Opus 76:

Opus 76: NBM’S Quarter Century (December 23). You’ve probably seen the ads in CBG. "NBM is now 25," they say. And that’s undoubtedly true. NBM started as Flying Buttress Publications, and I started buttressing my library with their product almost immediately. My first purchase was a European send-up of American hard-boiled detective fiction called Racket Rumba, a graphic novel, which, according to the ads, qualifies NBM as the first to publish such things. Richard Kyle, who, with his partner Denis Wheary, published Beyond Time and Again by George Metzger, in 1976, might contest the claim, but we’d be talking about a difference in months or weeks, and that doesn’t seem worth getting our wattles in an uproar over. Kyle and Wheary didn’t parlay their book into a publishing empire, but Terry Nantier (the "N" in NBM) did. And quite an empire it is.

NBM has a claim on first to get general bookstore distribution (through Caroline House, but among NBM’s stellar achievements, we count four massive reprint undertakings. Their maiden voyage into this realm entailed publishing all of Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates in twelve volumes, beginning in 1984. Nostalgia Press had made tentative forays with single volume reprints of Flash Gordon and Popeye twenty years before, but NBM’s effort was the industry’s first venture into comic strip reprinting on this scale, and Terry’s success established a precedent. NBM proved that such an enterprise could succeed, that there were, indeed, buyers for such arcane items. One of the things that doubtless contributed to the success of the project was that NBM was steadfast, as regular as clockwork in bringing out one Terry volume every quarter for three years. You could depend upon it.

NBM wasn’t alone in pioneering the reprint venue. Fantagraphics was, at about the same time, struggling to bring out its reprint series of E.C. Segar’s Popeye. But the series was slow to start and appeared somewhat irregularly for awhile until it gathered steam. Fantagraphics was also producing other publications, including the Comics Journal; so its resources and attention were divided. NBM, on the other hand, produced not much else except the Terry series during this period. So while Fantagraphics got to the gate just about when NBM did, NBM pulled ahead once the bell rang and the race started.

Both publishers continued the tradition of publishing classic comic strips. NBM’s next project was Caniff’s Sunday Terry in color. Next came the monumental Roy Crane opus, Wash Tubbs, in 18 black-and-white volumes. Then Tarzan Sundays in full color beginning with Harold Foster and ending with Burne Hogarth. And Fantagraphics started doing Foster’s Prince Valiant, Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, and Walt Kelly’s Pogo (for both of the latter, incidentally, I’ve produced introductory essays), not to mention one-volume productions of Caniff’s Dickie Dare and Will Gould’s fugitive and elegantly gritty cops and robbers strip, Red Barry. Meanwhile, another publisher jumped on the classic reprint wagon when Kitchen Sink launched its series of Al Capp’s Li’l Abner and Caniff’s Steve Canyon.

NBM’s Tarzan project ended in 1997, but in the meantime, NBM has forged ahead into several other areas. It has regularly published English translations of European graphic novels, beginning in 1985 with Vicente Segrelles’ The Mercenary, a fully painted enterprise (the first to be published in this country, NBM says), and continuing with volumes of Hugo Pratt’s cryptic mariner Corto Maltese and graphic novels by such stellar European artists as Milo Manara, Vittorio Giardino, Crepax, and Moebius, most issued under the ComicsLit banner.

In this category, for instance, we recently received the second volume in the Dixie Road epic set in America’s South during the Depression of the 1930s by Jean Dufaux with Hugues Labiano at the drawingboard (48 8.5x11" pages; $10.95). Dufaux’s prose, translated by Joe Johnson, is often affecting, even poetic. Here’s a hint at the meaning of the title, the teenage heroine, Dixie, narrating: "My parents and I are on the road. We’ve nothing left behind us. A few lost illusions maybe, like threadbare shirts flapping on a clothesline that nobody wants to take down because then you’d look trashy in them; just like every illusion is trashy. So you try to forget. You start believing in the road. You tell yourself that it’ll end up taking you to a better place where the word ‘dignity’ still means something, and you drive and drive...." In short, a tale of crime (robbery and murder), privation and disappointment in an oppressive society where the outlaws seem to be the only ones capable of resisting the oppression. Labiano’s drawings, crisp and clean, are perhaps too clean: even when he draws a gritty threadbare scene of hardscrabble poverty, everything seems neat, and the women wear pumps into the field to pick cotton. Still, it’s a good story, and the pictures, while lacking something in authentic aura, are well done.

