Two Short Reviews

Posted by on December 9th, 2009 at 7:17 AM

Here are two 500-word reviews that never quite made it into the Journal (you know, the print version). One of the reviews is replete with snark, while the other is about a delightfully snarky cartoonist. Enjoy.

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Was Superman a Spy? And Other Comic Book Legends…Revealed! Brian Cronin; Plume Books; 235 pages, $14.00; black-and-white illustrations and photos. ISBN 978-0-452-29532-2

Was Superman a Spy? could prove useful for that listless 15-year-old writing a Social Studies paper on the difference between Black Lightning and Black Vulcan, or Man-Thing and Swamp Thing. This ideal consumer might feel a tinge of something akin to gratitude as he plagiarized from first time author Brian Cronin’s nine-cities-in-two-days foray across mainstream comics history.

A Fordham-trained lawyer who practices in New York City, Cronin is the superhero fan behind the Comics Should Be Good blog at Comic Book Resources. Tom Brevoort, the executive editor at Marvel, describes Comics Should Be Good as a “must-read daily destination” on the back cover. They must be friends, because otherwise this claim does not make any sense.

Brian Cronin covers a good deal of distance in a short amount of time. While Bob Kane, Joe Simon and Siegel and Shuster all receive their props, so do Nicolas Cage, Amy Grant and Hulk Hogan. Cronin seems a little uncertain about the cultural status of his beloved hobby, so he relishes those moments when comics and minor celebrities intersect. His assumption, I guess, is that famous people can help legitimate the medium. He also has a fetish for exclamation marks, which he deploys in all sorts of contexts:

“The Salkinds decided to take that ending and make it the ending of the first film instead!”

“He was only fourteen years old!”

“I suppose we are all lucky that Barks never turned his attention to how to make a nuclear reactor in your basement!”

“However, shockingly, for years the popular artist had to go under a different name – all because of a typographical error!”

“I had a lot of fun compiling these stories, and I hope you have a lot of fun reading them!”

And, my personal favorite: “No, really!”

While these sentences make some sort of minimal sense, I was confused when he insisted that, “A number of distinguished comic book companies that have been out of business for years, like Fawcett, Quality, EC, Harvey, Fox, Lev Gleason, Dell Gold Key, Charlton, and even most of the Disney comic titles are no longer published in the United States.” It’s almost there, but not quite. Unfortunately, the same can be said of Cronin’s storytelling abilities. The fact that the publisher claims that this book is a “must-have for the legions of comic book fans and all seekers of truth, justice and the American way” gives the game away. It’s a book for readers who love to see clichés resurrected and ad copy mangled.

Brian Cronin is an enthusiastic writer but he never quite digs deeply enough. I suspect he would be more useful in a small claims court than an archive. This is a case where a perfectly good title has been wasted on a book that will end up on the dollar table at a Barnes and Noble outlet that is closing down.

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The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack, Nicholas Gurewitch & The Perry Bible Fellowship, foreword by Diablo Cody; Dark Horse Books; 256 pages, $24.95 hardcover; color. ISBN 978-1-59307-988-8.

In his recent interview with The Comics Journal (#298), Nicholas Gurewitch said he stopped doing a weekly strip because he was “getting more and more psychotic about it…I couldn’t ascertain when I wanted to be done with something.” He still draws comics – “all the time in my notebook” – but these days Gurewitch is mainly focused on film, television and painting. Sad to say, making comics is not his Holy Grail. This best-selling compendium, which features over 200 Perry Bible Fellowship strips as well as sketches and an in-depth interview, is as close to a definitive record as we are likely to get of one of the more innovative weekly strips to have emerged over the past couple of decades.

PBF strips tend to follow a simple but potent formula. Take an iconic setting – Satan’s lair, Transformers, superheroes, or Candy Land – and add a lethal dose of conceptual mayhem. Push a crazy idea way beyond the limits of formal logic. Show Raggedy Andy or cuddly animals in pornographic situations. Portray fruit in gang fights with vegetables. Create characters that give new meaning to the word “blob.” Unleash the forces of Mother Nature against innocents. Blow up the world in three panels. And whatever else, maintain a sharp contrast between relentless mockery and astonishingly vivid imagery. Gurewitch has a gift for twisting and re-twisting stock scenarios, but at his best he also draws like a demon. His outré strip offers an unsettling combination of Ruben Bolling and Gary Larson-style Darwinian humor and the pictorial frankness of an Ivan Brunetti or Johnny Ryan.

Not all of Gurewitch’s strips are vulgar, but they are uniformly sarcastic. Take “Super League,” in which a faux Captain America turns down the god-like Stratos (“your powers are astounding, but the super league selects only one recruit this year”) in favor of the not-so-all-mighty Caffeinator. In the last of three panels, a Cyclops-type intones, “Damn this is good coffee,” as their newest teammate issues coffee and sugar lumps out of his mutated arms. The nobility of the superhero has rarely been dispatched with such efficiency.

Other personal favorites include “Goodbye Stanley,” whose main character resembles Tintin (and who learns not to trust his girlfriend), “Nice T-Shirt,” in which magical unicorns wreak vengeance on behalf of their friend Jason, and “Extreme Crocball,” which pits sport-loving gorillas against mammal-chewing crocodiles. “Way Too Much” is a memorably gory homage to Family Circus, with Billy and his siblings using a baseball bat to smash their teeth, in hopes of scoring big money from the tooth fairy. “We’re going to be RICH!!!” the kids shout, as they return home with bags of teeth and blood-soaked faces.

And if I had to nominate a strip from this book for the permanent collection at the Library of Congress, it would have to be “Gopher Girlfriend,” in which two gophers complain about how much their friend has changed since he started going out with Stacy. If you don’t know the strip you will want to see how the story plays out for yourself.

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