Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Original Art Sundays (Tuesday) No. 175: Surrealist Cowgirls, last page

As promised, I was able to correct the scanning issue today.
Here's the last page of It Does This When I Hurt. It's an aftermath sort of page, where everyone says their goodbyes.
There was a slight drift on the board as I inked the borders, so there's a hinky angle to the last two panels. I don't mind it. If I didn't say anything, you might not even notice it.
The little dude holding the "The End" sign is a loose swipe of a Joe Orlando character from a late issue of Weird Science.
I debated a different ending, foreshadowing a new threat, but I thought, nah. Let's give them all some time to be happy.
I have a one-page Cowgirls thing, just a little fun thing, on the board right now. There's another short Cowgirls story I have in mind, probably three pages, and I want to do paper doll pages of Tolcanan and Kay Seurat-Seurat.
But after I finish the page I have on the board now, I have a short assignment that's due February 3, a 3 or 4 page story unrelated to my usual cast of characters.
It feels good to have this one done. The idea for it grew out of a pun I sang whimsically in 1987, while watching the second version of  Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much. I added the pun, and the character it inspired, to another story idea ten years later. After doing four pages, I put it aside, only to come back to it a couple years ago. So the story is either 37, 27 or two years old, or else it's brand new. Take your pick.
Don't you just love time?
Next: the one-pager.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Best Comics of 2013, No. 4: Mind Mgmt.

The National Lampoon once ran an article purporting to discuss the nature of pornography. One of the examples given was a single panel gag depicting dogs humping while a policeman watched and recited political slogans. The article said, "this is not pornography. Anyway, we're not sure what's going on here."
That's the way I felt when I began reading Matt Kindt's Mind Mgmt. (the not sure what's going on aspect, not the porn question) - a bit nonplussed, but in a great way. I've been an admirer of well-crafted solipsistic paranoia since The Prisoner first ran on American TV.
A plane lands with everyone aboard, save one girl, afflicted with amnesia.
The girl in question becomes a reluctant celebrity as a result of the incident. She authored a bestseller based on her experiences, but her career since then has been precarious at best.
Her daily life as an investigative journalist is hampered by her insistence on delving into The Event, as it comes to be known, at the expense of her current assignments.
As you might surmise, there's more going on here than even those cryptic events imply.
Our heroine, Meru, is propelled into an international journey of discovery, searching for the mysterious figure known only as The Manager.
The obvious comparisons apply. The work evokes Kafka, Phillip K. Dick, the aforementioned The Prisoner, and in some senses, more mainstream paranoia like The X-Files and its predecessor Kolchak, the Night Stalker, though the paranormal plays a diminished role in Mind Mgmt. 
Note the border elements/story!
As the narrative unfolds, we are drawn deeper into it in almost Machiavellian ways. The pages are bordered with text that unfolds a related story and offers excerpts from the Mind Mgmt. manual. These become inside messages to the reader, clues to what may really be going on. And in an aspect that's frustrating to those of us who sometimes prefer to read these stories as collections, there's a third (or fourth) story unfolding on the inside front covers of the individual issues. This sub-story is not included in the first collection (I've yet to read the second). So there's a piece of the story that you can only get by buying the back issues, at least as of this writing. Grr.
 I've had sporadic and passing acquaintance with Kindt's other work. I enjoyed his work on the New 52 Justice League series, but an earlier solo work, 2 Sisters, left me cold.  Very well crafted, but just too melancholy and too detached for my tastes. In contrast, though it also has its morose aspects, his work on Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. is an over-the-top romp through the best chaos that escapist fiction has to offer. He also contributed some material to Jeff Lemire's wonderful Sweet Tooth. Kindt's 3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man is on my short list for catching up on my reading, and has been optioned for filming.
Meanwhile, back at the story:
Kindt's design and color sense
are also vital parts of the story.
Even here, Meru is more a cipher than a fully fleshed-out character at times. While she does drive events, she is more driven than she is the driver, if you get my drift. There's an undertone that even within the story, her life has been scripted for her, and she's struggling to care about it. But there's enough of her here that we do care what happens to her (which I did not experience reading 2 Sisters), and I will revisit the narrative when Vol. 2 makes its way to the library. The regular series is ongoing from Dark Horse, with issue no. 18 due out this Wednesday. Again, kudos to Dark Horse. Their business model is a comic line that maintains an effective balance of licensed and more mainstream titles and ambitious experiments. Mind Mgmt. is a challenging and worthwhile example of the latter.
Next: Best Comics of 2013, No. 3: a tie!

