Saturday, July 4, 2015

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Graphic Nonfiction: Salt Soap by Lucy Bellwood

You've probably already seen this one, as it really hit the rounds (and for good reason), but just in case, this week's graphic nonfiction is Salt Soap from Panel Pal Lucy Bellwood.

Lucy's been exploding as a creator in the past year, and I couldn't be happier for her. She's extremely talented and is one of those who understands that the key to strong autobiographical comics is to admit your vulnerabilities. This is particularly true here, as Lucy talks about how dealing with a breakup can cause you to do some odd things, even when you think you're fully ready to let go.

In addition to being a great creator, Lucy is a great human being as well, and if you haven't had a chance to sample her work before, this is a great place to start.

Here's a sample from Salt Soap:

You can read all of Salt Soap here.

Friday, July 3, 2015

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Weekend Pattering for July 3rd, 2015-- Image Expo Scorecard

** So the latest Image Comics Expo was yesterday.  You know the Image Comics Expo, don't you?  It's their attempt to bypass San Diego and control their news cycle by releasing all of their big news before that big pop culture show where the only news that anyone seems to be interested in anymore is what's happening in Hall H?

It feels like it was a couple of years ago when Marvel and DC realized that any major announcements that they were going to have were going to get overshadowed by all of the movie and entertainment news and started releasing all of their news through the various news sites a couple of years ago.  This year, Marvel even released a teaser magazine showing what their titles will be after their big summer event.

A couple of years ago, Image took the idea of controlling their own news cycle to the next step and launched Image Expo, basically a press conference disguised as a one or two day convention devoted to all things Image.  In 2012 and 2013, it was a once-a-year event.  But last year and this year, it's become a twice-a-year shindig, with one of those shindigs being held just ahead of San Diego Comicon International.

By my count, yesterday was the 6th (?) Image Expo.  If nothing else, Image Expos have highlighted the era where Image became less new creator friendly and became a place for creators tired of Marvel and DC to find a creative outlet.  The Image of today is what Marvel's Icon line could have been if Marvel really gave a toss about giving creators a friendly place to write, draw and own their own comics.  This week's iFanboy podcast features the return of Ron Richards, a former Image employee, who actually talks about this a bit. (FYI, after Richards' successful Morrisoncon years ago, it feels like he may have been a big part of developing and pulling off past Image Expos.)

Richards, a popular podcaster, spent over 2 years at Image as their Director of Business Development.  Returning to comics podcasting after his time in the publishing desert, his cohosts spent some time asking him questions and getting answers from an insider's point of view.  When asked about whether or not Image was still the place to break in and come up through in the comic industry before hitting the bigger companies, Richards answered that the time of new creators getting a book at Image to launch their careers is over. Citing Jonathan Hickman, Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie as creators who got first got noticed and established their credentials at Marvel before getting called up by Marvel (mostly) and DC, Richards made it sound like that comics career path is over for now.

But then you have current Image publisher Eric Stephenson giving an Expo-related interview to Paste Magazine where he calls Image "the Alternative."

We’re the alternative. Whether it’s work-for-hire on corporate comics or creator-sharing deals from publishers looking to exploit comics in other media, Image is still exactly what it’s always been: the number one publisher of creator-owned comics. We’re not in the movie business—we don’t promise people a walk down the red carpet while we take 50 percent of their media rights. We make comics, and the reality of the situation is we’re one of the few actual comic book companies left at this point. So many other publishers are focused on finding a way onto TV or into movie theaters—which is fine—but really, that’s the individual creators’ business. They did the work—they should benefit from it.

And regarding whether or not Image is friendly to new creators:

That’s actually something we’re going to be discussing at this next Image Expo, because new talent is one of, not just Image’s, but our industry’s most important resources. We’ve launched a lot of new talent at Image, but there are new writers and artists entering the business all the time. The beauty of what we offer creators is that it doesn’t matter if you’re an established pro or someone working on project number one, the deal is exactly the same, so it benefits everyone involved to help grow new careers.
Personally, I can't tell whether or not Stephenson is referring to this Expo or the next one but I didn't see a lot about new creators in this one.

And all of this happens in a week where a couple of fairly high-profile Marvel writers both publicly announce their not doing any work on Marvel's superhero lines anymore.  First Rick Remender wrote about his plans for the next year.

And then Kieron Gillen did the same thing, not saying that he's not doing any Marvel work but that also he's not doing much more than the Darth Vader comic.  And Gillen frankly talked about burnout.
I think it’s for the best. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve done at Marvel, but I’m aware that I’m starting to feel a little burned out on the MU. Both Iron Man and Young Avengers took more out of me than I was completely aware of at the time, and the work there has often felt hard since that (With the notable exception of SIEGE, which was designed to be a giggle.) That writing Darth Vader was so freeing made me suspect that even if my schedule hadn’t demanded it, I’d be better taking a step away from the MU and superheroes for a bit to recharge. I’ll see where my head’s at in 2016.
And Jonathan Hickman, the writer of Marvel's current big event series, has also announced that once Secret Wars is over, he's taking a break from Marvel.

And while Remender, Gillen or Hickman didn't have any announcements at the Image Expo, they each have multiple books either coming out and in development at Image.

