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SAM ZABEL AND THE MAGIC PEN


Graphic Novel by Dylan Horrocks
222 7x10-inch pages, color
2014 Fantagraphics hardcover
$29.99

Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen coverThe Magic Pen of the title symbolizes the power of the imagination. It is an instrument that makes comic book pages live: alive, the people and adventures on those pages become, to the reader, real. That’s the premise at the heart of this book by New Zealander Horrocks. But we don’t find out about the pen and its properties until at least halfway through the book. At the beginning, we meet cartoonist Sam Zabel, who suddenly finds himself in the comic book King of Mars where he is surrounded by naked green women — surrounded and nearly raped. Next, he meets Evan Rice, the creator of The King of Mars, who tells Zabel how he acquired the Magic Pen from an old cartoonist named Joe Curtis.

After that, intelligible chronology fades pretty fast as Zabel and two female cohorts, guide Miki and geek Alice, imagine themselves in the pages of a succession of different comic books—pirate comics, jungle comics, funny animal comics—making philosophical observations as they journey through these imaginary worlds in which the cartoonist is God-king (i.e., the creator of the world and its governing force).

Later, Zabel meets a version of Lady Night (one of the characters he writes for). Discussing a comic book artist named Lou Goldman, Lady Night says: “Goldman dreamed of a world where things happened because they should. Where events unfolded with a planned, graceful elegance, in perfect harmony with the plot and its underlying themes. It is the dream of theology and myth. The dream of story. It is the greatest fantasy of all.”

To which Zabel responds: “I thought if I found the Magic Pen, maybe I could make something perfect. Something beautiful and gentle and kind...”

The Night Lady says: “All pens are magic, Sam. Every pencil and brush and finger dipped in paint—all of it is magic.”

Zabel: “But magic isn’t real. Stories aren’t real. Even this isn’t real...”

But there he is. Real or not, he lives, for the nonce, on this page.

In the sway of such introspective philosophizing, we pretty quickly lose track of whether we are in reality or fantasy. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Horrocks is making a statement about his craft and his profession, and he toys with it through the last half of the book, culminating in the exchange with Lady Night. At the end, Zabel seems to have overcome the cartoonists’ block, with which he was afflicted at the beginning.

If you dote on philosophical paradoxes, you’ll enjoy this book. I get lost too fast.

Horrocks’ drawing style is refreshingly simple, leaning slightly more to realism than to cartoony bigfoot. Clean and crisp and easy to follow. Good cartooning.

MagicPen1

MagicPen2

 

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

INDEH

Indeh: The Story of the Apache Wars
Graphic Novel/History written by Ethan Hawke
drawn by Greg Ruth

240 7½ x10-inch pages, b/w wash throughout
2016 Grand Central Publishing
hardcover, $25

Indeh coverOut in June, Indeh (“the dead”) is an earnest effort by two earnest people, one an actor turned script-writer (Hawke), to tell the truth about the “war” between the Apaches and the interloping Caucasians in the 19th century American southwest. The truth is that neither of the two cultures made much of an effort to understand the other, and death and destruction followed in the wake of ignorance and misunderstanding. Out here in the West where I live, we understand that, and we know the story of Cochise and Geronimo; in his Foreword, Hawke reveals that he apparently doesn’t and he thinks very few of us do, but he believes this book will correct that, telling the story from the Native American perspective. “Geronimo made the perfect protagonist for an epic tale,” Hawke writes. “He was complex — part villain, part victor — a real Shakespearean hero.” But “the script, with all Native American leads, was a difficult sell in the star-driven Hollywood marketplace.”

So he approached Ruth, and they turned the script into a graphic novel. Ruth began by telling Hawke he wouldn’t do just a storyboard for a film. He would do a graphic novel. Unhappily, the book reads like a movie, not like a graphic novel.

