Treasured Stories: “Smalltown Stardom” (1999)

« I’m going down to the Dew Drop Inn / See if I can drink enough / There ain’t much to country living: sweat, piss, jizz and blood » — Warren Zevon, Play It All Night Long

Kevin Nowlan (b. 1958, Chandron, NE) is one of those artists whose style I’ve always admired, and I’m far from alone in this sentiment. However, when it comes to what I think he should be applying his tremendous talent to, I’m squarely in the minority. Most people would evidently have him drawing Batman or the X-Men or other spandex fanboy favourites… but I feel there’s far more to him. He’s too good for the mainstream comics industry as it exists.

Always a meticulous artist he’s slow as (anti-gravity?) molasses in February, but while that’s led to a relatively modest body of work, it’s all solid. Even early in his career, his path was set, as evidenced by this bit of biography that appeared along with the opening instalment of his short-lived fantasy series, Grimwood’s Daughter (written by Jan Strnad) in Dalgoda no. 2 (Dec. 1984, Fantagraphics):

He discovered that working as gun-for-hire, illustrating scripts for which he had no respect, turning out more art than he could comfortably (and conscientiously) handle, and being forced by publishing schedules to allow as four artists to ink a single story, was artistically debasing and depersonalizing.

Like other creators (say, Adam Hughes and Frank Frazetta, for instance) of the popular but leisurely persuasion, he’s got imitators that can produce at five times his rate of speed. Good; let them take care of the superhero stuff.

Nowlan’s always possessed a sure hand with wry understatement, but he’s not a writer, and that’s a thorny problem when lacking a reliable accomplice to handle that part of the equation. So Nowlan’s done more than his share of covers, pinups and inking jobs.

Ah, but then along came Alan, whom you’ve all met. That hirsute prankster from Northampton understood. He had in his mind’s eye just what Mr. Nowlan needed to truly stretch out and shine, the absurd deeds of Jack B. Quick, Boy Inventor.

JBQ was supposed to be one of a quartet of regular features appearing in the Moore-scripted anthology title Tomorrow Stories, but Nowlan didn’t last long on a schedule, and there are but a handful of JBQ tales, all excellent, capped by the fitting double-length finale, I, Robert. (Tomorrow Stories Special no. 1, Jan. 2006). The feature was (for the most part) replaced by an unfunny waste of Hilary Barta‘s talent, a woeful would-be Plastic Man ersatz, Splash Brannigan. Alan Moore can wring humour out of nearly anything, but as Splash and (even worse) The First American show, superhero parodies are his Waterloo.

JBQ, on the other hand, provides values rarely encountered, let alone appreciated, in mainstream American comics: deadpan, understated humour, surreal but non-cloying whimsy, and a rigorous, steadfast adherence to the mechanics of internal logic, no matter how outlandish things get. In prose, one might chance upon that sort of approach in the works of Marcel Aymé or R.A. Lafferty. But even there, it’s hardly routine. Oh, and given that it’s Alan Moore we’re dealing with, it’s a huge bonus that the JBQ stories are quite rape-free!

But let’s commence from the top, with the dizzying tale of Smalltown Stardom (Tomorrow Stories no. 1, Oct. 1999, America’s Best Comics). No need to shove, there’s plenty of room at the trough!

Find out more about the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta!

Is it just me, or can you also picture Thomas Dolby as a grown-up Jack?

-RG

Tentacle Tuesday: It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a Tentacle!

« A kryptonian octosaur — the most fearsome creature of my long-dead home planet — here — on earth! »

Since Batman was already awarded a Tentacle Tuesday back in April (see Tentacle Tuesday: All Aboard the Batmarine!), it is time to allocate one to the other superhero that crops up all the freaking time, namely good old “Supes” (for those who are on familiar terms with him). I won’t hide from you that I have very little interest in the adventures of the aforementioned character, but I made a pledge to follow tentacles wherever they may lead me. The octopus of comics demands sacrifices!

The Man of Steel. The Last Son of Krypton. The Son of Jor-El. Metropolis’ favorite son. The Man of Tomorrow. Champion of the Oppressed. The Big Blue Boy Scout. The iconic Cape. The definitive Flying Brick. The Big Good of The DCU. The Superhero.

[source]

First, we have a number of inside pages of varying interest, depicting tentacles both organic and mechanical —

A page from The Superman Super-Spectacular!, scripted by Edmond Hamilton, pencilled by Curt Swan and inked by George Klein, was published in Action Comics no. 309 (February 1964).
A page from The Demon Under the Red Sun!, scripted by Otto Binder and illustrated by Al Plastino, was published in Superman no. 184 (February 1966).
The Demon Under the Red Sun!, part two. Superman wields his rapier-like wit to defeat the poor beastie. This was years before the Flying Spaghetti Monster!
A page from The Power of the Parasite, scripted by Jim Shooter and illustrated by Al Plastino, was published in Action Comics no. 361 (March 1968).
A panel from The Monster Who Unmasked Superman!, scripted by Cary Bates, pencilled by Curt Swan and inked by Murphy Anderson, was published in Action Comics no. 431 (January 1974).
The Monster Who Unmasked Superman!: aggressive tentacle grabbery ensues.
Page from Balance of Power!, scripted by Len Wein, pencilled by Dick Dillin and inked by Dick Giordano, was published in Justice League of America no. 111 (May-June 1974).
A page from …With But a Single Step!, scripted by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by Gil Kane, was published in Action Comics no. 545 (July 1983).

