Tuesday, March 3, 2015

STAPLE! Independent Media Expo: A Preview

Staplegator 2015
created by Babs Tarr
The illustrious Staple! It’s a office supply, it’s a cartoon dinosaur/monster/thingie, it’s an independent media expo! It’s this coming weekend in glorious Austin, Texas! And, awesomely, it’s now entering its 11th year. That’s a lot of years, man. Having been in Austin for only a year and a half now myself, it’s my second STAPLE, and now that I know the drill, I’m pretty excited.

STAPLE! Independent Media Expo takes place at the Marchesa Theater in North Central Austin on Saturday March 7th and Sunday the 8th, and comes complete with lots of panels, over 150 artists and creators, attendees in costume and certainly many replete with Austin's requisite beards and tattoos. And, of course, in the spirit of hipster-happening Austin, there will be silk-screened-on-the-spot t-shirts, tacos, and a vegan Jewish deli food truck.

This year’s Expo looks to have a great focus on diversity, with a panel called “Hire This Woman,” a panel on People of Color/Queer/Women in Zines, and a panel on Diversity in Gaming. All these panels capitalize on the visibility and conversation about sexism in geek culture that the Gamergate controversy has brought up in the past year. I don't tend to follow the workings of the comics industry and geek culture -- I just huddle over my Lynda Barry books and keep to myself -- so it will be really interesting to hear a little more about the challenges and  successes of women working in the comics industry today.

So -- a quick rundown. A few artists of particular note on the lady front include:

  • The Lumberjane Crew: Brooke Allen, Grace Ellis and Shannon Watters will talk about their kick-ass summer camp comic from Boom! Studio
  • Kate Leth: Kate or Die! Tumblr goddess, geek culture commentator, and writer for comics including Fraggle Rock, Bravest Warriors, and Adventure Time!
  • Jess Fink: The erotic robots of Chester 5000, science-fiction autobiography in We Can Fix It, and contributions to the Smut Peddler anthology pique my interest.
  • Rachel Dukes: Cats! Mixtapes! What else do you need, really?
  • Janelle Asselin: Hire This Woman columnist at Comics Alliance and moderator of panel by that same name at Staple.
One of the most appealing things about Staple is that it’s a chance for local, regional, and national folks to mix, and as such there’s a lot of local flavor to learn about
  • The Hillbilly Philosopher: This cartoon by Justin Buschardt and Jonathan Hubbell will be screened on Sunday, and follows the adventures of small-town weirdos Floyd and Butts facing existential crises in a humorous fashion.
  • Robert Wilson IV: Aw, all right, he’s out of Dallas. But he’s done Knuckleheads, Like A Virus, and some seriously cool poster art, plus the latest issue of Bitch Planet.
  • Koumori Comics: Local comic creators group, meets at Cherrywood Coffee House -- curious if I’d be worthy of their favor.
  • Rocksalt Magazine: Quarterly comics anthology straight out of Austin -- the intrigue of why I didn’t know about this before continues.
  • Crayonblood Studio: Jamie Hernandez, Austin designer and illustrator, Blue Genie Art Bazaar poster designer -- hipster-style Austin art in action.
  • Monica L. Knighton: print-maker and jewelry of fairy-tale worthy creatures. I covet all of her creations.
  • 7000 BC: A bit farther afield, but independent comics from New Mexico. Southwesterners, unite! (Does Texas count?)
Other folks  I’m particularly interested in returning to after seeing them last year (and since they’re Panel Patter favorites!)
Overall, Staple promises to be a good, hectic time, with some well-known faces and unexpected treats. Plus it’s a great atmosphere to encourage curators, collectors, and creators to mingle - everyone learning about one another’s efforts, getting inspired, acquiring zines and minicomics, posters, stickers, and probably a pithy button or two, and finding new artists to follow-- all in all, STAPLE has a DIY atmosphere without feeling precious, and is a place to meet great cartoonists without feeling overwhelmed by their celebrity status. I’m sure that my preview doesn’t do justice to the strange wonders I’ll find -- as such, I’m eager to find my next new favorite, and will report back in a timely fashion. Over and out.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Panel Patter Quick Hits: Translation Time with Canales/Guarnido, Lindgren/Van Nyman, Manchette/Tardi, Hubert/Kerascoet, and Max

Happy Monday to everyone. It's hard to believe we're at the top of another week, but here to help you get through are some short reviews. This time, in our second themed edition, it's time to talk translated comics. We'll lead off with James Kaplan, discussing the latest installment of the ongoing Blacksad series of graphic novels...

Blacksad: Amarillo
Written by Juan Diaz Canales
Illustrated by Juanjo Guarnido
Translated by Katie LaBarbera and Neal Adams
Dark Horse Comics

I only recently read the Blacksad series for the first time, and I'm so very glad I did. It's among the best, most gorgeously illustrated books I've read in a while. It's a series of detective stories, in a 1950's America setting. What distinguishes the Blacksad stories is that they're told in an America full of anthropomorphic animals. People are cat-people, dog-people, etc., but there's no magical or supernatural element to the story (unlike something like Autumnlands: Tooth & Claw). It's simply that everyone walking around in the story is some species of anthropomorphized animal. Now, if you think that's something that's not going to appeal to you, you need to give the story a chance. 

