Weekly Reading Round-Up : 06/10/2018 – 06/16/2018

If it seems like Image Comics is rolling out a new series (be it limited or ongoing) every week — well, that’s because they are. But even by their standards, four in one week is a lot —

Bloodstrike : Brutalists #0 is the one everyone’s been talking about (although that fact was apparently lost on my LCS owner, who ordered precisely one fucking copy — and it was the godawful Rob Liefeld variant, as opposed to the awesomeness shown above), as it brings the punk ‘zine/”alt” comics sensibilities of the great Michel Fiffe (most notably of Copra fame, although my favorite of his works is unquestionably Zegas) crashing headlong into the mercifully-shuttered world of the aforementioned Mr. Liefeld’s Extreme Studios line-up circa about — I dunno, 1996 or some shit. From the book’s numbering to its purposely-stilted dialogue to its admittedly lame core premise (undead heroes who bear more than a passing resemblance to a bunch of Marvel characters fight equally generic villains for reasons never apparently thought through all that completely) there are any number of deliberate “call-backs” to a late and decidedly un-lamented era of comics history on offer here, but Fiffe isn’t content with some basic-ass exercise in nostalgia, instead allowing his inventive page layouts and inherent sense of visual “flow” to propel the narrative along in a manner that Liefeld (goddamn, there’s that name again!), with his clunky, static, over-rendered-yet-still-hopelessly-sloppy “Hollywood blockbuster on bathtub PCP” imagery never could. This story is apparently a continuation of one left abandoned in the wake of Extreme going belly-up, but it doesn’t matter : no one who was working on the book “back in the day” had any idea what was going with it, either.

Fortunately, Fiffe does, and despite the rather annoying fact that you really do need to read the backmatter here (which comes complete with some hijinks courtesy of Paul Maybury, Benjamin Marra, and Ed Piskor, so you won’t regret spending time on it in the least) in order to fully grasp the scope and intentions of the project as a whole, to say nothing of this issue’s narrative specifically, it seems that the characters are given far more meat on their bones in a handful of pages here than they ever were in the sum total of however many issues this series ran for in the past. In short, this is fun stuff with a reasonable amount of thought put into it, especially aesthetically, and since it’s gonna be a brief run (three issues, I thought I heard?), there’s almost no way you won’t get your four bucks’ worth every time. You certainly do here.

Proxima Centauri #1 kicks off a new six-parter appropriate for all ages from the always-interesting Farel Dalrymple, and it’s as utterly charming as it is visually striking. I defy anyone not to take an immediate liking to teen inter-dimensional adventurer Sherwood Breadcoat, and while the “quest across the universe to find our hero’s brother” story is pretty standard as far as plots go, the people, places, and things he encounters along the way are anything but. Rendered with a pleasingly loose line that makes the pages breeze by in something very near to stream-of-consciousness fashion, this is intricately-woven stuff cleverly designed to look and read like it’s literally being made up as Dalrymple goes along. Once in awhile a book hits the stands that is so obviously inventive it literally hurts — this is one, and you don’t want to miss it under any circumstances. Another one well worth forking over $3.99 a pop for.

And while you’ve got four singles out (wait, sorry, that’s eight so far), grab another four and fork ’em on over for The Weather Man #1. Jody LeHeup flexed his comedy “chops” writing Shirtless Bear-Fighter!, and while he’s not toned down the absurdist humor in the least for this one, artist extraordinaire Nathan Fox does his part to ensure that the belly-laughs are matched with an admirably ambitious futurist tour-de-force of, dare I say it, mind-blowing proportions, all colored with uncharacteristically garish aplomb by likely-best-in-the-biz Dave Stewart. Earth has been destroyed in some sort of mass catastrophe, what survivors there are have colonized Mars, and the beleaguered masses are kept entertained by an asshole TV weather guy who seems to have more in common with a morning radio “shock jock” than he does with an actual meteorologist. Except, ya know, there’s a lot more to him that we ever suspected if the implications of the absolutely jaw-dropping cliffhanger are to be believed. I figured I was gonna like this book, probably even like it a lot — turns out I actually freaking loved it.

One that I didn’t expect to care for, though, was The Magic Order #1. Yeah, okay, Olivier Coipel’s art is always lush, evocative, and magnificent, as it is (and then some — I mean it, this is absolutely gorgeous work) here, and Dave Stewart (hi again, Dave!) absolutely kills it with his understated, cinematic (is this guy versatile or what?) color scheme, but let’s be brutally, painfully honest : when was the last time Mark Millar actually wrote a comic that was any fucking good whatsoever?

