Friday, August 22, 2014

Digging into Digital: Dynamite Launches DRM-Free Site Site with Sales

The digital news is flying faster right now than it has since the introduction of the iPad changed the math in terms of making digital comics a viable alternative to their paper-based cousins, as yet another press release crossed my plate yesterday.

This time, Dynamite, as part of their 10th Anniversary, announced that they now have their own DRM-free digital comics website, joining Image as (I believe) the only other comics company to have an in-house site that features DRM-free downloads.

From the release:
Dynamite Entertainment is excited to announce the debut of its brand new digital comic program featuring DRM-free comics. Launching initially with comics available in PDF file format, the initiative makes a selection of its most popular and celebrated titles ready for download today directly by consumers.  The sale of DRM-free digital comics coincides with the comic book and graphic novel publisher's 10th anniversary celebration, and can be found at their company website's dedicated digital sales page:

The program launches today with an available selection of over 80 individual comic books, which includes creator-owned and licensed titles from Dynamite's massive library.  The debut selection represents a wide variety of titles, spanning numerous genres, featuring name brand creators (including Kevin Smith, Bill Willingham, Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, Alex Ross, Gail Simone, Robert Jordan, Jim Butcher, Walt Flanagan and Bryan Johnson, Frank Cho, Art and Franco, Garth Ennis, Darick Robertson, and more), and highlighting some of the industry's most beloved characters (Red SonjaVampirella, and The Boys, just to name a few).
The opening list contains most of the titles that were in the recent Humble Bundle (makes sense), and this of course has me speculating on whether Boom! and IDW, who also recently did Humble Bundles, are using it as a trial balloon (albeit one for a good cause) to see if there's a strong call for DRM-free books. (HINT: THERE IS.)

In addition to the announcement, ten #1 issues are on sale for ten cents each:
Blood Queen #1
The Boys #1
Evil Ernie: Origin of Evil #1
Jungle Girl #0
Kevin Smith's Green Hornet #1
Miss Fury #1
The Mocking Dead #1
Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time #1
The Trial of Sherlock Holmes #1
Vampirella #1
There are also free wallpapers, for those who dig that type of thing.

A bit more from the release. Quite honestly, Dynamite does a wonderful job of quoting their management team. They're very good at saying things that make me want to share them. This is no exception:
 "The market has been growing for DRM-free content. Each and every day, fans want to choose how to buy and enjoy their comics, and we're taking our titles to the next level for digital sales," says Nick Barrucci, CEO and Publisher of Dynamite Entertainment. "Expanding into DRM-free content, made available directly to consumers from our website, is simply giving the consumers the option for what they want and how they want it, and continues to reach out to a non-traditional comic-reading audience.  Our hope is that the availability of comics in a digital fashion will continue to draw new readers to the medium, helping to complement the growth for physical sales through our retail comic store partners.  Following the trend we've seen over the past few years in our industry, the world's continuing love affair with books in print will benefit from a surge in Dynamite interest."
In other words, Digital is not the Enemy. Comics companies are finally getting out from under that misnomer shouted by (bad) retailers.

Now, given that Dynamite is already DRM-free at Comixology, going out on their own like this (especially since they're already partnered at Dark Horse, iVerse, and other sites, this is an interesting choice. It definitely has the chance to give them more of the profits, but how many folks, sans lots of sales, are going to go to their site instead of just clicking on the familiar existing sites and then downloading their PDF (if they use the main platform, Comixology.) It's going to be interesting to see how this works, and how the other mid-major companies react. One thing is clear--standing pat and holding on to locked-code comics is a losing hand. There wouldn't be this much movement if it wasn't.

SPX Spotlight 2014: Matt Dembicki Edits "Wild Ocean"

Welcome to another entry in the 2014 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, Panel Patter will be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at one of the best conventions, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of Panel Patter's spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

Like several members of the Capital-area artist collective DC Conspiracy, I've been reading Matt Dembicki's comics for years, and his best work--which is saying something--is always when Matt is drawing comics with nature as their primary theme. His shark comic, Xoc (review here), which started as a mini and ended up being an acclaimed graphic novel from Oni Press, was a clinic on how to create the paper version of a nature documentary.

In addition to his work as an artist, Dembicki is also an editor, also receiving praise and recognition for his work first on Trickster (an anthology of Native American legends that included Native Americans as creators) and then District Comics, featuring "hidden history" stories about Washington, DC.

Now Dembicki has gone to the next natural step (if you'll pardon the pun) with the new collection from Fulcrum Publishing, Wild Ocean: Sharks, Whales, Rays, and Other Endangered Sea Creatures, which was released earlier this year. The anthology contains 12 stories about endangered sea animals and Matt notes that part of the proceeds go to PangeaSeed, which is "an ocean conservation organization that does outreach through art."

Dembicki contributes a chapter, and other artists include Jay Hosler (Clan Apis), Brooke Allen (Lumberjanes), and Pat Lewis (The Claws Come Out), along with several others. More information on Wild Ocean can be found at the publisher's website.

Matt should also have copies of his other anthologies as well and probably some of his mini-comics, depending on what's available. If you want to see Matt at SPX, however, you have to do it on Saturday, because by Sunday, he'll be getting ready to head to Peru(!!) as part of a State Department-sponsored trip to discuss using comics to address the many challenges facing the environment. He'll be judging a comics contest while he's there, all part of a run-up to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Lima this December.

I couldn't be happier for Matt at this recognition and opportunity. His artwork is amazing, his drive to help preserve what we have left of the natural world is commendable, and best of all, he's a genuinely nice guy. Make sure those of you going to SPX on Saturday go see him--and get an educational anthology while you're at it.

