Atari Force 1-13

atari force 05

S-F Heroes

Atari Force is a title I admired from afar. I always loved the Jose Garcia Lopez art, and the fact that it was Science Fiction (S-F). With Gerry Conway writing, it always looked like it’d be a solid title by two creators at the top of their game. I had a few random issues, but I never read any.

After acquiring issues 1-13 in a quarter bin not too long ago, I finally got around to reading them. It’s written by Gerry Conway (one of the great Bronze Age comics writers whose credits are too numerous to list), most of the art by José Luis Garcia-Lopez, with a few fill-in issues drawn by Ross Andru (and inked by Lopez), and Eduardo Barretto. The lettering was done by Bob Lappan—a delightful surprise—as he is one of my favorite letterers. Colors by Tom Ziuko.

I’m also currently re-reading and researching Crisis on Infinite Earths for another TCJ Event Horizon column (more on Even Horizon here). As I read through Atari Force, it became clear there were some interesting similarities to DC’s huge event series that came out only a few months later.

Art & Type

Lopez’s art is crisp and light. He makes that classic bronze-era comic-book realism look so easy. His choreography of fights is always complicated but clear. He’s able to take difficult movements and postures and render them with a grounded lightness. He never skimps on environments either.

José Luis Garcia-Lopez deep action. Fresh title type by Lappan!

Bob Lappan’s sound effects typography reaches sublime and absurd heights. Quirky, bizarre, odd, and awesome. Is there any other mainstream letterer that takes this much pleasure in rendering sound effects?

Stylized directional SFX in perspective
Imaginatively stylized SFX. Note the rivets in CLANK!

Star Wars

The narrative follows the Star Wars formula. A collection of ‘broken’ individuals has to come together as a team to defend the Multiverse against the Dark Destroyer, a Darth Vader-like menacing figure. A lot of Star Wars-like tropes abound. Alien planets, bounty hunters, an ‘force’ that seems to be undermining the lives of the heroes, etc.

The Dark Destroyer. Nice type on the bottom!

Multiverse Is the Place

One interesting aside is the use of the Multiverse as one of the driving engines of the story. In Atari Force, Humans have gained the ability to travel between universes, and one of the characters inherits the ability when exposed in the womb. Conway uses the idea as part of the universe… the multiverse increasingly became an important concept at both Marvel & DC. At DC it was at the core of the mythos since “Flash of Two Worlds” (Flash #123) established parallel Earth-2… and would become a key concept to revamp the DC line during the Crisis on Infinite Earths event.

There are other curious correspondences to Crisis on Infinite Earths. SPOILER WARNING: For example, it turns out that The Dark Destroyer is a double of the leader of Atari Force, Martin Champion. They are almost mirror images from disparate parts of the Multiverse. Destroyer’s goal is to annihilate Martin’s universe via an Anti-Matter bomb. These are obvious parallels to Monitor and Anti-Monitor and the matter vs. ant-matter struggle that propels the story of Crisis. Conway was one of the early architects of the multiverse concept that became increasingly deployed by both Marvel and DC throughout the 70’s and 80’s. As early as in 1972, Conway and writers Steve Englehart and Len Wein crafted an unofficial metafictional crossover spanning titles from both companies.

Gorgeous color and color hold art.

S-F Teams

The 80’s were a good decade for ‘S-F hero team’ comics. They seemed to multiply everywhere. Besides Atari Force, there was also Omega Men and The Wanderers. I suppose the popularity of the S-F tinged Legion of Superheroes had something to do with it, as well as the popularity of Star Wars and S-F cinema. Marvel (via Epic) had Dreadstar and Alien Legion. Inside of the Marvel Universe were the Swashbucklers and Guardians of the Galaxy (though their heyday would come later). On the indie side there was Nexus and American Flagg! could be included, at least for its S-F nature, though it was much more ambitious thematically and artistically than most of the others. I’m sure I’m blanking on others.

Comics are for Kids

Atari is very much aimed at young readers, but in an interesting way. There are characters like Babe and Hukka which are very much aimed at very young readers. Babe is literally a big baby (albeit very powerful one) and speaks with a limited vocabulary. Babe’s spotlight issue (#?) takes full advantage of this by limiting the words and action. Babe and Hukka riff off each other as they bumble and help revenge against (and genocide!!!) an invading force. Future issues feature Hukka back-up stories that use limited vocabulary, pantomime, onomatopoeia, and Bob Lappan’s lettering mastery, to maximum effect.

