All That Sludge

*Yeah, told you my posting was gonna by shit. Sorry about that.


Swallow Me Whole (this is a book to look out for, though; I think it's really bound to hit some people pretty hard, and it's got some strong style behind it)

More planned for this week, much more, with the time to get it done too.

*Dreadful Self-Promotion Dept: Here we go - the full schedule of events for this weekend's SPX 2008 is now up. I'm involved in two events happening on Saturday: at 1:30 PM I'm part of an hour-long Critic's Roundtable with Gary Groth, Tim Hodler and Rob Clough in the "Conference Room" (I think all this stuff is downstairs from the main show); and at 3:00 PM I'm moderating an hour-long Q&A gala with Bryan Lee O'Malley in the "Auditorium" (I think they have free water!). Plenty more going on that day and the next, including a Marc Singer panel on election cartoons on Sunday (2:30 PM, Conference Room).

Doors open for the show at 11:00 AM on Saturday and 12:00 PM on Sunday; admission is $8.00 for one day, $15.00 for both. Everyone will be there (Fanfare/Ponent Mon!) with many things.

*Also with the many things?


Against Pain: Oh yes, a 128-page compilation of various and sundry anthology strips and short projects by the altogether excellent Ron Regé, Jr. I expect the star of the show for many (and probably the longest feature overall) will be 2000's Boys (written by Joan Reidy), a funny 24-page collection of awry romance/lust, originally published as a pamphlet by the lamented Highwater Books. But it's all probably going to read nice. From Drawn and Quarterly, $24.95.

My Brain is Hanging Upside Down: New from Pantheon, a 128-page, $24.95 color hardcover collection of various dreams, fragments and continuities by David Heatley, including strips from McSweeney's #13, Kramers Ergot 5 and his own two-issue pamphlet series Deadpan. New stuff too, but not the (incomplete) serial from MOME or any of his longform I'm Open project. Buckle up for portraiture by way of accumulated vignettes, the procedure made somewhat literal by piles of tiny story panels. Cute art mixed with explicit/gross sex too. Preview, production art and lots of background here; an added excerpt here. Er, don't follow those links while at the altar or anything.

Aya of Yop City: Drawn and Quarterly (yes, it's one of those 'deluge' weeks for Diamond) had some nice success with last year's English translation of Aya, a 2005 French album from writer Marguerite Abouet and artist Clément Oubrerie, so here's the 2006 Vol. 2, under a self-sufficient title (the series is currently up to Vol. 3 in Europe). It's more soapy romance and familial/community bonds in the late '70s Ivory Coast of Abouet's childhood. Hardcover, 112 color pages, $19.95. Preview here, and also here.

Top 10 Season Two #1 (of 4): Well I'll be goddamned - it's a new America's Best Comics miniseries. Almost in time for the 10th anniversary of Season One, actually. The writer is former co-artist Zander Cannon (with Big Time Attic cohort Kevin Cannon, no relation), and the visuals are from co-creator Gene Ha (from Z. Cannon's layouts). Have a look; I'd totally forgotten this was still in the pipeline.

The Alcoholic: This is the comics debut of prose novelist Jonathan Ames, a 136-page, $19.99 Vertigo original hardcover about a broken-hearted, oft-trashed prose novelist named 'Jonathan A.' who encounters many events in a "hilarious, excruciating, bizarre and universal" story, or so I'm told. Art by Dean Haspiel; preview here.

C'est Bon Anthology Vol. 5: Being the latest in this Sweden-based ongoing presentation of international comics art. Lineup of contributors here. Found in Diamond's epic Merchandise section, along with your very own 30 Years of 2000 AD: Judge Dredd trading cards box. Oooh, I hope I pull the Grant Morrison run!!

Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip Vol. 3 (of 5): Your annual dose of Moomins from Drawn and Quarterly, a 104-page, $19.95 hardcover collecting five more storylines from Jansson's popular newspaper strip of the '50s. I anticipate gentle satire and sweetly misplaced longing. Diamond is also offering (again) D&Q's second Chris Ware sketchbook release, The ACME Novelty Datebook: Vol. 2, 1995-2002, for those who missed it. I liked the page where he's reading an issue of Angry Youth Comix wherein Johnny Ryan is sassing him, so he banishes it to a garbage heap with copies of Lo-Jinx and Doofus visible on top. I mean, c'mon Chris Ware... Doofus and his light-hearted jests only sought to raise a smile, as would a tickly autumn breeze or a formidable inheritance. He is love.

The Night of Your Life: A 256-page, $15.95 Dark Horse collection of Jesse Reklaw's weekly Slow Wave alternative strip, based on the dreams of readers since 1995. Sample.

Harvey Comics Classics Library Vol. 4: Baby Huey: Holy fuck, that huge bird broke a bunch of shit. Only $19.95 for 480 pages of total sensation. From Dark Horse.

The Complete Chester Gould's Dick Tracy Vol. 5: Huh. Yeah... we're fucking drowning in reprint quality. How's about $29.99 for 352 pages, covering 1938-39? From IDW.

Vignettes: The Director's Cut: This is also a book of reprints (not a movie), matching up Image founder Jim Valentino's 1985-88 Renegade series Valentino with his 2007 Image-published sequel-in-spirit Drawing From Life in a 144-page Image softcover, with extras. It's $14.99.

Meat Cake #17: The pamphlet format may yet die, but Dame Darcy's one-artist showcase will continue among the undead - bank on it. From Fantagraphics, b&w, $3.95, 32 pages. Slideshow.

The Boys #23: Starting off the obligatory X-Men parody storyline; I imagine the basic idea of big money ultra-franchise superheroes could fit in pretty well with writer Garth Ennis' general industry-as-governance tone. Also on the money theme: variant covers, starting this issue! Preview here. For the hesitant among you, publisher Dynamite also has the series' third trade paperback this week, collecting issues #15-22 for $19.99.

No Hero #1 (of 7): The new Warren Ellis/Juan Jose Ryp superhero series from Avatar (which actually started with an issue #0 a while back, slowpoke); the topic is decades-spanning superhero franchise that sought to change society, and the drug casualties, violent team hopefuls and strange killings that surround it in 2011. Pencil preview here. Avatar also has Ellis' Doktor Sleepless #9 this week.

Punisher War Journal #24: Chaykin; Secret Invasion. Marvel also has a $15.99 softcover edition of The Punisher MAX: From First to Last this week, collecting all of the one or two-issue bits from Garth Ennis' run, with art by John Severin and Richard Corben, among others.

Sub-Mariner: The Depths #2 (of 5): Milligan, Ribic.

Army@Love: The Art of War #3 (of 6): Veitch.

Tor #6 (of 6): Kubert.

Batman #680: Oh god, it's the penultimate chapter of R.I.P. (Rest In Peace), and Garbage Bag Batman is totally going to use the magic of drugs to foil the Joker's foul scheme! Whatever it is! Fractured preview here!

Four Eyes #1: Another new Image series from the busy Man of Action studios, this time teaming writer Joe Kelly with artist Max Fiumara for the ongoing story of a young boy helping his family out of an American economic depression by wrangling dragons. Preview here; Fiumara's a talented artist that hasn't had the best of luck with front-of-Previews projects, but this stuff looks pretty strong.

The Soddyssey, And Other Tales of Supernatural Law: Ok. Deep breath. Once upon a time (so, 1979), a guy named Batton Lash created a comic strip about a pair of lawyers who represent monsters and fantasy horror figures. In 1994, the property spun out into a comic book titled Wolff & Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre, which changed its title to Supernatural Law in 1999. It's still ongoing, and up to issue #45. An initial run of collected editions started up in 1995, only to end in 1998 at Vol. 4. Then a new run of collections started up, compiling new issues while ducking back to present refurbished versions of old issues. That left some gaps as to what's actually in print; this book -- a 192-page b&w softcover, $17.95 -- will fill all of those gaps by picking back up issues #9-16 of the Wolff & Byrd series, retoned and relettered. With guest contributions by Steve Bissette, Jeff Smith, Bernie Wrightson, Charles Vess and others. Sample story here. Gah.



"I was frightened. Every time, even when it freed me."

Swallow Me Whole

This is from Top Shelf, a 216-page b&w hardcover priced at $19.95; it's set to debut at SPX next weekend, and should be available in stores soon after.

I haven't read many comics by Nate Powell, a Meathaus and Paper Rodeo contributor who's been active in self-publishing since 1992; actually, the first work I'd seen of his was his prior Top Shelf release, the 2006 pamphlet Please Release, a collection of thematically linked autobiographical shorts.

Those were exhausting little works, no longer than 12 pages but so stuffed with concurrent and crisscrossing narrative effects that they lingered like digressive anecdotes. They didn't have the texture of anecdotes, though, but essays of self-reflection, heavy with soaking inquisition as to the artist's living choices. One particular piece saw Powell detail his work with developmentally disabled adults, in caption, through chilly spurts of description ("My relationship to power dynamics as advocate and radical is a compatible polarity -- carefully constructing values of self, of property and privacy, maintaining many social barriers, and simultaneously defining clearly my position as worker, exercising mindful jurisdiction over my control and influence in another's life"), while rendering his movement and surroundings in growing and shrinking panels, breathing, contorting time and matching low-detail character expression with heavy-lined environments. His writing is not always so dense, but his visuals are consistently active.

