THIS WEEK IN COMICS! (5/6/15 – Underground Comics)

Divergence FCBD Special Edition #1
Published by DC Comics



"So what do you think of Convergence?"

"It's a piece of shit."

We were almost 90 minutes into our first stop, and Chris had begun making small talk with a local man of his acquaintance. There's no shortage of conversation on Free Comic Book Day; the store -- a mainline, 'full-service' comic book shop on a busy highway -- was absolutely packed. Costumed stormtroopers patrolled the parking lot as a line for free items stretched down the facade of the entire strip mall. It was sunny, and dime bins were set up outside. Local artists drew sketches and signed books, and I personally rescued a Stephen R. Bissette Tyrant print from blowing away with the springtime breeze. "Don't want this to leave again," I joked, and there were people around who understood my joke, which is unusual and nice.

If you're wondering why retailers put up with FCBD, it's because if you put a lot a effort into presentation, local hype, sales, etc., it becomes something akin to a Black Friday for comics, complete with a sizable outlay of browsers who don't often visit Direct Market establishments, and do indeed often buy stuff on top of the giveaway items. At least that's what I've been told - anecdotally, but consistently.

Of course, this leads to those moments of culture clash inevitable when the still-cloistered aspects of the comic book scene bump into the wider public. Comic book stores are not generally big, and semi-'adult' or extreme content titles, engineered for the very specific peccadilloes of those deemed reliable money by comic book publishers, are all but guaranteed to share space with broader-market fare. Amusingly, I noticed that some community-minded individual had noticed the cover for a recent issue of the grossout horror series Crossed -- I'd rank it about a 3 of 10 on the Crossed grossout cover scale, but that's still pretty harsh -- and obscured it with an adjoining issue of Dark Horse Presents.

Often in these situations I'm reminded of old video stores, the mom 'n pop type where you'd accompany your parent, ostensibly on a mission to rent something appropriate, and you'd somehow become surrounded by the sensational, utterly lurid jackets and cases of the Horror section, oozing with grime and skin and gore. I would be petrified but completely transfixed by this baleful adult world sitting in plain sight, though it'd be foolish to project my own feelings onto childhood en mass. Honestly, a lot of people were disgusted by that stuff, and once serious retail chains really got going the aesthetic died pretty quickly in the service of accessing as much of the paying mass as easily as possible.

There is not enough money in comic books for a Blockbuster to arrive -- at least not in terms of printed matter -- but I do think the growing financial power of audiences outside the cloister will signal to numerous shops that this similar blend of content will have to be carefully managed in the future. Money doesn't solve everything, but money will solve this, and the industry will probably be healthier for it.

Chris tapped me on the shoulder.


Batman - The Rookie
By Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, Danny Miki, FCO Plascencia and Steve Wands

Divergence is an anthology package introducing several new storylines coming out of DC's Convergence crossover. This first of three shorts represents the extremely popular Batman line's most successful talents, and, if I'm being honest, of all the superhero comics DC has been putting out of late I suspect it's Snyder, Capullo & co. that I'd probably like the most if I ever broke down and read all of their stuff - I've enjoyed the handful of early issues that I've actually read, and paging through the more recent work suggests a pretty interesting effort at blending the line art with sickly fluorescence reminiscent of late-period Lynn Varley.

None of that is present is this story, however, which functions as an opening hymn to the secular Mass that is the reading of mainline DC superhero comics. "...you can hear the rumble of the car. See the growing shadow..." a narrator murmurs over a full-page splash of the Bat-symbol. "...you're smiling without knowing it. A tingling in your hands."

"You feel his approach like a song inside you, dark and joyful, swelling, the same notes over and over, like a drumbeat getting faster."


