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October 14, 2007


Review Party: Emptying The Big Basket

CR receives about two to three comics a day. That doesn't sound like much, but it sure adds up. We run about 200-250 formal reviews in a calendar year, which means the vast majority of comics received don't get reviewed.

imageIt's not about quality; it's about my ability to engage the work in question. Some of the comics we get are so instantly compelling from my viewpoint that they trigger an idea of how to approach them and move straight into the small pile of soon-to-review books. With another large group of books it's immediately obvious they're not going to be reviewed because I have no reaction to them. This includes most stand-alone series installments, or books that have a direct relation to another book recently reviewed. Those go directly into the library after being read.

The rest of the books, for which there's a glimmer of interest, go into a large basket under my desk. This basket is pulled out once a week and rooted through looking for items that spark the more direct kind of regard and focus that makes writing about them possible. When the basket is full, its contents are dispersed into the shelves and I feel sad all day.

The basket is full this morning, and since I'm feeling extra guilty about not getting to so many of its denizens this time around, I thought I'd spend an extra work day writing as many short reviews as I can. It may be in fits and starts, and it may flow, but at least the effort will be made.

I greatly appreciate everyone who sends work in; it all gets read, and it's all useful to me in covering and understanding the field and your place in it. I hope that the following is more useful to you than no response at all.

This post will be refreshed five reviews at a time, and I will end the day with the book depicted above, The Astounding Wolf-Man #3.

*****

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Title: Pretending You Care: The Retail Employee Handbook
Creator: Norm Feuti
Publishing Information: Hyperion, soft cover, 300 pages, 2007, $16.95
Ordering Numbers: 9781401308902 (ISBN13), 1401308902 (ISBN10)

I was surprised by how much I liked this prose/comics hybrid, basically a disquisition on the backstage world of retail illustrated with a ton of comics from author Norm Feuti's strip Retail. It's a gimmick book, the kind of thing that fills up the humor section of a store, and while I don't think it's a transcendent one that demands reading and rewards those who aren't interested in a standard American humor book on retail, it's also not tossed off in any way most of these things are -- it's stuffed with gag material and comics to an almost surprising degree. Another way to look at the book would as an exploration of a cartoonist and his subject matter. I wasn't familiar with the strip. It's smartly drawn, and Feuti has carved out some really interesting territory in terms of providing conflict and funny within the strip and depicting characters that those of who are shoppers hate because they're not helpful. The typographic lettering is a really distracting element, though; every time I read one of the strips I think I'm reading someone's mash-up rather than Feuti's intended dialog.

*****

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Title: Brawl #1
Creators: Dean Haspiel, Michel Fiffe
Publishing Information: Image Comics, comic book, 32 pages, October 2007, $2.99
Ordering Numbers:

Sometimes I think Dean Haspiel suffers more than most cartoonists by the loss of the one-cartoonist "solo anthology" that dominated the stands in the early '90s. It might be easier if exposed to his work on a regular basis to pick out a progression in cartooning skill, or subtle differences between stories. As it is, this shared book covering what I think is previously on-line material reads as a summary statement or even another shot at certain themes and story ideas more than it does the latest statement in an ongoing dialog between cartoonist and reader. The second feature, by Michel Fiffe, wasn't as memorable, and my initial impression is that the cartoonist may be several dozen pages from the kind of craft development necessary to achieve the visual effects he's going for rather than suggesting them.

*****

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Title: Michael Allred's Madman Volume 1
Creators: Michael Allred
Publishing Information: Image Comics, soft cover, 294 pages, October 2007, $24.99
Ordering Numbers: 9781582408101 (ISBN13)

Michale Allred's Madman never really worked for me, never really cohered, which makes me more suspicious than usual that I react more to this early material than the later stuff. It's a pet peeve of mine. In most cases, I think people react to early material because like kids picking at their food they don't care about anything but a sweet, juicy new take on things; the execution not only doesn't matter; it doesn't register. But here the basic concept of the series was thin enough and the act of world-building that followed so sparsely done that it seems to function more effectively in its initial, limited scope than it did in any of the permutations that followed. Plus I liked the not full-color art. In other words, I'm saying you might not want to trust me on this one.

*****

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Title: Nick Mag Presents Avatar The Last Airbender Enter: The Fire Nation
Creators: Various
Publishing Information: Nickelodeon, magazine, 52 pages, 2007, $4.99
Ordering Numbers:

I would have been all over something like this as a kid, although I grew up in a moment when they not only didn't have slick magazines devoted to comics and features about adventure cartoons, they didn't really have current adventure cartoons. As a supplement to some fan's experience, I would imagine this is necessary; as a stand-alone reading experience for a newbie it's more like walking through a birthday party where the only person you know is a friend of a friend. For most of us, that would be the Brian Ralph two-pager, a glorious single-tone romp in side-character nonsense that retains much of the cartoonist's personality. I wonder if the kids hated that one.

