Steven #4 by Doug Allen

Somehow over the years, I’d sort of forgotten about the weekly comic, Steven. Apparently the strip ended in 1994? Fortunately, some months back, I stumbled across the interview with Doug Allen in the latest issue of But is it Comic Aht? and remembered how much I used to enjoy reading Steven in the weekly papers, and I used to have at least some of the Kitchen Sink issues that collected the strip. Now they’re all out of print and somewhat expensive and hard to come by, but I luckily found issue four for eleven bucks and grabbed it up.

This hefty issue collects eighty strips that originally ran from 1989 through 1991. For me, these are flawless comics. Exactly what I’m hoping for when I pick something up to read, funny, memorable, unique. Despite being over thirty years old, these strips, at least to me, still read as completely fresh – they haven’t seemed to have aged a day.

The very meta-comics collected in this issue are mostly centered around Steven’s efforts to fire all the other characters in his strip, because he hates them. The supporting characters are all hilarious, and their efforts to keep their jobs on the strip are wonderful (even after Steven cuts off one of the supporting character’s head). I have a special fondness for the strips featuring two comic book editors who live in a mental institution. A touch of Count Screwloose from Tooloose by Milt Gross?

Both the language of these strips, and the drawings are so much fun, I can’t believe I’d somehow forgotten about it. I feel like Doug Allen should be considered as one of the very best cartoonists. I’m looking forward to trying to track down affordable copies of the rest of his work, ASAP. I kind of can’t believe there isn’t a nice, complete collection of his comics in print or coming soon.

Talk to My Back by Yamada Murasaki

Talk to My Back collects a bunch of short comics drawn by Yamada Murasaki from 1981 to 1984 that were originally published in the Japanese alternative comics magazine, Garo. These are an unusually domestic set of mostly minimalistic pieces, centered on a young mother’s perspective as she tries to find her way, raising two daughters with a seemingly not very involved husband. The stories often focus on a very small, very normal incident, and often end right when you think things are going to get interesting. In that sense, I would say, most of the stories collected here have a vague and poetic feeling, more than a concrete arc… though a couple stories are a little more direct, and almost didactic. The kids slowly get older, the main character thinks about getting a job outside the home, the husband drifts further away, she takes a job for a couple of years, while still managing the household, her kid’s mini-problems, loses her job, decides to stay home, decides to start her own business.

Overall, I found the stories collected in the book to make for a refreshing and enjoyable read. I can’t imagine there were many comics being published in the 1980s that examined the homeworker’s complicated perspective so deeply. Even today, it’s not a very explored topic, is it?

At times, the art in these comics is great, but at other times, I found it a little too sketchy / minimal to grab me – the art occasionally seems to have the slightness of a rushed phone doodle sketch. I mostly found the uneven quality to the art fairly easy to overlook, due to the uniqueness of the subject matter, and simply pleasure of reading most of the short stories. The translation seemed to flow a lot better than your typical Ryan Holmberg translation. Holmberg also has another longish essay in the back of the book, I assume to provide some background material on the stories and on Yamada Murasaki, but I’m ashamed to admit, I never can make it past the first couple paragraphs of any of his essays before I start to fall asleep.

The Lie and How We Told It by Tommi Parrish 

At its most basic, this is a story of two once close teenage(?) friends, now twenty-somethings(?), who run into each other again by chance, some years after drifting apart. After one character gets off work at a grocery store, they end up drinking a bottle of stolen wine, then getting some food together, going for a walk, and going to a bar… all the while having a pretty restrained, banal conversation about what they’ve been up to. One has supposedly recently broken up with someone, while one is supposedly soon to be married. They also talk a little about their shared past. Twice this main story is interrupted by a more poetic feeling, and somehow even more vague and uninteresting story (drawn in black and white, with only one panel per page and one short paragraph of text per page), apparently the contents of a mini-comic found by one of the main characters on the ground. This second story seems to be about a stripper and an ambiguous romance.  

There’s really very little to either tale I felt I could sink my teeth into, and the whole sparsely written graphic novel probably took less than thirty minutes to read. 

On first glance, the artwork, especially the color artwork, looks extremely appealing, but over the course of the book, it also becomes a weakness. There’s a lack of variety (a sameness), a certain ambiguity, an expressionlessness and lack of character that becomes overly apparent, and ultimately left me cold. All the artwork manages to accomplish is to add to the boring and banal feeling created by the flat text. Maybe it’s intentional, but intentionally boring the reader isn’t a great storytelling strategy. Characters are all drawn with big clunky bodies and tiny, usually expressionless heads (including the background characters), which sometimes makes it hard to identify with what’s going on, who is who, and even harder to feel anything for these lumps. Like, as single illustrations for a New York Times article, these drawings would be great, but in service to a graphic novel, with panel after panel of them, it becomes deadly dull. 

This book seems to be part of a trend of, on the surface, attractive looking books, but when actually read, somewhat lacking in content and interest, and definitely lacking in humor. Luckily, I borrowed this one from my library, as if it was a purchase, I would feel pretty ripped off. 

