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Cruise Vader

Today at The Comics Journal, we're launching a new column--but unlike our other columns, this one will not have a fixed writer or topic. Instead, it'll be an old school op-ed column, publishing submissions from comics critics, creators and the like. (We're calling it "Listen To Me".) This installment of the column could also be considered a bit of an expose. At this weekend's ComicsPRO trade show, an anonymous pamphlet is currently making its way around the show. That pamphlet's author has supplied us with a full version of the pamphlet's essay, and has agreed to be publicly identified--it's Menachem Luchins, the owner/operator of comic book store Escape Pod Comics. He's got some stuff to say. While it should go without saying, i'm going to say it anyway: Menachem's point of view is 100% his own, and does not reflect that of TCJ or its editors. 

To explain, you first have to accept a hard truth, one that I have come to grips with over the course of many years: Comic Retailers are the WORST PEOPLE to help save the direct market. Bold statement right? I mean… I just said I didn’t do research, so what can I use to back it up? How could all these people with so much to lose not be perfect to help fix it, to set it on the right course? The answer is easy, really; THE DIRECT MARKET IS ALREADY DEAD AND THE RETAILERS ARE THE ONES WHO KILLED IT. Comic retailers are moaning over the corpse of their beloved while gripping the bloody knife in their hands! 

Speaking of ComicsPRO, the coverage of the show has been scattered and unusual, with sites like Bleeding Cool publishing bold, dramatic stories regarding DC's plans (including an extremely unusual claim that Dan Didio asked retailers  "not to share their complaints about DC Comics – or others – with their customers"), only to see these articles dismissed out of hand by writers at other comics news sites, amongst more alleged criticisms that Didio reportedly was angry at Bleeding Cool's articles. It's all very dramatic--the sort of drama many of those retailers probably wish could be found in a DC comic book, as it seems to be very compelling.

A personal note: I could not be more pleased to have seen multiple outlets share the news that Michel Fiffe's Copra and Chuck Forsman's Revenger comics will soon be available via new publishers (which also means they will be available in a much more accessible fashion). Along with Tom Adams, I have been printing and selling collections of Copra for over seven years and Revenger for almost as long, via Bergen Street Press. It is has been a life-changing experience to watch these stories develop, but more so to have a front row seat to watch these artists grow into the successes they are today.

It would be impossible and inappropriate to use this space to describe the personal and emotional involvement that Tom and I have had in Copra and Revenger. But I will say this: I love those comics, and the fact that I got to be at the beginning of these two people's glorious and exciting careers is an experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life. To Tom, Chuck and Michel: thank you. It has been an honor.

 

Smak

Today on the site, we present the final installment of R.C. Harvey's epic chronicle of the legendary feud between Al Capp and Ham Fisher. Now that the story's been told, Harvey reflects on what it was all ultimately about.

No one decided to deny Ham Fisher a place in the history of cartooning. The profession’s odd silence on the subject is not the result of deliberation and design. It is instead an accident, an unforeseen constellation of circumstances, a happenstance of personality and event, which, invested with pride and ego and jealousy and vaulting aspiration, turned ugly. The tragic end of the Fisher-Capp feud could well promote vague feelings of shame and guilt among those who stood by, feelings that were suppressed by keeping silent. Fisher’s suicide was a blot on the escutcheon of the National Cartoonists Society. And it is therefore understandable if many cartoonists fell into the habit of not mentioning it. And by avoiding the subject of Fisher’s death, the subject of his attainments is likewise shunted out of view.

While I’m delving into unconscious motivations, let me toy with one more fanciful speculation. This time, on the matter of Fisher’s motives.

Fisher’s behavior strikes me as more than a little extreme. Capp’s appropriation of hillbilly characters for a comic strip doesn’t seem to me sufficient provocation for Fisher’s subsequent actions — the tirades, the smear campaign. Psychologically speaking, when someone’s behavior is excessive for the provocation, it suggests that the presumed motivation is not, in fact, the real reason for the reaction we see. And when this happens, it’s because the real reason must not be consciously acknowledged.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

—News. The finalists for the L.A. Times Book Prize have been announced, including five in the graphic novel category.

