Opus 59:


Opus 59: Grafic Novelz and Alex Toth Encore and Big Daddy Roth. Dixie Road from NBM (48 8.5x11" pages in full color paperback; $10.95) is another in the publisher’s lengthening line of European imports that make up much of the ComicsLit imprint. And this title, like all its predecessors, is superbly drawn and colored. The story by Belgian writer Jean Dufaux takes us to the American South during the 1930s, a hard-scrabble desperate and dispiriting time in the country. Hugues Labiano’s artwork is perhaps a bit too neat and clean and uncluttered for the milieu, but his panel compositions (of great and effective variety), page layouts, and pacing are exemplary. The heroine is Dixie, a teenager whose mother has fled from marriage to a small-time bank robber into factory work. But she’s from an aristocratic family and undertakes to lead the workers in a strike. She thereby attracts the unsolicited sexual attentions of the factory owner and his son. Meanwhile, Dixie hangs out with some black kids, a proclivity that courts disaster of another sort. Just about then, the renegade husband shows up with a carpetbag full of cash from his latest bank job.

By beginning from Dixie’s point-of-view, Dufaux moves his narrative and exposition forward slowly, revealing a piece at a time, a method that gives menace to his already explosive mix of sex and race and threatening violence. By the end, there’s blood on every page.

In the book’s culminating action, Dixie and her mother and her father escape the bigoted and murderous posse and head off down the road of the volume’s title—promising more adventure (and additional volumes?) ahead. And Dufaux gets in a poetic lick or two in the prose. Nicely done.

NBM is publishing another Dufaux-written enterprise, Raptors, the second volume of which came out last fall (64 9x12" full color paperback pages; $10.95). In this series, we venture into a world that has been taken over by vampires, who have renounced the life of the night in order to take command of the day, subjugating all humankind in the process. Back when the night was first being abandoned, the vampires killed Don Dolina and his wife Anna, who weren’t prepared to go along with the new campaign. Now the children of this worthy pair have grown up and have set out to avenge the death of their parents by killing off the other vampires. This homicidal undertaking brings them to the attention of a couple of New York cops, Vicky Lenore and her buddy Spiaggi, who have discovered the existence of the two vampire "kingdoms"—the old and the "new" tiny one of the assassin Raptors. In Volume II of the series, we meet yet another character, Aznar Akeba, a knight errant of sorts who the old school vampires hire to rid them of the Raptors. Lenore and Spiaggi get caught in the middle, naturally, and we also get a detour through some orgiastic night clubs fraught with what appear to be Satanists. But even if blood-sucking populations are not your, er, cup of tea, you’ll enjoy the painted panels of Enrico Marini, a Swiss Italian, who outlines his drawings before he paints them, thereby preserving clarity of detail; and he uses color to enhance mood expertly, too. At the end of Volume II, Lenore is in dire strait; so we expect a third volume—at least.

Leap-frogging from Dufaux to Marini, we come to yet another NBM offering, this one an early (1992) effort by Marini—Gipsy (64 9x12" color pages in paperback; $10.95), a work that first won the artist a place in the firmament. Drawn in a manner that occasionally invokes manga (but not excessively), Thierry Smolderen’s story takes us on a wild truck ride across frozen wastes. The title character is Tsagoi, a rough-and-tumble truck driver of almost no couth whose only redeeming trait is his love for a younger sister, whom he has supported in boarding school for some years. When he runs out of money, he takes her with him on this trek, and they are soon being pursued by the bad guys who want the cargo, weapons. The tale moves rapidly, lots of action rendered in glowing color with a grittier line than Marini uses in Raptors. Breakdowns and layouts are impressive and enhance the drama of the story and the speed of the action. And there’s far far less verbiage than in the vampire epic. Nicely done. This, too, would appear to be the first in a series.

Ahh, but the treasure of the month is NBM’s The Mystery of Mary Rogers (80 6x9" pages in black-and-white jacketed hardcover; $15.95) by the ever-amazing Rick Geary. Another in Geary’s Treasury of Victorian Murder from the ComicsLit imprint, this volume takes us through the true story twists and turns of the unsolved murder of a female cigarstore clerk in mid-19th century New York City. Geary begins with the discovery of her body, floating in the Hudson just off the shore near Hoboken, New Jersey, on Wednesday afternoon, July 28, 1841. And he follows the investigation and newspaper accounts for the next several weeks. He also summarizes Edgar Allen Poe’s fictionalized version of the sensational case in "The Mystery of Marie Roget," which Poe sets in Paris.

Meticulously researched and rendered, the story is peopled by Geary’s usual array of starkly staring sometimes goofy-looking characters who stand around frozen in poses of perpetual curiosity or cockeyed terror in nearly comic juxtaposition to Geary’s somber documentary-style narrative. It is, in fact, this odd melding of a sort of woodcut style of humorous drawing to a flat, colorless matter-of-fact reportorial prose that gives Geary’s books, all of them, their curiously hypnotic power. That and the charmingly decorative quality of his artwork, thin lines varying to bold with those odd modeling notches, and shaded with painstaking crosshatching and parallel lines. Sumptuous.

