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June 18, 2010

Howard Cruse’s graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby (Vertigo) was first released in 1995, when the form was still a relative novelty, and not as well-supported by bookstores or book-reviewers as it is now. So while Stuck Rubber Baby was acclaimed at the time, it didn’t become a sensation the way books like Persepolis and Fun Home later did. Perhaps the new hardcover edition—complete with intro from Fun Home creator Alison Bechdel—will right that wrong. Cruse’s book doesn’t seem as audacious as it did 15 years ago, when his eschewing of overt autobiography and his dense, character-packed exploration of the civil-rights era ran directly against the alternative-comics trends toward the quick, breezy, and navel-gazing. But Stuck Rubber Baby remains timelessly involving, telling the story of a young Southerner in the early ’60s who comes to grips with his homosexuality while trying to shed his community’s racial prejudices. Cruse avoids the usual “Hooray for the ’60s!” clichés by acknowledging the homophobia in the African-American community, the racism in the gay community, and the hypocrisies of the burgeoning hippie movement. Mainly, Stuck Rubber Baby emphasizes the turbulence of the times, and how people perpetually strive to remake themselves from within the safety of a group, forgetting that groups tend to foster their own insidious conformity… A

Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name is the archetypal Western antihero, so what does that make Jonah Hex, who in many ways is the anti-Eastwood? Too bad that compelling question doesn’t come anywhere near getting answered in Jonah Hex: No Way Back (DC). The original graphic novel—Hex’s first—is an attempt to flesh out the man behind the scar. But writers Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti rely on a clumsy, sketchy pre-origin story that justifies Hex’s psychopathy as a mere product of an abusive home. As Hex dredges up the lurid yet wholly pedestrian tragedies of his childhood—leaving degraded prostitutes and plot holes the size of gunshot wounds in his wake—he defends a small town from a band of marauding, villainous Mexicans. It’s one thing to acknowledge the sexism and racism of the Old West; it’s another to use that historical context as an excuse for jarring misogyny and repugnant stereotypes, especially when those issues aren’t even what the story is about. Sadly, artist Tony DeZuniga isn’t off the hook. As the man who co-created Jonah Hex in the early ’70s, he’s responsible for some of the character’s greatest visual moments, but his graphic depictions of leering, rapacious, pig-like Mexican invaders here is the stuff of Jan Brewer’s dreams—and his layouts throughout No Way Back are sloppy, ugly, and confusing. Granted, Jonah Hex is supposed to be a sloppy, ugly, confusing character. But the poor guy—and this poor book—should still have at least some redeeming qualities… D

Whereas Jonah Hex: No Way Back flops as an anti-Western, Buzzard (Dark Horse) soars. The first installment of the three-issue series is spun off from The Goon, Eric Powell’s Eisner Award-winning paranormal smorgasbord, and it follows the undead, flesh-eating man known as Buzzard as he haunts the corridors of his own memory before stumbling upon a town in need of saving. Still trying to strike a balance between vengeance, redemption, and the utter hopelessness of his curse, he’s mistaken for Death itself by the townspeople he rescues from a band of bestial creatures. Driven by his failure to save the Old West town he once lived in as sheriff, he reluctantly undertakes a quest to kill the townspeople’s so-called god—the one turning their menfolk into monsters. Grim but never oppressively so, Buzzard is a dreamy little sidetrack for Powell, and his second story in the issue—the start of an alternate-history European adventure by occult ass-kicker Billy The Kid—is sheer, pulpy fun. Gorgeously gory and packed with more atmosphere than solid story, Buzzard reinforces Powell’s position as second only to Mike Mignola in the field of mythically rich, gleefully oddball, supernatural heroics… B+

Speaking of gore, pulp, and fun, Robert Kirkman artist partners Ryan Ottley (Invincible) and Jason Howard (The Astounding Wolf-Man) focus on both in their consciously ridiculous one-shot Sea-Bear & Grizzly Shark (Image) essentially a one-gag goof about the titular creatures stalking and killing their prey. Why is there a killer bear in the ocean and a killer shark on land? It’s right there on the cover: “They got mixed up!” The explanation within—that land was once sea and sea was once land, before they swapped, leaving bears and sharks confused and in the wrong place—is essentially irrelevant to the comic’s two stories. In Howard’s, a man whose parents were killed by a sea bear seeks revenge, while in Ottley’s, a great white stalks a family and their hickish, incompetent Robert Shaw-esque hireling through a forest, eating everyone in sight. Apart from the fact that Ottley’s protagonist is inexplicably a cyborg with knife hands, his story is a little more straight-faced, and it wouldn’t be entirely out of place as an Invincible side-story. Howard goes much further over the top—early on, the grizzly shark bites a teenager in half, his dad dunks his upper half in the campfire to “cauterize the wound,” and then they go on together, with the half-boy dropping periodic one-liner riffs on his condition. And eventually the shark starts taking out bystanders, in one panel leaving behind nothing of a woman but her head, an arm and a leg, and her protuberant boobs. (Sound effect: “Munch.”) It’s all wacky, Mad-magazine-style antics, just a couple of artists having fun and hoping others will pay to watch. Which they might well do… B