Well, I’m pleased to report that drought (however long you think it may have lasted) is over. This first Millarworld title to be published since Netflix bought the imprint lock, stock, and barrel is the surprise hit not just of the week, but maybe of the month : a simple premise (family imbued with magic powers going back generations battles otherworldly monsters to keep us mere mortals safe — and we never even know about it!) admittedly ready-made for Hollywood exploitation (hey, Millar is still Millar, right?) needn’t necessarily be a bad thing, and here it’s not : the protagonists are all immediately likable to one degree or another, the story moves along at a solid clip, the “ground rules” are laid out succinctly, and the “fight scenes” are equal parts trippy and fun. Mostly, though, the whole thing is just breathtaking to look at and I’d happily shell out $3.99 for Coipel’s art even if the story sucked — which, in this case, it actually doesn’t. In fact, it’s really damn good — and no, I still can’t believe I’m saying that, either.

So there you go — four great reasons to hit the comic shop in one week. I had a huge smile on my face after reading every single one of these books. Will next week prove as bountiful, dear readers? Only one way to know, of course — join me back here in seven days!

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Lost In America : Nick Drnaso’s “Sabrina”

We live not just in turbulent times, but significant ones — the ground has shifted beneath our feet, and if you’re American, it’s fair to say that, in many respects, the facade of the country we thought we knew has slipped, and in its place stands revealed a nation that we hoped (or, at the very least, liked to kid ourselves) we weren’t. This is, indeed, a defining moment in our history — but who defines what that moment is?

Nick Drnaso, hot on the heels of his breakout 2015 debut graphic novel Beverly, is at least game to give cataloguing the contents of said moment a go in the just-released (by way, once again, of Drawn+Quarterly) Sabrina, and to call this merely a striking follow-up is to sell it well short indeed : this is a quantum leap forward that, fair enough, treads similar thematic ground to its predecessor in some respects (individual alienation, societal atomization, mental and emotional “checking out” once again looming large as primary concerns), but does so in a manner that broadens and deepens his explorations to encompass, well — damn near everything, really, both within and without. On the one hand, yeah, it’s an almost unbearably personal and introspective work, but at the same time it’s offering an unfettered and privileged glimpse at  the national, perhaps even global, psychological malaise that’s tearing the social compact apart in favor of a new, smash-and-grab mentality that leaves a few people with everything, and the rest of us (many of whom are cheering this shift on, knowingly or otherwise) holding the bag.

Oh, and that bag? It’s fucking empty, of course.

Drnaso actually started this book before a certain sleazy New York real estate developer with a history of nothing apart from failure and fraudulence was elected to the nation’s highest office and set about re-creating America in his own craven, proudly ignorant image, but the manner in which he delineates the profound disaffection that made Donald Trump’s ascendance to what he seemingly hopes to turn into a throne (and a permanent one, at that, if we’re to believe half the shit that comes out of his assho — sorry, mouth, it’s hard to tell one orifice from another when somebody shits, farts, and belches out of both ends) possible, as well his innate understanding of the crucial work that complacent media stooges (I’m looking at you Alex Jones, Mike Cernovich, Jack Posobiec, Ben Shapiro, etc.) perform in retroactively constructing a scaffolding for the more loosely-defined and directionless anger president pussy-grabber has tapped into and vocalized (think about it — first Trump says “illegal” aliens are bad, then InfoWars and Breitbart cook up stories about illusory “immigrant crime waves”) to hang itself upon shows that this is a cartoonist with more than one of his fingers on the pulse of a contemporary America made up of broken hearts, broken dreams, and broken promises. And yet —

The picture Drnaso paints (okay, draws — and damn, does he draw it well, deceptively simple shapes and figures communicating a maximum amount of visual information with a minimal amount of fuss, all overlaid with a color scheme equal parts bland and striking that hammers home the primary feature of post-modernity, that being featurelessness) is more stark, bordering on the bleak, than it is actively dark or foreboding, his characters and environs frightening by dint of their sheer familiarity. This is a world that we know well because it’s the one we’ve allowed ourselves to slide into. Got something to eat? Something to watch on TV? Then it’s all good — for now.

