Arts Desk

International Ink: Gift Ideas for Comics Nerds (Part 2 of 2)

In which we take a look at a great big pile of review copies of comic books, cartoons, and graphic novels. This is Part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.

Anyone mourning the gradual shrinking and axing of comic strips in newspapers should consider the comic-strip reprint collection. One of this year's most impressive is BBXX by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott (AndrewsMcMeel, $25), a large hardcover compendium of 20 years' worth of Baby Blues—complete with comments from both creators. I'm amazed that the strip has been going for two decades, and that its main characters, Wanda and Darryl, went from one to three kids in that period of time.

Modesty Blaise is one of my favorite adventure strips, and Death in Slow Motion by Peter O'Donnell and Neville Colvin (Titan, $20) is another worthwhile volume in this excellent reprint project. These stories originally appeared between 1983 and 1984, and Colvin's art is less accomplished, especially in the faces, than that of main Blaise artist Romero. For those who prefer his artwork, Modesty Blaise: Lady in the Dark just came out, and boasts the added attraction of Modesty debunking the claims of a naked female time traveler.

Titan is also reprinting American comic strips in hardcover: Hagar the Horrible: The Epic Chronicles 1977-1978 by Dik Browne is the fourth book in the series, and Beetle Baily: The Daily & Sunday Strips 1966 by Mort Walker is the second (both from Titan, $20) and both are worthy collections that document the strips' strongest years. Noted cartoonists Cathy Guisewite and Stan Lee write the introductions to the respective volumes.

Jim Toomey (originally from Alexandria, Va.) is a big ocean environmentalist, and recently featured National Geographic explorer Sylvia Earle in his comic strip. Think Like a Shark (Andrews McMeel, $13) is his 17th Sherman's Lagoon collection.

Surprise comic strip superstar and former lawyer Stephan Pastis visited Politics & Prose this fall to promote Pearls Freaks the #*%# Out: A (Freaky) Pearls Before Swine Treasury (Andrews McMeel, $17) and fans lined up for four-and-a-half hours at his signing. 'Nuff said, as Stan Lee would say.
Captain Marvel (now known as Shazam for trademark reasons) was never in the comic strips, but Chip Kidd and Geoff Spear's Shazam: The Golden Age of the World's Mightiest Mortal (Abrams ComicArts, $35) is a typically lovely Chip Kidd book. Allow me to quote the back cover: "An unprecedented assortment of Shazam collectibles is gathered together for the first time in one volume." If you like superhero ephemera, this is a book for you. I love it—and now I really want a Hoppy the Flying Marvel Bunny paper-airplane kit.

Tony Auth wasn't in the comic strips either—he spent 40 years as an editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Art of Tony Auth, written with David Leopold (Camino Books, $20) spans Auth's career, organized by topic. Naturally some sections are dated now, especially the ones on presidents, but the cartoons remain enjoyable, and it's interesting to review the evolution of Auth's art. Bonus: Captain Marvel appears in a 1976 health-care cartoon. And the 1979 cartoon on the facing page shows Uncle Sam in traction, being raised higher by a doctor labeled "hospital costs." Clearly, some parts are still (sadly) timely.

Matthew Inman's The Oatmeal is a popular web comic, and How To Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting To Kill You (Andrews McMeel, $15) reprints some of that mixed with new material. This book isn't for everyone. "The Bobcats" comic about two office cats that actually work in an office is a weird combination of Dilbert and Garfield. "How to Tell If Your Cat is a Raging Homosexual" would probably amuse a teenager, but horrify a parent. Though, I grinned several times while reading this—which doesn't happen often.

For more dated humor, try Siegel and Shuster's Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero from the Creators of Superman by Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon (Feral House, $25). Demonstrating conclusively that lightning doesn't strike twice, this book reprints some of the truly lackluster Danny Kaye-influenced comic book and strips. For comics historians, it's good that this book was published; the wider world doesn't need to worry about it.

Same goes for Joe Simon and Jack Kirby's Fighting American (Titan, $20). After Captain America (owned and trademarked by Timely/Atlas/Marvel/Disney), Simon and Kirby tried to create their own all-American yet satirical Cold War hero. Kirby's 1954-1955 art is dynamic, but intentionally ridiculous stories like "Following the Dangerous Trail of Jiseppi the Jungle Boy" and "Super-Khakalovitch... Boy 'Has-Been'!'" weren't as funny as MAD's were, and haven't aged nearly as well. The original comic book lasted seven issues, and returned for one more in 1966. This collection includes a couple of unpublished stories from the never-printed No. 2.

