Posts Tagged ‘comics’

If anyone were to put a pistol to my head and ask me to name my absolute favorite comic of the last couple of decades, Debbie Drechsler’s Daddy’s Girl, a hardcover collection published by Fantagraphics Books collecting all her various shorter works from the 1980s and 90s (some in color, some in black and white, as the art samples included with this review will show) just might be it.

First off, though, please understand that this is by no means an easy  or pleasant read. Quite the opposite : Drechsler’s account of her (via her surrogate character, Lily) horrific sexual abuse at the hands of her father is stark, harrowing, and at times even painful to read. It’s also unflinchingly honest, amazingly heartfelt, and above all agonizingly human. It’s not just the mindset of a sexual abuse survivor that Drechlser portrays so authentically, but the “new kid on the block” mentality that she had to endure so frequently as a kid whose family moved around a lot growing up, and the little ways in which adolescents have to process and interpret aspects of the adult world that are only beginning to make any sense to them, to the extent that they even do at all.

Drechsler’s heavy brushstrokes and her expert utilization of thick, inky blackness drive home an almost oppressive feeling that suits her subject matter perfectly, and gives the book the look and feel of a series of captioned woodcuts that expertly capture not just various moments frozen in time, but the emotions that go along with, and/or result from them. It’s damn uncomfortable reading on occasion, but it also feels brutally necessary. Watching Lily’s attitude toward her father evolve from scared to forced nonchalance to one of pathetic derision happens at such an organic pace that it’s often hard to believe that many of these stories, appearing as they did in irregularly-published journals such as the original Drawn & Quarterly, often appeared years apart, so natural is their progression, and while it does, in fact, feel like something of a personal victory for Lily to finally see her old man not as a deadly predator but a useless, limp-dicked piece of shit, it’s definitely a hollow victory at best, given the horrors she has to endure to get to that point.

Still, on the whole, the sexual abuse narrative, while central to Drechsler’s work here, is only part of the overall portrait of the pain and awkwardness of adolescence that runs throughout this collection of vignettes, all of which are suffused with more authenticity than the entire output of the “Big Two” publishers in total in — well, their entire history. We keep hearing that comics have “grown up,” then watch Marvel and DC prove they haven’t. Books like Daddy’s Girl, even though it’s about teenagers, prove they certainly have, but nobody’s paying much attention, relatively speaking, to this in comparison with, say, Avengers Vs. X-Men, which is a rather depressing prospect to consider — but at least work like this is out there now, which is a step in the right direction.

Still, a work as powerfully affecting and meticulously crafted as Daddy’s Girl deserves to be a lot more than just published, it should be read, and if I manage to convince any of you out there to pick up one book you otherwise wouldn’t have as a result of these “Comix Month” (which really is about to end — finally! — I promise) reviews, I sincerely hope it’s this one. Debbie Drechsler , after winding up her solo series Nowhere, said she felt she’d probably said all she wanted to say via the comics medium and didn’t think she’d be back anytime too soon, if ever. It’s been over 15 years and so far that’s proven to be true, which is our loss. But this masterwork stands as a testament to her natural visual storytelling ability and only increases in power and resonance with successive re-readings. Do yourself a favor — if this book’s not on your shelf, rectify that situation right now. This is the rare comic that I can think of absolutely nothing bad to say about. It’s demanding. It’s nausea-inducing. It’s ugly. It’s heart-wrenching. It’s  often desperately hopeless.

And it’s  uniquely, unpretentiously, unreservedly, unquestionably perfect.

While many of his contemporaries from the late-80s/early-90s “alternative comix” scene have either mellowed with age or disappeared completely, Eightball creator Daniel Clowes — perhaps best known to regular readers of this blog as the screenwriter of Ghost World and Art School Confidential — seems to be gaining a deeper, if ultimately more pessimistic, handle on the human psyche over the years, and while new work from his strikingly able pen appears at what could generously be called a snail’s pace at best, the meticulous nature of both his artwork and his economic and incisive scripting demonstrates that he’s certainly not resting on his laurels.

Case in point — The Death-Ray, originally published by Fantagraphics Books in 2004 as (to date) the final issue of his previously-mentioned Eightball series and recently reissued in a handsome, oversized hardcover edition from Drawn & Quarterly, is nothing less than a disarmingly bleak masterwork that’s stunning to look at and oftentimes painfully, albeit gorgeously, misanthropic in tone. The title of one of Clowes’ earlier lengthy serials was Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron, and this book definitely packs a wallop underneath its lush, even soothing at times, visuals.

