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Comic fans, you know the feeling — once in awhile you’re lucky enough go into your local shop on a Wednesday, spy a new title on the racks, and say to yourself “oh, hell yes.” Today I got to do that. And I got to say the same exact thing after I’d read the book. So I’m feeling pretty goddamn happy right about now.

The four-color “floppy” in question is issue number one of Shaft : Imitation Of Life, the debut installment of Dynamite Comics’ long-awaited four-part sequel to last year’s superb mini-series starring the black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks by writer David F. Walker and artist Bilquis Evely, and while Evely’s off doing DC Comics Bombshells and other projects these days, Walker is back for round two and that’s the key thing because this guy gets the character of John Shaft every bit as much as Gordon Parks, Richard Roundtree, and even his creator, Ernest Tidyman, ever did. In fact, it’s fair to say that the Shaft we were presented with in Walker’s first story (as well as in his superb Shaft’s Revenge novella, originally available only digitally but now also out in paperback from Dynamite) was probably the most humanized take on this bad mutha — shut your mouth! — that we’ve ever seen in any medium, and the fact that he was able to add a level of depth and complexity to an already, as Isaac Hayes said, “complicated man” without compromising his essential bad-assness in any way, shape, or form, speaks volumes about his skills as an author. If you want to know why people have been so jazzed up about this guy being chosen to head up Marvel’s Power Man And Iron Fist relaunch (which hits next week!), well — the work he did on Shaft is the reason. And now he’s back for more.

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Shaft : Imitation Of Life starts off right in the thick of some nasty shit, with John putting the wraps on a high-profile, high-body count case that eats away at his soul every bit as much as his Vietnam experiences (as detailed in the first series) did, and he consequently decides that some much-needed R&R is in order. Still, a few months sitting on the sidelines is all it takes for a man of action to get restless, and when he gets “back in the game” he decides to take on a missing persons case that no one else will touch due to the homophobia rampant at the time. Now, you might think that seeing John put himself in harm’s way protecting a, in his words, “fairy” in an alley fight might seem out of character,  but let’s never forget that this is a man who will “risk his neck for his brother man.” Heck, by the end of this first issue, Shaft’s even got himself a gay Latino sidekick — but still hasn’t compromised his macho “street cred” one bit.

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As far as the art goes, while I do think Evely was a perfect choice last time around, new penciller/inker Dietrich Smith definitely delivers the goods, as well, and has something of a more refined line to his style that gives things a slightly more “polished” feel without being too smooth. A good Shaft story should always be at least a little bit rough around the edges and I’m pleased to say the visual feel for this book gets that delicate balance more or less exactly right. The stylistic homage to Jacen Burrows’ “fixed camera” four-panel horizontal grids in Providence that Smith showcases in the early going of this issue really made me smile, as well —  and do I even need to tell you how way-beyond-fucking-perfect Matthew Clark’s cover is? Nope, you’ve already seen it at the top of this review.

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Still, let’s not kid ourselves — the comic-book version of John Shaft is now Walker’s baby, and frankly I can’t conceive of anyone else even wanting to take the reins if and when he decides he’s had enough. His stock-in-trade with the character is to put him in new and/or unfamiliar situations and use them to show sides of his personality that we’ve both never seen before and instinctively know to be “true,” and while it may seem like sacrilege to some to make the comparison, I think he’s proving himself to be  the closest thing the comics world has ever seen,  and maybe even will ever see, to the legendary Iceberg Slim.

Yeah, he really is that good. And so is this comic. So get your punk ass up out the house and go pick up Shaft : Imitation Of Life #1 right the fuck now, sucka.

Another new review for Graphic Policy website.

