Confessions of a Cranky Comic Book Cartoonist: Ten More-Or-Less Current, More-Or-Less Mainstream Funnybooks That I Actually More-Or-Less Enjoy – And Why!
Columnist Scott Shaw! brings his perspective as an experienced professional cartoonist and active participant in the comic book industry for more than 40 years. Get an insider’s look at the art form from someone in the trenches every day.
By Scott Shaw!
It may surprise some of you that I still read current comic books. Since writing and drawing allegedly humorous comic books is one aspect of my career as a cartoonist, it’s a matter of keeping up with the competition when it comes to reading funnybooks that are actually funny. But I also dig other genres, too. I’ll admit, I don’t purchase many new comics anymore, but between those I buy, borrow or browse at the local comic book emporiums, I’ve compiled this list of those I can recommend.
I’ll start with a few superhero series I dig, since that genre still seems to dominate the racks. Let’s face it, most superhero comics adhere to that old unwritten rule: “Create the illusion of change without ever changing anything for long.” Instead, the fun of the Marvel Universe – much more than DC’s dour, drab and depressing “New 52” – is in how the playing pieces are moved around in new and interesting ways.
Marvel’s Fantastic Four will always be my favorite superhero title and I’ll buy it as long as Marvel keeps publishing it. That dedication is due to my first reading it back when Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Chic Stone, Joe Sinnott, Dick Ayers and others made sure that it really was “The World’s Greatest Comic Magazine!” Since those first hundred-or-so issues of Fantastic Four, the series’ quality has been wildly up, down and all over the place, but rarely approaching the compelling “sense of wonder” and fun that the Kirby/Lee team achieved. Most of those assigned to the title over the years seem to be attempting to re-create stories from those first hundred issues… and they never seem to quite “get” it. The current version plays with many of those classic elements – the Inhumans, Doctor Doom, Atlantis, the Kree, Annihilus and the Negative Zone, etc. – but writer Jonathan Hickman and rotating artists Steve Epting, Ron Garney, Barry Kitson and others seem more interested in telling new sense of wonder stories with them, even if I’m the one who sometimes winds up wondering exactly what is going on in Hickman and company’s sparely presented storytelling. At least I feel like I’m reading new exploits of the FF, not more rehashes. (Speaking of the FF, that Hickman-written spin-off – featuring the young members of the Future Foundation, overseen by a civilized version of Dragon Man – is a tougher read, especially due to some extremely off-putting artwork by Juan Bobillo.)
That moving-around-playing-pieces has been an enjoyable part of Marvel’s Thunderbolts since its inception back in 1997 by Kurt Busiek and Mark Bagley. Writer Jeff Parker and a variety of artists have been the latest folks on the series for the last few years and their approach to crafting the ongoing adventures of multiple teams of bad guys – both rehabilitated and otherwise – all overseen by Luke Cage, has been a lot of fun. Twists, turns and double-crosses abound, with the team’s headquarters unanchored in the time stream to complicate matters. (This lost-in-time wrinkle provided an amusingly uneasy team-up with Captain America and the Invaders during WWII.) In recent months, the book has been re-titled Dark Avengers after Norman Osborn’s team of badass stand-ins for some of the heroic Avengers’ stalwarts. By comparison, Luke’s team almost seems like the good guys they pretend to be. The unexpected arrival of Dr. Doom (direct from Mark Millar/Bryan Hitch‘s “realistic” stint on Fantastic Four from a few years back) is yet another player sure to challenge the small-time supervillains’ internal politics. To my knowledge, this is the only series focusing on bad guys that’s lasted so long and it deserves to hold the record over such lame and lesser attempts such as DC’s Secret Society Of Super Villains or Marvel’s Super Villain Team-Up. But whether his book is called Thunderbolts or Dark Avengers, Jeff Parker provides a lot of evil fun.