As a tastier, second part of our programme, I offer you an intriguing cover by Dave Gibbons:

Superman Annual no. 11 (September 1985)

And a page (or three) from what co-editor RG calls “the ultimate Superman story” (and I will absolutely take his word for it) — For the Man Who Has Everything… scripted by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons.

The tentacle mantle is taken up by other characters — pesky, clingy little buggers, aren’t they? « It’s called a Black Mercy. It’s something between a plant and an intelligent fungus. It attaches itself to its victims in a form of symbiosis, feeding from their bio-aura. Why, it gives them their heart’s desire…. », explains Mongul, the ‘benefactor’ who got Superman into this spot of trouble.

Mongul gets his comeuppance! And his heart’s desire of world domination, courtesy of the Black Mercy.

¤ ds

Hallowe’en Countdown III, Day 28

« As worthless a collection of crackpot notions and harebrained theories as I’ve ever seen in print! » — Graymatter McCogitator III, Chairman, National Academy of Very Smart Persons

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This Oliver Cool strip (we featured another one a couple years back) saw print in the October 1976 issue of Young World. While both strip and publication are just about forgotten, they’re worth a look… but then I have a soft spot for comics produced outside the comics industry proper (if you can call it that); in many cases the ‘product’ reaches a wider audience, but the tradeoff is that it’s a far more casual public.

I’ll readily concede that I’m pretty forgiving when it comes to the scripting of strips aimed at young readers, as the authors are forced to navigate a myriad of oft-needless and downright asinine hurdles in their efforts to amuse, entertain and, yes… even enlighten.

Oliver Cool’s creator and delineator, cartoonist Tom Eaton (1940-2016), as he was born in Wichita, Kansas, inevitably passed through greeting card maven Hallmark‘s art department (as did Brad Holland, Robert Crumb and Russell Myers), going on to work as an art editor for Scholastic Book Services, who issued several of his books in the 70s.

Apparently, though, if he’s to be remembered for anything, it may be for his extended stint as resident cartoonist of scouting magazine Boys’ Life (1984-2015), most significantly on The Wacky Adventures of Pedro, featuring the mag’s ‘mail burro‘, introduced in the 1950s. Take a gander at this (naturally) eye-opening article by R.C. Harvey on the subject.

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This is Young World Vol. 13, no. 8 (Oct. 1976). Speaking of the Winchester Mystery House, you owe it to yourself to read Alan Moore‘s tour-de-force Ghost Dance (Swamp Thing no. 45, Feb. 1986, DC), illustrated by Stan Woch and Alfredo Alcala, the definitive WMH spooky tale. In the context of Moore’s American Gothic cycle, it felt a bit incidental, practically a non sequitur, but it’s damn powerful stuff. Psst: check it out here.

Bonus-wise, here’s a pair of recent-ish Pedro strips. At this point, Eaton’s crisp line and meticulous layout bring to my mind the qualities of another Midwestern cartooning wunderkind, Rick Geary.

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Here’s a moving obituary for this fine man.

-RG

Tentacle Tuesday: Your Basic Contemporary Tentacle

Today’s Tentacle Tuesday veers away from more traditional tentacles and such, straying into more current territory where normal octopuses fear to tread. In a battle between a member of the Octopoda and a Lovecraftian horror, the latter would indubitably win…

Exhibit no. 1: a painting by Julián Totino Tedesco that uses the classic combination of sexy and frightening. It was used as the cover of Creepy no. 21 (Dark Horse Comics, August, 2015)…

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And here’s the actual cover:

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I think adding « NEXT STOP: TERROR » was a tad unnecessary, not to mention cheesy. Isn’t a girl with a tentacle coming out of her face terrifying enough? Dark Horse pompously describes this issue as « featuring spooky sequential storytelling from graphic greats », promising we’ll be « sweating with sickening satisfaction », proving that there *is* such a thing as too much alliteration.

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Next up is a charming bibliophile, who looks mournful rather than scary.

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« Stop interrupting while I’m trying to write! » Providence no. 11 (December 2016). Century Variant art by Raulo Caceres, a Spanish comic artist.

No-one will be surprised to find out that Providence (12 issues published from 2015 to 2017), written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Jacen Burrows, is meant to be considered as belonging to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. In his 2013 interview with Pádraig Ó Méalóid, Moore had pointed out that Providence required a staggering amount of research on his part, and that he had been « living and breathing » Lovecraft while writing it. The following exchange illustrates this research-focused approach:

AM: I’m even trying to check out what the weather was like, which is difficult to establish other than in broad generalities, but I can at least sort out what the sky looked like, and what the phases of the moon were – which is something that Lovecraft used to take pains to do, so I feel that I should as well.

