The Propaganda reviews – from Dorking around to serious Criminal activity

Published On March 28, 2007 | By Richard Bruton | Comics, Reviews

This is Propaganda.

My name’s Richard Bruton. Until last October I used to work at Nostalgia & Comics in Birmingham UK, where I spent a very happy 19 years getting paid to have fun, see my friends and help promote the great comics I loved.

But even the best things come to an end and last October I moved up to Yorkshire and had to consider a life without a regular connection to comics. But luckily the folks at the FPI blog read of my plight on my blog; Fictions. When they asked if I’d be interested in carrying on the Propaganda newsletter that I used to do at Nostalgia & Comics I jumped at the chance.

This time on Propaganda; a nice mix of comedy, a mental breakdown LIVE on the comic page, widescreen superhero sci-fi, crime noir and the book that quite a few people thought was one of the best of 2006.

Here we go again…

Dork: Circling the Drain (Volume 2)
By Evan Dorkin
SLG 2003

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Evan Dorkin has always been worth reading, mostly for his quite brilliant, vicious, homicidal Dairy Products Gone Bad: Milk & Cheese. But he’s done a lot of other things as well. I still remember his old Pirate Corp$ comics fondly with their mix of Ska, Sci-Fi and silliness. (They’re available now as Hectic Planet Volumes 1 & 2).

But he’s never really made a big impact in the comics world, which is a real shame, because things like Milk & Cheese and Dork are excellent and funny comics. Well, they were.

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(dairy products gone bad, borrowed from Evan’s official site)

Until this volume. Suddenly we get to see a completely new side to the funny, cynical, biting wit that is Evan Dorkin. He’s always made a point of lampooning himself quite mercilessly in his comics. He’ll write about his lack of success, his insecurities as both writer and artist, his perfectionism and his continual belief that what he does just isn’t all that good. But it’s always been as an aside, something in addition to the brilliantly funny strips he puts before us.

And for the first half of Circling the Drain, it seems its business as usual. Lots of funny stuff going on in here, all served up with Dorkin’s usual cynical style and cluttered artwork. He puts an awful lot of stuff into every page, but that’s just part of his scattershot style and works. But about halfway through something darker takes hold. Dorkin breaks into the strip, nothing unusual, it’s a device he’s always used, except this time all is obviously not well with the artist:

Now, where was I? You’ll have to forgive me. I kind of don’t have anything planned out here. Sorry……Things have been pretty hectic lately……. Anyway…um….shit. Give me a few seconds and I’ll come up with something

And then we’re back to normal gags. Except it happens again next page and again, and again. Until it’s suddenly a comic not by Evan Dorkin but plainly about Evan Dorkin. And Evan Dorkin is obviously not very well. Everything that had been talked about by him before; the insecurities, the inadequacy, the stress, everything is suddenly much, much worse.

I can’t work. When I can work, I can’t get anything done. I have plenty of ideas … I just can’t write or draw them.

I’ve never been happy with my work …. When my work began to receive some attention I took this as a two edged sword, as things got better for me, they got worse

I began to feel pressured, I began to second guess everything I did … Every drawing … Every idea… and every line of dialogue

And it only gets worse from there. And it’s all chillingly unfolding on the comic page in front of you. Whether it’s a breakdown or not quite that bad doesn’t really matter, what is patently obvious is how much pain Dorkin’s in while writing and drawing this.

And it makes absolutely enthralling reading. I hesitate to call it entertaining, because of the subject matter, but it’s certainly fascinating to observe.

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(the cover to Dork #8 by Evan Dorkin)

But very few of you will be aware of how good a book Dork is, whether you want the first volume for gag heavy material from a genuinely funny and talented man or want to delve into something much deeper and darker in volume 2 you should be reading Dork.

(And because I know you wish him well, because he’s a nice bloke and draws great things, the good news is that he’s a little more back on track. There’s a lovely moment at the end of Dork when Sarah Dyer (Dorkin’s wife and talented creator in her own right) breaks into the strip and saves the day. The good news is that he and Sarah had a lovely little girl and all seems a lot better now. Hopefully this means that we’ll be seeing something new in print from Dorkin sometime soon. Surely it’s time for another Milk & Cheese # 1? Evan has a blog here and also shares The House of Fun with Sarah Dyer.

