Kirby Week : “2001 : A Space Odyssey” #s 5&6

If someone put a gun to my head and forced me to name my all-time favorite Jack Kirby story, on most days I think I’d have to go with the two-parter from issues five and six of 2001 : A Space Odyssey known in fan circles by its short-hand title, “Norton Of New York.” This pair of comics has anything and everything you could ask for — high drama, deep philosophical questions (specifically in relation to the subjects of individuality, the heroic ideal, the ever-fragile male ego, and the ever-deepening flight of huge segments of the populace into realms of pure fantasy), superb cosmic artwork, dystopian existentialism, even something of an unrequited love story. We’ll get to all of that (and more, I promise) in due course, but first a little bit of backstory for those not steeped in comic book history —

With the near-unprecedented success of Marvel’s Star Wars film adaptation and spin-off series (which, as it turns out, may very well have saved the company from bankruptcy given that their cash-flow was extremely tight, despite their dominant market-share position at the time, thanks to a series of questionable business decisions), the so-called “House Of Ideas” revealed that they had a dearth of precisely those and actively went searching for other cinematic properties, specifically of the science fiction variety, to exploit in the funnybook pages. The problem was that, unlike these days, there just weren’t that many “blockbuster” films ready-made for mercenary licensing opportunities in the late ’70s — so they had to go back a few years. Thus was born the rather unlikely marriage of Marvel Comics and MGM Studios, who worked together to come up with a deal to publish a “Treasury Edition” (basically a larger, thicker comic with heavy cardstock covers) adaptation of Stanley Kubrick’s legendary film 2001 : A Space Odyssey (based, of course, on Arthur C. Clarke’s equally-legendary novel), to be followed by a monthly series — and with Jack Kirby recently returned to the fold, there was probably never any doubt about who the perfect choice to helm this particular four-color ship would be.

Kirby’s “Treasury Edition” film adaptation is breathtaking stuff that makes brilliant use of every extra inch it’s given in order to literally overload readers’ senses with mind-boggling outer space imagery that sears its way into the visual cortex, but I think it’s fair to say that the follow-up comic series takes a little while to find its feet, given that each story, whether told in one or two parts, tells a separate and disparate tale vaguely informed by, but not overly chained to, the film and novel. The first four issues are perfectly fine reads with some amazing artwork, with Kirby wisely concentrating his creative energies on portraying various and sundry situations where the iconic Monolith would act as a kind of cosmic “critical mass” or “wild card” and push a situation (usually of the evolutionary or developmental variety) forward rather than going the dull and unimaginative route of, say, directly continuing the story seen in the film and letting us know “what happened” to Dave, HAL 9000, etc., but it wasn’t necessarily all that clear where The King Of Comics was going with the whole concept.

Until issue number five (cover-dated May, 1977 and bearing the story title “Norton Of New York, 2040 A.D.”), that is, when the answer became clear : Kirby was taking us much farther than we ever could have hoped to expect.

Our saga begins with an ostensible super-hero who calls himself “White Zero” taking on a horde of space monsters in order to save a captured princess, but in a move that some may consider tipping his hand a bit too early, Kirby makes it clear that the whole scenario is a cheap charade — a paid afternoon’s entertainment for bored aficionados of the fantastic at a theme park known as “Comicsville.” The King’s abilities as a Cassandra are well-known, and here he accurately predicts everything from so-called “cosplay” to indoor paintball games to the pathetically immersive nature of today’s various fandoms decades in advance. “Comics have reached their ultimate stage,” the narrative caption-boxes inform us, and “what began with magazines, fanzines, and nation-wide conventions has culminated in a fantastic involvement with the personal life of the average man!”

All of which leads one to suspect that the life of “the average man” in the year 2040 is a particularly empty and vacuous enterprise — and so it is. “White Zero” is, in actuality, Harvey Norton, an interchangeable office drone who yearns for more than his post-industrial world has to offer (and has something of a shallow and superficial streak, as his reaction to the “princess” shown below demonstrates) — a yearning that’s exacerbated by his first brief encounter with a Monolith within the confines of his pseudo-heroic “interactive” narrative — but at the end of the day, he still inhabits a New York that’s the logical end-result of soulless consumer capitalism : atomized, isolated people with little to no connection to each other transported, zombie-like, on over-crowded subway trains through a city covered by an “astrodome” and choked with smog to the point that everyone wears the same drab protective suits as they make their way from vapid escapist entertainment complexes like “Comicsville,”enclosed shopping centers, and vitality-sucking corporate workplaces to warehoused high-rise living quarters where they select  pre-recorded serial programs (years before steaming services were “a thing”) and vegetate in front of their “hologram boxes” as they consume self-heating frozen dinners and treat themselves, if they can afford it, to doses of packaged “fresh” air.

Kirby’s visual depiction of this all-too-accurate future is equal parts breathtaking, harrowing, and visionary, and the following page communicates everything you need to know even minus its expertly-crafted wordsmithing :

How, exactly, one can escape an edifice of pure spectacle and reach for something authentic that transcends artifice is a struggle that’s been exploited time and again within the science fiction genre, but let’s keep in mind, this is well before The Matrix or even The Truman Show, both of which borrowed liberally from the scenario Kirby outlines here. And yet there is still apparently a place for actual nature in the midst of all this, or so it would seem, as Norton is planning to spend his Sunday at the beach — which leads to what is, for my money, the most impactful and devastating sequence in this already-remarkable comic :

The beach, as it turns out, is no beach at all — “it’s not real! It’s film and solar lamps! It’s wave machines and plastic sand!” — but there is, in fact, something very real beyond the illusion : the Monolith, and once again it prods Harvey Norton forward in pursuit of something other, something greater, than the thoroughly homogenized, commodified, hollow world of 2040 has to offer. And hey, before you know it, our guy Harvey is in outer space!

