Highly Recommended: The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard

July 30, 2008

There will not be a more inventive or funnier comic book released in calendar year 2008 than The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard by Eddie Campbell and Dan Best, published by First Second. And by “calendar year 2008,” of course, I mean, “The 21st Century.”

Holy hell, Eddie Campbell still has the ability to surprise me, and does so on almost every page here, defying my expectations for this work and making me laugh out loud quite a few times.

Monsieur Leotard is a fraud, first and foremost, but a most sincere and earnest one, who is bade farewell by his dying uncle’s last, unfinished wish, “May nothing occur — ” which fails to come true again and again in the most astonishing, breathtaking manner over the book’s 128 pages. Campbell, who writes and draws, and Best, who wrote some too, demonstrate that a deep literacy and love of language and history can stand side by side on the page with a boundless sense of humour, willing to make any joke, no matter how silly or profane, as long as it is funny. Take, for example, the saga of the bearded pirate, which winds its way through the story and ultimately — well, that would spoil it for you. Instead, contemplate the brilliant cameo appearance from one of Campbell’s most noted co-creations, as Monsieur Leotard crosses over Crisis-style with — no, dammit, I won’t spoil that either.

If you love great comics of almost any genre — and The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard sits comfortably within most of them — you will love this book. You will love rediscovering the joy of a wild adventure comic that you can’t stop reading. You will love laughing at each inevitable change of fortune that makes Leotard’s life so amazing, so remarkable. If you’ve ever loved any Eddie Campbell work, from the Alec stories to From Hell and everything else he’s done, you will love once again letting Eddie (and Dan Best) take hold of your consciousness and imagination and turn them inside out and upside down on the wildest ride you’ll find in comics this year, and very probably this century.

 

Advertisements

Waiting for the Trade

July 30, 2008
The cartoonist Frank Santoro — whose Cold Heat comic book series suspended publication after four issues due to low sales, and will see completion as a full-length graphic novel incorporating the four issues plus the rest of the material that would have seen print in future issues — says the fact that people are “waiting for the trade” to experience Gilbert Hernandez’s Speak of the Devil is “the bummer of this post-comics pamphlet era for alt and art comics,” and indicates he may have more to say on the matter.I’ve already asked my retailer to order a copy of the collected Speak of the Devil, eschewing its single-issue format, because I know that works by Los Bros Hernandez work best for me in collected form; but that’s not to say Santoro is wrong, at all. I can, and do, totally dig his description of the thrill of the new, single-issue release of a series you love, which is why I am linking to his comments. And a few years ago, I would have been waiting for the single issues right along with him. In fact, I was doing just that with Cold Heat, the unfinished four issues of which sit in the “Santoro” section of my comics shortboxes like an open wound. Damn you, comics marketplace. Damn you, more attractive and durable collected graphic novel format. Damn you!

I kid; Santoro is not wrong. But neither am I for waiting for the trade on Speak of the Devil. I don’t want to buy it twice, and a collected version was never in doubt. But in the market as it exists now, publishers should not commit to the single-issue format if they do not already have the resources and wherewithal to see through the single issue-run to its completion whether the single issues sell or not. I’m looking forward to the graphic novel version of Cold Heat, but those four orphans in my collection are an indicator of a real problem that needs to be solved by publishers. They, too, need to decide if the single-issue format is viable for them before ever releasing a single issue, or if it’s in their best interest to “wait for the trade.”

In the case of Cold Heat, the truth speaks for itself, sadly. The series read very, very well to me in single issues, once I read a few and got a feel for what creators BJ and Santoro were up to; but publisher Picturebox needed to be prepared for the indifferent reaction the series got from the marketplace (both readers and retailers), and needed to be prepared to ride that out and take the hit once they’d committed to single issues; clearly they were unprepared for the reality of the current market. How is Dark Horse and Speak of the Devil different? Clearly it is, although I expect to love Speak of the Devil as much as I love any other Gilbert Hernandez work (and I do love most of them), or as much as I loved the four issues of Cold Heat. It’s a fascinating, and utterly unresolved dilemma.

But ultimately, starting a series in single issues is like opening a restaurant; you have a responsibility as a professional to be prepared to take massive losses until word of mouth reaches critical mass and you can expect to start, eventually, turning a profit. In the case of Dark Horse, I’d guess — and it’s just a guess — that they have the capital shored up to withstand a financial loss on the single issues, and they believe in Gilbert Hernanderz’s saleability enough in the collected, graphic novel format to be willing to wait to make most of their money on Speak of the Devil once it is all under one cover and being sold to bookstores and libraries.

