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Saturday, November 08, 2008

Prince Valiant #45: The Mark of Cain - From 2003

This forty-fifth issue reprints Sunday pages from a seminal masterpiece that influenced decades of comics writers and artists. For the uninitiated, methinks Prince Valiant is set "in the days of King Arthur", and recounts the rousing, pseudo-historic adventures of a restless knight as he gallops through what became Western Europe.

Pioneer comics genius Hal Foster established the beautiful, realistic style of art and word that is continued by John Cullen Murphy, and the quirk that distinguished it from almost everything else in comics. Both prose and dialog are printed at the bottom of the art. This creates a sense that readers observe instead of participate in events.

This series should be in every library. Highly recommended for all literate ages.

Prince Valiant #45: The Mark of Cain/$16.95 & 44 pgs. from Fantagraphics Books /sold in comics/book stores, and at

Review by Michael Vance

The Plastic Man Archives - From 2003

It doesn't stretch the truth that there was and is no more talented cartoonist than Jack Cole. Nor does it bend reason that Plastic Man was his greatest creation and one of the most original characters ever created in comics.

Then why isn't Plastic Man wildly popular today? Cole doesn't write and draw 'Plas' today.

This volume collects Plastic Man's adventures from the first twenty issues of Police Comics, originally published from 1941 to 1943 by Quality Comics. Every reprinted story is a romp into a world of wild, visual whimsy as Plastic Man disguises himself as a table or woman or snake to plant himself among thieves. His is a world that never pretends to be ours as he elongates into a slingshot or lasso or kite to get his man.

If a Cole picture of Plas is worth a thousand words, the most frequent word is "ha". That's right. While Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, The X-Men and countless other superheroes are fighting with clenched fists and enough angst to float an anchor, Plastic Man is fighting with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

In a word, Plastic Man is fun.

He is fun because Cole was a visual storyteller who mastered every technical nuance of cartooning. He is fun because Cole also knew how to write funny through characterization, exaggeration and situation instead of through pun and the piebald joke. (An aside: the reason that those who handled Plas after Cole weren't successful is they thought Plastic Man punny, not funny.)

Despite having been forgotten on occasion except through homages like the Elongated Man, Mr. Fantastic, Rubberroy, and this reviewer's own Plastic Mam, pure Plastic Man has again bounced back. So, buy now. No rubber checks, please. Jack Cole's work on Plastic Man earns the highest recommendation.

The Plastic Man Archives: Volume 1/222 pgs., $49.95 from DC Comics/ by Jack Cole/available in book and comic shops.

Review by Michael Vance

Pinky and Stinky - From 2003

Two pigs sent into space to be the first to set foot on Pluto crash-land on the moon. As luck would have it, they find a manned moon base, and all seems well.

Unfortunately, the astronauts assigned there are not the friendliest guys around, as the pigs quickly discover. In the process of trying to get their space ship repaired, the pigs receive no aid from their fellow space travelers, and are eventually taken captive by a race of moon-dwelling aliens. Are the aliens really the bad guys, however? Who are their friends and who are their foes?

No, it's not an episode of "Pigs in Space," though it's equally child-friendly. The above is a description of a graphic novel by James Kochalka entitled Pinky & Stinky. Stay with me, now. The trip is well worth it.

I can't really go into much detail about the characterization. As mentioned, this is a very good book for children, which I would go so far as to classify as a "children's book," if it weren't for the length of the work. Written on a very simplistic level, characterization goes as far as a sweet pig, a slightly grouchy pig, a few mean astronauts, and some sweet little aliens, who will defend themselves if necessary. No deep meanings or complex storylines. Just kid-friendly fun.

Kochalka's art is also very simple, with thick lines and a minimalist style. The good thing about these kinds of drawings is that they are never obscured; it's easy to follow the action, even without word balloons. Again, exceptional material for young readers.

My conclusion, in case you haven't caught on, is that Pinky & Stinky is ideal for children, or those learning to read. It ought to be in elementary schools (and some high schools) everywhere. Of course, it's also recommended for the young at heart.

Pinky & Stinky is published by Top Shelf Productions. Stats: 208 pages, $17.95. Available at comic shops, comic conventions, or online auctions.

