Posts Tagged ‘fantagraphics books’

The name Gerald Jablonski is one that few people know, but everyone should — not that he probably cares either way. Jablonski’s comics career began in 1976 with a single strip in the pages of Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman’s Arcade #6, and then — nothing. He was literally the perennial “one-hit wonder” until 1990, when he suddenly decided to give the whole “comics career” thing another go, first with a strip in Snarf, then with further material appearing in anthology titles like Tantalizing Stories and Buzzard before Fantagraphics finally gave him a one-off book of his own, Empty Skull Comics, in 1996. And then things got kinda quiet again for the most part.

Fast-forward to 2001 when, thanks to a Xeric Grant (remember those?), he was able to self-publish the first issue of Cryptic Wit, a (very) semi-regular solo title that saw further installments unleashed on an undeserving public in 2008 and 2012. Obviously, then, “prolific” is something the esteemed Mr. Jablonski is not, but what he lacks in quantity he more than makes up for in quality. There’s just one problem with all of the publications his work has seen print in — they’ve never been big enough. And I do mean that in a strictly dimensional sense, rather than in terms of their length. Jablonski’s strips are so intricately-detailed and tightly-packed that the standard comics page — heck, even the magazine-sized pages of Buzzard — could never do them justice. Thankfully for us all, that problem has finally been solved thanks to Gary Groth’s “Fantagraphics Underground” sub-imprint, which has recently released the first, comprehensive, full-color collection of Jablonski’s work, entitled Farmer Ned’s Comics Barn, in a glorious 9 1/2″ x 13 1/2″ format, so at last we can see 100 pages of what this enigmatic talent has to offer without having to strain our eyes. Thank you!

To the extent that Jablonski’s comics are “known” for anything, it’s for their signature looping, twisting, spiraling word balloon tails. Seriously, they’re a veritable maze trailing from the mouths of their speakers, but as singularly bizarre as they are, they pale in comparison to the mind-bogglingly surreal contents of his (always one-page) strips themselves, which generally fall into three distinct groups :

  • The “Farmer Ned” stories begin with their eponymous narrator either lamenting the state of the world today, completely over-hyping the significance of the yarn he’s about to relate, or both, before cutting to a scene of a smart-assed young calf giving its mother a hard time and then following the travails of a disruptive newcomer to the farm (usually, though not always, a horse) who proceeds to work the nerves of every other animal around until the story not so much ends as simply stops;
  • The “Two Kids” stories delineate the wordless psychedelic violent confrontations between a youthful Ronald Reagan doppleganger and a youthful Gerald Ford doppleganger in a manner that can only be described as “Spy Vs. Spy on bad acid”;
  • And, finally, the “Howdy And Dee Dee” stories follow the exploits of a midlife, bear-faced “man” and his yellow-skinned, dog-eared nephew, who’s always playing his favorite band, Poopy, so loud that his uncle can’t hear his favorite radio serial, which inevitably leads to a series of vaudevillian insult trade-offs, followed by the nephew complaining about his teacher, who is an ant, and the arrival of a third figure, a friend of Dee Dee’s who looks vaguely like Tony Randall and never says a word. He does, however, wear a pink apron and look pained and/or constipated at all times. Again, these strips don’t really conclude, they just come to a stop, and their titles seldom, if ever, have anything to do with what’s happening on the page.

I’ll be the first to admit that the term “acquired taste” would be more than appropriate to drop into the proceedings as a descriptive at this point, but seriously — if you can’t get with this shit, it’s your loss. Jablonski’s comics are not only gut-bustingly hilarious, they’re also visually arresting on a level that’s almost impossible to conceive of until you see ’em for yourself. In his introduction to this volume, Jim Woodring reverently describes Jablonski as a true “lunatic,” and it’s no hyperbole — his vision is so well and truly singular that it could only come from a mind with no concern beyond emptying its contents onto the page in as authentic a manner as possible. The visual language they speak is so completely unlike anything else that it offers no evidence whatsoever its author has ever even seen another comic strip by another artist at any point in his life, much less bothered to develop an understanding of what his chosen medium “can” or “can’t,” “should” or “shouldn’t” do. Jablonski creates art for that rarest and most honest of all reasons — because he can and probably even must. The idea of an “end user” in the form of an audience doesn’t seem to enter into his thinking at all — you can take this shit or leave it, but it is what it is, and what it is certainly is nothing like anything else.

I’d say that I “love” this book, but honestly that seems too small a word with too narrow a set of emotions and reactions attached to it. In truth, I’m in awe of it, I’m perplexed by it, I’m amused (to no end) by it, I’m flabbergasted by it, I’m confounded by it, I’m fucking envious of the intellect it came from, and I’m amazed by the fact that I can be as constantly taken aback as I am by strips that play out in more or less exactly the same fashion every time. And maybe the best part of all is that Gerald Jablonski could care less what I think and he’s just gonna keep making the comics he wants to make in the way that he wants to make them, reaction to his work be damned. That’s integrity of a sort that’s almost impossible to come by in this day and age, and to which all I can say in response is — I don’t care how or when I die, just make sure I’m buried with a copy of Farmer Ned’s Comics Barn in my hands.

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Before we get rolling on our look back at 2016 in the world of comics, let’s take a brief moment to acknowledge the passing of two masters, shall we? Darwyn Cooke and Steve Dillon were  very different artists with very different visions and very different styles, no doubt about that, but both were among the very best at what they did, both entered this undeserving world in 1962, and both exited it, leaving it a decidedly poorer place for their passing, in 2016. Both gentleman turned the medium upside – down with their brilliance and created bodies of work that are more than guaranteed to stand the test of time, so I feel it’s only appropriate, prior to diving into our annual retrospective (which, you’ve officially been warned, will take a minute, so buckle in) to say “thank you” and “we miss you” one more time to this pair of undeniable greats. And now, onto the business at hand —

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Wow, it’s been quite a ride, hasn’t it? In a year when both of the “Big Two” decided to hit the “reset” button again, it’s probably fair to say that DC Universe : Rebirth #1 — and the entire Rebirth initiative in general — will go down as the major “event” of 2016, given that it essentially catapulted the publisher from a distant-second-place competitor to Marvel to “Top Dog” in the industry in the space of one month. That doesn’t mean that the comic itself was any good, of course — my feelings on it are well-known and I believe that Geoff Johns and his artistic collaborators Gary FrankEthan Van SciverIvan Reis and Phil Jimenez essentially churned out a stinkbomb here that will ultimately do both the DCU “proper” as well as the so-called “Watchmen Universe” no favors by setting them on a collision course with each other — but at this point, what’s done is done, and in the short run that means we’ve got a two-horse race for the top spot in the Diamond sales charts every month as DC’s decidedly mediocre twice-monthly efforts compete with yet fucking another round of “Marvel Now!” relaunched books that by and large are, in their own way, every bit as uninspired and predictable as their rivals’ four-color “floppies.” Honestly, this has been the most convoluted path back to the status quo that I’ve ever seen, and just goes to show that a bunch of hype is all that’s needed to sell readers on the same old crap. Of the two reboots, Marvel’s is the most promising, given that they’ve made an effort to carve out some space for genuinely interesting and off-beat titles, but you know most of ’em aren’t going to last, as the so-called “House Of Ideas” is putting far more promotional muscle behind crap like this —

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than they are behind intriguing and potentially subversive fare like this :

