STRAY BULLETS by David Lapham

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Comics at their best represent a direct mind-to-mind connection between artist and reader. The presence of a human hand and human mind in every aspect of text and image brings you as close as you can get to art imitating thought. To read the work of a truly great cartoonist is to be privileged to a guided tour of a private imaginative world.

And so it was a body blow to this remarkable medium when we lost STRAY BULLETS, David Lapham’s self-published oddball auteurist crime epic. Huge in scope and yet utterly personal, driven by twin engines of hope and avarice, animated by a sprawling cast of outlaws, suckers, and irrepressible lowlives, STRAY BULLETS was a ride-along through a wrecked world still shaded with stupid wonder. It was a living world, a tale to get lost in — you wanted to root through these characters’ drawers, raid their drug stashes. And when it abruptly disappeared a decade ago in the middle of a story arc, after forty soulful, disturbing, hilarious issues, the comic shelves were left a diminished place.

Lapham soldiered on as a freelance writer for a slew of books, a job that was surely easier and more financially rewarding than the lonely, punishing slog of life as a self-publishing monthly cartoonist. He was tapped to write books like CROSSED, DEADPOOL and TERROR, INC due to his well-known propensity for Fucked Up Shit, but these dire carnivals of gore and celebrations of violence leave little room for the elements of storytelling that made his earlier work so special — the tenderness and humor which which he illuminates the darkness. Stray Bullets is a book full of doomed people, soul-rotted losers making disastrous decisions, but they have a helpless hopefulness that will break your heart, and a queasy familiarity that elevates these stories above voyeurism. You’re not gawking at the freaks and monsters — you’re relating, empathizing, wondering exactly what separates you from them.

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This is the work of a man who should be creating his own stories, not filling up the margins of other people’s properties with what has become a depressing trademark of vileness and desecrations. We got an astonishing window into the ever-more-active underworlds of Lapham’s imagination with 2009’s brilliantly mind-melting short-lived Vertigo series YOUNG LIARS — which made it even more depressing to behold his status as a gun-for-hire, dispensing darkness and assigning grim fates one paycheck at a time. This guy is one of the best storytellers we’ve got, and we need his vision, unadulterated, in the unflashy yet impeccable brushwork of his own hand. And now, as STRAY BULLETS comes roaring back to life with an 1200 page blunt weapon of an omnibus edition and a new continuing series, we have it once again.

STRAY BULLETS foils synopsis because it has no central conceit, not even a particular setting to tie all these intricately interconnected vignettes together. It unfolds from Baltimore to Los Angeles, between 1978 and 1997, but there’s no end game, no plot point that this thing slouches towards as it darts from future to past, from east to west, dropping in and out of continuing stories with little regard for the reader’s confusion, each issue somehow a part of this stunningly detailed universe as well as a thoroughly satisfying self-contained story. Lapham tells the parts and pieces that he finds interesting, tossing us into already-unfolding crises and letting the chips fall where they may, suddenly picking up shards and strands of stories that seemed long forgotten.

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To describe its plot threads and subject matter is to depict STRAY BULLETS as so much less than it is. The suitcases of stolen cash & coke, the brutal men and fallen women; the upstanding citizens led down paths of corruption — this is the worn-out stuff of lurid crime fiction and rehashed B-movies. It’s the voice that elevates this material above its strip-mined sources. Lapham never affects the world-weary bitterness of the detective novel or the overheated moral fervor of dime-store pulp. Instead he immerses you in his characters’ worlds, in their hard-clung grievances and unmanageable passions, their twitching anxieties and wounded ambition. For all the cartoonish violence, all the avarice duly punished, Lapham never lets you forget that these characters are human, that the roots of their depravity are just standard-issue vices, cancerously ballooned and uncontainable. Their greed and lust are only the broken, wishful yearning of damaged people.

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Though Lapham has almost no regard for chronological storytelling, there’s something cyclical at work here. The story begins in Baltimore, and most of the stories concern relative naifs — upright men, women and children who become mixed up with hardened criminals. By the time everything in Baltimore falls apart and we move westward, for a quiet interlude in the sleepy village of Seaside, NV where a number of the characters go to lay low while the heat dies down. (Seaside, in a perfectly STRAY BULLETS touch of lunatic optimism, is a desert town with a three-mile boardwalk built in anticipation of the moment when California falls into the sea and they become oceanfront property.) The lower stakes stories that take place in Seaside, though still filled with crime and drugs and violence, are as quiet and pleasant as anything in this series — these characters have made their way out of the traps set in Baltimore, but they haven’t reached their final destination: Los Angeles, where so much of the cast washes up, having succumbed to everything, their pasts having caught up with them, their addictions taken hold, hanging on by their fingernails to what little they have left. And then finally back to Baltimore, where Amy Racecar returns home, trailing wreckage and trauma like barnacles and seaweed clinging to her hull.

Which brings us to the greatest character in STRAY BULLETS — the only character who stubbornly refuses to be destroyed, despite all the suffering piled upon her: Virginia Applejack, damaged girl, endangered runaway, avenging warrior, gifted writer, and the ragged, resilient, fucked up soul of this series. We dip in and our of Virginia’s story, following her through the death of her beloved father, her escape from her hideous mother, through bizarre exploits from coast to coast, as she maneuvers herself into and out of trouble, bravely facing up to every new nightmare with resistance and guile, helplessly causing trouble with her vengeful, compulsive need to mete out justice to all bullies, as she finds her way into the margins or center of every major conflict in this gloriously rambling story. By the time we reach the end of the collection, this ensemble piece has clearly become Virginia’s story, a chronicle of how badly her experiences have marked her, how irreparably she’s been twisted by violence, yet how tenaciously she clings to her pride and virtue.

And, in the biggest stylistic departure from the fervid comic hyper-realism of the book, we are privileged to see the science-fictional stories with which she compulsively fills her notebooks on the road, the exploits of the world-beating outlaw and interstellar adventurer Amy Racecar, her idealized alter ego. These windows into the explosive imagination of this brilliant unschooled child are some of the most moving and fascinating moments in this saga. They allow Lapham to cut loose with wildly propulsive sci-fi storytelling and give us our most intimate look at any character in the book.

