Opus 100:

OPUS 100: A FLURRY OF FIRSTS (September 15). Among the Number Ones of the last week or so is the humorous  Dungeon from NBM by Joann Sear and Lewis Trondeim. It's been awhile since a first issue has tickled me as much as this one. Awash in gray tones (which, regrettably, makes some pictures difficult to see), the book nonetheless sparkles with wit both verbal and visual. The off-beat comedy concerns the Dungeon (naturally) and its denizens-demons, trolls, orcs, vampires, gorgons, werewolves, bad fellows, endless worms, snotlings and killer mushrooms-coaxed along by the Guardian, a sort of bird. "I know all of my beasts by their first names," he says, "each one lives in a suitable habitat, I regulate their food, light, and temperature so these slobbering hordes can be in top form." Finding the Dungeon beset by mysterious interlopers wearing socks over their heads, the Guardian sends for a minion suitable for repelling them-namely, "Ababakar Octoflea, prince without a principality, who stomps on the tombs of kings." Unfortunately, Ababakar is beheaded before he can take up the sword on the Dungeon's behalf, so a duck impersonates him and ... Well, it goes on in much this vein for the rest of the book as Marvin, the Guardian's pet monster, joins with the duck, who is sometimes dead, to confront an assortment of menaces.

            The dialogue is littered with drily comical remarks. When the duck shows up in a barbarian's guise, the Guardian is suspicious and asks his attending vulture, "Thaumaturge, what's your opinion of this barbarian?" "I think he's a duck, Guardian," says that worthy. "Mmmm," says the Guardian, "that's just what I feared." Later, the villainous sockheads dispose of the duck in the dark of night, saying, "We'll throw his corpse into the middle of the town to serve as an example." "Good, brother," says his comrade; "I wonder, though, if we shouldn't bring it during the middle of the day. Since everybody's sleeping at this hour, it's not much of an example." "On the contrary, brother," says the other; "tomorrow the corpse will be covered with bugs which'll make it an even better example."

            Among the sight gags, my favorite is the spooky shapes the smoke from the Guardian's ever-present pipe takes-vampires, ghouls, skeletal specters. All told, a delicious outing, an adventure to be concluded in the next issue.

            Paradigm by Matthew Cashel and Jeremy Haun is another matter. It ain't funny, for one thing. It begins well-with Christopher's girlfriend shooting a mugger in the face when he attempts to rob the couple, a shocker-but it trickles into incomprehensibility by the end of the book. This is one of those tales with an ensemble cast, and we meet them all, their significances to one another occasionally vague. It reads like a screenplay rather than a comic book-speech balloons littering the pages as the characters talk and talk. It's witty talk often, and it rings authentic, but there's too much of it for a static medium. The pictures, alas, confuse matters rather than clarifying them. Steeped in black, the imagery is often difficult to make out. And faces are not distinct. Were it not for spectacles and/or a beard, we couldn't tell one of these young men from another. Drawing individualized faces in a realistic mode isn't easy, but one trick is to make the noses different. And, having done that, make the nose on each character the same every time you draw it. Sounds simple, I know, but when you try to jazz up the artwork with shadows and feathering, distinctive features are often lost in the murk. Presumably, the book will eventually lead us into some paranormal realm. But I can't say for certain. I'm not sure what is happening to Christopher on the last page: are those bullets coming at him in slow motion? Or what?

            21 Down is another effort in which the rendering of faces is often so varied in mode as to make the characters unrecognizable from one picture to the next. Otherwise, however, it's a promising book. Drawn by Jesus Saiz and written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti (that is, I think they are the writers and not also the artists; credits here are obscure), the first issue ends provocatively, stunningly-just as the opening chapter of a book ought to end. Preston, a tattoo artist who also possesses an unusual super power-the ability to see death in the near future-is going to die, he tells us, and soon. But we don't know exactly when. He works with his brother Rob, a police officer, to prevent forthcoming homicides or to capture perpetrators, not always successfully. In the book's last scene, Preston is assaulted and then ... But you'll have to see it yourself. A pregnant crescendo of a conclusion. And it involves the beauteous female depicted-lovingly and oh so expertly-by Joe Jusko in a painting reminiscent of those pocketbook masterpieces of gratuitous sensuality we saw in our youth. Sigh. The cover is worth the price of the book.

