Tagged: The Past Is a Foreign Country

Scoop Scuttle and His Pals by Basil Wolverton
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Scoop Scuttle and His Pals by Basil Wolverton

So much goes into comedy

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, especially comedy in comics – there’s funny writing, and funny drawing, and the intersection of the two, plus personal taste and sometimes all of that obscured by the passage of time. Something can be done well, with lots of wordplay, well-thought-out drawings and solidly amusing premises, but still feel outdated or just flat to any particular reader.

That’s where I land with Scoop Scuttle and His Pals: The Crackpot Comics of Basil Wolverton . It collects four series of stories from the 1940s and early ’50s: the reporter Scoop Scuttle, the diminutive Indian fakir Mystic Moot (and his Magic Snoot), indestructible cowboy Bingbang Buster, and goofy SF hero Jumpin’ Jupiter.. There are detailed story notes by editor Greg Sadowski

, and the whole package is well-designed and organized, with comics pages about as clear and crisp as you could hope for stuff printed on newsprint seventy years ago.

I didn’t laugh once. I might have had a wry smile a couple of times. Some of it, especially later in the book, was amusing and fun, but nothing got that immediate humor reaction from me. The Scoop Scuttle stories in particular felt too stuffed: too many words with too much supposedly-comic alliteration, too much minor-vaudeville business. So I am not a good person to tell you what’s great about these Basil Wolverton stories.

Now, I’m pretty sure this is minor Wolverton. But I’m no Wolverton expert: I’ve seen some of his stuff here and there, but never dug deeply. This book was titled and published in a way that made it look like it was saying “this is the good stuff!” Looking more carefully after reading it, it seems to actually say “this is some obscure stuff, mostly made as the Golden Age was dying, nicely cleaned up for Wolverton fanatics, and we’re not making any claims about its quality.”

These are all anthology-filler comics stories, from an era where comics were 64 pages long and needed to be filled with various stuff. Part of that Golden-Age-dying was the shrinking of those comics; it looks, from this distance, like Wolverton was squeezed out during that shrinking. What gets squeezed out is not necessarily by quality: popularity is first, and what most closely fits the overall theme and style of the book tends to stay. Wolverton being goofy and sui generis made him an obvious early target for removal: this material would have been the most different stuff in any of the comics it appeared in.

So, if I’m telling you anything you didn’t know about Wolverton, this is not a book for you. This is a book for people who already know a lot more about Wolverton than I do, or maybe people whose comic sensibility is more attuned to mass-market alliterative and nearly-rhyming jokes from mid-century.

One very random example:

“I’m from the Daily Dally! I’m looking for Lester Fester!”

“I’m not Lester Fester! I’m Esther Tester! Now take it on the lam, ham, and scram! I’m strangling my husband, and I don’t want any interruptions!”

If you enjoy wordplay along the lines of “take it on the lam, ham, and scram,” you will find a lot of it here.

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

Good Night, Hem by Jason

Good Night, Hem by Jason

I had the wrong idea about this book. I feel like I say that a lot in this blog, but why not say it if it’s true? We all come into new experiences with expectations and ideas, and we’re all wrong a lot of the time. There’s no shame in saying so.

I expected Good Night, Hem  to be a standalone graphic novel about Ernest Hemingway. Since it’s by the Norwegian cartoonist Jason, I thought there might be a genre element of some kind, or that it might be told slyly in some other way: I didn’t expect a straightforward biographical story.

I wasn’t far wrong, but I’d forgotten that Jason had already written about Hemingway and his Paris circle of the 1920s in The Left Bank Gang – well, sort-of, since those characters had the names of the Lost Generation circle but were comics creators planning a bank robbery. And I didn’t know that Good Night, Hem is also a sequel to The Last Musketeer [1], since Athos is a major character here.

So, to sum up: Good Night, Hem is not really a sequel to the previous Jason book in which “Ernest Hemingway” appeared, but it is a sequel to a completely different Jason book that was not about Hemingway. This is par for the course for Jason: you don’t go to his books for straightforward and obvious.

