Opus 88:

Opus 88: NOUS R US (May 24). Wella Corporation has manufactured a new hair product that it calls "Kryptonite Gel" because it glows green. The gel provides an acrylic shine that is "excellent for smooth, chunky spikes or textured styles." This product, according to a spokesperson for Wella, has only positive effects on humans. What effect it would have on Superman has not yet been established. But we will probably never know because DC Comics has filed a lawsuit to stop Wella Corp from using the name. ... How fickle the reading public is: at the Orlando (Florida) Sentinel, The Lockhorns, a daily panel cartoon featuring a bickering married couple, was dropped after a couple of reader polls demonstrated that it wasn't all that popular. Oddly, in other newspapers, The Lockhorns often ranks first in popularity. ... The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA), which is hoping to find a home in New York City (see Opus 87), isn't the only homeless museum of comics in the vicinity. The three-year-old New York City Comic Book Museum, "the nation's only museum dedicted to the art of comic books"(with a website at www.nyccbm.org), is also looking for a permanent facility in which to display its holdings. MoCCA is "every genre" of cartooning, including animation and computer-generated art in addition to the usual print-medium comics. And then there's the International Museum of Cartoon Art (IMCA), late of Boca Raton, Florida, which is moving to the Northeast, perhaps to Yale U., where it may become a fixture. Three in proximity seems a bit much, but two in the City is surely too much. The NYCCBM first edged into national consciousness with a display of 9-11 comics art, which was mounted at the NYC Fire Museum; it was the fledgling NYCCBM's fifth exhibition. ... The Spider-Man movie has ascended to the improbable pinnacle of being reviewed favorably in virtually all national magazines-Time, Newsweek, even The Nation, whose reviewer, Stuart Klawans, liked it and wrote: "Part of what I like about 'Spider-Man' is that despite its staggering budget and daunting market clout, it stays in touch with the unpretentiousness of the source material." As I said before (last Opus, in fact), Stan: you must be havin' a great time watchin' all this hoopla. ...

The Cartoon Bank, a website (www.cartoonbank.com) that claims to be the world's largest catalogued and cross-indexed electronic file of cartoons with more than 85,000 specimens archived, has a rival with Britain's Centre for the Study of Cartoons and Caricature. The Centre has a collection of around 250,000 social and political cartoons in its vaults, and 85,000 are currently available online at http://library.ukc.ac.uk/cartoons/. By 2004, Nick Hiley, head of the Centre, hopes to have 120,000 cartoons available for viewing at the website. The Center was established at the University of Kent in 1973, the only registered museum of cartoons in the United Kingdom.

For four decades, from 1961 through 2001, cartoonist Jud Hurd illustrated Health Capsules, a daily medical information feature written by Michael Petti, M.D., and syndicated by NEA/United Media. Hurd retired from the feature in January 2002, and so did Petti. It is being carried on by author/cartoonist Bron Smith. Meanwhile, Hurd continues to produce Cartoonist PROfiles, of which he is the founder, publisher and editor, a quarterly journal now in its 32nd year of continuous publication, a historic achievement-the profession's longest uninterrupted run. (See www.cartoonistprofiles.com for more information about this excellent publication to which, as you might guess, I contribute regularly.)

At the Pittsburgh Con during the Harvey Awards presentation, independent comic book producer Chris Yambar generated a quiver of malicious anticipation in his audience which might be imagined to have expected Frank Miller to respond in future to Yambar's shots at DK2. Yambar said the book looked as if Miller inked it "with the edge of a Dinty Moore Beef Stew can lid, a Lawn Jart, and half a broken Spirograph." Yambar went on to say: "I think his work on past projects such as Ronin, Daredevil, and the original Dark Knight Returns is absolutely classic. DK2 is horribly beneath him. The whole project smacks of desperation and opportunity, which only blackens the eye of its historic predecessor." Perhaps "desperation and opportunity" might more accurately describe the entire funnybook publishing enterprise these days, not just DK2. And not necessarily the artists and writers who are engaged by desperate and opportunistic publishers to create the gambles by which the publishers attempt to even the odds. The third and final volume of DK2 has yet to appear, but my interim verdict on the series appears in Opus 81. I don't agree with Yambar, but I realize he speaks for numerous disappointed Miller fans who apparently do not see that Miller's outrage finds expression in the crudeness of his renderings. And in the interest of full disclosure (or, as Ev Dirksen might have said, to "unscrew the unscrutable"), I should mention that I've been working, off and on, on a Dark Horse project at Miller's invitation. But I wouldn't be engaged on the project if I didn't appreciate Miller's work, and my appreciation came long before the engagement.

