Pop Culture Gadabout
Wednesday, February 05, 2014
      ( 2/05/2014 10:14:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“YOU’RE JUST A NORMAL LITTLE KID! YOU MUST BE INCREDIBLY LUCKY!” The first in a science comics trilogy designed to teach young readers about human biology, Gomdori Co.s’ Survive! Inside the Human Body (No Starch Press) is a rollicking children’s sci-fi comic that also works as a study tool. Inspired by the sixties era flick Fantastic Voyage (which memorably gave us the sight of a wet-suited Raquel Welch being attacked by antibodies), the Korean manhwa centers on Geo, a young boy “King of Survival” who accidentally winds up in the body of his friend Phoebe, after she swallows a miniaturized mini-sub carrying our hero and the ship’s inventor Dr. Brain.

Sent into the girl’s digestive system, the only hope is for our duo to make their way through her body without falling victim to Phoebe’s teeth, stomach acid or the various inhabitants – like a passel of pesky hookworms – living within the young girl’s guts. While Phoebe remains oblivious to the presence of a mini-sub inside her, Dr. Brain’s high-strung assistant Kay struggles to keep the girl from doing anything that might jeopardize our miniaturized explorers, resulting in a series of humorous body function jokes that you know will go over big with young student readers. At one point, we see Kay digging into a Korean chamber pot, hoping that he will find the miniaturized sub there. He doesn’t, since our duo are also set to explore the circulatory and neurological systems in subsequent volumes, though we do get a pixilated glimpse into the chamber pot.

The main focus is on Geo and Dr. Brain in that mini-sub, of course, with the latter pontificating on each area as they pass through or are threatened by it. In one chapter, for instance, when their tiny sub is threatened by stomach acid, they protect themselves by coating the sub with an enzyme produced by the only bacteria capable of surviving in the stomach. Scripter Seok-young Song has a knack for combining frantic over-the-top comic adventure with biological fact. There are text sections that also elaborate on the science in between each chapter of story, though I’ll be honest and admit that I skipped these on my first read-through as I was more invested in what Song threw at his heroes than in the learning thing.

Artist Hyun-Don Han presents it all in a cartoony yet informatively detailed style. His use of hyperbolic body language – when Phoebe belches, opening the way from her stomach to the duodenum, she really belches. Unlike Japanese manga, Korean manhwa is formatted to be read from left to right, though it does engage in many of the same visual conventions (our cast sweats profusely when stressed, for example). No Starch Press, which describes itself as providing “The Finest in Geek Entertainment,” has been publishing educational Eastern comics for several years now (see their Manga Guides series of books), though to this reader’s eyes, the Survive! books are the most aesthetically successful in their blend of kinetic action and learning matter. Recommended for the parent who wants their 8+-year-old to get a leg up on human biology – provided you’re not the type to get thrown by your kid snickering over poop jokes.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Monday, January 20, 2014
      ( 1/20/2014 09:42:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“I THOUGHT THIS WAS IT . . . THIS WAS THE WAY OUT.” The first book in a graphic novel trilogy by congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis, March (Top Shelf Productions) is a well-wrought personal account of the early days of the movement. It opens on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, site of a bloody moment in civil rights history wherein 600 peaceful demonstrators were violently attacked by Alabama state troopers under the orders of then-governor George Wallace – then moves to the twenty-first century with congressman Lewis getting ready to attend the inauguration of President Obama. These two contrasting moments serve to frame the trilogy, as Lewis tells of his childhood in Pike County, Alabama, to a pair of young boys brought to his office.

Young Lewis had dreams of becoming a preacher, and spent his days on his parents’ tenant farm giving sermons to the chickens he fed, but a trip to Buffalo, New York, with a teacher uncle who “knew which places along the way offered ‘colored’ bathrooms” provided a glimpse of a world quite different from the fiercely segregated south of the 1950’s. On his return home, he grew frustrated with his local ministers’ seeming unwillingness to address racial injustice in their sermons – until he heard a radio sermon from a young Atlanta preacher named Martin Luther King. The moment brought the idea of “social gospel” into focus for the young boy and ultimately led to his involvement in the civil rights movement.

Lewis got to first meet Dr. King as a young high schooler considering enrolling at the then-segregated Troy State, but it was a young graduate divinity student, Jim Lawson, who had an even larger impact on his future direction. Lawson was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an organization dedicated to pacifist principles, which had even published a comic book entitled Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, espousing the idea of passive resistance. Lawson conducted workshops training students in the ways of pacifism and was a major positive influence on the civil rights protests of the 1960’s. March depicts the workshops – which included role plays where attendees heaped verbal and physical abuse on each other – used to steel protestors against the very real threats that they would be receiving once they actually got out in public. As the book makes clear, this was scary business and young activists like Lewis needed to have self-discipline.

Book One depicts the first big public protests of the civil rights movement: the lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, protesting downtown department stores in Nashville that refused to serve black or inter-racial groups of patrons. Lewis and his collaborators (co-scripter Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell) depict just how startling and more than a little frightening those non-violent protests were for both black and white southerners. The sit-ins were simple events: protestors would enter a department store, buy something to establish that they were paying customers, then move over to the lunch counter and ask to be served; when they were refused service, they would quietly sit until the end of the day then leave. As the sit-ins grew, they drew violent reaction from “the rough element in the white community,” though the only ones to be arrested were the pacifist protestors.

