Saturday, January 17, 2009

365 Days with Ben Grimm: Day 17

The Thing #21
Panels from The Thing #21 (March 1985), script by John Byrne, pencils by Ron Wilson, inks by Joe Sinnott, colors by Bob Sharen, letters by Rick Parker

Friday, January 16, 2009

365 Days with Ben Grimm: Day 16

FF #43
Panel from Fantastic Four v.3 #43 (July 2001), co-plotted by Carlos Pacheco and Rafael Marin, script by Jeph Loeb, pencils by Joe Bennett, inks by Sandu Florea, colors by Digital Chameleon, letters by Richard Starkings and Albert Deschesne

Thursday, January 15, 2009

365 Days with Ben Grimm: Day 15

MTIO #50
Panels from Marvel Two-In-One #50 (April 1979), script and breakdowns by John Byrne, finished art and inks by Joe Sinnott, Joe Sinnott, colors by Francoise Mouly, letters by Jim Novak

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

365 Days with Ben Grimm: Day 14

West Coast Avengers #5
Panels from West Coast Avengers #5 (February 1986), script by Steve Englehart, pencils by Al Milgrom, inks by Joe Sinnott, colors by Petra Scotese, letters by Janice Chiang

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fun Fifty of 2008: Part 4 of 5

Whoooooo! Whooooooo! (wolf whistle) Ann-Margrock, everybody! Whoa! (fanning myself). Whooo-ee! That heated up the joint a few degrees, didn't it, folks! Yowza! Okay, ladies, you can take the blindfolds off your husbands, and let's get on with the show!

Welcome once more to the fabulous, sparkling, all-star salute to the Fun Fifty of 2008—half a hundredweight of comics, books, movies, DVDs and chocolate bars that will bring a spring to your step and make your heart a little lighter. Before the break were were gawkin' away at numbers 30 through 21, in that let's get right back to the action with number twenty as the countdown continues!

#20: GERANIUMS AND BACON Just like Crosby and Hope, Power man and Iron Fist, and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and Crisco, Geraniums and Bacon is two great tastes that taste great together! One of my fave minicomics in 2008 was the newest issue (#5) of G&B by Cathy Leamy (aka the mysterious Metrokitty, crimefighter to the stars!). Although I'd picked up a few of her minicomics in stores previously, I was lucky enough to finally meet Cathy at this year's ultra-hot MoCCA Art Festival, where she not only autographed a copy of her newest mini to me but also sketched a very handsome and debonair character:

Bully, by Cathy Leamy

As Cathy so accurately phrases it, Yay! And her comics are cause for celebration as well. G&B features short slice-of-life autobiographical sketches, funny, sweet, cute and sharp, with a wonderful ear for dialogue and beautifully detailed and energetic cartooning in which every element—from wonderfully captured facial expressions to detailed and shadow-depthed crosshatching...not to mention her stories are funny as all get out as well! While I'm a little stuffed bull who will never go shopping for a bra (unless I need a two-seater hammock), I giggled with delight at "Unmentionables," which winds up equating underwire underwear with Wonder Woman's bullet-deflecting bracelets, and the saga "Let me tell you about the Señor" had me wishing I could have a rotting pumpkin on my fire escape as well. I feel that we're looking at an up-and-coming graphic novelist in the vein of Carol Lay or C. Tyler here in Ms. Leamy. With artistic and writing chops like hers, in a few years you'll likely see Cathy producing full-fledged graphic novels for First Second or Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly and you can say I knew her when. So what are you waiting for?—hop on over to her website and order yerself some of those sweet, sweet minicomics, bub! (I also highly recommend the very funny I Survived Gwar mini!)