We don’t get much interiority from Virginia herself — she’s tougher and more self-possessed than the many weaker, more corruptible characters in the series, who tend to overflow with desire and wear their desperation on their sleeves. We watch Virginia move from disaster to disaster, her face always impassive, mental machinery working invisibly, planning her next move. But in her fiction we see the wages of her damage, her longing for safety, power and respect, her fears and defiance, her astonishing fabulistic ability to transcend every weakness by sheer force of belief and invention.

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Amy, the protagonist of her stories as well as the name Virginia goes by on the road, is an absurdist caricature, an ice-cold outlaw with a heart of gold, a world-famous thief with a nation of adoring fans, an infinitely rich crime queen with a strict moral code all her own, who brings down governments, confronts evil where she finds it, plunges into danger unafraid, indestructible, smarter, harder, quicker and cooler than everyone else in the multiverse. For all the silliness in her stories, Amy Racecar is a glowing, iconic presence, and as Virginia’s troubles grow worse and worse we begin to realize that Amy is the wishful icon from which she draws her inexhaustible supply of fortitude. She’s constructed a towering, impermeable myth for herself, and like all the best mythologies it proves to be a well-spring of endless strength and a possible road map to redemption.

 

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Hope and belief are the double-edged sword of STRAY BULLETS. Re-reading the series from end to end, I’m reminded of the inscription on the gates of Hell in Clive James’ translation of the Divine Comedy: “Forget your hopes — they are what brought you here.” That covers most of the stories in this series — muddled men and women, led to Hell down wish-lit paths. But these stories are edged with dreams, full of yearning and sincerity. At their core, these cautionary tales are kind and human. Like all the best noir and crime fiction, they contain enough light to show how deep the dark can be.

-Josh O’Neill

Read more of Josh’s in-depth comic reviews here.

On Annie Lennox, David Bowie, and Waking Up

Imagine: you are a seventeen-year-old Annie Lennox, 1972. Listening to Ziggy Stardust with headphones plugged in to the hi-fi, alone with the songs, trying without luck to solve the seemingly insoluble mystery of what in the world this Spider from Mars is doing to you. Stuck in your shabby little teenage life, receiving this interstellar transmission that lays you open, hits you where you’re weak. You close your eyes and the music envelopes you. This little room in this worn down house, your bad haircut, your petty kid confusions — they all fade away and you are there in the bigger, scarier world from which this stuff is broadcast, this shadow dimension that feels realer to you than the mundane one in which you live. John, you’re only dancing.

Jump two decades, 1992. Here you are in London in your billowing dress and sequins, with your white-painted face and black-painted eyes in the visage of some dark goddess, having successfully climbed through the speakers into that other world, the one made of music and sex and voodoo, the one where this impossibly beautiful shape-shifting genius lives. He’s right here, Ziggy himself, Alladin Sane, the Thin White Duke in a pale green suit – you can see him, you can touch him, and even better you can sing with him. Not just any tune, but UNDER PRESSURE – this four-handed battering ram of a song, this song that doesn’t make sense at all unless its performers wield it as a weapon and try to burn each other down with hungry love. It’s a song that you have to try to win, and if it works its magic and the center holds you fight to a draw, close it out having laid everything on the line, Rocky and Apollo Creed clinging to each other, barely standing, spent – ain’t gonna be no rematch.

So here’s you, dizzy, drunk on impossibility, unsure sure how you got here in front of this sea of humanity, fronting Queen with David Bowie – you’re supposed to be paying tribute to Freddie Mercury, but for the moment it feels like you are Freddie Mercury, and didn’t he and Bowie fuck? Who knows what the rest of the night holds. You know one thing: you will give yourself to this performance, this moment, this song. You’ll get its blood under your fingernails. You’ll hang yourself from it like a cross, let it tear you limb from limb. You’ll sing it harder, louder that Mercury ever did, you will sing it better than the imponderable creature singing with you, this flesh & cheekbone godling with the mirrored eyes and lacquered hair – he’ll sing it like he always does, just like it sounds on the record, the consummate showman, his three decade career beyond its finest days, but damn if he doesn’t look ageless, good as ever, better even – he’ll sing it well but you’ll sing it like you’re trying to stave off execution.

And after the breakdown, with barely a moment to catch your breath, as the melody starts to build again to the shattering keen of its climax, you’ll let yourself get carried away: standing together on the lip of the stage you’ll wrap yourself around him, feeling his cool body and hot breath, his pulse barely elevated because he’s David Bowie, and what would it take in 1992 to make his heart race? You’ll push your face against his, feeling the softness of his skin, his fresh shave — he is human, after all, not an ambisexual android, not the man who fell to earth, just some person of impeccable vision, a dreamer who built a better myth, newer, sleeker, that turned on multitudes, multitudes which include you. And you’ll pull yourself closer to his body, constricting on him as tightly and ferociously as you’ve splayed yourself out across this song.

It’s erotic to be sure – your lip-quivering longing as you touch him with your mouth, push your space-face close to his – but it’s bigger and wider than lust, it’s wishful identification and hero worship and ego and sorcery and transcendence, that whole larger than life rock & roll current burning through you. It’s an erection of the heart. You want to fuck him, of course, that goes without saying — but what you really want to do is combine with him in violent harmony, your claws in each others’ hearts as reality comes crashing down around you in some kind of metaphysical orgasm, little death made huge, two perfect post-gender geniuses locked in an Ouroboros of art and fame and sex and myth and music.

You push in, closer and closer, your eyes closed, as dreamy as they were listening to Ziggy on the floor of that boring teenage house. You let the song, this perfect song, carry you, your lips moving ever nearer to his but never touching, some tantric proof of Zeno’s paradox, your heart hammering, your voice swinging every note like a haymaker, your eyes tight as he keeps his gaze set dead on the crowd, the perfect performer, deflecting every gaze, shining back the light shone on him brighter and hotter. Happily withholding everything, so utterly comfortable with his role as a totem, an object of painful longing and unmanageable desire, from you, from the crowd, from the world. Enjoying your perfect love but betraying nothing, letting your pure incendiary thirst hang hopefully in the air. Until the note ends and with a sly smile he steps away, finally looking at you, snapping his fingers, and the greatest moment of your life is over.

Or maybe your heart can’t handle that kind of thunder. So forget Annie Lennox, try this one on: you are me in 2014. A fledgling comic publisher and retailer with a career that’s half imaginary, no book that’s done any big sales, no money, no business plan to speak of, just a lot of love and partners who constantly inspire you and an unshakeable desire to make comics even though you don’t really know how and can’t draw, a fixation that you don’t entirely understand but you know stems from the fact that comics did something to you when you were a kid, worked some kind of strange magic and you never shook it off so now you’re stuck in this fucked up industry with no idea what you’re doing, with nothing on your side but this pure want.

