Hey, it’s Das Pastoras drawing a huge fucking dragon! Always, always a pleasure to see this guy around; I recall discovering his stuff in issue #1 of the revived Métal Hurlant in July of ’02, about two months after I started reading comics again on a regular basis, and his huge, fleshy human-beast creatures really freaked me out. Every organic being in a Das Pastoras comic has the same putty-modeled, three-dimensional certainty you expect from Richard Corben, where even the most outlandish sights seem to possess some biological truth: tactile and unnerving, like you’re at a petting zoo at a local fair and you’re standing next to a really enormous ox or something you can’t even identify and you think “god, this thing could curl its head over and bite my neck open really easily and the last sight I’ll know is the polished emptiness of its hungry black eyes.” Das Pastoras captures that scope, that human diminution, that amorality very well. That earthiness. You can smell his comics.
I’ve since found bits and pieces of this artist’s stuff going back to Heavy Metal in 1995 (and his professional career in his native Spain dates to 12 years before that), though the most significant localized collection of Das Pastoras’ work thus far would have to be DC/Humanoids’ 2004 release of Deicide, an all-in-one package of two fantasy-comedy albums made in collaboration with writer Carlos Portela; Humanoids had previously released a hardcover translation of the first album almost as soon as it had dropped in France, so expectations for crossover success were presumably high. Unfortunately, the series never continued beyond part two’s cliffhanger, and before long its artist was working with Alejandro Jodorowsky on Castaka, a prequel to Jodorowsky’s & Juan Giménez’s The Metabarons, which just wrapped its initial serialization in French last year; an English translation is due soon.
However, this is not how most comic book readers know about the former Julio Martínez Pérez. In 2009, seemingly out of nowhere, Das Pastoras began publishing superhero work with Marvel: a pair of isolated Wolverine shorts (Switchback and Revolver, both collected in the trade paperback Flies to a Spider), and small stories in The Punisher MAX #75 and Deadpool: Merc With a Mouth #7. And then, all was quiet on the spandex front – until last week, when readers of this column alerted me to a new appearance by the artist in Thor: God of Thunder #18, written by Mr. Jason Aaron.
I can hardly imagine a more fitting superhero comic for Das Pastoras than Thor, and he does not disappoint: look at that cleaving! See how nicely the fire contrasts with the puke-purple flesh and dingy steel of the troll hordes! To say nothing of the throbbing veins of the young God of Thunder, captured here at a “much younger, much more foolish — and much drunker” time than his wizened contemporary adventures, per the text summary at the start of this self-contained issue.
As it turns out, the drinking is important. Aaron is the regular writer of Thor: God of Thunder, which has a reputation as a rollicking, two-fisted adventure yarn among the people I know who follow superhero comics; the last thing I’d read of Aaron’s was 2012’s Wolverine and the X-Men #17, a cute, if rather simplistic paean to the unheralded delights of ‘fun’ superhero comics, and I was hoping for something a bit more full-bodied here. What I got, however, was a tidy bit of metaphor.
Woken from a massive bender, Thor realizes that he has not actually slain the dragon in whose mouth he was found, but instead teamed up with the similarly-wasted beast — Skabgagg is its name — to drive a nasty horde of trolls from the area. Subsequent to further revelry, the pair return to their individual homes, but while Thor is merely scolded by Heimdall for “befouling the rainbow bridge,” Skabgagg winds up kicked out of its volcanic home for commiserating with humans. “You are a DISGRACE to dragons everywhere!” bellows Skabgagg’s father, goading the child into a self-destructive whirlwind of earthbound revelry that winds up claiming the life of a local girl. Summoned again by the locals, Thor urges the dragon to surrender, but Skabgagg instead chooses to embrace its monstrous character by biting off the dead girl’s head. “If you’re not my friend, then… I think you should leave my party.” The two soar through the air, until the drunken dragon smashes into some trees. “I only wanted to have some fun,” it moans. Thor insists that he is the dragon’s friend, and that it has to stop. “I know what you’re doing. You’re JUDGING me, aren’t you?”
A fight occurs off-page, in which Skabgagg is slain, but Thor is in no mood to celebrate. Instead, he pours out a cup of grog for his dead, woman-killing dragon bro.