*****

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Title: Killing Girl #2
Creators: Glen Brunswick, Frank Espinoza
Publishing Information: Image Comics, comic book, 32 pages, October 2007, $2.99
Ordering Numbers:

I have no idea if artist Frank Espinoza's art is suited to anything resembling a straight-ahead genre piece of the guns and plots variety, or really any genres that's popular in comics right now, although I'm sure there's someone out there that's noodled on the idea of sending him after DC's Thriller property. This trapped in amber early-'80s crime soap opera ended up a rough fit his talents, particularly the level of exposition in which this installment trades. Espinoza is good enough and different enough right now that I'm sure many people will buy this comic just to have another Frank Espinoza comic, and there are scenes that will reward them, like a flashback kidnapping where some of the figures are barely hinted at while others shove themselves forward and leer like outsider art. It's also possible that he could further develop into one of those cartoonists that sends even more people scrambling into the past for various oddball roads barely taken, like this one.

*****

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Title: Brit #2
Creators: Bruce Brown, Cliff Rathburn, Andy Kuhn, Rus Wooton, Robert Kirkman
Publishing Information: Image Comics, comic book, 24 pages, September 2007, $2.99
Ordering Numbers:

I am almost certain without asking that this comic book adventure series exists largely because it's a character created by Image Comics anchor Robert Kirkman. Unfortunately, while it share an amusing concept with Kirkman's other works, the setting and milieu and characters are so much thinner and less rewarding what's found in books like Walking Dead and universe-sharer Invincible. I think it's mostly tone, in that Brit parodies tough guy comics of the wisecracking angry accented various, as well as the range of sources for that kind of book, by making its character cartoon invincible and his life kind of puffed up with cockeyed amusement. It kind of reminds me of the TV legend that they wanted to do a pilot with the Colonel Flagg character from MASH. It would have been so hard to ground that character into a series of his own. From this issue, and the introduction of a sister character when there's so much work to be done at home and on the job, I think it's turning out that way for Brit.

*****

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Title: Nog A Dod
Creators: Various
Publishing Information: Conundrum Press, soft cover, 224 pages, 2006, $25
Ordering Numbers: 1894994167 (ISBN10)

I can't believe I never got to this one. This is a terrific art book, a selection of material edited by Marc Bell that originally found purchase in various Canadian mini-comics for a ten-year period beginning in the mid-'90s. It's what my college professor would call outsider art: mad doodles and complex drawings and melting, crazy portraits and tableaux. Bell kind of weaves back and forth through several pieces, but as less a unifying force than a sanity throughline, a familiar element to keep you from falling off the deep end. It's also well-produced, a very sturdy, smaller and effectively printed book. A lot of fun, and limited only by the scope of the project's defining characteristics. If you know what you're in for, it shouldn't disappoint.

*****

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Title: My Life In A Jugular Vein
Creator: Ben Snakepit
Publishing Information: Microcosm Publishing, soft cover, 288 pages with CD, 2007, $15
Ordering Numbers: 097886655X

A collection of diary comics from an Austin-based musician-cartoonist, this worked better for me as a peek into the ebb and flow of a young artist's life, and what the author thought was important to report, than it did as comics on really any level. Unlike the work of, say, James Kochalka, the individual strips don't have the skewed viewpoint that fends off the specter of banality. I also had a hard time tracking relationships and even, a few times, figuring out where the hell the author was and exactly what it was they were doing. In that sense, it really is like reading someone's diary. Unless you were one of the people involved, or your lifestyle is really close to this, I'm not sure it yields enough insight or enough reading pleasure to want to stay the course through the book's entire run of work. I really wanted to like this book more than I did. To its credit, with a CD glued to the inside back cover and literally stuffed with comics, it's a nice package and price point.

*****

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Title: Alter Ego #28
Creators: Joe Maneely, Lee Ames, Michael J. Vassallo, Roy Thomas, Nancy Maneely, Stan Lee, Jim Amash, Bill Schelly, Michael T. Gilbert
Publishing Information: TwoMorrows, magazine, 104 pages, September 2004, $5.95
Ordering Numbers:

I thought I'd reviewed this somewhere, but since it's in the basket let me say a few words. I enjoy and appreciate the wave of historical industry magazines that's developed over the last few years, of which Jack Kirby Collector is probably the father and Alter Ego is the cool uncle returned into the family's sphere. This issue examines the great Timely/Marvel/Atlas artist Joe Maneely, the great collaborator of Stan Lee whose passing at a young age makes a lot of historians wonder what might have been had he been around when Martin Goodman began pushing for that 1960s reinvigoration of his comics line, with Fawcett artist Lee Ames as a back-up. While the approach and viewpoint to and regarding the older comic book material may differ from my own in significant ways, and sometimes such magazines feel like a cold meats tray of assembled foodstuffs rather than a hearty meal, and there's always a risk of the joy the writer has for the material pushing itself onto stage to the detriment of the various pieces, but having this material collected is a huge boon. This issue has most of my favorite writers about this kind of comics, too: Thomas, Amash, Schelly and Vassallo -- the Joe Maneely of comics historians.