Oh, one other thing: it’s not a single narrative

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, but three loosely linked shorter stories: one in Paris and Spain in 1925, when Hemingway is inspired to write The Sun Also Rises; one in Paris and other points in 1944, where Hemingway is inspired to lead a group of young Frenchmen (are they supposed to be writers? I’m not sure) to train, airdrop into Berlin, and capture Hitler to end the war early; and a short coda set in Cuba in 1959, where Hemingway muses on Athos, their combined histories, and life in general.

So it is largely about Athos, in a sideways, Jason fashion. Hemingway is the focal character, but Athos is more interesting and harder to understand – the story is told from Hemingway’s viewpoint, but it’s largely about Athos (except that odd middle section).

I also think Jason’s books have gotten less dense recently: he switched from a mostly nine-panel grid to a four-panel grid, so each page has bigger, more open panels with less action and dialogue. On the other hand, I don’t have the books in front of me to check, but I also think his recent books are longer – so I may be saying they have about the same amount of action, but spread out onto more pages, so it feels longer and more relaxed.

What happens? Well, the first section is pretty straightforward and relatively close to history, only with the addition of an immortal musketeer in the group going to Pamplona: it’s focused, like Sun itself, on the sexual tensions within the group, and adds to them by having Athos and Hemingway be essentially doppelgangers. (Not that Jason has that many character types to begin with, so this may be lampshading in his part.)

The second section is an old-fashioned nutty Jason story, along the lines of I Killed Adolph Hitler, in which completely crazy, impossible things are presented straightforwardly and just happen anyway.

And the ending is, again, more of a coda, summing up Hemingway’s view of Athos and cataloging all of their interactions. (He also inspired The Old Man and the Sea!)

I didn’t think this completely came together as one thing – the middle section is too different in tone, style, and concerns – but all of the pieces are good, and all show Jason doing good work in his mature style. I wouldn’t pick this up as a first Jason book – Hitler or the newer Lost Cat or maybe Werewolves of Montpelier are better choices to start – but it’s a fine continuation.

[1] No good link for that book: it was the first Jason book I read, in March of 2009 when I was an Eisner judge, so I stuck it in the middle of a massive post covering the 94 books I read that month.

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

Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash by Dave McKean

You know what’s weird? Reading a book about an artist with no examples of that artist’s work – but pages filled with art by somebody else. It might be inherent in the form – a graphic novel about an artist who’s been dead about seventy years – but it’s still weird.

It would be fine if the artist the book was about was someone world-famous – someone’s whose style was instant recognizable, and could be called to mind by any of us. Oh, it would still be at least a little weird to have a book all about an artist with art by someone else, but it would be the kind of weird that happens every day.

Paul Nash, though, is not world-famous. He was a British gallery painter in the first half of the 20th century, formed strongly by his fighting in the Great War, and noted as a surrealist for the rest of his life. Art historians know him, devotees know him, probably a lot of museum-goers do – but he’s no Picasso or Monet or even Turner, to live in the minds of millions every day.

All that hit me, as I got to the end of Black Dog: The Dreams of Paul Nash , a 2016 graphic novel by Dave McKean. I realized I really didn’t know what Paul Nash’s art looked like. I now knew how McKean drew Nash, and how McKean interpreted Nash’s life, but not what an actual Nash painting looked like. If you’re in a similar situation, the Tate (I assume the London museum) has a Paul Nash page with some of his art, a potted bio, and other details.

Unsurprisingly, he looks to my post-Black Dog eye a lot like a Dave McKean precursor, angular figures (very occasionally) in muted landscapes filled with heaped objects. His work, from the little I’ve seen now, is awfully quiet and still for what I’m told is a war artist: Nash’s stuff looks almost frozen to me, pictures in which usually nothing is moving and often it looks like nothing will ever move.

I have no idea what Dave McKean sees in Nash’s work: I assume entirely different things, since that’s how art works.