The story presented here of orphan-turned-teen-outcast Andy, a casually misanthropic (mostly) loner who acquires remarkable super powers through remarkably outrageous means (see the panel reproduced above for a clue) and also happens upon the titular “death-ray” gun that can instantly wipe anyone or anything completely out of existence, is, on one level, a pretty simple meditation upon the old “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” slice of conventional wisdom, but it’s also much more — a stark portrayal of deepening alienation that sets in slowly over the years and it’s resultant heart-hardening and conscience-numbing; a requiem for lost loved ones we never really knew; and a simple yet profound study of two friends who drift apart over time, all related through a series of what by all rights should be hopelessly disjointed short comic-strip vignettes that vary nearly schizophrenically in tone and style, yet flow from one to the next with grace, ease, and confidence in service of producing what ultimately reveals itself to be a jaw-droppingly seamless whole.It’s also a perfect example of how to subvert reader expectations — the more we see of Andy as the years progress, the more distant he becomes; the more we find ourselves able to predict his actions (and his targets), the less we can relate to him; the more casual and nonchalant his violence, the more it shocks us. As we watch a tragic figure devolve into a monstrous one, we can’t seem to fight it when our pity turns to despair turns to disgust. It’s an emotional roller-coaster ride delivered with a dead-pan, entirely matter-of-fact sense of almost clinical detachment. Camus in the American suburbs.

Andy’s story doesn’t end so much as it simply stops, with Clowes presenting the reader with a number of potential conclusions to the story in “choose your own adventure” style, but in all honesty, while this sounds like a bit of a cheat, if you’ve gone with his flow to this point it actually feels not only fitting but necessary, since a hard-and-fast resolution would, in fact, betray the tone of everything that has gone before by interjecting hard-and-fast authorial manipulation into a work that’s been meticulously constructed to avoid any semblance of it from the outset. Clowes’ style here has the distinct flavor of a true documentarian, even if the people and events he’s portraying are entirely fictitious.If there’s one minor quibble I have with The Death-Ray, it’s that $19.95 (assuming you pay full price) is an awful lot to shell out for a book that’s only 48 pages in length, even if those 48 pages are dimensionally more than generous and reproduce the varied-in-style-but-uniformly-stark-and-exquistite artwork in luscious, vibrant detail. It’s a just a damn hefty price tag, plain and simple. Still, this is a work that rewards rereading and careful analysis and can be viewed and interpreted in so many different ways that it’s downright impossible not to ultimately get your money’s worth from it. As rich, complex, and challenging a piece of graphic fiction as you’re ever likely to find, that presents no easy answers — or any answers at all, for that matter — yet resonates with an internal truth all its own, The Death-Ray numbers among a small handful of books that well and truly show comics to be a medium as limitless in terms of their possibilities as film or literature.

It’s been nearly two years since the America’s unofficial poet laureate of the working class, Cleveland’s own Harvey Pekar, passed away, but thanks to the estimable folks at Top Shelf Comics, we’ve been given one last glimpse at his creative genius via their publication, in hardcover no less, of what’s apparently his last complete work, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, a book that serves as both a semi-mournful look back at a once-great city’s heyday and a final, and comprehensive, autobiographical sketch of its narrator’s life and an analysis of his admittedly complex relationship with the place that he called home for all of his 70 years.

For those of you out there unfamiliar with Pekar’s American Splendor (what, you mean you haven’t seen the movie?), it was a (mostly) self-published anthology series of short stories in comics form written by Pekar, a VA hospital file clerk and blue-collar intellectual, and illustrated by a bevy of the finest sequential artists of its day (most notably underground legend Robert Crumb) that ran for well over a quarter century. Although largely viewed (and categorized) as an autobiographical series, in truth it’s probably more accurate to say it was a “slice-of-life” series, since Harvey was just as likely to include stories about things that happened to people he knew as he was to relate stories about his own life and experiences in its pages, and often brief snippets of overheard conversations formed the basis for some of his most memorable strips. In short, it wasn’t always so much about Harvey Pekar himself as it was about events he witnessed, or that were related to him by others he knew.This presumably final work seamlessly blends the two, as it bobs and weaves downright seamlessly between tales of the city of Cleveland proper and Pekar’s life  and times within it. While he’s unarguably the main character, in truth his geographic locale as his “co-star,” as he both recounts straight narrative chronology of the city and gives detailed background on some of his favorite establishments within it. The net effect is a sort of historical odyssey through Cleveland, with detours chosen for specific purposes by our guide, who writes  with both the appreciation and disgust of someone who knows  his subject well (some might say too well). With painstakingly detailed art by the talented Joseph Remnant (a name I’d previously been unfamiliar with, but that I will definitely look for in the future) that conveys both the actual, physical reality of the city as well as the mood and atmosphere that permeates its environs, and a wide-ranging story that spans decades of the author’s life and even takes care to accurately relate events that happened over a century before his birth, the phrase “labor of love” would definitely apply here — except for the fact that Harvey makes it perfectly clear that he’s had a love/hate relationship with his hometown almost from the word go.

