New School


By Dash Shaw (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-644-7 (HB)

Dash Shaw is a sublimely talented creator with a singular authorial voice and a huge repertoire of styles to call upon. Born in 1983, he is a leading light of a “new wave” (please note no capital letters there) of multi-tasking cartoonists, animators and web content originators whose interests and sensibilities heralded a recent renaissance in graphic narrative.

Like so many, he began young with independently published comics before graduating to paid work. Previous successes include Love Eats Brains, GoddessHead, Garden Head, Mother’s Mouth and the superbly haunting Bottomless Belly Button and Bellyworld.

In 2009 the Independent Film Channel commissioned him to convert his short series The Unclothed Man In the 35th Century A.D. (from comic arts quarterly Mome) into an imaginative and compelling animated series which then translated into an incredibly impressive graphic novel/art book comprising not only the evocative, nightmarish and tenderly bizarre tales but also the storyboards, designs and scripts Shaw constructed to facilitate the transition from paper to screen.

With New School, Shaw’s bold, broad experimentalism found a forward-looking yet chaotically nostalgia-generating fresh mode of communication for the oldest of information-storing, emotion-generating devices…

Here is another unique, achingly visual exploration of family, relationships and even the art of telling stories, at once dauntingly challenging, emotively ambivalent and metaphorically obfuscatory, even as Shaw impossibly pulls an authorial sleight of hand trick which renders this colossal chronicle surprisingly accessible.

Danny is a smart, content, obedient boy who worships his older brother Luke and he is telling us about his life. As our narrator, he only speaks in declarative and pompously declamatory, almost mock-heroic idiom, although his emotional underpinning is oddly off-kilter, like someone high-functioning on the autistic spectrum.

He speaks solely in the present tense even though his story begins with memories of 1990. Moreover, Danny believes he has prophetic dreams such as that one day there will be a movie called Jurassic Park or that the TV actor who plays Captain Picard will one day be the leader of the X-Men in a film…

Their highly-strung father publishes Parkworld – The Quarterly Journal of Amusement Park Industry News and Analysis and is justifiably proud of his sons’ artistic gifts and family fealty, but their solid, stolid lives begin to change in 1994 when Danny takes the credit for a dinosaur drawing Luke created and the devoted boys have a tremendous fight. As a result of the tussle, Danny is temporarily rendered deaf…

Even though his hearing returns, things have changed between the brothers, and soon rebellious Luke is despatched by Dad to the nation of X where an amusement park genius is setting up an incredible new entertainment experience called “Clockworld”.

Ashar Min AKA “Otis Sharpe” is the greatest designer of rides on Earth and – with the backing of X’s government – is turning the entire Asian island-state into a theme park tourist trap. To that end, Sharpe is hiring Americans to teach the X-ians to speak English and learn Western ways – and Dad wants 17-year old Luke there…

Three years younger, dutiful obedient Danny feels betrayed and abandoned, even as he guiltily noses around in his brother’s now-empty room. Two years pass and Luke has not communicated with the family since his departure.

Danny’s future-dreams are troubled. He is apprehensive when Mother and Father inform him he is to visit his brother on X, with the intention of bring their silent first-born home…

However, on arrival at the bustling, strange shore Danny is shocked by how much Luke has changed. Even his speech and dress are lax, debased and commonplace. The once-shining example of probity drinks, swears and fornicates…

Shock follows shock, however, as the newcomer is shown the burgeoning economy and infrastructure growing in the wake of Clockworld’s imminent completion. Moreover, after visiting the New School where Luke teaches, Danny’s joy in reuniting with his beloved sibling is further shaken, when he realises how much he has changed and has no intention of returning to America.

Worse yet, the influence of X and its people also begin to increasingly infect the appalled boy, forcing him to perpetually disgrace himself as his dreams torment him with incredible, impossible visions.

At least he thinks it’s the island making him mean and spiteful or causing him to shamefully stare at the unconsciously libertine, scandalously disporting women…

This book is drenched in the turbulent, reactive, confusing and conflicted feelings of childhood and physically evokes that sense. At 340 pages – all delineated in thick black marker-like lines with hulking faux mis-registered plates of flat colour seemingly whacked willy-nilly on the 279 x216mm pages, this feels like a mega-version of one of those cheap colouring books bought for kids on a seaside holiday in the 1960s. In fact the sheer size of the tome hammers that point home, no matter how grown up your hands now are. The effect even carries over if you opt for the various digital editions…

Strident yet subtle; simplistic whilst psychologically intellectual; viscerally, compellingly bombastically beautiful in a raw, rough unhewn manner, this a graphic tale every dedicated fan of the medium simply must see, and every reader of challenging fiction must read.

