The Hopefully Almost Daily Comic Book Coffee, Part Three

The challenge by Comic Book Historians group moderator Jim Thompson: Pick a subject and find a different artist every day for that subject until May 1st (if not longer).

I chose “coffee” for my subject.  From the work of how many different artists can I find examples of people drinking coffee?  I guess we will just have to see.  I posted these daily on Facebook, and I’m now collecting them together here on my blog.  Click here to read Part One and Part Two.

Java 1 pg 10 top panel

11) Kensuke Okabayashi & Peter Palmiotti

Java! is a post-apocalyptic satire written & penciled by Kensuke Okabayashi, inked by Peter Palmiotti and colored by Lee Stacy.  The three issue miniseries was published by Committed Comics in 2004.

The year is 2073, and humanity has found itself faced with a devastating new emergency: a worldwide coffee shortage!  As the first issue explains:

“A mysterious plague has contaminated the caffeine structure of found in coffee by increasing its strength to lethal levels. Infected victims must now be consumed by their fatal addiction or face a painful death. The Supreme Justice has ordered the destruction of the contaminated resources, which has left the citizens with less than four percent of ‘pure’ beans.

“With limited resources, citizens are now restricted to a meager two cups per day.”

The price of uncontaminated coffee skyrockets.  Coffee-producing nations have now become global super-powers.  Convoys delivering precious coffee beans become prime targets for caffeine-addicted raiders looking to horde this now-precious commodity.

To combat the Bean Bandits and make sure the coffee supply is not cut off, the city of Neo Seattle assembles B.E.A.N. Force, “a new coffee law enforcement division.” The five-member B.E.A.N. Force’s top operative is the hyperactive, trigger-happy Java who takes her coffee intravenously.  Team strategist and close friend La-Te often finds herself having to reign in the unpredictable blonde firecracker.  The remaining three members of B.E.A.N. Force are “coffee expert” Doctor D, team mechanic Modean, and team leader Kinkaid.

Kensuke Okabayashi’s writing on Java! was ridiculously fun and off-the-wall, an entertaining blend of sci-fi, action and comedy.  Okabayashi, paired with inker Peter Palmiotti, created some dynamic artwork for the miniseries.

In 2010 Okabayashi followed up the miniseries with the one-shot special Java! Recaffinated released through Piggyback Studios.  In the last several years he has been working on the fantasy graphic novel The Foreigner, the first volume of which was published in 2018.

Java 1 pg 14

12) Curt Swan & George Klein

Thank you to Michael Powell for suggesting this one on the Why I Love Comics group.  “The Jekyll-Hyde Heroes!” from World’s Finest #173 was penciled by Curt Swan and inked by George Klein.  The writer was a young Jim Shooter.  This issue was released by DC Comics with a February 1968 cover date.

This one is a real doozy… but you could say that about many of the stories published under the auspices of editor Mort Weisinger during the Silver Age.  Mad scientist Dr. Aaron seeks revenge on Superman and Batman, who recently put a stop to his illegal experiments.  Aaron manages to secretly drug both of them, via bottles of soda pop no less, with “Psyche-Distorter chemicals” that he has developed.  This chemical causes both heroes to take on the evil identities & personalities of the enemies they fear the most.

In the case of Batman that is Two-Face, aka former District Attorney Harvey Dent, who the Dark Knight fears because “I can never predict whether he’ll act good or evil… because he always lets a flip of a coin decide!”  For Superman, the enemy he fears more than any other is Kralik the Conqueror, a powerful, ruthless alien criminal who nearly defeated the Man of Steel in hand to hand combat.

Wait a second… Kralik the Conqueror?  Who the hell is that?!?  According to the Grand Comics Database and other sources, it turns out that Superman’s “most dangerous foe” never appeared before this issue, and hasn’t been seen since.  Yeah, they just pulled this Kralik the Conqueror guy out of thin air… or maybe somewhere else I won’t mention!

To ensure maximum mayhem, Dr. Aaron drugs the heroes a second time.  This he accomplishes by… discovering the location of the Batcave and spiking its water supply.  Yes, really.  This time Batman and Superman unwittingly ingest the drug via the coffee that Alfred brewed for them in the Batcave.

