The LOCUST MOON TOP 40: February 2014

40. UNDERTOW

With an intriguing premise from Steve Orlando and moody, expressive artwork from Artyom Trakhanov, we can’t wait to see where this new Image title takes us.

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39. SUPERIOR FOES OF SPIDER-MAN

Following Hawkeye’s mix of humor, character-driven realism, and gleeful formal experimentation, SUPERIOR FOES OF SPIDER-MAN has quietly become one of Marvel’s very best books. Don’t let the secret out, but it almost seems like somebody over at the House of Ideas got it in their head that superhero comics are supposed to be fun…

38. This Shirt

Yeah, what if??

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37. THE BUS

We detect some of the spirit of Winsor McCay in Paul Kirchner’s quietly masterful surrealist comic strip.

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36. B + F

We were pleased to play host to Greg Benton and his huge, beautiful nightmare of a graphic novel. Greg is one of our favorite cartoonists and one of comics’ most righteous dudes, and we can’t wait to see what he does next.

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35. INSECT BATH

True to its title, this new alt-zine style anthology series feels like a submersion in the creepy, underfoot world.

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34. SPRING TRAINING

Baseball beckons, and with it a world made new.

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BARNABY, by Crockett Johnson

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BARNABY, by Crockett Johnson, is less a newspaper strip than it is an object of love. Only mildly successful during its 1942-1952 run (a warm-up for the career-making, genre-defining classic HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON, which features an identical protagonist), it has attracted not a large fan base but a wildly, irrationally enthusiastic cult of supporters and proselytizers, including Dorothy Parker, Art Spiegelman, Duke Ellington, Chris Ware and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (Now that’s a dinner party.)

Fantagraphics’ faithful and reverent new edition, with its beautiful banana-yellow, era-appropriate book design by Dan Clowes and wonderfully informative and enthusiastic essays, brings this nearly-forgotten material roaring back to life. Jeet Heer writes, “It’s hard to talk about BARNABY without raving.” Parker writes, “I cannot write a review of Barnaby… it is always a valentine for Mr. Johnson.” Having newly become aware of this comic, I am a late convert to their brand of tongue-twisted devotion to this wonderful proto-Calvin & Hobbes creation — this off-beat, sweet-hearted suburban saga located at the junction where modernism meets magic.

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The subject of BARNABY is the relationship between the titular adolescent boy and Jackeen J. O’Malley, his glad-handing, possibly-imaginary roustabout of a fairy godfather. O’Malley is a character for the ages — less guardian angel than drunken uncle, full of patter and tall tales, possessed by insatiable appetites for food and drink and self-regard. He bluffs his way into Barnaby’s high esteem, and shanghais him into ill-considered schemes and misadventures. It all plays out against the backdrop of the second World War – a perfectly appointed middle-class idyll disrupted by air raid sirens, rationing and the draft. BARNABY is entirely a product of its era, with many references to the politics of the day, but it also has a folkloric quality. It seems to float, as the best newspapers strips do, in some eternally mythic American moment.

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The central joke is that Barnaby, unlike Calvin, is no hyper-active kid with an outsized imagination. He’s calm and collected, a reasonable, well-adjusted little boy. His personality is perfectly reflected in Johnson’s almost translucently clear-line cartooning, in which everything is boiled down to its barest essence — life as one big declarative sentence. Not a pen-stroke is given to nuance or shading. Barnaby’s belief in O’Malley is equally uncomplicated and complete, emblematic of his character as a whole: his fairy godfather is magical and heroic by definition, and no failure to display his powers or act heroically (or even decently) will convince him otherwise. Everything about Barnaby is matter-of-fact; everything about O’Malley, from his braggadocious claims to his very existence, is a matter of fiction. The sweetness of their relationship is that O’Malley gets to be grand and mystical in the eyes of the kid, and the kid gets proof positive that the world is an enchanted place. O’Malley is just a mostly-incompetent con man with wings, but he gives the gift of magic to this quiet, cool-tempered child.

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Everything in Barnaby’s world is trying to shoot down the fantasy. Parents, teachers, and child psychologists all conspire to snap him out of the delusion. But his faith in the supremacy of his fairy-godfather can’t be shaken. Despite the fact that O’Malley’s “magic wand” seems to be a cheap cigar, and excepting his power of flight O’Malley never exhibits a single supernatural ability, Barnaby is utterly convinced of his pal’s near-omnipotence.

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There’s a curious blurring of the strip’s reality halfway through the book, when it turns out first O’Malley can be seen by other children, and the later by mobsters, drunks, and other fringe elements. So the strip, which initially seems to be about a boy and his imaginary friend, gets an authorial endorsement of its fantasy: O’Malley is real — he’s just invisible to members of the establishment. The rock-solid button-down social machinery of work, school, home, whether in peacetime or war, cannot be penetrated by the very real outre magic of Barnaby’s backwoods.

