Before we get to what is essentially Jack Davis tribute week, regular readers may know of my admiration for Dover Comics and by association their former editor, Drew Ford, responsible for the publisher’s truly special output thus far. Thanks largely to Ford’s efforts, Dover has created a beautiful little niche for itself, unearthing long forgotten, out of print or obscure comics gems, brushing the dust off of them and returning them to publishing life where they belong. Dover, in 2016 alone, has put out three particular projects that are almost certainly bound for my year end Best Of column: Through the Habitrails, Murder by Remote Control and Worry Doll. All thanks to the efforts of Drew Ford.
Ford is no longer associated with Dover, citing the desire for more freedom in choosing his publishing slate. He has started It’s Alive!, his own imprint, and is raising funds for each individual title (for costs including artist advances and art restoration fees – all completely understandable). However, he’s raising them on Kickstarter, a platform I swore off a few years ago after being burned one time too many. I was tempted to back Red Range, the debut title from It’s Alive!, as it’s scripted by one of my all time favourite writers, Joe R.Lansdale, and drawn by the legendary Sam Glanzman. I almost caved on the second title, the long-lost adaptation of Sax Rohmer’s Dope by Trina Robbins, but then things complicated further.
IDW has entered into a publishing arrangement with Ford and It’s Alive!, meaning that the imprint’s titles will be available through Diamond Distributors and thus available for purchase at All Star Comics as of 2017. Good news, great news in fact. However, presumably, if a title does not reach its Kickstarter-driven goal, it will be banished back to comic book limbo. So, follow me here: Ford is doing the hard work, raising funds to clean up and restore artwork and provide creators with a sizeable advance. Through It’s Alive!, he will publish copies available to his Kickstarter backers. There will then be a subsequent IDW/It’s Alive!edition, widely available to all. Assuming each comic meets its individual goal, that is, with IDW coming to the publishing party only once funding is secure.
For some reason, and I am not suggesting any impropriety by anyone whatsoever, this did not sit very well with me. Drew Ford, however, is thrilled with the arrangement, as I found out when I chatted with him about it.
A BRIEF INTERVIEW WITH DREW FORD OF IT’S ALIVE! COMICS
Hi Drew, congratulations on the initial success of It’s Alive! and the recent news of your deal with IDW. It seems as though you’re picking up right where you left off with Dover. Is that an accurate assumption? How has your day to day life in comics changed? You must be doing an incredible amount of admin work by publishing an entire line initially through crowd-funding.
Things have actually changed quite drastically, as it has now become necessary to work these Kickstarter campaigns full time. That, more than anything else, is how my day to day life in comics has changed. I guess I am doing an incredible amount of work right now, but I am believing it will pay off, for both the new imprint and the creators involved, so I don't mind.
Is Dover Comics continuing to operate following your departure?
From what I can see, the collections that I lined up before leaving Dover continue to come out. Just recently I've held in my hands copies of Wandering Star, Worry Doll and the U.S.S. Stevens collections, just to name a few.
What can you tell us about It’s Alive’s publishing mission?
Our mission is to save the history of comics one collection at a time.
How did the IDW deal come about?
After some sage advice from a few industry mentors, I approached them, and it worked itself out from there.
If a book fails to reach its Kickstarter goal, will IDW publish it?
No. If a book doesn't reach its Kickstarter goal we won't have the funds to pay the creators and do things like colour a black and white book for the first time (like we are doing with Red Range), or reformat and resize pages from old comics (like we are doing with Dope, where the first few chapters of the story was originally published in a serialized form, standard magazine size and black and white. Unfortunately, the last few chapters of the story were published at standard comic book size and in colour. So we need to do some work on the individual pages to make all this the same, so it will look seamless in the final collection). The funds from the Kickstarter also allow us to hire incredible folks to contribute forewords and introductions and afterwords, and so much more. So yeah, a successful Kickstarter campaign is essential to a book being published.
Is there a reason these books don’t come straight out through IDW? With them co-publishing, why the need to continue crowdfunding?
As you can see from my last answer, I never have a finished collection ready to print when I start one of these restoration projects. I needed to find a way to come up with all these upfront costs, and Kickstarter made perfect sense. Once I have raised these funds and done all this work, I can bring a book to IDW ready to print.There are limits at every publisher, as far as how much advance they can afford for creators, and how much they can invest in pre-press restoration work for each collection. By doing these Kickstarters, I am able to save comics that would otherwise never again see the light of day. So, for now, I don't mind. Hope that makes sense.
On that note, one of my sources of confusion with deals of this sort (like Fresh Romance with Oni Press, for example) is it seems to me that one publishing avenue surely cannibalises readers from the other. Can you explain to idiots like me exactly why creating a crowdfunded edition of a fairly “boutique” comic that’s quickly followed by another edition from another, larger publisher is a sound idea? And can you explain what the benefits to both sides are (particularly yours)?
I can't speak to other projects from other publishers. What I am doing here is trying to find a way to save old uncollected comic book runs and graphic novels from extinction. The problem is there are a lot of costs associated with putting these types of collections together.
