Dr. Watchstop: Adventures in Time and Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too Soon?: Famous/Infamous Faces 1995-2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2006 Drew Friedman. All Rights Reserved.

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

Prison Pit Book Two

By Johnny Ryan (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-383-5

Johnny Ryan is a cartoonist with an uncompromising vision and an avowed intention of producing shock and even revulsion whenever he wants to. In Prison Pit he pushed the limits of taste with a brutal, primitive cascade of casual violence that sprung, teeth bared and claws extended, from his apparent obsession with casual violence, social decay and the mythology of masked wrestling, as well as his obvious fascination in the “berserk” manga strips of Kentaro Miura.

That initial volume presented a disturbingly child-like view of a science fictional Hell: an extra-dimensional purgatory where the most violent felons were dumped to live or die by a society that had no place for them. This barren landscape was littered with grotesque monsters, vile organisms and the worst specimens of humanity ever captured by the forces of civilisation. C.F., a masked wrestler, was dumped there and told to fight or die…

What followed was non-stop excessive force and graphic carnage: a never-ending Darwinian struggle which saw the wrestler damaged beyond comprehension, altered by horrors internal and external, but nevertheless still clawing his way to the top of the gory, scatological heap…

Unbelievably Ryan has gone even further in this second volume as the wrestler defeats what he had assumed to be the king of the heap, aided by a biological travesty that then turns on him, before being kidnapped by a robotic Dr. Moreau, who transforms the wrestler’s most intimate man-parts into a weapon of interpersonal destruction and sends him off violate a monster. Typically, nobody here is doing anything for anyone else’s benefit…

Man’s oldest gynophobic horrors and most simplistic delight in sheer physical dominance are savagely delineated in this primitive, appalling, cathartic and blackly funny campaign of cartoon horror. Resplendent, triumphant juvenilia is adroitly shoved beyond all ethical limits into the darkest depths of absurdist comedy. Not for children, the faint-hearted or weak-stomached, this is another non-stop rollercoaster of extreme violence, profanity and cartoon shock and awe at its most visceral and compelling.

And now that we’ve put off the intellectual and moral stuck-up sticky-beaks who just love to whine and complain, I’ll let you into a secret: this book is all-out over the top and flat out hilarious. Buy and see if you’re broad-minded, fundamentally honest and purely in need of ultra-adult silliness…

© 2010 Johnny Ryan. All rights reserved.

David Boring

By Daniel Clowes (Jonathan Cape)
ISBN: 978-10-22406-323-4

One of the greatest assets of the comics medium is the ostensibly straightforward nature of its storytelling. With pictures wedded to text what you see is so clearly what you get. So whenever a master creator deliberately subverts that implicit convention the result might be occasionally obscure or confusing, but always utterly engrossing.

At the forefront of comics storytelling for nearly three decades Daniel Clowes is, for many, an acquired taste but once he’s in your brain there’s certainly no shaking the things he can do with pen and ink, motive, character and the special kind of situational magic that inhabits the world of pictures and word on paper.

Born in Chicago in 1961 he began his career as a cartoonist with humour magazine Cracked before creating uniquely skewed short comic tales for Fantagraphics. His first piece debuted in Love and Rockets # 13 (September 1985), an introductory prelude to his retro-chic detective magazine Lloyd Llewellyn which launched soon after, running in various incarnations for three years.

In 1989 he created the anthology vehicle Eightball and began producing a variety of tales – short and serial-lengths – ranging from social satire, nostalgic absurdist anthropomorphic yarns to surreal, penetrating human dramas, all viewed through the lens of iconic popular cultures and social motifs. All that material has since been collected into graphic novels and two of these, Ghost World and Art School Confidential, have been adapted into critically acclaimed feature films.

His experiences in Hollywood combined with deep-seated childhood influences of noir movies and comics books combined and resulted in ‘David Boring’ which originally ran in Eightball #19-21, before being collected by Pantheon Books in America and this British edition.