Kirby mentions briefly the two-year training program that his protagonist has to go through in order to earn himself a spot in the “space program,” but in a whiplash-inducing moment, we literally go from the Monolith at the “beach” to “1,000 miles above the planet Neptune,” where Norton and two fellow astronauts are reeling in a mysterious capsule of some sort that they find orbiting in the distant gas giant’s upper atmosphere. They manage to get in on board their ship, where it opens automatically in fairly short order, and within it, wouldn’t you know that they find —

That’s right! An honest-to-goodness “space princess!” And while the obese woman at “Comicsville” may not have been to Harvey’s tastes, this bizarre-looking alien female appears to be right up his alley, and transfixes him immediately. Still, he may not have much time to pursue the object of his affections, because no sooner does he set eyes on her than he and his crew-mates find themselves taking heavy fire by an unseen and unknown enemy! The barrage is short-lived — “a show of power, rather than an attempt to destroy us” — but it’s clear that the “giant battle craft” that has pulled up close to their vessel is populated by beings that have designs on the “princess” themselves. To say that the situation is “fluid” and “up in the air” would be an understatement of mammoth proportions, but as this issue closes, Norton knows that “whatever happens now can only fulfill my destiny!”

As issue six (cover-dated May, 1977 and titled “Inter-Galactica,” subtitled “‘The Ultimate Trip!,’”) opens up, the detente between the alien spacecraft and Norton’s proves to be short-lived — the cover demonstrates a level of communication between the antagonists that’s never actually achieved, as the spacemen’s language can’t be translated, but whatever — the one-sided firefight picking up steam again within a few pages, and heavier than before. To say that Norton’s head isn’t exactly “in the game” is probably a polite way of putting things, as even in the midst of battle he can’t help but comment that the monstrous ship firing at them is “a comic fan’s dream,” but what he lacks in social graces he more than makes up for in a sort of intuitive understanding of what’s going on that his colleagues clearly don’t share — he just knows, goddamnit, that it’s the “princess” those weird-looking fellas are after, and he’s got a plan to save everyone.

I’ll be the first to admit that what happens next is — how should I put this? — problematic. But as a logical extension of Norton’s so-called “character arc,” it does make perfect sense : with their ship heavily damaged and exposed to the vacuum of space, the three crew members desperately scramble to find their space suits, but in the confusion, Harvey, having figured out that the aliens have a “fix” on the capsule containing the “princess,” absconds with her in an attempt to both draw the aliens’ fire away from his (now former) vessel, and — uhhhmmm — get her to safety. It’s a risky strategy as well as an inherently contradictory one, but over and above all that, it’s also an act of desertion at best, possibly treason at worst. Fortunately for Norton, his fellow astronauts don’t see it that way — one exclaims that “he was a damned hero!” after he reads the hand-written note (no, I’m not kidding) that good ol’ Harv had the decency to leave behind — and the ensuing space-chase gives Kirby a chance to illustrate visionary and awe-inspiring starscapes for page after page, ensuring that kids (and anyone else) who bought this comic in 1977 got way more than their thirty cents’ worth.

As it turns out, the “capsule” piloted by the “princess” proves to be anything but, and Norton’s probably not too far off the mark when he refers to it as a “tin comet.” Still, their pursuers are relentless, determined, and better-armed, and as they reach the very “edge” of the solar system, the “bad guys” unleash “a mass of flaming energy” that Harvey says has “set fire to the universe!” Rather than dodging the inferno, though, the “princess” plunges their craft right into it, engaging the tiny ship’s “star drive” as she does so, which causes them to “leap” both “the solar system — and the galaxies beyond!” Following an incredible journey that sees “Norton’s senses desert him,” the pair finally emerges — well, somewhere. Specifically, here :

Wherever “here,” is, though, doesn’t seem to be a place where the “princess” is very popular, either — her compact craft quickly draws fire again, and a crash-landing leaves her injured and the two of them sitting ducks. As armed interlopers sweep down upon the apparently-helpless duo, Norton quickly learns how to handle an alien blaster/ray-gun and manages to get his charge to safety — or what passes for it, at any rate, as they enter a cavern that leads to a teleporter (or a “‘sending’ mechanism,” as Kirby terms it) — but if escape is to be had, it will have to be had separately. It’s not for lack of trying to say together, mind you — the “princess” beckons Norton to join in her disappearing act, and he makes it clear he’s eager to accompany her, even imploring her to not to leave without him — “but fate has planned differently for Norton,” and as another fierce blast shakes loose the cavern’s rocky walls, she disappears and something else comes into view behind Harvey as he lies prone and unconscious —

When our “hero” next “awakens,” he really is that — a hero — just as he’s always dreamed of being. His name? “Captain Cosmic.” His domain? A “unique skyscraper” that overlooks “the city he loves” — a city that “stands clean and clear against the brightening dawn,” as opposed to the grim reality of the New York he knows all too well. It appears that Harvey Norton’s deepest desires have all, finally, come true — but his triumph is to be a short-lived one, for, in a manner similar to the magnificent third act of Kubrick’s film, he is aging rapidly in preparation for the “change” that will see him re-emerge as a “cosmic fetus” traversing the universe until it finds the proper time and place to be born anew, a literal “child of the stars.”

What happens next? Well, shit — who knows? The “teaser” at the end of this issue strongly hints that the following month’s yarn, entitled “The Child,” will show the final fate of the Harvey Norton “Star Seed” — but as it turned out, number seven was about another, different, “upgraded” former astronaut altogether. I suppose it can be reasonably assumed, or at the very least intuited, that the reborn/reincarnated Norton had a similar journey, but any way you slice it, “Norton Of New York” is, strictly speaking, a two-part story.

