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May 7, 2010

Fantagraphics has ravenously plundered the vaults of Basil Wolverton over the years, paying loving tribute in book form to a cartoonist who only achieved real recognition later in his life—and even then, it was restricted to the cultish few who could truly appreciate Wolverton's warped wordplay and puckish grotesquerie. It's up to those aficionados to decide whether The Culture Corner is scraping the bottom of the Wolverton barrel. The fact remains, though, that even the man's throwaway work—in this case, half-page gag strips (emphasis on the "gag") that appeared in Fawcett's Captain Marvel titles during and after World War II—is fully worthy of rediscovery. Like a Bizarro Dr. Seuss, Wolverton packs each Culture Corner with goofy, rhyming advice about "How To Grope For Bathrub Soap" (with a deep-sea diving suit, of course) or "How To Eat Crackers In Bed" (which, for some reason, also requires a diving suit). While silly and inconsequential, these strips revel in the subversive, surrealist glee that would develop more fully in Wolverton's later output for Mad and others, a style that would help unlock the inner cretin inside everyone from Robert Crumb to Peter Bagge. Granted, The Culture Corner does feel a bit padded; subtract the introduction and the bonus pages of the artist's rough pencils, and you're left with a meager 60 strips for your $23. Again, though, Fantagraphics has to be applauded for tenaciously keeping Wolverton and his eye-gouging, subliminally influential work from slipping through the cracks of comics history… B+

The most appropriate grade to give the first issue of Brian Wood's and Rebekah Isaacs’ new eight-issue miniseries DV8: Gods And Monsters (WildStorm) would be “incomplete,” since the first chapter is almost all set up. Wood and Isaacs mainly reintroduce the DV8 concept—a team of morally suspect superbeings who work black ops—before stranding the “heroes” in a primitive civilization in a galaxy far, far away. But what a set-up! Within days of their arrival, the members of DV8 are being worshipped by the warring locals, and used to settle ancient disputes. Wood frames this story as a flashback, implying that there’s more to what’s going on here than just setting super-powered folks against each other on a neutral playing field. It’s a shame, then, that he and Isaacs only have seven more issues to encapsulate all the potential conflict (and the conflict behind the conflict) inherent in the premise. Based on the first issue, this idea seems far grander than what a miniseries can contain… A-

A prelude to DC's Blackest Night crossover event, Solomon Grundy fills in the backstory to Slaughter Swamp's favorite son while pitting him against as many beasties as Scott Kolins can fit in the panels, all rendered in a chunky style that injects a little life into the otherwise dead-on-its-feet mystery of who killed Cyrus Gold, and how he was transformed into the zombie supervillain. Kolins, who pulled double duty writing and drawing the series (collected here in trade paperback), is more interested in mashing Grundy together with Bizarro, Killer Croc, Etrigan the Demon, and Frankenstein's Monster than in building suspense or telling a coherent story. When Green Lantern and The Phantom Stranger grudgingly appear to aid Grundy in his investigation, it makes an already cramped narrative even more claustrophobic. The Solomon Grundy nursery rhyme provides structure in some interesting ways over the course of the seven-issue mini-series, but readers looking for much more than big fists and bigger explosions will be disappointed and likely confused... C-

Joe Kubert, a Korean War veteran himself, has always been one of the most effective illustrators of war comics. From the daring, meticulously researched air combat stories he drew for the WWI series Enemy Ace to his larger-than-life WWII series Sgt. Rock, the now-legendary artist has turned in one classic after another cataloguing the behavior, both good and bad, of men in battle. His new graphic novel, Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965 (DC) can stand among the best of these.  Illustrated in simple pencil drawings reminiscent of Will Eisner’s later work, it tells the true story of a Special Forces unit that found itself pinned down by Viet Cong soldiers following a humanitarian mission in the early days of the war. A stark, often pitiless story, Dong Xoai doesn’t exist to give any moral shadings to the controversial war, or to wag judgmental fingers in any direction; it’s an old-school portrait of courage and grace under fire that may be broadly drawn, but is clearly deeply felt. Kubert’s illustrations are as powerful as ever, and the volume is enhanced by over 40 pages of fascinating and exhaustive research into the real events behind the story… B+

Warren Ellis is a skilled ranter, as anyone familiar with the stimulant-fueled sermonizing of Spider Jerusalem in Transmetropolitan can attest. In Do Anything Vol. 1: Jack Kirby Ripped My Flesh (Avatar), Ellis brings the same level of enthusiasm Spider has for bowel disruption to the task of connecting the work of the comic-book elder statesman to... well, pretty much everything. Originally a column that ran on the website Bleeding Cool, Do Anything uses a robotic likeness of Jack Kirby's head as a jumping off point for discussing architecture, mythologizing in comics, David Bowie, and Nazi Germany in a circular style that's almost conversational, but with just enough thematic cohesion to keep the whole thing from feeling tossed off. It's a digressive, engrossing, inside-baseball smattering of anecdotes and back-handed compliments—sometimes connecting back to Kirby's legacy, sometimes not—that at just under 50 pages wraps up just before wearing out its welcome... B

