Ding Dong Daddy From Dingburg (Zippy Annual #10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fire & Water: Bill Everett, the Sub-Mariner and the Birth of Marvel Comics

By Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-166-4

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: 9/10 Perfect for art lovers, Marvel Zombies, wannabe illustrators and lovers of pure comic magic

There’s currently a delightful abundance of beautiful coffee-table art-books/biographies celebrating the too-long ignored founding fathers and lost masters of American comic books, and this fabulous tome highlights the astounding wizardry of one of the most accomplished draughtsmen and yarn-spinners of that incredibly fertile early period.

As always you can save time and trouble by simply buying the book now rather than waste your valuable off-hours reading my blather, but since I’m going to froth on anyway feel free to accompany me as I delineate just why this tome needs to sit on your “favourites” shelf.

This lavishly illustrated, oversized tome traces the tragic life and awe-inspiring body of work of possibly the most technically accomplished artist of the US comicbook industry: a man of privilege and astonishing pedigree (he was a direct descendent and namesake of iconoclastic poet and artist William Blake) haunted by illness, an addictive personality and especially alcoholism, but a man who nevertheless raised a family, shaped an art-form and left twin legacies: an incredible body of superlative stories and art, and, more importantly, broken lives saved by his becoming a dedicated mentor for Alcoholics Anonymous.

William Blake Everett was born in 1917 into a wealthy and prestigious New England family. Bright and precocious he contracted Tuberculosis when he was twelve and whilst recuperating in Arizona began a life-long affair with and battle against booze. For the rest of his chequered life “Wild Bill” vacillated between magnificent artistic highs and heartbreaking personal lows, covered with chilling frankness in this excellent biography, written in conjunction with the artist’s surviving family.

Although telling, even revelatory and concluding in a happy ending of sorts, what this book really celebrates is not the life but the astounding legacy of Bill Everett. A gifted, driven man, he was a born storyteller who had the sheer naked ability to make all his own worlds real; and for nearly five decades his incredible art and wondrous stories, which began in the heydays of the Pulps (see also Spicy Tales Collection) enthralled and inspired successive generations of fellow dreamers.

His beautiful artwork featured in a variety of magazines before his fortuitous stumbling into the right place at the right time secured Everett’s place in history forever with his creation of the first anti-hero in comics.

Yet even before the advent of the mutant hybrid Sub-Mariner who, along with his elemental counterpart The Human Torch, secured the fortunes of the budding Marvel Comics (covered in a fascinating and detailed account which clears up many controversies that have raged amongst fans ands historians for decades) Everett was a valued and admired writer/artist/letterer/designer whose early seminal triumphs are lovingly covered here in many reproduced strip extracts, sketches and an utterly invaluable collection of original art pages.

Bill Everett was a jobbing cartoonist who drifted into the new world of comicbooks: a budding industry that combined his beloved drawing with his other compulsion – making up stories. The first chronological art selection here features a plethora of his compelling and irresistible covers for Amazing Mystery Funnies, Blue Bolt, Target Comics, Amazing-Man Comics, Victory Comics, Heroic Comics, and the landmark Motion Picture Funnies Weekly (for which he produced not only the pre-Marvel/Timely Sub-Mariner, but also the all-important back cover sales pitch) and many designs and roughs for unpublished titles, interspersed with pages and spreads from early creations Amazing-Man, Dirk the Demon, Skyrocket Steele, Music Master, The Chameleon, Hydroman, Sub-Zero and of course Prince Namor.

The early days of Marvel Mystery Comics and the Sub-Mariner’s own feature title are thoroughly represented with many pages of original art starring not only his aquatic antagonist but also The Fin and Human Torch, and this section is also full of delightful sketches from his four years of service in the Army Corps of Engineers.

The industry had changed radically by the time Everett mustered out: superheroes were on the wane and other genres were rising in popularity. Returning as a freelancer to Marvel/Timely, Everett worked again on Sub-Mariner and even created the sexy spin-off Namora and stillborn kid crusader Marvel Boy, but it was with the series Venus that he moved in a new direction: glamorous, glorious horror.

For over a decade he brought a sheen of irresistible quality to the generally second-rate chillers Timely/Atlas/Marvel generated in competition with genre front-runners EC Comics. It’s easy to see how they could compete and even outlive EC, with these lush and lurid examples of the hundreds of stunning covers and chillingly beautiful interior pages selected from such titles as Mystic, Menace, Astonishing, Adventures into Weird Worlds, Uncanny Tales, Suspense, Marvel Tales, Spellbound, Mystery Tales, Men’s Adventures and others. My only quibble is that unlike the companion volume featuring unsung genius Mort Meskin (see From Shadow to Light) there are no complete stories collected in this otherwise perfect primer.

