Guest columnist Miguel Cima, director/host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics, continues his series of essays looking at what makes comics so great, and what’s holding them back.
[NOTE: In this space from time to time, I will write about a Wednesday Surprise. What is that? It’s a comic that takes me to a new place in the comicsphere. Visions written and drawn to feed some starved part of my brain I didn’t know was there. I spend a lot of time and money to find these comics. When they hit my eyes, I remember why I still seek them out, why I don’t quit comics. If your consciousness could use some expanding from sequential art once in a while, you may like coming here. And now that you’ve read this, you won’t need to do so again. The same blurb will appear in this space word for word and after all – you won’t keep reading to not be surprised.]
If I may, please allow me to define a sub-genre which I think I may be making up: Bizarro Depravity comics. The simple definition is: sequential art employing elements of destructive and socially unacceptable behavior and imagery, meant to induce moral and/or philosophical confusion, and characterized by surreal narrative and/or rendering which is often disturbing, yet causes your mind to engage in new visual languages. That’s all a very fancy way of saying, these comics are really messed up, but in a smart artistic way, and the violence and antagonism encountered is meant to challenge your brain, not exploit your emotions. If you are still confused, I can’t help you, you’ll just have to check out the comics I’m talking about.
This week’s Wednesday Surprise was The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred, issue #4 (Image Comics). You really don’t need to read the previous series (the awesome surreal love letter to comics, The Bulletproof Coffin) or even the previous issues to “get” what writer David Hine and artist Shaky Kane offer up here. As they explain in their foreword, they’ve simply taken 84 comics panels, cut them up, and laid them out in a non-linear narrative form. They even encourage you to start reading from any random point and progress in any direction you want. The result is a comic book with no rules, and yet a distinct and deliberate evocation for your mind. Each panel is an individual scene of nightmare, drudged from everything including pop culture, crime sheets, horror comics, sci-fi movies, junky novels, and childhood fears. Some of the panels are related and could be placed together for their own narrative. But why do that? Just like some fevered dream, time doesn’t need to happen chronologically here, logic doesn’t need to organize events, and control is out the window. Reading through the issue is like a breathless voyage through terror and our own worst thoughts. And reason won’t save you: it’s been purposefully eschewed here. It’s a funhouse ride through the rotten dregs of your soul, and a direct homage to William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch which is acknowledged both through the rather odd afterword as well as the “Where’s Waldo?” game of Burroughs references littered throughout. If you enjoy being deeply spooked and can let go of need for a conventional story, I recommend you buy this comic (and I would also pick up a copy of Shaky Kane’s solo work – Monster Truck – which is not quite as harsh or non-linear).
So of course, this has me recalling some Bizarro Depravity Wednesday Surprise comics from the past that I’d like to share here with you. And we’ll stay clear of non-linear narrative by starting with the page-turner The Cabbie, by Spanish creator Martí (Fantagraphics Books). This complex reaction to Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, the Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver, and the Underground Comix scene from the ’70s and ’80s was cooked up in the post-Franco era in Spain. After years of repression, artists really let it all hang out, pushing boundaries of acceptability and subject matter. The Cabbie follows the tale of a pious, hard-working taxi driver who has a penchant for crime-fighting. His unwitting involvement in catching a crook draws him into the world of a poverty-stricken criminal family living in the slums by a sewer drain pipe. There’s no shortage of hookers, booze, knife fights, toxic sludge and murder in this landscape. And the deeper the Cabbie gets into it, the darker his own soul becomes – but maybe he had a head start. After all, what seems like a decent citizen on the surface turns out to be a fanatical weirdo who wildly drifts between great avarice and deep guilt, all the time projecting a veneer of decency. As for the depraved criminal family – they have a good side, too. They really care about each other – even if that means promoting robbery and prostitution to their children as an acceptable survival tool. Visually, The Cabbie throws stark classical comic stripping in your face, confusing your eyeballs with the expectation of a palatable Sunday funny page, all the while drawing you deeper into the madness and perversions found on the fringes of civilization. I can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t an important influence on Kaz’s brilliant Underworld strip, which similarly takes us to the dark alleys and gutters of the mind – albeit in a far more humorous way. There’s no real laughs in The Cabbie, but it’s not really depressing at all. It’s just massively absurd and insane. I did laugh a few times, but in that “holy shit, this is fucked up” kind of way. But I have to emphasize: The Cabbie is a really good solid tale. There are no abstractions here, only a moral ambiguity which is probably far more real than most of us would like to admit.
