After EC had been forced out of the comics business in the mid-’50s, the company saved itself with a black-and-white, magazine-sized life preserver called MAD. (You may have heard of it?) MAD was a success before and after shifting to magazine format with issue #24. The problem with this success was that it emboldened MAD’s creator, Harvey Kurtzman, to ask for a bigger share of the magazine’s rights: He asked for 51 percent of the magazine. EC’s publisher, William Gaines, was willing to compromise, but unwilling to give up a controlling stake in the blockbuster magazine that had saved his family business. Kurtzman walked out, taking MAD’s most famous artists and writers with him, confident that he could leverage his success with EC into similar success elsewhere.
Despite his talent, his confidence proved to be misplaced. Successive magazine efforts Trump and Humbug folded in short order, due to a combination of Kurtzman’s lack of business acumen and problematic partnerships with Hugh Hefner (on Trump) and shady publisher Charlton (on Humbug). Jungle Book (Dark Horse) came at the tail end of a period of creative and commercial disappointment for Kurtzman. His tenure at MAD was revered and his name commanded respect across the industry, but his career was undercut by a string of bad business decisions. He was a married father of three who needed the stability of a regular income. Ballantine Books, who had previously made a great deal of money publishing paperback reprints of the early Kurtzman MADs, was looking for a replacement after Gaines had revoked its license and took the lucrative MAD reprint business to Signet. The company looked to Kurtzman for more material, and he responded with a pitch for a paperback of all-new original material: what would eventually become Jungle Book.
It would be wonderful to report that Jungle Book was a great success that enabled Kurtzman the freedom to control his own creative destiny for decades to come, but that’s not true. Jungle Book was a failure that never earned its royalties back for its creator. Kurtzman was eventually forced to return to Hefner, spending much of the rest of his life producing the T&A strip Little Annie Fanny for Playboy. But among those who had bought a copy, Jungle Book quietly became one of the most influential comics ever printed.
This was 1959: There was no such thing as a “graphic novel,” and the closest American comic books had come to any kind of artistic respectability had been the zenith of EC Comics just a few years previous. Jungle Book was cast in the mold of the early MADs, with two specific parodies accompanied by two more general comedic sketches. “Thelonius Violence” spoofed then-popular TV detective Peter Gunn, while “Compulsion On The Range” skewered Gunsmoke. “The Organization Man In The Gray Flannel Executive Suit” is a parody of the ascendant post-war corporate culture that would later become the target of the early seasons of Mad Men, while “Decadence Degenerated” targeted the idiocies of small-town rural life, with all its sexism, racism, and ignorance. It’s the last two stories that retain the most interest, representing different facets of Kurtzman’s biography—his formative years spent working in the world of exploitive men’s magazines, and his military service stationed in Paris, Texas during World War II, respectively.
Kurtzman’s strengths as a cartoonist and a satirist are well served by the format. His desperation, sadly, infuses the stories with a particular energy and bite. While the TV parodies retain some interest (“Thelonius Violence,” in particular, is effective at least in part because many of the generic signifiers it lampoons are still operative today), it’s the two caustically bitter semi-autobiographical stories that form the core of the book’s reputation. The book came out at just the right time to influence all the underground cartoonists who were just a few years away from making their own stamp on the post-MAD world of bitter and caustic humor cartooning. Dark Horse, allied with longtime Kurtzman publisher Denis Kitchen, has done an admirable job of reprinting one of the medium’s most important missing links, and its new edition belongs on the shelf of everyone with even a passing interest in the history of American comics. [Tim O’Neil]
Michael DeForge opens his 2015 account with First Year Healthy (Drawn & Quarterly), a 30-page print edition of his illustrated prose story charting the year of a young woman after her release from the hospital after a mental-health related “episode.” The details of said episode are left oblique, but her efforts to reintegrate are stymied by a small-town mentality in which everyone knows her, knows what happened, and resultantly maintain a wide berth. She’s acutely aware of this wary ostracizing, and what it would mean were she to relapse: “After the first time, people would want to help. They’d be sympathetic. But a relapse would be met with revulsion—anger, even.”
Her new label and its associated stigma lead her into a relationship with another “outsider,” a Turkish immigrant who she meets at the fish market at which her brothers find her a job. Her brothers are superficially supportive, but not enough, she notes, to invite her into their homes and introduce her to their families. Over the course of 12 months, she loses her job; “the Turk” supports them by spiraling further into organized crime until he disappears; he leaves her with his child from another woman, who they’d taken in after the mother’s death. But, as you would expect from DeForge, things aren’t that straightforward.
As the story moves from fable to crime to horror to a distinctly Christmas-y crescendo—involving a relentless feast, a sacrificial, literally bloody Turk(ey), the refusal of refuge, and a snowy, Christ-like rebirth—DeForge melds together the isolation, struggles, and treatment of the mentally ill, with a sardonically pithy take-down of the “spirit of the season” which culminates into a tale of magic and lore. At the midst of it all is a mysterious, strange-looking, phoenix-like “holy cat,” with a fiery, blazing mane, reminiscent of the woman’s own, who watches and waits outside the woman’s home, seeming to grow steadily, in readiness for the opportune moment.
DeForge’s illustrations, more restrained in color (no bright neons) and depiction here, are never graphic but always unsettling enough to push the reader beyond the obvious conclusion. His art, in tandem with the brief, considered paragraphs of prose on each page, builds a contained tension and a lyrical quality that sets and anchors a disquieting tone and atmosphere. His figures are Brunetti-esqe: round, large heads, tiny bodies, very precise. He uses a lot of pattern and texture, his composition deliberate—everything neatly laid out—that adds to the gradually oppressive feeling, whilst simultaneously providing interest and a richer experience.
