Just a few books this month as—even as “just” an attendee—Comic-Con took up an inordinate amount of my time and mental energy, along with reading a dense but fascinating history of underground comix. Appropriately enough for the month of Comic-Con, all my reading was comics-oriented.
Dirty Pictures: How an Underground Network of Nerds, Feminists, Misfits, Geniuses, Bikers, Potheads, Printers, Intellectuals, and Art School Rebels Revolutionized Art and Invented Comix by Brian Doherty
I have only a passing memory or two of underground comix as I was growing up, mainly relegated to those “forbidden fruit” images that blew my mind. But reading this book made me feel that the title—Dirty Pictures—is far beneath the revolutionary stories and art that categorize the underground comix movement. In fact, it’s almost insulting. Yes, there was sex, drugs, sex, violence, and sex in the early undergrounds; but the revolutionary part comes from the artists involved and how they threw off the yolk of comics oppression and rose above the tame and mundane world of mainstream comics to tell personal, provocative, and sometimes shocking stories. The art—sometimes startling and fresh, sometimes stale and amateurish—was secondary to the storytelling. Underground comix exploded the medium and took it in an entirely different direction, making budding—and professional—artists realize they could tell stories about anything. I sincerely believe superhero comics artists such as Frank Brunner and Jim Starlin were totally inspired by the underground artists … it shows in Dr. Strange, Howard the Duck, and Captain Marvel and Warlock. It was called “cosmic” over at Marvel, but we all knew it had a different meaning.
Brian Doherty’s exhaustive study of underground comix is a personality-driven one, told in chronological order. It’s a dense and fascinating read, one that took me just about a month to get through in small, nightly installments, but one that I throughly enjoyed. I have always admired the drawing skills of R. Crumb, even if some of his subject matter—The Book of Genesis Illustrated, for example—is not exactly my cup of tea. Art Spiegelman definitely emerges as “king of the hill” in this book, with, of course, his amazing memoir Maus, but the book also pays notice to how undergrounds evolved from those early sex, drugs, and violence days to much more personal work, like that of Lynda Barry and Alison Bechdel, both “daughters” of the undergrounds.
The other story told here is how the undergrounds carved out their own non-traditional distribution network, for better or worse. Books were sold via head shops (along with the direct sales market for mainstream comics). I guess no one knows how many hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—of copies were sold (particularly those featuring work by Crumb), and how many artists were stiffed of their rightful royalties.
One major drawback to this book: no images. It’s difficult to imagine telling the story of a graphic phenomenon without actually showing any of it. I suppose the rights to some of these artists’ work would be difficult to navigate, but like the recent book American Comics: A History, if you’re going to tell the story of a visual medium, you have to show examples. One other thing: Author Doherty has a bad habit of writing in lists, as you can tell from the run-on subtitle of this book. It tends to calm down as the book goes on, but it’s annoying when he does it and it sticks out like a sore thumb.
Fantastic Four: Full Circle by Alex Ross
This new graphic novel by Alex Ross is a triple threat: a throwback, a leap forward, and a welcome addition the Fantastic Four mythos. FF is my all-time favorite comic book (at least the Lee-Kirby 100+-issue run, although the John Byrne 60+-issue run was pretty great, too) and it’s nice to see someone doing something great with them again … the last few years at Marvel, the FF has been awful. Once they let the kids take over the book, it went incredibly downhill, even though the FF has always been about family. But I digress.
Ross’s story harkens back to what many people regard as THE classic FF story, issue #51, “This Man … This Monster!” by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, which tells the tale of a scientist who steals the powers and appearance of the Thing. He gets access to the Baxter Building, hoping to kill Reed Richards, who he considers to be a gloryhound. He encounters Mr. Fantastic testing his new portal to the Negative Zone. With the help of the ersatz Thing, Reed tethers himself to Earth while exploring the Zone, but when the tether breaks the fake Thing (real name: Ricardo Jones), realizes Richards is a selfless hero and saves him, sacrificing his own life. Full Circle begins with the return of Jones’s body to Earth, filled with negative energy beings, and takes off from there, necessitating a visit to the Negative Zone for all four members of the FF. (No spoilers, please!)
That’s the throwback part. Ross’s art style is the leap forward. For a while, I had become bored with the artist’s cover work, mainly for Marvel over the past few years on titles such as Captain America and Iron Man. Ross had a bad habit of making the most of reflective surfaces, like Cap’s shield and Shellhead’s armor, overly noodling and rendering them to the point of distraction. His art style on Full Circle is a combination of layouts that evoke pure Jack Kirby (the two-page spread showing Annihilus is a stunner, reminiscent of an FF Annual #6 page, and one splash page is a homage to FF #7), and a new drawing style for the artist: Lo and behold, this book is NOT fully-painted in the usual Ross style. It looks like pencil and ink art combined with a coloring style that includes a black-light style palette, some faded 1960s dot-pattern printing, and incredibly vibrant comic book coloring. It’s a very different—and effective—look. The only minor quibbles I have with the art—which is really incredible at times (he even manages to make Reed Richards look heroic)—is I don’t like his version of the Human Torch (I still prefer Kirby—and Byrne’s—old line-filled flamehead), and I’m not super-keen on Ross’s use of thin black panel borders (although I realize the normal white borders would be incredibly distracting). With so much going on on every page, a little separation would help sometimes.