In motion and with real people acting before a camera, the story would doubtless make better sense than it does here. Ruth’s drawings are stunning, but his rendering of the Native American faces makes it difficult to distinguish one character from another. And his pictures of whites are not much better in this regard. 

Indeh

Hawke’s reticent script isn’t much help in sorting things out. Like a good movie-maker, he relies upon pictures and speeches to tell his tale; no captions. As a result, his story is cryptic rather than revealing.

Many passages are entirely visual; no words. In a movie, these sequences would doubtless serve the narrative better than they do here, surrounded, as they are, by speech-ballooned pictures of characters we don’t recognize.

From the events as depicted, we know the Native Americans were out-numbered and out-gunned, and that their best impulses in the confrontation were betrayed by racist whites, who also betrayed the best-intentioned of their race.

The tale told here focuses on the beginning of the hostilities between whites and the Native Americans who won’t move off the land where whites have discovered gold. Geronimo’s heroic resistance in subsequent years is not covered at all. Neither is his shameful treatment after he surrendered and was exiled from Apache lands to Florida and then to Oklahoma, where he died.

Here’s what St. Wikipedia says about the Apache Wars and Geronimo: “Geronimo's raids and related combat actions were a part of the prolonged period of the Apache-American conflict, that started with American settlement in Apache lands following the end of the war with Mexico in 1848. ... From 1850 to 1886 other Apache leaders conducted raids and carried on revenge warfare, but Geronimo accumulated a record of effective resistance during this time that matched any of his contemporaries, and his fighting ability extending over 30 years form a major characteristic of his persona.”

Regrettably, none of this is apparent in Hawke’s telling of the story of the Apache Wars.

 

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

GRAPHIC NOVEL

Graphic Novel by Raina Telgemeier
238 5½ x8-inch pages, color
2012 Scholastic Graphix
paperback
$10.99

Drama coverI picked up this book because Telgemeier is all the rage these days, and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. In this volume, it’s about a well-drawn but adolescent tale with too many characters who look too much alike, but the story it tells is fraught with mature themes, and the characters and what happens to them stuck with me, and for young readers, the usual target audience for Scholastic, Drama offers a lesson or two about maturity and tolerance.

The heroine, Calentine, “Callie,” is in eighth-grade and is a passionate student of “the theater.” She doesn’t want to act so much as she wants to be the set designer of the forthcoming school play, a job she gets in the opening pages of the book. She also has a crush on Greg, who is going with Bonnie. By the end of the story, when Greg, dropped by Bonnie, turns to Callie and asks her to be his girl, Callie has matured enough to reject Greg: she apparently doesn’t want him on the rebound: he seems so fickle.

Threading throughout the book are preparations for the play — auditions for parts, rehearsals, and making sets.

Two new characters wander into the production — twin boys, Jesse and Justin, one of whom, Jesse, is gay. Callie starts hanging out with them. Excellent singers, both brothers want to be in the play, a musical, but then Jesse stands back to give his brother a chance to shine in a singing role. On opening night, Bonnie, who is something of a prima donna and has the female lead role, has a tiff with her new boyfriend (the male lead, West) and won’t go on, so Jesse puts on a dress, goes on stage and sings the part beautifully, ending with an on-stage kiss with the leading man. Later West and Jesse have a long talk: West isn’t sure but thinks he might be gay.

Callie’s behavior with Jesse exemplifies tolerance; and her eventual rejection of Greg signals her growing maturity. But the story is jammed with other relationships and adolescent adventures apart from the musical. Telgemeier does a superlative job of creating a middle school ambiance, full of fleeting emotions and shifting relationships, temporary crises and triumphs, moments of juvenile comedy.

Telgemeier’s storytelling is masterful. She weaves the subplots together expertly, bringing all the threads together at the end. She often deploys pictures without words to make dramatic points. Her drawing style is simple, clean and uncluttered, but therein is my only serious criticism: the simplicity makes distinguishing one character from another a challenge. Telgemeier manages it with different hair styles and colors and skin tones, but the differences are often too slight to serve her purposes, and she could do more with noses. And making two of the principals twins doesn’t help. Particularly because one of them is a pivotal character in the story.