In particular, Powell is a gifted letterer, adept at swapping out 'fonts' and twisting balloons for intuitive consequence; his background noise is second-to-none, and he's even prone to devising simple solutions to nagging elemental problems. I've often been wary of including song lyrics on the page; maybe I'm broken, but I always try to read in some tune, which inevitably freezes my eyes as I struggle without guidance to divine sound from those clumps of words (and they are often clumps), laying tunelessly on the page.

Powell actually overcomes this: his lyrics literally flow out of some source and spiral around the page, surrounding objects and expanding in space, thus acting as a visual element accommodating of the 'tune' of reading a comic. It's so damned simple -- and, stripped of context, obviously not a formal innovation or anything -- but it demands a pliability of form that many comics lack.

(from Please Release)

Still, I wasn't very taken with the book. Powell's presentation had a way of becoming cacophonous (if not melodramatic), its studied narration and coughed-out dialogue and light-to-heavy drawing and swirling effects overwhelming its delicate story fragments; much was thoughtful, but little seemed complimentary. My impression was of some booming talent successfully drowning out whatever experience Powell was attempting to mix; not the worst impact in the world, but it didn't much help the comic.

Swallow Me Whole is a different thing: a single story, far longer and altogether better. Notably, Powell places a great emphasis on his visual craft, allowing his plot to amble along a broad, loosely defined range of time, passage drifting into passage, accumulating a vocabulary of symbols and character traits that demand some attention of the reader in order for the work's power to manifest. There's some good, sturdy storytelling sequences in here, but this is a book of evocation, trusting that its fragments will prompt a growing recognition and discomfort.

As you can see above, the phrase "swallow me whole" also appeared in Powell's prior comic, as an especially angsty declaration of being absorbed by doubt. Here it's far more dire a sentiment (and understandably overarching, being the title and all). Step-siblings Ruth and Perry are very close, both in the sense that they care for each other dearly, and that they share certain problems. Perry sometimes sees and hears a little wizard that urges him to embark on "missions," mostly resulting in detailed, compulsive drawings.

Meanwhile, Ruth can easily burn away some time arranging and rearranging and sorting and composing and lining up and arranging and rearranging her beloved insect collection, when she's not fretting over stepping on living things while walking around, or envisioning cicadas chasing and surrounding her. She sees her bugs as diplomats, calling from their jars to their families; she has the impression that she can open a gate to a new world by lining up the perfect congress, although she concedes inside that her control over the bugs affords her such control over an aspect of life that she can dissolve into it, reaching a terrifying peace. Her characteristics aren't original - her frail, terminally ill grandma also wasn't quite well, but she channeled her troubles into art, as Perry does, despite any apparent genetic precedent for his condition.

All of these people are just that; we glimpse Ruth and Perry as young kids, then follow them around in high school as they get part-time jobs, pick up boyfriends and girlfriends, forge identities, fool around and all that. But Perry seems to grow away from his condition, while Ruth does not.

There's a lot going on in this book, much of it conveyed through Powell's visuals. He's great with little details, from a tiny pain star floating up from an angry mom pulling her kid's arm to a teenager wearing the same shirt to bed she wore around in public as a younger girl. His grasp of adolescent boredom/confusion is impressive, with odd fights cropping up and worst enemies transitioning to good friends.

He's also excellent at whipping up sheer discomfort, much of it coming from that slow teenage realization that adult authority figures can be frail and erroneous people, prone to saying stupid and wrong things - this culminates in a nervous classroom confrontation, during which you will feel the sinking sensation that crops up when someone important-to-the-room says or does something obviously awful, followed by the horror of someone else standing up and reacting in a manner that can only hurt them for their good intentions. And Powell makes sure to muster the feeling toward the end of a broader stretch of emotion, that of tight siblings naturally drifting apart as they grow up, values changing; there's even the hint of one afflicted party maybe wondering why the other can't just pack the voices and art supplies up and pull herself together.

It's moving, because Powell is good with moments, and he builds a warm, familial affection among his lead characters. Yet this doesn't aim to be a purely 'realistic' comic; Powell's stretching pages -- oscillating between splashes and dense panel arrangements so as to make his canvas seem especially big -- accommodate all sorts of visions and techniques, from those curling lyrics and enveloping background conversations, to canny flourishes like a man's arm obscuring a word balloon as he slams it on a desk, to menacing/revealing flights of fancy, sometimes teetering on the obvious. I could have done without grandma literally becoming young as she speaks of her past, or young Ruth's speech on the dissolving power of rearranging things actually dissolving her into abstract swirls.

Moreover, as attractive as Powell's visions can be, they can prove distractingly obtuse for a book that leans so heavily on accumulation for its power. Cicadas are a potent traditional symbol of nonchalance, which Powell deftly uses as an accompaniment for youthful drifting, even as he plays up the plague-like, swarming aspect of the creatures as a broader potential for illness. A bullfrog is later introduced for additional conflict, a beastie primed perfectly for swallowing: problems, reality, etc. But Powell can't quite restrain himself, throwing in a little monster that apparently serves as the drifting conscious, or possibly the very force of lucidity, incarnated as a cartoon ghost; it eventually disappears from the story, as ghosts tend to do.

Another odd sight, but it seems collateral, threatening to overstuff the work, much as stacked visual elements made Please Release to clatter 'till distraction.

But Swallow Me Whole undoubtedly has the swarm force of its moments behind it, and Powell's able uses of formal elements. And his last 40 pages, a rightly bravura display of pounding cartoon force in which most prior symbols smash against another in a Big Crunch of consummation and consumption, as the work runs screaming into sheer metaphor, a true askew plane like some had been reaching for. It's logical, but visceral, filled with potent horror imagery "all falling into a clean, final order," in grandma's words.

It's surely the best thing in this book, ably building from what's gone before; there's sadness, resignation and purpose. Devotion. I'd even call it beautiful, in that Powell doesn't lose his grip on bond between siblings, biological and otherwise; the book calls itself 'a love story,' but it's rare to see non-romantic love given the prime real estate, and valuable to witness it evoked with enough might that it makes so many insects and creatures slightly radiant. If Powell's prior work stated a desire to swallow him in himself, this one aims to gulp down the whole world. It does much better, but maybe that's a function of arranging the plate in that crucial, magic order.



*Well, this has been a week. Just letting you know I haven't been killed in a burglary or anything... you never know when these homeowners are packing anymore. I'll have something substantive up late Friday or Saturday.

*Meanwhile, there's still some posting going on in the comments for my All Star Superman review last week - some interesting stuff from Cole Moore Odell, circumstantial evidence suggesting a second, secret plot going on the whole time.

*Oh, there's a part in the new Hellboy where he gets hold of a shovel filled with the Holy Spirit and smashes someone in the head with it. That was decent, the blend of a blessed mystery and hitting.

*Yeah, something substantive soon...


Lots of Collections

*It's like we flushed out the packrats, and they'd packed their stuff into attractive, bookshelf-ready items.


Black Jack Vol. 1 (of 17)

The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard


All Star Superman #12

at The Savage Critics!



Tamara Drewe: I've heard a lot of good things about this one - it's a new Houghton Mifflin US paperback collection ($16.95 for 136 pages) of veteran cartoonist and illustrator Posy Simmonds' modern reworking of Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel Far From the Madding Crowd, a tale of lust and fame and disquiet originally serialized in the pages of the Guardian in 2005 and 2006. Sample here. Found in the Merchandise section of Diamond's weekly list, because it does have a lot in common with an official High School Musical singing pen.

Sublife Vol. 1: This is a new, ongoing squarebound one-man anthology series from artist John Pham and publisher Fantagraphics, an 8.25" x 6.75" two-color home for his 221 Sycamore St. serial (last seen in early volumes of MOME, although I don't know if it's being reworked), along with various other projects. Your $8.99 gets you 64 pages. Those with long memories will recall Pham's three-issue Epoxy series from half a decade or so ago, which showed off some impressive manga-informed work; his newer material seems more subdued although the main serial has some visually interesting, seemingly David B.-influenced fantasy sequences. Slideshow here, interview with Tom Spurgeon here.

Che: A Graphic Biography: The newest project by underground noteworthy Spain Rodriguez, a 120-page softcover from Verso, presenting just what you think. The price is $16.95.

Garry Trudeau: Doonesbury and the Aesthetics of Satire: A critical study by Kerry D. Soper of the story mechanics of the venerable newspaper strip, wedding longform narrative continuity to a particularized political commentary. From the University Press of Mississippi, $22.00 for a 186-page softcover.

The Best American Comics 2008: The third opening for the comics wing of Houghton Mifflin's long-running Best American series, this time debuting new series editors Jessica Abel & Matt Madden, with Lynda Barry serving as guest editor. The late David Foster Wallace once put together an in-depth (and rather funny) look at what the hell those titles (and really anything Best American) mean(s), if you want to know, but the short version is that the 'series editor' is a fixed position whereby someone culls a big list of works from everything deemed eligible, while the 'guest editor' picks and chooses from that list (with maybe a few added personal suggestions) to form a particular year's tome. Chris Ware was the guest editor last year, and there was some consternation when, in a disturbing twist, he chose works that someone like Chris Ware would probably like. Barry's tenure has already been marked with the mini-controversy of DC disallowing the inclusion of an excerpt from Paul Pope's Batman: Year 100, but the list of included folks (fifth bullet) looks decent, as does Eleanor Davis' cover; expect lots of excerpts, though, and probably a bunch of stuff you've seen, if you're as far outside of the target audience as me. It's $22.00 for 416 pages.

