Wednesday, November 25, 2015

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Huck #1

Huck #1
Written by Mark Millar
Illustrated by Rafael Albuquerque
Colors by Dave McCaig
Letters and Design by Nate Piekos
Edited by Nicole Boose
Image Comics

You know those situations where someone is very publicly giving you a gift and you're surrounded by family or friends and feel like you need to tell them how much you love the gift and be demonstrative on how much you love it (regardless of how you actually feel about it) because that's what everyone's waiting for?  That's how I felt reading Huck.  It's a book I wanted to love, but about which I ended up having profoundly mixed feelings.  There's plenty to enjoy here (particularly the gorgeous art from Rafael Albuquerque and Dave McCaig) and it's an interesting premise, but it's wrapped in self-consciously "un-cynical" feel-good packaging that didn't quite work for me, along with a few story elements that felt off-putting.

Mark Millar knows how to tell an engaging, highly entertaining, accessible story as well as anyone, and because of his history of success and his generosity to his artistic co-creators, top artists want to work with him. I consider The UltimatesOld Man Logan and Superman: Red Son among my all-time favorite comics, and recent works like Jupiter's LegacyStarlight and Chrononauts are all stories I've loved in recent years (particularly Starlight). That being said, I recognize that he's also a divisive creator, as he creates comics that are self-consciously "edgy", brutally violent, sometimes make light of rape and other serious issues (or just use them as story elements in problematic ways), often come across as profoundly cynical (e.g.: Wanted, Kick-Ass, Nemesis, some parts of his run on The Authority) and can have a sense of meanness and ugliness to them. 

So, this may be one of those times when I realize that I am being influenced by something outside of the four corners of the comic book itself, which is either exactly the right way or exactly the wrong way to review a work of art, depending on who you ask. In this instance, I am aware that Millar wrote a recent post where he stated that Huck was self-consciously intended as an antidote to some of the violence and cynicism that he sees in popular culture (in part as a response to the violence of Man of Steel). To quote Millar:
But we have to remember that these characters were created in the Great Depression to lift our spirits in the darkest times. When things are tough we maybe need a nice, uncomplicated hero a little more and so, like I said, I’m trying this once just to see what happens. As a reader I’m desperate for it. As a writer, it’s been a sheer joy. But both myself and artist Rafael Albuquerque have created something we haven’t seen in a very long time with our new book and that’s a lovely, sweet, Jimmy Stewart/ Tom Hanks/ Steven Spielberg kinda good guy. It’s out this week and we called this thing HUCK...
We really need something to make us feel good right now, this week perhaps more than any other in recent memory. Our job as writers and film-makers is to entertain as well as naval [sic] gaze about the human condition and Huck is my response. I wanted to create a ‘feel-good comic’ like Forrest Gump and ET and The Goonies and It’s a Wonderful Life are ‘feel-good movies’ and I want to see the impossibly-likeable Channing Tatum as Huck and Rihanna as the beautiful girl in town he’s too shy to talk to.
It is in this context that I looked at Huck.  Can something feel utterly sincere and completely calculated at the exact same time?  Because that quantum duality is the feeling I got when reading this comic.  As far as the story, Huck is a simple, kind, generous guy living in a small town that knows a secret: he's got incredible super powers (speed, strength, durability, etc.).  Huck does one good deed each day, and the town keeps his secret.  They've got a good thing going; his good deeds benefit them, and he's sweet and harmless (Forrest Gump by way of Hercules). Eventually this status quo is upset by new folks coming to town, and by Huck deciding to take his good deeds global (which gets people's attention). It is on this note that the first issue ends.

