Back In The Saddle, Part Three : Ryan Alves, Chaia Startz, Drew Lerman, And More

I dunno if I’ve got miles to go before I sleep (let’s fucking hope not), but I’ve got miles to go before I’m caught up, so let’s keep on keeping on with the single steps that make up the journey of a thousand — you know what? Enough with the cliches already.

Spiny Orb Weaver #2, Edited By Neil Brideau – Starting things off with a shameless plug for my Patreon, I’ve been talking a lot recently about the new trend in comics toward more locally-focused anthologies over on that site, and Brideau/Radiator are taking things a step further by funding this Miami-centric ‘zine with a South Florid arts grant. The format of each issue is tight and disciplined, to be sure, but there’s room within it to tell just about any story a person could want to : the lead feature is done by a South Florida-based artist, followed by an interview with them, then there’s a secondary strip by someone who used to call the area home about their time there, and then we get a text piece on the comic arts in South Florida wraps things up. This time out, the “headliner” is Drew Lerman, who’s never made anything less than a nearly-perfect comic, and that trend continues here with a sublime strip set in his Snake Creek “universe,” so this is a “must-buy” item already. The back-up is by Chris Lopez, a name new to me who contributes an evocative bit of reminiscence, and the text piece comes courtesy of my friend and SOLRAD cohort Rob Clough, so — yeah. Plenty for your money here, and projects worthy of your support don’t come a whole lot worthier than this one.

All this can be yours for ten bucks by going over to https://www.radiatorcomics.com/shop/uncategorized/spiny-orb-weaver-no-2/

The Adventures Of Nib And Borba By Chaia Startz – Making a strong case for the year’s best mini, we have this compact legitimately auteur vision from Startz, perhaps best known as part of the Bay Area’s Dead Crow de facto collective (sorry, don’t know what else to call it), who packs more sheer cartooning energy onto the page than a reasonable person would ever assume possible. And speaking of assumptions, I think our title characters are cats dressed as hearts, but honestly, it doesn’t really matter : they’re an outlet for Startz to make hilariously well-considered points about our media-saturated culture that never miss the mark and, just as crucially, never come off as heavy-handed or overly obvious. If you wear reading glasses like I do, you’ll need to break ’em out for this comic as the panels are incredibly small, but every last one of them is just plain incredible, as well. This reads and feels like the future of comics as you hold it in your hands, and if we’re lucky enough, who knows? Maybe it will be.

On the downside, it appears to be sold out everywhere, but if you want to start the process of hunting one down — and trust me, you do — you could do worse than asking around at http://deadcrow.org/

Bubblegum Maelstrom #2 By Ryan Alves – If the first issue of Alves’ solo anthology brught the heat, the second brings pure fire, as this represents what personal, idiosyncratic works of art are all about : wordless barring the continuing Bat-parody/reluctant tribute “Moustache,” this is a (damn I hate this word, but) cornucopia of styles and methods in service of stories loosely linked by themes of metamorphosis, inconsistency, and “change being the only constant.” But it’s not just physical change Alves is playing with here, nosiree — by the end of his strips one usually finds their perception of everything that’s happened going back to the beginning has changed, as well, each story therefore being an internalized, self-referential interrogation of form, function, and the very concept of finality. “Nothing ends, Adrian — nothing ever ends.”

In theory I’d recommend you get this from Alves’ own Awe Comics, but for reasons I’ll get to in a moment I’m going to direct you to the Strangers website to score it : https://strangersfanzine.bigcartel.com/product/bubblegum-maelstrom-1-by-ryan-alves

Bubblegum Maelstrom #3 By Ryan Alves – Okay, I stand corrected : nothing ends except when it does, and with the oversized, squarebound, third issue of his series, Alves is calling it a day. There’s something to be said for going out on top, though, and as our three continuing narratives wrap up alongside a smatterinig of stand-alone strips, you get that entirely pleasant feeling of an artist having done everything they want to do with a particular project and moving on to the next challenge, whatever it may be. Not everyone can hit with every story, of course, and there’s a “buddy cops vs. mutants” yarn in here that didn’t do a ton for me and seems conceptually slight in comparison with everything else, but that “everything else” is grade-A comics all the way. Once again, we run a stylistic gamut here, but everything (except that one thing) makes for a cohesive whole from dizzyingly disparate parts. Remember how freaking amazing comics can be? Read this, and you will. Problem is —

