Monday, October 20, 2014

Hero Sandwich Collection: The Works

Hero Sandwich Collection: The Works is a trade paperback collection of comics books from SLG (formerly Slave Labor Graphics), a publisher based in San Jose, California. Among their best known publications are Milk and Cheese, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, and My Monkey's Name is Jennifer. SLG has been around for decades now, and they have been a place for interesting and off-beat comics, a launching pad for a number of creators.

This book follows the adventures of a detective agency/motley crew of characters: Rachel Ashley is a smart and sly woman who seems to be the leader. Allison is her compatriot who has a thing for large guns. Silver Scorpion is an aging ex-CIA type with a mysterious past. Lee is an alien (I think, he's "not from around here") who has a round, almost featureless face, and Richard is a hero with stretching powers a la Plastic Man.

This volume contains two storylines, one where the detectives take a case from a coven of vampires who are seeking out a man who is trying to become a vampire by taking drugs, filing down his teeth, and savagely killing random people (that's the connection to this month's theme, BTW).

The second is a caper that follows when Silver Scorpion meets up with one of his compatriots from the old days. To be honest, neither story was excellent, though I thought they were fun and entertaining. Mostly, they are great for looking at the time period, as 1980s fashions and style are pretty prominent throughout, for good or bad.
80s fashion!
These comics are also good for looking at the early days of some comics creators. Writer Dan Vado is also the publisher of SLG, and he is also known for a run on JLA for DC Comics, though I think the best book he did was The Griffin. He won an Inkpot Award for his long-standing contributions to comics. The first story arc about vampires was drawn by Chuck Austen, who has worked on various comics over time, including some semi-autobiographical porn books, Miracleman and X-Men, though his work became reviled by fans. He also created the animated series Tripping the Rift. The second story arc was drawn by Peter Krause (yes, his name is misspelled on the cover) and Aldin Baroza. Krause went on to draw many comics for DC, including Superman and Shazam! He also collaborated on the Irredeemable and Insufferable series. Baroza mostly works an an animation storyboard artist nowadays but he also does a webcomic called Rose Madder.

I could not find any reviews for this book online, and it is mostly exists for comics completists, or as Vado put it in his introduction, "the 500 of you who will eventually own this collection." Instead of reviews then, I will take this space to talk about SLG and its current plight. The publisher has been in business for three decades now, and the comics business is not what it used to be. Publisher Vado has established a gofundme project here and is looking for donations to get his company back to speed. They are an established publisher with a long track record of contributing to the comics industry, and I contributed to their drive, so won't you consider helping them out as well?

Hero Sandwich Collection: The Works was published by SLG Publishing

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Bulletproof Coffin

The Bulletproof Coffin is a whole bunch of things in one package, including a critical commentary on the comics industry and how it treats its creators, a recapitulation of classic Marvel bullpen personae, a nostalgic look at Golden and Silver Age comic books, and a piece of good old fashioned science fiction paranoia. The story stars Steve Newman, a voids contractor whose job is to clean out dead people's houses and take their unwanted belongings to the local landfill.
He and his partner Joey Spinoza often go to each house the night before to select any choice bits, and consequently Steve has amassed quite a collection of collector's items like old comic books, toys, and store displays. He keeps all these treasures in his attic sanctuary, away from his wife and children.
The plot thickens when Steve finds an old television, some (he thought) unpublished comic books, and a Coffin Bug costume. Suddenly he finds himself compelled to wear the suit, which fits like a glove, and he is transported to all kinds of adventures with comics heroes The Red Wraith, The Shield of Justice, The Unforgiving Eye, and Ramona Queen of the Stone Age. They fight mysterious shadow men and a dimension-traveling zombie horde at the end of time, but they learn that their dire fates could be averted if they find their creators David Hine and Shaky Kane.
The proceedings are very meta-textual, with all sorts of jabs at industry conventions and also some satirical yet creepy recreations of comic book features like advertisements, letters to the editor, and fan art. This book contains some very elaborate packaging and commentary, and it seems to be a real labor of love as well as a lot of fun. All of these details do not weigh down the proceedings, and I feel that the adventure stands on its own merits as a piece of superhero action/science fiction.

What drew me to this book in the first place was the art by Shaky Kane. Kane has been drawing various comics since the mid-1980s and his style is influenced heavily by "Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, Savage Pencil, Jack Kirby, Brett Ewins and Brendan McCarthy" (per his bio). His Kirby riff is prevalent in this book, but his art straddles classic and contemporary comics styles. It is both raw and polished, and it reminds me a lot of Bob Burden's. The story is by David Hine, who has written a multitude of comics for many different companies. Both creators speak about their work in this interview.

