This is not a comic. It’s an art book by a cartoonist, featuring covers (from his own books and guest covers for others’ comics), sketchbook pages, odd single-page comics from in-house Image newsletters, convention posters, a T-shirt design or two, some logos for porn companies and stars, a little bit of movie concept art, and other assorted stuff that Brandon Graham has created in the twentyish years of his comics career.
Royalboiler is an oversized paperback with full-bleed art most of the time — it’s a great size and format for an art book, and really makes the covers (here presented without logos) show up well. That does mean, though, that text is minimal and mostly restricted to some captions on pages where they can be accommodated. The captions are also all in Graham’s lettering font — I can’t say if they’re all hand-lettered or not; does anyone actually still do that? — so they look like they’re part of the underlying art if you don’t slow down and pay attention.
But the point of an art book is to slow down and pay attention, so I don’t consider that a problem.
There is minimal text here, again: just enough to say what this piece of art is, maybe who worked on it with Graham or what year it was done. But there is enough, from those captions and a few semi-autobiographical strips and some collages of photos and artwork from conventions, to piece together a bit of Graham’s life, or at least the parts of his life that he wants to present in his art in public.
So it starts out with covers from King City and Multiple Warheadsand then goes into some of his odder, earlier, obscurer, or more collaborative projects — Prophet and Perverts of the Unknown and October Yen and so on, and then into lots of art for conventions and covers for other comics. After that comes the Comic Lovers strip for Image Plus, other odd pieces about comics, and so on.
There’s a lot in here — the book has no page numbers, but informed sources claim it’s 248 pages, and that seems about right. That’s almost 250 big pages full of interesting art by a quirky creator — the one thing I would note is that his cover/sketch work is often less dense than his story pages, so there aren’t as many buried jokes or puns in Royalboiler as there are in his narrative comics. Or, maybe, they’re buried even more deeply, so I missed them….
Is it damning with faint praise to say of a painter that you love her brushstrokes but aren’t crazy about her paintings? I hope not, because I’m about to say that about Kaoru Mori’s first major manga series Emma.
Emma originally ran for 72 chapters — 52 of the main story, and a follow-up 20 side-story chapters — in Japan’s Beam magazine from 2002 through 2008. It was collected into ten volumes, with the side-stories taking up the last three, then the volumes were translated into English. At some point, there were hardcovers, each collecting two of the smaller paperback tankobon volumes. And that’s what I just read: 72 serial chapters, 10 paperbacks, or five hardcovers. (Links to Volumes One, Two, Three, Four and Five)
It’s set in the transition from the Victorian to the Edwardian era in England, starting in what seems to be the late 1890s and continuing for a few years past Victoria’s death in 1901. (There are no actual dates in the series, but Mori does contrast Victorian and Edwardian clothing styles in her afterwords without a whole lot of explanation…I don’t think she believes that everything changed poof! all at once. It is also difficult to judge how much time is passing, since even the old characters are mostly drawn with young faces.) The central character is Emma, a young woman of uncertain parentage and no actual last name, initially working as the maid-of-all-work in the London home of retired governess Kelly Stowner.
Emma meets and falls in love with William Jones, scion of a rich and rising merchant family, who also loves her. But there are the usual impediments: their respective positions in life, William’s engagement to the daughter of a Viscount, his stern father, blah blah blah and so on.
Reader, of course they get married in the end. We all know that. So I won’t pretend otherwise.
My problem is that the problems in their way are neither fish nor fowl. I’d be happy with a Dickensian drama with melodramatic problems solved in melodramatic ways — if one party were kidnapped to America by characters who look a lot like 19th century Jewish stereotypes, for example, and the other party had to chase her there and save her from durance vile — and I’d also be happy with a more serious, sedate story of manners and closely examined social mores of the time. Emma is neither of those. This story instead throws in a couple of melodramatic moments for no clear reason (like that abduction by racist stereotypes), but generally steers a sedate course without actually closely examining the actual standards of the society it concerns.
Emma, frankly, is a caricature of circa-1900 English society as seen through the lens of circa-2002 Japanese society: the aspects that resonate with Mori and her audience are emphasized, and the ones that would be inconvenient to this story are ignored or changed or misunderstood.
