Hollywood Babylon.

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I think Hollywood Babylon was the second storyline in the DC Vertigo American Century series, spanning issues #5 through 9. I have the entire American Century series, but it took some doing. I was originally ensnared by a couple random comics, eventually lucking into three shrink-wrapped back issue bundles that equipped me with almost every issue. I’ve since filled in the gaps with trade pb’s.

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Written by Howard Chaykin along with David Tischman, the art was sketched and thumbnailed by Chaykin, then fleshed out and inked by quite a team that included Marc Laming, Warren Pleece, Dick Giordano and Job Stokes. The covers for these five issues of the American Century series were done by John Van Fleet. In the Hollywood Babylon storyline, Chaykin and Tischman’s cynical Korean War era adventurer Harry Kraft lands in Hollywood, wearing a Quality Studios night watchman uniform and shacking up with an L.A. widow and her kid. The writers somehow manage to squeeze in a load of early 1950’s Tinseltown lore under various guises and fake names, including a troubled Martin & Lewis style comedy duo, a Rita Hayworth clone, a vintage television superhero, crooked HUAC politicos, mobsters and more…and all in less than a hundred pages. The trade pb concludes with Harry bidding the glittery So-Cal set goodbye and motorcycling Route 66 into a standalone rural roadside diner story, where “a femme fatale offers him a piece of her pie, if he’ll kill her husband”.

You just gotta love it.

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The American Century series traveled from Central America to Paris, Manhattan to the backwoods bootlegger southern states. It’s an adventurer’s tale, but less Steve Canyon and more Wally Wood’s Cannon…but with a brain. Chaykin and Tischman’s Harry Kraft is a fascinating, bitterly bad-assed rogue “with a gun in one hand and a garter belt in the other”. Someday, I really mean to stack the whole damn collection in a big pile on the writing lair’s endtable, then hunker down to read the entire thing in sequence from start to finish, uninterrupted.

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Let’s Call Her ‘CatGirl’.

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Lauren Myracle’s Under The Moon – A Catwoman Tale from last Spring was positioned as a YA graphic novel, and certainly speaks to that audience, but just as surely can be enjoyed by us grown-ups. As much as I revere the man in the cape and cowl, the Bat-Universe’s most intriguing characters clearly have been revealed to be the women of Gotham City, whether in the comics themselves, on film or the small screen.

Beautifully illustrated in a fluidly drawn black/grey/blue duotone style by Isaac Goodhart (Postal, etc.) Under The Moon’s book-length tale tells an alternate origin story for Selina Kyle, here a high school student living with an inattentive single mother’s horrible succession of increasingly abusive boyfriends, the current one a violent, sadistic drunk. A loner by nature, Selina finds little solace at school where a bestie-wannabe is a little too clingy and childhood playmate Bruce Wayne seems lost in his own world. Selina flees, living by her wits on the streets till she hooks up with a trio of misfit runaways and becomes embroiled in a high-stakes heist…at Wayne Manor no less.

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Myracle’s story is a poignant and plausible alternate vision for Selina Kyle/Catwoman’s origin (make that ‘CatGirl here) and the building blocks of a pre-Batman and pre-Catwoman relationship are smartly put in place. When released, this title came with retailer warnings about rough language and edgy content, and that’s in there, all right, but it never felt forced and only the most close-minded could object. A (I suppose) necessary subplot about a grisly Gotham City serial killer seemed intrusive, but with everything else done so well, I even went along with that.  I mean, how can you not fall in love with a hoodie with cat ears as the beginnings of an iconic costume?

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I grabbed this one at the library when I popped in to pick up a reserved book, and blew through it over a Saturday afternoon coffee break (a break that went a little longer than planned. Okay…a break that went way longer than planned). If Myracle and Goodhart have a sequel up their sleeve, I’m in. More CatGirl for me, please!

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C2E2.