Despite being unacknowledged as a master of terror, this period was probably Everett’s most technically adroit, but he also excelled in the other genre-ghettoes of the period. His ability to freeze manic action and convey tension into a single image made him the perfect choice for lead cover artist in the burgeoning military comics fields as can be seen in examples from Man Comics, Navy Tales, Battlefield, Navy Action, Navy Combat and others.

Everett truly excelled in the lush, stylistic depiction of action and horror themes – as well as the seductive delineation of sexy women, although he was equally effective in less histrionic arenas such as merchandising art, wholesome western, romances, cartoon and Bigfoot comedy styles, represented here by pages and covers from such diverse publications as Marvin the Mouse, Nellie the Nurse, Cracked, Jann of the Jungle, True Secrets, Girl Confessions, Bible Tales For Young Folk, Tales of Justice, Quick Trigger Western, Yellow Claw, Sports Action, Pussycat and so many others.

His final creative period follows his return to Marvel after time in the commercial art world and covers the creation of Daredevil, unsatisfactory runs on the Hulk, Dr. Strange, Sub-Mariner, Rawhide Kid and others as well as his stints inking Jack Kirby, Gene Colan, Ross Andru, Herb Trimpe, Dan Adkins and Barry Windsor Smith, before, clean and sober after decades, he produced a landmark run on his signature Sub-Mariner.

Tragically, decades of smoking and alcohol abuse had taken its toll, and only four years after turning his life around he died of complications arising from heart surgery, just when he seemed on the cusp of a brilliant creative renewal as remarkable as his meteoric rise in the 1930s and 1940s.

Evocatively written by biographer Blake Bell, with dozens of first hand accounts from family, friends and contemporaries; the sad, unjust life of this key figure of comics art is lovingly recounted here with hundreds of artistic examples from school days, army service, commercial and cartoon illustration and many intimate photographs supplementing the treasure trove of comics images. By tracking Everett’s early career as a pulp magazine illustrator, through his pioneering superhero art to the moody masterpieces of the 1950s and the Pop Art comics renaissance of the his later years, Fire and Water offers an opportunity to revel in the mastery of a truly unique pillar of America’s sequential Art establishment.

Most importantly for collectors and art-fans there is a overwhelming abundance of beautiful comics magic; from compelling page layouts, sketches and compositions to bold, vibrant pencils and slick luscious inking, and for we comics cognoscenti, the jackpot of never-before-seen unpublished pages: penciled, inked and camera-ready art-boards, as well as illustrations, family pieces and examples of his non-comics career

Brilliant, captivating, and utterly unmissable, this is the book Bill Everett deserves – and so do you.

© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Text © 2010 Stephen Brower. All art © its respective owners and holders. All rights reserved.

From Shadow to Light: The Life and Art of Mort Meskin

By Stephen Brower with Peter & Philip Meskin (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-358-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect for art lovers, wannabe illustrators and lovers of pure comic magic  9/10

There’s currently a delightful abundance of beautiful coffee-table art-books/biographies celebrating the too-long ignored founding fathers and lost masters of American comic books, but few have been as well anticipated and hungered for as this magnificent tome highlighting the troubled life and stunning ability of Morton Meskin, one of the guiding spirits of the industry and a man clearly unaware or unwilling to admit just how influential he actually was.

Rather than waste your time being overly specific (just buy the book – it’s extremely informative and truly wonderful) let me just state that Meskin is the kind of creative force that no real fan of the medium can afford to be ignorant of. This lavishly illustrated, oversized tome traces his life and awesome body of work from school days and early career as a pulp magazine illustrator, through his pioneering superhero art for MLJ, DC, Standard and others through the leaner years and appalling treatment by editors in the 1960s through to the superb advertising art of his later life.

A quiet, diligent and incredibly prolific artist (the text contains numerous accounts of “races” with Jack Kirby, vying to see who could produce the most pages in a day!) Meskin’s manner and philosophical approach influenced dozens of major artists – as the testimonials from Kirby, Steve Ditko (a young student from Meskin’s days as a teacher), Jerry Robinson, Joe Kubert, Alex Toth, Carmine Infantino, George Roussos, Will Eisner and so many others attest over and over again.

Evocatively written by creative/art director, designer, educator and biographical author Stephen Brower, with dozens of first hand accounts from family, friends and contemporaries; the sad, unjust life of this major figure of popular art is fully explored and gloriously justified by every miraculous page of his work reproduced herein. As well as dozens of full colour reproductions from his breathtaking Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, Vigilante, Johnny Quick, Seven Soldiers of Victory, Wildcat, Starman, Fighting Yank, Black Terror and particularly Golden Lad and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet superhero action-adventure delights are lesser known gems of crime, horror, historical and mystery tales.

His prolific days at Simon & Kirby’s S&K Studios producing content for Headline, Crestwood and Prize Comics are well represented with many striking examples of his 1900 or so pages of mystery, psycho-drama, western and romance work, as well as Meskin’s latter days at DC, turning mediocre, fright-free mystery yarns and anodyne science fiction tales into stunning exercises of minimalist tension and drama.