NBM’s catalogue includes several American masters, too. From Rick Geary, a series of Victorian murder mysteries—Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden, the assassination of President Garfield, all in Geary’s distinctive black-and-white fustian style. And from Will Eisner, in glowing color, adaptations of Don Quixote and Moby Dick and the fairy tale about the princess and the frog. The acerbic Ted Rall is represented in stark black-and-white with The Worst Thing I’ve Ever Done and My War with Brian, and Peter Kuper lines up with Give It Up (and other stories by Kafka) and Eye of the Beholder. And the exquisite line-work of P. Craig Russell illuminates three volumes of fairy tales by Oscar Wilde.

The most stunning of its publications adapting to the visual-verbal medium classic works of literature is Michel Plessix’s version of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, the fourth and final volume of which is due out in February. Grahame’s masterpiece has been illustrated by E.H. Shepard and Arthur Rackham, and if you’d told me anyone could ever equal their achievements, I would have scoffed. But then I saw Plessix’s work and stopped scoffing.

Eisner’s interpretations of Don Quixote and Moby Dick are not intended as full adaptations. The former, Eisner dubbed "an introduction," and, true to its purpose, it provides an over-view of Cervantes’ masterpiece. And Moby Dick does likewise while, at the same time, giving us a glimpse of the origins of the adaptation series. Moby Dick was actually the first of the series: Eisner developed it as storyboard for a PBS tv station in Florida. The book publishes the storyboard (which explains the regular cadence of the panels, all the same size and shape, unusual in Eisner’s current oeuvre). The tv project never reached production stage, and Eisner had two more literary works roughed out— Don Quixote and The Princess and the Frog. These, he finished off as graphic novel pages, and the adaptations were soon published by a European publisher. Then by NBM. All three books are noteworthy for their display of Eisner’s skill with color. And all three perform their assignment—telling the story of the masterwork—creditably.

Undoubtedly, the most ambitious of the ComicsLit undertakings is NBM’s reprinting of a comic book version of Marcel Proust’s "Combray," the first in the French author’s monumental series that, for some years, was called Remembrance of Things Past but which is now more fashionably entitled In Search of Lost Time. This is a daring enterprise because Proust, like the Irish James Joyce, is celebrated for his evocative language. A comics version would therefore seem to ignore the very heart of Proust’s creation. The French language first edition of this graphic album is by Stephane Heuet, a French advertising art director of 15 years experience, who became enamored of Proust’s book when first reading it six years ago. He believes Proust’s masterpiece is particularly adaptable to comics because of the images evoked by the author’s use of language.

"Proust was almost an impressionistic painter," Heuet said. "He thought and wrote in images. Remembrance is an extraordinary fresco of high society in France during the Belle Epoque, and a comic strip permits the reconstitution of this past without resort to a Hollywood budget."

Perhaps. Still, turning Proust into a comic book is a highly risky proposition. Proust’s masterpiece has no plot. It is, rather, "symphonic" in design. Proust remembers events and episodes of his life, and the book’s structure thus emerges in thematic reveries prompted by sensations of time—time passing, or seeming to pass, and recurring or seeming to recur. Proust develops his memories into thematic motifs which come and go throughout the huge, seven-volume opus.

Heuet seizes upon Proust’s descriptions and converts a selection of them into pictures, accompanying verbatim quotations from the novel. For the visuals, Heuet selected a drawing style akin to Herge’s in the Tintin series. Heuet’s belief, doubtless, is that this "clear-line" style presents Proust’s descriptions in as unembellished a manner as possible, thereby encouraging the reader to, in effect, flesh out the imagery in much the same way as a reader of Proust’s prose would.

Despite the criticism that Heuet’s project engendered in his native land where the population reveres Proust and therefore resents any "abbreviation" or "modification" of the masterpiece, the adaptation would appear to deserve such a reaction no more than an English language version of Remembrance would. Both endeavors dispense with Proust’s own language. Whether NBM’s daring here will be rewarded is probably less dependent upon Heuet’s skill than it is upon Proust’s literary reputation in this country. Proust’s series of novels, most of which were published after he died in 1922, didn’t enjoy much success in the French marketplace until the 1950s. Although millions of copies of the work have sold in the years since, today only about 15,000 copies of the first novel, Swan’s Way, are sold annually. Heuet sold out 12,000 of his graphic album in three weeks and went back to press for a second printing. Whether the English version will enjoy a similar success is open to speculation. And that hinges, as I said, upon Proust’s reputation in this country and upon a readership whose numbers seem dubious. But Heuet, who sees his work as an introduction to Proust (in much the same way as Eisner sees his Don Quixote as an introduction to Cervantes), is hopeful while, at the same time, recognizing the obstacles.

