Norman Pettingill: Backwoods Humorist


By Norman Pettingill, edited by Gary Groth, with an introduction by Robert Crumb (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-319-4 (HB)

Laugh and the world laughs with you. Sulk in your house and you’re on your own, mate. Here’s another comedy treat you can enjoy via assorted digital means, or if you prefer you can support the local economy by buying a hardback copy and waiting… and waiting… and waiting…

It’s a big planet and there are many places to hide an artistic prodigy. That’s never been more capably proved than in the case of Norman Pettingill, a lost hero of the workaday craft aesthetic who lived and died in Wisconsin, revelling in a backwoods life lived off the land. He supported his family with personalised cartoons, jobbing art such as postcards and commercial signage, commissioned illustrations and through simply stunning personal works: mostly natural scenes and reportage of the hunting and fishing community he lived in.
Pettingill worked in seclusion (and we all know what that’s like now, don’t we?) until his incredibly intense, ribald and frenetic postcard art was discovered by Robert Crumb who immediately reprinted them in his Underground Commix magazine Weirdo.

These over-sized scenes were multi-layered, packed with hundreds of characters acting in micro-scenes and grotesquely raw and vulgar: like Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel (the Elder), Basil Wolverton and Leo Baxendale working all on the same page.

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

On view are astoundingly frantic, charmingly gruesome postcard tableaux, featuring hunters, boozers and what we’d call hillbillies, but Pettingill knew them as the folk next door, as well as more intimate creations: family collages, entrancing pen-&-ink studies of beasts and birds he lived amongst – and hunted. There are even doodles he adorned the envelopes of letters with.

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

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

This retrospective of Pettingill’s art presents more than a hundred of his most telling monochrome pieces and will appeal to cartoon-lovers and people watchers equally.
© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Individual contributions © 2010 their authors. Unless otherwise noted all photography and art © 2010 John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Art from the collections of Glenn Bray, R. Crumb & Jim Pink © 2010 the estate of Norman Pettingill.

Twilight of the Assholes – The Chronicles of the Era of Darkness 2005-2009 (Book 2)


By Tim Kreider (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-398-9 (PB)

This book is intended to make adults laugh and think. If the title isn’t clue enough, please be warned that these pages contain nudity, sexual imagery, intentionally insulting images of political figures and rational opinions clothed in harsh language and thought-provoking political comedy. Some people think the author didn’t go far enough, but hey…
If that sort of thing offends you or you believe that blasphemy is a sin and/or a crime, read no further and don’t buy this book. The rest of us will just have to manage without you.

The opening years of the 21st century were plagued with horrors and disasters exacerbated by a hideous global proliferation of lying, greedy, venal, demented and just plain stupid rulers leading governments who finally elevated politicians to that phylum of useless tools and pimples on the butt of humanity once only occupied by lawyers and faith healers. Since then, bankers, astrologers, “influencers”, doorstep evangelists, celebrity gossip columnists and all types of psychics joined their rarefied ranks and I’m thinking I need to cut down on coffee or reassess my critical parameters…

With the benefit of a decade’s distance it’s clear that we didn’t learn anything and have only devolved into even worse as a species – if only in selecting people to guide and be in charge of us…

I can’t currently bring myself to laugh at the current crop of imbeciles-in-charge as we all collectively watch the bravest and noblest amongst us be daily betrayed, fobbed off and cheated of the money, tools and support they need to save lives in hospitals across the planet. All I can do is look back at when some folk – me especially – believed we could never do any worse in choosing leaders. Looks like were wrong then and now I’m looking for another hit of graphic retaliation and indulgent graphic stress-release…

If you require similar, this old paperback is readily available in digital formats. Trust me, only the names have changed: the assholery remains the same…

When George Dubya Bush acceded to the throne of America there were a lot of apologetic liberals and whooping goons. There was also essayist and cartoonist Ted Kreider.

Born in 1967 and raised on comicbooks whilst actually paying attention in school, Kreider is an erudite and passionate man with thoughtfully reasoned opinions on politics, religion and the human condition among the many other things. He is also an extremely gifted writer and cartoonist who began self-publishing in 1994.

By 1997 The Baltimore City Paper had picked up his deliciously polemical panel strip-with-accompanying essay ‘The Pain – When Will it End?’ and they were closely followed by the Jackson Planet Weekly, Illinois’ Indy in Bloomington-Normal, The New York Press, The Stranger, Philadelphia Weekly plus other independent and alternative papers. In September 2000 Kreider began releasing the material as a webcomic.

Although at the time a self-confessed left-leaning Democrat, that never stopped him punishing his own camp’s many gaffes, goofs, lies, embarrassments and ideological idiocies. Like our own Gerald Scarfe and Steve Bell with Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair/em>, Kreider was lucky enough (if you discount elevated blood-pressure, maxed-out sense of disbelief and perpetually outraged moral compass) to have been given the gift of a perfect incumbent target in the Bush administration of 2000-2008 and the right-wing anti-intellectual, Christian-fundamentalist crusade/pogrom that brought them to power and still remains to blight he world – fully as much as every other dogmatic, monied special interests group does…

Along the way, Kreider also managed to incense other churches and faiths from Catholics to Moslems, all manner of bigot from racists to homophobes and outrage proponents of all those other aspects of modern US society that makes all us non-Americans nervous and giggly in equal measure.

