The Quitter


By Harvey Pekar & Dean Haspiel (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1401203993 (HC)                        978-1401204006(PB)

Before finding relative fame in the 21st century, Harvey Pekar occupied that ghastly niche so good at trapping truly creative individuals: lots and lots of critical acclaim and occasional heart-crushingly close brushes with super-stardom (which everyone except him felt he truly deserved) but never actually getting enough ahead to feel secure or appreciated.

In the 1970s, whilst palling around with Robert Crumb, Pekar began crafting compelling documentary narratives of ordinary, blue-collar life – primarily his own – and over successive decades invented “literary comics”. Despite negligible commercial success, the activity fulfilled some deep inner need and he persevered in his self-publishing and soul-searching.

One of those brushes with the Big Time came in the 1980s with the release of two compilations by mainstream publisher Doubleday of selected strips from his American Splendor comicbooks. To this day those tomes remain some of the most powerful, honest and rewarding comics ever seen.

By mercilessly haranguing, begging and even paying – out of his meagre civil service wages, and the occasional wheeler-deal or barter bonanza – any artists who met his exacting intellectual standards, Pekar soldiered on, inadvertently creating the comics genre of autobiographical, existentially questing, slice-of-life graphic narratives. And that was when he wasn’t eking out a mostly solitary, hand-to-mouth existence in Cleveland, Ohio.

How the irascible, opinionated, objectionable, knowledge-hungry, self-educated, music-mad working stiff came to use the admittedly (then) impoverished comicbook medium to make a fiercely vital social commentary on American life for the “ordinary Joe” is a magical journey into the plebeian far better read than read about, so go do that if you haven’t already.

Life picked up late for Harvey Pekar – mostly through an award-winning movie of his career and the publication of Our Cancer Year (a stunning documentation of his and third wife Joyce Brabner’s response to his disease).

This all led to an elevated and celebrated glitterati status, allowing him the opportunity to produce even more personal and compelling tales such as The Beats, Not the Israel My Parents Promised Me and The Quitter.

For all of that time he lived in Cleveland, Ohio and the city is as much a character in all his autobiographical works as the man himself. An irrepressible autodidact in the truest sense of the term, Pekar made it his business to learn everything about anything he was interested in… and he could be initially interested in everything.

Harvey Pekar died in 2010, aged 70.

First released in 2005, The Quitter is a bleak, coldly funny and often painful self-examination of a troubled and driven young outsider in a society gradually becoming a bit of a disappointment. All the trademark Pekar concerns are present: success with women, financial security, success in relationships, history, literature, success in a culture that won’t tolerate failure – or even mediocrity – and respect, all viewed through the fresh eyes of a troubled adolescent.

Harvey Pekar was never ordinary, and here he turns the autobiographical spotlight on his shameful early propensities to avoid potential failure by pre-emptive surrender and seek trouble or disputes he could settle disputes with his fists. The result is intellectual and emotional dynamite…

Pekar’s subtle mastery, gloriously illustrated by the simply magical monochrome artwork of Dean Haspiel, is to convey these dark themes in a compelling and frankly joyous manner.

Always gripping, never depressing, and utterly absorbing, The Quitter is, as its hype describes, some of his best work yet, and I’m aggrieved beyond explaining that his unique narrative voice has finally been stilled.

Still available in hardback or paperback editions, but not regrettably in digital form yet…
© 2005 Harvey Pekar & Dean Haspiel. All Rights Reserved.

El Diablo


By Brian Azzarello, Danijel Zezelj & various (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1625-2                  :978-1-84576-777-8 (UK Titan Books edition)

This extra-adult all-Vertigo interpretation of the classic DC Western avenger dates from a 2001 4-issue miniseries, and is an early precursor to the superb Loveless (for which see our recent Loveless: A Kin Of Homecoming review or best yet get the book). It is not as far as I’m aware available digitally yet.

Moses Stone is a gunman turned sheriff in the frontier town of Bollas Raton. His fearsome reputation, as much as his actions, serves to keep the town peaceful, and he’s perfectly content not shooting anybody.

Then one night the awesome and terrifying El Diablo comes to town and exacts a gruesome vengeance on a band of outlaws, yet inexplicably refuses to kill Stone when the lawman tries to halt the carnage.

Unable to understand or let it lie, sheriff and posse trail the vigilante to the town of Halo, New Mexico where the bloodshed continues and a ghastly secret is revealed.