And people like me, waiting for the trade. On Speak of the Devil willingly and consciously, and on Cold Heat, against my will and entirely due to the realities of the marketplace and Picturebox’s failure to properly gauge the sales potential of single issues of the series. As I have often said, one of the stark realities of any commercial enterprise — and artcomix are that, oftentimes, and obviously in the case of Cold Heat — just because you build it, they will not come. There’s more you have to do, if you expect to sell your non-superhero single issues through Diamond’s almost-entirely superhero-obsessed network of stores. You must be patient. You must have capital shored up to protect against market indifference. You must be prepared to see your project through. Dark Horse was; Picturebox was not. As a critic, and as a reader, I have more at stake in the totality of Picturebox’s line of books than I do Dark Horse’s; Cold Heat represents the average, excellent Picturebox title; Speak of the Devil is something of an anomaly among Dark Horse’s line of middlebrow, licensed titles with a somewhat built-in expectation of financial success (being that Dark Horse has a favoured position in Diamond’s Previews catalog that Picturebox is unlikely to share in any universe that I can conceive of).

I was willing to support Cold Heat in single issues, because it’s the format it obviously was built for from the very beginning. I preferred to wait for the trade on Speak of the Devil because I knew Dark Horse would collect it as a graphic novel. I would still have ordered the eventual Cold Heat collected edition, no question. But that’s down to the fact that Santoro as an artist resides in a higher plane for me as a reader and a critic than Gilbert Hernandez does; I crave his work in all its iterations in which I can find it. I loved the hardcover Storeyville but would buy the newspaper-format edition from a decade ago in a heartbeat if I came across it in a comic book store. Hell, I would likely buy multiple copies. And yet I passed up Speak of the Devil every time I saw it on the stands in a comic book store. And, be aware, I do hold Gilbert Hernandez’s work in high, high regard as an entity unto itself; I possess many of his stories three or four times over (“Poison River” being one example).

I have no conclusion here, and I apologize if it seemed I was leading up to one. Santoro’s comments fascinated me and I urge you to click through to the link above and read what he has to say. I hope he finishes his thoughts on “waiting for the trade,” because as a consumer of comics I am imperfect in my philosophy toward this issue, and I know it. I need more information. I need more good comic book stores that support projects I want without me having to advocate for them to the owner every single time. And I need more good comics like Cold Heat and Speak of the Devil.

Published Monday, July 28, 2008 8:49 AM by alandaviddoane  

Femme Noir: Great Crime Comics

July 30, 2008
I was about 2/3rds of the way through Femme Noir: The Dark City Diaries #1 when I realized I was having the same kind of fun I have when I read a new issue of Brubaker and Phillips’s Criminal. That’s entirely because of the creative team. Writer Christopher Mills, whose Gravedigger a few years back also grabbed me with its hard-boiled noir stylings, is here paired with Joe Staton, who is at the very top of his game in depicting the Eisnerian rain-soaked streets of Port Nocturne, home to the mysterious and vengeful Femme Noir. This first issue involves the question of who, exactly, the blond crimefighter actually is, and if I again invoke Eisner and The Spirit, it’s only in the very best sense. Femme Noir herself could be any one of three suspects, each one given a powerful origin story while moving the plot along nicely. Like Eisner, Mills and Staton create a completely believable environment as a backdrop for their sometimes dark, sometimes pulpy morality plays. The rain is a brutal, oppressive force of nature that hammers down on the guilty and the innocent alike, never playing favourites, soaking the city in a palpably wet and unforgiving atmosphere.

Joe Staton has been a favourite artist of mine since I first saw his work in E-Man in the mid-1970s. If you only know him from work for DC like Scooby Doo, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the dramatic staging and level of detail he brings to Femme Noir, with help from inker Horacio Ottolini. From the inner chambers of a gangster’s mansion to a filthy warehouse populated by card-playing hoods, Staton brings Mills’s story vividly to life, and colourist Melissa Kaercher gets the muted palette just exactly right — not the murky browns and grays so much comic art is swallowed whole by these days, but a sensitive and thoughtful application of downbeat colours that are effectively offset by highlights in the rain, or the eerie green glow of a lunatic scientist’s “super-science invention right out of a dime pulp magazine.” I knew Staton had this sort of work in him — parts of E-Man were incredibly dark for the time and the intended audience, but it’s great to see him working in this style again. He hasn’t lost a thing, and in fact his style seems more bold and confident than ever, the very opposite of photo-realistic, but altogether thrilling to immerse yourself in as a reader.

