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Good Read Column for July 27, 1998

(the gingerbread man)

Words and Pictures by
Dan Berger
Letters and Edits by
Peter Laird
Ongoing series (32 pages)
Numbskull Press, $2.95

(of a possible five)


What is the world coming to? This entertaining comic by a writer/artist associated with the TMNT phenomenon, assisted with lettering and editing by Turtle co-creator Peter Laird, was named "Certified Cool" by Diamond when the second issue issue was solicited. Nonetheless, it was dropped by Diamond after the third issue for poor sales.

Lots of now famous books took a long time to take off. Poison Elves had a tiny circulation back when it was called I, Lusiphur, which I believe was the first eight issues. Or take the case of Bone. I don't know what the sales figures were on the first six issues, but they must have been miniscule. How do I know? Because I was writing about comics at the time, and frequenting a shop that was nationally famous as one of the most indy-friendly stores around, and the owner frequently brought things to my attention. What she brought to my attention, in the case of Bone, was the trade paperback collecting the first six issues. Up until then I'd never seen it, despite being a regular customer at such an indy-friendly store. (Star Clipper in St. Louis, Mo., not quite as great as it was when Carol Denbow and her husband were running it, but still a pretty darned good store.) If Carol wasn't buying it before that, who was?

Before Diamond became a monopoly, it was eager to distribute anyone's comics. It had a cut-off point for low circulation, but it was rarely enforced. Since they take a cut as the middleman between the publisher and the retailer, and since retailer orders in the direct market are non-returnable, it is impossible for Diamond to literally lose money on a comic, although it is at least theoretically possible that a small circulation comic's portion of the overhead might be smaller than the profit brought in by it. Still, Diamond has a responsibility, precisely BECAUSE it is a monopoly, to be an open avenue to the marketplace.

Instead, at a time when the market is contracting and even such stalwarts as Cerebus is selling below 10,000 copies a month, Diamond is ruthlessly exterminating any comic shipping below 1,000 copies, not even claiming that they aren't making money from these comics but just because they aren't profitable ENOUGH.

The direct market distribution system, which once nourished such off-beat new ideas as Cerebus and Elfquest had now become the very mechanism that threatens to kill everything but middle-of-the-road superhero fare.

Grumble, grumble, grumble. The direct market is going to hell in a handbasket. I've already e-mailed the creator of gutwallow and suggested that he bag the comic and concentrate on finishing his projected 12 issues and put it out as a graphic novel. I'm beginning to think that it's just not worth trying to save Diamond and the idiot retailers from themselves in order to preserve the few good comics stores out there. Those of us who care about the MEDIUM (as opposed to the industry) may be better off trying to sell the bookstores on carrying graphic novels and other comic books (as opposed to magazines - see my rant on the subject if you haven't already).

But that's all a topic for another rant, which I may have to write soon. In the meantime, let's take a look at this fine comic, gutwallow, which you won't even ever get an opportunity to see unless (a) you frequent one of the few truly enlightened comic shops that orders things from the tiny distributors who keep Diamond from being an actual monopoly, or (b) you order it directly from the self-publisher himself (web URL and snail-mail address below).

Although only gutwallow appears on the indicia, on the cover there is a subtitle: "the gingerbread man." And the hero of the story (though he's been but a bit player so far) is, indeed, a giant gingerbread man, or at least looks like one.

Among the other characters are Leafale, a warrior woman and her friend J'Sika (pronounced "Jessica"), a sorceress. As the story opens, they are about to storm the castle of The Necromancer to steal back an object of great magical power stolen from J'Skika's people. There are also a couple of powerful sorcerers named Fintan and Garloff, about whom very little is known at this point (although you can learn more if you visit the gutwallow website).

Although we first meet him in the Necromancer's castle, apparently as a servant, he is not, in fact, a creation of that nefarious sorcerer, according to both the website and the character profiles included in the back of the comics. Learning about who and what he is will presumably fill much of the first 12-issue story arc. Berger is taking his time telling this story. As of the first three issues, our supposed hero has done little but stand around, letting the women do most of the fighting and deciding. I have a feeling he's not always going to remain so passive though - some wordless promotional pages from issue 4 on the website show an enraged gingerbread man apparently ready to charge a foe.

There aren't too many people who could draw an enraged gingerbread man and get away with it. Dan Berger has a gift for exactly balancing between the serious and the silly, both in his writing and his art, that is desperately needed for a project like this to work. It still won't work for everyone, of course. I'm sure for some people the idea of a high fantasy story starring a happy-looking gingerbread man will be stomach-churning. But it really does work, for me, anyway, because Berger neither takes himself too seriously nor derides his material by descending into camp. While his tongue might be firmly planted in his cheek, he remains true to the story and the characters. The only similar writer/artist I can think of is Jeff Smith, although visually and thematically gutwallow and Bone certainly aren't anything alike. But both have both a playful and a serious side, and both skillfully blend these elements to keep them from jarring each other.

Now, despite having brought it up twice, I'm not going to tell you that gutwallow is the next Bone. I'll readily admit it's not in the same class with Bone, frankly, in the same way that Batman: The Gotham Adventures is not in the same class with Watchmen. But I buy B:TGA every month, as I did all of its predecessors, and I find it enjoyable, and as a Batman fan of long standing I think on a regular basis it's the best Bat-book available. It's not Great Art, but it's enjoyable and fun and well written and well-drawn and it delivers a predictable and consistent level of quality every month.

The same can be said for gutwallow. No, it's not the best comic you'll read this year. It may not even be the best sword & sorcery-type fantasy around. But it's certainly worth your money and time, and it is without a dout the best humorous sword & sorcery comic featuring a giant animated gingerbread man that's ever been published.

I usually leave the details of actually finding the comics up to my readers (assuming I do have readers - I'm getting hits, anyway), but since Diamond has de-listed this comic it probably won't show up at your local comic shop unless you specifically ask for it - and probably not even then, since most shop owners order only from Diamond. So if your local comic shop can't or won't get gutwallow for you, you can order a year's subscription (6 issues, as it's bimonthly) directly from the publisher, officially "Numbskull Press," but actually Berger himself. He's guaranteed he'll do at least 12 issues, saying he has money to keep it going that long even as a losing proposition, so even with the Diamond delisting sending in a subscription is probably safe. The price for a six issue subscription is $20.00 (yes, that's a little more than the $17.70 you'll pay for 6 issues if you're lucky enough to find them in a comics store, but not by much, and it includes postage & handling). The address is:

Dan Berger
P.O. Box 148
South Deerfield, MA 01373

That's for U.S. residents, of course. Canadian residents are requested to add $7.00, and other nations $15.00.

All of this, along with one of the most delightful intros I've seen on a comics web page, can be found at the gutwallow website at:

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