Opus 94:

Opus 94: MAD'S SPIDER-MAN, LARSEN'S DRAGON, IDA RED & BASTARD SAMURAI (July 5). In No. 418, Mad "squishes" Spider-Man. Dick Debartolo writes and Tom Richmond draws a take-off on the movie, crammed with the usual sophomoric parent-baiting so-called humor, and then, later in the book, Sergio Aragones takes "a look" at Spider-Man. The best thing about the movie parody is in the last panel wherein a back-handed tribute is paid to Steve Ditko. Aragones' take in his usual devastatingly silent comedy is on the character rather than the movie and is funnier. Aragones' "marginals" continue to infest the magazine's pages, but, alas, they're now being reproduced so small that my ancient eyes can barely make 'em out.... According to Robin Snyder in the current issue of The Comics, his monthly first-person history of the medium (with the first-persons being, usually, participants in the actual history they relate as well as being the tale-bearers), Bob Cosgrove is the only commentator on the Spider-Man movie to have noticed that the celebrated "falling tray" sequence (wherein Peter Parker moves fast enough to catch all of Mary Jane's lunch items when they fall off her tray) is a borrowing from the late Robert Kanigher's Silver Age Flash origin story. Kanigher was a frequent contributor to Snyder's on-going history-by-the-eye-witnesses venture. Subscriptions to Snyder's newsletter are $25 for 12 issues (usually 8 pages/issue) from Snyder, 2284 Yew Street Road, #B6, Bellingham, WA 98226-8899....

            Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon is moving, inexorably, towards its 100th issue. In Nos. 98 and 99, Finhead begins to unravel the mystery surrounding the presumed destruction of his world that resulted in his being transported to some sort of nightmare universe where he was being attacked by monstrous beings on every page. This out-world sequence was rendered in the old-style Marvel manner-fisticuffs by the drove, six equal-sized panels to a page, all flash and filigree and very little of the subtle sorts of storytelling Larsen was so adept at in the book until then. In the last few issues, however, he has revived his pacing and page layout mannerisms a little, and the book is better for it. As for the story itself, I'm sure it is intriguing to time-travel enthusiasts, but my old brain can scarcely get around such concepts (what sort of action in the "now" undoes an action in the "future"?), and even though I've followed this title almost from the beginning, I have trouble remembering who all the characters are and what their relationships may be. I admit, however, that this is my failure, not Larsen's. People in their dotage, like me, should not comment on complicated intellectual exercises that they can't keep up on. Something about an evil twin, though. It'll all be revealed in the giant-sized No. 100, which looms, even as we speak, on the horizon....

            Paul Dini and Jason Bone have teamed up to bring us Mutant, Texas: Tales of Sheriff Ida Red. In the first issue, we watch Ida lose her parents during some sort of alien encounter after which she's raised by Tia Oso, the Bear-woman, near the town of Mystic, which, due to assorted cosmic and atomic energies, has been transformed into a town of mutants (half-animals and occasional cactus-people) called Mutant. As she grows into womanhood, Ida wonders what became of the mysterious power she possessed as an infant, and by the end of this issue, she's retrieved the power. More to come. Bone's artwork, in the "animated Batman style," is a deft display of bold relatively simple linework, expertly applied, often revealing, with a subtle touch,  a character's personality in, say, the thrust of a hip or the akimbo of an arm. Nice. Then there are exchanges like this to warm the cockles:

            "Just simmer down, Beau," says Sheriff Wade Brunt; "shouting won't help."

            "Simmer, nothin'," says Beau. "We've lost five head of cattle this month!"

            "Two head on the same cow," chimes in Beau's paramour, seeking to be helpful.

            Meanwhile, Mike Avon Oeming (co-writer and inker) and Kelsey Shannon (co-creator and penciler) continue their pyrotechnics in the second issue of Bastard Samurai. The pages are drenched in solid black and successive scenes are tinted in monochromatic variations. This book is another of those in which the visual effort is to convey as much as possible with as little actual artwork as possible, and these two are masters at it. A stunning display. And in this issue we begin to understand how the Samurai of the title came to be, meeting his "familiar," Toshi, who keeps him alive. "You are my job," she says. This coupling is intriguing and promising.

            REPRINT REVIEWS. Mark Tonra's James, now in paperback (128 8.5x9" pages; $10.95 from Andrews McMeel). Minimal visuals. Bare bones. Spare. Pre-schooler romance, Mom and self. Learning life.

            Minimalist technique works in a visual mode but, as you can tell, not in the verbal. We have scarcely words enough to describe the pictorial delights in James, a comic strip cast into a hostile world just eighteen months ago, on November 13, 2000. To say that James is a kid inhabiting the age between toddler and preschooler only hints at the scope of the strip. And if we add that Tonra habitually represents his title character with but 18 lines, we get a little closer. But only a little.

            Like all his species, James is exploring the world and himself, testing his capacities and his understanding by impinging, relentlessly, upon his playmates and their understandings and his parents and theirs.

            "Hey, Mom!" James yells. "What's up with the world?" he continues. "Plenty," his mother replies. "I had my suspicions," James says.

            This is Tonra's third try at syndicated fame and fortune. He did the superbly minimalist strip Top of the World for two years a couple years ago; and before that, in 1995, he did Jack & Tyler-all the while doing gag cartoons for magazines (for which the National Cartoonists Society gave him a category award in 1997). James is rendered in another variation of Tonra's spare style, reminiscent, this time, of the champion cartooning minimalist, Britisher Kenneth Bird, the Punch cartoonist who signed his work "Fougasse."

