ALL NEW ALL STAR RECOMMENDS #2
Ahhhh, here we are locked down again. I hope you’re doing as well as you can.
I had this whole obituary planned for this space, looking at the lives and work of Kentaro Miura and John Paul Leon, both of whom sadly passed away recently. Two more different, yet equally incredible artists you probably will not find and to lose one of them is awful let alone both. I think it’s best not to dwell on that here, however, given the current circumstances Melbourne finds itself in, so if you find the time, check out their comics and celebrate the work of two of the best.
We’re going to have some fun with some recent Outlaw Comics instead. Twisted escapism for all! There’s a few of them, so I’m going to jump right in. You take care of yourselves.
RED ROOM: THE ANTISOCIAL NETWORK #1
SLOW DEATH ZERO
Ken Landgraf & Bob Huszar
Floating World Comics
1. What Exactly Is Going On?
In the past few weeks, not one, not two, but three comics arrived that have been perfectly popped out of the Underground Comix/Outlaw Comics mould. Two of them even proudly bear an “Outlaw Comics” stamp and the other is a revival of a legendary anthology from underground survivors Last Gasp that comes stamped as “Adults Only.”
It’s almost surreal. Comics with this kind of aesthetic have a habit of trickling in from publishers, the odd Ben Marra and Alexis Zirrit book here and there, and are instead largely DIY jams self-published by various artists. To get three of them - all very different, all very accomplished in many ways - shipped in such a short spurt is downright weird. Not only that, but other recent releases sitting outside of this Underground/Outlaw bubble but surely on the same Venn diagram include NYRCs amazing re-release of Gary Panter’s punk rock, arthouse classic Jimbo: Adventures in Paradise and Shary Flenniken’s deceptively innocent but ultra-subversive Trots & Bonnie strips. Fantagraphics is also halfway through a library of Spain Rodriquez comics, and there’s even a feature-length Spain documentary on the way also. Something’s in the water.
2. A Very Quick, Extremely Reductive, Overly Personal History Of Outlaw & Underground Comics
The original Underground Comix movement (R. Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson and friends) of the ‘60s was spawned from the artists’ collective love of the EC Comics of the ‘50s. The original Outlaw Comics (a term coined by Glen Hammonds, founder of Raw Comics, a publisher/distributor, in the ‘90s - not to be confused with Raw Magazine edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly) were the bastard step-child of the Underground and blew up in the black and white boom of the nineties. Crumb and crew produced transgressive, psychedelic works that tapped into the booming countercultural movement of the time. The Outlaw Comics glut of the ‘80s-‘90s took that transgressive part and jettisoned much of the rest in favour of pure sex and violence, testosterone amped up to injectable levels. To be as offensive and politically incorrect as possible was frequently part of the manifesto. Yet, for every Naked Justice there was The Crow, for example. Just like with every fad - there are the stand-outs and the shlock.
I grew up during this time and I did what everyone else my age around the world reading these things did. I read them. I hid them. I was a teen dealing with a whole lot of stuff, grief I didn’t really know how to process and, as weird as it sounds, books like Tim Vigil and David Quinn’s Faust provided a weird sort of bloody catharsis. I think that’s how it was for a lot of us - fucked up kids reading fucked up comics and burying them under piles of Spider-Man. Most of these comics were juvenile and stupid. Just like their readers, myself included. But their illicitness was alluring, it had to be said, another of those ultimately pretty innocuous Things You Should Not Do, like watching Evil Dead 2 once your parents had gone to sleep, smoking behind the gym, sinking warm tinnies nicked from someone’s dad. Baaaad Things.
All of this is to say, clearly your reviewer is sympathetic to this kind of material. Aside from the possibly toxic sentimentality stirred up by these things (and for the record, I certainly do not miss those days), the romantic in me sees this slight resurgence as hopefully a crack in the dam that will widen - an angry rebellion against the garish colouring, photoshop effects, glossy, crinkly paper, computer lettering and increasing disposability of much of the mainstream. It’s probably not. It’s probably going to end up being just a few artistic folks scratching a dirty itch, but let the old timer dream a bit, eh?