Although a deep, brooding mystery with supernatural overtones, fans of the original western avenger (created by Robert Kanigher & Gray Morrow and debuting in All-Star Western #2, (October1970) will be disappointed to find that tragic Lazarus Lane – brutalised by thieves, struck by lightning and only able to wake from his permanent coma at the behest of Indian shaman White Owl – is all but absent from this darkly philosophical drama.

The demonically-infested agent of vengeance is long, long overdue for a comprehensive collection. The original occasional series of short tales from All-Star and Weird Western was illustrated by Morrow, Joe Kubert, Alan Weiss, Dick Giordano, Neal Adams, Alfredo Alcala and Bernie Wrightson whilst scripters included Sergio Aragonés, Cary Bates & Len Wein.

And that’s not even counting the Sagebrush Satan’s many team-ups with the likes of Jonah Hex in various iterations of the bounty killers own title…

In this moody epic however, the phantom of the plains is more presence than personality.

There’s an awful lot of talking and suspense-building but thanks to the moody graphics of Danijel Zezelj the tension and horror remain intense and when the action comes it is powerful and unforgettable.

The title star is a force but not a presence in El Diablo, but the tale of Moses Stone is nonetheless a gripping mystery-thriller that will chill and intrigue all but the most devoutly traditional cowboy fans.

And let’s be having a proper El Diablo compilation soon, pretty please?
© 2001, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Kelly Green volume 1: The Go-Between


By Leonard Starr & Stan Drake (Dargaud International)
ISBN: 978-2-205-06574-2

After years of crafting superb – if thematically anodyne – wholesome family comic strips, two of America’s most gifted graphic storytellers were given the chance to work on a far more adult and potentially controversial feature with no creative restrictions. The result was the second-best female adventurer (after Modesty Blaise) in comics history.

Leonard Starr was born in 1925 and began a long and illustrious creative career in the Golden Age of American comicbooks, before transiting to legitimacy by working in advertising and eventually settling in the challenging but acceptable arena of newspaper strips.

Starr cut his teeth on Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch and the immensely popular yet now all-but forgotten Don Winslow of the Navy during the 1940s, perfected his skills drawing stories for Simon & Kirby’s landmark Romance line and crime stories for EC, and freelanced extensively for ACG and DC Comics until he left the industry for Madison Avenue.

He returned to graphic narrative in 1955 when he ghosted newspaper monolith Flash Gordon.

In 1957 he created On Stage, a soap-opera strip starring aspiring actress Mary Perkins for The Chicago Tribune. He left the globally syndicated feature in 1979 to revive Harold Gray’s legendary landmark Little Orphan Annie (continuing until his retirement in 2000), whilst simultaneously creating ‘Cannonball Carmody’ for Belgium’s Tintin magazine.

An experienced TV scripter since 1970, Starr worked as head writer on Thundercats, and briefly returned to comicbooks in the 1980s. He received the National Cartoonists Society Story Comic Strip Award for On Stage in 1960 and 1963, and their Reuben Award in 1965. He died in 2015.

Stan Drake (1921-1997) was another vastly experienced cartoonist who began his career in the 1940s. His two most famous series are the superbly compelling romantic drama-strip The Heart of Juliet Jones (co-created in 1953 and initially written by Elliot Caplin) and the iconic Blondie which he took over illustrating in 1984.

Drake started drawing career for the pulps, specifically Popular Detective and Popular Sports, before moving on to newly formed Timely Comics and The Black Widow. His path was briefly diverted in 1941 after he enlisted in the US Army, and when hostilities ceased he also worked in advertising until 1953 and the regular pay-check of Juliet Jones. In September 1956, Drake barely survived the road accident which took the life of Alex Raymond, but was soon quickly back at his drawing board.

In the late 1970s he began Pop Idols – a syndicated series of celebrity biographies – whilst still working on Juliet Jones (which he left in 1989) and Blondie (which he drew until his death in 1997). During that incredibly productive time – between 1982 and 1988 – he found the odd moment to work on Kelly Green as well as the occasional job for Marvel Comics.

To relax, he painted portraits of his cartoonist friends (now on display in the Comic Artists Museum in Sarasota, Florida). He received the National Cartoonists Society Story Comic Strip Award for 1969, 1970, and 1972 for The Heart of Juliet Jones.

So, who is Kelly Green?

Debuting in 1981 as a black-&-white serial in legendary French magazine Pilote, the comics serial was a boldly contemporary antiheroic drama, with a deft, light tone and grimly mature themes. Within a year, colour Kelly Green albums were flying off shelves across Europe, and eventually in the English-speaking world, too.

