Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Somewhere in Times Square, Steve Ditko sits in a studio apartment, working. Now 80, the artist who co-created Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, The Question, and other characters gives no interviews and—after getting the same corporate short shrift familiar to so many comics creators—has refused on principle, on multiple opportunities, to profit from his past work. Ditko's reasoning can be traced back to his fierce adherence to, and strict interpretation of, Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy, with its embrace of purity, genius, and the expression thereof in the free market. Written by Blake Bell, Strange And Stranger: The World Of Steve Ditko (Fantagraphics), follows Ditko's story from his youth in Johnstown, Pennsylvania through fame at Marvel to his current, largely self-chosen obscurity. Bell is insightful both when it comes to Ditko's art—showing why his pages work—when addressing his life, as well as the intersection between the two. As Objectivism became central to Ditko, it leached into his heroes as well, to the point where their black-and-white morality became unpublishable in the mainstream. By the '80s, Ditko was laboring in the lowest ranks on titles like Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos while pursuing a purer vision on his own time, imagining a purer world without moral ambiguity while the rest of the world wondered what happened to him. The only problem with Bell's excellent coffee-table treatment is it makes it easy to wish for the thicker volume that Ditko deserves, even if he wouldn't want it… A

Writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips' Criminal series isn't an easy fit in the comics marketplace. It's an ongoing series featuring self-contained arcs united (so far, at least) only by their unmistakable noir trappings. Fortunately, that makes each volume an equally excellent starting place for new readers than the last. The new collection Criminal: The Dead And The Dying (Marvel/Icon) is the team's best to date. A three-part story with a fractured chronology set in the early '70s, it shares its predecessors' ability to present familiar noir elements without a hint of cliché. Criminal is a tale filled with ugly deeds, in which a disturbed Vietnam vet collides with a femme fatale and an up-and-coming black boxer in an uneasy lifelong friendship with a white mobster. The story has been told before, but the sympathy Brubaker and Phillips elicit for characters living in a place that punishes innocence gives it a thuddingly tender power… A

The recent trend of compiling the complete runs of Golden Age newspaper comic strips has been a treat for many comics fans, who now finally get to understand the popular appeal and enduring influence of titles that have been degraded over the years by creator-switches and adaptations. The Complete Little Orphan Annie Volume One: Will Tomorrow Ever Come? (IDW) isn't the revelation that Drawn & Quarterly's Gasoline Alley reprints have been, because Annie creator Harold Gray had neither the drafting nor dialogue skills of Frank King. (Who does?) But even though Little Orphan Annie relies on crude melodrama and shameless populism, it's as addictive now as it must have been in the '20s. In the first three months of the strip alone, Annie goes from being a picked-on waif at a draconian orphanage to being taken "on trial" by a neglectful society dame with a kindly husband, "Daddy" Warbucks. Then, when "Daddy" leaves on business, Mrs. Warbucks deposits Annie right back at the orphanage. Will she be able to get word to "Daddy?" Will someone else adopt her? Will she keep her good heart and plucky spirit through all these ordeals? The Complete Little Orphan Annie offers ample reasons to keep turning the pages—from Gray's republican faith in the essential goodness of hardworking Americans to colorful Annie exclamations like "Hot alligator!" and "Hoppin' horoscopes!"—but the main reason the strip still works is that it puts its heroine and her fans through the wringer day after day, and it's all-but-impossible to quit reading until we know that dear little optimist is going to be okay…A

Dark Horse is planning to release a volume soon containing every Li'l Abner comic strip that featured an appearance by the Shmoo, Al Capp's fictional blob-like animal that reproduces asexually, is easy to take care of, is highly affectionate and helpful, and tastes delicious. As a teaser for the book to come, Dark Horse is offering Shmoo: The Complete Comic Books, which contains the six issues of Shmoo Comics that Capp's own publishing company produced in 1949 and 1950 to capitalize on the merchandising phenomenon that the Shmoo had become. The comic books weren't written or drawn by Capp (or any of his top assistants) and they show little of the wit, artistry, or satirical bite of Li'l Abner at its best. Frankly, Dark Horse might've done better to hold the book back until after they released the strip collection, as a kind of footnote. Still, The Complete Comic Books is a necessary purchase for Capp completists, if only for Denis Kitchen's detailed annotations, which take into account the historical and cultural context of everything from offhand jokes to toy ads… B-

