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Monday, April 30, 2007

--Link-- Digest Comics



From the guy what brung you a site about abnormally big comics comes a blog about the smaller side of comics, looking at DC's run of digest comics in the early 1980s. Given that those books are among the first places I saw the work of Sheldon Mayer and Jack Kirby, among others, I'm naturally fond of them.

http://digestcomics.blogspot.com/

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Kobalt #6 [1994]

Random Comics Theatre

Kobalt #6 [1994]

KOBALT was part of the second wave of Milestone titles, coming a year after the line's original launch. Overall it was the weakest of the seven monthly titles that the publisher was putting out at the time. It featured the adventures of an urban vigilante type hero named Kobalt who reluctantly took on a brightly clad young sidekick named Page (both his real last name and his super-hero identity). So pretty much a Batman and Robin thing (with a Robin debut cover parody on #4, even), only with Batman much meaner and Robin much more inept, as you'd expect in the 1990s.

The book did have its moments, especially a few of the twists in the early going and a few of the first encounters with some of the other Milestone characters. But it got tired rather quickly after the set-up was done, and it settled into routine. I'm pretty sure it would have been better as a limited series with a single strong main plot to hang everything on than an on-going series. I ended up dropping it after a dozen issues, and it only lasted four more after that. Anyone know if it came to some sort of satisfactory conclusion worth picking up those four issues, or just stopped?

This particular issue features the 22-page story "Fish to Fry", written (as the whole series was) by John Rozum. On the art were Arvell Jones and John Stanisci, the original art team on the book doing their final issue (with some help from Aubrey Bradford), while the cover has incoming (in two issues) regular artist Eric Battle with Prentis Rollins. Page spends the issue held hostage (thanks to his aforementioned ineptness) by an electrical villain named Volt who wants a package that Kobalt has. Kobalt is smart enough to research his enemy and pick up a non-conducting suit that happens to be in police lockup before going to the rescue. Overall not a bad issue, with some nice artwork, but in the context of the series this is one of those places where it started to show its lack of direction.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The answer will shock you!

Just picked up the collection of Joe Kubert's recent Sgt. Rock story. More on it later, but for now, a cool old Kubert cover. I love these, especially this kind, with screaming questions to lure you in.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Various DUNGEON thoughts

For my own future reference if nothing else, some quick thoughts on a few volumes of the Sfar/Trondheim DUNGEON series that I read recently, following enjoying the first I read, TWILIGHT v1 - DRAGON CEMETARY, which is later than these chronologically.

DUNGEON - ZENITH v1 - DUCK HEART is the best of them, and I gather the place where the story actually starts, in terms of order created. Herbert the Duck and Marvin the Dragon meet and start their adventures. A very imaginative and witty storyline.

DUNGEON - ZENITH v2 - THE BARBARIAN PRINCESS continues the story of Herbert and Marvin, but isn't quite as good. The first half involves an adventure inside the Dungeon rescuing a princess, with quite a few complications and twists. The second half has said princess joining them on a journey to get a new dragon to guard the Dungeon. A lot of high spots, but both stories drag between those.

DUNGEON - THE EARLY YEARS v1 - THE NIGHT SHIRT goes back in time, and adds Christophe Blain to the creators on the art. It stars the young man who would go on to be the Dungeon Keeper in the later books. Much like ZENITH v2, it has its moments, but overall it's the weakest of the for DUNGEON books I've read, really missing the Herbert and Marvin bits that make the others so enjoyable.

So, ranking the four in order

ZENITH v1
TWILIGHT v1
ZENITH v2
EARLY YEARS v1

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Tundra Sketchbook Series #3 [1991]

Random Comics Theatre

Tundra Sketchbook Series #3 [1991]

Ah, beloved Tundra. So blessed were we by your insanity, doing things like publishing a 64-page sketchbook by Michael Zulli for only $4 (and as part of a series that included books by John Totleben and Charles Vess, both shorter at 48-pages, but with colour sections).

The full title of this issues is "Noodles - Sketchbook Stuff, Random Drawings, and Telephone Squiggles", and under a cover of someone in a gas mask (which I always think of as more John Bolton's thing, but it's been an element in Zulli's other work, too) it includes a great sampling of Zulli's work up until that date, when he was best known as the artist of THE PUMA BLUES, some great Ninja Turtles stuff, plus a single issue of SANDMAN (which was then my favourite issue, and its main competition now includes Zulli's own later issues) and the infamous unpublished "Swamp Thing meets Jesus" issue.

After the obligatory Neil Gaiman introduction, the first section is "Beasts", with Zulli drawing his interpretations of real world animals, something that he obviously showed a great affinity with PUMA BLUES. Deer, pumas (of course), lions and rhino populate those pages, very realistic and expressive.

"Creatures" is the next section, with more fanciful creations from various realized and unrealized projects. Some Lovecraft inspired stuff for one of Tundra's more infamous white elephant projects, one of which eventually showed up on the back of an issue of TABOO. The image above is from one of the beasts created for the unrealized "The Little Brothers" by Zulli, Steve Bissette and Rick Hautala. There's also an appearance by Swamp Thing, in the form of a profile shot of the character that Bissette drew for Zulli's reference for his ill-fated issue and Zulli's own version based on that. Also lots of Zulli's delightful Ninja Turtles in this section, including the Animus character that featured in his "Soul's Winter" trilogy (hey, has the collection of that come out yet?).

"Everything Else" has the usual sketchbook favourite, drawings of women, plus a few other interesting bits. A few characters from PUMA BLUES show up, a few stages of one of his TABOO covers, and a few of Zulli's first Morpheus illustrations in preparation for SANDMAN #13.