Back to being funny, Bizarro Depravity has a strong foundation in comedy, and perhaps the most extreme version of this in the last few years is Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit (Fantagraphics Books). Three volumes of this gratuitously gruesome humor book have graced my grey matter so far. In this work, Ryan essentially deconstructs the fantasy genre and superheroes at the same time. The story – a minimal prop for the action – is about a bunch of super-powered creatures from across the cosmos lumped onto a penitentiary planet which becomes a de facto gladiatorial arena for some very weird monsters. The grizzly battles are long and protracted – and uniquely violent. The trick is in the various abilities of the fighters. One gets its head torn off, only to have a much more horrific and deadly set of appendages emerge. Another monster gets eaten, chewed to bits and shit out – only to transform his fecal form into a corrosive blob that keeps fighting. Yes, every disgusting body part gets Ryan’s attention – and he makes a few up as well. Alien genitals, mutated orifices, it’s all limited only by Ryan’s thick imagination. His drawing style is far too funny to be disturbing, but what he makes you look at forces you to think about dismemberment, regeneration and excretion in a whole new way. It’s made for horror and fantasy fans, pressing you to re-imagine the traditional meta-human powers. Things like great strength, flight, fire, and telekinesis are amongst the familiar fare in Prison Pit – they’re just not the limit of things. Yes, it’s a venture into potty humor, totally immature and adolescent, so if you don’t think ass jokes are funny, don’t bother. But if you do, and you have a strong constitution, Prison Pit offers some of the most creative – and I MUST stress the term creative – blood-splattered, monster-filled, battle-ridden experiences in comics. And it’s damned funny too. But don’t confuse Ryan’s intent with a horror book like Crossed. While Crossed has its sick sense of humor as well, Prison Pit isn’t meant to give you night terrors. It’s just a smart and goofy guy finding a way to have some fun being naughty while making fun of the typical fanboy books which so many “adults” take so seriously. And like all three books here, it’s got its own distinctive place in the Bizarro Depravity genre.
Argentinean-born New Yorker and NYU film school graduate Miguel Cima is a veteran of film, television and music. He has worked for such companies as Warner Bros., Dreamworks and MTV. An avid comic book collector since he could read, Miguel began writing stories in 4th grade and has not slowed down since. He is a world traveler, accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comics creator. He is the writer, director and host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics. Follow Dig Comics on Facebook. Read Miguel’s comic book recommendations.
Never read a graphic novel before? Haven’t read a comic book in years?
Here’s some brand new stuff that came out the week of September 30 that I think is worth a look-see for someone with little to no history with comics. That means you should be able to pick any of these up cold without having read anything else. So take a look and see if something doesn’t grab your fancy. If so, follow the publisher links or Amazon.com links to buy yourself a copy. Or, head to your local friendly comic book shop.
Disclaimer: For the most part, I have not read these yet, so I can’t vouch for their quality. But, from what I’ve heard and seen, odds are good they just might appeal to you.
The first and only illustrated biography of “The Man in Black”, Johnny Cash, the most famous country singer of all time.
Cash was a 17-time Grammy winner who sold more than 90 million albums in his lifetime and became an icon of American music in the 20th century. Graphic novelist Reinhard Kleist depicts Johnny Cash’s eventful life from his early sessions with Elvis Presley (1956), through the concert in Folsom Prison (1968), his spectacular comeback in the 1990s, and the final years before his death on September 12, 2003.
The author’s site has a preview (although the final lettering is missing). I love that image of Cash in the recording studio.
The innovative, dramatic graphic novel based on the life of the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell.
This brilliantly illustrated tale of reason, insanity, love and truth recounts the story of Bertrand Russell’s life. Raised by his paternal grandparents, young Russell was never told the whereabouts of his parents. Driven by a desire for knowledge of his own history, he attempted to force the world to yield to his yearnings: for truth, clarity and resolve.
As he grew older, and increasingly sophisticated as a philosopher and mathematician, Russell strove to create an objective language with which to describe the world – one free of the biases and slippages of the written word. At the same time, he began courting his first wife, teasing her with riddles and leaning on her during the darker days, when his quest was bogged down by paradoxes, frustrations and the ghosts of his family’s secrets. Ultimately, he found considerable success – but his career was stalled when he was outmatched by an intellectual rival: his young, strident, brilliantly original student, Ludwig Wittgenstein.
An insightful and complexly layered narrative, Logicomix reveals both Russell’s inner struggle and the quest for the foundations of logic. Narration by an older, wiser Russell, as well as asides from the author himself, make sense of the story’s heady and powerful ideas. At its heart, Logicomix is a story about the conflict between pure reason and the persistent flaws of reality, a narrative populated by great and august thinkers, young lovers, ghosts and insanity.