(and for your added pleasure, Diamond is also offering again 2006's Ivan Brunetti-edited An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories -- still a $28.00 hardcover -- which fills its 400 pages with samples from a much broader temporal range of comics, although if you're like me you've probably been in that canon before)

Spaghetti Bros. Vol. 1 (of 2?): Being the initial English-language hardcover collection of an Italian-American familial crime saga that seasoned Argentine comics team Carlos Trillo & Domingo Mandrafina began in 1992. It's 204 pages for $24.99, and it looks like this; I do wonder why it's only two volumes, though, since the French intégrale edition is 784 pages, and the preview link above mentions a similar-looking four-volume release. Hmmm. From IDW, which didn't stop it from being banished to Diamond's cellar-like Merchandise section. Wait, does that mean it's as acclaimed as Tamara Drewe? (EDIT 9/23: As per Seth Hurley in the comments, note that Amazon is listing a Vol. 3 for 2009; as such, contrary to IDW's solicitation, it's probably safe to presume the series is actually four books long)

Black Jack Deluxe Hardcover Vol. 1 (of '3'): Ok Matthew, I've got your answer - this Wednesday is when the first Direct Market-exclusive $24.95 limited edition hardcover volume of Osamu Tezuka's medical adventure series hits the shelves, complete with an exclusive bonus story culled from material the artist otherwise didn't deem necessary to collect at all. Note that publisher Vertical only has three of these special editions planned, to match up with the first three volumes of its 17-book Black Jack translation effort. Review of the plain ol' softcover here (it's not yet out from Diamond, no).

Wild Animals Vol. 1 (of 2): Key Trafficker: Meanwhile, over in the world of Chinese manhua, Yen Press presents a tale of youth and longing in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. It's a comic by the very popular Song Yang, based on a novel by the very popular Wang Shuo (which also formed the basis of the 1994 Jiang Wen film In the Heat of the Sun). It's $10.99 for 240 pages.

Ghost World: Special Edition: And getting back to deluxe hardcovers for a minute, here we see Fantagraphcs expand Dan Clowes' 80-page original to 288 pages, thanks to the edition of annotations, promotional materials, production drawings, the entire screenplay to the subsequent motion picture, a few new strips and assorted other things. You already know if it's worth $39.99.

The Complete Terry and the Pirates Vol. 4 (of 6): 1941-1942: More from Milton Caniff, including death. It's the usual $49.99 for 352 pages. This week also sees The Complete Peanuts Vol. 10: 1969-1970, in which Linus' revolutionary dreams collapse before the dragon heroin.

Black Summer: But if nothing above has caught your eye -- or if you're still in the mood for something a little louder -- Avatar has 192 bleeding color pages of superhero mayhem spilling out of the assassination of the President of the United States into an all-out civil war between the US military and the nation's science-powered human guns. Seriously, something like 5/6 of this is explosions and screaming, with b&w flashbacks occasionally popping in so characters can discuss politics and morality, like the arty bits of an arty theatrical porn film, only the porn is superheroes bleeding and fire. Warren Ellis writes, while Juan Jose Ryp provides exactly as much restraint as the material demands. A donation of $24.99 is required. If you really like Ryp, you can also shell out an extra $3.99 for this week's No Hero Sketchbook, containing 16 pages of stuff relating to the next Ellis/Ryp Avatar superhero project.

Dead Ahead #1 (of 3): Any new Alex Niño project is automatically worth looking at, so do look at this Image miniseries, even though it's zombies on the high seas, and I really can do without the living dead. Written by Clark Castillo & Mel Smith (the latter is also publisher of Bob Burden's and Rick Geary's Gumby series), with colors by Moose Baumann.

Hellboy: The Crooked Man #3 (of 3): Richard Corben. It's like Creepy all over again this week! Note that Dark Horse also has a trade for Abe Sapien: The Drowning.

Back to Brooklyn #1 (of 5): Hey, Garth Ennis has a new series at Image too; it looks to be a fight-for-your-life piece about a guy who gets on the wrong side of his violent gangster brother. Co-written by Jimmy Palmiotti, with art by Mihailio Vukelic. Have a look.

Marvel Boy Premiere Hardcover: Yep, it had to happen - a new $24.99 hardcover edition of the 2000-01 miniseries by the Final Crisis team of writer Grant Morrison and artist J.G. Jones. Still, it's a pretty great lark if you haven't read it -- maybe the single best thing to come of Morrison's millennial association with Marvel -- sending an ill-tempered Kree lad into an alternate Marvel U to bump heads with a cruel capitalist in a classic Iron Man suit, a violent young lady who's convinced her skimpy mask somehow hides hideous scars, and a certain living corporation with nothing but proliferation on its mind. Very glossy, mildly bratty superhero stuff, something Morrison once characterized as a reaction to the dull, nostalgia-powered veneration of snoozy ideals prevalent in the genre (or: 'DadComics'). And while the promised Vols. 2 and 3 will probably never appear, causing the whole thing to hang perpetually on a cliff, there's still enough of a charge to keep it satisfying...

Red Rocket 7: Wow, this one's a heavier blast from the past. Specifically, Red Rocket 7 was a seven-issue 1997-98 miniseries Mike Allred released through Dark Horse after about a dozen issues of his then-ongoing Madman Comics series. Each issue was a large 10" x 10" in full color, and the story tracked the cultural/spiritual travel of a strange being with a yen for rock 'n roll throughout history. Yep, Elvis, Bowie, etc. But more broadly, the comic was just one part of an ambitious multimedia project of Allred's, including an album of music by 'The Gear' (Son of Red Rocket 7) and a motion picture written & directed by and starring Allred himself (Astroesque, currently on dvd as a bonus feature for the Allred-derived Christopher Coppola film G-Men from Hell). None of those other bits are getting the anniversary treatment, and you can probably guess why (I think 65-70% of Astroesque was Allred and some guys running back and forth in a ditch to fuzzy guitar sounds); still, I'm glad they exist out there as a memorial to the unfettered dreaming of a comic book star. Anyway, Image is the publisher reprinting the comic, a bargain at only $16.99 for 280 color pages (hopefully at the same big size). Intro by Robert Rodriguez, afterword by Gerard Way.

Absolute Ronin: I don't know if I'd want to shell out $99.00 for this 328-page hardcover slipcased edition of Frank Miller's 1983-84 future samurai opus, with all due respect toward the promise of "rarely seen promotional art, fold-out pages and more special features." But this is still my favorite of Miller's works as a writer/artist, a proudly odd melding of Goseki Kojima's gekiga stylings (before most North American readers could even name a comic from Japan) with the crawling matter of totalitarian control, and a story of becoming whatever you want because you simply love what you might be. No borders in this one; it's the kind of book that seems to have always been around, yet you look at it and you kind of can't believe it got willed into being, and you're glad.



Be sure and close the door. Eternity whips up a nasty draft sometimes.

The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard

This is a splendid, sad lark of a book, filled with odd amusements and formal horseplay, all keyed toward sifting through several fundamental ponderings of life and living; it's as playful as it is melancholic, a work that deems even the most storied life a ride of dips and jumps, its lowest lows and highest highs perhaps bringing us close to the very boders of the present - history and dreams and spirits lurking just above and below us, where we cannot routinely occupy the page.

All of this feeling is fundamental to the work's very construct, an impressively intuitive design cooked up by the ever-versatile Eddie Campbell, here working again with co-writer Dan Best (see also: 2005's Michael Chabon Presents: The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist #6, from Dark Horse). And while the surface qualities of the visuals are striking enough -- Campbell's painted scenes skillfully drift in and out of precision detail, all scooped into delightful wobbly panels -- a closer reading is necessary, I think, to fully appreciate the work's success.

This is a work of historical fiction, involving the very real Jules Léotard, namesake of the tight-fitting garment and much-mustached legend of the 19th century trapeze. He died in 1870, at the age of 28; he doesn't make it very far into this book either, as all who've read the ad copy know. But Campbell lets him roar while he's up and about - his six pages of plotting primacy (the first images of the story) are nothing but single and double-page splashes, Leotard literally leaping through story and song in lieu of tiresome reality, until the sixth splash leaves him grounded in bed, wasting away from smallpox as the actual protagonist of the story enters from the bottom left.

That true main character is Leotard's nephew Etienne, his life picking up as Jules' winds down. Leotard remains wildly popular, you see, even as Paris shakes under the Franco-Prussion War and the circus animals are eaten as a matter of human survival. Etienne is left a fake mustache by his uncle, along with a final prayer: "May nothing occur." Our Hero then shamelessly ignores the latter bit of the legacy so as to put the former to quick use - after all, even if a new Monsieur Leotard isn't the thing to save the circus, it's surely at least something to be.

