FF1986: The Miracle Squad

The Miracle Squad #1-4 by John Wooley and Terry Tidwell.

This comic book was part of the Jan Strnad-edited Upshot line of comics, which didn’t last very long. And this was, I think, the only one that Strnad didn’t write himself.

It’s in colour, which I guess means that Fantagraphics thought that this 30s B-movie inspired series would sell. Reading it now, it’s difficult to understand why that is: The story (about gangsters inexplicably trying to take over a movie studio) isn’t very exciting, and the artwork is… basic? I think that’s the right word.

The colouring, by Tom Luth (who’s been colouring Groo the Wanderer all these years) isn’t as trippy as some comics Fantagraphics were publishing around this time, but it’s still slightly odd. Perhaps it’s the work of the colour separators, S*M Graphics?

Oh, yeah, the people who work at the studio help protecting the studio. Frankly, the storyline doesn’t make much sense, but, then again, as Wooley writes in the essays on b-movies in the back of each issue, that’s what those films were like.

But I bet you they weren’t this boring.

The essays are kinda interesting, but there’s too much of the stuff above. C’mon.

The last two issues were printed in black and white, so I guess the series didn’t sell after all. Whoda thunk. Gary Dumm (of American Splendor fame) took over the inking, which beefed up the art considerably.

A second series of this stuff was published by Apple Press. Tidwell seems to have done quite a bit of work for adjacent publishers, like Eternity, but apparently stopped doing comics after a while. And the same with Wooley, but he’s now a writer.

This post is part of the Fantagraphics Floppies series.

FF1988: Itchy Planet

Itchy Planet #1-3 edited by Leonard Rifas.

Leonard Rifas published a number of comics in the 70s under the Edu Comics banner, and Itchy Planet continues pretty much in that vein: Informative pieces and political agitation.

There’s even a motto.

So you have reviews, text pieces and things like this page: A survey of comics about AIDS.

But most of the pieces are traditional comics about the issues at hand. The first issue is about nuclear war, mostly, and Larry Gonick (of A Cartoon History of the Universe fame) does an energetically drawn piece on the paradox of mutually assured destruction.

Rifas himself does one on nuclear winter, and includes text that you may be surprised by.

The second issue is about comics, and Joyce Farmer does a really good five page piece on when a bookstore in Orange County, California was busted for selling (among other things) Tits & Clits. (A comic book Farmer had co-created.)

Mary Fleener does a pretty atypical (for her) one-page comic on superheroes.

The third issue is about US politics. Do you remember those good old days when we were incredulous about how stupid George Bush the Elder was? Oh, I remember them fondly. Reading 80s angry polemics about internal politics now feels like escapism.

Piece by Steve Ross and Peter Kuper.

But then we have Spain to bring us back to Earth again with a comic about El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Oh, well.

A fourth issue, on the environment, was announced, but was never released.

Rifas didn’t publish many comics after this series, I think, but went into education.

This post is part of the Fantagraphics Floppies series.

FF2006: Castle Waiting

Castle Waiting #1-18 by Linda Medley

I haven’t done this series of postings in anything resembling chronological order, but I did decide to try to do the remaining ones in an orderly… order… But then I flipped past Castle Waiting in the boxes once again, and I just had to re-read it. Again.

Castle Waiting has a somewhat complicated publishing history. Let’s recap:

Linda Medley got a Xerix Foundation grant and started publishing Castle Waiting herself in 1996. After seven issues, due to having to make a living, she spent a year at DC, and then came back, published by Cartoon Books, starting with a new issue number one. This is where I started reading the book. After four issues she left Cartoon Books and started self-publishing again, and reverted to the old numbering. That’s issues 12 to 16, where the two final issues started a new story.


Then there was a three year hiatus, and Fantagraphics picked it up with a new issue number one… that reprinted the last two issues of the previous series, and had eleven new story pages. Then everything went smoothly until 2008, when there was a four year hiatus, before issues 16 to 18 were published. And in the meantime Fantagraphics had published the first fifteen issues in a hardcover.

Are you with me here?