The Amazon.com link above has previews and the Bloomsbury link above has three-part making-of video series on YouTube, but there’s also an excellent website at Logicomix.com with behind-the-scenes info, a preview trailer and lots of other info. This debuted at #1 on the New York Times Best Seller List and is getting excellent reviews.
Mickey Mouse & Friends #296 – $2.99
By Stefano Ambrosio & Lorenzo Pastrovicchio
32 pages; published by Boom! Kids
First BOOM! Kids issue! One of the longest-lived, most-successful comic book series in the industry’s history comes to BOOM! and brings a little magic — presenting Wizards of Mickey! Student of the great wizard Grandalf, Mickey Mouse hails from the humble village of Miceland. Allying himself with Donald Duck (who has a pet dragon named Fafnir) and team mate Goofy, Mickey’s come to the great tournament to get his revenge on Peg Leg Pete, who has stolen the Rain Crystal from Miceland! Join Mickey Mouse and his friends on an epic tale of magic and wonder! Join BOOM! Kids for a whole new epoch in Disney publishing!
Disney comic books have been missing from the market place for about a year now. This is an imported story, which has been a pretty standard practice for previous publishers of Disney comics. It was originally done in Italy but from the looks of this preview, the translation holds up pretty nicely.
The first winner of Zuda Comics’ monthly online competition, HIGH MOON is a horror adventure of cowboys and werewolves in the Old West. HIGH MOON begins with a gruff bounty hunter, Matthew Macgregor, investigating a series of strange happenings in the dusty town of Blest, Texas. While Macgregor seeks to uncover the town’s dark secrets, he tries desperately to keep his own hidden.
The horrors of Blest ripple out to the mountainous town of Ragged Rock, Oklahoma, where another detective investigates a series of murders following a bizarre train robbery. Uncovering an age-old vendetta, this mysterious lawman is forced to do battle with a steam-driven monstrosity.
Macgregor’s tale concludes as a young woman’s dire call for assistance leads him through the Black Hills of South Dakota and into devastating battle between two warring factions. Macgregor must face down the United States government – only to discover a secret ritual that spells the destruction of the American frontier.
It’s such a relief when someone you personally know releases something, and you can be genuinely complimentary of what they’ve produced. While David Gallaher and I have “virtually” known each other for years, I’m happy to say that his web-comic holds up nicely as a thrilling horror/western mash-up. You can read it for yourself right here. And then there’s this production blog for good behind-the-scenes goodies.
A crime fighter is genetically engineered to be a super-hero – but when the test goes awry and he doesn’t have the super-hero qualities needed, he has to be teamed up with a former CIA agent who is the brains behind the duo. One gets all the glory while one has all the power.
I’ve always thought that it was a bit weird that every super-hero just instantly has what it takes, mentally and emotionally, to actually be a superhero. I guess I’m not alone. Probably not one for the kiddies.
The Dynamite link above has a 9-page preview so you have a better idea of just what you’re getting into by entering one of Howard Chaykin’s worlds.
Prison Pit is an original graphic novel from the pen of Johnny Ryan, best known for his humor comic, Angry Youth Comix. Prison Pit represents a marked departure from AYC or his Blecky Yuckerella weekly comic strip, combining his love for WWE wrestling, Gary Panter’s “Jimbo” comics, and Kentaro Miura’s “Berserk” Manga into a brutal showcase of violence, survival and revenge. Imagine a blend of old-fashioned role playing fantasy games like Dungeons & Dragons crossed with contemporary adult video games like Grand Theft Auto, filtered through Ryan’s sense of humor.
The book begins with C.F. (his full-name would be too horrifying to reveal here) being thrown into the Prison Pit, a barren negative-zone populated by intergalactic, violent monster criminals. In this first volume, C.F. gets into a bloody slorge war (a slorge is a giant slug that excretes a steroid-like drug called “fecid” that all the monster men are addicted to) with ultraprisoner Rottweiler Herpes and his henchmen Rabies Bloodbath and Assrat. The ensuing bloodbath is an over-the-top, hyperviolent yet hilarious farce worthy of Ryan’s inspiration, Kentaro Miura.
If Howard Chaykin is too much for you, you’ll never be able to handle Johnny Ryan, who is maniacally funny in the absurdly over-the-top violence. Here’s a PDF file preview.