Oh, and Etienne is also left a blank book. This is crucially important, since he needs to fill up that book by filling up this book -- The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, published by First Second, $16.95 for 128 color pages -- as the more immediately striking Uncle Jules and his splash pages didn't make it all that far. Campbell & Best thereby suggest that Etienne has come out from behind Jules' renown, and this book of this uncle's life (his uncle's blank book, remember) may become his own. Sure, he did it by straight-up appropriating his uncle's identity, but aren't we all prone to our little fictions of identity? And besides, it's not like he wasn't a Monsieur Leotard before.

And with Etienne's wakened life comes a new manner of our seeing it. Note all of the white space on the page above - that's how most of Etienne's are put together, with a 2 x 2 buckle of panels set in the center. Sometimes one or more panels reaches out into the void, or two in a row become combined into one. At one point they shake with terror and become detached, while another page finds a full-length image slicing away the second column. But mostly the 'story' exists in the center, brief and colorful.

Meanwhile, the void does not stay so blank. It quickly becomes evident that Campbell intends to use the space for any manner of optional information - things the characters can't directly see, being outside the boundaries of reality and all. It might be name labels for assorted characters, or pertinent quotes, or added historical information. Little scenes from history occasionally play out, like when Etienne's conversation with (actual) famed tight-rope walker Charles Blondin is literally surrounded by details from a wordless flashback, the sheer occasion unable to sit inside the 2 x 2 reality of thinking people. Elsewhere, a long boat trip has time's passage conveyed by the vessel's (mostly) smooth sailing atop the buckle, the ship's position shifting with each one-page vignette held in-panel. All that's out in the white is pertinent, but the stuff of extra-perception.

What mostly stands out, however, is the dead. Uncle Jules may not be dominating the page anymore, but he does pop in outside the panels for some comments or activity, as do devoured animals, departed performers, and the presence of foreshadowing. Even Campbell & Best wander in for a dream sequence, discussing the progression of their and Etienne's book up top ("But this is one of those characters that writes his own story") while both Leotards converse down bottom, the in-story living only able to access the realm while asleep. In the center, in a bed that could be divided into four squares if someone had a saw, Etienne tosses and turns, rolling around, and aging, page after page, until he sits up awake in his own full-page splash, wrinkled and gray, the sudden realization of it all dashing away some space from the blank eternal where people used to walk and talk.

It's sad, but it happens.

That is the stance of this book, and its beauty. What I just went through above isn't the only splash for Etienne. Oh no - every few pages sees some focusing event pound the fellow's in-panel life to vivid (joyful, tragic) fullness, whether it be a panorama of some exciting event, or a newspaper or transcribed account of some happening, or a look at an actual page of Etienne's book, laid out on top of one or two pages of ours. But always we return to the objective book, as objective as these things get.

The impact of this story cannot be divorced from its visuals; it all simply could not analogously exist outside of the comics form. Even beyond all I've mentioned, the rhythm of the pages grounds Campbell's & Best's plotting, which gallops through episodes from Etienne's advancing life in a manner that might seem vaporous otherwise. Or precious: characters often speak in an exclamatory manner, declaring intent and barking emotion with no fuss, like heroes in a youth adventure serial (and did I mention that among the circus' crew is an actual talking bear that walks on two legs and wears a top hat?). Indeed, reference is often made to 'the next episode,' even though the book wasn't serialized anywhere - what they're really talking about is the events that seem to define a life, the particulars that fill out memory's stuff and spark something in others, the fine work of a story.

Campbell & Best vary these particulars well, mixing swashbuckling challenges with the silent observation of some unique portion of a lover's body. There's a great, funny cameo by a character from a prior Campbell collaboration, but not ten pages away is a delicate, withering assessment of the racism and exploitation inherent to the circus life of the time, and an implied acknowledgement that while it's up to us to live our lives, so much of it is limited or exploded by circumstances of birth, tricks of time and place well beyond the painted color of our control.

Yet as the story bounces on springed shoes toward its conclusion, Campbell repeating his prior layouts and Etienne pooling his accumulated skills, both to good use, it becomes increasingly evident that no life in unlimited. That's hardly a profound revelation, particularly coming from an artist that's already shown us even immortality isn't forever, but it seems especially immediate coming from this work, in this manner, decades skipping by, life boxed away, so much beyond our reach.

The book is sad (as I put it) for that, but it is also true, and eloquent in its panels and grand gutters and pops of splashes and jests and visitations - strange fun emanating even from pages wet with sadness, suspense and exhilaration coursing through even the work's quietly masterful final pages, the chit-chat of friends and family drifting on and on and on.

Until, inevitably for books of limited pages and lives of finite hours, nothing more can occur.


Let's Stare Into Each Others' Eyes

*Horrible Self-Promotion Dept: You know what's coming up in (oh god) two weeks? SPX 2008 in Bethseda, Maryland!

And while I'll be easy enough to find walking the floor on Saturday, dressed as my 'naughty linx' fursona, I'm also going to be participating in a pair of formal hour-or-so events; here's the full lineup, although you'll want to watch the eXpo's homepage for times and locations and such.

First up (unless it's second) is a Q&A session with Scott Pilgrim creator Bryan Lee O'Malley, which I'll be moderating. Surely this is an artist that needs no introduction; load your ass up with Q, so that A shall result. I'll be a good time.

And then (unless it's first) comes a Critics' Roundtable, with Bill Kartalopoulos asking questions of Gary Groth, Tim Hodler, Rob Clough and me. This will be my first time sitting on a comics show panel, so buckle up for more uhs and pregnant pauses than 24 hours of off-the-cuff Barack Obama. Questions will be also solicited from the audience; feel free to ask me about anything, up to and including romantic advice, dining tips or Final Crisis spoilers. Granted, I don't have any Final Crisis spoilers, but you can still ask!

Lots of other stuff going on - I mean, Joost Swarte and Ben Katchor will be there, plus Kim Thompson is doing a presentation on 20 great French cartoonists, so things'll be hopping. Come on down/up if you're in the area for Oct. 4-5; tell them I sent you, so they'll get confused.


Left Hand of God, Right Hand of the Humanist

Black Jack Vol. 1 (of 17)

This might be out in big box bookstores right now; you'll find it everywhere worthwhile soon enough. It's the long-awaited start of Vertical Inc.'s biggest Osamu Tezuka project yet - a large-scale reprint of the manga legend's beloved series of adventures for a scarred, unlicensed surgeon, a man who can do almost anything with his hands when the price is right, or his still-whole heart is somehow moved.

Tezuka began the series in 1973, and it ran for roughly a decade, racking up almost 250 self-contained episodes. Vertical's softcover release -- this initial volume being $16.95 for 288 pages -- is based on Tezuka's own plans for a deluxe reprint series, concocted just prior to his death. As such, most of the stories are arranged in the artist's preferred (if not necessarily chronological) order, while a few have been left out entirely; some of those 'lost' stories will be included as bonuses in limited edition hardcover releases of the first three volumes, to be distributed only to Direct Market retailers.

I've written about Black Jack elsewhere; it's been around North America for a while in anime form, and VIZ attempted to translate the manga series in the late '90s, though all that resulted were two small collected editions. And if you've got those old books, you're gonna run into some overlap; of the 12 stories contained in this new edition, half initially appeared in the VIZ Vol. 1. Camellia Nieh's translation is new, however, and besides - it's never too much to revisit these odd, vibrant comics.

Says it all, really. There's some more background in that piece I linked above -- and that Ron Paul joke is fresh as ever -- but it's important to note that Black Jack probably held some special resonance for Tezuka, an insatiably curious man who became licensed to practice medicine in 1952, but opted instead to draw comics forever.

Black Jack the character may have a feverishly shōnen origin -- a boy sewn back together following a horrible injury, subsequently vowing to become the world's greatest healer -- but the adventures of his adulthood surely play to his creator's fondest self-regard, a human wonder (and money-making powerhouse) operating outside of polite society, gifted with the opportunity to observe all of humanity's tics and foibles and unstoppable beauty. These comics are all about medicine, but they're also comedy, melodrama, action, horror, sci-fi, social satire - patches from the whole scope of an art form, stitched up by Tezuka like the anatomy of his titular hero.

In other words, if one young robot Atom represented Tezuka's ideal for the future of Japan, it may well be that Black Jack was a more private extreme, an ultimate alter ego.

And while these comics may lack the philosphical heft of Phoenix, they're maybe a better embodiment of what I call Tezuka's berserk entertainment aesthetic - laughs and cruelty and pathos, not merely juxtaposed but often stuffed into the same panel. Tezuka's visual style is well-developed by this point, capable of flitting from graceful displays of movement to slapstick expressions of distress to solid, genuine pain.

That last bit is of special importance, because while Tezuka's characters might squash and stretch like the beloved cartoons that inspired him, he can never not see them as human, and they must then be syrup and viscera inside. Surely there's nothing in this series more continually striking than the artist's relentless, guaranteed depictions of surgery itself, happy rubber skin always peeled away to show realist meat and bone, minutely detailed organs mended or transplanted, then covered up again in the stuff of effortless napkin doodles. It becomes like a sort of mantra, a visual metaphor for the man's whole life's work, repeated again and again.

