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50 (well, 52) Excellent Comics from 2007  •  Page 2

 

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I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets: the Comics of Fletcher Hanks
Paul Karasik, editor
Fantagraphics Books
128 pages, $19.95
ISBN: 9781560978398

 

Terrible penalties were a big part of Fletcher Hanks' storytelling. Sequence from "The City of Gold," a Fantomah story from I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets: the Comics of Fletcher Hanks, ©2007 Fantagraphics Books.

 

This book was one of the surprise cult-favorite hits of 2007, selling out quickly and catching its publisher completely by surprise — a second printing is expected to hit bookstore and comics-shop shelves sometime in the coming months. It's been extensively reviewed elsewhere, so briefly: Fletcher Hanks was one of the first wave of cartoonists to create stories for comic books in the late 1930s and early 1940s, and his work bears all the hallmarks of a brutally imaginative artist making up the rules as he went along. Where most comics stories of the period used conflict and sticky situations to build suspense, Hanks' work usually resolved the story in the first half in order to make room for what really mattered to the artist: unholy retribution. Fletcher Hanks' near-omnipotent heroes and heroines spent pages dishing out horrible revenge scenarios in fetishistic detail, condemning the villains to outlandish fates that clearly required a mind steeped in sadism to contemplate.

These are fascinating, deeply disturbing and wigged-out comics, no doubt about it. Editor Paul Karasik's cartoon afterword, in which he tracks down Hanks' son and learns more about the man behind the comics, adds a haunting grace note to a collection that will have already burned terrible new gashes in your brain even without the extra context. This book deserves every accolade that it has received from critics, save for two. First, Hanks was not some "naïve" Ed Woods-type; unlike Woods, Hanks was quite talented and creative in his preferred artform. Second, he wasn't quite a one-of-a-kind artist, uniquely capable of pulling terrible Old-Testament horror from the depths of his subconscious and placing it on paper. At least one other cartoonist has mined something close to the same territory, and by a curious coincidence, that cartoonist's work is also in the process of being reprinted right now. Not quite so coincidentally, it's the next item on the list...

 

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The Drifting Classroom Vols. 4-8
Kazuo Umezu
Viz Media
192 pages, $9.99 each
Vol. 4 ISBN: 9781421509563
Vol. 5 ISBN: 9781421509570
Vol. 6 ISBN: 9781421509587
Vol. 7 ISBN: 9781421509594
Vol. 8 ISBN: 9781421509600

 

Read excerpt from right to left. Elementary schoolgirls try desperately to hold back a raging flood that threatens to engulf their school, but the flood wins. Sequence from The Drifting Classroom Vol. 6; ©1976 Kazuo Umezu/Shogakukan Inc., English translation ©2007 Viz Media, LLC.

 

Holy fucking shit. Have you ever in your life seen so many depictions of small children being maimed and killed?

Kazuo Umezu's The Drifting Classroom was originally serialized between 1972 and 1974 in Shonen Sunday, a Japanese comics anthology for teenagers, but its translation here in the States carries an "M for Mature" rating, and it's easy to see why. Packed with more brutal gore than all but a handful of modern horror films, this series takes an elementary school full of children and drops into into the middle of a horrifying, post-apocalyptic landscape without explanation. Having dispensed with all but one of the school's supervising adults early on in the series, Umezu then forces the remaining kids to face starvation, insanity, disease, terrible monsters and the most brutal of natural elements armed with nothing other than the school's walls and dwindling supplies. Betrayed by their adult guardians, tormented by frightening apparitions of every kind, and too young and inexperienced to deal with any of it, the children suffer one gruesome fate after another, their mouths wide open in perpetual terrified shrieks, desperately running but with nowhere to run.

It's impossible to overstate just how over-the-top is The Drifting Classroom, or how impossible these books are to put down. Like the best comics of Fletcher Hanks, you never see these stories coming until they hit you full in the face. Unlike Hanks' comics, however, these aren't short bursts of madness that reboot every sixteen pages or so — Kazuo Umezu's series starts out with a desperate wail of hopelessness, then spends each volume in search of new and imaginative ways to top itself and top itself again. Young children are cut, crucified and set on fire, attacked by giant centipedes, eaten alive by tiny insects until the flesh is stripped from their bones, infected by diseases that warp their bodies in fearsome ways, murder one another with spears... it feels like I could go on forever. The most horrific scene for me was the bit where a group of shellshocked first-graders climbed to the top of the school, convinced that if they somehow turned into birds they could fly back to their mothers and fathers, and began leaping to their deaths.

