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The Comics Journal #263
Edited by Gary Groth and Dirk Deppey
Published by Fantagraphics Books; $9.95 USD

Since 1979 or so, The Comics Journal has been an indispensible part of my life. Essential in leading me into the greater world of comics out of the limited world of the superhero genre, invaluable in teaching me the secret history of the comics industry through the virtues of its exhaustive but superb interviews, comparable only to Playboy in their comprehensive scope and search for knowledge. The Comics Journal is the one, single comics-related periodical that I have never stopped buying, reading and re-reading, even in the times when I have been so utterly disgusted by the poor quality of corporate comics that I stopped buying them altogether.

So it is that I am astounded that a great thing has gotten even better. Under former managing editor Milo George, The Journal was as good as it had ever been, and quite a bit better than it had been under the managing editor just previous to him. Under current managing editor Dirk Deppey, late of the best comics weblog of all time, the magazine has reached its peak in my lifetime. It may someday be even better, but it has never been better than it is at this very moment.

The current issue, #263 (and I should mention in the interests of full disclosure that I had an article in a recent issue and a couple of reviews of mine are pending in the next few months), is a grand slam from cover to cover, full of the combative, rabble-rousing spirit of The Journal's golden age, but more of-the-moment relevant than I can remember it being in some time.

The showpiece of the issue, and the main reason a lot of non-TCJ readers might pick this one up, is an interview with one of my favourite comics writers, Ed Brubaker. Originally begun in the late '90s by Journal founder Gary Groth and brought current by longtime MVP Tom Spurgeon, the long interview covers in vivid detail Brubaker's rise in the industry, from altcomix cartoonist to writer of corporate franchises like Batman, The Authority, Catwoman and Captain America. The interview is wonderful in the way that the best Journal interviews are, drawing out perhaps more from its subject than even he was expecting to reveal, touching on issues of creative freedom and creator rights, and examinging his methods and approaches in explicit, informative detail. The interview is heralded by a striking cover by Brubaker's Sleeper partner Sean Phillips, one of the very best artists currently working in corporate comics. That alone signals a change in thinking at The Journal, although it's comforting to note that the portrait of Brubaker that Phillips delivers can hardly be called pandering; if that were the goal, we'd have seen Cap, Jack Hawksmoor or even Holden Carver himself gracing the cover -- instead, we get a delightful and eye-catching piece of art from Phillips that resonates with Brubaker's career in the industry and with the interview itself.

The other anchor of this issue is a series of essays about Dave Sim and the conclusion of Cerebus. The pieces are, on the whole, balanced and fair -- with a strong eye toward placing the landmark, if deeply flawed series in its proper historical perspective. Rather than examining merely where the series went horribly wrong (as it most certainly did, many years ago), the writers look to why Cerebus's creator took the creative path he did, and how, even believing the loony things he does (the Sphinx was a real, living and breathing monster caused by ancient Egyptian feminazis and fags, didja know that?) he might perhaps have better argued his points without wrecking his comic book and, indeed, his reputation as a sane human being. Of particular note is R. Fiore's "Quixote Triumphant," which demonstrates in particular how Sim's steadfast lunacy specifically damaged what was, for at least the first hundred issues or so, one of the best comics ever. Bart Beaty also reminisces about spending his entire life buying Cerebus, a unique and noteworthy piece of comics journalism.

If you aren't a regular reader of The Comics Journal, this issue will also give you the usual dose of thoughtful reviews, in-depth reportage and as is the new standard, reprints of rare comics you won't find anywhere else, probably ever.

Indispensible. Yes, the Journal has been this to me, since before I had children, since before my first love and my first job, since before I ever sat behind the wheel of a car or drank my first beer (and certainly since before I drank a lot of beer and got behind the wheel of my first car, but that's a story for another time -- perhaps Tom Spurgeon will draw it out of me someday). But with the current focus on the entire comics industry, with improvements, adjustments and expansions in just about every department, and even with Kenneth Smith back occupying the back pages, The Comics Journal is as indispensible as it has ever been, as satisfying as sex and as necessary as oxygen. Grade: 5/5

-- Alan David Doane



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