Friday, January 22, 2016

Best Comics of 2015: no. 1

Here's the list to date:
15. The Undertaking of Lily Chen
14. Lackadaisy Cats
13. Marvel Star Wars titles
12. Brok Windsor
11. Ms. Marvel/Captain Marvel
10. Story of My Tits
9.  Wuvable Oaf
8.  Lady Killer
7.  Invisible Ink
6.  Archie
5.  Martian Manhunter
4. Bitch Planet
3. Inner City Romance
2. Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

And the No. 1 Comic of 2015, according to me...

This may not be much of a surprise. Then again, this was on a great many lists this year, but I don't recall seeing it in the top spot on any others.
Some creators have a comparatively small output, but a vast impact. To date, Sam Mendes has made only six films since his directorial debut in 1999. Darren Anonofsy, five. Stanley Kubrick, a dozen, if you don't count the early shorts, or One-Eyed Jacks or AI. Harper Lee wrote two books and a handful of short stories. My favorite band, Gentle Giant, made a scant 12 albums in their time together, including the live album. Kate Bush has made 15 albums, if you include EPs, live albums and box sets. Jim Steranko created 35 comic stories in the last 45 years, not including covers and collections, most of those prior to 1970.
More is not always better. And more isn't always necessary.
The wonderful cover under the dust jacket
Scott McCloud has fully created (in mainstream, not including his early self-published work) one creator owned series (ZOT!), one set of stories featuring a licensed property (Adventures of Superman, author only), a nonfiction trilogy on comics (Understanding, Reinventing and Making Comics, of which I find the last the most consistently useful), one stand-alone experimental book (The New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, which I really liked), arguably invented the 24 hour comic and- well, that's it, not counting his online comics and teaching and lecturing careers. So depending on how one defines one's terms, this is the seventh book in McCloud's 32 year career as a comics professional (using the first issue of ZOT! as the barometer for the inception of that career). We've been waiting 18 years since his last solo book.
Back of the dust jacket
And how is the book itself?
The first time I read it, my reaction was a small, satisfied, "Huh. Okay then. Nice little story." A couple days passed and a lightning bolt tore between the hemispheres of my brain. I suddenly realized just how much I'd missed. I had to go back and re-read this book ASAP.
McCloud has a way of writing just plain people that makes them eminently empathetic, even the ones you don't like. This makes his stories flow, seemingly effortlessly. This is the mark of a master craftsman. As Coco Chanel said, "dress poorly, notice the dress- dress well, notice the woman." The reader gets sucked under because the tide of the story, to torture the metaphor, is so regular and comfortable. He's at his best when dealing with what is commonly called "magical realism", unexpected or impossible things happening in everyday settings. There were some hints of this in New Adventures of Abraham Lincoln, as everyone but the hero casually accepted the narrative's outrageous events. As this is one of my favorite sub-genres, I get sucked into these very easily. For want of a better term, I classify much of Gaiman's Sandman as magical realism.
The Sculptor at work.
Museum dialogue, page 1
This is the story of David Smith, a frustrated sculptor who fears the common enemies of artists - anonymity, starvation and death, both of body and of spirit. David's uncle joins him for lunch one afternoon when David's life and career have both reached their nadir. Shortly into the conversation, David remembers that his uncle Harry is dead. Harry offers him a Faustian bargain, but not for the soul, at least not in the conventional sense. David will be given the talent he imagined for himself in the comic he made when he was a kid. He will be able to sculpt anything he envisions with his bare hands. The price is that he will die in 200 days.
As he sets out to sculpt with his new abilities, he encounters unexpected but inevitable obstacles, including overcoming his own fears of the work, facing the slights he's given others in the art world, and dealing with the arbitrary caprices of art dealers and critics.
Oh, yeah. Right after creating his first significant body of work since making the deal,  he's kicked out of his apartment and forced to leave the work behind.
Luckily, he meets an angel (don't worry, it's not the It's A Wonderful Life moment you dread, it's something both plausible and unexpected), falls in love, and manages to rebuild his life- while he counts off his days.
Museum dialogue, page 2
Many moments here echo the classic 20th century mainstream works about the worth, frustrations and joys of life. So often, during the fifth re-reading of this book (!), I found myself remembering the line in Our Town: "oh, Earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you."
The Sculptor clearly has a strong emotional impact, much to offer the intellect and the spirit. The writing is there, and the themes are solid and well-considered, no question.
But few have commented much on the art.
You'd think people would be all over the art on this, since McCloud's Understanding Comics was the book that mainstreamed Comics Theory 101 for a larger (read: not exclusively comic book geek) audience. Do McCloud's theories on comics structure hold water in his own work?
Well, sure. At the risk of being simplistic, it matters a great deal and it matters not at all.
He uses the devices of visual narrative to full effect. He's varying camera angles, using open panels to create moments of pause or introspection, varying the distance he puts between the reader and the scene, and maintaining a sense of flow on every page and throughout the text. He's not adverse to throwing in a silent panel when called for, recognizing that there are such moments in life, and trusting that the image is strong enough to propel the story without words.
Museum dialogue, page 3
Beyond all that, these are well-drawn pages. The facial expressions are spot on. Like the work of Jeff Smith, another less prolific creator whose work is justly lauded, McCloud's art is direct and, at least on the surface, simple. The proportions are good and consistent, and the tonal color is well handled. In most B & W works, that's an issue of placing and controlling blacks to give full and appropriate range of values to each scene. However, McCloud has opted to add a range of blue hues. So in addition to the values given by placing lights and darks and by hatching, the reader gets a second set of tonal values from the range of blues, akin to an old-school duotone effect. The blue is alternately calming and somber, and serves the mood of the story well throughout.
The art goes beyond simple, however. McCloud throws several splash pages at the reader at key moments, but he also goes to town with two page montage spreads that take the viewer on an emotional storm through what has gone before in the story. The splashes and montages create a marked contrast to the more (again, for want of a better term) conventional narrative pages.
Montage on parade!
What's the book about? It's about triumph over adversity, even if the adversity is a result of your own screw-ups. It's about love overcoming frustrations and fears. It's about that moment when you look at your life and see it for what it is and was, both good and bad, and are at peace with what you see.
I hope we don't have to wait so many years for McCloud's next book, but if it's this good, it will be worth the wait.
I've been privileged to meet Scott McCloud on a few occasions and to work with him briefly at Minneapolis College of Art & Design. I hope I get to meet him at least once more. My copy of The Sculptor is a signed limited edition, so as much as I revere a signed book, that's not why I want to see him again. 
I simply want to thank him for creating a book that made my life richer for reading it.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Best Comics of 2015, Numbers 5 - 2

