What you are seeing above is one of the true loves of my comics-reading life: the company that flits into the game for just a few moments, maybe as a sticker atop someone or something else. In this case, the adhesive Cassandra is obscuring the mailbox info for Athens, Greece's Grammata, apparently a longstanding publisher of English translations of the Greek cartoonist Arkás, who's been active since 1981. Cassandra, from what I can gather, served as a foreign distributor, releasing at least four of the cartoonist's English editions in 2006. I ran across one of them in a shop this weekend: "Look Dad, I'm Flying!", a 64-page, 9.5" x 6.75" softcover from the series Flying Starts, which generally operates like so:
"[T]renchant" is the term whomever wrote the back cover's copy uses to describe the humor of Arkás, and I suppose it's as good a word as any. Flying Starts is a collection of one-page, multi-panel gags, with several pages at a time bunched into (sometimes loose) thematic clusters - basically, it's how American newspaper strips tend to group weeks' worth of jokes around themes, although Arkás apparently has more room in which to play; I do not know how or if these jokes are initially presented, outside of a collected album.
Upon further study, though, it does not appear that many Greek readers seem to know more about the cartoonist himself - he generally seems to avoid direct promotion of his work, skipping interviews and the like in favor of letting the comics speak for themselves. And what they speak of is a dirty, foul world, trod upon (and surveyed from above) by sardonic characters oscillating between resignation and outright despair, with occasional flashes of defiant anger. There is also, as several admirers have noted, a recurring concern with philosophical matters: freedom, predestination, ruin.
All in Flying Starts is filtered through dialogue between a father sparrow and his son, which carries -- in English translation, mind you, credited to one Ingrid Behrmann -- the studied give-and-take of any daily newspaper's funny pages. Setup, setup, setup, gag: one character squints his eyes while the other delivers a lacerating punchline. Arkás' environmental decoration is rather lush and detailed here (the date of initial publication was 1991), but his characters bear the saggy, circular eyes, lids half-down, of any number of practiced joke machine craftsmen. I see these same eyes in The Lockhorns, for example.
But when readers respond to The Lockhorns, it's mostly observations about how the demands of comedy make it seem like the titular couple are less affectionate snarkers than awful people locked in a hell they cannot escape. There are no such conceptual niceties I can find in Flying Starts - the comparatively lavish room allowed Arkás makes it extraordinarily clear that his characters *are* in hell, and fully aware of their situation. Still, there are jokes: about the child sparrow copying the mannerisms of a bat to annoy his father; about shitting on the head of a songbird babbling about the job security of his cage; about birds fucking, and birds dying, and the weather growing cold and families breaking apart. We might have called such practice a response to the mainstream here in the U.S., and indeed it's not so difficult to imagine slotting an alternative weekly cartoonist like the young Matt Groening into a similar position.
Maybe if all I saw of Life in Hell was a tenuous local edition of another country's comics fare, I'd have much the same reaction. Still, if I am asked by Arkás to evaluate only the art, I just hone in more on its funny torture, proving that comedy again is tragedy a ways removed.
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. 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.
R. Crumb - The Weirdo Years: 1981-'93: This one's been out for a few months already, though Diamond is only now listing its release, so I'm putting it up here. What else can be done with 256 pages compiling Robert Crumb's contributions to the famous comics magazine he founded - a rebel yell, so the narrative goes, in the face of the growing sophistication of the similarly post-underground RAW, though we know how such dichotomies tend to swallow nuance. See for yourself, Crumb-wise, in this Last Gasp hardcover; $29.95.
Foligatto: Oh man, I remember when Bart Beaty went to the mat for this one back in the pages of the print Journal (I believe in the Top 100 issue), singling out its translation in the March '92 issue of Heavy Metal as a crucial example of that much-derided magazine's occasional willingness to print something nobody else would touch. Now Humanoids presents a no-doubt sturdier 9.5" x 12.5" hardcover, its 64 pages representing some of the earliest published comics by the great Nicolas de Crécy, collaborating with writer Alexios Tjoyas (later, I think, a creator of children's books) on a menacing whirl of carnivalesque activity centered(?) around the arrival of a beloved opera singer. Very intense drawing, highly recommended. Preview; $24.95.
Qu33r: Per the publisher, Northwest Press, this 264-page compendium of new, queer-themed color comics has its origins in editor Robert Kirby's Three, a similarly-premised comic book anthology which picked up an Ignatz nomination in 2011. Expect the participation of Howard Cruse, Edie Fake, Andy Hartzell (I really liked his Fox Bunny Funny back in '07), L. Nichols, MariNaomi, Justin Hall and many others; $29.99.
Jacky's Diary: Being the latest IDW collection of vintage newspaper strips, this time focusing on the short-lived Sunday cartooning of Jack Mendelsohn, who would eventually become a successful screenwriter for film and television. But from 1959 to 1961, he drew Jackys Diary (sans apostrophe, though IDW appears to be siding with Dell on the issue of punctuation) in a faux-naïve style meant to communicate a child's view of things, causing the strip to stand out sharply from anything else of its time. One of the editors of this site reprinted some of this stuff in Art Out of Time a few years back, but this 192-page package should constitute the entirety of the relevant output. Introduction by the artist, with additional texts by Mort Walker and Mel Lazarus; $39.99.