#19: BAT-MANGA Okay, shall we get this out of the way right at the top? Chip Kidd and Pantheon oughta 'a put Jiro Kuwata's name in the title or subtitle. There, done. Now, crack open the book (hey, it's bound "backwards," just like a Japanese manga!) and get ready to dive into the wildest, wackiest, wu-tangiest Batman comics you or I have ever seen: sixties' Japanese manga created to capitalize on the worldwide sensation of the Batman TV series, but with an Eastern sensibility and over-the-top outrageousness all of its own. Jiro Kuwata's gleeful, almost primal Batman recalls the outrageous Bat-tales from DC in the 1950s, larger than life and twice as exciting. Batman battles Lord Death Man, Go-Go the Magician, Karmak the Murderous Intelligent Gorilla and a whole wacky rogue's gallery of foes new to even the most obsessive Bat-fan, and the vibrant comics are accompanied by color spreads of Japanese Batman toys and other merchandise. It's perhaps not a coincidence that throughout DC Comics's extensive series of "Elseworlds" graphic novels, Batman was the hero most often transplanted through fiction into other worlds and times. That's perhaps the beauty of Batman: a truly universal hero whose stories, like those of Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, or Robin Hood—prove that valor, courage, and a quest for justice can be translated into any culture, giving us a true pantheon (no pun intended) of heroes...and Batmen...for every world. My good internet pal Mister Chris Sims sent me this book as a present (thank you, Chris), and in the words of Mister S: this is more fun than a kick to the face! (And, Chip Kidd tells us, there's enough excess material in the archives for a Volume 2!)

#18: AMBUSH BUG: YEAR NONE There's no miniseries I looked forward to with more unbridled glee and drooling anticipation than DC's revival of Ambush Bug, and hoo-whee! The Bug is back and he's got yer Final Crisis right here, pallie! Keith Giffin and Robert Loren Fleming, the masterminds behind the classic Bug stories of the 1980s (thankfully soon to be reprinted in a big fat Showcase edition) have returned for this six-issue miniseries that pits everyone's three favorite all-green DC hero against his own universe. I'm not certain what readers who weren't prepped for this series by reading the old Ambush Bug comics thought of it: joyfully anarchic, bashing both the fourth wall and the hand that feeds them as it entangles and attacks the multi-series mega-Crisis-crossovers of today and even paints Dan DiDio as the ultimate supervillain. Some of it's silly more often than it is funny (much like the original Bugs), but there's plenty of good, solid chuckles in every issue, and let's face it: even if I can't quite figger out what's going on, how much different is that from most of the mega-comics of today? It's nice to know that DC doesn't take themselves so dead seriously that there's still a corner of their universe where hyperactive shenanigans are still welcome. (Now, bring back Sugar and Spike, ya mooks!)

#17: BILLY BATSON AND THE MAGIC OF SHAZAM! Speakin' o' little fun pocket universes in the DCU, howzabout this wonderful, funderful take on Captain Marvel by Mike "Herobear" Kunkel, which picks up the story from the Jeff Smith mini of last year but brings Kunkel's own visual and story take on The Big Red Cheese—a comic that's for kids, sure, but you'll like it too! This is Captain Marvel taken out of the ever-complicated DC Universe and given his own world to Shazam around in with mischievous and marvelous kid sister Mary. This Shazam series is like nothing DC's ever done with the character—in fact it looks like nothing else on the superhero shelf, period: highly exaggerated cartoon art, but beautifully detailed, powerful in its energy and movement and a brilliant but not blinding pallet of colors. This is work that approaches the physical comedy, visual look and energetic movement of Asterix, which from me, a little stuffed Gaulish supporter from way back, is very high praise indeed. Not only that, but BB is the best value on the superhero shelf: you can't read this in two or three minutes because Kunkel's packed each page with plenty of panels and dialogue to entertain you and move his story along. It's never cramped or's just, for lack of a better word, chock-full. If you go back to the original Captain Marvel Adventures comics of the Fawcett Comics era, you'll find that those were never comics just for kids, but amazing in their appeal and entertainment value for adults then (and now). Kunkel's Captain Marvel has much the same appeal. If your only memory of Captain Marvel is as a crazed lightning-bolt slinger from Kingdom Come, you owe it to yourself to experience the joy and fun a really fine Shazam! comic can bring.

