The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D.


By Dash Shaw (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-307-1

Being an old dinosaur who cut his teeth on old-fashioned 1970s print technology, I’m constantly surprised when modern computer tech so remarkably emulates and enhances what I still consider to be “painted” art. I stare in wonder until I fool myself that I can actually see all those hard, straight-edged pixels on the page, and my head begins to hurt and my eyes to water…

None of which is particularly germane, but which does indicate just how entrancing is this lovely book. Dash Shaw is an extremely talented creator with a singular authorial voice and a huge repertoire of styles to call upon. Born in 1983, he is part of a “new wave” (please note no capital letters there) of multi-tasking cartoonists, animators and web-content creators whose interests and sensibilities have heralded a renaissance in graphic narrative.

Like so many fresh creators he began young with independently published small press comics before graduating to paid work, and his available books include Love Eats Brains, GoddessHead, Garden Head, Mother’s Mouth and the superb and haunting Bottomless Belly Button.

In 2009 the Independent Film Channel commissioned him to convert his short stories from the comic arts quarterly Mome, The Unclothed Man In the 35th Century A.D., into an imaginative and compelling animated series and this incredibly impressive hardback gathers not only those evocative, nightmarish and tenderly bizarre tales but also the storyboards, designs and scripts Shaw constructed to facilitate the transition from paper to screen.

Wrapped in a stylish printed dust jacket made from what appears to be an animation cel (celluloid), the stories include the eponymous Unclothed Man, ‘Look Forward, First Son of Terra Two’, ‘Galactic Funnels’, My Entire High School… Sinking into the Sea!, ‘Blind Date 1’, Making the Abyss, the captivatingly droll examination of comic and cartoon special effects ‘Cartooning Symbolia’ and others. For many however the revelatory insights of how the creative process unfolds will be the biggest draw of all…This is an achingly visual and surprisingly accessible yet intellectual bunch of gems that every dedicated fan of the medium simply must see, and every reader of challenging fiction will Have to read.

© 2009 Dash Shaw. This edition © 2009 Fantagraphics Books.  All Rights Reserved.

Goddess


By Garth Ennis & Phil Winslade (Vertigo)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-327-3

Some stories are just a good, vicarious read and there’s no better description for this achingly funny, over the top eco-romp from the lord of outrageous shock comedy Garth Ennis. That it’s beautifully illustrated by master of the meticulous Phil Winslade is a tremendous plus of course…

London Zoo keeper Rosie Nolan went for a walk in the Highlands. As she was revelling in the wonders of nature something odd happened: she was gripped by an eerie emerald power and accidentally split Scotland and England apart…

At that moment ineffectual Jeff (our narrator) was cocking up his latest relationship and ecological psychopath Mudhawk was slaughtering some more people who didn’t share his passion for animal rights, but someone who did notice Rosie’s little gaffe was paranoid narcisscist  Harry Hooks, a CIA spook who had been hunting for telekinetic people to turn into US weapons for decades. He immediately headed for England where a concatenation of circumstances brought Jeff, Mudhawk – and his bellicose ex Samantha Flint – to Rosie’s doorstep just as the Yank arrived…

Mad as a bag of badgers, Hooks tried to abduct Rosie, leading to the deaths of five American agents, and when the local beat copper arrived Hooks shot him. This rash act brought cheerful old Desk Constable George Dixon into the mix. Dixon was the kind of rozzer who always got his man – and then assiduously disposed of the body before anybody could register a complaint. An old fashioned sort, he didn’t much like cop-killers, so with the sadistic Bovver Bruvvers in tow Dixon went after the kill-crazy Hooks, incidentally racking up a body-count of his own that a middle-eastern dictator would be proud of…

In a voyage that traverses the entire globe Rosie’s powers expand exponentially and as the frantic chases of all the authority figures rapidly converge on her the attendant carnage escalates. With her companions in tow she uncovers the incredible secret of her gift in a gloriously trenchant and darkly sardonic satire on society, like a gore-splattered “Carry-On” film with no limits and not even a modicum of good taste.