Best Comics of 2013, No. 5: Genius

(Note to the faithful: the final page of the current Surrealist Cowgirls story is done, but the scan files were corrupted and I will not be able to rescan until Tuesday. Have faith.)
Some years ago, a student recommended Steven Seagle's It's A Bird as a text for the superhero portion of my Graphic Novel course. Intrigued, I dived in and got a great deal out of it. However, I thought its premise, that a very limited man could not identify with a Superman, was too thin for two weeks' course discussion, and that the theme had been addressed more succinctly in Michael T. Gilbert's Mann and Superman.
However, I was quite impressed by the book, and when Seagle's Genius appeared this year, I was tantalized.

The story of a promising physicist whose fire burned out too early, Genius is told in awed yet vibrant tones. Visually and verbally, this book is the poetry of loneliness and inadequacy. Reading it, I kept returning to the line from Leonard Cohen's Story of Isaac: "my father's hand was trembling with the beauty of the word."

The physicist in question, Ted Marx, lives in fear of losing his job, of losing his dying wife, of alienating his distant father-in-law, of losing contact with his children who are growing progressively farther away from him.
But mostly, he fears himself, and fears that he will never fully understand or equal the work of his idol, Albert Einstein.

One day, his father-in-law casually mentions that he knew Einstein, that he served briefly as his military guard. Of course, Ted does not believe him at first. The old man must be addled; he cannot have known my God!

But he realizes the elder man tells the truth ("work on my used car" is a private father-and-son moment, nicely played).

And he learns that Einstein confided a secret to him. Awed, he asks for more information.

Only to be rebuffed. The elder man's principles are not to be compromised, especially to a man who he does not respect.

As his increasingly smaller life comes into conflict with the magnitude of the promise in the elder man's secret, Ted feels himself diminishing. This encounter with his dying wife sums up his utter failure to grasp the distinction between knowledge and wisdom.
At last, the elder man relents and tells Ted Einstein's secret.

I can tell you all that and it will spoil none of the book's rapture.
There's a school of writing in graphic novels (also in text novels) in which things are plainly stated, and the magnitude of their meaning is made clear by their simplicity. Clearly, Genius is a very successful example of this.
Teddy Kristiansen's painted art is sublime. The stylized faces do take a tad of getting used to, but it's a short lived problem. I've enjoyed his work on GrendelSandman, Sandman Midnight Theater, the aforementioned It's A Bird, and my personal favorite, his Deadman story with Neil Gaiman from the SOLO series. His style reminds me of another personal favorite, Bernard Krigstein, in that they both use very raw and stylized elements in service to the story. Kristianses is slated to release another collaboration with Seagle in 2014.
This is another book that will bear revisiting- not daily, but often. It's a beautiful, humbling read.
Next: Best Comics of 2013, No. 4: another for the mind.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Best Comics of 2013, No. 6: The Lost Boy

These entries have dragged out a bit, but I am completing the list today and tomorrow.
A bit of backstory on today's entry.
Last time I attended San Diego Comicon, I picked up a small volume that I chose for reading on the plane ride home: Greg Ruth's Sudden Gravity: A Tale of the Panopticon.
I was so blown away by it, I was sure my reaction would send the plane off course. Ruth's surreal yet oddly comforting nightmare of intentionally distorted reality has a devastating effect on the unsuspecting reader. I elected to use it as a text in my next Graphic Novel course, and Greg was kind enough to join the course for a week of online discussion- very informative, educational and fun, and more to the point, inspiring to comic art students. Many chose it as their favorite book of the semester.
Since then, I've followed his career with great interest. He has illustrated a number of children's books, including the fun Pirate Guide to... series and one based on President Obama's first inaugural address. He's done more comic work, including some Conan illustration and 2012's City of Orphans (still on my reading list). When I saw his new solo book The Lost Boy this year, I jumped at it. As its presence here indicates, I was not disappointed.
Example of Ruth's exquisite control and line work

