Category: Reviews

Book-A-Day 2018 #256: Cerebus by Dave Sim

I haven’t read Dave Sim’s Cerebus in years. At least ten, probably more like twenty. I fell off the horse sometime before the big ending — Cerebus famously was a self-published series whose creator declared he would do three hundred issues, monthly, and by gum he did it — during what I think of as the Sour Years.

(As far as I can tell, Cerebus ended as planned in 2004, but the Sour Years did not. There’s a lesson for all of us, as we get older.)

Before that, though, Cerebus was one of my favorite comics. More importantly, it was an exemplar of what comics could do, one of the first comics I picked up at Iron Vic Comics in Poughkeepsie sometime in the fall of 1986, when Young Andy went to see what these “new comics for adults” were all about.

I must have come in with a list of some kind, at least a mental one — I almost always have lists — because I know I didn’t ask for anyone’s advice. Or maybe I just grabbed what looked the most different on the racks. It was 1986; there was a lot of different available, especially in a comics shop near a college.

In any case, I know I got Flaming Carrot and Nexus that first trip. Maybe Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen, but I don’t think so: I think it was all indies, that first time out.

Other comics had different things going for them: Flaming Carrot was the most bizarre, with a beating heart of pure dada. Nexus was smart SF of a kind I didn’t yet realize was vanishingly rare in comics. But Cerebus was easily the most impressive. Sim was a great artist, a masterful letterer — the least-appreciated of the comics arts — and a master of fizzy, funny dialogue. He also clearly had a master plan and knew how to pace a story. (Even then, I was looking for storytellers who knew how to do endings. Sim has his flaws — they are huge and un-ignorable — but he always knew how to close a story.)

Sim eventually fell into the Autodidact’s Curse: swallowed whole by his own self-inflicted cranky explanation of everything in the universe, which of course also took over Cerebus, because that’s what happens with autodidacts who live and work alone: their work is the way to reach the world, so it fills up with everything in their heads. And what was in Sim’s head, starting in the mid-90s, got pretty vile.

But I’m not in the mid-90s today. Cerebus , the book, is the first of sixteen big fat “phone books” — Sim pioneered the complete book-format reprint series, the way he pioneered self-publishing, by just doing it damn well and inspiring others to follow. It starts with the very first issue, from the end of 1977, and collects that along with the next twenty-four issues, up to just before the beginning of his first really long story, High Society, in the spring of 1981.

The Cerebus book has four years and about 550 pages of comics, starting with a cartoon aardvark (the title character) in a fantasy story that sits uneasily somewhere between parody and homage of the Roy Thomas/Barry (Windsor-) Smith Conan but rapidly turns into its own distinctive blend of comics-industry parody, comics versions of various old comedians (and some others), sword-swinging realpolitik, every cultural influence that hit Sim in nearly real-time, convoluted scheming among various strains of serious and silly fanatics, and just plain gleeful joy in overcomplication.

At the center of it all is Cerebus: an aardvark in a world of men (this will be explained, sort of, much later, and not necessarily in a way anyone will be satisfied with), and a person who relentlessly hides his depths, and any trace of nuance, in pursuit of being the bluntest of blunt objects. Cerebus primarily is a force of need and demand — mostly, in these early stories, trying to get as large a pile of gold coins as he possibly can, and generally losing what he has in his greed for more. He’ll come to want bigger things later, but that essential nature remains: he’s smart, but not thoughtful, and insightful about the weaknesses and exploitable flaws of others, but never introspective for a second. Those traits lead him to fail, over and over, in interesting and frequently funny ways.

As I said above, the story will all go sour, in various ways, later on, as Sim’s hobby-horses and the bludgeon of Cerebus’s personality combine badly into histrionic misogynistic stories and endlessly tedious text features. But that’s a long way in the future from these stories. These stories see Sim expanding from single-issue stories to first two and then three-issue plots, and threading background details into launching points for the next ideas. By the end of this book, Cerebus has changed from a comic about a cartoon aardvark who has a somewhat humorous fantasy adventure each issue into a comic about a big, quirky world, full of conflict and modernizing in a vaguely late-medieval way, across which travels a deeply flawed but very interesting grey-skinned fellow.

This is the rising curve of Cerebus: Sim got noticeably better with every issue, and was doing entertaining and intriguing fantasy adventure from the first page. He got very funny very quickly; his drawing improved immensely from what was already a nice Windsor-Smith follower; and his plots and dialogue filled with amusing and fascinating complications as he built out that complex world.