"Everyone says Proust is a genius, that his every word counts," he said. "But in practice they mix everything up. I don’t say read my book instead of Proust, but it is a way into Proust. I hope people go on to read Proust thanks to the comic strip. In fact, it’s more than a hope. It’s an order!"

Spoken like a true cartoonist.

NBM has also launched several black-and-white comic book titles recently. Michael Cherkas is back with his distinctive, fat bold lines and clunky anatomy, illustrating Larry Hancock’s Secret Messages, which focuses on private eye Phil Housley and his attempt to find a missing husband who might have been kidnaped by little bug-eyed alien beings who come and go in flying saucers. Or if your taste is a little farther out, you might like (After) Life in Gothland by Australian Shea Anton Pensa, who gives us Maddox MacClarran in black tux and pony tail on a tour of various leather-clad, body-pierced, fetish-loving nightlife scenes. Pensa’s manner is manic and his drawing style is quirky, laced with sight gags and curliques. In short, a visual hoot to accompany the antic storytelling. But if you’re not into Goth, well, this series won’t turn you on much, I reckon.

House of Java is something else altogether. Slice-of-life stories by Mark Murphy in a clean style delve into relationships and yield an assortment of epiphanies, some large, some small. And then there’s Boneyard by Richard Moore. Michael Paris inherits land in Raven’s Hollow, and when he goes there, he finds that the land in question is actually a cemetery (the "boneyard" of the title, which gives you some idea of the macabre sense of humor on the loose here). Not only that but the cemetery is "home" to a friendly assortment of vampires, werewolves, witches, demons, and others of the undead. The local citizenry wants to raze the place, but the denizens of the graveyard, led by an attractive female vampire named Abbey, court Michael’s good opinion, ultimately winning him over to their side.

Moore’s earlier comic book series, Far West, is being collected in trade paperbacks by NBM, the first four issues in Volume 1; the concluding two in Volume 2 (forthcoming), both collections enhanced by delicately penciled pin-up pages and other extras. In Volume 1, for instance, we have the "very first, early Far West story" as well as a early drawing of the heroine, an elf named Meg, and her sidekick, a bear named Phil. Yes, this is a different sort of Western. The usual sun-drenched landscape is peopled by elves, demons, ogres, trolls, dragons, fairies, and goblins. And shape-shifters. Pookas. Meg is a comely wench with pointy ears who wears a derby with a feather in it, a vest and chaps (which latter garments occasionally leave various of her body parts exposed). And a thong. She’d be quite sexy if it weren’t for her large nose "which keeps her from being boringly perfect.". (Well, she’s still quite sexy.) A bounty hunter by trade, Meg is known for "drunken brawling, sober brawling, shooting first and not asking questions later, and wearing butt-less chaps in public."

In that "very first, early" story, Meg is hunting a shape-shifter who gets to town before her and takes the shape of a wanted poster for Meg. Meg figures it out, however, and plugs the poster, which then reverts to its usual shape. Meg then advises the shape-shifting outlaw: "You can either turn into a model prisoner, a target with a big fat bullseye between your eyes, or a beer—a nice cold one." In the serialized tale being retailed in the six-issue series, Meg is after Darien Voss, "notorious thief, murderer, & no-account. Voss prefers robbing trains, though his dastardly deeds include forgery, moving violations, & wearing mutton chops with a mustache." That’ll give you an idea of the antic sense of humor at work here. And there’s action, too—fight scenes and shoot-outs, all retailed in Moore’s laconic, understated manner and drawn in a nicely linear style, sometimes a little overwrought with feathering but usually clearly delineated with a bold, flexing line. Moore’s storytelling, however—his sense of timing, his use of wordless sequences, and his dramatic compositions—is a genuine treat to behold. And he keeps us in suspense throughout, augmenting his central narrative thread with numerous subplots and danger-fraught incidents for Meg to surmount.

