Amberstar (1980) by Bruce Jones

THIS WEEK IN COMICS! (12/2/10 – Thursday’s releases, today!)



I thought of this when I heard Irvin Kershner had died, which goes to show you the psychological damage a lifetime of comic book reading can do. Kershner, of course, inevitably prompts some funnybook consideration; as director of The Empire Strikes Back, he picks up the considerable baggage of the asserted comics influence on Star Wars, while his direction of Robocop 2 — the first R-rated movie I ever saw in R-rated form — implicates more contemporary notions of translating a cartoonist’s style (i.e. errant screenwriter Frank Miller’s) to a big-money action movie.

Then again, these days the most direct Kershner/comics connection is in fact specifically wedded to psychological damage, in that he served as director for the notorious 1955 horror comic books episode of the television program Confidential Report, currently on a dvd included with the Abrams ComicArts release of The Horror! The Horror!: Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read! While mostly comprised of awkward interview footage of, say, children recounting various horror comic plots or a reformed cartoonist indicating where touch-up artists made the breasts on his romance comic heroine larger, the meat of the program is surely its energetically cut (and rather patently staged) footage of kids romping out to the woods to take in some fine graphic literature, after which they engage in the unsubtly sexualized (if okay-for-’50s-television) assault of a hapless local boy.

It’s weirdly harrowing stuff — flaunting its journalistic license to loll in content abjectly harsher than usual for its era and style — boasting a centerpiece of delirious kitsch wherein narrator/creative force Paul Coates, like a proud graphic novelist perched at the podium of his spotlight panel at a art comics convention, recites the narrative captions of a jokey, she’ll-rip-yer-heart-out horror poem one-pager with all the cold gravity of Signal 30, after which one of the featured boys rises immediately to his feet and begins driving a pocket knife over and over into a nearby tree. I read comics that make me feel like that too.

But these are all examples of comics trickling into movies or television. Particularly when you’re dealing with a cultural phenomenon like Star Wars, it’s easier to isolate examples of film drifting into comics – hardly a new phenomena in 1980, the year of Kershner’s entry in the series, but such proliferation of specific influence can form some especially odd specimens, especially in a time of great change for comics itself.

Witness: Amberstar, 1980 Warner Books release masterminded by Bruce Jones, then primarily a scriptwriter (and occasional artist) for the Warren horror magazines, which had recently enacted a freeze on purchasing new material. As indicated in a 2008 interview with Richard Arndt (ctrl-F “Bruce Jones”), Jones had become interested in fumetti, and went about writing and producing what was essentially a heavily illustrated novella with a few sequential illustration sequences with a lucrative sci-fi slant. Jones apparently felt photographic comics would have more appeal with the wider public, which didn’t at all pan out, but certainly a photographic space opera was salable to a major publisher at the height of movie sequel mania, thus making Amberstar a sort of oddball bridge between the comics magazine reigns of Creepy and Heavy Metal (launched in 1977, the year of the first Star Wars) coupling the old-fashioned public scare horror/fantasy twists beloved of the former with the glossy style and handsome collected proportions of the latter.

Also, naturally, there was Richard Corben.

You won’t see Corben — one of Jones’ frequent collaborators at Warren — credited by name in Amberstar, but his presence is felt throughout. The photographic portions of the book were shot in b&w, then brought to Corben’s studio where colorists (five are credited in total) applied Corben’s overlay technique to the material, as Corben would to b&w line art; the growing sophistication of this approach can be traced across Corben’s move from the Warren magazines to Heavy Metal and its higher production values.

And while Corben’s lack of direct involvement with Amberstar is evident — many of the images seem flat, like colorized movies — applying his coloring approach to photographic images, in an especially high-quality venue, sometimes creates an uncanny effect, especially when combined with perspective-skewing collage elements or sculpted monsters. Corben himself worked with model figures, and stripping his hand from the models and environments (and suddenly un-idealized human figures) while retaining his off-handedly psychedelic color schemes produces something akin to ‘visiting’ the worlds Corben would generally present as drawn fiction, an effect I don’t even get from seeing Corben’s own work in film. It’s closer to spirit to filmmaker Gaspar Noé’s recent Enter the Void, a leisurely cyclone of 1st person distortions and incest fantasies, which at one point treats an aerial shot of Tokyo to make it look as much like a glowing scale model as possible, but with recognizable real people milling around.

Of course, Noé fully intends to shove his audience down the steep slope of the uncanny valley. Jones’ work is more of a delightful accident of idiosyncratic comic book techniques fusing uneasily with photographic appeal at a crucial juncture of one art form’s development and a massive wave of enthusiasm for another art form’s most lucrative iteration. Like Tron, another Noé citation, Amberstar is aesthetically latched to its pinpoint era, even as its techniques, in descended form, enjoy greater visibility – because how many genre comics these days blur the line between drawn art and altered photography? Men die, as Kershner has, but these blips of time hang forever in space.

