Anthologies of ’50s EC titles and Spacehawk highlight this month’s art comics

Anthologies of ’50s EC titles and Spacehawk highlight this month’s art comics

Harvey Kurtzman’s cover for Two-Fisted Tales #25 encompasses nearly everything that made Kurtzman and EC Comics such a cultural force in the early ’50s. A grinning soldier charges into the trenches, yelling, “Fellas! I just got word they’re arranging an armistice!” Another soldier, who is manning a hot machine gun next to a fallen comrade with a bullet through his helmet, shouts back, “Yeah, yeah! Tell Jonesy here about your armistice! He’ll be glad!” The image and the words are dynamic, violent, blackly humorous, and blunt. And that’s just the cover.

When EC assigned the then-26-year-old Kurtzman to write and edit its new war comic Two-Fisted Tales (joined a few months later by another Kurtzman-run war title, Frontline Combat), he threw himself into the job, researching military history and weaponry in his aim to produce comics that could also serve as both journalism and commentary. Because of the extensiveness of his preparation for each issue, Kurtzman only drew about a dozen stories himself for Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, but he wrote almost all of the stories during his years as editor, and frequently did the layouts for core EC artists like Wally Wood, Jack Davis, and John Severin to follow. The result was an anthology comic with a strong individual perspective that tried to tell the truth about what war was like, from the point of view of the people on both sides of the battlefield. Two-Fisted Tales #23’s “Kill,” from 1951, was a typical Kurtzman war story in which a cocky American sharpens his knife while a similarly cocky Chinese soldier cleans his rifle, until the two meet on the battlefield, kill each other, and fall into a tangled mass of bodies of weapons. (“How do you like your death, humanity?” the closing caption asks.) Kurtzman wasn’t subtle, but he was fair.

EC Comics’ output of crime, horror, and war comics have been reprinted and collected multiple times over the decades, from cheap issue-by-issue reproductions to expensive hardcover omnibuses. Now Fantagraphics has come up with a new way to package some of the most influential comics ever published: in writer/artist-driven volumes, printed in black and white, with additional essays and archival material. The first two books in Fantagraphics’ “EC Comics Library” are Came The Dawn And Other Stories Illustrated By Wallace Wood and Corpse On The Imjin! And Other Stories By Harvey Kurtzman, and both immediately reveal the value in the artist-driven approach. Though the quality of the work in EC’s early-’50s heyday was consistently high, each of the publisher’s big names had his own style and preoccupations, and setting them apart puts the focus on what each had to offer, rather than throwing them all under the blanket of “EC.”

Came The Dawn could just as easily be credited to EC writer/editor Al Feldstein as to Wood. The book collects Wood’s work from Tales Of The Crypt, The Haunt Of Fear, The Vault Of Horror, Crime SuspenStories, and Shock SuspenStories, drawn from scripts by a handful of different writers. But the bulk of the stories here are by Feldstein, who confronted racism, infidelity, corruption, and shame in ways that even the most progressive, adult-oriented movies of the era rarely did. Feldstein’s stories were like the comic-book equivalent to some of the seediest B-movies, and Wood’s art fit Feldstein’s text, with lots of deep shadows and wrinkles reflecting a complicated world. Wood’s influence could later be seen on underground cartoonists like Rand Holmes, Jack Jackson, and Dan Clowes, who strived to combine a representational approach with elements of sweaty, lurid exaggeration.

As for Corpse On The Imjin!, it brings together all of the Kurtzman-drawn war stories, along with a dozen more that he wrote and laid out (including two aerial-combat tales drawn by Alex Toth, whose impressionistic style meshed with Kurtzman’s  explosive abstractions to produce some of the most artful comics pages of the era). The book also adds an old interview with Kurtzman, and full-page color reproductions of every war-comic cover he drew. Corpse On The Imjin! is both a coffee-table art-book and a literary collection, and in its way is as valuable as a Hemingway anthology or a book of James Cain short stories—preserving the classics of the medium for generations to come. Both of these books are the product of a publisher that was willing to give its writers and artists the freedom to innovate; and they honor the end result of that freedom, work that was potent and slanted enough to inspire.