(note: all illustrations for this entry are courtesy of Greg Ruth)
Themes that appear to be central to Ruth's solo work surface here: childhood isolation and vulnerability, surrealism and magical realism in daily life, and a burning desire to triumph over melancholy.
While Ruth hardly has a monopoly on these themes, he executes them adroitly.
This is the story of Nate, a boy stranded in a particularly unwelcoming country house (which at times felt like suburbia) by the career caprices of his parents. Two things happen in short order. He is befriended by a neighbor of like age and temperament, Tabitha. Together, they explore the mysteries of a tape recorder Nate discovers in his attic. The tapes are a record of the mysteriously lost Walt, who years earlier went in search of missing pets only to find...
But that would be telling. Aided and hampered in their search by talking animals, insects and abandoned toys (many of which have eloquent personalities), the pair set out on their quest for Walt.
Ruth manages to pull the reader into implausible situations with great ease. We all feel our lives to be impossible at times, and Ruth taps directly into that. There's an empathy, coupled with a wry wit, to his writing.The latter is especially apparent in Tabitha's dialogue here, and is sorely missed when he capably illustrates the writing of others.
The child's journey into the world of the lost is a classic theme, the basis for works as far-ranging as Peter Pan and Neil Gaiman's Mirrormask (the fractured world into which the child is propelled, also present here, is another recurring Gaiman theme). Despite these commonalities, Ruth offers a singular voice.

There's another great delight here for me. The presence of talking critters and armies of insects and frogs invokes the heyday of vintage cartoons, a lifelong passion. As I read The Lost Boy, part of me saw it as a really elaborate storyboard for an incomplete Fleischer feature film, a nightmare sequel to Mr. Bug Goes to Town!
Establishing shot two-page spread or animation background?
You be the judge!
It takes great talent and restraint to bring out the magical and the nightmare in the mundanity of the everyday. Ruth uses some subtle visual devices as storytelling aids. The sequences in the present are bordered in black, if they have borders, while those set in Walt's past are bordered in white.
A few critics (mostly Amazon reviewers) found fault with the level of explanation of some plot points- "this or that was not clear enough." I didn't have that trouble. I see nothing wrong with having the reader involved in deciphering the narrative, especially when there's an element of mystery, as there is here. A good reader doesn't need to be spoon fed the story, and a good writer knows that. I have no more respect for lazy readers than I do for sloppy writers. I also respect the fact that the story is not dumbed down for young readers. Kids are a lot smarter than some writers, and many publishers, believe them to be.
As cerebral as this story is, it's action heavy. There's a war on (possibly more than one), with very high stakes.
Ruth often uses simple tools to create his eloquent art (Sudden Gravity was drawn entirely in ballpoint pen!). As discussed when looking at Colleen Doran's A Distant Soil, it's always a delight to read the work of a skilled artist who also really knows how to write.
A member of the Out of Step Arts Collective, Ruth works on new projects at a pace to rival that of David Mack or Matt Wagner- consistent, sometimes frenetic, but never a sacrifice of quality to time. The quality and individualism in Ruth's work clearly rivals those creators. I suspect the primary reason his name is less of a household word in comic circles is that he's done less mainstream work than they have. Like them, he's on my list of creators whose work will always get an eager look from me.
I imagine that writing such emotionally intense work with veracity takes its toll on Ruth, which would explain why he's done relatively few solo books in the two decades he's been a comics and illustration professional. That's certainly understandable, but as satisfying as The Lost Boy is, I'm hungry for more.

