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PG Previews:

July 2011

Below are the comics, manga and graphic novels I’m most looking forward to based on publisher advance listings due to be released in July 2011 (although actual dates may vary).

Any Empire
by Nate Powell
Top Shelf Productions

The publisher says:
Any Empire, is a vivid examination of war and violence, and their trickle-down effects on middle America. First, a group of small-town kids find themselves bound together by geography, boredom, and a string of mysterious turtle mutilations. Years later, with Army tanks rolling through the streets of their hometown, these young adults are forced to confront painful questions of privilege, duty, betrayal, and courage. Any Empire recalls aimless summers of Nancy Drew and GI Joe, treehouses and army surplus stores… but when fantasy starts to bleed into reality, whose mission will be accomplished?

Paul Gravett says:
We start back in the suburbs of Wormwood during a post-Vietnam era of eating TV dinners while watching The A-Team and falling asleep to a special treat, a home video of Platoon. Two boys, loner Lee and gang-leader Purdy, both idolise their ex-military Dads, one formerly in the national guard, the other the United States Air Force Academy. Lee fantasises about his toy G.I. Joes attacking a Cobra fortress, disguised as a regular garden barbecue, confusing adolescent heroism with awkward sexual awakening. The two kids start playing their war games more seriously. especially when Lee feels his life being disrupted by the family having to move home to a new neighbourhood and school. His parents try to reassure themselves: “Should we worry?” “Naw, boys just have this phase, I guess. Maybe.” Another local household is also facing change. Bookish ten-year-old Sarah faces an upsetting move from their trailer home to a bigger, better place. When she discovers ‘box turtles’, wounded in their stomachs, she is determined to solve this real-life Nancy Drew mystery and quickly comes to suspect her own younger brother.

Nate Powell evokes that liminal world between childhood and adolescence in his soft fuzzy-edged panels, vibrating with tiny, turbulent brush strokes. He drops in black backgrounds behind his panels to indicate Lee’s imaginary battles or the blurry frontier between the the real and the imagined, indicated by the backgrounds shimmering diagonally behind the panels across the page. Elsewhere, he adds halftones to indicate newspaper reports or photos, for example of the ‘Assault in Anwar’, or reproduces a secret note passed back and forth in class between Sarah and Lee as full-page photos. It’s interesting to see the effect of Powell’s choice of mostly lower-case lettering for the dialogue, somehow suggesting a subdued, unemphatic delivery. He sprinkles snatches of low-volume speech in tiny scrawl, which he makes illegible, ie inaudible, when they are too far away to be heard.

In the second part, we flash forward to Lee, now graduated from comic books to Paintball Monthly and Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll, and to Sarah, living on her own and in some debt, smoking, a dog and cat owner, as she thinks back to inviting Lee to her birthday party. Their paths reconnect when Lee is interviewed by Sarah for a job. As Lee says, “It’s so good to see you”, we share his subjective gaze on Sarah’s now developed bottom and breasts, which leads to a striking spread of their facing profiles above an iconostasis of panels recording the snatched glances and glimpses, the partial views they make of each other - a hint of unbuttoned cleavage, lips, clasped hands, knees. Powell cuts in a flashback to Lee watching with his father a halftoned sequence of an animated Christmas movie on television. It stars mice in a post-human world, who make their homes inside converted soldier’s helmets, hard and shaped like turtle shells. As we pull back, we see beneath these helmets, the bleached skulls of their wearers, and presumably underground their buried remains.

Meantime, Purdy and the twins who were in his boyhood gang have gone from playing at soldiers as kids to doing it for real as young men and joining the army. When Purdy steps on a landmine, ‘Bloompf’,  he loses his lower left arm and hand, which the army miraculously replaces with a high-tech mechanical prosthetic with ‘interchangeable accessories’. In another arresting tableau, Powell shows us a whole line of marching Purdys, dressed in different uniforms from history, like some eternal unknown soldier, fighting for ‘any empire’ that needs an army. At one point, Purdy and the twins have had enough. They have seen horrors and so put down their rifles, the three guns forming a pyramid with a helmet on top. “FUCK IT, WE JUST WON’T FIGHT.” So they go AWOL and bizarrely drive their tank back to their home town. The separation of reality and dream, past and present, hometown and frontline, two realities a world apart, starts to blur as clouds and sand, and rumbling tanks, apparently on a training exercise (Operation Metropolis?), arrive on Sarah’s doorstep. She has not forgotten those unpunished turtle crimes - “There is no justice”- and has kept something in a box for just this moment. Can there ever be justice?

