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March 14-20, 2007

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'The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming'

Fisher king: 'The New Adventures of Jesus' respun a familiar premise.

The Second Coming

Fantagraphics brings back Frank Stack's seminal underground comic: 'The New Adventures of Jesus'

By Richard von Busack

WELCOME to another edition of Antique Grudgeshow. Here, valuable old grudges—some of them more than 40 years old—are presented to determine their worth. Take a look at this item from 1986. My ex-girlfriend's parents donated it to me, on the date when I saw a landscape painting they owned by Frank Stack.

"He does underground cartoons!" I exclaimed.

Ordinarily, the parents were as nice as they possibly could be to a punk-rock barbarian they might have to call "son-in-law" some day. But this was enough. No, Stack was a fine artist. He wouldn't be interested in funny books.

How much would you say this grudge is worth? Unfortunately, I'm afraid it is absolutely worth bupkus, now that I have the proof in hand that I was right, right, right and they were so, so, so wrong. Fantagraphics' The New Adventures of Jesus—The Second Coming collects Stack's own vintage grudges, originally published for safety's sake under the pseudonym Foolbert Sturgeon.

Stack's association with his fellow cartoonist Gilbert Shelton (The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers) dated back to their University of Texas days. The similarity between "Shelton" and "Sturgeon" convinced underground comixs fans that the two cartoonists were one and the same. Considering Stack's longtime career as an academic in mid-Missouri, the pseudonym makes perfect sense. People everywhere fume when you draw funny pictures of Jesus but perhaps more so in John Ashcroft's home state.

It was a popular 1960s fantasy: the idea of Jesus coming back to Earth and facing everything that a longhaired, sandal-wearing peacenik would reap from the police, the U.S. Army and passers-by. The comedian Lenny Bruce may have been one the first to mull the idea over, but the fantasy turns up anywhere from Billy Jack movies to Bob Dylan's "115th Dream."

In his afterward to this collection, Stack says he got the idea of modernizing Jesus by reading "The Grand Inquisitor" sequence in The Brothers Karamazov. Stack's angle on this national countercultural fantasy was to take the self-pity out of it. Under Stack's pen, Jesus was a sometimes misunderstood victim of society but just as often a prankster and an all-powerful avenger. Over the decades that Stack drew him, Jesus was a briskly sketched tangle of lines, or a brooding, crosshatched Rembrandtesque figure, as if drawn by the fine-art draftsmen Stack studied and taught at the University of Missouri. The collection contains Stack's best comic and one of the 10 truly essential moments in the underground comix. Jesus Goes to the Movies (1970) finds the Messiah getting a ticket to the road-show presentation at the Pyramid Theater of The Greatest Story Ever Shown, a CinemaScopic take on the Passion of the Christ.

The clean-cut and heavily muscled John the Baptist (Kirk Douglas, sort of) meets Jesus (John Wayne, maybe) and has a punch-out with him: "That's quite a left, fella." The two new bosom friends "Jee" and "Babs" almost tangle over Mary Magdalene. After they settle their romantic rivalry, they join forces to fight Pontius Pilate.

It is more action-packed than most versions of the Passion play—"He is only one man! Take him!" brays a soldier. Moreover, this Hollywood version has a happy ending, a little matter that only bothers the few soreheads who read the book it was based on.

The other particularly feisty story is a 15-pager taken from 1972 about a faculty party gone out of bounds. Gaseous, suave would-bes and never-weres descend into alcohol-fueled rebellion and orgying before returning to the next-morning's grind. Jesus, as a new junior lecturer, watches the fiasco. Stack notes that the Messiah's inability to distinguish good people from evil people has always been bad for his career. The dialogue hits the ear accurately—the peevish one-upmanship, the childish insults against Shelley and Shakespeare. As the man says, academic squabbles are the most violent because the stakes are so small.

The introductory essay by R. Crumb adds that Stack's illustrations are "intrinsically humorous through and through." That quality is evident in The New Adventures of Jesus: every face in this book has that essentially mirthful quality, both the sinners and the sinned-against.

The New Adventures of Jesus: The Second Coming by Frank Stack; Fantagraphics; 160 pages; $19.95 paper

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