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Nate Powell/Top Shelf Productions
Nate Powell/Top Shelf Productions

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

Nate Powell/Top Shelf Productions
Nate Powell/Top Shelf Productions

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. March Book Two

By Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
Top Shelf

Well-timed for the week of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the release of the film Selma is the second of three volumes in Rep. John Lewis’ graphic novel biography and retelling of the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, March.

Picking up the story after the successful lunch counter sit-ins in Nashville, Lewis and his fellow Freedom Riders board a bus and venture into the deep south where they encounter shocking examples of lynchings, police brutality, and outright murder.

As in the first book, Lewis is joined by co-writer and policy aide Andrew Aydin as well as artist Nate Powell whose beautifully composed and dramatic ink drawings make this not just an important American history lesson, but a great piece of comics storytelling as well.

Here’s some more information and a preview at Top Shelf’s website.

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2. Fatherland

By Nina Bunjevac
Liveright Publishing Corp.

Nina Bunjevac’s memoir/biography of her father and the history of the Balkan conflict is a chilling and informative read. Growing up in Canada, her mother whisked her and her sister away to Yugoslavia to escape her father, a Serbian nationalist who had put them in danger by becoming involved in a terrorist group. However, the girls were forced to leave Nina’s older brother Peter behind and, after their father died in an explosion, the family would never be reunited. Sadness pervades the story of Nina’s family, reaching all the way back to her great-grandparents caring for their son with tuberculosis and to her childhood in 1970s Yugoslavia.

It is all accentuated by her photo-realistic, stippled and cross-hatched drawing style. She brings everything to life in starkly lit detail, from her mother’s melancholy face to the twisted darkness building behind her father’s eyes. If you’re unfamiliar with the complicated existence of the country once known as Yugoslavia and details of the conflict between its people, Bunjevac does an admirable job of explaining it all here.

Here are some preview images from the book.

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3. Eel Mansions

By Derek Van Gieson
Uncivilized Books

Probably the most Lynchian (as in filmmaker David Lynch) comic to be made since Dan Clowes’ 1993 graphic novel Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Derek Van Gieson's Eel Mansions has plenty of Eraserhead’s confusing imagery but with Twin Peaks’ wry sense of humor as well. Every couple of pages bounces from one seemingly unconnected set of characters to another, slowly weaving together…something, although I don’t know what exactly. There are lizard people, secret agents, a cult that worships Eric Clapton, and the scene-stealing, boozy hipster comic book creator, Janet Planet, who is almost always drawn looking slyly to the side while delivering some epic putdowns.

Van Gieson, who got his start as a contributor to Fantagraphics’ influential comics anthology Mome, has been self-publishing Eel Mansion in comic-size installments with the whole story now collected by Uncivilized Books. His drawings are inked with a heavy hand and rough around the edges, but he pulls off a number of styles throughout, from depictions of Lovecraftian monsters and Picasso-like abstractions to Janet’s very Moomin-like children’s comic strip. This is like a love letter to the work of Lynch, Thomas Pynchon, William S. Burroughs, and early ‘80s post-punk music (which seems to come up a lot). Van Gieson does it all with a lot of laughs, even when you’re not quite sure what the hell is going on.

You can order a copy from the publisher here.

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4. Atomic Robo

By Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener
Atomic-Robo.com

Atomic Robo is a popular sci-fi comedy comic series by Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener about an intelligent robot invented by Nikolas Tesla in 1938 and hired by the US military to fight Nazis. Since it began in 2007, it’s had a loyal fan following and has prided itself on its lack of superhero angst and cheesecake.

This week, Clevinger and Wegener announced a bold move for the future of the comic. They have allowed their contract with Red 5 Comics to expire and will now make all future Atomic Robo comics free as a webcomic on Atomic-Robo.com. In addition, starting today, they will begin making all 9 previous volumes of the story free online as well, starting with Volume 1 and working their way up. Print collections will now be for sale directly from the creators and digital comics will continue to be available on Comixology. Plus, there is a Patreon for fans to donate funds on a monthly basis for extra goodies.

This is a big and unusual publishing shift for a popular comic, especially as the webcomic model has seemed to give way to the digital comic model in recent years (although Clevinger and Wegener are tackling both here). A lot of other self-publishers will be keeping an eye on these guys in the coming year to see how they do.

The creators lay out all the details in this blog post.

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5. First Year Healthy

By Michael DeForge
Drawn & Quarterly

The latest graphic novel from the prolific and always surprising Michael DeForge is almost more of an illustrated novel than a traditional comic book. First Year Healthy is the story of a young woman who gets out of a hospital after what is alluded to as a very public emotional breakdown and falls into a relationship with a potentially criminal Turkish immigrant.

It is full of many of the visual eccentricities we’re used to seeing from DeForge. However, the format of this smallish, 45-page hardcover—with its full-page color illustrations paired with simple serif typeface—makes you realize how much of a way with words DeForge has when they are visually divorced from his artwork.

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Space Goat Publishing
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Comics
These Evil Dead 2 Comics Will Look Groovy on Your Bookshelf
Space Goat Publishing
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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History
How Superman Helped Foil the KKK
Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images
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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