No, OK. I’m just saying… it’s complicated.

Oh! What’s it about? Er… mostly Jain moving into the castle…

And it’s wonderfully drawn, and supremely humane, sweet, laugh-out-loud funny, and there’s nothing like it. It’s something I want to read and re-read again and again. It’s just such a great and exciting place to spend a few hours.

The pre-Fantagraphics issues were reissued by Fantagraphics in a five hundred page hardback edition, and it’s printed quite a bit smaller than the original standard-comic-book size.

It suits the material quite well, but for this re-read I read the original issues where I had them.

As a single entity, this book is pretty structurally weird.

It starts off with a prologue, which is (basically) a retelling of Sleeping Beauty. Only funny. Then she started on the main story, about Jain Whatserface [NOTE: CORRECT BEFORE PUBLISHING] arriving at Castle Waiting and moving in. This is where all the world building really starts: There’s a sense that all the people who live in the castle have stories that make up and flesh out a fully consistent and interesting world. We’re not getting any infodumps about anything, but we’re getting a steady stream of information about these people and what it’s all about.

There are some short flashbacks, too, and it’s all rather riveting.

Then, about two thirds in, it’s a very rainy day at the Castle, and Sister Peace starts telling the others about her adventures before she came to the castle. It’s a fun and riveting and sad and happy and wonderful story (I laughed, I cried), but that’s the rest of the book!

It’s like… whaaa? What happened to Jain moving in? That was leading somewhere, right? Why just leave that hanging? That was riveting, too? Why go to a different storyline suddenly?

Oh. The publisher, Cartoon Books, made her. Fucking editorial interference. And if they would meddle to that extent, it’s no wonder she left the company after just four issues. Although I have no idea whether she left or was dropped. But… geez.

As wonderful as each and every page in the first Castle Waiting collection is, I think it would have made for a more satisfying reading experience if it had been released in two books: One for the prequel and the start of the main storyline, and one for the Solicitine story.

Anyway! That’s brings us to the Fantagraphics issues, which is what this blog series is supposed to be about.

The first issue has a nice full-size drawing of Jain and her baby, Pindar, and is the only issue that’ll have a cover in that style.

One very noticeable difference in the first Fantagraphics chapter is new, very computerey lettering. Compare above the last self-published issue…

… to the first Fantagraphics chapter. Now that’s what I call quite 2006 computer lettering.

I guess this is what the people in Castle Waiting would look like if they were contemporary. And human. So that’s Henry and Pindar, and the doctor, and Jain and Chess…

In the second issue, the artwork changes somewhat dramatically. Yeah. Somewhat dramatically. That’s what I meant to write.

It’s as if Medley had looked closely at the collected edition (which was in a smaller size) and decided to adapt her drawing to a style that would be more suited for reprinting in that format.

So the panel borders become heavier, and figure lines become thicker, the lettering is larger, and there are fewer panels per page. And this does look rather nice in the collected edition; it’s true. But it makes the pamphlet edition look rather odd. I found myself holding the pages further away just to get a proper scale to them…

Or perhaps it’s just a way to try to get the issues out faster. Issues 2-4 all have covers in this style: Just some text and then an excerpt from an internal page:

That is a very weird way to sell a comic book.

The remaining issues used this format: A small inset colour drawing inside a lot of framing. It looks rather nice, and it’s certainly distinctive…

Well, I laughed.

The Fantagraphics issues are a very quick read compared to the ones that preceded them. Not only are there fewer story pages (around 20 per issue), there’s no supplemental material at all. The self published issues used to have lots of letters, research material and general musing from Medley, but there’s nothing of the sort here. It feels oddly muted…

Then there was that hiatus… and what “The Publisher” says about the main story being finished, so they published the collection is rather weird. Nothing at all finished in issue 15.

But the artwork changed quite a bit during the hiatus. Now Medley was back again to her previous detailed style. Yes, that page is meant to be cluttered, but it’s a very well-drawn, detailed clutter.

About that lettering the publisher mentions up there. Here’s how it was originally…

And here’s how it is in the reprint. That is a lot better, yes.

