Here's something that's brought joy and wonderment to so many people, as evidenced by my waving it around in every face I could find after fishing it out of a Brooklyn warehouse a week ago. The artist is Angus McKie, a colorist and illustrator and exceedingly droll painted cartoonist best identified for our purposes through his 1978-79 Heavy Metal serial So Beautiful and So Dangerous, a kind of social comedy involving a giant spaceship later put to anthologized use in the 1981 Heavy Metal animated movie. I mostly remember aliens snorting gigantic lines of coke from that segment of the film, while McKie's art brings up richer associations - I tend to identify him with Rick Veitch's art from the same period, similarly airbrushed and shiny yet retaining a wriggly comedy from its stylized characters, 'real'-looking enough that they seem to have just missed normal living by that much. Then again, I might just be thinking of the two's work on the mid-'90s Neil Gaiman-branded capitalist-as-dictator-as-anthropomorphic-dinosaur comic Teknophage, which Veitch wrote and McKie colored for a while, with Bryan Talbot drawing.
The above image makes for similar satire in Comic Tales, a 1988 Northern Light Press/Titan Books collection of McKie's short comics, generally created in collaboration with writers. Superhero is a very goofy gag story about a man forged from birth to defend humankind's freedom against space alien domination via one-on-one Superman vs. Muhammad Ali-style combat, only to forget to stand aside when the alien spacecraft's landing platform descends. In a way, this is indicative of the tone of many of the book's stories, which typically see men failing to run from death, rock guitarists launching themselves into hell and hapless radicals having their revolutionary piracy of nationwide energy sources frustrated by a most unexpected surge in popularity for solar power. Change is inevitable, but humans remain constant as sad sacks in this universe, no matter how ripped and bronzed, and brushed to a fine sheen.
This stasis brings to mind a contemporary of McKie's at Heavy Metal, a similarly smooth-edged artist - the Brazilian-born, Tahiti-based Sergio Macedo, one of a class that basically vanished forever from North American publishing after their HM tenure was through. Yet Macedo was deemed representative enough to become the focus of one of the magazine's earliest book releases, 1977's softcover short comics collection Psychorock. Foist this one on your friends and their reaction is reliable befuddlement, generally in the form of "what the hell, is this guy serious?" Apparently he is, slathering the book's five included pieces with funny/eerie images of wide-eyed alien presences benevolently fucking with the physiological and spiritual makeup of humanity through rock shows and lasers and nude combat, at least on the pages where giant-breasted women and long-haired hippie dudes aren't lounging bare in floating space gardens. Truly this is a work that couldn't exist in quite this way at any other time, certainly not in English-translated form in an ostensibly mainstream comics outlet (yet I can't even call it the quintessential example of its type; that prize can only go to Chantal Montellier's awesome 1996, the secret sauce of any really good '70s issue).
Yet evolution and nakedness weren't new concepts to funnies in the late '70s. To your left you see the great Alex Schomburg's cover to Timely's Daring Mystery Comics #2 from February of 1940. It's one of several Schomburg works showcased in editor Greg Sadowski's softcover art book Action! Mystery! Thrills!: Comic Book Covers of the Golden Age 1933-1945, which Fantagraphics debuted at the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival the day before I hit the warehouse. As usual, Sadowski keeps the images and his copious notes separate, positioning the Schomburg piece in between a number of Will Eisner/Lou Fine covers depicting (in part) distressed damsels losing more and more clothing with each successive image; in contrast, Daring Mystery Comics #2 depicts Joe Simon's the Phantom Bullet -- a perfectly batty Golden Age superhero concept revolving around a pistol with melting bullets that allows the user to kill whomever he wants with no reprisal; the Phantom Bullet's heroism, then, rests entirely on shooting the correct people, as he has no other powers but his gun and judgment -- leaping into action in nothing but a pair of snug blue briefs fastened by a shiny belt and a flowing cape attached to what appears to be a jewel-studded dog collar. This is wonderful on its face, like something out of Flex Mentallo, but it gets even better when you realize that Simon had actually given the Phantom Bullet an entirely different (and significantly more modest) costume for his interior adventure, which turned out to be his only comics appearance until Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting rolled him out to kill him off seventy years later in The Marvels Project.
