Small Press Sunday

I started out in this game just before the pyramids were built, making minicomics, collaborating on fanzines and concocting stripzines with fellow weirdoes, outcasts and comics addicts. Even today, seeing the raw stuff of creativity in hand-crafted paper pamphlets – or better yet professionally printed packages which put dreamers’ money where their mouths are – still gets me going in ways that threaten my tired old heart…

With that in mind here’s a quartet of little gems and treats that have landed in my review tray recently…

Wolf Country #1-4
By Jim Alexander, Will Pickering & Luke Cooper (Planet Jimbot)

No ISBNs:

As well as stunning graphic novels, independent publisher Planet Jimbot (likely lads Jim Alexander & Jim Campbell) also deliver proper comicbooks, and possibly their best title of the moment is an eerie ongoing otherworld religio-political saga with disturbing echoes of Westerns like Unforgiven and The Searchers.

Of course here the “good guys” are a sect of devout vampires stuck in a fort in the desolate badlands, surrounded by hostile tribes of werewolves, whilst their own progress-minded government are methodically abandoning the old ways they cherish in favour of a soulless, ruthless, rationalist super-state…

Wolf Country #1 by Alexander and illustrator Luke Cooper opens in the big city and introduces ‘Luke’, a young man with a potent future which begins to unfold when a gigantic wolf-thing goes rogue in the metropolis yet is somehow miraculously destroyed by the inconsequential waif.

Three years later the infamous “Boy Who Killed Wolf” has relocated to The Settlement, a fundamentalist outpost on the frontier between vampire and werewolf territories where the faithful follow the doctrines of their Holy Scriptures and daily confront their eternal enemies in the traditional ways. Here, after a close encounter with the hirsute savages, young Luke explains what actually happened that night to his companion, mentor and chief scout Carmichael

The boy’s unlikely feat made him an overnight sensation among vampire-kind, a symbol of prophecy proved; but the adulation and agendas of others were not for him and as soon as he reached his majority – and despite being an unbeliever – he headed out to The Settlement to live his own life and seek his own answers…

Perhaps it was that drive that compelled him to go native and stay out all alone in the wilderness after he and Carmichael narrowly escaped a wolf attack…


Wolf Country #2 finds Will Pickering taking up the illustrator’s burden – although Cooper remains as cover artist – as ‘Kingdom Come’ follows Settlement leader Zealot Halfpenny as he reluctantly transports a captured werewolf back to the decadent, science-loving city.

It is not his idea. As the helicopter takes the sacrificial beast to The Kingdom for the populace’s regular Bread-and Circuses bloodletting, Halfpenny is ordered to stay aboard whilst a contingent of arrogant, irreverent, heavily-armed troops billet themselves in his spartan badlands fort.

It seems the High Executor himself wants to see the leader of the quaint religious freaks. Apparently there is talk and fallout over The Settlement’s loss of the legendary and beloved “Boy Who Killed Wolf”…

Later, whilst menacing atheist Sergeant Urquhart attempts to intimidate and dominate the settlers, in faraway City Chambers Halfpenny learns the real reason he has been summoned…


The suspense mounts in ‘Wax and Wane’ (WC #3, which also proudly lists the plethora of awards the first two issues garnered) when, at the Settlement, Urquhart presses the devout throwbacks into joining him in a sortie against the lupine tribes just as the moon enters its most dangerous phase.

Meanwhile in the Kingdom, Halfpenny is dragooned into working as a stalking horse for the draconian Department of Purity, interviewing a radical named Fabian currently living in the bloodily bohemian enclave of wrong-thinkers and backwards-lookers dubbed “Free State”…

In the badlands natural foes Carmichael and Urquhart warily test each other out and quite forget who their real enemies are, but in Free State Halfpenny’s interview with Fabian goes disastrously awry. The rebel has honeyed words and access to sacred writings which shake the pious outsider to his core, but before he can properly form a response the Executor’s troops move in and start slaughtering…

Meanwhile back at the Settlement, with the soldiers and male settlers still deep in-country, the massed wolf tribes attack the fort…


Fresh off the presses, Wolf County #4 (with supplemental interior art from Cooper) brings us up to date and pops the mounting tension bubble with all-out action as the Settlement walls are breached before the ‘Cavalry’ arrive, whilst in Free State a murderous riot ensues and Halfpenny reveals the uncanny abilities which underpin his ferocious reverence to Scripture…

And in the bloody aftermath at the fort, an unchecked and out-of-control Urquhart now turns his sadistic attention on the settlers in his quest for the truth about Luke’s whereabouts…

To Be Continued…

Brooding, intriguing and utterly compelling from the get-go, Wolf Country takes an overworked trope and transfuses it with new sparkle and true potency as heroism, passion, faith and ambition all take a pounding as a war between Church and State becomes increasingly derailed by hairy barbarians at the gate and the visions of an outrider from the wilderness divining a dangerous and radical third way for all…

Story © 2013, 2014, 2015 Jim Alexander. Art © 2014, 2015 Will Pickering. Issue one art © 2013, Luke Cooper.

Wolf Country and other fine comics and books are available at the Planet Jimbot shop so go to : https://www.etsy.com/uk/shop/PlanetJimbot

Civil War Adventure


By Chuck Dixon & Gary Kwapisz, with Esteve Polls, Enrique Villagran, Silvestre & Erik Burnham (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-79509-6

From its earliest inception, cartooning and graphic narrative has been used to inform. In newspapers, magazines and especially comicbooks the sheer power of pictorial storytelling – with its ability to distil technical recreations of time, place and personage whilst creating deep emotional affinities to past or imagined events – has been used to forge unforgettable images and characters within us. When those stories affect the lives of generations of readers, the force that they can apply in a commercial, social, political or especially educational arena is almost irresistible…

Thus the compelling power of graphic narrative to efficiently, potently and evocatively disseminate vast amounts of information and seductively advocate complex issues with great conviction through layered levels has always been most effectively used in works with a political, social or historical component.