God help us, it's a 'superheroes are important' story, pitched so fucking hard -- solemn newsreaders wearing 9/11-tier memorial Bat-pins while preaching the Batman example of being unafraid, being yourself, being a fighter, a veritable Last Lecture delivered with his fists by a hooded vigilante, PRESUMED DEAD, dear reader, in a cataclysmic clash with the diabolical Joker -- that I'm unsure if Snyder isn't setting up some sort of heel turn fake-out for the corporation now tasked with replacing Batman via an armored police uniform that looks like a blue bunny rabbit. Of course, there have been complaints online, and of course the creative team are well aware: "...this is the dumbest idea in the history of Gotham City," the suit's pilot remarks, though this is not criticism or penance of any sort; we're only up to the responsorial psalm, in which the writer remarks 'superheroes can be silly' and we repeat 'superheroes can be silly,' and in that we overcome our hesitancy through assertions of faith and take our seats for the readings to follow.


"Do you want to visit the Basement?" Chris asked.

I didn't need to answer.


The Basement is another comic book store, about 50 minutes away. It is not formally called "the Basement," though it is, literally, a basement, of the cavernous type familiar to anyone who every participated in Church activities in their youth.

Every table, every drawer, every room, nook, cranny, inch of the Basement is filled with comic books, magazines, graphic novels, action dolls, genre paperbacks and 'vintage' porn rags. My eyes welled with tears as I entered, partially due to the scent of mold, and I immediately darted into a side room (one of many) to begin flipping through magazine-sized boxes. There are individual zones of alphabetization in the Basement, but identification of those zones are left mainly to you, with the chief organizing principle being 'sales' rooms. One room is 50% off. One room is everything-for-a-dime. Almost everything on Free Comic Book Day, however, was on a rolling discount, depending on whether or not you were willing to pay by cash or personal check. The proprietor, an elderly man prone to flipping through customer's selections with glee at the register, calculated the deals with a pencil, paper, and a tape-chugging calculator, when not vacuuming... something on the floor.

"This is paradise," I whispered, fingering through issues of Penthouse Comix for Richard Corben. "Paradise."


I mean, look at this!


For $3.50, you can get a genuine, only slightly cover-damaged issue of Reality #2, a 1971 fanzine with production values higher than a lot of magazines today. The publisher of Reality was one Robert Gerson, aka "Robert Gerstenhaber," a high school-aged NYC teen who had the wherewithal to solicit stories intended for Major Publications' then-recently defunct entry into the b&w horror magazine sweepstakes, Web of Horror, thus setting up access to many of the young artists later associated with The Studio: Michael Wm. Kaluta is all over this issue, although Bernie Wrightson pops up too. There's also a two-color Frank Brunner center spread, a big portfolio of drawings by Journal legend Kenneth Smith, and, most importantly -- the reason why I screeched audibly, beneath the sound of the vacuuming, upon flipping through this item -- the print comics debut of 20-year old Howard Chaykin, collaborating with Bill Stillwell on a sort of two-page SF poem.


There is also an essay by Jan Strnad -- the writer, incidentally, of Richard Corben's Penthouse Comix strips, along with many other works up to 2012's Ragemoor -- on the necessity of good scripting in comics and good prose in articles. It's a little amusing to see such an emphatic case be made for the necessity of writers, given the present state of the mainstream, but what really struck me about Strnad's argument was the emphasis it placed on fanzines as venues for experimentation. "Graphic Story Magazine [the groundbreaking Bill Spicer pub] has already given us examples of what the graphic story can be, and so far the professional publishers have realized only a minute fraction of this potential." Amateurs, in other words, are operating in more favorable creative perimeters than those allowed by the mainline publishers, and only through a renewed commitment to craft can fans prevent their gains from being entirely co-opted, relegating them again to "comic groupies, idol worshipers prostrating themselves at the feet of the pros." He is talking, really, about small press comics, seeing the underground perhaps as a totally different beast while working to articulate an adequate terminology. Writers' work.