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So, yeah, on the whole, count me as being more or less completely uninspired by both major initiatives by both major publishers. Marvel’s in the awkward position (although it’s one they’re well used to after last year’s Secret Wars) of rolling out a raft of new books hot on the tail of a major crossover that hasn’t even ended yet, given that Civil War II was beset by the usual delays we’ve come to expect from these things, but I do give ’em credit for having about a half-dozen or so pretty good books stemming from “Marvel Now!” 2016 — and that’s roughly four more than post-Rebirth DC is giving us. For all that, though, once you move outside the Rebirth realm, DC is actually putting out a fair number of quite good books, which brings us to our main order of business here —

Ryan C.’s Top 10 Comics Series Of 2016

Same rules as always apply : these can be either “limited” or “ongoing” series — as long as they came out within the past 12 months in single-issue format (our preferred consumption method around these parts), we don’t discriminate. But it’s not a “real” Top 10 list without at least a couple of “honorable mentions,” though, is it? So let’s look at those first —

Honorable Mention #1 : American Monster (Aftershock)

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Brian Azzarello — whose name will be coming up again later for decidedly less complimentary reasons — is proving he’s “still got it” and then some with this decidedly sleazy, amoral small-town crime series that features a cast of pedophiles, gun-runners, neo-Nazis, corrupt preachers, and other fine, upstanding citizens. And Juan Doe‘s animation-cel inspired art is absolutely killer. Unfortunately, this book has seen so many publication delays that we only got three issues all year. If it was coming out on anything like an even remotely consistent basis, this would not only be “Top 10” material all the way, it might be “Top 2 Or 3.” I love this comic. Now feed me more of it.

Honorable Mention #2 : Power Man And Iron Fist (Marvel)

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David F. Walker is The Man. You could ask for no more perfect writer to chronicle the exploits of Luke Cage and Danny Rand. And Sanford Greene and frequent fill-in Flaviano Armentaro are doing a nice job on the art. Unfortunately, this title got sidetracked for no less than four months into the creative black hole that is Civil War II, and while these issues weren’t bad for tie-in nonsense, they were still — well, tie-in nonsense. Now that we’ve got the real story rolling again, all is right with the world, and you can blame this one narrowly missing out on the Top 10 squarely and solely on Marvel editorial, who steered the ship into “event” territory before it even had a chance to properly get its feet off the ground. It was a real momentum-killing decision, and I sincerely hope it won’t prove to be a fatal one, as well — but it may turn out to be just that given that sales on this series have been tanking in recent months. So much for the notion that cross-over “events” boost interest in a book.

Honorable Mention #3 : Love And Rockets (Fantagraphics)

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I’m not too proud to admit it — seeing the first issue of this new series from Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez on the shelves of my LCS, and back in its original magazine format at that, was enough to make me tear up just a little bit for a second. It was hardly an issue for the ages or anything, but everything about this just feels right. I love it when life comes full-circle, I love Los Bros., I love their characters, and I love this world. It’s a shoe-in for the Top 10 next year, but one issue is simply too small a sample size for me too include it in good conscience this time out. Not that I wasn’t tempted.

Honorable Mention #4 : The Fix (Image)

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Nobody does fuck-up criminal low-lifes like Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber, and in the pages of this book they up the ante by making their fuck-up criminal low-lifes cops, to boot. This comic is all kinds of perverse and depraved fun, and I’d dearly love to have found a spot for it in the Top 10, but there simply wasn’t room for more than — well, shit, ten titles. Nevertheless, it’s a series you absolutely should be pulling.

And now onto the main event —

10. Doom Patrol (DC’s Young Animal)

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The flagship title of Gerard Way‘s new “art comics” imprint, this book is proving a mere three issues in that it’s gonna push these characters in directions even Grant Morrison never dreamed of. Way and artist Nick Derington are doing the genuinely unthinkable here — producing a well and truly experimental comic with the full blessing of one of the “Big Two” publishers. All may not be lost, after all.

9. Deadly Class (Image)

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Rick Remender and Wes Craig gave us the “Holy Shit!” moment of the year in comics when they actually fucking killed their protagonist (doubly shocking when you consider he was an obvious stand-in for a youthful Remender himself) twenty-some issues in, but the new crop of students at King’s Dominion Atelier For The Deadly Arts is decidedly less interesting than was the last, hence the drop for this series from its loftier perch last year.

8. Southern Bastards (Image)

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Jasons Aaron and Latour just don’t let up. This deep-friend southern noir is loaded with so much gallows humor, spot-on characterization, and low-rent evil that not even a spotty publication schedule and a lackluster fill-in issue could keep it outta the Top 10. A legend in the making, even if it ends up taking a decade for it all to get made.

7. Jacked (Vertigo)

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As near as I can determine, nobody other than myself actually read Eric Kripke and John Higgins’ superb six-part tale of pharmaceutically-charged super-hero revisionism, and that’s a damn shame as it’s one of the single finest and most honest portrayals of mid-life crisis that this beleaguered medium has ever produced, and the art is simply sensational. Do yourself a favor and grab it in trade — you won’t be disappointed, and you won’t hate yourself for that beer gut and receding hairline anymore, either.

6. The Vision (Marvel)

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Enough ink — both physical and digital — has been spilled in praise of Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta‘s admittedly Philip K. Dick-inspired techno-Shakespearean tragedy that adding to it just feels like piling on against the rest of the industry at this point. Suffice to say all the superlatives you’ve heard are true and then some and yeah, this one has “destined to be talked about for years to come” written all over it.

5. Hip Hop Family Tree (Fantagraphics)

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Ed Piskor put the wraps on the 12-part single-issue reprintings of his cultural history milestone earlier this year, and while I’ll certainly continue to collect and enjoy his oversized hardcover volumes, there was just something about having these previously-told stories presented on cheap, pre-yellowed newsprint that was beyond awesome. And the last issue even came packaged with an old-school floppy record — that was actually a code for a free digital download, but whatever. This book was more satisfying than a 40 of Olde English on a hot summer day.

4. Glitterbomb (Image)

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Jim Zub and deliriously-talented newcomer Djibril Morissette-Pham came out of nowhere with this series about Lovecraftian horror intersecting with the seedier side of post-fame Tinseltown (with bloody results) and just blew me the fuck away. The surprise hit of the year for this armchair critic and a book I can’t stop thinking or talking about. The first trade should be out soon enough and collects the self-contained story presented in issues 1-4,  and they’re coming back in late 2017 with a new arc that — man, I just don’t even know where they go from here. But I’m dying to find out.

3. The Flintstones (DC)

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Believe it. Mark Russell and Steve Pugh are putting out the most socially- and politically-relevant comic on the stands, and the satire in this book is by turns hilarious and heartwarming. A truly “mature” take on characters we thought we already knew everything there was to know about, and consistently one of the smartest books you’ll have the pleasure of reading. I don’t know that I have words to adequately describe how unexpectedly awesome this series is — when I said that DC was actually putting out some damn good stuff outside its main Rebirth line, this is exactly what I was talking about. If you’d have told me a year ago that one of the books I was going to be most eagerly looking forward to month-in and month-out was going to be The Flintstones, I would have thought you’d lost it. In fact, I probably would have said that Donald effing Trump had a better chance of being elected president. And yet, here we are — ain’t life crazy? And shitty? But at least we have this comic, and as antidotes to a new age of right-wing anti-intellectual barbarism go, you won’t find much better.

2. The Sheriff Of Babylon (Vertigo)

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The Vision may have gotten all the attention, but Tom King‘s best series of 2016 — by a wide margin, in my view — was this Iraq-set murder mystery drawn heavily from his own experiences as a CIA case officer during that bloody boondoggle of a war. Every aspect of this comic is almost painfully authentic, and Mitch Gerads rounds the package out with artwork so gritty you can feel the sand underneath your fingertips. This. Shit. Was. Amazing. Or maybe that should be “is” amazing, since — well, more on that in a minute.

