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The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini by Cynthia von Buhler comics review

Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini. by Cynthia von Buhler. Titan Comics. 2018. 112pp. $24.99

Having reviewed the Tesla book, it only makes sense for me to go back and review the Houdini book, the first in Cynthia von Buhler’s Minky Woodcock crime noir series. I like how von Buhler gives both men the treatment by exposing their peculiarities and destructive tendencies.  In the case of Houdini, he was hell bent on demolishing the industry of seances, spiritualism and fortune telling. That kind of intense zeal triggers deadly enemies. Our story begins when, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, one of spiritualism’s biggest defenders, wishes to enlist the detective agency of Woodcock & Son to get to the bottom of Houdini’s own supposed magical powers.

From Murray Hill to Park Avenue to Montreal.

The only problem is that Minky Woodcock is the only one available and not exactly Sir Arthur’s first choice. Be that as it may, Minky manages to not only ingratiate herself with Doyle but with Houdini and his wife, Bess. Minky gets in so deep that she’s even trading places with the most notorious of seance mavens, Margery of Boston, who is famous for presiding nude over her events and emitting mysterious protoplasmic fumes from her body. Margery has a way of intruding into personal spaces that her collaborators find intoxicating. All except for Minky, who easily sees through Margery’s scam.

It’s a delight to have gone back and read this first book in the series as I appreciate all the more von Buhler’s storytelling and artwork. If it’s not clear by now, this book is for mature readers, starting with older and wiser teens. This is in the best tradition of pulp fiction with its own sense of discretion, most interested in achieving a light entertainment. That brings to mind master illustrator Robert McGinnis, known for his iconic movie posters (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Odd Couple and James Bond), who provides the cover art for the first single issue to the Houdini story. And, with that image, in all its wildly vintage sensibility, you get a quick idea of the marvelously retro content you will find inside. So, if that’s your cup of tea, then you’ve found a very special blend.

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NAKED: The Confessions of a Normal Woman graphic novel review

Naked: The Confessions of a Normal Woman. Pow Pow. 2023. 161pp. $24.95

The auto-bio genre is alive and well. It never really went away, just like figurative painting. There are these cyclical declarations on art that certain things are dead until proven wrong. No one is ever going to stop bringing up their take on the human condition in comics, movies, books or whatever content we are compelled to consume and criticize. Bring in the topic of sex and, are you kidding me? Of course, artists of all stripes have something to say on the subject. Enter cartoonist Eloise Marseille and her coming-of-age misadventures. She shares her sex life with you, every last bit of it in her still young life, providing perhaps a guidebook for those coming up the ranks.

An honest confusion.

Don’t let the title of the book fool you. Marseille is not really claiming to be “normal” as much as she is sharing her struggle with moving past any labels. As a young person who is navigating what it’s all about, Marseille revels in sharing a messy and honest confusion. Like countless other cartoonists who have come before, and will come in the future, Marseille is putting it out there: life can be complicated; people make mistakes; ultimately, if people know what’s good for them, they will trust their feelings. And, so, for example, Marseille depicts her coming to terms with her attraction to women. In the end, it’s not a big deal.

The artwork in this comic is very appealing, minimal and elegant. The two-color palette of red and blue is perfect. Color and design, pacing and composition, all work well in advancing the narrative. There’s a lot to unpack here: numerous tender and vulnerable moments, along with various points to be made about society, sex, and relationships. Through it all, Marseille confides in the reader in the way a best friend will dish about what’s been going on in their life. This is an excellent book, in the best spirit of the auto-bio tradition, from a new talent with a lot to say.

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The Girl Who Electrified Tesla by Cynthia Von Buhler comics review

Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Electrified Tesla, Issue 2. Written and illustrated by Cynthia von Buhler, 2021 (Hard Case Crime/Titan Comics) 110pp. $24.99. (Above cover art by Robert McGinnis)

I spotted this ravishing pulpy cover and I immediately made a mental note, “Tesla girl!” I was just doing my usual navigating and took a second look at Cynthia Von Buhler’s Instagram account. The idea of a really quirky take on Nikola Tesla via comics appealed to me. Over the years, Tesla has become a genre all to itself open to new and fun interpretations. This title does not disappoint and led me down an array of intriguing paths.

