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June 25, 2009


Though in-the-know comics nerds have known about mysterious, deranged Golden Age cartoonist Fletcher Hanks for a while, credit writer Paul Karasik for hipping the rest of the world to his existence. In 2007, Karasik brought the world I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets!, a collection of Hanks’ largely inexplicable work; now, he follows it up with You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation! (Fantagraphics), which collects all the Hanks material not included in the first book. Hanks’ hyperactive, colorful, robust, and crazily disproportionate art is perfectly matched to his over-the-top storytelling in features like the terrifying, skull-faced Fantomah and the homicidally insane outer-space wizard Stardust. Though he influenced no one and faded pathetically out of existence, Hanks left behind a body of work that’s compelling to read simply because it’s so lunatic and inadvertently hilarious. There are few artists, from the Golden Age to today, that so deftly blended goofy dialogue with terrifying violence and surreal situations; for better or worse, Hanks was a real original… B+

Since well before the presidential election, there’s been a rush to put Barack Obama into comics, either as a historical figure or an ass-kicking version of himself. Barack The Barbarian #1 (Devil’s Due) takes the trend even further by picking up on Obama’s reputed Conan fandom, and casting him as the fur-clad, sword-wielding, monster-cleaving barbarian hero of a fantasy epic. The first issue comes with a hefty dose of specific, simplistic political satire, from the titular barbarian ordering his tavern grub with Dijon mustard to a face-off against parodies of Bush (sorry, “Boosh”) and Cheney, who worry that the “smart and handsome and really good with a sword” newcomer will boot the “grand old pachyderms” out of power. There’s nothing subtle, trenchant, or incisive about the first half of Larry Hama’s script, which reads about like an ’80s Mad magazine parody, complete with exclamation-pointed gag lines and groaningly obvious fantasy-world versions of everyone from Sarah Palin to Hilary Clinton. But the whole thing takes a weird leap into a far-future meta-story midway through, paving the way for increased surrealism. And the art, by Christopher Schons and colorist Rachelle Rosenberg, is nicely chunky, bright, and packed with detail. Schons doesn’t try to capture the exact look of real-world people so much as suggest them, with results that avoid the uncanny-valley artificiality of, say, characters in the Angel and Buffy comics, but still make it moderately fun to see Obama grinning from ear to ear as he punches out what could pass for a Viking dwarf… C+

Through July 12th, the Chazen Museum Of Art at The University Of Wisconsin in Madison will be hosting an exhibition of original art from comics’ initial “underground” era, ranging from the mid-‘60s to the early ‘80s. The exhibition will then go on the road, but for those who don’t live one of the selected cities—or those who just don’t want to wait—the book Underground Classics: The Transformation Of Comics Into Comix (Abrams ComicArts) offers reproductions of the pages on display, along with context-setting essays by artists such as Jay Lynch, Denis Kitchen, and Trina Robbins. The featured work runs the gamut from light-hearted psychedelia to bitter satire, with ample examples of the taboo-busting that was a staple of the undergrounds. But what’s most fascinating are the samples of pages from hard-to-find publications like Marvel Comics’ short-lived underground effort Comix Book, or long-gone ephemera like Corporate Crime Comics and Subvert Comics. The classic early works of R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Art Spiegelman, and other big-name artists of the era have been reprinted over and over, but there’s a wealth of material from creators like Rand Holmes, Leslie Cabarga, and Willy Murphy that remains uncollected and underappreciated. Underground Classics is a fine introduction to an all-but-lost way of thinking about comics (as a medium for short experiments and piss-takes, primarily), but it’s also a frustrating tease for the comprehensive collection/analysis of the genre that demands to be assembled… B+

