Weekly Reading Round-Up : 12/03/2017 – 12/09/2017

Great stuff to tell you about this week, friends, so let’s eschew the time-wasting in favor of getting right the fuck down to business —

Twilight Of The Bat is Josh Simmons’ second “unauthorized” take on DC’s most bankable property, following on from his 2007 mini-comic simply titled “Batman” (later re-christened, no doubt for legal reasons, “Mark Of The Bat”), and this time out he’s joined by artist Patrick Keck for a 20-page ‘zine boasting high-quality Risograph printing and an $8.00 price tag set in a post-apocalyptic G _____ City where “The Bat” and his mortal enemy “Joke-Man” are the only survivors. The true nature of the most psychologically complex hero/villain relationship in comics is laid bare in frank and stark terms here, Kek’s rich and no-doubt-time-consuming linework is exceptional, and damn if this story won’t even make you laugh a couple times in spite of yourself. Yeah, okay, the Killing Joke influence is too obvious to miss, but this is, if anything, even more harrowing and tragic, even if does posit the same (and only)  inevitable outcome for this pair of star-crossed haters/lovers that Moore and Bolland did thirty years ago.

Damn! Now that I feel positively ancient, I’ll just mention that the inside covers feature pin-up art by Tara Booth and Anders Nilsen, who both contribute outstanding work — even if I can’t begin to decipher what Nilsen’s illustration has to do with the book at all. Well worth a buy, and damn, do these guys ship fast — I got mine in two days. Order yours at http://www.coldcubepress.com/shop/twilight-of-the-bat-josh-simmons-pat-keck

Uncivilized Books wants six of your hard-won dollars for John Porcellino’s South Beloit Journal, and you know what? You should give it to ’em. This is an engaging little collection of diary strips drawn at the low point of Porcellino’s life in the winter/spring of 2011, and if we’re going to measure it on a “diary comics bleakness/hopefulness scale” that has Gabby Schultz toiling away in the doldrums and Brian Canini serving up sunshine and rainbows at the other end, I’d have to say that it falls firmly in the middle. Certainly there is depression, anxiety, and even nihilism to spare, but by the end, things are looking up for Mr. King-Cat, and his shot at potential happiness feels well-eared, if almost nonchalantly arrived at. But then, that’s kinda how life works, isn’t it? Things suck until, slowly but surely, they don’t anymore. Chicken-scratch minimalism doesn’t get much more honest and engaging than this. Get it direct from the publisher at http://www.uncivilizedbooks.com/comics/south_beloit_journal.html or the author at http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/south-beloit-journal-by-john-porcellino/

Eric Haven is a cartoonist whose work first caught my attention when I was a teenager and he was putting out a three-issue series called Angryman for Caliber’s short-lived Iconografix imprint (anyone else remember that one?), and while his Hollywood gig as a producer on Myth Busters has kept him away from the drawing board more than I’d like, on those rare occasions when he does produce some new stuff, it’s always worth checking out — and his latest, the Fantagraphics-published hardback Vague Tales, is certainly no exception. A nearly-wordless collection of interlocked stories featuring super-heroes, super-villains, super-barbarians, and super-sorceresses that’s part Winsor McKay, part Jack Kirby, part Fletcher Hanks, part Charles Burns, and part something else entirely, this one seeps into your brain as you read it and simmers there for days as you try to piece together exactly what it’s all about/in aid of. Big, bold, brash — and yet profoundly subtle at the same time. Seventeen bucks is a bit much, true, but I don’t feel cheated in the least as this is one to re-visit over and over again. Porcellino’s got it at http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/vague-tales-by-eric-haven/

Fantagraphics also serves up our final offering of the week, Michel Fiffe’s Zegas, and this is the point where the spirit of full disclosure compels me to admit that I’ve never quite loved Copra as much as my fellow arbiters of taste breathlessly assure me that I need to. Mind you, I don’t dislike it in the least, I just fail to see what all the fuss is about.

This, though? Yeah, this one’s worth fussing about. Fiffe actually self-published this vibrantly-colored, assuredly-drawn story in serialized form before his more -celebrated (and still ongoing) super-hero homage, and for me this tale of two siblings with vastly different, but equally-compelling, problems trying to make their way toward vastly different, but equally-compelling, goals in a recognizable-but-not-quite city of the future, collected here in one volume for the first time, is supremely confident, visually literate stuff of the highest order. The sci-fi landscape is a tricky one to navigate, but in Emily and Boston, we have two fascinating guides, albeit for distinct — even disparate — reasons. Can’t recommend this one highly enough — well worth the $19.99 cover price, but easy enough to find for less even without resorting to Amazon. So don’t.

