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Shaky Kane/Image Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Shaky Kane/Image Comics

Every Wednesday, I write about the most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, bookstores, digital, Kickstarter, and the web. Feel free to comment below if there's a comic you've read recently that you want to talk about or an upcoming comic that you'd like me to consider highlighting.

1. Pearls Before Swine

By Stephan Pastis with Bill Watterson(!!)
GoComics

Yes, that really was Bill Watterson drawing last week’s Pearls Before Swine.

By now, even if you don’t follow comics news, you’ve probably heard about Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Watterson’s surprise return to the page. You probably also know that the extremely private Watterson has been pretty much a recluse since retiring his famous newspaper strip in 1995. He famously opened up by giving an interview to us here at mental_floss this past October. But now, this surprise appearance in three of last week’s strips in Stephan Pastis' Pearls Before Swine was something many people at first just couldn’t believe.

Pastis humorously lays out exactly how this all happened over on his blog, which includes the sequence of strips that he and Watterson collaborated on as well as the strips that set it all up. He had given everyone fair warning early last week, announcing on Twitter that he had a ‘mind-blowing’ surprise in store for readers of his syndicated newspaper strip. But when the strips appeared, online discussion was divided about whether or not this could truly be Watterson. Some people compared and contrasted the mystery artist’s drawing style to Watterson’s in hopes of coming to a definitive conclusion. Once the three strips were completed, Watterson gave Pastis the go-ahead to reveal the truth.

The original art from these strips will be displayed at HeroesCon in Charlotte next week and will eventually be auctioned off to benefit the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

What's next for Watterson? He’ll be drawing the poster for the 2015 Angoulême comics festival.

Read the now-famous Pearls Before Swine strips and Pastis' explanation of how this came about.

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2. Walt Before Skeezix

By Frank King
Drawn & Quarterly

The very first Gasoline Alley strips and their depiction of the dawn of an automobile-loving American culture

We’re used to comic strip characters like Charlie Brown and Peter Parker remaining roughly the same age for decades. It’s rare to see characters age in real time, such as the Patterson family in For Better or For Worse or Judge Dredd in his own comics. The first comic strip to ever do this was Frank King’s Gasoline Alley, which began in 1918 and still runs in syndication today. The comic first began showing the progression of time when confirmed bachelor Walter Wallet found a baby on his doorstep that he adopted and named Skeezix. In recent Gasoline Alley strips, Skeezix is now a grandfather, and old Walt is still kicking around at a hearty 114.

Drawn & Quarterly have published five hefty hardcover volumes designed and edited by Chris Ware called Walt and Skeezix. Now, Ware (with comics historian Jeet Heer) has gone back to the very beginning to release a “prelude” volume (what we in the comics world might call a “zero issue”). Walt Before Skeezix collects the first two years of the strip where King is just finding his footing. He started out with wordy, single panel strips focused almost entirely on automobiles—still a novelty at the time—and slowly began to establish a lively cast of characters such as Walt, Doc, and Avery. By the end of this volume, his cartooning has become more confident and the stage is set for the greatness that would soon come.

In the accompanying text pieces, Heer delves into King’s personal life and the people around him that he leaned on for inspiration. He also provides historical context for these strips and the burgeoning, post-industrial revolution consumer culture that was rising up around the automobile at the time. In a way, a comic in 1918 that tailors every gag around automobiles is much like today’s webcomics that obsess about video games.

Read a PDF preview here at Drawn & Quarterly’s website.

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3. That’s Because You’re A Robot

Written by David Quantick; art by Shaky Kane
Image Comics

Two cops. One’s a robot. One isn’t. Neither of them knows which is which.

The British artist known as Shaky Kane (real name: Michael Coulthard) got his start in the British science fiction anthology 2000 A.D. His artwork takes the psychedelic, pop-art stylings of the 1960s and adds a layer of satire and gruesome strangeness.

