Monday, October 27, 2008

I Yam What I Yam and I Didn't Think it Too Many

Here's how this works: I finish reading something, and I tell you about it, and I try not to bore you to death. This time, reviews, of sorts, of Slaine: The Horned God (Rebellion, 2008) and Popeye: Well, Blow Me Down (Fantagraphics, 2007).

The Slaine epic "The Horned God" was one of the biggest events in British comic publishing in the late '80s. Originally serialized in three chunks across eighteen months, the series by Pat Mills and Simon Bisley was repackaged into three albums and republished throughout Europe and America, turning Bisley into a star and making fully-painted art all the rage in Britain. So how does the story, in which the wandering warrior-turned-tribal king seeks to unite all the tribes of ancient Ireland to war against invading sea demons and the nightmarish army of the Lord Weird Slough Feg, hold up?

Surprisingly well. Contrary to its popularity, "The Horned God" is certainly not the greatest of Slaine stories, but the novel use of the dwarf Ukko's long-after-the-fact narration allows Mills to retell events from the earlier stories from a new perspective, and what you get in this volume feels less like the fourth book in a longer series than a solid, satisfying read in its own right. Bisley's inventive, perhaps mercurial use of different styles throughout the saga gives it a sense of really huge scale, that what you're reading is an epic greater than something from a twenty year-old comic. I think that there are certainly better Slaine stories, and its impossible to separate "The Horned God" from all the heavily-musculatured painted posing that would bury Bisley's talent in time, never mind impact the look of British comics for at least the next seven years, but it's very solid in its own right, and should be judged very positively on its own merits.

There have been several editions of the story over the years, but Rebellion's new edition knocks them all out of the water. They have been really setting the bar with their 2000 AD books, but this one might be the best one yet. The cover and paper stock are as good as ever, but Pat Mills contributed a remarkable set of annotations to close out this volume, and they had me looking over pages to see things I'd never noticed before. Simply great stuff, and something you really need to order right away.

Hold the phone. You're going to want this as well.

Popeye is another series where I'm well behind the current editions - this is about a year old and the third book is due out soon, but as I'm not gettin' comp copies from anybody, you just have to take 'em as you get 'em. This second edition of Segar's old newspaper strip features Thimble Theatre stories from the early 1930s, and is about equally split with about 90 pages of dailies and 80 pages of Sundays. The dailies tell one amazingly fun continuity where Popeye and Olive go west to manage a ranch deep in criminal badlands, and get drafted to stratergerize a war between two dingbat kingdoms somewhere in the Mediterranean or someplace. The Sundays tell a separate continuity on the homefront where, when he's not being set up for another completely ridiculous prize fight, Popeye's wooing his lady love and eating at the greasiest greasy spoon you've ever seen, and arguing politicks with the owner while the friendless layabout Mr. Wimpy tries to get hamburgers on credit.

It is completely addictive, totally silly, and some of the most emphatically laugh-out-loud material I've sat down to read in ages. I knew this going in; the first volume completely knocked out that considerable stack of skepticism I'd built up over the years, thinking the comic was anything like the mediocre cartoon series. I wish it was not worth wasting space restating in the future, but I fear it'll take a while for the word to get out: don't judge these comics based on all the immunity you'd built up over the years to those godawful King Features cartoons stacked up on your UHF channel afternoons in the late 70s when you were waiting for something good to come on.

The print Popeye was a totally different beast, full of bizarre wordplay, plot twists, spectacular sight gags, and the fantastic lead character, swaggering without compromise as he socks and bludgeons his way through an unbelievable enemies' list. Two-fisted violence never looks quite so hilarious as when Popeye lays somebody out among the swee'peas, and the panels of Wimpy standing on a lunch counter shouting "HEY!" while Popeye and Roughneck scream at each other how Congress never helps either sailors or restauranteurs make me chuckle just thinking about them. Actually, the best thing in the book might be a surprising, yet simple, Sunday strip in which Wimpy pilfers sixty cents from the cash register. Jesus, this is a good book. Does the third volume ship this week?

(Originally posted October 27, 2008 at hipsterdad's LJ.)

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