And you and your dudes wind up concocting this tribute to Winsor McCay, who is your favorite cartoonist of all time (tied with Bill Watterson), start pitching it to people and suddenly the thing takes on a life of its own and the lineup of contributors reads like a list of the people whose work you admire most, some of them the actual ones who enchanted you in those formative, bad haircut, transmission-from-another-planet years.

All these pages start pouring in and they’re so wild, so massively ambitious, just full of sublime desperate passion, all these brilliant people from the top to the bottom of the comic industry breaking their backs, working fingers to the bone, drilling deep into the wellsprings of their vision, creating these glorious strips that look back with gratitude and forward with hope, dancing across the huge, forgotten expanse of this broadsheet page, pushing comics to their very limit.

And as the whole beautiful thing begins swimming into focus it starts to feel like you’re spending your days in conversation with the dreamer himself, this titan who died eighty years ago, and it feels like he’s listening. Talking back to you. It feels like you reached through the page somehow, these magical pages that ravaged your mind, that infiltrated your dreams, that became a central part of your understanding of the world and yourself, of your fantasies and nightmares. It feels like you read so hard, and loved so much, that a doorway opened, and even if you could only poke your head in for a second you could feel the soft Slumberland sun on your face, taste peppermint on the wind. You’re doing it not by talent, not your own at least, but by lighting a beacon, finding remarkable people who love what you love and bringing them together. And it turns out, for fleeting moments, that yes Virginia, love is as potent as money, as strength, as power.

You press your face against it and it dances away. All you get is a taste – it can’t ever be yours. But goddamn, Annie, thanks for the reminder: if you ever get a chance to sing with David Bowie or build your own Slumberland, you better not fuck it up.

-Josh O’Neill

DELUSIONAL by Farel Dalrymple

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Nothing that Farel Dalrymple has ever done feels complete. From the oddball sci-fi drama of OMEGA THE UNKNOWN to the sweet-hearted downbeat whimsy of POP GUN WAR to the inverted stream-of-consciousness high fantasy of IT WILL ALL HURT, it all seems like a glimpse, a skim across the surface. Beneath the warmly inviting illustration style, the raw childlike whimsy tempered by flawless internal storytelling rhythms, each of these books contains undepicted depths and a spectacularly detailed private universe. Farel’s worlds are icebergs, and the comics themselves are just the bit that juts out of the water, the part that sailors can see.

One of his constant visual motifs is connection – his settings tend to crawl with plugs, pipes, wires, tunnels, speakers, drains, cables. And every portal – every manhole, every powerline, every side-door and burrow and off ramp, these conduits and byzantine pathways with which his work is compulsively filled – leads somewhere into some new story, some undiscovered country: a dirty joke, a harrowing secret, a hidden community, another world containing rituals and hieroglyphs and pocket dimensions of its own. Like in a Robert Altman movie or an Thomas Pynchon novel, it’s sometimes hard to follow the central narrative – your attention is always running off in seven directions, chasing some glimmer of questionable magic that flickers across the page and flits out of view.

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DELUSIONAL, then, while theoretically a book of ancillary material, the bits & bobs of a career’s worth of restlessly inventive cartooning, seems to me to be the genuine article, the thing itself – what we talk about when we talk about Farel Dalrymple. It’s his back streets and back pages – his messy, teeming imagination, given outlet over time in sketches and illustrations and strips. The margins, the gutters between the panels – that’s where Farel really lives. And while we can’t really go there with him, we can chart his progress and receive his reports. We can eagerly await his postcards from the edge, which sometimes arrive in art books like this.

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As anyone who follows this site is probably aware, whatever minor success Locust Moon has had is largely due to Farel, who has been a friend and collaborator since day one. From his gorgeous ONCE UPON A TIME MACHINE cover to his sketchbook pages in QUARTER MOON to his back cover blurb in Rob Woods’ 36 LESSONS IN SELF DESTRUCTION, he has been involved in some capacity in every single book we have ever produced. He is a blood brother and feels like as much a part of Locust Moon as my own partners.

When I think of Farel, I always think of the brutally hot Philadelphia summer of 2011, and the first book ever published by Locust Moon. Farel was visiting from Portland, and we (Farel, Chris Stevens, Rob Woods, Jimmy Comey and myself) spent two weeks locked in a huddle in our failing comic shop with its broken AC, blissfully undisturbed by our as-yet-nonexistent customer base, working til all hours of the night on what we creatively entitled THE LOCUST MOON COMIC, a purposeless but joyful tribute to the imaginations of two little girls.

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To be camped out with these brilliant, passionate people breaking down stories, thumbnailing pages, watching a 22 page comic come together before our very eyes – it was not my first experience making comics, but it was the first time I realized that the only way to do it properly was to throw yourself at it, body and soul. It was my first great high – that incandescent thing that addicts always talk about – and I’ve been chasing it ever since.

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Ever since those nights watching Farel blearily sling watercolors on the couch until 6am, I have been constantly inspired by the full investment with which he approaches his work – giving himself to it completely, refusing to compromise on his bizarre, brilliant vision, sometimes to the detriment of his career, but always to the benefit of his readers and friends. He’s never tried to bring his enormous skills to the marketplace – he’s just tried to find ways to get paid for his inscrutable impulses. The mountain will come to Mohammed. And he’s found an audience that will follow him, marching to the off-beat rhythms of his weird old drum, down alleyways and obscure channels, hoping to trace every wire to its mysterious but self-sustaining power source, searching to see where it all leads.

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DELUSIONAL is a guided tour of this strange & extraordinary imaginative machinery, and we are privileged to watch it work and worry over more than a decade, knotting and unknotting, stringing and contorting itself along ideas and tensions that are never resolved, but return in new forms, speaking with new voices, adapting, vanishing and reappearing down those outlets and burrows that connect page after page. It sometimes reads as compulsion, not intention: there’s an imbalance – too much is going on in this brain and spirit, and it needs release. Farel’s characters aren’t sock puppets that he uses to tell stories, they’re not slotted into plot points – they’re organic, evolving creatures, and sometimes they need to be taken out for some light and air.