Next: Best Comics of 2013, No. 5, also not for the simple minded.

What the heck, here's one more great Lost Boy page on which to fly away!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Best Comics of 2013, No. 7: 7 Against Chaos

Really, when Harlan Ellison and Paul Chadwick collaborate, how could the result not make the list?
Chadwick's Concrete remains one of my two favorite superheroes (the other, oddly, is Herbie, the Fat Fury, with James Robinson's Starman as runner-up). And Ellison is - well, Ellison. I'm relieved his health appears to be holding, despite reports of his imminent demise a couple years ago.
Concurrent with the Strange Armor storyline, a Concrete short story appeared in which our heroes visited the home of Dwayne Byrd, a not so thinly veiled reference to Ellison's preferred nom de plume, Cordwainer Bird. The story, Byrdland's Secret, used Ellison's life, work and philosophies as a starting point to muse on the role of art and literature in our lives, and the urgent, almost primal need to cling to a spirit of adventure in those lives.

This story appears at first blush to be old-school space opera- some fun ideas and elaborate trappings. However, as is the case with most of Ellison's work, it quickly becomes something larger than the sum of its parts. An aggregate of strange beings, given singular abilities by the perversion of their forms in the names of profit, politics, power and entertainment, is off on a quest to do - well, something. Only one of them knows their mission at its outset. At this point, it feels a bit like a fairly conventional superhero narrative, albeit a smartly written one.
The plot and its implications quickly thicken.
The stakes are no less than the nature of existence, as a reptilian life form is trying to rewrite not only history, but evolution. Unbeknownst to the rest of the universe, this group of rejects is fighting for the existence of everyone, and should they succeed, nobody will know.
There are several Ellison themes that come into play here. Of course, the humanizing of those considered rejects dates back to his civil rights work, and the classic short story The Discarded. And the tragedy of great work going unrecognized has been a recurring theme in Ellison interviews for decades.
Ellison's proprieties: Sugar & Spike rightly rank with Mount Rushmore in the scope of human achievement!
Paul Chadwick's work here is as strong as anything else he's done. While I cherish the populist notions in Concrete, his vivid imagination is seen in other works, including his The World Below mini-series and one issue of the classic Dr. Strange mini-series, The Flight of Bones. In 7 Against Chaos, he's given the opportunity to stretch thematically and offer some beyond cool science fiction illustration, and he rises to both challenges admirably. The work is reminiscent of the best of the 1960s DC science fiction stories in terms of pure imagination and joy, while holding to a contemporary quality. This is not a nostalgia piece, but it does recognize the value of past works, a challenging balancing act, well executed.
And it's cool to see, and a great adventure to read!
7 Against Chaos begins with a fairly direct, albeit elaborate, scenario and sweeps the reader along to ask complex questions about the nature and purpose of life, all while riding an interstellar roller coaster. In addressing the best of 2013, I've talked about works that have value as pure enjoyment, and works that say something deeper and challenge the reader. This is both. I pray that Ellison and Chadwick collaborate again!
Next: Best Comics of 2013, No. 6, gets lost.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Best Comics of 2013, No. 8: RASL Color Edition!

