Opus 40:

1. On the Shelf (11/2)

2. Batman/Lobo (11/2)

1. On the Shelf. Used to be (way back when some of us first started drawring on cave walls) (well, a little later than that) that you couldn’t find a good book of comic strip reprints anywhere in the land from sea to shining sea. Now they’re coming so thick and fast that it’s all I can do to keep up with them. Recently, I added these to my shelf:

Rose Is Rose: 15th Anniversary Collection (Andrews McMeel, 128 9x9" pages; paperback, $9.95). Pat Brady’s strip (recently nominated for the third time for a Reuben by the National Cartoonists Society) is one of my personal favorites. Brady is an adventurous cartoonist who is always experimenting with points-of-view, perspective, and the other visual aspects of his art. And the strip itself--its humor reveling in a loving family (mother, father, and Pasquale, their imaginative offspring)--is a warm and humane adventure. (It’s an "adventure" because we so seldom get into "warm and humane" anymore.)

One of Brady’s visual apostrophes involves his heroine’s daydreaming side. Whenever Rose begins to think unconventional thoughts, we see her morphed into Vicki the Biker, a motorcycle babe with leather jacket, studded knee-high boots, and a rose tattoo on her thigh (!). When Rose feels protective, she morphs into a mother grizzly. When her mother phones her, she shrinks to preschool size.

This collection contains the added bonus of a "Rosy Oldies" section in which Brady reminisces about his early career and the growth and development of his strip and its characters, furnishing the memories with pictorial examples.

Rose Is Rose in Loving Color (Rutledge Hill Press, 211 Seventh Avenue South, Nashville, TN 37219; 128 9x12" pages; paperback, $14.95). We can’t ever have enough of Pat Brady’s strip. This book, for instance, is an unqualified treasure. Not only is the color reproduction of the Sunday strips exquisite, but Pat Brady’s deployment of color is stunning. The color is brilliant color; nothing half-hearted about it. In winter scenes, the stark white of the snow is contrasted to skies of yellow-orange-red. Sometimes the color decorates abstract shapes; sometimes panels with gray tones contrast vividly with a color denouement. Often color itself produces the humor. Here’s the yellow shape of the window moving across the floor to where the family cat is sleeping, bathing her at last in yellow warmth of the sunlight. One Sunday, all the pictures show family members with green skin and wearing strangely colored clothing; this is explained when we see that little Pasquale and his playmate are inspecting the negatives for a bunch of slide photographs. His playmate’s comment: "This is proof that your mother is an alien in disguise: these photographs were obviously taken on Mars, her home planet." In this collection, we have a vivid demonstration of a cartoonist at play, exploring the resources of his medium. Brady does this in his daily strips, too, but he has more room to frolic on Sunday, and each installment begins with a visual puzzle in the first panel that is "explained" in the second panel. Brilliant work. And if you want to see more Brady playfulness, check out the 3-D strips at comiczone.com/ comics/roseisrose/html /3d.html.

Speed Bump: A Collection of Cartoon Skidmarks (Andrews McMeel, 144 8x8" pages; paperback, $9.95). Speed Bumps is Dave Coverly’s version of Far Side--another of those many imitation concoctions that came along in the wake of Gary Larson’s enormous success at weird humor. And Coverly is good at it. He draws better, for one thing. Here’s a chicken driving a car along the road; the bumper sticker reads: My child is a Grade A student. Here is a bar with a guy at one end and a dog at the other; the bartender is talking to the dog: "He says, No, thanks, he’s not interested in going for a walk." My favorite, a customer at the counter on her cellphone talking to the clerk who’s answered her cellphone: "Yeah, I have a question: How are you supposed to help me if you keep answering the phone?" Boy, have I been tempted to do that! (If only I had a cellphone.) Coverly’s panel cartoons appear one or two to a page in black-and-white throughout.

Minnows in the Bath and Other Doggie Treats (Andrews McMeel, 128 9x9" pages; paperback, $9.95). My favorite in the weird cartoons genre is Jerry Van Amerongen’s Ballard Street. Van Amerongen started in 1980 with The Neighborhood, then abandoned it to launch Ballard Street about ten years later. The humor, though, remained constant. Bizarre stuff superbly enhanced by Van Amerongen’s quirky distinctive rendering style. In fact, with the possible exception of Wiley Miller (in Non Sequitur), no newspaper cartoonist today can hold a candle to Van Amerongen in purely graphic styling. His line is confident and clean. And his humor is devastatingly hilarious. This book collects about 150 of Van Amerongen’s dog cartoons--dogs that wear hats, dogs that catapult from trampolines, dogs that outthink the surrounding humans every time. Here’s a man in the bathtub with a huge dog; the man says, "Connie, tell Scooter I get first bath on Wednesdays." Funny enough, but made funnier by picturing the dog wearing a bathing cap. Mostly, the dogs are round and fat with slender muzzles, a visual conception that makes them even funnier. The people are definitely dog lovers extraordinaire. Here’s a restaurant with a fella at the table watching his dog, up on the table, his snout in the wine glass; the fella, beaming happily, says, "Ah, we appear to have selected a perfectly acceptable Cabernet."

