a little bit pissed off. Excuse me, but — since when is lack of irony a bad thing? Is it so hard to accept that Bayer and Marra just like this kind of shit and want to try their hand at making some? At the risk of forfeiting every single “cool point” I’ve ever earned, I say this is “must-buy” stuff.

And since I’m busy dragging my reputation into the gutter, I might as well come right out and admit that I’m enjoying the hell out of Howard Chaykin’s latest Image yarn, The Divided States Of Hysteria. I’m sympathetic to every single concern that’s been raised about this book, but I respectfully disagree with all of them. “That cover” for issue number four was never gonna really hit the shelves, and offers no proof whatsoever of racism on Chaykin’s part — but offers plenty of proof that he learned a lot from the “B-“movie hucksters of his youth, most notably William Castle and Herschell Gordon Lewis. And that scene in the first issue? The one that was variously described on twitter by “concerned citizens” who’d never even seen the book as featuring “a trans woman being raped” or even “a trans woman being murdered”? It featured no such thing, and indeed depicted a trans woman (who has since emerged as the only thing even vaguely resembling a “sympathetic” character in this series) fighting off and killing her would-be attackers herself! Other, somewhat less hysterical, complaints said that it was the kind of scene that reinforced the “trap defense” that assailants and/or killers of trans sex workers can apparently (and sadly) still get away with using, but again, these gripes are equally misguided given that Chaykin explicitly takes aim at what an absolute crock of shit the “trap defense” is in his character’s interior monologue during the scene. I’ll absolutely grant you that this comic is every bit as ugly, mean-spirited, amoral, and confrontational as its critics charge — but that’s the whole fucking point! In any case, for my money Chaykin and master letterer/designer Ken Bruzenak are absolutely killing it on this title, and any of my fellow leftists who walked away from it (or, more than likely, never even gave it a shot) are missing a thorough-going critique of the private prison and private security (let’s just call ’em what they are, mercenaries) industries, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, racism, the so-called “War On Terrorism,” macho bullshit in general, and other noxious societal ills. It’s all about as subtle as a kick to the crotch, and it’s incredibly garish to look at, but I love it. The story ran in place a bit last issue, but everything kicks into overdrive here in number five.

On the “Big Two” front, the third issue of Tom King and Mitch Gerads’ much-fawned-over Mister Miracle hit this week, and while I’m on the record as saying I think that a lot of the hype is overblown, it’s still pretty damn good — and “pretty damn good” is worth $3.99 a pop, in my book. Orion’s in full-on “asshole mode” here, Scott Free learns he’s a hero to The Bugs, and Barda is just doing her level best to survive both the biggest goddamn cosmic war ever (this week, at any rate) and her husband’s neuroses. But, of course, the key question remains — how much of this is actually happening, and how much is all in Scott’s head? And speaking of heads, Granny Goodness no longer has one. Apart from Joe Casey and Nathan Fox’s criminally-underappreciated take on Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers, this is the best of the Kirby revivals that have become a downright ubiquitous feature at the shops in recent years.

Okay, whew! Lots of heavy-duty opining this time out! Next week we’ve got a couple that showed up too late for me to get around to this time out that I’m really looking forward to, Sophia Foster-Dimino’s Sex Fantasy, and sweet-looking new UK sci-fi anthology Berserker. Plus whatever else strikes my fancy. If this column hasn’t landed me on your “shit list,” then I’ll look forward to seeing you in seven days!

“Now” We’re Talking

As any long-time reader of purportedly “alternative” and/or “indie” comics can tell you, one of the defining traits of the medium in every decade is a kind of “state of the art form” manifesto that’s not so much written as it is mapped out by the varying-to-disparate editorial sensibilities of, and even a kind of de facto creative tension that arises between, two contrasting and contemporary anthologies. As that same long-time reader (in this case, me) can tell you, though, the one-time gulf that separated said pair of anthos (whatever they may be) has been narrowing over time — first to a gap, then to a short hop, and now, perhaps, to something that looks very much like a convergence.