It's probably just in my head, but I feel like saying critical things about this comic is a little bit like yelling at or criticizing a puppy. A self-consciously earnest, cloyingly sentimental, and "feel–good" puppy, but a puppy nonetheless. So, while it ultimately didn't work for me, there's a lot to like in this comic. Rafael Albuquerque and Dave McCaig do some really wonderful work here. The first 5 pages of the comic are almost wordless and the art team does excellent work in establishing the feel and tone of the series. Albuquerque's line work is tighter here than it was in the fantastic EI8HT (where a loose, scratchy line made perfect sense given the weird wasteland setting) and his character design is detailed and fills each character with life and distinct personality. Huck's personality really does come thorough in the art - kind, straightforward, goofy, a little odd. For those used to Albuquerque drawing vampires or very scary people doing very bad things, it's almost unsettling to see him draw non-murdery people.  This is a quieter, more atmospheric book in parts, with some fun action as you see what Huck can do, and Albuquerque is a highly skilled visual storyteller who excels at both dynamic action and quieter moments. 

The coloring from McCaig is similarly skillful. The night skies are starry, the town is sun-dappled and sepia toned, and Albuquerque and McCaig do great work in establishing the feel of Huck jumping from car to car roaming freely (you can almost feel the evening breeze). Their art also very clearly establishes the setting of the story as a mid-fifties to early sixties America somewhere in the Heartland; the coloring does a lot to establish the classic/old-timey feel of the comic (you expect to see lots of kids with crew cuts riding their bikes around the neighborhood). Everything from the cars people drive to their clothes says "Happy Days".  So it's sort of unsettling when you see Huck watching TV and he's presented with a story about the Boko Haram group, a very modern phenomenon.

This is a well-made comic, and Millar's direction and dialogue work within the context of the story.   Huck's kindness and motivations come across.  So what's my problem then? Why not just leave well enough alone and enjoy a well-made comic? I think (apart from the general observation that it's a critic's job to look critically at something and not just say "that was fun") there's a few things that just don't work for me in the comic, along with the fact that it's not just that the comic was expressly designed to be "feel-good" and anti-cynical (which in a way is its own version of cynicism), it's that I can feel that precise motivation coming across and it dampened my enjoyment of the book. 

There's a couple in the story and they're new in town. Huck finds the wife's (Diane) missing gold chain under the water and secretly brings it to her. Later on an older woman in town invites the woman over for coffee and tells her about Huck and how he's the town's wonderful secret and how kind he is. Like many people presented with evidence that Superman lives down the street from them, the woman can't just accept this as face value. However, her incredulity (and that of her husband) at this situation is just presented as cravenness. Diane asks why Huck wouldn't just use his powers to make himself rich, and then when Huck takes action on a more global scale, Diane's husband wonders how much they can get from bringing this to the media. These characters feel to me like a built-in defense to any critique of the story, as the only people who question the wonderful feel-good miracle that graces the town also seem to have only one other defining trait - greed. Who knows, maybe they'll be like the Grinch and they'll come around, but the whole thing feels like an argument that you (the reader) would have to be greedy and cynical not to just love the comic for its heartfelt positivity. 

I also had a problem with the sequence involving Boko Haram. It doesn't surprise me if villains in a Millar story are cartoonishly villainous, but there's something that felt slightly off to me about this lone white guy making his way over to Africa to use his fists to solve difficult problems. I think it's an effort to feel topical and current, but it felt forced.  Given the classic Americana feel that's been strongly established through the art in the story, the trip to Africa to solve terrorism feels incongruous (and makes me confused about when the story takes place).  And it also may be just my take on the story, but Millar chose as an antagonist someone who's evil is beyond dispute and without question, so only a a pure cynic would question Huck's actions (and by extension, the story).  Here's someone (an African terrorist group) who doesn't believe in Huck, and they're terrible (which, I get that Boko Haram is actually terrible). But the characters in the story either believe in the wonder and magic of Huck, or are greedy/evil.  In a way this is somewhat similar to Millar's work in Starlight, where the secondary characters that don't believe in the main protagonist come across as selfish and small, and the villains are cartoonishly evil.  I think these ideas worked more seamlessly there, as Starlight was an homage to Flash Gordon style pulp adventure stories (and all the evil is set on an alien world, as opposed to being a very real, topical evil); maybe this story is best read in a similar light. 

