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New releases include witzend, TW+TD, and Jim Starlin’s Thanos Annual

Also reviewed: Princess Ugg, Walt Before Skeezix, & Nobrow 9

Marvel has a Thanos problem, and it’s a problem of its own making.

The dimensions of the problem aren’t hard to discern. Thanos is and has been one of Marvel’s most popular villains for decades. He’s proven so enduring that it came as little surprise to see him teased at the end of the first Avengers movie two years back—if ever there was a villain made for the big screen, it’s Thanos. He will appear in this summer’s Guardians Of The Galaxy movie as well as, in some fashion, the next Avengers movie. (Chances are he will only appear in a minor role in Age Of Ultron—because, well, that’s Ultron’s movie—leaving the climactic end-of-trilogy, end-of-Robert Downey Jr.’s-contract slug-fest with Thanos for Avengers 3. At least, that is this writer’s best guess.)

After Thanos popped up in the post-credits scene in The Avengers, Marvel brought Thanos back in a big way, headlining last year’s generally lackluster Infinity crossover before ending up imprisoned in the Illuminati’s secret headquarters in New Avengers. So even though he’s currently frozen in a block of time-ice (or something along those lines), Thanos is once again a big player in the Marvel Universe. Time will tell whether he fits in to Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers endgame in “Time Runs Out,” but given Hickman’s mania for mathematical symmetry, fans wouldn’t want to bet against the possibility.   

All of which would be fine—the Movie Age of comics has been around long enough by now that this drill should be familiar. Whenever a character is teased or announced to appear in an upcoming movie, said character is returned to prominence and a raft of new projects are commissioned. The dog (now and forever the movie studio) wags the tail (the comic book publisher), and new Thanos stories appear in print like magic, just in time to be bundled and stacked on bookstore tables to coincide with motion-picture release dates. But again, it bears repeating: All of this would be fine if not for one particular fly in the ointment, a fly named Jim Starlin.

Of course, Starlin is no mere housefly. He is the man who single-handedly created Thanos, a character who first appeared in comics in 1973’s Iron Man #55. Notice the modifying term “in comics”: After Thanos made his film debut two years ago, Starlin promptly came forward with fairly persuasive evidence to the effect that (as had been asserted for years prior in interviews) Thanos had been conceived and designed by Starlin well before ever going to work for Marvel. “Fairly persuasive” is still relative in this situation, considering these are Disney’s lawyers, and legal precedent has not been kind to creators’ seeking ex post facto reparations for characters created many decades in the past. Regardless of moral or ethical rights asserted, the law has been very reluctant to overturn established copyright in most instances. Whatever the merits of Starlin’s case, it’s likely that any real legal action would be slow and not necessarily to the benefit of either party in the long run.

It is fruitless to speculate as to what may have happened between Marvel and Starlin following the release of the first Avengers film—it will probably never be known. But something evidently did happen, because it wasn’t long after the announcement of Thanos’ return in the pages of Infinity that it was announced that Starlin would also be making his return to Marvel, in the form of a forthcoming original graphic novel titled Thanos: The Infinity Revelation, which just so happens to be set for release the Tuesday after Guardians Of The Galaxy premieres in theaters. Funny how these things work out, isn’t it?    

The recent Thanos Annual (Marvel) is the lead-in to the graphic novel, a prelude to that story that also serves as a means for Starlin to reassert his dominance over his character. Ultimately this returns to the issue stated earlier: Marvel’s problem is at least partially of its own making. After all, Marvel has allowed Starlin to be Thanos’ primary writer for four decades now, to the point where he has even been allowed to retcon whichever non-Starlin appearances he deems unsatisfactory. (2002’s Infinity Abyss existed seemingly for the sole purpose of establishing that the Thanos who appeared in Ka-Zar and Thor in the late ’90s as well as the Avengers: Celestial Quest mini-series in the early 2000s was not the real Thanos, but instead a series of faulty clones.)

This annual, which also reunites Starlin with his capable (and missed) Silver Surfer and Infinity Gauntlet collaborator Ron Lim, serves a similar function by recapping much of Thanos’ history prior to the present moment—or rather, much of Thanos’ history as retold by Starlin, who is keen to leave out almost every trace of Thanos written by anyone other than himself. (The first Annihilation series is mentioned, but even that was written by Keith Giffen after having been given Starlin’s public blessing to use the character in 2004 after one of Starlin’s frequent falling-outs with Marvel.)

