From the Bookshelf: Boris the Bear – Silly ol’ Bear… with a Katana!

  • Boris the Bear
  • Dark Horse Comics
  • Created by James Dean Smith
  • Written by Randy Stradley & James Dean Smith
    • Story by Mike Richardson
  • Illustrated by James Dean Smith

Once upon a time, in a comicbook shop just one county over from where I’m sitting right this second, a young and rabid reader was looking for something… a little different. The guy working the counter at the Comicbook Emporium (damn, I miss that place) pointed over to this remote section of the bookstands, past the plethora of DC & Marvel comics, to this title that featured, of all things… a cuddly teddy bear.

Adolescent me thought to myself, “Self, this looks completely ridiculous, totally childish, &… holy crap he’s got a samurai sword!” I immediately snatched up the first issue, ran home (cuz I could still do that back then) & read. When I was done, I distinctly remember reading it again. This book was in every way possible, over the top & irreverent. It was also laugh out loud hilarious. No trope was left unturned as Boris set about skewering- yes, figuratively & literally- the glut of trendy anthropomorphic animals found in comicbooks of the time.

I was hooked!

See, this was in 1986, and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had hit the fledgling indie comic scene in a huge way. Of course, imitation being the highest honor, every other schmuck with a pen and paper started honoring the hell out of the half-shelled heroes. It was insane… Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, I kid you not!

This is where Boris came along… Mike Richardson had an epiphany, which he promptly took over to Randy Stradley at a brand new publishing company called Dark Horse Comics. Stradley listened, and took the idea to artist James Dean Smith, who was himself in the process of putting together something about a rebellious stuffed bear. The rest is… not so much “history”, per se… but chaotic as hell.

The first issue began a run in which Boris hunted down, and dispatched with all due force, any of the offensive rip offs that he (and presumably his creative team) had come to loathe. Starting out with the “Teenage Radioactive Black Belt Mutant Ninja Critters” noted on the cover of issue 1, he moved on to transforming robots, to superheroes, to pretty much every stereotype you can imagine. No one was spared. And all of this was at a time that many stereotypes were just being built, so it really was pretty cutting edge stuff.

Going back over these books for the first time in literally decades, my inner child once again giggling at the over the top prose and self-mocking tone, I’m happy to find that they hold up. They hold up well. The humor is still relevant to the comics industry today, as we’re constantly inundated with reboots, Crisis crossover events, and more carbon copies of popular characters than you can swing a katana at. Randy Stradley & James Dean Smith had a knack for hitting their comedic mark with perfect timing, and pulled no punches while they were at it. The fact that they were taking aim at some titles that I love to this day doesn’t blunt their writing at all.

No one was safe…

Also, Smith’s art still stands as a great example of how black & white titles can work if done well. His ability to mimic/mock/ the styles of the various artists blatantly lampooned here is a mark of his talents. Talents which he did take on the road in ’87, when he struck out on his own & published Boris’s 13th issue under his own label, Nicotat Comics. Sadly, Boris’s career was a little haphazard from then on (maybe issue 13 wasn’t the luckiest time to make the leap), as sales dropped off and Smith was only able to keep it going for another handful of issues.

Lucky number 13!

I’m gonna stand on a hill and declare that Boris the Bear was one of the most important titles of its time. The silly ol’ Bear came along when comics were just starting to hit a stride: local shops were cropping up, and the all-important independent publisher was finding a footing in the market. Readers didn’t only want to see people in tights flying around… we wanted something a little more original. Boris brought that to the table & doubled down, taking risks at a time that risk-taking could spell ultimate defeat in a fickle industry.

As a frame of reference, this was by all accounts I could find in a quick Google search, only the second title published by Dark Horse Comics. They took a chance on a curmudgeonly little bear, and created something that may not have seen a wide spread or lasting success, but 14 issues was nothing to scoff at for the time.

Now Boris is still out there, and I’m happy to report that it wouldn’t cost a kidney to dip into his twisted little world… You can find original copies on Amazon through their marketplace, & Darkhorse even has a few on hand. Without looking- cuz I already have the whole run- I’d be willing to bet that eBay would be able to fill a burning need for any readers who felt that this article had revealed a bear-shaped hole in their lives.

At the very least, dear readers (all five of you out there), let this dip into my dusty longboxes show you the way to independent mana. The Big Two are doing just fine, so feel free to spread your hard won earnings around to some of the smaller publishers… Batman & the X-Men aren’t going anywhere. It’s the independents who are out there hustling, taking risks, and creating truly original work… and successful indie creators of today will be working on some of your high profile favorites before you know it.

Too dark?
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