Eurocomics Spotlight : Sergio Ponchione’s “Memorabilia”

If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, then Italian cartoonist Sergio Ponchione is the most flattering guy around, as his late-2018 Fantagraphics book Memorabilia — extrapolated from, and featuring the entire contents of, his 2014 stand-alone (or so we thought at the time) “floppy” DKW – Ditko Kirby Wood — is pure homage, not just to the aforementioned “holy trinity” of Steve, Jack, and Wally, but also to Will Eisner and Richard Corben, all of whom Ponchione is capable of mimicking to the proverbial “T.” Consequently, this not-quite-a-graphic-novel is certainly fun to look at, at times even breathtaking.

And that, as they say, is the good news.

As for the not-so-good-news — ah, shit, where to even begin? Ponchione’s set-up here is simple enough that it could work — starry-eyed young cartoonist visits his hero (Ponchione himself, in case you were wondering), hoping to glean pearls of wisdom and/or critique he can apply to his work, and receives the predictable response of “ya got potential, kid, but let me tell you about the real legends of this business,” at which point the narrative spins off into a theoretically spectacular series of vignettes that offers Cliffs Notes-style career retrospectives of each of the previously-referenced five comics luminaries, delivered in their signature styles, within the framework of the sort of stories they were best-known for crafting. What’s glaringly and frustratingly absent throughout, though, is any emotionally-resonant expression on the part of Ponchione as to why he loves these artists so much.

And love them he must, of course — you don’t spend this much time learning to ape the look and feel of their work if you don’t find it compelling and evocative in the extreme  — but we never go beyond the nuts and bolts here. The technical proficiency, the sheer skill, the admirable work ethic each displayed over the years in honing their craft to perfection. These are all worthy of heaping praise on, sure, but each of these cartoonists also imbued their work with something more, that “something more” being a consistent philosophical ethos that expressed a specific and purposeful point of view that shaped, sure, but also transcended “mere” aesthetics and touched something deep within readers.

Any work predicated upon stylistic appropriation — no matter how convincing that appropriation may be — is bound to come up short in terms of conveying the inspiration behind that which it’s referencing, of course, and I don’t fault Ponchione in the least for his inability to channel the inner artistic “souls” of his heroes. What I do fault him for is his absolute inability to communicate any sense of what makes their work so special to him, personally, beyond “they were all really good artists.”

Which, of course, they were — or, in Coben’s case, still are. But their ability is only half of the story — and by zeroing in on it to the exclusion of most everything else, Ponchione delivers only half a book, which is pretty well inexcusable when your publisher is asking a staggering $16.99 for 52 pages. Hang onto your money and use it to buy some Kirby, Ditko, Wood, Eisner, or Corben back issues instead.


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Four Color Apocalypse 2018 Year In Review : Top Ten Vintage Collections

Another day, another year end “Top 10” list! This time around we look at my favorite collected editions of vintage material published in the past year, “vintage” in this case being work originally produced prior to the year 2000. Eurocomics and Manga are both eligible here, as well, as long as they first saw print prior to all our computers failing, the electrical grid going dark, the food supply collapsing, and civilization falling apart on December 31st, 1999. Remember those crazy times?

10. Brat Pack By Rick Veitch (IDW) – Arguably the last great work of super-hero revisionism prior to Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston’s Black Hammer, Veitch’s bleak and unforgiving look at the teen sidekicks of Slumburg is as shocking, ugly, and mean-spirited as ever — not to mention gorgeously illustrated. IDW pulled out all the stops with this one, loading it up with “behind-the-scenes” bonus material that all crusty aficionados of this rank, but spot-on, unpleasantness will surely find illuminating and engrossing. I still feel like I need to take a shower after reading this book to get the stain off — and yes, I mean that as a compliment.

9. Death Stand And Other Stories (The EC Artists’ Library Vol. 22) By Jack Davis And Harvey Kurtzman (Fantagraphics) – The harrowing reality of combat stress has arguably never been rendered in comics with more authenticity than in these classic EC strips illustrated by Davis and (largely) written by Kurtzman. Even people who think they probably don’t like war comics owe it to themselves to give this collection a shot and see what they’ve been missing out on all these years.

8. New Gods By Jack Kirby (DC) – This one probably deserves to be ranked higher purely on its merits, as many of the very best of Kirby’s Fourth World stories are in here, but considering that all of it was included in last year’s Fourth World Omnibus, this really just represents an essential purchase for absolute completists, or anyone who took a pass on the omnibus for budgetary or storage space (hey, it really is a beast!) reasons. Some of the finest comics ever made by anyone are found on these pages, though, so it earns a spot on the list even though it comes hot on the heels of a larger, more comprehensive collection.