I can’t tell you how many comics I’ve read in the past ten years that have tried and failed to achieve the sort of storytelling and atmosphere that Femme Noir gets just right. It’s about as good as crime comics get these days, fine competition for my other favourite crime comic Criminal, with the added bonus that its tone and style are completely different. The Spirit may provide a bit of the inspiration for this series, but Mills and Staton take that inspiration and make something both new and familiar, something gorgeous to look at and wildly entertaining to read.

— 

More information is available at the Femme Noir website.

 

The Dark Nihilist: The Brilliance of Heath Ledger and The Failure of The Dark Knight

July 22, 2008
The Dark Nihilist — The new Batman movie The Dark Knight works on a number of levels — as a superheroHello, America. movie, it makes almost all that came before, from Superman to X-Men and everything else, including its own predecessor, Batman Begins, seem hopelessly juvenile. As filmed adventure/fantasy fiction, it is as compelling and ambitious as some of the better superhero(y) movies of the past few decades, including The Matrix and Dark City. Unlike most cape-based films, it works as a movie, with an epic scope and fantastic sequences firmly, even boldlybelievableThe Silence of the Lambs or Dexter on Dexter, or Vic Mackey on The Shield. They’re mad, they’re murderous, they’re the life of the party with lampshade-on-head and razor blade in hand. grounded by its attention to character and genuinely first-rate acting by Morgan Freeman, Christian Bale, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Aaron Eckhart and especially, the very heart of the movie, Heath Ledger as the first, full-on Joker, a thing never before seen on film, and rarely seen in the comics. You want to spend time with this Joker the way you wanted to spend time with Hannibal in

And because of Ledger’s fully-committed, fearless willingness to explore the both the depths of nihilism and the heights of anarchy, the movie works as a nuanced and powerful commentary on the state of our world right now. Make no mistake about it, Ledger’s Joker is both living terror and living terrorism, the manic, horrific spirit of the 9/11 bombers skull-fucking Hannibal Lecter in hell after their 72 virgins failed to show up as expected. The Dark Knight‘s Joker may very well have infected Ledger’s soul and driven him to an early end; as “The War on Terror” has shown America the gaping hole at the center of its vapid, self-destructive militaristic-consumerist ideals, so too does Ledger’s cheap, terrible and unknowable clown drive his enemies — Batman and all of Gotham’s would-be knights, from Jim Gordon and the tragic Harvey Dent to the very everyman on the street (in a marvelously constructed sequence involving game theory set on two boats, one filled with “good people,” the other filled with hardcore criminals) to the very edge of their own personal ethics and beyond. “Any Gotham resident who sacrifices freedom for personal safety,” it might be said “deserves The Joker.”

Yes, more than anything, The Dark Knight speaks directly, violently to our post-9/11 world of paranoia and sacrificed liberties. Morgan Freeman’s Lucius Fox is every compromised American as he lets Bruce Wayne convince him to invade the privacy of literally every citizen in Gotham in his fevered zeal to bring down his enemy. Sure, Bruce Wayne means well when he abuses and misuses the technology at his disposal to battle the terror that is waging war against him; the Bush administration claims it means well, too, when it engages in illegal wiretaps and surveillance of a compliant and complicit populace. Batman means well when he tortures The Joker for information; he’s trying to save the love of his life, freedom and the safety of us all. See also Jack Bauer. See also, America. What’s left of it.

Heath Ledger goes dark like Chris Carter’s Millennium or Trent Reznor’s The Downward Spiral went dark. Down deep, shuffling and giggling and picking scabs and demanding all in his quest for nothing, for nihilism, for lost hope and bad jokes and shaggy dog stories by way of Dog Day Afternoon; call it Shaggy Dog Day Afternoon and there you have The Dark Knight. Watch it and you’ll see what I mean.

The movie is about heroism like Bush’s war is about righteousness; the fact is, both are about arrogance and mindless violence pretending to be about greed and torture and terror. Ultimately The Dark Knight is only about the black, empty hole inside Heath Ledger’s Joker like The War on Terror is only about the black, empty hole inside George W. Bush and his fellow war criminals. And that is why the movie, and the war, fail on an epic level.

