Category Archives: Reviews

Review: World War 3 Illustrated #44: The Other Issue

The esteemed author/editor Paul Buhle generously provides an insightful review on comics that recently arrived in his mailbox unbidden.

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World War 3 Illustrated #44, “The Other Issue”

World War 3 Illustrated #44, “The Other Issue.” Editors, Hilary Allison and Ethan Heitner. New York: WW3, 2013. 112pp, $7.

It goes almost without saying, for radical-minded comic readers, that any issue of the venerable World War 3 Illustrated is a political flash, but no less an artistic flash, something genuinely new and interesting to look at. No left wing clichés here, no overly familiar “power to the people” art promising swift justice for the evil oppressors. That the corporate-military is malign, planet-destroying, operates as a principle, not only for the US but on a global scale, and not only the US global-military. But the artistic responses are the work of distinctly individual artists, working out their own themes, and true to the purposes of World War 3 (now publishing on a nearly annual basis since 1979), seem fresh to the reader because the work of young folks and global artists is obviously recruited.

The familiar here draws my eye. An excerpt from Sabrina Jones’ recent work on incarceration, in microcosm here the story of Kemba Smith, a young black woman caught up a scene and offered, she thought, a deal of a few months in prison—that became almost a decade. Or “A Real Hero” by fellow WW3er longtimer Tom Keough, in this case a story from his own adolescence, how neighborhood bullies dominate, racialize, brutalize and how one brave kid can stop them. A good story. Or the heavily expressionist “One City, One People, One Planet!” by master artist-agitator Seth Tobocman, wonderfully illustrating what so many of us felt, when the moment of Sandy came, how ordinary people could act with such decency and collectivity, their moment in time suggested how a whole society could operate on a different, more cooperative basis. He demands, rightly and crucially, that we keep that story in mind.

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“Single Lens Reflex” by Sandy Jimenez

I’m overwhelmed by Sandy Jimenez, sometime. Bronx schoolteacher, who places himself, his emerging teen self, right in front of us and spiritually naked, how his own college teacher tried to teach him photography, how he realized that he had become a photographic art object, Slum Kids, for those on the way up to exhibiting their works. It’s a novelette in thirteen pages. Likewise by other work here but especially reading right-to-left saga by a Lebanese artist Barrack Rima, a dreamy recollection of a youthful encounter with Europe that becomes an encounter with his “other” self. It is neither comics nor non-comics. It is serious art.

Bravo, World War 3 folks. Keep up the hard, serious, wonderful work.

Cover art by ICY and SOT; back cover by Barrack Rima
Contributors: Ganzeer, Sandy Jimenez, Sabrina Jones, Joel Schechter, Hilary Allison, Jesse Staniforth, Dan Buller, Clément de Gaulejac, Leila Abdul Razzaq, Tom Keough, Carlo Quispe, Peter Kuper, Pat Perry, Seth Tobocman, Crystal Clarity, Barrack Rima; translations by Eman Morsi and Gretchen Virkler

Paul Buhle, formerly Senior Lecturer at Brown University, has written and edited many books, including Marxism in America: A History of the American Left and the graphic novel The Beats: A Graphic History, and is the coeditor, most recently, of It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest. With Mari Jo Buhle, he is the coeditor of the Encyclopedia of the American Left. He lives in Madison.

Review: Adventures Into the Unknown, the Pre-Horror Anthology

The esteemed author/editor Paul Buhle generously provides an insightful review on comics that recently arrived in his mailbox unbidden.

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Adventures Into the Unknown: The Pre-Code Horror Anthology, Issues 1-4 (aka Adventures Into the Unknown! Archives Volume 1)

Adventures Into the Unknown, the Pre-Horror Anthology, Issues 1-4. Foreword by Bruce Jones. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Books. 217pp, $49.99. And Volume II, Issues 5-8, 215pp, also $49.99.

The slowdown of Superhero comic sales after the Second World War prompted a rethinking of how to reach the lucrative adolescent and post-adolescent audience. A breakdown of censorship rules and practices during the War, from animation (it became more “sexy”) to films (more grimly realistic and cynical, anticipating the genre of “noir” films), undoubtedly encouraged comics publishers to take chances.

