Strange Tales, Deep Cuts – My Indie Weekend

pope1Over the past few months I have struggled and complained and, yes, whined about the state of modern comics. Too expensive. Repetitive story lines. Epic promises that can never be fulfilled. Merciless killings of favorite characters only to result in, “well, s/he’s not really dead, it’s just that…”–all that stuff. Okay fine. That’s modern comics right now and that’s fine.

As is often the case when I get frustrated with comics, a creator comes back and reminds me that there is so much more to life than comics about characters who spend a good part of their working day in spandex. Not for the first time, the creator whose work that rattles my brain back into this reality is Paul Pope, ushered in by Image Comics’ awesome hardcover, The One Trick Rip-Off + Deep Cuts by Mr. Pope (which, unbeknownst to me while I was writing this article, is apparently the Book of the Month!).

I’ve written about Paul Pope before, and he continues to be my top comic book creator, writing and drawing and inking some fantastic stories. His work resonates and inspires me for a variety of reasons, but I think I just appreciate how uncompromising he is about his career.  One Trick Rip-Off not only features that main story, but examples of work from his days in Japan, when he was making manga for Kodansha, the legendary publisher there.  A few of these stories are featured (very deep cuts indeed) in this collection, along with some very early work from when he was living in Ohio and Canada.

Reading this volume really made an impact on me. I guess I kind of forgot just how incredible comics could really be when just describing, you know, life. There are plenty of fantastical stories in the Pope collection which are really great, but I find that the more quiet stories are the ones that just stuck with me, from the story where the main character is watching a scene from Ophelia while his buddy keeps talking to him, or the one about the guy who spaces on picking up his girlfriend from work on time, resulting in an argument and a slammed door…I dunno, it’s those moments in time that are clearly inspired by Pope’s personal life, described almost dream-like, as Pope retells the stories, using comics to expand and compress time from panel to panel, page to page.

It’s kind of neat to see masters of their craft grow over the years, seeing what changes and, perhaps more intriguingly, what stays the same. Pope continues to use his own likeness in most of his stories, playing the exhausted bar back who chases a girl to give her scarf back and, succeeding in that, fails to get her phone number. The way he describes living in the city, with the cluttered apartments, fire escape balconies and take out, is just right, and reminds me of quite a few New York City walkups from my previous lives.

iron drunk

Buoyed by my reading One Trick Rip-Off, I decided to dive more deeply into the indie comics scene with the excellent hardcover releases of Strange Tales. Yes, I realize that this is about as indie as Diet Coke, but I remembered really enjoying the issues when these came out and I appreciated the stories even more the second time around.

As much as Marvel has frustrated me last year, I have to hand it to ’em: they know how to have fun with their characters. Like the “Deep Cuts” in the Pope book, the two volumes of Strange Tales feature small, often silly stories featuring Marvel’s biggest characters. Tony Millionaire drawing Thor as an operator for a roller coaster and Spider-Man getting starting a bar fight with Doctor Octopus just because Peter had never been in a bar fight before–these are stilly stories, but and I loved them, not only because they chided the carefully crafted characterizations of these classic characters, but because, despite the ribbing, the characters remained somehow true to themselves. I had this neat feeling that all of the characters in these were in on the joke — and enjoyed it.

I love the notion that all of these Marvel characters, when they are “off-stage” from the main comic books, can just hang out together at a bar or someparty — that the world where these Strange Tales occur, and I have to hand it to Marvel for letting different creators do pretty much whatever they want with these incredible characters. I just can’t really see DC doing this kind of thing (they might have, I just haven’t seen anything like it), I never really think of the Justice League, say, hanging out over the weekend going to the beach and cooking hot dogs.

Perhaps this is why Marvel’s characters are so enduring, in a way? By allowing other creators to tell completely “off-brand” stories, we all get a chance to “own” them a bit more. Ben Grimm growing a chia mustache? Like, that’s great. Bruce Banner turning into the Hulk to open a jar of pickles?  Silly, even dumb — but I love it, I love that Marvel characters can laugh at themselves.  Indeed, when I think of it, I rarely link the words “laughter” and “humor” with DC characters. A broad overreach, to be sure, but aside from…well, aside from the books you will tell me about in the comments, I rarely think of DC books as “fun.”

hern cover 2The Strange Tales books are not just about artists doing goofy things with these characters. There are quite a few legitimately thoughtful and touching stories in these slim tomes as well, and even some insightful takes on various themes and issues within the books. Take, for example, Rafael Grampa’s Wolverine story: what could be seen just as a hyper-violent, almost exploitative in its blood-letting becomes a meditation on the role of violence, not only in Wolverine’s life, but in the books themselves…it seems trite to sum it up as a “what does it all mean?” kind of story, but, as we see a lonely Wolverine reading a ragged note from his ex-lover, one feels this pang of pity and sadness. These characters are forever frapped in a world defined by they creators and the expectations of their readers, forever battling evil, never aging, never dying, never…never changing.

Strange Tales strikes me almost as a release valve for the Marvel Universe, published every so often so the stress and pressure that is built up can just spill out and level things out a bit. It becomes a little harder to take all of this so seriously (as I have been very guilty of) after watching an overweight Wolverine sobbing about his relationship problems on some kid’s sofa. The books also show just how malleable comics can truly be—there is just no other medium where you can produce these fully-realized alternate takes with the same kind of quality that the “normal” stories appear in. When these issues came out, they were presented alongside the regular ongoing books with the same fidelity and importance as, say, issue 8 in Event-of-the-Month, and, at the same time expose readers to creators they may never experience normally.

Independent comic book creators play a funny role in the mainstream comic book fan’s life. I would presume that many of us don’t realize just how important they are in terms of pushing the art form forward, both in quality of work but also in how they push the actual story telling techniques forward. Take, for example, Chris Chua’s piece in Strange Tales vol 1: like, I literally had no idea what was happening when I first “read” it, but I almost felt the story that he was expressing. But, as I tried a second and third time, relaxing into the pages and his frenetic artwork…something was happening. There was a story there, that slowly came into focus. I had to work for it–which is something that you very rarely need to do these days, which made me appreciate Chua’s work even more, oddly enough.

We all know that there is more to life than the our weekly comic book fix, and we all know there is more to our comics than the ones we add to our pull list. Comic books are more than stories, they are artwork, and every so often it’s useful to look at other creators and other kinds of books to see how they are moving the medium forward. I love reading my mainstream comic books, but, after experiencing the work of these so-called independent voices, I can truly say that I am grateful that they are a part of my life.


Mike Romo is an actor in Los Angeles. He wants to make an indie comic book with Ryan Haupt (@haupt) about mixing bourbon cocktails. He’s fine with Paul Pope drawing it, if he’s, you know, not too busy.




  1. I LOVED those Strange Tales books, I want them to do more.

  2. Two off-beat Marvel stories that come to mind are the GN The Big Change with the Thing and Hulk trying to get back home and be normal and the Thing has an octopus sitting on his head throughout the story. It doesn’t make much sense, but I loved it. The other is a single issue in Marvel Fanfare with Dr. Strange trapped in a deserted city. That city is built on the back of a giant creature and Strange has to evade the creatures illusions. The funny things is I don’t remember where and when I bought these little gems.