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!

 

In Memoriam : Steve Ditko, 1927-2018

Okay, here’s the deal : I had this whole thing done — and probably done better — and I scrapped it. This now-meager memorial to the inimitable, irreplaceable Steve Ditko — artist, creator, visionary, iconoclast — initially had a soaring, elegiac title, was loaded with florid and heartfelt prose, and went into his work in excruciating, exacting detail.

It was a good piece. I liked it a lot. It took three-plus hours to whip it into shape. And then I shit-canned the whole thing and started over from scratch because I realized that’s not what Ditko would have wanted.

He was all about letting his work speak for itself, you see — that’s why he famously never gave interviews or appeared at conventions after 1968. That’s why he never wanted his photo taken. That’s why he headed for the exits at one publisher after another when he felt that his artistic vision was being unduly impinged upon. He poured his all into every page he ever drew, every line he ever wrote, and he wanted his efforts to be appreciated and analyzed for what they were, what he put into them, without distraction or obfuscation. This earned him a reputation for being uncompromising, it’s true — but I suspect he was probably quite pleased with that, as well he should have been.

And yet, so many of the other urban legends swirling around this singular genius are, to put it mildly, probably quite exaggerated : far from being a Greta Garbo-esque recluse, Ditko remained listed in the New York City phone book right up until the end of his life, at age 90, on June 29th of this year. He was known to welcome visitors, announced or otherwise, into his studio and engage in lively, friendly conversation with them. He communicated directly with his fans not only by means of his comics work, but through a decades-long series of thoughtful, precise essays laying out his views on any number of subjects, both comics-related and not. He was a well-known fixture on the streets, and in the businesses, of his neighborhood. Why, then, does this image of him as the urban equivalent of a lonely, isolated hermit persist? Well, I have a theory on that —

In short, I think it’s because he walked away — and he did so more than once. This man who created  Captain Atom, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, The Question, The Creeper, Mr. A, Shade The Changing Man, Electro, Mysterio, The Green Goblin, Hawk and Dove — this man who eschewed the Kirby-esque Marvel “house style” in favor of lanky, gangly figures quietly  seething on the inside against an unconcerned, shadow-darkened world — he did something so many among his legion of fans could never understand. He put principle ahead of profit, integrity ahead of popularity, purity of vision ahead of commercial concerns. He ascended to the metaphorical mountaintop — overcoming a devastating bout with tuberculosis, roughing it through a stint in the army, moving from small-town Pennsylvania to the Big Apple in pursuit of his dream to “make it” as an illustrator — and decided that he’d rather do things his way than continue to dilute his ideas and intentions to suit a mass readership.

Consider : within months of creating the legendary “lifting sequence” in The Amazing Spider-Man #33 — arguably the most powerful and effective scene ever delineated in a mainstream super-hero comic book — he decided things weren’t working out to his satisfaction at Marvel, the company whose brand he helped build, and he went back to Charlton, the lower-rung publisher where he had cut his artistic teeth in the 1950s,  and where he suddenly found himself afforded the opportunity to create idiosyncratic heroes more in line with his then-fully-developed Objectivist political philosophy, gradually coming closer to realizing the possibilities that came with unifying medium and message. Did it pay less? Sure. Was he happier with what he was doing? You bet.

Still, for all his vaunted consistency, there were numerous — and frankly glorious — contradictions in Ditko’s body of work. A sober-minded rationalist and atheist, he nonetheless delineated the exploits of Dr. Strange with a special zest and zeal for the mystical and psychedelic, turning in page after page that looked like they could only have been conceived of on particularly intense acid trips. For all his stiff-upper-lip moralizing, he shared studio space, and created numerous erotic illustrations both for and with, noted fetish artist Eric Stanton. In spite of his fairly open disdain for decadence and excess, even his most steadfast and unyielding character, Mr. A, often found himself wandering through metaphorical mindscapes positively churning with imagery unleashed from the deepest and darkest corners of the human collective subconscious. Somehow, Ditko made it all work.

