A few weeks ago, the website FairPageRates.com disseminated the results of a 127-person sample size poll concerning payment for professional work in the comic book industry. Amid various comments concerning the undesirability of working for high-profile 'indie' publishers such as BOOM!, Zenescope and Bluewater/Storm Entertainment, there is a brief and telling mention of Avatar Press:
This is understandable. Established in the latter half of the 1990s, the age of the industry crash, as a veritable fallout shelter for sexually-driven 'bad girl' comics and select genre projects, Avatar quickly seized on the promotional appeal of recruiting writers already popular with the wider comic shop readership and allowing them leeway to publish aggressive and extreme content. Today, Avatar is best known for one of that very type of project: the comprehensively violent pseudo-zombie series Crossed, a going concern since 2008 and still trademark & copyright Mr. Garth Ennis, whose name you will also be seeing on the Preacher television show soon enough. Crossed, more than anything -- each issue available in Regular, Wraparound, Art Nouveau and "Torture" variant covers, among others -- has cemented Avatar's identity as "a downmarket gorehound press" per Tim last week, though the same publisher is also behind the industry news/gossip site-cum-print magazine Bleeding Cool, and maintains a continuing side-specialty in sexy girl comics via an imprint, Boundless.
But while these circumstances alone might convince somebody not to associate with Avatar on artistic or moral grounds, I also mean "understandable" in the sense that Avatar is something of a closed house. Once you set aside its passion for variant covers, you notice that the publisher rarely puts out more than ten comics a month, the majority of which are either written or fronted by mainline-experienced names, often drawn by artists recruited from Europe or South America, and colored by a small circle of associates whose names or studio identities repeat over and over. Letterers have not always been credited, though they are now. Even a small sample poll may not be likely to catch those few in the know.
Still, the parties involved are sometimes *very* prominent. Since 2001, Avatar has enjoyed some affiliation with Alan Moore, initially printing works intended for Rob Liefeld's Awesome Entertainment (as opposed to Jim Lee's WildStorm Productions, those of Moore's works for which wound up at DC via the America's Best Comics emergency sub-imprint), then adapting various poems, songs and prose stories of Moore's to comics, essentially filling the miscellany role Caliber Comics sometimes played in the 1990s. Lately, though, Moore has been contributing original scripts to Avatar, most notably the prolonged, cerebral literary horror series Providence with artist Jacen Burrows (who, incidentally, also first captained the good ship Crossed out of port with Ennis). Now, hot on the heels of a $110,333.00 Kickstarter campaign, we have Cinema Purgatorio, a monthly 48-page b&w comics anthology poised to evoke "the craft and quality that the E.C. and Warren luminaries managed, but with an originality and freshness born entirely of our anxious present and uncertain future," or so the pledge drive insisted.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I was a backer, friends, and my exclusive rewards were intriguing indeed.
This is the legal indicia from my $25.00 level "special 64 page Deluxe Hardcover edition," which fills its extra sixteen pages with still photography from the Kickstarter video shoot. That's not important. What caught my interest is the "February 2016" copyright date, which was changed for the general release edition that arrived in comic book stores last week. February was not the month my book arrived, but the month the campaign itself was launched, and while this obviously could just represent an uncorrected placeholder, it may also speak to a vision for the series that existed before crowdfunding was elected as a financial option. Avatar would be well-informed in weighing such possibilities, as this was not its first Kickstarter effort; Boundless, the aforementioned sexy girl imprint, has made extensive use of crowdfunding to will the likes of Jungle Fantasy: Vixens into existence (and, if I'm not mistaken, to transfer Avatar's older 'bad girl' holdings into digital format for new sales), and surely it would be assumed that the Alan Moore name might conjure a nice head start for the project - especially useful given the state of its ownership.
