Showing posts with label RM Rhodes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label RM Rhodes. Show all posts

Thursday, August 08, 2019

Hickman's Influences on House of X

By RM Rhodes

I haven’t read X-Men comics in at least a decade, if not longer. I would be hard-pressed to tell you if I’ve even read a single issue from this century, to be honest. But I do keep up with the news of X-Men the same way that I keep up with what my ex-wives are doing these days – I used to care a lot more, but I’m still curious. At the very least, I figure that I’ll hear about current developments on Jay and Miles Explain the X-Men at some point in the future.

I mention all of that to explain why I knew that it was a big deal that Jonathan Hickman was going to be writing the X-Men. And why I knew that in the new Hickman-written book, House of X, Moira MacTaggert was now a mutant who has lived several lives, reincarnating again and again to change things in her next life. That's an interesting plot twist.

And then I saw on Twitter that author Claire North was noting similarities between that plot and the plot of her 2014 book, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. I did not see that coming.

I did find the interview that Jonathan Hickman did with The Beat back in 2016, where he mentions The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August as a book that he’s currently reading and currently enjoying.

No word as of yet whether anyone has pointed this out to Hickman or Marvel, or gotten a response if they did. But it’s certainly something worth noting. Because Claire North has certainly noted it.

More to follow, I'm sure.

__________________________________________________________

Why is this here? It's a long story. Mike Rhode first introduced himself to me when I first started vending at SPX. Over the years, we've talk to each other at Comic conventions around the DC area and never quite get around to sitting down for lunch. 

When I moved to Arlington two years ago, I didn't realize that Mike lived within a mile of my building. Nor did I realize that he lived next door to my ex-girlfriend's friend from college. We also discovered, by accident that we work two buildings away from each other, because we work in adjacent organizations. The world is a very small place, sometimes. 

It really feels that way when I run into Mike at the local farmer's market. Naturally, that's when I pitch him article ideas. I'm reading the entire run of Heavy Metal in public (in blog format) because I happen to own the entire run of Heavy Metal. This means that I'm engaged in an ongoing study of the magazine. In addition, I have a diverse and idiosyncratic reading list that tends towards the weird corners of comics history. Sometimes one circumstance or another results in long articles that I don't really have anyplace to put. Mike has been gracious enough to let me publish them here.

In summary: this is an article about comics from someone in the DC area. 

Saturday, July 27, 2019

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Tempest

By RM Rhodes

2019 is the year of endings. Lost amongst the hype surrounding the endings of Game of Avengers Wars franchises is the ending of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the heavily metafictional comic series by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill. The first issues of the first volume were published in 1999, which means that this series has been running on and off for two decades.

The conceit of LOEG (as it is often shortened) is that every character (and the majority of the settings) are from some piece of fiction or another. Clearly, this involves a great deal of research, and part of the fun of the series is trying to identify who everyone is. Jess Nevins has been making annotations of the whole series, and his page does a great job of helping the reader catch all of the references. The annotations are not strictly necessary, of course. Alan Moore is, in addition to everything else, a commercial writer and he knows how to keep the story going for readers who can't be bothered to look up all of the Easter Eggs that he throws in.

Named after Shakespeare's last play, the final volume of LOEG is entitled The Tempest, and the last episodic installment was published in mid-July. As with everything that Alan Moore produces, the name was not chosen lightly. The original play is about the wizard Prospero giving up his magic and destroying his books. Being a fictional character, Prospero shows up in this volume as well, but his appearance is heavily based on Alan Moore himself, which makes it fitting that this volume is also Alan Moore's final goodbye to comics. This is very much him breaking his toys and going off to do something completely different.

For the majority of the series, the stories were all set in the past. It was not until the final issue of the previous volume, 2011's Century, that the characters were brought to the present day. The Tempest picks up mere days after the end of Century, and the protagonists are still picking up the pieces from the end of the previous story. Because it’s the end of the series, I’m going to shy away from anything more than a high-level plot synopsis.

The main characters are Emma Peel (from the Avengers TV show), Wilhelmina Murray (from Dracula), and Orlando (the transgender character based partially on the book by Virginia Woolf). Their principal protagonist is James Bond (who is never named, but it’s clearly him). There’s also a nice bit of business with the various other people who have played James Bond over the years. The interactions between these two groups are intimately wrapped up in everything that has come before in the series. A series that has been publishing sporadically for two decades and only has a handful of volumes is allowed to have a degree of continuity that recommends readers to start at the beginning.

The Tempest turns fully into the conceit of an entirely fictional universe, ultimately bringing about the end of the world. This makes sense because a lot fiction set in the far future posits some version of the end of the world around the beginning of the 21st century. As such, this story wraps up plot lines from the entire series and contains major revelations that upturn everything that the reader thought they knew about the story to date.