1. Providence (Avatar)

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I’m out of superlatives, honestly. I review each issue of this series as it comes out, and my mind is blown more completely every time. I said last year that Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows were potentially creating the comic of the young century with this volume of their “Lovecraft Cycle,” and with one installment left to go in this 12-parter, I think it’s safe to say we can take the “potentially” qualifier out of that statement :  Providence is, in fact, the best comic of the century so far.

Wait, though! We’re far from done —

On the graphic novel front, it’s gotta be said that 2016 was a banner year, as well, in many respects — but I’m always a bit perplexed on how best to assemble a “best-of” list when it comes to the GN format because it only seems fair to subdivide it down into wholly original works, trade collections, old-school vintage reprints, etc. Throw in the fact that may “original” graphic novels got their start as serialized installments on the web, and things get even dicier. What really constitutes “new” work anymore? Still, there is definitely plenty outside the realm of the single-issue “floppy” that deserves a mention, and so —

Original Graphic Novel Of The Year : Patience By Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics)

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Five years in the making, and it shows in every panel on every page. Clowes outdoes himself with each new project, it seems, and this is jewel in his creative crown — until the next one, at any rate. Love, obsession, longing, time travel, regret, loneliness, desolation — even optimism? This work encompasses all of it and then some; a monumental achievement of staggering proportions.

Best Collected Edition Of Recent Work : American Blood By Benjamin Marra (Fantagraphics)

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Anyone who’s read Terror Assaulter : O.M.W.O.T. knows that Ben Marra exists on a planet of his own, and this collection of the self-published works issued under his awesomely-named Traditional Comics imprint runs the stylistic gamut from insanely exaggerated pseudo-“realism” to Gary Panter-esque primitive id-channeling. WaPo columnist Maureen Dowd as a sexy super-spy? Bloodthirsty barbarians from distant worlds? Gang-bangers who do nothing but fuck and kill? Freed slaves who can tear white men apart with their bare hands? It’s all here, in suitably gaudy purple-and-white.

Best Collected Edition Of Vintage WorkMarvel Masterworks : The Black Panther, Volume 2 By Jack Kirby (Marvel)

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In recent years, the awesome body of work produced by The King Of Comics during his second, late-’70s stint at Marvel has finally been given its due as the visionary output it so clearly was, but while books like Machine ManThe EternalsDevil Dinosaur and “Madbomb!”-era Captain America have now taken their rightful place among the rich pantheon of Kirby masterworks, Jack’s Black Panther run from that same period still doesn’t get anything like the love it deserves. Hopefully this handsome hardbound collection will finally start to clue readers in to what a magical and imaginative Wakanda Kirby created in this high-flying techno-fantasy epic.

It wasn’t all good news, though, and since we’re on the subject of T’Challa, we might as well segue into some of 2016’s lowlights —

Most Disappointing Series Of The Year #1 : Black Panther (Marvel)

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There’s no doubt that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a literary and journalistic genius, and his voice in this ugly new Trump-ian era is more necessary and urgent than ever. Unfortunately, he can’t write a comic to save his life, and his dour, humorless, self-absorbed, navel-gazing take on The Panther reads like a relic of the worst sort of over-wrought 1990s excesses. This is a genuinely lousy title, and it doesn’t help that neither of its usually-reliable artists, Brian Stelfreeze and Chris Sprouse, are delivering anything like their best work.

Most Disappointing Series Of The Year #2 : Batman (DC)

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Tom King giveth, and Tom King taketh away. We’ve already covered the great stuff he’s given readers in 2016, but he’s also taken one of the most consistently-good super-hero books and turned it into a massive fucking train wreck. Lots of people were jazzed when he was announced as Scott Snyder‘s replacement on the “main” Bat-book, but King has struggled to find a “voice” for Bruce Wayne either in or out of the cape and cowl, his two major storylines to date have featured ridiculous plots, and 13 issues in all we can really say is that he writes a pretty good Alfred. The illustration by David Finch on the first five-issue story arc was atrocious, and the only thing that saved this title from being dropped from my pull for the first time ever was when the magnificent Mikel Janin took over art chores with the second arc and delivered work of absolutely breathtaking scope and grandeur. Still, at this point, I have to say — when he goes, I go. And I think he’s gone after next issue. And yet, horseshit as this book has been, it’s nothing compared with our —

Worst Comic Of The Year : Dark Knight III : The Master Race (DC)

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Unmitigated garbage that plumbs new depths of hopelessness with every issue, Brian AzzarelloAndy Kubert and Klaus Janson (with nominal involvement from Frank Miller) are doing something here no one thought possible : making fans yearn for the days of The Dark Knight Strikes Again!  (which, admittedly, I’ve always liked, but no one else does). Also, they seem to be doing their level best to match that title’s glacial publication schedule. At this rate, we’re gonna wait three years to complete a story that’s been a total waste of time from the outset. This series is honestly starting to rival Before Watchmen  in the “artistically-bankrupt blatant cash-grab” category. I expected nothing from it, true — and yet somehow we’re getting even less than that.

I’m going to close on something of a high note for DC, though, if you can believe it, because they also get the award for —

Best Development Of 2016 DC’s Young Animal

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I’m still not sure what the hell a “pop-up imprint” is, but Gerard Way has one he can call his very own, and so far all four series released under this label’s auspices — Doom Patrol (as previously discussed), Shade, The Changing GirlCave Carson Has A Cybernetic Eye and Mother Panic — have been not just good, but great. While at first DCYA sounded like little more than a stylistic heir to vintage-era Veritgo to my mind, in fact its aims seem to be much different, while admittedly utilizing a number of characters and concepts from that fan-favorite period. This is an imprint where anything both goes and can happen, and we’ve sorely needed that for waaaaayyy too long. In short, this is the most exciting thing either of the “Big Two” have done in — shit, as long as I can remember. Long may it continue.

So — What About The Year To Come?

By the sound of it there’s plenty to be excited about, from Warren Ellis spearheading the re-launch of WildStorm to the debuts of much-publicized new series from Image such as God Country and The Few, but my most-anticipated events of 2017 (at least as far we know now) would have to be —

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March 31st (seriously, guys?) is slated as the provisional release date for Providence #12, and to say that I can’t wait to find out how it all ends would be an understatement of criminal proportions. It would also be an equally-proportionate understatement to say that I’ll simply “miss” this series when it’s over. So, ya know, maybe take your time with that last issue, after all.

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The so-called second “season” of The Sheriff Of Babylon is due to hit sometime in the latter part of the year and, simple as the “teaser” image shown above was, it was still enough to get me excited. And finally —

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January sees the release of the first installment of Kamandi Challenge, a “round-robin” 12-part series from DC starring The Last Boy On Earth that features a different creative team on each issue trying to solve the cliffhangers left by the folks the month before, as well setting up new messes for the next bunch to get themselves out of. This is the first of what I hope to be many releases commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kirby that we can look forward to over the next 12 months — in fact, DC has just also announced an omnibus hardcover reprinting of Kirby’s entire original Kamandi run, so let’s hope that 2017 really will be a vintage year for fans of The King.

Whew! Okay! We’re done for the year! Enjoy your holidays — or what remains of them — and we’ll see you back here in January, when we get to start the whole thing all over again!

 

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I probably shouldn’t even try to review this, to be honest.

