Catching Up With Josh Simmons’ “Ghouls”

Forgive me in advance for broaching the subject, but — is there anything you’re going to miss about the pandemic when it’s over? Go on, act as incensed at the question as you wish, but I’ll bet you it’s something you’ve asked yourself at least once, even if you felt guilty that it even so much as entered your mind. Come on, be honest here : less traffic, quiet neighborhood streets at night, no waiting for tables at restaurants, being able to work from home — all of these things are, well, kinda nice. Not to say that they’re worth hundreds of thousands dead, millions more infected, and probably very nearly the same number of people out of work either temporarily or permanently — just saying, these are things that are not bad, in and of themselves, even if we arrived at them via the most fucked-up means possible. I mean, there were days when it probably felt a little bit fun and exciting for soldiers to be exploring the jungles of Vietnam, but that doesn’t mean the war itself was in any way good or justifiable. Maybe it’s just an acknowledgement that even under the worst of circumstances, there are still things you can point to and say “well, at least this little aspect of it wasn’t so utterly and relentlessly horrible.” I mean, lest we forget, COVID-19 probably played a pretty big part in finally getting Donald Trump the fuck out of office.

One thing I know I’ll miss once life either returns to normal or settles into some permanent “new normal” is the sheer amount of free time so many cartoonists seem to have on their hands, even though I know a lot of them could use the income their days jobs provided (and hopefully will again), simply because a lot of good comics are being produced that otherwise probably wouldn’t have been. Granted, 95% of these are “quarantine diary comics,” but that’s okay : a lot of them have been top-notch “quarantine diary comics.” And then there’s that other 5%, which brings us to Josh Simmons — and, more specifically, to his self-published ‘zine Ghouls.

I reviewed the first issue of this series — even if I didn’t know that’s what it would turn out to be — not too terribly long ago, and now he’s released two new issues that “sandwich” it, a pandemic-themed second issue and an issue #0 (guess he came of age in the ’90s, as well) that collects eight pages of pre-pandemic drawings. Again, there’s something of a grab-bag feel to these — even if #2 has a fairly distinct theme — and that’s their great strength when considered as a whole : you literally never know what’s waiting for you on the next page, and that’s a sure-fire way to make sure you keep turning ’em. Sex gags, fake comic book covers, Bond villain portraits, a couple of short, fully-formed strips — even Willie Nelson and Whitsesnake song lyrics. Anything goes. Who can possibly take issue with that?

Of course, Simmons being Simmons, the horrific is never going to be under-represented, so be on the lookout for mutant families, creepy clowns, raging rednecks, and decrepit old perverts, all drawn in styles ranging from the realistic to the rapid-fire to the deliberately ambiguous to the classically cartoonish — thus ensuring that vagaries and variety in both subject matter and artistic methodology will greet your eager eyes — but here’s the thing that elevates this above many a random-ass mini : for all the shit thrown at the wall, most of it sticks. And when you’re putting together a package like this, you really can’t ask for much more than that.

There are laughs to be had here, too, grim as they may be — but what do you really expect from grim times? When evaluating the two issues side by side, it’s interesting to note that the humor quotient remains roughly proportionate in each, even though one features drawings from before the world went to hell (okay, fair enough, went more completely to hell) and the other, appropriately longer one from after, so it’s fair to say Simmons’ outlook has always been —errrmmm — ghoulish, his sensibilities always leaning toward finding the funny side in the darkest of situations, and while the contemporary state of things may offer him more material at the ready, who are we kidding? There was never any shortage of it in the first place.

In any case, Simmons has his finger on the pulse, and his pen at the ready. He captures the essence of things in a way that’s sometimes a bit too close to home, but never anything less than absolutely truthful. Read it, weep — and yes, have a few chuckles while you’re at it.

************************************************************************

Ghouls #0 and #2 are available together as a package by sending $4.00 via PayPal to joshuahallsimmons@yahoo.com.

Review wrist check – Ocean Crawler “Paladino Wavemaker” green dial model riding a black Ocean Crawler stingray leather strap.

Two From Josh Simmons : “Ghouls”

Horror and humor are often a potent mix — as any fan of films like Frankenhooker or Street Trash can tell you (and, for the record, I’m “guilty” as charged on both counts) —but, more often than not, humor is the “senior partner,” if you will, in the pairing, largely because it’s easier to make someone laugh at atrocious shit than to show them how frightening the stuff we laugh at can actually be. A pure half-and-half serving of each is perhaps an even more rare thing to come by — and the challenge to create precisely that when you’re dealing with subject matter that delves into the existential ? Well, that’s a fairly stiff one indeed.