Over-all, Telgemeier’s graphic novel is exemplary of the form and a pleasure to read and engage with. Here, with comments, are some of the book’s pages.

Drama1

Drama2

 

 

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

NOBODY'S FOOL

Nobody’s Fool
By Bill Griffith

Schlitzie the Pinhead
Schlitzie the Pinhead, from FREAKS

Griffith, creator of the comic strip Zippy the Pinhead, interviewed by Bill O’Driscoll at pghcitypaper, talked about his new graphic novel undertaking: “[It’s] called Nobody’s Fool,” said Griffith, “and the subtitle is ‘The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead.’ [Sideshow performer] Schlitzie is the original inspiration for Zippy. It’s a real person.

“I first saw Schlitzie in [Todd Browning’s 1932 film] ‘Freaks,’” Giffith continued, “— actually that’s the only place to really see Schlitzie. … I was lucky enough to find his last manager, [who] lives in Florida. And I found a guy my age who traveled throughout Canada in a circus sideshow in 1968, when Schlitzie was in his last year of performing, and had wonderful, wonderful stories, that really made Schlitzie come to life. … Without those two interviews, those two people, I really wouldn’t have had a book. … It would have been all guesswork.”

Zippy-Bill Griffith photo

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

THE FUN FAMILY

 

The Fun Family
By Benjamin Frisch
240 pages, color
2016 Top Shelf
paperback
$24.99

Due in July, this graphic novel follows the life and work of beloved cartoonist Robert Fun, who is known for his idyllic circle-shaped newspaper cartoons about wholesome family life, supposedly based upon actual events in the Fun family. (Sound like anything we know?) But the Fun family apparently harbors some dark secrets, says the press release. “As their idyllic world collapses and the kids are forced to pick up the pieces, will their family circle become a broken mirror, or a portal to a nightmare world?” Who knows? The book purports to be “a surreal deconstruction of childhood, adulthood, and good old American obsession.” I wonder if Jeff Keane knows about this; can’t imagine that he doesn’t.

FamilyFun

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

BALLS OF FIRE: MORE SNUFFY SMITH COMICS

 

Balls of Fire: More Snuffy Smith Comics
By John Rose
138 7.5x7-inch pages, b/w
2016 Lulu paperback
$19.50

This is the second collection of this famed comic strip from Rose, who took over the feature in 2001 after the death of Fred Lasswell, who’d been assisting its creator Billy DeBeck and inherited the strip in 1942, soon after DeBeck’s death. Rose had been assisting Lasswell since 1998, and he has the appearance of the classic cast of hillbillies down pat — even to the visual tic of making all the characters talk out of the sides of their mouths. The strip started June 17, 1919 under the title Take Barney Google, F’Instance; it is, therefore, the second oldest comic strip still in daily circulation (Gasoline Alley is the oldest, debuting in 1918 on November 24). But Lasswell and then Rose kept the comedy contemporary albeit just a little cornball, in keeping with the happy hillbilly ambiance.

BarneySnuffy1

Despite the title of the strip — Barney Google and Snuffy Smith — Barney (the original star of the feature) hasn’t been seen in it much since he was formally written out in 1954. Lasswell brought him back occasionally “for the old folks” (fans), but Rose has let Barney visit about once a year since 2012, when he came back for a week for the first time in 15 years. Barney appears two or three times in the volume at hand, culled from releases in 2013 and 2014. And he’s around a couple of times in Rose’s preceding tome, The Bodacious Best of Snuffy Smith (same dimensions and price, also from Lulu).

Here is a sampling of the bounty in Balls of Fire.

BarneySnuffy2

BarneySnuffy3

 

For the complete Barney Google, Snuffy Smith, DeBeck, Lasswell and Rose saga, beam up to the Usual Place to visit Harv’s Hindsight for December 2009, where all is divulged.                       