Comics have brought the past to life since they began. Superb examples of a broad view include such triumphs as Jack Jaxon’s Los Tejanos and Comanche Moon or more recently The Loxleys and the War of 1812 and Fight The Power – a Visual History of Protest Among the English Speaking Peoples, but the medium is equally adept in crafting more personal biographs such as Terry Eisele & Jonathon Riddle’s With Only Five Plums or Wilfred Santiago’s “21”: the Story of Roberto Clemente.

And that brings us to another superb and welcome re-release from Dover Comics & Graphic Novels intended to bring “The War Between the States” to life for younger readers.

Originally published by History Graphics Press in 2009 as Civil War Adventure 1: Real History Stories of the War that Divided America, this marvellous monochrome tome – crafted primarily by gritty fantasy comics veterans Chuck Dixon and Gary Kwapisz – alternates actual historical events, maps, diagrams and found writings with a fictionalised thread of tales depicting how the conflict affected one poor Southern family.

The graphic re-enactments are preceded by a ‘Map of the United States’ detailing the division of the States in 1860 and a ‘Civil War Timeline’ which marks key moments and battles (sensibly linking them directly to the stories which follow) after which ‘Choice of Targets’ by Dixon and Esteve Polls features a text vignette explaining the development of snipers and sharpshooters before offering a pithy moment during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 when opposing marksmen found themselves in a life-or-death duel…

‘Berdan’s Sharpshooters’ is a short cartoon lesson on the innovative Union soldier who invented the concept of snipers, promptly followed by a chilling and heartrending incident of battlefield misfortune in Dixon & Kwapisz’s ‘Home Again’ after which an illustrated info and glossary page reproduces an actual letter from a Confederate lad the night before he fell…

‘Mosby Bags a General’ – an all Kwapisz affair – combines a potted history of the South’s most successful raider with a compelling strip revealing how bold Lieutenant John Mosby infiltrated far behind Union lines to capture 58 horses , thirty prisoners and their captain plus sleeping General Stoughton, all in one night…

‘Tempered in Blood’ (Dixon & Kwapisz) then introduces the narrative strand as the simple Campbell clan are torn apart when, after heated family discussion, both father and first son Tybalt sneak off from the farm to enlist in the Spring of 1861.

Each confidently assures themselves that all the shooting will all be over long before harvest and they unknowingly individually abandon Mrs. Campbell and the little sisters to link up with the overconfident volunteers massing for what everybody believes will be one fast knockout blow…

After barely surviving the brutal training that turns hunters, croppers and ploughmen into real soldiers, the Southern heroes finally learn what warfare means at Bull Run…

More contemporary terms, factual data and historical insight is offered in ‘The War is Joined!’ before ‘The Devil’s Due’ (Kwapisz) delves into the atrocity of total warfare as a Bluecoat patrol diligently follows its bald orders to “turn the South into a wasteland”…

A fact-feature page on ‘John Singleton Mosby’ leads to a feature on rising star and flamboyant self-aggrandiser George Armstrong Custer whose rash adventuring leads ‘The Boy General’ (Dixon & Enrique Villagran) into desperate straits against overwhelming rebel opposition… resulting in Custer’s First Stand…

Information pages on the devastating ‘Sharps Rifle’ and the double-pronged naval blockade of the Mississippi River spins off into an account of the duel between ironclad vessels and the brilliant countermeasure devised by Colonel Charles Ellet in ‘Ram Squadron’ (Dixon & Silvestre), capped off with a Kwapisz segment detailing ‘Hell on the Mississippi’ as a Union flotilla horrifically fails to sneak past the naval guns established above Vicksburg…

‘Tempered in Blood II’ returns to the troubled Campbell Clan as Ty wakes in the bloody aftermath of battle to discover his best friend Seth has had enough and absconded. By the time he has found and brought back Seth, however, he discovers his own father has similarly fled.

The elder is not running from bloody death but heading home to save his farm from ruin and family from fever, but that won’t make any difference if he’s picked up by ruthless and remorseless Confederate Picquets…

The tragic true tale of ‘Colonel Cocke’ and his unseemly death gives way to the ribald eccentricity of ‘Darnel Dingus is a…’ which reveals the insane and impecunious ends to which some States descended to ensure their manpower obligations were met. The tale is couched in the story of famous war artist Winslow Homer and a practical joking jackass who learned the hard way that war isn’t funny, and is appended by an grim examination of ‘The Ultimate Punishment’ for desertion under fire and other – even worse – infringements…

The strip section then closes with a sobering and ironic tale of comeuppance in ‘The Letter’ by Erik Burnham & Kwapisz wherein a burned-out sawbones steals a missive from one of his less lucky patients and chases a dream to a woman he has fallen for based solely on her handwriting and prose…

Following one last Kwapisz-illustrated info page – on ‘Battle Field Surgery’ – this stunning introduction to the birth of modern warfare ends with a comparative list of

‘Further Reading’ and a moving notification of how to learn more in ‘If the Valley Was Lost’.

Similar in tone and style to the best of Harvey Kurtzman’s triumphant anti-war classics from Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, this is a rousing, evocative and potently instructive collection which melds history and horrific entertainment – and not a little grim wit and actual belly-laughs – to bring a pivotal time to vivid life.

© 2009 Chuck Dixon &Gary Kwapisz. All other material © 2015 its respective creators.

Civil War Adventure will be in stores from May 20th 2015 and is available for pre-order now. Check out www.doverpublications.com or your internet retailer or comic shop of choice.

