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armycoverWelcome to Afbaghistan, soldier.

The Bagh, as we call it here, is hot, dirty, and crawling with baghis armed to the teeth. And the li’l buggers ain’t scared of dying, neither, and will stop at nothing to take you with ‘em. So remember your basic training, make good use of our superior technology, and be ready for the fight of your life.

Ain’t it the coolest?

Army@Love takes place just a little bit into our future and to the left of our reality. The war has been going on for a long while, and the army has had a hard time getting people to recruit. In a stroke of genius, middle management executives are drafted, and come up with a plan: market war as peak experience.

Responding eagerly – not to say slobberingly – an adrenaline-addicted generation joins the battlefield, enjoying a moral license to do, well, anything actually – and concentrating on the combination of sex and violence, the ultimate rush. Up until now, the violence part took place in the battlefield, the sex one in “the resorts” – a few days of unbridled nudity, fornication, music and drugs.

But then Switzer, a sharp-shooter with a craving for fun, convinces Flabbergast, a stage-magician and looking good in uniform, to join The Hot Zone Club: actually doing the deed under fire. So now, everybody wants to join The Club, especially after Motivation and Morale – MOMO for short – catches on and spreads the rumor around.

Switzer is none too happy about the growing populatiry of The Club, especially since Flabbergast is telling everybody he came up with the idea. Never trust a hypnotist (as his lovely, if somewhat zombified, assistant could have once – alas, not anymore – testified). Loman, Switzer’s husband back on the home-front, overheard the whole thing over the phone, so he’s not ecstatic either. He has bigger problems, though, as his business is moving stolen parts – car or human, everything goes – from and to Afbaghistan, and the local bosses are none too happy with his recent work. He’s also sleeping with Allie, the wife of MOMO head-honcho, Healey, who, on his part, is exploring the nether-regions of his dedicated secretary, Woyner, while being squeezed by the Secretary of War, Stelaphane.

Flabbergast confuses his priorities
Flabbergast confuses his priorities

As you probably understand by now, Army@Love is a rather crowded comic, it’s about contemporary American wars, and it doesn’t pull its punches. But how well does it bode?

Well, that depends. On the satire front, it’s a bit too over-the-top while also too obvious: okay, yes, Big Business stands to gain from the war; leaders will stop at nothing to get people to follow their plans; when the fighting starts, morality flies out of the window. Nothing new or very original here. Another problem is that Rick Veitch‘s satire lacks real bite by taking all of the risks out of the game. Satire is ultimately a tragic genre, while Veitch’s universe is, surprisingly enough, rather optimistic: no US soldiers die during the comic, for instance.

But by no means is all lost. The book redeems itself by blending these rather insipid messages into a tasty, unique and extremely well crafted dish.
Army@Love
is one of those rare creations that improve with each read, and this is due to two major factors: Veitch’s thoroughness and originality. Many elements in the book are well-researched – technologically, psychologically, graphically – but also given a certain twist. For instance, Roy the Robot is, basically, a bomb-disposal robot enhanced with weapons and surveillance equipment, and Veitch based him both on existing platforms and designs for future models. But the way he communicates is all Veitch – flat computer-talk with painful attempts to sound human (“I am sorry to inform you that I am not at liberty to disclose that information at the moment”), adding neat emoticons at the end of paragraphs. There’s something bizarrely familiar about this, while it’s also absurd to the extreme. Delicious.

But this is just a taste of what, rather unexpectedly, turns out to be the book’s real forte: the characters. They are the most believable I’ve encountered in a long while in any medium – Switzer both doesn’t care about her husband and loves him deeply; Loman will swindle his own sister but risk his life to try and save a half-stranger; Stelaphane is optimistic and patriotic, and also destroys people almost absent-mindedly. These complex, beautifully human, characters are presented to us in stages and through their actions, and Veitch resorts to direct exposition only once, and even then, presenting it in the text-balloons while unique, aesthetic, combat action is taking place in the background.

And this is the final reason why Army@Love turns out to be such a good read: Veitch knows his craft. The layouts, backgrounds, pencils, word-balloons, pacing – all are top-notch, serving the artist’s intent and his relationship with the reader rather than just demonstrating ability. Combined with Erskine‘s fleshy colors, Veitch has created a full-bodied, lush, reality – which it is a delight to sink into.

