I went to New York last week. I took home far too many comics. These are them.
The Broons & Oor Wullie: Happy Days! 1936-1969, by Dudley D. Watkins. DC Thomson.
I was jazzed just to find this one. It's an import compilation of the best from British cartoonist Dudley D. Watkins' best-known creations, the mischievous-kid strip Oor Wullie ("Our Willie") and the family-catastrophe chronicle The Broons ("The Browns"). Yes, Scottish accents are played for laughs in these comics. The strips are pretty repetitive when you read a lot at once, but Watkins is a ferociously talented cartoonist, an utter joy to watch at work. The book's chronological sweep moves from the year of both strips' creation to that of Watkins' death, and it's fascinating to see Watkins' learning curve go from start to finish in a bit over a hundred pages. For the first half of the book the new lessons being learned are apparent in pretty much every individual strip, and when Watkins peaks around 1955 it's a bravura performance in mannerist cartooning that few before or since could equal.
Watkins is a great gag cartoonist, his characters full of idiosyncrasy and body language, his vaudevillian staging smooth and snappy, his backgrounds and figures alike drawn rich with detail but always in the simplest, most direct manner possible. At his best, he makes comics like a fusion of Frank King and Ernie Bushmiller, which is about as good as it gets in humor strips. Watkins' greatest gift is less tangible than any of that, though. He simply draws funny, the construction of his every facial expression or pose almost radiating humor. The work collected here is a lot of fun, stuff that's long been a staple of British comics (the strips are still published as biannual books, apparently, and I know Frank Quitely regularly names Watkins as his greatest influence) but seems like it could really set some American cartoonists on fire if the right reprints came along. Until then, this book is a nice little curio piece.
Skin, by Brendan McCarthy and Peter Milligan. Tundra UK.
I've been looking for a copy of this one for a solid four years now. It's Brendan McCarthy! It's 20th-century Pete Milligan! It's apparently so controversial that the printers refused to print it! It's also impossible to find for under fifty bucks or so. I've never seen an actual copy other than this one. I broke into a cold sweat when I saw it. It's been a collector's holy grail to me for such a long time at this point that I'm afraid I'll get disappointed when I actually crack the covers, so now I'm just "savoring" (read: "waiting to alter my consciousness before I look at") it. Waitin' for the right moment. I'm sure when that moment comes I'll write something about it. For now though: I have a copy. Kinda cool.
Krazy & Ignatz: 1919-1921, by George Herriman. Fantagraphics.
Well, it's Krazy Kat, so it's the best comic I got on this trip. (Tell you a secret: it's the best comic ever.) Herriman is so astounding that you almost take the genius of the actual content for granted when a new one comes out, and the way you judge the merits of the individual book is 1. how cool the Chris Ware cover is, and 2. how interesting the introductory text pieces are. In this case, category 1 basically kings every single other Krazy book so far -- Ware was on his A game with this maximal/minimal cover design (better picture here) -- and category two stands up pretty well too, with Bill Blackbeard continuing his investigation of the Krazy Kat characters' prehistory, and an essay by John Callahan on Herriman's Los Angeles, which of course is awesome when you live in LA, supremely awful copyediting be damned.
As for that unbeatable content, if you've ever read Krazy Kat before you know what's goin' down. Herriman did some of his most immediate and compelling work in the early years of the strip, blending wild layout experiments with an impulse toward sprawling epics of single-page storytelling. The experimentation cools down by the second half of the book -- Herriman was five years into Krazy Kat by this point -- and the famous mouse-hits-cat-with-brick formula starts to kick in a little harder as Herriman moves toward straighter, gridded layouts. It's not as pyrotechnic as the earlier stuff collected in the last volume, but it's just as interesting, a grandmaster realizing he's uncovered a complete, individual aesthetic and making the first moves in what would be a quarter-century-long quest toward refining it to total purity. Amazing stuff. They all are. Read Krazy Kat, people! If you're gonna spend your time reading comics, there isn't anything you're going to find that's more worth your time.
The New Adventures of Grossmallerman #1, by Guy Richards Smit. Regency Arts Press.
Never heard of this cartoonist, never heard of this publisher, never heard of this comic. I'll let you google him yourself -- I did just enough to realize the guy seems to be a fucking weird fine artist who made a comic this one time, and then I realized I'd way rather this book was a mystery to me forever. I'm going to do a whole blog post on it so I won't blab on too much here, but suffice it to say that this is a completely unique comic that's unlike anything else I've ever read. If I had to offer a comparison, I'd say it's like a weird mix of Herge, Tim Hensley, Johnny Ryan, and Jerry Moriarty. If that sounds pretty weird, it totally is. Completely amazing, this book bowled me over. More on it later.
