Pop Culture Gadabout
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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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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