Graphic Policy

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It appears that the success of Harrow County over at Dark Horse has given other publishers the idea to try out this “Southern Gothic” thing for themselves — DC is certainly taking Swamp Thing back in that direction in Len Wein and Kelly Jones’ new six-part series, for instance — and given the “horror-centric” bent to their Vertigo line since its inception, it’s no surprise that the former National Periodical Publications would  want to get that imprint in on the act sooner rather than later, I suppose, as well,  and that they’d have them do so with something of a (red) splash given their relative financial “muscle.” Truth be told, I’m kind of surprised that their big late-2015 don’t-call-it-a-relaunch didn’t include a horror book set “below Tobacco Road,” but no sooner did we flip the calendar over than we were presented with The Dark & Bloody #1, the opening salvo…

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It occurs to me that as we begin the second “leg” of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence with the just-released seventh issue that we as readers are on no firmer ground, metaphorically speaking, than hapless protagonist Robert Black is in a more literal sense — having fled Manchester without even knowing how much time he spent there much less what happened both to and around him, our hero/victim next turns up in Boston smack-dab in the middle of the notorious round of riots and looting instigated by the city’s police strike of 1919, an engineered debacle both triggered by the actions of, and then capitalized for political gain by, then-governor Calvin Coolidge, one of early-20th-century America’s more loathsome figures. For our hopelessly cracking (or maybe that should be already cracked)  former newspaperman, though, the violence and depravity he sees unfolding on the streets of Beantown is a pretty accurate reflection of his own mental state, and as we open this issue turmoil (both inner and outer) seems to be the order of the day.

Fortunately, he makes the acquaintance of beleaguered soon-to-be-former cop Eamon O’Brien, who manages to not only direct, but accompany, him to the residence of photographer/painter Ronald Underwood Pitman, the man Black has traveled to Boston to meet, and while both are certainly glad to be quickly ushered into Pitman’s home, this is a visit that will end very differently for each.

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I trust I’m not giving anything away at this point if I reveal that the H.P. Lovecraft “anchor story” for this issue is Pickman’s Model, with Pitman functioning as our “stand-in” for doomed artist Richard Upton Pickman himself, but what struck me is how this new installment is something of a “throwback” to the first couple of chapters, with Moore focusing his ever-sharp eye on just one Lovecraft tale rather than incorporating elements from several into a sort of “tapestry,” as was the case with numbers three, four, five, and six (especially five and six). This “extra-special attention” definitely pays off in terms of expanding the breadth and scope of the horror at the heart of Pickman’s Model, despite the fact that the premise is essentially unchanged (painter transcribes scenes of horror onto his canvas that are a little too real for most tastes, most featuring a recurring “hairy, toothy monster” theme), and in fact goes some way toward disproving the time-worn adage that “it’s what you don’t see that’s most scary,” since both Moore’s script and Burrows’  wonderfully-realized, detail-rich art go a long way toward establishing a much more graphic realization of the terror Lovecraft only hints at — until the very end, at any rate — in his original yarn.

Black, though — ever the creative interpreter of events — at first seems almost pathologically clueless to the fact that he’s actually going from the frying pan into the fire here, and constructs, for the sake of maintaining his own sanity if nothing else,   a political subtext for Pitman’s works that the perpetually-nervous-but-strangely-sympathetic (his speech is littered with “uhm”s) artist is all too happy to play along with despite the fact that it’s painfully obvious he’d never considered such an “alibi,” if you will, himself. If you’re thinking that Black’s skewed take has something to do with the creatures — who Pitman refers to as “saprovores” — representing the “1%”-types sucking on the blood and marrow of their working-class “victims,” you’re pretty close to the mark.

Still, the full extent of Black’s almost heroic capacity for self-deception isn’t made completely clear until after he meets “Pitman’s model,” a gigantic deep-cellar-dweller who goes by the name of “King George” and takes pride in being both a “good boy” and a “hard worker.” The nature of his “work” should be immediately apparent to anyone who either knows the term “saprovore” already or bothered to look it up when Pitman first mentioned it, but for those who just keep plugging ahead with their reading regardless, rest assured that Moore makes things perfectly clear pretty quickly, and yeah — it’s creepy as fuck, even though we don’t even blink at the thought of worms and maggots doing essentially the same job.