Subtitled ‘Volume II of the Chronicles of the Era of Darkness 2004-2009’ and this weighty and hilariously biting collection of gags and commentaries covers the – to Kreider especially – incomprehensible re-election and second term of the Republican Saviour and his dark apostles Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rove, Rice and the rest, whilst still finding room and Reasonable Cause to pictorially pummel Chinese expansion, assorted religions’ definitions of life and attitudes to sex, aspects and definitions of Freedom, geopolitics and Big Oil.
Under his excoriating lens also fell Intelligent Design, the new Russian Empire, Secret Fantasies of the rich and statesmanlike, Crackpot Theories and all sorts of Science: from the author’s spirited defence of Pluto’s planet-hood to Human-Animal Hybrids, Parallel Universes and new roles for the Giant Squid…

With stunning examples of the cartoonist’s eternal roles as social conscience, intellectual champion, puncturer of pomposity and lampooning last bastion of grace under oppressive political pressure, Kreider boldly kicked the shins of the smug over-class and stamped on the toes of all the entrenched whited sepulchres and obnoxiously applied shibboleths that made him annoyed and ashamed of huge swathes of his fellow Americans. Not that Britain or any other colonial power has any moral high ground to sneer down from…

The collected work covers the period November 4th 2004 to October 29th 2009 and includes the shocked rapture of a Democratic win and the nation’s first non-white president – and ends with a shaky dawning suspicion that all politicians might just be the same. Same as it ever was…

Particularly effective sallies to relive include ‘Jesus vs. Jeezus’, ‘The Conservative Christian’s Guide to Compassion’, ‘I “heart” Saddam’, ‘The War on Christmas’, ‘Americans vs. ‘Muricans’, ‘What is Freedom?’, ‘Me & George, We Got Problems’, ‘Silver Linings of the Holocaust’, ‘What You Can Do to Fight the War on Sex’, ‘Everything I Know I Learned from the Bush Administration’, ‘Secret Vices of the Liberals’, ‘Republican Sex Toys’, ‘God: Republican or Democrat?’, ‘After All the Money’s Gone’, ‘We Even Yet?’ and the 5-part ‘Contributions of the World’s Religions’ but there’s guaranteed to be something to shock or offend everybody here – you might even be compelled to think for yourself and question a little bit more…

Forensic, withering humour and viciously necessary satire tellingly rendered combined with savage yet personable, winningly intimate reportage make this one of the best cartoon coshes ever applied to the politics of this century, and I mourn with honest grief the fact that Kreider has left the current Republican administration alone all this time…

I look forward with desperation – if not hope – to more from him in light of confirmation that people didn’t get less stupid, rulers never change their spots and religions have all amped up dictating what their followers can think or feel…

You have to laugh, don’t you…?
Cartoons and text © 2011 Tim Kreider. All rights reserved.

High Soft Lisp


By Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-318-7 (TPB)

Please pay attention: this book contains stories and images of an adult nature, specifically designed for adult consumption employing the kind of coarse, vulgar language most kids are fluent in by the age of ten. If reading about such things is likely to offend you, please stop now and go away. Tomorrow I’ll write about something with violence and explosions, so come back then.

In addition to being part of the graphic and literary revolution that is Love and Rockets (where his astonishingly compulsive tales of Palomar and the later stories of those characters collected as Luba gained such critical acclaim), Gilbert Hernandez has produced compelling stand-alone tales such as Sloth, Grip and Girl Crazy. They are all marked by his bold, simplified line artwork and a mature, sensitive use of the literary techniques of Magical Realist writers Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez: techniques which he has added to and made his own.

Love and Rockets is an anthology comics publication featuring slick, intriguing, sci-fi-ish larks, heart-warming, terrifying, gut-wrenching soap-opera fantasy and bold experimental comic narratives that pretty much defy classification. The synthesistic Hernandez Bros still captivate with incredible stories that sample a thousand influences conceptual and actual – everything from Archie Comics and alternative music to German Expressionism and luchadors.

Palomar was the conceptual and cultural playground “Beto” created for extended serial Heartbreak Soup: a dirt-poor Latin-American village with a vibrant, funny and fantastically quotidian cast. Everything from life death, adultery, magic, serial killing and especially gossip could happen in Palomar’s meta-fictional environs – and did – as the artist explored his own post-punk influences: comics, music, drugs, comics, strong women, gangs, sex, family and comics, and all in a style somehow informed by everything from Tarzan comics to Saturday morning cartoons and The Lucy Show.

Happily, Beto returns to Palomar constantly, usually with tales involving the formidable matriarch Luba, who ran the village’s bath house, acted as Mayor (and sometimes police chief) as well as adding regularly and copiously to the general population. Her children, brought up with no acknowledged fathers in sight, are Maricela, Guadalupe, Doralis, Casimira, Socorro, Joselito and Concepcion.

Luba eventually migrated to the USA and reunited with her half-sisters Petra and – the star of this volume – Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez. This collection was compiled from assorted material that first appeared in Love and Rockets volume II and Luba’s Comics and Stories, with some new pages and many others redrawn and rewritten.

