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THIS WEEK IN COMICS! (5/23/12 – Variations)

To your left you see a modest block of wood -- an illustration in relief -- that provides the cover for issue #18 of Esopus, a New York-based arts magazine that employs a variety of paper stocks and presentational approaches to add a sense of tactility to interfacing with varied media - there's posters, pull-outs, facsimile notes, photographs, and many other fragile things sure to raise paranoia in certain readers anxious to make sure nobody has stolen anything that was supposed to be included with a given issue.

Yet while the chips and cracks in the cover refer to a woodblock project by artist Bryan Nash Gill showcased therein, I can't help but think of the fiber in the pulp of old comics; call me arrested, and unable to countenance a profound, challenging, passionate, political, intellectual history of art separate from my precious funnies, but even the organization of the artist's project itself -- presenting illustrated production notes for an installation at the Esopus Space in Greenwich Village as 'paneled' by pull-away wood frames -- seemed to suggest a sequence of abstract comic images, a narrative of illustrated chipping via drawings of micro-focused paper, on paper.

Esopus does boast of a Mr. Daniel Clowes on its advisory board, however, so we can't say they're exactly comics-ignorant. Indeed, the new issue #18 proves to be an especially comics-rich issue, if often by way of artworks that can analogize to aspects of the comics form.

Here's an example, your classic comics-as-part-of-collage, from City, by Mary Lum. I'm not sure of the identity, secret or otherwise, of caped crusader swooshing along the center -- amusingly obscured by a window cut-out pattern, as if devoured by a skyscraper's interior gaze -- but we can all be certain that superhero characters navigating tall buildings is a potent image of the City in popular American culture. Blended with what appears to be catalog and illustration snippets and random bits of zip, Lum fashions an archetype, although her city is not immobile, and her incorporation of sequential art not a simple appropriation - rather, City is a sequential collage, a nine-page story comprised of die-cut images that allow the reader to peer through one level and into another, and then flip the page to navigate deeper into the City, into different visual sensations and groupings of subject matter, until you ironically find yourself faced on the last page with a brief cut-up text drawn from works like A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Breakfast At Tiffany's; we have moved from the abstraction of image to the solidification of prose, but even our words for the City are built from a wider cultural context.

Often, however, the Artist's Projects shown in Esopus are actually production materials from other projects, housed in the gallery/magazine and thus contextualized as standalone pieces of art. The image above is from a 16-page suite of storyboard images artist Bill Burns prepared for his 2011 photography book Dogs and Boats and Airplanes told in the form of Ivan the Terrible, a homage to a Sergei Eisenstein classic itself not uninfluenced by drawn matters, specifically the animated films of Walt Disney, series of still drawings photographed together in a manner that tantalized the montage-minded Russian master. You don't need me, meanwhile, to tell you of the similarities between storyboards and comics panels, though the particular layout of Burns' pages adopt a nice, tight grid format -- almost always nine panels -- in addition to showing linework pleasingly reminiscent of Ben Katchor.

Nobody will mistake an actual movie for a comic, yet putting movies on paper implicates the notions of layout and pacing. Esopus' irregular 100 Frames feature breaks a noteworthy film down into 100 characteristic frames, and then presents them on pages clearly informed by comics pacing - some of them in grids, and some of them with blown-up panels meant obviously to control the impact of the narration, because these are very much unique narrations of films, though the people behind the layouts are unknown. This issue features Ode, a 1999 Super-8 short by Kelly Reichardt (of Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff); I was thrilled to see the above use of the classic EC introductory page layout, with a 2/3s splash up top and a tier of panels down bottom, although this is sadly not the beginning of the movie itself. Nonetheless, from here you can see into a world where photo-funnies hit faster and way harder, with the eerie impact shot serving as a watery reflection for the stilted, doomed embrace of the young lovers below; the boy will eventually drown himself in angst over his homosexuality, and will only rise from the dead in the memory of a female temporary focus confused of his confused affections.

All this is prelude, however, to a most curious coincidence. Witness above a Found Object, which Esopus characterizes as a "collage," assembled by an unknown party and discovered by professional image archivist Rich Remsberg in a Vermont shop sometime in 2004. Hopefully in the quarter bin.