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What wasn’t entirely clear to me until my second reading of this issue was how Moore is having a bit of self-referential fun with his audience here (yes, Providence can, at times, actually be fun) — there’s been a running theme of class-related issues at play here almost from the outset of the series (as there is in much of Moore’s work, and in much British literature, film, and television in general), with the “fish people” of issue three being looked down upon by the “respectable citizens” of Salem, the inbred Wheatley clan of the fourth issue being an object of scorn for both their neighbors and former “colleagues” in the Stella Sapiente order, and the “elite, refined” Wade family being the receptacle/vessel of the most malignant entity we’ve met so far in issue six. His message, at least to me, seems quite clear — no matter how monstrous and evil some of the “lower-class” people we meet on this journey are, the rich are always worse, and represent the true “villains” of the story. Here that point is driven home by King George  — who has brothers, we learn, named George Washington and, even more curiously, Mary Pickford, and I confess that I spent a good long time figuring out just how the saprovores might come by their unique “handles” before discovering that, as usual, the fine folks over at http://factsprovidence.wordpress.com had beaten me to it —bemoaning the fact that he and his brothers “work hard” while the “yankees” who live above them “have many things and — do not work hard. And always we are underneath them.” And yet, in a knowing wink to readers, Moore presents Black’s political reading of Pitman’s work as being nothing but a desperate attempt at rationalization by an equally desperate man, even while he invites us to do the same with his own subject matter here. Irony, you can be so delicious.

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We’ll wind things down, then,  by dove-tailing back to a couple of near-throwaway comments I made previously, since I seem to be absorbing via some form of osmosis Moore and Burrows’ penchant for not letting any tiny piece of information, either of the scripted or illustrated variety, go to waste. I mentioned that the visit to Pitman’s home ended “quite differently” for Officer O’Brien than it did for Black, and while a fiendishly subtle clue as to the flatfoot’s eventual fate makes an appearance when Black dons an apparently-spare overcoat before his descent into the tunnels beneath the house (a scene which plays out via the same straight-ruled vertical panels than Burrows employed for our protagonist’s subterranean journey in issue #2), the dread becomes deeper when King George asks Pitman if Robert is the brother of the “other,” in his words, “red and black one,” and all becomes painfully clear in the last panel of the issue — in keeping with the story upon which it’s based,  of course,  but the added dimension of specificity that Providence #7 gives to events Lovecraft referenced in more oblique fashion really gives the final image here an extra dose of “holy shit!”-ness even though it’s hardly a surprise by this point.

As far as the second brief (I promise!) point I wanted to get back to goes, this time in regards to Black’s — how did I put it it, “heroic capacity for self-deception” or somesuch? —well, I’ll just say that the bizarre “spin” he puts on his meeting with King George, and on his entire 10-day stay with Pitman in general, just has to be read to be believed, and provides yet another sterling example of why, much as the “main” story reveals, you should absolutely never skip over the backmatter at the end of the issues in this series. Besides, if you do, you’ll miss the laugh-out-loud-in-spite-of-yourself thrill of seeing how the truth of what happened to Robert in issue six finally assert itself into his consciousness — even if, as ever, he completely fails to realize it.

Still, Black’s return to blissful unawareness is rather richly deserved at this point. The guy’s been through a hell of a lot, and while us lucky readers are learning more with each successive installment  (as far as major revelations go, this issue packs a doozy with the introduction of the notion that the world of dreams is an actual, physical plane of existence far beneath the Earth, with the saprovores inhabiting a middle ground between the two and the Stella Sapiente engaged in a project of “flipping” the “upstairs” and “downstairs” realities around ), I think he’s sort of earned a breather. We all know it’s both destined not to last and entirely a product of his own rationalization, but still — it felt good to see him smiling as this chapter drew to a close. Even if walking past a cemetery gives him some pause.

