Julio’s Day


By Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-606-5 (HB)

In the 1980s a qualitative revolution forever destroyed the clichéd, stereotypical ways different genres of comic strips were produced and marketed. Most prominent in destroying the 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 magazine featuring slick, intriguing, sci-fi tinted hi-jinx of punky young things Maggie & Hopey – the outrageously beguiling las Locas – as well as heart-warming, terrifying, gut-wrenching soap-opera fantasies from the rural Central American paradise of Palomar.

Supreme synthesists, Los Bros Hernandez enthralled and enchanted with incredible stories that sampled a thousand influences, conceptual and actual; everything from Comics, TV cartoons, masked wrestlers and the emergent exotica of American Hispanic pop culture to iconic German Expressionism. There was also a perpetual backdrop displaying the holy trinity of the young: Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll – for which please hear alternative music and punk rock.

The result was dynamite. Mario only officially contributed on rare occasions, but Jaime’s slick, enticing visual feasts explored friendship and modern love whilst destroying stereotypes of feminine attraction through his fetching coterie of Gals Gone Wild, whilst “Beto” exhaustively crafted a hyper-authentic rural landscape and playground of wit and passion created for his extended generational saga Heartbreak Soup: a quicksilver chimera of breadline Latin-American village life 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, as the artist mined his own post-punk influences through a powerfully effective primitivist style which blended the stylised mythologies and iconographies of comics, music, recreational drugs, gangs, sex, forceful, capable, dominating women and the inescapable bonds of family using a narrative format which is at the graphic vanguard of Magical Realism.

There’s fiction, there’s Meta-fiction and then there’s Gilbert Hernandez. In addition to his astonishingly captivating Palomar tales he has authored stand-alone books such as Sloth, Grip, Birdland and Girl Crazy, all marked by his boldly compelling, disingenuous artwork and a mature, sensitive adoption of literary techniques by writers like Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez: techniques which he has amplified and, visually at least, made his own.

He later played with his own filmic and literary influences – Roger Corman, John Cassavetes, Elmore Leonard and Jim Thompson – breaking new ground by reprocessing the cultural influences forming all us baby-boomers, through “adaptations” of the trashy B-Movies which were perennial plot “maguffins” in his stories. Those became a little more actual in his “adaptations” of thrillers like Chance in Hell, The Troublemakers and Love from the Shadows

Accruing critical acclaim but seldom financial reward, the brothers eventually went their own ways, but a few years ago creatively reunited to produce annual collections of new material in their particularly peculiar shared – or, rather, adjacent – pen-and-ink universes. This beguiling pictorial elegy began in Love and Rockets volume II, #1 but remained unfinished until completed in this stark evocative monochrome hardback and digital delight.

Here, Gilbert foregoes many signature elements and the frenetic youth-fuelled backdrop he’s famous for to methodically detail the moving life-story of an ordinary man.

Of course, once you start looking. you realise there’s really no such thing as ordinary…

It’s about families and friends, the secrets we must keep and how, even though the World changes, sometimes we just can’t…

I’d be doing you and the author a huge disservice by going into too much detail, but suffice to say that somewhere in Southern California a baby is born in 1900. From the start Julio is nourished and cherished by a loving family – excepting his uncle Juan, whom only the infant’s older sister Sofia realises should be kept well away from all children at all costs…

Over 100 pages, until his passing in 2000, Julio grows up with friends Tommy and Araceli, dimly aware of yet barely affected by humanity’s great crises. Sadly, the uncompromising nature of the times, elements and environment shape the people of the village just as powerfully as any global war or Stock Market crash. One slip in a mere mudslide affects the family for three tragic generations. Moreover, even in such placid outreaches, bullying, cruelty, bigotry and intolerance exist in abundance to mould young hearts and minds…

As he grows to maturity, Julio loses family, makes new friends and comes to realises he has a secret he cannot share with anyone: one that, despite the way the times change society before his very eyes, he simply cannot admit or acknowledge…

Dedicated to the proposition that big history happens somewhere else even as its effects touch us all, this warm-hearted, deceptively heartrending, challenging, and incontrovertibly groundbreaking epic is a grown-up comics fan’s dream come true; proving again just how far the medium has progressed.

