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Nexus Graphica
by Rick Klaw

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Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
It Rhymes With Lust
Los Tejanos
Murder By Remote Control
Moonshadow
Kings in Disguise
Marshal Law: Fear and Loathing
Lazarus Churchyard
Enigma
Torso
The Metabarons: Path of the Warrior

The Past That Was

Perhaps my favorite comment that Mark and I receive in response to our annual "Year That Was" sequences of the best graphic novels (the 2010 incarnation concluded two weeks ago) goes something likes this: "I love your selections, even though I've never heard of half of the books." When we started this journey in April 2008, Mark and I decided to strive for observations that stretch beyond the realms of mainstream comic book society of superheroes, fantasy, and wish fulfillment. Though we gladly cover titles from well known publishers such as DC, Dark Horse, and Image, Mark and I routinely explore the more obscure outings of the medium. In this spirit, I present this list (complied in chronological order of publication) of perhaps lesser known works that would have made the cut if we had been preparing best-of compilations when they were originally published. Sadly, half of these books are currently out of print.

It Rhymes With Lust It Rhymes With Lust Written by Drake Waller, Art by Matt Baker and Ray Osrin (St. John Publications, 1950)

While attending college on the GI Bill in 1949, writers Arnold Drake, co-creator of the comic-book cult classics Deadman and The Doom Patrol, and Leslie Waller, author of the acclaimed organized-crime trilogy The Banker, The Family, and The American, envisioned a new kind of story that would bridge the gap between the comic book and the novel. From Drake's afterword to the 2007 Dark Horse edition: "stories illustrated as comics but with more mature plots, characters, and dialogue." The duo convinced St. John Publications to publish It Rhymes With Lust, often considered the first graphic novel. Under the pseudonym of Drake Waller, they successfully created a lush, complex story worthy of any of their more famous prose-only contemporaries. The art of penciller Matt Baker -- the first known African-American comic-book artist -- and inker Ray Osrin further enrich the tale. Baker pioneered good-girl art with his work on Phantom Lady, and throughout this graphic novel, his love and understanding of the feminine form is evident. Unlike many modern comics, Baker renders women with realistic styles and proportions, creating a noir feel throughout that emulates the lurid crime covers of the era.


Los Tejanos Los Tejanos by Jack Jackson (Fantagraphics, 1982)

Under the non-de-plume "Jaxon," the late Jack Jackson may have first established his legendary reputation as the producer of the first underground comix (God's Nose) and as the co-founder of the influential publisher Rip Off Press, but his most important and lasting legacy lies in his historical publications. His third Texas history graphic novel, Los Tejanos, relates the tragic tale of Juan Nepomuceno Seguin. An important figure during the War of Texas Independence, Seguin played crucial roles at the Alamo and the war's finale at San Jacinto. He served as a Senator in the Texas Republic and as mayor of San Antonio, but he ran afoul of his own government when he protested the mistreatment of Tejanos, Texans of Mexican descent. Falsely accused by his opponents of aiding the Mexican army, he fled to Mexico where he was conscripted into the army and even served with Santa Anna during the Mexican-American War. Refusing to gloss over the uglier aspects of history, Jackson expertly and accurately recounts this largely ignored tale of racism and betrayal.


Murder by Remote Control Murder by Remote Control Written by Janwillem van de Wetering, Designed and illustrated by Paul Kirchner (Available Press, 1986)

Dutch crime novelist van de Wetering and Marvel/Heavy Metal artist Kirchner, both Zen Buddhists, apply their shared life philosophy to the American-style mystery novel. Before he can build his destructive oil refinery in the Maine wilderness, someone murders Mr. Jones, a despicable man who disrespects people and the environment equally. In this black and white work, littered with liberal does of surrealism and sexuality, van de Wetering and Kirchner investigate the likely subjects. Employing a cinematic approach by way of Little Nemo, the book veers at times into too much realism during its dreamier moments. Despite that minor foible, Murder by Remote Control offers a unique entertainment.


Moonshadow Moonshadow Written by JM DeMatteis, Art by Jon J. Muth with Kent Williams and George Pratt (Epic, 1989)

In the first fully painted American comic, DeMatteis and Muth revolutionized American comic books with a delightfully satirical coming of age tale. The 120-year-old Moonshadow reflects on his life. The child of a hippie mother and a enigmatic extraterrestrial father (actually a glowing orb bearing a stylized human face), Moonshadow focuses on the events leading up to his "awakening." After being orphaned at 15, the idealistic and naive Moonshadow befriends an opportunistic furry humanoid named Ira. Joined by the house cat, Frodo, the trio set out on a series of fairy tale-styled adventures. Originally serialized in 12 beautiful installments by Epic (the "grownup" division of Marvel) and first collected in 1989, the magnificent Moonshadow was collected again in 1998 as The Compleat Moonshadow (the original story plus an extra epilogue chapter) from Vertigo/DC.


Kings in Disguise Kings in Disguise Written by James Vance, Art by Dan Burr (Kitchen Sink Press, 1990)

Because he said it best, I'm borrowing Mark's review from his very first Nexus Graphica column about the 2008 Norton reprint.

