Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Detectives, Inc. by Don McGregor, Marshall Rogers and Gene Colan (Material from the 1970's and 1980's; this IDW edition 2009): IDW is really winning my heart with its reprints of great comics from the 1980's and 1990's. This B&W collection of writer McGregor's Detectives, Inc. comic stories comes along with several prose pieces on the genesis of the detective comic, along with a piece on the filming of the Detectives, Inc. movie. My only caveat about the volume is that it's unfortunate that it couldn't be reprinted in a larger format -- the hyper-detailed art of Marshall Rogers on "A Remembrance of Threatening Green" originally appeared in a larger album size, and things do get a little squinty at times.

Still, this is a tremendous achievement both in writing and art. The world of McGregor's private detectives, Rainier and Dennings, gets the hypercrisp, hyper-detailed treatment from Marshall Rogers (best known for his Batman work in the 1970's), and the moodier, more humanistic approach from Gene Colan (best known for Tomb of Dracula and about a dozen other books). Both art styles work, and both look great in black and white. Indeed, this may be the late Rogers' greatest work. The attention to detail is stunning, and Rogers experiments with some really fascinating one and two-page designs.

Private detectives aren't all that common in comic books unless they wear costumes or have occult powers. Rainier and Dennings remind me a lot of revisionist 70's PIs from the movies -- not so much Jake Gittes in Chinatown, as Rainier and Dennings are less cynical than Robert Towne's PI, but more the characters we see in films like Night Moves (with Gene Hackman on the case) and Cutter's Way (in which non-PI's John Heard and Jeff Bridges try to solve a case). They're battered and bruised sometimes, emotionally as well as physically, but they stay on the case. McGregor invests his characters with a lot of heart -- he's one of the great comic book writers in terms of creating sympathy and empathy, at creating plausibly flawed and self-doubting protagonists, and at incorporating both sex and romance into a comic book without being prurient or exploitative. Highly recommended.

Captain Carrot and the Final Ark by Bill Morrison, Scott Shaw, Al Gordon, Carol Lay, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, E. Nelson Bridwell and Ross Andru (1982, 83; 2007; Collected 2008): DC's relatively short-lived funny animal superhero book Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew! has generated love-it-or-hate-it feelings among readers ever since its premiere back in the early 1980's. DC brought the bunch back in 2007 in a miniseries to either put a capper on the whole alternate-funny-animal-universe thing or to spur interest in another on-going series. Neither has happened so far, as Grant Morrison inserted the Captain and the Zoo Crew into the final pages of company-wide crossover Final Crisis, which happened after the events collected in this book. So Captain Carrot and his friends are still out there, fighting the good fight. The powers that be really should include the pages from Final Crisis in subsequnt editions of this book -- the ending of the Final Ark miniseries, though inconclusive, does leave a bit of a sour taste in the mouth, funny as it is.

Much of the humour (or lack thereof, depending on your tastes) comes from a combination of elaborate punning and an accompanying parody of superhero conventions, though that parody was always pretty gentle. Regardless of one's thoughts on the writing, seminal Captain Carrot artist Scott Shaw has always been the main draw of the book for me -- he's a great funny animal artists who's worked on both comics and animation over the years, and this book reprints a story with the greatest page in Captain Carrot history, one in which the Crew travels to a succession of alternate Earths that are thinly veiled versions of Walt Disney cartoon, the Pogo strip, Krazy Kat, and others.

I also think it's really funny that DC chose to make Captain Carrot's Earth-C an official part of the DC multiverse right from the get-go, with Superman teaming up with the group in its first adventure and the long-time Justice League foe Starro appearing as the first villain. As it turns out, when one sticks Starro into an alternate funny-animal universe, he talks. ALL THE TIME. That's funny in and of itself, given that he/she/it never really talked all that much while battling the Justice League. I mean, it's a giant telepathic alien starfish which periodically almost takes over the world. How awesome is that, talking animals or no? DC was so protective of Earth-C that even after the multiverse 'vanished' for about 20 years, editors periodically noted that Earth-C was actually in a different dimension, and was thus immune to the vanishing of the multiverse. This even though DC neither reprinted nor did new Captain Carrot comics for nearly 25 years. DC is weird.

