Hark! Important Comics!

*Directly following LAST WEEK'S REVIEWS:

Best Buy Comics #1, Art & Beauty Magazine #1-2 (it's a Robert Crumb jamboree!)

Flinch #6-7 (I'd not heard of this Vertigo horror anthology until our secret rendezvous at the cut-off bin)

Comics Focus #1, Street Angel #4

The Intimates #2, Ojo #3 (of 5)

Yes! Those are indeed reviews of comics and related publications!

*Ah, the bargain bin! Always a pleasure! Who knows what treats might be found?! Maybe some uncollected work by a renowned talent? Or maybe a real live Labor of Love, a Major Statement in comics form! Or maybe just a minor statement.

Tales to Offend #1

Oh look! A 1997 Dark Horse one-shot by Frank Miller! Apparently in support of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund! It’s Miller in satire mode for most of the book, presenting a bunch of short stories starring Lance Blastoff, a churlish parody of manly archetypes; needless to say, he’s not that far removed from the typical Miller protagonist, particularly the denizens of “Sin City” - and look at that! A “Sin City” short is also included! You may recall “Daddy’s Little Girl” from the “Booze, Broads, and Bullets” collection; it’s actually the first ever “Sin City” story I can recall reading, flipping through that very trade in the bookstore. It’s one of the more perverse yarns out of the town that’s got no pity, if kind of funny.

A little funnier than the more obvious hi-jinx of Lance Blastoff, who loves to hunt and kill dinosaurs, uses women like tissues, litters, and generally ignores the comfort level of everyone outside of himself. Really there aren’t any ‘jokes’ here; Lance is just really awful, and that’s all. There’s nothing terribly offensive on a pure shock level, but I think the point is that Miller finds self-centered macho horseshit to be what’s truly ‘offensive’ (along with censorship, of course). Or maybe, since Lance is so very close to the typical Miller hero albeit with the heart of gold surgically removed, it’s indirectly a comment on the many faults of the typical comic book tough guy. Near the end of the book Lance encounters a highly intelligent refugee alien race who are swiftly converted to delightful money-making pets, and Miller comes within spitting distance of something resembling a real live social comment, but no. Not quite. The art looks pretty swell, with popping hues by veteran colorist Marie Severin, and far less severe lines than we’d see in “Sin City” or “DK2”. There’s also a letters page which Miller claims will be “randomly edited and arbitrarily censored” but I can’t find a damn thing that suggests that it was. Or maybe Miller is just that damn good!

*Speaking of the CBLDF, Tom Spurgeon is much better at commenting on news than me. Look at this.

411 #1-2 (of an intended 3)

But sometimes my voyages to the dollar bin bring me closer to the present, even in terms of ‘statement’ comics. I strongly doubt that any of my readers will need to strain themselves recalling this abortive mid-2003 anthology miniseries from Marvel. The idea was to gather up all of the House of Idea’s hottest talents to write stories about the value of peace; considering the volume of Marvel releases that essentially boil down to persons socking one another, the series might have coasted onto everyone’s radar as fueled by novelty alone, but the fabled hype machine of those already fading days of then-President Bill Jemas made certain that nobody would be left unaware of this Mighty Marvel Message of Meritorious Magic, even the Merry Mainstream Media judging from some of the quotes on the back of issue #2. But trouble soon appeared, as a controversial essay by anti-nuke activist Helen Caldecott was suddenly whisked from publication, the series’ third issue was never published, and only a few months later Jemas himself was gone from the presidential suite.

Nobody on this planet with at least a minimum of control over their senses doubted that the series was inspired by the most recent War in Iraq, rumbling along in full force at the time of the book’s release. But “411” barely acknowledges the presence of that particular conflict (aside from one extra-coy entry which we will get to in due time), opting (perhaps cannily) to strike at a more general ‘peace’ theme, lest charges of anti-patriotism sally forth. Of the six short stories that make up the stalled series’ contents, however, half take place in the Middle East; an acknowledgement of the often dangerous state of the region? Sure. But maybe an implicit reminded of where many of the tanks were rolling at the time? I suspect so.