Babe & Hukka antics

All this is paired with a more traditional comic book fare: heroic characters, adult situations — but told from the POV of young adults, interesting S-F concepts like the Multiverse, villains with mysterious motivations, etc. The younger readers can come for the ‘baby’ characters, but grow with the rest of the book as they master new skills and language. This is pretty rare in comics and books these days. This kind of formula is more often deployed in blockbuster movies, which are designed to appeal to the ‘family’ audience. Comics have become a much more niche product catering to specific demographics. It’s rare these days that the family would read comics together.

Atari logo incorporated into the physical environment… and more great type!

Branded to Oblivion

The story is only loosely based on the Atari Force video game (and accompanying comics). It takes the concepts into uncharted new territory. Visually, it’s designed to capitalize on the Atari brand name. It’s jarring to see a comic book that was effectively a big Atari branding exercise. On every page some form of the Atari logo appears; as a patch, as a word, as a costume design flourish, etc.

Still, the creators don’t hold back. The characters are well rounded and interesting, the story is fun and propulsive, and the art is beautifully realized. It’s a pleasure to see top talent at the height of their powers. It’s a gorgeous comic book. It’s worth seeking this out in the original comic books… since it’ll probably never get reprinted due to licensing issues.

Ross Andru splash page

Explore more posts related to my Event Horizon column about the comics from 1985-87.

Silver Surfer Black 1 | Review

silver surfer black 1

Over on Ink Logging, I’ve written a short review of the great looking new Silver Surfer Black series from Marvel. It’s drawn by Tradd Moore. Here’s a taste:

There’s a barely restrained surrealist/trippy component to his drawings. The Silver Surfer series seems designed bring that element out in force. There are a lot of psychedelic flourishes, unusual angles, expressionistic renderings, complex layouts, etc. Moore seems to be really having fun here. There’s a surreal fluidity to everything. Everything is flows, undulates, and bubbles like… a lava lamp. There’s not much to the story… at least so far…

Read the entire post here.

silver surfer black by tradd moore

Ecological Collapse and the Horror of Kazuo Umezu’s The Drifting Classroom

drifting classroom kazuo umezu

Paradise Adrift

The distance between the present and utopia is measured in centuries. We locate utopian societies in the future, and prefigure them with premonitions of apocalypse; the dysfunctional order of the present must be swept aside by some vaguely grasped apocalyptic event to allow a new and better world to emerge. Every generation faces their own unique brand of the end of the world: religious rapture, nuclear annihilation, natural disasters, clash of civilizations, Malthusian overpopulation, and so on. Ecological collapse caused by industrial pollution fuels the horror in Kazuo Umezu’s inventive, eleven-volume manga horror epic, The Drifting Classroom.

Adults As Part of the Problem

The titular classroom is actually Yamato Elementary School, which due to unknown circumstances finds itself ripped out of time and flung into a devastated future. The school, housing 863 students and teachers, becomes an ark adrift on the sea of toxic sand that covers the remains of Tokyo and the rest of the world. The school’s temporal realignment brings the kids and adults face to face with the deadly consequences of Japan’s famed “economic miracle.” They become the last remnants of civilization and, at the same time, the last hope for humanity’s survival.

It’s clear that Umezu perceives adults as part of the problem, for he dispenses with the teachers early on. One by one the grown-ups succumb to madness and die off quickly. They can’t process what is happening to them—the idea that the school might be in the future is utterly impossible—and unable to imagine the impossible they have to die off, like dinosaurs. The children, not yet saddled with dogmas of adulthood, are able to imagine the possibility of time travel and thus grasp the reality of their predicament. Their capacity to imagine the impossible becomes their salvation, but also the source of the horrors to come.

Devolution

By the third volume the kids are on their own, allowing Umezu to present a kind of post-apocalyptic Lord of The Flies, with several hundred Piggies. Led by the idealistic sixth grader Sho and a few of his friends, the children try to survive both the inhospitable environment and themselves. The body count grows rapidly as they face toxic mushrooms, vicious plagues, freak floods, mutated spider-humans, mummies, bizarre starfish, gigantic sand worms, and starvation. This degraded future sharpens the children’s connection to the environment in several ways; for example, they can no longer take things like clean water for granted, and they have to conserve what meager supplies they have (a swimming pool with water, lunch room food, etc.).

These are just the more obvious lessons of ecology, however—Umezu’s genius is that he broadens ecology to include the social. To survive, the kids form the Nation of Yamato Elementary and elect Sho as the Prime Minister. But, like its counterparts in the present (their past), the nascent nation quickly succumbs to infighting and breaks into rival factions. Their society devolves from an idealistic democracy through various stages of feudalism to a band of starving nomads. For Umezu, the Nation of Yamato Elementary becomes a stand-in for the present world and shows the fate of civil society deprived of its ecological base.