The eponymous lead is a woman with a past. Literally cursed by her looks, Kelly is a stunning redhead men would kill and die for. She only escaped her traumatic, mysterious history and foredoomed future when she married Dan Green, a respected New York cop.

Tragically her comfortable redemptive world comes crashing down when he’s set-up by one of his own superiors and killed during a high-profile raid…

Devastated, Kelly is pulled out of a suicidal depression by Spats Cavendish, Jimmy Delocke and the man-mountain called “Meathooks”: three career felons the straight-shooting cop had not only busted but then successfully rehabilitated.

Owing their new lives to the dead hero, this trio of honourable rogues take the grieving, angry widow under their collective wing, teaching her all the tricks of survival in a dirty world and even finding her a new occupation…

Despising the criminals that Dan fought and who finally murdered him, but loathing even more the corrupt police force that orchestrated his death, the bereft woman becomes a professional “Go-Between”: a paid intercessionary navigating the gulf dividing crooks and victims who don’t want police involvement. Apparently, this liaising job is completely legal and there’s never a shortage of clients…

Her first case involves paying off a blackmailer and safely retrieving his damaging “evidence” for a prominent Miami millionaire, but in a dazzling blur of twists and counter-twists the job leads to the murderer of her beloved husband in a tense, terse thriller full of drama and action, and brimming with humour and good old-fashioned style.

This beautifully executed crime thriller is still powerful, gritty stuff, and strictly for grown-ups (it was tailored to European tastes and sensibilities so there’s lots of lovingly rendered nudity and even “adult situations”).

Copies of all 4 paperback albums are still readily available and a hardcover complete collection was released in 2016, so Going Green is not that difficult, although dedicated disciples of digital editions are still going to have to wait a little longer until they can share the wealth of comics wonderment on display here.
© 1982 Dargaud Editeur. All right reserved.

Pride of a Decent Man


By T.J. Kirsch (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-120-8

Although the world still generally thinks of graphic novels as a source of frenetic, all-out adventure and outrageous high drama (often cloaked in weird metal, leather, rubber or plastic outfits) the truth is that the medium is simply a potently effective method of telling all sorts of stories in both words and pictures.

That means the heroes aren’t always larger than life. Sometimes, in their own minds antagonists and protagonists are barely life-sized at all…

T.J. Kirsch started out as a colourist at Archie Comics, before creating his own comics for Oni Press (Lost and Found) and Image (Outlaw Territory) and branching out into book illustration (She Died in Terrebonne with Kevin Church and So Buttons by Jonathan Baylis).

In this compact (235 x 156 mm) full-colour hardback (also available as an eBook), he skilfully demonstrates his own grasp of compelling visual storytelling in a seductively sedate, powerfully evocative and poignantly human-scaled fable of a guy with no hope and the odds stacked against him from the get-go…

In the hind-end of New England, Andrew Peters is back in the old home town after time spent in prison. He escaped from an abusive home the way most kids do: falling in with the wrong crowd. Andy was always thoughtful and contemplative and moved beyond beatings and daily frustrations by keeping journals.

Andy loved to write, and after he got caught trying to rob the local Safe-Mart he had plenty of opportunity. Girlfriend Jess vanished about the time constant crony Whitey talked Andy into pulling the job with him, but Whitey’s dad had connections and only Peters went away.

Now he’s back and just coasting, but everything changes when he thinks he sees Jess.

In fact, it’s the daughter he never knew he had…

Now utterly determined to be better and do better, Andy resolves to start his life over, but even in the sleepiest of towns and armed with the best of intentions, the sins of the past can exert an irresistible pressure…

Sleek, simple and seemingly straightforward, Pride of a Decent Man offers a thoughtful and totally immersive glimpse of a life both remarkable and inescapably pedestrian: a reflection on common humanity and day-to-day existence with all the lethal pitfalls they conceal and joys they promise.

A superb slice of modern fiction that should quench the thirst of all ‘mature’ comic fans in need of more than just a flash of nipple and sprinkle of salty language in their reading matter, here is a real story of authentic people in extraordinary circumstances. This is the kind of tale diehard fans need to show civilians who don’t “get” comics. Sit them down, put Bob Seger’s “Mainstreet” on the headphones and let them see what it can be all about…
© 2017 T.J. Kirsch. All rights reserved

Explainers


By Jules Feiffer (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN13: 978-1-56097-835-0

Jules Feiffer has always been much more than “just a comic-book guy” even though his credits in the field sound and are suitably impressive. As well as working with Will Eisner on The Spirit, he created his own Sunday strip ‘Clifford’ (1949-51) before eventually settling at the The Village Voice.