5. Martian Manhunter
My original choice for this spot was the lovely Monstress, even though it's only two issues old. Monstress is a beautiful and engaging book, well deserving of a place on this or any Best of list. 
"Epiphany" is a key concept for this book!
But I was haunted by one question.
Why are so few people reading Martian Manhunter?


Sales figures from The Beat for the first six issues:
06/2015: Martian Manhunter #1  -- 40,239 (+ 81.4%)
07/2015: Martian Manhunter #2  -- 24,957 (- 38.0%)
08/2015: Martian Manhunter #3  -- 22,540 (-  9.7%)
09/2015: Martian Manhunter #4  -- 19,738 (- 12.4%)
10/2015: Martian Manhunter #5  -- 18,416 (-  6.7%)
11/2015: Martian Manhunter #6  -- 17,038 (-  7.5%)
Not a positive sign for such a fascinating book.
Oh, I get it.
J'onn J'onz is not a new character, and his story has
been told and retold.
But there's more to the story than you might suspect.
First, it's not a superhero book, at least in the conventional sense. While the central character is arguably such a hero, he's also not. Or he might be. He's confused, scared and not sure who he is- who any of him are.
This is a horror book, or perhaps a tragedy, if there is a difference. Didn't Stephen King say that science fiction is about hope and horror is about despair? Well, this is a science fiction book about despair. Where does that fit into this equation?
It's about a lost world, whose survivors are unsure of their own identities, which may be multiple for each individual, and about the threat of a stealth war of the worlds.
The title character is not who we knew him to be- that's revealed in the 8-page preview done before the first issue- nor is he who the doting children who know him as "Mr. Biscuits" think him to be.
Superhero or horror comic? You be the judge!
Writer Rob Williams has been unfolding this complex tale without condescension to his readers. All characters' actions, while sometimes surprising, are consistent with Williams' long game for the book. Eddy Barrows' art is fluid and consistent, intricate where necessary, and fully integrated into the script.
While the future of the book is far from certain, the title has been solicited through issue 10, due out in February.
I have high hopes the book will continue, and possibly grow a significant following. There's a conclusive origin story for J'onn promised in Issue 10. As arguably the first Silver Age superhero, certainly the first completely new one (it can be argued that Infantino's Flash is a reworking of an existing character), our Manhunter has never had the stories, or the following, he warrants.