7. Jim Osborne : The Black Prince Of The Underground Edited By Patrick Rosenkranz (Fantagraphics Underground) – Far and away the most disturbing book on this list, Osborne was probably the most grotesque and unsavory of the “first wave” of underground cartoonists — as well as one of the most talented, producing work so rich in detail and meticulous in its execution that it still literally boggles the mind. Editor Rosenkranz deserves tremendous credit for collecting all of this less-than-prolific artist’s work between two covers, and Dennis Dread’s detailed biographical sketch of Osborne’s troubled life is a terrific piece of comics scholarship. Not for all tastes and sensibilities to be sure — but if your “wiring” is as off-kilter as mine, this is an essential purchase.

6. Corto Maltese : The Golden House Of Samarkand By Hugo Pratt (IDW/Euro Comics) – One of Pratt’s finest and most ambitious Corto stories finally gets the deluxe treatment that has been lavished on the character’s previous adventures. If you’re a fan, that’s cause for celebration, and if you’re not — well, now’s the perfect time to become one! European genre comics simply don’t get any better than this.

5. best of witzend Edited By Bill Pearson And J. Michael Catron (Fantagraphics) – Anyone who couldn’t fork over the cash for the complete witzend slipcase collection a few years back will be overjoyed to find this well-curated collection of the finest strips to appear in Wally Wood’s legendary “pro-‘zine,” as editors Pearson and Catron present groundbreaking cartooning from artists that truly “run the gamut,” including Bernie Wrightson, Reed Crandall, Gray Morrow, Howard Chaykin, Walter Simonson, Jim Steranko, P. Craig Russell, Art Spiegelman, Steve Ditko, Vaughn Bode — and, of course, Wood himself. A superb selection that will leave your head spinning and that, crucially, “ports over” the exhaustive historical essay work presented in the earlier, larger publication.

4. Master Race And Other Stories (The EC Artists’ Library Vol. 21) By Bernard Krigstein (Fantagraphics) – The premier visual innovator in comics history, Krigstein’s astonishing work finally gets a truly deluxe presentation in this painstakingly-restored collection. The scope and grandeur of Krigstein’s imagination still positively boggles the mind, and its fruits have never looked better than they do in this sumptuous volume.

3. Love That Bunch By Aline Kominsky-Crumb (Drawn+Quarterly) – Okay, yeah, some of the material in this comprehensive retrospective came along after the year 2000, but the vast majority predates it, and it would be absolutely criminal not to find a list to include this on. I’ve always preferred Aline’s work to that of her more-famous husband, and these largely-autobiographical strips will probably go some way toward winning over even the most understandably reactionary fans who reflexively eschew anything with the “Crumb” name attached to it. I’m not here to judge how and why she can survive a marriage to one of the most talented-but-unsavory people in comics, only to state that her own work stands on its own merits and communicates a positive, empowering message in endearingly neurotic and self-deprecating fashion. I do, indeed, love that — meh, too obvious, right? Just buy the book, you’ll never regret it.

2. Kamandi Omnibus By Jack Kirby (DC) – Finally! The amazing adventures of the last boy on earth get the “omnibus treatment,” and the result — while hefty both physically and financially — is nothing less than magic. One of Kirby’s absolute best comics ever, this is also one of the most imaginative, rip-roaring, and just plain fun works in the entire history of the medium. Nothing short of comic book perfection.

1. Dirty Plotte : The Complete Julie Doucet By Julie Doucet (Drawn+Quarterly) – Pioneering feminist auteur Doucet finally gets her due with this beautiful, two-volume hardcover slipcase collection that features all of her work from her legendary Dirty Plotte series, as well as a good chunk of material that was published before and since, a wide-ranging interview with the artist, and essays of appreciation from top cartooning talents. This was one of the formative works of the 1990s that helped blaze a trail for any number of women cartoonists, and is every bit as powerful, authentic, idiosyncratic, and funny now as it ever was. Doucet is, simply put, one of the most outstanding talents to ever draw breath. Here’s all the evidence would could possibly need to buttress that assertion.

And that’s four lists down, with two yet to come! Next up : the top 10 “special mentions” of the year, an eclectic category of “comics-adjacent” work that includes no actual comics per se, but narrative works (illustrated or otherwise) either by cartoonists, or about comics. It’ll make much more sense when I post it (probably tomorrow), I promise!


