Wally Gropius

By Tim Hensley (Fantagraphics Books)

ISBN: 978-1-60699-355-2
Comics are the most subversive means of communication yet devised. If you’re a creator at the top of your game with no editorial restrictions you can depict and say one thing, in a manner that even the primmest censor would approve of and adore, whilst surreptitiously advocating the most unsavoury, improper and civilisation-threatening dogma. In comics there are no “tells” to give the game away and the manner in which an author writes and draws can actually enhance the propaganda or outright lies…

Have you met young Tim Hensley?

A musician, cartoonist and second-generation comics fan, Hensley’s graphic work has popped up all over the alternative scene in such magazines as Kramer’s Ergot and Fantagraphics’ sublime anthology Mome, from where the intensely sly, brash, revolutionary and mind-bendingly beguiling Wally Gropius has emerged to challenge our every precept of Capitalist culture. This book collects those Mome moments and also includes – at no extra charge – new and revised material.

This colossal 64 page hardback – 10″x 12.5″; marvellously reminiscent of the earliest English-language Tintin albums – is illustrated in a starkly jolly, primary-coloured pastiche of Baby-Boomer kids comics – and not just the obvious and overt  Richie Rich and Archie Andrews trappings, but with a tip of the pen to lost classics of a once ubiquitous, now nearly-forgotten 1960s graphic style that ranged from Mort (Spider, Beetle Bailey) Walker and John Stanley, to the animated creations of Jay Ward and those unnamed geniuses who drew such Dell/Gold Key classics as The Little Monsters and Thirteen Going on Eighteen.

Wally Gropius is barbed and edgy teen satire: the wealthiest teenager on Earth, scion of a petrochemical dynasty, he can have anything he wants. He sings in his band The Dropouts and doesn’t have a care in the world – until his father orders him to marry “the saddest girl on Earth.” With every girl in range tearfully throwing herself at him, Wally suddenly notices the stand-offish and highly hard-to-get Jillian Banks…

Wally Gropius is a devastating, vicious and subversive satirical assault on the modern bastions of Commercialism, Celebrity, and Casual Power. Wally tries everything money can buy to win Jillian, but there’s something he’s blithely unaware of…

Wally Gropius is madcap, screwball and incredibly surreal comedy, with many hidden and time-delayed laugh-traps cunningly concealed for later effect by a keen observer with a disturbingly-honed intellect and a laudable absence of taste. Take note: Money isn’t Everything and Subtext über Alles

Wally Gropius is Even Cleverer Than It Thinks It Is. Invest in it now and enjoy a thoroughly mature modern masterclass in mercantile mockery and morbidly Infantile Analysis.

© 2010 Tim Hensley. All rights reserved.

Vatican Hustle

By Greg Houston (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-571-9

The zeitgeist of the moment seems to be nostalgia, and especially a post-modern re-examination of some of our most unfortunate cultural milestones, but at least the graphic novels that are coming out of these historic plunderings are varied and readable if not universally palatable…

Another sparkling example of the phenomenon is the potentially controversial little gem under review here from cartoonist, caricaturist, designer, educator, actor and big fan of old movies Greg Houston.

This baroque, grotesque and immensely appealing pastiche of Blaxploitation movies and the no-nonsense, in your face attitudes of the early 1970s introduces Baltimore’s coolest private eye Boss Karate Black Guy Jones, who is reluctantly commissioned by Lumpy Fargo, the city’s biggest crime boss, to rescue his wayward, dim daughter from the sticky clutches of Geech Bradford, the White Pimp…

The sordid trail leads inevitably to Rome, porn capital of the world, and, after a brief brush with the legitimate, inclusive end of skin-flicks, directly to the Vatican, long perceived among industry insiders as the source of all the really nasty freaky stuff…

Meanwhile the Pope is getting horny and anxious. Chickee Falzbar his official drug dealer and wingman is late, and the brutish, two-fisted, leather-jacketed Pontiff is looking to score some tail, kick some butt and raise a little Hell. There’s a ba-aad hassle coming and Jones is gonna need all his skills to rescue Brandi Fargo from the callous hands of God’s chosen representative on Earth…

Beneath the outrageous parody and shockingly impious (nigh slanderous) treatment of Catholic tenets and icons is a witty mystery and genuinely funny adult romp which pokes bad-tasting fun at everything from Lepers to Clowns to Hobos, college girls, the sex trade and even rock ‘n’ roll, all rendered in a busy, buzzy, black and white line that appeals and appals in equal amounts.