And oh my, what a two-part story it is. Kirby’s art in 2001 : A Space Odyssey numbers five and six, with expert embellishment from his finest (in my view, at any rate) inker, Mike Royer, is bold, expressive, damn nearly unbearably imaginative, and the very definition of “next level” stuff — but for my money, it’s The King’s writing that elevates this epic (in the truest sense of the word) tale to “legendary” status. Its flawed protagonist, as the logical extension of the very “fan culture” that his author/creator essentially gave birth to, is at once an easily-relatable “everyman” and a hopeless dreamer doomed to disappointment — until, suddenly, he’s not. And yet, just when it seems his “happy ending” is finally within his grasp, he loses it — only to get it, albeit temporarily, from a source even more unexpected than an actual “space princess.” This time, though, it’s in service of a purpose greater than his own ego gratification — one ultimately beyond his own understanding, and perhaps even ours. For what is one man in the face of a faceless, heartless monoculture? What is one man in the face of his own dreams and expectations? What is one man in the face of insurmountable, odds-stacked-against-him battle? What is one man in the face of an uncaring, but all-knowing, cosmos? These are the questions Kirby asks in “Norton Of New York” — and four decades later, I’m still puzzling out the answers. I heartily encourage you to read these two extraordinary comics and do the same yourself.

Bro-therly Love : Reilly Hadden’s “Fellas”

I’m quite likely the least-qualified person to write a review of Reilly Hadden’s new self-published mini, Fellas, given that I know precisely fuck-all about professional wrestling, but at the same time there’s something kind of undeniably sweet about this thing, and Hadden (whose Kricket The Cat strip, by way of full disclosure, runs regularly on a website I serve on the board of — that being, of course, SOLRAD) is a superb cartoonist, so why let a pesky little thing like not knowing what the hell I’m talking about stop me from running my mouth?

Our ostensible “stars” here are two apparently-popular WWE personalities named Sheamus (a.k.a. “The Celtic Warrior”) and Drew McIntyre (a.k.a. “The Scottish Psychopath”), which bodes well for the notion that wrestling has moved on from racist caricatures of Middle Eastern and Asian people, I suppose, but beyond that the context of this particular scenario — which Hadden states is “adapted” from a TV program called WWE Day Of — escapes me, other than recognizing that it would seem to be occurring following a particularly exhausting match between the two opponents-who-are-actually-friends. The pair certainly look spent, in particular Sheamus, and following the conclusion of the proceedings they, for lack of a better term, “share a moment” — and a very long “moment,” at that.

They talk like a couple of annoying-ass “dudebros,” sure, but the bond they share seems near-heartbreakingly genuine, and I think capturing the sincerity of their interpersonal dynamic and of the moment itself is what Hadden’s looking to do with this work — and if that’s the case, it’s a damn successful little comic. The wrestlers repeat themselves a lot as they embrace after their match, but their physical exhaustion seems to give way and/or give rise to a kind of unguarded emotional intimacy that, who knows? Maybe only happens after people have been trying to beat the shit out of each on television for the entertainment of millions.

An interesting thing I noticed is that Hadden decided to draw these guys rather differently than they actually look, and I’m not sure why that is, but I can speculate that it may have something to do with putting some creative distance between cartoonist and subjects in order for said cartoonist to put greater emphasis on their interpretation of a thing than on the thing itself, but again — I’m just guessing here. I think it works, but at the same time, I haven’t seen the actual event to compare it to, so we’re back at square one — only this time I’m actually proving that I’m the last guy on the planet who has any business reviewing this comic, rather than just saying so.

And yet, I’m legitimately glad that I read it. Not only because Hadden’s simple illustrations are expressive and emotive, but because there’s something of a moral to this story, as well, that being : even the most crass and brazen and annoying of people (as most wrestlers at least come off as being) are, at the end of the day, still people, and are capable of sharing intense bonds under any sort of circumstance. Whether or not there’s a sublimated sexual angle here is entirely up your own discretion, but I’m not even sure it really matters either way — these are two “bros” who gave it their all in the ring, and love each other as both friends and competitors, at the very least.
Okay, look, let’s not kid ourselves : you’ll read more complex and more ambitious comics than this over the course of this year — hell, maybe even over the course of this week. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more heartfelt one, that’s for sure, bro.

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Fellas is available for $4.00 from Reilly Hadden’s Esty shop at https://www.etsy.com/listing/1018423124/fellas?ref=shop_home_recs_1&frs=1

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Marc Wagner’s “Dead Cells” : A Waking Nightmare?

There are times when it’s difficult to say what, exactly, is so fucking scary about Dead Cells, the new horror (in every sense of the word) comic from Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s Marc Wagner published by Skullmore Press, but it’s not hard to say why — Wagner’s paranoid stew of technophobia, techno-dependence, biological horror, and online conspiracy theories speaks deeply, if not necessarily clearly, to many of modern society’s most closely-held fears, and it does so in a way that accentuates the feeling of vague, all-pervasive unease they create while deliberately refusing to nail any of them down. These are the terrors that we can quantify, but not necessarily specify — the ones that can’t be pin-pointed as belonging anywhere because, hey, they’re literally everywhere. Omnipresent, to be sure, bordering on the omniscient.

A dying cell phone leads to panic leads to attempted abduction leads to confrontation with Lovecraftian monster leads to pursuit from all sides and all things — Wagner drops you in at the deep end and the only thing you can be certain of is that it is, in fact, very deep indeed. His crisply-drawn narrative lends itself to myriad interpretations, none of them pleasant — is an NSA-type agency behind this? Is the horror being transmitted into the real world via app? Is the whole thing a Lynchian dream? — but if you’re looking for concrete answers, you’ve come to the wrong place. There are no hard-and-fast explanations to be had, but there is a resolution to this story, of sorts — however, it’s a temporary one on its face. You can easily see this scene playing out over and over again to just about anybody, admittedly fantastical and OTT as it is — or isn’t?

Like everything else on offer here, the “cells” the title refers to also has multiple meanings — could be cell phones, could be literal biological cells, could be (probably is) both —but getting hung up on the details deprives one of the full force of the psychological mindfuck Wagner is serving up. This story is confusing, but not complex, provided you’re willing to go along for the ride and allow dull rationality to be fully subsumed by a tidal wave of dark subconscious fears. Doing so shouldn’t prove too tough a task, though, never fear — the art’s so damn good it leaves you with no choice.

