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PULP POWER: The Shadow, Doc Savage and the Art of the Street and Smith Universe review

Pulp Power: The Shadow, Doc Savage and the Art of the Street and Smith Universe. Neil McGinness. Abrams. New York. 2022. Fully illustrated, hardcover. 352pp. $58.50

Walter Gibson was the writer behind the masked hero, The Shadow. Writing under the pen name, Maxwell Grant, he developed a character that seemed to emerge on its own, out of the confluence of pop culture media, circa 1930: pulp fiction and radio. The character was a strange mix of mystery and daring, part of something bigger, and a sign of things to come. The strangeness begins with the eerie voice warning that it sees all: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” followed by a shrill cackle. Such an otherworldly introduction to adventure was like mana from heaven for the millions of beleaguered radio listeners across the country confronting the dire reality of the Great Depression. Stranger still, at that point, there was only the weird voice to introduce the mystery hour–but the voice had become the star! Overnight, people wanted more. Who is The Shadow? Where do I get The Shadow magazine? This would lead to perhaps the greatest scramble ever to flesh out a popular character that did not yet exist!

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!”

The Shadow went on to become the leading product of the famous Fiction Factory, founded by Francis Street, a bookkeeper, and Francis Smith, an aspiring writer in the 1850s. Street and Smith bought the New York Dispatch, a newspaper focused on news, and turned it into the New York Weekly (1858–1910), a newspaper focused on fiction, the foundation of what was to become the Street and Smith publishing empire. It was when this publishing house decided to step into creating radio shows that The Shadow emerged out of the ether. Pulp Power covers this phenomenal enterprise providing the reader with an in depth look at the origins of America’s first pop culture icons: The Shadow, Doc Savage, The Avenger, Justice Inc., the trailblazers that would inspire Batman, Superman, The Fantastic Four, even the whole ball of wax at Marvel and DC Comics. Thanks to this generously illustrated book, with engaging writing by Neil McGinness, the original glory days of American pop culture come to life for the reader in this unique collection showcasing dazzling covers from pulp fiction, comics and movies, along with assorted ephemera.

The Shadow magazine

Getting back to The Shadow, if there is just one character to represent the exuberant creative force at play in the early years, it has got to be this strange, yet beloved, fellow. It’s fascinating to consider how much this character is so much of its time, and defies being easily bounced around various media until it finally settles into what works. Ultimately, a lot is working; it’s just a matter of doing justice to the material. You won’t be seeing a major motion picture anytime soon, until maybe you do. What you can count on is The Shadow thriving in prose and in audio. Perhaps that’s simply because The Shadow is so much a creature of the night, a mysterious force not to be observed too closely. He also has his specificity. He’s a New Yorker, and don’t you forget it. Thankfully, Neil McGinness does take a close look for the sake of better understanding the attraction. Essentially, it comes down to quality storytelling, which can’t be faked; it involves so many factors coming into place; and runs best with one determined author.

The Shadow comics

The Shadow’s original author, Walter Gibson, followed a tried and true formula, a five-point plan that never failed: a main crime; a problem arising from the main crime; a secondary crime that serves to complicate matters; an attempted third crime to thwart the investigation which is foiled by the hero; and the climax which reveals the villain, the trick, the true nature of the crime. It is a ticket to endless variations and served Gibson well as he went on to write nearly 300 Shadow novels. Not only that, Gibson was sensitive to literary refinements. In fact, The Shadow is closely based upon Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is a hero but a dark hero. A crime fighter as grim and merciless as the worst criminal. This is a complicated character shrouded under layer upon layer of ambiguity. . .while, at the same time, just a fun thrill.

Orson Welles portrait by Irving Penn, for Vogue, 1945

The Shadow radio show ran for 17 years, from 1937 to 1954. Orson Welles, then only 22 years-old, served as the first voice of the character in 1937. Welles was quite busy with his own Mercury Theater and would do the show with no rehearsals. He just did it and he proved to be one of the best of the actors to take on the role. This was around the time that Welles was at his hottest: a year later, he would make history with his War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938. It’s a nice touch to see included here in this book a photo of Welles at the height of his success, a portrait by Irving Penn, for Vogue in 1945. It’s a masterwork of a photograph, complete with all of Penn’s still life magic–and a fitting companion piece to the magic and mystery that is The Shadow.

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Interview: Comics Artist Brandon Lehmann

Comics artist Brandon Lehmann

First off, I invite you to read the review I wrote for The Comics Journal to the book in question, G-G-G Ghost Stories. That will add to the enjoyment of the following interview with the creator.