So as Image has gotten good at, they've controlled their news cycle for a day, announcing a lot of books that if history tells us anything we won't see for at least 6-12 months, if not longer.  Chris Butcher, a man of many hats in the comics industry (retailer, marketer, show organizer,) doesn't seem as sold on the Image Expo method of doing this big publicity push on comics that won't be showing up until possibly 2016 or even 2017.

At the Image Expo today, more than 20 new projects with the publisher were announced–some of them sound neat, some of them do nothing for me, but the earliest any of them starts seems to be late this fall. Meanwhile, at the Image Expo that happened about a year ago today, a great new project was announced that is only just now being offered in the catalogue, for release in September. SO far as I can tell it wasn’t mentioned at Image’s big expo at all today, despite it still effectively being an unreleased book, but one that could certainly use a the strong promotion that event provides, since now is the time for retailers to actually buy it. Don’t you think it’s profoundly weird that the biggest bit of press a book might get is six months, 12 months, or more, before the book is a real thing? I do. But you look around, and that’s where the discussion, where the conversation in comics is at.

It’s weird.
 Yes, Chris.  It is weird.
So let's take a look at the past Image Expos and count up what was announced and what was published:

Image Expo 2012:  16 new comics were announced.  13 books have been published, all within reasonable timeframe of their announcements if I remember correctly.  There are 3 books, Phonogram: The Immaterial Girl, Chin Music, and Crime and Terror, that have not been published yet as far as I know.  That third Phonogram series will finally be coming out this summer.  The biggest book of this Expo is easily Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga.

Image Expo 2013: 12 new comics were announced at the 2013 expo, including the return of J. Michael Straczynski to comics with a number of new and resuscitated tiltles.  One of the so far unpublished JMS books was supposed to have Bill Sienkiewicz artwork but Billy the Sink was just recently announced as providing the artwork on a new Kelly Sue DeConnick book. Honestly other than the JMS/Bill Sienkiewicz joint, most of the other books have been published.  This was the Image Expo that really saw a lot of Marvel talent launch their creator owned series at Image.  Brubaker, Fraction, Aaron, Millar, and JMS are all creators who had books in Marvel's Icon line but went to Image for their new projects.  The loser of this Image Expo was clearly Marvel Comics as creators began to see that they could start making as much money from successful creator-owned comics.

Image Expo 2014 #1:  2014 was the first year where Image would have two Expos, one in the winter and one in the summer.  At the January 2014 expo, Image went big with around 19 new books announced.  Again, there's only been a couple of those books which haven't been published yet.  But to show the long lead time, Brandon Graham's 8House books were announced then and the first one was just published this past week.  Kelly Sue DeConnick's Bitch Planet looks to be the book with the most heat still out of this Expo that included some DC names like Grant Morrison, Scott Snyder and Bill Willingham.  If the 2013 Expo was a shot at Marvel's Icon, the first Expo of 2014 went after DC's Vertigo creators.

Image Expo 2014 #2: 12 books announced and 10 have had issues published.  Unlike the last couple of Expos, there's nothing that really jumped out at these announcements except maybe the Moon Knight team of Warren Ellis, Declan Shaley and Jordie Bellaire starting up a new Image title but there are some solid comics in there like Humans, Invisible Republic and Rumble.

Image Expo 2015 #1:  19 new titles!!!  Only about 6 or 7 have been published so far but this was only 6 months ago.  Of course, one of those titles, Phonogram: Immaterial Girl, was first announced at the 2012 expo.  Again, nothing really stand out above any of the others.

Image Expo 2015 #2: And the announcement train just keeps on rolling.

From all of these announcements, the track record isn't that horrible about the ratio of publications to announcements.  It probably doesn't look any better or worse than most comic companies over the long haul but as Butcher pointed out, having a big unveiling for a new title almost 18 months before it hits the stands is a weird thing.  The Brandon Graham announcements in 2014 were exciting.  As the book hits the stands in July 2015, the book is still really good but there's very little heat behind it.  We could be talking about a Brandon Graham comic that's out now or two (TWO!) Tarantino-like comics that were just announced and who knows when they'll be coming out.

So San Diego Comicon is next week and we already know a lot of the Marvel and Image news.  And to both of them, there's that feeling of serving the existing fan base whether it's through characters or creators that they know.  At this point, is a new Wolverine series really all that different from a new Jason Aaron series?  Yes, it's cynical but Image seems to have learned what it's good at and currently that's giving a new outlet to established creators.  They're good at servicing the writers and artists who have been published by DC, Marvel, Image and even Dark Horse and Oni Press.  Gone are the days of Jim Valentino or Eric Larsen really trying to establish Image Comics as a medium between the Superhero Mainstream and the true Alternative scene of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Image has figured out how to leverage the comic show vibe and use it to generate a bit of heat around their future publishing plans.  Can you imagine what Stan Lee would have done with this back in his heyday?  I'm picturing a show, sometime in late 1970.  Stan Lee takes the stage, wearing a black turtleneck and yells out "Greetings, True Believers! Let me tell you about this new team that's going to knock your socks off, The Defenders!"

The rest, as they say, would have been history.
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The Amusing Disturbance of Gilbert Hernandez's Blubber #1

Blubber #1
Written and Drawn by Gilbert Hernandez
Published by Fantagraphics

Ever since Gilbert Hernandez left Palomar (for the first time,) he’s been as scary of an artist as he is an exciting one. Blubber #1 is a prime example of both aspects of Hernandez. It’s as far away from Love and Rockets and Palomar as we can get as Hernandez is cartooning for the pure joy of cartooning. Free from any continuing any story or character development, his storytelling veers toward the nonsensical as most of this issue is concerned with the sexual and excremental habits of imaginary creatures.