In the 1980s, for instance, despite the occasional cartoonist who could safely appear in both, the “high art” ethos (or, if you’re so inclined, pretensions) of Raw were pretty far removed from the punk-infused, DIY, “low-brow” populism of Weirdo, which not only wasn’t afraid to play around in the gutter, but seemed downright at home there — but as their respective spots were assumed by Drawn And Quarterly and Zero Zero in the ’90s, the goal posts of each shifted closer to the other. Closer still were Kramers Ergot and MOME in the so-called “aughts.” But ever since MOME closed up shop in 2011, Kramers has pretty much had the entire playing field to itself.

Not that other anthologies haven’t turned up here and there, mind you — many of them quite good. But these tended to be one-off affairs, often constructed around an editorially-dictated central theme or conceit, rather than, to invoke a sickeningly over-used term, curated publications whose nominal-to-the-point-of-being-oblique themes have to be teased out by readers by dint of the “running order” of strip presentation, a la Kramers — that is, until now. More specifically, until Now.

Former MOME editor Eric Reynolds has decided to “get back in the game,” so to speak, with a new thrice-yearly anthology that even comes complete with a (poorly-worded, but whatever) “mission statement” of sorts. To quote directly from Reynolds’ introduction : “I want to leverage Fantagraphics’ stature in the marketplace to put out an affordable and ongoing print anthology that showcases as broad a range of quality comic art as possible – and to put it under as many eyes as possible. I want to make an anthology that looks inviting to a casual comics reader but challenges them as they dig deeper. I want to encourage a revival of the short story in the age of long form graphic novels. I want to showcase as diverse a collection of cartoonists and comics as possible, one that provides a full spectrum of what the medium has to offer” — all noble goals, surely, even if the first and the last are, ya know, basically the same thing. Methinks the editor may need — an editor?

Pedantic bullshit aside, though, who am I to argue with Reynolds’ logic? And his opening night gala has a heck of a guest list : Rebecca Morgan provides the eye-catching (to say the least) cover, with three-panel back cover strip by Nick Thorburn; Sara Corbett, Gabrielle Bell, and Kramers‘ own Sammy Harkham contribute one-page strips (all quite strong); Tobias Schalken, Dash Shaw, Tommi Parrish, Kaela Graham, Daria Tessler, Conxita Hererro, and the team of cartoonist Malachi Ward and co-writer Matt Sheean chime in with medium-length strips; and Eleanor Davis, J.C. Menu, Noah Van Sciver, and Antoine Cosse serve up what we’ll call, for lack of a better term (that I can think of at the moment, at any rate) “feature-length” strips. A nice mix of veteran and emerging talent, indeed.

If pressed to pick one “standout work,” I’d probably have to go with Davis’ “Hurt Or Fuck,” a deceptively-simple interpretive piece that expertly uses the gaps in its own internal logic to heighten its emotional resonance and that, in true Davis fashion, doesn’t pack a punch so much as it leaves an invisible mark with a bittersweet (but mostly bitter) sting that lingers for days, but Van Sciver’s “Wall Of Shame” is a superb and eminently relatable autobio story not to be missed, Shaw’s “Scorpio” is an entirely unsubtle but nonetheless highly effective juxtaposition of a difficult childbirth with a just-as-difficult election night 2016 result (hey, a 128-page anthology can’t be expected to — fuck, in my view shouldn’t — avoid at least a little bit of Trump-bashing somewhere along the way), Graham’s “Pretend We’re Orphans” is a lavishly-illustrated “dark fairy tale” that effortlessly recalls memories of being scared in just the right way before bedtime, and Ward and Sheean’s “Widening Horizon” posits an alternate trajectory — extrapolated from a handful of genuinely historical roads not taken — of international space travel that both forces and invites, in equal measure, one to consider Utopian alternatives to any number of societal ills if only, ya know, shit had worked out differently (as in better) in the past.  Any of these strips are worth the price of admission (something we’ll get to momentarily) alone, but to have them all between the same two covers is more than enough to cement Now #1’s place as one of the very best comics of the year.