There are details in Brandon Lehmann‘s comics that will come back and reveal themselves upon another reading. Look closely and you’ll see, tucked away amid the backdrop of a mega-bookstore, copies of Brandon Lehmann’s new book, the recently released, G-G-G Ghost Storiesin the panels to his story, “The Werewolf Expert.” Another reading will reveal a copy of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capicorn, in the hand of a child, a secondary player in this finely-crafted farce. The key idea here is the subject of creating such a thing as a “finely-crafted farce,” and why quality will win out in the end. Lehmann’s sense of humor is an absurdist and existential sensibility. Lehmann has been making comics for about fifteen years featuring observational and satirical work. In this new book, he focuses in on playful use of horror tropes. For this interview, we met at Seattle’s Smith Tower, a favorite haunt of erudite cartoonists and, of course, ghosts. We begin this conversation just as I sit down to join Brandon. I notice pot stickers have already been ordered. (We staged a bit of a humorous intro. You’ll see what I mean if you view the video.)

Hey, Brandon, well, I see you’ve started without me, as usual. Nice to run into you this way.

I just hang out up here in Smith Tower and read my own comics.

G-G-G Ghost Stories by Brandon Lehmann

So, what have we here (picking up a copy of Brandon’s book). Is the proper pronunciation just as it reads, G-G-G Ghost Stories?

When I named it, I was hoping for some awkward interactions at the sales counter. “I’ll take, G-G-G Ghost Stories, please.”

That would be a Scooby-Doo influence, right?

Yeah.

Interesting that we’d find ourselves in Smith Tower since, as everyone knows, this place is haunted.

Yeah, we saw a couple of ghosts on the way in. I was like, “Ahhh, it’s a g-g-g ghost.”

Page excerpt from “The Lfyt”

I think of a lot of your work, like the “The Lfyt,” as being mini-masterpieces. Do you sometimes think in those terms, “I’m going to create something that’s so spot on that everything works perfectly.” Does that make sense to say that?

Yeah, I always feel that when you’re working on a book, especially, you can get into this mode where everything you do just works. And then, when you finish a book, I have this period where I just struggle and I can’t seem to draw anything. But when I’m making a book, I can set a schedule, everything works on the first try for some reason. If that makes sense.

Page excerpt from “The Werewolf Expert” story from G-G-G Ghost Stories

It does make sense. I’m a certified cartoonist myself, as you know. Now, tell us about “The Werewolf Expert,” the longest work in the book.

There’s a trope in horror movies and TV shows where someone needs to seek an expert on the occult and it’s always someone who it doesn’t make sense would be an expert. Like, you’ll have this guy who works at the bowling alley as a mechanic and, for some reason, he’s a vampire expert. In “The Werewolf Expert,” someone consults a Barnes & Noble bookstore employee, and it’s the employee’s first day. And they shouldn’t know anything about werewolf lore but part of the B&N orientation training is that they teach all about werewolf lore. That employee knows a lot but eventually he consults his supervisor and she knows even more about werewolves to a ridiculous degree. So, it just keeps building on that premise.

Desperately seeking werewolf advice.

How would you describe your humor?

It’s absurdist and existentialist. There’s a lot of gags in the book that you can repeat with a similar premise. For the story we’re discussing, there’s a gag that I use a lot. The story is progressing from one point to another and then I’ll throw a wrench into it. And it will spin off in an insane degree. For instance, the bookstore customer seeking advice has a daughter named, Shawnda. He begins yelling at her, she’s off camera. Later, we see her and there’s more of this yelling. That sort of silly exchange is something I like to do in my work.

Panel excerpt from Brandon Lehmann’s Instagram.

There’s a beauty to your work. The humor is consistent. The art is consistent. You must go through a slew of experimentation before you hit upon what works, what’s on point.

The whole concept of the book is classic ghost stories. So, that’s the anchor. We’re dealing here with stories everyone is familiar with in one form or another. The story, “The Lfyt,” we were just talking about, is based upon a popular ghost story about picking up a hitchhiker who turns out to be a ghost. Another good example is “The Viper,” another popular children’s ghost story. The tension builds as he keeps calling and announcing when he’ll arrive. In my story, it turns out that “The Viper” is a guy with a thick German accent, who is just an innocent window wiper.

I didn’t know about that children’s ghost story. The actual one, not your satire!

Yeah, it’s real. There’s also one entitled, “Okiku,” based on a popular Japanese ghost story about a woman who was murdered because she refused to become a samurai’s mistress. She had been thrown down a well and, each night, she appears to seek her revenge. That was actually the basis for the Ringu movies. There’s the books. It was also on stage, as kabuki theater. So, yeah, I gather up all these ghost stories and given them my own spin.