I don’t know where the hell you’re supposed to find it. Strangers has the first two issues, but not this one. The Awe Comics Storenvy site is likewise bereft of it. My recommendation would be to go to Alves’ personal website and bug him to sell you a copy. Hit the contact “button” at this link : https://livinginmethane.weebly.com/

And with that, I’m calling it a night. Be a mensch and help a jobbing critic out by signing up for that Patreon I mentioned earlier, where you get a lot more of this kind of thing for as little as a dollar a month : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Ryan Alves And Ron Beek III Dole It Out With Suitably Extreme Prejudice In “The Punishment : Social Justice”

The super-hero spoof/send-up is, at this point, quite likely as tired as the notion of the super-hero itself, so trust me when I say that someone needs to have something unique, provocative, or both to say within the confines of this shop-worn genre in order for this critic to pay attention to it himself on the one hand, and to draw your attention to it on the other. Ryan Alves’ intelligently revisionist take on Ba*man, Moustache, was one such all-too-rare diamond in the overcrowded rough (in fact, if memory serves me correctly I reviewed it on this very blog), though, and so when he told me he was going to be offering up his own slant on a certain bloodthirsty skull-bedecked Marvel vigilante, I immediately found myself something I’m usually not with regards to this sort of thing — interested.

Admittedly, his collaborator and co-publisher on the just-released The Punishment : Social Justice, Ron Beek III, is someone whose work I’m not familiar with, and just as admittedly I have no firm handle on precisely how the division of labor on this what-I-assume-to-be-a-one-shot breaks down, but in a pinch I’d guess that Alves did the lion’s share of the art, while the script was more of an “even-Steven” affair. I could be wrong about that, but hopefully neither creator will shoot me down in the street if I am.

The targets chosen by Alves and Beek’s iteration of Fran* Castl*, however, are far more appropriate, in my humble estimation : racist fuckwits who have absconded with The Punishe*’s icononic emblem in the year since his retirement, and who fancy themselves as carrying on his legacy in his absence. However, much like the real-life “Proud Boys,” these asshats have nothing to be proud of, and the bulk of this comic is taken up with our ostensible “hero” violently slaughtering all of them in a bar in hopes of distancing his “brand” from them in permanent fashion. It’s a grim slog, even for someone of the “always punch a Nazi” mindset such as myself, but as with the final act of Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, there’s something inherently cathartic in the sadistic bloodshed served up that may not leave you necessarily feeling proud of yourself for enjoying it but will, at the very least, leave you feeling that it couldn’t have happened to a sweeter bunch.

To paraphrase Clarence Darrow, I’ve never wished a man dead, but there are a number of obituaries I’ve enjoyed reading, and certainly the loss of these fictional miscreants in their world likely has no more negative value than the loss of a Gavin McInnes, Richard Spencer, or Marjorie Taylor Green (or, for that matter, a Donald Trump or Mitch McConnell) would in ours, but at the same time there’s something unsettling about using the right wing’s second favorite tactic next to lying through their teeth — that being the application of brute force — against them that will, or at least should, always give those of us with a functioning conscience pause. I mean, ideally, you’re always going to hope that there’s a better way of dealing with prejudiced scumbags than killing them.

Really. You are. Please say that you are.

