Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Comic Book Holocaust
by Johnny Ryan

It would probably not be much of a stretch to call The Comic Book Holocaust Johnny Ryan's magnum opus. It's hard to imagine Ryan topping this one, even if he lives to be 110 years old.

Ryan's technique is built on minimal application for maximum effect. While there is no doubt that he is a supremely confident cartoonist, his style is so simple and straightforward that it would be easy to mistake his economy for sloth. He knows exactly how to draw what he's drawing in order to put across his jokes with as little extraneous content as possible. When your primary vehicles are scatology and obscenity, it doesn't really matter how well drawn the feces is.

The Comic Book Holocaust is comprised of a number of self-published minicomics produced by Ryan over the last few years. The only material in here I'd seen before was the Marvel Comics-specific gags produced for the Marvel Super Pages volume. By compiling all this material together between two covers, Ryan has elevated what would have otherwise been fairly throwaway gag pages into something resembling a significant statement. Of course, you can only take it so seriously considering the fact that it's a bunch of jokes about shit and boners, but considering Ryan's skill as well as his absolute and unflinching commitment to the subject matter, it reaches a level of zen stupidity almost unparalleled in comics history.

The key to the book lies in its repetition. Every page contains a single strip, and every strip consists of exactly twelve panels. Every single panel contains either a joke, a set-up for a punchline or a punchline. Every single inch of real estate on the page is dedicated to the goal of producing a joke -- even the cross-hatching is funny, used as it is to parody artists who overuse the technique.

The first fourth of the book is dedicated to famous comic strips -- "Little Orphan Ass Hole", "Krazy Kunt", "The Baboondocks". The second portion reprints the Marvel Super Pages material, with strips devoted to mainstays like Spider-Man (here spelled without the hyphen, for comedic effect I'm sure), Thor, Rom (Rom?) and all the rest. The third takes on the crop of serious "graphic novels", stuff like "Rectal Nerve", "Ghost Turd" and "American Spleandouche". The fourth section is a catch-all, featuring a little bit of everything not covered in the first three sections, a couple token manga, as well as some oddballs like "The Cross & The Switchblade", 1970s romance comics and, er, "Silver, the Lone Ranger's Horse".

Considering how repetitive many of these gags can be, it's amazing that Ryan is able to get so much variety from such a basic formula. Sometimes he alters his basic drawing style in order to parody the artist in question, with simple calligraphic brush-strokes to ape Ivan Brunetti's later style in "Shitzo" or George Herriman's skewed art-deco for "Krazy Kunt". But he's hardly the stylistic chameleon that someone like R. Sikoryak is -- more like, his facile adaptations are the kind of primitive aping you'd expect to see if a small child was replicating the drawing style of their favorite sunday cartoons.

But Ryan is also pretty canny at switching the focus of his punchlines, running the gamut from merely putting familiar characters through their scatological paces (Spider-Man putting together an Ikea bookshelf to hold all his tranny porn), to lodging clever satirical broadsides. "Shitzo", for instance, takes on the perpetually depressed Ivan Brunetti: sick of hearing Brunetti whine about wanting to kill himself, another character urges him to get it over with and put himself out of his misery. Brunetti does not actually kill himself, however -- he decides to procrastinate suicide because he "just thought of a really funny child rape comic I want to draw!" Joe Matt gets it in the shorts for being such a hopeless loser, Art Spiegelman is repeatedly mocked for being a pretentious egomaniac, and Chris Ware's disturbing lack of self-esteem is similarly lampooned. Even the seemingly anomalous "Silver, the Lone Ranger's Horse" page has a purpose: those with fairly long memories might remember that Steve Weissman of Yikes fame* once wrote a glowing tribute to Silver in the pages of The Comics Journal. And, come on, anyone who has ever been creeped out by the very concept of "Casper the Friendly Ghost" will be amused by the thought that Casper was really the aborted child of rape.

The repetitious format produces a hypnotic effect on the unwary reader. Ryan's comics are so easy to read that it is impossible to resist turning the pages. It may be filled with shit and fuck and anal rape and giant sky pussies (wow, that's surely one of the oddest recurring motifs in the history of literature), but I'll be damned if The Comic Book Holocaust isn't one of the most satisfying compendiums of pure cartooning I've seen in many a year.

(For whatever reason, I can't find a copy of this for sale at good old Amazon.com. So if you want to buy it, I suggest you go here - although, it must be noted, I get nothing from the transaction. Sorry.)

*Thanks for the correction, Milo - that's what I get for depending on my memory.

Thursday, August 24, 2006


Placid were the heavy waters far from shore. In the middle of the deep ocean where it was impossible to see another soul for hundreds of miles in any direction, a small craft ran across the surface of the still sea. The slow, flirtatious ripples emanating from the rear of the boat gradually disappeared as the craft sped onward, energy expended and absorbed.

There were only three people visible on the boat. A large man of indeterminate age sat at the wheel, silently scanning the horizon. Despite thr tropical heat he was dressed immaculately in a white suit and duster. He did not seem to be sweating, or even to notice the heat at all. The hair on his head was white to match the white of his clothes. There was another man at the rear of the boat, hunched over in his seat and visibly unhappy. He was much younger than the first, still almost a boy, and was visibly uncomfortable in the tropical climate. He has stripped down to a thin white tank-top but still sweating; a half empty bottle of sunscreen sat on the seat next to him. There was music in his headphones, and that appeared to be the only thing keeping him from being far more unhappy than he already was.

The third person on the boat seemed much more comfortable. She was very tall, with a dark, slightly caramel complexion and a face that revealed an indeterminate ethnicity. She was lying across a row of seats set into the prow, wearing nothing much in the way of clothing except for a small string bikini and a white sarong encircling her hips. She was a strikingly beautiful woman, and except for her taut athletic frame she would not have stood out on any beach resort on the planet. The man at the wheel stared across her figure as he steered the boat, stirred less by any incipient lust than by mere curiosity -- who knew what designs lays beneath the darkened sunglasses which covered her eyes?

"Are you thirsty, Drums?"

The boy sitting at the rear of the boat nodded imperceptibly. At the best of times he was not a particularly verbose companion but now, alone in the middle of the ocean, separated from any forms of electronic communication except for the phantom wisps of low-frequency radio signals and distant satellite communication, he had become positively laconic.

"You should drink more water." The man in white reached over to a small miniature refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of water. He concentrated for a moment and the bottle was covered in a thin icy crust, no more than a few millimeters thick, but enough to ensure the drink was as cold as possible. He tossed the water to the boy.