Cynthia von Buhler is a genuine art geek, to put it bluntly. This comic truly lives up to its promise by thoughtfully doing all the necessary prep work in order to deliver something authentic. I felt that Tesla was really alive on the page, skulking around Bryant Park and whispering sweet nothings to his pigeon wife. Indeed, the mad scientist never married and did develop a curious attachment to pigeons. That peculiarity and many more are faithfully depicted by von Buhler. This respect for the subject matter compliments the crime thriller that ensues.

Feeding the pigeons in Bryant Park.

What von Buhler manages to do is juggle a number of tantalizing facts. It is New York City, circa 1943: Nazis are creeping in the shadows in pursuit of Tesla’s mysterious Death Ray; Josephine Baker, the beautiful bisexual jazz singer and dancer is performing and spying; John Trump (uncle to Donald) is a doctor with plans of his own to take Tesla’s secret weapon. Add to the mix our protagonist, the diehard detective Minky Woodcock determined to crack the biggest case of her career involving the fate of the planet and, for good measure, a chance to bed none other than Josephine Baker.

Agatha steps in!

The artwork throughout is a delightful homage to gritty pulp fiction, with a steamy semi-realistic quality and a larger-than-life pop culture vibe. There’s both a static and dynamic quality at play, like woodcuts or dolls that have come to life, very eerie and fascinating. Many of the scenes, in fact, would make for beautiful stand-alone paintings. Ultimately, the art naturally fits the book, keeping pace with the narrative. I think of it as moving at a gumshoe detective novel pace: at times melancholy; at other turns, dramatic and intense. Which leads me to mention that, after reading this one, you are going to want more. In fact, there is plenty more to choose from, both in graphic novel format and prose since von Buhler’s book is part of something bigger, the world of Hard Case Crime, featuring work by such modern masters as Stephen King and golden age giants as Ray Bradbury. And, with that in mind, do seek out this gem of a graphic novel by Cynthia von Buhler.


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MONICA by Daniel Clowes graphic novel review

Monica. By Daniel Clowes. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2023. 106pp, $30.

Guest review by Paul Buhle

This has been quite a year for determinedly offbeat comic artist Dan Clowes. An interview in the New Yorker followed by a strong review beginning on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, not to mention an NPR interview, nailed down the point: Clowes has hit the big time.

Is this as far as “alt-comics,” somewhere beyond the comic strip and the comic book, can go in becoming “mainstream”? It’s a good question, first raised properly by the reception of the comic art of R. Crumb, then of Art Spiegelman (whose looming presence remains above the scenery somehow), of Alison Bechdel, Joe Sacco and others. The work of Ben Katchor, who is now designing comic-like images for Paris Metro lines stretching into the villages of the countryside, might remind us that in France, comics can be art. Back in the US and despite the rising prestige (and commercial success) of some artists, their work remains….comic art! If, admittedly, viewed very differently from the comic art of old: fewer readers but more prestige, as cynics would say.

Clowes, part of the alternative comics that followed the collapse of the 1960s-70s underground comix, saw Ghost World, his creation, become the basis for a film about teenage angst, with himself as one of the scriptwriters. It was a first for comic scriptwriters, even if comic characters themselves had appeared in dozens of older Hollywood films, with several series of low-production films dedicated to the sagas of Blondie, Joe Palooka and even Captain Marvel (a kids’ serial).

These three series actually happened to have been scripted by Lefties who would go on the blacklist (except for the Captain Marvel series, whose writer became an affable Friendly Witness testifying against his former comrades), and lose their careers. The films themselves, now totally obscure,  even have a curious, populistic social content, leaving one to wonder. What gives? Never mind. These ancient memories of comics adaptations are also buried beneath the tons of animated films from comics, seen especially at holiday times on television or via DVDs.

We are reminded, in an astute Comics Quarterly essay on Monica, that real-life artist Clowes was abandoned by his mother, and that “loneliness” is a continuing theme with a continuing expression in his aesthetics and a basis in personal life. Monica, the fictional subject of the comic is, to put it mildly, a troubled person. But Clowes is not telling anything so straightforward as autobiography. We experience the novel through her wavering consciousness, sometimes beyond her consciousness, which may be the most helpful of all hints.