Where the Bird Sings Best


By Alejandro Jodorowsky, translated Alfred MacAdam (Restless Books)
ISBN: 978-1-63206-028-0

Alejandro Jodorowsky Prullansky is a filmmaker, playwright, actor, author, comics writer, world traveller, philosopher and spiritual guru who was born in Tocopilla, Chile in 1929.

How his immediate ancestors got there from pogrom-afflicted Russia at the beginning of the 20th century is only the faintest shadow of the body of this astounding, marvellously mythologized and mesmerisingly “Magic Realism” filtered family history…

The amazing modern polymath is most widely known for such films as Fando y Lis, El Topo, The Holy Mountain, Sante Sangre, The Rainbow Thief, The Dance of Reality and others, as well as his vast comics output, including Anibal 5 (created whilst living in Mexico), Le Lama blanc, Aliot, The Meta-Barons, Borgia, Madwoman of the Sacred Heart and so many more, co-created with some of South America and Europe’s greatest artists.

His decade-long collaboration with Moebius on the Tarot-inspired adventure The Incal (1981-1989) completely redefined and reinvented what comics could aspire to and achieve.

Best regarded for his violently surreal avant-garde films, loaded with highly-charged, inspired imagery – blending mysticism and what he terms “religious provocation” – and his spiritually-informed fantasy and science fiction comics tales, Jodorowsky is also fascinated by humanity’s inner realms and has devised his own doctrine of therapeutic healing: Psychomagic, Psychogenealogy and Initiatic massage. He still remains fully engaged and active in all these creative areas to this day.

He is also a raconteur of spellbinding imagination and truly devilish wit, all fully exercised and demonstrated in this stunning, outrageous re-imagining of the history of his antecedents, which was first published in 1992 as Donde mejor canta un Pájaro.

An astounding prose poem – intoxicatingly translated from the Spanish for this first English-language hardback edition by Professor of Latin American Literature Alfred MacAdam – this is an addictively enjoyable rollercoaster of arcane and obscene episodes seamlessly sewn together as Jodorowsky bounces across time and space, weaving stories of apostate Jewish grandmothers sharing their hatred for God, unworldly yet adaptable husbands, incestuous relations and relatives, all with a knack for finding disasters, wars, inquisitions, exploiters, monstrous suppressions, wanton violence and casual brutality…

The mythologized epic of immigration and Diaspora is filled with unforgettable and improbable sexual situations, fortunes – usually in gold or diamonds – found and lost in the blink of an eye, animal encounters of the most outré kinds, earthquake-surfing and the kind of bizarre wisdom and ad hoc solutions only folk in perpetual crisis resort and adhere to.

The saga is engagingly peopled with utterly unique characters such as an assortment of plebeian and domestic visionary-seers, sheep-abusing Tsar/hermits, dwarves, prophets, prostitutes, sorcerers and demagogues, transsexual ballerinas, unlikely libertines, holistic bee-keeping pioneers, Kabbalists and victims of every stripe, shysters and gentle conmen, fully-immersive lion-tamers and knife-throwers and the ghost of a Rabbi whose path for successive generations of the family involves regular last-minute salvations but not necessarily happiness, safety or security…

With the history slyly couched in terms of entertainment performances and themes of ballet and the circus, the mystic and miraculous generational saga explosively unfolds, reveals and even chronologically doubles back upon itself to share the experiences of a most accursed and blessed clan during the most difficult and dangerous period in human history, and even finds a moment to reveal the true origins and history of the Tarot…

An absolute crescendo of beguiling ideas, breathtakingly shocking, surreal scenarios, unholy grotesques, outspoken opinions and wickedly blasphemous visions, this is a wonder to read and utterly pointless to attempt reviewing.

It’s brilliant, read it now or regret it forever.

Not for the innocent, unimaginative or faint-hearted – although those souls are the ones who would benefit most from seeing it – Where the Bird Sings Best is that rarest of literary curios: a book not to be merely read but fully experienced.
© 2014 Alejandro Jodorowsky. Translation © 2014 Alfred Macadam.

A Sailor’s Story


By Sam Glanzman (Dover Comics & Graphic Novels)
ISBN: 978-0-486-79812-7

Inexplicably, many superb creators who dedicate a lifetime to producing a volume of work are never properly rewarded for their efforts. Probably the most shamefully neglected of these hidden stars – at least in the American comicbook industry – is Sam Glanzman.

With a solid, uniquely informative and engagingly rough-hewn style, “SJG” has worked since the 1940s on a variety of titles for a host of publishers, mostly on material in war, mystery, fantasy and adventure anthologies, but also occasionally on serial characters such as Willy Schulz, Hercules and Tarzan for Charlton, the astoundingly cool (and shamefully still uncollected) Kona, King of Monster Island for Dell and for DC The Haunted Tank and most significantly for us here U.S.S. Stevens (DD 479).

It is this last series of guardedly-autobiographical tales, derived from his tour of duty on that self-same American navy Destroyer during World War II, which formed the precedent for the superb compilation at last collected here – and if anybody from DC is reading this, those U.S.S. Stevens strips are so-very-long overdue for a trade paperback treatment, too…

This criminally neglected talent had been quietly and resolutely generating comics magic for decades in his underplayed, effective and matter-of-fact manner and was still improving – crafting superb narrative art without flash or dazzle, winning fans among the cognoscenti yet largely unnoticed or at least unlauded by mainstream fans – when in 1987 he produced a quasi-autobiographical graphic novel that made quite a few waves.

Marvel editor Larry Hama made the bold decision to publish Glanzman’s understated, unadorned, wryly elegiac account of his days as a young man aboard a Pacific Fleet Destroyer as part of the company’s Original Graphic Novel imprint.

