Sunday, July 12, 2015

Where all the strange ones go

Messy comic shops are the best comic shops, and the great thing about going to them is finding the weird little oddities that no other store has. Comics you might have heard about but never seen, and others that are completely unknown until you stumble across them, hidden behind a stack of Heavy Metals and Archie digests.

That's where you find the strange stuff, and that's what I'm always looking for in those stores, because I've got all the obvious great comics and I need to look around for things that deliver the goods. I've been reading comics since I was three years old, but there are still plenty of old comics to discover.

I dug out some more during a recent visit to one of my favourite comic shops in the world, and they're not all great comics, or even truly satisfying ones, but at least they're something a little bit different:

The Worm
By Alan Moore, several scripters and dozens of artists

This strange little book features “the longest comic strip in the world”, cooked up in one day in 1991 by 125 British cartoonists and four scripters, working from a detailed plot from Alan Moore.

Published as a book in 1999, it's the story of an everyman cartoonist running up against the Man, over and over again throughout human history, and it looks like it was a hell of a lot of un to make, but as a reading experience, it's little more than a curious mess.

Jam comics come with the best of intentions, but they never really work, not with jarring changes in style between individual panels.  There are a lot of lovely little panels – which was always going to happen with the vast talent on the roster, including O'Neill, Fabry, Gibbons, Talbot, Hughes, Emerson and Lloyd - and The Worm does come with more of a theme and point than most jam comics, but it's never quite satisfying as much as the sum of its parts suggests.

Comix Book #1
By Marvel

 Stan Lee's greatest attempt to get down with the hip kids saw him strike up an unlikely friendship with Denis Kitchen, and in 1974, Kitchen somehow talked Marvel into publishing Comix Book, featuring some of the finest underground comic artists at the time.

Only a few issues of Comix Book were ever published, and while Marvel might have written it off as an unmitigated failure, it's a far better cultural portrait of 1970s society than a hundred and fifty issues of The Defenders. In the first issue alone, there is some hamfisted political allegory, the usual what-if-funny-animals-were-gross nonsense and several strips with horribly dated jokes, but there are also touches of brilliance.

They do come from the usual suspects – Art Spiegleman is at his art-deco abstract best, Basil Wolverton is still showing the kids how to do it and there is some fun and games from the likes of Howard Cruse, Kim Deitch and Scott Shaw – and these pieces still give Comix Book some bite and relevance, more than 40 years after it baffled Marvel.

Bizarre Adventures #27
by Claremont, Buscema, Janson, Duffy, Perez, Alcala, Layton and Cockrum

Seven years after Comix Book, Marvel were still trying out new things with their black and white magazines, but by now they were sticking to more traditional fare, with this issue of Bizarre Adventures focusing on the lives of three different X-Men.

It's the sort of softly weird and totally pleasant filler that would bulk out Classic X-Men later that decade, with Nightcrawler, Phoenix and Iceman getting into various scraps. This was before the glut of X-products that started smothering the whole thing in the late eighties, where a previously untold story of Jean Grey's time as the Phoenix was actually quite rare.

The stories are still fairly generic, but have their charms. I have a weird soft spot for Jean Grey's family, and I'm frequently appalled by the horrors they suffer for plot purposes, so seeing Jean spend some time with her sister Sara is somewhat touching, even if they get dragged into Atlantean bullshit, while Nightcrawler is at his swashbuckling best and Iceman is at his moping worst.

Bizarre Adventures proved to be one of Marvel's last gasps in the B&W game, and this issue probably didn't help things too much, but at the very least, you can never have too much of Dave Cockrum's yelling comics.

Housebound with Rick Geary
By Rick Geary

All the cool kids know Rick Geary's Victorian murder mystery comics are essential reading, looking at historical atrocities with a wry eye, but this book of his earlier work is a great look at the artist in progress.

In the pages of this 1991 book, collecting his random comics from the previous 15 years, you can see Geary feeling his way around, looking for his own distinct style and tone. There are hints of the true crime adaptations already shining through, amongst stream of consciousness stories and contemporary snapshots.

Looking at his art, the thing that is most remarkable is how quickly he settles on his signature style, with broken lines, intense detailing and vivid caricatures. He quickly develops it in the strips he produces in the late 1970s, and by 1980 its recognisably Geary. A viewpoint as idiosyncratic as his takes some time to get right, but it didn't take that long before his art couldn't have come from anybody else's pen.

The Daredevil Chronicles
By Enthusiasm!

A lightly professional fanzine, full of the same enthusiasm, but with a comparatively huge print run, The Daredevil Chronicles was part of a series of magazines focusing on Marvel's biggest titles, but published by FantaCo in the early eighties, and full of interviews, articles and artwork, with this one featuring pictures of Daredvil by George Perez, Fred Hembeck and Spain.

The main appeal of the Daredevil issue is a long and rambling interview with Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, right at the peak of their first run. Its heartening to see how they are still invigorated by their own success, and delighted to see their experimentation take off, with a strangely nebulous vision for the future.

Like all these publications, it's a total product of its time and place. Everything moves on in this world, but these pieces of cultural debris are still here, and are still full of fun, and still worth looking for.

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