Weekly Reading Round-Up : 03/31/2019 – 04/06/2019, Aaron Lange And Brian Canini

Better late than —ah, let’s just get to it, with the latest from old friends of this site Aaron Lange and Brian Canini.

The insanely-talented (and sometimes controversial) Lange landed back on my radar with a package containing his three most recent comics ‘zines, issues 7, 8, and 9 of Cash Grab!, once a side-project that seems to be his main outlet now with his more traditional, narrative-driven publication, Trim, either being on an extended hiatus of sorts, or simply shuttered altogether. Sometimes less is more, and Lange, to his credit, seems to be “zeroing in” on his strong points with just one comic on his metaphorical “plate.”

Cash Grab! #7 bills itself as yet another entry in his occasional “sketchbook selections”series, but that title’s a bit misleading even if he does include obsessively-detailed portraits of the likes of “B”-movie actress Kari Wuhrer. To me, the more intriguing offerings in this issue were a moving tribute to a recently-deceased old high school friend, an “inside baseball” gag strip revolving around fellow cartoonists Ed Piskor and Emil Ferris, and “MK-Ultraman,” a bizarre mish-mash of the famous Japanese television superhero and the CIA’s supposedly-terminated mind control program — a favorite target of the great Mack White. This is a really strong installment in this series, with a shit-ton of variety — including some stuff to, of course, offend the sensibilities of the delicately-predisposed. Or, I suppose, anyone with a conscience.

Cash Grab! #8, billed as a “Deep Cuts” issue, continues the “mixed media” trend, and it continues to work — a strip entitled “The Aesthetics Of Grief,” focused on the public appearances of musician Nick Cave and his wife, Susie Bick, after the death of their son Arthur is probably the standout selection on offer, but an examination of Lange’s own alcoholism and his inability to control it really hits home, as well. Portraits of well-known comics figures, actors in the film Boogie Nights, and Janeane Garofalo round out a very strong “sampler” of Lange’s creative output.

Cash Grab #9 carries the “sketchbook selections” tag again, this one tightly-focused on the world of porn, something Lange can never seem to stray too far from. As you’d no doubt expect, this one’s a bit more — ahem! — specialized in terms of its appeal, but Lange does a nice job of balancing out gag strips and adult industry anecdotes with eminently readable profiles of porn stars he likes, offering brief “highlights” of their careers along with the reasons he likes them to flesh out the basic biographical information he supplies. Pictures of an anonymous asshole (literally) and the like might put some folks off, sure, but this is still a fascinating, amazingly-rendered piece of work.

All three of these issues — as well as Lange’s other work still in print — can be obtained from The Comix Company at https://thecomixcompany.ecrater.com/c/1133596/aaron-lange-comix

Switching gears in a big way, albeit to a small book —

Plastic People #8 is the most recent installment in Brian Canini’s very solid sci-fi series. These minis seem to come out three or four times a year, and are always a welcome read — even if #7 was, in my view, a clunker. He’s back to form with this one, though, delivering the most interesting issue to date, as we return in earnest to the murder mystery set in a plastic surgery-obsessed future LA that is the central premise of this story. We meet the victim’s boyfriend in this one, and man, what a douchebag this guy turns out to be. Canini crams a lot into eight pages here, visually and narratively, and is really at his best, I think, working within the strictures of this format — one that confounds many, but that he consistently makes the most of with his brisk, sharp storytelling. His deceptively simple line art also communicates a lot with a little, and generally leaves me impressed. Always well worth the two dollar expenditure.

You can check out a preview of Plastic People #8, and explore Canini’s other works, at his Drunken Cat Comics website : https://drunkencatcomics.com/plastic-people-8-preview/

The one “advantage” to my doing a Round-Up column late is that you don’t have to wait as long for the next installment, of course, so do come back Sunday morning for that one, and in the meantime, if you’d care to help support my work, my Patreon page is filling up with a nice amount of content focused on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Your support there not only keeps it all going, but also ensures a steady supply of free content both here and at my trashfilmguru movie site. I’d be very gratified if you’d take a look and consider joining at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

2017 Year In Review : Top 10 Single Issues

And so it’s that time of year again : let the debating begin, I suppose, as the various “Top 10” lists begin to hit the internet in earnest, but one thing I think we can all agree on — it’s been quite a year in the world of comics. The underground lost luminaries Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson, the mainstream lost Swamp Thing co-creators Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson — there have been some tough moments.