Black Dog is a biographical story: it doesn’t tell Nash’s whole life, or even the whole of his service in the war. Instead, it focuses on a recurring series of dreams he had, about a black dog, starting in childhood and ending around the end of the war. This is a book about the war, but mostly elliptically: not the flow of lives in the war, or the mass deaths, or stories of fighting, or troop movements, but individual, small moments, mostly as remembered afterward. The thoughts of someone who survived the war. But then all stories are from those who survived their wars.

I wanted to read this because I’m a fan of McKean. I missed it for five years because I suspected it was mostly for people who already knew Nash, or at least more about the Great War art scene in the UK. I was not wrong: this book was commissioned by a festival and by a project to commemorate the war a century later; it’s a book by one person for his own reasons, but it’s also a work of public art for a public purpose, made as part of public commemorations.

Many of McKean’s characters are ciphers; Nash is another one of them. We do get some answers, but much of what we see in his dreams is strange and inexplicable because they are dreams. So the more you know about Nash, and the war, and the UK at the time going in to this book

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, the better.

This is a fine thing to exist, but it is a bit chilly and a bit official, like so much public art is. It can’t shake the fact that it was commissioned, that it has a place in the world because of arts bureaucracy and a rollover of the calendar. If, like me, you knew nothing about Paul Nash going into this book, you won’t get all that much out of it.

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

Girl in Dior by Annie Goetzinger

Sometimes you read a book because it’s there and you’ve heard of it. Maybe you don’t remember exactly what you heard about it, or why, or in what context, but it’s been in your head and you’re pretty sure it was for positive reasons. The world is full of books: you need to stretch sometimes and that’s an easy way to do it.

That’s more or less how I came to Girl in Dior , a graphic novel by Annie Goetzinger originally published in France in 2013 and translated into English for this 2015 NBM publication by Joe Johnson. It’s available in Hoopla – is there a reason why every Internet-era business needs to have a stupid and infantilizing name? – an app my library system uses to provide various digital things (TV shows, movies, comics, audiobooks, even ‘real’ books) – and I started reading it after realizing How to Read Nancy was far too dense to dive into on a Saturday afternoon. (And don’t get me started on its aggressively hostile introduction, by some academic who was at pains to be clear he hated comics, modernity, 90% of all artists ever, the concept of sequential art, and anything else the reader might possibly love or respect.)

Girl in Dior, I learned after reading it, is a fictionalized account of the first ten years of Christian Dior’s high-fashion house, founded in 1947 in Paris. It centers on a young woman, Clara Nohant, who is the primary piece of fiction: she is a minor reporter for the launch, later becomes a model for Dior, and ends by marrying a rich client. (Thus encompassing most of the potential dream-jobs for the book’s audience.) I think she’s just there as an audience-insert character, and to have a gamine, Audrey Hepburn-esque face to provide a through-line, but it does make me wonder why the book couldn’t or didn’t focus on Dior himself (surely the more interesting figure) or, considering the audience is primarily women who care about dresses, instead digging into one or more of the large group of women who worked for and with Dior to do all of this – one of his major designers, or models, or seamstresses, or several of the above.

Instead, Girl in Dior is lighter

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, more of a travelogue – Clara thinks Dior’s work is wonderful, but she’s not deeply invested. Her story is light, her crises few and easily solved, her endings entirely happy. The book has a lot of detail and color: Goetzinger is particularly good at both drawing the dresses to be very particular and using color to make them pop off the page, in a comics version of the sensation they caused on runways in the late ’40s.

I think I wanted more about the real people and less of “look at this gorgeous dress,” which is on me. Girl in Dior is very much a “look at this gorgeous dress” book, and my sense is that it’s deeply researched and carefully assembled to show specific, distinct gorgeous dresses from those first few Dior collections. There’s extensive backmatter to detail chronology, the sources (year and season) of the dresses shown in the book, quick biographical sketches of the historical people who appear (from Dior to Lauren Bacall), lists of potential careers in fashion and types of fabric and accessories, and, finally, a bibliography. This book was clearly very heavily researched, and I have no doubt that everything in it (except Clara) is as close to true as it’s possible to be seventy years later.