Still, it seems that’s the task Josh Simmons set for himself with his just-released mini Ghouls, a self-published series of single-panel cartoons that begins with an “abandon hope, all ye who enter here — and don’t expect any to come along” premise and proceeds from there. The point of view he approaches these ostensible “gag” strips with is, then, an inherently nihilistic one, but hey — that doesn’t mean he can’t see the funny side of the void he’s staring directly into. And, even more importantly, it doesn’t mean he can’t show that funny side to you, the reader.

Now, I’ll grant you, all of this means you’ve gotta be wired a certain way to take a perverse sense of, for lack of a better term, “enjoyment” from this ‘zine, but if you’re familiar with Simmons’ work, you knew that much already. What ups the ante here, however, is the sheer weight of outside forces : I mean, who are we kidding? Seldom, if ever, has apocalypse of one form or another seemed as inevitable as it does now, and seldom, if ever, has that inevitability been raged against and resigned to in equal measure. Credit to the largely-youthful group of protesters and activists who are actually demanding real and substantive change in hopes of either preventing the end of all things or remaking our society into one worth fighting to preserve before it’s gone, but on the other side of the coin we’ve got very nearly as many people happy to permanently (that being a very relative term) hand the keys to the Doomsday Express over to our modern iteration of Nero and crash and burn along with him as long as he keeps them dazed out on a cocktail of racism, nationalism, spite, grievance, and mean-spiritedness. “Who cares about surviving as long as other people have it even worse than we do on the way out the door?” may not seem a very rational way to approach the death-throes of corporate gluttony to you and me — at least I damn sure hope it doesn’t — but it appears that it’s what at least 1/3, maybe more, of the folks here in the US want, and right now, they’re the ones in charge.

Trust me when I say these garden-variety observations only seem superfluous to mention in relation to this comic, because the sad truth is that they’re anything but : Simmons’ cartoons are very much the product of, and communicate the specific concerns and absurdities of, what’s conveniently — but accurately — been labeled as the “pandemic mindset,” and if you’re looking for some relief from that, it’s incumbent upon me to inform you that you won’t be finding it here. If, however, you’re looking to see it laid bare and to have a grim chuckle or two while you ruminate on its implications, well, you’re in for a hell of a time.

Notice I didn’t say “a hell of a good time,” because if Simmons makes one thing perfectly clear, it’s that even if we do stumble or earn our way out of this COVID mess, the same anxieties and stresses that plagued us before will still be there, whether we’re talking about money worries, relationship worries, or the spectre of our own mortality. We’re all doomed — it’s just a question of when and how. Ain’t life grand?

And on that cheery note, I’m actually giving this comic my highest possible recommendation, not just because it’s brutally honest, but because it’s brutally honest and brutally funny and functions as both a mirror of these brutal times and a brutal reminder that, one way or another, there’s no escape from the bullshit.

******************************************************************************

Ghouls is available in a package with Simmons’ other new comic, Micky (shown above), by sending $10.00 via PayPal to joshuahallsimmons@yahoo.com.

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon page, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative indeed if you’d take a moment to check it out by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Two From Josh Simmons : “Micky”

We’ve all been there — you’re sitting on a plane, or a train, or a bus, and some nosy asshole plunks down next to you and starts asking all sorts of invasive questions, most likely because they’re both bored and boring. After all, when you haven’t got much of a life yourself, then you become unnaturally interested in the lives of others. But what if the person who started nosing around in your business had motivations beyond merely alleviating the tedium of their existence?

That’s the premise behind Josh Simmons’ latest self-published mini (well, okay, it’s only a “mini” in terms of length — as far as its physical format goes, it’s magazine-sized and offset-printed) Micky, an intense short story that plays to its artist’s strengths as the small press scene’s most accomplished purveyor of visceral horror. But the visceral only hits home as anything beyond a splatterfest if it manages to set the stage for bloodshed with some carefully-constructed psychological fucked-upness. And our titular Micky is one very fucked-up individual indeed.

Just how fucked up only becomes apparent in due course, but you get a strong feeling that something ain’t right with this guy from the outset, as he pesters a young couple with a series of increasingly uncomfortable questions, followed by a number of observations and statements that can most generously be described as “grossly and disgustingly inappropriate.” And then shit really goes off the rails.

Obviously, the claustrophobic confines of an airplane make for a good setting for a horror story (you wanna talk about “I’m not locked in here with you — no, you’re locked in here with me!!!!”), and Simmons paces this gut-punch of a short-form yarn expertly by spending roughly half of it on pure buildup, and the other half on deliriously OTT ultraviolence. It’s a thoroughly unpleasant and unsettling experience, and given that’s precisely what it’s supposed to be, well — props for a job well done, even if that job was quite obviously a tough one to stomach. Or am I assuming too much?