"Sweeney" is the final section, and contains ten pages of sketches done for the SWEENEY TODD project that Zulli was then beginning to work on with Gaiman, which only got as far as a "Penny Dreadful" preview and a prologue chapter. Man, that does look pretty. Wonder if we'll ever see it completed?

Zulli closed his book with a self-portrait and a very Moebius-looking piece called "The Man in the Moon". Brilliant book,

I'm not sure if it's sad or great that 16 years later amazing books like this and some of the other Tundra Sketchbook Series are frequently available at less than half of the low price they were published at. I'll go with great. A dysfunctional comic book market that cares more about artificially "rare" variant covers than quality art can make for good pickings for the rest of us.

McCain on Stewart

I've been pretty disappointed with Jon Stewart's interviews on THE DAILY SHOW for at least the last month. Half the time I find myself fast-forwarding through them after a few minutes. But last night, wow. All is forgiven, Jonny Stew.

Does John McCain actually want to be President? I'm not sure that's obvious from his performance last night. Certainly if that's his current debating skill level he's going to get eaten alive if the real press try to do their job.

Two interesting quotes from McCain:

"Nobody complained more than me over the last several years about the way the war was mismanaged."

"I was the most severe critic of that architect for the nearly four years that we employed a failed and flawed strategy that's caused us to sacrifice so much..."

Is he serious? He thinks he was out front in time and force on his criticism of the Bush administration? He's still not the most severe critic, and certainly wasn't three years ago when he was hugging President Bush.



EC - Starchie (Elder)

Starchie
art by Will Elder, story by Harvey Kurtzman
Mad #12 (1954)

Kurtzman and Elder turn their satirical eye towards the Archie comics line in this issue, playing off the "typical teen-ager" wholesome comics selling point of the line by having the characters engaging in all manner of "typical" behaviour including brutal violence, drinking and crime.



A lot of weird little gags in this one, and Elder really outdoes himself on the background details (including literal "chicken fat". Is this the origin of the term?) and in general combining his style with the Archie house style. Surprisingly that depiction of the girls isn't actually much more exaggerated from how they were often shown in actual Archie comics.

Of course, Kurtzman and Elder would return to the Archie well again a few years later with the even more outrageous Goodman Beaver story "Goodman Goes Playboy" for HELP, and that time it would raise the legal attention of Archie.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Basil Wolverton's Gateway To Horror #1 [1988]

Random Comics Theatre

Basil Wolverton's Gateway To Horror #1 [1988]

Dark Horse went to the Wolverton well frequently in their first decade, including two specials which reprinted some of his 1950s work for Marvel. Unfortunately the reprints were in black and white, something I'm normally all in favour of, but Wolverton's bizarre nightmarish creations always seem to be ideally suited to the lurid colouring he expected the work to be printed with.



This was the second of the specials, reprinting four Marvel stories, two of which Wolverton wrote and drew and two written by Dan Keyes (who later went on to write the science fiction classic FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON). Steve Bissette supplies the cover, a great combination of some of the insane imagery that Wolverton supplied in these and other stories into a new, even crazier, image.

"Gateway to Horror" opens the book with a tale of two men following a map to a lost mine in their jeeplane (yes, a jeep/plane hybrid oddly just thrown in without any real explanation. The story would have worked the same with just a jeep or just a plane). They find an old cabin where they're infected with a gravity increasing liquid, as they find they've stumbled on an invasion from an underground civilization. So they blow up the tunnel, but have no evidence to prove their story, leaving the surface world unsuspecting of the invasion plans.

"Where Monsters Dwell" had its splash image re-drawn by another, unknown artist. A reporter who has been writing stories mocking a crazy scientist gets sent to a strange dimension full of odd creatures and where humans mutate on arrival (the scientist apparently had a lot of enemies). Great depictions of the alien dimensions and the beasts there, and clever twist at the end.

"One of Our Graveyards is Missing" is the first of the Keyes written stories. Very short and simple, and not really that logical, but some good artwork. A graveyard vanishes in a small town. The police look for suspects and find a stranger who reveals that his alien race needs bodies for experiments. Sure, that makes sense...

"They Crawl by Night" is also written by Keyes, and is the best story in the issue. Just pure craziness in a Kafka sense, where a man already in an insane asylum goes even more off his rocker when he sees strange crab creatures. Of course no one believes him until it's too late. Just wonderful stuff, and Wolverton's art is excellent throughout, just disturbing in so many ways.

The issue also includes extensive notes on the background of the stories.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Pretty Pictures on the Interweb

With guests like these... - Back when Jim Keefe was doing the Flash Gordon comic strip, he would get in some guest artists. Must be nice to have your substitutes include Al Williamson, Joe Kubert and John Romita. Some of those guest strips are available on Keefe's site.

Homer Arkwright? - One of the creepiest things you'll see on the web, Bryan Talbot drawing a realistic version of Homer and Bart Simpson for a proposed (and rejected, sadly) parallel world SIMPSONS story. Lots of other great stuff in the galleries on that site.

Not so Rough on the eyes - Bob McLeod has a section on his site devoted to his magazine ROUGH STUFF. Any site which includes work I haven't seen before by Alex Toth, John Totleben, Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, Gene Colan, Steve Bissette, Gil Kane, Craig Russell, Jerry Ordway and others is okay by me.

A Bear in Asgard - Some pretty stunning work from Tim Truman for his ODIN: THE WANDERER project that he works on between other assignments.

Usagi Yojimbo #27 [1991]

Random Comics Theatre

Usagi Yojimbo #27 [1991]

This was one of the first issues of USAGI that I bought. The cover, of Usagi fighting an octopus, is still one of my favourites.

The lead story this issue is the 20-page "My Lord's Daughter", by Stan Sakai, of course. A bit of a departure from the standard Usagi story, this one has Usagi recounting an adventure where he fought hordes of demons, a shark and an octopus.