Two comic strips, The Boondocks and The Norm, spent the week of May 13 with their characters standing in line for Episode II of the first part of the Star Wars saga. While cartoonists Aaron McGruder and Michael Jantze used the opportunity to poke fun at the fixations of Star Wars freaks, Bruce Tinsley in his Mallard Fillmore that week achieved a sharper satire. Fillmore, the would-be waterfowl, delivered a criticism of the American educational industry by pointing out that although American students lag behind their peers in other countries in math, science, and history, they are second to none in their knowledge of Lucas trivia. Incidentally, I happened to be paging through copies of the Saturday Evening Post for 1945 the other day and chanced upon an article that proclaimed with alarm the astounding news that students in American public schools were so completely ignorant of history as to be unable to say, exactly, when Abraham Lincoln was President or who, precisely, Benjamin Franklin was. In other words, the alleged ignorance of American school children is nothing new (and may, in fact, be fabricated by mischievous teenagers who resent adults rummaging around in their minds).

FORTHCOMING. There she is-the Pro. Standing there on page 130 of the May Previews, bending forward at the waist to fix her hose while simultaneously (and deliberately) letting us stare down the front of her decolletage, cigarette dangling from her lips, ashes scattered on her bosom. Nasty sex on the street corner gone superheroic. Jim Steranko was outraged at the idea of this book-billed as "the world's first superhero prostitute"-and I wasn't too keen on it either. Writer Garth Ennis has produced some of the grossest comic books around.

And since The Pro, hitting the stands in July, is intended as comedic relief from the tedious profundity of four-color superheroicism, we might expect in it the sort of light-heartedness that is reflected in, say, Ennis' other creation, Dicks. Or, to be precise, Bigger Dicks No. 2 from Avatar. The protagonists in this effort are a pair of irredeemably foul-mouthed, beer-breathed, armpit-odored denizens of Belfast whose interest in becoming detectives is motivated entirely by the notion that they won't have to actually do any work and that customers will simply walk in the front door to hire them and that'll leave them plenty of time to sit around farting and talking about fucking, two words that lace their language like tartar sauce at a fishfry. These two are the models that inspired "uncouth." The book resonates with crude outhouse humor, a little of which is, from time to time, against all odds, actually funny. As a general rule, however, the sort of humor being indulged herein is the kind that only people who find lighting their farts hilarious will laugh at. And John McCrea's art, on the other hand, is oddly suitable to the subject without being nearly as offensive: his line clear but his technique quirky. If anything can rescue Ennis's humor from its excesses in bodily functions and fluids, it's McCrea's drawings, which, in their quirkiness, distract us from the unrelenting brutishness of the comedy.

On the back cover of Bigger Dicks No. 2, incidentally, is an ad for No. 1 issue of Shi: Poisoned Paradise under the Avatar imprint. Here, Bill Tucci's Shi, who was once a model of refined feminine costumed heroicism, squats and leans forward, offering as a kind of advertisement an unimpeded view of her cleavage and her crotch, which is rendered in loving almost gynecological detail. Typical of Avatar titles but not of Tucci. So what's going on here? Well, for one thing, Shi's drawn by Karl Waller in this issue, and he, like many of his cohorts, dwells lustfully on crotches.

Meanwhile, to return to The Pro shop, we may expect from this one-shot, if Dicks is any guide, pretty much the same sort of tasteless assault on conventional thinking and good manners. And, again, it is likely to be rescued by the art team, Amada Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti. I've remarked here before (Opus 81) about their work on Code Name: Knockout: Conner's slightly amped version of the so-called animated style is enhanced by Palmiotti's boldly inked outlines, deploying an undulating line of grace and fluidity, together providing the best interior art this book has seen. And I'm looking forward to seeing more of the same in The Pro.

The book's premise, according to the Previews hype, is that "an intergalactic bet is taken and superpowers are bestowed upon the most unlikely person on Earth. By day, she is a waitress at a local Denny's, but by night ... uh, well ... she's a chain-smoking hooker who's pissed off at the world and she's got the mouth and the backside to prove it."

