Live Area

  • Live Area 002

    Over a year ago I wrote two reviews about old comics I picked up from the cheap bins and planned to write another review or two, but instead let it languish in my drafts until now. The thought process behind putting them up now is, “why not?” Without further fanfare:

    Barbarienne #1, #3-5
    by Martin Lock (Writer), Nick Neocleous (Pencils, Inks), John H. Marshall (Pencils) and Sue Vickers (Letters)
    Published by Harrier Comics

    Barbarienne #1

    It’s not a promising start when the inner-cover of the first issue of a comic book series, citing “misunderstandings at the photocopy stage,” begins with three uninterrupted text blocks of “backstory,” but that’s exactly how Barbarienne starts. I chose to skip these expoistory rectangles, heeding the above warning from writer Martin Lock himself. After completing the issue, I flipped back to read the “background details” only to find that they truly do spoil the entire comic before a reader can even look at a single drawing. What the fuck?

    What kind of misunderstandings warrant this sort of thing? Well, it appears some readers thought something horny was going on in this comic. Lock thinks otherwise.

    Barbarienne #1

    A lot to unpack before a reader even gets to see one line of art! So, what, in fact, do the proceeding 27 pages look like?

    Barbarienne #1. Pencils/Inks: Nick Neocleous

    The first issue — which is actually quite entertaining, all things considered — is no-rent Eric Stanton stuff, and this led me to believe that that is what Lock was going for. But somewhere around the third editorial where Lock exclaims that these two are not in a sadomasochistic relationship —

    Barbarienne #4

    — I started to actually believe him, mostly because this is a man who, in his comic writing, baldy telegraphs every story beat so as to completely control his audience’s perception of the comic. Again: This is the man who begins his comic with a block of text explaining the last page of his comic.

    Barbarienne #5. Pencils: John H. Marshall, Inks: Nick Neocleous

    So, yes, I do believe Lock when he says he didn’t mean for their relationship to come across this way, but I’m not sure he’s aware that his subconscious was writing the bulk of this comic. Because of his blindness to this, he gets in the way of himself: the continual authorial neutering of sexual tension throughout this comic makes it suck ass. Barbarienne is uninspired lowercase-f fantasy, and Lock’s storytelling capabilities are primarily comprised of bleeting out every rote twist-and-turn early and often. The issues after #1 are nigh-unreadable because Lock does his best to shift away from what he actually wants to write about: a sadomasochistic lesbian adventurer couple.

    Nick Neocleous, who pencils and inks #1-4, has an idiosyncratic and nearly art-brut style that lends Barbarienne a lot of its charm and fun. I really gravitate toward this sort of drawing when I find myself digging through bins. There is an honesty and passion in his line that is undeniable and admirable. This style stands in stark contrast to John H. Marshall, who pencils #5. He is technically a better draftsman but he lacks Neocleous’ personality, so it ultimately flattens out the comic’s tone completely.

    Barbarienne #4, Pencils/Inks: Nick Neocleous

    Barbarienne #5 proudly declares that, beginning this issue, the comic will no longer be “recommended for mature readers.” As prophesied by this letter to the editor in Barbarienne #4, this plan to completely overhaul their image failed, and the comic was canned a few issues later — only to be resurrected as a much more successful Eros title, the way God intended:

    Letter published in Barbarienne #4

    Plop! #4
    by Sergio Aragones (Writer/Art), Basil Wolverton (Writer/Art), Steve Skeates (Writer), Nick Cardy (Art), Robert Johnson (as “Slim”) (Writer/Art), Ford Button (Writer/Art), and Frank Robins (Art)
    Published by DC

    I had never read a single issue of Plop! before picking up this particularly beat-to-shit copy of #4. They really let Basil loose for these covers — this particular issue’s cover is tame-to-mildly-unsettling, whereas other ones are baldly gross in that uniquely Wolverton Way.

    Cursory google searching about Plop! brings up a blog post by cartoonist Drew Friedman where, outside of praise for Wolverton and Wally Wood’s covers, he writes rather disparagingly about Plop! I find his characterization to be ungenerous. Chiefly: he doesn’t think Plop! is very funny. I disagree, but Plop! does also purposefully goad this reaction from a contingent of its readership.