Yam: Bite-Size Chunks

Yam: Bite-Size Chunks

YAM is a small boy, wearing hooded orange jammies and owning a pet TV set and a hover-pack. But I’ll see you that and raise ya – YAM is a comic book by Corey Barba told entirely without words. For kids.
Knowing these rather extraordinary facts, I expected YAM to be extraordinary. In a a sense, it failed to meet my expectations. In another sense, I am at fault for having these expectations.

To explain:
YAM lives on a small tropical island but often visits the nearby city. Both are populated by bizarre creatures – his good feline/humanoid friend Gato, the scientifically-oriented May, talking cupcakes, edible tortoises, emotional clouds and more.
The exploits of YAM have appeared in Nickelodeon Magazine over the last few years, and YAM: Bite-Size Chunks collects these yarns along with several new tales. This probably explains the variable formats and styles displayed in the book – colors and black & white, inks and pencils – with stories ranging from a single page to 38 pages. To Barba‘s credit, he seems equally at ease in all of these – YAM remains characteristically YAM whatever the length and technique, and the stories never seem to suffer from the limitations I assume the original medium imposed.

YAM being Yam
YAM being Yam

The problem with YAM is that while it is original and often charming, it almost never seems to soar – the characters are neat, but nothing much happens to them, the stories often revolve around a single joke or a simple theme, and they are neither very funny nor profound. Unlike the designation on the back-cover, I am not at all sure that this is an All-Ages comic, but, rather, aimed exclusively at kids.

But this, I shall reiterate, is my undoing more than YAM‘s. Coming from the well-respected Top Shelf Productions and described on the same back-cover as “stirringly fun” and “cartooning at its finest”, I expected something that would appeal to me and not only to my kids. Abandoning expectations, YAM proves to be very well executed, full of the right spirit, and, most of all, much fun for the kids. My five-year-old found YAM’s alternative world charming and intriguing, while my three-year-old laughed at the visual puns and fell in love with the adorable characters. For them, the book was a perfect introduction to comics – the absence of words made it possible for them to enjoy the book without my help, and they took turns telling the short stories to each other.

The story the kids found the most bothersome was, however, my own favorite: the 38 pager that Barba added for this collection tells of how YAM fell in love with the girl of his dreams, and then fell in dreams and forgot about reality. It contains most of the book’s surrealistic scenes, and possesses an eerie, dream-like quality that is the closest YAM comes to meeting my (misguided, I know) expectations.
There’s no doubting Barba’s talent, but if I could be self-centered for a moment, I wish he would write more lengthy stories and use the same talents to let us see YAM – or other denizens of his obviously impressive imagination – reach its full potential. The result, I wager, would be enchanting for adults as well as children.

Kingdom Come cover

Kingdom Come cover

Red Arrow, Aquaman II, The Whiz, Braniac’s Daughter, Avia, Atom Smasher, Phoebus, Alloy, Magog, Pinwheel, Nightstar.

These are just some of the new super-heroes introduced in the Kingdom Come miniseries (now collected as a trade paperback), saying nothing of virtually every important hero – and many villains – from the DC universe. Little surprise, then, that Kingdom Come can make any comics’ enthusiast breath a little shallower. After all, if on every page you encounter new heroes with new powers (not to mention scantly clad men and women with perfect bodies), what more could a geek want? Some story and art couldn’t hurt, but luckily, these  – especially the latter – are also found in abundance.

But let us begin at the beginning. To be more precise, let us begin 20 years after the end. We have moved forward in time from DC’s normal continuity: comics’ cyclical time has been unfrozen, and the years allowed to take their toll. Superman is no longer perpetually in this 30s. As a matter of fact, he’s no longer Superman: he has retired in confusion and disappointment when the people of Metropolis chose another, more brutal champion over him: Magog.

Taking their cue from The Man of Steel, his contemporaries ceased their attempts to contain their powers and integrate their vigilante efforts into the fabric of human society. Some, like Green Lantern, have retired from the world. Others, such as the Batman in Gotham and the Flash in Keystone, have turned their various cities into crime-free utopias at the price of usurping political power.

They, however, are not the problem. Their progeny are. It turns out that when two super-people have children, at the very least their offspring will have a mix-and-match set of their parents’ powers. What they won’t have is any real understanding of the super-hero’s role in society, nor many moral bounds. The world is full to the brim with super-heroes, and it can’t take much more of it.

