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Nexus Graphica
by Mark London Williams

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Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
Fantagraphics' Great Anti-War Cartoons
Seuss & Co. Go To War
Seussville
PM
Edwin Starr's "War"
R. Cobb
The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck
Batman & the Doc
Stephen King's website on "The Talisman
Recent Books of Interest

The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, vol. 1 by Don Rosa (Boom! Studios)
The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, vol. 1 Boom here collects Rosa's Eisner-winning (and previously out of print) 90s-era recounting of the life of one of comic-dom's most famous über-capitalists (along with Daddy Warbucks, perhaps), beginning with his origins in Scotland, and turning quickly to many merry, and deus-ex-machina filled adventures in America -- starting with New Orleans. You can rarely go wrong with New Orleans as a setting for anything, and Rosa is clearly enjoying recreating -- and fleshing out -- the original "McDuck" biographical timeline he assembled from Carl Barks' seminal work in the 30s. He also crams frames with "easter eggs," as they'd be known, were this a disc, and he's kind enough to tip you to many of 'em in his between-installment commentaries. Now one only awaits the Alan Moore-like deconstruction along a more "Citizen Kane"-like trajectory. But hey, that won't happen -- these panels are in full blazing color, as opposed to moody black-and-white. Enjoy!

Batman Doc Savage Special by Brian Azzarello (script) and Phil Noto (art) (DC)
Batman Doc Savage Special This one-shot is the launch to DC's "reboot" of Batman and his world, in a Gotham City that looks like 30s era New York, and circa 60s Vegas, all at once. Batman uses guns, and looks surprisingly like his Adam West-incarnation from 60s-era everywhere, albeit Robin-less, and younger. Doc Savage drops in, and there are misunderstandings and fisticuffs en route to pursuing some mobsters. Noto's art is slick and pretty to look at it, and the story is fun, but if you didn't already know who the Doc is, you won't necessarily learn much here. And Batman is more of a cipher than usual, which Azzarello claims is the intention, as we get to watch the young "greatest detective" get further traumatized into inexorably becoming "the Dark Knight." All over again. We'll see what happens when The Spirit shows up in First Wave land. This new/old world holds a lot of promise, now we await the Bat-gravitas.

The Talisman, by Robin Furth (script) and Tony Shasteen & Nei Ruffino (art) (Del Rey Comics)
The Talisman Subtitled The Road of Trials, Del Rey's first monthly comic is an adaptation of the fantasy epic written by horror über-meisters Stephen King and Peter Straub. Having never read the source material, I can't tell how faithful the comics rendering is to the original, though there is an awful lot of exposition, tipping its prose roots. The story involves a quest -- this is a fantasy saga, after all -- by young Jack Sawyer who can slip from our world into "the Territories," a realm which also supplies twin manques in ours. Three issues in, it feels like the book hasn't quite taken off yet, though there are enough interesting elements involved that you want it to. Some journeys, perhaps, are unhurried. It will also be interesting to see if Del Rey goes the "single issue" route with anything else, or whether this remains a singular experiment.

War. Huh. Yeah. What Is it Good For?

In Edwin Starr's Vietnam-era song, the rhetorical answer to that lyric was the intuitively obvious "Absolutely nothin'."

And while history has created moments where wars of "necessity" seemed unavoidable (because so many things had gone wrong, or signs were ignored, in the run-up to those wars), it becomes increasingly obvious that "war" is a zero-sum game, except for both the industrialists and unhinged nationalists for whom "war" is their favorite political institution, because it transfers so much power into their necrotic hands.

Am I sounding a bit polemical? Well, it's because I've rediscovered war is actually good for something after all -- oppositional art. Or specifically, for the purposes of this column, cartoons.

The cartoons in question belong in two separate -- and recent -- collections. The first is The Great Anti-War Cartoons, edited by Craig Yoe, from Fantagraphics, and the other is Dr. Seuss & Co. Go To War, edited by Andre Schiffrin, from The New Press.

If the latter title seems familiar, it's because, there had been an earlier Dr. Seuss Goes to War, some years earlier, showing in the invaluable Geisel in pre-Mulberry Street (to say nothing of the Grinch, or hatted cats) mode, collecting his cartoons from the late (very late) PM, a leftish daily paper in New York, that persevered from its founding in 1940 almost to the end of the decade, until being sold in 1948 and becoming, for its last year, The New York Star.

