With the Batmobile in the lobby and original Spider-Man boards in vitrines, the New-York Historical Society’s “Superheroes in Gotham” exhibition reminds those of us living in the town so nice they had to name it twice that the comics industry was born in the Apple. (NYHS, 170 Central Park West; through February 21, 2016.) Of the fifteen outstanding comics we chose this year, seven are set in or have strong ties to New York City, a .467 batting average that may come close to that of all comics published since Action #1 in 1938.
Ph.D. thesis, anyone?
The DC universe is set in burgs like Gotham and Metropolis, but most of the writers and artists worked at the publisher’s Manhattan office. This became a problem in the late 1960s, when shaggy-haired talent upset corporate decorum by demanding that Batman, Superman, and other mainstays stop battling silly aliens and confront the realities of tumultuous times. In The Bronze Age of DC Comics (Taschen, $60), author Paul Levitz interviews Dennis O’Neil, who recalls when he and another bohemian-looking writer were told to avoid passing “the office of the head of the company dressed the way we were.” O’Neil’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow team-up famously took on racism, economic inequality, and other societal ills under the tagline, “All New/All Now!” Among the hundreds of illustrations in the Taschen tome is a 1971 New York Times Magazine cover featuring a Sgt. Rock story based on the My Lai massacre, with the headline, “BWEEEEOW! WHRAAAM! Comic Books Become Relevant!”
Few comic-book artists have had a wider impact on the general culture than Jules Feiffer. Born in 1929, he talked his way into Will Eisner’s Wall Street studio at the ripe old age of seventeen and, after apprenticing, graduated to writing scripts for Eisner’s Spirit comics and drawing his own Clifford strips. The abundantly illustrated Out of Line: The Art of Jules Feiffer (Abrams, $40) covers Feiffer’s legendary, decades-long gig drawing neurotic, cavorting characters for the newspaper you are reading, during and after which he cranked out children’s books and won Obie and Academy awards, plus a Pulitzer Prize. Not bad for a kid from the Bronx.
Most people have oddballs in the family. Bill Griffith’s memoir, Invisible Ink (Fantagraphics, $30) — the chronicle of an artistic grandfather, a sometimes violent father, and a mother who wrote for romance magazines and had a long affair with a cartoonist/detective novelist — gives insight into how Griffith, against horizonless odds, managed to syndicate his aggressively weird Zippy the Pinhead newspaper strip. Employing a jauntily crosshatched style, Griffith zigzags through recollections of a Long Island youth and a postwar mom conflicted enough to beam over her son’s success in underground comics — “I got a tremendous thrill seeing your name in the Village Voice” — but to refuse to show his work to her friends for “fear that people may say to me, ‘Your son draws dirty pictures.’ ” Here, when Griffith draws his mother having sex with her illicit lover, the pictures are not dirty; they’re heartbreaking.
Sky in Stereo (Revival House Press, $18) begins with fourteen-year-old Iris going to Jehovah’s Witness meetings and then follows the teen as Jean-Paul Sartre novels, jobs, boys, and drugs replace the Bible in her life. Although artist/writer Mardou uses simple cartoon contours, Iris’s meandering acid trip convinces as a consciousness-altering journey: “This is Heaven…. I must be good inside. Righteous, even. Otherwise this is not the sky I’d see, right?” That anxious doubt is confirmed when the final doors that are opened are not ones of perception but of a police car, leaving readers truly curious about what will happen in the next installment.
Angels abound in P. Craig Russell’s Murder Mysteries and Other Stories (Dark Horse, $125), which includes tales by fantasy luminaries such as H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and Clive Barker, all dynamically illustrated by Russell. For Neil Gaiman’s title story about God and his angels constructing the cosmos, Russell uses an open, airy line to depict Heaven and shadowy patches where mortal characters grub about on Earth. These large reproductions of original boards capture nuances of ink stroke and faint pencil line, and Russell’s self-written tale “The Insomniac” dazzles with variations of texture and mood.
Set in an American West made “old” again by some near-future apocalypse, Motorcycle Samurai (Top Shelf, $20) lives mainly in its own unrelenting stylishness. Artist/writer Chris Sheridan combines desert vistas and extreme close-ups with elastically angular action sequences that propel his cast of wildly idiosyncratic characters — a female samurai wearing a skull mask, a husky sheriff sporting a Matterhorn-like pompadour — to a ripsnorting climax.
Few cartoonists imagined anything as genuinely surreal as the ten-part Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, which brims with freaks and vile personalities and envelops the reader like a paranoid nightmare. This and other tales in The Complete Eightball (Fantagraphics, $120) reveal that during the 1990s no one was having more nasty fun than Daniel Clowes. You want annoyingly obsessive fanboys drawn as caricatures of people who don’t exist but personify someone you know? Meet Dan Pussey. How about know-it-all, self-loathing hipsters? Here’s Buddy Bradley and friends. You might think Clowes has contempt for himself, his characters, and his audience. And you might be right. But his retro graphics style moves beyond eye candy to convey genuine emotion in his fucked-up characters, achieving something rather brilliant: unpleasant but irresistible entertainment.