There are hints of the later attitudes towards women here — women do not come off well in any era of Cerebus, except maybe the Jaka storyline. There are two major female characters in this book: Jaka, a dancer that Cerebus falls in love with when drugged and abandons immediately afterward, and the Red Sonja parody Red Sophia. Jaka does eventually get more emotional depth than the standard beautiful, loving, loyal girlfriend role she gets here, but that’s still far in the future. And Red Sophia is very funny, but no deeper than any of the other parodies, like the Cockroach or Elrod of Melvinbone.

(Though I have to say that I was reminded again, reading this, just how amazingly funny Elrod is. It’s a bizarre combination that shouldn’t work for any logical reason — an incompetent, self-important version of Moorcock’s Elric who speaks in the tones of Foghorn Leghorn — but it kills, and every time Elrod appears again it’s a high point of the book.)

I don’t think any of this is “you had to be there.” It definitely will work better if you are of the male persuasion, and doubly so if you don’t know where it all ends up. But there’s well over two thousand pages of really good Cerebus comics, and they start here. You can always jump off the ride before it crashes. You’ll have plenty of time and warning. Comics has few enough geniuses: we can’t afford to ignore the crazy ones.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #254: Jack Staff, Vols. 3 & 4 by Paul Grist

It can be annoying to catch up on something you’re enjoying. Doubly so if “caught up” means “read up to the stuff published in 2009, which just sort of stops.”

But I just caught up with Paul Grist’s quirky British superhero comic Jack Staff, with the back half of the collections — the third book was Echoes of Tomorrow  and the fourth one was Rocky Realities . They’re both roughly a decade old at this point, and I don’t think there’s been any new Jack Staff material since then.

(See my posts on the first two volumes — Everything Used To Be Black and White  and Soldiers  — for more background and details. In general, since those posts are from earlier this year, I won’t talk about anything I mentioned then, like the tropism to have a splash panel and logo every time the focus shifts to another major character. [1])

Creator Paul Grist is still having massive amounts of fun with the various things he can do with a superhero universe in these stories from 2004-09, bouncing from plotline to plotline and character to character with glee and verve, throwing ideas up on one page to catch them ten pages later. It’s a whole mini-superhero universe, contained in one comic and centered on one minor British city, with multiple heroes (each with their own complicated histories) and villains and others, plus vampires and vampire hunters and plain cops and spooky cops just to keep it all interesting.

The last plotline even introduces a time cop, in the person of spacesuit-wearing chimp Rocky Reality. [2] And I have to imagine that Jack Staff‘s world would continue to grow and proliferate for as long as Grist wanted to keep it up.

Actually, I can’t prove he didn’t stop Jack Staff out of ennui or boredom. I can say that it doesn’t feel that way: the series doesn’t really have any sort of ending. The particular villain in the last issue (#20) is captured, but, as usual, the last few pages see Grist throw some more balls up in the air…and he hasn’t had a chance to catch them since then.

With that caveat in place, I’ll still recommend Jack Staff. It’s goofy and more-or-less serious and full of smart dialogue and quirky situations and energetic art. I usually hate superhero stuff, and I think this is a hoot, and wish there were five or six more volumes full of the stories Grist would have made over the past decade in a better universe.

[1] Saying that I won’t mention something and then mentioning it reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

“Everything in science fiction should be mentioned twice — with the possible exception of science fiction.” — Samuel Delaney

The only problem is, I haven’t been able to source that quote. I have a vague memory of reading it in a book about SF: I used to think it was in Tom Disch’s The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, but I poked through that extensively and didn’t find it.

So it is entirely possible one of my favorite quotes is either horribly mangled or entirely false. I’m OK with that.

[2] He, too, gets a logo and a jingle: “If normality is out of whack, Rocky Reality whacks it back!”

You can almost hear Grist chortling as he draws these pages: that’s how much he’s having.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

P/Review: “The Wrong Earth”

It’s exciting to be at the start of something. It’s especially exciting to be at the start of a new line of comics. Somehow comics, more than other forms of entertainment, have that feel of immediacy combined with a substantial tapestry of creative team-work. There’s always lots of dedicated people involved, and when they work together and make something new and exciting happen, it’s pretty special.

Ahoy Comic’s first new series, The Wrong Earth, is pretty special. And you can be at the start of it when issue #1 drops in stores tomorrow.