4. Bitch Planet
No real surprise here. This one is on a lot of lists, and rightly so.
Kelly Sue deConnick created this book for many reasons,
not the least of which was a partial response to those
who didn't think her approach to Captain Marvel
was "angry feminist" enough. 
But it's so much more.  
Bitch Planet is a women's prison B-picture set in outer space. It's also scathing social commentary, full of pathos. It's also funny as hell. The book is full of in-jokes, send ups of old comic ads and familiar tropes, and some remarkably savvy political commentary. This book proves that smart and fun are not mutually exclusive, while it brings all the sad puppies who insist that feminists have no sense of humor to sheepish silence.
Valentine Leandro brings a very aggressive sensibility to the art, and it works well. I mean, we are talking a women's prison planet in one of the most smug patriarchies ever envisioned!
This panel makes me howl. Kangaroo pouch!
In order to have half a chance of regaining their normal lives, whatever those are (some of the women are in prison for little more than being "noncompliant"), the women are coerced to form a pro sports team. The game is violent and rigged, yet they play anyway, because, well, what choice is there?
One of the most egregious "offenders", a large woman of color named Penelope Rolle, can be seen as summarizing many facets of the narrative. She's tough, unapologetically violates expected norms, and hurts on a very deep level. 
Bitch Planet has become a cultural phenomenon, with lots of women getting the "non-compliant" symbol as a tattoo. I have no tattoos and no real interest in getting any, but somehow this tempts me. My issue with tattoos is that I've never wanted to lock in one aspect of my identity that solidly, but "non-compliant" has pretty much been my life, so that might be a safe bet.
Satire abounds in this info-dump tier
The first issue of Book 2 came out just a couple days ago. I'm debating between picking up the floppies or waiting for the trade. I read the first book in trade, and it worked so well as a cohesive unit that I'm reluctant to try breaking it up.

Whatever I decide, I'll be back to Bitch Planet. And I won't be alone.

3.  Unbeatable Squirrel Girl
So much has already been said and written about this title, I feel no obligation to go into detail.  Squirrel Girl is a delight. There have been books that dealt in the humor of the superhero, but few that do so with respect and love.  I mean, really. She's taken on Galactus and Doctor Doom, stolen Iron Man's armor, and loosely maintained a secret identity while attending college, all while having a squirrel tail!
Ryan North (words) and Erica Henderson (art) produce  this delight on a fairly regular basis. There was a short hiatus and a couple #1 issues causing some numbering consternation (which I have yet to go back and sort out).  But the book is selling unevenly, with a 22% drop since the first issue, despite excellent buzz. I believe there's only one trade to date, but more are forthcoming.
One thing that's often overlooked in Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is the border texts, those little asides that complement the story while dancing on the edge of the fourth wall. This device is also used in Matt Kindt's Mind Mgmt, a book that once fascinated me but has now lost my interest. 
In a strange way, this book reminds me of the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie. There's that moment when Lois speaks derisively of "truth, justice and the American way", and Supes replies unashamedly, "yes, that's right, that's who I am." Squirrel Girl holds to the same level of self-respect, even while recognizing the silliness of it all. Fun and dignity, with a cool girl hero- what more can one ask?
Spread from Inner City Romance #1