Well, I’m sure this will intrigue readers. Thanks so much for sharing this with us. Where is a good place to find your work?

One good place is my own site for Bad Publisher Books. You can also find me on my Instagram: @brandon.lehmann. And you can find it at various bookstores. In Seattle, there’s Fantagraphics Bookstore, Elliot Bay Bookstore and Push/Pull. Lots of places on the net, like Birdcage Bottom Books.

Thanks, Brandon!

Thank you, Henry!

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Filed under Comedy, Comics, Ghosts, Interviews, Seattle

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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Spider-Man and El Sorprendente Hombre Arana

El Sorprendente Hombre Arana #128

I’m eager to get a better grounding on Mexican comics. That said, I’m always up for a bit of a detour. That led me to some Mexican Spider-Man. Now, this one particular issue has grabbed a lot of attention in the last few years. Welcome to El Sorprendente Hombre Arana #128. Of course, the image is quite striking and has all it takes to stir up comics fans: Gwen and Peter getting married! Here are pages from inside the issue. But there’s more than meets the eye. . . .

Page 1 from El Sorprendente Hombre Arana #128

Page 21 from El Sorprendente Hombre Arana #128

As any comics fan knows, beware of teasers. Once you read the comic, it’s clear that a wedding is not exactly the main theme here. Not at all. Spoiler alert: truth is, this is only a dream sequence cooked up by the Green Goblin, the little trickster! For more details, I must direct you to the comics sleuthing by Marvel Comics editor Tom Brevoort. If you want a more detailed account, then go see Tom.

Jose Luis Duran

Back in the early ’70s, Marvel Comics decided to kill off Peter Parker’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. It sent shockwaves throughout the comics community. One Mexican comics publisher chose to do something about it. By what authority La Prensa was acting on is a mystery. Initially, La Prensa began with a licensing deal with Marvel Comics, which allowed for some additional stories from local Mexican talent. That arrangement took on a life of its own. So, the deed was done: 44 issues of an alternate Spider-Man reality, one with a very much alive Gwen Stacy! Hey, Gwen was just too popular in Mexico and Latin America for her to actually die! Marvel was unleashing the darker Bronze Age but La Prensa would hold it off, at least for a while. All 44 issues of these Mexican Spidey adventures were drawn by Jose Luis Duran.

What happens in Mexico, stays in Mexico.

I have to hand it to La Prensa for going off in their own direction. They had an agreement with Marvel and they got pretty creative with it, maybe too creative, given how totally out of canon it was. Marvel officially kills off a beloved main character and La Prensa chose to simply do what they thought best. Perhaps what saved them was that they used relatively good judgement. It was tasteful storytelling and in keeping with readership demands. And Marvel didn’t seem to care. Anyway, only a few years later, La Prensa would go out of business. Now, we’re left with some somewhat strange Spider-Man stories.

El Sorprendente Hombre Arana #154

El Sorprendente Hombre Arana #163

So, now this very special run is a hot ticket with lots of speculation about what it’s worth these days, especially the issue with Peter and Gwen at the altar. According to comics collectors in the know: the low range: $2k; the mid-range: $6k; the high range: $25k. This gets my spidey-sense tingling all over!
  • Marriage of Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy in an original story published in Mexico
  • Issues in this series divert from the U.S. storyline with Gwen Stacy surviving the events from The Amazing Spider-Man #121
  • There exists a German reprint that sells for significantly less

Issue Details

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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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Justin Green (1945-2022) by Paul Buhle

Panel excerpt from Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary

The death of Justin Green, on Apr.23, leaves poorer the living memory of a revolution in comic book art and narrative. His self-revelation, in the 1972 comic Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, seems to have literally changed a field of perception of what comics could be or do. He drew frequently for the now nearly-forgotten genre of “underground comix” appearing during the 1970s-80s, most of the “comix’ actually anthologies with fellow artists including Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Bill Griffith, Spain Rodriguez, Trina Robbins, and Sharon Rudahl among others. Comics artist and publisher Denis Kitchen recalls that even comics giant Will Eisner was impressed to the point of being influenced by the story line of Binky Brown, and by the uniqueness of the artistic expression.

Page excerpt from Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary

Green grew up in Chicago and its suburbs, in a prosperous family, with a Jewish businessman father and a Catholic mother. In sending the boy to Catholic school, she inadvertantly opened the impressionable Justin to a series of intense, confused glimpses of faith, including sexual repression and the accompanying guilt. The lonely teenager and aspiring artist thus acquired the strangest possible inspiration. A few years later, he attended the Rhode Island School of Design, leaving after a Zen Moment of standing on his head in class, according to a story told to his friend and fellow artist Bill Griffith. Relocating to New York, Green joined a handful of other near-future underground greats  through strips in the pages of the East Village Other. The “undergrounds,” avidly rebellious and virtually untrammeled by censorship, had been born.