Novelist, playwright, animator, children’s book creator (why isn’t there a single-word term for those guys?) and screenwriter, he turned his back on cartooning in 2000, but the 42-year run of his satirical comic strip in The Village Voice ranks as some of the most telling, trenchant, plaintive and perspicacious narrative art in the history of the medium.

The strip, originally entitled Sick, Sick, Sick, and later Feiffer’s Fables, before simply settling on Feiffer was quickly picked up by the Hall Syndicate and garnered a devoted worldwide following.

Over the decades the strip has generated many strip collections – the first book was in 1958 – since premiering. The auteur’s incisive examination of American society and culture, as reflected by and expressed through politics, art, Television, Cinema, work, philosophy, advertising and most especially in the way men and women interact, informed and shaped opinions and challenged accepted thought for generations. They were mostly bloody funny and wistfully sad too – and remain so even today.

Fantagraphics Books began collecting the entire run in 2007 and this first volume of 568 pages covers the period from its start in October 1956 up to the end of 1966. As such, it covers a pivotal period of social, racial and sexual transformation in America and the world beyond its borders and much of that is also – sadly- still painfully germane to today’s readers…

Explainers is a “dipping book”. It’s not something to storm your way through but something to return to over and again. Feiffer’s thoughts and language, his observations and questions are fearsomely eternal – as I’ve already mentioned, it is utterly terrifying how many problems of the 1950s and 1960s still vex us today – and the Battle of the Sexes my generation honestly believed to be almost over still breaks out somewhere every night.

Best of all, Feiffer’s expressive drawing is a masterclass in style and economy all by itself.

If you occasionally resort to Thinking and sometimes wonder about Stuff, this book should be your guide and constant companion… and it will make you laugh.
© 2007 Jules Feiffer. All Rights Reserved.

Loveless volume 1: A Kin of Homecoming


By Brian Azzarello & Marcelo Frusin & various(Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1061-8 (Vertigo)             978-1845763374 (Titan Books UK edition)

As an entertainment genre, the Western is a rather odd duck which can be sub-divided into two discrete halves: a sparkly, shiny version which dominated kids’ books, comics and television for decades and best personified by heroes such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry – and the other stuff: typified by and popularised through the celluloid efforts of Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Leone, Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef or latterly in TV shows such as Deadwood

In comics, that latter kind of yarn – grimy, gritty, excessively dark and overwhelmingly nihilistic – was done best for years by Europeans in such strips as Charlier & Giraud’s Lieutenant Blueberry or Bonelli and Galleppini’s Tex Willer: iconic sagas which have only recently made their mark on US culture…

This book – available in UK and US paperback editions, but still as yet not in digital form – is that sort: recounting bleak, brutal incidents utterly unsanitised and unsuitable for kiddie consumption, but which in the end are probably far closer to historical truth than any six-gun shootout on Main Street or rhinestone spectacle…

The inspirationally iconic trappings of the Western make the milieu well-nigh irresistible to creative folk. We all want a crack at a cowboy story. When the horror-smudged eyes of Brian Azzarello and Marcelo Frusin, who did so much to revive and revitalise crime comics genre 100 Bullets and returned a razor-sharp hard edge to urban supernatural horror in Hellblazer, took a good hard look at the Western the result was sheer dynamite…

This initial volume from Vertigo gathers the first five issues (from December 2005-April 2006) and steadfastly sticks to the sound maxim that “Hell is Other People”…

Down in the battered, deprived South, Blackwater was a nasty little town even before the Secession Conflict. Now that it’s occupied by gloatingly victorious Union soldiers the place is rapidly dissolving into a cesspool and an open sore, with hate and resentment bubbling everywhere.

Moreover, for many in town and throughout the surrounding countryside, the war isn’t over until they say so…

…And then former resident and voluntary stranger Wes Cutter rides back into town with a silent brooding companion nobody recognises…

A defeated Confederate soldier, outlaw and extremely dangerous man, Cutter quickly sets about making all-new enemies to complement those he’s always had in his unwholesome home town.

Is it only coincidence that his return coincides with a growing wave of murder and destruction? And just what did happen to the wife he left behind…?

Blackly violent and relentlessly oppressive; sporting a large cast of broken and intriguing characters and patiently unfolding a dire and deadly mystery, Loveless is an adult tale of revenge powerfully reminiscent of films such as High Plains Drifter and Unforgiven, but this shockingly visceral saga has many more shades and crannies than either.

