Category Archives: Comics Reviews

PUBLIC DOMAIN #5 comics review

Public Domain (#5) writer/artist Chip Zdarsky  Image Comics (19 Oct 2022 issue) $3.99

Chip Zdarsky is an exemplary, stupendous, and extraordinary comics creator, someone I’ve admired since his groundbreaking work with Matt Fraction on Sex Criminals. But, before I embarrass myself any further, let the following video create the right mood. Maybe you are already a fan but, if you’re new, let Chip Zdarsky speak for himself:

Okay, so, Sex Criminals was written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Chip Zdarsky. For Public Domain, Zdarsky is both the writer and artist. And that fact alone is worth the price of admission. We get full-on Chip Zdarsky, filled with whipsmart humor. People still use “whipsmart,” don’t they? Anyway, this is a love letter to the comic book from somebody who really gets it, and has seen it all from working on many of the biggest comic book franchises. Zdarsky knows where the bodies are buried or, in other words, how corporate comics are made. And, well, that’s not always to the satisfaction of comics purists or to anyone who appreciates a well-thought-out story. That’s the theme here: the little guy (Jack Kirby or Bill Finger, etc.) going against the suits who take the lion’s share of the profits and exploit the work created by the likes of a Kirby or a Finger. The little guys vs. the suits. And that’s not to say that little guys can’t be physically big and/or wear actual suits.

From #4: Let’s make some comics!

Issue Five is a great jumping on point as the stage is set for the old true blue creator of the iconic (and movie franchise) comic book character, The Domain, to get his chance to create his own new stories and own the rights to them. Syd Dallas never really cared about the business side to comics and allowed his employer, Singular media, to rob him blind. That all changed when a perfect storm of circumstances led to a legal fight. Now, suddenly, Syd Dallas is leading his own comic book company featuring the new adventures of The Domain. This is a far-fetched adventure even for Syd but his sons, both at loose ends, force him to find the will and the grit to give it a go. Add to the mix a young aspiring writer, Tanya, who used to work for Syd’s less than scrupulous creative partner, Jerry Jaspers.

From #4: Enter Tanya!

In this latest issue, it’s up to Syd to get on with creating comics. Along with his two wayward sons, Miles (the ex-reporter with a bad temper and gambling addiction) and David (the tattoo artist with the shit-eating grin). Some of the best moments involve Miles and David and are seemingly nothing moments of apprehension and ennui. One favorite line from the new issue: “S’all good, man. Just a bunch of unemployed people pretending to not be unemployed.”

From #4: We love comics!

All in all, the banter and social commentary adds up to a delicious dark satire on the less than innocent comics industry. But who among us is innocent, right? Ah, well, now that’s the frame of mind to be in for this snarky, yet heart-felt, tale. Getting back to the issue of creating quality work, it all comes back to it being well-thought-out work and that’s where Zdarsky has got you covered. He actually writes! Maybe that’s his big secret: to actually write with integrity and, heck, you just might create something worth reading. Who knew?

Public Domain is published by Image Comics. Issue Five comes out 19 October 2022. If I did any rating, I’d give this one 10/10.

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☀️ NOAH VAN SCIVER | As a Cartoonist review 💬

As a Cartoonist. Noah Van Sciver. Fantagraphics. 2022. 104 pp. $19.99

One thing you need to get straight is that a bona fide cartoonist, in the truest sense of the word, is someone with a certain way of moving about in the world. I’m a cartoonist, so I should know. Just about every word I write is somehow connected to the fact that I’m one of those people. Word choice is everything. Well, maybe it’s more like every line of thought but it can get right down to the granular level. It’s absolutely a way of life, and that’s not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. It is what it is–and those among us who are part of this tribe, made up of so many groups and subgroups, understand that this unique ability to write and draw comes at a price. No one is born with this ability, although some people are definitely more predisposed to creating  comics than others. Sorry, but it’s a skill that demands a number of factors to fall into place if you intend to reach a certain level of excellence. You don’t see a short person agonizing over the fact that they will never be an all-star basketball player. And, yes, I know about Spud Webb, but he’s the exception to the rule. Anyway, most people don’t give a hoot about whether or not they will ever create comics of any form, let alone win awards and accolades for their effort. This is the story about someone who really cares about all those things having to do with becoming a masterful cartoonist. We’re talking about Noah Van Sciver. And he’d be the first to tell you that being a cartoonist is no walk in the park–and yet, there isn’t anything he’d rather be more.

This book is about all the peculiar things about being a cartoonist. That’s really what it all boils down to. Being a cartoonist is peculiar. That, in and of itself, is a burden and yet it is also alluring. Essentially, it’s something special that envelopes the person seeking to master it. Just like any other creative endeavor, like starting up a band. Noah Van Sciver’s story is one of struggle, persistence, and ultimate accomplishment. This book, a collection of short works in comics, adds up to a portrait of the artist, perhaps his best set of portrait pieces to date. This is, you could say, an anthology all by one creator. In the world of indie comics, cartoonists are always scrambling to jump on board and join the latest collective effort, a way to promote each other and get one’s work out into the world. It’s all about getting people to read your work. A lot of Van Sciver’s auto-bio comics are about this ongoing pursuit of readers: courting them, wanting them, wondering where they are. For all the anti-social behavior that a cartoonist may engage in, at the end of the day, it’s all about the readers. Maybe the cartoonist isn’t exactly looking to spend too much time with any particular reader, but it’s nice to know that they’re still around.

