Friday, February 12, 2010

Reprint This! Nobody Wants Me to Talk About Nuts

Exciting news, friends!

Back in September, I was forced to postpone my in-progress feature suggestion for a new edition of Gahan Wilson's Nuts because my fellow collected-editions-advocate, Chris Mautner at Robot 6, beat me to it. So I decided to reschedule it for the month after I did a writeup for the big Playboy book, not knowing specifically when that would come, which I published two days ago.

Today, I was reading this very good interview with Wilson over at the Stranger, "Seattle's Only Newspaper," and found this exciting announcement from the artist:

"And then there is another thing coming up from [Fantagraphics], which I'm very happy about, which is a National Lampoon... They had a little section in the rear of the magazine, which was called The Funny Pages, and they had the more regular artists do little comic strips. And so I had this full-page thing, which was called Nuts. ... It dawned on me that one of the most really challenging, horrific adventures we go through is very early childhood. ... If you watch kids, they're humans. So they're really trying the best they can to understand and cope with this fantastic, mysterious thing—being alive. And they don't know anything about it. It's all a mystery to them—it's a mystery to all of us—but it's a total mystery to them. I mean, starting from how do you keep upright, things like that, to all kinds of complicated things happening in their presence and they can't figure out what is going on. But they have to somehow or other, they want to appear that they're functioning right and so on. So that's what my National Lampoon strip was about. There was a collection of it, oh, I don't know, 20 years ago. But the magazine closed—I wish some magazine like that still existed; we could use it—and so this will be The Complete Nuts. And so Fantagraphics will do their usual beautiful job. And I'm absolutely delighted. That'll be coming up next year."

So there, Reprint This! will take off the March feature because clearly nobody wants me to write up a feature on Nuts. They will either beat me to it or preempt me entirely. No complaints here! I'll resume March 10 for the monthly news-n-review column.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Reprint This! Update on Gahan Wilson

Be careful what you wish for department: I've loved Gahan Wilson's work for many years. He's an amazing talent, and while you may never find a consensus as to precisely when Playboy was no longer really worth the effort, it's clear that the cartoons have been the best thing about the magazine for many years, and Wilson's the best of those.

Fantagraphics has pleased me greatly by releasing this fantastic collection of all of Wilson's gleefully surreal and macabre work for Playboy. It is one hell of a presentation. It's three hardback collections in a slipcase with a plexiglass backing. The back cover of each volume features a different hilarious photo of the 79 year-old artist's face and hands pressed up against glass; boxed in the slipcase, it looks like he's been crammed into the box and is praying for release. Each book has a die-cut cover and, while arranged chronologically, is divided into sections by inserted pages repeating the die-cut of the cover.

This can't have been a cheap book to produce, and the price tag confirms it: $125 is a lot to pay at retail. It's worth every penny, as, apart from the bells-n-whistles of the presentation, it does contain every single drawing that Wilson did for Playboy, along with short stories, appreciations by Hugh Hefner and Neil Gaiman, and an interview with the artist by Gary Groth. It's nearly 1000 pages long, the cartoons are printed at their original publication size (that is, mostly one to a page), and it's all done on just about the nicest paper available. It's a book that just oozes quality.

And yet... there's a part of me that wishes there was a little less to it. Don't misunderstand me; Fantagraphics has created an amazing tribute, and I'll treasure my copy, but $125 is a really tall order. The presentation and the supplements are wonderful, but I can't help but wish that Fanta made this material available in a series of inexpensive softcover volumes as well. I feel at least a little strongly that great comics should be available to as wide a range of buyers as possible. Then again, I thought that about the thematically similar complete hardcover editions of Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side and Don Martin's work for Mad and nobody's put out anything resembling mass market editions of those, so I'm not holding my breath. Thanks for realizing one Reprint This! request, Fantagraphics, but could you make sure the next one you fill is just a little more affordable?

Read more of what little I've written about the artist at A Journal of Zarjaz Things.

