After hip-hop music was born on the streets of New York City in the 1970s, it quickly grew into a full-fledged pop cultural movement in the early ’80s, a period of expansion chronicled in Ed Piskor’s phenomenal Hip Hop Family Tree, Vol. 2 (Fantagraphics). The cartoonist’s ongoing serialization of the history of hip-hop in the style of a Bronze Age Marvel comic is a weekly fixture on Boing Boing, but seeing these stories in the oversized collections makes for an even more memorable reading experience.
Everything about Piskor’s approach is about turning these human DJs and MCs into larger-than-life idols, using the opportunities afforded by the comic-book medium to exaggerate the physical appearances of the characters as well as the sensory experience of hip-hop performance, whether it’s music, break-dancing, or graffiti art. In his introduction, director Charlie Ahearn—who appears in this volume thanks to his 1983 film Wild Style—talks about how the collection’s “Treasury Edition” format aligns it with the similarly oversized Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali, a fit comparison considering how both works take real-world figures and turn them into extraordinary comic-book heroes.
The difference is that Piskor accomplishes this without the help on the world’s most famous superhero, creating legends by describing the historical details of these artists’ incredible lives. There is certainly some artistic license in the retelling, but these are true stories about the pioneers of hip-hop music, told by a creator that has a clear reverence and passion for their work.
As hip-hop’s influence starts to travel across the United States, Piskor’s story starts splitting focus between the coasts, introducing major West Coast hip-hop players like Lonzo Williams, Ice-T, and Dr. Dre. Because of the narrative’s weekly serialization, Piskor checks in with characters through short vignettes, weaving an intricate tapestry of interconnected subplots that drift in and out of the spotlight. One of these threads—the formation of Run-D.M.C.—has been developing since the first volume, and slowly building up that story makes for a satisfying payoff.
To mark just how big a turning point Run-D.M.C. is for hip-hop music, the trio is given the only full-page spread of volume two, an image that lands when Run, Darryl, and Jam Master Jay don their signature group uniform for the very first time. The minimalist cool of their black jackets, jeans, and hats with white Adidas is a stark contrast to the flamboyant fashions of other hip-hop artists of the time, drawing focus away from cosmetic ornamentation so that their audience is paying full attention to the hard-hitting words and energetic music.
This time period also sees the emergence of more socially conscious rap following the success of Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five’s “The Message,” and while there are still plenty of artists putting out feel-good party music, groups like Public Enemy see how hip-hop can be used as a tool for rallying people to fight for justice. Volume 2 features the introduction of Lawrence “KRS-One” Parker, a homeless youth that splits his time between volunteering at shelters, discovering Hare Krishna spirituality, and crafting sick rhymes that are just waiting for the opportune time to explode from his lips. With no verifiable witnesses for Parker’s early days on the streets, most of the information about his past comes directly from the rapper himself, lending his plot an even more mythical quality when placed next to the concrete facts of the stories around him.
When Parker spits his rhymes for the very first time, the event is presented with superhuman force in Piskor’s artwork, complete with Kirby crackle that brings cosmic energy to Parker’s delivery. Those visual details are a big part of Hip Hop Family Tree’s allure, and Piskor is constantly exploring fresh ways to capture the intensity of the music and the hip-hop scene in his artwork. His storytelling is evolving as the world of his narrative gets better, and the wild growth of the hip-hop industry in the mid-’80s suggests that Piskor’s best is yet to come. [OS]
It would be strictly incorrect to call Jim Woodring influential, for the reason that there are precious few cartoonists in the last three decades to actively follow in the man’s footsteps. The reasons for this have nothing to do with the significance or quality of the work—both of which are, in 2014, beyond dispute. Woodring remains something of a lost branch on the evolutionary tree of cartooning because his work is inimitable: highly personal, idiosyncratic, and surreal in equal measure, Woodring’s comics could not have been produced by anyone else at any time in the medium’s history. His footprints can be seen in a few brave souls such as Rick Veitch and Dave Cooper, but as dream artists go, Woodring remains in a class by himself.
Woodring’s new collection, Jim (Fantagraphics), reprints all of Woodring’s autojournal comics from both volumes of the comic-sized Jim, printed throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Much of this work predates the advent of Woodring’s signature character, the hapless and occasionally cruel buck-toothed “anthropomorph” Frank (who premiered on the cover of the fourth issue of the first volume of Jim). But even though there are precious few glimpses of Frank, it’s easy to discern continuity between early Woodring and later Frank. There’s really no divide between the adventures of Jim—Woodring’s cartoon avatar in the autojournal stories—and the Unifactor in which Frank lives.
If this seems odd at first blush, it’s important to remember—as the book’s introduction explains—that Woodring doesn’t see the world the way other people do. While masquerading as a mild-mannered productive member of society, Woodring has experienced cripplingly vivid hallucinations of strange and fantastic events since his early childhood. He states that he can’t remember faces but has spent much of his life attempting to recreate the vision of a sinister drunken frog he glimpsed for one moment in an art history class back in the late ’70s.