            Another of my favorites this time is Crime Comics from AC. Although it's numbered "one," Bill Black tells us it's a one-shot. Too bad: the shot is a beaut. As Black's opening text explains, this reprints in black-and-white several stories from the 1950s stock of Lev Gleason titles and some from Avon and Crestwood/Prize, too. The roster of artists reads like a who's who of Golden Age crime comics: Fred Kida, Bob Fujitani, Alex Toth (in craftint), Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, Mort Meskin, and Marvin Stein (who draws Meskin as the detective in his story), and Joe Kubert. This last seems to be a story the artwork of which is computer scanned rather than Theakstonized, but the results are stunning. The verbiage sometimes crowd Kubert's pictures into the tiniest corners of the panels, but each picture is a stylistically distinct thumbprint of the master. You can find more of this sort of thing in other AC titles, notably America's Greatest Comics, which reprints in excellent shape some classics from the era.

            Although not a first issue, Liberty Meadows No. 27 is the first incarnation of Frank Cho's work from his new publisher, Image. And the book is worth owning if for no other reason that the cover drawing of Brandy flaunting her ample bosom adorned with the company logo. But there are other reasons. The comedy inside, for instance-of which there is a plentitude, including a few strips that were censored out of the continuity by Cho's syndicate editors. (One of them, strangely, includes nothing any more offensive than Brandy's trying to eat a hot dog. Cho's editors accuse this endeavor of proffering sexual innuendo. Geez, you really have to work to get that. You can find it in a hot dog, surely; but "Sometimes," as Freud himself once famously said, "a cigar is just a cigar." Then again, now that I think of it, with Frank Cho, a wiener isn't just a wiener, is it?) Ralph and Leslie, accompanied by Brandy, attend a comic book convention; and there are some defecation gags. And then Ralph tries to fly. Again. And again and again. The book's format has been altered: still the traditional 6.5x10 inches, the pages are now bound on the narrow side so the comic strips inside follow the form, a generous two to a page. The cover, however, is still oriented in the usual way, the up-and-down dimension being the largest.

            And speaking of beauteous representatives of the curvaceous gender, here's Spider-Man and the Black Cat No. 1, "The Evil That Men Do." The Black Cat aka Felicia Hardy comes out of retirement, goes to New York, and runs into Peter Parker, who, as Spider-Man, is trying to find the drug peddler whose goods killed a young kid. It could be that the revival of the Cat Woman over at DC persuaded Marvel to bring their leotard-clad shady lady out again; who knows? Whatever the motive, the mechanism is applauded here: they managed to get Terry and Rachel Dodson, of Harley Quinn fame, to do the honors, and they do 'em up proud. The book bounces with lively sequences showing Spidey and then Black Cat swinging through the air, a perfect excuse for depicting human anatomy in as many possible poses as can be imagined, and the Dodsons deftly do just that. They tell Kevin Smith's story with panache (and without that little nostril delineation that disfigured Harley in the latter issues), and add a tasteful sensual glow to the opening sequence in which Felicia takes a shower. A cliche, I know, but they manage to diffuse the sexuality of it by going the whole three pages without showing her face, and in one panel, she's shaving her leg. Talk about realism, kimo sabe! Rachel, who colors as well as inks Terry's drawings, deploys color for dramatic emphasis, among other things, lighting Felicia's bosom with artful eroticism. And it is a bosom of worthy embonpoint-worthy, that is, of highlighting. In No. 2 of this series, there is more figure-drawing and figure-contemplating as Felicia and Peter remember their trysts of yore. They also swing through the night air a lot, the Black Cat "riding" on Spider-Man in one sequence as he kids her about having gained weight. Well, she is more voluptuous than in previous incarnations, I'd say. But by the end of the book, the Dodsons have demonstrated a surpassing ability at rendering flat-chested women in tights, too-with Scorpia, who shows up for an old fashioned, er, cat fight. Or, as the Black Cat shouts, "Let's show the guys in the room what they really want to see-some girl-on-girl action!" Sigh. And so it goes: every time sex rears its lovely head. So to speak.