If you’re seeking chortles, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s Liberty Anyool ($5, which helps support the CBLDF’s anti-censorship efforts) delivers more than a few. One page hilariously parodies the endless variations of the Archie line — Archie gets married, Archie dies, Archie battles zombies. Here the Riverdale teens are in ‘Nam, surrounded by Viet Cong heads on stakes; the tagline reads, “Archie still won’t stop crying! Now, Jughead must face down the enemy alone in ‘Massacre Along the Mekong!’ ” Elsewhere artist R. Sikoryak perfectly echoes Scott Adams’s Dilbert to reboot Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Somehow, the poignancy of the closing lines survives in this loving spoof: “Ah Bartlebert! Ah humanity!”
No matter what you’re accomplishing in your life, you’ll realize it’s not enough when you read La Lucha (Verso, $17). Artist and writer Jon Sack tells the real-life saga of Mexican human rights lawyer Lucha Castro, who braves death threats and battles extravagantly corrupt officials to call the world’s attention to the murders and mayhem endemic to a country ravaged by drug lords on one side of the border and an insatiable appetite for their product to its north. Sack’s documentary-style drawings capture vistas of villages emptied of fearful residents and details of grief and determination on the faces of activists and family members, even as the criminals and the federal police who ineffectually pursue them remain anonymous behind black masks.
In Translucid (Boom Studios, $30), writers Claudio Sanchez and Chondra Echert interweave the exploits of the Navigator — a gadget-laden superhero who battles archvillain the Horse in a Day-Glo New York City — with scenes of the rough childhood that gave birth to the crime-fighter. Like the whip-smart Gotham Central series from last decade, Translucid posits a chicken-and-egg dilemma: Do supervillains exist only because someone has to commit carnage worthy of humanity’s superheroic protectors? Daniel Bayliss’s kinetic artwork and Adam Metcalfe’s hallucinatory colors transmute the violent action into something as trippy as 1960s rock posters.
“I like my coffee like I like outer space. Black and infinite,” says Capitan Peligro, before he pilots the spaceship Santa Muerte toward a wondrous “cosmic leviathan” and the evil space whalers who pursue it, in issue #2 of Space Riders (Black Mask, four single issues, each $4). Writer Fabian Rangel Jr. brings the sharp dialogue, while artist Alexis Zeritt’s lashing brushwork and garish harmonies fling Peligro and his crew of simian first mate and curvaceous android into adventures in a galaxy much like our own. “No matter how beautiful something is,” El Capitan laments, “some motherfucker will find a way to make money from killing it.”
If you cut Classics 101 freshman year, you can get up to speed with Eddie Campbell’s Bacchus Omnibus (Top Shelf, $40). Campbell’s breakneck inking and skittering Zip-a-Tone accents perfectly complement his fantasias of the god of wine and cronies wandering through the twentieth century. The deities of yore are ripe fodder for the comics genre — supreme beings who benignly watch over us mortals one day and knock each other off like warring gangsters the next. They’re just superheroes and super-nemeses in chitons instead of capes.
When I first saw John Paul Leon’s original boards for Detective Comics 35 and 36 (DC, $4 each) at his Artists Alley table at New York Comic Con, I was struck by the way his capacious blacks and raw lines created a gritty ambiance, always the ideal setting for the Dark Knight. Leon’s noir labyrinths of ink enhance the suspense of Benjamin Percy’s script about an ecologist turned terrorist, whom Batman judges as a “psychopath with a conscience. I’m sure some people would say we’ve got the same blood.”
In The Sculptor (First Second, $30), Scott McCloud gives us “the other David Smith,” a young artist who makes a deal with Death: 200 days to live in exchange for magical hands that can shape any material into any form. McCloud, who explicated his medium in the 1993 book Understanding Comics, has fun here with the snarky backbiting of the New York art world, but this moving tale is at its most powerful when it reveals how the personal can germinate into the extraordinary.
After nearly a century, H.P. Lovecraft’s untethered visions and filigreed prose continue to get under our skin. But there’s no escaping our awareness of his obsessions with skin color and mores that differed from his own white New England roots. In Providence (Avatar; five issues currently, $5 each), writer Alan Moore (Watchmen, From Hell) has young New York Herald reporter Robert Black researching a novel about a concealed America “hidden below the society we show the world.” With a few things to conceal himself, not least that he’s gay and Jewish, Black stumbles upon subterranean caverns filled with unfathomable carvings, families with amphibian features, and other oddities taken from the Lovecraftian canon but here given even darker twists, such as a dream that envisions Lovecraft’s most overt prejudices fulfilled in the concentration camps of Germany. Artist Jacen Burrows fleshes it all out convincingly, whether with ghastly visions of remote-control incest or simply with the parting of Black from his father, who asks, “What do they have in New York that’s not in Milwaukee?”