Ding Dong Daddy From Dingburg (Zippy Annual #10)

By Bill Griffith (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-389-7

Starting life as an underground cartoon in 1971, Bill Griffith’s absurdist commentary on American society has grown into such a prodigious and pervasive counter-culture landmark that it’s almost a bastion of the civilisation it constantly scrutinises. Almost: there’s still a lot of Americans who don’t like and certainly don’t get Zippy the Pinhead.

Legendarily based on the microcephalic Schlitzie from Tod Browning’s controversial 1932 film “Freaks” and P.T. Barnum’s carnival attraction Zip the Pinhead, Griffith’s Muu-Muu clad simpleton first appeared in Real Pulp Comix #1 (March 1971) and other scurrilous home-made commix before winning a regular slot in the prominent youth culture newspaper The Berkley Barb in 1976. Soon picking up syndication across America and the world, Zippy “dropped in” when in 1985 King Features began syndicating the strip, launching it in the San Francisco Examiner.

Zippy’s ruminations and dada-ist anti-exploits have expanded over the years to include his own nuclear family and cat, a peculiar cast of iconic semi regulars like Mr. The Toad, embodiment of Capitalism, Griffy (an analogue of the cartoonist creator) and brother Lippy (a conceptual and ideological opposite in the grand tradition of Happy Hooligan’s sibling Gloomy Gus: Lippy is the epitome of the average mainstream US citizen) plus an entire town of like-minded pinheads – Dingburg.

The strip follows few conventions although it is brilliantly drawn. Plot-lines and narratives, even day to day traditional gags are usually eschewed in favour of declamatory statements of absurdist, quasi-philosophical and often surreal concept-strings that resemble word (and occasionally picture) association or automatic writing, all highlighting the ongoing tsunami of globalisation as experienced by every acme of our modern culture from the latest fad in consumer electronics to celebrity fashion and “newsfotainment”.

The strip is the home of the damning non-sequitur and has added to the global lexicon such phrases as “Yow!” and “Are we having fun yet?”

Being free of logical constraint and internal consistency, Zippy’s daily and Sunday forays against The Norm can encompass everything from time travel, talking objects, shopping lists, radical philosophy, caricature, packaging ingredients, political and social ponderings and even purely visual or calligraphic episodes. It is weird and wonderful and not to everybody’s tastes…

This current volume (16 and counting) is broken into themed segments beginning with an extended tour of his home town: meeting the everyday folk and getting to know them in ‘Back to Dingburg’, which is followed by a selection of informed conversations with three dimensional commercial signage and advertising statuary in ‘Roadside Attractions’.

The central section reprints a selection of ‘Sunday Color’ strips, followed by a collection of muses and meanderings between character and creators via ‘Zippy and Griffy’ cunningly counter-pointed by a extended sequence of existential ripostes, spiritual revelations and biblical revisions when ‘God’ comes for an uninvited visit to Dingburg.

‘The Usual Suspects’ introduces new readers to such luminaries as Mr. The Toad, and recurring topics such as the spoof comic-strip-within-a-strip Fletcher and Tanya, before the book concludes with a brief but illuminating conglomeration of strips featuring the pinhead as a boy in the pastiche-frenzied  ‘Little Zippy.’

The collected musings of America’s most engaging Idiot-Savant have all the trappings of the perfect cult-strip and this latest volume finds cretin and creator on absolute top form. If you like this sort of stuff you’ll adore this enticing slice of it. Yow!

© 2008, 2009, 2010 Bill Griffith. All rights reserved.

Dr. Watchstop: Adventures in Time and Space

By Ken Macklin (Eclipse Books)
ISBN: 0-913035-85-8

Before becoming a successful games artist for LucasArts graphic adventure games (I don’t actually grok push-button fun but I gather that Maniac Mansion, Loom, the second and third Monkey Island contraptions and the character Bubsy the bobcat number among his electronic hits) Ken Macklin was an underground/small press creator who delighted in cleverly whimsical and witty funny animal strips during the late 1970s in indy publications such as Quack!

Married to equally talented anthropomorphic raconteur Lela Dowling, he assisted and contributed to her marvelously manic Weasel Patrol tales, which were published in the lost and long-lamented sci-fi anthology Fusion whilst producing his own diabolically wonderful one-shot space opera romp Contractors and the stimulating vignettes gathered here.

As well as a talented designer and illustrator Macklin is a gifted painter and slyly devious writer and in 1982 he began selling brief, luxurious mini-epics starring an astonishingly brilliant but outrageous innocent multi-discipline savant named Dr. Watchstop to Epic Illustrated and Fusion: high quality graphic fantasy magazines aimed at older readers.

In an era where science fiction was synonymous with and indistinguishable from cops and cowboys with blasters, Watchstop’s antics were contemplative, slapstick, wickedly ironic, eyes wide-open wonderments that only saw the ridiculous side of technology and the future cosmos…

Still readily available this oversized compilation gathers all those marvelously intellectual, winningly funny spoofs and japes, opening in glorious painted colour with ‘Dr. Watchstop Faces the Future’ (Epic #10 February 1982), possibly the last word in time paradox tales, followed by an amoebic dalliance ‘One Cell at a Time’ before demonstrating the downside of ancient alien artifacts in ‘Time Bomb’ (Epic #14 and #17 respectively).

If possible Macklin’s art is even better as monochrome tonal washes, as perfectly illustrated in the hilarious ‘Unique Specimen’ (Fusion #1, January 1987), life-through-a-lens fable ‘Modern Culture’ (Fusion #3) and natural history segments ‘Right Stuff’ (Fusion #7) and ‘Bugs’ (Fusion #5).

‘Relic’ (Fusion #2) is pure Future Shock whilst full-colour ‘The Single Electron Proof’ from Epic #21(September 1983, and with the timely assistance of Toren Smith) will stretch the higher mathematics prodigies amongst us with a little metaphysical tomfoolery.