It’s big! It’s pretty! It’s different! Buy it!
© 2013 Dash Shaw. This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books. All Rights Reserved.

Impossible Tales: The Steve Ditko Archives volume 4


By Steve Ditko & various, edited by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-640-9 (HB)

Once upon a time the short complete tale was the sole staple of the comic book profession, where the plan was to deliver as much variety as possible to the reader. Sadly, that particular discipline is all but lost to us today…

Steve Ditko (November 2nd 1927 – c. June 29th 2018) was one of our industry’s greatest talents and probably America’s least lauded. His fervent desire was to just get on with his job telling stories the best way he could. Whilst the noblest of aspirations, that dream was always a minor consideration and frequently a stumbling block for the commercial interests which for so long controlled all comics production and still exert an overwhelming influence upon the mainstream bulk of Funny book output. Let’s see what happens in the months to come now that COVID19 has wrought its horrific effects on the industry…

Before his time at Marvel, the young Ditko mastered his craft creating short stories for a variety of companies and it’s an undeniable joy to be able to look at this work from a such an innocent time. Here he was just breaking into the industry: tirelessly honing his craft with genre tales for whichever publisher would have him, utterly free from the interference of intrusive editors.

This fourth fantastic full-colour deluxe hardback – and potently punchy digital treasure trove – reprints another heaping helping of his ever more impressive works: published between July 1957 and March 1959, and all courtesy of the surprisingly liberal (at least in its trust of its employees’ creative instincts) sweat-shop publisher Charlton Comics. Some of the issues here were actually put together under the St. John imprint, but when that company abruptly folded, much of its already prepared in-house material – even entire issues – were purchased and published by clearing-house specialist Charlton with almost no editorial changes.

And, whilst we’re being technically accurate it’s also important to note that the eventual publication dates of the stories in this collection don’t have a lot to do with when Ditko rendered these mini-masterpieces: Charlton paid so little, the cheap, anthologically astute outfit had no problem buying material it could leave on a shelf for months – if not years – until the right moment arrived to print…

All the tales and covers reproduced here were drawn after implementation of the draconian, self-inflicted Comics Code Authority rules which sanitised the industry following Senate Hearings and a public witch-hunt. They are uniformly wonderfully baroque and bizarre fantasies, suspense and science fiction yarns, helpfully annotated with a purchase number to indicate approximately when they were actually drawn.

Sadly, there’s no indication of how many (if any) were actually written by Ditko, but as at the time the astoundingly prolific Joe Gill was churning out hundreds of stories per year for Charlton, he is always everyone’s first guess when trying to attribute script credit…

Following an historically informative Introduction and passionate advocacy by Blake Bell, the evocative tales of mystery and imagination commence with ‘The Menace of the Maple Leaves’, an eerie haunted woods fable from Strange Suspense Stories #33 (August 1957), closely followed a darkly sinister con-game which goes impossibly awry after a wealthy roué consults a supposed mystic to regain his youth and vitality before being treated in ‘The Forbidden Room’ (Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #4 July 1957)…

From November 1957, Do You Believe in Nightmares? #1 offers a bounty of Ditko delights, beginning with the stunning St. John cover heralding a prophetic ‘Nightmare’; the strange secret of a prognosticating ‘Somnambulist’ and the justice which befalls a seasoned criminal in ‘The Strange Silence’ – all confirming how wry fate intervenes in the lives of mortals.

