THIS WEEK IN COMICS! (6/22/11 – Studies in Delayed Thrill-Power)

I felt bad mentioning José Ortiz's presence in Aces last time without tossing up a few images, so here's some vintage Eerie work from Sept. 1974:

It's a page from the first installment of Night of the Jackass!, something of a fan-favorite serial from the '70s Warren magazines, exemplifying a time when Creepy and Eerie and Vampirella and the like sought to expand their boundaries from their pre-Code horror derived twist ending origins to a full-blown counter-mainstream to the superhero norm, a newsstand-distributed comics scene free from Code concerns -- as was the initial brief for Mad as a magazine, remember -- that could boast a company of recurring characters and longform storytelling stretching across various popular genres, if typically informed by a bleak, violent worldview derived from 'horror' stuff. It was like a vision of a mainstream comics where the Code never happened, and the sensationalistic '50s subject matters evolved into increasingly odd hybrid forms.

Or maybe not so odd. Night of the Jackass! was written by one Bruce Bezaire, a Canadian-born artist who was teaching at the University of Windsor at the time of his Warren debut in Vampirella #28 in 1973; as far as I know this was his professional comics debut. Bezaire would contribute a grand total of eight short stories to the Warren magazines along with the four episodes of Night of the Jackass! that make up its complete story, plus an additional story he both wrote and drew for the second issue of the Canadian magazine Orb (known to anyone reading Dave Sim's Cerebus Archive), and that appears to be it for his comics output across the '70s and '80s. Despite this relatively small output -- nearly all of which appeared between the years 1973 and 1976, save for a story in Eerie #118 from Jan. 1981, which may well have been a file script from the earlier period pulled out to save money -- Bezaire was apparently popular, even winning the 1975 Warren Award for Best All Around Writer.

A close look at Night of the Jackass! perhaps tells us why. It's a horror-tinged action serial, a modular set of siege scenarios pitting two men-of-action of Victorian era England against the scourge of Hyde 25(M), a not-unfamiliar sounding experimental laboratory serum that's spread to the people as a street drug, affording the ragged elderly, destitute working class and malnourished children 24 hours of unbridled id before their bodies shut down - all the better, since they don't have to return to the hell of living! It's basically a Garth Ennis comic, and I don't say that lightly - Bezaire works in practically the same religious concerns hovering over the souls of violent men, even replicating the classic Ennis motif: a younger, softer heroic male character suffering a personal tragedy and caught in the thrall of a powerful, heart-of-darkness anti-hero male, whose cruel methods inevitably force the former man to examine the appeal violence holds for him. All while Ennis was four years old. Obviously the writing isn't the same in terms of style -- Bezaire works in what strikes me as a very '70s heavy-captioned declarative style, and struggles a bit with the period British cadence -- but similarity of theme (and broad, bloody tone) is uncanny.

And here's a rather Judge Dredd comedy police state official in the short story Purge! from Creepy #73, Aug. 1975, decked out in gear that suggests Ortiz might have been paying attention to visual developments in the freshly-launched Métal Hurlant. Attribution is tough in the Warren magazines, though; the colorist on this story is Warren's notoriously hands-on editor-of-the-time, Bill DuBay, who was famous for extensively reworking writers' scripts and sometimes re-drawing art to reflect story alterations (or, admittedly, to cope with the somewhat dodgy translation process scripts would go through to reach the publisher's stable of European artists). The motif seen above -- a dual narrative on opposite halves of the page, linking up later in the story -- was used before in stories by DuBay himself and Jim Stenstrum (another interesting writer who pretty much vanished from comics with the end of the b&w magazine era), and eventually hinges on a very self-referential punchline: the materials the bottom character is smuggling in his suitcase are back-issues of Warren magazines.

Yet the philosophical concerns voiced down bottom are of a piece with Bezaire's body of work. If he seems a bit like Garth Ennis at times in the comics, he surely went in the opposite direction in real life; this very good 2003 interview reveals that Bezaire, still an artist and educator, underwent a Christian conversion at the time he was writing for Warren. And indeed, several of his stories very specifically grapple with matters of religious faith, including Night of the Jackass! and Purge!, or Relatives!, a 1974 Vampirella short seeing a Christian space explorer accidentally immolate some God-fearing aliens. Or even a short from Vampirella #47, Gamal And The Cockatrice, which sees a clever tribesman maneuver himself into a position of wealth and power by exploiting the logical rules of the authorities' faith in a possibly imaginary creature of vast power.

None of these are especially 'nice' stories; the best that ever seems to happen is that humankind's better instincts temporarily buck up to forestall disaster in a fallen world. My personal favorite Bezaire story is Snow, pictured above, from Creepy #75, with art by Rich Buckler & Wally Wood. It's really just a vignette, seeing a man in an irradiated future arriving to find his nephew alive while his parents are not. Casually the man reflects on the boy's innocence, certainly concerning the rampant cannibalism that's dehumanized everyone. He kills a hungry attacker, and licks his lips, but he won't show the boy how to eat. Not yet.

Eventually Bezaire gave up his work with Warren "as incompatible with my new faith." But he was not entirely finished with comics. In 1991, the Manitoba-based Indian Life Ministries released issue #2 of its Dan Red Eagle comic book written by series originators Opops'kan & Limping Dog. The color art was by Bruce Bezaire, delineating many hazardous urban and natural environments for strapping Christian hero Dan Red Eagle to navigate in his quest to save a depressed young woman.