Like in his award-winning Swallow Me Whole, Nate Powell appears to deliver a naturalistic portrayal of young lives but the strange and symbolic, the interior lives, are never far away and seep between and within the panels. Always making linear sense isn’t the only way of making powerful, disorientating stories. With Any Empire, he crafts a surprising, affecting, troubling graphic novel that haunts the mind. It is also a significant addition to an emerging 21st century genre of comics dealing with the complex homeland impacts of foreign wars, whether Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, on impressionable young Americans, for instance as seen in Kevin Pyle’s Blindspot and Danica Novgorodoff and James Ponsoldt’s Refresh Refresh.   

Big Mother
by McBess

The publisher says:
It is rare to find a talent like McBess’s - let alone one with so prolific an output. Over the past few years he has been churning out a mammoth body of personal work, alongside his responsibilities as a commercial and video director at The Mill - and for the first time the best of the lot has been collection and collated into an oversized A3 monograph of his work.

Paul Gravett says:
McBess stands out to me from the profusion of today’s “cool” illustration stylists for being a world-builder and storyteller and that gift was clear from my furst exposure to his work in Malevolent Melody released in 2009. In this wacky project with its own vinyl soundtrack, I especially like his inventiveness with incorporating narrative and textual elements into his imagery. “It’s comics, Jim, but not as we know it!”

Big Questions
by Anders Nilsen
Drawn & Quarterly

The publisher says:
A haunting postmodern fable, Big Questions is the magnum opus of Anders Nilsen, one of the brightest and most talented young cartoonists working today. This beautiful and minimalist story, collected here for the first time, is the culmination of ten years and over 600 pages of work that details the metaphysical quandaries of the occupants of an endless plain, existing somewhere between a dream and a Russian steppe. A downed plane is thought to be a bird and the unexploded bomb that came from it is mistaken for a giant egg by the group of birds whose lives the story follows. The indifferent and stranded pilot is of great interest to the birds - some doggedly seek his approval, while others do quite the opposite, leading to tensions in the group. Nilsen seamlessly moves from humor to heartbreak. His distinctive, detailed line work is paired with plentiful white space and large, often frameless panels, conveying an ineffable sense of vulnerability and openness. Big Questions has roots in classic fable - the story’s birds and snakes have more to say than their human counterparts and there are hints of the classic hero’s journey, but the easy moral that closes most fables is left here as open and ambiguous. Rather than lending its world meaning, Nilsen’s parable lets the questions wander out to go where they will.

Paul Gravett says:
So here we are at the conclusion of another serialised epic, the sort of ambitious multi-year project that eventually comes to fruition as a remarkable long-form graphic novel. Read as a whole, Big Questions reveals levels of depth and subtlety. I met Anders Nilsen at the Bilbolbul festival in Bologna, Italy some years ago and look forward to meeting him again this October when he comes over to the UK for a signing tour and hopefully a special Comica ‘in conversation’.

Black Paths
by David B.

The publisher says:
At the end of the First World War, the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire loses control of the city port of Fiume. While the victorious Allies divide the spoils of war at Versailles, they are oblivious to the fact that Fiume, long-coveted by the Italians, has been dramatically captured by pirates! A self-styled Pirate King, Gabriele d’Annunzio storms the city with 3000 loyal soldiers and declares Fiume a free Republic with himself as commander. David B. effortlessly draws d’Annunzio along winding roads, constantly challenging expectations with his dark satire.

Paul Gravett says:
Originally published in France by Futuropolis in 2008 and 2010 as two separate larger-format albums, this English-language version of Black Paths puts both books into one smaller hardback and David B.‘s work doesn’t suffer from this one bit. The first part offers a series of Prologues: ‘The Bandits’, ‘The City’, ‘The Poet’, ‘The Lovers’, and unusually ‘The End’, which introduce the context and players in this surreal, obscure detour in Italian 20th century history. If like me the Utopian city-state of Fiume is completely unknown to you, David B. makes a perfect guide to its poetic, avant-garde aspirations and its freefall descent into chaos. As his leading man Laureano explains, “The First World War didn’t stop on 11 November 1918… it scattered.” The years of fighting, nationalism, sectarianism and massacres could not be simply switched off by a treaty. David B. plunges us from the beginning into one of Fiume’s frequent violent street brawls, marauders in close combat, their brutal faces and fists in thick black lines. We meet three of our protagonists, soldiers in their civvies, who pause but leave another soldier they know to die on the pavement. It’s a telling ‘Incident de la Nuit’, showing that loyalties to your country, your regiment, friends or loved ones, barely seem to count any more in this lawless society gone mad. The trio burst in on a rival gang and swiftly recover their stolen haul of loot, including a mysterious woman. Laureano, a man of letters and the rebel of the three, haunted by the trenches, never wearing his uniform again, finds himself falling for this sultry chanteuse, Mina.