But there have also been a number of “highs,” as well — in fact, one could make a fairly convincing argument that 2017 has seen more really fucking good comics published than any year in recent memory. To that end, then, we’re splitting this annual “best of” round-up into several columns, the basics of which will proceed as follows :

The top 10 graphic novels list will be pretty much exactly what it sounds like — a survey of the best original graphic novels of the year. A lot of stuff gets serialized, in whole or in part, online these days, but books that collect pages that cartoonists have serialized in such a manner will be eligible in this category as long as they tell a single, long-form story with something akin to a beginning, a middle, and an end. Collections of serialized short strips, trade paperback collections of single issues and the like, however, will not be listed in this category, since they’ll be going into —

The top 10 collected editions (contemporary) list, which will be composed entirely of previously-published (physically or electronically) works post-Bronze Age, which means anything that collects stuff from the so-called “Modern Age” (roughly the late-1980s right up to the present day) is eligible here. As for the older stuff —

The top 10 collected editions (vintage) list will be the home for all that, with any book and/or periodical presenting material from the birth of the medium up through the aforementioned Bronze Age duking it out for supremacy in this category.

Okay, I hear you say, that’s all fine and good as far as books go, but what of “floppies”? I’m glad you asked, and I came prepared with an answer — one which, believe it or not, actually took a little bit of thinking on my part —

The top 10 comics series list will feature both ongoing and limited series, anything published in single-issue format, with one caveat : annual (or thereabouts) publications like Sammy Harkham’s Crickets or Ethan Rilly’s Pope Hats will not be eligible here, nor will any series that saw only two issues published in 2017, since it just seems inherently unfair to have any series that either wrapped very early in the year, or that lots and lots of attention and care are put into, competing against stuff that has to stick to a strict monthly (if not twice-monthly, thanks DC) deadline. These less-frequent publications are, however, eligible in the list that we’ll be starting things off with here —

The top 10 single issues list, which is also the list that mini-comics and one-shots of various stripes will be included in.

Whew! Got all that? Okay, good. I only need to include a couple final caveats, then, before we get started :

1. These will not be lenghty, or even “capsule,” reviews — just quick summations. A good chunk of this stuff I’ve written about in great detail earlier in the year, and some of it I haven’t, but I don’t have either the time or the inclination to get into a “nuts and bolts” analysis of any of it now, and

2. Some stuff that came out very late in 2016 will be sneaking its way onto these lists, not only because I didn’t get a chance to evaluate it before writing my wrap-up columns last year, but also because many comics, particularly small-press comics, don’t find their way into the hands of most readers until a good few months after they’re released due to the fact that they’re not distributed by Diamond to bookstores or comic shops. Self-publishers, especially, often sell their creative wares on personal websites for some time before “catching on” with small-press distros like Spit And A Half, etc. And then there’s the whole situation with My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, which rolled off Korean printing presses in October of last year — but only a small batch of advance review copies made it here to the US before 2016 was out, the rest remaining stuck in the Panama Canal Zone until March of 2017, since the guy who owned the cargo ship they were coming over on had some back bills to pay before he could get his vessel out of hock.

Alright, with all that out of the way, then, let’s get on with the show —

10. I Wish I Was Joking by Tom Van Deusen (Poochie Press) – Van Deusen has long been one of the out-and-out funniest cartoonists out there, and this may very well be his best comic yet since he makes his stand-in “alternative” newsweekly reporter actually likable for a change. Less caustic than his previous works, but much more — dare I say it — charming.

9. Cosmic BE-ING #5 by Alex Graham (Self-Published) – Graham’s serialized Angloid story has its strongest outing yet, and also its most, believe it or not, down to Earth. Still “trippy” and “New Age” as all get-go, but far more anchored in workaday bread-and-butter concerns than prior installments. Graham’s remarkable illustration skills are really hitting a creative stride now, as well.

8. Trim #5 by Aaron Lange (The Comix Company) – Probably the most compelling issue of Lange’s annually-issued “solo anthology” to date, with intriguing explorations of his family’s German ancestry and a “cool” pastor he knew as a kid among the highlights. Plenty of laugh-out-loud gag strips, as well, most centered around the cartoonist’s art school days.

