Saturday, March 26, 2016

Book Review: Midnighter, Volume 1: Out (DC Comix)

Midnighter, Volume 1: Out
I’ve long found Midnighter to be one of the most interesting characters in the DC Comics universe. While some have dismissed him as a mere Batman doppelganger, there’s a lot more to this rough ‘n’ tumble creature of the night than Bruce Wayne could imagine. Created by one of my favorite writers, Warren Ellis, and artist Bryan Hitch (no slouch himself!) for the WildStorm Comics series Stormwatch, Midnighter earned some degree of notoriety for his status as an openly homosexual anti-hero character.

Unlike the Caped Crusader, Midnighter displays supernatural skills courtesy of bioengineered enhancements that were performed on him at some undetermined point in his youth. Super strength and speed, combined with a souped-up healing factor that places him somewhere on the spectrum between Marvel’s Wolverine and DC’s Lobo, help make Midnighter a force to be reckoned with. Throw in his fighting skills and a preternatural ability (either via a computer chip or supernaturally) to predict the outcome of nearly any close quarters combat he engages in, and Midnighter is nearly unbeatable.

Midnighter, Volume 1: Out

Also different from Bruce Wayne/Batman is Midnighter’s capacity for interpersonal relationships. Throughout his portrayal in Stormwatch and, later, The Authority series, Midnighter was linked romantically with the Superman-like character Apollo. In the recent Midnighter solo series from DC, though, Midnighter has split from his long-time partner and is living the life of a free-wheeling bachelor, suffering the ups and downs of single life. As compared to his previous incarnation in the aforementioned series, this new portrayal of Midnighter takes him out of his once-ubiquitous battle gear and frequently shows him in “civilian” clothes.   

Out is the first graphic novel from the recent Midnighter series, collecting issues one through seven, all originally published in 2015. The book includes a complete story arc that, while going a little ‘arty’ at times with its jumpy plotting and story-telling, nevertheless tells a fine tale of the hero’s attempts to gather up dangerous super-tech that had been stolen from his creator. Fans of gratuitous violence will be rewarded, as Midnighter is possibly the most deadly creation in the DCU short of Lobo, the character reveling in the battle without thinking much at all about the consequences. A character of such extreme power and abilities as Midnighter is difficult to write, but Steve Orlando does a strong job in balancing Midnighter’s alter-ego with his private life, and even manages to throw an unseen plot twist in at the end of the story arc.

Midnighter is an interesting, if controversial character, and I hope that DC continues to support the book and allow the series’ writers and artists to develop the character. Midnighter is an adult-oriented book, not just for the overt violence but also for sexual situations, but in the end it’s an entertaining outing by one of DC’s lesser-known heroes. Grade: B (DC Comics, published February 23, 2016)

Buy or Die, Bucko!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Book Review: Zap Comix No. 16 (2016)

Zap Comix No. 16
When the Reverend was a wee teen back in the dark ages of the early ‘70s, I was enamored of underground comix. I had been raised on a steady diet of Marvel and DC superheroes (Daredevil, Black Panther, The Avengers, and Batman) during my single-digit years, so it wasn’t such a large leap to dive headfirst into characters like Mr. Natural, the Checkered Demon, and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. The day that I discovered Zap Comix is the day that my life took a left turn into a surrealist anti-authoritarianism that I’ve dragged with me well into middle age.

After seeing an advertisement in the back of an issue looking for people to sell comix, I contacted all the major underground publishers and soon became Nashville’s resident “college sales rep” for The Print Mint, Last Gasp, and Rip Off Press. I fed my own growing comix addiction by placing new issues on consignment at Hillsboro Village head shops near Vanderbilt University, using the profits to pay for my own comix. It was a pretty good gig for a year or so as the publishers were cranking out new issues at a prolific rate. About the time that I graduated from high school in 1975, the bottom fell out of the underground comix biz and I drifted into other hustles (like writing…). 

