Comics of Note: November 2006

Comics of Note: November 2006

After William Gaines reluctantly took over his father's company EC Comics, he and co-captains Al Feldstein and Harvey Kurtzman and the cream of 1950s comic-book talent (Wally Wood, Joe Orlando, Jack Davis, and others) found tremendous success with titles like Tales From The Crypt, Weird Fantasy, and Two-Fisted Tales. The EC story ends with censorship, moral outrage, Senate sub-committees, and the launch of Mad magazine. But before the bottom fell out, Gaines helped shape a generation with tightly scripted horror, crime, science fiction, and war stories written and drawn for maximum emotional and—here's the irony to all the panic they stirred—moral impact. Diamond's newly launched, high-quality EC Archives series kicks off with the first volumes of the science-fiction anthology Weird Science and the catch-all (but mostly crime-focused) Shock Suspenstories, and both still burn with the same visceral, black-humored, high-minded thrills as when they first started to warp young '50s minds with visions of lumberjack murderers, bug-eyed monsters, and racial equality… A

Cancer memoirs are often detail-oriented, obsessive, quotidian records of treatments and reactions, diagnoses and setbacks, but with Cancer Vixen (Knopf), New York City writer-artist Marisa Acocella Marchetto takes the obsession to a new level by documenting, for instance, what designer shoe she was wearing for each individual day of chemo. A 43-year-old fashionista cartoonist for the likes of The New Yorker, Marchetto was diagnosed with breast cancer shortly before her wedding, and she documents her experiences with expressive humor, focusing on her shallow obsessions—clothes, shoes, food, her weight—as much as the cancer process. Her visual metaphors are a little precious (jealous of the rail-thin models hitting on her rich fiancé, she develops a smoking nuclear-plant cooling tower for a head), but they give the narrative a visual liveliness that helps balance its self-absorbed superficialities… B

Bill Willingham's Fables has developed over time into a reliable source of wonder and wisdom, and there's no greater proof than the new hardcover original Fables: 1001 Nights Of Snowfall (Vertigo), a set of origin stories for the series' major characters that raises new questions about what really drove all the fairy-tale characters out of their homeland. The book is modeled after The Arabian Nights, with Snow White entertaining a murderous Sultan by telling stories, illustrated by Brian Bolland, John Bolton, Jill Thompson, and Charles Vess. Willingham uses the concept of "courtly lessons" to show different ways that power can be used and enemies dealt with, thereby continuing his development of a complex moral structure for Fables that can't be easily reduced… A

First issues don't get much more gripping than the debut of the five-part mini The Other Side (Vertigo), a Vietnam War tale told in alternating perspectives by a reluctant American draftee and a Viet Cong recruit. Writer Jason Aaron, a newcomer, has a gift for profanity and violent extremes—both physical and psychological—and Cameron Stewart's clean, expressive art has a terrifying war-is-hell immediacy… A-

Tony Consiglio's 110 Per¢ (Top Shelf) is generally reminiscent of Alex Robinson's wonderful work (Tricked, Box Office Poison) in art and storytelling style; it winds together threads about several adult women whose burning fandom for a boy band defines their lives. Hilarious, smart, economical, and wry, it's a terrific portrait not only of obsession, but of three distinct personalities that engender it… A

Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips had a pretty terrific noirish superhero book a few years back called Sleeper. Only trouble: It didn't sell. Now they've kept the noir and lost the superheroes for their ambitious new project Criminal (Marvel), a low-life action drama with a sprawling cast of characters. So far, the plot's been slow to unfold, but that feels less like a fault than a sign that we're in for a long, satisfying ride through the underworld. Brubaker has stated that he wants the universe to feel like a Tom Waits song. So far, so good… B+