Van Sciver wins over his readers without playing up to them. Far from it. In fact, he’s more than happy to speak the unvarnished truth byway of his social satire. He has a way of evoking authenticity. A real cartoonist, especially someone like Van Sciver who uses his own life for material, is always striving to be real and avoid any false notes. So, Van Sciver’s best work comes across as totally unfiltered. Of course, it’s a balance of artifice and reality. But a reader still ends up getting caught up in the moment as when Van Sciver is juggling an interview with a prominent reporter and his uncouth brother who has just crashed upon the scene. In this specific moment, a big event at an art museum featuring Van Sciver’s work, the hierarchy is easily hijacked. No sooner has Van Sciver begun to talk to the reporter than he’s put off by her obvious remarks. He even sympathizes with his train wreck of a sibling, if only for a moment.

In another more complex scene, Van Sciver is a visiting artist on campus and must find a way to tolerate those less fortunate but still quite annoying. A relatively young man, actually thirty and not so young, who loves to wear a top hat and read teen girl manga, is prime fodder for Van Sciver’s wrath. The guy in the top hat, it turns out, is easily triggered by what he sees as Van Sciver’s micro-agressions. Nevermind that Top Hat has a lot of arrested development to deal with. Now, Top Hat’s focus is to get Van Sciver into trouble by reporting him to a school administrator. There’s no winning for Van Sciver when he’s called in to explain himself. Later, he tries to turn the other cheek and be positive. But, ultimately, Van Sciver is right back to being underwhelmed by life on campus.

A wonderful companion piece to this collection is the 2018 graphic memoir, One Dirty Tree, looking  back on a childhood with eight other siblings in a less than ideal situation. This is a closer look at a ramshackle upbringing: living in squalor, an abusive and irresponsible father who is a Mormon zealot, and a young man with a very uncertain future–a young life miraculously held together by dreams of some day becoming a famous cartoonist! By force of will and determination, Noah Van Sciver turned his dreams into a reality beginning with his series of collected comics, Blammo. That would lead to his early masterpiece, his first graphic novel, 2012’s The Hypo. And, most recently, 2022’s Joseph Smith and the Mormons. This new book, As a Cartoonist, comes full circle with a collection of short works that feature comics from Blammo, among other sources.

In 1980, Woody Allen made Stardust Memories. He had already made two of his masterworks, Annie Hall and Manhattan, and he seemed to be at a crossroads: keep making funny movies or make more serious films. Perhaps there was a bit of a struggle. Just see Interiors. Anyway, a certain Woody Allen universe had been created and he was pretty much set and would go on to create a wonderful body of work. Van Sciver pays homage to that creative turning point in a moment in the book where he recreates Allen asking space aliens for advice. It’s a perfect opportunity for Van Sciver to insert himself and provide another take on the absurdity of it all.

Van Sciver is now at a point where he can look back and see significant milestones, including Fante Bukowski, which alone would thrill any cartoonist to call their own, and which Van Sciver can say confidently he brought into this world. Having recently become a father, Van Sciver honors his son, Remy, with a dedication and the final comic in the book. I think it’s safe to say that Noah Van Sciver is on the right path.

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Joseph Smith and the Mormons review: The Mormon Saga—in Comics!

Joseph Smith and the  Mormons. By Noah Van Sciver. New York: Abrams, 2022, 454pp, $29.99

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

This monumental work has a considerable backstory. Artist Noah van Sciver, the eighth of nine children, was born and raised in a Mormon home in New Jersey until his parents divorced when he was 12 and his mother brought him along a different path. This disjuncture, followed by others more typical of teens in the last third of the twentieth century, may have stirred his artistic impulse. No doubt he looked to the example of an older brother who went successfully into the Superhero comics big time. Experience, separation and a sort of rejoining the earlier world thorugh art: these are large themes in artists’ and writers’ lives for centuries. That Van Sciver has taken on Mormon founder Joseph Smith is no accident.

Van Sciver has a penchant for US history, especially the history of the nineteenth century, rife with religious and social contradictions, idealists, cranks, Protestant revivalists and utopians. Joseph Smith, unlike nearly all the others, was a successful institution-builder (Mary Baker Eddy with her Christian Science denomination might be another example).

The spectacular, world-wide growth of the LDS or Latter Day Saints, its weighty and deeply conservative political influence in Utah and beyond, is remarkable given the improbable origins of the Church. The extended and heavily institutional story of prophet Joseph Smith, considered by most non-Mormons a dubious self-creation, is offered here in splendid detail in remarkable color.

Van Sciver could have examined the saga from a psychological distance, and even chosen to play the iconoclast. His earlier books on U.S. history, from Lincoln to Johnny Appleseed and Eugene V. Debs, show something else: a penetrating treatment of personality within a vanished era. That he documents his study with careful explanations at the end of the book, and that he donated the original art for the book to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, is a measure of his seriousness.