Fritz is a terrifyingly complex creature. She is a psychiatrist and therapist, former B-Movie actress, occasional belly dancer, persistent drunk, ardent gun-fetishist, as well as a sexually aggressive and manipulative serial spouse. Beautiful, enticingly damaged, with a possibly-intentional speech impediment, she sashays from crisis to triumph and back again, and this moving, shocking, funny chronicle uses the rambling recollections of one of her past husbands – motivational speaker Mark Herrera – to follow her life from High School punkette outsider through her various career and family ups and downs…

Under the umbrella title of ‘Dumb Solitaire’, what purports to be the memoir of Senor Herrera reveals in scathing depth the troubled life of the woman he cannot stay away from in an uncompromising and sexually explicit “documentary” which pulls no punches, makes no judgements and yet still manages to come off as a feel-good tale.

Available in physical and digital formats, High Soft Lisp is the most intriguing depiction of feminine power and behaviour since Flaubert’s Madame Bovary – and probably just as controversial – with the added advantage of intoxicating drawing adding shades of meaning that mere text just cannot impart.

Very funny, very moving, remarkable and unmissable: no mature fan of the medium should deprive themselves of this treat.
© 2010 Gilbert Hernandez. All Rights Reserved.

Gag on This: the Scrofulous Cartoons of Charles Rodrigues


By Charles Rodrigues, edited by Bob Fingerman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-856-4 (HB)

Charles Rodrigues (1926-2004) is one of the most influential – and certainly most darkly hilarious – American cartoonists of the last century. However, as papers and periodicals began abandoning en masse the grand tradition of spot gags in the 1980s, he and his surly, smartly illustrious compatriots began to fade from cultural consciousness. Now it seems almost nobody remembers him, but thankfully literary crusaders like Fantagraphics are doing their bit to recall and immortalise him and them in splendid hardback and digital archives such as this one…

Rodrigues’ surreal, absurd, insane, anarchic, socially disruptive and astoundingly memorable bad-taste gags and strips were delivered with electric vitality and galvanising ferocity in a number of magazines. He was most effective indulged in Playboy, The National Lampoon (from the first issue on) and Stereo Review – the pinnacle of a career which began after WWII and spanned the entire last half of the 20th century in every type and style of magazine.

After leaving the Navy and relinquishing the idea of writing for a living, Rodrigues used his slice of the G.I. Bill provision to attend New York’s Cartoonists and Illustrator’s School (now the School of Visual Arts) and in 1950 began schlepping gags around the low-rent but healthily ubiquitous “Men’s Magazine” circuit.

He graduated from girly-mags to more salubrious publications and in 1954 began a lengthy association with Hugh Hefner in his revolutionary new venture, whilst maintaining contributions to what seemed like every publication in the nation. His panel gags appeared everywhere from Esquire to TV Guide; Genesis to The Critic. He even found time to create three strips for the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate: Eggs Benedict, Casey the Cop (not the Henry Boltinoff standby of decades of DC comics) and Charlie.

The quiet, genteel, devout Catholic’s lasting monument and undisputed magnum opus, though, was the horde of truly appalling, subversive, offensive, trenchantly wonderful one-offs crafted on a variety of favourite themes for The National Lampoon, whose editor Henry Beard sought him out in the earliest pre-launch days of 1969. He offered Rodrigues carte blanche, complete creative freedom and a regular full-page spot…

The artist stayed aboard from the 1970 debut until 1993, a mainstay of the legendary comics section with sickeningly mordant, brilliant results which were recently compiled in preceding collection Ray and Joe

Here, bracketed by a copious and informative biography by Editor Bob Fingerman and a heartfelt ‘Introduction’ by brother-doodler Sam Gross (sometime Cartoon Editor at the shockingly indulgent Lampoon), this monumental monochrome collection features a vast selection of explosively hilarious, wittily twisted visual broadsides gathered into a smart procession of tawdry topics…

After starting out strong by lambasting our most basic drives in ‘Dirty Cartoons for Your Entertainment’ and ‘A Peeping Tome’, focus shifts to weird fantasy in ‘Moon Madness’ and contemporary traumatic tropes in ‘Assassin’ before going too far, too soon with some ‘Cartoons Even We Wouldn’t Dare Print’

Because one can never truly get enough, it’s quickly back to bawdy basics with ‘Cartoons of a Sexual Nature’ after which other appetites are quenched with ‘Cuisine de Machine’, exposing the horrors only automats and vending machines can inculcate whilst ‘Would You Want Your Daughter to Marry One?’ deals with freaks and outcasts at their most intimate moments of weakness…

Some truly outrageous innovations are launched and sunk in a large section devoted to ‘Entrepreneurs’ before controversy is courted – and subsequently walks off with a huge settlement – in ‘Goddam Faggots!’ More societal hypocrisies are skewered in kHandicapped Sports’ and things get good and bloody in ‘Hemophunnies’.

Rodrigues was blessed (or cursed) with a perpetually percolating imagination and eye for the zeitgeist, so the contents of ‘The Celebrity Memorabilia Gallery’ are truly baroque and punishingly peculiar, whereas ‘Hire the Handicapped’ merely offers genuinely groundbreaking solutions to getting the less-able back to work before this selection of Good Works concludes with much needed advice on ‘Good Ways to Kill: A Rock Performer!’

Trenchant observation informs the visual catalogue of ‘Man in Morgue’ but it’s just sheer bad taste in play with follow-up chapter ‘Man in Toilet’ and macabre relationship counselling for ‘Men’s Liberation’ (in dealing with wives or mothers).