A Sailor’s Story captivatingly related his experiences as a young man aboard the U.S.S. Stevens in a no-nonsense, highly entertaining manner and broke new ground in the progress of the graphic novel as a medium for artistic expression. It also reached a lot of buyers who wouldn’t be caught dead with a copy of Spider-Man or Conan

It was a high point in American sequential narrative and even spawned a sequel volume – an unprecedented feat for the line at a time when superheroes and licensed properties monopolised the marketplace.

Glanzman is a natural storyteller, with the ability to make dry fact entrancing and everyday events compelling. With his raw, gritty drawing style and powerful sense of colour he weaves memory into magic. His depiction of ship-board life is informative and authentic, and his decision to down-play action and concentrate on character is brave and tremendously effective. He also knows how to make a reader laugh and cry, and when.

A Sailor’s Story is a moving and obviously heartfelt paean to lost days: an impassioned tribute to lost friends and comrades; a war story that glorifies life, not death, by a creator who loved the experience and loves his art-form. When you read this superb book you will too.

Utterly devoid of unnecessary melodrama and conniving faux-angst, the history lesson starts as young Sam J. Glanzman enlists one year after Pearl Harbor – as soon as he turns 18. All the orphan leaves behind him in frigid upstate New York is one friendly farmer who promises to look after his devoted dog Beauty

What follows is a mesmerising succession of snippets and memories and observations pieced together into a mosaic of life afloat during wartime: learning to speak what amounts to a new language, playing pranks and growing up in a pressure cooker. Along the way you make a few friends, some enemies but mostly just acquaintances: people doing the same things as you at the same time in the same place, but not necessarily for the same reasons and certainly with no dreams except having it all end…

Sam sees the world, the best and worst of life and survives the sailor’s greatest enemies: unseen, distant strangers trying to kill you, mindless tedium and dire, soul-destroying repetitive routine, eventually finding his niche – if never a decent place to sleep…

Through brief and terrifying clashes with the enemy, intimate associations and alliances aboard ship, intimate assignations ashore or on the frequent and increasingly bizarre and hilarious “Liberties” (those breaks from active duty us TV-reared landlubbers all mistakenly think of as “shore leave”), the author debunks the myth of the magic of the seas, only to recreate it recast in terms any modern reader will instantly understand…

Eventually the war ends and long after that so does the sailor’s service, with only the merest few of his unforgettable memories shared…

The sheer overwhelming veracity of the episodes is utterly overwhelming. Raucously funny, ineffably sad – “Beauty’s fate” will break your heart or you’re not and never have been human – devoutly forgiving, patiently understanding and stunningly authentic…

This long longed-for complete edition (thank you, Dover Books!) also includes that sequel from 1989. Wind, Dreams and Dragons returns to the Pacific at the height of the war with a specific theme in mind and, by clever use of narrative devices such as Ship’s Travel Logs incorporated into the beguiling page designs, diagrams and cutaways as part of the text plus astoundingly affecting intimate details – most trenchantly humorous – fondly recalled and seamlessly staged, manages to instil an even more documentary atmosphere into this wonderfully human-scaled drama.

This is used to create a foreboding sense of dread as the crew encounters and learns to live with the then-unknown terror weapon of suicide-pilots who would become a household name to us: Kamikaze

Combining the folksy, informative charm of the first volume with the “hurry-up-and-wait” tension of modern warfare, all delivered in an increasingly bold and innovative graphic style, Wind, Dreams and Dragons is one of the best explorations ever produced of sea-combat as seen through the eyes of the ordinary seaman and compellingly communicates the terror, resolve and sheer disbelief that men on both sides could sacrifice so much…

This is a fitting and evocative tribute from one who was there to all those who are no longer here…

As if those back-to-back blockbusters were not enough, this oversized (279x210mm), fully colour-remastered paperback tome comes with a flotilla of extras beginning with a Foreword by Max (World War Z) Brooks and Introduction from original editor Larry Hama.

Following the colourful comics there is also a star-studded ‘Tributes’ section by Glanzman’s contemporaries: moving and frequently awe-struck commemorations, appreciations, shared memories and even many art contributions from Alan Barnard, George Pratt, Beau Smith (who shares a personal sketch SJG created for him), Stephen R. Bissette, Carl Potts, Chris Claremont, Denny O’Neil, Kurt Busiek, Stan Lee, Paul Levitz, Joe R. Lansdale, Walt Simonson, Russ Heath, Joe Kubert, Steve Fears, Thomas Yeates, Timothy Truman, Will Franz and Mark Wheatley.

There’s even a splendid photo parade entitled ‘Sam’s Scrapbook’ and warmly impassioned ‘Afterword’ by Chuck Dixon.

Topping everything is a new 10-page black-&-white hauntingly powerful USS Stevens tale entitled ‘Even Dead Birds Have Wings’. Now all we have to do is get those 50 or so USS Stevens micro classics tales into a book too… as soon as possible…

Shockingly raw, painfully authentic, staggeringly beautiful, A Sailor’s Story is a magnificent work by one of the very best of “The Greatest Generation”, a sublimely insightful, affecting and rewarding graphic memoir every home, school and library should have…
Artwork and text © 2015 Sam Glanzman. All other material © 2015 its respective creators.

A Sailor’s Story will be released on May 29th 2015 and is available for pre-order now. Check out www.doverpublications.com or your internet retailer or comic shop of choice.

An Age of License – a Travelogue


By Lucy Knisley (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-768-0

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: a fresh taste of all that’s right about comics and creators… 8/10

Since I first started reading comics (sometime soon after the discovery of fire) the industry and art form has undergone a magical transformation in styles and formats and a huge expansion in content.

Where once the medium was populated with heroes and horrors, fantasies and wish fulfilment exercises, these days literally anything can become the engrossing and absorbing meat of graphic narrative, dependent only upon the skill and passions of dedicated and inspired artisan creators.