Hernandez’s mark making has never been stronger as he tracks the lives of his made-up bestiary. A fictional Wild Kingdom, Hernandez allows his imagination to run wild. And if you ever imagined what that may look like, think of Jim Woodring’s Frank and Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit mashed together. And then you only get the briefest ideas of what Blubber #1 is like. This feels like primal Gilbert Hernandez, where his id is reflected in paper and ink. Five of the six stories are mini documentaries about these creatures, most involving how their phalluses are used to violate other animals. The imagery is often violent and shocking because, let’s be honest, sex can be violent and shocking.

But there’s a way that his depictions of these animals make it that much off-putting. The frankness which Hernandez draws all of these acts make us recoil from them even as we stifle a little laugh because we think of sex as such a human act that seeing seeing characters shitting and screwing just points out how physically silly these acts can be. That we can personalize all of these animals that way, seeing stories of violence and mortality in these nonexistent creatures speaks to the depth of Hernandez’s own imagination and drawing skills.

Viva, Las Vegas!
The one piece in this story that features actual characters and narrative development “Las Vegas Lace” feels like Hernandez’s attempt to do a Steven Soderbergh-like Ocean’s Eleven story filtered through Hernandez’s world view. Meaning it ends up being nothing like a Soderbergh film or any version of Ocean’s Eleven. Hernandez is channeling his underground comics soul here in a comic where things like plot and narrative are a distant second or third concern behind his cartooning.

Hernandez draws so much violence and bodily functions in this comic. Screwing and pooping. Pooping and screwing. It would almost be too much if his cartooning wasn’t so exquisite and his creature designs so delightful in their depravity. And almost none of the screwing or pooping is lewd or perverse. Under his pen, it’s all natural (even if it’s a completely imaginary nature.) Of course, a pipe isn’t always just a pipe and Hernandez is one of the modern cartoonists who is most interested in all kinds of sex. We’ve seen this is everything from Love and Rockets to Birdland. Ultimately, Blubber #1 is a funny animals comic where the final punchline is that animals have penises and will stick them almost anywhere.

Let’s focus on that repeated punchline for a moment. While it’s not sexual violence as we understand it in modern context, there is a lot of violence in this comic and it involves sexual organs. There’s penetration and violation, repeatedly. But Hernandez frames these stories as a nature documentary, as if we might stumble upon these creatures and images in the pages of National Geographic. His approach to most of the narrative is clinical and distant.  And maybe it’s because all of this is made up and not real that makes it a bit more acceptable and so much more disturbing. Hernandez gets to be so fascinating because he doesn’t shy away from this kind of stuff. On the one hand, the lines that he lays on each page look so simple but combine to make such wonderfully complex images. But how much do you really want to look at an image of a small creature sticking his penis into another creature’s eye socket. Yeah, it’s that kind of book.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

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Series Review: Ei8ht 1-5, by Rafael Albuquerque and Mike Johnson

Ei8ht Issues 1-5
Created by Rafael Albuquerque and Mike Johnson
Script by Mike Johnson
Art by Rafael Albuquerque
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Joshua is sent through time on a mission that will make him question everything he thinks he knows about his past, present, and future in the mind-bending first arc of a new series that attacks the paradoxes of time travel head-on.

Great linework, dynamic coloring that helps ground the reader across multiple time periods (including a mysterious realm called The Meld, which appears to be outside specific time altogether), and a tight plot that must be impossibly complex at the drafting level come together to push this one into the recommended pile for me, just as it did for James in his review of issue one. While most time-travel stories tend to hand-wave at potential paradoxes (most notably that one with the living blue box), Albuquerque and Johnson instead opt to explore the problems inherent in mucking about with the time line, starting with something you rarely see--talking across time. In fact, that ability, however imperfect, ends up being a major plot point, as Joshua finds that help comes from an unlikely source--that may just link to himself in ways he never imagined.

Across the five issues, the creative team weaves an overarching mystery (What is the Meld?), a personal mystery (How does going into The Meld change Joshua's life, given what he finds there?), action-adventure (Can Joshua help stop a despot?), and of course, because it's a time travel story, a bit of Nazis thrown in for good measure. It's a careful balance, but the pair make it work, aided by Albuquerque's innovative decision to color the backgrounds of each period a certain way, preventing the reader from becoming unintentionally lost (intentional fog is present, too!). We're helped along by lines that are extremely loose and expressive. We can tell a lot about the characters by how they react, not just by the words places in their mouths by Johnson. Eye dart about, shoulders stoop or rise up when it's time to be heroic, and bodies are constantly in a state of motion, with emphasis not always placed on a full figure.

A particular scene that stands out to me is in issue 3, towards the end. Joshua and Nila, who are trying to stop the Nazi, are in a desperate situation. Joshua reacts, but has no time to let Nila know what he's doing. Albuquerque's panel breakdowns for this show Nila's panic, as she cannot comprehend what her supposed ally is doing to her. She's off-balance, then angry, then in sheer terror, and we know this partly from Johnson's dialogue, but mostly by tracking the look on Nila's face. She's wide-mouthed and wide-eyed, with fingers splayed trying to escape. It's such a great moment, and very typical of the linework featured in Ei8ht.