Read other reviews of Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons:

Jeet Heer at Comics Comics
John Hogan at Graphic Novel Reporter
Laurel Maury for the San Francisco Chronicle
The Comics Panel at the Onion AV Club

Every month, I pick out a few upcoming collected editions that sound a little neat, and pass those along to readers in what surely must be the least objective "collected editions" news around. For example, you'd do well to talk to your local comic shop about Dark Horse's April offerings. For one, they've got a hardcover collection of all of Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson's Beasts of Burden stories. I've read a couple of these and they are really quite good. The series is about a menagerie of dogs and cats who defend a small community against weird supernatural grotesqueries, and I guarantee you that the last page of the second issue will send the meanest chill up your spine you've ever felt. They're also issuing a paperback edition of Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons' complete, 600-page Martha Washington series. Actually, I don't much care for this title at all, but 600 pages of Gibbons drawing anything sounds good for only thirty bucks.

But the really, really cool thing is this: A long time ago in a market far, far away, Dark Horse had issued full reprints of Marvel's old Star Wars series, the one by Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin, Carmine Infantino and Walt Simonson, among others, but it was at a disagreeable price point and I never bought them. But in June, Dark Horse is doing them in their successful omnibus line of reprints, and you'll be able to get the first 26 issues of the series in one volume for only $25. Good job; I will probably buy that!

I will also be passing on IDW's forthcoming Li'l Abner series, but I'm glad to hear about it. The comic strip by Al Capp ran for forty years, leaving behind a downright odd film adaptation that featured both Julie Newmar and Billie Hayes, a tie-in soda called Kickapoo Joy Juice which, as Ski / Mountain Dew clones go, was just fine by me, and an amusement park called Dogpatch USA which still sits abandoned in the middle of nowhere, Arkansas, attracting explorers and Airsoft players. Some years ago, Kitchen Sink embarked on a complete reprint of the series that never finished, and, to hear my dad tell it, didn't get to the strip's really good years that started in the late 1950s. My dad probably likes Li'l Abner more than you, mind. Anyway, it's another addition to IDW's "Library of American Comics" imprint, a big line which nobody can afford but which we're glad to see available anyway.

I don't know whether you've tried to read Marvel or DC's forthcoming solicitations, but it's been getting harder and harder to separate the gems from the dross, in part because, as an eyeball-bludgeoning glance at the graphic novel shelves at Borders will confirm, the companies are hell-bent on rereleasing everything that they publish in these flimsy, 144-page things which retail for $14.99 and which get battered all to heck on the shelves. Nevertheless, somewhere in those fields of crap, if you look through DC's summer notes - they will be offering eight separate hardcovers detailing the thousands of pages of their current "Blackest Night" storyline - you'll see that the publisher is releasing a second Showcase collection of classic Doom Patrol episodes by Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani. The first volume was easily one of the highlights of the line, and if you enjoy high-concept adventure stories, you'll probably get a kick out of these crazy sixties comics.

Lastly this time (yeah, it's a short one), we're still waiting on confirmation about what the forthcoming two volumes of Judge Dredd Restricted Case Files will contain, but the big news from Rebellion is the formal announcement of two July books: The Stainless Steel Rat and Al's Baby, two titles drawn by Carlos Ezquerra which I have wanted to see reprinted for such a long time. Place your orders now, friends, and tell everybody you know. The Stainless Steel Rat, based on three novels by Harry Harrison, is 36 episodes of twist-filled, high-concept, con-artist sci-fi from the early eighties, and Al's Baby is 33 episodes of hilarious mob-comedy about a hitman who cannot convince his wife, the godfadda's dotta, to have a baby, so he's got to carry one himself to avoid a pair of concrete boots. Cross-dressing, getaway cars, first trimester cravings, high explosives, labor pains and sleeping with the fishes, it's all here and it's very funny. Spread the word!

That's all for this month! See you in March!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Reprint This! Moonchild

Reprint This! is a periodic feature where I talk about some out-of-print comic book gems that are not available in collected form for readers to enjoy. This is hoping to let rights owners know that, yes, readers are out here, and we'd like to buy the things we can't get at this time!