Some of my major issues with Emma:
the narrative seems to have never even heard of a “breach of promise” suit
a “former governess” lives in what would be an expensive London townhouse, perhaps because she became a governess as something to do after her husband died
in general, money may exist, but the lack of it does not seem to harm or motivate a single person in the world
an honest-to-God kidnapping happens and is never mentioned afterward
the entire race of the “the Irish” seem not to exist in this world, or at least to have no connection to domestic service
it’s yet another comic series whose narrative is apparently driven primarily by what the artist wanted to draw, and not any actual story purpose
fans of the series, and possibly even its creator, seem to be mostly interested in “stories about maids” and details of their clothing, rather than any actual story points
This is not an exhaustive list.
On the other hand, Emma looks gorgeous, and the character interaction on a scene-by-scene level is true and engaging. I might not always believe that all of Mori’s characters actually are British people born in the 19th century, but they’re interesting, distinct people no matter how ahistorical they may be. Their interactions are realistic, and if Emma had not insisted on its historicity, it could all be taken as the ways these people in this society interact.
I expect most readers won’t care about any of that. It’s a nice love story, sweet and totally innocent, as befitting the time-period. (Though there is quite a bit of female nudity in Emma, both of an older married woman and of a high-class prostitute, so it’s not appropriate for anyone looking for absolute purity of the Christian Dominionist strain.) And, again, I’m quite happy with ahistorical melodramatic stories — or solidly historical melodramatic stories, for that matter — but if something pretends to be serious and grounded, it should actually be so, and not just pretend to it.
Bacchus was Eddie Campbell’s first taste of comics success, his “American-style comic book” about idiosyncratic versions of the Greek gods, in an idiom occasionally congruent with crime and/or superhero stories but often just focused on the joys of storytelling, camaraderie, and the pleasures of the vine (and, somewhat more darkly, the things one might do while under the influence of that vine).
He made stories about the aged god Bacchus and the rest of his milieu for more than a decade, starting in the spring of 1987 as a regular comic from the British publisher Harrier and eventually built his own minor self-publishing empire (out of the front room of his house in Australia, as he put it), with a Bacchus comic mixing reprints of the early stories with the new end of the saga, ending in 2001 after sixty issues.
And then, a decade and a half later, Top Shelf collected all of those stories — which had previously been collected into ten storyline-focused books from Campbell’s own Eddie Campbell Comics — into two big fat books to match the design of their earlier Alec: “The Years Have Pants”. Each volume collects five of those earlier volumes, and the two books end up almost exactly the same length, as if it were all planned that way from the beginning. (As far as I can tell, Campbell hasn’t done any recent tinkering: these stories were finalized for the Eddie Campbell Comics volumes, and they’re going to stay in that final form from now on.)
This is one of the great quirky comics of its era, maybe of any era. The way it swings back and forth from nearly-farcical action to languid retold mythology to occasional moments of stark drama to actually farcical action is distinct and wonderful: whatever kind of comics you like, Bacchus has a moment that will delight you. And if you like comics in general, Bacchus has hundreds of those moments.
Bacchus, Volume One has most of the more overtly “American-style” stories, starting with Immortality Isn’t Forever, a crime-drama set in the nonspecific American city preferred by Scotsmen who haven’t made it across the pond yet and with a plot set in motion explicitly by the mythological underpinnings. (Bacchus is still pissed at “Joe Theseus” for abandoning Ariadne all those years ago, even though he never would have met her if Joe didn’t abandon her.) Immortality starts the standard whipsaw plotting, jumping back and forth from all-out action, mostly with Joe and the Eyeball Kid (more on him later), to quieter moments of Bacchus, and occasionally others, retelling myths with his own spin on them. As the series went on, those two modes got more separated, landing in different storylines, but they were both there from the beginning.
The rest of Volume One mostly bounces between those modes — The Gods of Business is more all-out action, bringing Hermes into the mix, Doing the Islands With Bacchus is a long series of retold myths with a light frame story of Bacchus and companions wandering the Greek isles and causing trouble with those they meet, and Eyeball Kid: One Man Show is an even bigger-scale action series with the Eyeball Kid and Hermes fighting again for other characters’ amusement.