And it is gorgeous, full of sumptuous expensive formalwear for rich, thin, young, connected women  [1] ready to be elegant and sophisticated (and maybe just a bit useless) after the war years. I always want more context and cultural criticism; I always want more why and less “remember this thing?” Again, that’s entirely on me: Girl in Dior is a lovely evocation of a time and place – I haven’t even gotten into Goetzinger’s faces, which are magnificent, deeply specific, and much less pretty-pretty than the dresses she draws. If any of that sounds appealing, check it out.

[1] Pick at least two.

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

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 7 by Herge

This is the end. Well, sort of: there’s an unfinished last book called Tintin and Alph-Art, which is available in what I think is the form Herge left it (rather than completed by other hands). But this is definitely the last Tintin stories actually completed and published.

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 7  collects books that cover almost two decades: The Castafiore Emerald (serialized 1961-62), Flight 714 to Sydney (66-67) and Tintin and the Picaros (75-76). Herge was clearly not devoting as much time to writing and drawing new albums in his fifties and sixties as he was as a younger man, but I suspect he was doing just as much “Tintin stuff,” only related to running a business empire: approving toy designs

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, meeting with movie people, arranging sublicenses, and all of the other things that are definitely work but don’t deliver any new material from a creative person.

Anyway, the three books are quite separate here, as you might guess from that sixteen-year span. So I guess I should treat them separately.

The Castafiore Emerald stands out as different from the rest of the series: it’s entirely set at Marlinspike, Captain Haddock’s ancestral pile, and it’s a mystery/farce rather than the series’ more usual adventure plot. I found the humor was not quite as juvenile as Herge sometimes gets – it’s still most based on how horrible Bianca Castafiore is and how much Haddock can’t stand her (and, secondarily, on how much of a blustery klutz he is), but that’s the story here, rather than random interjections. The story sees Haddock injure his foot, so he’s stuck in a wheelchair, right as Castafiore invites herself (and the inevitable accompanying media frenzy) to Marlinspike, leading first to worries about theft and then what seems to be an actual theft. It’s also got some good don’t-judge-people material, suitable for its young audience, though that thread is mostly background.

Flight 714 to Sydney is a more typical adventure story: Tintin and Haddock and Calculus are off to some international aviation symposium in Australia, get sidetracked by an eccentric rich guy, and then a villain strikes. There’s a lot of running around with guns after that, mostly serious, and a weird fantastic element that struck me as outside the usual style of the series and that largely serves to set up a deus ex machina ending in a book that didn’t need one. That one element aside, though, the adventure stuff is strong, and the comic relief mostly well-integrated into the actual story.

And then the last finished Tintin book, the one I could have read as a child of the appropriate age if Tintin was a thing in the USA in the mid-70s (it wasn’t), is Tintin and the Picaros, something of a greatest-hits compilation of the series. The fictional Latin American country of San Theodoros from The Broken Ear provides a venue and a big chunk of cast, one secondary villain returns from The Calculus Affair, and of course there’s the usual suspects of Tintin, Haddock, Castafiore, and the Thom(p)son twins. It has an odd anti-violence message from Tintin as part of his revolutionary plot, and that plot is fairly thin and mostly on rails.

I still think these omnibuses are a rotten way to present the Tintin books: they’re too physically small to read easily and the books are long and dense enough that they’d work better as individual albums. I expect the next big repackaging of Tintin will be back to the album format; every series gets packaged into omnibuses for a while and then broken back out again. If you have the inclination to read this series, I’d either wait for that switch or look for actual albums. (If you’re reading in a language other than English, the latter should be easier.)

As for me, I’m happy I read the series: it was a big hole in my comics cultural literacy. I didn’t love the Tintin books, but I didn’t expect to: they were made for European boys starting several decades before I was born, and I didn’t read them until I was middle-aged. But I can appreciate what they do well – I don’t think I’ve even mentioned Herge’s lovely line in any of these posts (maybe because of the horrible small size of these omnibuses

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, which does not display his art well at all) – and indulge the things they do to keep that young audience happy and engaged. I still don’t think I’d agree with the Tintin maximalists, but this is pretty good stuff. (See my posts on the earlier books for more.)