Joseph Smith’s story is bizarre, a story about a discovery (he insisted) of golden tablets buried in the ground in upstate New York in the 1830s; a story about a church with outlandish views including (after a while) polygamy; a story that would not be the same in any other artist’s hands. Smith and his flock moved Westward with the great population shift of the mid-nineteenth century, and—this is crucial—they moved through natural and wondrous landscapes, which are drawn with stunning beauty and a certain strangeness by Van Sciver.

So much of the narrative has always seemed to critical observers as a magnificent case of American charlatanism, these days likely to be seen as pre-Trumpism. And yet Smith and his followers, staggering through bankruptcies, persecutions and the fatal defenestration of Smith himself, seen by Van Sciver, the observer-artist, looks like a revelatory detail of American history that seems in turn. . . a lot like the rest of American history.

Paul Buhle

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Trve Kvlt #1 (of 5) review – IDW Original series

Trve Kvlt. IDW publishing. (W) Scott Bryan Wilson (A) Liana Kangas. Release date of first issue: August 17, 2022. $3.99

Let’s face it, it’s really tough being an individual. For Marty Tarantella, a working class hero in this comic book series we’re about to explore, life had become one big rut. Oh, sure, he was quite an individual, very quirky and unpredictable. But he’d paid a hefty price for being eccentric with no professional skills, unless flipping burgers counts for much, which it doesn’t. Marty had been working at Burger Lord at the same entry level job for the last fifteen years. Something had to give. To make matters worse, the way out of his rut was completely left in Marty’s hands. This guy can’t get a break! However, Marty was determined not to be just another loser chewed up by the gears of capitalism.

Long live losers!

Marty Tarantella, a young-at-heart aging hipster, was in real danger of entering a slow death when he stumbled upon the most hair-brained scheme that would blow up in his face while also catapulting into a whole new level of consciousness. Marty’s no senator’s son, just an Average Joe, the kind of guy that Kevin Smith has honored in much, if not all, of his work. Heck, Mr. Smith created a whole genre all his own, populated with the most eccentric of dead end kids. This is certainly not lost on the creative team behind this comic as they pull out all the stops to have Marty fly his loser freak flag. Fail! Fail! Gloriously Fail!

Yeah, my friends call me, Tarantula.

The fast food world is a very strange world, just as bumbling and insular as the mall world, a place where staff and customers alike fully embrace being losers. This was a choice someone made to find themselves in a highly artificial disconnected environment. That’s okay. Let ‘er rip, hang on tight, and go for the chili fries! Wash it down with a Pepsi. And don’t forget that bacon cheeseburger. Marty’s big mistake was thinking he could outwit the system he’s let himself fall prey to with as little effort as he put into submitting to it.

Marty and his supervisor, Bernice, have been toiling away at Burger Lord since forever. Why rock the boat now? Ah, if only Marty knew what he didn’t know then! This is the sort of story that you love to linger over the details as the main character gets deeper into trouble. Writer Scott Bryan Wilson delivers on all the authentic details of the fast food milieu. Artist Liana Kangas has a delightfully light style that adds some relish to the most subtle and mysterious of moments. There’s the scene where Alison, a prospective new employee, comes in long after some major plot points but with a sophisticated and intriguing tale of her own. This is where the collaborative spirit shines for writer and artist. Alison turns out to be a real wild card in this story, steering things in uncanny ways. Maybe Marty does have a friend in this cruel world after all! But it’s just too soon to say what kind of friend.

If you’re looking for that something different, this is it. Yes, I can honestly say that the comic that is currently ringing my bell is this one! Go get yourself one and, yeah, you’ll want fries with that too. Let’s roll out the A+ for this comic. If I’m a ratings guy, I give it a solid score. 10/10.

Visit IDW and see what they have in store for you.

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Dark Spaces: Wildfire #1 (of 5) review – IDW Original series

Dark Spaces: Wildfire. IDW publishing. (W) Scott Snyder (A) Hayden Sherman. Release date of first issue: July 20, 2022. $3.99

Imagine you are a big-time comic book publisher executive, DC Comics to be exact, and you are directed to read the work of a hot new lead, an emerging talent who could easily, and very artfully, pump fresh new blood into the tired old veins of top-tier landmark characters. So, you take a seat, pour a Scotch and Soda, and read about this strange silver blimp floating above the American heartland, keeping a young man from his sweetheart. The story is so fresh and new, it knocks your socks off–and you hire this wunderkind, one freshly minted Columbia creative writing dept. grad, Scott Snyder. And he doesn’t let you down. No, he adds color to the faces of many of ’em: Batman, Swamp Thing, the whole frickin’ Justice League. The rest is history, or amazingly good comics. Fast forward to today, Scott Snyder is working some of his storytelling magic at IDW comics. This time it’s a story about fire.

Fire! Don’t yell it in a crowded movie theater, that’s what they used to say. Fire, as a comic book plot, falls somewhere within the disaster genre. Things are more stripped down to their essentials, like a black box theater production. Very specific. This reminds me of Jeff Parker and Steve Lieber’s Underground, the comic that mainly takes place inside a cave. Or, more broadly, another comic that comes to mind is the enviro-thriller, The Massive by Brian Wood. More specifically, I think of A Fire Story, by Brian Fies, the graphic memoir documenting the trauma of one of the more recent devastating California fires. All this brings us to the work of writer Scott Snyder and artist Hayden Sherman, a story of fire and destiny.