Kane’s latest comic is this one-shot collaboration with television writer David Quantick (most recently of HBO’s Veep). That’s Because You’re A Robot is about two cops who have just found out that one of them is a robot. However, no one knows which one, including the cops themselves. The entirety of the comic is pretty much the two officers questioning the validity of each other's humanity while patrolling the city and warding off Frankensteins, Leprechauns and other odd creatures. Think Car 54 Where Are You? but written by Phillip K. Dick.

Here’s a hilarious preview.


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4. The Empty Man

Written by Cullen Bunn; art by Vanesa R. Del Rey
Boom! Studios

Two federal agents investigate a viral outbreak that causes hallucinations, catatonia and homicidal rage.

Cullen Bunn is a busy man these days. It seems that every week he is writing new comics for different publishers (Magneto for Marvel, The Remains for Monkeybrain, The Sixth Gun for Oni Press, Sinestro for DC). His newest is an ongoing horror comic (one of his specialities) for Boom! Studios called The Empty Man. Set in the near future, years after a virus called The Empty Man has been ravaging the nation, two agents from a joint FBI/CDC task force investigate issues surrounding a new mutation of the disease as well as a number of dangerous religious cults that have formed because of the pandemic. 

Bunn is collaborating with artist Vanesa R. Del Rey on the series. Del Rey made an impressive comics debut last year with the crime noir Hit, also for Boom! Studios. Her style is like a cross between Tim Sale and Paul Pope and I think she will be a huge star in the coming year.

Here is a somewhat disturbing preview

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5. Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan

By Shigeru Mizuki
Drawn & Quarterly

A pioneer of manga chronicles Japan's history during WWII and his own personally harrowing experiences at the time

Shigeru Mizuki fought for the Japanese Imperial Army in World War II and lost his drawing arm in an explosion. When he returned home he taught himself to draw with his other hand and eventually became one of the pioneers of Japanese manga and a master of yōkai horror, not to mention the creator of the popular GeGeGe no Kitarō series of manga and anime. 

I wrote about Mizuki’s Showa books when Drawn & Quarterly released the first volume last year. The multi-volume series details the history of Japan’s Showa era (from 1926-1989 while Hirohito was Emperor) using rich, photo-realistic and intricate black and white drawings to illustrate the historical prose. Simultaneously, Mizuki relates his own life experiences during those years in an exaggerated, cartoony style so that the book cuts back and forth between being a textbook and a memoir. The second translated volume of the series comes out this week and explores the run up to World War II including the second Sino-Japanese War and the attack on Pearl Harbor. It also shows Mizuki coming of age, starting out the volume as an uninterested bystander to historical events and soon becoming an eyewitness to horrific and devastating events.

The book is so stunningly beautiful, and to think what the man who drew it went through, including having to relearn how to draw, is just astounding. Drawn & Quarterly has a PDF preview here.



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Space Goat Publishing
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These Evil Dead 2 Comics Will Look Groovy on Your Bookshelf
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Space Goat Publishing

Bruce Campbell has been quoted as saying the gallons of fake blood poured into his face during filming of the 1987 cult classic horror film Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn led to a week of red-tinged mucus leaking out of his nostrils. Fortunately, no Campbells were harmed in the making of two new comic collections from Space Goat Productions that are now being funded on Kickstarter. The Evil Dead 2 Omnibus features over 300 pages of stories set in the Necronomicon-plagued universe featured in numerous comic book miniseries; The Art of Evil Dead 2 reveals never-before-seen production art from both the comics and ancillary projects.

The campaign is the latest from Space Goat, the Bellingham, Washington-based company that’s made a cottage (or cabin) industry from products spinning out of the Sam Raimi-directed film, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. In addition to the new collections, the publisher has also issued an Evil Dead 2 coloring book; a comic where Campbell’s demon-fighting hero, Ash Williams, encounters Adolf Hitler; and a forthcoming board game where players can navigate Deadite threats while shaking their head at Ash’s questionable competency. (No matter the iteration, he seems ill-equipped to deal with the threat of his own possessed and lopped-off hand.)