Horror comics, ultimately stirring the Congressional hearings of 1953 and the coming of the censorious “Comics Code,” can be seen more broadly as a narrative hook covering a number of related genres. Bruce Jones, introducing this republished 1947-50 series, acutely makes the point that comics of Science Fiction and sex-heavy (implied sex, mostly by “headlight” sweaters on dames, as well as their “loose” and reckless behavior) Crime Comics had a horror affect. These comics, as cartoonist Jules Feiffer once observed, enticed kids with their glorification of crime and depravity—exactly what readers liked about them! Jones does not add that more than a few of these horror-tinged genres also overlapped oddly with romance comics: a young, good looking couple goes through an unbelievable adventure, and surviving, falls into each other arms (doubtless toward happy and chaste marriage) in the last panel. Not every relationship could survive a bout with ghosts and prehistoric monsters, but these seemed to thrive on terror. He adds in the introduction to the second volume a good reason for this narrative addition, however. After Crime Does Not Pay, with its million per month sales, and just before Horror comics, came Romance Comics, whose mostly female readers earned a niche they would not enjoy again until Manga at the end of the twentieth century.

Adventures Into the Unknown has all these elements and more. The ghost story, as is well known, entered popular literature through the ghostly setting of an English castle, as described most effectively by Horace Walpole‘s <em>Castle of Otronto</em>in the last third of the eighteenth century. Historical ghosts sometimes merely terrorized the populace, but at least sometimes, they wrought revenge against bad people, like the nouveau riche who treated ordinary folks with contempt and sometimes murdered them for personal gain. Some of these ghosts are encountered in the Old World, England or Ireland (ghosts like castles), some are good solid Americans, related to the notorious witches of Salem, Massachusetts, or persist in an old house or on a mountain almost anywhere in the US. Variations like werewolves, vampires and such follow pretty much the same trajectory: they reveal themselves, kill a few humans, threaten a young woman and are stopped, destroyed or at least driven back to their lairs to threaten some future guests.

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Excerpt of Adventures Into the Unknown

The best adventures, however, are tinged with something else, something approaching a social critique. EC’s Science Fiction series, a high achievement in comic art (and thus far above the Unknown artists’ work) and sometimes adapted from Ray Bradbury’s short stories, caught the fearful spirit of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Many a first class comic story showed a future world with a population struggling to come back from the ravages of an atomic war generations or centuries earlier.

The horrors of the Second World War, many of them reaching a public denied details during the conflict, emerged in the most intriguing of the Unknown. “Giants of the Unknown” (1949) features an expedition to Egypt that unwontedly turns up a Pharaoh still alive, remnant of a people gone for 50,000 years, with a message for the present. In the prehistoric tale he unravels, one great leader turns against another, urging total destruction of the enemy (a one-panel surrealistic drawing of a weird ancient/modern cityscape offers momentary delight). Our protagonist observes that their warfare wiped out the race; his girlfriend adds, “Let that be an object lesson for us. We’re lucky we don’t have weapons like this,” making an indirect reference, of course, to the atomic bombing of Japan. By 1950 and the onset of the Korean War, this sentiment was practically subversive.

The plots are melodramatic, the drawing is often lame and yet…it’s a long way from Superman and Batman.

Paul Buhle, formerly Senior Lecturer at Brown University, has written and edited many books, including Marxism in America: A History of the American Left and the graphic novel The Beats: A Graphic History, and is the coeditor, most recently, of It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest. With Mari Jo Buhle, he is the coeditor of the Encyclopedia of the American Left. He lives in Madison.

Review: Dark Country by Thomas Ott and Tab Murphy

To celebrate Halloween this week, The Comics Observer presents the second of two reviews by Bree Todish, a writer and voracious reader being introduced to comic books.

Bree Todish

It’s Halloween! Can we just take a moment to revel in the awesome parts of this holiday? Sure, we may come to regret ill-advised costume and/or party choices. However, I’m talking about the real heart of Halloween: having an excuse to scare yourself half to death and do the same to others. Plus, lots of candy. And what better way to share scares than through books — they’re the mind’s candy! That’s what All Hallow’s Read is about, ain’t it?

Given my proclivity for the darker side of Sears, I was graciously granted the opportunity to review Raw Studios’ graphic novel of Dark Country. Another day, another adaptation: this one a graphic novel based off a film based off a short story written by Tab Murphy about a newlywed couple driving at night when, wouldn’t you know it, things go bad… and then get worse. Bear in mind, Imma be assessing just the graphic novel here without initially having seen the sources, so my thoughts and rambles will relate as such.