In closing, it appears as though we’ll be waiting until April for Providence #8, but I’m not complaining. I’ve read this issue four times already and look forward to reading it about a dozen (at least) more, and anything that can be done to prolong this title’s stay on comic shop shelves is welcome, as far as I’m concerned. 60 days between installments is hardly a death-knell for sales of purportedly-monthly “floppies” with today’s “delay-trained” readership, and in fact there seems to be a positive “buzz” building around this book the longer it goes on. Besides, if Sex Criminals fans can wait twice that long, on average, for each new issue, then how much do we really have to bitch about here? You can’t rush perfection, as they say — and right now Providence is as close to a perfect comic as any that I’ve read in the past decade, at minimum. Take your time, Alan and Jacen — we know you’re working hard.

Review : “Cry Havoc” #1

Posted: February 1, 2016 in Uncategorized

Another one for Graphic Policy website that I’m re-blogging here.

Graphic Policy

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What’s the old saying again — “cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war!” or something? Yeah, I think that’s it — except in this case we can substitute dogs with their nearest evolutionary relative, wolves, and be a small step closer in the accuracy department.

Or will we? I mean, sure, the promotional blurb for writer Simon Spurrier and artist Ryan Kelly’s new Image Comics series, Cry Havoc, definitely states that “It’s not about a lesbian werewolf going to war — except it is,” so perhaps “definitely” is a piss-poor choice of words on my part given that, ya know, there’s (supposedly, at any rate) very little going on here that one can state is “definite” in nature.

All of which is kinda funny because I found Cry Havoc #1 to be a fairly straight-forward read. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, because it was an engrossing and…

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It’s been awhile since the artistic collective known as 44Flood put out a new comic via their publishing deal with IDW, and while I admit that the last effort to go out under their label, Ben Templesmith’s dystopian sci-fi nightmare The Squidder is certainly a tough act to follow, if the first issue of the new four-parter Victorie City is anything to go by, it should be more than up to the task — even though I’ll be the first to admit that, perhaps more than any other comic out there on the stands right now, this one’s going to divide people on a purely aesthetic level almost instantly.

First, though, a few words about the story — writer Keith Carmack appears to be constructing a deceptively standard-issue hard-boiled noir here, with our ostensible “hero,” police detective Hektor Ness, playing the role of one good cop in a city full of crooked ones. He’s finally decided that he’s had enough of the corruption and sleaze his co-workers (particularly his partner) engage in as a matter of course, so he’s taken it upon himself to clean up the force single-handedly, one dirty cop at a time. Needless to say, his superiors are less than thrilled about his little endeavor and soon enough he finds that he’s the one in hot water rather than everybody else. Honestly, though, that’s probably the least of his problems, because a violently psychotic (and as yet unnamed) serial killer has just hit town, and he’s leaving a trail of bodies in his wake that would make a third-world military dictator blush. He really seems to relish his “work,” as well, given the blood-curdling dialogue that literally oozes from his mouth and the clinical calculation with which he goes about wreaking havoc.  These two principal characters are on a collision course from the outset, then — even if they don’t know it until the end of this issue, which closes with a striking and memorable double-page splash of them facing each other down.

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Hmmm — what could possibly be so “divisive” about all this, then, you ask? Well, I’m tempted to give an easy answer here and simply say “the art,” but truth be told, Vincent Nappi’s scratchy, rapid-fire, visceral illustrations, combined with the pared-down color palette he employs, are only a part of the overall “DIY” ethos of Victorie City. Jessi Adrignola’s lettering is likewise about as far-removed from the industry standard as you can imagine, and when you put all this under either of the book’s visually-arresting-but-highly-unconventional covers (Ben Templesmith’s wrap being at the top of this review and Nappi’s “B” cover being shown directly above), the result is something that wouldn’t look or feel out of place on the ‘zine rack of your local punk record store 15 or 20 years ago. The fact that it’s happening in the here and now is certainly worth getting excited about if you’re an old-school indie publication fan like me, but if you’re used to a more professionally-executed look to your reading material and frankly can’t abide anything else, well — this just ain’t gonna be the book for you.