#16: EMPOWERED (In 2007: #15) As I do every time I talk about Adam Warren's manga-styled superhero soap opera (or is that a superhero-styled soap opera manga?), I issue the following advisory warning: kids, and little stuffed bulls, really oughtn't to be reading Empowered. It's sexy without being pornographic, adult without being sleazy, and my goodness, there's a lotta skin on display in this comic. But put aside the cheesecake (even tho' everbody luvs cheesecake) and Empowered is, once again this year, simply one of the best meta-aware looks at the tropes of superhero comics out there. 2008's eagerly-awaited volume #4 has probably the most superhero-aware plotline: inferiority-complexed super Empowered is nominated for a Caped Justice Award ("The Capeys"), and the climax (no, absolutely no pun intended) is a clever and triumphant twist on the usual superhero megabattle where we've been given the clues as to how the hero will defeat the villain, but if we can't spot it in time, will our heroine? Heck, yeah! Emp's rise to justly deserved fame is paralleled by the troubled fears of Ninjette following her defeat in the previous volume, but never fear, the melodrama never gets in the way of Warren's gloriously curvy and voluptuous art and genuinely touching and humorous dialogue. And, if you're not here for that, there's still plenty of boobs, butts, and sex jokes. Don't give it to your kid brother, don't give it to you mom, don't give it to your little stuffed bull: just enjoy Empowered and start impatiently counting the days until Book 5.

#15: SATURN KNIGHT Earlier tonight I mentioned Cuddly Chris Sims, the Invincible Super-Blogger who will always tell you if a part of your anatomy is haunted, isn't just a cool guy who sends me free books, suspiciously trying to bribe me into listing him more than once in my year-end, no, no, he's also a guy who brags about his upcoming comics projects, all of which threaten to break the comics blogosophere in equilateral thirds. Well, Chris (in collaboration with artist Pierre Villeneuve) has finally done that thing we call around my house "pooping or getting off the pot", producing the ultimate Christmas comic (and that includes that Punisher ish where Frank Castle shot an elf point-blank in the face): Saturn Knight in "The Knight Before Christmas!" It's a battle royale at the North Pole when a villainous vixen kidnaps St. Nick and the only hero who can stop her, you guessed it, Saturn Knight! This is bright and bold and brash: nothing deep or serious but just what the jolly old elf ordered in a Christmas comic. In addition to introducing Saturn Knight, the strip guest-stars some great cameo super-characters who deserve to get more time in the spotlight later: Jim Shelley and Pierre Villeneuve universe, with Chris Sims at the writing helm in this story, all bring us a solid and original heroic world in the vein of Astro City or 1963 that I'd love to explore further. And let's face it, how can you resist a villain who attacks Santa Claus using a big-ass laser gun called the Holidazer with a sound effect of KWANAZAAAP! It's all great fun, gorgeously drawn and lushly colored, and appeals to my sense of good solid superhero comics: not trying to reinvent the genre, but simply to produce a solid and entertaining comic story. And in the end, we're left with a great warm feeling and a belief in Santa Claus and superheroes. Only a Grinch would tell a kid they don't exist, and Sims and Villeneuve...and Saturn Knight...bring back belief in all that's good, fat, and dressed in a red suit. And how much is this stocking full of Christmas cheer gonna cost me, you ask? Absolutely nothin'! (Say it again!) Click on the image above or here to read Saturn Knight for free online! Who says this isn't the Flashback Age of Comics?

#14: STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS I'll admit it: 2008's Star Wars: The Clone Wars was the first Star Wars film I didn't queue up for, dressed in my tiny little Wookiee fur costume and waving my plastic lightsaber around: in my button eyes, the films had pretty much been the definition of diminishing returns, so I skipped the theatrical midquel. But I thought I'd give the Cartoon Network weekly half-hour Clone Wars adventure series a try, and color me as bright red as Mister Vader's lightsaber: I'm lovin' this thing! Set between Episodes II and III and probably no doubt sidebarred precisely between volumes 18 and 19 of some lengthy Extended Universe novel, Clone Wars does what no other Star Wars has done since the late lamented Star Wars Tales comic did: it entertained the heck out of me. Maybe it's the short, snappy, half-hour episodes that keep the galactic politics to a minimum and the swashbuckling right up on screen...maybe it's that it fills in some of the adventures of Jedi other than whiny, petulant poster boy for loss of temper control Anakin Skywalker...or maybe it's the rule of inverse Lucasism is in effect here: the less George Lucas is directly involved with a Star Wars project, the more entertaining it is. Whichever it is, doesn't matter—it's just good, solid, primal Star Wars. Despite my initial misgivings, the video-gamesque computer animation actually fits the characters and action, and the action is actually thrilling and the humor—like that of Star Wars IV-VI—actually makes me laugh. Ahsoka, Anakin's chirpy Jedi apprentice, could have been yet another annoying teen sidekick character, but she's fun and brings a light of optimism to this darkening universe. Clone Wars even performs the very definition of an absolutely impossible task in an episode that spotlights Jar Jar Binks and makes his adventures genuinely funny and entertaining. I only have one question: why is it all female Jedi are costumed either in the galactic equivalent of a burkha, or in a belly shirt?