Dark Country by Thomas Ott and Tab Murphy

The illustrations by Thomas Ott are scratchboard which, for those unfamiliar, is a form of drawing in which the artist uses a white surface coated in black and scrapes, scratches, and etches away at the black to reveal the white beneath. Thus, scratchboard works use a lot of stippling and short lines, and its artists know very well the powers of light and shadow. This works especially well when crafting a gritty, dark piece such as this one.

The comic has no dialogue, and right off I’m going to say that’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when we’re looking at something that’s based primarily off a film. Film is a visual medium and one should be able to understand the basics of a story through visuals — especially a good scary movie. Have you ever watched A Nightmare on Elm Street without the sound? It’s trippy. Yet you still understand what’s going on, and it’s still scary. The same could be said of this comic adaptation. Dialogue isn’t really necessary to understand what happens and the visuals are strong enough to engage you through most of the journey. Also, and this is just a personal gripe I have with some comics, it relies on you to determine what is important in a scene, not emphasize it for you which comic dialogue in particular has a tendency to do. A lot.

See, it’s dark. And out in the country. Get it?

The story itself is creepy, if not entirely original. It follows a circular horror logic — the kind of ‘the call is coming from inside the house’ reveals that you pretty much see coming, but you enjoy the ride nonetheless. Without spoiling it, the couple on the road hits a man with their car, a creepy creepy man who seems to know about them and then tries to kill them. The couple get the upper hand, rid themselves of the creep and his body, drive to a deserted rest stop to clear their heads, and then as the kids would say: shit gets really weird. Again, some of the twists you see coming, but from an illustrative storytelling perspective it’s not really a deterrent. You’re engaged and want to know how it’ll turn out, even if you’re pretty sure you already know.

The scratchboard style really lends itself to this kind of night-terror tale telling and the wide storyboard layout works much better than a traditional comic layout would have. Each panel has its own snapshot of a scene and combined they utilize the medium to effectively play out the story. Also, having each panel framed with black as the background layout helps accent the isolation of the characters and the locations in the story. It doesn’t hurt in this instance having a story with a couple driving dark, lonely roads and visiting dark, empty places that are literally bordered by dark space on the page.

Dark Country movie poster

All in all, Dark Country isn’t going to win people over for originality in storytelling or plot, or even characterization. However, as a graphic novel creating an engaging atmosphere for a short, well-paced, intense story it is effective. The book edition comes including the original short story, which is laid out like a screenplay sans the formatting and differs slightly from the pictorial version (and thus, I assume, the film). It also includes bonus artwork from the film itself including concept material, storyboards, production and behind the scenes stills, and publicity materials. These are all pretty cool visually, though definitely added mostly for the benefit of those who’ve seen the film and want a more immersive experience. Still, after ‘reading’ the scratchboard tale I am pretty intrigued at seeing the film version (especially since it features iconic horror maester — and my favorite ‘love to hate’ character on Sons of Anarchy — Ron Perlman), which I’m pretty sure was their mission.

Bree Todish is a Writer, Michigan ex-pat, obsessive and voracious reader, devourer of pop culture, adorer of music, highly opinionated trixie little pixie. You can see her talk a bit about the vampires in popular culture here, or follow her reviews, rants, and pep-talks on pop culture and life here.

Review: Dracula by Roy Thomas and Dick Giordano

To celebrate Halloween this week, The Comics Observer presents a pair of reviews by Bree Todish, a writer and voracious reader being introduced to comic books. Come back Wednesday for the second half.

Bree Todish

Way back in the mid-aughts, Marvel comics revived an adaptation, begun in 1974, of quite possibly the most-adapted work of all time: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There have been a not-small number of appearances and reimaginings of Dracula in comics (especially in the Marvel universe), as in all forms of entertainment media, over the decades but no one ever really tried putting Stoker’s iconic novel in comic form until this point. The result is an effort certainly of devotion to the original story (though not always as faithful as purists might hope) in an artistic, albeit extremely dated, manifestation.

Seeing as the image to the right was the visual reference from comics to that point, I can see how they were simply staying on trend, especially with what Marvel had already established as their Dracula model.  Still, that collar and flowy cape aren’t exactly going to instill a lot of fear, not to mention a widow’s peak Eddie Munster would be proud to sport.