David B. proves exceptional in his cartooning fluidity, shifting from visceral thrills to burgeoning romance, from historical background, narrated in symbolic or poster-like graphics by the digits of the years 1918, 1919 and 1920, to scenes of absurdity in the poet-general d’Annunzio’s headquarters, such as a stolen statue of Saint Francis of Assissi which he has equipped with a pair of revolvers.

These shifts of register and use of thematic palettes become even more daring in the second part, The Ghosts, as we discover how traumatised the writer Laureano has become after he spent two days alone in No Man’s Land. As proven in his masterpiece Epileptic, David B. is supremely adept at portraying disturbed mental states, and here he conveys brilliantly the after-effects of battle trauma.  Laureano is convinced that he is receiving signs from a comrade Leone blown up in the war, asking to be laid to rest. So he resolves to bury the war by holding “A celebration of the dead who died without proper burial”. The macabre funeral march, with skull-faced children and giant skeletal figurines, is tinged blood-red and escalates out of control. David B. provides a suitably surreal and fitting deux ex machina to halt hostilities. Follow these winding, twisting Black Paths and lose yourself in a gripping romantic psychodrama set in a forgotten but unforgettable slice of history.

The One-Armed Gunslinger

by Alejandro Jodorowsky & François Boucq
Humanoids Inc

The publisher says:
Alejandro Jodorowsky (film director of El Topo, author of The Incal & Metabarons) and master illustrator Boucq expand their unforgiving portrayal of the Western genre with beautiful vistas, rugged outlaws, and a bit of the ultraviolence as the one-armed Bouncer finds he cannot escape a world of murder and revenge. The Bouncer’s past continues to haunt him as a mysterious murderer runs wild in Barro City. Now the city’s executioner, by no choice of his own, Bouncer must face friends and foe alike. 

Paul Gravett says:
It’s taken a while but good to see Humanoids finally bringing us translations of the further luscious exploits of Jodorowsky & Boucq’s Wild West lawman. I’ve always wondered though, why does the Chilean-born movie-maker have such an obsession with characters losing one or more of their limbs?

Brenda Star, Reporter:
The Collected Daily & Sunday Strips Vol. 1

by Dale Messick
Hermes Press

The publisher says:
Created by Dale Messick, the first woman to create, draw, and write a syndicated newspaper strip, Brenda Starr successfully mixed romance,fashion, and adventure into one of the longest running features in newspaper history. Even though the strip will officially end its syndicated run on January 2, 2011, the feature will continue through Hermes Press’ reprints of the strip’s early years. The first volume of this series will reprint, for the first time, the first two Sunday storylines in full color. Hermes Press is digitally restoring these Sundays so that they look better than when they were first released. Also featured in this volume will be the first “Man of Mystery” story featuring Brenda’s love interest, Basil St. John. Brenda Starr, Reporter started as a Sunday-only strip, but by October 22, 1945 a daily version of the feature also appeared. The first daily sequence will also be featured in the first volume of Hermes Press’ reprint.

Paul Gravett says:
One of the most historically significant women creators in world comics history, Dale Messick (1906-2005) is finally given the prestige reprinting she deserves. Rumours were rife for some time that this was going to come out from the excellent Classic Comics Press, but it’s ended up at Hermes Press who have also been doing a thorough job on reissuing the vintage era of Buck Rogers. The big treat here will be reading the colour Sunday-page continuities. Brenda Starr, Reporter, played by Brooke Shields in a 1989 movie, walked off into newsprint never-neverland in her very last Sunday strip on January 2nd, 2011.

Castro: A Graphic Biography of Fidel Castro
by Reinhard Kleist

The publisher says:
In October 1958, a young German journalist arrives in Havana, Cuba, setting out to meet and interview Fidel Castro on behalf of a German newspaper. He finds himself in a country plunged into revolution. From the viewpoint of this young journalist, Kleist presents a detailed look at the life and politics of the Cuban ‘Maximo Lider’ Fidel Castro, from his childhood to the present day. Beautifully realised in Kleist’s bold, striking style, Castro is a unique portrait of one of the most enduring and controversial figures in modern history.