He's working in short stories too, most of them less than 40 pages long, which affords him close walls off which to bounce his tone. I can't say every tale in this book is a great one -- Tezuka does have a tendency to get awfully drippy with the bathos, particularly when having his hero observe a polio-stricken young lad on A Very Inspiring Walk -- but all of them rattle with the desire to be anything and everything, to go anywhere people might be hurt: everywhere.

And so, Black Jack sees and does many things. While armed with some realistic images, this is not what you'd call a 'realistic' series. Often, the mystery doctor performs miracles, sometimes fetishistically alone. He transplants a brain from one body to another, he transforms a potential lover from a woman to a man, and, in a moment taken from Tezuka's earlier Dororo, he builds a globulous youngster a full-scale prosthetic body. The new little girl then becomes Our Hero's kid sidekick; hey, people have to live somehow.

Often the plots stretch to present afflictions as veils for aspects of life. A sinister man's face becomes consumed with a sore in the form of the tumor monster jinmenso, but its ugliness may be more utilitarian than Black Jack suspects. A young girl undergoes a cornea transplant and begins to see a phantom (yep, like in The Eye), a handsome devil that's every guy that might be (really) bad for her - only Black Jack's perfect scalpel throw can save the day with heartbreak. An artist's out-of-the-way creative reverie is interrupted by a literal nuclear explosion, prompting a body switch that robs him of his desire to capture the horror of his experience; only the ache of death can truly power his creative urge, says Tezuka.

The best of these stories is surely the loopiest. An American hospital is fully controlled by a mighty computer, one advanced enough that it's grown self-aware. When it malfunctions, it declares itself 'sick' and demands a real doctor to help it out -- you know who -- on the threat of death for all its hundreds of patients. Among the panicked staff are the computer's pretty inventor, various impotent guards and, oh yes, a black man with skin the hue of ink, lips and chin smeared in blackface style with a featureless snub nose hanging above, like a lump of coal glimpsed in the negative. But a funny thing happens - as Black Jack makes his way through the tech support 'operation,' analogizing his actions to medical procedures the whole time, a doctor-patient bond develops, enough so that the man's pride and duty cannot allow the procedure to stop, even after a reasonable person would let the mad machine be sent to scrap. That is the passion of excellence.

It's a troubling piece, in several ways. How could Black Jack feel such respect for someone (or thing) that threatened to kill so many? Further, how can the modern reader fully reconcile Tezuka's application of rather gross ethnic caricature with his oft-bellowed humanism? The latter can be 'answered' (if not excused) by history, place, time - a man of good intentions working in a wildly homogenous society, inspired by an older iconography possessed of a racist bite he may not have been in much of a place to fully appreciate, all that outer skin, his detail turned inside.

The former is easier to handle, because this is Tezuka, and we know his machines can be people too, and the worst can become great, with understanding. Some may find these stories to be slight, but I found even the least of them fascinating examples of an artist casting his net especially far, secure in his talented hands and firm in his fame - ready to confront any malady, striving to cut away any harm, instrument tips sharp for making flesh whole.


A divine shape manifests from beyond the falling snow...

*A... a miracle!


Blurred Vision Vol. 4 (with a special look at some abstract concepts)

The Boys (22 issues into the Garth Ennis/Darick Robertson series)

Could it be?!

*Important Publishing News Dept: This December, on the final day of 2008 -

The Winter Men Winter Special.

Just a little something to warm your hands on. Fond memories here.

*And in more immediate concerns -


Burma Chronicles: The newest of Guy Delisle's observational travel comics (released in French in 2007), following Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China (2000) and the highly-regarded Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (2003). As with the others, Drawn and Quarterly brings it to English; it's a 208-page hardcover, $19.95. Preview here, lots more stuff in French here.

All Star Superman #12: Final eye-twinkling issue! Who will live? Who will die? Who will stay mostly the same? Will anyone cry? Shall punches be thrown? Might Batman appear for the purposes of saying "goddamn" and leaving the readership swooning? How many lasers should appear on-panel? Can the black bars prove sufficient for Jimmy's mouth? Perry's? I don't know any of these answers, but I do know that Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant have indeed gotten shit done. Don't look at this preview; save it all for later.

Vagabond VIZBIG Edition Vol. 1: By which VIZ's Takehiko Inoue assault continues, this time collecting the first three volumes of the Slam Dunk and Real creator's ongoing swordsman series (currently at Vol. 28) into a somewhat larger (8.5" x 5.8"), 728-page package for only $19.99. And with all that money you saved, you can get a head start on saving up for both of the $34.99, 164-page softcover Inoue art books VIZ is also releasing this week, Sumi: Vagabond Illustration Collection (covering b&w pen and brush works) and Water: Vagabond Illustration Collection (covering various color works). I've heard they look really nice. VIZ also has the Death Note Collector's Edition Hardcover Vol. 1 this week, which appears to be Vol. 1 of Death Note as a $19.99 hardcover. In light of this cracked case, I hereby declare myself L.

Astro Boy Vols. 1 & 2 (of 23): But why let VIZ have all the fun with thicker editions of completed manga series? This new Dark Horse presentation of Osamu Tezuka's signature work might still be 4 1/2" x 6 3/4" (i.e. small), but its 424 pages will collect two prior Astro books for the $14.95 price of one and a half (or so). Relive the magic. Note that Dark Horse also has your regular Kazuo Koike/Goseki Kojima dose this week with Path of the Assassin Vol. 13 (of 15): Hateful Burden, which is even smaller (4" x 6") but still pretty fat (304 pages), for an even lower $9.95.

Afro Samurai Vol. 1 (of 2): More manga? How about anime tie-in manga? Yes - how about that? I didn't like this one much, but maybe you'll find something to this Tor/Seven Seas production, $10.99 for 176 pages. Found in Diamond's red-spattered Merchandise section, along with Vol. 4 of the dvd series Mistreated Bride. That's right ma'am, the ballroom rate doubles after three hours! Ha ha ha ha haaaaa!!

Speed Grapher Vol. 1 (of 3): Wait, TokyoPop has an anime tie-in book this week too, also based on a Studio GONZO television series; how about that? I don't think anyone's going to mistake the 2005 source material for a crowning masterwork, but it is one of the very few GONZO works I've actually sat all the way through (another being Afro Samurai, actually), maybe because it had a certain crackpot propulsion the rest of the studio's catalog lacks. It's the magical saga of a burnout combat photographer who infiltrates an elite underground torture-orgy ring and finds himself kissing a teenage sex goddess, giving him the power to cause anything he photographs to explode. He and said sex goddess -- a shy, neglected rich girl who just wants to be free -- go on the run from various supervillains while taking on the abuses of capitalism. Really. The last episode had a werewolf attack in a skyscraper full of money. The manga has some art by Yusuke Kozaki, the anime's original character designer (who also did character designs for the Nintendo Wii game No More Heroes, plus some comics for Robot), but the bulk of the interior art is by someone who goes by 'Tomozo.' I know nothing more. Note that TokyoPop also has the eighth and final volume of the otaku slash-'n-burn Welcome to the N.H.K. this week.

Look Out!! Monsters: A Xeric-powered oversized pamphlet from artist Geoff Grogan, offering up 32 pages of monster-themed collage and comics, b&w and color, all for just $9.95. Looks neat. Sample images and additional info here, review by Alan David Doane here.

Local: A big ol' 384-page b&w hardcover from Oni, collecting the 2005-08 series from writer Brian Wood and artist Ryan Kelly, tracking a young woman's growth into some uneasy maturity, chapter-by-chapter, year-by-year, city-by-city. It's $29.99.

Superman: Kryptonite: Lost track of that Darwyn Cooke/Tim Sale story that ran somewhat irregularly in Superman Confidential? This is a $24.99, 160-page hardcover collecting the whole thing.

The Sandman: The Dream Hunters #1 (of 4): Yes, it does look like there's a little more water in that well; thus, a P. Craig Russell-drawn comics adaptation of Neil Gaiman's 1999 prose story, a franchise-tuned reworking of an old Japanese folk tale. Original illustrator Yoshitaka Amano does not appear to be involved. Still: P. Craig Russell.

Greatest Hits #1 (of 6): Also from Vertigo this week, the start of a David Tischman-written 'superheroes as pop stars' thing, following UK megateam The Mates through decades of style and strife; I promised the voices I'd make mention of any new comic that has Glenn Fabry interior art. And if you're reading Scalped, issue #21 will show up too, for the start of a new storyline.

glamourpuss #3: Sim.

Conan the Cimmerian #3: Corben. He's not in the preview, though.

Gødland #25: Cosmos.

Foolkiller: White Angels #3 (of 5): Frank Castle. Further: The Punisher MAX #62, also from writer Gregg Hurwitz.

Captain Britain and MI: 13 #5: This was the only Secret Invasion-related comic I read, and it was ok enough, retaining some of the wit and flavor of writer Paul Cornell's previous Wisdom miniseries (to which this is essentially an expansive sequel), though a bit hustled by the whole tie-in angle; I'd like to see how it stands on its own, which it's supposed to do starting here. Preview.