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To which I say “tough shit — your loss,” even though I know it’ll make me sound like an asshole (or maybe that should be even more of an asshole). Honestly, whether the look of Victorie City is something you’re wholeheartedly on board with, or something you need to “get past,” the simple fact of the matter is that the story here doesn’t just “grab you,” it straight-up punches you in the nuts right from the opening page, and it doesn’t let you up once you’re writhing on the ground. You say it “looks ugly”? Well, that’s kinda the point, because the world it’s showing you is ugly in the extreme, as are most of the people in it. Go find your dose of “feel-good” someplace else, friends, because it’s not happening here.

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And so, now that we’ve sent everyone else scurrying back to their Marvel and DC four-color capes-n’-tights “reassurance therapy” sessions, I can safely tell you few misanthropic troglodytes who remain that Victorie City is almost certainly the comic for you. It’s as subtle as a sledgehammer to the skull and as welcoming as a brass-knuckle sandwich. It’s the kind of book that waves its hand at you and says “howdy neighbor!” with an evil-ass grin while it’s standing on its side of the fence and pissing on your lawn. If a comic book could walk right up to you and tell you “hey, that teenage daughter of yours gets prettier and prettier every day when I see her walking home from her school at 3:30 in the afternoon to your house at 1432 Elmwood Lane, I might just have to introduce myself to her one of these days” — it would be this one. No prisoners are taken here and no fucks are given about it.

Am I “all in” for the next three issues? You’d better believe it.

Review : “Pencil Head” #1

Posted: January 25, 2016 in Uncategorized

Another one I just did for Graphic Policy, hence the rather plain-sounding review title.

Graphic Policy

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When you were a kid, did you harbor fantasies (or should that be delusions?) of becoming a comic book freelancer? I know I did. And I know that a fair number of critics out there still cling tenaciously to the idea that they’re the next great undiscovered writing “talent.” One reason I respect the hell out of the way the powers that be here at Graphic Policy run things is because they make it crystal clear when they’ve received a free digital “copy” of a book so that you, dear reader, can decide for yourself whether or not the “generosity” of a publisher has influenced a critic’s opinion (for instance, you may want to know right off the bat here that the book I’m reviewing today, Ted McKeever’s Pencil Head #1 from Image/Shadowline, is one that I actually purchased with $3.99 of my own hard-earned money). Other sites I won’t…

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Question : what do you get when you combine a violent home invasion, an ex-mercenary (I think) with a burned-off face, a bunch of good ole’ boys who hang out in a convenience store and like to make fun of the retard who mops the floors there, a grotesquely overweight lecherous creep who lurks in playgrounds paying teenage girls to flash their tits, and a sadistic neo-Nazi meth-gang leader whose idea of fun is to strap a husband and wife to chairs facing each other, give them both guns, tell them that one has to shoot the other in the face in order to survive, and then kills the “winner” anyway?

If your answer is “probably the most depraved and amoral comic book of the year,” congratulations! You’re exactly right. But, as much misanthropic fun as that is in and of itself, my best guess is that writer Brian Azzarello and artist Juan Doe (yeah, I don’t think that’s what his birth certificate says, either)’s  new Aftershock Comics series American Monster is also going to prove to be something more than that — at least I hope so.

