From Shadow to Light: The Life and Art of Mort Meskin


By Stephen Brower with Peter & Philip Meskin (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-358-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect for art lovers, wannabe illustrators and lovers of pure comic magic  9/10

There’s currently a delightful abundance of beautiful coffee-table art-books/biographies celebrating the too-long ignored founding fathers and lost masters of American comic books, but few have been as well anticipated and hungered for as this magnificent tome highlighting the troubled life and stunning ability of Morton Meskin, one of the guiding spirits of the industry and a man clearly unaware or unwilling to admit just how influential he actually was.

Rather than waste your time being overly specific (just buy the book – it’s extremely informative and truly wonderful) let me just state that Meskin is the kind of creative force that no real fan of the medium can afford to be ignorant of. This lavishly illustrated, oversized tome traces his life and awesome body of work from school days and early career as a pulp magazine illustrator, through his pioneering superhero art for MLJ, DC, Standard and others through the leaner years and appalling treatment by editors in the 1960s through to the superb advertising art of his later life.

A quiet, diligent and incredibly prolific artist (the text contains numerous accounts of “races” with Jack Kirby, vying to see who could produce the most pages in a day!) Meskin’s manner and philosophical approach influenced dozens of major artists – as the testimonials from Kirby, Steve Ditko (a young student from Meskin’s days as a teacher), Jerry Robinson, Joe Kubert, Alex Toth, Carmine Infantino, George Roussos, Will Eisner and so many others attest over and over again.

Evocatively written by creative/art director, designer, educator and biographical author Stephen Brower, with dozens of first hand accounts from family, friends and contemporaries; the sad, unjust life of this major figure of popular art is fully explored and gloriously justified by every miraculous page of his work reproduced herein. As well as dozens of full colour reproductions from his breathtaking Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, Vigilante, Johnny Quick, Seven Soldiers of Victory, Wildcat, Starman, Fighting Yank, Black Terror and particularly Golden Lad and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet superhero action-adventure delights are lesser known gems of crime, horror, historical and mystery tales.

His prolific days at Simon & Kirby’s S&K Studios producing content for Headline, Crestwood and Prize Comics are well represented with many striking examples of his 1900 or so pages of mystery, psycho-drama, western and romance work, as well as Meskin’s latter days at DC, turning mediocre, fright-free mystery yarns and anodyne science fiction tales into stunning exercises of minimalist tension and drama.

Most importantly for collectors and art-fans there is a huge amount of space devoted here to the artist’s unique manner of working; from compelling page layouts and compositions to bold, vibrant inking, and for we comics cognoscenti, the visual El Dorado of never before seen unpublished pages.

There are dozens of penciled, inked and camera-ready art-boards – many shot from actual original artwork – including assorted genre-works (humour, horror, westerns, romances, covers), legendary features such as Boy’s Ranch, Fighting Yank, Black Terror and Captain 3-D) and even complete unpublished stories including a whole Golden Lad superhero romp, a nautical epic from colonial days starring Bill Blade, Midshipman and a positively electric gangland reworking of Macbeth.

Eventually Meskin left the industry, as so many unappreciated master artists did, for advertising work where he found appreciation, security and financial reward, if not creative contentment, and the latter portion of the scintillating tome is filled with not only an amazing selection of magnificent illustrations, sketches, ad layouts and storyboards but also the purely experimental art – painting, prints, collage and lots of lovely drawings in every medium possible – that clearly kept this obsessively questing artisan’s passions fully engaged..

Brilliant, captivating, utterly unforgettable and unknown, Meskin’s enforced anonymity is finally coming to an end and this magical chronicle is hopefully only the first step in rediscovering this major talent. Buy this book and lobby now for complete collected editions of Mark Merlin, Vigilante, Johnny Quick, Golden Lad and all the fabulous rest…

© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Text © 2010 Stephen Brower. All art © its respective owners and holders. All rights reserved.

Little Nothings volume 3: Uneasy Happiness


By Lewis Trondheim, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-576-4

With over 35 books in just about ten years, Lewis Trondheim is one of Europe’s most prolific comics creators, a writer for many of the continent’s most popular artists – such as Fabrice Parme (‘Le Roi Catastrophe’, Vénézia’), Manu Larcenet (‘Les Cosmonautes du futur’), José Parrondo (‘Allez Raconte’ and ‘Papa Raconte’) and Thierry Robin (‘Petit Père Noël’), the originator of such global hits as the Les Formidables Aventures de Lapinot sequence and, with Joann Sfar, the ‘Donjon’ (Dungeon) series of nested fantasy epics (see the translated Dungeon: Parade, Dungeon: Monstres and Dungeon: The Early Years) and also a cartoonist of uncanny wit, piercing, gentle perspicacity, comforting affability and self-deprecating empathy.

This third collected volume of his anthropomorphic cartoon blog sees him amicably nit-picking and musing his way through the life of an old comic creator: travelling to conventions, making stories and dealing with the distressingly peculiar modern world.

Evocatively recoloured for book publication these one and two page ruminations and anti-dramas range from his inability to de-clutter (every comic maven’s weakness!), public toilet etiquette, gadgets, marriage, parenthood, mice in the bookshelves, how mad cats are, brilliant ideas that come when you’re asleep, computers and getting old, interspersed with reactions to the many wonderful places he has visited on the comics convention circuit (Venice, Portugal, Fiji, Australia and others in this volume).