It is commonplace to compare Thanos to his obvious inspiration, Jack Kirby’s Darkseid. Even though Darkseid came first (a debt Starlin readily acknowledges), Thanos holds one great advantage in the sweepstakes: Jack Kirby only wrote a bare handful of Darkseid stories relative to the massive amount that have been told since 1971. Kirby’s sly and subtle Darkseid is now entirely effaced, long supplanted by the thunderously dumb video game boss of Geoff Johns’ Justice League. But Starlin’s Thanos is still here.

It’s amazing just how right Thanos sounds with Starlin’s words coming out of his mouth, and just how wrong most other writers’ appropriations seem in contrast. Hickman certainly couldn’t do it, casting Thanos as a preening space warlord à la DC’s Mongul—a carbon copy of Thanos and Darkseid created by Starlin himself (with Len Wein). The less said about Jason Aaron’s regrettable goth-tinged Thanos Rising miniseries the better. Though on first blush it’s a flashback trifle—intended to fill in a continuity hole from 1974, no less—it’s nonetheless essential reading for anyone who ever thought Thanos was one of the most fascinating and distinctive villains in comics. From the very first page it’s clear that this is the real Thanos; this is the real Thanos’ mordant interior dialogue, and the real Thanos’ wry sense of humor and dry wit, and the real Thanos’ endearingly juvenile self-obsession. He has all those subtle bits that go into making the character work, and which no one else ever seems to be able to grasp. Accept no substitutes. [TO]

Following the creation of the Comics Code Authority in 1954, censorship was the name of the game in American comic books. Publishers quickly began going under as they struggled to tell stories within the tight restrictions of the CCA, leaving Marvel and DC to become the superpowers of monthly comics thanks to their willingness to obey the rules. After working in the industry for over 20 years, the brilliant, highly insecure cartoonist Wally Wood had become intensely displeased with the editorial restraints placed on his work because of the CCA, and was desperate to find an outlet where he could let his creativity roam unchecked. That outlet was witzend (Fantagraphics), the anthology that helped birth the underground comics movement when its first issue hit stands in 1966.

Wood dreamed of a publication where established professionals and promising young talents could produce work without any editorial guidelines or interference, and while witzend didn’t provide much financial appeal, it allowed creators to keep their original work as well as the copyrights for their characters and concepts, which they had been regularly selling to publishers for a page rate. (See: the aforementioned situation with Jim Starlin, Thanos, and Marvel.) For artists like Al Williamson and Frank Frazetta, witzend was an opportunity to put unpublished past work to use, while alt-comic pioneers like Art Spiegelman and Roger Brand could explore their burgeoning potential while receiving validation from visionaries of the medium.

witzend was a huge stepping-stone to the current state of creator-owned comics, and it finally sees print in two hefty hardcover volumes that do phenomenal work reproducing the original content. The three introductory essays establish the environment these men worked in with extensive detail; editor Bill Pearson’s compilation of personal anecdotes reveals the human side of these creators, and Patrick Rosenkranz’s oral history shows a variety of different angles regarding the title’s creation and later development.

In terms of content, these issues include the first appearances of Wally Wood’s Animan, Gray Morrow’s Orion, and Steve Ditko’s Mr. A, who stars in some extremely wordy but fascinating objectivist adventures. There are also assorted works from creators like Harvey Kurtzman, Reed Crandell (who delivers an incredible portfolio of Edgar Rice Burroughs illustrations), Alex Toth, Jeff Jones, and young upstarts like Bernie Wrightson and Mick Zeck, who would go on to have healthy careers in mainstream comics. In these pages, readers will find comics, illustrations, prose, poetry, interviews, and—in a random issue devoted to the work of W.C. Fields—film criticism.

witzend is a time capsule from an essential period in history for both the United States and the comic book medium, showing how the seeds of change planted by the counterculture movement took root in art. The stories range in quality, but the heightened level of craft on display is undeniable, showing the endless possibilities of the form when creators are given complete creative freedom. The work of Wally Wood, Bill Pearson, and the rest of the witzend team made it possible for publishers like Fantagraphics to exist today, and collecting the anthology in this elegant package is a wonderful way of paying tribute to its legacy. [OS]

Silence is one of the handiest tools in graphic storytelling, forcing the reader to focus on imagery to absorb raw information that is more open to interpretation without the presence of text. Nobrow 9: It’s Oh So Quiet (Nobrow), the latest volume of Nobrow’s ongoing comics and illustration anthology, explores the idea of silence in one striking publication, spotlighting over 30 world-renowned artists working in a variety of media and styles.

