Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Black Phoenix’ volume 1

“All your dreams that you keep inside, you’re telling me the secrets that you just can’t hide”

I’m a fan of Rich Tommaso, but I also recognize that he’s a bit of an acquired taste (more so than everything is an acquired taste, naturally), so perhaps his stuff just isn’t for you. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to check out his latest, a collection of stories that his Patreon subscribers could get a while ago but which now peons like me can get thanks to Floating World Comics, which has brought out this print version (you can get this at Floating World, or you can use the Amazon link I provide below, which, I remind you, gives us a tiny bit if you use it!). Let’s have a gander at it!

First of all, the book is simply interesting to look at. It’s printed on rough, newsprint-style paper and it features olde-tymey-type advertisements, like you’d find in a comic of the 1950s or 1960s. You might even think they’re actual ads, just reprinted, but if you take the time to read them, it becomes clear they’re parodies and Tommaso is having some fun. By the time you get to the ad for an actual “kid-sized” Thompson machine gun, you probably suspect something is up. The ads are fun, and they help give the package a nice, retro feel … despite some of the more questionable goods and services they’re offering.

Tommaso is obsessed with private detectives, gangsters, and spies, so it’s not surprising that a lot of the stories in here are about private detectives and gangsters (maybe the spies will show up in volume 2). Tommaso also has a twisted sense of humor, so the stories contain a lot of weird stuff that might make you chuckle nervously or at least appreciate the irony of the world. He’s not afraid to make his characters kind of nasty and create worlds where even the “heroes” aren’t that great (in one of these stories, the hero is clearly anti-Semitic, which is bad but fairly normal for an American in 1939, which is when the story is set). His stories are violent, sure, but they’re not all that graphic – Tommaso is more interested in the reaction people have to the violence than the act itself. He has a good time coming up with pulpy characters and putting them in bizarre situations, and he has fun coming up with knotty plots that not everyone can work out of. We might not like his characters, but they are quite compelling.

Here’s a bit of a breakdown: “Killer In My Sleep” is about a woman who gives up her ambition to be a rare woman in the Marines (the story is set in 1959) because her simpering boyfriend is too sad that she’s leaving. She marries him instead and watches as he tries to write a novel that gets rejected by many publishers. He’s upset about it but ignores her, so she begins to walk in her sleep … carrying a knife. Oh dear. As with many Tommaso stories, it ends ambiguously, but because he likes the character (maybe?), she shows up again, and in “Part Two” it turns out she’s connected to the Mafia somehow? The second story with Mia is not as good as the first one, but she’s still walking in her sleep, so watch out!

“The Mysterious Case” is about Sam Hill, an investigator for the Los Angeles DA’s office, who gets to try to figure out a double homicide while dealing with a very sore tooth. This is also a two-parter, but at least it’s just a long story split into two parts. It’s an interesting case that sort of falls apart at the end, mainly because Tommaso wants to make a bleak point about pursuing justice in an unjust world, which is fine, but he zips to it a bit too quickly. It’s still a pretty good story.

“Retired Gun” is about a retired mob hitman, and he shows up in four different stories that end up being connected. This is a fun set, because he’s a nice guy when he wants to be, but he’s still dangerous even though he’s retired, and the loopy nature of the plot is done well, as things from earlier stories connect in the last one and it all makes sense. That’s always keen!

“X-Ray Spectre” is about P.I. Ray Spectore, who wears a mask that allows him to see through walls and such – don’t expect it to make sense, people! He takes on the weird cases, and in this volume, he tracks down zombies in the Philippines and, in the second story, a missing cat. There’s more going on in that second story, believe you me! The two stories are a bit silly, but pretty interesting.