A Tribute to Gene Colan: Being a co-production of Marvel and The Hero Initiative, a $9.99, 96-page collection of selected Colan works -- plus comments by the folks who selected them -- with net proceeds going to aid the artist.

Heavy Metal Vol. 32 No. 5 (Nov. 2008): Worth noting as the first issue of this magazine in god knows how long to reprint material from... Métal Hurlant! Granted, that's the 2002-04 revival of the latter publication, which already printed everything in English, but it's the thought that matters! The specific story is Tears of Gold from issue #12, an Alejandro Jodorowsky piece about a young boy whose family discovers that he's capable of weeping literal liquid gold; their greed prompts them to move from killing the lad's beloved pets in front of him to taking him on lucrative tours of human suffering. Ah, but a boy's body doesn't stay the same for long... er, it's probably a bit more profound in the abstract than in execution, actually, but it does have some rare sequential art by (José) Ladrönn as well. Also: other stories, breasts.



Return of the Triumph of the Diluted Ambition

The Boys (thus far)

This is writer Garth Ennis' only 'big' series at the moment, now that he's done with The Punisher MAX. It's drawn by Darick Robertson, although he just picked up an inker, Matt Jacobs, in the most recent issue (#22). He also used Rodney Ramos' inks in issue #12, though, so maybe it's just a one-off. Peter Snejbjerg drew a pair of fill-in issues too (#13-14). It all used to be published by Wildstorm, but it got canned under curious circumstances with issue #6; sales were fine -- above the Wildstorm average, really -- but the general tone apparently did not sit well with certain parties over at DC. The project was soon picked up by Dynamite Entertainment - it is anticipated to run the usual-for-Ennis 60 or so issues.

I read a little of this series back when it was new, and I didn't like it much at all. It struck me as a dull retread of capes 'n tights lampoons Ennis had long ago run into the ground, populated by barely-shaded variations on his beloved black ops killers, capable of those very nearly super-human action movie feats that have a way of rendering the writer's oft-voiced dislike for superhero tropes as more a matter of sheer aesthetic discomfort than anything else. Which is fine -- plenty of smart and creative people in the world don't think superhero comics are cool or stylish or attractive at all -- but it's not the type of opposition that easily bears much repetition.

But what do I know? The stuff sells to superhero readers. Why not go and 'out-Preacher Preacher,' a line of Ennis-backed hype that had the queasy effect of boiling his prior long series down to nothing of apparent authorial resonance or value beyond gore and shit jokes and miscellaneous badassery, while assuring readers that sights wouldn't be set an inch higher for the present work, god forbid.

I'm an admirer of a lot of the man's work, though, and I know it's usually a mistake to read interviews or advertisements so seriously. Surely if Ennis was willing to bring a certain level of depth and thematic rigor to the fucking Punisher, it'd probably be best to give him the benefit of the doubt. And, sure enough, The Boys has become a better work than I'd given it credit for back when there was less of it; it's still a flawed thing, yes, but not without virtue, traits that frankly become easier to appreciate the closer you get to the work's surface.

One thing ought to be mentioned quickly - this still isn't much of a satire. It's got the basic parts of one, being the saga of conspiracy-minded Scot (and Simon Pegg lookalike) Wee Hughie, whose beloved (if somewhat new) girlfriend is smooshed to death in the midst of a slam-bang superhuman brawl; Hughie is then recruited by Billy Butcher, a grinning he-man who's putting (back) together an elite team of killer operatives pumped full of super-soldier serum and given the mission of watching over the superhero population, although Butcher clearly has nastier plans in store for those hated, hypocritical, degenerate supes.

And so, four-issue stories abound (save for a two-issue prelude), equipped with elements ranging from little prods at popular superhero tropes (dead heroes often come back, always much dumber than before) to whole adventures devoted to taking on visible superhero interests - the series' third storyline, Get Some, is an extensive shot at Judd Winickish presentations of homosexual characters in superhero comics (particularly evoking Winick's Green Lantern work), which Ennis appears to take as addressing neither the complexities of homosexual relationships nor the deep-seated unease that lives in otherwise well-intentioned heterosexual men.

On the particulars it's a scattered work, with a closeted superhero's sudden desire to fuck anything that does or doesn't move mixing the metaphor a bit too much, and the obligatory homophobe villain spitting out over-the-top slurs that don't strike me as much more convincing than anything in a proper corporate-owned all-ages-or-thereabouts superhero comic. It's also notable that a lot of these works are over half a decade old, coming before works like Ennis' own short run on Wildstorm's The Midnighter.

Yet, while related, the core problem with this series' satirical outlook is more general. Ennis, in 2008, continues to steep his criticism in some secret, shocking superhero dichotomy, that the seeming purity of heroes can (and typically does) mask a capacity for incredible abuse of power. It's a well-taken point, enough so that it should be elementary to literally anyone reading superhero comics today; hell, it's been an active component in straightforward superhero stories since the days of the old genre satires Ennis is so indebted to. One of the first superhero comics I can remember reading is an issue of Spectacular Spider-Man that ended with the Punisher emptying his gun into a supervillain and Spider-Man yelling at him over the intricacies of bringing bigger villains to justice, and Frank Castle just brushing his stupid ass off. Right there's your challenge to the nobility of the superhero idea, in a dead-center genre piece.

Further, even as he raises points long ago belabored, Ennis does little to address the underlying mechanics of the genre. There's a lot of Marshal Law in here, for example, enough so that Ennis seems to be wearing his influences on his sleeve; the acrimony Butcher holds toward Superman/Captain America archetype The Homelander seems a very deliberate reference to the earliest of Pat Mills' and Kevin O'Neill's work -- the titular hero hunter obsessed with the patriotic Public Spirit, he who drove young men into useless wars -- and Ennis quite cleverly revamps the prior work's superhero-as-soldiers motif into superheroes-as-arms, allowing for some riffing on faulty weapons while feeding into the writer's ever-present passion for military accoutrement.

But Mills' writing was more passionate in its critique, and willing to swiftly acknowledge that its anti-hero's maverick style could (perhaps inevitably) be co-opted as a fresh brand for the superhero status quo, with little of substance truly changed; Ennis, in contrast, has thus far been content to stretch the suspense of Butcher's obsession running into Hughie's compassion over the course of the series, elementary as the point might be. Even in later, less effective storylines, Mills adopted a jaundiced view toward the very concept of 'heroism,' always exposing heroic figures as latently awful or ineffective, and constantly returning his title character to his violent, angry, primal state.

Ennis' work, meanwhile, often seems upset that heroes can't really exist, with a bit of hope held out that maybe the superhero dream can yet be fulfilled in a more idealistic manner, via the few 'good' super-powered characters presented. It's probably a bit closer to Rick Veitch's outlook, his incomplete King Hell Heroica being another apparent influence (at one point Butcher tells the story of a woman being killed by a super-powered, heat-vision capable infant, an extremely similar scenario to the most memorable bit of The Maximortal) - but Veitch's work also had the force of historical anger behind it, a rage at the debased state of superheroes (no special revelation to him - Brat Pack presumed the reader knew that supes could and would take us to hell) manifesting as one more blob of spit being slung at writers and artists long ago sucked dry by the corporate machine.

Compared to all of that, The Boys just isn't very insightful as commentary; it's hard to be shocked out of genre torpor by Justice League stand-ins demanding blowjobs when Epic Comics introduced thousands of minds to the concept of waterboarding via a Punisher/Avengers burlesque in 1989.

Still, there's something to this series. Looking at it another way, it's more realistic that some superheroes would actually be as good as advertised, just as some black-clad killer motherfuckers would long for kinder relations (especially if they're the reader/Simon Pegg surrogate). And while I've never quite been sold on Ennis' satire, he's proven himself to be very adept at worldbuilding, and carefully thinking through the implications of what goes on in his environments.

That's the trick, I think. By not looking at The Boys as anything 'about' superheroes -- which can be sticky, since parts of it seem deliberately tuned toward that reading -- but instead as a bleakly funny drama set among superheroes and superpowered anti-heroes, it becomes exponentially more effective.

It's still not without its faults, sure. Some of the plotting seems strung together mainly as a means of getting along with striking/funny images - the Russia-set Glorious Five Year Plan is especially haphazard in this regard. A few of the nominal primary characters still haven't taken more than a few steps of development away from their introductions, although Robertson at least lends a certain alien quality to the series' take on the Deadly Lil' Lady character type, laying down to sleep on tables when she's bored, or generally lounging in a catatonic state without violence to prompt her.

The visuals as a whole have gotten steadily more effective; I tend to find Robertson's visuals to be less interesting the more slickly 'realistic' he gets, and I'm not huge on 'casting' actors in comics, retroactively okayed or not (and yes, I know the history of the practice). But his Simon Pegg has gradually become a little less detailed, more self-sufficiently Wee Hughie, as the world surrounding him has grown harsher and inkier. I suspect part of this might be due to the workload of balancing a monthly book with everything else - some of it starts to resemble Robertson's issues of 52, all harsh and dark.

But I like that here. I think a 'messier,' more darkly cartooned style fits The Boys well, transforming Robertson's able superhero compostions into something good and dirty, like nasty violence is ready to spring out of anything, with nobody capable of escaping the world's hard nature - Jacobs' scratchy inks on issue #22 teased out even more of this feeling, and it compliments Ennis' storytelling nicely.

