Pop Culture Gadabout
Sunday, August 03, 2014
      ( 8/03/2014 04:30:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“BUT SINCERITY ISN’T ALWAYS ENOUGH.” A graphic non-fiction, Etienne Davodeau’s The Initiates: A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs (NBM/Comics Lit) recounts the awakenings of French artist Davodeau and wine-maker Richard Leroy as they spend more than a year getting to know each other’s creative worlds. For Davodeau, this means going to work in Leroy’s vineyards in Montbenault; for Leroy, it means learning about the process of European graphic novel creation and production. Both, through the course of the book, wind up sampling work from their field of exploration – learning to appreciate each other’s respective art forms.

Both artist and winemaker possess a healthy curiosity about the other, and it’s Davodeau’s goal to get us to share that curiosity. As a wine-illiterate plebe, I have to admit initially being unsure about Leroy’s half of the book, but both men proved engaging enough that I followed them into the fields and wind cellars. As a vintner, Leroy is committed to organic farming so we subsequently learn about the different approaches winemakers take in producing their wares (using or not using sulfur to reduce oxidation, for instance). Leroy is passionate and opinion abut his avocation, but he isn’t obnoxious about it – which also proves to be the case after Davodeau persuades him to sample different graphic novels and offer his take on each. We even get to meet some of the artist’s peers, including personal fave Lewis Trondheim (who gets to contribute a page to the book), over the course of the duo’s time together. We also wind up meeting two living characters from Emmanuel Guibert's Afghanistan set graphic non-fiction The Photographer who have themselves left their original jobs to become winemakers.

As you can guess from the above, The Initiates is not your slam-bang mainstream graphic entertainment: sweetly contemplative, it looks at both its worlds with curious appreciation and an eye for telling specifics. Leroy’s take on the comics he’s given (which includes such English language masterworks as Maus and Watchmen proves amusing and provides an object lesson in how to read comics. As for Davodeau’s own visual style, his gray pallet proves subtly washed yet expressive, with a strong eye for the ways that adults present themselves at work and in ardent discourse. A humanist’s take, perhaps: an acknowledgement that doing what we love provides a reason to get up in the morning. As Davodeau notes early in the book, “Here’s something that counts: feeling the devotion and pleasure felt by the guy who made the wine . . .or the book.” It’s a simple point, but one that’s frequently lost in our commodified world.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Friday, July 18, 2014
      ( 7/18/2014 10:07:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“A GAMBLER DOESN’T LOOK BACK.” With the U.S. southern border so much in the news these days, Hard Case Crime’s reissue of Lawrence Block’s 1962 pulp novel Borderline would definitely seem to be riding the zeitgeist. Set in the early sixties, the book follows a quartet of aimless Americans as they cross the line ‘tween El Paso and Juarez, moving across the border for “excitement,” which they get in spades.

Block, working under his pulp paperback pseudonym Don Holliday, was not writing a tome about immigration at the time. In those days, before the demands to “build the dang fence,” the act of crossing country borderlines wasn’t that big a deal. Instead, the writer uses the border as a metaphor for moving from a world of laws into “anything goes” lawlessness. It’s a familiar fictional trope, but the writer gets away with it on the strength of his characters.

Borderline’s ostensible “hero” is a professional gambler named Marty, who moves between the two border towns in search of card games. Marty hooks up with Meg Rector, a twenty-seven year-old divorcee down from Chicago, looking for something to alleviate her boredom. In Juarez, Meg will also meet Lily Daniels, a beautiful but damaged teenage runaway who has landed in a live Mexican sew show. All three of them are headed for a meeting with Michael Patrick Weaver, a murderous horror comics loving psychopath who gets off on cutting beautiful women.

Block follows his characters as they wander around the borderlines, occasionally connecting but just as often glimpsing each other in passing. At times, as in the scenes featuring gambler Marty at the card table, it feels as Block/Holliday is killing time until he can get all of his cast in the same space, but then he’ll grab you with a trip to a seedy Juarez sex club or a night on the prowl with his serial killer. The sequences featuring Weaver, in particular, are singularly creepy, with their moments of slashing brutality and convincingly rendered delusional inner monologues.

Of the two lead females, the one who comes across most convincingly is teenaged Lily, whose jaded reactions to the debauched world in which she travels is believably bleak. This is not a book where anybody gets to be magically rescued; it moves inexorably toward a nasty (if too brief) conclusion.

