Vlad the Impaler: the Man Who Was Dracula (paperback edition)


By Sid Jacobson & Ernie Colón (Plume/Penguin Group USA)
ISBN: 978-0-452-29675-2

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: 8/10: Perfect spin on the seasonal traditional terror tales

Here’s a handy “heads-up” Horrible History hint if you’re looking for an ideal Christmas gift for your horrors at home: an economical softcover edition of one of the best graphic biographies of 2009 unleashed just in time to read in front of the Yule Log.

As writer and editor, Sid Jacobson masterminded the Harvey Comics monopoly of strips for younger American readers in the 1960s and 1970s, co-creating Richie Rich and Wendy, the Good Little Witch among others, before working the same magic for Marvel’s Star Comics imprint, where he oversaw a vast amount of family-friendly material; both self created – such as Royal Roy or the superb Planet Terry – and a huge basket of licensed properties.

In latter years he has worked closely with fellow Harvey alumnus Ernie Colón on such thought-provoking graphic enterprises as The 9/11 Report: a Graphic Adaptation (2006) and its 2008 sequel, After 9/11: America’s War on Terror. In 2009 their epic Che: a Graphic Biography was released: separating the man from the myth of Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, universal icon of cool rebellion.

Ernie Colón was born in Puerto Rico in 1931: a creator whose work has been loved by generations of readers. Whether as artist, writer, colourist or editor his contributions have benefited the entire industry from the youngest (Monster in My Pocket, Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost for Harvey Comics, and many similar projects for Marvel’s Star Comics), to the traditional comicbook fans with Battlestar Galactica, Damage Control and Doom 2099 for Marvel, Arak, Son of Thunder and Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld, the Airboy revival for Eclipse, Magnus: Robot Fighter for Valiant and so very many others.

There are also his sophisticated experimental works such as indie thriller Manimal, and his seminal genre graphic novels Ax and the Medusa Chain. Since 2005 he’s been hard at work on the strip SpyCat for Weekly World News.

Jacobson and Colón together are a comics fan’s dream come true and their bold choice of biography and reportage as well as their unique take on characters and events always pays great dividends. Vlad the Impaler is by far their most captivating project to date: a fictionalised account of the notorious Wallachian prince who was raised by his enemies as a literal hostage to fortune, only to reconquer and lose his country not once, but many times.

The roistering, bloody, brutal life of this Romanian national hero and basis of Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula, is a fascinating, baroque, darkly funny yarn, capturing a troubled soul’s battle with himself as much as the Muslim and Christian superpowers that treated his tiny principality as their plaything.

With startling amounts of sex and violence this book makes no excuses for a patriot and freedom fighter who was driven by his horrific bloodlust and (justifiable?) paranoia to become a complete beast: clearly the very worst of all possible monsters – a human one.

Sharp, witty, robust and engaging, with a quirky twist in the tale, this is a good old-fashioned shocker that any history-loving gore-fiend will adore.

Text © 2009 Sid Jacobson. Art © 2009 Ernie Colón. All rights reserved.

Fire & Water: Bill Everett, the Sub-Mariner and the Birth of Marvel Comics


By Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-166-4

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

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, and this fabulous tome highlights the astounding wizardry of one of the most accomplished draughtsmen and yarn-spinners of that incredibly fertile early period.

As always you can save time and trouble by simply buying the book now rather than waste your valuable off-hours reading my blather, but since I’m going to froth on anyway feel free to accompany me as I delineate just why this tome needs to sit on your “favourites” shelf.

This lavishly illustrated, oversized tome traces the tragic life and awe-inspiring body of work of possibly the most technically accomplished artist of the US comicbook industry: a man of privilege and astonishing pedigree (he was a direct descendent and namesake of iconoclastic poet and artist William Blake) haunted by illness, an addictive personality and especially alcoholism, but a man who nevertheless raised a family, shaped an art-form and left twin legacies: an incredible body of superlative stories and art, and, more importantly, broken lives saved by his becoming a dedicated mentor for Alcoholics Anonymous.

William Blake Everett was born in 1917 into a wealthy and prestigious New England family. Bright and precocious he contracted Tuberculosis when he was twelve and whilst recuperating in Arizona began a life-long affair with and battle against booze. For the rest of his chequered life “Wild Bill” vacillated between magnificent artistic highs and heartbreaking personal lows, covered with chilling frankness in this excellent biography, written in conjunction with the artist’s surviving family.

Although telling, even revelatory and concluding in a happy ending of sorts, what this book really celebrates is not the life but the astounding legacy of Bill Everett. A gifted, driven man, he was a born storyteller who had the sheer naked ability to make all his own worlds real; and for nearly five decades his incredible art and wondrous stories, which began in the heydays of the Pulps (see also Spicy Tales Collection) enthralled and inspired successive generations of fellow dreamers.

His beautiful artwork featured in a variety of magazines before his fortuitous stumbling into the right place at the right time secured Everett’s place in history forever with his creation of the first anti-hero in comics.

