Rich Kreiner’s Yearlong Best of the Year: Comic Book Comics

Posted by on February 27th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Evil Twin Comics; 40 pp.; B&W; $3.95

With all the comparable in-house material available, it’s probably possible to evaluate writer Fred Van Lente and artist Ryan Dunlavey’s series Comic Book Comics by contrasts alone. As Scott McClouds’ Understanding Comics gave an analysis of comics done in comics, Comic Book Comics gives the history of the form in the form. In its topic, C.B.C. overlaps several book-length treatments of the medium, The Ten-Cent Plague being the moment’s front runner. Finally, we have a sense of Van Lente and Dunalavey’s approach, style and tenor from their Action Philosophers, perused here last time.

The cover of the fourth and latest issue of CBC is a parody of Fantastic Four #1 featuring Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Robert Crumb and Hergé “Together for the first time in Comic Book History!” That’s a pretty succinct statement of the series’ accessible, light ’n’ lively approach toward its subject. It also gives a sense of the thematic and temporal clip at which the comic travels (they could just have legitimately included Charles Brio in that roster). Industry high points and artistic trends are duly hit, often entertainingly. The authors seem most comfortable conveying the temper and the times through an emphasis on pivotal figures, itself the organizing tool of Action Philosophers. Narrative focus wavers when the action sprawls, unfolding rapidly on multiple stages simultaneously (or when, one suspects, Van Lente and Dunlavey feel they have just too much primo material to leave out). For example, during the explosive years of early comic publishing, C.B.C. doesn’t pretend to match more considered prose examination of the pervasive shell-games, personal skullduggery and willful, blinkered creative optimism of that furious spasm. Here the comic’s use of a caricature of Kirby careening among gigs, companies and creative alliances, makes sense as motif.

Perhaps it’s no more than a manifestation of Van Lente and Dunlavey’s personal interests, but the narrative really picks up on certain beats. They trace with terse finesse and unusual insight a far more involved relationship between Pop Art and comics than is generally seen in art or fan press.

Exaggerations, excesses and wacky free associations play a significant part in Dunlavey’s humorous delivery. As was the case in Action Philosophers, the creators themselves have their heroes and villains (sainted Eisner helps win World War II by advancing his craft while, doing much the same on the opposite page, Dark Lord Disney profiteers). The comic is meant to be read lightly, quickly, but you’ll still have occasion to generate your own responses to oversights, liberties and simplifications according to personal knowledge and taste (Crumb in Countercultureland is milked for freaky flamboyance and prurience, Wertham is introduced with a surprising respect — and who gives a tinker’s damn about how shabbily that scumbag Victor Fox is treated?).

As with Action Philosophers, Comic Book Comics aims to inform as it amuses, at least so long as savvy marketing isn’t made to sacrifice one of those goals.

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