That's right I read some comics. Some of them were old and some of them were new and one of them wasn't really a comic at all. But only one of them made me think it was a miracle anyone was actually conceived in the '50s.
Yes, paging Dr. Subtext! Outbreak of '50s gynophobia! But then to nostalgic old fools like me '50s gynophobia is arguably the finest gynophobia of all! Anyway, this... THE SHAOLIN COWBOY ADVENTURE MAGAZINE #1 The Shaolin Cowboy in "The Way of No Way!" by Andrew Vachss and Geoff Darrow Time Factor by Michael A. Black Illustrations by Geoff Darrow and Gary Gianni Designed by Peter Doherty Cover by Scott Gustafson Dark Horse Books, $15.99 (2012) Shaolin Cowboy created by Geoff Darrow
This isn't a comic book, best get that straight right from the off. What it is is a loving evocation of the pulp magazines of the past. Peter Doherty has designed the book, and every page within it, to wilfully evoke those deceased progenitors of the super hero comic. He draws short at leaving the page edges untrimmed but other than that it's a splendid piece of design work. The contents are very reminiscent of the old pulps too. I haven't read a lot of those but what I have read of them they were largely shaggy dog stories told in very wordy way with the main draw being the charisma of the central character and the outlandish inventions deployed by the (often uncredited) authors to delay the ending. Pulps were largely exercises in covering as much ground with as little material as possible (very much like certain comics from The Big Two. Ha ha! You Crazy!) but fought hard to be entertaining while doing so (unlike certain...Ha ha! Me passive aggressive!).
So what you get here consists of pages of words punctuated by a plenitude of Darrow's hypnotically precise spot illustrations and a smattering of full page "Helpful Hints" where Shaolin Cowboy helpfully shows you how to switch on a toaster before e.g. tearing off someone's nutsack with it. That's the joke there and it's the same joke every time but as with certain jokes the accumulative repetition somehow keeps it funny. Because that's the thing about Shaolin Cowboy isn't it? There aren't a lot of jokes but what there are are good jokes. The best joke in the comics is appreciating the density of illustration used to enliven such meagre plots. The trick here is that Vachss and Darrow make the language serve the illustrative function but the joke remains, in essence because whole pages dense with text are spent describing a scene only to have the scene change suddenly. More space is spent describing how the people Shaolin Cowboy is about to dispatch look than there is spent describing how they are dispatched. As with the comic the emphasis is on appearance rather than action. You will have to like words to like this one.
Darrow and Vachss have worked together before (Darrow did the covers for Vachss' 1995 CROSS series at Dark Horse and worked on the 1993 ANOTHER CHANCE TO GET THINGS RIGHT g/n along with many other artists) but it's surprising how well it works here given that change of emphasis from art to text. Vachss is a perfect choice for a pulp project like this. He's an accomplished writer of fiction whose work tends to read like nothing so much as pulp filtered through a dark adapted eye. His Burke novels are pretty much What If Doc Savage and his crew had all had terrible childhoods and now hunted sexual predators with absolutely no intention of rehabilitating them. Vachss is an imposing figure what with his designer suits, eye-patch and general stance that seems to declare that he has just dealt with something and it will never hurt anyone else again. He isn't a dilettante either, just paddling in the waters of human atrocity for profit. This is from his bio in the back:
"Andrew Vachss has been a federal investigator in sexually transmitted diseases, a social-services caseworker, and a labour organiser, and has directed a maximum-security prison for "aggressive-violent youth". Now a lawyer in private practice, he represents children and youth exclusively."
This explains the references to the organisation PROTECT which crop up in the book and the no-nonsense message about kids and violence. Andrew Vachss makes Steve Ditko look indecisive is what I'm saying. I'm glad there is someone out there like Andrew Vachss, almost as glad as I am sorry that there is a need for people like him. But I can assure you that my rating is based entirely on the fact that I really enjoyed the book. It certainly isn't fear of having my legs broken that makes me say it was VERY GOOD! Also, the Michael A. Black time travelling/dinosaurs short that brings up the rear of the book is pretty neat and will take you back to Sundays reading Ray Bradbury on the rug in front of the fire before you even knew the world contained kids less fortunate than you who needed things like PROTECT.
