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Worn Tuff Elbow #1
By Marc Bell
Published by Fantagraphics Books; $4.95 USD

Although he has been producing comics for many years, I first became aware of Marc Bell with the 2003 publication of Shrimpy and Paul and Friends. The positive responses to that book led me to place it on my "to purchase" list, where, I am embarrassed to admit, it remains to this day. It wasnít until Sammy Harkhamís essential Kramerís Ergot #4, and later, Chris Polkkiís not so essential Blood Orange #1, that I actually read some of Bellís comics. As one of the brightest of bright stars in Kramerís Ergot and one of the few redeeming factors in Blood Orange, Bellís contributions to these anthologies made an impression. I was eager to read a longer work from this creator, and the oddly named Worn Tuff Elbow did not disappoint.

The forty-page Worn Tuff Elbow #1 contains two stories, both the beginnings of serials. The title of the comic book is taken from the first, three-page strip. Here, we are immediately drawn into Bellís complex and lushly detailed world of wackiness. The story is simple. A bizarre, flat-headed creature (whose long legged stride recalls drawings by R. Crumb) follows a series of signs advertising a "Worn Tuff Elbow." The trail eventually leads to an even more bizarre creature who does, indeed, sport a worn tuff elbow (defined by Bell in a footnote as "an elbow in need of moisturization (usually 250%), dry and chapped in appearance)." The tuff-elbowed character then proceeds to lift up and carry the flat-topped, Crumb-legged character and deposits him atop a "big pile oí potatoes." Flat-top is then informed that he is to be sold, along with the potatoes, to the "underground food market." To be continued.

After a one-page "International Doodle Week" feature, Bell launches into the bookís main story, the first part of a comic strip called "Wilder Hobsonís Theatre Absurd-O." This story features nearly two dozen characters of all shapes and sizes, with names like Bingo-Bango Man, Pantaloons, and Removable Nose. The structure of the story is complex, as many groups of characters embark on a series of interrelated adventures in a place called Bag Town. The central plot involves Monsieur Moustacheís sojourn into the town and his hostile relations with the "little people" who live there, but thereís much more going on here. I can tell you that political unrest, singing phantom teeth, and wild balonies are involved.

The amazing thing about all of this is that it should add up to nothing more than a nonsensical goof, but Bellís work is anything but nonsensical. On the contrary, the cartoonist has obviously gone to great lengths to map out a universe that functions according to its own internal logic, and somehow resonates with an emotional truth. You actually care about these ridiculous characters. Even the wild balonies and singing teeth. You genuinely want to know what happens next. Marc Bellís artwork is, I believe, the main factor that allows him to draw such investment from his readers. His style is thick with crosshatching and depth. Everything in Bellís world has a weight and heaviness not often afforded to such cartoonish characters. Each page is elaborately detailed, with jokes and treasures hidden throughout that reward close reading. All of this serves to create a world that you really enjoy spending time in. And itís really damned funny.

The letters page that closes the issue is cluttered with nonsensical in-jokes, and will probably be amusing only to Bell himself, but considering all that the preceding pages have given to readers, Iíd say heís earned it. Worn Tuff Elbow #1 is easily one of the most engaging and fun new comic books to debut this year. I canít wait for more.

-- Patrick Markfort



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