Zap Comix No. 16

Zap Comix was the granddaddy of all undergrounds, the ground-breaking, earth-shaking first shot across the bow that proved that comix were a legit art form, and funny books were not just for kids anymore. Artist/writer Robert Crumb published Zap #1 in 1968, selling copies out of a baby buggy on the streets of San Francisco. The success of the first issue led to Crumb enlisting a number of talented friends to contribute to the second issue. Thus was the Zap collective created – ringleader Crumb along with artists S. Clay Wilson, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, Robert Williams, Victor Moscoso, and Rick Griffin – all of whom would be responsible for creating and carrying Zap Comix into the new millennium.

Through the decades, new issues of Zap Comix would appear more sporadically, often at three-to-five-year intervals between issues, some seven years elapsing between issues fourteen and fifteen. Griffen died in 1991, and artist Paul Mavrides was added to the team when Crumb announced that he no longer wanted to do Zap. The revolutionary publication was honored in December 2014 when a deluxe box set collecting all seventeen issues of Zap Comix was published by Fantagraphics Books. A previously unpublished final issue – Zap Comix No. 16 – was included in the box set as a bonus, and has since been published as a stand-alone graphic novel with fetching Robert Crumb cover art.

Unable to cough up nearly $500 for The Complete Zap Comix Box Set, it was with great anticipation that I ordered up a copy of Zap Comix No. 16. Since I’d owned and/or read virtually the entire run of the publication, I knew that the zine could be spotty and inconsistent – Victor Moscoso’s work generally bored me, and S. Clay Wilson’s shotgun approach to pen ‘n’ ink hits the target as often as it misses – but nothing could have prepared me for the mess that is Zap Comix No. 16. The first issue to include material from all eight Zap artist between two covers, it should have been glorious, but the results often make one wish that some of these guys had retired earlier.

Wonder Warthog & The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers

First on the chopping block is Crumb, who readily admits that he’s out of practice on these strips drawn in 2003 and 2004, and it certainly looks it (the book’s cover, drawn in 2014, is a fine return to form, however). Although Crumb’s storytelling skills remain intact, his art here is crude and hesitant, lacking his characteristic energy and on-page charisma. Sneaking his wife Aline Kominsky-Crumb into the book as its first female artist is less subversive than it is lazy, a way to flesh out autobiographical stories with her flat, unattractive, one-dimensional artwork shoehorned into the panels. I have nothing again distaff artists, but if Crumb wanted to include a woman’s work in this final Zap in order to combat the book’s often-criticized misogyny, perhaps he could have found somebody other than his wife, who jokes that she’s the “Yoko Ono” of underground comix. 

Worse yet are S. Clay Wilson’s contributions to this final issue of Zap Comix. Wilson’s long-running characters like the Checkered Demon and Captain Pissgums were seldom the epitome of subtlety, drawn in a rude and crude B&W style that matched Wilson’s raw but spellbinding storytelling. But the strips here, dated 2006, 2007, and 2009, showcase a significant deterioration of the man’s skills. Wilson suffered severe brain trauma in a 2008 accident, and he has been plagued with health issues since that have left him unable to draw. His 2009 efforts, though, are just bad, simplistic and uglier than normal. One guesses that they were included in order to generate some royalties for the tragically sidelined artist.   

This is not to say that all of Zap Comix No. 16 is bad, as there are a few gems to be found among the sludge. Spain Rodriguez’s stories feature the sort of dense, detailed art and gritty storytelling that he’s long been known for, and his tales of the Road Vultures Motorcycle Club are always welcome. Disturbingly, though, Rodriguez’s art is cluttered with un-erased pencil lines for some reason, and faces in some panels were left inexplicitly un-inked. The final Wonder Warthog story by the legendary Gilbert Shelton is one of the book’s color sections and it’s a real hoot, as is Crumb’s four-color “The Unbearable Tediousness of Being,” which displays a spark of his talent. Shelton’s Furry Freak Brothers story – “Phineas Becomes A Suicide Bomber” – was inked by the artist for the deluxe box set but this version was inked by Paul Mavrides. Either way, it’s a classic Freak Brothers farce with the ever-serious Phineas, as always, as the fool.               

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Overall, I’d have to say that Zap Comix No. 16 is a mediocre collection that might have been so much more. Perhaps his own less-than-stellar work is what caused Crumb to shelf the issue in the first place, and maybe it’s merely the last gasp from a formerly revolutionary group of artists and writers that have long since been eclipsed by the subsequent generations they influenced and inspired to pick up pen and ink.

