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THIS WEEK IN COMICS! (3/9/11 – New History Detail)

Hello, my name is Joe McCulloch — “Jog” to internet lifers or highway patrol officers — and this is the third iteration of a column established at my personal site, Jog – The Blog, and subsequently hosted at the now-defunct online edition of Comics Comics. I am also a very intermittent contributor to the print edition of The Comics Journal, and a two-time recipient of the Nobel Prize for Beauty. My purpose here is to put this site into compliance with the Greater Internet Funnybook Discussion Act of 1933, mandating upon penalties of flogging or better that all comic book websites furnish a weekly post detailing all the awesome crap imminently due. That’s how they pinched Al Capone, but they’re not gonna get Gary Groth.

Of course, I would be remiss to start things up without copping to the shortcomings of this kind of column, which, by its very setup, neglects comics published outside of English-speaking North America or distributed beyond the confines of the comic book Direct Market system. I was reminded of this while flipping through the most recent favorite of my back issue acquisitions, ZUM! #10, a British small press review zine from 1997; most of its guts have since been posted online, but it’s a handsome thing to carry around, 68 dense pages of capsule reviews and short comments — some of them organized into columns by the likes of Paul Gravett, but mostly spread out in alphabetical order as attributed to a variety of sometimes pseudonymous writers — covering seemingly everything released between issue #9 in late ‘95 and the new installment’s arrival at the printer. This is an illusion, I know, but print, tangibility — collecting materials between two covers — gives a whiff of completism to A to Z entries, otherwise not so different from short-form review packages you come across online. It also helps that I’m really and truly in the dark about the British small press scene of 15 years ago, and thereby susceptible to critical narratives about the time and place.

Being a proud and brawny xenophobe, mind you, I did initially gravitate toward the scattered entries for American comics, which I read aloud while facing the flag. Ron Regé Jr.’s The Dum Dum Posse Reader, per Roger Sabin, evidences “too much self-indulgent noodling” and begs uninteresting comparison to Gary Panter’s 1982 Jimbo: A Raw One-Shot, while much of the contents of the inaugural Top Shelf anthology, to Lucinda Cowden, “exemplify the, [sic] ‘will this do?’ genre of anthology contributions, being presumably mainly pieces the authors have failed to be paid for elsewhere.” Clearly this is not a Team Comics effort, although praise is duly forwarded to a variety of early works by Frazer Irving (The Man Who Learnt To Fly #1), Marc Bell (The Mojo Action Companion Unit #4 & #5) and Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes (Pervert Comix #9, excerpted to highlight correspondent James Kochalka declaring “God I love sucking pussy!”). When multiple issues of a given series are on hand, such as with the above-named Bell minis, individual reviewers typically focus on discreet issues, leading to mini-roundtables on, say, the debut of Gary Spencer Millidge’s Strangehaven, or the first six issues of B.C. Boyer’s Hilly Rose.

That last one really caught my eye. Boyer is perhaps not so well known today, but he was a stalwart of Eclipse Comics for the better part of the ’80s, having made his professional comics debut in Eclipse #7, a 1982 issue of the publisher’s b&w magazine anthology, with The Masked Man, a back-to-basics city superhero gifted only with athleticism and determination. The feature would reappear in the next issue of Eclipse, its swan song, and subsequently occupy portions of every issue of Eclipse Monthly, a color, comic book-format sequel that ran for ten issues in ’83 and ’84, after which it graduated into its own color series. In the back of issue #1, Boyer noted that he had been tired of costumed superheroes when initially putting together his stories, although he knew it was what the market wanted; he had thought the young Eclipse would be willing to countenance “shirt-and-tie heroes without superpowers,” and hoped to provide scripts for other artists as a means of raising money for self-publishing efforts.

But in reading The Masked Man today, it seems to me that the content quickly thickened into a survey of why superheroes were tiresome. It is best compared with a temporary sibling feature in Eclipse Monthly, the great Steve Ditko’s Static, a prolix serial investigation of varying philosophical attitudes relating to the concept of heroism, squarely favoring its artist’s rigid notion of the superhero as an ideal figure capable of isolating instances of Good from Bad, White from Black, with no quarter given to the pollution of compromise. It didn’t last long; editorial disagreements led to Ditko’s departure after issue #3, and if the letters columns are any accurate indication of reader consensus, it was not an entirely popular feature anyway, certainly not compared to The Masked Man, which frequently came up for fervent praise.