David Boring is the narrator of his own story, living a life of unsatisfactory gratification, harassed by his mother and obsessed by his absentee father, a second rate cartoonist and comic book artist who disappeared decades previously. He spends his days with his only real friend, a lesbian named Dot he has known since High School. David is listlessly indulging in his life’s work by searching for his perfect woman when an old friend suddenly shows up and triggers a series of bizarre events that should make his life a living action movie, but instead it all just steers him into increasingly unpalatable and mundane tragedies and horrors…

Set against a backdrop of impending catastrophes, ranging from murder to the end of the world, David’s progress is trenchantly plebeian and low-key: an odyssey rendered drama-free by the protagonist’s relentless lack of – or rather resistance to – passion and unwillingness to fully engage in the events occurring around him. His world is full of sexual encounters, assaults, murders, chases and even global holocausts but he passively accepts and adapts to it all.

Clowes has stated that he crafted this stunningly engaging and challenging tale as an exercise in writing an un-filmable comic. He has, but it’s still been optioned by Hollywood…

This is another of those too-rare productions that shouldn’t really be reviewed, just read, with themes of adolescence, maturity, the quest for self and the impending end of life delivered via a landscape of comics, film noir, mock-heroics and the irreducible knowledge that families make individuals combining to make a truly personal experience for every reader.

But be warned: the most telling narrative device used here is uncertainty. A tremendous amount of the story is left unstated: this is a saga littered with the reader’s conclusions not the characters’ actions. Events are set in motion, consequences are noted but the course of intervening actions if not experienced by David can only be surmised or extrapolated: David is a protagonist with few of the overt trope/meme drives of a standard narrative vehicle hero and his story is one that can’t happen to any one of us…

Brilliant, compelling and utterly wonderful? That’s up to you…

© 2000, 2002 Daniel Clowes. All rights reserved.

Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: the First Jewish Superhero

By Thomas Andrae, Mel Gordon, Jerome Siegel & Joe Shuster (Feral House)
ISBN: 978-1-932595-78-9

The comics industry owes an unpayable debt to two Jewish kids from Cleveland who were in the right place at the right time and were able to translate their enthusiasm and heartfelt affection for beloved influences and delight in a new medium into a brand new genre which took the world by storm.

Writer Jerome Siegel and artist Joe Shuster were a jobbing cartoonist team just breaking into the brand new but ailing comic-book business with strips such as ‘Henri Duval’, ‘Doctor Occult’ and ‘Slam Bradley’ when they rejigged a constantly rejected newspaper strip concept into the greatest sensation of the Age.

Superman captivated depression-era audiences and within a year had become the vanguard of a genre and an industry. In those early days the feature was both whimsical and bombastic, as much a gag strip as an adventure serial, and it was clear the inspired whiz kids were wedded to laughs just as much as any wish-fulfilling empowerment fantasies.

Siegel and Shuster were not well-served by their publishers and by 1946 no longer worked for National Periodicals (today’s DC Comics). In fact they were in acrimonious litigation which led to the originators losing all rights to their creation and suffered years of ill-treatment until an artist-led campaign at the time of the 1978 Superman movie shamed the company into a belated reversal and financial package (consisting mostly of having their names returned to the character’s logo and company medical benefits).

Before this however the pair produced an abortive “Last Hurrah”: another unique character based on early influences, but one who sadly did not catch the public’s attention in those post war years when the first super-heroic age was ending. Based broadly on Danny Kaye, Funnyman was a stand-up comedian who dressed as a clown and used comedy gimmicks to battle criminals, super-villains and aliens: first in six issues of his own comic-book and then as a Daily and Sunday newspaper strip.

A complete antithesis to the Man of Steel, Larry Davis was a total insider, no orphan or immigrant, wealthy, successful, accepted and revered by society but who chose to become a ridiculous outsider, fighting for not the common good but because it gave him a thrill nothing else could match. The series was light, beautifully audacious, tremendous fun and sunk like a concrete-filled whoopee cushion.