Weekly Reading Round-Up : 04/22/2018 – 04/28/2018

Anthologies, surreal vegetarian polemics, and smarter-than-average TV tie-ins abound, so let’s jump right in —

A haunting and frankly topical cover from the great Al Columbia kicks off  Now #3, and as we’ve quickly come to expect, editor Eric Reynolds has assembled a first-rate selection of cartoonists from around the globe in the pages within. Standout selections from this issue are Eleanor Davis’ psychologically and sexually complex “March Of The Penguins,” Dash Shaw’s soul-baring “Crowd Chatter,” Nathan Cowdry’s unsettling “Deliver Me/Sweet Baby,” Nah Van Sciver’s amusingly ironic (and that takes skill at this point, believe me) “Wolf Nerd,” Anna Haifisch’s unapologetically straightforward “A Proud Race,” Keren Ketz’s beautiful, elegiac “My Summer At The Fountain Of Fire And Wonder,” and Roberta Scomparsa’s disturbing and all-too-real “The Jellyfish,” but for my money (and at $10 for 120 pages you won’t be complaining about how you spent yours here) the absolute revelation is Anne Simon’s triptych of strips, “The Lady Equina,” “Renaldo & Armida,” and “The Washer Of Virgins,” which reveal a cartoonist in absolute command of her considerable skills creating a hermetically-sealed world that is by turns alien and familiar, hilarious and heartbreaking, mythological and timeless. Simon’s debut full-length graphic novel The Song Of Aglaia is slated for release later this summer from Now publisher Fantagraphics, and it just jumped to the top of my “must-read” list.

What’s perhaps nearly as remarkable as the quality of the “hits” in this volume, though, is the intriguing nature of the few “misses” on offer — Ben Passmore uncharacteristically doesn’t achieve quite what he sets out to with “The Vampire,” but it’s clear what he was aiming for and damn gutsy of him to go for something so utterly different, Marcelo Quintanilha is barely undone by the scope of his own ambition in “Sweet Daddy,” Jose Ja Ja Ja attempts to blend the unconventional with the mundane in “Grand Slam” and nearly pulls it off, and Jason T. Miles’ intro and outro one-pagers (the former titled “We Were Bound,” the latter being nameless) and Nick Thorburn’s back cover present tantalizing glimpses of situations that would merit further exploration, but don’t quite succeed in establishing and/or reflecting the larger tonal similarities (as with previous issues there’s no set “theme” or subject in this one, but Reynolds’ chosen running-order of stories invites readers to intuit at least subliminal connections) that flow throughout the rest of the collection. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t mind when a cartoonist swings for the fences and ends up hitting a long fly-ball out, and just a half-year (or thereabouts) into its existence, Now, with its well-chosen mix of already-established “regulars” and comparatively new faces, consistently provides readers with compelling, challenging, intelligent material that leaves preconceptions in the dust and demands rigorous examination. The anthology of the decade has finally arrived.

While we’re on the subject of anthologies — and third issues — Shelly Bond’s Black Crown Quarterly #3 continues the rather frustrating pattern of her IDW sub-label’s centerpiece title not knowing if it wants to tell actual stories, or just get you to buy the other books in the line. I’m enjoying Rob Davis’ “Tales From The Black Crown Pub,” this installment being no exception, but the other regular feature, Will Potter, Carl Puttnam, and Philip Bond’s “Rich And Strange : The Return Of The Cud Band” seems to be running out of gas (just as well this chapter’s only a page long, then, I guess), and the strips set in the Cannonball Comics shop are decidedly feast-or-famine, with Leah Moore and Dilraj Mann’s “Comme Des Gorgons” leaning much more toward the “famine” side of the equation.

It’s definitely not all bad, though, don’t get me wrong — Mann provides a crackerjack wrap-around cover, Peter Milligan and Kristian Rossi’s “Tales From The Raygun : Butterscotch And Soda” is a concise little Vertigo-esque tale of “high weirdness” done with more-than-requisite aplomb, Emmeline Pidgen’s “How To Spot A Galaxy” more than lives up to the high standard of previous installments of “Hey, Amateur!,” and the Tini Howard-scripted “Ghost-Walk With Me : Canon Street By Torchlight,” also illustrated by Monsieur Bond, is more fun than a blatantly promotional yarn probably has any right to be, while David Barnett and Martin Simmonds’ Punks Not Dead sidebar story, “Pretty In Punk,” provides an intriguing glimpse into the early years of Feargal Ferguson’s mother that goes some way toward explaining why she is the way she is today and fleshes out the world of their series considerably in just a few pages.