The first volume ends with the mayor of Nashville’s soft capitulation to the protestors, though we still have five years to go before “Bloody Sunday” at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

As a reminder of a hard and shameful piece of American history, March is an effective piece of graphic storytelling. Powell’s expressive gray-toned art beautifully captures the simple moments of boyhood and the grim realities of racism. (We’re shown, for instance, the beaten body of 14-year-old Emmett Till, whose killers were acquitted by a southern jury.) If the insertion of two young boys as dutiful audience at the book’s beginning seems an overly obvious storytelling device, the story itself is one that needs to be retold and remembered – if only to counter those who’d like to gloss over those not-so-idyllic days.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Saturday, January 18, 2014
      ( 1/18/2014 07:56:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“I GUESS I’M HAVING FUN, BUT DOES THAT MEAN I’M A PERVERT, TOO?” The second volume in Nao Yawawa’s supernatural romance, Moon and Blood (DMP) follows up on the development of its budding relationship ‘tween teen girl heroine Sayaka and teen vamp Kai Kuryuu: a non-unexpected plot move though readers less familiar with the ways of modern shojo manga may have a WTF moment over the book’s central sequence, a high school drag contest where our dreamy boy bloodsucker proves to be the fairest of them all.

Before we get to the big event, though, we need to deal with Sayaka’s brother Natsuki, who was starting to suspect that the family’s houseguest is a vamp. Believing that Kai put the bite on him for some late-night sustenance (when the actual culprit was Kai’s shape-shifting senpai Ai), he holds a makeshift cross up to our nonplussed hero – to no discernible effect. Obviously, all those Hammer Films got it wrong, though we’re fairly sure Natsuki won’t be dissuaded by this momentary setback.

As for the drag contest, it becomes a comic competition between Kai and his hopeless rival Takeshi, though there’s no doubt at all which pretty boy will win. High school jock Takeshi earns the nickname “Anne of Green Gables,” presumably for his braided wig hair, while Kai is crowned Queen of the School. The entire school gets worked up over the event, so we get pages devoted to costume selection, makeup tips, et al. One problem for our cross-dressing lead: the high school festival is held outside and looks as if too much time in the sun can be debilitating – so at least part of the legends appears to be true.

If the drag comp subplot seems a distraction from the mini-series’ basic storyline, Yazawa gets back on track in the volume’s last ten pages with a declaration of growing love, a big kiss and the appearance of two characters from Ai’s demon hunting human past who blow his cover. “That guy isn’t human. He’s a vampire . . . A monster,” demon hunter Haru tells Sayaka right after her flash of teen passion. The ways of high school romance are rocky indeed.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Saturday, January 04, 2014
      ( 1/04/2014 06:14:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“WE’RE NOT EGGHEADS. WE’RE JUST INQUISITIVE.” The second “Discovery in Comics” to be published by NBM, Margreet de Heer’s Science follows the format of her earlier edu-comic Philosophy. Drawn in a lightheartedly cartoonish style, the book presents the artist and her colorist husband Yiri as they examine and debate the history of scientific thought and exploration.

As with the first volume, their overview begins with the ancient Greeks (Thales of miletus, Euclid, Archimedes, Pythagoras, et al). Though Yiri points out that previous civilizations had their own sciences, Margreet chooses to focus on the Greeks as the first to mold “a system of objective inquiry and logical thinking,” initially around mathematics. One of heroes from Philosophy, Aristotle, also shows up in the early chapters: as a “natural philosopher,” Yiri explains, he was heavily involved in the study of natural phenomena.

This focus on the observable and measurable bumps up against those who are primarily devoted to the spiritual, of course, and de Heer devotes pages mid-book to the rift between science and religion – which she amusingly dramatizes as a cartoon couples counseling session. “In reality, science and religion can co-exist just fine,” she asserts, though as her recreation of the arrest of Galileo Galilei depicts, that hasn’t always been the case.

Science follows the development of all the major disciplines – math, chemistry, astronomy, physics, geology, genetics, quantum theory – while also taking time to examine its role in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, lesser known women scientists, disregarded scientists and more. The breadth of her subject area may keep her from engaging in as many biographies of leading figures as she depicted in Philosophy though she does manage to capture such luminaries as da Vinci and Darwin. She also charts the history of Earth and of man as determined through radiometry and paleontology, while acknowledging with the latter how much of it is theoretical.

The book opens with our duo at a party telling the attendees about their plans to create Science, which leads into a loud series of proclamations from everyone in the room. (“Science is the pinnacle of human abilities!” “Science is nothing but a monkey with a stick poking around in places it doesn’t know anything about!”) “Oh boy!” our cartoonist wonders. “What are we getting ourselves into this time?”

Another witty look at human history through a sharply inquisitive and visually inventive mind: can’t wait to see what de Heer does in her discovery of Religion.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Friday, January 03, 2014
      ( 1/03/2014 07:06:00 AM ) Bill S.  

MOMENTS WHEN YOU FEEL LIKE AN IDJIT So I go skimming through my last few reviews and see that in one I mistyped "bought" (past tense of buy) for "brought" (p.t. of bring). Didn't catch it through more than one edit . . .

A pile of fresh reviews are coming, incidentally. The month got away from me.

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013
      ( 12/18/2013 06:36:00 PM ) Bill S.  