Because it is a relatively quick read (166 pages), Hard Case Crime has added three short stories that Block wrote for the pulp mags of the day. Two of them, “The Burning Fury” and “A Fire at Night,” are quick pieces focusing on protagonists as murderously crazed as Borderline’s Weaver. The third story, “Stag Party Girl” (from the 1963 issues of Men’s Magazine), turns out to be a more traditional hard-boiled mystery novella, with a private dick who gets to bed two sexy suspects. (“We were a pair of iron filings and my bed was a magnet,” Block’s first person narrator tells us at one point.) We’re more than a decade away from the writer’s greatest p.i. creation, Matthew Scudder, and you can tell. His p.i. hero is men’s mag one-dimensional. The results remain entertaining, though – and a comparison between this and later Scudder novels like Eight Million Ways to Die provides an object lesson in creative maturation.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014
      ( 7/15/2014 05:55:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“AND NEVER BE AFRAID TO BE A SILLYPANTS!” Back when I was a smart-ass lad, the prime source for gag cartoons and non-series strips were the back pages of print magazines and in cheap paperback collections. I owned a box full of these paperbacks as a kid: collections by such magazine stalwarts as Virgil Partch (a.k.a. VIP), and I returned to them as often as I did to pb repackagings of newspaper comics like “Peanuts” or “B.C.” The gag collections were a trace edgier than the newspaper sets. Produced to fit a variety of differently themed magazines – including men’s mags – they weren’t as bound by the restrictions of newspaper syndication.

These days, of course, the largest platform for gag cartoons is the Internet. (Magazines? What are those again?) Yet reading cartoonist Jim Benton’s first print collection of web-based Reddit cartoons, Dog Butts and Love. And Stuff Like That. And Cats. (NBM), I found myself mentally comparing it to the great gag cartoonist books of my youth.

To be sure, the level of what’s considered acceptably funny these days has undergone significant revision. Not even Gahan Wilson at his most demented would have come up with a cartoon featuring a demonic Easter Bunny who cuts off kiddies’ eyelids with scissors. But Benton does and he manages to make it funny – if still a bit icky.

As a jokester, Benton is as capable of coming up with a silly boob joke as he is a darkly comic riff on existential angst. The cartoons in Dog Butts vary from one-panel to sequential, from philosophical to goofy, thoughtful to groan-worthy – but they had me laughing out loud and shoving pages under my wife’s nose more than once. (“Check this out! ‘The Passive-Aggressive Raven’!”) Benton’s drawing style ranges from Thurber-ish to more meticulous: in one memorable sequence he draws five panels with stick figures, then shows us in fuller final panel that the figures we’ve been seeing are a horned demon and a three-eyed cat. The devil is in the details, right?

NBM’s trade paperback printing of Benton’s cartoons is a touch classier than the cheapie paperbacks cranked out by the likes of Fawcett Books back in the fifties and sixties, but it’s still in the service of the same brand of basic belly laffs. VIP would no doubt approve.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014
      ( 6/24/2014 10:16:00 PM ) Bill S.  

”AT LEAST I GOT TO KILL GENGE’S ASS AGAIN!” An inventively violent sci-fi war comic, Stuart Jennett’s Chronos Commandos (Titan Books) posits an alternate Earth WWII where the Nazis and Allies have both developed time traveling technology – and battle for control of it in the dino-populated Cretaceous Period.

Collecting the first five issues of his Titan Comics run, Chronos Commandos: Dawn Patrol sets the ground rules in its opening episode. In it, we see a quartet of soldiers landing in the midst of a primordial swamp where two ravenous raptors are feasting on a fallen prey. Led by the surly Sarge (his name’s redacted, but he’s a clear comic book cousin to Sergeants Fury and Rock), the band has its first grisly casualty ten pages in as a bespectacled private gets chomped in two – strands of viscera holding the bitten top half from its dangling bottom – by a T. Rex. If the Nazis don’t get ya, the wildlife will.

Sarge returns as the sole survivor of this first mission, and when he gets back to the present, he finds the Professor – an Albert Einstein lookalike – defending himself from Nazis who have infiltrated the secret time base and stolen the core to the chronosphere: the doohickey which powers the good guys’ time traveling equipment. With scant time before reserve energy runs out, Sarge has to take a new unit (“a tech guy and some muscle”) once more into the past to retrieve the core.

The fresh dino fodder includes two indistinguishable soldiers and tech guy Peabody, a full-on nerd enamored with a comic book hero named Crash Jordan, whose clean-cut mien is meant to contrast with our scruffy battle vets. Their Nazis nemeses are led by Captain Richter, a Schwarzennegger-ish foe who thinks nothing of shooting one of his own men if they’re lagging. (Richter and the Sarge have history, of course.) While the commandos wend their way through a landscape filled with thunder lizards and Skull Island variety giant spiders, the Professor has to fend off a Nazi spy who has infiltrated the time base.

Packed with quick burst battle action, gruesome monster attacks and playful time travel paradoxes, Chronos Commandos provides enough revved-up thrills to glut a classroom worth of fifth grade boys. Writer/artist Jennett’s colorful art is stronger on the beasties and their habitat than it is on his people, who come across fairly flat at times, but most of the book’s target audience will likely not care too much about that – any more than my boyhood self cared about the B-Movie acting level in Ray Harryhausen’s movies. Jennett’s monsters, both reptilian and human, are the big draw here – which is as it should be.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Tuesday, June 03, 2014
      ( 6/03/2014 10:32:00 PM ) Bill S.  