If you look closely at the text above, you'll notice that Moore and frequent collaborator Kevin O'Neill are the only team that seem to outright own their contribution. Three of the four other features are TM & © their writers alone, while the last of them looks to be owned wholly by Avatar itself. Financially, this can mean several things, and I am not privy to the discussions between creators and publisher that would set those terms, but, nonetheless, we can confidently guess that most of the artists and one of the writers are thus being paid some kind of page rate (or similar guaranteed remuneration) for their efforts. You can offset that expense handily with $110,333.00, and, anyway, I don't think anyone involved would be surprised by this setup, because, save for O'Neill, everybody involved with Cinema Purgatorio is involved with other Avatar projects. All of the writers and artists are men; I can't think of any women writing or drawing for Avatar at the moment.
Something of a closed house - and this is a house anthology, with a somewhat different identity than its campaign text let on.
Note that all stories are lettered by Kurt Hathaway, a longtime industry veteran in that capacity and, tangentially, a former Alan Moore editor via 1995's Violator vs. Badrock miniseries at Image.
Cinema Purgatorio, created by Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill
What you see above is really the only thing in all of issue #1 of Cinema Purgatorio that looks anything like an E.C. comic or a Warren magazine - O'Neill swoops wavily around the page with textures that recall the ink wash pages Steve Ditko created for Archie Goodwin in Creepy and Eerie. There is no horror host in Cinema Purgatorio-the-series, but insofar as "Cinema Purgatorio"-the-feature shares its name, we can hardly not at least contemplate it as setting the anthology's tone, and that tone is both dreamy and unnerved.
A man sits alone in a weird old movie theater: a sordid palace, both grand and appalling in its potential for dreams/debauchery. When we are observing the theater, O'Neill draws in the style above, but when the man (and we, via him) watch the film playing on the screen, the artist switches to high-contrast ink drawing in his familiar style. For a long time, O'Neill was associated with a very harsh and anarchic tone; I don't know if LoEG has changed this among comics readers, but Moore here gives him a Keystone Cops movie to direct, which fits very nicely - especially when the film, to the slow-dawning shock of the narrating viewer, becomes extremely brutal and violent in its slapstick, into the realm of a snuff film. Yet still the cops romp and race, looting the public and leaving several, the infamous Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle among them, for dead.
Moore is sometimes accused of cynically and/or lazily darkening aspects of pop culture for profitable shock value, but lately -- as with the H.P. Lovecraft-sourced Providence, or even his Winsor McCay homage Big Nemo with Colleen Doran -- he has been occupied with subjects that require no darkening. Anybody who has watched enough in the way of really old movies has heard whispers that you can see extras die on camera far in the background of silent epics like Ben-Hur, and Roscoe Arbuckle is still known to some today for accusations of which he was acquitted in a court of law. Moore too is aware of these sinister aspects, half-imagined but often deleterious nonetheless, and so "Cinema Purgatorio" exists in a liminal state, where films are half-watched and half-imagined, the damning circumstances surrounding their creation superimposed upon their pictures, which eerily reconfigure to become just as legible as before. And, of course, you can hardly look at happy knockabout police without inadvertently recalling the many controversies of police behavior today, so these modern political concerns too are projected onto the soiled silver screen.
In this way, the horror of movies comes from the idea that even the most familiar and 'innocent' of classics among them might someday manifest the anxieties and tragedies that surrounded their making, no longer as artistic metaphor, but unavoidable full-blast text, hellishly free of commercial imperative, with you trapped there in the dark. A horror publisher could scarcely dream of a more flattering creative ideal.
Code Pru, created by Garth Ennis & Raulo Cáceres
At this point we begin to encounter artists known mainly for working with Avatar, though Raulo Cáceres actually made his English-language debut years ago via Eros Comix's '00s releases of horror-tinged sex projects like Elizabeth Bathory and Morbid Tales. To my eye, he has since taken up the mantle once held by fellow Spaniard Juan Jose Ryp as the Avatar artist who most completely embodies the Avatar aesthetic: do everything as much as possible, then do it more. Look at those burns! Hell, look at the rippling shadows on those paramedic uniforms! This is a laborious and ink-damp realm, fit to accommodate any excess.