            Finally, Fables No. 5 came out since we last met, and, true to the promise of the previous issue, Bigby spends most of this one in the famous "parlor denouement" scene, replicating thousands of sleuth flicks of the thirties and forties. No, I won't tell you who dun it, but, as you might expect, Bluebeard, famous for multiple wives, and his marital plans for Rose Red figure in the plot. Unlike the original fairy tale, however, Snow White doesn't wed the prince at the end. Ahh, poor Bigby.

CLIPS AND QUIPS. DC's Catwoman: Secret Files & Origins No. 1 is a handy item; apart from a few short stories that portray Selina as a modern Robin Hood more definitely than erstwhile (including a nifty tongue-in-cheek two-pager with her trying on an assortment of increasingly skimpy costumes), we have one-page bios of Selina, Holly, Slam Bradley, and Black Mask, all of which makes some of the current tale-bearing more comprehensible to newly arriving fans. ... Point Blank No. 2 is entirely too talky; it reads more like the script for a movie than a comic book, but Colin Wilson's art (which reminds me of Lieutenant Blueberry of yore) is nice to look at, appropriately gritty for the story, and the story's proposition is provocative, so it'll be worth another couple issues to see how it lays out....

BOOK REVIEWS. The Shmoo is back. Al Capp killed off the shmoo in his comic strip Li'l Abner in December 1948, and now it's back. In his otherwise vaporous introduction to the book at hand, Harlan Ellison calls the shmoo "the only great idea Al Capp ever had." The shmoo, for those of you who missed it, is a soft, squishy-looking bowling-pin of a character with two legs and feet but no arms, two eyes and one mouth but no nose whose whole purpose in life is to make others happy, which it does by magically producing all sorts of foodstuffs and other useful items. They lay eggs "at the slightest excuse" and give milk and cheesecake; as for meat-broiled they make the finest steaks; fried, yummy chicken. They drop dead out of sheer ecstasy if you look at them hungrily. And there's no waste: their hide makes the finest leather or cloth (depending upon how thick you slice it), their eyes make suspender buttons, and their whiskers, toothpicks. Moreover, they are available in endless supply because they breed more rapidly than fruit flies. Li'l Abner stumbled onto shmoos in August 1948 and the world was subsequently on the brink of changing forever: once shmoos were loose in so-called civilization, humanity lost the motivation to go to war and to engage in every sort of capitalistic enterprise. Why bother? Shmoos provide everything one needs. And for that very reason, in Capp's satirically bent brain, they had to be destroyed wholesale. Otherwise, they would "corrupt" society, destroying the very things upon which civilization is founded-namely, greed and need.

            The character was such a happy satirical conception, so cute, and so popular (and so successfully merchandised), that Capp brought it back briefly in 1959. And now both these appearances in the strip have been reprinted in The Short and Happy Times of the Shmoo from Overlook Press (160 7.5x8.5" pages, hardback; $22.95). Although the compilers tell us this collection has been edited "slightly" for the sake of continuity (meaning, I suppose, that repetitive panels have been deleted occasionally), this tome is the most complete reprinting of the shmoo's comic strip life. Pocket Book produced a reprint volume in 1949, but, despite the lavish use of single-color overlays for marginal color, the reprinting was not complete, stopping in mid-October 1948. The Overlook book continues through December, reprinting the Sadie Hawkins Day race that is the proper conclusion to the shmoo tale. And, as I said, it also includes the 1959 reincarnation of the cute li'l critters, which has never, to my knowledge, been reprinted before. For more about Capp-that is, an entire biography-visit Harv's Hindsights, for which a listing of topics appears here.

BOOK SALE. Just one this time, namely "offered again," for Li'l Abner fans, an excellent reading copy of the March 31, 1952 edition of Life which features Abner's wedding to the long-suffering Daisy Mae on the cover (Abner in his shorts and Daisy Mae in her veil with Marryin' Sam a-marryin' them), just $10, plus $1 p&h. (This issue also includes a report on the awarding of the Oscars that year-among them, Best Actress to Vivian Leigh for Streetcar Named Desire and Best Actor to Humphrey Bogart for African Queen, which he accepted, it is reported, with a "deadpan smile"; excuse me, but if he was smiling, he wasn't deadpan.)

            To purchase this treasure, send me an e-mail (see far, far below), and I'll respond with mailing instructions. Stay 'tooned.

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