First, the art is truly stunning. Artist Juanjo Guarnido is a truly gifted illustrator (he was formerly a Disney illustrator). His skill as a sequential storyteller is first-rate, and every panel of the story is full of wonderful details.  The animal-people are spectacularly rendered; the people feel very much like people who happen to be animals; their bodies and expressions feel overall very human, if a little exaggerated. The choice of kind of animal is very much based on the personality of the particular character - most policemen are dogs, henchmen are often rhinos or bears, and other similarly clever choices. 
Secondly, the Blacksad stories are funny, clever, heartbreaking and insightful. The different types of animals are often used to tell stories with a strong political and racial overtone to them, but with the little bit of remove that is afforded the story because it has a slightly fantastical element. The world of Blacksad is a rich, fully realized portrait of America. At its center is private detective John Blacksad, a black cat who does seems to be somewhat unlucky in the cases he takes. He's got a good heart, but he's not afraid to get his hands dirty. The most recent collection of stories, Blacksad: Amarillo, was published in 2014 and tells  story of Blacksad's attempt to get a car from New Orleans to Amarillo, Texas, and all of the strange detours he takes along the way. The story takes Blacksad out of the urban settings in which the first few stories took place, and provides a terrific story of the open road and beat culture, along with a compelling, dramatic and funny story. 

I'd recommend going back and reading the Blacksad stories from the beginning though; they're a real delight.  (Review by James Kaplan)

Pippi Won’t Grow Up
Written by Astrid Lindgren
Illustrated by Ingrid Van Nyman
Translated by Tina Nunnally
Published by Drawn & Quarterly

Pippi Longstocking, “the strongest girl in the world,” is an iconic figure in children’s literature. Created by Sweden’s Astrid Lindgren in the 1940’s, the four book series of Pippi’s adventures—Pippi Longstocking (1945), Pippi Goes On Board (1946), Do You Know Pippi Longstocking? (1947), and Pippi in the South Seas (1948)—have since been translated into more than sixty languages, and there have been films and at least one Swedish television series as well. What came as a surprise to me is the existence of these comics adaptations, which according to the copyright page were originally produced in the late 1950’s by illustrator Ingrid Van Nyman, who rendered them in bright, vibrant primary and secondary colors that children (and adults) still will find as irresistible as Pippi herself.

As a child, one of my favorite books was Pippi in the South Seas, from which much of Pippi Won’t Grow Up was adapted. Pippi, along with her pals Tommy and Annika, indeed travels to the South Seas to visit her father, but first has a memorable run-in with a stern teacher, thwarts a “rich and very stupid man” who tries to buy Pippi’s ramshackle house, and lunches with Tommy and Annika’s Aunt Laura. Pippi generally lives her life according to her own lights, adhering to her peculiar sense of logic. When she misspells a word, the dreaded schoolmarm Miss Rosenblom tells her, “That’s not how it’s spelled in the dictionary.” Pippi’s reply: “Then it’s a good thing you asked me how I spell it.” The wonderful thing about Pippi is that she always bests grown ups, whether it’s by use of her superior strength or simply by her miscomprehension and/or dismissal of adult rules and mores. She is a hero to Tommy, Annika and other children, protecting them from malevolent adults and killer sharks, as well as providing them with fun and adventure—on one occasion gifting one and all with ice cream and gold coins!  It must have been fun for girls back in the day to have such a strong (literally, as well as figuratively), fearless female protagonist to read about and root for. And it’s great that Drawn and Quarterly is making these comics available to a new generation of readers. Pippi Longstocking is the original Girl Power.  (Review by Rob Kirby)

Run Like Crazy Run Like Hell
Written by Jean Patrick Manchette
Adaption and Art by Jacque Tardi
Translation by Doug Headline
Published by Fantagraphics

The latest Jacque Tardi from Fantagraphics was delayed and delayed but it finally arrives and hits the ground running.  The maniacs in this comic don't even give you a chance to breathe, it just ramps up and starts rolling.

Let me break it down - a rich guy hires a woman out of low security mental institute to be the nanny for his spoiled brat (Peter). At the same time the rich guy hires an assassin to kidnap the kid and murder both Peter and the nanny. The nanny evades the assassin and his crew and flees with Peter. Her mental illness causes her to act erratically and avoid the police. While the assassin has his own mental illness that literally causes him to be sick when he is not murdering. He eats live animals to stave off death. While these two clinically mentally ill people chase each other across a wet France innocent bystanders get caught up in the chaos and callously mowed down like extras from "Total Recall".

The mode I'm used to in crime novels is a sort of amoral calculus where people do terrible things and you find yourself somewhat horrified and titillated to recognize yourself in their decision making. But that's not whats going on here. The two main characters are actually insane and their decisions and actions are not recognizably human at all. The horror comes from being annoyed by this spoiled brat who is actually an innocent kid.

Peter is dragged through mayhem and violence that he has no way to process or handle. The last panel shows him going off to "play cowboys and indians" like none of it has even happened. There are no answers to how he handles this madness. There is narration that describes what happens to several of the characters, but left unspoken is the fact that Peter is presumably going back to live with the man who sent the assassin after him in the first place. (Review by A.J. McGuire)

Miss Don't Touch Me Complete Set
Written by Hubert
Art by Kerascoet
Published by NBM

Noirish, sexy, but clearly laid out, and not written as pornographic or for shock-value even though it takes place in a bordello full of half-naked ladies, which is quite a feat -- the Miss Don’t Touch Me
Complete Set includes two stories of Blanche, a virginal maid who infiltrates (but ends up joining) a bordello in hopes of solving her sister’s murder, gets in good with Josephine Baker, and shows off both how curious and cunning she can be when she needs to and also how silly and careless she can become in her naivete.

This edition collects Volume 1 (previously reviewed by Rob McMonigal here) with a new story about a handsome client who Blanche hopes will spring her from her servitude and accruing debt to the bordello. This second story reflects more clearly on how swiftly and dangerously embroiled in the affairs of the bordello she has become, and how her social status as a prostitute is more fixed than she had realized. Though a less cinematic affair than Volume 1, the second story is a more focused character study of Blanche, her newly-arrived manipulative mother, and the sexual expectations placed on men and women across social classes in early 20th century France.