The compelling enigma of Cutter and his equally deadly companion is as engrossing as the violence is compelling. Here is a very modern Western which will enthral readers whether they like cowboys or not.
© 2005, 2006 Brian Azzarello & Marcelo Frusin. All Rights Reserved.

Lone Wolf and Cub volume 3: The Flute of the Fallen Tiger


By Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima, translated by Dana Lewis (Dark Horse Manga)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-504-8

Best known in the West as Lone Wolf and Cub, the epic Samurai saga created by Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima is without doubt a global classic of comics literature.

An example of the popular “Chanbara” or “sword-fighting” genre of print and screen, Kozure Okami was serialised in Weekly Manga Action from September 1970 until April 1976 and was an immense hit.

Those tales soon prompted a thematic companion series, Kubikiri Asa (Samurai Executioner) which ran from 1972 to 1976, but the major draw – at home and soon, increasingly abroad – was always the nomadic wanderings of doomed noble Ōgami Ittō and his solemn child.

Revered and influential, Kozure Okami was followed after years of supplication by fans and editors by sequel Shin Lone Wolf & Cub (illustrated by Hideki Mori) and even spawned – through Koike’s indirect participation – science fiction homage Lone Wolf 2100 by Mike Kennedy & Francisco Ruiz Velasco with.

The original saga has been successfully adapted to many other media, spawning six movies, four plays, two TV series, games and merchandise. The property is notoriously still in pre-production as a big Hollywood blockbuster.

The several thousand pages of enthralling, exotic, intoxicating narrative art produced by these legendary creators eventually filled 28 collected volumes, beguiling generations of readers in Japan and, inevitably, the world. More importantly, their philosophically nihilistic odyssey with its timeless themes and iconic visuals has influenced hordes of other creators.

The many manga, comics and movies these stories have inspired are impossible to count. Frank Miller, who illustrated the cover of this edition, referenced the series in Daredevil, his dystopian opus Ronin, The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City. Max Allan Collin’s Road to Perdition is a proudly unashamed tribute to this masterpiece of vengeance-fiction. Stan Sakai has superbly spoofed, pastiched and celebrated the wanderer’s path in his own epic Usagi Yojimbo, and even children’s cartoon shows such as Samurai Jack can be seen as direct descendants of this astounding achievement of graphic narrative.

We in the West first saw the translated tales as 45 Prestige Format editions from First Comics beginning in 1987. That innovative trailblazer foundered before getting even a third of the way through the vast canon, after which Dark Horse Comics assumed the rights, systematically reprinting and translating the entire epic into 28 tankobon-style editions (petite 153 x 109 mm monochrome trade paperbacks, of about 300 pages each) between September 2000 and December 2002.

Once the entire translated epic had run its course it was all placed online through the Dark Horse Digital project.

A certain formula informs the early episodes: the acceptance of a commission to kill an impossible target, a cunning plan and inevitable success, all underscored with bleak philosophical musings alternately informed by Buddhist teachings in conjunction with or in opposition to the unflinching personal honour code of Bushido.

Protagonist Ōgami Ittō is also – probably – the most dangerous swordsman in creation…

Following a cautionary ‘Note to Readers’ on stylistic interpretation this third moodily magnificent monochrome collection truly gets underway with another grimly compelling fable as The Flute of the Fallen Tiger’ finds Ōgami and Daigoro aboard a ship where they encounter three bounty hunting brothers on a mission of their own. Seemingly favoured by the gods of fortune the BenTenRai siblings are lethal, unbeatable ninja warriors who instinctively comprehend the mettle of their taciturn travelling companion. Suspecting his true identity and fearing his task is opposing their current assignment – escorting a crucial witness to the Shogun’s Court – the brothers constantly test the father and son, without ever violating the strict formality of the traveller’s codes of conduct.

They even become tenuous allies when a third faction attacks with oil and flame, setting the waters ablaze. Tragically for the brothers, their fortunate reputation is not equal to their so-accurate assessment of the Lone Wolf assassin, and when the final clash comes only Ōgami walks away…

‘Half Mat, One Mat, A Fistful of Rice’ then pits the wanderers against Headless Sakon, an aging warrior master who apparently whiles his days away testing his skills against punters all paying for a sporting chance to decapitate him. When one such joust almost injures Daigoro, the veteran tries to strike up a friendship with the boy’s father, but he has ulterior motives.

