Hello, dear readers. Happy New Year! Hope you’re having a good one! Over at the offices of Comics Gridlock (A.K.A. my bedroom – don’t ask about those office supplies!), we’ve just had a rare break to relax with nothing better to do than read comics, rendezvous with beautiful women, and sleep. I don’t have much to say about sleeping, and what happens with me and beautiful women is for my diary to know about, so that leaves me with only comics to discuss! Lovely, lovely comics. I’m sure you won’t mind. So join me dear readers (do we have a nickname for this column’s readers yet? Lockheads maybe?) on a few book reports from my cozy winter break.
THE COLLECTED AUDRA SHOW Vol. 1 by Audra Stang, Self-Published
I don’t totally know how to write about Audra Stang’s comics. Her “Star Valley Stories” spanning the six zines collected in this larger, glossy graphic novel collection and an assortment of other small projects are just beginning but already feel vast to me. As a critic, it’s as challenging as answering “what’s Love and Rockets about?” or, to act my age for once, “what’s Homestuck about?” Audra’s self-titled show is just as sprawling and enigmatic as these, and intimately human as well, checking in on her characters across decades in the eternal present of small-town America with the eternal backdrop of a slightly forgettable fast food joint, its anonymous contours the familiar locus of precious memories. Two stories unfold with this place, “Jellies,” as their starting point, marked by slight incursions into the fantastic. Starting in the late 80s, Jellies employee and secret merman Owen Minnow turns in his two weeks notice and considers a future with his pretty, demure co-worker Bea, when Margaux, a mysterious, tall, domineering woman, struts into his life with ambitions for the hapless half-aquatic deadbeat and a suitcase full of money. Meanwhile, in 2008, preteen inventor Bryson and his mischievous pal Adelaide accidentally blow up a dumpster behind Jellies which somehow brings Oliver, Adelaide’s boy band idol, crashing into their lives, along with some unexpected changes to the acne-pocked pop star’s body.
My summaries may give the sense of a trashy webcomic, which I think is intentional on Stang’s part, but there’s something else there that is not like that at all, small and observational. There’s just something about how Stang presents these stories, little snapshots of walks through a little town. Stang’s comics, presented as small, alternating segments over different years, play out like overheard snatches of a fascinating conversation caught by chance on a leisurely stroll on familiar streets. You love these characters, and you want to know what’s happening, but as readers, we’re first and foremost taking a walk through their little fantastic lives. There’s an observational clarity to Stang’s cartooning, very much of a piece with the Santoro school from which she hails but so much more, lingering with the most beautiful colors on every tree, every side street, every stained kitchen counter, every funny face and weary brow. If you’ve read any interview with Stang (namely, the fantastic interview conducted by Thomas Campbell in the pages of Comics Blogger #4), you know that her work is motivated in no small part by personal tragedy, and there’s definitely a sense of memorial and loss in these pages, a whisper of melancholy behind even the silliest antics. The Audra Show is a comic full of love. I hope everyone gets to read it.
IDYL, Jeffrey Catherine Jones, Dragon’s Dream
If you are unfamiliar, Jeffrey Catherine Jones is a true titan of comics and SF/fantasy illustration, and although she only made her gender public late in life she is nonetheless also a trailblazer in exploring trans identity in comics. She drew and painted beautiful women and alien landscapes with a stark sensuality that has a pregnant air of longing that can be seen as erotic, melancholic, or fantastic but I cannot help but call dysphoric. I have been trying for years now to write something about her underground comic Spasm!, but words have failed me. Perhaps, however, I can dash something off about the collected Idyl, her mid-70s page-long comic strip serial with the unique distinction of probably being the most surreal and fine art-driven work to ever grace the pages of National Lampoon. I’m reading it here in a 1979 edition from Dragon’s Dream, a publisher that was apparently based in Holland, which I chanced upon at my local comics shop The Beguiling, along with a truly sumptuous artbook of the same vintage entitled Yesterday’s Lily. Had I gotten ahold of the more recent 2015 edition from Donald M. Grant Publisher, Inc., I would have gotten to also drink in the more mature follow-up series I’m Age, but this collection was worth every penny for its incredible reproduction of the artwork at euro album scale on high quality glossy photographic paper stock, and if ever there were comics originally drawn for cheap newsprint deserving of such deluxe treatment it would certainly be Jones’.