After about an hour, though, down in that church basement, the atmosphere start to get to you. The amount of information to process is absolutely tremendous, and every passive glance reveals something else. Here's a box of Warren magazines that looked like they'd lost a fight with a dog. Twenty bucks for the lot. Here's a complete set of Jeff Bonivert's Atomic Man Comics from Blackthorne Publishing. Wait, who's Jeff Bonivert? (I dunno Chris, lemme Google him.) What's Blackthorne Publishing? (They did The Iger Comics Kingdom! Jay Disbrow, Chris!) And what the hell is this?


I mean, if even you get the joke in the title, congratulations on having lived so long, but even the internet is of very little help in identifying Lionel T. Pengson & Edemer Santos; the latter may have gone on to a career in television animation, but the record is otherwise silent. From what I can gather, this seems to be an Asterix-like Filipino komik that was published in Hong Kong in 1985, and thereafter found its way, somehow, into a Lancaster County, Pennsylvania basement. Multiple copies, sitting across the half-off room from over half a dozen blister-packaged comic & cassette tape Collectors Special editions of 1995's Brinke of Destruction #1.

I didn't buy the Brinke Stevens comic, $3.50 asking price or not, as I don't have a tape player sitting around and I'll be damned if I miss out on the full "Brinke of Destruction" multimedia experience.
I didn't buy the Brinke Stevens comic, $3.50 asking price or not, as I don't have a tape player sitting around and I'll be damned if I miss out on the full "Brinke of Destruction" multimedia experience.

I heard laughter behind me. A pair of young women, maybe 17 years old, were rooting through the cut-rate manga bins and cracking lewd jokes. Immediately I regretted the heteronormativity of all the porn in the Basement; surely there's some stinking room somewhere stacked high with boom-era yaoi... although maybe that's why you hit up dubious anime cons instead of comic book stores. The story here is the story told of assumptions about what audience you'd need to service, and even at the height of the manga fad, a lot of comic book stores were reluctant to even offer a sampling of Japanese wares, let along dive really deep into disrepute. You were more likely to find this:


Raijin Comics, an absolutely doomed attempt on the part of Coamix, a Japanese production company formed from artists and personnel splintered off from Shūeisha (one of the companies that owns VIZ), to print a weekly manga anthology in English. Half of the serials in 2002's issue #0 date from the '80s & early '90s; it's shōnen manga not for trend-following kids, but weird old men. Only $237.60 for a one-year subscription! It didn't even last 52 issues; the final 10 came out monthly.


Superman - Exposed
By Gene Luen Yang, John Romita, Jr., Klaus Janson ('with' Scott Hanna), "Hi-Fi" and Travis Lanham

This is the second of three stories in Divergence, though I have neglected so far to note that there is also a text introduction from your ol' chums "Dan and Jim," i.e. DC Comics Co-publishers Dan Didio & Jim Lee, hailing (in pertinent part) DC's commitment to "diversity not just in character, but in creator, in voice, tonality and storytelling." So heralds the arrival of a 'fun' Superman comic from the extremely acclaimed YA/lit comics crossover hero Yang, who's been honing his work-for-hire commercial comic chops on Avatar: The Last Airbender licensed books for years now over at Dark Horse. Call it a homily.


Lois Lane has revealed Superman's secret identity to everyone, so Superman is wearing a hoodie and sunglasses and trying to stay unnoticed while commiserating with Jimmy. A hulking superpowered guy in a headband immediately sees through this disguise and flings a food truck at Superman. You know it's a 'fun' superhero comic, because characters crack little jokes in the midst of mortal danger, and I can't deny that the extremely stylized, cartooned approach of longtime genre veterans Romita & Janson (w' Hanna) is probably the most applicable to this scripting approach off the current DC bench. Then superman boxes the bad guy's ears and flies away, leaving the local police to deal with a guy who'd just demonstrated an aptitude for hoisting large steel vehicles with his bare hands. Then there's a page of The Internet Reacts to Superman, about half the posts on which sound like internet comments, with the remainder sounding like A Writer. Then Lois tracks down Superman to apologize, and he tells her -- in the most empathetic and inoffensive way possible -- to #fuckoff.