One half of Nobrow 9 features two-page illustrations by creators like Paige Jiyoung Moon and Yukai Du, who explore silence as it relates to technology in domestic environments, and Ella Bailey, Sarah Jacoby, and Jun Cen, who use natural settings to reflect on different aspects of the central theme. Jay Cover, John Lisle, Ben Newman, and Raymond Lemstra are a few of the artists that take more abstract approaches, and the sheer range of talent involved makes this a great purchase for readers looking to expose themselves to creators with distinct points of view.

These comics and illustrations may be silent, but that doesn’t diminish their impact. It’s astonishing how much substance the comic artists pack into their four-page stories without the use of text: Jon McNaught’s untitled tale about one man buying a lawn ornament is brimming with melancholy; Mikkel Sommer’s “The Silent Visitor” details a twisted love triangle between an alien, a woman, and her golden retriever; and Will Morris’ “Clark Colvill” is a magical account of adultery told with retro flair.

Comics by Jamie Coe, Bianca Bagnarelli, Zosia Dzierżawska, and Kyla Vanderklugt look at how silence influences the lives of younger characters, capturing the unique qualities of different stages of youth through their idiosyncratic art styles. Some of the most exciting installments come from experimental creators like Jim Stoten—who creates a dizzying reading experience by employing a never-ending loop of shots zooming in to each other—and Edward Carvalho Monaghan, who closes out the comics half with his bizarre short about anthropomorphized doors, bottles, and bells. Like the illustration half, the main appeal of the comics section is the diversity on display, and the publisher’s regular output is just as varied as this anthology.

Nobrow has quickly become a leading publisher of high-quality illustrated publications and graphic novels, and Kellie Strøm’s Worse Things Happen At Sea (Nobrow) is a breathtaking example of Nobrow’s standard of excellence. Working with a technique that uses meticulous color separations in a manner similar to chromolithography, Strøm depicts an assortment of naval disasters in painstaking detail, creating a sprawling two-sided fold-out image that can be read like a traditional picture book or framed as a piece of fine art. This technique allows Strøm to create an amazing array of textures for the ships and the mythical creatures that destroy them, and the tiny lines provide a sense of fluid motion that is perfect for the aquatic setting. Taking over two years to create, Worse Things Happen At Sea is one of Nobrow’s finest examples of finding power in silence, presenting panel after panel of naval disasters that hit with overwhelming force thanks to Strøm’s artistic expertise. [OS]

It is very difficult to dislike Anouk Ricard’s Benson’s Cuckoos (Drawn & Quarterly), and not just for Ricard’s effortlessly adorable style. Ricard is a French cartoonist whose main output is the children’s book series Anna And Froga, also translated and published in the United States by D&Q. This, however, is not a children’s book. This is a workplace farce with a decidedly dark edge.

If “workplace farce” is well-trod territory in the year 2014, Ricard’s volume bears examination for the ways in which it deviates from that genre’s standards. Despite its setting, it still reads like a children’s book—meaning it adopts the slightly fuzzy dream-logic pacing of a child’s story, filled by breathless “and then, and then, and then” developments. Only in this case the “and thens” are less benign than banal, and by turns less banal than surreal. This is a good approximation of what life in a dysfunctional office actually is: one damn thing after another, each absurd anecdote coming one on top of the other at an exhausting clip, until it all adds up to a simmering mess.

The premise of Benson’s Cuckoos should be familiar to anyone with office experience. Richard (a hapless blue duck-man) is hired to fill a clerical position left suddenly and mysteriously vacant by the disappearance of George (an orange lion-man). No one in the office seems to be in his or her right mind, and many of them resent Richard for usurping George’s spot in the office hierarchy. (No one likes being the new guy or gal in the cubicle farm.) Office life is defined by humiliations and petty annoyances, and Ricard does a great job of portraying just how numbing this parade of grievances can be, and how much even the slightest break in stultifying routine can stand out in the procession of empty days.

