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New Boob Wars and old Miracleman among this week’s new releases

Also reviewed: Usagi Yojimbo: Senso, The Amateurs, & Nightworld

Perhaps this is an irredeemably old-fashioned notion in an age of constant relaunches—an era where nothing more than the change of a creative team is necessary to provoke a re-numbering—but the release of a 100th issue should still be a noteworthy event. Although the powers that be at the Big Two superhero publishers will swear up and down that there is no real meaning to the superstitions surrounding big numbers in the comics field, an issue #19 does not carry the same weight as an issue #900. It may not mean anything in terms of the issue’s contents, but it means a whole hell of a lot in the minds of longtime readers who resent that the end of a long-running series necessarily carries with it an unpleasant reminder of impending mortality.

All of which is to say, any series that can reach triple digits is worthy of some degree of respect, regardless of how it got there. This is especially true of independent publishers with neither the deep pockets nor the historically proven IP of a Marvel or a DC. But the will to empire is stronger than the market that must support these dreams, and the industry’s history is littered with also-rans that started strong but were eventually forced to abandon their big ambitions. The ones that do succeed are often not the ones one might expect.

In July, Zenescope celebrated the release of the 100th issue of its flagship title, Grimm Fairy Tales. The unlikely event was commemorated by the usual raft of variant covers from ringers big and small—from the usual competent cheesecake jobbers such as Franchesco! to no less of an esteemed presence than Neal Adams himself. Adams’ cover is a fascinating example of the man’s odd late-period output—compositionally cluttered but still somehow legible, filled with the kind of “dynamic” foreshortening more familiar to readers of early ’90s Image comics than the artist’s great ’60s and ’70s heyday. The best way to put it: Adams can still draw, but he draws weirdly. And it’s especially weird to see him drawing a variant cover for Grimm Fairy Tales.

In 2005—way back in the Stone Age of the comics blogosphere—the sincerely missed Dave Campbell, writing for his defunct website, Dave’s Long Box, coined a phrase to describe comics like Grimm Fairy Tales: Boob War. Even if you’ve never heard the phrase before, you know these comics. Maybe you’ve even read some of them. They’re the ones with scantily clad women on the covers, usually holding swords or guns, often planted in the middle of some kind of magical or superheroic tableau. These kinds of books have been around in one form or another since the dawn of comics, but they really took on a life of their own in the ’90s, in the wake of Image Comics and in the context of a marketplace defined primarily by the libidos of teenage boys. Vampirella was Boob War before there was such a thing a Boob War. Jim Balent’s Catwoman is the most prominent Boob War title ever published by either Marvel or DC, and perhaps the biggest star in the entire genre was and remains Lady Death.

Although the “bad girl” trend of the mid-’90s was a market bubble largely concocted by Wizard magazine, the books themselves never really went away. They still linger on the outskirts of the marketplace, supported by a dedicated fandom that is strong enough to support a surprisingly deep bench of titles from multiple different publishers. The aforementioned Jim Balent self-publishes one of the most prominent surviving Boob War books, the infamous Tarot: Witch Of The Black Rose, with his wife, colorist and Archie Comics creator Holly Golightly. The most interesting thing about Tarot, and for many other Boob War books, is the fact that a surprisingly large part of their readership is and always has been female: It’s not just adolescent-minded males with sweaty palms, it’s also young women who like to dress in sexy costumes and mail revealing pictures of themselves to the creators.

According to Campbell, the definition of Boob War is simple, and any book could be identified as such by the presence of two elements: a) violence perpetrated by women, and b) those women have to be drawn in a titillating way.

Using this metric, Grimm Fairy Tales is the reigning champion of Boob War in the year 2014. The series follows the exploits of Dr. Sela Mathers, a literature professor who finds herself embroiled in the machinations of various supernatural fairy-tale beings, many of whom are nowhere near as cuddly as their reputations might suggest. Mathers is herself a formidable heroine, usually armed with a giant sword and wading into battle in little more than a blue one-piece swimsuit, a minuscule red skirt, and either white stockings or thigh-high red boots. But, because Mathers is supposed to be the modest and intellectual type, she is also always drawn with her glasses primly in place.