Tonally similar to Marvel Divas (with which it shares an artist), and part of the ongoing, somewhat incoherent Women Of Marvel project, Heralds (Marvel) stands out by virtue of Kathryn Immonen’s sharp writing and a genuine sense of fun. The weekly title zips along at a rapid, almost screwball pace, bringing together a diverse group of Marvel heroines (including Emma Frost, She-Hulk, Hellcat, Captain Marvel, and Valkyrie) in an admittedly arbitrary way to face the menace of a herald of Galactus gone rogue. Immonen does a fine job of characterization without losing her sense of humor, which helps the book tremendously, and even the villains—in the first two issues, they include alien dinosaurs and Hitler clones—are presented with tongue firmly in cheek. The art is the only problematic issue: Tonci Zonjic’s semi-cartoony style works well enough, but he disappears halfway through issue #2, replaced by the less-enjoyable James Herren. This is a slight, but highly likeable, Marvel miniseries… B+ 

Also new from Kathryn Immonen and her husband and frequent collaborator Stuart Immonen is Moving Pictures (Top Shelf), but it couldn’t be more different from the delightful trifle that is Heralds. The standoffish, sometimes impenetrable story revolves around Ila Gardner, a Canadian art expert working in collaborationist France to help the Nazis catalogue plundered treasures. She’s a difficult character, placed by an unreliable narrative into a multifaceted story full of difficult storytelling and ambiguous morality, but it suffers not a bit for all that; in fact, its powerful experimentalism, when contrasted with Heralds’ sense of straightforward fun, is illustrative of what a major writing talent Kathryn Immonen really is. Husband Stuart’s work is equally excellent, closed and evocative with skillful use of light and shadow; the publication of Moving Pictures as a whole represents the culmination of a work they’ve been producing for years, and it turns out to be well worth the wait… B+

Writers Mike Raicht and Brian Smith and artist Charles Paul Wilson III might well be capitalizing on Toy Story 3 with the timing of The Stuff Of Legend: Book 1—The Dark (Villard), the collected edition of the first issues of a series that feels an awful lot like an attempt to turn Toy Story into a horror-drama. As it opens, the boogeyman pulls a child through a closet and into another world; the boy’s toys promptly band together to save him. In the boogeyman’s world, a teddy bear becomes a ferocious, full-sized grizzly; a jack-in-the-box becomes a roguish, axe-wielding harlequin; and so forth; the adversaries they face similarly wear their toy origins clearly, but have taken on real-world aspects. The battle that follows is rich, vicious, complicated, as the boogeyman attempts to sway one of the rescue party to treachery, and the other characters face personal fears and failings. Wilson’s dense sepia art is equally rich, particularly in his fine-lined settings. The problems will mostly be apparent for people who’ve read Mike Bullock’s Lions, Tigers And Bears books, which cover very similar ground (though they’re aimed at a younger audience), or seen Labyrinth or a Toy Story film too recently; the material feels too familiar in some particulars, such as the law that says toys can only move when kids aren’t looking, or the idea of toys as child-guardians whose fiercer aspects come alive in an alternate world. Raicht and Smith’s script is at its best when it focuses less on these familiar elements, and more on the characterization, particularly of Max the teddy bear, an angry but melancholy warrior who clearly has more on his mind than he’s saying in this initial well-conceived, but not-always-satisfying installment… B

Ted McKeever’s Meta 4 (Image) is a very strange beast indeed. Its title doesn’t lie: Metaphor, symbolism, and surrealist imagery are laid on thick and fast, from the opening images of a nameless astronaut walking on a lunar surface that turns out to be a tropical beach to a transvestite bodybuilder dressed as Santa Claus, who speaks only in icons. McKeever’s return to more indie fare after years of toiling in the mainstream is immediately gripping and compelling, if not entirely rewarding. While the art is gorgeous and the action presents a series of tantalizing enigmas, by the second issue, it’s no clearer what’s actually going on. If that clarity ever comes, it may be in the next few issues of its proposed five-issue run, but the series may be frustrating by design. Regardless, this is an important piece of comic art, conjuring everything from Seaguy to Twin Peaks, and with plenty of memorable visions to draw in the curious… A- 