The new series offers readers a double-fish out-of-water story, as a classic Silver Age crime fighter changes places with a gritty “modern” hero. For superhero fans, there’s a lot to compare and contrast. And it’s done without any judgement on what type of storytelling is better. Writer Tom Peyer serves up clever new versions of old favorites, gently acknowledging the collective comic’s history that rattles around in collectors’ and/or fanboys’ heads. But he’s such an out-of-the box thinker that he will keep even the most jaded fans on their toes.

On the other hand, folks who aren’t overly well-versed in the nuances of fifty years of comic book heroes can enjoy this too. Anyone who’s seen one Marvel movie or one episode of a WB Superhero show is good to go.

Jamal Igle and inker Juan Castro provide solid art, often so smooth and skillful that you don’t even realize how good it is. Igle, as always, takes complicated scenes and makes them readable and engaging. He resists the urge to overdo it as he toggles between worlds, and what could have been jarring or tiresome is engaging.

One of the mantra’s for Ahoy is to provide a lot of material in each issue, and to ensure that it’s all diverse. The Wrong Earth #1 is overstuffed with creativity – including a prose story by Grant Morrison, a Too Much Coffee Man gag panel, a Q & A with Jamal Igle and a wonderful “lost” solo adventure of Stinger, the super hero sidekick.

Paul Constant teams with SU professor and artist Frank Cammuso on the Stinger short story called “The Fairgrounds Horror”. It has all the charm and fun of finding an old comic in your grandma’s attic. There’s an astounding level of detail, and the yellowed pages really look like they are from a 1940s comic.

Ahoy Comics’ first comic, The Wrong Earth, is a promising start to new publishing enterprise. I’m hopeful retailers will support this book, and if your retailer doesn’t carry it, ask him to snag you a copy. You will both be happier for it.

Book-A-Day 2018 #253: Comics Dementia by Gilbert Hernandez

I’m just focusing on the work in this series of “I Love (And Rockets) Mondays” post, and not getting into any behind-the-scenes stuff. But it’s clear that Gilbert Hernandez, for whatever reason, just generates more Love And Rockets-related material than his brother Jaime in the same amount of time, which I can imagine is an issue for a publisher that wants to keep things even.

This reprint series has alternated Jaime books and Gilbert books, except for the everything-else collection Amor Y Cohetes , which gathered all of the stories from both brothers (and their early occasional compatriot, third brother Mario) that didn’t fit into their respective main sequences. I had the sense that book had more Gilbert than Jaime, though I didn’t count pages.

But this twelfth volume, Comics Dementia , also breaks the sequence — it collects the Gilbert stories after the end of Love and Rockets volume one that don’t fit into the “Palomar” continuity in any way. (There are a couple of linked stories set in a small Latin American town that could be Palomar, but the possible connection is never made.)

Comics Dementia includes sixty-four mostly short stories — many of them are single pages; a number are three-panel gags like a daily newspaper strip, placed at the bottom of another comic that doesn’t user that full page — over 224 pages. They originally appeared in all sorts of places: many in the second series of L&R, but many in other publications as well. And this 2016 book has comics from as early as 1996 (right after the end of the first L&R series) and as recent as 2015.

These are all experiments or trials of one form or another: surrealism, exercises in visual storytelling, jokes, contributions to anthologies, and a lot of religious and semi-religious questioning. (I wouldn’t try to characterize Hernandez’s personal religious convictions, but he’s been wrestling with the questions of sin and redemption and the nature of evil since the very beginning — those are important concerns throughout his work, and surface more obviously here in short strips that are all about those concerns.)

It also has to be said that nearly all of this is aggressively weird: the Candide-esque turmoils of the preternaturally positive Roy; adventures of the Leaping Elite, women whose highly-trained thighs let them semi-fly; several appearances by the destructive and frequently giant-sized Love Gremlins; murderous attacks by the fearsome Froat, the brain-sucker of Delaware; three completely different consecutive stories all titled “Heroin;” philosophical musings; vaguely SF and fantasy-tinged strips that tend to end in horrifying violence; a collection of profiles of Catholic saints; random bits of non-fiction; and strips I can’t even describe.

Comics Dementia also more-or-less forms a single world — Roy battles the Froat, and meets the Leaping Elite, who capture Love Gremlins. Or maybe it’s just that there’s a loose “Roy” world that a lot of these strips fit into, since the more surreal or philosophical strips here don’t really fit into anything else. (And there are a bunch of those.)

