Strange are the paths this column takes! Several months ago, I posted about a Kickstarter campaign to fund a second edition of a rare Steve Ditko comic (there is presently another campaign, dedicated to printing Ditko’s illustrated essay Laszlo’s Hammer with unspecified supplements). Tragically, somebody followed my advice, as Jacob Canfield was moved by his eventual reading of the book in question to write an essay at the Hooded Utilitarian comparing Ditko’s work to that of the indelible religious cartoonist Jack T. Chick. A discussion ensued in the comments, which led me to this suite of capsule reviews by Robert Adam Gilmour, who specifically drew my attention to Cecil’s Quest, a book of photo comics by Czech artist František Skála which had attracted Robert through a mention in (editor) Paul Gravett’s 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die.
And so, before I was dead, I too came to read Cecil’s Quest. “I have a vague feel for your taste,” Robert had told me, and he was only incorrect as to the vagaries.
Published in 2007 by the Arbor vitae in association with art agency Taktika Muzika — an exhibition of the 322 photographs taken for the book toured at the same time — Cecil’s Quest is a very lovely 10.5″ x 8″ landscape-format hardcover, probably conceived as an art book as much as a comic, though it is certainly not a mere catalog of photographs. I am unaware of any prior comics works by Skála, though he has illustrated some children’s books, and is doubtless aware of the storytelling capacity of images arranged in a sequential manner. He appears to have done basically everything involved with the creation of the book alone, from the building of models to the shooting of photographs, probably including the English-language lettering, although a translator (Robert Russell) is credited, as well as a lithography studio which aided in the graphic design and (presumably) the physical development of the photographs.
Several lavish, full-page images are included, but there is actually a lot of panel work, the layouts of which can probably be credited to Skála as well.
The plot of Cecil’s Quest is extremely simple: the eponymous forest-dweller, your classical inquisitive youth, suffers the kidnapping of his lady love at the hands of a nefarious magician, and thusly traverses bucolic and unfamiliar landscapes in pursuit, witnessing the changing of the seasons as he draws closer to the center of corruption — as surely as winter gives way to spring, the reader can presume good will triumph over evil! — and meeting odd companions along the way.
If there is some folkloric basis for the scenario, I must admit ignorance, although like Robert I found myself captivated by Skála’s images, which imbue his hand-sculpted fantasy characters with a good deal of life. See how much emotion is succinctly conveyed by the lowering of an arm between panels four and five above; it goes a long way toward covering for the occasional lack of clarity to the artist’s setups — they are always well-composed, but not 100% declarative in the manner of a good “establishing shot” — and the inevitable stiffness of the photographic approach in depicting movement, though Skála is better at it than most.
Yes – “most.” Always, I am seeing connections, though perhaps it is best to look outside the comics scene.
Witness: 2010’s Welcome to Marwencol, a much smaller (6.5″ x 5.25″), softcover landscape-format book self-published by artist Mark E. Hogancamp with editor Chris Shellen. The film buffs among you might recall a Jeff Malmberg documentary from the same year, titled simply Marwencol, which detailed Hogancamp’s background as an illustrator who, following a severe beating and resultant memory loss, constructed a WWII-era city populated by hand-modified dolls as a means of self-therapy. Welcome to Marwencol presents stories from that fantasy city, presented through Hogancamp’s own photographs.
Unlike with Cecil’s Quest, nobody in the world is calling Hogancamp’s book a comic, though it not only functions in exactly the same way (albeit without in-frame word balloons), but strongly recalls the American tradition of macho, action-packed WWII fiction, of which comics has thoroughly partaken. The Belgian town of “Marwencol,” you see, is a desolate place into which strapping Cap’n Hoagie desperately parachutes, only to find it populated by beautiful war widows and lost children; abandoning active combat, the Captain transforms Marwencol into an oasis of leisure, where common grunts of any nation can find solace and peace… at least, until the ideologically-driven SS arrive, and arms must again be raised.