Are there some misfires to be found here, though? Of course, but even there nobody fails for lack of trying : Hererro’s “Here I Am” is a re-contextualized version of an earlier Bell strip that’s gorgeously drawn, but fails to bring forth anything new from its “source material,” nor to add much by way of a distinctive personality it can call its own; Schalken’s wordless “21 Positions/The Final Frontier” misses its chance to coalesce at the last moment even though it’s right there for the taking (although maybe that’s the whole point and I’m just stupid); Cosse’s “Statue” tries to pack a bit too much “food for thought” into what is a sprawling, languidly-paced visual narrative; Menu’s “S.O.S. Suitcases” has enough going for it on its own merits that its author is just plain wasting his time by leaning on Lloyd Dangle and Gary Panter “influence crutches”; Tessler’s “Songs In The Key Of Grief” take us on an incredible post- “television age” psychedelic journey but fails to clue us in on why we should want to go along for the ride; Parrish’s untitled strip offers a fascinating and informative look at changing (indeed, evolving) gender identity mores and their cause-and-effect relationship with sexual orientation but is, alas, just a touch too earnest and “lecture hall”-ish for its own good. Not a “bad” offering in the lot, by any means, but all examples of strips that set out to do something they don’t quite manage to achieve. “Fascinating but flawed,” I think, is the exact phrase I’m looking for.

It’s in analyzing the whole, though, that things get really interesting : it’s clear that Reynolds has already succeeded, just one issue into things, in doing precisely what he wanted to with Now — there’s a lot of great material to be found here, a lot of “almost great” material, and no real “clunkers” in the bunch. Furthermore, it’s presented nicely (but not too nicely) and at a very reasonable price ($9.99 for 128 pages? Where are you gonna do better than that?) — and for a final flourish, it even manages to incorporate its economic populism into its overall aesthetic, its editorial being short and to the point, its table of contents being printed on the back cover, and its cover stock being of more or less the “standard comic book” variety. The paper’s slick but not anything you wouldn’t find in an Image or Dark Horse comic; its dimensions are no taller — and only slightly wider — than, say, a Marvel or DC “floppy” single issue; it’s squarebound, but just a simple glued binding — no doubt, this is “art comics” packaged for the mass market, and for mass consumption.

And that fact, more than anything, is what convinces me that the “dueling anthologies” paradigm is back — only this time they’re not even “dueling” at all. Honestly, any and all of the strips in Now #1 would feel every bit as “at home” in the next volume of Kramers Ergot. The same aesthetic impulses seem to be driving both publications, and besides, ever-emerging delivery platforms have blown open comics as widely as they have music and film by this point. The old divisions, already diminishing, are gone altogether now and quality work will, one way or another, find its way to an audience.  The only question is whether it will be via a computer screen, a reasonably-priced printed periodical, or a fancy, deluxe, over-sized book complete with numerous bells and whistles. There’s a place for all of it. There’s a market for all of it. Hell, for hungry readers and starving cartoonists alike, there’s definitely a need for all of it.

In that sense, then, what Reynolds and Fantagraphics (who, let’s not forget, also publishes Kramers these days) are doing here is filling in an essential gap, and serving an under-served segment of the comics community. Reading through this book made me realize just how much I’d missed having a top-quality anthology available on a consistent basis at a price that didn’t break the bank. I wish it had happened sooner, absolutely — but I’m glad it’s happening Now.

 

 

This Week’s Reading Round-Up : 10/1/2017 – 10/7/2017

Okay, look, who are we kidding? Fantagraphics’ Now #1 is the “big story” in comics this week, as well it should be, but I’m still cobbling my various and sundry thoughts on that one together for a comprehensive review that I should have ready in the next few days. Until then, though, let’s take a quick look at a handful of other items new on shelves and/or in my mailbox that grabbed my attention, for good or ill, this week —