My admiration for the work of Jeff Smith is hardly a state secret. I treasure BONE and its related stories ROSE and Stupid Stupid Rat Tales no end, and was delighted by his interpretation of the SHAZAM! legend. The latter made it seem like Smith was addressing recurring themes in his work- not a bad thing, but one that can lead to predictability in even the most capable hands.
How wrong I was.
When RASL debuted at San Diego a few years ago in an oversized teaser edition, it was unlike any of his previous work. Certainly, there were dire and grim aspects to all the predecessors of RASL. But this was downright gritty.
The story of an inter-dimensional art thief, RASL also touches on near-Promethean scientific concerns as it plays with concepts from the work of Nicola Tesla. There's also mythic trappings from native American faiths, and a seemingly autistic girl who may or may not be God. As the story unfolds, we learn that our thief is a scientist on the run, trying to hold onto his discovery.
It's also a story of love, loss and betrayal.
While these themes are clearly present in the earlier works, they take center stage here. This is a much harder edged, much more adult story than the BONE or SHAZAM! material.
In addition to the thematic concerns, this work is noteworthy for its coloring. While past color versions of Smith's work have always been worthwhile (note that SHAZAM! has only been printed in color- I'd be curious to see it in B & W: an artist's edition, perhaps?), the color really stands out here. Tightly controlled palettes, low key color (even in the brightest scenes), and use of color for mood and atmosphere, beyond the obvious and blatant uses of color (skin should be this color, etc.) make this a remarkable achievement.
Smith has offered a singular work here. His current online book TUKI, which I am woefully behind on reading, is every bit as good and every bit as singular as its precursors.
Sample of RASL page in B & W and in color
Again measuring up to standards set in past works, RASL is offered in a very affordable hardcover single volume, along with separate volumes of each chapter and a deluxe and super spiffy slipcased hardcover edition (sold out, but there is a deluxe HC at Smith's website for $10 over the base price of the HC).
I'm not a shill for Jeff Smith, really I'm not. But good work deserves both attention and commerce!
Over the years, I read and re-read Jeff Smith's works. The themes are solid and challenging, the art is consistently high quality and moves the story along with deliberation and precision (Smith's background in animation has clearly honed his narrative timing), and the books are exciting every time I open them. As I've lamented ad nauseum of late, my finances are precarious, but I'm mulling what I can sell to secure funds for the deluxe edition of RASL. Reading the public library copy again just won't cut it on this one!
The sold-out slipcased edition
Next: Best Comics of 2013, No. 7: two masters working at the peak of their game.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Best Comics of 2013, No. 9: On the Ropes

In 1989, Denis Kitchen began publishing the first major work of a relatively unknown writer, James Vance. Working with artist Dan Burr, he created a miniseries later collected under its title, Kings in Disguise. The story of a lad in search of his father during the Depression and the ragtag cadre of hoboes (the term is an abbreviation of "homeward bound") who help 12-year-old Freddie Bloch survive, Kings in Disguise touched on every aspect of the human condition in 1930s America.
24 years later, the creative team reunited for a sequel, On the Ropes. A reinterpretation of Vance's stage play (as was Kings), On the Ropes picks up some years down the line in Freddie's life.

At this point, Freddie is an assistant in a rather macabre act, part of a WPA funded touring sideshow. His boss's act is nothing more than putting a noose around his neck, pulling the trap on the gallows and surviving.

The grim humor of mocking death is not lost on Freddie, who has lost his leg to a train in between stories. After surviving union busting, near starvation and encounters with a crazy coot who MIGHT be Jesse James in the first book, he just slips and loses his leg. Life's a funny old dog sometimes.

As Freddie tries to understand his boss Gordon Corey, he's drawn back into the world of unions. Union busters are hunting Corey as Freddie is elsewhere, being swept up in picketing, pamphleteering and bittersweet one-way romance.

The anti-union thugs pursuing Corey, the mysteries of his past, and Freddie's divided loyalties all collide, as they must.

The art is a bit disproportionate in spots, but that's my only quibble, and it has matured considerably since the first series. Burr's work has just the right amount of detail and is accurate to the period (as far as I know- my Mother was born in 1930, so I have second-hand knowledge of the era). More importantly, the emotions are all spot on in the art and in the writing. The integration of story and image is virtually seamless in both volumes.
More than place or art, this is a story of people. That may seem like a "well, duh!" statement. But the hardest and first duty of fiction is to tell the truth. As we routinely indulge in fantasy, science fiction, horror, Westerns and other diversions, it's important to remember that people drive the ideas. The ideas here are old but vital: we have to take care of one another. We are all full of pain and joy, whether we see it in one another or not. And as H.L. Mencken bitterly noted, it is precisely when people are at their worst that they are the most interesting.This story, about people pretending to die to make a living, people fighting for right to work and others fighting to stop them, shows us at our worst, and at our best.
I hold out hope that either or both of these books will be successfully filmed someday. While we're wishing, it would be great to see James Vance and John Garcia's early 1900s Western Owlhoots completely published some day.
Until then, we have Kings in Disguise and 2013's On the Ropes to remind us of who we are, and who we could be.
Next: Best Comics of 2013 No. 8, an intersection of art, science and larceny.