”YOU’RE A VANISHIN’ BREED, AND YOU ALWAYS WERE.” Of the many series characters created by prolific crime novelist Lawrence Block’s, my personal favorite has to be his Bernie Rhodenbarr a.k.a. The Burglar Who _____. It’s not because of his title profession, which fuels the plots of Block’s entertaining comic murder mysteries, but his avocation: the owner and operator of an NYC used bookstore. I worked as the manager of a used bookstore for a time in my twenties, and Block and Bernie capture the warm feeling that spending your days in a room full of print and paper can provide; Rhondenbarr’s capers are fun, but it’s Barnegat Books that speaks to this reader’s soul.

In this, both Bernie and myself may be men out of time, as the opening to his newest caper, The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons , wryly depicts in the book’s opening. In it, our hero is sitting behind the counter, watching a slender young girl paging through a copy of Frank Norris’ The Pit, only to blithely use her cell phone to order a kindle version of the same book and happily announce what she’s done to the store owner. Our hero takes it in stride, of course, since he (and we) know he’s got a better source of income – which he quickly sets to working on in the second chapter, stealing an early draft of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” for a collector obsessed with all things button-related. Bernie’s successful completion of this caper leads to a second button-ish commission with a much more difficult to acquire item, an apostle spoon. What are apostle spoons? Bernie tells us, as well as giving us the skinny on the genesis of “The Night Before Christmas.” The joys of having a well-read narrator.

At the same time, NYPD detective Ray Kirschmann, a friendly nemesis from earlier books, shows up to enlist Bernie’s advice on a robbery that appears to resulted in the death of a wealthy little old lady. Through a series of finely wrought twists, the two affairs turn out to be connected, leading to a gathering of all the parties involved in both. Unlike most of the earlier volumes, Bernie never has to engage in any fancy footwork to distract Detective Kirschmann from his illegal activities – Kirschmann takes it as a given. Rhodenbarr is the “last of the gentleman burglars,” the copper notes, and he’s a mean sleuth as well.

Not to mention: entertaining company. One of the other pleasurable features in Block’s series is our narrator’s friendship with dog groomer Carolyn Kaiser, who serves as a lunchtime buddy, sounding board and occasional companion during Bernie’s scouting expeditions. The Bernie/Carolyn dialogs – which cover their love lives, crime and Life in These Times – are comic and satiric, and you can see Block having fun with them. eBooks and electronic locks may be aggravating 21st century innovations, but good friendships last.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Saturday, December 14, 2013
      ( 12/14/2013 05:14:00 PM ) Bill S.  

”I COULD NEVER TELL HIM HOW FRIGHTENED I’D FELT.” A psycho-sexual thriller divided into two thematically interlocking stories, Elissa Wald’s The Secret Lives of Married Women (Hard Case Crime) tells of twin sisters whose hidden selves get revealed in the wake of two crimes.

First story, “The Man Under the House,” concerns married mother-to-be Leda who, on moving into a seemingly safe and comfy home in Portland, finds herself being overly scrutinized by a stalker-y construction worker named Jack. Jack, we soon learn, knows about a part of Leda’s past that she left years ago: as “Leda Swann,” she had the role in a soft-core s/m skin flick entitled Payback. Appalled by Jack’s revelation, Leda wrestles with whether she should tell her husband Stas (who may have ties to the Russian mob) about the too-close fan’s obsession with her.

Second entry, “Abel’s Cane,” follows Leda’s sister Lillian, a New York attorney who takes on a case where the chief witness proves to be a former paid submissive in an establishment called The Nutcracker Suite. Where the fist tale is told entirely from its heroine’s perspective, “Cane” is split into alternating chapters between uptight lawyer Lillian and chief witness Nan, who has sublimated her submissive impulses working for a blind industrial developer. After a copy of her twin sister’s DVD is found in her husband’s possession, Lillian grows more curious about Nan’s role as a masochistic call girl – and we know this curiosity will lead her into a different world.

More a character novel than “hard case crime” – its major misdeeds (murder, corporate fraud) occur offstage – Married Women’s major focus is on the ways these crimes impact its characters. While its theme of dominance-and-submission may lead a reader to expect pages and pages of Fifty Shades of Grey eroticism, the book only contains one full-blown sex scene. Wald is more concerned with investigating her three main characters as they wrestle with their roles as women in a dangerous world. Though the title references marriage, the most intriguing and mysterious character to this reader’s eyes proves the submissive Nan, who holds more power than we initially know. Wald doesn’t “explain” any of her women, but her crystalline writing clearly exposes their states of mind.

A surprising entry in a book line that typically skews more toward hard-edged pulp – and a recommended palliative to any reader who’s subjected themselves to that Fifty Shades crap.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Saturday, November 30, 2013
      ( 11/30/2013 05:31:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“I FOUND A NICE LOOKING FAMILY.” Add to the list of modern entertainment centered on a girlishly spunky heroine and a boyishly dreamy vampire, Nao (Wedding Peach) Yazawa’s shojo manga mini-series Moon and Blood (Digital Manga Press). Released by DMP in both 72-page print and eBook editions, the teen-rated series concerns Kai Kuryuu, a youngish (as these things go) vampire who stays with an unwitting family after his vampire sensei (a Lolita-esque figure named Ai) puts the bite on the family’s widower father. (“At the very least, the father was tasty,” the elder vampire says.) Kai, much to Ai’s disgust, apparently likes to “live” with humans, though we’re not told what happened to the last family who put him up.