From traditional world-saving, anodyne fist-fights, fanciful fantasies and children’s escapism to the likes of Maus, One Bad Rat, Palestine, Persepolis, Pride of Baghdad, Sailor Twain and so many more, comics have evolved until they not only produce material equal to other art forms, but with Julio’s Day – a diamond point at the cutting edge of graphic narrative – have arrived at masterpieces which can only be truly told as graphic narratives…

…As you will surely see…
© 2013 Gilbert Hernandez. This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Two Dead


By Van Jensen & Nate Powell (Gallery 13/Simon & Schuster)
ISBN: 978-1-50116-895-6 (TPB)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Dark Winter’s Tale you must not miss… 9/10

It’s been a while since we covered a crime yarn and this new release looks like making a few well-deserved waves, so let’ go back a lifetime or two and look at events that have passed into history while regrettably remaining all too fresh, familiar and immediate… like any wound…

Before moving into screen scripting and writing comics and graphic novels such as Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer, Cryptocracy and Valkyrie Beer Delivery – as well as established properties like The Flash, Superman, Wonder Woman and James Bond, Van Jensen worked as a crime reporter for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. It was there and while palling around with local cops that he first learned of this case. The facts never let go of him and, years later, with the stunning collaboration of multi award-winning cartoonist Nate Powell (March, Come Again, About Face, Any Empire, Swallow Me Whole, The Silence of Our Friends) the events were dramatized here as Two Dead.

Even after separating the True Crime nature of the story, this is a chilling and unforgettably potent crime noir examining institutional racism, police bias and Post Traumatic Stress Disorders through the lens of history. It’s set in Little Rock, Arkansas where recently demobbed war hero Gideon Kemp is starting his new job as a police detective. It’s October 1946 and the FBI-trained family man just wants to put his past behind him and do good.

He cannot, however, escape the pressure of a crushing and tragic mistake made during his service that still haunts him, blighting his days and nights…

From the start, the new job is a trial. Secretly enlisted by Mayor Sprick, Gideon is supposed to fight a deeply entranced organised crime presence in the town as a detective, while secretly getting the goods on his own boss. Veteran old school cop Abraham Bailey hasn’t met a problem yet that couldn’t be solved with volleys of gunfire and – despite being popular with the white voters in town – he’s becoming a problem for the powers that be.

Just how much so, and what ghosts and demons drive the ethically-challenged hardliner, neither conspirator can truly guess…

Little Rock is prosperous, growing and segregated, with a strong but hidden Klan presence. Across the poverty-ridden tracks, the coloured citizens live separate lives. Esau Davis makes ends meet here running errands and taking bets for mob chief Big Mike. He is well aware of the dangers of upsetting – or even being noticed by – white cops.

Originally the police had tried recruiting blacks into the force, but as they kept turning up dead, the authorities eventually let the program drop. Now Esau’s war hero brother Jacob tries to keep the peace in their part of town with an unpaid, unarmed volunteer militia, but they’re no match for gangsters or self-righteous police looking for easy arrests. They are especially unprepared for gun-happy Chief Bailey, who has an obsessive hatred of all criminals, likes keeping trophies of all his “justified” kills, and never met a door he couldn’t kick down or anybody who wasn’t guilty of something…

Every player is tormented by their own ghosts, but as Kemp and Bailey warily test each other out while successfully dogging the footsteps of the murderous mobster – who has his own appallingly bloody peccadillo to assuage – an uneasy trust is formed. Rather than expeditiously doing the Mayor’s bidding, by-the-book Gideon stalls and prevaricates as the war of decency against crime escalates, exposing corruption among the city’s leaders and dragging in honest Jacob, who is soon just another gun in Bailey’s relentless war.

With blood running and the death toll mounting, Gideon and Jacob are powerless to head off a brutal confrontation. It seems no one can atone or win achieve redemption here…

The ending is one you won’t forget…

Rendered by Powell in sepia and black line utilising a style gloriously reminiscent of classic Will Eisner, Two Dead is a superb and upsetting thriller, made irresistibly compelling by Jensen’s deft use of language, gift for building suspense and multiple narrative perspectives and, like all the great noir tales, revels in a world of villains with no heroes to balance them…
© 2019 by Blue Creek Creative, LLC and Nate Powell. All rights reserved.