Funny, then, that "Code Pru" is so light. Continuing a two-issue comic book series Ennis & Cáceres debuted earlier this year, the concept finds a committed atheist paramedic finding her personal beliefs in rationality rudely challenged every day in a world prone to coughing up fanciful monsters from movies, myth and literature. Conceptually, it's an amusing role-reversal on the theme of religious offense, which Ennis slyly introduces by limiting his story to a conversation between a more experienced colleague of Pru's and a suicidal vampire; the agony of living forever is hardly a new theme in such fiction, but these eight pages are less a disquisition on vampirism than a means of communicating the heroine's personality, quickly analyzing the situation by the logic presented to her, only to realize how completely absurd the rules have been in a lovely last-page punchline.
And it is not a 'twist' in the E.C. vein, but a 'punchline' fit for 2000 AD, where Ennis was honing his short-form skill since he was a teenager. Him and Moore are not of the same generation, but they both were educated in the British strip and anthology tradition, which prizes storytelling economy; tellingly, both of these writers are by far the most adept at providing satisfyingly full narratives under similar constraints here. But Ennis is less pastiche-driven than Moore, and Cáceres less adaptable a visualist than O'Neill; immediately, then, Cinema Purgatorio begins to resemble less a flickering vision of disobedient media, than the sum of its contributors' artistic bases: a UK-type anthology, an Avatar comic.
Modded, created by Kieron Gillen & Ignacio Calero
And then the young people roll in and fuck everything right up. Actually, Kieron Gillen is only about five years Garth Ennis' junior, but as an influential video games journalist writing pop music comics like Phonogram and The Wicked + The Divine (published by Image, both with artist Jamie McKelvie), he seems decades removed in style and subject matter. Even his most popular Avatar work, the interesting Nazi superhuman alternate WWII history series Über (presently on hiatus) feels narratively removed from Ennis' modern permutations of British battle comics, adopting a sort of half-serial drama, half-faux-documentary SF format better aligned with works by Warren Ellis, an early Avatar mainstay conspicuously absent in recent years.
I say this to suggest that "Modded" reflects less the values of UK anthology narrative economy than those of serial comic books manifesting a style Ellis used to call "decompression." We do not get a full story here, but an introductory vignette, in which greedy Tommy Zero accosts Fringe, a newbie in the fantastical post-invasion desert wasteland that is the story's setting, and seizes her one and only daemon in ritual combat. Tommy Zero is a sociopathic expert player in this game, thoughtlessly pressing his phalanx of painfully techno-modified creatures into a life of ceaseless, abusive combat for the purposes of unexamined accumulation; perhaps only the kickass rover Bloody Susan and her noble steed Mister Boom are gud enough to bring him to heel!
This is, of course, an uncomplicated reflection of online video game anxieties: both the general tragedy of attempting to hop into a game more than a week past launch and getting flattened by experienced and unsympathetic players, as well as the gendered trials facing women participating in the scene. But there's also something else. The artist, Ignacio Calero -- a cartoonist and editor from Uruguay who's done a few Marvel/DC superhero projects and, more recently, a one-off issue of Boundless' Belladonna -- draws in a wriggled and hatchy style, grotesque but sometimes indistinct in a manner not uncommon to some of the art filling midlist books from major-minor North American genre publishers, but fundamentally this is extremely Japanese subject matter. The warfare game played in "Modded", at least in the way Tommy Zero plays it, is a monster collection game, an absolutely massive thing in Japanese culture, ranging from the youth phenomenon of Yo-Kai Watch to the mobile phone megahits of Puzzle & Dragons and Monster Strike. Old faithful itself Pokémon was just shitting out some new designs earlier today - and you can bet your ass all of these properties have comics or cartoons associated with them. Hell, there's even dark and bloody adult takes now in translation: check out this week's release of vol. 2 for Yoshihiko Inui's Tomodachi x Monster from Seven Seas, which works in a violent and sadistic metre friendly to Avatar readers.