*****

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Title: Incredible Comics With Tom Nguyen
Creators: Tom Nguyen
Publishing Information: Impact, soft cover, 128 pages, 2007, $19.99.
Ordering Numbers: 9781581809466 (ISBN13), 1581809468 (ISBN10)

Other than the fact that from the photos included it's clear that author-artist Tom Nguyen could put his brushes down and beat the crap out of me if he wanted to, I'm not quite sure why this book was singled out for potential review. There's a line of thinking I have about art instruction books -- their sole standard is pretty much how they help out aspiring artists, and no matter how much you may think it's not possible, every art instruction book likely helps someone out there with their art, frequently people you'd never suspect. The only angle you can really take is to look at the vision of comics suggested by the book, which if it's a limited one could not only restrict its appeal but project an image of comics that isn't accurate through omission. In that I think the book suffers a bit. I probably don't need to tell you this based on the above cover imagery, but this is clearly a book rooted in the ethos of mainstream comics, moreover the values of mainstream comics as slightly wacky, energetic showcases for mostly-idealized figure drawing: lots of references to babes, lots of super-muscular dudes. Take that for what you will.

*****

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Title: Random Journeys #3
Creator: Rob Jackson
Publishing Information: self-published, mini-comic, 20 pages, no date of creation given, no price given
Ordering Numbers:

This is way too poorly drawn for most people to stomach reading it as anything more than a novelty; there's no ameliorative quality to the art that gets you a reasonable distance from that first take, either. Still, there's a nice, idiosyncratic bounce to the story and Jackson purses a humor based as much on character as it on situation that's all too rare in any medium these days. I also admire an artist whose limitations don't stop him from drawing as if he had major chops -- the story isn't reduced or stylized to protect the artist, as is the case with a lot of comics of this type. I'm not sure I want to read another panel, but I'll remember the name.

*****

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Title: Project: Romantic
Creators: Various
Publishing Information: AdHouse Books, softcover, 256 pages, October 2006, $19.95
Ordering Numbers: 0977030423 (ISBN10)

My copy's cover cracked into something that looks like infection working its way up pale, pink skin towards an imaginary heart, and I tend to get tired reading so many comics stuff into an anthology formatted like this one. I also think that books that engage a single them from a variety of cartoonist viewpoints -- Dirty Stories springs to mind -- suffer greatly because of too much leeway given the artist in interpreting the basic take towards the idea. Still, there's a lot of good work in here, including comics from Robert Goodin, Joel Priddy, and Hope Larson, and some artists we don't get to see too frequently, like Kelly Alder and Michael Cho. So while I'm not sure it works so well as a themed whole, it's a nice showcase for a lot of artists. How much published full-color Tom Hart comics are there? Not enough.

*****

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Title: Discovered: Sequential Art Anthology 2007
Creators: Various
Publishing Information: The Savannah College of Art and Design, soft cover, 224 pages, 2007, none given
Ordering Numbers:

A showcase for students at one of the few art schools in North America with an established, recognized and functioning comics track, it's probably due to my own dim reading abilities that the major insight I got from the book was on the cover. A lovely piece of art somewhere between Craig Thompson and Joann Sfar in terms of sensibility, it reminds that the next generation of cartoonists may not be defined by manga as much as an easy, catholic appreciation for any visual school on which they can lay their hands, including outsider art of all varieties and children's storybooks. The insides were kind of a disappointment. Usually it's difficult to project the artist a cartoonist will become, but a lot of this work seems more fully realized and stunted than it does in development and falling short. A couple of artists such as Kevin Burkhalter, have easy storytelling chops that should serve them well, while two or three others like Megan Gullatto, have developed their craft chops in a way that could mean work from the expanded New York book and book series publishing scene. Let me put it this way, I might want to look at the work being made by a half-dozen of these cartoonists a half-dozen years from now, but I'll probably be opening this book fewer than six times over the course of my life.

*****

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Title: Monster Spotter's Guide to North America
Creators: Scott Francis, Ben Patrick
Publishing Information: FW, soft cover, 256 pages, 2007, $14.99
Ordering Numbers: 9781581809299 (ISBN13)

What John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band are to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, so is Monster Spotter's Guide to North America to Jacob Covey's similarly-focused Beasts!. This is essentially a novelty book, shaped like a tourism guide, that instead of letting you know where to find a good hot dog in Seattle tells you that Ohio's Bigfootish "Orange Eyes" stands 11 feet tall. The drawings are serviceable rather than inspiring, while the text is dry enough to crumble as you move your eyes across the page.

*****

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Title: Wonderfool World
Creators: David Sandlin
Publishing Information: Butler Gallery, soft cover, 158 pages, 2006, $24.95
Ordering Numbers: 0954863526 (ISBN10), 9780954863524 (ISBN13)

This is a beautiful art book done in conjunction with a Fall 2006 art show by David Sandlin, a Blab! veteran and painter receiving renewed attention of comics fans through his recent publishing ventures such as The Avengelist and An Alphabetical Ballad of Carnality. This is a gorgeous-looking that's hard to maneuver into because of the fold-outs and sturdy paper. Sandlin provides some sort of mad cross between Michael Dougan's early work and the Joe Coleman/Robert Williams/Tony Fitzpatrick thing of heightened, scary reality and luminous visuals. This book not only showcases that approach but provides better than usual context through an interview with Dan Nadel. If this kind of art interests you at all, you need this book.