Tell you what, though, the less said about the text pieces in this ish the better — Barnett’s interview with Howard about her and Nick Robles’ forthcoming Euthanauts series is fine, but Cathi Unsworth’s “Swell Maps” (this time focused on Newcastle and featuring illustrations, once again, by the talented Cara McGee) suffers from the Black Crown curse of being too self-consciously “cool” for its own good, which is likewise my main “beef” with regular features “Four Corners” (Simmonds being forced to prove his “hipness” in this one) and “Beat Surrender” (which strong-arms Ms. Moore into doing the same). Things are simply becoming to repetitious and insular in this comic for it to maintain my interest much longer, and those are two “strikes” a series can’t afford when it’s saddled with an editorial vision as narrow and dated as Bond’s — and speaking of “can’t afford,” while this comic is printed on very nice paper and features high-quality cardstock covers, $7.99 for 48 pages is a more than a bit much, especially when you factor in that no fewer than six of those pages are eaten up with “house” ads for the other Black Crown books.

I dunno — I really wanted to like this comic, and there are things about it that I am perfectly well-satisfied by, at the very least, but I simply can’t keep justifying the expenditure at this point. I’m sticking with Black Crown’s other titles happily, but this is me saying “good-bye” to their “flagship” book.

Patrick McGoohan’s legendary ITV series The Prisoner has been “optioned” for four-color exploitation before — Jack Kirby started in on an adaptation while it was still running (or maybe shortly thereafter) that was abandoned before it saw publication, and DC released an “authorized” sequel by Dean Motter in the late 1980s — but Titan Comics seems bound and determined to give us the “definitive” funnybook iteration of Number Six with The Prisoner : The Uncertainty Machine, the first issue of which hit shops this past Wednesday. I grabbed the variant cover featuring one of Kirby’s stunning splash pages inked by Mike Royer (here presented in color for the first time — and in Mike Allred color, at that), but it was the interior of the book that actually impressed me most : Peter Milligan and Colin Lorimer would both be at the top of anyone’s list to helm this project, and they each deliver in a big way. Milligan’s script is tight, fast-paced, and sets the stage well for what promises to be a very intriguing updating of the concept, while Lorimer and colorist extraordinaire Joana Lafuente dial back the darkness a bit from their amazingly creepy Shadowline/Image horror title The Hunt and capture the tone and feel of the TV show pitch-perfectly. I swear, the double-page spread of The Village at the tail end of this comic is worth the $3.99 asking price all by itself. I am definitely in for the duration here.

And last but certainly not least, Richard Starkings, Tyler Shainline, and Shaky Kane are continuing to absolutely slay me with their Image series The Beef, and the just-released third issue continues their pattern of not so much subverting, but completely ignoring more or less every aspect of graphic storytelling convention altogether and writing their own rule book, which simply reads, in bold, block caps : “THERE ARE NO RULES.” We’re talking about a comic about a guy who turns into a slab of raw meat, after all. Dairy products and veal come in for special — and richly-deserved — shaming this time out, but the narrative also propels itself toward something that should serve as an approximation of a “conclusion,” as the asshole meat-packing plant owner’s even-bigger-asshole son puts The Beef’s lady-love in danger and the bought-and-paid-for local cop tries to fuck everything up for our ostensible “hero.” A savage take-down of the prejudice, gluttony, idiocy, and flat-out ugliness of Trump’s America that can’t decide if it wants to make you laugh or make you cringe and so, wisely, opts to do both, this comic is like nothing else that has come before it — nor anything that will follow in its wake. I’m in straight-up awe of this shit.

Okay, I’ve bent your ear for long enough, I think. Next week’s round-up is a bit up in the air as I’m headed out of town for the weekend, but if I can get some stuff read before Friday, who knows? Maybe I’ll surprise everyone — myself included — by slapping a column up before I head west for a few days. If not, then I’ll hope to see you good readers back here in two weeks’ time!

