It would be cruel to claim that this is the most arresting image from last weekend’s New York Times Magazine “New York Stories” all-comics special, but it’s definitely what I remember most. I suspect that those of you who’ve read this stuff availed yourselves of the online version and its cheesy animated touches, so I feel the need to specify that there are not only advertisements for $3.5 million apartments in the print magazine, but that sometimes the advertisements interrupt the comics themselves, just like in forward-facing faves from the House of Ideas, effendi. Nothing like settling in for the new Tillie Walden and running into promotions for First Republic Bank; I hope Avery Hill is taking notes, ’cause this is how the big boys do it.
‘Twas the fate of this affair, though. You might be scanning the list of contributors right now and wondering how artists who are mostly not from New York are supposed to come up with New York Stories. The way this is accomplished is that the artists are actually adapting stories from the Times‘ Metro Desk – stories which trend forcefully toward a certain breed of cloying human interest, leavened by sentiment and salted with raised-eyebrow irony. A new development obstructs an apartment dweller’s view, so he hangs a monitor streaming a live feed of the outdoors where his window used to be – technology sure is change-y, and I’m ambivalent! Some of the drawing is good, but almost all of these adaptations are wont to pursue a very direct and literal approach, straining occasionally for poetry in their severely limited allotments of space but rarely evoking more than the tinny particulars of their sensitive vignettes: a woman watches life pass by her window until a kind neighbor joins her; a young man defends his catcalling of girls at the beach in the midst of reverie; the whole darn neighborhood pitches in to help a lady find her lost dog through the wonders of smartphones… still wonderful, somehow, in 2016, from when this dispatch originated in prose. My attention rapidly straying, I found myself most engaged by artists who seemed to be pushing the hardest against the restrictions: Walden, who sets much of her story about a well-off man in the thrall of a fortune teller con artist in a woozy allegorical plane of his dreams and fears; or Sammy Harkham, whose tale of NYC’s lone murder on September 11, 2001, consists entirely of narrative captions over drawings of city architecture, suggesting the great aloofness of history toward the mistimed plight of the individual.
But these are exceptions. Predominantly, it’s the stories that hold prominence in these comics, and I’m not convinced that becoming comics does them many favors. Take Enemies Among Us (drastically reformatted for the online version, fyi), in which Marvel/DC/Archie veteran Francesco Francavilla draws a tale of WWII-era intrigue centered around ferreting out (German) terrorists who’ve slipped into NYC’s immigrant community. This is a very hotly politicized topic, no doubt disinterred from 2002 for the purposes of new relevancy, but while prose could at least theoretically tease out nuance from the account, what emerges from out under the lacquer of Francavilla’s four pages of backlit noir illustration is nothing more trying than a warm bath of civic flattery – one of the terrorists maybe becomes “affected” by the city life (no conclusions), and turns in the rest of them, his reward deportation over execution. I [heart] NYC too, but these tiny vignettes playing at resonance aren’t helped by the translation to comics, and ‘comics’ is helped even less. This is not a testament to comics’ sophistication, of its parity with nonfiction in prose; this is comics as a novelty act, rightfully dismissed the week after so that real work ostensibly can begin again.
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.
Bulletproof Coffin: The 1000 Yard Stare: All due respect to Warner Brothers’ latest, but the first two Bulletproof Coffin series (2010, 2012) have been probably my overall favorite ‘superhero’ stuff of the decade – the creation of the UK-based team of writer David Hine and artist Shaky Kane, the premise drifts heedlessly into and outside of a constructed history of U.S. comic book-making, implicating issues of creativity, legality, sexual desire, childhood play, and bone-deep American resentment throughout. This one-shot is the latest installment, following the aged and washed-up comic book professionals David Hine and Shaky Kane as the latter embarks on an attempted career-reviving solo project at Image. And indeed, this is an Image #1 for your first week of June. Check this one out. Preview; $3.99.
If Found… Please Return to Elise Gravel: Continuing Drawn and Quarterly‘s commitment to Québécoise artists, this 100-page, 6.5″ x 9″ hardcover represents sketchbook work by Montreal-based children’s book author and comic artist Elise Gravel, who’s released a handful of works in English through various publishers. “…not just an exhibition of Gravel’s work, but a challenge to young artists to keep a daily sketchbook,” says the publisher, suggesting a sort of Lynda Barry-like inspirational-pedagogical slant to the material; $17.95.