The funny thing is, the two of them weren’t so different in their aims: both sought to project a personal vision of the genre as dominated by ideals. But their tones varied wildly, with Ditko’s uncompromising explication all but guaranteed to repel the gray, fence-sitting, shadow-kissed types it derided. The Masked Man, by comparison, was a warm bath for genre fans, blending odd, stiff comedy and maudlin drama with the occasionally inspired visual bit of time distortion or long panning, then pouring the works into a whole tub full of fuzzy nostalgia for an indistinct Better Times, impliedly before the mess of darkening, complicated corporate superhero characters, when real heroes relied on their guts, represented the best, and always did the right thing.

It madly flattered the devotee, if in subtext, through the character Barney, the Masked Man’s childhood friend and diminutive sidekick, who declares a good ways through the Epic Monthly run that he loves the hero, moist-eyed and unashamed, and that he can’t bear to see him sign a contract for the big time with a bigger, fancier partner that might spoil their profound personal connection. Naturally, the superhero declares his love for his #1 fan, even as he falls in love with a woman. The solo series becomes a set of trials, with the Masked Man evading the pernicious effect of aligning himself to any spoken political cause; if this feels like a possibly inadvertent shot at the endlessly verbal Ditko heroes, it is later joined by another issue casting a Howard Roarkian demolition-minded architect as its villain. The real focus of that story, though, is the Masked Man and co. witnessing the reunion of a pair of Ditkovian stand-ins, J. Jonah Jameson and Peter Parker, cast as father and son, and inspiring the former to believe in heroes again. In another issue, the Masked Man is laid low by circumstance, but a horde of convention fans — a coin convention, ha ha! — revive his heroic passion. The final regular issue of the series, #9, is the crescendo, with the aforementioned lady love of Our Man shot dead in the midst of his superhero activities and spending half the issue arguing via caption narration that, nonetheless, while her life fades away, it must be said that the Masked Man was the greatest thing in her life. Then the saddened hero is restored to joy by witnessing the power of love in the world, after a big fight with goons, one of whom, fresh out of jail, is welcomed home by his own beloved. B.C. Boyer himself enters the comic then, not for anything British, but to give his characters a big ol’ hug, because he can’t see them much anymore, though three irregular b&w specials followed.

And the fact of the matter is that what I just described was a conflict very pertinent to the day, of utilizing the wide potential access of the young Direct Market of comic book stores to address the state of its already dominant genre from a semi-secure outsider’s position, to strip off its complication and make it personal. This was Ditko’s path since the late ’60s, though his work became comprehensive in reflecting his personal beliefs in high-contrast superhero form; The Masked Man is, ah, ground level in stating and restating the wholesome value of its man-to-man genre take.

ZUM!, in ’97, faced a different thing; Hilly Rose was always b&w and effectively self-published, though Eclipse’s cat yronwode served as editor. At this point the Direct Market had collapsed into the Diamond-dominated form that makes internet tip sheet posts oh so simple to compose, and the series was just seeing the release of its ninth and unwittingly final issue. It was an odd visual jumble of a sci-fi series, blending ‘good girl’ heroine art with Image superhero-like musclebound feints and Walt Kelly critters which in some cases couldn’t help but evoke Jeff Smith. ZUM! reviewer Peter Pavement feared “it might be a bit lightweight to sustain interest,” lamenting its spread-out per issue storytelling, “just like one of those damn mainstream comics.” Less charitable was reviewer mooncat, declaring that Boyer “prostitutes” his work for wide appeal, checking off his seeming on-page influences as if following a recipe for a comic book hit. “Boyer may have broken the shackles of mainstream publishing – it’s just a shame he hasn’t leapt away from it’s [sic] safe lame-brained mind-set and dared a bit of your actual creativity.” There is a separation here between the small-small press, minicomics I mean, and the commercial pursuits of Bone and the like, self-published or not. Maybe it was no newer than the inter-underground conflicts between fantasy/horror-minded artists and others, or even the smaller differences between as befuddling a genre product as Heavy Metal in 1982 and the more conservative outlook of Eclipse. Yet the particulars of this small struggle fascinate me, for the portrait ZUM! frames, forgotten arguments over forgotten artists. Hell, you’ve probably forgotten who I am already.