It is no more complicated a plot than Skála’s, although conceptually it is a bit sexier, with its themes of disrupted peace unavoidably resonant with the circumstances of Hogancamp’s life that led to the work’s very creation – autobiographical narratives are the easiest for commentators to deliver. Moreover, Hogancamp’s performers are interesting insofar as they are recognizably toys of the G.I. Joe and Barbie sort, appropriated into a simulacrum of adult affairs: an artificial, fantasy narrative, then, disinterred from men’s magazines and populated by objects of play, cultural flotsam pressed into the service of aiding an injured man in his processing of daily life. Such is the narrative, rightly striking as the Barbies push back against the army men with the life of Hogancamp’s own avatar on the line.
These are facing pages in the book, and probably the best use of motion in Welcome to Marwencol, as the reader’s eye follows the outstretched arms and the invisible bullets flying, one imagines, from the chambers, into the bodies of the thugs on the right of the second image.
Skála’s usage of comics potentials is a little more sophisticated, as evidenced by this fragmented statement, which reads not unlike a Warren Craghead page, aiding the reader’s navigation of the image through intuitive gaps in words and spatial relationships between individual balloons. At risk of sounding totally ridiculous, I would even deem this image a metaphor for the artist’s whole approach, which positions completely hand-made performers against primarily natural woodland settings; as such, Skála exploits a tension between the observable and the imaginative, which perhaps exists at the heart of folk tales of the oral tradition, devised and handed down as a means of imparting life lessons, establishing cultural myths and explaining the phenomena of nature.
This is a unique trait of photo comics, which surrender some aspect of manufacture to automatic processes, an inhuman quality that affords the image what André Bazin once called “irrational power.” You can never accept a photograph as so flatly analogous to some imagined, internal reality as you might a good page of cartoon drawing, which functions as a perfect world operating on only the artist’s logic – instead, objective reality intrudes, even if only through the seams of developmental tricks and image manipulation. It is fortunate, then, that these two works are so specifically about tale-telling and fantasy; the alert reader cannot help but be aware of the circumstances of their creation.
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.
Over the Wall: Another week, another Uncivilized Books release, but this time it’s a debut graphic novel, albeit heavily reconfigured from an initial webcomic version. The artist is one Peter Wartman, and the scenario sees a young girl searching for a lost sibling in a city devoid of memory. I’ve really enjoyed Uncivilized’s rather old-school Direct Market-style adventuresome comics releases so far — James Romberger’s Post York springs to mind first, but Zak Sally’s Sammy the Mouse, what with its religious connotations, grotesque gag work and cross-cut depictions of societal failings in a mysterious fantasy universe, is covertly as Cerebus as all holy fuck — so I’d be very willing to follow the publisher into this comperably uncharted region. Preview; $14.95.
The Twin Knights: Osamu Tezuka. Sometimes, his works seem to comprise half of the ‘vintage’ manga available today. When the book is written on this phenomena — a small book, maybe — it will be a fascinating study of the tricks of history and promotion that lead an artist into a place where even the most overworked culture writer and oblivious neophyte can find that one thing to link them, however tenuously, to some understanding of a great and obscure tradition. Still, conservative that I am, it seems churlish to begrudge the dead author his prominence, when even ‘new’ popular works struggle for dimes flicked over the shoulders of a departing audience. Anyway, this is a 320-page release from Vertical, constituting Tezuka’s 1958 re-imagining of his girls’ comics smash Princess Knight — the sort of breathless, careening, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink entertainer that keeps me coming back to Tezuka in the first place, available in two earlier Vertical volumes — as a short serial for even younger kids, concerned with a princess’ masquerade as a boy in pursuit of her kidnapped brother; $13.95.
A Bag of Marbles: The Graphic Novel: Hmm, what’s going on in mainstream book-publishing comics? Adaptations of successful prose releases? Weighty considerations of worthy historico-political topics? BOTH?! Yes, it’s Lerner Publishing with a 128-page YA-market poised comics version of Joseph Joffo’s 1973 account of a childhood in flight from Nazi forces in occupied France. Still, I’d flip through this to check out the art by BD veteran Vincent Bailly, who originally serialized the work for the French market (2011-12) in collaboration with scriptwriter “Kris” – very nice watercolor-type visuals here, hopefully not too cramped at reduced 7.7″ x 10.6″ dimensions. Many samples; $9.95.