#13: X-MEN: FIRST CLASS In 2007: #3) Over in the Marvel Universe, there's still umpty-ump gajillions of X-Men titles, most of which feature Wolverine. Excuse me if I step over those books to grab X-Men: First Class off the rack: it's been consistently the most entertaining and fun X-comic since Grant Morrison left New X-Men ten seconds before all his stories were retconned. 2008 saw the end of the regular First Class series, but never fear: it was followed up with a lovely Giant-Sized special (featuring two of my favorite X-stories of '08, Roger Langridge's Edward Goreyesque Charles Xavier storybook, and Michael Cho's gorgeous black-and-grey-and-ruby-quartz toned 1950s-style take on that movie with Keanu Reeves Michael Rennie). But the real star here (aside from the five original X-Men) is the writing of Jeff Parker, who gives these 1960s continuity implants a level of high adventure and entertaining soap opera that Stan and Roy never reached. (For comparison, check out the cheerfully goofball reprint of [Uncanny] X-Men #40 in the Giant-Sized First Class: where the Famous Five met Frankenstein and try to beat the bejeezus out of him before finding out he's an alien robot...wha?!?) No mention of First Class is complete without praising the frequent back-up strips written by Parker and cartooned with whimsical gleeful art by Colleen Coover, who's turned pre-Phoenix Jean Grey into a spunky, clever, and outgoing heroine of the sort I'd want to grow up to be. Um, if I was gonna be a girl.

#12: DOCTOR WHO SERIES FOUR (In 2007: #23) Okay, Who fans, get your broomsticks and cricket bats ready, because I'm going to go out on a limb and tell you that I think the just completed Series Four has featured some of the best episodes of the reinvented Doctor Who to date, and the best companion, Donna Noble. I loved Donna this year: sharp-tongued, sarcastic, fierce, protective and jubilantly happy at (most of) her adventures. Donna in many ways challenged The Doctor and brought to him a sense of humanity that continues the evolution since the Christopher Eggleston series—reminding our 903-year old time traveler that with great power comes great responsibility. Russell T. Davies last year of sailing on the TARDIS gave us some fantastic moments: a hilarious mime as The Doctor and Donna meet again, the chilling two-episode Library spooktacular, a wonderful David Tennant tour-de-force in "Midnight," and the lovely light period episode guest-starring Agatha Christie, who woulda made a dandy Companion herself, doncha think? Sure, there were a few mis-steps: nobody needs to see Baby Spice as The Doctor, Jr. again, and I'll gladly step up to be first in line to slap whiny Rose for dickering over which Doctor she gets in her little pocket universe. Still, if you can watch the final hour without sniffling your eyes out, well, boyo, you're made of stronger stuff than me. Some may argue this is a horrible end to a wonderful companion, but I've got a feeling this isn't the end of Donna's story. In a world of a time-traveling adventurer, any story can be undone, and no tragedy need be definite. (F'r instance, weren't we told we could never, would never see Miss Tyler again?) I'm greatly looking forward to The All-New, All-Different, All-Flopsy-Haired Doc The Eleventh, but RTD and company have given David Tennant a great final voyage of a series.