The Dream Merchant (Series Review)

The Dream Merchant (Series Review)
Written by Nathan Edmondson
Illustrated by Konstantin Novosadov and Anthony Hope Smith
Colors by Konstantin Novosadov and Stefano Simeone
Lettering by Jeff Powell and Joe Distefano
Image Comics

I still remember a scary dream I had when I was a little kid. The details of the dream escape me, but I was in a house and there were people there and they had heads but blank spaces where their faces should be. Almost 35 years later, the idea of heads without faces still scares the bejeezus out of me (I'm looking at you, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).  That's the power of dreams. You know, on an intellectual level, that they're not "real," but that's irrelevant when you're in them, such that when you wake up from a bad dream it's hard sometimes to remember what's real and what isn't.  

For a long time, fiction has played with the idea that there's more to our dreams than just the brain processing information. Often there's a sinister element to stories involving dreams, or the idea that dreams are the gateway into a hidden world; it's frightening to think that your mind is doing things beyond your control, or that it holds secrets that elude us during our waking hours.  The Dream Merchant plays with these ideas in an interesting way, and is a haunting, compelling fantasy story in which dreams are a window into a secret world, and a hidden history.

In The Dream Merchant, Winslow is a man who has experienced vivid dreams his whole life, to the point that they've been debilitating. His dreams are so vivid that they feel more real to him than his waking life. It's the same dream every time; he finds himself floating through a strange, dusky, pink-hued world, past unusual rocky structures. He's been on drugs and under psychiatric care for much of his life, and he now finds himself in a psychiatric hospital in California. His only friends are Ziggy, a fellow patient who's schizophrenic, and Anne, a kind employee who works in the cafeteria and brings Winslow books about dreams.

One night, Winslow is awoken from a nightmare to find Anne walking in the hallway; they are confronted by three strange, shrouded figures that only somewhat have the outlines of people, and Winslow knows these creatures from his recent dreams.  Winslow and Anne make a run for it, aided by a mysterious figure we've seen before. 

Winslow and Anne make it onto a train as stowaways where they are eventually met by this figure. They end up off the train (by jumping, not the safest way to do it), and the man explains that he is not a man at all, he is known as the Dream Merchant, and he is an alien like the figures (known as Regulators) that have been chasing Winslow. The Merchant, who has personal reasons for crossing the Regulators, explains the power of dreams as something that can transcend time and space. 

Winslow's dreams, the ones that have plagued him his while life, are a window into another world, one in which the aliens (who had given up on humanity) scheme to return and take over--and they don't want anyone threatening their plans. Winslow and his knowledge represent a threat, and so they want to destroy him. 

The Merchant tries to teach Winslow about how he can control what in his dreams, and how he can hide. Winslow needs to learn how he can take back control of his subconscious, but it won't be easy. Winslow falls asleep and travels in his dream (he's now able to physically travel to another pace while dreaming) but the Regulators are there to attack him and kill anyone foolish enough to help.

Just as things look bad, he's rescued by the Merchant and Anne, and Winslow tells them that the invasion is happening now.  The current issue shows the beginning of the invasion, which of course starts in a small town. The FBI and Homeland Security are no match for the Regulators, and Winslow understandably just wants to give up but Anne rejects this and compels him to do something. Meanwhile, Winslow loses a key ally and things begin to look pretty grim indeed as the most current issue finishes.

This is a compelling and memorably-illustrated story, which works with a number of interesting ideas. The effectiveness begins with the art. Novosadov presents characters in a slightly exaggerated, fun-house mirror kind of way, which works very well for the story. Winslow is drawn in a stretched out, lanky style, and has a weariness to him. His friend Ziggy is given comically large ears and features in a way that suits what we see of his goofy personality. Anne has large, almost manga-style eyes, through which we see her reaction (as the most grounded, common-sense character) to events in the story as they unfold. The Regulators themselves are presented in a genuinely frightening way. They initially appear as floating, skinny shrouds, and when we see them, they look like men, but are not. As the story progresses, we see more of their true, monstrous nature. 

Throughout the story, the coloring helps to set the mood. Everything, even the scenes taking place in the real world, has a "dream-like" setting, as if reality itself still has a bit of unreality to it. The colors throughout the series are typically dark (not surprisingly, given importance of dreams and sleep as themes) and haunting. Winslow's dream of the alien world is gorgeous, unsettling and feels genuinely otherworldly. The tall, rocky spires and weirdly dark, pinkish skies feel haunting and compelling; it's no wonder that this world feels more like being awake to Winslow than his "real" life. 

One note about the illustrations. There was almost a year gap between issues 3 and 4 of the series, and there's a noticeable change in the art between the first 3 issues and the current issue. Novosadov's style is noticeably rougher in the most recent issue, and the last few pages of the story are illustrated by Anthony Hope-Smith. The coloring in issue 4 is also handled by Stefano Simeone (where Novosadov himself had handled the first 3 issues). The visual storytelling is still quite effective, but is an adjustment if you're reading the issues straight through.  
Dream Merchant plays with genre tropes in creative ways. It makes it clear that, notwithstanding many popular stories (Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Matrix, etc.), finding out that you're different and ostracized for the same reason that you're "the savior" - well, it won't necessarily make your life any better. You've got the young man who discovers that his curse is really a window into secret knowledge, there's a relentless enemy, a wizened mentor, a romantic interest that also serves as a common sense-real world grounding force. 

Those "heroes' journey" elements are all here, but presented in a thoughtful way (through the prism of mental illness). Winslow is sometimes unsure whether he is dreaming or is awake. His friend Ziggy jokes about his own condition, but this idea is compelling and effectively rendered. If you weren't sure about the difference between your real life or dreams (or visions or delusions), you'd go through life with a sense of unease and uncertainty. As frightening as it would be to find out your nightmares are actually visions of an alien invasion, it would be comforting, validating to know that your dreams were real, that they were important. 