—Reviews & Commentary. The New Yorker has published an essay by Jennifer Finney Boylan, about how Peanuts taught her about queer identity and self-acceptance.

It was in reading “Peanuts,” lying on the floor beneath the piano in our suburban home, that I first grasped the terrible truth: my parents resided in a cartoon universe. It was Charlie Brown and his friends—children who lived in a world defined by unrequited love—who resided in the real one. I could imagine Charlie asking, with his usual anguish, “Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what love is all about?”

As it turns out, there was one person who could: Pigpen. Of all the characters in “Peanuts,” Pigpen seems most at peace with the life he has been given. Sure, he’s immersed in filth—he can “raise a cloud of dust in a snowstorm,” as Charlie Brown puts it—and Patty and Violet seek constantly to humiliate him. But Pigpen will have none of it. “Aren’t you ashamed?” Violet says to him, after making him look in the mirror. “On the contrary,” he replies. “I didn’t think I looked this good.” In a strip from September, 1954, Patty marches along with a bucket, determined to “personally give Pigpen a good scrubbing.” But when she finds him—sitting, as usual, in a sandbox—he looks clean and shiny. As she departs (“I guess there’s some hope for him, after all”) you see that only half of Pigpen is clean. The side facing away from Patty is still covered with grime.

Charles Schulz was said to have grown tired of the character in later years, in part because it was hard to write material for him outside of the one basic joke. But it’s not hard to understand his enduring appeal. He’s the closest thing the strip has to the spirit of total Zen. It would be nice, I thought, lying there beneath the piano, to live one’s life like this. It gave me “Peanuts” envy. I wondered: Did Pigpen never feel the yearning to be clean? Or had he accepted that purity was not in the cards? Was the secret of his grace that he lived in a world without desire?

—Interviews & Profiles. Vulture has a profile of Eli Valley.

There was a time, not so long ago, when Valley was an unknown and profoundly uncontroversial figure who barely engaged in the debates that he so energetically dives into today. Sitting in his cramped, comic-book-brimmed studio apartment in downtown Manhattan, I ask him about a curious professional irony that demonstrates just how much his life has changed in recent years. In 1999, Valley was living in Prague, giving tours of Jewish historical sites in Eastern Europe, and he published his first book: a hefty prose tome entitled The Great Jewish Cities of Central and Eastern Europe: A Travel Guide and Resource Book to Prague, Warsaw, Cracow, and Budapest. It proudly wore a blurb from none other than Nobel–winning writer, Holocaust survivor, and Israel advocate Elie Wiesel: “This beautiful and melancholy book is more than a guide to great Jewish cities: it is a book of tales.”

But flash forward to August 2014 and you’ll find Valley publishing a comic called “Wiesel, Weaponized” in +972 Magazine, a left-leaning outlet that covers the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. At the time, Wiesel was emphatically advocating for the Israeli side in that summer’s war in the Palestinian territory known as the Gaza Strip. In the comic, sinister Israeli scientists affix Wiesel’s head and brain to the front of a bomb-dropping drone vehicle and use it to annihilate Arabs in Gaza while spouting platitudes like, “This is a battle between those who celebrate life and those who champion death!” At the end, the Wiesel drone flies off into the sunset, muttering fragments of pro-Israeli talking points: “Conscience of humanity … Civilization versus barbarism … Arabs … Death cult … Fires of Moloch … Israel chooses life …”

The most recent guest on Inkstuds is Karl Stevens.

 

Max Court

Today at TCJ, we're sharing a look at one of Nobrow's most recent stabs at giving you feelings. It's called Through A Life, and it's by Tom Haugomat. They had this to say about it:

This powerfully silent graphic novel follows the saga of a boy who grows up to be an astronaut, just like he always wanted, until a fatal space shuttle crash upends his life, and he begins to find solace in beauty here on earth.

Today's review comes to us from Noah Berlatsky, but we were able to convince him not to write about Wonder Woman. This time around, he's preaching the gospel of a webcomic called Sea In You-specifically, the ability they have to manipulate the pace of which one reads a story.