The Cowboy Wally Story
Story and art by Kyle Baker.

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A simple review of this would just have the tag line “the funniest comic book you will ever read”. It really is that funny and that good.

This was Kyle Baker’s first book and it’s an incredibly well constructed, confident and inspired debut. He’s since gone on to give us Why I Hate Saturn, You Are Here, King David, The Bakers and they’re all wonderfully funny in their own right, but not quite as rip-roaringly, side splittingly so as Cowboy Wally. In fact, I dare you to read it and not raise a chuckle. If you’re unmoved by the comedy here you should probably take a trip to the local A&E as you may be dead.

The dialogue is an unrelenting mix of cutting barbs, sarcasm, subtle asides and straight gags. The cast of characters are all parodies and pastiches yet are all wonderfully, hilariously and fully realized over the course of the book. And Baker’s timing is just impeccable; gags either fall from the page like confetti at a wedding or slowly build throughout a scene to a superb payoff gag. All of this is illustrated in a simple, loose, yet expressive style that ably assists and adds to the comedy in the writing.

Cowboy Wally is a fat, loud, ignorant and stupid TV personality, completely unaware of how utterly without taste, style or talent he is. The book is structured as a four act piece, with Cowboy Wally being interviewed for a career retrospective charting the many attempts and many more failures of Cowboy Wally as a TV and Movie star:

COWBOY WALLY: “I used to be a free-lance photographer…. one day, on a whim, I introduced myself to the president of the WQZ television network, Mr Jameson Spleen. I showed him some pictures that I had taken of him and his thirteen year old niece, Stephanie. Spleen was so impressed that he offered me ten thousand dollars and my own television series in exchange for the pictures and negatives

INTERVIEWER: “Wow…… you must have been some photographer

CW: “Unfortunately, I hear those pictures have since been lost

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(a frame from Cowboy Wally by Kyle Baker)

The first and final acts are practically a series of incredibly funny one page gag strips. Each new Cowboy Wally creation is brought forth, gets a laugh and disappears. The wealth of comic potential is never explored, Baker preferring to hit us hard and fast in this first section.

Conducted under the watchful eye of a very twitchy (with good reason) manager it runs through some of the worst examples of bad TV shows you could ever imagine. And it’s a tribute to Baker’s incredible ability to parody the mass media that many of these shows don’t feel too far off something we may see on prime time ITV any day soon:

INTERVIEWER: “Anything to the rumours about the feud between you and the announcer?

SOL: “Ed was a great talent, but very unhappy, so when he left, we really weren’t surprised.”

INT: “You fired him

SOL: “It was a mutual parting of the ways. We gave him the freedom to do what he wanted to do

INT: “What was that?

SOL: “Drink himself to death.”

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The second and third acts look at two of Cowboy Wally’s movie projects. “Sands of Blood” riffs on the idea that all young men join the Foreign Legion as a way to mope and try to forget a girl. And very funny it is too. “The Making of Hamlet” is a documentary of the filming of Hamlet under circumstances which are not ideal. They’ve only got one week to make it (for tax purposes) and after a little celebration drink following the $10 million deal to make the film Wally finds himself in jail. But that doesn’t stop him completely re-writing Shakespeare and filming guerrilla style from inside the prison:

Francisco: “Accidental death, says the Queen. The King fell on his sword.”

Bernardo: “Wow.”

Francisco: “Eight times.”

Bernardo: “Sounds fishy to me.”

Francisco: “Hey, I don’t see nothing, I don’t hear nothing. That’s what they pay me for.”

Bernardo: “You’re the palace guard.”

Francisco: “And I want to keep it that way.”

This is one of those books where I’m actually jealous of you if you’ve never read it before. You’re about to get that wonderful experience of reading something hysterically funny that’s wonderfully rare nowadays. But the joy of Kyle Baker, as I’m sure I’ll point out as I get around to reviewing his other work is that all of his work bears repeated reading. The jokes don’t tire with repeat visits and the situations stay as funny as the first time.

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(Cover to Plastic Man volume 2 by Kyle Baker for DC)

Kyle Baker is, truly, a very funny cartoonist and you should really run down to your nearest good quality comics shop, fight your way through the piles of unread and probably unreadable trash and ask them if they have anything by Kyle Baker. That’s probably a sure indication of how good a shop they are.