After intense philosophical debate fails to sway the assassin from his sworn course on the road to hell, the elderly Ronin is forced to resort to his martial prowess and one final performance…

‘The White Path Between the Rivers’ then delves back to the beginning and reveals the details of Ōgami Ittō’s downfall. The vengeance-driven killer-nomad was once the prestigious Kōgi Kaishakunin: the Shogun’s official executioner, capable of cleaving a man in half with one stroke.

An eminent individual of esteemed imperial standing, elevated social position and impeccable honour, Ōgami loses everything when, soon after the birth of his son, his wife is murdered and his family eternally dishonoured due to the machinations of the politically ambitious Yagyu Clan.

Framed for plotting against the Shogun, Ōgami is ordered to commit suicide. Instead he rebels, choosing to become a despicable Ronin (masterless samurai) and assassin, pledging to revenge himself on the Yagyus until they are all dead or Hell has claimed him.

Now, despite the machinations of enemies at court he roams Japan pushing his toddler son in a tricked-out weaponised pram; two doomed souls hell-bent for the dire, demon-haunted underworld of Meifumado.

Although little more than a baby, his son Daigoro also chooses the way of the sword, and together they tread the grim and evocative landscapes of feudal Japan, one step ahead of destruction with death behind and before them…

When a freshly purchased girl accidentally kills the procurer who is delivering her to a brothel, she stumbles into little Daigoro and falls under the protection of the Lone Wolf. A valuable property, the local Yakuza Madam tries every possible tactic to regain her but is unable to shift Ōgami from his sworn intent to liberate ‘The Virgin and the Whore’

The martial arts mayhem concludes at ‘Close Quarters’ when Wolf and Cub become embroiled in a localised political war between generations.

The authorities in a rich lumber-producing region are divided between cutting down their forests for a quick sale and preserving the mountain woodlands that stave off calamitous flooding. After one faction occupies the arboreal tracts and threatens to burn them, the jōdai (Castle Warden and official in charge) hires Ōgami to kill the rebel leader and safeguard the precious trees.

A feat of monumental audacity and determination follows, but when the greedy jōdai attempts to cheat the assassin, all hell is unleashed…

These stories are deeply metaphorical and work on a number of levels most of us Westerners just can’t grasp on first reading – even with the help provided by bonus features such as the copious Glossary, providing detailed clarification and context on the terms used in the stories. That only makes them more exotic and fascinating…

Also included in this edition are profiles of author Koike Kazuo and illustrator Kojima Goseki and the next instalment of ‘The Ronin Report’ – an occasional series of articles offering potted history essays on the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate – this time discussing the decline of the Samurai and transformation of Bushido principles.

A breathtaking tour de force, these are comics classics you simply must read.
© 1995, 2000 Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima. Cover art © 2000 Frank Miller. All other material © 2000 Dark Horse Comics, Inc. All rights reserved.

Athos in America


By Jason, coloured by Hubert and translated by Kim Thompson (Fantagraphics Books) ISBN: 978-1-60699-478-8

Jason is secretly John Arne Saeterrøy: born in Molde, Norway in 1965 and an overnight international cartoon superstar since 1995 when his first graphic novel Lomma full ay regn (Pocket Full of Rain) won that year’s Sproing Award (Norway’s biggest comics prize).

He won another Sproing in 2001 for his Mjau Mjau strip and the next year turned almost exclusively to producing graphic novels. Now a global star among the cognoscenti he has numerous major awards from such disparate locales as France, Slovakia and the USA.

Jason’s breadth of interest is capacious and deep: comics, movies, music, high literature, low life, real life and pulp fiction all feature equally with no sense of hierarchy, and his puckish mixing and matching of these evergreen founts of inspiration always results in a picture-treatise well worth a reader’s time.

A master of short-form illustrated tales, many Jason yarns are released as snappy little albums which are perfect for later inclusion in longer anthology collections such as this one which gathers a half-dozen sharp of the very best.