Part of the enduring mystique of EC Comics is that the art was so distinctive—and often bizarre—at a time when the comics industry favored the flatly representational. The same could be said of the ’40s and ’50s work of Basil Wolverton, who alternated between humor comics and fantasy comics, and instilled both with his unique sense of the grotesque. Spacehawk (Fantagraphics) collects the complete run of Wolverton’s version of a Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers-style outer-space adventurer: an interplanetary vigilante who fought aliens across Earth’s solar system starting in 1940, and then shifted gears to fight Nazis in 1941 (all the way up to his last story in 1942). Unlike a lot of other Golden Age adventure series, the Spacehawk comics were loosely serialized, gradually revealing more details about the hero and his mission. But what really set the Spacehawk stories apart was the art. Whenever Wolverton drew his main character—or the damsels he saves—the figures were typically square-jawed and bland. But when Wolverton drew the aliens? A total freakshow, with droopy-faced, long-nosed, big-footed beasts sneering at Spacehawk and hissing threats like, “Over the wall with these swine who call themselves the law!”

Wolverton went on to work for MAD magazine and some of its spin-offs, which didn’t require much skewing of his pre-existing “spaghetti and meatballs” art style. Eventually Wolverton’s style of ugly art became an inspiration to the punk cartoonists of the late ’70s and early ’80s, like Gary Panter and Peter Bagge. As with Kurtzman’s war comics, it’s remarkable to see art so twisted applied to such vivid pulp tales—almost as though Wolverton was trying his hardest to be Alex Raymond, but couldn’t help turning out images to rival Salvador Dalí.

Also…


One of the key examples of cartoonist Gary Panter’s early-’80s breakthrough has been collected and reprinted, after being very difficult to find for nearly 30 years. The comic strip Dal Tokyo (Fantagraphics) originated in the L.A. Reader in 1983, ran weekly for a little over a year, and then reappeared in the late ’90s in a monthly Japanese reggae magazine of all places, where it ran for another decade. Begun as a kind of whimsical, cyberpunk imagining of a Martian colony built in collaboration between the Texans and the Japanese, Dal Tokyo would evolve, strip-by-strip, into a distinctly Panter-esque swirl of science fiction and pure abstraction, in keeping with the artist’s one-of-a-kind sense of design, and his pursuit of comics that resemble music and poetry. The comic-strip format and the kooky premise mean that Dal Tokyo ends up being one of Panter’s most accessible works, though “accessible” is a relative term when it comes to an artist so challenging to mainstream perceptions of quality… 

Even more challenging than Gary Panter’s comics, Ron Regé Jr.’s graphic novel The Cartoon Utopia (Fantagraphics) is nonetheless a stunningly original and visionary piece of work: a study of futuristic spiritualist movements that doubles as a blueprint to inner peace. The “story” (such as it is) comes through in fragments, via densely illustrated dispatches from the glorious world to come. Between Regé’s puffy lettering and his tendency to fill in the blank spaces in his panels with elaborate designs, The Cartoon Utopia isn’t exactly easy to read—and it certainly isn’t a crowd-pleaser. But it’s a book that’s not meant to be rushed through, but rather looked at closely and absorbed, to create a kind of meditative state… 

Theo Ellsworth’s The Understanding Monster: Book One (Secret Acres) is another trippy, largely non-narrative comic that seems to be about what goes on in the world of small things: insects, mice, toys, etc. But trying to make literal sense of The Understanding Monster would be a mistake; Ellsworth’s dialogue and captions are mostly stream-of-consciousness, giving a loose shape to page after page of psychedelic pictures rendered in cluttered, swirling lines and muted colors. Blow any one of these pages up and it could pass as a poster for a rock show at The Fillmore, circa 1968… 