If you’re of a religious mien and likely to take offence at religion mocked don’t buy this book.

If you are a fan of frantic fisticuffs of fury and martial arts mayhem this ain’t the book for you neither as there practically isn’t none, but if you’re eligible to vote, open (and broad) minded, can whistle the theme to Shaft and love to laugh, this might just be your favourite book of the year…

© 2009 Greg Houston. All rights reserved.

Plunder Woman Must Go! Socialist Cartoons from Militant

By Alan Hardman with commentary by Lynn Walsh (Miltant/Mentorn)

I thought I’d combine controversy and nostalgia by reviewing this now just in case the titular subject of the brilliantly bitter satire and vitriolic graphic commentary within finally pops her clogs and whatever meagre pretension to good taste I possess subsequently scuppers me from ever doing it.

Along with sex, religion and fighting, politics has always been the grist that feeds the cartoonist’s mill, and like many other creative people I often bemoan the fall of the Thatcher regime (it’s still hard to call it a government as those are systems of management purportedly run for people and society) because – and only because – it deprived us all of spectacularly worthy targets.

The best political cartooning comes from outrage and the Tory administrations of the 1980’s provided one bloated, bile-filled easy mark after another. Just look at TV’s Spitting Image which grew fat and healthy off that government’s peccadilloes, indignities and iniquities (as well as Reagan’s America and the Royal Family) in just the way that millions of unemployed and disenfranchised workers, students and pensioners didn’t.

From 1980 comes this starkly powerful collection of incisive images by justifiably vitriolic socialist cartoonist Alan Hardman (still fighting the good fight to this day) which originally appeared in Militant, the periodical of the Marxist-leaning portion of the Labour party, just before the internal crisis in the mid-80’s led to expulsions of the hard Left and the creation in 1997 of the Socialist Party. The infamous and demonized faction Militant tendency was named after the newspaper.

Militant began after the successful 1964 election of Labour as a four page monthly publication, growing into a 16 page weekly by the late 1970s, outlining policies of the Militant tendency and publicising its activities and campaigns.

Content in the newspaper usually carried a by-line stating, author, his or her Party branch, and/or the trade union branch. Militant never employed professional journalists. There was even a quarterly sister publication: the journal, Militant International Review, dedicated to more substantial analysis of global economic and political events. It became Socialism Today in 1995. Militant was renamed The Socialist when the Militant tendency changed its name.

None of which really matters now, but these cartoons have stood the test of time and surely deserve another look, not just because of their power and passion but also because a really great villain can always stand another good kicking.
© 1980 Alan Hardman.

Speechless – World History without Words

By Polyp (New Internationalist/Friends of the Earth International)
ISBN: 978-1-906523-19-0

No one can contest the sheer naked power and immediacy of pictures; a sequential narrative can have all the force of a Perfect Storm. Hopefully this startlingly bold pictorial treatise from the enigmatic Polyp (www.polyp.org.uk) will shake a few entrenched bastions and rattle some cages as it offers an alternative view of our progress as a species, using the monstrous tragedy of 9/11 as a starting point before scrolling back the very beginning to show how it all went so wrong.

In vivid primary colours the creator takes a jaundiced look at our 6 billion year relationship with the planet and the mistakes we keep on making, using wry, surreal wit, patient exasperation and not a little frantic desperation, as well as a bold cartoony style that blends a thousand childhood influences from Vaughn Bode to the Clangers, to whisper a warning and offer a few potentially last-minute suggestions.