Epic #29 provided a first home for ‘In Search of Ancient Myths’, #33 both ‘Reaching Out’ and ‘Beating the Heat’ whilst the last colour cosmic conundrum ‘Wasting Time’ debuted in #34. The remainder of this collection features more black and white antics from Fusion, beginning with the vaudevillian ‘Gone Fishing’ (#4), moving adroitly into ‘Xlerg’s Fossil Emporium’ (#8) and anarchically culminating in a riotous Weasel Patrol collaboration enigmatically entitled ‘The Weasels Fill In’ from Fusion #9 (May 1988)

Sheer artistic ability and incisive comedy for smart people is never going to be out of style and this stellar compilation will be a constant joy for any fan smart enough to unearth it.
© 1989 Ken Macklin, and where appropriate Raymond E. Feist, Toren Smith, Lela Dowling and LX Ltd. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents House of Mystery volume 1

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0786-1

American comicbooks started slowly until the creation of superheroes unleashed a torrent of creative imitation and invented a new genre. Implacably vested in the Second World War, the Overman swept all before him (and the very occasional her) until the troops came home and older genres supplanted the Fights ‘n’ Tights crowd.

Although new kids kept up the buying, much of the previous generation also retained their four-colour habit but increasingly sought older themes in the reading matter. The war years altered the psychology of the world, and as a more world-weary, cynical young public came to see that all the fighting and dying hadn’t really changed anything their chosen forms of entertainment (film and prose as well as comics) reflected this. As well as Western, War and Crime comics, madcap escapist comedy and anthropomorphic funny animal features were immediately resurgent, but gradually another periodic revival of spiritualism and interest in the supernatural led to a wave of increasingly impressive, evocative and even shocking horror comics.

There had been grisly, gory and supernatural stars before, including a pantheon of ghosts, monsters and wizards draped in mystery-man garb and trappings (the Spectre, Mr. Justice, Sgt. Spook, Frankenstein, The Heap, Sargon the Sorcerer, Zatara, Dr. Fate and dozens of others), but these had been victims of circumstance: the unknown as a power source for super-heroics. Now the focus shifted to ordinary mortals thrown into a world beyond their ken with the intention of unsettling, not vicariously empowering, the reader.

Almost every publisher jumped on the increasingly popular bandwagon, with B & I (which became the magical one-man-band Richard E. Hughes’ American Comics Group) launching the first regularly published horror comic in the Autumn of 1948, although Adventures Into the Unknown was technically pipped by Avon who had released an impressive single issue entitled Eerie in January 1947 before launching a regular series in 1951, by which time Classics Illustrated had already long milked the literary end of the medium with adaptations of the Headless Horseman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both 1943), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1944) and Frankenstein (1945) among others.

If we’re keeping score this was also the period in which Joe Simon and Jack Kirby identified another “mature market” gap and invented the Romance comic (Young Romance #1, September 1947) but they too saw the sales potential for spooky material, resulting in the seminal Black Magic (launched in 1950) and boldly obscure psychological drama anthology Strange World of Your Dreams (1952).

The company that would become DC Comics bowed to the inevitable and launched a comparatively straight-laced anthology that nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles with the December 1951/January 1952 launch of The House of Mystery. When the hysterical censorship scandal which led to witch-hunting hearings (feel free to type Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, April- June 1954 into your search engine at any time… You can do that because it’s ostensibly a free country now) was curtailed by the industry adopting a castrating straitjacket of self regulatory rules HoM and its sister title House of Secrets were dialled back into rationalistic, fantasy adventure vehicles, and even became super-hero tinged split-books (With Martian Manhunter and Dial H for Hero in HoM, and Eclipso sharing space with Mark Merlin and later Prince Ra-Man in HoS).

However nothing combats censorship better than falling profits and at the end of the 1960s the Silver Age superhero boom stalled and crashed, leading to the surviving publishers of the field agreeing to loosen their self-imposed restraints against crime and horror comics. Nobody much cared about gangster titles but as the liberalisation coincided with another bump in global interest in all aspects of the Worlds Beyond, the resurrection of scary stories was a foregone conclusion and obvious “no-brainer.” Even the ultra wholesome Archie comics re-entered the field with their rather tasty line of Red Circle thrillers

Thus with absolutely no fanfare at all issue #174, cover dated May-June 1968 presented a bold banner demanding “Do You Dare Enter The House of Mystery?” and reprinted a bunch of admittedly excellent short fantastic thrillers originally seen in House of Secrets from the heady days when it was okay to scare kids. Staring off was ‘The Wondrous Witch’s Cauldron’ (HoS #58) by an unknown writer and compellingly illustrated by the great Lee Elias, another uncredited script ‘The Man Who Hated Good Luck!’ limned by Doug Wildey and the only new feature of the issue – one which would set the tone for decades to come.

Page 13 was a trenchantly comedic feature page scripted by Editor and EC veteran Joe Orlando and cartooned by manic Hispanic genius Sergio Aragonés. It stated quite clearly that whilst the intent was to thrill, enthral and even appal it was all in the spirit of sinister fun, and gallows humour was the order of the day. The comic then concluded with a Bernard Baily tale of the unexpected ‘The Museum of Worthless Inventions’ (from #13) and concluded with the Jack Miller, Carmine Infantino & Mort Meskin fantasy fable ‘The Court of Creatures’ (a Mark Merlin masterpiece from HoS #43).

The next issue can probably be counted as the true start of this latter day revenant renaissance, as Orlando revived the EC tradition of slyly sardonic narrators by creating the Machiavellian Cain, “caretaker of the House of Mystery” and raconteur par excellence. Behind the first of a spectacular series of creepy covers from Neal Adams lurked another reprint ‘The Gift of Doom’ (from HoM #137, illustrated by George Roussos) followed by ‘All Alone’, an original, uncredited prose chiller.

After another Page 13 side-splitter, Aragonés launched his long-running gag page ‘Cain’s Game Room’ and the issue closed with an all-new new comic thriller ‘The House of Gargoyles!’ by veteran scaremongers Bob Haney and Jack Sparling.