A story with such a specific theme, as fire, can feel claustrophobic. Snyder masterfully opens things up, giving the reader rich character profiles, each character providing a window into another world. This is a story about a firefighting team, one made up of convicts. Even the team leader, Ma, was a convict at one time. This special program is intended to help disadvantaged women prisoners find a way back into society, or something like that. It’s a great plot device. Can these flawed, hardened and resentful, characters, be relied upon to do the right thing? Well, no. They aren’t built that way. They could change but, there’s plenty to indicate they are all just a match strike’s away from doing the wrong thing. And, thus, we have quite an interesting story! Fire, all alone, is just too abstract. Now, you’ve got conflict, plenty of it, along with plenty of fire!

As I suggest, fire alone is boring–but add a little sideways weird perspective, some kind of spice, and suddenly things can get very interesting. Such is the case with Hayden Sherman’s handling of the art. The above image is just one example of Sherman’s inventive use of comic storytelling structure. Do something different with panels, or text boxes, etc. and you’re good to go. Not only does Sherman relish adding eye-catching details, he has nailed it in bringing to life this troubled crew of tough people who, whether they realized it or not, are all just waiting to blow everything up. Maybe they know it’s a doomed fantasy they’re engaging with but, for some, it’s just too hard not to play with fire. This is a story that makes total sense to have Scott Snyder tell. I can’t wait to read the whole thing once it’s available.

And, for those keeping score at home, I give this four stars. Rating: 10/10.

A few words on IDW Originals

Comics and graphic novel publisher IDW has created a lot of buzz with its launch of nine new original titles, each one with the potential of being developed into a movie or series. I’ve been looking over the offerings and there’s some very exciting stuff, each deserving of a closer look. Here is a list of the nine new IDW original titles. This is from IDW promo and I’ve added  a few confirmed start dates. . . .

Dark Spaces: Wildfire (July 20, 2022), a thriller series written by Scott Snyder with art by Hayden Sherman, follows a group of female inmate firefighters deep into the smoldering California hills, where their desperate heist of a burning mansion will lead them to the score of a lifetime…or a deadly trap!

Trve Kvlt (August 10, 2022), a five-issue miniseries written by Scott Bryan Wilson with art by Liana Kangas, introduces Marty Tarantella, a down-on-his-luck loser whose last-ditch scheme to escape a lifetime of fast-food service sets him on a collision course with a cult of violent, Devil-worshiping lunatics!

Crashing (September 21, 2022), a five-issue miniseries written by Matthew Klein with art by Morgan Beem, throws open the doors of an emergency room filled with casualties of a superhuman war, where Rose Osler, a doctor on her own path of addiction and recovery, faces the most dangerous day of her medical career.

Earthdivers, an ongoing series written by Stephen Graham Jones with art by Davide Gianfelice, unites four Indigenous survivors in an apocalyptic near future as they embark on a bloody, one-way mission to save the world by traveling back in time to kill Christopher Columbus and prevent the creation of America.

Dead Seas, a six-issue miniseries written by Cavan Scott with art by Nick Brokenshire, transforms a cynical convict into a reluctant hero when he’s trapped on a sinking prison ship swarming with ghosts. Can he unite desperate criminals, pirates, and brutal guards as they try to escape a watery grave?

Golgotha Motor Mountain, a five-issue miniseries written by Matthew Erman and Lonnie Nadler with art by Ryan Lee, is a high-octane, redneck motor massacre about two meth-cooking brothers and their attempt to make it home in one piece as all manner of cosmic alien horrors are hot on their trail.

Arca, an original graphic novel written by Van Jensen with art by Jesse Lonergan, leaves a dying Earth behind as billionaires establish a luxurious new society out among the stars, tended to by teenage indentured servants. But one girl discovers that the good life promised for their years of servitude was a lie…

The Sin Bin, a six-issue miniseries written by Robbie Thompson with art by Molly Murakami, hits the road with washed-up hockey player Dale “Dukes” Duquesne, who moonlights as a monster hunter during away games with his daughter, Cat, in tow, hoping to find her mother’s killer.

The Hunger and the Dusk, a twelve-issue storyline written by G. Willow Wilson with art by Chris Wildgoose, upends an age-old conflict between humans and orcs by introducing a new, deadlier species. Fragile alliances form—and unexpected romances blossom—as former enemies wade into battle together to save their two races.

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GNARTOONS by James the Stanton review – Casual Surreal Comix

Gnartoons. by James the Stanton. Silver Sprocket.  San Francisco. 2022. 270pp. $29.99

I was running on a buzz from a Tequila Sunrise at Seattle Tacoma International Airport. Of course, I was barefoot, my preference. I had flip flops at the ready under one arm and a copy of Proust in one hand. The other hand was navigating a filled-to-the-brim rolling carry-on. Just as I was about to brave my way into the security line, a woman in a large floppy hat, also barefoot, approached me. “Here you go, brother, you’ll want to read this and spread the word!” There wasn’t much chance that she recognized me as a cartoonist or a comics journalist. “You’ve got that star tattoo on your foot. Let it guide you, my man!” That comment was peaceful and it helped to reassure me–but more on that later. Indeed, the timing was very good. She placed in my hand a collection of comics, Gnartoons, by James the Stanton.