This story somehow even manages to get even more ridiculous after this, ending in a genuine WTF moment that left me totally boggled.  I recommend reading World’s Finest #173 simply for the sheer nuttiness of this story.

So, what about the art?  Curt Swan worked regularly on various Superman-related titles for three and a half decades, from the early 1950s to the mid 1980s.  I’ve always found Swan to be a solid, reliable penciler.  My appreciation for his work has often varied greatly depending on who happened to be inking him, though.  At certain points in his career I feel Swan was paired with inkers who were not a good fit for him, and I disliked the finished artwork.

On the other hand, I have stated before that I regard George Klein as one of the absolute best inkers to have ever worked with Swan.  Klein inked Swan’s pencils regularly in the 1950s and 60s, always to wonderful effect.  The art by the Swan & Klein team in World’s Finest #173 is definitely high quality, and that plays a major part in this crazy story working as well as it does.

Worlds Finest 173 pg 13

13) David Mazzucchelli

This entry is from the graphic novel Asterios Polyp, written & drawn by David Mazzucchelli, published in 2009 by Pantheon Books.

Asterios Polyp is a brilliant yet arrogant and flawed architect.  When his Manhattan apartment building is struck by lightning and burns to the ground in the middle of the night, Asterios sets out on a journey of discovery, both physical and emotional.  Hopping a bus to the middle of nowhere, the architect begins a new career as an auto mechanic in a small Southwestern town, a life very different from the one he has left behind.  Intercutting through Asterios’ present-day experiences are flashbacks to his troubled past.

Having collaborated with Frank Miller on two of the most iconic super-hero stories of the 1980s, Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One, David Mazzucchelli subsequently made the decision to focus on more personal and experimental works.  In stories for the Drawn & Quarterly anthology, his own self-published magazine-sized anthology Rubber Blanket, and his adaptation of the Paul Auster novel City of Glass, Mazzucchelli sought to grow as both a writer and artist.

Clocking in at 344 pages, Asterios Polyp appears to see Mazzucchelli pulling together all of his narrative & artistic techniques to craft a very philosophical & introspective work.

The diversity of style & storytelling can be witnessed on this page from early on in the graphic novel.  The top third is drawn in a straightforward fashion, flashing back to the various young female students who Asterios slept with during his time as a college professor bringing him his morning cup of coffee.  In the middle are Asterios and his wife Hanna in their apartment.  On the left Hannah, an emotional and passionate individual, is rendered in rich detail with thin, naturalistic red lines.  On the right, the logical, cerebral Asterios is drawn with sparse blue lines, a precise, minimalist geometric figure.  The bottom third of the page is an otherwise blank white space with just one short sentence, “Wouldn’t that be nice?” a response to the question that had been posed at the very beginning of this sequence several pages earlier: “What if reality (as perceived) were simply an extension of the self?”

Asterios Polyp is a very complex & dense story.  I read it soon after it came out, and I could immediately tell it would benefit from re-readings.  Having skimmed through it again earlier this week, a number of things stood out for me that I had not previously noticed, things that became clearer now that I knew where Mazzucchelli’s narrative was heading.  I look forward to sitting down with the book again and taking my time to explore it.

Asterios Polyp coffee

 

14) Howard Chaykin

Midnight of the Soul #3 written & drawn by Howard Chaykin, lettered by Ken Bruzenak, and colored by Jesus Aburtov, published by Image Comics, cover-dated August 2016.

Howard Chaykin possesses a great love for mid-20th century American music, fashion & culture, and has set a number of his stories in the post-World War II era.  At the same time, Chaykin will be the first to acknowledge that this was a period plagued by racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Communist paranoia, a time when clean-cut white conservative middle class values & prosperity often served to hide dark secrets.  The five issue noir miniseries Midnight of the Soul is set in this post-War society, one seemingly on top of the world, yet containing numerous tensions and corruptions simmering just below the surface.

Five years after the War, army veteran Joel Breakstone suffers from both post traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism.  Shutting himself up in his Long Island home, Joel unsuccessfully attempts to launch a career as a fiction writer.  Things have reached the breaking point between Joel and his wife Patricia, who is disgusted at both his inebriation and his failure to make a single sale.

