Glaubitz Krackle : “Starseeds 2”

In perhaps the least surprising development in recent memory, imbued-with-the-power-cosmic Mexican cartoonist Charles Glaubitz has gone “Full Kirby” for Starseeds 2, the eagerly-anticipated sequel to his debut graphic novel (I trust I needn’t drop its name), and the results are pretty damn glorious. Who says the best ideas are necessarily unexpected ones?

Of course, Glaubitz was more than knocking on The King’s door in the first installment of his hopefully-ongoing epic, he was hammering on it — and with this follow-up, he’s smashed it down entirely. But don’t take that to mean he doesn’t have plenty that’s wholly original to add to the mix, because he most emphatically does.

The mythological, cosmological, phantasmagorical, and conspiratorial all collide with passion and vigor in “The Universe According To Glaubitz,” and the end result is a visually-arresting and thought-provoking reading experience well and truly unlike any other, a clash of absolutes that can only play out on the largest scale possible but that is under-written with a deep strain of the personal and idiosyncratic throughout. It’s awe-inspiring stuff, sure — but always intimate, singular, even inviting. A siren call to the stars that doesn’t take “no” for an answer, but more pulls you in than dunks you under at the deep end.

Which, it seems to me, also hearkens back to Kirby, who trusted in the power of his imagination to compel readers forward, no matter the epic scale and scope of the sheer metaphysical grandeur he committed to the page. Jack could scare you with the sheer force of his ideas and the inspired manner in which he expressed them, but he never let them subsume you— “merely” overwhelm you. Few artists who have followed in his wake have understood that key distinction, but Glaubitz surely does, and that may just be the single most important artist lesson he takes from the man Grant Morrison (correctly, it seems to me) referred to as “the William Blake of the 20th century.”

Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t have the superficial trappings — the deliriously “purple” prose, the sweeping interstellar vistas, the “blocky” figures and, yes, the “krackle” — nailed down to a “T,” as two seconds with this book most ably demonstrate that he does, but he intuitively understands that the meaning and the message that his magnificent imagery and neo-mythical text convey are what’s really important.  That seems obvious enough as I type it out, but again : how many latter-day cartoonists have used Kirby as a springboard, only to have their finished work belie only the most shallow understanding of both what he did and, crucially, why he did it?

Returning characters from the first Starseeds undergo major transformational “arcs” here, particularly Renato, who wages a hapless internal struggle to fight the evil threatening to consume him, and the villainous Illuminati, who refuse to stay down and end up coming back, bigger and badder and bolder than ever, while intriguing new figures such as The Rainbow Twins add further layers of mystery to an epic already thick with it — but it’s the fulfillment of the time-immemorial prophecy of the seven titular “Starseeds,” and their fated clash with the Great Darkness emanating from, and controlled by, The Lizard King that takes center stage here, as we learn the origins of this inevitable conflagration date all the way back to the so-called “Big Bang” itself and the four cosmic “god forces” that it brought into being in order to balance, and by default guide and govern, our universe.

Is all this big enough for you? I figured as much.

Now, if it all sounds a heck of a lot like Kirby’s take on 2001 : A Space Odyssey, that’s because it absolutely is, but this time out Glaubitz isn’t playing at the margins, he’s jumping right in, drawing a direct line from his “Starseeds” to The King’s “Star Seeds” or “Children Of the Monolith,” to Kubrick and Clarke’s solitary, gigantic cosmic embryo. It’s a logical continuation of a pre-existing story filtered through the unique prism of a different artist and, just as his predecessors did, Glaubitz uses all of this spectacle to address almost every aspect of  the human condition and our place in this vast, unknowable universe — where we’ve been, where we are and, most significantly, where we’re going.

None of which means you need to have read Kirby’s or Clarke’s 2001, or even seen Kubrick’s film, to appreciate what’s happening here. There are certainly instances where Glaubitz’ cartooning is more reminiscent of David Sandlin or Diego Lazzarin than it is to Kirby, numerous other times when it’s something entirely new and very nearly incomparable to anything or anyone else — but for those who do understand the direct lineage, this is a richer and more, dare I say it, profound experience.

