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July 10, 2012

That’s in Print?!: Key Graphic Classics Now Available

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Without the current renaissance in graphics publishing, older and odder gems would wallow in obscurity. Fortunately, in this new market, numerous publishers are exploring some of the more obscure texts from the history of comics. These reprints are from rare materials that previously have been largely inaccessible to most comics devotees. Fans may read about them, hear of their influence or importance to the form but never be able to lay hands (or eyeballs) on the originals. These new editions save these masterworks from obscurity and allow new generations to have access to them. Some of the best work appearing on the graphic scene may well be discoveries from the past.

No Words, Lots of Story
Wordless books, experimental narratives from the 1930s–1960s, are one of those elusive items that are often referenced but are difficult to find. Everyone sees them in Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Will Eisner expressly mentions them as inspiration for his first graphic novel, A Contract with God. They sound cool as hell but where do you find them? Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels is an exquisite solution to this question. Featuring the work of Franz Masreel, Lyn Ward, Giacomo Patri, and Laurence Hyde, editor George A. Walker has arranged a powerful collection of politically and socially charged wordless fiction.
 
None are simple love stories; they are battles against social conformity and tyrannies of state and spirit. These are not typical graphic novels, at least not as the term is used now. Obviously, they have no words, but they are also prints, not drawings, which gives them a unique gravitas. With a single panel on each page, at times it can be difficult to slow down and savor each one, but there is plenty to go back to on rereading and the edition is just great. The editors have provided an excellent introduction to printmaking and some of the key mediums, such as wood and linoleum, which were used to make these works, as well as putting them in historical context. It is printed on high-quality paper stock, which makes the book heavy enough to brain somebody but really lets the exceptional printing shine. These are challenging works of fiction and it is fascinating to see how the concerns of today are anticipated by the progressives of the past. It is incredible how much story can be told and how much emotion conveyed with no narrative text or dialogue.
 
Dirty Habits
Tijuana bibles are another of those graphics/comics ephemera you hear about but never really handle. The term was, for a generation, synonymous with the smutty: that grimy coarse thrill for the little boy in every man. With the current generation of graphics fans being raised on hentai, titillating toons are not a foreign concept, but the idea of Grandpa (or, God help us, Grandma) getting a thrill out of a dirty comic of Flash Gordon or Dick Tracy is just too weird. Prepare to have your mind blown by the diversity of the ensemble in Tijuana Bibles: Art and Wit in America’s Forbidden Funnies, 1930s–1950s, from Simon & Schuster. It is edited by Bob Adelman, with an introduction by Art Speigelman and commentary by Richard Merkin, all of which put the books into fascinating context and explain the historically outdated jokes and suggestions at work here.
 
This is simply the book on the subject. The reproductions are fantastic and there are plenty of intimate details to be seen. A cautionary note is in order here: This book is not for every collection, public or personal. The commentary and essays classy it up a bit, but these cartoons are very specifically pornographic. Very few public libraries could get away with having it even on their Adult Graphics shelves. On the bright side, it should be OK for most college or universities, since the patron would, almost by definition, be over 18.
 
The range of actors whose gyrations are portrayed is simply stupefying. There is imagined fornication for W.C Fields, Donald Duck, Ingrid Bergman, Bonnie Parker, Lou Gehrig, and a group effort by all four Marx brothers. It is a seamy social history of the dirty part of the American imagination worked out in course black line pocket books.
 
Plenty of Spirit (Eisner Is a Genius)
DC has been publishing The Spirit Archives for years now. Starting the series in 2000, they are due to come out with volume 26 in late June of this year. So far, they have been able to keep an incredible number of them in print and available new through most booksellers. The handful of titles that are not available new can be easily found through the used book market online. All told, that complete 26-volume set runs between $1,200 and $1,400, which is a hit on any budget, even for the genius of Eisner. A simpler and cheaper option can be found in The Best of The Spirit, which runs for under 15 bucks.
 
This single volume provides just enough of a taste of The Spirit to understand the magic of it and start readers coveting that 26-volume set. This “best of” introduces not only the characters but also the worldview, that noir that Eisner used as a backdrop for his breakneck narratives. There are gunnys and molls and international criminals, but most compelling are the stories of little people caught up in things bigger than themselves. The art is clear and clean with the assured draftsmanship and technical excellence that Eisner makes look so easy, yet there is still a great deal of darkness lurking in the panels. This book is an excellent sample of the dynamic art wedded to compelling stories, and it confirms Eisner’s reputation at every turn.
 