I am Joseph Robinette “Jog” Biden, Jr., Vice President of the United States of America, and I’m here to talk about upcoming comics.

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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.

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SPOTLIGHT PICKS!

Night Animals: Hey, looks like a EUROCOMICS FRENZY in the spotlight this week! First off we’ve got a new Top Shelf edition of a 2007 release by Belgian cartoonist Brecht Evens, best known for his much-discussed The Wrong Place, released in English by Drawn & Quarterly last year. This one doesn’t involve any words as all, and — at 48 pages — is considerably shorter. Two stories see male and female characters venture into strange worlds filled with odd creatures and saturating colors – perhaps a sleek introduction to this striking artist’s approach. Preview; $7.95.

Weapons of the Metabaron: Meanwhile, at the glowing tunnel’s end of a wait far longer than four years, sits this most elusive of all works related to The Metabarons, writer Alejandro Jodorowsky’s history of a clan of ruthless arch-fighters, each child killing the parent and, per Jodorowsky’s concept of ‘psychomagic,’ inheriting a cruel accumulation of pain and neurosis that can only be released by a ritual act to break the cycle; it was like a meaner, more senses-shattering variant on its parent work, the tarot-informed, Moebius-drawn journey of The Incal. Illustrated by Juan Giménez, the main series stood as a loose tour of heroic adventure tropes and setups, critically positioned as a history of violence, psychologically ruinous to even the victors. This left a lot of room to keep playing beyond the primary chronology, and so a spin-off project was announced around the turn of the 21st century under the tentative title of The Dreamshifters, to be illustrated by American artist Travis Charest, and eventually premised as a series of albums focused on the various weapons used by the Metabarons. A short story by Jodorowsky & Charest subsequently appeared in the 2002 odds ‘n ends collection The Metabarons: Alpha/Omega, released by Humanoids, the North American wing of French publisher Les Humanoïdes Associés.

Years passed. Humanoids entered into an ill-fated alliance with DC Comics, which saw much of The Metabarons re-released, but the Charest project did not materialize. It eventually came out that he had only completed 30 pages of material in approximately six years, after which the project was reassigned to Zoran Janjetov of Jodorowsky’s Avant L’Incal (released in English by Humanoids in comic book form, 2001-02, as simply The Incal #1-12) and The Technopriests. The completed 64-page album emerged in Europe in 2008, by which point Jodorowsky had already begun on another spin-off, the prequel Castaka, with Spanish artist Das Pastoras. Humanoids later revived itself as a presence in North American comics, and so here we have a genuine right proper English-language 7.75″ x 10.5″ hardcover release of the comic, almost certainly presented in so authentic a manner due to the work’s short length and notoriety. See how it works out? Preview (in French, scroll down); $19.95.

PLUS!

Melvin Monster Vol. 3: Being the latest in Drawn and Quarterly’s John Stanley Library of Seth-designed hardcover books, and presumably the last for Melvin Monster, in that I don’t think there’s any more Dell issues of original content to collect. Preview; $24.95.

B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth: Gods #3 (of 3): Generally I don’t make note of ongoing comic book-format series or miniseries in this column, since there’s often not much to say, even on the occasion of a final issue. Moreover, B.P.R.D., like most of the Hellboy family of comics — specifically, it’s the one that concerns a whole team of monster-like superhero-ish operatives — is effectively an ongoing series that breaks its storylines up into miniseries so as to relieve itself of the expectations of monthly output that an ‘ongoing’ suggests. Plus, it allows for smoother transitions in between artists as overlord Mike Mignola’s plots zip back and forth in time and dive into character-specific side stories; generally a primary artist handles the ‘present’ action, Duncan Fegredo for now in Hellboy proper and Guy Davis in B.P.R.D. Except, as was revealed rather suddenly last weekend at the Emerald City Comicon, this particular issue is actually going to be the very fine Davis’ final bow for the time being, as he returns to work on his solo series The Marquis and other endeavors. He will be succeeded by one Tyler Crook, although B.P.R.D. is ahead enough that a side-story concerning firestarter heroine Liz Sherman (The Dead Remembered) is already set for next month with a temporary creative team. Preview; $3.50.

