Thursday, July 30, 2015

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Advance Review: Hellboy in Hell #7


Hellboy In Hell #7
Written and Drawn by Mike Mignola
Colored by Dave Stewart
Lettered by Clem Robbins
Published by Dark Horse Comics

It’s already been a few years since Hellboy died fighting to quite literally save the world and we’re still mourning for him. And there’s now been seven issues of Hellboy in Hell but the tone of Mignola’s storytelling has shifted so drastically now that we’re spending time with a dead character who’s being told that even in Hell he still needs to fight the good fight. Sent to Hell after his death, Mike Mignola’s character has been even more distant and lost than he ever has before. And when he’s told by two spirits or demons that he’s gravely ill, he asks “How does that work? I’m already dead. How much worse can I get?” Well, it seems the answer is that it can get gravely worse.

Mike Mignola is working up to something in Hellboy in Hell but he’s taking his time getting there. In a sick-bed vision of a new England, revitalized after his last Earthly battle, he sees a giant tree growing where he had his heart plucked out of his body and he’s told of a new world that’s being born out of his blood. It’s a vision that he’s told he’ll never be able to really experience and it’s just heartbreaking to see what this great character has become. Mignola created him as this loud, boisterous character. He was Jack Kirby’s The Thing as a monster hunter. How cool and awesome is that? The answer is very. And now he’s quite literally a spirit, a ghost that’s haunting a Hell that still continues to use and manipulate him. He may be dead but it’s looking like he will never be free.

A spirit looking for freedom- from Hellboy in Hell #7
If freedom is something Hellboy will never experience, he gets pulled into a battle between two other spirits. In Hell, he has been pulled into all of these power struggles, positioned as a force to be used without having any apparent stakes in these battles. It says a lot that the character feels like he’s stumbling from bad situation to bad situation in this series, unable to break any cycle. We’ve been told before by other characters who tried to use Hellboy when he was alive that he was to be the next demonic ruler of the world, that he was going to bring Hell to Earth and sit on the throne with a fiery crown. And now that he’s in Hell? Is he ruling anything? Is he sitting on a throne? If anything, he’s just a vagrant, trapped, alone and lost. 

Even as he’s put upon and used in all of these power struggles, he has the weight of fate on him and it’s marvelous to see Mignola draw that. That cover alone has to be one of the saddest Hellboy images ever put to paper and many of the runner up drawings are in this very issue. Small, grey and oh so thin, Hellboy is just a shell of the man he used to be. Mignola and colorist Dave Stewart masterfully depict the deathly sickness of the character. And even diminished as he is, Hellboy is the calm center of the storm that is Hell. The world he now lives in is pure chaos and he’s the personification of stillness in it. Of course, that perceived calmness may be more resignation about his circumstances but it says a lot about his situation that he’s not the ball of energy that he was when he was alive and fighting demons on Earth. Mignola shows him as a sickly spirit who has resigned himself to the idea that he’s never going to get better and that gives the book a melancholy and slightly fatalistic tone.

Hellboy In Hell #7 shows just how far Mignola, Hellboy and we have come in the last 21 year since Hellboy #1 was published in 1994. Mignola’s story has become this strange creature of death, regret and manipulation but each issue is a wonderful joy of the struggle of a character who has discovered a destiny so different than any he was prophesied or coerced into. It’s this sublime story that’s so different than almost everything that has come before it. And this latest issue is just so bloody tragic that you feel as small and grey as Hellboy is.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

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Wolf #1


Wolf #1
Writen by Ales Kot
Illustrated by Matt Taylor
Colored by Lee Loughridge
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Design by Tom Muller
Image Comics

I've never been to Los Angeles, but I've got all these ideas in my head about it thanks to decades of movies and TV and books. Some of the best, most memorable crime stories (including crime noir) are set in Los Angeles, including three of my favorites, Pulp Fiction, LA Confidential and Heat (which is a perfect 2-hour movie that unfortunately happens to be closer to 3 hours - seriously, that bank heist scene is spectacular). What those stories have in common and what great stories about LA seem to capture is this remarkable mix of wealth and poverty, sunny skies and darkness, optimism and desperation, depravity and glamour.  Fatale and The Fade Out (from the fantastic team of Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips & other talented contributors) both play with these ideas, as does the newest Ales Kot book, Wolf