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And that, maybe, is the delusion of the title – Farel thinks these people are real. Orson & Smith, Barch & Belf, Almendra Clementine, the Regular – Hollis the pudgy sad-sack superhero, Percival the bespectacled goldfish, Emily the cool-tempered rocker – the space-suited kids with detachable hands, the robotic mice and virtual reality cats, the dorks in helmets, the barbarians with broadaxes, the astronauts in trouble – the creeping Shadowsmen that seem to slither their way into story after story – these and so many others keep returning, swimming into view, weaving in and out of the pages of this book freely, without the strictures of master narrative to pin them in place, changing forms, swapping personalities, appearing in various versions. There is no playing-pretend in these comics about flying fish and talking rats – there is just giving voice to these singular characters and their urgent, muddled messages.

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The sensitivity of this exploration and cartography, the absolute obedience to the internal voices and their various ways of expressing themselves, the willingness to follow rather than lead – that’s the true negative capability required of great artists. Above all, Farel listens, watches, thinks – lets the wind blow through him.

And I’ll be damned if this snazzy little casebound hardcover – appealingly designed by Chris Pitzer with subtly shifting colored paper and a vibrant sky-blue cover – this collection of by-definition non-essential material might not be the best place yet to see Farel’s remarkable imagination at work, absorbing everything, observing itself, processing the world into strange, moving comics and drawings.

Or, as Farel more simply puts it in his detailed, conversational index, “Most of the stuff in this book is stuff that came up out of my own brain.”

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-Josh O’Neill

ANT COLONY by Michael DeForge

antMichael DeForge’s ANT COLONY is a wonderfully whole piece of comics craftsmanship. Externally baffling but internally consistent, it does what great art comics often do – it teaches you how to read it. Best experienced in a single reading, it’s a book that you swim through. And by the time you reach the far shore, gasping for air, you’re tempted to return to the beginning and dive back in. Not because it was such a pleasurable reading experience, but because you’ve only just absorbed its language. Now that it’s over, you’re finally ready for it.

It begins with a statement of ennui that’s at once existentially universal and hilariously particular. It’s like the setup of a joke: two ants stand on a decomposing apple, and one asks the other, “Why does everything have to be so tiny?”

“I’m just so sick of this itty-bitty lifestyle,” he goes on. Most of us can relate – who hasn’t anxiously pondered their own insignificance? – but there’s something disorientingly funny about watching an ant’s spiritual crisis as he discovers his own puniness. It gives us a God’s-eye-view while speaking directly to our experience. We’re drawn in and held at bay, watching the ant farm and staring out from behind the glass.

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That seems to be DeForge’s great trick in this disturbing, uncomfortable opus of a graphic novel, and it forms a tension that never slackens. We’re introduced to a large cast of ants and other bugs in a detailed, surreal insect world. We’re given so much to identify with, so much that’s recognizably human – the dissatisfaction and intractable misunderstandings of a squabbling couple; a child dealing with his abusive, mentally ill father; ants sitting on couches, watching TV, bitching at one another. But there is also so much that is strange, repulsive, and unknowable – the boy who inhales a cloud of microscopic earthworms and is transformed by them; the spiders with the heads of Tex Avery wolves, who copulate by extending worm-like appendages into one another’s bodies; the queen, drawn like some byzantine flat-perspective centerfold, her legs spread as she’s rotting and dying. The book invites our identification, then rejects it. It gives us recognizable figures in an alien world – one as frightening and foreign as (if not particularly similar to) the insect kingdom itself.

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Though there are a lot of strange pleasures to be had here for the reader who enjoys this sort of thing – morbid comedy abounds, DeForge’s linework and design sensibility are inimitably striking, and the bold color choices are directly appealing – ANT COLONY is at its core a very dark, ugly book. DeForge creates situations in which we expect the drama of human connection – a couple divided by war; five runaways trying to find or build a home; an orphaned child, rescued and raised by enemy combatants – but instead gives us amoral coldness. In one typical exchange, one ant says, “What are you doing? Why are you trying to drown that baby?” and his boyfriend replies, “I dunno.” There is a lot of murder and death in this story, none of them crimes of passion – they’re all committed with a casual shrug, as a procedural necessity or a way to fend off boredom. These ants seem to kill each other the same way we kill them – absentmindedly, and sometimes for no reason at all.

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The exception is that one ant from the opening, the one bemoaning his itty-bitty stature. He seems to feel in a recognizably human way. He meditates, declares himself a pacifist, and refuses to take part in the war with the red ants. He reaches out for his boyfriend, who’s never anything but surly and aggressive. When he and four other ants go on the run, he tells them that they’re a family now. Watching his constant (sometimes pathetically needy) attempts to engage emotionally as they’re met by the pure autistic insectoid impassivity of the characters around him is the most affecting element of the book, its emotional core. But don’t mistake him for a point of view character – DeForge’s storytelling here has a blank, loveless gaze. Though often hilariously funny, his point of view is algid and bleak.

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Last week I reviewed Drawn & Quarterly’s translated edition of BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS by Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet; these two books make excellent companion pieces, if you enjoy being ushered by stellar cartoonists into the heart of teeny-tiny sociopathy. But there is a key difference: while both are frightening and morbid books, the reading experiences diverge. BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS, for all its existential snarl, enraptures you with beauty and cuteness, begging you to offer up your heart for it to devour. It fills you with rage and hurt. ANT COLONY, meanwhile, has a flat affect and implacable presence. Both stories sweep you through carefully designed, grimly vicious universes, baffling nightmares where nothing vulnerable is safe, and where weakness is death. The difference is that BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS is a tragedy, and ANT COLONY thinks that shit is funny.

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-Josh O’Neill

memory lane

i’ve got a couple of boxes of books from my personal collection here at the shop, and i went through them for the first time in ages today.  these books still hold such wonder for me. stuff like…

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on the surface it’s just about the goofiest book ever, but i must have read this 500 times. there’s the great paul smith cover and a script from j.m. dematteis that felt so real and relatable to my 8 or 9 year old self.

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when i was a kid i felt like the x-men was my own private soap opera, and issues like this one were a big reason why.

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these issues of gi joe that really built the snake-eyes/storm shadow relationship were so filled with mystery and excitement. to this day two of the coolest costume designs in comics.