Right now, things have been quite hectic and distracting. I’ve been on the road, on the run, in more places and situations than I’ve been in for quite a while. The world is opening up, right? We’re somehow finding our way into something that is starting to look more and more like a post-Covid world. Of course, we’re not quite there yet, and yet, we are, aren’t we? And nothing seems to be working as it should. We remain in this topsy-turvy transitional phase. So, it is a perfect time to take a close look at a cartoonist engaged in the crazed world of comix, a new generation’s take on underground comix. That’s exactly what this guy is about, a cartoonist whose work I’ve been observing for well over a decade and who I am so glad to see showcased in this first collected works by Silver Sprocket.

Let me ask you something, do you like Johnny Depp? Or, more to the point, do you like his character, Captain Jack Sparrow? That character, as you can imagine, did not simply emerge overnight. It’s the result of a layer-upon-layer process. Going even further afield, do you know Errol Flynn? Now, he was sort of in a similar situation as Depp. Errol Flynn created a sensation in 1935 with his character, Captain Blood. Again, a case of a process that took time. In fact, Flynn’s acting improved so much over the course of filming that director Michael Curtiz had no choice but to reshoot some of the earlier scenes. Okay, all this comes to mind as I look over this book of comics. It’s a perfect case of juxtaposing earlier less developed work with more recent polished work. I certainly don’t mind that at all. I think it’s essential to be able to observe this creative evolution. It’s kind of fun, for a cartoonist such as myself, and it’s human nature to want to make these sort of comparisons. I don’t know if that was exactly the goal of this collection but I suspect it was a consideration. Art of any kind has its ups and downs. In this case, the lesser art acts as background for the gems.

The first gem in the book is quite a fine little masterpiece of style, pacing, and wicked humor. It’s truly a high point to this book and to the cartoonist’s career. Thanks to an extensive contents list at the back of the book that also acts as endnotes, I see that this story, “Limo King,” first appeared in the local Seattle comics newspaper, The Intruder, serialized in issues 16-18, May 2015-January 2016. So, not exactly a modest undertaking. It is steeped in the tradition of underground comics packed with lowlife lowbrow all-out zaniness. The sort of stuff that you can’t unsee once seen. We begin with two classic ne’er-do-wells enjoying some drinks out of an enchanted bottle of perpetually pouring bourbon. They’re inside a limousine that serves as the home for one of the guys, the aforementioned Limo King, as well as an on-call free ride service. Why the Limo King doesn’t charge a fare is unclear and best to just roll with. That night’s excitement is provided by a female grizzly bear out on the prowl. The story gets crazier from there, mayhem ensues, and ends with a street smart grace note as the Limo King observes that gnomes would never have called the cops: “Those lil folks are chill AF!”

It’s James the Stanton’s consistent style and bold street cred that keeps the reader charmed and intrigued throughout. The actual style borrows as much from the gritty underground ethos of yesteryear as it does from current trends in graffiti. As much is owed to trailblazers Jay Lynch and Jim Mitchell as to the drippy trippy work of Seattle’s Ten Hundred. A fair amount of this collection is made up of single page art, or a series of pages of neo-psychedelic art, which all takes on a logic of its own. Some stuff just needs to be what it is without a coherent narrative. That said, I tend to gravitate to the more constructed work, of which there is much to enjoy. Then again, as a painter, I’m strongly attracted to works in this book that would fit right in at any contemporary art gallery.

Another fine piece of narrative is a sort of science fiction story about the Florida wars set in the not-too-distant future. This neatly brings us back to my friend in the airport noticing the star tattoo on my foot. I can’t help but mention this story as part of the narrative involves how all the Florida natives were branded with dolphin tattoos on their left foot. It was the only way to try to establish some order during those very disturbing times! This is weird comics at its best, an intoxicating combination of inventiveness and sly humor.

One final example is the story, “Squatters of Trash Island, Part 2,” one of the most recent works, from Silver Sprocket, March 2017. It is clearly one of the more polished and developed of the sequential pieces here. This is pure Dada art fun as the story kicks off with two representatives from a a soft drink company tasked with removing any labels from discarded soda bottles with the company brand that have somehow reached a very disreputable landfill island. The two soda pop guys are shocked to find an entire community of people quite happy to live amid their own filth and, from time to time, copulate with dolphins. It’s a story that fits in well, with its strange beauty, within our own strange times.

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PEARL III #1, Dark Horse comics review

Pearl, a girl in trouble!