Issue #100 is the culmination of not simply the previous 100 issues, but also hundreds of issues of spin-offs exploring every conceivable myth and legend—from Oz and Wonderland to Robin Hood and ancient Greek myth. The issue sees Mathers’ defeat and the subsequent triumph of the Dark Queen, who cements her conquest of the multiverse by merging the worlds of Neverland, Wonderland, Oz, and Myst with Earth—a vaguely Crisis-esque merging that results in the death of 80 percent of our world’s population. A follow-up miniseries called Realm War: Age Of Darkness will feature the climax of this storyline, with the main Grimm Fairy Tales book receiving a soft reboot next month, before which the events of the Realm War storyline will presumably have been tied up in a satisfactory fashion.

Zenescope co-founders Joe Brusha and Ralph Tedesco still co-write Grimm, and Anthony Spay provides serviceable artwork. (There is one woman on the creative team, editor Nicole Glade.) This is vintage Boob War of a kind that many readers might not even realize still exists. Inasmuch as the genre is prima facie built on a degree of sexism (how much or how little, it is necessary for the reader to decide him or herself) and points directly at the most unflattering stereotypes of male comic book readers, there is nevertheless something almost endearing about the tenacity of a small publisher like Zenescope and the success of Grimm Fairy Tales.

Zenescope survived many of the same hurdles that beset similar small publishing outfits. It received a great deal of bad press a couple years back after a number of creators spoke out over not being paid. (These problems were the result of the types of cash flow problems that small comics publishers often do not survive.) In 2012 Zenescope announced a forthcoming animated project—complete with a successful Kicktarter launch and Game of Thrones
Lena Headey signed to voice Dr. Sela Mathers—which as of this writing has yet to appear.

But Zenescope keeps putting out titles, and the spin-offs keep stacking up, every issue ships with multiple variants by established talent such as J. Scott Campbell and Sean Chen, and they manage to do fair business with a handful of B-list licensed properties such as Charmed, Se7en, and Animal Planet. Its success is seemingly inexplicable and yet, in the context of comics, strangely reassuring. As respectable as comics may ever get, as many times as they top The New York Times bestseller list, it’s good to know that there are still weird and disreputable corners of the comics world putting out the kind of vaguely offensive and naively literal books that will always make you embarrassed when you bring a friend into a comic book store.

God bless you, Zenescope. [TO]

Over at his personal blog, Comics Panel co-writer Tim O’Neil wrote an in-depth breakdown of why Marvel’s Miracleman revival hasn’t made much of an impact on the comics world, citing the publisher’s botched roll-out, Alan Moore’s diminished reputation, and inherent problems with maintaining hype as major reasons for the book’s soft reception. While the overpriced monthly Marvelman reprints may not be getting the attention their story deserves, O’Neil argues that the single issues ultimately don’t matter very much; they’re a way of making up for re-coloring costs and bringing in some extra cash from hardcore fans, but the real money is going to come from the collections.

Miracleman Book Two: The Red King Syndrome (Marvel) is when Alan Moore’s story starts to click into gear, wrapping up the loose ends left by the first book’s major revisions of Miracleman history and paving the way for the book’s ambitious future. The price point is still exorbitant—the first Miracleman hardcover retails at $29.99 for 176 pages, with Alan Moore’s story occupying slightly more than 100 of them, while this second offers 50 extra pages for an additional $5, with bonus materials making up half of those—but the quality of the book and the sheer novelty of actually holding these issues of Miracleman after years out of print makes that price tag a little easier to swallow.

And make no mistake: Miracleman is worthy of its reputation as a pivotal series in the history of comics. Moore tells a socially conscious, politically charged superhero narrative that is grounded in reality, paving the way for the more mature storytelling of the Modern Age of comics, and his provocative retconning of the title character’s past would eventually become common practice at Marvel and DC, who have no problem changing continuity to make their characters more relevant.