Jessi Sheron's The Sea in You doesn't look like a radical formal experiment at first glance. It's a gentle webcomic about a young student named Corinth who strikes up a friendship (and possibly more) with a mermaid. Sheron began the comic in 2015; she updates it every week or two. As of this writing there are over 60 episodes.

The Sea in You has been running, then, for around four years. Reading it all at once, it's difficult to believe how slowly the plot has developed over that time. Corinth is established as a somewhat lonely, insecure kid, whose boyfriend Seth is low-key manipulative, controlling, and insulting. When Corinth is cleaning trash from the beach alone one day, she's drawn into the waves by the siren sound of a mermaid, who almost eats her, then decides not to. Corinth comes back to the beach to try to see the mermaid again, and over a number of meetings the two flirt, exchange gifts, and teach each other about their different worlds.

This is my kind of dumb shit. I'm totally here for it. What problem could this group of people possibly be the solution for? I mean, I have questions of course--when did Conan the Barbarian become an Avenger? Why did the Punisher become an Avenger? If this comic is really successful, can they please make a movie out of it? Is Gerry Duggan a good writer? Why is it that I can't get a simple art request for a positive review of a DC Comic fulfilled, but Marvel is all about hooking me up with advance information all the time? I don't care about the answers to these questions. I know this comic can't possibly live up to the radicalness that lives inside my head of what it could be, but I also know that I'm pretty down for it just on the principal that I want to know who the deadliest foes still are of these people above. The Punisher gets to kill all his foes except for Jigsaw, so does that mean that Conan The Barbarian is gonna fight Jigsaw? I feel like Conan is the real wild card here, which is a problem for me, because I personally think that there's never been a good story where Wolverine is the sane one who keeps people in line. Maybe that one where Cyclops gets super drunk trying to keep up with Wolverine, but that's not a story involving hardcore violence. Either way: I am grateful to Marvel Comics for sending press releases to The Comics Journal, because I would not have found out about this comic otherwise. 'nuff said, excelsior, so on.

 

The Duke of Oil

Today on the site, Marc Sobel returns with the second installment of his Strip Mine column, in which he takes $20 to a comics shop, then writes about what he's able to buy with it.

It wasn’t the best selection and the condition of most of the books was somewhere between “Very Sad” and “Near Ruined,” but what could I do? I had to look! It’s an obsession, I know, but fortunately I have a very understanding partner. Anyway, an hour later, here’s what I walked out with:

ADVENTURES OF THE OUTSIDERS #44 (April 1987)

I’m sure you’re thinking, why on Earth would I grab this random issue of a D-list super-team? Well, it certainly wasn’t for the cover by Joe Brozowski and Danny Bulandi. 

Let’s take a closer look. Geo Force, whose costume looks like it was designed by an 8-year-old, has a right arm protruding from his neck and a dislocated left shoulder, probably caused by his exploding forearm. Then there’s the awkwardly posed damsel, Dr. Jace, who can’t decide if she’s falling down or not. Maybe she’s just disoriented by the complete lack of any background? It looks like a bluescreen scene that never made it to the effects department. And, of course, there’s the groan-inducing villain, the Duke of Oil (whose real name is Earl J. Dukeston, get it?). 

To be honest, I never read an issue of The Outsiders before.[2] I couldn’t even name the characters (what happened to Ponyboy?). All I knew was that they inexplicably liked to team up with Batman, so obviously the story made little sense. There’s a bunch of soap opera plotlines and the whole thing ends with the old beaker-of-acid-to-the-face-reveals-the-villain-is-really-a-robot twist. If I had a nickel…

So why did I buy this book?

We also have Chris Mautner's review of Rina Ayuyang's Blame This On the Boogie.

What a warm and wonderful book this is, bursting with color and life, wise about the ways of the world and its ugliness, but steadfastly refusing to succumb to despair. I did not realize how much I needed to read a comic like this until I had it in my hands.

Ostensibly a memoir, the first half of the book (and, I suspect, most recent material) recounts Ayuyang’s youth, growing up as a Filipina-American in 1970s-era Pittsburgh. The youngest of four, she chronicles with a keen eye for detail (who here actually remembers the decorations hanging in their seventh grade classroom?) a mostly happy childhood filled with music, noise and love.