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 04/08/2018 – 04/14/2018

Three first issues and a seven hundredth? Yeah, this oughtta be an interesting column —

Crude #1 kicks off a new Skybound/Image six-parter from the creative team of Steve Orlando and Garry Brown revolving around a mix of family drama and Russian oil business shady dealings, with some sort of vague-at-this-point mystery thrown into the mix to — sorry — muddy the waters. Orlando has always been an up-and-down writer in my estimation, but he seems to be more “up” here, serving us a script that’s heavy on the characterization and stage-setting. This may just turn out to be yet another revenge yarn, but those are fun if they kick enough ass, and all indications are that this one’ll do just that — and Brown’s murky, expressionistic art is more than well-suited to the proceedings. At $3.99 a pop for singles this might be one to “trade-wait,” but since I’m already in, what the hell — I’ll stay in. I really dig the intrigue emanating from this comic.

Also from Image this week we have The Dead Hand #1, a modern-day spy thriller with its roots in the Cold War and — hey, is this a theme? — the Soviet Union. Kyle Higgins has cooked up an immediately-absorbing yarn here with a ton of backstory to explore in the months to come, while Stephen Mooney’s art is stylish, sleek, and reminiscent of the best pulp covers, and superstar colorist Jordie Bellaire finishes things off with a polished set of hues that give the pages a very fluid, cinematic look and feel. This one impressed me a lot and felt like four bucks wisely spent — I heartily recommend getting in on the ground floor.

I was pretty underwhelmed by Unholy Grail by the time all was said and done, it has to be said (it started off okay yet ended up just being a kind of “Cliff’s Notes Camelot” with pretty pictures) —  but apparently not so underwhelmed that I was unwilling to give The Brothers Dracul #1 , from the same creative team of writer Cullen Bunn and artist Mirko Colak, a shot. Like their previous series, this one is a mildly revisionist take on ancient legend, is published by Aftershock, and has a lush, atmospheric, “Eurocomics” look to it. Fortunately, the story seems a bit more ambitious here, with an emphasis not only on the future Count Dracula himself but also, as the title plainly states, his less-heralded (and therefore less-notorious) brother. I know, I know, I was a little worried that we would simply be getting another Dracula Untold here, too, but so far that doesn’t seem  to be the case. Things could go south in a hurry with this book — they did before — so I’m keeping it on a short leash, but what the hell? I felt like I got a damn solid read for my $3.99 with this first issue.

Finally, then, we come to Captain America #700, an extra-sized (and extra-priced, at $5.99) anniversary issue that also sees the conclusion to Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s truncated “Lost in Time” pseudo-epic. I liked where this was headed — and, as always, loved the art — until the very end, when Waid takes the dull and predictable step of “retconning” the previous few issues out of existence. Cap’s back in our time like nothing ever happened — because, essentially, nothing did. And that’s kind of a shame, because what did happen (until, of course, it didn’t) was actually pretty interesting and borderline-relevant. Alas, it’s all water under the bridge now, Samnee is off to greener pastures, and I’m all out of cliches. Real quick though — the less said about the backup strip, the better. The art’s great — they dug out an old, unused Jack Kirby inventory story — but the script (and again, this is all on Waid) doesn’t match up convincingly with the visuals at all, and the modern computer coloring just bastardizes The King’s work. For a supposed “milestone” comic, this one should have been a lot better.

Okay, that’s me keeping it short and sweet for this installment, something I should probably try to do more often. I dunno what all we’ll have to talk about next week, but something tells me Action Comics #1000 will at least merit a brief examination, don’t you think? Catch you back here in seven short days!

2017 Year In Review : Top 10 Collected Editions (Vintage)

We’re getting there, I promise! Next up in our 2017 year in review we come to the top 10 vintage collections of the year, a list which comprises reprint collections released over the past 12 months of material originally published prior to the year 2000. Not much preamble apart from that necessary other than the standard reminder that these selections won’t be accompanied by anything like “reviews,” just quick summations of why you, dear reader, should buy them :

10. Belgian Lace From Hell : The Mythology Of S. Clay Wilson Vol. 3, edited by Patrick Rosenkranz (Fantagraphics) – The final volume of Fantagraphics’ exhaustive half-biography, half-comics retrospective of the career of underground trailblazer S. Clay Wilson presents a terrific selection of strips that don’t just transgress, but utterly annihilate, any and all notions of good taste with recklessly gleeful abandon — but a handful of very noticeable production glitches (missing text paragraphs, etc.) hold this back from being ranked as highly as, frankly, it probably deserves to be.

9. Doom Patrol : The Silver Age Omnibus by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani (DC) – Who can argue with having the entire, and justly legendary, Drake/Premiani DP run collected between two covers? Not me, that’s for sure — and as a longtime fan, seeing the original “team of outcasts” finally getting their due in a deluxe volume such as this is cause for pure joy.