7. Lovers In The Garden by Anya Davidson (Retrofit/Big Planet Comics) – Some might argue that this is a “graphic novel,” but I’d call it “novella” length at best. Categorize it however you want, though, there’s no doubting that Davisdon’s assured cartooning makes her ’70s-grindhouse-style tale of dope dealers and cops a highly memorable read that holds together way better than most “vignette”-centered comics manage to.

6. Malarkey #2 by November Garcia (Self-Published) – Not just the best thing going in autobio comics right now, but the best thing to happen to autobio comics in years — and Garcia’s slices of life look even better with a little bit of color added to the mix. Possibly the most endearing comic you’ll read this year, which still seems a bizarre thing to say given most of its contents deal with alcoholism and neuroses, but there you have it.

5. Now #1 (Fantagraphics) – Eric Reynolds’ new anthology gets off to a more-than-promising start, with standout contributions from Eleanor Davis, Noah Van Sciver, Kaela Graham, Dash Shaw, and many others. 128 pages of the best in contemporary cartooning for ten bucks? Come on, you can’t do better than that.

4. Crickets #6 by Sammy Harkham (Self-Published) – The most deliriously arresting chapter of “Blood Of The Virgin” yet, as Harkham delineates the immediate, and seemingly complete, ruination of his protagonist’s life in rapid-fire fashion with an intriguing mix of empathy and clinical distance. I get the distinct impression that he doesn’t like Seymour all that much, but feels bad about what he’s doing to him regardless. Visually literate to a degree that’s almost painful.

3. Your Black Friend by Ben Passmore (Silver Sprocket) – The winner of the 2017 Ignatz award for “Best Comic Book,” Passmore’s monologue on the reality of black life in America is concise, superbly-illustrated, and absolutely compelling. 12 pages you’ll never forget — because you’ll be reading them again and again.

2. Providence #12 by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (Avatar Press) – The conclusion to Moore and Burrows’ “Lovecraft Cycle” is every bit as harrowing and terrifying as the previous 11 issues had suggested it would be, and then some — in fact, it’s downright devastating. It’s well past time to put this series in the discussion of Moore’s all-time best works, and Burrows absolutely pulls out all the stops in bringing the existential horror of the dawn of this dark new age to life. A bona fide masterwork.

1. Songy Of Paradise by Gary Panter (Fantagraphics) – Okay, I admit this one’s a bit of a cheat given that it’s an oversized (to put it mildly) hardcover boasting a $35 cover price — but for all that, it’s still only 32 pages long, so that makes it a “single issue” in my book. And a damn engrossing one at that, as Panter finally puts his Paradise/Purgatory trilogy to bed with its most deceptively “simple” (as in, it’s anything but) segment yet. Rest assured, though, even if you haven’t read the other two books, this is an accessible, engaging, thought-provoking work that reveals more of its hiding-in-plain-sight secrets with every reading. A truly seminal effort from one of the most important cartoonists of his generation — or any other.

Trust me when I say you can’t go wrong with any of these comics, and I’m very comfortable with the “running order” I’ve placed them in. There were some damn close contenders that nearly made the cut, but time will tell if I get a chance to do an “honorable mentions” listing once the main event’s all said and done. One thing at a time, as they say. Speaking of which —

Next up I’ll be looking at my picks for the top 10 ongoing series of the year, so I’ll definitely look forward to seeing you good folks back here in a handful of days for that one. In the meantime, if you’ve got anything to say about this list, don’t be shy! What did I get right? What did I get wrong? What did I completely miss out on? Chime in and let me know!

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 11/19/2017 – 11/25/2017

I survived the abomination that was Doomsday Clock #1 by the slimmest of margins, and with that in the rear view mirror, it’s time to take a look at stuff that arrived at my LCS or via the USPS this week that I actually liked

The fifth and latest self-published issue of Alex Graham’s magazine-sized solo series Cosmic BE-ING (yes, that’s how you spell it), originally solicited for Winter 2016, is finally here, and to say that this lady is one of the most intriguing cartoonists in the small press scene these days is an understatement of quasi-criminal proportions. Graham’s juxtaposition of the otherworldly and the mundane is meticulously delineated by means of painfully intricate “head-trip” designs and a keen eye for everyday observation. No one else is even trying to do the sort of comics Graham does; she truly exists in a sub-genre unto herself. This time out the third installment of her long-form strip “Angloid” takes center stage, as protagonist Angela Lloyd falls behind on her rent and struggles in ways both comical and poignant to make ends meet without completely compromising her much-vaunted (to herself, at any rate) artistic integrity. Singularly brilliant stuff, more than worth the $7.00 cover price. Get it from John Porcellino’s Spit And A Half or from Graham directly at http://cosmicbeing.storenvy.com/