As always, the visual/verbal bon mots unfold in Jason’s beguiling, sparse-dialogued, pantomimic progressions with enchantingly formal page layouts rendered in the familiar, minimalist evolution of Hergé’s Claire Ligne style; solid blacks, thick lines and settings of seductive simplicity. That delight is augmented here by a varied and beguiling palette ranging from stark pastels to muted primary colours to moody duotone…

Available as a sturdily comforting hardback and exciting eBook edition, the stream of subtle wonderment opens with understated crime thriller ‘The Smiling Horse’ as the last survivor of a kidnap team endures decades of tense anticipation before their victim’s uncanny avenger finally dispenses long-deferred justice, after which Jason examines his own life, career and romantic failings in harsh, uncompromising detail in ‘A Cat from Heaven’

B-Movie Sci Fi informs ‘The Brain That Wouldn’t Virginia Woolf’ as a scientist spends years killing women whilst looking for a body that won’t reject the mean-spirited, constantly carping head he keeps alive in his laboratory, before ‘Tom Waits on the Moon’ inexorably draws together a quartet of introspective, isolated loners who spend too much time thinking not doing into a web of fantastic horror…

A cunning period gangster pastiche rendered in subdued shades of red and brown, ‘So Long, Mary Anne’ sees a decent woman helping a vicious escaped convict flee justice. After they snatch a hostage the “victim” soon begins to exert an uncanny influence over the desperate killer, but is she just wicked or is there a hidden agenda in play?

Most welcome attraction here is eponymous final story ‘Athos in America’. This is a fabulously engaging “glory days” yarn acting as a prequel to the author’s spellbinding graphic romp The Last Musketeer.

That epic detailed the final exploit of the dashing Athos, who met his end bravely and improbably after four hundred years of valiant adventure. But what was he doing in the years before that?

A guy walks into a bar… It’s America in the 1920s and the oddly-dressed Frenchman starts chatting to Bob the barman. As the quiet night unfolds the affable patron relates how he came to America to star in a movie about himself and his three greatest friends. Sadly, after he enjoyed a dalliance with the Studio’s top star, things quickly started to go wrong…

Effortlessly switching back and forth between genre, milieu and narrative pigeon holes, this grab-bag of graphic goodies again proves that Jason is a creative force in comics like no other: one totally deserving as much of your time, attention and disposable income as possible.
All characters, stories and artwork © 2011 Jason. All rights reserved.

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man by Brian Michael Bendis: volume 1


By Brian Michael Bendis & Sara Pichelli (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5712-0                  978-0-7851-5713-7(TPB)

When the Ultimate Comics Spider-Man died, writer Brian Michael Bendis and Marvel promised that a new hero would arise from the ashes…

Marvel’s Ultimates imprint began in 2000 with a new post-modern take on major characters and concepts to bring them into line with the tastes of 21st century readers – apparently a wholly different market from those baby-boomers and their descendants content to stick with the precepts sprung from founding talents Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and Stan Lee… or simply those unable or unwilling to deal with decades of continuity baggage (seven if you include the Golden Age/Timely Comics tales retroactively co-opted into the mix which saturated the originals).

Eventually even this darkly nihilistic new universe became as continuity-constricted as its ancestor and in 2008 the cleansing event “Ultimatum” culminated in a reign of terror which excised dozens of super-humans and millions of lesser mortals in a devastating tsunami which inundated Manhattan courtesy of mutant menace Magneto.

In the aftermath Peter Parker and his fellow meta-human survivors struggled to restore order to a dangerous new world. Spider-Man finally gained a measure of acceptance and was hailed a hero when he valiantly and very publicly met his end during a catastrophic super-villain confrontation…

This collection – published before the mega-crossover events Time Runs Out and Secret Wars which resulted in the merger of the Ultimate and mainstream Marvel Universe – re-presents the introductory teaser from Ultimate Comics Fallout #4 (August 2011) and follow-up Ultimate Comics Spider-Man: Who is Miles Morales? #1-5) with a new and even younger Arachnid Avenger and describes how, just like his predecessor, a troubled boy learned the painful price of misusing the unique gifts fate had bestowed…

The epic opens with a skinny kid having the poor taste to parade around town in a cheap imitation costume of fallen hero Spider-Man encountering and somehow defeating vicious super-villain The Kangaroo. Then the revelations begin by spinning back to the relatively recent past where manic industrialist Norman Osborn repeats the genetic experiment which first gave Peter Parker his powers (see Ultimate Spider-Man volume 1: Power and Responsibility) via the bite of an artificially-mutated spider.

Unfortunately, the deranged mastermind didn’t expect a burglar to waltz in and accidentally carry off the latest test animal as part of his haul…

When grade-schooler Miles Morales gets into prestigious and life-changing Brooklyn Visions Academy Boarding School by the most callous of chances, the brilliant African American/Latino lad quickly and cynically realises life is pretty much a crap-shoot… and unfair to boot. Feeling guilty about his unjust success and sorry for the 697 other poor kids who don’t get his chance, he sneaks off to visit his uncle Aaron.