Continuing a color-coded series exploring Marvel heroes' early days (it began with Daredevil: Yellow and carried on with Spider-Man: Blue and Hulk: Gray), writer Jeph Loeb and artist Tim Sale have teamed up for Captain America: White (Marvel). Like its predecessors, the first issue stays just on the right side of sentimental, while spotlighting Sale's gorgeously expressive cartooning. Loeb's writing has seemed overextended of late, but he tends to bring his best work to his Sale collaborations. This first issue, numbered zero, is officially a preview, but it bodes well for the proper series to come… B

Sale fans will also want to clear off room on their coffee tables for the expanded edition of Tim Sale: Black And White (Image), an art-filled retrospective spanning his work from a high-school obsession with Olivia Hussey in Romeo And Juliet to the art he produced for Heroes. Commentary and surprisingly frank interviews with Sale break up the pretty pictures… A-

Anyone familiar with the band My Chemical Romance would probably expect an extension of its pop-goth sensibility in the comics work of lead singer Gerard Way. It's there in the Way-written, Gabriel Bá-drawn six-issue miniseries The Umbrella Academy, collected in the trade The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite (Dark Horse). But it's only part of a jumble of elements in a series that's part X-Men and part The Royal Tenenbaums, with uniforms and talking chimps. The story of seven super-powered kids whose makeshift family reunites, mostly, after the death of their adoptive father, the series is at its best when it focuses on the slyly witty possibilities of the scenario, and at its worst when the plot and characters reveal themselves as a bit too thinly conceived. Still, it's a promising start for a project that's clearly more than just a diversion from Way's day job. And Bá's Mike Mignola-inspired art is a pleasure… B-


The Luna brothers' new series The Sword just keeps getting better as its mythology unfolds. There isn't much to say about The Sword Volume 1: Fire (Image) except that it collects the first six stellar issues, it's a chance for people to catch up if they missed the early issues, and it's time to jump on board… A

Tom Corwin's "visual novel" Mr. Fooster Traveling On A Whim (Doubleday) is neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring; a slight, breezy illustrated story about a man wandering around having odd experiences, it has some of the fluffy-minded New Ageism of a bad Richard Bach novel, and some of the fleetness of a good poem. As the titular Mr. Fooster takes one long, surreal foot journey after another, he encounters a giant insect on one trip, and transforms into a tree on another. Armed with a plastic bottle of soap-bubbles that take on unlikely, expansive forms, he meets challenges with an abstracted, distinctly magical air. If Corwin's words were more lavishly illustrated, this would make a fine children's picture book; instead, Craig Frazier's textured black and white drawings, made up of tiny ink cross-hatches, give the book a stark, sophisticated, adult feel. Question is how much of an audience there is for picture books for grown-ups… B-


The second volume of an initially compelling story about superhero angst, After The Cape II: All Falls Down (Shadowline) drops the ball with a resounding thud. In volume one, gravity-controlling superhero Ethan Falls gave in to alcoholism, losing his position in the super-team the United Heroes, and becoming a super-criminal to make ends meet. Volume two is a lengthy wallow in miserablism, executed in close, personal detail and illustrated with the razor-edged black and white contrast of a noir film. Ethan's betrayed erstwhile friends hunt him, his beloved wife judges and rejects him, his new allies use him to horrifying ends, and a bloodbath results. And then the story ends abruptly with a panel of him seeking counseling at AA, and a note explaining that there was going to be a third volume, but that this one really sees Ethan to the end of his plot arc. Given all the civilians and superheroes killed because of his actions, and the way the world permanently changes for the worse because of him, a little remorse at the end isn't just too little too late, it's flabbergastingly insufficient and unsatisfying, and the pompous text promise "…in the end, we think he's going to be okay" misses the point entirely by making the story entirely about him, and not the broken family and heroless world his choices created. Imagine an Empire Strikes Back that cut the Star Wars series forever short with the end title "Oh, later they rescued Han and things were fine," and you'll come close to the shocking disappointment of this book… C-