2. Inner City Romance
Fantagraphics has done the world a huge favor by collecting this underground masterpiece- well, mostly a favor (see below).
Colwell's 5 issue series stands up to the ages fairly well, especially the spare and harsh first issue, which chronicles a young black man getting out of prison and choosing between hedonism and responsibility.  In his case, the responsibility he must consider is to the Revolution. 
The Fantagraphics collection cover
This book also contains one of the best versions of an LSD trip I've ever seen in print.
In the following issues, Colwell continues to explore the themes of social revolution and sex, but drifts away from drug themes. Colwell went on to create the wonderful sex-positive comic DOLL in the 90s, and primarily paints now.  I was quite surprised to learn a few years ago that Colwell is white. Like many, including a black professor who studied black underground comix, the assumption was that Colwell was, to use the vernacular, a brother.
Fantagraphics has created a superb collection here. There are wonderful and insightful supporting essays, a section discussing the creator's other work, and the printing is clean and sharp.
However, there is one glaring problem, as alluded to above.
Here are the covers of all five of the original issues.

Stunning, right?
So why is only ONE of the original covers included in the collection in color?
There's a color section in the book spotlighting Colwell's painting and mural work, so it was not a cost decision. If you're going to have a color section, include color covers, not the mediocre black & white reproductions offered for all but the first (and least visually interesting) cover.
This glaring mistake aside, the importance of this collection cannot be denied. It truly is the second best comic of 2015.
Next: the best.


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Best Comics of 2015, Numbers 10 - 6

I like this approach of doing slightly larger batches. Doing one a day gets tedious after a while, no matter how rich the material. While these take me a couple days to get out, it's still faster than taking 2 weeks to finish them off one at a time.
Here are the next five on our hit parade!
10. Story of My Tits
I'm not always a fan of the graphic memoir/confessional, which is rather odd since I'm working on one now. I read Story of My Tits grudgingly, expecting some stereotyped housewife heart wringing done by someone who didn't know about comics and didn't care about comics, someone who didn't know how to say something in the form, someone whose perspective was coming from privilege, the way I felt about Lucy Knisley's Relish. I hate it when people dabble in something that matters to me, and I assumed this was one of those cases.
I was wrong. Oh, I was so wrong.
This is brilliant.
This is Jennifer Hayden's first full-length work. She's a member of the NY webcomics collective ACT-IVATE (currently dormant) and  has a collection of her shorter pieces, Underwire, also from Top Shelf. Her art has that neotenic quality that I often find annoying, but here it works. I think that's because, as in the work of Lynda Barry, there's an underlying awareness of basic artistic principles that influences the work. Hayden comes to comics from the trenches of freelancing in writing and in art, as she details inside this book. Hayden traces her life through her breasts and through breasts in general, talking about her mother's health concerns and then her own.
Hayden doesn't pull her punches, but then she doesn't lionize her suffering either. She has a way of bringing you right there, creating genuine empathy when dealing with cancer and all its implications. She's able to draw on her cerebral and spiritual sides without seeming didactic. In short, she cares about all aspects of her art and craft, and it shows in the final product.
Ms. Hayden in repose!
This review is a bit dry in contrast to the emotional impact of Hayden's work. The Story of My Tits is moving and compelling at all times. Its 352 pages move along at a perfect pace. I once told a department chair that one of two proposed textbooks was thinner and had more in it than the other. That's the way I feel reading Hayden's pages. There's a clear economy, nothing unnecessary, but everything necessary is there.
If the work has a drawback, it's that the reader can see the craft evolving as the work progresses. This is not the end of the creative world, it's just that earlier pages appear to be slightly less resolved than later ones. I suspect that some later pages were done before some earlier ones,  based on the relative skill levels of these pages. As Hayden points out in the text, there's much more to doing comics than there is to either writing or art as solitary disciplines.
But please don't infer from that that the earlier pages don't work. They're successful, just less successful than later pages. I'd like to see Hayden break out of her 4-panel page grid and give less "luxury border" margins. There's a lot of air on those pages, Ms. Hayden!
Those minor quibbles aside, this is a strong work, grounded in tough material. I eagerly await future volumes.