Who knows? And, furthermore, who cares? We’re here to discuss this comic’s effectiveness rather than speculate as to the mindset of its creator while he was making it, but I will say this much : it’s always plain as day when an author, artist, or both feels the impact of what they’re doing, and the calculated nature of Simmons’ plotting and his art’s attention to both detail and impact leads me to think that he probably spent more time in his character’s head than would generally be considered “healthy,” and that he spent at least that much time deciding how best to visually communicate the horrific mayhem he was preparing to unleash. There are no accidents here, no sense that the cartoonist is ever “winging it” — and the deliberate nature of the process that went into making this really pays off in the mark (hell, maybe that should be the stain) it leaves on a reader’s brain and conscience afterwards.

Obviously, then, given its profoundly disturbing nature, I can’t recommend this comic to everyone — but for folks like me who appreciate a truly unhinged reading experience, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

******************************************************************************

Micky is available in a package deal with Simmons’ other new mini, Ghouls (pictured above), by sending $10.00 via PayPal to joshuahallsimmons@yahoo.com.

Review wrist check – it really doesn’t get much better than this in the summertime : my Squale “1521” classic blue dial model riding a Zodiac NATO-style caoutchouc rubber field strap in burnt orange.

Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Ongoing Series

With my top ten single issues of 2019 in the rear view mirror, let’s move on to the top ten ongoing series. Any comic that saw two or more issues released in the past calendar year is eligible in this category and so, as you’d no doubt expect, the mainstream is represented much more on this list than it was in the last, given that most of their titles are still, theoretically, on a regular production schedule. There are a couple of elephants in the room that I’ll address at the very end, but let’s worry about that after you’ve read the “countdown,” shall we?

10. Wasted Space By Michael Moreci And Hayden Sherman (Vault Comics) – The first of two ensemble cast sci-fi series where every member of said ensemble is an asshole to make the “best of” cut this year, Moreci’s scripts for this book are heavy on the humor and class-conscious political messaging, while Sherman, who’s one of the busiest artists around these days, seems to bring an extra level inspiration and creativity to this title. Fun and smart in equal measure.

9. Go-Bots By Tom Scioli (IDW) – Perhaps the most surprising entry on the list simply because no one expected that a good comic about some third-rate Transformers knock-offs was even possible, but leave it to the great Scioli to make these robots seem more human than — well, humans, while cramming more ideas and visual “hooks” into any given page than most cartoonists can manage in an entire issue. IDW is onto something with this whole “give an indie guy a crack at a licensed property” idea, as we shall see as things go on.

8. All-Time Comics : Zerosis Deathscape By Josh Bayer, Josh Simmons, Trevor Von Eeden, et. al. (Floating World Comics) – After an up-and-down first “season,” the aesthetic and thematic goals of the brothers Bayer (the other being Samuel)  are coming into pretty sharp focus in this late-Bronze Age homage. Some of that might be down to the addition of  Simmons as co-writer, and some of it is certainly down to the monumentally-underappreciated Von Eeden coming aboard as main artist and proving he certainly hasn’t lost a step, but whatever the case may be, this amalgamation of the over-and undergrounds is firing on all cylinders now.

7. Clue : Candlestick By Dash Shaw (IDW) – I told you we’d be getting back to IDW licensed books, and what a beauty this one was : the endlessly-inventive Shaw littered each of the three issues of this mini with clever puzzles and crafted one of the more compelling characters in comics this year with his iteration of Miss Scarlet. Innovative, engrossing, and consistently surprising, we’re talking about a legit gem here.

6. Outer Darkness By John Layman And Afu Chan (Image/Skybound) – Our second ensemble-cast-of-assholes science fiction series serves up at least one “pinch me, did I really just read that?” moment in each issue, as Layman crafts an epic that’s equal parts William Friedkin’s The Exorcist and Jack Kirby’s Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers, while Chan delivers the visually-arresting goods in a style that demonstrates some strong anime influence yet remains utterly unique. You may not like anyone in this book, but you’ll love the book itself.

5. The Immortal Hulk By Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose, et. al. (Marvel) – The first time a Marvel book has made my year-end list, but anyone who doubts my judgment clearly hasn’t been reading this comic. Ewing is doing for the Hulk what Alan Moore did for Swamp Thing, and Bennett blends Bernie Wrightson and Kelly Jones with early-era Image and jaw-dropping character designs, ably abetted by Jose’s faithful, non-flashy inks . The best super-hero book in a decade or more.

4. The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen : The Tempest By Alan Moore And Kevin O’Neill (Top Shelf/Knockabout) – Every bit as self-indulgent and self-congratulatory as its detractors claim, this extended “farewell tour” by Moore and O’Neill is nevertheless a heartfelt love letter to the characters and the medium they’re leaving behind as well as (crucially) the creators who came before them, who gave voice to the dreams and imaginings of countless generations — and were, of course, unconscionably ripped off for their troubles. One of the funniest and angriest comics of the year, and prima facie evidence that the comics landscape will be a far poorer place with these two, dare I say it, extraordinary gentlemen no longer part of it.