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

Glass Town by Isabel Greenberg

We all live in the worlds we build for ourselves. For most of us, that’s deeply metaphorical. For people who tell stories for a living, well, it can be more complicated.

Take the Bronte family: the three sisters who lived into adulthood (Charlotte, Emily, Anne) all wrote novels, important books that are still read and studied today. Their brother, Branwell, was supposed to be the great genius of the family but never produced anything substantial – I’ve never studied the matter but I always got the sense that the expectations for Branwell were entirely because of his gender, and not due to any specific ability. But all four of them wrote, and they wrote together, or maybe just in and around each other’s stories, when they were children. They invented worlds, and peopled them, and squabbled over the people in those worlds, causing schisms and an inevitable split, with two of the four packing up their stories and heading off to a separate continent.

All this while they actually lived in that famous remote parsonage in Haworth: the four children, their parson father, a housekeeper. Probably seeing people from the village all the time, but the story of isolation avoids mentioning that. Definitely remote, definitely separated, definitely just with each other almost all the time.

So they lived in their invented world as much as the real one: it was as important – more important.

Isabel Greenberg’s third graphic novel Glass Town  – her first to be set in the real world, not her invented Early Earth – tells that story, in a fictionalized form. Charlotte is at the center, and she usually is in tellings like this: she was the one who survived the longest, after all. (She died at the age of 38: in most contexts, that wouldn’t count as very long at all.)

It opens with Charlotte in a field in 1849: she’s the last of the four left alive. And she’s met by one of her own characters, to tell her what has become of Glass Town, the city the four of them made, and of Angria, the country Glass Town sits in. (And to say nothing is known of Gondal, the land Emily and Anne created without the other two.) This is our frame story: he asks her to tell him the story they both know. And of course she does.

Greenberg says up front that this is a fictionalization – well, we know that as soon as a fictional character appears on the moors to talk to Charlotte – but that also means that any specific detail may be invented

, or altered, or just never recorded in real history. So much of this could be true, or false, or somewhere in between. That’s not important

, though: the story is important.

The story is mostly about the Glass Town characters, and their complicated grand-opera affairs: the dashing rogue Zamorna, his colorless wife and her scheming evil father, Zamorna’s real brother the gossip-merchant and foster brother the Black true king of this colonized land, and a few others. They’re all tied up in a knot, and their story is bound to end with violent conflict and death.

I don’t know if any of the Brontes ever wrote that ending. I don’t know if they wrote competing endings, but I suspect they at least talked about it. I don’t know if any of those potential endings exist. All I know is what Greenberg tells me here, in this version of their lives – how they battled over how the stories should go, with Charlotte and Branwell more warlike and Emily and Anne more domestic. That led to the split, as Greenberg tells it. But we now know basically nothing of Gondal, because none of those writings, except a few scraps of poetry, survived. So all we have is Glass Town, and the men maneuvering to kill each other over it.

It’s difficult to tell a completely happy story about someone who died young a hundred and fifty years ago – not when you’re covering a lot of her life, anyway. Glass Town is a book about creation and destruction, about living in the real world vs. living in invented ones…but it tends to come down on the side of destruction and invented worlds, as one should probably expect from a creator of fiction.

As in her previous books, Greenberg has an almost faux-naif art style, full of stiff figures with simple features, just expressive enough for her purpose. (If they look a bit like cutout dolls, or perhaps more specifically lead soldiers, that’s not an accident.) It’s a style that may be off-putting to people who read a lot of traditional comics – superhero, manga or YA – since it comes from a more deliberate artistic tradition, one that is not aiming to render things the way they look to the viewer.

Glass Town, because of that hundred and fifty years, because of Greenberg’s art style and other choices, and because of the nature of Glass Town itself, is a bit chilly and detached – it’s not a warm, welcoming story, and never would have been. Any reader will need to be aware of that, before they make the trip: the people of Glass Town have their own concerns, and will have little time for you.