PÓM: Find out if the moon was gibbous, or something like that?

AM: Yes, that was it, he used to – yeah, gibbous, the gibbous moon, which is nearly, what, three-quarters full, waxing or waning?

PÓM: Yeah, three-quarters full. It’s a wonderfully Lovecraftian word.

AM: In one of his stories he changed all the dates in it because he found out that a gibbous moon hadn’t happened on the day that he said it had. He said, ‘this is a lesson for all aspiring writers of fiction.’ And I’ve taken that to heart.

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Finally, we have another Dark Horse entry:

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Hellboy: Seed of Destruction no. 2 (1994).

The sketch for the cover (1993):

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Now we know what’s behind the hand-and-sword symbol!

Hellboy: Seed of Destruction, the first Hellboy mini-series (4 issues, March-June 1994), was plotted/illustrated by Mike Mignola and scripted by John Byrne. (It was also the basis for 2004’s Hellboy movie, which you can safely ignore, IMHO.) You can read the whole thing here. The individual issues were collected in a paperback in 1994, which also contains a couple of bonus stories from various sources.

The insides have sufficient tentacles to please even the pickiest, most tentacle-crazed reader:

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~ ds

 

Tentacle Tuesday: Adventure and Levity

There’s only two Tentacle Tuesdays left in the year after today. Well, let’s not bashfully bury our tentacles in snow and get on with it.

I don’t think Tove Marika Jansson, Swedish novelist, painter, illustrator and of course comic strip artist, needs much in the way of introduction. Merely one word is necessary, and that word (more of an exclamation, really) is “Moomin!” But did you know Snork-Maiden and Moomin-Troll once had to grapple with an octopus?

Montréal’s Drawn and Quarterly is currently « reworking classic Moomin stories in full colour, with a kid-proof but kid-friendly size, price, and format » (to quote their website) for their Enfant collection. « Enfant » means « child », but I think any adult with a sense of humour and just a pinch of childlike innocence will enjoy these stories.

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This page is from « Moomin and the Comet » (although I prefer to call it « Muumipeikko ja pyrstötähti »… if I could only pronounce it!) by Tove Jansson and and Lars Jansson, her brother and writer and occasional illustrator of the Moomin comic strip. Published in July 2013 by Drawn & Quarterly, originally published on April 9th, 1958 in London’s The Evening News.

Incidentally, isn’t this photograph of Tove Jansson lovely?

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So far, there’s something like 12 books published, and D&Q are releasing one or two additions to the collection every year. It’s the only thing I consistently buy from them (well, pretty much the only thing they publish that interests me). Highly recommended if you have any children in your life… and even more if you don’t!

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The Bojeffries Saga (written by Alan Moore and drawn by Steve Parkhouse) concerns itself with a loosely-tied group of relatives all of whom are supernatural and/or insane and some of whom have vaguely Slavic names, for added hilarity. The family consists of the two uncles Zlüdotny (a werewolf and a vampire); a nuclear baby (whatever that means); the close-knit trio of father, daughter and son, respectively Jobremus, Ginda, and Reth Bojeffries; and last but not least, grandpa Podlasp, whose tentacles you can admire below. Not, it’s not “Podslap”, although he does slap people on occasion.

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The first Bojeffries tale, « The Rentman Cometh », appeared in black and white in British Quality Communications anthology Warrior, to be more precise Warrior no. 12, August 1983. Here you have it in glorious (and appropriately stomach-churning) colour thanks to a reformatted & coloured (by Kenneth Smith) reprint in Flesh & Bones no. 2, 1986 (Fantagraphics).

The main… err, hero… of this tale is Trevor Inchmale, a fastidious pain-in-the-ass bureaucrat, who, whilst day-dreaming of glory, accidentally discovers the existence of a  tenant who owes the council £32,000 in rent arrears. Guess who the tenant is? And guess what happens to Inchmale? (Hint: a flower pot is involved.)

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The back cover of Flesh & Bones no. 2, 1986 (Fantagraphics). Getting to spend a little time with Dalgoda (Jan Strnad and Dennis Fujitake) and then visiting with the Bojeffries? Yes, please!

I have The Bojeffries Saga collection issued in 2014 by Topshelf Productions in collaboration with Knockabout Comics. Mr. Parkhouse calls it « the complete and final edition », so who am I to argue with that? He also says, in his introduction, that « throughout its entire run the Bojeffries has been sheer, unmitigated fun. It’s been tough, it’s been demanding – but the end result has always made me laugh. »

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Let’s end on a properly horrible (or at least horripilating) note.

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This could be part of a pretty convincing anti-smoking campaign. Gasp!, 1994; cover by John Totleben (a recycled painting of his from 1992, actually).

In 1994, Quebecor Printing sponsored Gasp!, a sampler of some independent titles (and not necessarily anything to do with horror, despite what the cover suggests). Its contents are a bit of a hodge-podge, with some highlights and some clunkers. You can get more information about the authors and stories within here.

A group of octopuses, by the way, is called “consortium”, although “octoposse” would perhaps make more sense.

Signing off,

~ ds