3. Love And Rockets By Jaime And Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics) – Los Bros. have been reaching new plateaus since switching back to their original magazine format with this, the fourth “volume” of their justly-legendary series, and while I hate to pick favorites, Jamie’s Maggie and Hopey stories are perhaps the best they have ever been right now. Which doesn’t mean Beto isn’t on a real creative “high” right now himself — he surely is. So let’s just admit what we all know : as readers of this tile, we’re not just spoiled — we’re spoiled to an embarrassing degree.

2. This Never Happened By Alex Graham (Self-Published) – Probably the most divisive title on this list, but also the bravest. Anyone who mines the worst period of their life for a creative “battery charge” is entering into combustible territory, and while Graham doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to her portrayal of other folks, her sharpest barbs are aimed at herself and the crucial part she played in her own personal downward spiral. And the only thing bolder than the script is the art, which is Graham’s most emotive and self-assured to date. I won’t kid you, after reading the first issue I was a little worried if the cartoonist was mentally and emotionally okay, but after two installments it really hit me : the work itself is proof that she emerged from her crisis not just relatively intact, but flat-out inspired.

1. From Hell : Master Edition By Alan Moore And Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf/Knockabout) – Anyone who has a problem with me choosing a reprint series as the year’s best ongoing, have at it — because while you can criticize me all you want, the work in question is pretty well above reproach. I was as skeptical as anyone else that adding color to the proceedings would massively detract from the look and flavor of Moore and Campbell’s grimy (and no doubt accurate) interpretation of the Victorian era, but with the artist himself in charge of the palette, the results have ranged from “unobtrusive” to “amazing,” and the absurd levels of income inequality in today’s world, as well as the return of leaders who seem to believe they come from the “divine right of kings” school of “thought,” make this conspiratorial examination of the Jack The Ripper murders more relevant than ever. Even if it’s all bullshit, it’s still true.

And now for those elephants in the room —

Astute readers may have noticed that two perennial favorites didn’t make the cut this year, those being Jeff Lemire and Dean Haspiel’s Black Hammer and Eric Reynolds’ avant-garde anthology series Now. The reason for that is simple : while Black Hammer : Age Of Doom ended in very satisfactory fashion, the issue leading up to it felt hopelessly padded and derivative, and while Now rebounded nicely with its seventh and most recent issue, volumes five and six didn’t come close to meeting the standard set by the title early on. I’d be shocked if that comic in particular didn’t find its was back onto the list next year, but we don’t deal in speculation around these parts. You wanna make the cut in any given 12-month period, you gotta earn it.

Next — the top ten vintage collections of 2019. See you for that in a couple of days! In the meantime, if you’d like to support my ongoing work, please consider subscribing to my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Do a jobbing freelancer a favor and check it out at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 09/29/2019 – 10/05/2019

And we’re back! After taking a month (-ish) off to finish some other writing projects (including my first-ever comic book story!) while still keeping my “regular” review schedule on track, the Round-Up is ready to get off the mat, dust itself off, and step back into the ring! As is Michel Fiffe, so let’s get to that first —

Copra (Vol. 2) #1 is the 32nd issue of the formerly-self-published series, as the cover signature makes clear, but what could be a lot more clear is just what the fuck is happening — for new readers, at any rate. And there should be plenty of those given that new publisher Image Comics has a much greater “reach” than a Brooklyn cartoonist toiling away on his own. Which isn’t to say that there’s not a nice recap of all that’s come before on offer in this 36-page debut issue (a real bargain at $3.99, especially given that it features a heavy cardstock cover), but it’s at the back of the book and late arrivals would probably be better served if it were at the front. That concern aside, though, this is another strong installment of this post-modern take on John Ostrander-era Suicide Squad comics, the characters are introduced/re-introduced on the fly so as not to slow down the pace, and one trademark ingenious Fiffe fight sequence should be all it takes to hook most newbies. A fun, smart, exceptionally fluid series that’s finally getting itself in front of as many pairs of eyes as it deserves? I can’t see any negatives to that new paradigm.

Also coming out of mothballs is Matt Wagner’s classic sorta-antihero in Dark Horse’s Grendel : Devil’s Odyssey  #1. The stoic Grendel Prime is our protagonist this time out, tasked with the old canard of finding a “replacement planet” for an Earth that’s headed down the tubes, and while Wagner’s art certainly is as crisp and distinctive as ever — much aided by his son Brennan’s fantastic color choices — the story might need an issue or two before the training wheels come back off. I’m not opposed to giving it that — few Grendel stories have ultimately let me down — however, eventually we’re gonna need more than just nostalgia value here. I dig the new and more obvious pulp influence, so that’s another plus, but the whole thing just isn’t quite clicking into place — yet.