There’s a stunning page of the baby in a womb-like chasm of black framed by leafy, woven wood branches with fat, heavy, tumor-looking cherries against a soft blue background; the lush beauty of nature married with its inevitable, indifferent gruesomeness. First Year Healthy reads smoothly, its striking art cause for pause and contemplation, offering possibilities and interpretations to be gleaned. It may mean this, it could mean that; it probably means both, and something else besides. And that’s the beauty of DeForge. [Zainab Akhtar]
During a conversation with the editors of MASSIVE: Gay Erotic Manga And The Men Who Make It (Fantagraphics), mangaka Kazuhide Ichikawa has a surprising answer when asked about the importance of pornography in gay manga: “It can save lives!” This may sound like a bloated response, but the truth of his statement is on display throughout the pages of this handsomely designed, meticulously researched title. Pornography “substantiates gay existence by allowing it to exist in narrative form,” and the nine artists spotlighted by editors Chip Kidd, Graham Kolbeins, and Anne Ishii (who also translates the comics and interviews) have used their erotic work to form their sexual identities in a culture where homosexuality isn’t widely accepted.
MASSIVE does contain plenty of sexually explicit, fetishistic erotica, but it’s far more than just a collection of pornographic stories starring the types of burly, meaty men that are nowhere to be found in yaoi. That’s the selling point, sure, but what makes this such an invaluable anthology is right there in the title: the focus on “the men who make it.” Each creator is interviewed and photographed, offering insights into the reality of being a gay man in contemporary Japan. Some artists are still closeted and refuse to have their faces photographed, while others are much more open about their sexuality; some take inspiration from their personal lives for their work while others use erotica to create sexual fantasies far distanced from reality.
There are a few things everyone agrees upon: piracy and unsanctioned scanlations are damaging to the industry and “bara” is a very outdated term with derogatory roots, often compared to “pansy” in English. With magazines fading in popularity, these artists are having more trouble finding outlets for their work that pay well, and while digital distribution may hold the key to a financially lucrative future, it also poses its fair share of problems. These men are struggling with many of the same issues faced by any number of creators trying to survive in a shifting comic-book landscape, but they’re doing so while challenging the sexual status quo of their culture through provocative works of art.
So how’s the sex? It’s hot, strange, scary, awkward, intense, violent, and even hilarious at times. From the militaristic brutality of Gengoroh Tagame to the goofy office humor of Kumada Poohsuke, animalistic lust of Jiraiya, and mystical sexcapades of Fumi Miyabi, MASSIVE highlights a diverse array of creators that interpret the erotic through their own distinct perspectives. The body types, fetishes, and visual styles change from artist to artist, but it’s clear that each man has a huge appreciation of the male form. When it comes to action storytelling, MASSIVE doesn’t have action in the conventional sense, but there’s no shortage of dynamic visuals as these bodies get physical. Just like any other great pieces of art, these stories are outlets for unbridled creative expression, and that personal connection delivers some incredibly passionate pornography. [Oliver Sava]
Just three issues in, Gotham By Midnight (DC) has some high expectations to shoulder. On one hand, it feels as though the book has been custom-made for fans often left behind by the Big Two publishers: supernatural horror, cop procedural, set in Gotham, with art by Ben Templesmith. On the other, every comics fan knows even something that looks like the publisher sent someone on a recon mission into your skull can end up being very different from what you expect. It’s hard to judge a book on the first issue or two, when the team is still finding its sea legs, but Gotham By Midnight has managed to surpass even the highest hopes for a new take on Gotham’s seedy underbelly.
It’s easy, and fair, to compare Gotham By Midnight to Hellboy. There certainly are similarities between the B.P.R.D. and Gotham’s Midnight Shift, but Gotham By Midnight feels more like the legacy of Justice League Dark and Hellblazer. Not a surprise, given that writer Ray Fawkes worked on both the former and the New 52’s Constantine. With Gotham By Midnight #3, Fawkes moves past the story from the first two issues to Gotham County Hospital, where a young girl is exhibiting symptoms of smallpox. Given the subject matter of the book and the fact that her shadow quickly appears to have a mind of its own, it’s a pretty safe assumption that a virus isn’t the real issue at hand.
Templesmith’s art is perfect for this kind of story: Panels manage to feel both lush and claustrophobic, with watercolor palates that look like they’d smell rancid if the pages were scratch-and-sniff. The stakes feel genuinely high as Detectives Corrigan and Drake go out into the field to confront a monster and save a little girl. Even as attention shifts back to the precinct house where Sister Justine and Doctor Tarr try to make progress on translating an unknown language, there is the sense that these things are genuinely important and worth the panel space devoted to them, even if the previous issues’ threat of an Internal Affairs investigation has lost urgency.
Fawkes deftly leaves the reader with more questions than answers, without stooping to a cliff-hanger. The flashbacks, it turns out, are particularly important in this issue: While the first two focused more on Sister Justine, here we get some insight into Lisa Drake and how she came to be part of Corrigan’s team. With a famous last name and the skill set that she shows for the first time in a flashback, it’s difficult to be patient enough to wait for the next issue. Given the creative team, the prospect of seeing familiar faces from Constantine or Justice League Dark or Batman Eternal in these pages is especially exciting. With the steady hands and immense skill Fawkes and Templesmith have demonstrated thus far, having high hopes and higher expectations doesn’t feel nearly as foolhardy as it usually does. [Caitlin Rosberg]