8. Soft City : The Lost Graphic Novel by Hariton Pushwagner (New York Review Comics) – Visionary Norwegian cartoonist Pushwagner’s dystopian sci-fi magnum opus, a labor of love undertaken from 1969 to 1975, was thought lost to the ages until its rediscovery in Oslo in 2002, and here finally receives the exhaustive and meticulous presentation so long overdue it. A visually and thematically insular world of its own, ready and waiting for you to get lost in.

7. The Complete Skizz by Alan Moore and Jim Baikie (2000 A.D.) – A largely-overlooked early entry in the Alan Moore canon that’s aged incredibly well, this decidedly Thatcherite take on E.T. is funny, fascinating, heartbreaking, heartwarming, and sharp as hell — and is here collected alongside its very worthy sequel that sees artist Jim Baikie (successfully, I might add) assume writing duties, as well.

6. Challengers Of The Unknown by Jack Kirby (DC) – 100 years after the birth of the undisputed King of Comics, fans were presented with an embarrassment of reprint riches in 2017 — and this list will, to no one’s surprise, reflect that fact. For too long the Challengers have largely been viewed as a historical curiosity above all else, given that they were an obvious Fantastic Four prototype, but now that their original run has finally been collected in a reasonably-priced trade paperback, a new generation of fans has the chance to appreciate the fact that these are well and truly outstanding adventure stories overflowing with heart and imagination. And where else are you going to get to see Jack Kirby inked by Wally Wood? The art in this book is flat-out gorgeous.

5. The Collected Neil The Horse by Katherine T. Collins (Conundrum Press) – The best thing to emerge from the 1980s black-and-white boom, having every issue of this smart, sprawling, richly-illustrated, witty musical comedy together in one volume feels like a little bit of a miracle, especially given the numerous starts and stops creator Collins’ career has taken over the years. Loaded with indispensable behind-the-scenes material, including a harrowing-but-ultimately-triumphant account of the author’s own life after she transitioned from her earlier identity as Arn Saba (resulting in a de facto blacklisting in the comics industry for decades), this book is more than everything the small-but-loyal legion of Neil fans could have ever asked for.

4. Street Fighting Men : Spain Vol. 1, edited by Patrick Rosenkranz (Fantagraphics) – Collecting all the “Trashman” strips ever produced is reason enough to buy this book, but this opening salvo in the long-awaited Spain Rodriguez career retrospective offers a whole lot more than that — the police-corruption strip “Manning” is absolutely superb, and underground historian Patrick Rosenkranz’ text material is detailed and exhaustive. If future volumes are produced with as much care and consideration as this one, we’re in for something really special with this series.

3. The Demon by Jack Kirby (DC) – A personal favorite of yours truly, the saga of Jason Blood and his demonic alter-ego, Etrigan, is one of Kirby’s most powerful and imaginative, and is here presented in its entirety. The King didn’t delve into the realms of the mystical and supernatural all that often, but when he did — the results were spectacular.

2. The Green Hand And Other Stories by Nicole Claveloux (New York Review Comics) – This outstanding volume presents the pinnacle 1970s works of one of France’s most singular cartooning talents (most from the pages of Metal Hurlant) to English-speaking audiences for the first time, and if you’re looking for a visually unforgettable book for someone on your holiday gift list, then this is the way to go.  Claveloux delineates worlds of unspeakable beauty and oddity, and whether her stories are in vibrant, hallucinatory color (as is the case with the title strip here) or black and white, they leave an indelible impression on your eyeballs and your mind. Talking shrubs, duplicitous genies, and morose birds are just some of the wonders to be found in the surreal, enchanted realms Claveloux guides us through in these exquisitely vivid pages.

1. The Fourth World Omnibus by Jack Kirby (DC) – Full disclosure : this book just came out and I don’t even have it yet — but I don’t need to in order to give its contents a full-throated endorsement. The Fourth World saga is arguably the greatest the comics medium has ever produced, and having all 1500-plus pages of it in your hands for under a hundred bucks (depending on where you get it)? Come on, you’re not gonna do any better than that.

Okay, one more list down — and only one more to go! Next up we’ll look at the top 10 original graphic novels of 2017  — and then, I think, a (short, I promise) holiday break is in order!


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.