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

The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 6 by Herge

I forget, between volumes, just how much work it is to read the small-format Tintin omnibuses. Herge worked for a much larger page-size

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, and took advantage of that: his pages typically have at least a dozen panels, and are packed with dialogue that these editions set in a slightly fussy italic pseudo-handwritten font. So I find myself peering much more closely than I expect, and sometimes needing to take off my glasses to focus on on panel in isolation.

They’re also fairly involved, intricate stories: each one is 64 pages long, and, again, those are big pages full of talking and action. Sure, the talking is often vaudeville-level humor and the action is early-blockbuster spy thriller, but there’s still a lot of it. And a little bit of the supposedly humorous secondary characters – Jolyon Wagg, who first appears in these stories, I am looking straight at you – goes very far, but we never get just a little bit of them.

So perhaps I’m happy to be getting close to the end with The Adventures of Tintin, Vol. 6 . There’s something melancholic about reading old adventures stories from other people’s childhoods to begin with, and I’ve read fifteen previous adventures even before I got to this point. (Obligatory links to volumes one , two , three , four , and five , each of which reprinted three books. The first two in the series, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and Tintin in the Congo, are mildly suppressed these days for reasons of tendentiousness and/or racism.)

Tintin, who was set up to be a boy reporter early in the series but never even feints in the direction of filing a story or having any kind of stable job by this point in the series, first appeared in 1929 at the age of twelve and, in the manner of adventure-story protagonists, was still twelve when The Calculus Affair first appeared in serialized form from 1954-56. (The other two books collected here are The Red Sea Sharks from 1956-58 and Tintin in Tibet from 1958-1959; this appears to be the point where Herge stopped working on Tintin stories basically continuously, at the age of about fifty-three, and did just three more discrete tales over the next decade-and-a-half.)

The three stories here are all entirely separate, though they have the standard Tintin furniture: Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, those supposedly funny detectives, and so on and so on. Calculus and Red Sea are more-or-less spy thrillers: the first details a Cold War-ish battle between the standard two Herge fictional countries (Syldavia and Borduria) over a potential superweapon developed by guess-who, and the second is another one of Herge’s long-chain-of-coincidences plots that leads to Tintin foiling an operation to take African hajjis and sell them into slavery. (The book never uses the term “hajjis,” but they’re going to Mecca. Also, Herge’s drawing is a bit caricatured for the African characters, but he’s generally not racist in his depiction of them.)

Tibet is an odder book: Tintin has a prophetic dream about Chang, a boy of about the same age he met way back in the book The Blue Lotus, who has not been mentioned since, and who has supposedly just died in a plane crash in the Himalayas. Tintin is sure Chang is not dead, and has various omens that he is correct; the story is driven entirely by the boy’s pigheadedness and insistence on finding Chang. Oh, and there’s a Yeti in it

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, but mostly as a background character. It gets cited as a book about the power of friendship, but no real-world friendship I’m aware of includes ESP powers to infallibly rescue one another from far-away continents, so I’m a bit dubious.

Herge is still really good at adventure-story hugger-mugger; he throws additional complications in as well as anyone in the world. And his comic relief, though very hokey, is generally at least moderately amusing. (And that’s good, because these books are roughly forty percent comic relief by volume.) As I’ve said before, this is not exactly my thing, because I am an adult and because I grew up a generation or two later, but this is still really solid work and would probably be nearly as appealing to young people these days.

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

Black Orchid by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

It’s a cliché now: the superhero story that makes a startling new origin or explanation for a character. But there was a time when it was new. There was even a time when it was reserved for minor, unimportant characters – it was too much of a risk to radically change anyone important.

We’re very far from that world now: it’s been gone for almost thirty years. Perpetual transformation of the most profitable characters is the standard. I assume the Big Two have wall-sized whiteboards to keep track of who’s currently dead, when they’re coming back, which are swapping races or genders or powers or doing heel/face turns, just so they don’t trip over themselves.

And if they don’t have whiteboards like that, they should. They need them.