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batman & Ethe outsiders was probably my favorite super hero book outside of x-men when i was a little kid. frank miller, doing mike barr a favor i’m guessing, set the tone here with a great cover, and inside we get a classic old school confrontation between the team and a group of government-led goons called, yes, the force of july. glorious stuff.

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i could probably write a 1000 words on how much i loved, and still love, the two gumby books arthur adams did in the 80’s. here arthur employs a slightly less ornate style than usual for him at the time, and the result is a delightfully pure cartoony look. even the little odds & ends arthur drew here–a bio pic of him as a scarecrow, a pin-up of gumby & pokey riding a dinosaur–are fantastic. these should be reprinted in a proper edition, not the sad shit show of a book like the digest version that came out a few years back.

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practically forgotten today, atari force was a better book than it had any right to be. 30 years later it holds up as a fine read, particularly the first dozen or so issues penciled by the great jose luis garcia lopez. this issue, filled with all kinds of interesting critters, was a favorite.

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my love of this little guy is well known amongst my pals. true story: my mom’s dad was an alcoholic ww2 vet who i saw in alternatingly sweet and scary visits. one of the last times i saw him before his suicide i stole $5 off his dresser drawer top. i bought this comic with it.

–chris stevens

BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS by Vehlmann & Kerascoet

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One brief caveat: you should not be able to name something BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS, unless that something is an Avenged Sevenfold song or a student-run high-school poetry magazine. I’m going to extend the benefit of the doubt and assume that it sounds better in its original French, more like a gorgeous and powerful graphic novel than the LiveJournal page of a 17-year-old aspiring cutter. Because this book, newly translated by Drawn & Quarterly, is the best thing I’ve read in 2014.

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It starts with a tea party and ends with a holocaust. Our protagonist Aurora is shyly flirting with the handsome, dandyish Prince Hector over hot cocoa and cakes, when red globs begin to drop from the ceiling into their food. Confused, the two crawl into a wet, dark tunnel, where they see other cartoon people confusedly clamoring through the shadows. They climb up into some kind of cavity, out from their cover into the pouring rain, part of a refugee throng. Then the view opens up to give us context, and our stomachs drop.
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By the next morning the little people have set up camp around the girl’s body, cleverly re-purposing her belongings as survival supplies. A notebook becomes a tent; a pencil case becomes a watertight sleeping bag. Aurora, with all the pluck and self-sacrificing gumption (as well as the big dew-drop eyes and polka-dot dress) of a Disney heroine, takes it upon herself to lead the effort, setting up a kind of triage & rationing station inside the little girl’s purse. Over a few days, their society takes shape according to its needs and its personalities. Aurora makes friends with the field mice, who help her find berries.

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With astonishing elegance and economy of storytelling, Vehlmann & Kerascoet sweep us through the crisis, introducing their cast of instantly recognizable, idiosyncratic-yet-archetypical characters: Plim, the over-enthusiastic boy sidekick; Jane, the proud, self-sufficient loner with a pair of cuticle scissors strapped to her back like a samurai sword; Zelie, the preening, doll-like narcissist; the bickering ballerina triplets; Timothy, the shy, nurturing wallflower — to name merely a few. In a book that takes barely an hour to read, we are gifted with over a dozen characters who stand in sharp relief, imprinting themselves on our imaginations, such that when the frost takes hold and the plot threads tighten, we find that they have wound themselves, quietly and intricately, around our heart and throat.

The stage is set. We will spend three seasons here (summer, fall, winter — this is not a book about renewal), watching their social order shift as they struggle for survival in the shadow of a young girl’s decaying body. At first the threats are external: a cat, shadow-dark against the purple night, picking children off as they sleep; one of the triplets pecked to death by a bird. There is the expected squabbling over rations and rules, and while it might be said that we’re descending into Lord of the Flies by way of The Borrowers, the place we’re heading is actually much stranger than that.

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This is wilderness at its most gorgeous and frightening. The lush simplicity of these pencil & watercolor illustrations (credited to Kerascoet, which is a pen name for the Parisian artists Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset) are sumptuously appealing, with their rich colors and delicate play of light and shadow, but they are unflinching in the speed and casualness with which they shade into terror and violence. There is a smiley-face painted over everything, from a girl who’s poisoned by a plant and watches her body revoltingly balloon and malform, to the children playing ticklishly in the maggot fields. There is something otherworldly and profoundly unsettling about the giggling carelessness with which they greet the ravages of nature and society, and the storytelling and gorgeous artwork combine to keep you constantly off-balance in this perfectly realized, rapturously decaying universe.

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To say too much more would be to spoil this remarkable story (if I haven’t already), which subverts your expectations and implicates you in its horrors by your mere attention, such that by the time you reach its monstrous, shocking end you feel you should close the book with care and slowly back away.

It’s the natural world writ tiny, with cartoon faces and pipsqueak personalities masking a soulless, indifferent universe. This is a very French book: an indictment of mankind itself, the cute masks that we wear, the sentimentality, the tea parties and small kindnesses that hide our sharp teeth, our callous hearts & casual cruelties. And whether or not you share this miserablist view of the human nature, you will queasily recognize something in these characters, in the shrugging ease with which they slide from sweetness to savagery. This is a book that will linger, whether you want it to or not. It will stick to your teeth. It will make you look for the tiny cartoon monsters inside yourself.

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– Josh O’Neill

LOCKE & KEY by Hill & Rodriguez

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I was worried, for a while there, that LOCKE & KEY had lost its way. The incredibly taut character drama with its ingeniously parceled out bits of mystery and revelation that kept us hungry, baffled and grasping had given way to some soap-opera plot lines and fun but extraneous formal experiments. Take its much-lauded CALVIN & HOBBES issue, for instance — while it was in and of itself a fine & charming piece of comic-craft, it seemed to have no legitimate reason for being. It didn’t serve the plot, or underline any of the larger themes of the story. It didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, and it could have been easily cut out with no real impact on the larger picture. It seemed to exist only because its authors wanted to pay tribute to Bill Watterson — a noble cause, to be certain, but also a sure sign of the diminishing returns of a series that used to be perhaps the most riveting, magnetic thing on the stands.

And now that they’ve proven me wrong, sticking a flawless landing with neither a bow nor flourish, I find myself wishing they had done a little more dicking around, just so I could have stayed in the beautiful, frightening, richly layered and realized world that they created for a little while longer.