And while being recognisably Linda Medley, some panels feature a somewhat different, and darker rendering than she’d done before.

Compared to the pre-Fantagraphics issues, virtually nothing happens in the Fantagraphics series, but it’s structurally a much more solid work. It’s a real book. And it’s wonderful.

Linda Medley is currently working on the next Castle Waiting volume, and needs your help to get it done.

This post is part of the Fantagraphics Floppies series.

FF1986: Threat!

Threat! #1-10

Anthologies usually do not have a set roster of contributors. There are some, like Zap Comix, but it’s usually a revolving door sort of thing.

Threat! was a 32 page, magazine size, monthly anthology with four running serials, each taking up eight (or fewer) pages, and didn’t deviate (much) from that format until the last issue, when one series dropped out.

Well, it’s the mid 80s, and anybody who doubts it can just gaze and ponder the design of this contents page. Man, that’s so 80s.

Anyway, the first series is about Bob Mercenary, a … mercenary with a very geometric head.

Apparently he lives on the planet of Jah. It’s a sci-fi action adventure type of thing…

Zone is the second series, and also has a very geometric protagonist. By M. Kraiger. Very mysterious. The story never develops a lot, but it’s about a guy? Who fell into a radioactive swamp? And became, no, not that guy, but this guy? Yeah, it didn’t make much sense, but some of the pages look rather pretty, like the one above.

Gary Field’s Enigma Funnies has a hero with a very geometric head (I sense a theme! Is this the theme that binds these stories together? Geometric heads?) who roams a post-apocalyptic landscape and kills mutants. (See above.)

But noooo! The fourth serial (Holo Bros by Jim Rohn) has characters with lumpy heads!!!

And is that doubletone (Craftint) paper I spy up there? I don’t know whether it still exists, but it’s a paper that has two tones “built in” to the paper, and you use two different developing fluids to bring it out, so you can “paint” the grey tone. It also, unfortunately, has a tendency to look a bit dirty and grainy…

But back to unifying themes: We have this “Ousland” poster in the Zone episode…

… and Bob Mercenary takes place on the Ousland planet. But the other two serials don’t seem to mention the word. Or perhaps I just didn’t notice.

So there isn’t much internal evidence to suggest why these four serials are running in the same magazine, and there are no editorials or anything, so it’s all rather puzzling. But perhaps my research team can get on it, and we’ll have an answer by the time I’ve finished this article.

Aww. From the only letters column in the run.

Let’s count the hipster references: Bush Tetras. Jim Jarmusch. Joy Division. Cleveland.

I think the Zone character really works graphically. Just negative space. Put him anywhere and it looks rather stylish.

And it’s the end! Two issues before it was planned to end, apparently, although I couldn’t see anywhere in the comic itself where it said it was going to end after twelve issues.

The first eight issues were released monthly, which is very unusual for Fantagraphics. I mean, releasing thing on a schedule. Then there was a four month gap before issue nine, and then another four month gap before issue ten, so I would guess that this meant that either the sales tanked, or some of the people involved lost interest.

Or both. This was during the end of the black and white boom, wasn’t it? During those days, you could apparently sell any sort of crap and not lose money, but that ended after a while. And Jay Geldhof wasn’t present in the last issue, and seemed to be working professionally by then, so…

Anyway, the Holo Bros serial had a kind of ending (slightly ironically, since it was to continue), while the other three serials just, sort of, stopped.

Oh, and there were recurring George Herriman references. Here from Enigma Funnies…

… and here from Zone.

So, is Threat worth seeking out? I apparently got all my copies at a sale at the local comic shop in 1987. I can tell because of the price tags still affixed. But even so: No, not really. This is pretty basic genre stuff.

The research results are in!

Jim Rohn would go on to publish a solo Holo Bros comics for Fantagraphics, and some other stories here and there, but not a lot after the mid-90s.

M. Kraiger published one issue of Zone with Dark Horse in 1990.

Gary Fields has published a large number of things at a variety of publishers and seems to be still active.

Jay Geldhof went on to ink Grendel for a number of years.