A superb example of this broadening of strip horizons is globe-girdling cartooning diarist and epicure Lucy Knisley who has made a career out of documenting her life as it happens, detailing her experiences and fascinations in an engaging and entertaining manner through such graphic missives as French Milk and Relish: My Life in the Kitchen.

Now she’s back with another beguiling slice of graphic verité whish covers a European working vacation come bittersweet lovers tryst.

This latest voyage begins in 2011 when the cat-loving cartoonist was invited to be a guest at Norway’s Raptus Comics Festival. After some understandable dithering and consultation with pals and fellow pros the author agreed, planning to turn the Work Jolly into the start of an extended visit to friends in Germany and vacationing family in France…

As the time nears the daunting plans all come together and Lucy prepares herself by immersing in personal Scandinavian-ness: researching the family history of her Swedish grandparents…

Events obtain a sharper edge in New York in the months immediately preceding the trip as she meets visiting Henrik: a most fanciable lad she agrees to visit in his Stockholm home after the convention…

With her six-venue itinerary sorted all that’s left is for the journey to begin…

Packed with intimate detail and engaging introspection, rendered in clean, clear compelling black line – augmented by occasional bursts of painterly watercolour illustration – this is a fabulously absorbing voyage with a most delightful and forthright travel companion who unstintingly shares her thoughts, feeling and experiences in a manner guaranteed to win over the most jaded fellow passenger – especially as she always garnishes her slivers of new experience with her trademark adventures and observations through the welcoming lens of regional foods made and enjoyed.

Through work, relaxation, the hazy indolence of a love affair and its gradual ending, a phrase she heard in the winemaking region of Beaune in France comes to haunt her.

L’Age license – a time of freedom for youth to try, fail, experiment and learn – fascinates and captivates her and she spends much of her time in France and beyond, searching for its truth, origins and meaning…

Exceedingly funny, sweet, disarmingly incisive, heartwarming, uncompromising and utterly enchanting, this beguiling, moving memoir is a comics experience unlike any other and fans of travel, storytelling and a life well-lived will adore the open, sharing experience it vicariously offers.
An Age of License © 2014 Lucy Knisley. This edition © 2014 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

Jim – Jim Woodring’s Notorious Autojournal


By Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-752-9

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A beguiling glimpse into the early thoughts of a narrative master … 9/10

There are a few uniquely gifted and driven comics creators who simply defy categorisation or even description. There’s a pantheon of artisans: Kirby, Ditko, Hergé, Eisner, Clowes, Meskin, Millionaire and a few others who bring something utterly personal and universally effective to their work just beyond the reviewer’s skills (mine certainly) to elucidate, encapsulate or convey. They are perfect in their own way and so emphatically wonderful that no collection of praise and analysis can do them justice.

You just have to read the stuff yourself.

At the top of that distinguished heap of graphic glitterati is Jim Woodring. It’s a position he has maintained for years and clearly appears capable of holding for generations to come.

Woodring’s work has always been challenging, spiritual, grotesque, philosophical, heartbreaking, funny, beautiful and extremely scary. Moreover, even after reading that sentence you will still be absolutely unprepared for what awaits the first time you encounter any of his books – and even more so if you’ve already seen everything he’s created.

Cartoonist, fine artist, toy-maker and artistic Renaissance man, Woodring’s eccentric output has delighted far too small and select an audience since his first mini-comics forays in 1980. Even though the reader may have avidly adored his groundbreaking oneirically autobiographical Fantagraphics magazine Jim (1986 and cherry-picked for this collection), its notional spin-off series Frank (of which the volume Weathercraft won The Stranger 2010 Genius Award for Literature), maybe Tantalizing Stories, Seeing Things or more mainstream features such as his Star Wars and Aliens tales for Dark Horse Comics, there is still never anything but surprise waiting when his next story appears…

An accomplished storytelling technician these days, Woodring grows rather than constructs solidly surreal, abstractly authentic, wildly rational, primal cartoon universes, wherein his meticulous, clean-lined, sturdily ethereal, mannered blend of woodblock prints, R. Crumb landscapes, expressionist Dreamscapes, religious art and monstrous phantasmagoria all live and play and often eat each other.

His stories follow a logical, progressional narrative – often a surging, non-stop chase from one insane invention to the next – layered with multiple levels of meaning but totally devoid of speech or words, boldly assuming the intense involvement of the reader will participate and complete the creative circuit.

Such was not always the case and this superb and sumptuous oversized (292 x 228mm) hardcover compilation – which gathers his earlier formative and breakthrough efforts in colour and monochrome – offers the very best of his strips, paintings, poems and stories from breakthrough autobiographical magazine JIM and other (sadly unnamed) sources between 1980 and 1996.

This compulsive collection also includes a new 24-page strip starring the artist’s hulking, bewhiskered, aggressively paranoid, dream-plagued family man/cartoonist alter ego, and certainly cements his reputation as a master of subconscious exploration, surreal self-expression and slyly ironic comedic excoriation – and it’s still almost impossible to describe.

You really, really, really have to dive in and discover for yourself…

Packed with hallucinatory spot-images and cover illustrations from JIM, the furtive fruits of Woodring’s ever-present dream-recording “autojournal” are prefaced by a beguiling and informative ‘Author’s Note’ before the wonderment begins with ‘Jim #1 in its entirety’: the complete contents of his very first self-published fanzine from 1980.