Despite such an enormous variety of books available these days, and genuine efforts to present the material in reasonably-priced, archival volumes, there are still countless fabulous series from the US, Britain and Japan which are overdue for new editions. I've selected several titles which should be on bookshelves, but at this time are not.

One missing gem is MOONCHILD, a 1978 horror serial by Pat Mills and John Armstrong. This 13-part serial originally ran in the pages of Misty and is fondly remembered for its wonderful, slow burn of a buildup to a a great little conclusion. It's a great story which gets around the horrific things that a kids' comic probably couldn't get away with at the time by presenting excellent characters that rise above the usual girls' comics archetypes.

For several decades, Britain had a thriving industry of comics aimed at girls. These were enormously successful, and each of them sold better than 100,000 copies a week. Most of them were launched in the 1950s and ably tackled most of the expected tropes of girls' fiction, including rotten schoolmasters, wannabe ballerinas with broken ankles, evil uncles crushing your plans to join the school swim team, horses, girls who wanted to own horses, girls who dreamed of horses, and evil uncles cheating girls out of the inheritance they were going to use to buy horses. There were a lot of evil uncles in the pages of Judy, Tammy, Jinty and the like. And horses.

Misty was among the later girls' titles and there were all kinds of evil uncles in it, although comparatively few horses. There were also Bast-worshipping cults who wanted to turn plucky young heroines into cats, and abandoned tower blocks which sent plucky young heroines to a parallel universe where the Nazis won, and haunted paintbrushes which contained the emotional echoes of a 19th Century nanny who tried to communicate with a plucky young heroine who suddenly found herself painting in the style of the unfortunate ancestor of a local MP, evil garden gnomes and butterfly collectors, and a whole hell of a lot of horror and death and gruesome twist endings. Misty wasn't your typical girls' comic at all; it was the one you didn't want your parents to know you were reading.

Most of the boys' comics of the day featured character-led stories which, if successful, carried on for several months or years. While there were exceptions in the girls' comics, like the famous Four Marys which ran in Bunty for more than 40 years, most of the strips you'd find in them were shorter serials. A typical issue of Misty would usually have three one-offs and four installments of serials that ran from about six to eighteen weeks.

Moonchild is probably the most celebrated and best-remembered of the Misty stories. It's a fairly obvious cash-in on Stephen King's Carrie, but it's great fun. Pat Mills was launching lots of comics in the '70s with an obvious starting point; Hook Jaw was Jaws, both Dredger and Judge Dredd have Dirty Harry as ancestors, and so on. Moonchild loses almost all of Carrie's puberty-as-trauma subtext in favor of a gentler depiction of ESP as a natural family gift, but the story's construction is very clever, with a slow and deliberate buildup to our heroine's explosive smackdown of the school bullies who have betrayed her.

The serials in Misty don't really lend themselves to single-story collections the way that the much longer, character-driven stories from boys and sports comics did. Moonchild, even with all its twists and bully-driven plotting, is not even 60 pages long, far too short for a good collected hardback.

I fear that the art is another strike against it. John Armstrong was an extremely successful artist whose young ballerina strip, Bella, had run for almost a decade in the pages of Tammy, but I think that this charming art really looks very dated, and isn't likely to find too many fans today. There's a little more to it than these samples can provide, a real sense of movement and balance across the pages, and great characterization in the faces. Yet it's so far removed from what passes for good art in girls' horror comics these days - I mean, have you seen that godawful Twilight comic?! - that I doubt today's young fangirls would give it a second glance.

Titan Books has the reprint rights to Misty, but a proposed hardcover "best-of" collection has barely made it out of the rumor stage. I'm sure assembling the book must be a chore, with its unusual mix of short serials and one-offs, without a single well-known artist to hang promotion around. Whatever Titan comes up with, I think that Moonchild could certainly form the backbone of a nice 200-page "best-of" teamed with two other serials and nine or ten one-offs. I hope they've got something like that in mind!

There are some more details about Misty at, a pretty good fan site which contains complete details of the comic's long publication history through multiple mergers and closures. Give 'em a visit!