Supermen: The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941

This is a really enjoyable collection of about thirty short stories from the earliest comics, by twenty or so different artists. No Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman here – the stories in this book, published by Fantagraphics in 2009, are more obscure. The artwork is also presented in a much more appealing manner than in your typical Marvel or DC reprints from the same era, obviously scanned from the original comics, and slightly contrast boosted, but seems to use the original coloring, and is perfectly readable and relatively pleasant to look at.

Presented as a collection of early super hero comics, most of the stories here feel more science fiction and crime pulp influenced to me. Actually, most of the stories reminded me more of a sort of fever dream than anything else, full of sudden twists, free of all logic except dream logic.

One unusual choice, that probably increases the disorienting feeling reading many of these stories create, is that instead of starting with origin stories and issue ones (which may have gotten a bit boring), most of what’s collected here tends be stories where the characters have already been completely developed, so it often reads like starting in the middle of a longer adventure. It didn’t bug me too much, but sometimes I wish there had been a few tales in a row featuring the same character, to get a better, deeper feel for what, if anything, was going on. Instead of just having around two hundred pages of comics, wouldn’t it have been nice if this was an eight-hundred-page omnibus?

The most well-known creators in the book are obviously Simon & Kirby, then probably Basil Wolverton and Fletcher Hanks, who both have collected editions of much or all of their work somewhat available these days (I guess the recent Fletcher Hanks collections are out of print now, which is a shame, as they’re wonderful). I loved all their work in here too, but the real stand out for me was two of the stories by Jack Cole, The Comet and The Claw Battles Daredevil. I was of course somewhat familiar with Plastic Man, though I haven’t read of ton of those yet either, but I thought his stories in the book were the most graphically advanced and definitely the most innovative, fun to look at and read. I was researching a bit more about Cole online, and according to this blog, he drew over 3,600 pages of comics. Wouldn’t a nicely scanned complete edition of his works be a great project for somebody to release someday?

If there’s a fault with this book, I’d say a few of the stories didn’t do much for me, and had a real amateurish feel, with some occasional really low-level writing. However, overall, I was kind of shocked by how great the art and writing was on the vast majority of the early comic books collected in here. It’s kind of a weird bit of fate that these comics ended up as public domain obscurities, while other books from the same era, that were certainly no better than most of what’s collected here, have ended up becoming billion-dollar evergreen products.

Archie 148

I started thinking about Archie comics recently, probably because of that scene in the new Love and Rockets documentary, where Gilbert Hernandez flips through an old issue of Little Archie and explains how important it was to him. Of course, Archie was definitely a part of the culture when I was growing up, and I knew all the characters, but I really don’t remember reading any actual Archie comics. I’m thinking perhaps it is only familiar to me via the cartoons I must have seen in the 70s, and maybe seeing the comics at the grocery store checkout lines when I was a kid? If I ever did read any, I doubt it was within the last forty years.

Days after watching the Love and Rockets doc, I happened to be looking for some unrelated info in Drawn and Quarterly’s Thirteen Going on Eighteen collection, and was skimming Seth’s introduction, where he writes, “I have to admit right now that I like Archie comics quite a bit and own hundreds of issues of Archie and its various spin-off titles. I can even tell you which years are the good years (1959 to ’65, incidentally) but […].”

This year, I’d also read, and really enjoyed the first two issues of The Santos Sisters. It seemed weird to me that I was reading parodies of Archie comics, without having actually read any Archie comics!

This combination of events put the idea into my head that I should probably try to read some of these Archie comics, and see what I think. Which is how I ended up picking up this extremely beat up copy of Archie 148 from 1964 (it cost me $4.80). I wasn’t sure if I should try an Archie, a Little Archie, Life with Archie, Pep, or one of the hundreds of other titles. I kind of picked one at random, simply looking for an affordable issue in the date range Seth recommended. And, to be honest, I enjoyed it.

My feeling about the Archie style of art, that it’s a little stiff and slightly unappealing stands. Who knows who drew the stories in this issue (’s description says art by Harry Lucey, Samm Schwartz, Joe Edwards, Marty Epp and unknown, plus cover pencils by Dan DeCarlo). A lot of artists for a relatively short comic, and it’s really hard to notice any difference in the art from story to story. Maybe some who worked on Archie titles are better than others (Gilbert highlights Bob Bolling).

I think the purpose of the art here is more functional than trying to be something attractive to look at, and it gets the job done. Probably it’s the humor of the stories writing that is the main point of the comics. One surprise for me, was how mean-spirited some of the characters act to each other. Like Reggie makes fun of Archie for driving an old car in a really cruel way. Another strip has Reggie switching plaster with concrete, so when Archie tries to make a mold of his foot, he ends up encasing it in concrete instead. I do like how simple and everyday-like the stories are… one about buying a trash can, one about measuring a piece of wood for a stereo cabinet, and one about wearing a wig. I like the shortness of each story too – there are two six-page stories, two five-page stories and a few gag pages, and that’s it. A quick and breezy read. The graphic novel length story backlash, is definitely a growing part of my thinking about what I want to spend my reading time with.

I enjoyed Archie 148 enough that I’m definitely planning to pick up more. Feel free to post some recommendations in the comments. Also, the gag strip below was pretty crazy, and for me, it alone was probably worth the $4.80.