Ah yes, the art — as multi-layered as the narrative, and every bit as dense. Wagner blends surrealism and concrete realism so seamlessly that any demarcation points between the two are swept up, swept aside, and ultimately swept away. His shading, his color choices, his cinematic composition, his eye for details large and small — this is a guy who doesn’t cut corners, even if his corners are as necessarily fluid as anything else he depicts. Indeed, solid and well-defined as his objects and people are creatures are, there’s a palpable sense that any of them can be converted into digital signals at any moment and dissipate into the netherscape of what’s purported to be “pure information.” — but is so often anything but.

We’re living in the age of QAnon, after all, of resurgent “flat earth” theories, of urban legends such as the so-called “slenderman” and “black-eyed children” being taken gospel by millions. The ones and zeroes that make up the images and words appearing on our screens may be incontrovertible mathematical realities, but they’ve been conscripted in service of communicating utter bullshit. Wagner, it seems to me, is actively exploring the concrete effects these nonsensical digital ideas have on the physical world, and in doing so he’s asking the most difficult question of all — is there any real difference left between belief and reality?

Hell, was there ever?

I don’t pretend to know the answer, and maybe I don’t want to know the answer. Thoughts and ideas and concepts that have arrived to people while dreaming have always had an impact on the waking world, but now the dreams have become nightmares at the same time as they’ve been collectivized. What the most paranoid and delusional person thinks now has the power of the meme available to it, and can spread around the world in the blink of an eye. And maybe that is the most horrifying thing that Wagner is tapping into here — the knowledge that we’re all at the mercy of someone else’s worst thoughts evolving to become dominant social paradigms at any given moment.

Who needs Videodrome when you’ve got Twitter and Instagram? This comic made me shudder precisely because it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know — while simultaneously telling me about everything I don’t care to face up to.

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Dead Cells is available for $7.00 from Marc Wagner at https://marcmakesthings.bigcartel.com/product/dead-cells

Review wrist check – Ocean Crawler “Paladino WaveMaker” green dial model riding its factory-issue fitted orange rubber strap.

Nate Garcia’s “Alanzo Sneak” : Today’s Discerning Cowboy Wears Tennis Shoes

Any way you slice it, Philadelphia cartoonist Nate Garcia’s Alanzo Sneak is an impressive package — richly drawn, published in an oversized magazine format by your friends and mine at Strangers fanzine (who, it has to be said, are absolutely killing it since venturing into the world of comics publishing), and thoroughly conceptualized, this is a comic that fires on all cylinders and bears all the hallmarks of autuer work, with production values to match the quality of its visual storytelling. From the minute you see those “Ben Day Dot”-style cover colors accentuating the absolutely wild sense of proportion Garcia brings to his titular protagonist, you know you’re in for a wild ride that engages both eyes and mind. I honestly have to ask myself : how can this guy only be nineteen years old?

Maybe he’s just a quick study, or maybe he’s some kind of prodigy, but whatever the case may be, if Garcia is well and truly just getting started, then we’ve got a lot to look forward to. His self-published solo anthology Hornrim — where the character of Alanzo Sneak debuted — showed hints of an emerging talent finding his way forward on his own terms entirely, but now that he’s zeroed in on one idea and made a “proper” full-length story out of it, his confidence in his craft is really hitting its stride.

The other thing about Garcia’s work that I really appreciate, as the page reproduced above clearly demonstrates, is that he’s not afraid to “go there.” This is a fucked up comic. Sneak’s tennies double as a weapon and all-round utility kit, leading to some wonderfully comic moments, but there’s a fair amount of twisted shit happening too, from grotesque OTT violence to horse-meat consumption to a (hopefully) unrequited love affair between man and beast that’s funny in that “shower your conscience after laughing” sort of way, a lot of what goes on here is just, well — off, in the way that the best of the undergrounds were. This ain’t for everyone by any stretch, but the depraved troglodytes it is for — this critic included — are going to like what they find here a hell of a lot.

And honestly, what’s not to love? Garcia brings the goods in every panel, and there’s no slack in his act. He matches the sensibilities of classical satirical “cartoony” art with a distinctly modern flair for an entirely unforced timeless look that’s reflected in his comic’s subject matter — sure, it takes place out west, but how “old” this west is remains a very open question. The trappings of modernity are right there at the margins, sometimes even front and center, but at the same time the dialogue and overall tone of the proceedings is straight out of the late 1800s — except they didn’t even have such things as sneakers back then, did they?

Ah well, I shan’t waste much time pondering specifics that are inexplicable on their face, nor should you. The order of the day here is morally-questionable fun, and there’s so damn much of it on offer that you won’t slow down to puzzle over it in any appreciable way until you’ve made it to the end. Not that you’ll want this comic to end, mind you — and certainly the barn door is left wide open for more adventures with Alanzo and his four-legged friend Sheena, so let’s all hope that they’re in the offing. There’s simply far too much territory left unexplored for this to be a one-off.
In any case, whether Garcia makes more or not is his call, but I’m (obviously) down for it if he does. This is a monumental leap forward for a cartoonist who was already doing solid work. Whatever trail he blazes next is one you’ll absolutely want to follow.

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Alanzo Sneak is available for $10.00 front the Strangers fanzine website at https://strangersfanzine.bigcartel.com/product/alanzo-sneak-by-nate-garcia-strangers-presents

Review wrist check – Formex “Essence” brown dial chronometer model, on bracelet.

Still Teetering On The Brink : Sue Coe And Stephen F. Eisenman’s “American Fascism Now”

There’s a school of thought which posits that we really dodged a bullet with the last election : yeah, Trump is still out there making noise, but he left office whether he wanted to or not, and now we can go about the business of steering this flagging ship we call America back toward a course of normalcy. Never mind the fact that “normalcy” isn’t a great state of affairs for many people, and their utter contempt for the political establishment was one of the biggest factors in President Goldenshower’s rise to power, this view is entirely too optimistic even leaving aside Biden’s own pro-corporate, militaristic leanings — the threat, you see, isn’t over, largely because it didn’t start with Trump and it never really went away.