At the halfway stage of this colossal collection there’s time for ‘More Handicapped Sports’ before poking fun at the blind in ‘Out of Sight’, exploring the particular wrinkles of ‘Senior Sex’ and dutifully re-examining ‘The Seven Deadly & Other Sins’ – which, you will recall, include Pride, Envy, Anger, Covetousness, Lust, Sloth, Gluttony, Anti-Colostomyism, Conformity, Vomitry, Bitchiness and Dalmatianry – before galloping off at a strangely artistic tangent to present ‘Sex Cartoons Drawn With a Hunt Pen’

Scenes (never) overheard at the ‘Sex Change Clinic’ naturally segue into an itemised itinerary of disasters involving ‘Sex Robots’ and (un?)naturally culminate in ‘More Cartoons Even We Wouldn’t Dare Print’ and another period of play for ‘Handicapped Sports’

All aspects of human misbehaviour appealed to Rodrigues’ imagination (I truly wonder what he would have made of the online shenanigans exhibited by humanity in our age of mostly-voluntary Lockdown and Social Isolationism) and many are featured in ‘Sexentrics’ and its playful sequels ‘Sexports’ and ‘Sleazy Sex Cartoons’, all of which quite naturally lead to ‘Life on Death Row’

Unwholesome variety (and a penchant for conspiracies) is the spice of ‘A Group of Cartoons Requested by S. Gross’ before deviating eastwards and into the past to expose ‘Soviet Sex’ after which we head back to jail to walk ‘The Last Smile’.

Shambling into the hilarious last lap we endure some ‘Tough Sex’, show ‘Cartoons About the Blind (The Kind They Wish They Could See)’ and get gritty in kSons of the Beaches’ before heading to the ‘…Circus!’ and ending everything with ‘Those Darned Serial Killers!’

These horrific and hilarious assaults on common decency celebrate and commemorate a lost hero of popular cartooning and consummate professional able to turn his drawing hand to anything to get the job done. This astoundingly funny gag-art grimoire is brilliantly rendered by a master craftsman and one no connoisseur of black comedy will want to miss, especially as we all need a good, guilty horselaugh more than ever now…
This edition © 2015 Fantagraphics Book. All strips and graphics by Charles Rodrigues © Lorraine Rodrigues. Introduction © 2015 Sam Gross. Biography © 2015 Bob Fingerman. All rights reserved. This edition © 2011 Fantagraphics Books.

The Medusa Chain and Ax


By Ernie Colón (DC Comics) (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-93028-900-3(TPB Medusa Chain) 978-0-87135-490-7(TPB Ax)

Born in Puerto Rico on July 13th 1931, Ernie Colón Sierra was a tremendously undervalued and unsung maestro of the American comics industry whose work has been seen by generations of readers. Whether as artist, writer, colourist or editor his contributions have affected the youngest of comics consumers (Monster in My Pocket, Richie Rich and Casper the Friendly Ghost for Harvey Comics and his similar work on Marvel’s Star Comics imprint) to the most sophisticated connoisseur with strips such as sci fi classic Star Hawks.

His catalogue of “straight” comic-book work includes Battlestar Galactica, Damage Control and Doom 2099 for Marvel, Vampirella, Grim Ghost for Atlas/Seaboard, the fabulous Arak, Son of Thunder, I… Vampire, Amethyst: Princess of Gemworld, an Airboy revival for Eclipse, Magnus: Robot Fighter for Valiant and so very many others. He was a master of many trades and served as an innovative editor as well.

Amongst his vast output, there were also his sophisticated experimental works such as indie thriller Manimal, and the brace of seminal genre graphic novels I’m urging you to track down today.

In 2006 with long-time Harvey Comics/Star Comics collaborator Sid Jacobson, he created a graphic novel based on government Commission findings entitled The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation. In August 2008, they released a 160-page follow-up: After 9/11: America’s War on Terror, Che: a Graphic Biography and Vlad the Impaler. In 2010 they released Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography and created in 2014 with Gary Mishkin The Warren Commission Report: A Graphic Investigation into the Kennedy Assassination.

Even while diligently hard at work on newspaper strip SpyCat – which appeared in Weekly World News from 2005 until his death – he sought other challenges, such as historical works A Spy for General Washington – an account of Revolutionary War secret agent Robert Townsend – and The Great American Documents: Volume 1, both collaborations with his author wife Ruth Ashby.

He put his pen down forever on August 8th 2019…

The Medusa Chain
During the first wave of experimental creativity that gripped the 1980s comics business Colón crafted this (even lettering and colouring it himself) science fiction thriller through DC’s pioneering, oversized Graphic Novels line.

Intriguing, complex and multi-layered, it’s the gritty tale of Chon Adams, a star-ship officer convicted of a dreadful crime, and subsequently sentenced to a lifetime of penal servitude on a deep-space space cargo ship. It’s also about how he finds a kind of fulfilment in a situation most would describe as a living hell…

Powerfully flavoured by Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (also known as Tiger! Tiger!) by way of noir prison/chain-gang movies like George W. Hill’s The Big House, this is a fascinating tale-within-a-tale as Chon’s “crime” is gradually revealed whilst he endures and survives against unbelievable odds in the depths of infinity gaining unlikely allies and a grain of self-respect…

Graphic, uncompromising and thoroughly compelling, this classy tale careens from cynical depths of human depravity to heights of glorious high fantasy with ease: a true lost gem of that bold comics boom, and a cracking read for any older SF fan.
And the one good thing – for you – about Colon’s inexplicable – but relative – obscurity is that copies of this gem – and well his later Marvel graphic novel Ax (see below) are still readily available through internet retailers at ridiculously low prices. Definitely one you really, really want…

Ax – (A Marvel Graphic Novel)
Four years later, Colón was still riding that creative wave. As fantasy gradually replaced science fiction as the public’s preferred genre, he repeated his one-man-band show with a captivating thriller released through Marvel’s oversized Graphic Novels line – and this time he got to own the fruits of his labours.