Pride of Baghdad
Written by Brian K Vaughn
Art by Niko Henrichon

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This takes as its basis the true story of the bombing of Baghdad Zoo during Operation Iraqi Freedom and the subsequent release of the animals into the streets of Baghdad. Pride of Baghdad follows a pride of lions, released into the wilds of the urban environment at war.

I was expecting great things from this as it had topped many people’s best of year lists. But overall I came away from it with a sense of disappointment. The story is nice enough, the artwork is really nice but overall the whole package just doesn’t work for me.

Maybe it’s part of my science background that makes me dislike over-anthropomorphising animals. And that happens from the very start in Pride of Baghdad. To try to make his points about the nature of freedom and captivity and the brutal realities of war Vaughn feels he has to give the lions a human voice to explain their situations and feelings. He’s attempting poignant allegory but it just isn’t working for me.

It was in the first few pages that I felt myself questioning the scenarios that Vaughn presented. Six pages in and the alpha lioness is conspiring to get the animals released. She’s planned it carefully and is trying to convince the Antelopes that they should work together to defeat the keepers and then use the monkeys to snatch the keys and open the cages with their cute little opposable thumbs. Lions, antelopes and monkeys, all working together in the face of the common enemy. How sweet.

It was just too much for me.

It’s just not enough to see Vaughn finding cute new ways to get the animals to bring forth their versions of human behaviour. Black stuff, poison from under the ground. The walkers and their huge rumbling shells. That sort of thing got tiresome quite quickly.

It would have been a lot more interesting to see Vaughn trying to come up with a genuinely original voice for his Lions. Maybe something that captured the essential wildness, the predator’s mind. He tries a couple of times and succeeds to a point most often with his characterization of the lion cub:

I hope there are other animals my age out there …… I always wanted to kill a baby goat

Lunch is here. Its bunnies…… I like bunnies. They stick in your teeth so you can still taste ‘em in the morning

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(the lion cub from Pride of Baghdad, art by Niko Henrichon, (c) DC)

But once the novelty of the lions wears off it becomes a tale of lost creatures trying to find a home. In fact the whole thing has a distinct feel of a Disney film. You know the one. This is not to say that it’s not an enjoyable book, in fact it’s a very entertaining but fairly short read. I think I found it more disappointing than anything else because of the huge build up it had been receiving. And I just don’t think it is that good.

My dear friend Simon summed it up in an email to me the other day:

It wasn’t even Disney with bullets, it was just plain Disney. Other than the setup which required a zoo to be bombed it could have taken place anywhere. There was no attempt to link it to the issues surrounding the invasion of Iraq. So what was the point of setting it there except to get a few extra sales?

I know it was based upon a true story, but this must have consisted of nothing more than “Today, some lions escaped from Baghdad Zoo. Later that day they were shot.” It would have been much more interesting to try and reflect the alien, predatory mind that exists in real lions.

In a different scenario they (the lions) could even have represented the military might of the USA devouring the carcass of Iraq. This seems like a far more fruitful line of literary exploration.

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(frame from Pride of Baghdad, art by Niko Henrichon, (c) DC)

The back cover blurbs talk about Pride of Baghdad raising questions about the true meaning of freedom and creating a unique window into the nature of life during wartime. Sorry, but that’s just rubbish.

If you’re looking for something that “creates a unique window into the nature of life during wartime you really need to explore Joe Sacco’s work (Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde, The Fixer, War’s End).

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(Cover to the new hardback special edition of Palestine by Joe Sacco from Fantagraphics)

And if you’re after a book dealing with the concepts of freedom from an animal’s point of view you should be picking up We3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. That’s an example of how to do it well. It’s original, with wonderful expressive artwork and doesn’t fall into the trap of simply making the animals respond like humans in furry suits. So overall, Pride of Baghdad is good, but it’s nowhere near as good as I thought it might be. Pity. (wow, this was one of my top three graphic novels for 2006 and went well as a book group choice; obviously you can’t please everyone! – Joe)

Newuniversal #1-3
Writer – Warren Ellis
Artist – Salvador Larroca
Marvel Comics (2007)

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I had no idea what to expect from this one. Warren Ellis, like many of our best writers (Morrison, Ennis, even the great Mr Moore himself) has a tendency to spread himself a little too thin or put out material that surely can’t have taken longer than a quick toilet stop to come up with.