However, Winslow has a very realistic, human reaction to this. He's been told his whole life that there's something wrong with him, that he's disturbed, or crazy or delusional. But, all of a sudden, everything he vividly saw in his dreams has been proven to be true, and he's been thrust into the role of "the one" or "the savior." And oh by the way, your life is in danger and your crazy dreams are the only thing that can save the world. Winslow's reaction to this change in circumstances (confusion, fear, interest) feels realistic for that situation (and a smart commentary on hero tropes). Imagine being told that everyone who told you that you were delusional was wrong, and those dreams (that have been a curse to you) are the key to saving humanity. At certain points Winslow wants to do something to stop the invasion and be the hero, but he's understandably afraid and after a while he just wants to run away.  Nothing in his life has ever prepared him for the idea that he needs to be the hero and save the day.

It's Anne who, more than once, tells Winslow to "nut up" and stop trying to escape from this situation. She can't do what Winslow can and she hasn't been through what he's been through, but she knows that eventually there will be no escape from the Regulators and whatever they've planned for humanity. She's clear headed and resourceful, and she has a toughness that Winslow lacks. Even though it's clear that she has feelings for Winslow, when he just wants to give up and just make out with her, her frustration with (and disgust for) his weakness and willingness to just give up comes through. She's been through a lot in her life, she has a criminal record, and isn't afraid to thrust Winslow or put herself in harms way to keep Winslow on track. We don't know that much about her history, but she's an effective character here, with an important role. 

It will be interesting to see how the story concludes in the final two issues. The idea of our nightmares coming from hidden memories of an alien world is a great one, and this is a haunting, compelling story. For a compelling look at heroes, dreams, coupled with gloomy, memorable art, The Dream Merchant is worth a look. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Digging into Digital: Action Lab Gets Innovative in Going DRM-Free

The DRM-free dominoes are coming fast and furious now (as I predicted), with Pittsburgh-based Action Lab being the latest to announce their move to DRM-free books.

Never one to do things exactly like everyone else, however, the publisher's plan, as outlined in a press lease sent out on Tuesday, involves using digital as a way to drive print sales. From the release itself:
PITTSBURGH, PA- Action Lab Entertainment is proud to announce that Beginning with the Action Lab hit, F1rst Hero and the Action Lab Danger Zone sexy mega hit, Zombie Tramp, all of their titles will now be released as full issue, digital first offerings through Comixology.   
The entire catalog from both Action Lab and their mature readers imprint, Action Lab: Danger Zone will be available DRM Free as part of Comixology’s Digital Ownership Initiative.

Single issues will be $0.99 during the first two weeks of release, before returning to their regular price of $1.99.. In addition, books will be timed to release digitally the same month they are offered in Diamond Distribution’s retailer catalog, Previews, giving comics fans a taste of what we do and driving them to comic shops nationwide.
Note carefully that last sentence: "In addition, books will be timed to release digitally the same month they are offered in Diamond Distribution’s retailer catalog, Previews, giving comics fans a taste of what we do and driving them to comic shops nationwide."

In other words, if you want to get the new Action Lab/Danger Zone books for the cheapest possible digital price, you need to look for them in the Previews catalog and pick them up right away. Grabbing new Action Lab books for 99 cents (when the print version are $3.99) is pretty sweet, but you're going to have to be quicker on the trigger finger, going ahead of when most websites will be talking about Action Lab's books.

If you miss, the $1.99 digital price is still half off, and now includes a PDF copy, so it's good value, but I like the fact that Action Lab, like Oni Press, is trying to see what happens when you provide digital content ahead of print release. Only time will tell if the results are positive for the publishers.

Regardless, this makes seven companies now that are going DRM-free, six of which are on Comixology. The pressure is definitely on not to get left behind, and I expect I'll be doing more of these updates in the near future.

SPX Spotlight 2014: The Wrenchies

Welcome to another entry in the 2014 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, Panel Patter will be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at one of the best conventions, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of Panel Patter's spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

Written and drawn by Farel Dalrymple
Published by First Second

The Wrenchies is the story of a dystopian future that was created in the present day.

The Wrenchies is the story of a boy who believes in heroes and then is given the opportunity to become one.

The Wrenchies is a story about comic books and imagination.

The Wrenchies is the story of a man who could be both the savior or destroyer of the world.

The Wrenchies is the story about Farel Dalrymple and the myriad things that go on in that man’s head. I really want to make some kind of vague blanket statement that Farel Dalrymple’s The Wrenchies is all of the above and none of the above but that’s not fair to you or to him. On the surface, The Wrenchies is a dystopian thriller about a group of children, called the Wrenchies, who have to save the world. Time travel and astral projections are involved and the villain may actually be creating his own story. The book opens with two brothers, Sherwood and Orson, who battle the evil of the Shadowmen in the present day. That evil still exists in the far future, corrupting the world so that the only true warriors left to battle it are children, those still too innocent to be touched and corrupted by age and conformity.

Dalrymple’s heroes are the kids we all wanted to be growing up. They are Peter Pan's Lost Boys and The Goonies, fighting in a Mad Max-like future. They're warriors when they should be kids. Dalrymple allows one boy to remain a child; Hollis is brought from our present to the future because of his links to Sherwood. Hollis, dressed up in a red superhero costume with big "H" emblazoned on his chest, is the most childlike character in this book. He is the figure of hope and innocence throughout this book. More than just being dressed as a hero, Hollis is a hero because he faces up to his fears and the evil without flinching. Dalrymple has told stories about Hollis before (see his Delusional collection from Adhouse Books) and Hollis is every kid who's spent a lifetime with his head buried in comic books but he is also the kid who gets to live the dream of being a real superhero.

In Hollis, we see an imagination at work that actually turns Hollis into the superhero he wants to be. In Sherwood, Dalrymple suggests both the creative and destructive power of imagination. It's that imagination which powers this book as Dalrymple struggles with the all too real powers in the world that want to keep imagination limited and controlled. What strange things to say about imagination-- limited and controlled? The world of the Shadowmen is a controlled and monitored world. The world of the Wrenchies is filled with magic and chaos. It’s the world where a boy in red leotards can travel in time to save the future.

