Not biff nor pow...

*In case you missed it, why not check out my heroic Free Comic Book Day journey, and laugh along as I spend all my gas and walk around a bunch of stores. What a big day!

And then there's LAST WEEK'S REVIEWS:

Foul Play! The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s E.C. Comics! (slick, glossy, art-laden overview of EC's finest, with fifteen full stories; not the best for die-hards, but sweet for new or casual fans who want some quick and pretty info)

Concrete: The Human Dilemma #5 (of 6), Ultimate Fantastic Four #18

The Intimates #7, Seven Soldiers - Shining Knight #2 (of 4)

They will all love you for all time, all of them.

*And now for a review of a little something I got (not for free) on FCBD...

Zap Comix #15

More reason for calm, “Schizo” and “Planetary” fans: you could be dealing with sixteen issues (counting #0) in thirty-eight years.

But truly “Zap Comix” above all other comix is beyond such earthly concerns as prompt release; founder Robert Crumb himself once likened the Zap collective to a band, and each new issue was their latest album. And how could you expect a band to produce decent new work every single month? No, this book appears when it appears. This latest issue technically debuted in 2004, although it’s just crawling to the Direct Market recently. Check your stores: it might be waiting for you now or on Wednesday. And who can resist the first new edition in six years of one of the most history-laden anthology books in US comics history?

This latest issue is $4.95, 36 ad-free pages, b&w newsprint guts, in a double-covered flip format. Because the fixed line-up of the book is one of its enduring aspects, why not just break it down artist-by-artist?

Robert Williams

Ha ha, oh sorry Williams fans, you’re all gonna be pretty steamed once again. Unlike the considerable contributions from the rest of the crew, Williams only offers a few panels of work in the big two-page jam sequence, which nominally follows a nerdish Noam Chomsky reader who runs afoul of the sinister forces of The Man (right on!), but it’s actually a detour-laden excuse to draw masturbating devil girls and sinister shock troopers and prisoners with American flags sticking out of their asses being sentenced to Hell by hooded judges. It’s about what you can expect from a Zap Jam, an argument that maybe extends to the entirety of the book, although I expect that such things have so long ago ascended to the plane of ‘living legend’, a zone of perception and enjoyment inaccessible through the soiled concern of comics criticism.

But anyway, not much Williams; I don‘t think he appeared in anything but the jam last issue either. His near-absence, though, allows the book to neatly balance out the remainder of the content.

Robert Crumb

For example, there’s two autobiographical shorts, just as there are two pairs of additional formats, which we will discuss later. One of the autobio pieces is by Our Hero himself, celebrated in film and song and the subject of many learned volumes, the most recent being “The R. Crumb Handbook” (which, by the way, you can win over at Comic Book Galaxy by simply dropping an e-mail - so easy!). It’s a 10-page story dealing with Crumb’s bond with his brother Charles. These two sensitive, philosophic boys take long walks and discuss weighty matters, all contrasted to the bedlam of their family home. It’s crisply paced, good humored (a trip to church provides the best images), and gorgeously rendered, of course. Once gets the feeling that Crumb can write this kind of story in his sleep by now, but once you see the shadowed grins of those private Crumb youths marching through their midnight ambles, or the twisted yet stoic visage of Crumb Sr. attending work with his face in ribbons from his wife’s abuse, you know that the master is working, eyes open or shut.

Spain Rodriguez

The autobiographical shorts are the best pieces in the book, really; the other one comes from another old hand at the form, Spain. He’s been reminiscing about his youth as a delinquent and a biker for years now in “Blab!”, and here we see more of such material. It’s less focused then his “Blab!” work, and far more scattered then Crumb’s piece; it flutters around several characters and a big beach party in Canada, Spain himself only a supporting actor, relating anecdotes and jumping from past to farther past at will. It sometimes feels like the middle third of a complete anecdote, with the narrator’s attention wandering away every so often, but it’s a compelling fragment none the less. Spain’s art is dynamic; his style is more visual than the caption-heavy Crumb (who’s fortunately a good enough writer that you never notice at the time how loaded down with text his panels are), and his tall inky character art carries a lot of period detail, with not a dearth of emotion despite everyone’s squinty eyes and glassy skin. Nice.