In 1969, Green became part of the diaspora from New York and other points to the Bay Area, gathering spot of the emerging comic art scene. Griffith recalls, “I like to think we were all a ‘band of brothers’ in those heady San Francisco Underground days, tilting at the windmills of the established comics we both loved and rebelled against.” Which is to say, Justin Green was soon prominent among the community of young and wildly prolific artists, his work appearing in a handful of the anthologies being produced more or less collectively and sold largely via “head shops” through the 1970s. In shunning the commercial comic book industry, they gave up a lot and lived cheaply, but gained complete, uncensored autonomy and the copyright on their own work. The most successful comix sold 100,000 or more….until the mini-industry collapsed along with the Counter-Culture.

Cover for Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary

In a 1977 interview conducted by this writer, Green tried to explain the logic of the unique genre of artists. “One must consider,” he suggested, “the peculiarly American phenomenon that financed the creative endeavors of a couple dozen individuals whose visions took (and still take) the material form of pictures with words. That phenomenon is mass readership…the artist is under obligation to make his product coherent [and] visually striking—to opt for specific literal ideas instead of obscure personal motives (though granted. I am one of the worst offenders). Comics is simply not  the format for making great art. Essentially it is entertainment. There are elements of morbidity, aberration and personal indulgence (again, myself included) in the work of many underground cartoonists which will have the longterm effect of sealing the work off from the cultural mainstream.” A fair prediction, as it turned out.

The East Village Other, 1970

He went on to comment about his satires of literary classics in ARCADE, the brilliant but doomed (seven issues before collapse) anthological effort during the second half of the 1970s, edited by Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman. “All of my ‘classics crucified’ pieces are intended to have a dialectical relationship with history from the shifting focus of the unworthy present. Now that the making of art is within the grasp of thousands of individuals, the false veneer of critical acclaim…must be removed. Unequivocal respect for the ‘classics’ prevents the reader from assimilating material on his own terms. I am trying to do with plot structure what [Harvey] Kurtzman and [Bill] Elder did in the early MADs [Mad Comics 1952-55] for the warbabies bombarded by media—to unmask the subliminal influences of television and especially advertising. In the same way, I try to pick up on those salient details within a great work of literature which will bring matters into a comical perspetive. It is my chosen responsibility to call into question—to see if perhaps there isn’t a little something worth laughing at.”

Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics and Documentary Form by Hillary Chute

In an aside, he admitted, “Make no mistake about it, you have to be a bit of an egomaniac to showcase your fantasies to tens of thousands of people.” Hillary Chute’s acclaimed study, Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics and Documentary Form (2016), more than suggested that Green, in Binky Brown, did much to inaugurate the “serious documentary mode for comics globally.”

This is no small matter. Green may be said to have crystalized the semi-autobiographical impulses already expressed famously in Robert Crumb’s stories, Crumb’s persona “Flakey Foont,” like other hapless males seeking meaning (and definitely eros) amidst the sexual revolution, cheap marijuana and cultural upheaval. Crumb’s own work of the 1970s-80s, in turn, connected personally with Harvey Pekar telling more straightforward stories from Pekar’s blue collar, Cleveland daily life. And thus to Joe Sacco, a collaborator of Pekar’s before his own rise to fame drawing the stories of his travels to troubled sections of the world. The syndicated strips of Lynda Barry’s troubled childhood, later Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home helped bring into being a large, still expanding genre of comic lives recounting youthful hopes and follies. Indeed, these may arguably be the chief mode for women’s large role in comics today, a sustained Bildingsroman in a new popular art form. Way back in 1972, Green collaborated with Spiegelman and others in the pages of Funny Aminals [sic], a genre-bending little anthology of animal stories anything but funny, including the very first published slice of Spiegelman’s Maus.

Funny Animals, 1972

In her analysis of comic art, Hillary Chute makes another key point about Justin Green’s hugely productive decade.  All the work of the u.g. comix artists reflected an engagement with the US invasion of Vietnam, directly or indirectly. She quotes Green as explaining that he, like so many (I could have said the rest of us), knew people who knew people—or actually had relatives—fighting and suffering, too often dying amidst the  brutal US invasion of Vietnam.  “I needed to wage my own war. And so I looked within…I didn’t want to present myself as a hero but rather as a specimen. So the comic form gives you a multifaceted way of doing that.”