Paul Gravett says:
I saw an excellent exhibition of Kleist’s artwork at the Erlangen Comic Salon in 2008. That year he’d produced a colourful ‘graphic travel sketchbook’ entitled Havanna: Eine kubanische Reise (‘Havana: A Cuban Journey’) for Carlsen, Germany, based on his four-week visit to Cuba. This Castro project was already germinating back then and Kleist spoke enthusiastically about it with Charles Shaar Murray at the Comica Festival when he was over in London in 2009. Now this follow-up to his successful Johnny Cash bio-graphic, also translated by SelfMadeHero, is on its way. Kleist created it with expert historical consultant Volker Skierka, author of a definitive Castro biography and co-writer of a documentary film on the Cuban leader. Kleist will be over in London July 4th to launch this book with a live art event and author talk, details to follow. Meantime, this is the last week to catch the London Print Studio’s great exhibition on current Cuban prints Cuban Gold: Viva la Reproduccion, be sure to check it out.

by Eric Powell
Dark Horse

The publisher says:
When Wrinkle’s Travelling Circus’ most adorable little bearded girl trades a lock of her magic beard hair for a witch’s strange egg, she stumbles upon what could be the saving grace for her ailing freakshow - the savory-named beast: Chimichanga. Every once in a while a book comes along that is so singularly unique that it defies standard description. Chimichanga, originally a three-issue series from Albatross Exploding Funny Books, fits that quirky and strange gelatin mold to a crooked ‘T’. Creator Eric Powell thrives in telling and illustrating the obtusely outrageous in his award-winning series The Goon. But this time, instead of putrefying zombies and brass-knuckle brawls, he’s turned his unique talents toward telling the story of a young bearded girl named Lula, her pet monster, and a troupe of less than amazing circus performers. With art that seamlessly blends outrageous creatures and far too ordinary performing misfits like ‘Randy, the man with the strength of a slightly larger man’ and ‘Esmeralda and her amazing two-eyed goat’, this new series is created to amuse readers young and old.

Paul Gravett says:
Roll up, roll up, for this Big-Top, demented Goon offshoot, remastered in colour, as Eric Powell expands his ‘Goon-iverse’ into some slightly sweeter but actually stranger territory.

Cruisin’ With The Hound:
The Life & Times Of Fred Tooté

by Spain Rodriguez

The publisher says:
Although he’s best known for his two-fisted tales of the chopper-riding Trashman, Spain Rodriguez’s blunt graphic style and uncompromising gift for caricature, rendered in eye-punishing slabs of black and white, work equally well for more subtle fare - such as these memoirs of his misspent youth. Cruisin’ with the Hound ranges from Spain’s days as an innocent young churchgoer to his time as a member of the Road Vultures motorcycle gang. Raunchy, hilarious and often violent as hell, Cruisin’ with the Hound is an unsentimentally nostalgic trip to half a century ago.

Paul Gravett says:
An underground maestro explores autobiography as the great Spain is back with hard-hitting flashbacks to his rebellious past, as seen in his short stories for Monte Beauchamp’s ace anthology Blab!

Green River Killer
by Jeff Jensen & Jonathan Case
Dark Horse

The publisher says:
In 1984, finding the murderer of dozens of women throughout the Seattle area became the highest priority of local police. By 1990, with the body count numbering at least forty-eight, the case was left in the hands of a single detective, writer Jeff Jensen’s own father Detective Tom Jensen. In 2003, after finally apprehending the Green River Killer with DNA technology, Jensen spent 180 days interviewing Gary Leon Ridgway in an effort to learn his most tightly-held secrets - an epic confrontation with evil that proved as disturbing and surreal as can be imagined. Informed by comprehensive interviews with Tom Jensen and his colleagues, Jeff Jensen provides a deeply personal look at his father’s family life and decades-long investigation. Artist Jonathan Case (Sea Freak) supplies moody artwork to match Jensen’s chilling story in this true-crime comic unlike any other.

Paul Gravett says:
Not every serial murder mystery gets tied up so neatly and smoothly like a one-hour CSI episode. It took many years and one doggedly determined investigator to eventually convict Gary Ridgway, also known as the Green River Killer, of murdering 49 women during the 1980 and 1990s in the Washington State area. The actual total may have been even higher. It’s not every day that a detective’s son gets to recount his father’s investigations in such a harrowing case and convey them in comics form. Read the Comics Alliance interview here with artist Jonathan Case and see some of his advance page samples from what promises to be a powerful graphic documentary.

I Am Not Of This Planet:
The Art of Gary Edison Arlington

by Gary Edison Arlington
Last Gasp

The publisher says:
A series of drawings and paintings from an early figure in the underground comix scene, Gary Arlington. Contains works of art made during the early 1970s as well as recent creations. Ninety pages jam packed with eye-popping art and photos of Gary. Contains snippets of pages from his unpublished diaries. Gary Arlington is currently 72 and has spent his entire life in the San Francisco Bay Area. He opened the first comic book shop in America in San Francisco in the 1960s. His shop became a meeting place for young artists and helped inspire and launch the careers of many famous figures in underground comix.

Paul Gravett says:
I’ve never forgotten when I stayed in San Francisco in 2001, Last Gasp’s Erick Gilbert kindly took me along to his comics store and introduced me to this key figure in local scene, sitting among piles and shelves of collectables. He was in his element. Now here’s another side to underground comix publisher, editor, dealer and champion Gary Arlington I knew nothing about. Here’s the opportunity to discover the secrets of his own private artworks.

