Underground Station – Column

undergrstationlogoUnderground Station

by Bruce Sweeney

I frequently anguish over the volume of material out there of which I need to stay on top. Long gone are the days when there were three or four sporadic publishers of underground comics. Every seventh 20-something seems to be self-publishing something. The country seems awash in independently-produced comics.

Now the term is “alternative comics,” which pushes the borders back from political/dope-oriented or bawdy stories to equally controversial and occasionally mature graphic novels or individually published efforts. Too often, it seems to include the efforts of every nineteen year old who wants to tell us about the personal pain of his sensitive life in crayons. There’s a lot of crap out there, as any Lollipop reviewer will agree.

Then there are people like Sammy Harkham, 25, doing riveting work for the occasional comics anthology Framer’s Ergot and his own Crickets. One of his two stories wound up in 2004’s Houghton-Mifflin’s Best American Non-Required Reading, which features a great cover by yet another talented young artist, Adrian Tomine.

undergroundsta-twaincoverTime reports that this year will see some hot new titles emerge such as the entirety of Charles Burns‘ creepy Black Holes published by Pantheon. Charles Burns recently did the cover for Carl Hiasson‘s best-seller Skinny Dip, which is a great read. We’ll see Lost Girls by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie from Top Shelf this summer, and Pyongyang, a story of cartoonist Guy Desisle‘s journey to North Korea five years ago, from Drawn & Quarterly.

Drawn & Quarterly has work in its stable by such luminaries as Robert Crumb, Gary Panter, Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, and now Guy Desisle. Located in Canada, they’re publishing some of the best material of its kind in North America.

NBM Publishing in New York features two recent titles by Will Eisner: Sundiata and Eisner’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

My face is sort of red not to have given some coverage to Art Speigelman‘s In the Shadow of No Towers. It’s one of the biggest graphic novel blockbusters since his Maus of 1991, falling recently into Amazon’s top ten at the end of 2004. It’s a wise and wicked treatise on where we’ve been left by the Bush Administration since the infamous 9/11. It’s published by Pantheon.

Rip-Off Press is now largely devoted to producing sex comics, but it also serves as a place to start if you want to back up to the Fabulous Freak Brothers or early works by Robert Crumb.

I further shamelessly recommend the new graphic novel, Scalawag, by Steve Lafler. His Bughouse line was a modest success published by Top Shelf Productions. Steve uses cartoon characters, insects specifically, to draw out the story of Black jazz musicians from the ’40s and ’50s. It all began with the first book, Bughouse #1, but I believe that you can jump in at any point and the whole series would work for you.

undergroundsta-poecoverTop Shelf has announced a Will Eisner tribute comic coming. Eisner was one of the first to make his cartoon hero, the Spirit, an everyman with no particular powers that went after criminals and occasionally got beaten up. His cartoon book, Contract with God, is thought to be one of the first of the alternative mature graphic novels. An annual comic award, the Eisner, is named after this cartooning giant. He passed away on January 3, 2005 at the age of 88.

Speaking of Top Shelf, I do not read, consume, or recommend sweet material. We at Lollipop are all just a little bit too scruffy and street for a return to innocence, right? Were that not true, I’d make rapid reference to Owly by Andy Runton. This is really a very charming all-ages comic where the lead character, a lonely little owl, is always trying to fill his life with new friends and adventures. It’s also unique in that it comes across like a silent film, because it’s cleverly devoid of dialogue. If you were to pick out one graphic novel to present to a young lady for whom you have romantic inclinations, this would do it. The item comes across very sweet, imaginative, and thereby very seductive in a high-level narrative way. At first glance, you might just pass it off as a too-cute children’s graphic novel, but as you pay attention to the panels and the rhythm of how the narrative unfolds, you find that there’s wit and talent available on the page. It runs $10 and there’s now a companion #2 out called Just a Little Blue.

A new title from Slave Labor is A Bag of Anteaters by Ian Carney and Jonathon Edwards, due out this season for $2.95. It’s about two teenage friends, Dave and David, as they negotiate a day of dating, drunkenness, and other contemporary issues. I haven’t personally seen the item.

Further, Eureka Productions has their new Graphic Classics: Robert Louis Stevenson out with great interpretations of the master’s stories or features by Maxon Crumb, Hunt Emerson, Sherri Flenniken, and others. This is the ninth in a row for these productive and talented publishers. They have a great capacity to amass interpretations from a broad base of contemporary artists, and I only hope that they’re doing well. One of the very best series to emerge in years. I’m watching for their latest, with interpretations of O. Henry. So far, they’ve successfully tackled the work of Edgar Allan Poe [with a cover by Skot Olsen, whose done a number of magazine and mp3 CD covers for Lollipop], Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, and other heavies of literature. Some of their material is reprinted here.

The king of hot new titles is generally Fantagraphics, who always has a ton of great material available. Their Blab! Vol. 15 is sure to be the title or series to beat for sheer audacious, edgy material. This issue includes material by Spain, Peter Kuper, and Sue Coe. Bob Staake delivers an interpretation of Steely Dan lyrics.

Fantagraphics also has some great material available by Peter Bagge, Mark Bode, and Joe Coleman. Who could resist a title like Trucker Fags in Denial by Jim Blanchard and Jim Goad? Trust me, quit your dead end job and buy this shit before you grow too old. You’ll thank me.
(www.drawnandquarterly.com, www.nbmpub.com, www.ripoffpress.com, www.topshelfcomix.com, www.slavelabor.com, www.graphicclassics.com, www.fantagraphis.com)