Archive for September, 2005

Comic Art magazine #7 (2005)

September 29, 2005
This is another thing I picked up on my recent trip to LA. I bought it at Meltdown Comics, an absolutely fantastic comics shop in Hollywood. It’s an absolutely sumptuous magazine, with gorgeous color and fantastic articles. The main feature is two thoughtful articles about the great Harvey Kurtzman.
 
If you don’t know of Kurtzman, the man is literally a legend. He is best-known for being the creator and first editor of MAD magazine, an intensely hilarious and subversive magazine when it was first released in the 1950s. Kurtzman was also the editor of Frontline Combat and Two-Fisted Tales, perhaps the finest war comics of all time, but it’s MAD that he is best known for. Unfortunately, Kurtzman never really was able to share in the success of MAD; he left the magazine soon after it converted from comic size to magazine size due to a dispute with publisher William Gaines. After the dispute, Kurtzman created two short-lived humor magazines, Trump and Humbug, and the somewhat longer-lived Help!. Help! survived into the late 1960s, featuring early work by such luminaries as R. Crumb and Skip Williamson, as well as featuring work by future Monty Python member John Cleese. Finally, Kurtzman was recruited by Hugh Hefner to create the "Little Annie Fanny" strip for Playboy. That strip gave Kurtzman a good livelihood that lasted pretty much up till his death.
 
The first piece in Comic Art is an insightful piece about Kurtzman’s life between Humbug and Help!  by his longtime editor Dennis Kitchen. Kitchen does a fine job of describing Kurtzman’s intense frustration with finding and keeping good freelance work, along with some wonderful examples of Kurtzman’s wonderful art. It was fascinating reading about how tough life was for such a great creator. There really ain’t no justice.
 
Kurtzman was also a real tinkerer, and the second article details his obsession with the bizarre shape the hexaflagon. Just the description and art from this odd creation is worth the cover price of this magazine.
 
There are several other nice pieces in this magazine. There’s a wonderful piece about the Dutch underground comics of the 1960s, another on obscure comic strips, and a fascinating article about Dan Clowes’s great comic David Boring. But the other real highlight of the issue is a travelogue/autobiography by cartoonist David Collier. It’s interesting and entertaining, and made me more interesting in Collier’s comics.
 
This magazine is a real treat for anyone with a diverse love of comics.
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Waterwise (2004)

September 28, 2005
A couple of weeks ago, I was in a comics shop run by my pal, Carr. Carr and I have been friends for a long time, and if anyone knows my taste in comics, he does. I asked Carr to recommend something different for me to read, something with a story or theme that’s a bit off the beaten path. He recommended I check out Waterwise. "Give it a try," he said, "it will put you in an interesting mood." I looked through the book. It was a bit slim for its $14.95 cover price, but the art was pleasantly unique and after all Carr recommended it to me. What the heck, right?

After reading Waterwise, I felt I was in Carr’s debt. Waterwise is a lyrical and moody graphic novel of hope and joy and passion for life. It tells the story of Jim, an unemployed artist who finds himself hitchhiking around, pretty much directionless in his life after some earlier frustrations. Returning to his family’s cabin to reflect on things, Jim runs into his old neighbor Emily out of dumb luck. Emily used to live near the cabin and is Jim’s age. At one time Jim had a deep crush on Emily, who has since grown to experience troubles of her own. Divorced and with a young daughter, Emily has also returned to the cabin to find some peace in her life. What follows their meeting is the stuff of this wonderful book.

Joel Orff tells a wonderfully impressionistic tale of these two people who find a short moment of pure idyllic joy in the midst of their challenging lives. In their small adventures, both characters begin to find the peace they crave, embracing the pleasant joys of the past to resurrect real pleasures in their lives. Orff’s art is as impressionistic as his story. The book seems to be suffused with black. Not a mysterious noir black or a foreboding black, but a black that’s somehow warm and comforting, peaceful and calming. The art takes its time to reveal its mysteries, but it does so because sometimes life is best experienced slowly, languidly. Sometimes it’s better to let things come to you instead of going after things. The art is the perfect companion for Orff’s languid and calm story.

The art starts out feeling awkward, but it’s striking how much subtlety it begins to take on. Jim’s unrequited love for Emily becomes clear as a reader studies Jim’s face, and the ending is mysteriously subtle, a Mona Lisa smile of sorts.