Still, if there’s one thing recent history has taught us, it’s that the age of idealism could very well be behind us, much as we wish that weren’t the case. QAnon lunatics are still trying to overturn an election that they lost fair and square on orders of their amoral, syphilitic, game show host, pretend-billionaire cult leader, one of the two major political parties is busy running interference for them in the halls of government, and the question of when it’s appropriate to do unto others as they’d gladly do unto you, only do it first, is a very pressing one, indeed. The Punishe* has always been an answer to that query writ large and bloody, and the the appropriation of his insignia by white nationalist thugs is problematic on its face, sure, but who are we kidding? It’s appropriation by thousands and thousands of cops is even more terrifying, something that the character’s co-creator, Gerry Conway, has addressed in a statement that Alves and Beek reproduce (with appropriate redactions) on the back cover of this comic. Whether we’re talking about law breakers or law enforcement, then, we seem to find ourselves surrounded by a “Punishe* mentality” on all sides, and to the extent that this comic offers decidedly unsubtle commentary on that equally unsubtle phenomenon, you have to tip your hat and say “job well done” — even if said job wasn’t an especially pleasant one.
Where does that leave us, then? Well, “fucked” is the shortest and probably most accurate answer, but under such circumstances a bit of gallows humor such as this — especially gallows humor this flat-out astonishingly drawn — may be more than simply an entirely healthy response, it may be the only healthy response. Plus, this book would be sure to raise the blood pressure of any “comicsgate” asshole who stumbled upon it (although given that it wasn’t crowd-funded by a 400-pound perpetually whining YouTube grifter who resembles a rotting sack of pig shit drenched in mayonnaise and draws like one, as well, or by an inbred-looking Charlottesville attendee with a $6 Hitler haircut and a stack of back child support bills up to his neck, their odds of being aware of its existence are minimal), and that’s a nice plus.

See? Like Alves and Beek’s Punishe*, I’m all about choosing the proper recipients of karmic justice.

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The Punishment : Social Justice is available for $5.00 from the Awe Comics Storenvy site at https://www.storenvy.com/products/32117815-the-punishment-social-justice

Review wrist check – Mitch Mason “Chronicle” in the dial color they call “desert sand,” riding its factory-issue suede strap.

Two From Ryan Alves : “Bubblegum Maelstrom” #1

I’ve long been of the opinion that single-creator anthologies are something that’s in far too short a supply these days, but I’m pleased as can be to see Ryan Alves has thrown his hat into the ring with Bubblegum Maelstrom #1 from Awe Comics, a solid collection of six short strips, most boasting full painted color, that pleasingly concludes on a “Continued Next Issue” note. Which means, of course, that this is a good enough comic that you’ll be hankering for more.

Still, it’s bad form in the extreme to begin at the end, so let’s back up a bit here : it starts as life itself does, with fucking, and continues apace through a particularly grotesque birth, followed by an equally grotesque bio-dystopia, then on into a Bat-spoof, and from there makes its way through mutant plant growth, just plain mutants doing battle across a canyon, and fire-farting birds in conflict with man and, well, mutants again. There’s beauty in all this ugliness and squalor and devastation and natural austerity, to be sure, but sometimes you really do have to work damn hard to find it.

Still, who isn’t up for a challenge every now and then? And while revisionist takes on The Book Of Genesis and on Bruce Wayne and Alfred and on the post-apocalyptic genre in more or less its entirety may seem to only fit together in the most vague of conceptual terms, in point of fact one story flows into the next here quite nicely, albeit surprisingly. Most are self-contained — barring the Bat-thing, which is an except from Alves’ daring Moustache newspaper broadsheet, previously reviewed on this very site and which I expect to see further serialized in subsequent issues — but the linkages between them range from the oblique to the far less so, the end result being that the entire package has a definite holistic bent to it. I can’t say whether this is by accident, design or, more than likely, a bit of both, but it’s there plain as day and that sense of cohesion is part of what makes this, as the kids say, “next level stuff,” indeed.

The other major contributing factor to that makeshift designation is, of course, the art — Alves has never, in my experience as a reader, been one to fuck around, but here he imbues everything with an expertly-achieved blend of the lush and the ominous, the delicate and the foreboding, the sacred and the profane. Horrific monstrosities juxtaposed perfectly in space against rich landscapes, with no shortcuts taken and no detail spared. He’s playing for keeps in every panel on every page, a palpable effort to make each image genuinely memorable on clear display throughout.

And yet, there is a real sense here that we may just be scratching the surface — which, as far as opening salvos go, is in no way a bad thing. Alves brings a cinematic approach to his pages, his eye — and, consequently, that of the reader — alighting on elements that enhance mood as much as they advance narrative, and while some of the choices he makes in that regard are perhaps bizarre on a liminal level, on a sublininal one they all make a kind of intuitive “sense.” As easy as these strips are to follow along with, then, don’t rush them — you’ll be missing out on a lot of the fun if you do.