Then there are some one-offs. “Galoot!” is about a cowboy in the late 1800s who takes his wife into town (San Francisco, that is) for her job at a fancy hotel and later, when he comes back, finds something that makes him a bit crazy. It’s cruelly ironic, but that’s how Tommaso works! “The Face of Evil” feels like it’s straight out of an EC comic from 1953, as a dude gets busted up in a car accident and goes to a hinky plastic surgeon who does something not very nice to his face. Oh dear. In “Petite Fatale,” an elementary school becomes the setting for a dark tale about bullying and revenge. Sam Hill shows up as a youngster, working as a bell boy who makes a mistake with where the guests need to go. He also appears in a one-page strip having a surrealist dream. “Coco et Belle” are two snotty kids who get a bit of comeuppance. “Bullethead” is a quick story about a guy who gets bullets put in his head by a “mad” scientist to help save his life, and it changes his entire outlook on life … or does it?

As you can tell, these aren’t the deepest stories, but they’re not meant to be. They’re just entertaining little yarns, as Tommaso indulges what he loves about comics. Luckily, I like what he does, usually, so I think these are just fun, weird stories with full of horrible people and the occasional decent person struggling through a cruel, indifferent world where bad things happen and there’s nothing you can do about it unless you’re willing to go scorched earth every once in a while. Tommaso’s art helps with the vibe. He has a solid, hefty line that gives off an appearance of simplicity because he doesn’t overdo it and he’s never been too great at fluidity, so his characters are often stilted, but his art is more complex than it first seems, as he does a very nice job with details, so the time periods in which he sets the stories come very much alive. Where his art shines the most is in the brushwork, as he does a marvelous job adding textures from leather to lacquer to fur so that every person has a distinct personality and style and the world feels gritty and lived-in without being too over-hatched. Tommaso subtly changes his style, too – he uses thicker lines and rougher inks in the story set in a prison, while in the one- or two-page stories that are theoretically more “fun” (I mean, the noir-ish tale set in the elementary school is one of them, and it ain’t fun), he thins the line and employs a more cartoonish style to match what we’d expect to find in some of the 1950s humor magazines. Tommaso knows his comics history, and he does a good job matching art styles to stories of each ilk from the past.

This a cool package, with a lot of interesting stories and good art. I’m not sure if Tommaso has done a great comic (I’ve read a lot of them, but not all of them), mainly because he doesn’t really delve too far into the psychological and therefore his characters often remain archetypes, but his comics are very entertaining, and that’s kind of hard to do. It’s keen that he’s been doing this kind of thing for the past couple of years, because he’s making comics on his terms, and we get to read them. This is a nifty introduction to his work, so if you’ve never seen it before, here’s a good place to start!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆


    1. Greg Burgas

      I always try to find lyrics that fit the comic, but as I’m not very good at remembering lyrics, it’s kind of difficult. This one, however, features a woman who walks in her sleep, and she has secrets, so it worked out pretty well! 🙂

  1. Ah, finally, a book I both bought *and* read! I’m a relatively new Tommaso fan, but it’s worth checking his stuff out. I liked Spy Seal a lot.

    I did not expect this to be at the trim size it was, nor to be on newsprint. The newsprint was interesting, because I’ve wanted artists to experiment with it again, but also I’m terrified the book will disintegrate in my hands.

    Unfortunately most of the stories peter out or end abruptly. The longest one, the Sam Hill case, seems to go nowhere, or maybe I am just dim. There are also a few places throughout the book where he gets story details incorrect, like suddenly getting two characters’ names mixed up, forgetting the guy who had plastic surgery isn’t supposed to be able to talk, etc.

    I do dig his art style and the overall idea/aesthetic of the series, it was just more of a trifle than I expected So I’ll probably pick up the next volume. Hopefully we’ll see more of X-Ray Spectre.

    1. Greg Burgas

      I get what you’re saying, but it didn’t really bother me, I guess? I’m kind of used to that from Tommaso, so I was kind of expecting it going in, and I guess it just conformed to what I expected. I do wish that his writing – or at least his plotting – was a bit stronger, but I also think it’s definitely kind of an aesthetic that he’s going for, so … but yeah, it’s a bit frustrating.

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