Over the years I’ve heard or read a variety of arguments before and against the categorization of Elzie Segar’s “Popeye The Sailor” as the first modern superhero. (You’ve gotta admit that the notion of a tough-with-his-fists human male who gains phenomenal super-strength after ingesting a special substance and who is utterly unkillable 24/7/365 certainly sounds like a superhero!) Depending on my mood, I could easily support either stance, but one thing is constant: I love Popeye and he’s one of my all-time favorite characters, especially his original incarnation in Segar’s Thimble Theater syndicated comic strip. My first exposures to the sailor man was in Fleischer Studios’ animated “Popeye” cartoon shorts and Bud Sagendorf’s stories for Dell’s Popeye comic book and I love those, too, but IDW’s version is modeled on Segar’s original. Writer Roger Langridge (Snarked!) really captures the delightfully peculiar personalities and voices of Segar’s Popeye, Olive Oyl, J. Wellington Wimpy, the Sea Hag and the rest of the cast. So far, the second issue, featuring terrific art by Ken Wheaton, has been my favorite, but I’ve liked ‘em all a lot.
Then there’s Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon for Image Comics. Erik insists that his character is anything but a superhero, but the strip reads like a 1970s Marvel comic as interpreted by a talented underground cartoonist under the influence of Jack Kirby, Gil Kane and some killer acid. Although Savage Dragon started out as a typical Image book (after all, Erik’s one of the publisher’s original founders and its former publisher), after a few years, Erik found his muse and ever since, the one thing you can count on from Savage Dragon is that the characters, stories and tone can turn on a dime. You never know what to expect from Savage Dragon and Erik rarely disappoints. Standouts have been (for me, at least): a long story arc in tribute to Kirby’s Kamandi; a honeymoon sequence that was originally conceived as a pitch for a Savage Dragon syndicated comic strip; a galaxy-conquering despot who looks like a cute little toy; a male Captain Marvel-esque superhero whose secret identity has been both a woman and an infant; a decidedly non-jolly green giant Osama bin Laden; an unauthorized appearance by the fabulous, furry Freak Brothers; and of course, Erik’s legendarily offensive “Don’t FUCK with God!” page. Now you see why I always pick up every issue of Savage Dragon; who knows what I might miss!
And although it’s not an actual superhero title, DC’s All-Star Western starring the latest iteration of “Jonah Hex” by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti and Moritat certainly depends on Batman for its central concept. This series explores the Gotham City of the mid-19th Century by dropping the disfigured and morally raw Civil War vet into the middle of it. (I assume the inspiration was the 1970 TV series McCloud starring Dennis Weaver.) Anyway, Jonah has been summoned by Dr. Amadeus Arkham (founder of Arkham Asylum) to solve a chain of serial killings. Along the way he runs afoul of Gotham’s Mayor Cobblepot (an ancestor of the Penguin) and even plummets into the caverns beneath what will someday become the real estate that Wayne is built upon! It’s a fascinating look at a retrofitted version of Gotham City, and Gray and Palmiotti have long proven their skill in writing Jonah Hex over the last few years. Moritat, last seen on the DC’s “First Wave” version of The Spirit, does a good job, although he needs to learn how to draw more than one look for a woman’s face. There’s also been a number of solid backup stories with a general Western setting, including “El Diablo” drawn by Jordi Bernet, “The Barbary Ghost” drawn by Phil Winslade, “Bat Lash” drawn by José Luis Garcia-López (!), “Nighthawk/Cinnamon” and “Terrence Thirteen”. I know I’m not the only comic book pro who considers All-Star Western – edited by Joey Cavalieri – to be the best of DC’s “New 52” by a wide margin.