I love that little octopus variation of the usual Sakai death-skull thought balloon.

The escapades continue with a giant insect and then a demon in a quest to rescue a princess, after which we find out that this was all a story that Usagi was telling to entertain some kids. And he promises them another tale of his encounter with the "cheese-dip wanderer". Still waiting for that...

They had some extra pages this issue, so the back of the book has two pages of background on the story, including the original AMAZING HEROES swimsuit pin-up that inspired the story, a one-page plot outline including some character sketches (one not actually used in this story and the other greatly changed by the final story) and five pages of thumbnails, including an encounter with a kappa which didn't make the final story. A nice backstage look.

As usual for the Fantagraphics run of USAGI, there's a funny animal backup story in here, the 5-page "The Food of the Gods" featuring Mel White's Coyote. Pretty decent humorous fantasy story with a clever ending. The only other story by White I know is another Coyote story in CRITTERS #38.

And that's not all! There's also a 4-page letter column, with several pieces of great fan art, including a Usagi/Groo/TMNT sword fight.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

EC - Master Race (Krigstein)

Master Race
art by Bernard Krigstein, story by Al Feldstein(?)
Impact #1 (1955)

"Master Race" is one of the most famous EC stories of all. As has been related in many places, Krigstein asked and received permission to expand the original six page story to eight pages (hence CRIME SUSPENSTORIES #26 having a cover clearly meant for this story by Jack Kamen, with another one by Jack Davis for this issue). Krigstein pulls out lots of tricks to make it a more effective story, most notably the unique way of showing movement of the train with a repeated images, and using multiple small panels to control the pacing



The story itself is also very effective. From what I gather, even at this late date a decade after the end of WWII, images of what exactly happened in Europe, the concentrations camps, gas chambers and mass graves, weren't exactly common in American popular culture, so this chronicle of the rise of the Nazis, documenting their crimes and downfall, while still bold and chilling now was much more so then. It's also, if you don't know that much about the story going in, one of the best twist ending reveals in EC history.

Read more about the story in Martin Jukovsky's essay.

BATTLER BRITTON by Wilson/Ennis

Battler Britton was a British war comics character published back in the 1950s and 1960s in titles like AIR ACE PICTURE LIBRARY. Last year DC licensed the rights to the character for a 5-issue series drawn by Colin Wilson and scripted by Garth Ennis, with great painted covers from Garry Leach. I really don't care for Ennis (including what I read of his WAR STORY one-shots a few years back, which had some great artists), so despite liking what I've seen of Wilson's "Dans l'Ombre du Soleil" and Leach's covers I didn't pick up the series until I saw a complete set for sale at $1 an issue recently.

I'm glad I got them all in one shot, since I wouldn't have picked up any more after #1 if buying them as the came out. Fortunately it got a bit better as it went on, and ultimately was worth what I paid.

The mini-series presents a single generically named storyline titled "Bloody Good Show", featuring Commander Robert "Battler" Britton in 1942 in North Africa, given charge of the training of a group of American pilots, including the American major named... wait for it... "Tex". They have an antagonistic relationship, of course, but ultimately wind up both grounded will inside enemy lines and have to work together when they discover a deadly German secret.

The best part of this book, by far, is the artwork. Wilson lovingly renders the planes in mid-air combat, doing a good job of showing the wear of combat on them and leading up to the spectacular explosions. He also does well with the uniforms, firearms and desert setting. Leach tops it all off with some nice covers, including a wraparound one on #5.

The story, though, is pretty much one of the generic war comic stories that's been around for over 50 years. It was told in anywhere from 8 pages to 50 in full sized American comics, and 60 pages in British digests (which translates to about 40-50 pages of a full-sized comic. Ennis is given about 110 pages to play around with, and adds nothing new. The characters are no deeper, the situations no more complex. Sad that he's one of the only ones doing straight war comics for major publishers this decade, with such little ambition (Kubert's recent SGT. ROCK series looks a bit better, I'm looking forward to reading it when it's collected).

It's kind of sad that the best story told in this 5-issue series was Ennis' one paragraph summary of his favourite classic Battler story, "False Glory" from AIR ACE #406 [1968]. If only he had tried to tell a story half as original and clever.

Surprisingly there's going to be a collection of the series out soon, if that tickles your fancy.

Art Saaf, R.I.P.



Mark Evanier reports on the passing of Art Saaf, a comic book artist whose career stretched from the early 1940s to the late 1970s (with a long gap when he worked in advertising in the middle there). I've only seen a handful of his stories, mostly from his work for DC in the 1970s (where the inking wasn't always complimentary), but liked what I saw. Unfortunately not too much of his older work has been reprinted.

Shown above, from Seduction of the Innocent #5, a 1986 reprint of a 1952 horror story, from Our Fighting Forces #118, a 1969 "Hunter's Hellcats" story pencilled and inked by Saaf and from Supergirl #10, a 1974 story featuring Supergirl meeting Prez, Teen President.

EC - The Escaped Maniac (Roussos)

The Escaped Maniac!
art by George Roussos, story by Al Feldstein
Crime SuspenStories #8 (1952)

This is one of the handful of stories Roussos drew for EC in the early 1950s. It has a story being told by a driver who picks up a hitchhiker in the rain on a lonely road. As they drive, radio alerts come on about a dangerous escapee from a nearby hospital for the criminally insane. The hitchhiker is afraid the driver thinks that he's the maniac, and tries to convince him otherwise.



You know where this is going, of course. One of the weaknesses of reading the stories knowing that there's going to be a twist ending, and there's really only one twist possible. Still, a well told version of a predictable tale.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

EC - Things From Outer Space (Feldstein)

Things From Outer Space
by Al Feldstein
Weird Science #12[#1] (1950)

Typical paranoid twist story from Feldstein in this early "New Trend" issue, as a scientist and his assistant go to check out a mysterious crater, where they find traces of radioactivity and a sample of a strange metal. Going to a local farmhouse, the occupant reveals himself to be part of an alien race that's infiltrating humanity.