“Foxhole,” the first of eight semi-discrete and separate chapters or episodes, goes back to the Vietnam War. A disillusioned GI from a poor background reflects on his disillusionment to his battlefield/jungle setting mate, who is from America’s wealthy classes, while they wait to kill or be killed. The trauma in these three pages is not going away. Indeed, the sense of apocalypse described is revisited, precisely, on the final panel of the book.

Other reviewers seem to run away from this particular as anything like central to the plot, and it makes sense. What we see through most of Monica is the results of the 1960s social breakdowns, the impossibility of a thriving counterculture measured in the broken homes and broken lives, crazed cults and children confused or, rather, disoriented for life. Cynical commentators have always viewed this human tragedy as a loss of traditional morals, socially enforced wage slavery, the dangers of drugs, etc. Clowes knows better, although he will not say so.

Our embittered GI returning, he thinks, to a quiet and happy life, is not. He’s the  fiancee  of our protagonist’s mother, but never her husband. His foxhole mate, a serious painter who has returned to the US first, turns out to be the actual biological father, or perhaps not. Monica’s mother Penny,  a counterculture burnout, stumbles along through life, although she actually launches a business that, much later, her daughter can revive and expand successfully, something that brings no pleasure. The book’s sometime narrator, a friend to Penny, relates and reflects on  a not-so-unusual confused single mom experience.  And Monica emerges,  episode after episode, not only damaged but keenly aware of being damaged. She a modern person, a modern woman, who does not accept fatalism, although to do so might have been a better strategy.

In the following vignette, the seemingly more fortunate one of the two GIs returns to his hometown, years later, and quickly realizes that crucial matters including his extended family and their small capitalist empire, have totally fallen apart. In this odd little world, Monica-the-comic becomes a perfectly recreated EC-comic horror story from the early 1950s, updated and upgraded artistically. And then the drugstore supernaturalism ends or perhaps drifts around, looking for a spot to land.

Monica the protagonist reemerges, alone in the world. Reviewers have found something special and intriguing, or at least narratively clear, in her listening to a radio left behind in a family cabin. The radio broadcasts, unbelievably but believably to her, feature the voice of her dead grandfather and allow her to have unsatisfied conversations with him. Although years dead, he is still an anti-Semite.

A few more vignettes and more than twenty years pass. Monica becomes a successful entrepreneur, but success only exposes the emptiness of her life. Her last-gasp effort finds her in a remote cult that manages to somehow be utterly boring, one more sixties offshoot full of conspiracy theories and compulsory collectivity. Successfully tracking down her mother is a total downer, as we might have expected.

That we find ourselves back in EC horror comics at the end is either the fulfillment of the prologue, one Vietnam vet to another predicting utter horror, or it is a general commentary about the average American life in the twenty first century. The consumer society drags on. Dreams of something different are apparently worse than confused. And we face the cosmos, on the cover of the book, searching for a meaning that is not there (on the back cover, more EC, but leaning toward the famed sci-fi series that borrowed heavily from Ray Bradbury.

The Vietnam War explanation to the book’s mysteries, to the mysteries in Daniel Clowes’s mind. Extraordinary crimes were done in our collective name, and someone must be punished. Then again, as The Comics Journal suggests, the aesthetics, such as the darker tinting of pages treating trauma,  may work just as well.

Paul Buhle is an editor of more than twenty non-fiction, historical comics.


Filed under Comics, Daniel Clowes, Graphic Novel Reviews

Anatomy of a Painting: Big Girl in Woods by Henry Chamberlain

Gaining a foothold on a new work.


Getting Closer to What You Want.

Here are a couple of process samples of a painting I’m working on. The idea is of a lone figure running away. She is a looming figure. The landscape is desolate and foreboding. Will she make it to her destination? Ideas come to us when we least expect it. I love the figure in all its aspects. Whenever possible, I will draw from life. I’ve been a model too and having that experience, I think, helps to elevate the work. After a certain point, you have developed so much muscle memory of drawing that you often will simply draw from memory and that results in some of the most spontaneous and authentic work.