I should be clear that by “the threat,” I refer to the potential for the US to descend into an overtly fascist, authoritarian state, an even more noxious and illiberal version of the oligarchical rule that, if we’re being honest, we may as well admit we’ve always been subject to. And yeah, anyone who thinks that concern is suddenly and magically a thing of the past isn’t aware of history, on the one hand, or of events transpiring in the present on the other, because while millions of people have been breathing an entirely understandable sigh of relief, the GOP (now essentially a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Trump Organization) has been getting busy at the state level making it harder and harder for people who aren’t Republicans to vote, and to give Republican election officials the power to subvert and even overturn the will of the people if they don’t care for the candidates those people chose. Whether a re-emergent Trump himself is the beneficiary of this open election-rigging in four years’ time or some other asshole who might as well be Trump takes up the MAGA mantle, the simple truth is that they’re not going to be anywhere near as incompetent when it comes to seizing absolute power, and they’re going to have the full machinery of any number of state governments on their side. The dark times ain’t over, my friends — not by a long shot.

It’s for this reason (among others) that American Fascism Now, a collaboration between veteran activist artist Sue Coe and respected academic Stephen F. Eisenman that was published late last year by Rotland Press, retains its power despite the fact that Coe’s series of 16 harrowing linocut prints were created between 2017 and 2020. These are nightmare images of a nightmare vision of America that is still a very real possibility. Coe cuts to the heart of the grotesque affront to humanity that is Trump, and more importantly the grotesque affront to society that is Trumpism, with a combination of passionately righteous indignation and meticulously-executed artistic intent, and in so doing lays bare the horror-show of racism, nativism, authoritarianism, anti-intellectualism, petty resentment, and just plain cruelty that animates both the man and the movement he accrued to himself, so expect plenty of visceral visual wallop within this well-crafted little ‘zine, which is cleverly designed to evoke the look and feel of anti-fascist pamphlets of the WWII era. And while we’re on that subject —

Eisenman’s succinct and powerful polemical essays at the beginning and end of this booklet — titled “American Fascism, Then” and (as you’ve not doubt guessed) “American Fascism, Now,” respectively — place vital contextual “brackets” around Coe’s illustrations, briefly tracing a direct path from antecedent home-grown fascist movements to the one plaguing us today and ably making a case that, say, the pro-Nazi “America First” movement of rat-bastard Charles Lindbergh and the “America First” movement of rat-bastard Donald Trump have a hell of a lot more in common than just their name. In fact, they’re essentially the exact same thing, just separated by seven decades. Fascism didn’t go away in the interregnum between then and now, of course — another point Eisenman takes care to make — so again, let’s please not kid ourselves that it withered away into the ether last November, either.

Coe, as well, refuses to take the naive approach of focusing the entirety of her ire on Trump herself — although her depictions of his pathological rapaciousness are certainly as grimly delicious as they are undeniably accurate. Instead, she casts her net as wide as it needs to go, skewering the media moguls, Wall Street tycoons, conspiracy hucksters, religious charlatans, environmental polluters, and war profiteers (to name just a few) who make up the edifice of American fascism. Her pictures are amazing, it almost goes without saying, but she doesn’t — errrmmm — paint a pretty picture?

Nor, frankly, is there one to be painted. We’re in a struggle for personal and planetary survival here, folks, and to pretend otherwise is to give the fascists one big leg up. If you’re looking for a source of inspiration and motivation to get up off your ass and fight like your life depends on it — because it does — you’ll scarcely find a better one than the artistic call to arms Coe and Eisenman have created here.

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American Fascism Now is available for $10.00 from the Rotland Press website at http://rotlandpress.com/store-1

Review wrist check – Traksa “Freediver” mint green dial/black ceramic bezel model (note that this is the no-date iteration), on bracelet.

“Yankee Doodle Strangler” : David G. Caldwell Whistles Past The Graveyard Of Half-Assed Comics

For the past several years, cartoonists such as Harry Nordlinger, Josh Simmons, Corinne Halbert, and Julia Gfrorer (to name just a handful) have been doing some incredibly provocative and effective horror work in the small press and self-publishing world, and you can add the name of Huntsville, Alabama’s David G. Caldwell to that list — in fact, you could have added it long time ago, as he’s been at it for a good few years now, as well. And maybe you did, if you’re wiser and generally more “up” on things than I am, but I’m just getting around to it now because, well, I just became aware of his work quite recently.

Still, now’s as good a time as any to check this guy’s stuff out, given that he’s just collected his long-running strip Yankee Doodle Strangler (originally serialized both digitally and in mini-comics form) in two different packages — an oversized magazine edition and a standard-sized comic book. Of the pair, I’d recommend going with the magazine, as it presents the art much closer to actual production size and the pages are laid out as originally intended, but the larger panels of the standard comic look nice, even if the six-panel grid of each page feels forced and compromises the fluidity of the storytelling. They’re both the same price, so that’s not an issue, but who are we kidding? The format of a publication matters, sure, but it’s hardly the pressing issue here.

To get to the heart of the matter, then, this is a really solid, well-drawn horror yarn that makes the most out of a deliberately absurd premise (spirit of dead revolutionary war soldier re-emerges in the Bicentennial year of 1976 and begins strangling nurses, until one of his would-be victims escapes his clutches and teams with a local librarian to discover the secret to stopping him), effectively sends up various “B”-movie tropes without being condescending, layers on the period-piece atmospherics without hammering readers over the head with them, and adheres to a thoroughly satisfying, if admittedly simple, story structure that neither takes itself too seriously nor steps over the line into outright self-parody. It’s an inherently self-aware work, sure, but it threads that final conceptual line between straight genre homage and spoof without resorting to the cheap and easy outs of irony for its own sake or “edgy” updating. It’s a comic that’s entirely comfortable in its own skin — even if it’s about a phantom.