When read alongside the Butcher of the Dances mystery, the two halves balance each other out for a complete and compelling picture of Parisian life of the period. The noir tone of it all is impressively clear-eyed -- it’s not a twisty-turny caper for only the great and sharp-witted mystery lover, rather, it’s easily followed and yet the conclusions feel satisfying and well-earned. A celebration and a cautionary tale about the joy and vigor of youth and the dangerous roads it can lead you down. Deeply engaging. (Review by Emilia Packard)

Written and Illustrated by Max
Translated by Carol Gnojewski
Published by Fantagraphics

Either a loving homage to early 20th Century newspaper strips or a twisted take on them (perhaps both), this story follows Nicodemos on a quest for enlightenment that doesn't go so well for him. As the deadly serious Nicodemos, who has to be taught not to talk with capital letters, tries to figure out the mysteries of the desert, a series of characters, including an Felix the Cat-like cynic and a helpful bird keep trying to ensure "Nick" stays in the real world instead of drifting off and potentially being taken by the mysterious vapor.

The story is really strange, mixing philosophy with low-brow jokes, running gags, and style changes that reflect the quality and versatility of the artist. Max has definitely studied the styles of George Herriman and his contemporaries, then mixed in some modern tricks. It's a very eclectic blend, with broad strokes on one page, then thin lines the next. The humor loses a bit in translation, I think, as it often does, so that's not the fault of Gnojewski, though a dick joke is a dick joke in any language, especially with a farcical visual.

Mixing the profound with the profane has its risks, and overall, I didn't quite find this as satisfying as I hoped in terms of its content, but I really appreciated Max's linework and his versatility. The strange parade at the climax, with everything from art deco robots to the guy from the In the Court of the Crimson King album cover to lavish, exotic food marched along the road is a particular highlight. Vapor is the kind of book you might want to seek out if you like to be baffled and challenged.  (Review by Rob McMonigal)

Friday, February 27, 2015

Weekend Pattering for February 27, 2015-- The TV Letdown


** Congrats to Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction for their TV development deal that was announced with Universal TV this week.  Both writers, along with their collaborators, are making some wonderful books right now.  Satellite Sam and Pretty Deadly are a couple of the most fascinating books coming out from Image now, going against the grain of a lot of what they're doing there.  This is a good thing for all comic creators, opening up new channels (no pun intended) for them and their creativity.  And DeConnick and Fraction are far from the first comic creators to get a deal like this.  There's the Robert Kirkman Walking Dead empire on AMC right now.  Warren Ellis supposedly is working on something.  Many comic writers and artists have moved into other entertainment fields both during and after their comic careers.

But yet something about this deal has been nagging at me.  At first, it was the weird feeling of wanting to call Fraction and DeConnick "sellouts" but that's just silly.  This is two independent creators (both working for Marvel but neither currently exclusive with any publisher) having some control and investment in their creations.  This is the Kirkman Manifesto in action.  It's really great to have these creators so invested in their creations and able to use them as they want to.  Isn't that what we've wanted for everyone from Jack Kirby to Siegel & Shuster?  There's a difference between using your comics as pitches for movie deals and being able to be in a position to control your work and benefit from it.  DeConnick and Fraction are living the promise of creator owned and controlled comics.  This is the type of control that Image offers creators that almost no other major publisher does right now.

So what's bugging me about this?  I figured it out when I read Vanity Fair's coverage of this news.  (And congrats to Pat Loika for getting photo credit on vanityfair.com.)  Here's VF's last graf about this.
Image has already made its mark on television with the wildly popular The Walking Dead, but further success with DeConnick and Fraction could bring even more of its comics to TV including every comic-lover’s favorite, the vast and ambitious Saga by Lost writer Brian K. Vaughn. Lying cats and robot princes and ghostly teenage babysitters? TV could get very weird, indeed.
With the success of SUPERHERO (not comicbook) TV shows and movies, does the entire world now see comics as a petri dish of experimentation and tinkering to find what to do next?  Are comic-based TV shows the new reality television?  And does everyone think the ultimate goal of comics is to get a TV or movie deal and get out of comics?  The writer of this article seems to think that Brian K. Vaughan AND Fiona Staples (even though she's not mentioned) goal could be to make Saga a television show even though as recently as last year's SDCC, Vaughan talked about why Saga is a comic and not a tv show.

Vaughan, who also developed Stephen King’s “Under the Dome” into a hit television series and was a producer on “Lost” in addition to his comics work on projects including “Runaways,” “Pride of Baghdad” and “Y: The Last Man,” was asked by a fan about why he’s said that he doesn’t want “Saga” to be adapted for the screen. 
The writer stated, as he had in accepting the continuing series Eisner Award the previous night, that he sees comics as a superior medium that can do things that film and television can’t do, and that with “Saga” he wanted to do something that was purely a comic book. 
But, he added, “If Paul Thomas Anderson says, ‘Hey, I want to do a “Saga” movie’ – all right.”
Paul Thomas Anderson could do anything he wants but it doesn't sound like being back in television has been a goal of Vaughan's and that there's stuff he can do in comics that he can't do on the screen.

Superheroes (and by extension comic books) are the current hot thing in Hollywood.  Studio bigwigs are looking to comics for ideas and properties right now after the success of Marvel Studios and far more people watch even the lowest rated TV shows than read comic books so of course Hollywood to the outsider is going to look like where it's at.  But we've always worried (and probably unneedlessly so) about our favorite creators using comics as a stepping stone.  And now I'm starting to fear that everyone else is seeing comic books that way too, as a step towards the goal of seeing your creations on the small and big screens.  

I guess the cynical way of ending this is just to say, "Yay, Hollywood!"  

** I'm linking to this profile on Seth partly because I just love the name of the post- A Preacher of Cartoons Delivers His Sermons. New Palookaville is out this spring and I keep thinking I need to revisit It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken.

Melissa Mendes

** Go read James Romberger's profile and interview with Tonči Zonjić  over at the Comics Journal.  It's a fascinating discussion of the artist and features a done of great art to look at by him as well as some by Alex Toth.

