STUFF I READ THIS WEEK: 5/26/2013 – 6/1/2013

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Special Note: Well, it’s that time again–time to dedicate one of these columns to the memory of a creator I respected, that is.  This time around, it’s SF/fantasy author Jack Vance, who died Sunday at age 96.  The man wrote the most delightfully weird stuff, which somehow managed the trick of being both high-concept and down-to-earth.  He was also a major inspiration to Dungeons and Dragons, which lifted its magic system pretty much entirely from Vance’s Dying Earth series, along with some spell names (most notably “Prismatic Spray”).  If you haven’t read any of Vance’s work up till now, you should definitely take this as an excuse to start.  The aforementioned Dying Earth series is an excellent jumping-on point, as is this excellent comic adaptation of his story The Moon Moth.  RIP, Jack.

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Ditko Monsters: Gorgo!, written by Joe Gill, edited by Craig Yoe

I realize Steve Ditko is the sort of person who gives his best no matter what, but this is officially getting ridiculous.  Charlton basically existed to give properties like this tawdry Godzilla knockoff their own series, but this latest Craig Yoe collection served only to make me wish Ditko had chosen not to waste his time for once.  If you’ve seen the original Gorgo film–which I don’t not recommend, for what it’s worth–you pretty much know how every single issue of this series goes.  That is, Gorgo and his mother play around eating giant squid for a while, Gorgo gets himself in some sort of trouble and Mom bails him out.  Dame Gorgo (she never gets her own name so far as I can tell, so I have taken it upon myself to give her one) is pretty much the ultimate helicopter parent, which just seems all the more pathetic when you belong to a species that can literally bounce nukes off their foreheads.  The particulars may change–sometimes it’s some nation or other’s military, sometimes it’s alien invaders–but the song remains the same.  Here we have utterly generic writing paired with utterly beautiful art, in which the sublimity of the family Gorgo is paired off expertly with the stoic terror of their utterly outclassed human opponents.  Of course, this means Ditko was the perfect artistic match for this series (even Charlton’s substandard printing somehow doesn’t bring him down), even as you wish he’d been otherwise occupied with a worthier comic.  Story of Ditko’s life, really.

dbfrankenstein_1Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein, edited by Craig Yoe

My second Craig Yoe collection of the week, and now things just get weird.  Dick Briefer apparently started out creating a straightforward Frankenstein comic, which he then turned into a humor series, only to subsequently turn it back into a horror comic during the early 1950s pre-Code boom.  There is a distinct possibility Briefer invented the retcon.  Of the two iterations I suppose I like the humor series better, it being endearingly goofy and even a tad subversive.  As I think I’ve mentioned in the past, Briefer had a flair for this sort of thing, enough so that it feels like a waste when the book flip-flops back.  At that point, by his own admission (according to a quote from the introduction) Briefer’s heart wasn’t in it anymore, and it shows in the generic storytelling and characterization.

It’s not like it matters anyway–the real star here is the artwork (so, yeah, pretty much like the Ditko book then).  Briefer’s penchant for twisted anatomy and warped perspective proves equally suitable for horror and humor–Frankenstein can be an amiable goof one story and a nightmare the next.  Briefer was no Bob Powell, but still pretty effective at horror when he wanted to be, or even when he didn’t.  This, along with the Gorgo book, is a quintessential Yoe release, being a beautiful hardbound collection of obscure old-timey comics which, while not necessarily good, are at least interesting.  Which is cool, though I can’t help but worry for Yoe a little bit–there’s no way he’s making any money off this.

177395Castle Waiting vol. 1, by Linda Medley

I don’t have much patience for fairy-tale sequels/continuations, mostly because people’s ideas tend not to progress beyond the Zenescope level (“hey, what if Alice’s daughter who dresses like a stripper went to Wonderland and when she got there she was magically wearing completely different stripper clothes?”).  Castle Waiting doesn’t do anything like that, however.  It’s a far more low-key examination of a “what now?” sort of situation, exploring the lives of all the “little people” who are left at loose ends once the twit they lived to serve skips off to her Happily Ever After.

This may be the most domestic fantasy I’ve ever read, which I realize requires some explanation.  What I mean is that, rather than quests or epic battles, Castle Waiting concerns itself primarily with the day-to-day routine of life in a medieval fantasy world.  The quests and battles still happen, and have more than a bit of bearing on plot and characterization, but it’s mostly off-screen.  It’s a bit like Tehanu, except not terrible.  It’s also one of the more cheerful, optimistic fantasy series to come along in awhile, which works both for and against it.  Of course not every fantasy work needs to be like A Song of Ice and Fire and Dragon Age, much as I like both those franchises.  The representation of medieval life on display here is just realistic enough that it might have been nice to see more of the attendant dangers and difficulties.  It’s not exactly sanitized, and I realize this book is aimed at children, but things seem a tad too tidy at times.

I can’t shake the feeling I’m just being nitpicky, however; I have no real objections to this series, apart from the usual uncomfortable questions attendant in any series which portrays regular humans, animal-people and regular animals coexisting side-by-side.  (At the very least, Medley sidesteps the implied cannibalism of Bake Sale.)  It’s nicely-drawn too, resembling a cleaner, spiffier version of Medieval art.  Which might actually tie back into my previous complaints…nah, not going there.

messbottleMessages In A Bottle: Comic Book Stories By B. Krigstein, edited by Greg Sadowski

Last but certainly not least, I have this collection of works by an artist whom I was dimly aware of at best.  Which is every kind of too bad–the cliche “ahead of his time” is used far too often (hence why it’s a cliche), but it certainly applies in this case.  Sampling the entirety of Krigstein’s relatively brief comic career, from his beginnings as an unremarkable novice to his end on the very cusp of true brilliance.  During that time, Krigstein would set standards of composition and panel rhythm few artists, then or now, care to even attempt to match.  What goes on inside those panels, while dynamic, is perhaps better suited to Krigstein’s fine art/illustration efforts than to comics, which is perhaps why he isn’t better known today.  I struggled, uselessly so, to come up with an exact comparison for Krigstein’s drawing style–did his work resemble Eurocomics?  Soviet propaganda posters?  A dirtier Alex Toth?  I couldn’t decide.  I still really haven’t, though I’ve semi-settled on stained-glass art from Orthodox cathedrals.  Which is totally insane, and perhaps cuts to the heart of the issue–my inability to come up with a sensible description for Krigstein proves his uniqueness.

Sadly, Krigstein’s comics downfall seems to have stemmed from the industry itself, at least as it stood at the time he was active.  Under then-standard practices such as rampant textwalling and enforced panel structure, his work pretty much falls apart.  Many of the selections in this volume (“Master Race” in particular) hold up far better if you ignore the text entirely.  Editors at the time seem not to have known what to do with the guy; one of the last segments of text in the book is a few choice remarks from Krigstein aimed at Stan Lee, sarcastically remarking that the man being hailed for the medium’s rebirth had previously done so much to stifle it.  Sometimes I think the only reason Stan is still with us is because he feels the need to outlive all the people ready and raring to piss on his grave.

Again, I’d rather not go there.  You, however, should go to your local library and pick up this book, especially if you have an interest in rhythm and timing in sequential art.  Krigstein’s work is the perfect primer, offering as it does form without pretense.

 

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