Like a Dog


By Zak Sally (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-165-7 (HB)

Some people do it for money or fame… and money. It doesn’t matter what form of creative endeavour “it” is. Whatever art-form you’re thinking of, there are those who are rewarded for their creative efforts (whether fairly or otherwise is another can of worms and I’m not going there) as they either work within or expand the boundaries of their medium, and there are the other sort. Sometimes the other sort gets really lucky and finds fame and fortune along the way.

Why am being so obtuse?

Because unless you are one of those other types that will produce paintings or music or poetry or whatever shapes and impels your life even after every other carbon-based life-form on the planet is dead – or worse yet, just ignores or humours you – then you have no idea of how powerful the compulsion to create can be.

Bassist and musician Zak Sally has travelled far (as a member of bands Low, Enemy Mine and The Hand) and dabbled in photography and all forms of print media, but what he is at his core is a cartoonist. He sees the world in terms of incidents, epigrams and bon mots he reproduces as sequential images. He has been producing stories, mini-comics, gags, nonfiction and biographical tales and even historical and political drama for over 20 years in his self-published ‘zine Recidivist, and other peoples productions such as Mome, Dirty Stories, The Drama, Comic Art Magazine and other places discerning enough to print them.

Even if they hadn’t, he would still have drawn them, and in 2009 they were collected in a magnificent hardback collection from Fantagraphics which gathered the first two issues of Recidivist in their entirety, and included another thirteen unique and compelling tales in a variety of styles and media, all copiously and tellingly annotated as an encore.

Personal favourites – and there are many – include the bleakly informative ‘Dresden’ (because haven’t we all wanted to be rock stars?), the graphically bold ‘Dread’ and ‘The War Back Home’ but, unfettered by commercial pressures, the author has been able to turn his attentions to whatever caught his eye and the book is a broad anthology of material ranging from horror to comedy to surreal dreamy pure imagery, all underpinned by a keen wit, a canny eye for design and a great ear for dialogue.

Without doubt the best pieces are the utterly superb ‘At the Scaffold’ (an account of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s imprisonment by the Tsar) and ‘The Man who Killed Wally Wood’ an “it-happened-to-me” recollection that will captivate any fanboy with an ear for scandal and rumour…

This is a gloriously rough-hewn and hands-on collection from a compulsive cartoonist and storyteller packaged with the flair and imagination that has become a trademark of the world’s leading publisher of fascinating comics. This book didn’t make much of an impact back then and won’t appeal to everybody (especially devotees of the superhero mainstream), but Sally’s dedication to innovation, exploration and imagination will astound and entrance anyone who knows capital “A” Art when they see it. This is a read that demands rescue, revivification, and resounding renown. Over to you, then…
© 2009 Zak Sally except where otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

Mother Come Home


By Paul Hornschemeier (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-973-9 (HB) 978-1593070373 (PB)

Paul Hornschemeier is a Californian author, artist, musician and film maker whose non-comics work has appeared as far afield as in Life Magazine to The Wall Street Journal to McSweeney’s. He’s produced animations for TV, lectures on YouTube and is part of the Creative Writing Faculty of the University of Chicago. He is internationally renowned for his lectures on the philosophy of narrative and art creation.

Mother, Come Home originally ran in marvellous indie publication Forlorn Funnies, before being gathered into a lyrically stunning and dreamily magnetic exploration of grief and coping mechanisms in a soft cover collection in 2004. In 2009 Fantagraphics produced a beautiful and magnificent deluxe hardback edition of one of the best, most emotionally complex and graphically symbolic tales ever to grace our medium.

Tom is a seven-year old boy whose mother has just died. As his father David – a deeply intellectual college professor of symbolic logic – slowly retreats into a nervous collapse, the youngster assumes the household duties as much as he is able. Throughout his trials, the boy is bolstered by his love and sense of duty, as well as the innate half-world of fantasy that is the rightful domain of the very young.

Empowered by a dime-store lion-mask his mother bought him, Tom becomes the head of his diminished clan and guardian of the home… until his aunt and uncle discover how ill his father has become.