*****

Brunch Break!

*****

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Title: Ed's Terrestrials
Creators: Scott Christian Sava, Diego Jourdan
Publishing Information: Alias, hardcover, 88 pages, 2006, $19.99
Ordering Numbers: 9780978916817 (ISBN13), 0978916816 (ISBN10)

This is a pretty straight-forward kids' story in comics form presented in kids' book format. The book's details fairly flutter away the moment I shut the book, so I'm not sure how much help I can be there. It's basically one of those normal kids meets wacky aliens shorts. For instance, the aliens are fugitives on earth, but fugitives from an intergalactic mall rather than being something scary. It's not original enough for me to think this would be a lot of kids' favorite books, but I doubt anyone of them would rip it in half for extra art paper. The level of execution outstrips some of the blander choices in terms of stylization and characters, but I really can't recommend this.

*****

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Title: Monster Island Three
Creators: Various
Publishing Information: Conundrum Press, soft cover, 144 pages, 2007, $15
Ordering Numbers: 9781894994279 (ISBN13)

Billy Mavreas' transmogrified 'zine about the junkier edges of mostly comics culture feels like a perfect book except that it lacks the kind of undeniably great feature that might anchor the whole affair. My favorites were comics by Rick Trembles and Bernie Mireault, and a decent generalist history of Captain Victory, but I imagine most people will focus on a strong illustration suite. I've had fun reading through the book, but I was never in a hurry to do so.

*****

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Title: Fade From Grace
Creators: Gabriel Benson, Jeff Amano
Publishing Information: Image Comics, soft cover, 135 pages, 2005, $14.99
Ordering Numbers: 1582405271 (ISBN10)

This book certainly looks different than 99 percent of what's on the stands, but its combination of romance and superhero story tropes ends up being less than the sum of its parts. My hunch is that's because that story doesn't really match the strengths of the genres as much it counts on one story type accommodating the other, and vice versa. It's an almost perfect example of the kind of comic that might blow someone away who's immersed in one or the other to the extent that those values become their own, and clunks around wildly for the rest of us. As a superhero comic book, it doesn't veer enough widely from conventional approaches to sustain interest; as a romance, it doesn't bring any new ideas to the table. Dressing an idea up in a superhero outfit doesn't make it new.

*****

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Title: Flytrap, Episode 2
Creators: Sara Ryan, Ron Chan
Publishing Information: Cold Water Press, mini-comic, 12 pages, 2007, $2
Ordering Numbers:

Sara Ryan's comics are always clever, and this one is smartly and attractively drawn, but her high concepts as executed tend to strike me more as artificial than lively. Such is the case with this installment in a series about the fantasy of running away to join the circus, although it's fairly adorable.

*****

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Title: Dorothy #7
Creators: Catie Fisher, Mark Masterson, Ray Boersig, Greg Mannino
Publishing Information: Illusive Arts, comic book, 28 pages, February 2007, $5
Ordering Numbers:

This is a mix of full-color photo-comics and illustration in service of a modern re-telling of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz. Many people will find the Dorothy attractive and the designs effective; I was too distracted trying not to keep my eyeballs from ripping out of my head due to the garish class of sensibilities on display. And yet despite lines like "Toto, you bastard" it doesn't quite careen over into the fun kind of bad, either. I imagine there are people for whom this is the coolest thing, but to me it's way too much of aesthetic affront for me to keep my eyes on it long enough to make a judicious appraisal.

*****

Chicago Bears making rare New Mexico television appearance break

*****

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Title: Savage Dragon #132
Creators: Erick Larsen, John Workman, Frank Fosco
Publishing Information: Image Comics, comic book, 80 pages, October 2007, $6.99
Ordering Numbers:

Erik Larsen makes strange comic books where the design elements for The Thing became just as important to superhero stories as his basic character type and where the success of the 1990s was enjoyed by the comics of 1974, locking their matter-of-fact, serious take on shared universes into place with all the rigor of today's crossovers and weirdly sexualized, shiny costumes. They're sort of fun to read, as is this book's middle section about the activities in and around a super-person stuff diner, but it never coalesces into an effect beyond a kind of loving tributes to comics that once were and what they never became.

*****

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Title: The Vagabonds #2
Creators: Josh Neufeld, The Beatles, Joyce Brabner, The Civilians, Gerry Conway, Nick Flynn, David Greenberger, Eileen Myles, Harvey Pekar, Andrew Rashkow, Martha Rosler, Peter Ross, R. Walker
Publishing Information: Alternative Comics, comic book, 32 pages,
Ordering Numbers: 9781891867170 (ISBN13), 1891867172 (ISBN10)

I was glad to hear that Josh Neufeld was working on a story about New Orleans before and after Hurricane Katrina because it occurred to me that it might just take that big an event to take him all the way outside his natural self-awareness. Neufeld's a super-bright, super-nice cartoonist with all of the skills necessary to make regularly compelling comics. And yet the vast majority of his work has a strange, stifled element to it, like the pages or the approach were either just over thought (as in this comic's "Father Outside") or under thought (as in an extremely pedestrian adaptation of Typhoid Mary's story, with writer Joyce Brabner). You always get the sense that Neufeld's in control of the story, even if he were to say, "I'm not in control of this story." The Vagabonds #2 has that feeling maybe more than any comics I've read in five years.