So what about Idyl? I would hesitate to call it Jones’ finest work. The humor, generally gags where nude women in fantastic settings babble on incessantly about seemingly shallow or incongruous matters, is… well, often thin, clearly made to measure not to jut out too awkwardly in the pages of National Lampoon’s annoying, bro-y American college humor. Nonetheless, it is essential Jones and essential comics. Beautiful women and creatures exist in voids occasionally peppered with lush terrains. Every detail given is remarkable, and every bit of minimalism, every bit of speed in Jones’ brush, has an emotional quality. There’s a sense among these women and their chatter, that they are far away, lost even, and yet they are alive in some way no reader could be, living in their world and almost missing its beauty. They are an ideal to us, but not to themselves. I love these comics.
ONE HUNDRED TALES by Osamu Tezuka, Ablaze Manga
This manga generated a bit of muted buzz upon release, in a “Huh? Okay, I guess.” sorta way. New localized Tezuka releases have been scarce since DMP spent years squandering a generous license on ill-advised Kickstarters, with Kodansha finally providing some solace in 2022 with the delightful Bomba! and some much-needed reprints. Now virtual unknown Ablaze throws their hat in the ring with One Hundred Tales, a kinda-sorta-if-you-squint retelling of Faust as a samurai epic about a hapless ronin who makes a pact with a yokai who is sort of like Lucifer but is moreso a magical sexy lady who acts like a tsundere. Like many recent Tezuka releases, this isn’t one of his best, because his classics are either too long or too involved for localization efforts to pay off. (Rainbow Parakeet WHEN!?) But like Bomba, this is an interesting footnote, hailing from his manic depressive era of the early 70s between the downfall of Mushi Pro and the success of Black Jack, when the God of Manga threw his whole id at the wall with sensation after sensation in a desperate bid to see what might stick. This era gave us the psychosexual wildernesses of Alabaster, Barbara, MW, Apollo’s Song and so much more. One Hundred Tales isn’t that raw but does bless us with a deep dive into Tezuka’s intense transformation fetish. I mean, LOOK:
Hot yokai dog girl!
Hot yokai girl turning into a mouse!
Now she’s a fox!
Now she’s a bird with a big ass! Don’t worry about it!
Now she’s turning into a horse! Some people like horses!
Hot yokai girl turning into a giant snake, and sweating into a cauldron! It’s important!
Whatever’s happening here!
Listen, Tegan O’Neil wrote a very good review for TCJ breaking down the themes Tezuka explores in One Hundred Tales. Go read that if you want some profound insights. I am just telling you why you actually want to read this comic. I would be astonished if I did not convince you. For what it’s worth, I think there’s more than funny titillation to be found in Tezuka’s proto-furry fetishism. There’s formal play going on here, that pushes his Disneyesque animation on paper to its absolute squash and stretch extremes. I really do think this is an important dimension of his cartooning and should be taken seriously. But y’know. Have fun.
That just about does it for this month. With the new year upon us, I’ve been thinking about the future of this column a bit. My initial idea was that this column would be a vehicle for getting comics off my reading list and getting writing out faster. That hasn’t exactly happened, admittedly because grad school and medical transition have sucked up a lot of my comic book time. For a while there, Gridlock sometimes found itself in competition with my more substantial criticism, which I don’t want. This year, I’m hoping to maintain a bi-monthly schedule, maybe monthly if I can hack it, although school will be taking precedence for another four months or so. So, I want to shake things up a little. And that’s where you, yes you, come in, dear, uh, Lockheads.
Do you have questions as a comics reader you’re dying to have answered? Want to know what I think about a title, genre, or artist I’ve never mentioned? Did comics ruin your marriage? Do you know Megatron’s whereabouts? I’ve made an email address special for this column to send all your burning inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m also happy to accept review copies from cartoonists at this address – in fact I encourage it! I hope to spotlight more artists in need of attention and works I might not encounter otherwise. I cannot guarantee coverage, and I cannot guarantee positive reviews, but trust me, I really want to see your work. Write to me! Until next time, may your year be peaceful and your days full of ridiculous comics.