(The Eyeball Kid, by the way, is a twenty-eyed grandchild of Argus — he of the hundred eyes — who was Hera’s lover and revenged her death at the hands of her husband Zeus by killing the old man and stealing his power. He’s also the only straightforward, non-conflicted, centered main character, undercut by also being wackily random and prone to malapropisms.)
Volume One ends with the epic Earth, Water, Air, and Fire, which connects the Bacchus-plot of Islands with the Joe-and-Hermes-and-Eyeball plot of Show in Sicily. It also brings in a couple of Haphaestus-created magical/mechanical eyeballs which will be important for several later stories — by this point, Joe and Bacchus and the Kid are all missing eyes.
During that first half of Bacchus, Campbell was the originator and central creator but not always working solo. Appropriately for these “American-style” comics, some of the superhero stuff was art-assisted by or just drawn by Ed Hillyer, and much of the mythological stuff was co-written with Wes Kublick, until the two had a falling-out over plot points.
That separation of the two modes continued at the beginning of of Bacchus, Volume Two: 1001 Nights of Bacchus is another group-of-retold-stories roundelay, set in a pub in England where the patrons can drink past closing time if they tell stories that keep Bacchus awake. The superhero material comes roaring back in the next two stories, Hermes Versus the Eyeball Kid and The Picture of Doreen Grey, which close out that strand of the overall story. And then the focus turns back to Bacchus as the focus first of that pub seceding from England in King Bacchus and then his subsequent incarceration for related crimes in Banged Up, the final Bacchus story.
It changed a little towards the end — Bacchus got a new girlfriend, Collage, and even a baby — but he was a remarkably passive title character for most of the run of his comic. Bacchus talked a lot, but he never did much. Things would happen with him around — bacchanals are spurred by his mere presence, and license flourishes when the god of wine is near — but Bacchus himself would mostly sit and drink and talk. That’s a very unlikely thing for the hero of an “American-style” comic, but Campbell made it work for more than a decade, stringing out his own takes on actual mythology and superhero-style “mythology,” plus the kitchen sink of every other kind of storytelling he felt like tackling at the moment.
To all of that he brought a scratchy, expressive line — perfect for the banged-up faces of his multi-thousand-year-old main characters, and adaptable enough to shift to suit many modes of storytelling that he explored along the way — and a seemingly bottomless enthusiasm for both story and wine. Bacchus is a great comic of myth and modernity, of the things people get up to when their inhibitions and tongues are loosened, and of the trouble they all can get into.
If you know anything about Saga, you know there’s a big change at the end of this book, and that the series is now on a longer hiatus than usual. If you know nothing about Saga, you might just have been living in a hole for the last seven years, and nearly anything I could say would be a spoiler for the first fifty-some issues and nine volumes.
But that’s always the issue with writing about a long-running media thing: there are the people who follow it passionately, who know everything you could possibly tell them, and the ones who have ignored it, who won’t get any of the backstory. What I try to do is write down the middle — for the people who know the thing exists but aren’t uberfans, who might be caught up or might not, since life is complicated and this media thing isn’t going to be everyone’s biggest priority.
That brings me to Saga, Vol. 9 today. It’s written by Brian K. Vaughan and illustrated — pencils, inks, colors, the whole deal — by Fiona Staples, as all of the issues to date have been and all of the issues to come are supposed to be. If you want to remind yourself of how we got here, you could check out what I wrote about the previous books: one
It’s a soft-SF epic, set in a a universe influenced by Star Wars but full of its own quirks and specifics. Two soldiers from opposite sides of a very long-running war — their people are set up to be opposites in as many ways as Vaughan could manage — met before the series began and fell in love. The first issue depicted the birth of their daughter Hazel; Saga is meant to be her story, and she’s been narrating the comic more and more as she’s gotten older. Now she’s somewhere in the middle of what we’d call her elementary-school years — maybe six, maybe eight. She and her parents, and various helpers, have been on the run her entire life, and have been chased by various others, on and off, the whole time. There are a lot of moments of peace, but the war is always in the background: both sides would very much like to capture and/or kill both parents, and do that or worse to Hazel.