With that in mind, I’m always open to commissions and have work for sale, either originals or prints. Just contact me for details. You can contact me here. And you can see some more of what I do here. I’m still considering what to sell and what not to sell. This project I’m showing you now will eventually be turned into a print. I will be busy next year, and the following years, with more comics and art conventions in the works. I will definitely be selling comics as well as prints at these events, etc. It just seemed a good time to post something about this activity and get the ball rolling some more. I continue to write, draw comics and make paintings!


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GIRL JUICE by Benji Nate comics review

Girl Juice. by Benji Nate. Drawn & Quarterly. 2023. 176 pp. $24.

Benji Nate has a wicked sense of humor and is easily one of the best cartoonists today in what is basically a gag comic strip format. Nate has a very loose and lively drawing style which compliments all the fun mayhem. It seems like an easy enough recipe to follow: young housemates figuring out life. And that’s just the beginning. It has to be more than just funny characters in funny situations–but not too much more. Girl Juice works at the highest and wackiest level: the combo of simplicity and silliness is sublime.

Let’s just say that Nate really owns this comic strip, loves and nurtures these characters, and let’s them come to life. It’s a group of four young women and anything can happen. Bunny is, by default and her aggressive personality, sort of the leader even though she appears to offer the least. Bunny doesn’t hold down a job or offer much moral support but she has a certain charm. Nana holds some sway over the group as the thoughtful one although she would prefer to remain in the margins and pursue her cartooning. Sadie and Tallulah are a couple and most likely will someday marry and move to the suburbs. For now, life is a party, if Bunny has anything to do with it.

All in all, I love the uninhibited spontaneity to this comic. Nate makes it feel like it all comes together so effortlessly. And, to some degree, I think it does but you have to have so many factors in place before you get there. So, it’s more of a yes and no when you come down to it. Yes, it can be relatively easy but, no, it actually does take time and care to do this right. From what I understand, Nate enjoys writing, drawing comics and painting in equal measure and I totally relate. Each is inextricably linked to process. So, there are imperfections along the way but, as a whole, the gestural and expressive quality that results is priceless.

Anyway, Nate has a massive fan base who already know how great, and funny, these comics are but, if you are new, then I highly recommend that you check them out. This book collects the latest set of stories. Let’s take a quick look at the camping story. As often happens, Bunny takes the lead, letting her impulsive libido take control. It was supposed to be a girls-night-out glamping but that takes a turn when boys are involved. Bunny’s radar gets the best of her and she’s determined to hook up with one of the guys at the very next campsite. In lesser hands, this scenario would have only gone so far. In this case, Nate has Bunny lost in the woods because of her lust. The other girls, in their attempt to find Bunny, are lost too and furious. Sadie’s comments say it all: “If I die because of Bunny, I swear I’m gonna kill her!” Ah, that’s how it’s done. Comedy gold. Girl Juice is 110% unforgettably hilarious.

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VICTORY PARADE by Leela Corman graphic novel review

Victory Parade. by Leela Corman. Schocken. 2024 (Pre-order) 177 pp. hardcover. $29.

Leela Corman is a force of nature within the comics community and so it is no surprise that her latest book is quite impressive. We go back to Brooklyn, New York, 1943. Corman takes the reader back in time with her comics that are immersed in the ethos of New Objectivity, an art movement begun in the 1920s in response to the more popular German Expressionism (and ending in 1933 with the Nazi party in power) which brought to the fore such artists as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and George Grosz. This is art stripped of idealism, concerned with gritty reality, and known for an “expressive” and often cartoon-like quality, a sensibility in tune with many contemporary artist-cartoonists. This particular influence is exemplified in the work of Leela Corman. It is from this darker, beyond world-weary, palette that Corman presents a set of misfits trapped within the gears of a giant meat grinder, caught somewhere between a near death in Brooklyn and a sure death in a concentration camp. Even when the Allies win the war, no one feels like celebrating. In a sense, Corman’s work functions more as painting than a narrative as it is essentially a powerful device with which to evoke this overwhelming despair. There are stories to be told here too, for sure, but I’m just saying that much of this graphic novel’s power comes from its unflinching stare into the abyss.