Longtime American Splendor fans will be glad to know that stalwart characters such as Toby Radloff and Mr. Boats are present and accounted for, but for those unfamiliar with Pekar’s previous work and the real people who populate it there’s no reason to be put off from reading this — in fact, even though it’s his final piece of graphic nonfiction, the truth is that serves as an excellent “jumping-on” point for new readers, as it’s such a comprehensive (yet conversational and frankly uncomplicated) work that one needn’t know anything about the city itself, or even who Harvey Pekar is for that matter, to find it a thoroughly engrossing and evocative work.

In fairness, however, it’s incumbent upon me to state that Pekar was never what one would call a “feel-good” author, and if the observations of a major metropolis that’s been on the decline for at least 50 years written by a guy with a definite curmudgeon’s perspective (and speaking of lovable, intellectual curmudgeons, Alan Moore provides the introduction) aren’t your cup of tea, then you’re going to find the tone of this book rather off-putting from the outset. Sugar-coating harsh realities was never Harvey’s “bag,” and while thos of us who are in tune with his wavelength will appreciate the rare form we find him in here, folks who like things a bit sunnier and less nonchalantly harrowing might be well advised to give this book a pass since it’s many things to be sure, but positive and uplifting aren’t among them.

I loved it, of course, and immediately read through the entire thing from start to finish a second time before putting it down. The only downside is that it made me miss Harvey’s distinctive, authentic, and altogether necessary voice more than ever.

While most of the movie sites and blogs you might be reading are knee-deep in summer blockbuster reviews this time of year (and I myself have been, and will continue to, review such cinematic fare at the other site you can catch me on, namely http://unobtainium13.com), I figured here at my main online “hangout,” I’d devote the month of June to something a bit different — comic book reviews. Comics, you see, are my “first love,” media-wise, and while I don’t spend every last dime I have on them as I did in days gone by, I do find there are still a few reasons to go into the local comic shop once in awhile, even though, generally speaking, I could really care less about the entire superhero genre. Consequently, most of what we’ll be looking at this month won’t be adventures of men in tights and women in less-than-tights, and we’ll primarily be concentrating on, shall we say, “alternative,” “creator-driven,” or “underground” fare here — stuff the “big two” have no interest in but that provides just about the only ray of light in a medium that has become, at least creatively speaking, even darker than usual as of late. If names like Dan Clowes, Chester Brown, Joe Matt, Craig Thompson, Art Spiegelman, etc., are unfamiliar to you, my hope is that 30 days from now they won’t be, and that you’ll have found yourself sufficiently intrigued by my musings on these artists’ work to give some of what they’ve written and/or drawn a go.

All that being said, the book I’ve chosen to kick off this entire series with is the premier issue of writer/artist Darwyn Cooke’s Before Watchmen : Minutemen, which is, as you can no doubt guess, superhero fare published by DC. Granted, the promise from the publisher is that this is supposed to be intelligent superhero fare that’s a notch above its contemporaries in terms of having actual artistic value, since DC knows they’ve opened one hell of a can of worms by even revisiting the whole Watchmen universe in the first place and the only way they can keep readers who might be “on the fence” about the project on board is to give them a reason to keep coming back every week (the various interconnected Before Watchmen miniseries will be appearing weekly until they’ve all run their course).

Make no mistake about it, though — my view is that Before Watchmen is a morally and ethically bankrupt endeavor from the get-go, and I agree with those, Watchmen co-creator Alan Moore included, who think these books have no actual reason to exist and that their publication shows nothing so much as how empty the well of new ideas has run at DC (which is not to say that Marvel is any better — a quick perusal of their monthly output will show at a glance that their assembly-line-style product is, if anything, even worse than DC’s). Still — Watchmen is the pinnacle of this particular medium for me, and I love these characters. Moore and artist/co-creator Dave Gibbons (who has apparently accepted a half million bucks from DC to give these new “prequel” titles his blessing, money which Moore refused) blew my teenage mind with their book when it first came out, and it still holds up extremely well to this day. So while I fully well sympathize and agree with all the arguments against this project, I still couldn’t resist giving the first issues, at least, of the various titles a whirl. I don’t feel to good about being that morally weak, but there are times when my curiosity gets the best of my ethics.