What's really impressive, though is the consistency of the art. For example, early on, Joshua is shot in the leg to prevent him from running away. Later in the comic, we see him running again--and the leg, now bandaged, is now bleeding. Another character's scars are always in the same place. These are details that should never be overlooked, but you'd be surprised how many comics--especially those featuring so-called "hot artists"--fail to keep quality control like that. Editor Sierra Hahn and the entire creative team deserve a lot of credit for ensuring continuity. In a comic where events can change due to the time shifting, being able to notice what stays the same--and what may change--is essential. The creators and editor understand that, and act accordingly.

Ei8ht has a ton of potential, and is a great sci-fi comic that I'm worried might have gotten overlooked. If you dig stories that feature theoretical physics, dinosaurs, and beating up on time-displaced Nazis, all with amazing visual work, make sure you grab these either as back issues or pre-order the trade in Previews now.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

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Everything is Material: Material #1-2

Material #1-2
Written by Ales Kot
Illustrated by Will Tempest
Letters by Clayton Cowles
Cover by Tom Muller
Image Comics

Ales Kot is a writer who, in a relatively short time has established himself as an independent voice in comics who you know is going to have something interesting and substantive to say (and I've enjoyed his takes on the military-industrial-espionage complex, and the fundamental nature of reality itself, in Zero and The Surface) even if he pisses someone off in saying it (or the way he says it). With Material, Kot and artist Will Tempest are telling stories that feel incredibly "right now."  Material is a work of fiction, and yet it's not. It's a challenging, intellectual, provocative, sometimes frustrating, political book that takes a distinct point of view, and does this while effectively telling a series of moving, emotional stories. It's a little pedantic, but it's got a strong emotional core. It's illustrated with images that go from impressionistic to emotion-filled. At the end of all these things, it's something you can't easily characterize and won't easily forget.  

Through the first 2 issues, there are 4 main stories being told in Material. Julius Shore, a professor of philosophy at MIT, who's getting older and losing interest in his work until he's approached unexpectedly on his computer by an insightful artificial intelligence. Actress Nylon Dahlias' career is in something of a free fall as she loses herself in drugs, and she's approached about a pretty unusual project, that being a movie which is essentially the barely (if at all) fictionalized account of her own life. There's Franklin, a young African-American teenager in Chicago who tries to stand up to police brutality and ends up in a "black site" as a casualty of the modern police-terror state. There's also Adib, a Muslim American man recently released from Guantanamo Bay, who's facing tremendous difficulty in returning to his life in Oklahoma (deathly afraid of his dog, not feeling anything towards his wife) and can only experience any emotion and sensation in the care of a dominatrix.  Each issue also contains an essay by a writer whose work Ales Kot admires.

There's a lot to unpack in these first few issues (kind of an understatement). But at the outset, it's worth saying that the issues rise and fall on the strength of the art from Will Tempest, and he delivers some art that's nontraditional and spare, but ultimately quite effective.  Kot and Tempest have collaborated previously on issue #5 of Zero where Tempest's clean, almost clinical style (combined with great colors from Jordie Bellaire) worked perfectly for the storytelling which entirely took place inside a sterile debriefing room and headquarters.  In Material, Tempest's scope is more ambitious; he's not just showing two people inside a room, the story moves from classrooms to studios to the streets of Chicago to secret prisons to dominatrix chambers.  Tempest is using a much rougher, more impressionistic style and also coloring his own work here.  His colors stay relatively thematically consistent with respect to each character, and I wouldn't describe them as realistic colors; they're more to set a mood and tone, for Professor Shore they're cooler and somewhat more realistic, but for Dahlia (who's often lost in drugs) they have a more variable, manic, warmer quality that's also more divorced from real-world coloring.

While his lines are rough, they can convey great emotional detail (even if it is quite spare). Particularly in the second issue, Tempest's art makes the story feel very personal. He uses a lot of close ups on the faces of our four main characters to get at their emotional state. For each of them, that state is pretty unhealthy and we really feel their sense of loss and unease at the world.  My sense of the art here is that Tempest is using varying levels of detail (and the fact that many scenes are not fully fleshed out) not only in order to prioritize what's important in the story, but to show us how the characters themselves perceive what's in the story, and what's a priority for them. For example, when we see Professor Shore lecturing his class at the beginning of issue 2, the level of detail used to depict his students (and how he perceives his students) is a highly impressionistic, very general, blurred sketch that barely depicts human figures in an almost undifferentiated way. In the context of the story I took this to be a representation not just of the fact that the focus of the story is on the professor (and not his students) but that it also exists in the context of the story. He's older, cynical, no longer inspired by his life or his teaching, and his students likely hold little interest to him at this point. It's sometimes roughly sketched work from Tempest, but all the choices feel quite deliberate.