Here social historians Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon re-examine the strip in the much broader context of Jewish Identity and racial character, (especially as it applies to Jewish-Americans), and make some fascinating observations and postulates. Following an intriguing preface by author, writer, editor and comics historian Danny Fingeroth this book dissects the history and psychology of the Judaic experience in a compelling series of astoundingly illustrated essays gathered under the umbrellas of Gordon’s ‘The Farblondjet Superhero and his Cultural Origins’ and Andrae’s ‘The Jewish Superhero’.

The former (and Farblondjet translates as “mixed up” or “lost”) probes ‘The Mystery of Jewish Humor’, ‘The Construct of Humor in Everyday Jewish Life’, ‘The Old Theories: ‘Laughter-Through-Tears’; ‘A Laughing People’; ‘Outside Observer’ and ‘The Badkhn Theory’ (Badkhn being performers hired to insult, offend and depress guests and celebrants at social gatherings such as weddings or funerals).

‘Characteristics of Modern Jewish Humor’ are subdivided and explored in ‘Aggression’, ‘The Yiddish Language’, ‘Self-Mockery’, ‘Inversion and Skepticism’, ‘Scatology’, ‘Gallows Humor’ and ‘Solipsism and Materialism’ and Gibson’s compelling, contextual  potted-history concludes with ‘American- Jewish Comedy Before 1947’ ( when Funnyman debuted) with ‘Weber and Fields’, ‘On the Boards’, ‘The Borscht Belt’, ‘Cartoons and Jokebooks’ and ‘Hollywood Talkies and Syndicated Radio’.

In ‘The Jewish Superhero’ Andrae examines Siegel and Shuster’s possible influences; everything from German expressionist cinema masterpiece ‘The Golem: How He Came into This World’ to the real-life strongman Sigmund Breitbart, a Polish Jew who astounded the world with his feats in the early 1920s. On his American tour he appeared in Cleveland in October 1923. Siegel, a local resident, would have been nine years old…

‘Funnyman, Jewish Masculinity and the Decline of the Superhero’ then explores the psychology and landscape of the medium through the careers and treatment of Siegel and Shuster in ‘The Birth of Funnyman’, ‘The Body Politic’, ‘The Schlemiel and the Tough Jew’, ‘The Decline of the Superhero’ and ‘Comic Book Noir’ before going on to recount the story of the newspaper strips in ‘The Funnyman Comic Strip’ and ‘Reggie Van Twerp’ (a last ditch attempt by the creators to resurrect their comic fortunes) before the inevitable ‘End Game’

So far this book has been a compulsive and hugely informative academic work, but in ‘Funnyman Comic Book Stories’ the resplendent fan fun really begins with a full colour section reproducing a selection of strips from the six issue run. ‘The Kute Knockout!’ (Funnyman #2, March 1948) pits the Hilarious Hero against a streetwalker robot built to seduce and rob Johns whilst ‘The Medieval Mirthquake’ (Funnyman #4, May 1948) propels the Comedy Crusader back to the time of Camelot. From the same issue comes ‘Leapin’ Lena’ as Funnyman tackles a female bandit who can jump like a kangaroo and #5 (July 1948) has him chasing a worrying new crime gimmick in ‘The Peculiar Pacifier’.

Also included are the striking covers of all six issues, the origin of Funnyman from #1, lots of splash pages and a selection of Shuster’s Superman art, but the most welcome benefit for collectors and collectors is a detailed précis of the entire run’s 20 tales.

The same consideration is offered for the newspaper strips. As well as similar synopses for the Sundays (12 adventures spanning October 31st 1948 to the end of October 1949) and the Dailies (another dozen larks beginning October 18th 1948 and ending September 17th 1949) there are 11 pages of full colour Sunday sections and the complete black and white ‘Adventure in Hollywood’ (December 20th to January 12th 1949) to adore and marvel over.

Like Funnyman this book is an odd duck. Whereas I would have loved to see the entire output gathered into one volume, what there is here is completely engrossing: a wonderful appreciation and compelling contextualization of genuine world-altering pioneers. This is a fabulous book with an appeal that ranges far beyond its possibly limited comic-fan audience.

Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman © 2010 Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon. All rights reserved.