*****

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Title: The Art Of Luca Tieri
Creator: Luca Tieri
Publishing Information: The Department of Art and Power, soft cover, 48 pages, December 2006, $10.99
Ordering Numbers:

I love the idea of someone doing full-color sketchbooks of artists in a series. I was a little underwhelmed by this book of mostly music-related illustrations. It's well-drawn, it's lively, and the colors are a lot of fun, but the work itself doesn't feel like anything one hasn't seen a hundred times before. This is also more of an art book with sketch elements, which doesn't come together as well as you might think. For the price point involved, I can't imagine casual fans picking this up, and at 48 pages of mostly high-profile material I can't imagine devoted fans not waiting for larger reproductions somewhere. A permanent place stuck between the idea for disposable art and permanent art of high regard doesn't really do anyone any favors.

*****

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Title: Put The Book Back On The Shelf: A Belle and Sebastian Anthology
Creators: Various
Publishing Information: Image Comics, soft cover, 192 pages, 2006, $19.99
Ordering Numbers: 1582406006 (ISBN10)

I think I'd have to be a pretty dedicated fan of Belle and Sebastian to truly figure out if this book works for its intended audience, and even then I could be wrong. I know that it didn't work for me, as the lack of any shaping of the book beyond its announced subject really keeps this volume from being something more than a collection of short stories of varying skill, for most of us, anyway. That said, I like several of the individual short stories just fine, particularly the narrative daring shown in Steven Griffin's "If You Find Yourself Caught In Love" and in Jacob Magraw's "Fox in the Snow."

*****

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Title: A Last Cry For Help
Creator: Dave Kiersh
Publishing Information: Bodega,
Ordering Numbers: 0977767906 (ISBN10)

Dave K's pretty, half-way earnest and slightly filthy treatments of classic teen-aged stories of longing and woe have become pretty conceptually perfect at this point. They're really pleasing to the eye, they're funny, and Kiersh knows how to play off the super-serious aspects of the emotional turmoil in which his characters traffic with the eye-rolling headaches and stifled laughter they cause looking from the outside in. It's also a pretty damn thin layer of soil for an artist of his obvious skill to plant his flag.

*****

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Title: Herman Belquest
Creator: Robert H. Stevenson
Publishing Information: Shortpants Press, mini-comics, 40 pages, 2007, no price provided
Ordering Numbers:

This is the weakest offering I've yet read from the Midwestern comics collective-plus Shortpants Press. A mostly wordless, panel-less everyman fable, Herman Belquest embraces all the cliches of its sub-genre, with frequent side trips into almost incoherent symbolism. I don't even like the formatting, which tends to work against what might be a slow, narrative build if the constructions of the pages went differently, or the character design, which are inelegant and just not very interesting. What's odd is that I like a couple of the pages, like one where our lead, now in a sort of strait-jacket, dreams of birds and dark clouds. I don't think this stands alone very well at all; at best it seems like a two- or three-page story. If it leads to stories that build on the kind of art in its best three or four pages, I'm happy to forget about it.

*****

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Title: Tony Loco #1-2
Creators: Mark Teague, Derek McCaw, Mitchell L. Peterson
Publishing Information: Illusive Arts, 28 pages, December 2006 & February 2007, $3.50
Ordering Numbers:

This work has a few qualities that distinguish it from a lot of smaller press comics working some corner of the heroic fantasy-adventure genre. The mental patient protagonist's filter of reality as a series of mostly frightening, South American symbol-laden figure has a nice, jarring effect. I like the slow build, the fact that we don't really leave the mental institution for at least these first 40-plus pages, and the idea of a hero that has to solve his own problems before taking care of others seems like a fruitful twist on the Marvel formula. That being said, these are unique frills on a pretty well-traveled vehicle, and both the drawing (in terms of backgrounds being dropped and exaggerated character design) and the writing proved to be really broadly aimed. There's not a lot of detail, not much in the way of a twist or idiosyncratic moment to keep the reader's interest if the main, fable-like story fades away.

*****

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Title: Hairbutt the Hippo Funnies
Creators: Jason Paulos, Bodine Amerikah
Publishing Information: Rat Race Comics, soft cover, 100 pages,
Ordering Numbers:

This is old-fashioned humor magazine humor, so I wasn't surprised to read that some of what's in Hairbutt the Hippon Funnies made an appearance in Australia's MAD. Basically how these stories work is by marching the anthropomorphic lead through various scenarios, it kicks it enough out of reality to function as a funhouse mirror to certain foibles and practices, but also exaggerates the whole thing so that there's a kind of zaniness to the proceedings. Hairbutt doesn't really stay tethered long enough for it to really function as satire except in the broadest sense, and the authors have a nice sense of balance when it comes to extending their stories -- they don't crash and burn, and pretty much retain their level of humor throughout. Solid, workmanlike stuff, which is ironic in that it's the kind of material that you never think of anyone collecting.