With format firmly established and commercially successful the fear-fest was off and running. Stunning Adams covers, painfully punny introductory segments and interspersed gag pages (originally just Aragonés but eventually supplemented by other cartoonists such as John Albano, Lore Shoberg and John Costanza. This feature eventually grew popular enough to be spun off into bizarrely outrageous comicbook called Plop! – but that’s a subject for another day…) supplied an element of continuity to an increasingly superior range of self-contained supernatural thrillers. Moreover, if ever deadline distress loomed there was always a wealth of superb old material to fill in with.

HoM #176 led with spectral thriller ‘The House of No Return!’ by an unknown writer and the great Sid Greene and young Marv Wolfman (one of an absolute Who’s Who of budding writers who went on to bigger things) teamed with Sparling on the paranoiac mad science shocker ‘The Root of Evil!’

Another reprinted masterpiece of form from Mort Meskin (see From Shadow to Light for more about this unsung genius of the art-form) led off #177, ‘The Son of the Monstross Monster’ having previously appeared in House of Mystery #130. and 1950’s fearsome fact page was recycled into ‘Odds and Ends from Cain’s Cellar’ before Charles King and Orlando’s illustrated prose piece ‘Last Meal’ and dream team Howie (Anthro) Post and Bill Draut produced a ghoulish period parable in ‘The Curse of the Cat.’

Neal Adams debuted as an interior illustrator – and writer – with a mind-boggling virtuoso performance as a little boy survived ‘The Game’, after which Jim Mooney’s spooky credentials were recalled with ‘The Man Who Haunted a Ghost’ (first seen in HoM #35) and E. Nelson Bridwell, Win Mortimer & George Roussos delineated an eternal dream with ‘What’s the Youth?’ and ‘Cain’s True Case Files: Ghostly Miners’ closed the issue.

Bridwell contributed the claustrophobic ‘Sour Note’ in issue #179 rendered by the uniquely visionary Jerry Grandenetti and Roussos and the next generation of comics genius begun with the first Bernie Wrightson creepy contribution. ‘Cain’s True Case Files: The Man Who Murdered Himself’ was scripted by Marv Wolfman and is still a stunning example of gothic perfection in the artist’s Graham Ingels inspired lush, fine-line style.

This exceptional artists issue also contains the moody supernatural romance ‘The Widow’s Walk’ by Post. Adams & Orlando – a subtle shift from schlocky black humour to moody supernatural tragedy that would undoubtedly appeal to the increasingly expanding female readership. The issue ends with another fact feature ‘Cain’s True Case Files: The Dead Tell Tales’.

Going from strength to strength House of Mystery was increasingly drawing on DC’s major artistic resources. ‘Comes a Warrior’ which opened #180, was a chilling faux Sword & Sorcery masterpiece written and drawn by the da Vinci of Dynamism Gil Kane, inked by the incomparable Wally Wood, and the same art team also illustrated Mike Friedrich’s fourth-wall demolishing ‘His Name is Cain Kane!’ Cliff Rhodes and Orlando contributed the text-terror ‘Oscar Horns In!’ and Wolfman & Wrightson returned with the prophetic vignette ‘Scared to Life’ An uncredited forensic history lesson from ‘Cain’s True Case Files’ closed the proceedings for that month.

‘Sir Greeley’s Revenge!’ by Otto Binder and drawn by the quirkily capable Sparling was a heart-warmingly genteel spook story, but Wrightson’s first long story – a fantastic reincarnation saga entitled ‘The Circle of Satan’, scripted by Bob Kanigher, ended #181 on a eerily unsettling note and #182 opened with one of the most impressive tales of the entire run. Jack Oleck’s take on the old cursed mirror plot was elevated to high art as his script ‘The Devil’s Doorway’ was illustrated by the incredible Alex Toth. Wolfman and Wayne Howard then followed with ‘Cain’s True Case Files: Grave Results!’ an Orlando limned house promotion and the nightmarish revenge tale ‘The Hound of Night!’

Oleck and Grandenetti opened #183 with ‘The Haunting!’, ‘Odds and Ends from Cain’s Cellar’ returned with ‘Curse of the Blankenship’s and ‘Superstitions About Spiders’ and Wolfman & Wrightson contributed ‘Cain’s True Case Files: The Dead Can Kill!’ before the canny teaming of Kanigher with Grandenetti and Wally Wood resulted in the truly bizarre ‘Secret of the Whale’s Vengeance.’ The next issue saw the triumphant return of Oleck & Toth for the captivating Egyptian tomb raider epic ‘Turner’s Treasure’ and Bridwell, Kane & Wood for a barbarian blockbuster ‘The Eyes of the Basilisk!’

House of Mystery #185 saw caretaker Cain take a more active role in the all-Grandenetti yarn ‘Boom!’, Wayne Howard illustrated the sinister ‘Voice From the Dead!’ and veteran Charlton scribe Joe Gill debuted with ‘The Beautiful Beast’: a lost world romance perfectly pictured by EC alumnus Al Williamson. Next issue topped even that as Wrightson illustrated Kanigher’s spectacular bestiary tale ‘The Secret of the Egyptian Cat’ and Neal Adams produced some his best art ever for Oleck’s poignant tale of imagination and childhood lost ‘Nightmare’. Nobody who ever adored Mr. Tumnus could read this little gem without choking up… and as for the rest of you, I just despair…

Kanigher & Toth produced another brilliantly disquieting drama in ‘Mask of the Red Fox’ to open #187, and Wayne Howard was at his workmanlike best on ‘Cain’s True Case Files: Appointment Beyond the Grave!’ before John Celardo & Mike Peppe apparently illustrated the anonymous script for the period peril ‘An Aura of Death!’ (although to my jaded old eyes the penciller looks more like Win Mortimer…)

Another revolutionary moment began with the first story in #188, cover dated September-October 1970. Gerry Conway got an early boost scripting ‘Dark City of Doom’, a chilling reincarnation mystery set in both contemporary times and Mayan South America as the trailblazer for a magnificent tidal wave of Filipino artists debuted. The stunning art of Tony DeZuniga opened the door for many of his talented countrymen to enter and reshape both Marvel and DC’s graphic landscape and this black and white compendium is the perfect vehicle to see their mastery of line and texture…

Wrightson was responsible for the time-lost thriller ‘House of Madness!’ which closed that issue whilst Aragonés opened the proceedings for #189, closely followed by Kanigher, Grandenetti & Wood’s ‘Eyes of the Cat’ and a 1953 reprint drawn by Leonard Starr, ‘The Deadly Game of G-H-O-S-T’ (from HoM #11) before another Charlton mystery superstar premiered as Tom Sutton illustrated Oleck’s ‘The Thing in the Chair’.