Apocalypses and end-of-the-world situations figure prominently in a lot of Alan Moore’s fiction. Some version of the idea has shown up in almost everything he’s done. This includes Captain Britain, Miracleman, V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Swamp Thing, From Hell, Lost Girls, Promethea, Providence, and Jerusalem. It’s almost easier to find stories by Moore that don’t end with some form of apocalypse – personal, worldwide, or something in between.

In this case, the apocalypse is literal and a good portion of the plot turns on that destruction. The characters (and, thus, the readers) find out more details about the how and why of this ending was always inevitable. Along the way, the various characters settle scores and tie up a variety of loose ends. It’s a rousing romp of a story that travels all over the world, seeing places and doing things.

One of the things that makes this volume interesting is that every one of the six issues is formatted slightly differently. The first one is an homage to Classics Illustrated. The second one is an homage to science fiction comics of the 60s and 70s. The third is an homage to the romance comics of the 50s and 60s. The fourth is an homage to the venerable British children’s comic The Beano. The fifth is an homage to old EC-influenced horror comics from the 50s and 60s. The sixth is an homage to the British anthology comic 2000AD.

In some cases, the homages are only surface and don’t show up in the interior of the issue. The last issue features very strong 2000 AD homages in the interior, including the little credits box that looks identical to the original. Alan Moore cut his teeth writing for 2000 AD, so the homage feels a lot more heartfelt than some of the others.


Thanks to the wonderfully talented Kevin O’Neill, these stories are all over the place in an interesting and refreshing manner. A good portion of the story is told in one or two page stories that tell an entire storybeat. Each of them could stand alone as a solo story, and each of them is visually distinct, but they all tie into the larger plot in a very creative way. There’s an entire issue that contains extended visual homages to Jim Steranko’s run on Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD from the mid 60s, which is appropriate considering the spy motifs wrapped around the principal protagonist.

All in all, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is a great series for people who want to get into comics but aren’t entirely certain about the whole superhero thing. The first volume leaned vaguely in that direction because the mainstream English-language comic book market is heavily dominated by that particular genre and any attempt to survive (much less thrive) in that environment had to market to the superhero buying demographic. However, by the time of The Tempest, Alan Moore has long since abandoned any concern or interest in picking up those readers. Part of that has to do with the changes to the comic book marketplace, but another part has to do with the fact that Alan Moore is a self-confessed cranky old man who is no longer interested in writing for that audience. More power to him.

From that perspective, LOEG in general (and The Tempest in particular) is a fascinating work from an elder statesman of comics who defined the shape of a lot of the comics material that is currently being produced – including a corporate-driven sequel to his most famous standalone work, Watchmen. As his final work, The Tempest serves as a very fitting epigraph to his entire comics career, marking a graceful ending to what is clearly one of his most personal visions.

The vast majority of people that have heard of LOEG are only familiar with the title because of the awful movie from 2003. If you are one of those people, but you liked the concept, you probably owe it to yourself to go out and pick up the first volume. If you liked that book, buy the rest because you’ll enjoy the whole series. The Tempest will be waiting patiently at the end, waiting for you to get caught up. The journey is worth the effort.
__________________________________________________________

Why is this here? It's a long story. Mike Rhode first introduced himself to me when I first started vending at SPX. Over the years, we've talk to each other at Comic conventions around the DC area and never quite get around to sitting down for lunch. 

When I moved to Arlington two years ago, I didn't realize that Mike lived within a mile of my building. Nor did I realize that he lived next door to my ex-girlfriend's friend from college. We also discovered, by accident that we work two buildings away from each other, because we work in adjacent organizations. The world is a very small place, sometimes. 

It really feels that way when I run into Mike at the local farmer's market. Naturally, that's when I pitch him article ideas. I'm reading the entire run of Heavy Metal in public (in blog format) because I happen to own the entire run of Heavy Metal. This means that I'm engaged in an ongoing study of the magazine. In addition, I have a diverse and idiosyncratic reading list that tends towards the weird corners of comics history. Sometimes one circumstance or another results in long articles that I don't really have anyplace to put. Mike has been gracious enough to let me publish them here.

In summary: this is an article about comics from someone in the DC area. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

The Complete Trump Magazine

by RM Rhodes

One of the things I like to do at comic book conventions is hit the discount graphic novel bins. One of the treasures that I found at AwesomeCon was a beautiful hardback book about Trump magazine, published by Fantagraphics. You're probably thinking the same thing I thought of when I picked it up, but never fear, it's not that Trump. In this case, Trump magazine was a satirical collaboration between Harvey Kurtzman (of MAD magazine fame) and Hugh Hefner (of Playboy fame), published by Playboy in 1957.