Fagin the Jew: Elsewhere, in more Direct Market-targeted corners of comics, some separately literary shit goes down as Dark Horse presents a 10th anniversary hardcover edition of Will Eisner’s fictive criticism of anti-Semitic tropes active in Dickens’ Oliver Twist. It’s 136 pages at 6.5″ x 9.25″, with a foreword by Brian Michael Bendis and an introduction by Jeet Heer. Preview; $19.99.
Dial H #15: The readable DC comics continue to drop like flies, as this week brings the final episode of China Miéville’s mad saga of superhero appropriation, drawn for this extra-sized installment by Alberto Ponticelli. Note, however, that a coda of sorts is scheduled for next month’s Justice League #23.3: Dial E, in which Miéville will debut 20 new villains over 20 pages with the assistance of 20 artists, no doubt in the interests of pushing corporate superhero comics further along where they’re going; $4.99.
Trillium #1 (of 8): But each ending brings a new beginning when there’s a publishing slate to fill, and now writer/artist Jeff Lemire, a reliable mainstay of recent DC superhero scripts, explores a new Vertigo concept with this tale of interstellar botany, post-WWI conquest of the wild, and a colorful unraveling of time and space. Preview; $2.99.
Pathfinder: Goblins! #1 (of 5): This appears to be a Dynamite anthology series based on an RPG, which has spawned prior comic books from the same publisher. It is noted here for the participation of Adam Warren of Empowered as writer for one of the featured stories (as drawn by Carlos Gomez). Samples; $3.99.
Satellite Sam #2: Tucker mentioned enjoying issue #1 of this Matt Fraction/Howard Chaykin series last week, but I’m going to highlight the new one here above Image’s usual slew of probably-good ongoing concerns — I’ll be getting new issues of Prophet and Fatale too — to call attention to an interesting tendency in Fraction’s scripting of late. A recent issue of Hawkeye (#11) picked up a good deal of attention for its evocation of various ‘literary’ or ‘art’ comic techniques (including a full-page homage to Richard McGuire’s “The Thinkers” from RAW Vol. 2 No. 2 that Jeet Heer had to press my nose into before I even noticed), but Satellite Sam is just as much a work of prominent allusion. In fact, it’s a much better one so far, in that appropriates the wall of visual noise employed by Chaykin and letterer Ken Bruzenak in the media-saturated SF likes of American Flagg! and Time2 for the purposes of conveying the less-fantastic but no less harried atmosphere of frantic live (sci-fi) television in our own, real world. Better still, Chaykin & Bruzenak are active participants in the drama, which will now presumably expand to examine an unexpected death among the crew, a sci-fi television actor perhaps not unlike the actor hero of Flagg!, now specifically consigned to an examinable past. Preview; $3.50.
Alan Moore’s Fashion Beast: This is the new Alan Moore comic from Avatar, which is to say it’s the newest adaptation of a preexisting Moore concept for the publisher to realize (for the record, the only original Moore comic Avatar has released is the 2010-11 family favorite Neonomicon, although 2014 promises the arrival of the ten-issue, also-new Providence). Nonetheless, a cinematic intent allows for some interesting visual decompression in this Antony Johnston-formatted, Facundo Percio-drawn book, 256 pages derived from a screenplay Moore authored in the mid-’80s with Malcolm McLaren, transplanting Beauty and the Beast to a world of designer glamor; $24.99 ($32.99 in hardcover).
Frank Miller’s Robocop: The Last Stand #1 (of 8): But “sequential adaptation” is no new trick for Avatar, which in the middle part of the ’00s carved a weird, vivid niche out of supremely violent and garish (yet nonetheless *official*) tie-in comics for movie properties. Among the most memorable of those outings was Steven Grant’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s original screenplay for Robocop 2, drawn in a fittingly excessive Geof Darrow-like style by Juan Jose Ryp. Now Boom! holds the Robocop license, and Grant is back to adapt Miller’s original take on the 1993 Fred Dekker motion picture Robocop 3, as drawn by Turkish artist Korkut Öztekin; $3.99.
Lone Wolf and Cub Omnibus Vol. 2: You know whose art Frank Miller loved? Goseki Kojima. You know where you can find 700 pages of that stuff? Right here; $19.99.