Joe the Barbarian
by Grant Morrison & Sean Murphy
DC Vertigo

The publisher says:
Joe, an imaginative eleven year-old orphan suffering from Type 1 diabetes, can’t fit in at school. One fateful day, he enters a vivid fantasy world in which he is the lost saviour of a fantastic land based on the layout and contents of his home. But is his quest really just an insulin-deprived delirium, from which he can die if he doesn’t take his meds, or something much bigger?

Grant Morrison says:
It’s Home Alone meets The Lord of the Rings. Joe is a big fantasy story, but I kind of wanted to reinvent the fantasy genre as we’re familiar with it and do something that felt more believable, modern and convincing to me. I looked at things like Narnia and Lewis Carroll, stories where some kid goes through the mirror or down the staircase into a weird world and although I loved that stuff when I was growing up, and lot of my favorite books and movies were based on that sort of idea - Elidor. The Phantom Tollbooth. Yellow Submarine. Peter Pan. The Wizard of Oz - I kind of wanted to do something that was, to me at least, an original take on that kind of story. What would be the 21st century, post-9/11 version of the quest through the Otherworld?

Paul Gravett says:
Aaah, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, with those lovely Jules Feiffer drawings. This was read to me at school and it enchanted me. I know Morrison writes in his new non-fiction book Supergods, “The money in comic books was in superhero comic books, and if I hoped to sustain the lifestyle to which I’d become accustomed, they were the future”.  That said, for me Morrison is often at his most surprising and engaging when he steps away from the spandex-coated franchises and conjures up worlds of his own and Joe the Barbarian is one of his more special forays of this type. You might want to hold off until the trade paperback but this hardback comes oversized so you can luxuriate in Sean Murphy’s fine artistry more fully.

Like A Sniper Lining Up His Shot
by Jacques Tardi & Jean-Patrick Manchette

The publisher says:
Like many of the greatest noir thrillers, Jacques Tardi’s latest begins with a classic set-up: Martin Terrier, the hired killer, needs just one more big job so that he can turn in his guns, return to his native village to find and marry his childhood sweetheart - and retire. But nothing goes as planned and his last job turns out to be a set-up that results in a bloody shootout. Soon he’s on the run from the authorities, his treacherous ex-bosses and the members of a crime syndicate still seeking revenge for a hit on one of their own.

Paul Gravett says:
I might prefer his own originated, self-penned works, but there is no doubting that Tardi is a master of literary adaptations, and in particular crime fiction. Translator Kim Thompson delivers another high-quality edition, first time in English, in Fantagraphics’ essential line of the French graphic novelist’s albums. It would be a crime to miss this.

by Gahan Wilson

The publisher says:
Remember how baffling, terrifying, and sad childhood really was? Now you can laugh at it. In this thematically and narratively linked series of one-page stories originally published in the National Lampoon’s Funny Pages section throughout the 1970s, the master of the macabre eschewed his usual ghouls, vampires, and end-of-the-world scenarios for a wry, pointed look at growing up normal in the real, yet endlessly weird world. Watch as our stoic, hunting-cap-wearing protagonist (known only as ‘The Kid’) copes with illness, disappointment, strange old relatives, the disappointment of Christmas, life-threatening escapades, death, school, the awfulness of camp, and much more - all delineated in Wilson’s roly-poly, sensual, delicately hatched line. Nuts was (partly) collected in a now long out-of-print volume back in 1979. This new hardcover edition reprints every single Nuts story from the Lampoon (rescuing over two dozen pages from oblivion) and reinstitutes the color in the Christmas and Halloween episodes, and for that matter the 3-D in the 3-D episode (I wish to God I’d never seen all this space).

Paul Gravett says:
I once met Gahan Wilson in London, when The Cartoon Art Trust hosted an evening with him around 1993, and have never forgotten his hilarious and enlightening talk and his enthusiasm for comics, his own and by others. Nuts is one of those overlooked little gems, of which most people have only caught occasional episodes, so bravo for this overdue compendium. Up there with Charles Addams and Edward Gorey, Gahan Wilson is an American maestro of macabre mirth who understands that some of life’s most fearsome yet funny nightmares spring forth from childhood.

Parker: The Martini Edition
by Darwyn Cooke

The publisher says:
Darwyn Cooke’s first two Parker books, The Hunter and The Outfit, are collected in a special, oversized hardcover edition - with an additional 65-pages of Darwyn Cooke content and a brand-new story - encased in a beautiful slipcase. The Hunter and The Outfit tell the story of Parker, Richard Stark’s classic anti-hero, as he returns to New York to settle the score with his wife and partner in crime after they betray him in a heist gone terribly wrong. After evening the field and reclaiming his prize, the Outfit decide to do some score settling of their own… and learn much too late that when you push a man like Parker, it had better be all the way to the grave.