Fast, furious, funny and wickedly whimsical, this is classic over-the-top Ennis fare, which was purportedly postponed during its conversion from eight issue miniseries to trade paperback compilation because the terrorist themes were deemed too raw after the September 11th attacks. As one of the most impressive scenes here concerns crashing an airliner, I think I can see their point. Nevertheless, as the series premiered six years before the towers fell, and it’s been a long while since, perhaps the time is right to revisit this incredible fantasy tale for consenting, contrary adults…

© 1995, 1996, 2002 Garth Ennis and Phil Winslade. All Rights Reserved.

The Troublemakers


By Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-922-7

There’s fiction, there’s Meta-fiction and then there is Gilbert Hernandez. In addition to being part of the graphic and literary revolution that is Love and Rockets (where his incredibly insightful tales of Palomar and the later stories of those characters collected in Luba gained such critical acclaim) he has produced stand-alone tales such as Sloth, Grip, Birdland and Girl Crazy, all marked by his bold, instinctive, compellingly simplified artwork and a mature, sensitive adoption of the literary techniques of Magical Realist writers such as Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez: techniques which he has added to and made his own.

Now he has acknowledged such influences as Roger Corman, John Cassavetes, Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson as he continues to break new ground and reprocess the cultural influences that shaped all us baby-boomers. In Luba we also glimpsed the troubled life of her half-sister Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez: a brilliant, troubled woman, lisping psychotherapist, sex-worker, belly-dancer and “B-movie” starlet of such faux screen gems as Three Mystic Eyes, Blood is the Drug and Love From the Shadows. Fritzi has unfeasibly large breasts.

In 2007 Hernandez “adapted” one of those trashy movies as the graphic novel Chance in Hell – although Fritzi only had a bit part in it – but here he places her fully at centre stage in an incredible crime-caper of cross and double-cross that works astoundingly well as a gritty, grimy hard-boiled pulp fiction thriller.

Generation X waster Wes has a dream of singing in his own rock club. His dirt-bag drug peddler pal Dewey Booth has $200 grand and isn’t stupid enough to share it. Nala was a stage magician before she took to hooking and she knows her incredible body won’t last forever.

They’re all doing a cautious dance with Dewey’s cash as the prize when hard-as-nails grifter Vincene shows up and the plot starts to boil over. Wes knows Vincene from long ago: she once kidnapped Nala and stole her car and stage act and Dewey isn’t nearly as dumb as everybody thinks he is…

This explosive mix won’t end well and the big question is: after all the bodies and collateral damage is sorted out who’s going to get the dough and who’s going to get bodybags?

Raw, gripping and thoroughly engaging, this perfect pastiche of the genre still has Hernandez’s signature brash sexuality, clever dialogue and sly elements of rock and roll surrealism to elevate it above the vast body of such fiction, and straight crime fans will enjoy this as much as any Palomar devotee. Every adult who loves the Big Thrill should snap this up immediately…

© 2009 Gilbert Hernandez. All rights reserved.

For a Few Troubles More – A Crisis Graphic Novel


By Garth Ennis & John McCrea, with Wendy Simpson (Fleetway)
ISBN: 0-85386-208-8

After the moving odyssey of Tom Boyd in Troubled Souls and chilling sardonic disillusionment of True Faith, the third Crisis epic from Garth Ennis again broke entirely new ground with a mini-masterpiece of eternal fraternal comradeship and raucous, bawdy profanity that touched all the classic keystones of masculine comedy: women, booze, toilet humour and the trouble your best mates get you into …

For a Few Troubles More shows another, more joyous side of Belfast, and features the antics of Dougie and Ivor, two peripheral characters and drinking buddies from the story of Boyd, who stole centre-stage and ran off giggling with it (think “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Schmucks”…)

Dougie Patterson is getting married. His fiancé’s extremely imposing father insists on it. He doesn’t actually like Dougie but no grandchild of his is going to be born out of wedlock. It’s not so bad, really. The wayward lad loves Valerie, and his fearsome father-in-law-to-be is finding him both a job and somewhere to live. All Dougie has to do is learn to think before he opens his mouth and lose the bad influences in his useless life.

