Signal from Space/Life on Another Planet


By Will Eisner with Andre LeBlanc (Kitchen Sink Press/DC Comics/W.W. Norton & Co)
ISBN: 978-0-87816-014-3 (Kitchen Sink colour HB): 0-87816-370-0 (KSP B&W PB):
978-1-56398-677-4 (DC Comics Library PB): 978-0-39332-812-7 (WW Norton PB)

Here’s a long-lost contemporary cartooning classic which – although readily available in a number of formats – is still seen best in its first release. Ambitious and deliberately targeting an adult book-reading rather than comics audience, this initial collection of Will Eisner’s trenchant political thriller-cum-social commentary proves once more that sometimes the medium really is the message…

William Erwin Eisner was one of the pivotal creators who shaped the American comicbook industry, with most of his works more or less permanently in print – as they should be. From 1936 to 1938 he worked as a jobbing cartoonist in the comics production hothouse known as the Eisner-Eiger Shop, creating strips for both domestic US and foreign markets.

Using the pen-name Willis B. Rensie he created and drew opening instalments for a huge variety of characters ranging from funny animal to historical sagas, Westerns, Detective fiction, aviation action thrillers… and superheroes… lots of superheroes …

In 1940 Everett “Busy” Arnold, head honcho of the superbly impressive Quality Comics outfit, invited Eisner to take on a new challenge. The Register-Tribune newspaper syndicate wanted a 16-page weekly comicbook insert for the Sunday editions. Eisner jumped at the opportunity to move beyond the limitations of the nickel and dime marketplace, creating three series which would initially be handled by him before two were delegated to supremely talented assistants.

Bob Powell inherited Mr. Mystic and distaff detective Lady Luck fell into the capable hands of Nick Cardy (then still Nicholas Viscardi) and later the inimitable Klaus Nordling.

Eisner kept the lead feature for his own and over the next twelve years The Spirit became the most impressive, innovative, imitated and talked-about strip in the business. However, by 1952 he had more or less abandoned it for more challenging and certainly more profitable commercial, instructional and educational strips. He began working extensively for the US military in manuals and magazines like P*S, the Preventative Maintenance Monthly, generally leaving comics books behind him.

After too long away from his natural story-telling arena, Eisner creatively returned to the streets of Brooklyn where he was born on March 6th 1906. After years spent inventing much of the visual semantics, semiotics and syllabary of the medium he dubbed “Sequential Art” in strips, comicbooks, newspaper premiums and instructional comics, he capped that glittering career by inventing the mainstream graphic novel, bringing maturity, acceptability and public recognition to English language comics.

In 1978 a collection of four original short stories in strip form were released as a single book: A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories. All the material centred around 55 Dropsie Avenue, a 1930’s Bronx tenement housing impoverished Jewish and immigrant families. It changed the American perception of cartoon strips forever.

Eisner wrote and drew a further 20 further masterpieces, opening the door for all other comics creators to escape the funnybook and anodyne strip ghettos of superheroes, funny animals, juvenilia and “family-friendly” entertainment. At one stroke comics grew up.

Eisner was constantly pushing the boundaries of his craft, refining his skills not just on The Spirit but with his educational and promotional material. In A Contract with God he honed in on unexplored territory with truly sophisticated, mature themes worthy of Steinbeck or F. Scott Fitzgerald, using pictorial fiction as documentary to examine social experience.

One of the few genres where Eisner never really excelled was science fiction – and arguably he doesn’t in this tale either as, in Signal from Space, the big discovery is just a plot maguffin to explore politics, social interactions and greed – all premium Eisner meat…

As ‘Life on Another Planet’ the material in this collection was originally serialised as eight 16-page episodes in Will Eisner’s Spirit Magazine from October 1978 to December 1980, rendered in toned monochrome (a format adhered to and title revived in subsequent Kitchen Sink, DC and W.W. Norton collections).

However, for this luscious hardback, the auteur and long-time confederate Andre LeBlanc fully-painted the entire saga using evocative tones and hues to subtly enhance the sinister, cynical proceedings…

One momentous night, lonely radio astronomer Mark Argano – based at a New Mexico observatory – picks up ‘The Signal’: a mathematical formula originating from Barnard’s Star and thus proof positive of extraterrestrial intelligence…

One colleague wants to inform the public immediately, but Argano is adamant that they go slowly as he (secretly) harbours schemes to somehow “cash in”. Unfortunately, the other scientist he shares the secret with is a Soviet sleeper agent…