Alright, that ought to be enough to empty your wallet for one week — it was for me! — see you back here in seven days for another round!

Pull Up A Stool For “Happy Hour In America” With Bartender Tim Lane

Not to sound too grandiose right off the bat, but Tim Lane is more than just a cartoonist, he’s a medium — his mind, his pencils, and his brushes channeling a message from the past, yet one that’s somehow timeless, of an America that maybe never really was, but is no less “real” for the fact that it only “exists” in the same “place” that conjured it forth : the morass of our collective national subconscious.

Make no mistake, what Lane calls “The Great American Mythological Drama” is peppered with genuine personages, places, and events, many of which he relates with as much historical accuracy as is possible, but the way in which he weaves them together into something like a seamless tapestry is the stuff of pure legend — a legend he’s been constructing in his sporadically self-published comics series, Happy Hour In America, since 2003, as well as in two lengthier collected volumes, Abandoned Cars and The Lonesome Go.

Now, that evolving legend seems poised to take a fairly significant leap forward with his still-in-development “interpretative biography” of legendary “King Of Cool” Steve McQueen, and his book publisher, Fantagraphics, agreeing to re-launch Happy Hour In America under their auspices. The first issue of this second volume has just hit stores, and the time for new readers to dive into Lane’s immersive quasi-history? That would be now.

To be sure, you’ll immediately recognize all the elements of Lane’s shadow-mythology instantly and on an intuitive level, because it’s composed entirely of archetypes we’ve come to know through film, literature, history textbooks, and the like — his is an America of broken hearts, broken dreams, and broken promises; of greasers, grease monkeys, and greased palms; of mob bosses, union bosses, and political bosses; of beatniks, beggars, and bandits; of hobos, handouts, and hep cats; of winos, womanizers, and wasted lives; of craftsmen, carnies, and con men, the spectre of Hollywood’s fictitious measure of what we “should” all aspire to be and have hanging over one and all, equal parts aspirational goal and Sword of Damocles.

Indeed, examining both how we see ourselves and why seems to be Lane’s principal project, and to that end specific times and places appear to be fluid, intentionally ill-defined (except when he spells them out explicitly), in order to best maximize the eternal nature of the questions he’s asking : it often seems as if the Great Depression never ended in Lane’s US of A, for instance, but the 1950s industrial boom certainly did; as if cell phones and the internet were never invented and don’t look to be anytime soon; as if PBR is still a working man’s beer and not the ubiquitous “hipster fuel” it’s become today. Most of his stories definitely give off a vibe of characters, towns, even a country whose best days are behind them — but there’s no quit in any of them, and if that dogged persistence isn’t one of the myths that Americans hold in highest esteem, then I don’t know what is.

There’s no quit in Lane’s art, that’s for sure — his meticulous attention to detail, thick, inky blacks, and rich facial expressions lead me to believe that he probably spends several days poring over each panel, and while a little bit of a Charles Burns influence is evident, as is his reliance on historical reference photos, to call his finished work anything less than wholly original would be both factually inaccurate and insulting. This guy leaves it all on the page — and on every page at that.

The previously-mentioned Mr. McQueen seems to be the closest thing to a living embodiment of everything Lane has been working his way toward over the course of his career, and as a (okay, formerly) living “catch-all” for hardscrabble, working-class mythology you probably couldn’t ask for a better choice, so if Lane’s going to narrow his focus from various and sundry vignettes to one central storyline, it may as well be this guy’s. He’s risking a bit of overexposure in advance with some of this material given that it formed the backbone of the last issue of Happy Hour‘s first volume as well as the first issue of this one (in fact, five of the exact same pages appear in both books), and some of it also made its way into the most recent Kilgore Quarterly, but when you really think about it, aren’t all single-issue comics just sectioned-out pieces of inevitable trade paperback collections at this point? Why, yes, they are, so let’s give him a pass on that score, shall we?