Mad: The Complete First Six Issues by Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Wally Wood, John Severin and Jack Davis (1952-53; collected 1985): It's fascinating to read the early issues of America's most influential humour magazine. When Mad started, it was a comic book -- it would eventually go to magazine format to escape the newly created Comics Code Authority, an industry-run censorship board put in place to placate those who found comics of the 1950's to be vulgar, gruesome and unfit for children. Hoohah! Mad started off as part of the EC (actually short for 'Educational Comics' -- EC published a lot of Bible comics for children back in the day) stable of horror, science fiction, fantasy, suspense and war comics -- a lot of which is still held in high esteem today.

The first couple of issues of Mad feature stories that could have appeared in the horror or science fiction comics, along with more familiar satires of TV, comics and culture. Actually, one short, "Blobs", is a rip-off of E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops." By issue three or thereabouts, the Mad 'style' is almost fully formed -- irreverant satire of such fixtures as Superman, the Lone Ranger and King Kong, with artist Will Elder especially pioneering the super-crowded Mad panel in which the background is populated with jokes, extra business and commentary on the action. Mad was writer-artist-editor Harvey Kurtzman's baby, and this Russ Cochran reprint includes some interview excerpts in which Kurtzman talks about the various stories, and the strengths and weaknesses of different artists (well, he mainly goes on repeatedly and at length about the strengths and weaknesses of Wally Wood). Highly recommended.

The Art of Walt Simonson by Walt Simonson, Gerry Conway, Eliot S! Maggin, Martin Pasko, Steve Gerber, Cary Bates and others (1971-81; collected 1989): DC never did another book like this -- a creator-focused collection of 'Greatest Hits', mainly from more obscure titles -- and it's too bad, as much of the material in this collection would otherwise remain uncollected. Artist and eventually writer Simonson came to prominence in the 1970's on Manhunter (with writer Archie Goodwin) and on the Batman titles before moving to Marvel for acclaimed runs on a number of titles, most notably Thor in the mid-1980's. Throughout his career he's been acclaimed as one of comics' greatest draftsmen and stylists, with an especially dizzying array of line-styles on his early 1970's material -- Manhunter alone looks like it took fifty years and a thousand different pen nibs and pencil widths to pull off.

Here, we get a few early Simonson pieces from DC's horror and war anthology titles, the two-issue conclusion to the Hercules Unbound series of the 1970's, a terrific Dr. Fate one-shot, and Simonson's dazzling five-issue run on the revived Metal Men. It's all good: the Dr. Fate story suggests that Simonson could have been really favourably matched with Marvel's Dr. Strange had someone thought of it; Simonson's short-eared, squat Batman in an early take on that character looks forward to Frank Miller's tank-like Batman of The Dark Knight Returns; and the Steve Gerber-penned issue of Metal Men managed to be fun and revisionistically grim at the same time, no small feat. Highly recommended.

The Saga of the Swamp Thing Volume 2 by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, John Totleben, Ron Randall, Shawn Macmanus, Len Wein, Berni Wrightson and Rick Veitch: DC's new hardcover reprints of Alan Moore's first work for DC back in the mid-1980's, on Saga of the Swamp Thing, is pretty essential stuff for anyone who enjoyed Moore's 'V' for Vendetta or Watchmen. Moore and company put Swamp Thing through Hell, literally, in the main story in this collection, as our muck-encrusted hero has to save the world from a suddenly far-more-powerful old foe prior to descending into Hell to save the soul of a friend. Moore's writing is sharp and evocative, and the art throughout is terrific, whether Bissette, Veitch and Totleben's depictions of the horrors of Hell, or Shawn Macmanus's melancholy work on "The Burial" and "Pog," the latter an award-winning standalone tribute to Walt Kelly's Pogo. Highly recommended.

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