‘You Can Make Me Fly’ then goes a tad off-topic with a tale of brothers divided by morality and intellect after which the issue ends with a dinosaur-packed romp courtesy of ‘The Man Who Crashed into Another Era’

Next up is a tale from one of Charlton’s earliest star characters. Apparently the title came from a radio show which Charlton licensed, and the lead/host/narrator certainly acted more as voyeur than active participant, speaking “to camera” and asking readers for opinion and judgement as he shared a selection of funny, sad, scary and wondrous human interest yarns all tinged with a hint of the weird and supernatural. When rendered by Ditko, whose storytelling mastery, page design and full, lavish brushwork were just beginning to come into its mature full range, the Tales of the Mysterious Traveler were esoteric and utterly mesmerising…

From issue #6 (December 1957), ‘Little Girl Lost’ chills spines and tugs heartstrings with the story of a doll that loved its human companion, followed by a paranoid chase from Strange Suspense Stories #35 (December 1957) as ‘There it is Again’ sees a scientist dogged by his most dangerous invention…

Unusual Tales #10 (January 1958) provides a spooky cover before disclosing the awesome secret of ‘The Repair Man from Nowhere’ and – following wickedly effective Cold War science fiction parable ‘Panic!’ from Strange Suspense Stories #35 – resumes with ‘A Strange Kiss’ that draws a mining engineer into a far better world…

Out of This World #6 (November 1957) provides access to ‘The Secret Room’ which forever changes the lives of an aging, destitute couple. Then cover and original artwork for Out of This World #12 (March 1959) lead to a tale in which a ruthless anthropologist is brought low by ‘A Living Doll’ he’d taken from a native village…

Returning to Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #6 results in three more captivating yarns. ‘When Old Doc Died’ is perhaps the best in this book, displaying wry humour in the history of a country sawbones who is only content when helping others, whilst ‘The Old Fool’ everybody mocked proves to be his village’s greatest friend, and ‘Mister Evriman’ explores the metaphysics of mass TV viewing in a thoroughly chilling manner…

The dangers of science without scruple informs the salutary saga of a new invention in ‘The Edge of Fear’ (Unusual Tales #10, January 1958), after which the cover of This Magazine is Haunted #14 (December 1957) ushers us into cases recounted by ghoulish Dr. Haunt; specifically, a scary precursor to cloning in ‘The Second Self’ and a diagnosis of isolation and mutation which afflicts ‘The Green Man’

The cover and original art for giant-sized Out of This World #7 (February 1958) precedes ‘The Most Terrible Fate’ befalling a victim of atomic warfare whilst ‘Cure-All’ details a struggle between a country doctor and a sinister machine which heals any ailment.

We return to This Magazine is Haunted #14 as Dr. Haunt relates a ghastly monster’s progress ‘From Out of the Depths’ before ‘The Man Who Disappeared’ tells his uncanny story to disbelieving Federal agents. Out of This World #7 in turn provides an ethereal ringside seat from which to view a time-traveller’s ‘Journey to Paradise’…

From Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #7 (March 1958), ‘And the Fear Grew’ relates how an Australian rancher falls foul of an insidiously malign but cute-looking critter, after which ‘The Heel and the Healer’ reveals how a snake-oil peddler finds a genuine magic cure-all, whilst ‘Never Again’ (Unusual Tales #10 again) takes an eons-long look at mankind’s atomic follies and ‘Through the Walls’ (Out of This World #7) sees a decent man framed and imprisoned, only to be saved by the power of astral projection…

Out of This World #12 (March 1959) declared ‘The World Awaits’ when a scientist uncovers an age-old secret regarding ant mutation and eugenics, Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #7 (February 1958) exposes ‘The Angry Things’ which haunt a suspiciously inexpensive Italian villa, and the gripping cover to Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #10 (November 1958) segues into the unsuspected sacrifice of a jazz virtuoso who saves the world in ‘Little Boy Blue’

A tragic orphan finds new parents after ‘The Vision Came’ (Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #8, July 1958) before Dr. Haunt proves television to be a cause of great terror in ‘Impossible, But…’ (from This Magazine is Haunted volume 2 #16, May 1958) – an issue which also discloses the world-changing fate of a Soviet scientist who became ‘The Man from Time’…

Another selfless inventor chooses to be a ‘Failure’ rather than doom humanity to eternal servitude in a stunning yarn from Strange Suspense Stories #36 (March 1958), whilst the luckiest man alive at last experiences the downside of being ‘Not Normal’ (Tales of the Mysterious Traveler #7) after which Unusual Tales #11 – from March 1958 – reveals the secret of Presidential statesmanship to a young politician in ‘Charmed, I’m Sure’, and exposes a magical secret race through an author’s vacation ‘Deep in the Mountains’