With the success of the Flight books, more and more publishers keep stepping up to bat with similarly lovely collections of whimsical stories that encourage illustrators and animators to let their imaginations run wild on short stories that showcase their visual talents. Out Of Picture 2: Art From The Outside Looking In (Villard) basically is another Flight book, but with a different editor and a larger format; the stories range from some cute animal silliness about hungry alligators and orange elephants to a sad story about a Japanese human weapon who ended a war, but is too dangerous to keep around in peacetime. The coherence and quality of the stories range widely, but the art is virtually all magnificent, with an emphasis on strong colors and bold stylization. Possibly the most revisitable is "Under Pressure" by art designer Michael Knapp, who turns the story of a secret world below a mine into a breathtaking exercise in color and subtle suggestions of haunting, creepy shapes. But with the bar raised so high, it's hard for any one artist to claim a solo shot at the gold. Scrambled Ink, a similar anthology specifically resulting from a trip that Dark Horse Comics president and publisher Mike Richardson made to DreamWorks Animation, doesn't fare quite as well, because the book's odd shape (10.5"x7") is limiting and the contents range more widely; where the Flight books are pointedly all-ages and Out Of Picture comes close, Scrambled Ink ranges from an animal fable that could easily double as a children's picture book (David G. Derrick's "Kadogo") to a weird female-anatomy-obsessed travelogue (Ennio Torresan's "The Guy From Ipanema") to J.J. Villard's all-but-unreadable id explosion, which mixes EC Comics horror with graffiti visuals, incoherent poetry, and asylum-worthy overlapping Day-Glo scrawls. Most of the entries look like Dreamworks film storyboards; Villard's looks like a dozen headachy noise-experiment album covers. The combination of kindergartener material and adults-only material it going to make it particularly hard for Scrambled Ink to find an audience… Out Of Picture: A; Scrambled Ink: B-


Speaking of book sizes, Keith Knight's The Complete K Chronicles (Dark Horse) is mostly notable for its format; much of this material has been collected before, but only in tiny books that seriously cramp Knight's style. This big, chunky 8.5"x11" book gives his scrawls room to sprawl. Knight's ideas are all over the place—he's a political cartoonist, an autobiographical artist, and a stand-up-style humorist in equal measure, documenting everything from the black urban experience in America to a lighthearted running series of "life's little victories." His work is dense and meaty—think "Life In Hell" back when Matt Groening packed every panel with as many words as possible—but drawn and lettered with a loose expressiveness, an utterly appealing sense of snarky but sincere humor, and a self-mocking friendliness that invites readers in on the jokes of his life, even when he's seriously pissed about them. He sometimes comes across like an Aaron McGruder who happens to be chronicling the adventures of a single hard-partying, idiocy-encountering adult instead of a band of precocious children, but he goes surreal and silly as often as serious and confrontational. It's a blast to see these cartoons again in a large, far more readable format, but really, it's a blast to see them all together in one place, period… A

Another big, chunky brick of a book collecting material that it's wonderful to see all in one place: Scud: The Disposable Assassin—The Whole Shebang (Image) gathers all of Rob Schrab's series about a surprisingly human robot assassin, from his birth as he steps out of a vending machine and receives his targeting instructions to the hard-to-find, long-out-of-print The Yellow Horseman-era issues to this year's long-awaited four-issue wrap-up arc. By turns manic, funny, grim, and just plain overwhelmingly insane, Scud has long been an underground and sometimes under-served phenomenon. Here's hoping that the full package—complete with an unexpected but welcome sentimental ending, rather than the bleak one that the book's somewhat nihilistic, psychotic tone often seemed to promise—finds a wider audience… A