Beat mate Ivor Thompson is the fleshily overabundant epitome of a bad influence. Crafty, stupid, and a fabulist far too fond of the “Brilliant Idea”, this failed terrorist (who shot himself in the foot on his first mission) is fresh out of prison and looking to make a little cash when his uncle Shuggie lets him in on a family secret: the elder Thompson runs the most diabolical Poteen still in the city. (Pronounced “Puh-Cheen,” an illicit, illegal and unwise homemade spirit made from things better left unsaid, inexplicably beloved by Sons of Erin everywhere. I tried some in 1975 and to this day my skull pounds and my vision blurs whenever I move my head too quickly).

With the wedding day looming and no-one better available, Dougie unwisely lets Ivor be his Best Man, stupidly forgetting his old pal’s passion for practical jokes, and the fact that’s he’s cursed by all the gods of good taste there have ever been.

Ivor’s a survivor. Nothing gets him down for long: not Shuggie’s sudden death, a gang of criminals who want the vast quantity of Poteen they were promised or an imminent beating by the biggest bully in Belfast. In fact it takes the return of his uncle as an entirely different kind of spirit to give him even a moment’s pause, and he’s determined that Dougie’s honeymoon will be one he’ll never forget…

This blend of viperish one-liners and classic slapstick shows all Ennis’s later themes in full display: friendship, male bonding, studied suspicion and mandatory disrespect of any authority that thinks itself sacrosanct. It is a paean of praise for the little guy, starring two of the most ordinary heroes ever seen.

Clearly the lads struck a chord, as they have periodically returned as the “stars” of the occasional series Dicks, but this first tightly disciplined slice of chaos is still, for me at least, their greatest moment – particularly because of the superbly evocative colour art of John McCrea and Wendy Simpson.

A riotous, uproarious tawdry delight for grown-ups with a sense of vulgar absurdity, these are not troubles you can do without.
© 1990 Fleetway Publications. All Rights Reserved.

True Faith – A Crisis Graphic Novel


By Garth Ennis & Warren Pleece (Fleetway)
ISBN: 978-1-85386-201-0

Following on from a startling debut with Troubled Souls the barely weaned Garth Ennis first hit the controversy circuit with this brilliantly dark and nihilistic exploration of the corrupting idiocy of religion that also catapulted him to the forefront of “must read” comics writers.

Nigel Gibson is a student with a problem. He really fancies Angela Hyman, but she’s a devout Christian, and the only way he’s getting anywhere near her knickers is by hanging out with her ghastly Scripture Union pals. It doesn’t help his hormone-fuelled mood that the teachers are all bullying dicks, his mates are actually brain-dead thugs and that television lobotomized his family years ago.

Terence Adair however was a man with everything: loving wife and baby on the way; successful plumbing business, and the comfort and security of the Lord’s love to keep them all. But when his wife and child both die in the delivery room his world comes apart and he determines to kill the one responsible: God.

With outrageous, magical, cynical wit Ennis engineers the meeting of the horny, disaffected youth and the man of broken faith, and the lad is sucked into Adair’s world of insanity, horror and rage as God’s houses are systematically torched, and his priests shot. Thatcher’s government reels, the SAS are called in and then things get really strange and out of hand…

The manic humour and dialogue is amazingly polished for a wee lad of 19, and Ennis’ deft skill at switching from situations of utter ridiculousness to Byzantine tragedy and stomach-churning horror is a delight. Moreover, coupled with the uniquely enticing, understated art of Warren Pleece this tale becomes an unforgettable experience that only cowardice stopped from becoming a byword for comics creativity.

