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THIS WEEK IN COMICS! (2/20/13 – Irregular Holiday Celebrations)

It's Presidents' Day in the U.S. as of this writing, which is to say it's Washington's Birthday, officially, although the joy of "Presidents' Day" is that you can reflect on miscellaneous executives, if you so choose, given the proximity of Lincoln's Birthday in the same month. It's a very confusing holiday, but there's no mail, so we can't help but recognize it.

I should have spent the weekend reading comics, but instead I shut myself in with the book to your left, Kier-La Janisse's 2012 House of Psychotic Women, published by the happy sleaze merchants at Godalming's FAB Press, purveyors of heavily-illustrated, intensive studies of Eurohorror and world exploitation cinema, and, not coincidentally, one of the primary forces behind convincing me that writing about things to a potentially imaginary audience was something I'd be interested in doing.

I'll always have time for their wares, and Janisse's "Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films" is a worthy selection, being the sort of extended nonfiction essay that climaxes with a pill-addled vision of Argentine character actor Alberto de Mendoza appearing before the teenaged author in full costume from the 1972 Peter Cushing/Christopher Lee vehicle Horror Express and approaching her bed with glowing eyes. Textually, this occurs in the midst of a disquisition on the neurotic portrayals of director Andrzej Żuławski, which are later compared to those of Lars von Trier's Antichrist - my kind of book. Soon, I was poring over my own movie resources and making my own connections.

At one point, Janisse -- who, among other things, is the founder of Vancouver's CineMuerte Horror Film Festival (1999-2005) -- displays a picture of herself posing with the French director Jean Rollin, one of the oddest presences from the prime years of European horror movies. Rollin was a novelist, a lurker at the Cinemateque Francaise, and a very occasional comics writer -- he created Saga de Xam with Nicolas Devil, and was friends with Philippe Druillet, whom he cast in his first feature film -- but he is best remembered for a series of profoundly curious, slowly-paced vampiric-themed films more concerned with eroticism than violence and seemingly formulated for no particular audience other than Jean Rollin; this is in sharp contrast to the financial motivation behind most exploitation cinema, or even, arguably, Rollin's eventual parallel career in pornography, performers from which the director would sometimes recruit into his eccentric 'personal' genre flights.

As luck would have it, a considerable portion of Rollin's non-porn filmography is presently streaming on Netflix; yesterday I watched 1969's The Nude Vampire (pic above), a homage of sorts to the silent fantasy serials of Louis Feuillade, as well as Georges Franju's 1963 tribute to Feuillade's Judex (1917), the first superhero movie. So early a superhero movie, in fact, that the 'superhero' hadn't officially been invented yet, but innovation stops for nobody, least of all the historical narrative.

And anyway, who needs superheroes when you have Fantômas? Created by Pierre Souvestre & Marcel Allain in 1911, the masked arch-criminal had created enough of a pop culture sensation to find his exploits adapted by Feuillade into a five-part movie serial in 1913-14. Afterward, the resourceful director realized he could simply create his own super-criminal scenario, resulting in the classic 1915-16 serial Les Vampires. From there, it was not much to envision a dark mystery character who would fight for justice: "Judex," clad in a black hat and cloak not entirely dissimilar to that of a later dark hero, the Shadow, who would himself inspire the primal comic book vigilante Batman. Such is the lineage.

René Cresté as Judex, vs. the immortal Musidora.

But the 12 episodes of Judex are not a careening (yet regimented) thrill-ride in the manner of later, American bat-antics; Feuillade's is a novelistic approach, patient in pace and attentive, perhaps, to the circumstances surrounding the work's release - a year left to go until the armistice. There is a secret layer and scheming villains but very little violence in Feuillade's Judex, which instead promotes a fantasy of virile diplomacy, from which any resultant death, even a supervillain's, is palpably sad. Feuillade once declared the public his master, and surely his master was fed up with killing by then.

Rollin too, in his threadbare surrealism, chooses to delight primarily in the mysteries of death and eros, instead of the spectacle of gore, though he'd do a bit of that too in later works, like 1982's The Living Dead Girl. Comics, meanwhile, vacillated between costumed heroes and villains, such as Angela & Luciana Giussani's Fantomas-inspired Diabolik, which was first brought to the screen in 1968 by a much slicker Euro-horror master, the great Mario Bava, founder of the giallo cinema subgenre.

Elsewhere in House of Psychotic Women, Janisse writes of Eyes Without a Face - not the Franju classic, but a 1994 late-coming giallo by Italian hack supreme Bruno Mattei. It is also known as Madness, though I can't seem to find a copy right now under any title. The plot, though -- as described by Janisse -- seems to be a small burlesque on the creation of Diabolik, with a female comics artist driven to black-costumed murders by the same childhood traumas that inspired her injury-to-the-eye-fixated art. Advanced cosplay indeed! Until I can pick up the trail, however -- and feel free to direct me from the comments -- we must end these free associations, inspired by our most random of federally-acknowledged domestic holidays. This one's for you, Chester A. Arthur.

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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.

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SPOTLIGHT PICKS!