The alien attacks the scientist, but the assistant gets away. Unfortunately no one believes her story, right up to the Secretary of Defense, and she's declared insane. Of course, we see that the Secretary and other men also have third eyes, and are part of the alien infiltration.

Not one of the greats of the EC line, but a good early effort. Biggest problem was the that visuals were just too bland, nothing really exciting about offices and men in suits, even with three eyes.

COMMANDO turns 4000

Marking a bit of a milestone, either out now or coming out this week coming is COMMANDO #4000, just the latest in 46 years of the British war comics series. I'm pretty sure it's the only English language comic to make it to that mark, or likely to within my lifetime (2000 A.D. would seem to be next in line, and it's about 47 years away, by which time COMMANDO will be nearing in on #9000 at current publication rates).

According to the official site, the contents of #4000 are:

4000/Aces All! Script by Ferg Handley; inside artwork and cover by Jose Maria Jorge.

Among the trivia reported on this fan site:

1. Of the 4000 titles issued – over 900 have been reprints.
4. There have been over 140 different authors. (The most prolific writer being C.G. Walker with over 350 titles).
5. There have been over 100 different cover artists. (The most prolific cover artist being Ian Kennedy with over 1000 titles).
6. There have been over 120 different interior artists. (The most prolific interior artist being Gordon Livingstone with over 360 titles).
16. Now having collected all the 4000 issues, you would need a shelf around 12metres long to house them.

I've previously posted about COMMANDO with a review of #1504 and a look at some covers (ending with the most exciting ever).

Friday, April 20, 2007

KLEZMER by Joann Sfar

KLEZMER - TALES OF THE WILD EAST by Joann Sfar is another of First Second's publications from last year. I've previously written about Sfar's work here, here and here. To summarize, loved RABBI'S CAT, didn't like VAMPIRE LOVES and was intrigued by DUNGEON (I've read more volumes of it since, might be more on them later).

KLEZMER fits right in the middle of Sfar's oeuvre for me so far. It seemed to be a very inconsistent book in a lot of ways. I would really like some sections, for a dozen or so pages, and then find the next bit hard going and not at all interesting. Unfortunately, the book isn't any in any way a complete story, being continued in a future volume that isn't even scheduled yet (in English, at least). That loses it a few points.

The book is about a group of travelling Jewish musicians in pre-WWII Eastern Europe. This first book chronicles how five of them get together, giving some background story on each of them, with all of them getting together for the first time in the closing pages of this volume, ending with them being driven to some mysterious job they've been hired for.

The first few characters introduced are pretty interesting, and their stories were captivating and their interactions after they met were intriguing. Unfortunately, they mostly vanish for the middle third of the book as the other three characters are introduced as a separate group (with a tangential relationship to the first), and each character introduced seems to get less plausible and less interesting. The book finally starts to pick up in the end when everyone gets together and then it all ends. There's a lengthy set of notes in the back, but they didn't seem that interesting to me from a quick look, although some of the artistic studies are attractive.

The art is very noteworthy as well. Unlike Sfar's other work, which is more built on the detailed linework with strong but straightforward colouring, the colour is much more integrated into this one, with the linework sometimes being very sparse and then built up with watercolours, sometimes very realistic, other times more trying to imply a mood. It works quite often, though a few places are less than clear, and it takes some getting used to.

I'll probably take a look at the next volume if it shows up (as this one did) at my local library. Don't think I'd buy it.

Just as an aside, First Second seems to have done a pretty good job of getting the Toronto library system to buy into their books, with one or two dozen copies of each book in the system. They seem to circulate well, but not get that many holds, at least compared to some of the popular Japanese comics (so people seem to pick them up when they see them, but not actively seek them out).

If you receive a bribe, include it in your income

I'm sure this has made the rounds many times, but I wanted to make sure I kept a handy link for my own reference. Highlights from an actual IRS publication:

http://www.irs.gov/publications/p17/ch12.html

Bribes. If you receive a bribe, include it in your income.
...
Illegal income. Illegal income, such as money from dealing illegal drugs, must be included in your income on Form 1040, line 21, or on Schedule C or Schedule C-EZ (Form 1040) if from your self-employment activity.
...
Stolen property. If you steal property, you must report its fair market value in your income in the year you steal it unless in the same year, you return it to its rightful owner.
...
Kickbacks. You must include kickbacks, side commissions, push money, or similar payments you receive in your income on Form 1040, line 21, or on Schedule C or Schedule C-EZ (Form 1040), if from your self-employment activity.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Damn teenagers...

So, back in the early days, the Titans used to get together to mock the fans who sent them mail.



From Teen Titans #2 [1966], Nick Cardy and Bob Haney

Man, these are some strange stories, but fun in short doses.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

KAMPUNG BOY by Lat

KAMPUNG BOY by Lat is a 144 page book published last year by First Second, the first English language edition of the work of the artist, who is a popular Malaysian cartoonist. The book was first published in his home country in 1979, and tells of his fictional doppelganger "Mat" growing up in a small village (kampung) in rural Malaysia, up to the time he leaves for a boarding school in the big city at around age ten (which leads to the upcoming TOWN BOY later this year).



The book garnered a fair bit of praise, and Tom Spurgeon called it his top book of 2006, a year that included some massive best-ever reprints of classic work by E.C. Segar, Charles Schulz, George Herriman and Frank King, major new works by the likes of Alison Bechdel and Eddie Campbell and first English editions of major works by Osamu Tezuka and J.P. Stassen. Not to mention many great books that didn't even make it to his top 50. No accounting for taste, but a list that doesn't include a single one of about 50 Jack Kirby reprints published in the year? Or a major collection of Don Rosa's Uncle Scrooge stories? Or a book with over 500 pages of prime work by Russ Heath and Joe Kubert? Not one Batman story?