One book that clicks into place right off the bat, though, is Ruby Falls #1, the latest debut offering from Dark Horse’s Berger Books line. A taut little mystery written by Karen Berger mainstay Ann Nocenti (by the way, aren’t there supposed to be two more issues of The Seeds — at some point?), this is a distinctively-scripted series featuring a distinctively-developed protagonist set against the backdrop of a distinctively-realized town. Oh, and Flavia Bondi’s art? That’s pretty darn distinctive, too — Eurocomics style meets the pragmatic storytelling concerns of the North American market, both elements accentuating rather than negating each other. After a shaky start to the imprint, Berger seems to have found her editorial footing again overseeing these four-part minis that have become her new mainstay, and this bears all the hallmarks of being the best one yet.

All-Time Comics : Zerosis Deathscape #4 lures you in with a terrific gouache painting by the always-astonishing Tara Booth featuring a generously-proportioned version of Bullwhip teeing off on arch-foe The Misogynist on the cover, and a chase-and-fight between the two penciled by Julia Gfrorer and inked by series co-writer Josh Simmons kicks things off before the other Josh — that being Bayer — and Simmons take us back into the story “proper” as illustrated by the still-super-after-all-these-years Trevor Von Eeden. I’m digging this pattern of having “alternative” cartoonists drawing the intro sequences, I’m digging the “gonzo” tone of the series as a whole, I’m digging the first new Von Eeden work in way too long — seriously, just jump on this book if you haven’t already. All the promise and potential hinted at (but only sporadically realized, it’s true) in the first ATC run is bearing fruit since making the jump over to Floating World Comics and Bayer bringing on all his new collaborators. Probably the most genuinely fun thing on your LCS new release racks these days.

And that’s our first week back on the books, in the books. Which just leaves the rote task of reminding you all that this column is “brought to you” each and every week (again, promise!) by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. You can’t beat that deal, so please take a moment to give it a look at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 07/28/2019 – 08/03/2019

Sometimes, as a writer, you like to throw little challenges at yourself, just to make things more interesting — especially when it comes to long-running columns such as this. My self-appointed challenge this week : to see if I can crank out one of these Round-Ups in 30 minutes or less. Let’s see how that goes —

Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang ride off into the sunset with Paper Girls #30, the conclusion to their long-running Spielbergian fan-favorite series from Image, and as far as finales go, this one’s a clinic : we start with a dream sequence, we then return to the “real world” much as our memory-wiped protagonists have, and how much they will or might remember is sorta the theme here. Lots of gorgeous double-page spreads give this extra-length issue a little extra “breathing room” to say a proper good-bye to the girls, and all in all these creators hit all the right notes on the way out the door. Oh, and I defy you to keep both eyes dry as you read it. This is calculated stuff, sure — it’s also pretty goddamn wonderful.

Once you get past Jason T, Miles’ amazingly bizarro cover for Floating World Comics’ All-Time Comics : Zerosis Deathscape #2, what awaits within is one of  the most bizarro issues to date of this always-unpredictable project. Josh Bayer and Josh Simmons introduce an utterly inexplicable villain in their script who’s a bit like McDonalds’ Grimace with a nihilistic philosophical bent, there are some truly eyeball-gouging battle scenes, and the “heroes” of this ostensible “universe” seem less heroic than ever. Benjamin Marra and Ken Landgraf kick things off with the first five pages of art, but it’s the main chunk of the book, as illustrated by the great Trevor Von Eeden, that’s the real draw here, and worth the price of admission. “Dynamic insanity” is, I believe, the term I’m straining for here — and now that I’ve found it, I need not say much else about this comic other than “buy it.”

Cullen Bunn and his fellow Sixth Gunn creator Brian Hurtt team up on writing duties for Manor Black #1 from Dark Horse, illustrated by Bunn’s creative partner on Harrow County, the magnificent Tyler Crook, and while the story’s a bit of a confused introduction to this world of magic and legacy, the whole “old-meets-new” dynamic works, and the art’s just straight-up gorgeous. This concept seems like it should have some legs, and even if the story doesn’t improve significantly, Crook is reason enough to hang around month-in and month-out — at least to see how this comic looks, if not where it goes.

Bunn’s got another debut to his credit this week with Aftershock’s Knights Temporal #1, a time-travel-meets-mystic-secret-society thing stunningly delineated by Fran Galan, who gives things a decidedly Eurocomics feel with his lush illustration. Again, the story’s a bit of a head-scratcher, certainly by intention I’d assume (although we all know what happens when you do that), but it’s reasonably intriguing, and the art hooks you quick and reels you into this world. I’m definitely planning on sticking around for more, even if how much more is a bit of an open question.