Literally everybody reading this column will understand what they're seeing in a specific way: a collection of Donald Duck daily strips from the early 1950s, drawn by Al Taliaferro. They've been clipped and assembled in order of publication, just as all the fancy hardcover books do now in our Golden Age of Reprints. In fact, it might be assemblages of this sort that provide source materials for those very books, so common in format that they're barely worth remarking upon save for the specifics of their narrative content.

Esopus, however, contextualizes it as freestanding collage; art by the terms of its construction. Printed in lush color so as to emphasize the coverage of the comics over other materials -- apparently bits of magazine below -- all attention is drawn to the particulars of the page as a visual presentation, rather than as the novelistic (let's say) arrangement of daily strips for easy reading in big clumps; novelistic as in set out like a book you can read without interruption from beginning to end. The 'interruption' here is the very stuff of the art, in contrast.

I'm of two minds about this approach - Chip Kidd used a similar technique in his Bat-Manga!: The Secret History of Batman in Japan, which emphasized the age and kitsch in Jiro Kuwata's comics, accompanying them with adoringly photographed toys and memorabilia, to the effect of denying Kuwata's art the liveliness it possessed as breathing narrative art of a youthful velocity. On the other hand, I often feel that unencumbered books, arranging strips in perfect order for maximum reading efficiency, encourage a novelistic approach to reading that obscures the appeal of works like Krazy Kat, which operate to my mind on a more poetic, self-contained level, at least in the Sundays.

There's no easy answer in matters of casual consumption - really, readers should just remain alert as to what they're reading, and try to be sensitive to the work. At least in an arts magazine, the context in which the work appears can guide the reader's impression in a more controlled manner, just as those expensive Artist's Edition books of old comics -- again, printed in color, emphasizing there the very act of the creation of the page, arguably more so than the narrative being presented -- essentially dictate the manner in which it should best be read. But then, I tend to resist such instruction, grateful as I am for options, and the opportunity to study the variations of presentation that sequential narratives can accommodate.

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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!

The Comic Book History of Comics: Being an IDW collection of all six issues of the well-regarded Evil Twin Comics series Comic Book Comics, a history-by-way-of-vignettes endeavor that writer Fred Van Lente and artist Ryan Dunlavey released from 2008 through 2011. It comes to 224 pages in total. Many samples; $21.99.

Judge Dredd: Crusade: This is another Simon & Schuster custom compilation of 2000 AD stuff for the North American market, here focusing for 96 pages on the very bankable superhero names of Mark Millar & Grant Morrison; the latter was not prolific Dredd contributor -- and his contributions, mostly written in collaboration with Millar, are frankly not counted among the better of his or the character's outings -- so the less motivated among completists will no doubt be interested. Collects the storylines Crusade (Morrison/Millar, 1995, art by Mick Austin; judges on a quest to find God) and Frankenstein Div (Millar, 1994, art by Carlos Ezquerra; Dredd vs. some huge fucking thing). Note that Morrison's other two major Dredd stories, Inferno ('93, solo-written, w' Ezquerra) and Book of the Dead ('93, w' Millar & Dermot Power) are collected stateside in, respectively, the forthcoming Judge Dredd: Inferno (July '12) and 2010's MegaCity Masters 02 anthology. Douglas Wolk review; $19.99.

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PLUS!

Batman, Incorporated #1: In more recent Morrison news, we now see the DC relaunch contort to accommodate storylines that didn't manage to finish before this no-doubt meticulously-planned endeavor took flight, specifically the finale to the writer's half-decade-plus tenure on the genre fixture. Art by Chris Burnham, a talented and rapidly-developing visualist who's already become tightly associated with this iteration of the character. I think this should continue all year. Preview; $2.99.

Dungeon: Zenith Vols. 1-3: Nothing new here, just a re-released package (maybe with a paper ribbon around 'em) of NBM's three collected softcover editions for the original 1998-2007 Joann Sfar/Lewis Trondheim series -- which is to say, the six albums released in the first series, without the timeline leaping in the future or past -- the last two of which are actually drawn by freshly-minted internet favorite Gilles "Boulet" Roussel, which is probably reason enough to get 'em back in stores. They're all 6 1/2" x 9", note. Various samples; $39.99.