Ennis, in an interview in the same catalogue, explains The Pro in terms of his disgust with mainstream superheroes: "They just seem fake-their adventures, their personas, their morality. And it annoys me slightly that they dominate a medium with as much potential as comics. The real point of writing The Pro is to overturn the status quo and scatter all the super crap to the four winds. Guys like Waid and Busiek and Kelly will suddenly realize the hollow emptiness of the characters they have been wasting their considerable talents on and immediately start writing all kinds of cool stuff. You mark my words!"

Always the kidder, that Ennis.

Conner, who drew Barbie years ago, took The Pro assignment because she's intrigued by the idea of doing something at the absolute opposite end of the cultural spectrum. Her visualization of the masked trollop is based, Conner says, upon Jennifer Jason Leigh.

"I sort of went in that direction," she said, "and then I realized that I wanted to make her look a lot like my best friend from high school, Melinda. She was always a tough ass bitch. I know when she reads this she is either gonna kill me or love me for that last comment."

The Pro, Conner continued, "is very real. She doesn't act like a Hollywood style hooker. She acts like a real, actual, sick-of-her-life, fed-up-with-the-world hooker. She also does things with her super-powers that most of us would do if we really got pissed off."

But, adds Ennis, "none of her powers come from her profession, and it's more to do with how she uses them."

Thank goodness: it's difficult to think of what interest there'd be in reading about super powers that emanate from waitressing. Balancing dishes on your arm? Chewing gum? Swabbing tabletops?

But I'm looking forward to this one. It should be a genuine hoot. No book can be all bad when it's advertised as being for "adolts only." Hey, lighten up, gang! Have some outrageous fun.

Another one I'm awaiting with jubilant expectation is Marc Hempel's Naked Brain, the first issue of a limited series of three arriving in July from Insight Studios Group. Hempel's sense of humor, which is coupled fiendishly to a sense of design that is both comedic and inventive, has long delighted me at Insight's website, www.sunnyfundays.com. Now we can all enjoy it in hardcopy, where it can be read and savored more leisurely and more frequently than on the Net. And in the same first issue, in addition to Naked Brain one-page strips and a smattering of single-panel gag cartoons, we'll witness the "triumphant return of Tug and Buster," one of the medium's most hilariously ingenious concoctions. Don't miss this one, either.

Also from Insight-actually, "moving from Insight to Image"-is Frank Cho's Liberty Meadows and Mark Wheatley's Hammer of the Gods, drawn by Michael Avon Oeming. The former will resume its comic book reprinting of the now-defunct newspaper comic strip, but with the previously censored strips restored, starting with No. 27; and an anthologized first nine issues of the previous comic book reprint series, Liberty Meadows Collection: Book 1, Eden, will be out in July, 128 pages that include sketches and some previously unpublished art.

Hammer (which we first visited in Opus 51 and then again in Op. 72) will likewise consist of reprint material-namely, the first 5-issue series of the comic book. But this time, in color in a trade paperback in September. After that, a new 3-issue mini-series is coming in November, also in color.

REPRINTS. The ghoulish murders of another century (the 19th) are Rick Geary's subjects in the NBM series of "Victorian Murders." The series, which includes Jack the Ripper, The Borden Tragedy (Lizzie Borden's parents were murdered-by Lizzie?), The Fatal Bullet (presidential assassination), and The Mystery of Mary Rogers, has gradually gained an audience, which finds Geary's unique coupling of painstaking research to whimsical comedic illustration an intriguing, even engaging, way of telling the tales. An opinion I share, enthusiastically. Now NBM has re-issued the first book in the series (long out-of-print), entitled, simply, Victorian Murders, employing the same 6x9-inch format as the others (72 pages in paperback, $8.95). Altogether-the whole collection-a neat package.