LOCKE & KEY is a horror series from IDW with an elegantly simple if somewhat cliched premise: after the shocking & unexpected murder of Adrian Locke, his survivors — grieving wife Nina, surly eldest son Tyler, sensitive daughter Kinsey and six-year-old dynamo Bode — return to live in Keyhouse, the creepy old New England family manse. There’s a dark presence in the spooky manor, some spectral thing that wishes them harm. Their only weapons are the mysterious keys that they keep finding, which grant their users terrible & wondrous powers, with unpredictable consequences.

I am trying to keep all of this vague for the benefit of new readers, but there is one moment in particular when I fell in love with this book, when I realized that it was much more than merely the well-wrought horror series I had taken it for, and to describe it requires a minor spoiler: the Locke children discover a key that opens up the tops of people’s heads. But what you find inside isn’t a mass of grey tissue — it’s their thoughts, visually depicted. A nightmare might be a demon, or a mad dog. Hope, to echo Emily Dickinson, might literally be a thing with feathers.

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It takes an artist of the caliber of Gabriel Rodriguez to take a concept this preposterous and clever and make it work on the page. He has an enormous capacity for abstraction, for drawing demons in the bubbling thousand-eyed darkness of a Lovecraftian void, but he restrains himself admirably. His greatest strength is the matter-of-factness that sells the wild magic of Joe Hill’s story, the kids who grow to 100 feet tall and pop their skulls open, the shadows that grasp and bite. He establishes a rock-solid cinematic style, and finds just as much magic in the facial expressions of his characters as he does in the special effects of the keys. He repeatedly uses one of my least favorite tropes of modern comics: the static shot that is repeated, panel after panel, to create the beats of a film sequence. Usually it just seems lazy on behalf of artist and writer — the artist only has to draw one background, and the writer can think like a scriptwriter instead of engaging with his chosen medium. But in the hands of Rodriguez, it becomes a potent tool — it allows us to see the subtly variations of expression, to watch these richly layered characters while their faces move and they give themselves away.

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And that, really, is what makes LOCKE & KEY such a profoundly wonderful comic: its rich, generous humanity, its subtle & empathic treatment of its characters. Though the plot is executed with the ruthless, hypnotic efficiency of a John Grisham pot-boiler, the characters are treated with the sensitivity and psychological depth of a literary novel. Nina, for instance, is an alcoholic who we often find drunk and self-pitying when the horrors come for her children. That the book finds this a forgivably tragic character flaw, that your heart breaks for Nina as you watch her try and fail to get her shit together, that you understand the bottomlessness of the grief that has broken her and rendered her useless to the people that need her most, speaks to the huge hearts of the storytellers at work here.

Which I think is why you just want to stay in this world a little while longer, which is not something you normally say about a horror story. In its essence, this comic is about learning forgiveness, for yourself and others. It denies none of the darkness, the selfishness and hard-heartedness and grief of its characters, but it finds ways to redeem them all. The story itself is pure pulp, but the characters are shaded & complex, good souls shrouded in shadow and cold hearts woken by love. It portrays a world as contradictory, as hopeful and as fallen as the one we live in. For all the talk of demons and dark magic, nothing in LOCKE & KEY is black & white.

locke play– Josh O’Neill

 

TODAY IS THE LAST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE by Ulli Lust

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Weighing in at a brick-like, almost cubic 463 pages, Ulli Lust’s newly translated book TODAY IS THE LAST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE is frighteningly heavy and lighter than air. Detailing the story of two seventeen-year-old Austrian punk girls on the run from nothing in particular, it has a you-are-there intensity and a lucid, judgeless gaze.

This memoir comic follows the author Ulli and her friend Edi as they travel aimlessly across Western Europe, thumbs out, hearts and legs open. They just wander down the road with no money in their pockets and not so much as a backpack or a change of clothes. They believe that their high spirits and good looks will buoy them as they float like corks on the waves, tossed from the city to the shore, through the Italian unknown.

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The first thing that strikes you about Lust’s story is its matter-of-factness, its utter lack of manipulation. An early scene in which Ulli and Edi shave each other’s pubes to quell an outbreak of crabs is icky and funny and worrisome, but it isn’t played for gross-out comedy or finger-wagging moralism. You get the sense she’s just depicting the scene as best she remembers it. Jaime Hernandez’s back-cover blurb remarks on “the small details that create great character,” and Lust seems more interested in the odd, specific fragments of her recollection than she is in the heavy emotional moments of her story. She is at her best as a storyteller when Ulli tries to tear a piece off her t-shirt and tie it into a bikini bottom so she can go swimming, or learns how to beg for food in Italian restaurants, or when she’s sleeplessly itching her mosquito bites. These are the real moments of life on the road — not the adventures or destinations or sights but the tiny inconveniences, the tips taken and applied, the weird little experiences that separate the actuality from the travelogue.

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Lust uses a two-color gestural looseness to achieve an impressively swift readablility, an extremely appealing and expressive style that never strains for effect. And though it was drawn based on journals twenty-some years after the events it depicts, it has the feel of comics drawn on the fly, the hungry roughness of work done on the road. She uses a kind of gestural cartoon naturalism, dropping in details as they serve the story. Her style is pitch-perfectly changeless over a sprawling page count, and the strength of that communication and consistency allows her to violate it, sliding into abstraction at will. These are comics as memory, and they’re drawn from the inside out. Ulli is weightless, feet inches off the ground as she soars up and down Rome’s Spanish Stairs; her face balloons with rage when she’s condescended to by a well-meaning woman; her skeleton is visible through her body, like a walking x-ray, when she’s at her most vulnerable.

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The theme of sexual violence becomes more prevalent as the story grows darker and more frightening, but it’s treated with such blithe acceptance that it desensitizes you. Ulli is infinitely, foolishly trusting, and will seemingly go anywhere with any man who promises a warm place to bunk down for the night. She’s repeatedly pressured into sex by what’s portrayed in the book as an Italian attitude that utterly normalizes sexual assault (any decent woman always says no), but she seems at first to regard it as no more than the cost of doing business. So when, against this background of quasi-consensual but utterly unappealing (and occasionally actively appealing but utterly disappointing) sex, she is violently raped — screaming, biting, struggling against this stranger who’s drawn as a featureless shadow-man against the darkness of her room — the effect is devastating.

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Her cartooning in the aftermath, the days following the attack, is heartbreakingly powerful. She draws herself as a translucent silhouette, moving along the fringes of a coastal town. In one astonishing three-panel sequence, she goes from a walking figure to an amorphous, huddled, human-ish shape before collapsing into four delicate, meaningless lines.

