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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Fandom's Finest Comics - From 2003


Amateur comic book magazines in the '60s and '70s called 'fanzines" were a kind of vaudeville for aspiring cartoonists. Some of these artists, writers and editors became professionals, and much of their early, raw talent and love for the art form has been recaptured in twenty stories republished as Fandom's Finest Comics (FFC).

Some may find it odd that this enthusiasm for comic books and strips is both the strength and weakness of this wonderful collection.

Then as now, the superhero genre dominates the contents of FFC, although a sprinkling of the Science Fiction, Sword and Sorcery, Horror and Fantasy genres add spice to the mix.

"Hey, what about that 'strength and weakness' comment earlier, bud?!"

First, my name isn't bud, chum.

Secondly, without a real love for comic books and strips, these stories would simply have never been created, fandom would have never been formed, and fanzines printed. That is an obvious strength.

But this love of comics didn't lead to innovation at first. It lead to imitation, and everything in FFC is derivative of the comics titles from the major publishers of the day, especially DC Comics. There is also a strong flavor of the style of the '40s and '50s in this work. So don't expect originality, and that is a weakness.

Comics notables with early stories in Fandom's Finest Comics include D. Bruce Berry, Robert Crumb, Marv Wolfman, Roy Thomas, Mark Wheatley, John Byrne, Dave Cockrum, Ronn Foss, Larry Ivie, Wendy Pini, Jim Shooter, Jeff Jones, and Jim Starlin. But the most mature art and story in this anthology is from Landon Chesney, Harry Habblitz, Bill Spicer, George Metzger, Jerry Ordway, and Grass Green.

Admittedly, publishing a handful of diamonds in the rough, FFC is never the less highly recommended.

Fandom's Finest Comics/$17.95 & 256 pgs from Hamster Press/complied by Bill Schelly/sold in comics shops and at www.billschelly.com.

Review by Michael Vance

The Eye Collection - From 2003


Keep your eye out for this one because an early and bizarre fandom superhero is back, and his name isn't Iris. Visually created in 1955 by Richard "Grass" Green and completely fleshed out by Biljo White in 1963, The Eye is a criminal executioner in blue britches, red shirt, white cape and boots, and a huge, well, eye for a head. "Eye" wouldn't kid you.

Enough puns. The Eye Collection presents about 30% new material and reprints the earliest and latest exploits of this odd and delightful character. There, I wrote it: The Eye is delightful. He is also inventive, entertaining and neither brooding or introspective. This is adventure for the sake of adventure and fun.

Especially excellent is "The Untold Origin of the Eye" which is of as high a quality of art and story as any origin story this reviewer has read.

The twists added to clich├ęs like 'the child witnesses a parent's death and decides to fight crime' are wonderful. The plot is fast-paced and engrossing, dialog is crisp and believable within the inner logic of the series, and it is befuddling why Eye is not published by one of the 'big guns' of comics, DC or Marvel. Special thanks to Bill Schelly for his scripting, and for his preservation of the early history of comic fandom.

And for those you think this collection has won a "highly recommended" because The Eye was co-created by my dear friend and collaborator "Grass" Green, well, you are right. It is also dang good.

The Eye Collection/144 pgs. & $13.95, Hamster Press/words: Bill Schelly & friends; art: Ron Frenz & friends/available at comics shops and www.billschelly.com.

Review by Michael Vance

The Exec #1 - From 2003


Jack Pierce is an executive in a sterile, emotionless world run by gigantic corporations that survive and grow through murder. Jack Pierce is a murderer.

Indeed, everyone is a murderer.

In the first issue of The Exec, more than twenty-five men and women are graphically slaughtered in buckets of blood and gore. Jack's receptionist kills three men. It is so excessive that it suggests satire. There is no satire.

There is, however, excellent art and visual story telling enhanced by outstanding coloring. The art is reality based and powerful. Both the dramatic art and over-the-top coloring add to the unusual style of The Exec and its unrealistic setting. Although it is never so stated, this is not the Earth we know. There is also a very stylized, tight plot and wholly unnatural dialog. Everyone speaks impeccable English.

When style so impregnates a story that it becomes obvious, however, said story will either be loved or hated by its intended audience. As example, Clint Eastwood's Italian Western movies were STYLE and then some. I like style. I just like story better.

The Exec #1 is 31 pages and priced at $3.95 from Comics Conspiracy. Story by Doug Miers; Pencils by Carlos Paul. It is sold at comics shops & online at www.comicsconspiracy.com.

Review by Michael Vance

The Comics Journal and Will Elder - From 2003


The Comics Journal is not a comic book or strip, or a book about comics. It is one of the two oldest periodicals about comics, and thus appropriate for review in Suspended Animation.