And that storytelling, as it exists within Ennis' world, can be interesting. Issue by issue, the series builds up an impressive air of decadence, a hard-R place in which perversion is most folks' default, and 'realism' has a way of creeping up in the worst ways. The most recent storyline, I Tell You No Lie, G.I., has mostly been taken up by a history lesson from a superhero image-maker (i.e. comic book writer) called the Legend, who's grown more unreal and trollish with every issue Robertson has drawn (to good effect!); it was a nice, thought-through infodump, but it paused in issue #21 for a rip-down-the-sky 9/11 adventure that illustrated a lot of things that could go wrong with attempting to stop a soaring aircraft with various JLA orthodox superpowers (that's the Aquaman character above center, trying to help).

Beyond all that, Ennis' control of the character relationships is very measured, very effective. Butcher's and Hughie's interactions may be typical of the writer -- the sensitive fellow with a killer's heart and the hard man lost in darkness -- but there's a careful rapport that keeps either from seeming stale. And while clueless Hughie's relationship with a nice woman who's secretly (*gasp* *choke*) a superheroine might lend itself to some familiar melodrama and/or a too-cute take on secret identities, there's a genuine warmth to Ennis' scripting that enlivens his ever-careful pacing.

It can be a fun comic, this. Depressing too, considering the wall of corruption Ennis builds around his superheroes and superhumans. It's well-told and smartly detailed, enough so that you find yourself pulled down to the level of Ennis' superhuman world, where cracks seen from farther up aren't so important. Is it a victory for superficiality? I don't think so - it's just that Ennis' talents support different levels of engagement with the work, some of which are simply more pleasing than others. I'm not where I started, but I'm glad to be standing where I am.


Delicacies of Frozen Window Synapse

Blurred Vision Vol. 4

This is a new anthology of b&w comics, the latest in a series from Blurred Books. There's not a lot of adornment, nor even a credited editor (from reading around, I know Kevin Mutch is one of several). Those of its 232 pages not occupied by comics are primarily white, speckled with small type. Contributor biographies -- often with a statement of introduction and/or intent -- directly precede each piece. The overall presentational feel is one of modesty, or perhaps thrift, not quite minimal (it is 8 1/2" x 11") but far from fancy. It costs $15.95, though it doesn't say so on the cover.

Take note of one thing it does say, however: "New Narrative Art." That's not necessarily the nervous dodge of connotation it might seem like - the contributors use terms like 'comic,' 'comic strip,' 'graphic novel' and others more or less interchangeably. No, I think the cover brand should be highlighted as an indicator of the series' aesthetic point of view, elsewhere detailed as a look into the revitalization of 'narrative' in contemporary art, as it meets with the evolving sophistication of the comics form. In other words, it's comics often informed by a 'fine' arts perspective, to various ends, its package inclined toward accessibility.

However, the book's broad mission and particular simplicity of presentation also form an arrangement of solitudes; all that white space and continuing authorial greeting and waving effectively positions each piece as an island, no one bit really informing any other. And that aggravates the project's plain, crucial problem: most of its included works simply aren't very interesting. Many different styles are on display, with varied content - there's overt political howling, stop-and-start improvisatory scribbles, digitally distorted sculpture fumetti, and the occasional belabored visual metaphor in the manner of a guy having an empty one night stand with a woman who's head is literally severed from her body, set aside for the night's sex but left alone in bed come morning's regret. Virtually none of it stands out, individualized as all of it is.

One bit did get me looking closely, though. It was a short slice of 'abstract' comics, Andrei Molotiu's Expedition to the Interior (actually a reprint of a 2005 minicomic, and posted online), which caught my eye for two inital reasons: (1) I couldn't think of a semi-high profile anthology (as far as these things go) since Kramers Ergot 4 that gave prominent space to abstract work; and (2) Molotiu mentioned in the obligatory bio blurb that his Abstract Comics: An Anthology was definitely forthcoming from Fantagraphics.

I'll be interested in seeing what forms the stuff can take - Molotiu opines that, at minimum, abstract comics can foreground the "sequential energy" that underlies the comics form, the drive that connects panel to panel and page to page, distilled from the elaboration of firm representation (if well-harnessed for representational purposes by the likes of Kirby and Ditko). As such, the artist's particular approach involves "playing with shapes that are just under the threshold of legibility: shapes that, ideally, will suggest several representational alternatives but will not allow the reader to settle on any single interpretation."

That all raises some immediate concerns for me, chief among them how extra-panel properties might be exploited to channel said sequential energy. All those velvet nights of drug abuse and Alan Moore comics have soiled my mind into zooming outward, seeing panels as malleable elements of the page, comperable (though not identical) to in-panel elements in fueling primal reader effect. Take away the legibility of shapes, and you may still mold that illegibility so as to impose perspective or suggest time; how those properties react with liquid representation will affect the reading of the sequence, and perhaps impose a certain objectivity onto the experience.

Let's look at a sample from the piece, in which we learn that Alfred is the Black Glove:

Note the wide, horizontal panels, much like in The Authority. Superhero comics artists often use these panels to afford their stories an obvious sense of grand scope, 'surrounding' the reader with information by dominating the contours of the page - we read comic across the page, so a wide panel sends its image booming through a full line of comprehension. Molotiu's wide panels have a similar effect, although their content is not specifically representational - I can feel the pounding of those waves.

But wait - why do I think they're waves? Further: how did I get the idea that they're pounding, an impression that suggests a fixed perspective (an unmoving view of water) that time is passing over (waves and sloshing)? I initially wondered if uniform panels implicitly suggested an immobile viewpoint, fixed as they are on the page and lacking the specifics of a viewpoint represented - did Louis Riel hit on something that fundamental?

Ah, but look closer at those images - Molotiu fixes the eye with a horizontal line just under the top, foaming in the manner of cresting waves. My vision hung on that detail, eager for a visual hook, maybe as a side effect of reading from panel to panel; it could just be years of conditioning, but I suspect the act of simply moving between panels creates an expectation of a firm or mobile perspective, part and parcel with Molotiu's sequential energy. Upon reflection, I noticed that I filled in areas below the horizontal line with assumptions, all black and white space an area beneath the water, although the lingering, primary white above the line also helped that feeling along.

Compare that with the next page:

Here, because I had just finished with the prior page, I continued to see the upper region as the sky and the lower region as water. But Molotiu then violates that spatial property by creating a second wave coming in from the left, creating a second, complimentary 'sky.' Even then, however, I continued to retain my initial impression through each page's use of panels; because enough of a semblance of a fixed perspective remained -- the position of the 'sky' in each panel of the first page roughly equating to its position on the second page -- I naturally felt the impact of smaller panels building up to the grander impact of a full-page splash, one that seemed to rend reality itself apart on the left!

Now, admittedly, Molotiu is working with images "just under" that legibility threshold, so it seems likely that he meant to hold my eye on that top horizontal line. But it's his choice of panels that affects my reading just as much, solidifying my notion of a visually referenced world via panel beat.

It doesn't stay that way:

This is two pages later. There's no longer a 'hook' - from my prior reading, I might presume we're submerged, offering a helpful loss of direction as happens whenever I trip in my bathtub or fall out of a boat (every day it's one or the other). But that's kind of a slippery notion, as there's little sense of fixed space - where are we underwater? Are we moving? I couldn't say. We have moved from page to page, through something I'll dub 'wavering representation': the dialing in and out of representation, here through Molotiu's elimination of any representational hold.

Instead, we've got a six-panel grid, no white background next to a black one. To me, each background seemed to freeze its cluster of shapes into warring sides, to the point where black panel #2 seems like a splitting of the round shape in black panel #1, even though the mass in white panel #2 seems rather close to it in form. The use of shades and even panel rows back up the notion of conflict, black vs. white, even as the in-panel images are less legible. Therein perhaps lies the control of sequential energy. Imagine if the center row had been tighter than the others - it might convey a sense of added force (in tandem with the above-detailed elements, of course), or of time slowing. It would not be representation, but it would be control over the vessels of representation, imposing its own effect.

This is the next page, and the next-to-last in Molotiu's piece. I would say the wavering representation is pulling back in here, as a shared central zone of black holds the eye, shaping the rest of the widescreen action around it and making panel #2 seem to 'zoom in,' with panel #3 moving farther out than panel #1, the black being squelched or absorbed.

As an aside, you'll notice my use of filmic terms right there. Comics is not entirely removed from the cinema -- today's genre comics in particular are sometimes very eager to look as much like movies as possible! -- but I think 'abstract' samples of each actually reinforce their most fundamental differences.

Molotiu's swirls of activity here momentarily brought to my mind the painted films of Stan Brakhage, which divorced the cinema from any visual reference to the world by applying materials directly to film stock, often then processing the work through multiple exposures or other so-called post-production techniques. He did collages too, and scratchwork (not that any of these techniques are or were mutually exclusive), but I find his paint-heavy works to be his finest. They're roughly abstract expressionism, although the occasional detail of subtle colors might be more impressionistic. But they're paintings that exploit the cinema's illusion of movement so thoroughly that they seem to burn right into the brain, causing real, physical sensation in me through the time of film, one end of the reel to the other, the brain accepting what it's given.

