Black Phoenix Magazine Vol. 2, No. 1

Black Phoenix Magazine Vol. 2, No. 1

Rich Tommaso

Floating World Comics


136 pages

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I run hot and cold on Rich Tommaso. Ever since I first started seeing his stuff pop up during the (let’s call it) Image Comics Awakening of the 2010s, it was clear that there was something different there.1 In a sea of artists still very much informed by the faux-realism of the superhero school, Tommaso at Image was a lonely island whose design sensibilities were so old-fashioned to become fresh again, evoking the gritty (if exaggerated) styling of 1940s violent comics - the likes of Crime Doesn't Pay and Police Comics, or Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy. In the world of these comics, every dude was either a gangster or a cop (or both), and every woman a dame.

This was extremely obvious in his retro noir pieces such as Dark Corridor (2015-16) and Dry County (2018), but even stuff like Spy Seal (2017, aiming for that Euro-adventure feel) and She Wolf (2016-17, horror) were guided by the same visual ideal. In a pretty barren mainstream world he stood up and out, just from seeing the covers. Yet, at the same time, reading the insides of these books never quite gave me the same hit. They were fine little stories, but that was just it - ‘fine’. They never managed to transcend, or even match, their obvious inspirations; they had the visuals, but not quite the words. Take Dry County, a mystery set in 1980s Miami, in the vein of a lost Charles Willeford novel; it’s a book that is great to look at, but went right through me without leaving much on an impression. I read it twice, but today I couldn’t tell you anything about it.

Oddly enough, my favorite work of Tommaso's, until now, was his pencils on a four-issue IDW Dick Tracy miniseries written by Mike & Lee Allred (Dead or Alive, 2018); with no need to introduce new characters, Tommaso was free to indulge his stylistic preferences with little worry. It was an obvious match of artist and material, and it worked. Sometimes the obvious choice is obvious because it’s correct. That was five years and one pandemic ago. I hadn't looked at what the man was up to since then.

From "Galoot!"

So now, here’s Tommaso again, with Black Phoenix, his one-man Patreon-funded anthology riff on "the classic 1950s genre stories of EC Comics, the 1940s romance comics of Archie, the late 1930s pulp adventure strips of Detective Comics and Marvel Mystery Comics—and even the Franco-Belgian comics explosion sparked by Tintin." Or so says Floating World Comics, your first name in retro-styling, about a hardcover collection of 10 issues' worth of stories crowdfunded last year. The book under review today is the first in a twice-yearly ongoing retail series for newer Black Phoenix stories - a small(ish), perfect-bound collection of one-offs and continuing serials that show Tommaso trying his hand at everything he likes. Completing the package are a series of illustrations and ads for various fake products2 meant to evoke the sensation of finding an old comics magazine.

So… after four years, is Tommaso any different? Any better? Any worse? No, no and no. Black Phoenix is exactly what you would expect ‘A One Man Anthology by Rich Tommaso’ to be. Some of the features here include “Killer in my Sleep”, “Retired Gun” and “Sam Hill”, and they are all various shades of mystery and crime, filled with booze, broads and bullets. And while Tommaso takes it upon himself to play homage to older comics, he also adopts their usual sense of character development - nobody here is going to surprise you with psychological depth.

From "Retired Gun: Wet Work"

Tommaso's Retired Gun, who figures into several pieces here, is exactly the sort of old pro with no time for nonsense that might’ve been a Donald Westlake character; but without the accuracy of Westlake’s words, it's a slim façade of a character - the idea of a tough guy with a gun, instead of a unique figure. Likewise, crusading investigator Sam Hill's most unique trait is his refusal to take care of his throbbing teeth.3 Meanwhile, Mia (the protagonist of “Killer in My Sleep”) offers more interesting avenues of exploration: a would-be military career woman who surrenders to her passive-aggressive husband’s desire for a ‘normal’ family life, much to the regret of both.

"Killer in My Sleep" is the first story in Black Phoenix, and it sets pretty high expectations; the husband's sad-sack act is something straight out of Dan Clowes, and there’s a great montage taking us through the ups and downs (and downs, and some more downs) of the couple. As the mood grows darker, I find myself reminded of the better parts of She Wolf… only for the book to change shape into something less unique.

As a whole, Black Phoenix gets better the more Tommaso strays from his familiar path. A Retired Gun two-pager titled “Wet Work” is a genuinely funny and visually exciting piece of dark humor about a hapless killer. Likewise, I can’t help but to appreciate the artwork in cowboy story “Galoot!”, from the backgrounds to the expressive facial work. It’s short and to the point. “Coco et Belle” and “Young Sam Hill” are out-and-out gag strips, and even if the gags themselves aren’t that great, they show that Tommaso can take his style to different places without losing himself. I kinda wish he could’ve done more of that, instead of playing the hits over and over again.

From "Coco Et Belle: 'Fais Attention!'"

If you already have a strong opinion about Tommaso’s recent work either way, Black Phoenix is not going to change it. If you find his shtick tiring, you probably won't want a concentrated dose. If you like it, this as good as it gets in this particular milieu. Me? Despite my misgivings, I’ll probably be back for the next issue. Even when he’s not swinging for the fences, Tommaso’s stories are still fun to look at, and the short story model means the boring ones pass by quickly. I just wish he would spread his wings a bit more next time.4

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  1. Actually, Tommaso's career goes much further back, all the way to alt scene of the 1990s, starting with the charmingly-titled Cannibal Porn (Eros Comix, 1993-95); I only got to know his work in its latter stages.
  2. I guess some of these could be real, but I don’t want to check online if I can still order a functioning Tommy Gun.
  3. Though one must admit the throbbing teeth become the most visually interesting element of the whole book, with Tommaso taking great care to accentuate the constant pain Hill feels.
  4. I wasn’t planning to end with a bird joke, but here we are.