  [P]laywright/journalist Vance's story of hard luck and tender -- and tentative -- bonds during Great Depression #1 (the 1930s one) still resonates. Burr's art evokes the era well, as we fellow young Freddie Bloch over a landscape of bums, bottles, begging, and (railroad) bulls. The moments of surcease are few, but deeply felt (and rendered). The specter of loss -- also deeply felt, and usually with permanent consequences -- is never far away, and were these more comfortable times, the book would remind us not to take any of our blessings for granted. In the far less comfortable -- or secure -- times we now inhabit, the story is clarion call to proceed with eyes open, and with as large a heart as you can "spare."  


Marshal Law: Fear and Loathing Marshal Law: Fear and Loathing Written by Pat Mills, Art by Kevin O'Neill (Epic, 1990)

Marshal Law stood out from the many nihilistic characters crowding the pages of late 80s comics. Literally an anti-hero, Law hates and even actively hunts superheroes. Set in San Futuro, a near-future version of San Francisco, Marshal Law: Fear and Loathing collects the first over-the-top storyline (originally published as six issues) of this scathing indictment on religion, establishment politics, war, bigotry, and hypocrisy all wrapped in the cape of super-heroics. Writer Mills, founder and longtime editor of the famed British comic anthology series 2000 A.D., and artist O'Neill, perhaps best known now as the co-creator (with Alan Moore) of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, deliver a unique hyper-violent, bloody reality populated with oddities such as the Jesus League of America, the Public Spirit, and Hitler Hernandez. This exploration of superheros in post-modern America belongs on the shelf beside similarly themed works as Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.


Lazarus Churchyard Lazarus Churchyard Written by Warren Ellis, Art by D'Israeli (Atomeka, 1992)

The prolific and popular Warren Ellis, creator of Transmetropolitan, Planetary, Red, and numerous other titles, began his first ongoing series, Lazarus Churchyard, in 1991 for the short-lived Blast! magazine. In 1992, Atomeka (via Tundra) released a three-issue series quickly followed by a collection of the entire run illustrated by D'Israeli that featured the vaguely cyberpunk eponymous character. After a "plasborging" experiment replaced roughly 80 percent of his body with an intelligent, evolving plastic, Churchyard can react in 0.132 of a second to any situation and adapt accordingly. Additionally, the plastic processes toxins of all kinds, essentially granting him immortality. The tales open some 400 years after the experiment with the weary Churchyard longing to die. While at times clumsily written, Lazarus Churchyard successfully and entertainingly showcases many of Ellis's literary tropes such as transhumanist themes and biting socio-political commentary. Though much of the material covered later became commonplace, in 1992 there was nothing else quite like it.


Enigma Enigma Written by Peter Milligan, Art by Duncan Fegredo (Vertigo/DC, 1995)

Perhaps best known as the scribe of the surreal allegorical series Shade, the Changing Man, Peter Milligan's masterpiece remains Enigma. Mired in a tedious life of routine, Michael Smith inexplicably encounters his favorite childhood comic book hero, the formerly 2-D, four-color Enigma, now very much alive and in full color. Teaming with the hero's comic creator, Smith obsessively attempts to uncover the secret behind Enigma's improbable existence. After encountering an insanity-inducing psychopath, a brain-eating serial killer, and a suicide-inciting clown posse, Smith's discovers startling truths about himself and his hero. Expertly rendered by Fegredo, the postmodern Enigma stands as one of the pinnacles of the medium.


Torso Torso by Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko (Image, 2000)

Along with Frank Miller and David Lapham, Bendis spearheaded the crime comics movement of the 90s. Throughout the decade, he wrote and illustrated several now-classic thrillers including Jinx, A.K.A. Goldfish, and Torso. Based on the real life "Torso Murderer," a serial killer who terrorized Cleveland from 1934 to 1938, Torso unveils the last case of the post-Untouchables Elliot Ness. Bendis and co-writer Andreyko effectively convey the fear, frustrations, and chaos surrounding the notoriously still unsolved case. The last crime work illustrated by Bendis, who later found more fame as a writer of and shepherd to Marvel's resurgence of the last decade, proved to be not only his most compelling work but arguably one of the finest true crime graphic novels ever produced.


The Metabarons: Path of the Warrior The Metabarons: Path of the Warrior Written by Alexandro Jodorowsy, Art by Juan Gimenez (Humaniods, 2001)

Much like in its more popular media siblings of film and prose, the comics landscape is littered with science fiction tropes, often woefully mediocre. Yet The Metabarons, co-created by Jodorowsy and Moebius with illustrations by Gimenez, shines. The series explores the dynamic history of the ultimate bloodline of warriors by following the lineage of fighters as they struggle against institutionalized greed and terror. The Metabarons: Path of the Warrior expertly depicts their origins. Gimenez's lush art captures the intimacy of combat, the wonders of an alien world, and the grandeur of space perfectly bringing Jodorowsy's exciting script to life.


Copyright © 2011 Rick Klaw

Professional reviewer, geek maven, and optimistic curmudgeon, Rick Klaw has supplied countless reviews, essays, and fiction for a variety of publications including The Austin Chronicle, The San Antonio Current, The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Moving Pictures RevolutionSF, King Kong Is Back!, Conversations With Texas Writers, Farscape Forever, Electric Velocipede, Cross Plains Universe, and Steampunk. MonkeyBrain Books published the collection of his essays, reviews, and other things Klaw, Geek Confidential: Echoes From the 21st Century. He can often be found pontificating on Twitter and over at The Geek Curmudgeon.


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