Honestly, though, I should’ve known better. Cooke is a creator whose previous work I’m unfamiliar with (as is the case with pretty much all the writers and artists working on these titles), and his art has a pleasing 1940s look and feel to it, but right off the bat there’s not much doubt that there isn’t a fraction of the intricate visual language going on in this book that we’re used to from something that bears the name Watchmen. While Gibbons’ panels in the original series were densely-layered works that revealed more the longer you looked at them, Cooke’s images are pretty, but ultimately disposable. The convey the mood and atmosphere of a time gone by nicely, but they don’t stick in your brain and demand a thorough and lengthy appraisal.

Which, frankly, pretty well goes for the story, as well. Simply put, nothing really happens here. Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, is seen sitting down, petting his dog, and writing his memoir, “Under The Hood,” chapters from which were presented as text pieces at the back of the first few issues of the original Watchmen series. We’re given brief glimpses of what said book has to say about some of the other costumed adventurers in the old Minutemen group, and that’s it. We learned a lot more about these characters in Moore’s text pieces, and all Cooke is doing is filling in a few blanks that we could just as well have surmised on our own. We don;t gain any new insight into what makes them tick, or even learn about exploits we didn’t already know about, per se — the entire issue is just a visual adaptation of stuff Moore either stated explicitly, or at the very least hinted at, 25 years ago.Furthermore, today’s “decompressed” writing style in mainstream comics, largely the brainchild of Grant Morrison, is a pretty transparent attempt to do nothing more than spread out what could, and frankly should, be a single-issue story out over the space of 5 or 6 issues, and it doesn’t suit the world of these characters at all, much less give the consumer good value for money. Frankly it’s a damn good thing that I wasn’t enthused about Before Watchmen, because then I would’ve felt even more cheated by a book I just dropped $3.99 on that can be read in ten minutes. As for rereading value — this issue certainly had none. I read it straight through again right after reading it and picked up absolutely nothing new, nor did I when I gave it a third go-round the next day.It’s certainly a far cry from the original series, which was so densely-packed with layer upon layer of meaning that each issue practically demanded rereading before you felt like you had a proper grip on everything you’d just taken in. And let’s not even talk about the “multiple covers” gimmick that DC in employing here (all three covers, by Cooke, Michael Golden, and Jim Lee, respectively, are shown here) in order to get you to buy this thing three times and pay inflated “collector’s prices” for the same book (the Lee cover is already going for $100 at my comic shop of choice).

In summation, then, let’s leave aside all the controversy for a moment, necessary as it’s been. Let’s pretend that somehow this whole thing isn’t a slap in the face to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (albeit a slap-in-the-face-with-a-check to Gibbons). Let’s, for the sake of argument, do exactly what DC is imploring us to do and “take this project at face value.” In that case, what we have here is a nicely-drawn, somewhat-competently-written (although the presence of things like shifting verb tenses lead me to wonder if it was really even edited) “flashback”-type story that does nothing more than tell us what we already knew. The Comedian was a bastard. The Silhouette was a lesbian. Mothman was a drunk who cracked up. Dollar Bill was a publicity stunt. Nite Owl was a good egg. That’s the most we can take from this book, and it’s shit we already had figured out. That’s the extent of the critical analysis we can take away from this first issue even if we play by the rules as DC sets them out.

But if we want to be realistic here, and admit that this prequel project doesn’t exist in a vacuum,  then even if we again leave all moral and ethical qualms about it aside (I repeat,necessary as they are, don’t get me wrong), the simple fact is that this book doesn’t do anything to justify its existence, as ultimately as prequels, sequels, and remakes must. DC can’t have it both ways. They can’t tell us not to compare it to the original Watchmen while trying to cash in on the name and the reputation of that seminal work at the same time. They can’t say “here’s a Watchmen spin-off, now please don’t compare it to Watchmen.” Sorry, but life doesn’t work that way — if you don’t want this book to be compared to Watchmen, then don’t call it Before Watchmen and don’t feature Watchmen characters in it. Simple, right? And so is Before Watchmen : Minutemen #1. Simple, quick, rehashed, uninvolving, and ultimately pointless.