But Huck is a really well-made comic, so it almost, almost works for me. I honestly would recommend the comic, because it's a beautiful book with an interesting premise (and your mileage may vary). I'll likely pick up future issues, because I'm curious to see whether Millar does something interesting and non-obvious with the premise (and because I've enjoyed many of his stories before).  But Huck did not have its intended effect on me.  Maybe I'm a cynical heartless bastard, or maybe I just don't like everyone waiting for me to tell them how good the feel-good gift makes me feel. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

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7STRING - Volume 1 by Nich Angell

Written by Nich Angell
Illustrated by Nich Angell
Published by Big Punch Studios

Finding your way through life and prioritising your own personal goals without compromising the dreams of others is a dilemma that everyone faces at one point or another. Now imagine that this journey is set against the backdrop of a musically-imbued universe where your very being is held together by the song that drives you forwards. Everyone has their own inner tune and rhythm that defines their life force and people are required to define their own solo while also attempting to harmonise with everyone around them. Oh, and people fight with weaponised instruments; that's also kind of important.
Falling into the standard fantasy mold, Angell fills the speech with familiar and yet wholly unfamiliar terms that force you to adapt to a new way of thinking. Instead of the brand new and unpronounceable words that you usually encounter, this is recognisable musical nomenclature that establishes that, while the words are familiar, their usage most definitely isn't and this isn't the world that you think you know. By setting this up early on, when they are included in quick succession later, it doesn't matter that the usage clashes with your existing frame of reference and you are able to enjoy the new language for what it is.
Accompanying this brave new world is a beautiful realisation of the music that runs through the veins of daily life. Creating a physical representation of something that usually only exists in non-visible forms could have easily backfired; the smooth feeling that has been imbued into each panel allows you to easily connect with it and believe that, if music were to have a form, then it would look like this. By then combining this swirling aesthetic into the actual structure of the panels themselves, there’s a true feeling of totality so that, in the space of the three issues, you already get the feeling of a very established idea that has been lovingly and painstakingly poured onto these pages.
Confrontation in a world that is built on the foundations of a usually passive construct like music isn't immediately apparent. There was a chance that it would manifest itself in a metaphorical “Battle of the Bands”, such as in the Scott Pilgrim series that Angell clearly draws influence from, but it's taken in an entirely unexpected direction. This series will take instruments that you think you know and use them in ways that wouldn't even consider; it's clear that each style of fighting is fully fleshed out and it will amaze you with its simplistic complexity.
The Melodia seen so far has been divided into four great nations, as any legendary fantasy is, where each group are masters of a different kind of weapon. Woodwind, electronic, strings and percussion instruments have become so ingrained in the culture that it has affected their very way of life. Our protagonist, Zachary, fights with a guitar/sword combination that has to be one of the most majestically constructed weapons I think I've ever seen.
He channels his musical prowess with the mythical 7-stringed instrument to generate a weaponised form of his talents which he then projects back at his foes. My favourite moment in the volume that epitomises the unexpected story beats was the reveal of the electronic nation's unique abilities: a character samples what would be a devastating blow and sends it firing right back into his aggressor's face. Not only is it a shrewd demonstration of a new ability, it continues to show off what you can create in a book when you think outside the usual confines of the panels.
Looking at the beauty of the battles themselves will bring delight to your eyes from the unconventional integration of the panels with the action to the bright colours that fill up your vision. There is a certain aura to the action that falls somewhere between a cartoon such as Avatar: The Last Airbender and the exaggerated motion from anime such as Sword Art: Online. One particularly impressive shot is where Zachary emerges from another realm and, in one clean motion, leaps into the air, slices open the roof of the car and then lands, sword drawn, on the road behind. It makes you feel as though you're watching an true animation and that is an extremely rare feeling.
Bringing a certain majesty and intricacy to the design only adds to the sense of realism that oozes from this title. There are some truly fascinating designs that invite so many questions about the world and invite you even further in. My personal favourite example of this, and the splash page that is going to remain in my mind for quite some time, is the view of the Hanging Village of Trill; it's such an impractical and unstable design that the history behind its initial construction and the way that people exist on it during their day today lives is unbelievably intriguing. While this village hints at the hidden depth, it is by no definition the only proof and you are going to find your own piece that keeps you coming back for more.
After all of this plot, there are a pair of two-page spreads in the third issue that begin to explain the deities that rule over Melodia and start to delve into the aforementioned themes that run as an undercurrent to the main story. There are people in the lore of this book, known as soloists, that are meant to pave the way for success and are destined for greatness. However, what these pages emphasise is that, even though this may be so, that doesn't make what everyone else does less important. Every single person is the protagonist of their own story and their harmonies are what make life worth living; this sings out to me from this book, and it's a message that I can really get behind.
This volume is a fantastic introduction into a phenomenally strong world that, while it unloads a lot of information on you, is so rich and vibrant that decoding never becomes a chore. With the information contained within the last few pages of this collection, there seems to be endless possibilities for what Angell can do as everything continues to emerge from the cocoon that he's begun to set up. Fantasy can often constrain itself to standard sword and sorcery tropes, but these established approaches have been utilised in fresh and innovative ways. You can't help but imagine the soundtrack that would accompany this title if it were adapted into animation and, with a book that generates such a strong auditory response, I truly believe that it would make a fantastic accompaniment to your life.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