Of all the things to love and/or hate about Mark Millar, his creation of Marvel Zombies back in 2005 should fall squarely in the minus column of any sane human being. A typical case of a good thing done to death (and then some), the idea of the Marvel Universe, in all its multiform manifestations, being inflicted with zombie-ism has become, over the course of far too many miniseries, far too redundant; having such a broad palette isn't that helpful when you're painting with a single finger. Writer Fred Van Lente has been shepherding this monstrosity lately, most recently in the collected Marvel Zombies 4 and the first issue of Marvel Zombies 5. Both are dragged down by merely serviceable art (by Kev Walker and Kano, respectively) and a contrived, convoluted storyline that doesn't really deliver on its foremost promise: awesome zombie action. Even worse, Marvel Zombies 5 drags Howard The Duck—who really doesn't deserve this indignity—into the shambling proceedings. It's neither constructive nor particularly original to say, "Die, Marvel Zombies, die already!" But at this point, what else is there?... D

An early scene in Garth Ennis' Crossed (Avatar) communicates in the most brutal terms possible that this is a zombie narrative with no hope of a magic-bullet solution being played out in a world where morality is all but obsolete. Readers who can stomach Jacen Burrow's unflinching renderings of dismemberment and cannibalism will find that underneath the layers of punishing gore are some deftly handled scenes of sacrifice and regret that rescue the series from becoming a mindless slog through the ultraviolence. That said, the small band of survivors led by the efficient, clinical Cindy and the bland, unassuming Stan are given only slightly more personality than the bloodthirsty creatures who dog them. (The Walking Dead this isn't). It’s easy to get the sneaking suspicion that Ennis wrote the series with a checklist of taboos at the ready... B-

Despite the lack of redeeming value—or, well, any kind of value—The Darkness has survived for years on the merit of its gory, titillating, faux-edgy outrageousness. Reading Garth Ennis' The Darkness: Origins (Top Cow), which compiles the original six issues of the series, it's easier to see where the fun took root. Drawn with typical angularity and sub-porn slickness by Top Cow founder Marc Silvestri, the book starts out as the tale of young, pretty-boy Mafioso Jackie Estecado, who winds up inheriting the cursed, reality-shaping supernatural force known as The Darkness. Ennis treads a careful line here, and he almost pulls it off; at this early stage, the grim, bloody tale has yet to get sucked up in its own mythology, and Estecado is sympathetic in a totally plastic way. But there are a lot of thrills, both visual and visceral, and you can tell Ennis didn't take the project too terribly seriously. At the same time he takes it just seriously enough— is why, gratuitous and flawed as it is, The Darkness: Origins actually stands out as one of the more readable works in his oeuvre… B-

The 2006, Dan Nadel-edited anthology Art Out Of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries 1900-1969 took a different approach to comics archiving, looking not for the medium’s undeniable classics but for the stories and artists that have largely been forgotten, even though they stand out from the pack. Nadel’s sequel Art In Time: Unknown Comics Adventures 1940-1980 (Abrams ComicArts) has a similar underlying philosophy but takes a different tack: this time he assembles some deep cuts from the libraries of acknowledged comics legends, like Mort Meskin and Bill Everett. As always, Nadel’s introductions are informative, and the pages strive to capture the texture of the original work, not just the words and pictures. Nadel sometimes seems over-impressed by comics just because they’re rare or odd, not because they’re particularly good, but that may be just a byproduct of looking beyond the Marvel/DC/EC axis for an alternative view of comics history—and if so, it’s a necessary flaw. Besides, anyone who can excavate bizarre horror stories by kiddie-comics auteur John Stanley is an archivist worthy of our gratitude... A-

It’s been almost three full years since Drawn & Quarterly published the third volume of its complete Frank King Gasoline Alley collections, but with the release of volume four, Walt & Skeezix: 1927-1928 (Drawn And Quarterly), perhaps they’ll get back on an annual schedule. Three years is just too long to wait to dive back into King’s beautifully rendered world of automotive enthusiasts and their daily trials, which range from injuries as mundane as a stubbed toe and as grave as a kidnapped child. The Gasoline Alleys of the late ’20s tried a little too hard to compete with Little Orphan Annie’s then-popular serialized melodrama; King wasn’t as skilled at stretching tales of intrigue over months of cliffhanger-packed action. But some part of him must’ve been aware of his limitations, because there are just as many strips in Walt & Skeezix about the benign mischief of kindergarteners and the easy affection of people in love. And King’s knack for dialogue always remains as strong as his skill at bringing natural-looking human poses to cartoony figures. When Walt tries to dissuade his skinflint friend Avery from washing his car lest he “ruin a long geological and historical record,” the gentle humor shows a sense of character, language and situation that any modern novelist would envy... A-

It’s great that Jason Hofius and George Khoury love live-action television superheroes as much as they do, and it’s great to see all the pictures and memorabilia that they’ve assembled for their book Age Of TV Heroes: The Live-Action Adventures Of Your Favorite Comic Book Characters (TwoMorrows). But the pictures are about all Age Of TV Heroes is good for. Although some of the behind-the-scenes anecdotes about the making of shows like Shazam! and The Incredible Hulk are amusing, most of the information in the book is Wikipedia-quality, both in its shallowness of detail and in the way it’s written. Cheers for the spirit of Age Of TV Heroes; jeers for the often unreadable prose... C-