Rereading the book closely, there’s even an extra level of subtle story revealed, I think. I don’t want to ruin the book for anyone, but if you do read it, pay attention to the lines that parallel the beginning and end of the book. Is there a subtle twist that’s implied there?

This is a wonderfully unique and personal graphic novel from the pen and brush of Joel Orff. Thanks again, Carr.

Supernatural Thrillers #4 (1973): Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

September 27, 2005
When I first thought of writing this blog, it was to talk about comics like this one. It’s not that I don’t enjoy writing about new comics, but it’s relatively easy to find reviews of all but the most obscure new comics online. Nobdy talks about crap like these sorts of mediocre mid-’70s Marvel obscurities. So here I am, filling my own little niche on the web.
 
When I picked this comic up at Hi-De-Ho Comics in Santa Monica two weeks ago, I expected the worst. How could I not, based on this goofy cover? Just look at that bargain basement Hulk? He looks like he’s ready to fight Thor, not be part of a nice little Victorian thriller. That is one ugly Bronze Age cover, isn’t it?
 
Inside, though, things are a bit more reasonable. Nobody every accused artist Win Mortimer of being another Neal Adams in terms of slickness and flash, but his work is relatively nice. Sure, he follows the standard Marvel style in his work – he goes for the most dynamic possible angle in scenes over and over again – but Mortimer’s loose and sketchy style is very professional.
 
Professional is also the word for Ron Goulart’s script. Faced with the daunting task of compressing Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel to 20 comics pages, he compresses almost all the psychological aspects of the story and just focuses on the action and emotion. What else could he do in such a compact amount of space? If things are sort of awkward and scenes feel too short, what alternative does Goulart have?
 
So this is basically a decent, pretty bland, old comic. It’s not great, it’s not embarassing.
 

Wildcats: Nemesis #1

September 26, 2005
Call me stupid, but when I saw the name "Morrison" on the cover of this comic, I thought it was written by Grant Morrison. It may be that I’m so enraptured by Morrison’s Seven Soldiers project that I want to see him everywhere I look. But I think the reason I expected Grant Morrison to be writing this comic is that I just couldn’t see any reason for releasing a new Wildcats series unless a big name was at the helm.
 
I mean, I was a big fan of the previous incarnation of this series, Wildcats 3.0, but judging by the sales, not more than 10,000 people shared my passion. Wildcats 3.0 was a fun series, full of both action and social satire, and that series filled a unique niche in comics. But I didn’t sense any great clamor to bring the series back.
 
But here it is. The Wildcats are back, written by some dude named Robbie Morrison and drawn, in the first half, in a style approximating the series’s early Image days, and in the second half, drawn in a kind of uninked style reminiscent of a cartoon without a lot of black lines. The comic is professionally and competently done, but it’s nothing special, nothing that will cause peoplem to pick this comic book out from all the hundreds on the stands each month. So I have to wonder: just what’s the point? Why tell the story of the Khera/Daemon war both today and in the distant past? How many longtime Wildcats fans are out there clamoring for this continuity implant? Why do we need a new Wildcats comic?
 
If the comic had been fantastic, there would have been a reason to bring it back. The comic isn’t fantastic. It is definitely competent. The opening battle scenes are fun, and the history in the back is neat back-fill. Horacio Domingues especially does a fine job on the art in his segment. But so what? To what end? Whose idea was it to put out this comic that will certainly not sell worth a damn?
 
Now watch: this comic will sell through the roof and I’ll look a fool. Chances are, though, it will do as badly as Morrison’s run on The Authority.

Gotham Central #35 (2005)

September 25, 2005
A second boy in a Robin suit has been found dead in Gotham, this time in Gotham Harbor after being choked to death. The police have few clues about who’s been committing the murders, and the media is hovering around the tragedy like bees around honey. Finally a connection is found between the first Robin victim and this one, but is it too late to prevent another murder?
If this sounds like a description of a TV show, that’s a good fit. Batman and Robin (the real Robin, that is) appear in this comic, but they’re secondary characters. As usual in Gotham Central, the Gotham police are the central characters, and just like on good TV shows, we see their ever-changing moods and styles as they try to find the killer. We see the cops try to follow procedure in tracking down the mysterious killer, trying desperately to save a life despite the lack of clues, media frenzy, and the tremendous pressure they’re under.
 