”DON’T COME BETWEEN THE DRAGON AND HIS WRATH.” Subtitled “An Alaskan Crime Drama,” Eric Hobbs and Noel Yuazon’s Family Ties (NBM/Comics Lit) is a striking graphic novel modernization of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” The idea of dressing up the Bard of Avon in modern garb is nothing new, of course, though it typically isn’t done to “Lear,” which is generally considered one of Shakespeare’s most difficult works.

Scripter Hobbs sets his reworked tale in Anchorage, Alaska, where our king figure is an aging mob boss named Jackie Giovanni. As in the play, the elderly leader has three adult offspring, but where “Lear” made all them women, the graphic novel keeps the villainous Goneril and Regan figures sisters, while making the youngest sibling an earnest young man ironically named Cain. Like his theatrical counterpart Cordelia, Cain is the one decent figure in the batch, though Lear/Jackie doesn’t see this when his youngest refuses to accept inheritance of one-third of the family business.

Before you can say “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth,” Jackie is pushed aside by his scheming daughters, who are both wrangling for control of the mob. As in the play, there’s a subplot involving the duplicitous illegitimate son of one of Jackie’s lieutenants. To those familiar with the original work, I will note at this point that there’s an on-scene blinding in that part of the story. It’s a bloody play, and Hobbs remains true to the tale’s basics – even if he doesn’t provide a sardonic jester to add any side commentary.

Writing in more modern dialog, Hobbs doesn’t provide the bleak verbal poetry of his ultra-dark source. His Jackie lacks Lear’s eloquence and is more plainly portrayed as in the throes of Alzheimer’s. The old man does get his share of poignant scenes, though, most memorably in a sequence where he wanders through the Alaska snow in the throes of his dementia, backed against a tree, lost in a past that may or may not be real. This is no howl but the moans of a man who realizes, if only momentarily, how much he’s missed and gotten wrong.

Artist Noel Tuazon (who previously collaborated with Hobbs on The Broadcast) illustrates this violently melancholy tale with lots of loose ink strokes and gray wash. Occasionally, as a reader, I had to work to differentiate some of the actors in a particular panel, but this approach ultimately serves to mirror the central figure’s confusion. In a world awash with treachery, you need to be at your sharpest to survive. The central tragedy of both Lear and Jackie Giovanni is that neither man is capable of seeing who within their family is truly looking out for him.

A superb graphic novel that should appeal to students of Elizabethan drama and of grandiosely brutal gangster stories.

(First published in Blogcritics.)

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Monday, May 26, 2014
      ( 5/26/2014 10:10:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“THIS IS A YOE-MANCE PUBLICATION.” Few comics re-packagers have remained as steadfastly committed to the idea of comics as disreputable art as Craig Yoe. From his collections of genre horror comics (“The Chilling Archives of Horror”) to his reprints of left field work like Steve Ditko’s Gorgo comics, Yoe’s collections trample all over the dividing line between camp and gonzo creativity. Of all the sets Yoe has produced to date, perhaps the one that most tests its audience’s affinity for WTF? storytelling is his newest comic collection co-edited with Clizia Gussoni, Weird Love (Yoe Comics/IDW).

A 48-page collection of romance comics from 1952–71, WL works as an amusing collage of the frequently messed-up messages that young girls have been given over the years about love and marriage. The five tales presented in this first issue are unabashedly cheesy, though the art in the earliest tales, in particular, proves fine.

The book’s two stand-out tales come from the early fifties: “I Fell for a Commie!” (Love Secrets, 1953) is just as McCarthy-esque as you’d expect. In it, our heroine falls for a clean-cut guy who turns out to be a regular at the Young Americans’ Club. Said club, our girl is appalled to learn, is devoted to spreading communist propaganda. “I will join . . . but I will keep my mind and soul free of their beliefs!” she tells herself, but can she love a man who appears to be bent on destroying the American capitalist system? The answer won’t surprise you, but the story’s period take on the Red Menace remains fun.

Just as much of its era is the 1954 cover story, “Love of a Lunatic!,” produced for ACG’s Romantic Adventures. Drawn by Ogden Whitney (perhaps best known to lovers of cult comics for his work on Herbie) with plenty of wide-eyed horror comics histrionics, it opens with our heroine Ruth telling her tale from a padded cell. The neurotic daughter of a rageaholic father who himself has returned home from an asylum, Ruth has been involuntarily hospitalized by her overly controlling mother after throwing a fit in front of the old lady. Fearful that she’s inherited her father’s madness, she breaks off an engagement to a nice guy named Ed, but since this is a romance comic, we know that the two will get back together following a few panels of fifties psycho-babble.

The remaining tales are less overwrought – and subsequently less entertaining – though they do provide object lessons in the retrograde attitudes that romance titles were peddling in the wake of the feminist movement. In 1967’s “The Taming of the Brute,” from Charlton’s Just Married, a bossy heroine “tames” a hunky dolt into behaving like a “living doll . . . well behaved, well trained and eager to please.” Once the two are settled, of course, her seemingly whipped hubby does an about-face and takes charge. The Taming of the Shrew writ small.