At last count, I determined that there were at least two dozen Ziggy books. So The Zen of Ziggy from Andrews McMeel is probably Number Twenty-five. Or more. Ziggy has been around newspaper syndication since about 1971, the invention of Tom Wilson, who was doubtless getting infected with notions about "the little guy in a big world" whilst laboring at American Greetings in Cleveland. Wilson was head of the Hi Brows department in the early sixties and rescued Robert Crumb by getting him transferred from the factory to Hi Brows, where creativity was encouraged and rewarded. Which probably has nothing to do with the book at hand. (For Crumb's early years, consult The Art of the Comic Book, my history of the medium, which can be previewed by clicking here.) But what can you say about the perpetual "little guy" who tries, single panel cartoon after single panel cartoon, to put the best face on life as we know it? Well, sometimes even Ziggy loses his cheery outlook. "It's really hard to think 'outside the box,'" he murmurs, "when you're a single-panel cartoon." This, and an endless ration of similar wisdom, in 128 8x8" paperback pages for $10.95.

Also from Andrews McMeel, here's Zits Unzipped, the fifth "sketchbook" reprinting the comic strip by Jim Borgman and Jerry Scott. Zits has been a runaway success of a comic strip since it was launched, picked up by over 500 newspapers within a year of its debut. It now appears in about 1,000 newspapers, joining only about 15 other strips (in a field of 225 or so) with that many subscribers. But more significant, to me, than its circulation figures is its aesthetic: Borgman and Scott exploit the resources of the comic strip medium more than just about anyone working today. The Sunday strips, particularly, are often configured in ways to take advantage of the greater vertical space afforded on Sundays-and the color. And these novel configurations always enhance the humor; in many instances, they are the very core of the comedy. But you'll have to see it yourself-in this tome or any of the preceding quartet. The Sunday strips herein are embellished with gray tones substituting for color, but otherwise, we have a whole week's worth of the strip in every three pages (six dailies, three to a page; one Sunday on a page). My only carp: why not leave the dates of release on the strips so misbegotten historians like me will know which months, days, and years these strips were first published?

COMIC BOOK REVIEWS. Pantheon No. 11 is well drawn in black-and-white, particularly renderings of locale, which are impressive, by penciller Paul Ryan and inker Bill Williams, but the book is awash in characters-Dynasty, Freedom Machine, Deathboy, Daedalus, Mount Thunder, Chaos Nation, Kid Babylon, Thunderdog, Gangrene, Dr. Meggido, Outrider, Philly, Red Rivet (only two of which are entirely ringers here, mine own inventions to mock the facile namings that flow through this title like so many mountain rivulets in springtime). The cryptic plot summary on the inside front cover helps but just barely. And then we forge blithely on into the book, and on every page, we meet a new character. Who are these guys and what do they do and which side are they on? Nearly impossible to tell. Still-astonishingly enough-I was drawn into the story and kept turning the pages, eager to find out what's happening next. (Or, maybe, just eager to find out what it was all about.) There's an end-of-the-world confrontation coming, of that I'm pretty sure; and I almost have a grip on who the combatants are. Promising from Bill Willingham but flawed in the sheer multiplicity of cast and motivations.

With Fables No. 1, on the other hand, Willingham grabbed me by the third page when I realized that his cast was composed of fugitives from fairytales. Actually, I was already into it because of the running character whose progress we watch for the first 2 pages as he crashes into the Woodland Luxury Apartments: Why's he running? What's the emergency? And then we encounter the Big Bad Wolf, a slovenly factotum in the mansion. Next-Snow White, deputy mayor, wrestles with the marital problems of the Beauty and the Beast, who keeps slipping into the animal kingdom and growing tusks as speech impediments whenever his wife (Beauty) gets mad at him. But the most engaging episode herein is Prince Charming's seduction of the waitress at the restaurant. He is, after all, "charming" to the point of being irresistible, and so we next see them thrashing about in the throes of ecstasy, muttering double entendre by the platter. All this keeps us going until we finally reach the pages where the Dastardly Deed is encountered. This could be good. Well rendered, too, by Lan Medina on pencils and Steve Leialola in inks.

More sophisticated pillow talk in Green Arrow No. 12, courtesy of Kevin Smith aided and abetted-nay, enhanced-by Phil Hester's visual compositions and Ande Parks' black-soaked inks. Oliver and Dinah wind up in the sack, an episode that concludes with a very sweaty innuendo about one of the more heated sexual practices among humans on the planet. ...

With No. 8, Greg Rucka's Queen and Country acquires a fresh illustrator, Leandro Fernandez, whose work, somehow a blend of Mignola's rich black solids and Risso's linework, is crisp and telling in the usual black-and-white. Neat and uncluttered; clean linear work, clear and unambiguous. As usual, the taut storytelling-minimal dialogue, almost cryptic, sometimes entirely silent for action sequences-is highly cinematic in the thriller mode, in which suspense and violent activity are the dominant means to the end of maintaining menace and action as long as possible.