According to Space Goat publisher Shon Bury, licensing the Evil Dead 2 property from rights holders StudioCanal in 2015 has been a buoy in navigating the difficult waters of comic book publishing. (Even Marvel, which rakes in billions through its film franchises, struggles to sell more than 60,000 to 70,000 copies of its most popular monthly titles.) One day into its Kickstarter launch, the Evil Dead titles had reached 50 percent of their $20,000 funding goal.

“It’s definitely our flagship on the publishing side,” Bury tells Mental Floss. “The board game is our top seller in the Evil Dead category, and the coloring book sells really well. They’re our evergreen products.”

The cover to 'The Art of Evil Dead 2' from Space Goat Publishing
Space Goat Publishing

Exploring Ash’s adventures in other media comes with a few caveats. While Space Goat is free to explore the characters and situations portrayed in Evil Dead 2, incorporating ideas from the rest of the series (including 1993’s Army of Darkness or the Starz series Ash vs. Evil Dead) is generally off-limits. And while the StudioCanal rights include a likeness of Campbell, the actor has veto power over how he’s depicted on the page. “For some reason, he doesn’t like the dimple on his chin to be drawn,” Bury says. “But he’s very insistent that the scar on his face from the movie is always there.”

Other actors featured in the film—like Richard Domeier, the future home-shopping host who portrayed “Evil Ed”—may not have granted their likeness rights, but his Deadite character design is part of the deal. “You want to inoculate the owner or licensor of the rights,” Bury says. “So we submit drawings and they might say, ‘No, too close to the actor.’”

That development process is part of what makes up The Art of Evil Dead 2, one-half of Space Goat’s current Kickstarter project that follows a successful Evil Dead 2 board game launch in 2016. The campaigns, Bury says, help target Ash fans with material that might not get enough attention if it were released directly to retailers. “Kickstarter is basically social media. It’s direct engagement, our way of saying to fans, ‘Hey, you’re really going to like this.’”

Bury expects fans to be just as enthused about Evil Dead 2: The Doppelganger Wars, a limited series due for release in 2018 that sees Ash and sidekick Annie Knowby enter the mirror dimension glimpsed at in Evil Dead 2 to discover the true origins of both the demon-summoning Necronomicon and the cult surrounding it. A meeting with H.P. Lovecraft may also be on deck, along with other narratives that would carry the license through the end of the publisher’s current agreement with StudioCanal in late 2019.

Still to be decided: whether Ash will ever encounter the werewolves of The Howling, Space Goat’s latest horror license. “Those conversations have occurred,” Bury says. “It would be a natural. But it’s also challenging because the royalties [for the licenses] double.” 

Digital versions of The Art of Evil Dead 2 and the Evil Dead Omnibus will be available to backers pledging $20 beginning in December. Softcover, hardcover, and Necronomicon slipcase editions ($30 and up) ship in May 2018. The Kickstarter runs through November 25.

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Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images
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How Superman Helped Foil the KKK
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Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images

The Klansmen were furious.

Dozens of them had congregated in a nondescript room in Atlanta, shaking cloaked heads at the worrisome news that their sect leader had just shared: An act of gross subterfuge had transpired over the airwaves. Millions of Americans had now become privy to their policies, their rankings, their closely guarded methods of organized hatred.

All of it fodder for some comic book radio show. Their mission had been compromised, sacrificed at the altar of popular culture. Kids, one Klansman sighed. His kids were in the streets playing Superman vs. the Klan. Some of them tied red towels around their necks; others pranced around in white sheets. Their struggle for racial purity had been reduced to a recess role play.

Stetson Kennedy listened, doing his best to give off irate body language. He scowled. He nodded. He railed.

The covert activist waited patiently for the Klan to settle down. When they did, he would call radio journalists Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, offering the results of his infiltration into the group for public consumption.

He’d also contact Robert Maxwell, producer of the Superman radio serial. Maxwell, eager to aid the humanitarian mission of the Anti-Defamation League, would promptly insert the leaked information into his show’s scripts. In between fisticuffs, his cast would mock the KKK’s infrastructure, and the group’s loathsome attitudes would be rendered impotent by the juvenilia.