Almost immediately the first murder in a long and bloody succession is committed as various parties seek to use the incredible revelation to their own advantage. World-weary science advisor and maverick astrophysicist James Bludd is dispatched by the CIA to verify and control the situation, but he walks straight into a KGB ambush and narrowly escapes with his life…

There’s now a deadly Cold War race to control contact with the mysterious signallers and ‘The 1st Empire’ follows recovering addict Marco as he turns his life around; using the now-public sensation to create a personality cult dedicated to leaving Earth and joining the aliens. Whilst Marco’s Star People grab all the headlines, ruthless plutocrat Mr. MacRedy uses his monolithic Multinational Corporation to manipulate Russia and America, intending to be the only one to ultimately capitalise on any mission to Barnard’s Star…

Since travel to far space is still impossible for humans, MacRedy sanctions the unethical and illegal creation of a human/plant hybrid and starts looking for volunteers to experiment on in ‘A New Form of Life’, whilst Bludd – now more reluctant spy than dedicated scientist – accepts another undercover assignment.

Casualties moral, ethical and corporeal mount in ‘Pre-Launch’ whilst in distressed African nation Sidiami, a desperate despot declares his bankrupt nation a colony of Barnard’s Star to avoid UN sanctions and having to pay back his national debt to Earthly banks…

Soon, he’s offering a base to Multinational for their own launch site and sanctuary to those Star People anxious to emigrate…

In ‘Bludd’ the scientist and his sultry KGB counterpart find themselves odd-bedfellows just as the Mafia get involved in the crisis – for both personal and pecuniary reasons – whilst in America, MacRedy prepares to install his own President to expedite his company’s requirements…

Now determined to take matters into his own hands and screw all governments and interests, Bludd is caught up in an unstoppable, uncontrollable maelstrom of events in ‘Abort’, and, after the American President has a fatal accident in ‘The Big Hit’ MacRedy thinks he’s finally won. He is utterly unprepared for Bludd’s unpredictable masterstroke in ‘The Last Chapter’

Signal from Space is a dark and nasty espionage drama as well as a powerfully intriguing ethical parable: a Petrie dish for ethical dilemmas where Eisner masterfully manipulates his vast cast to display human foible and eventually a glimmer of aspirational virtue. This is a hugely underrated tale from a master of mature comics guaranteed to become an instant favourite. And it’s even better in this sumptuous oversized edition which is well worth every effort to hunt it down.

After all, Per Ardua ad Astra

However, if you can’t find this version, there are numerous later editions, in the original black & white that have their own potent appeal and if you were a really dedicated fan, you’d only be happy with both, wouldn’t you?
© 1978, 1979, 1980, 1983 Will Eisner. All rights reserved.

Freeway


By Mark Kalesniko (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-356-9 (PB)

It’s a strange occupation writing about a largely pictorial art-form and sometimes the only thing you want to say is “you have got to read this!” However, as I love to babble on, I’ll slightly elaborate about this forgotten gem: a superb quasi-autobiographical fable from animator and cartoonist Mark Kalesniko which features another moving and thought-provoking reverie starring his dog-faced alter ego Alex .

After working for Disney on such modern classics as The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Mulan and Atlantis, in 1991, British Columbia-born Kalesniko began crafting powerful and imaginative comics, beginning with the audacious ‘Adolf Hears a Who.’

In 1994 he spawned Alex; the tale of an alcoholic ex-animator returning to his old hometown, following up in 1997 with Why Did Pete Duel Kill Himself? – an account of young Alex’s formative years. In 2001, the auteur diverged from Alex’s exploits to examine another aspect of the inherent isolationism of creative types in Mail Order Bride.

Freeway marked Kalesniko’s return to his signature character to describe in powerfully oppressive form the heartrending misery of successfully attaining your greatest dream…

Young Alex has left Canada for Hollywood to fulfil his lifelong ambition of being an animator for the monolithic Babbitt Jones Productions (a transparently veiled Walt Disney Studios analogue) but the achievement of his passionate wish is not working out how he had hoped.

The neophyte seems to spend most of his day trying to drive to or from the studio (no longer part of the colossal Babbitt Jones main complex but now hidden away in a seedy warehouse in a decidedly dodgy business district).

After the initial disappointment of discovering the animators and ideas that built the company have become sidelined and despised by corporate drones who now run the business, Alex settles in and begins the intolerable grind of making art by committee diktat. As he sees his fellow creatives slowly crumple under the unremitting pressures of office politics, daily compromise, poor leadership and lack of vision in a place where being good is less important than being compliant, his elation fades.