            James, Tonra told an interviewer when the strip started, "looks almost the way a child would draw it." Well, not quite: there's a canny sophistication in these few lines that no child could readily achieve.

            Tonra is a new father, whose son, James, inspires the strip. "The things I write about really are a direct result of watching him," he said.

            Seemingly, this sort of thinking represents a reversal of an earlier conviction that governed Top of the World, in which two convicts try, endlessly, to escape from prison and their guards try to prevent them. Tonra acknowledged at the time that Top ran counter to a trend in comic strips that held a mirror up to everyday life.

            "Dilbert is one of the more brilliant and very funny examples of this trend,"Tonra told Patrick McDonnell in Cartoonist PROfiles (No. 117, March 1998; back issues available at www.cartoonistprofiles.com). "But," Tonra continued, "I don't always want to see my life in a comic strip. I see my life every day."

            With Top, Tonra aimed to amuse by plumbing "another world" from the everyday world readers all occupy. It was "escapist" entertainment (sorry) in more than one sense.

            But the strip failed after a couple years. So now, Tonra is doing a "real life" strip. Or is he? Tonra felt that McDonnell's Mutts took place in another world; ditto Peanuts. Perhaps it is the viewpoint that is "other" not the situation. And James, giving us the viewpoint of a precocious child experiencing the world for the first time, is an insightful "other."

             Tonra deploys the resources of his medium with telling effect. As James acquires knowledge of his world, he forms his philosophy of living. Both learning and philosophical formulation take place in the succession of panels that time James' discovery and, then, his revelation, each integral to the multi-panel form.

            Playing with a yo-yo, he says: "I used to be discouraged by failure." Then, swinging the yo-yo around: "I've since learned to stay the course." The yo-yo spirals around him like a swarm of tiny planets: "Regardless of defeat," he continues, looking a little rattled now. And then, in the last panel, "tied up" by the yo-yo string, "Fortune favors the delusional."

            As usual with the best examples of the cartoonist's art, the pictures-the yo-yo and its embracing string-contribute content necessary to understanding the humor. But sometimes, the medium contributes only the timing of the gag.

            "Wake up!" says James at the beginning of a parade of five panels with him looking out at us in each. "Eat! Live! Eat!" he commands. "Live some more! Eat again!" he continues; then, "Sleep!" Finally, his conclusion: "Let's keep doing this until we get it right!"

            On another day, we meet Noah, a friend, who has a gerbil in his shirt. It got there by way of the sleeve. "Does he bite?" James wants to know. Noah: "Nibbles." "What's the difference," James asks, "between a bite and a nibble?" Noah: "Friendship." Last panel, James beaming: "Best learned at a young age."

            On another occasion, James, looking directly out at us, announces: "I love this shirt!" Then, in successive panels, he continues his explication: "I'd wear it every day ... including Sunday ... if my mom would let me!" Concluding, "'If' rules the world."

            James is about love, too. James rejoices in being carried around by his mother. And when he proclaims, standing on one side of a line drawn in front of him, "I finally crossed th' line ... there I was ... here I am ... individual ... autonomous ... independent," in the last panel, he is much smaller as he says, "Miss you."

            Tonra's minimalist pictures play a decisive role.

            Sometimes, they depict the punchline itself. James approaches his chest of drawers, talking as he goes from one panel to the next: "To dress..." he says, "or not..." opening a drawer, "...to dress," taking out a pair of pants, "...that is the question!" he finishes, putting his pants on his head like a hat.

            The spare visuals foster a similar elliptical verbal content. One week, James experiences a "sinking feeling" and decides to stay in bed. On the second day, we watch his bed for two panels, then see his head pop up from under the covers. In the fourth panel, he's back under the covers, saying, "Too much too soon."

            On another day, James is having a disagreement with his mother. "More," he says. "Less," she says. "More." "Less." "More." "Less." In the last panel, James' shadow says, "Problem?" To which James replies, "More or less."

            In Tonra's most unusual trope, James carries on numerous exchanges with his shadow, which quickly becomes a "character" in the strip's cast. James' mother is another fairly regular presence. And then there's the mysterious "curb kid," heard but never seen; Martha, a sassy girl; Erik, an eccentric; Gordy, the underachieving overachiever.

            Despite the white space that predominates in the strip, James (who has been described as Calvin without Hobbes) has plenty of company. Grown-ups appear occasionally, and the kid has the assortment of friends and hangers-on I mentioned. The most promising of these, however, is his own shadow. There, perhaps, a Hobbes is lurking.

            You can see more at www.jamesfans.com. Or you can buy this delicious book.

            And while we're loitering at Andrews McMeel, here's the 23rd collection of Bill Amend's FoxTrot strip (128 8.5x6.5" pages in paperback, $8.95), taking its title from a sequence in which father Roger writes a spy novel-His Code Name Was The Fox-in which he, Roger, is the heroic protagonist. "'Danger' is my middle name," this doppleganger tells a winsome secretary, looming over her, "-that and 'handsome.' And 'brilliant.' And 'very suave.' Shall I go on?" Amend's drawings as he depicts the action of Roger's novel are hilarious and more detailed than you expect in the strip. Amend's simple rendering style has acquired, over the years, considerable polish with gray tones and solid blacks, and herein it is showcased to advantage. The collection also features genius son Jason's video playmate, sister Paige's personal secretary, brother Peter's return to the theater, Isles of Fun resorting, basement cleaning, and adventures in spaghetti. FoxTrot, in case you weren't paying attention, is one of a handful of comic strips to appear in over 1,000 newspapers. It is, in other words, a huge success, and you can see why in this volume.

            Stay 'tooned.

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