Reading Pete Sickman-Garner’s latest Hey, Mister book produces a sensation comparable to that of stepping into a time warp, with a destination some 15 or 20 years ago. That is not to say that Come Hell Or High Water Pants (Top Shelf) is purely a nostalgia trip, because it’s not. It’s very funny. But the book nonetheless serves as a reminder of another time and place in the history of the comics industry.
For the last decade the quote-unquote “art” comics scene (scare quotes firmly in place as this is simply a way of distinguishing every form of comic that doesn’t prominently feature spandex) has flourished in direct proportion to its distance from the same retail environment that once nourished it: specialty comic-book stores. You can walk into any Barnes & Noble across the country and find a better selection of non-superhero books (call them what you will: “art,” “independent,” “alternative”) than the vast majority of direct-market comic shops. Firms with swanky New York addresses publish many of our finest cartoonists. Small press comics are doing pretty well, too, since they largely left behind the serial floppy in exchange for a number of formats that owe more to art monographs than the indie comics of yore.
But a side effect of this burgeoning respectability is that it’s harder to find books like Hey, Mister. Finding a new issue on the shelves after 12 years is a bit like spotting a real, live coelacanth. These things used to be everywhere—black-and-white satire, drawn in an intentionally crude style, filled with characters most charitably described as slackers, and more accurately as lowlifes. During the black-and-white boom of the ’80s and on through the retailer bust of the ’90s, there were dozens of books like Hey, Mister. And now that everyone else working in this vein has either gone respectable, gotten a real job, or moved to the Internet, Sickman-Garner is back.
Hey, Mister was the first book Top Shelf published back in 1997. It’s the comics equivalent of lo-fi, of early Richard Linklater or Sebadoh. Time has not changed Sickman-Garner’s style: The characters are still ugly, the jokes are still raunchy, and the situations still bleakly pathetic. The titular Mister is an unsuccessful pornographer, Aunt Mary is angry, and Young Tim is something else entirely. That’s more or less all a reader needs to know going in. The characters spend most of their time either hanging out at the bar or plotting scams to get money to spend at the bar. Satan gets bored in hell and decides to play hooky, so he pops in to visit the gang in the hopes of bumming a few nights on the couch. He keeps running into Jesus, which is awkward. And when Mister isn’t trying to get Satan to let him shoot porn in his new apartment, he’s trying to kill Pete Sickman-Garner in order to stop the never-ending humiliation of appearing in Hey, Mister.
According to the press packet, Details once called Hey, Mister “America’s funniest comic book.” (And could there by anything more ’90s than a press quote from Details magazine?) That may be hyperbole—Garfield is still being published, after all—but it’s good to know that Sickman-Garner hasn’t missed a step. [TO]
Michael Del Mundo scored an Eisner Award nomination this year for his innovative cover art at Marvel (he deserves the win for his X-Men: Legacy work alone, one of the best cover runs in recent memory), and his cover for Elektra #1 (Marvel) showcases the unique point of view that has made him one of the industry’s most exciting rising stars. From a distance, it’s a striking headshot against a white background, heavily reminiscent of street art, but closer inspection reveals that the image is composed of a wave of blood sweeping through a swarm of inky ninja. The red of the blood creates Elektra’s signature headscarf while the ninja and their weapons serve as Elektra’s hair, eyes, and nose, creating the portrait of a character whose entire self is created through killing.
That perspective is echoed in Haden Blackman’s script for this first issue, which begins with an expository five-page sequence outlining Elektra’s backstory as she practices dancing in front of a mirror. It makes a lot of sense that a graceful assassin would study dance as a way of exploring her body’s full range of movement, and a two-page sequence of her moving across a studio floor with two ribbons in her hands segues beautifully into another two-page sequence that replaces those ribbons with bright red streams of blood that spring forth from her dual sai.
This elegant movement is accompanied by images of the past reflected in the mirrors behind Elektra, with narration detailing the various stages of Elektra’s life, the parts she’s played, and the role she’s most comfortable with: assassin. The narration can get a bit overwrought in this opening, but it gives Blackman the opportunity to rapidly cover all the requisite exposition while exploring Elektra’s grave attitude. He depends on his artist to provide visuals that will make all the background info more exciting, and Del Mundo consistently delivers.
When Elektra visits the flapper-styled Matchmaker, a contract middleman for assassins, she’s given a mission to track down the a hired killer by the name of Cape Crow, and his backstory is presented via a two-page sequence showing an array of holographic images projected from the inside of a book Elektra opens. For the introduction of one of Elektra’s new assassin rivals, Bloody Lips, Blackman and Del Mundo offer a variation on the opening dance sequence but replace the studio with a foggy swamp, using similar layouts to draw a connection between the two characters.
