Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Comics Panel, August 3, 2007

The success of Fantagraphics' Complete Peanuts books have opened the door for further releases of archival Charles Schulz material, like the oddly wonderful Schulz's Youth (About Comics), a collection of one-panel cartoons Schulz drew for The Church Of God's Youth magazine early in his career. The gags are about 20 percent "teenagers are funny," and about 80 percent church jokes, but the latter makes this book something special—not because those cartoons are hilarious, but because they capture the friendly face of evangelism in late-'50s America, from the Bible camps to the building committees. Next: Someone please collect the hard-to-find Peanuts comic books… A-

The first issue of Ted May's Injury (Buenaventura) contains a few too many primitivist genre exercises, full of drawn-out fight scenes that are half-ironic. But the issue also contains one terrific story, "Panama Red," co-written with Jeff Wilson. It's a funny, painfully true memoir of a teenage metal-head showing off his newly bought joint to everyone at school—until the inevitable trip to the principal's office. May's blocky drawing style is detailed enough to get the clothes, hairstyles, and décor of early-'80s high school exactly right, and whimsical enough to take a trip inside Wilson's "mind mirror," where he imagines himself in a cloud of pot smoke, jamming to Venom… B-


DC's Minx line continues to come on strong with Derek Kirk Kim's Good As Lily, which is impressive for two major reasons: the way it takes its time introducing its characters before the big plot kicks in, and the quality of that plot. Protagonist Grace Kwon suddenly winds up saddled with three different versions of herself at various ages, from a greedy, grabby 6-year-old Grace to a crotchety 70-year-old version addicted to cigarettes and Antiques Roadshow. Kim uses that attention-grabbing conceit to tell a fairly complex little story about the things people want in life, how they change, and all the little key points where a life can start unraveling… A

The Simpsons' line of comics has never been as brilliantly subversive as the series at its best, but they've always been reliably entertaining, just a notch above the Archie/Casper school of cartoon sitcoms. The Simpsons Summer Shindig #1 (Bongo) is no exception, spending most of its 48 pages on a well-plotted but innocuous story about Bart trying to have fun at a fair with no money. In typical Simpsons fashion, penciler Phil Ortiz fills the panels with characters and jokes, like these signs on the Midway: "Prefried Refried Pork Niblets, Now With 30% More Bread!" and "World's Best Freak Show, $500 Paid If Exhibits Not 100% Alive!"… B

Nothing the Bongo Comics brain-trust has produced matches the snap of Matt Groening's own work, especially the new Life In Hell collection Will And Abe's Guide To The Universe (Harper), which compiles all the 1991-2003 strips starring Groening's two sons. Longtime Life In Hell fans came to look forward to the Will And Abe strips in the '90s, because they pulled Groening away from the punky cynicism that had become a little unseemly for a multi-millionaire, and instead showed his simple awe at the endless imagination of his kids: two bright-eyed boys soaking up the violence and nonstop sensation of pop culture. (Will on Star Wars: "If you go, beware of people clapping a lot, and beware of people dressed like Star Wars." Abe: "One thing why it is good is it had a lot of shooting and a lot of exploding and I liked it! One violent thing is that a lot of people die and I don't think mothers would like it.") In the introduction, Groening calls the book "a gift" to his kids, so they'll be able to remember how they used to be. It's a gift to the rest of us too… A

Earlier this year, First Second published the graphic novel Garage Band, written and illustrated by mononymic Italian artist Gipi; the story of a bunch of aimless musician kids was itself fairly aimless, and it felt like one of the fledgling imprint's first wrong steps. But the company redeems itself with Gipi's Notes For A War Story, which features a very similar set of aimless kids, and recontextualizes them as they try to find their footing in an unnamed, war-dented Balkan country. Gipi's washed-out watercolors and sharp-lined faces put the emphasis on expressions and reactions, as three old friends try to climb the criminal ladder and make something out of themselves, with one taking the whole affair as a deadly serious way of proving himself, and the other two enjoying what feels like a profitable lark. The final page is a brilliant twist that adds punch as well as artfulness to what was initially a naturalistic slice-of-life story. Either way, it's a mesmerizing book… A