Reviews I have read have praised this book that is simultaneously in love with and highly critical of comic books.  Ryan K. Lindsay called it "a smart comic that is also insanely enjoyable." Alex Carr called it "entirely original" and added that "it's worth seeking out for any true culture vulture."

The Bulletproof Coffin was published by Image Comics. The entire first issue is available as a preview here. For those interested, there is a sequel, The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred.  I recommend this book for mature readers, as it contains some adult language, bloody violence, and nudity.
Trick or treat!

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Chuckling Whatsit

As I am reviewing spooky graphic novels during this month, I would be negligent if I did not include a work by one of the most prolific and macabre artists of the past few decades. Richard Sala has created a number of impressively creepy, funny, and suspenseful comics for a wide range of readers. He can make quick, violent, colorful confections like this past year's e-comic Violenzia, or suspenseful and fun children's fare like Cat Burglar Black. He is a master of combining various gothic elements in narrative and visual form. His art style is very distinctive, an amalgamation of Mad magazine details with art deco geometry and design as well as elements of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey throughout. He is excellent at creating tone and conveying a punchy story, as you can see from the first couple pages of a story originally serialized in Zero Zero, The Chuckling Whatsit:
The plot of The Chuckling Whatsit is layered like an onion, partly about the search for a creepy set of dolls made from human body parts, a slack-about writer looking for work, a lost folk artist, a serial murderer who targets horoscope authors, and a secret society of villains and assassins. There are many excellent, surprising details in the backgrounds as well as visually striking characters, from the masked female burglar who is always carrying a rose to the hulking, lurking henchman who has a huge scar across his forehead and carries a sack that barks orders at him. Not only does Sala deliver an excellent plot and mystery, dropping hints and information like bread crumbs, he also provides a motley and memorable cast of players.
Among Sala's other works are his story collection Mad Night, Peculia and the Groon Grove Vampires, Delphine, Black Cat Crossing, The Hidden, and his most recent work, In a Glass Grotesquely. He speaks more about his many works and career in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this classic book have been very positive. Publishers Weekly wrote that "The wildly imaginative storytelling and sly pastiche of lurid pulp material make an appealing mix." The Onion A.V. Club's Stephen Thompson opined, "Although its ornate lettering and perfect crosshatching are great to look at, the truly admirable quality of The Chuckling Whatsit lies in its labyrinthine plot."

The Chuckling Whatsit was published by Fantagraphics Books, who provide a preview and much more here.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Afterlife with Archie

Last year, I did a week long look at Archie Comics and some of their attempts to diversify their brand of comic books. I did not mention the most dramatic departure they were making, the new series of horror comics, Afterlife with Archie. This series stars the established Archie characters, but it takes them in a much different direction than the typical humor and romance schtick.

This volume collects the first five issues of the comic book series. The plot begins with Jughead's pet Hot Dog being run over by a car. He cannot deal with the loss, so he goes to Sabrina the Teenage Witch for help. She defies her aunts' wishes and resurrects the dog, though she is severely punished for it. In the meantime, Hot Dog is back but he is not right. The monstrous and ravenous canine turns on Jughead, biting him and beginning a contagion that turns Riverdale's citizens into flesh-eating ghouls.

Following the conventions of a zombie movie plot, what is left of the Archie gang holes up in the Lodge mansion, trying to find a way out of town and away from the creatures who want to devour them. Of course, there are complications, such as people who have been bitten but try to hide it as well as selfish moves by people who want to survive at any cost. And, I have to add, the backstories of the main characters get mined in ways that help heighten the drama while also ramping up the creepiness of the whole enterprise. This book might simply be a zombie movie with the Archie cast offered up as sacrificial lambs, but it is also true to the characters, oddly compelling, and well done.

Afterlife with Archie is a collaboration between Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla. Aguirre-Sacasa is a playwright, screenwriter, and author whose major credits include writing for the TV shows Big Love and Glee and co-writing the 2013 remake of Carrie. He has also written a slew of Marvel Comics as well as an Archie meets Glee crossover series. Francavilla is one of the best contemporary noir comics artists, having won the Eisner Award for Best Cover Artist. He has worked on his own series Black Beetle as well as having done Detective Comics and a run of the beautifully rendered Zorro. Both creators speak about their work on Afterlife with Archie in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read about this book have been very complimentary. Andy Wolverton called it a "must read" and added, "Maybe what makes Afterlife with Archie so powerful and compelling is that Aguirre-Sacasa and Francavilla have taken characters we’ve known and loved for nearly 75 years and have shown us that maybe they’re not as safe as we thought they were." EricJoseph gushed that it is "the best zombie comic on shelves today." J. Caleb Mozzocco wrote that the "basic plot may be B-movie, drive-in fare, but it looks and is told like a Golden Age Hollywood classic," and summed up, "For horror fans, comics fans and horror and comics fans, it’s a must-have."