Kal-El is persuaded by Wonder Woman to resume his role as Superman, re-forming the Justice League and touring the globe with a simple message aimed at super-people: cease all independent activities and join us, or else.

Two forces are at the forefront of the opposition to Superman’s new role as a world leader. The first are the humans, who are not too enthusiastic about being told what to do. They oppose Superman benevolently via the UN, and malevolently via Lex Luther’s Man Liberation Front, with a surprising recruit in tow: Captain Marvel. The second force opposing Superman is rather more unexpected: the Batman is none too happy to take orders from who he deems to be a naive late-comer that has yet to grow out of his school-boy morality. So he does some recruiting of his own.

All of this is, naturally enough, building to a head. Only when so many big players are involved, with such immense powers at their disposal, it is of little wonder that this is a rather boiling, explosive, world-threatening head.

Or, as Norman McCay fears, it may well be apocalypse.

Norman McCay is a pastor, only he has been plagued by horrible visions of late. The grim and fiery future these visions describe seems to be of special interest to a higher force – or at the very least, to his spirit of vengeance, the Spectre. Together, McCay – confused and frightened – and the Spectre – cool and detached – roam the world, observing events as they unfold. And we, the readers, sit on their shoulders, enjoying the view.

And what a view it is.

Spot the human
Spot the human

Alex Ross came to Kingdom Come fresh from his and Kurt Busiek‘s Marvels. While both projects aim to offer a panoramic view of the central players in the two comics companies’ respective universes, and while both of them do so through the eyes of a “regular” human, the similarities end here. Unlike Marvels, Ross’ later work – which is also his brainchild, story-wise – is concerned with the mythological and religious elements of the super-hero concept. While the backgrounds of the characters play a significant role in the book, Kingdom Come is not nostalgic in nature. If anything, the DC universe is warped and changed in it almost beyond recognition – with every major player allowed to develop, and drastic actions with dramatic consequences taking place.
In order to accomplish all of this, Ross was paired with writer Mark Waid, which lent the necessary drive and pathos to the plot and dialogues, managing to keep a sweeping story with multiple characters interesting and to the point from beginning to end.

But, yet again, Kingdom Come is Ross’ creation. It was the first DC series to ever feature gouache paintings as internal art (and not just on the covers), it cemented Ross’ position as the wunderkind of comics, it is breathtakingly beautiful, and it was published when Ross was only twenty-six years of age. The tremendous quantities of love and hard work Ross put into it shine through, and Waid’s encyclopedic knowledge of the DC’s history and characters lets Ross’ unique vision of super-heroes as beings on par with the Gods color and uplift numerous players, new and old, and perhaps the whole DC universe itself.

After all of this rather breathless (or, perhaps, shallow-breathed) praise, it’s important to mention that Kingdom Come is not, narrative wise, a true landmark in comics’ history. It hardly has the impact of The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen, and while bold, it is not revolutionary. But the story works, manages to never become too grand or ridiculous, and is entertaining to read the second (and fifth) time around. And the art, oh, the art, it’s just so, oh…

Will someone bring me a paper bag, please?

Creature Tech cover
Creature Tech cover

What makes for a good comic?

I’d have to stay story comes first, but – unlike a regular book – art also comes into it. This is rather obvious, I know, but there’s more: the pacing is crucial as well. It doesn’t have to be fast – or slow – to be good, but it has to be right for the story. If it’s an introspective exploration of human character, it should take its time; and too many slow moments in an action adventure will send the readers yawning. But this, of course, is not enough – you also need characters that are believable and you make them believable mostly through their actions and their dialogue. Both have to be consistent – not necessarily consistent with real life (where’s the fun in that?), but consistent with the story’s reality.

The first time I read Doug TenNapel‘s Creature Tech (from Top Shelf) I couldn’t put the finger on why I didn’t like it. It had neat technological innovations. It had wonderful art. It had a fast-paced story with loads of cool monsters. It had an effeminate British undead scientist with a neat sense of humor. What’s not to like?

The second time around, I got it: the pacing’s wrong and some of the dialogue was, well, horrible. Both of these were not consistently off, but when they were, it yanked me out of the story, of the world – it made everything seem unbelievable. Less fun, too.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Which is kind of what happened to Dr. Michael Ong when he moved to Turlock, California, to head the Research Technical Institute.