Kanigher and Toth teamed for another impeccable graphic masterwork in ‘Fright!’, Albano filled Cain’s Game Room and Aragonés debuted another long-running gag page with ‘Cain’s Gargoyles’ and this issue ended with a Salem-based shocker ‘A Witch Must Die!’ (by Jack Miller, Ric Estrada & Frank Giacoia). Issue #191 saw the official debut of Len Wein who wrote the terrifying puppet-show tragedy ‘No Strings Attached!’ for Bill Draut and DeZuniga returned to draw Oleck’s cautionary tale ‘The Hanging Tree!’ before Wein closed the show paired with Wrightson on ‘Night-Prowler!’ a seasonal instant-classic that has been reprinted many times since.

John Albano wrote ‘The Garden of Eden!’, a sinister surgical stunner, made utterly believably by Jim Aparo’s polished art, and Gray Morrow illustrated Kanigher’s modern psycho-drama ‘Image of Darkness’ and superhero veteran Don Heck returned to his suspenseful roots drawing Virgil North’s monstrously whimsical ‘Nobody Loves a Lizard!’

Wrightson contributed the first of many magnificent covers for #193, depicting the graveyard terrors of Alan Riefe & DeZuniga’s ‘Voodoo Vengeance!’, whilst Bill Draut skilfully delineated the screaming tension of Francis X. Bushmaster’s ‘Dark Knight, Dark Dreams!’

For #194, which saw House of Mystery expand from 32 to 52 pages – as did all DC’s titles for the next couple of years, opening the doors for a superb period of new material and the best of the company’s prodigious archives to an appreciative, impressionable audience – the magic began with another bravura Toth contribution in Oleck’s ‘Born Loser’ swiftly followed by the Russ Heath illustrated monster thriller ‘The Human Wave’ (from House of Secrets #31), a Jack Kirby monster-work ‘The Negative Man’ (House of Mystery #84) before Oleck and the simply stunning Nestor Redondo (see also The Bible: DC Limited Collectors Edition C-36) closed the issue and this first volume with the metamorphic horror ‘The King is Dead’.

These terror-tales captivated the reading public and comics critics alike when they first appeared and it’s no exaggeration to posit that they may well have saved the company during the dire downward sales spiral of the 1970. Now their blend of sinister mirth and classical suspense situations can most usually be seen in such series as Goosebumps, Horrible Histories and their many imitators. If you crave beautifully realised, tastefully, splatter-free sagas of tension and imagination, not to mention a huge supply of bad-taste, kid-friendly creepy cartooning The House of Mystery is the place for you…

© 1968-1971, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Too Soon?: Famous/Infamous Faces 1995-2010

By Drew Friedman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN 13: 978-1-60699-537-6

Technically, this isn’t a graphic novel or trade collection, it’s a picture book – but it is an absolutely stunning one, collecting some of the best and most trenchantly funny illustrations by a contender for the title of America’s Greatest Living Caricaturist in a lavish, full-colour hardback.

Drew Friedman began drawing commercially in the late 1970s. His meticulous, stippled monochrome satirical and socially biting cartoons of celebrities – and the rare comic strip – appearing in RAW, Screw, High Times, Weirdo, Comical Funnies, Heavy Metal, National Lampoon and the Holy of Holies MAD Magazine.

Gradually he moved into the publishing mainstream, and the phizzogs and foibles of the Rich and Famous gathered here are culled from a number of eclectic sources including Time, Newsweek, The New Yorker, GQ Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, Village Voice, Mojo, The New Republic, The Los Angeles Times, The Weekly Standard, Blab!, Maximum Golf and even the gun-totin’ sports organ Field & Stream among many others – an hilarious cavalcade of covers and spot illustrations by a master of the graphic ideal moment.

After a funny and extremely informative potted history the mostly painted (but with occasional pen, wash, tone and even charcoal examples), staggeringly cruel, cutting and insightful images are unleashed, beginning with a section covering political and business highflyers.

The period 1995 to 2010 turned up an unenviable horde of risible leaders and manipulative malcontents and included here are 107 cartoon snapshots of such luminaries as the Clintons, Monica Lewinsky, Helmut Kohl, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Al Gore, Ross Perot, Sarah Palin, “Mayor Mike” Bloomberg, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Dick Cheney and many other domestic demagogues as well as such international ideologues as Tony Blair, Yasser Arafat, Mother Theresa, Jacques Chirac and Osama Bin Laden among many others.

The second section deals with Showbiz types ancient and modern, an includes a couple of astonishingly grand panoramic gatefold fold outs amidst the 140+ illustrations featuring super-stars and should-have-beens from sports, music, acting, the media and that nebulous twilight world of people who are famous without actually doing or achieving anything.

The roster includes Tiny Tim, Dean Martin, Sinatra, John Lennon, Michael Jackson (lots of him at various stages of his life-long metamorphosis), Tommy Lee, Madonna, Fred MacMurray, Judy Garland, Jackie Chan, Bob Dylan, Brando, De Niro, Woody Allen, Stallone, Will Smith, Tiger Woods, Mike Tyson, Jack Nicholson and so many others. The volume also includes some book and CD covers and private commissions, and also a fresh selection of the artist’s favourite artistic subjects: sideshow freaks and obscure Jewish and vintage comedians.

Friedman is a master craftsman who can draw and paint with breathtaking power, and his work is intrinsically funny. It’s relatively simple to make Blair, Bush or Bin Laden look like buffoons but try it with Rod Serling, Marilyn Manson, Mother Theresa or Salman Rushdie…

His caricatures are powerful, resonant and joyful, but without ever really descending to the level of graphic malice preferred by such luminaries as Ralph Steadman or Gerald Scarfe. Too Soon? is a book for art lovers, celebrity stalkers and anyone who enjoys a pretty, good laugh.