Submerged “Underwater” : Deciphering Chester Brown’s Abandoned Opus

Unfinished works have dotted the comic-book landscape probably for as long as the medium has existed — how many Golden Age characters were one-off experiments, never to return? — but more often than not in recent years, good, old-fashioned cancellation was the most common reason stories were either never concluded, or wrapped up in considerably truncated fashion. For years, of course, the “Holy Grail” of incomplete stories was Kirby’s Fourth World saga, but eventually Jack was able to give readers a finale of sorts with The Hunger Dogs — even if it was considerably different to whatever he would have produced had his books been allowed to lead their natural “life spans” — but the advent of creator-owned titles has given rise to a different type of “undone” comic : those that are abandoned not by corporate-dictated necessity, but by choice.

Probably the most (in)famous of these is Alan Moore’s Big Numbers, which sent two artists running away from it screaming before The Bearded One finally realized that maybe completing the series wasn’t worth the price being exacted on his collaborators’ mental health, but even there a relatively concrete idea of where the story was headed and what it was going to be about isn’t hard to come by given Moore’s meticulously-detailed script notes and the information he’d freely divulged about the project in various contemporaneous interviews. In short, we have a pretty solid idea of where it was headed, even if we’re less certain about the particulars of how it was going to get there.  A plan existed, if only somebody could have withstood the experience of having to draw the damn thing.

A considerably more interesting — and frankly more mysterious — example of a major work walked away from, at least to my mind, is to be found in Chester Brown’s Underwater, the follow-up series to the cartoonist’s acclaimed Yummy Fur  that was published by Drawn + Quarterly and ran from 1994 to 1997 before being first “put on hold” (Brown intimating at the time that he’d get back to it after finishing Louis Riel) and then given up on altogether. It lasted a total of eleven issues prior to Brown’s attentions being shifted elsewhere, and while I can certainly understand why figuring out a way forward with it was probably a daunting task almost from its inception, an artist doesn’t usually end up in a quandary of the “should I stay or should I go?” variety if they’re doing something dull and inconsequential — which, I suppose, is my way of saying that Underwater, while a bit of an intentional mess, is most assuredly an interesting and ambitious one.

Hell, maybe it’s too ambitious — even though, at least on paper, the story appears as if it should be simple : after all, it’s just about an infant girl growing up, and most of the events detailed in its pages are of the highly mundane variety (eating, playing in the crib, riding in a car, first exposure to television, playing with toys, learning to put on a coat, first exposure to comic strips, visits to the homes of relatives, first day at pre-school, etc.), so what could be so tricky about that?

Well, for one thing, the world that our central character (I hesitate to use the term protagonist), Kupifam (who’s actually one of a pair of twins, but the other, Juz, is at the very least considerably less precocious than her sister, if not developmentally stunted altogether), inhabits is considerably different to our own — the beings who inhabit it don’t appear to be human so much as proto-Shrek ogres or something — with societal norms, institutions, and rules that are only vaguely recognizable, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Considerably more groundbreaking, and potentially problematic for those who hold fast to the structures of conventional narrative, is the fact that the entire story is presented from Kupifam’s point of view, and while that brings with it a wealth of storytelling possibilities, it also engenders a number of “deal-breakers” that more than likely sent a good few readers heading for the exits in the fairly early going. See, for example, what you can make of this :

Oh, sure, over time the apparent gibberish begins to make more sense — Brown admits in an early letter column (a later one would feature correspondence from none other than the “real” Patch Adams, prior to his unconventional approach to medicine being mythologized on the silver screen by the late, great Robin Williams, albeit in not exactly one of his best films) that what he refers to as “Underwaterese” is more or less entirely decipherable, and if you read all the issues in one go that definitely proves to be the case even before Kupifam’s increasing awareness/consciousness begins to “settle down” to the point where she’s hearing/processing things in recognizable English —but her nascent ability to interpret the events going on around her makes for a difficult, if ultimately rewarding, reading experience even after you’ve done the Finnegans Wake thing and more or less wrapped your head around the linguistic “games” being played here. Dreaming and conscious reality are presented with equal weight in this comic — as is almost certainly the case in the infant mind — and often blend together with no clear delineation between the two so that multiple figures merge into one, bodies (most particularly Kupifam’s own) float, limbs penetrate through solid objects, etc. One particularly memorable sequence, at the beginning of issue three, even features Kupifam being eaten by her father before walking up a staircase inside his mouth, emerging giant-sized into a room, and then waking up in her crib. Remember what they say — “to a kid, everything is real.”