Paul Mavrides

History-minded readers will already know that Mr. Mavrides is not a prime-period Zap mainstay; he’s actually the only substitute member, welcomed into the fold in 1998 with issue #14, essentially filling the emptied spot of the late Rick Griffin, who died in 1991. Mavrides provides one of the book’s covers, and one of the more self-consciously ‘arty’ pieces, a brief story involving flowing and swirling semi-biological phenomena hurling profanities at ach other. “Fuck you shit eating shit brained shit fucker!!” shouts an arthropod at a blob of mold, who retorts with a nice “Go fuck yourself!” The meaning is clear: all of Being is vulgar, right down to our component atoms.

Victor Moscoso

And delving even further into the arty arty art art side of things, we have probably the most enigmatic Zap regular, maybe better known for his psychedelic poster art then his comics (at least, until Fantagraphics finally releases that huge retrospective of his comics “Sex, Rock & Optical Illusions” this summer). But I really like Moscoso’s work, as hard to grasp as it may be. He has several short pieces here, one of which appears to be a mash-up of details and figures from the woodcuts of Gustave Dore with art from Mao-era Chinese propaganda (I’m guessing), word balloons scattered about containing lines like “What a drag!” and “I prefer ‘Peanutbutter’ to ’Homer.’” It’s titled “Dante’s Inferno”, and presumably relates to some sort of Hell. On the same theme, we have “Dante and the River of Lethe” which has cartoon blob creatures dancing and flipping in front of more Dore details. The strip runs right into the center of the book, becomes inverted, and guides you right into the flip side (you can‘t read any further, of course, since everything is going backwards). And it makes perfect sense if read the opposite way through as well.

Gilbert Shelton

The other cover artist, offering one of the more overtly humorous pieces. Here, Shelton revives his Wonder Warthog character for a new age. Wonder Warthog is a crime-fighting superhog who dresses in a mild-mannered reporter human suit; he tears his flesh off to transform. Unfortunately, things aren’t going well for his alter-ego, Philbert Desanex; he’s just lost his job since the papers decided to switch to an all-RNC press release format, and he can’t even rip his own skin off; his hog-half has gotten lost. What’s worse, his arch-nemesis Psuper Psychiatrist has alerted Main Street Homeland Justice Contractors Inc., which is some sort of terrorist-fighting/porno filmmaking outfit. Can Wonder Warthog survive the torture, or at least the application of self-referential gags as Shelton works his ever-evolving character designs into the story itself as a plot device (a la “Cerebus”)? There’s even a back-story cite to an issue of “The Texas Ranger” from 1962. Great-looking stuff though; I hope you’re all picking up on the pattern here. In particular, some ultra-heavy crosshatching shadows near the end make for a swell effect as Shelton introduces some more ‘realistic’ designs into the story; it’s a very solid look, as chintzy as some of the satire gets.

S. Clay Wilson

And the humor rounds itself out here, although it’s always going to be up to the reader if anything that Wilson does really counts as ‘funny’. His main story concerns a man with a giant log of shit for a head, who tries to pick up ‘The Stinky Girls’ at a local bar; their boyfriends decapitate our hero and flush his head down the toilet. There’s also some of Wilson’s patented insane-detail spreads (dated 2001), featuring all manner of violence and sexual atrocity; the Checkered Demon even makes a special cameo. As always, Wilson’s art is characteristically chaotic and sometimes incomprehensible and always vile, but his is a brand of comics we really don’t see much more of, at least not at this level of intensity. All other humorous gross-out stars, comparatively polished as they can’t help but be, all seem to be turned down to medium broil after reading some of this stuff. It’s utterly unconscionable and not particularly funny but you’ve just got to stare at it and marvel at how this stuff is still up and running.

Extending that last line to the whole of this issue wouldn’t be fair; there’s some neat stories, and almost uniformly excellent visuals. But maybe becoming lost in the very continued presence of “Zap Comix” is part of the experience these days; maybe we shouldn’t even try to divorce the immediacy of the reading to the ages behind the ink and paper. So intermittent is the appearance of this book, it seems genuinely churlish to not soak up its visit and look backward to the place it left, the place it represents now, a saint’s relic in a golden container, pressed to the reader’s forehead.

But funnier and better looking.