People often ask me, "Joe, why does the top part of your column always seem to focus on goof-ass foreign shit and old men when you could just as easily be devoting space to young, hungry artists challenging the boundaries of comics expression?" My reply is always the same: "Stick to the four corners of the search warrant, officer, and anyway - there's new Jack T. Chick to read!" It works every time, because the 88-year old Chick maintains an enviable rate of production, gracing us with a fresh 22-page comics tract at seemingly every instance of doubt in the presence of the divine to occur anywhere in the English-speaking world, although I'm pretty sure This Was Your Life! has been translated to every language.
Among his most recent is Satan Comes to Salem, which sounds like a late '60s Hammer pic, but actually speaks to Chick's current practice of comics. As with the works of Steve Ditko -- a similarly prolific artist of the same generation -- Chick enjoys highlighting gatherings of people as laboratories of unrest and misinformation. The foggy background in panel one perhaps suggests the limitations Chick's age has placed on his craft, though the gormless chump with the striped shirt and stubble remains the perfect means of delivering a brisk lecture on the Salem witch hunts, with no regard paid to the likeliness of the opinions duly expressed by the characters. None is needed; we can see in this dude's face that he needs a good talking to, and Chick remains quite fine at delineating guileless expressions that nonetheless retain some individuality.
I also love the looming Satan in panel two; Chick's barked-to-the-President's-chair narration -- which, in his younger days, would probably be delivered by some enlightened in-story soul unto the ignorant, though now the membrane between character and author is thin -- sets him up as a rather jaunty, globe-hopping type.
To the unacclimated, this new comic might seem unusually self-reflective; after all, here we see the Satanic-minded children of Salem slinging Bible verses with citation, as bedrock a sign of grace in Chick's world as HAW HAW HAW denotes the wicked. But pay attention to the page I've posted up top: bloody Roman Catholic abuses are emphasized in proximity to the demon, and from there is revealed yet another manifestation of a century-spanning Chick concern: the repulsion of false doctrines, characteristic of a knowingly extreme worldview opposed on nearly all sides. The devil has many guises under Chick's pen, and many of them wear the vestments of religious and political authority, the more seemingly similar to Chick's own perspective the better for rebuke.
Great devil in that crowd of faces in panel two. I do wonder, though, about language like "Chick's pen." Recently, there's been something of a letterboxing effect to Chick's art, so that it's bordered at the top and bottom by fairly severe blocks of text. I don't think Chick employs full-fledged ghost artists -- his look seems a bit too idiosyncratic to train someone without a noticeable shift in visual style -- but I imagine all that text can be entered in by any number of studio assistants, and subsequently swapped out or corrected or translated without a lot of sweat. This is also the rationale for uniform digital lettering in superhero comics, but those are products of commerce; time-saving techniques as potentially employed here would doubly serve the 'mission' of Chick to promulgate his comics across the globe, to ensure an ease of access that posting everything on the web and leaving comics on park benches and creating mobile apps collectively works toward.
But it does still feel to me, old-school as I am, that the future's caught up.
As the comic goes on, Chick's art recedes more and more into mesas of text. It occurs to me that some of the more clip art-y bits of image -- the faceless God, let's say, or the Mean Catholic above -- can easily be swapped out from comic to comic, as the more boilerplate messages apply themselves. It's like the little pray-for-your-soul text page at the back of all the older tracts has begun to creep forward into the comics themselves, a notion of the contemporary smacking of the pre-Chick standard of text-only religious tracts. And who'll pick those up from the cafeteria drop point? Yet as much as I hate to admit it, the older I get the older I find Chick as well; maybe all the art that came before is a statement on the ephemeral nature of flesh, and art, as Tarkovsky once remarked, as a harrowing of the soul and preperation, finally, for life's end.
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.