#11: TALES DESIGNED TO THRIZZLE If I could have any comic book on Earth melted down into a concentrated form and shot directly into my brain using a special brain-bazooka comic-book flinging sort of gun thing, well, I'd want it to be Tales Designed to Thrizzle, Michael Kupperman's anarchic, Dadaist comic that's all about...well, what the heck is this thing about? If the Marx Brothers were a comic book, if the Firesign Theater were a...uh, comic book, if The Goon Show had been...hey, The Goon Show was a comic book! Well, anyway: a befuddling cornucopia of strips, fake ads, and period informational pieces, 2008's Thrizzle #4 starred Albert Einstein and Mark Twain: Cops; pop group NSync starring in a high-seas pirate swashbuckler; those twin tykes of hiding behind furniture, The Scaredy Kids; and the greatest duo in pop culture, Snake & Bacon. Kupperman's deceptively simplistic woodcut style only highlights the utter absurdity of his work, and frequently a strip will be hijacked by another feature's heroes until they drive it careening into an advertisement for Snails Across America. I've said of many comics on this list that there's many laughs in every issue—Tales Designed to Thrizzle stuffs so many guffaws, belly-laughs, and perplexed "huh?"s into every page that you'll be beating down the door to buy the upcoming hardcover collection coming this year from Fantagraphics (handily linked above to the right). Truth in advertising department: When I'm not typing away about comic books, pop culture, and Ben Grimm, I work for W. W. Norton, which distributes Fantagraphics Books to the bookstore trade. But I'da bought and recommended Thrizzle if it'd been published by any press.

Whew! I need to go backstage and hose down my rented tuxedo, folks. In the words of Jack Benny...we're running a little late, so, goodnight, everybody...what's that? What are the Top Fun Ten of 2008? Oh, it's just Secret Invasion #0-8 and , huh, I guess the issue of Mighty Avengers where Dr. Doom told us to shut our cow mouths. Kind of an anti-climax, huh?

I'm kiddin' ya! I kid because I love. If you think the rest of this stuff was fun, well, it only increases in geometrical funness the closer we get to #1, until we all collapse into a Fun Hole which will destroy the universe! So until then, stay cool, feed your kittycat, brush up on your Shakespeare, and we'll see you at the finish line!

365 Days with Ben Grimm: Day 13

The Thing postage stamp
Panels from Fantastic Four #203 (February 1979), script by Marv Wolfman, breakdowns by Keith Pollard, finished art and inks by Joe Sinnott, colors by Glynis Wein, letters by John Costanza

Monday, January 12, 2009

Fun Fifty of 2008: Part 3 of 5

Thank you, Powerpuff Girls! That's the Powerpuff Girls, everyone, with their musical tribute to sugar, spice, and the other one! We'd like to thank them for appearing on out show, and for filling in for three-fifths of the Spice Girls during the opening number!

We're back lovely audience, live from the Pantages Theater here in beautiful downtown Burbank, for the Third Annual Fun Fifty, celebrating all that's good and right and bright and fun fun in 2008's comics and other pop culture! (So out the back with you, Frank Miller!) As you remember, last time we counted down, we saw all manner of wonderfully fun, fantastic, and flubberlicious items numbered from forty to thirty-one. So let's hop right back in the middle of the fun and pick up the countdown with number thirty, shall we? (Take it away, Eric the Orchestra Leader!)

#30: SIMPSONS COMICS (In 2007: #33) For my money (earned honestly by selling seeds door to door and hoarded carefully in my piggy bank buried in the back yard), nobody crams more fun in every issue of their entire comics line than the good folks at Bongo Comics (the comics where you don't have to be a one-eared rabbit to appreciate 'em!), especially their flagship Simpsons line: Simpsons Comics, Bart Simpson, Simpsons Super Spectacular, Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror Special, Simpsons Summer Shindig, Simpsons Winter Wingding, Edward and Mrs. Simpson, Jessica & Ashlee Simpson, O... oh wait, I've gone out of control again. The Simpsons line of comics consistently does the TV series proudwith excellent laugh per page value, suitable for all audiences. Highlights of 2008 featured Lisa discovering (using the Simpson DNA evidence!) that she's not related to the rest of the family, Marge joins a roller derby, a fast-paced series of Hans Christian Andersen parodies, and two, count 'em, two Flash parody covers! Dense with jokes and consistently visually inventive, the Simpsons family of fine comics has just passed their fifteenth anniversary and shows every sign of going strong for many more: long may they provoke giggles.