It is also acerbic and counter-cultural by its own admission, praising little published in comics while professing a deep love of the medium. In addition, its parent company markets some of the best comics ever created including Pogo, Popeye and some of Will Eisner's work, and the worst like its pornographic comics. In effect, it does not consistently live up to the standards it professes.

The current issue contains articles on its own recent near demise as a publisher, a criticism of comics criticism, and news of court battles over copyright laws. Included is an interview with artist Will Elder conducted by Gary Groth that is worth five times its cover price.

With editor and writer Harvey Kurtzman, Elder established the wildly satirical style that made Mad magazine an icon. Their work together still directly and indirectly influences the humorists that followed them. As an example, TV's Saturday Night Live was originally heavily influenced by Mad, and today's Mad TV exists because the magazine exists.

Elder is a versatile artist not limited to one style, duplicating other styles in his comic strip and book satires. He always stretched his potential while sharing his talent with readers. If you think that's easy, try it. Elder also mastered the technical aspects of visual storytelling, and his art is instantly recognizable and esthetically joyful.

Among his final surprising comments in The Comics Journal interview, the cartoonist asks, "Don't make me look mediocre."

Granted. One word rarely used in Suspended Animation best suits Elder. He is that rarest of gifts, a comics genius.

The Comics Journal is highly recommended for serious readers of comic books and strips. The Comics Journal #254/143 pgs. & $6.95 from Fantagraphics Books/ various artists and writers/sold in comics shops and www.tcj.com.

Review by Michael Vance

Batman/Deathblow: After the Fire - From 2003


Subtle is as subtle doesn't.

To clarify, subtle storytelling involves readers by what isn't said or shown. When handled well, it is a powerful tool. When handled improperly, it is Batman/Deathblow.

Make no mistake, this graphic novel about an assassin and Batman's attempt to stop him is powerful storytelling through both its writing and art. But it does raise a question: How hard should a reader work to understand a subtle story? One answer is: Anything that makes it hard for readers to believe a story is bad.

So, is one technical glitch too many? Are two glitches the kiss of Deathblow?

Let's hope that one isn't too many, because Batman/Deathblow has a big goof that stems from one aspect of storytelling, transition scenes.

A transition scene is when readers must jump from one event and time in a story to another. It can be done with a caption like "Meanwhile…" which damages suspension of disbelief slightly because, in real life, narrators don't say "Meanwhile…" Or a transition may be done by making the art so obviously different in style between the two scenes that the reader knows he or she isn't in Kansas anymore.



Batman/Deathblow tries often for the second technique, and fails.

That means that one works very hard to keep time, characters and events in order. And that is a shame, because this wonderfully dark, gritty, reality-based story is otherwise marvelously intriguing. The art is exceptional, the plotting is brisk and tightly woven, and the dialogue is believable.

So Batman/Deathblow is highly recommended for experienced readers, and recommended for novices willing to work harder.

Batman/Deathblow: After the Fire/154 pgs. & $12.95 from Wildstorm/words: Brian Azzarello; penciller: Lee Bermejo/sold in comics and book stores.

Review by Michael Vance

Banner - From 2003



The town of Santa Fe, New Mexico is nearly obliterated. Buildings are leveled, people are killed and wounded in a disaster of unprecedented proportions. The government declares a tornado the cause of the destruction. In reality, according to scientist-adventurer Dr. Leonard Samson, it was the world's most devastating bomb. "A bomb that moves around and continues to blow up." So begins Samson's quest to capture Bruce Banner, or, as he is known in his monstrous persona, "The Hulk."

A fairly routine premise, as Hulk stories go, but Banner, a new trade paperback published by Marvel Comics, is still more than a little different. Why? Because it takes the character back to his roots, back to what he is supposed to be; a monster. It does this with good writing, and even better art work.

Writer Brian Azzarello reverts the Hulk to his essence. Too many stories in decades past had made the Hulk into a big, green, snarling... well, teddy bear. Azzarello shows us a creature of great rage and destruction which leaves chaos and death in it's wake. Then, he presents the picture of a horrified Bruce Banner, who gets to "wake up" and see the nightmare his other self has made others live through. Powerful stuff.



Even more powerful is the artwork of Richard Corben. Long known for his underground and horror work, Corben proved long ago his ability to render brutal, creepy, chilling scenes, beautifully. Few artists produce such oxymoronic work. I mean that in a good way, really.

The truth is, it took Richard Corben far too long to illustrate a Hulk story, as he renders the visual monster superbly. The rage, the destruction, the unrestrained and uncontrollable force that is the ogre that Lee and Kirby created a generation ago, this is what Corben gives the readers.

Banner is highly recommended for all but the youngest readers. Look for it at comic shops, comic conventions and online auctions and catalogs.

Banner, published by Marvel Comics, 104 pages, $12.95.

Review by Mark Allen