9.  Wuvable Oaf

Ed Luce at Autoptic
I met Ed Luce at Autoptic this year, and we had a brief but intriguing talk about challenges of diversity in queer communities. I picked up the Fantagraphics hardcover of Wuvable Oaf, thinking to support a fellow queer comics creator and not expecting much in the work to engage me. After all, I'm not into bears (a term Ed does NOT care for) or punk rock, which are two of the three focal points of the series (the third being cats!).
As was the case with some other works on this year's list, I was delightfully surprised. This story of a huge man who's deeply into boyfriends, punk rock and kitties is one of the tenderest, most human stories I've read in a long time.
There are some pages that squeal with strangeness, but the overall vulnerability of every major character comes through. This is surprisingly most true of Eiffel, Oaf's on-again, off-again boyfriend (the relationship is much more complex than that simplistic description suggests).
Wuvable Oaf is about frailty and strange humor. The cat with the strange dreams and the ailment that cannot be diagnosed, Pavel, is off-putting and empathetic at the same time.
Luce's art is engaging. I can't really describe it properly, but for want of more accurate descriptors, it reminds me in spots of some of Mark Beyer's surrealism coupled with the clean cartooning of Jerry Mills' great strip POPPERS. I doubt if that's how Luce would describe it, but that's how I see it. Others, notably the Comics Journal, have compared his work to Jaime Hernandez and Bryan Lee O'Malley. I confess to not knowing O'Malley's work, but I don't really see the Hernandez comparison.
Wuvable Oaf has a sort of stream of consciousness aspect. It is, after all, a series of short pieces that (mostly) tell one larger story.
Eiffel in all his diminutive glory
One drawback is that there are very few women in this book. Is Luce required to put women in his book? Certainly not. That doesn't mean I don't want to see more of them. In Kyle's Bed & Breakfast, a perennial favorite online strip in the blog list at screen right, women only show up every now and then, but I'm delighted when they do.
I can't find any indication that Luce has new work out, but I hope he does. There are still dangling plot threads and the work is so engaging that I want more.

8.  Lady Killer

Lady Killer was another great surprise, a clever, compassionate book about a 1060s housewife/assassin for hire.  Joëlle Jones' book draws heavily on cliche´s of the passive housewife. I mean, come on, she takes out the first victim seen in the book by trying to sell her Avon products. If you must have a standard elevator pitch, think My Little Margie meets Kill Bill.
It's good to see Dark Horse branching out. As previously mentioned, DH took a bit hit when they lost the Star Wars franchise, and they've rebounded with some very creative books. I don't know if the sales have echoed the innovation of the work, but I do know a second series has been announced for this year. To
quote Jones from a Mary Sue interview: " The family has relocated to Florida and Josie has decided to go into business for herself. That’s it. That’s all I’m saying."
The art is precise, jagged and engaging. Jones does the art and shares the writing credits with Jamie S. Rich.
It's also good to see women doing noir, even satirical noir. I had a frustrating conversation with James Ellroy during a radio call-in show. Ellory contended that it was impossible for women to write noir, that noir was a male genre by definition and necessity. I didn't yet know Patricia Highsmith's work at that time, so I didn't have a proper rebuttal.  If I could talk to Ellroy again, I'd throw Jones at him as well. Lady Killer, already out in trade and available from your local bookstore and library, approaches the genre with wit and verve. The adrenaline pumps reading this one, folks.

7.  Invisible Ink
A surprise, to be sure. I always detected an undertone of melancholy in Bill Griffith's wit, and this memoir goes a long way to showing why. Invisible Ink starts slowly and quickly builds to a maze of ideas and possibilities.
Griffith and Lariar in session!
The story of Griffith's mother's longtime affair with cartoonist Lawrence Lariar, known for his "peanut" figures and books on cartooning, Invisible Ink is a meditation on the complex relationship between mother and son, a comment on the nature of cartooning as an art form and as a profession, and an unanswered question: what if this man had been my father?
Griffith begins the story with some detective work following a funeral. He quickly jumps to the most frustrating and elusive type of detective work, discovering one's self.
While Griffith never fully abandons his own style, and spends time coming to terms with his own characters, including the neglected Mr. the Toad, he does have some fun playing with Lariar's style and musing about incorporating it into his own work.
Like Griffith's early work in Young Lust Comix, this book is a surprise, and a welcome one. Most of Griffth's work of late has built on the success of the Zippy comic strip- a deserved success, to be sure, but one that has become a bit predictable of late, after almost 30 years! Invisible Ink resonates with such emotional force and introspection that it's difficult to contemplate the fact that this was his "evenings and weekends" project. I am quite eager for his next long-form work, a biography of Schlitzie, the microcephalic from Tod Browning's FREAKS who was a primary inspiration for Zippy.
The last few pages of Invisible Ink are silent, a remarkable and fitting way to end such a thoughtful book.
Griffith at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum, October 2015