Vaughan and Staples have been clear from the beginning that Saga is Hazel’s story, not that of Marco and Alana, her parents. But she was a baby for the first twenty or thirty issues, so that message wasn’t as clear as they might have thought. And, frankly, even now she’s not old enough to have a story really separate from her parents and keepers — the emphasis on Hazel in the interviews around the most recent issue and hiatus seem to me to be signposts to say “Saga is going to run for a lot of issues — well over a hundred,” given how long it’s taken to get Hazel to this age and how little agency she has had so far.
I don’t mind long stories, as long as they are stories. Saga has a lot of serial comics in its DNA, but I think it still has the bones of a single story. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Saga come back after the hiatus with a time-jump, bumping Hazel up to an age when she really can affect events. Maybe not, though: maybe I’m just trying to hurry along something that will continue to go at its own pace.
Saga is still a very strong, humanistic work of SF, a story of people in danger and how they react to various stresses and demands and threats. Not all of them do what we’d hope they would, just like life. But they’re all real, and they’re what keep Saga worth reading.
Hey! The time-cops finally get named in this book! They’re called WATCH — we don’t know what that stands for, but baby steps, man, baby steps — and the old guy who runs them is Jahpo Thapa.
And our heroines learn more than his name, which I won’t spoil: they learn who he is and how he matters to them.
So, just maybe, Paper Girls Vol. 5 sees this series moving on from throwing out ideas at random and is now finally starting to knit them together into something coherent that can move towards an ending. I’m not holding my breath, but the signs are getting better.
As always, this story of a complicated (and not actually explained, even now) intergenerational time war focuses on four tween girls who were delivering newspapers early in the morning of November 1, 1988 when one piece of that war erupted into their home town of Cleveland. They’ve been to prehistory and several versions of the future — including the amazing world of Y2K! — but this time they’re in an actually futuristic future some fifty or sixty years up the line.
(Bad news for me: this locks down the stupid leet-speek future talk to that era, which is even more stupid than when I could pretend in my head that it changed over a few centuries. But it’s still Wicked Rad Kewl, which is the real point.)
So Erin, Mac, K.J., and Tiffany — plus the Y2K version of Tiff they picked up in the last volume — are stranded in dystopian future Cleveland, with a population in stylish jumpsuits and headgear and the occasional flying murderous police. But they head to the library, and actually piece together a few bits of the backstory in between fighting library golems, being shot at by the aforementioned flying cops, and interrogating senile old women.
They learn that they’re considered criminals, maybe because of the kid terrorist time-travelers we’ve seen before and maybe just because everybody is completely confused about the real origins of the time anomalies and war. That doesn’t help much, since they’re still a bunch of twelve-year-olds stranded in a city with no way home, among people who talk like particularly stupid members of the gang from Dark Knight Returns.
And, in the end, there’s another big problem for the four of them, and they’re all stranded in time again. I hope it won’t take another five volumes to learn what’s the vague deal of the junior combatants in the time war, but I’m not going to hold my breath. My sense is that Paper Girls, like any good serial comic, is going to spin out its central conceit for as long as the audience is willing to keep paying for it. Since I like time-war stories, I guess I’ll just keep giving it one volume at a time, and keep up with it as long as there’s still something new and interesting in each volume.
But I’d still rather have a real ending rather than endless recomplication.
I looked at a Michael Moorcock “Eternal Champion” comic
— primarily by other hands — a couple of months ago, and noted that Moorcock made several attempts overt the years to end that series. Well, I’m back with another EC book, from 2011. And that era is, as far as I can tell, well after the point when Moorcock realized the EC would outlive him, and that he only needed to give it as much attention as he felt like at any moment.
What I mean is: he seems to have given up on closing out the series, which is all to the good. What sense does it make to have an ending for the Eternal Champion?
This series is titled for the most popular (and first) incarnation of the EC, Elric, but he’s joined by several others — Dorian Hawkmoon, Corum of the Silver Hand, and a guy from what I probably shouldn’t call Earth-Prime named Eric Beck — to make this another multi-EC story like Sailor on the Seas of Fate and several others. Writer Chris Roberson is clearly a serious Moorcock fan, so he knows these characters and does them all well.