There’s such a thing, after all, as being too attached to something — and Love And Rockets, arguably the seminal independent comics series of all time,  has been part of my life since I first discovered it at age 12 and allowed brothers Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez (heck, third brother Mario was even part of the mix back then) to expand my definition of what comics could both achieve and be well beyond my then-current preconceptions of the medium. And while there have been times when my interest in it has ebbed and flowed, it’s always been there. From its first magazine incarnation to the “solo” series that followed in its wake to its second iteration in standard comic-book format to its most recent version as a series of annual (or thereabouts) graphic novels (all published, as they have been since the beginning, by Fantagraphics Books), I’ve grown up — and now find myself growing old(er) — with Maggie, Hopey, Luba, Fritz, and the rest of this series’ heartbreakingly human cast of characters. But in recent years, something hasn’t felt quite right.

It’s not the stories or art, don’t get me wrong — while I can’t imagine that readership for the graphic novels is anywhere near as large as the series used to enjoy as a periodical, those who haven’t been following it of late have missed out on some of the best stories Gilbert and Jaime have ever produced. It wasn’t until the announcement was made a few months ago that the upcoming fourth volume of Love And Rockets would see it return to its original magazine format, though, that I realized what had been missing, and while it’s tempting to say that this switch is more an appeal to nostalgia than anything else, in truth I think there’s something more — something greater — going on here. It feels like the time is right for all of these characters to come home.

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Not that they really can, of course. Or, perhaps paradoxically, that they ever even left. One of the great things about what Los Bros. have done over the nearly 35-year span of this series is that they’ve allowed each and every member of their now-sprawling casts to change, evolve, and essentially lead real lives. They may age more slowly than you and I, sure, but they’re not frozen in time by any means, and it’s been fascinating to see how they all fall into patterns of behavior most of us can recognize and relate to, then occasionally break or find themselves thrust out of them by choice or circumstance, only to (usually) drift back into them with ever-increasing knowledge of exactly what they’re doing each time it happens. And seriously — would you have it any other way? I mean, the whole Maggie/Hopey “thing” will probably never be resolved — but who the hell wants to see them part company for more than a short while, anyway?

At some point in life we start to value the comforts of the familiar, it’s true, but that needn’t necessarily mean that creative stagnation has to set in for Gilbert and Jaime. It just means that this next phase in both of their respective narratives seems to be arcing toward a sort of return to roots, a new look at what’s made their work so singular and special from the outset from a new, more mature, more settled perspective. And if that prediction holds true, than the return to a magazine format will make sense not only from a commercial perspective, but from a creative one, as well.

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Some of that may be wishful thinking on my part, I suppose, but these guys haven’t let me down yet. And while it’s more than fair to say that the first issue of the “new” Love And Rockets isn’t without its flaws — Jaime’s opening strip is strangely flat, emotionally speaking, and in truth neither brother does much in order to acclimate potential new readers to their surroundings — it’s just as true to say that this all somehow feels inherently “right” in ways that a simple format switch alone can’t explain. Aging, one way or another, is the unifying thematic thread throughout the stories presented here (except for Jaime’s surreal sci-fi tale at the end — don’t ask me what that one’s about, but I still loved it), and while it may sound wretchedly pretentious to say it like this, one gets the distinct impression that, after wandering off and exploring other options, Love And Rockets is ready to be a magazine again.

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I hope a lot of readers that have drifted away from it are ready to come back, too. This issue is one of those things that has the very real potential to bring folks back into comic book stores who haven’t been there in a long time. Certainly sales at my LCS were brisk — there were only four copies left by the time I got there around 2:00 in the afternoon last Wednesday, so that’s a good sign. And who knows? If going back to the oversized periodical works for Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, maybe folks like Dan Clowes and Peter Bagge might find themselves tempted to do the same?

Okay, no “that may be be —” disclaimer required this time : I know that’s wishful thinking on my part. But what the hell? I already feel a good 20 years younger thanks to this comic. What harm can come from allowing myself to dream again? And if there’s one thing that Love And Rockets #1 proves above all else it’s that dreams, at least occasionally, do come true.

 

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If you were to base your view of inner-city American life on the mouth-foaming ravings of Donald Fucking Trump, you’d probably come to the conclusion that it’s a 24/7 struggle for survival limned on all sides by vicious gang-banging predators, bloodthirsty illegal aliens, out of control black youths out to shoot any cop they find merely for sport, and homeless derelicts who will do anything for their next crack “fix.” Furthermore, you’d also likely believe that there’s literally no way out of this beyond-hopeless situation (unless you vote for him, of course) because the public schools are all failing, noble police officers get no help in addressing the problems they face because local politicians are all on the take, there are no jobs to be had anywhere within a 50-mile radius of any given “urban core,” and God has left the building and ain’t comin’ back.

But ya know what? That ain’t shit, because if you were to base your view of inner-city American life on the batshit insane comic strips by the late writer H.P. McElwee (a.k.a. “R.D. Bone”) and his artistic collaborator/partner Lawrence Hubbard (a.k.a. “Raw Dog”) as presented in the pages of their self-published Real Deal (variously known as Real Deal Magazine or Real Deal Comix, depending on which of the seven issues you have at hand), you’d think it was even worse than the picture Trump paints.

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McElwee and Hubbard pioneered the genre that they themselves billed as “urban chaos” beginning in the early 1990s, and while none of their self-published comics ever made it to any of my local shops at the time, they were definitely something of a cult sensation, particularly in their “home base” of — you guessed it — Los Angeles. Ultra-violence of the most extreme and tasteless variety was the order of the day in Real Deal, with literally every single character out to fuck shit up at all times simply because they can — or should that be every male character, since the women in this OTT inner-city post-apocalyptic-style wasteland are either props and/or nuisances and every last one of them is apparently named “bitch.” So, if you like your beyond-gritty urban survival tales peppered with an (un)healthy dose of straight-up, 80-proof misogyny, this is definitely the comic for you.

As for me? Man, I don’t judge. This stuff is obviously a product of desperate fucking need to create, and to leave it all on the page. McElwee certainly couldn’t “write” in the conventional sense any more than Hubbard — who has carried the Real Deal torch into the 21st century (shit, the ostensibly “alternative” clothing company Stussy even put out a series of t-shirts featuring his art a couple years back, and 2013 saw the release of the first new issue of the comic in almost two decades) since his partner in aesthetic crime passed away from stroke-and-heart-attack-related complications ’round about the time of issue number five — can be said to be able to “draw,” but for a book whose motto was/is “More Rage Per Page! More Slaughter For Your Dollar!,” this thing definitely brings it in spa — err, hold on, that probably isn’t gonna sound right. Let’s just say there’s a whole lot of what’s promised, and then some.

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Fantagraphics Books has recently (as in, like, last week) released a handsome, foil-embossed-logo-bearing hardback collection of the “best” of McElwee and Hubbard’s work entitled, simply, Real Deal Comix, and you’ll know within the first couple of pages whether this is the sort of thing for you or not. If you take it all at face value, there are plenty of reasons for anyone — black, white, somewhere in between, or none of the above — to be offended by what’s being proffered here, but for my money I still think I know satire when I see it, and viewed through that lens you’ve gotta say these two guys are absolute geniuses. In fact, their work carries on in the best tradition of the undergrounds by exaggerating social problems to the extreme (at the very least!) in order to illuminate them, and there’s a heavy and obvious blaxploitation influence on this stuff that gives it all an extra dose of , dare I say it, nostalgic innocence.

And while I can’t believe I just said that about a book that features such hear-warming images as a “rent-a-cop” security guard taking an ice pick to the neck and a black short-order cook dunking a screaming white chick’s baby into a deep-fat fryer. there you have it. This is primal, unfiltered, straight-from-the-id work that will have you laughing in spite of yourself on every single page, and it’s so relentless and full-throttle that you simply aren’t given the time to feel all that guilty about it — even if you’re Catholic. It’s sick. It’s wrong. It’s twisted. It’s unforgivable. And it’s completely awesome.