The trade paperback format is perfect for this sort of collection, and I’d love to see Fantagraphics publish the other fifteen issues of Zap in similar graphic novel form (three or four issues per book) for those of us who can’t cough up half-a-yard for the limited edition box set. Considering the uninspired mix of material found in Zap Comix No. 16, I can only recommend the book for hardcore comix collectors. The rest of you should instead dig up some of the early issues to find out why Crumb called his Zap brethren “the baddest gang of cartoonists ever to wield their crow quills together.” Grade: C (Fantagraphics Book, published February 22, 2016)

Buy (If You Must) From Zap Comix #16

Related Content: Zap The Interviews book review  

Book Review: Fantagraphics' Zap The Interviews (2015)

Zap: The Interviews
Maybe it wasn’t the first underground comic book, but Zap Comix was undeniably the most important and influential title to emerge from the 1960s. Zap’s free-wheeling storytelling and frequently anarchic artwork – which ranged from cartoonish to crude, and from psychedelic to carefully-crafted fine art – shattered the limitations of what a comic book could be. Unabashedly adult in nature, with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll filling its pages, Zap opened the door for comic artists to experiment in the pages of mainstream titles published by DC and Marvel as well as influencing a generation of young creators like Jaime Hernandez (Love & Rockets) and Daniel Clowes (Eightball), among many others.

Zap Comix

The first issue of Zap was published by artist/writer Robert Crumb in 1968, Crumb and his wife selling copies of Zap #1 out of a baby stroller on the streets of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The book kick-started the underground comix business and it wasn’t long until head shops and other counter-culture retailers were stocking titles like Zap Comix, Dopin’ Dan, Young Lust, and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers.

Given the popularity of Zap #1, Crumb decided to open up the book to other artists, enlisting talents like Gilbert Shelton, Spain Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, Rick Griffin, and Victor Moscoso to bring creative diversity to the book. This visionary group of creators became known as the Zap collective and they shared equally in the subsequent success of the book, which saw new issues published sporadically every few years. Even after the underground comix “boom” fizzled out during the mid-1970s due to too many books and not enough talent to sustain them, Zap just kept on truckin’…

Zap Comix #1
Artist Paul Mavrides, known for his incredible work for the Church of Sub-Genius, was brought on board after Rick Griffin’s tragic death in a motorcycle accident in 1991, and Crumb himself left the title in the 1990s. Spain Rodriguez succumbed to cancer in 2012, and health problems have left S. Clay Wilson unable to draw, so it’s unlikely that we’ll ever see another new issue of Zap Comix. Over the course of 15 mind-blowing issues, however, Zap influenced not only mainstream and alternative comics, but also concert posters, album covers, animation, and even fine art as well as introducing timeless characters like Crumb’s incorrigible Mr. Natural, Wilson’s Checkered Demon, and Shelton’s Wonder Wart-Hog to readers.

Zap: The Interviews

In 2014, Fantagraphics Books published an ultra-deluxe box set that includes beautiful reproductions of all 15 issues of Zap Comix as well as a previously-unpublished 16th issue. While the set includes an extensive oral history of Zap as well as an artist portfolio and other heretofore unseen goodies, its hefty $500 price tag puts it beyond the reach of all but the most well-heeled of comics and art collectors. Hopefully Fantagraphics will see its way clear to reprint the comix themselves in paperback versions for those of us of more modest means.

While The Complete Zap Comix box raised the title to fine art status, the set garnering an impressive amount of publicity upon its release, another Zap-related title was published by Fantagraphics around the same time but to much less fanfare. The ninth volume in the company’s acclaimed “Comics Journal Library,” Zap: The Interviews is a highly-collectible tome in its own right. An oversized (10”x12”) trade paperback running some 264 pages, the profusely-illustrated volume collects previously-published interviews with the eight different Zap artists from the pages of The Comics Journal, as well as a number of unpublished interviews, conversations that range from as long ago as 1972 (the first Gilbert Shelton interview) to as recent as 2012 (including what may have been Spain Rodriguez’s final interview).