Like Fantagraphics, NBM discovered that nothing improves corporate cash flow like erotica and now offers a line of Eurotica by Europeans and Amerotica by Americans. While one of the objectives of such literary endeavors is the arousal of the reader, my criteria for critical accolades embrace a couple of other considerations. First and, admittedly, foremost, the artwork must be superior. Secondly, the stories told must offer something over and above the simple depiction of sexual acts in awesome detail. In this connection, displaying an antic sense of humor about sex helps elevate the work, too. And if we judge from NBM’s current crop according to these measures, porn is certainly getting better. Or, perhaps, the porn we’re getting is of a much better grade than the home-grown Tijuana Bibles of yesteryear.

The Eurotica more often than not meets both of my criteria. In Lethal Orgasm, for instance, "El Gringo," the creator’s penname, produces clear, uncluttered, anatomically accurate drawings in telling a tale with a strange (and perversely amusing) twist. It all begins with the premise that our heroine can, in the midst of an orgasm, "zap" her enemies into zombies. In Casa Howard, the Italian artist Roberto Baldazzini produces even cleaner artwork in the service of a wildly erotic tale of women who were once men and have the sexual characteristics of both sexes. In a preface, Moebius writes: "We don’t yet know the limits of imagination when it comes to sexuality ... comics benefit from a kind of impunity [in this regard] ... and Baldazzini, master of an imperial graphic technique, [is] completely original in his representation of a world whose originality explodes within the often melodramatic world of comics ... a world of such serenity grabs you by the throat as if you were facing the spectacle of a paradise, not lost, just not yet found!"

Well, maybe it isn’t exactly the throat that it grabs you by.

Another in the superlatively rendered works is Ex-Libris Eroticis: Monika by Massimo Rotundo, another Italian. Here, we visit a Victorian world in which erotic fancies are presented in a highly decorative visuals, sometimes almost achieving a mystical aura through the use of symbolic panels that accompany the more straightforward narrative panels. Continuing in the tradition of uncluttered boldly linear drawings is Spanish Fly, a series now up to a sixth volume by Tobalina. Each volume contains several short stories of varying lengths, all ending with a comedic twist. Marcus Gray in Emily’s Secret has a somewhat simpler style albeit an effective one. It, too, ends on a mildly humorous note.

Finally, still in the comedic vein are the Grin and Bare It volumes, now appearing quarterly. These feature one-page strips by an assortment of cartoonists, all drawing in a cartoony style reminiscent of Morris and Franquin and Uderzo and, the greatest of all limners of the curvaceous gender, Walthery. (Hint: will NBM reprint any of the numerous albums featuring the toothsome Natacha?) In Grin and Bare It books, the cute sexy cartoony girls cavort through outrageously funny gags, page after page after page.

One of the Amerotica line in the same mode is Sapphire by Barry Blair, whose elfin creations evoke memories of Wendy Pini’s Elfquest creation but unencumbered by clothing. Here the sex is a little less continuously engaged in than in some of the other titles. Kevin Taylor’s Girl, for instance. Taylor’s tales featuring this heavily endowed young woman (and her men friends, also well endowed) edge up to the supernatural in both narrative and sexual act. Much of his work is in black-and-white with a gray wash embellishment, but in Girl: The Second Coming, Vol. 1, Taylor begins working in full color strips. Jack Munroe’s Ada Lee, in contrast, embodies a more primitive style of drawing—bold outlines, cartoony figures (so childlike that I wonder about child pornography). And then there’s Horny Tails by Richard Moore.

In this tome, we meet some of the same sorts of creatures we met in Boneyard and Far West —elves, trolls, and so on. Meg and Phil even put in an appearance, and we meet another of Moore’s lady elves in M’Lady, who earns and then loses a pot of gold in her relations with a leprechaun. In each of these half-dozen short tales, the pictures are, as they say, "graphic," but Moore’s sardonic sense of humor is as active as ever. In one story, the heroine, after pages of graphic sex, says, wearily, "You didn’t see any of that, did you?" To which her lover, a robot, says: "Made a tape." Says she: "Oh, god."

Much of the erotic line is previewed in a quarterly magazine called Sizzle.

Finally, NBM is also regularly reprinting several newspaper comic strips—Kevin Fagan’s Drabble, Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey, and Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy are all now available in more than a single volume. And Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean is out in its inaugural volume, suggesting more to come.

But to get the complete rundown on NBM products, including prices, visit the website at www.nbmpublishing.com. And stay ‘tooned all year long in 2002.

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