Both are filled with murder and mayhem and good guys and bad guys and supposed good guys who act bad and very, very bad guys who suppose they are good. The failure of Bush’s war is obvious and needs no explanation; it has literally destroyed the US and Iraq and thus is a perfect storm of nihilism disguised as imperialistic idealism. The movie’s failure is less distinct and comes, actually, very late in the proceedings. At the exact moment Batman leaves The Joker hanging instead of cutting his throat and letting him die, the movie betrays itself and its own dedication to exploring the darkest holes we all contain. The Silence of the Lambs was an artistic success because Hannibal not only got away at the end, but got away and obviously was going to eat his own nemesis, Dr. Chilton, for dinner. Think back to the glee you took as the camera pulled back to show Chilton being followed into a crowd by Hannibal, breezy and as determined as a lion stalking his prey, his bloody, frenzied victory never in doubt.

No wonder Ledger couldn’t live with what he had created; obviously neither could Warner Bros., Christopher Nolan or the people who go to see this movie. The truth of it is too much to live with, and so Batman lets the Joker live and it all falls apart. It’s a marvelous, invigorating ride to the very end, but in failing to succumb to the fact that all we’ve seen leads only to one, dead-end conclusion and yet does not, the movie ultimately falls flat and fails to embrace its own themes and fails to answer truthfully the questions it asks. The prisoners on one boat and the innocent on the other prove the value of humanity in their final choices, and the end of The Dark Knight by all rights and very obviously should have proved and justified the death wish of Ledger’s Joker by allowing Batman to take his revenge and murder the clown; it would have been fitting revenge for the death of Rachel Dawes; it would have guaranteed a safer Gotham City; it would have shown Batman his true face and his true purpose. The Joker would have found it the funniest joke of all, but because Nolan and Batman screw up the punchline, The Dark Knight fails to be the pinnacle of art being true to itself and its own inner logic.

It’s a wild and imminently watchable ride. I just wish it had the courage of its convictions.

by alandaviddoane

Thunderbolts by Warren Ellis Vol. 1: Faith in Monsters

July 22, 2008
I wonder if Marvel was thinking of Warren Ellis’s Stormwatch when they chose him to write this particular incarnation of Thunderbolts? The set-up of a group of somewhat unhinged loners trying to cohere together as a team reminds me of Ellis’s work on that title for Wildstorm, back when it was still part of Image Comics. Of course, the idiosyncratic members of Stormwatch were mostly well-intentioned, while the new Thunderbolts, formed in the wake of the Civil War, are mostly serial killers and lunatics. One of the prime movers that contributed to my Fan-Fiction Age of Superhero Comics Theory was the revival of Norman Osborn; he was brought back, believe it or not, as a fix to Spider-Man continuity and as an end to the Spider-Man Clone Saga, a story that threatened to consume the entirety of the 1990s. You see, I saw Norman Osborn die, and to me he’ll always be dead, like Uncle Ben and Batman’s parents are dead — but I have to admit that Ellis’s Osborn, given a second chance by America’s alcoholic war-criminal President (perfect!) and drawn by Mike Deodato to look exactly like Tommy Lee Jones, is something of a guilty pleasure, and probably the most entertaining thing overall about this volume.

The least entertaining is the amount of previous continuity you need to fully understand what’s happening. If you haven’t read any previous Thunderbolts series, or Civil War, you may feel a little lost. Ellis wastes not a lot of time with the whys and wherefores, but rather just drops us right into Osborn putting his team together and sending them out to wreak havoc. A lot.

The nihilism inherent in characters like Venom, Bullseye and Penance (formerly Speedball) is offset to a degree by the humanity Ellis infuses in the unregistered, rogue superheroes the Thunderbolts are assigned to hunt down. Third-rate also-rans like Jack Flag, The Steel Spider and American Eagle are given enough time and and space to lend a real sense of the injustice, inhumanity and obscenity that is Norman Osborn’s Thunderbolts unleashed. I don’t know if any or all of the superheroes Ellis and Deodato call up to fight off the Thunderbolts ever even appeared in print before; they have the same patina of believability you’d find in the iconic characters created by Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson in Astro City, and that’s vital in making these stories more than just an excuse for Venom and Bullseye to murder and maul people.