    Plop!‘s format is reminiscent of TV sketch comedy. It begins by introducing the reader to our hosts, Cain, Abel, and Eve, who are booked to perform comedy at a convention for monsters. Turns out they’re a tough crowd. The subsequent Monster Convention strips act as a frame-narrative for the comic’s main stories, but they aren’t filler: they might actually be my favorite thing about this comic, and that’s not because the rest of it is low-quality.

    Plop #4. Pencils/Inks: Sergio Aragones

    Sergio Aragones draws and writes these frame-story monster convention strips along with one of the comic’s featured stories. He is a cartoonist I was aware of but hadn’t read anything by, although I feel like I’ve probably read an errant strip or two of his from Mad when I was kid. I’m here to tell ya — this guy is a fucking hoot, and I’m sure that’s no surprise to his I-would-assume cultish fans. He’s delightfully schticky and his characters are expressive comic actors. It’s my amusement with these silly vaudevillian characters that makes me like their strips the most. I’ve read that they appear in other comics as well — I’ll have to check those out.

    But what makes Plop! snap is its snotty satire at the expense of the Average Comic Fan. At the time Plop! was published, series editor Joe Orlando had spent decades working in comics editorial. Emerging from the smoking foxhole that is the mainstream comics industry, he wields an ultimate understanding of who his audience is and how to taunt and provoke them (Plop! was published by DC).

    Plop! #4. Pencils/Inks: Sergio Aragones

    In Orlando’s perspective, the average comic fan is a wannabe-authoritarian, and their achilles heel is this false sense of authority — you know, the type of person who is entertained by power fantasies. The three main stories in Plop! #4 are all about men who fit this descriptor. The first of the bunch is “Now And Then,” drawn by Nick Cardy and written by Steve Skeates. It reminds me a bit of Daniel Clowes’ “MCMLXVI” — I wonder if he ever read this strip? Anyway: A grating, self-absorbed Wild West fanatic named Willie Cartburne prattles on like every other unhappy misanthrope about how he was born in the wrong era, and how he really would’ve been someone back in the wild west, back when being a man meant something.

    Plop #4. Pencils/Inks: Nick Cardy, Writer: Steve Skeates

    Eightball #16. Daniel Clowes

    After murdering the neighborhood mad scientist to gain access to his time machine, Willie uses it to transport himself back to the wild west, where he can finally really live. Except:

    Plop! is head-to-toe gallows humor, so your mileage may vary if you don’t find assholes dying funny. Orlando cut his teeth on EC titles, and Plop!’s storytelling feels like an extension of that publisher’s penchant for semi-ironic twist endings — although it does cease to become a twist when each story ends the same way. The fun part becomes seeing how each story gets to its denouement, with each writer doing their best to keep the audience guessing as to how each of their victims will go “plop.”

    Aragones’ story about a flexible inmate who outsmarts everyone but himself is funny but not as acidic as “Now and Then,” and the final story about a nasty traveling prankster, while beautifully drawn by Frank Robins, doesn’t totally hit the mark for me, either. Still, they’re more entertaining to me than a lot of the serious, stiff superhero comics of the same era — the kinds of comics the creators behind Plop! anticipated their readers to be fans of.

    Plop! #4. Pencils/Ink: Frank Robins, Writer: Steve Skeates

    Interspersed are single-panel gags that offer small chuckles and don’t overstay their welcome. Basil Wolverton also contributes a one-pager about a surgeon that does feature this one memorable panel, an example of an artist unable to stifle their insecurity about something no reader would notice (or care about if they did):

    Plop! #4. Art: Basil Wolverton

    What else is there to say? This is a great comic that was completely worth the 50 cents. I’ll pick up Plop! whenever I see it in a bin from now on. No question.

    Plop! #4

  • LIVE AREA 001

    A brief intro to precede the proceedings: I envision Live Area as a column devoted to thinking and writing about comics in an elastic and ever-changing way. One size doesn’t fit all for comics, so neither should an exploration of them. To start things off, this installment of Live Area will be comprised of capsule reviews of comics I’ve read and enjoyed recently. Without further fanfare:

    Snake Creek by Drew Lerman

    A laissez-faire peanut-shaped cartoon named Roy and a bespectacled-and-bearded existentialist named Dav live the vagabond life in Snake Creek, a surreal land populated with ugly birds, various disembodied heads, racketeering gangsters, foolhardy mayors, and yappy dogs. But the heart of Snake Creek, a collection of the strip’s first year, is the evolution and eventual marriage between Drew Lerman’s scracthy-but-stylized line and his writing’s linguistic hijinx. Lerman’s pen swirls and jukes across the page with a frenzied hatching that never becomes oppressively claustrophobic the way other hatch-heavy comics can be, and that’s due in part to his equally energetic writing, itself a loopy and free-wheeling examination of the cosmic joke of existence.