Paul Gravett says:
OK, so this is your ‘Absolute’-style deluxe repackaging and a pretty high-ticket item, but this sounds soooo very tempting for its extras and for the chance to appreciate Cooke’s penmanship in closer detail and in all its retro-noirish virtuosity. Can you resist?

by Phil Gelatt & Tyler Crook
Oni Press

The publisher says:
Introducing the untold tale of the international conspiracy behind the murder of Gregorii Rasputin. Set during the height of the first World War, the tale follows a reluctant British spy stationed in the heart of the Russian empire as he is handed the most difficult assignment of his career: orchestrate the death of the mad monk, the Tsarina’s most trusted adviser and the surrogate ruler of the nation. The mission will take our hero from the slums of the working class into the opulent houses of the super rich… he’ll have to negotiate dangerous ties with the secret police, navigate the halls of power, and come to terms with own revolutionary leanings, all while simply trying to survive. Based on historical documents and research, Petrograd is a tense, edge-of-your seat spy thriller, taking the reader on a journey through the background of one of history’s most infamous assassinations, set against the backdrop of one of the most tumultuous moments in 20th century history.

Paul Gravett says:
Like David B.‘s Black Paths discussed above, here’s another period piece from World War One, albeit with a less fantastical, more down-to-earth approach. Enjoying some 250 pages to explore this crucial chapter in Russian and world history, Gelatt and Crook take a welcome, measured pace to set up their political intrigues. Three different meals and conversations in the prologue set the scene in 1916 and contrast the troops with their rations in the trenches, the British politicians and Secret Intelligence Services lunching luxuriously in Whitehall, and the Tzarina ignoring pressing problems to take afternoon tea in her Petrograd palace and welcome her guest, the infamous Rasputin, “the man all of Russia is talking about”. Now so far the ‘Mad Monk’ is best known within comics as the mercurial foil and thorn to Hugo Pratt’s seafaring adventurer Corto Maltese. Here, Rasputin is more of a bogeyman than real flesh and blood, as the focus is firmly on   Cleary, an Irish-born operative at the city’s British Diplomatic Mission. As the War and popular unrest in Russia escalate, he meet with a counterpart from the Secret Police who insists that he “Russify” his “limp English soul” or suffer the consequences amid a looming popular uprising. “An unremarkable middle-class nobody”, Cleary is a key British spy with friends in high and low places, so he can mix with an eccentric prince and yet he can party all night at a Romani gypsy encampment and has a Bolshevik peasant woman as his lover. Revolution is in the air and Cleary knows just the man-with-a-plan to kill Rasputin.

Petrograd‘s account of our reluctant agent’s attempt to engineer this assassination relies quite heavily on extended dialogues. As most of the characters are speaking Russian, their sentences are placed inside brackets. These verbal exchanges call on artist Tyler Crook to orchestrate facial expressions, body signals and a variety of ‘shots’ to bring them alive.  Fortunately, there’s brisk vitality to Crook’s brush artwork and compositions, tinted in soft sepia washes. He’s also able to choreograph the explosive sequence of the chaotic multiple assassination attempts, skulls filling Rasputin’s huge staring eyes as he stubbornly refuses to die. Finally murdered, there’s the problem of disposing of his body and the problem of when the body is found. Petrograd is a classy, involving piece of graphic docu-drama, as solid as much of best of the genre in European comics, and a compelling portrayal of one man’s moral dilemmas to change history and to escape history. If only all school history textbooks could be like this.

Sergio Aragonés Funnies #1
by Sergio Aragonés
Bongo Comics

The publisher says:
A new monthly title featuring new works by the brilliant Mad Magazine cartoonist. Each issue offers an assortment of autobiographical anecdotes, perplexing puzzles, slap-happy short stories, as well as Sergio’s unique and hilarious pantomimes and gags. With this new series, the world’s most beloved cartoonist continues to prove that humor is truly a universal language.