Newbies approaching Richard Starkings' compelling but flawed Elephantmen through the Image trades may wind up a bit baffled by the two that are labeled as "volume one," especially since both books provide heavy background on the Elephantmen universe that Starkings has expanded from the Hip Flask series, about an anthropomorphic hippopotamus detective. Quick primer: Elephantmen Vol. 1: Wounded Animals is a better intro to the series than Elephantmen: War Toys Vol. 1, even though War Toys coughs up much more backstory about the hybrid soldiers—hippo-men, gator-men, giraffe-men, rhino-men, etc.—created to cleanse the earth with fire after a devastating plague. War Toys Vol. 1 lays out their whole origin, but the script is frustratingly repetitive and purple, overwhelming much of the art with overwritten phrases that come up time and again. (Yes, yes, the elephantmen are heartless soldiers who never knew love or family. We get it already.) The narrative is frustratingly choppy and mostly lacks a central character or focus, and the muddy black and white hinders the otherwise beautifully drawn art. Wounded Animals (the hardcover is out; a softcover follows in August) is even choppier—it focuses on various elephantmen as they try to integrate into a fearful but fascinated society later on, but it rarely stays with any one character for long, and it stretches out the latest Hip Flask plotline without resolving anything. But the color is as brilliant as the art, and instead of a lack of strong personality, it brings in a welter of them, and a fractured portrait of a fascinating world that's destined to look fabulous on the big screen someday if superhero-movie fatigue doesn't kick in too hard. Essentially, War Toys Vol. 1 is an old-fashioned war comic in which combat is a character itself, while Wounded Animals is a portrait gallery and a launching point for more to come. Meanwhile, Captain Stoneheart And The Truth Fairy is a prestige hardcover release of a fanciful fable told between characters. Joe Kelly's story about a hippo-man pirate is beautifully illustrated, sad, and funny, and it stands well on its own, but it reproduces an issue already contained in Wounded Animals, and has nothing to do with the larger Elephantmen continuity. Then again, it also includes an audio version of the story on CD. And meanwhile, the series continues in issue form… Wounded Animals: B; War Toys 1: C+; Truth Fairy B+

Simone Lia's Fluffy (Dark Horse) is a deeply odd book that becomes surreal simply by never examining its basic premise: a diffident, self-hating man living with a James Kolchaka-esque blobby rabbit which he treats as a son. The bunny, Fluffy, acts like a child, demanding ice cream and attention, accidentally destroying things, and showing remorse only so much as his antics get him into trouble. He seems to think he is a child; he reacts with annoyance and denial any time someone points out that he's just a bunny. Lia's plot gets fairly baroque, with entire pages devoted solely to fleshing out minor characters or examining the leads' inner lives in detail, but Fluffy himself remains a mystery, and so does the point of her quiet, visually simple, weird little book… B


The cover of Glen Brunwick's Killing Girl: A Sister's Love (Image) pretty much sums up the contents: A crudely drawn woman with giant hips and a miniscule waist, dressed only in a vague attempt at a bikini and a gigantic gun, stands surrounded by corpses. That's about as deep as the clichéd, exploitative action-movie plot goes, too. Kidnappee, rape victim, former prostitute, and now tough-gal assassin Sara accidentally comes in contact with the life she lost in childhood, as she encounters her sister again. (Sample script moment: "Over the years… The lies they fed me. They made me forget. But no more. That girl over there is my sister!") Shoot 'Em Up-style action follows, complete with gratuitous nudity, a lot of posturing, and some eye-rolling dialogue. Frank Espinoza's eye-hurting art on the first two of the collected five issues consists of wild washes of color and black slashes suggesting characters so stylized that they barely have bodies in some panels, and don't have faces in others. Toby Cypress takes over with issue three, keeping the color washes and adding in pencilly, fine-lined characters distorted to the point of ugliness. Both styles are sketchy and stylized to the point where it's hard to tell what's going on half the time, but the plot is so movie-obvious that it's hard to care, either… D