But I’m really pleasantly surprised with this. Marvel have obviously let Ellis have Carte Blanché with their characters from the New Universe. Not much of a big deal really, the original New Universe stories were absolutely awful. But Ellis has stripped the concepts back and created another one of his high concept, sci-fi stories out of them. And perhaps surprisingly, given how crap it was the first time around, the whole thing works really well.

The basic story concerns a handful of humans given superhuman powers in the wake of “the White Event”. Each is operating independently but you just know something is connecting them apart from the celestial event that gave them their powers. By taking all the sci-fi elements of the concept and playing them high in the mix you can tell that Ellis is having a good time playing with the characters. It has the same feel about it as Stormwatch and the Authority did, solidly written exciting comics. Nothing too taxing, nothing too difficult, just your comic equivalent of a big blockbuster movie. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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(scenes from Newuniversal #3 by Salvador Larocca, (c) Marvel)

And I thought Larocca’s art was perfect for it as well, open, expressive, yet doing the job of simply carrying the story very well.

Of course, I also read Thunderbolts # 110 as well. Now that really does prove what I said earlier about Ellis firing off ideas and not really applying any sort of quality filter to them. It’s the first post Civil War Thunderbolts where the government gets any old psychopath and tells them to go out and bag a rogue unregistered supertype.

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(cover to Thunderbolts #110 by Marko Djurdjevic, (C) Marvel)

It’s not that it’s a bad comic per se. It’s just routine, run of the mill, just this side of bland. Sure, it’s got some nice ideas, some deft touches. But I for one would much rather Warren saved up these ideas and these touches and put them into something far better, far more worthy of his time.

Criminal #1-4
Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips

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This is the sophomore series from the very talented team of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Their debut series Sleeper was a real undiscovered gem; a perfectly realised imagining of what might actually happen in the world of super-spies, a masterclass in subtle characterization and a series that started off as a paranoid nightmare and then got steadily worse with a cast of characters whose loyalties switched constantly until no-one was really sure who was on which side. The greatest thing about Sleeper was it’s well defined structure. In a medium of mainstream series that just carry on and on and on, it was lovely to have a series with a defined beginning, middle and end.

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(cover to volume 1 of Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, (c) DC Comics)

Which brings us to the next series from Brubaker and Phillips: Criminal. Whereas Sleeper had it’s roots in the superhero world Criminal is an old fashioned hard boiled crime tale.

Like most great crime writing it’s a simple enough set up: a master thief lives by a simple code; never, ever compromise the rules to do the job. And the primary rule, the one you never, ever break is that you always get away, no matter what. Never, ever get greedy and walk away empty handed if necessary, just don’t get caught. Plan, plan again and always escape. He’s the master thief and has never been caught because he sticks to the rules.

But he’s drawn into a job that he knows he shouldn’t even be considering, a job that completely ignores his rules. But once he’s sucked into the job, coerced by crooked cops he has no choice but to start ignoring his own rules and that’s where it all starts to go horribly wrong for him.

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(cover to the first volume of collected Criminal, art by Sean Phillips)

I’ve only read the first few issues but it’s already looking like a great new series, definitely one that will read really well in collected form and well worth picking up when volume 1 hits the shelves. You can read an interview artist Sean Phillips gave to FPI here; Sean has his own site where you can check out more, as does Ed Brubaker. The first collected graphic novel of Criminal is due from Marvel this May.

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About The Author

Richard Bruton
- Started in comics retail aged 16 at Nostalgia & Comics, Birmingham. Now located in Yorkshire, he's written for the Forbidden Planet International Blog since 2007. Specialising in UK Comics and All-Ages comics, Richard's day job in a primary school allowed him to build the best children's graphic novel library in the country.

2 Responses to The Propaganda reviews – from Dorking around to serious Criminal activity

  1. Is there a colour edition of THE COWBOY WALLY SHOW? Dammit, mine’s in black & white. Looks like I’m going to have to buy it again.

  2. Richard Bruton Richard says:

    No need to buy it again, the extra colour image is a cover image from a previous edition I think.
    Mein host at FPI blog; Joe, adds all the illustrations to these posts and that’s one of his.
    Of course, that means you can now pop to the fpi website or your nearest shop and pick up Dork or some other Kyle Baker books with the money you would have spent!