A Chinese Life: Yes, comics are such today that 700-page magnum opuses can come and go with nary an acknowledgement from the professionally interested. I'm not convinced I haven't mentioned this book before in this column. Granted, I'm also not convinced I haven't opened this column with exactly the same joke as today's, but it's more worthwhile talking about this book, actually an omnibus collection of a 2009-11 French-language series from manhua artist Li Kunwu, working with co-writer Philippe Ôtié. The obvious point of comparison is Yoshihiro Tatsumi's 2009 A Drifting Life, a similarly lengthy, conversational story-of-a-man-that's-the-story-of-a-place, though Kunwu's approach to life in the People's Republic of China from '49 onward is more focused and structured, and a good deal more prone to little flights of brushy fancy; it's a good-looking book. From London's SelfMadeHero, though distributed abroad now by Abrams, hence my confusion over prior listings. Preview; $27.50.
Message to Adolf Vol. 1 (of 2): A moment of perspective - the first Osamu Tezuka series ever released in its entirety in the English language arrived in 1995-96, less than twenty years ago. The project was titled Adolf, a five-volume Viz series released via their Cadence Books line of graphic novels, no doubt with an eye toward separating genuine pioneer Tezuka from the kiddie roots of his style: these were books, drawn from a serial positioned near the end of the artist's career, 1983-85, its forum a weekly news magazine. There's plenty more material of all sorts out there now, so maybe the particular blend of pulpy thrills and memories-of-facism's-rise present in this re-titled, re-translated, re-collected 648-page Vertical hardcover edition of the stuff is due some reassessment. Two men share the given name of der Führer, their fates bumping up against the magnitude of history; $26.95.
Aya: Life in Yop City: This much-admired slice-of-life drama from writer Marguerite Abouet and artist Clément Oubrerie wrapped its French run in late 2010, so Drawn and Quarterly is adopting a new release strategy - release the three extant English-translated volumes in this 382-page color package, then blow out all the to-be-translated stuff in a second volume (Love in Yop City) later this year. It is, of course, based on Abouet's recollections of youth in the Ivory Coast of the 1970s, and embodies a certain ideal of polished 'mainstream' adult comics from continental Europe. Some pages; $24.95.
Heartless: I know absolutely nothing about the comics collected in this 128-page Conundrum Press release, though I am aware of artist Nina Bunjevac from Mineshaft magazine and some Le Dernier Cri projects. It appears to be an English-language edition of a 2011 Serbo-Croatian collection, which Paul Gravett enjoyed. It looks pretty striking. Introduction by Jay Lynch. Samples; $20.00.
Wet Moon Vol. 6: Yesterday's Gone: I do, however, recognize Ross Campbell and his graphic novel series from Oni, a horror-spiked student relationship drama ongoing since 2005. Campbell is presently (among other things) serving up confrontational superheroine visuals in the Image series Glory -- the first collected volume of which is also set to drop this week -- but the Comics Comics old-schoolers love him best for this. Extensive preview at the official site; $17.99.
People Around Here: Another Conundrum publication, a follow-up to Toronto artist Dave Lapp's 2008 Drop-in, an account of time spent working at an inner city youth arts center (Dylan Williams reviewed it here). This one's a collection of observational strips culled from assorted publications, with new stuff too. Samples; $17.00.
American Comics Group Collected Works: Adventure Into the Unknown Vol. 1 (&) Forbidden Worlds Vol. 1: Boy do I wish I had the money for all these PS Artbooks hardcover collections of pre-Code horror comics. Unlike the publisher's similarly extensive line of Harvey horror reprints, however, there's no promises for less-costly softcover editions for the ACG stuff. Five issues in each, running to 288 pages; $47.99 (each).