Review by Mark Allen

Obscurity Unlimited - From 2003

Obscurity is not a comic book but a magazine about comics produced by fans and called fanzines.

These self-published magazines are often very professional and often not. The brief reviews make it easier to distinguish between the two and to understand what they contain.

Fanzines may contain almost anything.

Obscurity is a great introduction to fanzines for the uninitiated or a wonderful reference for those who love them.

Obscurity Unlimited #20/$3.50 and 32 pgs. from Dimestore Productions/ editor: Kathy Shires/available from

Michael Vance

No Pasaran! - From 2003

Max the spy searches for a friend during the Spanish Civil War that pre-dated WWII.

A colleague is caught up in battle just as that friend's interest in a woman journalist deepens. This and vivid details of war paint a struggle to stop fascism as Nazi Germany sharpens its claws and tests its mettle on a world in denial.

Undeniable is the high quality of this book that gives equal value to characterization, setting, pacing, plot, and dialogue. No Pasaran! is that most rare commodity, a true graphic novel.

Of particular note is its pseudo-realistic pacing. All pacing in literature only approximates the passing of time, of course. The goal of any artist is that their work smacks of real time. No Pasaran! smacks.

Its psuedo-realistic art also adds to the illusion of pinch-me-this-is-happening-now. Need I point out that all art is pseudo-realistic?

No Pasaran! joins the growing number of NBM graphic novels that are highly recommended for mature readers.

No Pasaran!/$11.95 & 48 pgs. from NBM/art & story by Vittorio Giardino/ available at comic & book stores and at

Review by Michael Vance

The Nimrod #7 - From 2003

It's a shame the word "alternative" in alternative comics almost always means a title is peppered with sex, drugs and profanity. There is so much in life to explore that is ignored in superhero comic books that one would think....

Sigh. Oh well.

The Nimrod is an alternative comic book from France that doesn't explore government or religion or philosophy or any question that profoundly matters. It explores the mundane world of anthropomorphic ducks and weasels and cats and dogs. Anthropomorphic means the world of ducks and weasels and cats and dogs that act like human beings.

It does so by using minimalist art that looks like the doodles one draws when on a long telephone conversation. The cartoonist is knowledgeable in doodle art storytelling. His story flows well and is visually interesting.

It also does so by using believable dialogue and situations, and interesting characters.

And, of course, The Nimrod is peppered with profanity.

In this issue, a duck remembers how he stole money from his father to buy a toy. Oh, I almost forgot. A backup feature titled "Miles to Go" is about a car packed with animals who count blue and white cars that pass them, and other time wasting games one plays while on the road.

Go ahead and say it. Who cares?

If this style and its subject matter is your cup of tea, drink it up. As for this old and tired reviewer, I'll use my time productively by rereading Pogo comic strips instead.

The Nimrod #7/32 pgs. & $3.95 from Fantagraphics/ art and story from Lewis Trondheim/sold in comics shops.

Review by Michael Vance

Negative Exposure - From 2003

Imagine you're a reporter. Now, imagine you wake up in your Beijing hotel room, to find the Tiananmen Square massacre taking place just 150 meters from your window. You leave your hotel room, and begin trying to cover the hellish event. Then, out of nowhere, a woman you've never met arrives to whisk you safety? No, rather, to a location where 200 students from the failed uprising are about to be executed.

You, and you alone, are expected to take photos of the event, get them out of China, and have them published, bringing an end to the rule of Deng Xiaoping.

Got all that? Good. You've just peeked into the life of investigative reporter Oliver Varese, the main character in the trade paperback collection Negative Exposure, from Humanoids Publishing.

Written by Thierry Smolderen and Georges Pop, this engaging tale combines breakneck-paced action, international intrigue and great humor, to produce a comic-reading experience all it's own.

Varese is finely portrayed as the in-over-his-head reporter who rises to the occasion, so thanks is due to said writers for superb characterization, as well.

Artist Enrico Marini employs a manga-slash-European art style that combines great character expression with fine detail. It goes a long way toward the success of the story. Readers should be forewarned, however, that this is NOT a children's book, due to the all-too-European tendency to insert nudity and sexual content needlessly.

