Wednesday, June 1, 2016

QUARTER-BIN HEROES : L.I.F.E. BRIGADE

As difficult as it may be to accept in the era of the digital marketplace and online commerce, there was a time when merely publishing even a single comic book could cost a person their life savings. That doesn't even take into account distribution, shipping, advertising and promotion -- in the days before the internet and the modern 21st century comic publishing boom, getting a single black-and-white book made, bound and delivered could - and did - bankrupt struggling publishers left and right.

Back in the 80s and early 90s, the options for even printing a book were few and far between. Only two or three publishers in North America were even set up for comic books, and small orders were not a possibility. A thousand copies of a comic was the minimum and, no matter the corner-cutting and belt-tightening, printing was wildly expensive even without figuring in the cost of shipping.

Then there was the matter of contacting up to a dozen different distributors, each taking a different cut and each of them requiring a publisher to act as their own shipping center. Ads were expensive and had limited exposure in the pages of The Comics Buyers Guide or other, less-well-circulated trade magazines, and those didn't reach the actual customer. Then there was promoting the book at the retail level, convincing direct market shops to even carry your title -- which usually carried a premium price tag on top of everything else. And let's not mention trying to get set up at Cons.

Micro-publishing before the modern era -- that's self-publishing, vanity and other indie-type presses -- was no arena for the faint-of-heart. The worst part of the almost-inevitably disappointing circle of life for the vast majority of these publishers was that they -- very often being the sole writer and artist of the book themselves -- would end up in the possession of hundreds if not thousands of copies of unsold stock, and the remainder of what had been picked up at stores would end up in the quarter bins.

I'd been thinking about the remit of this blog -- the gone and forgotten stories and characters of comicdom -- and realizing that there's a tremendous black hole of coverage for these folks that I'm arbitrarily and aggrandizingly choosing to call "quarter-bin heroes." I think there's no small level of respect due to these folks, regardless of the quality, consistency or even the content of their creations, which is why I've plundered my own local quarter-bins for a few hundred of these seriously forgotten endeavors, to which I'll do my best to give some degree of exposure ... starting with possibly the most-deserving example of the oeuvre I've yet found ...



L.I.F.E. BRIGADE (Blue Comet Press)
2 issues, 1986 (followed by a single issue sequel, The New LIFE Brigade)

Comics are experiencing something of an Art Brut renaissance -- not in the term of outsider art, particularly, inasmuch as comics is about as inclusive a community as "drawing a comic" will define. But non-mainstream creators like Benjamin Marra and Johnny Ryan, to name a couple, have reintroduced the aesthetic of rough-hewn and spontaneous content to comics at a degree that hadn't really been the norm in the industry excepting in its incipience.

This frank exchange of tele-blasts has changed minds.
L.I.F.E. Brigade -- That's "Last Individuals Fighting Evil" ... Brigade -- might be the apotheosis of the form. The illustrations have the stolid, elucidated and explicit shapes you'd find doodled on the back of high school notebooks, coupled with earnest and unembarrassed enthusiasm. The story is simple, the art is unmistakable -- whatever is being rendered on the page looks like what it's intended to be without much in the way of individual interpretation, even if it doesn't strictly resemble the object in a technical sense. Yet L.I.F.E. Brigade is so much more than the sum of its parts.

With Earth having fallen into a near-apocalyptic state, a quartet of special human operatives were sent into space to discover relief -- a new home, new sources of food and other necessary resources. What they found instead was a strange blue comet which imparted on them tremendous and unusual powers and a universe of vicious alien enemies.

Tim Buck of the exploratory space vessel "Revenge" (humans took their relief missions seriously, it appears) is outside making repairs when a "mass of boiling energy" embraces him, revealing a Kirbyesque stellar form granting him amazing powers. "I must be seein' things or I'm dead!" he cries as he's granted the awesome might for which he eventually dubs himself The Blue Comet.

You can't really hyphenate "launch"
Inside the ship, his crewmates also pick up new skills. The already ESP-sensitive Rochel - who previously boasted telepathy and teleportation - picks up new and magnified abilities, calling herself Windraven. Long John Lazer, team leader, is in possession of a destructive "lazer" eye and a scarred face which betrays his half-human/half-Raydonian origin (I don't know what Raydonians are, bu this book extemporizes on the run). A fourth crewmember, The Ray Gun Kid, picks up no new abilities but is a perfect shot and possesses a hair trigger temper. Lastly, an immortal robot from an advanced civilization, Atomic Oracle, signs on to assist the crew after they rescue him from an alien race of conquering Vandanese pirates.

The action comes fast, furious, confusingly and thrilling in L.I.F.E. Brigade, with creator Craig A.Stormon putting his pen to work on everything from pencils and inks to letters and, I assume, cover colors. After saving Oracle from the Vandanese pirates and sharing their origins, the L.I.F.E. Brigade returns to Earth to find that their homeworld "has reversed evolution," by example of dinosaurs ravaging the Hollywood sign. Landing only puts them in the clutches of "Rad Mutants" (not to be confused with "Bitchin' Freaks") who "have turned to cannibalism with blood-lust and total insanity!"