Intriguing, complex and multi-layered, it is the parable of Ax: a young peasant boy who seems to his Feudal overlord to have all the trappings of a new messiah. However, all is not as it seems. Many eyes are watching the boy and not all of them are from the same level of reality…

Blending social commentary, Apocalyptic dystopian futurism and traditional sword-and-sorcery with fierce intensity and stunning visuals, and devised in the manner of Moebius’ Airtight Garage, this is yet another lost gem that couldn’t find an audience on its release, but at least it’s readily available through many online retailers and deserves another shot.
The Medusa Chain © 1984 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved. Ax © 1988 Ernie Colón. All rights reserved.

A Matter of Time


By Juan Gimenez (Catalan Communications)
ISBN: 978-0-87416-012-3 (Album PB), Del Rey edition (2005): 978-0-34548-314-0 (PB)

The pandemic is hitting hard and hitting everywhere now. Here’s a rather rushed response to news that a global giant has been taken from us. I’ll have more in the days to come: reviews of his more recent triumphs and books you can get in digital formats, unlike this lost classic that – as always – is long overdue for a new edition…

Juan Antonio Giménez López was born in Mendoza, Argentina in 1943 and after studying industrial design, attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Barcelona. Hugely influenced by Hugo Pratt and Francisco Solano López, Giménez broke into the comics field with stories for Argentine magazines Record and Colomba before beginning a long association with European comics in such publications as Spain’s Zona 84, Comix International and 1994; France’s Metal Hurlant and Italy’s Lanciostory, L’Eternauta and Skorpio. He ultimately attained critical acclaim and gaining global fame with his scintillant Metabarons series produced in collaboration with Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Giménez’s preferred metier was adult-oriented tales of science fiction and/or combat. He was an accredited expert on all things avionic or to do with air combat. Back in 1985, Catalan Communications collected into one gloriously baroque and stunningly beautiful fantasy anthology a selection of time-travel related short stories – many of which had appeared in American Heavy Metal – usually known as The Time Paradox Tales. Dark, sardonic and incorporating sublimely lyrical overtones of classic 2000AD Future Shocks or Twisted Times, these are a feast of irresistible “sting-in-the-tale” stories…

Following an expansive and lavishly illustrated critique from Carlos Gimenez (no relation), the elegantly lush procession of exotic, eccentric 8-page excitements begins with ‘DIY’, wherein a father and son meddle with the wrong home-computer program and dear old dad ends up a terrified touchline visitor at some of the most dangerous moments of all time and space…

Following on, ‘Tridisex’ details the horrific fate of a couple of salacious chronal researchers who land in the right place at the right time but at the wrong size, after which ‘Express’ sees a dedicated time-assassin dispatched into the past to unwittingly murder himself before ‘Entropy’ details a tragic timeslip which causes the greatest combat aircraft of two eras to experience the closest of encounters…

‘8½’ then explores the secret advantage of the fastest gunslinger of the Wild West and recounts the fate of a time-tourist who rooted for him whilst a tragic synchronicity-loop and incomprehensible paradox at last explains the great leap forward of an ancient civilisation in ‘Chronology’…

‘Residue’ takes the exercise in futility that is war to its inescapable conclusion in a lustrous four-page paean to technological advantage, bringing this magnificent artistic treat to a close on the darkest of downbeats…

Gritty, witty and ever so pretty, A Matter of Time is pure speculative gold: old-fashioned, cutting-edge fantasy fun and electrically-charged entertainment with a satirical edge and its tongue firmly in its cheek. Perfume for the eyes so breathe deeply and jump aboard.

In later years, the Master’s fantasy forays grew ever more ambitious. Whilst working with fellow Argentinian émigré Ricardo Barreiro on As de Pique and The City, he collaborated with industry giants such as Carlos Trillo, Emilio Balcarce and Roberto Dal Prà.
A gifted writer, he generated many of his own classic yarns. However, in 1992, after completing his own space opera epic The Fourth Power, he began an astounding 8-volume run on his visual magnum opus – illustrating Jodorowsky’s The Metabarons: expanding the universe built by Moebius and reshaping the nature and scope of graphic sci fi forever.
Juan Giménez died on April 2nd 2020 at his home in Mendoza, from complications of COVID-19.
© 1982-1985 Juan Gimenez. English translation © 1985 Catalan Communications. All rights reserved.

Arena – A Marvel Graphic Novel


By Bruce Jones (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-87135-557-7

In  the early 1980s Marvel led the publishing pack in the development of high quality original graphic novels: mixing out-of-the-ordinary Marvel Universe tales, new in-continuity series launches, creator-owned properties, licensed assets, movie adaptations and even the occasional creator-owned property in extravagantly expansive packages (a square-ish standard page of 285 x 220mm rather than the now customary elongated 258 x 168mm) that felt and looked instantly superior to the average comicbook no matter how good, bad or incomprehensible (my way of saying outside your average Marvel customer’s comfort zone) the contents might be.