As for our heroine, blond teen Sayaka, she first meets the family’s new guest as she’s coming down for breakfast in her pajamas: flustered at first, she quickly becomes intrigued by this seeming teen-boy, who also shows up at her school as a new transfer student. Kai’s appearance also piques the interest of Sayaka’s girl classmates; the jealousy of Takeshi, a blond sports geek who has had a crush on our heroine since childhood – and the curiosity of her bookish brother Natsuki, who we see with a volume of Vampire Hunter D on his desk. (Good product placement, DMP!) Natsuki’s fears regarding their new houseguest don’t appear entirely unreasonable: he seems to spend a lot of time walking outside after dark and barely eats anything that he’s offered at the family dinner table.

Moon & Blood’s slim first volume doesn’t allow room for a whole lot of character development or history, though we do get a taste of Kai’s past as a young human. A demon hunter, reluctantly drafted into the family business, Kai was bested by vampire Ai after she transformed into a large demon cat and slashed his throat. Recognizing that the dying boy hadn’t been given any choice in his calling, she offers to give him the “vampire’s kiss” to keep him from dying. Now the two travel together, with spending much of her time in the form of a regular-sized housecat.

The most fully realized figure, though, in the first book proves to be Sayaka, whose moments of awkwardness and girlish fantasies get amusingly captured by Yazawa. The artist’s handling of her cast is brightly expressive, and if we have perhaps one too many cartoonish renderings of our heroine for this Western reader, it is in keeping with the generally lighthearted tone of this paranormal teen romance. Next volume in the series promises a drag competition at the high school: can’t wait to see how Yazawa fits that into her supernatural storyline.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Sunday, November 17, 2013
      ( 11/17/2013 05:57:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“YOU’RE HERE TO ENTERTAIN THEM, NOT MURDER THEM!” Though the title of Arthur de Pina’s graphic novel series Zombillenium (NBM) reads as if it’s part of the walking dead zeitgeist, in actuality the comic horror series provides a wider range of traditional monstrous types. Set around an amusement park run entirely by monsters (“The Family Amusement Park for Chills and Thrills”), the series centers on a hapless guy named Aurelian Zahner who is accidentally killed when he’s struck by a car containing three of park’s employees – a mummy, a talking skeleton and a vampire.

The latter “revives” Aurelian by putting the bite on him, but once he’s been transformed the only place left in the world for him is Zombillenium. To make matters even more bizarre for our hero, when he’s brought to the park offices, he is repeatedly bitten in a pissing contest between vampire park director Francis Von Bloodt and the werewolf inhuman resources manager Andrew. As a result, no one knows for certain what type of beastie Aurelian will become once he starts to transmogrify.

To be sure, our hero is not an innocent: his accident came in the aftermath of an ill-thought attempt to rob a local bar that was foiled by Gretchen, a young witch with mysterious ties to Zombillenium and its unseen overseer. Gretchen (whose face graces the cover to first volume in this series) claims to be an intern at the park, though her connection proves to be more complicated. Emotionally attached to the park’s freshest recruit, she comes to Aurelian’s rescue twice when the newbie creature runs afoul of the park’s stringent rules.

Our multiply bitten hero turns out to be a singular sensation once he’s fully transformed, arousing the jealousy of other park performers, including a troupe of dancing zombies (there they are!) whose choreographed recreation of Michael Jackson routines is no longer drawing in the crowds. They plot to set up Aurelian – who’d been driven to his original act of criminality when he learned his wife was cheating on him with her Tai Chi instructor – so he’ll go berserk in the park and get canned. When you’re fired from Zombillenium, it’s for keeps.

Drawn in Adobe illustrator with a lovingly muted color palette, De Pins’ cartoony art captures both the sinister and silly with equal facility. The French artist’s title setting – with its spires, gargoyles and ferris wheel – is brightly realized, and his monster figures are amusingly expressive. Unlike mainstream American attempts at placing old style monsters in a comic book setting, De Pins doesn’t underplay the darker parts of their behavior. “We all want to massacre people . . . that’s how this job is,” Andrea and Von Bloodt console Aurelian after he has nearly killed a customer during a moment of rage. All part of working in the service industry, right?

Zombillenium does for cartoon monsters what Sfar and Trondheim’s Dungeon albums do for funny animals.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Saturday, November 09, 2013
      ( 11/09/2013 06:14:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“IT’S BETTER THAT THE WORLD GO TO THE DOGS THAN A LOT OF SCHEMING RATS!” The latest entry in Titan Books’ handsomely mounted “Simon & Kirby Library,” The Simon & Kirby Library: Science Fiction looks to the start of this groundbreaking duo’s history as comic book collaborators and then jumps to its final years. If the results aren’t as smooth as the material in S&K’s Crime collection (where all the work came from the late forties), it does provide a good lesson in the evolution of comics visual storytelling, particularly as it was practiced by Jack Kirby.

The volume opens with early solo work by each of the collaborators, both of which turn out to be build around space cops battling alien menaces and space pirates and both of which, amusingly feature the word “Solar” in their title (“Solar Patrol” and “Solar Legion”). Looking at both works – rather mild space operas in the mold of “Buck Rogers” and “Flash Gordon” – you can see hints of the greatness that was to come (note the explosion-packed panels in Kirby’s “Legion”), though their visual debt to the newspaper strips that inspired them proves a distraction. Looking at Joe Simon’s and Kirby’s early solo work, though, does provide a clue as to who was the greater innovator when it came to comics page layout: Simon’s “Patrol” remains hemmed by its more strictly tiered panels, while Kirby already is striving expand and play with them.