Is Brian Michael Bendis the hardest working guy in comics? Or is it that Greg Rucka fella? When I see yet another girl trouble comic with a very well established name attached to it, that gives me pause. That’s not to say this isn’t worth checking out. When in doubt, don’t pout! First, there are plenty of fans who are looking for a certain itch to scratch. This is the story of Pearl, a tattoo artist who was born into the yakuza underworld. Pearl is a critically acclaimed Jinxworld title partnering with Dark Horse. And the talent behind it, Bendis and artist Michaeli Gaydos, are also behind the celebrated Jessica Jones title. So, all in all, an exceptional crew at work on satisfying a certain itch.

A girl with a gun. Blam! Blam! Blam!

For those catching up, Pearl found out about her parents and her connection to mobsters in previous volumes of this on-going series. In this misadventure, the big mystery to solve is summed up in the question, “Who is the ghost dragon of San Francisco?” Who, indeed! If we can find that out, then it unlocks other questions, and so on down the line. All in all, this is supposed to be a fun roller coaster of a ride, all wonderfully rendered by Gaydos. What matters most here is whether a casual reader of this genre, such as myself or maybe yourself, can claim a good reading experience from this. In other words, is this as compelling as viewing Ozark or maybe perhaps some notches below that? That show comes to mind since we have a young person in over her head because of her criminal parents. Anyway, as far as satisfying an itch to scratch, it does a nice job. I’m not going to say this is at the level of Ozark but few things are. If you’re already a fan, this is definitely for you.

We need to talk.

So, what exactly happens in this comic? In a nutshell, you get a lot of cool dialogue and a bunch of crunchy and gritty action. All for the price of a latte. Not bad. Not bad at all. This comic is so completely in the Dark Horse wheelhouse and that’s a very good thing. This is a fine example of the girl trouble comic. Even the most casual of readers will get a kick out of it. This is the first issue in this new mini-series so a terrific place to jump right in.

PEARL III #1 comes out May 25, 2022, 32 pages, priced at $3.99, from Dark Horse Comics.

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The Projector and Elephant by Martin Vaughn-James review – A forerunner to Today’s Graphic Novel

Which came first, the Elephant or the Projector? It was the Elephant!

The Projector and Elephant. by Martin Vaughn-James. edited and designed by Seth. introduction by Jeet Heer. New York Review Comics. 2022. 212 pp. $49.95

Martin Vaughn-James (1943 – 2009) secured his place in the history of comics whether he realized it or not. Thanks to this recently released edition by New York Review Comics, that distinction is now more firmly in place. The work that Vaughn-James created, beginning in the early ’70s, amounted to an early form of the genre we now commonly understand as the graphic novel. But this type of art did not have an established community or market back when it was first released circa 1970-71. Underground comix existed but it was far from a sure thing as to where it was going. Add to that the fact that Vaughn-James was European which, in general, inclined him more towards art for art’s sake. New York Review Comics does a great service with this edition that collects two works, Elephant (1970) and The Projector (1971).

Martin Vaughn-James. The artist in his element, such a very good place to be.

If you’re going to seek out retro comics, perhaps the best way is through a deluxe edition such as this. For sure, there is something very special about reading a vintage comic in its original state with it pages aged to perfection, with its own aura of being a thing from a certain place and time. But, with a finely curated work, you pick up an optimal viewing/reading experience plus whatever bells and whistles come along for the ride. In this case, we have the erudition of Jeet Heer (The Nation) and the design sense of master cartoonist Seth. According to Heer, he states that the work known as Elephant (published in 1970) was a dry run attempt towards the creation of the work, The Projector (1971). But was it? After having read both, I have to wonder if such a conclusion is imposing our current standards upon the efforts of  Vaughn-James. The methodology that is now commonly understood among indie cartoonists goes like this: first, you create a small scale version of your book in the format of a “chapbook” or “mini-comic” and then, if you’re up to it, you proceed with a full-on large scale version, an actual graphic novel. This path has become the golden path, the yellow brick road, to the closest thing cartoonists have to dreams of fame and fortune. That kind of game plan, that kind of strategizing, did not yet exist as a commonly understood model in the hippy dippy era that Martin Vaughn-James circulated in. I also say this because Elephant and The Projector appear to be two separate animals. In other words, there isn’t a coherent progression of ideas from one book to another. Both books are about the same page length. Both are ambitious. Anyway, I would certainly enjoy discussing this with Jeet Heer. And maybe we’ll do that at some point. We’re dealing with ghosts now. Martin Vaughn-James, throughout his life, created comics of one kind or another, most notably, Cages. It was a very cool life. He basically led the kind of life a man of his passions and interests would seek to live: he got to express himself in as many mediums as suited him. He painted. He drew. He wrote. And, along the way, he made something that involved working with sequential art which was decades away from being branded as the “graphic novel” genre.

Another day at the office.

From what I can tell, or intuit, is that Martin Vaughn-James (isn’t that a groovy name?) was a dude who enjoyed being left alone to pursue his art. He probably wasn’t someone who would have gone around in later years, wearing a beret, and touting his landmark work in comics over and over again, from one dinner party after another, gradually and steadily making inroads into academic circles, museums and galleries, until it became an undisputed well-known and widely celebrated fact that he was responsible for one of the earliest versions of the “graphic novel.” It takes a lot of energy and a certain careerist bent to do that, especially if the actual work might not fare so well on its own, and some people do it very well. And others don’t do it all or just not quite enough of it to where you’ve secured that everyone in the room is fully aware of who you are. For these artists, sometimes a bit of luck will come around to help secure a legacy. An academic will publish a paper. A publisher will publish a book. And it certainly doesn’t hurt if the work is the real deal and can indeed speak for itself once it gets an audience.