After discovering that he’s the product of a secret government program that created superhumans (and one superpowered dog) by genetically and mentally modifying human subjects (and one dog) with alien technology, Mike Moran wants answers, a mission that leads him to Dr. Gargunza, the man responsible for his troubles. Gargunza has abducted Mike’s wife, Liz, who is currently pregnant, and these plot threads converge in a tense, hard-hitting narrative that blossoms into something beautiful in the final parts.

The art on this series holds up very well—volume two features work by Alan Davis, John Ridgway, Chuck Austen, and Rick Veitch—and while the new coloring from Steve Oliff sacrifices some of the more expressive qualities of the vibrant original colors, it heightens the sense of reality by embracing a more subdued palette. Book Two features a controversial sequence showing a birth in close-up detail, but the combination of Moore’s script and Veitch’s art captures the magnificence of this moment; the birthing process is strange and mystifying and miraculous, and the story doesn’t shy away from showing all of that.

Marvel’s reprints of Miracleman are proving to be quite an investment, but it’s the price readers have to pay in order to read these stories legally and without hunting down expensive back issues. As the story improves and hits the milestones that have put it in such high regard, the high price point stings less. These reprints may be expensive and may not have Alan Moore’s name on them, but that doesn’t diminish the quality of the original stories, which now have the opportunity to reach a public that can finally appreciate how influential Miracleman was in the evolution of superhero comics. [OS]

Keeping a creator-owned property alive for 30 years is a remarkable feat, and Stan Sakai is one of the rare creators that has accomplished this goal without sacrificing quality in his work. Usagi Yojimbo: Senso #1 (Dark Horse) sees Sakai returning to his samurai rabbit creation for a new story set 20 years in the future of his characters, and with the new time period comes new twists. In the middle of a climactic battle between the forces of the noble Lord Noriyuki and the treacherous Lord Hikiji, a rocket ship falls from the sky, pushing the story in an unexpectedly sci-fi direction.

Senso is Sakai’s take on War Of The Worlds in feudal Japan, but that aspect of the story doesn’t come into play until the final pages of this first issue. The majority of this first chapter is dedicated to war, featuring page after page of the smooth, expressive cartooning that Sakai has built a name on. As warriors face off in meticulously detailed armor, Sakai delivers chaotic action sequences that manage to depict intense brutality while still keeping the violence appropriate for all ages, showing that it’s entirely possible to create a real sense of danger without the use of blood and gore. The all-ages appeal of Usagi Yojimbo is perhaps its most admirable characteristic; Sakai tells mature, multilayered stories grounded in real-world history, but makes sure to include lots of action, cute animals, and humor to keep younger readers enchanted.

Sakai’s influence on his peers is spotlighted in The Sakai Project (Dark Horse), a hardcover collection of art pieces by an astonishing lineup of talent. The benefit book is produced in association with the Comic Art Professional Society, and all proceeds go to Stan and his wife, Sharon, who has been battling a debilitating illness and requires medical care that isn’t covered by their insurance. In an industry where publishers routinely look away from the present-day struggles of the creators that built their characters and concepts, it’s wonderful to see Dark Horse stepping up and assembling an all-star group of artists to pay tribute to Stan Sakai.

Bringing together veteran talent from the worlds of both creator-owned and corporate comics, along with a wide array of up-and-coming artists, The Sakai Project is filled with remarkable pin-ups in a variety of styles, showcasing the adaptability of Sakai’s creation. Mike Mignola’s interpretation of Miyamoto Usagi is dramatically different from Walter Simonson’s, which is dramatically different from Craig Thompson’s, but Sakai’s distinct sense of design makes his stamp evident on every image. [OS]

The Amateurs (Fantagraphics) is the debut book from Baltimore-based cartoonist Conor Stechschulte. It’s a curious thing in more ways than one. In the first place, the reader ends the book no more certain of its contents than before reading. This is either a strength or a weakness, depending on a reader’s perspective and willingness to tolerate narratives that present themselves less as linear progressions and more as delicately constructed puzzles. Secondly, the book is tonally all over the place. Low comedy and high tragedy occur not just in close proximity but often in the exact same incident. The result is a book that is intentionally ambiguous not just on the matter of plot and setting, but in regards to how it should be read.