Better still, not only do the hooded bad guys drawn by Schomburg also not show up in Simon's story, but they do show up, with slight cosmetic alterations, on other Schomburg covers, possibly never having anything to do with a giver issue's stories. What emerges, then, is a fantastic imaginary saga, a shadow continuity detached from the labor and mess of interior storytelling and blipping into existence, only occasionally, in only the most visible and thrilling part of the day's superhero comics: the covers. These hooded fiends -- fittingly, Sadowski puts them on the cover of Action! Mystery! Thrills! as well -- are doubtlessly a gang of temporally wizened meta-villains, seeking to evade the police presence of superheroes by inhabiting the dangerous and unresolved terrain of the front cover. But just as Schomburg so often depicts lone heroes fending off hordes of foes single-handed, so does this partial narrative suggest a liberation for the Phantom Bullet, throwing off his clothes and his inhibitions and vanishing, melting like a bullet, into the cover realm, a new man with a new costume, never to be seen inside a funnybook again. That's an evolution I can get behind - a perfect means of escaping the superhero life trap of nominal improvements accordant to modernization, facilitating only your internal status quo. FUCK THAT - this guy knows aliens. Lasers. Psychorock!
PLEASE NOTE: What follows is not a series of capsule reviews but an annotated selection of items listed by Diamond Comic Distributors for release to comic book retailers in North America on the particular Wednesday, or, in the event of a holiday or occurrence necessitating the close of UPS in a manner that would impact deliveries, Thursday, identified in the column title above. Not every listed item will necessarily arrive at every comic book retailer, in that some items may be delayed and ordered quantities will vary. I have in all likelihood not read any of the comics listed below, in that they are not yet released as of the writing of this column, nor will I necessarily read or purchase every item identified; THIS WEEK IN COMICS! reflects only what I find to be potentially interesting.
The Sigh: Being an English-language edition of a 2004 book by Marjane Satrapi, creator of the Image superhero comic Brigade. And insofar as Satrapi requires a serious introduction less than any living European cartoonist I could even potentially mention in this column, know only that this is a 56-page illustrated fable, concerning a girl who conveys some ill-considered desire and finds herself whisked away by a strange being to a mysterious place. The publisher is Archaia. Preview; $10.95.
Same Difference: At the same time Satrapi was composing Persepolis -- and, truthfully, while I was making my tentative reentry into comic book reading -- artist Derek Kirk Kim was posting slice-of-life webcomics that were eventually collected into the Xeric-powered 2003 book Same Difference and Other Stories, which was then republished the following year by Top Shelf, to much attention and affection. It seemed this entire sector of no-big-deal narrative comics was hiding behind me, and I never really managed to catch up. Here's a new 96-page hardcover edition from First Second, positioning the project as a touchstone work in need of fresh exposure, possibly even to the failed completists in the crowd. Samples; $16.99.
Chuck Jones: The Dream that Never Was: Your Golden Age of Reprints selection for mid-December, a complete collection of animator Chuck Jones' 1978 newspaper strip Crawford, a thing about an accident-prone young boy. Given the title, however -- and the book's 280-page length -- I suspect there might actually be more supplements than strips in here, as the text follows Jones' efforts over nearly three decades. Might be neat. An IDW release, from its Library of American Comics; $49.99.
Princess Knight Vol. 2 (of 2): Lots of neat continuing/concluding manga this week, starting with the end of Vertical's new edition of Osamu Tezuka's landmark girls' comic, a breakneck work of pastiche and fancy so energetic it'll vibrate off your table if you don't watch; $13.95.
No Longer Human Vol. 2 (of 3): But on the other side of the table -- the dark side, maybe caressed by a billowing drape -- lays Usamaru Furuya's brooding modern interpretation of novelist Osamu Dazai's classic of alienation, as close to 'literary' manga as the present diminished scene is likely to get anytime soon; $10.95.