This mesmerising collection concludes with the suitably bizarre tale of Egyptian lucky charm ‘The Dancing Cat’ (Strange Suspense Stories #37, July 1958) to ensure the spooky afterglow remains long after the final page and leaves you hungry for more mystic merriment and arcane enjoyment…

This sturdily capacious volume has episodes that terrify, amaze, amuse and enthral: utter delights of fantasy fiction with lean, stripped down plots and simple dialogue that let the art set the tone, push the emotions and tell the tale, from times when a story could end sadly as well as happily and only wonderment was on the agenda, hidden or otherwise. The stories display the sharp wit and contained comedic energy which made so many Spider-Man/J. Jonah Jameson confrontations an unforgettable treat a decade later, making this is cracking collection not only superb in its own right but as a telling examination into the genius of one of the art-form’s greatest stylists.

This is a book serious comics fans would happily kill or die or be lost in time for…
This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books. Introduction © 2013 Blake Bell. 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.

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.

Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream and Other Stories


By Moto Hagio, translated by Matt Thorn (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-377-4 (HB)

Girls’ comics have always taken a secondary role in publishing – at least in most countries. In Japan this was the case until a new wave of female artists and writers stormed the male bastions in the 1970s transforming a very much distaff niche into a viable, autonomous marketplace, consequently reshaping the entire manga landscape in the process. At the forefront and regarded as part of a holy trinity of astoundingly gifted and groundbreaking creators is Moto Hagio. The other two, if you’re in the mood to Go Googling – and of course, other search engines are available – are Keiko Takamiyaand Yumiko Oshima…

This lovely hardback collection (regrettably not available in digital formats yet) presents ten of her best short stories gleaned from a career spanning more than 50 years, over which time she and her revolutionary compatriots created whole genres, advanced the status of fantasy, horror and science fiction tales, reinvented and perfected the shōjo (“girl’s story”) form, all while introducing a degree of literacy, symbology, authority and emotional depth to the medium that has gone on to transform comics in Japan and globally.

Editor, translator and cultural ambassador Matt Thorn has contributed an informative historical treatise on Japan’s comic world and those revolutionary comics creators (thoroughly annotated) as well as providing a far-reaching, moving and engrossing interview with the artist and academic herself.

Although her most popular works are generally science fictional (another arena where she broke new ground in such sagas as They Were Eleven!, Marginal and Otherworld Barbara), socially probing human dramas like Mesh and A Savage God Reigns explored previously forbidden realms of psycho-sexual and abusive family relationships with such deft sensitivity that they served to elevate manga from the realm of cheap escapism to literature and even Great Art – a struggle we’re still waging in the West…

This compelling volume traces her beginnings through more traditional themes of romance, but with growing success came the confidence to probe into far darker and more personal subjects, so whereas my usual warnings are about pictorial nudity and sexual situations, here I’m compelled to say that if your kids are smart enough, the contextual matter in these tales might be a tad distressing. It is all, however, rendered with stunning sensitivity, brilliantly visual metaphors and in truly beautiful graceful tones and lines.

The comics section (which is re-presented in the traditional front-to-back, “flopped” manner) begins with ‘Bianca’ from 1971: a wistful reminiscence and disguised disquisition on creativity wrapped in the tragic story of a childhood companion whose parents separated, whilst 1971’s ‘Girl on Porch with Puppy’ is a disquieting cautionary tale about disobedient little girls who don’t try to fit in. From the same year, ‘Autumn Journey’ is a complex mystery concerning a young man trying to meet his favourite author – as well as a painful exploration of families growing up apart.

‘Marié, Ten Years Late’ hails from 1977: a heartbreaking example of a “Sophie’s Choice” as a lonely, frustrated artist discovers the truth behind the breakup of a perfect friendship which twisted three lives, whilst the eponymous science fictional ‘A Drunken Dream’ (1980) deftly describes a doomed reincarnating romance which has spanned centuries and light-years. This is the only full colour story in a generally monochrome volume.

Moto Hagio is one of a select band of creators credited with creating the “boy’s love” sub-genres of shōnenai and Yaio: sensitively homoerotic romances, generally created by women for women and now more popularly described as BL (as opposed to Bara – gay manga created by men for men) and this lyrical, star-crossed fantasy is a splendid example of the form.