Don’t expect conventional storytelling here, especially any familiar and reassuring resolution. This is a masterwork by Corman and it is confidently laid out as such. Characters come and go, in precise order. They may not acknowledge how purposeful their steps are and yet seem to know what they must ultimately do with the limited time and resources they have. Rose is going to pursue her affair, while her abusive husband is away at war and even after he’s back. Ruth, the Jew who has found a home with Rose, is going to focus her aggression on a new career as a lady wrestler even if it means she has to be branded as a Kraut monster. And Eleanor, Rose’s daughter, must try to cope amid the dysfunction. Darkness upon darkness. Despair upon despair. And yet beautifully rendered as art and nuanced observation.

If you want to pin this down a bit, you can say that this is graphic novel framed within a family: Rose, the matriarch who works as a riveter; Ruth, who explicitly functions as the Other; and Eleanor who provides the trope of the child’s point of view. And then you have to let in the supernatural because much of this book is about the never-ending conflict between the living and the dead. The dead are always present, either attempting to understand events that led them to the other side or welcoming a constant stream of new arrivals. Death is never too far away. Death turns out to be as real and relevant as anything passing for alive. It is an artist-writer-cartoonist of the caliber of Leela Corman who can conjure upon the stage all of these dancing skeletons and turn it into compelling art.

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Comics by Henry Chamberlain: Obscure Comedy, The Chevy Chase Show and the Big Risk

Our hero, the “contrarian librarian,” Clemens Samuel, is prone to take an offbeat position. In this case, he has a soft spot for the critically-savaged The Chevy Chase Show, which lasted on Fox for the shortest duration of a major talk show, a mere 29 episodes (September 7 – October 15, 1993). One could argue that this was just a blink of an eye and that Chase needed to have had robust network support and far more time. It’s not like Chase hadn’t proven himself on numerous fronts, including many guest host appearances on The Tonight Show. Looking back on it (and you can literally look back on every episode on YouTube!) the show was definitely guided by some highly irreverent vision. And that, my friends, is the Chevy Chase style of comedy: cavalier and devil-may-care. With enough time, who knows if the general thinking, both in creating and experiencing the show, would have evolved. That said, apparently there are a good number of outright haters of the show, if you believe every kooky peanut gallery comment you read. Rabid hatred is not exactly reliable. The appreciation of humor, like art, is very subjective. Ultimately, the professional media consensus is that this show gave every indication that it was going to continue to be something of a loose cannon and would likely never lift off in any conventional sense, establish a stable brand and make a lot of money. So many factors go into a winning show. Who would have thought Dean Martin would have gotten away with his shtick and yet he did. He probably negotiated a much better contract too. Of course, Chevy Chase is not losing any sleep over this and rightfully so! Chase took a big risk doing his show the way he did and that’s about it.





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Toussaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History book review

C.L.R. James’s Touissaint Louverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. Adapted by Nic Watts and Sakina Karimjee. New York: Verso Books, 2023. 272pp, $24.95.

Guest review by Paul Buhle

This is quite a comic! A very intense treatment of the uprising in Haiti that paralleled and deeply involved the French Revolution and yet was treated for centuries as a mere sidebar to world events. Readers will need to think hard, even now, about the reasons why.

But your reviewer gets ahead of the story. This is the graphic adaptation of a play performed on the British stage with Paul Robeson, the phenomenal actor (also and otherwise mainly singer), during the mid-1930s. The author of the play, C.L.R. James, had emigrated from his native Trinidad to Britain in 1931, earned a living as a top-notch cricket reporter, but found himself immersed simultaneously in anti-colonial movements and in the Trotskyist corner of the political Left.

According to contemporary stage critics, the play came across too talky for the drama that it represented, perhaps inevitably: it could have required a cast of thousands. Then again, the subject had hardly surfaced by that time.  James’s The Black Jacobins (1938), a parallel to W.E.B.  Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction (1935), arose out of his research on the French Revoluition, then grew and grew. It was a story that had hardly been told at all. And if the book received respectable reviews, it fairly disappeared until reappearing as a textbook on campus campuses in the early 1960s. This was “Black History” written like a novel, one of the great successes of the time, definitely parallel to the reprinted editions of Black Reconstruction, one of the later editions introduced by none other than C.L.R. James.