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All that being said, if somebody finds Real Deal to be a bridge too far for their sensibilities (or perhaps even their conscience) to cross, I’m not going to chide them for being members of the largely- illusory “PC police” or write them off as “whiny SJWs” or whatever other dumbshit Breitbart-esque term you wanna use. Everything here — from the “adventures” of low-rent hustler G.C. and his goons to the depraved exploits of the urban A-Team knock -off “The R Team” — is toxic beyond both reason and belief. And if a couple of white guys made a book even half this blatantly and deliriously offensive, they’d be branded as racists — and rightly so, because they couldn’t imbue it with anything like the (dare I say it) authenticity that McElwee and Hubbard bring to the table. Is this world of pimps, convicts, casual psychopaths, deranged war veterans, crack whores, petty thieves, degenerate debt-welchers, loser addicts, and lunatic enforcers anything much like what you’ll find in even the worst areas of Watts or Compton? Nah — but that doesn’t make it any less real.

Like all of the best works of art, then, Real Deal — which, pathetic completitst that I am, I now find myself desperately searching for in single-issue form — forces you to meet it on its terms and take it or leave it. And it even goes one better by letting you know “from jump” that it just flat-out doesn’t give a fuck what you think of it either way. Maybe I’m just old-school, but there’s literally no way I can’t respect the hell outta that, and while I’m sure that there have been better, more worthy, and certainly more accomplished works of creative expression than the ugly beast that McElwee and Hubbard have wrought, there haven’t been many that are more raw, more immediate, and more true to their own fucked-up vision. Buy it or die, punk-ass muthafucka!

Patience

And so — here it is. Five years on from the release of his last original graphic novel, Wilson, comes (at long last) the ironically-titled Patience, Daniel Clowes’  self-described “cosmic timewarp deathtrip to the primordial infinite of everlasting love.” Which only sounds like it doesn’t make any sense but is, in actuality, a stellar example of truth in advertising.

Confused yet? There’s really no need to be, even though Patience hails from that frequently-most-confusing-of-all genres, the time-travel story (I won’t call it  science fiction because the “science” involved in this book is clearly and plainly absolute hokum) — and that’s down to the simple fact that Clowes actually keeps things fairly straight-forward here, and is, as always, much more concerned with his characters than he is with the plot devices he employs getting them from their various “Point A”s to their “Point B”s. And frankly, those characters feel pretty well instantly familiar to anyone who’s followed his creative oeuvre through the decades.

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Our protagonist this time out is one Jack Barlow, at first glance a standard-issue luckless Clowesian archetype who has found what passes for undeserved salvation in the form of his wife, the titular Patience, and their soon-to-be-born first child (the story, in fact, opens with the moment of the baby’s conception detailed in stark close-up). Sure, they’re broke, and sure, he’s bullshitting her about a job he doesn’t really have, and sure, she’s still coming to grips with her fucked-up past, but somehow — some way — Jack just knows things are gonna work out. Until an intruder breaks into their apartment and kills Patience, their unborn offspring, and his entire future in one go.

When next we meet him Jack’s a bitter old man in the year 2029 who hasn’t allowed himself a moment’s happiness in 17 years. A crackpot would-be scientist offers a “solution” most would scoff at in the form of a mechanical-and-drug-induced time travel method, and our now-pathetically-desperate “hero” is just dumb and/or bottomed-out enough to give it a go. Lo and behold it works, of course, and as we journey from 2029 to 2006 to 1985 to, eventually, the “present” (okay, 2012) again, what changes even more than the  period settings is Jack’s level of single-minded, frankly harrowing, determination. We’ve already established (or at least I’ve opined) that all Clowes stories are character studies first and foremost, and obsession is common theme in his work that goes all the way back to Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron‘s Clay and absolutely informs each and every action of the title characters in David Boring and Wilson. One could also argue, though — and quite successfully — that characters like Ghost World‘s Enid and Mister Wonderful‘s Marshall are clearly obsessives in their own right, as well. So, yeah — familiar turf here for anyone who’s been following along since Eightball.

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Don’t take that to mean that that there’s nothing new under the sun with this story, though. Clowes has played in various genre sandboxes before, of course, from super-heroes to surrealism to autobiography to noir fiction (elements of which certainly make their presence felt here in Jack’s constantly-running, world-weary internal monologue that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Raymond Chandler novel — hmm, Barlow as Marlowe?), but never has he wedded a deconstruction of their trappings so closely with the overall “arc” of his characters. And never has he given his typically-unlikable central figure such a concrete and well-realized reason for being a self-centered ass — nor to, believe it or not, cheer for him. Or at the very least for his aims.

Maybe the years are mellowing Clowes, or maybe he’s just adopted a more holistic view of the human condition for reasons known only to him, but whatever the reason,  redemption never feels completely out of reach for Jack in these pages and, more crucially, we never feel like he, his wife, and his child don’t have it coming. Especially not after all they’ve been through.  Jack in particular may not always be easy to like — but he’s always easy to empathize with, and that speaks to a further maturation and honing of his creator’s already-exceptional storytelling skills.

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As far as the art in Patience is concerned, Clowes’ line-work is a bit less “tight,” and more “free-form,” than it used to be, and while every page of every panel is still instantly recognizable as coming from his hand, there’s a fluidity and dynamism to it that is a more recent — and entirely welcome — development. The psychedelic double-page spreads (such as the one pictured above) that we’re treated to here probably would have missed the mark by at least a hair if attempted by the Daniel Clowes of, say, 1996, but the Daniel Clowes of 2016 absolutely nails ’em with every bit as much bravado and confidence as he brings to the refreshingly- non-photo-referenced images of 1985 and 2006 bleak American suburbia. This is, simply put, an astonishing book to look at, and the lavish colors are the perfect icing on the metaphorical cake.

At the end of the day it’s, of course, an astonishing book to read. I’ve made it through Patience, cover-to-cover, twice now, and I have no doubt that many more a sitting will be spent eagerly re-examining its contents. We’re barely over three months into 2016, it’s true, but barring an absolute miracle of Earth-shaking proportions, I fully well expect this to go down as the graphic novel of the year — if not of the last several.

 

Okay, so normally I pretty much avoid “top 10” lists because I’m sure they’ll make me cringe later — and when it comes to movies there’s probably a few (at least) deserving entries that would flat-out slip my increasingly calcified and deteriorating mind — but ya know, as far as comics go, this year I think I can do it. One caveat, though : since we’re big believers in monthly (or less-than-monthly, as the case may be) “singles” around these parts, the following list is specifically for comic book series, be they of the ongoing or limited-duration variety,  and therefore you will find no graphic novels, digital comics, or anything of the like here, although I should stress that there were any number of absolutely excellent comics that came out last year in those formats — I just wanted my list to reflect my preference for “floppy” books that are serialized in the good, old-fashioned, printed single-issue format. So without any further ado —

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10. Southern Bastards (Jason Aaron/Jason Latour – Image)

The pacing of this series is certainly unique, with the Jasons (Aaron and Latour) going from extended stage-setting in the first arc to a multi-part “origin” of the series’ chief villain in the second to side-steps focusing on supporting characters in the third, but they definitely seem to be building up to something big and memorable in an unconventional, but certainly appealing, way.

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9. The Twilight Children (Gilbert Hernandez/Darwyn Cooke – DC/Vertigo)

Classic Hernandez “location-centric” storytelling peppered with broadly-drawn, memorable characters orbiting around a truly fascinating mystery/supernatural thriller. Cooke’s illustration is, of course, superb.