Until Mr. O’Malley is elected to Congress.

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This is the kind of great joke that Johnson specializes in: oddness and disruption so deadpan it seems obvious. Barnaby’s dog Gorgon, it’s suddenly revealed, can talk — but he turns out to be such a rambling bore that everyone just wishes he would shut up. When Barnaby and O’Malley go to visit a giant, he turns out to be three feet tall and “sensitive about his size.” There are very few belly laughs to be had here, more quiet chuckles, and many of the strips seem to forget to supply any punchline at all. But you don’t care — you’re not here for payoffs, you’re here to be immersed in this clean, cracked world, the wry amusements and the utterly recognizable characters who stick with you. The solid earth of perfectly crisp drawing and flawlessly defined personalities allows Johnson to play fast and loose with his invented reality.

The brilliance of all this is that, through some mysterious alchemy of cartooning and character, it manages to provoke an immense reaction of love in the reader, without ever resorting to any kind of sentimentality or manipulation. There are no occasional moments of heart-tugging sweetness, like there were in Calvin & Hobbes, no Schulzian pathos. Just a dry, almost clinical depiction of the adventures of this boy and his favorite figment. The depiction is so coldly clean, so unwilling to invest itself in its characters’ points of view, that for all of its charm and ease it has an almost autistic, Kubrickian gaze.

And yet, when Dorothy Parker describes these characters as “important additions to my heart,” I am right there with her. There’s something unguarded and hopeful in the total lucidity of the storytelling and the sharp-relief definition of the characters, something unjudgemental and welcoming and unafraid, that invites you in. And if you answer that invitation, before you know it, Mr. O’Malley will storm into your house, ravage your ice-box and light up a cigar.

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Maybe that’s unsurprising — O’Malley is a pure force of blustering charm & friendly bullying presumption. It’s his nature to tromp in where he isn’t invited. But you will also find that, very quietly, this little watchful boy with his wide American eyes and gullibly observant optimism has pulled up a chair. He sits there with his polite smile and uncanny enthusiasm, and compels you to invest some small, unconflicted piece of yourself in the most mundane & preposterous magic.

And like Barnaby, we will take our magic where we can get it.

barnaby end– Josh O’Neill

 

good this week

THIS WEEK’S ROUND-UP IS A TOUCH SPOILER-Y, BE WARNED!

society is nix : sunday press continues to unearth and preserve the comic strips that laid the foundation for an art form and to present them in the grand fashion the material so richly deserves. chris ware said it pretty well: this is a mind-blowing portable museum retrospective of the raw, tangled ferocity and frustration that went into the making of America.

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justice league #23 : i’m a sucker for the crime syndicate. blame it on wolfman & perez and reading crisis on infinite earths when i was 9.

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wolverine and the x-men #35 : this issue is a big smile. bradshaw & aaron wrap up the hellfire kids storyline, things go bamf in the night, and it’s the return of…BROO!

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think tank #9 : a new arc begins in this smart military/science/political romp.

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konga : steve ditko’s entire run, 300 pages, on this b-movie blast of a riff on king kong. goofy as shit and gloriously drawn, this is a gorgeous book.

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–chris stevens

The Upside Down World of Gustave Verbeek

Gustave Verbeek was a Japanese artist of Dutch extraction who reinvented an American art form. He was published in the bafflingly brilliant New York Herald comics section of the turn of the century, alongside folks like Richard Outcault and Winsor McCay. He was a committed adherent to Nonsense techniques — he liked to set impossible constraints for himself and try to wrestle coherent stories out them. He outpaced the Surrealists by twenty years, and devised his own mind-bending comic strip vernacular out of portmanteau, reversal & esoteric cartoon symbolism.

Take a look at this panel from his UPSIDE DOWNS strip.

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A fish, an island, and a man in a canoe. Now flip it upside down…

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…and it’s a woman being eaten by a bird.

That’s how UPSIDE DOWNS works — six panel strips that read sequentially, which then flip upside down to become panels seven through twelve. The formal challenge of not just creating reversible images but creating images that reverse sequentially into a coherent story is absolutely insane.

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Verbeek also created THE TERRORS OF THE TINY TADS, in which his bizarre visual games started with text: he created hybridized beasts out of combined words. Hippopotomobiles, hotelephants, pelicanoes and sweet potatoads capered across these charming nightmares.

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Gustave Verbeek was a weird, fractured genius who invented a brand new language in which to tell stories and crack jokes. He would have fit right in to the Parisian salons of the 1920s. His work is gorgeously spotlighted in a elegant clothbound edition from Sunday Press.

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He was a relic of a golden moment in the early 20th century when uniquely, almost inexplicably idiosyncratic talents could be seen in the pages of international newspapers, dancing gloriously to their own broken metronomes.

– Josh O’Neill