It’s also an evolution — not only has the color palette changed from first book to second, not only has the implicit become explicit, but the magnitude of Glaubitz’ writing and illustration has been kicked up any number of notches, his control of, and confidence in, his vision literally exploding off the page. I have no idea where he’s going with this next, but my sincere hope — hell, my expectation — is that publisher Fantagraphics will be more than happy to allow him to continue following his muses and influences to whatever conclusion(s) they lead him to. I’ll certainly be along for the entirety of the mind-blowing ride.

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“Off Season” — And Way Off-Target

James Sturm is an important cartoonist. Why, just ask around — everybody says so. He founded CCS. He gives Ted Talks. His work is parsed over in minute detail in the pages of academic journals. Those rare occasions when he releases new material are heralded as “major” publishing “events.” What he has to say matters, you plebian rube.

Except when it doesn’t. Welcome to Off Season.

Please understand I’m not taking a deliberate “too cool for school” pose here — I’ve enjoyed some of Sturm’s previous stuff, but that was long before he started getting high off the ink of his own press clippings. I still maintain that The Cereal Killings was his finest hour (even if he did crib the ending from Alan Moore, it was an ending that Moore himself had cribbed from Robert Mayer, so — karma and shit, right?), but some of his explorations of historical Americana were interesting, even if they became increasingly convinced of their own importance as time went on. Still, whatever transgressions he committed against history are as nothing compared to the genuinely blinkered and offensive assessment he offers of the present day.

Sturm, you see, has decided that if there’s one group of folks whose plight warrants further examination in the age of Trump, it’s — the straight white male. Let’s give this guy a round of applause for his bravery, shall we?

Okay, yeah, technically speaking the book’s protagonist, Mark, is an anthropomorphic dog, but it’s no secret who, in the general sense, he’s standing in for — those “overlooked” Americans referred to first by Nixon, later by his syphilitic orange-stained successor, as “The Silent Majority.” Sturm’s first order or business is to validate the delusional myth that these guys are set upon from all sides : Mark’s marriage is on the rocks; his kids are ungrateful little shits; his contractor boss is a scheming fuck who stiffs him for work performed; his brother high-tailed it west, leaving him to care for his ailing parents by himself; you name the life circumstance, Mark’s on the receiving end.

Which is, of course, not generally how life really works, no matter how lousy your luck, but certainly reflects the perception of “white male victimhood” that the likes of Jordan Peterson have ridden to a pretty fat payday. Already, then, you can see this is as mythologized as any New York Times “Meet The Middle-American Trump Supporters” 10-page Sunday Supplement puff piece — and, frankly, it’s just as nauseating-bordering-on-dangerous.

Not that Mark is explicitly shown to be part of the “MAGA crowd,” but given that the book (which, before being collected in its present hardcover form by Drawn+Quarterly was serialized on — shock of all shocks — Slate) is set smack-dab during the 2016 election, the “appeal” of Trump to a guy (sorry, dog) in his shoes hangs, Sword of Damocles-like, over the entire proceedings. But it’s clearly supposed to be more of a siren call, and therein lies the problem :

Mark, as a character, checks every box on the list, sure, but Sturm one-ups it by making him a kind of “living martyr” : those marriage problems? All the fault of his neurotic wife, Lisa, who we come to find even (gasp!) cheated on him early on. The vandalism he does to his job site? Never woulda happened if the boss just paid him. Mark’s doing everything right — why, he even agrees to therapy if it’ll help save his marriage. What a guy, right? The provider. The rock. The tragic hero. All he wants is a fair shot.

If this sounds a little bit (okay, a lot bit) too convenient, that’s because it is — when Trump won, the so-called “Eastern Establishment” (including its small coterie of “approved” cartoonists) took it upon themselves to find out just who these exotic creatures who fell for an obvious con artist were, and why they did so. As they do, however, they filtered it through their own lens and caricaturized them as “salt of the Earth” types, nervous about being “left behind by a changing world,” wondering what happened to their “place at the top of the socio-economic food chain.” Oh, and Mark, like a lot of these “central casting” Trumpians, is also shown to have been a Bernie Sanders supporter early on.