A curious concoction assembled by four Canadian small-press outfits, Acts Of Violence: An Anthology Of Crime Comics (Caper Away) has a modern feel in its settings and Fiona Staples’ gripping cover art, but the material itself seems like a throwback to the classic crime comics of the ’40s and ’50s. As with all such anthologies, the quality varies from story to story; the standout here is “Six O’Clock Noose,” a small-town noir tale from Dino Caruso and Marvin Mann. Its moody tone, dark energy, and fascination with ugly revenge is nearly matched by Ed Brisson and Damien Couceiro’s “The Orchard.” More of a mixed bag is Chad Boudreau’s Prohibition-era mob tale “The Three Princes,” and the nightmare-of-drug-addiction tale “Reggie-Town,” by Todd Ireland and Kevin Leeson, isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. Still, nothing here is completely unsuccessful, and at a time when crime comics are undergoing a major resurgence, Acts Of Violence is a worthy addition to the canon… B

The timing is odd, to say the least: less than a year after the legendary R. Crumb released his adaptation of the Book Of Genesis, along comes the equally influential Heavy Metal (in the person of writer J.C. Camus and artists Michel Dufranne and Damir Zitko) to do essentially the same thing. La Bible: L’Ancien Testament, La Genèse 1Ére Partie (Metal Hurlant) is part of a proposed series that will cover the entire Bible; like Crumb, it aims to be as faithful to the text as possible, but a tendency to show things on a big screen spices things up a bit even as an ultra-PC, highly ecumenical approach tones them right back down. Likewise, while they’re skilled artists, Dufranne and Zitkow lack Crumb’s distinct genius, so their simple professional approach, admirable as it may be, sometimes makes La Bible come across more as a high-concept version of Classics Illustrated than anything new and exciting… B-

Did you know the Earth is honeycombed with tunnels containing archives of the entire history of popular culture, as recorded on alien-designed microchips by a council of pygmies? Leave it to underground-comics legend Kim Deitch to make that concept simultaneously deeply attractive and deeply creepy in The Search For Smilin’ Ed (Fantagraphics), a revised collection of a serialized story Deitch published in the anthology Zero Zero in the late ’90s. Beginning with Deitch’s (fictional) search for evidence of a barely remembered children’s-show host, The Search For Smilin’ Ed quickly brings in Deitch’s recurring character Waldo, a demonic imp in the form of a beloved cartoon character. Then it descends into a wild phantasmagoria that combines demonology, mythic Americana, sexual perversion, and the kind of vintage television that blurs the lines between entertainment and living nightmare. The story gets more twisted with every page, though it always makes sense in a Deitch-ian way. Deitch has trod this ground many times before—and more sure-footedly—but he retains an astonishing ability to tap into the deepest desires of pop-culture junkies, and to show how the satisfaction we seek from nostalgia can lead us to some dark corners of our collective showbiz past… B+

Children shielding themselves from uncomfortable truths with elaborately constructed fantasy worlds is fertile territory for comics, as Joe Kelly and JM Ken Niimura’s I Kill Giants and now Diana Thung’s Captain Long Ears (SLG) can attest. The adventures of the titular captain (in reality, an 8-year-old named Michael) and his derby-bedecked gorilla, Jam, initially feel like an extended—and more scatological—Spaceman Spiff-style space opera, but as the pair venture deeper into Happy Land theme park, Michael’s transformations of a schoolteacher into a “cannibalistic blob witch” and an angry park-goer into an oversized piranha on legs reveal themselves to be more coping mechanism than creative outlet. Thung never attempts to match Bill Watterson for sheer draftsmanship (although she does borrow Calvin and Hobbes’ insular, goofily philosophical dynamic); instead, she provides contrasting images of the real world and its fantastical counterpart delivered in an appealingly crude style that could have been the work of the Captain himself… A- 

Brooke A. Allen covers similar ground in her debut graphic novel, A Home For Mr. Easter (NBM), which starts out in uncomfortably miserablist Precious territory, with a hugely obese black teenager engaged in a screaming fight with her even-bigger mom before slumping off to school. But the story almost instantly goes off the rails by diving into the  colorful psyche of the girl, Tesana, who seems to live guilelessly in a world more than half constructed from fantasy and delusion. There, a unicorn carries her to school, where she encounters a rabbit who pops out Easter eggs that grant wishes to worthy souls. Soon, half her community is after either her or the rabbit, and the book devolves into a crazed chase in which Allen’s loose, energetic, but admirably precise black-and-white art gets a full showcase. As with I Kill Giants, some of the point is the question of how much of the proceedings are real. But the book’s real draw is its glorious lunacy, as the chase sequence ramps up sharply into something out of Dr. Seuss. And Tesana herself, with her complete lack of self-pity or self-consciousness once she’s engaged in something she cares about, is an appealing, daringly unconventional heroine… A