** It's great news that David Gallaher and Steve Ellis's High Moon is back!  High Moon was one of the standouts of DC's Zuda, their aborted attempt at cornering the market on webcomics.  Right now, they're digitally reprinting the material that appeared on Zuda but later on this year, they'll be publishing new stuff.  High Moon could be interesting to anyone who likes The Sixth Gun, Pretty Deadly or The Guns of Shadow Valley.  

Hopefully this also means that we'll get to see other Zuda stuff back.  Jeremy Love's Bayou is a comic that I'd really love to see return.

** Comics Alliance really loves the way that Sean Phillips draws cars and who can blame them. I mean, look at this:

** Panel Patterers doing their thing this week:

El Iluminado by Ilan Stavans and Steve Sheinkin

Written by Ilan Stavans
Illustrated by Steve Sheinkin
Published by Basic Books

I find myself referring to El Iluminado much more often than I had expected to when I first read it -- who even knows what crypto-Judaism is? And furthermore, who cares what role it plays in the history of the Southwestern U.S.? To the latter question, I am not sure -- it’s an extremely specific topic. But to the former, I can answer, and hopefully pique your curiosity enough to make you care.

Crypto-Judaism is defined as the secret adherence to Judaism while publicly professing to be of another faith. This most often occurred because of anti-semitic societies who forced conversions upon their Jewish populations -- the best known one being the forced conversions of Jews to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition. Though nominally Catholic, many of those forced to convert continued to practice and study their Judaism in secret, often to find themselves persecuted yet again, their professed Christianity put under the sharpest of microscopes. 

Many of the early crypto-Jews made the move to the New World to escape persecution around the same time as the Inquisition, but found they still had to keep things under wraps. Still, many forced converts valiantly persisted in passing Jewish traditions on to their children, who then transmitted them on to future generations -- as the provenance of the practices became murkier and murkier, descendants may not even have realized why they were doing things like lighting candles on Fridays and abstaining from pork. The persistence of Jewish tradition under the auspice of Christian practice is an impressive testament to the power of the Jewish faith in the face of persecution.

El Iluminado explores this profound and secret history under the guise of an academically minded mystery -- Ilan Stavans (the writer), playing himself, arrives in Santa Fe to give a lecture on Crypto-Judaism, only to find himself trying to solve a dastardly murder and locate an invaluable and mysterious manuscript about crypto-Judaism’s history in the region. But it’s really just a frame for a flashback story of the arrival of Jews to what would become, and the experience and persecution of a particular family. 

The flashback narrative is deliciously and dramatically historical, while the present-day framework is at once academic and pure pulp-- think The Da Vinci Code meets seminar on the Jewish diaspora. It’s a curious set-up, and an imperfect one -- but the historical story is compelling and the modern-day story is tongue-in-cheek enough to be fun. You almost wonder if Stavans  wishes his life as a writer, academic, and historian were just a bit more like the story he weaves.

Steve Sheinkin’s illustrations are a delightful compliment to Stavan’s story -- I first read his work in the little known but riotouslysilly adventures of Rabbi Harvey -- a series of books in which the titular Rabbi Harvey moves to the American Frontier and relates Yiddish fables, morality tales, and groan-worthy jokes in a cowboys and log-cabin setting. Sheinkin doesn’t do much with that setting, but the novelty of cowboy-cum-rabbi has been just enough to keep me chuckling for days, even years. I’m a little easy to amuse, I guess. 

But I’m most enamored of Sheinkin’s shaky, not-particularly skillful, but oddly expressive illustrations, which are at work in El Iluminado as well. El IIuminado’s illustrations are more precise - Sheinkin did some site studies on location in New Mexico, and it shows in the simple sense of place he evokes with simple colors and empty space. Furthermore, with characters that look a little bit like the baby in South Park, round-faced and flappy-mouthed, there’s a note of humor and humanity that make the characters relatable. Sheinkin’s illustrations are not for everyone, but they are right for this book, and bring a narrative briskness and brightness to illuminate (groan) dark corners of Christianity and America’s history.

El Iluminado is a moving family saga, an academic text, a Da Vinci Code (or more aptly People Of The Book) mystery. It really made me want to learn more about how Cryptojudaism has manifested itself over the centuries, and how it corresponds and interacts with modern global Judaism. It may not be for the broadest audience, but its a surprising story, loving told, touching on powerful concepts of time and family and faith and sense of place.

King: Prince Valiant (#1 of 4)

King: Prince Valiant (#1 of 4)
Written by Nate Cosby
Illustrated by Ron Salas
Colored by Luigi Anderson
Lettered by Marshall Dillon
Dynamite Entertainment

In King: Prince Valiant #1, Dynamite Comics continues its King Features Syndicate initiative, looking at the classic character of Prince Valiant. This is a strong, intriguing first issue that has me very interested in learning more about the character.

This issue takes a look at young Prince Valiant, who's only 17 and is not yet a knight, only a squire, living in Arthurian England. The tale of young Prince Valiant is being told by one speaker to another mysterious figure, in a darkened cave (a device that frames the issue).  As told by the first speaker, Prince Valiant has a head full of steam, he's always looking for adventure, and he'll never back down from a fight. Unfortunately for him, his ego is writing checks that his body can't cash*.  By the end of the first issue, Valiant is out on his own, having severed ties with his community. Throughout the series, we're sure to see the connection between the speakers in the cave, and young Prince Valiant.

As I have very little background on the character of Prince Valiant, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Based on the name, and other King Features books, I expected swashbuckling fun, and derring-do. This issue gives you your sword-fighting, but it's darker, more contemplative, and more interesting than I was expecting.   The opening page of the book shows what could be a scene of the cosmos, but it turns out to be the interior of a mysterious cave.  A strange voice asks his visitor to tell him a tale, and so the visitor tells the tale of Prince Valiant. As this is framed both by the scenes in the cave, there is an epic, almost wistful quality to the storytelling. This quality is nicely established in both the narration and the art. Giving the scenes of battle this opening context provides a sense of melancholy, which doesn't bring down the fun but instead gives it more of a sense of weight.