Deadpool MAX: Involuntary Armageddon: For a while, this David Lapham/Kyle Baker reorientation of the fan-pleasing Deadpool franchise of superhero self-mockery -- which, as Abhay Khosla once observed, is basically a variant of the old fan-pleasing Lobo franchise of superhero self-mockery, with Family Guy/internet meme-type 'random' humor in place of some of the comedy violence -- had gotten itself a bunch of attention for its comparatively droll lampooning of the entire superhero idea as the fantasies of hopelessly damaged professional killers, married to some genuinely odd and uninhibited Baker art. Attention fell off as the series proceeded, but tardy sorts can now enjoy a softcover collection of the second third of the series (i.e. Deadpool MAX #7-12) to go along with last week's hardcover collection of the final third (Deadpool MAX: Second Cut); $19.99.

Marvel Masterworks' Atlas Era Journey Into Mystery Vol. 4: This is part of Marvel's never-ending, high-priced line of vintage materials in hardcover, notable here for collecting artist Steve Ditko's very first work with the publisher -- a beneficiary of the post-Code horror artists diaspora -- via a four-page shocker from Journey Into Mystery #33 (1956). You'll recall, of course, that Spider-Man eventually emerged from from a similarly EC-inflected twist ending in Amazing Fantasy #15, which marks that most Marvel of characters as uniquely positioned in Ditko's storytelling background. But anyway, this is Journey Into Mystery #31-40, with Joe Sinnott, Gene Colan, Bob Powell, Joe Orlando, Al Williamson, Bernard Krigstein, Wally Wood and others; $64.99.

Adventures Into the Unknown! Archives Vol. 1: Yet proper pre-Code horror comics are just inches away (in this hypothetical comics shop of yours that stocks everything), as Dark Horse brings a 216-page hardcover collection of the first four issues from the B&I/American Comics Group's 1948-67 anthology, an early adopter. With art by Al Feldstein, Leonard Starr, Fred Guardineer and others, plus an introduction by Bruce Jones, of a later generation's horror corps. Samples; $49.99.

Golden Age Western Comics: I've never heard of powerHouse Books before today, but they've got a 144-page hardcover collection of '40s and '50s cowboy comics out this week, and I'm often inclined to give an unfamiliar publisher a flip-through. Edited by Steven Brower, primary textual contributor to the Fantagraphics-published From Shadow to Light: The Life and Art of Mort Meskin (2010). Samples; $24.95.

Youngblood #71: These Extreme Studios relaunch books appear to be getting more orthodox as they go along, but maybe the '90s children among you will appreciate this 20th Anniversary issue of the original Rob Liefeld creation, now written by comics debutante John J. McLaughlin (among the credited screenwriters on the Darren Aronofsky film Black Swan), with artists Jon Malin & Liefeld himself. Note also that Prophet #25 is out this week, concluding Farel Dalrymple's short run as artist & co-plotter debuting artist Giannis Milonogiannis of Old City Blues, and leading into a solo issue by writer Brandon Graham; $2.99.

Dark Horse Presents #12: Can you call this a relaunch too? Probably - and it's stuffed full of old-timey treats, including a new Nexus story by Mike Baron & Steve Rude, a new Mister X story by Dean Motter, and an Aliens piece from artist Sam Kieth, written by John Layman of Chew. Other features, some continuing, will fill the 80 pages. Samples; $7.99.

Hero Comics 2012: Being one of those comic book-format benefit anthologies, here a 32-page IDW project for the Hero Initiative. Among the promoted features are an Elephantmen story drawn by Dave Sim(!), a Zombies Vs. Robots story drawn by Ashley Wood, and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles story drawn by Kevin Eastman. And, apparently, Darwyn Cooke lettering & coloring Russ Heath; $3.99.

Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics: Finally, your book-on-comics for the week, also from the heretofore mysterious powerHouse - not a standard history, it doesn't appear, but a series of profiles from writer Christopher Irving and photographer Seth Kushner (both of Graphic NYC), hitting periods of comic book development via Joe Simon, Stan Lee, Al Jaffee, Neal Adams, Art Spiegelman, Chris Claremont, Frank Miller, Scott McCloud, Harvey Pekar, Alex Ross, Chris Ware and Jill Thompson; $35.00.

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CONFLICT OF INTEREST RESERVOIR: What? Ditko? Reprints? Yeah, there's more of those in Mysterious Traveler: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 3, another 240-page hardcover from editor Blake Bell; $39.99. And another Ignatz series finds itself collected as Gabriella Giandelli's Interiorae is seen, for the first time in English, in its original muted full-color state; $19.99.

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