"When do I EVER have an alibi?..." Comics! Sometimes they are really good!

Oh, God! He’s back again! Hopefully he won’t be chittering on about WILL EISNER’S THE SPIRIT (DC Comics, 2010 – 2011)! Um, don’t really know how to break this to you…


WILL EISNER’s THE SPIRT (2010 – 2011)

It’s cancelled now, of course. Living in LCS discount boxes across the globe waiting for eager hands and enquiring minds to alight upon the lovely Ladronn covers and pluck them out for a good hard reading. Doing so would certainly be something I’d recommend. For 17 straight issues Mark Shultz, David Hine and Matthew Sturges delivered the scripting goods. Solid, enjoyable writing all the way only occasionally undercut by decompression, but even when the pages seemed a little unnecessary they were made necessary by the delightful stylings of Moritat, for the most part, but also subs such as Victor Ibanez. Moritat was a revelation in this series; to me a new discovery whose art was a sheer pleasure on every page it graced. If I weren't already signed up for ALL-STAR WESTERN his presence would have ensured it. But it’s cancelled now of course, yet there’s still time for one last look before the final issues slip off the shelf to make way for another tie-in, yet another re-boot, yet another thing that matters less but will sell more. If there’s a lesson to be learned from the demise of WILL EISNER’S THE SPIRIT it’s probably that in today’s wacky world of funnybooks VERY GOOD! will only get you so far but hype will get you further. This series was always the former but had little of the latter and so now it’s cancelled of course. Time for that one last look back then…


WILL EISNER’S THE SPIRIT#16 By John Paul Leon (a), David Hine (w), Daniel Vozzo (c) and Rob Leigh (l) Cover by Ladronn (DC Comics, $2.99)

Consisting as this does of a story told via splash pages this corker is pretty much definitive proof that splash pages can be more than lazy page filling; that the derision and heart-sink I feel when presented with one more big image is more a learned response to their implementation over the past years by wastrels and hacks. It’s an exercise in artistic constraint, the kind Alan Moore (ssshhh! Now, Internet. Shhhh!) regularly delights in tasking himself with. Here the brief is clearly to tell the tale in splashes but each splash has to carry the story forward, include all the relevant visual information, convey mood and, just for yucks, also to include THE SPIRIT logo worked into it unobtrusively. Tell the story basically. In lesser hands it would be a stunt, in even lesser hands a pitiful waste but in hands as nimble and facile as these it becomes a joy. A delightful reminder that those rich in imagination and craft can achieve more when restricted than those who are not so blessed can achieve when given complete freedom.


There are 19 more pages as good as this! I shit thee not!

Clearly the star of the show here is John Paul Leon who carries the major weight of the enterprise. John Paul Leon is known to me from the WINTER MEN series he illustrated Brett Lewis’ words for. The fact that I consider WINTER MEN to be the nearest thing to AMERICAN FLAGG! since AMERICAN FLAGG! probably gives you some idea of the regard with which I already hold his work. A regard that this issue does nothing to diminish. It’s one of those artistic performances you really have to see for yourself. I’m not really one to tell people to buy things sight unseen due to all that nasty subjectivity floating about, but, hey, here I am saying buy this one sight unseen. Your eyes will owe you a pint for it because John Paul Leon’s work here elevates a solid script to EXCELLENT!


WILL EISNER’S THE SPIRIT#17 By Brian Bolland, Jose Luis Garcia Lopez and Brian Bolland (a), Howard Victor Chaykin, Paul Levitz and Will Pfeiffer (w), Rob Leigh and Galen Showman (l) Cover by Ladronn (DC Comics, $2.99)

This final issue of the series contains three short and sharp B/W strips. Such strips formed the back-up of the regular comic until DC cut pages and kept prices down (as opposed to Marvel who cut pages and kept prices up). I guess these were in the can when the axe came down but they make a fine fare thee well for the series.

First up is a strip drawn by Brian Bolland. If I have to tell you about Brian Bolland I can only surmise you have arrived here due your abiding love of bad prose styling rather than your love of comics. For to know comics is to know Brian Bolland and to love one is to love the other. It’s Brian Bolland! and although there’s a stiffness evident that was absent from his hey day he’s still Brian freaking Bolland and that makes him well worth the eye time. Here he’s illuminating a strip scripted by one Howard Victor Chaykin. You’d know that even if you didn't read the credits because it’s got all his little, um, interests in abundance (ladies, infidelity, murder, female, ladies, body builders, snappy patter, you know the deal with this guy and it’s a sweet deal indeed). Also, either he scripted this tighter than a gnat’s chuff including breakdowns or Bolland and Rob Leigh went out of their way to make it look exactly like a Howard Victor Chaykin production right down to the signature layering of sound FX. It’s Brian Bolland and Howard Victor Chaykin and so it could never be less than EXCELLENT!