So when Woodring draws himself in cartoon form wandering through strange neighborhoods populated by creeping Lovecraftian beasts and decorated by ancient alien ziggurats, this is less fantasy than recollection—hence the label “autojournal,” situated in a place between strict autobiography and high fantasy. The multiple rambling psychedelic text pieces from early in Jim’s run speak to a link between Woodring’s diary work and the kind of automatic writing that fascinated spiritualists such as W.B. Yeats in the early part of the 20th century.
The best way to describe the tone of Jim would be Kafkaesque, but not in the way we customarily employ the word. This isn’t the Kafka of The Trial or “In The Penal Colony,” the atomized individual caught in the intricate web of an abusive, omnipotent state apparatus. This is the Kafka of “The Cares Of A Family Man” and The Metamorphosis, an artist concerned with recording the strangest details of his dream-like recollections in such excruciating detail as to render the most outlandish phantasms familiar. The advantage Woodring has over the likes of Kafka or Lovecraft is that comics are a visual medium: Instead of using words to describe the strange symbology of his private cosmos, Woodring can show the reader exactly what he sees in garish detail. [TO]
Gail Simone’s Secret Six was one of the most memorable titles of the last decade of DC Comics, a spiritual successor to John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad that featured villains teaming up for adventures that brilliantly used the full scope of DC mythology. The book was a casualty of the New 52 relaunch, but fans of the title have multiple reasons to celebrate in the second half of 2014. In December, Simone will be relaunching Secret Six with artist Ken Lashley, and this month sees the release of Leaving Megalopolis (Dark Horse), an original graphic novel by Simone and her Secret Six artistic collaborator Jim Calafiore.
A Kickstarter-funded project that brought in more than triple its goal, Leaving Megalopolis was made possible by fans, and it delivers all the elements that made Simone and Calafiore’s partnership at DC so remarkable. Over the course of 93 pages, Simone introduces a diverse cast of characters caught in a horrifying circumstance, which doubles as a clever critique of the darkening of superheroes in the Modern Age of comics.
In a city that has become the devastated hunting ground for a group of homicidal superheroes, a small bunch of human survivors tries to make an escape, discovering along the way that other non-powered civilians are as much a threat as the killers in capes and tights. The violence is grisly, glory, and often disturbing, highlighting the visceral impact these events have on the characters. These people don’t have super strength or unbreakable skin; their bodies are fragile sacks of flesh and bone, and Calafiore and colorist Jason Wright capture that vulnerability in graphic detail when the survivors come in contact with their superhuman hunters.
Calafiore’s strengths as a visual storyteller are immediately apparent in the graphic novel’s opening sequence, which begins with striking aerial shots of the ruined city to show the wide-scale destruction before bringing the story down to a more personal level by closing in on lead character Mina. That attention to the larger world as well as the more intimate emotional moments makes Calafiore an ideal artist for Simone, who balances the main action with flashbacks to key events in Mina’s past. Calafiore’s skill as a character designer is spotlighted in bonus material that breaks down the visual elements of specific figures, and that talent makes the book’s superhero cast instantly engaging while grounding the human characters in reality.
This title’s superhero survival horror concept is Simone’s way of addressing contemporary trends in comics, using grim and gritty “heroes” as the enemy in a story about the resilience of the human spirit. Superheroes should be used in service of those inspiring qualities rather than fighting against them, and if they’re not doing their jobs, maybe it’s time to shift the focus of these stories. Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson have found immense success exploring the civilian side of the superhero universe in Astro City, and Leaving Megalopolis suggests that might be an avenue worth exploring for Simone and Calafiore. This graphic novel gives them a lot to work with in the future, so ideally a return to Megalopolis isn’t too far away. [OS]
It is customary to begin any review of a Bongo comic book by pointing to the company’s underrated consistency, having produced good-to-great adaptations of The Simpsons and other related properties for 21 years. Consider this review duly begun. The company is consistent, a publisher with a definite niche who has successfully exploited a relatively underserved market for a long time, and with no signs of abatement.
But with consistency comes familiarity, and we all know what familiarity breeds. One of Bongo’s more successful strategies for engaging lapsed readers (of the kind who, when wandering a comics shop, might be surprised to see not merely that The Simpsons is still published, but that the series is currently in the low 200s) has been a recent series of attractive one-shots featuring secondary and tertiary characters from the TV show’s 25-years-and-counting history.
The latest of these one-shots—devoted to the longtime stars of the series’ annual Treehouse Of Horror specials, Kang & Kodos—is one of the more attractive single issues to be released this year. The cover itself, by Jason Ho, Mike Rote, and Nathan Kane, is striking. For a while now Bongo has been employing a new strategy for its covers, something reminiscent of the 1960s’ Gold Key, with large rounded logos and warm pastel colors. They really jump off the rack.