But what I have here is just the beginning. As I understand it, Elric: The Balance Lost ran for twelve issues, and this Vol. 1just reprints the first four issues (plus the prologue from a Free Comic Book Day giveaway). So the very last pages here see those four heroes, each holding a big pointy sword, probably about to meet through some interdimensional hoo-ha of the kind the Moorcock Multiverse is so full of.
But it hasn’t happened quite yet.
So this first volume is all set-up: Elric is wandering between worlds, somewhere in the middle of his career , and Hawkmoon is suspicious that his insect-helmeted enemies are resurgent somewhere, and Corum saves his old companion Jhary-a-Conel, and Eric gets caught up in the street thuggery of the Law Party. All are told by a companion that the Balance — the comic force that keeps either Law and Chaos from completely taking over — has been endangered, and may be capital-L Lost.
We see that some worlds are overrun by Chaos, and those are full of bizarre monsters and about to collapse into nothingness. Others are overrun by Law, filled with fascists like the ones we learn are led by Eric’s evil twin Garrison Bow. And both of those things are Bad, so our four heroes will eventually need to band together to hit things with swords to make the universe better.
For now, though, they’re each out on their own, in different worlds, hitting things with swords individually, under the care and tutelage of various mentors, friends, and mysterious personages. Some of them are hitting Law-things, some of them are hitting Chaos-things, but it’s all part of the same problem, and eventually — around the end of Volume 3, I expect — they’ll manage to find one big thing they can all hit with their swords at the same time and save the balance.
Eternal Champion stories do get pretty formulaic: that’s just the way they are. It’s fantasy adventure of a particular kind, and generally quite entertaining. Roberson clearly has a deep knowledge and affection for the Moorcock Multiverse, and throws in a lot of little bits from other stories to show that this is one of the big stories that effects everything. Artist Francesco Biagini does the script justice, though I do think he has the standard problem of making Elric look too strong and powerful — Elric can barely stand up without his sword, and only survives because of it.
So Elric: The Balance Lost is a good EC story, with lots of Easter Eggs for long-time Moorcock fans — or, lat least, this first third is. Let me see if I can find the other pieces to find out how it comes out in the end….
 Elric’s timeline is a little muddled because Moorcock wrote his death first and has been filling in middle ever since. There probably is someone — maybe even Roberson — who knows how all of the Elric stories are related in time, but that person is not me.
This is not a book; this post breaks one of my silly self-imposed rules. (I’m just noting that up front. I’m not going to do anything about it.)
The fourth run of Love and Rockets returned to a magazine size and a periodical publication: there have been six issues since it was launched in 2016. So, to close out I Love (And Rockets) Mondays for the year, I thought I should look at the most recent material, to see what the Locas and Luba’s family are doing with themselves right now.
Each issue has 32 pages of comics (plus four pages of ads or other editorial matter; there’s usually a letters page), so, as of about a month ago, there are 192 pages of new Hernandez Brothers comics, roughly the size of one of the individual graphic novels.
Like New Stories, or like any serialization, this is work in progress, mostly middles of stories. The only major break from New Stories is the new logo (seen to the left; it changed slightly for issue two and later) and the altered credit line — Gilbert and Jaime finally get their first names on the cover after thirty-five years. (And it has been consistently alphabetical, or maybe age order, for all six issues to date.)
As with New Stories, they alternate covers. Like the classic magazine series, the other brother contributes a back-cover. For the new century, though, there are also variant covers — several for the first issue, and a Fantagraphics-exclusive for all of them to date. (If I were a retailer, I would not be happy at all if a publisher had a cover only available for purchase directly from them, and so I’m happy I’m not a retailer.)
The stories continue from New Stories as well: Jaime finishes up the Maggie-and-Hopey-go-to-a-punk-reunion in the sixth issue, has a little more with Tonta and her gang, and continues the baffling and now apparently standalone adventures of Princess Anima in space. Gilbert milks the lots-of-Fritz-clones story for the first couple of issues, and then drops it to focus on Fritz’s long-unknown twin daughters. (Unknown to the reader, unknown to each other, but one was, retroactively, not unknown to her mother.)