Cash Grab! is an amazing mix-n’-match selection of miscellany from the mind of the great Aaron Lange — portraiture, sketches, discarded strips, gags, old stuff, new stuff — it’s tough to predict what’s going to be on the next page, but you know it’s going to be something interesting, hilarious, disturbing, disgusting, or maybe even gorgeous. Hell, it’s often most, even all, of these things in combination. Lange’s in the process of relocating from Philly back to Cleveland — let’s hope and pray his creative output only increases once he’s back in his old stomping grounds. You can (and by all means should) get all six issues of this ‘zine for the bargain price of $25.00 from https://thecomixcompany.ecrater.com/

I’m always curious to see what Marvel and DC do with Jack Kirby characters and concepts that have been sitting on the shelf for awhile — usually to my regret. But, sucker that I am, I keep coming back, and there’s literally no way I’m gonna pass on a new Etrigan series, even if I should. Fortunately, writer Andrew Constant, penciler Brad Walker, and inker Andrew Hennessy serve up something more than a bit interesting in the first chapter of new six-parter The Demon : Hell Is Earth, which sees Jason Blood hiding out from his other self out in the middle of Death Valley — and at the bottom of a Jack Daniel’s bottle. A nuclear explosion might (okay, does) change his plans, though, as does an approaching Madame Xanadu, who’s now apparently a Harley rider. Constant’s script is briskly-paced, his characterization is fairly solid (if revisionist), and the premise seems kinda cool. The Walker/Hennessy art is big, bold, brash, dynamic, and has some nice Kirby-esque touches, like squaring off Etrigan’s fingers. I’ll probably stick with this one all the way through.

For whatever reason, Tim Seeley always seems to do his best work at Vertigo, and if the standard of this first issue is kept up, the same will be true for Imaginary Fiends, his new mini-series done in collaboration with artist Stephen Molnar. Rolling with the premise that childhood “imaginary” friends are quite real, but only visible to a select few, a traumatized and incarcerated Minnesota teen finds herself recruited by the FBI to join up with a paranormal-esque unit that investigates crimes committed by these other-dimensional entities — one of whom, to her chagrin, is joined with to at the hip. This is the kind of old-school Vertigo horror story that grabs you from the word go and reels you in page by page, scene by scene, “reveal” by “reveal.” Molnar’s art is smartly constructed, realistic with just enough of the wispy and ethereal, and his character design for ghoulish apparition Peachpit Polly is brilliant in its simplicity. Special “props” also go out to colorist Quinton Winter, who did an amazing job on Clean Room, and does the same here.

I think that should be more than enough to keep you (assuming there is a “you” out there that puts any stock in this weekly opining of mine) busy for the time being — next week’s a “fifth week,” which means that the output from the major publishers is going to be rather minimal, but I should still have plenty to talk about thanks to a few packages headed my way that’ll be showing up at my doorstep any day here. See you back here in seven days!

 

 

“Trim” Your High-Fallutin’ Standards With Aaron Lange

Aaron Lange has issues — five of ’em, literally, as regards his annually-issued comics anthology series Trim — and too many to count, in the figurative sense, as is plainly evident in Trim‘s pages. Consider : this is a guy who, according to a TCJ piece from a few years back, relocated to Philadelphia because his previous hometown, Cleveland, wasn’t a big enough shithole.

I’ve only spent a mercifully short amount of time in both cities and I have to say that at least Lange got that much right : Cleveland, after all, has every bit the air of a town whose best days are behind it as its (numerous) critics charge, while Philly very much feels like a place that never had any “best days,” and almost certainly never will.

Living in environs such as these is bound to inculcate a certain type of attitude among those hearty enough to withstand them, of course, but when it comes to Lange, you can double-down on the expected surliness, nihilism, garden-variety racial and sexual bigotry, and general hopelessness because he clearly lives on the social and economic margins of these already-marginal locales. It’s one thing to write and draw stories with a “gutter-level” POV; it’s another thing altogether when those gutters are overflowing with piss, shit, dirty heroin needles, and maybe even the occasional corpse.