If this panel was any more "Howard Victor Chaykin" it would have had a bah mitzvah!

Next up Jose Luis Garcia Lopez is freed from his merchandising illustration duties to bring vitality and elegance to a tale by Paul Levitz in which The Spirit versus Illegal Lottery Lad and Newspaper Kiosk Kid. Not really, but it does revolve around illegal lottery tickets and an old man in a kiosk who gets dealt with surprisingly harshly at story’s end. There’s a washed out quality to the art that is entirely at home with the snowy setting and, really, as usual Jose Luis Garcia Lopez is worth the ticket price on his own. DC should really collect TWILIGHT by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez and Howard Victor Chaykin before I die, just saying. Mostly because of the art, as the story lacks a certain clarity, this was VERY GOOD!



Finally Will Pfeiffer and P Craig Russell take us on an entertaining whistle-stop tour of art history which runs parallel to The Spirit chasing a hood with many irreplaceable works of art meeting a slapstick end. It’s fizzy, informative and fun stuff that reminds me of how good Will Pfeiffer is and then makes me wonder why he doesn't write more. Being centred on Art it’s pretty much P Craig Russell’s show all the way and this being P Craig Russell it’s a barnstormer, and I can only genuflect at the wonder of his execution. Mind you, I do love me some P Craig Russell. I love him for his graceful and delicate art but I also love him because when he’s allowed to do what he wants he doesn't just illustrate a new and exciting (i.e. stale and uninteresting) take on teens with superpowers intended for other media, no, he adapts Oscar Wilde fairy tales or operas like The Ring Of The Nibelung. Then he does stuff like talk about how his pacing is intended to mimic the movements of the music and it’s right about then that I realise that although I can never appreciate his work to the level it deserves I can at least love it. So I do and this makes the final story in this issue VERY GOOD!


Let there be P Craig Russell...

So there you go - WILL EISNER’S THE SPIRIT published by DC Comics from 2010 to 2011 is cancelled now but it was VERY GOOD! And time won’t change that. Take a look in the dollar bins and prove me wrong, why doncha!

Pah, enough! I must go tend to the roses in the garden of my Life! Have a nice weekend and remember every weekend is better with COMICS!

And now, a short review.

The Bulletproof Coffin #1 (of 6): This is, on one level, a comic about comics. As our own Abhay Khosla recently said: "I don’t know– do you think that’s interesting, comics about comics? Me, not so often." But me? A little more so.

What sets The Bulletproof Coffin apart from the rest of the pop comics-on-pop comics pack is that it positions itself as genuinely radical in embracing some rather vintage, potentially anathematic ideas about self-expression, and thereby carries the potential to upset. It doesn't particularly play fair either, nor does it seem to even want to - there's a lip-smacking, facetious undercurrent to much of the commentary in this first issue, nonetheless presented with such eccentricity it registers instantly as forthright. And this tone is so odd and delicate its potential shortcomings act as their own thrill for this introductory chapter, juicing up an old fashioned funnybook critique so that it somehow feels like it can go anywhere.

The plot is very simple. Steve Newman is a voids contractor and avid collector of pop culture ephemera: he hauls garbage out of the homes of the recently-deceased, but keeps the good garbage for himself, provided there is no verifiable auction value. No speculator our Steve - he's in it for the love, or even the life, posing heroically in his colorful work jumpsuit ("G-Men" brand prominent) before exploring a clip art-perfect spooky old house, only to return home to a listless, vacuuming wife, fast food ketchup-stained twin boys and a family dog with spiky red hair and no genitals. Temporary solace comes in issue #198 of "The Avenging Eye," a vintage Golden Nugget horror comic the price guide insists ended with issue #127. The mystery deepens when a coin-operated television broadcast maybe reveals the murder of the comic's prior owner, an old man with a Golden Nugget superhero's costume stashed under the floorboards. Can these weird events have something to do with the publisher's legendary 1950s/60s writer-artist team, Shaky Kane & David Hine?!

Of course, Kane & Hine are the British creators of The Bulletproof Coffin itself -- Kane handling the art, Hine writing the script, but both credited with "story" -- neither of them quite old enough to recall the salad days of American Code-era chillers, nor even from the correct country. The start of it, then -- the first layer of commentary -- is that distinctly American strands of comics have been imbued with a near-mystical, life-changing force, propagating a complete alternate reality for the devout - it's like alien technology, and Kane & Hine imagine themselves as cosmic commanders, masters of the universe.