One night, alone while Patricia is at work, Joel is rummaging through the house, desperately hoping to find a bottle he might have stashed away.  Instead he discovers evidence that Patricia, rather than working as a night court stenographer, is actually a prostitute.  An apoplectic Joel grabs his pistol and hops on his motorcycle, riding into New York City, determined to locate and confront his wife.  Patricia is already on the run, though, having fled from her Greenwich Village apartment after her client for the night was murdered in front of her.  Joel makes his way up and down Manhattan Island, searching for his wife, running into various unsavory figures who are also seeking her out.  Throughout the night Joel finds himself repeatedly crossing paths with the lovely Dierdre O’Shaughnessy, a stripper who is acquainted with Patricia.

In this scene Joel’s search has taken him to Times Square, where he encounters Dierdre on her way to work stopping for a cup of coffee at the Chock full’o Nuts.  The strung-out Joel joins her for a badly needed caffeine fix, although Deirdre is quick to warn him “that doughnut’ll punch through you like all-bran never could.”

For additional thoughts on Midnight of the Soul, I blogged about it in early 2017.

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15) Rik Levins & Kevin Dzuban

Americomics #4 written & penciled by Rik Levins, inked by Kevin Dzuban, lettered by Bob Pinaha, colored by Rebekah Black, and edited by Bill Black, published by AC Comics, cover-dated October 1983.

Ken Burton was obsessed with the dead super-hero Dragonfly, an obsession that led him to neglect both his engineering company and his fiancée Nancy Arazello.  Ken was convinced he could summon supernatural forces to gain the Dragonfly’s powers, and his quest left Nancy running Burton Engineering on her own.  Inevitably this led to a huge fight between the couple.  That night Ken was conducting the mystic ritual to become the new Dragonfly when Nancy, hoping to work out their problems, walked into the room.  The inadvertent result was that Nancy became Dragonfly instead.

Rebuffed by a bitter Ken (who, truthfully, came across as a selfish jerk even before this), a broken-hearted Nancy is left wondering what she should do with these powers she never even wanted.  When a ruthless drug dealer uses an experimental drug to create a giant warrior and unleashes it on the city as a test run, Nancy transforms into Dragonfly to save innocent bystanders.  At first seemingly outmatched, Nancy soon defeats the goliath, angrily pounding him to a pulp.  Police Detective Richard Trent pulls Nancy aside, taking her to a nearby diner for a cup of coffee to discuss what just happened.  Trent appears to be reassured by Nancy’s earnest manner, but she is secretly frightened that she was taking out her frustrations at Ken on her immense opponent.

Dragonfly was created by Rik Levins.  Following this debut story, Levins went out to write & pencil an ongoing Dragonfly series that lasted eight issues.  Dragonfly also became an occasional member of Femforce, the female superhero team created by AC publisher Bill Black.

I got into Femforce about 20 years ago.  Fortunately a local comic book store had a number of back issues from the 1980s and 90s available, as well as several other AC books, among them the first five issues of the Americomics anthology series.

Americomics #3 was one of the issues from that haul that really stood out.  A young, up-and-coming Jerry Ordway drew a stunning cover featuring Dragonfly.  The interior work by Levins & Kevin Dzuban was also impressive.  Levins’ design for the character was certainly distinctive.

I had known of Levins’ work from his early 1990s stint drawing Captain America, and I believe he actually holds the record for penciling the most consecutive issues of that title, 36 to be exact.  I actually enjoyed Levins’ art for the various AC titles more than I did his run on Captain America.  Levins wrote many of the stories he drew AC, so perhaps he felt more personally invested in the material?

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Rik Levins regrettably passed away on June 12, 2010 at the age of 59.  Due to the fact that he was working in comic books during a time when flashy, dynamic artists were very much in the spotlight, Levins’ work is often overlooked.  While I would not say that I was a huge fan I did find him to be a solid, consistent artist.  Thinking about it now, I find Levins’ style somewhat reminiscent of Curt Swan, another penciler who could be counted on to turn in professional work on schedule.  That’s a frequently underappreciated ability.

Comic book reviews: The Divided States of Hysteria

As we enter 2018, let’s take a look back on one of the best comic book series to be published last year.