Yoe and his crew of digital tweakers present this entertaining crap with a historian’s affection and a winking recognition of its essential silliness. If a few pages from the Charlton tales (most specifically, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez’s fine work on “You Also Snore, Darling!”) doesn’t come across as crisply as you’d like, well, that’s in keeping with the original comic line’s poverty row ethos. (Charlton, which served as the launching pad for a variety of neophyte artists, was notoriously cheap.) Issue #2 of this bi-monthly reprint series has as its cover story: “I Was An Escort Girl!” Can’t wait to see how that particular over-ripe topic gets treated.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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      ( 5/26/2014 09:50:00 PM ) Bill S.  

”THE STRANGEST STORIES EVER TOLD!” The latest entry in Titan Books’ “Simon & Kirby Library,” Horror! provides a hefty and handsomely reproduced selection of period horror comics work by this prolific and inventive pair of graphic storyteller pioneers. Produced in the late forties/early fifties for titles with evocative names like Black Magic and The Strange World of Your Dreams, this material has been much sought after by old school comic book fans – lovers of the late Jack Kirby’s artwork, in particular.

The early fifties is the period when horror comics were at their peak popularity, so it was natural that a trend-maker like editor/writer Joe Simon would try to find ways to meet the market demand with his own unique take on the genre. Perhaps his most intriguing experiment was Dreams – which presented comic book recreations of what purported to be staff and reader dreams – followed by a pipe-smoking “dream detective’s” analysis of what these dreams “meant.” The results may have been psychologically dubious, but they provided artist Kirby with plenty of visual inspiration.

The majority of the stories in this collection (apart from a few mild short “educational” pieces like “The World of Spirits”) turn out to be more traditional horror comic fare: tales of ghost ships and voodoo curses, physical abnormalities and murder attempts gone awry. In some of them (“Angel of Death,” for instance, which takes place in one of those Middle European villages that Kirby was so adept at creating), you can see precursors to the monster comics that King Jack would produce with Stan Lee in the early sixties, while in one of the freak-themed horror tales, “Head of the House,” we find a visual ancestor to one of Kirby’s cult fave Marvel era villains, M.O.D.O.K.

Any collection of fifties horror comics will inevitably be compared to the gold standard, the E.C. titles predominately written by the recently deceased editor/artist Al Feldstein. As a scripter Joe Simon may not have been as pulpishly prolix or as gruesomely over-the-top as the prime curator of the Crypt of Terror, but he had a knack for the subtly unsettling. In “The Nasty Little Man,” for instance, an evil leprechaun threatens a hospitalized and amputated tramp to be turned into “something else” in place of a living patient. What that something else is we’re not shown, but our minds can do the nasty work.

To my eyes, though, the most enjoyable moments are found in those stories that the duo produced set in the post-war city (e.g., “A Beast Is in the Streets,” where a murderous brain dead corpse stalks the pavements). As with Kirby’s use of NYC in the early Marvel comics, you can feel the comic creator’s connection to the city of his birth, which helps to ground Simon’s storytelling. Two New York kids who grew up to be major makers in the growth of graphic storytelling: it’s what makes the Simon & Kirby Library an essential part of any comics collection.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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      ( 5/26/2014 09:43:00 PM ) Bill S.  
”ANIMALS HALF-WROUGHT INTO THE OUTWARD IMAGE OF HUMAN SOULS.” Tom Pomplun’s series of classic comics anthologies, Graphic Classics has long followed its unique publishing schedule: alternating new collections with revisited editions of previous books. Eureka Production’s last set of brand fresh material was 2013’s Native American Classics. More recently, the line has issued its second re-tweaked version of its third collection, H.G. Wells. The set is substantially different from its first and second editions -- with eighty new pages of black-and-white art and story in its 144 pages. New to the set are adaptations of The Time Machine and The Island of Dr. Moreau; returning are graphic versions of The Invisible Man plus lesser known short works “The Inexperienced Ghost” and “The Star.”

The two new pieces prove to be the most visually straightforward of the book’s adaptations. Antonella Caputo and Craig Wilson’s version of Wells’ classic time traveling adventure even reminded me of George Pal’s 1960 movie adaptation in its storytelling style in places, though, thankfully scripter Caputo remains truer to the actual plot specifics. Would have liked to have seen more shadowy imagery in David Hontiveros and Rene Maniquis’ remake of Moreau, though this version does capture Welles’ mordant consideration of the thin line between humanity and animalism.

The book’s repeat GN adaptation, Rod Lott and Simon Gane’s version of The Invisible Man, proves a little less visually traditional, showcasing Gane’s sardonically cartoonish take on Wells’ s-f horror tale. Perusing it, I couldn’t help recalling James Whale’s 1933 movie version of the story with Whale’s typical blend of the grotesquely comic and horrific.