#29: COMICS FOR THE iPHONE Your little stuffed bull about town is nothing without his snazzy cellular phone, and as you all know I'm a big, big little fan of fine products from Apple computer. So, in addition to not leaving home without my American Express, I always tuck my Apple iPhone into my Hello Kitty backpack. I can stay in touch with all my friends, I can listen to my music, I can watch videos, I can get my email, I can surf the web, and I can read comics. What?!? Have I lost my mind? Comics on your phone?!? Why, shore! One of the most fun things you can do with the iPhone (after having your calls tapped by AT&T!) is downloading applications or "apps" either on your phone or via the iTunes store, and a number of companies are digitizing and selling their comics in iPhone format for reading on the go. These won't replace the floppy comic format any time soon...swipe with your finger to flip through each panel, presented by itself, frequently trimmed or cut in half, but perfectly readable. You can buy, mostly for 99¢ a pop, Bone, Peter David issues of Star Trek (and in perfect fairness, they've corrected the technical problem I complained about here), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Godland, Nancy Drew, and many more by several different companies. But in my (i)book, iVerse Media is doing 'em right: offering free downloadable #1 issues of many of their comics: Oz: The Manga, Ray Harryhausen Presents: Wrath of the Titans #1, Proof, Return of Shadowhawk, Ghost Whisperer...but for my (free) money, I've really enjoyed the iPhone free #1 issues of Atomic Robo (a Hellboy-esque saga of a robot warrior versus Nazis) and Neozoic (high adventure "in a world"...where the dinosaurs didn't get wiped out)...enough to make me buy the further issues. Check out the demo:

There's lots more that could be done with comics on the iPhone: I'd like to see a free or subscription service that downloads each day's comic strips, whose panel format is perfect for a iPhone or iTouch screen, and Marvel and DC could do worse than to format some of their hot or classic comics in this format. But for the beginning of iComics 1.0, it's a lot of fun to have comics in your pocket.

#28: DOCTOR WHO: THE FORGOTTEN Throughout the history of Doctor Who, we've met (give or take a Richard E. Grant) ten Doctors, and followed their adventures throughout history, the galaxy, and beyond. But how often do we get to see all ten Doctors? Well, for one, in Rich Morris's The Ten Doctors webcomic (#4 on last year's Fun Fifty), still ongoing and as fun as ever. But in 2008 we saw an authorized Ten Doctors of a kind: IDW's Doctor Who: The Forgotten, a five-ish miniseries that traps The Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones in a strange museum highlighting the Doctor's past exploits, forcing him to remember an adventure from his previous lives: one from each of his incarnations. Chock full o' your favorites (Jo! K-9! Tegan! Romana! Jamie and Zoe! Rose! Peri! Ace! And Tina Fey!*) and illustrated with verve and energetic authenticity (the First and Second Doctors' stories are in black-and-white), each flashback leads the Doctor closer to discovering the secret of his imprisonment. The series will be collected in trade paperback and available soon (click on the Amazon link above to pre-order it), but one of the great joys of 2008 was the monthly excitement of picking up Doctor Who: The Forgotten and traveling back in time with another Doctor or two.

*Well, a bull can dream.

#27: CROGAN'S VENGEANCE Pirates! Every little bull loves 'em. And so, as James Kirk observed, do you. And pirates in comic books? Why, that's even better. I met Chris Schweizer at SPX this year, and was immediately entranced by his debut graphic novel, Crogan's Vengeance. Flip open the front cover and cast your little buttons eyes on the endpapers: a family tree of the grand Crogan dynasty: adventurers, soldiers, pilots, ninjas, lion-tamers, and yes, a pirate. Each one of sixteen infamous Crogans will be featured in upcoming books in the series, in which a young contemporary boy learns the saga of his family in tales told by his father. You can't go wrong starting a series with pirates, of course, especially "Catfoot" Crogan, illustrated in Schweizer's brilliant, bold and crisp cartoon style: wonderfully distinctive faces and figures, vibrant energetic movement, bright solid blacks and wonderfully detailed seascapes and harbor towns. The art itself wouldn't be half as impressive if a fun and high-adventure story didn't accompany it: when the ship he's serving on is captured by pirates, Crogan finds he makes a better pirate than a crewman—but can he live the life of a buccaneer and keep his honor? The natural comparison is to Bone, of course: a comic series with great kid appeal that adults will enjoy too. I do hope the Crogan series enjoys great success, because I wanna see the other characters teased at in the endpapers. Now's the time to get on board with one of the Great New Things: a wonderful writer and cartoonist's swashbuckling, rousing pirate tale...and if you're not careful, you just might learn something. (See Schweizer's site for a 26-page preview, and then just try to stop yourself from picking up the book!)