Kickstarter is a great solution because it allows the fans of these old comics and graphic novels to have a hand to making sure they see print. Believe me when I tell you there are a lot of people out there just as passionate as me about getting these works back in print, and it means a lot to many of them that their contribution helped ensure the publication of a specific body of out of print comic book work.
As for your concern that the Kickstarter edition will take buyers away from the IDW edition, I'm not worried about that. Red Range, for example, had 347 backers on Kickstarter. But when you look at the book being released to comic shops, book stores and places online like Amazon through IDW, 347 copies of the book is not that much. If the IDW collection goes on to sell even just 3000 copies in the first year, those initial 347 Kickstarter copies not only didn't hurt us, but in fact allowed us to raise the funds needed to eventually get the book into thousands of readers hands down the line. For me, I see it as a win-win for everyone involved.
Will the It’s Alive! and IDW/ It’s Alive! editions differ in any way?
Yes. The Kickstarter will contain content specific to the Kickstarter campaign, such as thank you pages and artwork that was donated to specific campaigns from different comic book pros. I have also been talking with the creators of future projects I am currently working on about the possibility of having different covers and so forth.
Finally, would you like to tell readers about any specific project(s)? And can you tell us anything about any future offerings?
Right now all I can reveal is what you already know. We have successfully funded Red Range by Joe R. Lansdale and Sam Glanzman, and we are in the process of funding Dope by Trina Robbins (with a foreword by C. Spike Trotman, introduction by Trina Robbins, afterword by Colleen Doran, and original letters by the legendary Tom Orzechowski). We are about a week into the Dope Kickstarter campaign, and have raised about 40% of the funds needed to reach out final goal, so if you are a fan of Trina Robbins, or just a fan of good comics in general, we could still very much use your help in making this collection a reality.
If you’re interested in contributing to the ongoing campaign for Trina Robbins’ Dope, as I eventually did, you can find that information here, otherwise I hope you’ll consider ordering It’s Alive! books upon solicitation. Drew Ford, ladies and gentlemen, he’s doing the Lord’s work.
COMIC OF THE WEEK : ‘TAIN’T THE MEAT…IT’S THE HUMANITY!
By Jack Davis
Published By Fantagraphics
I was actually planning on saving this one for Halloween, but with the passing of the mighty Jack Davis last week, it feels appropriate and timely to celebrate this collection right away.
Although more famous for his Mad work and, to the world at large, his sharp caricatures for publications like TV Guide in The States, it’s some of Davis’, startling early work on the 1950s EC horror titles we’re looking at today. Fantagraphics, as part of its beautiful EC reprint collection, released their first chunk of horror-Davis in 2013, with ‘Tain’t The Meat…It’s The Humanity, capturing Davis’ art in all its exaggerated, gruesome glory on crisp black and white pages. It’s a stellar series as a whole with Fantagraphics wisely grouping each collection by artist, as well as providing typically stylish design (the hardcovers look great lined up on a shelf, generous supplemental material as well as presenting the much celebrated illustrative content as strikingly as possible in B&W.
Largely scripted by the equally legendary Al Feldstein, a creator with a real knack for churning out short, twisted numbers, 'T'aint... features 24 Davis-drawn stories from Tales From the Crypt. Drawn between 1951-1955, the collection showcases his gift for body language, range of facial expression and ability to handle any scenario thrown at him by Feldstein and co., even with the frequently cramped, text-heavy pages typical of the EC style.
Among the many highlights here are "The Trophy," in which an arrogant trophy hunter finds his own head the target of a backwoods psycho; "Drawn and Quartered," in which an artist screwed out of fame and fortune by an unscrupulous agent turns to voodoo for his revenge; and the hilarious "Gas-tly Prospects," in which a dead prospector's corpse returns again and again to torment a man trying to claim its gold-rich land. As is typical with EC shockers, the ridiculousness of the story premises proves compelling rewarding more often than not and the ugliness of human nature - man's cruelty, greed and ability to lie cheat, murder and deceive is taken to its most extreme maximum. Davis, although uncomfortable working in the horror genre, had a real skill at depicting his horrible sociopaths with wide, cruel eyes and even wider, crueler grins, and the screaming faces of the guilty as their ironic, grisly punishments are meted out are another particular visual highlight.
Two stories included here stand extra tall, packing the most wallop. The titular tale (1952) opens with a leering Cryptkeeper (the narrating character of all of these tales) beckoning readers in with one hand whilst clutching a bloody cleaver in the other. "Survival...Or Death!" (also 1952) opens with the Cryptkeeper plugging a skeleton into an "Electrifying Spine Tingler" as he threatens to tell a tale to "shiver your scrawny bodies!" Both stories showcase EC's one-two combination of shock value and moral lesson at its sharpest, in classic, completely over-the-top ways and both stories are light on narration, with Feldstein giving Davis a great deal of room to work with by the typically squeezy standards of the EC page.
