By Jarrod Jones. All Time Comics is a mighty confluence of Bronze Age superhero comics and underground zine mentality. The latest title from its first wave of books, All Time Comics: Bullwhip, is a prime example of this: flipping through its pages, pulpier than most titles are these days thanks to publisher Fantagraphics Press, it’s damn near impossible not to get caught up in Bullwhip‘s tawdry spectacle. It’s evocative of the seamier comics you’d find in more discerning bookstores, the kind you kept separated from your stacks of Spider-Mans and Teen Titans, when you were still working out how to best use the word “fuck”.
It’s an interesting thing to consider: with comics and other popular media becoming more accessible with the advent of the internet, you’d think that zine culture would have kicked its Xerox habit and made the leap into the digital ether. We would have lost something vital if it had, something that is sorely missing in the wider comics industry today: that sense of discovery. Fortunately zines are as pervasive now as they were in the Seventies and Eighties, thanks in no small part to intrepid cartoonists and writers and people who just love to mire themselves in ink — or have something to say that might make a publisher blush. Zine culture never went anywhere because it never had to.
Now there’s All Time Comics, a comics imprint with a pedigree that would have made Spain Rodriguez tip his hat. Josh and Samuel Bayer, Benjamin Marra, Al Milgrom. Herb Trimpe even contributed to All Time’s first wave before he passed. And it’s published by Fantagraphics Press, proliferators of independent comics, a group that has never shied away from putting out the more daring and subversive content out there.
That’s fitting, because All Time Comics: Bullwhip #1 has some funny ideas about politics and sexuality that are bound to make comics bloggers of all stripes frown (or giggle) into their laptops. If you subscribe to the Bob Crumb idea of female empowerment there are ideas and entities in this book that cater to that mindset, chief amongst them Bullwhip herself, a formidable hero decked out in thigh-high go-go boots, a revealing club suit, and her trademark whip, which is at once lethal, stylish, and customizable.
She has a particular dislike about misogyny — I say “dislike” because she’s surprisingly cordial about whipping her nemesis, The Misogynist, who is only far too into the pain she doles out. (“Look how he arcs his back!” a bystander notes.) Later, when Bullwhip is consoling a female victim of the Vampires of Future Earth, Benjamin Morra and Al Milgrom frame the panel with an incredibly unsubtle sapphic subtext that’s punctuated further by colorist Matt Rota’s rays of warm orange, which radiate from the two women. How you will receive moments like these — which are themselves rendered by male creators — depends entirely on you.
The look of the book embraces this particular level of scuzziness: Matt Rota indulges Josh Bayer’s lovingly out-there script with all the lurid phosphorescence at his disposal (even if he himself indulges in the bleed aesthetic to a distracting degree); letterer Rick Parker channels his inner Sam Rosen with the angled curves of his words, which hug close and inhabit the spaces inside his word balloons on an experimental, almost Clowes-ian level. (I also appreciated Bayer and Parker’s thought balloons, which is something I miss from mainstream comics like crazy.)
Then there’s Benjamin Marra and Al Milgrom, whose contributions gel into a reverential blend of Rick Griffin, Gilbert Hernandez (who provided the book’s variant cover) and, happily, Al Milgrom’s own Captain Marvel work from the mid-Seventies. Josh Bayer’s script is linear as a Bronze Age superhero comic should be; through Marra and Milgrom and Parker and Rota, there are images here that veer deliriously close to those of pop art.
It’s garish and insistent, like an X-rated punk show poster in a grocery store. Like those underground comics you kept away from your cleaner, nicer superhero books, lest some of the tawdriness jumped over onto the Comics Code-approved pages. This is the future of comics as once perceived from the top of the mountain of ashes and discarded pen nibs that created Zap Comix. It’s niche, but it’s professionally produced niche, where baser artistic instincts smash into the widening comics spectrum. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere. And you can bet All Time Comics would make a killer comic book about it.
All Time Comics/$3.99
Story by Josh Bayer.
Art by Benjamin Marra and Al Milgrom.
Colors by Matt Rota.
Letters by Rick Parker.
7.5 out of 10