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

BATMAN NOIR: EDUARDO RISSO

Batman Noir coverBatman Noir: Eduardo Risso
A collection of stories by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
220 7x11-inch pages
black and white
2013 DC Comics
hardcover
$24.99

This book exists because of Risso, the Argentinian artist (who started drawing in 1981) whose work began to surface in this country in 1997, it’s his artwork that is on exalted display throughout. The content reprints Risso-drawn stories “Scars” (Batman Gotham Knights, No.8), “Broken City” (Batman, Nos.620-625), “Knight of Vengeance” (Flashpoint: Batman Knight of Vengeance, Nos.1-3), and Wednesday Comics, Batman Nos.1-12 (one pagers).

Azzarello’s stories are what we’ve come to expect of Batman tales — crime-fighting, psychological portraits, tortured consciences, brute action. And through “Broken City” wafts a faint chorus about a boy who witnessed his parents’ murder. All good stuff, but not remarkable.

The remarkable content is Risso’s. Noted for his work on Azzarello’s 100 Bullets, his page layouts are always inventive, startlingly so. And entirely in black and white in this volume, they are stunning demonstrations of just how adventurous a comic book artist can be. Here are a few samples.

Risso1

Risso2

 

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

FALK'S PHANTOM

Lee Falk and MandrakeThe recently arrived Mandrake the Magician reprint tome understandably has little to say about writer Lee Falk’s other comic strip creation, the Phantom, but St. Wikipedia tells us that the character was “inspired by Falk’s fascination for myths and legends, such as the ones about El Cid, King Arthur, and Nordic and Greek folklore heroes. ... Falk originally considered the idea of calling his character The Gray Ghost, but finally decided that he preferred The Phantom. In an interview, he revealed that Robin Hood, who was often depicted as wearing tights, inspired the Phantom’s skin-tight costume.”

In the A&E Network's “Phantom” biography program, Falk explained that Ancient Greek stone busts inspired the novel facial treatment of the Phantom when masked: his eyes don’t show. Instead, we see only blank slits in the mask. The old Greek busts had no eye pupils, which “Falk felt gave them an inhuman, interesting look.” Actually, the old Greek statues did have eyeballs; Falk, working from photographs, just didn’t notice.

Ray Moore, who was Davis’ assistant on Mandrake, was the first artist on The Phantom; he was succeeded by his assistant, Wilson McCoy. Both drew relatively simply. McCoy died unexpectedly in 1961, and after a short time, Sy Barry took it over, drawing more elaborately in a knowing style. He did the best job on the strip—and the longest, over 30 years until he retired in 1994. Other artists followed. Mike Manley took over with the strip dated May 30, 2016.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

MORE ABOUT MANDRAKE'S SUPERPOWERED GESTICULATING

I’ve never been (until now) much intrigued by Mandrake. The protagonist’s “gesturing hypnotically” always reminds me of an old story about a pulp fiction writer who was writing a serialized thriller for one of the numerous magazines of the day. He did his writing in the office, showing up once a month to write the next installment. On one occasion, he ended an installment, as usual, with a cliffhanger: his hero was bound to a chair and gagged in a room in a deserted house, and the villain set fire to the place and departed the premises. The writer turned in the story and left the office.

Mandrake gesticulatingAt the very last minute, the writer came in, sat down at a typewriter and began to write. He finished and left the next chapter with the editor. The editor, desperate to know how the hero fared, quickly picked up the typewritten pages and read: “With a single bound, he freed himself and escaped.”

“With a single bound” looks an awful lot like “gestured hypnotically.” Reads like abdication of authorial responsibility.

But in scanning the book at hand for the review in this vicinity, I began to realize the appeal of Falk’s magician. His “magic” often served as a kind of punchline, a joke, in the continuity. When visitors to his backstage dressingroom speak scornfully of Mandrake’s being “a stage magician,” he convinces them that he is more than a “stage magician” by making their chairs disappear so they appear to be sitting in mid-air. And he removes the clothing from one of them. “Stage magician” indeed, Mandrake says.