To Have & To Hold (&) Tarantula: Speaking of noir and pulp and whatnot, here are two releases of that general type. To Have & To Hold is the new book from Graham Chaffee, a skilled cartoonist who became a tattoo artist, with 18 years passing between his story collection The Most Important Thing and Other Stories (1995) and his formerly-most-recent book Good Dog (2013). All of his books have been published by Fantagraphics, and so it goes with this 202-page “hard-boiled disquisition on the darker regions of married life and the American Dream” set in the days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Tarantula is an AdHouse release, evoking something more along the lines of ’60s/’70s exploitation film and horror magazine stuff — and, given the infernal psychedelic focus, perhaps the 1967 cult classic BD album Saga de Xam by Nicholas Devil & Jean Rollin — but dressed in the sickly colors and broad declarations expected from the same creators behind Black Mask’s Space Riders series: the artist Alexis Ziritt and the writer Fabian Rangel Jr., working with letterer Evelyn Rangel. A 96-page color hardcover; $24.99 (Hold), $14.95 (Tarantula).
The Last American (&) The Divided States of Hysteria #1: High-impact comics here, old and new, each adopting a particular critical attitude toward the American project as it stood and stands. The Last American is a 1990-91 miniseries from Epic Comics, which had enjoyed some success with the Pat Mills/Kevin O’Neill series Marshal Law. Here, a different group of bedrock 2000 AD creators participate in the action: writers John Wagner & Alan Grant and artist Mick (Mike) McMahon, following a defrosted Army man as he searches a post-nuke landscape for signs that U.S. citizens are still alive. I know a bunch of you really like McMahon’s art, and he’s in this Rebellion softcover release throughout. The Divided States of Hysteria is a new project from American Flagg! creator Howard Chaykin, an Image comic book series with cover art calculated to stop the breath of observers (though some may simply roll their eyes). It’s Chaykin’s take on these troubled times of ours, in a U.S.A. torn apart by “greed and racism, violence and fear, nihilism and tragedy” – a thriller’s plot seems in the making, with racially-motivated and terroristic killings prominent in the lives of its ensemble cast. Chaykin did a very anxious and politicized version of Challengers of the Unknown back in 2004-05 that I found pretty interesting, and this maybe comes from a similar place; $19.99 (American), $3.99 (Divided).
All Time Comics: Atlas (&) The Infernals #1: Two ‘disreputable’ comic books here – the former explicitly designed that way, and the latter just kinda leaning in. Atlas is the 28-page third installment of the Fantagraphics-published superhero throwback project All Time Comics from writer/frontman Josh Bayer, with frequent contributor Benjamin Marra now handling solo art duties on what we are assured is “the darkest, the most political, the most relevant” of the line… something about corruption and public manipulation. I do like the Das Pastoras covers on these. The Infernals, meanwhile, is a new comic from Verotik, which is sure to raise a hearty cry of “holy shit, Verotik is still around?!” It is, they put out maybe one comic book per year, and it’s still written by Glenn Danzig (whom I will never stop believing is the unstated basis for the lead villain on the new Twin Peaks). Moreover, the credited artist is Simon Bisley, a longtime collaborator who also did the cover illustration for the new Danzig album the other week; $3.99 (Atlas), $4.95 (Infernals).
Jazz Maynard #1 (&) Instrumental: A pair of genre comics dealing with jazz music this week, for some reason. Jazz Maynard is your Eurocomic selection – a crime genre series from contemporary Spanish creators Raúl Anisa Arsís (aka: “Raule”) and Roger Ibañez Ugena about a trumpeter and his guns-blazing encounter with sex trafficking and organized crime. Curvy, subtly anime-inflected visuals (Maynard is very Spike Spiegel), monochrome juxtapositions, deep shadow. Magnetic Press publishes in the form of a comic book miniseries; there’s five albums of stuff out in France right now. Instrumental, oddly enough, is the work of an *actual* jazz trumpeter, Dave Chisholm, who’s also been putting out small-press comics for about a decade now. A Z2 Comics release, the 224-page softcover tells of a struggling musician who gets a mystic and possibly cataclysmic horn, rendered in b&w brushiness recalling Paul Pope and Craig Thompson (and, I suppose, Blutch and his Total Jazz lurking in the back). A download of the official soundtrack by the author will apparently be included; $3.99 (Maynard), $24.99 (Instrumental).
Belgian Lace From Hell: The Mythology of S. Clay Wilson Vol. 3 (of 3): Concluding author Patrick Rosenkranz’s expansive survey of the works of the notorious underground cartoonist – as late as 1989, his work proved instrumental in frustrating the physical assembly of copies of the anthology Taboo 2, so offensive was the art deemed. That stuff and more, from Zap to Weirdo with illustrations, commissions and private paintings, is included in this 8″ x 11.25″, 232-page color hardcover, along with Rosenkranz’s biographical text. A Fantagraphics release; $34.99.
Manga in Theory and Practice: The Craft of Creating Manga: Finally, your book-on-comics for the week is a rare one – a text by a Japanese professional, translated to English. But such is the affection for JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure that we now have a 280-page hardcover manifesto from creator Hirohiko Araki, detailing his methodology for all facets of manga creation. Publisher VIZ suggests that the golden ratio is somehow involved, so please take that as an invitation or a warning; $19.99.