RIP Harvey

Two weeks.

Two fucking weeks.

That’s how long it’s taken me to get my head together enough to write something about the life, work — and passing — of a guy I never knew, but who had a more profound impact on my existence than most people I’ve known really well. I can count the actual heroes in my life on one hand (and don’t worry, Dad, if you’re ever reading this — you’re one of them). Now I can count them on four fingers.

In the overall scheme of things, Harvey Pekar could probably  be truthfully described as  neurotic, obsessive,  unkempt, curmudgeonly, disheveled, fatalistic, compulsive, and manic.

He could also be described as unflinchingly honest, enormously talented, creative, humane, brave, hyperintelligent, unpretentious, and in possession of more out-and-out integrity than the next hundred, the next thousand, the next million people you’re likely to meet — combined.

Chances are the character “attributes” I listed first could just as easily be laid at the doorstep of you, me, or anyone else when our time comes to shake off this mortal coil. Those in the second list? Not so much.

In a world full of showbiz phonies and jive Hollywood fast-talkers, Harvey Pekar never sold out. Not to David Letterman. Not to HBO. Not to Time Warner. Not to anyone.

Presented with one opportunity after another to turn his groundbreaking autobiographical comic series American Splendor into some kind of cash-cow, he hesitated. Not that he was opposed to finally, after decades of toiling in near-obscurity (despite the fact that dozens of his stories were illustrated by Robert Crumb, for crying out loud!), making a buck off his work. Far from it. Providing security to his wife Joyce and his adopted daughter Danielle was high on his list of things to do. But not if he had to compromise the essential integrity of his work in any way, shape, or form.

Harvey by R. Crumb

When American Splendor finally did make the leap from the printed page to the silver screen in 2003, it was exactly the type of film those of us who had followed Harvey’s work for years had hoped for — it was honest, insightful, intelligent, and innovative. Just as wed’ always known it could and should be, but maybe better than we’d dared hope. We should have had more faith in Harvey. If it was anything ever in danger of being anything less, he never would have had anything to do with it.

He shook off the easy trappings of fame not out of some high-and-mighty sense of self-importance, but because that whole scene just never even interested him. Even at the height of his Hollywood flavor-of-the-monthness, he’d rather be at home listening to an old jazz LP than be the center of attention at Sundance or Tribeca. He was who he was, and if you didn’t like it, he didn’t care.

"American Splendor" Movie Poster

For my part, I first encountered Pekar’s work in my late teens, still a hopeless comic book addict but well past being interested in the four-color “adventures” of men in tights and women in even-less-than-tights. The sheer banality of Harvey’s work, focused as it was on the most absolutely mundane aspects of his life as a VA hospital file clerk, hit me like a sledgehammer blow to the head. Here was reality in all its unvarnished non-glory — comics really could be about anything at all, as I’d been telling everyone for so long.

There will never be another

My favorite stories were those concerned with the quiet dramas that make up the average person’s life — the small setbacks that feel for all the world like monumental defeats, and the even smaller victories that feel like — well, like just that. Stories like “Rip-Off Chick, ” “A Semi-Bummer Weekend,” “Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies In The Supermarket,” and my personal favorite, “Stetson Shoes,” were in so many ways about nothing at all — yet they somehow managed to encompass almost all the ups and downs of human existence into their pictures and word balloons.

Harvey Pekar didn’t lead a life markedly different from you, me, or anyone else we might know. He didn’t possess some mystical sense of clarity that allowed him to see things in some amazingly profound way. He just had the balls, and the writing skill, to look at himself, and those around him, with honesty, wit, and a fair degree of compassion. He wasn’t perfect, he wasn’t faultless, and often he wasn’t fair. I’m sure he wasn’t easy to live, or even to be around for an extended period of time. But he was the genuine article.  He had something to say about his life, the lives of those he knew, and the society we live in, and he said it. He said it with the simple unrestrained eloquence of an equal. He never thought of himself as being “above” those around him, or as even being in any special or remarkable.

And that’s what was most remarkable about him. He was our voice, and our mirror — our best friend and our fiercest critic. He was , in the words of the front-page, top-of-the-fold article about his death in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, our “bard of the banal.” He was us, and we were him.

He was Harvey Pekar. An everyman. A working stiff. A regular schmuck. And we’ll never see his like again. Mr. Boats. Toby Radloff, Joyce, Danielle — there were so many great characters in Harvey’s stories, but he was always the heart and soul, even in the tales that didn’t feature him.  He was the voice. Our voice. Our guide through our own world. That voice is gone now, and the world itself seems to be missing its voice-over interpreter.