It’s with their first full partnership, 1941’s “Blue Bolt,” that comic book history was made. Blending superhero comics with Alex Raymond’s “Flash Gordon,” the series centers on Fred Parrish, a Harvard football star who becomes a “human lightening streak” thanks to benevolent mad scientist Dr. Bertoff (note the similarity to Dr. Zarkov). Bertoff has transformed our hero to combat the Green Sorceress, Empress of the Hidden Green Empire, a subterranean kingdom packed with monstrous beasties. The shapely sorceress uses a combination of magic and strange science to realize her dream of conquering the outer world, though of course she’s repeatedly thwarted by our hero. Science-Fiction reprints “Blue Bolt” entries from his comic’s first ten issues, and you can see the duo’s distinctive slam-bang style grow over those ten pieces, most notably in a two-parter pitting BB and the Sorceress against a lumpy faced gangster named Rocky Roberts. If the Blue Bolt tales aren’t quite as sexy as the Raymond strips which inspired them, these are, after all, comics meant to appeal to a predominately younger boy readership.

The volume skips through the bulk of the forties – when the pair were primarily concentrating on superhero fare like Captain America, the Vision and the Sandman – into the mid-fifties when capes had briefly become passé and the space race had become the had become the big deal. Simon, who primarily worked as the writer in the team, succeeded in packaging several anthology titles for Harvey Comics in the fifties, bringing Kirby along as artist. Under titles like Alarming Tales and Race for the Moon, S & K produced a series of engaging old-style s-f tales that showed the influence of both straight pulp titles like John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science-Fiction and George Pal’s Destination Moon. While not as groundbreaking as some of their other work (EC’s Weird Science got there first), the s-f comics prove playful and inventive, and in several pieces you can see Kirby developing visual ideas that would later show up in his work for Marvel and DC.

To these eyes, the more appealing entries from this period are those that take average shmoes and place them in fantastic situations – as in “Hole in the Wall,” where a elderly fired newsman finds a hole that takes him to another dimension. Reading these, you can’t help wondering whether Rod Serling (or another Twilight Zoner like Richard Matheson) hadn’t picked up copies of the ten-cent comics off a city newsstand. In entries like “The Fireballs” (where “great balls of fire” that appear in the country woods turn out to be intelligent life forms), you can also imagine a struggling Stan Lee looking at the results and saying, “I’ve gotta get Jack penciling some Tales to Astonish for me.”

Simon and Kirby severed their long-standing working arrangement in the late fifties, though the former continued to work packaging s-f comics into the Kennedy years. The last sixty pages of comics in Science-Fiction are devoted to works from this period, and a case could be made that the bulk of them don’t really belong in a “Simon & Kirby Library” as only a couple of these (“Lunar Goliaths” and “The Great Moon Mystery”) appear to have been penciled by Jack, while none of the eleven tales appear to have been scripted by Simon. Still, the art that is displayed in these pieces by period greats like Wallace Wood, Reed Crandall and Al Williamson is so choice that I, for one, can’t complain.

Most old school fans primarily go to Simon & Kirby for the superhero stuff, but the fact of the matter is these guys produced top-of-the-line work in whatever genre they chose. Heartily recommended to lovers of good, basic comic book storytelling.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013
      ( 10/30/2013 06:57:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“I JUST THOUGHT YOU MIGHT LIKE TO KNOW WHAT’S ACTUALLY IN THE HOT DOG.” If you’re the kind of reader who takes the text of the Bible as the inviolable Word of God, chances are Mark Russell’s God Is Disappointed in You (Top Shelf Productions) will not be your cup of myrrh. If, however, you’re a liberal smart-ass like myself – or just a more open-mindedly spiritual person – then this book will be a hoot. An attempt to condense every book of the Bible into modern language and with jokes, Disappointed provides an entertaining trek through a tome that many readers (myself included) have found a chore to actually wade through.

The project stemmed, Russell explains in an afterword, from a three-paragraph summary of the Book of Job that he’d written for a friend. At the encourage of cartoonist Shannon Wheeler (Too Much Coffee Man), the writer decided to do the same for all the other books of the Bible, though he quickly realized that three paragraphs would not suffice for a majority of the books. As a result, the summaries – each accompanied by a suitably snarky Wheeler cartoon – range from two- to seven-pages long.

Using modern vernacular and witty contemporary metaphors (e.g., describing Adam and Eve’s days in Eden as “a lot like living at a Grateful Dead concert”), Wheeler captures all great and appalling stories from both Old and New Testaments – along with all the tedious exhortations and yowls from Paul and the rest of the Epistle writers – and retells them with a humorist’s eye toward the sometimes dickish (see King David) human behavior that’s described in them. One of my favorite moments comes in a retelling from the Book of Samuel of the prophet Elisha’s confrontation with a group of boys who had made fun of his baldness; in retaliation for this act of childish rudeness, Elijah summoned up a team of wild she-bears who mauled all of the boys to death. “Nobody knows why Elijah didn’t just summon up a whole head of hair,” Russell wryly concludes.