I’ll be upfront here: I’m not a comics expert, by any means. I’ve dabbled a bit over the years and this past year have made a concerted effort to once again understand the appeal of the comic medium. It’s not that I have anything against it; it’s just never struck my fancy. I prefer my reading experience to be heightened by my own mental pictures, not someone else’s. However, as a storytelling medium and as an artform I do appreciate comics. They’re just, as I said, generally not my thing.

Dracula on the other hand is utterly my thing. Use whatever term you prefer: nerd, geek, fangirl, aficionado, obsessive, passionate, creepy… alright, I prefer you not use creepy. Nevertheless, these all are applicable for describing my association with Stoker’s novel. I could go on for hours about what this incredible piece of Gothic Victorian literature has done to shape my view of fiction, and how tremendously misunderstood it is by the bazillion interpretations given to it by film, television, books, culture and, yes, comics. That would take pages though, so I think ‘voracious intellectual fangirl’ about sums it up.

Dracula, adapted by Roy Thomas and Dick Giordano

So how well does Marvel do at delving into Stoker’s world and crafting something unique while not mussing up the original story? Pretty well, actually. All the major characters are included, which doesn’t typically happen, and they are more or less transposed faithfully. There are some early thoughts by Dracula’s captive solicitor, Jonathan Harker, which diverge from the text. It’s a rather jarring departure from the naivety Harker expresses in the books in that this version has some distrust of Dracula pretty much from the start. Stoker’s Harker is more accepting of Dracula in the beginning because he’s, well, pretty naive. Also, Stoker’s Dracula might seem a little off, but he doesn’t exude Vincent Price-esque creepiness from the get go like Marvel’s Dracula. On Harker’s first night in the castle, Dracula seems “almost to merge with the fast-fading shadows,” and disappears with the dawn. Harker thinks his mind is playing tricks, but it soon becomes obvious that subtlety is not a word known to Marvel’s Dracula.

Overall, possibly the biggest point of suffering for those looking for a faithful graphic novel adaptation is the blatantly over the top style illustrations. Considering the concept was originated during the 70’s it makes sense to a point. However, much of the true horror and suspense associated with the book is lost when the characters are drawn as exaggerated, campy versions of themselves. I mean, we’re talking about a story where the most noble man to ever leave Texas sometimes sounds like he came out of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and a brilliant Dutch neuro-para-psychologist cannot comprehend ship-hands’ frequent use of the words ‘bloody’ and ‘blooming.’ Yet one of the most absurd moments in the comic is Dracula turning into a swirl of mist that looks like Edward Cullen exploded in a tornado. Blissfully, however, that’s about the only connection one can make between this adaptation and Twilight.

Seriously, if that collar gets any larger it’ll need its own page.

In the end, however, I’ll take some very dated artistry when the writers stick (pretty much) to not only the spirit of the novel, but the plot. While Mina and Lucy’s looks are reversed (a very common issue in adaptations), their characters are neither flitting, sultry, fantasy fodder nor ridiculously hypocritical, over-feminist depictions who despise all the men around them except Dracula and his sexy European accent. (Though I admit there is one instance where Lucy is splayed out on her bed, almost dead, and while her face is horrified the position in which she lays caused me to remark, “Oh! My terrified boobs!”) Dracula, while preening around like he belongs on Dr. Tongue’s 3-D House of Raised Collars making his goal of blending in with Victorian society a bit difficult, is not seeking love or redemption or acceptance. Van Helsing is appropriately cryptic in the beginning yet powerful in his faith and reason by the end. Even the death of Dracula himself is illustrated accurately, and the sacrifice of Qunicey Morris is not ignored or demeaned by changing the other characters’ motivations throughout the story.

For a graphic novel interpretation of this classic tale one could desire more contemporary illustrations that play up the Gothic and the real horrors, and play down the Hammer-style theatricality. However, from the perspective of the story and characterization (even with the title character being a brasher, bolder villain than in the original), no film has done as worthy a job of interpreting the realm Stoker created as Marvel Comics have.

Bree Todish is a Writer, Michigan ex-pat, obsessive and voracious reader, devourer of pop culture, adorer of music, highly opinionated trixie little pixie. You can see her talk a bit about the vampires in popular culture here, or follow her reviews, rants, and pep-talks on pop culture and life here.