Cyclopean Ruins

Working in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft, the horror of The Drifting Classroom is purely material—it isn’t mystical, as it tends to be in earlier Umezu works like Cat-Eyed Boy. He dispenses with ghosts, spirits and unexplained monsters, locating the real sources of “evil” in our ignorance of the workings of the world and the hubris of technological progress. And buried under the desert wasteland around the school are the remnants of human civilization; Umezu thus turns our own world into something akin to Lovecraft’s cyclopean ruins of some ancient antediluvian civilization (like the corpse-city of R’lyeh). Seen through the prism of the destroyed future, the industrialized world we live in seems like an apocalypse in slow motion. The skeletons of our cities seem bizarre and alien, the fossilized bones of a civilization choking on its own success.

Gods and Mutants

Umezu does break with Lovecraft in some ways. Lovecraft’s universe is completely indifferent to the fate of humanity. His gods are cosmic entities that have crossed into our world from unknowable dimensions. The destruction they wreak is almost accidental. In Umezu’s universe, the fate of humans and the planet is more intertwined and symbiotic; a poisoned planet leads to a toxic society and vice-versa. In one revealing sequence, the children decide to create a religion, and the image of Sho’s mother becomes a benevolent Goddess designed to give the kids hope in a hopeless world. Meanwhile, a small group of children slowly mutating from having ingested toxic mushrooms (!) create their own god: a one-eyed devil. Religion is not something divine and eternal—it’s a product of the environment and our imagination, and it offers both comfort and destruction. But neither can be our salvation. One leads to a debased existence as mutant spider-humans, the other only offers temporary relief. Ultimately, we have to listen to the planet and use our imagination to avoid the kind of future The Drifting Classroom posits.

Techno-Eden

Unfortunately, according to Umezu, the imaginative powers of the present are tainted by our “miraculous” industrial society. When we first meet Sho, he’s a typical kid. He covets toys, especially a “future car”—a sleek UFO-like automobile. And he has a conflicted relationship with adults; he tries to be nice to his mother, but ends up having a childish argument with her about some thrown-out marbles. Enraged, Sho runs off to school discarding an unwrapped present his mother gave him (it contains, of course, the “future car”). For both of them, futurity is embodied by the toy, a shining symbol of Japan’s relentless economic progress and technological prowess. Yet later in the series, after the children are forced to evacuate the school ahead of a toxic cloud and have been wandering through the lifeless desert, the starving kids end up in a UFO-domed amusement park—an impressive, automated relic from Japan’s industrial peak. At first it appears like paradise to the famished children, but the techno-Eden isn’t as benign as it seems. Everything is artificial—there is nothing that the kids can eat—and the park’s helpful robots, damaged by the ravages of time, have turned into deadly Terminator-like killers.

Japanese Miracle

In fact, both the UFO-domed park and car had real world counterparts at the 1970 Osaka World’s Fair Expo. Housed in part under a space-age dome by architect Kenzo Tange, the Expo presented Japan with an airbrushed techno-utopian vision that was becoming increasingly preposterous to the visitors. The Drifting Classroom was serialized in 1972-74. Japan at that time saw the emergence of its nascent environmental movement. Up until then, a single-minded pursuit of economic strength, characterized Japan’s post-war years. The “Japanese Miracle,” as it came to be known, saw a decades-long increase in the industrial output of the nation and a corresponding increase in the wealth of its citizens.

But the counterpoint to the economic miracle was a high level of environmental degradation. Japan’s industrial might was tainted by ecological disasters, increasing occurrences of birth defects, and a string of incurable disease outbreaks: Morinaga Milk Powder Poisoning (arsenic), Yokkaichi Asthma (sulphur dioxide), Minamata Disease (mercury), Itai-itai Disease (cadmium). All this led to a greater ecological consciousness, the emergence of the environmental movement, and eventually, the creation of the Japanese Environmental Protection Agency in 1971.

Future Present

Until the disappearance of the school, both Sho and his mother are oblivious to the ultimate fate of the planet. They haven’t realized the damage their way of life was doing to the Earth. Paradoxically, when they become separated by centuries their relationship grows stronger. Through a handicapped girl, Nishi, who appears to have unexplained powers, Sho is able to communicate with his mother. Several times she is able to help her son, by strategically placing valuable objects (a knife, vaccine, etc.) in the past for Sho to excavate and use in the future.

Once the future cataclysm is made concrete by Sho’s time travel, his mother can finally take steps to try to avert that catastrophe. Her love for Sho enables her to overcome adult skepticism, bear the ridicule of others, and put her mind to work. If she can’t bring Sho back, at least she can change the present to make his future a better place.