But 1988 was the other side of that wave: it had just started. Alan Moore had done it with Swamp Thing, most obviously. And the glimmerings of the all-crisis-all-the-time world, of eternal reboots, was faintly visible in the passel of Secret Wars and John Byrne Superman. And the conveyor belt of all-new! all-different! minor characters was just starting.

One of them was Black Orchid , a three-issue series in the newly hot Prestige Format (forty-eight pages, perfect-bound, on fancy paper with a fancy price tag to match) by two British creators making their American debut: writer Neil Gaiman and artist Dave McKean.

Black Orchid was a definitively minor character: she didn’t even have an origin, she hadn’t had a comic named after her before. She was some kind of mob-infiltration expert, a mistress of disguise with some other powers (flight, toughness, giving and taking punches – the usual stuff). So she was perfect for the soon-to-be standard British Creator Makeover — there was very little to worry about.

So Gaiman killed Black Orchid in the opening pages. (Spoiler, I guess, for the set-up of a thirty-five year old story. Citizen Kane is about an old rich guy who owned newspapers; Star Wars is about this space farmboy named Luke; The Usual Suspects are criminals.) He connected her to a bunch of other DC characters, mostly through the Alan Moore Swamp Thing (probably because that was the current model of “treating superheroes seriously” or “making comics for adults”), giving her an origin that’s not a million miles away from Swampy himself.

Oh, the first Black Orchid was dead. And the woman she was based on was dead long before that. But you grow orchids. It’s not like there’s only one of them in the world.

There are supervillains doing supervillainy and some vague ecological stuff in the background, but this is mostly about new Black Orchid trying to figure out who the heck she is and what the heck she’s supposed to do. (In the end, it will be: fight crime in a skintight costume that shows off her tits, because DC wants to sell more comics. But that’s after this series is over.)

In some ways, Black Orchid is “The Anatomy Lesson” writ large, with the General Sunderland role broken up into several people, the “principle” one a much more important DC character. This is all origin story for a character we didn’t realize needed an origin.

It is lovely and mostly thoughtful: the adventure-story hugger-mugger sometimes tonally clashes with the “as a newborn plant-woman, who am I?” soul-searching. Gaiman admirably keeps his heroine from violence for the course of this story. (I have no idea what happened afterward: I assume she used her plant-based barely-covered tits to batter miscreants into submission like every other female superhero with strategic cutouts in her outfit.)

These days, Black Orchid is most interesting as a warm-up for The Sandman, which began soon after. It shows that Gaiman was already eager to dive into the obscure corners of DC lore, and that he wasn’t happy with the obvious story choices that universe provided. And McKean’s art is simply stunning: this was the high point of his realistic style, fully painted and drop-dead gorgeous in every panel, just as stunning as the better-known Arkham Asylum.

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

The Complete Peanuts, 1955-1956 by Charles M. Schulz

This is, as far as I can tell, the last of the books collecting Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strips that I’ve never written anything about here. I read the hardcover soon after it came out in 2005, just before this blog existed, but did mention the 1957-58 volume early the next year . (I believe all of my other Peanuts posts can be found through a post on the first book from 2016 and from a 2017 post on the final odds-and-sods volume that collected the odd bits of string from the whole history of the strip.)

So I have thrown around a lot of words about Peanuts over the past decade and a half. And not just me: Schulz is one of the towering masters of the form, so plenty of other people have been pontificating about his work (mostly positively, I think; is there anyone who hates Schulz?). There’s no dearth of discussion of the ol’ round-headed kid, is what I’m saying. You don’t actually need me here to say anything about this book.

But I am here, and I did just read The Complete Peanuts, 1955-1956 . And it’s…just fine, actually.

This is a middle period: any strip that runs for a really long time will have at least one of those, where it was one thing, and will someday become something slightly different, but right now is just running its gag every day, trying some small tweaks as it goes and starting to speciate. In the mid to late ’50s, Peanuts was as general as it was ever going to be: the kids basically were kids, doing kid things in a kid world, and occasionally even seemed to be specific ages (just old enough for school, generally).