The road to comic-book hell is paved with the pages of horrible titles written by media types who thought it would be fun to dabble in writing comics. The latest such dilettante is Jonathan Ross, the controversial British TV personality and pop-culture commentator. What's surprising is just how good Turf (Image), Ross' comics-writing debut, actually is. The first installment of the five-issue series follows Susie Randall, a young, cynical New York society reporter who yearns to be a crusading, investigative journalist. She gets her wish—and then some—when her world of flappers, jazz, and speakeasies suddenly shifts from mob violence to the intrusion of vampires and space aliens. Ross manages to balance deft characterization and a dizzying array of ideas—granted, with a script far wordier than that of your average comic book—but he manages to cut right to the heart of his story even as he embellishes it with punch and panache. And Tommy Lee Edward's smudgy, sketchy, moody artwork—which at times evokes the great Alex Toth—couldn't be more sympathetic. If this is what Ross is capable of his first time out, here's hoping he has a long career in comics ahead of him… A-

See if this sounds familiar: a government operative is killed in the line of duty and then resurrected as a supernatural force capable of fighting crime and, presumably, getting revenge on those who done him wrong. The dead agent has a wife, but he can't reconnect with her. There's a lot of black in his costume, and his powers rely on something that looks an awful lot like curdled milk. Well, that last part doesn't quite fit, and the trade-paperback collection of the first five issues of Haunt (Image) admittedly isn't a word-for-word Spawn rip-off. Still, the influence of Haunt co-creator and inker Todd McFarlane is clearly felt. The book shows precious little characterization, but Kirkman manages a few moments of wit, and Ryan Ottley's art keeps things moving, but there really isn't much point here, and the characters—including lead Daniel Kilgore, a mediocre priest who becomes linked with his brother, the operative mentioned above—are unlikable and flat. It's a world where underwear-model-fit widows wear midriff-baring tank tops just because, and a hundred nameless thugs die in various stages of dismemberment. Something this ridiculous and derivative could stand to be a lot more fun... D+

Like most monsters, the aliens of Alien, Aliens, and other movies that shall remain nameless, work best in the shadows. Aliens: More Than Human (Dark Horse) does well by this advice. Apart from a brief introduction about the creatures and their possible relationship to insect life, More Than Human treats its marquee threat as an unknowable force of nature. A group of scientists travel off-world to investigate some strange ruins on a new planet. Unsurprisingly, bad things happen next, but it's gratifying how unexpected some of those bad things turn out to be. Human doesn't break any new ground, and its more original elements are hinted at without ever coming in to focus, but writer John Arcudi does a terrific job of taking familiar elements and giving them just enough spin to feel fresh. The art by Zach Howard captures violence and emotion with equal cartoony effectiveness, and while the book is never truly scary, it is consistently exciting. The Alien franchise can't really hope for inspired innovation anymore, but if the concept is still capable of inspiring such a modestly entertaining spin-off, it hasn't worn out its welcome quite yet... B

Speaking of franchises that refuse to die, Star Wars doesn't look to be going away any time soon. Once a creative empire gets a good head of steam built, it rumbles forward regardless if all its good ideas have been long since spent. It's impossible to look at Star Wars: Purge—The Hidden Blade (Dark Horse), a one-shot that follows Darth Vader's attempts to protect an Imperial weapons factory from sabotage, with fresh eyes. It's too easy to picture Anakin Skywalker underneath all that black leather and plastic, self-absorbed as ever. The black leather does look cool, though, and when Vader busts out the red lightsaber to take down some rebels, it's a nice reminder of the iconic power of a guy who used to be one of filmdom's greatest villains. The story, by Haden Blackman, is simple, but it avoids getting bogged down by series' absurd, contradictory mythology, and there's enough action to provide a fix for the average Jedi junkie. One of the reasons empires can run on long after their usefulness is at an end is that people like to see more of what they know. Purge scratches the itch, with a minimum of embarrassment... B-

Superheroes are totally gay. If you found the previous sentence funny, you'll probably laugh a lot reading Super F*ckers (Top Shelf), James Kochalka's endearingly infantile take down of the spandex set. The F*ckers have their own clubhouse, amazing abilities, and fawning fans, but really they mostly just want to hang out, get high, and punch things. There are sprinklings of plot in the issues collected here, from Superdan and Percy's attempts to escape the zero dimension, Jack Krak's wish to take over as team leader, the tryouts of super-wannabes, and the possibility of the destruction of all space and time. Really, though, the point here is just screwing around and seeing what happens when a bunch of idiots can wear funny costumes and screw around with aliens. It gets old eventually, but Kochalka manages to work in a surprisingly poignant romance; it's not Romeo and Juliet, and it's hard to get too worked up with dialog like "Get your fuck-ass out of my bedroom!" but there's a sweetness and honesty to the relationship that's affecting, even for the little page time it receives. It makes for a nice change of pace from all the adolescent slapstick... B+