Any of your Bernie friends switch their allegiance to Trump in the general election? Yeah, none of mine did, either. And most of the Trump voters I know personally are well-to-do, entitled suburbanites, which many a post-election analysis of the numbers has shown to be his single-biggest base of support — but Sturm’s not one to let pesky details get in the way of his paean to the plight of the white male.

Again, though, I should take pains to emphasize that Mark never fesses up to being a “Trumper” — and that’s part and parcel of Sturm’s dogged (sorry) determination to elevate this boring, oblivious, self-pitying sack of shit to sainthood : here’s a guy who Trump is literally tailor-made to appeal to, and maybe — just  maybe — he’s too good a guy to fall for it. But maybe he’s not. Either way, he comes off smelling like a rose, because Sturm wants you to congratulate him for resisting and excuse him for succumbing both. This is gutlessness disguised as “deliberate ambiguousness” for those who can’t take the straight medicine.

And, of course, it’s one long apology for everyone who did vote for Trump. A plea for understanding. A hand-washing of their own responsibility for the mess we find ourselves in with Sturm in the role of Pontius Pilate.

Never mind the immigrant kids ripped from the arms of their mothers and put in concentration camps. Never mind the women whose reproductive health choices are now under direct threat from the rapist pig Trump stuck on the Supreme Court. Never mind the trans service members now at risk of discharge against their will from the military. Never mind Muslims targeted for exclusion from the country via travel bans. The real victims of Trump and the virulent strain of openly-expressed toxic masculinity that his elevation has “normalized” are — the white guys who voted for him? Hey, where I heard that same line of bullshit recently? Oh yeah :

I guess I haven’t addressed the art, and before I finish I should : it’s fine, if uninspired. I liked the “cool blue-green” color palette, and Sturm’s figure work is solid, as is his intuitive understanding of the various “hows” and “whys” of “funny animal” visual tropes — but as far as understanding the reality of the so-called “cultural moment” he’s so earnestly attempting to communicate here goes? He misses that entirely and, as a result, proves himself to be precisely the sort of lame, clueless mediocrity he’s desperate to lionize. Fuck that, and fuck this book.

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Weekly Reading Round-Up : 02/03/2019 – 02/09/2019, Four Firsts

It feels like it’s been awhile since we looked at “Wednesday Warrior” stuff in our Weekly Reading Round-Up, but given that I sampled four new series this past week, now’s probably as good a time as any to steer the focus of this column to the LCS new release racks —

The Girl In The Bay #1 is another “something old, something new” creative team combination of the sort Karen Berger and her protege, Shelly Bond, throw together for their imprints. Dark Horse’s Berger Books line is the imprint in question this time out, and the team is veteran (and consistently undervalued) scribe J.M. DeMatteis and relative “newbie” artist Corin Howell. The premise is intriguing — “hippie chick” gets murdered in 1969, comes back to life 30 minutes later, finds it’s 2019, and  that she didn’t actually die at all but is living out a fairly picturesque dotage in the Long Island suburbs. This is vintage DeMatteis, you can tell right off the bat, a skillful combination of weird mystery, strong characterization, and some Eastern mysticism on the margins, and Howell is an absolute goddamn revelation, serving up gorgeously detailed imagery reminiscent of Bryan Talbot’s finest hours but with a smoother, more fluid line. Probably the single-best comic I read this week, maybe in the last several, and well worth its $3.99 price tag. At only four issues, no long-term commitment is required, so pass on this at your peril.

Vindication #1 is the latest topical mini-series from the one-man “idea factory” that is Top Cow “suit” Matt Hawkins, and for this one (published, as always, under Image’s auspices) he’s “farmed out” the actual work to a trio of new creators of color, writer MD Bright and artists Carlos Miko and Dema Jr. The basics seem solid  enough : DNA evidence clears wrongly-accused black convict, but racist white cop doesn’t buy it, and when a murder similar to the one the target of his ire (and harassment) was charged with happens within days of his release, he’s gonna do anything to pin it on the poor guy. I liked the art fine, it’s got a crisp and polished look, but the script was so poorly-paced and deliberately OTT, and the dialogue so clumsy and heavy with info-dumping, that no amount of good intentions or pretty pictures are up to the task of saving the day. This book looks good, but reads like an “amateur hour” submission, so you’re better off hanging onto your four bucks.