Yes, I did say fun — there’s plenty of it to be had amid the parade of degradation and depravity here. Alves is dead serious about his craft, to be certain, but there is a playful tone to much of this comic that makes it perhaps all the more disconcerting for that fact. There are shocks and stomach-churns in more than generous supply, but how seriously you decide to take them all? That’s entirely up to you. For my own part, I was horrified at how much fun I was having, but also had fun with the sheer depths to which I was horrified. If that seems inherently contradictory, all I can say is — read the comic. I think you’ll feel the exact same way.

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Bubblegum Maelstrom #1 is available for $12.00 from the Awe Comics Storenvy site at https://www.storenvy.com/products/31352110-bubblegum-maelstrom

Also, 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 for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Two From Ryan Alves : “Moments With Mo’Peaches”

You know the old saying — “change is the only constant.” Yet most changes are slow and inexorable things that occur over protracted periods of time, barely visible at all from moment to moment. You likely don’t notice if you put on ten pounds over the course of a couple of months, for instance, but a friend who sees you at the beginning of those couple of months and again at the end will likely be biting their tongue to prevent themselves from saying “hey, looks like you’ve gained a little weight” — unless you’ve got friends like mine, that is.

One of the nice things about cartooning, though, is that it can be used to fuck with time, even absent the stereotypical “Later—” caption box. Events that occur over the course of a few panels can translate to mere moments of “real time,” or to several months. The clock and the calendar are well and truly just grist for the artist’s sequential storytelling mill — all of which brings us to Ryan Alves’ self-published 2014 mini Moments With Mo’Peaches.

Simply and ingeniously formatted as a series of three-panel “gags” displaying transformations, metamorphoses, and transmogrifications large or small that either happen to, or are engendered by the actions of, our vaguely monstrous protagonist Mr. Peaches, they’re all good for a chuckle on the surface, but scratch beneath it and you’ll see some ambitious formal experimentation taking place right before your eyes. That’s because the act of confining himself to a rigid and unyielding structure gives Alves plenty of creative freedom to explore the narrative intricacies of said structure, and to press his metaphorical “fast forward” button either once or twice. Everything here is a progression, but how rapid a progression we’re talking about changes from strip to strip as surely as the primary colors Alves utilizes for each of them. It’s a wild ride — or, rather, series of rides — that he’s taking us on here, but at first glance you could be forgiven for thinking it’s all pretty standard stuff.

Which, I guess, on the one hand it is — but teasing out the inherent complexities of the most basic “Cartooning 101” exercise is perhaps what Alves is aiming to do here. I’m not a qualified mind-reader by any stretch of the imagination, but speaking as someone who tries his level best to engage fully with any work, what I can say is that the effect of these short wordless yarns, especially when viewed in succession with a deliberately blank page between each, is to establish a very definite rhythm that goes something like “status quo, big change, new normal,” followed by a “hard” break to take in what’s just happened before moving on to the next oddball scenario. It’s a little weird, but it works — as do the strips themselves.

As the images included with this review make plain, this is also a horizontally-formatted publication, and while this decision may have been nothing so much as a practical consideration, it also plays into the overall experience by lending the proceedings a kind of fluidity that, let’s face it, a “two panels with one below” or “one panel with two below” vertical orientation would necessarily lose. Breaking up that flow with an empty reverse side to every page certainly breaks that flow, but again, within a couple of pages this establishes itself as part of the overall rhythm of the work. It’s a curious enough choice on Alves’ part, admittedly, but I’d be lying if I said it was anything less than utterly effective.

Which isn’t a bad way to summarize the entire project, really. Maybe it shouldn’t work, or maybe it’s such a stripped-down exercise that it can’t help but work, but at the end of the day who am I to quibble with the fact that it does? Likewise, while it could be fairly argued that I may be overthinking this whole thing, I can just as easily see a case to be made for the proposition that I haven’t thought about it enough. I’m not gonna split hairs — all I know is that this unassuming little ‘zine does precisely what it set out to do. Whatever that may be.

