The title to J.L. Roberson’s benefit comics anthology, Working for the Man (Unbound, $9.95), recalls Roy Orbison’s classic song of working class resentment & ambition, but its purposes are considerably more altruistic. Collected to raise funds for a comic book creator who has recently fallen on dire times, the anthology represents the efforts of 25-plus mainstream & alternative comics folks who’ve been influenced by William Messner-Loebs. Screwed out of his mortgage by the penurious efforts of local bankers, Loebs found both self & family homeless this summer. Members of the comics community, artists & fans alike, have endeavored to help this beloved writer/artist through charity on-line auctioning or donations (much of it advertised through The Comics Journal‘s message boards) and now this collection: a remarkable amount of positive activism in a relatively short time.
I first came into contact w./ Loeb’s work during the 80’s black-and-white comics boom via the frontier adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire, a taciturn grizzled backswoodsman who roamed the wilds of Canada & the northern Midwest in the early 1800’s. Fluidly drawn and told, the MacAlistaire stories were witty, poetically rendered, occasionally convincingly brutal: an amalgam of Mark Twain & Will Eisner. I followed Journey through two publishing companies – but for some reason, not enough readers were willing to support a frontier-based comic, no matter how skillfully it was rendered. (No capes for the superhero fanboys; no autobiographical angst for the alternative comics crowd.) Loebs was forced to take his talents to the comics mainstream, working on such mainstay titles as DC’s Flash & Wonder Woman.
Around the same time that Journey ceased publication, I suspended much of my comics reading, so I missed Loebs’ transition into mainstream superhero scripter. He obviously developed a coterie of fans for this work: many of his comics from this period are still available as trade paperback reprints. Loebs eventually moved away from mainstream comics, for reasons that aren’t known to me, but he wasn’t forgotten. In testimony, here’s this collection.
Working for the Man is an e-book anthology, the first such benefit to my knowledge: a collection of thirty pieces, most of ’em comics (though TCJ publisher Gary Groth contributes a nice laudatory intro, Chad Parenteau a poem and writer/artist Steven Bissette a short story that seems somewhat out of place). Some of the strips recall Loebs’ past work or present situation (this is not the book for you if you’re a thin-skinned financial type); others just content themselves w./ comics storytelling or art. Among the highlights:
- Donna Barr’s “Loan Prairie,” the most effective Journey pastiche (though Barr places more blacks in her loose-limbed inking style than Loebs), set in the frontier and featuring a curse that sends a trainload of bankers to their death;
- Ted Rall’s “The Bankers,” rendered in his usual love-it-or-hate-it didactic style and illustrating the old adage that “A banker is a man who lends you an umbrella when it’s fair and takes it away from you when it rains;” I’m w./ Rall on this ‘un;
- A.J. Doric & Salgood Sam’s “Helpless,” an urban slice-of-life piece about how a young woman’s regular encounters w./ a lonely old man provoke intimations of mortality;
- Lorna Miller’s “Good Old Days,” which gives us a geezerly Brit who bemoans the way things have changed (all the while visually revealing the dirtier flipside to his sugar-coated nostalgia);
- Joe Blackmon & John Linton Roberson’s “Channel Changer,” a quickie superhero fantasy that’s meant to recall Loebs’ Flash stint – only in this case, the super-type does a Robin Hood on a grasping fat cat banker (yup, another one);
- Tatiana Gill’s “Helen” (subtitled: “D.I.Y.: Victorian Style”), an elegant appreciation of Beatrix Potter;
- Dirk Deppey’s “World Wide Open Secret,” a visual reconstruction of the ramblings of a mentally ill conspiracy freak (my first view of the TCJ writer/editor’s art, which at times attains a nice Ditko resonance here);
- Neil Kleid’s “House/Home,” the sole remembrance of Loebs the man being offered here (aside from Groth’s intro, that is), depicting his encouragement to a neophyte comics artist;
- Janet Harvey & J.L.R.’s “Glass House,” the scripter’s remembrance of her own experience getting evicted, well rendered in a slightly more realistic style by Roberson.
This was my first experience w./ an e-book. Unbound Comics markets ’em to be read in an Acrobat Reader, and I was curious both as to how much of a hassle this would be and if the browser would show the art to good advantage. In the latter case, use of the PDF format has resulted in smooth non-pixilated artwork that does justice to the artists presented. Loebs himself contributes a cover to the book, and his knowing brushwork is beautifully captured. Two mainstream comics artists, Sam Kieth (who collaborated w./ Loebs on The Maxx) and P. Craig Russell also offer up illos & sketches that don’t lose visual value on the computer monitor.
At times, however, I found myself having to frantically use the magnification or reduction options: in one case, a long one-page joke strip by Charles Alverson & Sam Henderson, I wound up hitting it so many times that when I moved onto the next page and Parenteau’s poem, I was confronted w./ what looked like 36-point font. Occasionally, the magnification option was handy – as in Doric & Sam’s strip, which had white lettering layered on top of its art – other times, it was a minor irritant to keep clicking that plus or minus icon.
Like most comics anthologies (benefit ones, especially) Working for the Man is a mixed bag. The number of alternative artists outweighs the commercial ones, so the art isn’t always conventionally “comic book;” a few strips just plain look amateurish. Some of the material may be ham-fisted in its commentary, though other entries are more subtle and succinctly apt – as in cartoonist Mark Campos’ one-page description of cast-off sidewalk debris, which leads to a self-reflection on how homelessness is “only one missed paycheck away.” Quite a few strips hearken back to earlier eras, perhaps out of acknowledgment for Journey‘s setting, perhaps because it offers their crators a setting where deadening hypocrisies can be more clearly delineated. (See, for example, Deppey’s flawed-but-intriguing adaptation of The Well of Loneliness, which depicts the destructive effects of Edwardian values on a struggling lesbian relationship.) Still, there’s plenty here to grab anyone interested in sequential art; I found several new names that I intend to pursue into their own indy comic works.
Since the original story of his plight reached the comics community, Loebs has reportedly picked up fresh assignments as a comics scripter, which bodes well for his economic health in the months to come. From what I understand, the quick-fix efforts of comics folks have also gone a long way toward keeping the artist & his family out of the streets in the meantime. Working for the Man is one of those too-infrequent instances where you get to see the members of an artistic community publicly acting like they’re part of a community (no childish artist feuds here, just a bunch of artists workin’ to help a man who from all reports is a genuinely nice guy.) For that alone, it’s definitely worth checking out.
UPDATE: Editor Roberson has since added to my fund of knowledge re: eBook reading by advising that there is a “full width” option on the Acrobat Reader which makes all the zooming and un-zooming unnecessary.