A small island grew larger on the horizon. It was almost entirely flat and covered with sand, and nothing large appeared to grow on the surface.

"We're here," the man in white announced to no one in particular. "Jakita, you're going to want to see this."

The woman sat up and ran her fingers through her hair. "It's an island," she said, nonplussed. "And a particularly flat island. There is nothing here."

"That's rather the point," he replied. "There used to be something here. It was written up in the last guidebook, but it's gone now."

They sat in silence as the boat neared the beach. Up close, it was obvious that the island was not as barren as it had initially appeared -- there was small vegetation and a few spindly palm trees scattered across the beach. But the landscape did not seem particularly hospitable to life. Despite the tropical milieu, there was something tortured and burnt in the landscape, as if the island had been scoured and set to wither in the sun.

"It's so still," the woman said. "There's nothing in the air. No life, no movement. Not exactly death but . . . stasis."

They drifted to within a hundred yards of the shore and set the anchor in the water. The woman dove in the water and swam the remaining distance to shore, her strokes long and fluid. The two remaining men pulled a canoe out from a cavity in the rear of the boat and set it in the water.

By the time they reached the shore the woman had already been there for quite some time. As the men were pulling the canoe onto the beach she approached them with a large plank of wood under her arm.

"Is this what you wanted to see?" She threw the plank on the sand in front of them. It was weather-beaten and faded, but there was still writing. In large white letters the sign read DANGER, DO NOT ENTER. There was an equally large radiation symbol, and smaller writing underneath that read BY ORDER OF THE UNITED STATES NAVY.

"It hasn't been dangerous in years", the man said. "Radiation doesn't linger like that, not from those bombs. But they had no idea what happened here after the bomb went off. They didn't understand it, they couldn't quantify it, so they sealed up the area as tight as they could. Not so tight that we couldn't get in."

"Just a nuclear bomb? What's so fancy about that."

"Nothing, in particular. But any explosion of that magnitude is going to create some disturbances. Any time you mess with the fundamental forces of nature there are going to be unintended consequences. Especially when the means are so brutal and violent . . . things get pulled through from other places and other times. Things that weren't supposed to be alive, at least not here."

They began to walk across the beach, following the curve of the island over a few short, windblasted dunes. After about a half a mile they stopped at a small inlet. There was a large wooden mast set out of the sea at an odd angle, broken and splintered but still recognizable.

The man in white knelt down at the waterline and touched the water. Something seemed to sharpen, to come into focus, and the inlet froze. Steam immediately appeared over the ice. As the moments passed the frozen inlet began to recede like sand being blown back from a momentous wind, sweeping back further and further to create a solid wall against the sea. An area which had previously been hidden by tens of thousands of gallons of water was revealed.

"Neat trick," the woman said. The made their way into the area of the inlet, walking towards where the mast had originally stuck out from the water. In the light of day the mast revealed itself to be attached to a larger apparatus, a shattered remnant of an ancient boat's prow and pieces of a hull.

The woman paused a minute before speaking. "Shipwreck. Looks to be about four hundred years old."

"You're partly right," the man answered. "It was built around four hundred years ago. But it's nowhere near that old. This was a pirate ship. The explosion took them forward but it also changed them as well."

"So a nuclear bomb in 1945 affected a boatful of pirates in the seventeenth century? Again, neat trick."

"Rules in a place like this are changed. Borders become porous, definitions not so clear. It's not the only strange thing that ever happened here. But the most recent."

"So what did these pirates do in the twentieth century?"

"They didn't know they were in the twentieth century, for one. Their minds were warped by the transit, so they were different . . . they became fixated on a colony of very strange undersea creatures. They developed something of a symbiotic relationship with these creatures, because they believed them to be magical. They weren't magical. Just something else that had come through the Bleed . . . something that warped the laws of nature around themselves. These pirates died after a few years of circling the island and singing strange sea-shanties."

The man in white walked away from the shipwreck, towards the ice wall that he had created to keep the sea away. He placed his hand on the wall and it receded backwards again. A concave aperture slowly opened in the ice, and the aperture became a tunnel, large enough for a man to walk through. He walked into the aperture and under the sea.

It was a long tunnel, stretching from the site of the inlet out a few hundred yards to the sea. The ice walls were mostly transparent, and they could see the sun shining down through millions of gallons of water above their heads and into the refracted ceiling and walls of the passageway.

"There aren't any fish," the woman said after they had walked for a time. "I would have expected to see lots of fish."

"They know to keep away from this region."

They came to a large cavern which had formed in the ice, covering an area approximately the size of a baseball field. The uniform blankness of the ocean floor had given way to sprawled heaps of debris -- scrap metal, driftwood, stone. But, oddly enough, the scraps appeared to be organized into some sort of order, perhaps even a grid.

There was a large structure near to the entrance of the ice cave. It was a transparent dome, perhaps twenty feet in diameter, ten feet tall. It had been created with enviable skill: it was a marvel of engineering, an airtight bubble built to withstand the pressures of deep sea depths. There was a thin layer of silt and sand obscuring a clear view of the interior of the dome. The woman wiped away the muck and peered inside.

"Look at this. There's a tree in here. And it's still alive."

Sure enough, there was a small tree, oak from the looks of it, sitting at the center of a sprawling green lawn. Everything was overgrown, nothing had been mowed in decades. There appeared to be a miniature picnic table of some kind as well.

There was an airlock on the far side of the dome. The door opened easily enough to a small decompression chamber separating the sea from the oxygenated atmosphere inside.

"Oh my God." The woman leaned down and pulled something from inside the airlock. There was a small humanoid figure in her hand, in what appeared to be a white space suit, with a clear helmet and an opening at the rear for a tail. There was something still in the suit, however . . . a small skeleton of what appeared to be a rodent. Perhaps a squirrel.

"This is too bizarre," she said. "Squirrels don't live in space suits at the bottom of the sea."

"It gets better," he replied. They walked away from the dome and towards what appeared to be the center of the ruins. A few structures here seemed almost intact. There were three buildings placed in a row. On the left, there was a what appeared to be an enlarged coconut shell, about two feet round and set into the sand. the middle structure could have been mistaken for a piece of debris, a metal pipe jutting up at an odd angle from the ground.

But the strangest sight by far lay to the right of the other structures. It appeared to be a large pineapple, about three feet tall and constructed out of metal and glass. There were doors and windows and even what appeared to be a small mailbox at the end of a pathway leading to what must have at one time been a road. It seemed a perfect scale-model dwelling for a person eight or ten inches tall.