This is a book for serious Gilbert Hernandez fans, the ones who want to dive into his quirky, one-off strips and are OK with the fact that a lot of them just end in death and dismemberment the way that old Monty Python skits would often end with a meta-joke about not having a punchline. Comics Dementia is the furthest reaches of the land of Love and Rockets, far out on the border with pure-art comics and stranger things. It’s an interesting journey, if you manage to travel there, but it’s not for everyone.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

REVIEW: Predator 4K Blu-ray

REVIEW: Predator 4K Blu-ray

On Friday, Shane Black’s The Predator will arrive, intending to be a fresh take on the franchise that appears to be playing up the humor. It’s set after the 1987 original and its Predator 2 sequel so acknowledges those events happened, which is cool.

Additionally, 20th Century Home Entertainment has wisely capitalized on the new film by releasing 4K UHD releases of Predator 4K, Predator 2 4K and Predators 4K.

When the film first arrived, audiences suspected it was another Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick with sci-fi trappings. After all, the one-sheet positioned him, rifle in hand, in the crosshairs of someone. He was paired with Carl Weathers, Bill Duke, Richard Chaves, Jesse Ventura, and so on (including Black back when he acted). What no one was prepared for, though, was John McTiernan’s taut direction and Stan Winston’s amazing alien hunter; the helmet removal moment late in the film stunned audiences.

A franchise was born, populating film sequels, comics, novels, and the crossovers with 20th’s Aliens series. As a result, the thrills were gone, the surprises were quickly absent, and they become more of the same.

Therefore, it’s interesting to go back to the beginning and relive those suspenseful moments when no one was sure exactly what unearthly creature was now hunting humans. It was camouflaged, rendered seemingly invisible, through most of the film so it was a cat and mouse game until Arnold figured out how to get the upper hand. The script from Jim Thomas and John Thomas nicely ratcheted up the suspense, giving us just enough characterization to help differentiate one target from another.

It remains a good movie, a strong piece of entertainment and reminds you how the Predator was fresh.

The previous Blu-ray editions were okay but never great so it’s nice to have a strong, 4K Ultra HD release. The 2160p transfer in 1.85:1 nicely captures the original look of the film, grain and all. The colors are more vivid and the subtle alien tech is sharper which enhances the rewatching. We get a good DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix but I would have preferred they invested in the Dolby Atmos upgrade to match the visuals.

The 4K disc comes with Audio Commentary from McTiernan, Text Commentary by Eric Lichtenfeld, who contributed to the 2001 documentary, If It Bleeds We Can Kill It: The Making of Predator and interviews with various production personnel.

The 4K disc is accompanied by the most recent Blu-ray pressing and that disc contains all the same Special Features as it did when originally released. The combo pack also comes with a 4K Digital HD code, so will look very snazzy on the right monitors.

Book-A-Day 2018 #252: Pictures That Tick 2 by Dave McKean

Dave McKean is a deeply classy cartoonist, the kind whose work is as likely to be first shown on the walls of a gallery as in a publication somewhere. And even his comics that do appear alongside other comical funnies are more serious and elevated than their peers — aiming to be Works of Art and not just entertainments.

Sometimes this can be exhilarating, since creators working at a high pitch can bring audiences up to their level. And sometimes it can be annoying, as when you’re trying to read over two hundred pages of far-too-stylized Dave McKean lettering on a tablet, with the pages just that little bit smaller than they would be on paper.

McKean is never going to go out of his way to make it easy for you to read and understand his work — not physically (just understanding the words and images) and not conceptually. He’s simply not interested in an audience that isn’t going to work at least as hard as he does.

Pictures That Tick 2  is a 2014 collection of McKean’s short comics; it’s so classy that it’s subtitled “Short Narrative Exhibition.” Set your expectations appropriately.

It’s also so classy, or so heavily designed, that it has a short comic even before the table of contents, and a title page that primarily consists of squiggles laid out to look like words but which cannot be ready, on a typically moody McKean background. You know, I like his work, but often a little of it goes a long way.

Oh, and another short strip interrupts the title/copyright page — McKean is never not futzing around with book design if you let him.

Finally, about a dozen pages in, you’ll finally get that table of contents, in a small scripty font on a red-and-black mottled background. (One suspects no one ever actually explained the importance of legibility in book design to a young and impressionable McKean, but instead expounded the virtues of drama.)