I'm pretty sure I've struggled more with what to say about Material than almost any other comic I've reviewed.  I've struggled with how I feel with these first few issues because that question goes to the heart of what it is that I (or any reader) expect/want to get out of reading a comic, one that ostensibly is there to tell a story.  Does this comic work as a story?  I think it does, but I can see why not everyone would feel that way.  As discussed above, the art is spare, and it doesn't necessarily feel like the comic is primarily here to tell a story.  Moreover, is the question of whether this works as a story the right question to ask?  Kot and his co-creators are trying to do something highly ambitious and experimental with Material, which is to use the architecture of story to create something existing somewhere between story and journalism; using the structure of fiction to deliver some very pointed critiques of society, in a way where there's a delicate dance between whether the ideas overwhelm the story.  It feels like, as much as it's designed to tell stories, it's more designed to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. 
At times, this book can feel like an educational experience; that's both excellent and informative and something that can take a reader out of the comic.  Many pages have "suggested reading" at the bottom of the page, in case the reader wants to learn more about the topics addressed on that particular page of the issue. It's either informative or pretentious (or both); I find the multimedia-style format useful and additive. If printed pages had hyperlinks, the story probably would take you directly to the supplemental materials. It's very reflective of the way so many of us consume our information now. In the second issue, Kot provides suggested listening for each page. This idea I actually quite love; maybe it's because I've recently read musical-themed comics such as Jem, We Can Never Go Home, or Lumberjanes, but I find the idea of a soundtrack for a comic to be an enriching one. 

Moreover, at the bottom of the pages of each issue relating to the story of Franklin and the consequences of his interaction with the Chicago police, there are the names of numerous African American victims of police brutality and violence (people such as Tamir Rice, Michael Brown and (sadly) too many others).  It's meant (I think) to make the reader uncomfortable in a useful way and to provoke a reaction.  It's a reminder that this is more than fiction taking place in a vacuum; this is reality, this one incident depicted in a comic is reflective of the very real, tragic, racist violence experienced on a daily basis throughout the country.  This one young man being depicted in this comic is meant to be a stand-in, a representation of what African-American men all over this country are experiencing.  Fictionalizing a real story, even in a "ripped from the headlines" story, makes it easier and safer for a reader to consume. It's "just a story".  On the other hand, it might also be okay to let the reader infer something like this without the constant reminders.  Would that blunt its effectiveness?  Not necessarily - there have been plenty of works of fiction that have been highly political and didn't necessarily need to tell you that they were based as a general matter on real events.   

So this (along with many other aspects of the book) may be off-putting to some.  But what I think Kot is trying to do (with all of the narratives in these first few issues) is bridge the gap between the reality being depicted and its fictional nature. Providing the names of real victims does that, as does the depictions of scenes of torture throughout history that are included in the parts of the comic that focus on Adib after he's returned from Guantanamo Bay. It's a reminder that torture of enemies (whether political prisoners or heretics) has a long, inglorious history.  Kot actually makes his intentions pretty clear. As Professor Shore says near the beginning of issue 2, (quoting Jack Kirby), "comics is journalism."  That feels like the thesis statement for this comic. It's also an idea he's clearly fascinated in with his work more generally. Reading The Surface and the most recent arc of Zero, those works are all about blurring the lines between fiction and reality, and among artist, reader and subject.  This is made abundantly clear in Dahlia's story, where the director who's sought her out wants to make a movie that is essentially whatever she wants it to be.  The first issue shows us what seems to be a meaningful, heartfelt discussion between her and the director.  As it turns out, it's a scene from the movie.

The comic isn't all theory and experimentation.  Kot is a writer of wit and edge, but also compassion, and all of those things come across in Material.  All of the four main protagonists depicted in Material feel like damaged people, to one extent or another.  But as much as we see what society, or the government has done to them, or what they have done to themselves and are doing to themselves, they don't feel like objects of pity. Each of them is facing difficult challenges and reacting in their own way. From Abid turning to the comfort of a dominatrix because it reminds him of the torture to which he was subjected, to Professor Shore trying to use the interactions with (what might be) an AI as a way to learn more and perhaps get more substance for his discussions or scholarship (since, after all, "everything is Material"), to Franklin trying to move past his capture in a black box facility by engaging in playful teasing with his friends as a way to feel normal, to Nylon Dahlias trying to reach her own emotional truths in an honest way in a circumstance that's very honest and completely artifice.  All of them are just trying to deal with what life has dealt them. Kot and Tempest make their struggles both highly specific and very universal, and do so with compassion.

If the purpose of art is meant to both inspire and provoke a reaction, then Material is highly successful. It's not a straightforward read, but I think if you take it for what it is (rather than get frustrated about what it isn't) it's a complex and rewarding one.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

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Fantasy Sports #1 by Sam Bosma

Written and Illustrated by Sam Bosma
Published by Nobrow

Wiz, an intern with the Mage Guild, is paired up with a grizzled veteran who barrels his way through missions. She'd love to change partners, but isn't given a choice, and now they're an unlikely tag team in a basketball game of life and death in the delightful Fantasy Sports #1.

This is such a strange beast, but it's absolutely brilliant. On the one hand, it's got the vibe of the early years of Manga, with  two comically sized characters paired together, a boss whose chin could double as the letter "V", gigantic eyes on Wiz, and lots of semi-posing when the characters go to speak. It wouldn't be out of place in an anthology with Tezuka, and the influence is clearly shown on Bosma's artistic sleeve.

Yet on the other hand, there's so much about this that is perfectly modern. First, the co-main character--and the one who must rise to save the day--is the plucky girl, not a young boy (though visually, she's a bit ambiguous, with no obvious curves and a hairstyle that's similarly suited to either gender). The sport in question is basketball, and they're playing horse. Wiz flips the bad guy--an ancient mummy who morphs into a gigantic, NBA-styled player for the game--the bird at one point. There's the deadpanning skeleton guard, who plays the part of the modern-thinking, self-aware henchman. ("Well, if all the boys is all dead, I guess that makes me Cap'n now, don't it?") Bosma, who works on Stephen Universe for Cartoon Network, throws in the winks and nods that have been a hallmark of modern animation for kids here, mixing the homage to Japanese comics with a flavor that's entirely Millennial.