Okay, so 45 minutes. Not so bad, and just enough time before my day gets rolling to remind you all that this column is “brought to you” each and every week by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for the low price of as little as a dollar a month. Your support would be greatly appreciated, needless to say, so if you’d be so kind please give it a look (and hopefully a join) by heading on over to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

“All-Time Comics : Zerosis Deathscape” #1 : I Love It When A Plan Comes Together

We’ve certainly spent a lot of time dissecting Josh and Samuel Bayer’s All-Time Comics series on this site lately, and while I’m tempted to say something along the lines of “the beatings will continue until you buy this shit,” in truth I was doing some catch-up work in order to set the stage for the second “season” of this ever-evolving concept. The “zero issue” put out last month by Floating World Comics set the table, but now that All-Time Comics : Zerosis Deathscape #1 has arrived, it’s time for the main course. So — just how tasty is it?

The first few pages — a flashback sequence illustrated by the always-sublime Gabrielle Bell that ties the events of the “prequel” comic in with the series “proper” — are one visually-delicious appetizer, that’s for sure, but for old-time readers, it’s the main 1980s-set portion of the story, drawn by trailblazing “Big Two” veteran Trevor Von Eeden, that’s going to be the main draw, and to say ol’ Trev hasn’t lost a step would be an understatement : his page layouts are as inventive as ever, his sense of dynamic flow remains unfettered, his Krigstein-esque “fine art” sensibilities still razor-sharp and employed for maximum effect.

Rising to meet the challenge thrown down by their artists, co-scripters Josh Bayer and Josh Simmons, both terrific cartoonists in their own right, go right for the jugular, imbuing this homage to the post-“Bronze Age” crossover “event” comic with deliriously OTT ultra-violence, strong broad-stroke characterization, plenty of laugh-out-loud “gallows humor,” and even a bit of logical consistency. Having introduced each of these heroes by means of their individual exploits in “season one,” here they bring them all together to take on a trio of disparate threats, and while it would be a stretch to say that the three-headed “rogues’ gallery” of The Beggar, the wonderfully-named Daylight Savings Time Killer, and the meddlesome Time Vampire Scientist represent a “unified front,” wondering just how they’ll all come together to challenge Blind Justice, Bullwhip, and Crime Destroyer is a big part of the fun here, and speaking of speculation — just where the hell is the mightiest hero in this makeshift “universe,” Atlas?

Das Pastoras’ brutally beautiful cover reflects the “grim and gritty” tone of the era in comics history this series takes place in, but don’t take that to mean there’s no contemporary sensibility at work here — blending the old and the new has been one of the project’s main goals since its inception, but there were many instances in the first six-issue run where the balance was just a bit off, resulting in a tongue-in-cheek tone that couldn’t decide if it was a tribute or a pastiche. That’s hardly an issue with this — errrmmm — issue, though, as the Joshes and their artists nail it from the outset, each individual creator lending their talents to a highly synergistic and energetic whole. These folks, in other words, are cooking with gas.

Arrrggh, again with the food metaphors. I should probably cut this short and eat dinner. But if you’re hungry for a smart, “retro”-flavored comic that knows what it’s doing — one that tips its hat to its influences without being overly beholden to them — then you’re seriously going to dig All-Time Comics : Zerosis Deathscape #1.

Give it a read while I fire up the grill.

******************************************************************************

This review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. It’s a great— and most welcome — way to help support my work, and given you can join up for as little as a dollar month, I believe invoking the term “what have you got to lose?” is in order here.

Oh, and I suppose a link would come in handy. Here you go :https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

 

ATC Week Epilogue : “All-Time Comics : Zerosis Deathscape” #0

After giving you, dear readers — and myself! — a bit of a breather from all things “All-Time,” we’re back for one more round, this time putting the not-quite-first installment of “Season Two” of Josh and Samuel Bayer’s ongoing post-modern take on super-heroics under our metaphorical microscope, that being All -Time Comics : Zerosis Deathscape #0.

Direct “Bronze Age” call-backs are still here to be found, but you’ve gotta do a lot more digging for them as the brothers Bayer, along with new collaborator Josh Simmons and returning “usual suspects” Ken Landgraf and cover artist Das Patoras, have widened the scope of the project considerably, with the art and story this time most clearly hearkening back to the EC “hosted” horror comics of the 1950s, while the “zero issue” hustle is something straight outta the 1990s “speculator bubble” playbook.

The question, of course, is — are all of these changes for the best?