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8. Tet (Paul Tucker/Paul Allor – IDW/Comics Experience)

The second series produced under the auspices of Comics Experience’s publishing partnership with IDW, Paul Tucker and Paul Allor’s four-parter is the most harrowing and effective meditation on the human cost of war to appear on the comics page in literally a couple of decades. Now available in trade, go out and grab it immediately.

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7. Deadly Class (Rick Rememder/Wes Craig – Image)

Things seem to be heading into Battle Royale territory here, with the exploits of Marcus and his increasingly-fractured circle of former “friends” taking a number of gut-wrenching twists and turns over the course of 2015. Wes Craig’s art gets stronger and more confident with each issue.

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6. Annihilator (Grant Morrison/Frazer Irving – Legendary)

Morrison’s Philip K. Dick-esque mind-fuck script is brought to grand, cosmic life by Irving’s absolutely spectacular art to create a story of personal tragedy played out on a universe-shaking scale. Now out in trade and definitely worth a purchase.

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5. Big Man Plans (Eric Powell/Tim Wiesch – Image)

The most gleefully anti-social and misanthropic book of 2015, this Powell/Wiesch four-part series embraces the most extreme aspects of the grindhouse without remorse or even apology. A visceral wallop to the face that leaves you reeling — and loving every minute of it. The trade’s available now, so do yourself a favor.

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4. Effigy (Tim Seeley/Marley Zarcone – DC/Vertigo)

Seven amazing issues of “reality”TV/celebrity “culture” deconstruction wrapped around a trans-dimensional mystery story that’s been on a “hiatus” since September that I’m increasingly worried may be permanent. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, because Seeley and Zarcone have barely begun to scratch the surface here.

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3. Crossed + One Hundred (Alan Moore/Simon Spurrier/Gabriel Andrade/Fernando Heinz/Rafa Ortiz – Avatar Press)

Moore and Andrade’s initial six-issue story arc was absolutely epic and arguably the best “zombie comic” of all time, and while it took a little while for Simon Spurrier to find his footing as The Bearded One’s successor, he seems to have finally discovered his own voice while remaining true to his predecessor’s “blueprint” of strong “world building” littered with knowing winks in the direction of various genre fiction classics.

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2. Hip Hop Family Tree (Ed Piskor – Fantagraphics Books)

Piskor has “re-purposed” his oversized hardcover cultural history as a monthly series on cheap paper with intentionally-shoddy production values and the end result is a revelation. Yeah, the gigantic volumes are great, but dammit, this is how the series should have been presented all along. A wealth of new material, including “director’s commentary” pages, definitely helps, as well. Worth the “double dip,” without question.

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1.  Providence (Alan Moore/Jacen Burrows – Avatar Press)

No surprise at all for regular readers of my shit, the latest and greatest entry in the Moore/Burrows “Lovecraft Cycle,” now at its halfway point, is shaping up to be the most literate, multi-layered, immersive comics reading experience of the decade, as well as one of the best pure horror comics, well, ever. I’ve written somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 words on the series already, and it’s nowhere near enough, so expect plenty more single-issue reviews for the now-apparently-bimonthly series as 2016 rolls along. If I only had five bucks to my name and the latest issue was coming out, I’d buy Providence and go hungry — it’s just. That. Fucking. Good.

A few final points — while Image certainly dominated the list this year, their two most popular and acclaimed titles, Saga and Sex Criminals, are nowhere to be found here. I felt that both had “off years” and that their currently-running story arcs are definitely not up to previous standards. Saga will most likely rebound, but Sex Criminals is just getting swallowed further and further down into its own self-created rabbit hole and may very well have, pun absolutely intended, shot its wad by this point.

And while we’re on the subject of list domination, I’d be surprised if Image pulls a “repeat” in 2016, to be honest. Not because their line is getting worse, mind you, but because Vertigo is just getting that much better. They came on strong at the tail end of 2015 with their re-launch, but a one-or two-issue sample size just isn’t enough to earn most of these superb new series, like Slash & BurnRed ThornThe Sheriff Of BabylonUnfollowLast Gang In Town, or the latest iteration of Lucifer spots in this year’s top 10. Next year, however, is another matter entirely, and unless these books go to pot, I fully expect Veritgo to be the publisher to beat in 2016.

So — that’s our (alright, my) 2015 list. I’m a little bummed that female creators aren’t better-represented herein, to be sure (Marley Zarcone’s the only one), but hopefully the increased presence of women in the freelancer ranks will continue apace and my list next year — assuming I do one — will be far more gender-balanced. Kelly Sue DeConnick is certainly blazing a heck of a trail with Bitch Planet, and Gail Simone is in top creative form so far on Clean Room, but both of those books fell just outside my rankings this time around. Still, I’m as unpleasantly surprised as anyone that the comics industry is still as depressingly male-dominated as it is.

As far as more pleasant  surprises go, I never thought I’d be putting together a Top 10 list in 2015 that featured Alan Moore twice. If I was doing this in 30 years ago, sure, but apparently Moore is every bit the creative dynamo at age 63 as he was at 33, and so if I had to single out one “creator of the year,” he’d be it. In fact, he’d earn the nod by a country mile. I only wish that more people were actually, ya know, buying his stuff. Providence is selling great for an Avatar book, but it’s still routinely bested on the Diamond charts by even the most tepid and uninspired “Big Two” fare, so if there’s one thing we know about comics heading into 2016, it’s that the overwhelming majority of stuff coming out will still, sorry to say it, suck.

Okay, that’s it for this time around — here’s to happy reading in the year ahead!

 

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The panel presented above comes from Steve Ditko’s 2011 comic Sixteen, published by Robin Snyder, and while the book’s title may be disarmingly straightforward, its themes are indeed complex and build off ideas that its artist/writer has been exploring for years. All you need to know to grasp the (perhaps tenuous) connection this piece has with this particular installment of our “Just Pay Ditko!” series, though, is that its main character,  a guy named Leder, is fed up with being double-crossed and ripped off and decides that the time has come to do something about it. And what we’re here to talk about today is quite possibly the biggest rip-of and double-cross in comics history (not that it doesn’t have plenty of competition, since the comics industry has been an ethical sewer almost from the outset).

Recently, we’ve been exploring various matters of copyright in relation to the Ditko work that has recently been reprinted by Fantagraphics Books, Yoe Books, and others, and examining the question of just how “public” some of the supposed “public domain” material that’s been included in these  Handsome (and expensive) hardback volumes really is. Today, I’d like to take that line of questioning one step further and ask whether or not any of it should really be considered PD at all.

Consider : the underlying reasoning  behind exactly why Ditko’s 1950s and ’60s work for Charlton Comics, in particular, is considered to be PD rests in the belief that it was “work for hire” material that has seen its rights, previously held by the publisher, lapse. But what if it was never really “work for hire” to begin with?

If you’re like me, you’ve long held the notion that all comics work for the major and minor publishers, until the advent of creator ownership, was strictly WFH stuff. Why, outfits like Marvel, DC, Charlton, and others were so fucking brazen about this that they even stamped WFH contracts on the back of artists’ and writers’ paychecks up until the late 1970s, effectively forcing creators to give up all rights to their work if they chose to endorse, and thereby cash, their checks. Sign your life on the X if you wanna eat, buddy.

Pretty sleazy, right? Sure it is. But what if those “work for hire” contracts actually stipulated something else entirely?

Patrick Ford, a noted comics fan and historian who’s been studying these issues a lot longer than I have, recently shared some rather interesting information that I had not previously been aware of — namely that these infamous “paycheck contracts” didn’t explicitly spell out the terms of a true “work for hire” arrangement at all!