So, yeah, abandon hope, all ye who enter here — but goddamnit, that doesn’t mean you can’t still have some fun.

Trim is a mixed bag, to be sure, but also a consistently fascinating (not to mention uniformly well-illustrated) one : long-form autobio pieces give way to short “gag” strips give way to personal-obsession-driven portrait galleries give way to Pekar-esque “man on the street” observations give way to familial memoirs give way to sharply poignant counter-cultural histories — all delivered with wry and acerbic wit and a distinctly “politically incorrect” bent that at the very least flirts with outright misanthropy, but more often than not takes it home, rips its skirt off, and dry-humps it on the staircase. In the tradition of everyone from Crumb to Matt to Eichhorn to Altergott, Lange’s not only “unafraid” to reveal the disturbing corners of his psycho-sexual id, doing so is an essential component of his work.

Which means, of course, that it’s not for everybody. And I’m not gonna cast stones at, or reflexively dismiss as a “square,” anyone who decides these stories set in dive bars, dingy back alleys, trains headed southbound from nowhere, and AIDS-splattered “shooting galleries” aren’t for them. Fuck no — in fact, let me congratulate you on having your head screwed on straight if you want nothing to do with the seedy underbelly of life that Lange calls home. But —

If you take a pass on Trim, you’re missing out on the best (hell, only) graphic-story biography of doomed marginal punk rock loser Peter Laughner you’re ever going to find. You’ll never see a heartfelt appreciation of Ms. 45 star Zoe Lund that communicates more yearning for a star never met through the power of illustration alone than goddamn fucking Elton John could ever hope to manage over the course of 10,000 renditions of “Candle In The Wind.” You won’t get the chance to observe the admirably non-judgmental mindset of a guy who hangs out with a scumbag drug-dealer couple that’s into bestiality, automatic weapons, and Nazi-themed fetish porn. You’ll deprive yourself of the opportunity to learn about Italy’s most morbid and decadent sculpture garden.  Your life will be absent the delightfully malign influence of the guiltiest of “guilty pleasure” single-panel gags this side of Johnny Ryan.

In short, then, there’s more than a lot to love in Lange’s cheaply-produced (as it damn well should be!) ‘zine — almost all of it of the “hate yourself for loving it” variety. But there’s a fair amount to shake your head in less-than-surprised disgust at, too, as you’d probably expect if you’ve come this far : an issue two back cover strip entitled “White Male Privilege” is a pathetic excuse in minimizing, if not outright negating, the genuine discrimination others face by making the once-in-a-blue-moon hassles white dudes deal with look like major problems and would fit in just fine if Breitbart had a web comics section; women frequently come off as little more than cum receptacles in the gag strips; an uncomfortable undercurrent of homophobia permeates any and every story with gay characters; easy and obvious targets (hipsters, art school) are swung at when Lange easily can (and, frankly, should) set his sights higher.

In the true underground tradition, then, you’ve gotta take the bad with the good here, and both together give you something of a comprehensive view of the artist himself. Lange obviously isn’t concerned what the fuck anyone thinks of him, and that’s a more gutsy public stance than almost any of us would be willing to take — but “warts and all” isn’t always the easiest thing to admire when the subject at hand has a lot of warts.

That might sound like a knock on Lange, but I assure you that it’s really not. Hell, if he still drank (his newfound sobriety is a recurrent theme in Trim‘s latest issue, number five) I’d absolutely love to have a beer or two (or twelve, or —) with the guy. And his amazing eye for detail, lustrous use of inks, and gift for empathetic portraiture guarantee that I’d absolutely kill too see him at work at his drawing board. Lange’s art, along with his stories, communicate a world that isn’t just “lived in,” but lived and died in. One where the survivors may not even be the lucky ones, but it doesn’t really matter because we’re all on borrowed time anyway — and where the silent, constructed-by-consensus barrier between the mundane and the heretical is easier to cross than the street when you’re fucked up on crack at six in the morning. I highly encourage a visit — but if you stay, shit, that’s on you.

Trim — and Lange’s other ‘zines — are available from https://thecomixcompany.ecrater.com

The TCJ piece referenced in the review is available at http://www.tcj.com/reviews/trim/