As you know, we always like to remember the reason for the season here at THIS WEEK IN COMICS!, so you could imagine my joy at finding the stocking-stuffer to your left - a genuine artifact from a comics tradition totally removed from even the mainstream of transgression. I refer, of course, to the works of Ontario, California's own Chick Publications, who in 2008 -- unbeknownst to basically anybody outside either very specific Christian literature circles or super-devout klatches of obsessive mockery -- released a trade paperback collection of especially 'controversial' tracts, with added commentary by Mr. Jack T. Chick himself, in conversation with one David W. Daniels, who's functioned as something akin to the publisher's public face for several years.
Naturally, anyone's who's familiar with the publicity-shy Chick (84 years old at the time of publication) will jump at the rare opportunity to hear the man discuss his own work: little landscape-format giveaway tracts which have ably transcended niche comics publishing to become an aspect of unique Americana. I use "aspect" deliberately, because Chick functions in a continuum - looking over the six eponymous Topics covered in this slim volume, the wide-awake reader will not be surprised to find such political staples as the necessity of preserving the nation of Israel for God's chosen people, and the threat Islam poses to all right-thinking persons. There are attacks on inhibitions of free expression by hate speech accusations ("THIS BOOK IS NOT 'POLITICALLY CORRECT!'" screams the back cover), thematically coupled with theorizing as to the propensity of homosexuals to prey upon the young, i.e. a less 'mainstream' concern empowered by as familiar a rhetoric as any canny internet citizen can fathom.
But this is all predictable. I was more interested in one chapter in particular, devoted to an especially mysterious and shadowed entry in the JTC canon: Lisa, the long-withheld child molestation episode of the Chick tract chronicles. Merry Christmas, by the way.
Originally published in 1984, Lisa is maybe the single most notorious comic Chick ever wrote; drawn by Fred Carter, the 'realist' of the Chick Publications, the story details a sordid and awful situation indeed. Seething Henry is out of work, and gets no respect in his house; for consolation, he watches pornographic videos. Soon, however, his erotic reveries are interrupted by a neighbor, who gleefully relates the neighborhood gossip that Henry has been sexually abusing his young daughter - his motive is not confrontation, though, but to secure access to the girl for himself. The house of lies collapses, however, when Lisa contracts herpes, prompting the family doctor to lay out the usual Jack T. Chick narrative of salvation through accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior, which a mortified Henry readily accepts. "I feel different, Doctor. I feel clean," the man declares, rushing home to share the Good News with his wife, who confesses her own role in both beating Lisa and "stay[ing] away from you," due to her own sexual abuse by an uncle. Joining hands under God, the family vows to end the cycle of abuse. "Really?" asks Lisa, clutching a teddy bear; she can't be older than five.
In the commentary following the presentation of this comic in Hot Topics, it becomes clear that the work was intended as an anti-pornography statement. The scholarship, you may be interested to know, is somewhat lacking down at Chick Publications; at one point we're alerted that Chester the Molester creator Dwayne Tinsley (author of "145 child abuse cartoons") was convicted of multiple counts of child molestation against his own daughter, though the text neglects to add that the conviction was overturned on appeal. Moreover, Chick flatly ignores exactly what's made Lisa one of the most infamous works in his oeuvre: for a long time, it was withdrawn from circulation, giving it that special whiff of an artist who may have realized he'd gone too far.
But then, the internet has its ways of staring into the hearts of men.
The version of Lisa presented in Hot Topics is copyright 2008, the date of the book's publication. As it turns out, this is no mere restatement of rights - like Hergé, Jack Chick has a tendency to revise his work as the years pass, mostly to update his footnotes with new reference materials (sometimes available from Chick Publications!), but sometimes, as in the case with Lisa, to modify the text itself. As you can see above, a major plot point has now been added to the story: the doctor will now report Henry's crimes, and he will surely go to prison. Indeed, the fact that the Doctor did *not* report the saved Henry in the original text has been at the center of much opprobrium - I mean, Jesus, the fucking child molester isn't even punished at the end!
And yet, to me, this seeming moral lapse is what makes Lisa genuinely striking as transgressive religious art. The cliché would be that God, safely off-stage, would forgive Henry, while at the same time the observing public would enjoy some righteous smiting at the hands of Man; in the new edition, this is exactly what happens. The original, in contrast, plants its feet and says 'No.' Metaphysically, there is no difference between you, the reader, and a child molester. Without Christ, you both are doomed, and what happens if we witness for Christ? To follow in his example? What do we do when somebody sins? We endeavor to forgive. When somebody strikes us? Turn the other cheek. When somebody, say, kills a family member in an automobile accident? We forgive. When somebody molests their own child? All. We. Do. Is. Forgive. Because who are we to usurp the role of God Almighty in dictating the trajectory of another man's soul? Are we so arrogant?