Afterlife with Archie is rated T for Teen and is published by Archie Comics, who has a preview and more links here.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

X'ed Out and The Hive

Charles Burns is well known for his gorgeously composed and grotesque black and white artwork in books like Black Hole, but with X'ed Out he presents his first full color graphic novel.The story is a creepy mystery starring a guy named Doug in at least two roles. In one narrative he is an art student who is trying to balance his work with his relationships and in the other he is an amnesiac named Nitnit (or Johnny 23) in a surreal, horrific world of weird creatures and strange customs. Certain images and figures, including flesh wounds, Polaroid pictures, a black cat, and an old man recur in both worlds, causing the reader to question what is real and how much memory can be trusted.
Doug has some serious problems.
The artwork is fantastic as the story is intriguing and compelling. Burns references the classic style of Herge's Tintin in the forays into the otherworld, which adds to the identity play going on. He also references the drug-fueled and surreal work of William S. Burroughs, masterfully combining his strong storytelling skills with uncomfortable images of various fetuses, monstrous beings, strangely speckled eggs, gaping wounds, and flowing sewers. X'ed Out is a seriously weird, unsettling, and engrossing reading experience.
Seems like great advice to me...
Because of Burns' reputation, this book was reviewed in many well known venues, and many of them comment on being somewhat underwhelmed. New York's Dan Kois called it "a gorgeous head trip." The LA Times' Ben Schwartz offered that he felt the book fell a little short but that "Burns has still outdone himself in sheer ambition." The Guardian's Rachel Cook summed up her feelings, "I think there is something delightful about delayed gratification and this is a very beautiful book in its own right."

X'ed Out was published by Pantheon, who has information and links to reviews here. It ends on a cliffhanger, and the continuation of this book, The Hive, has also been published, for those who want more of this tale.

In this second book in a series, Nitnit (the Tintin version of Doug) finds himself as a menial worker in the titular hive. He pushes a cart, delivers packages, and cleans up messes in the fleshy hallways. The hive is where the breeders live and reproduce while green-skinned alien workers and pig-men do all kinds of jobs to maintain the place. All of this is just as gruesome and unsettling as it sounds.

Meanwhile in the real world (?), Doug is in a budding relationship with Sarah, taking lots of photographs, doing performance art, reading lots of romance comic books, dealing with Sarah's (unseen) violent ex-boyfriend, facing an unexpected pregnancy, and also caring for his dying father. There is much going on, and interspersed in the proceedings are apparent sessions with a therapist, though she is utterly rude and unprofessional, which makes me think it may be some sort of dream or hallucination. Confounding imagery crosses into both worlds, and at times we seem to be getting closer to some revelations or resolutions. It seems something pretty terrible went down, and Doug is repressing memories.
In terms of the artwork, the horror factor gets ramped up in this volume, as things begin to resemble rotting meat more and more. Plus, Burns juxtaposes even more disparate, unsettling images. He really knows how to access some primal symbols to make his readers squirm. He speaks about his work on this volume in this interview.
The reviews I have read of The Hive have been largely positive, commenting on how this volume continues and differs from X'ed Out. Rachel Cooke wrote, "The Hive is even more disorienting than the book preceding it – and that was dizzying enough. I truly have no idea, yet, what is going on. But the feeling of dread Burns evokes is quite something." The Comic Journal's Grace Krilanovich admired the amount of craft, writing, "Burns has incorporated any and all narrative strategies into this saga, in layers upon layers fanning out in all possible directions. We get photography as evidence, comic within a comic, punk cultural history, romance, drug trips, dreams, alternate universe and homage, all working together. For Burns, more is more." Kirkus Reviews commented on the obtuse nature of the book, "As if the introduction to this series (X’ed Out, 2010) wasn’t hallucinatory enough, this second installment will leave initiates feeling significantly disoriented. And perhaps that’s part of the point, as Burns blurs the distinctions within this anti-narrative among comic books, reality, drugs, masks, nightmare and identity."