As discussed, the art in King: Prince Valiant really helps to sell the story and set the tone; Ron Salas and colorist Luigi Anderson do strong work. Salas has a somewhat rough line in the book, but simultaneously provides great detail in action sequences, each movement of the combatants feels well thought-out, and he has a strong sense of illustrating the human form in motion and generally. The body language in the book feels expressive and effective at illustrating the emotions of the characters involved. 

The coloring in this book is similarly thoughtful; Anderson brings a slightly faded, muted quality to the colors, which feels appropriate given the setting centuries ago. There's nice variation in colors though, as the castle Camelot is shown in sun-dappled glory, as are any scenes involving the King. We understand this to be a powerful place, one that you'd not easily want to leave. In some cases the backgrounds are somewhat spare, but near the end of the issue, we see the world before Valiant as he goes out alone, and Salas and Anderson combine for a lovely scene that's both beautiful and lonely. Marshall Dillon (letterer for several Valiant books, ironically enough) ably provides lettering here as well; the sound effects lettering adds nice touches in the story, and the choice of lettering the sinister voice in the cave helps the reader hear this strange voice.    

I'm very curious to learn more about Prince Valiant and his adventures (and his ties to the broader King Features universe of characters), and I think King: Prince Valiant is off to a strong, intriguing start.

[Editor's Note: For those interested in the original strips, they are reprinted in some handsome editions by Fantagraphics. -RobM]

* Yes, I just quoted Top Gun. You know you love that movie.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Criminal Special Edition

Criminal Special Edition
Written by Ed Brubaker
Drawn by Sean Phillips
Colored by Elizabeth Breitweiser
Published by Image Comics

“It’s fuckin’ jail, Wilson… Just assume everything in here is bad.”

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips are back where they belong.  The Criminal Special Edition (or Criminal Savage Edition if you get the magazine sized version of it) welcomes us back to a world of crime and deceit.  In March, 1976, Teeg Lawless was in jail, not for anything big but for something stupid like missing a traffic court appearance.  Already having served half of a 30 day stint in county, Teeg finds out that there is a price on his head when a white power inmate tries to shiv Teeg.  Teeg ends killing him with a rolled up 70s era comic magazine, like one of the ones that Marvel or Warren put out back then.  It’s been a few years since the last issue of Criminal came out but Brubaker and Phillips slip easily back into the old ways, luring us back into their crimespree.  

In many ways, Criminal owes a lot to David Lapham’s Stray Bullets.  Lapham’s 1990’s comics showed the destructive side of his character’s illegal choices.  His stories were always gripping but they were almost never alluring.  They took us down paths that we didn’t want to go.  Brubaker and Phillips’ work is almost the same.  Like Stray Bullets, there’s a nihilism at the heart of Criminal.  Teeg Lawless is not a hero.  In fact, Criminal has been a study in the difference of “hero” and “protagonist” as we develop affinities for the characters but never in anything approaching admiration for them.  Maybe it’s because there are no heroes that Brubaker and Phillips make their lead characters so recognizable.  Teeg is a criminal and has a life that probably very few of us do but he’s also a man who is just trying to survive.  Mirroring his story against the story of Zangar, a barbarian from a 1970s black and white magazine Teeg reads in prison, Brubaker and Phillips highlight just how romantic (used in the classical sense, not in the paperback novel way) Criminal can actually be.

Teeg is a character that’s just a slight bit too dumb for his own good.  He’s not stupid but he’s just blind to his own shortcomings.  And that’s probably something that could be said for almost all of the protagonists in Criminal.  They’re all men and women with grand plans but they don’t have the complete wherewithal to pull them off.  And that never stops them and that’s the magic of Criminal that hasn’t been on display in Incognito, Fatale or Fade Out (although it may be too early to tell in that last book.)  Criminal Special Edition may actually be the most optimistic issue of Criminal yet because Teeg is one of the savvier characters in the book because he’s also the one who knows himself the best.  Teeg doesn’t seem to have any grand thoughts of himself as anything more than the thug he is.

Phillips and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser’s naturalistic artwork is able to carry so much of the story.  Coloring her first Criminal story, Breitsweiser’s greens, yellows and purples aren’t recreating recognizable lighting but they work very impressionistically to shade the mood of each scene and panel.  Original series colorist Val Staples really used the color almost more as a mood ring to heighten the emotional impact of Phillips’ artwork while Breitweiser softens that approach a bit while still influencing the way you interact with this comic through her palette.  The way that she approaches lighting with color makes you believe in the greenish glow of old phosphorescent lights or the washed-out sunlight shining on the prison’s concrete yard.

The Savage Edition

A portion of this comic is set aside to tell the story of Zangar, a black and white magazine comic character.  For this portion of the comic, Phillips is channelling the artists of the Filipino invasion back in the 1970s.  His work here, with its heaving inking, is reminiscent of Alfredo Alcala’s work.  Those portions of the story may be slight and add only a bit to the comic but they show off just how versatile Phillips is.  It’s like when he did his Dan Decarlo homage in Criminal: The Last of the Innocent and was able to alter his style to provide more depth to the story.  Here, the Zangar portions operate fairly independently of the main story and end up being more superfluous but they show off Phillips’ artwork and that’s always a great thing.

Criminal: Special Edition offers a glimpse back into the seedy underbelly that is Criminal.  Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips belong here in ways that they haven’t in any post-Criminal comics.  It’s these characters and these settings that bring out the best in these creators, offering them a world full of dreamers and schemers but offering little hope for any of them.  Maybe that’s why we like them; the deck is so stacked against Teeg Lawless in this life that maybe we want to see him survive jail just so we can see that there’s a bit of hope in this world.  This isn’t a comic where the characters are allowed much hope because they’ve got to do everything that they can just to stay alive.  