The Klan roared, demanding revenge on their traitor. “Show me the rat,” their leader said, “and I’ll show you some action.”

Kennedy cheered, just as they all did.

And when he returned home, his Klan robe would be traded for a cape.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Kennedy, born in 1916, was an unlikely undercover operative. After a back injury kept him out of World War II, the Jacksonville, Florida native decided he wanted to combat anti-American forces on the home front. With Klan members alleged to have assaulted his family’s black maid when he was a child, the Klan—once again gathering steam in an era of segregation and racial divisiveness—was a favored target.

Having convinced a “Klavern” in Atlanta, Georgia that he shared their bigoted views, Kennedy donned the ominous attire of a Klansman, attended cross burnings, and covertly collected information about the group that he would then share with law enforcement and media. Radio journalist Drew Pearson would read the names and minutes of their meetings on air, exposing their guarded dialogues.

Revealing their closed-door sessions was a blow—one that Kennedy didn’t necessarily have to confine to nonfiction. In 1946, Maxwell, who produced the Superman radio serial broadcast around the country, embraced Kennedy’s idea to contribute to a narrative that had Superman scolding the racial divisiveness of the Klan and airing their dirty laundry to an enraptured audience.

“The law offices, state, county, FBI, House Un-American Activities Committee, they were all sympathetic with the Klan,” Kennedy said later. “The lawmen were, ideologically at least, close with the Klansmen. The court of public opinion was all that was left.”

Ostensibly aimed at children, Superman’s daily radio dramas were often broadcast to assembled nuclear families; one phone poll showed that 35 percent of its audience was composed of adults.

But regardless of whether parents listened, the activist believed the younger demographic was worth attending to. “Even back in the ’40s, they had kids in the Klan, little girls dressed up in Klan robes at the cross burnings," Kennedy said. "I have photos of an infant in a cradle with a complete Klan robe on. It seemed like a good place to do some educating.” 

In “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a 16-part serial airing in June and July of 1946, Superman opposes an organized group of hatemongers who target one of Jimmy Olsen’s friends. Exploring their network, Clark Kent uncovers their secret meetings and policies before his alter ego socks the “Grand Scorpion” in the jaw. The idea, Kennedy wrote in his account of his work, The Klan Unmasked, was to made a mockery of their overblown vernacular.

When traveling, for example, Klansmen might identify one another by asking if they “knew Mr. Ayak,” an acronym for “Are You a Klansman?” Although Kennedy may not have actually shared their code words on air—a longstanding myth that was debunked in Rick Bowers’s 2012 book, Superman vs. the KKK—their histrionics were perfect for dramatization in the breathless structure of a radio drama. Given shape by actors and sound effects, all the clubhouse tropes of the Klan seemed exceedingly silly.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Kennedy continued to serve up Klan secrets to Superman, he watched as Klan morale dipped and membership enrollment ebbed. Desperate, the Klan tried calling for a boycott of Kellogg’s, a new sponsor of the show, but racial intolerance was no match for the appetites of post-World War II homes. Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes remained breakfast table staples, and Superman’s battles with the close-minded continued. Emboldened by his success against the Klan, Superman took aim at Communism, a favorite target of the show’s anti-Red star, Bud Collyer.

Kennedy would go on to burden the Klan using proof of uncollected tax liens, and eventually convinced the state of Georgia to revoke their national corporate charter.

Kennedy died in 2011 at the age of 94. While some of his accounts of subterfuge in the Klan later came under fire for being embellished, his bravery in swimming with the sharks of the organization is undeniable. So, too, was his wisdom in utilizing American iconography to suffocate prejudice. Fictional or not, Superman may have done more to stifle the Klan’s postwar momentum than many real people who merely stood by and watched.

Portions of this article were excerpted from Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon by Jake Rossen with permission from Chicago Review Press. Copyright (c) 2008. All Rights Reserved.

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