3. Okay, The Comics I’m Supposed To Be Reviewing
Generally, I like to roughly follow that ol’ post modern tenet: The Author Is Dead. Outside of historical context or anything relevant, I think the best criticism/readings focuses on the work itself rather than those who created it and what they may or may not have intended. I break this all the time, I know. In my defence, I’m not a very good critic so I’m just going to go ahead and totally smash that rule here because there’s absolutely no way to talk about Ed Piskor’s Red Room, particularly some of the reaction to the comic, without discussing the author himself.
If there does turn out to be something equivalent to an Outlaw Comics outbreak, Piskor is patient zero. To an ever-increasing audience, Piskor and co-host and fellow cartoonist Jim Rugg have dug through their own comics boxes and quarter bins in shops everywhere for Cartoonist Kayfabe and have exhumed a number of Outlaw Classics: the aforementioned Faust, Tim Truman’s excellent Dragon Chiang amongst them. They’ve fetishised old school techniques - duotone and zipatone - with Piskor going so far as to just “colour in” sheets of old duotone, scan them, and use them as his own personal rustic digital tonal effect (with great success). Red Room seems borne directly from Kayfabe, as the boys increasing boredom with recapping old Wizard magazines transformed into them giggling over the activated chemical effects of old tonal boards and the joys of sourcing original pages of Joe Vigil’s Dog.
Much of the criticism of Red Room, outside from an understandable distaste for the material, is aimed at Piskor himself: what’s considered to be a very carefully curated public image, the endless shilling, a belief that he’s little more than a cynical opportunist, that he’s an unskilled creator capable of little more than “Wikipedia Comics.” Granted, Piskor’s relentless self-promotion can be grating. There’s also a kind of breezy arrogance that I personally don’t like too much. “You’ll like having an actual cool monthly comic to look forward to,” he writes in Red Room #1’s afterword, “It’s been a while I know.” Ugh. Piskor’s open distain for comics speculators and slabbed, graded comics also seems to have evaporated when it comes to his own new work and the stack of Red Room #1 copies some of his more ardent fans have amassed. Curious, that.
The thing is, as anyone engaged in any creative medium knows, if you do not promote yourself nobody will. Big publishers barely have publicity departments, let alone indie comics companies. I’d argue most writers and artists of any sort trying to maintain any commercial success would turn their backs on social media in a heartbeat if it was not such a necessary evil. Piskor’s work ethic is relentless, his hustle (as grating as it can be) admirable and, with Red Room, any slur thrown at his actual cartooning skill has been annihilated. There’s less cynicism in Red Room than there is in any Mark Millar comic of the last decade or any number of those movie-pitch high concept comics or endless “new takes” on superheroes or “adapted screenplays” of films that never were and never will be. Piskor loves comics. All kinds of comics. He not only talks about them for approximately 500 hours a week on YouTube, he also somehow finds the time to *make* them. Lots of them. And the hype has worked. Red Room #1 is Fantagraphics biggest selling comic in decades.
Red Room is Piskor’s Outlaw Comics revival. It’s grimy, violent, over-the-top, goofy, darkly funny and has moments of actually brilliant cartooning. Funded by cryptocurrency and streamed on the dark web for ultra-perverts everywhere are the Red Rooms - torture dens where costumed psychopaths murder their victims in increasingly creative ways for an audience thirsty for death. The violence is relentless and depicted unflinchingly, but it’s so ridiculous and cartoonish I can’t really understand how anyone could be offended by it. Nothing here seems “dangerous.”