Harvey was only 70 when he died, although let’s be honest — it seems like he’s been 70, or older, for along time now. Youthful vigor was never one of his strong suits, even though in his later years, between his regular American Splendor series and his historical graphic novels, his work output was more prolific than ever. And those later years weren’t easy for Harvey. After retirement from the VA, he was lost without his work routine, He slipped into manic depression and received electroshock “therapy.”  Cancer, which almost took his life a decade earlier (as detailed in the superb Our Cancer Year graphic novel co-written with his wife, Joyce Brabner) made a return appearance. And his blood pressure was off the charts. So I can’t say that I was completely surprised by his death — but I was still shocked by it. I saw it coming, but still wasn’t ready.

Who are we kidding? I’m still not ready.

I don’t know what happens when we die, although all available evidence seems to suggest we end up as worm food and that’s it. I do, however, know a thing or two about life here on Earth — and I know that it was better two weeks ago, when Harvey Pekar was still a part of it.

FAB Press Ad Sheet for Volume 1 of "Motion Picture Purgatory" by Rick Trembles

I’ve been remiss in not mentioning the work of Montreal cartoonist Rick Trembles and his incredible “Motion Picture Purgatory” on this blog before, but with a second collection of Trembles’ strips recently published by FAB Press, now seems as good a time as any to rectify that situation.

In short, Trembles hit some years ago on a genius idea so obvious it’s amazing no one ever thought of it before — reviewing movies in comic-strip form. It’s a natural, really, since both comics and film and, you know, words and pictures, it’s just that one features movement and the other doesn’t. So utilizing the comics medium to critique film is about as natural a combination as I can imagine.

I can’t really think of any other cartoonist whose work closely mirrors that of Trembles, but I think the intricately detailed “Quimby the Mouse” stuff by Chris Ware probably comes closest stylistically, and while in some strips in the late 90s/early 2000s the Ware influence is pretty pronounced, as time has gone on Trembles has really developed his own unique artistic style to go with his own voice, which he’s always had. I could go on and one about how Trembles structures a page and works the film’s themes and plotlines into the layout of his visual reviews, but, assuming it won’t get me into any sort of copyright trouble, I’ll just reprint one here and let you see for yourself —

Rick Trembles "Motion Picture Purgatory" Review for "Thriller" (a.k.a."They Call Her One Eye")

Trembles covers a wide variety of films in his reviews, which are published weekly in the Montreal Mirror free paper and available for viewing on his website http://www.snubdom.com, but 70s grindhouse fare, particularly of the horror variety, is nearest and dearest to his heart. He’s not a one-trick pony, though, and everything from documentaries to comedies to golden age Hollywood classics to Ray Harryhausen (for whom Trembles’ admiration is obvious) to animation to recent Hollywood blockbusters and everything in between has come in for the Trembles treatment. In the recently-publishes Volume 2 of his collected works, for example, he covers films as varied as “The Deadly Spawn,” “The Gods of Times Square,” “Fight for Your Life,” “Cloverfield,” “The Manson Family,” “Pontypool,” “Things,” and “Visitor Q,” to title-drop just a few!

Volume 2 of the Collected "Motion Picture Purgatory" by Rick Trembles

Anyway, his stuff’s a blast, and his unique brand of genius — a term I don’t throw about freely — is seriously unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. Not only is he one of the more creative and inventive cartoonists around, he’s also one of the best film critics working today, period.

Both volumes of his collected work are available directly from FAB Press (who also have an exlusive hardback edition of the second book unavailable elsewhere) or at any major online book retailer like Amazon, and are seriously worth the price. End of free, but very well-deserved, plug.

"Killer Nerd/Bride Of Killer Nerd" Double Feature DVD from Troma

Hey, Troma, where’s my kickbacks?

I mean, seriously — this is my third review of a Troma DVD in less than a month. Considering that this blog gets, according to the WordPress stats count, somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 views per day, that kind of free pub has to be worth at least a freebie DVD or some other  swag, doesn’t it?

Doesn’t it?

Okay, I didn’t think so, but you can’t blame a guy for trying.