The Shadowmen are the lack of imagination in the world that ultimately stifles the world. The Shadowmen are the aged conservatism that we all battle as we get older. Our worst images of our parents and grandparents, the Shadowmen are the people who created a world that wants to mold us into everything that we aren't. But isn't that what every generation before us has also faced? Maybe that's why Dalrymple's story is a time travel story; the battles that Hollis fights in the 21st century aren't all that different than the battles the Wrenchies fight to save the world in the far future. The names and faces have changed but the battle for childhood continues in every generation.

Even in the future where the children are the rebellion, the watercolors that Dalrymple uses are muted, deep and greyed out. His artwork is filled with a somber energy. There are no bright, vivid colors except in the red in Hollis's costume but even that is washed out to the point where it looks dirty and soiled. It’s dingy, looking like it hasn’t been properly washed in a long, long time. Using greys, yellows and greens, Dalrymple ages everything in this book. The pages themselves are battling against age as the artist lets his imagination run wild in the images but pulls that imagination back by muting the colors. The fight of the characters are also the fight of the artist and the reader as Dalrymple uses everything at his disposal to mirror the struggle of these children already fighting against age and repression.

That murky coloring is utilized against some wonderfully startling images. Dalrymple can fill the pages of this book with startling, fantastical scenes of a future where monsters and robots can exist and every moment is filled with danger. But he also brings that same sense of awe to the modern city streets where Hollis lives. Hollis's present day isn't the burned out future of the Wrenchies but the details of those city streets are no less evocative. Scenes of church services, playgrounds and just normal city sidewalks contain the same sense of oppression as the future's secret hideouts and devastated fields. By the end of the book, these various settings begin to merge as Dalrymple reveals the true shape of his story. Our present and future sit side by side on the pages as we return to Sherwood, the true villain and true hero of the story, and Dalrymple approach doesn't vary as everything becomes a threat against our collective childhoods.

The Wrenchies is about the battle of having to grow up in this world, a world that none of us created but that we're all responsible for. Dalrymple shows our lives and our struggles as a continuum of everything that has come before us. The adults are the cause of all of our problems but aren't we someday destined to be those adults for future generations? At least, isn't that how we see it as kids and the way that we wish it was as adults- that we could just blame everyone but ourselves for what is happening?

You can read a new Wrenchies short story at

The Ten-Cent Plague

Written by David Hadju
Published by Picador

Now more than any other time in recent memory is it important to acknowledging the fallacies of government as well as how incredibly easy and common it is to misdirect and misinform the public. With discontent and misunderstanding becoming commonplace in America, history plays an important role in helping us ensure change. It has been a trend in the last several decades (or longer) to blame juvenile delinquency and the slow disintegration of moral values and society in general on whatever the new and popular thing of the day is. From rock and roll to video games, something gets blamed for normal teenage rebellion and associated with the actions of very ill people. It seems that more than any other medium, however, comics suffered from the most from this ridiculous thought process.

In The Ten-Cent Plague, David Hadju explores the history of comics, from the popularization of the Yellow Kid in the 1890’s through the immediate effects of the Comics Code Authority and the shut down of EC Comics in the late 50’s. The book can be chilling, even surreal, in its descriptions of an America that was okay with burning books and blindly accepted the often blatant lies of men and government who may have meant well, but were more interested in something to blame than fixing anything. I often found myself angry or shocked, and had difficulty accepting the image Hadju paints of a post-war America in which adults told children that it was okay to burn and ban dubiously-dubbed “questionable” books.

Despite being somewhat disturbing in his descriptions of society at the time, Hadju remains impartial, allowing the facts to show how ugly this history really is.  The story unfolds with drama, rarely feeling dry or uninteresting. The explorations of the growth and evolution of the comic book industry in its early days are detailed, providing information that may not always seem relevant, but is always interesting. Being a book-without-pictures (Mom would be proud), there is obviously no art to discuss. However, the mental painting that Hadju creates is excellent, opening the readers eyes to the surprising depth of the comics industry and a very different idea of post-war America.

The America that Hadju describes is not one that is often talked about. It is something that is easy to look over--or just not acknowledge--when discussing the history of the country. Comic books play an important part in American history, as well as the history and evolution of censorship in the country. The Ten-Cent Plague explores this in ways that are always intriguing and interesting, and feel relevant when applied to some things that are happening today. Hadju chronicles a time that needs to be acknowledged and discussed while remaining impartial throughout. This is a book that draws frightening comparisons to the current climate, where blame is turned on all the wrong things/people, and should be required reading not only people interested in the history of comics, but for every member of our government as well.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

SPX Spotlight 2014: Katie Sekelsky Hits a Home Run with new Baseball Comic

Welcome to another entry in the 2014 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, Panel Patter will be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at one of the best conventions, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of Panel Patter's spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

Anyone who follows Katie Sekelsky's Sketch Buc'n knows that she's a huge baseball fan--and a Pirate fan in particular. Now she's turning that love of America's former pastime to look back in time with  new mini-comic series, Full Count, the first issue of which is set to debut at SPX this year.

Full Count #1 will chronicle poor Fred Merkle, who made a crucial baserunning mistake which cost the New York Giants the pennant in 1908. Properly called "Merkle's Boner" (but as we all know, language has changed a bit since 1908 and Katie wants kids to be able to buy and enjoy the book), Sekelsky promises that future installments of the series will only "be even more obscure" than this one.

Sekelsky's linework is perfectly suited to doing a historical, as she has great practice portraying real-life figures via the sketch blog. She also has a strong passion for the subject, even if being a Pirate fan can be an exercise in extreme frustration. Her figure work does an excellent job of capturing what makes the person unique, like Andrew McCutcheon's hair. Full Count should be a great series, and I hope that Katie keeps it going past the first issue.

Sports not really your thing? Sekelsky will also have her Time Traveler's Pocket Guide (review here), prints of all kinds, the micro-prose anthology 16 Single Sentence Stories (illustrated by Katie), and of course buttons, including an offer to draw on a wood button for $3.

Can't make SPX? It's sad, I know. But you can find Katie Sekelsky on the web here!