If I keep coming back to movie versions of these works, perhaps it’s because Wells’ novels have arguably sparked more diverse and classic films than any other science-fantasist. It’s a testament to the artists in this book that they’re able to hold their own against already established images that many of us have in our heads.

The shorter returning works in the book prove slighter but satisfying: editor Pomplun and Rich Tommaso’s version of “The Inexperienced Ghost” provides a witty take on one of the writer’s more lighthearted works, while Brad Teare’s five-page woodcut version of the apocalyptic “The Star” proves moodily reminiscent of the works of graphic storytelling pioneer Lynd Ward. The set opens with an amusing one-page “Believe It Or Not” parody by Mort Castle and Kevin Atkinson recounting the too-brief meetings between Wells and Orson Welles, who notoriously panicked radio listeners in 1938 thirties with his adaptation of War of the Worlds. This meeting of the minds proved anything but groundbreaking, as the actor/moviemaker used the occasion to primarily plug his upcoming Citizen Kane. Sometimes innovators are only interested in plugging their own works.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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      ( 5/26/2014 07:38:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“WHEN THEY FIRST MET, SHE COULD SEE THE MADNESS IN HIS EYES.”The latest in artist Rick Geary’s ongoing series of recreations of infamous crimes of the 19th and 20th centuries, Madison Square Tragedy: The Murder of Stanford White (NBM) looks at a turn of the century slaying in cosmopolitan New York City. Famed architect and proud reprobate Stanford White, responsible for such Big Apple artifacts as the original Madison Square Garden, was the victim: shot by a disturbed young lad of privilege named Harry K. Thaw. In the center of it all was a showgirl named Evelyn Nesbit, famous for appearing onstage on a swing and presumably sailing leggy self over the heads of a rapturous male audience.

The architect’s murder, done in the middle of a theatre packed with New Yorkers, was pretty straightforward -- Thaw simply walking up to White and shooting him full on in the face -- though the fate of White’s well-heeled killer proved more problematic. Evelyn Nesbit had been in a relationship with the married White as a teenager, a relationship overseen by the old roué with a paternalistically controlling hand. When the unstable Thaw ultimately met and married Evelyn, she fed him the details of her affair with White, which drove him into a jealous frenzy. Thaw’s subsequent trial and the attendant publicity made much of White’s philandering lifestyle and of the disreputable nature of the showgirl’s world.

Geary’s tale is a ripe one, and his evocation of an era where Victorian mores clashed with more modern ideas is wittily crafted. All three players in this tale are shown for all their flaws, though if any one comes across the biggest victim it’s Evelyn: seduced (and perhaps drugged) by White as a teenager, raped and whipped by Thaw (as he all the while condemned her for her “sinful” nature), she comes across as the casualty in two couplings built on socially sanctioned domestic violence. Nesbit, who had been a model for Charles Dana Gibson, became a social pariah while her eventually divorced husband went in and out of asylums, amassing a lifetime of assault charges. In 1955, she served as the technical advisor to a movie based on the murder (The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing ), having endured a lifetime of periodic substance binges and ended out her days as a sculptor and ceramic artist.

As is par for this series, Geary’s black-and-white art relishes period detail as it maintains a largely detached view on the people involved. Even the volatile Thaw is treated with restraint, though there are a few panels where we see him at his most frenzied. As in other volumes in this magnificent graphic series, Geary’s interest is as much in the reactions to the horrendous crimes depicted as in the criminal acts themselves. In so doing, he tells us much about the Good Olde Days that it’d be best not to forget.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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      ( 5/26/2014 07:33:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“IT DOESN’T MEAN I DON’T BELIEVE IN SOMETHING BIGGER THAN MYSELF.” An alt comics artist as comfortable in the realm of commercial kid-friendly entertainments (Darth Vader and Son) as he is more personalized autobiographical fare, Jeffrey Brown tackles the core issues of fatherhood, aging and religious upbringing in his A Matter of Life (Top Shelf Productions). Switching between memories of his boyhood in a home with a traditionally religious minister father and his adult uncertainties about the proper message to provide his own son Oscar, Brown’s graphic novel should strike a bell for any parent who’s ever questioned the teachings they’ve tried to give their kids.

Opening and closing on images of a vast, unknowable cosmos, Brown’s book first closes in on the images of the artist and his son considering the sun above their heads. It looks like a bug to young Oscar, which immediately brings up memories of Brown’s own boyhood phobia of insects, then recollections of his going on a church mission. This stream-of-consciousness approach can be initially disconcerting to those expecting more linear storytelling, but Brown keeps circling around his exploration of personal faith in a world that so often can seem random and beyond our control.

In one particularly effective one-page sequence, we see the artist as a student lying in a bunk bed at night, thinking, “Some day I’ll die and I won’t exist forever and I’ll never have another thought,” followed by nine panels of him lying back, wide-eyed, considering the ramifications of this thought. It’s a moment that many of us have had in our lives, and Brown captures it beautifully.

