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THIS WEEK IN COMICS! (4/27/11 – No More Thinking)

In the interests of bringing you, the discerning ‘upcoming comics tip sheet’ reader, the most accurate depictions of the titles of imminent funnybooks, I must cop to an error from a few weeks ago: while the cover art of the latest Steve Ditko comic — published by himself and Robin Snyder — does not make use of commas on the cover itself, the inside-front cover directs that the correct transcription of that title should be Act 7, Seven, Making 12, Twelve, of Ditko’s 32s. Needless to say, this more deliberate repetition reinforces — with a whiff of mild disbelief on even the part of the publishers! — the sheer amount of stuff Ditko has completed since 2008′s The Avenging Mind kicked off the series. And just as that debut ’32′ linked specifically to Ditko’s massive 2002 Avenging World compilation of Objectivism-informed comics and essays, so did the most recent issue hearken back to an earlier Ditko work.

This is from The P Mask, another story featuring Ditko’s mysterious shop of Personality Masks, which provides the good consumer with an updated attitude so long as they agree to respect the rational terms of the merchant’s contract. It’s not devilish or anything, just a sales contract; but in the Avenging World, weak-minded people are prone to stripping good (even evidently extra-normal) merchants of their property, prompting some rebuke from the forces that charge seemingly every line in a given panel with ideological meaning. It’s not for nothing that the ‘masks’ are simply updated faces for the various consumers, like how Ditko eventually stopped drawing Mr. A as a guy wearing a metal mask so much as a guy with an abnormally placid face – in that superheroic or nominally ‘supernatural’ occurrences are simply metaphors directing the reader as to the idealized state of the individual, the super-’mask’ can function as nothing more than the revelation of a given individual’s most excellent potential, their real face.

But the squiggles fascinate me, surrounding the individual in panel one from the excerpt above and infesting his new face in panel three. You might think him doomed, given how Ditko usually charges his squiggles of the sort; in contrast to orderly lines, solid separations of black and white, the artist frequently hatches or cross-hatches or scribbles lines to indicate the sickly, infected, disorderly, illogical state of gray confusion and moral corruption. The inside-back cover of the new issue has one of Ditko’s one-page iconographic stories, which illustrates this viral takeover by the (top) squiggly desirous orb of the orderly bottom orb, a violent act of Force prompted by the lie of Entitlement.

Yet the squiggles in The P Mask are a catalyst for the consumer getting his shit together: it’s the mask that made a man out of Mac (not his real name), transforming this weak pushover — prone to lending mustached coworkers money and doing others’ work for them — into a paragon of muscular self-interest.

This instance of ‘good squiggles’ isn’t a contradiction; like money or superhero characters, lines are value-neutral things that can be put toward some purpose. Ditko made extensive prior use of the motif in his 1990 graphic novel The Mocker, the second (and currently last) of his book-length works. A work of ten chapters of ten pages each, The Mocker was initially conceived as a serial for Adventure Illustrated, a proposed magazine from New Media Publications, which had released one issue of another magazine, Fantasy Illustrated, in 1982, featuring Ditko’s art for Steve Englehart’s The Djinn, which would eventually continue in the Epic comic book version of Englehart’s Coyote, since New Media Publications promptly killed its magazines. Ditko would not encounter his completed first chapter of The Mocker until seeing it in color in issue #2 of the Jack Kirby-driven Silver Star from Pacific Comics. He then recovered the original art and planned to continue the story as a back-up for the serialization of his other big project at the time, Static, which he’d positioned as a creator-owned project at Charlton. Static would eventually be completed in two collected/finished books as published by Ditko & Snyder in 1988 & 1989, and The Mocker followed as a self-contained work.