The Divided States of Hysteria is written & drawn by Howard Chaykin, lettered by Ken Bruzenak, and colored by Jesus Aburtov & Wil Quintana. The six issue series was published by Image Comics.

DSOH 1 cover

Chaykin is a creator who is no stranger to controversy, but The Divided States of Hysteria definitely generated more than its fair share. In addition to excessive levels of violence & sex, the series broaches upon a number of divisive political, economic and societal issues currently facing the United States.  It also contains graphic depictions of hate crimes.

Set in a reality all-too-similar to our own, the first issue of The Divided States of Hysteria opens one month after the President of the United States and most of the Cabinet have been assassinated in a failed coup d’état. CIA field officer Frank Villa is convinced that a massive terrorist attack is imminent, one that could push the already-destabilized nation into total chaos.  Frank is correct about the timing, but not the location, and to everyone’s horror a major American city is totally obliterated by militant Islamic suicide bombers armed with nuclear devices.

The vulnerable American government makes Frank the scapegoat for the failure to prevent the attack. His family dead, his career ruined, and his reputation in tatters, Frank receives an offer from Chandler Vandergyle, the CEO of River Run Inc, an amoral corporation that runs much of the nation’s prisons and security services.  Vandergyle wants Frank to organize & lead a covert unit to hunt down the heads of the subversive factions who conspired to carry out the terrorist attack.

Vandergyle knows the government is on the verge of collapsing, and the country is literally pulling itself apart, with numerous different ethnic, religious & economic groups engaging in violent acts against one another.  He hopes that a high-profile elimination of the terrorist leaders will shore up the Presidency and restore a degree of national stability, thereby enabling River Run to continue making obscene amounts of money.

Not having any other options, Frank reluctantly accepts the deal. He recruits a quartet of convicted murderers who are serving time in a maximum-security prison owned & managed by River Run.  Each of these four convicts has a tangential link to one of the terrorist organizations, and Frank hopes to utilize those connections, as well as the convicted killers’ aptitude for killing, to locate & eliminate the “bad actors” behind the bombing.

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Frank is a very flawed, damaged character. Even before the terrorist attack he was an arrogant, overconfident, womanizing asshole.  Shattered by his failure to prevent the bombing, Frank takes the assignment because he literally has no other choices.  He is flailing about in the dark, motivated by little more than a half-baked desire to make up for his immense error in judgment that resulted in millions of people getting killed.

The closest thing to a moral center in The Divided States of Hysteria is Christopher “Chrissie” Silver, a transgender prostitute who identifies as a woman. Unlike the other convicts, who are all mass murderers & serial killers, Chrissie has been railroaded into a life sentence for killing three homophobic men in self-defense.

Chrissie is a smartass and a flirt. She is very much motivated by self-preservation, but she also possesses a certain degree of empathy & morality.  She soon perceives that Frank is stumbling around in a fog of uncertainty, and quickly takes the initiative to save both their lives.

There had been criticisms of the early issues that Chrissie was a stereotype, that she was poorly depicted, that the transphobic attack against her was clichéd and exploitative. I can understand the reasoning behind these criticisms, and early on perhaps Chrissie is somewhat thinly written, Nevertheless, as the story progresses I think she becomes its strongest protagonist.

The mastermind who organized the various disparate terrorist groups to work together is Leo Nichols aka Leonid Nikolyukov, a Russian oil oligarch turned American venture capitalist and movie producer. Chaykin initially conceived The Divided States of Hysteria in early 2016, when it appeared that Hillary Clinton would likely be the next President of the United States.  I have no idea how far along Chaykin was in his work on the series when Donald Trump won the election under a cloud of foreign interference & voter suppression, but the character of Leo Nicols nevertheless feels like a response to that.

Nicols is a wealthy Russian autocrat who successfully manipulates both financial institutions & mass media to severely undermine the stability of the United States; he is very much akin to the real-life individuals who were behind the dissemination of divisive propaganda during the 2016 campaign and who are now undoubtedly pulling Trump’s strings.

Of course Chaykin has often been a very insightful & prescient author, going back to his work in the early 1980s on the groundbreaking American Flagg! at First Comics. So it is quite possible that all of the details of The Divided States of Hysteria were already worked out prior to November 2016.