In the wrong hands, this could go terribly wrong, with too many winks and nods, in an attempt to show how clever the creator is. However, Bosma understands what he's trying to do and makes it work with nary a hitch. The story is Shonen at its heart, and follows the pattern to the letter, even if the details along the way are very different: Somewhat unhappy youngster with adults who stifle him/her encounters a monster that is impossibly large and powerful, yet finds a way to win. That's not too far from Dororo or Bleach, but Fantasy Sports approaches things in a way that's fresh and unique. There's just enough winks and nods and the idea that the primary fight is one of hoops that it pulls the story outside the traditional framework enough that anyone not as invested in Shonen stories could (and definitely will) still enjoy this one.

It also helps that Bosma's pair of main characters work well together, even if they don't exactly get alone. Wiz is a smart and crafty mage who is just as likely to try to logic the situation out as go in guns blazing. But as we see in the final confrontation, she's willing to take the lead action-wise, if the need calls for it. A lot of kids reading this will see her as an avatar for them, I think--trying to get their side heard when those who "know better" move on ahead anyway. Meanwhile, though Mug seems like a jerk at first meeting (he doesn't want her as his intern anymore than she wants to work with him), he quickly endears himself to the reader by being a silly bull in a China shop, busting up things first and asking questions later. It's obvious he can't win a game of horse, but he doesn't give up, and he's quick to worry that his own failure might harm Wiz. They grow together as characters, which is a lot of fun to read.

The final piece in this puzzle is of course, the artwork. I touched on some of that above, but I want to emphasize again just how well Bosma's managed to capture the feel of an older manga without being a slave to it. For one thing, there's color throughout--a muted palate that lets the linework shine through but allows Bosma to use some dramatic moments with a splash of lightness against the black inks. It really helps highlight the posing moments, comedic emphasis, and other little touches here and there, such as the Mage's office being a surreal Arctic Ocean, with a hazy purple horizon. The action flows from panel to panel, and there's a nice variety among, them, too. It also keeps the comedy going, such as the scenes with the Skeleton Captain or seeing Mug barrel his way through life. There's a lot of things that are driven by the art, like the Mummy's third eye becoming the basketball or allowing the creature to ignore the rules of anatomy in order to heighten the drama.

Fantasy Sports promises that it's a "number 1" and I really hope that means there are future installments coming in the years to come. It's yet another great comic from Nobrow, and highly recommended for all ages, manga fans, and those who like irreverent comics in the vein of Adventure Time, Lumberjanes, and similar comics that are either directly from Cartoon Network or inspired by them. This was a joy to read, and I think you'll feel that way, too.

Monday, June 29, 2015

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Quick Hits: Nonplayer by Nate Simpson and Hand Drying in America by Ben Katchor

Summer is in full swing in North America, and we've got hot takes on some cool comics. Leading off is James Kaplan, with a look at the return of Nonplayer...

 Nonplayer #1-2
Written and Illustrated by Nate Simpson
Image Comics

The first issue of Nonplayer was published in 2011, and the second issue came out a few weeks ago. I hadn't read the first issue when it was initially published but when I saw just how much excitement and interest there was for issue 2, I knew I had to check it out. I'm so glad that I did. It's a story about the immersive nature of gaming, of losing yourself in another reality or another identity, and is one of the most beautiful looking comic books I've seen in a very long time.

That's kind of where you have to start with Nonplayer, because as interesting and thought-provoking as the story is, the art will absolutely blow you away. It is beautiful and detailed and vivid with clean lines that bring everything on the page to life. I wasn't familiar with Nate Simpson or his art before, but I'm highly impressed, it's a style that looks like the highest quality animation, with great detail, sort of like if you combine the work of Fiona Staples with that of Geoff Darrow.  The story takes place sometime in the future, where gaming and virtual reality have met and the result is people spending significant portions of their waking lives in immersive games that are more than just games, they're fully realized worlds with AI that mimic sentience to a remarkable degree. 

The first issue focuses on a character named Dana, a young woman who loves to lose herself in the game because the beautiful, fantastical world of Jarvath is far more compelling than her real life as a tamale delivery driver in a crowded future city. The second issue expands the scope of the story considerably as we get to see the CEO of the company that's created the Jarvath game which has over a billion users, we get to see the  role of law enforcement where monitoring of artificial intelligence is part of their job, and we get some explanations for some of the strange goings on in the Jarvath world and beyond. It's a gorgeous, interesting, engaging series and I'm looking forward to reading more whenever it comes out.  (Review by James Kaplan)

Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories
by Ben Katchor

Hand-Drying in America is one of those book one encounters skeptically-- the single page stories filling oversized pages seem complex and wordy, the pale colors, scrawly illustration lines, and unfamiliar, often fanciful metropolitan constructions make you squint and scratch your head. But, if you can find it in you to give it a chance, this collection of Ben Katchor’s strips from Metropolitan magazine -- which focus primarily on the absurdities of modern urban development and the
growing prevalence of architectural eyesores -- are by turns hilarious, sharp, and deeply troubling in the best way. From stories about the inconveniences of conveniences such as hand-dryers to the
soul-killing quality of unopenable hotel windows, from the encroaching dullness of big-box modern condominiums to the loss of small businesses and historic storefronts, the awkwardness of hearing
conversations through apartment walls, the doldrums of office design, Katchor takes the smallest elements of daily life and turns each into a full-fledged legend of American “progress”, often sarcastically skewered or nostalgically elegized.