The back cover copy informs the reader that the book is “funny” but “often discomfiting.” The only humor to be found here is humor of the blackest gallows’ variety. Its clearest comedic ancestor is Samuel Beckett, and it’s not hard to see the book’s two bumbling amnesiac butchers, Jim and Winston, as spiritual heirs to Vladimir and Estragon. As with Godot, there’s no understanding of anything that happens before the book begins, and there’s no clear idea of what the events depicted within actually mean, or if they are even “real.”

Jim and Winston show up to work at their butcher shop, just like (we are told) every other day—the only difference being that they no longer remember anything about being butchers. Their attempts to butcher a cow and a hog end in their own disfigurements. One supposes these are the parts that could be considered “funny”—low physical comedy with two idiots struggling to murder a pig and succeeding only in cutting off their own ears. There is also a framing device of strange journal entries written by a girl at boarding school, in a strangely vague time period (which could be anytime in the 19th or 20th centuries, depending on the location), in a world filled with either literal witchcraft or youthful superstition ran amok.

The book ends on a note of pure uncertainty, similar to Picnic At Hanging Rock; readers who find those kind of inconclusive conclusions frustrating, be warned. But there is a degree of ambition present in The Amateurs that speaks well for Stechschulte’s future as a cartoonist to watch. [TO]

A strong sense of style can make a conventional story feel fresh and extraordinary, and while Andrew Rae’s Moonhead And The Music Machine (Nobrow) hits the usual beats of a YA high school drama, the narrative is presented with a bold, imaginative vision that is both invigorating and inspiring. As his name implies, Joey Moonhead has a moon for a head, a celestial orb orbiting a few inches above his body that ventures away on make-believe adventures when he’s bored. It’s a clever representation of the teenage urge to escape the boring routine of everyday life through daydreams of a more exciting existence, and visual touches like that are what ultimately set this graphic novel apart from material that covers similar ground.

Moonhead And The Music Machine is a story about a young boy who learns to fit in by embracing art and believing in himself, complete with a dramatic talent show, scheming bullies, and the supportive best friend who gets pushed to the side when Joey reaches a higher profile. On the surface, it sounds like traditional YA drama, but the execution is far from what you’d expect. For example: the story opens on a cosmic level as Rae details the Big Bang and subsequent formation of the universe, events that lead to a moon making its way through the solar system and into the bed of a teenage boy. From there we see Joey’s body go through its morning routine, making it all the way to school in a zombie-like haze because Joey’s moonhead is still on his pillow, a smart way of depicting the tenuous morning transition from sleep to waking life.

A cross between Mike Judge and Pendleton Ward, Rae’s art style brilliantly contrasts the repetitive blandness of domestic life with the vivid fantasies in Joey’s mind by experimenting with form and color. Nobrow has developed a reputation for gorgeous illustrated works, and Rae maintains the publisher’s high standard of quality in his work, which fully comprehends the emotional ups-and-downs of the teenage experience and interprets those personal feelings in spectacular flights of fancy within Joey’s head. Fantasy and reality collide when Joey plays his Music Machine, a revelatory event that not only changes Joey, but everyone who witnesses it, from his schoolmates to the reader. [OS]

Emmanuel Guibert’s How The World Was: A California Childhood (First Second) is a sequel of sorts to his previous volume, Alan’s War. That book recounted the World War II experiences of its subject, Guibert’s friend Alan Cope. How The World Was, as the title might suggest, is a memoir of Cope’s childhood growing up in California during the Great Depression.

We should all hope for as sympathetic a biographer as Cope has found in Guibert. Although there is no grand plot to Cope’s reminiscences—which range from quotidian details such as the pleasures of sharing a chocolate malt with his father, to somber matters such as the early death of his mother—Guibert approaches every memory as a significant event worthy of the reader’s respect. The book is permeated by a feeling of melancholy, not merely in the form of personal nostalgia, but for the lost world of California before the massive expansion that followed World War II. As Cope recounts in the opening pages, the population of California doubled over the course of the war. Chinatown is of the same time period; keeping that reference in mind helps to understand the scope of the massive changes that were transforming a sleepy, largely agricultural state into an economic powerhouse anchored by the sprawling Los Angeles megacity.