RTI – or Creature Tech, as the locals have it – is more than Ong bargained for, as is Turlock. Ong, you see, was born there – and he isn’t happy to be back. And Creature Tech is full of crates, and until he’s catalogued the lot, he’s not getting a transfer. As if this wasn’t enough, the crates’ contents are, how shall we put it, slightly odd. Or is it more apt to call, just as an example, an alien slug beast with revolving teeth and a multi-talented symbiotebizarre“? One wonders.

Ong is handling all of this with a certain amount of success, but then two things happen at once: one of the crates turns out to contain the shroud of Turin; and Dr. Jameson, a long deceased mad scientist, appears as a ghost to steal the shroud and revive himself. Jameson, however, is not just your run-of-the-mill undead evil nemesis. He has made a pact with a demon, and can turn ordinary cats into raving, roving, roaring, randomly-shaped beasts of destruction. Oh, and he’s out to conquer the world with the help of inter-galactic giant space eels. Obviously.

You may think I’ve just thrown dozens of spoilers your way. Not so. All of this is just the premise for the story, which now picks up the pace, introduces a love interest to Dr. Ong, explores his relationship with his parents, veers into religious themes, casually throws a half-man/half-mantis security guard into the mix and gallops onwards to an action-packed climax.

Now, as if all of this is not impressive enough – and the imaginative prowess behind Creature Tech is awe-inspiring – TenNapel almost manages to make it work. Somehow, much of the book doesn’t seem crowded or rushed, and the world is – remarkably – not only believable, but not that different from our own.
And then there’s the art.
Oh, the art.

TenNapel is, let us not mince words, a master. This is not only because he’s an excellent artist, demonstrating line-work as impressive as I’ve ever seen, but because he doesn’t let the art go over the top: it’s there to serve the story. The synergetic effect is quite wonderful, and everything else about the art – lettering, layouts, even sound-effects – works as well.

But then come characterization and dialogue. The book only has two significant characters – Dr. Ong and Dr. Jameson. Jameson is rather one-dimensional, but in an original sort of way, and, after all, he’s a zombie mad-scientist – so no complaints there. But Ong, who carries most of the book on his shoulders, is supposed to make amends with his father, learn to live with an altered medical condition, struggle with theological issues, initiate a romantic relationship and stop a horde of hell-cats hell-bent on enslaving the world. The character collapses under the strain and stops being believable before he’s even begun: is he a geek or a rebel? Why does he fall for his love? When and why did he become an atheist, and why is it even important? All of these – and many more – just get left behind as the story races on. If the story was just about action and monsters none of this would matter, but it aims to cover more “serious” issues and, mostly when it comes to Theology, fails.

What, really?
What, really?

I think I may have still liked Creature Tech – because, really, it has so much going for it – if the only problem was Dr. Ong. But TenNapel doesn’t trust his readers to understand what’s going on, and from time to time the characters pause to state the obvious. I may be going out of a limb here, but I suspect that when an alien creature has just pierced your heart, you don’t pause to state “it has pierced my heart!” before collapsing. And when you stumble unto a highway and bright lights approach you – as is clearly indicated by the beautiful art shown above – you’re not going to say “bright lights!”. This is devastating to suspension of disbelief. Suddenly, you’re not in a wondrous world where work is reached by a plant/worm tunnel; you’re sitting in a chair, reading a book.

Creature Tech is not all bad. Actually, it’s mostly good, often excellent, and many people love it. But the occasional spalshes of “bad” paint, for me, the whole thing a rather depressing shade of mediocre.

White Shaka Boy cover

In the 19th century, John Dunn, a white South African hunter, became quite a sensation when he was declared a ‘White chief of the Zulu’: the British gave him the largest piece of land of the thirteen chiefs of Zululand, and The New York Herald ran a piece on him in 1881.

Over a hundred years later, Alan Brody, another South African – currently living in Scarsdale, New York – was inspired by this story to write White Shaka Boy. It is an imaginary retelling of the story of one of John Dunn’s (renamed Robert Mahon in Brody’s tale) descendants, a young denizen of New York City by the name of Brad Mahon.

Bard is an inspiring rapper, but he is laughed off stage and scorned by other rappers as “nothing but a phoneya no-talent white boy” (sic), so he decides to go to college, where he applies for financial aid. Much to his surprise, his request is turned down because the college officials have discovered he is a heir to a Zulu kingdom in South Africa. Intrigued, Brad flies to Durban, the biggest city in the South African province of Kwazulu-Natal (formerly Zululand). There, he quickly finds himself neck-deep in local politics: his family, the Mahons, claim the land is their own; some squatters have settled on the land and refuse to move out; Tsotsis, local crime gangs that plague the poor townships, abound; and a white-owned sugar cane company is also – somehow – involved. Everybody seems to be after the deed to the land – which Brad, it turns out, is in possession of.