Until, of course, it isn’t anymore. Our title character here, introduced briefly to readers at the outset, swiftly becomes noticeable for her absence, and without wishing to delve too deeply into “spoiler” territory, it’s safe to say that said absence, and the reasons behind it, have a profound effect on her distraught boyfriend, Tommy; her free-spirited sister, Sandra; and Tommy’s old high school buddy, Calvin, an Air Force office grunt who’s riding out the last months of his enlistment and trying to make sense of where he is in life in the wake of the recent implosion of his marriage while looking after the shell-shocked remains of his former best friend, who’s crashing at his suddenly-much-emptier place, at the same time. Their stories, ostensibly set in Colorado Springs and the Chicago suburbs, should probably be fairly well-confined to their locales, but goddamn that internet — soon enough we’re just about everywhere, and touching on just about everything. Roll call : YouTube-based amateur sleuths, performance art as therapy, belligerent talk radio hosts moving from the paranoid fringes into the mainstream, misogynist “incels” turned violent, tragedy-stalking “trolls,” crime scenes recorded on cell phones and uploaded for all to see — it’s almost dizzying to even type it all out, much less consider it all in depth as Drnaso does, but he weaves it all together (along with a few tantalizing and foreboding “red herrings” along the way, like a gun that you swear to God somebody’s gonna use for some reason before all is said and done) in a manner so unassuming as to be almost nonchalant : in the wake of events that I am still taking pains not to spell out too specifically, of course all of this is what would happen next.

For all that, though, it’s worth noting — hell, it’s absolutely remarkable — that Sabrina studiously avoids not only any urge to polemicize, but to even  editorialize in any way, Drnaso’s authorial POV being as confidently no-frills and straightforward as the largely-blank expressions on his characters’ faces (a genius artistic choice that imparts each subtle change and “tic” with the power of a seismic wave). He’s all about documenting the “arcs” of his three principal players — each of whom metaphorically travels a long way (even the one that barely ever leaves his room) and somehow comes out the other end with something to live for, although its specifics never fully come into focus — with authenticity and a kind of admirable fealty. They may not be “real” people in a “real” story, but every action they take, everything happening to and around them, has the ring of absolute truth — and it’s Dranso’s unflinching commitment to conveying that truth that not only makes this the book of the year to date, but virtually guarantees, barring a miracle, that it will remain atop that lofty perch come time for 2018 to (mercifully) hit the exits.

In short, this is the most accurate snapshot you’re likely to find, not just in comics but anywhere, of where we are and who we are right the fuck now — read it and weep.

“Soft X-Ray/Mindhunters” : Alex Degen Refuses To Buckle Under To The Aesthetic Fascists

Chances are that it would be almost unbearably pretentious, not to mention way less clever than it sounds, if I were to refer to Alex Degen’s latest Koyama Press-published graphic novel, Soft X-Ray/Mindhunters  — which originally began “life” as a 44-page comic and now stands, expanded and extrapolated upon, at a whopping 392 pages — as “a visual feast – for the mind!” or somesuch, and yet —

Yeah, you guessed it. that’s definitely what it is. And I’m just as definitely kicking myself for not coming up with some genuinely unique, as opposed to glib, way to describe it — because “A.” (as the cover would have it) Degen’s cartooning is, in fact, consistently unique, and deserves same in return. Bursting at the seams with information, if not words (barring its gloriously, deliriously verbose chapter titles), there’s so much here to partake in, to parse, and to ponder over, that one scarcely knows where to begin — but for all that, by the time all is said and done, this hermetically-sealed, inventively self-referential work not only makes perfect sense, it goes the extra mile and actually imparts a genuine feeling of (oh God, here I go again) magic upon its readers.

You want color? This book is positively exploding with it! Degen, having already proven his proficiency with the black-and-white page in his previous long-form OGN, 2015’s Mighty Star And The Castle Of The Cancatervater, is out to burst eyeballs this time around, and the results are spectacular — his vaguely post-utopian (the remnants of some sort of collectivist society, now crumbling, worn, and running on mental fumes) sci-fi world is a visual marvel not only for what it contains, but for how it goes about displaying those contents : sex, violence, adventure, exploration, mystery, and physically impossible (as far as we know, at any rate) creatures and environments (again, as far as — ah, shit, I digress) rush by at 100 MPH as our titular mindhunters “liberate” the brains of the long-deceased despots who have established a dynastic reign “managed” from beyond the grave. Fast and frenetic and at times frazzled, to be sure, this is a “romp” in the truest sense, every page promising delights, delusions, and dementias hitherto unforeseen — and, crucially, delivering on those promises, plus interest.