The success of the book for each reader will ultimately depend on tolerance for surreal workplace comedy as performed by anthropomorphic animals. Fans of Jason and Tove Jansson (whose Moomins books are also published by D&Q) will find similar pleasures here. This is a beautifully designed volume—colorful, warm, and tactile like a children’s book—but the story within is deeply odd in a decidedly grown-up manner. [TO]

Magic, mythology, music, and celebrity are themes that Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie regularly explore in their collaborations, which often look at how contemporary culture has transformed the first two elements into the latter pair. In The Wicked + The Divine #1, pop stars are gods, and music is one of the ways they exert their mystical power: When 17-year-old Amaterasu plays a concert, she brings the audience to sexual climax before knocking them all unconscious, an experience described by narrator Laura as the “best gig ever.”

These gods are allowed to walk the earth for two years before they burn out and die, a clever way of interpreting the fleeting nature of stardom for young artists. The opening sequence shows the death of four of the 12 gods that came to Earth in the early 1920s, providing tidbits of exposition but primarily focusing on creating a chilling atmosphere through McKelvie and colorist Matt Wilson’s shadowy artwork. The somber staging and subdued palette of the prologue provide strong contrast points for the vibrant present-day sequences, which move at a brisk pace that captures the rush of entering a world of fame and magic.

Like Laura, the reader is dropped headfirst into a world of beautiful teenage gods that can make listeners orgasm with a song or blow up their heads with the snap of two fingers, and it’s a wild place to be. Gillen introduces some dense mythology in this issue (via one of the most conventional exposition devices: an interview), but he balances all the background information with action and staged spectacle. Gillen has a keen talent for depicting the visceral impact of watching an incredible live performance, and the art team makes Amaterasu’s concert an ethereal, transcendent experience, largely through Wilson’s brilliant color palette. 

McKelvie and Wilson have been working together for years, and their partnership only becomes stronger with each new project. McKelvie’s design sense remains impeccable, and he’s putting more focus on facial expressions and body language to realize his characters more fully. As McKelvie refines his linework, Wilson becomes increasingly varied in his coloring, using a more figurative palette to make key moments stand out. Combined with the art team’s striking close-up cover head shots, Hannah Donovan’s bold design makes this first issue pop on the stands, and the interior contents hold the reader’s attention by introducing a rich alternate universe realized with style and swagger. [OS]

Gasoline Alley wasn’t born one of the most important comic strips of all time; it arrived at that position gradually. The strip—or rather, the panel—began modestly on November 24, 1918, as a corner of the Chicago Tribune’s black-and-white Sunday page. What strikes the reader first on encountering these earliest panels is not how alien they appear, but how strangely familiar. From the very first, Gasoline Alley was a strip about cars, and it is remarkable how little gearheads have changed in the intervening 100 years. The premiere panel, entitled “Doc’s Car Won’t Start,” shows a crowd gathered around the titular Doc’s automobile, every onlooker offering suggestions and free advice (of dubious quality), and complaining about Doc’s inability to maintain his car correctly: “It’s all in the carburetor [sic], Doc. I’ll fix it for you next Sunday. I’ve always wanted to take one of ’em apart.” Switch out the slang and conversations along these lines could be heard at garages across the country today. 

But Gasoline Alley was not destined to remain a strip solely about cars. The latest volume in Drawn & Quarterly’s Gasoline Alley reprint series—Walt Before Skeezix—offers, chronologically, the very first Gasoline Alley strips, taken from the two years before the introduction of the aforementioned Skeezix (hence the book’s designation as “Volume 0”). But even before Skeezix, this volume reveals Frank King as an ambitious cartoonist eager to burst beyond the limitations of a weekly single-panel car strip. The action soon expands past the boundaries of the garage, following a swelling cast of townsfolk all still loosely moored by their connection to Walt Wallet’s auto shop but each gaining increased autonomy within the ongoing storyline as King becomes more and more confident with his own abilities. 

In light of these strips, the arrival of Skeezix in February of 1921 appears almost inevitable: Walt Wallet finds an abandoned infant on his front porch and adopts him, and from that moment on the characters in Gasoline Alley age more or less in real time. What began as a simple joke panel about automobile repairs transformed into a generational saga filled with love affairs, marriages, and world wars. (Gasoline Alley is still produced to this day, and Walt Wallet is still alive at an improbable 114 as of this writing.)