I like how Rucka and Brubaker respect the intelligence of the reader. There’s no super-heroics in the issue, nor any flashy profanity or nudity as in "Powers." Gotham Central is all about police following procedures, all about living day to day in a world where super-powers are the norm, and real heroism lies in getting through the day and solving a few cases. The paradox of being a regular policemen in a world of super-powered heroes and villains helps add an extra level of heroism to the work of the police, and at the same time adds futility to the cops’ jobs. The threat of heroes swooping in and trumping the work of the police is always present, which would render all their hard work moot.
 
Kano, late of "H.E.R.O." is a great choice for penciller of this series. His art has a very appealing, organic quality to it. Kano clearly enjoys drawing real people, and his art is evocative and realistic without being over-rendered. He also stolidly stays within a clear grid with his panel work – there are no full-page bleeds or oddly-arranged panels. Instead, underscoring the solid beat of police work, his page arrangements follow a traditional style.
 
This book is nearing three full years of high-quality material, and it’s still a terrific read.

Classic Doctor Who: Tomb of the Cybermen (1967)

September 24, 2005
Thank goodness for DVD. I just love DVD. Everything seems to eventually show up on disk, including classic old episodes of Doctor Who that are nearly 40 years old. Thanks to my pal and fellow Whovian Craig Fernandez, I now have an episode of Who featuring the second Doctor, Patrick Troughton. And even better, it’s the episode called by John Kenneth Muir in his A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television the very best episode in the 26-year run of the series. High praise indeed.
 
Is it that good? In a lot of ways, yes it is. The plot is fun and involving and the perfect length at four episodes. The human villains are appropriately villainous, but when confronted with more arch villains, are appropriately repentant. The arch villains, the Cyberman, are as scary as they ever have been. The Doctor’s companions, especially Jamie, are a lot of fun. And Patrick Troughton’s Doctor is as good as advertised: tough against the villains, but really and truly appreciative and caring of his companions. I see why this episode is so well remembered, because it was admirably thought-out and well-executed.
 
There were a few things I didn’t expect. At one point in the episode, the Doctor remembers his family, who traveled with him in the earliest episodes. It was a wonderful touch to see this man who has always been a solo adventurer suddenly remember his emotional roots. That was very special. There’s also a nice scene where the Doctor mentions his age, 450 years old. The on-screen commentary tells us that the pervious Doctor was said to be 650 years old and that the Troughton Doctor was intended to be younger. So he was! What a nice time paradox.
 
But the best suprise was how nice the show looked in black & white. The cheesy special effects and often cheap backgrounds just looked better in b&w. I guess the lack of color makes it all seem more forgiving, more able to hide defects. There’s a wonderful scene, for instance, where the Cybermen break out of their tomb. If it were a color episode, the cheapness of the set would have been obvious. In b&w, however, it looks fresh and interesting.
 
The story isn’t perfect, of course. There’s a scene where one of the villains is thrown by a Cyberman, and the cord holding him couldn’t be more obvious. There’s a lot of characters playing possum, which is silly. And, most importantly, one has to wonder why the Doctor sets all these events in motion in the first place. Why should be want the Cybermen to be free if they’re that evil?
 
But overall this episode is a revelation. I really want to spend more time with the second Doctor.

My collection stats

September 23, 2005
I just upgraded to ComicBase 10. I can’t recommend ComicBase highly enough. If you’re a serious collection, ComicBase really is the definitive comic tracking database.
 
I was curious about the size of my collection, so here’s the totals and some breakdown.
 
Total collection: 8815 comics (not including graphic novels, not listed in the db)
 
Breakdown by company:
DC: 2257
Marvel: 2124
Fantagraphics: 428
Vertigo: 408
Image: 389
Dark Horse: 336
Aardvark-Vanaheim: 328
Kitchen Sink: 156
Eclipse: 153
 
Written by Neil Gaiman: 112
Written by Alan Moore: 254
Written by Stan Lee: 75
Written by Roy Thomas: 49
Written by Steve Gerber: 188
Written by Don McGregor: 94
Drawn by Frank Miller: 88
Drawn by George Perez: 65
Drawn by Ted McKeever: 58
 
Comics I’ve bought in 2005: 207 (this seems low… maybe there’s an error in  the way that stats are computed)
 
Number of comics from before 1970: 168 (also seems low though the listed comics make sense)
 
Hmm… what else?
 

