BERNIE WRIGHTSON RIP
Just terrible news to begin with this week, as the legendary horror artist Bernie Wrightson has passed away following a battle with brain cancer.
In his foreword to Creepy Presents: Bernie Wrightson, writer and frequent Wrightson collaborator Bruce Jones writes: “Bernie Wrightson is one of the best-known comic book artists of the twentieth century”and this is certainly true, blessed as he was with the gift of rendering the macabre with odd grace and beauty. His art is immediately recognisable, with his fine-lined, long-limbed figures emerging from swaths of shadowy black, looking at times as though they were engravings rather than pen and ink.
Among a litany of achievements, Wrightson co-created Swamp Thing, one of comics most enduring horror icons, with writer Len Wein, in the pages of House of Mystery and his ten-issue run on the original Swamp Thing series which subsequently debuted remains a visual highpoint for the character's long history. He worked on Heavy Metal, providing the strip Captain Sternn, more than holding his own amongst the other legendary artists the magazines published at that time. He provided thrillingly gory illustrations for Stephen King’s Cycle of the Werewolf novella and fifty absolutely stunning illustrations for his own edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. That project took seven years to complete and may in fact be his most famously iconic artwork. He drew Batman: The Cult for DC working with writer Jim Starlin and he spent a number of years over at Warren, illustrating for Creepy and Eerie, during which time he drew the enduring short classic,"Jenifer," scripted by Bruce Jones, which we shall look at next week as part of an all-Wrightson column.
Rest In Peace, Bernie, you were a Titan in your field and like other masters, Kirby, Tezuka, Moebius, Davis among them, your work will live forever.
In less saddening news, I hope you've had a chance to start watching the latest comics-based series to make its way to Netflix this week, a mix of Asian-styled action and quiet character building.
Yes, I'm talking about Samurai Gourmet!
Based on the still-ongoing manga series, Nobushi no Gourmet by Masayuki Kusumi and Shigeru Tsuchiyama, Samurai Gourmet follows the gastronomic adventures of retired salaryman Takeshi Kasumi as he decides to enjoy his quiet years by indulging in food and drink. This newfound freedom from corporate life unleashes an "inner persona" within him, that of a hedonistic wandering samurai who loves nothing more than hearty food and booze-based indulgence.
Yes, it is really, really goofy and also totally food porny, but it's also pretty charming and with episodes coming in at under 20 minutes, I found it a nice palate cleanser from the rather languid pace and formulaic plotting of the first two episodes of that other comic-based Netflix show that debuted Friday night. Give it a shot but be warned: it will make you hungry.
COMIC OF THE WEEK : GIVE ME LIBERTY
By Frank Miller & Dave Gibbons
Published By Dark Horse
"The media is lying to you, my friends. They forged that bullsh--that alleged Executive Order."
There are moments in Give Me Liberty, such as the above quote from the character of President Nissen, that feel far too politically on the nose to be coming from a comic book published in 1990. For a while, I've been thinking about re-reading the title (which I haven't plucked off the shelf for possibly two decades) as part of a vain but ongoing attempt to find an older comic that's the most searing piece of funnybook clairvoyance imaginable, a comic seemingly beamed from the past like a colourful lost warning.
In Give Me Liberty, we do indeed have a contender.
Martha Washington is a young black girl living in the hellhole that is the Cabrini Green housing project, an ominous green concrete box of a facility, more prison than apartment block in which its underprivileged black residents are forced to exist, living their lives in tiny square apartments, the youth educated on site largely by teachers equally trapped by their environment and social situation. The President, there are two over the course of the story, is named Rexall. He's an ageing, white-haired white man with the leering grin of the charismatic sociopath and the arrogance to amend the constitution to allow him to be President for as long as he wants the job even as the country fractures and splinters around him.
Immediately, you'll see the satire is not subtle - underprivileged black people living hand to mouth in a squalid, neglected, crime-ridden urban environment, lorded over by a Caucasian Presidential figure more obsessed with his own popularity than doing anything of real substance. Frank Miller has never been one for subtlety, however, and Give Me Liberty is obviously no exception. Miller's form of satire has always been somewhat Kirbyised - big and bold with its message glaring - culminating, perhaps, in the nauseating Holy Terror from a just over a decade after Give Me Liberty was first published, a stunning and worrying project vile in its anti-Islamic hatred and juvenile in its attempt to function as pulp propaganda. However, when Miller's on, his satire works and there's much of it on display in Give Me Liberty, which we'll come to in a minute along with a notable misstep.