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In an era when many single issues of comic books cost four bucks and take less than ten minutes to read, I found The Divided States of Hysteria refreshing. Chaykin’s plotting is dense, his scripting diffuse.  It took me quite a bit of time to read each of the six issues making up this arc.  I also found the series to be richer upon re-reading the earlier issues.  It is a fairly complex story.

One might regard The Divided States of Hysteria as very cynical. Chaykin himself has commented that what many have taken to be cynicism he regards as skepticism.  The Divided States of Hysteria does articulate his skepticism for institutions, ideologies, organized religions and economic systems.

Chaykin demonstrates there really is no difference between a “terrorist” like Nichols and a “patriot” like Vandergyle.  Both are aspects of the so-called military industrial complex.  The only thing that separates them is that one profits from destabilizing the United States, and the other profits from controlling it from behind the scenes.  The rest of us are just poor schmucks like Frank and Chrissie who are subject to events beyond our control.

Chaykin’s skepticism is reserved not just for those on the right, but also on the left.  As he writes in his editorial in issue #6…

“The right isn’t going to get a white-European America back. The left will never get a table where everybody sits at the head. The damage that has been done by our rulers and their masters to our country, and thus by extension to the world, will not be repaired in the time I have left on this planet.”

In spite of the series’ earnest, angry tone of outrage, the first arc ends on what is, all things considered, a fairly upbeat note. Certainly the conclusion was much more optimistic than I had been expecting.

This is only my impression, but having read a fair amount of his work I get the feeling that Chaykin is one of those people who, even though he knows how utterly unlikely it is, nevertheless sincerely hopes that one day things might finally work out for the best.

DSOH 2 pg 22

Chaykin does excellent work illustrating The Divided States of Hysteria. He expertly renders a large cast of characters in a multitude of settings.  At times I did find some of his layouts a bit confusing, the flow of action and the jumps from one scene to the next rather disjointed.  From time to time it can be a bit difficult to tell certain characters apart.  For the most part, though, Chaykin’s work as an artist here is effective.

Each of Chaykin’s covers for these issues are all very striking, a series of symbolic images that encapsulate the discord that has swept through the country, the clash of cultures and the atmosphere of fear. The color work by both Jesus Aburtov & Wil Quintana on these is striking.

Chaykin has worked regularly with letterer Ken Bruzenak since American Flagg! Bruzenak does a fine job on The Divided States of Hysteria.  In addition to his lettering of the dialogue & narration, Bruzenak also gives us a background “buzz” of electronic chatter and social media nattering.  This drives home the chaos & confusion brought about by the information, and disinformation, of the electronic age, driving home the omnipresent “noise” of the internet that often serves to distract or misinform the populace.  This “swarm” of data is juxtaposed with the ever-present drones populating the sky, signifiers of the twin intrusions of propaganda and a police state into our society.

The Divided States of Hysteria is a rich, complex, thought-provoking, deeply personal story from Howard Chaykin. The trade paperback collection is due out on January 10th.  I highly recommend it.

Comic book reviews: Midnight of the Soul

One of my favorite comic book creators is Howard Chaykin.  I was actually a little surprised to realize that I hadn’t written about him before on this blog, not even in passing.  So today I am looking at his most recent project, the noir miniseries Midnight of the Soul.  Published last year by Image Comics, the five issue Midnight of the Soul was collected into a trade paperback in December.

Midnight of the Soul trade paperback

Midnight of the Soul is set in 1950.  The protagonist is Joel Breakstone, a World War II veteran.  Injured during the war, Joel has spent the last five years as an alcoholic shut-in with severe PTSD.  During this time he was been attempting to start a career as a sci fi writer, but not a single one of his stories has sold.  All the while Joel blots out flashbacks of the war by staying inebriated around the clock.  His wife Patricia, now the sole source of income, has lost all respect for him.  Joel has even had to sign the deed of his house in Long Island to his smug brother-in-law Steve.  In short, Joel is stuck in a self-destructive rut, and he knows it.

Then one evening, while both Patricia and Steve are out, Joel is searching the house, trying to find where he stashed his bottles.  Instead what he discovers are photographs that reveal Patricia is working as a prostitute, along with a spare key to her apartment in Manhattan.  Still half-drunk, consumed by resentment, Joel digs out a gun and hops on his motorcycle, heading into the city in search of his wife.