There is an excellent essay by Denis Kitchen explaining the history of the times and Kurtzman's poor business choices that led to him working with Hefner. Kurtzman brought practically the entire MAD magazine bullpen with him, including Will Elder, Al Jaffee, and Jack Davis - a veritable murderer's row of brilliantly satirical artists. Unfortunately, a combination of economic woes for the publisher and Kurtzman's procrastinating perfectionism meant that only two issues of Trump were every published.



Fortunately for contemporary readers, this means that both full issues are published in the single book, along with annotations and accompanying back matter. The annotations are more than occasionally necessary, especially for readers who are not up on current events from six decades ago. Bits and pieces of what might have gone into the third issue also appear at the end of the book, along with a slew of speculation. Probably the most interesting of these is the flexagon template that Kurtzman was planning to publish as the centerfold.



The material in the two issues are immediately familiar to anyone who has ever read an issue of MAD magazine. There were parodies of popular ads, parodies of popular comics, parodies of popular movies, and a slew of satires. One of the movie parodies even ends on a note that the editors don't want to spoil the movie for people who haven't seen it yet. The only jokes that fall flat are the ones that depend on the reader's understanding of current events. The jokes that rely on age-old dilemmas without any explanation are still just as funny today as they were when they were written.



Because MAD was printed in black and white on sub-optimal paper with sub-optimal printers, the art had to be cruder. Leveling up to a better publisher meant that the artists had access to better paper quality and better printing technology and they took advantage of it. One of the parody ads was created with a scratchboard and had much more detail than something created for MAD would have had.



One interesting item in the first issue is a reprint comic from "60 year old cartoon" - a French artist named Caran d'Ache. The joke is solid imperialist humor without being racist, which means that in involves animal humor. It's interesting to run into a 120 year old comic in an archival edition of a 60 year old magazine.



Overall, the book is worth your while if you're like me - an avid fan of old comics-related anthologies, especially those from the middle of the last century with both an interesting backstory and a limited print run. If you don't have my specific interests and you just want to laugh at something named Trump that has nothing to do with the 21st century, you might like this collection as well.


__________________________________________________________

Why is this here? It's a long story. Mike Rhode first introduced himself to me when I first started vending at SPX. Over the years, we've talk to each other at Comic conventions around the DC area and never quite get around to sitting down for lunch. 

When I moved to Arlington two years ago, I didn't realize that Mike lived within a mile of my building. Nor did I realize that he lived next door to my ex-girlfriend's friend from college. We also discovered, by accident that we work two buildings away from each other, because we work in adjacent organizations. The world is a very small place, sometimes. 

It really feels that way when I run into Mike at the local farmer's market. Naturally, that's when I pitch him article ideas. I'm reading the entire run of Heavy Metal in public (in blog format) because I happen to own the entire run of Heavy Metal. This means that I'm engaged in an ongoing study of the magazine. In addition, I have a diverse and idiosyncratic reading list that tends towards the weird corners of comics history. Sometimes one circumstance or another results in long articles that I don't really have anyplace to put. Mike has been gracious enough to let me publish them here.

In summary: this is an article about comics from someone in the DC area. 

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Nexus - Comic Shopping in Reykjavik

by RM Rhodes

One of my great pleasures in life is visiting comic book stores in other countries when I am travelling. I recently went to Reykjavik and went out of my way to visit the local comic book store Nexus. Nexus is towards the outskirts of the city, away from the commercial city center. In fact, it's actually surrounded by apartment buildings and it comes across as a place where locals spend time. 

Next door to the store proper are a couple of empty storefronts that are well-lit and filled with tables where people can come and sit and play board games, Magic, or RPGs. A bit of online research tells me that child and adolescent psychologist Soffía Elín Sigurðardóttir opened an outreach center of sorts called Nexus Noobs, where pretty much anyone under 25 can come twice a week to play games and so forth in a deliberately curated safe space.


Not pictured: Darth Vader
The shop itself is more or less like a department store for geek and nerdy material. The article I linked to above describes Nexus as a "premiere hub for all things geek," which is very accurate. Comics take up one section, videos are in another, Funko Pops have an equally large section, and there are a variety of smaller sections packed into the back of the store. The fantasy and science fiction selection is excellent, and their Star Wars section had map books I'd never seen before, and I try to keep track of those when they come out. 