Tales from Beyond Science: And what better selection for a no-mail U.S. holiday such as this than a book first solicited in... I believe late 2011 or so. No idea what's caused the delay, though this is a rare and delicate thing in general: a 2000 AD feature (1992-94) that's somehow managed to escape its foundational publisher's grip, reverting to the creators and now returning to print as an 88-page Image collection. It's a set of eight science fiction shorts, all of them drawn by Rian Hughes, whose comics output is rare enough to warrant an immediate look. Moreover, half the pieces were written by a young Mark Millar, though my eyes will remain peeled for a pair of appearances by elusive Indigo Prime creator John Smith. Eventual 2kAD editor Alan McKenzie rounds out the writing crew. Preview; $16.99 ($34.99 in hardcover).

[a quartet of Toon Books releases in softcover]: You can generally expect a quality experience from Toon Books, and I think this batch of stuff marks their first foray into low-cost softcover releases (or at least the first of such releases to pop up in comics stores). The highest of comics-related profiles likely belongs to Bone creator Jeff Smith's Little Mouse Gets Ready -- though Geoffrey Hayes' Benny and Penny in The Toy Breaker and Claude Ponti's Chick & Chickie Play All Day! both come from old children's books hands -- but I'd probably take the opportunity to look through Benjamin Bear in Fuzzy Thinking, as artist Philippe Coudray has picked up some good attention for his intuitive gag work (and funny drawings too); $4.99 (each).

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PLUS!

The Smurfs Vol. 14: The Baby Smurf: Speaking of French-language originals, Les Schtroumpfs are now up to the point in their English endeavor where Peyo's comics began to respond stylistically to the massive popularity of the famous television cartoon adaptation when began airing in 1981 (though various earlier Euro-targeted animated projects date back to the 1960s). This particular material is from '84, and, as always, arrives courtesy of NBM/Papercutz; $5.99 ($10.99 in hardcover).

Moomin Builds a House (&) Moomin Falls in Love: And here's a pair of newly reformatted Tove Jansson newspaper strips, isolated by storyline and presented in color at 8" x 6.5", for the pleasure of young readers. Samples here; $9.95 (each).

Action Comics #17: Years ago, the comics internet would be booming from end to end with speculation on the imminent finale to a Grant Morrison superhero project - of course, the echo chamber was a little tighter then, and the corporate terrain (and the rhetoric about it) has shifted too. Anyway, this is your reminder that Morrison is now wrapping up his not-quite-as-bad-as-it's-often-made-out-to-be-but-absolutely-nowhere-close-to-tier-one run on DC's strong man in stretch pants with an extra-long issue. [Of course, it could always be that the final issue was extended to #18 instead of now, but obviously I would never make such an error, nor would anybody bring it up in the comments below.] Also due this week is the similarly not-talked-about-really finale to Morrison's Image series Happy!, an over-the-top crime comic which, notwithstanding the parodic intent claimed by certain early advocates, has mostly served thus far to illustrate how (1) over-the-top crime actually *does* require a certain art and panache to carry itself and (2) Grant Morrison is apparently disinterested in those qualities; $2.99.

Hellblazer #300: Meanwhile, an even longer-coming conclusion drops as Peter Milligan completes his tenure as final writer of a DC (later Vertigo) horror series that's been going since 1988; regular artists Giuseppe Camuncoli & Stefano Landini are present for the passing. The series will be relaunched in a more superhero-centric format for interaction with other DC properties -- which, admittedly, was the format of the earliest issues of the original series -- next month (you'll recall the original writer, Robert Venditti, has already been replaced by Jeff Lemire & Ray Fawkes as of issue #2). Try and keep an eye out for this historical moment under the 50+ (fifty-plus) variant covers for the new Geoff Johns/David Finch Justice League of America title launching this week; $4.99.

Dark Horse Presents #21: Nope, not a whole lot catching my eye this week. I think there's a Simon Roy comic in here, though, along with Paul Chadwick putting art to a Neil Gaiman poem that's been around for a little bit. Chadwick's new graphic novel with Harlan Ellison, 7 Against Chaos, is due in the summer from DC; $7.99.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Comic Tribute: And here's your new manga pick of the week -- although a softcover edition of Osamu Tezuka's Ayako is also out from Vertical for patient and thrifty fans -- being a rare genre indeed to see on these shores: the 'various artists' tribute book, filled with parodies of the work in question. Presumably publisher Dark Horse has checked to make sure this 168-page package isn't the kind of 'tribute' to be expected from doujinshi circles, despite the presence of pros like Mine Yoshizaki (Sgt. Frog) and Rikdo Koshi (Excel Saga), as well as folks like Nawoki Karasawa, who hasn't been seen in English since Fantagraphics' Sake Jock in 1995; $10.99.

Creepy KOFY Movie Time Comic: Along with dodgy European genre movies and books by Canadians published by the British, I'm also a big fan of local television horror hosts - the type of on-air personalities that dress up in spooky makeup and crack lame jokes late at night at the top of commercial breaks in some ancient chiller feature the network got cheap. San Francisco's KOFY has run just such a program since 2008, and now Gumby Comics(!) is releasing an olde-tyme anthology comic book to tie itself in, with art from the likes of Trevor Von Eeden, among others; $3.99.

Alter Ego #115: Finally, your publication-on-comics for the week - an 84-page special issue of the long-lived (and presently TwoMorrows-published) nostalgia magazine, focused entirely on the art and history of 3-D comics. Glasses included. Naturally, readers of this column know the tradition continues, because readers of this column know absolutely everything. Samples; $8.95.

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