For my part, I certainly plan to buy the McQueen book when it comes out, but that doesn’t mean there’s no reason to pick up Happy Hour In America in the meantime, even if all of this ends up in that. For one thing, periodical-sized chunks of the developing saga are a joy to follow, and for another, shit — if the WPA-style wraparound mural depicting the saga (or should that be ballad?) of Stagger Lee that adorns the front and back of this comic is any indication, we’re in for some of the best covers that any of us have ever seen in our lives. Seriously, this one’s worth the $4.99 cover price all by itself — and then some.

So punch  your one-way ticket into this world of broken-down prizefighters, card cheats, day laborers, truck stop waitresses, small-time grifters, local legends, dope fiends, and silver screen icons ASAP if you haven’t already. Tim Lane’s America is one where William Burroughs and Merle Haggard can be found rubbing elbows (but probably not much else — although, hey, you never know) at your neighborhood blue-collar dive bar while Roger Miller plays on stage. Times are hard here, sure — they always are, always have been, probably always will be. But we’re all in the same boat, and if we’d all just get together and build the future we want for ourselves, who knows what could happen?

Let’s go ask Eugene Debs. He’s right outside rabble-rousing and handing out leaflets on the corner.

There’s No Business Like “Night Business”

So how does this work? I mean, you either know what you’re getting into with a Benjamin Marra book or you don’t — and if you know that much, you probably also know whether or not you’re going to like it. No artist in the comics medium this side of Steve Ditko has pursued such a singularly myopic and obsessive worldview, and whether we’re talking about outer-space barbarians, post-Civil War freed slaves, secret agents in the “War On Terrorism,” or “gangsta” rappers,  the basic formula really doesn’t change, does it?

“Characters” as we understand the term don’t really exist in Marra’s world(s), but caricatures abound : men are invariably square-jawed, misogynistic, super-powered, and either “all good” or “all bad” (usually the only difference being that the “bad guys” start the killing off while the “good guys” finish it); women are basically all T&A and can’t seem to help either throwing themselves at the “good guys” or being raped by the “bad guys”; cops are corrupt, incompetent, or both; taking matters into one’s own hands is presented as the only viable solution to any problem.

Huh. Looked at that way, just take out the sex (and sexual violence) and you’ve basically got any ole Marvel or DC comic, don’t you?

Well, yes and no — clearly the tropes inherent in vigilante-themed fiction are more than just “laid bare” in Marra’s comics, they’re dialed up to levels that even the most bloodthirsty Punisher adventures wouldn’t dare to emulate. One would assume, then, that he must be engaging in some sort of de facto deconstruction just by dint of sheer excess, but that’s where things get confusing — and maybe they shouldn’t, because by and large this is almost gleefully simplistic stuff.

Take, for example, Marra’s lengthiest work to date, the just-released hardcover graphic novel Night Business (the first four chapters of which were available in “single issue” form as print-on-demand jobs bearing the label of Marra’s Traditional Comics imprint). Set in a 1980s New York brimming over with strippers, pimps, gumshoes, studs, serial killers, and sleazeballs, this is every bit as unsubtle as Terror Assaulter : O.M.W.O.T. or Gangsta Rap Posse, but its tongue is placed far less firmly in its cheek, and I’ll be damned if there’s anything like a guilty-pleasure chuckle to be found anywhere within its 232 pages. But does that mean Marra’s taking either himself, or his material, seriously all of a sudden? Don’t bank on it.

In his “pull-quote” on the back cover, Sammy Harkham says Night Business is “like Douglas Sirk directing an Abel Ferrara script,” and while I’m not one to take exception with the words of one of the finest cartoonists of his generation, to me what Marra’s created here is something more akin to Nicolas Winding Refn cranking out a remake of Fulci’s The New York Ripper : exotic dancers with names like Jazzie, Krystal, Chastity, and Alexis are either victims of, or bait for, a violently woman-hating psycho known only as The Slasher, but their erstwhile “manager,” Johnny Timothy, is determined to both protect the “clients” in his “stable” and discover the identity of their assailant. Will one man be enough to unravel a scandal that comes complete with hooded cult members and leads all the way from the city’s posh penthouse suites to its seedy (and literal) underground, though?