So, not to turn this into "is Tom Spurgeon on crack?", but never wanting to miss a boat, I picked up KAMPUNG BOY from my local library (support your local library. I regularly keep books late so I can support them with overdue fines), and just finished reading it. And I have to ask, is Tom Spurgeon on crack?

Just kidding. I honestly don't see what the fuss is about on this book, though. It's entertaining enough at times, though it's really just a series of short anecdotes about growing up in that region and in that era, always seeming to stop just short of actually having a point, making the transition from anecdote to story, before moving on to the next thing. Every now and then it feels like it's going to be about the inherent conflict behind the change of a region from rural to industrial, the conflict between agriculture and industry, but it stops short every single time, more just noting the situation rather than exploring it. Maybe he does in the follow-up book.

The artwork was pleasant enough, except there I was distracted by the fact that it's a dead-ringer for the style of Sergio Aragones. In particular the Aragones of about 5 to 10 years prior to the original publication of KAMPUNG BOY, with his work in MAD and the spin-off books, as well as DC's PLOP and one-pagers in their war and horror books. Seriously, this image:



I'm halfway certain that if you showed it to Aragones it would take him a minute to be sure he didn't draw it (except for the noses and sometimes around the mouth). I don't know if Aragones' work was available in Malaysia in that era (certainly the MAD spin-off books, being wordless, would seem to be prime fodder for sale there), but I can't believe this style was arrived at independently. It's not just the way that characters look, it's the way they move, the ink-line, the backgrounds.

Of course, there are worse things you can be than a spot-on duplicate of Sergio Aragones. It's a nice enough book overall if you don't go in with high expectations, with some nice visual humour and a peek into life in an unfamiliar culture in a time of transition. It's a very quick read, less than a half-hour for the 144 page book (the era of Aragones it evokes is his simpler gag work, not the complex GROO era constructions that you can read in seconds and then pore over for minutes), so I'd definitely recommend looking for a library copy before buying it.

[aside to First Second on the flap copy. "Charles Schulz"]

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Bindings

Despite the title, this post is not about golden age Wonder Woman comics. Well in a way it is. And given how DC's merchandising department works, the title might also fit upcoming Wonder Woman statues. And Wonder Woman bondage jokes would get me more hits, I'm sure...

No, this is starting off in SUNDERLAND. Bryan Talbot's work in ALICE IN SUNDERLAND is good enough that it would be a pleasure to read regardless, but one reason is the binding. It's just a gorgeously made book, with the binding letting me lay it flat on a table or comfortably read it eased back in a chair or lying down. Even on the full-bleed pages (those that have no margins on the edges, print to all four edges of the page) I can see the whole image with almost no distortion caused by the curve of the pages, nothing vanishing into the spine. On the rare occasion that an image goes across two pages there's only the slightest of unavoidable discontinuity where the two pages join at the spine. Binding to make a pleasurable reading experience even more so.

This wouldn't be notable except for the fact that it's sometimes more the exception than the rule in American comics, at least from some publishers. Fortunately Dark Horse, North American publishers of SUNDERLAND, usually do much better, at least for hardcovers.

Pulling some stuff off my shelf...

David Lloyd's KICKBACK, also from Dark Horse. Not quite as nice as SUNDERLAND, but a solidly built thin book. It sits flat nicely. The last page is glued to the endpaper at the edge, so you lose a bit of the image right at the end.

Schulz's COMPLETE PEANUTS from Fantagraphics. Gorgeously made book. Sits flat, you can see the full page, pages curve a bit down towards the spine but since the art never comes within a half-inch of the spine that's not an issue.

Jessica Abel's LA PERDIDA from Pantheon. Not too bad. The binding is a bit tighter than I'd like, so that the book doesn't usually sit flat on a table or in your hand, you have to sort of press it down or keep a finger in there. If there was any full bleed art or double-page spreads it would get a little annoying with losing stuff in the spine.

E.C. Segar's POPEYE from Fantagraphics. Pretty much the pinnacle of the form, along with SUNDERLAND. Handsome oversized book, sits perfectly flat, kind of awkward to read lying in bed but anything that size would be. Generous margins so the art never comes within an inch of the spine, but if it did that wouldn't be a problem.

DC and their "Archives" series hardcovers have varied over the years, based on the sampling of about a dozen of them on my bookshelf. And not in any especially logical way, like recent ones being better than early ones. For the most part they're about middling. Usually sit open on a table, if you press them down first. Pages curve a bit more than I'd like at the spine. They don't have much stuff with full-bleed art or double page spreads, but if they did they'd lose points, because stuff would get lost in the spine in almost all these books. The KAMANDI ARCHIVES book I have has a few double page spreads, but they print them with a gap between the two pages. An inelegant solution, but better than what would have happened if they'd tried to print them the right way with this binding.

And that brings us to Marvel. High falutin' names like MASTERWORKS, VISIONARIES and OMNIBUS on the books I have. They must spare no effort on making sure the presentation of that material is top-notch...

Wait, let me guess, you've heard this joke before.

And a joke it would be if this material from the likes of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko wasn't among my favourite comics of all time. The only MASTERWORKS volume I currently own (having sold the early editions I had because I found the printing unacceptable, but that's another story) is TALES TO ASTONISH. Great artwork by Kirby, Ditko, Williamson and others. The binding is awful. The book not only will not sit flat on a table, but you have to literally hold down the pages at both edges just to get it to sit open. Almost impossible to get a good, clear undistorted view of any of the pages, the only way to see them without a noticeable curve on the pages is to hold the book less than half open, in which case you're looking at the page at an awkward angle. I recall my early editions being quite a bit better bound, although otherwise more poorly produced.