I repeat: Holy fucking shit.

 

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Pulphope
Paul Pope
Adhouse Books
228 pages, $29.95
ISBN: 0977030431

 

Subtext? What subtext? A dream comic from Pulphope, ©2007 Paul Pope.

 

Pulphope is a combination artbook, career retrospective, autobiography and creative declaration of intent from one of the most interesting and idiosyncratic cartoonists to rise from the United States small press in the last two decades. At its best, Paul Pope's work combines a fascination for genre, a love of women and a need to push his own storytelling and artistic boundaries into a heady brew of stylistic verve and narrative daring. With this oversized volume, Pope attempts to both show and tell you who he is, how he came to be and where he wants to go.

It's a gorgeous book, full of drawing and cartooning, but it's also one of the few high-profile artbooks where you'll actually want to read the accompanying text. Pope discusses his early childhood influences, his time spent working with the Japanese publisher Kodansha, his artistic philosophies and his erotic sensibilities with a nuance and insight that's rare in the world of cartooning, and his obvious indifference to the art-comics/superhero-comics divide is refreshing. His influence on a generation of cartoonists who followed in his footsteps shouldn't be discounted — you can see his fingerprints in many of today's more interesting artists, from Becky Cloonan to Brandon Graham. The creative sensibility on display in Pulphope might well serve as a primer for anyone who wants to know what the funnybook pop-culture avant-garde might look like in ten years' time.

 

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Scary Go Round
John Allison
Available online at Scarygoround.com

 

Ryan and special-guest crochet expert Margo deal with a leprecaun in this sequence from Scary Go Round, ©2007 John Allison.

 

Scary Go Round is the most engaging mix of monsters, adventure and whimsy to emerge from Britain since Doctor Who, and every time a new page appears online — five times a week, like clockwork — my heart sings a little song of joy. The concept is simple: Shelly and Amy are trouble magnets for the supernatural, and when they aren't scrambling for jobs or fighting over Shelly's uptightness and Amy's fondness for naked men, their lives generally revolve around facing off against weird monsters while talking in cute circles around one another.

This year was largely taken up by a massive story in which an old wizard wound up as principal at the high school attended by Shelly's chemically altered younger sister, forcing Amy to babysit an old witch in the woods while Shelly gathered up her various friends to find a number of magical creatures that could be used to fight the Devil. It ended in a fantastic mess, with mad scientists seduced, a bewitched goth girl rescued in time to join the search for a magic bunny, and ultimate victory offset by a tragic loss that no one could quite remember the next day. Like everything else about John Allison's wonderful little series, it was as entertaining as all hell. Also this year: the history of Captain Beefheart, a horrifying encounter with a giant bee, and a mysterious darts game with Santa Claus on Christmas Island.

 

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Dragon Head Vols. 5-8
Minetaro Mochizuki
Tokyopop
232-256 pages, $9.99 each
Vol. 5 ISBN: 9781595329189
Vol. 6 ISBN: 9781595329196
Vol. 7 ISBN: 9781595329202
Vol. 8 ISBN: 9781595329219

 

Read excerpt from right to left. Stranded without explanation in a cold, dead landscape. Page from Dragon Head Vol. 8, ©1999 Minetaro Mochizuki.

 

Apocalypse narratives tend to fall into two categories. The first involve high-octane sci-fi yarns containing robots, monsters and the like, and providing audiences with the thrill of experiencing lives as rugged survivalists in harsh surroundings that offer romantic tests of wits and courage. The second, by contrast, removes the adventure of the former by dropping characters on into a pitiless landscape where there's no hope and no prospect for redemption, where the only monsters stare out from human faces, and where the very act of survival requires all concerned to ignore the evidence of their senses, lest they sit down and wait to die out of sheer horror and futility.