Succumbing to nostalgia and seduced by his own joyous yearning for those good old days he never experienced, Alex falls in love with a co-worker. Typically, her family considers him an outsider…

Every day he sees the talent, imagination, aspirations and sensitivity of his fellow artists mauled by malicious ambition and jealousy, and every day he wastes angry and frustrated hours embedded in the vast aggressive steam kettle of the Los Angeles rush hour…

Little wonder then that his fertile, repressed imagination begins to wander: but when daydreams of violent death and merciful release are more satisfying than your life, how long can a creative soul last before it withers or snaps?

This mesmeric saga is deliciously multi-layered: blending compelling narrative with tantalising titbits and secret snippets from the golden age of animation, with rosy reveries of the meta-fictional post-war LA and the sheer tension of a paranoid thriller. Kalesniko opens Alex’s mind and soul to us but there’s no easy ride. Like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, there’s a brilliant tale unfolding here but you’re expected to pay attention and work for it.

Available in paperback and in digital formats and illustrated with stunning virtuosity in captivating black line, Alex’s frustration, anger, despair, reminiscences and imaginings from idle ponderings to over-the-top, compulsive near-hallucinations are chillingly captured and shared in this wonderful book – which can be happily read in isolation of all the other tomes previously cited. And happily, they’re still available and recommended and can only enhance this glorious and bold truly graphic novel.
Contents © 2011 Mark Kalesniko. This edition © 2011 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.T

Outrageous Tales from the Old Testament


By Arthur Ranson, Donald Rooum, Dave Gibbons, Alan Moore, Hunt Emerson, Neil Gaiman, Mike Matthews, Julie Hollings, Peter Rigg, Graham Higgins, Steve Gibson, Dave McKean, Kim Deitch, Carol Bennett, Brian Bolland & various (Knockabout)
ISBN: 978-0-86166-054-4

Although I couldn’t be happier with the state of the graphic novel market these days, I do miss the early days when production costs were high and canny pioneer publishers resorted to producing anthologies of short tales.

Knockabout Comics has been providing cutting edge and controversial cartoon triumphs since 1975 and although this cracking all-star oddment is actually out of print – like far too many of the graphic novels and collections I recommend – it remains one of their most potent and engaging releases.

However, if you’re a devout Christian you be best advised to just jump to the next review.

Originally released in 1987, it features a varied band of British creators adapting – with tongues firmly in cheeks – a selection of Biblical episodes, and the results are mordantly earnest, deeply bitter and darkly funny.

‘Creation’ is the preserve of supreme stylistic realist Arthur Ranson, whilst affable anarchist legend Donald Rooum explores Eden in ‘Gandalf’s Garden’ and Dave Gibbons puts some decidedly modernistic top-spin to the saga of ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’.

Alan Moore & Hunt Emerson examine ‘Leviticus’ (that would be the one with all those pesky Commandments) after which Neil Gaiman tackles ‘The Book of Judges’ accompanied by Mike Matthews (both the introduction and ‘The Tribe of Benjamin’); with Julie Hollings (for ‘Jael and Sisera’); Peter Rigg (‘Jephthah and His Daughter’); Graham Higgins (‘Samson’) and Steve Gibson (‘Journey to Bethlehem’). He even finds time to produce ‘The Prophet Who Came to Dinner’ (From the Book of Kings) with seminal long-time collaborator Dave McKean.

Closing the slim oversized (290 x204 mm) monochrome tome are underground cartooning icon Kim Deitch with ‘The Story of Job’, ‘Daddy Dear’ (from Ecclesiastes) adapted by Carol Bennett & Julie Hollings and the intensely uncompromising ‘A Miracle of Elisha’ (also from the Book of Kings) by the magnificent Brian Bolland.

Powerful and memorable, these interpretations won’t win any praise from Christian Fundamentalists, but they are fierce, subtle and scholarly examinations of the Old Testament realised by passionate creators with something to say and an unholy desire to instruct. As free-thinking adults you owe it to yourself to read these stories, but only in the spirit in which they were created.
© 1987 Knockabout Publications and the Artists and Writers. All Rights Reserved.

Benson’s Cuckoos


By Anouk Ricard, translated by Helge Dascher (Drawn & Quarterly)
ISBN: 978-1-77046-138-3 (PB)

Here’s another superb example of sophisticated yet simple Euro-cartooning designed to charm and challenge in equal amounts.

Couched in terms of British television, this beautifully bonkers anthropomorphic fable of modern life is akin to watching David Brent guest star in Little Britain whilst apparently coming down off a mixed selection of unsanctioned recreational pharmaceuticals. However, for those with better things to do than stay glued to the goggle box, here’s a more informative, longer-winded appreciation…

Anouk Ricard is an extremely gifted storyteller, author, artist and animator who hails from Istres in the South of France. Her creative output is vast, ranging from puzzles to films, book and magazine illustration to science tracts and much, much more.