There are about five substantial stories here — two creation myths from an aborted project where McKean would be a showrunner for a third incarnation of the Storyeller series for Jim Henson Productions, and three projects that were art exhibitions/installations converted into comics. Also included are about a dozen shorter pieces — dreams, posters, wordless pieces, evocative comics for a jazz CD, and other random stuff.

The two creation myths are fairly straightforward: they’re very Dave McKean-ish comics, so the words are sometimes hard to read and the virtuosity of the art sometimes obscures the meaning, but the story isn’t difficult to follow or deliberately obscure.

The three gallery pieces are more evocative, designed to be fragments or moments that gallery-goers will experience probably but not necessarily in this order, and so the bits have to be more independent and separate. One is a journey around part of England’s coast, as a woman chases her runaway husband and finds the art he has inspired in his wake. Another is a series of bits of dialogue related to a true story from McKean’s youth, about something bad he did that he doesn’t quite explain or detail. The other one, “The Blue Tree,” which comes first in the book, is the closest to a conventional narrative and relates pretty closely to the two creation myths — McKean’s notes say he was explicitly trying to combine religious and scientific ways of looking at the world, from his two immediately preceding projects.

I’m not sure what size Pictures That Tick 2 is in the physical world. I hope it’s as large as possible: McKean’s work is best the more you can submerge yourself into it, to have it surrounding you on all sides. (So he’s probably best at gallery shows, and second best making movies.) These are comics to think about and ruminate on and read slowly, teasing out nuance and detail. But they will probably be slightly annoying, at least at moments, even to readers who like and enjoy McKean’s work, just because of the barriers McKean puts up between his work and the audience. So make sure you know that going in, if you do decide to go in.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #249: Happy Hooligan by Frederik Burr Opper

One good joke can you pretty far. Ask anyone who’s ever headlined a sitcom or had a popular stand-up act. [1]

Or a big comic strip, more to the point.

The early days of newspaper strips are a treasure trove of great examples: the same artists would have dedicated space in their paper, but not always be producing the same strip. So if a guy had a funny-kid joke that day, it might be one strip, and if he had a two-Irish-guys joke, it might be a different strip.

(I can’t see modern audiences standing for that, but modern audiences have been spoiled horribly.)

Frederick Burr Opper’s most famous strip was Happy Hooligan , but that was mostly just his hook to hang “jokes where someone tries to help, and it turns out badly.” He had plenty of other strips to be hooks for other jokes, too — but this is the one his audience loved best, so he tried to tell it as much as he could.

I should admit that I didn’t actually know most of that: Allan Holtz’s informative introduction to this recent selection of Happy strips (edited by Jeffrey Lindenblatt, containing about ninety strips from the high years of 1902-1913) gave me the background, along with a quick sketch of Opper’s life and career.

Happy is the kind of old-timey that’s still funny quite a lot of the time, but the cartooning expectations are different enough — a frozen “camera,” lots of wordy explanatory dialogue, drawing that looks a bit stiff to modern eyes — that the reader needs to settle into it and get used to it before it starts to be funny.

Well, there’s one other thing: you have to find that joke funny. That is the problem with a one-joke strip, whether it’s Happy Hooligan or Cathy or Garfield.

In Happy‘s case, the joke generally involved Happy getting pummeled by someone — usually a policeman — after trying to do something nice and inadvertently causing havoc by his clumsiness. Many fewer people in 2018 think violence is funny than did in 1902, so Happy has not aged as well as it might have. (On the other hand, a lot of strips of the same vintage are horribly racist, and Happy sidesteps that by mostly makes fun of British people, at least in the strips reprinted here.)

Happy Hooligan is an important milestone in the development of the American comic strip — Holtz’s introduction is good at making those connections, tracing the developing single-panel in Punch (where Opper worked before starting Happy). Now, “important” is not always the same thing as “still entertaining to read,” but Happy still largely works, if you’re willing to meet it half way and get used to its older rhythms and expectations. And that’s pretty impressive for something that appeared in a disposable newspaper more than a hundred years ago.

[1] You might be a redneck if. What’s the deal with. Watermelon. Seven words. Yo mamma.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

REVIEW: Tucker: The Man and His Dream

Bit by bit, the cool, overlooked films of previous decades are finally being spruced up and released on Blu-ray. The most recent example comes from Lionsgate and is Francis Ford Coppla’s terrific Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Starring Jeff Bridges, it tells the story of Preston Thomas Tucker, a man who saw a different, better way to design, build, and sell cars. Many of his inventions attracted attention and were clearly ahead of their time.