Alex Ross' gift for realistic, illustrative superhero art would seem kind of silly if he didn't keep finding projects that took advantage of it so well, like the in-progress miniseries Justice (DC), whose first four issues have just been collected in a hardback volume. On the surface, it's a throwback to grand-scale, Superfriends-style good-guys-vs.-bad-guys action, but Ross' art—painted over pencils by Doug Braithwaite—gives it a real-world heft, as does a Jim Kreuger script that has much to do with how sometimes, expressed ideals mask malevolent intentions. Biggest problem so far: The meandering plot sacrifices momentum in order to allow Ross to draw as many iconic characters as he can… B-

In Chicken With Plums (Pantheon), Persepolis writer-artist Marjane Satrapi continues to mine the history of her Iranian family; this time, she focuses on a great-uncle, a musician who takes to his bed, willing himself to die, after his favorite instrument is destroyed. Her art remains the same, but her storytelling prowess has grown tremendously over the course of four books, and Chicken With Plums, while brief, packs an intense emotional punch… A-

The first volume of Fantagraphics' The Complete Peanuts grabbed a lot of well-deserved attention when it came out two years ago, but the most recent volumes are the ones showing off Charles Schulz's cartoon masterpiece at its peak. In The Complete Peanuts: 1961 To 1962, Linus suffers through Lucy's attempts to break him off his blanket habit, while Charlie Brown eats lunch by himself again, muttering, "The PTA did a good job painting these benches," and, "One more lunch hour out of the way, 2120 to go." This book and at least the next five or six to come are as good as comic strips get… A

Also essential for cartoon fans: Drawn & Quarterly's Walt & Skeezix: 1923-1924, which continues the run of Gasoline Alley begun in last year's magnificent first volume. Here, Frank King's amiable, often profound stories of fatherhood, friendship, mysterious women, and cross-country road trips begin to develop into more of a long-form soap opera, without losing any of the wry humor and sublime design that made the strip so beloved. Oftentimes, collections like this and The Complete Peanuts sell well in the early going, then taper off as people forget to check for new installments. So consider this an urgent reminder… A

Staying on the classic cartooning beat, Drawn & Quarterly offers Moomin Book One: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip, a nice-looking hardcover collection of Jannson's kid-friendly '50s adventure strip, derived from the characters in her own popular Finnish children's books. The single-minded, hippopotamus-like trolls that populate the four extended storylines reproduced here bear some similarities to Walt Kelly's Pogo (only less satirical) and A.A. Milne's Winnie The Pooh (only more melancholy). The book is a treat to read, though the absence of any kind of contextual material is disappointing… A-

The standard litany of praise and complaints about Neil Gaiman's Sandman series applies to the expensive hardcover The Absolute Sandman: Volume One (Vertigo), which collects the series' first 20 issues, plus some behind-the scenes ephemera: Yes, the story is choppy in the early going, with rushed climaxes and momentum-killing digressions, and yes, Gaiman begins to find the handle in his second year at the helm, once he realizes he can he can squeeze drama and meaning from the parts of a story he leaves untold. Still, whatever the occasional lurch in the first volume, anyone who can afford it should absolutely upgrade to Absolute, which offers significantly improved production values and an art-friendly oversized format… A-

It's been a good year for Harvey Pekar, first with the re-launch of his three-decade-old (and stronger than it's been in years) American Splendor as part of DC's Vertigo Comics line, and now with his co-editorship of the inaugural edition of Houghton-Mifflin's "Best American Comics" series. For The Best American Comics 2006, Pekar and Anne E. Moore picked through anthologies like Mome and McSweeney's, and excerpted stories from ongoing series and graphic novels by the likes of Jaime Hernandez and Alex Robinson. Because of Pekar's particular fixations, the comics here are more story-oriented and overtly political than the medium tends to be these days, but that only assures that any comics novices picking up this volume will find it easy to get into… A-