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Graphic Nonfiction: Maritsa Patrinos Discusses Con Life

When you read this, I'll be at the Oregon Science Fiction convention here in Portland, where I'm honored to be a significant panelist for the first time, including three related to comics on Sunday. So I thought I'd share this comic from a little while ago, in which creator Maritsa Patrinos discusses life as a person who tables at comic cons.

While this panel shows the fun part, there's definitely more to it than just fun, games, and stacks and stacks of cash:

And if you are reading this and are planning to be at Orycon, please say "hi!"

Friday, November 20, 2015

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Weekend Pattering for November 20, 2015-- Superhero comics aren't just for kids anymore!

** And let's all be thankful about the comics that were pattered about in the last week.

** Jupiter's Legacy: Its real legacy will probably be a not-very-good movie (Warren Peace Sings the Blues)-- It's almost like Matt knows what's sitting in my to-read pile right now and is trying to warn me against going down this particular rabbit hole.  

Here's the thing with Millar: he tries to seem relevant, or at least new, when he's creating these takes on superheroes, but there's never anything going on below the surface. In this case, he seems to be going for a generational story, possibly commenting on where society is now versus where it was when superheroes were first created. But he doesn't actually have anything to say about either generation or time period; they're just the latest mold into which he can pour a violent superheroic conflict.
Now, it's interesting timing to see this because James K. and I have been talking a bit about Millar this week.  I honestly can't remember the last things of his I've seriously read.  I really enjoyed his Ultimates when it was coming out but the legacy of that title makes Millar's work on it really suspect (as if his own writing hadn't done that.)  And that Communist Superman story really could have been something if it hadn't tried so hard to be Alan Moore (and from Matt's review of Jupiter's Legacy, I think that book is trying to be Alan Moore as well.)  And at least Chosen help up decently after a second read a few years ago.

Millar's a writer I try to like but who I just don't trust. I like to think he's being honest when he creates his comics (even though they're pretty much movies before the first issue hits the stands) but so much of his comics are built on their simple Hollywood pitches and I don't know how much farther they go than that. I've got Jupiter's Legacy and Jupiter's Circle sitting on my to-read pile because the artwork looks lovely in both of them.

It goes back to that big F-U at the end of Wanted. Ever since then, I just don't know whether Millar's joking with his audience or subconsciously in contempt of them. The truth is probably a little bit of "a" and a little bit of "b."

** Alias Was Marvel's First Adult Comic That Was Actually For Adults (the site formerly known as io9)-- Because, you know, butt sex.