Miller and Gibbons would chart Martha Washington's entire life over a series of books, collected in the soon-to-be-reprinted The Life and Times of Martha Washington in The Twenty-First Century. It's her debut in Give Me Liberty that's the strongest of the material however, particularly early, with Martha escaping Cabrini Green and joining PAX - a militarised "peace corps" sent out to fight the President's wars. With President Nissen replacing the despotic Rexall after a surprising turn of events, the new environmentally-conscious Commander in Chief pulls troops from Central America, Cuba, Israel, Pakistan and Indochina, ending wars that saw America cast from the UN, and puts them into Brazil's Amazon where international Fast Food corporations are decimating the forest. So begins some of the comic's most striking sequences of artwork by the legendary Dave Gibbons as PAX and Big Boy Burger go to war. The Amazonian combat scenes are expertly constructed with the beautiful and lush greenery on display at all times juxtaposed with fairly realistic wartime violence of headshots and parachuting troops blown from the skies.
Miller, too, skilfully balances the horror of war with the absurdity of his satire. The above images somehow fit perfectly next to scenes of PAX helicopters battling an immense Big Boy Burger mascot firing machine guns from its mouth. The satire is not always this sharp, however. Later in the book comes The Aryan Thrust, a gay Nazi terrorist organisation, in a jokey scene that bombs pretty badly and may even cause some offence in 2017. Thankfully, even later comes some expertly satirised fascism in the form of pneumatic blonde and blue-eyed clones, neatly uniformed and serving at the whim of their dashingly attired but hideously motivated Colonel Moretti as he oversees his own war from his ridiculously phallic space station. Again - it's not subtle, but kind of hilarious.
If you haven't figured it out by now the men, to be clear -- the white men -- in power are weak. Even Nissen, the great white hope of America, succumbs to his demons. The males in charge are given to corruption, megalomania and substance abuse, either abusing the constitution for their own political thirst or given to drunken rage at the threat of scandal or ruthlessly murdering anyone in their way. Against them stands Martha Washington, risen up from the projects and the trauma of her childhood. In her, Miller and Gibbons give us the ultimate "everyman" -- a grounded and very real heroine to hang the outrageousness of their story on.
The second edition of The Life and Times of Martha Washington in The Twenty-First Century arrives this June, I believe, compiling the character's entire life and her numerous adventures. Whatever Frank Miller has or has not become, the importance of this particular creation cannot be overstated. There were not too many comics in 1990 that featured a young, female, black lead and certainly none of them came with the creative clout and reputation of Martha's makers. Further down the screen, you'll find this week's video featuring Aimee Cox, a black scholar and writer, framing Martha with not just reference to her as part of the "super-hero" world but as a powerful symbol of resistance and empowerment. It's not the dead-on reflection of 2017 I'm searching for in older comics, but in many ways, I wouldn't be surprised if it's a close as we get.
WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : PUNK ROCK FLYERS BY LOS BROS HERNANDEZ
What's this? Oh, only an excellent collation of flyers for '80s punk gigs drawn by two of the world's greatest cartoonists, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez of Love & Rockets fame.
COMICS VIDEO OF THE WEEK : AIMEE COX ON MARTHA WASHINGTON
Here, to round us out and bring us full circle, is a wonderful nine minute video featuring Aimee Cox discussing just how powerful a character Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons' Martha Washington actually is. Cox, a black feminist scholar and author of Shapeshifters, a book about young black women in a Detroit homeless shelter, has quite a bit to say about Martha and all of it good. Embracing Martha's "averageness" as a human is key, Cox suggests, in understanding how inspiring she is. Martha, born poor, raised tough, is frequently thrust into life-threatening situations with little more than her own wits and gumption to get her through. To Cox, Martha represents a "roadmap to the complications of being human" and, ultimately, there's nothing more admirable about Miller and Gibbons' creation than this, particularly, as Cox notes, for any young black people who happen to read her adventures.
See you next week. Love your comics.