Original Art Sundays No. 174: Surrealist Cowgirls, pages 24 and 25

As promised, a double header this week. Only one page to go to wrap up this story.
The first of these pages is a bit adventurous in layout, and the second is much more straightforward. I had a great confidence and positive energy when creating the second page, and I hope it shows.
Not mad for the solution I've found for scanning, but it works. I will have to rescan every page before going to press anyway, and may decide to rework a couple.
When we left our party, they were trapped at the base of the Obsidian Crystal Ziggurat. Tolcanan's familiar Chiss had just been enlarged by an energy circle, from Tolcanan to Chiss to Kay Seurat-Suerat's wand and back to Chiss. He was about to engulf Master Pah.
Now read on.
Next: The Surrealist Cowgirls in It Does This When I Hurt, conclusion.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Best Comics of 2013, No. 10: Omaha the Cat Dancer, Vol. 8

This one should come as a complete surprise to nobody. I've made no secret of my admiration for Omaha the Cat Dancer, or of my past associations with its creative team, over the years. While there's the usual talk of narratives and techniques, this one also get a bit mushy, so feel free to skip it if you're not into that.
There will be a few spoilers in this entry, but hey, the work's been out for months, and my few words will not detract from any pleasure you might take in the reading of this work.
This year saw the publication of the final pages of the Omaha saga, first in Sizzle magazine, then as a collection (which I've yet to pick up, though I was able to keep up with the story through the magazine, the rest of which is silly at best).
While not all storylines are fully resolved, those whose denouement is not directly discussed are alluded to pretty directly, like Rob and his boyfriend attending the wedding. I would have liked to see some follow-up on Shelley's personal trainer Dave Allen, whose character was intriguing but sort of faded away quite a while ago, but most everyone else gets a long-overdue resolution, if not an ending.
Endings are overrated. Resolutions give chances at new beginnings.
Reed's color sense, seen on this cover and not seen in print since the 2004 cover that launched the conclusion in Sizzle, remains strong and at least rivals that of the late Kate Worley, who colored the covers on the old Kitchen Sink and Fantagraphics runs. His placement and shaping of shadows occasionally troubles me, but that's just a question of taste, not of accuracy - his way works just fine, I'd just handle it differently, that's all.
Reed's art took several turns in these final chapters, spread over almost ten years (!). Working with Kate as a writer, his backgrounds were precise, to the point of architectural accuracy. In contrast, with James Vance taking over as writer, Reed's backgrounds got looser, and the art became even more about the characters. Neither approach is wrong, but it was fascinating to watch Reed again deeply embrace some of the "takes" and other expressive elements of the funny animal stuff that got him started.
I'm walking on eggshells a bit here. Even though it's been more than twenty years since Reed let me apprentice under his tutelage (and there's an awkward phrase for you!), I still tend to see him as the Master, and the Student does not speak ill of the Master. Yeah, I know, get over it. No, I don't think so. I learned a great deal from Reed, about art and about life, and while I may and do disagree with him on some things, I will not disrespect him or his work.
First page of this volume,
with Kate Worley writing
The aforementioned Sizzle cover showed Omaha reaching for an alarm clock that was chiming 2005, a charming recognition of time slipping away.
Some of the things that were revolutionary about Omaha in its heyday are now commonplace. Funny animal work comes and goes in comics. The furry community slogs on, arguably supplanted (or enhanced?) by Bronies- a tentative relationship, but an interesting idea! The rights of GLBT people are now discussed in the Supreme Court, and there are sixteen or seventeen states where the rights of GLBT people to marry are recognized (we'll have to see what happens in Utah). We have mechanisms in place for legal protections of comic creators working in volatile areas (again with no small thanks to Reed and Kate), though the fight continues (note to self- renew CBLDF membership!). Disability rights and depictions of the disabled are more common, and more realistic, in comics now. So in light of all that, how does the new work stand up?
Quite well, thank you. As is the case with many of the titles we've discussed so far in this year's countdown, it's a bit like getting back together with old friends. They will say and do things that annoy and frustrate you, but you still care a great deal what happens to them.
Again, yeah, I know. Fictional characters. So what? They may not matter as much as the three-dimensional carbon based life forms in the long run, but they still matter. And it's a note of respect for the creators that they matter to us as much as they do.
Panel from the later chapters written by James Vance.
Note the level of background detail.
We finally learn who's behind the A Block scandals, and of course, Bonner's murder (I should note that I was wrong about this every step of the way). Chuck is given the opportunity to come to terms with his family, and as the cover of Volume 8 implies, resolves his relationship with Omaha. Again, it would have been nice to see Rob and Geoff marry, but there just wasn't time, I guess. Also, gay marriage wasn't legally recognized in MN until after the story was concluded.
Conclusion and resolution are words that recur in this piece. That's the nature of this story, and that's me. I am such a sentimentalist slob, I am reluctant to let go of any of the good things in my life. And my association with Reed Waller, Kate Worley, James Vance, and Omaha the Cat Dancer and her associates, despite troubles and distances, remains A Good Thing. Naturally, my perception of the work is influenced by that, but that doesn't effect the intrinsic quality of the work. I'd like to paraphrase one of the last lines of Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge: and in the end, they all got exactly what they wanted. This applies to the characters in Omaha and to the people involved, I hope.
Thanks to the Omaha team for more than 30 years of a great comic. It wasn't always easy, but what that's worthwhile is?
Next: Best Comics of 2013, No. 9, courtesy of the WPA.
Afterthought: when Reed and Kate returned from Disneyland (it might have been Disney World), they had picked up some of those giant cartoon mouse hands. As I left my internship duties at their place one afternoon, Reed held out a hand encased by a four-fingered glove. We shook paws, grinning from ear to ear.
Now that's a nice goodbye.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Best Comics of 2013, no. 11: Mars Attacks Popeye