A master of silent expressive cartooning, Woodring’s playfully inventively fascination with and love of words and tale-making shines through in such laboriously hand-lettered, illustrated epigrammatic vignettes as ‘Lozenge’ and ‘Jim Today’ as well as witty iconographic concoctions like ‘Tales of Bears’ and ‘Troutcapper Hats’ before the first strip saga details a doomed fishing trip in ‘Seafood Platter from Hell’ and a moment of early silent psychedelia reveals how ‘Two Children Inadvertently Kill an Agent of the Devil Through an Excess of Youthful High Spirits’

Another personal true story and painful brush with disability and imperfection is disclosed in ‘Invisible Hinge’ whilst ‘The Hour of the Kitten’ returns to distressed, disturbed prose before the first of many outrageous faux-ads offers those indispensable conscience-pets ‘Niffers’, preceding another text-trek in ‘A Walk in the Foothills’.

Cats play a large part in these early strips and ‘Big Red’ is probably the cutest bloody-clawed, conscienceless killer you’ll ever meet whilst ‘Enough is Enough’ offers graphic pause before an ad for the home ‘Dreamcorder’ segues into a disturbing poster of rural excess in ‘A Lousy Show’.

‘Particular Mind’ provides a strip encapsulating life-drawing, relationships and hallucinations after which the tempting services provided by ‘Jim’s Discipline Camp’ are counterbalanced by a paean to pharmacopoeia in ‘Good Medicine’.

More savage exploits of ‘Big Red’ lead to a commercial presentation in ‘This is the Meat (…That Changed Me, Dad!)’, whilst ‘Horse Sinister’ describes in prose and pictures another disturbing dream dilemma and ‘At the Old Estate’ introduces a sophisticated loving couple whose wilderness paradise is forever altered by an unwelcome visitor’s incredible revelation. Thereafter a worried young child describes how life changed after he found his parents’ ‘Dinosaur Cage’

The truly eccentric tale of ‘Li’l Rat’ (from a 1965 story by John Dorman) is followed by a visual feast of images from ‘Jim Book of the Dead’ and a surreal flyer for ‘Rolling Cabine’, after which ‘What the Left Hand Did’ captures in strip form the horrors of mutilation and malformation before the macabre tone-painting ‘Almost Home’ leads to an epic strip of father and son fun beginning with ‘Let’s Play!’

Jim’s jaunt soon transports him to ‘Powerland’ where dad meets himself, whilst ‘Nidrian Gardner’ revisits a couple of suave swells whilst ‘Looty’ offers consumers a toy they just shouldn’t own…

‘The Hindu Marriage Game’ leads our unhappy bearded fool to a place where his lack of judgement can truly embarrass him whilst ‘Quarry Story’ explores a debilitating recurring dream about the nature of artistic endeavour and ‘This House’ explains how you can live life without ever going outside again…

The first inklings of the mature creator emerge in absurdist romp ‘The Birthday Party’ after which prose shaggy-dog story ‘The Reform of the Apple’ leads to a dark and distressing cartoon confrontation with doom on ‘The Stairs’ before the largely monochrome meanderings give way to stunning full-colour surreal reveries in ‘Screechy Peachy’.

The radiant hues remain for galvanic image ‘Vher Umst Pknipfer?’ and pantomimic rollercoaster romp ‘Trosper’ before bold black & white introspection resumes with a naked lady and a garrulous frog in ‘Dive Deep’.

A ghostly Hispanic condition of drunkenness haunts a bunch of cruelly playful kids in ‘Pulque’ after which young Max asks dad a leading question in ‘Echo’ and radio rebels Chip and Monk meet some girls and risk the wrath of civic authority with illegal broadcasting in ‘A Hometown Tale’, after which an ideal wife has a bad-tempered off-day in ‘Obviously Not’.

As the years progressed many of Woodring’s later spiritual and graphic signature creatures had slowly begun to appear in his strips. Old met new in ‘His Father Was a Great Machine’ wherein strident Jim has an encounter with a phantasmagorical thing, after which little Susan and a determined slug shaped up for an inevitable collision in the prose fable ‘When the Lobster Whistles on the Hill’.

Sheer whimsy informs ‘Cheap Work/Our Hero is a Bastard’ and the bizarre offerings of ‘Jimland Novelties’ whilst ‘The Smudge-Pot’ shows what all magazine letters pages should be like, after which ‘Pulque’ – in full colour strip mode – returns with a message for the dying before ‘Boyfriend of the Weather’ wraps up the surreal voyages with a homey homily and reproductions of Jim #1, volume 2 back cover and Jim #2, volume 2 cover bring this festival of freakish fun to the finale with style, aplomb and oodles of frosting…

Woodring’s work is not to everyone’s taste or sensibilities – otherwise why would I need to plug his work so earnestly – and, as ever, these astounding drawings have the perilous propensity of repeating like cucumber and making one jump long after the book has been put away, but the artist is an undisputed master of graphic narrative and an affirmed innovator always making new art to challenge us and himself.

He makes us love it and leaves us hungry for more and these early offerings provide the perfect starter course for a full bodied feast of fantasy…

Are you feeling peckish yet…?
© 2014 Jim Woodring. All rights reserved.

How the World Was – A California Childhood


By Emmanuel Guibert translated by Kathryn Pulver (First Second)
ISBN: 978-1-59643-664-0

In 1994 French cartoonist, author and storyteller Emmanuel Guibert(The Photographer, Sardine in Outer Space, The Professor’s Daughter) had a chance encounter with elderly American émigré Alan Cope.

The latter was a veteran of World War II and, as they became firm friends, shared his memories of the conflict and his own modest part in it.

Moved and inspired, the artist transformed those conversational recollections into a beguiling graphic memoir entitled La Guerre d’Alan. The first of three albums was released in 2000 – a year after Cope passed away – and debuted as English-language graphic novel Alan’s War in 2008.

Now, that immensely moving volume has been augmented by a wonderful prequel, also culled from laconic, memorable chats between a young man of artistic mien and an ordinary if contemplative old guy with a long life to recall.

