Logo by Dw. Dunphy

First off, yet another apology for taking so long in between columns- job stress and ill health have a way of inhibiting my already passive and relcalcitrant muse. Things are a bit better now, so we’ll se how it goes and I’ll try to get a couple more in before the 2011 best of the year list.  I’ll try to get caught up with a few lines about some things I read since last time, many of which will still (hopefully ) be on sale at a comics shop and/or online retailer near you. Shall we?

Script/Art: Paul Grist
Image Comics, $3.50

I’ve said on many occasions that when he’s on, Paul Grist is one of the most exciting writer/artists out there- his work on Kane and Jack Staff has never been less than interesting, and sometimes he has been downright thrilling with his daredevil layout sense, keen use of spot blacks, and his understated but sharp sense of characterization. While the rest of the comics world was waiting patiently (or not-so in at least one case) for the next issue of Weird World of Jack Staff, Grist, ever the shifty one, decided to do something else instead- and here is the result. Mudman completely eschews all the fiddle-farting around with time and dimensions and reheated Moorcock that often threatened to completely bring the last few issues of Jack to a grinding halt, and instead presents a fairly straightforward, stripped-down superhero comic that at first made me wonder if I wasn’t missing something; surely there was more than met the eye here. That may turn out to be the case; Grist surely does love to zig when his readers expect a zag- but for now he seems to be doing a straight-up Spider-Man take. Young Owen Nolan, a seemingly typical teenage boy who lives with his Dad and sister, enters an apparently deserted old mansion with a friend to do some tagging when Owen discovers a secret lab that contains a bunch of computer screens and a super-hero suit…then, when he flees the house, promptly gets shot in the chest by someone who was shouting at him to stop. Then, he wakes up in bed- it was a dream! Or was it? When he goes to the bathroom to wash up, his hands turn into muddy lumps in the water; then, before his eyes they change back. Later, at school, he’s talking to his friend when he gets hit by a car…and gets up unhurt, and is faced with an irate teacher who now has a large lump of mud on his hood and windshield. By then, it dawns on him that something weird’s going on, and goes back to the house…only to find his policeman dad has been kidnapped and is being interrogated by some thugs. Of course, I’m not going to recap the thing for you, but that should give you an idea of what it’s like.

Which is, of course, your basic Spider-Man template; feckless teenager somehow acquires superpowers, must learn to cope with them. That Grist, who has a rep of sorts for innovation (albeit mostly of the visual variety), has decided to divert himself by presenting us with such an, well, ordinary superhero scenario is just a bit disappointing. Nothing about young Owen’s new powers or situation is anything particularly novel or even really all that interesting. How-evah, as Stephen A. Smith would say, this is still Paul Grist- and there is more going on here, I think, than the somewhat mundane premise promises. First of all, there is, after all is said and done, his art- and it’s no less clever, no less lively and well-crafted in its presentation. In fact, this longtime follower couldn’t help but notice a certain slight difference, a sort of more-felt-than-observed change in his usual way of drawing people, especially women; there’s a roundness, a smoother flow if you will, to his style than I recall from that last few issues of Jack. Perhaps it’s the material, who can say, but sink me if I didn’t think of the style of someone like Carmine Infantino or even Frank Robbins, ferhevvinsake, when I looked at pages like 15 (at left). So that’s interesting, to me, anyway. Also, despite the familiarity of the subject matter, I do trust Grist’s usually imaginative storytelling smarts; I’m sure he’s aware of how this will be perceived, and I’ll just bet he has something up his sleeve. I was, and remain to a small extent, skeptical about this new project…but you never know. From humble beginnings sometimes great things come, so I won’t be slinging any mud in Mr. Grist’s direction. Yet.

Writer/Artist: Guess
Bongo Comics, $3.50

Honestly, is there anybody out there, except the most glassy-eyed and slack-jawed Big Two Zombie, that doesn’t like Sergio Aragones? I’m sure everyone out there is familiar with his contributions to MAD magazine over they years, and longtime comics readers will remember his DC work of the 70’s (Plop!, Bat Lash) and with Mark Evanier, the amusing Groo the Wanderer for various publishers. The issue he did of DC’s creator spotlight title Solo a few years ago was a highlight of the run. Sergio has proven, over the years, to be consistently clever and entertaining, and has always projected a friendly, convivial persona that by most accounts is not a front, but is really genuine. His deceptively simplistic cartooning style has proven itself, over the years, to be up to the task of illustrating pretty much anything in convincing fashion. It may be hard to believe, but I really think the man has been sorely underrated and has largely gone unappreciated in many circles. Be that as it may, I’ve no doubt he will be what they refer to in sports circles as a first-ballot hall of famer. OK- now, after all that buildup, you’d think I fanatically scooped up everything the man gets published, wouldn’t you- but I don’t, and I don’t have a real good reason why. I wasn’t really even aware that Bongo was publishing this comic showcase for whatever Aragones feels like doing, apparently, until just a month or so ago. Guess it’s because with very few exceptions, I hold comic book adaptations of TV properties, especially those I feel are, or have been, done really well in the past in its native medium (like The Simpsons and Futurama), in a high degree of skepticism. Most of the time, comic adaptations are just weak sauce. Bongo’s been trying hard, though, featuring some talented creators…and I guess my blinkered approach led me to overlook this non-TV property.