Quantum & Woody Must Die! (Issues #1-2)

Quantum & Woody Must Die! #1-2
Written by James Asmus
Illustrated by Steve Lieber
Colored by Dave McCaig
Lettered by Dave Lanphear
Valiant Entertainment

Quantum and Woody Must Die! is a 4-issue miniseries from Valiant chronicling the adventures of the "world's worst superhero team" and all of the people that totally hate them and want to kill them (because they're kind of idiots). After the first 2 issues of this miniseries, I'm happy to say that fans of Quantum & Woody will love this, as will anyone else who's a fan of absurd action, occasional heartfelt moments, and some outrageous, gleefully offensive humor.

As the series picks up, things have improved for Quantum and Woody. They are just as incompetent as ever in attempting to stop the robbery of an armored truck, but everyone in town seems to love them anyway. Well, almost everyone. Okay, maybe not quite as many as they'd like. Everyone? It's such a nebulous term. How to define it? Maybe we should---

Ahem. Where was I?

There are a number of people conspiring to bring these two heroes down, each of whom has been adversely affected by Quantum & Woody's incompetence.  As the series progresses, it seems like luck is about to run out for the world's worst superhero team, and Quantum and Woody...must die!

These first two issues are a lot of fun (and it's probably a mistake to spend too much time thinking about the plot of a Quantum and Woody story). Since the reintroduction of the Valiant universe several years ago, Quantum and Woody has been their most explicitly (in several different meanings of the word) humor book. They're absurd characters that get into all sorts of ridiculous situations. Writer James Asmus has been handling these characters for the past few years and has a very good handle on them.  They're genuinely well-meaning here but still not all that good at being heroes.  In another superhero book this might be a grim reminder that with great power comes great responsibility, but here it's played for laughs. Make no mistake, the book is crude and offensive at times, delightfully so. When our heroes accidentally cause a man to be doused with chemicals, they wonder whether he'll be developing super powers but instead he just develops 7 kinds of cancer (though he does eventually get super powers).  Asmus excels at Quantum and Woody's silly, weird, loving dynamic (they're foster brothers), and making light of the fact that they're both well-meaning in their own way, but even Quantum (the more serious one) is really not all that good at being a superhero.

Asmus has a highly skilled partner here Steve Lieber. If you've read Superior Foes of Spider-Man, then you know what Lieber is capable of (if you haven't read it, stop whatever it is you're doing right now and go read it).  Lieber is a master at visual humor, in presenting the punchline of a joke in the best possible way, in using facial expressions and body language to sell the humor of a situation and the personality of characters, and in playing in absurd ideas and contacts without taking the reader out of the story. Here, Lieber has a slightly more reined-in, less absurdist style then in the Superior Foes book, as the linework here feels consistent what readers have seen in previous volumes of the Quantum & Woody comic, but he and the entire art team bring a lot of visual wit to the proceedings.

Lieber has able art partners in colorist Dave McCaig and Dave Lanphear, who've worked on other Valiant books. McCaig's colors work well here; they have a slightly flat, muted feel to them in places which gives the book a classic comics feel. But there's plenty of bright color and contrast throughout the book, particularly in the action. The lettering is similarly skillful, as there are some really fun, subtle touches where lettering is used to convey both sound effects and emotion. One other great touch here is in certain situations where word balloons convey images (either objects, or musical notes) rather than words, so the reader sees what's being talked about.

The first two issues in Quantum & Woody Must Die! are a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to seeing how the series wraps up. If you're looking for a deep, quiet, thoughtful exploration of humanity and the cosmos, you should go read Divinity. For a ridiculous, absurd laugh out loud funny story about terrible superheroes and the way in which they keep screwing up (but with the best of intentions, mostly), you should read Quantum & Woody Must Die!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Moses by Jeff Guarino and Dean Westerfield

Created by Jeff Guarini and Dean Westerfield
Words by Jeff Guarini
Art by Dean Westerfield

Even people who did not grow up with one of the Triad of religions that uses Moses as a foundation figure are familiar with him, either from reading their religious book at their parents' side or because of the iconic version played by Charlton Heston. In an extremely ambitious project, Jeff Guarini and Dean Westerfield take a different path, making Moses a man who tells stories (some of which are familiar) while living out his life trying to avoid taking a leadership role among his people (some of whom are familiar). His life and his stories play out in a larger backdrop of living, dying, and loving in an expansive work that tries just a bit too hard and ends up falling down a bit under its own weight.

I really liked the concept of this graphic novel. Without getting myself into a theology hole, I think that most who have faith but do not assume a literal reading of the text understand that the idea of Moses as a singular writer of the early books of religion is unlikely to be true. He's more of a Homer-like figure, used to attribute sources to. As with the Greek poet, there may have been one major figure who told most of the stories, and he likely lived a life that was not unlike that shown by Guarini and Westerfield.

That's where this story really shines. Watching Moses struggle with being a notable figure within his community but not wanting to take on the pressure of leadership, leading to a rather complicated situation within the larger society is fascinating to watch. When there are discussions of Pharoahs and Moses' own somewhat ambiguous history (I'm not sure we saw a definitive background and I like it better if my reading was correct, but I may be wrong on this point.), it's nice to see the creators weave in and out of the familiar. Seeing Moses age over time, until he's barely able to remember where he lives, often sleeping with the written versions of his stories, is really touching.

Similarly, I loved seeing the lives of those around him, as they, too grew and aged. Gossip flows, battles are fought off screen (allowing them to become stories as well), and certain relationships are established over time. Set in a lovely background that features amazing black and white linework by Westerfield, I felt myself wanting to stay with and linger in Moses world.

Ironically, however, where I had the most issue sticking to the story was when Moses was giving different versions of the things I'm very familiar with, either in the Bible itself or those stories which reportedly did not make the cut. I give the team credit for using various origin stories for Adam and the Garden and giving Moses a chance to worry over what happens when oral stories are written down, but every time after the first few that we moved into story mode, I could find my attention drifting.