Most importantly for collectors and art-fans there is a huge amount of space devoted here to the artist’s unique manner of working; from compelling page layouts and compositions to bold, vibrant inking, and for we comics cognoscenti, the visual El Dorado of never before seen unpublished pages.

There are dozens of penciled, inked and camera-ready art-boards – many shot from actual original artwork – including assorted genre-works (humour, horror, westerns, romances, covers), legendary features such as Boy’s Ranch, Fighting Yank, Black Terror and Captain 3-D) and even complete unpublished stories including a whole Golden Lad superhero romp, a nautical epic from colonial days starring Bill Blade, Midshipman and a positively electric gangland reworking of Macbeth.

Eventually Meskin left the industry, as so many unappreciated master artists did, for advertising work where he found appreciation, security and financial reward, if not creative contentment, and the latter portion of the scintillating tome is filled with not only an amazing selection of magnificent illustrations, sketches, ad layouts and storyboards but also the purely experimental art – painting, prints, collage and lots of lovely drawings in every medium possible – that clearly kept this obsessively questing artisan’s passions fully engaged..

Brilliant, captivating, utterly unforgettable and unknown, Meskin’s enforced anonymity is finally coming to an end and this magical chronicle is hopefully only the first step in rediscovering this major talent. Buy this book and lobby now for complete collected editions of Mark Merlin, Vigilante, Johnny Quick, Golden Lad and all the fabulous rest…

© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Text © 2010 Stephen Brower. All art © its respective owners and holders. All rights reserved.

Spicy Tales Collection

By various, compiled and edited by Tom Mason (Malibu Graphics)
ISBN: 0-944735-32-0

Before the birth of the American comic-book industry the most popular mass-market home-entertainment was reading and a vast market of cheap, readily accessible pulp magazines provided escapist literature on every subject for every genre imaginable.

There’s no real artistic or literary justification for today’s featured item, and I’m not even particularly inclined to defend some of material within on historical grounds either.  Not that there isn’t an undeniable and direct link between these enchantingly tawdry vignettes and today’s comic book market of age-and-maturity-sensitive cartoons, and when taken on their own terms the stories do have a certain naively beguiling quality. Moreover the rather seedy little strips gathered here are an early turning point for the American branch of our industry for the plain and simple reason that they singled out and were aimed at grown-up readers of picture strips at a key moment before comic book even existed.

The story of how Max Gaines turned freebie pamphlets containing reprinted newspaper strips into a discrete and saleable commodity thereby launching an entire industry, if not art-form, has been told far better elsewhere, but I suspect that without a ready public acceptance of serialised sequential narrative via occasional book collections of the most lauded strips and these saucy little interludes in the all-pervasive but predominantly prose pulps, the fledgling comic-book companies might never have found their rabid customer-base quite so readily.

There were pulps for every possible genre and topic including racier “men’s adventures”; two-fisted exotic action-thrillers heavy on mildly fetishistic sadism and bondage themes, with rugged American men coming to the rescue of white women in peril from thugs and foreigners and especially saving them (the white women, of course) from “fates worse than death”, but only just in time and never before they had lost most of their clothes (the girls – well actually the Rugged American too, in many cases…). How much better than words then would a pictorial adventure seem?

One publisher in particular specialised in this niche market, producing a range of saucy genre thrillers all graced with a defining appellative: Spicy Detective, Spicy Western, Spicy Mystery and Spicy Adventure Stories. This was printer-turned-publisher Harry Donenfeld, who assumed control of some companies who couldn’t pay their print bills in 1934 and knowing pretty well what readers liked, created a Men’s Mag mini Empire under the twin banners of Culture and Trojan Publications. Of course, that’s also how he assumed control of the companies that became DC Comics less than a decade later, but the flak that eventually accrued to Trojan and Culture dictated a diametrically opposing editorial policy in 1940…

In 1943 the pressure exerted by various censorious elements in America became too much and the Trojan/Culture company changed tack and “Spicy” overnight evolved into “Speed Detective”, “Speed Western” and so forth…

This cheap and cheerful black and white compilation, neatly packaged behind a delightful Bruce Timm cover, features a couple of fascinating and informative assays from Tom Mason and John Wooley who provides background for each of the star turns revived here. The art for all of these strips was supervised if not provided by Adolphe Barreaux, through his own Majestic Studios Art “Shop” and these strips were first re-surfaced in Malibu’s Eternity Comics imprint Spicy Tales in 1989.

The major portion of this book features 24 tales of Sally the Sleuth, feisty special agent who debuted in the torrid two page yarn ‘A Narrow Escape’ wherein she lost all her clothes, but not her dignity, and with vagabond boy wonder sidekick Peanuts saved the day against vile gangsters.