6.  Archie

There was a bit of a tempest in a teaspoon earlier this year when Archie comics tried running a Kickstarter to fund their new comic line. Now, several well-established creators and businesses have used crowdfunding platforms since their inception, but the Archie one touched a nerve. There was a hue and cry on the Interwebs, O my brethren, and much gnashing of teeth about the effrontery of this corporate giant intruding into the realm of crowdfunding. About two weeks into it, the campaign was pulled, with apologies from the instigators.
However, true to their word, the Archie publishers bought out their latest new take on their main character, begun 75 years ago(!), on schedule.
And it was good.
Mark Waid, whose work I've respected on many titles including a great Dr. Strange miniseries and "Unthinkable", arguably the best Fantastic Four storyline since Stan Lee stopped writing the book, has made Archie Andrews plausible without losing the character's Henry Aldrich universal appeal. Fiona Staples' art is just right, a compelling realism with just a touch of the cartoony quality we've come to expect from the Archie line.
It needs to be said here that I make no apologies for liking Archie comics and I never have. While they are insipid when they're at their worst, they are, more often than not, fun and exciting, and reflect the times in which they are created. Since the character was created as a sort of Everyman response to Superman, it could be argued that Archie Comics are precursors to the underground comix movement.
This Archie is every bit as hapless as earlier interpretations of the character, but with a touch more vulnerability. In previous Archie incarnations, even in the recent Married Life and Death of Archie storylines, there was always a sense that Archie would prevail in some odd way. In the Waid Archie series, there's less certainty about that. And that's somehow very reassuring. Archie's relationship with Betty is much more complex, and Veronica has just been whisked into town by her father, there for business reasons. All the pieces are in place, and the story is unfolding briskly but gradually. As of this writing, the second story arc is due to start any week now.
I'd be remiss to pass up mention of Chip Zdarsky's fine work writing Jughead. As ongoing characters, the best vehicles for imagination in the Archie line have been Little Archie (especially the Bob Bolling issues) and Jughead. The cynic/dissident/iconoclast figure, Jughead has consistently been used for fantasy. There was even a brief title, Jughead's Fantasy, that dealt with nothing but that. In the current title, originally featuring art by Squirrel Girl's Erica Henderson, a delicious pattern has evolved. Jughead is confronted by corrupt authority (also a theme in the current Archie book, as Principal Weatherbee has been replaced by a nefarious authoritarian), has a fantasy that ties back to the crisis at hand, and has a revelation that leads neatly to the next chapter.

Though I was glad to see Cosmo, the Merry Martian revitalized briefly, most of the recent updates of the Archie line were less aesthetically successful than the current one. I hope the creators can sustain the high level they've set for these titles.
I've always thought Archie was kind of cool. It's nice that these books give the rest of the comic world a chance to catch up with me.
Next: Best Comics of 2015, Numbers 5 - 2.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Original Art Sundays No. 226: Roger Corman's Dr. Strange!

I'm finishing up the next installment of by Best Comics of 2015 series, which is actually going fairly quickly. But I'd like to take a minute and post some new art.
I was given a grant to complete my graphic memoir, Sharp Invitations, so I'm going to be hauling @$$ to get 100+ pages done and to the printer by mid-May. I've been working on setting up my studio space properly and am nearly there.
But I went and got all inspired the other day, and worked up something else just for fun.
I'm all atwitter over the upcoming Dr. Strange movie. I've been a fan of Dr. Strange since I first read the character in Strange Tales in the early 1960s, when he shared the book with The Human Torch and The Thing. Dr. Strange has been filmed three times so far, not counting appearances in Spider-Man cartoons and the like. The first was an ambitious but deeply flawed made for TV movie from 1968, starring Peter Hooten. The second was a well-done pastiche, 1992's Doctor Mordrid.

