Friday, June 24, 2011

Four Color Fear

40 stories make up this collection of 1950s-era horror comics, which should have something to please everyone within its already-yellowed pages. Yes, this is a book published by Fantagraphics, so of course it is designed to stand out on the bookshelf. A softcover book with sturdy binding, excellent paper, 300+ pages, and a $29.99 price tag make this a must-have.
Four Color Fear's Cover, featuring "The Corpse Who Came To Dinner."
On to the contents. The list of creators working on these short stories is often a little difficult to be sure of, as these comics were made before credits were all too common. However, it’s known for sure that a whole bunch of comics luminaries were involved with these creepy tales: Bob Powell, Jack Cole, Basil Wolverton, Al Williamson, Wally Wood, and Joe Kubert all lend a hand in at least one of Four Colored Fear’s stories.

The subtitle of this book is “Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s.” Editor Greg Sadowski must have had quite a time selecting the stories to include in this volume. With EC Comics’ horror titles getting so much attention over the years, Sadowski wanted to divert some of that focus onto the many other companies that were doing their best to frighten people before the infamous creation of the Comics Code Authority in 1954. 

There was definitely plenty of material out much so that some tough choices had to be made in choosing what to select for inclusion in Four Color Fear: no stories published by Atlas Comics are reprinted here (but Sadowski mentions that there are hopes to make another horror book completely focused on the work of that publisher due to its voluminous output) and there are no stories by the inimitable Steve Ditko (but Sadowski points readers to another series of Fantagraphics publications in the Steve Ditko Archives to rectify that omission).

The standard rules of any anthology still apply to Four Color Fear. Some stories are simply better than others. But Sadowski clearly wanted to do his best to adequately represent what the horror comics of the era were like outside of the EC standards. What horror tropes aren’t touched upon in this book? We have zombies, vampires, voodoo, psychological horror, monsters of various shapes, sizes, and deformities, some stories with a tinge of humor, demons, skeletons, cold-blooded murder, graphic violence, you get the picture. Know what you’re in for before you get to reading these comics. 

How about some words about a handful of the stories that stood out to me:

“The Corpse That Came To Dinner” 
It’s true that a lot of the stories here are the classic “twist ending” type of horror tales that became EC’s bread and butter. Well, I really can’t think of a more fun twist than the one in this story. Not to mention how undeniably creepy the artwork by Reed Crandall and Mike Peppe is. Imagine sitting down for a nice turkey dinner with a freakish ghoul who tears his food to shreds and holds a deep grudge against you. You’re trying to sleep when in the middle of the night the zombie is banging a drum as loud as he can. He just won’t leave you alone because he feels that he has every right to be in your house and you just can’t get rid of him.

“Chef’s Delight” 
There is an evil French chef named Francois. He is famous for his signature dish of stuffed cow’s heart. He cheats on his wife and spends lavish amounts of money on his mistress while he lets his son die of appendicitis and repeatedly beats his wife. His wife goes crazy and arms herself with a meat cleaver. You can supply the rest of the details for yourself.

“The Thing From The Sea” 
Murder at sea, except the guy didn’t quite die. He’s walking along the bottom of the ocean and waiting for vengeance, and boy does he get it. Featuring some visceral Wally Wood art.

“The Wall Of Flesh”
This story had a genuinely creepy premise as related in the title. A mad scientist story about greed that ends pretty badly for the bad person (sometimes things go badly for everyone in these stories, but this one has some kind of justice left intact). Bob Powell also has some great ways of showing the passage of time in this story that just has to be seen.

“The Slithering Horror Of Skontong Swamp”
Maybe this was the most truly frightening story in the book. Goldie Ricon is a tough criminal who is on death row. The way prisoners are sometimes disposed of at this particular jail is that they are led into a dismal swamp. Goldie, being as tough as he is, escapes the swamp but only after coming into contact with a host of zombies. He can’t escape the thought of them and finds himself back in prison awaiting execution by the electric chair. He gets fried and then he learns the mystery of the zombies in the swamp...

Great news: Fantagraphics has sold through the first printing of the book and a second edition, with this nice new cover, is going to be available soon.