Certainly the term “outlaw comic” is thrown around a lot these days, and this work fits that bill to a degree in terms of its mildly irreverent tone, but there’s nothing deliberately over the top on offer here, and Caldwell never compromises his commitment to craft for the sake of upping his book’s shock value or knocking you out with a particularly grotesque or deliberately tasteless image. His linework is crisp, his shading moody and evocative, and his figure drawing fundamentally solid, so he’s certainly got the skills to deliver the gory goods if he wanted to, but here’s the thing : he sublimates that desire to “go big” in favor of putting his talents to use for the sake of good, old-fashioned, visually fluid sequential storytelling.

Which doesn’t, of course, mean that his comic is without its flaws — particularly in terms of its rather “one-note” characterization and some rather predictable story “beats” — but as with any effort from a cartoonist still very much in the process of finding their “voice,” you take the good with the bad, and the “good” side of the ledger is significantly larger and longer than the “bad” in the case of this particular artist.
All quibbles aside, then, this is a remarkably strong piece of legitimately auteur comics work that will likely impress even those who have experienced its like before in a general sense and will see most of its twists and turns coming. Caldwell had produced a smart, idiosyncratic genre comic that will leave most readers — including, for the record, this critic — downright eager to see what he does next.

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Yankee Doodle Strangler is available for $10.00, either in magazine or stand-sized comic book format, from David G. Caldwell’s website at http://www.davidgcaldwell.com/

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Building A Better Bonehead Funnybook : “Mondo Groovy” Issue Two

As is no secret to regular readers of this blog, I’m not all about “high-brow” comics here, even if the majority of books I review fall loosely into that already-loose category. Nor am I necessarily all about comics that are executed with a high degree of so-called “professionalism.” If I were forced to pin down what I am about, in a nutshell, I’d say that my tastes run toward comics that are produced with intent, and that succeed in realizing their intentions, whatever they may be.

Which brings us to issue two of cartoonist C.J. Patterson’s self-published series Mondo Groovy, a book with obviously-discernible intent that’s executed in precisely the fashion necessary in order to realize said intention — it just so happens that what Patterson and writing partner Jeremy Rogers intend to do is to regale audiences with a steady stream of dick and fart jokes.

Okay, that’s not quite accurate — in the spirit of full disclosure, this comic is full of dick, fart, drug, booze, B-movie, and cat jokes. I don’t want to be accused of being anything less than comprehensive here. But if those dick, fart, drug, booze, B-movie, and cat jokes are by and large funny, and if the cartooning itself is fundamentally solid, then why not give these guys the “props” they’re earned for what they’ve managed to accomplish? I mean, I’ve read too many lousy “gross-out humor” comics to count at this point, so if one comes along that actively entertains me, far be it from me to “diss” it solely on the basis of what it is.

Sophisticates, then, obviously needn’t proceed any further, but I’m not sure how many of that unfortunate lot are numbered among my readership, anyway. For those of us willing to ‘fess up to the fact that we don’t mind a bit of juvenalia for its own sake on occasion, this is a fun, absolutely un-demanding, and reasonably well-drawn collection of short strips (most of which, to my understanding, were originally posted during those long lockdown months on Patterson’s Instagram) that are fairly high on the chuckle quotient and sometimes even have the ability to make you laugh out loud, even if it’s entirely in spite of yourself. My advice, then? Loosen up and go with the flow, or go someplace else.

If you do go someplace else, however, you’ll be missing out on something that’s really rather rare in the particular metaphorical sandbox Patterson and Rogers are playing around in — something so rare, in fact, that one could be forgiven for thinking that it’s completely anathema to it : artistic development. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as getting better at doing mindless “gag” strips, and the creators of this comic are doing just that before our eyes. This progression is down to a number of factors — Patterson’s improving skills as an artist, the duo’s increased confidence in their material, the switch from black and white to quite nicely-done full color and, above all, the wise dismissal of long-form narrative in favor or nothing but short strips — but it’s in no way subtle. I was mildly entertained by the first issue of this series, but this sophomore effort was, the occasional “clunker’ aside, a damn good time from first page to last. And given that’s precisely what the publication was striving for, I’ve gotta say that it’s earned a tip of my hat.

This book is also — and I can’t stress the importance of this enough — absolutely and utterly devoid of pretense, and that’s as crucial to its efficacy as anything else. Patterson and Rogers are seeking to do something very specific here, and to do it in strip after strip, and they pay absolutely no heed to outside concerns (including, refreshingly, critical response) along the way. They’re either blissfully unaware that people who consider themselves “too good” for some stupid fun exist, or they’re aware of them and simply don’t give a fuck what they think. Either way, they’ve made a comic that’s downright giddy about its purportedly “low-rent” sensibilities, and as a result I have to say that their honesty is what impresses this critic most.

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Mondo Groovy issue two is available for $6.00 from C.J. Patterson’s Big Cartel shop at https://mondogroovybooty.bigcartel.com/product/mondo-groovy-issue-two

Review wrist check – Raven “Trekker 39” yellow dial/black bezel model, on bracelet.