But it’s not as through bad times don’t exist, and Ayuyang does not shy away from depicting the struggles of being a first-generation American, trapped between your family’s culture and the one that surrounds you, not to mention having to deal with bullies, racism, bad teachers, and having to give a big presentation to the seventh grade class. Yet young Rina brushes them off like the proverbial dirt off her shoulder, perpetually enthralled by pop music, TV sitcoms and old movie musicals.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

—News. Ivy Noelle Weir and Christina “Steenz” Stewart's Archival has won the fifth annual Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics.

—Reviews & Commentary. Liza Donnelly writes about the cartoons of Barbara Shermund.

Shermund’s early sales to The New Yorker were paintings for covers, but she was a prolific artist, and soon began contributing cartoons. As far as we know, she wrote her own captions (which is not always the case with a cartoon; sometimes a gag writer comes up with the captions). She kept a pad and pencil under her pillow at night in case an idea struck. Throughout the Roaring Twenties, her cartoons reflected what it was like to be a flapper, a “new woman” navigating Manhattan. Her work represented what Ross was looking for: sophisticated humor that spoke to the urban demimonde of the day. Shermund’s women seemed to be in charge of their lives and talked about their dreams and ideas. Her women did not seem to need men, and some of her captions hinted at homosexuality. Her women were confused, too, because the roles for women were changing, often not fast enough.

John Holbo writes about Wally Wood and Witzend.

Wally Wood drawing chicks and sort of noodling around with half-digested notions of Freud, plus second-hand Tolkien high fantasy tropes is just not great comics. It lacks vision and direction.

I feel that the same is true for a lot of the stuff in witzend. When they were let loose … they didn’t have a lot to say. Graphically, a lot of it is really beautiful, but no one involved seems to be fired with any brilliant idea about what new worlds comics should conquer now. Some of it is very retro. Edgar Rice Burroughs sword&sandals&sorcery stuff. Some of it is random hippie. Some of it is pretty sour in the toxic masculinity department – but not much. Mostly it just kind of drifts.

It’s like Wood and co. got to pretend they were they pent-up geniuses, when the squares at Marvel and DC made ‘em obey the Comics Code. But it turns out that they did better work pent-up. It’s like the final episode of LOST. Wood was so much more magic when you could imagine all the wonderful stuff he could have done if they’d let him.

It’s true that witzend paved the way for RAW and other comix and underground stuff. There’s other stuff coming, and Wood is rightly remembered as godfather to that. I get why everyone involved wanted freedom. But it feels … exhausted.

—RIP. Ken Nordine.

 

Unlucky

Today on the site, we have an obituary for Tomi Ungerer, written by Gary Groth, who interviewed the late artist at length for the most recent print issue of TCJ.

Ungerer famously arrived in New York in 1956 with sixty dollars in his pocket and two trunks of drawings and manuscripts that he intended to show to publishers. What finally spurred him to move to New York, he has said, was jazz: “I was a big jazz fan, I thought I would be able to see some jazz.” He was disappointed in the jazz scene he found there, but he nonetheless took  to Manhattan, and for the next fifteen years wrote and illustrated children’s books and drew countless images for posters, magazines, advertising, and satirical books. According to Ungerer, he showed his portfolio to the pioneering editor Ursula Nordstrom, who told him to come up with a children’s story. He did, and the result was The Mellops Go Flying, quickly followed by The Mellops Go Diving for Treasure, both published in 1957, both enormously successful. Between 1957 and 1973, he wrote and drew twenty-two children’s books, as well as illustrated numerous children’s books he didn’t write. Ungerer shared his contemporary Maurice Sendak’s belief that stories for children should not be sugarcoated, that, in fact, children should have to wrestle with the reality that awaits them, which will include fear and loneliness and pain. “Why am I the pedagogues’ nightmare?” he once asked. “They think I traumatize children. They think children should be loved and protected. But if you do only that, they’re not ready for life.”

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

—Maria Russo has an appreciation for Gary's last big interview subject, Maurice Sendak, in the New York Times.