Actual Thunderbolts like Songbird, who was on the team pre-Osborn (and pre-Ellis), try to temper the damage wrought by her new and horrific teammates, and the effort comes off as noble, but the issues reprinted in this collection (#110-115, plus a bunch of crap at the end that you can skip, which Marvel acknowledges by shoving it all in the back of the book even though it takes place before and during the events of #110-115) represent only the first part of Ellis and Deodato’s run on the series, so no one will be surprised to learn that by the end of the book (the good part of the book, that is to say — the stuff from #110-115) much remains up in the air and Songbird’s efforts remain, so far, mostly ineffectual.

I was entertained enough by Faith in Monsters (again, excepting the naff filler after Ellis and Deodato’s stories, which the book would be far stronger without) that I will read the rest of Ellis and Deodato’s run as it’s released in collected form; since Ellis’s last issue is #121, I assume that means Vol. 2, to be released later this year, will wrap up the run, collecting #116-121.

Thunderbolts is far from Ellis’s very best work, but he clearly takes joy in letting his version of Norman Osborn out to play, the result being something like if Stormwatch‘s Henry Bendix had always obviously been off his rocker, and it is fun to read.

Deodato brings little to the proceedings other than a workmanlike professionalism, a photo-realistic style that evokes what you might get from a disinterested Alex Ross working in ink instead of paint. He tells the story and doesn’t get in the way at all, but there’s little of interest for readers who like some art with personality and spark in their superhero comic books. Towards the end of the issues reprinted here, Deodato seems to introduce a bit of an impressionistic Gene Colan approach, which adds some energy, but the real appeal of this volume is watching Warren Ellis play with a group of, as noted above, mostly serial killers and lunatics, with the oppressed humanity of the hunted heroes adding nuance and interest. One of them even gets the book’s best line, almost certainly Ellis’s reflection on the real-life condition of Los Estados Unidos circa 2008 CE: “Just get me out of this country. There’s nothing here I want.”

Blockbuster Comic Book Movies! – iTaggit’s Comics, Toys and Games Newsletter, July 2008

July 22, 2008
Comics Header
Community Manager

Featured Collection
Hello!  I’m Chris, your Comic Book Community Manager.  If you have any questions, comments or general feedback, please feel free to message me!
News

Rose McGowan Is Red Sonja

G.I. Joe Will Show the Rise of Cobra

AVP She-Predator Machiko Collectible Model Figure

Blogs

Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko by Alan David Doane

“Trains are…Mint” Reinvents the Graphic Novel by Alan David Doane

Farewell, Michael Turner by lwallace38

Gødland: The Best Superhero Book You’re Not Reading by Alan David Doane

Welcome!

Try out iTaggit’s new Comics Micro-Site.

iTaggit has launched the new Micro-Site, comics.itaggit.com.  Here, you can browse Comics without the bother of viewing other types of items.  All you see are Comics related items, Comics blogs and Comics news.  This is perfect for those who are only interested in Comics and do not want to see a page full of Antiques, Stamps or Sports Memorabilia.

Blockbuster Comic Book Movies!

July is a very exciting month in the comics world, with the muchDark Knightanticipated upcoming release of The Dark Knight in theaters July 18!!  We have been looking forward to this day for quite some time, and the anticipation is palpable.  From the many previews, trailers, and testers, you can bet that this will be one thrill ride you will not want to miss.  If you would like to post a review or would just like to talk about the movie, blog about it!

In related comic book movie news, Hancock was released this past weekend to great reviews and huge money at the box office.  If you have not seen this movie yet, I highly recommend it.  Don’t have enough comic book movies to watch?  Try Hellboy II: The Golden Army, hitting the
big screen this Friday, July 11!

Featured Items


Avengers #1

The Avengers #1

Captain Kirk

Captain Kirk (MEGO)

Batman

Batman Action Figure

Joker's Asylum

Joker’s Asylum #1: The Joker

Opitmus Prime

Titanium Robots In Disguise Optimus Prime

Rediscovering “Happiness is a Warm Puppy”

July 22, 2008
However many hundreds or thousands of books Charles Schulz was responsible for in one way or another, the inside front cover flap of Happiness is a Warm Puppy informs me that this was his first. Dating from 1962, it’s a collection of minimalist aphorisms on the left-side pages and a full-page illustration of each concept on the right.I remember having a copy of this book when I was a very young child, but like the majority of books I’ve owned in my life, I’d be damned if I could tell you whatever happened to the original copy. Most likely I outgrew it and some other child, my younger brother or a friend, maybe, ended up with it. I first spotted this reissue, from Cider Mill Press, on the shelves at Borders many months ago. Every time I would look at the section it was in, the one with Calvin and Hobbes collections and books by comedians like Lewis Black, I would pick it up and flip through it. Finally, a week or two back, I decided I should own it once again, now three decades or so on since the last time I had a copy.