And if you think this is absurd, know that the very absurdity can become part of the experience. In his 1959 film Nazarín, Luis Buñuel presents the story of a Christly priest who suffers greatly for his fealty to the world of God; it is intended, as with so much of Don Luis' work, to lampoon the hypocrisy of the Catholics who cannot abide such immediate embrace of the mission they ostensibly represent, but in a deeper sense Buñuel maintains ambiguity in the good priest's own saintly mission, struggling to live up to the impossible, self-annihilating standard he has extracted as a means of living well. To the extent, then, that Lisa illustrates the extremes of forgiveness, the fact that Chick is approaching the message from a believer's standpoint need not detract from its strength; that it coaxes the reader into a state of contemplation unusual to such declarative, polemical content is worthwhile. But not so much anymore - the Author is alive and well, and cognizant that nobody ever lost an election in America from getting too tough on crime.
We might as well have expected this. Chick's is an acutely literal art, and the possibility remains that what seems like narrative fiat at the close of a Chick tract -- whereby the long struggle of witnessing to others in a Christly manner is compressed into a few simple panels of tears and ecstatic smiles -- is meant to be taken as plainly and fundamentally as the King James itself, so that prayer really does instantaneously smash the cycle of abuse, in the way homosexuality might be 'cured' by a rigorous enough devotional regimen, or a battered wife might stick it out and reform her abusive spouse. The stance of the work has simply become cannier to content - as you can see above, where the man of house once overtly blamed his victimized wife for her own role in failing to stop him, he now feints toward understanding, so that she can ably blame herself. Ambiguity was never the mission, just reducing the static communication faces from rhetoric's constant evolution.
That said, as far as I can tell, Lisa remains unavailable in tract form; even its updated edition seems exclusive to Hot Topics, relegating it to an audience of the converted. I mean, who is ever going to read this book? Chick partisans, be they fellow travelers past the road to Damascus, or comic fans of my type, and JTC figures he's got 'em both covered. As his commentaries in this book demonstrate, he's not one for discussion of aesthetics, though he deigns a bit to discuss his cult following in the sixth and final chapter, presenting Dark Dungeons, the all-time classic of D&D camp, which Chick intends as not just an expose of demonology in gaming, but as a condemnation of entertainments that cause the mind to linger on violence and mayhem - not an unfamiliar conversation in gaming circles of all stripes. Despite such commonalities, "...the gamers declared war on us," Chick muses. "They stormed our website and pelted us with emails. They were offended - but they still got the gospel and will be without excuse on Judgment Day."
So sure - laugh, gag; demonstrate your superiority to this work on a website in front of your peers! Whatever. As another movie surrealist, Herschel Gordon Lewis, once declared: it matters not *how* someone's entertained because of you, if your goal is simply entertainment. Jack Chick's goal is different, but his attitude is much the same.
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 identified in the column title above. Be aware that some of these comics may be published by Fantagraphics Books, the entity which also administers the posting of this column. 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.
Infomaniacs: Being the final comics release of PictureBox, Inc., the former publishing concern of one of the editors of this website, who will no doubt be redoubling his efforts toward monitoring the content of the upper half of this column in the immediate future. The artist is Matthew Thurber, and the book is a 200-page print iteration of a webcomic webcomic constituting "[a] hilarious detective story that manages to critique and explore digital culture... The Long Goodbye for the Tumblr generation." Among the very first standalone comics PictureBox released was Thurber's Carrot for Girls, so there's a certain musicality to this final reprise; $19.95.
Asterix and the Picts: Another transitional work, as the enduringly popular creation of René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo drifts entirely away from its original authors, leaving writer Jean-Yves Ferri and artist Didier Conrad to take the helm for this latest 48-page album. The scenario sees Asterix and Obelix trying to reunite lovers among certain Celtic peoples. If I am not mistaken, this is Diamond's import of Orion's UK English translation; $14.95.
Sláine: The Book Of Scars: But enough of these comedies! Why, a grittier type of Celt celebrates his own milestone right here, via this new import of a 192-page Rebellion hardcover celebrating the 30th anniversary of writer Pat Mills' warrior hero. The majority of the space, as I understand, is taken up by cover images from throughout the run and commentaries thereupon by many of the participants (and interested observers), but there's also a recent 2000 AD serial included, which serves to reunite Mills with several of the series' notable artists across an admittedly belabored series of alterations to story continuity - it's probably gonna be incomprehensible to non-fans, honestly, though there's one really great bit about deluxe compilations of comic book serials that flatters Mills' puckish impulses. The artists involved are Simon Bisley, Glenn Fabry, Clint Langley (both in crazy neo-foto-funnies form and b&w pen 'n ink in homage to the late Massimo Belardinelli), and the great Mike McMahon; $31.99.
