Opus 34:

1. Wish Books (8/23)

2. All in Black and White (8/23)

1. Wish Books. In an ancient youth that I mostly don’t intend to bore you with stories about, the Sears Roebuck catalog was called "the wish book" because when it arrived in the fall, we’d pore over its pages, finding things to lust after (and hope for--wish for--come the Yuletide Season). Diamond’s Previews is fandom’s wish book (that and Bud Plant’s Incredible Catalog; but I’ll leave that for another occasion). Once a month, we get to meander through its pages and ponder buying this book or that. Buying everything in a given month--which was once, believe it or not, a possibility, is now entirely out of the question.

First among the wishes that August’s Previews grants come October is Tapestry from Underwood Books: at last, a book of "the paintings of Robert E. McGinnis" (128 10x11-inch pages). Beginning in the 1950s, McGinnis produced paperback book covers for an astounding 1,500 books--plus, we gather, scores of movie posters and the like. And his portraits of the curvaceous gender embodied (you should pardon the expression) a certain kind of sophisticated sex appeal--often evoking Sophia Loren or Bridget Bardot, for instance. And now, for a mere $30, I can fill my eye with 123 of his images. Maybe, even, I can stop scouring the shelves of secondhand paperbacks for copies of Carter Brown’s mysteries, which were often covered by McGinnis women. And Brett Halliday and M.E. Cather and Richard S. Prather.

Then another wish: Danger Girl No. 7. At last, the "conclusion" to the adventure that the first six issues launched us on. Alas, this may be the last: eternal pessimist that I am, I thought Scott Campbell and Andy Hartnell’s work was simply too good to last in the comic book medium. At least, the inaugural tale will be finished--in an "extra-length" issue. And then, doubtless, it’s off to the richer venues of Hollywood, I suppose. Sigh.

What the funnybook biz needs is more passionate comics creators like Frank Miller and Todd McFarlane and Erik Larsen--the blokes who stick with the medium even when they might have left it for greener pa$ture$ in other media.

Larsen, by the way, is now well into his "new chapter" of Savage Dragon epic. With No. 76 of that title, Larsen asserts: "A lot of folks in the comic book business talk about what’s working and what isn’t in comics. I’ve made it no secret where I think we have gone wrong and rather than simply talk about it--I’m going to DO something about it."

Contending that too many comics (Savage Dragon included) cater to long-time readers with convoluted continuities that connect vast runs of the title, Larsen destroyed the Dragon’s world in No. 75 and began again with No. 76, promising that each successive issue will be "far more coherent and inviting to new readers."

But I am suspicious. Looking at Nos. 76 and 77 and the mock Marvel-style covers and Kirby-style breakdowns inside, I wonder if ol’ Erik isn’t setting us up for one of his hugely hilarious send-ups of one sort or another. Admittedly neither issue requires an encyclopedic recall of previous adventures and both are rousing action episodes, so that objective is realized. But in the routine six-panel page layouts, I miss some of Larsen’s most distinctive treatments--pacing and dramatizing with the sizes, shapes, and number of panels, for instance. And the inking seems tighter, too.

Oh, well. We’ll see.

In the meantime, those of us whose affection for Danger Girl is wholly unrequited by the dearth of material from Campbell and company can find solace at Avatar, to which, starting with October’s release, writer David Campiti and artist Al Rio are moving their Exposure series. This title, which ran to a half-dozen issues at Image, will resume with a summarizing debut issue in which, doubtless, we’ll be told that it retails the adventures of two toothsome lovelies, a former cop named Shawna Diaz, and her childhood friend, Lisa Shannon, who has a mysterious ability to link with the paranormal. Forming a partnership called ParaTech Research, this charming duo hires out to explore supernatural phenomena in the manner of X-Files. But with a difference.

The difference is that Diaz and Shannon look like Campbell’s cast. But with a difference. And the difference is that Diaz and Shannon are much more fashion conscious (Fredericks of Hollywood fashion, I mean), and the foes they encounter seem invariably to involve supernatural gusts of wind that instantly reduce their fashion statements to shreds.