*****

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Title: Feeble Attempts
Creator: Jeffrey Brown
Publishing Information: Top Shelf, comic book, 48 pages, Spring 2007, $5
Ordering Numbers:

This is one of my favorite Jeffrey Brown efforts in that it's kind of a Jeffrey Brown sampler: it contains within its brief page count some of the relationship-obsessive comics for which Brown became well known, it has some of the straighter autobiographical works, some of the funnier takes on personal-story driven comics, some of the broader fantasy stuff, and a range of the humor material. It's basically a compendium of magazine work. The strongest stuff here is the humor ("My Jesus is an Awesome Jesus"), and the straight-ahead autobio. I'm particularly fond of a story called "Little Events" and the effect Brown gets through the way he presents events both ordinary and extraordinary in the the comics equivalent of a quiet monotone, leaving the reader scrambling to determine what he means and indicating some disdain towards what for many other might be overwhelmingly important circumstances. You don't see that effect very often.

*****

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Title: Connect the Polka Dots
Creator: Bill Griffith
Publishing Information: Fantagraphics, soft cover, 144 pages, November 2006, $18.95
Ordering Numbers: 978156097663 (ISBN13), 1560977779 (ISBN10)

Every so often you'll hear someone say out loud that Fantagraphics' dedication to preserving large swathes of comics work and keep it in print, but it's usually in terms of their comic book cadre, or Robert Crumb, or even Charles Schulz. The work they've done with Bill Griffith, however, is probably the kind of thing that only that publisher could do. Zippy the Pinhead has to be the oddest strip to see publication in the last 35 years, even if you don't appreciate the consistently high level of the art or the tone Griffith goes for in his unrelenting kidney punching of America's decades-long dedication to making itself less beautiful, extraordinary, interesting and relevant. The title comes from the best section, "Dinerama," which features a series of one of a kind discussions or even declarative mini-monologues, all within the fading structure of a architectural element no one want to see go.

*****

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Title: Nicknames
Creators: Steven Stwalley
Publishing Information: Self-Published, mini-comic, 20 pages, 2004
Ordering Numbers:

Nicknames is comprised a modest series of head shot drawings, the figures in which tend to be making some sort of summary statement, while text at the bottom of each portrait reveals their nicknames. Stwalley works in a lot of humor both in those depictions and builds towards more complicated relationships between visual and nickname, like the sour-faced girl proclaiming "Everyone looks at my tits" whose nickname we find out is Cindi "Big Ass" Le Grass. Is it supposed to be funny because she's clueless as to what part of her body is an item of mockery, or is it pointing out that "Big Ass Le Grass" is the kind of nickname you get when the rhyme is funny no matter what else might be notable about you. I prefer which answer is sillier. A nice, modest, tiny book, the kind of throwaway project that makes sense that way.

*****

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Title: The Three Bad Ones
Creators: Eleanor Davis
Publishing Information: Self-Published, mini-comic, one page, 2004
Ordering Numbers:

This is a micro-mini three years old now which is sold in a bundle with another mini-comic, Drew Weing's The Vault. This mini, which is scrolled out onto a single piece of paper, describes three trollish brother who seek the perfect woman. Like man of Davis' drawing, there's a great deal of humor, including the design of the brothers, the horrible things they do to failed candidates, their idea of a perfect woman, and their wailing when they think themselves in something akin to the same position as they were in before. Davis ends on an unexpected, subtle grace note, the kind of pitch-perfect creative choice we've come to expect from Davis as she becomes one of the more interesting emerging cartoonists of this decade.

*****

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Title: Wide Awake 666
Creators: Various
Publishing Information: 3 Boys Production/Wide Awake Press, soft cover, 112 pages, 2006, 9.95
Ordering Numbers:

This is an odd anthology in that it's one of the rare forms of the newer breed that I think works better as a summary statement on its intended subject more than it does as a collection of good comics. That doesn't mean there isn't quality comics work in here. I really liked a J. Chris Campbell piece called "Uncle Jabby," and the look of illustrations by Josh Cotter and Eleanor Davis. But a lot of the other pieces are kind of brusque; while they might not stand alone, if you mix in generally strong text work with a couple of novelties like a comic where the visuals are photos of monster-head keychains, and you have a nice little book about the continuing fascination many have with classic horror elements and creepy things in general.

*****

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Title: Seafood
Creator: Josh Frankel
Publishing Information: Self-Published, mini-comic, 44 pages, 2004, $4
Ordering Numbers:

Another one of Josh Frankel's nature narratives, Seafood follows a Yellowfin Tuna through several instances of feeding until the point it's hooked, bonked on the head, and begins its journey into being stuffed into a can so someone can make a casserole out of it. Frankel's comics are entertaining in that they capture a kind of natural movement in terms of its story elements without seeming to place some sort of template on top of actions in a way they don't deserve. This story in particular has an obvious theme of this fish as a predator near the top of one food chain and on the near-bottom of another. The comic event ends with notes and a couple of pages where Frankel explains himself, and spotlights some related issues he'd like you to know about. They should hire him to do all the pro-animal materials from now on.