Abel Uribe Chicago Tribune

No one’s wearing face masks around here just yet, but a huge national trade show I’d be spending time at next week for the day job was just cancelled, tens of thousands of attendees and exhibitors suddenly forced to change plans, Chicago hoteliers losing out on an estimated 77,000 room nights…restaurateurs, cabbies, Uber drivers, bars and presumably a fair number of dates-for-hire out some serious dough as well. It was only the first major function to cancel at Chicago’s sprawling McCormick Place exhibition complex on the shores of Lake Michigan. Other smaller events have since cancelled or rescheduled, with more sure to follow.

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But the comics crowd was undaunted and showed up in force for C2E2 the 28th through March 1st. I’ve attended the Wizard World Chicago Comic-Con at the suburban Rosemont Convention Center near O’Hare International Airport several times, which is huge and fun and held in what amounts to a barn compared to the glitzy enormity of McCormick Place, North America’s largest exhibition center. The Chicago Auto Show cleared out, and the cosplay crowd rolled in. C2E2 always coincides with the time of year when time is the one thing I don’t have, so I’ve never been able to attend (though one coworker managed, the little fink).

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The fact is, I have a love-hate thing with any con: comics, horror, paperback/pulp collector shows, you name it. I don’t mind standing in admission lines one bit, don’t even mind getting poked with rubber battle axes or jostled by Harley Quinn foam mallets. I love the events and the brave costumed crowd, get a real kick out of the free swag, have to be dragged out of dealer booths and enjoy seeing the artists, writers and minor celebrities in person. But I hate what I find on my credit card statements afterwards. I’ve noted here: I’m not a collector. But damn, I can get acquisitive.

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Photos: C2E2 site and Abel Uribe/The Chicago Tribune.

The Art Of Sean Phillips

The Art Of Sean Phillips Cover

I assumed Dynamite Entertainment’s 2013 The Art Of Sean Phillips — by the artist himself (along with Eddie Robson) — would be a handsome book, but wasn’t prepared for just how well designed and lavishly illustrated this 300+ page over-size hardcover would be. I ordered it online and was surprised to see it arrive in a package from England, but maybe that’s best for a book on a UK artist.

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Sean Phillips’ gorgeous work has appeared at this site before with images from Criminal, The Fade Out, the artist’s own site and more, so it should be clear that I’m a fan. Phillips has a rare talent for designing, composing and rendering consistently engaging and even visually provocative panels, pages and covers of what might seem like very prosaic scenes and mundane subjects (compared to the flashy distortion of the SF/Fantasy/Horror and superhero comics segments). Mind you, he’s done his share of work in dark fantasy and for the capes-n-tights titles. But it’s his more human scaled and distinctly noir-ish work (much of this done with team-mate scribe Ed Brubaker) that elevate Phillips above so many other Photoshop EFX-obsessed and manga-inspired peers.

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I’d love to offer some page scans from the book for you to browse, but there’s no way I’m going to bust that spine just to cram it into a scanner (my scanner’s bed too small anyway). So, sorry – you’ll have to get your own. If you do, you get to enjoy lushly illustrated pages of Phillips’ childhood drawings and comics, incredibly mature work for the UK ‘Girl Comics’ done when still only in his mid-teens and read all about his early years. Since I’m unwilling to mangle my precious book, the visuals shown here are just culled from found art that’s been lurking in my Sean Phillips archive folder for who knows how long. You’ll be familiar with some, I’m sure. Phillips’ Criterion Collection illustrations are particular favorites of mine — that warm-toned NYC penthouse balcony painting of Susan Harrison from The Sweet Smell of Success right below is so darkly beautiful, it almost makes me teary-eyed. (Art can get me a little choked up sometimes.)

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If you have The Art Of Sean Phillips already, you know what a terrific book it is. If not, consider getting it – you won’t be disappointed in the countless visuals or the accompanying text, with interviews and commentary from Ed Brubaker, Warren Ellis and others. Or, hold and see if an updated edition is ever done. This was produced 6-7 years ago, after all. There’s been a lot of stunning Phillips work out there since. Almost another book’s worth, dontcha think?