© 2006 Drew Friedman. All Rights Reserved.

You can see sample pages on the arts website www.Drawger.com

Nightschool: The Weirn Books volume 1

By Svetlana Chmakova (Yen Books)
ISBN: 978-0-7595-2859-8

The sub-genre of supernatural students and spooky schooldays has come a long way since the days of the Worst Witch or even Buffy of Sunnydale High, but this tantalising and impressive entry from Svetlana Chmakova (whose delightful series Dramacon introduced her as a major talent in the international manga world) which stands head and shoulders above the crowd and simply cries out for greater exposure.

PS 13W is just an ordinary High School during the day, but when darkness falls the place is sublet to an entirely different faculty teaching a far more bizarre and dangerous student body (well, different anyway – I’ve seen the everyday shamble of oiks, nerds, preppies and deviants that tumble out of our local educational establishment come chucking out time only to stampede past my front door on their way to celebrate their temporary freedom in mischief, malice and mishap…)

Because this Nightschool caters to such a diverse and often predatory catchment, the usual staff of wizardly teachers and assistants is generally supplemented by a Night Keeper – a supernatural security agent who keeps the peace and minimises collateral damage when students and staff – witches, warlocks (collectively known as Weirn), werewolves, vampires and every shade of juvenile haunt and horror – join in the business of Education.

Sadly the latest Keeper, thoroughly modern Miss Sarah Treveney has something of a punctuality problem… Although the school caters for a broad spectrum of monsters, Sarah’s sister Alexius has to be home-schooled due to an unspecified secret problem, and splitting her time between teaching Alex the magic of the Weirn all day and working all night is taking its toll…

The peace that keeps mortals safe from the assorted eldritch tribes is due to an ancient pact: A Treaty administered by an enigmatic cult of young warriors called Hunters who prowl the city dealing with supernatural threats. They are led by a charismatic teacher called Daemon. Later volumes will eventually reveal a history of ancient strife and impending chaos, but for this first collection (comprising the first six months of the strip) they simply patrol and police the places where rogue night creatures prowl…

When Daemon’s team rescue a young Seer, Marina, from unscrupulous mortals seeking to exploit her prophetic abilities she warns him that a long-dormant menace is breaking the seals which have kept it safely imprisoned for centuries…

Unknown to Sarah, little sister is not the housebound claustrophobe she imagines. Driven by urgings beyond her comprehension Alex often roams the night with only her astral familiar to protect her from mortals and monsters – or is it the other way round?

When she invades a cemetery Alex stumbles across a romantic vampiric tryst and Daemon’s Hunter team in the process of ending it. Suddenly all parties are attacked by Rippers – mindless devolved Nosferatu, all claws and teeth and burning lethal hunger…

When the spectacular battle ends Alex is gone and although more than a match for any known magical threat, three of the Hunters lie mysteriously comatose. The younger Treveny wakes safely at home with no recollection of how she returned, but at the Nightschool things aren’t going so well for Sarah.

Making inroads with the staff and students the Night Keeper thinks she might just make a real go of her job, but when a kid she doesn’t recognize lures her into a horrifying trap she disappears from sight and memory of everybody who once knew her. Moreover, all physical evidence of her existence is fading too. At home Alex sees a photograph gradually disappear and realises she must to something. Girding herself she enrolls in the midnight high school, as all over the cities something very nasty is stalking the Hunters…

This is the merely the opening stage of a much larger and more complex epic, (which has been and is still steadily progressing in monthly installments in the Japanese magazine Yen Plus since August 2008), so it might be preferable to pick up the first three volumes – all that has been collected into books so far – and tackle them at once.

However, the sheer exuberance and quality of storytelling and art here is enough to carry this first book; blending mystery, comedy and spellbinding action with a huge cast of engaging characters. Fun, thrilling and wonderfully addictive.

© 2009 Svetlana Chmakova. All Rights Reserved.

Lucky in Love Book 1: A Poor Man’s History

By George Chieffet & Stephen DeStefano (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-354-5

The medium of comics has a number of inbuilt advantages: it is quick, it is personal, the only limits are imagination and ability and – most importantly for this magical work – it is both magically modern and potently, subversively nostalgic. A book with pictures in it is one of our oldest and most effective technological creations, but it is also astoundingly instant and immediate.

In stunning black ink on gloriously evocative sepia pages (that startling shade which so terrifies comicbook collectors, presaging the imminent crumbling to dust of their beloved artifacts) comes a light-hearted, heavy-hitting barbed-edged faux autobiography that is a moving testament to the life of the average Joe.

Teacher, poet, author and playwright George Chieffet combines with the supremely talented cartoonist and animator Stephen DeStefano (when, oh when will DC release a ‘Mazing Man compilation volume… and while were at it where’s the Hero Hotline book too?) to delineate discrete episodes in the ordinary epic of a little American with the gift of the gab, growing up Italian in Hoboken, New Jersey – just a dreaming glance away from the neon allure of New York City.

After a sparkling dream-sequence prologue which introduces us to the modern “Lucky” Testaduda, the book opens with the first of three chapter-plays starring our diminutive narrator recollecting the key moments of his long life. ‘Lucky Fifteen’ finds the horny kid on the cusp of manhood in 1943, dreaming of girls and flying and getting into the war; spending his days at the movies, shooting the breeze with his pals and trying to get laid… but always the spectre of something bigger, better and far more dangerous than “the neighborhood” is looming…

‘Lucky at War’ sees the kid a lowly mechanic rather than glamorous pilot of his dreams, still hungry for sex but as always preferring to “talk the good fight” rather than get down and dirty. Mentoring. for which read “showing off” to even callower youths than he, a trip to the off-base cat-house as the war in the Pacific draws to a close goes uncomfortably awry. Moreover when a distant acquaintance is lost in a bomber Lucky worked on, his care-free life takes a melancholy turn…

Returning home in 1946 ‘Lucky Triumphant’ finds the young veteran having trouble readjusting. For the folks in Hoboken it’s a boom-time with sons returned and the promise of peace and prosperity, but the only work the de-mobbed mechanic can get is through shamefully exploiting the memory of a dead comrade he didn’t even really know…

In lots of ways Lucky’s world hasn’t changed at all since he was that eager, horny kid, but when a genuinely honest, victorious moment is soured because of unwanted familial nepotism Lucky begins to realise that just maybe he has

Drawn in a wild and captivating pastiche of Zoot-Suit era animated styles and frenetically Jitterbugging teen movies; marrying Milt Gross’ ‘He Done Her Wrong’ and ‘Count Screwloose’ to Milton Knight’s ‘Hugo’ and ‘Midnight the Rebel Skunk’ the bold, broadly Bigfoot cartooning style used imparts a seductive gaiety to the folksy monologue and completely disguises the subtle landmines this tale conceals in the narrative.