Movies, of course, drive a lot of comic-art book publishing these days. In animation, "The Art of" books have been de rigueur for about a decade. While Genndy Tartakovsky's movie wasn't a smash success, The Art and Making of Hotel Transylvania by Tracey Miller-Zarneke (Titan, $35) concentrates on the monster flick's character designs and digital backgrounds. The Art of Rise of the Guardians by Ramin Zahed (Insight Editions, $40) offers more on the overall look of the movie, which makes sense given creator William Joyce's background in children's books and animation. Both are attractive and reasonably-priced volumes which will appeal to the animation fan who likes to go a bit deeper into filmmaking.

Constructing Green Lantern: From Page to Screen by Ozzy Inguanzo (Universe, $35) has been sitting around for a while, but fills the same niche for superhero movies. Since his secret identity is a fighter-plane test pilot, there's a section on creating believable airplanes before the book shifts to the design of the crazy aliens of the Green Lantern Corps. The movie was based fairly reliably on the comic-book Green Lantern book, so fans of the monthly pamphlets may still enjoy this one.

This year's final installment in the Batman trilogy produced a glut of books: The massive The Batman Files by Matthew K. Manning (Andrews McMeel, $100) purports to be "the personal journal of Bruce Wayne" and contains "private photos and journal entries [that] provide a glimpse into the inner life of Bruce Wayne, as hundreds of illustrations and sketches penned by the Caped Crusader illustrate the metamorphosis from impassioned visionary to streamlined crime fighter." Notwithstanding the extreme irresponsibility of Manning publishing Batman's secrets, this should appeal to the hardcore Batfan.

Batman's longtime enemy gets the same treatment in The Joker: A Visual History of the Crown Prince of Crime by Daniel Wallace (Universe, $50). Wallace covers the history of all aspects of the Joker—comic book, animation, and movies—with illustrations taking up 99 percent of the book's pages. The progressive darkening of the character is both clear and disturbing here. Batman Unauthorized: Vigilantes, Jokers, and Heroes in Gotham City (BenBella, $18), edited by the great former Batman writer Dennis O'Neil, was released a few years ago, but reemerged for the movie's release. BenBella specializes in  "light academia" about pop-culture characters, and this book includes essays on the monetary cost of being Batman, and why the character wouldn't work at all in real life.

Triumph of the Walking Dead edited by James Lowder (BenBella, $15) is similar, except with zombies, and includes articles such as "Four-Color Zombies: The Walking Dead in Comics History" by Baltimore's Arnold Blumberg. I'm fond of books like this and wish they had been around when I was in my late teens and looking for something slightly weightier to read about my favorite heroes. I loved the rare novels about comic-book superheroes that came out in the 1970s. Batman stars in Wayne of Gotham by Tracy Hickman (It Books, $27 hardcover, $16 paperback), which appears to have been written based on a few clues about the then-forthcoming movie including an aging Batman who splits with Alfred. The book suffers from several plot holes—like people having access to places in Wayne Manor based on events from before Batman's creation (when he presumably upped the security). The main driving plot (stop reading now if you're buying this) is worse: Hickman would have you believe that Batman's father secretly funded a German refugee's eugenics experiments in the 1950s, just a decade after the Nazis made such research odious. Two other novels now rereleased in trade paperbacks from the same publisher, but which I haven't read yet, are The Last Days of Krypton and Enemies & Allies, both by Kevin J. Anderson (It Books, $16).

Speaking of novels—and to wrap up this long, two-part column—cartoonist Becky Cloonan takes her pen to Bram Stoker's Dracula (HarperCollins, $18). I'm a fan of Cloonan's work. For this edition of the 1897 novel, she did 50 full-color illustrations. She used a flat, light palette and simplified artwork, which reminds me of a style prevalent in young-adult books of the 1960s. Unfortunately I don't think the artwork adds enough to the book to make this an edition you have to buy—unless you're a Cloonan fan, too, in which case go ahead and buy yourself a present.

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