(That's a bit of a cheap shot.  And not to go too far into the weeds of Panel Patter: Behind the Scenes, this is a series that Rob M. and I recently were discussing in prep for the Netflix show.  I have read all of Alias and its followup The Pulse and fondly remember them.  Jessica Jones and Luke Cage's relationship was probably the best thing in Bendis' interminably long Avenges run.  I really need to check out this comic again to see if it holds up better than Bendis' Powers, another of his books from the same time period that feels so much a part of its time that what he and Oeming are doing now reads like them trying to recapture that lightning in a four-color bottle.)

** DK III The Master Race The Bait and Switch

So this poster has been hanging in the front window of my comic shop for a while now and I'll admit that I bought into the hype.

Can we count the things now wrong with it?

1.) The Epic Conclusion to The Dark Knight Returns Trilogy? (The first quote is from an interview Miller did for Vulture.  The second quote is from Newsarama's latest interview with him.)
How did DC’s publishers react when you told them you wanted to do a fourth installment? " 
Absolutely not," they said. They said it wouldn't sell. ... Of course they were up for it!

2.) Frank Miller?
Newsarama: Frank, I know you always wanted a third part to the story. Did you always know what this third part would be about? 
Frank Miller: It is in Brian Azzarello's hands right now, and I thoroughly applaud what he's doing. But now that he's doing his, it's now a four-part series. I'm doing the fourth.
And perhaps only mildly surprising, neither site published any kind of followup aksing about his involvement in the next week's Dark Knight III, even though it was pushed from the very beginning as Miller's return to the character.

Heck, here's even the current ad on Comic Book Resources that's running as I was trying to look up their original announcement of DKIII.

Written by Frank Miller?

Or as CBR quoted Jim Lee back in April, 2015?

"We are thrilled to have Frank back home at DC writing Batman," Dan DiDio and Jim Lee, Co-Publishers for DC Entertainment, said in a joint statement. "The story he and Brian have crafted is an astounding and triumphant conclusion to this seminal body of work which influenced and shaped generations of readers and creators alike."
Oh, well,  Maybe we can start living in hope of All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder, written by Frank Tieri.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

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Plans We Made by Simon Moreton- "We were sure we'd never see an end to it all"

Plans We Made
Written and Drawn by Simon Moreton
Published by Uncivilized Books

On his website, Simon Moreton has a great explanation for Plans We Made: “It’s about being young, but probably about being a grown-up, too.” Looking back at his youthful summers, beginning when he was only twelve, Moreton keeps his storytelling so simple and elegant that it makes his experiences very universal. His own childhood is tied to South East London in the late 1990s but Plans We Made is not about any specific place but more about the experience of being a kid and having the world be as big as the neighborhood around you.

Telling stories of being young, hanging out and having days of no worries other than what he’s going to do that night, Moreton’s book is a languid piece about times that feel like they’re always on the verge of ending. “Nothing gold can stay” as the poet says but Moreton and his friends, like so many kids before and after them, are existing merely in the moment. And Moreton, with his sparse narration and wonderfully gestural drawings, makes these moments that you can linger on and recall your own similar experiences.
"We used to meet at the postbox by the cornershop."

Moreton isn’t trying to recreate his own experiences in any great detail but, his storytelling suggests more the essence of his teenage summers. Of course, the simpleness of the story may be a universal nostalgia for our own teenage years. His drawings, more impressions of memories and events, lack any details that creates any specificity but, it allows you to fill in the people and events with your own friends and memories. And maybe it’s a universality of suburban childhood but that simpleness in the story transverse a continents and decades.

The way that Moreton illustrates these moments of his teenage life are wonderfully suggestive and open. His loose, sweeping lines adds to the unending feel of his summers. The abstract spaces he creates are without boundaries so that the world feels large and full of possibilities. But his drawings are suggestive enough though to make the experiences in those spaces feel authentic and contained. Even though the world feels wide open, there’s only so much freedom that can be experienced and Moreton’s drawings capture that conflicting expanse of possibilities and the limits of experience.