The Mocker differs a bit from Static, which groans under the weight of Ditko positioned each character as a representative of a philosophical viewpoint, all of them apt to demonstrate in great, verbalized detail the true nature of the Hero. In contrast, the later work embodies simple adventuresome qualities Ditko described in his 2007 essay Toyland (reprinted in The Avenging Mind) as the clear morals and standards of the B-western, good white hats opposing evil black hats and conniving gray hats alike in front of the “honest but uncertain sheriff” — the police official as opposed to the superhero vigilante — and the “emotional and moral uncertainty” of the confused, mislead heroine. These archetypes are presented in The Mocker almost undisturbed, if charged with some specific Ditko stuff.

Hey, a hero doesn’t hit a lady, right? Ah, but to balk at this scene is to surrender to prattling emotionalism and irrational sentiment! In the Avenging World, there is acknowledgment of political realities affecting women — irrationalities like sexism — but fundamentally there is no difference between rational individuals, so that leaning on specifically gendered concerns is merely evading the base objective values that inevitably guide every life. In this way, if a woman hits a man, it is an act of force, and to decline to hit her back is only affirming the use of force to wrongfully obtain some objective.

And while it would be inaccurate to say The Mocker doesn’t contain a lot of text, in keeping with the stripped-down, archetypal nature of his storytelling, Ditko lets forceful visual cues carry a lot of his impact and meaning. The title character is indeed a superhero, though it is striking how indistinct his powers are. He can go squiggly so as to “mock” the eyes of onlookers, and apparently he can draw out the light from his surroundings, but the most visual aspect of his powers is never, ever explained:

The Mocker grabs hold of an opponent, and slowly Ditko’s squiggly lines flow into him, blacking him out and, inevitably, prompting some terrified confession. This effect is similar to the infectious nature of the irrational orb seen above, but to a good purpose. The squiggles, then, taken together, are emblematic of sheer Power, often characterized as Force or Fraud, but also liable to become controlled by truly excellent individuals, those who always eventually emerge with clean new faces – at the end of The Mocker, the hero’s superpowers leave him, because he has proven himself a good man.

Oh, a lot of people hate him, of course, and more than a few think he’s a criminal. Society said that about a lot of lone riders in the dime novels and matinees. This is also a typical Ditko theme: the hero remaining satisfied with himself in the face of uncomprehending public disgust, knowing, perhaps, that sometimes you’ve gotta slap the right people no matter what. And, if as Nick Gazin suggests, the better autobiographical comics come from “misanthropic outsiders with points of view,” Ditko’s status as a pioneer of superhero comics as pure self-expression matches him up well with that crew, though he is still a superhero artist, and so he supersedes the concerns of polite society entirely. Expect no alms from him.

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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!

The Bulletproof Coffin: Being a collected edition of the 2010 Image miniseries by David Hine & Shaky Kane, which sears itself most immediately onto the memory as a big colorful showcase for the latter artist, a Deadline and Revolver contributor beloved of connoisseurs if largely elusive from easy access. As it goes, this status factors into the comic itself, seeing a dissatisfied arch-collector becoming embroiled in a weird scheme involving crazy-awesome violent genre comics like he thought they didn’t make anymore. But if Steve Ditko’s violent genre comics mostly stand as a personal ideological expression at all costs, Hine & Kane gradually — in fact at too drawn-out a length — tease out the fate of all comic book characters attached to fragile human creators, suggesting the fan-addict’s path is ultimately that of gorgeous annihilation into the realm of the aesthetic undead. Tongue-in-cheek pop comics arch-conservatism deluxe, AS YOU LIKE IT. Sample issue; $17.99.

Remake Special: Meanwhile, I doubt you’ll find a more ‘contemporary’ funny costume comic than this for the remainder of April – it’s a 112-page AdHouse sequel to artist Lamar Abrams‘ 2009 Remake, a well-regarded collection of “silly action and crazy nonsense,” in the publisher’s words. The new one features the horror of shit, and art that evokes Bryan Lee O’Malley and Kate Beaton in equal measure. Probably worth flipping through. Preview; $9.95.

PLUS!