The Cute Manifesto (2005)

September 22, 2005
I might read mainstream comics, but my heart is with independent comics. When I think of my favorite comics, it’s the ones with verve, originality and heart that I think of first. The comics that move me, that genuinely touch me deeply, are usually works by one creator and not products of the standard factory system of comics. Comics by one creator are generally animated by a genuinely personal sensibility rather than the idea of moving action heroes through their paces. There’s nothing wrong with hero comics – there are many good ones out in the marketplace – but those comics are always a bit compromised by the systems they live within.

I was excited to read The Cute Manifesto because I heard so many positive things about the book’s creator, James Kochalka. Kochalka had received a good amount of critical acclaim in the last few years for his originality and creativity. He appeared to be the new poster child for independent comics: thoughtful, unique and very, very independent. His comics seemed to epitomize indy comics, blazing their own independent trail wherever Kockalka’s creative spirit led them.

In other words, Kochalka seems to march with pride along with his indy comics brethren in terms of commitment to his ideals.

It’s too bad that The Cute Manifesto is a painfully pretentious and frustrating book.

This is not a graphic novel as much as it is a philosophical diatribe wherein readers are ordered and scolded repeatedly that we must open ourselves up to new experiences, that we must be willing to let ourselves give up our banal lives to see the beauty that surrounds us: "Whatever lies in the future is the natural course of things and I accept it. It accepts me. Learn to embrace the physical. Enjoy the flowers, at least. Savor the aging process and love whatever life you have." is the conclusion to his dull and pedantic first extended piece, "Sunburn." It kind of makes my teeth ache in a sort of Hallmark card way. Still, maybe as a sort of counterpoint to something said later in the book, a scene like that might work. But no. Choose a random page and you’re likely to find words like "Accept the beauty in everything. Waves crashing against the shore or smokestacks belching sour clouds. Stumbling baby kittens or exploding buildings." Not only is a line like that insipid, but it’s actually offensive in more than one way. If you find joy in everything, doesn’t that imply a simple-minded love for the world, an acceptance that everything is positive, even the tragedy of September 11th? I wonder what Kochalka’s take is on the New Orleans floods. In his simple-minded banality, I’m sure even that has a silver lining.

What I desperately wanted from Kochalka was a grounding for his philosophy. Eddie Campbell’s autobiographical comics are life-affirming because they embrace and celebrate the joys of life, from sitting in a bar to friends to enjoying life with family. Harvey Pekar’s comics celebrate life by showing that even the most banal moments may contain moments of great truth and insight. R. Crumb’s comics are great because they are perfect manifestations of the artist’s amazing inner life, set loose on the unsuspecting comics
page. Crumb’s comics are life affirming because we see the full life of a man, all his obsessions and dreams and aspirations set loose on a comics page. All three creators are grounded in their personal worlds, creative spirit and intelligence colliding with life as they experience it. Kochalka’s book is life affirming because, well, Kochalka tell us it is.

I know it’s unfair to compare Kochalka to three comics legends, but he aspires to join their ranks. It’s only in one story, the short "Reinventing Everything, Part Two", that there’s a glimpse of possibility that he is anything more than the flipside to the famous emotional crank Steve Ditko. In this story, Kochalka talks about the decision he and his wife made in light of the September 11th tragedy to have their first child. Finally his suffocatingly cloying philosophy could be seen with the real world in the background, and there’s poignancy in his words: "However, after a period of nothing, a period of something happened in the void. A tiny idea took shape of its own volition. An idea that I couldn’t shake, that followed me around for over a year. ‘I think I’d like to have a baby.’ Yes, ugliness, hatred, death and destruction stared us in the face. However, when faced with ugliness, there was only one choice: beauty. Faced with hate, there was only one choice: love. Faced with death and destruction, there was only one choice: life." Sure, it’s the same philosophy as before, but at least Kochalka is now applying it to the real world, finding solace in his philosophy to sustain his life. The scenes where Kochalka and his wife have a child are the only ones that are genuinely moving in this book. First-child stories can be banal – after all, every parent has had a child – but the shortness of the story works to its benefit. We get enough philosophy to understand his thoughts, but the real-life events provide a grounding for his thoughts. Both pieces fit together.

Overall, though, it’s hard to find much to like in this frustrating book. For the same price, there are many other comics that explore these themes in much more adroit and sophisticated ways. Kochalka might be a fellow traveler in the indy comics movement, but based on this book, he’s not in league with the best of them.