‘Hanshin: Half-God’ (1984) is a disturbing, introspective psychological exploration of Hagio’s favoured themes of familial pressure and intolerance, described through the lives of anther girls’ comic favourite; twin sisters. The siblings here however are conjoined: Yucy is a beautiful angelic waif whilst her monovular other Yudy is an ugly withered homunculus.

The story is told by ugly Yudy, whose life is changed forever by an operation to separate them. This incredibly moving tale adds barbed edges and ground glass to the ugly duckling fairytale and cannot fail to shock and move the reader…

From the same year comes longer romantic tale ‘Angel Mimic’ as a failed suicide eventually evolves into a slim chance of ideal love, which poesy leads into the harrowing tale of rejection that is ‘Iguana Girl’.

Although couched in fantasy terms, this tale of contemporary Japanese family life follows the life of Rika, an ordinary girl whose mother thinks she is a monster, and how that view warps the way the child perceives the world throughout her life.

‘The Child Who Comes Home’ (1998) again examines rejection, but uses the memory of a dead son and brother to pick open the hidden scabs of home and hearth – or perhaps it’s just a sad ghost story to clear the palate before this superb commemoration ends with the elegiac and almost silent, solitary pantomime of 2007’s ‘The Willow Tree’ which shows yet another side of family love…

Abuse of faith and trust. Love lost or withheld. Isolation, rejection, loss of purpose: all these issues are woven into a sensuously evocative tapestry of insightful inquiry and beautiful reportage. These tales are just the merest tip of a cataclysmic iceberg that invaded the stagnant waters of Girls’ comics and shattered their cosy world forever. The stories grew up as the readers did; offering challenging questions and options, not pat answers and stifling pipedreams.

Until the day our own comics industries catch up at least we have these stories – and hopefully many more from the same source. Sequels please, ASAP!
All rights reserved. Original Japanese edition published 1977, 1985, 2007, 2008 by Shogakukan Inc. English translation rights arranged through Viz Media, LCC, USA. © 2010 Fantagraphics Books.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest


By Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill, with Ben Dimagmaliw, Todd Klein, Charles Barnard, Christian LeBlanc, Joe Brown & various (Top Shelf/Knockabout)
ISBN: 978-0-86166-282-1 (HB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Fantastical Celebration of All That’s Profoundly Us… 10/10

The Victorian era saw the birth of both popular and populist publishing, particularly the genres of fantasy and adventure fiction. Writers of varying skill unleashed unbounded imaginations, expounding personal concepts of honour and heroism, wedded unflinchingly to the innate belief in English Superiority. 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 should be played.

For all the problems this raises with modern sensibilities, many of the stories remain uncontested classics of literature and form the roadmap for all modern fictional heroes. Open as they are to charges of racism, sexism (even misogyny), class bias and cultural imperialism, the cream of them remain the greatest of all yarns.

In 1999, an august selection of just such intrepid prototypes were seconded by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill for a miniseries saying as much about our world as that long-gone one; craftily relating a captivating tale as compelling as any of its antecedents.

In short succession there was an inevitable sequel, once more pressing into service vampire-tainted Wilhelmina Murray, aged Great White Hunter Allan Quatermain, Invisible Man Hawley Griffin, the charismatic piratical genius Captain Nemo and both cultured Dr. Henry Jekyll and his bombastic alter-ego Mister Hyde. As the concept grew – seemingly of its own volition – it eventually encompassed the best and brightest of the planet’s fictive print pantheon from drama, books and comics.

The idea of combining shared cultural brands is not new: Philip Jose Farmer in particular spun many a yarn teaming such worthies as Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, Tarzan and their like; Warren Ellis succumbed to similar temptation in Planetary and Jasper Fforde worked literary miracles with the device in his Thursday Next novels, but the sheer impetus of Moore & O’Neill’s para-steampunk revisionism, rush of ideas (and the stunning, startling visuals that carry them) make this book (and all the previous ones) form an irresistible experience and absolute necessity for every fiction fan, let alone comic collector.

Now, after two decades and numerous further sequels and iterations – dotted like stations of the cross through periods of history both utterly imaginary and consensually real – the saga closes with a final chronicle pulling together all the strings of plot and parodies involving these beloved immortal characters, rendered in a startling array of styles from slapstick bigfoot cartoons to realistically-rendered girl’s comics to OTT, hyperkinetic Sci Fi pastiches, the doomed 1960s UK superhero boom and more. There’s even room – and necessity – for sections rendered in 3D (glasses included, kids!) and Fumetti photo stories. Oh, the debilitating force of that nostalgia!