I’m finding the Jaime material of this era generally more successful — the Maggie and Hopey story is another strong one, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it comes together in a single book. Tonta and her friends are still goofballs, though, and their stories are, I guess, more slice-of-life than anything else: they don’t seem to be going anywhere. And I think the Princess Anima stuff needs to have an ending before I have any clue what it’s going to be: it feels to me like Jaime is doing a Gilbert-style id-fueled SFnal story, without long-term plots and driven by immediate momentum. There are interesting bits, and he as always draws wonderfully, but I’m not sure if there’s a there there.
Gilbert, on the other hand, is doing a lot of quirky things with his drawing, not all of which are immediately working: using heavier borders for flashbacks, for example, which he felt he needed to explain in the stories. I also noticed some deliberately stiff layouts and “camera” movements: there’s one sequence where Killer and Jimmy stand stock still for several panels while the viewpoint rotates around them one quadrant at a time, and a number of places where he lines up faces repeatedly. As in the late New Stories era, he’s also spending a lot of time in these stories having his characters face each other and talk through the same things over and over again — Killer is now a singer, let’s run through the top 10 Fritz impersonators for this issue, Baby/Rosario and Rosalba are twins and here’s how they were separated, Fritz has never done porn but there are rumors she has, and so on and on and on.
I suspect he’s been getting letters about some aspects of this — or maybe somewhat different complaints — because he has stories titled things like “Fritz Haters Will Just Have to Be Patient” and “More for the Haters.” He’s also drawing “must be 18” censor-boxes over the naked chests of his female characters a lot, sometimes in art on the walls — which I thought was a quirky, fun choice; maybe a comment on the art-world — but also sometimes in characters actually in the stories, which is more metafictional. Jaime has drawn nipples in the same issue, so it’s not an obvious issue of censorship — just another artistic choice that isn’t quite clear yet.
But Gilbert wrote his way out of the swamp of Too Many Fritzes, and the last couple of issues sees more lightness to his work, as it opens out to more of the cast and shows changes in their lives. He’s still doing the people-standing-still-and-talking-at-each-other thing, but it wouldn’t be Gilbert without some odd artistic choices.
Love and Rockets the periodical was always like that, though. The books organize and coral the material, putting all of the wild-hair ideas into separate volumes and allowing the larger stories to stand alone. But the ongoing comic, in whatever format, is full of pieces of story in any era — Tonta or Rocky, Errata Stigmata or Mila — and those don’t always turn into anything nicely book-shaped. We read Love and Rockets because both Gilbert and Jaime are great cartoonists, with a few touchpoints in common, and because even if we think what one of them is doing this year isn’t all that great (Too Many Fritzes, Adventures of the Ti-Girls), it’s always going to be at least an interesting, unique failure.
It’s been going thirty-five years so far, in various formats. I can hope for thirty-five more, can’t I? To see what ninety-something Jaime and Gilbert will be doing?
Note: this is day 365, but it’s not the end of Book-A-Day. Look for a post-mortem tomorrow listing the whole series…and about fourteen more daily Book-A-Day posts running through mid-January, since there’s stuff I read in 2018 that I haven’t gotten into that format yet.
I can’t tell you what’s the deal with Al Columbia. Maybe no one can.
He famously was going to take over from Bill Sienkiewicz on the Alan Moore-written Big Numbers comic nearly thirty years ago, but had a nervous breakdown (maybe), disappeared (sort of), and destroyed all of his finished art (almost certainly). His career in comics since then has been occasional, with short pieces in anthologies and other random appearances. As far as I’ve seen, this is his only book-length publication.
Pim & Francie: “The Golden Bear Days” came out just about a decade ago, collecting material about the title characters that Columbia had created over many years before that. It’s not a graphic novel.
It’s not a story of any kind. It’s a lot easier to list the things Pim & Francieisn’t than explain what it is: it doesn’t have any finished stories, any complete narratives, any obvious through-line.