What I am getting at is that while Cinema Purgatorio is ostensibly a continuation of U.S. horror anthology ethos, and one that moreover operates in part like a U.K. serial anthology, it is also not unconscious of the most comics anthology-rich place on Earth: the world of manga. This too, I see as a generational trait, and in departing from what little thematic continuity there is in this book, it speaks of the differing swirls of information surrounding its varied contributors.
A More Perfect Union, created by Max Brooks & Michael DiPascale
One does begin to wonder, however, about Avatar itself. This entry is an absolute bore. Max Brooks is best known for the 2006 prose novel World War Z, though he's written a fair number of comics, including ten issues of Avatar's The Extinction Parade (drawn by aforementioned Raulo Cáceres), a sledgehammer wallop of class criticism by way of vampires vs. zombies, scripted in the purplish vein of the proto-Vertigo DC horrors. But the very least of those comics are nowhere near as dull as this - eight pages of American Civil War personality Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain fretting over his assignment to lead a band of Confederate deserter "miscreants," then tentatively addressing said miscreants re: an unusual threat, until something indistinct happens off-panel, at which point the chapter ends.
Nowhere in this comic are we actually told the premise of "A More Perfect Union", which is that the American South has been invaded by gigantic insects, presumably forcing the warring sides into an uneasy alliance for the purposes of survival. Conceivably, we are meant to find this chapter deliciously subtle in its prodding of Civil War history, coaxing unease before anything so loud as monsters deign to appear, but an included set of explanatory notes by the writer -- the only such feature in Cinema Purgatorio -- seems to indicate that most of the history depicted is studiously accurate, which reflects well on Brooks as a researcher, I guess, but as a dramatist? Artist Michael DiPascale is left stranded in a sea of talking heads and stratagems aimed to relieve the tedium of such; I counted 4 of 22 Panels That Always Work. This is a shame, as DiPascale's frequently bizarre semi-anthropomorphized animal characters in Avatar's domestic-pets-caught-mid-apocalypse series Rover Red Charlie (written by Garth Ennis) suggest he can bring something novel to a monster comic, but his PVC humans glower here without panache.
Comparisons to the rest of Cinema Purgatorio are damning. "Code Pru", despite having two issues of a predecessor comic book behind it, still manages to communicate its premise through the natural playing-out of its story, which satisfies as a single unit while also whetting the appetite for more. "Modded", while different in its narrative aims, nonetheless offers scenes that aim to embody the appeal of the ideas at play. This, candidly, reads like it was conceived as the first eight pages of a full-length comic book that got too far into production for editorial intervention when the decision was made to break it into anthology pieces. Sheer speculation, I know, but it does remind me that there is no special editor on this project. There is only Avatar's fixed crew of today: EiC William Christensen, Creative Director Mark Seifert, Managing Editor Jim Kuhoric, and Production Assistant Ariana Osborne. They are all presumably quite used to working with these creators, and here we may be witnessing the peril of deference.
The Vast, created by Christos Gage & Gabriel Andrade
So, despite its very lucrative hype, steeped in Alan Moore's irreplicable personality, Cinema Purgatorio feels mostly like a group of people given left to their own devices. This is not an unusual result for a comics anthology, and often is a reason people give for not bothering with such; certainly this debut issue lacks the sense of vision and ambition found in Stephen R. Bissette's & John Totleben's Taboo, the 1988 debut of which sought to address the past, present and future of American horror comics by wrangling creators from far and wide: Charles Burns; Clive Barker; S. Clay Wilson; Eddie Campbell; Chester Brown; Alan Moore.
But 2016 is not 1988, and Cinema Purgatorio, in struggling visibly, does indicate the transitional nature comics publishing today, with seemingly all of history available, but reliable formats teetering on uneasy economics.