Female Furies #1 seemed to piss off all the “comicsgaters,” so I figured it must be doing something right — and, indeed, it does several. I never imagined Kirby’s Fourth World to be ripe for re-purposing as feminist metaphor, but writer Cecil Castellucci proves me wrong in this tale of the Furies’ struggle for recognition and respect within the Apokolips war machine, with Granny Goodness taking center stage as sci-fi suffragette. Some of what she and her charges are subjected to is admittedly and brazenly satirical in nature, but much of it is downright horrifying, so the notion that this book is “throwing shade” at its source material by somehow turning it all into a comedy is a very hollow one, indeed, and mostly seems to be coming from a bunch of limp-dick (and, for that matter, alt-right) incels, anyway, so who the fuck cares? Artist Adriana Melo is channeling her inner George Perez in all the best ways possible, and the end result is a timely, relevant, smart read with seriously stunning illustration. $3.99, in today’s market, for work this thought-provoking (if unsubtle, but who has time to beat around the bush in the midst of Trump’s American Nightmare?) represents what passes for “value,” so this is another one I can safely recommend jumping on with more or less no hesitation.

Daredevil #1 is yet another Marvel re-launch bearing yet another $4.99 cover price, but writer (and backup strip artist) Chip Zdarky packs his script pretty densely with dialogue and detail, and Maro Checchtto’s art is perfect for the sort of “gritty urban crime drama” that’s on offer here. Apparently Matt Murdock’s recovering from some very serious injury or other, but the specter of Wilson Fisk, a.k.a. The Kingpin, being the new mayor of New York is more than enough to convince him to give the costumed vigilante gig another go, and that’s completely understandable — what’s not understandable is the utter lack of dramatic tension in Zdarsky’s wordy story. He does a great job of introducing all the cast, particularly a new supporting player who looks poised to take on a large role, and everyone sounds like an actual human being, but the cliffhanger is in no way particularly enthralling, nor is the standard-issue series of events that leads up to it. I dunno, I wasn’t really expecting much here, but that’s also precisely what’s delivered, so you might be better off sitting this one out and waiting for the next inevitable DD re-boot in a year or so.

All in all kind of a mixed bag, then. Two definite “winners,” two flawed “also-rans.” That’s probably about the best “batting average” you can hope for in any given week when it comes to mainstream titles, though — and that’s why I mainly stick to the small press.

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The Auteur Theory Of Licensed Toy Comics In Action : Michel Fiffe’s “G.I. Joe : Sierra Muerte” #1

In point of fact, this is probably the sort of comic that I’m predisposed to dislike : it’s not just that I don’t give much of a shit about G.I. Joe and didn’t even when I was at the age where I was supposed to, it’s that exercises soaked in nostalgia don’t appeal to me as a general rule of thumb, and that there’s quite likely no one and nothing appearing on these pages that I’d have any sort of mental or emotional investment in. No offense to anyone who either dug this stuff when they were 12 or who may dig it even still today, but some books simply aren’t this critic’s cup of tea, and by all rights, this should be one of ’em.

But you know what? I said the exact same thing about Bloodstrike : Brutalists, and Michel Fiffe made me glad I stepped out of my own well-delineated “comfort zone” to give that a try. It would be foolish of me to bet against him doing the same here.

It seems a bit strange that IDW is “pushing the envelope” in more — and more interesting — directions with their Hasbro-licensed properties than either of “The Big Two” seem willing to with their venerable cash cows (or maybe it doesn’t?), but between Tom Scioli’s mind-blowing Go-Bots and the book we’re here to talk about, G.I. Joe : Sierra Muerte, that’s precisely the case, even though, at least on paper, Michel Fiffe doesn’t appear to be breaking the mold in any particularly significant way here. Could it be, then, with any pretenses toward “revisionism” off the table either by choice or editorial edict, that it all just comes down to execution?

