Ed Luce’s Oaf Jadwiga is a study in contrasts, a hulking teddy bear of a man with a sensitive soul and a love for kitten cuddles, who also delights in destroying opponents in the wrestling ring as the Satanic-themed Goteblüd. In his foreword for Wuvable Oaf: Blood & Metal (Fantagraphics), Luce writes about how his comic-book creation allows him to explore the duality of his own personality while tapping into the perverse, violent elements of both comics and wrestling, and the dramatic contrast between Oaf in and out of costume makes him an especially compelling queer character.
The inside front cover of Blood & Metal reveals a mat of thick body hair, which is then splattered with blood on the proceeding pages. The author’s name and the title are written in the expanding pools of blood, beginning the book with visceral intensity that is driven by the more hostile, metal-inspired side of the cartoonist. Even before the comics begin, Luce is using the publication design to create a mood of heightened aggression that he then deflates with the humor of the actual stories. The “Battle Zone” strips that start the book offer a kinky, cheeky look at wrestling action both in the ring and behind the scenes, but then the mood mellows for longer, more personal comics about Oaf and the various members of his supporting cast.
Luce doesn’t get political very often, but when he does, there’s no holding back. Goteblüd’s “Battle Zone” match with Badass United States Hero (B.U.S.H.)—a wrestler with “U.S.A.” shaved into his chest hair, an American flag costume, and bald eagle mask—has Goteblüd blinding his opponent by covering his head with his flag cape and spraying blood all over him. Goteblüd stands over B.U.S.H. and continues the deluge of blood from his goat horns, and Luce presents the image from above so it looks like Goteblüd is also pissing on B.U.S.H. The sequence ends with Goteblüd quoting President George W. Bush with an ironic “mission accomplished” as blood soaks into the American flag, and this one-page strip’s overwhelming fury and anger fully evokes the cartoonist’s feelings toward the second Bush presidency.
The best story in Blood & Metal is “Love Lust Lost,” a textless structural experiment that advances three separate narratives on each page, allowing Luce to play around with composition and color to create distinct atmospheres for each: Oaf’s “love” story has a cheerful pink palette and is dominated by close-up shots that accentuate the intimacy between Oaf and the litter of kittens he plays with on his bathroom floor. Smusherrrr’s “lust” orgy has more shadows and uses medium angles for the action, adding a sense of emotional distance between Smusherrrr and the masked men surrounding him.
Bufu’s “lost” thread is the most dramatic shift, full of dynamic shots of him speeding along a coastal highway, complete with an homage to Shotaro Kaneda’s classic motorcycle skid in Akira. That sense of speed plays an important part in the emotional pay-off of Bufu’s plot, and the specificity of Luce’s storytelling in “Love Lust Lost” represents a step up in ambition that elevates the rest of the stories in the book. “Return Of The Cock Rocker” is an unsettling wrestling showdown with strong graphic elements, and Luce goes wild with heavy metal horror-fantasy design in “Procreation Of The Wicked,” a tribute to Celtic Frost and H.R. Giger. Blood & Metal spotlights how Luce is constantly growing as a cartoonist, and Oaf is the muse that compels Luce to continue pushing himself. [Oliver Sava]
Before Riri Williams, before Moon Girl, before Black Panther, Power Man And Iron Fist, and World Of Wakanda, there was All-New Ghost Rider. Robbie Reyes was one of the few people of color starring in a book of his own; even more importantly, writer Felipe Smith was one of the only people of color working at Marvel. In so many ways, Smith and Robbie were the Blade movies of their time: ahead of everybody else and often unrecognized for the role they played in changing things. Thankfully, Robbie has returned to shelves with Ghost Rider #1 (Marvel), though he doesn’t hit the ground moving as gracefully as he should.
One of the biggest strengths of the All-New Ghost Rider was that it was completely independent from the rest of what Marvel was doing. It gave Smith a freedom to experiment and focus on the characters. The problem with this new start is that right off the bat Smith has to incorporate not only his previous canon but also Amadeus Cho and another big-name character that’s revealed at the very end of the first issue, both of whom are in L.A. for no discernible reason. It’s a clear attempt to drag Robbie into the core of the 616 universe, an unsteady journey and belatedly parallel to his inclusion in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., where he was caught in an emo contest with Daisy Johnson.
Artist Danilo S. Beyruth isn’t a known quantity quite yet, having contributed mostly single issues here and there prior to working on Deadpool V Gambit and Ghost Rider. He’s got a great sense of space and motion, and the backgrounds in his panels are particularly interesting. He also does well with action sequences and full body shots, but his faces can be uneven and inconsistent when they’re soft and close up. Working more closely with colorist Val Staples could improve that, especially when it comes to Robbie and his younger brother Gabe, who can’t look like haggard old men but also shouldn’t look like caricatures. The way Ghost Rider slides up out of the hood of the Hell Charger is great, but Robbie’s chin is really distracting.