There was a place to purchase paints and miniatures, along with brushes and other painting materials. There was a cosplay section. A section filled with board games. A section of RPG books. And a whole corner dedicated to Taschen books, LBQT materials, healthy sex ed books, and erotic material. And doormats by the front door. If there was some kind of pop culture thing that they did not have, I am fairly sure that they would be willing to order it for you.
Register and main entrance - check out the giant corner of Funko on the right
They had everything in there, and the stuff they had was of higher quality than one would get from a comparable place in any random place in the States. If the price of importing is more or less the same, then it makes sense to bring over better quality material. There was some work in Icelandic, but the vast majority of the material in the store was in English. Not a lot of people speak Icelandic, but the vast majority of the population of Iceland can read English.
All the comics
The comics on offer were very interesting. The usual amount of Marvel and DC was present, but there was strong lean towards the Image/Humanoids/Fantagraphics material as well. There were some shelves of manga, but indie graphic novels in the "we've moved past superheroes" mode are winning out. In contrast, the only European work present was the stuff printed in English for the American market. I vaguely recall a shop in Reykjavik that I visited during a previous visit that was more European-oriented, but that was early November 2016 and a lot of things happened that month.
All the books (with concerned employee)
The store itself was within easy walking distance of the Reykjavik city center (everything is within walking distance of the city center), but it has a very different vibe than the tourist shops that demand the attention of tourists. Earlier I mentioned that Nexus is a place that seemed to be more focused on the locals and I think that really is the target demographic. That's not to say that they are unfriendly to people they don't recognize - they were perfectly happy to take my cousin's money.

Having spent time in the overly touristy commercial city center of Reykjavik, I can absolutely understand why the locals would want a place that caters to their needs and interests. Most Americans don't really have any insight into how accessible their version of pop culture is to people whose first language is not English. Nexus was a good reminder that people in a marginalized language group will do whatever they have to in order to participate in the global pop culture conversation.

If I was living in Reykjavik and I needed a place to go to feel like I was not alone in my nerdcore tendencies, I would be at Nexus once a week, just to walk around and enjoy the feeling of being catered to.

__________________________________________________________

Why is this here? It's a long story. Mike Rhode first introduced himself to me when I first started vending at SPX. Over the years, we've talk to each other at Comic conventions around the DC area and never quite get around to sitting down for lunch. 

When I moved to Arlington two years ago, I didn't realize that Mike lived within a mile of my building. Nor did I realize that he lived next door to my girlfriend's friend from college. We also discovered, by accident that we work two buildings away from each other, because we work in adjacent organizations. The world is a very small place, sometimes. 

It really feels that way when I run into Mike at the local farmer's market. Naturally, that's when I pitch him article ideas. I'm reading the entire run of Heavy Metal in public (in blog format) because I happen to own the entire run of Heavy Metal. This means that I'm engaged in an ongoing study of the magazine. In addition, I have a diverse and idiosyncratic reading list that tends towards the weird corners of comics history. Sometimes one circumstance or another results in long articles that I don't really have anyplace to put. Mike has been gracious enough to let me publish them here.

In summary: this is an article about comics from someone in the DC area. 






Sunday, October 14, 2018

Lambiek and Henk - Comic Shopping in Amsterdam

by RM Rhodes

One of my favorite things to do when I travel to other countries is to visit their comic book stores. My French is good enough that I prefer to visit shops that sell French comics, which is the predominant publishing language of most of northern Europe. When I was in Amsterdam, my VRBO was almost directly across the street from Lambiek, which is one of the best and oldest comic shops in the city. This proved to be unfortunate for my wallet.
The famous Lambiek sign. On more than one occasion, 
I saw someone taking a picture of themselves in front of the shop.
They have only recently moved into this new location, but I like the store much better than the old place. The organization is much more logical, and the smaller space focuses the attention better. Upstairs, all of the comics are in Dutch. Downstairs, all of the comics are English. It's more or less understood that an American would not be silly enough to buy English-language comics in mainland Europe - they're always cheaper in America. The only exception is for super-rare things that you did not know existed, like the Robert's Rules of Order illustrated by Will Eisner that I found on my last visit.
The Interior of Lambiek. Dutch upstairs, 
English and French in the basement.
However, there's a hidden shelf of French comics around on one of the plinths in the basement that had a fantastic selection. I ended up putting back more books than I wanted to, but the shopping experience was fun. There was a complete run of the first ten issues of A Suivre (a popular French anthology magazine from the early 80s) and a variety of four or five album runs of characters I did not recognize. I love finding stuff that I did not know existed - it acts as a good reminder that there is always some facet of this medium that I have not yet encountered.
image
The interior of Lambiek. No, really.
The owner's name is Boris and he has an attitude about him that reminds me of Bill Boichel and James Sime and other comic book shop owners I have known in my life. We got into a long conversation about Enki Bilal and which period of his art we preferred, and why. I showed him some of my comics and he recommended an artist named Wasco, who designed their windows in the back.
image
Windows at Lambiek by Wasco
Among my purchases was a very early book by Milo Manara, from when he was much more obviously a Moebius clone. There was also a very meta Jacques Tardi book that I bought and a collection of Pilote specials from the 70s that I didn't buy (but know I know they exist!). I wish I could say that the most amazing thing I found on the trip was at Lambiek, but that's not true. The real find of the trip was actually down at the book market on the Spui, but that's a completely different story.