I first became aware of Trondheim’s subtly enchanting vignettes in Fantagraphics’ Mome comics anthologies, and it’s a sheer delight to see his cartoon philosophy gathered into such handy tomes for constant re-reading. This is probably the most pleasing graphic novel I’ve reviewed this year, and I’m off now to get the previous two volumes.

I strongly suggest that if you need a little non-theological, un-theosophical spiritual refreshment you do the same…

© 2010 Trondheim. English translation © 2010 NBM. All Rights Reserved.

Giraffes in my Hair: a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life


By Bruce Paley & Carol Swain (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60669-162-6

Biographies are usually about interesting people and/or interesting times. Or at least famous ones. That makes this fascinating new book relating the incredible life-on-the-edge of ordinary hippie Bruce Paley an engrossing double-threat. Paley isn’t a superstar, he’s just a guy who turned 18 during the Summer of Love, bummed and scammed his way across America, saw some bands, met some girls, narrowly dodged the Draft and had a few memorable experiences along the way.

Captivatingly illustrated by Paley’s partner Carol Swain in her trademark monochrome line and textures style, we see his highs and lows: life as heroin addict, hookers and Black Panthers, getting by in crappy jobs, following the ever-changing music scene and even the rare brushes with real fame we’ve all experienced: in this case a short, intense friendship with doomed rock star Johnny Thunders.

Paley isn’t a particularly likable guy, but he and his life are real and human and worth recording – and this small saga of someone surviving some of our most turbulent times is a magical testament to creativity, durability and human adaptability. This is a captivating story and a brilliant use of our medium…

© 2009 Bruce Paley and Carol Swain. All rights Reserved.

Best of American Splendor

Best of American Splendor 

By Harvey Pekar and various (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84576-096-4

Harvey Pekar is something of a conundrum. By his own reasoning and admission he is a fairly ordinary working stiff, just trying to get by. For all of his life he has had a “real job” and a “real life”. His comic scripts are introspective, and let’s be honest, not illustrated in a manner guaranteed to suck in the average comic fan, but his comics are always beguiling, intriguing and utterly readable. By telling tales and sharing thoughts he has managed to make an everyday world extraordinary.

This compilation features strips from 1990 to 2004 and is the usual, unusual mix of self-exploration, reminiscence and social trivia blended with some more of his compelling potted histories and commentaries of historically “lost” figures from literature, sports and music. This ability to impart his obvious fascination and empathy for other creators unjustly forgotten and critically downtrodden (like himself?) may simply point to personal bias. Maybe he is championing those he feels have been similarly mistreated, or does it perhaps go deeper than that?

Here is a creator inarguably obsessed with achievement and the justice of recognition, but he is not saying “Hey, look. You’re doing to me what you did to them!” Here is someone who simply perceives genuine worth that needs to be revered and shared, just doing his bit to make it right.

As for my earlier crack about the art, please don’t misunderstand. The artists are not pikers, they just aren’t cranking out your everyday fancy-dan, computer-coddled, mutant fan-boy fodder. The illustrators here include Dean Haspiel, Josh Neufeld, Joe Sacco, David Collier, Gerry Shamray, Sam Hurt, Joe Zabel, Gary Dumm, Paul Mavrides, Alex Wald, J. R. Stats, Jim Woodring, Carole Sobocinski, Scott A. Gilbert and even Spain. If you read comics broadly rather than stockpile fanatically, you will know most of these names. Hopefully you also know their other work.

The stories themselves range from slice of life single gags, to the familiar recollections and ruminations, from short yarns describing the authors’ close brushes with fame and security, to the extended and deeply moving “TransAtlantic Comics” co-pencilled and inked in two sections by Frank Stack and Colin Warneford. This gem alone is worth the price of admission. The stories set at comic conventions where Pekar was in attendance are horribly familiar and should serve as a warning to any comic collector who retains a semblance of rationality.

If graphic novels are ever to attain the critical, let alone popular acceptance of their picture-free namesakes, it is going to be because of creators like Pekar. I’m unsure of the value of a review such as this, in a venue like this one, to change the minds of notoriously close-minded comics fans, (and yes I regretfully include myself in that description) but I live in hope. Perhaps I’ve convinced you to try something a little different. To paraphrase this most extraordinary man himself, and his philosophy on Jazz, “You either get it or you don’t”. You should get it.

© 2005 Harvey Pekar LLC. All Rights Reserved.

The Quitter

By Harvey Pekar & Dean Haspiel

Vertigo

The cartoon phenomenon that is Harvey Pekar once again breaks boundaries in an industry that operates so much these days on the assumption that most creators do their best work in the first flush of youth.

The Quitter is a bleak, coldly funny and often painful self-examination of a troubled and driven young outsider Everyman in a society gradually becoming a bit of a disappointment. All the trademark Pekar concerns are present: success with women, financial security, success in relationships, history, literature, success in a culture that won’t tolerate failure – or even mediocrity – and respect, all viewed through the fresh eyes of a troubled adolescent.  Pekar’s subtle mastery, gloriously illustrated by the simply magical black and white artwork of Dean Haspiel, is to convey these dark themes in a compelling and frankly joyous manner.

Always gripping, never depressing, and utterly absorbing, The Quitter is, as its hype describes, some of his best work yet, and I’m fervently praying that there’s much, much more to come.

© 2005 Harvey Pekar & Dean Haspiel.  All Rights Reserved.