As insouciantly entertaining as his twice weekly Internet comics may be, there's something extra satisfying about reading (or re-reading) David Malki's "Wondermark" strips on good ol' pulpy paper. Perhaps the visually anachronistic nature of his cartoon work – a collage of repurposed 19th century illustrations – makes it best suited for bound paper. The new collection of Malki stripwork, Beards of Our Forefathers (Dark Horse Press) is certainly well-served by its hardbound packaging.
Malki's biggest jape – using Edwardian imagery in the service of absurdist 21st century tomfoolery – is nothing new, of course. Terry Gilliam was doing something very like it, after all, for Marty Feldman and Monty Python back in the 1960's. (There's even a Pythonesque "apology" joke embedded within the collection.) But when the initial connection between image and dialog could've only come from some strange synaptic leaps in the cartoonist's brain – a strip featuring three young maidens in "poetic" dance poses is service of a fraudulent hangover cure, for instance ("I'm going to hurl all over your shoes in about three seconds," one promises) – the results can still be potently risible.
To be sure, the demands of regular stripwork mean that the cartoonist will occasionally stoop to the obvious – as when a quartet of turbaned types from some doubtlessly rousing adventure yarn are put to the service of silly terrorist jokes. But, in general, Malki displays a ripe sense of grim whimsy. I'm still "patronizingly chuckling" (to use a term from the cartoonist's afterword) over his cat with a blog strip. ("It's not even wordpress or blogger, it's some crap like xanga," the cartoonist notes in his final punchline.) In many of the darker strips, Malki contrasts his found art's sentimental imagery with a mordant sense of comic despair, as when a young boy describes his depressing plans for adulthood ("First I'll flunk out of college, then I'll marry too young," he begins) to the title "In Which Marvin Is All Set." Occasionally, Malki just indulges in just plain goofiness: perching a tiny triceratops on the barrel of a soldier's rifle, for instance.
In addition to his strips, Malki includes text giving the faux background story behind several colorized entries, a variety of silly features (like an "Ironic Facial Hair Citation" you can hand out to hirsute acquaintances – if you don't mind cutting up the book, that is), plus an original eight-page comic of murder and deceit entitled, aptly enough, "Treachery!" Beards also includes some "Abandoned Efforts" and four guest strips, all of which illustrate just how difficult this whole repurposing business can truly be.
If I have any plaints about the current packaging, they rest in the layout of Malki's strips, which typically rest two to a page. The jokes in "Wondermark" follow a set format: humorous title (e.g., "In Which Cancer Is Faked"), one-tiered strip plus a capper one-liner beneath the strip. But as Malki has arranged his book, the lower level strips' titles (which typically would appear at the top of your browser in a web comic) are placed off to the side under the comic – disrupting the flow.
But that's a niggling gripe, and a small price to pay for the privilege of being able to shelve Beards of Our Forefathers between a hardbound copy of V for Vendetta and your "DC Archives" of Wonder Woman, right?