Norman Pettingill: Backwoods Humorist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judge Dredd: The Apocalypse War

By John Wagner, Alan Grant, Carlos Ezquerra & various (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-634-7

Britain’s last great comic megastar might be described as a combination of the other two, combining the fantastic science and adventure of Dan Dare with the unrelentingly seditious anarchy and absurdity of Dennis the Menace. He’s also well on the way to becoming the longest-lasting adventure character in our admittedly meagre home-grown comics stable, having been continually published every week since February 1977 when he first appeared in the second issue of science-fiction anthology 2000AD.

However with at least 52 2000AD strips a year, annuals, specials, a newspaper strip (in the Daily Star and later The Metro), the Judge Dredd Megazine, numerous reprinted classic comics collections and even two rather appalling DC Comics spin-off titles, that adds up to a phenomenal amount of material, most of which is still happily in print from Rebellion.

One of the most attractive packages and certainly one of the most compelling is this sharply stylish black and white deluxe hardcover collection featuring one of the greatest storylines in the entire canon.

Judicial Briefing: Dredd and his dystopian ultra-metropolis of Mega-City One were created by a very talented committee including Pat Mills, Kelvin Gosnell, Carlos Ezquerra, Mike McMahon and others but with the major contribution coming from legendary writer John Wagner, who has written the largest portion of the canon under his own and several pseudonymous names.

Joe Dredd is a fanatically dedicated Judge in the super-city, where hundreds of millions of citizens idle away their days in a world where robots are cheaper and more efficient than humans and jobs are both beloved pastimes and treasured commodities. Boredom and madness has reached epidemic proportions and almost everybody is just one askance glance away from mental meltdown. Judges are last-ditch peacekeepers who maintain order at all costs: investigating, taking action and instantly trying all crimes and disturbances to the hard-won equilibrium of the constantly boiling melting pot. Justice is always immediate and final…

They are necessary fascists in a world permanently on the edge of catastrophe, and sadly, what far too many readers never realise is that the strip is a gigantic satirical black comedy leavened with oodles of outrageous, vicarious cathartic action.

Dredd’s world is a polluted and precarious Future Tense with all the key analogues for successful science fiction (as ever a social looking-glass for the times it’s created in) situated and sharply attuned to a Cold War Consumer Civilisation. The planet is divided into political camps with Post-nuclear holocaust America locked in a slow death-struggle with the Sov Judges of the old Eastern Communist blocs: militaristic, oppressive and totalitarian – and that’s by the US Judges’ standards, so just imagine what they’re like…

In 1981 Progs (that’s issue numbers to you) #236-244 featured a nine-part story ‘Block Mania’ which detailed an all-out war between two colossal habitation blocks in Mega-City One. With weekly instalments illustrated by Mike McMahon, Ron Smith, Steve Dillon and Brian Bolland (who also supplied some incredible covers) the all-out confrontation between Enid Blyton and Dan Tanna Blocks rapidly proliferated, engulfing surrounding Hab-units, spreading like a plague – or a chemical weapon.

Against a backdrop of utter berserker carnage Dredd discovers a plot by Sov agents to destabilise Mega-City One…

For once the Judge is too late and as his city burns the Dictatorat of East-Meg One launch a nuclear strike, following up with a ground-forces invasion. The Judges hit back with their own nukes and terrified of global Armageddon Mega-City Two and Texas City declare themselves neutral. Mega-City One will stand or fall alone…

Over forty years after the Battle of Britain ‘The Apocalypse War’ stunned and delighted readers. This epic tale of dogged resistance and bloody pyrrhic victory is a masterpiece of drama and tragedy, with Carlos Ezquerra drawing all 26 weekly chapters (even some covers!), and three decades later it still ranks as one of the greatest Dredd tales ever published.

Spectacular, violent, epic and leading to almost incomprehensible actions from someone most readers still considered a “hero” and “good guy” this is as powerful an anti-war story as Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s Charley’s War and deserves as much acclaim and respect.

This volume collects the entire saga and its prequel Block War into one mesmerising and compelling work of glittering triumph and dark tragedy, and should grace the shelves of every serious fan of the medium – and the message.
® & © 2003 Rebellion. All rights reserved.