But all this is achieved with tongue-in-cheek humor. What sort of humor? Well, in No. 2 of the Image series, for example, we encounter Lisa just awakening one morning, arching her back and stretching her lovely limbs over both pages of a two-page spread. She’s wearing only underwear, hose, and high-heel shoes.

High heel shoes!? This is sleepwear? Apparently Campiti noticed Rio’s visual gaffe here but pre-empted reader criticism with Shawna’s line, who says, bringing in breakfast on a tray, "I see you slept in your shoes again--your upbringing is showing through." And later we get hints about a strange shoe fetish in Lisa’s past.

A fun series, tovarich--fast-paced breathless action, feminine preoccupations abounding, and plenty of shredded attire.

Elsewhere in the same issue of the Wish Book, we find some other goodies poised on the cusp of appearance in what I am dubbing--"The Department of Inevitability." It had to happen: Harley Quinn gets her own title, someone gets the rights to reprint all of the Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder Little Annie Fanny, and the Mattel folks get to put out a Barbi for See’s Candy (the best chocolate candy anywhere but usually available only on the West Coast).

Harley Quinn’s introduction in the pages of Mad Love a few years back was a refreshing comedic change of pace. Her subsequent appearances in the animated style were equally charming because of her elfin appearance and acrobatic demeanor. And now here comes the "realistic" Harley Quinn, basketballs balanced on her chest in alternating red and black. In this version, as I’ve said before (when she first appeared in this guise behind a cover by Alex Ross), she’s no different than a dozen other heroines in tight-fitting tutus. And all it proves is what hasn’t needed proving in the American marketplace since the September Morn calendar: sex sells.

In the realistic incarnation, it’s not likely to be Harley Quinn’s demented sense of humor that captures our hearts. Nope. If that ingredient spelled box office success, the Joker would have had his own regular title long ago. It’s sex appeal. Harley Quinn looks better on funnybook covers than the Joker. Or the Penguin. Or Two-face. Or any other male malefactor, none of whom have double-bubble bosoms.

But realistically rendered, Harley Quinn loses huge helpings of her charm; she’ll be just another pair.

It had to happen, though: fandom is too populous with adolescent male readers for the producers of comic books to resist exploiting the potential. So we’ll see how it works this time.

Meanwhile, Dark Horse has negotiated rights to reprint all 400 pages of Playboy’s star comic stripper, Little Annie Fanny. In two volumes ($24.95 each; the first is due in late November). And this time, the contents will be complete, start to finish, something neither of the previous (1969 and 1972) compilations achieved.

The recent reincarnation of the embonpoint female Candide by Bill Schorr and Ray Lago bounced along splendidly for a few outings before bumping up against hiatus. Schorr left the feature, but Lago continues plugging away with brush and bottles of paint.

The intervals between Annie’s adventures in the Kurtzman-Elder era were similarly elongated. The more the strip appeared, the more changes and modifications and tinkerings editor Hugh Hefner required. All of which took time--time that is a premium with a painstakingly slow worker like Will Elder. (It’s no secret: he told me he was slow.)

As for the See’s Barbi--well, those of you on the western edge of the continent will doubtless rejoice to see her resplendent in black and white, the house colors, and legs that go on forever. No chocolate in sight, though.

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2. All in Black-and-White. Here’s Paul Grist’s British book, Jack Staff No. 1 (Dancing Elephant Press, $2.95), where we meet reporter Becky Burdock, a quartet of superheroes including Jack Staff and Sgt. States, three investigators (dubbed "Q") of the inexplicable, and a rash of murders in which the victims’ blood is drained out of them. Grist is a master at conjuring up and sustaining mood while creating suspense at the end of nearly every page. At the end of No. 1, Grist leaves us in considerable doubt as to whether Jack Staff might be Jack the Ripper, returned for a new round of grisly mayhem in London’s alleys. Grist’s earlier series Kane, was a tour de force--masterfully varied page layouts for visual variety and narrative impact, starkly contrasting black and white, dramatic use of shadow, exquisite pacing--in short, a minor masterpiece of the cartoonist’s artistry and a nifty thriller of a cops-and-robbers story, too. (And still available from Dancing Elephant Press, P.O. Box 2363, Wells, BA5 1YQ, England, in albums collecting four issues each.) And Jack Staff is full of the same stuff--good stuff, crisp and clean linework, stunning black-and-white, terse verbiage, superb comics storytelling.