In an era where large cities had multiple dailies (nowadays, it's a miracle if there's still one), you might sensibly think PM stood for the time of day editions appeared, but instead it meant Picture Magazine, as it relied heavily on cartoons and photographs for a breezy, "snappy" layout that was, presumably, the opposite of what the New York Times was then offering.

So the "& Co." in this collection stands for Seuss' compatriots at PM, who didn't make the last collection -- as well as lots of Seuss originals that didn't make the previous book, either.

Before delving into our conversation about these two books, however, it might be worth pausing to consider the "cartoon" in the context of this column -- which sets out to review comics and graphic novels. It might be analogous to discussing photography in a film column, however -- the "single image," atomized from the narrative aspects of those images in sequence.

And yet, the overlap, the cross fertilization, between cartoons, cartoonists, and comics seems more routine than the number of still photographers who become, say, cinematographers. Perhaps there's a separate column to be written about that.

But for now, we consider the "still frame," and in the instance of these two collections, its uses to relay snapshot messages in times of the greatest imaginable upheaval (although, writing this during the first days of what will be years-long fallout from the Haitian earthquake, nature can provide some pretty serious upheaval, too).

They aren't both necessarily "anti-war" collections, either, though you might suspect, given the providence of PM, that the Seuss offerings would be, as well.

What the PM cartoons are, more specifically, is anti-German, or anti-Axis, or really, anti-fascist. Here, Seuss takes swipes at the isolationists keeping America out of the war, and takes on the domestic sympathizers to the Nazi cause (like Charles Lindbergh, in one telling cartoon -- though I can't find mention of ol' Prescott Bush, who gladly sold 'em supplies, as well). And one cartoon may let you realize that our present forms of political vindictiveness are nothing new (even if more expertly spread): in one Seuss pre-war panel, a figure named "Wheeler" admires a sunset, saying "Mighty pretty sunset... unless of course, Roosevelt thinks so, in which case the thing simply stinks!"

Whereas now you'd think Wheeler was simply an AM radio host or GOP apparatchik, the character in question was doubtless Montana Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, who opposed FDR's policies from the left, particularly the court-packing and pre-war foreign policy moves. This is mentioned because of what it says about the post-war atmosphere, where in the brewing witch-hunts PM was among those outlets considered "too Red."

Imagine then what yesterday -- or today's -- right wingers would say about The Great Anti-War Cartoons, which starts on a pre-title page with a James Montgomery Flagg cartoon -- that's right, the creator of the iconic "Uncle Sam" image -- saying "the cartoonist makes people see things!" And there's an artist -- we know, 'cause he's holding paper and brushes under his arm -- shoving an officer's face into a mirror, where we see a skull reflected back.

There's a proponderance of cartoons from WWI in here -- it's startling to consider how much of an ant-corporate left there once was in America -- though to be sure, one of the book's strengths is the broad sampling from European artists as well.

Whereas the Seuss book is arrange sequentially -- so you can follow the progression of pre-, during, and post-war cartooning, the Fantagraphics collection is arranged by theme, with topics like "The Brass," "The Grunts," "Famine," "The Aftermath," and more.

The "Aftermath" group also includes one I remember from underground cartoonist R. Cobb, with two survivors in a pile of probably nuclear rubble, saying "there's a rumor going 'round that we won." That faces a cartoon by Bill Maudlin, where a wounded man rouses another from his fallout shelter --in a devastated landscape -- with the happy news "we won!"

Both of those were from the 60s. There's a similar one from the 90s, but more tellingly, earlier in the section, a two-page splash by Luther Bradley, from 1914, with two men reaching out from respective foxholes -- one German, the other Allied -- each with the legend "sole survivor" jammed onto their bayonets.

They are, at last, reaching out to shake hands, when it is far, far too late. "Must peace wait for this?" the cartoon asks.

Sadly then, per Mr. Flagg, what these cartoons have made us "see" is how little things have changed 'round the planet, or within our species.

No winners, ultimately, just losers, with that particular institution (think of the permanent war footing the U.S. -- and really the world -- has been since "winning" World War II. There's always a cost to the victor).

And while being the spark for various brilliant cartoons over the decades doesn't justify the institutional addiction to war (or its always-looming threat), these cartoons can at least provide some solace. Or good fallout shelter reading.

Copyright © 2010 Mark London Williams

Mark London Williams writes the Danger Boy time travel series, which is currently being developed for large and small screens, and is currently hard at work chronicling a kind of war between humans and... not quite humans, in his version of the L.A. apocalypse. He's had easier beats that "war correspondent" at papers like Variety, Below the Line, and more. He gets Twittery @mlondonwmz


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