The third book in the trilogy, “Outside Over There,” published in 1981, covers its darkness of theme with ravishingly beautiful, painterly art. In this book, Sendak is inviting us to grapple with adolescence and its definitive break with the securities of childhood. Hence the more grown-up aesthetic: The archaic cadences of the words and the ornate, cascading illustrations evoke German Romanticism, and also the music of Mozart, which Sendak adored. So long, streetwise 1970s urban vernacular. We’re in the Reagan era now, where leftward-leaning free spirits must find solace in their living rooms, immersed in a PBS-style classicism. Yet the book is not offering some idealized vision of safe, genteel life — far from it. The protagonist, Ida, has a green-eyed prettiness, her hair soft, straight, long and honey-colored, her dress ruffled and draped just so, but her bare feet are enormous and wide, like someone who digs up potatoes in a shtetl.

 

Beecher

Today at the Comics Journal, we're speaking with José Hernández, the Mexican cartoonist whose biography of Che Guevara saw release last year. 

How did you became a cartoonist?

I began as a cartoonist in 1994, for a magazine called El Chahuistle, directed by one of the most important cartoonists in Mexico: Eduardo del Río, Rius. Rius has been one of the most influential cartoonist in the last three or four generations of political caricaturists. He is the creator of a series of books, in Mexico and all over the world, called For Beginners. In these books, Rius explains a tremendous variety of topics – Marxism, religion, vegetarianism– through caricatures in comics. Starting my career beside Rius was the best school I could possibly have had.

Today's review comes to us from Austin Price, with a look at Bloodborne: Death of Sleep, one of the more well reviewed video game tie-ins of last year. Wait, did I write "well reviewed"?

Frankly, it’s an exhausting tack to take: when every reference is so conspicuous, so announced – one panel is nothing but a perfect replication of the game’s infamous game over screen, blood red letters against a black background declaring YOU DIED with taunting superiority – it quickly grows to feel as if this is not so much a story as it is an Easter Egg hunt laid by Kot to distract from the fact that his interest in the game’s world and philosophical preoccupations is passing, if it is anything at all. The result is something deeply uncertain, a book supposedly about the dangers of choosing fear and violence over empathy that is itself so frightened of offending its choosier readers or of facing down the conclusions offered by its inspiration that it opts for a mishmash of styles and ideas add up to nothing but confusion. There are aesthetic clues early on that suggest as much, not least among them Piotr Kowalski’s pencils and Brad Simpson’s colors. Bloodborne’s world is a grim one, yes, and brutal, but it is also grand, cribbing for visual isnpirations as easily from mannerist architecture and Renaissance painting as it does from an H.R. Giger design or Cronenberg movie, something neither Kowalski’s cartoonish sketches nor Simpson’s plain palette do anything to capture. The former has no eye for action. While the hunter talks ceaselessly of how they are ”blood, in movement, dancing with blood,” their fights do not flow as a dance (let alone one manifest in the medium of blood) might. How could they, when half of the time Kowalski relies on a tool as clumsy as speed-lines to portray motion? There is strange, wooden stagedness to the proceedings so pronounced that a decapitated head supposedly flying through the air instead appears to dangle from strings. Perhaps that has to do with the character designs which play at realism but verge on the cartoonish, the eyes of monsters all agoggle as if taken from the sketch pad of a carnival caricaturist, the forms of the humans rigid and unbending as if they only existed in two dimensions. Nothing here is as strange or wild or bizarre as it needs to be.

Happy Valentine's Day to those of you who are celebrating!

 

Rest Required

Today on the site, R.C. Harvey returns with the penultimate installment of his long series on the legendary feud between Ham Fisher and Al Capp. Last time saw the tragic end of Fisher, and this week we see what happened to Al Capp in his later years as a anti-counterculture crusader, when his history of sexual assault and harassment finally caught up to him.

Not content with the outlet Li’l Abner afforded him, Capp had branched out into other venues all through his career. In 1937, he had launched another comic strip, a somewhat more serious narrative about a crusty old spinster and her manly nephew called Abbie and Slats, which he wrote and Raeburn Van Buren drew; after nine years, Capp’s brother Elliott took over the scripting, continuing until the strip ceased in 1971. And in 1954, Capp started writing yet another strip, Long Sam, starring a female version of Li’l Abner. Drawn by Bob Lubbers, it ran until 1962.