Faction 2 Anthology

Written and Illustrated by Allan Xia, Cory Mathis, Damon Keen, Sheehan Brothers,Rachel Royale, Michael Multipola, Ned Wenlock, James Squires, Adrian Kinnaird, and Mukpuddy
Edited by Damon Keen and Amie Maxwell
Published by 3 Bad Monkeys

The second anthology of New Zealand comics creators finds a few returning voices while new ones are added, as the production values, quality control, and intriguing ideas continue to make this a very fun book to read.

A few days ago, I reviewed the first Faction anthology, which I thought was incredibly well done, and scratched an itch that's very strong for me--finding new creators, especially ones from other countries. Sometimes things can be good at first and then peter out, quality-wise. We see it with comic series, TV shows, and especially in anthology series.

That's not the case with Faction, which starts off with a bang, providing, bold, open panels that look like they've been digitally treated to give them a slightly surreal effect. In the wrong situation, that makes for terrible comic art, but here Allan Xia makes it work, showing us a man trying to revive a women he cares deeply for after travelling across a world that looks burnt out by some unnamed tragedy. "Awakening" is completely wordless but packs a strong emotional punch, knowing just when to pull the reader closer to the protagonist and when to stay distant. It's a haunting story, and the dark shading choices enhance what we do get to see. Usually I'm not a big fan of this art style, but Xia's use of it shows that computers are a tool, and when used correctly, make great comics, just like any other tool.*

Art by Damon Keen
"Saurian Era" by Cory Mathis couldn't be more different, as it features bright colors, a main character who banters while riding a dinosaur, and tight panels that display pieces of the action while a larger scene gives an overall picture. It's a fun romp that includes pterodactyl messengers and a playful vibe that contrasts nicely with "Awakening" and shows the reader right away that the stories in Faction are designed to show as much variety as possible.

As with the first issue, I enjoyed quite a bit of the comics that made up the anthology. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Damon Keen, the series editor, once again contributes arguably my favorite story, this time a sci-fi horror short that also takes space as its theme. In "Ectype," there's technology that allows you to send yourself out to other worlds to explore, only to "die" when no longer needed. Sounds great, right? What happens when it goes wrong and tries to replicate without the proper ingredients? The horror of the situation is a slow build, timed to go from "not good" to "oh shit" at just the right moment. Keen uses a burnt yellow to offset his heavy blacks, and the unease generated by the shade really makes the linework pop. The style again reminds me of how Mignola works with black/red on Hellboy. It's an amazing short story, with an ending that's as inevitable as it is unexpected.
  • The Sheehan Brothers begin the first part of a story in "A Day at the Races" in which the contestants and their differences are profiled, ranging from a religious mystic to a Paris Hilton-type, and even a robotic creation from an enigmatic scientist. Their reasons for racing make sense given their personalities, and while the story itself is very incomplete, it's an intriguing start. The artwork on this one features thin but intricately detailed lines working in a black and white format. There's a lot to look at, and demands the reader take some time to pick up on its subtleties.
  • "Done to Death" is a story of a twisting narrative, as a man in love with a dangerous woman tries to justify his feelings by giving her motives that are better than reality--if we can believe anything we're told at all. Michael Multipola changes styles as the story shifts across lies and confessions, going from a cartoony beginning to gritty street hero to a sinister, almost overwhelming darkness. It's great craft work, allowing the form of the visuals to adjust and it's great to see that done so well by the same artist within one extremely short story.
  • "Left Behind" isn't the comic adaptation of the evangelical books but instead it's an echo of Keen's story from the first issue. This time, a bunch of astronauts miss their ride, and well, let's just say the bus service is extremely limited. In just two pages, James Squires gets in his joke, which works because of the visual of seeing so many people who are utterly screwed. It's a bit like something Michael DeForge might so, and the linework shares that tone as well.

Art by the Sheehan Brothers
With this second issue, Faction reminds me a lot of another anthology I really loved, Flight. That, too, had high production values, strong, varied art, and creators who rotated in and out of the issues. It's rare when an anthology is good enough to be enjoyed from start to finish, but Faction fits the bill, and is highly recommended.

You can learn more about Faction at its website.

*I know I'm making an assumption about Xia's craft here, but I'm pretty sure that's digital-based art.

Supreme: Blue Rose #1 and #2

Supreme: Blue Rose #1 and #2
Written by Warren Ellis
Illustrated and Colored by Tula Lotay
Lettering by Starkings
Design by John Roshell
Image Comics

There are comics that ease you into a new world, comics that drop you right into that world, and then there's Supreme: Blue Rose.  After 2 issues I can't tell you exactly what's going on in this book, only that it's beautifully illustrated, complex, and very "Warren Ellis-y."

By way of background, Supreme was originally created by Rob Liefeld in the early 1990's as a Superman analogue. He was subsequently written by Alan Moore in a highly-regarded run (for which Moore won an Eisner award). More recently, Erik Larsen wrote the character. However, not having read any of those issues should not be a deterrent to pick this comic up. Because of the way this comic is structured thus far (as a mystery involving the character Supreme himself), a reader should be able to unravel the mysteries of the character at the same time the other characters within the story are doing so. Put another way, I'm not sure reading the prior Supreme stories will help you understand any better what's going on in this book.

I'm going to do a bit more plot summary than usual, but stick with me. It's important to understand just how complex this story is, especially if you're initially turned off by the Liefeld connection. This is not your father's Image book.

The first issue begins with an extended, somewhat surreal dream sequence where a woman (whom we learn is journalist Diana Dane) is talking with an unnamed man in a wheelchair, approaches a man wearing a helmet over his face (or which maybe is his face) who tells her all about his encounters of a red-headed woman from the future. The man in the wheelchair warns Diana "don't trust Darius Dax." Dane wakes up and is on her way to see wealthy industrialist Darius Dax (head of National Praxinoscope Company, or NPS), who works in the field of "tactical foresight" and specializes in "rare truths." He wants to hire Diana to investigate a mysterious crash of objects (including an enormous arch with the words "SUPREME" which now sits in his office) that took place upstate, and the connection between that crash and a man named Ethan Crane. By the end of issue 1, it appears that Diana has decided to take the job.