“So Buttons” #11 : — And Just Like That, All Is Right With The World

In art, as in life, timing is everything, and in that respect the release of issue #11 of Jonathan Baylis’ long-running autiobio anthology series, So Buttons (the first to be published in conjunction with Tinto Press), couldn’t be more — errr — timely, given that reminders that there really is a “normal” to return to (even if we’re not sure what that is yet) are very welcome indeed as so many of slowly emerge from our COVID-engendered bunkers. Granted, most of the contents of this ish were written and drawn smack-dab during some of the most dangerous and harrowing days of the pandemic, but it’s not strictly a “pandemic comic” per se. It’s referenced here and there — how could it not be? — but by and large this latest collection of stories is what we’ve come to expect from Baylis and his artistic cohorts, namely : fun, charming, occasionally informative, and sometimes even thought-provoking vignettes culled from the author’s life, tangentially related to it, or both. And talking of artistic cohorts —

As has become his custom, Baylis enlists a “murder’s row” of talented cartoonists to illustrate his ‘zine, beginning with Jim Rugg’s sublime Basil Wolverton homage cover and continuing through the interiors where we’re treated to the visual stylings of November Garcia, A.T. Pratt, B. Mure, Garrett Gilchrist, Andy Rash, Phil Elliott, T.J. Kirsch, Fred Hembeck, Jeff Zapata, Rick Parker (who provides letters on one story, art on another), Maria and Peter Hoey, Miss Lasko Gross, colorist Adam Walmsely and, last but certainly not least, one Lucas Eisenberg-Baylis, whose particular relation to our “host” will be readily apparent to even the newest readers of this series. Everyone brings their own look and style to the party, obviously, and while some of the artists are a more natural fit for Baylis’ relaxed, conversational approach to storytelling than others, it’s fair to say that there are no fish out of water here, and everyone turns in really nice-looking work.

So, yeah, we’re most definitely in “what’s not to love?” territory here, and that feels damn good. Sure, the dour might be able to advance an argument that stories about Scotch, Topps trading cards, John Cleese, Carol Channing, and early-’90s British comics might feel a bit “slight” under present circumstances, but art’s capacity to endure under even the most trying of conditions is one of the most remarkable things about it, and if you can’t get at least a little bit giddy at the thought of Fred Hembeck doing a pin-up featuring characters from the short-lived Topps “Kirbyverse,” then I’ve got no time for your cynical ass, anyway.

Which, in a very real sense, offers us a convenient segue into one of the best things not just about this issue, but about Baylis’ series in general : it’s utterly devoid of cynicism. It’s a comic about a guy who likes reading comics (among other hobbies and interests) that’s written by a guy who likes making comics with his friends, and whaddya know? They’re both the same guy. There’s a kind of, if you’ll forgive the term, purity to that approach that would stand out in today’s careerist-dominated comics landscape even if the stories on offer weren’t as uniformly enjoyable as they are — so the fact that they are is, as the saying goes, an awfully nice plus.

In more “big picture” terms, it’s probably inevitable that comparisons to earlier autobio trailblazers like Dennis Eichhorn and, of course, Harvey Pekar will persist for as long as Baylis adheres to making his comics in the way that he makes them, but I’ve noticed a marked decline in their frequency and volume over the years, and for good reason : Baylis has a singular authorial “voice” unique unto himself, and has lived and continues to live a life that’s plenty interesting on its own terms. Besides, there’s nothing inherently wrong with having your comic mentioned alongside the likes of American Splendor, and as the years go by Baylis has managed, by dint of his consistency and creativity (no, the two are not mutually exclusive), to transform this series from curious, maybe even derivative, upstart to a welcome annual guest in the homes and lives of its readers. You can only pull that off if you’re doing something that’s got plenty of brains and heart at its core.

As is likely to be painfully obvious by now, one of those readers who views this comic as a welcome annual guest in their home and life is yours truly, and after this past year and change, a new issue felt more welcome than ever. Barring any further calamity, our next meeting with Baylis and co. will likely be under more pleasant — or at least predictable — circumstances, but you know what? I feel safe in assuming in advance that it’ll be a “feel-good” occasion then, as well.

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So Buttons #11 is available for $5.00 from the Tinto Press website at https://tintopress.com/product/so-buttons-11/

Review wrist check – Yema “Navygraf Maxi Dial” on bracelet. Because classic never goes out of style.

Chris Russ Returns To Workplace Purgatory In “Eddie The Office Goblin” #2

With the release of issue #2 of his self-published series Eddie The Office Goblin, Michigan-based cartoonist Chris Russ faces the challenge all artists do with their “sophomore outings,” namely : prove that their concept has staying power now that the premise has been established and the unfamiliar is, of necessity, decidedly less so. Whether or not he pulls it off is rather dependent on one’s views of #1 (for the record, I gave it a mostly positive review on this very blog), but even a generous reading of this mini — which I’m inclined toward — would result in a grade of “incomplete,” because even more important than what’s come before, or what’s happening now, is what will happen next.

Which, let me be clear, is no “bad” thing any more than it’s a “good” thing. Russ is playing the proverbial “long game” here, and depending on how all of that shakes out, this is either a vital next step in his narrative, or an overly-long “stop gap” measure between actual occurrences. As somebody who still keeps a metaphorical toe dipped in the mostly-fetid waters of the comics mainstream myself, I’m used to getting hustled by the naked cash-grab that is “decompressed” storytelling, but when we’re talking about a singular cartoonist with a singular style who tells stories in a singular way, well — the jury’s gotta remain out until we have a better, firmer grasp on precisely what a “Chris Russ comic” is.

All of which is my way of saying that not a lot happens in this comic, and it mainly seems to be composed of extended set-up, so how and even if said set-up pays off will determine, entirely in retrospect, whether or not this issue worked. And that’s fine. Eddie’s headed to meet with some swamp creatures in their home environs as a result of his own suggestion to the boss, who wonders why the muck monsters aren’t buying the company’s dubious potions, but before he goes he tangles with a creature in his neighbor’s back yard while he’s mowing it. If the “swamp things” turn out to be cool, and Eddie’s interactions/confrontations with them are well-drawn, fun, and reasonably humorous, then this issue’s all good — with bonus points awarded to Russ if he figures out an expanded role/purpose for that monster in the yard beyond taking up a few pages. If not, well, this will go down a nicely-drawn and exceptionally well-colored waste of time.

So, yeah, let’s talk about the art — I dig Russ’ clean lines, inventive character designs, richly vibrant hues, and inventive-but-traditional page layouts. He still has a few things to learn about the economics of sequential pacing — certain key moments are given short shrift while others of less import are given entire pages, for instance — but on the whole, he knows how to put together a nice-looking mini. He’s got a legit autuer sensibility, but within his own singular look, feel, and approach there remain some kinks to be worked out before I’m ready to say he’s 100% successful at what he’s doing. They key thing is, though, that he’s earned the right to maintain my interest.