"Who the hell lives in a pineapple under the sea?" the boy finally spoke up. He had turned the music in his headphones off and stared, with the other two, at the strange spectacle before them.

The man in white knelt down and opened the tiny door to the house. He reached and pulled out a small object. At first glance it appeared to be nothing much, perhaps a small block of coral. But it was also completely rectangular, with sharp angles and straight lines. It had the rough dimensions of a large kitchen sponge.

There were small limbs extending from the bottom and the sides of the rectangle, wispy arms and legs barely the size of toothpicks. The creature was fragile, dead and desiccated -- whatever its flesh had been composed of had dried and cracked like a fossil. Now, exposed to the air, it seemed especially breakable. But the fossil also wore clothes. They were little more than rags, eaten away by time, but they were clearly pants -- small, square shortpants that covered the bottom third of its rectangular body, as well as what appeared to be a white shirt and tie.

"These creatures had no idea why they were here. They were probably native to a liquid dimension inconceivably different from our own. The strange properties of the Bikini Atoll allowed them to survive for a time here, at the bottom of the sea . . . but they warped the minds of all who approached them, anyone who tried to make contact. That's why the pirates who followed them from the past were irrevocably insane. We could never study the phenomenon up close before, because their existence violated the fundamental laws of our universe. Now . . ."

"Now they're dead," the woman spoke up.

"It took a while for the laws of our universe to effect them, but gradually they began to fade away. They must have been able to harness some kind of fire or flame in order to create this level of civilization. Perhaps the universe began to correct itself, so the unique properties that allowed them to create fire underwater would have faded with time. That must have been the first sign of their impending doom. I suspect from the state of his corpse that the creature in my hand was the last to die. It must have been terrifying, to see your friends and comrades die around you and not know why. They couldn't have been very advanced, but they apparently knew enough to make a world similar to what they had known. And then that world fell apart."


"Yes, quite so. But I'm glad I got to see it with my own eyes."

With that, they returned to the surface and their boat. But they also took with them the small skeletal sponge, placed in a small box and filed away in a warehouse somewhere on the outskirts of town.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Looks Like Chocolate, Tastes Like Shit

For a while now I've been trying to explain just how cool the Jerkbeast is to certain of my friends. It's one of those things that you really need to experience firsthand, because otherwise trying to explain the whole phenomenon makes you seem slightly retarded:

It's a dude, right, in a weird homemade monster costume, and he just rides around on a bike insulting people and beating up those weaker than himself . . ."

Just the bare description does little to prepare one for just how funny the proceedings actually are. Well, now thanks to the wonders of YouTube, I can spread the gospel of the Jerkbeast the best way possible: through direct experience.

Witness the glory of Jerkbeast The Movie (or at least the trailer for said movie):

And here he is doing what he does best - mere scraps of brilliance, but enough for the uninitiated:

This apparently has some connection with the Jerkbeast, even though he does not appear within:

And of course, here is the Jerkbeast's band, Steamign Wolf Penis, performing the greatest song ever written, "Looks Like CHocolate, Tastes Like Shit". It's not a good video but if you squint you can see the Jerkbeast himself pounding the skins.

Go to the Jerkbeast's website to hear and see some better clips of the man, the myth and the legend in action. He's also got a MySpace page with more examples of Steaming Wolf Penis music.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Great Comic Book Covers

Now this is a God-damned comic book cover. The Amalgam books were pretty much the definition of a mixed bag, but at their best they were really fun doses of hardcore fanboy pandering. Used to be that kind of thing was fairly rare, so whenever the companies tipped their hat to the proverbial "lifers" it was pretty neat. Now that the big mainstream companies are pretty much doing this type of thing all the time, it's not so special. In fact, it's kind of repulsive.

But Lobo the Duck was not. Whereas most of the Amalgam matchups at least tried to make some sort of sense -- Dr. Strange + Dr. Fate = Dr. Strangefate -- the pairing of Lobo and Howard the Duck seemed merely to be an exercise in smushing two of each company's most unusual properties together in as obnoxious a way as possible. Considering that neither character was ever a stranger to the bizarre, it worked surprisingly well. (perhaps not as well as a potential matchup of Mr. Talky Tawny and H.E.R.B.I.E., M.R. T.A.L.K.I.N.G. R.O.B.O.T. T.I.G.E.R.)

I haven't read this probably since it came out, and I don't remember much about it, except that it was pretty fun. Like peanut butter and a kick to the teeth, two great tastes that taste weird together.

(PS - Why the fuck is Momma's Family still on TV? I thought there were international treaties against these kind of things.)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Hansel & Gretel
by Junko Mizuno

Very rarely have I encountered a book as bizarre as Hansel & Gretel, produced by a cartoonist as willfully eccentric as Junko Mizuno. As someone with, admittedly, a layman's appreciation of Japanese comics and culture, there is something unmistakably alien about Mizuno's approach to constructing a story that sets it significantly apart even from the most iconoclastic western creators, folks like Mat Brinkmann, Ron Rége, Jr. or Anders Nilsen. There's a reason why Mizuno's work has gained such critical traction in America: she is one of those rare cartoonists whose work seems, in the eyes of her audience, to remake the act of reading comics.

I have to wonder how much of my reaction to the work is based on my unfamiliarity with certain segments of manga culture. The manga I'm most familiar with would probably be considered fairly traditional by aficionados, the type of work that most clearly resonates to familiar western aesthetic prerogatives -- Lone Wolf & Cub and Tekuza and Akira*. There's an old saw (whose actual provenance I am unaware) about how the dominant manga style evolved from a Japanese interpretation of Walt Disney's big-eyed animation work -- a familiar source being translated through an unfamiliar culture to become something different, an amalgam of two distinct aesthetics. In this way we can examine the history of certain art forms as an extended game of telephone, with every new audience producing an imperfect translation of the source material in such a way as to graft their own preoccupations onto their interpretation of the original object. French filmmakers influenced by early American auteurs and postwar B-movies create the Nouvelle Vague and export it back to us as an entirely novel and unfamiliar phenomenon.

But Mizuno represents an appreciable advancement from the original template. It seems -- and this is merely a theory which could easily be proven wrong by someone who knows better -- that the work in question is the product of a cartooning culture that has grown into its own at a significant remove from its original influences. The game of telephone that began decades ago with the influence of American cartooning on Japanese illustrators has returned, and the signal has bounced back and forth among Japanese interpreters for so long that the end result is, from an American perspective, a hideous mutant.