In the graphic-novel era, it’s not as easy as it used to be to get excited about a single issue of a serialized literary comic, but the release of Ethan Rilly’s Pope Hats #3 (Adhouse) is one of this year’s major comics events, for a couple of reasons. For one, Rilly’s ongoing story of stressed-out Toronto law clerk Frances Scarland and her party-addled actress friend Vickie is one of the best things going in the medium right now: an uncannily astute depiction of two women in their early 20s dealing with very different kinds of career pressure. And Rilly’s still finding his way through this story. He’s abandoned major characters and changed the tone in subtle ways since the first issue of Pope Hats, gradually making Frances and Vickie’s lives less surreal and more grounded in real-life drama. (In the latest chapter, for example, Frances gets assigned to help a lawyer with a case that’s a guaranteed loser, and learns some hard truths about the politics of where she works; while Vickie stumbles toward a major career opportunity.) There’s no sense that Rilly has an endpoint in mind for this narrative, and when he does finally finish the story, he may well go back and revise the earlier chapters to make the whole book more consistent. In the meantime, comics fans needn’t wait to see what’s going to become of this project; it’s plenty enjoyable in this format, evolving with each new chapter… 

Sammy Harkham’s impact on the contemporary comics scene would be assured even if he’d never picked up a pen, simply by virtue of his stewardship of the essential art-comics anthology Kramer’s Ergot. But the anthology Everything Together: Collected Stories (Picturebox) makes the case for Harkham as one of the top cartoonists of his generation, too, able to bring visual poetry to a historical adventure like “Poor Sailor,” and to convey the subtleties of growing up in the elliptical teen romance “Somersaulting.” Harkham’s biggest fault may be that he’s too diverse: Everything Together jumps from autobiography to surrealism to gag cartooning to moody drama, with most of the stories running just a page (or less). But Harkham’s an artist of many gifts, and it’s going to be something special when he finally focuses them on something longer and more consistent… 

Artist Jamie Hewlett long ago left his punk-rock science-fiction rebel Tank Girl in the care of her co-creator Alan Martin, and last year Martin and veteran 2000AD artist Mike McMahon launched the now-collected Tank Girl: Carioca (Titan), in which the antiheroine and her kangaroo boyfriend Booga get screwed over by a quiz-show host, take their bloody revenge, and then feel so empty that they lead their personal army on a spiritual journey. Carioca is essentially one joke that has been extended to 100-plus pages, as Tank Girl’s idea of enlightenment includes slaughtering anyone who doesn’t want to join her crusade for peace. But Martin is an old hand at making anarchic mayhem funny, and McMahon’s colorful, blocky art gets right into the spirit of the thing, prizing the giddy kick of blood-spattered violence… 

Even before Martin, Hewlett, and McMahon came up through the U.K. alt-comics industry, Hunt Emerson was already one of the top cartoonists in that scene, beloved for strips that combined the sensibilities of George Herriman, R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, and MAD magazine. The new iPad app The Certified Hunt Emerson: Madcap Mayhem From The Mind Of The Master! (iEnglish.com) contains roughly 200 pages of short pieces, covers, and commercial illustrations, along with a career-spanning interview and “audio commentaries” on select stories. The audio doesn’t add much, but this is still a choice collection of comics by a prolific and consistently funny artist, and is full of manic-depressive cats, strange creatures with cities inside their mouths, dinosaurs and aliens, and more examples of what’s earned Emerson his cover blurb as “Britain’s Greatest Underground Cartoonist.”… 

The reason why the classic underground comics, EC Comics, and Golden Age weirdos like Basil Wolverton all remain relevant is that they continue to inform the work of some of the top comics creators. Charles Burns, for example, has synthesized all of those influences—from old pulps to punk art—and then reproduced them in his own style, with thick lines forming the oozing world of nightmarishly misshapen creatures. Burns’ The Hive (Pantheon) continues the story Burns began in X’ed Out, about a performance artist who reflects on his hazy past while stuck in a twisted hellscape where he resembles a sad, grown-up Tintin (here named “Nitnit”). Burns brings together the late-’70s New York punk and art scenes, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, the TV series The Prisoner, and European adventure comics, working seemingly directly from his own subconscious. But unlike some other hardcore art-comics types, Burns’ work is, for all its strangeness, fairly easy to follow—and surprisingly entertaining given that involves bondage, bug-eating, and repugnant little pig-men. That’s because, as with Burns’ dark masterpiece Black Hole, the trilogy-in-the-making (X’ed Out, The Hive, and the as-yet-unreleased Sugar Skull) is about recognizable emotions within the bad dream that is Burns’ story. This new book is about unrequited passion, and feeling trapped in a dead-end job; so readers don’t have to be stuck in a hive with an officious lizard for a boss to know exactly how the hero feels.