Artichoke Tales

By Megan Kelso (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-344-6

Megan Kelso has been producing unique, idiosyncratic, thought-provoking comics stories for more than twenty years; the very best of which can be seen in her award-winning collections Queen of the Black Black and The Squirrel Mother. She works far too slowly for my greedy nature to be completely happy with, but as the results are always superb I’m just going to have to “Man Up” and count myself lucky whenever something new hits the bookshelves…

Artichoke Tales is a generational saga which recounts, like film run backwards, the aftermath, events of and build-up to a tragic and devastating civil war on a serene, stable agrarian culture: a land of farmers, foragers and fisher-folk who all look like they’re sporting vegetable hair-dos. Don’t be fooled though – despite the stalks sprouting from their skulls these are not Arcadian vegetable characters dreamily dwelling in their own sylvan Pogle’s Wood: these are people, gullible, fallible and intensely complex.

Kelso first created her artichoke people for a short tale in the anthology comic Girlhero, and began working on this longer story in 1999, citing such thematic influences as the Little House on the Prairie books, Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds and Anthony Minghella’s movie Cold Mountain for this gently compelling, beguiling story of the Quicksand family, apothecaries to the village of Ladle and how an insane and unwelcome split between North and South sorely wounded not only the nation but three generations of women caught up in it…

Young Brigitte was gathering herbs for her grandmother when she once more met the charming soldier Adam. Military types weren’t particularly welcome and Northerners even less so, despite all the years that had passed since the War, but young hormones and the promise of something fresh and exotic have always won out over common sense…

Torn between newborn passion, a sudden hatred for her boring old life and fear of the unknown Brigitte forces Grandma Charlotte to tell the previously unspoken history of the conflict and how it shaped the Quicksand family: a tale of pride, high-handedness and avoidable mistakes that led to those bitter prejudices which still scarred people on every side.

Told in a stunning minimalist manner which demands the reader’s closest scrutiny and collaboration, the refined and simplified drawings unfold story within story, like the skin of an onion, as the truths peels away to reveal some depressingly universal truths about families, society and the use of power. Despite the engagingly simple art and storytelling style this is not a book for younger readers, so parents read this beautiful parable before you let your kids at it…

Those of you without impressionable progeny can just go right ahead and dig in: Artichoke Tales is truly magical and is waiting for your avid, appreciative attention and consumption…

© 2010 Megan Kelso. All Rights Reserved.


By Cathy Malkasian (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-323-1

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a charismatic leader drags an entire nation into a phony war, manipulating facts, twisting good people’s lives, destroying their innocence and fomenting an atmosphere of sustained paranoia and unthinking patriotism – if not jingoistic madness. Then he shuffles out of the picture and lets his successors deal with the mess he’s created: those remnants divided equally into well-meaning but clueless ditherers and now-fanatical disciples who think only they can run the show…

The land is in turmoil. Pa is raising a ruckus trying to get his monstrous ark built before the ruthless invaders begin the final attack. Eldest girl Peggy and little Minerva follow as he carves a wake of destructive energy through the landscape. Pa has galvanised the local villagers and they await his command to enter the fortress-city within the monolithic edifice, dubbed “Blessedbowl.”

When Pa begins once more to assault his oldest lass, only hapless Minerva and the trees are witness to the unleashed savagery. Suddenly, a young man rushes to Peg’s rescue, captivating forever the cowering Min. His name is Lester, but despite a terrific struggle the rescuer is no match for Pa’s maniacal vigour. The young man is left brain-damaged and maimed.