That's hardly a moral judgment -- some of my best friends are hideous mutants. But the fact remains that this is potently alien work. The notion of "cuteness" as it is fetishized in Japan has advanced to such a logical extreme that even the most fiercely disturbing notions can be successfully rendered in high faux-Sanrio dudgeon. The juxtaposition of frightening ideas communicated with unbearable cuteness is obviously intended to have a bracing effect on the reader. I was particularly taken with the notion of the giant talking pig who casually eviscerates himself for the sustenance of local villagers, only to be magically regenerated. It doesn't seem like an eternal purgatory in the context of the story, but the image is enough to make anyone seriously consider vegetarianism.

But aside from the symbolism at work here, which is complex enough to warrant its own examination, the way Mizuno tells a story is the most striking aspect of the work. The whole concept of mise en scene (to use a potentially contentious term from the world of film criticism) as it has evolved over the last hundred years is totally demolished. The page is not subdivided, as in the west, into discrete geographical units which represent separate ideas existing in an established continuity. These units of territory -- what we would call panels, but panel borders need not necessarily apply -- allow the cartoonist to establish an imaginary mental landscape in which the action in a narrative is placed in a cohesive whole. Even a relatively adventurous cartoonist like Kevin Huizenga or Ron Rége, Jr. still follows these basic rules. You have to get pretty far afield from even the most unorthodox cartoonists before you get to artists with a total disregard for the "rules" of mental geography that undergird most cartooning. Even someone as far out in leftfield as Anders Nilsen is still aware of the connection between what his readers see on the page and how they construct a narrative between seemingly disparate elements against a contiguous background context -- in fact, some of his most experimental work is almost entirely dependent on the reader's complicity in building imaginary context in their mind.

All of which could be taken as a fancy way of saying that Mizuno doesn't like drawing backgrounds. It does not appear as if she does, but that is neither here nor there. The most apt way of describing Mizuno's narrative would seem to be that she does not envision her stories in any sort of context whatsoever, merely as a continuously unfolding present tense. The overriding ideal is one of fantasy run rampant, of actions dictated merely by thought and executed without effort. It's a frictionless universe where thoughts can become reality, and the very notion of reality is hopelessly elastic. Therefore the actions of the characters on the page, as well as the pages themselves, are translations of pure emotion interpreted as color and shape. Mizuno's universe is nothing more than swathes of pastel with random design motifs interspersed throughout.

The character designs are the real focal point of Mizuno's storytelling. Her characters fill the panels, often so large as to become obscured, only partially visible at abstruse angles. Rather than seeming to be in literal motion, the characters are presented in static tableau. All the normal signifiers of intangibility in cartoon form are rendered as concrete realities -- aromas, speed lines, thoughts themselves assume literal character. It's all quite vertiginous for the unprepared reader. The alacrity with which Mizuno flouts and contradicts the "rules" of comic storytelling make her work seem impossibly dense, a lattice of symbols and shapes to be painstakingly deciphered. There's something familiar but just not quite right, like a document translated into another language and then retranslated into its original language. Her use of color is vital to the effect. Whereas someone like Ron Rége, Jr. can can achieve a similar effect in terms of a flat field of vision with universally thin lines that mask depth of perception, Mizuno relies on vivid pastels to create an imposingly flat canvas. All the normal rules of contrasting and complementary colors have been thrown out the window. Every element of the narrative is very self-consciously preoccupied with being a flat object in static two-dimensional space -- not an element in a continual narrative, but in no ways a series of static images a la Prince Valiant. The result is something entirely new, a way of comics that substitutes a preoccupation with objective observation with entirely subjective perception. The dense thicket of baroque iconography that forms the basis of her storytelling requires an active complicity on the part of the reader. Subtracting the signifiers of conventional narrative, deconstructing the way a reader perceives a narrative, is one of the most fundamental ways a cartoonist can challenge their reader -- Mizuno defies expectations by presenting a narrative shorn of anything but the most malleable and unreliable context.

Reading The Comics Journal's interview with Mizuno in preparation for this review was a disconcerting experience. Her work is in some respects sharply primitive, but in many other ways she betrays an extremely sophisticated understanding of the rules she systematically subverts at every turn. Unfortunately, almost none of this understanding comes across in her interview. There's only so much you can read into the transcript of a brief interview conducted by telephone, conducted by a person who didn't even write the interview questions** . . . but still, Mizuno's resolute refusal to engage the interviewer in any significant explication of her work is interesting. Perhaps we're spoiled, accustomed as we are to opinionated and in many cases grossly autodidactic creators with no shortage of ideas about the medium. Hell, when even the guy who writes New Avengers grounds his work in a thoroughly formalist understanding of contemporary foreign film, we've definitely got a surplus of smartypantses.

But Mizuno's reluctance raises another distinct possibility -- the notion that instead of intending her work as a canny commentary on formal convention, she is working with a more or less uncritical interpolation of established norms, and the bizarre nature of her work simply comes as second nature. Her uncritical acceptance of the rather repulsive marketing culture of "cute" merchandising spawned by the Japanese and heartily adopted by America is telling in this regard. Could it be that she honestly doesn't know just how weird this stuff reads to Americans? Is this the product of a manga culture so far removed from our own that the alien storytelling techniques go unmentioned by the practitioners? Is there a whole world of artists working in Mizuno's school in which this style could somehow be considered de rigeur? The very idea boggles the mind.

My musings on manga are, at the end of the day, just that: musings, uninformed and quite possibly fundamentally unsound. But I can say with little fear of contradiction, based on a comparatively firm understanding of the underlying mechanics of conventional comic storytelling, that Mizuno is one of the most unique storytellers currently being published in the United States. It bears further scrutiny from anyone interested in the further edges of contemporary comics.

*Is Akira considered passe? I never see it mentioned anymore. I still quite like it.

**Having conducted a fair amount of interviews myself I speak from some small experience . . . some subjects just don't care to look that deeply into their own work, but as a general rule people whose work betrays significant understand of formal mechanics can expound on these properties, whereas artists who work within ascribed generic guidelines tend to be less introspective. Could Mizuno be be one of the former who acts like one of the latter? If I ever had the chance to ask Mat Brinkmann about the underlying anxiety and mythic structure of his work, would he respond with a hearty "duuuude, it's all about Iron Fuckin' Maiden!"

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Intangible Perplexity
by Owen Harris

Anyone who has ever peeked in on the epic art sharing threads over at the Comics Journal message board will recognize Harris' work. This is a very pure form of gag cartooning, a joke told in three or four beats, with the page's geography -- the time it takes for the reader to scan the page -- used to approximate comic timing. Extremely basic but also, when done well, extremely satisfying.