Sleepyheads: Another release from the very interesting Blank Slate Books, this time an English-language edition of a 2007 release from Belgian artist Randall.C concerning “two main characters who take a walkabout through dreams and stories,” as described by Bart Croonenborghs in a laudatory review from October. It sure looks pretty. Preview; $24.99.

Empire State: A Love Story (or Not): A new Abrams ComicArts release from artist Jason Shiga, in which a dorky guy opts to voyage to the big city in pursuit of the girl to whom he never had the guts to confess his affections. Reviews have been decidedly mixed — including from our own Tucker Stone — though Shiga is a skilled enough stylist that it’s likely worth peeking at on your own; $17.95.

Page by Paige: This is another Abrams release, one of those debut graphic novels from a huge book publisher that’s worth taking note of just to check the scene’s temperature. It looks YA-oriented, tracking a teenage girl’s steps into artistic expression over 192 pages. From artist Laura Lee Gulledge; $9.95 ($18.95 in hardcover).

Showcase Presents: Green Lantern Vol. 5: One of those b&w phone book-sized compilations — 496 pages in this case — released as an inexpensive means of access to vintage superhero material. This one’s noteworthy for collecting the entirety of the early ’70s Dennis O’Neil/Neal Adams run on Green Lantern, noteworthy for the type of questioning ‘social justice’ subject matter that can fairly be positioned at approximately 180 degrees away from Steve Ditko, who indeed positioned the much-cited to “My Ward is a JUNKIE!” content in the aforementioned Toyland as a quintessentially smashing swing of Lazlo’s Hammer. Collects issues #76-100, which also encompasses much of artist Mike Grell’s subsequent tenure; $19.99.

RASL #10: Continuing series dept., U.S. branch – Jeff Smith presents another issue of his pleasingly sun-baked, dusty sci-fi series. Preview; $3.50.

House of Five Leaves Vol. 3 (of 8): Continuing series dept., Japan branch – well, okay, actually this swordsman manga from Natsume Ono concluded its serialization last July, but it’s still popping up on Viz’s SigIKKI online reading service, enough so that we’ve now got another collected edition. Readable here; $12.99.

Justice Society of America #50: Dan will want to be aware of this latest Howard Chaykin sighting, now as a segment artist on an anniversary issue of a venerable super-team series. Oddly, no other artists are credited by name at the moment. Written by Marc Guggenheim; $4.99.

DC Comics Presents: Night Force: I couldn’t tell you why we’re getting a 96-page collection of the first four issues from an early ’80s horror-tinged series, but do note Gene Colan on pencils (inked by Bob Smith). Written by Marv Wolfman; $7.99.

Eerie Archives Vol. 7: We can safely assume these horror comics, meanwhile, are being reprinted because the other million or so pages moved in sufficient volume. This one covers issues #32-36, with art by Tom Sutton, Richard Corben, Ernie Colon, Mike Ploog, Esteban Maroto, Mike Royer and two soon-to-be-better-known-for-their-writing luminaries, Bruce Jones and Steve Englehart; $49.99.

Genius, Isolated: The Life and Art of Alex Toth: Finally, your book-on-comics for the week – a much-anticipated kickoff installment of a three-book series concerning the works of Toth, from authors Dean Mullaney & Bruce Canwell and publisher IDW. The focus purportedly extends from the artist’s beginnings to the start of his animation career in the 1960s, with much original art and several complete stories expected, including the entirety of Jon Fury and a never-before published short from the early ’50s. Vol. 2, Genius, Illustrated, is due in October; $49.99.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST RESERVOIR: Some shops seem to have gotten it in last Wednesday — I’ve personally seen it sitting around — but Diamond has designated this week as the official release of Hate Annual #9, in which Peter Bagge again visits with Buddy Bradley and family, this time for most of the 32-page issue’s space; $4.95. Also, Gilbert Hernandez brings Love from the Shadows, the latest in his Fritz ‘movie’ series (this time the character plays various male and female roles), which has already inspired diverse reactions on this very site; $19.99.

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