Portrait is a self-published collection of strips by Simon Hanselmann that ran as part of his “Truth Zone” (or TZ, if you prefer) webcomics series. The initial printing sold out pretty quickly and I missed out on it, but I ordered one up pronto when word got out that he was headed back to press (or, more likely, Kinko’s) with it. Megg. Mogg, and Owl take aim at the so-called “alternative comix scene” in these pages, and while it’s all reasonably entertaining, especially if you have — uhhhmmm — “concerns” with the targets of  Hanselmann’s sharp but (mostly?) quasi-friendly jabs, it’s also true to say that a fair amount of the “backstory” you need to make head or tail of some of this shit took place on various social media platforms, most notably twitter, some time ago, so after awhile it starts to feel not only vaguely incestuous, but also a bit arcane. I laughed out loud a few times, and that’s worth something I suppose, but if you’re expecting anything with a passing semblance of actual critique to it, you’re bound to feel more than a bit disappointed, as this is mostly just petty “industry” gossip with punchlines at the end. Kinda fun, but somebody from the small press “community” pointing out how ridiculous everybody else involved with it is really isn’t enough to sustain interest for even the short length of this publication, and while Kim O’Connor spent a lot of time in her (well-written as always) review of this comic wondering whether or not it counts as “art,” it’s safe to say that Hanselmann himself clearly believes he’s raised “snark” to an art from, regardless of what any of the rest of us think.  Extra points for bravado there, I suppose, but after a couple of strips were read I actively began failing to see the point. Probably of interest to Hanselmann completists only.

The Third Remedy is a new mini-comic by Chester Brown offered as a premium to his Patreon subscribers (side note, Brown offers great value for your monthly contributions to his continued survival) that provides a pretty solid case study in the “art” of detournement or, as Bob Levin at TCJ would have it, “recontextualization,” given that it takes a pre-existing Carl Barks “Duck” story from Walt Disney’s Comics And Stories  issue number 101 (published in 1949) and swaps out Donald Duck and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie with “Golden Age” iterations of Batman and Robin and Daisy with Batgirl,  while leaving  the one-off character of Mrs. Gobblechin as is. It’s interesting, to be sure, and superbly-drawn as you’d expect, but doesn’t aspire to, much less achieve, anything beyond being a fun little curiosity. There’s no harm in that by any means, and the insertion of the “Bat-family” into the proceedings has the probably-intended effect of pointing out not just their strained sexlessness but perhaps even Batman’s fear of both sex and feminization, but some of the brilliance of Barks’ original story is — more by dint of necessity than anything else — lost in translation, and so I have to wonder if people who are reasonably “fluent” in the world of comics really aren’t and/or shouldn’t be the “target audience” for this self-published little “floppy,” especially since Brown doesn’t credit himself anywhere in it. I liked it, I appreciated receiving it, I read it a couple of times, and that’s all fine and dandy — but to be honest, this might have more of an “impact” if you just found it randomly on a bus-stop bench or something and didn’t know what the hell to make of it.  In the aforementioned TCJ piece, in fact,  Brown remarks that he “like(s) the idea of people encountering it and wondering what it is.” He also says that he’s considered printing some more off and leaving them in various locations around town, and that sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

Slots #1 marks the start of a new series (or mini-series, truthfully I don’t know which) from Image (specifically Robert Kirman’s Skybound imprint, so it’s not a creator-owned work — booooo!) by writer/artist Dan Panosian that looked, at least at first glance, like the kind of thing I probably wouldn’t bother with, but I caught a few preview pages at the back of some comic or other (hey, I guess that does actually work!) and found myself sufficiently charmed/impressed to give it a go, and whaddya know? This was actually a whole hell of a lot of fun. Panosian’s story about a washed-up former prizefighter turned small-time scam artist who returns to Vegas to help a former flame and settle some old scores is, admittedly, the kind of thing we’ve seen a thousand times before in the movies, but it’s got one of those “likable scumbag” protagonists, the dialogue ranges from spot-on to sparkling, the broad-stroke characterization hits the mark, and Panosian’s
“scratchy,” free-flowing art is a lot of fun to look at. The Kurtzman-esque lettering he uses for his chapter headers is another nice little plus and rounds out a package that I have no hesitation in calling the most pleasant out-of-left-field surprise in the last few months.