The two characters in the strips are recognizable to anyone who has ever seen an old episode of Kung Fu or, for that matter, Kill Bill: the wizened Asian zen master and the obsequious disciple. The only difference here is that the wizened master is something of an asshole and the disciple is clueless, although both exaggerate their negative qualities to annoy the other. You get the idea, reading these strips, that the characters are trapped in some sort of Beckett-inspired netherworld, waiting for the proverbial zen enlightenment which will never arrive -- hence the petty squabbling. There is something zen-like in the act of waiting for something which will never arrive, I suppose, and much of the master's exasperation seems to stem from the fact that the disciple refuses to learn that the journey, in this instance, is the goal. Either that or he just really is an asshole who gets off on making his companion miserable.

The book in which the strips have been presented doesn't even seem to have a price or any printing details, indicating an extremely small audience. While he's certainly not the world's greatest cartoonist, Harris has exactly enough skill in these strips to pull off the effect he's going for: the sparse, clean-line layouts keep everything at a pleasingly simple level. There is very little in the way of illustrative filigree to distract from the point of the strips, which are Harris' loveley off-key jokes. They are a marvel of economy insomuch as they know exactly what they need to do and how much effort to expend in order to accomplish it. Making a virtue of your limitations is one of the most difficult lessons for any cartoonist to learn -- these are obviously very primitive strips, but they work because that is exactly what they are supposed to be.

Interested parties should drop in here to see about ordering a copy, or just checking out more of Harris' work.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Martian Manhunter #1
by A.J. Lieberman and Al Barrionuevo

The most curious thing to me about the latest installment in a seemingly unending series of Martian Manhunter relaunches is why I am reviewing it at all. If that sounds unusually harsh, allow me to explain: I do not often receive packages in the mail from DC Comics. To be perfectly honest, I do not even know how the people at DC got my address. There was no promotional material included with this comic, just the book itself in a simple brown envelope (for future reference if whomever at DC is reading this, please put some sort of cardboard insert inside the envelope or send the book in a thicker package, because the book that reached me looked as if it had been mangled by the Samsonite monkey). I don't know who in the DC organization thought it would be a good idea to send me this comic -- which is slightly disconcerting, as I like to know just who is sending me things. For all intents and purposes this copy of Martian Manhunter #1 materialized out of thin air when the UPS man put it in my hands. I like getting free stuff, I don't want to give you the wrong idea, but I am simply at a loss to understand why this comic in particular is being promoted in such a manner.

You would be hard-pressed to find a major character from either major company who has been so consistently mismanaged as the Martian Manhunter -- all the which is more curious when one considers that he has also been an almost-constant presence in the books, unlike folks like the Red Tornado and the Atom who have a habit of simply disappearing for years at a time when no one has any use for them. Aside from a brief spike in interest around the premiere of his last solo series in the late 90s (produced by the Spectre team of John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake), the character has never carried a successful solo vehicle. He's been a mainstay of the Justice League for the past thirty some years (he sat out much of the team's Bronze Age adventures but has been in almost every other League), and it is in this capacity that the character is most fondly remembered. Every few years someone has launched some kind of All New, All Different Martian Manhunter vehicle, and every single one has disappeared into the shifting Martian sands. I am not an expert in the character's history, but it has seemed at times as if every new writer to put his stamp on the character has only succeeded in muddying the waters further by adding new elements which, at times, flatly contradicted previous interpretations. It doesn't help that the character's origin was convoluted from the get-go, and succeeding generations of creators have only made matters worse. Even Captain Marvel, for all the apathy that has greeted the character's modern-day incarnation, can point to Jerry Ordway's Power of Shazam revamp as having provided a semi-successful update for a notoriously difficult property. They were able to successfully revive Hawkman, for God's sake -- for those young-uns in the audience who may not remember, there was a time when merely the word "Hawkman" was synonymous with unrelenting failure.

It's not as if the Martian Manhunter couldn't be cool. Fittingly, his character was one of the highlights of the recent Justice League cartoon. As they had done with so many other characters, the folks behind the cartoon managed to sift all the unnecessary crap from the character and stick with only the crucial elements: an alien alone on earth, immensely powerful but preferring to use stealth and intelligence over brawn and bluster, as strangely at home in low-key urban settings as space-opera adventure. Why has the really cool J'ohn 'J'onzz from the cartoon been such a difficult beast to pin down in the comics themselves? Is it simply that the character only really works in a team milieu, and any attempt at placing him in a solo setting is doomed to failure?

I don't believe that to be the case, but the new Martian Manhunter series is not going to change any minds in this regard. This is, in almost every way conceivable, as mind-numbingly mediocre a comic as can be imagined. In no way is it bad, merely aggressively average. This is apparently part of a promotion involving a post-Infinite Crisis sales initiatives called Brave New World. I didn't read the loss-leading promotional book that they released ahead of the new launches, so I don't know whether or not the Manhunter story in that volume was a separate prelude or merely an excerpt from this book, but I would be willing to bet it was a new story. Because I'll be damned if reading this comic doesn't sometimes feel as if I'm coming in during the second reel of a movie, with some small but crucial details being unfortunately left out of the information on display. Would it have made more sense if I had read the Brave New World material? Maybe, but I doubt it would have made it any better.

There's some sort of shadowy pseudo-government conspiracy involved in something sinister concerning another member of the Manhunter's long-dead Martian race. There are people who I do not recognize doing things for which I cannot ascribe motivations other than those which spring to mind merely by dint of having read almost-identical characters in almost-identical circumstances in literally hundreds of other books. The Martian Manhunter himself shows a bit of interesting characterization in the story -- he's obviously been shaken by recent events in the DCU, enough so that his whole attitude towards humanity has changed, along with his appearance. I remember a story from an old JLI-era annual where it was stated that the Manhunter's true Martian form was something he kept very private and only showed to his closest confidants, so seeing him in his martian form is a good clue for long-time readers that the character has actually undergone a significant change.

But unfortunately, there's just not enough reason given to really care what these changes were. There are elliptical comments made and some fuzzy references to recent crossover events, but as is so often the case with these things, any real character work gets pasted over by fait accompli. The goal is, I would guess, not to explore how or why the character feels what he feels but merely to put the slightly-altered character through his paces, establishing a new status quo for the property without really exerting themselves. That's to be expected, but it is also pretty damn unimaginative. It's foolish to compare a book like this to the Platonic ideal in our minds of what a perfect Martian Manhunter comic book would be, but the temptation is strong in this instance because it is hard to imagine any hypothetical book that could make a less imaginative use of the Manhunter's unique backstory and character.