A page from "Animal Encounters".

Basically, and wisely, this series pretty much lets Aragones do what he does best- tell stories. And there are very few creators, I suspect, who can match him when it comes to life experiences. Sergio, a true raconteur, has led a surprisingly adventurous life for such a genial cartoonist, and this issue is the latest example as he provides us with an account of traveling to various spots around the globe with his friend Dick Young, nature documentary producer and filmmaker. It’s fascinating, and yet still highly amusing, as the pair encounter one situation after another. In addition to the MAD-style short and full-page visual gags and even some games (this is a family-friendly publication, no doubt) there are two other outstanding stories; one is a five-page history of the guillotine, told as only Sergio can, and the highlight of the issue for me, another five-pager called “The Piano”, in which a young man is enraptured by a slightly older, beautiful woman playing piano across the street from his room…his parents, noticing his attention, set out to encourage him and buy him pianos as well as expensive lessons. Soon, we see he goes on to be an accomplished concert pianist…but there is a twist, which may not be a total surprise but is no less heart-warming. It’s a marvelous story, and yeah, I was moved.

Aragones is a treasure, he really is, and I’m thinking that this comic is completely flying under the radar- and that’s a pity. You should pick up an issue and see if you don’t agree with me.

Short Takes:

HEART #1: (Image) This account of a young man who escapes the slacker life to become a fighter in the mixed martial arts circuit has a certain grubby verisimilitude thanks to artist Kevin Mellon, who struggles with heads but is able to draw a fight scene with enough lines and sloppy ink strokes and other visual onomatopoeia to make it look somewhat exciting and kinetic. I have no idea where the writer (Blair Butler) is planning to take this, but I didn’t hate it either…found it refreshingly devoid of cliches. I do hope that the letterer “Crank” is just a grouchy sort, and doesn’t do a lot of meth before he gets down to work. B+

LOCKE AND KEY: GUIDE TO THE KNOWN KEYS #1: (IDW) This somewhat puzzles me, insofar that it even exists. I’m sure that it has some bearing on the main story, which has been going to the history well pretty often lately anyway, so the account of one of the current-day Locke family’s sickly ancestors is going to be relevant at some point, I hope. It helps that artist Gabriel Rodriguez, who keeps on turning in outstanding visual after outstanding visual, delivers a very nicely done Winsor McCay tribute as part of the tale. The rest of the book is a history of the multitude of plot-goosing keys that, again, I’m sure will have bearing on whatever the heck happens before this is all over but isn’t terribly compelling reading taken at face value. I guess it goes without saying that this is for Locke and Key completists, and I sincerely hope there are lots of you out there. A-

Detail from DIABLO #1 by Joseph Lacroix

DIABLO #1 (DC): This one is an extrapolation of an apparently well-known RPG game, and it came out with such little fanfare that it piqued my curiosity. Storywise, it’s pretty much what you’d think- fantasy fiction sword and sorcery and barbarian nonsense, echoing all kinds of better properties from bygone days, and stitched together by constant exposition. But the art is something else again- it’s by someone named Joseph Lacroix and it’s very good- loose and sketchy, and reminiscent of several artists (but not overly imitative of anyone, always a good sign) and the storytelling, body english and expressions are, to my eyes anyway, very well done. Of course, it helps to have the great Dave Stewart doing your colors…but this guy makes this comic well worth checking out, and I hope it leads to bigger gigs for him. Those gold nuggets are out there kids, and sometimes you have to sift through a lot of silt in order to find them in the most unlikely places. B-

ALL STAR WESTERN #’s 2,3: (DC) Gray and Palmiotti are sharp fellows, and for the most part, darn good comics writers. They’ve earned a world of slack from me for a very long time for The Monolith and a good part of Power Girl. That said, they have an annoying tendency, when writing Jonah Hex’s adventures, to give us stories with very little suspense or clever plot twists; like I recall reading elsewhere, he’s more or less DC’s Punisher, but rather than burning hatred for wrongs done to him, he just comes across as a big grey-clad grouch. That said, I did like the weird Sherlock Holmes in Gotham City vibe of this 3 parter, even though really not much got accomplished except the see-what-we-did-there introduction of yet another days-gone-by Arkham ancestor and the death of a young lady that we’re supposed to take their word meant something to our anti-hero. Fortunately for all of us, this was brought to life by Moritat, so at least it all looks really damned good. B

That’s all for this time out; I still want to write a few lines about Habibi (if I ever finish the damned thing), Dear Creature, and a few others, and I will attempt to cobble together a 2011 best-of list, too, before year’s end. As always, thanks for reading, even more thanks for your patience, and I’ll do my best not to let another month go by between columns.

Correspondence that you can’t put in the comments: johnnybacardi AT gmail.