"No, no we don't have free comics today," the proprietor croaked into the phone. Retailers have to pay for those, and a destination shop like the Basement shouldn't bother. There was nonetheless a steady stream of people going in and out, memorably including a small family on the hunt for giveaways taking one or two looks and backing out up the stairs. Chris told me that one time, when he came here with his family, one of his kids was too frightened to enter.

Tweeting about the experience later, someone told me that while the Basement looks awesome, it's probably bad for the comics industry. I don't really see something like this store as part of the industry. It's the debris of industry - a catch-all. A scrap heap. Chris balanced a 102-year old copy of Clare Briggs' & Wilbur D. Nesbit's Oh Skin-Nay!: The Days of Real Sport in his hands by some Aliens vs. Predator back issues. I snatched it away and grabbed a Warrior Nun Areala action figure off the wall to create Contemporary Art, because this is a temple to art, is it not?

"con/vocation" - Joe McCulloch (2015)
"con/vocation" - Joe McCulloch (2015)


Squish squish. I didn't immediately notice what was under my feet by the porn magazine boxes. I was enveloped in Playboy, a little Hustler, and, unexpectedly, this:


Red Calloway's Big Bang #1 (of 4), from the good people at Zoo Arsonist Press. The artist is Paul Sharar, who later did a series titled Clock!, with which Top Shelf was somehow affiliated, maybe toward its end. This is earlier stuff, from 1995, exhibiting a keen interest in alternative comics of the prior decade; Sharar's art is, at different points, reminiscent of Dan Clowes, Charles Burns, and (especially) Jaime Hernandez... I even picked up bits of Carol Swain and Jamie Hewlett. Sharar, at this point, is not as skilled as any of those artists, his storytelling less elliptical than obscure and his figures stiffly caricatured.


It is miserable, though, at least. (Squish.) Miserablism of an unusually direct sort. I presume the book was inside the porn bins owing to a pretty explicit dream sequence in which the lead character envisions nearly every other character fucking while he is left to watch, and that certainly encapsulates the central theme of this issue, which is that this guy (squish) is hopeless. Every man he encounters is a threatening, demeaning, mocking, virile slice of physical success, all of them assholes and frauds. Every living woman is either a remote, unfulfilled promise of desire or an absolute monster of castrating amorality. (Squish.) Falsely accused of rape by a vindictive ex out to steal the money left for him by his grandma, Our Man finds himself sharing a cell with a pervert clown known for masturbating in public, but only because he mourns a lost love of his own. Still, Sharar notably refuses to go full 'w-- what about nice guys?' on us, by neglecting to offer any redeeming characteristics to his drunken do-nothing protagonist. He's just a loser, and will remain a loser, (squish) in this cruel, ugly (squish) machine built (squish) to fuck losers.

What the fuck is that squishing? Is the carpet... oh my fucking god, there's water coming in! It's not even raining! Is this why the guy was vacuuming? To eliminate puddles? EVERYTHING IN HERE IS PAPER. EVERYTHING!

"Chris!" I cried.

"It's time to leave," he said.

"Chris! No, I've found a metaphor!"


We still smelled like mold for much of the car ride back. We'd had a really fun time.

"You know," Chris said, "visiting a place like that-- there's so much shit. So much of it is shit, and I don't even just mean Marvel and DC. There's so many people who rubbed their coins together one day, years and years ago, and they were a cartoonist, dammit, for a little while. And where do they wind up? In a leaky basement."

Yet despite it all, there was one more shop within a few miles' drive, and Free Comic Book Day is nothing if not a day for overindulgence.