Though taken as a whole book, it is a bit exhausting, each individual page presents a fully-formed and well-loved world, with precise visual details, both architectural and intimate, and Katchor’s dry narration sears each story into the reader’s brain. Even though the stories revel in ironies and
absurdities, it’s clear that Katchor has a great love of the ever-changing urban environment and imparts that with flourish in all that he creates. (Review by Emilia Packard)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

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Mulan Revelations #1 by Robert Alter, Marc Andreyko and Micah Kaneshiro

Mulan Revelations #1 (of 4)
Created by Robert Alter
Written by Marc Andreyko
Illustrated by Micah Kaneshiro
Lettered by Nate Piekos
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Retelling classic fairy-tales has become a common occurrence in cinema in recent years. They have been criticised for their lack of originality and unadventurous storylines, so you would not be blamed for approaching this series with a certain amount of trepidation. However, the creative team manage to take a story that you think you know and put it into an entirely different setting.

This first issue introduces Mulan in the year 500BC as a magnificent warrior fighting in an enormous battle against an enemy known only as "The Hybrids." As soon as it becomes clear to her allies and masters that the battle is lost, she is temporally displaced by them to continue the battle at a more opportune time. By introducing the character into a familiar scene and then immediately tearing her away from it, the reader has a chance to gain an appreciation for the context of the story while still keeping the story as fresh as possible.
Mulan can be added to the rapidly growing list of strong female protagonists in comics. While this is a fantastic expansion of the medium, some character introductions have been more successful than others. True equality comes when the character's gender isn't an important part of the story being told. In both the script from Andreyko and the art from Kaneshiro, she is never objectified and the focus is entirely on her achievements and capabilities.

Mulan isn't afraid to assert herself in any situation that she finds herself in and takes complete control of the path she wants her life to take. The character has a realistic and complex past and we've begun to get a hint at what drives her. It's remarkable to see that her prowess hasn't stunted her compassion for others; this presents her as an extremely likeable protagonist.

This issue begins in an ancient Chinese war and quickly transitions to an enormous and technologically advanced world. Kaneshiro's art looks phenomenal in each scene and he gets to show what he's truly capable of; the colouring has a painted aspect to it that highlights the beauty of the art even further. By limiting heavy inking and bright colouring to the main characters, Kaneshiro guides the reader's eye with masterful skill. The other characters are still visible but manage to fade into the background and are prevented from stealing focus.
A common complaint of highly detailed art like Kaneshiro's is how static each panel can seem. While there are definitely times within this story where it lacks the dynamic flow that comics require, it manages to pull it off reasonably effectively. It's worth noting that in the more action-oriented scenes, the motion is always clear even if it does sometimes feel like you're looking at a fixed image.

Even after following her around for the entire issue, Mulan remains something of an enigma. It is unclear how much of her history and destiny she is aware of which is a very interesting creative decision. Along with that, Mulan's supporting cast each get a small scene introducing them to the reader and lets us know what their relationship is to Mulan. With a lot of potential, it's going to be great to see the part that each of them has to play in the months to come.

The first section of this book feels extremely fast paced even though it takes up a third of the entire book. The remainder of the book follows Mulan around in her new life and feels like a far more substantial section of story. This world building is presented in a way that makes it feel as though you're following Mulan about on a regular day and gives a great insight into how the world works. However, the amount of story progression could be argued to be a little bit slow which is not uncommon when a status-quo is being set up.

Through the use of both sections of story, we get introduced to the series antagonists and get hints at both their longevity and ability to manipulate everything from behind the scenes. Even though their motivations are currently ambiguous, Alter and Andreyko hint at their end goal and what they are trying to get from Mulan.
This issue marks an extremely promising start to this redefinition of Mulan in the context of a futuristic world. Her confidence and kindness are both infectious and endearing. Alter and Andreyko have created a fascinating mystery with The Hybrids and, as they begin to make their move, their motivations will hopefully become clear. While this chapter didn't charge ahead with the story, it has laid a strong foundation to build upon in the rest of this miniseries as Mulan's journey really kicks into high gear.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

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Graphic Nonfiction: Murder Mystery Superfan by Andrea Tsurumi

I've always been a big genre fiction person, going back to when I first learned to read. It's no wonder that comic books stayed in my lifeblood!

While I don't knock anyone who loves reading literary fiction, I can't think of a time where I'd rather read it than a good mystery or sci fi. And while I don't do as much detective fiction in prose form as I used to (my time as a Sci Fi/Fantasy/Horror reviewer for PW keeps me pretty tied up, as does reading short sci fi/fantasy to bolster my own writing), I still love the genre.

So does Andrea Tsurumi, and she gives it a loving, graphical treatment in this piece.  Here's a sample to whet your appetite:

Go read the rest now, and enjoy!

Friday, June 26, 2015

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Weekend Pattering for June 26th, 2015-- Tangents, What Is It Good For?