Throughout the graphic novel, there are vignettes depicting the artist’s relationship with his son and his father, who of course has problems with son Jeffrey’s declarations of faithlessness. The issue of aging also figures strongly in the book, both with Brown’s father and an elderly neighbor who the artist rescues after he’s fallen down in the bathtub. A Matter of Life is as much about the shadow of death, both human and beyond as when father and son consider the dinosaur fossils in a natural history museum. “When I was little, I had recurring dreams about dinosaurs, usually chasing after me,” Brown recalls at one point. “My dreams became Biblical when I got a little older.”

Brown illustrates this all in his warmly detailed cartoon style. His drawings are intensely humane and his ability to capture the small moments in all of his family’s life is what keeps you reading. Both challenging and sweet, A Matter of Life is a wonderful testament of the ways that comic art can look beyond the trappings of genre storytelling.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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      ( 5/26/2014 12:09:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“HEY, I WASN’T HERE TO PUNISH HIM.” The latest in Max Allan Collins’ Quarry series, The Wrong Quarry (Hard Case Crime) takes the writer’s hard-nosed hero back to the early eighties where he is still working as a hitman’s hitman. Working from a file taken from his late unlamented employer, the Broker, Quarry has been following other hired killers to determine their latest assignment and offer to remove the potential victim’s threat for a fee. His latest such endeavor places him in a rustic Missouri town, Stockwell, where a flitty flaming dance instructor named Roger Vale appears to be the target. Vale is suspected of being complicit in the unsolved disappearance of Candace Stockwell, daughter of the town’s moneyed family, and someone in the family is most likely the one responsible for the pair of killers driving into the tourist town.

Quarry’s task turns out to be two-fold: stop the twosome (an innocuous seeming antiques dealer and a sadistic former Army medic) and learn who has hired them. He has no interest in finding out what actually happened to the missing girl, though we, of course, know that he will learn this too during the course of the book. Along the way we meet a variety of small-town types: among them, Jenny Stockwell, the blowsy “black sheep of the biggest family in town;” and Mustang Sally, a too-worldly student of Vale’s reminiscent of the crazy little sister from a Raymond Chandler novel. Of course, our hero gets involved with these dangerous dames.

Collins’ forte is in writing crime novels set in period, and The Wrong Quarry captures the early eighties scene beautifully, right down to the cosmetic fakery that the bad girl Jenny has bought to keep herself still on the market. He even includes a joking reference to an obscure 1983 game show, Hitman, that I had to look up online. Quarry’s voice remains engagingly no-nonsense, and his cynical eye crisply captures Collins’ Midwestern milieu along with the tale’s pulpish bursts of matter-of-fact violence. Though our hitman quasi-hero “retired” back in 2006 with The Last Quarry, Collins has smartly brought him back in four prequels – for which we hard-boiled addicts can only be grateful.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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      ( 5/26/2014 11:31:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"THE PROMISED LAND IS LOST." Released by Titan Books to ride on the release of a movie adaptation, Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette’s Snow Piercer: The Escape is a grim dystopian French graphic novel about a frozen Earth where all of its survivors are trapped on a perpetually moving thousand-plus car train. A rigidly class-bound world -- where those higher up get to live closer to the locomotive and the lumpen third class “tail rats” eke out a bare existence in the back of the train -- the social system is challenged when one of the tailees sneaks out of his section into one with working heat.

Proloff, our scruffy runaway, is kept in isolation by the military maintaining watch on the dividing line between the train’s “rolling ghetto” and the rest of its cars, but the member of an aid group from the second class cars named Adeline Belleau hears of his detainment and wiles her way into seeing him. Caught together, the duo is taken in custody to meet the higher ups curious about the escapee. Along the way, we’re provided a glimpse of the decaying civilization that resides in Snowpiercer. “In this closely confined world, even those who live in luxury see no horizon beyond the carriage wall,” Lob writes. When a plague – perhaps brought onto second class by Proloff -- begins to rage across the train, the situation looks even bleaker.

Dark and more than a little despairing, Snow Piercer was originally written by Lob (perhaps best known by American comics fans for his appearances in the early years of Heavy Metal) in the seventies but uncompleted with the writer’s death; the tale was finished several years later by artist Rochette and published in the early eighties, inspiring a sequel, The Explorers, which has also been published by Titan Books. Lob’s script is fierce and sharply characterized -- most specifically in the tentative relationship between Proloff and Adeline, which gives its gloomy conclusion even more emotional heft.

With its flashes of nudity, earthy language and raging sense of social injustice, this is not an all-ages friendly lightweight comic book, but one that mature graphic novel readers should find fascinating. Artist Rochette’s black-and-white depictions of Snowpiercer’s cramped world suits its setting and the GN’s class-bound themes. As a reader who’s always loved train travel, I’ve got to admit to being more than a little creeped out by some of the sci-fi details of this voyage (the car containing Mama, an enormous living slab of “vat-grown meat” used to feed second class passengers, for instance), but, then, that’s part of Lob and Rochette’s intent.