Here’s the thing, though : as densely-packed as most of these panels and pages are, Degen’s cartooning is never anything less than intriguing, dare I say even open, each image an invitation for readers to delve deeper and explore its minutiae, to appreciate and absorb a stylistic continuum that finds inspiration in equal doses from the Far East and Eastern Europe, from futurism and dystopianism, from Chuck Jones and George Romero. Of course, Degen filters all this through his own decidedly generous and inclusive vision, but then he ups the ante by throwing all his stylistic and thematic precursors, as well as his wholly original conceptions, into a blender, setting it on “high,” and trusting in his ability to help navigate us through whatever it is that comes out. Feel like going for a ride? ‘Cuz he’s definitely going to take you on a really freaking wild one.

To Degen’s credit, though, you never feel lost within this work, even when it’s objectively overwhelming — which is, it must be said, pretty damn often. Aspects of this fictitious (let’s hope) future civilization may be alienating, indeed may even thrive on alienation and atomization on a global scale, but this comic never puts you at a remove, comfortable or otherwise, from its characters and events; it compels your attention from the outset, rewards it almost immediately, and then consistently grabs hold of it again, not so much stuck in an endless loop of “one-upping” itself as it is concerned with peeling away successive layers of its metaphorical “onion” and revealing new aspects that build upon each other, visually and narratively, on the way toward — well, that would be telling, but it’s no “spoiler” at all to say the final act here will leave you very satisfied indeed.

Count me, then, as being something quite a bit more than merely “impressed” with Soft X-Ray/Mindhunters. Annie Koyama has been, as the young folks say, positively “killing it” with her Spring 2018 slate of releases, and Degen’s thoroughly immersive and absolutely singular take on classic “free-individuals-vs.-a-totalitarian-society” science fiction themes and tropes may just be a strong contender for the very best title in the bunch.

Katie Skelly Gathers Up All Her Recruits For “The Agency” (Advance Review)

I think it’s fair to say that 2017 was a “break-out year” for New York-based cartoonist Katie Skelly, what with her OGN My Pretty Vampire ranking among the year’s best-reviewed books and proving to be an out-of-left-field success for its publisher, Fantagraphics, so it doesn’t come as any surprise that a follow-up would be rushed to presses fairly quickly — and it’s a doubly-obvious move since her “next book” was already, as the saying goes, “in the can.”

By way of making that statement seem far less mysterious, I suppose I should explain that the strips that make up Skelly’s forthcoming The Agency have already seen the light of day as webcomics, so collecting them all in one volume makes all kinds of sense given that she’s sure to have a solid group of freshly-minted fans who will be eager to see something new with her name on it on comic shop and bookstore shelves while they wait for her next “major” work, whenever that may be. So this book fills a void, true — but fortunately, it also does a bit more than that.

Still, at first glance it’s tempting to classify this as a “slighter” work in Skelly’s emerging oeuvre, but that’s neither fair nor accurate : yes, these short vignettes starring sexy secret agents 8, 9, and 10 don’t come together to form what one could even remotely call a narrative, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t coalesce around, and by extension address, a similar set of themes, most of which are variations on the simple, but always timely, idea that sex can, and should, be both fun and liberating. Even — hell, maybe especially — when it’s a little bit strange.

Unless, of course, things like randy skeletons, libidinous outer space vegetables, and yonic portal “travel” fit your definition of “normal,” in which case you’ve clearly got a more active imagination than this hopelessly dull armchair critic — and all I can really muster in response to that is a well-deserved “more power to you.”

So, ya know, more power to Katie Skelly. Her cartooning is fun, stylish, colorful, and lends itself well to erotic/pornographic (I tend to agree with Alan Moore that “erotica” and “pornography” are essentially the same thing, and which label is attached to it tends to come down to which economic class a given work is both made by and marketed toward — the rich pricks get the “erotica,” us working stiffs the “pornography”) subject matter and situations. Playful at all times, even when danger is present to one degree or another, and inherently positive in its attitude about all things consensual (as it should be), these strips aren’t out to change the conversation about female sexuality, or even necessarily to broaden it, but each is, ultimately, celebratory, and most show that stepping outside one’s comfort zone can often lead to unexpected delights. As such, then, the book, when taken as a whole, presents something of an aspirational statement, albeit not one especially out of reach or anything — yeah, okay, we can’t all be space-faring adventuresses or Jane Bond-types, but most of us do want good sex and enjoy it when we have it, and there’s no harm in any of us (provided we’re not lecherous creeps) admitting to ourselves that we not only want, but deserve it. Not that we can ever hope to be as out-and-out cool as Skelly’s leading ladies, of course!