By 1990 Marvel’s ambitious line of outré all-area epics had begun to stall and some less-than-stellar tales were squeaking into the line-up. Moreover, the company was increasingly relying on hastily turned out cinema adaptations with built-in fan appeal and safe in-continuity stories offering established and company copyrighted characters rather than creator-owned properties and original concepts. The once-unmissable line began to have the appearance of an over-sized, over-priced clearing house for leftover stories.

So this stunning suspense saga counts as one of the last – and very best – indie/mainstream fiction experiments from before the rot set in; a creepy, clever, sexy thriller from screenwriter,  novelist, artistic Everyman and ardent EC fan Bruce Jones which sets up shop in Stephen King and Ray Bradbury territory to deliver an overwhelmingly impressive rollercoaster of shocks and twists.

Sharon and her 12 year old daughter Lisa are driving through the majestic rural backwoods of America. It’s a pretty acrimonious journey and when the opportunity presents itself Mom takes a break and goes for a refreshing dip in a mountain pool whilst daughter stays in the car sulkily playing with her toy planes.

Sharon’s idyllic moment is shattered when she sees a jet crash scant yards away. However she can’t find any wreckage or even the slightest sign of it. Lisa saw and heard nothing and neither did the sinister voyeur who had been spying on them…

Rushing back to his shack simpleminded Lem tells his demented Granny about the strange woman. The old crone smells opportunity: if they can capture her and if she’s fertile they can sell her babies in the Big City… and even if she’s not big brother Rut will have a new plaything for awhile…

Lost in the deep woods Lt. Roberts, USAF crawls out of her crashed plane and hears voices. Sharon and the downed pilot start talking and realise that although they can’t see each other they are standing side by side. They’re invisible because they’re separated by two decades…

Somehow the mountain and forest are one huge time-warp… and increasingly, various eras are overlapping. Even though Sharon can only talk to Roberts, dinosaurs and cavemen are chaotically roaming over the hills, endangering both women in their own time-zones…

At that moment Lem and Rut strike, snatching Sharon. locking her up ready to make some money-spinning young ‘uns. From the car little Lisa sees her mother taken and twenty years in the future pilot Lisa Roberts suddenly remembers the horrifying moment her mother was killed by Hillbilly rapist psychopaths…

The time-shifts briefly stabilise and the two Lisas meet…

With beasts and worse roaming the woods the elder Lisa realises she has a chance to unmake the worst day of her life, but there are complications she could never have imagined in store for her and the girl she used to be…

Sultry, sinister and devilishly cunning, this chronal conundrum is beautifully illustrated by Jones and his corkscrew plot is packed full of genuine surprises. Don’t think you’ve guessed the ending because you most likely haven’t…

A perfect sci fi movie-in-waiting, this terse and evocative yarn follows all the rules for a great screen shocker without ever having to “dumb-down” the temporal mechanics in deference to the Great Un-read in the popcorn seats.

Smart, seductive storytelling for sharp-witted punters, this is book long overdue for re-release, but until that happy future materialises, this remains a time-lost gem you should track down however long it takes…
© 1989 Bruce Jones. All Rights Reserved.

Marada the She-Wolf


By Chris Claremont & John Bolton (Titan Books)
ISBN: 987-0-85768-632-9 (HB) (TPB)

Scantily clad hot chicks swinging swords have been a staple of fantasy comics from their very inception. It’s a meme that has endured even as we (some of us anyway) grew up a bit and discovered it’s just as prevalent in the movies and on TV. If it going to be a thing, at least let’s see it done properly and probably nobody has done it better – certainly visually – than Chris Claremont and John Bolton.

This recycled yet supremely satisfying, luxuriously oversized (302 x 226 mm) hardback compilation of their collaborative fantasy saga will satisfy all aficionados of wild adventure and stirring sagas – especially in a world where faux historical dramas like Game of Thrones and The Witcher are still garnering interest in “Things Old, Things Forgotten”…

As detailed in Jo Duffy’s Introduction and collection Editor Steve Cook’s background essays ‘Birth of a Warrior’, ‘The Art of War’, ‘Epic Tales’ and ‘Legacy’, these stories – set in the cosmopolitan days of Imperial Rome – originated in Epic Illustrated (Marvel’s 1980’s response to Heavy Metal magazine) beginning with #10, February 1982.

Originally the strip appeared in beautiful monochrome wash-&-line, and although I would have preferred them to have been left that way for this collection, Bolton’s sensitive conversion of the art to painted colour is lush, lovely and stunningly effective.

By the way, that possibly waspish crack about recycling doesn’t just refer to the art, superb though it is. The original story started life as a Red Sonja yarn for monochrome anthology Bizarre Adventures, before Claremont & Bolton reworked the thing and, by inserting the whole kit and caboodle into the “real” world of the Ancient Roman – albeit embroidered with Celtic myth and legend – and added a satisfying layer of dramatic authenticity to the mix which still leaves it head-and-shoulders above all other Sword and Sorcery “Bad Girls” tales, as well as most fantasy fiction…

The literary pre-game warm-up also includes an effusive memo from the author as ‘Claremont on Bolton’ offers more creative insight on why these seldom-seen stories are just so darn good before the wonderment unfolds in the initial tale ‘Marada the She-Wolf: The Shattered Sword’.