Dragon Head sits firmly in the latter camp. Minetaro Mochizuki's immaculately rendered wastelands serve as the backdrop against which a small group of survivors plod desperately forward, searching for an explanation as to why Japan suddenly and without warning erupted into a Hellish and unforgiving world. It's an astonishing, gripping example of the form. Mochizuki allows his narrative to drift in an endless sea of pages in which seemingly nothing happens save for the grim march from one lost area to the next, punctuated with onslaughts of water and earthquakes, as well as the occassional burst of senseless violence from the few other survivors they encounter, reverted to savagery as they too struggle to stay alive. Dragon Head is haunting in its elemental storytelling and lush depictions of a broken and inhospitable world.

 

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Finder Vol. 1: Sin Eater
Carla Speed McNeil
Lightspeed Press
382 pages, $29.95
ISBN: 9780967369198

 

Jaeger lives the way he loves and loves the way he lives. Panel from Finder Vol. 1: Sin Eater, ©2007 Carla Speed McNeil.

 

The story contained in this volume was first published as a series of comic books, then as a set of two softcovers and finally in this handsome hardcover edition, and it's about damned time. It features the debut of what may well be the most complex and deftly told science-fiction story currently being produced. Finder is one of the last self-published longform comics series still swinging, and its success holds out hope that the small-press movement of the 1980s and '90s might not have been in vain after all.

Sin-Eater introduces us to the world of Jaeger, an aboriginal wanderer adrift in a complex network of rival tribes, species and technologies. He's just returned to the home of his sometimes lover, the ex-wife of his former commading officer, only to discover that her ex lives in the city as well, and may be about to kill both her and their three children. With this storytelling engine in place, Carla Speed McNeil proceeds to weave a complex web of lives and incidents into a multifaceted tale of past sins and future dreams that bears the sort of satisfying and meaningful resonance found only in the best speculative fiction. McNeil knows that fantastic settings ring hollow unless populated by well-rounded people, and she's got the writing chops to deliver the goods. She's also a skilled artist, with a style somewhere between Gilbert Hernandez and Dave Sim, and the combination of story and art made this one of the most impressive debuts of the late 1990s — and here it is again, collected into a single volume at last. It's about time.

 

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Mary Perkins On Stage Vol. III
Leonard Starr
Classic Comics Press
200 pages, $21.95
ISBN: 9781604026092

 

Mary and Pete tie the knot. Panel from Mary Perkins On Stage Vol. III, ©1959 The Chicago Tribune.

 

I reviewed the first volume back in September 2006, and I'm not sure that I have too much to add. In this third volume, Leonard Starr's immaculately drawn strip continues to zing along wonderfully, dishing out Machiavellian intrigue, glamorous escapades and compelling soap opera as though Starr had invented the concepts. More scheming ingenues and arrogant show-biz tycoons throw danger and deception Mary's way, plus we get a side-adventure featuring a thinly disguised Lassie brutalized at the hands of her owner and — oh yeah, almost forgot — our heroine's marriage to longtime beau Pete Fletcher. Starr's artwork remains so slick you almost suspect it was drawn by some sort of godlike machine, and the pacing and dialogue continue to sizzle. There were adult-oriented continuity strips that got better than this, but I bet you can't name more than three.

So yeah, another Mary Perkins collection. Can't wait for the next one.

 

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Strangers in Paradise Pocket Book Edition Vol. 6
Terry Moore
Abstract Studio
288 pages, $17.95
ISBN: 9781892597397

 

It's entirely possible that she may get her wish. Page from Strangers in Paradise Vol. 6, ©2007 Terry Moore.

 

Speaking of compelling soap opera, 2007 saw the conclusion of Terry Moore's longrunning tale of a love triangle between two girls and a guy, in which David chased Katchoo, who in turn was trying to come up with reasons not to chase Francine. Also: intrigue with mobsters and FBI agents, leavened with more than a touch of comedy.