Xombi #1, by Frazer Irving and John Rozum. DC.
Reviewing this one for TCJ. It's pretty good for a superhero comic, but it's something that demands you offer that caveat to your "pretty good" assessment. It never quite busts out from the commercial-comics boundaries into "this is art" territory. Which is fine, whatever -- if you don't mind superhero comics or enjoy work that's constructed in those particular confines I'd recommend checking this series out. I'm just not as used to this stuff as I used to be (I thought about it and I'd only read four new-release superhero comics this year before this one), and it feels a little limited to me when I'm going to this from shit like Krazy Kat. Oh well. But it's still good. Frazer Irving isn't doing career-best work here but he can still draw incredible panels. If you're just gonna pick something off the rack, this should be a prime contender. Again, more when my TCJ review comes out.
Dr. Strange: What Is It That Disturbs You, Stephen?, by P. Craig Russell and Mark Andreyko. Marvel.
Tucker hooked me up with this one. Thanks pal! It's a remake of a '70s Dr. Strange annual that P. Craig Russell drew on spec when he was a hungry young comics artist and ended up getting published. Years later he wanted to reprint it but when he was looking at it he decided he needed to redraw some stuff. Then he ended up redrawing the whole thing and changing the entire story. Apparently he left one panel of the original in there for fun, and his afterword invites readers to try and spot it. You can color me stumped, but I guess I'll say this one?
I dunno, it has kind of a post-Steranko '70s thing to it, but that could just be the coloring. I'll save more rigorous investigation for later. Anyway, this is a really really good Dr. Strange comic, and there are not many of those. The best ones are invariably the kind of comics where you zone out on the story and just enjoy Steve Ditko or Gene Colan or Brendan McCarthy drawing what they saw on their acid trips, but damn if Russel doesn't spin a gripping, light-but-memorable romp of a story in here, an epic battle between light and dark magic that encompasses fallen angels, enchanted mirrors, evil twins, love beyond death, and of course -- of course -- the nether dimension of Ditkopolis. Hell yes. People assume that the whole impact-visuals thing is the way to do Dr. Strange, but just put a committed fantasist with a lot of talent on the book and watch the sparks fly. Russell is way too much of a storyteller to get bogged down in creating really trippy panels that only end up obfuscating what's going on; his drawings, elegantly cartooned with an incredibly graceful flourish to every last ink line, ring clear as a bell. It's in the formal aspects -- layout, sequencing, letters, production tricks -- that he gets psychedelic. Gutters drop in and out to give the big moments extra punch, tiny rows of meticulous panels lead onto inset rows of even tinier ones, the pictorial rhythms build counterpoints and harmonies and then create counterpoints to those harmonies... it's virtuoso stuff. There are even some raw-pencil panels in this thing, for god's sake! It was 1997! Take that, CF!
This might sound like a slam, but I mean it as a huge compliment: this comic is like the Disney movie of Dr. Strange. Beautiful, approachable, imaginative, highly stylish but with a rock-solid story that it never loses track of, and above all, transportative escapism on the highest level. Mainstream comics just don't get much better than this. Hit up that quarter bin!
Moritat Elephantmen Sketchbook, by Moritat. Active Images.
Another one from Tucker. Man, Moritat can draw. Mostly pictures of hippos and elephants in trench coats, with some hot girls thrown in for good measure. It's the kind of sketchbook where your eyes go right past the content and just focus on the craft being brought to bear, which is pretty massive here. Moritat's recent run on The Spirit was probably the best that comic's looked since Wally Wood drew it more than fifty years ago, and that is really saying something. What's so cool about Moritat is that his style looks very "American action comics", kinetic and brusque and detail oriented in the appropriate way, but none of his mannerisms really seem to have been drawn from that idiom. The three dominant forces of influence at work in this sketchbook seem to be the Franco-Belgian clear-line tradition (Herge via Moebius), the organic detailing of guys like Eduardo Risso and Geof Darrow, and '80s action manga. It's a similar fusion to the one that produced Brandon Graham, but Moritat comes out of it with a more populist, direct style. It's fun to watch him cut heads with whatever was put in his hands for this sketchbook -- he blasts the paper with loose, easy pencil strokes, then he kicks out a perfectly clean rapidograph drawing, then a masterpiece in Sharpie. Good pictures, that's all this is and all it's supposed to be. Would that everything in comics did its job so well and unquestioningly.
Made In France: 8 Artists and the Graphic Novel. Neuhaus.
Awesome comic-type thing that isn't really a comic. I reviewed it here.
Warmer and Vastness No. 1, by Aidan Koch. Self-published.