In its cinematic form, Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir offers a personal take on what it was like to serve in the Israeli military in the early ’80s, as well as a study of how memory can fade into fantasy, obscuring the meaning of historical tragedies. Folman underscores his theme by combining stilted-sounding audio recordings of his friends with stiff but richly colored animation, thus compounding the sense that what he lived through is no longer “real.” The graphic novel Waltz With Bashir: A Lebanon War Story (Metropolitan) uses frames from the movie—chiefly illustrated by David Polonsky—and sizable chunks of the original dialogue to create a kind of quick, easy-to-read “greatest hits” version of WWB. The “what is real” theme loses some punch in the translation, but one of the major flaws of Waltz With Bashir—namely the limitations of its blatantly artificial style—is significantly alleviated in the comic-book version. Perhaps the two should be considered companion pieces. The book tells Folman’s story more clearly, while the movie better explores his preoccupation with whether that story approaches “truth”… B

The “Graphic Classics” anthology series is often at its best when it focuses on a genre instead of an author, and that’s certainly the case with Graphic Classics Volume Seventeen: Science Fiction Classics (Eureka), which offers adaptations of well-known stories by H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, E.M. Forster, and others. The art styles range from the Jetsons-informed crudity of Johnny Ryan to the expressive cartooning of Roger Langridge and the muted realism of Micah Farritor, yet all these eclectic pieces fit together to form a seamless portrait of an antique future that’s both amusing for what the original writers got wrong, and startling for what they got right… B+

Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert’s justly acclaimed Batman: Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader? (DC) has now been collected in a hardcover edition that adds some sketches from the project and a handful of Batman-themed stories that Gaiman wrote for DC in the ’80s and ’90s. Just a few months after its original release, Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader? already feels like a classic, smoothing decades of fragmented Batman mythology out into one meta-story about the power of myth itself. And the collected edition shows how Gaiman toyed with this same idea during his Sandman heyday too, by writing Batman stories that acknowledged and celebrated the contrivances of superhero comics. In conjunction with the hardback edition of Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader, DC is also repackaging Alan Moore and Curt Swan’s ultimate Superman story Superman: Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow? for the umpteenth time, tossing in the also-oft-reprinted Moore Superman stories “The Jungle Line” and “For The Man Who Has Everything” for good measure. It’s tempting to grumble about DC continuing to scoop money out of the same small well of Moore’s work, but the quality of the work itself—and the way it retains the hopefulness of The Silver Age while nodding to the darkness of modernity—is still remarkable, nearly 25 years after these stories debuted… Both: A

Fresh off his runaway popularity on the Marvel Zombies series, Robert Kirkman wreaked another kind of comedic superhero storytelling. In The Irredeemable Ant-Man (Marvel), collected in a new and comprehensive edition, he brought things down to Earth—way down to Earth—by turning one of Marvel’s oldest and least-loved properties into a detestable schmuck. Placing a low-level S.H.I.E.L.D. agent in the Ant-Man suit, Kirkman and artist Phil Hester turn him into a crook, a selfish swindler, a cheat, and a stalker who uses his powers neither to better mankind or to take over the world, but to become a more effective jerk. The series ran for only 12 issues—all collected here—and that’s probably good; Hester’s art was improving, but Kirkman’s scripts were going a bit astray, and had even begun to violate the “no learning, no hugging” tenets of the kind of black comedy it had originally aspired to. Still, it’s a pretty enjoyable take on the generational superhero concept, and second only to Dan Slott’s She-Hulk in recent Marvel humor titles… B+

It’s not entirely clear why Sleeper: Season One (DC/Wildstorm), a collection of the first 12 issues of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ superhero/spy/noir mash-up, is being released at this particular time. The material is years old; Tom Cruise just optioned the book, but a theoretical movie version is years away; and while Wildstorm’s current crossover event, “World’s End,” incorporates elements of Sleeper, it’s probably unrecognizable to casual fans. Still, any excuse to get the material circulating again is a good one, especially value-priced as it is. Sleeper tells the story of Holden Carver, a double agent working in the Crime Syndicate of the villainous Tao, and discovering what every double agent eventually does: Divided loyalties can quickly shift from fake to real. Phillips’ art is stark and well-crafted, and Brubaker shows the kind of moral shading that makes his best work elsewhere so distinctive—Sleeper, in particular, is a nice in-continuity superhero exploration of the themes he would later explore to such good effect in Criminal. A-