The Hive was published by Pantheon, who has information and links to reviews here. The third book in this trilogy, Sugar Skull, was just published. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Happy 59th Birthday, Charles Burns!

Photo yoinked from Wikipedia
We are almost to October, and for that month I am going to review a whole bunch of creepy and spooky graphic novels. Before we get there though, I am taking the time to wish a happy trip around the sun to one of the most accomplished of horror comics creators, Charles Burns.

Burns has won multiple Harvey, Eisner and Ignatz Awards for this work. He is also sort of the Jason Voorhees of comics, slow yet steady and always delivering a killer product. He has been making comics for the better part of 30 years now, and he is known for his combination of horror aspects with an analysis of a potentially nostalgic past. He is also known for his strong, clean black lines and his expertly crisp artwork.

His work appeared in issues of Raw magazine as well as other anthologies, and those stories were later collected into a number of volumes. Big Baby followed the exploits of a young boy who lives in the suburbs and suspects his neighbors of burying people in their backyards. El Borbah is about a hulking private detective who happens to wear a lucha libre outfit. Skin Deep is an anthology of various tales, including some about Dog Boy, a creation that starred in MTV's Liquid Television in the 1980s.

His most known and celebrated work to date is Black Hole, a comic book series that stretched 12 issues from 1995 to 2005. The entire story has since been collected into one volume, and it follows the exploits of some teens in the Seattle area in the 1970s as they are inflicted with some sort of plague that is spread by sexual activity. This disease manifests with physical changes that leave many disfigured in monstrous ways, and the affected teens are banished to a squatters' settlement outside of town. Although it is set much later, Black Hole is reminiscent of 1950s horror movies, although updated with a more modern sensibility.

More recently he has been working on a trilogy of books from Pantheon. These books, X'ed Out, The Hive, and Sugar Skull, are a kind of mash-up of Tintin comics and William S. Burroughs' writing, and the first of his works to be published in color and not black and white. I will review the first two entries in depth in my next post.

In addition to his comics work, Burns is also a sought-after commercial artist who has illustrated for prominent companies such as Coca-Cola and Altoids and also produced album art for Sub Pop Records and Iggy Pop. He speaks about his career in this interview, which is accompanied by ten facts about the man.

Happy Birthday, Charles Burns!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Rise of Aurora West

Battling Boy was one of my favorite graphic novels from last year,with its wonderful blend of superheroics, horror, and YA novels. This volume, The Rise of Aurora West, is the first prequel to that story, telling the tale of how Aurora West came into her role as a monster fighter and providing more insight into the villains who terrorize this world and steal its children.

A lot of the book revolves around Aurora's relationship with her father Haggard. He is seasoned hero and monster fighter, and, as you can see below, his mode of child rearing might best be summed up by the term "tough love."
He does not coddle Aurora in the least, because the enemies they face are devious and give no quarter. Eventually, the father and daughter come to a different kind of understanding. Also, along the way, we see how Aurora inadvertently assisted the monster enemies when she was a child and also may have had a hand in her mother's horrible fate. She is a wonderfully conflicted character, and the complicated plot has lots of twists and turns that build suspense and also surprise.
The story here is by Paul Pope and JT Petty. Pope is an award winning comics creator with decades of credits, and he talks about his work on this book here. Petty is a director, video game writer, and author who also wrote the underrated graphic novel Bloody Chester. The artwork is by David Rubín, a Spanish artist whose style is similar to Pope's. He speaks about his work on this book in this interview. He certainly excels at depicting fantastic science fiction landscapes, characters, and creatures, and I feel the black and white format only highlights his line work and narrative flow. These pages are dynamic and atmospheric, and my only complaint is the same one I had with Battling Boy, that I wish the pages were larger. I appreciate the manga paperback size being convenient and portable, but I would still love to luxuriate in a larger sized format.

Even though this is a darker story than Battling Boy, all of the reviews I have read have been celebratory. Kirkus Reviews wrote, "This feels like a very different direction for the characters, and it’s a thrilling one; expect readers to clamor for the next installments of this clever spinoff." Thea called it "a surprising powerful, emotional tale about the bond between a leader and a sidekick, a father and a daughter, rooted in one young heroine’s journey of self-discovery and realization." Win Wiacek concluded that it was "a superb and moving sidebar yarn, packed with clever intoxicating mystery, astounding action, tense suspense and beguiling characters that will delight older kids, and reads even better if you’re their adult keeper or guardian."

The Rise of Aurora West was published by First Second, and they provide reviews and more here.

Thank you, Gina, for the review copy!