There’s no explanation for the random artifacts in the book, but I like to think of it this way. Imagine there was an animation studio, back in the early days — late ’20s, early ’30s — more influenced by Grand Guignol than happy musical theatre. Imagine that their main characters were two child-sized figures, Pim and Francie. Imagine that unnamed studio generated a number of cartoons and comics stories about those characters, full of horrors and terrors. Imagine that work was suppressed, violently, and almost entirely destroyed. And imagine that someone — call him Al Columbia — assembled what was left three generations later, with haunting, tantalizing hints of the stories of Pim and Francie.
You can imagine a coffee-table book, telling the history of that studio, with scraps of memos and release dates for the material, wrapped up in a narrative explaining who the people behind Pim & Francie were and what they did. Columbia provides none of that here. All he gives us is the art: sketches, torn comics pages, random animation cells, model sheets, sketches for background art or covers, isolated vignettes, things that might be comics panels or might not. All of it is only barely in sequence, if at all. No stories are complete; no stories are explained; no stories are more than a handful of isolated moments.
Pim and Francie’s world is full of death and mayhem of all kinds: self-inflicted, since we see these “children” being horribly cruel to themselves and others; supernatural, with the child-snatching Cinnamon Jack and some kind of forest-dwelling demon-witch they call “grandma;” and just plain human, as in the knife-wielding Bloody Bloody Killer. Pim and Francie are occasionally perpetrators, often about to be victims, and regularly onlookers at something that is about to happen. The overall town is of ominousness and menace; this is a world stuffed top to bottom with horrible things, and there can be no end to them, no safe place for children…or for whatever Pim and Francie actually are. Sometimes they’re with what seem to be friendly, loving grandparents — but those are also clearly ineffectual and unable to protect the moppets from the horrors of the world.
Pim & Francie is a monument to something, but it’s hard to say what. It’s a window into an alternative world of entertainment, one more sadistic and cruel than our own, presented as torn pages, coffee-ring stained art, and random scraps. I don’t know if Columbia has an overall vision for this project: if there’s anything larger than a bunch of horrific and ominous moments. But the moments he has presented here are powerful, and the atmosphere is like no other book I know. And he’s a killer draftsman in that rubber-hose ’30s style. If all that intrigues you, you might as well check it out. There is nothing else like Pim & Francie.
Today kicks off a mini-theme section of Book-A-Day; I read four 2009-2010 books from Fantagraphics over four days early in December, because I had them all digitally. They came in during the era when I was reviewing books seriously but getting many more things than I could fit into my Realms of Fantasy monthly column. The books otherwise have nothing in common, but some readers might wonder “why is this guy suddenly reading a bunch of old Fanta books?”
That’s why. It’s not a good reason, but it’s the one I have.
I come to Michael Kupperman’s Tales Designed to Thrizzle, Vol. 1 backwards. Kupperman was first known as a maker of humorous comics — this series, in particular — and has only recently moved into more serious work like All the Answers (which I read a couple of months ago).
Vol. 1 is, as I hope anyone can tell, the first collection of his Tales Designed To Thrizzle comic — and I’m amused to see that, at last as the mid-aughts, one successful way to start a career in making funny comics was still to draw twenty-some pages of them and put them out in a little booklet, the way it had been since the undergrounds in the late ’60s. (It might still work these days, but a creator can get better, more immediate feedback and audience by posting stories online in whatever format is popular that week. )
Vol. 1 has the first four issues of Thrizzle, which were published individually from July 2005 through August 2008. (There were four more issues, which were in turn collected in 2012’s Vol. 2…which I may need to search out now.) The book presents them in order as they originally appeared, covers and all, rather than re-sorting the contents into some other scheme. Up front is a self-mocking foreword by Robert Smigel, and separating each issue are wallpaper-looking full-page designs, which fit the aesthetic of Kupperman’s work well and may have been in the original issues as well.
The first three issues are ostensibly divided into three sections by “audience” — adult, kid, and old people — with frontispieces insisting that readers outside those ages shouldn’t read that section. The fourth issue drops that for a quirky format “specially designed to help you through your entire day!” (In that case, the reader is supposed to read one page each half-hour, starting first thing in the morning.)