With an artistic pedigree that includes Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz, Elektra is a character that deserves a strong creative vision. This newest Elektra ongoing is already an astronomic leap forward from the first issue of her last monthly series, which featured stiff, bland artwork from Chuck Austen, and the cliffhanger of this opening chapter promises even bolder visuals from Del Mundo as Blackman takes the story in an unexpected, monstrous direction. Judge this book by its cover, because it’s a sterling example of the ambition within. [OS]
Flip open the cover of Jason Aaron and Jason Latour’s Southern Bastards #1 (Image) and the first image on display is a two-page spread of a mangy dog taking a crap on the border of Craw County, Alabama. Dominated by pale yellow and a grayish brown, the colors of dry heat and dog shit, the visual does an exquisite job establishing a tone and atmosphere for this story, immediately emphasizing the less savory aspects of this Southern environment. With a story featuring football, guns, barbecue, fried pie, pickup trucks, ATVs, Bibles, and exaggerated masculinity, this first issue plunges the reader headfirst into its Bible Belt setting, and like the Native American reservation of Aaron’s Scalped, the location is a huge part of the book’s allure.
When Earl Tubb drives his Y’All Haul truck past the defecating canine, the creature starts chasing after the vehicle and barks at it in a panel colored with deep, bloody red, and that sequence foreshadows what’s to come. Craw County is a place populated by wild animals whose lives are disrupted by Earl’s return home. Like his father, who served as the county sheriff with his baseball bat of justice, Earl is a dangerous beast himself, and his aggression quickly makes him an enemy of Coach Boss, the local crime kingpin who coaches the state champion high school football team.
This first issue is split between haunting scenes of Earl cleaning out his father’s home and his first encounter with Coach Boss’ wrath when he heads into town for dinner. The two threads converge in the chapter’s final scene, a tense blend of brutality and melancholy that showcases Latour’s incredible understanding of using color to dictate mood and alter the rhythm of a page. (Rico Renzi, the colorist of Vertigo’s FBP, assists with colors, and they make a great team.) The main draw of this book is the ambiance, and Aaron lets Latour carry a lot of storytelling weight in his evocative visuals, which do particularly strong work detailing Earl’s relationship with his deceased father.
This is an environment where men reveal their emotions through actions rather than words, and Latour’s artwork captures all the subtext of silent scenes like Earl taking down his father’s framed pictures and chopping down the tree that has sprouted from the baseball bat buried with his father. Aaron places a lot of trust in his artist to build the history of this world and its characters, and that intense collaboration results in a book that showcases the best of what these two creators can do. [OS]
Wally Wood was pretty tough. The author bio page on this new collection of Wood’s Cannon (Fantagraphic) strip sees the author, cigarette dangling from mouth, grinning like a loon and holding a Thompson submachine gun. That should give readers an idea of what to expect: two-fisted tales from when men were men, women were usually naked, and foreigners were duplicitous and readily stereotyped. (Let’s see: Arab oil sheiks? Check. Buxom dragon ladies? Check. German neo-Nazis? Double check.)
Cannon is our hero, a square-jawed he-man never more than two pages away from hitting, shooting, or screwing someone at any time. It isn’t even worth the time to recap Cannon’s adventures. He travels the world putting out hotspots for Uncle Sam, wreaking mayhem wherever he goes. It’s also not worth the trouble to criticize the strips for being so crass. Cannon was originally serialized from 1970 to 1973 in Overseas Weekly, a tabloid-style magazine intended for American troops stationed across the globe. This goes a long way toward explaining the Vietnam-era racism and reflexive Red-baiting, as well as the fact that nearly every page showcases at least one set of humongous naked breasts. This is what your dad or your granddad read on the latrine while stationed in Da Nang, possibly even one-handed.
So why has such a stunted work been given the same lavish reissue treatment usually reserved for the likes of Frank King and Charles Schulz? Wally Wood drew it. If you’re willing to accept the fact that the stories are stupid and the politics are even stupider, it’s worth it to have the book on your shelf just for the chance to look at Wood’s art. The man couldn’t draw a bad line if his life depended on it. And while it is certainly tempting to see Wood’s later work in a tragic light—the circumstances of his suicide loom over everything produced in his final decade, along with his dissatisfaction at being unable to find a sufficiently remunerative and creatively satisfying outlet for his talent—it’s not necessary to bring such a tremendous weight to bear on a volume that is, ultimately, a trifle. It’s a memento of a certain charmingly lewd type of men’s adventure/cheesecake story drawn by one of the best cartoonists in the medium’s history. It may be your dad’s nostalgia, and it’s probably best to keep the book on the shelf when company comes over, but damned if it isn’t pretty. [TO]
Perhaps nostalgia isn’t quite the right word to use in describing Evan Dorkin’s return to serial comics with the newest issue of The Eltingville Club #1 (Dark Horse). Like Sickman-Garner, Dorkin has been long absent from comics shelves, and like Hey, Mister, this issue is proof that Dorkin is still quite funny. For those who came in late, or may have missed the one-off Eltingville pilot that still shows up on Adult Swim from time to time, the book follows the adventures of the titular club, four hopeless nerds drawn together by a shared sense of self-loathing and resentment of a world that refuses to acknowledge the value of Legion Of Super-Heroes trivia.
It’s not a pretty picture. Dorkin uses the book as an opportunity to hit every number on Nerd Bingo: “We don’t carry Manga. We carry comics.” “You know what alternative comics are an alternative to? Makin’ Money!” “Look, kid, girls don’t like comics.” Low-hanging fruit, yes, but still ripe after all these years. The problem isn’t that Dorkin’s targets aren’t completely deserving, but that these living stereotypes are still alive and shambling across the countryside in search of variant action figures to mark up.