Speaking of time, thanks to Thanksgiving in the U.S., most of you can expect these items on Thursday:

Ayako: In which Vertical continues its never-ending quest to shine a light on every dark corner of the great Osamu Tezuka’s prolonged struggle with the rapid maturity of the comics scene he’d once defined. This one’s another production of seinen magazine Big Comic, 1972-73, tracking a quarter-century in the damned life of a Japanese family following the end of WWII: shame, incest, betrayal and radical politics can be expected. If Dash whetted your appetite the other day, satisfaction is close. A striking pink 702-page hardcover I can’t wait to start with; $26.95.

Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection: An interesting concept on this Fulcrum Publishing release edited by cartoonist Matt Dembicki – pairing 21 Native American writers with cartoonists to highlight the (mis)adventures of various conniving animal figures. Preview; $22.95.

Burma Chronicles: A new Drawn and Quarterly softcover edition of Guy Delisle’s 2007 batch of relevant cartoon observations, previously released in 2008 by its English-language publisher in hardcover format; $16.95.

King City #12 (of 12): Rumor had it this might have slipped out last week, but I won’t be seeing it until now – the grand finale of Brandon Graham’s signature series, an original manga-like digest turned near-Golden Age styled oversized comic book showcase for cheerily noodled urban fantasy scenes and mad fusion aesthetics. Potentially one of the defining pop comics of the last handful of years, for both its leisurely comics-literate style and its bumpy path to completion; $2.99.

Akira Vol. 4 (of 6): Meanwhile, forever walking the fusion aesthetic path of an earlier day and a different nation, is more from the latest (now Kodansha-backed) reprint edition of Katsuhiro Otomo’s much-loved action saga, a hybrid of Japanese, French and American influences grown out of visual experiments the artist carried out in relative obscurity among like-minded practitioners of ‘Western’-type realist cartooning detail. But such is the glamor of Akira, so confident and recognized, it seems to have appeared from nowhere, and existed forever; $27.99.

Flywires (&) Metal: Yet more cultural exchange, this time of only a slightly earlier era – the mid-’00s effort of French publisher Les Humanoïdes Associés to make use of North American talent, around the time of its short-lived alliance with DC Comics. Flywires is an all-in-one softcover edition of a 2005 series, L’Infini, from writer Chuck Austen and artist Matt Cossin, focused on a down-and-out police officer investigation a missing child case in a world of linked minds. Metal is an all-in-one hardcover edition of a 2006 metal man vs. aliens fantasy bone-cruncher drawn by Butch Guice & Roman Surzhenko, with writing by Jerrold E. Brown & Paul Alexander. Samples; $19.95 (Flywires) & $29.95 (Metal).

Achewood Vol. 3: Home for Scared People: The latest Dark Horse print collection of material from Chris Onstad’s wildly popular webcomic, probably proceeding chronologically from vol. 2 (if not vol. 1, which was an isolated storyline from later in the strip’s run), with annotations and other trimmings. Preview; $16.99.

Creepy Archives Vol. 8: Well wouldn’t you know it – it’s the Warren debut of Mr. Bruce Jones, writer and artist! Corben’s present too, illustrating one of Don McGregor’s first-ever scripts; I do believe McGregor broke into the comics industry by criticizing the quality of the Warren magazines in front of Jim Warren himself at a convention. He’d later become one of the architects of ’70s superhero revivalism, sometimes accompanied by artist Billy Graham, who was editor of Creepy for some of the period covered here (#37-41). Also featuring Wally Wood, Mike Royer, Ernie Colon, Tom Sutton, Frank Brunner, Pat Boyette, Dave Cockrum, Doug Moench and Nicola Cuti, among others. Sample; $49.99.

Vertigo Resurrected: Winter’s Edge: Being another one of Vertigo’s 96-page grab bags of reprinted short comics, this time culled from a trio of annual holiday anthologies released from 1998-2000. As usual, the publisher is tight-lipped over what exactly will be included, although it will definitely somehow involve Neil Gaiman, who provided opening stories for each edition with art by John Bolton, Jeff Jones and Michael Zulli, respectively. Also maybe featuring a Peter Milligan/Sean Phillips joint, at least one of Paul Pope’s contributions, a Dave Gibbons solo piece, something Garth Ennis-related, and probably something written by Grant Morrison and/or Warren Ellis, even though I don’t see their names in the solicitation, because it seems like it’d make sense, although perhaps not; $7.99.

Wolverine: The Best There Is #1: In the continuing spirit of comics to rot your mind, here’s (another) new series launch for a popular Marvel superhero, its existence premised almost entirely on the promise of violence — albeit not enough so to guarantee a mature audiences only designation — and my attention captured by the presence of energetic Moebius devotee Juan Jose Ryp. Written by Charlie Huston; I’ve read that it’s actually a 12-issue miniseries, although maybe that was an earlier plan. Preview; $3.99.

Women of Marvel #2 (of 2): Lil’ anthology series focusing on female superhero characters, notable for the participation of Dame Darcy in one of its segments. Samples; $3.99.

RASL #9: Not-so-little self-published series focusing on inter-reality travel, notable for the participation of Jeff Smith in basically everything; $3.50.

Forry: The Life of Forrest J. Ackerman: Finally, your book-that’s-sort-of-on-comics for the week – a 224-page McFarland publication of Deborah Painter’s biography of the longtime Warren veteran, Vampirella co-creator and horror fandom fixture, drawn from letters by the subject and testimony from friends and colleagues; $45.00.

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