One issue in it’s probably too soon to answer that for certain, but it’s probably not too soon to say that it at least appears to be the case — Fiffe’s page layouts aren’t so much “inventive” as they are a combination of “just different enough” and “well-considered”; his actions sequences are less “mind-blowing” and more “impressive”; his skilled figure drawing and muted color palette better described as “pitch-perfect” than genuinely “innovative.” And you know what? For this kind of project, all of that actually really works.

I don’t care about the history of this franchise and likely won’t check it out again after these three issues are over with, but that doesn’t mean I’d be enthused about seeing Fiffe re-invent the wheel here. He’s already done that with super-team books in a more general sense quite masterfully in the pages of Copra, so what intrigues me about this is the prospect of him importing some of the unique sensibility established there over into something tried-and-true, and to see what happens when those worlds either collide or meet halfway. Maybe both.

In that sense, then, sorry to drag out the most obvious cliche possible, but — “mission accomplished.” I don’t have to care about “The Joes” to be immediately drawn into this fairly simple set of fisticuffs against their Cobra adversaries (and for those who don’t know any more about the franchise than yours truly, maybe even less, comics scribe Chad Bowers provides a “back-matter” essay more than thorough enough to bring everyone up to speed) and to be taken in by its smart storytelling structure and cinematic pacing and presentation. Every character reads as the one-dimensional cipher that I’m sure they are (apart from head baddie Cobra Commander, who appears to be deathly ill), but they’re not here to express their individuality (which, in fairness to Fiffe, may end up coming into play later), they’re hear for their sheer utility, and as chess pieces on a board they serve their purpose just fine. It’s the shape, size, and scope of that board that is of far more interest.

Not that you would or even should get a full idea of all that in a debut installment, even one for a series this short, but Fiffe drops enough hints about what he’s ultimately playing at here to whet your appetite for more, and he manages to do so in a way that doesn’t insult anyone’s intelligence, whether that someone is a lifelong “Joe Fan” (or whatever they’re called) or an art-comics snob. There’s a universality to what he’s doing here, a willingness to engage with different audiences on their own terms while relinquishing none of his own artistic control, that’s as admirable as it is refreshing, and the end result is something that’s both mercifully un-pretentious and yet in no way self-consciously “dumbed down” a la, say, too damn much of Ben Marra’s work. Fiffe loves this dusty old toy line, that much is evident, but he’s not about to compromise his own unique style to fit a pre-established mold. He tells what I assume to be a very traditional G.I. Joe yarn here, but he does it his way. What’s not to love about that?

If you want to see something radically different, look elsewhere, then, I suppose — but if you want to see the kind of story you can likely predict from start to finish written and drawn in a manner you likely never thought possible, then G.I. Joe : Sierra Muerte is proof positive that auteur sensibilities and lowest-common-denominator mainstream action-adventure storytelling can not only comfortably co-exist, they can actually bring out the best in each other.

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DeForge-ing Ahead : “Brat”

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s “YouTube stars.” The idea that sub-moronic loudmouths such as Pewdiepie and Logan Paul have made small (or maybe not-so-small) fortunes by broadcasting a whole lotta nothing from their living rooms makes even the most vacuous “famous for being famous” celebrities, such as the Kardashians, seem like legit talents in comparison.

Which, for the record, they’re not, but damn — that’s where we are today. But in his latest Koyama Press graphic novel, Brat, Michael DeForge — not so long ago hailed as something of a “phenom” himself, though certainly not without justification — asks a question that, at least to my knowledge, no one has in an any sustained, thoughtful manner to date : what happens when these social media celebrities get older?

Notice I don’t say “grow up,” because his uber-narcissistic protagonist, former juvenile delinquent Ms. D, has no idea how to do that and honestly isn’t even capable of grasping the concept : her “struggle” is to remain relevant into what passes for her “dotage” while a new generation that’s been, God help us, raised on her antics comes both of age and after her unofficial title as “prankster par excellence.”

Hanging on by your fingertips while looking you’re not even breaking a sweat is a tough thing, I suppose, but it’s not like Ms. D is even supposed to be in any way a sympathetic character : a number of her stunts (which you will get a chuckle out of in spite of yourself) have exacted a very heavy price from the people on the receiving end of them (maybe we should just be honest here and call these folks what they are — victims), but at the same time it’s hard to actively despise her simply because she’s so vacuous, so incapable of actual self-reflection (as opposed to mere image management)  in any meaningful sense of the term, that she’s really more a caricature than anything else, and therefore probably not worth the time or effort that the mustering of anything like a deeply-felt emotional reaction like contempt requires, regardless of how richly she clearly and obviously deserves such.