Captain America #9 (2005)

September 21, 2005
"So let me get this straight. You mounted an assault on sovreign territory against an important friend of the U.S and the U.N. …on a hunch?"
 
That line of dialogue sums up this dumb and poorly-thought-out comic. Captain America and Nick Fury are trying down those who committed a terrorist act against Philadelphia. So they gather some vague evidence that former Soviet spy Aleksander Lukin is behind the bombing, and charge off half-cocked to his country to … umm…. bring him to justice or something, I guess. The script doesn’t actually talk much about what the objective of this operation is, though writer Brubaker does go in great depth to explain that there’s not a lot of clear and inarguable evidence against Lukin and that he probably couldn’t be touched in his home country, anyway. In other words, Captain America, Nick Fury, Sharon Carter and a couple dozen S.H.I.E.L.D. agents travel to a foreign land, kill some unimportant guards, threaten Lukin, and fly back to the USA with their tails between their legs. Yeah, that makes sense, and that seems heroic. Sheesh.
 
I find myself shaking my head wondering whatb Brubaker was thinking with this issue. Why have Cap and Fury lead a mission that would raise red flags with anyone who has a brain? If something like this happened in the real world, it would be a massive black eye for the US, the sort of thing that would hurt relations between the US and other countries in the world for years to come. To have Captain America, of all characters, living symbol of the United States, charge off on such a mission, is doubly embarassing. Worst of all, as the group fly back to America, they swear vengeance instead of trying to figure out the right way to bring Lukin to justice.
 
In Stan ‘n’ Jack’s Marvel Universe, this sort of issue would sort of make sense. The big difference is that Cap and Fury would have free reign to bring in the villain without worrying about diplomatic niceities. Now, in the quasi-realistic modern Marvel Universe, I have to wonder why the federal government wouldn’t be doing everything it could do to bring in the bomber. If there was good evidence, why would a rogue team have to bring him to justice? And if there wasn’t good evidence, would’t it be important to follow channels? Brubaker can’t have it both ways. He can’t have a realistic environment and then not have characters act somewhat realistically.
 
Artist Michael Lark adds nothing to the comic. He’s done fine work elsewhere, but here his artwork doesn’t work well at all. Cap’s chin seems to change size from panel to panel, and Lark’s depiction of Cap overall seems awkward at best. Lark has always been strongest at drawing non-powered heroes, and he just doesn’t have a great feel for Captain America.
 
This is a very bad comic book, perhaps the worst thing that Brubaker or Lark have worked on. I’ve liked a lot of work by both of them in the past. I hope this is just an aberration.

Palookaville #17 (2004)

September 20, 2005
Yesterday I wrote about my trip to LA and mentioned that I was disappointed in Golden Apple Comics. There’s at least one thing about Golden Apple that I did enjoy: they had some interesting comics in their 50¢ bin. That’s where I found the first comic I’ve read by Gregory Gallant, better known as Seth. I think I’ve read some short tales by him in the distant past, but this is the first chapter I’ve read of his "Clyde Fans" book.
 
This is a terribly sad book about a man in his late middle age named Simon, who is painfully aware of both his own advancing age and what he sees as his insipid banality. He lives with his mother, who appears to be dealing with Alzheimer’s Disease, in a cold and lonely house full of momentos and objects that just remind Simon of how insipid his life has been:
Late in life you come to see it clearly, like a poorly written story – the tragedy of your own life. All those events – all those things that happened to you – they get added up into a lump sum. And there it is… "the tragedy of your own life." You can’t even take any pride in the uniqueness of your suffering… it’s all so second rate.
To me, what’s most impressive about this comic is its stillness and calm. We don’t just see and read about Simon feeling trapped in his banal life. Readers feel the quiet. It’s ever-present in the comic, palpable and intense. Simon’s life is terrible quiet and we readers experience it with great silence surrounding the story.
 
There’s also a nice comment on comic collectors in this issue. Simon collects old postcards, and genuflects to himself on the history and background of one card in his collection. As he does so, Simon’s internal monologue chastises himself for his insipidness. Even in a place of his greatest pleasure, Simon feels regret and sadness.
 
Seth’s art is gorgeous. Look at the scans below to see some of the finest rendering you could ever hope to see. His elegant and old-fashioned line work is the perfect companion for his story, adding an extra level of poignance to the tale.
 
This is not a cheerful comic, but it’s a great comic. I need to find the full "Clyde Fans."