The world is dying. After most of the city succumbed to the plague, Welton’s staying inside — permanently. But hiding in his claustrophobic basement room — the only place he knows is safe — exacts a gruesome price, and he becomes part of a collective that’s killing children. Infected with the plague himself, with no way to find the woman he loves, Welton takes refuge in apathy — until someone knocks on his door.
Ball Peen Hammer gives us a window into life in a half-deserted apartment building in a time of raw love, sacrifice, fear, and death.
This one is a bit more serious but also not for the weak at heart. Here’s a 13-page preview.
Fathers, sons, and the war that comes between them.
There’s nothing Josh, Cody, and Gordon want more than their fathers home safely from the war in Iraq — unless it’s to get out of their dead-end town. Refresh, Refresh is the story of three teenagers on the cusp of high school graduation and their struggle to make hard decisions with no role models to follow; to discover the possibilities for the future when all the doors are slamming in their faces; and to believe their fathers will come home alive so they can be boys again.
The above says enough to get me hooked. But for more, here’s an 11-page preview.
Trotsky was a hero to some, a ruthless demon to others. To Stalin, he was such a threat that he warranted murder by pickax. This polarizing figure set up a world conflict that lasted through the twentieth century, and in Trotsky: A Graphic Biography, the renowned comic artist Rick Geary uses his distinct style to depict the stark reality of the man and his times. Trotsky’s life becomes a guide to the creation of the Soviet Union, the horrors of World War I, and the establishment of international communism as he, Lenin, and their fellow Bolsheviks rise from persecution and a life underground to the height of political power. Ranging from his boyhood in the Ukraine to his fallout with Stalin and his moonlight romance with Frida Kahlo, Trotsky is a stunning look at one of the twentieth century’s most important thinkers and the far-reaching political trends that he launched.
Rick Geary does excellent work. Unfortunately I can’t find a preview but just imagine looking at something really impressive that compels you to buy it.
Now in its fourth year, Best American Comics showcases the work of both established and up-and-coming contributers. Editor Charles Burns—cartoonist, illustrator, and official cover artist of the Believer—has culled the best stories from graphic novels, pamphlet comics, newspapers, magazines, mini-comics, and the web to create this cutting-edge collection. Featuring the work of such luminaries as Chris Ware, KAZ, and Robert Crumb, this volume is “a genuine salute to comics” (Houston Chronicle).
This is a highly acclaimed yearly anthology that provides a great sampling of the depth and art of comics. Here’s the book’s official site which has more information.
From Creation to the death of Joseph, here are all 50 chapters of the Book of Genesis, revealingly illustrated as never before.
Envisioning the first book of the bible like no one before him, R. Crumb, the legendary illustrator, reveals here the story of Genesis in a profoundly honest and deeply moving way. Originally thinking that we would do a take off of Adam and Eve, Crumb became so fascinated by the Bible’s language, “a text so great and so strange that it lends itself readily to graphic depictions,” that he decided instead to do a literal interpretation using the text word for word in a version primarily assembled from the translations of Robert Alter and the King James bible.
Now, readers of every persuasion—Crumb fans, comic book lovers, and believers—can gain astonishing new insights from these harrowing, tragic, and even juicy stories. Crumb’s Book of Genesis reintroduces us to the bountiful tree lined garden of Adam and Eve, the massive ark of Noah with beasts of every kind, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah destroyed by brimstone and fire that rained from the heavens, and the Egypt of the Pharaoh, where Joseph’s embalmed body is carried in a coffin, in a scene as elegiac as any in Genesis. Using clues from the text and peeling away the theological and scholarly interpretation that have often obscured the Bible’s most dramatic stories, Crumb fleshes out a parade of Biblical originals: from the serpent in Eden, the humanoid reptile appearing like an alien out of a science fiction movie, to Jacob, a “kind’ve depressed guy who doesn’t strike you as physically courageous,” and his bother, Esau, “a rough and kick ass guy,” to Abraham’s wife Sarah, more fetching than most woman at 90, to God himself, “a standard Charlton Heston-like figure with long white hair and a flowing beard.”
As Crumb writes in his introduction, “the stories of these people, the Hebrews, were something more than just stories. They were the foundation, the source, in writing of religious and political power, handed down by God himself.” Crumb’s Book of Genesis, the culmination of 5 years of painstaking work, is a tapestry of masterly detail and storytelling which celebrates the astonishing diversity of the one of our greatest artistic geniuses.
A surprisingly reverential and straight adaptation from one of comics’ most influential humorists. Here’s a preview of chapter 19.
Pretty big week for comics. Lots of good stuff to check out.