So let’s talk about “Killer Nerd.” Like the other Troma DVD releases I’ve covered recently, namely “Pigs” and “Story of a Junkie,” this isn’t actually a product of the Troma “studio.” It was shot in 1991 by Ohio filmmakers Mark Steven Bosko and Wayne A. Harold on video for the princely sum of about five or six hundred bucks and picked up by Troma for VHS and, later, DVD release. The movie’s main selling point — hell, it’s only selling point — is that it stars Toby Radloff of “American Splendor” fame. Toby is a friend and co-worker of AS’s Harvey Pekar, and essentially serves as his sidekick in the AS film (Toby both appears as himself and is portrayed by Judah Friedlander — if you’ve seen the movie, you know what I’m talking about). And folks, Toby’s the real deal.

Thick glasses taped in the middle? Check.

Bow tie? Check.

Bizarre speech patterns? Check.

Pocket protector full of pens? Check.

Yes, friends, Toby’s a nerd and darn proud of it. His self-appointed moniker is that of the “genuine nerd” (co-director Harold has even made a documentary about Toby that bears this title). There’s no slack in his act. It’s not a con or a put-on. He’s as legit as it gets.

And damnit, in “Killer Nerd” he’s mad. Toby portrays hapless loser Harold Kunkle, and  he’s got the hots for a girl at work named Jenny (Lori Scarlett), but while she’s friendly enough toward him on a superficial level, she’s really got the hots for another officemate, a slick yuppie douchebag named Jeff (Richard Zaynor) who delights in tormenting poor Harold.

Our guy Harold eventually learns firsthand that the two of them are sleeping together, so he goes out to drown his sorrows at a local Cleveland-area watering hole ,whereupon he gets lured by a couple of ladies into a trap where some punk dudes who harassed him earlier at the bus stop rob him and beat him up.

That’s when Toby — excuse me, Harold — finally snaps and decides to get violent revenge on the society that has treated him like an outcast.

I don’t mean to give away too much of the plot here, but — oh, what the hell, I do, it’s not like it really matters anyway, the title gives it all away from the get-go. Toby/Harold goes back and gets payment for his humiliation in blood from the girls who set him up, the punks who beat him up, the woman who rejected his clumsy advances, and the smooth-talking slickster she’s fucking. He even kills his mom (while dressed in a diaper — an image you’ll never be able to get out of your mind) for good measure. Nobody that’s ever said or done anything mean to him is safe.

The kills are actually pretty creative for the most part, so I won’t give away any of the details )apart from the aforementioned diaper bit).  The ultra-cheap blood and gore effects are good, cheesy fun. The movie looks every bit as cheap as it is, and that’s satisfying for fans of trashy shit like myself.

The real joy of “Killer Nerd,” though, is just watching Toby essentially play himself. There’s no real “acting” required. He just has to read his lines and go through the motions while being who he is. Filmmaking doesn’t get any mor naturalistic than this, folks.

Toby on the loose!

Even the script essentially follows what you’d expect Toby to do in real life (up to the point where he becomes a mass-murdering maniac, of course). When he tries to get a date with Jenny, he invites her out to a church picnic he’s taking his mother to. He likes going to comic shows. He displays no social skills or any concern about what the fuck anyone else thinks of him. He talks the exact same way he does in real life. In short, Harold is Toby and Toby is Harold.

“Killer Nerd” is like watching the nerd Elvis or nerd Michael Jordan in his prime — at the top of his game and in full possession of all his nerdly powers. He is who he is, couldn’t be anything else if he tried, and isn’t interested in trying anyway. Take him as he is or get the fuck out of his way.

Or, you know, get killed. The choice is yours.

Oh, and it’s got one of the greatest lines in movie history — “Roses are red, violets are placid, you screwed me over — have a face full of acid!”

Whoops, I said I wouldn’t give away any of the details of Toby/Harold’s kill-spree. Oh well.

Anyway, let’s be honest — you go into a flick like this because you know exactly what you’re in for, not because you want a story full of plot twists and dramatic surprises.

Followed a year later by a sequel, “Bride of Killer Nerd,” where Harold finally meets the girl of his dreams, an equally-picked-on and equally-revenge-minded high school girl, which might actually be the “better” (and yes, I use that term very loosely) of the two films, both are available one one swell double-feature DVD package from Troma. In addition to the films, you get commentary from Toby and Wayne A. Harold, an exclusive interview with Toby s he “really” is (again, no real difference), a tour around Akron, Ohio with Toby and Troma head honcho Lloyd Kaufman, and the usual Troma stuff like Kaufman intros to the films and a Kaufman-directed music video, this one for a band called Purple Pam.