Bakuman Vol. 20 (of 20): Meanwhile, in modern manga terrain, Viz brings the conclusion to this making-of-shonen-manga-as-the-greatest-shonen-manga-of-all concept from star creators Tsugumi Ohba & Takeshi Obata. I confess I haven’t read Bakuman in a long while, so I couldn’t tell you if the narrative is in place for a dramatic climax at a sparsely-attended SDCC panel, as I’ve always dreamed, but rest assured that as soon as this duo cook up another cool ‘n disgusting megahit — and query whether the determinedly commercial, ferociously chauvinistic motives of the lead characters equate to the fuck-morality nihilistic posturing of the pair’s earlier Death Note, if indeed they’re still working in that metre — the whole world will immediately know; $9.99.
In the Days of the Mob: Being another DC compilation of Jack Kirby-driven attempts to break open the b&w comics magazine market of the 1970s, this time in the style of crime. It’s 108 pages in a 10″ x 13.5″ hardcover, probably collecting all available material (not all of which was immediately printed); $39.99.
Thor by Walter Simonson Omnibus Vol. 1: I always enjoy Tom Scioli’s posts at Comics Alliance, which tend to ramble amiably around a central topic, not so much in search of a concluding point as eager to highlight individual notions as they arise. This piece, for instance, began by pondering the legacy of Barry Windsor-Smith, and concluded as a strong critique of ‘remastered’ coloring for old genre comics (and seriously, while opinions tend to vary on this type of post-release noodling, I’m confident the bit where the moat transforms into a lawn constitutes such a black letter fuck-up as to inspire a mass turning away of faces like the Kumite judges to Bolo Yeung in Bloodsport). I’m bringing all this up because I didn’t get a chance to see Marvel’s 2011 release of the 1,192-page omnibus hardcover from which this new 232-page softcover is excerpted, although I’m aware it features new coloring by the very much admired Steve Oliff, and I’d be interested in paging around to see how the update is carried out. Collects The Mighty Thor #337-345, written and drawn by Simonson, with some Terry Austin inks; $24.99.
A Distant Soil Vol. 1: The Gathering: Of course, sometimes a ‘remaster’ is less a flashy thing, necessitated by more fundamental concerns, like the printer losing the original negatives, or imperfections in the reproduction of screentone, or pages being shot at too large a size for the printed matter to accommodate. All of these problems have bedeviled writer/artist Colleen Doran’s A Distant Soil — an enduring veteran of the ’80s b&w boom, and among the earliest U.S. comic book series to display a significant visual kinship with Japanese comics of the time — ultimately prompting a $30,000.00 restoration, of which this 240-page Image softcover is the first product. Author’s notes; $16.99.
FELDSTEIN: The Mad Life & Fantastic Art of Al Feldstein!: Plenty of books-on-comics to excite your summer swelter, and none come more intriguing than a 320-page biography of the divisive EC/Mad writer-artist-editor from one-time EC Archives co-publisher Grant Geissman (the line will soon move to Dark Horse), also an author of various overview-style guides to the comics. A 9″ x 12″ IDW hardcover, purportedly loaded with art samples from across the decades; $49.99.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Artobiography: And then there’s the obligatory reissue, in the form of this 8.5″ x 11″, 296-page hardcover compendium of chronological, annotated Kevin Eastman art samples, original published by Heavy Metal but now available as part of IDW’s ongoing TMNT publishing effort; $49.99.
Joe Kubert: A Tribute to the Creator and Mentor: Finally, your third book-on-comics for the week is technically a periodical, or at least it used to be, as TwoMorrows has apparently allowed issue #2 of its new Comic Book Creator magazine from editor Jon B. Cooke to erupt into a 160-page tribute to the late cartoonist and educator of the title, replete with testimonials, interview excerpts and examinations of the various phases of his long career. Downloadable preview here; $17.95.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST RESERVOIR: Quite a lot of attention surrounded editor Justin Hall’s No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics upon its 2012 release, and a now a new 328-page softcover edition for this sampler of half a century of work is available, boasting contributions by Alison Bechdel, Fabrice Neaud, Howard Cruse, Ralf König, Maurice Vellekoop, Edie Fake, Ariel Schrag, Eric Shanower, Dan Savage and many others; $35.00.