"The Vast" is TM & © Avatar Press, Inc. Its artist is Gabriel Andrade, most recently seen in Boundless' revival of the 'bad girl' series Hellina; he has also worked extensively on Lady Death, specializing in let's-say-'traditionally' sexy women that don't come off as a 13-year old's uninformed suppositions. However, Andrade also has a keen ability to create booming moments of violent impact, as seen in his issues of Über and the David Lapham-scripted werewolf crime drama Ferals. He is apparently valued enough at Avatar that he was suggested to draw Alan Moore's six-issue tenure on Crossed (specifically, the first six issues of the futuristic spinoff series Crossed +100), but that was a slow-burning piece filled with melancholic personal observations and heavy cultural dismay; while he can ably depict weathered and beaten-down faces and forms, I did not think it played to his strengths.
Writer Christos Gage, however -- a Marvel/DC superhero specialist, known at Avatar for an unremarkable dark spandex concept titled Absolution and some conventional arcs of Crossed -- just urges him to explode. This is another Japanese-informed piece, with military fighter jets caught in the middle of an oceanic kaijū throwdown, but unlike "Modded", it actually *feels* like a proper shōnen/seinen manga in its rampage of splashes and swooshes. The downside, though, is plain; when you've only got 6 pages to work with, as opposed to the 20 or so you'd be rationed in a Japanese magazine, the story is over in seconds. Plus, those magazines would have arranged a dozen more serials for steadied impact; needless to say, "The Vast" is not in sync with whatever else Cinema Purgatorio is doing.
And... I liked it! It's a fun little way to send off the issue, feeling so self-assured in its micro-mission. This may not be an entirely satisfying anthology right now, but neither does it fall into the trap of homage I thought it might from its promotional evocation of American horror comics warhorses and its movie house decoration. No, this is more a loose republic of little Avatar comics, and some of them, unadventurous and presentably-'excessive' as they are, at least admit to glimpsing a different world outside.
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, and that I also run a podcast with an employee of Nobrow Press. 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. You could always just buy nothing.
Cigarette Girl: And so, in honor of manga, I will place two unusual works up here in the spotlight. This one has been a VERY long time coming, announced by Top Shelf before very many English readers were aware of Masahiko Matsumoto importance to the maturation of Japanese comics in the 1950s, as crucial as that of Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Now we have Breakdown Press' early works collection The Man Next Door and, for all you polyglots, Le Lézard Noir's edition of the autobiographical Gekiga Fanatics en française, so consider yourselves ready for this 264-page blast of early '70s stories, in which "shy, uncertain heroes face broken hearts, changing families, money troubles, sexual anxiety, and the pressures of tradition, but with a whimsy and lightness of touch." Edited by Sean Michael Wilson, with an introduction by Tatsumi and a biographical text by the great editor/historian Mitsuhiro Asakawa; $24.99.
Guardians of the Louvre: This 8" x 11" NBM hardcover, on the other hand, is technically of French origin -- one of many albums produced in conjunction with the famed museum of the title -- but the story and art is by Jirō Taniguchi, he of crystalline cartoon realism. A foreign artist "discovers many unsuspected facets to this world in a museum in a journey oscillating between feverish hallucination and reality," which I admit may aggravate Taniguchi's tendencies toward genteel sentimentality, though it's not every week you get to see this guy in blazing full color. Samples; $24.99.
Secretimes (&) Theth: Two here from very particular visualists. Secretimes is an 88-page color release from Drawn & Quarterly, a social satire via animal characters from Keith Jones, whose 2010 book Catland Empire was praised by Pittsburgh's Copacetic Comics Company as "the first true 'post-Fort Thunder' graphic novel." Theth has been around from Retrofit/Big Planet for a while; in fact, it was in The Best American Comics last year, but I presume it's only making its way to Diamond-serviced comic book stores now. An 80-page account of an '80s superhero-reading kid who can't relate to what's going down, it's the work of the very prolific Josh Bayer; $19.95 (Secretimes), $10.00 (Theth).