Get Ziggy With It (Andrews McMeel, 128 8x8" pages; paperback, $9.95). More of Tom Wilson’s single panel cartoon about a short, neckless guy who looks somewhat like a deformed potato. Ziggy is not to my taste, tovarich; but don’t let me stop you. This tome collects both daily panels and Sunday strips (in black-and-white and gray tones) from the past year and intersperses a few "classic Ziggies" from the 1970s, the feature’s first decade. This pairing of the vintage with the new illustrates how Wilson’s drawing style has changed--which is to say, not much (except that his line gets a little less shaky). Ziggy is a cheerful little wart, usually finding the bright side of daily life. Here he is at the foot of a flight of stairs, saying, "Don’t measure yourself by the problems you face; measure yourself by the problems you’ve faced up to." Li’l message. But sometimes social comment yields the comedy: here’s Ziggy at the Prescription Counter, saying, as the clerk hands him an electric toaster, "I think it’s time I got a doctor with more legible handwriting."

Heart of the City (Andrews McMeel, 128 9x9" pages; paperback, $9.95). This collection reprints the first year of Mark Tatulli’s comic strip about a sassy little city girl and her mother and friends. Launched in the fall of 1998, Heart of the City is a remarkable phenomenon: it’s drawn. With a brush. It’s not ruled or stenciled. I’m not a big fan of Tatulli’s rendering style (for my taste, the brushlines are too often fat where they ought to be thin), but I nonetheless applaud both the cartoonist and his syndicate for venturing forth with this sort of product. The comedy is mostly about Heart, a precocious little girl who loves dressing up in odd costumes, imitating adult preoccupations, and pretending to be a movie or tv star. Cute stuff but well done. The strip, by the way, is successful: the publication of this collection tells us that. Only strips that have great enough circulation to create a buying public for the books get reprinted in this fashion. So you should find out what all the excitement is about.

For more about what the excitement is all about in newspaper comic strips, check here to find out about my book, The Art of the Funnies,which traces the history and development of the medium from the Yellow Kid to Calvin and Hobbes.

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2. Batman/Lobo. Dunno whether Keith Giffen and Roger Slifer were entirely conscious of what they were doing when they created Lobo at DC, but whether they did it deliberately or not, they unquestionably concocted the near-perfect parody of superhero literature. Lobo, the intergalactic bounty hunter--the self-proclaimed "main man"--is brute force with the emphasis on "brute," and he’s impervious to physical harm (due to a rapid-healing genetic factor) so he can pretty much do what he wants to do (just as most vigilante crime-fighters do). As he maims his way across several universes, leaving behind a bloody spor of sprewed intestines and corpses with bones protruding, he represents the sort of havoc a super-powered being would wreak if there were such beings bent on engaging normal personages in physical combat. But the thing that makes this otherwise gruesome scenerio work as hilarious satirical parody is the visualization of it, and no one does that better than the Biz.

Simon Bisley depicts outlandish carnage better than anyone--more exactingly anatomically accurate, more copious in bloody gore, more inventive in incidental mayhem. The pages of his latest effort, Batman/Lobo (DC’s Elseworlds, $5.95), are festooned with disembowelings, eviscerations, and dismemberments. Bones and guts and stringy entrails and eyeballs dangling out of their sockets litter the book. And every picture is crammed with tiny extraneous details of bad taste in visual humor. Bisley manages throughout to give the term "sight gag" a wonderfully, revolutingly, double meaning.

The premise of the tale at hand is amusing in itself--and as outrageous as Bisley’s art--but almost irrelevant to the satire of the genre that is committed herein. Lobo accepts an assignment from Scarface to kill the Joker, but the Joker out-bids his rival, hiring Lobo to kill Batman first before offing his initial target. Nightwing and Robin and the Penguin show up--and so does Commissioner James Gordon, now serving in Albert the butler’s role.

In rendering the Batman, Biz exercises the logic that drives the whole enterprise: without his mask and cowl, Batman is bald, scarred, broken-nosed, and cauliflower-eared--just as we’d expect him to be as the veteran of a thousand hand-to-hand battles. The traditional notion of the playboy-handsome square-jawed Bruce Wayne is thereby blown to smithereens.

To complete this "alternate reality" vision of this creation, we have Lobo’s own distinctive lingo, an assortment of off-world expletives that nudge the borders of propriety without quite crossing over--Feeta’s Flatulent Gizz, Holy Fraggaroley, Feetal’s Femur, and the ever-popular Bastich. Nowhere in the superhero genre is there more invention than in Lobo. And he, as I said, is a parody of the genre.

We might shudder to think of what Dr. Fredric Wertham and his ilk would say about such unfettered physical savagery as we see in this and other Biz-books of Lobo’s adventures. Even in this violently anti-violent age, Biz is so over-the-top and off-the-wall that we squirm with perverse pleasure at witnessing the wicked visual comedy he perpetrates with Lobo. That’s why Bisley’s occasional reprise in the Lobo oeuvre is an unvarnished treat every time.

Lobo, alas, isn’t cover at all in my book about the history of the comic book, The Art of the Comic Book. But just about all the major figures who shaped the medium are in it. To find out more, click here.

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