There’s plenty, then, to enjoy — even admire — about this book. Unfortunately, the price isn’t one of those things. Published under the auspices of the Fantagraphics Underground “micro-publishing” imprint, the low print runs on this line almost always guarantee a bit of “sticker shock” (the only “FU” volume to date that I’ve found to offer really solid value for money being Gerald Jablonski’s absolutely extraordinary Farmer Ned’s Comics Barn), but even allowing for all that, $25 for an 80-page paperback that reprints stuff you can already find online for free? Well, that’s just a bit much. I heartily recommend that you read The Agency — it’s fast, fun, fluid, fantastic fuckery — but it would have worked much better as, say, a standard-format comic book (remember those?) on cheaper paper priced at seven or eight bucks. Since that’s not what it is, though, if you just read these strips online (which, in this case, you can do perfectly legally) I’m hardly going to hold that against you — but do check ’em out one way or another. You’ll be glad you did.

Weekly Reading Round-Up: 06/03/2018 – 06/09/2018, Special Sarah Romano Diehl Edition

It’s no secret — nor should it be! — that Seattle cartoonist Sarah Romano Diehl’s Crust was one of my favorite comics of last year, but in my attempt to “play catch-up” with some of the stuff I’ve received in recent weeks/months, I came to the realization that I never got around to reviewing the other books (all, to her credit, self-published) that I got from Ms. Diehl some time back, so allow me to correct that egregious (nay, downright unforgivable!) error right now —

All The Comforts Of Being Alive is a thick, bursting-at-the-seams travelogue mini-comic/’zine that expertly incorporates mixed media such as photographs, scrap-paper notes, etc. to tell the story of Diehl’s first road trip back to her Colorado college town in a decade. There’s more than a whiff of nostalgia to the proceedings here, but it’s all good : anybody who goes back home (or, in this case, back to their home-away-from-home) can completely and instantly recognize the cauldron of contradictory emotions that her smooth, minimalist illustration and utterly un-pretentious writing convey here with that special sort of apparent-effortlessness-that-really-requires-a-ton-of-effort. Smart, evocative, and never less than thoroughly absorbing, this is the sort of illustrated travel journal that, dare I say it, even the late, great Anthony Bourdain would probably be utterly charmed by — and at four measly dollars it definitely qualifies as a “must-buy.” So, ya know, buy it.

And while we’re on the subject of travel, Strange Paradise is yet another road trip comic, this one documenting Diehl’s trek through Arizona to attend a wedding. I fucking hate the desert with a passion, but damn if her keen observational eye doesn’t make places like Prescott, Sedona, Jerome, and especially the architectural wonder/”intentional community” of Arcosanti seem like absolutely fascinating places to visit — and probably even live. I may just have to go check out AZ after all one of these days, but until then, four dollars for this bigger-than-a-mini-comic is a solid bargain.

Switching gears, The Secret Life Of Plants is a gorgeous risograph-printed mini  (for the record, Diehl is one of the absolute masters of the riso, and really understands how to use it to make her cartooning flat-out sing) that wordlessly (barring a dedication to, as you may have already guessed given the title, Stevie Wonder) expresses the nearly-magical worldview of all growing things. A stirring mixed palette of greens and yellows is used to convey how life “looks” from the perspective of plants, vines, and trees herein, and the page that shows how human beings “look” to our green friends is worth the $4.00 asking price alone. Visually and narratively (even though, again, there’s nary a word to be found) ambitious to a degree that goes well beyond the merely “impressive,” this is a comic not to be missed under any circumstances, for any reasons.