Brad decides to go into hiding until he figures what’s going on, so he moves to the tourist town of Umhlanga, where he teams up with local talent Mbuwase and the two spread their hybrid hip-hop African/American music. Brad also gets romantically involved with a Zulu girl by the name of Busi, and with Elizabeth, a white lawyer with questionable allegiances.
But some mysterious people are in Brad’s pursuit, and he forced to hide in the bush with a local witch doctor (Inyanga). Soon, Brad is tired of all of this hiding, and he decides to solve the problems once and for all, with the help of a new weapon – music!

White Shaka Boy is Brody’s first work of fiction – hitherto he has been involved mostly in marketing: doing it or writing about it. It is, needless to say, also his first graphic novel. Regrettably, it shows.
Story-wise, the book is not half-bad. True, there are several flaws: the politics are a bit confusing and the time-scale is vague (just a day after Brad lands in Durban, we learn a few months have passed since he learned about his roots, although in the book only one panel has transpired), to name just two of the more obvious problems. And yet, it’s a compelling story and rather eye-opening when it comes to the contemporary and historical circumstances of living in South Africa: Brody manages to weave historical, political and cultural lessons into the narrative without making it seem forced, and Brad makes for an interesting character.

As a graphic novel, though, White Shaka Boy falls short of the mark. The paneling, as can be seen below, is badly handled, with one panel seeping into the next and text-balloons spreading all which ways. Too much of the dialogue reads like a script, and while Brody manages to make individual characters have distinct speech patterns, he fails in making their interactions seem verbally plausible. He seems to relay on the drawings to provide the context to the dialogue, but too much action is packed into too few panels, and the lack of proper background art for the protagonists to work in makes it all seem detached and artificial.
The main problem, however, is the art itself. All of it was done on a computer, and is rather minimalistic and bland. It is, to put it bluntly, amateurish work – which is quite alright for self-published books like this, but not for 64-page books that cost $19.95.

A few panels from the book

While Brody’s motives for writing the book are not exactly clear – in a Scarsdale Inquirer interview he claimed to be doing it in order to promote the music CD that comes with the book, but also aims to sell it to school libraries as a means of teaching children about contemporary Africa; in an interview to Wizard he emphasizes his wish to tell stories with pictures and to turn the story into a movie – his heart seems to be in the right place.
White Shaka Boy would have benefited immensely from a stern editorial hand (which would have also weeded out the occasional typo), mostly in setting the pacing the making the relationships between the characters more believable- but even in its current crude form, and if one regards it more as a story than a graphic story, it’s rather captivating. This makes the fact the book is only "volume 1", and stops in mid-story, even more frustrating.

However, I have one final qualm with the project, and its a substantial one: in the interviews above, Brody mentions that he sketched the book, and then sent it overseas to a professional artist. This identity of this artist is not revealed, and in the book itself he is not even mentioned – the complete work is accredited exclusively to Brody. This may be standard practice in commercial ventures, but is almost taboo in the comics business: you always give credit where credit is due; anything else would be, to say the least, unkind.
The situation with the music CD that comes with the book is similar. The CD label says “Music by Imbube”, but no details are given anywhere in the book or the website. Who are Imbube? Are all of the tracks in the CD by the group? I had to do some web digging for the answer to the first question, and have no way of discovering the answer to the second. The music itself is excellent – urban South African hip hop with inspired application of vocals, horns and strings – but the book does the music a disservice by giving Imbube (the Zulu word for "lion" and a duo composed of musicians Beruit and Khanya) the most minimal credit possible.

All in all, White Shaka Boy is a mixed blessing. In the Western world, not enough is known about contemporary Africa, and the book does a decent job in attempting to rectify this to a small degree. If the credit was duly distributed, if more effort would have been put into the art, if better editing would have been applied – it could have been a diamond. At the moment, and for $19.95 you can only spend via the official site (the book is not available via Amazon, for instance), it is a rather expensive, and quite flawed, gem.

