I regularly thank God (when I thank God, which isn't very often) that somehow Fantagraphics scored the license to do The Complete Peanuts. No offense to Gary, Kim, or Eric, but without that little round-headed cash cow, I don't know that Fantagraphics would still be in business, or if they'd be half as active as they are right now. And while it's a definite toss-up between them and the almost-equally ambitious Drawn & Quarterly as best indie publisher right now, I'm going to give the nod--at least in this post--to the bad boys from Seattle.
Recently I purchased 4 new books from them (and they have a number of upcoming releases I'm eagerly awaiting, too). Let's take a little look at each of them okay? Remember you can order through the attached Amazon links, but you can also support your local comics shop by asking them for these books, or you can go to Fantagraphics' own excellent website and order directly from them, too. I recommend you join their 20/20 club.
When I was a kid and my brother Rick first got into buying Golden Age comics through the mail, answering ads in fanzines such as Comiccollector and Rocket's Blast, he picked up a number of copies of Big Shot Comics. Big Shot wasn't published by DC or Marvel, or even Dell...and it was a strange book, with Skyman and The Face running around in it, plus some comic strip reprints like Mickey Finn and Dixie Dugan, if memory serves me right. As a Golden Age book, the art was attractive and polished, not rough and primitive, like it was in the few GA books I'd seen to that time. One strange standout in Big Shot, though, was Sparky Watts, which as a kid I just didn't get. And of course now that I'm in my dotage, I love this kind of stuff. Boody by Craig Yoe is a compilation of the wonky comics work of that overlooked genius, Boody Rogers. Best known for Sparky Watts back in the 1940s, Rogers' real masterwork is Babe, Darling of the Hills, about an almost super-powered "Amazon of the Ozarks." Rogers' quirky cartooning style is faintly reminiscent of Al Capp crossed with Basil Wolverton, and his creations are wild and strange to say the least. This is an attractive compilation, wonderfully designed by Jacob Covey, that captures the charm and feel of 1940s-era comic books.
(By the way, you're going to read the words "wonderfully designed"--or a derivative thereof--frequently in this post. Fantagraphics has some of the best-designed books in the comics industry today.)
Humbug is a sumptuous, 2-volume, slipcased, hardcover reprinting of Harvey Kurtzman's third humor and comics magazine (after Mad and Trump, but before Help!). It is quite possibly the best designed book I've ever seen come out of any comics company, clean and attractive and perfectly suiting its late 1950s time period. Designed by Adam Grano, the set reprints all 12 issues in their entirety (except where Kurtzman and company reprinted their own stuff) in beautiful, restored glory. That company was Jack Davis, Will Elder, Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee. Elder, Roth, and Jaffee were all partners in the venture, a magazine Kurtzman started when Trump--published by Playboy's Hugh Hefner--went belly-up after only 2 issues (Dark Horse is reprinting Trump this summer). The Fantagraphics reprint divides the 12-issue run into 2 hardbounds, each sporting a brand-new cover painting (Vol. 1 by Al Jaffee, Vol. 2 by Arnold Roth). Vol. 1 includes a long interview by John Benson with both Jaffee and Roth; Vol. 2 includes annotations by John Benson. Humbug is very much a creature of its time, topical to almost a fault, and you'll have to be up on your American history to get some of the humor, but it's a perfect little time capsule by five cartoonists and humorists at the top of their respective games. My only one small gripe with this collection is I wish there was more historical stuff with it--essays, interviews, etc., but believe me...this is so wonderful, that's a very small gripe indeed.
Sam's Strip is subtitled "The Comic About Comics," and that's exactly what it is. Created in 1961 by the incredibly prolific Mort Walker and co-written and drawn by Jerry Dumas, Sam's Strip is a whimsical little humor strip peopled by Sam and his nameless assistant (who later became known as "Silo" in a late '70s version of the characters which is still running today as Sam and Silo), and overrun at times by comics characters from other strips. It's a giant in-joke, charming in its inception and invention, but it wasn't a hit, and this volume reprints the entire run of the strip, which ended in 1963. The book includes commentary from both Walker and Dumas and some rare promotional material, and again, it's one damn fine-looking book, designed by Adam Grano (him again).
Supermen!--like the Boody Rogers book mentioned above--owes its existence to a best-selling other book from Fantagraphics, Paul Karasik's paen to the great Fletcher Hanks, I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets! The success of that oft-kilter reprinting of a long-forgotten 1940s comic book artist's work has led to this new collection of "The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941." It includes work by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Jack Cole, Bill Everett, Lou Fine, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and--of course--Fletcher Hanks. Edited by comics historian Greg Sadowski, the full-color reprint--again in a format (designed by the editor) that perfectly complements its source material--the book includes Blue Bolt, Daredevil, The Face, The Comet, Skyman, Silver Streak, and many more. I'm hoping for a second volume.
What's next from this incredibly re-energized publisher that has been producing its best work in the past 10 years of its 30+ year existence? There's Blazing Combat, reprinting the classic 4-issue Warren Magazine of war comics; a new Fletcher Hanks book, You Shall Die By Your Own Evil Creation!; and two new comic strip reprint series featuring full-color reprints of Roy Crane's Captain Easy Sunday strips, and a restarted Prince Valiant collection, to name just a few. I can't wait for all of them, especially the Crane stuff.