This third store was again very welcoming. Cluttered, but even fuller-service than where we'd begun. There was a tent set up outside for signings, a Jurassic Park jeep, a scale model of mighty Mjölnir (I did not consider myself worthy enough to lift), and a line for free comics that snaked all around towering stacks of dry, well-kept books, like a miniature tour of the store. A baby in a mohawk cooed in his mother's arms next to a Craig Yoe hardcover of Eerie Pubs horror magazine rotgut and Crossed trades. High above us watched Lady Death and the women of Zenescope, while Chip Kidd-designed superhero variant covers winked below.

"It's the same here," Chris whispered. "Where is it all going to go?"

Most of the free comics were picked clean. Chris asked the manager how there day had gone. "Best ever," he replied. The remaining giveaways had been put into longboxes, save for one stack of comics. There were still to many of those. I picked one up.

It was titled Divergence.


Justice League - Darkseid War Prologue Two: The Other Amazon
By Geoff Johns, Jason Fabok, Brad Anderson and Rob Leigh

And now, friends, in the third and concluding segment of our program, the orthodoxy is duly serviced. There is simply too much reliable money to be made from the traditional congregation, one that won't blanch at seeing a 'Part Two' preview story in a giveaway sampler with no indication as to where the first part might be - or, rather, will not question why an entirely standalone preview story is even designated a 'Part 2,' because finding out where all of them are and somehow obtaining them all and putting them all in order is part of the experience. I know the feeling, basement-dweller that I am.

Mind you, in the Justice League spirit of community and teamwork, efforts are made to please the wider community. Cognizant of the growing financial authority of superheroine work, this is both a New Gods riff and a Wonder Woman story, albeit in the doomy nü-metal peplum mode in which the character has been depicted for a few years. A sinister narrator relates the true facts behind Diana's supposed birth from clay as rain pours and lightning flashes: big '80s blood & thunder, rendered by Fabok in a post-Jim Lee, post-David Finch house-y style, fit and fertile Amazons not grimacing so much as sneering through their labor pains, lips curled as they give birth in the mud without removing their steel & leather bustiers.

Alas, while Wonder Tot is born on one side of Themyscira, the narrator bears the daughter of Darkseid, prompting a nearby oracle to throw her head back and excerpt scenes of peril from the upcoming Justice League storyline. "I see a new god born." (Batman, whom I suppose is not dead, stands in profile with Tron lights.) "I see hope lost." (Lex Luthor grasps Superman's cape, pleading for his return.) "I see a king drown." (Aquaman is being dunked by robots.) As if in ecstatics, she pronounces the given civilian names of DC characters: "Diana. Bruce. Hal. Scott. Victor. Barry. Barda. Clark. Jason. Arthur. Jessica. Billy. Lex. They will hurt." Having risen to our feet, we repeat: they will hurt. Darkseid's daughter stands now, facing the congregation in a final glimpse of the future, sending us out into Saturday air aloft on the spirit. Halleluiah! Sexy Darkseid is wearing pouches!




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.




Black River: A few copies of this have been slithering around, and I've been warned it's a harsh one. Perhaps that goes without saying when Josh Simmons is involved, but it's been a while since he's dropped a self-contained narrative of such considerable length. Across 112 pages we follow a group of cataclysmic survivors, mostly women, who bear witness to many strange and awful things, including "gangs of men who are fools, lunatics, or murderous sadists," which puts me in the mind of an alt-comics riff on the likes of Crossed (which itself was a horrorcore riff on The Walking Dead), or even manga survival horror. But really, it will be very Josh Simmons. Preview; $18.99.


In God We Trust: But if it's despair of a more blatantly metaphysical sort you're after, this week also serves up Vincent "Winshluss" Paronnaud, following his grotesque spoof of Pinocchio with a 2013 study of Biblical tales, which the solicitation vows "will leave the reader no respite from the horrors suffered by an inept and inconsistent humanity and the acts of an apathetic, drunk, and jaded divine power." Sounds pretty 'underground comics,' so it's fitting that the English-language publisher is the UK counter-cultural holdout Knockabout, achieving North American distribution via the similarly-positioned Last Gasp. A 104-page color hardcover, 8.7" x 10.4". Samples; $29.95.