This second dip into the well of the Californian expatriate’s life – originally released in France in 2010 as L’enfance d’Alan – focuses on his formative years in the Golden State as it gradually turned from rural paradise into America’s smoggy, grimy industrial and entertainment powerhouse…

Delivered in a understated yet mesmeric, matter-of-fact manner, the frankly miraculous marriage of memory and narrative art opens in full colour at the end of Alan’s life before slipping into the monochrome past…

Alan Cope was born in 1925 when California was still profoundly insular, distant and undeveloped. Here, through his graphic collaborator he shares the intimate daily details and observational minutia of a keen-eyed boy growing up in a loving family, regularly moving from place to place and generally getting by as honest, hardworking folks did in far simpler times…

Through anecdotes, opinions and intimate family secrets from three generations of the maternal Hanson and Cope lines, a gentle history of joy, tribulation and imperceptible progress unfolds, packed with magical visions of endless days, roller skating, safe and empty streets, pets and pals and pastimes.

Thus all the fascinating insights and misapprehensions of the young and impressionable boy meld into an elegant and elegiac appraisal of a time, place and way of life we are all the poorer for having lost.

Through universally mutual childhood experiences – tussles, escapades with bugs, spiders and snakes, girls, doctors, old rented houses, the ever-present wilderness, poverty, family squabbles and troubles, death and religion – Guibert traces his departed friend’s growth in a world where nothing really happened but did so with inexorable force in ways that could only be properly perceived from the distant safety of later decades.

It was life and you just got on with it…

Utterly magical and captivating in a way mere words cannot express, How the World Was is a loving paean to lost days and a disappearing way of living and thinking, steeped in evocative charm and delivered with easy approachability, gentle humour, enchanting sensitivity and remarkable panache.

Buy it now and read it regularly for as long as you live…

© 2010 Emmanuel Guibert & L’Association. All rights reserved. English translation © 2014 by First Second.

All Star


By Jesse Lonergan (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-835-2

Jesse Lonergan (Flower & Fade, Joe & Azat) is a sublime master of nuanced and mesmerising human dramas wedded to astonishingly hyperkinetic cartooning, and All Star proves he’s getting better all the time.

This latest graphic novel puts a unique spin on that most powerful cocktail of emotions – nostalgia and adolescent cockiness – all embedded in a timeless tale revealing how arrogance and injustice can shape a lifetime…

Previously released as 8 mini-comics and digitally on ComiXology, this fabulous monochrome fable draws more on the author’s High School observations than any personal sporting experiences whilst dissecting and celebrating the pressures and joys of small town life.

It all takes place in the summer of 1998 where school baseball star Carl Carter is poised on the cusp of a glittering career. His near record-breaking performance for the Elizabeth Monarchs has set the sleepy, bucolic Vermont town ablaze as his stellar efforts bring the team to the brink of winning the State Championship.

His senior year successes promise a full scholarship to the University of Maine, and a tantalisingly lucrative pro ball career. It’s everything Carl’s dad “Gordon” has worked so long and hard for…

Douglas Carter tries hard – both at home and on the ball team – but is not like his brother. He’s also less than thrilled at Carl’s smug superiority and aggravating, blasé air of contemptuousinsouciance. The golden boy is the town hero and Doug just doesn’t exist…

Carl is coasting. Even though he only needs academic minimums and he’s already getting preferential treatment from the otherwise bullying Coach, Carter keeps unwise hours and company. His best friend Esden Hubbard is an unacceptable influence: a bad seed from a family of trashy ne’er-do-wells – although Carl is increasingly dawn to Esden’s moody dark-horse sister Chelsea

As the days progress – a blend of lessons, loafing, practising and unsupervised partying – Carl is beginning to feel unaccountably ill at ease, and his life changes forever in an instant when he and Esden, on a prankish teenage whim, break into the local store.

With seemingly every adult in town disappointed or screaming at him, Carl gets a shocking glimpse of the real nature of the world when Esden is summarily expelled from Elizabeth High but Principal Wick only gives his sporting wonder boy a painless slap on the wrist…

Confronted with a nauseating sense of his true worth, Carl’s naive sense of injustice goes into overdrive and he makes a rash decision that shakes up everything in the sleepy little town…

And there’s one more surprise the fallen idol has up his uniform sleeve…

Lonergan’s sparse and Spartan visual style displays an astounding ability to depict emotional intensity, his lean composition enhances the blazing dynamism of the sporting sequences and his portrayals of an intoxicating range of small town characters and past-it “glory days” survivors provides each human vignette with a beguiling life and tragically undisclosed back-story. This is comics storytelling of incomparable quality and class.

Poignant, bittersweet, with an ending but no conclusion, All Star is another superbly understated dissertation on the responsibilities of friendship, the fools gold of glittering prizes and the toxicity of unattainable dreams rendered in a magically simplified and mesmerising manner: a delight for any fan searching for more than broad jokes and bold action.

This is true Hall of Fame stuff you must not miss…
© 2014 Jesse Lonergan.

Unlovable volume 3


By Esther Pearl Watson (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-737-6

I first encountered Unlovable when the second volume turned up unannounced in my “please review” mail-pile. I’d never heard of the strip nor the magazine Bust where it had run for years, but as I’m always in the market for a new graphic experience, I dutifully sat down and lost myself in the world of a Texas Teen from a long, long time ago…

Based on or perhaps rather inspired by an actual schoolgirl diary Ester Pearl Watson found in a gas-station restroom in 1995, the strip – now collected in three diminutive yet huge hardback volumes – as translated and reconfigured by the cartoonist, reveals the innermost thoughts, dreams, experiences and doodles of a dumpy, utterly ordinary American girl of the tastelessly intoxicating Eighties – forensically displayed for our examination in a catchy, breathless, effusive warts ‘n’ all cartoon-grotesque style.