Don’t, however, take that to mean that following her exploits for 150-some pages isn’t a worthwhile investment of your time, though, because hey — this is still DeForge, and all wise readers presumably already subscribe to a “where he goes, I follow” philosophy. Really — has he ever let us down?

Of course not (at least to date), and while this story’s tone is necessarily more sharply satirical than prior efforts, it’s still a bright, vibrant, endlessly inventive visual marvel, DeForge’s trademark physically-abstract forms here delineated in bright pastels in front of largely stripped-down (at times even entirely absent) backgrounds and taking on a jaw-dropping level of fluidity and borderline-incoherence that the cartoonist ingeniously works into the narrative itself, the transformations of people and their surrounding environments being not just a continuation/physical manifestation of the “fourth-wall-busting” inherent in Ms. D’s first-person narration, but a legit “reality” within the storyline itself, observed and consequently reacted to by readers of and “co-stars” in the book alike. The less specifically stated the better, here, it seems to me, so as not to spoil the myriad surprises that await, but I will say this much — be ready for your jaw to drop open good and wide on several occasions.

As far as meditations on “where we’re at” culturally go — something of a trend, maybe even the trend, in comics these days — this book is about as incisive as they come, but without the seething disdain for the “now” and those navigating within its confines that plagues the more heavy-handed (and left nameless out of respect) efforts of others. DeForge clearly has a lot to say about celebrity, aging, performance art, the fine line between rebellion and just making an ass of yourself, self-absorption, and the principal of escalation, but he lets his art do the talking and never slips into lecture, harangue, or soliloquy. He’s out to thread any number of tight needles here, and the deftness with which he consistently manages to do so is very impressive indeed.

All told, then, Brat is both a damned good read and a damned important one, but never feels the need to draw attention to itself as either. DeForge is in full command of his numerous and significant cartooning skills and doesn’t seem constitutionally capable of creating work that is anything less than extremely relevant to both the human and societal condition. He’s spoiling us with one unassuming masterpiece after another, and this may just be his most confident, accomplished one yet.

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Weekly Reading Round-Up : 01/27/2019 – 02/02/2019, Michael Aushenker

Michael Aushenker is nuts.

I mean that in the best possible way, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t have taken the time to, and incur the expense of, tracking down some of his more recent stuff after he generously forwarded me a package of his older works a little while back. The “vintage” material is uniformly awesome, as well, but since I’d like you, dear reader, to be able to experience the patented Aushenker insanity for yourself, we’ll be concentrating here on books I know damn well are fairly easy to find.

Trolls follows the — uhhmmm — exploits of deadbeat air traffic controllers Edward and Wayward, two semi-human (I think?) ne’er-do-wells (hell, ne’er-do-anythings, truth be told) who’d rather pig out and sleep than work, unless the boss is off, in which case they’d rather party than work. Kinda like you and me? Maybe — if you refuse to grow up. Which both these guys are frankly too damn lazy to do. Hijinks ensue and all that, but “hijinks” are pretty much the standard order of business in all things Aushenker, so get used to it. Wiser critics than I have compared this stuff to the work of Milt Gross, which is undoubtedly true, but there’s also a decidedly old-school punk sensibility to it, so the intro by Lucky Lehrer of The Circle Jerks? That makes a lot of sense. Not much else here does, of course, but that’s the beauty of it. There’s not enough sheer batshit goofiness in today’s “alternative” comics, at least in this critic’s humble opinion, and if you’re in agreement with that sentiment, this modestly-priced mag (four bucks!) is the perfect antidote. Rubbery figures contorted into cartoonishly impossible shapes literally and metaphorically, there’s something jaw-dropping on offer on just about every page here. Buckle the fuck up, then, because even when this comic slows down, there’s still a thousand things flying at you every minute. Unrestrained, I believe, is the exact term we’re looking for.