Suggesting the chaos of a party

And like all good stories about growing up, there has to be the loss of innocence. There are many ways for it to happen but for a book so aware of its environments, its Moreton’s final September at home in 2001, that becomes that moment. For so much of Plans We Made, the space and environment he creates is about his specific small plot of his planet. It’s a suburban existence that doesn’t look at any kind of life beyond the suburb. At least it’s that way until the world forces it not to be. And it’s a great and surprising shift because Moreton brings that exact moment back for his readers as well. Just like the shape and form of the world didn’t change, Moreton’s drawing doesn’t change but your experience of everything before September 11th and everything after is changed in that moment. For as much that didn’t change, there are also ways that everything changed.

Simon Moreton’s Plans We Made is a book about growing up at a time when the world drastically changed from what it was into what it is now. It’s a book about remembering what life was like in more innocent times. Moreton draws a comic that’s about memories. They may not be your memories but the way he abstracts the moments, they become shared experiences that even if the specifics aren’t the same, the general impressions and emotions stirred up by his drawings strike universal chords.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

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Blackmailing a Superman in Venture (1-3) by Jay Faerber and Jamal Igle

Written by Jay Faerber
Line Art by Jamal Igle
Color Art by Sebastien Laminrand
Published by Action Lab

When a reporter down on his luck puts two and two together and hits on the secret behind a California-based superhero, he's interested in making a deal to bring them both fame and fortune--whether the hero wants to or not! It's another exploration of the darker side of cape comics by Jay Faerber, brought back to a new audience after years of being out of print.

I've been a big fan of Faerber's work for some time, going back to Noble Causes, which my friend Noah described to me as "What if there was a soap opera dedicated to superheroes?" The premise immediately hooked me, and devoured the series quickly. Since then, anytime I see a Faerber book, I always give it a shot, and given that this one also included Jamal Igle, whose linework is slick, I was definitely interested, even if it was a bit disappointing to learn that this was a reprint and not a totally original idea.

That age shows a bit in terms of things, such as the hero's look (he's straight out of 1990s Marvel/DC central casting, though Igle's lines are light years ahead of most of what was being drawn at the time), the importance of a newspaper, and the secret being on a video tape! It's almost quaint to hear them discuss the fact that they'd like the report to do a "human interest" story. Like reading an older comic book, there are moments when you will think, "this would have been amazing then" but realize that the culture has changed significantly.

Even so, it's a neat premise. While someone like Jimmy Olson might be altruistic if they discovered Clark was really the Man of Steel, most would react similarly to the character here. The idea that the hero would prefer not to turn into a cap-wearing cliche (but does anyway) is also a nice touch, and seeing how a person with so much power can be so easily manipulated really does hammer home just how unrealistic most superhero comics are.* Now of course, reality is the big buzzword with superhero comics, so we do tend to see stories similar to this one now.

The difference? Faerber and Igle don't have to worry about a movie franchise or selling toys, so they can break their toys however they see fit. That means that the manipulations can be darker, the reactions can be fiercer, and we as the reader don't actually know what's going to happen next. If Peter's secret gets out, someone has to get amnesia or the devil shows up. Here? If the hero's revealed for all the world to see, his life can be turned into hell, and no one in a corporate suit is going to tell them to alter the story to ensure they can sign the cartoon deal.

That's why I think stories that deconstruct heroes work best as indie projects, like Adam Knave and D.J. Kirkbride's Never Ending. There's no expectations, which means anything can happen. As the story in Venture unfolds, there's a knife's edge that can cut at any moment. What happens when the news doesn't break properly (issue 2) or if the reporter gets greedy (issue 3)? There's room to play for as long as Faerber and Igle are willing. (From what I understand, it's just a reprint for now, depending on sales.)

Artistically, the pages are as good as you'd expect from Igle, the creator of Molly Danger, though the premise is significantly different. His world is extremely realistic, and Igle understands the need to make sure that the hero stands out, even when in civilian clothes. He uses a variety of panel designs and angles to keep the talking scenes--which probably dominate a bit too much, frankly--interesting to the reader. Characters are posed in such a way as to lure the reader to the most important aspects of a scene, His faces emote strongly, and change on a dime when there's a particularly emotionally charged scene. In terms of comparison, I'd think of Mike Deodato or a less stylistic Joe Quesada, in terms of having a smooth, slick look. 