What drives home some of the problems with this first issue is that Smith teamed up with All-New Ghost Rider collaborator Tradd Moore for a bonus story. It’s strong and dynamic, with Moore’s signature style at full force, and Smith is at his best when he’s writing Robbie as a young man struggling with his inner (literal) demons and working to support his brother and clean up his community. He was like the old-school Defenders—more concerned with protecting his home than saving the world. Shifting away from that paints Smith into a corner and weakens the book overall. Marvel had a powerhouse team on All-New Ghost Rider that it failed to market well, and now it’s meddling with a winning formula; Marvel needs to let Smith back behind the wheel or its going to run the book into the ground. [Caitlin Rosberg]
With the release in 2007 of I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets!, Fantagraphics reintroduced the world of comics to one of its more endearing oddballs, Fletcher Hanks. His brief career in comics lasted from 1939 to 1941, when Hanks produced only 51 stories. All 51 have been restored and published—half in I Shall Destroy All The Civilized Planets! and the rest in the follow-up You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation! The success of these volumes revealed Hanks to be an unsung pioneer, a talented young artist creating distinctive stories that read like nothing else before or since. They’re weird and primitive, and they hit with contemporary readers for precisely these reasons. Given that much Golden Age material can seem—to modern readers—repetitive and simplistic, the endless imagination on display in Hanks’ work proved that contemporary creators have never held a monopoly on the gleefully strange.
Fantagraphics’ two previous collections have been compiled together into Turn Loose Our Death Rays And Kill Them All! Every story from Hanks’ brief career is represented, along with surviving juvenilia and a few essays. What little is known about Hanks paints a picture of a conflicted man—a brutal abuser who abandoned his family—who was as despicable in real life as his stories were fanciful. He was a trained and talented artist who simplified his style to allow for better reproduction given the primitive printing techniques available at the dawn of the industry. His anatomy is distorted, his faces pulled back into maniacal rictus scowls of pain and loathing. Instead of backgrounds his characters exist against bright fields of primary color, an anxious, jarring universe in which the most fantastic things happened every other minute, usually without explanation or internal logic.
Hanks is remembered primarily for stories involving his two most famous creations, Stardust The Super Wizard and Fantomah. The former is, like Superman, an alien come to Earth to use his abilities for the good of mankind. Unlike Superman, however, Stardust’s range of fanciful powers and abilities changes from moment to moment, according to the needs of the story as well as Hanks’ desire to draw weird stuff. Stardust can turn into a human star, shrink people to the size of babies, soar through vast interstellar distances in the blink of an eye, transform crooks into puddles of water and rats—basically, anything. Fantomah, described as the first-ever superheroine, is an even more bizarre specimen. “The Mystery Woman Of The Jungle” could transform from a buxom blond beauty into a blue-skinned, skull-faced monster ready and willing to wreak vengeance on anyone foolhardy enough to cross her.
Hanks is a footnote in the history of comics, but an endearing footnote whose greatest legacy is the way he so effectively wedded his boundless imagination to an intentionally primitive visual style. He wouldn’t be the first person to approach comics from this angle, and he can count among his direct descendants the likes of Rory Hayes, Mike Diana, and Jonny Negron. It’s a powerful formula and an irresistible one, at least in small doses. [Tim O’Neil]
One of the joys of reading Benjamin Urkowitz comics is the dynamism of his work. He draws bulbous figures, amorphous shapes, and goopy tracts of opaque colors. Everything in his worlds seem positively elastic—as unlikely to burst as they are to stop moving. Everything shares the same squishy bounce as Al Columbia’s Pim & Francie characters, though Urkowitz lacks Columbia’s penchant for shock. This is certainly the thrill of his latest, She’s Done It All! (Hazlitt), a quasi-serial that repurposes and surpasses the formulae of many a Pixar short. It’s organized around a moment or scene rather than a narrative per se, and it hinges on a melodramatic emotional turn—though it’s not as straightforward as all that, either.
Urkowitz composes each of his installments as self-contained beats, and each of the vignettes appears as a paradox—each poetic aside functioning as a modular, autonomous bit; and yet, each one interlocks like puzzle pieces. At their center resides the titular “She.” Urkowitz frames this character as a god, someone who lives lifetimes between moments, who shreds whole planets in a rage, who is everything and nothing. Ultimately, Urkowitz is not telling a story, and none of the installments function as such. They do, however, work as poems; shapes expand and contract, opacities of black and white collide and overlap, and (beautifully lettered) elliptical captions and text wrap themselves around these images. It’s about movement and emotion and the exploration of empathy, loneliness, and emotional self-sufficiency. His viscous figures coagulate and dissipate in lush clashes of ink and negative space, and they do so in simple, geometric, and intuitive page layouts. This aesthetic affect is, seemingly, She’s Done it All!’s highest aspiration. It’s all very non-narrative. And yet, a story does rise to the surface across these different installments. As readers come to know this character, her story begins to take shape around the margins, the unseen bubbling up from the gaps between what is seen.
It’s a curious construction, one that attempts to be both narrative and non-narrative, but, surprisingly, Urkowitz is exceptionally successful. His protagonist moves with aplomb and energy, and watching her do so is a satisfying thrill. Watching her embrace a pair of illusory cosmic giants only to collapse under their weight rends the heart, and the reader truly feels for her in her moments of silent loneliness. There is a delight on an intuitive level, both in the moments of melancholy and in the moments of humor. Urkowitz satisfies his generic needs: to be striking, to be evocative, to be emotionally compelling. And yet he also succeeds by weaving these disparate strands into a beautiful cloth. Piece by piece and bit by bit, readers come to know and understand, and even to be charmed by this ineffable figure. Reading each installment of She’s Done it All! as isolated parts offers an enjoyable experience, but reading them together is one to savor. [Shea Hennum]