#26: JACK OF FABLES (In 2007: #5) Consistently entertaining, saucy, and funny, Jack of Fables seems to have spun its wheels a little in the past year—still fine stuff, but not quite up to my high rating last year. (It's still one of the few comics that makes me laugh out loud, so don't think I've lost interest!) A high-adventure but violent and somber interlude in the Old West was an abrupt interruption to the storyline, and while it did allow Willingham and Sturges to guest-star Bigby Wolf (tirelessly tracking down outlaw Jack), this wild West Jack was even less of a admirable character than usual, dangerously skirting the line from rogue to villain. A three-part flashback history of the Page sisters took Jack out of the story for far too long (although he hiliariously complains in each of the issues' "next time" boxes) and now we're smack-dab in the middle of "The Books of War," with Jack as a self-important military leader while the fable and real worlds fall apart around him. We've just finished with extensive war stories over in Fables and this seems like a lite version of the same: I'm eager to get back to Jack on the road, having picaresque and bawdy adventures. Still, the writing and art are fine as usual, and every issue features a one-page interlude of the Walter Mittiest bovine of them all, the Sensational Character Find of 2006, Babe the Tiny Blue Ox! But, I wanna see the war stories wrap up (looks like we're in for a long haul of them) and Jack and Company head out on the highway again. Or, as Ray Charles mighta sang to our 'hero,' "Hit the road, Jack!"

#25: BOTTOMLESS BELLY BUTTON Let me clarify the inclusion of Bottomless Belly Button on this list, 'coz this is a graphic novel that will probably make you exclaim "Clearly this is some definition of the word 'fun' I'm not familiar with, Bully!" Let me explain. Tho' the subject matter (divorce and failing family dynamics) isn't traditionally what you'd call fun, this groundbreaking GN by Dash Shaw...justly voted as the finest of the year by Publishers a beautifully-realized celebration of the breadth and power of graphic novels. This thick brick of a story would be lauded even if it were written in prose; that's how strong Shaw's writing is. (I think, without intentional hyperbole, that Shaw will eventually be discussed in the same breath and compared with fiction writers like David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen...time will tell.) Despite its strength as a story that would fill a fine novel, this is a story that can't be divorced from its impressionistic visuals any more than Maus or Watchmen could be "novelized" and keep their innovative synthesis of words, symbolsism, and progressive comics art. That's what I find fun about BBB: you'll be weeping at sequences at the same time you smile in wonder at Shaw's subtle skill of making this a true graphic novel. (Want a preview? Here's Shaw's own animated trailer for the book:)

Art comics? Maybe. Amazing comics? Definitely.

(Truth in disclosure department: In my day job I work for W. W. Norton, which distributes Fantagraphics Books, the publisher of Bottomless Belly Belly. I woulda recommended this whoever had published it.)

#24: THE NEAR COMPLETE ESSENTIAL HEMBECK ARCHIVES OMNIBUS Oh, those knees; those marvelous swirly knees! There are many fine humorists in the comics field, but few with such an affection for, connection to, and commentary on the superhero field as Fred Hembeck. This big-ass collection compiles all of those classic Hembeck strip magazines that you've likely got squirreled away in an odd-shaped longbox (or maybe have on your want list), plus plenty of seldom- and never-before seen artwork, cartoons, illustrations and much more: 900 pages, fer cryin' out loud! Cheap paper, mildly shrunken strips and sometimes muddy reproduction are to be complained about, sure, but overall this is a collection you'll cherish, read to pieces, and guffaw at every strip along the way. Now, bring us a follow-up volume featuring Hembeck's strips from Marvel Age and his comics work for Marvel and DC (including the incomparable Petey: The Adventures of Peter Parker Before He Became Spider-Man. If you don't love Hembeck, you don't love comics, bucky!