Stan Sakai has been writing and drawing his Usagi Yojimbo for over twenty years and yet there are still a few people out there who dismiss it because it features talking animals. Dark Horse has been publishing Usagi Yojimbo for a large part of that time, and as his many awards verify, Stan just keeps getting better and better. Over the years, I’ve drawn my fair share of “funny animal” comics and during that time, I’ve heard the term “anthropomorphic” comics bandied about. I’m still not certain I completely understand the difference, but I can acknowledge that Usagi Yojimbo is definitely more “anthropomorphic” than “funny animal” and that Stan has become a master of subtlety as well as action, of nuance as well as the written word. However, we won’t be seeing any new issues of Usagi Yojimbo for a while, because Stan is temporarily putting his Ronin rabbit aside to concentrate on the upcoming 47 Samurai, a limited series written by Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson and starring a cast of historical humans. I’ve only seen a few pages but I think that it’s some of the most impressive work I’ve ever seen Stan draw and he rises to the challenge beautifully. I think that 47 Samurai is going to change a lot of minds regarding Usagi Yojimbo.
IDW’s ongoing Ghostbusters series has one foot in action, one foot in horror and one foot in comedy. (Three feet? Hey, what did you expect?) There have been quite a few stabs at adapting the ghost busting gang from the 1984 and 1989 films, but frankly, their quality has been all over the ectometer. But I think that this version has finally nailed it. First of all, Erik Burnham’s scripts have been terrific, with interesting new situations and crackling and clever dialog that’s extremely faithful to the specific on-screen personas of Bill Murray as “Dr. Peter Venkman”, Harold Ramis as “Dr. Egon Spengler”, Dan Aykroyd as “Dr. Raymond Stantz” and Ernie Hudson as “Winston Zeddemore”. These stories have been so well-done that I could easily see them as the basis for new Ghostbusters films, animated series or video games. (As if!) And speaking of animation, I’ve got a sneaking hunch that the series’ artist, Dan Schoening, has a background in that field, because his representations of the cast, while not actually caricatures of the property’s key actors, evoke them well enough to be instantly recognizable. Erik Burnham and Dan Schoening really “get” Ghostbusters and it shows. I think that this funnybook iteration of Ghostbusters is about as good as it can get, possibly even equal to Evan Dorkin’s legendary run on Marvel’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Comic Book… and as the guy who suggested BATECB to the Eisner judging committee, that’s really saying a lot.
Archie’s Kevin Keller by Dan Parent has gotten a ton of press due to the fact that it’s the first funnybook from “America’s most wholesome comic book publisher” to star an openly gay teenager. But outside of the gay press I’ve seen few if any reviews that point out that it’s genuinely a lot of fun. Now that such longtime Archie Comics creators as George Gladir, Stan Goldberg and Bob Bolling are rarely (if ever) given any new assignments, Dan Parent is arguably the company’s top creator in terms of writing and drawing the classic Archie characters with authority and appeal. Kevin Keller is no exception to that, especially when Dan wrings funny situations born of Veronica’s frustration that a cute, hip kid like Kevin Keller isn’t straight. But to Dan’s credit, the issue of Kevin’s gayness isn’t the only basis for his stories. But what I’ve especially dug about Kevin has been Dan’s terrific alternative covers for every issue of the ongoing series. Just as he drew for the initial Kevin mini-series, each one pays homage to the great Archie styles and themes of the past. One in particular that I love features Kevin – dressed as the old school Archie Andrews of the ‘40s and ‘50s – shrugging to the reader as if saying, “Can you believe how crazy-acting these straight teenagers are?”
Image’s Reed Gunther by Shane and Chris Houghton just finished up its initial 10-issue run but it’s not too late to pick up the two trade paperbacks that reprint the whole wonderful thing. I’m not a particular fan of westerns, so it’s kinda odd that I’ve got two of ‘em on this list, but if you think that All-Star Western sounds unusual, check out Reed Gunther. Reed is a roving cowboy who’s a magnet for trouble, much the same as James Garner’s private eye character in the classic 1970s TV series, The Rockford Files… except that Jim Rockford never had a grown grizzly bear for a best friend and steed. That’s right, thanks to Sterling, Reed is the Old West’s first (and only) bear-riding cowboy. Accompanied by the beautiful tomboy Starla, Reed become snared in an eldritch mystery of increasingly Lovecraftian nature and proportions… but instead of being terrifying, these monster-filled tales are hilarious! I can’t quite put a finger on why, but Reed Gunther somehow reminds me of European comic albums starring characters like Asterix, Tin Tin and Lucky Luke – and that can’t possibly be a bad thing, right? The maddeningly young and gifted Houghton brothers are currently turning their attentions to a new project, but they promise to return to Reed Gunther someday. Meanwhile, don’t miss the chance to savor Reed’s memorable first story arc.