There's nothing wrong with Guarino and Westerfield's adaptations, either. They're extremely well drawn and the changes are either from using alternative versions or by taking liberties with the text. If you put aside any offense you might have at their decisions, it's really stellar. The versions of Job and Jonah in particular really stuck with me as set pieces, especially when we see Jonah being beaten to death but Moses lies to the children and gives him a happy ending. The visual isn't bloody at all, but Westerfield gives it exactly the right body language, even as Moses is telling about how he dedicated himself to bowl-making instead.

Guarino seems to know just how much or how little to say, giving Westerfield a lot of room to work. There's a ton of facial reactions, especially by Moses, and little changes in hair, noses, and beards make it easy to tell that the characters are different (though due to the length and story digressions, I did sometimes find myself having trouble remembering who was who). He gives them a lot of time to emote, often making sure to linger on a theme or image as well. Though the backgrounds were not intricate, I felt like I new the type of life Moses was living, thanks to seeing the houses, their insides, beasts, and even a well or the odd tree. Mixing them in organically while Guarino picks what to talk about (politics, legends, relationships, etc.) based on the situation means we don't have to waste pages talking about exposition.

On the other hand, these sometimes sprawl a bit, and in a book with so much going on that's not always the most helpful thing. It's really pretty to look at, and see how Westerfield changes his pencil and ink work (the whole book was done without digital editing) depending on the situation. It's nice to see some imperfections in the depictions that aren't "cleaned up" in Photoshop, but I am a bit old-fashioned that way.

The problem Moses has is that over the course of such a long book, it's hard to keep track of things, and even taking reading breaks didn't help. I started losing the thread of Moses' narrative, and the key moment where he's maybe talking to God (another great set piece by Westerfield in which Moses, out in the mountains, talks to the black space with just a bit of stars, casting doubt on his sanity) really gets lost. Perhaps it's my failing as a reader, but I don't want to have to bookmark or take notes just to enjoy a graphic novel. Flipping back and forth should be a choice the reader makes, not something out of necessity to ensure they didn't miss something.

Moses is an amazing achievement that Guarino and Westerfield should be extremely proud of creating. I'm definitely interested in their next project together. But it's hard to recommend this one unless you as a reader are really up for a challenge or willing to deal with some flaws that damage it as a whole. In its attempt to do so much, Moses becomes much like reading a project that isn't quite sure if it's going to be about Moses himself or the stories we've come to associate with him and the three One God Only religions that share so much.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Lilith Wood Reviews Plunder #1 by Swifty Lang, Skuds McKinley, and Jason Wordie

Plunder #1
Written by Swifty Lang
Illustrated by Skuds McKinley
Colors by Jason Wordie
Letters by Deron Bennett
Published by Archaia

In modern U.S. culture, swashbuckling pirate geeks enjoy the pageantry and lore across the safety of a couple hundred years. Plunder brings the present-day realities of piracy crashing to the fore with the story of Bahdoon, a Somalian kid who joins a band of pirates. The book is recognizably part of the seafaring literary tradition of Melville and Stevenson, but throws in current realities and a twist of Lovecraftian horror.

This is the first of just four issues, so the story jumps right into the action. The pirates, who call themselves The Saviors of the Sea, board a large, drifting ship. Swifty Lang does a good job of introducing the characters, warming us up to young Bahdoon’s inner monologue, and moving forward the action as the pirates search the strangely quiet ship. The crew is diverse and we get the sense of misfits and disadvantaged people in a society that doesn’t take care of the weak, tolerate physical disabilities, or have a humane justice system. One by one, the quick backstories turn the pirates from being the Other into being an Us.

Skuds McKinley, who co-created the story with Lang, keeps that theme, making the pirates seem like people we might see at the supermarket (in a neighborhood especially prone to missing appendages and terrible face burns). He also hits a sweet spot with the gory discoveries the pirate makes on the ship. What we see is believable enough to be freaky, but also so fantastically gross you sort of do want to giggle a little, for lack of a better startle reaction. I think that’s pretty good for horror. McKinley also does a competent job with the sequential storytelling, especially since he’s relatively new to comics and has to help establish a mystery while introducing several new characters all at once.

Jason Wordie’s colors are toned down and stay out of the way of the story’s drama. Wordie uses a muted palette—a tan sky, a silty green sea, the tomato red of one of the pirates’ shirts. He repeats a limited array of colors, using the same tomato red for the shirt and for blood spattered against the slate grey metal of a ship. This repetition and the use of flat blocks of color help to simplify the story visually.  The earthy colors makes Plunder seem more literary and real; bright blues and other primary colors might have made this pirate story too cheesy and gaudy.

Finally, shout out to the letterer, Deron Bennett, for a little feature I really enjoyed: The notes sprinkled throughout that said “2.5’ Light Chop” or “3.0’ Rising Swells.” It was a clever way to remind us, even while the action was in the belly of a big ship, that we were at sea.

I’m looking forward to checking out the next three issues of Plunder, and whatever else Lang and McKinley dream up in the future.

Please Welcome Newest Panel Patter-er, Lilith Wood!

Continuing the great community of writers we have on Panel Patter, I'm extremely pleased to introduce our newest contributor Lilith Wood!

Lilith and I met when both of us were working on the Newsarama Best Shots Team (where I also met our regular contributor Scott Cederlund) and both Lilith and I owe a ton to David Pepose for honing our skills as reviewers. We've both since moved on from the 'Rama team to pursue other projects, but those lessons live on in the way we approach our posts, either here on this site or elsewhere.

I quickly became friends with Lilith, first from having a shared interest in certain comics and later because we found a lot of commonalities in other areas, including a supreme difficulty in picking a place to eat dinner. I'm also very fortunate to see her at shows, since she lives up in Portland's bigger sister, Seattle. She's got keen insights, and it's no surprise to me that she is already fielding comics-writing offers from multiple places.