    There is a certain type of shaggy storytelling that is unique to daily comic strips that Lerman really locks into in the second half of the collection, wherein Dav and Roy happen upon a large pile of unaccounted-for mail that they decide to deliver in fanciful ways (saying more would ruin some of the best strips in the book). It’s in these strips that Snake Creek begins to find a jaunty rhythm that coincides with a widening scope that makes me excited for where the strip will go next. Luckily we can all follow along at Lerman’s instagram (@drewlerman), where he also posts fantastic sketchbook excerpts.

    Kids With Guns #1 by Alex Nall

    I’ve only recently been turned on to Alex Nall’s comics (credit to his fellow Chicagoan cartoonist Josh Pettinger), and I wish I had found them sooner. Nall has a pleasingly sturdy approach to comic art and storytelling that seems to finally be coming back into vogue after a decade of “art comics” have left us with copious amounts of style but scant amounts of substance. And even only one issue in, Kids With Guns is flush with substance, starting with its grabber of a title. This is a comic about the way American violence threads a needle through personal and universal history, while also being a non-judgmental look at how those who have never known real violence (i.e. suburban kids) are simultaneously enchanted by and cognizant of its ugliness.

    That all sounds heavy, but Kids With Guns is not a sorrowful drag. Credit for that goes to Nall’s cartoony sensibilities — his art reminds me of Neat Stuff-era Peter Bagge — and his keen observations of childhood excitement and anxiety (Nall teaches comics to kids). Kids With Guns #1 sets up a lot of narrative dominoes that I am excited to see get knocked down in subsequent issues.

    Girl in the World by Caroline Cash

    Caroline Cash’s Girl in The World is about the art of hanging out: at parties full of people you don’t want to see, at home stoned watching YouTube, in a car taking a ride through the neighborhood, at the 24hr food spot after the bars let out, or by yourself in the world doing your own thing. In Cash’s eyes, hanging out is a reaction to a world full of unimpressive nonsense — like men or school or “creatively named Facebook events” — the end goal being to establish a rhythm and space to comfortably exist away from the typical shit everyone else is so enamored with. This approach is perfectly captured in the moment when one of Cash’s characters comes home to her roommate and friends unexpectedly in her room, lounging on her bed, smoking her weed, using her phone charger, and she doesn’t seem to care at all. After all, these are her people, and they’re just hanging out.

    What you first take away when opening up Girl in the World are Cash’s formalist bonafides: it’s impossible to deny the assured way she creatively lays out her pages and then vividly colors them in with a rainbow coalition of markers. What registers next are Cash’s prolific and inviting character designs, which are all of-one but also each individually unique — a tough game to play that Cash makes look easy. Next, once you start actually reading it, you’re impressed by her funny dialogue and kaleidoscopic storytelling. Then, finally, your brain melds all these pieces together and you’re gifted with something that can only be described as Pure Comics.

    Aorta #1 by Sarah Horrocks

    Second only to the funny pages, manga were some of the first comics I fell in love with when I was a kid (the first comic I ever bought that wasn’t a newspaper strip collection was Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind Vol. 6 when I was eight years old at the local Barnes and Noble — I still have it). I was part of an entire generation that came of age during the manga boom of the late 90s-early 2000s, a boom that bred American cartoonists who now create heavily manga-inspired work. One of the more interesting authors from this wave is Sarah Horrocks.

    Aorta is her take on the Mecha genre, specifically pulling from the space-opera melodramas that the genre has to offer (More Turn A Gundam than Patlabor, if that means anything to you). Most of the first issue is about an impromptu rescue mission in the eye of a mammoth tornado, Horrocks slashing ink and screen tone across the page in violent energy. The panel layouts in Aorta are a synthesis of American Comic Book and Manga: boxy grids give way to emotionally jagged panels, with exquisite use of full-bleed spreads that keep the pace interesting. Her character designs are also manga-influenced but her idiosyncratically sketchy style gives them a new, raw dimension. The overall plot is vague so far, and ditto the character relationships, but it’s only the first chapter, and there are a lot of intriguing hints of things to come to keep me interested. I mean, who doesn’t love a good meta-fictional epigraph?

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