The project’s new publishing home, Floating World Comics, seems to think so, and while the complete tonal and stylistic 180 took me more than a moment to adjust to as a reader, truth be told I’m all for shattering expectations just as a matter of course. The scripting by the pair of Joshes is uneven, but keeps readers off-guard in just the right way, as narrator Time Vampire Scientist relates a story from the misty dawn of history that dovetails into what I presume to be a modern-day yarn (although the aesthetics and dialogue have a distinct Great Depression vibe to them) about a young lad who’s very nearly the victim of a shocking and harrowing crime, until he’s saved at the last moment when the scumbags who’ve set upon him are thwarted by a new (to us readers, at any rate) hero who calls himself The Red Maniac — and who’s decidedly un-heroic even by ATC  standards given that he’s middle-aged, out of shape, and barely able to hold his own in a fight.

How all this fits in with the reality-shattering dawn of something called the “Zeroverse” remains anyone’s guess, at this point, but I’m game to find out not just based on evidence offered in this “zero” issue, but because I’m damn excited about what’s coming next.

Or should that be who’s coming next? No offense intended to the art of misters Simmons and Landgraf — which is actually solid “retro” stuff that’s rich in detail and imaginatively laid out and presented — but the first issue proper sees the arrival of Trevor Von Eeden, one of the most groundbreaking and radical artists in DC’s 1980s stable, and someone who’s been absent from the comics scene for far too long. I’m absolutely fascinated to see how his style has changed and evolved over the decades, and to see how his always-remarkable visual storytelling skills play out in a contemporary comic (albeit one with a self-consciously nostalgic ethos).

I also have a tremendous amount of confidence in Simmons, who’s certainly one of the most distinctive voices in latter-day horror comics. The sample size we’re offered here is a small one — in fact, there are nearly as many pages of backmatter in this comic as there are of story and art — but it’s enough to hook you, even if it’s not enough to give a clear idea of why. I still read enough single-issue “floppies” to accept this as par for the course in the opening salvos of any and almost every given series, so what the hell — I can go with it here, too, and know from experience that Bayer and Simmons are skilled and smart enough to pull disparate narrative threads together in fascinating and unexpected ways.

All of which is to say — All-Time Comics : Zerosis Deathscape  #0 fulfills the tasks laid out in its unwritten (and decidedly narrow) remit nicely, and does so with enough scattershot imagination to convince you that we’re probably in quite good hands here. Whether that faith is wisely placed or not is something that’ll be determined over the course of the next six issues.

******************************************************************************

This review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics — and hopefully go some way toward mapping out where and how all of these things intersect, and to what effect. I recently lowered the minimum tier price to a dollar a month, so seriously — what have you got to lose? Needless to say, I’d be very gratified to have your support, so do please give it a look.

Oh, and I suppose a link would come in handy. Here you go :https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

“Flayed Corpse And Other Stories” : Josh Simmons Sits At The Center of A Brutal, Random, Uncaring Universe — Is That A Bad Thing?

In most fields of entertainment and/or artistic expression (the two only seem mutually exclusive, they needn’t necessarily be), there is usually at least one generally-acknowledged “Master of Horror,” if not several : literature has Stephen King; cinema has John Carpenter remaining out of the one-time Carpenter/Craven/Romero “trinity,” with plenty of others ready and waiting to assume up the mantle;  television has Robert Kirkman (hey, I didn’t say I liked all these folks); mainstream comics still clings to the acclaimed works of “British Invaders” Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Jamie Delano, as well as to the legendary EC and Warren creators. Purportedly “alternative” or “independent” comics, though? Not so much.

Certainly the first wave of underground comix saw plenty of cartoonists who were very much at home delineating the horrific : Greg Irons, Jack Jackson, Spain Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson and all produced memorable horror-themed works — heck, even a young Richard Corben cut his teeth in the underground milieu. These days, though, folks pursuing a non-corporate path for their comics careers tend toward the autobiographical, the surreal, the “slice-of-life,” the dramatic, the melodramatic. Horror seems to have fallen somewhat out of favor among the “indie” set.

Which is why Josh Simmons is such a breath of fresh — if fetid and diseased — air. Whether we’re talking about his shorter works collected in books such as The Furry Trap, or long-form graphic novels like Black River, this is a guy who makes his bread and butter holding a brutally scrambled — and just as brutally honest — funhouse mirror up to society and forcing us to acknowledge any number of things we’d much rather ignore, and his latest Fantagraphics-published collection, Flayed Corpse And Other Stories, sees him back on familiar ground and twisting the knife in deeper.