Issac the Pirate Vol. 1: To Exotic Lands: FRENZY. This is not a new comic, granted, but for anyone (like, uh, me) who has a buccaneer-shaped hole in their Christophe Blain library, Diamond is again offering copies of NBM’s 2003 softcover compilation of the first two French albums (2001-02) in the artist’s comedic sea-faring series. It makes for a useful comparison with the publisher’s other ’03 Blain release, The Speed Abater, a 12″ x 8.9″ softcover; measuring at 9″ x 6.6″, the NBM Issac trades size for volume, predicting the current standard for many European comics releases in North America. Note also that Blain’s 2005 fifth album remains to my knowledge untranslated. Preview; $14.95.

Akira Vol. 5 (of 6): This isn’t ‘new’ either, although it’s a new edition of the old 2001 penultimate Dark Horse phonebook collections of Katsuhiro Otomo’s evergreen future conflict sprawl, now published by Kodansha Comics at 408 pages. This is probably the most meat ‘n potatoes action comic of the Akira collections, focusing on post-cataclysm survival maneuvers in anticipation of a grand finale, without a ton of big picture plot movement; some readers might see it as treading water, while others will glom on to Otomo’s propulsive stylings all the easier without distractions. Certainly worth rolling around is the series’ status as a quintessential ‘fusion’ comic, blending manga pace with heavily detailed panels influenced by Western comics, an experimental tactic coming out of the artist’s ’70s professional origins, which eventually mutated the American perception of what Japanese comics were in the ’80s as publishers searched for works in aesthetic communion with comic store stuff; $27.99.

Detroit Metal City Vol. 8 (of 10): Now, the only communion you’ll be receiving from this one is the pungent expulsions of Lucifer. Ha ha, c’mon, Ash Wednesday isn’t until tomorrow! A rather widely popular conceit from artist Kiminori Wakasugi sees a mild-mannered pop music fan discover his startling aptitude and murder & rape-crazy theatrical doom rock, leading to many confusions surrounding his dual personality and the intrusion of eccentrics, super-fans and unlucky observers. The series wrapped in Japan last year, hence the “of 10″ above relating to Viz’s English editions; $12.99.

Twin Spica Vol. 6 (of 16): About 179 degrees away, manga publisher Vertical continues this very cutely drawn Kou Yaginuma series about young people and space travel; $10.95.

Supersized: Strange Tales from a Fast-Food Culture: Fast food-themed Dark Horse anthology of consumptive anecdotes based on the 2004 Morgan Spurlock film, notable for the participation of Tony Millionaire as a contributing artist. Preview; $12.99.

Day of the Magicians: FRENZuuugh, I can’t keep this up. This is Humanoids’ non-Jodorowsky release for the week — although artist Marco Nizzoli has worked with him on the Delcourt series Le monde d’Alef-Thau — compiling a 2003-10 son vs. father warlock fantasy series written by Michelangelo La Neve into 268 color pages. Looks pretty; $29.95.

Vertigo Resurrected: Finals: In possibly more gnarly fantasy, Vertigo brings the latest in its efforts to compile stray material into fat comic book-format collections (parent company DC does the same in its DC Comics Presents line), scooping up all four issues of a well-regarded 1999 weird-experiments-on-campus thingy from Will Pfeifer & Jill Thompson; $7.99.

Honey West #3: One of many licensed comics published by Moonstone Books, cited here for the presence of writer Elaine Lee, co-creator of the massive interstellar saga Starstruck — soon to be a huge color book from IDW — and a too-rare sight in comics today. She’s on for three issues, if I’m not mistaken; $3.99.