In Jim Mahfood’s Stupid Comics No. 1 (from Oni, $2.95), we can watch Mahfood’s distinctive drawing style mature from 1998 to 2000. This book reprints at the rate of one-to-a-page comic strips he did (does) for Robert Sentinery’s coffee shop ‘zine, Java, in which Mahfood himself appears occasionally; ditto Sentinery. The comedy on display here retails the sort of nihilist attitude that lurks in the slacker subculture, sneering at "frat boys, politicians, and blood-sucking corporations" while glorifying hip-hop and ravers (although Mahfood isn’t too sure about the latter either). But it’s Mahfood’s drawing style that emerges as the superior ingredient. Minimalist throughout, the earlier strips feature a bolder line, and although his humor transpires mostly via static talking heads in the manner of Feiffer, he renders faces as cryptic designs, which makes watching all this a treat. If you’ve seen Mahfood only in Clerks, try him here before he got complicated; you’ll like it.

Nobody does autobiographical comics like Keith Knight. Nobody. And for evidence, we offer 120 exhibits from as many pages of Fear of a Black Marker, Knight’s latest opus from Manic D Press (P.O. Box 410804, San Francisco, CA 94141; $11.95). Knight has been doing a little strip (weekly, I suspect) for a variety of small newspapers for some years now (and at www.Salon.com and in the San Francisco Examiner). Called K Chronicles, the strip records various of the cartoonist’s adventures and sundry of his opinions about life on this planet. Nothing here of the dull ennui we find in so many slacker autobiographies. Nope: this is funny, edgy, pointed stuff. Satirical comment served up with Jerry Lewis panache. Knight draws in a manic simplified Harvey-Kurtzman-Hey-Look style that permits visual exaggeration to create both comedy and commentary. And Knight laces his panels with sight gags.

The cover will give you an idea. Here’s an African (Knight is African American--the "Black Marker" of the book’s title, tovarich) seated on a rattan throne, naked except for white underpants. He clutches a giant pencil in one hand like a scepter; in the other hand, an equally huge felt-tip marker. He wears a beanie atop his dredlocks. On his feet, pink bunny slippers. Self-deprecating humor galore. And then there’s the introduction by Knight’s parents, who, asked by an off-camera inquisitor about their son’s achievements as he grew up, decline to accept any responsibility for his "sordid sense of humor" and point at each other by way of blaming the other. Under the last panel, the caption tells us "the artist’s parents are divorced."

In one of Knight’s usual formats, the strip presents a succession of visuals, each dealing with some whacked-out aspect of his subject, all of which culminate in a final jolt of satirical hilarity. Once, he attempts to explain why men envy dogs, beginning with a reference to dogs’ propensity to lick their privates and progressing to the concluding panel in which a dog is crowding a nun with his nose (sniffing at her crotch, we suppose, in the usual manner of dogs everywhere; but Knight is discretion incarnate and pictures only the top halves of his victims here, eyeballs bulging, mouths agape in horror). Men want to be dogs because dogs get to do things men would be arrested for. The final caption: "Dogs are like Star Trek: they boldly go where no man has gone before." And that’s why we envy our four-legged friends. Observations like these justify Garry Trudeau’s back cover comment: "Keith Knight is mapping out a previously unknown vector of the vast cartoon universe."

A new vector indeed. Knight files reports on McDonald’s in Paris where they serve beer, the upstairs neighbors whose housekeeping habits are so nonchalant that they don’t realize one of their roommate’s head is in the commode (a "head" in the "head," get it?), a turkey tricked into thinking the oven is a tanning bed at Thanksgiving, eight signs you’re gonna have a bad day (the eighth is a NATO air strike on your neighborhood).

But you have to see it to believe it. Would I lie to you? So arrange to see it, aristotle.

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