The simple fact is,  until the 1976 revisions to US copyright laws came into full effect in late 1977/early 1978, comics publishers didn’t even use the term “work for hire” at all. True WFH, you see, stipulates that the publisher not only owns the rights to print a creator’s work, but owns the original, physical pages of work themselves. Those “paycheck contracts” — none of which, by the way, have ever even been able to be produced for, and therefore entered into evidence in, a court of law — actually said nothing about Marvel, DC, Charlton, etc. assuming ownership of the original artwork they were publishing, only that they were paying for the specific rights to print that artwork. So who owns it? Well, considering that Marvel got damn serious about finally returning all that original art they’d had laying around in their offices for years early in 1978 (unless your name was Jack Kirby, in which case they tried to hang onto all your work until their knuckles were bloody), I’d say it’s pretty obvious — the publishers knew the artists were the actual owners of their work, and that all they owned owned the right to run it in their comics publications.

All of which begs the question — if the publishers themselves came (okay, were forced to come) to the realization that they didn’t own the physical artwork itself, why does the retroactive determination that pretty much all old comics work fits the “work for hire” designation hold any water at all? Quite clearly, artists like Steve Ditko who were busy cranking out pages for Marvel, DC, Charlton, and other publishers prior to 1976 had never heard of the term “work for hire” because the publishers themselves never had and didn’t even refer to the artwork (and scripts) they were purchasing as such! So if the artists, writers, etc. of the comics in question were not, in fact, signing “work for hire” agreements in the years prior to 1976, why should that work be subject to WFH status now? And why would the rights to it that have supposedly “lapsed” into the public domain truly be viewed in such terms since the creators of this “lapsed” work weren’t signing away rights that even could “lapse” at any point since the publishers themselves never really owned those rights (beyond the rights to print it, distribute it, and sell it)?

Obviously, this situation is a mess. The whole idea of retroactively declaring any material to be “work for hire” is problematic in both practical and ethical terms, and for decades now comics creators have seen a standard applied to their contracts after the fact that was not reflected in the language of the contracts they originally signed. Retroactive WFH is a gigantic hustle that works entirely in the publishers’ favor, and the kicker is — everyone in comics knows this.

Fortunately, at least one good idea (and no, I don’t count “let’s reprint as much of this stuff as we can get away with until somebody says something!” as being a “good” idea) for how to deal with this fairly has been offered — I don’t know who came up with it first, but I’m giving credit to veteran comics editor/artist/iconoclast Mort Todd, since I at least heard it proposed from him first. We’ll call it “The Mort Todd Solution” — unless he objects, of course — and its rather elegant in its simplicity. Simply put, it’s this : if the original “work for hire” contracts for any given comics work can’t be produced, then the rights to that work should default to its creators.

Yeah, there are various equities that would have to be worked out — what percentage is owned by the writer, what percentage by the penciller, what percentage by the inker, what percentage by the colorist, what percentage by the letterer, etc. — but wouldn’t a messy situation that at least resulted in the creators of comics material being paid be preferable to a messy situation in which only the publishers are being paid? When it comes to the subject of this series series specifically, Steve Ditko, we’ve seen how various publishers of his reprinted work approach the whole idea of just paying the man for what he’s done entirely differently. Mort’s idea would put to rest all these various and sundry “we paid him,” “we didn’t pay him,” and “I offered to pay him — really, trust me, I did!” scenarios because Ditko and his collaborators would have owned the material from the outset and been free to negotiate a publishing deal that would have guaranteed them payment. Can anyone honestly say this wouldn’t have been a preferable starting point when it comes to putting together reprint packages of old comics work?

Well — anyone who isn’t a publisher, at any rate?

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Those who haven’t followed Steve Ditko’s work published by Robin Snyder over the course of the past quarter-century may find some of the titles of the books curious — Public Service Package? Seriously? What’s that all about?

All I can say is, if you read the stuff, the titles do make a kind of sense. And I’d like to thank those who have been chiming in over on Rob Imes’ “Ditkomania” facebook page for the “public service” they have provided me in terms of giving me  some answers to the numerous (okay, unending) questions I’ve been asking in this series. For instance —-

Greg Theakston, who has published a fair amount of public domain reprints under his Pure Imagination label over the years, was generous enough to inform me that the reason behind the apparent 1960 “demarcation year” when it comes to reprinting Charlton comics is because, amazingly enough,  the “brains” at Charlton were either too cheap, too lazy, or too much of both, to actually file registrations with the copyright office up until the very tail end of 1959! This only sounds crazy if you don’t know that publisher’s history, I guess. After that, though, things get murkier. Apparently,  in the ’60s Charlton actually did their proper copyright filing, but the wording they used varied from publication to publication, sometimes even from issue to issue with regards to a particular publication, and the legal weight said wording holds today is the determining factor (or at least one of the determining factors) when it comes to whether or not material from that period can be reprinted. Theakston has done what all publishers should do and actually hired somebody to research the state of various copyrights before going ahead and determining what he is and isn’t able to reprint, and while I haven’t heard from anyone connected with Fantagraphics Books or Yoe Books, the two main purveyors of Ditko reprint material at the moment in addition to Marvel and DC, in regards to whether or not they also do the sort of legwork Theakston does, my best guess is that they probably must, otherwise they wouldn’t be going to press with this stuff.

So, there’s one question answered.

But it gets even more muddled just a few years down the line — according to J. David Spurlock, who’s busy co-ordinating the publication of a comprehensive collection of Wally Wood’s legendary witzend publication along with the aforementioned Fantagraphics (a project we’ll be discussing more in the very near future in this series because it’s the kind of ethically sound venture that all of us, no matter where we stand on the various individual matters we’ve been discussing here up to this point, will be able to enthusiastically support — so stay tuned for more details!), the actual cut-off point for Charlton stuff to be reprinted without any sort of fear of legal reprisal is more like 1963-64, not 1960, although why that would be I honestly I have no idea, apart from the fact that it has to do with an extension granted on behalf of reprint material about — I shit you not — Sonny Bono. Still,  regardless of what the guy who gave us “I Got You, Babe” has to do with anything, it’s something that, again, I’m pretty confident most —hopefully all —  publishers are taking into consideration before “green-lighting” various Charlton reprint projects from this period.

Also worth noting here is the fact that of the rights to former Charlton properties that DC didn’t secure, the lion’s share were scooped up by Canadian publisher ACG, particularly in regards to much of the horror and western material, and the rights to some of it did, in fact, end up with Steve Ditko and Robin Snyder, which probably explains why the Charlton material they’ve presented in various reprint packages over the years has always run with copyright notices attached (although why much of that stuff has appeared elsewhere without proper copyright info included remains, at least to this point, a mystery to me). It may also be worth pointing out  that it was none other than Snyder himself who arranged at least most (if not all) of the sales of Charlton’s copyrighted properties, so his meticulous attention to detail in terms of including notices in the reprints he put out under his own name is certainly understandable.