Format firmly established they went on to tackle burlesque-murderers, white-slavers, fashion-poisoners, trial-tamperers, mad scientists, foreign devils and assorted criminal scum in such startling visual vignettes as ‘The Dart of Death’, ‘Crimson Menace’, ‘The Torso Murder’, ‘Maid to Order’, ‘The Spider’ and ‘Toy of Fate’. The stories are slick and minimalist, playing heavily on prevalent racial and sexual stereotypes of the era but well constructed and devilishly moreish, spanning November 1934 to October 1940.

Sally even graduated to proper comic-books for a while in the 1950s anthology Crime Smashers, drawn as ever by Barreaux.

The adroit and prolific artist also illustrated Dan Turner – Hollywood Detective, who began life as a prose gumshoe in Spicy Detective, becoming so popular that he graduated to his own title, winning himself a comic strip feature into the bargain. He even became the star of his own Tinseltown movie “Blackmail” in 1947.

The novellas and strip were written by the stunningly prolific pulp-writer Robert Leslie Bellem and the decadent glamour of Turner’s profession and location afforded the movie-land mystery-solver a longevity denied to his generally underdressed co-stars here. I don’t recall him ever having to get his kit off either…

Turner also got substantially more room to solve his pictorial puzzles – usually 6-8 pages per episode  – and is represented here 5 early cases: ‘The Murdered Mummy’, ‘Murder With Music’, ‘Zoot Suit Killers’, ‘Killer’s Foil’ and ‘Sinister Santa Claus’ all culled from Spicy Detective between January 1943 and October 1944.

One of the most intriguing and disturbing strips came from Spicy Western Stories, and launched relatively late – November 1936. Polly of the Plains was a decent girl called from the civilised East into the Wildest of Wests to manage a homestead in trouble. Once there she undergoes kidnap by Mexican bandit Pancho, is whipped, chained, tortured and generally abused for a year by all the bad things cowboy fiction contains, until the feature was abruptly dropped mid-cliffhanger in December 1937.

The first two strips were drawn by the ever-so-young Bill Everett (who would find immortality creating Amazing Man and Sub-Mariner) a few years later, then taken over by Joseph Sokoli who eschewed Everett’s mild but pretty innuendo for a far more raw, racy and graphic (mis)treatment of the harassed heroine. The strips reprinted here cover the first half of the run.

The final distressed damsel on show is Diana Daw whose fantastic exploits debuted in Spicy Adventure Stories in November 1934; the tale of a far less innocent, more competent African explorer who stumbled into a lost world of barbarian natives, hidden kingdoms, knock-off Tarzans and a forgotten colony of Crusaders. Diana gets stripped and tied up an awful lot but is by no means a frail female – she revels in her naked savagery and kills as many attackers – be they Ape, Arab or Aborigine – as any of her brawny he-men admirers…

The seven 2-page serial instalments reproduced here show a woman far more in keeping with post-millennium attitudes, most probably crafted by writer Robert Maxwell (who wrote for the Superman Radio and TV shows as well as scripting the 1951 movie Superman and the Mole Men) and illustrator Max Plaisted, collaborating under the pen-name Clayton Maxwell. The episodes here run from the introductory chapter until June of 1935.

Hard to find, difficult to justify but inarguably a vital stepping stone to our modern industry there is a rough, guilty gratification to be found in these undeniably effective little tales. This book and the era it came from are worthy of far greater coverage than has been previously experienced and no true devotee can readily ignore this stuff.
© 1989 Malibu Graphics, Inc. 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.

Bone volume 1: Out of Boneville

By Jeff Smith (Cartoon Books)
ISBN: 978-0-96366-094-7

Jeff Smith burst out of relative obscurity in 1991 and changed the comics-reading landscape with his enchanting all-ages comic-book Bone. The compelling black and white saga captivated the market and prospered at a time when an endless procession of angst-ridden, steroid-breathed super-vigilantes and implausibly clad “Bad-Grrls” came and went with machine-gun rapidity.

Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Ohio, Smith absorbed the works of Carl Barks, Charles Schultz and especially Walt Kelly from an early age, and purportedly first began producing the adventures of his Boneville creations at age ten. Whilst at Ohio State University he crated a strip for the College newspaper: ‘Thorn’ was another early incarnation of his personal universe and a proving ground for many characters that would appear in Bone. A high school classmate became a Disney animator and Smith subsequently worked in the industry before striking on his own, mastering the graceful slapstick timing and high finish that typifies his art style.

He founded Cartoon Books to self-publish 55 delightful black and white issues (to be accurate ten of them were put out under the Image Comics imprimatur, but reverted to Smith’s company with #29): a fantasy quest yarn that owed as much to Tex Avery as J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as his holy trinity, Barks Schultz & Kelly. The bold thrilling and fantastically funny saga progressed at its own unique pace between 1991 and 2004. Since then it has been collected into nine volumes from Cartoon Books (with two further collections of prequels and side tales), reissued in colour by Scholastic Books and even reprinted in Disney Adventures magazine.