Ever see a Tucker Torpedo? Not a surprise the answer is a no since only 50 true Tuckers were ever manufactured. Tucker (1903-1956) was an inventor and engineer, including auto racecars, a combat car and gun turret during World War II, and even aircraft. Once the war ended, he was determined to build cars, dreaming of models, as Detroit’s Big Three were content with the models form 1941.

The 1988 film shows how Tucker was thinking big and as early as 1946, had an idea for new features — disc brakes, seat belts, a pop out windshield, and head lights which swivel when you turn – for the next generation of automobile. The war weary public is fascinated and the Tucker Corporation sells many shares and there’s general excitement.

Under Coppola’s steady hand, we watch how the dream turns to ashes, one disappointment at a time, and his various innovations are discarded by a nervous Board of Directors. Tucker also had to deal with the wrath of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler in addition to Michigan Senator Homer S. Ferguson (Lloyd Bridges) orchestrating government interference.

You admire Tucker and root for him thanks to Bridges’ winning performance. He’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast including Joan Allen as his wife Vera, Christian Slater as their son Preston Jr., Martin Landau as Abe Karatz, his lead financier, Elias Koteas as his engineering partner Alex Tremulis, and Dean Stockwell as Howard Hughes.

The film is a story of American innovation, chasing the American Dream, and a cautionary tale about corporate power. There’s a definite Frank Capra quality to the narrative, which makes sense since the screenplay comes from Capra collaborator Arnold Schulman, who shares the credit with David Seidler.

It’s a fine drama and well worth watching. Interestingly, Coppola initially considered this as a musical, similar to his One from the Heart, and in one extra, we see a shot of him with the legendary Leonard Bernstein, Adolph Green, and Betty Comden discussing the project. Coppola, a better filmmaker than businessman, never got to realize that dream, but got some financial help from George Lucas, to make this movie.

The movie never connected with its audience, despite solid reviews, and Paramount Pictures took a loss on the release. Even Landau being nominated for an Oscar and winning a Golden Globe Award as Best Supporting Actor, didn’t help the film’s home video release.

Tucker: The Man and His Dream gets a loving 1080p transfer in 2.39:1 and in addition to the Blu-ray disc, you get a 4K Digital HD code, which is cool. We can appreciate the work from cinematographer Vittorio Storaro with rich colors that have been well presented. The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 audio track is just about a solid match.

We also get Audio Commentary with Director Francis Ford Coppola, a Francis Ford Coppola Introduction (3:39), which goes into the background; a Deleted Scene (4:11) with optional commentary by Coppola; Under the Hood: Making Tucker (10:02), assembles archival material complete with comments from Lucas; Tucker: The Man and the Car 1948 Promotional Film (14:54), a promotional piece that clearly inspired the director, who provides optional commentary.

Book-A-Day 2018 #247: The Fun Family by Benjamin Frisch

This book looks very much like it’s going to be a parody of The Family Circus. There’s a male cartoonist, his beautiful and pearl-wearing wife, their four chibi children, and the round single-panel that encompasses all of them.

But creator Benjamin Frisch apparently wasn’t interested in a re-run of the Dysfunctional Family Circus, and so The Fun Family  is a more free-floating parody — maybe of self-actualization and the search for meaning in life, maybe of just life itself.

Robert Fun’s family mimics the Family Circus closely: wife Marsha, sons Mikey and Robby, daughter Molly, baby J.T. Robby even takes over the comic strip, as metafictionally the Keane kids have the Family Circus and in real life Jeff Keane has actually done. [1] It even begins with a famous Family Circus trope: Robert Fun’s mother, “Grandma Virginia Fun,” has just died, and almost immediately appears as an angel.

But there’s no grandpa alongside her, and this dead grandma is a lot more demanding and specifically religious than in Family Circus. In fact, everyone here is spikier and quirkier than in the soft-focus Family Circus. Dad has a strange collection that he’s obsessive about, Mom abandons her husband and falls under the spell of a succession of gurus as she tries to find happiness, and both of them seem to ignore the fact that these kids seem to be no older than six or seven, leaving them to fend for themselves most of the time.

(But this is not a particularly realistic world to begin with: Frisch lampshades the children’s ages by pointedly noting that they do not age over the year or so that this graphic novel covers.)