Alamo Value Plus #1 (&) Men's Feelings #1: A pair of Revival House Press comic books finding their way to Diamond distribution via Alternative Comics. Alamo Value Plus is a 28-page solo comic from artist Rusty Jordan, depicting some of a retail environment's special oral history. Men's Feelings is 36 pages from alt-comics veteran Ted May, a very funny suite of short comics about guys who just need to be heard; $4.00 (Alamo), $5.00 (Feelings).

Mimi and the Wolves Act I: "The Dream" (&) Scaffold: Same deal, except now it's Hic & Hoc getting Diamond access through Alternative. Mimi is 64 pages from the artist Alabaster, "an epic tale of affairs, alliances, and friendships in a quest for power and self-discovery," set in a folkloric realm from the looks of it. Scaffold is a 64-page work of intense-looking drawing from VA Graham & JA Eisenhower of the Most Ancient collective, surveying small characters as they navigate a pulsing organic world; $12.00 (Mimi), $15.00 (Scaffold).

Exquisite Corpse: Being a First Second translation of a 2010 album from French artist Pénélope Bagieu, concerning a young woman's involvement with a famous author and her unwitting entry into a weird scandal. A 6.34" x 8.81" hardcover, 128 color pages. Preview; $19.99.

Zero #16: The new issue of this bleak Image espionage/assassination/politics-of-the-world series fronted by writer Ales Kot, colorist Jordie Bellaire and letterer Clayton Cowles, with someone new drawing every issue. This time it's Stathis Tsemberlidis of the UK small press collective Decadence, which guarantees an interesting time. Note that Kot also has a new Valiant miniseries starting up this week: Dead Drop with artist Adam Gorham. Preview; $2.99.

Minimum Wage: So Many Bad Decisions #1 (of 6): Also from Image comes the start of a new 'season' for Bob Fingerman's long-lived slice-of-life series. Preview; $3.99.

Valérian Vol. 9: Châtelet Station, Destination Cassiopeia: Getting back to Eurocomics, now of an older sort, here is Cinebook with a 1980 installment of the hugely-loved Jean-Claude Mézières/Pierre Christin outer space adventure series. Influential too - I snickered at this yesterday. An 8.5" x 11.3", 48-page softcover. Samples; $11.95.

Dial H Deluxe Edition: While Convergence is busy mixing up the DC universe once more, bookstores and enlightened comics retailers may now pay comprehensive mind to the best thing to come out of the New 52, a fiercely odd 2012-13 revamp of the ol' dial a number, get a superpower concept, fronted by writer China Miéville with all the velocity of ideas you think you remember from early (or better yet, pre-)Vertigo. The primary pencillers are Mateus Santolouco, Alberto Ponticelli and David Lapham. Expect the entire main series over 368 pages, and hopefully the one-artist-per-page epilogue that ran in Justice League a while later; $34.99.

Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange Vol. 1: One of the more evidently screwy aspects of Marvel's collections scheme is that major bits of the classic superhero canon have a way of going out of print. Case in point - for quite a while now, there's been no ready access to Steve Ditko's Doctor Strange in print form. This new edition of a pretty old hardcover seeks to alleviate that problem, with applicable content from Strange Tales #110-111 & #114-141, plus Amazing Spider-Man Annual #2 - that's not everything, but it's a solid chunk. Stan Lee adds a touch of purple throughout; $49.99.

Cerebus Vol. 2: High Society 30th Anniversary Remastered Gold Edition: And finally, since we're talking about reprints, here is a sparkling new edition of Dave Sim's 1981-83 satire of political gamesmanship, perhaps literally sparkling from the exciting gold logo. Unless I am mistaken, all editions will be signed and numbered; $30.00.