As a compare and contrast, I also sought out the comic shop Henk, which specializes in selling American and English-language comics. Henk is actually two shop fronts, back-to-back, with an entrance on either side of the block it sits on. One entrance looks out over the Gelderskade canal, technically just outside the Red Light District, and the other entrance is in the Chinatown portion of the Red Light District.

Henk knows its customers. One of the two shop fronts caters to manga fans and has an extensive collection of vinyl statues alongside the shelves of English-language manga reprints and other comics-adjacent tchotchkes. There was even a small section of videos. That end of the shop was packed with people. That's also where the cash register was, along with the shelf of indie graphic novels that would appeal to a manga reader who wants to venture into new territory but eschews superhero comics.
The manga end of Henk
The other end of the shop was laid out very much like an American superhero comic book store, complete with basement location, spinner racks, back issue bins, and walls lined with Marvel and DC collected editions and posters. It was also the empty portion of the store. The whole store looked more or less like an American comic book store, but the non-manga part was almost painfully accurate in its cultural reproduction.
The non-manga end of Henk
Even among the indie graphic novels, there were really no European comics available in the store, unless they were English-language translations that had somehow crept back around into indie legitimacy. This was consistent with my Lambiek experience, which had no manga or superhero comics whatsoever. The conclusion I drew from this was that the audiences for the various kinds of comics don't significantly overlap - or, at least, don't overlap enough to make it worth the while of comic shop owners to carry everything in one store.
The indie graphic novel shelf - this is the extent of the overlap between Lambiek and Henk
In a city as physically small as Amsterdam, it is astonishing how close together everything is. The two shops are little more than a seven minute walk apart, but the blocks they sit on are wildly different. Lambiek is in a quiet residential street. The more obvious side of Henk is on a main commercial thoroughfare. Not coincidentally, the Nieumarkt (which has a street market on the weekends) sits between both shops. Arguably, both benefit from the proximity, but Henk is a more prominent spot to catch overflow foot traffic. Weirdly, taking this entrance drops you into the room dominated by back-issue bins and surrounded by superhero comics.
The entrance by the Nieumarkt
From that perspective, the desolate back issue bins which face the canal share a temperament with Lambiek's basement of the best of English language indie comics. (Seriously, Lambiek is probably the primary Dutch customer of Fantagraphics, Koyama Press, and Drawn and Quarterly.) Both are places where someone wandering by can find a quiet place to browse with the understanding that shopping is not buying. They are, in some ways, part of the long-term appeal of the Nieumarkt as a destination.
Chinatown entrance of Henk
On the other hand, the manga end of Henk was bustling. Part of it may have been the almost fanatical devotion to filling every flat surface with something that could be purchased. Having said that, there were more people in that portion of Henk than I ever saw at any one time in Lambiek. Location-wise, the entrance to the more popular end of Henk is in a very busy tourist neighborhood alleyway on the edge of the Red Light District, but still very much part of it.

During the middle of the afternoon, the atmosphere of the alleyway is quiet, but the largely unseen hustle of prepping for the evening rush is everywhere. Almost every Chinese food restaurant in the Red Light District is clustered here. That may or may not have anything to do with the popularity of the manga section. And the tendency of tourists to duck into any random shop may keep the place busy as well.

At night, the alleyway is completely different. Henk's is closed by seven, but the debauchery of the Red Light District never really stops, it just takes naps. By 8, the whole area is filled with people looking for food. The place is a wall-to-wall zoo. Walking through the alley in the morning is like walking down Bourbon Street in New Orleans when the crowds have gone. And that is where you have to go to visit the most prominent manga store in Amsterdam, open by lunchtime.

It is fascinating to me that the various comics markets are so obviously delineated in Amsterdam. That might be because the markets are so clearly segregated by language - which isn't as big a barrier in cosmopolitan, multi-lingual Amsterdam as it is in English-first, English-only America. It also indicates that the the markets serve very different demographic groups, which makes sense.

The Dutch comics section in the main part of Lambiek feels like a small, specialty book store, with a variety of popular works in various genres, and a diverse clientele. Those who really want to go diving through the English and French spillover are encouraged to do so. Amsterdam has visitors from all over Europe and many books are not translated into Scandinavian languages. 

Henk is, for the most part, a clone of an American comic shop, aimed at the same demographics. Interestingly, that demographic (white males between 18-35) is the same target demographic as the Red Light District itself. The superhero comic section of Henk is set up to encourage intoxicated impulse buys.