It’s a slight book — in fact, its cover price of $5.95 is at least part of the reason I bought it. If I could not stop thinking about it and reflecting on whether I needed to own it or not, six bucks is a cheap price to stop that slight buzzing it was creating in the base of my skull. There are perhaps 40 or so concepts visited by Schulz over the course of its orange, pink, red and brown pages, and of course the reader will agree with some and wonder at others. “Happiness is sleeping in your own bed,” is one that rings solidly true for me, and the illustration of a content and smiling Linus lost in the comfort of the deep slumber one can only achieve in the peace of one’s bed strikes me as both simple and profoundly true.

“Happiness is some black, orange, yellow, white and pink jelly beans, but no green ones,” seems bizarre to me. I’d take the green and gladly ditch the pink or black ones. Was Schulz telling us his own preference? Was it a random assortment of colours? Either way, he knew what he was doing when he drew the picture, which shows both Charlie Brown digging into the bag of candy, and Linus patiently waiting his turn. Friendship and shared pleasure are shown only through the picture, not the words, and I’m struck by Schulz’s ability to introduce nuance even in a book seemingly meant for children, seemingly universal to anyone who might read it.

I suppose it’s possible that the pictures in this book were harvested from existing strips, but I don’t think so. They seem bold and purposeful, Schulz working his magic during the very best decade of his cartooning career to create illustrations filled with charm, loving portraits of our longtime companions at their very best. Even Lucy manages to control her crabbiness throughout, playing nice with her brother at home as she helps him remove a sliver, and with Patty and Violet in the sandbox. It’s nice to see Violet and Patty here, although I note with sadness that Shermy wasn’t invited to take part anywhere. I’m always sad when Shermy is absent. He had such potential…

“Happiness is one thing to one person and another thing to another person,” Schulz finishes up with, showing Linus and Lucy each enjoying their own, separate, things. Filled with gentility, tolerance and wisdom, Happiness is a Warm Puppy is something that will bring happiness to anyone who opens themselves to its simple messages and lovely cartooning. I like this little book a lot, which is funny, because I really don’t care much for puppies, warm or otherwise. Allergies, you see.

Jack Kirby’s Silver Star

July 22, 2008
Jack Kirby’s latter-day work could be wildly uneven, but Silver Star holds more than a little of the brilliance that informed New Gods and the other Fourth World titles, and his earlier Marvel work.Silver Star himself is one of a number of members of a new species, Homo Geneticus, specifically designed to live through and beyond a nuclear holocaust. Man’s headlong rush toward self-destruction was obviously weighing heavily on Kirby’s mind as he developed this idea (which originated in a movie pitch, included at the end of this beautifully-realized Image Comics hardcover, released in 2007), and given the current state of the world, it seems Kirby, as always, was way ahead of his time.

Silver Star’s suit is designed to prevent the fantastic energies that he possesses from escaping and destroying his body; his opposite number, a failed, previous experiment in creating Homo Geneticus, is Darius Drumm, who longs to bring about mankind’s end a little sooner than on man’s own timetable. Norma Richmond is Silver Star’s love interest, but also his equal, and an unpredictable firecracker in the Big Barda tradition.

Kirby’s story unfolds over the course of the six issues collected in the book, and it has a definite beginning, middle and end, something somewhat rare in Kirby’s career. The narrative almost never takes a breath — things seem to happen between the panels, so much so that when, late in the story, Kirby takes the luxury of three silent panels to depict a military leader making a decision, the sequence is as arresting as Kirby no doubt intended it to be.

The artwork in Silver Star is not the prime Kirby of his latter-day Fantastic Four, but neither is it the unsure and outsider-art look of The Hunger Dogs graphic novel that was Kirby’s last word on his Fourth World stories. It reminds me most of Kirby’s last go-round on Captain America — looser and less weighty than his very best work, but still solid and confident with occasional flashes of his glory days.