In a few books, Russell gets even more playful with the material: Psalms, for example, is written like a K-Tel commercial for King David’s Greatest Hits; Jeremiah’s Lamentations is written to read like a high school emo kid’s bad poetry (“Ode to a Failed Prophet [Gravel Face]”); Song of Solomon is presented in the voice of a twitterpated teenage girl. When he gets to the New Testament, he describes Jesus as a “notorious shock preacher” to the Pharisees. Summarizing Christ’s take on the afterlife (itself a controversial concept at the time), Russell writes from the Gospel of Matthew, “As Jesus described it, Hell is simply a place where shallow people don’t know what to do with themselves because there isn’t a Pottery Barn.”

Though Russell is attempting to retell the Bible in its own terms, there is no way he can avoid dealing with a work as open to so many interpretations without occasionally falling into interpretation yourself. This can be most fully seen in his take on Revelation, inspired by Elaine Pagel’s Revelations “not as predictions of events thousands of years in the future, but rather, as the prayer of a man who had witnessed the destruction of everything he loved and thought the end of the world was at hand.” Sure messes with my appreciation of that Sleepy Hollow show, though.

Packaged in a faux leather cover with gilded paper and a red ribbon place keeper, God Is Disappointed in You has the look of a more conservative religious work – until you note the Shannon Wheeler cover cartoon of a giant hand reaching down to flick away an unknowing kneeling worshipper. Russell’s publisher calls his approach both irreverent and faithful, and if you believe that both attitudes can co-exist in a consideration of this most influential of works, then you’ll probably laugh at much at it as I did.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013
      ( 10/16/2013 11:02:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“OUR TOWN MONSTER SUCKS A BIT, DOESN’T HE?” Whimsical and inventively goofy, Rob Harrell’s comic fantasy Monster on the Hill (Top Shelf Productions) takes us back to an 1867 England awash with giant beasties. They are so much a part of the landscape that every self-respecting country town has one periodically rampaging through the streets, bringing out tourists to be threatened and frightened by these behemoths. But for the town of Stoker-on-Avon (whose town fathers all share last names with the authors of classic horror yarns), their creature proves an embarrassment, so much so that townees have to vacation in neighboring villages to get some exciting monster action.

Stoker-on-Avon’s resident attraction is a morose figure named Rayburn, who would rather sit in his cave bemoaning his existence than trodding into town frightening folks. The Eeyore of Victorian monsters, Rayburn’s cause is taken up by the eccentric man of science, Dr. Charles Wilke (whose lab had been shuttered up by town fathers after several smelly experiments went awry), and the plucky tagalong paperboy Timothy. Their goal is build the melancholic creature’s self-esteem, so he can do a proper job of it. If they don’t succeed, than his place as town menace will taken up by a much more vicious type, a ravenous swampish villain known as the Murk.

Cartoonist Rob Harrell, creator of the syndicated strip “Big Top,” crafts a visually appealing all-ages fantasy with some wonderfully expressive monsters. Our threesome’s trek to build up Rayburn’s confidence takes them across the verdant countryside where we meet our title hero’s old schoolmate Tentaculor and young Timothy is temporarily turned into a mushroom – a side plot that provides some of the graphic novel’s funniest moments. It all ends in a showdown with the Murk on the streets of Stoker-on-Avon, where Rayburn is given the chance to prove his mettle.

Monster on the Hill is the type of graphic novel that is all too rare in America these days: happily cartoony, suitable for kids and adults, craftily plotted and rendered with personality and plenty of grounding detail: the kind of lighthearted adventuring that Carl Barks’ Uncle Scrooge would have recognized, in other words. Here’s hoping that Harrell has more GN fantasies in him.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Sunday, October 06, 2013
      ( 10/06/2013 12:34:00 PM ) Bill S.  

LOCAS AND DARK PHOENIXES What a difference a decade and a half makes.

The second book in TwoMorrows Publishing’s American Comic Book Chronicles Keith Dallas’ The 1980s shows a comics industry much changed from the one depicted in ACBC’s look at the first half of the 1960’s. Where that volume described a gasping publishing concern struggling to rebuild a flagging readership, the 1980’s were an entirely different terrain – at least for Big Two comics companies DC and Marvel. While their peak sales era appeared to have passed, the two companies posted average monthly sales figures of 2.8 and 5.4 million comics via newsstands and store spinner racks. Not bad, though plenty of industry observers in the day couldn’t help noticing that other mainstream comics publishers weren’t doing nearly as well.

What changed the industry picture – for better and worse – was the eighties’ era birth of the Direct Market: a changing distribution system that led to the flowering of comic book shops across the country. Comic books were becoming a specialty market, comparable to other hobbyist niches, and if at times this shift seemed to work against the art form’s maturation, it also helped keep the industry alive. Concurrently, a comics press focused on both art and industry machinations became more prominent, as did the still newish small press – all of which found a place in the comics shops.

Yet another element needs to be noted here: the generational shift in comics creators. Where earlier comics were crafted by writers and artists who hadn’t necessarily seen comic books as their primary creative outlet (even Stan Lee, for instance, had made several attempts to move into more prestigious newspaper stripwork), the newer crop grew up with 'em and had sought a profession in the field with the characters that they loved. This frequently led (and Dallas’ history describes some of the choicer moments) between writers convinced that their take on a character was the only correct one, with subsequent clashes between writers and editors that were eagerly documented in the comics press.