Sergio Aragonés is arguable the World’s Greatest Living Cartoonist, and Bongo Comics’ Sergio Aragonés Funnies is, in my opinion, the best thing he’s done lately in a career that’s chock-full of “best things”… and I don’t write that just because El Maestro included a cameo appearance by Yours Truly on the cover of Sergio Aragonés Funnies No 1. Every issue includes a few short genre stories, a handful of puzzles and games, a pantomime gag or two and best of all, at least one (often two) autobiographical stories from Sergio’s amazing life – all written and drawn by Sergio himself! Unlike most of his other material, Sergio’s autobiographical pieces aren’t necessarily intended to be funny; many time they’re more poignant than you’d expect. His work for Mad and Groo The Wanderer has always been wonderful stuff, but these stories are special, even for him. (Let’s face it, Sergio’s one of the only cartoonists who’s ever had a life interesting enough to chronicle in funnybook form.) Sergio Aragonés Funnies has been on a temporary hiatus due to a passing problem with El Maestro’s back, but Sergio’s been on the mend for a while now – if anything, he’s doing even better than ever – and has jumped back into producing this now-bimonthly, Bill Morrison-edited series with a vengeance. So keep your eyes peeled for Sergio Aragonés Funnies No. 8, coming soon!
And finally, Keith Knight is one of the most talented and prolific cartoonists I know – I gobble up his stuff like junk food that’s actually good for me – yet he’s the only creator on this list that hasn’t done any actual comic books, but I’m gonna add it to my recommendations anyway. (Hey, it’s my list, my column and I’ll make and break the rules if I feel like it; consider it a bonus from me to you.) Fortunately for us, Keith’s The Knight Life (an autobiographical daily syndicated comic strip), The K Chronicles (his longtime autobiographical weekly comic strip) and (Th)ink (his weekly panel feature) have all been collected in a variety of reprint books published by Keith himself. Keith’s writing is hip, funny and smart, his drawing style reminds of Harvey Kurtzman’s (although he swears the Mad creator isn’t a particular influence) and his outlook on racial relations and humanity in general encompasses everything from sweetly cheerful (“Life’s Little Victories”) to hopelessly pessimistic. Visit Keith at kchronicles.com, read a healthy sampling of his stuff and order any and all of his books – Chivalry Ain’t Dead (The Knight Life), The Incredible Cuteness Of Being (The K Chronicles) and Too Small To Fail (Th)ink) are his latest – I promise you won’t regret it.
Not that any of my recommendations mean much in the greater scheme of things, but most (if not all) of these titles absolutely deserve better sales figures, so by all means, if what I’ve written here intrigues you, please, check ‘em out!
All I ask is that you leave a copy of each comic for me.
– Scott Shaw!
Next up: How and why I grew to love and embrace the once-reviled term “funnybook”!
Scott Shaw! — yes, that exclamation point has adorned his name since junior high school — currently writes and draws comic books starring the Simpsons for Bongo Comic, The Adventures of Captain Rochester for Rochester Electronics, and his autobiographical comic strip, Now It Can Be Told! for Act-I-Vate, as well as performing his live Oddball Comics show. He just finished storyboarding four episodes of Cartoon Network’s Annoying Orange animated show, is finishing a new 8-page Now It Can Be Told! story for Dark Horse Presents (“I Covered Myself With Peanut Butter To Become…The Turd!”) and will be drawing an upcoming Mark Evanier-written Garfield comic book story for Ka-Boom. He’s currently writing and drawing on the first Annoying Orange graphic novel – split with Mike Kazaleh – for Papercutz.
