Opus 57:

Currently on the Stands (April 25, 2001). Tellos: Maiden Voyage, No. 1, is cute. It’s one of those square-spined productions with slightly stiff covers that almost passes for an actual book. But that’s beside the point. The title story, set in some ancient past or distant future, is about a maiden who is being transported aboard a ship to her future husband, a man she’s never seen. En route, she takes command of the ship in order to save it from being dashed to pieces on the rocks as the all-male crew falls mute and motionless under the spell of a cute bevy of mermaids known as "sirens," who sing out with a mantra that hypnotizes all the males aboard--but not our heroine, Serra. If parts of this scenario sound familiar, you have only Homer to blame. But none of that qualifies the title as "cute." For that, we are indebted to artist Didier Crisse , a Frenchman who renders his characters in that European Disney fashion so popular over there. His heroine and the sirens are all sexy li’l ladies with pouty lips and chubby cheeks and beautiful eyes and nicely rounded figures, about four heads tall--miniature babes, in other words. And very cute. The coloring by Paul Mounts and Ken Wolak is superb. In all, a visual treat. The story by Todd Dezago is certainly adequate for displaying the artwork. And it is Crisse’s artwork that is the attraction here.

The book includes two other stories, both written by Dezago: "Clothes Call" drawn by Thor Badendyck and "Last Wishes," a text piece with spot illustrations by Mike Wieringo. These are okay, too. "Clothes Call," however, is of more than passing interest because artist Badendyck is paralyzed from the shoulders down as a result of an automobile accident he survived in January 2000. After months of rehab and physical therapy, he learned to draw with brush or pen held in his teeth, competing the story in this issue within a week of the one-year anniversary of his accident. And his renderings are thoroughly competent. You wouldn’t know by looking at them that they were drawn in any way but the usual.

Druuna is back between the covers of Heavy Metal in the May issue. It’s another tour de force from Paolo Eleuteri Serpieri: his voluptuous heroine, in as skimpy a costume as can be imagined when not actually naked, is once again trapped in some monstrous half-mechanical half-human futuristic hell of a space vehicle in which a certain percentage of the vaguely humanoid population lusts after her body. The environs are clogged with cobwebby decaying machinery and cloaked and hooded figures, alternately menacing and helping her. Things are looking up by the end, though: Druuna and her long-lost lover, Shastar, stand in a doorway looking across a possibly fertile valley before them. All told, 62 pages in muted sepia tones, the most brilliant colors reserved for Druuna’s flesh. This issue also includes a portfolio of work from Jeff Jones and a 2-page interview with him, and a short 8-page beginning for a sort of Western by Kevin Eastman and Simon Bisley, "Fistfull of Blood." It features the usual Biz assortment of zaftig females and gruesome blood-letting that we’ve come to love--but this time, all in black-and-gray-and-white. More to come in future issues, we’re told.

Harley Quinn No. 7 is another treat from Karl Kesel with Terry and Rachel Dodson on the visuals. I can’t rave quite enough about their expert draftsmanship and appealing renditions. There’s lots of action and superb anatomy (in the human rather than basketball dimension), but we’re plunged into a story that’s been underway since at least that last issue, and it’s difficult to grasp who’s doing what to whom and why. Kesel’s dialogue sparkles with wit and alliteration but the plot evades me.

In contrast, in No. 47 of Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo--which is also the continuation (and conclusion) of a story begun in the preceding issue--we can follow without a single stumble the unfolding of events that lead, ultimately, to a feigned face-off between Usagi and Gen that results in the death of the mob bosses who conduct a reign of terror in the town. It’s an outcome both samurai have been plotting for, so it’s a happy ending. As usual, Sakai deploys solid blacks and a great variety of textures to give visual excitement to his black-and-white pages. And he also exploits the storytelling and drama-enhancing resources of the medium with a sure hand. It’s always a pleasure to browse contentedly through one of his books.

Speaking of slightly less than successful continuations of serial stories in funnybooks, we have (at last) No. 12 of Alan Moore’s Tom Strong. This is my favorite title of his America’s Best Comics line, but it, like most of the others he conjures up, comes too seldom to sustain interest in a continuing story. It’s often so long between issues that I’ve forgotten what came before. No. 11 is dated January 2001; No. 12, June 2001. Okay: I got ‘em within three months of one another, but that’s still too long. Even a month’s break in a story is tough to bridge in the successive issue. This is too long. But Moore’s work is, as always, engrossing. And Chris Sprouse’s art (with inks by Al Gordon) is, as always, thoroughly satisfying with its clean linework. And I admire enormously the fat-arm interpretation of Tom Strong’s physique! In this issue, Tom joins his other world alter ego, Tom Strange, to restore superheroes and order to the planet Terra Obscura, a parallel world. But I’d forgotten how they got there and what the dilemma was.