ALL STAR WESTERN#13 Jonah Hex: Art by Moritat, written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, coloured by Mike Atiyeh and lettered by Rob Leigh. Tomahawk!: Art and colour by Phil Winslade, written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti and lettered by Rob Leigh. DC Comics, $3.99 (2012) Jonah Hex created by Tony DeZuniga and John Albano Tomahawk created by Edmund Good and Joe Samachson
This book gets worse and worse and it still sells more than it did when it was called JONAH HEX. But then it isn't about Jonah Hex anymore is it? No, it's more like Jonah Hex And His Amazing Friends. Except they are far from amazing and, as he's Jonah, they aren't really his friends, so it's more Jonah Hex And Some People Tolerating Each Other. Whatever I say about this book (and I'll be saying some stuff alright) all that needs be done to refute me is to chuck back its sales figures in my angry biased jealous fan boy face. The guy doing the most work here is clearly Moritat and he does a far better job than the material requires. Look, this isn't about Jonah Hex being "my" character and how I don't like what they've done to him. It's about bad comics. This one starts off with a clown killing a priest. He is killing the priest because he does not like priests because they fiddled with him when he was a kid. Jonah and his crew show up and notice the dead priest has had his face painted like a clown and someone says there's a circus in town and, oh God, oh Jesus....it's not exactly a fucking "two pipe problem" is it, Watson?
And I've gone Holmes on you there because what this comic is also doing is bringing in fictional literary characters from the period the book is set in (at the minute we have Edward Hyde, y'know, from Little Dorrit.) I can only guess they are doing this because the constant shout-outs to DC super hero continuity aren't stupid enough. I've got no beef with either man (I'm certainly not jealous(!)) but Palmiotti and Gray's work comes down heavily on the commercial rather than the creative end of the see-saw. It beggars my mind why on earth they would seek to go toe to toe in the shared-world arena with Kim Newman, Philip Jose Farmer and that elderly Englishman we've all decided we hate (because although less than he was he still makes everyone else look bad). In comparison this is just pantomime and Palmiotti and Gray look like they'be both not only turned up as the horse, but they've miscalculated further and they both came as the horses' ass. C'mon, the clock is ticking until Spring Heeled Jack shows up. After all some claim the murders ended because he sailed to The New World, how can they resist. Look forward to "It's Saucy Jack, sir! He's struck agin! Right under our very noses!" That should show FROM HELL up good and proper. Yeah, I know; but it sells more than ever - so I lose. I looOOooooOOOOOOooOOse! Look, something can be successful but still CRAP! It isn't a critic's job to tell you what's selling - it's their task to tell you whether something is any good or not and why. Sometimes elliptically. Sometimes irritatingly.
UNTOLD TALES OF THE PUNISHER MAX#5 Art by Mirko Colak (p) and Norman Lee & Rick Ketcham (i) Written by Skottie Young Coloured by Michele Rosenberg Lettered by VC's Cory Petit Marvel, $3.99 (2012) The Punisher created by John romita Snr, Ross Andru and Gerry Conway
There are many audacious things aout this comic written by the man who will, on this evidence, remain better known for his art on Marvel's wonderful Oz books. First up is the fact that Young attempts to position FrankMax as some kind of homicidal homilist dispensing murder and maxims. That would be okay(ish) if this were FrankNorm but in the MAX (So uncompromising! So complex! (i.e. violent and cruel)) world it seems a bit...off. Like FrankMax's taken one too many blows to the head and suddenly become simple minded or something. Don't get me wrong it's a good moral but I don't know if the guy who (spoiler!) killed your Dad is the guy you're going to listen to. No, put the phone down! Not your Dad; the Dad in the book. The Punisher didn't kill your Dad! He isn't real! No, The Punisher isn't real, your Dad is. Look, you're just doing it on purpose now.