Fortunately for Johnny, he’s got a human ally in the form of a less-than-mysterious helmeted do-gooder who rides around on a motorcycle in sexy lingerie, and a chemical ally in the form of a “super-serum” administered to him by his mafia “patron,” Uncle Enzo. Cue a shitload of sleazy nightclub shenanigans, domestic violence, back-alley butchery, even necrophilia. Over the top by design, but without any real moral compass, those looking for a “message” here are going to be hunting high and (mostly) low for a long time — but does a work really need one in order to validate its existence?

I guess that’s up to each reader to decide for him or herself, but if what really floats your boat is the idea of a comic that could be set to and endless loop of Wings Hauser’s “Neon Slime” theme song from Vice Squad, then seriously, you need look no further. Marra’s drawings are as intentionally ugly as his subject matter, and here take a more intentionally “realistic” tack than in some of his prior efforts. Facial expressions are designed to leave nothing to the imagination; bodies are exaggerated, sure, but not to the point of being entirely outside the realm of possibility; buildings, streets, vehicles, etc. are illustrated to emphasize a kind of foreboding but recognizable utility. This is a city we recognize conceptually, if not literally, and the same is true of its inhabitants. It would be a heck of a stretch to say that Marra’s delineating the ’80s as we remember them (assuming “we” were around back then), but it’s definitely the ’80s we remembered watching on early-era cable TV late-night movies.

What it’s all in service of remains either a tantalizing or frustrating thing to parse out, though, and while I both understand and respect the critics of Marra’s work who point to the easily-discernible fact that all of it too self-aware by half (at least), his steadfast refusal to define Night Business by the narrow parameters of “spoof,” as he’s done so often before, makes it an inherently more exciting, and perhaps even ambitious, narrative than we’re used to seeing from him. I just wish I had a more firm grasp on whether or not I feel it’s a more successful one.

Future re-examinations will no doubt help me come to grips with that question, but that’s a quietly remarkable thing right there in and of itself : most of Marra’s earlier comics were easy enough to pin down and probably only warranted a re-read if you were looking to laugh at the same outrageous shit one more time. Night Business is the first to require further, and deeper, analysis in order to intuit its very meaning — and even if, in the final analysis, all he’s looking to do here is tell some hyper-masculine revenge tale bursting at the seams with relentless rage, sadistic slaughter, ample aggression, and big boobs — well, hey, at least he’s done that much really goddamn well.

“Now” We’re Talking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Bloody Cardinal” : Richard Sala’s Mystery Theater — Of The Absurd

Some cartoonists are so good at “what they do” — at telling the kinds of stories that fit within a niche they’re not only carved out, but created from whole cloth, for themselves — that you feel no particular urge as a reader to see them “branch out” or “try something different” because there’s so much fertile ground waiting to be explored within the thematic and, dare I say it, philosophical territory that they already call their own. Kim Deitch springs immediately to mind here, of course, but so do names as historically and stylistically disparate as Jesse Jacobs, Mark Beyer, Joe Sacco, and Drew Friedman — and so does Richard Sala.

How long has Sala been at it now? Something like three decades? And yet he consistently finds ways to make his unique combination of Hitchcockian psychological thriller, Poirot-esque whodunnit, occult high weirdness, Samuel Beckett absurdism, and understated feminism new, fresh, and exciting. His exquisite art certainly doesn’t hurt his cause — his women are sexy without being hyper- sexualized, his cities and streets a maze of eerie and vaguely Eastern European brick and stone, his overall aesthetic equal parts lived in and highly sleek. Everything’s just a bit off in Sala’s world — the familiar made to seem alien, distant, not quite as we know (or at least feel) it should be.

Now, add in color. Some of Sala’s most famous works — The Chuckling WhatsitPeculia — were b&w affairs, and flirted (quite successfully, I might add) with a woodcut look, but the digital (I’m assuming) ” watercolor painting” on display in graphic novels like Violenzia showed him to be an absolute master of the palette, washing panels over with deeply autumnal hues that make every day look like Halloween. Not too many artists who initially made their mark in a two-tone world can successfully transition into a multi-colored one, but Sala has grabbed the bull by the horns, wrestled it to the ground, and walked away a winner.

All of which brings us to his latest Fantagraphics release, The Bloody Cardinal. If a sprawling cast of silent film-era archetypes pulled inexorably into a tight, compact mystery that goes back decades, if not centuries, and revolves around dusty forbidden tomes, masked serial killers, female adventurers, underground cults thought long dead, morally and ethically compromised psychoanalysts, unconventional police investigators, and alluring but delusional femme fataltes are your cup of tea, then congratulations — you’ve just found comic book gold. If not, well, shit — I can’t help ya, and nobody has time for squares, anyway.