THE ETERNALS OMNIBUS is pretty much more of the same (but with slightly bigger pages), with the added menace of a double-page spread in almost every issue, so you can imagine how bad that looks. For added fun, the art also prints closer to the spine, so it is even more impractical, almost impossible, to see the full image flat even on the non-double-page pages.

The MARVEL VISIONARIES books are just about like the OMNIBUS. Maybe just marginally better, probably because they're fewer pages. I can't imagine how the 800+ page OMNIBUS books are.

I could almost justify at least DC's quality (Marvel's is too far gone) if it seemed to be a "keeping costs down, passing the savings on to you" situation. Except that Marvel's books are by far the most expensive ($55 for a MASTERWORKS now, $75 for the ETERNALS OMNIBUS, $35 for the VISIONARIES. Oddly the cheapest, both in absolute and per-page, is the marginally more acceptable one). DC happily charges $50 for books often down around 220 pages. The other books range in price from $13 (KICKBACK) to $30 (SUNDERLAND). And that's with POPEYE being literally twice the page-size of the DC and Marvel books, SUNDERLAND being over 300 pages of lavishly produced full colour (wherever it needs to be) original material. Overall the non-DC and Marvel books are better produced in every way and better deals than those from the "Big Two". So there's no way I'd believe that better binding would actually cost much more.

I'm at a loss to understand this. I really would like to buy more DC and Marvel hardcovers. I'd be more than happy to plop down the money for SGT. FURY MASTERWORKS, RAWHIDE KID MASTERWORKS, the upcoming second FANTASTIC FOUR OMNIBUS. If I thought they would look half as good as SUNDERLAND I would order them right now. I accept the kind of crappy binding in the SHOWCASE / ESSENTIAL books, because they're cheap, but surely prestige projects deserves prestige production, not just prestige labels and prestige pricing. Am I wrong and the differences aren't objectively clear? Find me one person who can look at SUNDERLAND and my ASTONISH book and not pick SUNDERLAND. Do management at DC and Marvel just not look at their books and those of other publishers? If so, could someone please show them? Hit them over the head with the POPEYE book if you must (that thing would stun a horse). Get them a quote from the Dark Horse or Fantagraphics binder, which I'm sure is only marginally higher than what they're paying now. Or is it that they just don't care?

I'm no prude, but...

Yeah, so I don't really care that much about current super-hero comics, and even less about the insane amount of merchandise manufactured about them, but seriously, what the hell is wrong with DC? I don't want to sully my weblog with the pictures, but those link to a really awful statue of the current Supergirl, making her ridiculous costume even more ridiculous, and a not much better Catwoman statue giving a good view down her cleavage. Basically statues of two of the three major costumed female characters in the DC universe cast as not-overly-attractive strippers. When's the matching Wonder Woman expected?

Wasn't the editor of SUPERGIRL just whining recently about how he wants more women to read his book and stuff like that? Yeah, okay, good luck with that, pal.

ALICE IN SUNDERLAND by Bryan Talbot

More on Bryan Talbot's ALICE IN SUNDERLAND....

It's hard to know where to begin with Bryan Talbot's new book. To get one thing out of the way, it is a comic book. And it is a graphic novel, Percy. And it's brilliant. That part is simple. Those we can agree on. It's also a history of Lewis Carroll's creation of ALICE IN WONDERLAND and THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, with particular reference to the influence of the history and geography of Talbot's current stomping grounds in the Sunderland region of the British north-east, in opposition to the established Oxford-based history of Carroll and trying to distinguish fact from legend. Going beyond the initial creation, it's also a history of the enduring legacy of Carroll's work in popular culture. It's also a history of the Sunderland region, with particular references to the role of people connected to Carroll and his family, and the family of Alice Liddell, the partial template for the Alice character. It's also a history of comic books, again with particular reference to connections to the Sunderland region and ALICE. And that just scratches the surface. In the end, the best description is, unsurprisingly, the one that Talbot gives in the subtitle, "An Entertainment". Fact and fiction, art and history, comedy and tragedy, photography and illustration, politics and the personal. Anything is fair game, as long as it's entertaining.

The other title of the book is "A Night at the Empire", which points to the main structure of the book, a stage presentation at the Sunderland Empire theatre of all things interesting to Bryan Talbot, as told to an audience of one, Bryan Talbot (the Plebeian), by Bryan Talbot (the Performer), with asides and journeys through time and space provided by Bryan Talbot (the Pilgrim). There's yet a fourth Bryan Talbot (and possibly a fifth) who figures into the book later. This is all in addition to the real Bryan Talbot (Para 00.72.87) who actually created it all. "I get the feeling I've been here before"

The number of Talbots is appropriate because the key to it all, beyond ALICE, beyond Sunderland, beyond comics, is the "all things interesting to Bryan Talbot", so he throws it all in here if he can find even a tenuous connection to the main topic (and as he mentions, some of these themes have been in his mind and have seeped into his work for 30 years). He's obviously interested in the act of creation in all forms, so he begins with an examination of his creation of comics with the same opening page of the arrival in the theatre, presented as a sketch, a detailed pencil image with construction lines intact and in finished inks. That lets you in on the fact that much of the story will be told backstage. Not only what was created, but how and why it was created, and Talbot extends that backstage look to his own work.