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That act signals a tidal shift in the book. Despite — or because of — her trauma, she ends up falling for her rapist, spending what looks a lot like an idyllic weekend with him on the shore, though he encourages her to whore herself to local men. She soon leaves for Sicily (the relative safety of cosmopolitan Rome is played against the savagery of the more traditional South), but the shape of the story is changed. What began as a thrilling, high-spirited adventure journal with an undercurrent of danger and sexual violence becomes a fearsome, damaged howl, a catalogue of abuse, drugs and destitution, and a vicious, terrifying indictment of rape culture in Sicily and beyond.

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But Lust’s tone never really changes — her wide-eyed excitement fades, but her casual attitude and insistence on continuing the adventure persist. Now long separated from Edi, she is alone, a helpless lamb among Sicilian wolves, but she learns nothing: she still trusts everyone, though they all turn out to be monsters, and never once considers returning to the bourgeois safety of Vienna until it becomes a logistical necessity.

But even as the story darkens, begins to give itself over to brutality and addiction and betrayal, it never loses sight of the little observational shards of humanity that animated its first half, the interstitial pieces that are left out of most stories: the bummed cigarettes, the time-killing conversations, the little notebook she keeps of phrases useful for begging, her constant, sweet and hopeful seeking of other punks, as though anyone with a tattered shirt and a tattoo is her lifelong friend.

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The events of the book constitute a non-stop assault on her dreamy innocence — the fact that she manages to mostly maintain it is both her most remarkable and her most infuriating characteristic. This version of Ulli Lust will always be frozen in motion as the wild young dynamo depicted here, shrieking with excitement in a thunderstorm, dancing to the Clash, leaping & flitting like a joyful spirit up & down the Spanish Stairs. Young, stupid, unbroken and beautiful.

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That’s the brilliance and the frustration of this remarkable book: it refuses to make an argument. Though the book’s content is overwhelmingly focused on sexual violence, it never underlines any larger point. Ulli is going through a nightmarish itinerant existence as a homeless quasi-prostitute, and she never considers simply walking away. You never quite forget that this middle-class Austrian girl is making the choice to go through this horrifyingly degrading lifestyle to which so many women of another social status are doomed. The first time she knowingly sells her body it’s to a mournful older man who gives her her most satisfying sexual experience. He looks at her with sad, wet eyes, she thinks he has a beautiful cock, and they fuck with real passion. Her tenderest relationship is with the heroin junkie pimp who rents her out. He talks to her like a person, respects her boundaries, and helps her find her way to her first orgasm.

This is heavy, baffling stuff, and it’s hard to know what to make of it — like it’s hard to know what to make of anything when you’re seventeen. By showing us her victimization without ever asserting her victimhood, by showing us her descent into destitution and homelessness without denying her entitlement, the youthful foolhardiness and privilege that allowed her to make this mess of her life, Ulli Lust has created an astonishingly honest & open-hearted graphic recollection.

The back cover copy calls it a “coming-of-age narrative.” It’s no such thing. It’s a being-young narrative, with no distilled lessons or readable character arc. Lust is not writing as her forty-something self — she is cartooning from within her adolescent experiences. If you come to this book looking for the pleasures of memoir — the wisdom gained, the wry comment, the journey through pain and the hopeful way forward — you will be disappointed. So come to it with nothing — no expectation and no judgement. You will find the soul of a young woman, battered & foolish, kind & hopeful, ragged but not torn, pressed like a flower between its pages.

DSCN1467– Josh O’Neill

SWAMP THING by Vaughan and Petersen

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Brian K. Vaughan has, in the last 15 years, become something of a comic-world King Midas. Already wreathed in laurels from his work on Y THE LAST MAN, EX MACHINA, PRIDE OF BAGHDAD and Marvel’s RUNAWAYS, he’s spent the last couple of years perfecting his golden touch on the gloriously intimate epic SAGA, which has basically won every award there is including the Nobel Peace Price and the Oscar for sound design, and the webcomic THE PRIVATE EYE, with its visionary hey-just-pay-me-whatever business model and sizzling, compulsively readable story. (When you can make a lot of money by simply giving things away, you are in a rare and enviable position.) These are shaping up to be his two finest works with his two greatest collaborators, Fiona Staples and Marcos Martin respectively. Vaughan has already reached the top of the comic-maker mountain, but his ascent continues.

And thus we have a newly-collected edition of Vertigo’s little-remembered 2000 SWAMP THING series, a book that largely flopped upon release. I’m not sure why — it’s a pretty terrific comic in its own right. It’s a little ironic, though, that it’s been branded in large text on the cover, spine, and back as SWAMP THING BY BRIAN K. VAUGHAN, when it’s in fact a document of a gifted young writer who’s just starting to find his way, collaborating with a stellar but mostly unknown cartoonist at the very top of his game.

Roger Petersen has lineage on his side. He’s the grandson of the legendary EC cartoonist George Evans, and the echo of Evans’ clean, expressive precision can be found in Petersen’s effortless line-work. Anyone drawing a Swamp Thing title is going to be working in the long shadow of Wrightson, Totleben and Bissette — Petersen deals with this by running in the opposite direction, away from the obsessive, overgrown undergrowth of detail that characterized the stories of Alec Holland, towards a sleeker, more gestural style given full voice by the sharply minimal inks of Joe Rubenstein and the subtly bold colors of Alex Sinclair.

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Which is a fitting choice, because the stories in this collection are about a younger, angrier, more human Swamp Thing. Tefe Holland is Alec’s daughter, a young woman adrift & searching, commanding & self-confident yet unsure of her own nature or agenda. She has no real allegiance to man or plant, though she inevitably ends up serving (and killing) both. She’s faked her own death, through plot contrivances too convoluted to mention here. (Vaughan spends the first two issues trying and not-quite succeeding to write his way out from under 30 years of continuity, and it’s here more than anywhere else that you see the talented writer struggling to master a generic language — it may be no accident that Vaughan’s major triumphs are all books starring how own original characters.) These stories are somewhat old-fashioned — stand-alone adventures, heavily compressed, each with a traditional structure, a moral dilemma for Tefe, and a satisfying resolution. The serial aspects build slowly, without straining for effect, to answer the central question posed by the series: who is Tefe Holland? Is she an impulsively angry young woman who makes mistakes and selfishly hurts people? Or is she a violent force of nature, barely held in check by a scrim of humanity? She is animated by rage and by conscience, but which one is at her core?