Usagi Yojimbo Book One cover

Usagi Yojimbo Book One cover

Usagi Yojimbo is the ongoing saga of a lone ronin (a masterless samurai) by the name of Myamoto Usagi. The story takes place in Edo period Japan, a feudal period of harsh realities: the shogunate has been established, but the lords of several clans undermine it; the land is governed by law but still overrun by brigands; the hard steel and hard training of swordsmen is still much appreciated, but other weapons, easier to master but just as deadly, are entering the scene; and anthropomorphic animals roam the land.

Well, what did you expect? “Usagi Yojimbo” means “Rabbit Bodyguard”, after all, and the protagonist is a, well, a rabbit. But no fuzzy-eared, tame-natured, wide-eyed rabbit is he! Myamoto Usagi may be a rabbit, but his ears are tied in a topknot and his mastership of the katana and wakizashi is legendary.

In Usagi Yojimbo Book One: The Ronin we are introduced to Usagi the best possible way: by his actions. The book collects several stories that follow each other in time, and in the first of these Usagi seeks shelter in a cabin that is plagued by hideous goblin, and recounts the tale of how he lost his master. The following stories introduce most of the supporting cast: Tomoe Ame, the beautiful feline vassal and bodyguard of Noriyuki, the young lord of the Geishu clan, both of which Usagi helps in their time of need; The treacherous Lord Hikiji and his snake-like (well, actually, really a snake) counselor Hebi; Murakami Gennosuke, Gen for short, a good-natured if immoral rhino of a bounty hunter; and the blind swordspig Zato Ino, who so wants to live in peace that he’ll kill whoever tries to stop him.
Each character is well defined, most of them revolving around the strict conduct code of bushido, governing every aspect of the samurai’s life. Usagi, in particular, will never break this code – but he doesn’t forget than people, even if they are simple peasants, come first.

The stories are action-packed, but Sakai takes his time to show us the scenery, add reliable dialogue, and slowly demonstrate and develop the characters and their relationships. His attention to detail and meticulous research are a constant source of joy and information – from the vegetation, through the clothing and up to the political plots, everything is inspired by accurate historical information. Sakai’s attention to detail is also showcased in the beautiful black and white art (and everything here is done by Sakai – pencils, inks, layouts and lettering) which uses clean lines and functional paneling to tell the story in the most effective way, paying homage to the characters and the society they live in.

Usagi is alert as ever, but we can enjoy the view
Usagi is alert as ever, but we can enjoy the view

Usagi Yojimbo has been published continuously since 1985, first by Fantagraphic, then by Mirage (where he was published in color) and finally by Dark Horse. In comics, this by itself is no mean feat for a creator-owned character inhabiting an original universe, but there’s more: all of the regularly published Usagi comics have been collected into trade paperbacks, and are still in print and available for purchase. In other words, if you like Usagi all you have to do is buy the books and read them – and not, say, dig through used book stores, hunt for issues online and generally go insane trying to follow the history of an independent character you like.

Usagi Yojimbo Book One: The Ronin has already gone through eight editions, and rightly so – it offers a unique and entertaining mix of a straight-forward story with a background of solid research, exquisite art that’s never there just to impress but remains impressive, and wonderful characters than may have large ears but have an even larger heart.

His Books <br>of Forbidden Knowledge, Volume One</i> cover

Mr. Monster vol. 1 cover

It was a dark and stormy night when I stumbled into the mysterious shop in one of the city’s winding side-alleys, seeking shelter from the pouring rain. The lights seemed to be out, but a sole candle was burning, its flickering flame sending shadows racing up and down the jumbled heaps of books.

“Yessss? What do you require”?

Omitting a startled yelp, I whirled in the direction of the hoarse whisper, in the process knocking over some books from one of the countless shelves. Suppressing a shudder, I crouched to pick them up.

“Sorry! Ah, I mean, I didn’t mean to startle you, ah, you startled me, eh… I mean, I mean I was just looking for…”

The gaunt figure stood up, mostly hidden by shadows, and pulled its long limbs and many joints into the  semblence of a man with eyes that seemed to shine a dull red. Its voice was no louder, but somehow more penetrating.

“Oh, never mind what you were looking for. Why don’t you follow me into the sanctum? We can discuss it there, yessss?”

There was something tempting about the offer. It seemed to suggest warmth and darkness and tranquility. Still frozen in mid-crouch, I was about to dreamily obey.

CRACK-A-BOOM!