Girl Comics: Well, yes yes, that’s the title, it’s a reference to an old Timely Publications series, and I guess it’d be a shame to let a good title just sit around for Marvel but – aaah, just know that this softcover collects a 2010 miniseries devoted to superhero works by female contributors, among them Colleen Coover, Trina Robbins, Jill Thompson, Carla Speed McNeil, Lea Hernandez, Ann Nocenti and more; $15.99.

Power Pack Classic Vol. 3: But if it’s a slightly older Marvel comic you crave in bookshelf format, be aware that Secret Wars II stalks these Louise Simonson-fronted pages (she’s in Girl Comics too), featuring art by future Astro City co-creator Brent Anderson and prolific Jim Lee inker Scott Williams. Collects issues #18-26, with an addition tie-in issue of The Mighty Thor (#363) written and drawn by Walt Simonson; $29.99.

Batman, Inc. #3: After something of a hiatus, one of the current high-toned superhero series of today returns, still written by Grant Morrison and pencilled by Yanick Paquette. We’re a long ways into Morrison’s run on Batman, an uneven mass of content splayed across multiple series and liable to reposition itself as something else with each new launch while still drawing on its increasingly huge back story. The premise now is that Batman is franchising superhero operations across the globe, so in this issue he goes to Argentina to meet a Batman-type character, Gaucho, introduced three and a half years ago in an issue of plain vanilla Batman (#667) where J.H. Williams III drew all of the international Batman characters as if by different artists, so that histories and attitudes could be suggested to the reader through either their knowledge of said artists or just responses to conflicting visual appearances. Gaucho was a “Howard Chaykin” character, which says a lot, and it’ll be something to see if Morrison plays that visual-only characteristic up in his script, given that Paquette is not prone to such mimicry; $2.99.

New Avengers #10: It would be churlish then not to advise that the actual Howard Chaykin is working on another big-time superhero thing, with writer Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Deodato, who draws a separate sequence. Preview (non-Chaykin); $3.99.

The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art: Finally, your book-on-comics for the week – a 296-page Dark Horse hardcover edition of veteran artist Jerry Robinson’s tour of the form, originally published in 1974, and newly updated to 2010. Samples; $39.99.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST RESERVOIR: Artist Mark Kalesniko returns to his dog-headed Alex character in the 420-page graphic novel Freeway ($28.99), while Prince Valiant Vol. 3: 1941-1942 ($29.99) collects 112 pages of restored Hal Foster and supplementary materials authored by one of the editors of this very column. Published by Fantagraphics Books: home for the website you are currently reading.

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6 Responses to THIS WEEK IN COMICS! (3/9/11 – New History Detail)

  1. lllllDavidlllll says:

    Christophe Blain is one of the best writer/artists working in comics today. Isaac the Pirate is well worth reading, along with just about everything else he's done. Hopefully his new book, a comedy about French politics, will be translated eventually. It's great.

  2. zack soto says:

    Oh man, I hate to be that guy, but: Power Pack Classic v.3 is most notable to me for containing the first issues of Jon Bogdanove’s excellent run on the series. He’s completely underrated and I wish he was doing more comics these days. These early power packs are really handsome comics. I’ve been waiting for these volumes to get to this point in the run, as I am obviously a fan.

    • Joe McCulloch says:

      Ha, it's no problem… I don't know much at all about Bogdanove. I think my only experience with his work was passive, during the whole Death of Superman thing back in the day…

    • ahortonart says:

      Bogdanove was great on those issues. I've thought for a while that he has been long due for a reappraisal of his story-telling skills. Both he and Norm Breyfogle were, IMHO, the Jim Aparos of late-80s-early-90s supertights books.

  3. deanmullaney says:

    It's nice to see B.C. Boyer's "The Masked Man" receive attention — ANY attention. I don't recall reading any critical review of the series at the time or since. It was one of only two blind submissions I ever bought as Eclipse's founder and publisher (the other was Scott McLeod's "Zot!"). I felt B.C.'s wholesome take was refreshing. Sure, he was doing somewhat of a pastiche of "The Spirit" and other costumed characters, but Bruce was motivated by a different muse: his strong religious convictions about providing wholesome, yet not bland, entertainment. Looking at the series from his (non-prosletyzing) Christian perspective will provide readers with a new take on the stories.

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