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Louise Grant: The Blonde Phantom

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Women private detectives, plucky ‘girl reporters’, enterprising Gal Fridays and even costumed female crimefighters had largely disappeared from the already dwindling pulp magazine marketplace by the end of WWII (not that there were all that many to begin with), but a few made appearances in comics in that immediate postwar period. Case in point: The Blonde Phantom, who debuted in the Fall of 1946. Usually credited to Stan Lee and artist Syd Shores, some sources say Al Sulman created the character during his Timely Comics stint. Syd Shores is probably best known by Golden Age comics fans for his work on Captain America, but more notoriously among pulp magazine fans for his genuinely squirm-worthy Nazi bondage and torture cover paintings for the 1960’s “men’s sweats” magazines. While also appearing in numerous other comics, The Blonde Phantom quickly took over her own title which lasted for two years, devolving into a romance anthology in 1949. Modified versions of the character were even revived in the late 1980’s, so it’s not uncommon to still spot pics of a Blonde Phantom or two in the cosplay scene today.

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Secretary to (and smitten with) private detective Mark Mason, Hoboken New Jersey’s Louise Grant isn’t content to answer phones and type letters, donning a swirly red slit dress emblazoned with bright stars as yellow as her own long blonde hair. Hidden behind a black domino mask and somehow racing around in red heels, Louise draws upon her natural athletic abilities (backed up by her .45 automatic) to become the costumed crimefighter The Blonde Phantom. By 1949, Louise retired from crimefighting when she married Mason, later giving birth to a daughter and a son. After Mark Mason dies, Louise (now Mason) goes to work for D.A. Blake Tower in the 1989 revival, appearing alongside numerous members of the Marvel superhero stable. Later, her daughter Wanda briefly continued Louise’s crimefighting legacy as an all-new Blonde Phantom sporting a more traditional superhero-style uniform.

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Drawn in a typical Good Girl Art style by Syd Shores and other artists, The Blonde Phantom is a mix of straightforward mysteries punctuated by exciting action, but all of it sprinkled with bits of romance and requisite damsel-in-distress scenes, though Louise often gets herself out of trouble without the help of detective Mark Mason or some other fellow.

Myself, I’ve only had the pleasure of reading one complete The Blonde Phantom tale, but it was pretty darn good. The rest of what I’ve seen are only random pages, panels and covers, but all intriguing enough to make me want to find more. Unwilling to plunk down mega-dollars for collectible Golden Age comics, I guess I’ll just have to wait for some enterprising reprint publisher to put something together.

You Have Killed Me.

You Have Killed Me Cover

Cold and windy under nonstop pouring rain, last Saturday would’ve been a good day to stay indoors. But I ventured out to pick up a current events book reserved at the library (there being a current event or two to keep tabs on these days). The local public library’s a bit lean on actual books, but is well appointed with comfy reading nooks, plush seating and even a fireplace. Almost ready to check out, Jamie S. Rich and Joelle Jones’ You Have Killed Me caught my eye on the graphic novel section’s endcap. I have it, of course, being an ardent Jones fan. Still, I paused to flip through the 2018 trade pb edition of this 2009 graphic novel anyway. Before I knew it, I’d dropped into one of those fireside chairs to reread this yummy bit of retro noir fun from cover to cover before dashing back out into the rain.

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Some will holler cliché. Me? I see nothing but classic noir and hard-boiled genre tropes lovingly celebrated in Rich’s story, a smooth flowing piece of work that reads like a period-perfect screenplay for a 1940’s-50’s noir. As for Joelle Jones art? Fans might be surprised to see some softer lines and curvier faces here and there, but it’s still Joelle Jones’ brilliant, stylized draftsmanship throughout, and an excellent chance to see where she was ten years ago. The pair make an excellent team (as seen since on Lady Killer, for example) in this tale of hard luck P.I. Antonio Mercer, hired by wealthy and beautiful Jessica Roman to locate her sister Julie, who’s gone missing on the eve of her society wedding…the missing Julie also Mercer’s one-time lover. But family dramas and messy love affairs are the least of Mercer’s problems once he begins to tangle with gamblers, gangsters and hard-assed cops in jazz clubs, racetracks and roadhouses. Any savvy noir fan will smell a rat – or at least an untrustworthy femme fatale – early on, but even the savviest may not be ready for what really happened to the missing sister. Trust me: This one’s a treat.