Probably the best story in the lot, found in issue #1, is Mark Millar’s biographical sketch of his grandfather, an Irish Catholic living in the volatile Protestant North. Brutally beaten one night for pissing on the Union Jack (several times), Grandpa Millar plots his revenge, but it’s not quite what anybody expects. The tale is told smoothly, with the confidence of an oft-shared anecdote, bristling with maybe a touch of that hype that Millar is noted for, which works in favor of the story as a sort of gently mythologized family fable; Millar even personally addresses the reader Chester Brown-style, aided by Frank Quitely’s lovely art, a bit more restrained than average, brewing up a street-level documentary atmosphere. It’s a gritty but upbeat affirmation of pranksterism as a means of nonviolent rebellion, and maybe even a path to mutual understanding.

Other stories manage to work almost solely through the force of their good intentions. Issue #1’s initial story boasts a script by co-written by Mr. Jemas and beloved fanboy icon Chuck Austin, which might initially inspire one to expect a peace-loving disaster of truly cosmic proportions, but the story is honestly half-decent, if not exactly throbbing with authenticity. An Israeli pilot’s beloved daughter is killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber, initially inspiring him to shout lines like “But a Palistinian madman has taken my daughter from me forever. Nothing can make me feel better about this. Nothing less than an eye for an eye.” Fortunately for the message of the miniseries, he settles for flying his jet around, carpet-bombing Palestinian and Israeli cities with pamphlets reminding everyone of the fragility of life. Chintzy, even a little ridiculous, but weirdly romantic at the same time, with bright art by Phil Winslade

No, for that special mix of clumsy execution, giggly eye-rolling, and of course Importance, we must turn to issue #2’s kick-off tale, “The Clarion Call” by Brian K. Vaughan and Leonardo Manco, which is (dismayingly) also the only one of the book’s stories to sort of engage with the War in Iraq, but only in a teasing, let’s-not-name-names fashion. A Congresswoman debates with her campaign manager on the merits of voting for an overwhelmingly popular war that she personally finds disgusting, with her career on the line, naturally. I’ve got to admit, I’ve read a lot of reviews praising Vaughan’s handling of political discussion in “Ex Machina”, and I just don’t feel the same. Whenever politics or philosophy rise as a topic in what books of Vaughan’s that I’ve read, I find the resulting character dialogues to be utterly wooden, wholly artificial volleys of stilted ‘debate’ that invariably grind the book to a halt. Anyway, almost all of this story is one of those conversations, and the best I can say is that Vaughan has honestly improved since 2003. But fear not, the entire affair ultimately lurches directly into high camp with the sudden intervention of a Magical Telephone Booth (and just in case we missed it, the Congresswoman heroine even spouts out some dialogue assuring us as to how improbable these concluding events are), leading into a final splash panel with Our Heroine gazing confidently at the reader, glamorously seething through frosty glass, tiny shimmers all over its surface, with only her blue eyes and red lipstick in color, as she vows to Vote Her Heart, combining the very best of moral determination and cosmetics advertising into one fine image. REVLON - OPPOSE THE WAR!

That leaves us with three more stories, all less notable. Issue #1 rounds out with an Afghanistan-based story by David Rees and Tony Salmons, where a gentle soldier bristles under the grating attentions of his one-dimensional militaristic father. The reader will empathize. Bruce Jones and Sean Phillips bring us a fitfully interesting split-story, with a young kid on one side of a conflict occupying one page, and his equivalent on another side occupying the other. And Darko Macan and Danijel Zezelj assemble a four-page meditation on the joy of dance and the horror of war, revealing at the end that (all together now!) the narrator lost his leg in battle and cannot dance. Plus an essay by Dr. Arun Gandhi, and some additional art, and that’s a wrap.

And so goes my two dollars. “411” doesn’t have a lot of great material in it. A bit of it’s genuinely good, but it’s mainly middle-grade. But what many of these bargain ‘message’ comics do for me isn’t completely connected to story; it’s the overall feeling of the time that gets me, remembering or learning about the circumstances that led to their creation. And maybe some of it’ll be good comics too. It’s a better two dollars than I’ll spend at the racetrack…