Yet even before the advent of the mutant hybrid Sub-Mariner who, along with his elemental counterpart The Human Torch, secured the fortunes of the budding Marvel Comics (covered in a fascinating and detailed account which clears up many controversies that have raged amongst fans ands historians for decades) Everett was a valued and admired writer/artist/letterer/designer whose early seminal triumphs are lovingly covered here in many reproduced strip extracts, sketches and an utterly invaluable collection of original art pages.

Bill Everett was a jobbing cartoonist who drifted into the new world of comicbooks: a budding industry that combined his beloved drawing with his other compulsion – making up stories. The first chronological art selection here features a plethora of his compelling and irresistible covers for Amazing Mystery Funnies, Blue Bolt, Target Comics, Amazing-Man Comics, Victory Comics, Heroic Comics, and the landmark Motion Picture Funnies Weekly (for which he produced not only the pre-Marvel/Timely Sub-Mariner, but also the all-important back cover sales pitch) and many designs and roughs for unpublished titles, interspersed with pages and spreads from early creations Amazing-Man, Dirk the Demon, Skyrocket Steele, Music Master, The Chameleon, Hydroman, Sub-Zero and of course Prince Namor.

The early days of Marvel Mystery Comics and the Sub-Mariner’s own feature title are thoroughly represented with many pages of original art starring not only his aquatic antagonist but also The Fin and Human Torch, and this section is also full of delightful sketches from his four years of service in the Army Corps of Engineers.

The industry had changed radically by the time Everett mustered out: superheroes were on the wane and other genres were rising in popularity. Returning as a freelancer to Marvel/Timely, Everett worked again on Sub-Mariner and even created the sexy spin-off Namora and stillborn kid crusader Marvel Boy, but it was with the series Venus that he moved in a new direction: glamorous, glorious horror.

For over a decade he brought a sheen of irresistible quality to the generally second-rate chillers Timely/Atlas/Marvel generated in competition with genre front-runners EC Comics. It’s easy to see how they could compete and even outlive EC, with these lush and lurid examples of the hundreds of stunning covers and chillingly beautiful interior pages selected from such titles as Mystic, Menace, Astonishing, Adventures into Weird Worlds, Uncanny Tales, Suspense, Marvel Tales, Spellbound, Mystery Tales, Men’s Adventures and others. My only quibble is that unlike the companion volume featuring unsung genius Mort Meskin (see From Shadow to Light) there are no complete stories collected in this otherwise perfect primer.

Despite being unacknowledged as a master of terror, this period was probably Everett’s most technically adroit, but he also excelled in the other genre-ghettoes of the period. His ability to freeze manic action and convey tension into a single image made him the perfect choice for lead cover artist in the burgeoning military comics fields as can be seen in examples from Man Comics, Navy Tales, Battlefield, Navy Action, Navy Combat and others.

Everett truly excelled in the lush, stylistic depiction of action and horror themes – as well as the seductive delineation of sexy women, although he was equally effective in less histrionic arenas such as merchandising art, wholesome western, romances, cartoon and Bigfoot comedy styles, represented here by pages and covers from such diverse publications as Marvin the Mouse, Nellie the Nurse, Cracked, Jann of the Jungle, True Secrets, Girl Confessions, Bible Tales For Young Folk, Tales of Justice, Quick Trigger Western, Yellow Claw, Sports Action, Pussycat and so many others.

His final creative period follows his return to Marvel after time in the commercial art world and covers the creation of Daredevil, unsatisfactory runs on the Hulk, Dr. Strange, Sub-Mariner, Rawhide Kid and others as well as his stints inking Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, Ross Andru, Herb Trimpe, Dan Adkins and Barry Windsor Smith, before, clean and sober after decades, he produced a landmark run on his signature Sub-Mariner.

Tragically, decades of smoking and alcohol abuse had taken its toll, and only four years after turning his life around he died of complications arising from heart surgery, just when he seemed on the cusp of a brilliant creative renewal as remarkable as his meteoric rise in the 1930s and 1940s.

Evocatively written by biographer Blake Bell, with dozens of first hand accounts from family, friends and contemporaries; the sad, unjust life of this key figure of comics art is lovingly recounted here with hundreds of artistic examples from school days, army service, commercial and cartoon illustration and many intimate photographs supplementing the treasure trove of comics images. By tracking Everett’s early career as a pulp magazine illustrator, through his pioneering superhero art to the moody masterpieces of the 1950s and the Pop Art comics renaissance of the his later years, Fire and Water offers an opportunity to revel in the mastery of a truly unique pillar of America’s sequential Art establishment.

Most importantly for collectors and art-fans there is a overwhelming abundance of beautiful comics magic; from compelling page layouts, sketches and compositions to bold, vibrant pencils and slick luscious inking, and for we comics cognoscenti, the jackpot of never-before-seen unpublished pages: penciled, inked and camera-ready art-boards, as well as illustrations, family pieces and examples of his non-comics career

Brilliant, captivating, and utterly unmissable, this is the book Bill Everett deserves – and so do you.

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

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.