Her comic albums – both for children and adult audiences – have garnered many awards and nominations, with the all-ages Anna aet Froga series (Capsule Comique, 2004) and Galaxy Darling (2009, with Hugo Piette in Le Journal de Spirou) being particularly popular amongst critics and the public.

She was born in 1970 and graduated from the Arts décoratifs de Strasbourg in 1995 before beginning her multi-directional career. Now based in Lyon, 2012 saw Ricard win a raft of awards and honours for Coucous Bouzon, a wryly surreal anthropomorphic satirical parody of modern day office practice and politics. In 2014, GQ France magazine named her one of the 25 most humorous women in France.

The disturbing and hilarious lampoon delivered here is a calculatedly naïve, faux juvenile soap operatic melodrama. It’s one of her few translated works thus far, but one of the best……

Benson’s Cuckoos produces and distributes those bird-themed clocks loved and loathed in equal amounts by holidaymakers everywhere, and our cautionary tale begins when highly strung Richard (he’s the blue duck on the cover) attends an interview for an office position which has suddenly and mysteriously become vacant.

The encounter is a nightmare. Mr. Benson is erratic, unfocused and quite emotionally detached – and quite possibly completely mad. Told to turn up on Monday, Richard leaves the interview unsure whether he has got the job or not…

His first day is even stranger. For starters, he has to provide his own computer and the first colleague he meets threatens him sexually…

Dragged into a staff meeting within minutes of setting up, Richard meets receptionist Sophie who tells him how George – the person he’s replacing – simply vanished one day. She seems nice, but won’t let him sit in George’s chair…

The day goes downhill from there and the job appears less and less appealing as the endless hours pass. Almost everybody is terse and self-absorbed when not outright hostile, and Benson roams around wearing strange hats; alternately threatening to fire everybody and over-sharing uncomfortable personal observations.

Tuesday, pressured for a progress report, Richard opens a fresh can of worms when he innocently asks to see George’s old files. Amidst an aura of sullen intractability, Sophie takes pity on him and passes on an old one, but it mysteriously vanishes from his desk before he can read it…

Feeling disturbed, the new guy stops in for a session with his analyst but the self-absorbed charlatan just fobs him off with a fresh prescription for antidepressants. Desperate for a little respite when he arrives home, Richard collapses on the couch and turns on the TV.

There’s a Crimewatch style show on. Lost and Found is highlighting the case of a wife whose husband never came home from work. His name was George McCall and he was the Accounts Manager at Benson’s Cuckoos…

A film crew turns up at work the next day and all too soon Richard and Sophie are exposed to the harsh and unjust scrutiny of trial-by-media…

From there the strange tale inescapably escalates into a bizarre and paranoiac crime-caper punctuated by a succession of further odd events and mysterious disappearances which inexorably reduce our reluctant hero to the status of an alienated, disoriented and powerless player in a grand conspiracy.

Moreover, for Richard and Sophie the course of true love runs anything but smooth before the hyper-surreal and increasingly absurdist drama is concluded…

Moody, calculatedly deranged and feeling like Kafka seen through rainbow-tinted spectacles, Benson’s Cuckoos is a sublime psychological fantasy, an enticingly funny comic treatise on the hidden perils of being a grown up and a grand old-fashioned mystery thriller that will delight any reader smart enough to realise that ducks don’t use computers but can always find some way to get into trouble…
© 2014 Anouk Ricard. Translation © 2014 Helge Dascher. All rights reserved.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume one


By Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill, with Ben Dimagmaliw & Bill Oakley (America’s Best Comics/DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-56389-665-1 (HB) 978-1-56389-858-7 (TPB)

The Victorian era saw the birth of both popular and populist publishing, especially in the sub-genres of fantasy and adventure fiction.

Writers – and accompanying illustrators – of varying skill, but possessed of unbounded imaginations, explored and proselytized the concepts of honour and heroism, wedded unflinchingly to the underlying core-belief of English Supremacy in matters of culture and technology. In all worlds and even beyond them, the British gentleman took on all comers for Right and Decency, viewing danger as a game and showing “Johnny Foreigner” just how that game was played.