I doubt I can really lay the book's failure at writer A.J. Lieberman's feet: a book like this is most likely the result of editorial fiat as much as creative inspiration. There's just nothing interesting here, none of the individual quirks or temperamental discrepancies that can make even the most formulaic superhero books enjoyable in the hands of a wily practitioner. Barrionuevo's work brings to mind nothing so much as the phrase "Not Quite Ready For Prime Time". The pages are filled with the kind of exasperating shortcuts and obfuscations used by journeyman artists to cover up a basic lack of craft. All of which points to a book that, far from being a linchpin in a major promotional initiative, appears to have been shuffled into existence because someone thought that there needed to be a Martian Manhunter comic book at this particular time.

Which brings me back to the basic question at the beginning of this review: why did they send me a copy of this comic? Logically, you would expect any comic received in such a manner to be significant in some way -- why else would they want to send it to a blogger if they didn't think there was something about which it was worth it to get the word out? Obviously the book met some sort of internal quality standards or it wouldn't have been published, but it plateaus at a level of basic competence that just scream indifference -- hardly the type of product you would expect to receive a big push in the fickle world of comic book blogging. While the blogosphere has proven valuable to certain indie publishers as a means of attracting crucial buzz for small-scale product launches, it has proven almost negligible in terms of providing any kind of support for underperforming mainstream titles -- else Sleeper and Manhunter would be outselling Wolverine by a factor of ten. I suppose sending a few dozen copies of the book in question to a group of bloggers could never hurt, but I am still left wondering, why? If DC was going to randomly send me a copy of something, why not something I might actually enjoy and want to get behind? Like the owl licking the Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop, the world may never know.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

by Jeffrey Brown

Even compared to his most prolific peers, Jeffrey Brown is stunningly productive. Whereas many other cartoonists of similar stature have tended to recede from the public view, retreating behind a veil of perfectionism while their outputs steadily decreased, Brown has responded to an increasingly high profile by releasing a frankly astounding amount of material in a relatively short amount of time. This wouldn't be especially unusual* if the material wasn't also really good. Some of it has been culled from previously published / distributed minicomic material, but the fact remains that very little of the material in question predates the turn of the century -- an amazing achievement for just five or six years of concentrated work.

It would seem that one of the singular attributes of the generation of cartoonists immediately preceding Jeffrey Brown was a markedly pained attitude toward creating comics. I don't think I need to name any names: we all know who I'm talking about, people for whom creating comics seems like a physically painful ordeal fraught with all kinds of emotional torment and spiritual degradation. I may be exaggerating a bit -- in addition to applying a gross generalization -- but the attitude is prevalent enough to have become an easily-recognized and oft-lampooned stereotype in recent years. Brown's career represents as emphatic a rejection of this "Schopenhauer school" of cartooning as can be imagined: regardless of the occasionally heavy subject matter, he seems to genuinely enjoy the act of drawing and telling stories.

Bighead is about as fun an exercise in pure cartooning as can be imagined. Yeah, it's a superhero parody, with all the hoary familiarity such a genre implies. Yeah, we're treading on similar ground to The Tick or Brickman or Superfuckers and dozens of other books. But, really, I can't fault Brown for his flights of whimsy just because the territory is already well-settled. In terms of their influence on non-mainstream creators, superhero books are too often an unmentionable pink elephant propped in the corner. Again, there seems to be a generational dislocation at work: so many creators who came of age in the early days of the modern alternative scene (basically, anyone who came of age after the spandex set had become the dominant mode) were defined by their distance from and antipathy to superheroes and the "mainstream". The influence of the material on their artistic development became an almost Freudian mess of tangled psychosis -- as explicitly seen in books like Jimmy Corrigan and David Boring (I mean, come on, superhero characters standing in for absent / irresponsible father figures?). Jeffrey Brown seems to have absorbed as many superhero comics as anyone else but he doesn't seem to hate himself for having done so. Bighead takes itself about as seriously as it needs to -- that is, not at all -- and the results are gratifyingly light and frothy.

Hand in hand with Brown's refreshing lack of perfectionist ardor is the way in which he can tailor his art to fit the subject matter of whatever he's doing. Many artists seem trapped by their styles, in such a way as they can only produce material (or, perhaps more to the point, are only happy releasing material) in a single vein. Seth's Wimbledon Green is a great example of a book that, while tremendously enjoyable, seemed to be simply too good for what it was: that is, a stylistic lark. This is obviously a subjective judgment, but to my mind the exacting precision of the drawing style seemed to detract ever so slightly from the atmosphere of delicate whimsy. Aficionados could detect that the material was perhaps slightly looser in execution, but really, who was he fooling? Seth's sketchbook doodles are probably as painstakingly drafted as most people's chapel ceilings. Perhaps its an overt rejection of the assembly-line school of comics creation -- a conscious denial of anything but the most exacting personal standards. Whatever it means, the unwillingness of so many of our very best creators to just loosen up once in a while is really, really annoying**. The results, at least to me, can't help but seem occasionally cramped and more than a bit spiritually constipated.

Something like Bighead could really only have been done in a totally off the cuff manner, or it would have risked becoming nothing more than an elaborately gilded lily. The fact that Brown is able to draw as little or as much as the story requires is a great asset. He is perfectly capable of drawing elaborate illustrations of incredibly intricate layouts, but he knows enough to scale back. In any event, most of his work depends less on individual drawing than the continuity and pacing of extended sequences. There is nothing in Bighead that even comes close to the multi-tiered narrative frameworks deployed in his "Girlfriend Trilogy" of Clumsy, Unlikely and A.E.I.O.U., but there are still clever sequences scattered throughout the stories. Part of the fun is seeing Brown adapt a few small concessions to conventional adventure strips, albeit in his own fashion. A fight with a mummy in an Egyptian tomb switches perspective from panel to panel and plays with panel size in exactly the same way you'd expect a grizzled mainstream veteran to do so. Much of Brown's regular output is defined by a formalist attention to consistent perspectives seen through unvarying panel designs, so the adoption of more "cinematic" techniques seems novel and unique as filtered through Brown's style. Seeing Brown utilize all the traditional tropes -- establishing shots, dramatic close-ups, extreme foreshortening and Kirby-esque action panels -- is not just fun, but actually a fascinating crash-course in modern mainstream storytelling as it has evolved after 60-some years of continuous usage. Seeing the mode simplified through Brown's eyes, the reader can't help but marveling* at just how stylistically simplified and straitened conventional comics storytelling has become. It reminds me, as I think it's probably supposed to, of the kinds of comics you made back when you were a kid, drawing booklets out of folded typing paper and aping the same techniques that were championed by How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way. There's a reason we recognize the style so instinctively: it's an effective way to tell an adventure story. But it's depressing to realize how little the mainstream vanguard has advanced since, oh, 1967.