Brakhage liked to call that music. Many comics have also often compared to music. But it's a more deliberate art form, one that exists apart from time, with all the visual suggestion of narrative that the cinema might offer, coupled with the stillness of a painting. The idea I got from this abstract comic is that extra-panel properties of the form provide a means of 'temporal' (as much as that makes sense in a still art) control, as well as a great potential for solidification of the liquid representation as seen in here. Formal mechanics such as panel control are the means of power, and the knowing artist can have the will.

But different abstractions can only create different effects, and maybe prompt different conclusions - surely enough to fill their own anthology.

The rest of this Blurred Vision sparked far less consideration from me. I do appreciate the effort put into pieces like editor Mutch's Captain Adam 2: The Diamond of Doom, a 23-page narrative recomposition effort from 1994 (well, half of one; the full work is online), taking individual panels from assorted '60s and '70s comics, blowing them up to full-page splashes and digitally altering elements so as to coax out story threads. But Mutch's alterations seem to impose more story than the collaged fragments evoke, leaving little of interest beyond an elementary evocation of shared funnybook iconography and a rather precious juxtaposition of horror and romance tropes, seeing a restless housewife from Venus falling for a (ho ho) recomposed man.

That isn't to say there's no decent work in here, although I'll admit the best stuff came from artists I'm already familiar with. K. Thor Jensen's three-page Bolus depicts a gaping organic orifice taunting the reader until more and more of its form becomes clear - something about its vivid texture and alien character matched with unassuming dialogue suggested Mat Brinkman's fantasy observation work in Teratoid Heights (the few parts with words). It's a segment of a larger, upcoming work called Cloud Stories, and I expect different properties might spark once it's part of a larger sequence. I'm also partial to Tobias Tak's funny fantasy grotesqueries, smashing storybook whimsy into the unreal sensual glamor of early 20th century film - here, he does it again.

Yet many more pieces simply drift along, usually exhibiting some proficiency but never grasping the memorable. Frankly, a lot of it's comparable to the old, thick SPX anthologies, the ones from just after the turn of the 21st century, where they seemed more a mass of activity than a compelling assembly of works. This book is more purposeful, but about as effective. Then again, I do find myself coming back to those festival bricks, sifting through to track down some odd early or random thing by an artist who's caught my eye elsewhere. Maybe the same will happen with this book, its inquisitive segments shifted from time's and experience's perspective.


Love Song For a Pulped World

*Short week from the holiday.


Slam Dunk Vol. 1 (of 31)

Afro Samurai Vol. 1 (of 2)

'Tis all.

*DC may have sent the latest All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder to the funnybook execution pit (if only to be born again later this month), but plenty remains unmolested -


Krazy & Ignatz 1943-1944: He Nods in Quiescent Siesta: And that is that. Fantagraphics presents the final years of George Herriman's Krazy Kat, hanging on by the love of a dead patron, approaching its end with its artist, in burning desert color. Your $19.99 gets you 120 pages of wrap-up, with various concluding materials from series editor Bill Blackbeard. Slideshow here. Herriman's work may not scream accessibility, but he was one of the few truly superb writers I've come across in early American comics, and his Sunday work exists more as poetry than anything of the stage or the spoof, his avowed love of vaudeville and slapstick silent cinema aside. I think Fantagraphics is still planning to double back and reprint all of Eclipse's old 'early years' Sunday collections next, so you'll soon have a shot at getting back on in front.

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers Omnibus: Your Golden Age of Reprints ingot of the week - what I do believe is every goddamned one of Gilbert Shelton's vintage underground humor comics, possibly the most popular stuff of the period, allegedly selling toe-to-toe with Spider-Man in its headshop prime. And Knockabout Comics is only running ya $35.00 for the 624-page softcover whole of it. Go! Run to your vinyl!

Omega: The Unknown: A deluxe, $29.99, 240-page hardcover collection of Marvel's odd, rewarding 2007-08 miniseries, seeing prose writer Jonathan Lethem grab the beginnings of the Steve Gerber/Mary Skrenes/Jim Mooney cult classic and wrench it into a prolonged urban meditation on eccentricity, franchise homogeneity, superhero exploitation and The End of the Fantasy, aided and abetted by co-writer Karl Rusnack, artist Farel Dalrymple, colorist/back-up artist Paul Hornschemeier and special mystery guest artist Gary Panter. I went over the whole series here, but there's spoilers aplenty so maybe you should just take my word that it's really good?

Eternals by Jack Kirby Book 2 (of 2): And, as always, there's an option for the more classically-inclined superhero fan - the 188-page remainder of Kirby's latter day Marvel saga in a $24.99 softcover.

American Widow: A new hardcover book from Villard, a $22.00, 224-page comics memoir centered around writer Alissa Torres's experiences following the loss of her husband on September 11, 2001. Art by New York Times illustrator Sungyoon Choi. I'll be frank: the advance word I've gotten on this hasn't been positive -- convolution and narrative aimlessness came up, which I suppose could work either way -- but do see for yourself. A few pages here.

Prince of Persia: Probably the highest-profile of First Second's books this season - a 208-page color softcover ($16.95) based on creator Jordan Mechner's venerable computer game series. It's written by poet, essayist and comics newcomer A.B. Sina, with art by animators-illustrators-cartoonists-spouses LeUyan Pham & Alex Puvilland. It does look more ambitious than the average licensed comic; might be something to look out for. Sample pages here; nail-biting video preview here.

Sixteen Miles to Merricks and Other Works: I don't know a blessed thing about artist Barnaby Ward, but he's got a striking sense of style, and he's put together this 208-page collection of comics stories and illustrations. Published by Frogchildren Studios; $29.95. A long peek here; review by Chris Mautner here.

Dugout: New from AiT/Planet Lar, a seven-years-in-the-making, 88-page piece of historical baseball fiction from Adam Beechen & Manny Bello, of the publisher's Hench, covering a prison exhibition game that's the front for a jailbreak. Here's a page.

Interiorae #3 (of 4): I wasn't bowled over by the first two issues of Gabriella Giandelli's saunter through dreamy fantasy icons and abbreviated soap opera, but it was just interesting enough in a visual sense to keep my interest for its second half. In the $7.95 Ignatz format from Fantagraphics/Coconino Press; slideshow. Diamond is also offering the fifth and final issue of Ted Stearn's Fuzz & Pluck in Splitsville again, if you missed it the first time.

I Kill Giants #2 (of 7): The first issue of this Joe Kelly-written Image series was a little disquieting; it was one of those Courtney Crumrinish comics about a frowning, mostly obnoxious cool kid protagonist who embarrasses the lame happy kids' uninteresting parents and generally acts antisocial outside of the fantastical world she's connected to. Except, this was an especially self-aware take on the material, holding out the real possibility that the heroine is only ever using fantasy as a means of escaping people she'd just rather not deal with. That'd be an odd thing to pull through what appears to upfront kids' entertainment (it bears the Man of Action brand), but it might be worth a look as a type of adorned slice-of-life thing. Artist J.M. Ken Niimura has a nice style going. Have a look.

B.P.R.D.: The Warning #3 (of 5): Davis.

Dark Tower: Treachery #1 (of 6): Oh Jae Lee, you'll always pull be back to this, won't you? Marvel also has The Stand: Captain Trips #1 (of 6) this week, in case you needed two barrels of adaptation.

Criminal 2 #5: Comic artist trouble, part 2 of 4.

Wolverine: Saudade: Hey, anyone remember Marvel Europa? The House of Ideas' attempt to break some superhero material into the European market by tapping various bandes dessinées talents for standalone albums? I think some of them have been collected in the UK for a while now (and others, like Milo Manara's X-Men project, apparently never got made), but here's a $4.99 pamphlet version of one of them primed especially for the Direct Market. It's something about Wolverine saving the day in Brazil, from Jean-David Morvan & Philippe Buchet of the ongoing Delcourt sci-fi series Wake (Sillage), which is in currently in the midst of an NBM translation. Preview here.

Watchmen: International Edition: Whoa, did Goblin redo the soundtrack? No... no such luck - this appears to be yet another new printing of the Moore 'n Gibbons ironclad, intended specially for English-speaking environs beyond North America, and sporting a new cover more ironic than iconic.

Batman: The Black Glove: Being the third hardcover collection of writer Grant Morrison's run on the flagship Bat-book, scooping up the J.H. Williams III-illustrated tale of the title, plus all other non-The Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul Morrison material up to the present R.I.P. storyline (so, issues #667-669 and #672-675). It's $24.99 for 176 pages. You won't be missing too much by skipping the Resurrection hardcover altogether, actually - just grab the initial Batman and Son collection (now $14.99 in softcover) and you're good to go.

Bad Boy 10th Anniversary Hardcover: Ok, ok, I hear your cries - you want your Frank Miller this week, Batman or not. No problem: here's a new oversized (11" x 7.2") hardcover album edition of Miller's and artist Simon Bisley's rude fable of nanny state madness and individual liberty, originally created for the British GQ and later presented to North America as I believe the first-ever comic published by Oni Press. Now it's from Dynamite; $14.99 for 52 pages. Refresh yourself.