This trade paperback collects the first thirteen Munden’s Bar short stories that originally ran in GRIMJACK from First Comics beginning in 1984. I didn’t see many of those issues, and having heard other comics creators speak with fondness of the series, bought this new collection published by IDW with an introduction by original editor Mike Gold.
Bar stories have a long history, and were well established by the pulp era of the 1930s and later, when series such as the Jorkens stories by Lord Dunsany were popular fare. Science fiction and mystery pulps and magazines continued the tradition with series by Isaac Asimov and Spider Robinson, to name two. Munden’s Bar brought the tradition to comics, with the science fictional idea of a bar that is at the nexus of many worlds and realities, where characters from different series could intermingle. Of course, any characters not published by First Comics had to be handled with subtlety, and they were, but also played well for laughs and knowing nods.
It’s no easy task getting a complete short comics story to work, as everything has to be done with great economy: setup, characterization, plot, action, punchline, all in a few pages. A surprising number of these pull it off. The majority of the stories are written or co-written by John Ostrander and Del Close, with a few by other writers. My favorite is actually one written by Mike Baron with art by Steve Rude, using Clonezone the Hilariator from Nexus in a truly laugh-out-loud tour-de-force, but other stories are also good, even excellent. The art is uneven, with some that appealed to me, some that didn’t. An excellent, though enigmatic entry by Brian Bolland is the closing act. John Totleben provides a fine one.
There are a few continuing characters and gags, but the goal is to do something new every time, and often the stories go in very odd and interesting directions. Barman Munden and the cigarette-loving lizard Bob help tie things together.
There are some things I didn’t like about this book. The cover by underground cartoonist Skip Williamson is okay, but doesn’t really represent what’s in the book to me, suggesting something morre like “Futurama.” And there are production problems, too. This is a perfect-bound trade paperback with a square binding, and the art has been sized too large horizontally, so that some of it disappears into the centerfold, making for hard reading without breaking the binding in some places. What bothered me more than that, though, was the quality of the reproduction. The art looks like it was scanned from printed comics, but the scans are blurry. This might have been intentional and necessary to blur the original coloring dots, thus avoiding moire patterns, but it does a disservice to the art. There are other more expensive ways to go, such as digitally bleaching out the original colors and recoloring the art, but that probably wasn’t feasible financially. On the other hand, I’d have been happy with black and white art that was reproduced better. The blurring makes some of the lettering hard to read, too:
It’s not all this bad, but in some places it really slowed me down and took me out of the story. Another option to help with that would have been to make two scans of the printed art, one in grayscale for the balloons and not blurred, then they could have dropped that lettering over the blurred ones. Again, probably no one wanted to pay for that.
I enjoyed reading these stories despite the technical problems, but I have to say I find it hard to imagine anyone who’s not at least heard of the series and its reputation picking this up in a shop and being willing to pay $20 for it. If, like me, you are a potential fan already, you’ll enjoy it. And for Nexus fans, the Clonezone story is almost worth it alone.