Fortunately for us, one of those places is here at Panel Patter, where she plans to probably do most of her work in the short-review area, both in terms of Quick Hits and another take on some of the weekly books via Single Minded, which James and I do fairly regularly.

Here's what Lilith has to say for herself:

Lilith Wood is a Seattle writer who works in the financial industry by day. Art history was her favorite class in college, and she got back into comics (as an adult) by writing about them. Her writing on comics has also appeared at Paste, Stackedd, Newsarama, and at her own website. Follow her on twitter @lilwould. 
Please give Lilith a warm welcome, and look for her first post coming up shortly!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Panel Patter Quick Hits on Michael DeForge, Anouk Richard, Alec Longstreth, and Neil Gaiman/Eddie Campbell

Another Monday, another set of short reviews. This time, we'll start with a cool little Michael DeForge book that might have been overlooked in a year that saw him release three graphic novels, First Year Heathly...

First Year Healthy
Written and Illustrated by Michael DeForge
Published by Drawn and Quarterly

This story of a young woman who comes out of the mental hospital only to find her life in the regular world gets progressively stranger gives the extremely popular Michael DeForge a chance to play with the storytelling medium of comics by mixing it with the structure of a children's picture book. Instead of using panels and word balloons to propel his story, DeForge puts very small paragraphs of text in extremely tiny type somewhere within the page, then "adapts" that the narrator says in those paragraphs with either one large image that dominates the page or a theme expressed in small illustrations, using the style most readers of the creator will be familiar with.

There's no time to spare on any digressions, as the story is only about 30 pages long. Each part of his drawings has to be essential to the plot and to the reader, bringing DeForge into his more familiar short story territory. The imagery here is amazing, too--that lovely mix of the stark, almost Charles Schulz-like use of rounded characters and square backgrounds and disturbing as hell abstractions and perversions that he does so well. The color choices also help keep things off-kilter, such as the menacing figure being albino compared to the narrator's pink skin or that the Dr. Seuss-style mythical cat is orange and green.

Best of all, however, is the fact that since we know the main character was mentally ill, she's totally unreliable as a narrator, and as the story takes a turn into the extremely weird, how much of it is real comes into question. It's absolutely brilliant, and I love what he's doing with this one. I know Ant Colony got a lot of praise, but I think I might like First Year Healthy better. (Review by Rob McMonigal)

Anna and Froga: Thrills, Spills and Gooseberries 
By Anouk Ricard 
Published by Drawn & Quarterly

France's Anouk Ricard, the author of last year's very funny, adult-oriented satire of office life, Benson's Cuckoos, offers up this third in her delightful series of Anna and Froga comics, a newly translated edition from Drawn and Quarterly. Anna is a little girl who, with her anthropomorphic animal pals, enjoys little adventures like visiting the haunted house at a fair and having a picnic in the woods. Her pals include Froga (a frog, naturally), Ron the cat, the somewhat neurotic, aspiring artist canine, Bubu, and a cheerful worm named Christopher. Adult readers will appreciate the gently snarky tone of the book; the bickering of Bubu, Froga, Christopher and Ron are the absolute opposite of Care Bears style treacle. In fact, these characters interact much the way actual kids do, imbuing the proceedings with the feel of real life (odd as that may sound). The talented Ricard limns the fun in an irresistibly colorful, appealingly childlike style, interspersed with a few lovely, sophisticated illustrations of her cast at play. This funny, charming book comes highly recommended for children, their parents, and fans of all-ages comics in general. (Review by Rob Kirby)

24x7: A Decade of 24 Hour Comics 
Written and Illustrated by Alec Longstreth

The concept of the 24 hour comics challenge is an intense one. You have 24 hours to create 24 pages of comics, everything from start to finish in a single day. Should you fail there are two courses of action – the Gaiman variation, in which you stop after 24 hours, and the Eastman variation, in which you continue until you’ve done all 24 pages. It is an excellent exercise, one that forces you to think in a different way and figure out how to properly maximize your efficiency as an artist/storyteller.

Alec Longstreth has created a 24 hour comic every year since 2001. In 2010, he decided to collect six of them (created between 2004 and 2009) in a single volume: 24x7: A Decade of 24 Hour Comics, the creation of which was his 24 hour comic for that year. It is incredible, I think, to see how much Longstreth grew as a cartoonist and a person in the 6 years he has chronicled here. The first story, Scars, falls short of the 24 page mark (his next few, required some extra time), yet he is able to figure out what he wants to do and how to do it quickly enough that the last two he finished with hours to spare (it’s worth noting that his two most recent were created in about 12 hours, and were still the required 24 pages). Given the format of the challenge, there are obviously some problems – there is not a whole lot of depth to the stories, the art can feel rushed and occasionally awkward, and one of the collaborations he did (Crispy Ginger Crumples) is definitely less than amazing. But I found, as I do with all of Longstreth’s work, a lot of inspiration in these pages – proof that this seemingly ridiculous challenge is, at the very least, possible. (Review by Guy Thomas)

Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains 
Written by Neil Gaiman 
Illustrated by Eddie Campbell
Published by William Morrow

I read this dark Gaiman tale, Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, in a short story collection a few years ago and it's a very good story. William Morrow has now released a 74 page edition of this book with art by Eddie Campbell. Campbell has more than twenty years of comics experience- I first saw his art in From Hell (which he worked on with Alan Moore) and in Hellblazer. This book felt a little experimental, not necessarily in a good way. Some pages are essentially prose text accompanied by either traditionally painted or digitally sketched illustrations. Other pages are a mix of text and comics panels, usually digital over edited photos. Many of the individual pages look great, but as a whole the book felt rather uneven. Still, it's an interesting project and the power of the story carries through. (Review by Maia Kobabe)