In today’s poisoned political environment, it’s rather odd to see so much of that dated and offensive rhetoric revived and bombarding us from venal politicians’ untrustworthy mouths and online arsenals without a hint or trace of the splendid irony used in this delicious exercise in retro-imagination…

For all the faults our modern sensibilities can – or at least should – detect in those stirring sagas, many of them remain unshakable classics of adventure and the roadmap of all modern fictional heroes. Open as they are to charges of Racism, Sexism (and Misogyny; so, so much misogyny), Class Bias and Cultural Imperialism, the best of them remain the greatest of all our store of communally-shared ripping yarns.

As heroic prototypes, a gaggle of these Imperialist icons were fabulously deputized by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill for a six-issue miniseries in 1999 (coloured by Ben Dimagmaliw and lettered by Bill Oakley) which managed to say as much or more about our modern world as that far ago one, and incidentally tell a truly captivating tale as compelling as any of its antecedents.

Available in deluxe hardcover, trade paperback, digital editions and omnibus collections, the story is also one of the best superhero exploits you’ll ever read, all presented as a faux seasonal compendium of that bygone age, with puzzles, paint-by numbers pages, pin-ups, a cover gallery and text features (such as novella ‘Allan and the Sundered Veil’ gilding the lily: a book no fan of fiction should miss.

Wilhelmina Murray survived a clash with a supernatural bloodsucking monster but was forever altered by the encounter. Some years later, recruited by British Secret Service chief Campion Bond, she is charged with organising a team of superior operatives to defeat an insidious foreign menace growing within the very heart of the British Empire. To this end, she circles the globe and convinces the greatest hero and most iniquitous outlaws of the era to band together.

Aged Great White Hunter Allan Quatermain is unlikely company for Invisible Man Hawley Griffin, Captain Nemo and Mister Hyde, although diffident and cultured Dr. Henry Jekyll can be considered a suitable companion for a widow under almost any circumstance…

Despite differences of class, honour, attitude, morality and disposition, together they ultimately foil a most dastardly plot only to discover that all is not as it seems…

The story grew beyond the authors’ avowed expectations of “a kind of Victorian Justice League” to become a veritable steampunk classic, with fin de siècle technology, trappings, expectations and attitudes, to establish itself as a powerful allegory for our own millennial end of days, and the act of its creation materialising as a game for creator and reader alike as every character in the tale was culled from existing works of literature and the audience all-but-dared to identify them…

The wit, artifice and whimsy of the compelling mystery – for that, gentle reader is what it is – as well as the vast, complex array of sub-texts and themed extras (such as faux advertising broadsheets woven into the text) all add to a truly immersive experience the inevitable film adaptation could not match.

To be Clear. This book is better than the movie. Do not watch it. Read This!

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is an incredible work of scholarship and artistry recast into a fabulous pastiche of an entire literary movement. It’s also a brilliant piece of comics wizardry of the sort that no other art form can touch.

If you haven’t seen the film – and even more so if you have – I urge you to read this. And then you can start in on Dickens, Rider Haggard, Stevenson, Wells, Verne, Conan Doyle, Stoker, Rohmer and all the glorious rest…
© 1999, 2000 Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill. All Rights Reserved.

Bent


By Dave Cooper (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-378-1 (HB)

Every so often I tend to stray a little from my accustomed comfort zone and regulation hunting grounds: moving beyond narrative art into broader realms of imagination. In that vein, here’s a little item available in hardback and digital formats that promises all of that and more. Whilst not sequential art the enticing yet profoundly disturbing images contained herein are certainly full of technical craft and intense imagination; and moreover, the chillingly subversive pictures tell stories the way no thousand words ever could… by boring straight into your brain and making themselves uncomfortably at home.

Dave Cooper was born in November 1967 in Nova Scotia, before relocating – presumably with adult guardians of some sort – to Ottawa when he was nine. A few years later, he was swept up in the massive mid-1980s Independent comics Boom & Bust that generated great and wonderful series such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Puma Blues, Flaming Carrot and Silent Invasion, as well as lots of awful couldn’t die fast enough stuff. Young Cooper toiled for schlockmeister Barry Blair on numerous Aircel Comics titles and doesn’t like to talk about it much now…

Thoroughly “blooded”, his real career began in the 1990’s at Fantagraphics, creating challenging underground comix styled material like Suckle, Weasel and graphic novel Ripple amongst other strips. In 2007, as Hector Mumbly, he published his first kid’s book Bagel’s Lucky Hat.

By 2002 he had transformed into an acclaimed oil painter with international gallery shows and awards and ended the decade as a creator/designer of animated kids TV shows such as Pig Goat Banana Cricket (with Johnny Ryan for Nickelodeon) and The Bagel and Betty Show (Teletoon/BBC) as well as short film for adults The Absence of Eddy Table. He’s still painting and is now a Director of the Saw Gallery.