House of Five Leaves Vol. 5 (of 8): More from Natsume Ono's swordsman drama. Striking how Viz has stuck right with her work after pushing hard and early for its value, despite almost nobody having seen the stuff less than two years ago. It must have somehow paid off if we're this far in; $12.99.
20th Century Boys Vol. 18 (of 24): Same goes for Naoki Urasawa, although I guess there's the additional problem now of his 'mature' works held by the publisher having run dry, save for the present magnum opus; $12.99.
Slam Dunk Vol. 19 (of 31): Meanwhile, it seems like we've always had Takehiko Inoue, albeit mostly now in this high '90s decompressed sports manga opus, from whence his star was struck; $9.99.
Everlast: This is also an Archaia project -- one among many out this week -- and it seems to be a religion-drizzled apocalyptic story written by television actor Chad Michael Murray, accompanied by five artists. One of them, however, is the terrific Danijel Zezelj, which instantly makes this thing worth paging through on the rack at least. Samples; $19.95.
Jim Henson's The Storyteller: Another Archaia group thing, this time relating to the 1988-91 HBO series intermingling human and puppet performers in adaptations of world folktales (and originating in a Henson-related publishing deal also resulting in this week's Tale of Sand, a Ramón Pérez comics adaptation of a screenplay co-written by the Muppets mastermind). Contributors to these like-minded comics include Roger Langridge (who also has a new Snarked! from Boom! this week), Jeff Parker, Colleen Coover and others. Apparently one of the stories will be adapted from an unproduced screenplay by original series developer Anthony Minghella, who was still intermingling humans and puppets as late as his 2005 production of Madama Butterfly, so you know damn well it was heartfelt. Samples; $19.95.
The Secret History #17: And hell, as long as we're with Archaia, I might as well mention this newest English installment of the extensive French tour-o'-time series drawn by Igor Kordey. Preview; $5.95.
The Strain #1 (of 11): A multi-platform, celebrity-imbued thing with names above and below the title and a promotional first taste price -- specifically, it's an official comics adaptation of a 2009 vampire prose novel by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan, said book also functioning as part one of a trilogy -- but I know a bunch of you definitely like what artist Mike Huddleston is doing over on Image's Butcher Baker, The Righteous Maker, so be aware that's he's the artist here too, with David Lapham handling the prose-to-script adaptation. Preview; $1.00.
Absolute Promethea Vol. 3 (of 3): Nobody's even thinking 'prequel' to this, perhaps having been duly affected by their climb up the Tree of Life (Brad Pitt was great!) - nonetheless, here's a final slipcased, oversized jumbo compilation for the mystic, associative conjuring of Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III (the latter of whom also has a new issue of Batwoman this week), packing in the last nine issues of the series as well as the complimentary final issue of Tom Strong -- taken together, they provide the ending for Moore's entire ABC line of comics -- along with some Winsor McCay homage pieces drawn by Eric Shanower that appeared in various anthologies. Issue #32 of Promethea in particular might be the single most experimental thing DC has ever published, a valedictory lecture on the nature of magic that (wonderfully) urged the consumer to cap off their reading experience by destroying the comic, as in taking out the staples and rearranging its loose pages into a gradually revealed narrative collage, thus rightly scratching at the collector's impulse coursing through the history of the comic book format and suggesting actual physical participation by the bedazzled fan. I suspect there will be a fold-out of sorts in this weightier trophy object; $99.99.
DC Comics Presents - Batman: The Hidden City: Less costly is this 96-page comic book-format collection of various '00s storylines from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, including a pair of 2004 issues written by Dylan Horrocks of Hicksville; $7.99.
Wolverine: The Best There Is #12: Finally -- odd end to an odd week -- comes the last issue of a Marvel mutant book, an increasingly rare (and potentially inadvertent) specimen of the "artist's showcase" series, here devoted to gnarled Moebius/Darrow devotee Juan Jose Ryp, who's been a welcome gross-out presence in mainline superhero stuff for a little while now. I'd hate for a condensed Marvel U to squeeze a guy like him out. Written by Charlie Huston. Preview; $2.99.