Finally, in the spirit of not ignoring “The Big Two” entirely, we come to Punisher Max : The Platoon #1, which marks the return of both the Max Comics imprint from Marvel (we’ll see how long that lasts) and Garth Ennis to the character that he’s arguably most closely associated with (this is the point at which hard-core Jesse Custer and John Constantine fans put out a contract on my head, I’m sure — relax, I did say “arguably”). Honestly, though, I could give a shit who’s writing Punisher comics, but I’ll take a chance on pretty much any Garth Ennis combat yarn, and given that this is all about Frank Castle’s Vietnam days (is it true he’s been “retconned” into an Iraq or Afghanistan vet now?), I was sold on it going in. Smart move, as it turns out, since this one looks like another winner. Ennis pulls no punches in terms of showing both how hopelessly fucked the situation was over there and how openly most G.I.’s admitted it, and to say that Castle has wandered into a situation where the command structure has “broken down” would be an understatement — it’s downright blown off entirely by the grunts doing the killing and the dying. So, yeah, he’s got his work cut out for him. Meanwhile, in the present day, a reporter tracking down the titular platoon’s surviving members promises a bit of mystery in that it’s nowhere near certain where said journo is getting their information from. Goran Parlov’s art is solidly competent if far from memorable, and some nicely subtle visual cues to the late, great Steve Dillon come off as both entirely unforced and respectful. He probably would have loved to have drawn this comic, and I damn sure enjoyed reading it.

Okay, I think that’ll about do it for this week’s wrap-up, thanks for the kind words everyone offered both here, via email, and most especially on social media last week — I’m no Joe McCulloch by any stretch of the imagination, but with the entirely understandable demise of his column, some kind of semi-omniscient look at what’s new in the world of comics every week with at least a vague hint of a “consumer-centric” approach to it is sadly missing in the nominally “indie”  murky backwater of the funnybook world , don’cha think? And given that it doesn’t get much more murky or much more backwater-y than this little-trafficked blog, I figure I’ll keep doing my part to tell you what might be worth spending your money on until folks either tell me to find something better to do with my time or start finding something better to do with theirs.

“Batman : White Knight” Could Probably Use One

Since completing his widely-acknowledged masterpiece, Punk Rock Jesus, Sean Murphy (take or leave the Gordon as you please) has divided his time between projects worthy of his talent (The Wake), projects obviously unworthy of it (Chrononauts), and projects that could have been worthy of it had they not descended into onerous and heavy-handed diatribes against techno-societal problems that literally every thinking person is already damn well concerned about (Tokyo Ghost). He’s brought his “A game” to all of these various endeavors — he always does — but even stellar artwork isn’t, at this point, enough to save, say, yet another lackluster developed-with-both-eyes-fixed-on-Hollywood-exploitation Mark Millar “idea.” What we’ve all been hoping to see, of course, is a new book, in whatever format, both drawn and written by Murphy, since we’re fully aware that he can do both, and the moment has finally arrived with the debut of his much-anticipated Batman : White Knight eight-parter from DC. Plenty of reason to be excited, right?

So it would seem — unencumbered by “regular” continuity in these pages, Murphy should, in theory, really be able to cut loose in this comic and tell a hermetically-sealed story that plays by its own rules. What’s past is prologue, sure, but not an anchor here, and so in White Knight The Joker is definitively Jack Napier, Bruce Wayne is considerably more warped in the head both in and out of the cape and cowl, Gotham has gone to hell even by Gotham standards, and the obviously symbiotic relationship between the Dark Knight and his greatest adversary, replete as it is with barely-sublimated love, at the very least, perhaps  even a dose of homoeroticism (okay, forget the “perhaps”), is spelled out in plain language rather than “hinted at” as it has been more or less ever since the days of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum. And therein, somewhat surprisingly, lies the problem.

The basic premise of this “alternate universe” narrative has the potential to be intriguing enough on its own merits — Batman’s locked up in Arkham while The Joker is apparently “cured” and running the city, now how did we get here? — but Murphy is better than the borrowed gimmicks (a Frank Miller-esque “out of control” Batman, a Batmobile chase scene right out of Nolan’s first flick) and, even more crucially, heavy-handed expository dialogue that he leans on so heavily here. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo re-established the “love angle” between Bats and Joker in the “real” DCU both smartly and reasonably daringly in the pages of Death Of The Family a few years back, and four or five more pages of Joker extrapolating on it while Batman viciously beats the shit out of him while, of course, denying it all really doesn’t add much to the equation. Now, Batman admitting that he gets off on brutalizing the true object of his affections (sorry, Catwoman, nobody believes this bullshit that Tom King is spinning in the pages of Batman “proper” right now) actually would be a gutsy thing to put front and center, but we’re probably a good two to three decades away from DC editorial having guts enough to come clean that Bruce Wayne is a BDSM “top,” and so what we’ve got here, in a world where the standard — errrrmmm — standards needn’t necessarily apply, is one that hews depressingly, and for my money gutlessly, close to them anyway. Hell, you could make a solid argument that the various “Dark Multiverse” Batmen that DC is rolling out in all those no-doubt-lousy (I’m reflexively suspicious of all comics with holofoil-or-whatever-the-fuck-it’s-called covers, and therefore haven’t read a one of these and don’t intend to) Dark Nights : Metal one-shots offer more radically revised takes on the character than Murphy does here.

