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More Fantagraphics Reviews

Written and Drawn by Richard Sala

Ass-kicking girl detective Judy Drood’s car breaks down in the worst possible place: just outside the town of Obidiah’s Glen. Entering the town, she discovers that the cars are gone, the phones don’t work, and virtually every soul has disappeared. Every soul, that is, except for a gang of surly teens and a cadre of horrific clowns. On the run, she meets a little girl who has the key to what happened to the town’s population, but that may not save Judy from a horrific fate at the hands of those now running the town from the heart of its carnival grounds.

GRAVE ROBBER’S DAUGHTER is an amusing, lightning-paced adventure, delivering a healthy dose of creepiness along with plenty of snickers. Judy is an absolute hoot of a protagonist; she’s surly, quick-tempered, and afraid of absolutely nothing. That also makes her very good at punching her way out of just about any situation. Sala imbues her with a number of character traits stereotypically reserved for hard-boiled male types, and then lets her loose against the architects of the town with explosive results. It’s fun to read.

In reading some of Sala’s earlier work, I had always felt like he was writing and drawing in a direction that I couldn’t follow, that his joy in exploring the macabre overrode his joy of delivering a story that would hold together and keep the reader’s attention. But this book is quite different; the through-line is straight and true, plot movement zips along at top speed, and he offers explanations that work and make sense within the framework of the tale. The art here is uniformly terrific as well, and creates a very vivid setting. More like this, and Sala will have me completely on board.

Marc Mason

Written and Drawn by E.C. Segar

Fantagraphics is perhaps best known at this point for being the publisher with the greatest sense of comics’ history. Their efforts to collect and archive older material such as KRAZY KAT have become almost legendary, and their series of volumes collecting PEANUTS is a powerhouse. But as far as the material goes, POPEYE may be the most surprising project they’ve undertaken to date.

In 1929, Segar introduced Popeye to the world of his THIMBLE THEATRE comic strip. Today, many of us know the character through the cartoon series we watched as a child, but there is so much more to the character and his world than we ever got through those shorts. The surprises start with the first page of strip collected here in this over-sized hardcover; Popeye’s debut is actually a little way off as this book begins, but Segar is already building his world, introducing Castor Oyl, Olive, and the rest of their family. It is Castor’s foibles in dealing with the gift of a “whiffle hen” that sets Segar’s universe in motion, and it is such a vibrant, fully-realized place that you get so sucked in that you forget about Popeye’s absence. That’s a testament to what a gifted storyteller this man was.

When Popeye does make his appearance a few months down the road, it is a memorable one. Castor hires him for an ocean voyage, and while he is not the spinach-chomping buffoon we grew up with, you certainly recognize him. But there is much more to the sailor; his world is violent and corrupt, no one around him lacking an ulterior motive for any action they take, and he navigates it as something of a blunt instrument, taking it all in stride and very little of it personally. Popeye takes so much abuse that he’s almost a Christ-figure, but he responds with a sincere subtlety, even when he must hurt someone.

I was genuinely astonished at how great this material is, having never seen any of it previously. Segar created a world of complex and unpleasant people, but the ray of hope that Popeye represented, standing in the middle of it, is incredible. With projects like the KRAZY KAT books, I’ve struggled to see the greatness that some others have gotten from those pages, but there’s no hiding it with POPEYE. This is greatness, brought back to astonish a brand-new audience.

Marc Mason

Written and Drawn by Paul Hornschemeier

Paul Hornschemeier is a creator who has proven himself capable of amazing, transcendent work in his short career. Tapping a gift for pathos and dark humor, his material is usually marked by its intelligence and maturity. So it was certainly with a sense of intrigue and excitement that I sat down to read this flipbook hardcover collection of out-of-print and never printed work. Unfortunately, even with Fantagraphics’ usual gorgeous production quality for this collection, I was unable to maintain my enthusiasm.

The flipbook is broken up thematically; one side brings together the “humorous” bits, and the other delivers the drama. Certainly, that’s a valid and rational layout; I have no quibble with it. However, the problem rests in just how wildly inconsistent the quality of the material is. Clever pieces like “Artist’s Catalogue” (a witty take on gallery publishing) sit next to pointless nonsense like “Feelings Check” and it frustrates. Right after “Artist’s Catalogue” is another terrific piece, “America, Your Boyfriend”, but the book grinds to a halt again immediately after with “Ditty and the Pillow Plane”. As a reader, you wind up throwing up your hands and flipping over.

On the “morose” side, “These Trespassing Vehicles” starts it off, and is easily the best work in the entire volume. But again, nothing else beyond it even comes close to matching it in quality or impact. It made me question Hornschemeier’s layout and book design to be honest, and to ponder another more important question.

How much of this material was truly worthy of this kind of deluxe printing? I recognize the artist’s intent to get his material back to the page, but I also wonder if maybe it wouldn’t have been a stronger idea to pare away the weaker material and produce a volume closer to the real brilliance we’re used to from him, rather than exposing some early warts. That which is lovely within these covers is very close to being obscured by its surroundings.

Marc Mason

Written and Drawn by Jules Feiffer

The prolific Feiffer gets a fourth hardcover collection of his works with the publication of PASSIONELLA. With a varied career that has seen his work grace the pages of everything from PAGEANT to PLAYBOY, Feiffer has established himself as one of the quiet greats of the field. And this book demonstrates the breadth of his talents, as we not only see his excellent cartooning skills on display, but also his skills as a playwright.

Cartoon-wise, the highlights of this handsome volume have to be “Harold Swerg” and “The Lonely Machine.” “Swerg” tells the story of a man who has achieved greatness but has no desire to exploit it or raise himself above others. It’s a provocative story that also works as a morality play; there’s a risk for any person in the spotlight, and Harold’s ultimate solution to the external pressures put upon him is very clever. “Machine” details a man’s descent away from society and his creation of the perfect mechanical partner… and how someone can easily screw up perfection.

The weaknesses of the volume are evidenced by the text pieces included, Feiffer’s play and scene work. There’s a dry quality in his construction and rhythm makes the work feel stilted on the page. You can cover that sort of thing in an illustration, but with prose on a page, there’s no way of obscuring when something lands with a thud. You can also jazz it up with a live reading of the material, but what it boils down to is the question of whether or not it might be prudent to separate out his writing and his cartooning in the packaging of these volumes.

As you’d expect, this being a Fantagraphics product, the book design and quality are top notch, and even with my reservations about Feiffer’s text material, this is still a fine effort worthy of your time. Feiffer has been doing it for a long time, and doing it well. That’s well worthy of the reader’s respect.

Marc Mason

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