In the course of these garish and oddly compulsive tomes we follow ferociously aspirational Tammy Pierce as she goes through the unrelenting daily rollercoaster ride dictated by hormones, strict, religious mom, social pressure and the twin drives to both stand out and fit in.

From my lofty male vantage point here in the future it is achingly sad and hysterically funny.

Now it’s the Summer of 1989, the party decade is almost over and this third collection covers the heady, aimless days of the vacation as ever-more mature and sophisticated (I’m pretty sure they’re the words I’m looking for) Miss Pierce of Texas increasingly spars with her obnoxious tool of a brother Willis and his annoying best bud Tim Starry… Other world-ending distractions include an overwhelming fascination with boys of the wrong sort, cars, pimples, clothing brands, bands from Pop to Punk, Reggae to Heavy Rock, adolescent poetry, violent movies, mascara, perpetual humiliation from friends and enemies alike, the idiocy of parents and the looming prospect of finally doing “it”…

Amongst the most memorable sequences in store here are the extended mixed signal interactions with psycho best pal Kim’s loser “not-boyfriend” Erick Burns, her own mother’s constant carping on Tammy getting a part-time job, monumental make-up mistakes, a succession of inane get-rich-quick schemes, learning to breakdance, the ongoing war with mean girl Courtney Brown, petty vandalism, cheerleader tryouts, being condemned to Summer School whilst her friends get to just hang out and why Tammy had to stop practising her wrestling moves with that Tim Starry boy…

These visual epigrams reference universal aspects of puberty and adolescence: parents are unreasonable and embarrassing, siblings are scum and embarrassing and your body is humiliatingly embarrassing; always finding new and horrifying ways to betray you practically every day…

Your friends can’t be trusted, you’re attracted to all the wrong people and you just know that no one will ever want you…

Drawn in a two-colour – black and purple are this year’s tones – faux-grotesque manner (you can call it intentionally primitive and ugly if you want) the page by page snapshots of a social hurricane building to disaster are absolutely captivating.

Although this is a retro-comedy experience, behind her fatuous obsession with fashion, boys, money, fame, music, designer labels, peer acceptance and traitorous bodily functions, Tammy is a lonely bewildered child who it’s impossible not to feel sorry for.

Actually it’s equally hard to like her (hell, its difficult to curb the urge to slap her at times) but that is, after all, the point…

If you live long enough you’ll experience the pop culture keystones of every definitive era of your life at least twice more. Here the base, tasteless and utterly superficial aspects of 1980s America are back to harrow a new generation which is too young to remember them, but you and I can get all nostalgic for the good bits and blithely ignore all the bad stuff.

This big little hardback (416 pages each and 146 x 146mm) affords a delightful and genuinely moving exploration of something eternal, given extra punch with the trappings of that era of tasteless self-absorption, and like those other meta-real diarists and social commentators Nigel Molesworth, Bridget Jones and Adrian Mole, the ruminations and recordings of Miss Tammy Pierce have something ineffable yet concrete to contribute to the Wisdom of the Ages.

Modern and Post-Ironic, Unlovable is unmissable; offering a perfect opportunity to discover the how and why of girls and possibly learn something to change your life.

Now please excuse me, I need to replace the 96 batteries in my boom box…
© 2014 Esther Pearl Watson. All rights reserved.

Vignette


Drawings by Antoine Cossé, stories by Alex Jackson (Records Records Records books)
ISBN: 978-0-9566330-3-3

Here’s a tantalising little digest of comics delights featuring clever collaborations between Parisian expat illustrator Antoine Cossé and Alex Jackson who here pens a beguiling selection of short yarns to charm and chill aficionados of visual storytelling.

The eye-catching entertainments begin with an elysian travelogue as our narrator offers a bulletin of placid news and ethereally calming events straight from an idyllic ‘Paradise’, after which ‘The Architect’ lets his job go to his head in a wryly OTT dissertation on the seductive power and limitations of creativity.

‘Bantam’ powerfully captures the helpless, impassioned loyalty of a lifelong supporter for his local football team, exploring with heartfelt empathy that infernal drive which always tantalises and annually crushes the hopes and dreams of followers of impoverished and perennially second class teams.

‘Dr. Hall’ then endearingly examines English manners and mores in a beguiling record of a GP’s talents and failings, as seen through the doting reminiscences of one of his patients…

Comics and film are similar art forms in that both can deliberately lie whilst revealing truths. By the simple act of juxtaposing visuals and sound/text in opposition (like seeing a baby crying but dubbing in giggling) in a narrative, levels of meaning can be easily manipulated and the consumer made aware of two – or more – stories at once.

It’s an odd psychological quirk in such situations that readers or viewers always treat the pictures as “true” or “real” whilst the words/soundtrack are deemed false, duplicitous or wrong…

Comprising the majority of this evocative and compelling collection, ‘J.1137’ first appeared as a self-contained comicbook from Breakdown Press and is certainly the most engaging and challenging piece in the book.

With words and pictures apparently contradicting or belying each other, a strange, fantastic enigma draped in all the apparent trappings of a movie blockbuster unfolds as an immortal screen star rashly steps outside the bounds and parameters of his lavish but fiercely proscribed existence, seeing too much of the wrong things and inevitably paying a high price…

Constructed of warring layers of reality and illusion, this is a cross-genre saga that will appeal to lovers of the art form who love a mystery and are prepared to work out their own answers.

Beguiling, intriguing, contemplative, astonishingly fresh and appealing, Vignette is a beautiful example of comics’ unique power which deserves to find the widest possible audience. Buy it and show all your friends.
© 2013 Antoine Cossé + Alex Jackson. © & ℗ Records Records Records.