Sadistic Glee

If this makes the book sound didactic and preachy, it’s not. The themes and ideas outlined above simmer beneath a shimmering surface of a fast-paced and slickly drawn comics narrative. Since The Drifting Classroom was serialized in weekly episodes, it’s chock-full of cliffhangers and surprise twists and turns. It’s a compelling page-turner designed to move the reader efficiently through the narrative. Umezu’s detailed art skillfully builds tension in series of cinematic sequences. He uses darkness very effectively: sequences comprised entirely of panicked dark silhouettes can go on for page after suspenseful page.

Finally, when he unveils the bizarre mutant monsters of the future, they’re lovingly embellished with detailed renditions of blood, bone, and peeling skin. Also, the 863 inhabitants of Yamato Elementary give Umezu ample opportunity to rack up a high body count, and he doesn’t flinch; the students die off quickly, dispatched in new and inventive ways. He often lingers on a violent scene with sadistic glee, just to make us feel a little queasier. With a few deft pen strokes he can change an innocent child into one possessed by some unknown menace.

Stephen King of Japan

Often called the “Stephen King of Japan,” Kazuo Umezu is a giant of Japanese horror. A steady trickle of his comics has begun appearing in the US since the 2002 publication of Orochi: Blood, yet The Drifting Classroom remains his best-known work. Regardless, this is an opportune time for its appearance on American shores. It’s an artifact of a fertile period in Japan. The eco-awareness of the Japanese was mirrored by a growing sophistication of their manga.

Umezu’s sprawling epic dates from the same period that saw the rise of mature comics known as Gekiga (see the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi). Around the same time, Osamu Tezuka, the “god of manga” and creator of Astro Boy, serialized Ode to Kirihito, his first mature work. As American comic books make their steady climb into respectability and the specter of global ecological collapse appears imminent again, the horrors of Kazuo Umezu’s The Drifting Classroom are a useful glimpse of a strange parallel world not that different from the one we encounter today.

The Drifting Classroom
Volumes 1-11
Kazuo Umezu
VIZ Media ($9.99 each)
by Tom Kaczynski

Note:

I wrote this review a decade ago, but only a small snippet ever appeared online.

10 Favorite Comics of 2018

Arsene Schrauwen

I’m not a professional comics reviewer, so this list is simply based on personal preferences. I’m not looking for objective metrics of quality, I’m much more interested in how a specific work makes me feel or think, or if it surprises me. There are a LOT of 2018 comics I haven’t been able to read, so this also isn’t comprehensive. This list also doesn’t contain any Uncivilized Books titles (all of which I loved, naturally, but I’m biased), for obvious reasons. This list originally appeared as part of a massive round-up on The Comics Journal. There a some spoilers below. Here are my 10 favorite comics of 2018, in no particular order:

Young Frances by Hartley Lin (Adhouse)

Hartley Lin created a stunning graphic novel. The cartooning is flawless, with incredible attention to detail. The story is about Frances, a young legal clerk pulled into the orbit of the menacingly charismatic executive Castonguay. It has some familiar beats about trying to hold on to an authentic self without getting lost in a messy corporate world of petty power struggles. But the execution elevates the story. Hartley’s precise drawings, his framing, sly references (Castonguay as Daddy Warbucks), surreal touches, and great propulsive editing kept things alive and a pleasure to read.

Passing for Human by Liana Finck (Random House)

I was already a fan on Liana’s Instagram feed and her New Yorker cartoons. Passing for Human is beautifully told, via a series of re-starting narratives. One thing that stood out is Liana’s drawing ability. Her drawing style is raw and resembles doodles, but she is fearless and can draw anything with it. A complete world emerges: tiny houses, animals, humans and their lost shadows. Mythical, magical, and absorbing.

Brat by Michael DeForge (Koyama)

Brat contains the word art. One way to read DeForge’s Brat is to substitute Art for Brat; art performance for prank; critical cynicism for temper tantrum; artistic calling for juvenile delinquency. Brats are artists. The titular brat, Ms. D, is an juvenile delinquent/artist struggling with relevance. Once the hero of all brats, Ms. D finds herself older, and no longer a ‘juvenile’. Is she still relevant?

Ms. D embarks on a new project, that, at first glance, appears as a mysterious terrorist plot. Finally, her big performance turns the audience, an entire town, everyone, to become brats! The entire population of the city loses it’s collective mind. The results are at first predictable: graffiti, property damage, zoo animals on the loose, and at least one death (the Mayor gets eaten by a lion). But then, the loss of collective control produces a kind of utopia. In the aftermath, the town rids itself of instruments of control that turned out to be unnecessary. Banks and police? No longer necessary. Hunger? Gone. These things were just accrued, stratified historical layers of a society weighing us down. Once you release the brat, it all falls away. We don’t need these things.