Please allow me to elucidate: this inexorably captivating yarn for grown-ups was originally serialized in the ground-breaking “comic with a conscience” Crisis (#29-38, October 1989-February 1990) to great acclaim, and was swiftly collected into a graphic novel upon completion. Within days it became the victim of a concerted and organized Christian hate-campaign, and withdrawn – apparently by order of the publisher: that notable ne’er-do-well and chocolate fireguard Robert Maxwell.

Most copies of the original publication were destroyed (as an occasional employee at the time I felt duty-bound to keep my comp-copy in lieu of a pension) but thankfully Vertigo released an edition in 1997, which, if you’re not prone to religious intolerance or offence you should be able to track down fairly easily.

Go on: you know you want to…
© 1990 Fleetway Publications. All Rights Reserved.

Troubled Souls – A Crisis Graphic Novel


By Garth Ennis & John McCrea (Fleetway)
ISBN: 0-85386-174-X

Aged 19, Garth Ennis dropped out of college to become a writer in 1989, and certainly kicked off with an enviable bang by creating a mini-masterpiece in the thoughtful and engaging Troubled Souls: a multi-layered and wonderfully even-handed exploration of coming-of-age in Belfast during the undeclared civil war euphemistically called “the Troubles.”

Crisis (63 issues from 1988 to1991) was an experiment in socially edgy adult comics launched by Fleetway Publications during the Dog Days of Thatcher’s regime, and it paved the way for many a starry career in its day. After science fiction series New Statesmen and Third World War concluded the magazine became more experimental, reflecting a more contemporary worldview, and new strip Troubled Souls quickly became an unmissable fortnightly treat.

Tom Boyd is a young Protestant man in Belfast at the end of the 1980s. The constant sectarian bloodshed and British occupation have largely left him untouched, except for the economic cataclysm that has made Northern Ireland a place of no jobs and no hope for the young. He lives with his parents and yearns for something better; girlfriend, career prospects, hope.

At least he’s got enough dole money for bevies with his mates…

One notable night in the pub his friend set him up with a blind date, and that’s fine, but when a British Army patrol comes in on a search, a total stranger surreptitiously dumps a gun in his lap and surrenders himself. Shocked and startled, Tom can’t understand why he doesn’t shop the gunman, but his bewilderment turns to rage when he sees what the Squaddies do to the suspect…

Later Catholic terrorist Damien McWilliams reclaims his gun, and insinuates himself into Tom’s life, challenging his cosy preconceptions, terrorising and blackmailing the lad into participating in a bombing. Through it all Tom is the helpless pawn of powerful, corrupt and hate-filled forces, but still finds time for first love, real life and a true friend, but the centuries of hate that have plagued the country can’t be denied or thwarted and a wholly unique and personal tragedy is going to occur whatever he does or doesn’t do…

Poignant, engaging, genial, funny and scary, this richly moving human drama, set on a stage everybody only thought they knew, is still one of the best stories Ennis has ever written, and fellow neophyte John McCrea has seldom produced such varied, evocative, sensitive art since. Because of the subject matter I can understand why it hasn’t been republished, but with twenty years distance and original copies fetching $50 or more isn’t it about time somebody thought about a new edition? Perhaps combined with its more broadly comedic sequel For a Few Troubles More (coming soon to a review blog near you…)?
© 1990 Fleetway Publications. All Rights Reserved.