At series’ end Smith issued a monumental one volume compilation (more than 1300 black and white pages) which Time magazine dubbed “the best all-ages graphic novel yet published” and one of the “Top Ten Graphic Novels of All Time.”

Smith has won many awards including 11 Harveys and 10 Eisners. In 2003 he turned his magic loose again and revived the World’s Mightiest Mortal for DC with Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil. The project took three years but was worth every moment…

His latest work is the science fiction tale RASL.

As you can see there are plenty of versions to opt for but purist that I am I’ve plumped for the original Cartoon Books collection where the action commences in Out of Boneville, which re-presents the first six episodes.

Fone Bone is a strange, amorphous, yet decent little bald guy, a thematic blend of Mickey Mouse and Asterix who has been run out of the town of Boneville along with his tall and not-so-bright cousin Smiley Bone. Well to be exact they haven’t, but their dastardly, swindling cousin Phoncible P. “Phoney” Bone has, due to the kind of irregularities, misdemeanours and malfeasances that bring down presidents – and he running for Mayor at the time…

Crossing a deadly desert and near death the trio are separated by a storm of locusts and Fone finds himself in a lost valley: an oasis of pastoral beauty hidden from the rest of the world. Along the way he is adopted by a dragon he doesn’t believe in, stalked by ghastly rat monsters and befriended by a talking leaf-insect (like a stick insect but flat, not long – and very talkative…)

The little refugee is forced to spend a harsh winter living wild in the deep forest where he befriends many of the small creatures who live there, but as the thaw approaches he meets the beauteous and oddly compelling human girl Thorn. It is Crush-at-First-Sight…

She invites him to stay with her and her grandmother Rose until he can find his lost cousins, but soon regrets it when Phoney turns up: rude, duplicitous, greedy as ever and determined to be a real pain…

Phoney’s insatiable drive to steal, cheat and fake a buck makes life pretty uncomfortable for the besotted Fone Bone, but trouble is brewing in the deep woods. An ancient evil has stirred, driving the rat creatures into a frenzy. An old, cold war is heating up again and for the humans of nearby village Barrelhaven the stakes are really high. The dark creatures have only been waiting for the arrival of their prophesied one – a small bald creature with a star on its chest remarkably similar to the one on Phoney’s shirt…

The assembled horror-hordes attack Thorn’s cottage but their chosen one is long gone. Phoney has scented money and gone to Barrelhaven in search of easy marks. Gran’ma fights a desperate holding action as Thorn and Fone flee through the forest to warn the villagers. After a nightmarish retreat the pair are rescued by the dragon – sworn foe of the rat things and their master. They return to the cottage to find that Gran’ma has survived: moreover she and the Dragon are old acquaintances…

As the Dragon returns to the deep woods the humans (and Bone) relocate to Barrelhaven, where Fone discovers that Smiley has been there all along, working as a bartender in the local tavern. Phoney is there too – working off a tremendous bar-tab…

This volume ends on a happy note as the cousins are finally reunited, but malevolent forces are gathering all around them and there are dark days ahead…

I’ve talked a lot about the influences that informed this wonderful series and there’s one more that cannot be ignored: if you squint your eyes just right you can hear the dulcet deceptions of Bill Watterson’s Calvin (see The Essential Calvin and Hobbes. Just Do. It’s wonderful and so are all the other collections) leaking in to flavour this equally marvelous, child-friendly extravaganza…

Bone is a truly perfect comic tale and one that appeals to kids and adults equally. Already it is in the rarefied rank starring Tintin, Pogo, Rupert Bear, Little Nemo and the works of Carl Barks. It is only a matter of time before it breaks out of the comic club completely and becomes kin to the likes of Wind in the Willows, the Moomins and the Oz books.

If you have kids or can still think and behave like one you must have these books…

© 1996 Jeff Smith. All rights reserved.

The Groo Garden

By Sergio Aragonés, Mark Evanier & Stan Sakai (Epic/Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-78510-026-3

Both in comic narrative and the infinitely trickier field of gag-cartooning Sergio Aragonés has produced uncountable volumes of excellent work. His darkly skewed sensibilities and death-grip on the cosmically absurd, wedded to a totally unique drawing style and frankly terrifying professional discipline have made his (usually) silent doodles a vibrant proof of the maxims that laughter is universal and a picture is worth a thousand words.

After working for years for Mad Magazine and DC’s horror titles on gag features and the occasional full comic strip in 1981, with writer and associate Mark Evanier, Aragonés produced a madcap four-page parody of the Sword-and-Sorcery genre as a contribution to the Creators Rights benefit comicbook Destroyer Duck published by Eclipse Comics.

Following a second outing in Mike Grell’s Starslayer (#5) Pacific Comics launched Groo the Wanderer in his own title. After 8 issues (December 1982-April 1984) the troubled company folded but the unsinkable barbarian (that’s a joke I’ll explain later) resurfaced in the Groo Special one-shot from Eclipse (October 1984), before finding a home at Epic Comics: Archie Goodwin’s creator-owned corner of the Marvel Universe.