*****

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Title: Anhedonia
Creator: Rusty Jordan
Publishing Information: Tender Loving Empire, mini-comic, 32 pages, $5
Ordering Numbers:

This is an art book, essentially, by the Portland-based gallery and sometimes publisher Tender Loving Empire. Jordan favors a lot of thin lines and a pretty standard critique of what he sees around him that concentrates on grotesques and the generally unattractive. I like his lettering more than the drawings, I think, or at least I can't see anything special in the work as it's presented here.

*****

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Title: Nobody Can Eat 50 Eggs #30
Creator: S. Steiner
Publishing Information: Self-Published, mini-comic, 24 pages,
Ordering Numbers:

I have to assume that some recent movie re-purposed the old Cool Hand Luke line that is the title of this 'zine, because I can't imagine any younger kids today going back to get their healthy dose of Paul Newman and George Kennedy. Although I suppose it wouldn't be as big a surprise as the comics in this 'zine, which are energetically drawn humor strips of the Al Feldstein, pulled off with a promising level of panache. There's a lot of JR Williams by the way of John Kerschbaum, but which I mean a kind of broad sense of gag sketch comedy interspersed with some energetic, almost visceral stabs at the visual component. I have a suspicion that the cartoonist is very young, which might even count as exciting if there's still a lot of natural development to come. My favorites were "Art is Cruel," where a struggling artist known as "the famous art-eest" shits all over talented kids due to the poisons and frustrations floating around his sytem, and "attention deficit monkey" which I thought was a pretty good gag.

*****

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Title: My Crow Comics #1
Creator: Dan W. Taylor
Publishing Information: Weird Muse Productions, mini-comic, 4 pages, 50 cents
Ordering Numbers:

At four pages, you should be happy to receive a poem about a ghost shrimp and a couple of sight gags. The art here is pretty slick, and there's none of the usual clumsiness when it comes to placing text over drawings. Still, there's nothing here I'd go out of my way to see, even though I am quite fond of a small silhouette of a man flushing a toilet.

*****

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Title: The Backwards Folding Mirror #1
Creator: Jesse Moynihan
Publishing Information: Nonlocal Books, comic book, 24 pages, 2005, $2.50
Ordering Numbers:

I didn't think I wanted to know what a comic would have looked like if John Hankiewicz and Greg Stump had moved to Providence in the mid-1990s, hung out with the Fort Thunder gang, and did some work together, but I rather enjoyed this mix of oddball deadpan humor, dream comics and out-there design. In fact, this entire exercise was made worthwhile by my finding out about a second issue. It's not like this kind of humor is rare these days -- absurd overreaction and straight-faced ridiculousness isn't on the decline in certain realms of comics. Still, it's always nice to have one more place to go; I'll be watching this one.

*****

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Title: Eight Way Bandits #1
Creators: Vincent Van Hustle, Stevie Street Hustle, Federico Zumel, Jeffrey LaJaunie, Bob McLeod
Publishing Information: The Hustle Brothers, comic book, 24 pages, April 2006, $3.50.
Ordering Numbers:

I didn't think that comics like this existed anymore, although you have to on some level appreciate the enthusiasm with which the creators plunge into their indy-comic-circa-1992 milieu of rudimentary crime comic pumped up with Kung Fu and cybernetics. It was hard for me to keep track of what the heck was going on, I felt like I was fast-forwarding through some 1980s cable movie looking for the naughty parts, except here the panels that make you stop and stare are the ones involving ultra-violence.

*****

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Title: The Good Spot
Creator: Tommy Reeves
Publishing Information: Self-Published, mini-comic, 32 pages, 2002, $2.25
Ordering Numbers:

I love the bleakness of Tommy Reeves' story about a homeless man who works his way towards the "good spot" where the begging is at its best by killing off various homeless people in line for the spot. Reeves could use a lot of work in terms of art; a lot of his figures were roughly drawn and the buildings looked less like actual structures or their suggestion and more like drawn environments. To his credit, the cartoonist employs variations in page structure panel placement and seems to give some thought to how certain visuals communicate the passage of time. Still, there's a long way to go, from the only-on-TV elements of lottery ticket ending to a greater sense of continuity between depictions of various individuals.

*****

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Title: Out of Water
Creator: Matthew Bernier
Publishing Information: Self-Published, mini-comic, 44 pages, 2005
Ordering Numbers:

One of the longer and more attractive major mini-comics of the last few years, Out of Water claims to be an adaptation of the Greek myth, "The Boy and the Dolphin" -- not one with which I'm personally familiar, but the story itself indicates that kind of lineage or at least an affection for stories of that type. The narrative is fairly: boy has friendship with dolphin, dolphin saves boy, dolphin worries about boy and makes sacrifice in order to renew their friendship. For a mini-comic it's very visually assured: the pictures are attractive, the design on the boy doesn't drive me crazy but he functions well within the comic and the other designs are lovely, there are some visual asides worthy of Dan Zettwoch where we see how the dolphin perceives the boy and how a predator is injured by the dolphin later on. It's just sort of an attractively done comic, nothing that would make you want to stalk Bernier, but definitely something where you want to see the big-book debut. Even the lettering is carefully placed and lovingly executed. It's amazing that this almost two years old; I assume we're going to see something impressive from the cartoonist soon.