Basil & Victoria: London Guttersnipes: Well drill my teeth, this looks to be a genuine English translation of Yann le Pennetier, co-writer of one of my all-time favorite comics, Yves Chaland's The Comet of Carthage. Here he's joined by artist Édith Grattery for a 1990-2007 series (also adapted into a television cartoon) about street kids in 19th century London having energetic encounters with fame and danger. Fascinating look to it, somewhere between Segaresque adventure stripping and storyboards for animation - definitely take a look. An all-in-one Humanoids hardcover, 8.5" x 11", totaling 240 pages. Preview; $39.95.
Dinosaurs Vol. 1: In the Beginning: Of course, NBM has also long been a reliable source for French comics in translation (including not a few de Crécy selections), and now their Papercutz line of kids' comics -- which will also have a new, third volume of Smurfs creator Peyo's kid superhero series Benny Breakiron this week -- serves up writer Arnaud Plumeri & artist "Bloz" for what appears to be an educational series about different types of lumbering lizards, three volumes of which are out in French. Presented at 9.3" x 6.8", 56 pages in color. Preview; $10.99.
Ōoku: The Inner Chambers Vol. 9: Pretty big week for mature audience manga, headed by Viz's latest installment of Fumi Yoshinaga's vision of matriarchal feudalism in alternate, ancient times. Presently up to vol. 10 in Japan, where I'm pretty sure it only releases six chapters per year, so don't hold your breath for more! Note that Vertical will be releasing the well-regarded Yoshinaga's seinen cooking manga What Did You Eat Yesterday? beginning in March; $12.99.
Wolfsmund Vol. 3: Speaking of Vertical, they've got a number of items out this week -- including vol. 8 of Shūzō Oshimi's The Flowers of Evil and vol. 2 of Tōru Oikawa's comics adaptation of From the New World -- but I'll give it up for Mitsuhisa Kuji's entirely brutal, nasty display of medieval authority in the Swiss regions, originating in the pages of harta (formerly Fellows!), a sibling magazine to Comic Beam, which has printed Suehiro Maruo's most recent stuff; $12.95.
Vinland Saga Vol. 2: And then Kodansha brings the viking drama - slightly more palatable, coming from Planetes creator Makoto Yukimura, but exciting and addictive enough that the publisher's decision to release two-in-one hardcovers seems less a financial calculation than a logical conclusion. So: 432 pages of manga vikings here; $19.99.
Blade of the Immortal Vol. 28: Raining Chaos: Clever! This Dark Horse iteration of Hiroaki Samura's long-lived battle manga should be wrapping around vol. 31 or 32, so yuk it up while you can. Preview; $19.99.
Judge Dredd: Mega-City Two #1 (of 5): Wha-- comics critics?! Ah, but who better to pass judgment than writer Douglas Wolk (still an active writer-on-music) and artist Ulises Farinas (also presently collaborating with Joe Casey on Dark Horse's Catalyst Comix), taking the Law out to a sprawling, parodic U.S. west coast for a little future culture shock. Published by IDW, as part of their ongoing communion with 2000 AD. Preview; $3.99.
Dark Horse Presents #32: But if it's older Dredd artists you're after, do note that this issue of Dark Horse's house anthology begins The Deleted, a new four-part serial by Brendan McCarthy, scripted in collaboration with novelist and screenwriter Darrin Grimwood - the premise appears to involve the uploading of human consciousness to a virtual world. PLUS: Mike McMahon continues his Hellboy serial with Mike Mignola. Samples; $7.99.
My Little Pony: Friends Forever #1: And then there's the time Carla Speed McNeil drew a My Little Pony comic. The debut issue, in fact, of some sort of pony team-up series launched by IDW as a companion to their lucrative main line of licensed books. Written by Alex de Campi. Preview; $3.99.
Elfquest: The Final Quest #1: In case you're doing a double-take, this is a new serialized follow-up to an October '13 one-shot from Dark Horse, seeing creators Wendy & Richard Pini return to their signature work (which has also had material released on Boing Boing). I've heard Elfquest posited as a pretty direct forerunner to some of the popular Image books today in terms of fan appreciation and direct engagement with genre devices, although I haven't read enough to really evaluate such statements. Preview; $3.50.
Eerie Archives Vol. 15: In which issues #70-74 of the Warren magazine are collected, featuring the art of José Ortiz, Esteban Maroto, Paul Neary, Gonzalo Mayo, José Beá and Howard Chaykin & Bernie Wrightson in collaboration. Note that a fair amount of the content in here has also been reprinted in Dark Horse's Hunter and El Cid collections. Samples; $49.99.
Planetary Omnibus: And we'll wrap it up here with a different era's summary. Serialized from 1998-2009, Planetary initially seemed like an accompaniment to other popular projects by the writer Warren Ellis, who at the time was maybe *the* writer of superhero-inflected comics in North America. But while contemporaneous works like The Authority have been mined so hard for recyclable content by subsequent genre books they've lost their kick, the early portions of this collaboration with artist John Cassaday embody an exploratory spirit that sees 'superhero' comics adopting the properties of seeming anything applicable to the cultural moment: Hong Kong action movies, kaiju battles, pulp fiction, the legacy of Vertigo. Today, I think it stands as an encapsulation of a type of comics precognitive of comics' own eventual immersion into a deeper pool of 'geek' interest - and that it flags as it becomes burdened with resolving its own accumulations of plot perhaps speaks to the difficulty of maintaining a unique identity in the face of that information riot. An 864-page DC hardcover, collecting everything; $75.00.