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I’m not sure where — or even if — prospective readers can obtain a copy of Moments With Mo’Peaches, nor do I have any clue as to its price, but a good place to start would probably be by heading over to Ryan Alves’ website, which is htttp://livinginmethane.weebly.com

Review wrist check – Squale “1521 Onda” aqua blue dial model riding a Zodiac camo caoutchouc rubber NATO-style field strap.

Part Parody, Part Paradox – Ryan Alves’ “Moustache”

“Why, sir —” long-suffering butler Alfred inquires of Bruce Wayne in Frank Miller’s classic The Dark Knight Returns, “—whatever happened to your moustache?”

Providence’s Ryan Alves is out to do a lot more than flip that query on its head with his recent AWE Comics newspaper broadsheet Moustache, though — and while it may not always be clear what his ambitions and aims are, his atmospheric blend of rich black inks, cinematic panel compositions, well-placed washes (or a digital approximation thereof, at any rate?), intricate linework, and good old-fashioned improvisational drawing at the very least marks this as the best-looking “Bat book” to come down the pike in ages, certainly better than anything DC seems even capable of producing with the “real” thing. Which brings us to the big question, namely —

So what is this early-days story featuring the most thinly-veiled analogue for the Caped Crusader ever seen, then? A revisionist take on Batman : Year One? A deconstruction of the character from the POV of the “alternative” comics scene, a la Josh Simmons’ Mark Of The Bat, or its “sequel” drawn by Patrick Keck, Twilight Of The Bat? Straight parody, perhaps? Or something else altogether?

In truth, elements of all these things are present and accounted for, but there’s also a curiously respectful tone for both the character and the archetypes he at first glommed onto, then finally came to represent. There’s a confused, frightened, vengeful little rich boy inside Alves’ cape and cowl, a violent thug who maybe — needs a hug? As well as a shave, of course.

Look, let’s not kid ourselves : Batman is a ridiculous character, a bored “one percenter” with an axe to grind who decides to get even with the world for taking his parents away from him by dressing up in leather fetish gear at night and beating the crap out of people who are mostly poor and desperate and who, crucially, had nothing to do with the murder of his folks. There’s an awful lot that can be said about such a person, but — while my own “sample size” of their recent-years product is small — DC hasn’t really had the guts to say it. Nor will they as long as the property is worth, on its own, probably well in excess of a billion dollars. It’s not just that they can’t afford to take risks with Batman, though — no, it’s more the case that they can’t even acknowledge how utterly warped the core concept always has been and remains. There’s a forced state of denial in “real” Batman comics that’s entirely out the window here, and while Alves clearly has his tongue planted firmly in cheek in many of the scenes in this refreshingly simple and straight-forward narrative, he’s not taking gratuitous potshots or utilizing his satirical skills purely in service of grabbing low-hanging fruit. He’s just kinda telling it like it is, admitting that the whole notion of Batman is equal parts cool and camp (or maybe cool because it’s camp), problematic and promising (at least as far as telling a very particular type of story goes), fascist and, dare I say it, funny. By refusing to dwell on anything overly much he’s able to offer succinct comment on everything about the character just enough, and the resultant reading experience is something that somehow manages to poke a bit of fun at Batman while at the same time hewing rather closely enough to traditionalist takes on the character that it doesn’t come off as particularly mean-spirited. It’s a weird and heady mix, not entirely easy to describe (as you’ve no doubt surmised), but for all of that — or maybe because of all of that — it really works. And again, it sure doesn’t hurt that it’s so damn gorgeous to look at.

Classify it however you wish, then, it makes no particular difference to me, as it comfortably fits into any number of categories depending on one’s own reading of it — all I know is that it’s the best Batman comic in ages. Even if it’s not, strictly speaking, a Batman comic.

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Moustache is available for $10.00 from the AWE Comics storenvy site at https://www.storenvy.com/products/29875687-moustache

Review wrist check – Monta “Atlas” GMT blue dial model riding a Bond NATO from Crown & Buckle’s “Supreme NATO” line.