Paul Gravett says:
Sergio Aragonés is naturally funny. He gave a talk in 2001 at Ohio State University’s triennial Cartoon Festival in Columbus that brought the house down. He talked about his first trip to America, hawking his portfolio of cartoons to the various New York Syndicates. He would stride in and declare to his fellow comrades ‘Up the workers!’, mistakenly assuming, as a Spaniard, that all these ‘syndicates’ were trade unions championing artists’ rights and rates. Famously, he persuaded Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein at MAD to find room in their full magazine by squeezing his gags into the only blank space left on their pages, the margins. For me these were often some of the funniest jokes in the magazine. Stand back, because now Aragonés fills every page, unleashed in his own comic book from Matt Groening’s Bongo.

by Grant Morrison
Spiegel & Grau/Jonathan Cape

The publisher says:
From one of the most acclaimed and profound writers in the world of comics comes a thrilling and provocative exploration of humankind’s great modern myth: the superhero. The first superhero comic ever published, Action Comics #1 in 1938, introduced the world to something both unprecedented and timeless: Superman, a caped god for the modern age. In a matter of years, the skies of the imaginary world were filled with strange mutants, aliens, and vigilantes: Batman, Wonder Woman, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, and the X-Men - the list of names as familiar as our own. In less than a century, they’ve gone from not existing at all to being everywhere we look: on our movie and television screens, in our videogames and dreams. But what are they trying to tell us? For Grant Morrison, arguably the greatest of contemporary chroniclers of the ‘superworld’, these heroes are powerful archetypes whose ongoing, decades-spanning story arcs reflect and predict the course of human existence: Through them we tell the story of ourselves, our troubled history, and our starry aspirations. In this exhilarating work of a lifetime, Morrison draws on art, science, mythology, and his own astonishing journeys through this shadow universe to provide the first true history of the superhero - why they matter, why they will always be with us, and what they tell us about who we are… and what we may yet become.

Paul Gravett says:
For what first appears to be a 420-page, 25-chapter history of superheroes and their impact and relevance, Supergods is almost as much an autobiography, always colourful, often candid, of meek Glasgow laddie turned controversial superstar imagineer, and it’s all the better for it. From boyhood obsession and turbulent adolescence to transcendental awakening and astute profession, comics have clearly played pivotal roles in Morrison’s personality. Liberated here from balloons and captions, he takes this opportunity for extended prose to dissect iconic images and stories that shaped this genre and his own attitudes. After pinpointing the superhero’s birthplace as Action Comics No.1 in 1938, he luxuriates in intense analysis of the landmark cover of Superman’s debut, sprinkling references to Futurism, Eduard Munch’s The Scream and Haitian voodoo. Repeatedly, his close readings and cross-cultural erudition can uncover fresh insights in even the most familiar of material.

That said, after a sixty-page trawl through the protean Golden Age, his writing truly comes alive with the Silver Age comics he enjoyed as a boy, exemplified in the “nightmare eternal twelveness” of Mort Weisinger’s Superman and Morrison’s favourite, the revamped Flash sporting “the best boots ever”. Joining the book’s “continuity” on page 86, Morrison starts examining significant stories, such as John Broome’s The Flash Stakes His Life on - You! from 1966, in which the Fastest Man Alive pierces the fourth wall to beg readers to believe in him. Morrison reveals, “I can trace many of my own obsessions and concerns as a writer back to this particular root.” Though predominantly a DC man, he hails Roy Thomas’s “epic, narrative voice”, insisting he “can still quote passages from memory.” He also highlights texts by Don McGregor, Steve Englehart and other Seventies Marvel scribes in their original capitalised letters and vindicates the once-derided “pounding heavy metal that is the true music of Jack Kirby unleashed.” No wonder Morrison, a wordsmith and logophile, regrets the loss in modern cinematic comics of “this overheated love of language.”

From the superperheroes’ grim Dark Age to their ubiquitous, movie-driven Renaissance, Morrison interweaves the genre’s relentless cycles, from conformity to rebellion, realism to escapism, and back again, with his and his peers’ contributions and his sometimes mind-boggling transformative experiences. Blurring borders between creating fiction and creating himself, his comics and life mirror each other, like “a kind of self-analysis on paper”. Throughout, he expresses himself with giddying verve, provocative speculation, and frequently laser-sharp perception. Blame it all on those sunspots!

Tezuka’s Book of Human Insects
by Osamu Tezuka

The publisher says:
Toshiko Tomura is the darling of the intelligentsia. Toshiko is also the mastermind behind a series of murders. The ultimate mimic, she has plagiarized, blackmailed, stolen and replicated the works of scores of talents. Neglected as a child, she is challenging the concepts of gender inequality while unleashing her loneliness upon the world as she climbs the social ladder, one body at a time. One of Osamu Tezuka’s most wicked tales, The Book of Human Insects renders the 1970s as a brutal bug-eat-bug world, where only those willing to sell their soul to the masses and become less than human are capable of achieving their wildest dreams.

Paul Gravett says:
Every addition to Vertical’s line of Tezuka classics belongs in the library of any discerning aficionado, not just of timeless manga but of the best in graphic literature, and this provocative moral thriller is no exception. No wonder he is still revered as the ‘God of Manga’.