#23: SUPERGIRL: COSMIC ADVENTURES IN THE 8TH GRADE Eager for a female hero who doesn't show off her belly button? Have I got a book for you, pal! One of the highlights in DC's mixed bag of comics for younger audiences (Tiny Titans and Super Friends are a little too young-oriented for even this six-year-old little stuffed bull), the brand-new Supergirl comic strips the excess baggage from the Kara Zor-El mythos and polishes it to an animated-style brilliance: she's still the cousin of Superman, she's still disguised as Linda Lee in a world that doesn't understand her, and she's struggling with her toughest challenge: fitting in with her school peers. It's a kid's book but charming and entertaining for all ages: dialogue and situations that are actually funny instead of merely silly, expressive and stylized artwork by Eric Jones that makes Supergirl actually look like a young teenage girl. The angst is minor and played for giggles: this is a comic of joy and happiness, bright and enthusiastic, and I love it lots. Supergirl is only a six-issue miniseries, so seriously, folks, buy, enjoy, and support this comic so DC'll give us some more adventures of the most entertaining and enjoyable Supergirl in years.

#22: FABLES (in 2007: #25) Most of the finest Vertigo series seem to have a natural life of about 75 issues; telling their story and ending, or, in a few cases, staying behind a few years more than is probably needed. Seeing the War storyline about to finish in the mid-seventies, I actually did think Fables was wrapping up, and I was ready to greatly miss one of my favorite comics. Surprise! Suddenly Fables a way not unlike the real much about what happens after the grand fury and frenzy of war, as former enemies are reintegrated into society, casualties are mourned, conquered territory is uneasily settled and tender new alliances are tested. I oughta have expected that, because all along Fables has been a comic about what happens to the characters of fairy tales after the fairy tales finish. And, just like real life, not everybody lives happily ever after. And...for the moment but not much longer...Fables features the front cover artwork of James Jean, who produces some of the most beautiful covers in contemporary Big Two comic books. (James Jean fan? Well, you really oughta pick up Fables Covers: The Art of James Jean Vol. 1.)

#21: MINI MARVELS: ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS If I had to pick a Marvel Universe to live in, I certainly wouldn't pick Earth-616, a place where "Dark" is an acceptable adjective for a comic book. No, give me Earth-99062 (no kidding! That's the official designation!), home of Chris Giarrusso's joyful, colorful, glorious Mini Marvels: all your favorite Marvel heroes, now pint-sized for your entertainment. This digest-sized collection compiles a hefty selection of the Mini Marvels strips from the back of recent Marvel comics, many of which I'd missed the first time around (I never even realized that "The Iron Avengers" was an ongoing storyline). Giarrusso's work captures the wondrous crazy innocence of kids playing superheroes...except they really do have superpowers. Bright and colorful, this genuinely affectionate tweak of the Marvel Universe is a world where nobody ever really gets hurt. Thanks to Elephant Steve! (And, before I go, a rant at Marvel: Why did you let this wonderful collection go out of print so fast, Marvel? You dumbasses.)

Now, I know what you're saying: how can there possibly be comics more fun than those?!? Surely you're going to spend the next two installments of these awards ceremonies shuffling nervously from hoof to hoof on stage, Bully! And that's where you'd be wrong. Why not check in again next time to pop your eyeballs out at the unexpected return of one of my favorite superheroes of all time, a costumed crimefighter whose foreign escapades don't require a passport but probably shoulda had a byline, and a series that restored my faith in what I thought was a dead franchise! Be there or be octangular, Bully-fans!

365 Days with Ben Grimm: Day 12

The Thing postage stamp
Marvel Comics postage stamp featuring The Thing (2007), art by Jack Kirby

Sunday, January 11, 2009

365 Days with Ben Grimm: Day 11

Fantastic Four Annual #1
Panel from Startling Stories: The Thing #1 (October 2003), script by Ron Zimmerman, pencils by Don Kramer, inks by Sandu Florea, colors by Studio F, letters by Dave Sharpe

Ten of a Kind: You know what it was: a little cocker spaniel dog in a crate that he'd sent all the way from Texas.

(More Ten of a Kind here.)