What happens day after brat Armageddon? DeForge alludes to it. But things don’t seem to have changed much. Our hero remains rich, so even if some banks are gone, wealth remains. The world didn’t change all that much. Her former intern, Citrus, is now a star delinquent. Delinquency still exists. Maybe we need a bigger temper tantrum? Or the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Blammo by Noah Van Sciver (Kilgore)

No one does the one-artist anthology like Noah Van Sciver. Blammo is the heir of the 80-90’s single artist anthology comics like Eightball, Optic Nerve, or Dirty Plotte. Every issue fills me with joy and nostalgic pangs for that time.

Tinderella MS Harkness (Kilgore)

MS Harkness has emerged as a vital member of the Minneapolis comics scene. Her incredible work ethic has already yielded many mini-comics and her first graphic novel, Tinderella. Self-deprecating, self-abasing, fearless and fun, there are few books out the like it. It’s not a perfect book by any means, but it’s a promising foreshadowing of things to come.

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso (Drawn & Quarterly)

I didn’t know what to think of first when I to started read Sabrina. I was repelled by it’s quiet abandon, it’s cold artwork, and it’s meandering repetitions. But half way through, something flipped in my brain. I did a 180 and absolutely fell for this book. It reminded me of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. Both books revolve around damaged characters trying to recapture something utterly lost and unrecoverable. It’s an impossible task. We’re placed in an uncomfortable voyeuristic position – watching the characters grasp at memories and fragments as they slowly evaporate – and we can’t look away.

The Complete Julie Doucet by Julie Doucet (Drawn & Quarterly)

While working on Sweet Little Cunt: The Graphic Work of Julie Doucet with Anne Elizabeth Moore, I re-immersed myself in Julie Doucet’s comics of the 80’s and 90’s. It was another reminder of the incredible versatility of the one-artist anthology format. It enabled the artist to experiment, take detours, and continue on a primary narrative at the same time, while producing regular work, on a (somewhat) regular schedule. Julie filled every page of Dirty Plotte with incredible one-page bizarre experiments, ongoing stories (My New York Diary), and small one-off masterpieces of short comics. It’s really great D&Q brought this important work back into print.

Older Comics read in 2018:

Anti-Gone by Connor Williamsun (Koyama)

It took me a while to finally read this book. It was very much hyped after it’s release last year. When something is hyped, I tend to tune it out. I’m glad I finally read it. Connor’s minimalist cartooning is the perfect match for the absurd vacuous characters literally floating around a dystopic post apocalyptic world. It hits close to home. We are these characters. We are empty beings, getting stoned, floating easy as the world burns. Beautifully executed. Near perfect graphic novel.

Arsene Schrauwen by Olivier Schrauwen (Fantagraphics)

Olivier Schrawen has an incredible ability for the absurd. Arsene, ostensibly a Schrauwen ancestor – gets involved in an absurd folly – a Utopian city in the middle of a tropical jungle. The book comes with explicit instructions to pause reading between certain chapters: a week, two weeks. I followed the directions to the letter, and I must say it enhanced the reading enormously. By the time I’d return to read the next chapter, the previous chapter had receded in my mind, like a dream. It perfectly suited the book. Finally, when Arsene and crew reach the jungle site of the utopian city, the absurd world had wormed itself into my unconscious, providing the perfect imaginative fuel for the finale to come.

Eddy Current by Ted McKeever

I wrote about Eddy Current in my column and here on this blog. It remains one of the best comics I read in 2018.

eddy current by ted mckeever

5 Favorite Books of 2018

hav jan morris

I read a lot of books and I like to think about the books I read. But, I never do enough of either. That will change this year as I plan to engage more with what I read and think about. What better way to start than with a list. Here’s are five of my favorite books from 2018 that had a big impact on me last year. They were not necessarily published in 2018, although one of them was.

Hav by Jan Morris

hav jan morris

It’s no secret that I’m a connoisseur of architectural things. Rooms, buildings, structures, cities; urban areas in general. Hav is a fictional trading city located somewhere in the Mediterranean. It’s old. It has been around for centuries, if not millennia. It’s rumored to be on the site of ancient Greek Troy. It is ostensibly European, but has been conquered by Arabs, Turks, Russians, Venetians, British, and others. Each administration has left an indelible stamp on the city through buildings, urban planning, and population resulting in a labyrinthine conurbation with many distinct parts. It’s also a trading port. It’s most famous export is Hav salt, valued for its aphrodisiac qualities. Like other commercial hubs, it is populated by a varied mix of people that first arrive to do business, but end up staying, settling, and creating enclaves that add to the exotic richness of the place. The Hav Chinese built the most impressive structure, the tower of the Chinese Master, that boasts young Sigmund Freud as a one-time resident. Languidly paced, but hard to put down, Jan Morris’ Hav is a place I wish I could visit again.