There was a movie released in 2010, titled A Serbian Film, about a retired porn star lured into one more film for a final payday that sees him forced to perform increasingly shocking acts. It became notorious for how extreme it was. Personally, I found it absurd and hilarious; shock for shock’s sake, so stupid and trying so very hard to offend and to actually BE controversial I’m not sure how it actually ended up being anything more than a pretentious, hollow and boring joke. Piskor’s reliance on gore and viscera throughout could have gone this route, becoming tediously dull in its attempts to frequently shock. Thankfully though, there’s actual meat on the bones of this story and this web of a plot, along with Piskor’s promise to vary his storytelling and visual techniques throughout the series, will hopefully stave off any encroaching “Serbian Film effect.”
Structurally, Red Room is similar to a very different comic that Piskor admires, Stray Bullets - David Lapham’s tremendous crime comic - building an interconnected world through single, self-contained issues focussing on different characters whilst slowly revealing their overlap. Having said that, there’s a great deal of world-building and plot in Red Room’s debut. The prospect of different factions vying to control the Red Room market is an enticing one. The aspect of commerce and the structure of these factions will hopefully be as important to the story as the unending bloodshed. There’s more plot here than in any number of splatterpunk novels Piskor pored over while conceptualising this or any torture porn movies such as the pretty unimaginative Hostel series (I have no idea how those films became so big).
Wearing its splatterpunk and Outlaw Comics influences on it’s haemoglobin-stained sleeve, Red Room #1 introduces us to the Thelema Clan, a suitably Occultish name, led by Mistress Pentagram. Imagine the Sawyer family from Texas Chainsaw Massacre going all high tech and cosplaying as perverted X-Men and you’d be close. There’s nods to Clive Barker here as well, all creating a kind of horror pot pourri that’s consistently visually interesting. Whatever legitimate business the Thelemas are involved in, they are industrial polluters on a grand scale. Unfortunately for a pair of environmentalists keen to make the Thelema Family’s environmental neglect public, they are captured, interrogated and tortured by Mistress Pentagram and the equally sadistic…uh…torture dwarf, Horus. This is good set-up by Piskor, as he gets to showcase his enthusiastic gore renderings and drop plot hints at things to come that may well unravel the Thelema Family in a manner completely seperate from any discovery of the Red Rooms by authorities.
Alongside the introduction of the Thelemas, we also meet Davis Mayfield, a grotesquely obese court clerk whose wife and child are killed in a car crash. He and surviving daughter Brianna struggle with the loss of the rest of the family and its these early Davis segments that are the weakest part of the debut issue. The death of Mayfield’s wife and child, and their ensuing effect on Davis himself is an integral part of the story. The moments here are rushed and forced and, sure we all all nudge-nudge-wink-wink splatterpunking along here somewhat ironically, but some extra depth and detail, the time to explore the hurt, would really make the issue’s great conclusion resonate more deeply. It’s here that Piskor’s choice of self-contained issues may bite him somewhat in failing to totally explore the emotional moments that another seeming influence on Red Room, Preacher, would maximise the emotional impact of. Red Room is a series that will chew through characters and that’s fine, it should, but having Davis’ descent play out over several issues would have strengthened his story greatly. That’s a sacrifice Piskor is clearly willing to make to keep the story humming though, and fair enough. There’s plates spinning all over the place here and the deficiencies in this part of the story are made up for elsewhere.
While the emotional weight might be lacking, where there are no corners cut is with the art. Thankfully freed from the constraints of the fairly rigid Hip Hop Family Tree/X-Men Grand Design format/structure, Piskor’s spilling ink everywhere here. Clearly enjoying himself, this is as good as he’s ever been as an artist and the tones, as mentioned above, are terrific. The layouts and panel borders are playful and ever-shifting - characters are framed by clouds of pot smoke or the mocking laughter of others off-panel, backgrounds are richly detailed and impressively, thoroughly imagined throughout, the shot choices and visual storytelling flow perfectly throughout the majority of the book. The choice to print Red Room on glossy paper is a strange one and does harm the overall aesthetic of the comic in my opinion, but there’s no doubt it does make Piskor’s panels pop.