Greenblatt The Great! #1 is the first of three books carrying the “Cartoon Flophouse” label that we’ll be looking at, “starring” a dimwit bellboy with a decidedly Harold Gray-esque appearance — but that’s about the only thing the rapid-fire stories in this comic have in common with classic newspaper strips other than their length. Greenblatt’s a larger than life figure, and that “bursting-at-the-seems” ethos carries over to the panels themselves, each literally overflowing with visual information (some essential, some decidedly less so) and high-octane fuckwittery. Remember when no one  in comics was capable of doing anything smart, but things usually worked out in the end, often entirely by accident and in spite of our ostensible “hero”? Yup, those days are back, and I for one couldn’t be much happier. $6.25 for a 48-page stay at the Rondovian Hotel is solid value for money, so you’d do well to get your hands on this one, as well.

Floop! is a one-off anthology collection of extended (though not always by much) “gag” strips, most starring forever-would-be screenwriter and trust fund baby Harry Lummel, who hails from a wealthy Jewish family that’s justifiably part-embarrassed, part-mortified of their no-count son. This is the kind of ethnic humor that only someone of the ethnicity in question can get away with or should even try, and if you can’t handle low-brow, well — you’ve been warned. If you can, though, you’re in for another densely-packed, frenetic laugh-fest, most jokes being of the self-consciously lame variety, with just enough smarter-than-you’d-expect stuff mixed in to keep you both on your toes and off-balance. I kinda liked Harry as a character more than he probably deserves, and I also the dug the thicker, less-refined line (“refined” being a term always employed loosely in the case of this particular cartoonist) that Aushenker utilizes here. This one’s a bit trickier to track down, I think, but I scored a copy for eight bucks and felt like it was money well — if not wisely, since that doesn’t even enter into the equation — spent.

Those Unstoppable Rogues Party Hard!  goes the full “funny animal” route with dumb hedonist protagonists Clucky and Brett (bet you can tell which is which from the cover art) living the wild bachelor lifestyle at the expense of anyone and everyone who crosses their path. Hot chicks, street hoods, trashy hookers, and — treasury agents? Yup, reminds me of my bachelor days, alright.

Or maybe not. Which is sorta the point. You’ve known guys like this, though, and you wanted to strangle them. That doesn’t mean they’re not ridiculously funny, though, especially when they’re not real. A little more of a pricey package here, with 28 pages selling at $7, but you still get a lot of bang for your buck and it’s so jam-packed with visual gags and goofy-ass expressions on folks in background and foreground alike that you’ll need to read it at least twice just to make sure you gout everything. Spoiler alert : you didn’t.

And that’s just a small sampling of this guy’s wares. They’re all “of a piece,” no question, but he’s been at it a long time and has a firm command on the exact sort of material that’s in his wheelhouse. This isn’t “comic art,” it’s fucking cartooning — and if you both understand and appreciate that distinction, no one out there right now does it better. At his finest moments, Aushenker is as funny as Rick Altergott, Johnny Ryan, or Aaron Lange, but without the extra layer of deliberately “un-PC” queasiness and sleaziness those guys trade in for its own sake and nothing more a little too frequently to still be considered legitimately “transgressive.” I give a very enthusiastic “must-buy” recommendation to all four of these comics — and, really, to anything else with Aushenker’s name on it.

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For more information, or to order Aushenker’s books, do check out his website at https://www.cartoonflophousecomics.com/

For more of my inane ramblings on all things comics, movies, television, literature, and even the occasional “real-life” topic, please consider supporting me on my just-launched Patreon, where I post thrice-weekly updates on — whatever the hell I feel like, really. Your patronage not only gets you plenty of exclusive content at a cheap price, it enables me to keep on posting free stuff here, so I’d be very pleased indeed if you’d consider joining up at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

 

 

Sheridan And Bagenda Take Things To A Very “High Level,” Indeed (Advance Review)

When the going gets tough, the tough go — north?