*****

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Title: How To Date A Girl in 10 Days (Or So)
Creator: Tom Humberstone
Publishing Information: Self-Published, comic book, 16 pages, March 2007
Ordering Numbers:

I think there's some promise in Tom Humberstone's abilities as put on display in these giveaway-looking comics about relationship troubles among and the general anxieties shared by a group of friends in their 20s. It has a nice, laconic pace, and the dialog is understated. The visuals show no such restraint and wildly careen between series of funny faces to suggest a progression in dialog to really over the top single-picture events -- two of the characters even stop to point out the use of leaves to suggest the passing of time. Humberstone would have to be a thrower of ink on the level of Jaime Hernandez to make us keep coughing done such sumptuous, overloaded pages, and he's not. Still, I have sympathy for any writer who wants to write about those years but wants to do so through incidental detail rather than a break-up, a funeral or a murder.

*****

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Title: Schmapples
Creator: Eric Lappegard
Publishing Information: The International Cartoonist Conspiracy, webcomic, 52 pages printed out, 2007.
Ordering Numbers:

Eric Lappegard was a well-liked cartoonist who died this past summer well before his time. He spent the last seven months of his life working on an autobiographical comic strip. On the surface, a lot of it is terrible rough, just not well-crafted enough to communicate things clearly and to emphasize certain effects while reading the strip based on the way the art or the dialog is put on the page. Yet there are elements that held promise: a Sam Hurt-like tendency to fold fantasy elements into the strip without blinking, and a real knack for capturing his own likable everyman tendencies on the page -- not the easiest thing in the world to do. In a perfect world, this would have been a page of material showing up in a Comics Journal interview some ten years from now, but in ours it's a way to spend some time in the company of someone who was very much liked.

*****

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Title: Their Condolences
Creators: Eve Englezos, Josh Moutray
Publishing Information: Icecreamlandia, mini-comic, 8 pages, 2007
Ordering Numbers:

I'm not sure how Eve Englezos and Josh Moutray work on their comics, but what it usually entails once completed is a series of nicely drawn pictures in portraiture form making some sort of bizarre or ironic or incongruous statement. This is one of their better offerings, if only because the portraits tend to draw a little bit more in the way of weird from the creators. On the negative side, there's not much too it; you won't be thinking of reasons to return to the works, let's say. One thing I find odd is that this work seems perfectly for a dedicated web site, but the on-line presence of Icecreamlandia is more removed than accessible.

*****

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Title: Inconsequential Art #1
Creators: Alex Wilson, Dennis Culver
Publishing Information: Self-Published, mini-comic, 8 pages, 2007, $1
Ordering Numbers:

This is a tiny (see above) mini-comic relating an even tinier story where a man tries to get over with a woman who smokes only to overdose on nicotine and end up in the hospital without even the insurance covering it. It's odd, and kind of disjointed, but fairly cute. Plus there's a great cover. I love micro-minis, as tossed off as this or as elaborate of those thumb-sized books Chris Ware used to do. Reducing your comic in size is like adding a puppy to a family photos: suddenly, everything is adorable.

*****

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Title: The Astounding Wolf-Man #3
Creators: Robert Kirkman, Jason Howard
Publishing Information: Image Comics, comic book, 28 pages, October 2007, $2.99
Ordering Numbers:

For those of you who don't pay a ton of attention to comic books, particularly independent comic books, Robert Kirkman has one of the unique pedigrees going right now -- two actual non-Marvel/DC books perceived to be hits: The Walking Dead and Invincible. It's worth keeping in mind because when creators who do most of their work for the big companies think about doing an indy comic, they think in terms of replicating Kirkman's success with his projects, not the vast majority of such books that don't move off the stands. The Astounding Wolf-Man appears poised to be the third big book in that portion of Kirkman's array of assignments (which includes a variety of work), although now in its third issue it's either supposed to suggest a feeling of discombobulation to mirror it's wolf-man protagonist, or it simply hasn't found its balance. The theme seems to be the ability of men to control their world, which is a tried and true were-wolf story point. This book seems suspended between a super-hero expression of what the Wolf-Man does and the more horrific or even conspiratorial/hierarchical elements of such stories. It read like pretty much a mess, and a thin one besides. The good thing is that Kirkman's two big hits were slow builders, and there's plenty of ways to write something into a more effective place when you control its entire world and the audience takes a while to claim its own stake in things.

*****

Well, that's it for this time around. Considering the number of distractions both voluntary and involuntary and the fact that I didn't have a scanner so I had to skip some comics that would have been easy to write about, I'm pretty happy with the number. I'll do another one the Sunday after Thanksgiving. I hope these were valuable to someone, and I hope if one of your books is above you'll forgive me these cursory words instead of a more complete review. I hope to do a better job with reviews in the future.
 
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