In a world full of posers, fakes, phonies, and pretenders, Toby Radloff is the genuine article. He’s probably been picked on and shunned and ridiculed and made fun of his whole life. And in “Killer Nerd” he gets to play out the type of revenge fantasies he’s probably entertained in private for years. For everyone to see.

I don’t know if that makes this film a form of  accidental therapy or what, but I suppose we ought to hope so. Because there are a lot of Toby Radloffs out there, who are probably one good shove or insult away from snapping and giving the slick, smooth-talking assholes of this world what they feel they deserve.

So hell yes, laugh all you want to at “Killer Nerd.” That’s what the movie is for. But depending on how you’ve treated the nerds in your life, it might be nervous laughter.

“Killer Nerd” — harmless ultra-cheesy straight-to-video schlock or advanced psychotherapy on a budget for a tormented outcast?

I leave it for you to decide. But it probably wouldn’t be the worst thing if every picked-on, eccentric, socially inept weirdo could have the kind of outlet that Toby Radloff has here.

Cover for Volume Two of Robin Bougie's "Cinema Sewer" from FAB Press

Okay, in fairness this book came out in August, but I just got around to finally finishing it and can safely say that Volume Two of Robin Bougie’s “Cinema Sewer,” billed (quite correctly, as it turns out) as “The Adults Only Guide To History’s Sickest and Sexiest Movies,”  from FAB Press, is even better than the first and is the must-have movie book of 2009.

As with the first volume, this is a collection of stuff largely reprinted from Mr. Bougie’s magazine of the same name (this new collection highlighting work from more recent issues within the past couple of years), with some important new material included for good measure, and is the same great combination of semi-pro film history criticism and underground cartooning that made the previous book such a goddamn joy to read.

Topics and films covered this time around include ultra-sleazy 70s porn staple “A Climax of Blue Power,”  second-rate biker flick “Chrome and Hot Leather,” John Carpenter’s all-time horror classic “The Thing,” the deservedly notorious “Emanuelle in America,” a history of  the rather more unbelievable episodes of TV’s “Diff’rent Strokes,” including the two-part story “The Bicycle Man” featuring Gordon Jump as a pedophile after Arnold and Dudley, a look at one-of-a-kind cable access show “Industrial Television,” a detailed examination of the history of MST3K favorite “Manos : The Hands of Fate,” a solid overview of the career of the one and only John Holmes and a great review of  the criminally underappreciated Wonderland Murders-centered flick “Wonderland” starring Val Kilmer as Johnny Wadd himself, and waaaaayyy too much more to mention.

Whether your interests lie in classic grindhouse and exploitation B-movie fare,  overlooked Hollywood gems, great horror, old-school, shot-on-film-like-it-should-be pornography, 1980s teen sex flicks, extreme modern porn, underground alternative cinema, weird TV, or any combination thereof, you’ll find hours of reading that’s right up your alley in this splendidly sordid collection.

Get it — now! That’s an order!

Not that I’ve got the right to order you around or anything.

The Most Fun You'll Have Reading About Trash Cinema

The Most Fun You'll Have Reading About Trash Cinema

Just a real quick heads-up for those who don’t already have it—the collected edition of the best of Robin Bougie’s extraordinarily bizarre “Cinema Sewer” magazine came out a few months back from FAB Press, and I have to say, even with all the absolutely terrific books on exploitation films that have come out in recent years, such as the late, great Bill Landis’ and Michelle Clifford’s superb “Sleazoid Express,” Stephen Thrower’s huge and indispensable “Nightmare USA,” and others, Mr, Bougie’s book is probably the most flat0out fun you’ll have reading about trash films.

The book collects the very best of the first several issues of the magazine of the same name, and adds a nice selection of new and updated material, as well. Mr. Bougie is a talented cartoonist, and the “half-book/half-comic” feel to the whole proceedings makes for a fast-paced, fun, and informative read. In addition, Bougie covers some truly bizarre stuff that you’re not likely to find written up in any other zine (“Let My Puppets Come,” for instance) and presents everything in a witty, accessible style.

I can’t sing the praises of this book highly enough, I had an absolute blast reading it. It’s available directly from FAB Press on their website (fabpress.com, of course), Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and the like, or directly from Mr. Bougie himself at cinemasewer.com, where you can find individual back issues and other goodies for sale, as well.

Bougie has been absolutely instrumental in exposing Z-grade masterpiece “Things” to  a wider audience, so what more does he need to do to prove his bona fides than that, I ask you? So stick your head into the Cinema Swer—sure, you may come out smelling foul, but you’ll have a great time getting messy!