There is nevertheless an element of nostalgia at work here—certainly not for the particulars of this kind of misogynistic, misanthropic, obsessive, and purely self-destructive fandom. That hasn’t gone anywhere. But there’s still a whole generation of comics readers who have grown up in the time since these stores were the only places to find comics; people can buy comics at the aforementioned Barnes & Noble, or Amazon, or any number of well-lit non-dungeon stores. But for those who grew up in this world, seeing it lampooned so definitively is akin to seeing your childhood home torn down: The walls are stuffed with asbestos, the carpet is stained, the wallpaper is peeling, and there are rat holes in all the cupboards, but dammit, we were tough back then. [TO]
DC readers rejoice! There’s finally a Justice League title with solid, old-fashioned superhero fun that doesn’t try to be dark and overly serious. Justice League United #0 (DC) is a traditional superhero-team origin story by writer Jeff Lemire, artist Mike McKone, and colorist Marcelo Maiolo, but traditional isn’t a bad thing if it’s well done. The catalyst for this newest Justice League team comes via Adam Strange, the dashing anthropologist who hasn’t yet discovered his space-faring destiny in the New 52, and he approaches Stargirl and Animal Man at a convention for help uncovering the mystery of his fiancée’s disappearance during a recent dig. They’re ambushed by aliens at the site and Green Arrow and Martian Manhunter appear to save the day, assembling the core of a team that will grow to include Supergirl, Hawkman, and a new Cree heroine named Equinox.
The opening flash-forward of the new Justice League United attacking an alien lab starts the issue off with a rush of energy, and the pairing of McKone and Maiolo keeps the momentum up with dynamic visuals that utilize a wide spectrum of colors. Maiolo has established himself as one of DC’s premier colorists with his inventive work on Green Arrow with artist Andrea Sorrentino, and he uses many of the skills he’s honed on that title in Justice League United. For scenes spotlighting nefarious alien dealings, Maiolo douses the art in an abrasive neon green, and for particularly impactful panels, he leaves McKone’s linework uncolored in the foreground and pairs it with a bright red background to highlight the importance of those individual events.
This is a bright, breezy book, both in terms of visuals and narrative, and even the creepier sequences like the introduction of new character Miyaahbin “Equinox” Martin manage to maintain a sense of wonder. That’s a quality that DC’s current stable of titles is largely lacking, and this series’ focus on exploring the cosmic corner of New 52 suggests that the creative team is committed to creating a thrilling superhero story that embraces the fantastic elements of a superhero universe rather than grounding it in the bleakness of reality. [OS]
Clive Barker is a reliable name when it comes to chilling tales about the universe’s dark forces, and Clive Barker’s Next Testament Vol. 1 (Boom) sees the horror visionary teaming with writer Mark Miller and artist Haemi Jang to tell a terrifying story about the return of the Old Testament God, who is considerably more insane and bloodthirsty than the deity presented by Christianity. This divine being goes by the name of Wick, The Father Of Colors, and he has a bright, rainbow-colored design by Jang that directly contrasts with his pitch black worldview, one that revels in death, destruction, and suffering.
Miller’s script smoothly juggles comedy and horror in Wick’s characterization; his carefree personality has a sick sense of humor that makes his horrific actions even more disturbing, and that dichotomy is present in Jang’s artwork, which reflects both aspects of the character via body language and facial expressions. Jang’s artwork is reminiscent of Mara and Quantum & Woody’s Ming Doyle in the way it balances realistic details with more spectacular flourishes, and her sharp linework lends a certain beauty to the gory, grotesque moments when Wick’s exhibits his massive power. This introductory volume collects the first four issues of the 12-part series that is still unfolding monthly, and the captivating story and lush artwork make a strong case for grabbing the single issues because waiting for the next collection isn’t going to be easy. [OS]
Matt Kindt can do some amazing world-building (see: his work on Mind MGMT, The A.V. Club’s best comic of 2013), but he tries to build too much in his script for Rai #1 (Valiant), an ambitious but overstuffed introduction to Japan’s cyborg protector in the 41st century. This book is packed with expository narration describing the history and social structure of the floating country, and while Kindt has clearly done a lot of work fleshing out the background of this series, character work is sidelined in the rush of information. Kindt is building a narrative about Rai assuming autonomy from Father, the A.I. that governs Japan with such total authority that a murder hasn’t been committed in 1,000 years, and this first issue would benefit from spending more time exploring that relationship and establishing the personal stakes for the title character.
The advantage of all that world-building is that it shows off Clayton Crain’s sharp skill for sci-fi designs with an Eastern influence, and Crain’s digital artwork lends an especially futuristic look to the story. The details can get a bit muddy at times, but there’s an impressive sense of scope to the visuals. There’s a lot of potential in Kindt and Crain doing superhero science fiction together, and now that the majority of the groundwork is out of the way, hopefully the plot will spend more time giving readers reasons to care about the characters populating this sprawling world. [OS]