As it says on the cover this book eschews words in favour of a broad humorous parade of “dumb-show” and mime: a brave and marvellously effective technique that really pays off. And besides, as a species we’ve been talking a good fight for ages and we’re now at a stage where words simply aren’t enough any more…

The old adage has it that history is written by the winners, but in this graphic exploration on how the world got into its current state we have a sharp, incisive and universal tome produced for those of us that have always demanded a recount. Buy this book. Give copies to your friends. But most of all read, inwardly digest and just do something…

© Paul Fitzgerald 2009. All rights reserved.

Everybody is Stupid Except for Me and other Astute Observations

By Peter Bagge (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-158-9

You probably know Peter Bagge as the fiery, wise-mouthed, superbly acerbic cartoonist responsible for incredibly addictive strips about American life that featured in such wonderful magazines as Neat Stuff and Hate, the inimitable Buddy Bradley stories or even his foray into the more-or-less mainstream with DC’s Yeah!

But the graphic ridiculist has a politically active side as cartoonist and societal commentator for the Libertarian publication Reason, a task he has joyously undertaken for nearly a decade. Now a collection of his best strips (perhaps cartoon “op-ed” columns would be a better description) has been compiled by Fantagraphics and a more powerful argument for the concept of Free Speech you could not find anywhere.

In a mostly full-colour format the deliciously fluid drawings and razor-sharp polemical, questioning, highly rational and deeply intimate quandaries and observations of Bagge skewer, spotlight and generally expose the day-to-day aggravation and institutionalized insanity of modern urban life in 47 strips ranging from one to four pages in length.

Divided into War, Sex, Arts, Business, Boondoggles, Tragedy, Politics, and Our Stupid Country, Bagge uncovers and gives a damn good satirizing to such topics as Drugs policy and attitudes, organized religion, gun control, birth control and abortion, education, homelessness and even Libertarianism itself (and just in case you’re too busy to look it up, we’re talking about a philosophy not a political party – although sometimes it’s hard to tell: Libertarianism in its broadest form is simply the advocacy of Free Will and the belief in personal action and responsibility as opposed to the surrender of liberty and decision making to other – for which we usually mean Big Business and governments, not your mother…)

Challenging, iconoclastic and thought-provoking (or else what’s the point?) this is also a superbly engaging entertaining book, and Bagge is the perfect inquisitor; impassioned, deeply involved and not afraid to admit when he’s confused, angry or just plain wrong. This wonderful use of brains, heart and ink should be compulsory reading before anybody is allowed to vote or even voice an opinion (now there’s a topic for discussion…)

© 2009 Peter Bagge. This edition © 2009 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

The March to Death

The March to Death 

By John Olday (Freedom Press)
ISBN 0-900384-80-8

We tend to remember World War Two as a battle of opposites, of united fronts and ubiquitous evil, of Us and Them. It’s valuable to be reminded that even under the most calamitous conditions and clearest of threats, dissent is part of the human psyche and our most valuable birthright.

The March to Death is an unashamed political tract, a collection of anti-war cartoons and tellingly appropriate quotations first published in 1943 by Freedom Press, the Anarchist publishing organisation (from whom you can still obtain a copy should you wish – please contact the CCG for address details or do that Google thing).

Comics and cartoons are an astonishingly powerful tool for education as well as entertainment and the images rendered by German emigré John Olday (neé Arthur William Oldag) are blistering attacks on the World Order of all nations that had led humanity so inexorably to a second global conflagration in less than a generation. He drew most of the images whilst serving in the British Royal Pioneer Corps before deserting in 1943 for which he was imprisoned until 1946. The accompanying text was selected by his colleague and artistic collaborator Marie Louise Berneri, a French Anarchist thinker who moved to Britain in 1937.

The 1995 edition has a wonderfully informative foreword by Donald Rooum which paints the time and the tone for the young and less politically informed. This is a work that all serious advocates of the graphic image as more than a vehicle for bubble gum should know of and champion.

© 1943, 1995 Freedom Press.