Pa bids Min see to Lester. The Doomsayer is lost in his preparations again. The Crisis has arrived…

Three decades pass. Min has married Lester and a thriving community exists within Blessedbowl, a permanent subsistence/siege economy built on paranoia: isolated and united by a common foe that has never been seen and is therefore utterly terrifying. Moses-like, Pa remained behind when the ark was sealed, to fight a rearguard action. Min is now his regent, efficiently running the closed ecology and economy, bolstered by the devoted attention of Lester, the amnesiac war-hero who lost so much when the invisible enemy launched their final assault…

Min controls the community through reports from the distant front and Lester guards the city within Blessedbowl’s hull. But now his befuddled memory is clearing, and Min, hopelessly in love with him, faces the threat that all that has been so slowly built may come crashing swiftly down…

And this is just the tip of the iceberg in a vast story that might just be the best thing I’ve read this year. Created during America’s longest-running war (9 years and counting…) this multilayered, incisive parable examines how families and countries can be twisted by love, fear and leaders’ lies yet still seemingly prosper. As much mystical generational fantasy as veiled allegory this enchanting story will open your eyes on so many levels. As events spiral beyond all control the astounding outcome, whilst utterly inevitable will also be a complete surprise… and just wait until you discover the identity of the eponymous narrator “Temperance”…

Mythical, mystical, metaphorical, lyrical, even poetic, here is a literal epic which blends Shakespearean passions with soft Orwellian terrors. King Lear and 1984 are grandparents to this subtly striking tale of freedoms and honour – personal and communal – surrendered to a comfortable, expedient slavery. Combining trenchant social commentary with spiritually uplifting observation, illustrated in the softest pencil tones – reminiscent of English World War II cartoons (particularly Pont and Bateman, but also the animations of Halas and Batchelor) this is joy to read, a delight to view and a privilege to own.

We must all do so …

© 2010 Cathy Malkasian. All right reserved.This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Wally Gropius

By Tim Hensley (Fantagraphics Books)

ISBN: 978-1-60699-355-2
Comics are the most subversive means of communication yet devised. If you’re a creator at the top of your game with no editorial restrictions you can depict and say one thing, in a manner that even the primmest censor would approve of and adore, whilst surreptitiously advocating the most unsavoury, improper and civilisation-threatening dogma. In comics there are no “tells” to give the game away and the manner in which an author writes and draws can actually enhance the propaganda or outright lies…

Have you met young Tim Hensley?

A musician, cartoonist and second-generation comics fan, Hensley’s graphic work has popped up all over the alternative scene in such magazines as Kramer’s Ergot and Fantagraphics’ sublime anthology Mome, from where the intensely sly, brash, revolutionary and mind-bendingly beguiling Wally Gropius has emerged to challenge our every precept of Capitalist culture. This book collects those Mome moments and also includes – at no extra charge – new and revised material.

This colossal 64 page hardback – 10″x 12.5″; marvellously reminiscent of the earliest English-language Tintin albums – is illustrated in a starkly jolly, primary-coloured pastiche of Baby-Boomer kids comics – and not just the obvious and overt  Richie Rich and Archie Andrews trappings, but with a tip of the pen to lost classics of a once ubiquitous, now nearly-forgotten 1960s graphic style that ranged from Mort (Spider, Beetle Bailey) Walker and John Stanley, to the animated creations of Jay Ward and those unnamed geniuses who drew such Dell/Gold Key classics as The Little Monsters and Thirteen Going on Eighteen.

Wally Gropius is barbed and edgy teen satire: the wealthiest teenager on Earth, scion of a petrochemical dynasty, he can have anything he wants. He sings in his band The Dropouts and doesn’t have a care in the world – until his father orders him to marry “the saddest girl on Earth.” With every girl in range tearfully throwing herself at him, Wally suddenly notices the stand-offish and highly hard-to-get Jillian Banks…

Wally Gropius is a devastating, vicious and subversive satirical assault on the modern bastions of Commercialism, Celebrity, and Casual Power. Wally tries everything money can buy to win Jillian, but there’s something he’s blithely unaware of…

Wally Gropius is madcap, screwball and incredibly surreal comedy, with many hidden and time-delayed laugh-traps cunningly concealed for later effect by a keen observer with a disturbingly-honed intellect and a laudable absence of taste. Take note: Money isn’t Everything and Subtext über Alles

Wally Gropius is Even Cleverer Than It Thinks It Is. Invest in it now and enjoy a thoroughly mature modern masterclass in mercantile mockery and morbidly Infantile Analysis.

© 2010 Tim Hensley. All rights reserved.