But, hey, a dull cop-out in terms of set-up doesn’t necessarily mean a dull story will follow from it any more than a really inventive and unique one is a guarantee of a great story, right? Unfortunately, when you peel away the Elseworlds-esque layer of this particular onion, there just ain’t much underneath it. Batgirl and Nightwing are alarmed by their mentor’s savage beat-down of the Clown Prince of Crime, sure, and they’re doubly shocked when he starts force-feeding ol’ green-hair a potentially-lethal dose of unknown pharmaceuticals, but they don’t really do much to stop it (nor do the cops), and they’re apparently ready to forgive him pretty quickly when they learn that Alfred has fallen into a coma and Bruce just hasn’t been himself since. Whew, there’s another moral dilemma sidestepped, then, I guess. I think I’m starting to detect a pattern here.

What I will give Murphy all the credit in the world (and maybe even four more bucks of my money since it’s probably good enough to get me to stick around for at least one more issue) for is the art. This is showcase stuff all the way, cinematic in its scope and page layouts, smoothly-flowing and just plain overflowing with energy, hyper-kinetic action, and expressive movement. Matt Hollingsworth’s thick, syrupy, melodramatic colors add the piece de resistance, and the end result is a comic that looks like a multi-million-dollar blockbuster shot by Wally Pfister or Larry Fong or one of the other top-flight contemporary cinematographers.

Sadly, though, at least as far as this first installment goes, the Hollywood blockbuster analogy seems pretty apt in terms of this comic’s thematic depth, as well. There are few pure talents (hell, if any) in mainstream comics as skilled as Murphy, so if anybody can rise out of an early grave that they’ve dug for themselves it’s probably him, but he’s going to have his work cut out for him. Right now, Batman : White Knight looks like nothing so much as a big, snazzy, and expensive version of “What If — Batman and The Joker Traded Places?,” and that’s really about it. Perhaps it’s terribly naive of me (okay, you can strike the “perhaps” here, too),  given the utter creative complacency so readily apparent in more or less all of DC’s publications these days, but I guess that I’d been hoping for — even expecting — a whole lot more.

 

This Week’s Reading Round-Up : 9/24/2017 – 9/30/2017

By and large long-form reviews seem to be the order of the day here (at least so far) with this new blog that I am, admittedly, still “feeling my way through” or whatever, but one thing I wanted to do when I decided to “break off” my comics criticism from its former home on my movie blog was to crank out some sort of weekly(-ish) column that takes a quick look at some stuff I’ve read recently that, for one reason or other, I just don’t feel compelled to devote 1,500 or more words, and an hour or more of my time, to discussing.

First up as far as that goes, then, is D.J. Bryant’s debut collection from Fantagraphics, Unreal City. A friend suggested that this book would help scratch my Lynch itch now that Twin Peaks is (deep sigh) over with, and I guess I can see the comparison to a degree, but these five stories (all of which have previously appeared elsewhere, although not in a fancy, oversized hardcover like this) wear a number of other conspicuous influences on their sleeves, most notably Daniel Clowes, with the protagonist of the last (and best) strip, entitled “Objet d’Art,” often appearing to be a near spitting-image for Clay from Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron. Perspective, reification, objectification, obsession, selfishness,  alienation, lethargy, and of course sex are major themes running through everything on offer in this book, and while Bryant seems to have a surface-level grasp on various art styles ranging from photo-realism to Harvey Comics-style “hijinks” cartooning, his technically proficient illustrations are ultimately as facile as his narratives, all of which hew tightly to a “Twilight Zone for grown-ups” formula that hinges on “twist” endings that not only usually fall flat, but ultimately undermine the character-driven psychodrama leading up to them. Bryant probably has some great comics in him waiting to come out, but they’re not to be found in these pages, and probably won’t emerge until he figures out how to distill all the voices of others that are whispering in his ear into one that is more distinctly his own.  I’ll keep an eye on his stuff to see how his work develops, as he does appear to have plenty of potential, but I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone spend $16.99 on this uneven — and largely unsatisfying — book.