The collected Dust trade, also from Image, has less of the former problem—Paolo Parente's art is rich and complicated, somewhat resembling Massimiliano Frezzato's work, and presented in fall-into-our-world color. But the story is half exploitation and half collection of random tropes: The whole plot could be summed up as "Half-naked woman! Russians! Nazis! Bombs! Guns! Angry gorillas with bombs and guns! Rockets! Mostly naked woman! Zombies! Woooooooooooo!" It doesn't help that the Dust trade only consists of two issues and a bunch of pinup art, further delivering the impression that it's all about pretty pictures and future licensing of the world, and not in any way about narrative. Parente doesn't help much with his emphasis on protruding nipples and the repeated image of the barely realized Russian protagonist hugging her American boyfriend Joe, as her ass falls determinedly out of her pants… C-


Along with Raw Junior's "Toon Books" line, Top Shelf's stable of artists have been doing their part to create comics that aren't just pitched to younger readers, but designed to look and feel like children's books. And it's not always such an easy a trick to pull off. James Kochalka has one of the most kid-friendly styles (and sensibilities) of any cartoonist working today, and yet his children's book Johnny Boo—about a friendly ghost, his pet squiggle, and the Ice Cream Monster that tries to eat them both—suffers from Kochalka's faith in the off-the-cuff over the carefully planned. Johnny Boo looks bright, cute, and colorful, but it's more a scene than a story, and it's hard to imagine too many kids wanting to read it more than once. (It might inspire them to draw their own comics, though.) Far more durable is Corey Barba's Yam: Bite-Size Chunks, which collects the wordless stories Barba has drawn for Nickelodeon Magazine about a hooded-pajama-wearing boy and his unusual woodland friends, including animate versions of virtually every significant inanimate object in his life. Equally inspired by manga, Owly, and the dream-comics of Jim Woodring, Yam is sweet, strange, and easy to read. Bite-Size Chunks is more comic-y than book-y, but if Barba wanted to draw something specifically for the kid-lit market, he'd probably have a hit on his hands… Boo: C; Yam: B+

Even further back than How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way, industry professionals have tried to sell the tricks of the trade to aspiring artists, by making the dynamic figures drawn by the likes of Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko look like a simple matter of sketching ovals and lines, then connecting the dots. Studio Space: The World's Greatest Comic Illustrators At Work (Image) takes a less condescending approach, as Tripwire Annual creators Joel Meadows and Gary Marshall talk with the likes of Frank Miller, Walt Simonson, Tim Sale, and Howard Chaykin (and 14 other legends) about how they work, where they work, and what got them into comics in the first place. Studio Space doesn't offer many practical tips, but the art looks beautiful, and the artists' ruminations are refreshingly straightforward. Even comics fans with no interest in becoming pros should enjoy hanging out with these pencil-pushers…A-


Writer Brian Wood and artist Ryan Kelly have titled their latest contribution to the teen-girl-focused Minx line The New York Four, but the book is really all about one. Riley Wilder is a text-messaging-addicted, shy-and-studious NYU student who's adjusting to Manhattan life by finding three new friends and a secret boyfriend—and by reconnecting with her estranged sister over the objections of their strict Brooklyn parents. Wood's little asides about the coolest NYC hangouts and parks have a lot of charm, and Kelly has a good grasp both of character and location, but The New York Four washes out at the narrative level, recapitulating the kind of family squabbles and simplistic romantic melodrama that even the lamest indie filmmaker would reject as too corny. This book feels more like the overlong first issue for an ongoing series, but if Wood and Kelly decide to continue on with these characters, they'll need to take into account all four of the people in the title, and give each of them something more original to do.C-

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