So the initial shock had worn off. Charlie Brown had settled down into a sad sack rather than a trickster, but all of the ritualized humiliations were still gathering. This book sees him lose kites to trees, but not gloating trees. Lucy pulls away a football maybe once. The whole baseball team loses, but it’s not all on his head yet. He was the central kid in a world of kids, in that imagined green and glorious ’50s suburbia full of other kids just like himself. Franklin was still a good decade off; even Peppermint Pattie wouldn’t appear for a while – these are all the white kids in the relatively nice neighborhood, for all Original Pattie teases Charlie Brown about the relative poverty of his barber father.

The kids tease each other in kid ways and do goofy kid things. Sometimes surrealistically, as comics can: Linus can blow square balloons. But mostly naturalistically. Pig Pen gets more page-time here, and is still as one-note as he was in the previous book.

On the other side, Snoopy is getting odder, more specific and less realistic. He doesn’t have thought balloons yet, but he clearly doesn’t think like a dog anymore. Not only does he think he’s people – lots of dogs think that – but he can convincingly act like people, more and more.

Peanuts would become magnificent in a few years. But strip comics rarely become magnificent immediately. (Counterexample: “‘ja think I’m a cowboy?”) Schulz was, at this point, writing a Zeitgeist strip, about the consensus best possible life in the best possible nation in the best possible moment in history, for an audience that loved to hear that. He was good at that, but he was better than that – you can see how he got better in later volumes of this series.

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

Stories from the ’90s by Rick Geary

Self-publishing can strip out a lot of the standard bullshit of publishing. If this book had been published by a Fantagraphics or Dark Horse, it would be called something like Prairie Moons and Night Drives, or maybe True Stories and Other Lies.

But, since Rick Geary assembled it himself out of his archives and published it himself, it can be exactly what it is: Stories from the ’90s . Simple, clear, true.

Geary has been assembling his shorter stories into various books for a few years now; I think this is the most recent one, but I hope there’s at least one book’s worth left of newer work. Already available are Early Stories  (pretty self-explanatory)

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, The Lampoon Years: 1977-1988  (mostly single-pagers from National Lampoon in its declining years, though Geary’s work was excellent), and Rick Geary’s Book of Murder  (stories about murder, more and more straightforwardly as his career went on, over a roughly thirty-year span). Older Geary fans may remember At Home with Rick Geary (from 1985) and Housebound with Rick Geary (1997); I think most of those pieces have been collected in these four books now, along with a lot of other material.

Stories from the ’90s is even bigger than the previous books – they all landed in the 80-90 page range, while this one tops out at 120. (And is slightly more expensive, though slightly cheaper than his more recent individual Kickstarted books – as usual, pricing is complicated and based on multiple factors.)

And, of course, the whole point is that its full of oddball Geary stories. There are some long ones, like “Prairie Moon” and “Tragedy in Orbit” and “Mr. Nickelodeon” and “Our Illustrious Visitor of 1959,” but that’s only “long” in context: there are a passel of three-pagers and a half-dozen longer than that, but most of the work here is in single-page form. Geary was always deeply quirky in his short comics, full of strange transformations, matter-of-fact narration of bizarre events, random juxtapositions, and a sprightly, conversational tone no matter the style or matter of a story. This book has one Mask story – yes, the  same character the movies were about; it was a comic first, with work by a whole lot of different people – a couple of Geary-esque retelling of unlikely historical events, and a whole bunch of one-pagers on topics like “Desperate Clergy,” “Secret Places of My Shameful Past,” “Transgression Hotline,” and “Yes, It Happened.”

Geary’s art is mostly softly rounded here, full of people pulling faces during their madcap antics. His lettering is precise and lovely, either in bigger stories or framing those tiny little boxes of enigmatic objects he did a lot early in his career.

This is one of the most Rick Geary books possible, and it is wonderful. The only way I know of to get it is directly from the author, but don’t let that stop you: he uses one of the major amalgamators for merch (Storenvy), and it all works well. Hornswoggler says check it out.

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