Now, about that act of creation of this book. I've always been critical of the use of photos, computer effects and the like mixed with traditional comics. I admired some of what Jack Kirby tried to do with collage elements back 30-40 years ago, but never thought they worked, whether because of the poor reproduction or jarring contrast, and always end up thinking that Kirby could probably have drawn an image twice as captivating in half the time. I thought Dave McKean did some fascinating mixed-media stuff in CAGES, but in general always prefer his illustration work to his mixed photo-collage stuff (and hence these are my favourite SANDMAN covers. And hey, one of them is drawn by Talbot. So it goes (actually, I asked Talbot about that, since with his recent passing Vonnegut was on my mind as I read SUNDERLAND and the themes and structure of both it and some of Talbot's earlier work seem to echo Vonnegut, and was surprised that he actually hadn't read SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, though he had seen the movie. Hence ruining my intention to title this review/essay "Listen: Bryan Talbot has come unstuck in time". But you see how I snuck that line in anyway?)). Scott McCloud's LINCOLN book still drives me crazy. As I mentioned a few months back, I had a lot of problems with some of experimental photo stuff that Eddie Campbell used in FATE OF THE ARTIST (although I don't question that it's a graphic novel, Percy). I happily admit to old-fogeyism with regards to comics creation.

So I was kind of doubtful about SUNDERLAND when I saw how heavily Talbot was hitting the photo manipulation, and fully expected to be despairing how someone with such a perfect ink line was wrecking his art by sticking in all these photos. This turned out not to be the case at all. Given my inclinations, I'm amazed at how seamless the integration of line-art, original photography and archival photography in this book. Maybe it's because of the on-stage/backstage, fact/fiction structure, and the constant tweaking of styles to emulate other comics, Talbot's fairly remarkable skills with the computer or the completely captivating narrative, but with very few exceptions I didn't see any conflict between the art and photos, where normally I see nothing but conflict. I'm convinced of photos and computers as perfectly acceptable comic book creation tools.

(Not so much that I don't still hope that Talbot's next book is pure brush-on-paper. I'm not that over my fogeyism)

This has gone on longer than I'd planned, so I'll call a halt to it now. Or possibly an intermission. You never know. I might also use SUNDERLAND to launch a few other posts on topics it brings to mind. A reminder, Talbot's site has over two dozen pages from the book, including the brilliant 3-page "Jabberwocky" adaptation. They don't capture the effect of the pages in context in the stunningly well printed book, but they're a taste.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Lecture report - Bryan Talbot at the Merril

I sat down to read Bryan Talbot's new book, ALICE IN SUNDERLAND (more detailed post on it to follow [right here, in fact]) last night. Planned to just read about a third of the 320+ page book, but wound up staying up until 3AM to finish the whole thing. It was just that good. The experience tipped the scale on me deciding to go to Talbot's presentation at the Merril Collection at the Lillian H. Smith Library in downtown Toronto.

[An aside on the Merril Collection, if you get a chance, check it out. It's a non-circulating collection, primarily of science fiction and fantasy, but also with over 1400 items across all genres in their graphic novel holdings. Among the things I read while hanging out there prior to Talbot's lecture was Dave McKean's hard-to-find PICTURES THAT TICK book (not that impressive, sadly, I'm glad I read it but more glad I didn't buy a copy the one time I saw it for sale), the Goodwin/Simonson ALIENS: THE ILLUSTRATED STORY film adaptation (some classic genre fun, with great artwork), DC RARITIES ARCHIVES v1 and COMIC CAVALCADE ARCHIVES v1 (both of which I didn't buy because I was really only interested in them for the 4 pages of Sheldon Mayer's Scribbly each include, and spending $10-$20 a page seemed excessive). There's a lot more I'll want to read next time I get to spend a few hours there, and the staff are exceedingly helpful and the reading room very pleasant. They also have another special collection in the same building of classic children's literature]

The proceedings started with one of the librarians giving the background of the Merril Collection (I knew Judith Merril best as "The UnDoctor" when she did introductions to local public television showings of DOCTOR WHO in the late 1970s), and then introducing Mark Askwith, who apparently is working for some cable channel I don't get these days. Askwith gave some background on the highlights of Talbot's career, ARKWRIGHT, ONE BAD RAT, various SANDMAN stories with Neil Gaiman, and then introduced Talbot.

Talbot spoke for about an hour with a slide-show presentation. Early on there are a few pages from one of his early "underground" type stories where he used some themes related to ALICE IN WONDERLAND, showing how he had always wanted to do a major work on the theme, but didn't have a direction to approach it until his wife's work took them to Sunderland in the British north-east and he found out about the lesser known connections between Carroll's life and work and the region (thanks to the book A TOWN LIKE ALICE'S by Michael Bute, who pops up in SUNDERLAND for a few pages), allowing him to approach it as both a history of Carroll's books and of the region. Most of his presentation then looked at individual pages of the new book and discussed how they fit into the larger picture of either the history of Sunderland, the history of Carroll or the history of comics, occasionally adding some details and anecdotes that didn't make it into the book. He also talks a bit about his work process and artistic choices, like where he deliberately evokes the styles of some older comics as it seems appropriate for the scene (Jack Kirby for the Battle of Hastings, Herge's TINTIN for his trip to Morocco, 1950s "Boy's Own" British comics for the heroic tale of Jack Crawford, Sir John Tenniel at various times, of course, like the adaptation of "Jabberwocky"). He also talks a bit about his artistic process in this book, which is heavily based in digital manipulation of images to get various effects, with a step-by-step look at how he took an image of the boat that Alice Liddell travelled to America on, added waves, smoke and birds and tinted it for final use. Some other interesting anecdotes on the production include how he got permission for use of photos of the Bayeux Tapestry with some product placement and how he sampled the colouring of some old comics to make the Jack Kirby inspired segment more authentic. There are several dozen interesting asides like that.

Following his lecture, Talbot took a few questions from Askwith and from the audience. Among other things he briefly talked about his upcoming prose book about comic creator stories, THE NAKED ARTIST, some more technical aspects on the production of the book and his past works.