The closest you can get to new Kirby nowadays is Casey and Scioli’s Godland, and a lot about Silver Star, especially the villainy of Darius Drumm, will be pleasingly familiar to Godland readers. Drumm’s fate is pleasingly reflective of the thought that Kirby gave to the true nature of man, no simple super-battle to bring things to a close, but a genuine insight into the urge to self-destruction and the ways in which it might be tempered.

At $35.00, the Silver Star hardcover is not for a reader who is unsure of their level of appreciation of Kirby’s work. But for those of us who remain entranced by his work and the intellect that propelled it, Silver Star is a pretty wild ride, and one you might wish had continued further, at that.

“Trains are…Mint” Reinvents the Graphic Novel

July 22, 2008
For all those who dismiss autobiographical comics as trite, facile, samey, whatever the complaint — here’s the high concept of Trains are…Mint. The author, Oliver East, goes for walks from train station to train station near his home in Manchester, England. He sketches what he sees. The end. For anyone with a little more sophisticated understanding of what is possible within the artform of comics, East’s debut graphic novel is a modest, monumental achievement, a kind of British version of Jiro Taniguchi’s The Walking Man.

The immediate appeal of East’s book is the watercolour and pen and ink artwork with which he depicts his environment. The simplicity of his line favourably recalls John Porcellino’s King-Cat Comics (as does his overall narrative tone, it should be mentioned), but every once in a while he astounds with a sharply observed brick wall or the perspective he conveys in his drawing of a fence, or a row of townhouses. His watercolour technique is subtle and lovely, with the same quiet brick-to-the-head revelatory power Frank Santoro brought to Storeyville.

Like Santoro, East experiments with the way his words interact with the images on his page. A frequent technique here is the conveyance of information through what at first appears to be a sign, or graffiti, or a poster on a wall. It’s an arresting stylistic choice, one that really forces attention to what East is doing, and what he is saying. There’s an almost inexplicable effect that arises from the way he utilizes this technique, something that makes an unnameable third element out of the cobination of words and pictures.

art by Oliver East from Trains are...Mint Click to enlarge image

Alan Moore believes his hometown of Northampton is the center of the universe, and his belief likely stems from the fact that A) He is a keen observer and B) He turns his observations on his own surroundings. Oliver East does the same thing in Trains are…Mint, delivering a microcosm of the graffiti and detritus that infuse these train stations and their environs, unpacking his observations into a universal map of the land we all make our way through every day of our lives. Trains are…Mint is the first release from UK publisher Blank Slate Books, which is run by a couple of the owners of the legendary Forbidden Planet chain of comic book stores. As you might expect with that pedigree, the book is a thing of beauty not only in what it contains but in how it is produced. It’s a compact, strikingly-well-reproduced hardcover that is a tactile joy to experience. And a perfect delivery system for Oliver East’s comics.

East’s style evokes Porcellino, as I mentioned above. It also recalls for me a little Kevin Huizenga here, a little Lynda Barry there, and a whole lot of Eddie Cambell Alec-sized whimsy and wonder. I have no idea if he actually is influenced by any of these folks, though — his style feels sui generis in large part, and Trains are…Mint feels fresh and new, a shot across the bow to anyone thinking whatever can be done in comics form already has been done. This is something new, something you can lose yourself in, something you’ll want more of.

Trains are…Mint is published by Blank Slate Books.

Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko

July 22, 2008
There came a point in reading Blake Bell‘s excellent biography and artbook about Steve Ditko that I had to laugh at the irony; I had come to the first time that Ditko felt disaffected and betrayed by someone in fandom that had gone against his wishes. I laughed because I realized Bell probably fits that description now, and hell, by writing this review, I probably do too. It’s almost impossible not to imagine you’re displeasing the man if you choose to write about him. I’m genuinely sorry that Ditko’s fame has made him a fair subject for historical, biographical and critical writing. And I mean that, I’m really sorry for him that the course of his career so often has made him unhappy or uncomfortable or angry. It’s clear throughout Strange and Stranger that Ditko was, from very early on, an extremely sensitive artist who had trouble coming to grips with the inevitable loss of control an artist must have once his work is out there for the world to see. After reading Bell’s book, one is left thinking Ditko could only have been happy if he had created his work in secret, and shared it with no one. And of course, that would have been a sad fate, too. Ditko truly is trapped in a world he never made.