Nic Watts and Sakina  Karimjee fill the pages with dramatic dialogues (as well as monologues) that draw directly upon the play, and on many pages do not require a dense background. Here and there, we see a remarkable landscape or a vivid crowd scene, but speaking largely moves the story along. Neither the colonizers nor the colonized can be described as unified in their ideas and their actions. On the contrary, events play out with internal agreements astonishingly almost as volatile as between whites, blacks and mulattoes.

James, who also happened to be one of the very first non-white novelists of the English-speaking West Indies, never again had the time, energy or will to write a drama, nor did Robeson (who later captured the stage with his Othello) have the opportunity to play the great black revolutionary hero again. It was a one-time collaboration of giants, after all, but the artists have, in their way, captured both the sense of the play and its deepest meaning. Here, all the contempt of whites for their suppose “inferiors,” against the background of a French Revolution that supposedly broke down all the barriers of inequality. There, the rage of slaves who, contrary to stereotype, did not “go wild” but found their own way, choosing Toussaint as he chose them and following him to the death with a tolerance for suffering that seemed to whites unbelieveable.

Independent Haiti will, of course, be betrayed, by the U.S. among other world powers, isolated and punished for having the nerve to demonstrate the right and capacity for freedom from slavery. The persecution has not ended even now.

But at least the story has been told.

Enough said! Get the book!

Paul Buhle is the authorized biographer of C.L.R. James and editor of more than twenty non-fiction, historical comics.


Filed under Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews, Paul Buhle

SO BUTTONS (#13) by Jonathan Baylis Kickstarter

Jonathan Baylis (Kickstarter alert) has been brewing a special blend collection of comics for over 10 years now. These are stories about himself drawn by other cartoonists, in the spirit of what Harvey Pekar famously did with R. Crumb and other leading cartoonists. Anyone could follow this model. It’s just a matter of having the will and determination to pursue it.

So Buttons, the ongoing anthology led by Baylis, has got its mojo going at full steam and is a beloved fixture of the indie comics community. If you are new to it, then this is the perfect time to jump aboard! In the latest issue, Number 13, Baylis focuses on a film theme and employs some of his favorite cartoonists along with some of the old crew of cartoonists who worked for the grand ole man himself, Harvey Pekar. It’s a lot of very geeky fun. Support the Kickstarter campaign (ends Nov 16)  to help to make Issue 13 available for everyone to enjoy.

I encourage you to check out the Kickstarter campaign and let Jonathan provide the final pitch to you! I find Jonathan to be a very bright and enthusiastic person who, no doubt, has lived a full life with many, many years still ahead of insight and adventure. Once you get a peek or two, you are likely to be hooked.

This is from the Kickstarter promo:

This issue is subtitled: Film School with Pekar’s Pals and Mine

If you don’t know, Harvey Pekar was a guy who wrote auto-bio comics and hired different artists to interpret his stories. I follow that model.

So… the inspiration for that subtitle is this.  Last year, I met Joe Zabel, a longtime collaborator of Harvey Pekar’s. I showed him my work and he agreed to do a story with me. And then he introduced me to Gary Dumm, and even longer collabber with Pekar. HE agreed to do a story. And then he introduced me to other co-conspirators Michael T. Gilbert and Brian Bram (not seen since American Splendor #2, 1977)!

So… Wrung art by Brian Bram

So this issue is a split between Harvey’s pals and my pals, and probably because of all the staying inside at home I did during the pandemic, it is a HEAVILY film-referenced issue. Before I wanted to call this series “So…”, I wanted to call it “Film School” and this is the closest this book has been executed to that initial idea.

My Collaborators include:

· Karl Christian Krumpholz on the cover

· Tony Wolf doing some Swampy magic

· Joe Zabel on a Sundance premiere

· Bernie Mireault on 28 Days Later


Filed under Comics, Kickstarter