Ultimately, you’ll know whether or not Red Room is for you by reading a synopsis. It certainly comes as advertised but I think it has, with this debut at least, proven it has way more going for it than just a simple treat for gorehounds. There’s a Free Comic Book Day issue comic up, with Piskor restraining himself somewhat (at least on the violence). If you’re curious, this might be the one to try. If Piskor’s limiting the gore for FCBD we’ll see just how creative he can get with this very flexible story engine he’s made for himself.
Slow Death’s debut issue, way back in 1970, was created as a benefit book for a San Franciscan Ecological Centre. Conceived as an eco-horror anthology, Slow Death continued to be published by Ron Turner’s Last Gasp sporadically over the decades, and its pages were populated by a who’s-who of cartoonists, from Crumb to Corben, spinning largely post apocalyptic yarns about ruined earths and greedy capitalists. Cancer specials, Energy specials, Greenpeace Specials and more appeared haphazardly until 1992. Fifty years after issue #1 debuted, Slow Death has returned with Slow Death Zero, a chunky, beautifully produced special hosting cartoonists old and young, spinning tales ranging from a comics history of Antarctica to a family of peanut farmers toiling away on their barren soil hitting the town for a well-deserved night out.
Slow Death Zero is a very strong anthology. Including work by Richard Corben, Robert Crumb, William Stout, Rick Veitch, Mike Diana, Bryan Talbot, Peter Bagge, Rick Altergott, Pat Moriarty and many more, this is a pretty killer line-up of underground artists young and old. The old timers really bring it too - Talbot’s “Memento” is a stunner, a kind of grindhouse Moebius comic featuring a nameless protagonist battling his way through a disturbing urban dystopia to bring a dying man a final gift. Rick Veitch (while getting a little too digital focussed for my liking) explores the narcotic effects of technology to great effect in “Tiny Dancer.” The late Corben, along with frequent collaborator Bruce Jones, turns in an effective EC style shocker with “Garbage Man” about a husband and wife living amongst tonnes of plastic waste. “How many trees had to be cut down for this comic book?,” R. Crumb cheekily muses in “Smogville Blues.” Good question, actually. The fine print indicates Slow Death Zero is printed on Woodfree Paper which is, apparently from my quick research, uh, still made from wood.
Anyway, this is a cracking anthology, headlined by some genuinely big names and fizzing with underground and outlaw comics energy. The range of material here is remarkable, from the aforementioned tales to “The Collection” by Mike Diana (the ultimate Comics Outlaw), the story of a psychotic bug collector who finds himself at the mercy of giant insectoid monsters intent on starting collections of their own, to “A Garden in Ghouta” by M Rafa and Kellie Strom - a true story of chemical attacks in rural Syria, Editors Ron Turner and Jon B. Cooke have assembled quite the package with Slow Death Zero, merging the Underground with the Outlaw and the Literary and the assembled talent makes the most of the opportunity presented to them.
And now that your tolerance is suitably built up, here’s a hit of the pure stuff. Ken Landgraff’s Apocalypse 5,000 was originally printed as a back-up feature in his New York City Outlaws comic in 1984. It’s been recollected (although annoyingly incomplete) by the marvellous crew at Floating World Comics. Landgraf was described by Jim Rugg on a as “The King of ‘80s self-publishing and black and white comics,” and his work is notable for the way he merges a grimy Outlaw Comics aesthetic for what’s clearly a love of classic Bronze Age superhero books. Apocalypse 5,000 feels more like Marvel’s old Killraven books than anything like Faust, for example. Landgraf draws like he has a stack of old Gil Kane comics by his side for reference and he’s down to his last few remaining sheets of zipatone. This is not meant as a knock; there’s immense charm (an adjective rarely used in relation to Outlaw books, I’m sure) packed in here, powered by what’s surely true Bronze Age authenticity mixed with a dash of Outsider Art.