atta future kobek

The Future Won’t Be Long by Jarett Kobek

This is a prequel to I hate the Internet, which I loved. Set mostly in 80’s New York, against the backdrop of its waning hedonistic club scene, with short detours to Midwest and California, we get to see the origin and evolution of the friendship between Baby & Adeline. As someone who lived in New York for a few years, it was an easy novel to like. Revisiting old haunts and places I wish were still around was a nostalgic treat.

ATTA by Jarett Kobek

This is a short and incredible book. It’s the fictionalized life of Mohamed Atta, the mastermind of 9/11. I resisted this book for a long time. Having lived in New York during 9/11, it’s hard for me to revisit that moment. It’s probably some kind of generalized PTSD, although I was never near the worst of the action. ATTA is revelatory. His life unfolded like a dark version of my own. I grew up in Poland, he grew up in Egypt, both were outside the western prosperity sphere at the time. We emigrated, and arrived in the west in Hamburg, Germany. We both studied architecture and urban planning. Then our path crossed again in New York, 9/11. A haunting mirror of our world.

1491 charles c mann

1491 by Charles C. Mann

I was aware of 1491 since its release. I read the first 100 pages or so, a couple of years ago at my sister’s wedding. A copy was available at the Airbnb I was staying at. I didn’t want to leaved it, and contemplated stealing the copy. I finally finished it this year when I finally got a copy of my own. This book is incredible on so many levels. From the deep history of the Andean and Mesoamerican societies, through the plagues that wiped out a mind-boggling percentages of Native American populations, to the astonishing ecological impacts of the native populations, this book was filled with incredible history, much of which was completely unknown to me. I say this as someone who’s read fairly extensively on all these topics, and yet 1491 surprised me again and again.

Unamerica by Momus

unAmerica momus

I’m a big fan of Momus; not just Momus the musician, or Momus the writer, or Momus the blogger, or Momus the YouTube lecturer. I’m a fan of ALL of those incarnations of Momus. I’ve listened to his music since the late 90’s, read his Click Opera blog in Oughts, I watch his YouTube channel now, and I read his books when they come out. I devoured and loved The Book of Scotlands and the Book of Jokes.

Parallel World

For some reason it took me a few years to get to Unamerica. Momus can really turn a phrase: The Book of Scotlands’ ‘motto’ is “Every Lie Creates a Parallel World, a world in which it is true.” The back cover of Unamerica announces that, “God doesn’t love America. Quite the reverse.” The book begins with a revelation. God speaks unto Brad, and asks him to go a voyage of discovery, but in reverse. God says: “Brad, Americans have become the opposite of everything I intended humans, especially Christians, to become. If I still could, I’d smash this nation to potsherds, or flood the entire continental basin from sea to shining sea. […] America has to become undiscovered. […] Now it’s the rest of the world that needs to become the shining example, the Tir na nOg, the Shangri-La, the Golden Fleece. You Brad, and your twelve hand-picked companions must learn-and teach the world-how to become as unAmerican as possible.”

Meander

Eventually, Brad embarks on this voyage, but he takes a lot detours and meanderings. Momus is not afraid of language, he frequently makes use of vocabulary that is difficult, and willfully obscure. He relishes it in fact. It’s a slim volume, as are all of Momus’ books, but it’s densely packed with invention, adventure, absurdity, and fun. It feels like a much larger book. It doesn’t play by any narrative rules (that I’m aware of).

Utopia

Above all, Momus’ work revolves around the concept of Utopia. He himself has moved from Britain to France to America to Germany to Japan, and back. It has made him a keen observer of social norms, how they are constructed, and how they differ from place to place. We’re often told of the impossibility of Utopia, or of the impossibility of changing the society we live in for the better. But we only have to step outside of our borders to see that even small changes can produce big results. Humans have been creating different ways of living for millennia, it’s just something we do. It’s nice to have Momus remind us of this ability.

I hope you enjoyed this short list of my five favorite books of 2018. I will have more to say about some of these books in the future. Stay tuned!

