February 2006

Bill Baker


The Rest of the Best

I've got another short stack of graphic novels published over the course of the past year, sitting on my desk directly in front of me, demanding to be in this month's column. Now. I think we'd better do what they ask of us, and read them. Seems a reasonable enough request, as they represent some of the very best comics and graphic novels unleashed on the public last year, yet somehow got missed in the shuffle.

First up, there's Don Hudson's Gunpowder Girl and The Outlaw Squaw demanding our attention. And if you had even an inkling of what these two gals are capable of, as demonstrated well and thoroughly in this collection published by Active Images, you'd know that they're gonna get what they want. With or without your assistance. They really do deserve all the attention they can get, from anyone looking for an exceptionally good read.

This is a tight and fast tale of what happens to a trio of highly independent women after a train robbery goes terribly wrong. After losing their leader in the botched heist, Jill, otherwise known as Gunpowder Girl, and Anuteh, an older and more experienced Native American woman, find themselves at each other's throats when they're not fleeing a bloody-minded Marshall and his posse. Driven apart by their differences and mutual distrust, the thieves soon find themselves facing certain death unless they can work together.

Hudson's a fine writer, and he can both turn a nice phrase and know when to let a silence tell its own tale. His plotting and characterizations are top notch, and his pacing is especially fine. The very few "slow" moments are there to reveal character and backstory, but accomplished in ways that also move the plot forward, if even incrementally, thus never really stopping the narrative flow. As an artist, Hudson is at the top of his form. And considering that he's a guy with two decades of seriously good comics and related work under his belt, that really says a lot about the high quality of his story telling and draftsmanship in this book. Even a casual reader should be able to note that Hudson's endowed each of these characters with some kind of depth, some kind of story of their own to tell, even if it's only hinted at verbally or via a telling glance. Even better, this is as much true for the secondary characters as it is for the leads. It's that kind of attention to detail which helps explain why this story is so visually and emotionally compelling.

It's almost become a truism that what comics needs really badly is more genre comics. I'll happily agree with that sentiment... especially if this is an example of what will inevitably follow in greater numbers. Ignore Gunpowder Girl and The Outlaw Squaw at your own risk -- the risk of denying yourself some mighty fine reading, that is. This one's a keeper, and I'm really looking forward to the sequel, whenever it appears.

Another, exceedingly fine example of the Western Done Right in an original graphic novel, which also features the first collaboration of two living legends of the field, was issued this past year. Unfortunately, hardly anyone outside of professionals took any notice, which is more than sad, really. That book is Tex: The Lonesome Rider, and it features one of the most popular characters in Europe, the laconic Texas Ranger known as Tex. Written by the masterful Claudio Nizzi with art by Joe Kubert, it took Kubert nearly two years to draw it as he was only able to do a page here, a page there, in between other projects and teaching. And then it took nearly again as long for it to be translated and released in English. However, the final product proves itself more than worth the wait, and it deserves much, much more attention than it's garnered to date.

Tex is magisterial and epic in scope, yet marked by a straightforward simplicity underscored by an impeccable power of visual and verbal expression. The plot's pretty straightforward: a selfish urge leads a group of thugs to murder the family of a young girl they tried to rape, in the process also accidentally killing the girl. Tex soon discovers the murders, having stopped by the victims' homestead on his way home. The rest is a Revenge Tale, with Tex the living embodiment of Truth, Justice and the American Way, surviving and even thriving against all odds to bring the culprits to justice for their crimes. Yep, it's the tale that's told a thousand and one times a week, with small variations. However, in the hands of these two masters, this simple structure allows for exploration of not just their skills, but the soul of the art, as well. The often barren, bleak and foreboding landscapes are reflective of the lives, faces and souls of these characters, imbuing them with almost mythical stature, while endowing the story itself with epic undertones. In a real sense, what we're watching is a melding of the American Western form with the tale of Orpheus, with Tex descending into a living Hell to save Lady Justice from eternal exile. When Tex delivers these killers to their own deserved fates, be it at the hands of the authorities or something far more violent and wild, there's almost a palpable sense of release. It's almost as if catharsis were suddenly given fresh life, accompanied by some dim sense that some of the simplest things matter, both then and now.