Basically, it’s a godly metal RPG dragon-slaying epic reconstituted as a cautionary tale of campus partying, with the dragon in the role of that troubled kid who needs to slow it the fuck down but winds up doing shit bad enough it’s hard to forgive, though close friends still try. Aaron italicizes and underscores each and every thematic point so as to assure that his message cannot possibly be missed – the result is a comic that feels professionally made to modern specifications, but didactic enough that you might search in vain for the MADD logo somewhere on the premises. Who says superhero comics don’t think about kids anymore? This is the kind of thing they’d hand out in school.
Still: dig the total obsequiousness of that lady viking in the first panel above. I suspect Das Pastoras will make for a fitting successor to Giménez, insofar as both have this beating heart of cartooning — exaggeration, caricature — laying underneath those paints. Hell, Skabgagg is even drawn with a fuller range of expression than usual for a creature, making him seem rather funnily divided between human and bestial characteristics – as required by the plot! The humor is enough that the comic seems to wink from behind declarations of disgrace to dragonkind – it’s still too overworked, even as a joke, even if Aaron himself means to goof on the yawning chasm of expectation between on-page super-fighting and in-bubble assertions like “You’re my BEST FRIEND!”, dragon to Thor, but even then: it’s a little bit of what I hope to see when artists I admire show up in unexpected places.
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.
Ant Colony: Being Drawn & Quarterly’s print edition of a 2012-13 webcomic by Michael DeForge, then titled “Ant Comic” but now granted the specificity of milieu North American bookshelves demand. Set in a fantasy variation on the insect kingdom, the story follows assorted characters through a world-smashing shudder of war, biological imperative, natural catastrophe and the tenuous nature of isolated societies as viable structures. The Journal’s Sean Collins declared it a capital-G “Great” comic upon serialization’s close, and now you can judge for yourself without an internet connection. (But, how are you reading this…?) An 11″ x 8.5″ landscape-format hardcover, 112 pages in color; $21.95.
Alone Forever: Ten years ago someone would have made a joke about this being the ultimate indie comics title – aw, fuck it, I just did. But, actually, this is a new 104-page Top Shelf collection of webcomics by Liz Prince, whose 2005 release with the publisher, Will You Still Love Me If I Wet the Bed?, seemed to anticipate a lot of what I come across on my Tumblr dashboard with its blend of super-direct cuteness and upfront sex talk… lack of copyrighted characters, though. Is this a fair assessment? Of course it is – I know everything about today’s youth, and I have the silver medal in Flappy Bird to prove it; $9.95.
The Absence: Don’t know a bloody thing about this 272-page Titan Comics collection of a 2010-13 self-published suspense series by Martin Stiff, but it’s been pretty highly praised by Richard Bruton over at Forbidden Planet, who’s compared it to Gary Spencer Millidge’s Strangehaven. A disfigured man returns to his home village in the wake of WWII, where a whole lot of mysteries await. Isolated pages look pretty neat, probably worth a flip; $19.99.
Milan K. Part 1: The Teenage Years: Humanoids is the source for continental Eurocomics this week, with a 152-page, 8.9″ x 11.7″ hardcover compilation of a 2009-13 series by Sam Timel (a debutante comics writer who’s delightfully cited Miracleman artist, Steven Universe supervising producer and notorious X-Men scribe Chuck Austen as a valuable aid in learning the ropes of the art form) and Corentin Rouge – it’s a political thriller loosely inspired by the life of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, concerning a young man “dedicated to fighting for the oppressed, the ones lacking voice or power,” though unorthodox and apparently gun-laden means. The “Part 1” designates a future continuation of the story with a different artist, though nothing of the sort has yet seen release. Samples; $29.95.
Retroworld: And here is a 2008-13 series from veteran BD writer Patrick Galliano (adapting the SF prose work of Julia Verlanger), joined by artists Cédric Peyravernay (a visual designer for video games, in what I *think* is his comics album debut) & “Bazal” (a Mexican artist publishing his first work in the French industry). The plot seems to concern a special agent tasked by a Galactic Federation to guide the evolution of a dangerous, isolated planet. Super-glossy genre stuff, I’m thinking. It’s 108 pages, at 8.5″ x 11″ in hardcover. Samples; $29.95.
Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Search: This could be my imagination, but I get the impression a lot of comics people aren’t aware that Gene Luen Yang, creator of last year’s gigantically acclaimed Boxers & Saints, has been writing these tie-in comics to the popular Nickelodeon animated series since 2012. Maybe because he’s credited along with the show’s creators, Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko? Am I just projecting my own issues again? Should I try for the gold medal in Flappy Bird? Dark Horse is again the publisher (following last year’s collection of earlier Yang-written material, The Promise), and the format is a no-doubt deluxe 9″ x 12″ hardcover, with 240 color pages. Art by the Sapporo-based duo “Gurihiru,” also of quite a few kid-targeted Marvel projects. Preview; $39.99.
Creepy Archives Vol. 18: Yes, we’re up to issues #84-88 in this improbably successful Dark Horse line of comprehensive reprints for Warren b&w horror magazines. This one’s got Carmine Infantino in collaboration with John Severin, Dick Giordano, Al Milgrom, Ernie Chan, Walt Simonson and Bernie Wrightson, plus Richard Corben, Al Williamson, José Ortiz, Wrightson solo, Esteban Maroto, Gray Morrow, Leopold Sánchez, Ramon Torrents and Wally Wood & Ralph Reese. Samples; $49.99.
The Best of Pantha: The Warren Stories: As you know, Dynamite (instead of Dark Horse) is publishing a line of Vampirella Archives hardcovers in the same format as Dark Horse’s Creepy/Eerie compilations. And now, it seems the publisher is even adopting Dark Horse’s plan for smaller, content-focused collections of Warren material. So, in the tradition of the Hunter and El Cid books, we now have a 208-page, 8″ x 11″ hardcover devoted to Vampirella-based outings by the barely-dressed lady with *cat* powers instead of vampire powers. Foundational artist Rafael Auraleón did some nice stuff on this, and there’s a whole grip of pages by the always-reliable José Ortiz, but the big secret might be Alex Toth’s inks on one of Leopoldo Duranona’s pieces. Note that Pantha’s many supporting turns in the “Vampirella” strip proper are apparently not included, if the table of contents I’ve seen is accurate. Whenever these folks get around to “The Essential Fernando Fernández,” I am totally there. Samples; $29.99.
EC Archives: The Vault of Horror Vol. 3: And then, Dark Horse put out another 216-page hardcover collection of (remastered) color EC comics, with everything in order! Issues #24-29, with art by Johnny Craig, Joe Orlando, Jack Davis, Jack Kamen, Graham Ingels and George Evans. Samples; $49.99.
The EC Comics Library: Sucker Bait and Other Stories (&) Zero Hour and Other Stories: AND THEN, Fantagraphics put out two more hardcovers of b&w EC comics, divided up by artists! Sucker Bait is a 216-page keepsake of ghastly work by Graham Ingels, while Zero Hour focuses its 170 pages on the calm demeanor of Jack Kamen. Samples here; $28.99 (each).
Ms. Marvel #1: Marvel is releasing four new #1 issues on Wednesday, including a Punisher and a Wolverine (and if you think that’s ’90s as heck, know that Dynamite is re-launching Turok Dinosaur Hunter this week with 18 variant covers), but this is the one that’s picked up the most heat, focusing on a Pakistani-American superhero fangirl from a Muslim family becoming the title heroine: not the typical mainline cape comic’s protagonist. It’s coming from writer G. Willow Wilson and artist Adrian Alphona, creators with roots in offbeat front-of-Previews comics of the ’00s – Wilson via several Vertigo works, and Alphona as co-creator of Runaways with Brian K. Vaughan. Preview; $2.99.
Lobster Johnson: Get the Lobster #1 (of 5): And for your continuing superhero choice, 2/5/14, I will highlight the latest from Mike Mignola’s fighting-mad pulp avenger, again written with John Arcudi, and drawn by the silky smooth Tonči Zonjić. Mayhem and pro wrasslin’ in the Manhattan autumn of 1934 are promised. Preview; $3.99.
Dial H Vol. 2: Exchange: And we’ll round it out this week with a superhero trade paperback, cramming in ten comics written by China Miéville – certainly the most curious and transfixing stuff DC saw fit to release in 2013, revisiting the old concept of dialing a phone to summon superpowers… from where? Everything that wasn’t in vol. 1 is here in vol. 2, including last November’s Justice League #23.3, a coda issue drawn by one artist per page; $16.99.