Ex Machina: Tag

Ex Machina: Tag

By Brian K. Vaughn, Tony Harris & Tom Feister (WildStorm)
ISBN 1-84576-123-5

The second collection of memoirs starring New York City’s coolest – and most super-powered – Mayor, picks up where the first left off as the chief official continues his quest to really make a difference by tackling every issue at once, head-on, and generally by ignoring any suggestion of traditional politics.

The premise that a do-gooder would go public, eschew using his powers – in this case the ability to communicate with and command all electronics – quit flying around via his trusty jetpack, and even establish a frank and open dialogue with that arch bogie-man, the US government, is a refreshing dose of Realheroik, and the sustained mystery of the precise origin of his powers adds body to an engaging and well realised piece of fiction.

The plot this time concerns the discovery of a serial killer/monster that is lurking in the New York Subway system that seems somehow connected to The Mayor’s exotic past, but the most satisfying moments are when Mitchell Hundred applies his obdurately direct manner to the thorny issues of fund raising, gay marriage and media relations. If only more party hacks read this, maybe we’d all benefit in our daily lives.

Ex Machina is a fine example of that rarest of Hen’s Teeth, an adult comic for people who have actually grown up. You should get politicking and go spread the word.

™ & © 2005 Brian K Vaughan & Tony Harris. All Rights Reserved.

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days 

By Brian K Vaughan, Tony Harris & Tom Feister (Wildstorm/DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-025-5

It is always a genuine pleasure to see something different done with the tired cliché of the superhero in the “Real World” and this new series from Vaughan and Harris is probably the freshest and most entertaining example I’ve seen in many a year.

Mitchell Hundred is a civil engineer in New York City who accidentally gains the power to talk to electronics and machinery. Like every other right thinking post-baby boomer he decides to become a superhero, which plausibly enough results in a total fiasco. He then does the next most logical thing. Publicly abandoning his role as the Great Machine he runs for Mayor – and wins.

The real bones of this tale lie in the interplay of a capable idealist thrust into that other great machine – politics – and how a life already cursed with mysteries aplenty has to deal with the day to day job of making a difference in the most chaotic and charismatic city on earth.

This collection of the first five issues is charming and thrilling by turns, with plenty of West Wing/Spin City brand humour, an engaging cast of characters and even lots of bang and boom thrills all lavishly captured by the superb art and design skills of Tony Harris (who won so much acclaim with Starman). We have an absolute gem here, something which is actually worth making into a movie.

© 2005 Brian K Vaughan & Tony Harris. All rights reserved.

The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming

The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming 

By Frank Stack

(Fantagraphics Books)  ISBN 1-56097-780-9

One of the earliest exponents of the US counter-culture, at least in terms of his contributions to Underground Comix, Frank (Foolbert Sturgeon) Stack has sadly missed out on the benefits of fame and notoriety of such contemporaries as Gilbert Shelton and Robert Crumb.

He may well be the perpetrator of the first ever underground (a split decision with the late Jack Jackson, both of whom released work in 1964 – although a collection of stack’s doodles was compiled and Xeroxed by Shelton in 1962-3 as “The Adventures of Jesus”) but I’m sure he’s not that bothered. What is important is that these throwaway scribbles by all these weirdo drop-out freaks changed the nature of comics and did a huge amount to reshape the society they came from.

Stack’s weapon of choice was Jesus Christ, whom he made the star of an occasional series of strips satirising America which appeared between 1964 and (since there’s new material in this collection) the present day.

A lot of the bite may seem dissipated by time, but that simply shows how effective and successful they were – and actually still are. Many people have pondered on what the Messiah would do if he came back today, but no-one else could deliver the gentle, telling punches of The Dog Messiah, Jesus Meets the Armed Services (released at the height of the Vietnam War), Jesus Joins the Academic Community or Jesus on Ice, and, as the brand new Jesus Meets Intellectual Property Rights shows, there’s room — and still a need for — Stack’s style of commentary.

This collection is extensive, informative (as well as a commentary from Stack, there are pieces from both Crumb and Shelton) but above all, fun to read. You might not get Saved but you will get your money’s worth in entertainment.

Text & art © 2006 Frank Stack. All Rights Reserved.
This edition © 2006 Fantagraphics Books.