Aragonés had first created his witless warrior in the 1970s but no publisher would take on the property unless he sold all rights – an almost universal situation in the industry until the advent of the Direct Sales market transferred power from companies and distributors to creators and consumers.

The character is arguably the most successful creator-owned property of the American comic-book market, and this seventh volume (of 27 thus far) collects issues #25-28 (March-May 1987) from the Epic incarnation, with the itinerant idiot fully established in a capacious and vast feudal landscape of wizards, warriors, wild women and weird beasts. With a burgeoning supporting cast, Aragonés and his co-conspirators have plenty of wonky, misshapen leg-room to experiment with narrative and visual merry-making…

For the slow of mind however let me recapitulate:

Groo is the smelliest, ugliest, stupidest unluckiest mercenary in the world – but he’s also the best swordsman in creation and far too stupid to be harmed. He is always hungry and wanders because most places he pause in burn down, wash away or crash into rubble soon after he arrives. He loves to fight and entire nations and navies reel at the mention of his name. Of course they do the same when they stand downwind of him too…

The volume opens with ‘Divide and Conquer’ as the unemployable oaf has something similar to an idea and quite effectively foments unrest between relatively peaceful kingdoms in the hope that somebody will hire him to quell the unrest – with the usual catastrophic results, whilst two sinister sorceresses who really should know better are forced to employ the him again in ‘Arba Dakarba’, shrinking the wandering warrior to the size of his own intellect to steal a wishing amulet.

‘Spies’ places Groo in the background as The Sage and The Minstrel are captured by an army and accused of espionage. To forestall their executions the pair entertain the Commanding General with stories of the worst soldier in existence, but unlike Scheherazade, no tale of Groo can ever have a happy – or safe – ending. Then this chronicle concludes with ‘The Gourmet Kings!’ as the ever-ravenous reaving rover’s always empty stomach leads him to gainful employment and chef-stealing. Naturally the whole affair leads to an excess of chopping, slicing and dicing all around…

Marvelously cynical, wildly witty and stunningly silly Groo is the comic that people who hate comics read: brilliantly tongue-in-cheek, sharply sarcastic and devastatingly self-deprecating. An irresistible humour tour-de-force astoundingly scribed and illustrated by jesters who don’t know when – or how – to stop. New readers can start practically anywhere – and still be none the wiser…

The unstoppable brain-donor (Groo, not Aragones or even wordsmith Evanier, letterer Stan Sakai or colourist Tom Luth) has since rambled on to shut down Image Comics and now threatens to finish off Dark Horse, but as they haven’t completely gone belly-up yet there’s still plenty of material for you to track down…
© 1987, 1994 Sergio Aragonés. All Rights Reserved.

Walt Disney’s Donald Duck Adventures: Voodoo Hoodoo

By Carl Barks (Gladstone Comic Album #16)

ISBN: 0-944599-15-X

Carl Barks was the greatest armchair (and drawing board) adventurer of his generation. A dedicated and voracious researcher who loved exploration and thrived on local colour and detail in his work, he seamlessly blended history, geography and the natural world into his rollicking rip-roaring light-thrillers. All Barks’ spectacular yarns were screened through a mesmerising lens of wonder and excitement and executed with riotous bursts of outrageous comedy that appealed to fun-starved fans of all ages. They still do.

From the 1940’s to the1960s Barks worked in seclusion, concocting a timeless treasure trove of golden myths and fables (ostensibly) for kids; forging a cohesive Duck Universe stuffed with memorable and highly bankable characters such as Uncle Scrooge McDuck, Gladstone Gander, the Beagle Boys, Gyro Gearloose, and Magica De Spell to augment the stable of cartoon actors from the Disney Studio, but his most exciting work always involved the rowdy, know-it-all nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie and their irascible, excitable, indomitable “unca” Donald Duck.

The boys’ assigned roles were as sensible, precocious and just-a-little-bit snotty counterfoils to their guardian whose intemperate nature caused him to act like an overgrown brat most of the time, but they often fell prey to a perpetual and natural temptation to raise a ruckus as well: clearly something in the genes…

West Coast publishing giant Dell/Gold Key held the license to produce comic-books based on Disney properties from the 1940s, generating a vast treasure-trove of graphic wonderment before grinding to a close in the early 1980s. Fan-based publishers Gladstone began re-releasing Barks material and a selection of other Disney comics classics at the end of the decade and this album is one of the best.

Whilst producing all that landmark material Barks considered himself just a working guy, drawing eye-catching covers, illustrating other people’s scripts to order yet still setting the bar for his compatriots with utterly perfect tales that added to the burgeoning canon of Donald Duck and other Disney properties. His output was incredible in terms of quantity and especially in its unfailingly high quality.