The thunder was almost instantly followed by a flash of lightning that threw the store into sharp blacks and whites, revealing the face of my host.

Only four blocks down the road did I notice I was still screaming as I ran, and that I couldn’t stop. I attempted to put my hand over my mouth and suddenly understood  I was clutching the book I was in the process of picking up.

This is how the curse came upon me. This is how I entered the pit. This is how I came to be in possession of Michael T. Gilbert’s Mister Monster: His Books of Forbidden Knowledge, Volume One.

Well, not really. But if I was living in Mister Monster’s world, it could have happened much like this – only it would have been funnier.

Mister Monster- known to the medical world as doctor Strongfort S. Stearn – lives atop Slaughter Mountain, where the rain never stops. He’s that kind of guy, you know. His stately mansion is shared only by his assistant, the voluptuous Kelly Friday – and the occasional visitor in need of assistance. Our story opens with one of these visitors – Myron Clotz, an I.B.M employee who just happened to be bitten by a werewolf. Lycanthropy, it turns out, is the dumps – it’s wrecking havoc with Myron’s efficiency ratings, the mean guys at the were-devils athletic club demand he joins them and his romantic relationship with Millie Feinstein is off to a shaky start (he tried to rip out her throat, you see).
Luckily for Myron, this is just the sort of problem Doc Stearn solves before he even has his breakfast cereal. Not so luckily, though, he usually solves it with his 45s. Things soon get hairy, as it turns out the were-devils were following Myron, and their leader, a giant albino werewolf by the name of Crudlick, has every intention of getting rid of the pesky Mister Monster. And now, yes, you guessed it – all hell ensues.

And this, dear readers, is just the first story. Mister Monster moves on to fight a laboratory experiment gone horribly wrong in ‘The Hemo-Horror’, is transported to a different dimension in ‘No Escape from Dimension-X’, fights a rabid mutated cell when (yet another)  experiment goes (again) horribly wrong in ‘The Demon of Destiny Drive’ and more.
And he does it with style.

Mister Monster is Michael T. Gilbert‘s creation. Gilbert has worked for Disney for many years, but hasn’t really managed to make a name for himself as a prominent comics writer. This is also the case with Mister Monster, which has been around for twenty years, but didn’t get regularly published anywhere – hopping from Pacific (they crashed) to Eclipse (they crashed too) to Dark Horse (they’re okay) and then to Atomeka (not doing too well, actually). And this is a pity. It’s a pity because Gilbert deserves more; it’s a pity because Mister Monster deserves huge success; it’s a pity because it’s a testimony to how intolerant the comics field has become to non-standard stories.

Oh, no! He's back!
Oh, no! He’s back!

But Gilbert – or, perhaps, Doc Stearn – is a stubborn fellow. Mister Monster keeps popping up from time to time – his latest book, World Wars Two, was released in 2004 – and this brings his publishing history to at least three published books. This is not too bad for an independent character – that is, a character that inhabits his own continuity (and not, say, the Marvel Universe shared by all Marvel-published characters) and where the rights for the character belong to the creator. In this case, the creator is also the artist, as Gilbert provided pencils or art for almost all of the stories in Volume One, with the help of William Messner-Loebs doing the finished art for all but the last two stories.

At any rate, Mister Monster is a treat. His Books of Forbidden Knowledge, Volume One has several stories written by other writers – including one written by the illustrious Alan Moore, who also wrote the enlightening introduction – but none manage to strike the wonderful balance Michael T. Gilbert seems to pull off so effortlessly. This balance is a heady elixir of slapstick, action, tongue-in-cheek humour and genuine horror – an over-the-top parade of genre cliches that, somehow, seems to re-invent both the genre and itself every few pages. The other writers tend to make Mister Monster’s world too campy, or the character too idiotic, and it’s an easy mistake to make – since, come on, who puts on underpants to fight mutated blood-cell?
Michael T. Gilbert’s Mister Monster, that’s who!

Sadly, Mister Monster: His Books of Forbidden Knowledge, Volume One seems to be out of print, so you’ll have to settle for a used copy. However, Mister Monster: His Books of Forbidden Knowledge, Volume Zero, showcasing some of the later Mister Monster stories published (in black and white) by Dark Horse is still available.

But Don’t make the same mistake I made. Don’t follow me into the pit. At all costs, avoid reading Mister Monster – or you will be doomed to hours of fun.

Doomed, I say.

DOOOOOMMED!

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