The pachyderm!

Martin Vaughn-James was in his late twenties, in full bloom as an artist, in the early ’70s. The work in this book reflects the efforts of someone who was exploding upon the artistic scene, with a subversive and irreverent sensibility. I think the two works included here defy any easy explanation or categorization. It looks to me that, once Vaughn-James began to play with the various options offered him by the comics medium, he was like a kid in a candy store who could not resist trying a little bit of everything. Both works are highly experimental, very influenced by Surrealism, and out to blow your mind! But can you blame a kid for wanting to do that? In this case, that was just the right thing to do! Now, so many years later, so many cycles through the culture later, we’re left with this strange work from a whole other time and place. And, wouldn’t you know it, Vaughn-James got it right. It still blows your mind. A quote I found from Vaughn-James fits perfectly with our own time: “We experience collectively approved emotions on a national scale. Any deviation is considered neurotic, insane or subversive.”

Horse and rider in freefall.

In both of these books, the plot takes a backseat to an artist expressing himself and his place in the world. But there are some devices at play. We do have a figure who functions as a protagonist or host or alter ego. The backgrounds, in fact, seem to have as much, if not more, to say than our hero, a perpetually grinning bald man in glasses who, from time to time, falls into one situation after another. Most compelling of all is the whole experimental nature of the two works and the striking images that result. The most stunning of them all is a horse, with its rider wrapped up in canvas, each falling from a skyscraper. Yeah, that alone, is definitely worth the price of admission. There are other significant moments and experiments to enjoy and ponder over too. As I say, I think Vaughn-James set things up to explore as much as possible. Along the way, he made a few dry stabs at satire and a few comments on society and art.

Into the land of milk and honey.

As for the differences between the two works, especially regarding an evolution from the first book to the second, if that’s the case, perhaps Vaughn-James may have shifted his gaze a little to a more formal approach. Who knows? The Projector has the black line art on brown paper, which gives everything a muted look, not to mention it making for a less crisp reading experience. At first, I wasn’t liking it but it grew on me. The centerpiece to The Projector is a two-page spread of a freeway during rush hour, jam packed with cars. To each side is an endless stream of advertising, consumer culture run amok. Accentuating that scene are colossal nude women overseeing the tableaux. The women, while having voluptuous bodies, each have grotesque faces. That appears to be a subversive act by Vaughn-James calling out the ugliness of using sex to sell products. In the end, a painter’s vision, in the service of comics. But I don’t think Vaughn-James was likely thinking that way. Again, he was a dude being an artist, letting those future chips fall where they may.

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FONDANT #2 by J. Webster Sharp review – Surreal and In-Your-Face

To say that J. Webster Sharp is a visionary comics artist is a very good place to start. I was immediately intrigued by what I saw of her work on her Instagram and I knew I’d need to take a closer look. Having read the last five of her works in comics, I can confidently say that this is someone who tapped into something special early on and continues to blossom. Jemma’s latest book which I’ve received is Fondant #2, and it is easily her most powerful work. This is in-your-face stuff, delving into deep psychological and sexual issues, and bringing to mind such artists as Phoebe Glockner and Renee French. I applaud what she is doing and would like to share a bit of what I’ve observed.

If I’m really being honest, I am fascinated by Jemma’s daring and inventive play with the theme of feet. I’ve always been interested in feet on various levels, not the least of which is as a subject for art. So, it’s nice to see a fellow artist on the same page. Jemma certainly confronts the foot theme from a wide variety of vantage points, spanning from cadavers to tortured cathartic acts. Like much of what she does, feet are rendered in such a way as if encrypted within a larger psychological landscape–especially with her distinctive pointillist style. If you scan the pages too quickly, you might miss a lot. And, if you linger, it can be a combination of unsettling and satisfying. Yes, it pays to be honest. I do so love feet, particularly depicted in unusual and provocative ways. I’m sure there’s a number of stories behind each of  these depictions. I like what I see from this very honest and daring artist.

What is so impressive to me about Jemma’s latest book is how she reached a point where she was ready to just completely let loose. This book is totally wordless and confidently so. There’s no need to explain anything. You simply don’t need any form of text to accompany an image of breasts with teeth instead of nipples. That pretty much speaks for itself. The rest of the book plays with more body horror as well as various other surreal imagery involving exotic animals, bondage and strange lab experiments. It’s all quite unusual, fascinating and thrilling. If you enjoy work of a more adult nature, then this is for you. Obviously, this is highly charged work that is unafraid to be, at times, more dark and challenging. But it’s not simply shock value that Jemma is after. Like Phoebe Glockner and Renee French, the work of J. Webster Sharp is invested in cultivating mystery and wonder through finely-crafted work. As I suggest, you will be rewarded for taking the time to linger upon a page. You may even find that you like what you see more than you realized.