Besides the high quality restoration of these long-lost comics, Greg Sadowski includes about 20 pages of endnotes. There are specific details on how certain artists came to work on certain projects, and other things that amateur comics historians (such as myself) really can appreciate. 

One last thing to mention is that the middle of the book is a selection of over 30 horror comic covers from the various publications that Four Color Fear’s stories came from. They are presented on glossy paper and you really get the feeling that Fantagraphics found some thousand-odd copies of each of these comics, ripped off the covers, and sandwiched them into the middle of this brand new book. It’s just another testament to the superb work that this company does with everything that they do. Now if only they could get that Comics Journal #301 to ship...I’ve been waiting on that for about a year!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Star Wars Omnibus: A Long Time Ago...Volume Two

Now this is a book from a long time ago, and sometimes when reading it the stories even seem like they might have come from a galaxy far, far away. These tales are from the very early days of Star Wars being the phenomenon that it eventually developed into, and the results are often pretty squarely on the goofy side. The Omnibus captures perfectly what Star Wars meant to fans in the late 70's and early 80's.

Archie Goodwin is "the man with the plan" throughout most of the stories reprinted in this book. He served not only as writer but he also edited the book, so it's safe to say that Star Wars was truly "his" book. The main artist is Carmine Infantino, who is joined by a host of inkers. But of course Al Williamson has to be mentioned for his really beautiful work on the six-part adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back. Other names that show up in more of a supporting cast role are Chris Claremont, Mike W. Barr, Walt Simonson, and Michael Golden. So there's a lot of significant talent in these stories.

Al Williamson's detailed work from the Empire adaptation.

The comics reprinted in this Omnibus were from the series put out by Marvel. Having a tie-in of this caliber probably saved Marvel from bankruptcy in the late 70's, so yeah, you might be able to say that these comics were pretty important! What's fun about these stories is how you can see that the whole idea of what Star Wars really could be about was just forming. Half of the comics were made before there was even a sequel to the 1977 original movie.

Take the character of Jabba the Hutt for instance. He makes a few appearances in these comics, but Lucas apparently hadn't really figured out exactly what he wanted to do with the character yet. He was, after all, only briefly mentioned in A New Hope. So Archie Goodwin wanted to make use of this interesting character from Han Solo's past, and when he shows up he is nothing like the fat, slimy Hutt we know and love from Return of the Jedi. Jabba in the old comics is a skinny humanoid with a really ugly and almost baboon-like face. You can either be unsatisfied by a "lack of continuity" or you can just accept the fact that Star Wars was still very much of a work in progress while this series was being put out.

That's Jabba Version 1.0 there in the background, not the GI Joe-looking guy in front.

There is still an ongoing saga narrative behind these stories. Goodwin invented some new villains who cause some problems not only for the heroes, but also for Darth Vader. The Tagge family are a bunch of Imperials, true, but they would just love nothing more than to seize power from Vader. The fights with the Tagges build up over several issues and take some unexpected turns along the way. That might have in fact been the storytelling highlight of the Omnibus.

Maybe not what you'd expect from a Star Wars villain: Baron Tagge.

There are different issues focusing on different characters and you really get the sense that there was an effort being made to show this exciting new universe from as many angles as possible. It might not quite be the Star Wars that we all recognize today, but it's a great history lesson filled with a bunch of solid stories and a lot of exemplary Bronze Age art.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Chew: Just Desserts

At this point, the word about Chew is unanimous: it’s a great comic that everyone should at least try. The volume in question here is the third, entitled “Just Desserts.” John Layman and Rob Guillory have ironed out any wrinkles (wait--were there any to begin with?) and turned Chew into one of Image’s best titles. Little, tiny bit of backstory: Chew stars Tony Chu, a cibopathic FDA official who routinely deals with problems arising from the illegal consumption of chicken meat. Poultry was banned forever because there was once a particularly bad strain of illness associated with it.

Oh, and by the way...what is a cibopath? Someone with a pretty special ability. Tony eats something and instantly gets a psychic impression of where the food came from and everything that has happened to it. So if he eats an apple, he might imagine that nice little apple orchard where a family went picking together on a nice Sunday afternoon. Or, well, he might ingest a “blood sample” of a murdered corpse and find out all of the grisly details. That’s what life is like for Tony Chu.