The problem with devoting an entire issue to Kang & Kodos is that, even in the context of the daffy world of Springfield, they are exquisitely one-note characters designed to tell one joke, over and over again. Whereas regular Simpsons stories feature two-or-three dimensional characters with things like “motivations” and “character arcs,” Kang & Kodos are green tentacle aliens who want to eat Earth people, and not a lot else. The solution to this dilemma—and a perfectly suitable solution for filling 22 pages—is to set the duo against similarly one-note characters for a few pages and watch things explode.
The weakest story in the issue, accordingly, shows the alien outwitted by Bart, Milhouse, and Nelson. But the second and third features, with Kang & Kodos serving as foils for similarly shallow characters Professor Frink and Cletus, have a lot more life: it’s not that throwing limited-use side-characters together endows them with more dimensions, but that without more established characters to gum up the works, the stories are free to become as strange and anarchic as possible.
The Frink story is a shaggy-dog tale in which the aliens draft Frink to devise progressively more complex ideas to a dumb-simple problem. The Cletus tale features Springfield’s resident hillbilly abducted by the equally dim-witted aliens, with unhappy results for Kang & Kodos. None of these stories are going to set the world on fire, but they’re enjoyable and (as always!) remarkably true to the intimately familiar source material. Add in a page of Kang & Kodos bumper stickers, and for $3.99 readers have a pretty nice package. [TO]
Michel Fiffe’s Copra: Round One (Bergen Street Press) is an inspiring piece for anyone that has ever wanted to work on corporate-owned characters, showing that copyright shouldn’t stand in the way of an artist’s will to create. Fiffe’s love letter to John Ostrander’s Suicide Squad (there’s that name again) changes character names and designs to step around legal conflicts, but underneath the superficial changes, this is a story about classic, pre-New 52 Amanda Waller and her team of former supervillains turned soldiers.
DC doesn’t quite know what to do with Suicide Squad in the New 52, but Fiffe understands exactly what made Ostrander’s run a classic, providing thrilling superhero action with a political bent and sense of humor that balances the darker aspects of the story. The other major part of that equation is character development, and Fiffe digs deep into the inner workings of characters Sonia Stone and Benicio “Man-Head” Sandoval to heighten the emotion of the story and create something more substantial than the typical superhero fare.
Readers unfamiliar with Suicide Squad will still find plenty to enjoy in this collection of Copra’s first six issues. The story dives head-first into a worst-case scenario for Sonia and her team, and the momentum only accelerates as she brings old allies back into the fray. Fiffe’s designs make each character visually captivating, and his use of different rendering techniques makes Copra look unlike any other superhero comic on the stands.
Ink, paint, and colored pencil beautifully come together on the page, but Fiffe exhibits a sense of restraint in the application that allows him to make excellent use of the negative space on the page. His selective coloring invites readers to bring their own interpretations of the finer visual details, but it also serves a more practical purpose. Fiffe is able to create a page faster if he’s not coloring everything, and speed is a major concern on the creator’s mind.
A short text piece printed in the back of this collection has Fiffe writing about “breaking the Kirby barrier” and turning out pages quickly without thinking about rewrites. He specifies that it’s not about rushing, but about not being so precious with the work that refinement stalls creation. This philosophy creates a riveting sense of urgency in the pages of Copra: Round One, and Fiffe’s craft is only improving with each new issue of the self-published series, which is currently on #17. Hopefully it won’t take long for “Round Two” to be collected, because this first collection leaves readers wanting more and the single issues are becoming increasingly hard to find. [OS]
After a massively successful Kickstarter led to a collection published through Image Comics, Ryan Browne’s God Hates Astronauts returns to deliver madcap humor, gruesome action, demented romance, and off-kilter character design on a monthly basis. God Hates Astronauts #1 (Image) features a variant cover by Geof Darrow, and like Darrow’s recent output in Shaolin Cowboy and Dark Horse Presents, Browne’s work in this first issue is an explosion of uninhibited creative energy.
The plot is utterly absurd—an army of superheroes and bear soldiers launch an assault on a gang of renegade astronaut farmers while an alien planet prepares to wage war with Earth—but that’s just the vessel for delivering wacky action high jinks that play out like a combination of Looney Tunes and Preacher as interpreted by Jack Kirby.
Working on the art teams of Image titles like The Manhattan Projects and Bedlam gave Browne the opportunity to sharpen his craft as a draftsman, and the visuals in this new first issue of God Hates Astronauts are a considerable step up from his work in the previous volume. Environments are more detailed, characters are more expressive, and the action is more chaotic, with most of this issue focusing on one extended, sprawling fight sequence. Handing colorist duties to Jordan Boyd, Browne can devote more time to his linework, and that extra attention makes for a polished and energetic final product.
Browne’s hilarious hand-lettered sound effects are the final key ingredient in this title’s comedic recipe, adding an extra level of irreverence to the proceedings. Strange, surprising, and a lot of fun, God Hates Astronauts is an exciting addition to Image’s already diverse publishing line-up, and readers looking for something different will definitely want to seek out this first issue. [OS]