While we’re on the subject of Fatagraphics, the first book released under their small-print-run Fantagraphics Underground (“F.U.,” get it?) imprint, Jason Karns’ Fukitor, has just rolled off the presses for a second time, and while more or less every critic I respect (and even a few I don’t) have spent the last couple of years imploring everyone, everywhere to avoid this collection culled from the pages of Karns’ self-published “floppies,” my disdain for authority, particularly self-appointed authority, kicked in and I decided to give it a shot. Turns out I should have listened to the army of detractors, though — these “EC On Bathtub Crank” strips are desperately trying to achieve Mike Diana or S. Clay Wilson levels of subversiveness, but their bizarre combination of painful self-awareness and utter lack of self-examination ends up making them feel a lot more like borderline glorifications of the racism, sexism, misogyny, and psychopathy that I’m guessing they’re theoretically designed to be functioning as a critique of. Karns certainly fits well within the “ugly art” tradition, but a collection of his visual grotesqueries sans narrative would probably make for a better book, since his “writing” (such as it is) basically functions as a wink and a nudge to audiences saying “come on, admit it, you like this shit.” The dark side of the “dudebro” culture that’s been seeping in at Fanta’s margins thanks to cartoonists like Matt Furie and Ben Marra.

Bottoms Up! is the latest thematically-assembled anthology from J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books, and since it’s subtitled True Tales Of Hitting Rock-Bottom!, you already know what this one’s all about. Yost has once again assembled a flat-out superb collection of contributors for this book, with Noah Van Sciver (as you’d expect), Max Clotfelter, Meghan Turbitt, Jess Worby, John Porcellino, Sara Lautman, Peter S. Conrad, and Tatiana Gill being responsible for the strips I found most compelling, but even the “weaker” entries still have something to offer, and a good 25% or so of the cartoonists featured in this thing are folks I’ve never even heard of, so that’s always exciting. The contents are a mix of autobiographical stories and visual adaptations of the lives of anonymous others, and just in case you’re burned out on sordid tales of booze and drugs, fear not : addictions to porn, religion, sex, gambling and other vices are all present and accounted for, as well. The great Ben Passmore provides the cover. Buy this one now.

On the mainstream comics front, this week saw the release of Kamandi Challenge #9 from DC, and while this series has been as up-and-down as you’d expect given its “round-robin” format, it’s fair to say that this was the issue everyone was looking forward to given that it features a team-up of current “hottest writer in the business” Tom King behind the keyboard and TMNT co-creator Kevin Eastman on art (Robbie Williams II provides inks). Presented in glorious black-and-white, this is easily the most visually interesting “Big Two” comic we’re likely to be served up this year, and King’s script, while overly-stylized and frankly desperate to be noticed, is nevertheless a harrowing, frighteningly stripped-down view of captivity, small-group dynamics, uncertainty, and how fucking annoying optimism can be. Two things I’m sure of : Jack Kirby is looking down on this comic from on high and smiling, secure in the knowledge that, finally, somebody got one of his concepts exactly right; and Rick Remender, if he ever reads it, will feel his blood pressure going up by a good 10-20 points as he sees pretty much every theme he’s put forward in his various ongoing four-color therapy sessions more or less completely negated in the space of 22 sparsely-dialogued pages.

Okay, that’s going to do it for this week, thanks to anyone and/or everyone who’s reading this, and if you think I should keep doing this sort of rapid-fire column on a weekly basis, then by all means, please chime in and let me know. I’m not too proud to admit when I’m desperate for feedback, and this whole “brevity” thing, well — it’s kinda new for me.