Or, perhaps, he could have been happier if he had worked in an industry that was fair to its writers and artists. If he had been properly remunerated and allowed creative control over his work, perhaps he could have been less frustrated, more able to take joy in the work he created, which, after all, has given millions of people untold joy now for decades.

But A is A, I remember, and I realize that this is the world both Ditko and I live in. “It is what it is,” as people like to say when they have nothing to say. Ditko never had a problem finding something to say, but in his comics work, there was a definite sweet spot of expression and form, and Bell hones in on that pretty brilliantly as he talks about the earliest days when Ditko’s Ayn Rand/Objectivism fixation influenced but did not consume his work.

It began with an issue of Blue Beetle that focused on art criticism and probably culminated with the early-1970s release of a Mr. A one-shot, independently released and violently iconoclastic in its content and impact. Bell recounts how poorly the book sold, and how West Coast comics retailing innovator Bud Plant bought up the remaining copies. Thank God, that’s where I got my copy, by mail order, in the early 1980s.

As a teenager, I knew and loved Ditko’s style, but was too young to fully process his single-minded determination and focus on his, and Rand’s, beliefs. Mr. A did directly lead me to read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, and even some biographies of Ayn Rand herself. If half of what most histories of her life contain is true, she was batshit out of her mind, and hardly the type of hero she demanded others be. Ditko would probably dismiss such examination of her life as either lies or irrelevancies, but if you’ve read much about Rand and Ditko, you kind of think he better met her standards than she herself did. Sadly, it seems to have cost him a far better career than the one he ended up with in this world.

It’s hard not to feel sadness and pity for Ditko, as Bell’s narrative wears on into the 1980s and 1990s and Ditko ends up illustrating Transformers colouring books and meeting again and again with industry figures like Dick Giordano and Stan Lee and yet is unable to ever again find a place in the corporate comics industry that he had a key role in creating, and that his most well-known creation has had a large part in sustaining. But Ditko doesn’t want our pity, and he seems to have navigated even the lowest points of his comics career on his own terms, prideful and determined to meet his own rigid demands, which only occasionally bent, it seems, and hardly ever broke.

Bell’s chapters in Strange and Stranger are all discreet packets of important segments of Ditko’s life, and they do create as complete a picture of the man as is likely to be created, barring some unlikely latter-day autobiography, which probably would not be be truly self-examining in any case. But what stands out are the weird little twists and decisions Ditko’s career was built and then dismantled on; most noteworthy, perhaps, his battles with Stan Lee over the direction and scripting of Amazing Spider-Man. Most telling, perhaps, a scene (reprinted in the book) of Peter Parker angrily dismissing participants in a 1960s college campus protest. Ditko’s real self, his real values, came more and more to the surface of his work, and for a few years, as Bell notes, that combination of stoic self-expression and his unbelievably fluid and trippy artwork resulted in some of the most beautiful and memorable comics ever created. Not only late Spider-Man and Dr. Strange, but his bold, innovative black and white Warren work, often done in stunning inkwash, and his truly underrated Blue Beetle, Question and Captain Atom work for Charlton.

I said above that Ditko truly is trapped in a world he never made, and I believe he is. But based on the available evidence — say, the Jonathon Ross BBC special from a few months back — he at least lives out his days now in the way he has chosen for himself. Many people — most people — don’t understand his need for privacy or his desire to be left alone. Blake Bell’s Strange and Stranger may or may not be one more violation of his wishes, but for anyone who approaches it with respect for Ditko’s art, it’s a more or less balanced and even kind look at the transformational life’s work of a very difficult, and perhaps very troubled, man.

And it goes without saying that the art on display is mind-blowingly beautiful and complex and almost impossible to fully process. John Romita Sr. admits in the book that he could never draw like Ditko, when he replaced him on Amazing Spider-Man, and no one else ever really could either. Much like his only peer in superhero comics, Jack Kirby, Ditko’s mind and thought process and the visual expression of all they contained were a universe all their own. Ditko’s art is a wonder to behold in the way very few other visual artists could ever even approach, in or outside of comics. It is at once utterly alien and strangely familiar, and the vast majority of Ditko’s work was, whatever the era and whatever the circumstance, uncompromising and utterly arresting. Strange and Stranger captures, in words and pictures, as much of Ditko’s world as it is possible for us to understand. It breaks my heart to think how unhappy he might be to hear how much I loved this book about him and his work.

Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko is published by and available from Fantagraphics Books.