Issue 2 opens with another dream. This time there's an older man named Storybook Smith sitting on the deck of a house by the water. He's talking about, and then talking with, the same red-headed woman from the future (in issue 1), whom he knew long ago. The story then moves to Diana. A driver (named Linda, code named "Twilight Girl Marvel") shows up to drive Diana to her destination, a mysterious unknown city. As the car rides past a pedestrian, we follow the unusual pedestrian to inside a restaurant where Dr. Chelsea Henry, a mathematician and researcher who is working on a mathematical theory that will permit her to write enable her to communicate with the future, is explaining her work to a colleague. She's found an uptick in background radiation that can be graphed in a curve that goes ahead to the 30th century and back to a point approximately four months before the present. Chelsea is then shown at work in her office; she makes contact with the future, which proceeds to tell her that protection of the new time-frame is the supreme priority, and which proceeds to send some sort of probe back to the present. The story lastly moves back to Diana in the car. She's talking to Linda, who's only recently been assigned by NPS to be a driver. Normally she works on the Versioning Unit, which spends time thinking about alternate realities. As the issue ends, we see another dream and the return of another mysterious figure from early in the story.

I describe the plot in detail only to note that there's a lot going on in this book (even more than I mentioned). In addition to all of the threads noted above, each issue contains a short look at an online serial that Diana loves about the mysterious "Professor Night" and his own investigations into a murder mystery.

This is a complex, dense story, with all sorts of layers and clues and mysteries. This seems to be in keeping with the tradition of reinventions that the character of Supreme has had over the years. Each author has brought his own distinct spin to the character, and Ellis is no exception. With his usual wit (and timely references to things like a "Nick Denton linkbait farm") it feels, even after only two issues, like Ellis is bringing some of the ideas that concern him most. Here's he's using an old superhero character (who, through two issues, we haven't yet met) as a jumping-off point to build a remarkable world involving mathematics, alternate realities, time travel, and the hidden nature of reality. Darius Dax will feel familiar to readers of other Warren Ellis stories, as he is the head of a secretive organization which works to predict the future and is interested in investigating impossible phenomena.

None of this is to say that this story is just Planetary revisited. This story has a highly intriguing, dream-like, stream-of-consciousness quality, and the reason for this appeal is the artist, Tula Lotay. She is a serious talent. Her work here is like some combination of Fiona Staples, Sean Murphy, Mike Allred and some sort of psychedelic fever dream. Lotay's work has a soft, watercolor appearance to it which also adds to the dreamlike feeling. What you first notice about Lotay's art in this book is the women. She draws some of the most beautiful, striking women I've ever seen in a comic book; faces you can't look away from.

Her depictions of dream worlds have a remarkable creativity to them, as they have enough reality to make you question whether it is a dream, until you encounter a man with a helmet for a face looking out onto the water where a woman is standing on the water, taking a staircase up into the sky. She also displays a remarkable versatility in these issues, as the story moves from the dream world, to Diana's time outside in the mundane New York City streets (rendered with great details that really captures the winter gloom), to Darius Dax's offices which have a futuristic, psychedelic quality to them; each environment is rendered with great care.

It feels like Ellis and Lotay are setting the stage here for something big. For a light-hearted, easy-to-follow superhero romp, don't pick up Supreme: Blue Rose.  However, do pick it up if you're intrigued by a stunningly gorgeous, complex mystery involving superheroes, mathematics, alternate realities, the future and maybe the entire universe.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Digging into Digital: Valiant Goes DRM-Free, but only at DriveThru Comics

In a press release sent out via email yesterday, digital comics provider DriveThru Comics and Valiant Entertainment announced that they had formed a partnership whereby purchasers of Valiant's comics would be able to download DRM-free copies of the publisher's comics. Per the release, this is the first time Valiant's comics have been available to the public legally for purchase in a DRM-free format.

From the release:
Valiant Entertainment is proud to announce a new partnership with to make Valiant's complete, award-winning library of modern and classic content comic available as DRM-free digital files. Beginning today, will also offer Valiant's monthly comics titles as day-and-date new releases and will soon host Valiant's complete catalog of single issues and collections – all in a DRM-free PDF format. Valiant's new partnership with marks the first time that the publisher has made its titles available in such a format anywhere online.
Back at San Diego Comic-Con, Comixology made headlines by announcing that Image, Dynamite, Top Shelf, Monkeybrain, and Thrillbent would be available for DRM-free PDF backups, and I wondered at the time if others would follow. Looks like Valiant did--but not (for now) at Comixology. That's an interesting choice, and I wonder if it was designed to ensure that those who want PDFs can get them--but the overwhelming number of digital purchases would still be locked down in Comixology's cloud.

That's not a bad idea, actually--you don't explode the number of copies of your comics out there, but you're still giving the option to those of your fan base who'd prefer to have a physical copy. (That includes me, by the way--while I am not anti-cloud, if given the option, I always pick the downloadable file.) Everyone wins, since there's no price difference, and you address the "OMG WHAT IF THEY SHUT DOWN?" concern without touching the good thing you have at the #1 home of digital comics. It does make folks decide between guided view and a PDF, but how many folks reading comics panel by panel on their phones are interested in keeping a vast hard drive of things they may never read again? I guess we'll find out, but I doubt it's a lot.

From the moment they revamped the name, the folks behind Valiant have been one of the most savvy publishers going. Their decisions, from keeping the line limited to joining the Amazon Worlds program to tightly controlling crossovers, have really impressed me. Looks like they may once again be heading the charge, as this decision to offer PDFs at one location and cloud-based work at another could end up being the model the rest use.

Or, we could see Comixology swoop in and convince Valiant to do it there, too. Either way, readers win--and that's always a good thing.