Perfect reading for all of us caught in this polar vortex Winter.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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      ( 5/26/2014 11:27:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"A SOLDIER FOR ROCK MUSIC" The third installment in a 10-book rock novel series, Art Edwards' Badge (Thirteenth Note) looks at the music scene at the start of the 21st century through the eyes of a recovering “soldier for rock music.” Title hero Badge is a guitarist getting back into recording after eight years away from the industry; he's brought to L.A. From New Mexico to be “the new lucky bastard,” lead guitarist for a sexy punkette siren named Betty.

The singer has a voice but is also insecure fronting a band composed of older pros – which makes it Badge's role to serve as an intermediary between her and the rest of the members of her group, No Fun Intended. As he does, a relationship inevitably sparks between the two of them.

At the same time, our hero still maintains a prickly connection to his ex-wife Molly, who he met and had a son with when he was the hard-boozing axe-man for a band called the Famous Dead. Eight years sober “because I tend to wreck things when I drink,” Badge will find his precarious recovery threatened by pressures of life on the road and his relationship with the borderline-y Betty. We know it's only a matter of time before he relapses – and as the band grows huger so does our protagonist's substance abuse.

Though part of a 10-novel series, Badge works as a stand-alone piece. Author Edwards captures road life as it's experienced by a breaking band, pulling in plenty of evocative detail: even at his blurriest Badge proves an acute observer of his surroundings. The book also pays due attention to the climate of the music biz circa 2000, an era when the delivery system was on the verge of change, making a lot of professional musicians more than a little nervous.

The book is strong depicting the volatile relationships between Badge and the women in his life; it's particularly wise charting the stages of our hero's relapse and the ways the rock 'n' roll lifestyle can fuel various addictive behaviors. It ain't easy being a soldier for rock music.

Recommended reading for anyone who ever wondered why it was their favorite player in their favorite band just up and disappeared.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Wednesday, February 05, 2014
      ( 2/05/2014 10:14:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“YOU’RE JUST A NORMAL LITTLE KID! YOU MUST BE INCREDIBLY LUCKY!” The first in a science comics trilogy designed to teach young readers about human biology, Gomdori Co.s’ Survive! Inside the Human Body (No Starch Press) is a rollicking children’s sci-fi comic that also works as a study tool. Inspired by the sixties era flick Fantastic Voyage (which memorably gave us the sight of a wet-suited Raquel Welch being attacked by antibodies), the Korean manhwa centers on Geo, a young boy “King of Survival” who accidentally winds up in the body of his friend Phoebe, after she swallows a miniaturized mini-sub carrying our hero and the ship’s inventor Dr. Brain.

Sent into the girl’s digestive system, the only hope is for our duo to make their way through her body without falling victim to Phoebe’s teeth, stomach acid or the various inhabitants – like a passel of pesky hookworms – living within the young girl’s guts. While Phoebe remains oblivious to the presence of a mini-sub inside her, Dr. Brain’s high-strung assistant Kay struggles to keep the girl from doing anything that might jeopardize our miniaturized explorers, resulting in a series of humorous body function jokes that you know will go over big with young student readers. At one point, we see Kay digging into a Korean chamber pot, hoping that he will find the miniaturized sub there. He doesn’t, since our duo are also set to explore the circulatory and neurological systems in subsequent volumes, though we do get a pixilated glimpse into the chamber pot.

The main focus is on Geo and Dr. Brain in that mini-sub, of course, with the latter pontificating on each area as they pass through or are threatened by it. In one chapter, for instance, when their tiny sub is threatened by stomach acid, they protect themselves by coating the sub with an enzyme produced by the only bacteria capable of surviving in the stomach. Scripter Seok-young Song has a knack for combining frantic over-the-top comic adventure with biological fact. There are text sections that also elaborate on the science in between each chapter of story, though I’ll be honest and admit that I skipped these on my first read-through as I was more invested in what Song threw at his heroes than in the learning thing.

Artist Hyun-Don Han presents it all in a cartoony yet informatively detailed style. His use of hyperbolic body language – when Phoebe belches, opening the way from her stomach to the duodenum, she really belches. Unlike Japanese manga, Korean manhwa is formatted to be read from left to right, though it does engage in many of the same visual conventions (our cast sweats profusely when stressed, for example). No Starch Press, which describes itself as providing “The Finest in Geek Entertainment,” has been publishing educational Eastern comics for several years now (see their Manga Guides series of books), though to this reader’s eyes, the Survive! books are the most aesthetically successful in their blend of kinetic action and learning matter. Recommended for the parent who wants their 8+-year-old to get a leg up on human biology – provided you’re not the type to get thrown by your kid snickering over poop jokes.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Monday, January 20, 2014
      ( 1/20/2014 09:42:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“I THOUGHT THIS WAS IT . . . THIS WAS THE WAY OUT.” The first book in a graphic novel trilogy by congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, March (Top Shelf Productions) is a well-wrought personal account of the early days of the movement. It opens on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of a bloody moment in civil rights history wherein 600 peaceful demonstrators were violently attacked by Alabama state troopers under the orders of then-governor George Wallace – then moves to the twenty-first century with congressman Lewis getting ready to attend the inauguration of President Obama. These two contrasting moments serve to frame the trilogy, as Lewis tells of his childhood in Pike County, Alabama, to a pair of young boys brought to his office.