"Survival...Or Death!" sees the officers aboard a cargo ship try to alleviate their boredom by creating an elaborate rat trap using a barrel full of water with a platform big enough for only a single rat to support itself on in the middle. When two rats are baited into the barrel, they must fight to the death to see which rat can access the platform and survive. The leering faces of the onlooking officers enjoying this cruelty as the rats thrash about are superb. Even the Captain of the ship turns away from the ugly spectacle, but the officers, betting on a rat apiece, cheer with a fervor that beautifully mocks fans of blood and combat sports (of which I am one, in the interests of full disclosure). The Officers explain to their captain, befuddled by their cruelty, that their game is not simply a way to pass the time, but a demonstration of "how one savage beast will destroy another in order to preserve its own life."
The Captain by way of rebuke says that human beings would behave exactly the same way in a similar situation, to which the officers disagree, suggesting that some would but that "civilized persons" such as they would not. Ahhhh...a good EC story is like a cake baking in the oven, just because you can smell it cooking from the other end of the house, it doesn't make the end result any less delicious. Yes, the entire crew must abandon ship and, aboard a sea-tossed lifeboat the battle for survival and the true nature of "civilized" persons is revealed. A particular visual highlight of this story is Davis devoting as much space as he can to the image of the overcrowded lifeboat capsizing, the terrified sailors aboard plunging into jagged black waves.
There's a lot of story crammed into "'Tain't The Meat...It's The Humanity!," a true top-tier EC classic. Set during WWII, Zach Gristle is a small town butcher, struggling to maintain his business and the quality of his product during a period of severe meat rationing. Gristle's slide from upstanding local businessman to greedy, self-centered criminal begins when he's offered a princely sum for his finest steak by a black marketer. Initially resistant, Gristle can't hold out for long as the dollar figure increases. Selling more and more of his product to his black market middleman, Gristle begins to cut corners to keep his regular customers satisfied, bumping up his stock with horse meat sold, of course, as beef. When that proves to be insufficient, he purchases rotting, zoo-bound meat. A string of fatal poisonings subsequently occurs, leading many to believe a maniac stalks their idyllic small town streets. Gristle decides to "hit the road...leave town...take it on the lam..." but when his own son eats some of the tainted meat at a friend's house, Mrs. Gristle decides to solve the meat crisis in her own grisly way.
You'd never know Davis was uncomfortable with this sort of material by looking at the pages of "T'aint...", from the aforementioned opening image of the Cryptkeeper, to Gristle's increasingly sweaty, panicked and paranoid expressions, this is as lively as cartooning gets as the plot spirals down, down, down with the crazy inevitability of a particularly compressed psycho noir. Flies buzz around rotting meat and its unwashed illegal vendors and an image of the hastily wrapped, tainted zoo meat, still hairy and hooved, is enough to turn even the most die-hard meat eater off their T-bone. The Cryptkeeper also has a lot of fun narrating this one, announcing certain expositional slices through a radio microphone, or with an ice pack on his head and a thermometer in his mouth as though poisoned himself - Davis injecting as much levity as he can into the proceedings.
Featuring werewolves, mummies, vampires and the secret origin behind Grand Guignol theatre, 'T'aint The Meat...It's The Humanity! is a collection showcasing Davis at his hilariously dark best. He may have turned away from this type of material, in the process becoming one of the 20th Century's most distinctive and admired cartoonists, but his energetic pages, frenetic characters and grimacing monsters and psychopaths live on better than ever in both this beautifully restored Fantagraphics edition and its newly-released 2016 companion volume, The Living Mummy and Other Stories. Given the sheer amount of EC work completed by the ever-prolific legend, it's safe to say we'll have more of these handsome editions to look forward to. Bring them on, I say.
WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : JACK BURTON DAVIS JR. 1924-2016
Not a comic this week, a celebration of a legendary career instead. Gary Groth, Fantagraphics’ publisher, put together this wonderful retrospective of Jack Davis’ life and career, a piece both thorough and moving and also packed with vibrant Davis imagery. Looking back at all this Davis art, particularly the caricatures for MAD, is really itching at some near-forgotten childhood part of my brain. It’s weird; a phantom limb kind of itch if that makes any sense.
I, like many of you, spent countless childhood hours with Davis’ work and while I am not as affected by his passing as Darwyn Cooke's or David Bowie's, losing a talent of his stature is saddening and strange. His work was massively influential, not just on comics but on popular culture as a whole. Through his TV Guide covers and film posters, he transcended the medium we love and his remarkable skill at remaining a distinctly individual caricaturist, able to capture his subjects through more than just simple, lazy exaggeration of certain facial features, is a rare thing indeed.
COMICS VIDEO OF THE WEEK : JACK DAVIS COMMERCIALS
Not only completely self-explanatory, but also the perfect way to wrap up this week. Once again, there's no mistaking Davis' fingerprints, which are all over this group of old commercials from the opening second, even when the first characters you see happen to be apple people. If this stylish little collection of Davis-designed ads doesn't make you want to munch on McCracken's Apple Chips, pound back a few Utica Clubs and have a good night's sleep thanks to Sominex, well, you're a stronger person than I am. It's probably just me but if commercials still looked like this, I would plug my TV antenna back in pronto.
Rest in peace, Mr. Davis, you were truly one of a kind.
See you next week. Love your comics.