I was going to say here that Thrizzle has the standard lots-of-short-pieces format of most single-creator humor comics, but nothing about Thrizzle is standard. Kupperman has an absurdist sense of humor and his comedy rarely drops into the usual comics tropes (goofy superheroes, toys and fads of the cartoonists’s youth), instead looking to old magazines and vaguer cultural knowledge, plus a whole lot of random surreal ideas (sex blimps, foreplay robots, porno coloring books, criminal fingertalk).
I found it really funny a lot of the time, and distinctively different from other funny cartoonists I’m familiar with. Kupperman uses a few different art styles, including one that looks almost like clip art and a really heavily-inked look full of tiny lines — so Thrizzle has jokes like no one else’s comics and looks like no one else’s comics.
It is weird and funny and weirdly funny and funnily weird. Kupperman has a unique comic sensibility, and I want to see more of it.
 A month ago I would have just said “Tumblr,” but oops!
This is not a Love and Rockets book; I’ve run out of those. But it’s a first cousin to Love and Rockets, featuring characters who first appeared there and a group of characters who later appeared there in a slightly different arrangement.
It’s also chock-full of sex, which might be why it’s not in print these days: sex has migrated almost entirely to the electronic realms for the 21st century, since print can’t keep up and is pirated within seconds. (Other possible reasons: Hernandez or his publishers think it wouldn’t be good for his current career, normal book/comics outlets have gotten more prudish over the past couple of decades, or the stars are not quite right.)
Anyway, this is Birdland. It’s an unabashedly pornographic comic by Gilbert Hernandez, originally published as a three-issue miniseries by Fantagraphic’s spin-off smut-publishing line Eros in 1990, with a loosely-related mostly-silent one-shot in 1994. I read the 1999 printing of the trade paperback collection, which has what I think are all of the Birdland pieces together.
It’s set in a porno next-universe-over version of his Palomar/Luba world, circa 1990: Inez and Bang Bang are strippers at Polka Parade, a young Fritzi is a therapist and her sister Petra is her receptionist. The central male character is Fritzi’s husband — at this point, her only one, but that would change in the regular continuity — Mark Herrera, though his brother Simon is also important. There’s also La Valda, another stripper for the competing club Stinky’s who “steals Bang Bang’s act” (said act, in toto: looking like she does, dancing naked, band-aids over her nipples) and Stinky’s doorman Pee Wee, so there can be another man for the sex scenes.
The plot is loose and semi-random, but it’s more than just an excuse for the sex scenes: Birdland feels like Hernandez turned up the sex knob on his work to eleven, then broke it off and jammed it even further up with pliers. It’s more explicit — very explicit, with lots of spurting bodily fluids and engorged appendages being rhythmically inserted hither and yon — but it’s all embedded in one of those Beto obsessed-with-the-wrong-person plots.
Since the knobs are jammed up past eleven, everyone is obsessed with sex with the wrong people: Fritzi has frozen out Mark for unexplained reasons, but he’s having affairs with both Inez and Bang Bang while pining for his wife. Simon is obsessed with Fritzi, and sleeping with Petra as the next best thing, which is fine because she’s obsessed with Mark in turn. Fritzi’s practice consists entirely of hypnotizing her (all male) patients and having sex with them while they’re under — before long, Petra learns the truth and gets into the action, too. And then there are the aliens, who wander around the edges of the beginning of the story before abducting everyone for the literally climactic ending of the original mini-series, as everybody gets it on with everybody for a cathartic release before returning to earth to ring more changes on the same relationship problems.
Hey, it’s a sex comic: you have to expect that it’s going to be full of sex. Birdland‘s sex isn’t the zipless fucks of the usual stroke book: Hernandez’s characters are obsessives, and endlessly talk about who they love and want and can’t have even while bopping with the wrong person.
In a lot of ways, Birdland feels like unfiltered Gilbert Hernandez: all of the sex, all of the surrealism, all of the random connections, all of the quirky spirituality. Whether it really came out that way or if he carefully crafted it to look that way doesn’t matter as much — either way, this is close to peak Beto, right in the middle of his career. If you’re interested in his work, and aren’t turned off by the pervasive sex, Birdland is a book you need to pay attention to. (Assuming you can find it.)