March 26, 2009 

 

Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s reputation as a manga pioneer stems from his involvement with the development of the “gekiga” genre, dedicated to more realistic depictions of the trials of everyday existence. For the 800-page epic A Drifting Life (Drawn & Quarterly), the everyday existence Tatsumi depicts is his own, ranging from his boyhood interest in comics to his attempts to make his own name in the profession. It’s a passionate, personal book, lovingly and gorgeously rendered, and it’s informative reading both for fans of Japanese comics and those who’ve always kept manga at arm’s length. All of A Drifting Life’s small cultural details—the book-rental shops, the four-panel-comics contests, the juvenile manga clubs, the controversies over gekiga’s adult content—merge with the story of Tatsumi’s troubled family life and his addiction to western popular culture. A Drifting Life bears some similarities to Will Eisner’s autobiographical graphic novels both in its subject matter and its bluntness, but Tatsumi shows more ambition in trying to show a person and a country in transition. The story is all about developing new models for personal and artistic behavior in the wake of international disgrace. A Drifting Life is as involving and thorough as any prose memoir, while remaining as immediate and concise as the best comics. It is, honestly, one of the most significant works the medium has ever produced… A

As a writer, editor, and artist for EC Comics’ Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, Harvey Kurtzman brought grit and humanity to war stories that drained combat of any romance and glamour. The same morally committed creator went on to found Mad, which only sounds unlikely until you consider the agenda behind Mad’s irreverence. Just has Kurtzman’s war comics helped train a generation to hate war by presenting it as an endless cycle of futility and wasted lives, Mad wrapped humor around the same distrust of authority and received wisdom. In 1957, Kurtzman left Mad for the Hugh Hefner-backed Trump, which sought to bring the same satirical spirit to an older audience. It failed, but an unbowed Kurtzman rallied a staff of friends that included Al Jaffe, Jack Davis, Will Elder, and Arnold Roth for the self-published Humbug, whose poorly distributed, little-seen 11 issues have now been reprinted by Fantagraphics as a two-volume hardcover set. Fans of vintage Mad will immediately be at home thanks to familiar artists and attitudes, although Humbug ultimately feels a bit like an alternate-universe Mad, one 1950s grown-ups could stack between Playboy and Harper’s on the coffee table. The gags range from pithy one-liners—Reverse cliché: “He was a hard man to work for, but he never knew what he wanted”—to clever parodies of pop culture and politics to belabored, obscure gags. (A set of annotations helps explain some of the now-forgotten references.) But even when it doesn’t work, Humbug remains a fascinating showcase for a group of artists operating at the height of their powers and inspiration. The lovingly assembled package—beautifully reprinted and filled out with extras like a long Roth and Jaffe interview—doesn’t hurt either…. A-

Showered with praise and industry awards when it was published last year in France, My Mommy Is In America And She Met Buffalo Bill (Ponent Mon/Fanfare) is a charming story on the border between childlike innocence and adult melancholy. Based on the real childhood of celebrated author Jean Regnaud, it tells the story of a 5-year-old boy whose father, a factory manager, is rarely home and whose mother is… well, somewhere else. His neighbor, a sly girl named Michele, decides to help fill the mom-shaped void in his life by reading him invented postcards of her amazing adventures in America, which he devours with delight even though they’re obvious fantasies. The story is amplified by strong characters, including Jean’s unpleasant teacher Madame Moinot and his bratty younger brother Paul. The structure is inventive, and while Émile Bravo’s art is perfectly suited to the childish fantasies of Jean and Michele, the story takes an unsettling turn toward the end, which, though it deepens the book’s meaning and poignancy, should probably keep it out of kids’ hands. In the end, it’s a warm, sometimes sad story of loss and the coping mechanisms that families create to deal with them, filtered through the utterly guileless psychological mechanisms of a child. It’s perfectly translated into idiomatic English, and highly recommended as one of the best French graphic novels in years… A-

Even though some of Kurtzman’s projects proved short-lived, his satirical impulse hasn’t. Writer Rich Johnston (best known for his comics-gossip column “Lying In The Gutters”) and artist Simon Rohrmüller run with it with the one-off Watchmensch (Brain Scan), a Watchmen parody that doubles as a dead-on imitation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original and an attack on the creators’ rights issues that led Moore to swear off Hollywood and big American comic-book publishers. Watchmensch stretches the gag a bit thin and will likely baffle those not familiar with the graphic novel or the disputes surrounding it, but those in the know will appreciate its affectionate poison… B

Batman’s dead! (Sort of.) So who’s that running around in his costume? That’s the question plaguing a chaotic Gotham City in the first issue of Batman: Battle For The Cowl (DC). The series itself could be chaotic, but it’s off to a good start so far thanks to Tony Daniel’s clear art and storytelling, which establishes the positions and psychic burdens of the whole mournful, overstuffed Batman family, then puts them to work fighting the escapees of a newly destroyed Arkham Asylum… B