A good amount of space in “Just Desserts” is given to developing the relationship between Tony and his girlfried Amelia Mintz. Now Amelia happens to have some special abilities herself...Layman has given her the title of saboscrivener, meaning that she is a food writer, just like a bunch of other people who have tried their hand at that particular kind of writing, but unlike others Amelia’s writing is so evocative and descriptive that readers actually get a taste of the food that is being written about. So doesn’t it sound like these people were made for each other?

I think that what really leapt out at me at first about this book was the way that the stories are constructed. The first chapter is just great: it’s an example of “start at the end” storytelling, in which everything else leads up to that final moment spoiled at the beginning, but I don’t ever recall seeing such effective use of thousands of years passing in a twenty-two page comic before. Another highlight story involves the raiding of company headquarters of the inventors of Poult-Plus, an artificial chicken substitute that is “Fricken’ Delicious!” I don’t want to spoil anything, but there’s a pretty good reason why this stuff is so appetizing.

Chew is a comic that is really easy to enjoy. It’s one of those amazingly well-rounded comics that just seems to do it all. Sure, the scale might be tipped onto the side of humor, but there are some serious moments and ideas behind the book. What is always obvious about Chew is that the creators are having a blast and reveling in the artistic synergy that they’ve found. Chew: “Just Desserts” benefits from the high production quality that Image is known for, and everything just looks great. How many funny notes can Guillory hide on every page?

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Tumor makes for a nice if fast read. It’s an L.A. noir book and it’s a story that works great in comic book format. The creative team here is a couple of guys who I am completely unfamiliar with...Joshua Hale Fialkov writes and Noel Tuazon draws. Also, it’s published by a company that I really have never dipped into: Archaia. Tumor is a stark black and white book with simple art and a story that keeps rolling.

This review might be a little unusual in that I want to make sure that I devote some attention to this book as a nifty little physical object. I learned that Tumor was originally published in installments exclusively for the Kindle and that this hardcover collection is the big finished project. It pretty much looks like it was designed to be a standalone graphic novel. What we have here is two hundred pages of noir excitement and a whole bunch of extras. Supplementary prose stories, interviews, concept art, and a big look at the earlier versions of the project fill up forty pages once the story is over. The book is a high quality bound hardcover with some really nice and thick paperstock. It’s just a nice thing to have sitting on the shelf!

The interview with Fialkov is reprinted from Ain’t It Cool News. I really liked what I read. Fialkov seems like a smart guy who knows the direction things are going in. There are questions that are asked about digital distribution, and his position is that it just makes a whole lot of sense for indie comics publishers to be looking into this sort of thing. With the costs that Diamond imposes and the pitiful numbers that a new indie can expect to sell, why not look into a digital distribution model?

“For me, digital first with a well designed, extras-loaded collection is the way of the future,” Fialkov said. Well, this is exactly what they did with Tumor, and I’d have to say that it looks like it worked out pretty well.

So how about a little discussion of the story in Tumor? As would be expected from the title, the main character is on the verge of death from a brain tumor. Frank Armstrong has lived a pretty long life for a lifelong criminal and this is his swan song. There’s just one last set of trouble to deal with, and it really isn’t giving much of the plot away to mention the final words of the book, supplied by Frank’s narration: “This is the story of how I died. Of all the things I did wrong. And the only thing I ever did right.”

There’s plenty to enjoy in Tumor. The thing that makes it stand apart from the countless other noir comics out there is how Fialkov and Tuazon melded Frank’s past and present into a complex narrative. The brain tumor is wearing him down, and we can see just how bad things are getting when he’s so completely confused by what is real and what used to be real, what he should worry about and what it is far too late to even care about anymore. Because of the subject matter, tone, and a little bit of the art style, reading Tumor reminded me of the Darwyn Cooke Parker books. I feel like that is considerable praise to pile onto a crime graphic novel these days.

If you’re looking for a quick-paced modern comic that has a nice design to it, try out Tumor. Actually, this is the kind of graphic novel that is perfect for people who are “too ashamed” to be caught reading a comic in public. It looks like a normal hardcover book, and little will anyone know what’s really inside...