Things spiral out of control after Grandma’s death, in several directions. I’ve mentioned the two parents’ obsessions, but the kids are nearly as crazy, building religious monuments or burying themselves in comics-making. The kids just want their parents back together, but instead they all just go further apart.

Eventually, there’s a break, and a confrontation. But it doesn’t go the expected way. Fun Family has a “happy” ending — everyone has things they want, everyone is successful, and so on — but it’s not at all the happy ending we expected, or the ending we would get from Family Circus. (Where, of course, nothing ever changes to begin with — nothing like this story could ever happen there.)

I’m not entirely sure if Frisch had a point in Fun Family: it feels like it’s trying to say something about family and work and happiness and self-understanding, but he’s throwing blows in all directions, which obscures anything positive he might be trying to say. Maybe there is nothing positive; maybe this is exactly what Frisch meant: happiness is based on delusions and monomania, so find the things that can make you ignore the outside world (which will only give you grief).

Fun Family looks a lot like the book I thought it would be — cute, rounded, with a great eye for classic cartooning and lots of dot eyes. But it reads like something darker and more savage, underneath all of the happy talk. It implies a deeply nihilistic view of life, for its its gospel of wealth and angelic dead grandmas. Perhaps it’s best Bil Keane was safely dead before Frisch took up his pen.

[1] I can’t imagine what it’s like to have your career be drawing cartoons about your own fictionalized fifty-years-ago childhood, following in the footsteps of your dead father. But “Jeffy” lives that.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.

Book-A-Day 2018 #245: I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League by Giffen, DeMatteis, Maguire & Rubinstein

I don’t know why the story reprinted in I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League  so obviously positioned itself as a one-time one-off. As a former editor and current marketer, I’m strongly against interrupting customers while they’re buying your stuff, but I’m not DC Comics.

And this book does make it clear, in little ways all the way along, that this will be just as much of this silliness as we’re going to get, so you’d better enjoy it now while you have it. (“Now” being 2005, in this case: and it’s true, we haven’t gotten any more, in the more than a decade since then.)

Maybe that was because writers Keith Giffen and J.M DeMatteis realized the high bwah-ha-ha style was harder and more demanding than they remembered, and wanted to get back to simpler punch-fests. Maybe this was all the time for penciller Kevin Maguire that they would ever get again, and they wouldn’t dream of doing it without him. (I think inker Joe Rubinstein was game for more of this, but maybe not?)

But, still: generally, during a story, you don’t look askance at your readers and mutter things like “are you actually reading that?” under your breath. Unless you’re DC Comics, obviously.

If that kind of thing annoys you, you probably don’t want to read I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League. Other things might trigger that reaction: superheroes who crack jokes, running gags, repeated extreme facial expressions, sitcom-level character comedy, naivety and assholishness equally played for laughs, and lots of dialogue. (You can’t have character-based comedy without letting your characters talk.)

(I looked at the prior retro JLI story a few weeks ago.)

This follows immediately on the heels of the prior story: the Super Buddies still haven’t had a first case, but are caught up in dram with their new neighbor, a bar being run by a former (very minor) supervillain…and his partner, who turns out to be everyone’s least favorite Green Lantern, Guy Gardner. (I think at this point he had some other kind of power ring, but the story doesn’t explain — he has a ring, he can do stuff, that’s good enough.) He and Power Girl — the superhero with the famous “boob window” — are our new characters here, replacing Captain Atom, who is quietly recuperating from the events of the prior story and will not return.

The plot, such as it is, sees the Super Buddies first go to hell, and then to the usual alternate world populated by evil versions of themselves. (Is that Earth-3? I can never remember. This is probably pre-Flashpoint, so I don’t think there even was an Earth-3 in those days.)

They run around, complain, yell at each other, make jokes, and occasionally do something heroic when they’ve exhausted all other options. It’s gloriously fun and silly in an over-the-top way, in the way that superhero comics are rarely allowed to be. (The silly comics of this decade tend to be much smaller scale, for whatever reason.) Maguire is still one of the very best artists at depicting facial expressions, and he has a lot of scope here — these folks are making all kinds of faces all the way through. He has a funny script to work with, of course, which definitely helps: these are broad characters, pushed to be silly, and Giffen/DeMatteis have long experience making them funny.

You might prefer your big superheroes to be serious: it happens. If so, this is not a comic for you. You can pick, oh I don’t know, literally anything else featuring any of these characters.

Reposted from The Antick Musings of G.B.H. Hornswoggler, Gent.