Pim & Francie: the Golden Bear Days (Artifacts and Bone Fragments)


By Al Columbia (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 9781-60699-304-0

Al Columbia is an incredibly innovative creator who has been pushing the boundaries of what we call narrative art since his earliest days in the industry, and one who has always seemed to generate the wrong kind of “press”. From the days when he assisted and then succeeded Bill Sienkiewicz on Alan Moore’s experimental and unfinished Big Numbers, through Doghead, From Beyonde and the astonishing The Biologic Show Columbia has sought out new ways to tell stories and never shied away from potentially controversial scenes, imagery and even styles of working; equally conversant with highly observed photorealism and the eccentric and economical symbolism of animated film. He has rather unfairly gained a reputation for not finishing what he’s started…

His later works, especially in this oddly disturbing hardback collection, are clearly based on the early cinematic imagery currently in vogue with the West Coast art movement known alternatively as Lowbrow or Pop Surrealism, but although the content may appear similar the intent is radically different. The line and design similarities to the landmark Fleischer Brothers cartoons here create a subtle sense of trusted familiarity that the antics and situations expressly and terrifyingly contradict and overwhelm.

Pim and Francie are pixy-ish waifs resident in a 1920s halcyon neverland, and first appeared in the chilling short story ‘Tar Frogs’ (originally published in Britain’s ‘90’s lifestyle driven Deadline magazine and then retooled for The Biologic Show #0 in 1994). They resurfaced in the still uncompleted Peloria Part One (The Biologic Show #1 in 1995) and most recently in Mome #9 (Fall 2007).

In a collection that appears more sketchbook than story, and which calls itself a “broken jigsaw puzzle”, grisly, grotesque images and characters cavort and proceed through a familiar wonderland of fairytale Americana, but look more closely and you can see a story unfolding: a tale of two rascals and perils beyond imagining…

Columbia’s nightmarish, recondite scenario hints at a deeper profundity but his beautiful, clear, dark drawings are open, simple and fiendishly accessible to even the youngest reader so beware who you expose to these amazing astonishing adventures. Appetising, intriguing and addictively profane, this is a delightful excursion to a very wrong place.

See you there…
© 2009 Al Columbia. All Rights Reserved.

Things Undone


By Shane White (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-563-4

The sheer variety of themes and species in modern cartooning can be quite breathtaking to an old coot who grew up with the severely restricted comics fare of a baby-boomer in Britain – and I wouldn’t have it any other way. These days I can peruse a graphic novel on any subject in any style and incorporating any number of converging genres – and this compelling lit gem comes pretty close to defying categorisation.

Things Undone is a little bit romance, a little bit alternative biography, a little bit punk and a whole lot of terrific. Young Rick Watts is an artist and world-weary peon in the art-consuming field of video games graphics. He’s just moved to Seattle for a new job, but nothing’s really changed and relationship-wise things aren’t going so great either. Long-distance never works so he dragged his girl-friend clear across the country, and his seven year hitch with her couldn’t have ended more badly…

When you can’t catch a break and the new life proves no better than the old one, what can a guy do? And it’s only a matter of time before somebody notices that Rick is a zombie, what with him leaving decaying extremities and eyeballs and such all over the place. Maybe he should just get a gun and do the job right…?

This sharp and bittersweet examination of modern life is funny and poignant, using the populist imagery of the walking dead as an effective metaphor for modern life, but it’s the amazingly comforting art and production (the book is printed in black, white and shocking orange, in a kind of skate-punk cartoon style) that underpins this tale, making the tragic comedic and using confusion as the means of exploring the mundane horrors of urban living.

Clever, witty and one of the most sensitive funny/sad, real/imaginary stories you’ll ever read: so you should.

© 2009 Studiowhite LLC.

Like a Dog


By Zak Sally (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-165-7

Some people do it for money or fame and money. It doesn’t matter what form of creative endeavour “it” is. Whatever art-form you’re thinking of there are those who are rewarded for their creative efforts (fairly or otherwise is another can of worms and I’m not going there) as they either work within or expand the boundaries of their medium, and there are the other sort. Sometimes the other sort gets really lucky and finds fame and fortune along the way.

Why am being so obtuse?