When Stan Lee undertook to weave Catwoman into his New Age epic for DC, he latched onto a character with little or no heft as a major costumed being. Catwoman's current popularity arises entirely from her skin-tight costume, not from the length of her superhero pedigree. But that matters not a whit: what matters is Lee's story, Chris Bachald's pencils, and Richard Friend's drenching inks. At first blush, the visuals herein are juicy and delicious. But then we perceive that it's the rich blacks that enhance the pages, and that, when it comes to clarity of detail, we must scrutinize these tiny panels far too long to make sense of what's transpiring. Bachald's miniature pictures of people permit him to time the action, spacing it out for dramatic effect or mood enhancement, and to erect an impressive backdrop of gloomy alleys and deserted buildings, all dripping with unaccountable moisture, I ween. And that's fine. But it is too often impossible to tell what's actually going on. Who are the figures in the third panel on page 7? One has cat eyes, but what else is there? And on page 9, the 6th panel is indecipherable. A speech balloon points its tail at something, but what is it? Who is it? And how, exactly, does Catwoman defeat Furgo? She just wears him out? Is that it? Nags him into oblivion? We see little evidence of any other hostile activity from her.

Because so many thrillers on the big screen happen fast and convey only a sound-and-light impression of the action taking place, we're accustomed to this visual bafflement-a puzzle that only subsequent dialogue will illuminate. But you'd think a visual medium would strive, first, for clarity. Not here, sorry. Lots of nice pages, nifty artwork-stunning blacks-and a curiously atmospheric technique of spattering the art with blots and blotches and sprinkles of black ink. As for Catwoman-she gets her powers as a "cat" by being struck by lightning. That device is a little threadbare, Stan. Why doesn't the lightning give her the powers of electricity? Or of a spider? Or of a rain-drop?

Finally, here's DC's Batman in the Fifties, in squareback paper, reprinting 16 Dark Knight tales from that decade with an ample introduction by Michael Uslan (which concludes with a list of Uslan's credits and accomplishments that's almost as long as the introduction to most of the other DC reprints of this kind-the sort of lengthy recitation usually given on job applications). Much of the energy in the introduction and in the promotional hype for this collection is devoted to portraying the Batman of 1950-59 as somehow "wacky" or comical. Speaking as a reader who bought this books off the stands at the time of their initial publication, I beg to differ. Batman stories of that vintage (many by Batman's creator, Bill Finger) were (are) scarcely wacky: rather, they were (and continue to be) ingenious, clever contrivances of the detective school of fiction, blended, slightly, with science fiction. Uslan says there were four types of stories in those days: those that up-date the Batman legend, those that add new members to the "Batman family," those that introduce new villains or bring back classic bad guys, and those that explore the realm of science (technology) and fantasy. Well, yes. What else is there? Oh-personality. Character.

What's missing from the 1950s, in other words, are stories that are chiefly investigations of the personalities of the hero or his foes. Today's kind of stories. Stories with no plots, no cunning twists and turns-just personality disorders. The Batman of the fifties was not a psychotic obsessed with avenging himself on those who'd murdered his parents. Nope. The Batman of the fifties was a cheerful crusader against crime perpetually accompanied by his wise-cracking side-kick, Robin "the Boy Wonder." Just the sort of stories that the juvenile audience towards whom the books were aimed would enjoy.

It's a treat to see again the Batman artwork that so fascinated me in those yesteryears. But I'm surprised (having never paid much attention to who actually drew the stories then) to find that Shelly Moldoff was so frequently represented. I thought it was Dick Sprang's decade. But not if you judge by this tome (which is formally dedicated to Sprang). Of the 16 stories herein, only 6 are pencilled by Sprang; 9 by Moldoff. (And one by the oft-alleged creator of the character, assisted by Lew Schwartz.) Charles Paris did most of the inks (11 of the 16), the others falling to Stan Kaye (3), George Roussos, and Moldoff (1). Although a pretty fair sampling of the fifties fare, the collection tilts to the latter half: 11 of the stories are from 1955-59, and 1953 isn't represented at all. But the book as a whole is, as I say, a nostalgic banquet of Batman for aging fans such as I.

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