Mandrake’s magic is always amusing. He turns rifles held by guards into writhing snakes. He turns a panther into a beautiful woman (and vice versa). At the rate of about one “gesture” every week, Mandrake removes all obstacles to his plans and threats to his person—with a single bound. It’s the ingenuity of his tricks that keep readers coming back. And did for almost eighty years.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN

Mandrake the Magician - Hidden Kingdom coverMandrake the Magician
The Hidden Kingdom of Murderers: Sundays, 1935-37

By Lee Falk and Phil Davis
156 9x12-inch pages, color
2016 Titan Comics hardcover
$39.99

On the reverse of the title page, we are advised that “much of the comic strip material used in this book is exceedingly rare” and so “the quality of reproduction achievable can vary.” And that’s true, but for the most part, the strips herein are readable and clear. The first adventure, “The Hidden Kingdom of Murderers” (which gives the book its subtitle), from February 3 through May 26, 1935 suffers the most: the lettering on the first few strips is almost too small to read, and the lines of the artwork often fade. The source for these strips was doubtless flawed. But with the release for June 2, the strips have been re-lettered (presumably for this volume), and the drawing seems more confidently rendered, perhaps because Davis started using Ray Moore as an inker.

Mandrake1

 

Mandrake2

The volume includes 5 more adventures, ending with the strip for August 29, 1937, altogether 134 Sunday pages. Sixteen pages of front matter include an appreciation of the strip by Sweden’s Magnus Magnusson and biographies of Falk and the artist, Phil Davis—all amply illustrated with photographs and promotional artwork and advertisements.

We learn that Falk drew the first two weeks of the Mandrake daily, which debuted June 11, 1934. Reproducing the release for June 21 reveals that Falk’s drawing ability at the age of 19, when he conceived the strip, was superior; we’ve included a scan of it near here. In later years, when asked why the magician looked so much like himself, Falk replied, "Well, of course he did. I was alone in a room with a mirror when I drew him!" He soon gave up the drawing, though — probably too much work in addition to writing the strip.

Magnusson says that Davis drew Mandrake from the third week of the daily and the first of the Sunday until he died, December 16, 1964.

Howard “Fred” Fredericks took over at Davis’ death and continued until 2013, when he retired, leaving the strip in mid-story on July 6; on July 8, reprints from 1995 started. Fredericks also wrote the strip after Falk’s death in 1999.

Mandrake, because of his power to change the appearance of things by “gesturing hypnotically,” has often been called comics’ first superhero, gesticulating being his superpower. Falk’s other comic strip creation, The Phantom, which began February 17, 1936, is usually considered comics’ first costumed hero.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

WALT KELLY'S POGO: THE COMPLETE DELL COMICS

Pogo Dell Vol 1 coverWalt Kelly’s Pogo: The Complete Dell Comics
Vol. 1, Animal Comics, Nos.1 - 30 (except Nos.4, 6,7, in which Pogo did not appear)
Vol. 2, Dell Four Color No.105 (April 1946) & No.148 (May 1947), plus Pogo Possum Nos. 1 & 2
Vol. 3, Pogo Possum, Nos. 3-7

300, 240 & 220 7½ x10-inch pages, color
Hermes Press hardcovers
$60
each

 

All three volumes offer the same basics -- Table of Contents that lists and dates the volume’s contents (a highly helpful aspect, especially to historians), introductory essays by Thomas Andrae (and, in Volume 1, an Afterword by Mark Burstein; Volume 2, Preface by Trina Robbins), and reproduction of a smattering of original art, showing Kelly’s blue-line penciling. The color in all three books is quite satisfactory: shot from the comics themselves, the color has been somewhat enhanced, making the reds redder and the blues bluer; printed on white glossy paper, the over-all effect is bright and slightly garish.