Young Lewis had dreams of becoming a preacher, and spent his days on his parents’ tenant farm giving sermons to the chickens he fed, but a trip to Buffalo, New York, with a teacher uncle who “knew which places along the way offered ‘colored’ bathrooms” provided a glimpse of a world quite different from the fiercely segregated south of the 1950’s. On his return home, he grew frustrated with his local ministers’ seeming unwillingness to address racial injustice in their sermons – until he heard a radio sermon from a young Atlanta preacher named Martin Luther King. The moment brought the idea of “social gospel” into focus for the young boy and ultimately led to his involvement in the civil rights movement.

Lewis got to first meet Dr. King as a young high schooler considering enrolling at the then-segregated Troy State, but it was a young graduate divinity student, Jim Lawson, who had an even larger impact on his future direction. Lawson was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an organization dedicated to pacifist principles, which had even published a comic book entitled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, espousing the idea of passive resistance. Lawson conducted workshops training students in the ways of pacifism and was a major positive influence on the civil rights protests of the 1960’s. March depicts the workshops – which included role plays where attendees heaped verbal and physical abuse on each other – used to steel protestors against the very real threats that they would be receiving once they actually got out in public. As the book makes clear, this was scary business and young activists like Lewis needed to have self-discipline.

Book One depicts the first big public protests of the civil rights movement: the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, protesting downtown department stores in Nashville that refused to serve black or inter-racial groups of patrons. Lewis and his collaborators (co-scripter Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell) depict just how startling and more than a little frightening those non-violent protests were for both black and white southerners. The sit-ins were simple events: protestors would enter a department store, buy something to establish that they were paying customers, then move over to the lunch counter and ask to be served; when they were refused service, they would quietly sit until the end of the day then leave. As the sit-ins grew, they drew violent reaction from “the rough element in the white community,” though the only ones to be arrested were the pacifist protestors.

The first volume ends with the mayor of Nashville’s soft capitulation to the protestors, though we still have five years to go before “Bloody Sunday” at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

As a reminder of a hard and shameful piece of American history, March is an effective piece of graphic storytelling. Powell’s expressive gray-toned art beautifully captures the simple moments of boyhood and the grim realities of racism. (We’re shown, for instance, the beaten body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose killers were acquitted by a southern jury.) If the insertion of two young boys as dutiful audience at the book’s beginning seems an overly obvious storytelling device, the story itself is one that needs to be retold and remembered – if only to counter those who’d like to gloss over those not-so-idyllic days.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Saturday, January 18, 2014
      ( 1/18/2014 07:56:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“I GUESS I’M HAVING FUN, BUT DOES THAT MEAN I’M A PERVERT, TOO?” The second volume in Nao Yawawa’s supernatural romance, Moon and Blood (DMP) follows up on the development of its budding relationship ‘tween teen girl heroine Sayaka and teen vamp Kai Kuryuu: a non-unexpected plot move though readers less familiar with the ways of modern shojo manga may have a WTF moment over the book’s central sequence, a high school drag contest where our dreamy boy bloodsucker proves to be the fairest of them all.

Before we get to the big event, though, we need to deal with Sayaka’s brother Natsuki, who was starting to suspect that the family’s houseguest is a vamp. Believing that Kai put the bite on him for some late-night sustenance (when the actual culprit was Kai’s shape-shifting senpai Ai), he holds a makeshift cross up to our nonplussed hero – to no discernible effect. Obviously, all those Hammer Films got it wrong, though we’re fairly sure Natsuki won’t be dissuaded by this momentary setback.

As for the drag contest, it becomes a comic competition between Kai and his hopeless rival Takeshi, though there’s no doubt at all which pretty boy will win. High school jock Takeshi earns the nickname “Anne of Green Gables,” presumably for his braided wig hair, while Kai is crowned Queen of the School. The entire school gets worked up over the event, so we get pages devoted to costume selection, makeup tips, et al. One problem for our cross-dressing lead: the high school festival is held outside and looks as if too much time in the sun can be debilitating – so at least part of the legends appears to be true.

If the drag comp subplot seems a distraction from the mini-series’ basic storyline, Yazawa gets back on track in the volume’s last ten pages with a declaration of growing love, a big kiss and the appearance of two characters from Ai’s demon hunting human past who blow his cover. “That guy isn’t human. He’s a vampire . . . A monster,” demon hunter Haru tells Sayaka right after her flash of teen passion. The ways of high school romance are rocky indeed.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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