Cartoon Dialectics Vol. 3 | Best of 2018 | Preview

cartoon dialectics vol 3

It’s difficult to hype your own work. I should know, I started a whole publishing company just to avoid hyping my own work! But, it’s very gratifying to see your own work on any best of list. When the list written by a writer you admire, well that’s even better! Cartoon Dialectics Vol. 3 makes it on the Best of 2018 list at Your Chicken Enemy. Here’s what they have to say:

Cartoon Dialectics #3 looks like a humble, unobtrusive work– it’s packaged like a zine, printed in purple, black and white with an occasional splash of yellow on somewhat thick, matte paper. But what Tom Kaczynski and Clara Jetsmark provide between its covers is powerful, invigorating stuff, connecting the dots between our society’s retromania and the rise of neo-fascism, while also acknowledging how easy it is for anyone to fall prey to the dangerous allure of nostalgia.

[…]

Bold in its aesthetic and literal simplicity and paradoxically educational and surreal, Cartoon Dialectics #3 did a far better job investigating where we are now and why in its few pages than the entirety of the New York Times this year.

Nick Hanover

A big thank you goes to The Nib for commissioning the piece in the first place. Another big thank you goes to Clara Jetsmark who bravely agreed to draw it on a very tight deadline when I ended swamped with other work.

Here’s a short few page preview of this comic for those who haven’t seen it yet:

cartoon dialectics vol 3

You can order a copy here:

Order Cartoon Dialectics Vol. 3

Event Horizon Column: Eddy Current Outtakes

Some of you probably have seen it, some of might not have, but I have a column, called Event Horizon, on The Comics Journal where I write about comics from the Event. What is the Event? Here’s my explanation from the inaugural column:

For a while now I’ve had the idea that something unusual happened in American comics between 1985 and 1987. The period was marked by a unique set of circumstances that encouraged a new level of seriousness about comics as an art form. Comics from this short timespan are something else. The direct market was booming. Marvel and DC were joined by a legion of smaller publishers which released comics in a dizzying array of genres and art styles. Foreign comics became much more available through European graphic novels, and they were joined by some of the first instances of serialized manga, leading to an exuberant experimentation and cross pollination. Beyond the now classic (and thoroughly analyzed) Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns, many of the comics from this period are marked by thematic and formal ambition. The roots of this moment stretch back to the late ’70s and early ’80s but it seems to reach apotheosis precisely during this short span. Something happened in comics between 1985 and 1987. Let’s call that something the Event. The Event influenced comics for decades…

Check out the full column on The Comics Journal.

My next column is on Ted McKeever’s Eddy Current. Here’s a little preview:

Gritty, deliberately grotesque, messy, and challenging; these days you don’t see comics like Eddy Current. Many comics from the time of the Event had this quality. It was a deliberate distancing from the dominant styles established between the 50’s and 70’s. the tight, abstract, dynamic pulp modernism (Kirby), and the elongated slickness of pulp neorealism (Neal Adams). In the 80’s, McKeever—along with his peers from that era, Kevin O’Neil, Bill Sienkiewicz, Kyle Baker, Howard Chaykin, Keith Giffen, and others—were developing new stylistic innovations that mapped closely to what was going on elsewhere in culture and art: postmodernism.

For more you’ll have to wait until the column is live. I’ll post a link when it’s live. In the meantime enjoy some of the images from the book. These ended up unused in the column, but all are great examples of Eddy Current‘s gritty urban nightmare lovingly depicted by McKeever.

Explore more posts related to my Event Horizon column about the comics from 1985-87.

Just Apes: Beta Testing The Apocalypse

An amazing review of Beta Testing the Apocalypse went live recently on Rob Clough’s HighLow blog. Rob really gets into it. Here are a couple of excerpts (warning there are some spoilers here!):

Kaczynski tops himself with “Million Year Boom”, about a brand expert who winds up working for a bizarre “green” company, trying to come up with a corporate logo as it prepares to go public. This is an insane stew of paranoia, devolution, corporate messiahs, and global capitalism fused with a tribal, scatological mindset. The final panel, where the protagonist’s blood spewing across a door gives him the inspiration for the logo, is a stunning moment.

[…]

Kaczynski really has his finger on the collective neuroses of the new millennium.  A recurring theme in this book is how Kaczynski taps into how various of our senses have been warped through modern living. In “Noise: A History”, Kaczynski boils down the history of the world in terms of random events and how many decibels they measured out to, from the big bang to the falling of rustling leaves. He links past to present through the use of that measure of sound, providing an interesting shorthand for understanding the world in its greatest, worst, and most indifferent moments.

Read the whole review here.

Is This The Future? Beta Testing Reviewed by Bookslut

Another nice review of Beta Testing The Apocalypse come in. This time it’s at Bookslut:

But what else are these bewildered men and women supposed to do but struggle to find appropriate metaphors? If Beta Testing is an instruction manual, it’s not one they can read. Those with jobs don’t know what those jobs entail. Those with apartments notice too late everything’s made of papier-mâché. The book quotes Freud’s axiom that anatomy is destiny — but DNA is untrustworthy, too. Subjectivities shift. Cities and their inhabitants collapse into one, if you’re lucky, or overwrite your existence altogether if not. Ballard wrote that the triple pillars of science fiction are time, space, and identity. Here it’s impossible to tell where one ends and another begins.