If you find yourself in Amsterdam and you have had your fill of art museums, go look up the comic book shops. They are worth the visit and very easy to find.
__________________________________________________________

Why is this here? It's a long story. Mike Rhode first introduced himself to me when I first started vending at SPX. Over the years, we've talk to each other at Comic conventions around the DC area and never quite get around to sitting down for lunch. 

When I moved to Arlington two years ago, I didn't realize that Mike lived within a mile of my building. Nor did I realize that he lived next door to my girlfriend's friend from college. We also discovered, by accident that we work two buildings away from each other, because we work in adjacent organizations. The world is a very small place, sometimes. 

It really feels that way when I run into Mike at the local farmer's market. Naturally, that's when I pitch him article ideas. I'm reading the entire run of Heavy Metal in public (in blog format) because I happen to own the entire run of Heavy Metal. This means that I'm engaged in an ongoing study of the magazine. In addition, I have a diverse and idiosyncratic reading list that tends towards the weird corners of comics history. Sometimes one circumstance or another results in long articles that I don't really have anyplace to put. Mike has been gracious enough to let me publish them here.

In summary: this is an article about comics from someone in the DC area. 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Inside Moebius Part 1


by RM Rhodes

There is a vast gulf between the way English speaking audiences and French speaking audiences regard the comics artist Moebius. English speaking audiences know him primarily as “that Heavy Metal guy” who produced a number of visionary science fiction works and eventually drifted off to get work in Hollywood. The books that were translated into English went out of print in the 80s and are his other works are only now starting to show up in English. But there are an awful lot of single images of his floating around on Tumblr.


One of the more famous illustrations by Moebius

To French audiences, Moebius was the artist on Blueberry in the 60s who went by a different name and went on to help found one of the most influential experimental comics companies of the 70s. He drew a phenomenal amount of beautiful work in a variety of different genres. But his most commercial popular work would always be the westerns that he worked on in his youth – the work that he had spent his life rebelling against.

Details like this are important if one wants to get the most out of the recent translation of Inside Moebius, published by Dark Horse in 2018. It’s a beautiful hardback printing of what is essential an autobiographical comic from one of France’s dearly departed comics heroes. Moebius died in 2012, and these began publication in French in the early 2000s, so they are not new, just new to an English-speaking audience.
The Foreword to the first volume of Inside Moebius is written by Isabelle Giraud, his widow, and awkwardly describes the origins of this book in such a way that it would be easy to miss it. The Translator’s Notes in the back of the book provide some of the context, as well. However, what these notes fail to mention is that Inside Moebius is, first and foremost, a metafictional story. As with all metafictional stories, the more references the reader can understand, the better the story becomes.

In 1999, Moebius decided to stop smoking pot after decades of consumption. However, he was worried about a corresponding loss of creativity so he decided to produce a drawing a day for seventy days. He chose the desert as a repeating motif because Desert B sounds like désherber – the French verb for “pulling weeds” or “de-weeding.” From there, the project became known as 40 Jours Dans le Desert B or Forty Days in the Desert B.

From 40 Jours Dans le Desert B

The illustrations that Moebius did during this period are beautiful – among his best work. They show the clean, confident lines of a master who is obviously enjoying himself while he works. They were published in a limited edition collection called 40 Jours Dans le Desert B, which was the obvious title. The subtitle was la stratégie de la démence, which translates as the strategy of dementia.
As beautiful as the books were, the print run was relatively small. Copies of the book go for hundreds of dollars, but Moebius didn’t see that money.

In 2001, Moebius started making diary comics. He had experimented with the form before, in a short story called La Deviation, when he was very clearly enjoying psychedelic narcotics. This is his first extended return.

Moebius diary comics from the early 70s

Inside Moebius is, then, a follow-on to a basically unobtainable product that heavily informs what the reader is holding. The introduction makes a game attempt to provide some of the things to watch out for, but in my opinion, it shirks some of the foundational information that gives an English-language reader the ability to enjoy the depth of the book. 

Moebius diary comics from the early 2000s

For example, the story starts with Moebius struggling with a Blueberry script. Other characters of his – Arzach and Major Gruber – show up to laugh at his frustration. If you knew who any of those three characters are, congratulations for being more informed than the vast majority of Americans. A canny reader could deduce that these are fictional characters, but may not have enough contextual clues to pick up on the fact that these are existing properties and not something made up for the sake of the story. Moebius expects that you will know these things, otherwise why are you bothering to read his diary comics?



Blueberry is a character from the western comic by the same name that first brought him to public attention in the 60s and early 70s. Originally written by Jean-Michel Charlier and published episodically in Pilote magazine, Blueberry is arguably Moebius’s best known work and most commercially successful. Most of it is done under his legal name Jean Giraud. He stopped working on Blueberry in 1974 because he wanted to explore the kind of work that he was producing under the name Moebius. In effect, Blueberry is the property that he desperately wants to leave behind.