That may sound like a modest achievement, true, yet I assure you it’s anything but : I get way more minis and ‘zines sent to me than I can possibly find the time to review, so you’re doing something right — or at least right enough — if I review and recommend your book. There’s plenty of potential in this series — some of it realized, some of it less so — and as Russ gets his feet planted more firmly under himself, expectations will rise in line with what he’s delivered on to date. I’m not ready to say his second issue is an “improvement” on the first — time will be the judge of that — but it’s not a step back, and I’ll be down to give #3 a go whenever that’s ready, not only for its own sake, but because it will offer a clearer idea of whether or not #2 was successful at what it needed to do.

If, then, you’re deciding whether or not to buy this comic, I’d say go for it, with the understanding that any payoff it offers is delayed for the time being. But isn’t that the case for serialized fiction in any number of media?

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Eddie The Office Goblin #2 is available for $3.50 directly from Chris Russ at https://gumroad.com/chrisrusscomics

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very pleased if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

The Abyss Gazes Back In Samuel Benson’s “Long Gone” #4

The comics of Iowa City’s Samuel Benson have always hovered near the edges of some fairly dark places, but in issue #4 of Long Gone, his venerable self-published series, there’s a shift that’s definitely both noticeable and consistent : the death of the self— be it the ego, the corporeal form, or both — is waiting for all of the protagonists in the four longer strips and two single-pages that make up the contents of this (as always with Benson) high-production-value ‘zine, with the rub being that it’s not always the worst outcome. Or even, for that matter, necessarily a bad one. We’re about to get a little philosophical here, so buckle up —

It’s a fallen world, and the evidence is all around us, so maybe escaping it isn’t such a crazy idea, amirite? None of us has any real idea what’s waiting for us on the so-called “other side,” though, so until somebody manages to make it back with some concrete, documented evidence, though, I think the most morally sound position to take is that anyone wishing to shuffle off from this mortal coil should be free to do so, but anyone who takes it upon themselves to punch someone else’s ticket for them is operating well outside the bounds of what most of us would consider, in a pinch, to be acceptable — and that’s what makes Benson’s latest comic such a challenge. His characters who meet a physical end are violently dispatched in most cases, either on purpose or due to grim accident (think mistaken identity), while another is just plain suckered into getting killed, and for the ones who are “merely” ushered into some new consciousness/reality, the process really isn’t much more pleasant on the whole. So we’re not talking, by and large, about folks who ever had much choice in the matter here. That being said —

As mentioned at the outset, the afterlife doesn’t turn out to be such a lousy place for all of them. The principal of “just rewards” is not an alien one in Benson’s stories — but it’s not something that’s applied across the board, either. Which means some of these strips are downright tragic, both in terms of their implications and in terms of what we see playing out on the page. A “feel-good” comic on the whole, then, this is not, and that tonal shift toward the bleak, the merciless, the unforgiving, may be upsetting at worst, surprising at best for long-time readers of this idiosyncratic cartoonist’s work. My question, though, is this : should it be?

I mean, these strips were written and drawn in 2020 and early 2021, and you don’t need me to remind you that things have felt fairly apocalyptic for most of that period. Being ensconced in the heartland, rather than along the coasts like many of his contemporaries toiling in this beleaguered medium, also means Benson has been subjected to a different attitude toward the pandemic than they have, one heavily tinged with the irrational, the unscientific, the conspiratorial — and all of that makes its presence felt in this ‘zine, as well. There’s a palpable aura of doom hanging over pretty much everything on offer here, it’s true, but what makes it sting all the more is that it’s a highly personal doom, not a societal one, and as such the consequences aren’t parceled out over entire populations. As a reader, then, you’re left with no choice but to absorb the impact as a series of successive, distinct body blows.

All of which, of course, makes this thing sound like no fun at all — but perversely, nothing could be further from the truth. Benson’s intricate, detailed, dare I say obsessive cartooning improves with each outing, this being no exception, and his absurdist worldview, while frighteningly consistent, isn’t necessarily bleak unless one actively chooses to interpret it as being so. In fact, in the right (likely chemically-induced) frame of mind, I could even see these strips being considered funny, at least by those who are in no way constitutionally pre-disposed toward moralistic self-righteousness. There’s a Ditko Mr. A book on the shelves of one of Benson’s hapless characters, and while this comic’s flirtations with mysticism and the supernatural would no doubt run afoul of Sturdy Steve’s unflinchingly rationalist worldview, a downright relentless commitment to speaking entirely through one’s art and subsequently leaving it to readers to decide solely, and entirely, for themselves whether or not the work resonates with them is something the two creators most definitely have in common.
Yes, then, this is unquestionably difficult material to process, to react to, and to evaluate — and that’s precisely why I think Benson is one of the most important cartoonist working today. His body of work consistently challenges audiences to meet it on its own terms, and offers no “easy outs.” It’s as dense conceptually as it is visually (and that’s very dense indeed — Benson jams each panel border to border with intensely-delineated people, places, and planes of existence), and has the uncanny ability to hit closer and closer to home the farther afield from consensus reality it goes. There’s no doubt this is his most thematically, narratively, and artistically daunting comic to date — and there’s no doubt that it’s his best, as well.

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Long Gone #4 is available for the ridiculously low price of $5.00 directly from Samuel Benson at https://longgonecomix.bigcartel.com/product/long-gone-4

Review wrist check – if it seems like I’m wearing my Formex “Reef” green dial/green bezel model a lot these days, well — that’s because I am. And if it seems like I’m wearing it on bracelet a lot, hey, guilty as charged there, as well. And why not? It’s as near a thing to a flawlessly-executed dive watch on the market today, and looks just as good with casual clothes as it does with business attire (not that I ever wear any of that). Pretty much a perfect timepiece.