Meanwhile, Patricia is meeting with her main client, a jazz musician named Cooley.  Before their session can get too far along, Cooley is murdered by an intruder, with Patricia barely escaping.  She is soon being pursued, not only by the killer, but by thugs working for the gangster who owned Cooley’s contract, since they mistakenly believe that she is the murderer.  Joel finds himself attempting to locate his wife before they do.

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Chaykin does an excellent job at developing Joel Breakstone.  The alcoholic veteran is very much a flawed, damaged, selfish asshole.  And yet Chaykin succeeds in rendering him as somewhat sympathetic, his actions and motivations understandable.  Even towards the end, when Joel does something pretty awful, offering up a rather self-serving justification, he remains a character who, even if you don’t like him, neither do you really hate him.

On the opening page Joel is reflecting on his lifelong obsession with parallels.  Midnight of the Soul is very much a story of parallels.  Joel and Patricia, once a couple, are now living separate, parallel lives.  Joel’s search through Manhattan for Patricia is paralleled by the mobsters’ pursuit of her.  Joel and the lovely Dierdre O’Shaughnessey also are traveling in parallel, with the two of them continually crossing paths across the length and width of Manhattan.

As he gradually begins to sober up and the fog in his head slowly starts to dissipate, Joel’s very memories begin to work in parallel.  Different versions of his near-death experience during the war begin to emerge, each one slightly different from the other, leaving Joel finally questioning what really did happen half a decade before.  Even the fiction that Joel is attempting to write is concerned with parallels, set in an alternate world where the Axis won the war.

Chaykin is more concerned here with character introspection, with the creation of a mood and the establishment of an atmosphere, than he is with the mechanics of a sophisticated plot.  Joel’s discovery of Patricia’s secret life is primarily intended by Chaykin to force his protagonist out of his alcoholic self-pity, to nudge him back into reality, and to confront not his wife but the mental baggage he carries.

Likewise the murder of Cooley is almost incidental, the identity of the killer revealed soon after, the motivation for the crime mentioned almost in passing.  Cooley’s death serves primarily to send Patricia running for her life, extending Joel’s search for her, resulting in him spending the night bouncing from one odd situation after another.

Chaykin also offers up his characteristic black humor.  At one point I literally burst out laughing, which given that I was reading the book on the M Train earned me a few odd looks.

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Chaykin has a genuine fondness for mid Twentieth Century American society.  He has set many of his stories during this time, or transposed the trappings and elements of the period to other eras.  Midnight of the Soul sees him returning to explore the post war period, with its good and its bad and its numerous contradictions.

Chaykin does an amazing job at rendering Manhattan of 1950 via his highly detailed artwork.  The fashions, the architecture, the music; all are vividly brought to life.  That tangible mood and atmosphere I cited before is as much the product of Chaykin’s art as they are his plotting, dialogue and narration.

Also impressive is Chaykin’s storytelling.  He expertly lays out his artwork, creating an effective, dramatic flow to the narrative.  As I have observed before, storytelling in comic books is a somewhat underrated skill.  Most really good pencilers are so effectively subtle with their layouts that you don’t really appreciate the talent and thought that is on display in causing the story to flow from one panel to another, one page to the next.  There is a really cinematic quality to Chaykin’s artwork.  He is equally adept at action sequences and quieter passages of dialogue.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Chaykin’s talent for rendering beautiful women.  Midnight of the Soul is nowhere near as erotic as some of his past works such as American Flagg!Black Kiss and Satellite Sam.  Nevertheless, both Patricia and Dierdre are very attractive, stunning to look at yet also tangible as flash and blood human beings.

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The coloring on Midnight of the Soul is by Jesus Aburtov.  He does an excellent job here, his coloring complementing Chaykin’s art, a key element in the evocation of the story’s tone.  Chaykin and Aburtov have worked together on several projects, and they make an effective team.

Chaykin has been working in the comic book biz for over four decades now.  Over time he’s consistently grown as both a writer and artist.  I’m glad that he’s still active as a creator, crafting striking, unusual, provocative stories such as Midnight of the Soul.  His next project, The Divided States of Hysteria, is also coming out this year through Image.  I’m certainly looking forward to it.