This one-shot really grabbed me. Part of a series expanding the Mars Attacks card line from the early 1960s, Mars Attacks Popeye was the first chapter of this crazy opus. Subsequent entries featured Kiss, the Real Ghostbusters, Transformers and Zombies vs. Robots. But the Popeye issue was the only one that interested me!
Page One of my copy, with signatures of Martin Powell and Terry Beatty sketch!
There just seemed such a charm to this idea when applied to Popeye. I've spoken previously of my respect for Roger Landridge's work on IDW's Popeye, but here IDW turns the writing chores over to The Goon creator Martin Powell (annotation: I was reminded by Terry Beatty that Martin Powell was not the creator of The Goon. That was Eric Powell. Sloppy research on my part, sorry!), who captures the spirit of the character admirably. While many see Segar in this issue, and there's plenty of that to see, I interpret it as more of an homage to the Bud Sagendorf stories- a bit longer and more wildly colored, with the limited palette and (in this case, simulated) sloppy production techniques associated with pre-1970s comics.
Terry Beatty's art delights throughout. The poses and layouts are classic Sagendorf. Much as I revere the work of Segar, his layouts were pretty straightforward, and mostly intended for daily or Sunday papers. While this does adhere to a fairly conventional grid, it's more akin to a comic book page than to a strip page, and Segar worked almost exclusively on the strips.
The 2 x 3 grid is a classic for humorous adventure strips. As Reed Waller once pointed out to me, the 2 x 4 grid is somehow more effective for humor books, but this works. 
It's great to see the Thimble Theater cast working through their paces in this, although I was disappointed by the slight use of the Jeep. Then again, if he were used to full potential, the Jeep would make Popeye's presence unnecessary. 
The use of Sea Hag as collaborator with the Martians is reminiscent of the Plunder island story. Another irritant: I would have liked to see a bit more of her pet vulture, Bernard.
But these are minot quibbles. The story is there. The excitement is there. And the energy is certainly there!
Yeah, I left this page crooked. Somehow it seemed right.