I find myself picking the book up over and over, flipping through and finding something new on each perusal. This is just a fun book, no two ways about it: Bighead is about as generic a superhero as you could ever imagine, just slightly "off" in a shabby, K-Tel fashion that makes his low-budget adventures all the more enjoyable. The back of the book features a pile of oddball bonus material -- from a spot-on two-page parody of The Dark Knight Returns that makes as good an argument for that volume's overwhelming silliness as anything else I've seen, to a public service announcement on the evils of violence . . . except when fighting criminals, of course. As the book neared its end I found myself hoping that the end would never come. For anyone who isn't ashamed of the fact that they grew up reading horrible comics, Bighead is quite simply a treat from the beginning to end. I for one will be extremely unhappy if Brown never sees fit to continue the adventures of our cranial-enhanced avenger of justice.

*There have been more than a few alt comics creators who have made a lot of noise in a short amount of time by flooding the market with sub-par material. As a matter of fact, the output of a few of those cartoonists is one of the reasons I tended to steer clear of Top Shelf for longer than I probably should have. Most of those guys' careers imploded, anyway.

**Not that they obviously can't do what they want with their talent, but seriously... there is something to be said for being able to hang-loose on occasion. The volume of sketchbook excerpts Chris Ware released a few years back was simply gorgeous, but it was also quite heartbreaking to realize that the man can draw just about anything he wants in any possible style, and yet almost everything he publishes is drawn in the same oppressively, almost ritually simplified and rigidly schematic form. It suits the stories he wants to tell, but jeez, if ever anyone was in need of a Jim Woodring-style acid freak-out . . .

***I guess that's a pun?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Great Comic Book Covers

If there was ever a comic designed to make early Sgt. Fury look like Tolstoy, this is it. A copy of this comic used to hang (might still be hanging) in the back issue case behind the counter of the Comic Empire in Tulsa. Mike, the proprietor, thought that this was the greatest comic book cover of all time, and it's hard to disagree with him. It's not that this book really belonged in the case next to the authentically rare and valuable comics in the case, but it was just to great a book to be left sitting in a box somewhere - there's no hiding this light under a bushel.

A few thoughts:

1) Wouldn't it be difficult to spout all that chewy dialogue with a cigar in your mouth?

2) Why is there a case of dynamite in the middle of a battle zone, anyway?

3) Why does Joe have a bow & arrow in the middle of a World War II battle zone?

4) How can that arrow actually fly?

5) Gotta love those sound effects: C-LPPP!!! (The explosion is so powerful it knocks the exclamation points for a loop!) FLPP! ZZNNG (No exclamation point, sadly.) ZIPP! BLIP!

6) Is "Blast Crazy" supposed to be a positive attribute? Because most people would probably think that being "Blast Crazy" was a bad thing, at least a debilitating illness.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Yeast Hoist #12
Stop Thinking, Start Seeping - Stop Sleeping, Start Living
by Ron Regé, Jr.

Of all the major-league cartoonists, I don't think anyone's work consistently challenges me as much as that of Ron Regé, Jr. Even the most "difficult" cartoonist, after a while, becomes familiar, and even when the subject matter may be abstruse a familiarity of style allows the reader to be propelled along by a more-or-less secure understanding of visual context. There is something about Regé's style that seems, to me, designed to repel the reader, to consciously inhibit the same kind of environmental recognition that makes a cartoonist's most outlandish and intimate conceits ring true in the context of a strip.

Perhaps the key element in my chronic discomfort is the fact that few cartoonists' work is so consciously one-dimensional. It's an interesting effect: almost all of Regé's work is executed with the same unerringly clean and thin ink line. Never having seen him draw, I would hazard a guess that he uses technical pens or even magic markers. There is no other explanation: the idea of anyone producing such a faultlessly even line with a traditional brush is simply fantastic. Varying line weight is such a basic tool in the cartoonist's repertoire that the lack of it can produce any number of disorienting effects. Looking at one of Regé's pages instills a kind of vertigo, a momentary confusion as the eye struggles with the brain to understand the unorthodox composition without benefit of line weight or even -- for the most part -- spotted blacks to create the illusion of depth. Instead, what we see is a static field of depthless dimension, the kind of geometrically ornate design that requires considerable "work" in order to parse.

The latest edition of Regé's ungoing but unorthodox Yeast Hoist series is a sketchbook of sorts, compiling material culled from a period between 1997 and 2002. As with the best sketchbooks, there's a great deal of different material here, providing the reader with many layers of enjoyment. From the casual flip-through that provides a few startling moments to the more concentrated front-to-back absorption, there's enough to provide enjoyment through multiple readings. I don't know whether to be startled or impressed by the fact that Regé's style remains so faultlessly recognizable through the course of the book. There is very much the impression that Regé's style is so effortlessly natural that he can think of no other possible mode -- even offhand doodles and abstract designs are delivered in his unmistakable style. Some artists are chameleons, able to change their style to fit their subject, while others possess the ability to see all subjects through a faultlessly consistent style in such a way as to effectively transform the world.

Like hieroglyphs or early modernist painting, Regé purposefully eschews the illusion of stereoscopic depth in order to create a piece that proudly inhabits a two-dimensional space. The first pages of the book are filled with landscapes -- urban tableaus and pastoral imagery -- and the dichotomy between subject and style creates an engrossing effect. The effort required to translate the imagery into cohesive compositions draws the viewer inward. Some of the most arresting moments in the book occur when brief sequential passages are placed side-by-side on the page with doodles and designs. The way in which the overall volume has been designed is almost reminiscent of an illuminated manuscript, wherein form and function of decorative art placed alongside narrative art are indistinguishable.

Looking at one of Regé's pages it is impossible not to be reminded of Gary Panter, another artist who exploits the page as a depthless plain. But whereas Panter's subject matter is heady and at times even baroque, Regé's work is defined by a conflict between sheer fantasy and mundane pseudo-autobiography. Regé presents a unique case of style elevating limited subject matter beyond the constraints of what could otherwise be considered pedestrian concerns. The way in which he draws is inevitably as interesting as what he actually draws, and the disconnect between material, representative reality and emotionally-charged narrative that lies at the heart of his work can produce a sublime euphoria.