Tex: The Lonesome Rider is not just a great Western graphic novel. In the end, it is undoubtedly one of the best extended pieces ever created by Joe Kubert. And it wouldn't surprise me to learn that the same could be said of Nizzi's outstanding writing on this book. (Sadly, like too many Americans, since I'm unable to read his work in his native tongue, I've not encountered enough of his work to judge fairly regarding that question.) Regardless, Tex: The Lonesome Rider is not just one of the best books of 2005, I'd say it's one of the best graphic novels produced this decade. This book is, in all likelihood, a modern classic, and is assuredly one of the best, and nearly perfect, examples of the graphic novel I've ever encountered.

Finally, there's The Spirit Archives Volume 17 and The Best of The Spirit from DC, two books featuring some of the best work ever created by the late Will Eisner. Both volumes were both released late last year, just before the first anniversary of Will's death in the early days of January, 2005. It's a loss that still cuts deeply among those in the comics community, as attested to by Neil Gaiman in the first paragraph of his disarming and, as always, charming introduction to The Best collection. He begins the celebration by confessing that he still finds himself bereft, missing both his friend and the mighty creative force that was known as Will Eisner. Still, as Neil notes, and the tales will attest, there's more reason to celebrate Eisner's life than mourn his loss. And there's real solace, too, to be found in the sheer exuberance and joy that is evident in each line, spoken or laid down as pencil and ink in the pages of both of these titles.

In either case, but in two very different ways, you have some of Eisner's best work on the single character that epitomizes his early commercial career. While Will is perhaps better known for The Plot, Minor Miracle, A Family Matter and the many other excellent graphic novels (a format he helped name and pioneer with his suite of tales published as A Contract with God) he created in the last 25 years, he actually began his career as a cartoonist and, later, the owner and head of a cartooning studio. Eventually, his studio created a highly successful 16-page comic insert Sunday newspaper that was full of various original characters and was syndicated across the country for over a decade. The Spirit was that Sunday insert's lead feature, and it was the wildly inventive work on that particular strip that gave Eisner his first taste of widespread recognition.

Now, if you're you're just curious to see if this strip about the crime fighting adventures of a supposedly dead criminologist/private investigator Denny Colt is really that good, I'd suggest going for the very affordable The Best of The Spirit. It arguably presents just about every one of the essential tales which establish the character of the Spirit, each of his compatriots and their environs by pitting them against a bevy of some of the most inventively bad dames and cold hearted killers ever. Each tale is accomplished. This trade paperback contains some of truly special tales -- consider, for example, the sublime "The Story of Gerhard Shnobble" from early September, 1948, which Will has singled out repeatedly as his favorite Spirit tale -- are well represented in this collection.

However, if you're one of those who loves comics, and you really want to read Will's Spirit, but don't know where to start, well, there's no better place than the latest volume of DC's The Spirit Archives. Reprinting strips originally printed between July 4 and December 26, 1948 in full, beautifully restored color on suitably nonglossy paper, this entire volume presents Will Eisner at the height of his powers as a young storyteller. While it's true that this covers a period from a few years after his return from a stint in the service (during which time he created the modern genre known as Educational Comics, an idea implemented by the military and still used by the services today), Eisner found himself revitalized by his time away from his characters and commercial comics. This extended explosion of creativity lead Eisner to constantly reinvent his approach to the content and narrative structure of the adventure strip plot and format, while he also launched an investigation into how to create and present the story visually, resulting in engaging, evocative and highly enjoyable stories accompanied by art that displays a stunning visual sensibility. Regardless of how experiment they might be, though, each story was designed and built to last the ages.

And what fine grouping of shorts come in this hardcover! Aside from the aforementioned tragic and yet uplifting "The Story of Gerhard Shnobble," you've got "Cromlech was a [Nature] Boy," wherein we learn the real value of civilization from a child raised to avoid it, alongside one of Will's finest femme fatales in the lovely shape of "Plaster of Paris," and with wacky glimpses of folks with names like "Nazel B. Twitch." As a bonus, there are great Halloween and Christmas episodes included in this collection, as well as smart and effective adaptations of "'The Thing' by Ambrose Bierce" and "The Fall of the House of Usher" by a certain Mr. Poe.

I really can't praise this particular volume of this important reprint series highly enough. If you plan on buying one hardcover comic book this year, you'd be well served to make it The Spirit Archives Volume 17.

That's enough for now. Why don't you join this old Gutterslut next month, when I'll take a look at the best overlooked Art Books of '05.