Lou (&) Video Tonfa: Two here distributed by Alternative Comics. Lou was series of stories concerning a community of children and their older relations that Melissa Mendes put out as simple minicomics back when Oily Comics had a subscription service for those. Now Alternative itself publishes a 160-page collection. Video Tonfa is published by Floating World; over 608 pages, Tim Goodyear presents box art drawings and handwritten reflections on 300 films he has viewed. Like a big pillow of a zine, I'd wager; $14.95 (Lou), $24.95 (Tonfa).
Everything is Teeth (&) Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride: Two here from the ever-popular genre of bookstore-ready memoir. Everything is Teeth is the latest release from Pantheon (actually a North American edition of a 2015 UK release from Jonathan Cape), in which novelist Evie Wyld pairs with illustrator Joseph Sumner for a depiction of the former's youthful fascination with sharks, and also "family, love, loss, and the irresistible forces that... course through life unseen." Something New hails from First Second and Lucy Knisley, a burgeoning superstar of the genre. This one, 304 pages in color, covers Knisley's efforts at putting together a DIY wedding; $24.95 (Teeth), $19.99 (Something).
Adam Sarlech: A Trilogy (&) Koma: Two here from Humanoids, and their endless universe of Eurostuff. Adam Sarlech is an older series (1989-93) from Frédéric Bézian, a fantastically sharp-angled draftsman who straddled the terrains of mainline and alternative BD; expect gothic, occult fantasy in these 168 pages, presented at 9.4" x 12.6". Koma will be of particular interest to some of you, as it's a new softcover edition of an early series (2003-10) drawn by Frederik Peeters, now best known for the series Aâma with SelfMadeHero. Written by Pierre Wazem, its a fantasy of childhood and chimney secrets, complete here in 280 pages; $34.95 (Sarlech), $19.95 (Koma).
Brit-Cit Noir: Two here... excuse me, one here from 2000 AD, published by Rebellion and imported from the UK for your pleasure. It's a 112-page collection of very tangential Judge Dredd universe stories set in the UK of that increasingly reality-like world, though I am highlighting it pretty much exclusively for the 2012 serial Strange & Darke: New Blood from artist Colin MacNeil and the great UK comics writer John Smith, who whip up a sexually-charged investigation into demonic happenings out in the Welsh countryside. Covertly, it reprises issues #3-4 of Smith's ill-fated 1993-94 Vertigo series Scarab with artists Scot Eaton & Mike Barreiro; I did a comparison ages ago. Delightful stuff either way; $24.99.
Arctic Comics: Speaking of anthologies -- and what the fuck else have I been going on about for most of these 4,500 words? -- this 80-page all-color Renegade Arts Entertainment release vows to present stories by Inuit and northern Canadian comic creators. Lots of samples there behind the link, along with explanations of the various participants' backgrounds, which I don't want to just copy down lacking in any other familiarity; $15.99.
Island #7 (&) Pop Gun War Vol. 1: Gift: I am, however, very familiar with Island, the image anthology fronted by Brandon Graham and Emma Ríos. This issue has a long debut serial piece from artist Johnnie Christmas (40 pages, or almost the entire length of Cinema Purgatorio #1). Michael DeForge was mentioned at one point in connection with this issue, but I don't think he's supposed to appear anymore. Prior issues, incidentally, saw some work from Farel Dalrymple, and now Image has begun a multi-volume collection effort for all of his solo Pop Gun War stories. This 144-page debut volume should represent much of what was in the 2003 Pop Gun War book from Dark Horse, which itself collected a 2001-02 comic book series, although some new pages are also planned; $14.99 (Pop Gun), $7.99 (Island).
The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 6: Outer Limits: Continuing Fantagraphics' line of Ditko short reprints with another 240 pages, this time heavy on the sci-fi stories, and leading up to the artist's involvement in the renaissance of Marvel, a period editor Blake Bell should detail in his supplementary texts; $39.99.
Pioneering Cartoonists of Color: Finally, your book-on-comics of the week is a 128-page University Press of Mississippi release by cartoonist Tim Jackson, covering the history of black cartooning in the United States from the 1880s through the 1960s, with approximately 170 illustrations provided; $35.00.