Talbot then did some signing for the assembled masses, with his table also having a few prints he was selling (including a nice Arkwright 30th Anniversary piece), plus some of his original artwork including some nice Jabberwocky pieces used in SUNDERLAND. I got him to sign my copy of SUNDERLAND, as well as my copy of EX-DIRECTORY, a decade old collection of some of his scattered shorter works.

Overall a very enjoyable evening. Talbot's schedule has him doing events throughout the UK for the next few months, so I highly recommend that you check out his show if it comes near your town. Hopefully if the book does well over the next little while he'll add some more North American dates.

You can find ALICE IN SUNDERLAND at your local comic shoppe, or buy it on-line from various places. Panel To Panel has an interview with Talbot conducted by Steve Bissette discussing many of the same matters that Talbot does in his lecture, and is also selling the book with an exclusive signed bookplate.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Meanwhile...

Cute little ad parody that appeared, for no particular reason, in MACHINE MAN #10 [1979], art by Marie Severin, script presumably by Roger Stern. Click to, as they say, embiggen.



Presumably that's Jim Shooter in panel three, Paty Cockrum and Archie Goodwin in panel four and Jim Salicrup in panel six.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

EC - Death Stand (Davis)

Death Stand
art by Jack Davis, story by Harvey Kurtzman
Two-Fisted Tales #23[#6] (1951)

A rather downbeat story of the Korean War, as a group of American soldiers see one of their pilots eject just inside enemy territory. They set out in two jeeps, but one of them is quickly knocked out, and there isn't room in the remaining one for all of them, so fatalistic old Joe stays back to give them cover. Unfortunately they're an easy target for an enemy tank, and get knocked off the road, but Joe avenges them.



Only one of the men in the jeep remains alive by the time Joe gets there on foot, and even he dies soon after observing the irony of the situation, just in case you missed it.

One of Kurtzman's lesser stories, but Davis' energetic art is always a pleasure.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

EC - Outpost (Severin/Elder)

Outpost
art by John Severin & Will Elder, story by Jerry De Fuccio
Two-Fisted Tales #33[#16] (1953)

De Fuccio just wrote a handful of comic stories for EC back in the comic book days, though he did also write a lot of the text pages, and later became one of the mainstays of MAD MAGAZINE. What I've read of his stories are entertaining, although sometimes, as in this story, he tends to go overboard trying to get accents down on paper. This story is set with the British army on the Afghan border in the late 19th century, and the Sergeant in the story has lines like "Kape out av this lad's way... or git me fist betune the eyes". Kind of hard to read with a straight face sometimes.



Anyway, this story has the tough-as-nails Sergeant being asked to keep an eye on a young private, the son of the friend of his commander, who tries hard but just doesn't seem to have the makings of a soldier thanks to his Oxford eduction. The Sergeant gives him some words of advice on standing his ground, so that when the boy is attacked while on lookout he manages to defeat his opponents.

The story's a bit... gung-ho, I guess might be the word, a marked contrast to Kurtzman's more introspective and humanist approach to war stories that the EC books featured most often, but has some good bits in the script when you get past the accents, and some great artwork.

EC - The Rug (Ingels)

The Rug!
art by Graham Ingels, story by Al Feldstein
Shock SuspenStories #1 (1952)

Rather odd little morality play with a twist ending about an experienced hunter taking his novice friend up on a bear-hunting trip, bragging about his bearskin rug and promising to get his friend one of his own. They're able to kill a large bear, but the non-hunter friend finds it all barbaric.



That night, the hunter hears a noise outside, and when he goes to investigate gets attacked by a giant grizzly, and when his friend investigates the noise, he finds the hunter has been skinned and turned into a rug. No real explanation for why a bear would do that, just one of those twists that they needed to finish the story. And bears are godless killing machines.

Not one of the better Ingels horror stories, as there's not much of an opportunity for grotesque horror until the end, and that image doesn't quite have the impact you'd expect from him.

EC - Gregory Had a Model-T (Kurtzman)

Gregory Had a Model-T
by Harvey Kurtzman
Weird Science #7 (1951)

Nice sort of wistful fantasy from Kurtzman for this tale, with the narrative even being a sort of front-porch story, detailing the narrator's experience with an old man who bought a Model-T back in 1920, cared for it like it was part of the family through the decades as it became an antique, until finally he had a heart attack (and the car apparently drove him home by itself after that). Finally the car is sold, but doesn't think much of its new owner...



And with the death of its original owner the car drives itself off a cliff and kills itself. A really well told little story, probably capturing as well as any bit of fiction the relationship between men and machines in that era. This is one of my favourite of the stories Kurtzman both wrote and drew.

Friday, April 06, 2007

EC - O.P. (Heath)

O.P.!
art by Russ Heath, story by Harvey Kurtzman
Frontline Combat #1 (1951)

This is one of two stories Heath drew for EC, the other one being a Plastic Man parody in MAD several years later. Unlike that one, where he seemed to stick pretty close to Kurtzman's layouts, this has much more of a feel of Heath's own style, then being seen in various war, western and fantasy books at Marvel, and of course later frequenting the pages of DC's war books with long runs as the artist of The Haunted Tank and Sgt. Rock.

This is a story set in the First World War, featuring a man stationed at an Observation Post (O.P.) in the trenches, connected by phone line to his commanders. After the trench he's in is bombed and captured by Germans planning an ambush, he calls in an attack on his own position, helping them to fix their range and blow up the Germans along with him.

I'm not sure how realistic this view of trenches is, but the artwork by Heath is just gorgeous, a real shame he didn't become an EC regular back then, for whatever reason.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Play ball

I always miss Charles Schulz this time of year...



Tuesday, June 03, 1952
page 197 of this book
Weblog by BobH [bobh1970 at gmail dot com]