Because unless you are one of those other types that will produce paintings or music or poetry or whatever shapes your life even after every other carbon-based life-form on the planet is dead – or worse yet, just ignores or humours you – then you have no idea of how powerful the compulsion to create can be.

Zak Sally has travelled far (usually as member of the band Low) and dabbled in photography and all forms of print media, but what he is at his core is a cartoonist. He sees the world in terms of incidents, epigrams and bon mots produced as sequential images. He has been producing stories, mini-comics, gags, nonfiction and biographical tales and even historical and political drama for over fifteen years in his self-published ‘zine Recidivist, and other peoples productions such as Mome, Dirty Stories, The Drama, Comic Art Magazine and other places discerning enough to print them.

Even if they hadn’t he would still have drawn them, and now they been collected in a magnificent hardback collection from Fantagraphics which gathers the first two issues of Recidivist in their entirety, plus another thirteen unique and compelling tales in a variety of styles and media, all copiously and tellingly annotated.

Personal favourites – and there are many – include the bleakly informative ‘Dresden’ (because haven’t we all wanted to be rock stars?), the graphically bold ‘Dread’ and ‘The War Back Home’ but unfettered by commercial pressures the author has been able to turn his attentions to whatever caught his eye and the book is a broad anthology of material ranging from horror to comedy to surreal dreamy pure imagery, all underpinned by a keen wit, a canny eye for design and a great ear for dialogue.

Without doubt the best pieces are the utterly superb ‘At the Scaffold’ (an account of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s imprisonment by the Tsar and ‘The Man who Killed Wally Wood’ an “it-happened-to-me” recollection that will captivate any fanboy with an ear for scandal and rumour…

This is a gloriously rough-hewn and hands-on collection from a compulsive cartoonist and storyteller packaged with the flair and imagination that has become a trademark of the world’s leading publisher of fascinating comics. This book won’t appeal to everybody, (especially devotees of the superhero mainstream) but Sally’s dedication to innovation, exploration and imagination will astound and entrance anyone who knows capital A Art when they see it.

© 2009 Zak Sally except where otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

The Big Kahn


By Neil Kleid & Nicholas Cinquegrani (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-561-0

When Rabbi Kahn died it shook the close-knit, devout community he had spent four decades building and guiding. But his funeral, where his first born son Avi delivered a eulogy and prepared to assume his father’s role, was a shambles. Rebellious and troubled daughter Lea preferred furtive sex in a synagogue broom-closet to her rightful place beside her grieving mother and young Eli was clearly in a state of shock.

So tempers naturally flared when the unsavoury gentile Roy Dobbs intruded upon the event demanding to see the body of his brother one final time…

With mixed emotions the surviving family and larger congregation are forced to confront a terrible truth. David Kahn, Holocaust survivor, brilliant rabbinical scholar, wise and loving parent and spiritual glue of an entire community for more than forty years, was in fact Donnie Dobbs: a two-bit grifter and con-man who came to the neighbourhood to fleece the yokels but found something better and stayed and grew and blossomed…

With his death everything has changed. The man they all knew was a lie, so doesn’t that mean that everything he said and did was too? Surely the children of David Kahn are tarred with same brush and destined to repeat his thoughts and deeds?

How the implications affect the Kahn children and their broken, bereft mother is a masterpiece of human scrutiny, related with deft skill and great understanding, and the discreet, masterfully underplayed black and white art is effective and compassionate, never intruding into the tale but always providing just what the reader needs to see.

Here’s an intriguing human drama that deserves the widest possible attention, so I’m stifling my usual impulse and pleading that somewhere a sensitive and creative independent film-maker has the sense to option it. The Big Kahn is a witty and powerful exploration of truths big and small set against the backdrop of a traditional Jewish American community, and cannily examines not only faith’s effect on individuals but how mortals shape religion…

Until such a time however you can enjoy one of the best dramas of the year just by picking up this lovely, thought-provoking book.

© 2009 Neil Kleid & Nicholas Cinquegrani.