Printed in the large European oversized format (278mm x 223mm) this chilling departure into the realms of the unknown reprints one of his eeriest masterpieces with the lead tale from Dell Four Color Comics #238 (August 1949) and sees the author once more accessing darker themes via the sinister delights of horror movies – albeit seductively tempered with Barks’ winningly absurd humour (for more of the same see also Donald Duck Adventures: Ancient Persia).

Duckburg is all in a tizzy when a hulking undead brute begins loitering around town. Eventually Bombie the Zombie delivers a poisoned devil-doll to Donald which apparently makes him start to shrink. Zombies aren’t particularly smart and he/it had been trying for years to deliver the potent vengeance of his witch-doctor master Foola Zoola to the duck that swindled him … and unfortunately Donald looks a lot like Scrooge McDuck did seventy years ago!

Not believing in curses Uncle Scrooge is less than sympathetic but after experiencing the pester-power of Donald and the nephews he grudgingly funds an expedition to Africa to set things right. And only then do their troubles really begin…

Wacky and deeply satirical this tale was the subject of some controversy after it was first published, with Barks’ evolving drawing style skirting jarringly close to some pretty prejudicial and unwholesome racial stereotypes of the time, and considering the target audience it is a pretty scary story in a lot of places, but as ever, the wildly over-the-top madcap humour keeps everything addictively comforting and compelling.

Filling out this volume is another spooky fantasy fable starring Donald and the boys with a far more prominent role for their Bajillionaire relative as the entire family check out his latest acquisition. Scrooge has bought a castle in Scotland because a legendary treasure is hidden within it, but ‘McMerganser Macabre’ (from Donald Duck #26 November 1952) proves the old adage “buyer beware” as the old pile also seems to have an extremely agitated ghost as an unwelcome squatter…

However even when running for their lives and dodging certain death Huey, Dewey and Louie are pretty sure all is not as it seems…

Breathtaking and supremely hilarious this is a sheer graphic treat for fans of comics in their purest and most enticing form and still readily available from a number of online retailers, but even if you can’t find this specific volume most of Barks’ work is readily accessible through a number of publications and outlets.

As everything he’s ever done is well worth reading, no matter what your age or temperament, you’ve nothing to lose and all to gain by tracking down Barks’ captivating creations; so please do do – or experience the repercussions of the Voodoo Hoodoo…
© 1989, 1949 The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.

Early Barefootz

By Howard Cruse (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-052-1

Howard Cruse’s remarkable cartooning career has spanned decades and encompassed a number of key moments in American history and social advancement.

Beginning as a Hippy-trippy, counter-culture, Underground Comix star with beautifully drawn, witty, funny (not always the same thing in those days – or these, come to think of it) strips, evolving over the years into a powerful voice for change in both sexual and race politics through such superb features as Wendel culminating in his masterful Stuck Rubber Baby – an examination of oppression, tolerance and freedom in 1950s America. Since then he has worked on other writer’s work, illustrating an adaptation of Jeanne E. Shaffer’s The Swimmer With a Rope In His Teeth.

Born in 1944 the son of a Baptist Minister in Birmingham, Alabama, Cruse grew up amid the smouldering intolerance of the region’s segregationist regime, an atmosphere that affected him on a primal level. He escaped to Birmingham-Southern College to study Drama in the late ‘60s, graduating and winning a Shubert Playwriting Fellowship to Penn State University.

Campus life there never really suited him and he dropped out in 1969. Returning to the South he joined a loose crowd of fellow Birmingham Bohemians which allowed him to blossom as a creator and by 1971 was drawing a spectacular procession of strips for an increasingly hungry and growing crowd of eager admirers.

Whilst working for a local TV station as both designer and children’s show performer he created a kid’s newspaper strip about talking squirrels, Tops & Button, still finding time to craft the utterly whimsical and bizarre tales of a romantic quadrangle starring a very nice young man and his troublesome friends for the more discerning college crowd he still mingled with. The strips appeared in a variety of college newspapers and periodicals

He was “discovered” by publishing impresario Denis Kitchen in 1972 who began presenting Barefootz to a far broader audience in such Underground publications as Snarf, Bizarre Sex, Dope Comix and Commies From Mars from his Kitchen Sink Enterprises outfit.

Kitchen also hired Cruse to work on an ambitious co-production with rising powerhouse Marvel Comics, attempting to bring a bowdlerised version of the counter-culture’s cartoon stars and sensibilities to the mainstream via the Comix Book – a newsstand magazine. It only ran to a half-dozen issues and although deemed a failure it provided the notionally more wholesome and genteel Barefootz with a larger audience and yet more avid fans…

As well as an actor, designer, art-director and teacher, Cruse’s work has appeared in Playboy, The Village Voice, Heavy Metal, Artforum International, The Advocate and Starlog among countless others, and the tireless storyman found the time and resources to self-publish Barefootz Funnies, two comic collections of his addictively whimsical strip in 1973.