"Oh, grow up, you prude! Comics surely have," is very often the response to such statements. Though, I must admit, I've never understood why including naked characters, sex and schoolyard language in a story is considered "mature." I'm much more impressed by a creator's ability to weave an entertaining tale by means of characterization, implication and wonderful artwork; but that's just me.

Negative Exposure does have two of the three, however, which is why it's still recommended for adults.

Negative Exposure, published by Humanoids Publishing, 144 pages, $17.95. Find it at your local comic shop, or at

Review by Mark Allen

Mortal Coils - From 2003

A woman awakes one morning to find she's in the body of the man who assaulted her. An obsessed scientist, seeking to develop the latest in artificially-intelligent robots, plays a deadly game of hide-and-seek, using himself as bait. A television program does more than entertain; it grants individual fantasies.

These are some of the premises of an anthology comic called Mortal Coils, by creator/writer A. David Lewis, and various artists. Though, it reminds me of an old television program. Maybe you've heard of it; The Twilight Zone. Mortal Coils invokes all of the feelings of mystery, foreboding, and surprise that were inherent in that t.v. show, perhaps to the maximum degree that a comic book can. It's rather surprising, really, and a good example of why so many small-press creators are enjoying more success, these days; they produce great work.

Lewis' characterization is superb, as characters are well-revealed, considering stories run two per issue.

He also does an excellent job of pacing for this format. There is no time for much buildup, or back-story, so it's cleverly worked in as you go. Before the reader knows it, they have enjoyed a great story, in which more has taken place than does in some entire comic books.

The art, on the other hand is hit and miss, which is to be expected in an anthology comic. The artists of the first two issues are Evan Quiring and Jason Copland,. Both are very competent artists, who appear to work quite well in the black and white format. Due to some difference in inkers in the first two issues, however, the quality of art work is not consistent, which could make some small difference in enjoyment.

Mortal Coils is recommended for those who enjoy mystery, adventure, and the best in Twilight Zone-type stories. Go to , or for direct information to order about Mortal Coils.

Mortal Coils, Published by A. David Lewis, in association with Red Eye Press, 24 pages, $2.50.

Review by Mark Allen

"Cover" of The Week? There's a whole WORLD of comics out there.

So, I figured this week I would post several covers worthy of note, with a bit of commentary on each.

Avengers, Vol. 1, No. 75

Perspective. Sometimes, that's what makes a great cover. Quicksilver running toward the reader, Goliath's hand extending in pursuit, Cap's shield tossed in an attempt to stop the speedster..., add to all of that the wonderfully melodramatic "Marvelesque" dialogue, and you have a winning cover. By artist John Buscema.

Captain Midnight, No. 11

Again, perspective plays a part, here. Looking almost straight into Midnight's firing gun lends a great sense of drama, which is only increased by the great shadowing. By artist Mac Raboy.

Conan The Barbarian, No. 10

I'll admit, I've owned this one more than once, so I'm partial. I can't put my finger on why this is, technically, such a great cover, but the action, the drama, the art of Barry Windsor-Smith as he was beginning to develop his own style..., what's not to like?

Dardevil, Vol. 1, No. 82

This cover is from a short time in Marvel history when they were "shrinking" their covers by adding a colored border. It's a shame when covers such as this, by Gil Kane, get cut down to a disrespectful size. What was exciting about this cover to me as a young comics fan was the prospect of Daredevil tangling with a major Spidey villain.

Four Color, No. 59

What can I say? The composition, the action (Jack, frozen in time over the candlestick), the vibrancy...., it's a hard cover to resist lingering on. By artist Walt Kelly.

Ironjaw, No. 1

I didn't become aware of Atlas Comics until years after they had folded. And, though no masterpieces were created by the company story-wise, they did produce some great covers by noted artists. This is a Neal Adams work, and, as in the case of the second issue below, he took a character that was really kind of silly, and created an amazingly dramatic piece or art.

Ironjaw, No. 2

Adams' sense of realism was well-displayed on this cover, as everything from the bears, to 'Jaw's musculature and positioning, to the (ahem) distressed young lady in the background surpassed the typically more-cartoony styles of most comics artists of the day.

That will have to do for now. Feel free to comment, or name some of your own favorite covers.