The Accidental Salad
by Joe Decie
Blank Slate Books

The publisher says:
Life seen through a lens of thought provoking absurdism.Chalk Marks is Blank Slate’s new line allowing a large format space for new UK comic artists to produce their first commercial works. In this first issue Joe Decie gives us his beautifully ink-washed stories of the apparently everyday, with a twist in the tail. Ever wonder what the portent of that eyeless Bart Simpson doll at the boot sale was? Or how demons can possess your pictures during scanning? Joe reveals all. Joe Decie’s work has long been featured on Top Shelf 2.0.

Jeffrey Brown (Clumsy, Funny Misshapen Body, Cats Are Weird) says:
Read one of Joe Decie’s comics and you’ll find they don’t demand you to keep reading so much as politely ask if you wouldn’t mind continuing, perhaps you’d also like this next one as well. The fact that they’re charmingly drawn and full of understated humour and sensitivity makes it all the harder not to keep reading, and liking them.

Paul Gravett says:
From Eddie Campbell to James Kochalka, I’ve enjoyed plenty of comics that give you low-key, everyday, autobio observations, or as Joe Decie calls them, “Beautiful little details you might otherwise miss”. The difference with Decie’s approach to them is that his gift is entirely due to the “unique blend of ingredients” that he drinks “every morning at dawn [in] a ‘Shakey Wakey’ milk shake. As one of my sponsors I get sent them for free”. So that’s where he gets his ideas from. For me the pleasure in this sampling of 49 of his webcomics, some as short as two panels, none more than two pages, is the way the apparently real can gently slide into the strange. Decie’s got an undoubted knack with words and flights of fancy, which his naturalistic, “imperfectionist” line-and-wash cartoons complement well. He’s not likely to use up “Joe’s Bumper Book of Comic Story Ideas” anytime soon. 

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen III:
Century #2: 1969

by Alan Moore & Kevin O’Neill
Top Shelf Productions/Knockabout Comics

The publisher says:
Century #2 takes place almost sixty years later in the psychedelic daze of Swinging London during 1969, a place where Tadukic Acid Diethylamide 26 is the drug of choice, and where different underworlds are starting to overlap dangerously to an accompaniment of sit-ins and sitars. The vicious gangster bosses of London’s East End find themselves brought into contact with a counter-culture underground of mystical and medicated flower-children, or amoral pop-stars on the edge of psychological disintegration and developing a taste for Satanism. Alerted to a threat concerning the same magic order that she and her colleagues were investigating during 1910, a thoroughly modern Mina Murray and her dwindling league of comrades attempt to navigate the perilous rapids of London’s hippy and criminal subculture, as well as the twilight world of its occultists. Starting to buckle from the pressures of the twentieth century and the weight of their own endless lives, Mina and her companions must nevertheless prevent the making of a Moonchild that might well turn out to be the antichrist.

Paul Gravett says:
In this middle episode of their time-warping, century-spanning trilogy, Moore and O’Neill transport us to the pivotal year of social and sexual revolution, weaving fictional figures and factual references into a fascinating voyage into our shared imagination. Guaranteed to be in an extraordinary league of its own. Plans are afoot for a selling exhibition of O’Neill’s originals in Brussels. More news on this as it gets confirmed.

The Sixpenny Murder
by John Short, David Hitchcock & Emily Alison
Kult Creations

The publisher says:
The Sixpenny Murder is a 12-page comic telling the real-life story of a notorious Victorian street crime. It was produced as part of the Changing Places+ programme - a 16 week program created by Emily and Laurence Alison and directed at establishing a positive core identity for young people, increasing confidence, empathy and interpersonal skills - with the key aim to reduce gang-linked and weapon-oriented violence (currently running successfully in the North West). The Sixpenny Murder will be one component of a module directed at accepting personal responsibility. We chose the historical tale of the ‘Tithebarn Street Outrage’ from the 1800s because we wanted to parallel what was said then about youth, knives, and violence with the current views represented in today’s press. We also wanted a subject that would resonate but not hit too close to home, allowing the readers (the young men on the program) to be less defensive and more reflective about events. We’re really proud of this piece and wanted to produce a popular edition so that everyone (not just those on the ‘Changing Places+ programme) could read it.

Paul Gravett says:
Harking back to the lurid reports of crimes and executions in the 19th century Illustrated London News, Short, Hitchcock and Alison achieve a lot in this docu-comic short. They build genuine sympathy for the real-life John ‘Holy Fly’ McCrave, the lost 20-year old member of ‘The Cornermen’ gang who kicked a man to death for sixpence, as we listen in on his confession to the priest as he and his cronies await their public hanging in 1875. Convincingly researched and written, with a keen vernacular ear, and drawn by Britain’s finest contemporary illustrator of gritty Victoriana, the tough, salutory lessons of The Sixpenny Murder will hopefully hit home today, 136 years later.

Posted: May 29, 2011


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