This allies the L.I.F.E. Brigade with an underground resistance army, where much of the remainder of the story is given over to Long John Lazer's tortured dreams, reprinted here in their manic-depressive glory.



There were backup stories in both issues - - "Rollercoasters," human roller skating enthusiasts turned interstellar warriors, and Stormon's funny animal "Blazing Tales"-- but L.I.F.E. Brigade is the genuine star.

One last thing to mention about the book; endemic to the self-published comic was almost always the self-aggrandizing publishorial -- comments from the editor, writer or sole creator (whichever the case may be) which was almost universally an attempted tone-poem recreation of Stan's Soapbox OR a list of all of the minor grudges and imagined enemies which the creator in question believed were stacked against him (The Protectors, a comic I long ago reviewed for this site, was so enamored of its publishorial that it ran in the bottom-page gutter of every single page of the book, complaining constantly about how the world just wasn't ready for the creator's brilliance).

The publishorial in L.I.F.E. Brigade is a welcome alternative, inasmuch as it's infused with Stormon's apparently boundless energy and enthusiasm. His was one of the few articles of this type I'd ever seen which spent more time promoting his backup artist than he did promoting himself.

Stormon, I was gutted to learn, passed away in 2010 at the ridiculously early age of 59. That there hadn't before been a resurgence of popularity of L.I.F.E. Brigade is absolutely unforgivable ... even as a curiosity piece, it's something to have been experienced, enjoyed and celebrated.

"It is ... balloom!"

7 comments:

Nate Fancher said...

More "Quarter-Bin Heroes", please.

Joshua Raymond said...

Wow, the artwork is both crude and slick at the same time. That's some really eye-catching pop culture madness there. I would love to see more.

Calamity Jon said...

I'm torn as to how to spread the good word of LIFE Brigade. Thw copyright seems abandoned, Stormon has long since passed away, and I'm considering scanning these issues and making them available ... But it seems like an intrusion on the legacy of an unappreciated creator. Perhaps I need to find the inheritors or executors of his estate ...

Fire2k said...

I think you might overestimate how unappreciated or unknown this property is, seeing how it was featured pretty early on the popular "Stupid Comics"-Website pretty early in their run: http://www.misterkitty.org/extras/stupidcovers/stupidcomics47.html

Calamity Jon said...

Not to hide anyone's light under a bushel, but coverage on that blog, or my blog, or both, doesn't exactly make it universally beloved.

In faaaact, that the first evidence that came to your mind was it appearing on a site which reviews little known or absurd books kind of suggests the opposite, wouldn't you think?

I do have to add, tho, that when I mentioned the book and shared a few scans on Twitter, more than a few folks -- including Zander Cannon -- mentioned having at least a passing but meaningful encounter with the book at one point or another.

Anyway, I don't think I was trying to say that no one ever in the world before now had heard of the book, but rather that it's, at best, a cult comic deserving of a wider audience, with which hopefully folks who are familiar with it would agree.

neofishboy said...

I assume Ray Gun Kid got shot in the shoulder one too many times.

"Never again!"

Count Otto Black said...

"I'm torn as to how to spread the good word of LIFE Brigade. Thw copyright seems abandoned, Stormon has long since passed away, and I'm considering scanning these issues and making them available ... But it seems like an intrusion on the legacy of an unappreciated creator. Perhaps I need to find the inheritors or executors of his estate ..."

Just out of interest, I googled Craig Stormon, and I was genuinely amazed to find that somebody who drew and wrote like that at the age of 35 actually had a subsequent career in comics published by other people, both as a penciller and a writer! I honestly thought from the examples of his work here and at Stupid Comics that he was slightly retarded, and no doubt disappeared from the comic-book scene once he ran out of money to self-publish hideous, poorly-written comics that nobody bought.

Since quite a few other comics to which he contributed in some way are still on sale in digital editions, with whatever miniscule royalties they generate presumably going to Stormon's estate, and the comics you're proposing to post were published 24 years before Stormon's death, it seems to me that he had plenty of time to decide which of his intellectual properties to renew the copyright on, and he deliberately chose to abandon his extremely crude early work as worthless while retaining the rights to later books with more commercial value. So by default, you have the late Mr. Stormon's blessing to do what you like with these comics.

I also suspect that the vast majority of people who claim to "appreciate" them are doing so ironically, and, like the witty fellow responsible for Stupid Comics, just want to have a cheap and bitter laugh at how ugly and inept the artwork is. Therefore I think the only real consideration is whether Stormon's family would consider your tribute sincere and appreciate the posthumous revival of interest in his work, or whether they'd rather not have renewed attention drawn to virtually forgotten comics Stormon himself appears to have disowned, which will be almost universally mocked, and which make it look as though their late relative had a mental age of 15.

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