It looks fun and funny – and indeed it is – but the content delves far deeper than mere jolly japes of yesteryear. Lucky’s journey is full of heartbreak and injustice masked by the character’s innate bravado and self-delusion, thus the festive interpretation of fantasy and reality hits you below the conscious level like a blackjack in a velvet pillowcase.

Lucky in Love is utterly absorbing, purely cartoon entertainment, strictly for adults and immensely enjoyable. The concluding volume is scheduled for release in 2013 and it can’t come a second too soon for me…

© 2010 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Girls Bravo volumes 1-3

By Mario Kaneda, translated & adapted by Asuka Yoshizu & Steve Bunche (TokyoPop)
ISBNs: 978-1-59816-040-6, 978-1-59816-041-3 & 978-1-59816-042-0

Here’s another large slice of manga magic that took the world by storm when it inevitably transferred to the anime screen, and another of those uncomfortably inappropriate teen-sex comedies that so delight the Japanese and generally bewilder we less socially ossified westerners. Aimed at older teens this type of tale fully acknowledges and draws seemingly endless amusement from the fact that boys and girls of a certain age are hormone-crazed muskrats desperate to catch furtive snatches of each other’s proscribed bits and only conscience and social pressure keeps them from being even more intolerable than they are.

If only it got any easier with advanced age…

These tales first appeared in the Japanese magazine Shōnen Ace from 2000 to 2005 and were eventually collected in ten volumes of frantic, frenetic slapstick, excruciating comedy-of-manners gaffes, gusset glimpses, shower-scenes, fantasy fun and burgeoning young love.

‘Gārusu Burabō’ is the story of a hapless high school student named Yukinari Sasaki, a short, dim nebbish who is so put upon, teased and bullied by girls – and even his female teachers – that he has developed a condition which brings him out in hives every time anything with no Y chromosomes touches him. His condition is further compounded by the fact that the neighbours’ daughter Kirie, a girl he has known since childhood, and a girl he can at least talk to, has recently changed.

Her shy and awkward nature has developed into a crush he is oblivious to, but unfortunately said crush has devolved into a series of violent assaults every time she gets flustered, and with Sasaki, she gets flustered a lot… At some time when nobody was paying attention she blossomed into an astonishingly well-endowed young woman – something else that embarrasses her greatly and often leads to red-faced punches and kicks…

After a particularly trying day Yukinari returns home and stumbles into Kirie using his shower. He’s flustered, she’s naked and while he’s being pummelled by the blushing, panicked girl he falls into the bath… and emerges into another world and another naked girl’s bath…

But this is a completely different kind of girl. She is genuinely concerned, solicitous, even shorter than him and most importantly not screaming or hitting. Moreover Miharu can touch him without setting off his allergic reaction. All she cares about is his welfare and what earth food is like.

The world of Siren is a revelation; a magical place where women outnumber men 9-1. When her older sister Maharu spots the unattached male she makes a violent play for Yukinari, chasing him into the streets where every female in range tries to capture the fleeing boy-toy.

Miharu rescues him and they double back to her bathroom, but the pursuers are too close and the fugitives fall into the bath – and arrive back in Yukinari’s shower, still occupied by the perplexed, naked and fuming Kirie.

Miharu is apparently stuck on Earth: the perfect companion for the gynophobic lad. She never attacks him, doesn’t cause hives, has magic powers and only cares about food. Unfortunately she’s as naive as a newborn hamster and bewitchingly beautiful, so the hoi-polloi at school trail after her like dogs after biscuits, especially wealthy school stud Fukuyama, a glorious young god of manliness who hides a secret of his own: he is so male-phobic that he has an attack of hives every time a male touches him. He is driven crazy by Miharu’s indifference to him…

Meanwhile hopeless Yukinari is still being teased and bullied by all girls and regularly happening into situations where Kirie is undressed and volatile…

This first volume covers the set-up of the formulae, with lots of stories about simplistic Miharu’s desire to eat anything not nailed down, platonically care for Yukinari and tendency to be duped into wearing revealing or fetishistic clothing by the lecherous Fukuyama. Despite being always hungry and able to consume practically anything Miharu is a brilliant cook, unlike Kirie whose recipes are only really appreciated by terrorists looking for new bio-weapons. Yukinari increasingly has to spend his time protecting the gullible alien’s non-existent modesty…

Gradually the series takes a more supernatural turn as the unhappy ménage-a-trouble encounter an undressed ghost girl and Fukuyama’s sister Risa: a young sorceress convinced that beleaguered Yukinari is her predestined husband and willing to use all her wiles and witchcraft to make him hers – if it means destroying or even befriending Miharu and Kirie…

The first volume ends with a light-hearted and hottie-filled adaptation of traditional Japanese folk-tale Momotaro (the Peach Boy).