Oh, Mike Carey, have you finally hit your limit? The prolific, talented writer of Crossing Midnight, Re-Gifters, the upcoming Confessions Of A Blabbermouth, X-Men, various Marvel Ultimate titles, and a lot more seems to be making a rare misstep with issue one of Faker, the first of a six-issue limited series for Vertigo. That first issue has some interesting things going for it, namely a plotline about Jessie, a university student who seduces her teachers, then blackmails them with vials of their own semen. But by the end of the issue, it still isn't really apparent what the plot is, or why readers should tune in for the next issue. To figure out what Jessie's dream about swimming in yellow vomit means, maybe? To solve some of the minor mysteries floating throughout? To see more of Jock's weirdly angular art? Carey's certainly earned the  benefit of the doubt by now, but it's surprising to walk away from one of his titles not jonesing for more… C+

Last year, Ivan Brunetti released the long-gestating fourth issue of his comic series Schizo, and the tabloid-sized collection of one-pagers marked a real step forward for his art and for comics in general. For a reminder of just how much Brunetti has grown, Fantagraphics has collected the first three issues of Schizo, plus some scattered Brunetti strips, in the hardback book Misery Loves Comedy. The earliest autobiographical stories and gag cartoons here are a throwback to the self-hating scatology of the early-'90s undergrounds, only taken to an extreme that's often more shrill than funny. But by the end of Misery Loves Comedy, Brunetti has begun to experiment with style in productive ways, combining the exaggerated forms and rounded edges of daily newspaper strips with the layering effects of modern art. And the targets of his ire have become more focused, too. He still hates humanity, but he hates us in very specific ways… B+


The idea behind Postcards: True Stories That Never Happened (Villard) is fairly winning: editor Jason Rodriguez handed a bunch of old antique-store postcards to a series of writers and editors and had them build stories around the cryptic, quaint old messages their original senders scribbled on them. But in practice, the stories are too brief to really flesh out the characters in any detail, and few of the artist's brief imaginative flexes do anything really surprising with the postcards; they tend to illustrate them rather than illuminate them… C

Similarly, while Frank Miller's one-shot Martha Washington Dies (Dark Horse) is an interesting idea, it turns out to be pretty damn literal. After a life of exhausting heroism in the Martha Washington books (from the dense, truly excellent, Miller-in-classic-form Give Me Liberty on through increasingly diminished returns in other one-shot issues and series), Martha is an old, raddled lady with generations of successors ready to take up her warrior mantle. In this comic, she, um, sits around with a bunch of people, gives a speech about dust, dark matter, and the universe, and then dies. And then is, um, assumed into heaven in a burst of blue light. Dave Gibbons illustrates this odd twaddle with big two-page spreads and more beautiful art than it really deserves… C-


Of course, as Dark Horse ends one series, it begins a new one. The first issue of Arvid Nelson's post-apocalyptic series Zero Killer suggests something as complicated and personality-driven as Give Me Liberty in its prime. It takes place in a world where 90 percent of the human population was wiped out in a 1973 nuclear war; now, in 2007, survivors have built their own new society in the wreckage of New York City. It feels a bit like a Miller title, right down to the topless, lingerie-clad villainette with the strategically placed nipple-covering hair, but Matt Camp's finely detailed art and Nelson's ear for simple, punchy dialogue and characterization make for solid hooks. Bring on issue number two… B+

Drew Friedman's stippled, photo-realistic, grotesquely exaggerated celebrity portraits have become familiar to anyone who regularly reads general-interest magazines, but there was a time when Friedman regularly turned his Hollywood fetishism into wickedly funny comics stories and one-panel cartoons, published in the likes of Raw and Spy. The Fun Never Stops: An Anthology Of Comic Art 1991-2006 (Fantagraphics) assembles Friedman's spot illustrations and strips, adding a lengthy introduction for further context. Taken all together, The Fun Never Stops makes for a delirious roundup of American entertainment and politics at the end of the 20th century. Friedman distorts the images we've grown comfortable with, skewering the way we've let addicts and half-wits become our national idols… A-


With the second season of Who Wants To Be A Superhero? now airing on the SCI FI Channel, the show's producers are probably legally obligated to complete last year's competition by giving the winner, "Feedback," the rest of his prize: his own Dark Horse comic, written by Stan Lee. Surprisingly, that comic is kind of okay. It has a '70s-style superhero earthiness—some of it provided by the real "Feedback," who on the show talked about overcoming the death of his father by plunging into comic books—and uncluttered, dynamic art by Will Conrad. If this were 30 years ago, Who Wants To Be A Superhero? might even be worth a second issue. But in 2007, one's enough. B-