Opus 39:

1. Adult Comics (10/18)

2. Not Quite Legendary Steranko (10/18)

3. Applause and Pitfalls (10/18)

1. Adult Comics. In a demonstration of just how adult comics can be, we have Safe Return Home (112 8x8" pages in black-and-white, hardcover; $12.95 from Andrews McMeel), a reprint reprise of selected strips from Crankshaft by Tom Batiuk (words) and Chuck Ayers (pictures). Ed Crankshaft is the curmudgeonly old goat who drives a school bus and lives with his children and grandchildren, carping comically on society’s foibles. But this book concerns two other characters, both women of Crankshaft’s acquaintance--both with steadily worsening Alzheimer’s Disease. Subtitled "An Inspirational Book for Caregivers of Alzheimer’s," this is a special collection indeed.

Not only is the subject unusual, but the emotional impact is profound.

Gentle humor lightens the emotional load throughout; and the humor also enhances the impact. Batiuk and Ayers exploit their artform’s resources, too, taking advantage of the medium’s capacity to blend past and present with alternating panels in sequences that show how an Alzheimer’s sufferer can mistake old memories for present events. This is a thoughtful and caring series of comic strips, expertly done.

For another kind of "adult," see No. 3 below. And don’t say we didn’t warn you.

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2. Not Quite Legendary Steranko. In the compilation Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D (246 6.5x10" pages; $19.95), Marvel has reproduced Jim Steranko’s first work for the company, and through the 18 of his stories on display here, we watch, fascinated, as Steranko begins to revolutionize comic book storytelling. The jazzy cover to the contrary notwithstanding, Steranko doesn’t, in this book, blow apart the pictorial medium with those color-holds and optically illusionary designs that infected some of his last work on the title, but he moves discernibly in that direction.

In this book, then, we can watch comic book history taking shape.

Steranko began by working over layouts by Jack Kirby, but by his fourth time out, he was doing his own--and plotting the stories. In the next issue, he was writing as well as drawing. Almost at once, he began modifying the Kirby-style breakdowns, introducing sequences of narrow, slice-of-action panels or static repetition panels, both of which slowed the action for dramatic effect. He also began to deploy page-wide horizontals and page-tall verticals, again to emphasize visually the action. And all the while, he continued to use Kirby-style full-page splashes for emotional impact at climactic moments.

By his 10th issue, he’s using Eisner-inspired splash openings; and in his 17th outing, Steranko launched the story with a 4-page fold-out spread! And he also begins superimposing full-figure pin-ups of Fury and the Countess on panel grids here and there. The seeds are here; in the next book, we expect to see the forest fully grown and aflame with Steranko’s famous pyrotechnics.

This book includes a helpful prologue and an informative biography of Steranko, but there’s no table of contents and dates and issue numbers are missing (except for a gallery of Steranko covers at the back, but Fury was cover-featured only every other issue, so the numbering here doesn’t help sort out what’s gone on before in the book). Thanks to the prologue, we know the book begins with No. 150 of Strange Tales (the issue before Steranko’s arrival), but what year are we talking here, fellas? Oh, it’s on the back cover copy: 1966. This is harder work than it should be, tovarich. But watching Steranko develop is worth the struggle.

For an even longer glimpse into comic book history, click here to find out about my book, The Art of the Comic Book, which traces the history of the medium by concentrating on the contributions made by giants in the field.

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3. Applause and Pitfalls. The latest arrival on NBM’s Erotica Shelf is Robinsonia (56 9x12-inch pages; $11.95), a re-telling of the Robinson Crusoe tale in which Robinson is female rather than male. It joins Gullivera and Pinocchia, both of which presented the time-worn tales with women as the protagonists.

Like its forerunners, Robinsonia gives sex as the chief motivation for much of the action, and since Friday turns out to be female, too, you can imagine what happens next. What you can’t imagine, though, is the turning-in-on-itself ending to this romp; and I won’t spill the beans here either. But Eric Maltaite’s art is a treat and worth mentioning. His simple but supple linework is delicately watercolored, and many of the panels exist simply for their evocative scene-setting or mood-establishing function, which may surprise you, considering the more overt purpose of the book. Otherwise, the story chuckles with a lively sense of humor, making the entire enterprise a rewarding evening’s read.

Another from NBM is Vittorio Giardino’s No Pasaran! (64 8.5x11-inch paperback pages; in full color $13.95) in which Giardino revives his spy-despite-himself character, Max Friedman (Orient Gateway, Hungarian Rhapsody--also from NBM). This time, Max goes to Spain during the infamous 1930s internecine civil war, looking for an old chum who has mysteriously disappeared. This is the first of two volumes, so we don’t know how it comes out. But we can see Giardino’s terse linear manner on display once again--that regular line that delineates every wrinkle without feathering or shadowing, a tour de force of line art--and we are seduced anew into another cryptic plot full of understated menace.

The Spanish Civil War was the great romantic adventure of the first half of the last century. General Francesco Franco led a military coup aided and abetted by Hitler and Mussolini, both of whom were eager to test their war machinery on real targets. The erstwhile elected government was supported militarily by labor unions and communists, which made the western powers reluctant to act, and they mostly sat out the hostilities. But all sorts of do-gooders and idealists (Ernest Hemingway, Andre Malraux, John Dos Passos--even American movie star Errol Flynn, seeking a real life escapade with which to burnish his on-screen image as a swashbuckler) joined the hopeless cause of the out-gunned Republicans. And Max looks as if he’s headed right into this milieu. Another treat.

You can order at the NBM website: www.nbmpublishing.com

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