Eighties Rewind I

Readers are going to start asking, “Jim, do you read any new comics?” And I do! But the last couple of weeks have seen a bounty in reprints of long-unavailable classic work from the early and mid-1980s that I can’t let them pass unmentioned. The three collections constitute some of my favorite comics from one of the industry’s more creative periods.

When I saw a collection of Journey on the shelves at Big Planet Comics in Bethesda on my regular Saturday shopping trip, I squealed like a child. I interrupted myself in mid-sentence in undignified fashion, something like, “Yeah, Leigh, the thing about the Ratzapper is OH MY GOD JOURNEY!!!”

So what is Journey?

Journey is the saga of—I’d call him a mountain man, except the Great Lakes region lacked mountains at the cusp of the War of 1812 just as it does today. Josh “Wolverine” McAllister is a pioneer in post-revolutionary America, but not the kind who makes as many tomahawk improvements as possible with an eye towards establishing his own town or estate. He’s the kind who comes to the frontier to get away from as many people as possible.

He is, alas, only partially successful. The Northwest is full of Frenchmen, Brits, US soldiers and settlers and Indians. He meets poetry critics and itinerant Swedenborgian prophets and disciples of Panther-Across-the-Sky. He stumbles into murder mysteries and gets caught up in the first stirrings of war. It was a stupendously popular book because in the 1980s the comic-book market was ready, even eager, to support a black-and-white comic book treating historical settings without sensationalism.

I just typed that last sentence for the hell of it. The only true part was, “In the 1980s, the comic-book market was.” Journey was a niche book for a discerning audience of me and probably some other people here and there. In addition to the subject matter, Loebs’s cartooning style was idiosyncratic, boldly stroked and unapologetically cartoony. In fact, it just hit me considering the reprint that his pear-shaped heads and bowling-pin bodies recall no one so much as Dr. Seuss. By no means do I mean this as a criticism. You can see nice example panels on Lambiek.net’s William Messner-Loebs page. (The second and fourth panels come from Journey.) His compositions are masterful—you know a great deal about the relationships among the three figures in the Journey panels just from the figure placement. But it’s not hard to see why, when publishers hired him for work on corporate properties, they had him write but not draw—his art was not compatible with reigning house styles.

Youtube has a recent three-part interview with Messner-Loebs. Start from Part One.

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