Birth of a Form (Eisner Is Still a Genius)
After the success of The Spirit, at the age of 61, Eisner entered into a new creative phase and, inspired by Masareel, Ward, and other wordless novelists, created A Contract with God, reportedly coining the term graphic novel as a marketing ploy to try to interest major publishers. At the time, nobody would touch it. Since then, it has been in print for 30 years and is currently published by the prestigious W.W. Norton & Co. A good edition of just that first book is available as an inexpensive paperback, but for a bit more, they have a nice hardcover with two future ruminations on Eisner’s fictitious Dropsie Ave. All of the noir is stripped away, leaving raw humanity acting its epics and foibles against a background of the tenements.
 
Eisner mined his own past in these works, and the autobiographical revelations energize the books. Life can be rough on Dropsie Ave. There are betrayals, seductions, poisonings, and rapes. There are conniving characters and broken men, but there are also plenty of simple folk trying to get by and make a better life for their families. It is really incredible stuff and a key document that made much of contemporary graphic novel publishing possible, especially in the case of works that were never serialized but exist in the long form alone.
 
Raw, Brutal, Brilliant
At first glance, Fletcher Hanks’ work resembles comics folk art. The publication of I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets by Fantagraphics is a perfect example of publishers saving comics from obscurity. Hanks’ figures are blocky, the anatomy can be clumsy, and the writing is simplistic, yet on each page there is at least one panel that takes your breath away with its energy and power. It is raw material, sure, but it is raw because it comes from the very genesis of superhero comics, when the form was just beginning to gel.
 
Hanks created comics from 1939 to 1941, then more or less dropped off the face of the earth. He did not become a household name for his work, and he froze to death in a park in New York City alone and seemingly friendless. Still, he was a part of the creation of the language of American comics. His stories are cut and dry, with elaborate punishments visited upon the grand transgressions of his literally earth-shattering villains. There are terrifying images amidst his clunky compositions and strange leering grimaces in the faces of the heroes and villains alike. On top of all these aesthetic challenges and rewards, they are great stories, incredibly trite but lively with a passionate definition of right and wrong, which gives them an infectious dynamism and excitement.
 
Shock, Horror, Subversion
EC Comics are lauded up and down, but how many people can actually afford to own any? And of those who do, who takes them out of the plastic and actually reads them? Enter Gemstone Publishing’s incredible EC Archives. This is a deep list with three volumes each of Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science, and Two Fisted Tales, two volumes of Shock Suspenstories, as well as single volumes of Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear, Frontline Combat, and Crime Suspenstories. Purists will complain that they have been recolored, but every effort was made to keep the tone of the original, and the new prints just look so fantastic it is hard to argue with the results.
 
The art is lush and lurid, with pinup girls and nightmarish monsters often hand in hand. Created by Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein, EC’s New Trend is an incredible run of comics. It is all here, rotting corpses, severed heads, murder, mayhem, loose morals, and high living. You’ll find everything that got EC in trouble, as detailed in David Hadju’s Ten Cent Plague. These are socially challenging stories as well. Shock Suspenstories, the anthology title that offered a grab bag of crime, horror, and science-fiction stories, also created a new type of story, the EC “preachy.” These were explicitly social commentary stories featuring issues of the day, like racism, jingoism, drug addiction, anti-Semitism, and juvenile delinquency (being sympathetic to the delinquent). These stories challenge the establishment and rail against many of the social injustices that were hidden in the fabric of the halcyon dreams of the ’50s. Outside of the “preachies,” amidst the flying saucers and desperadoes fleeing through the desert handcuffed to a corpse (see Shock Suspenstories Vol. II), there was still commentary about society being made. Even the war comics are boldly antiwar. They hammer at the futility of armed conflict and not only its tragic loss of life but its dehumanizing influence on the men who engage in combat all while the United States was engaged in the Korean War. Perhaps it was these messages, as well as the dripping bloody head, that drove the censors of the day to bring about EC’s ultimate demise.
 
Future Visions of the Past
There are further titles like these due out in the near few months that are definitely worth looking for. Fantagraphics will be publishing a second volume of Fletcher Hanks’s work, You Shall Die by Your Own Evil Creation!, in June. They are also coming out with Supermen: The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1939–1941 later this month. The latter title promises oddments from Hanks, Eisner, Kirby, and many more. Finally, Titan is publishing its anthology The Best of Simon and Kirby in May with the goal of showcasing the innovative work of one of the finest creative teams in comic book history. Not one of these books would have been considered commercially viable 10 years ago.
 
This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are always going to be compilations out there of well-known material that will include material like The Yellow Kid, Little Nemo in Slumberland, and Pogo. Instead, these are titles that, without the current momentum of graphic publishing, would never see the light of day. Once, these titles were the provenance of a select few collectors, theorists, and historians who had access to those rare original materials. Now everyone can explore the roots of the graphic novel form and see not only the established canon but some of the edgier works that have always been lurking at the fringes of great comic art.