When David voluntarily commits himself to an institution, Tom goes to live with them, but dreams of reuniting with his true family; even planning a meticulous escape and joyous reunion. However, when he takes action the consequences are painfully revelatory, inevitably tragic and hauntingly real…

Rendered in a number of simple, powerful styles, utilising a mesmeric, muted colour palette to bind ostensibly neutral images (that nevertheless burn with a highly charged intensity) with a simplified heavy line, this subtle, seductive, domestic tragedy is a perfect example of how our medium can so powerfully layer levels of meaning and abstract a personal reality until it becomes greater than itself.

Deeply moving, monstrously deep and overwhelmingly simple, Mother, Come Home is a true classic and ranks beside such noteworthy pictorial novels as Maus, Barefoot Gen, Stuck Rubber Baby, Pride of Baghdad, Persepolis or My Favorite Thing is Monsters. This is a tale nobody could ever be embarrassed about reading, but they should feel ashamed if they haven’t…
© 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009 Paul Hornschemeier. All Rights Reserved.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen volume II


By Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill & various (Americas Best Comics/WildStorm/DC)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0118-0 (TPB)

The Victorian era saw the birth of both popular and populist publishing, particularly the genres of fantasy and adventure fiction. Writers of varying skill but possessing unbounded imaginations expounded 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 our 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 best of them remain the greatest of all yarns.

An august selection of just such heroic prototypes were seconded – and slyly re-examined under modern scrutiny – by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill for a miniseries in 1999 that managed to say as much about our world as that long gone one, and incidentally tell 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 genius Captain Nemo and both cultured Dr. Henry Jekyll and his bombastic alter-ego Mister Hyde. The tale also added cameos from the almost English Edwin Lester Arnolds’ Gullivar Jones, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars and even many creatures from C.S. Lewis’ allegorical sequence Out of the Silent Planet.

The idea of combining shared cultural brands is evergreen: 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…

In ‘Phases of Deimos’, as London rebuilds after the cataclysmic denouement of the previous volume, a savage planetary conflict on the fourth planet ends with the firing of gigantic projectiles at our fragile, unsuspecting world …

The barrage hits home in ‘People of Other Lands’ and the cohort of reluctant agents is on hand when hideous otherworldly invaders begin incinerating the best that Britain can offer. One of the operatives considers treachery as more cylinders arrive in ‘And Dawn Comes Up Like Thunder’ and acts upon the temptation as the incursion renders Earth’s most advanced defenders helpless…

With the Empire being dismantled by Tripods and other supra-scientific engines of destruction, ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ finds half of the chastened and dispirited agents seeking other allies and ideas, even as ‘Red in Tooth and Claw’ sees the traitor exposed and dealt with despite the inexorable advance of the Martian horde before the tide unexpectedly and shockingly turns in ‘You Should See Me Dance the Polka…’

This startlingly impressive and beguilingly effective interleaving of HG Wells’ landmark fantasy classic with the skewed but so-very plausible conceit that all the great adventurers of literature hung out together captures perfectly the feeling of a world and era ending. As one would expect, internal conflicts pull apart the champions – at no time do they ever even slightly resemble a team – and Moore’s irrepressible imagination and vast cultural reservoir dredges up a further elite selection of literary touchstones to enhance the proceedings.

Dark and genuinely terrifying, the tale unfolds largely unchanged from the original War of the Worlds plot, but a string of parallel side-stories are utterly gripping and unpredictable, whilst the inclusion of such famed and/or lost characters as Bill Samson, Doctor Moreau, Tiger Tim and even Rupert Bear (among others) sweetens the pot for those in the know.

Those who aren’t you can always consult A Blazing World: the official companion to the drama…

This book is an incredible work of scholarship and artistry recast into a fabulous pastiche of an entire literary movement. It’s also a stunning piece of comics wizardry of a sort no other art form can touch, and as with the other Moore & O’Neill collaborations there are wry visual supplements (including, activity pages, puzzles and mazes, faux ads and a board game) plus a substantial text feature – The New Traveller’s Almanac – at the back, in-filling the alternative literary history of the League.

It is quite wordy, but Read It Anyway: it’s there for a reason and is more than worth the effort as it outlines the antecedents of the assorted champions in a fabulously stylish and absorbing manner. It might also induce you to read a few other very interesting and rewarding books…
© 1999, 2000 Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill. All Rights Reserved.

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.