Dark Horse Presents #31: WAIT. Believe it or not - two Mike McMahon comics see release this week, as Mike Mignola teams up with the man for the first half of a new serial in Dark Horse's 80-page house anthology. Samples; $7.99.
Sinister Dexter #1 (of 7): This is more 2000 AD stuff, from IDW - they're beginning to expand the 'classic' offerings beyond Judge Dredd, and I suppose it makes sense to tackle this Dan Abnett/David Millgate creation, seeing how Abnett has had some presence in American comics for quite a while, and there's a lot of material to draw from in putting together comic book reprint packages. I'm just not a Sinister Dexter guy; it's always struck me as derivative and laborious and acutely unfunny in the manner of someone who's trying very, very, very hard to be funny, but the damn thing's run from 1995 until literally last week with no end in sight, so obviously there's a base of support; $3.99.
Locke & Key: Alpha #2 (of 2): In contrast, here is an original IDW offering, and an ending - the final issue of this Joe Hill/Gabriel Rodriguez fantasy/horror series, which has picked up a considerable readership reminiscent of the post-Vertigo crowd generally credited these days to Image. I haven't read very much of this, but I did like what I saw - probably not a great jumping-on point, though; $7.99.
Empowered Vol. 8: Every digest-sized installment of this original series seems to breed extra excitement, maybe because more and more attention is being paid to depictions of women in superhero comics, yet writer/artist Adam Warren manages to mix titillation, parody and straightforward-ish spandex stuff in a manner that pleases all comers. I don't expect this 208-page Dark Horse package to differ. Samples; $16.99.
Dorohedoro Vol. 11: Softcover manga pick of the week - new Q Hayashida from Viz, probably looking super-cool; $12.99.
Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin Vol. 4: Jaburo: Hardcover manga pick of the week - new Yoshikazu Yasuhiko from Vertical, probably ennobling the idea of anime spinoff comics with classy war story licks; $29.95.
Tarzan: The Complete Russ Manning Newspaper Strips Vol. 2 (of 4) - 1969-1971: Probably the highest-quality of the week's color reprint offerings -- although I notice PS Artbooks is putting out a boxed set of old Phantom Lady comics, if you're into Matt Baker -- seeing the titular artist drawing jungle scenes at 11.3" x 8.5"; $49.99.
Vampirella Archives Vol. 8: Dynamite, not Dark Horse, remember, but nonetheless collecting ye olde b&w Warren magazines in much the same format as Dark Horse's Creepy and Eerie hardcovers. This is issues #50-56, featuring José González, Esteban Maroto, José Ortiz, Jeff Jones, Ramón Torrents, Rafael Auraleón, Howard Chaykin (as inked by Gonzalo Mayo), Vicente Alcazar, and, I believe, Will Eisner drawing a very brief cameo appearance by the Spirit, which was being reprinted by Warren around that time; $49.99.
Harley Quinn #1: Getting into more contemporary questions of depiction - you remember issue #0 of this, right? The one with the contest to see who could best draw a joking page of the title (anti-)heroine committing suicide in the bathtub? That comic was published last month, and it sold well over 100,000 copies, which are *crazy* numbers. I don't know what kind of offers retailers were made for these, but I do know that the month prior, Superman/Wonder Woman #1 -- written by this guy, Charles Soule, who's rapidly becoming a big deal in superhero comics; he just took over Marvel's big Inhumans-based crossover/relaunch from Matt Fraction -- moved almost 95,000 (estimated) units, which is maybe somewhat indicative of online discussion of superheroines beginning to bleed into spending power, at least when associated with the juggernaut Batman franchise or a publicized Superman tie-in. Anyway, this is the official start of the series, written by the well-liked team of Amanda Conner & Jimmy Palmiotti, and drawn by Chad Hardin; $2.99.
Ghost #1: And that brings us to Dark Horse's latest attempt to revive one of their own superhero properties. It's interesting for the creative team: writer Kelly Sue DeConnick (here working with co-writer Chris Sebela) has been picking up a lot of praise lately -- issue #3 of her Image series, Pretty Deadly, with Emma Rios, also drops this week -- and artist Ryan Sook is the sort of ultra-slick mainstream action comics stylist everyone half-expects to never see on interior art again, yet here he is. Preview; $2.99.
World War 3 Illustrated #45: Before and After: And finally, we return to weighty questions with which to burden your departure into the holiday season -- so, no column next week -- as the venerable politicized comics magazine presents 144 pages on the topic of death. Contributors include Peter Kuper, Seth Tobocman, Tom Hart and others. Distributed by Top Shelf; $7.00.