Far from being merely some hack, Landgraf (born 1950) was an assistant to Gil Kane at one point in his career, so the glimpses of classic square-jawed Kane characters and some distinct Kane posing during action sequences is to be expected and, in fact, welcomed. He was an assistant to Wally Wood also and there’s glimpses of Wood here too. Langraf worked for Marvel and DC, he worked as a storyboard artist for television, he became a self-publisher - he’s as grizzled and hardscrabble and authentic as comics artists get.
Apocalypse 5,000 presents yet another post-apocalyptic comics calamity, where the remnants of humanity are enslaved by the evil Droids to build giant “computer pyramids” amongst other strange architectural projects our droid overlords desire constructed. There does remain a glimmer of hope for humanity - Eric Firedancer and his band of freedom fighters, who have risen up to try and reclaim earth.
Old School in the best sense, Apocalypse 5,000 reads like an early Outlaw book precisely because it is one. “But the man has discovered the scent of his own beast…and it howls in his blood far louder than any wolf,” reads one glorious narrative caption by scripter Bob Huszar during Firedancer’s battle with a pack of…wait for it…Radar Wolves. Yes, this comic has Radar Wolves, who “track with the cunning of beasts and the precision of computers.” Beat that, Piskor.
Apocalypse 5,000 really is great fun. It’s such a shame that only the original three chapters are included in Floating World’s new edition and the story remains incomplete. Never fear though, as Floating World are teasing the return of New York City Outlaws in 2022, in hopefully a fat collected edition of all five issues. It’s about time, really.
WHAT MADNESS IS THIS: STRANGE THINGS FROM THE SHELF
Created between 2001-2009, Keiichi Koike’s Ultra Heaven looks like Katsuhiro Otomo and Frank Quitely had a psychedelic comics baby that you’ve probably, sadly, never seen.
Set in a near future where drugs have been legalised, Kabu, a dealer and junkie himself, chases the ultimate hallucinogenic trip. He can’t find it anywhere; his regular drug Peter Pan isn’t cutting it and so visits a “pump bar,” think drug-pubs, and ends up taking something called Nova Express which simulates the death experience. Next up, he is given something in the park by a random drug dealer that turns nightmarish and the experience is so real, he’s now trapped in this drug-realm and only *more* Ultra Heaven will help him elude those who chase him.
Most of that synopsis comes from Wikipedia as my Japanese is poor and I cannot read my original tankobon collections. There’s some whisperings, however, that Last Gasp might be coming to the table this year with long overdue English collections of what I can tell you first hand is a mind-glowingly drawn and laid out comic book.
UPCOMING UNDER THE RADAR
DOPE RIDER: A FISTFUL OF DELIRIUM
Originally created by Paul Kirchner in the ‘70s for High Times magazine, Dope Rider is the sumptuously drawn, super-stoner, single page adventures of the titular character ( a perpetually high skeleton in a cowboy outfit). A psychedelic classic, most of the original Dope Rider strips were collected a few years back in Editions Tanibus’ beautifully produced Awaiting The Collapse, a collection of Kirchner’s strips including those done for Heavy Metal.
This June, Dope Rider returns in Fistful of Delirium, collecting Kirchner’s uncollected strips from 2015-2020. Kirchner, who’s never been high in his life, remains in peak form and these latter era strips maintain the level of detail familiar to longtime readers (his ability to warp perspectives is pretty stunning). Dope Rider endures, “still smoking his ever-present joint, getting high and chasing metaphysical dragons through whimsical realities in meticulously illustrated and colorful one-page adventures,” Kirchner tells us.
Seriously, don’t muck around, get an order in for this - Editions Tanibus is a French publisher (printing both French and English language versions) and these books don’t hang around forever.
I’ll be back in August to take the annual (well, okay, not last year) Free Comic Book Day/Stay Away Comic Book Day challenge. Yep, every single issue All Star will have in there selection will be previewed right here with customary unflinching honesty before the big day.
The great, the good, the tepid, the bad and the horrid. I will read ‘em all.
See you soon. Read Indie.