A sequence of Cooper’s darker, violently sinister and most sexually surreal paintings is assembled in this pictorially grotesque catalogue of forbidden delights, preceded by effusive Introduction ‘Bent and Free’ from Guillermo del Toro.

The illustrative technique is sheer, Impressionistic welcoming seduction, but the content is deranged, deformed and disturbingly gelid: all soft contours, glossy surfaces and childhood dreams, offering human forms distorted and reformed by Lovecraftian physics and biology. It’s a uniquely horrid beauty and one that, once seen, is so very hard to forget…

As well as fully-realised paintings, the book also features pencil & pen sketches and working drawings offering a glimpse into the mind and process of a one-of-a-kind talent.

If you crave images that push every envelope, track down this macabre tome…
© 2010 Dave Cooper. All rights reserved.

Calamity Jane: The Calamitous Life of Martha Jane Cannary, 1852-1903


By Christian Perrissin & Matthieu Blanchin, translated by Diana Schutz & Brandon Kander (IDW Publishing)
ISBN: 978-1-63140-869-4 (HB)

Other people’s lives are fascinating. Just check out any TV schedule to affirm that watching what neighbours or strangers are have done, are doing or want to do is a major drive for us nosy hairless apes. And it’s even more enticing if we’re allowed a smidgen of comparison and an ounce of judgement, too.

One problem with famous dead people though is that we’re forced to make those assessments at a remove – because they’re dead – and only have records or, worse, myths and legends to construct our portrait from. Thankfully, we’re pretty imaginative monkeys too and have drama to help us fill in the gaps and flesh out the characters.

Those gifts proved immensely valuable to author Christian Perrissin and illustrator Matthieu Blanchin in the creation of a 3-volume graphic biography demythologising one of the Wild West’s most enigmatic icons. The result was the award-winning Martha Jane Cannary: La vie aventureuse de celle que l’on nommait Calamity Jane (Martha Jane Cannary: The Calamitous Life of Calamity Jane).

Perrissin studied Fine and Applied Arts before moving into Bande dessinée, and from 1987 to 1990 apprenticed with Yves Lavandier before going solo with his Hélène Cartier series (co-created with cartoonist Buche). He has since scripted TV shows and film, written epic sagas such as El Niño and Cape Horn and inherited the scripting of venerable comics classic Redbeard.

Co-creator Blanchin started out as a storyboard artist and illustrator at the turn of the century, before moving into comics, producing work for a host of companies and titles. Eventually he moved into historical and autobiographical material such as Blanche and Le Val des ânes and the Les années series. In 2002 he was hospitalised by a brain tumour and languished in a coma for ten days. After convalescence and relapse he ultimately (in 2015) turned the experience into the hugely influential and celebrated Quand vous pensiez que j’étais mort: Mon quotidien dans le coma (When You Thought I was Dead: My Daily Life in a Coma).

This monochrome, duo-toned hardback (and digital) translation offers their collaboration in one titanic tome, blending the often-sordid facts of outrageous adventures, unflagging spirit and astonishing determination into a tapestry that shows the underbelly of the American dream.

With great warmth and humour, they construct a true masterpiece of the very real and strong woman behind all the stories – many of them concocted by Martha Jane herself – as she survived against impossible odds, doing whatever was necessary to survive and protect her family.

The tale begins with a graphic note from the creators, citing their sources and contextualising her life and times in ‘The Mormon Trail…’, before the unforgettable life story begins in an overcrowded cabin in the desolate prairie region of Utah…

In her life, Martha Jane Cannary worked hard for little reward, met scoundrels and scalawags, gunslingers and heroes, lived on her wits and determination and was forced far too often to compromise her principles to preserve others as well as herself. She knew many famous men in many infamous places but I’m not naming them. This is her book, not theirs.

Calamity Jane was present throughout much of the most infamous moments of American history in the most iconic locations. She had far more enemies than friends and was more often despised and ostracised than honoured, but always carried on, living her life her way. It was often tainted by tragedy, but she also scored her share of triumphs and experienced joy and love – and always on her terms.

This is a compelling and utterly mesmerising chronicle of authentic western principles and achievement that will enthuse and enthral anyone with a love of history and appreciation of human strength and weakness.
Calamity Jane: The Calamitous Life of Martha Jane Cannary, 1852-1903 Translation and Art © 2017 IDW Publishing. Story © 2017 Futuropolis. All rights reserved.

Bad Gateway


By Simon Hanselmann (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-68396-207-6 (HB)

Simon Hanselmann is a well-travelled cartoonist of Tasmanian origin who has, since 2009, been producing one of the best cartoon strips of all time.