Which brings us to Jim Shooter. If any one figure is prominent in 1980’s, it’s the comics writer who became Marvel’s Editor-in-Chief in 1978. A strong editor charged with reining in what had been described as a chaotic creative environment, Shooter wound up butting heads with a number of the company’s creators, many of whom would ultimately flee Marvel to the welcoming arms of DC. He also, unfortunately, was tasked with being the face of corporate Marvel when beloved comics artist Jack Kirby, co-creator of many of Marvel’s most enduring characters, became engaged in a long legal struggle to get his art returned to him. Dallas’ history takes full advantage of the comics press’ reportage around Shooter’s tenure, which perhaps slants this volume away from the first book’s greater focus on comics content more than some readers might prefer.

To be sure, the eighties had its prime moments of comics creativity, both within the mainstream and in the ever-more-significant realm of alternative comics. 1980’s takes note of these achievements, though it tends to focus on mainstream work (Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, et al.) over the indy press. Still, you can’t have a history of eighties American graphic storytelling without acknowledging Will Eisner’s A Contract with God or Art Spiegelman’s Maus, though this reader can’t help noticing that the alt comics periodical where Spiegelman’s opus first appeared, Raw, only receives a cursory mention.

Still, as an era which gave us Dark Phoenix and Love and Rockets, inspired nonsense like Sergio Aragones’ Groo the Barbarian and Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, company spanning game-changing series like DC’s Crisis on Infinite Earths and Marvel’s Secret Wars, the eighties proved quite fertile for comics. American Comic Book Chronicles: 1980’s captures this juicy chunk of comic book history – and a time when graphic novels became a viable publishing proposition and mainstream comics were more than just feeder sites for the Hollywood machine.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Saturday, September 14, 2013
      ( 9/14/2013 05:04:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“SECRETS. MY ENTRE LIFE IS COMPLICATED BY SECRETS.” In spite of an awkward (if apt) title Guy Adams’ Deadbeat: Makes You Stronger (Titan Books) proves an engagingly dark humoured piece of paperback pulp. The first in a series featuring Tom Harris, the owner of a jazz club jokingly entitled Deadbeat, and his friend Max Jackson, a former struggling actor who seems to be at loose ends in this book, Stronger opens with our heroes happening on some sinister late-night doings. Stopping outside a church after a night of imbibing, the duo spies a group of men carrying a coffin that appears to have a still-breathing woman in it. As much to alleviate their boredom (“The days were starting to get a little bit monotonous for both of us.”) as to thwart some seeming skullduggery, our heroes decide to poke around the mystery. Their ham-fisted investigation leads them to the villainous Doctor Herbert Snowdon, who apparently forgot the “first do no harm” clause in his medical training.

The bulk of Adams’ first series entry is alternatively narrated by Max and Tom and fairly quickly establishes their characters. The latter is a jazz aesthete who fancies himself more urbane than he actually is, while Max is more sarcastically self-deprecating. One more piece of pertinent info: both are living deadmen who have been revived for reasons neither can yet explain. They’re part of a community of “reanimates” (“You so much as mention the ‘Z’ word and I’ll shove your head in.”) residing in a northwest borough of London, passing off as otherwise unremarkable city blokes. In Stronger, we learn the events surrounding Max’s demise – which prove horrific in its aftermath – although we’re not provided as much info about his buddy. Perhaps that's been saved for the upcoming second volume Dogs of Waugh.

Max and Tom’s debut adventure moves along snappily, though there’s a moment where author Adams shifted from first to third person narrative that proved a bit jarring for this reader. (Rather reminded me of Stephen King’s Christine where the author, realizing he’d written himself into a corner, abruptly shifted storyteller perspective.) His villains, Snowdon and his crew, prove to be total blackguards, though we don’t really worry too much for our heroes’ safety since, you know, they’re already dead and all. Still, there are some strong unsettling sequences between the wisecrackery that help to ground this book – there’s a chapter written from the PoV of that woman in the coffin which is pure horrorshow – and get me wondering just what kinds of predicaments the lads will get into with the next volume.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Monday, August 19, 2013
      ( 8/19/2013 10:05:00 PM ) Bill S.  

DUSTY: Ziggy Stardust (a.k.a. Dusty), our 16-year-old Australian shepherd mix, passed away this morning at Desert Cross Animal Hospital. He’d been a part of our household for 15-1/2 years and will be profoundly missed. A Humane Society adoptee, Dusty was found abandoned as a puppy in a box along an Illinois country highway. The workers at the McLean County Humane Society named him “Bicky” for God knows what reason, but we re-christened him Ziggy Stardust because, as Becky noted, “he’s got David Bowie eyes, only backwards.”

Being predominately Aussie – smart, strong-willed – Dusty had to undergo obedience training with yours truly, though in the end, I think he came out ahead of me in that ‘un. Not too long after we got him, we discovered that the puppy had major hip dysplasia (probably the reason he was dumped by his original owners in the first place) which led to a pricey surgical procedure wherein the joints of his two hind leg bones were reshaped; it enhanced his ability to get around significantly, though in his final years he experienced arthritic pain and would regularly collapse on his hind legs. While his final years weren’t particularly active ones, there still were times most days when he displayed enough puppyish behavior to get us both thinking, “Yeah, we’ve still got some time with the old boy.”