(Purchase the book here. Sorry, no Amazon linky.)

Monday, August 07, 2006

Magic Whistle #10
by Sam Henderson

There's a list of maybe two dozen cartoonists and other various comic book types whose work I will purchase sight unseen, based solely on the strength of their names. That may seem like a lot, but it's not really when you consider just how infrequently many top-shelf cartoonists publish. I'd give my eyeteeth for more Mat Brinkmann comics but it doesn't seem to be happening any time soon, you know?

Sam Henderson is definitely someone who could stand to publish more often for the sole reason that I wish to purchase more of his comic books. This is given the fact, mind you, that I perfectly understand the reasoning behind his frequent absences from the stands. It's cold comfort, perhaps, for an internet critic of my inestimable stature (cough cough) to say that Henderson deserves the opportunity to publish more frequently without having to choose between comic books and eating food, but that doesn't make it any less true.

From the evidence of their output there are quite a few cartoonists working today who have managed to find a more convenient détente between the demands of artistic expression and commercial exigency. There is a very good chance that those elements of Henderson's work which make it so vital and endlessly novel are also elements that work against him in the broader marketplace. He doesn't create graphic novels or long-form serials with ongoing characters. He doesn't use any ongoing characters, really, or at least none that last longer than a few pages. Those cartoonists who have found commercial success in the broader marketplace produce work which is naturally conducive to conventional marketing -- "graphic novel" is a particularly loaded phrase, but part of what it connotes is a comic book of considerable length and narrative depth. How, then, to acclimate a general readership to the virtues of cartoonists who work outside the confines of larger novelistic narrative forms? Henderson is probably one of the best "pure" cartoonists working today, but "pure" cartooning carries limited appeal outside a select group of wonks, aficionados and, um, children. If you were to give the average grown-up reader -- say, someone who was already familiar with graphic novels and amenable to the form -- a copy of a gag-book like Magic Whistle, there's no guarantee that they'd be able to see the sophisticated knowledge of form and craft underlying Henderson's work, or appreciate the subtle mixture of surreal humor and whimsical scatology that fuels the punchlines. Chances are they'd dismiss it out of hand, simply because the way in which puerile / oafish subject matter influences sophisticated exploitation of form is more technical than the average comics layperson can reasonably be expected to understand. This is the reason why Peanuts continues to burn up the sales chart while Krazy Kat remains a kult koncern to the world at large: it's not so much that one is appreciably better than the other, merely that the appeal of the former is far more universal than that of the latter.

So the moral? If Henderson wants to make some dough, he needs to come up with a proposal for some sort of long-form narrative that he can pitch to a New York book editor who doesn't know any better.

This latest issue of Magic Whistle is special to me, as it is the first time (to my knowledge) in my long years of comics commentary and criticism that a quote of mine has landed on the back cover or inside flap of an actual honest-to-goodness book. Right on the back cover, under a long and respectful quote from Publisher's Weekly, there are two words extracted from my review of the last Magic Whistle in the pages of The Comics Journal: "...Wildly inconsistent". Sure enough, when I wrote up the last Magic Whistle, I was fairly critical -- but it is to Henderson's credit that the latest issue is a much more consistent production than the previous. There were a handful of bravura pieces in Magic Whistle #9 but there was also a great deal of padding and sub-par filler material. The signal-to-noise ratio is much better in the new issue. Even the epistolary features designed to explain the provenance of old / dead / unfunny jokes seem a bit crisper this time around: there is something to be said for being able to recycle a joke in such a way that the sheer unfunny-ness of the joke becomes funny in and of itself. Such is the glory of Henderson's obituary for Nixon Fonzarelli, the kind of idea only a twelve-year-old could find funny.

I have to wonder about the origins of the "Under the Sea" strip -- obviously a blatant crib of the Cartoon Network's deconstructionist feature Sealab 2021. I mean, it's not even slightly a question: in the space of fourteen pages, in addition to establishing a setting and cast nearly identical to that of the TV show, Henderson throws in a number of references to specific episodes and plotlines. It's interesting how easily Henderson adapts the series' freewheeling, almost stream-of-consciousness narrative flow. Of all the features in the book, I would most have liked to see a bit of explanatory text for this tale, because on its face it's a really bizarre artifact. it's too similar to previous episodes to be a rejected storyboard, so what gives?

But that weirdness aside, the book is immensely satisfying. The previous issue was the first Magic Whistle to take advantage of the series' new squarebound, more-or-less annual format, but the evidence on display with this new volume seems to suggest that the growing pains which produced such a "wildly inconsistent" affair are a thing of the past. If a yearly dosage of Sam Henderson is all we can hope to receive for the foreseeable future, this is not so bad after all.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Great Comic Book Covers

Paul Smith has always had a strong sense of design, and his covers have always stood out accordingly. The original piece, with Wolverine and Rogue against a black background, was strong enough that Adam Hughes could revisit the motif a decade later to similarly gratifying results. Although we've gotten used to the pin-up style covers over the last decade and a half, at the time the original issue was published the solid black and simple figures would have stood out against a flock of busy, garish, ugly covers.

Unless I'm mistaken this story was one of the first X-Men storylines after Rogue joined the X-Men, back when a new character joining the team was a slightly novel idea and not merely exhausting. Her first costume is still her best costume, with the sleek green catsuit not only serving as effective shorthand for her powers but also the supposedly stealthful nature of her character (remember that?). This was before she was a tomboy sex-kitten, back when she was rocking the hot schoolmarm look.

As for the story itself, I'll be damned if I remember anything much. I believe the X-Men were in Japan? Was this the Wolverine's wedding storyline? You have to wonder just what the editors were thinking when they said OK to Chris Claremont's interminable digressions into Japanese mob culture (or rather, Japanese mob culture as extrapolated by a white dude in his forties who saw a couple of Yakuza movies). At some point all the extraneous elements in Wolverine's origin just became so much gilding the lily -- alright, he's mysterious and dangerous and has a background with the Canadian special forces. But, er, let's make him a samurai, too! Because that worked well in Miller's Daredevil, and there is no such thing as too much of a good thing. And while we're at it we'll make him and Indian warrior and then we'll put him into a thinly veiled Terry and the Pirates proxy and then we'll have him fight alongside Ernest Hemingway in the Spanish Civil War . . . I think Wolverine as a ninja is pretty much the definition of a character "jumping the shark".