A couple of minicomics by my favorite young cartoonist. Silkscreened covers, hand-sewn binding. Koch's pencil art looks absolutely phenomenal in rough xeroxes. Nice.
Warmer is the more narrative of the two, though that doesn't really mean it's straightforward or anything. A strong current of words and pictures, boxed away from one another, isolated. It centers around what seems like the end of a relationship, and a young woman's physical experience of weather. There's a very subtle but no less powerful eroticism to parts of it -- or maybe just "sensuousness" is a better word. The feeling of being cold and warm in someone else's skin. The sequencing is a lot more direct here than in Koch's book The Whale, giving a few logical glimpses of things, considering them from different angles, before cutting off into blankness and words. Artful and evocative stuff. It doesn't hit on the same dizzying emotional level as The Whale, but it's not really trying to. It's Impressionist comics, gauzy and slow, painting with broad strokes to capture a general impression rather than particularities. Very delicate and beautiful.
Vastness No. 1, "a collection of short stories + poems", is both more diffuse and more literal -- story fragments instead of a story, wonderfully constructed sequences sitting on the pages, putting across nothing much but a quick snatch of feeling and a few gorgeous, indelible images each. Beautiful people encompassed in equally beautiful natural environments that come right up to the edge of total abstraction when the people leave them. It would be easy to stare at one of Koch's pencil woodlands or seascapes for hours, watching the marks and their imperfections fade in and out between depiction and existence as pure visual, their own nothingness. Some of the little stories here are really interesting, some more just reasons for the pictures that they lean on to exist. The highlight is a four-pager about two young girls wandering through a woods and pretending to be Walt Whitman and Ernest Hemingway. It's fun to see comics engage poetry in such a self-referential yet completely effective way. Everything in this book is good, though, and there aren't many other places in comics you can get anything like Koch's personal, playful, free yet highly restrained aesthetic.
Prelude to Deadpool Corps #3, by Philip Bond and Victor Gischler. Marvel.
Sean Witzke had told me Philip Bond did a Deadpool comic. Great cartoonists get hard up for cash like the rest of us, I guess. Anyway, I went looking for it and this is what I found. Issue three of a five-issue miniseries about alternate-earth versions of Marvel's most annoying character, oh boy. Surprisingly, it was a pretty satisfying read. It certainly exceeded my basement-level expectations. It's a story about a stray dog being subjected to the same surgical-enhancement procedures Deadpool was in the regular Marvel universe, with the same mutant-power-producing results. The dog becomes a circus freak, defies all kinds of terrible deaths, and fights a dog version of Wolverine. it ends with the "real" Deadpool coming along to recruit him into a battle against... something. They don't say what, and I'm not about to read the non-Bond issues. (Well, maybe I'll look at the Liefeld one.) Bond really sells the humor and ridiculousness of it all, though, his squat, thick-lined drawing really excelling when it comes to um, mutant dogs tearing each other to shreds. He's another guy who just draws funny, and even though this is about the stupidest a comic can possibly get, he makes it look good enough to be a lot of fun for what it is.
Deadpool Max #6, by Kyle Baker and David Lapham. Marvel.
I bought two Deadpool comics at the same time, just walked up there and slapped them both down like I collect that shit. So many people do, who's to tell that I'm actually a Comics Journal critic conducting dangerous field research? The hazards of dabbling in hero comics, folks. Anyway, this is another issue of the good Deadpool comic, Kyle Baker's attempt to lay down a definitive run on a monthly mainstream book after his amazing Plastic Man disappeared from earthly memory. I haven't talked about Deadpool Max in a while, mainly because I wasn't thrilled with the way it was moving away from single-issue stories and into epic continued stories and interactions with other Marvel characters. It's still an amazing read though -- Baker is drawing and computer coloring in what seems like a genuine attempt to raise the bar, mixing in tweaked out post-Kirbyist action sequences with intense racial caricature and digital texturing that nobody without his monumental cartooning chops should ever attempt. Month in and month out this is the best looking comic on the stands, and David Lapham's super-espionage plot is actually starting to cook a little bit after stalling out over the last two issues. I'm still not convinced that actual long-form storytelling is the best fit for a book that functions best as a modern superheroic incarnation of Harvey Kurtzman's Mad, but as long as it's entertaining and Baker's drawing it I don't care enough to take my eyes off the panels for a second. This book's canceled with issue 12, which put me into conniptions of rage at first, but then I thought well, at least that's longer than that awful Thor book that Marvel just canned, and if it's a solid 12-issue brick of a comic, then I can also hold it up to people who go on too long about Watchmen, like "you wanna know what mature readers superhero maxiseries is really the best...?"
No more, that was all. No comics for me this week, this was quite enough for now. If you want me I'll be reading Krazy Kat.