There are real guts in his depiction of Tefe. Where a lesser writer may have pitched a character’s conflict along the same lines — vengeance vs. conscience — very few would have the courage to make her an amoral murderer as well as a hero. That courage, in fact, may speak to the poor reception of the series — we’re being asked to identify with this character who is clearly something other than human, who has few qualms about executing people for the crime of chopping down trees. But she also has a deep, instinctive compassion and empathy that is just as compulsive as her fury. She is a metaphor for nature: that which nourishes is also that which kills. It makes for a bafflingly complex protagonist, if not for a likable one. That courage, that resistance to reader-identification (along with the deeply confusing slog of an info-dump in act one), may be partly to blame for the book’s poor initial reception, but I found it fascinating. Like he did with EX MACHINA’s Mayor Hundred, he uses a serial structure to gradually try to tease some truth out of a character who’s always in motion, who seems to deflect our gaze.

Whereas this series is a forgotten footnote in the apotheosis of Vaughan, it was Roger Petersen’s biggest appearance on comics’ main stage. As good as Vaughan’s storytelling already is here, there is awkwardness and over-explanation and some dialogue that is too-clever by half. These missteps are easily papered over by Petersen’s highly developed cartooning voice, which is strong and funny and rhythmic, simple yet rich, with the fully realized environments that are necessary in a continent-crossing road-trip story like this. Most importantly, it reads with a rare and effortless music that provides a perfect platform for Vaughan’s text-heavy, morally knotty story.

Petersen is a colleague, a collaborator and a hometown boy. He mixes up a hell of a Manhattan at Fishtown’s Atlantis pub and does illustration work for a wide variety of clients. His art, which needed no improvement, has gotten much better in the last decade and a half. We are extraordinarily proud to feature his beautifully yearning strip in our upcoming book LITTLE NEMO: DREAM ANOTHER DREAM.

I hope this SWAMP THING edition does gangbuster sales — there are still eleven uncollected issues, and I’d really like to read them.

* Wondering why I go on and on about Rog Petersen’s cartooning and there’s none of it to be seen? It’s because my scanner is broken, and there doesn’t appear to be any artwork from this book online, except the two panels shown above, and this random panel of a guy without a shirt (which I’m not even 100% sure is Roger).

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Instead, I’ll show you what I’ve got: the gorgeous first panel from his LITTLE NEMO strip.

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Flip and the Imp on the moon. As good as his grandad.

– Josh O’Neill

East of West, by Hickman & Dragotta

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East of West seems almost custom-designed to foil synopsis, but here’s me trying: it takes place in 2049 in an alternate America that was wracked by extensive civil wars, and has split into seven nations, including the Confederate States, a unified Endless Indian Nation, and New Shanghai. Somehow these seven nations, or at least a number of their highest-placed members, share a holy text — a pieced-together book of enigmatic apocrypha called The Message, which details (and immanentizes) Armageddon.

Jonathan Hickman’s richly layered story begins when, as foretold in The Message, the Horsemen of the Apocalypse awaken, embodied as children and eager to bring about the endgame, but surprised to discover that they are only three. Death, it seems, has broken off on his own.

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He’s riding a pale robot-horse across the seven nations, murdering acolytes of The Message in key positions. At first, his purposes are oblique, but soon become clear: Death is actually a little bit of a sap, and he’s trying to track down the woman he loves, who once loved him back.

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Like Emma Rios and Matteo Scalero, Nick Dragotta is a highly skilled and promising professional who’s done a fair amount of work for the big two and then taken a quantum leap into auteur cartooning with an astonishing new Image series. Books this vital bring new meaning to the phrase ‘creator-owned’ — not just the intellectual property but the voice itself, so fully developed and alive on the page, the world-building so immersive, so effortless and thorough, that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else drawing it. This is a cartoonist’s voice in perfect tune with the subject matter, the space where the stark lyricism of John Ford meets the hard, cold sheen of Ridley Scott. Dragotta can take something as silly as a cowboy riding that aforementioned robot-horse with a laser cannon for a face and render it so artfully, so matter-of-factly, that you don’t blink.

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East of West is a baffling book, and it demands rereading. It wants to be puzzled over and dissected like an esoteric text. Why, for instance, does a book set in a shattered and rejiggered United States never offer us a map of the new territory?* Because it wants to disorient us, is my guess. It doesn’t just want to tell a story about the wild west — it wants to BE the wild west, a mapless, trackless wilderness in which we have to find our own way. It’s the worst of both worlds, the lawless west and the sci-fi distopia — the desolate unsafety of the uncharted territory meets the tight social net in which we’re all pawns of forces beyond our control. The tension between security and freedom has been resolved by eliminating both.

So what we have on our hands at first appears to be some kind of retro-futurist hard-science gnostic political-intrigue western. But Death’s longing to be returned to his wife and child are the hook on which the wild digressions and house-of-cards world-building of the series are hung. Death is what passes in this book for a protagonist (if a story this huge in scope and this resistant to reader-identification can even be said to have one), and he has a formality, a slow, lanky, Gary Cooper courtliness at odds with the river of carnage he leaves in his wake.

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There is something appealing about him. The characters in East of West are motivated occasionally by lust, or greed, but mostly they are motivated by pure grievance and hatred. The only true cooperation in the book is an uneasy collaboration among sworn enemies in the interest of burning the world to the ground. It is never explained, at least thus far, why they want to bring about the end times — but in a world this dead-eyed, this calculating and vicious, it doesn’t seem totally counter-intuitive. Death, though just as violent and selfish as the rest of the characters in East of West, is motivated by devotion and ardor. So it turns out that East of West is a soul-sick romance, with a sense of strangled longing that pierces like an arrow through its huge, dark expanse. For all of its futuristic trappings and alternate past, it is about our modern world: irredeemable, possessed by hatred and avarice and resentment, seemingly on the verge of toppling into ruin, yet still, against all odds, animated by the capacity for love.

*As Rick and Justin pointed out in the comments, there IS in fact a map included in an early issue of East of West. I must have missed it the first time through, though, and didn’t see it in my recent re-read of the trade. I fully embrace the confusion that’s ensued!

– Josh O’Neill