Reaching more broadly than Pekar and Moore, cartoonist Ivan Brunetti offers the history-spanning art-comics collection An Anthology Of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons, & True Stories (Yale University Press), which provides a public service to university professors looking for one good comics collection to assign to their classes. Brunetti relies too much on story excerpts—a somewhat necessary evil—and his version of the comics canon is a little too cut-and-dried "alternative," right down to the prerequisite assortment of classic Sunday comics pages. But this anthology covers a lot of ground over 400 pages, and Brunetti's subtle thematic grouping creates connections that readers might not have noticed before… B+

Two of the three stories in Drawn & Quarterly Showcase No. 4 (D&Q) come from Mome regulars Gabrielle Bell and Martin Cendreda, and the Bell piece is especially interesting, weaving a multi-thread character sketch that examines the shifting roles of artists, models, students, and teachers. It's a sharply illustrated story with an almost cinematic construction, and it contrasts well with Bell's journal-like autobiographical comics, recently collected in Lucky (D&Q). In her autobiographical work, Bell writes and draws about trying to make it as an artist in Brooklyn, and she uses a semi-detached tone that makes it clear how she feels about her life, but not always what she thinks. The fictionalized version in Drawn & Quarterly Showcase helps complete the picture of what it's like to be young, gifted and obscure… Both: B+

For a superhero whose adventures have been published continually for more than 65 years, Batman doesn't exactly have an impressive body of stories to pick from. The first great Batman era was arguably in the '70s, once writer Denny O'Neill and artist Neil Adams got hold of the character, but that's well after the Silver Age era generally covered in DC's "Showcase Presents" series. So Showcase Presents: Batman Volume 1 starts as late in the Silver Age as it can, kicking off in 1964, when editor Julie Schwartz tried to shake up Batman by changing his costume and killing his butler. These stories lose some of the gadget-driven silliness of the '50s Batman, replacing it with more straight-up mysteries, involving unspectacular mob types. The storytelling is fine—and the occasional art by Carmine Infantino is thrillingly wild—but it's hard to call the book as essential as the Superman Showcases… B-

Bob Fingerman's Recess Pieces (Dark Horse) combines a comedic look at the horrors of middle school with an old-school zombie tale, and though the combination is a little too on-the-nose at the times, Fingerman's punchy dialogue and gloriously grotesque, Jack Davis-inspired art is never less than impressive. It's like a Nickelodeon cartoon gone happily awry… B+

In the trade collection Perhapanauts: First Blood (Dark Horse), which gathers the series' four issues, Todd Dezago and Craig Rousseau open up a big, colorful, enjoyably unpredictable world of ghosts, super-evolved chupacabras, and alternate dimensions, and introduce one of the weirdest special-forces teams since Mike Mignola launched B.P.R.D. The cliffhanger ending is weird for a limited miniseries, but fortunately, a follow-up Perhapanauts series launched in late October… B

Of the latest batch of widely divergent trades from First Second, one of the weirdest and most intriguing is Journey Into Mohawk Country, a dense little book in which George O'Connor illustrates the 17th-century diary of a 23-year-old Dutch trader journeying among Indian tribes in the Americas. Though it's as disjointed and quotidian as any average diary, it provides fascinating glimpses of four-centuries-past ways of living and thinking… B+

How To Make Money Like A Porn Star (Regan): Cheap exploitative trash, or parody of cheap exploitative trash? Answer: yes. Neil Strauss, who "co-authored" Jenna Jameson's book How To Make Love Like A Porn Star, repeatedly has it both ways with this nudity-heavy graphic novel, in which a wide-eyed ingénue sexpot runs afoul of a perverted sheik and many porn producers, and in the frame story, winds up tied to a chair in the basement of a cab-driver fan who wants to use her to create his own homemade porn. Just when it threatens to get serious or emotional, Strauss throws in Watchmen-style interludes full of fake interviews, newspaper-style three-panel comic strips, paper dolls, and puzzle activities, or veers off into broad humor. It's a deeply weird, random, inconsistent book, but it's often pretty funny. How trashy does it get? Put it this way: A key plot point centers on the protagonist's ability to use her vaginal muscles to squeeze a block of wax into statue form. C+

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