Wednesday, April 1, 2009
I'll Buy That For a Dollar?: Biff Bam Pow! #1
Biff Bam Pow! #1 (Amaze Ink/SLG Publishing)
Evan Dorkin (w/Sarah Dyer) (W/A)
There was a brief period a few years back where I could get almost any comic covered in Wizard if I put enough thought into it. See, with issue #179, the mag upped it's size from the standard comic book dimensions to what they call "B-Size" or in layman's terms "normal magazine size." The switch called for a few cosmetic changes to Wizard – design tweaks, a staple binding as opposed to glue, less pages but more words on them. Some fans were upset that they couldn't store new issues in their comic boxes. Tim Leong made a video about it. It was kind of a thing.
ANYWAY, the big difference for those of us who worked on staff was that the change in size brought with it a semi-perceptible change in editorial focus. At the time, Wizard was also firing full guns on its web coverage, so all kinds of breaking news stories were handed off to the online staff. And in a further move to make the magazine competitive our E-i-C Pat McCallum put out the call that as far as content was concerned, the more we could squeeze in the better. Issues of Wizard in those days were jam-packed with massive list features that culled entries from across the pop culture spectrum rather than just comics, scads of short interviews with everyone from comic creators who didn't rank in the magazine's fabled "Top Ten" lists and to semi-famous Hollywood types and a wild mix of suddenly workable one-page features on somewhat trivial superhero ephemera. And that was in addition to the regular marquee comics new features most people associate the magazine with. It was a really fun time to be working at Wizard as the staff was still large enough (editorial was around 13 people with another 6 or so in-house contributors) to juggle the higher ratio of story ideas, and in general we all went kind of bonkers pushing our own particular comic passions into Wizard's pages wherever we could.
For me, that meant pitching as much indie comics coverage as I could get away with while still typing up my features on Civil War. Indie coverage in the magazine most often was relegated to the "Secret Stash" section slotted back between the review pages and the price guide. And while all the indie/alt comics-minded staffers loved to deliver some cool feature content in the Stash, I always wanted to cover the books I loved frequently and out front. With so many mid-level superhero pitches graduating to the higher word counts of the one-page feature, the formerly spandex heavy news section at the very front of the mag became my best bet for indie real estate. So long as I could come up with a broad enough hook (the idea being that "this comic is awesome" wouldn't always sell an indie article to X-Men fans), News Editor Andy Serwin would give me some column space out front to plug whatever black and white title I saw fit. And really, digging for those hooks taught me a lot and made for some fun stories. I remember running a news piece on Rick Spears and Chuck BB's favorite Norwegian metal records for the release of their Oni Press OGN Black Metal that turned out great as well as a "true life comic tales" item that placed Jason Lutes, Nick Bertozzi and R. Crumb mere pages away from Aquaman fart jokes (or, you know, something like that).
And at one point, I interviewed Evan Dorkin about Biff Bam Pow! #1 for the News section. (Yes, the above really was all preamble to a review) Interviewing the cartoonist is a lot like reading Dorkin's comics – a few minutes in and his obvious love of the comics medium and its greatest artists smashes right up against his deep-seeded disdain for all the crazy, borderline criminal fucking bullshit pulled off by the industry, and somewhere in between the two you laugh your ass off. Seeing as Biff Bam Pow! was billed in Previews as a compilation of fight comics, my Wizard pitch involved Dorkin picking out his all-time favorite comic book fight scenes, almost all of which came straight out of Jack Kirby's Marvel heyday. It was really a fucking blast, let me tell you. There are so many worse things to do at your job than talk to Evan Dorkin on the phone for an hour as he flips through his Marvel Essentials volumes and explains what really turns him on about Kirby's wild, muscle-bound grappling matches while simultaneously lamenting how most of the Marvel talent to follow him totally missed the boat on what made the original comics assault reader's eyes with awesomeness.
Unfortunately, two real bummers came upon me after I hung up the phone that day. First, the story never ran in Wizard. We were on a tight deadline by the time I'd gotten Dorkin on the phone, and as I scrambled to work up a draft the section had already been laid out, and we just never found the time to slot it in somewhere else. It happens. Second, I never found a copy of Biff Bam Pow! #1. Even though I lived in New York City at the time and was surrounded by countless indie-friendly comic shops, i never found a copy when it shipped (a fact that Dorkin predicted during our call). So it came as a surprise to me when I happened upon a copy of the one-shot in the Dollar Bin of Dreamland Comics the local, superhero-heavy shop I frequent since moving to the Chicago suburbs. And after finally sitting down and reading the book, I'm relating this whole ridiculous story to the three of you still reading because I felt a little let down by the comic, but I also think that feeling is far more my own fault than Dorkin's.
After that phone call two years ago, Dorkin's extolling the virtues of classic Kirby had me aching for some real action comics. One of the biggest gaps in modern superhero tales in the wake of the '90s "splash pages are our god now" Image artist boom and the subsequent new millennial "the writer and his noir dialogue ticks reign supreme" wave of decompression is that no one – and I mean, fucking NO ONE – seems to draw big bombastic fight choreography for its own sake any more. And never once in our conversation did Dorkin promise me that his fight comic would shake with a storm of jagged fists and whirlwind motion lines and collapsing buildings brought on by angsty fisticuffs...but I'll be damned if I didn't really want it to.
Still, stepping outside my own completely unfair expectations, it's clear that Biff Bam Pow! is one hell of a fun comic book. Containing four stories (some reprints from older magazine gigs but anchored by two feature strips set in the world of Dorkin and wife Sarah Dyer's Kid Blastoff) centering around physical conflicts of one stripe or another, the comic is ostensibly an all-ages humor book. But considering the fact that most youngsters will never, ever come across its contents, Biff Bam Pow! holds plenty to keep the attention of us comics-obsessed adult misanthropes. For starters, the stories are really funny, but they're not funny in the angry, depraved manner of Milk and Cheese. As a kids comic, the one-shot makes great use of visual gag work with Dorkin packing in layer upon layer of detail into each panel so that on a third reading, I'm still noticing things like the fact that the boxing referee in the opening story isn't just blind – he also has a 5-cent pencil cup. The humor gets a great boost from Dorkin's cartooning as every character not only looks distinctive but even alien weirdos composed of a dozen eyeballs are wildly expressive.
And while Dorkin's adherence to the storytelling style he perfected on his more adult humor books means that the fight scenes here don't exactly grab me by the throat, I did really enjoy the moments when giant space monsters would crash into the proceedings. There's a lot of comedy to be mined from those simple setups, and I doubt anyone can really do it better. Plus, the variety in line work across the stories matches each tale's fight spectacularly well with the a two page Nutsy Monkey riff relying on a looser, animated kind of style where the adventurous Kid Blastoff feature strings in a textured creature that wouldn't look out of place in a classic Basil Wolverton strip. And while after reading this comic (and JK Parkin's recent reminder of the creative death of fun action tale Aqua Leung) I still want to watch the world collapse in a hail of headbutts drawn in thick India ink, I'm more than happy to spend the meantime with some comics displaying such solid craft.
So Biff Bam Pow!...worth a dollar? Damn skippy it was, and I'd pay a lot more if it meant we'd get more regular output from Dorkin. Even though his stuff here wasn't what I was expecting, it was way more than I deserved.