But now, there is hope. Bezaire would participate in two further issues of Dan Red Eagle in 1999 and 2001, by that time in b&w and produced in cooperation with the Narragraphic Project at Belhaven College in Jackson, Mississippi, where he was then Art Department Chair. These comics can be taken, then -- and I pray you forgive this writer's supposition -- as the refutation of the terror images of Warren, those tales divined from worst cases and errant paths and other ways a faith can hesitantly stumble. That, to me, is Bezaire's horror, left recorded and dead and buried in moldering longbox print.


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.



Prince Valiant: An American Epic Vols. 2 & 3: While I don't often cover the 'offered again' items Diamond typically lists, these two might be of special interest - 17" x 22" mammoth editions for one year's worth each (1938 and 1939, respectively) of Hal Foster's weekly thing, published in 1985 and 1990 by Rick Norwood's Manuscript Press. They probably won't be easy to miss, should your retailer partake; $150.00 (each).

The Hounds of Hell: This is another one of Humanoids' English-language releases of all-in-one intégrale editions for its various series (i.e. the only editions they'll be seen in for North American purposes), presumably on the assumption that completism is as good a strategy as any right now. What's particularly noteworthy, however, is that it marks the return-for-our-purposes of writer Philippe Thirault, one of the more interesting talents showcased in the publisher's '00s outings, particularly via his Miss: Better Living Through Crime, an entertaining cut of period-America-by-way-of-France prone to cleverly overlapping plotlines and keen character work. Not an unpopular book upon its initial 2002 release as a single volume (completism being an okay strategy then too), but Thirault wasn't seen again until a smattering of content from his Thousand Faces -- a continent-crossing bit of 19th century choral horror narration just completed in France last year -- surfaced during the infamous DC/Humanoids deal and promptly vanished. I don't know much about this 2004-10 sword-swinging mercenary team series set around the Byzantine Empire -- aside from having three artists over its initial four-album length: Christian Højgaard, Drazen Kovacevic and Roman Surzhenko -- but I'd keep an eye out, as Thirault has done fine with as-plain concepts. French-language sample images; $19.95.



Roy Rogers: The Collected Daily and Sunday Newspaper Strips: Yeah, I ate at a Roy Rogers - out on the turnpike, one of the last in the wild! Is this like when Ditko did a Big Boy comic? Oh, wait... okay, actually this deals with a 1949-61 newspaper strip pertaining to the cowboy hero personality, mainly remembered today for some uncredited contributions by Alex Toth toward the end of its run. A 224-page Hermes Press hardcover, surveying the strip's lifetime, with all Toth material collected; $49.99.

Metal Hurlant Collection Vol. 1 (of 2): Actually the second of three hardcover compilations of presumably all the comics content from Humanoids' 14-issue 2002-04 revival of the venerable anthology -- although additional content was released in the French edition, some of which might show up here too -- following Alexandro Jodorowsky's Screaming Planet, which was necessarily writer-themed. This is the start of everything else, which you'll recall served as something of an international talent exchange hub, hence the presence of Eurocomics master Geoff Johns of Le Flashpoint. With Ryan Sook, Jerome Opeña, many others across 192 pages; $29.95.

The Bendatti Vendetta: In the interests of identifying cases of more recent thrill-power this week among many potential selections, I am compelled to note the North American comics shop appearance of this 96-page Rebellion collection of content from Judge Dredd Megazine, 2002-05, in which artist John Burns paints up some European-set contemporary crime comics written by Robbie Morrison; $22.99.

Scary Godmother Comic-Book Stories: A fat (312-page) Dark Horse collection of youth-targeted comics by Jill Thompson, which should look pretty nice. Samples; $24.99.

Detroit Metal City Vol. 9 (of 10): Nearing the end of this comedy series from artist Kiminori Wakasugi, in English from Viz, as a meek young man continues to know the impossible pleasure of satan's gentle hymns; $12.99.

20th Century Boys Vol. 15 (of 24): Not really nearing the end of this suspense series from artist Naoki Urasawa, also in English from Viz, which informs me via press release (yes, I get those too) that the 74-episode entirety of Masayuki Kojima's television anime adaptation of Urasawa's Monster is now streaming on Netflix, in case you've got a long July 4th weekend on the distant horizon and no patriotism; $12.99.

Rocketeer Adventures #2 (of 4): As expected, this Dave Stevens tribute anthology from IDW looks to be functioning as a showcase for art applicable to some nostalgic derring-do tone, mostly in a realism-y vein. That said, this issue has a story from writer/artist Darwyn Cooke along with shorts by Mark Waid & Chris Weston and Lowell Francis & Gene Ha, plus a Geof Darrow spread. Samples; $3.99.

Dark Horse Presents Vol. 2 #2: I liked the David Chelsea story in issue #1, and more of him is promised for this next 80-page edition. Corben, Chaykin, Chadwick and more are promised. Samples; $7.99.

Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga: Finally, your book-on-comics of the week - a new Stone Bridge Press hardcover edition of Frederik L. Schodt's compulsively readable 1996 survey of the Japanese comics scene, now as much a time capsule as anything for its investigations into a suite of a dozen then-current anthology magazines (including the still-kicking Garo) and the much smaller manga-in-English industry. Still, its central set of artist/series profiles -- with a special focus on alternative manga icons like Yoshiharu Tsuge and King Terry, as well as telling curiosities as the comics output of the Aum Shinrikyo cult -- is gonna click pretty damn hard. With a new foreword and afterword. Very much recommended; $29.95.


CONFLICT OF INTEREST RESERVOIR: Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips Vol. 2 (1936-1937) will in all likelihood give you what the title indicates, in addition to an illustrated introduction by Paul Pope, an essay by the late Bill Blackbeard and comments by editor Rick Norwood, of the Prince Valiant stuff noted up above; $39.99.