Unfortunately, the modern coloring butchers the details often, and really doesn't bring out the art. The colors feel like they are clashing with each other and look dull as a rule and over-processed. We lose some of the details of the characters because the coloring shades things too dark. I'd love to know what this looks like in black in white, because I'm sure it's amazing.

I think there's a good argument to be made that we've seen enough superhero deconstructions. Most who try to do it fail badly, copying or desperately trying to one-up the most famous examples. But Faerber is a master of this genre, and it shows. He's always got a fresh look at what might go wrong in a hero's life, and Venture is no exception. Combined with the great linework by Igle, this is a story that fans of the darker side of heroics should check out. Three issues are out now, and there's at least one more on the way.

*And I prefer them that way. Spider-Man, Batman, Cap, and the rest should never ever be in a world that's truly like ours. The whole thing falls apart.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

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Oddly Normal by Otis Frampton: Awesome Fun!

Written and Illustrated by Otis Frampton
Published by Image Comics

On Halloween, Otis Frampton was signing at my local comics shop. If you aren't familiar with Frampton's work, you can visit his website and find out how funny he is. Since I was there indulging my inner comics and cosplay love, I was fortunate enough to get a signed copy of his newest trade for Oddly Normal.

If you haven't read Oddly Normal, here's the run down:

Oddly is a half witch girl living in a pretty run-of-the-mill town. But being a witch has downsides, namely that she doesn't have many friends, well, any friends. She sports pointed ears and green hair, her family, while loving, is kind of strange. Worst yet, they think that she fits right in. When she has her tenth birthday party and no one shows up, she gets into a fight with her parents. She doesn't realize that witches get wishes on their tenth birthday and accidentally wishes them away.

Having seemingly ruined her life, Oddly then has to go stay in the witch realm with her aunt (a real cackler of a witch). That would be great, except that she still has to go to school, and she's kind of lonely, and she's feeling guilty, and she doesn't know how to get her parents back.

One of the aspects I really enjoyed about both volumes of Oddly Normal is the way it shows pre-teen life. Oddly doesn't have the burdens of adulthood; she isn't overly precocious. But being, well, normal, doesn't make life too much easier. She's still contending with some outsider-ness. Her school situation isn't overly difficult, but kids are still occasionally terrible. At the same time, Frampton doesn't exaggerate the horrors of middle school. It's all surmountable, even when it's kind of terrible.

Similarly, the book is funny. It approaches Oddly's life and situation with a sense of sarcasm that is age-appropriate and still striking. Like most kids, Oddly knows when she's being lied to or pepped up. She's aware of the mild condescension in some adult-kid conversations and ALSO aware that these conversations can still be positive and make you feel better about a sucky situation. I liked this self-awareness in the story and in the characters.

Oddly has a great group of friends and they run the gambit from jock to nerdy. There's a little bit there for everyone. It's a clique-transcending cast that doesn't feel forced.

On top of all this, the art is pretty great. It's whimsical. It plays on some of the classic monster-movie tropes. The highly-saturated color palate is sure to win points with the kids, but there's a sense of intention and sophistication that makes it appealable to adults as well. 

I really think that Oddly Normal is a fantastic story with a sense of humor and adventure that still plays to the every-day realities of adolescence. If you haven't picked up Oddly Normal, yet, do it.

Monday, November 16, 2015

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Basewood by Alec Longstreth

Written and Illustrated by Alec Longstreth
Published by Phase Seven Comics

A man who can't remember anything meets a man who lost everything, trapped together in the relative safety of the woods while a creature lurks ready to bring death to anything that comes its way. But not all are content to live in a prison, no matter how green. It's a story of survival and courage, created in the pages of mini-comics and brought together in an absolutely gorgeous hardcover by Alec Longstreth.