The ferociously independent warrior woman is a wandering mercenary whose grandfather was Julius Caesar. When her parents fell into political disfavour, she was whisked from the Eternal City to live free and grow wild. Now, years later in the deserts near Damascus she is rescued from slavers by charismatic Warrior-Magician Donal MacLlyanllwyr. Strangely, the indomitable Marada he remembers is gone and all he liberates is a broken doll, traumatised by some unspoken horror and utterly devoid of will and spirit…

Mystically transporting her to the arboreal citadel of Ashandriar, amidst the misty hills of distant Britain, the baffled soldier seeks the aid of patron sorceress Rhiannon to diagnose, if not cure, her malady.

As Marada gradually recovers, she forms a bond with Donal’s daughter Arianrhod; a girl of vast, if unschooled, magical power. Before long, the ghastly secret of Marada’s malaise is revealed when a demonic creature invades the mystic keep, killing Donal and abducting Arianrhod.

Enraged and desperate, Marada braves Hell itself and slashes her way through an army of devils to rescue the child she now considers as much daughter as friend from a wizard and demon conclave. They initially broke the warrior woman as part of a convoluted scheme to reign on Earth…

The re-galvanised She-Wolf is ultimately victorious, but the horrific confrontation leaves her and Arianrhod stranded in East Africa. With no other option, the triumphant duo begin the long exhausting walk home to Albion…

From Epic #12, ‘Royal Hunt’ is a shorter, self-contained tale wherein Marada and Arianrhod, after escaping the Infernal Realm, are taken by Ashake, barbaric Empress of Amazonian nation of Meroë. The Battle Queen offers her captives the dubious distinction of being the quarry in a hunt (a competent if cheekily uninspired variation of Richard Connell’s landmark 1924 short story – and equally influential 1932 movie – The Most Dangerous Game).

Sadly, both predator and prey are unaware malign male mercenaries are lurking about, with the worst of all intentions for the unsuspecting women. Hard-fought combat and the sudden intervention of the sneaking male scum makes allies of Ashake and Marada, leading to the voyagers’ final tale, ‘Wizard’s Masque’ (Epic Illustrated #23-24, April & June 1984) which finds the long-lost Europeans aboard merchant ship Raven, bound for Roman port Massilia. However, impetuous Arianrhod gets bored with their slow progress and tries a transportation spell, opening a portal to nether realms and letting something really ghastly out of hell…

Beating the beast back, Marada falls though the gap in reality to materialise on an Arabic pirate ship currently engaged in a life-and-death clash with soldiers of an Eastern Kaydif. Her sudden presence turns the tide and soon she is partner to flamboyant corsair Taric Redhand, who swears to get her back to her home and lost “daughter”…

Typically, Marada has also been noticed by sinisterly seductive sorcerer Jaffar Ibn Haroun Al-Rashid. Although he purports to be a friend – and potential lover – able to reunite her with The Raven, he conceals a connection to the same demonic alliance that originally targeted the She-Wolf in faraway Rome. He is also, in all things, a creature of passion and self-serving convictions, capable of absolutely anything to achieve his own ends…

Ultimately however, the wanderer knows she can only depend upon herself to find her way back to Arianrhod and home…

Moody, passionate and powerfully evocative, this is a classic work of comics fantasy that will certainly all delight fans of the genre.
© & ™ 2013 John Bolton and Christ Claremont. All rights reserved.

Phoolan Devi: Rebel Queen


By Claire Fauvel, translated by Montana Kane (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-251-9 (HB)

Born in 1988, award-winning graphic novelist Claire Fauvel (À la recherche d’Alvaro Dolor; Sur les pas de Teresa, la religieuse de Calcutta [w/Marie-Noëlle Pichard]; Une Saison en Égypte; Catherine’s War [w/Julia Billet]) studied illustration at Paris’ l’école Estienne and animation at l’école des Gobelins before beginning an illustrious career in bande dessinée. She’s particularly adroit and adept with female historical figures and her latest tome gives her plenty to work with…

Phoolan Devi: Rebel Queen is that rare event, a history that has all the energy and impetus of a great action adventure and pioneering, political tract. Despite being a factual graphic biography, this is the stuff of legend and grand drama, detailing the astounding, appalling, tragic and triumphant life of a woman who bucked India’s ancient, all-pervasive caste system. Victim from birth of poverty and inequality, she sought change through bloody deeds and ultimately political action in a country where prejudice is institutionalised: expressed via cultural violence, and which fostered for millennia a tyrannical social system of inherent, inbuilt corruption where gods and birth status forever dictate one’s position in life…

Phoolan suffered a double blow at birth: born both poor and female. Never educated, she remained illiterate all her life. A life of being shunned and grinding poverty was exacerbated when she was married off at age 11, starting a harrowing pattern of slavery and sexual abuse lasting until she was rescued by a troop of the legendary bandits infesting Uttar Pradesh at the time. They were actually more decent – and heroic – than most respectable citizens (men), civil authorities and police officers of the region. Becoming lover to one of the gang, she suffered even greater abuse when he was murdered by a rival from a different caste.

Surviving these assaults, Phoolan organised an infamous vengeance massacre at the village of Behmai. That slaughter was picked up by the press, who recast her as a rebel queen and her lover a martyr. The public began using the honorific “Devi” for her and, after a mythic career, she surrendered to authorities in 1983. Over eleven years of imprisonment, 48 capital charges including murder, plunder, arson and kidnapping were incrementally dropped before a trial that never came. In 1994, the state government led by Mulayam Singh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party withdrew all charges and she walked free. Joining the party, she was elected to national office twice, becoming a strong advocate for radical change, in the caste system and the patriarchal treatment of women. Regarded as the “voice of the oppressed”, on 26th July 2001 her past caught up with her when she was assassinated by relatives of the bandits killed at Behmai.