Obviously the future Earth as conceived of by writer Rob Sheridan and artist Barnaby Bagenda for their new DC/Vertigo series, High Level (the first issue of which will be hitting your LCS shelves on Feb. 20th), doesn’t have any of this “Polar Vortex” bullshit going on, but that doesn’t mean it’s absent its own share of problems — what Sheridan refers to as his “post-post-apocalyptic” premise is rife with the resource shortages, social and economic stratification, and violent mercenary assholes anyone who’s seen films ranging from The Road Warrior to Exterminators Of The Year 3000 is well-familiar with, but don’t let this comic’s decidedly “old-school” sensibilities about, as The King himself would put it, “The World That’s Coming!,” fool you into believing that it doesn’t present something new. Maybe not radically new, mind you (frankly it’s too soon to tell), but at the very least new enough to hook you pretty quickly.

Series protagonist Thirteen (no other name is given her) seems to be doing what everyone does in this society where environmental and political collapse apparently went hand in hand, namely cobbling together a hard-scrabble, mercenary existence in whatever manner possible with whatever tools are at hand, albeit with considerably more flair than you or I would in her steel-toe boots : throwing down when necessary, boozing up when possible, dripping with take-no-shit confidence at all times, some of which is probably an act — but exactly how much remains to be seen.

Without giving away too terribly much, she has a challenge foisted upon her come this debut installment’s cliffhanger that will probably answer the query just (sort of) posed, but prior to that we’re served up a solid dose of what’s colloquially known as “world-building,” and Sheridan does such a solid job of giving you just enough without giving away too much that one can be forgiven if they forget that he’s new to this whole thing, coming to comics by way of a successful career in the visual arts that saw him strike up an LTR with Nine Inch Nails (or, as well call them around these parts, “The” Nine Inch Nails), culminating in landing the gig as the band’s artistic director. Some of that patented Reznor “nihilism for the masses” ethos carries over here a bit, sure, but it’s tempered with an undercurrent of at least the potential for optimism, as well as several knowing nods to tropes of the tried and true variety.

I’m not wild about each and every one of these, truth be told, but a lot of that’s simply down to personal taste, and for every one thing I never cared about seeing again (malfunctioning robot sidekick), there are several that I’m more than eager to roll out the red carpet for my own damn self as they make welcome returns (“floating head” narration, souped-up muscle cars, punk hairstyles).  All in all the various elements that you absolutely need in a genre yarn of this nature are present and accounted for, with an added dose of thoughtfulness and intrigue that goes above and beyond, and the dialogue admirably eschews the plain and predictable in favor of expressiveness that establishes individual and unique personalities for each character.

We’ve probably only seen a very small portion of the weird and wild that this world has to offer, of course, but with the prospect of a Lone Wolf And Cub-esque road trip at hand (there’s a hint there about who Thirteen will be traveling with), things are bound to be fleshed out a lot more — and with “go north, young lady” replacing “go west, young man” as siren call for the adventurous on this iteration of Earth, things are already turned on their head a solid 180 degrees. Cliche alert, but nevertheless it applies : I fully expect the unexpected to continue.

Barnaby Bagenda has all the chops to make this world feel real, lived-in, and most importantly dangerous, as anyone familiar with his work alongside Tom King on The Omega Men knows. His solid grasp of traditional page layouts, emphasis on emotive facial expressions, and imaginative character design are reminiscent of the best “Eurocomics” reprints presented in the pages of Heavy Metal during its heyday, but the wise choice to leave his work “unfinished” and apply colors directly over his pencils adds a modern, gritty favor to the proceedings that nobody would have dared try in that mag circa, say, 1984 or whatever. In short, this is exciting art that has a hell of a lot of rich detail communicated with utmost immediacy. Romulo Fajardo, Jr.’s cinematic, surprisingly vibrant hues add a final layer of panache to what’s a very appealing visual presentation, and whether we’re talking Thirteen herself, the bar patrons she tussles with, the paramilitary goons of Black Helix, or that evil arachnid super-villain, everybody is somebody you want to look at.

So — am I in? You bet I am. Buckled tight for the entire sure-to-be-bumpy ride, in fact. I don’t get too jazzed for “Big Two” offerings very often, but this one hit all the right notes for me and I’m very much looking forward to my monthly fix already. This is storytelling that’s at a pretty damn “high level” already, and all evidence suggests it has nowhere to go but up.

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