The story of Basewood is the stuff of a fairy tale, complete with a young man refusing to go along with the conventional wisdom, a dragon to defeat, and an old man who councils caution and guards against choices he failed to make. Yet despite this, Longstreth's plot never feels cribbed from anything else. It's familiar but not contrived. He does a great job balancing the arc of the main character against the mentor figure, and we really aren't sure until the very end just how things are going to resolve. The amnesia portion of the story goes just long enough, and when a third figure enters the narrative, I really like how Longstreth handles the dynamic. You know that this is going to change things, but how that change occurs is done in such a way that I think it comes as a bit of a surprise. Longstreth clearly understands the concept of the hero's journey, and uses those parts to really entertain the reader.

Visually this book is striking. Longstreth's linework is extraordinarily dense. He uses a combination of heavy blacks, straight lines, cross-hatching and dots to really give a sense of darkness to almost all of the book's pages. Often, several of these techniques will be featured in the same panel, meaning that we can get a very good idea that the man's clothing contrasts against the dog's fur or the walls of the hut. When we move out into the barren desert, the monster-cliffs, or even flashback sequences in a happier time, the openness of the blank spaces helps set the contrast into a sharp relief. Similarly, when it's snowing, Longstreth's use of white dots all over each panel means we don't need to imagine the snow and how it changes things in the forest--we can see it for ourselves.

With so many mini-comic artists focused on sparse backgrounds, Longstreth's attention to shading really makes him stand out, even if he's not drawing a lot more in terms of what we see on the page from others. It's still just a blanket on the old man, but the addition of a patch that's shaded differently from the rest of the covering adds so much and gives us a visual clue to what it's like to be marooned alone--all without a single line of dialogue. In another case, the branches that make up the hut have rough ends and feature small nubs that protrude, letting us know this is meant for survival, not looks. Others might have just gotten out the ruler and drawn them straight, but Longstreth takes the time to show us these things so we can get a better idea of the backstory, if we choose to look and linger. (And I highly recommend that you do.)

Though his figure work is a bit on the stiff side--characters move, but they don't flow--I do like how Longstreth makes sure that the facial features change based on the situation and dialogue. He uses Annie-style eyes, so a lot comes from the depictions of slight eyebrows or the curve of a lip. Similarly, the hands of the old man are altered just enough to show they are knurled compared to his younger companions. There's not a huge amount of range--at the basic level of detail his figures are given, Longstreth can only do so much--but what we get works in harmony with the words, not against them.

Basewood is a lovely fantasy story with deep roots (and tall trees) in traditional folklore, and was a real joy to read and linger over the pages. It shows that there's a real opening for doing fantasy work in the mini-comics genre, and that it can be done without elaborate, ornate art work or skills at the P. Craig Russell level. I'd love to see more works like these when I'm scouring for new creators to follow at shows. I'm looking forward to seeing what Longstreth does next.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

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Graphic Nonfiction: Joel Christian Gill on Black Republicans

So as of this writing, Ben Carson, the current, if unlikely, GOP frontrunner, is starting to feel the heat of the poverbial* fire. But that's not what's confusing people. What's confusing people is that this guy is a Black Republican. As today's graphic nonfiction author, the excellent chronicler of hidden Black History, Joel Christian Gill, notes, the idea of a black presidential candidate is surprising to many, even though it's happened in 2008, 2012, and now 2016.

Well, there is a historical precedent for African Americans to support the Republican Party, even if that hasn't been true for well over 100 years at this point. Writing a graphic editorial for the Boston Globe, Gill provides a brief history of the idea of Black Republicans.

Here's the opening:

Going back to Lincoln and the shift in the democratic party that begins with FDR, Gill--with his signature wit--briefly shows how the GOP gained, lost, and tries (rather shittily) to revive its standing in the black community. It's great work, as usual. You can read the rest here.

Joel Christian Gill is the author of the only comic called Strange Fruit that you need to read. His website is here.

*Cheap shot explained here.