Wednesday, January 23, 2013

the greatest comics you should be reading, but aren't

We're currently undergoing a bit of a renaissance in self-published / avant garde comics. The combination of the internet and the ease of desktop publishing has allowed small scale innovation to flourish.

We're at the same time at a bit of an all time low in the "mainstream" (i.e. "big 2" direct market) comics. The flow of information the internet allows has made it easy for readers to compare notes on the abundantly clear way in which comic content is driven by editorial rather than aesthetic decisions. This is bizarre actually, because it's made big 2 comics more like Hollywood, in the sense that a) repetition (read: third-rate mimicking) of past success and b) corporate second-guessing of the tastes of a demographic they are manifestly not themselves a part of drive content. This is especially strange because in Hollywood, the motivation for this behavior is the enormous amount of money at risk. Unlike movies, however, comics take very little money and very few participants to produce. So a strategy motivated by the economic structure of one medium seems to have bled into another with a totally different economic structure.

So, mainstream fans, who love i) superheroes, ii) action, and iii) clever exploitation have been left out to dry by their long time suppliers—yet, despite the abundance of other sources for comics, it's hard to tell which might appeal to that mainstream desire for fun exploitation and which will turn out to be too avant garde / weird / inaccessible for the mainstream fan.

So, here's a first pass at a list of comics that might fly under the radar of a mainstream fan, but are worth checking out if they're dissatisfied with the big 2, but want some kind of comic experience to satisfy that itch.

Some criteria I've attempted to satisfy:

1. Series must be ongoing - there must be at least the possibility of new volumes / issues appearing in the relatively near future.

2. Subject matter must be fun exploitation, in the sense of involving action, adventure, superheroes, but not also graphic weird sex and/or violence in too much excess (where we're setting the bar for "too much" here only a little lower than DC seems to find acceptable these days, but still significantly lower than many of the old school "underground comix").

3. Weirdness / "artsiness" must be low enough that one doesn't have to be excited about "use of form" or some other deconstructionist analysis in order to enjoy the comic.

Follow links from the titles if you want to hunt any of these down.


1. Copra (Michel Fiffe)

A superhero comic modeled after the old Suicide Squad (back when it was good), but filled with non-stop psychedelic invention. This comic does everything the big 2 should be doing but aren't—suck Michel Fiffe's big fat dick, DC and Marvel!

2. Decadence Comics (various)

A "comic collective" with a flagship anthology and a bunch of miniseries and short comic collections. The key here is primary participants Lando and Stathis Tsemberlidis, who share an aesthetic commitment to cool Moebius-inspired, politically interesting, but also fun and compelling sci fi. Island 3 or Olympic Games by Lando are great places to start. Stathis' stuff may be a little too psychedelic to satisfy criterion 3, but if you have a high tolerance for psychedelia, check out MOA-192B. Warning = a lot of it's silent, but the images are great.

Small Publisher:

1. Dungeon Quest (Joe Daly / Fantagraphics)

South African Joe Daly's D&D-tribute / stoner adventure is amazingly drawn and super fun to read. Some of the humor is certainly on the weird side (you can't be down on pot smoking, for example, or tiny men who are horny in a "natural" way?) but none of the violence or sexual(?) imagery is anything like as offensive and mean spirited as what goes on in DC these days. bottom line - fun. Supposedly the next volume may be the last, but given the rate at which the series has been progressing, I find that hard to believe.

2. Cursed Pirate Girl (Jeremy Bastian / Archaia)

Beautiful, elaborate art; a fun Alice in Wonderland (with pirates!) story; clever and complex humor. This is ongoing, just incredibly slow (the first half took years, we'll see how long the second half takes).

European, waiting for translation:

1. Dungeon (Trondheim and Sfar / NBM)

I don't know what it is about this series. It's magical in the best kind of way. Maybe Bone is the closest comparison coming out of the US? Anthropomorphic monsters in a sprawling, multi-generational fantasy universe—there's something disney and cute, something dark and Game of Thrones, and something that's just pure fun about it. Just like Bone, Dungeon shows that excitement can be all ages, that it doesn't need to be "dark", that it doesn't need to involve weird sex and trashy behavior.

2. "Cities of the Fantastic" (Schuiten and Peeters / NBM)

So, this one's a bit of a stretch in several ways. It's a little less exploitation and more arty (although there are consistent stories in each issue, they do focus heavily on architecture as a central plot point). Also, although it's technically ongoing in the sense that new issues may (will?) appear, the current English language ones are all out of print, and there's no definitive promise of future translations (though NBM would be a likely source if there were). But these are beautiful, and very compelling in a "HItchcock presents" meets Salvador Dali kinda way. If you see anything in this series for a reasonable price, by all means pick it up. (Oh yeah, and I put the title in quotes since the translation is terrible—future post on that at some point.)

Honorable mention:

Night Business (Ben Marra / self published)

This one's a little too violent / sexually explicit to satisfy 2. On the other hand, it's super fun. Picture the best of the trashy 80s—King of New York meets Taxi Driver by way of Beat It. Marra's at the forefront of the new exploitation movement in self-published comics and Night Business has been his most consistent and wide-ranging title so far . . .though there are some worries about how it will all pan out. Anyway, issues 1 and 2 are supposedly out of print, but Marra showed up with some at a convention recently, so it's unclear how serious to take that. He claimed he was going to finish the story as a graphic novel (?). Bottom line: if you see 'em, grab 'em.

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