This weighty point may, by itself, threaten to obscure the multiplicity of Green’s output, the radicalism but also the sheer joy of moments in his humor, amidst the intense personal confusion and angst of his work. The very, very funny stuff, deeply thought and reflexive, is as full of social satire as Bill Griffith’s own caste of characters later realized in his daily strips.

Show and Tell by Justin Green, 1973

To take a Justin Green case or two in point, “Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Featuring Sol Snake-Eyes, Jack Monterey and Gretel Hansel” (in ARCADE #5, 1975) reinvents the novel with a Jewish stand-up comic as the famed investigator of the maddened young egotist and a bimbo who snags Sol while the criminal goes off to the rock-pile. Meanwhile, “The Gates of Purgatory” (in ARCADE #7, 1976), revisits  Dante, with the “Music of the Sack Cloth Five” against a scene of comic horror, with free ginger beer and waterskiing on the Chicago River.

Arcade: The Comics Revue, 1976

The 1977 interview contains another theme crucial to the story of the underground artists’ saga: Green had a new baby in the house and had to find another way to make a living. A small handful of artists, including Griffith, Spiegelman, Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, Trina Robbins and others, managed to get along while doing their work, sometimes, especially in later years, by teaching comics classes. Most uniquely, Green turned to sign painting, and some of the stories that he later drew about the quirks of the job are hilarious as well as revealing. Raised in prosperity, he found himself reduced to working class standards,  confessing that “I am continually broke, exhausted, under pressure.” He continued to draw the occasional story but his moment had passed. One is tempted to add that the comic artists lacked the way forward successfully found, for instance, by the equally rebellious and radical painter Philip Guston, whose sometimes comics-like retrospective now exhibits in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

Sign Game comic strip by Justin Green, 1994

It is more than a footnote to relate that Green’s widow and fellow artist, Carol Tyler, eventually found a comics niche for herself with a realistic, semi-autobiographical series about her father, the veteran of the Second World War who could not relate, let alone deal psychologically, with the effects of the trauma in his own experiences. Thus, in a way, you could say that the circle, or a circle, has been completed after all, and with as much meaning for the twenty-first century as for the one left behind. The artist sees the world, looks inside himself or herself, and through creative expression, makes the best of an obviously bad and likely worsening situation. This is what an artist in any genre can do, but what no one expected the creators of “funny pages,” “funny animals” and “funny books” to seek, let alone accomplish.

Paul Buhle published Radical America Komiks (1969) and was described in a 1970 issue of Playboy magazine as the “first serious critic of underground comix.”  He has edited more than a dozen nonfiction graphic novels.

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Hurricane Nancy: FREE OF SOCIAL MEDIA TYRANNY

Our featured cartoon is entitled, “Free of Social Media Tyranny,” and was created in response to a snide comment that Hurricane Nancy received suggesting that she needed to be doing “political cartoons,” when that had nothing to do with what she was up to. So, she didn’t care for the comment. Well, these abrupt and harmful misunderstandings occur all too often on social media, thus the title to this piece!

Rounding out the collection this time around are a couple of intriguing animal-themed works. I hope you enjoy them!

As always, it’s a real treat here at Comics Grinder to present to you work by Hurricane Nancy. And be on the lookout for a collection of Nancy’s work to be published by Fantagraphics. More on that as we get closer to the release date.

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Best Comics and Graphic Novels of 2021

Here is a list of some of the best comics that made it onto the Comics Grinder radar. Best-of-the-Year lists are useful in many ways for book publishers, comic book shops, academics, librarians, and even play a role in determining awards for the following year. One of the best sources for analysis on all these lists is from comics scholar Jamie Coville’s annual master list. I have yet to compile anything so comprehensive as a list that closely follows the various potential categories and subgroups involved but I have picked up a few things along the way as a comics journalist and comics creator. For example, here’s an insightful nugget: I really don’t think children’s books are quite a right fit but I don’t completely rule them out especially since there’s a push to include them in the conversation and sometimes it really makes sense. Basically, I don’t rule anything out as you just never know what you can learn from casting a wide enough net.

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Interview: Jeremy Dauber and ‘American Comics’

Jeremy Dauber offers the reader an expansive and fascinating read with his new book, American Comics: A History, published by W.W. Norton & Co. I recently reviewed it and now I present to you this interview with the book’s author. Jeremy Dauber is a professor of Jewish literature and American studies at Columbia University. He is the author of Jewish Comedy and The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem, both finalists for the National Jewish Book Award. We navigate our way through quite a lot of material and have a great time chatting about a subject we all seem to have something to say about.

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