Volume 2 continues Risa’s campaign. She casts spells on Yukinari, tries to convince Miharu that her attentions are preventing the diminutive lad from forming normal relationships or shaking his allergic phobia and things get completely crazy when the Siren girl drinks alcohol and begins to replicate herself uncontrollably…

Yukinari still keeps getting accidental, unwelcome and concomitantly painful glimpses of girls whilst growing increasingly fond of Miharu, even battling the hulking alpha male Fukuyama to protect her, but when amnesiac Koyomi appears thing get very strange indeed. For one thing she is the only other girl able to resist the school stud’s dubious charms, she doesn’t give Yukinari hives and when flustered or scared giant pits open in the floor under her…She is in fact an agent from Siren sent to recover the missing Miharu, and when her memory returns she transports her quarry home before Yukinari’s tear-filled eyes…

Of course she does return, and this second volume concludes with another side story; a day in the life of sexy super-stud Fukuyama – or at least in his fevered, fetid mind…

Volume 3 opens with the cast being coerced by the ghastly Lothario into a game of strip Mah-Jong where the returned Konomi (on a secret mission for Miharu’s sister) is Fukuyama’s latest lewd target. Sadly for him she suffers from the same condition as he does – she too is androphobic and repelled by the touch of men…

Konomi’s mission is revealed and she begins searching for a perfect husband for Miharu’s strident, overbearing sister; inevitably leading to some very uncomfortable situations, as do the girls’ communal attempts to earn some extra money, before everything goes really crazy when Kirie falls through Risa’s mirror into a world where all her friends have reversed personalities…

Sweet-natured Miharu’s attempts to buy all her friends New Year’s Gifts goes painfully awry before all ends well, and her celebration of the Setsubun festival (where bad luck is symbolically removed by throwing Soya beans out of the house) also falls flat – but only because Risa summoned real evil spirits to the party… The volume ends on a heartbreakingly beguiling tale of a little girl abandoned in the snow – a story so moving it’s worth buying all three volumes just to read this sparkling gem in perfect context…

Irrepressibly juvenile but great fun and beautifully drawn, this is a series as likely to titillate as offend, but it’s all good clean smut really, harmless and charming and bound to delight girl watchers and anyone enduring puberty or recalling it with any degree of honesty…

© 2001, 2002 Mario Kaneda. English text © 2005, 2006 Tokyopop Inc. All rights reserved.

Norman Pettingill: Backwoods Humorist

Edited by Gary Groth, with an introduction by Robert Crumb (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-319-4

It’s a big planet and there are many places to hide an artistic prodigy. That’s never been more capably proved than in the case of Norman Pettingill, a lost hero of the workaday craft aesthetic who lived and died in Wisconsin, revelling in a backwoods life living off the land and supporting his family with personalised cartoons, jobbing art such as postcards and commercial signage, commissioned illustrations and simply stunning personal works: mostly natural scenes and reportage of the hunting and fishing community he lived in.

He worked in seclusion until his incredibly intense, ribald and frenetic postcard art was discovered by Robert Crumb who immediately reprinted them in his Underground Commix magazine Weirdo. These over-sized scenes were multi-layered, packed with hundreds of characters acting in micro-scenes and grotesquely raw and vulgar: like Hieronymus Bosch, Basil Wolverton and Leo Baxendale working all on the same page.

This superb book, rough and rustic with a wooden front cover, tells the life-story of this truly driven artist – who could no more stop drawing than breathe underwater. Self-taught and clearly besotted with the creative process, Pettingill was clearly not a man afraid to fill a page with extras, and the work gathered here, collected by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (a major conserver of folk art of the American mid-west) shows a true original equally at home drawing pictures to pay bills and making masterpieces because he couldn’t stop himself.

Gathered here are many of his astoundingly frantic, charmingly gruesome postcard tableaux, featuring hunters, boozers and what we’d call hillbillies but what Pettingill probably called the neighbours, as well as more intimate personal creations; family collages, gloriously entrancing pen and ink studies of the beasts and birds he lived amongst – and hunted – and even the doodles he adorned the envelopes of letters with.

His surreal, bawdy, raw concoctions mirrored and presaged the graphic license and social freedoms of the 1960s counterculture (although he really started his artistic journey twenty years  earlier) but even though his fans today include such iconoclastic cartoonists as Crumb and Johnny Ryan, Pettingill’s appeal is far wider than just grist for us pen-and-ink pushers.

With his fondly cynical, wry observation and piercingly incisive eye Norman Pettingill became a societal camera onto a time and place in rural and even wild America that we seldom see nowadays: a warmly honest raconteur, part of a tradition that includes and spans the fierce and gentle ranges from Garrison Keillor’s elegiac (and positively local) Lake Wobegon tales to the razor-edged self-examination of the Southern kinfolk typified by the gagsters of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour: a purely American humour by and for the ordinary guy.

This first retrospective of Pettingill’s art is stuffed with more than a hundred of his most telling monochrome pieces and will appeal to cartoon-lovers and people watchers equally.

© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Individual contributions © 2010 their authors. Unless otherwise noted all photography and art © 2010 John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Art from the collections of Glenn Bray, R. Crumb and Jim Pink © 2010 the estate of Norman Pettingill.

Dame Darcy’s Meat Cake

By Dame Darcy (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-346-0

Since 1993 Dame Darcy has been building a weird, wistful and Gothically girlish fantasy

universe in her oddly enchanting comicbook Meat Cake, as well as the occasional graphic novel and collection such as Frightful Fairytales, The Illustrated Jane Eyre, Dollerium, Comic Book Tattoo, Gasoline and others. Now an affordable black and white paperback reprinting the best moody marvels from the first eleven issues is available and keenly awaits your effulgent appreciation.

Darcy Megan Stanger is a prolific and restless artist, musician, animator, dollmaker, interior designer, fashion model, art teacher and reality TCV star – one of those ever-so-likable, infuriating do-it-alls modern society is increasingly populated by.

For some her darkly comic, magic-infested, mock-Victorian realm of slender, ethereal, hauntingly lovely gamins and ghastly side-show freaks might be a step too far. This is a stark place with no room for dull, fat people or the plain visaged…

Certainly this collection is best read in measured instalments, lest the girly-girl blend of Edwardian emo-fashion, Jazz-age make up, tragic love-stories, sinister childhoods, ghostly interventions, maids behaving badly and “fractured fairy-tale” moral instruction lose its power to affect, but the sensibilities of modern female characters thriving in a gloomy imaginative otherplace is one that is rich with entertainment potential especially when scripted with the deliciously scandalous wit of la Dama.