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When it comes to slow-burn, ultra-violent, hard-boiled crime comics, Azzarello certainly has the pedigree to inspire confidence despite the admittedly disjointed, “where-the-fuck-is-this-going-anyway?” nature of this first issue. Or had it, at any rate. Frankly, I’d be a lot more inclined to give him all the leeway he needs if he’d just been coming off 100 Bullets or Jonny Double, but those were — what? Fifteen years ago? His most recent “street-level” projects have been far less successful, as anyone who endured his agonizing run on John Constantine : Hellblazer or his wretched Joker graphic novel can tell you. And while his character-redefining run on Wonder Woman has met with a fair amount of praise (how could it not? He included Wesley Willis among the pantheon of gods!), his penchant for involving himself with deplorable cash-in projects like Before Watchmen and Dark Knight III : The Master Race knocks his formerly-sterling reputation down a few notches in my estimation, as well. Sure, one could argue that his Comedian and Rorschach books never had a chance in the first place and that he was maybe trying to make the most of a bad situation, but really — he’s a grown man and should have had better sense than to get involved in such a fiasco. So I guess the question here is — which Azzarello are we going to get? The one everybody loved back in the early 2000s, or the money-grubbing “pen for hire” we’ve seen of more recent vintage?

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So far, the jury’s still out on that one. American Monster #1 definitely features plenty of the strong-characterization-achieved-with-minimal-dialogue that was a mainstay of his earlier, stronger work, as well as a lot of almost celebratory sadism that used to be his stock-in-trade, so there’s reason to keep your fingers crossed here. There’s also an obvious moral dimension at play from the outset, in that the “American Monster” of the title clearly refers to the nameless (so far), faceless (as in literally) stranger who just drifted into whatever anonymous Midwestern shithole this story takes place in, but everyone else we meet in this opening installment is, in fact, even uglier than he is — their deformities just happen to be on the inside.

I know, I know — the idea that there’s a deep, incurable sickness underneath the Norman Rockwell-esque image of small town Americana has been done to death, but it can still be an effective enough trope if handled correctly. Shit, at the end of the day it’s still what Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks were really all about, and while Azzarello on his best day probably isn’t worthy of shining David Lynch’s shoes, there’s an undeniable vibe running from first page to last here that, close to the vest as he’s keeping his cards, he’ll know precisely when to lay them on the table for maximum impact. The number of visceral body-blown he lands in this issue alone shows that he’s got a very firm handle on both his story and its implications. So again, whether deserved or not, I’m airing on the side of guarded optimism here and happy to give our scribe at least five or six more issues to either earn or lose my trust.

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Ditto for the artist — Doe is not someone whose previous work I’m familiar with, but he has a clean, linear style that really works when it works (the scenes featuring regular characters going about their far less-than-regular daily business) and really misses when it misses (our titular “monster” looks far too cartoon-ish and the violence lacks some of the immediacy that a “dirtier, grimier” style would impart it with). More pages looked good than not, though, so I’m prepared to let his visual storytelling style either grow on me, or alienate me altogether — whichever comes first, I guess.

And speaking of alienation, if you need your story to have a hero, this series will probably put you off right out of the gate. There don’t seem to be any actual “good guys” on offer, the question here is only which of these hopelessly-compromised, sullied characters is going to prove to be less bad. We always like fuck-ups and reclamation projects and multiple-times-over losers who come through unexpectedly and do the right thing at the right time, and odds are that American Monster is going to give somebody, somewhere in this cesspool of depravity a chance to be that sort of  temporary hero- by- way -of -circumstance- rather -than- design. Whether or not they —whoever “they” may be — comes through? Well, guess we’re going to have to take a “wait and see” approach with regards to that, as well.

So, what the hell — count me in, at least for now. Azzarello and Doe have shown me enough to convince me that this is worth $3.99 a pop for a little while longer, and I harbor faint hopes that we might even be heading for something kinda, dare I say it, special here. And while a title like American Monster might be best suited for a Donald Trump biography, this comic seems determined, among other things, to give us a cold, hard look at the fetid swamp of psychological, emotional, and material insecurity bubbling under the polite surface of American life that makes it possible for a shithead billionaire demagogue in a toupee to rise to power in the first place. We’re meeting the enemy in the pages of this comic — and he is us.