The most recent version was the 2007 direct-to-DVD animated feature version. It was made by Marvel and was mostly quite worthwhile, but still not the Doctor as I wanted to see him.
I have high hopes for the upcoming Benedict Cummerbatch film. I usually try to ignore advance publicity for superhero films, but for this one and for the upcoming Wonder Woman film, I can't help myself!
Thinking about the earlier versions of Dr. Strange and about how much energy is spent in alternate worlds in comics got me musing. What if the 1978 version wasn't the first Dr. Strange film?
I had real fun casting this and refreshing my Photoshop chops! Rather than try to incorporate Dormammu or Nightmare, I chose a Cthulu critter. I'm not versed enough in that mythos to know which one, sorry. Some layer effects bought the classic window to life. After some debate, I went with the Doctor's astral form on the final image. As for the Doctor himself, I took Price's head from an old LP and grafted it onto an Alex Ross painting, which I also manipulated a bit.
I resisted the temptation to cast David Niven, who was the model for the character in the comics according to Stan Lee. Vincent Price seemed perfect. Although the years don't work, it would be cool to see Keye Luke, Kato from the Green Hornet serials, as Wong. I considered going with Bruce Lee for that one, but thought it a bit too obvious. For Clea, Yvette Vickers, star of several noirs, pinup girl and star of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, seemed the best choice. It's a bit a conceit to throw my copyright on this, since I clearly don't own Dr. Strange, but if it starts floating around the Net, I wouldn't mind some credit for my work.
This was a fun diversion to get my creative juices flowing again. I'm going to be in the thick of graphic memoir creation (while I continue to work work FT as an AIDS caregiver and teach writing at MCAD), so unless I don't have time to post, I'll be doing so, since I'll have a lot of material!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Best Comics of 2015, Nos. 15 - 11

Time has not been my friend this holiday season! So rather than do my usual one book a day post,, I'm posting the 2015 Best Comics in three batches. Here's the first batch.
15. The Undertaking of Lily Chen
This was quite a surprise, so much so that I'm re-reading it half a year after the initial reading. Danica Novgorodoff's tale of a morbid, romantic quest delights and enthralls on so many levels. Here's a quote from the Amazon blurb on this one: "In The Undertaking of Lily Chen, Deshi, a hapless young man living in northern China, is suddenly expelled from ordinary life when his brother dies in an accident. Holding Deshi responsible for his brother's death, his parents send him on a mission to acquire a corpse bride to accompany his brother into the afterlife, in accordance with an ancient Chinese tradition that has many modern adherents. Eligible dead girls are in short supply, however. When Deshi falls into company with a young--and single--woman named Lily, he sees a solution to his problems. The only hitch is that willful, tart-tongued Lily is still very much alive. As Deshi and Lily adventure through a breathtaking mountain landscape, meeting a host of eccentric characters and dangerous adversaries along the way, Deshi just can't decide whether to kiss the girl or to kill her."

I haven't read  Novgorodoff's other graphic work yet, but Refresh, Refresh sounds promising. Her art is simple bordering on crude in spots, but incorporates watercolor and drybrush and evokes sumi-e in spots.  Her photography and other illustration, which can be seen at her web site, reveal a great combination of control and passion. Her teaching and freelance career are clearly keeping her quite busy, but not so busy that there isn't another book on the horizon, I hope!

14. Lackadaisy Cats
A recent Lackadaisy strip!
 Really, this one falls more into the Shameful Omission category than it does into New Work. Tracy Butler has been plugging along at Lackadaisy Cats (sometimes just called Lackadaisy), an online strip about cats during Prohibition in St. Louis, MO, since 2008. She does 2 strips a month on average, and recently took the plunge to go full time on the strip, leaving her gig with a gaming company behind for the caprices of the free market and Patreon funding.
The characters have a perfect verbal and visual economy. They never feel the need to make long-winded speeches! No illustrated radio here, these characters know who they are, and even when they're idling around, the strip is driven by movement rather than text.
And the art just shines. A lovely controlled palette,  innovative yet perfectly legible layouts and strategically paced text, all of which move the stories along nicely.
And damn, it's pretty.
A tightly controlled palette, used very effectively, is a visual hallmark of the strip. Although it's not complex, I find myself looking at her art and thinking, "how does she DO that?"
There's been one collection so far, out in hardcover and TPB.  The fans of this wonderful strip have been much too quiet about it. How about it, folks? Let's sing the praises of this one!