Here in this fascinatingly written memoir of those salad days Cruse movingly recounts those early triumphs and re-presents the strips that began it all, covering 1970-73, and although he has moved on to weightier material since (especially on Gay and Race issues) these splendidly whacky and deliriously charming adventures still stand among his most evergreen creations.

So here, for your consideration and delectation are the gathered exploits and ruminations of thoughtful, Nice Young Man Barefootz, his way-out friend and confidante Headrack, sexually aggressive and very forceful gal-pal Dolly and Glory: the frog-manifesting “Thing Under the Bed”, aided and abetted by an ever-changing cast of erudite cockroaches who share his apartment.

As well as the history and Cruse’s reflections, this terrific compilation includes in stunning and meticulous monochrome a selection of Tops & Button gag-panels, ‘The Head Strip’, early strips from campus journal The Crimson-White and The Alternate, syndicated Barefootz from Service Strips, Kitchen Sink single-pagers and the longer stories, ‘Tussy Come Back’, ‘Hint and Run’, ‘Cream of the Genes’, ‘It All Fits’, ‘Suffering Celeste’, the Paperman strips and ‘The Eclipse’, – a classic and unflinchingly engaging treat for any comics fan and grown-up dreamer.

For further information check out Howardcruse.com and track down this and all his other brilliant creations – before Glory turns you into a frog…
© 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 1977 & 1987, 1990 Howard Cruse. All rights reserved.

The Groo Adventurer

By Sergio Aragonés, Mark Evanier & Stan Sakai (Epic/Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-703-8

Both in comic narrative and the infinitely more strenuous field of gag-cartooning Sergio Aragonés has produced vast volumes of excellent work. His darkly skewed sensibilities and grasp of the cosmically absurd, wedded to a totally unique drawing style and frankly terrifying professional discipline have made his (usually) silent doodles a vibrant proof of the maxims that laughter is universal and a picture is worth a thousand words.

After working for years for Mad Magazine and DC’s horror titles on gag features and the occasional full comic strip in 1981, with writer and associate Mark Evanier, Aragonés produced a madcap four-page parody of the Sword-and-Sorcery genre as a contribution to the Creators Rights benefit comicbook Destroyer Duck published by Eclipse Comics.

Following a second outing in Mike Grell’s Starslayer (#5) Pacific Comics launched Groo the Wanderer in his own title. After 8 issues (December 1982-April 1984) the troubled company folded but the unsinkable barbarian (that’s a joke I’ll explain later) resurfaced in the Groo Special one-shot from Eclipse (October 1984), before finding a home at Epic Comics: Archie Goodwin’s creator-owned corner of the Marvel Universe.

Aragonés had first created his witless warrior in the 1970s but no publisher would take on the property unless he sold all rights – an almost universal situation in the industry until the advent of the Direct Sales market transferred power from companies and distributors to creators and consumers.

This volume collects the first four (of 120) issues from the Epic incarnation (March-April 1985) and reintroduces readers to the smelliest, ugliest, stupidest itinerant mercenary in the world. Luckily he’s also the best swordsman in creation and too thick to be harmed. The unstoppable brain-donor has since moved on to Image and Dark Horse Comics, but they haven’t completely gone belly-up yet…

Groo is always hungry and wanders because most places he stops at burn down, wash away or crash into rubble soon after he gets there. He loves to fight and the entire world trembles at the mention of his name. They do the same when they smell him too…

Produced in unique fashion by Aragonés, wordsmith Evanier, letterer Stan Sakai (creator of Usagi Yojimbo) and colourist Tom Luth, the idiot’s adventures form one of the longest running humour comicbook series in America and this volume is merely one of 27 to date.

Beginning with ‘The Song of Groo’ which introduces a wandering minstrel to the insane cast of a mediaeval wonderland of kingdoms, villages and provinces roughly mirroring Earth circa 1000AD, wherein the peripatetic poltroon botches a simple guard’s job and precipitates an international war, whilst ‘Dragon Killer’ allows him the opportunity to slay a beast, wipe out a paradise and blow up an entire country.

‘The Medallion’ is a safe-passage token that proves to be the most fray-provoking, schism-inducing peace symbol in the world and this chronicle concludes with ‘World Without Women!’ as the ever-eager hero-in-his-own-mind rescues helpless wives and maidens from zeppelin-riding pirates who keep them in utter luxury, returning the frail, fragile creatures to their rightful lives of dirt, drudgery and husbandly domination…

A magically cynical and silly comedy of errors Groo is the comic that people who hate comics read: brilliantly tongue-in-cheek, sharply sarcastic and devastatingly self-deprecating. An irresistible humour tour-de-force astoundingly scribed and illustrated by jesters who don’t know when – or how – to stop. New readers can start practically anywhere – and still be none the wiser…

Oh yeah, that sinking thing: among his other lack of abilities Groo cannot travel by ship. He’s not sea-sick or anything – it’s just that his mere presence on a maritime vessel causes it to sink…
© 1985, 1990 Sergio Aragonés. All Rights Reserved.