But this is softer: these are the memories of a mostly happy childhood, defined partly by the sense of possibility offered by the wide-open vistas of undeveloped California real estate. (How odd to see that the road from Altadena to Santa Monica was once a rural highway!) Guibert illustrates Cope’s memories as memories—grayscale, with faces often obscured or turned three-quarters from the reader. Disconnected images alternate with photographic evidence, vaguely drawn figures brought into instant focus by the precision of the camera. Even though the book is ostensibly a series of vignettes and observations, the effect is as filling as any grand narrative. Cope’s youth was in many respects completely average, but Guibert taps into the universal feeling of mystical reverence with which we all regard our childhood. [TO]

Brian Michael Bendis is one of the most influential superhero comics creators of the new millennium, building a lucrative career at Marvel Comics after years of work in alternative creator-owned comics. As a professor at the University Of Oregon, Bendis teaches the skills required to find success as a comic-book creator, and his huge store of knowledge is now available to the general public in Words For Pictures (Watson-Guptill), a slick how-to guide for writers that also serves as an excellent entry point to the wider world of comic-book development.

The book offers plenty of advice on how to create a script, collaborate with others, and work the business side of creating comics, with considerable contributions from Bendis’ peers offering their own opinions on the process. Spotlights on creators like Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, David Mack, Alex Maleev, and Michael Avon Oeming invite readers to learn how different creators approach their work, and roundtable discussions with artists and editors show just how important communication is in this business. With the artists in particular, it becomes clear that everyone has different strengths and pet peeves and goals, and the only way to know how to craft the best script for these artists is by learning what things they like to draw most.

Exquisitely designed by Daniel Lagin, Words For Pictures is a very handsome how-to guide, presenting the information in a visually engaging way and spicing up the text with artwork from some of the industry’s top talents. It’s an especially attractive book for Marvel Comics fans considering Bendis’ role as the writer on many of the publisher’s top properties over the past 13 years, but an interview with former Dark Horse Editor Diana Schutz and the section on marketing and legally protecting creator-owned material make it a valuable resource for anyone looking to create comics of any kind. As Bendis says in his introduction, “I don’t want you to write like me. I want you to write like you,” and with the knowledge in Writing For Pictures, he gives aspiring creators the tools to realize their potential to its fullest. [OS]

It’s been good month for Jack Kirby fans following the debut of Dynamite’s exceptional Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers series, and it only gets better with the release of Nightworld #1 (Image), a new horror-fantasy miniseries that draws heavily from Kirby’s work on supernatural titles like The Demon. Featuring an appropriately heightened script by Adam McGovern and evocative, energetic artwork from Paolo Leandri and colorist Dominic Regan, this debut drops readers in the middle of the plight of Plenilunio, a noble demon who wants to find the Soul Key that will awaken his sleeping spectral lover Lidia.

Unfortunately, malevolent forces in the underworld want the Soul Key for themselves, putting Plenilunio in the crosshairs of deliciously Kirbyesque demons Hellena and Hotspot. The former captures the classical elements of Kirby design with her Greek-inspired look, while the latter’s tracksuit ensemble shows Leandri’s understanding of how contemporary fashion influenced Kirby’s work. The script is macabre and poetic but also a lot of fun, balancing gothic romance with bombastic moments of demonic fighters facing off in haunted stone castles.

Leandri’s exaggerated poses and Regan’s aggressive color palette give the book incredible energy, but the art team knows when to tone down the excitement and heighten the atmosphere. Yet even in moments of quiet stillness, the Kirby influence fills everything with life. A debut that is brimming with emotion and character, Nightworld #1 uses the King’s aesthetic as a foundation to build something that is unusual yet utterly captivating. [OS]