Stuff I Read This Week, 9/9/2012-9/15/2012

Genius, Isolated: The Life And Art of Alex Toth, by Dean Mullaney, Bruce Canwell, and Alex Toth

Yes, smartasses, I did actually read this. And I’m glad I did, too. Alex Toth (creator of Space Ghost) is one of those artists who have existed on the fringes of my awareness, but not until reading this book would I have considered myself a full-fledged fan.

Holy crap, I think I might have a new favorite American comic book artist now. Certainly Toth’s somewhere in my top five. That said, he’s something of a case of wasted potential, spending much of his comics career grinding away in the licensed-comic doldrums at Dell (henceforth referred to as “Delldrums”). I’ve heard him called “a master without a masterpiece”–that is, lacking in one defining work you can point to as an exemplar of his work. The closest Toth came to his own Fourth World or first thirty-ish issues of Amazing Spider-man is a run on Zorro with Dell in the 1950s (bringing Dell’s total of shotgun-on-a-mosquito creators to three, so far), which he didn’t even like.

I don’t want to ramble on too long about this amazing book. Suffice to say it’s crammed with Toth comics (including “The Crushed Gardenia”, the single greatest crime comic ever published), much of it original artwork, along with an extensive biography of Toth’s life up to the early 1960s (this is the first of a planned 3 volumes). Toth turns out to have been one of those “short-fused bastard who’s earned the privilege” types, some of his hissy-fits remaining the stuff of legend and conjecture to this day. Toth, at one point, may or may not have threatened to throw Julie Schwartz out a window (in his defense, Schwartz was being kind of a dick), though he almost certainly didn’t, as some claim, proceed to dangle him out an open window to prove his point. Whatever happened that day, rest assured Schwartz’s fenestrates remained in fine working order.

George R.R. Martin’s Doorways, written by George R.R. Martin, art by Stefano Martino

So, this is what we almost got instead of A Song of Ice And Fire? Yeah, I’ll pass. Not to say I thought this would have been a bad show–in fact, my counterpart in the alternate universe where this show got produced doubtless buries it in accolades (“Better than Sliders! But then, so is dysentery. But still, I like it!”–Carlos Mayer, cherishedchump.org). But would I have preferred it over a series that’s basically ruined the fantasy genre for me, because everything else sucks in comparison? No way. Or maybe I would have, because ASOIaF wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t know what I was missing. Aargh, this dimension-hopping shit is confusing. At least if you put too much thought into it, which Martin doesn’t. That’s not a slam on Martin; it’s obvious he was content to create a simple adventure series, with the strong characterization we all know and love him for. Ain’t nothing wrong with that. I’m generally opposed to the use of comics as a dumping ground for rejected TV pitches, but I enjoyed this well enough, despite Martino’s rather pedestrian artwork.

DMZ vol. 12: The Five Nations of New York, written by Brian Wood, art by Riccardo Burchielli

Wars come and go, but New York endures. I’ve never lived in NYC myself and likely never will, so that message doesn’t resonate with me quite so strongly as it would with a native. Still, this book brings DMZ to a very satisfying end. The Second Civil War is over and the future is anything but certain, but you get the feeling it’ll all work out somehow. And it does. That final issue is bittersweet as all hell–New York City may have landed on its feet, but Matty Roth is too busy paying the piper to enjoy it. In a medium that all too often regards simple guilt as a fit repercussion, to see a protagonist actually facing consequences for his actions is both novel and refreshing.

Radioactive Man: Radioactive Repository, vol. 1, various writers/artists

Sergio Aragones Funnies aside, I’ve never paid overmuch attention to Bongo Comics. This collection didn’t make me repent that choice, but it’s still a brisk, enjoyable read. It’s nowhere near so funny as The Simpsons in its prime; it is, however, considerably funnier than the show now. The most interesting part of the comic is its central conceit, that being how it’s been in print for decades and been run through every comic trend. Some things never change, of course–Radioactive Man himself remains the same reactionary, patronizing jackass throughout. While the references are a bit on-the-nose for older readers, they serve as a fine gateway drug for the book’s intended audience.

Good-bye, Chunky Rice, by Craig Thompson

Thompson’s first major work, while not quite bearing the same emotional heft of Blankets or Habibi, is still quite sweetly melancholic in its own right. Anyone who’s ever had to deal with a close friend moving out of town can’t not be affected by this book. Loss, in all its myriad forms, is a recurring theme in Thompson’s work, and as with his later books he manages to toe the line between pathos and melodrama without ever quite tipping over into the latter. Not to say this isn’t still clearly a rookie effort–the book attempts (without much success) a sort of Tim Burton-esque macabre humor, and the figurework isn’t quite up to the standards of later work, though Thompson’s brushstrokes remain as haunting as ever.

Grifter/Midnighter, written by Chuck Dixon, art by Ryan Benjamin

Shit sandwich.

Bob Powell’s Terror, edited by Craig Yoe

This week’s last book is also its most pleasant surprise–for certain values of “pleasant”, anyway. I knew of Bob Powell before reading this, because of that notorious “got decked by a studio-mate for sexually harassing a coworker” story, but hadn’t been familiar with his work before now, which is a damn shame. Powell’s work is a first for me–horror comics that genuinely scare me. Something about his artwork–every puffy, wrinkly face, every slippery blob, every vista of perdition–just trips my fight-or-flight response and sets my neck hairs on end. The stories in this collection follow the “asshole pays the price” Golden Age horror-comic plot standard, but the assholes in question end up suffering so horrifically you can’t help but feel sorry for them. Powell’s work, much like that of Fletcher Hanks (another former studio-mate), is suffused with misanthropic contempt, though he makes far better use of it than did Hanks. The result is something I honestly can’t ever imagine letting a kid read. It’s almost enough to make me see where Wertham was coming from. Yes, Bob Powell made me sympathize with a paranoid closet-case responsible for the gutting of an entire medium. The stuff in this book is even scarier than that. Man was a genius, I tells ya.

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