NBM books are found at www.nbmpublishing.com; or phone tollfree 800-886-1223.

ENCORE. Another collection of Alex Toth art is just out: Toth "One for the Road" (174 9x12" pages; $24.95) is edited by Manuel Auad, who also brought us Toth and Toth in Black and White, both elegant showcases of the art of one of the medium’s masters. This collection is different—wildly so. It consists of over four dozen one-, two-, four- and six-page stories that Toth produced for Pete Millar’s car mags of the mid-sixties (CARtoons, Big Daddy Roth, Drag Cartoons, etc.). Here we have Toth as a baggy-pants humorist, spoofing popular culture idols of the moment (tv’s Dr. Killdare, Ben Casey; the Beatles, "Harry the Rat with Women") in slapstick terms so extreme I’m reminded of Harvey Kurtzman’s famed Hey, Look! pages. Here we meet Granny McGo and Dragula and Big Daddy Roth and dozens of souped-up autos, rocketing across the panels in clouds of exhaust fumes and contrails. This is a different Toth, but anyone who likes Toth will like this, done up in his customary black-and-white virtuosity with dressy gray tones.

And all these CARtoons constitute an appropriate herald, coming just in time to remember Big Daddy Roth, the ol’ Rat Fink himself. The following obit is by Associated Press’s Paul Chavez (with additional information gleaned from a report by Douglas Martin):

Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, whose fantastic car creations and anti-hero Rat Fink character helped define the California hotrod culture of the 1950s and '60s, has died of a heart attack. He was 69. Roth died on Wednesday, April 4, at his studio in Manti, Utah, said Joe Bennett, a dispatcher with the Sanpete County Sheriff's Department. The cause of death wasn't immediately given.

A generation of teen-age rebels across the country found a hero in Roth, whose chrome and fiberglass creations stirred awe at car shows. Many adopted his airbrushed anti-hero, the bug-eyed, menacing Rat Fink, who became a cultural counterpoint to Mickey Mouse.

While Roth worked on custom cars in his garage-studio near Los Angeles, youngsters across the country broke out the airplane glue to work on intricate scale plastic models of his "Outlaw" roadster, bubble-topped "Beatnik Bandit," or futuristic "Mysterion."As a designer, Roth was considered a genius and visionary, not only for his radical designs, but also for his pioneering use of fiberglass in car bodies.

He was described by author Tom Wolfe in his 1964 essay "The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby" as the "most colorful, the most intellectual and the most capricious" of the car customizers.

"He's the Salvador Dali of the movement—a surrealist in his designs, a showman by temperament, a prankster," Wolfe wrote.

As Douglas Martin noted, for male baby boomers, Big Daddy was neat-o, boss, hip and, yes, rank, a drag strip compliment that connoted monstrosity. Teenage boys hoarded allowance money to buy plastic models of his real-life roaring hot rods, from the Outlaw to the Beatnik Bandit to the Mysterion. Likely as not, his fans wore T-shirts of Big Daddy's monsters, including Mr. Gasser and Surf Fink.

By far the most popular monster was Rat Fink, a big, hairy rat with bloodshot, bulging eyeballs and yellow, broken teeth. His tail was patched with athletic tape, and flies buzzed around him. Rat Fink was more than once described as Mickey Mouse's evil twin.

Mr. Roth, a huge man with wild clothes and sunglasses who spoke in beatnik jive, looked very much like someone who would give life to bizarre visions.

"The kids idolize me because I look like someone their parents wouldn't like," he said in 1964.

Commentators have suggested his anti-authority, rebellious approach—reminiscent of Mad magazine—presaged Vietnam War protesters and Bart Simpson. At the least, Big Daddy was a leader in what is now seen as an art movement to turn standard Detroit cars into virtually unrecognizable but absolutely mesmerizing dream vehicles.

Roth created Rat Fink and a host of wild characters to help finance his car design work.

In 1974, he converted to the Mormon church and abandoned his rebel lifestyle, however he continued to work on car designs.

"My fanaticism with cars has just destroyed my personal life," he told The Associated Press in a 1997 interview. "It's an obsession, an addiction. Every day I pray to God, `Release me from my calling!"'

David Chodosh, a friend and business associate, said Roth was still working at the time of his death and was hoping to tour a new car in 2002.

"The guy over the years has epitomized cool," Chodosh said. "Even now, in so many ways, he is still the Boss Fink."

Bi-weekly plug: yes, it’s that time again—time to find a way to tie the foregoing to one of my books so every ardent reader will buy a book. Alas, the connection this time is tenuous: The Art of the Comic Book is about comic books and it does, indeed, include a segment about the graphic novel (in a delicious chapter about Gil Kane). But that’s about it. Still, if you’re bent on reading more about my book, click here and we’ll take you to a string of promotional hype about it.

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