The pacing of this story is typical Sala — brisk without feeling hurried, with atmosphere taking precedent over strictly formalized logical progression, you have to be the sort of tourist willing to trust your guide through this world. Time frames are compressed but somehow flow, key events take place “off screen,” characters talk to themselves as a matter of course, dialogue is sparse and economical — this is hermetically-sealed storytelling that nobody else should (or probably even could) attempt to make work for them, but damn if it doesn’t feel intuitively “right” and seem to conform to an entirely unwritten set of “rules” that only apply to the cartoonist who created them. Don’t try this at home, kids — and why would you even need to when you can just sit back and watch the master at work?

Still, for all of the superlatives I’ve already tossed in The Bloody Cardinal‘s direction — and trust me when I say I could shower it with even more — perhaps the best thing about it is that, should you so choose, you can read the whole thing (entirely legally, I hasten to add) for free. I really love having the newly-released paperback on my shelf, it’s true, but if your finances (understandably) can’t handle the $16.99 cover price, rest easy — Sala serialized the entire story online first at Study Group Comics, and it’s all still available, so check out http://studygroupcomics.com/main/the-bloody-cardinal-part-1-by-richard-sala/. You’re now officially out of excuses — quit reading this review and read the comic instead.

“Nurture The Devil” : A Stroll Through The Dark Garden Of Jess Johnson’s Id

Any comic that sticks in your brain for 23 years surely must have done something right, would you not agree?

Not that the images and ideas put forth in Jess (then Jeff) Johnson’s short-lived 1994 Fantagraphics series, Nurture The Devil, have always been a welcome guest in my mind. A heady and disorienting mix of body horror, psychosexual pathology, gender identity confusion, and barely-restrained confessional, this largely-(and sadly-) forgotten late entry into the “single-creator anthology” mini-boom that was already starting to see its ranks thinned considerably by the time these three issues expelled themselves from the darkest corners of their creator’s subconscious in 1994 leaves a stain as indelible as the deeply-saturated inks that every panel on their pages is awash — hell, drowning — in. I don’t know of another way to put it : some things you just can’t “un-see.”

Knowing what we know now about Johnson’s tragically short life, which ended in 2016 at the age of 45, the contents of Nurture The Devil seem, I suppose, less surprising than they did at the time of their publication, when most readers (myself included) went into the series more or less “blind” : Jeff had a rocky relationship with a terminally ill woman whom he eventually married and even more eventually divorced after transitioning to become Jessica in 2002, and in subsequent years found her creative energies sapped considerably due to a combination of extreme depression following her ex-wife’s 2003 death and , she believed, her estrogen intake. In 2010 she swapped out the estrogen for testosterone (and seemed to regain her creativity with a vengeance,  subsequently self-publishing several collections of prose and comics) and thereafter referred to herself as Jess in person, J.K. in print. She described her state during what would prove to be the last years of her life as one of “genderwhatever,” and even titled one of her print essays from this period “Gender Is For Other People.”

It also seems that Johnson moved around a lot. His early childhood was spent in Ohio, but his formative years took place in Marietta, Georgia — right down the street, in fact, from the loathsome Newt Gingrich — and he sayed in-state to attend the University of Georgia in Athens, where he self-published his first mini-comics. Those were strong and idiosyncratic enough to attract the attention of several publishers —Johnson’s work both pre-and-post-Nurture The Devil was a relatively frequent feature in anthologies ranging from Blab! to Buzzard to Zero Zero to Dirty Stories, among others — and in 1995 he moved to Seattle to work in the Fantagraphics warehouse and, later, their production department. In 1997 he headed back east  to Atlanta to get married, and remained there throughout her (first) gender transition before packing up for New York in 2004, only to return to Atlanta again, for good this time, in 2008. So, yeah, transience and impermanence featured heavily throughout her body of work, Nurture The Devil being no exception.

Evidence also suggests that Johnson’s life was mostly spent on the economic margins. Her employment history as detailed in her unpublished mixed-media memoir Negative Space features lengthy stints as a dishwasher and self-employed sex worker, among other gigs, and prior to marriage he-at-the-time lived in a $50-a-month rented room in the back of a trailer while saving for an engagement ring. Clearly, Johnson knew all about the realities of the “starving artist” life that is, for some inexplicable reason, still romanticized by the pampered progeny of the upper classes.