The Man Spreaders, unfortunately, proves that even the best cartoonists (and Diehl’s name definitely belongs among them) sometimes swing and miss. I can’t fault the quality of her art here in the least, and the oranges and browns that she utilizes are another subtle-yet-shining example of her riso mastery, but her initially-promising narrative — focused on the struggles of a young Old West widow and her children who are set upon by a gang of unpleasant and unruly (but, unfortunately, well-connected) new neighbors — takes a turn for the worse when oblique-to-the-point-of-inexplicable supernatural elements elbow their way into the scene in order to facilitate a confusing (yet, perhaps ironically, also dull and predictable) resolution. I give Diehl credit for trying something quite a bit outside of her “comfort zone” with this one, and the outlines of what she’s hoping to achieve with her story are clearly visible, but she comes up well short of her noble goals. And at ten bucks for a roughly half-sized book, it would be tough to recommend buying this one even if it were a whole lot better than it is.

Still — three absolutely terrific comics and one intriguing mis-fire is a pretty solid batting average (God, I gotta stop with the baseball metaphors), and if I do this well with next week’s Reading Round-Up column (don’t ask me what that’s going to feature yet, I honestly have no idea), I’ll be very pleased indeed. I certainly was with the wares on offer from Diehl’s Etsy shop, as will you be when you give it a look (which you will, right?) at https://www.etsy.com/shop/FRESHTOWELS

 

Won’t You Take Me To “Poochytown” (Advance Review)

Here’s the thing : Jim Woodring’s been at it so long, and done it so well, that it’s almost easy to — dare I say it — take him for granted.

There’s really no reason that you (or I, or we) should, though — after all, the guy is basically a cartooning national treasure. Dating back to the (very) late-1980s debut of his first series, Jim, and continuing through Tantalizing StoriesJim Vol. 2Frank, and a number of subsequent graphic novels and occasional short strips set in his (and I use this term with precision) visionary world known as The Unifactor, he’s been making comics like no one else has ever made — hell, like no one else has probably ever thought of — for going on three decades now, and here’s another thing : his stuff seemed about 100 years ahead of anything that anybody else was doing back when he started — and it still does.

So, yeah, when a new Woodring book comes out, it’s still a big deal. Always has been, always will be. His latest (okay, fair enough, still forthcoming at the time of this writing) hardcover graphic novel, Poochytown, has been in the works for three years, and while it employs the same patterns, rhythms, and storytelling methodology of all the stories featuring his anthropomorphic quasi-stand-in protagonist, Frank, it achieves a fresh and compelling balance between the old and the new, the familiar and the unexpected, by taking his ever-wordless visual narrative into entirely unforeseen new directions by the time all is said and done that blow open the doors on a universe — okay, Unifactor — that really didn’t have any to begin with.

Carrying on the throughline that began with Congress Of The Animals  and continued/re-started with Fran, this book, like its predecessors, can be viewed (and, crucially, enjoyed) either entirely on its own or as part of a larger whole, and I can only imagine the expressions on the faces of folks at the Fantagraphics offices as the pages of this one came in : you go into any Woodring work expecting that anything can and will happen, and yet somehow, the “anything” that does happen goes well beyond whatever you could have possibly (or even impossibly) expected, anticipated, or bargained for. He blows your mind on page one and then just takes it from there — to anywhere.

Frank, as is his custom, goes through some serious shit in this story — physical, emotional, and psychological peril being utterly par for the course, yet consistently foisted upon him in entirely inventive ways, the departure of friends/sidekicks/antagonists Pupshaw and Pushpaw for the debauchery and excess (or maybe it’s enlightenment?) of the titular Poochytown serving as the catalyst in this case for a suddenly-despondent Frank to strike up a new alliance/friendship that ultimately leads him to and through a succession of ever-more-harrowing trials and tribulations that eventually deposit him at the physical and mental outskirts of The Unifactor itself, a place where where the “bleeding edge” has bled out and where the “rules” that never applied in this wholly bizarre-yet-familiar world/dimension/what have you in the first place don’t even appear to exist. The end result? Well, that would be telling — so I won’t! — but suffice to say, whether you are a Woodring/Frank veteran or a first-time reader, you are in for one hell of a shock.