The other bold move is to have the issue basically centre around a high-stakes cat and mouse game revolving entirely around the making of cheese macaroni and, specifically, whether there is some cheese in the fridge! I won't spoil it for you. No, not the cheese that's okay it's in the fridge. Or! Is! It!? I kind of liked that actually; it amused me. Young really stretches my credence to cracking point though when he suggests someone's favourite movie could be Appollo 13. Hey, it's a decent movie and it documents a thoroughly remarkable instance of insanely laudable human bravery and ingenuity no doubt, no doubt. But...favourite movie? Ever? Of all the movies you have ever seen? Okay, it might be crew members Lovell and Hise's favourite movie (Swigert died before it was made but he'd probably have been mad keen on it too.) but this comic isn't about them. I know all kids think their Dad's taste in movies suck but c'mon. Even my Dad likes Reservoir Dogs (altho', "There's no real need for all that language, John.", so spaketh he.) All this together with the unspectacular art makes the comic EH! And in the end the brassiest thing about the comic is that Marvel charged $3.99 for it. (You don't even get a Free Digital Code!)
HAUNTED HORROR #1 Art by C.A. Winter, Bernard Baily, Mike Sekowsky & Bill Walton (attrib.), Jack Kirby & Joe Simon, Jack Cole and Jay Disbrow. Reprints tales from WEIRD TERROR#1 (1952), THIS MAGAZINE IS HAUNTED#4 (1952), BAFFLING MYSTERIES#6 (1952), BLACK MAGIC#31 (1954), INTRIGUE #1 (1955) and CRIME DETECTOR #5 (1954) Cover by Warren Kramer and Lee Elias IDW/YOE Comics, $3.99 (2012)
If you don't think that that fine as wine cover is some kind of awesome then you best look away now because that's the smoothest thing in this package. And what a package this is! A splatter of pre-Code horror comics from various sources and various artists that shores up the case for art being the decisive factor in a comic's appeal. Because these sure ain't some well written comics. Apart from the Simon & Kirby (S&K) tale none of the other contents even get a writer credit. I'm not really surprised either. These things are entertaining allright but probably not in the way the authors intended. If the authors even intended anything because back then people just wrote this stuff to eat and they had to write a lot of it and they had to write it fast. Intentions are a very modern affectation for comics writers, tha ken. The more sedate of these tales are written like the writer’s got his cock in a mangle and he’s just learned he's late for a plane.They aren't exactly coherent is what I'm saying there. But the best one is "Black Magic In A Slinky Gown" because it has an almost palpable revulsion for women and the dirty, dirty things they make men do with them. The author of this one is only saved from almost certain Sectioning by the addled and unfocused nature of the storytelling. Or maybe it makes it seem worse than it is; either way it's hilarious. The kind of story you imagine being written by the kind of man who silently props up the bar surrounded by a circle of silence and goes home and the next time you hear about him it's in the paper and it isn't for winning the lottery.
In a more commonly accepted sense of "best" it's "Slaughter-House" which takes the prize. This is by S&K and is a real shocker. It's f-in' brutal! A couple of battered Joes resist after the Earth has been conquered by '50s style aliens and it's all really unsettling. It's as though limited as to what they could depict visually S&K snuck through the real horror in the text. Seriously, it's basically got humanity being herded into killing pens and "...SLAUGHTERED like beef on the hoof!" With the wire and the guards and the mechanised death and the resistance and the Quislings and...you don't need letters after your name to know what S&K are on about (World War 2, darlings. World War 2). It also contains the word "noggin" which automatically makes my day. The ending is uncharacteristically downbeat for Kirby (maybe it's more Simon) but it's weird to reflect that The King's work appears more pessimistic before Marvel fucked him over than it does after. Because while this story apparently refutes it Jack Kirby, and I may have mentioned this before, never gave up on us.
This is a VERY GOOD! package overall. Not just for nostalgia (because don't you have to have experienced them first time round for that?) but also out of interest in what comics used to be like. Turns out they were the kind of thing that, had it been produced yesterday by people under thirty, would tickle the 'nads of VICE readers as much as the sight of a pretty girl reading Infinite Jest opposite them on the subway. (Honestly, there's some real Charles Burns/Dan Clowes look-a-likey stuff in here.) Also, for people who like their reprints just the way they were this book is for you, Brian Hibbs! It looks like someone just scanned the comics in and adjusted the contrast and so all you need is a Police Action in Korea, a corn dog and a cop on every corner for it be just like the good old days again!
Make Brian Hibbs smile like a child again by buying HAUNTED HORROR #1 from HERE.
And like the good old days - I'm gone!
Hope y'all had a good Thanksgiving and remembered to give thanks for COMICS!!!