Capp’s creations ventured beyond newsprint, too. An RKO movie adaptation, Li’l Abner, had appeared in 1940, but the characters were a bigger success on stage with a Broadway musical that ran for 693 performances, starting in November 1956; it was turned into a motion picture at Paramount in 1959. There was an amusement park, Dogpatch U.S.A., and a fast-food chain.

A master at creating publicity about himself and his strip, Capp enjoyed a second albeit simultaneous career as an after-dinner speaker and newspaper columnist, leaving most of the drawing on the strip to his assistants while he concentrated on writing the scripts. Capp was also a frequent guest on radio and television talk shows, regaling his audiences with his analyses of contemporary events, outrageous commentaries punctuated with his characteristic jubilant hoots of self-appreciative laughter.

In the 1960s, his target was often student protest against the Vietnam War: In the strip, college youths were all members of S.W.I.N.E., “Students Wildly Indignant about Nearly Everything.” Touring college campuses as a speaker, Capp was on a crusade against what he saw as morally bankrupt youth.

We also have Kim Jooha's review of Mickey Zacchilli's Space Academy 123.

Anyone interested in art comics knows how singular Zacchilli's art is. When Space Academy 123 was serialized on Instagram, the style looked a bit simpler than usual -- which I did not have any complaint against because it was a free daily comic. However, seeing the art bigger and in more detail on a printed page, I realized the subtlety of each mark Zacchilli draws. Because there are fewer lines in the background than usual, you can see how each line makes a huge difference. Zacchilli's lines in her previous work, combined in thousands, felt like a huge torrent. Now each different shade of mark builds a subtle texture that elevates the work. Combined with Zacchilli’s distinct doodle-ish style of drawing and scribbling-style of handwriting, these seemingly random textures perfectly translate the youthful expressive energy and whirlwind of Space Academy 123’s characters and happenings. The paper stock of the book is similar to a newspaper or cheap manga paper, but is more expensive and durable — this adds to the synergy, too.

Meanwhile, elsewhere:

—News. Many more papers have dropped Wiley Miller's Non Sequitur over the "Go Fuck Yourself, Trump" message in one his strips.

—Commentary. Jessamyn West writes about Bechdel's Fun Home.

By the time Fun Home came out in 2006 I was nearly 40, post-married, and living pretty happily alone. My sister and I would occasionally get together and scratch our heads at our “raised by wolves” upbringing as if it had been a bad movie or something that happened to other people we distantly knew.

I read Fun Home; it hit me like a lightning bolt and my whole childhood snapped back around me.

—Interviews. The most recent guest on the Virtual Memories podcast is Mort Gerberg.

 

Modern Library

Today at The Comics Journal, we're continuing down the same unfortunate path from yesterday, with discussion of the untimely passing of another artist. Today, that subject is Ted Stearn. First, we have a remembrance from his friend and colleague, cartoonist David Mazzuchelli:

Ted was an intense human being — passionate and sensitive, steadfast in his friendships, devoted and inspiring to his family. Though he often wore a bemused frown, he was a kind, gentle man who could be funny, grumpy, sweet, and brutally sincere. He loved a good argument — not as combative one-upmanship but as a genuine test of ideas to see if they could be defended. He was also a great cook.

Michael Dean has Ted's obituary, which attempts to encapsulate a life lived passionately.

The small city of Lancaster, Pa. was his most metropolitan experience until going away to college, where he earned a Painting Bachelor of Arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1983 and a Master of Fine Arts degree from Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts in 1992. After graduation, Stearn worked as a graphic designer and art director in New York, while creating a series of kinetic sculptures.

In 1992, Stearn began contributing stories to Mazzucchelli’s Rubber Blanket anthology title. The first was a five-pager called “Beach Boy”. Then came the series that would occupy him off and on for his entire career: the desperate adventures of Fuzz and Pluck, a naïve teddy bear and his ill-matched companion, a cocky rooster, who is no less aggressively ambitious for having been plucked naked for the slaughterhouse. Stearn said the characters represented two sides of his own personality and were intended as antiheroic “answers to the cutesiness of Disney in the ’70s and ’80s.”