As always, the art in this book will knock your socks off. Post-psychedelic, fever-dream imaginings delineated with so much painstaking care and precision that it’s hard to believe one human being armed with nothing but pencils and brushes came up with them. Woodring’s double-page spreads offer the most to study and ogle over, positively awash with poetically-constructed, hyper-dense visual information that bypasses the rational mind and goes right for the id, but in truth there’s not a panel here you won’t feel the need to pore over for 10 or 20 minutes — maybe more. The lines and whorls and swirls and textures and I-don’t-even-know-what-the-fucks are taking Frank — and, consequently, his readers — somewhere darker and more potentially unforgiving this time, though, right (although not directly) into “things are never going to be the same” territory. And yet for all its added import and consequence, Poochytown is no less deliriously charming than previous Woodring works — so while a draining, harrowing phantasmagoria of inexplicable delights may sound like a contradiction in terms, I assure you it’s not. Besides, if you’re stuck in such old ways of thinking, this book doesn’t have time for you, anyway. Woodring is all about sweeping you up — and sweeping you away. And he’s never done it with more confidence, gusto, and sheer bravery than he does here.

“The Ideal Copy” Is The Ideal Comic For Readers Of Any Age

I’ll be the first to admit it : I’m way less familiar with the current state of affairs vis a vis all-ages comics than a person in my (self-appointed, but still) position probably should be. It’s not that I have anything against all-ages books, quite the contrary : I think there needs to be a whole heck of a lot more good stuff out there that appeals to the so-called “youth market” if we want kids to fall in love with the comics medium. If there’s no future for kids’ comics, there’s no future for comics, period, since very few people get interested in these funnybooks we love in their 20s and 30s. Comics started life aimed at a children’s audience, and even if they’ve purportedly “grown up” (notice I don’t say that they’ve actually matured), there always needs to be a healthy crop of material out there that the young’uns can enjoy — and, ideally, that their parents can enjoy with them.

Still, there’s only so much time in a day, and one’s attention can only be split in so many directions — and not being a parent myself, I just have no particular compelling reason to personally keep up with the all-ages “scene.” Among those who do, though, one name seems to pop up constantly as someone whose work is particularly smart, inventive, superbly-illustrated and, above all, fun : Ben Sears, whose Koyama Press-published “Double+” series just saw its third volume, The Ideal Copy, roll off the presses. So, hey — if not now, when, am I right?

The heroes of this series (and this book), Plus Man and Hank, immediately charmed me in the manner of the best newspaper strip characters, and while I’m not familiar with their previous exploits as treasure hunters, there’s just enough pretext on offer here to make that seem like a more-than-believable “career track” for the both of them — unfortunately, as this story opens, they find themselves unofficially banned (I believe the term we’re looking for here is “blackballed”) from their chosen profession, and looking for new job opportunities. Nothing being as simple or straight-forward as it seems, though, it turns out that their new gig with a catering service holds its own dangers and intrigues, especially given that the hosts of the next big party they’re tasked to provide the eats and drinks for is a gang of counterfeiters.

By and large this is mostly Plus Man’s story, given that he’s the one who discovers the nefarious nature of their new employers and takes it upon himself to bust up their schemes along with witty-and-wise new sidekick/mentor, Gene, himself a former treasure hunter in addition to being an ex-con (in fairness, though, a wrongfully-accused one). The addition of a young female contemporary named Mickey makes Plus Man’s makeshift “crew” a trio, but Hank remains mainly sidelined until the end, when he’s called upon to re-emerge just in time to save the day — and his friends. He probably deserves better than being a mere plot device (in his defense, though, his “comedy hi-jinks” scenes as a bumbling caterer are clever and amusing), but I guess I can always hunt down the two prior books to see more of him.

Sears’ clean line is smooth and crisp without being overly slick, his colors are vibrant and smartly-chosen, and he does a lot of fun things with perspective and framing in order to accentuate the physical differences in his characters, so this book never gets dull visually even during the less “action-centric” scenes — but when things are really rolling, that’s when he’s at his best, pulling out all the stops to establish a fresh and frenetic world where dangers are clearly present and felt, but generally need only be out-smarted and out-maneuvered. If I was a kid, I’d love paging through this book just for the art alone — and I know this for a fact because I loved doing it as an adult.

Toss in a heaping helping of spot-on dialogue, evocative caption boxes that work well as “scene-setters” while avoiding being “scene-stealers,” and one crisp, comedic, rapid-fire adventure scenario after another strung together to make a pleasing whole, and what you’ve got is a book that does what far too few make you do this days : smile from ear to ear. The Ideal Copy proved to me that the scuttlebutt I’ve been hearing the last few years is absolutely true — Ben Sears is a cartoonist who intrinsically understands what younger readers want in a story, but the tent he’s hosting his party in a big one, and there’s plenty of room in it for us old-timers, too.