But time’s not forever. Today, after a particularly hard night, I took the old dog in to be put down. It was a hard one for me to do because of all the pets we’ve had, Dusty has had the strongest connection; whenever I was home, he had to know where I was, keeping those striking eyes on me, herding me perhaps. All I know is I just loved to see him, and the feeling seemed mutual.

So I’m remembering Dusty now, those moments we spent together: the time in obedience training; the weekends at Bark Park, Bloomington, IL.’s then unofficial dog park; his role riding shotgun when we moved from Illinois to Arizona, sitting on the floor of the Budget rent-all truck looking up at me; our times out in the yard in Pima, chuckling over his geezerly attempts at “herding” two young non-compliant goats. “Now you know how I felt in obedience class,” I’d think. He could be a very protective pup; he wouldn't let any strangers cross the threshold of our front door unless we escorted them into the house; then he was fine with 'em.

In the end, he went quickly. At the vet's, I was warned that old dogs sometimes look like they're breathing even after they've passed; it can freak some owners out to see this, I'm told. Dusty went quickly and quietly: a sign, I think, that he was ready to let go.

And in the final end, this was the important thing: Ziggy Stardust was a damn good dog.

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Thursday, August 15, 2013
      ( 8/15/2013 10:08:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“IT’S BEEN A BITCH OF A WEEK; NOW I FEEL ALRIGHT.” A rock energy violinist who has worked with the likes of Robyn Hitchcock, Sarah McLachlan and REM, Deni Bonet scores high on the pop quirk meter with her release, It's All Good (M-R 2 Records). A witty collection of single gal plaints and girl power partying, the Richard Barone produced disc is sporadic but overall engaging. When she’s cooking – as on the ruefully rocking bid for attention “One in a Million” – the NYC fiddler proves as musically appealing as Kate and Cindy singing the praises of 52 girls. In lesser tracks like “Cynical Girl,” you find yourself wishing that ex-Bongo Barone had pushed her back into the studio for five or six more takes to punch things up.

As a singer, Bonet has a plain timbre that at times evokes Carole King (“Million”), in others brings to mind Debbie Harry (“Wait and See”). As a lyricist, her droll takes on such bachelorette hazards as commitment phobic guys and safety dates provoke smiles and knowing nods. And when she slows the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” down to a middle European lament, the results prove both funny and sexy.

Musically, It’s All Good slips all over the pop-rock spectrum, with forays into Tin Pan Alley (a strumming uke take on the Benny Goodman chestnut “Glory of Love”) plus an instrumental rag. To this listener’s ears, the strongest tracks turn out to be the most power poppy: the twelve-string sweetened “Safety Date” or album opener “Girl Lover,” which soars thanks to Bonet’s bluesy electric fiddling. No doubt due to her extensive session work, some alt-y guest stars (Peter Buck, Scott McGaughey, John Wesley Harding) pop up on the disc, the most amusing being Fred Schneider, who lends his trademark oddball yelps to “Girl Party,” which describes our heroine inviting “half the world” to a bash that ends with all involved drunk texting their boyfriends.

“I’m one in a million girls,” Bonet sings to an indifferent guy over a crooning male chorus. “What is there not to like?” Turns out there’s plenty to like in It’s All Good, which if it isn’t all good turns out to be very fine indeed.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Saturday, August 03, 2013
      ( 8/03/2013 12:07:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“REMARKABLE HOW PHILOSOPHERS ARE OFTEN CONSIDERED SUBVERSIVE ELEMENTS IN POLITICALLY UNSTABLE TIMES.” The first in a series of engaging volumes subtitled “A Discovery in Comics,” Margreet de Heer’s Philosophy (NBM) sketches its way through the origins of Western philosophy to selected modern thinkers. De Heer opens her personalized educ-comic by depicting her inquisitive five-year-old self confronting the idea of thought for the first time, charting her changing perspective until she reaches married adulthood, then moving into a consideration of the differences between human and animal consciousness. Joined by her husband, cartoonist and colorist Yiri T. Kohl, she moves into an examination of the foundations of Western philosophy.

This she accomplishes with wit and clarity – not an easy thing to do as anyone who has taken an Intro to Philosophy course can attest. The Dutch cartoonist’s examination of the cornerstone philosophers follows a simple format: one-page summary of the figure’s life followed by several pages delineating each thinker’s grounding concepts. Occasionally, our heroine will devote pages to a cartoon demonstration of the principles in action as when she engages in a Socratic discussion with her hubby that opens with the question, “Why is everyone and everything always against me?”

Starting with the ancient Greeks’ Big Three (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle), de Heer moves into medieval philosophers Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, focusing on their attempts at merging Greek thought with Christian doctrine. From there, she travels to her native Netherlands to look at three figures (Erasmus, Descartes and Spinoza) who made their mark and concludes by asking three other people in her life who they consider an "empowering" modern philosopher. (Husband Yiri picks George Carlin, a choice that I personally wouldn't dispute.) In between, she also takes time to debate free will and perception with her spouse.

Heady stuff indeed, but done with a simple, witty cartoon style comparable to Stan Mack in his entertaining dissection of the history of the American Revolution. The cartoonist has at least two more volumes in her “Discovery in Comics” series, one of which, Science, has recently been released by the American comics publisher NBM. This first is definitely recommended for those with an interest in graphic storytelling that goes beyond the usual genre work – or anyone who wants to bone up on the basics of Western thinking.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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