This last volume focuses most ardently on the British comics canon, memorialising past monuments of mirth and mayhem through deftly managed pastiche and homage whilst also incorporating film and TV’s greatest icons as it draws its ever-fluctuating cast into a vast time-bending crisis designed by devious villains to end and remake all existences…

You don’t want me to spoil the deliriously crafted intricacies of this yarn but just let me throw some other names at you: Jerry Cornelius; Captain Universe; Ayesha; Justin – or is it Mark? – Tyme; Tommy Walls; Jason King; James Bond (all of them); the Purple Hood; Quatermass and a leather-clad 1960s daredevil dubbed Emma something, all interacting with subtly altered (curse you, intellectual properties laws) characters you know but can’t mention aloud…

As previously stated, each chapter (first released as six oversized comicbooks) is framed in the style of a bygone British periodical and begins with ‘Illustrated Masterpieces: The Tempest’ laying the trail as the wonders of the Earth are systematically destroyed, forcing a band of protagonists (no actual heroes here!) to undertake a fantastic voyage to stranger places and times in hope of averting impending Armageddon…

Further intrigue unfolds in ‘TV Tempest 2010: Adventures in the Present Century’ as forces malign and benign gather whilst ‘Mina – for Young Ladies’ further stirs the pot as pasts and futures collide with a most fragile present…

A rambunctious paean to Albion’s comedy capers comes via ‘Tempest – incorporating Thud! Gurgle! and Whimper!’, and our cheesy knockoff reprint era is channelled in ‘Blazing Worlds’ before trans-cosmic catastrophe is averted(ish) for earthlets and other sentients in Thrill-throbbing conclusion ‘2010 A.D.’

Since each chapter celebrates an era of homegrown tomfoolery, there’s opportunity for a well-drafted balancing of historical scales. Bringing a tear of injustice to most eyes is a linked prose series of potted biographies memorialising and championing some of our greatest creators.

Leo Baxendale, Frank Bellamy, Marie Duval, Ken Reid, Denis McLoughlin and Ron Turner were all uniformly and deliberately used, abused and written out of history in the name of corporate dominance, and here Al & Kev strike a blow in their name. After looking them up online, you can read the less studious impartial (and therefore more accurate and honest) appreciation of their talents, achievements and fates here…

Celebrating our long-cherished love affair with comic cuts, this epic wheeze treats us to a tantalising taste of gloriously cheap, tawdry and irresistibly wonderful pop entertainment, intended for momentary juvenile diversion, but which locked us all into our own childhoods forever.

An undeserved but so welcome treat for a lost generation of British comics apologists who can now hold their heads a little higher as all the weird, cheap, shamefully knocked off, knocked out yet secretly adored cartoon ephemera of childhood is granted a measure of validity and immortality.

It’s enough to make you join a library and read some other very interesting books…

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume 4: The Tempest © & ™ 2019 Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill. All Rights Reserved.
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest will be released on November 28th 2019 and is available for pre-order now.
For more information and other great reads see Knockabout Comicsand Top Shelf Productions

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.

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.

How to Be Happy


By Eleanor Davis (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-740-6 (HB)

Do acts of creation make one happy? They certainly do for me. but sometimes so do acts of wanton destruction. I’m sharing, not judging…

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 reared her on classic strips such as Little Nemo, Little Lulu and Krazy Kat. Following unconventional schooling and teen years spent making minicomics, she studied at Georgia’s wonderful Savannah College of Art and Design, where she now teaches. Her 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 has since 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 Why Art?

In 2014, Fantagraphics released her themed collection of epigrammatic tales, crafted in a mesmerising variety of styles and riffing on the concept of joy and contentment: causes, failings, and what to do with them when and if they happen. These are enigmatic variations on the most ephemeral of emotions and one you only really notice when it’s gone, but the individual episodes here are truly joyous to share.