Fauvel took her inspiration from acclaimed 1996 autobiography Moi, Phoolan Devi, reine des bandits by Phoolan Devi & Marie-Thérèse Cuny, and although not all of those events are included in this stunning and uncompromising account, the supremely enticing and engaging art manages to mix in a few moments of hopeful aspiration, happy romance and family unity to offset the revolting iniquities Phoolan and other women had to survive on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, this brilliant tale is grim and unflinching in the portrayal of the constant assaults and abuses she endured, so you’d better gird yourself for plenty of righteous indignation and outright anger at the catalogue of venality and casual intolerance civilised folk still seem capable of…

Potent, unmissable, and primed to continue the fight, this is a book you must read.
© 2018 Casterman. © 2020 NBM for the English translation.

Phoolan Devi: Rebel Queen will be published on March 19th 2020 and is available for pre-order. NBM books are also available in digital formats. For more information and other great reads go to NBM Publishing at nbmpub.com

Luba


By Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-960-9 (HB)

In the 1980s a qualitative revolution forever destroyed the clichéd, stereotypical ways different genres of comic strips were regarded. Most prominent in destroying these comfy pigeonholes we’d built for ourselves were three guys from Oxnard, California; Jaime, Mario (occasionally) and Gilberto Hernandez.

Love and Rockets was an anthology comics magazine featuring the intriguing, sci-fi-ish larks of punky young things Maggie and Hopeylas Locas – and heart-warming, terrifying, gut-wrenching soap-opera fantasy of the town of Palomar. These gifted synthesists captivated us all with incredible stories that sampled a thousand influences conceptual and actual – everything from Archie Comics and alternative music to German Expressionism and masked wrestlers. The result was pictorial and narrative dynamite.

Palomar was the playground of Gilberto, created for the extended serial Heartbreak Soup: a poor Latin-American village with a vibrant, funny and fantastically quotidian cast. Everything from life, death, adultery, magic, serial killing and especially gossip could happen in Palomar’s meta-fictional environs – and did – as Beto mined his own post-punk influences, comics, music, drugs, comics, strong women, gangs, sex, family and comics, in a style that seemed informed by everything from the Magical Realism of writers like Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez to Saturday morning cartoons and The Lucy Show.

He returned to the well of Palomar constantly, usually tales centred around formidable matriarch – or perhaps Earth Mother figure – Luba, who ran the village’s bath house, acted as Mayor – and sometimes police chief – as well as adding regularly and copiously to the general population. Her children, brought up with no acknowledged fathers in sight, are Maricela, Guadalupe, Doralis, Casimira, Socorro, Joselito and Concepcion. A passionate, fiery woman who speaks her mind and generally gets her own way, her truest, constant life-long companion is a small claw-hammer…

Luba defies easy description and I don’t actually want to: As one of the most complex women in literature, let alone comics, she’s somebody you want to experience, not learn of second-hand. You will probably notice that she has absolutely enormous breasts. Deal with it. These stories are casually, graphically, sexually explicit. Luba’s story is about Life, and sex happens, constantly and often with the wrong people at the wrong time. If harsh language and cartoon nudity (male and female) are an insurmountable problem for you, don’t read these tales. It is genuinely your loss.

After a run of spectacular stories (all of which have been collected in a variety of formats and editions which I really must get around to systematically reviewing) like An American in Palomar, Human Diastrophism and Poison River, the magazine ended. Luba and her extended family then graduated to a succession of mini-series concentrating on her moving to the USA and reuniting with half-sisters Rosalba (“Fritz”) and Petra, taken when her mother Maria fled from Palomar decades previously.

Which brings us to this delightfully massive and priceless tome (sadly, not available in any digital formats yet). Luba collects in one monumental volume her later life as a proud immigrant refusing to learn English (or is she?): more than 80 stories covering 596 monochrome pages ranging from lengthy sagas to sparkling single page skits taken from Luba, Luba’s Comics and Stories, Luba in America, Luba: the Book of Ofelia and Luba: Three Daughters. The tone and content range from surreal to sad to funny to thrilling. The entire world can be found in these pages, and you really should go looking…

Although in an ideal world you would read the older material first, there’s absolutely no need to. Reminiscence and memory are as much a part of this brilliant passion-play as family feeling, music, infidelity, survival, punk rock philosophy, and laughter – lots and lots of laughter.

Brilliantly illustrated, these are human tales as coarse and earthy any as any of Chaucer’s Pilgrims could tell, as varied and appetising as any of Boccaccio’s Decameron and as universally human as the best of that bloke Shakespeare.

I’m probably more obtuse – just plain dense or blinkered – than most, but for years I thought this stuff was about the power of Family Ties, but it’s not: at least not fundamentally. Luba is about love. Not the sappy one-sided happy-ever after stuff, but LOVE, that mighty, hungry beast that makes you always protect the child that betrays you, that has you look for a better partner whilst you’re in the arms of your one true love, and hate the place you wanted to live in all your life. The love of cars and hair-cuts and biscuits and paper-cuts and stray cats that bite you: selfish, self-sacrificing, dutiful, urgent, patient, uncomprehending, a feeling beyond words.

Just like the love of a great comic…
© 2009 Gilbert Hernandez. All Rights Reserved.