13. Marvel Star Wars titles
Look who's hanging out at the comic store...

Again, this one is a bit of a no-brainer. While I had some reservations about Marvel taking over the Star Wars franchise from Dark Horse, it was inevitable due to Disney now owning both Marvel and Lucasfilm. And I'm tickeld to say it's worked out well! Dark Horse has done some interesting work with Star Wars over the years, notably the Dark Empire trilogy, but there's been so much of it that it's been rather hit-and-miss. Marvel wisely chose to delve into a very specific time frame for its books, right after Episode IV, dealing with Vader's awakening to Luke's true identity.
Marvel has been glutting the market with titles, including miniseries of Lando and Princess Leia, a current Chewbacca title, the Star Wars book, a Darth Vader book, the Shattered Empire miniseries, Kanan, the Last Padawan (a very strong book not in current comics continuity), Obi-Wan and Anakin (obviously outside the current continuity), and the Vader Down one-shot. Ordinarily I'd balk at this many titles. But between my admiration for Star Wars and the consistently high quality of this work, I've been lapping these up like a sponge cake by a saucer of brandy. Jason Aaron's writing is spot on, no mean feat for storylines and characters that have been lovingly dissected for decades. John Cassady's art continues the precision and passion he bought to Planetary and Astonishing X-Men. Obviously, there are other creative teams involved in this spate of books, but this is the team responsible for the initial launch, and it remains the strongest in my view.
I may be the only person in the US who has not yet seen Episode VII, but as a veteran of the series from the initial launch of Episode IV on, it's definitely on my radar for this weekend. In the interim, I'll be putting my issues of these titles in different order and reading them again. And again. Here's a suggested reading order from a friend at the Comic Book Binding boards.
Star Wars 1-3
Darth Vader 1
SW 4
DV 2-4
SW 5-6
 DV 5-6
SW 7
DV 7
SW 8
DV 8

12. Brok Windsor

one of the original comics covers
the artist/writer working on a different strip

Quality reprints of classic comics, both standards and lost gems, routinely make my "best of" lists. 2015 was my year to go nuts on Kickstarter, backing 31 projects! The first project I backed was one of the best, spotlighting a lost Canadian comic hero, Brok Windsor. This work by Jon Staples is so many things- frontier adventure, fantasy, SF with a tinge of giant creature horror, and a delight to discover! This 1940s gem was rediscovered by Hope Nicholson, who gave us the wonderful Nelvana of the Northern Lights anthology a couple years ago. Though painstakingly restored, the detailed notes and background don't prevent enjoyment of this work. I was particularly impressed with Staples' fluid page layouts, as seen here.
I love seeing curvilinear panels, alternating high shots with close-ups followed by long shots, and switching from an aerial to a lateral perspective on the bottom tier! Many pages in this collection show this level of design innovation, but none sacrifice clean storytelling to the layouts.
The collection includes a newly drawn story from a recently discovered script, which will be very useful next time I teach Comic Book Writing.
I opted for the slipcased edition of this. See shots below.

11. Ms. Marvel/Captain Marvel
Again, these books began before 2015. But while they've always been strong, they both hit their stride this year. Ms. Marvel is a wonderful vehicle for empathy for Muslims from us ignorant non-Muslims, as well a being a slice of teen life that does NOT wallow in the usual cliches. Captain Marvel is about a woman coming into her own, finding her place in the scope of the Uinverse and embracing her power. Oh, and flying. Captain Marvel is all about flying.
 Ms. Marvel has another thing going for it. The book has that populist sensibility I love so. Whether our heroine is discussing the challenges of love with her hot dog vendor or working with her classmates (and with the help of Loki!) to keep them safe during an apocalyptic event, the book has the Capra/everyman quality I admire in Eisner's Spirit, 'mazing man, and Fraction's Hawkeye.
 The rooftop encounter between Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel is perfect. The Captain reinforces what it means to be a hero, and that even heroes don't get to abandon their fears. They just can't let them stop them.
I'm uncertain about the future of these titles, given that Marvel is planning yet another cataclysmic universe shaping event. Enough already. Just tell us good stories and stop getting in your own way.
Then again, I've been saying that for decades, and they just keep going.
Ah well. The books are still there for me, company politics aside.
Next: Best of 2015, numbers 10 - 6.