Throw City Of Spies (First Second) onto the pile as one more book about kids that blends fantasy and reality, but Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan’s script is more precisely and pointedly based in the real world. The book is set in 1942 New York City, where a young girl named Evelyn is dropped off with her bohemian aunt so her father can enjoy yet another of his serial honeymoons with a new wife. Bored, isolated, and lonely, she alternates between drawing comics featuring herself as a superhero’s sidekick, and trying to rout out German spies with the help of an equally lonely handyman’s son. Pascal Dizin’s comic-booky color art is somewhere between Tintin and Famous Studio’s Little Audrey/Little Lotta/Little Dot world, though with an attention to detail and surroundings more familiar from French comics and the First Second line in general. The story is similarly aimed at a youngish audience, though it isn’t juvenile so much as accessible; it’s aimed both at kids who wouldn’t mind having their own exciting adventures, and adults who will recognize the well-realized historical world these characters inhabit… B

For a golem pieced together out of garbage who once sported horseflies in his eye sockets, Billy Hazelnuts is a surprisingly squeamish individual. The second in the proposed Billy Hazelnuts trilogy by Tony Millionaire finds the Popeye-strong, sentient cake fed up with the “filthy world of beasts,” made up as they are from “disgusting blobs of meat.” The first Billy was about his origins; Billy Hazelnuts And The Crazy Bird (Fantagraphics) is about the responsibilities of parenthood, and how they don’t necessarily sync up with maturity. After scaring off a mama owl, Billy takes the peckish, peck-happy, abandoned infant under his wing on a journey that includes a trip to Rupert Punch’s gingerbread-less gingerbread house (Rupe doesn’t care for the stuff) and into the claws of a striped feline with clipped Krazy Kat diction. Millionaire’s love of ’30s comedy-adventure newspaper strips is still apparent on every page, but the more grounded direction feels like a bit of a letdown after the first Billy, with its Noah’s ark naval battles and graveyard of cracked planets—and a weirdly pat ending doesn’t help matters much… B 

A Jason Todd-hater with access to an auto-dialer apparently tipped the scales during the infamous vote-driven story arc that killed off the second Robin in a warehouse explosion, but why even go to the trouble? Todd’s subsequent resurrection wasn’t much of a surprise, but the explanation given in Batman Annual #25 could have at least felt a little less rushed. Now, in preparation for the animated adaptation of Under The Hood, Judd Winick returns with Red Hood: The Lost Days #1 (DC) to flesh out the anti-hero’s journey from coffin to take-no-prisoners crime-fighter. The story is told from Talia’s perspective, as she spars with father Ra’s al Ghul over what to do with Jason, who mysteriously appears, covered in soil, more a clump of fast-twitch muscle fiber on legs than sidekick material. Winick handles Talia well, outfitting her with enough backbone to make it believable when she stands up to her immortal father, and Pablo Raimondi’s art is serviceable enough, though he lets a few awkward panels slip through during the fight scenes. Readers should just try to avoid dwelling on the fact that Jason Todd is only alive because Superboy-Prime punched some continuity-bearing walls in the paradise dimension… B-

Alternate histories of the comic-book industry are nothing new, but the British writer-artist team of David Hine and Shaky Kane amp up the solipsistic fun in The Bulletproof Coffin (Image). The debut of the six-issue miniseries follows a family man and comic-book fan named Steve whose job is cleaning out the houses of the deceased—and who stumbles across an issue of a comic called The Unforgiving Eye in the collection of dead people’s property. Thing is, The Eye is part of a stable of superheroes (including The Red Wraith, The Shield Of Justice, and Coffin Fly) that was published by Golden Nugget, a comics company that’s been defunct since the early ’60s. After a fun comic-within-a-comic interlude, Steve starts to see the edges of his own personal reality unravel—and it all comes to a head when he finds a Coffin Fly costume and discovers his twin sons aren’t at all the little boys he thought they were. Kane—a veteran of the UK’s groundbreaking Deadline—has an uncluttered yet quirky style that evokes everyone from Moebius to Mike Allred, and the concept he’s concocted with Hine pays loving homage to the Silver Age without getting too clever or meta. And as a superhero mystery, it’s a moody yet bracing, if slight, read. B