Originally located on his girlmountain.tumblr site, later episodes of this engagingly deceptive, inappropriately pigeon-holed “stoner comedy” Megg & Mogg have popped up in places as varied as Kus, Smoke Signal, Gangbang Bong and assorted minicomics, but can now all be found in a sturdy, full colour archival compilations such as this latest titanic (313 x 212mm) which carries our scurrilous cast to a final crisis point…

Hanselmann’s signature characters were loosely based on childhood memories of British children’s books Meg & Mog (created by Helen Nicoll & Jan Pienkowski and begun in 1972), but warped and filtered through a druggy haze and damaged childhoods. Depression-afflicted teen druggie witch Megg lives with her mean-spirited feline familiar Mogg, but their existence also impacts on sensitive, insecure, affection-starved Owl and violently self-destructive Werewolf Jones

When not confronting or testing each other or hanging with the wrong crowd, they spent most of their time in a haze of self-inflicted ennui or on dope-fuelled junk-food binges in the apartment or in front of the TV. They probably don’t like each or themselves much but dwell in a fug of dangerous co-dependency. Their strange yet oddly compulsive adventures have enthralled a generation of readers: a most improper tribute to a life lived more wryly through chemistry and sarcasm. After a stellar decade of awards and critical acclaim, the ongoing internationally successful series stumbles to a critical point and psychological crux in this latest luxury hardback (and digital) release…

And just in case you were wondering…

This book is packed with drug references, violent sexual imagery and outrageous situations intended to make adults laugh and think.

If the copy above hasn’t clued you in, please be warned that this book uses potentially disturbing images of abuse, sexual intimacy, excess and language commonly used in the privacy of the bedroom, drunken street brawls – and all school playgrounds whenever supervising adults aren’t present – to make its artistic and narrative points.

If the mere thought of all that appals and offends you, read no further and don’t buy it. The rest of us will just have to enjoy some truly astounding cartoon experiences without you.

Lethargically anarchic and cruelly hilarious, the escapades reopen after ‘Previously in Megg, Mogg & Owl’ with 28 Days Later’ as the pharmacologically paralysed and insecure Megg reluctantly abandons malicious, experience-craving Mogg to debase herself even further. It’s time for her Welfare Benefits review and under the new administration she’s going to have to excel if she wants to keep getting money to maintain her current lifestyle.

Hyper-anxious, she also delivers an ultimatum: come what may, Mogg is going to have to get a job…

In the meantime, part-time dealer and full-time patsy Werewolf meets up with a couple of regulars and gets well and truly shafted… again…

With the latest crisis averted for now and all wounds healing, the junkies start looking for stuff to sell but when Megg tries to pawn her ‘Rollerblades’ the unwelcome memories take her down roads she’d rather not acknowledge let alone recognise…

‘Banned’ follows Megg into therapy, but as her extended circle of acquaintances share their own troubles, Mogg finds new ways to amuse himself…

‘The Birdcage’ then finds the friends staging a bizarre intervention for Werewolf, after which Megg makes a major decision in ‘Vibrate’ when her mother sends a message begging for help, precipitating a cross-country jaunt, a re-visitation of past events and a confrontation that is the emotional equivalent of ‘Throwing Rocks at Power-lines’, before some kind of stability is restored through a time-dishonoured ‘Ritual’

Despite surface similarity to some no-harm, no-foul adult situation comedies – and believe me there are outrageous laughs by the bucketful – what predominates here is a strong, frequently overwhelming narrative progression of painful yet beguiling stories which navigate with easy confidence the tightrope between sordid and surreal, hilarity and horror, survival and sinking away.

Dark, affecting and unforgettable, this is a book no lover of truly mature fiction should ignore.
Bad Gateway © 2019 Simon Hanselmann. This edition © 2019 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

Why Art? (Fourth Edition)


By Eleanor Davis (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-68396-082-9 (PB)

Probably everybody here will agree that comics is art sequentially wedded to pictures. However, when asked to define what constitutes “Art”, the answers become a little more nuanced and open to debate. What’s needed is someone sharp, talented and well-travelled – preferably a practitioner – who can give us all a full and final assessment…

Eleanor Davis is one of those rare sparks that just can’t help making great comics. Born in 1983 and growing up in Tucson, Arizona, she was blessed with parents who immersed their child in classic strip literature such as Little Nemo, Little Lulu and Krazy Kat.