Unfortunately, we are told that an elder Moebius is struggling with the knowledge that a new Blueberry book will sell more copies than a limited edition art book like 40 Jours Dans le Desert B (although the specific title isn’t mentioned). This struggle becomes the early driver of what could charitably be described as plot.

Arzach is one of the original characters Moebius experimented with when he first started drawing comics that seemed to straddle a line between science fiction and fantasy without really caring that such a divide mattered or even existed.



Major Gruber is the main character from an early masterpiece by Moebius – Le Garage Hermétique, translated into English as The Airtight Garage. Like Inside Moebius, The Airtight Garage was composed in one to three page segments and only had a loose thematic connection holding the episodes together. This makes it difficult to summarize The Airtight Garage, but the art is fantastic. Inside Moebius shows a better degree of control, but its structure is naturally a callback to that seminal work, for those that know what to look for.

From The Airtight Garage

A younger, cockier version of Moebius, from the early 80s, shows up as well. By that point, Moebius had quit high profile jobs to go create a publishing company with his hippy artist friends, dragged into designing movies with (and without) Alejandro Jodorowsky, but had not yet drawn the Silver Surfer for Marvel, which means that he had not yet tried and failed to conquer American comics markets.

These characters mingle with the older Moebius character. They sit and chat and eat dinner together, like something out of a Fellini film. Perhaps not coincidentally, Fellini provided the introduction to the Moebius special published by Heavy Metal in 1982.



One of the most notable things about Inside Moebius is the lack of polish on the art. Moebius was well-known for working in a variety of art styles, switching back and forth between them fluently, sometimes on the same page. Fans hoping to see beautiful psychedelic illustrations are likely to be disappointed. This is Moebius enjoying the looseness of cartooning and not sweating the small stuff. In fact, if you want to learn what a master cartoonist considers to be essential lines on the page, Inside Moebius is a great textbook.

The fact that the original diaries date back to 2001 becomes obvious when Moebius comments on the events of 9/11 and has an extended conversation with Osama Bin Laden (who died a year before Moebius did). Geronimo also shows up to compare and contrast his terrorist methodologies with Bin Laden. Another character from The Airtight Garage makes an appearance as well.



Even if you have more interest in geopolitics than the antics of an old master farting around with characters you’ve never heard of before, the book contains a very entertaining take on what were, at the time, considered to be Very Serious subjects.

If you consider yourself to be a fan of Moebius, this book is an essential work that your library would be incomplete without. Part two is due out in early June. I’m very much looking forward to picking up a copy.

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Why is this here? It's a long story. Mike Rhode first introduced himself to me when I first started vending at SPX. Over the years, we've talk to each other at Comic conventions around the DC area and never quite get around to sitting down for lunch. 

When I moved to Arlington two years ago, I didn't realize that Mike lived within a mile of my building. Nor did I realize that he lived next door to my girlfriend's friend from college. We also discovered, by accident that we work two buildings away from each other, because we work in adjacent organizations. The world is a very small place, sometimes. 

It really feels that way when I run into Mike at the local farmer's market. Naturally, that's when I pitch him article ideas. I'm reading the entire run of Heavy Metal in public (in blog format) because I happen to own the entire run of Heavy Metal. This means that I'm engaged in an ongoing study of the magazine. In addition, I have a diverse and idiosyncratic reading list that tends towards the weird corners of comics history. Sometimes one circumstance or another results in long articles that I don't really have anyplace to put. Mike has been gracious enough to let me publish them here.

In summary: this is an article about comics from someone in the DC area. 

Sunday, May 06, 2018

Les Cites Obscures


by RM Rhodes

I was recently re-reading issues of Roger Stern’s run on The Avengers circa 1983 because I remember reading those as a kid and I always got the impression that I didn’t get the whole story. (As it turns out, I was right.) In some ways, this was the flagship title of Marvel comics and represented a public face for what Marvel comics felt their product should look like.




In that same year, 1983, in Brussels, these two gentlemen – artist François Schuiten and his friend, writer Benoît Peeters – were well into the establishment of a comic book universe of their own.



The difference between English language comics and French language bandes dessinées (commonly shortened to BD) has been distinct for some time. Where the American industrial comic product is typically a floppy twenty-two (or so) page booklet every month (or so), the French industrial comic product is weekly or monthly anthology magazines that provide episodes of an ongoing story in anywhere from half- page (weekly) to multi-page (monthly) increments. If the feature was considered popular enough, it would be collected in a reprint edition. This makes for a complicated publishing history.