Sure, I got soaked on my way back to my car. But I did get the political rant hardcover I’d reserved a week earlier (just to drive myself nuts) and had a good time savoring Jamie Rich’s wordsmithing and ogling Joelle Jones art, both every bit as tasty today as ten years ago when the book came out.

 

“Cigarette Girls”: Smoke And Guns

Smoke And Guns

Her bio says that Oakland librarian Kirsten Baldock actually worked as a cigarette girl during her first year in San Francisco. I didn’t realize that even was a job during our lifetimes. But let’s assume her cigarette girl gig was slightly less dangerous than the one she imagined for her urban noir graphic novel Smoke And Guns (AIT/Planet Lar, 2005 trade pb). Drawn by Brazilian artist Fabio Moon, Smoke And Guns imagines a Sin City style urban nightmare divvied up into districts serviced by licensed gangs of cigarette girls like The Chinatown Dolls and The Grand Avenue Belles. They may look, act and sound like ‘working girls’, (very well-armed working girls, that is) but they sell cigarettes, not sex, and when Scarlett breaks the fragile peace by selling smokes on another gang’s turf, all hell breaks loose.

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Baldock’s idea’s an imaginative one, and her dialog is a treat, while Moon’s straightforward black and white brushwork-style draftsmanship is a good example of comic art pages being ready-to-shoot storyboards for a film. This may be an oldie, but it’s a goodie that I still see on some comic shops’ graphic novel shelves. If you spot it, check it out.

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The Tommy Gun Dolls

The Tommy Gun Dolls

I always enjoy a surprise, such as discovering something unknown and unexpected on a comic shop’s graphic novel shelves. A recent example: Daniel Cooney’s The Tommy Gun Dolls, a handsome creator-owned hardcover graphic novel set in Prohibition era San Francisco, with both story and art by Cooney himself, assisted on inks and colors by Leigh Walls and Lisa Gonzales.

It’s 1928, and the city’s practically a war zone with rival Irish, Italian and Chinese mobs duking it out over turf, booze, gambling and prostitution. Meanwhile, at the bawdy Frisky Devil speakeasy-burlesque house (and its adjoining bordello), the showgirls and hookers endure the mobsters’ and customers’ abuse. When one of them is murdered and her grisly death hushed up by cops on the take and a tight-lipped coroner, the ladies take matters into their own hands, egged on by part-time grifter, part-time gambler, part-time snoop and full-time trouble-maker Frankie, the dead girl’s lover, and apparently a refugee from a Bob Fosse musical, complete with a black bob, derby and a complete Sally Bowles ensemble.

Oh yeah, and a tommy gun.

The Tommy Gun Dolls – Volume One: “The Big Takeover”  was a Kickstarter campaign project that resulted in a very handsome book. I don’t know the status of Volume Two – “Double Cross On Maiden Lane”, though the first book clearly was a ‘to-be-continued thing’, so I hope we’ll see that next book and more from Mr. Cooney soon. This is a pretty complex tale full of double-crosses and retro-decadence, all rendered in some mighty nice artwork. Not sure if I buy ‘proto-punk’ Frankie’s torn stockings and unlaced Doc Martens get up in the story’s opening scenes, but let’s give the artist some creatively anachronistic leeway there and just say they were World War One doughboy surplus gear. The boots, that is.

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Nasty Pills

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Evil biotech corporation, Golden Dusk, developed a new DNA altering drug called (appropriately) ‘Nasty Pills’, which can modify users’ appearance, health, mood and behavior. But Nasty Pills aren’t being administered to cure diseases, only to breed beautiful, submissive, STD-immune young girls abducted from St. Stephens orphanage to be reconditioned and then auctioned off to the highest bidders as sex slaves. But the evil execs at Golden Dusk didn’t reckon on gun-packing gumshoe May Campbell, who may not care much about the law – or anything – but does care about her one true love, Rebecca, one of the Nasty Pills’ victims. The oversize “crazy pulp book” first issue is from Amigo Comics, written and drawn by ‘Massacre’ along with additional art by Dani Seijas. It’s just a two-issue series, so May Campbell’s campaign of violence and vengeance on millionaires and mobsters will wrap up quickly.

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