Is this the future? Does it have to be? The curse of the man in Kaczynski’s “10000 Years” is to dream he is a Martian. “I don’t have the right constitution for this world,” he thinks. “I’m on the wrong planet.” But for us, reading his story, his curse is a useful genetic mutation. Science fiction is notoriously unreliable when it comes to predicting Saturn dreams, laser beams, and 21st century sex machines. It’s fantastic, however, at taking our present reality and making it strange again. Beta Testing The Apocalypse makes us Martians to better let us see what’s happening all around us.

Read it and witness the disquieting Gernsback of Now.

The whole review can be found here.

Beta Testing The Apocalypse Reviewed by Miami Herald

Beta Testing the Apocalypse

This one is a short capsule review, so I’ll post the whole thing here:

His functional and utilitarian art is often reminiscent of the insanely proper illustrations in Jack Chick’s religious tracts, but Kaczynski’s own wildly anarchic imagination fuels his insightful and unsettling narrative. He combines socioeconomic fact, fantasy and farce in this seriously paranoid criticism of modernity, and the result is a disturbing but hilarious tale of identity loss and consumerism run amok.

See the Beta Testing The Apocalypse Review on Miami Herald.

Beta Testing Reviewed by The Comics Journal

A new review of Beta Testing the Apocalypse, this time by The Comics Journal! As a reader of The Comics Journal since issue 148 (Charles Burns Interview. I miss the paper issues!), I’m pleased as punch. Here’s an excerpt:

[…] One of the pleasures of reading Beta Testing, as in other watershed collections like Caricature,Curses, or Everything Together, lies in watching a cartoonist become less mindful of his precursors, less rote in his treatment of subject matter, both freer and more assured. As the book progresses, Kaczynski sloughs off influence, just as his characters slip away from civilization. A breakthrough story like 2008’s “Million Year Boom” nearly brings the book to a halt halfway through with its impressive and authentic weirdness, yet still retains the stamp of millenarian systems novelists, still partakes of the old dead-eyed Clowesian aloofness. By the time we reach the concluding story, “The New”—at once an ode to modernist architecture and an allegory literalizing the decline of the west, created uniquely for this volume—Kaczynski’s layouts have exploded into space, cities and buildings splayed out on the page in startling and diagrammatic splashes.

Also, the review delves into the index, which is personally very satisfying. I’m always curious how people will react to it:

To his credit, Kaczynski acknowledges as much, duly footnoting his book’s debt to J.G. Ballard’s drowned worlds and concrete islands in an index that records other oblique references to Jane Jacobs and Slavoj Žižek—though entries for “Gibson, William,” or “DeLillo, Don” remain curiously absent. Kaczynski’s looming dread and sub/urban automata owe at least as much to White Noise as his vision of mechanized, entropic modernity does to The Atrocity Exhibition, not to mention his pontifications on gleaming consumerism: “Consider the modern bathroom. … How did this antiseptic room where excrement magically disappears come to be?” In such revelations of the science-fictional in the everyday—Kaczynski also invokes grain silos and utilitarian office buildings as totems of some alien race—the cartoonist conducts a kind of archaeology of the future from among our commonplace existence, in much the same way the Godard of Alphaville or the Tarkovsky of Stalkercalled forth the otherworldly moonscapes that have always been dormant in what our culture has erected or let fall into ruin.

William Gibson should’ve been there, but Don DeLillo I’ve never read. Here’s hoping there’s a second edition so I can tinker with the index some more!

The rest of the review is here.

Beta Testing Reviewed at Comics Bulletin

beta-testing-the-apocalypse-by-tom-kaczynski

Another review of Beta Testing The Apocalypse surfaced a little while ago. This one was fun to read:

Kaczynski’s new collection Beta Testing the Apocalypse is weird as all fuck and funny as all shit, a Singles Going Steady for the art comix crowd that merges Burroughs’ cut-up commentary with Ballard’s keen tech consumer insight and siliconic wit. Working in a style that is a perplexing mix of dot matrix detailing, architectural blue print exactness and razor blade xeroxing looseness, Kaczynski uses Beta Testing the Apocalypse as a platform for his interest in the anxieties of the ever shifting expansiveness of 21st century life, a life Kaczynski obviously inhabits, too, but somehow does so with a verve and clarity the rest of us lack.

See the the rest here.