Although some few non-related snippets are included, the major portion of the book concerns the tribulations of a rather distinctive cast of self-absorbed, grotesque and genteel ladies of varied means and character. There’s shrinking violet Friend The Girl, the abrasive Richard Dirt, the constantly bickering conjoined twins Hindrance and Perfidia, seductive, bitchy mermaid Effluvia, Strega Pez, who communicates through a livid gash in her throat, the talkative crustacean Scampi the Shellfish, the utterly bonkers wise woman Granny, Igpay and undead, monstrous token male Wax Wolf, all living in a world at once similar and wondrously ancient and removed.

In sultry, sinister or just plain strange tales like ‘Laughing All the Way to the Bank’, ‘Shrimpboats is A-Comin’’, ‘Employ Ahoy!’, ‘Bus-Ted’, ‘Hookie Lau Breakfast Special’, ‘The Hitch-Hiker’, ‘Grave Concerns’, ‘Happy Hi-Jinx’, ‘Lessons on the Principles of Magnetism’, ‘Honey’, ‘Dirty Rich’, ‘Demon Drink’, ‘Silver Lining’ and ‘Fruit Bat’ the extended eccentric cast live their odd and abstracted lives for us whilst in longer fables such as ‘The Juicer and the Cake Walk’, ‘The Next Holy Virgin’, ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, ‘Stained Glass’, ‘The Ghost Filly’, ‘Sweet William and Lady Margaret’, ‘EZ Bake Coven’ and ‘Latch Key Kids Cookbook’ Darcy demonstrates her love and tacit understanding of classical storytelling and particularly Gothic Romance fantasies.

Amidst the assorted unaligned graphical gags and oddments are such brief gems as ‘Ruby Rack! Ruby Rack!’, ‘The Wishing Star’, ‘Existence Forgets’, ‘Spontaneous Generation’, ‘Puppet Show’ (an homage to cartoon pioneer Gustave Verbeek), and an acerbic assemblage of actively skewed ‘Old Nursery Rhymes’ as well as some decidedly quirky autobiographical incidents like ‘Double Trouble or Freaky Friday’, ‘Paper Doll Fun!’, ‘Your Diary’, ‘My Patron’ and ‘Show Me My Hand’ but the absolute show-stealer is her baroque, wilfully whimsical satire-fest with Alan Moore who scripted the marvellously captivating ‘Hungry is the Heart’: a spectacular expose of the extraordinary life and times of turn of the century Society Maverick, Wild-Woman and Button Magnate Wellington Woolenboy AKA Jumbalor – “Damp String Woman”.

Macabre, hilarious and addictively odd, Meat Cake satisfies appetites you can’t believe you have. This is a book for girls that every comicbook guy really needs to see…

© 2010 Dame Darcy. All rights reserved.

The Book of Mr. Natural (Profane Tales of that Old Mystic Madcap)

By Robert Crumb (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-352-1

Robert Crumb is a unique force in the world of comics and cartooning with as many foes as fans, but his idiosyncratic, unflinching, controversial but always enchanting work is impossible to ignore. This beautiful black and white hardback collects a varied and impressive selection of strips starring his most famous character produced between 1967 and 1995 and as always touches on the creator’s most intimate and disturbing idiosyncrasies regarding sex and women, both in the unsettling Abstract and the painful, side-splitting, lustful, painful and loving Concrete.

Therefore if harsh language, mild blasphemy, artfully grotesque cartoon nudity and comedic fornication are liable to upset you, stop reading this review and don’t buy the book.

For the rest of us; here’s a quick rundown of what’s in store…

Mr. Natural is a short, balding, bewhiskered, be-robed guru and engagingly vulgar huckster who began selling enlightenment and simple living in the May 5th 1967 issue of counter-culture paper Yarrowstalks. His assaults on the vapidity and venality of the modern world were reproduced and absorbed by an astoundingly broad variety of truth-seekers and laugh lovers who followed the succession of strips in an incomprehensible number of places.

The little wise guy had genuine insight and even greater powers, but peddled his wisdom for crass, material cash or other, less transferable favours. Obviously, and lucky for us all, he’s the only Holy Man or preacher ever to do such a reprehensible, unspiritual thing…

Of the twenty-seven tales gathered here, ranging from single-page strips to the epic 40 page ‘Mr. Natural and Devil Girl’ there are a number of classic yarns that seemingly everyone has seen or heard of but also one or two genuinely rare experiences –  particularly the wonderfully dense and informative ‘Origins of Mr. Natural’.

A less charitable reviewer might suspect that this book has been padded out with older material simply to give the legendary Devil Girl saga – originally serialised in Hup and never before collected into book form – a more accessible and commercially appetising home… and if so I applaud the move as that 1991 tale is one of the most wonderfully jolly and unsettling pieces of work Crumb has yet produced.

Flakey Foont was the foil of many of the earlier strips and a handy barometer of Everyman America. Over the decades the ex-disciple who was beguiled, reviled and defiled by “The Natch” eventually Turned Off, Tuned Out and Dropped back “In”, but found himself losing all self-control when confronted in his happily middle-class suburban family paradise by the returned Sage and the raw, lustful female animal that was both antithetical enemy and willing slave…

Other notable gems include Mr. Natural in Death Valley’, Mr. Natural Visits the City’, ‘It’s Workaday World’, Mr. Natural Goes to a Meeting of the Minds’, ‘Sunny Side Up’ ‘Om Sweet Om’, ‘Mr. Natural Stops Talking’, ‘A Girl in Hotpants, ‘The Girlfriend’ and the utterly perfect and fully zeitgeisted Mr. Natural’s 719th Meditation’, a plethora of revelation and confrontation that still provides merriment and queasy shock in equal proportion.

Crumb’s subtle mastery of his art-form and compulsive, uncompromising need to reveal his most hidden depths and perceived defects – in himself and the world around him – has always been a unquenchable wellspring of challenging comedy and riotous rumination. This magical, mystical tome is an ideal dipping book for occasional slices of his raucous wit and the perfect vehicle to introduce any (definitively over 18) newcomers of your acquaintance to the world of grown up comics.

© 1967, 1968, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1986, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1995, 2010 R. Crumb. All Rights Reserved. Edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books, Inc.