To the extent that you can find other analyses of this series online — and trust me when I say this is probably already the most lengthy — comparisons to the films of David Lynch are more or less inevitable, but I think the same common error is made in the interpretations of both : sure, saying something along the lines of “this is like Eraserhead if it was told from the baby’s viewpoint” is natural enough, but at some point anybody saying that is most likely going to refer to both Brown and Lynch’s work as being “surrealistic,” and I’m sorry, but that’s simply not the case. What Underwater has in common with Lynch in general, and with Eraserhead in particular, is that both are impressionistic works, and that any sense of the “surreal” that they impart is an end result of that impressionist ethos. Things only “don’t make sense” because the filter through which they are presented is so inherently alien to us — which is a little bit ironic, I suppose, in that this comic is probably the most authentic presentation of how we all saw the world when we were little kids that anyone’s ever attempted — but to call it “surreal” is to mistake an outcome for the process by which it’s achieved.

Artistically, Brown is in fine form throughout this series, and makes so many well-timed transitions — some subtle, some jarring — as it progresses that the mind very nearly reels : the first four issues are presented in the visual style that he had adopted post – Ed The Happy Clown in Yummy Fur that saw intuitively-placed and -sized panels juxtaposed against stark, black pages, then from issues five through nine the backgrounds become a neutral gray and most pages settle into a grid-free six-panel presentation, and finally, numbers ten and eleven revert and/or evolve into “old-school” six-panel grids that take up more or less the whole of the newly- white pages they are presented on, with each “new look” both signalling and augmenting developments in Kupifam’s increasingly-solidifying awareness of consensus “reality.” By both definition and default this means that the earlier issues are more visually interesting and unpredictable than the later ones (particularly the last two), but that’s also just a depressing fact of life : the more our consciousness develops, the less absolutely singular is our worldview. We become cognizant of what’s “real” and what “isn’t,” and there’s probably a fair amount of, for lack of a better term, magic that’s lost along the way as we realize we are part of a larger world that exists entirely apart from our perception of it. Damn, but I’d give anything to see the world through the eyes of an infant — or even an animal — for just one day before I depart this Earth. It’s gotta be an experience that even the best psychedelics can’t hope to duplicate.

Another superb thing that Brown’s able to communicate entirely by visual means is the physical growth and development of both Kupifam and Juz. Obviously, time works entirely differently by this book’s internal logic, and while these eleven issues probably encompass the first three or four years of these girls’ lives, each successive comic picks up more or less precisely where the last one left off (lending weight to my own pet theory that these may be the stitched-together remembrances of her childhood of a much older Kupifam, perhaps even as she’s approaching the end of her life), and while the twins are growing and changing, you really don’t even notice it until you flip back through several installments, so smooth and natural is the delineation of their developing bodies. Again, it’s tempting to say that not much is happening in this comic — and it’s not always easy to intuit what is going on (for my money, no matter how many times I read it, I still can’t decide if Kupifam’s dad is forcibly removing her from school over the course of issues ten and eleven or if he’s simply picking her up at the end of the day and the extra “drama” presented is all a function of her perception, for example) — but at the same time, in a very real sense, everything is going on, we’re just not given an easy way to interpret or process any of it. Brown has done most of the work, sure,  but damn if somehow a fair amount of the heavy lifting isn’t left up to us.

The series stops — it can’t fairly be said to “end” — on a note that I don’t really find much more curious than any number of others, with Kupifam being slightly freaked out by a mask she sees in the apartment of presumed stranger who happens to live next door to somebody her father has gotten into an altercation of some sort or other with, so why Brown threw in the towel at this point is every bit as unknowable-to-anyone-other-than-him than where he would have taken things if Louis Riel, and later non-serialized works such as Paying For It and its literally spiritual successor, Mary Wept Over The Feet Of Jesus, hadn’t proven to be of greater interest to him, but Underwater certainly gave — and continues to give — us plenty to mull over even absent a resolution (hell, we probably didn’t even reach the middle), and the fact that most of its chapters were presented with absolutely gorgeous and instantly memorable covers and were appended with continued installments of Brown’s superb (and equally aborted) adaptation of the Gospel of Matthew ensured that each issue certainly gave readers their money’s worth, despite D+Q’s constantly-fluctuating cover prices at the time. Sure, the entire project will probably always be remembered as something of an enticing enigma, but who knows? Given its subject matter, dreamlike structure, and necessarily-unquantifiable series of abstractions, chances are pretty good that’s how it would have ended up being viewed even if Brown had been able to decide how he wanted to continue — and ultimately finish — it.