Following unconventional schooling and teen years spent making minicomics, Davis studied at Georgia’s prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design, where she now teaches. Her own innovative works have appeared in diverse places such as Mome, Nobrow and Lucky Peach.

A life of glittering prizes began after her award-winning easy reader book Stinky was released in 2008. Davis subsequently followed up with gems such as The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook (with her husband Drew Weing), You & a Bike & a Road and How to be Happy. Who better, then, to lay to rest possibly the most infuriating conundrum of the modern age?

In 2018, Fantagraphics released Why Art?, based on elements of her presentation for ICON: The Illustration Conference 9. The result is a whimsical exploration of what the term means – albeit seen through the lens of one of the slyest, driest and most cultured senses of humour in the business…

If you can keep your own wits about you, in this deliriously addictive paperback/eBook you will glean potential solutions to perennial mysteries all de- and re-mystified in chapters on ‘Color’ as interpreted through scale; ‘What is our audience searching for’ via an examination of Masks; how to use physical and metaphorical ‘Mirrors’ and how some art is ‘Edible’

Narrative fully enters the frame in a section on ‘Concealment artworks’ and the liberational force of ‘Shadowbox’ creations. which serves to introduce a repertory cast of creatives who work in different media and then take us on their shared journey of catastrophic revelation…

Wry and surreal, strong>Why Art? is a delicious tease and poker of hornets’ nests that slickly tackles loads of old, overused questions while offering a few new queries you never thought of…

It’s also beautifully drawn and rendered: A brilliant diversion combining wit and wisdom in a manner every self-accused intellectual and unrepentant picture lover can revel in.
© Eleanor Davis 2018. This edition © 2018 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

Neil Gaiman’s Murder Mysteries


By Neil Gaiman, P. Craig Russell & various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN: 978-1-61655-330-2 (HB)

A short story first written for the 1992 prose horror anthology Midnight Graffiti, Murder Mysteries was adapted into a radio play – or more accurately an audio drama – in 2000. You can also find it in Gaiman’s 2005 anthology collection Smoke and Mirrors. A reputedly excellent film script of the timeless tale remains – as of this writing – ready and waiting for a benefactor to make it happen…

In 2002 esteemed comics virtuoso P. Craig Russell in collaboration with the author adapted the story into a sublime graphic narrative and the result was an intriguing, introspective parable within a fable.

This classy hardback (or digital equivalent, should your preferences incline that way) is a luxurious second edition which also offers a fulsome deconstruction and critique of the finished comics work by Durwin S. Talon: the extended afterword ‘Mysteries Demystified’. Initially seen in The Art of P. Craig Russell, its analysis and copious visual extras – such as sketches, script excerpts and layouts – are augmented by an annotated Sketchbook section contributed by Russell, offering even more intimate glimpses into the creative process, and include original pencilled pages, ink and colour stages plus alternate and rejected images, as well as previous collection covers.

The meat of the book is a tale within a tale within yet another and begins after a nefarious interlude in Heaven with a British traveller stuck in Los Angeles over Christmas.

He’s reeling from culture shock, and momentarily succumbs to the allure of an old lover before extricating himself from a difficult situation. Aimlessly roaming the streets, he meets a bum who tells him a story in exchange for a shared cigarette.

As the oddly-compelling derelict speaks, the displace stranded listener is mesmerised by the eerie echoes of his own existence. The bum is actually an ex-angel and recounts a tale of the Silver City…

After God created the Angels, but before he made us or the world, the sexless winged paragons – each with their own divinely appointed role – were finishing up the details of Creation. The narrator was once Raguel: The Vengeance of the Lord, and it spent this period waiting.

Eventually Lucifer came to it. A novel thing had happened, something unique, something… wrong. An Angel’s existence had been ended. Deliberately…

Raguel was expected to find and punish the perpetrator, but the “who” and “how” of the mission soon gave way to a search for an undefinable “why”. Mired in an obfuscatory maze of resistance from other Angels, Raguel reached a conclusion: the abominable act was somehow connected to a new emotion the deceased had been constructing. It was called “Love”…

This engrossing murder-mystery, detective tale and supernatural fantasy has a languid lyrical quality devoid of tension or drama, but is nonetheless an engrossing diversion, technically perfect, gently compelling. The clean, lovely art – augmented by colours from Lovern Kindzierski and typography by Galen Showman – is some of the best Russell has ever created.

If you can appreciate beauty for its own sake and suspend your need for pulse-quickening drama and angst, this is a triumphant and fascinating example of the power of style over content.
Text © 2002, 2014 Neil Gaiman. Adaptation and illustrations © 2002, 2014 P. Craig Russell All Rights Reserved.