The front covers of these books simulated cards from the series, and the back covers were the backs of the cards- a very fun touch!
A few years ago, there was a Starman/Congorilla team-up from DC- a fun book that touched on something larger. Mars Attacks Popeye is right in the ballpark with that. 

It needs to be noted that every issue of the Mars Attacks crossover series had alternate covers featuring other characters and titles. The alternates for the Popeye volume were a mediocre cover featuring the unnecessarily revived Miss Fury and a very fun Mars Attacks Opus by Berke Breathed. Other alternative covers of note included Mars Attacks Chew and Mars Attacks Strangers in Paradise!
Next: a Best of 2013 entry that will make you purr with joy.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Best Comics of 2013, No. 12: A Distant Soil

Still trying to catch up from a couple days' illness. Only two behind, so three tomorrow would do it if I can manage it.
My lists tend to be dominated by older works and revivals. This is not to slight new work. I'll add any work that I think makes the cut, regardless of age. But there are so many great newer works by established creators, it would be wrong to neglect them. I've toyed with the idea of doing a separate list of older and newer creators, but drawing the line becomes arbitrary.
Today's offering is a delight.
I've written in the past of my admiration for the art, writing and professionalism of Colleen Doran. Like many, I was first exposed to her work on A Distant Soil as a backup feature in Elfquest, before the Pinis gave the story its own title. I thought it quite good even then, though those issues hardly stand up to the standard she's since set.
As a case in point, this is from the first issue of the current run.

After seeing a self-published run from Aria Press, followed by a run at Image Comics, the title went on hiatus for some years, mostly due to Doran's other commitments. This year, it resurfaced, promising to complete its SF/fantasy storyline at long last.

Cover of the digital edition of No. 42
The book retains its strongest elements: tight if often labyrinthine plotting (that's good, in case you're unsure), consistently strong and empathetic characters (even the villains, of which there are plenty), precise and ornate drawing, and tons of action.
All appears lost for our heroes and the rebel forces they lead. But all is never as it seems. My favorite character, Dmer, has proven to be much more complex than I had originally seen.
I'm deliberately talking in generalities to avoid spoilers. This is one story you really must fully appreciate on your own.
And luckily, you can. Doran has undertaken the dual projects of completing the story and creating a series of remastered collections of the work. As her blog is linked here, it's easy enough to keep up with her progress by the old click of a button.
And it's worthwhile to do so. Doran's insights on the process and the business of comics are a master class in themselves. She spends at least as much effort on marketing as she does on the work, or so it seems from the outside. I've purchased art from her in the past, and circumstances permitting, will again.
And she does both admirably, thank you very much. With canny success, she's cross-marketed to the digital market, and used original art sales and auctions quite successfully to continue promotion of her work. I can well imagine her last words being the same as those of Tezuka: "for the love of God, let me keep working!"
While I'm a couple issues behind on this as well (again, pesky finances), I have noted that the plot has reached the point at which all hell breaks loose. Lots of action with dire consequences for all concerned. Doran's characterization is a perfect embodiment of Robert McKee's three levels of conflict: inner, personal (based in relationships) and social (the character's conflicts with society as a whole, including the larger implications of the character's actions). Every move made by every character incorporates all three of these levels. I don't think this is a deliberate construction on Doran's part, so much as it is a reflection of her understanding of the things that make people tick.

All that aside, this meets my primary criteria for a great comic. It's a very engaging read. There's a genuine excitement to opening every issue!
A Distant Soil always has been and it's only improved through the years. Now, as it winds towards its denouement, Doran is at the top of her craft.
Next: Best Comics No. 11, offering more space adventures, but with sea hags.