But the team still has no idea why just these four comics were put together into a single anthology. Perhaps Gary Groth just happened to have four vaguely sci-fi-ish submissions at the same time and thought “why not”?

This post is part of the Fantagraphics Floppies series.

FF1986: Doomsday Squad

Doomsday Squad #1-7 by Joe Gill and John Byrne.

This series was supposed to be called “John Byrne Classics” and reprints the old Charlton Comics series Doomsday +1. Apparently Byrne protested and it ended up being called Doomsday Squad instead. He was also apparently supposed to supply the covers, but only did two, while most of the remaining issues were done by Gil Kane instead.

So… why would Fantagraphics publish something like this?

The editor doesn’t really explain, but the only reason to reprint a C-grade comic from a Z-grade defunct publisher is that Byrne was (at this point) hot shit, and the Charlton properties were for sale, probably at a cheap price. So here’s an opportunity to make some money, and at the same time, print back-up stories featuring characters from other Fantagraphics publications. It gives the artists in question a rare chance to work in colour, and each back-up also works as a five-to-seven page ad for the publication in question. Win win!

But what’s the main series about? It’s about seven issues.

Oh, and post-apocalyptic stuff. There’s only three people alive on Earth after WWIII, and they have adventures and stuff. They meet robots and alternate reality people and dinosaurs and thawed-out goths.

The colouring job is very, very Fantagraphics. As noted in the Dalgoda article, nobody has done colour separations quite like Fantagraphics did in the mid 80s. Which is something most people are quite OK with.

Here’s how that page above looked originally:

So the colourists drew a lot of stuff in that wasn’t originally there.

The first backup story is the aforementioned Dalgoda. And it ties in with the lead story: It’s about thawing up an old savage, and it points out that this isn’t really possible.

It’s fun to see the backup story criticise the main story. Subsequent backup stories would have none of this synergy…

The editor takes another go at explaining why this reprint exist. “Crude energy.”

Speaking of the colouring, some of these pages makes me wonder whether the original pages were just mostly blank. This looks awfully like the colourist has drawn in the figures in the windshield there.

Nope, they were there, but were rasterised. How odd.

Lloyd Llewellyn backup story by Daniel Clowes. Scary clown!

Yeah… I can see it now… Crude energy.

Whaa… How… So how could the original possibly look like that? Charlton certainly didn’t do painted colour holds.  That’d cost money.

Oh, the colourists just drew a new guy there based on the original image. I can see why the editor in the first issue said that the colourists went beyond the call of duty, but I’d say this is beyond the call of… sanity.

An Usagi Yojimbo backup story by Stan Sakai. “Ho! Mangy villagers!” That’s going to be my go-to greeting from now on.

I wonder whether the writer, Joe Gill, is trying to tell us something with the “gill-men’s eggs” line.

The fifth issue is particularly ironic. The editorial is all about how finally these comics are printed the way they should be…

… and half the pages are printed horribly off-register. The red is printed about two millimetres off of where it’s supposed to be.

Don’t you think?

Captain Jack backup by Mike Kazaleh. I want some octopi arms sticking out of my car windows, too!

You can’t say that it isn’t edumacational.

Why is war always hardest on the pets! WHYYYY!!1!

Oh, I think I failed to mention that Doomsday +1 is piffle. I’ve read worse, but it’s kinda boring. It throws all 70s sci-fi clichés it can think of into the series, but it doesn’t do anything interesting with them. It’s close to being a parody of a 70s sci-fi comic book, but it isn’t funny enough for that.

Byrne’s art (where you can see it through the colourists work) looks quite nice, especially some of the robots. It’s not as good as it was going to get a few years later.

The final backup story is a Keif Llama story by Matt Howarth, and as usual (with his colour work at the time), it looks rather spiffy. Is he drawing directly onto the separations? It’s an interesting technique…

I did not read this comic in the 80s, because 15 year old me assumed that it would be a bit boring. That guy was so right. But I bought the issues now, just for this blog article. The things I do for my readers! I mean reader!

This post is part of the Fantagraphics Floppies series.