Story-wise, this is a worthy companion piece to FF #51, and adds to the appeal of the original story (Ross is also the writer, and he’s a surprisingly economical one). This is also the first of a series of graphic novels from Marvel Comics and Abrams ComicArts, with a new imprint called Marvel • Arts. I can’t wait to see what they do next. I’d love to see Ross tackle either Galactus or Doctor Doom—or both!—in another FF story, just as long as he keeps the reflections to a minimum, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem with this new art style.
Like I said earlier, this is a great Fantastic Four story and comes in two editions, a “regular” hardcover for $25.00 and a deluxe, limited edition, slip-cased Diamond Previews version for (I believe) $40.00, which includes a separate print by Ross, in an envelope pasted into the back of the book.
Mighty Marvel Masterworks: Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 3 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
This is primo Spider-Man, from the time period when Stan Lee begrudgingly allowed artist Steve Ditko to have plotting credit. I really think issues 26 through 33 are Ditko’s apex on the series, along with his two annuals, and this third Mighty Marvel Masterworks reprints Amazing Spider-Man 20 through 28 plus Annual #2. Both Lee and Ditko are firing on all cylinders here, and I especially love the two-part Green Goblin/Crimemaster story from issues #26-27, and the Dr. Strange team-up from Annual #2. I imagine the next volume of MMMW will probably wrap up Ditko’s run on Spidey, with issues 29 through 38. I have read these stories so many times before, but the new covers by Michael Cho on all these volumes somehow make them fresh and new, at least through my eyes.
Jonna and the Unpossible Monsters Vol. 1 & 2 by Chris Samnee, Laura Samnee, and Matthew Wilson
I’ve been a huge fan of Chris Samnee’s art from the first time I encountered it, way back in 2005 when Oni Press released Capote in Kansas, written by Ande Parks, a true crime graphic novel telling the tale of Truman Capote’s investigation into the murder of a family in rural Kansas, leading to what eventually became his book, In Cold Blood. I followed Samnee from then on, through one of the best runs of Greg Rucka’s Queen and Country (also published by Oni), and onto Daredevil with Mark Waid, along with Black Widow and Captain America runs with that writer. Samnee is currently doing two books, Fire Power with Robert Kirkman for Image/Skybound, and this one with his wife, Laura Samnee, and color artist Matthew Wilson, Jonna and the Unpossible Monsters.
Also published by Oni Press (and hopefully continued to be published by them; the publisher is a bit of a hot mess right now and there’s some questions as to whether or not how committed they are to actually publishing comic books), there are currently two collected volumes of Jonna, which are comprised of issues 1 through 8 (four issues in each book) of the ongoing series. It’s the story of two sisters, Rainbow and Jonna, who search for their father in a post-apocalyptic world where giant monsters have taken hold. Rainbow is the older one, quiet, sensitive and thoughtful, whereas Jonna is a force of nature, a mini-Incredible Hulk, who has somehow become super-strong and invulnerable since getting lost in the woods pre-apocalypse.
I love the characters in this book, which was created by the Samenes as something they could give to their three daughters to read (their girls are also major inspirations for the characters), but most of all, I love the art. This is absolutely pure cartooning on Samnee’s part, playing into all his wheelhouses, including dynamic figure drawing and his love of kaiju, Japanese-inspired monsters. There’s also major world-building here and Matthew Wilson’s coloring lends a whole other form of art on top of Samnee’s pencils and inks. Both these books are very quick reads, because the Samnees just shut up at times and wisely let Chris’s art do all the storytelling. I sincerely hope this is able to continue to its ultimate planned conclusion, especially since Oni Press is such a dumpster fire right now. It’s an absolutely magical story with great art and characters.
Bone: 20 Years Cover Gallery & Documentary by Jeff Smith
This slim hardcover book features all the covers for Bone by Jeff Smith (regular series, graphic novel collections, and Scholastic color reprints) alongside a timeline of the history of one of the most successful self-published comic series of all time. It also contains a DVD of the Emmy Award-winning documentary, The Cartoonist: Jeff Smith’s Bone and the Changing Face of Comics. Published in 2011, I just happened to see Smith sign a copy at his booth at Comic-Con 2022, and asked him what it was. While I was familiar with the documentary, I had never seen this book, and I’m so glad I asked, because Jeff gave me a copy.
It’s a wonderful trip down memory lane on the history of Bone and Jeff’s experiences in writing, drawing and publishing the series and a great addition to my Bone collection, which includes a first printing of Smith’s Bone One Edition that I got in San Diego in 2004. I still remember the “wall” of books Smith set up in his booth, selling out of (I think) 400 copies in one weekend. Bone is a great series, and while I do admire the color reprint series that Scholastic published as their first book in their young adult graphic novel line, Graphix, I still prefer Smith’s original black and white version. Like Chris Samnee’s work mentioned above, it’s pure cartooning at its very best.