King’s style is apparent almost from the very beginning, with curved lines wrapped around doughy figures to convey woodcut-like dimensionality on the printed page. D&Q offers its usual stellar job with this reprint volume, offering the reader copiously detailed endnotes and appendices on top of a selection of King’s juvenilia and an excellent introduction by Jeet Heer. While this book won’t necessarily find a place on every comic reader’s shelf, those who seek it out will find a heretofore hidden repository of the medium’s history. Even unfamiliar readers could do worse than to order this from their local library. [TO]

Dan Didio and Keith Giffen’s Jack Kirby pastiche O.M.A.C. was one of the big surprises of the New 52 launch titles, capturing the wild energy of Kirby’s work in a quickly paced story with bright, exaggerated artwork. It was stylistically unique in that first crop of books, which made its cancellation after only eight issues especially disheartening. If a fun, off-kilter title written by DC’s co-publisher could only run for eight issues, what hope do other fun, off-kilter titles have at DC? Infinity Man And The Forever People #1 (DC) sees Didio reteaming with Giffen to tackle yet another Kirby property, and while it’s not quite as gripping as their previous endeavor, it has enough retro charm to make it a worthwhile read.

Like O.M.A.C., the main attraction is Giffen’s artwork, channeling The King with wide-scale spectacle and exaggerated expression. This issue spends most of its page count setting up the concept—a group of young New Gods relocate to Earth to fight the forces of evil while living in an apartment complex on Venice Beach—so there’s lots of exposition and not much action, but it’s all presented with a visual vigor that keeps the momentum moving forward. In a delightfully reverent development, one of the supporting characters is a “communal reconstruction bio engine” by the name of Kirby, an artificial intelligence that transforms their Melrose Place apartment complex into a sci-fi environment full of Jack Kirby’s impossible architecture.

Didio’s characterizations are as exaggerated as the artwork, and while the cast and their relationships don’t ring especially true to life, forcing those personalities in the first issue establishes the attitude of each character and how their individual perspectives gel together. O.M.A.C. had the benefit of a small cast that allowed Didio to keep the story focused on Kevin Kho’s personal relationships, and hopefully he’ll bring more specificity to the character dynamics in future issues. 

Because of unforeseen personal circumstances and his commitment to the weekly Futures End miniseries, Keith Giffen won’t be contributing art for the next two issues, which will be drawn instead by Tom Grummett and Jim Starlin. Those are two strong choices for a book that demands a more traditional art style, but artistic inconsistency is one of the warning signs that a book is on rough footing. This first issue shows a lot of promise, but Infinity Man And The Forever People is going to need to win an uphill battle to survive. [OS]

Ted Naifeh is one of the reigning masters of all-ages comics, regularly producing captivating, visually rich stories starring young female characters discovering the mystical fantasies and harsh realities of their ever-expanding worlds. Naifeh has tackled gothic horror and swashbuckling adventure in his exceptional Courtney Crumrin and Polly And The Pirates series, respectively, revealing a talent for bringing maturity and atmosphere to stories that resonate emotionally with younger readers. His latest project is his most kid-friendly yet; a full-color ongoing series following a young, rough-and-tumble barbarian princess who enrolls in an academy that specializes in traditional feminine values.

It’s a concept that works especially well with Naifeh’s antiestablishment attitude, giving him the opportunity to comment on stereotypes while stretching his artistic capabilities by creating an expansive fantasy environment filled with distinct characters. Princess Ugg #1-#2 (Oni) are a remarkable introduction to this world. The first issue sets the groundwork for the series by highlighting Princess Ülga’s background, her relationship with her parents, and her feisty personality, while the second chapter delves into the book’s supporting cast to emphasize Ülga’s “fish out of water” status at Atraesca’s Princess Academy. Ülga is a multi-faceted heroine that challenges the typical idea of a princess with her gruff personality and exaggerated musculature—yet underneath that rock-hard exterior is a vulnerable girl learning what loneliness is for the first time.

Featuring exquisite colors and letters by Warren Wucinich (his watercolors are especially beautiful), Princess Ugg is Naifeh’s most attractive book yet. The battle scenes in the opening sequence move with wonderful energy, and there’s no shortage of spectacle in his detailed depictions of snowy mountaintops and crowded city streets. The character designs play a big part in separating Ülga from her hyper-feminine schoolmates, and a (very tasteful) shower scene in the second issue shows just how much attention Naifeh has devoted to making his lead character stand out physically. New artwork by Naifeh is incentive enough to seek out Princess Ugg, but the story provides plenty of reasons to keep readers of all ages coming back for more. [OS]