The first thing that's sure to strike anybody tackling the complete Manly Tales of Cowardice is just how dense it is. This collection, available through Lulu, is 304 quite packed black and white pages, reprinting this long-running series of self-published and incredibly funny comics. These are the exploits of Fleming Hazmat, "one of the world's foremost adventurers, treasure hunters, and paranormal investigators." Allied with a robot who has the preserved brain of 18th-Century superheroine Betsy Ross - she was the archnemesis of King George, and he was an iron-masked Dr. Doom-like villain, you know - and one in an endless series of silent "pawn sacrifices" called Atlantis Lad, Hazmat travels the world in search of occult treasure and wild superscience, hoping desperately to talk his way out of situations before he gets his rear kicked. Since even his most arrogant foes concede that Hazmat is the luckiest S.O.B. alive, he usually manages it.
Danno Klonowski, who illustrates all and scripts most of Hazmat's misadventures, has a great style that leaves him drawing everything in incredibly dense and dark pages. He gives himself tricky character designs and inks the bejezus out of the pages. Compare these to professional Steve Yeowell, and the grand expanses of white nothing that he's been turning in to 2000 AD lately, and it's the amateur indie comic artist who looks like he cares about his product. One major hiccup, however, is the just-this-side-of-illegible lettering, which is a complete mess and a chore to read. I would have greatly preferred that Klonowski gone to the expense of hiring a professional letterer to redo his pages before reprinting them in this collection.
But the story's the thing, and Hazmat's outlandish adventures are huge, over-the-top, ridiculous fun. This is a world that, for centuries, has seen manly men and manly women locked in absurd, melodramatic conflict, honing their skills at treasure-hunting at such institutions as Mack Bolan University. Hazmat's very concerted attempts to not get involved with rapscallions such as the Vegan Ninja and Lord Leigh Britishsmith are doomed to failure, in part because Betsy Rossbot keeps forcing the issue. Speaking of which, that ne'er-do-well Britishsmith features in a short story that has him confronting an English-themed restaurant's "fish and chips" and will probably be the funniest thing you read all month.
Thematically, it's not miles removed from TV's Venture Brothers, but, even with the many gruesome deaths of Atlantis Lad, it's done with a much more playful, light, and silly tone. Packed with bizarre references, in-jokes and awful puns, it's a book that will certainly reward rereads. Recommended.
A PDF of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your comics or detective fiction featured here, send me an email.