The first major graphic novel by young British artist Hannah Berry, Britten and Brülightly (Metropolitan Books) is a curious creation. Seeped in Victorian sensibilities and gothic gaslight trappings, it’s both a meditation on loneliness and lost love and a cleverly but confusing detective story. It focuses on the titular detective agency, led by Fernández Britten, whose years of tawdry labor as a private investigator have beaten him down and left him feeling that his life has brought more harm than good into the world. An opportunity to change things comes when he gets involved with the death of Berni Kudos, an alleged suicide whose bride-to-be hires him to investigate the Kudos family secrets. The art is lovely—Berry has a visual sensibility that adds extra emotional depth to whatever scene she’s illustrating—but the storytelling is a bit rambling, and often heavy-handed when it ought to be subtle. Still, she’s young, and thus can be forgiven a common mistake of writers who are trying to make a philosophical point in their stories. Britten And Brülightly is, if nothing else, the arrival of a talent we’re likely to be talking about again… B

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Barely a comic book, or any kind of book at all—it’s really more of an illuminated pamphlet—A Walking Tour Of The Shambles (American Fantasy) is still well worth picking up for fans of either of its creators, or just devotees of weird humor. It’s a new reprint (sadly, lacking in any additional features worth noting) of a little chapbook created seven years ago by Neil Gaiman and science-fiction author Gene Wolfe, dotted with illustrations by Gahan Wilson, Randy Broecker, and Earl Geier. It purports to be a tour guide to “The Shambles,” a little-known and less-understood Chicago neighborhood where the physical boundaries are frangible and bizarre goings-on lurk behind every door. It reads like what it is—a dashed-off bit of deranged humor created specifically as a convention giveaway—but the quality of the authors who did the dashing-off elevate it above similar fare. It reads like a Cthulhu-cult jokebook, or the stranger sections of House Of Leaves played for laughs; there’s no denying that it’s slight, but it’s also incredibly funny for most of its length, and just disturbing enough to be hard to forget. Just the thing for those seeking information about the House Of Clocks or the International Brotherhood Of Meatworkers… B+

Basil Wolverton was one of the most notorious—and mysterious—figures of the golden age of American cartooning. He initially came to fame for his ludicrously over-the-top, ultra-busy Powerhouse Pepper cartoons, and later created memorable characters like Lena Hyena, The Ugliest Woman In The World, which cemented his reputation as a specialist in the grotesque, bizarre, and nightmarish. He later mined that vein richly for humor magazines like Mad and Plop!, which is why it’s so surprising to discover that for many years, he illustrated Bible stories for the California-based evangelical outfit known as the Worldwide Church Of God. But it’s true, and The Wolverton Bible (Fantagraphics) shows the often-surprising result of this collaboration between a pulpit-pounding televangelist organization and one of the loopiest cartoonists of his era. The book has the imprimatur of both groups; it’s edited by Wolverton’s son Monte, and endorsed by the WCG—and it isn’t surprising why they both want the material out there. While it’s lacking in any overt wacky humor, it features some of Wolverton’s most breathtaking art, and he finds plenty of opportunities in Bible stories and end-times predictions for his sense of the grotesque and horrific. There’s even a couple of issue-oriented gag strips in the collection for those who miss the Powerhouse Pepper style of rapid-fire jokes. Not for everyone, but for Wolverton fans, it’s a must-see, and a look at a truly surprising chapter of the man’s career… B

The original Adventure Comics was one of DC’s longest-running institutions. First published under the title New Comics in 1935, the series introduced the original Sandman, Starman, and Manhunter, before the title changed to Adventure and Superboy took a starring role in issue #103. Adventure closed up shop in 1983, but DC is bringing the title back this spring for another round. Issue 0 doesn’t give much sign of what’s to come; it’s just a reprint of Superboy’s first meeting with the Legion of Super-Heroes, and a six-page preview of Adventure’s first big storyline. The reprint should be familiar to most comics fans, and the preview is nothing special (gasp! Brainiac has outthought Lex Luthor. He never does that!), but it’s nice to have the Legion’s first story in color, and the placement of the two stories makes for an inadvertently fascinating contrast. The origin is all bright primaries and cheer, with Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and the rest putting Superboy through his paces with some clever hazing; the preview is gloomy art and continuity nods. It could well build to something satisfying, but as it is, it’s hard to not to get nostalgic for the old days… B+

Sometimes it’s a bummer being stuck in the real world. Here, if a sailor gets caught in an atomic-bomb test, he winds up a cloud of fine ash, but in the comics, he stands a good chance of surviving with super strength, flight, and the power to generate massive revenues in merchandising sales. In The Mighty (DC), an irradiated superman named Alpha One becomes the world’s best-known and best-loved savior, with a national organization at his back dedicated to the clean-up work required after each heroic event. But in spite of the good press and public renown, being Alpha One’s backup isn’t the greatest job in the world, as the newly promoted Cole is about to discover; the head guys have a bad habit of winding up dead, and the latest ex-number one, Michael Shaw, is no exception. The world of The Mighty, loosely filled in over the first issue, is a solid mix of the iconic and the new, and there’s a lot of potential for uncovered secrets and subtext down the road. Alpha One himself makes for a terrifically ambiguous figure, detached from the people who support him and literally above it all for a chunk of the narrative; he’s just mysterious enough to be a little creepy, which isn’t a good thing in a man who can carry a train. B+

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