The visit has to be secret since his uncle is a “bad influence”: a career criminal dubbed The Prowler. Whilst there, a great big spider with a number on its back bites Miles and he begins to feel very odd…

For starters he starts fading from sight…

Suddenly super-fast and strong, able to leap huge distances and fade from view, Miles rushes over to see geeky pal Ganke, a brilliant nerd already attending Brooklyn Visions. Applying “scientific” testing, the boy also discovers Miles can deliver shocking, destructive charges through his hands. When Miles goes home Ganke continues online research and deduces a connection to Spider-Man; strenuously pushing his friend towards becoming a costumed crusader.

However, after Miles assists during a tenement fire, saving a mother and baby, shock sets in and he resolves never to use his powers again…

Time passes: Miles and Ganke are roommates at the Academy for almost a year when news of a major metahuman clash rocks the city. Troubled Miles heads out and is an accidental bystander at the scene of Spider-Man’s death.

Seeing a brave man perish so valiantly, Miles is again consumed by guilt: if he had used his own powers when they first manifested he might have been able to help; to save a true hero…

As part of the crowd attending Parker’s memorial Miles and Ganke talk to another mourner, a girl who actually knew Parker. Gwen Stacy offers quiet insights to the grieving child and a phrase which alters the course of his life forever: “with great power comes great responsibility…”

Clad in a Halloween Spidey costume borrowed from Ganke, Miles takes to the night streets for the first time and stops Kangaroo from committing murder…

His third night out the exhilarated 13-year old encounters the terrifying and furiously indignant Spider-Woman who thrashes and arrests him, before dragging him to Government agency S.H.I.E.L.D, where Hawkeye, Iron Man and master manipulator Nick Fury coldly assess him.

However, before they can reach a decision on Miles’ fate, murderous malcontent Electro breaks free of the Triskelion’s medical custody ward and goes on a rampage.

Despite easily defeating the seasoned heroes the voltage villain is completely unprepared for a new Spider-Man: especially as the boy has a range of extra powers including camouflage capabilities and an irresistible “venom-strike” sting…

As Miles considers the full implications of his victory, Fury imparts a staggeringly simple homily: “With great power…”

Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli crafted a stirring new chapter both engaging and intriguing and this stirring debut volume (available in Hardcover, Trade Paperback and digital editions) also contains a gallery of alternate covers by Marko Djurdjevic and Pichelli.

Tense, breathtaking, action-packed, evocative and full of the light-hearted, self-aware humour which blessed the original Lee/Ditko tales, this is a controversial but worthy way to continue and advance the legend Fights ‘n’ Tights addicts will admire and adore…
A British Edition ™ & © 2012, 2016 Marvel Characters Inc. All rights reserved.

The Paper Man


By Milo Manara (Catalan Communications)
ISBN: 978-0-87416-022-2

The lush and sensuous art of Milo Manara has always outshone his scripting – at least to English speaking sensibilities – but on occasion his pared-down writing produces genuine comic gems. One such is the egregiously STILL OUT OF PRINT monochrome wonder The Paper Man.

A sparse and gritty epic of Love and Death on the American frontier, the lavishly rendered graphic spectacle ostensibly tells the tragic tale of a young man looking for his Truly Beloved in a relentless trek across Arizona, and his chance meetings with pop-culture mile-markers.

These include a weather-crazed Preacher, a demented veteran of the long-past War of Independence, and the erotic and sensual Sioux maiden White Rabbit, all depicted against a backdrop of the most hallowed tropes and clichés of the Western, exported as cultural icons from Hollywood to the rest of the world.

By following a rather inept and innocent everyman through increasingly harsh incidents with US cavalrymen, wagon-trains, drunken and malevolent cow-pokes – plus, of course, marauding “Injuns” – none of whom actually conform to their stereotypes, Manara looks at the commonplace in a fresh if somewhat reductionist manner, without losing sight of the fact that the reader always wants an enthralling story, beautifully rendered.

This untypical western with its starkly sumptuous art and crushingly tragic ‘final reel’ owes more to Brecht than to Ford or Huston, but nonetheless remains powerfully true to its roots, and is achingly easy on the eyes. Minimal but wonderful, lush and Spartan, this is a Wild West story for every adult to enjoy, regardless of when they last put on a cowboy hat.

…So, for Pete’s Sake can’t somebody puh-lease re-release an English-language version, even if only as an electronic edition?
© 1982 by Dargaud Editeur, Paris for Milo Manara. English language edition © 1986 Catalan Communications. All rights reserved.