Simmons is often mistakenly lumped in with the “dudebro” crowd of white male cartoonists that think subtracting all meaning from their work automatically makes it “edgy” and gives them license to “up the ante” (Jason Karns, I’m looking at you — and Charles Forsman, I’m looking at you sometimes), but what I think the largely-well-meaning critics who take exception to this (as, usually, they should) miss is that there are ways to make pointlessness a point in and of itself, and that it takes genuine skill to effectively imbue your work with a sense of dread at the realization that the world is going to go on spinning no matter what the hell happens to any of us individually. That’s what Simmons does, and he does it without apology, pity, or a minute’s hand-holding.

His intro strip to this volume, pictured above, subverts the contents of everything that follows for those of us who know what to expect, saves its sardonic punchline if you’re a newbie, but undoubtedly works like a charm (an unlucky one, perhaps, but still) either way and very nearly manages to momentarily redeem the concept of irony until you remember that, oh yeah, most people shouldn’t even try this shit, but Simmons does it well enough to earn a pass. It’s really the first (and titular) strip presented after the table of contents, then, that sets the “legit” tone for the next one-hundred-sixty-some pages, as medical examiners debate how an unfortunate corpse came to be in their “care,” each one-upping the other with increasingly grotesque hypotheses as to cause of death before settling on all of them, and that the victim therefore met his end in a state of extreme agony — an agony that will likely endure forever because, I guess, that’s how metaphysics works. Welcome to a highly personal apocalypse that never ends.

Bizarrely, though, Simmons and his coterie of collaborators — writer/artist Tom Van Deusen, inker Eric Reynolds, artists Patrick Keck, Ben Horak, James Romberger, Pat Moriarty, Eroyn Franklin, Ross Jackson, and Joe Garber (with additional stand-alone art pages by Tara Booth, Anders Nilsen, and Shanna Matuszak) — find the funny side in the midst of this bleakness. The humor on offer is of the unsettling — hell, the gallows — variety, to be sure, but sometimes a shameful laugh in spite of yourself is better than no laugh at all.

In that sense, then, this assemblage of stories — most culled from various anthologies published between the years 2010-2017, although some were self-contained “floppy” single-issue releases — probably owes more to the ethos and aesthetic of the drive-ins and grindhouses of the ’70s than it does to what’s happening in contemporary horror, given that anything can happen at any time and no one is safe. Joe Bob Briggs would probably approve — as do I — but folks who grew up on horror with implicit, if never directly-stated, rules ? The readers who know the “loose” girls die first, the virgins survive until the end, the killer gets up and walks again no matter how violently he’s been dispatched? They might be genuinely surprised by the kind of “no hope for anyone, ever, so don’t fucking kid yourself” existential terror that is Simmons’ stock in trade.

I really don’t want to give the impression that this book has a sense of relentlessness to it, though — and while much of that is down to the aforementioned bleak humor, a lot of it is down to the varying, but uniformly pitch-perfect, art styles on display. Simmons’ own cartooning is plenty strong in its own right — rich and inky blacks juxtaposed with economic, effective, and moody linework that gives off a feel of “what if Chester Brown swapped out his clinical detachment for informed cynicism?” and finds its apex in the collection’s two finest stories (“The Incident At Owl’s Head,” a revisionist take on outsider-wanders-into-an-isolated-community tropes, and “Seaside Home,” a harrowingly straightforward character study of a family facing unavoidable, inescapable natural disaster) — but he shows a real penchant for playing to his artists’ strengths when he sets the pencils and brushes aside himself.

Of the collaborative entries, the strongest is no doubt “Twilight Of The Bat,” the justly-celebrated story that draws the one and only logical conclusion  to the let’s- not-call-him-Batman and let’s-also-not-call-him-Joker relationship (something of a surprise entry given that the original, riso-printed magazine came out in the latter part of 2017 and is still available from its publisher, Cold Cube Press), drawn with suitable post-apocalyptic grit by Patrick Keck, while the best example of two heads being better than one is probably “Daddy,” a stark and particularly unforgiving tale of the “oh my God the killer was already in our home” variety that transcends its telegraphed-from-the-outset trajectory thanks to James Romberger’s violently evocative art that marries old-school EC eeriness with a thoroughly modern sensibility, all awash with rich and vibrant and frankly disturbing colors. It’s gorgeous to look at, yeah, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt like hell.

Still, while the gory and the gross are  present and accounted for here in generous proportion (see especially the Pat Moriarty-illustrated “The Great Shitter”), it is the philosophy underpinning Simmons’ stories that sets them apart and above. Not even the light-hearted (relatively speaking, mind  you) Tom Van Deusen-penned yarn, “Late For The Show,” can completely escape the inexorable vortex pull of inevitability at the core Flayed Corpse And Other Stories. When your number is up, it’s up, Simmons never tires of reminding us — but before it comes up (and I hope, for your sake, that’s not for a good, long while yet), I absolutely urge you to buy this book.

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!