In the third issue of the current incarnation of Desperate Times, Chris Eliopoulos gives up. He loves doing a comic strip, he confesses, and so rather than continue to pretend that he’s doing a comic book, he turns the book sideways and runs two big strips to a page, each tier ending in a punchline in that familiar rhythmic pattern established by the newspaper comic strip. Eliopoulos is happier this way. And I think the strip is better for it, too. (Although I liked his comic book version of the strip just fine.) As usual, he spots solid blacks expertly and wields a boldly-limning brush with panache. Again this issue, the inside front cover gives us a run-down on the key players so we know who we’re up against from the very start. Thoughtful. And canny: knowing the cast, we are immediately comfortable with wending our way through the book. Everyone who does a comic book about characters not already well-known should do his readers the courtesy of an introduction. And then, the readers will repay the courtesy with attentiveness and continued purchasing, I’d bet.

Well, it’s more likely to happen with an introductory device than otherwise.

Eduardo Risso continues to amaze in 100 Bullets No. 23. His habit of breaking down the narrative to suit page layouts is showy, I realize. But he makes it fit the story, too: it’s not all razzle dazzle. And he often abandons the decorative page layout motif to employ panels in regulation cadence, breaking up the show with some mundane visuals. One of the effects of his dramatic use of solid black, of course, is to enhance the menace with which his artwork in this series broods. And Brian Azzarello’s dialogue, clipped and often cryptic, adds to the thoroughly contemporary feel of the book.

Risso also drew a story recently in No. 3 of the 4-issue series Weird Western Tales, "Once Upon a Time in the Future" by Brett Lewis. And here, Risso relies more upon conventional narrative breakdown to tell the tale. Still, with silent panels and artful use of solid black, he conveys mood as well as action. Beautifully done.

Finally, from Andrews McMeel we have the first reprint volume of Darby Conley’s new comic strip, Get Fuzzy. Launched from United Feature in 1999, this strip has already mustered a client list of about 175 newspapers (according to the promotional information that came with a review copy of the book) due, apparently, to the low comedy of sarcasm that infects the sometimes antagonistic albeit affectionate relationship among the cast. The cast, although fairly limited so far, is one that is familiar in many American homes (and that, too, helps account for the strip’s popularity): two house pets--Satchel, a not-too-bright but kindly pooch of indeterminate species, and Bucky, a vicious self-centered Siamese cat--and their owner, Rob Wilco, a mild-mannered advertising executive who is pretty well run over and dominated by his pets. The gimmick, somewhat like that in Universal Press’s Citizen Dog by Mark O’Hare, is that the animals and their master (and any other human who wanders, unsuspecting, into the premises) communicate in normal speech balloons. This gives plenty of play to the acerbic wit of the cat’s anti-social behavior ("normal" behavior for a cat, as any cat owner can testify).

Rob brings home a new entertainment center and asks Satchel and Bucky: "Do you guys want to help me put together the new entertainment center?" "Sure," says the accommodating Satchel. Four hours later, Rob says, "No! No! The outside end of pipe ‘A’ goes into the second groove on panel 2! The second!" And Satchel says, "I’m sorry! I’m trying!" And Bucky, lounging nearby and not helping at all, says, "Well, this ‘center’ thingy isn’t very ‘entertaining.’"

On another occasion, Rob comes upon Bucky squirting whipped cream into his mouth. He admonishes the cat, who responds: "I’m a cat--I’m following my instincts. It’s my charm." And Rob says, "Are these the same ‘instincts’ that made you bite me this morning?" Bucky says, "That would be ‘yes.’" To which Rob says, "Then you, and your charm, are grounded."

The cat is almost always drawn with his ears laid back, a sure sign of his hostility. The hapless Satchel is often the butt of Bucky’s machinations, which increases his charm but not Bucky’s. You’d think all this animosity would be depressing. But it isn’t. Conley manages to keep it all outlandish enough that its essential antagonism is readily subsumed under the comedy of the absurd. Conley’s drawing style, an agonizingly thin line and lots of cross-hatching and diagonal-line shading, is a bit fussy by today’s so-called standards. It is, however, a style of drawing, not ruling with a straight-edge. And for that--and the other, comedic, virtues of the strip--we are thankful. Get Fuzzy: The Dog Is Not a Toy (House Rule #4); 128 8.5x11-inch paperback pages; $10.95.

For a survey of the history of newspaper comic strips, you can’t do better than read my book, The Art of the Funnies. For hype about it, click here.

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