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LET THERE BE LIGHT by Liana Finck review – New Yorker cartoonist tackles The Bible

Let There Be Light: The Real Story of Her Creation. Liana Finck. Random House (April 12, 2022). New York. 352pp. $28.99

Cartoonist Liana Finck (born 1986) is the Millennial generation’s answer to James Thurber (1894 – 1961). It’s not an exact match but close enough for the purposes of this review. The two main points of comparison are first, that Finck is, like Thurber was in his day, a superstar cartoonist at The New Yorker; and second, the fact that she draws in a very spare manner. Thurber’s own artwork is similar in sensibility. He was primarily a writer and it seems he was content with a relatively basic cartooning style. So, these are two very different people but both are equally beloved all-time favorites at The New Yorker, and that says plenty about each cartoonist’s respective zeitgeist. For Thurber, his writing, and cartoons, featuring the battle between the sexes, were reliable sources of amusement, beginning in the 1930s. During a time that saw the  ascendance of the American male, Thurber was well equipped as a writer to question that position; and, as a cartoonist, to poke fun at less than infallible man. Finck does something similar with her cartoons as they confront current societal conflicts. Both Thurber and Finck represent The New Yorker at the highest level. Recently, the magazine devoted numerous pages to promote Finck’s latest book. This is all to say that Finck’s book, on the subject of The Bible no less, is one of those books, a big deal kind of book, set up for heavy scrutiny. As for me, I can see what Finck is doing as following her own quirky creative path. Maybe she’d prefer not be the voice of her generation but, at the same time, I see where she can genuinely embrace that. In the end, it makes sense for her to tackle Adam and Eve and Old Testament dogma and put a whimsical stamp on it, one that gently comments on gender roles.

God making a world.

The biggest comment on gender in Finck’s biblical retelling is having a female God. Of course, that doesn’t have any of the shock value that it might have had in Thurber’s day. In fact, it’s possible that Thurber would have been just the cartoonist who could have gotten away with having a female God. Think of all the god-like women in his cartoons! Today, maybe the shock value might be found, for those looking, in Finck maintaining distinctive male and female roles as opposed to today’s focus on gender fluidity. If Finck had wanted to break new ground, or be a provocative voice of her generation, she could have gone down that route. But she doesn’t do that. Instead, I think she holds true to a more fundamental view of her generation and that is of attempting to be more humble and modest. What you get in this book is a bunch of very gentle low-key humor.

Asking the big questions.

It seems that Finck is taking her cue from a quote she provides at the beginning of her book by Jamaica Kincaid that she found the King James version of the first book of the Bible to be a book for children. That quote sets the tone for what follows. Keep in mind that it has often been pointed out that children can be far more perceptive than adults. In an excellent cartoon or comic, however light, irreverant and spare, you can find some of the deepest meaning. For instance, upon realizing she’s naked and should feel shame, Eve is worried about whether she looks fat. That’s funny and quite poignant. It certainly keeps with Finck’s sense of humor.

Once you’re settled in, this book has the ability to charm you if you let it. Finck’s God is definitely a hoot. We all know about that famous temper but Finck’s God also happens to be rather neurotic, prone to worry. In short, she can be a softie too. When she sees that Adam is having a hard time, she reaches out to him. Indulging the fact that Adam mistakenly sees God as a stern old male authority figure, she tells him he was right to name her, Jehovah. Again, very funny stuff and pure Finck.

Like a grand painting that has been cleaned from numerous layers of restorations, Finck lays bare the main players in this drama. Finck lays out a simple narrative with vulnerable characters, pared down to their most basic forms as cartoons, observed simply and directly. When Lilith offers Eve an apple and Eve resists, Lilith leans in for some sympathy and says, “Listen. God never liked me.” But then she goes one better and reveals to Eve that God doesn’t like her either and confides, “But if you have knowledge, then you don’t need to be liked. Here. Take it.” Funny and with a bit of a subversive touch.

The bigger question is whether or not Finck has a bigger vision to pursue beyond a gentle rapping over the knuckles of King James and his lot of biblical scribes. First off, Finck is compelled to make the Bible relatable to younger readers and does a wonderful job of inserting insights connecting it to the Torah. To be sure, Finck has plenty to say about the patriarchy, beginning with Adam, then Cain, and steadily progressing through a laundry list of male culprits. By midway through the book, Finck makes some big creative leaps, like superimposing biblical scenes onto contemporary settings. The results can be quite moving as when she follows Abraham’s pursuit of an art career in New York City only to discover that his success leaves God utterly unimpressed. Ultimately, Finck is at her best in the quieter moments as when God falls in love with Noah and it leaves Noah pretty stressed out. It’s in these strange little moments that Finck is fully in her groove. And then she’ll take things one step further as in a beautiful passage where she depicts how God created the world only to gradually make herself recede into the background, although not completely. Perhaps a gentle poking fun of less than infallible man is the spark to going further. It is not only in keeping with a long tradition of mellow and subtle New Yorker humor but actually hits just the right notes for a wearily self-conscious and sensitive younger generation. So, let there be light, and it doesn’t have to be overwrought or blinding. In the process, you can end up saying just what you need to say. In the end, Finck knows, and demonstrates in this book, how to reach those high points and make the work transcendent.

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