SPX Spotlight 2014: April Malig Intro-View

Welcome to another entry in the 2014 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, Panel Patter will be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at one of the best conventions, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of Panel Patter's spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

New for this year are Guy Thomas's "Intro-views," where he talks briefly to a creator who will be at the show. Enjoy!

I’m super excited to be going to SPX for the first time this year. With so many great people and great events, I know it’s going to be an excellent weekend. One of the many awesome people who I’m going to be talking to while I’m there is April Malig, a cartoonist and illustrator from Brooklyn.

If there is one thing that really impresses me about April, it’s her colors. Some of her work is in black and white, and though it is equally as good, it is her color comics and illustrations that I find myself drawn to over and over. I did a short interview with April to introduce her and warm up for SPX:

Guy Thomas: What are your favorite comics to read?

April Malig: I guess if we're talking about all-time favorites, my favorite comics are the ones by Lilli Carre, Jillian Tamaki, and Eleanor Davis. I've also been into re-reading (or reading for the first time) semi-trashy shoujo manga, I just finished all of Boys Before (Over?) Flowers last weekend (36 volumes! I am not proud). And of course, Sailor Moon was my first and eternal love.

Thomas: What are you working on right now?

Malig: Right now I'm working on finishing short stories for a compilation called Bananas II. It's mostly one to four page poetry comics using a variety of mediums. I'm also working on the second part of this series called Magical Bitches, which is this story about runaway magical girls hiding out in an abandoned hotel in the California desert. It's sort of a... I guess someone called it a "mumblecore magical girl comic?"

Thomas: What can we expect to see from you at SPX?

Malig: Hopefully I'll have those two comics finished, along with some of my older stuff: Bananas I, Questions of Space Travel (a long form surreal poetry comic), and I don't know, lately I've been bringing tiny 8 page screenprint poem comics to shows, so maybe I'll have another one by then too. Those are my comics... other than that, I'll probably have purple hair again. And will probably be wearing sequins. As per usual. 

Look forward to a longer interview with April Malig after SPX, right here on Panel Patter!

Meteor Men

Meteor Men
Written by Jeff Parker
Illustrated by Sandy Jarrell, Kevin Volo, Crank
Oni Press

[Editor's Note: While the print edition of Meteor Men won't be out for a little bit yet, Oni Press is releasing it in stages on Comixology, starting today. The complete release schedule is at the end of this review, courtesy of Oni Press. -RobM]

Meteor Man is your classic, thoughtfully written, beautifully illustrated, coming-of-age, boy meets alien story.  For as long as there have been stars in the sky, people have speculated about what (or who) was out there. Few stories have been told more frequently in science fiction than aliens arriving on Earth; more specifically, there are many stories in the "aliens arrival shows us the nature of humanity, and humanity is terrible" milieu. If you're telling that kind of story, your story needs to be pretty strong. Meteor Men clears that hurdle. At its best, it conveys a sense of vast scope, possibility and uncertainty.

When I was in 6th grade we went on a trip to an overnight camp in New Hampshire.  One night we went out to a clearing overlooking a lake and sat looking up at the stars. They say that to the naked eye, under ideal conditions, it is possible to see up to 5,000 stars in the night sky. That night, it felt like we saw all of them.  I remember we saw tons of shooting stars, which I don’t think I had ever really seen before. Then, in a revelation that blew my mind (and still does), a camp counselor explained how when we looked up at the stars, we aren't actually seeing where they are right now. Because light needs time to travel, we're seeing where the star was relative to how far away it was from us. So, in a sense, by looking up at the stars, we are looking backwards in time. There was something about that moment that's still incredibly important to me now, where I looked up at the stars and gazed into the past. I felt like I had become aware of vastness of the universe.  Given all those stars, I was sure we couldn't be completely alone out there.

I bring this up to say that what I truly love about science fiction stories, more than just fun stories about time travel or robots or aliens (bonus points if you can combine all those elements), is something that the best science fiction stories do, which is to get the reader (or viewer) in touch with that sense of vastness.  The notion that there's so much undiscovered out there; rather than feel insignificant by that idea, I find it comforting. That's why books like Meteor Man appeal to me.

The story begins with just stars, and then we hear the conversations of people. They're all out on a local field owned by local teen Alden Baylor to watch the meteor shower. Alden's uncle, an astronomy professor, takes care of Alden and manages the property for him.  One particularly large meteor lands in Alden's property and starts a fire, but he uses clear thinking to corral others into putting the fire out. The meteor shower develops quickly into a big story, as a number of similar large meteors landed around the world (a highly unusual occurrence). All of these meteors similarly cracked open to reveal a hollow core. Alden continues to go about his day, watching news of these meteors from around the world, when he senses a message in his mind from his friend Wilton. Alden runs into the woods, and is confronted by an alien floating above him. He runs, but this alien follows him home. The alien communicates telepathically with Alden - he's hungry, and tired. Alden (remarkably composed given the circumstances) gives the alien food and sets him up in his barn to sleep. The next day Alden is met by the alien again, and learns about the alien's origin.

Over the next few days, things keep escalating. People around the world all describe seeing an alien looking remarkably similar to the one encountered by Alden. Eventually, local and federal authorities and the media converge downtown. The authorities want to bring Alden in for questioning but as soon as they begin holding him, the alien appears with demands to release Alden. This provokes a confrontation which goes pretty badly for law enforcement, and Alden is released. But it's not over yet, and Alden soon learns that the aliens have a deeper connection to the humans they encounter than anyone realized. With the authorities ready to pounce and lives hanging in the balance, Alden must make a choice that I won't spoil here.

This is a powerful story; there's a lot that's original and interesting in Meteor Men.  Parker and the creative team have crafted a plot that's heartfelt and sincere. The theme that we are all in this together (and are all part of something larger) runs throughout the book. The art really sets the scene. Jarrell is a talented visual storyteller, and there's great layouts, sequential storytelling and coloring courtesy of Jarrell and Volo. This starts at the very first page which begins with the starry sky, and then you see word bubbles, and finally people gathered to watch the meteor shower. It's a great way to begin the story, and sets the reader up to understand that we are in the stars, we are out there, and we are part of everything else that's in the cosmos.