The next bit of info that Mr. Spurlock shared is indeed fascinating — he explained that while it may or may not be the case that various Charlton copyrights have lapsed DOMESTICALLY, the fact remains that they’re still in force INTERNATIONALLY, which is why some publishers have shied away from this work altogether. Think about it — if a single copy of a Charlton reprint book that features characters or stories that ACG holds the international rights to sells outside of the US, the publisher of said material would be opening themselves up to a potential lawsuit from ACG. Such a lawsuit may not be worth their time or effort, though, which leads to the final point Spurlock made, namely —

Some publishers simply put this stuff out THINKING that they will PROBABLY get away with it, even though the copyrights on much of the material they’re publishing are still very much a going concern. I didn’t ask which particular publishers are engaged in this kind of chicanery, since singling out any particular entity as being involved in something illegal has never been my intention here, but if this is correct, all I can say to any publishers who might be doing it is — shame on you. In fact, double-shame on you, because you’re not only screwing over the legitimate rights-holders of the work you’re putting out, you’re screwing over Steve Ditko and other Charlton writers and artists whose work you are claiming to be in the public domain when it isn’t. That kind of reckless behavior, if it is indeed occurring (and I sincerely hope it’s not) only strengthens the hand of Disney,  Time Warner, and other monolithic, soulless corporate entities who are working night and day to get PD shut down across the board. If we don’t want to lose the entire concept of public domain altogether — and it would be an absolute tragedy if that happened — then we need to proceed cautiously. We need to dot all our “i’s and cross all our “t”s like Greg Theakston is doing. PD is hanging by a very slender legal thread these days, and if we abuse it, we’re could wind up losing it. This ain’t the wild west, folks. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

graphic_ditkonap

 

Warning! If questions about who owns what and how and why they claim to own it put you in the frame of mind Steve Ditko is shown to be — uhhhhmmm — “enjoying” in the legendary self-portrait shown above, you might want to bug out on this whole “Just Pay Ditko!” series right now, because things are going to be taking a turn for the either detailed or pedantic (depending on your point of view) over the course of the next few entries in this series.

Yeah, that’s right — just when you thought it was safe to pay attention to things here at Geeky Universe again, I’m back after about a week away and talking about my “next few entries in this series” when at first I had promised this was “only” going to be a ten-part affair. What can I say? The mystery has deepened and taken a few unexpected turns in the time I’ve taken a break from writing about this stuff to concentrate more completely on researching it. As things now stand, we’re looking at probably going 15 or 16 installments before this is all over — and I use the term “over” very loosely, trust me, because it’s becoming more and more clear to me that, well — there just ain’t no clarity to be found on some of these matters. It sometimes feels like I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole and, rather than clawing my way back up towards the surface as any reasonable, right-thinking person would do, I’ve decided to dig down even deeper to see if maybe I can, I dunno, tunnel my way to China or something. If I never see daylight again, I suppose I’ll probably regret that, but for now —

First question : why, exactly, is much of what we assume to be “public domain” material — stuff which is therefore freely available to reprint for anybody who wants to do it — actually considered as such? If you’ve been kicking around the comic scene for a long time, you’ve probably thought, much like I did until quite recently, that when it comes to most of the older Charlton Comics material — you know, the kind of thing being put out by Fantagraphics Books, Yoe Books, and others in their recent Steve Ditko hardcover collections — that it’s a pretty open-and-shut matter. In much the same way that George Romero’s omission of a proper copyright blurb on the very first print of Night Of The Living Dead has resulted in anybody who feels like it putting that legendary film out on DVD, the story goes that Charlton’s copyright indicias on their various publications were so sloppily-assembled that they just doesn’t hold any legal water any more and, in fact, probably never did.

That could be true, But what if it isn’t?

Let’s be honest here for a minute — DC paid a tidy sum for the rights to former Charlton characters like Blue Beetle, The Question, Peacemaker, Captain Atom, etc. Why would they do that if there was no need to?

Similarly, why would they have such a confusing stance at present vis a vis Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt — another Charlton property they once claimed ownership of? They never did much with the character, to be sure — Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons changing his name to Ozymandias and having him hatch a plot to save the world by destroying most of it notwithstanding — and in 1995 either sold or allowed it to lapse back into the hands of (depending on which version of events you read online and subsequently believe) its creator, Pete Morisi, but even though we’ve already established that there are multiple takes on this single transaction, it’s still not so simple : DC not only retains the rights to the short-lived Peter Cannon series they took out for a test run on the early ’90s, they also still claim exclusive reprint rights to the character’s 1960s Charlton-published stories. It’s only new Cannon material, apparently, that Morisi is allowed to pursue with the deal he has in place.

Again, if the Charlton rights are such a mess, why would DC even be in a position to strike such a convoluted agreement with the character’s creator? Why couldn’t they both publish all the Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt shit they wanted — and why couldn’t anyone and everyone else, for that matter?

One way or another, 1960 seems to be a turning point for what is and isn’t PD as far as Charlton publications go, and again, I can’t really begin to fathom why that is. If you look at some of the sites that allow uploading of old public domain comics, like http://digitalcomicsmuseum.com , or have a gander at Bob Heer’s excellent Ditko blog http://www.ditko.blogspot,com , you’ll notice that there are plenty of 1950s Charlton stories presented in their entirety, but nothing after 1960. Yet it’s widely considered by fans that the ’60s Charlton stuff is, legally speaking, the most “freely available” of the bunch because that’s when the “fine print” in their comics became really half-assed and indecipherable.

And yet — many of the post-1960 stories that have been reprinted in the oversized hardcover collections The Art Of Ditko and The Creativity Of Ditko were also presented in various black-and-white publications put out by Steve Ditko and Robin Snyder many years back, where they ran with copyright notices attached even though no such notices appear in the newer, more expensive (and yeah, much nicer) volumes.

So what’s going on? I honestly don’t know. As I mentioned in my previous piece here about the Konga material specifically, I don’t think anyone at Yoe Books or IDW Publishing is a legal idiot. They must feel that they have some fairly solid ground to base their belief that they are only reprinting PD stuff on. But I’d be very curious to know what that ground is, and why others have chosen to either shy away from this material or reprint it with proper copyright notices attached. And it’s also worth pointing out that, at least so far, all of the material presented in Fantagraphics’ Steve Ditko Archives series has been, you guessed it — pre-1960 stuff. I’m wondering, naturally enough at this point,  if Gary Groth and Blake Bell plan to continue these books once they reach that (apparent, at any rate) “watershed” year.

I know what you’re probably thinking right now — “come on, Ryan, nobody would be stupid enough to reprint comics work that’s actually owned by somebody else,” but hey — it’s happened before, and given that Charlton isn’t around to provide the best paper trail of who that “somebody else” might be, would it really be all that shocking to find out material was being published with the attitude of “hey, we’re pretty certain this is PD stuff, and even if it’s not, I doubt anyone will say anything about it?” I don’t think this is very likely to be the case, but I can’t rule it out as at least a  small possibility in my mind until I’m able to get some more definitive answers.

Which is where you, dear reader (whoever you might be) come in. I’m hoping somebody who’s better versed in these matters than I am can either comment here or over on Rob Imes’ “Ditkomania” facebook page and really break down how and why some folks feel safe in categorizing all post-1960 Charlton work as public domain while others don’t. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Is there any way to even know for certain?

There are other, perhaps even bigger, questions at play here, as well — questions like why this stuff would ever be considered to be PD in the first place if it’s never even been conclusively proven to have been “work for hire” material, why retroactively adjudicating  and/or assuming that it is “work for hire” ensures that the writers and artists who produced it are just going to screwed over yet again, etc. — and don’t even get me started on the trail of “ownership” of the Warren material that Dark Horse/New Comic Company is currently reprinting (you know, in books like the Creepy Presents Steve Ditko volume that got me started on this whole thing in the first place). Sometimes it all feels like it’s just too damn much to come to grips with. But I’m trying — and if you’re still along for the ride, then your patience, as well as any expertise you might be able to bring to the table, are very much appreciated.

All of which is my way of saying that even though I dug this hole of my own volition, I’m not sure that I can get back out of it without some help.

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.