There’s a lot of meat in the 264 pages of Zap: The Interviews. One might think that Robert Crumb as, perhaps, the most famous of the Zap artists, would receive a lion’s share of the book, but that’s not the case. The erudite and outspoken S. Clay Wilson and Spain Rodriguez receive nearly as much or more ink than Crumb, and only Gilbert Shelton – at a mere fourteen pages – seems to be shorted here. Plenty of each artist’s work is reproduced in the extra-large volume, providing a visual touchstone for readers unfamiliar with an individual Zap contributor’s work.

Robert Crumb & Spain Rodriguez

Crumb’s lengthy interview, from 1988, is both informative and entertaining, and while I personally would like to have seen a more updated conversation with the artist included here, there’s plenty of other material available for those wanting to discover more about Crumb (and, in fact, Fantagraphics publishes numerous Crumb collections worthy of spending your hard-earned coin upon). Other Zap contributors haven’t achieved nearly the level of fame and notoriety of Mr. Crumb, so it was particularly gratifying to find several interviews with Spain Rodriguez – one of my personal faves – by The Comics Journal’s Gary Groth and underground comix historian Patrick Rosenkranz.

Covering Rodriguez’s childhood in Buffalo NY through his time with the Road Vultures motorcycle gang and his eventual move to the West Coast and Zap Comix, there are 50+ pages here on Spain, providing invaluable insight into his art, his left-leaning working class politics, and the overall unique worldview which colored his gritty, often ultra-futuristic art. The section on S. Clay Wilson is also lengthy, but nowhere near as interesting, as multiple interviews spanning a couple of decades tread a lot of same turf, with Wilson often repeating his stories, sometimes with interesting flourishes, and while these conversations do open a window to Wilson’s blood ‘n’ guts style of artwork, they also become exhausting to read.

Rick Griffin & Victor Moscoso

Zap Comix No. 16
The initial interview with Rick Griffin is also somewhat mundane, although subsequent conversations offer some fascinating nuggets. Griffin was already a well-known psychedelic concert poster artist and surfer legend when he hooked up with Zap, but he seems somewhat reticent in sharing himself with his interviewers in the same manner as Rodriguez or Wilson. That’s definitely not the case with Victor Moscoso, whose brash manner and confidence were a refreshing change of pace after slogging through the Griffin material. The oldest of the Zap collective, Moscoso’s psychedelic-tinged fine art style stood out on Zap’s pages, and his conversations here provide a lot of information on both the man and his art.

As mentioned above, Gilbert Shelton – the legendary creator of such beloved comix characters as the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Wonder Wart-Hog, Oat Willie, and others – definitely receives the worst coverage in Zap: The Interviews. With a mere handful of pages, Shelton isn’t given a lot of room to talk compared to the others, a sin considering his status as probably the second-best known and popular underground comix creator. Ditto for the infamous Robert Williams, whose unique vision and style has made his artwork extremely collectible (and with the prices to prove it!). Williams gets only a dozen pages here and while they touch upon his lengthy history and include a smattering of artwork, the brevity of the section doesn’t do the artist justice. Last but not least, several Paul Mavrides interviews not only provide a lot of back history on the influences found in his art, but also showcase the artist’s indelible sense of humor and intelligence.  

The Reverend’s Bottom Line

Those minor cavils about Shelton and Williams aside, Zap: The Interviews is a fascinating, informative, and entertaining collection that serves as an invaluable companion to the collected run of Zap Comix itself. By looking under the hood and gazing deeply into the inner mechanics of the book and its artists, Zap: The Interviews provides important context for each creator’s work.

With individual copies of Zap Comix readily available from eBay and comics shops at not-too-obscene prices; books by Williams, Rodriguez, and Wilson are easy to find with a little digging; and with Robert Crumb’s nearly entire artistic milieu available in multiple paperback volumes, comix fans can patch together an impressive collection of art and stories in no time. Zap: The Interviews is the place to begin, however, the book introducing the larger-than-life talents that created the comix revolution and proving a place in history for their art and efforts. Grade: A (Fantagraphic Books, published January 4, 2015)

Review reprinted from That Devil

Buy or die, bunkie!: Zap: The Interviews

Got money to spend? Buy The Complete Zap Comix Boxed Set from