That alone isn't so unique, but the creators complicate matters by also acknowledging their own real-life works and personae: Kane the elusive, art-focused contributor to Escape, Deadline & Revolver (with later, intermittent forays into 2000 AD), and Hine, writer and/or artist of assorted fantastical British works and author of the expansive horror comic Strange Embrace turned script man for various front-of-Previews superhero franchises. As hero Steve enters the spooky house, rooms are lined with items from prior Kane or Hine projects, like totems warding off danger.

This quality is made explicit in the 'historical' essay in the back of the book, even as the creators' histories erupt into burlesque. As eager Hine arrives at Kane's door in 1956 full of ideas, the already-veteran artist growls that comics are bought for pictures, not what's in the word balloons. Nothing in particular happens to rebut that idea, even when the malevolent Big 2 Publishing buys out Golden Nugget's line to gut the place of Kane/Hine's vibrant horror, fantasy and bugfuck costumed hero work: Kane becomes a legendary comics mega-recluse combining Steve Ditko and Jack T. Chick elements with Russian porno produced under the name "Destroyovski," while Hine produces Big 2 superhero scripts for the "Z-Men" (setting up an amusing alphabetical continuum of quality with the G-Men farther up and Kane's own A-Men up front), including a desperately mediocre event crossover titled (oh dear) "Final Meltdown."

Eventually, the pair (allegedly) reunite as old men and (allegedly) set about reviving all their old properties in defiance of Big 2 copyrights. Indeed, eight pages of The Bulletproof Coffin #1 are devoted to one of these new stories, a perfectly blunt horror short about the dead exacting revenge on a weak man who murdered them in stealth, keenly blending Kane's real-life early 21st century horror endeavors from Black Star Fiction Library with in-story Hine's bottomless shame over having surrendered his principles to crank out superhero scripts, actually scripted by the man who wrote last week's Detective Comics.

It's perfectly bananas, delivering strident satirical messages -- snorting at the very idea of interesting or personal or relevant work even conceivably existing at Marvel or DC and then doubling down to lampoon the very idea of comic book writers -- in a style rife with insane self-deprecation or aggrandizement (Kane is at one point compared to Michelangelo) and industry criticisms that appear self-evidently contrived to fix wild old superhero and horror comics as the true state of vibrant comic art, vs. those multimedia-scrubbed corporate bozos who apparently haven't accrued a clattering enough mechanism of generic expectations to produce Justice League: The Rise of Arsenal.

Yet there is a richness to this seemingly on-the-nose-if-maybe-sarcastically-so lampoon, tucked away in Shaky Kane's art. More so than anyone working in Deadline, Kane was concerned with graphical qualities, and visual tropes as personal symbolism; look at his A-Men from that magazine, and you'll see a properly (John) Wagnerian costumed ass-kicker as faux-heroic icon of oppressive law transform rapidly into series of cutting, personal images, mixing comic book signals and Kirby gestures into readable mystery collage. It's precisely the opposite of Big 2's Z-Men, presumably writer-run, editor-managed and continuity-bound, enough so that in-story Kane's hyperbolic distaste for writers makes sense; what worked in A-Men, it's very center of being, was something writing couldn't dictate. There a revealing bit of Frank Santoro's Shaky Kane cover feature in Comics Comics #4, where Kane mentions that outside scripts would ask him for Kirby tribute-style art, and "it fell to pieces" almost all the time - he wasn't trying to become the King on a moment-to-moment level, but absorbing and reflecting the stuff that resonated, personally.

Kane's art is more direct in The Bulletproof Coffin -- as it was in Black Star eight years ago -- full of bright popping colors and clean panel arrangements, but still possessing a lumpy, rather boldly posed character to the figure work (a few pieces even seem to be cut 'n pasted from panel to panel) that gently reinforce their status as graphic elements in tilted perspectives and too-close zooms. It really is a whole world of artifice here, but meaningfully and mysteriously so, because odd foreign comics can be meaningful and mysterious for impressionable minds. Can't you see it in manga? Here we see it in the Silver Age, shone back at us.

All of this is naturally only a reaction to issue #1 - things can change quickly, especially as far as satire goes, especially with one this mannered and conflicted. Certainly the suggestion is made that artist Kane isn't much the same without writer Hine -- hint #1 is in the credits box -- and interviews suggest the series' looming threat isn't nearly as simple as a hard-scrubbing corporate superhero monstrosity wiping out The Best Comics Ever, Which Are the Genre Comics We Loved From Back Then. As I said up top, this is delicate work, almost private, enough so that it could be a total banal disaster or something inscrutable, or just wonderfully unexpected. I have no idea where this superhero-tinged commentary comic is headed, and damn it all I value that.