How to Be Happy is NOT a self-help book – at least not in any traditional sense, but it did make me feel very good when I first read it and only increases my sense of fulfilment every time I pick it up, whether in its comforting reassuring hardback edition or my ever-present anxiety-reducing digital edition…

These observational short stories were created, it seems, for the sheer innocent joy of making them, and examine many aspects of life through self-contained yarns ranging from cautionary tales to excoriating self-diagnosis to flights of sardonic fancy. Some are titled like proper narratives whilst others just happen like life does. Those I’ve identified by first lines if no title is obvious…

Packed with evocative, stand-alone imagery, the episodes commence with line art pictorial pep talk ‘Write a Story’ before switching to lush colour for ‘In Our Eden’, wherein a primitive life of pastoral toil starts to grate on Adam and Eve. They are, unsurprisingly, not all they seem…

Further monochrome line art interventionism manifests in ‘First We Take Off Our Clothes’ after which a short hop into full-colour and a longer one into a fraught future examines family life on Tomorrow’s sub-continent when ‘Nita Goes Home’

Separation and rural isolation underpin black-&-white monologue ‘We Come Down on Clear Days’ before the restricted colour palette of ‘Stick and String’ offers a hard look at relationships and agency in the tale of a wandering minstrel and the captivating power of momentary fascination…

Relations are further tested in monochrome as ‘Darling I’ve Realized I Don’t Love You’ provides unwise solutions to ancient problems before a truly disquieting incident of mutual grooming in ‘Snip’ segues into a chilling visit to ‘The Emotion Room’.

Colour is employed to potent effect in ‘He turned a grey-green and thought he might pass out’ whilst ‘Seven Sacks’ addresses grisly problems in a fresh fable Aesop or the Brothers Grimm would be proud to pen.

Two colours and self-delusion tinge ‘Did you want to see the statue?’, whilst B&W lines detail the rewards of heroic vitality in ‘Make Yourself Strong’, after which young love blossoms in living colour in ‘Summer Snakes’

The pure exultation and imagination of childhood is exposed through stark monochrome in ‘Thomas the Leader’ before a brief Vox-pop moment in ‘I used to be so unhappy but then I got on Prozac’ is built upon in further untitled moments of self-realisation before a strong admonition to ‘Pray’

Observation, tribulation and revelation all come to the author in ‘In 2006 I took a Greyhound from Georgia to Los Angeles’ before a descent into dark moments and extreme actions in ‘The fox must have been hit pretty recently…’ is balanced by intimate sharing in ‘The woman feels sadness’.

Colour adds depth in an extended moment of group therapy release in ‘No Tears, No Sorrow’, after which the wandering introspection of ‘9/26’ leads to a conclusion of sorts in a cab ride to ‘25 Washington Street, Please’

A superb example of the range and versatility of image and text happily combined, this a true joy for all fans of unbridled expression no one could fail to enjoy.
© Eleanor Davis 2014. All rights reserved.

Luba


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

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 slick, intriguing, sci-fi-ish larks of punky young things Maggie and Hopeylas Locas – and the heart-warming, terrifying, gut-wrenching soap-opera fantasy 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 exclusive 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 and death, adultery, magic, serial killing and especially gossip could happen in those meta-fictional environs, and did, as the artist explored his own influences. Fascinatingly they included post-punk, comics, all manner of 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.

Beto, as he signs himself, returned to the well of Palomar constantly, usually with tales centred around the 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, Luba keeps a small claw-hammer with her at all times…

Luba is a character who 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 like An American in Palomar, Human Diastrophism and Poison River), the magazine ended. Luba and her extended family graduated to a succession of mini-series which concentrated on her moving to the USA and reuniting with her 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: Luba collects in one monumental volume her later life as a proud immigrant who refuses to learn English (or does she?): over 80 stories covering 596 emphatically monochrome pages ranging from lengthy sagas to sparkling single-page skits which originally appeared in Luba, Luba’s Comics and Stories, Luba in America, Luba: The Book of Ofelia and Luba: Three Daughters. The tone and content ranges from surreal to sad to funny to thrilling. The entire world can be found in these pages…

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 in chick-flicks designed to anesthetise and brainwash, but LOVE: that overwhelming, hungry, sneaky 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 or jump on your bloody keyboard just when you think you’re writing your best ever stuff: selfish, self-sacrificing, dutiful, urgent, patient, uncomprehending, a feeling beyond words.

Just like the love of a great comic.

Hunt this down and never let it go…
© 2009 Gilbert Hernandez. All Rights Reserved.