Fashion Beast #1 (of 10): Just yesterday, Gosh! London debuted Kevin O'Neill's cover art to Nemo: Heart of Ice, a self-contained League of Extraordinary Gentlemen spin-off project -- apparently a 48-page hardcover book, hopefully at European album size, as that's basically the direction the series has been going in lately -- and the next proper comic book to be written by Alan Moore. Meanwhile, Avatar Press, recent home of Moore's & Jacen Burrows' Neonomicon, reverts to its prior role of producing Alan Moore-approved comics adaptations of things Alan Moore has done that are not comics. This one's an original (unproduced) screenplay Moore wrote in 1985 from a story by Robert Boykin, Malcolm McLaren and himself; it's apparently a melding of the life of Christian Dior with the Beauty and the Beast fable, though all I've read of it is online criticism ("...pretty dreadful... it must be a first draft, but I don’t think it could be rescued by any number of re-writes."). The adaptation is by frequent Moore/Avatar facilitator Antony Johnston, with art by Facundo Percio of Warren Ellis' Anna Mercury. Preview; $3.99.
Black Kiss II #2 (of 6): The latest issue of an ongoing Howard Chaykin sex 'n history series from Image, recently graced with a scintillating advance review: "...scenes depicted... may fall foul of UK Customs' regulations on the importing of indecent and obscene material." YOW! Breathy language from the august crits at Diamond UK, which will not, apparently, be distributing the series to the United Kingdom. Well, I've still got six or seven American police officers in my apartment, and all of them agree that Black Kiss II is top-notch reading for domestic fans of omnisexual tentacle beasties banging their way across the dreamscape of 20th century pop culture; $2.99.
Incognito: Classified Edition: Speaking of secret histories (though considerably lighter on the tentacles), here's one of those big, thick hardcover collections the Ed Brubaker/Sean Phillips Marvel/Icon series get after a while, this one compiling both runs of their 2008-11 dark superhero/pulp adventure guy villain-style project, which I don't think ever quite got the hype of your Criminal or Fatale, though its genre licks got it some market traction. Expect the usual stack of extras to go with it; $44.99.
Prince of Cats: Meanwhile, over at DC/Vertigo, Ronald Wimberly -- artist of the publisher's well-received 2008 comics biography Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm -- has prepared a 144-page color variant of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, set in a fantasy Brooklyn and focused on the character of Tybalt, with all dialogue purportedly written in iambic pentameter. Samples; $16.99.
Chi's Sweet Home Vol. 9: As always, there's a wide selection of less weighty manga than up above -- Bakuman sees its 14th volume from Viz, for instance -- though admirers of cat mangaka Konami Kanata's particular brand of kitten whispers will want to know that Vertical's release of the series is now up to pace with the Japanese editions, leaving new installments in the artist's hands. It's 160 pages in full color; $13.95.
The Monsters' Monster: Not the only children's storybook-type hardcover thingy around -- Toon Books has the latest from Geoffrey Hayes, with Benny and Penny in Lights Out! -- but I'll draw some attention to this 40-page Patrick McDonnell project with Little Brown Books for Young Readers, in which a bunch of little monsters create a big monster that's actually very nice; $16.99.
Crockett Johnson And Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature: Finally, your book-on-comics for the week, a 368-page Philip Nel critical double biography from the University Press of Mississippi, no doubt encompassing the creation of Barnaby but obviously not restricting itself to that when there's politics and literature and many disciplines to examine. Cover art by Chris Ware, who will be talking up Barnaby with Nel, Dan Clowes, Mark Newgarden and others at SPX in a little over a week and a half; $40.00 ($70.00 in hardcover).
CONFLICT OF INTEREST RESERVOIR: People often ask me, "Joe, why don't you write substantively about the Fantagraphics and PictureBox releases you rudely shove into the bottom of your column?" My reply is never quite the same, since it's damn rare to see a release like Dal Tokyo, a 220-page compilation of Gary Panter strips accumulating since 1983 in U.S. and Japanese forums, making this tour of Texas-Tokyo Martian terraforming a bona fide adventure into manga fusion, if drawn as only Panter can. I'd say more, but the cops totally snatched my copy - this thing's been in the works since circa The Flames of Gyro, or so it feels; $35.00.