The art style here is appealing visually; motion (such as the flying meteors) is strikingly rendered, as are the characters. It's an overall "realistic" drawing style (for a story involving aliens), with great facial acting and body language (rendered in a style which is very much Jarrell's own, but somewhat reminiscent of Chris Samnee or Doc Shaner, with a little Paul Pope in Alden's face).*

One of the strengths of the book is that the aliens are genuinely, well, alien. They don't think as humans do, and the difficulties in communicating with a fundamentally different life-form are effectively portrayed. The parts of the story that are the most effective are when Alden is communicating with the aliens. Alden is a great character. It's clear that he's been lonely and somewhat adrift since the death of his parents, and his lack of fear of the aliens and willingness to engage with them feel like refreshing choices by Parker. Finding the alien feels like finding a friend to him (which not surprising, given what we learn about them).  Alden's interactions with the alien have real humor and spark to them. The humor here is aided by great lettering from Crank!, where the telepathic communication from the aliens to people appears as large letters outside of any word bubbles; in one amusing moment, the alien "thinks" too loudly at Alden (in huge letters), and Alden has to ask it to "speak" a little more quietly.

An aspect of the story that feels a little more typical and less interesting (but probably necessary) is the depiction of the reaction of the law enforcement and the military. These scenes make sense within the context of the story and it is realistic that our military would view any alien life forms as an extreme threat and try to destroy them (sadly), but it feels like something you've seen before. However, this does bring home the message of the book - for better or for worse, humanity is not alone. We are one planet orbiting one star among many, and how we choose to face that fact will have real consequences.

For a thoughtful and gorgeously rendered take on the "first contact" theme (that's far less risky than actual contact with aliens), Meteor Men is worth a look.

If you liked what you read in this review, you can get the first part right now at Comixology. Here's a complete release schedule for the book:
Tues. Aug 19th - Meteor Men #1 ComiXology

Tues. Aug. 26th - Meteor Men #2 ComiXology
Tues. Sept. 2nd - Meteor Men #3 ComiXology
Tues. Sept. 9th - Meteor Men #4 ComiXology
Tues. Septh 16th - Meteor Men #5 ComiXology

Sept. 22nd - Final order cutoff for retailers and preorders (Diamond Order Code: JUN141331)

October 15th - Meteor Men comes out in retail everywhere

* i.e., an accessible "classic" style but with modern design and layout

Monday, August 18, 2014

SPX Spotlight 2014: Renee French and Baby Bjornstrand

Welcome to another entry in the 2014 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, Panel Patter will be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at one of the best conventions, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of Panel Patter's spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

Created by Renee French
Published by Koyama Press

I only recently started reading the work of Renee French and each time I finish a piece, I end up scratching my head, grinning, and feeling a wistfulness that I cannot fully articulate.  Reading Baby Bjornstrand, French’s latest book, was no different. French creates a world for her characters, both physically and emotionally, that is unlike any other cartoonist I’ve read. This story focuses on three masked child-like characters Cyril, Marcel, and Mickey, who unwittingly stumble upon a big-eyed, baby bird-esque creature that they name Bjornstrand. If you were to eliminate this major plot point, it would mostly consist of casual and juvenile banter between the three characters. This dry and subversive use of informal language is classic French, and a characteristic of her work that prevents the stories from becoming too fantastical and abstract.

Each page consists of two horizontal panels, and emphasizes the placement of the four characters in the desolate gray landscape. Given that the physical differences in the characters are minor, French makes a brilliant decision to highlight each character and their text (she does not use balloons) in a specific color to direct the reader to which character is talking. Marcel and Mickey provide deadpan comic relief throughout, while Cyril becomes consumed by his interest in Bjornstrand’s well being. Marcel and Mickey are indifferent to Bjornstrand at first and even regard it as a monster of sorts, but eventually join Cyril in keeping track of its whereabouts. Bjornstrand is mostly blank and unresponsive throughout the story, staring vacantly with its big eyes, but occasionally let’s out a “hoooo” and vibrates green.

French’s pacing of the story is uneven, but this works in its favor and adds to its bizarre charm. For instance, chapters 13-16 focus on Marcel and Mickey introducing Bjornstrand to a goofy looking dragonfly. The two creatures stare at each other vacantly, but eventually have a stand off marked by a series of “eeees” and “hoooos.” In this sequence, French zooms in on each character to the point of absurdity and then abruptly pulls back to a wide shot where Cyril says, “What are you guys doing?” Bjornstrand and the dragonfly develop a possibly one-sided intimate relationship which ends with Bjornstrand rebuffing the dragonfly’s advances and vomiting on it. The story could still work without this bit, but simply put, it’s hilarious.

Cyril becomes Bjornstrand’s companion, until one month later when he is unable to locate it. Camping out near the body of water where Bjornstrand usually submerges into, Cyril waits for its return with Marcel and Mickey. Those two eventually head back home, possibly defeated, yet still wondering whether to get a tent for their determined friend. Suddenly, they spot Bjornstrand on the cliff’s edge. Despite their attempts to save it, its fate is sealed. What is evident in this scene is Marcel and Mickey’s empathy and concern for Cyril, as they know that he will be devastated by this event. This bit is necessary in developing these characters into more than indifferent sidekicks.

Cyril is a believer. He believes in Bjornstrand, whatever it is, and this is never truer than in his response to Bjornstrand’s deflated body washing ashore, which I will leave for the reader to discover.

Baby Bjornstrand is a heartbreaking story because it gets at that existential argument of “what’s the point?” What can you make of losing something you love and don’t even understand? And what of Bjornstrand? What was its motivation; it’s story? We do not actually know anything about any of these characters, but we don’t need to. Whatever, or whoever they are, they felt, loved, and lost.