For all these reasons and probably any number of others, security is in short supply in Nurture The Devil — the metaphorical ground beneath our feet is unsteady from the outset, both in the shorter, stand-alone strips, where autobiography often transitions, without notice, into dark absurdist sexual dysfunction, and most notably in The Garden, the long-form story that forms the “spine” of all three issues and, indeed, takes up all of the last one save for its covers.

To simply describe “The Garden” as unforgettable, while true, is nevertheless a tremendous disservice — in point of fact this is just out-and-out unclean stuff, and trust me when I say I mean that as a compliment. Charged with what can most fairly be categorized as “negative sex energy” throughout,  this sordid yarn about a family’s psychological and even physical descent following the apparent death of its matriarchal “leader” is rife with the sort of combustible material that in some hands would come of as sleazy, or at the very least prurient, but here just (and justly) feels painful in the extreme : incest, forced feminization, ritualized humiliation, torture, voyeurism, degradation, orgasm prolonging and denial, the Madonna/whore complex, and both male and female sexual supremacy are all present and accounted for within these pages, and no matter how many times you read the thing, you’re still going to feel like you need a good, cold shower when you’re done.

The art does nothing to lessen the sheer pressure upon readers’ minds, either : while betraying a little bit of its influences at the margins (Richard Sala’s expertly-placed squiggles, Penny Moran Van Horn’s woodcut-style thick, dark inks), it’s probably safe to say you’ve seen nothing else quite like Johnson’s murky, fetishistic, downright oppressive visuals. Faces are etched with fluctuating and abstract patterns, bodies flow into and out of the ever-present blackness surrounding them, tribal-influenced designs seem to take up actual, physical space in the world that the uniformly-unlikable characters inhabit. Bone-chilling, I think, might be the exact phrase I’m looking for.

The Sunders family — domineering sister/substitute-mother Lily, ineffectual, cuckolded-by-default father Edward, tormented-and-emasculated brother Paul, and headstrong-but-repressed brother Marcus — are suffocated on all sides by a void that threatens to swallow them whole, but escape from it is impossible because it’s ultimately one of their own making. Their garden functions as an outward manifestation of their inner decay, but it’s hard to say which is more frightening — the terrors they can see with their eyes open, or the ones that consume their minds when they’re closed. If Eden were hell and that hell was constructed by its own denizens, who knows? Maybe this would be the first chapter of the Bible.

Landscapes shift throughout “The Garden,” as do modes of existence and power dynamics — Paul becoming a eunuch and then becoming Paula is only the most obvious example, but when two people who are “supposed” to be dead turn out to be very much alive (I told you permanence was nowhere to be found here), all is thrown asunder even though it was as far from “stable” as one could possibly imagine from the word “go.” Fear of one’s body, fear of one’s place within the group dynamic, fear of one’s fantasies (those copped to and those anything but), fear of one’s parents, fear of one’s spouse, fear of one’s human needs, fear of one’s capacity for betrayal, fear of one’s fears — shit, all that comes into play before events boil over here, and I absolutely defy you to read this story straight-though without having to put it down for at least 10 or 15 minutes on more than one occasion.

Hell, if you were to decide to walk away from it altogether I wouldn’t blame you — but I would think you were missing out on the chance to see an admittedly noxious, perhaps even poisonous, flower come into bloom. Think of the most shocking and disquieting work of, say, an artist like Mike Diana, marry it to an actual, and highly personal, philosophical agenda, and you’ll have some inkling of what Johnson was able to achieve with this comic.

 

The Comics Journal ran a succinct but highly respectful memorial to Johnson at http://www.tcj.com/jess-johnson-1970-2016/ , and her self-published books are still available (I particularly recommend Sad Brat, Bad Star, a collection of her early mini-comcis work complete with a wealth of accompanying essay material) at http://jessjohnson1970.wixsite.com/matterhorn , but Nurture The Devil has, sadly, never been collected (yet). So start hunting through those back-issue bargain bins now, I guess — if you come across a box that seems to be emitting a cry for help with enough force to carve out your soul, throw it on the floor, and leave you a hollowed, empty shell of your former self, odds are that’s where you’ll find it.