My blog will secure my place in the golden palace.

*I think I’d like to start the new year off with something a little spiritual. Yesterday's year end post is below, or on the sidebar to the right.

The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming

This is new from Fantagraphics. It’s 160 b&w pages for $19.95.

Fantagraphics has gotten a lot of attention recently for a number of high-profile newspaper comic strip reprint projects, but they’ve also been a reliable source for ‘underground’ era reprints (and if you want some nebulous descriptive terms for your 2007, there you go), what with such fine books as the recent You Call This Art?! A Greg Irons Retrospective. This isn’t as sweeping a survey of an artist’s career, focused as it is on one particular strip, but it’s invaluable anyway, so underexposed is the work of writer/artist Frank Stack.

Stack is something of an underexposed personality from the underground era, most easily accessible on the stands today through his extensive work with Harvey Pekar on American Splendor, including the art duties on the graphic novel Our Cancer Year. But Stack was there right from the initial flowering of underground comics, palling around with Gilbert Shelton in the early ‘60s while stationed in New York Harbor with an Army data processing unit. According to one of two extensive essays included in the book (one tackling the history of the work, the other the spirituality), Stack began drawing Jesus cartoons as an outlet for the frustrations of Army life, some of which were compiled by Shelton into a simple Xeroxed pamphlet and distributed in 1962-63; The Adventures of Jesus was thus arguably the first ‘underground’ comic of that notable age. Stack continued to draw Jesus comics during the heyday of the undergrounds, even after leaving the army and joining academia at the University of Missouri, though he employed the pseudonym Foolbert Sturgeon to protect both his job and his personal health.

Looking at them today, Stack’s Jesus comics seem naturally attuned to the mood of their times. Jesus is characterized as idealistic, but easily frustrated with the greedy, abuse-prone nature of humankind. I suppose it still retains the power to shock for some -- certain subject matters are perennials for controversy -- but it’s evident today that Stack means to use Jesus not as an object of fun but as a vehicle for commentary on the social injustices and indulgences of the day, meaning whatever day Stack happens to be living in. Jesus is nothing if not an endlessly adaptable character, after all, and this book sees the Savior go from cynical re-imaginings of New Testament classics to wandering around the streets getting his ass kicked by cops, to joining the Army (like Stack), to joining academia (like Stack), to suffering through the grind of the workaday world (presumably like Stack), to more fantastical adventures like rebuilding a ruined Earth or advising the President (probably not like Stack, but I’ll leave the possibility open). But it’s not that Stack is using Jesus necessarily as his own avatar; he’s restlessly relating that highly visible spiritual figure to the aches and pains of his everyday life, much in the way that many folks do outside of comics. What would Jesus do?!

The best of these stories hone in on Stack’s talents for conversation, and capturing the milieu of a certain place in narrative shorthand. Jesus barely seems to be in the story Jesus Goes to a Faculty Party, restless as Stack’s narrative eye is. Our viewpoint constantly circles and stalks around the room at a tense, loud soiree, word balloons edging into the corners as disconnected snatches of conversation clog up the centers of the panels. We never listed to a group of characters for very long, plainly because Stack feels nobody has much to say; it’s a clanging mess of hollow declarations of intelligence and edge, revolution and wisdom, everyone so hopelessly deluded and self-absorbed that the author can’t bear to sit and listen to these people for more than a few panels each. The party spins out into broad comedy, nakedness and explosions, Jesus growing increasingly agitated, and there’s little doubt that Stack himself has sat through more than his share of these events. It’s funny, but there’s a beguiling documentary value as well, as Stack is most convincingly a chronicler of worries and annoyances through his satire.

The art varies in texture, probably due to the somewhat ad hoc nature of Stack’s comics. Early stories seem simple and bright enough to pass muster in the daily funnies, while the maturation of the underground scene sees Stack’s visuals becoming more involved and scratchy. Indeed, simple changes in visual style are evident in seemingly every other story, as Stack seems determined to keep his comics from growing stale for him; there’s a freewheeling sense of visual experimentation here that’s necessarily going to be missing from comics with an overwhelming commercial intent, and that’s one of the joys of looking into compilations of underground comics of this sort. Visual evolution never quite seems to stop, and it’s a treat to witness so much of it in such a tight package.

The historical value here thus stretches beyond Stack’s essays (though those are nice too) or the introductions by Robert Crumb and the aforementioned Shelton, as a documentation of an artist’s experiences and his desire to continually evolve a certain, laser-targeted strain of his art. A very fun and worthwhile project, or at least another one out of several.