A new Facebook page is tracking a recent trend in the creation of comic books and graphic novels. ComicKick describes itself as “a community dedicated to promoting comic book and graphic novel projects on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo!”
Both of those sites help creators turn to their potential audiences for help in financing their creations. In exchange for the help, the creators offer their supporters signed copies, original art, and other unique incentives. It’s a model that traditional outlets never thought would work, and while it’s not a fool-proof method of getting published, there have been some startling success stories.
Rick Burlew wanted to raise about $15,000 to re-release a print collection of his popular webcomic The Order of the Stick. “Popular” is putting it lightly. Not only did fans contribute $250,000 within a week, the project raised over $1 million from almost 15,000 backers! The money was enough for Burlew to reprint the webcomic’s entire 7-book library. As of now, it is the second most successful Kickstarter project, eclipsed only by the over $3 million raised for the video game Double Fine Adventure. Burlew’s incentives included a new prequel story delivered as a PDF to everyone who pledged $10 or more, a walk-on cameo in a future strip for one person that donated $5,000, exclusive magnets, original crayon drawings, and even a coloring book. During the fundraising period, he amped up his production to release a new installment of The Order of the Stick every day to help generate extra excitement and energy around the event.
Renae De Liz‘s all-female comics anthology Womanthology also had similar success, as reported last year. Their Kickstarter page met their goal of $25,000 within just 18 hours, and finished with over $100,000. The buzz around the project garnered the attention of IDW Publishing, which helped distribute the anthology and has agreed to publish a 5-issue mini-series for a second graphic novel.
Not everyone is making such huge bank. Using Kickstarter or IndieGoGo (or another crowd-sourcing platform) takes a serious commitment to promotion, and of course a pre-existing audience helps. But more and more comics projects are matching their goal, like LA cartoonist Keith Knight (The K Chronicles, The Knight Life), who brought in over $40,000 to produce his original graphic novel I Was A Teenage Michael Jackson Impersonator.
According to the Kickstarter Blog, the Comics category in 2011 raised over $1.7 million from over 27,000 backers of 267 successful projects. It’s important to note that with Kickstarter, only projects that match their goal receive funds pledged. Considering that The Order of the Stick nearly eclipsed that total dollar figure by itself earlier this year, the 2012 figures should see a remarkable increase.
With these success stories, others are turning to this method to try to publish their own comics and graphic novels, or books and films about comics. To keep them all straight, enter ComicKick on Facebook. Only about a week old, these fans are posting about a variety of new projects by creators trying to bring their dreams to reality.
Aimed at grades 3-6, The Graphic Textbook features a dozen short stories (both fiction and non-fiction) that address topics in a variety of disciplines (Social Studies, Math, Language Arts, Science) drawn from the list of Common Core Standards used in classrooms countrywide. The accompanying Teacher’s Guide will include Standards-correlated lesson plans customized to each story, research-based justifications for using comics in the classroom, a guide to establishing best classroom practices and a comprehensive listing of additional educational resources.
The Graphic Textbook will prove once and for all that comics belong in the classroom by creating a comic that every teacher will actually want to use and a textbook that every student will actually want to read!
It includes chapters from professional creators of comic books and graphic novels, such as Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, who produced the educational series Action Philosophers, plus Roger Langridge (The Muppet Show Comic Book, Snarked!, Popeye), Chris Schweizer (Crogan’s Vengeance), Katie Cook (Fraggle Rock, Gronk: A Monster’s Story) and more. The cover to the right is by Ben Caldwell.
The comics projects on Kickstarter and IndieGoGo are often unique and different from what is being produced by the bigger comics publishers, so it’s worth it to “Like” ComicKick on Facebook to find out about what could be a future hit.