Perhaps most interesting of all his contradictions, though, was the fact that, despite having a clearly hierarchical worldview, he was willing to work for pretty much anyone under the right conditions. Concurrent with his late-’60s return engagement with Charlton, he was producing his amazing ink-washed pages for Jim Warren’s black-and-white horror mags Creepy and Eerie. Within a year or two of that, he was creating his first Mr. A strips for Wally Wood’s groundbreaking “pro-‘zine” witzend, while also taking on regular monthly assignments for DC. He went back to Marvel. Back to DC. Back to Marvel again. He had dalliances with any number of publishers during the ’80 indy boom — Eclipse, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics. He certainly didn’t discriminate. Props to him for that.

Sooner or later, though — something would happen. An editor would get too heavy-handed. A production flaw would rub him the wrong way. A plotline developed by a writer he was assigned to work with would run contrary to his Randian sensibilities. And so it’s probably no surprise that this lifelong trailblazer and innovator would find his final, and longest-lasting, publishing home at the company he started himself, along with friend and collaborator Robin Snyder. For the past 30 years, Snyder-Ditko publications has been producing a steady stream of both reprinted and all-new Ditko material, and along the way became one of the first comics publishers to successfully finance their efforts via crowdfunding — a positively ubiquitous facet of today’s small-press scene that they figured out how to utilize well before most.

And at the end of the day, I think it’s that constant groundbreaking innovation — that unwillingness to compromise paired with an eagerness to experiment — that I’ll miss most about Steve Ditko. More than the crazy-fun characters — The Creeper had no real powers to speak of apart from an ability to jump around on rooftops and laugh maniacally, The Odd Man didn’t do anything except look and dress weird — and the bizarre names like Rac Shade and Mellu Loran; more than the impossibilities of form and function that emerged fully-formed from his mind and pencil; more than the moral absolutism expressed as clinical, matter-of-fact logic; more than the colorful floating polka dots and explosively vibrant extra-dimensional planes; more than the desperate faces of men moments away from complete nervous breakdown; more than the slender, coolly glamorous women with long legs and high cheekbones; more than — more than —

Hmmm — come to think of it, maybe I’m just going to miss everything about Steve Ditko in equal measure, because every aspect of all that he did was just so damn incredible. I’m fairly sure I will. Okay, I’m positive. But you know what? Maybe I don’t need to.

After all, Ditko — no believer in heaven, hell, or an afterlife of any sort himself — has achieved genuine immortality by the one and only means that he would ever consider appropriate : his work. It’s what he cared about most. What he devoted his life to. Indeed, what he lived for — and it’s never going away, even if its creator, sadly, has.

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 10/29/2017 – 11/04/2017

What captured my attention this week — for good, ill, or somewhere in-between —

One day before the great Steve Ditko turned 90 years old (and here’s to 90 more!), I received my copy of #26, the latest in the now-decade-long “32-Page Series” published by Ditko and Robin Snyder (and bearing, curiously, a 2018 copyright date, making this the first comic I’ve ever received from the future) and funded via yet another successful Kickstarter campaign. As always it’s a thoroughly intriguing, and at times near-impenetrable, affair that highlights the fascinating creative tension that’s arisen between intention and execution in latter-period Ditko works, to wit —

It seems that Ditko has made a conscious effort to boil everything down to the most pure and distilled iteration of his Objectivist philosophy possible, adopting a decidedly minimalist approach to both scripting and illustration, and yet the end result is a series of strips featuring Ditko’s idiosyncratic characters — Miss Eerie, The Hero, The Outline, etc. — so oblique as to be downright confusing. Every word, every action, every line in every drawing, is pared down to its most bare and essential purpose, a precise exercise in sheer utility that perhaps only the artist himself fully understands — all of which means, of course, that these stories are both absolutely pure and unhindered transmissions from Ditko’s mind, through his hand, onto paper, but that they’re not necessarily easy for anyone else to grasp in their entirety given that, hey, we’re not Ditko.