From almost the word "Go," Moore had a rock-solid grasp of the mechanics of melodrama, which allowed him to pile on the complexities and absurdities until most lesser artists would have fallen on their faces. That he got away with it so artfully is nothing short of amazing — read the plot points of these six thick volumes aloud to yourself and you'll find yourself wondering if perhaps you'd been reading some lesbian-tinged version of Days of Our Lives by mistake. Moore succeeded because of his flawless storytelling execution, because of his slick and emotive artwork... but mostly because he wasn't afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve from start to finish. These are heartfelt stories, created by an artist who believed in his characters and wanted you to believe in them as well. While Strangers in Paradise never quite achieved the screwball sophistication of Ai Yazawa's Nana, nor the yearning ambiguity of Jaime Hernandez' recent Maggie stories — its closest thematic equivalents — earnestness and techical ability managed to get Moore's signature work pretty damned far nonetheless. I'm very sorry to see it end; I would've happily continued reading Strangers in Paradise for the rest of my life, if given the chance.

 

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Various short stories
Shintaro Kago
Unauthorized translations by "Anonymous K"
Hosted at Same Hat! Same Hat!

 

Read excerpt from right to left. The comics grid turns, and things begin to get weird, in this page from the scanlation of Kago's short story "Abstraction," ©2007 Shintaro Kago.

 

What fascinates me the most about the online-scanlation scene is its potential for digging up works that you might not have expected to find in comics at all, let alone in the heavily regimented world of Japanese manga. Hands down, the single biggest surprise that online scanlators unearthed in 2007 was the oddball cartooning of Shintaro Kago, whose eyepopping short stories combine a dark undercurrent of sexuality with a balls-to-the-wall experimental formalism that equals anything drawn by Art Spiegelman in the 1970s.

Kago's basic strategy seems simple enough — take one plastic element of comics storytelling, be it the page frame, the panel, flashbacks or whatever, then give it an undue influence over the world that it contains and watch it eat the surroundings. Add erotic heat as necessary to keep the reader interested in decoding the sometimes bewildering results. Each story offers variations on Kago's unchanging themes, but the restless fascination and room for innovation that he finds within those themes is startling — Shintaro Kago may well be the comics master of sexually charged mindfucks.

The folks at Same Hat! Same Hat! began posting scanlations of Kago's work to their site back in June. Five stories are currently available: "Abstraction," "Blow-Up," "Multiplication," "The Memories of Others" and "Labyrinth." They may well be some of the oddest comics you'll ever read. More, please.

 

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Sinfest
Tatsuya Ishida
Available online at Sinfest.net

 

Theological exegesis was never this much fun! Sequence from a Sunday strip, ©2007 Tatsuya Ishida/Museworks.

 

Tatsuya Ishida's daily online strip centers around the exploits of three main characters: Slick, a wanna-be pimp who impresses exactly no one; Monique, a wanna-be sexpot who has the ass but not the sophistication; and Pig, who just wants to sit around, get stoned and watch porn all day. Hovering around these three are God, Jesus and the Devil, who each try to influence their fates according to the traditional motivations ascribed to each. Watching from a distance and hugely entertained by the spectacle: the Buddha and a Chinese dragon.

It's a grand set-up for comedy, and Ishida makes the most of it. He has an expert eye for the perpetual conflict between our better and baser natures as human beings, and the multiple levels upon which his scenarios play out allows for a great deal of play in ensuring that this conflict always remains entertaining. Sinfest retains the tight structure of a daily strip, but comes with a premise multifaceted enough to allow for seemingly endless variations within that structure — and Ishida is an extremely skilled cartoonist, which in turn extends his reach still further.

Before redesigning his website, Ishida maintained a sarcastic count of the number of newspaper syndicates that had turned Sinfest down for representation. It isn't there any more, which is a shame — placed just above his hilarious and addictive daily strip, the count was a damning indictment of the printed comic strip's inability to absorb worthy talent. And let's be clear: After seven years and counting, Tatsuya Ishida shows every indication of maturing into a cartoonist on the level of Bill Watterson and Walt Kelly. (It goes without saying that he already draws rings around Berkeley Breathed.) The fact that the syndicates cannot accomodate Sinfest is all the evidence you need to show that newspaper strips have long passed their sell-by date, and more than deserve their increasing irrelevance. Sinfest will dance on their graves.

 

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