PogoHermes1

The source comic books were the best printings so we find virtually no out-of-register colors. Hermes has clearly taken great pains to produce the best possible archival Dell Pogo.

Volume 1 is fastidiously (even tediously) reviewed in the Usual Place (RCHarvey.com, Rants & Raves Archive, Opus 332); I’ll add here only that in Animal Comics No.19, we learn that Pogo’s full name is Ponce de Leon Montgomery County Alabama Georgia Beauregard Possum — “or Pogo, fo’ short,” adds the patient ’possum.

The volumes as a whole offer not only superlative comical whimsy by Kelly but insight into his growth and maturation as a cartoonist and satirist. Kelly’s early comic book work does more than prefigure the comic strip: many of the gags and antics of the Animal Comics stories are recycled in the Pogo newspaper strip, and it’s instructive to watch how Kelly refined and improved his initial concepts.

Each volume includes scraps of the essential history of the strip. In Volume 1, for instance, we witness the debuts of Howland Owl and Churchy La Femme (Animal Comics No.13), and in Volume 2, we meet the irrepressibly prickly Porky Pine, calling himself Pompadour Q. Porcupine (in Four Color No.105).

Volume 2 also rehearses the “origin story” of Pogo and Albert’s relationship—their fateful initial encounter— in which Albert first enslaves Pogo and then tries to cook him for dinner, thinking he’s a duck. Along the way, Pogo gets stuck in a cooking pot and is consequently mistaken for a turtle as he crawls away on all fours. As usual, Albert loses sight of his objective before accomplishing it, and everyone runs off happily in all directions at once.

And Volume 2 corrects an error in Volume 1, which unaccountably left out two pages of the Pogo story in Animal Comics No.3; to make up for the oversight, the entire story is included in this volume.

Volume 3 is all from Pogo Possum, Nos.3 through 7, and with No.6, text stories begin on the inside front and back covers. (Were these written by Kelly? Probably, but it would be edifying if Andrae tole us.) Otherwise, the verbal-visual content of the stories includes Kelly’s usual antics both verbal and visual, crammed with leap-frogging puns and cascading malapropisms and stampeding misunderstandings that run off into further misunderstandings, all of a highly comical sort.

PogoHermes5

PogoHermes6

PogoHermes7

Subsequent volumes of the Hermes Pogo project will finish the Pogo Possum run (which ended with No.16, April 1954), plus one-shots in Our Gang No.6 (July 1943) and Santa Claus Funnies (Four Color No.254, 1949). That’ll take at least two more volumes by my calculation, and I’ll be looking forward to each delicious one of them, however many it takes.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

THE ROAD TO AMERICA

ACCRETION OF INTENTION DEPARTMENT : Books In Need of Good Reviews

The Rancid Raves Book Grotto is littered, literally, with books we acquired with the intention of reviewing them. Alas, they’ve piled up over the years, and it has become increasingly apparent that we’ll never give most of them the kind of intensive examination they deserve. So rather than let the accretion be entirely in vain, we’ve started this new department wherein we’ll briefly describe books by way of urging them upon you, beginning, this time, with:

 

Road to America coverRoad to America
By Baru with Jean-Marc Thevenet
45 8 ½ x11-inch pages, color
paperback
$14.95
Drawn & Quarterly, 2002

The pictures pulled me into this one. The story focuses on an Algerian prize fighter (boxer) named Said Boudiaf during Algeria’s bloody struggle to free itself from French colonial rule. The political climate is so intense that everyone must ally him/herself with one side or the other — the French or the Algerian nationalists; but Boudiaf wants only to escape the turmoil, pursue his chosen profession, and get to America. The book follows his rise in the boxing hierarchy, his falling in love, and his efforts to maintain a neutrality in the conflict. But, as I said, it’s the pictures that absorb my attention. Here are some of them.

 

Road1

 

Road2

 

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com