Final verdict, then? #26 is as hard not to admire as it is sometimes to figure out. There are any number of “hip” young cartoonists out there who would give up half the fingers on their drawing hand to achieve what Ditko does here as a matter of course, and while I’m sure he’d balk at such labels, in my own humble estimation this is as pristine an example of “avant-garde” and/or “outsider” art as you’re likely to find in any medium. A hermetically-sealed vision completely unhindered by any outside artistic influences whatsoever, playing only by rules that it has set for itself. Utterly brilliant, utterly singular, and yeah, utterly perplexing.

Captain America #695 is Marvel’s latest re-launch of Jack Kirby and Joe Simon’s archetypal patriotic super-hero, and who knows? Maybe this time they got it right. After absolutely bastardizing the character for the past year-plus by turning him into a Hydra/Nazi “sleeper” agent (and, to make matters worse, at the very least implying that’s what he “really” was all along), a “back to basics” approach is probably  about the only thing that can save the entire concept, and the fan-favorite Mark Waid/Chris Samnee creative team is probably the best pair in the Marvel “stable” for the task. Waid’s script — a fairly simple series of statements of intent couched around some fisticuffs — captures Cap’s essence in a naturalistic, unforced manner, and Samnee’s “throwback”-style art is crisp, fluid, and elegant in its deceptive “simplicity.” If this keeps up, chances are I’ll be sticking with this series for the foreseeable future.

Don’t look now, but we’re smack-dab in the middle of yet another Elseworlds-style “alternate universe” Batman boom. Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Dark Nights : Metal cross-over “event” seems to be leading the charge, with something like a half-dozen “evil” versions of the Dark Knight from “shadow” universes that don’t exist (even though they do — go figure that one out), but Sean Murphy has also gotten in on the act with his so-far-disappointing, and frankly nauseatingly elitist, Batman : White Knight, and now we’ve got book one of Batman : The Dark Prince Charming, a two-part “graphic novel” from Italian writer/artist Enrico Marini that gives Gotham City the Eurocomics treatment, and that I’m sure DC thinks (or at least hopes) will be viewed as something of a “prestigious” project. I suppose it could be interesting, right?

Except it’s not. Marini’s art is lush, cinematic, and highly literate, but the story hinges on one frankly lame “gotcha”-style twist, the dialogue is stiff and wooden, and honestly nothing much happens here except Batman kicks a bunch of ass along the way to trying to pull off a rescue mission that he suddenly finds he has a highly personal stake in. Characterization is both broad-stroked and ill-defined, plotting is contrived and simplistic, and while Marini’s redesigned Bat-costume looks pretty cool, his version of Joker essentially looks like Sid Vicious in clown makeup.  It’s a quality hardback presentation on heavy, high-gloss paper, sure, but $12.99 is too much to pay for this gorgeous, but hollow, runaround.

Deadly Class artist Wes Craig moves behind the keyboard as writer on The Gravediggers Union, a new ongoing from Image illustrated by Toby Cypress (apart from the 2001-style wordless opening sequence, which is drawn by Craig) that pretty well knocked my socks off with its inventive premise, smart characterization, fun action sequences, and gallows humor. Unionized monster-hunters as the world’s only defense against zombie plagues, vampire infestations, golems made of garbage, and “ghost storms”? I’m down for that.

Admittedly, genre stuff is enough to put off most of the (largely self-appointed) “sophisticated” crowd, but that’s their loss — this is brisk, eye-catching, smart stuff that’s worth taking seriously, even if it doesn’t take itself overly seriously. Image’s policy of giving creators eight or ten extra pages for their first issues ensures good value for your $3.99 here, and while the complete absence of any female characters seems a curious choice to say the least, apparently next month we’re gonna get some witches added to the story, so we’ll see what that’s all about. This one’s well worth following  from the start — and since the start is now, what are you waiting for?

Okay, that should about do it for this week. I got a couple of packages in the mail yesterday that look to contain some interesting items, I’m methodically making my way through The Collected Neil The Horse, and I’ve just discovered the gleefully blasphemous work of cartoonist Aaron Lange, so there’ll be plenty to talk about here in the coming days — and of course, I’ll be back in seven for another “consumer-centric” round of mini-reviews. Hope to see you then!