** You know what we do here.  We patter about panels.

** The Advocate has a great interview with Sophie Campbell about her comics Jem and the Holograms as well as Sophie's recent experience about coming out as a transgender woman.
But it was also super scary. I didn’t know how people would react, my family in particular of course, and I was worried about being fired from Jem because I was scared that IDW or Hasbro would feel like this wasn’t what they signed up for. [I worried] I [would] be committing career suicide both by throwing away the “brand” I’d built for myself and creating the possibility that I wouldn’t be able to get work anymore. I was scared of opening myself up to discrimination and transphobic trolls. It was nerve-racking — I felt sick to my stomach leading up to when I was planning to come out.
I've never read many of Campbell's comics but the artwork in Jem looks like it's a lot of fun.

** This Chris Schweizer Guide to Spotting Tangents is your required reading for this week.  (I just noticed that this was first posted in 2011 but it's still a lot of good information.)

A tangent is when two or more lines interact in a way that insinuates a relationship between them that the artist did not intend.

It can create confusion on the part of the audience as to what it is that they’re looking at. It can cause the spatial depth that one attempts to cultivate through the use of planes to become flattened. Most of all, it creates a decidedly unwelcome aesthetic response: tangents are just plain ugly. 
There are a lot of different types of tangents, as least according to the way I define them. In order to make it easier on my students when giving critiques, I’ve categorized them and named them. This may have been done before, but I’ve not encountered it. My hope is that, by making this “spot-the-enemy” guide, fewer artists will fall into the tangent trap by knowing what to look for.

** At The Response, seven black cartoonists discuss race and their reaction to last week's killing in Charleston, SC.

Richie Pope: The Confederate flag is a tangible thing for “good guys” to rally against without really thinking about themselves. There’s not enough introspection about racism. It’s often a game of Find The Racist and if they can’t find the evil villain, then where is the racism? So I get why people want the flag taken down, but it’s not like it’s the life force of racism. Americans get a tiny tangible victory and then claim racism is over. Seeing small progresses of basic decency as the deathstroke against racism instead of being in spite of it. Like a whole group of Americans have been weight-training and the rest are like, “Damn, this five pounds sure is heavy, but I lifted it! Aren’t we both equally strong?”Richie Po: The Confederate flag is a tangible thing for “good guys” to rally against without really thinking about themselves. There’s not enough introspection about racism. It’s often a game of Find The Racist and if they can’t find the evil villain, then where is the racism? So I get why people want the flag taken down, but it’s not like it’s the life force of racism. Americans get a tiny tangible victory and then claim racism is over. Seeing small progresses of basic decency as the deathstroke against racism instead of being in spite of it. Like a whole group of Americans have been weight-training and the rest are like, “Damn, this five pounds sure is heavy, but I lifted it! Aren’t we both equally strong?”

** Image Comics is publicizing the return of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's Phonogram in August. If you're me, this is a good thing because Phonogram: The Singles Club is probably one of my favorite comics of this century. I wrote about it five (???) years ago and for two creators who would spend the next five years playing with format, the structure of The Singles Club still just resonates for me.

And this cover, riffing on Patrick Nagel?  What's not to love here.

I'm now going to go an put on my vinyl copy of Rio and dream about 1983.  

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

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Stray Volume 1

Stray Volume 1
Written by Vito Delsante
Line Art by Sean Izaakse
Color Art by Ross A. Campbell (flashback) and Simon Gough (modern)
Published by Action Lab

It's never easy to be the sidekick, and when you start to question the validity of the justice system, it's even harder. When the son of the Doberman, aka Rottweiler, learns that his father was murdered, he pulls himself out of the gutter and back into the fight in a trade that's an interesting take-off from the Batman mythos.

Normally, I'm not overly fond of premises that fall back on existing heroes, but this time, it works well. Instead of Dick Grayson just trying to become his own hero, this time the sidekick openly rejects the law-and-order stance of his mentor/father. He's not merely trying to live up to a legacy here, but instead doesn't want any part of it. The other heroes treatment of him when he comes back to find out who killed Dad is note-perfect, and I like how this version of the fallen hero's redemption doesn't involve just stepping back into old roles. Rodney will forge his own path, assuming there are further comics featuring the character.

It's not perfect, of course. Some of the dialogue is a bit tin-eared, and I had an issue with the villain of the piece, who seems to be inserted just to give Rodney a big, bad villain to fight. The solo hero vs other heroes cliche also shows up, and of course, there's the little problem of Rodney being a drug pusher that falls off the storyline over time. Still, it works through the mystery quite well, even with the definite echo of the death of the Comedian in Watchman. Sometimes, Delsante isn't able to escape cape comic cliches and they do stand out, at least to this long-time comic reader.

One of the things that makes this notable for me is the art from Sean Izaakse. He's clearly influenced by classic, 1970s/1980s Marvel/DC books, with things like multiple images of the hero on a splash page, characters dancing across the page, and ensuring that everything felt very fluid. There's very little posing, and whether the panel is small or large, Izaakse structures it so that the reader's eye is drawn to the most important image. We get a lot of varied angles, too, which helps with the movement.  His action sequences are definitely a step above most of what we see in an Action Lab book, and show a real eye for design. Facial features aren't a strong suit, but the flow of the bodies and little touches like a finger pointing or a shrugged shoulder make up for the lack of strong emotions.

Stray is a series that does a nice job of mixing the familiar with a fresh take, doing things that a longstanding continuity cannot, while implying a continuity of its own. I've grown a bit bored with "fallen hero" stories, but this one caught my eye and is definitely worth checking out. (Review by Rob McMonigal)