Les murailles de Samaris, the first story in what would eventually be known as Les Cites Obscures, was originally serialized in French in Casterman’s monthly anthology, A Suivre (English translation: To Be Continued), in 1982. Casterman released a collected edition in 1983 that is still in print. The story first appeared in English, in the Heavy Metal November 1984 to March 1985 issues under the name The Great Walls of Samaris, although the ending was badly mutilated and the translation is generally considered to be sub-par. NBM published a collected edition in 1987 and called the series the Stories of the Fantastic. They kept the Heavy Metal translation but fixed the ending. Copies of the NBM printing can cost $45 or more, but thankfully IDW released a new version with a better translation in 2017. This version comes with a translation of four episodes of an unfinished story that appeared in various issues of A Suivre and other publications.



Many of the older stories in the series were also serialized in A Suivre prior to collection, including La fièvre d'Urbicande (original 1983, Casterman collection in 1985, NBM collection in 1990); La Tour (original 1985, Casterman in 1987, NBM in 1993); and Brusel (original 1990, Casterman 1992, NBM 2001). By the time Brusel came out in English, the translation of the series name had been changed to Cities of the Fantastic.



There are still several stories in the series that have never been translated into English, including L'archiviste, L'Écho des cites, Le Guide des cites and L'ombre d'un homme. This latest round of translations from IDW are a result of Stephen Smith’s decision to translate and publish the entire run through his Alaxis Press, under the more accurately translated series name The Obscure Cities. The first book was The Leaning Girl in 2014 and IDW partnered with Alaxis Press for The Theory of a Grain of Sand in 2016. Samaris is the third edition in this collaboration.



It was smart of Smith (and IDW) to start with the untranslated books first and work back to earlier translations. The original NBM books were thin and printed on cheaper paper and tried to match the format of Asterix collections. The newer printings in French are lush, with a better paper quality, better coloring, and better overall production values. In fact, the newer editions produced by IDW are more-or-less indistinguishable from their European versions except for the language they are printed in.



As a consistent creative team, Schuiten and Peeters have been allowed to flesh out their universe at their own speed. Because of the way that French-language comics are serialized, there was no concern about having to maintain a consistent commercial presence in A Suivre. They just showed up when they needed a place to serialize their latest work and Casterman kept the collections in print. There has been no change in artistic teams, and it would be very odd to think of anyone but Schuiten and Peeters producing something in the series – although they have had artistic collaborators (eg the photographed sections of The Leaning Girl.)



As the title implies, these art nouveau-inspired pre-steampunk science fantasy stories are all about various cities on a massive continent on an alien world that is not ours (although there is a suggestion that it’s a planet on the other side of the sun from Earth). The mysteries of these cities add to the appeal of the series, as oblique references to one story often show up in another. Research and/or investigation is a consistent theme throughout and there is an entire book – L’archiviste – that is centered around research into artifacts from these cities and, as a result, contains a healthy heaping of references to other stories, including some that had not been made when L’archiviste was originally printed. You know, the sort of thing that makes people build websites to explain the whole thing. More than anything else, this shared universe presentation makes the comparison to The Avengers feel very apt.



Schuiten’s illustrative art style, however, is significantly different than most English-language commercial comic work and it has gotten better over time.  He was trained as an architect (his brother and father are practicing architects as well) and it shows in his work. Indeed, Schuiten’s illustrative art style is so detailed and distinctive that it sets the entire series apart from the pack. The reader is immediately drawn to the art and is pleasantly surprised that the stories are good.



This is almost a textbook example of how a specific art style meshes with a hyper-realistic kind of worldbuilding – and Benoit Peetershas actually produced a definitive piece about page layout. There is a lot of material that has not yet been translated and one can only hope that sales have been good enough to encourage IDW to finish the task. Between this and the Corto Maltese reprints (also published by Casterman in Europe), IDW deserves much more recognition. And now that I’ve got their attention, can I request a translation of the other stories by Pellejero and Zentner? That would be great.




















__________________________________________________________

Why is this here? It's a long story. Mike Rhode first introduced himself to me when I first started vending at SPX. Over the years, we've talk to each other at Comic conventions around the DC area and never quite get around to sitting down for lunch. 

When I moved to Arlington two years ago, I didn't realize that Mike lived within a mile of my building. Nor did I realize that he lived next door to my girlfriend's friend from college. We also discovered, by accident that we work two buildings away from each other, because we work in adjacent organizations. The world is a very small place, sometimes. 

It really feels that way when I run into Mike at the local farmer's market. Naturally, that's when I pitch him article ideas. I'm reading the entire run of Heavy Metal in public (in blog format) because I happen to own the entire run of Heavy Metal. This means that I'm engaged in an ongoing study of the magazine. In addition, I have a diverse and idiosyncratic reading list that tends towards the weird corners of comics history. Sometimes one circumstance or another results in long articles that I don't really have anyplace to put. Mike has been gracious enough to let me publish them here.

In summary: this is an article about comics from someone in the DC area.