In recent months, Kot's work has gone in a highly metatextual direction in works such as The Surface (review here) and Material (review here), where Kot explored the thin lines between fiction and reality.  Even in the recently concluded Zero, Kot took the final arc of the story in a very different direction from the earlier arcs (my review of the first 9 issues here). While Wolf has some elements that make it feel like Kot is aware he is in the noir world, this oversized (60 pages for $4.99) first issue is not only highly engaging and strongly illustrated, but it's also the tightest, most focused storytelling I've seen from Kot on one of his creator-owned projects in a while. 


Wolf centers on two main protagonists, Antoine Wolfe, a supernatural detective, and a girl at the center of tragedy whose name we learn by the end of the story (and whose name will give you a clue as to the nature of the potential conflicts). Wolf begins on a striking note; the sight of a man engulfed in flames,* singing the blues as he walks in the hills above Los Angeles. It's Wolfe, as we see from his dog tags. The story follows Wolfe throughout his day, as he encounters skeptical cops, supernatural con men, wise homeless people, and unfriendly unexpected guests who bring him before his newest (and not really voluntary client), Sterling Gibson, racist billionaire and sports team owner.** Gibson was the one who had Wolfe placed in a straitjacket and set on fire because he wanted to know if Wolfe was the "real deal" before hiring Wolfe as a clairvoyant and paranormal detective (though the exact nature of Gibson's request is not made clear, it's pretty evident he's a very bad man). As the issue progresses, it's obvious Wolfe (or "the Wolf"***) is a known and respected figure in the supernatural community, as his Cthulhu-like friend Freddy turns to Wolfe for assistance in a personal problem. 

During the course of the issue, we see the young girl, first standing over the bodies of two dead people in a mansion, clutching a necklace (in a weird echo of the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne in Batman). Then we see her in a police car as the cops discuss her situation, and voices tell her to jump out of the car, in order to go somewhere else. As the issue ends, Wolfe and the girl have come together, and it looks like Wolfe will be taking on another weird, disturbing case. 

This was a very strong debut issue. Kot is such an ambitious, experimental storyteller who loves to play with and push the boundaries of the comic form. In some ways it's refreshing to see that he still is interested in telling a more conventional comic story. This first issue of Wolf is big, sprawling,  decompressed storytelling, but at no point does it seen like there's anything superfluous being shown. This all feels like it's here for a reason. In some ways this is very much a classic detective noir story - Wolfe is roughed up on a bunch of occasions, is brought before the big bad guy in order to do a difficult and dangerous job, he lives on the fringes of the law (and has the attention of law enforcement), but he's clearly well-intentioned, with a good heart, and someone who sticks up for his friends and associates and tries to do the right thing.


Like many detectives with a past (or other characters such as the lead in The Fade Out who have been traumatized by war), he's haunted by ghosts, but in the case of this supernatural detective tale, they're actual (not metaphorical) ghosts. Kot is doing some strong fantasy world-building here, but this is a ground-level view of that world, as the reader is learning about different aspects of this supernatural city through the eyes and narration of Wolfe, rather than an omniscient 10,000 foot narrator.  All the complexities of the world feel like puzzles to be solved along with the main mysteries that Wolfe is trying to solve.  

The choice to set the story in present-day LA (rather than the 1940's) also feels deliberate on the part of Kot, as it feels like the story is not going to shy away from sociopolitical issues, and setting the story in a (relatively) grounded, realistic, current setting helps remove the distance between the reader and a story where racism is as real as vampires. That setting makes the racism shown by Gibson to Wolfe harder to dismiss as an artifact of the past. The ordinary race and class divisions, combined with the involvement of monsters and magic, feels like fertile ground for Kot to explore a number of different social and political issues. 

Kot has some highly talented storytelling collaborators here in Matt Taylor and Lee Loughridge.  They set the tone from the first page of story, where Wolfe is wandering in the hills of Los Angeles in the darkness. The man in flames, walking and singing, those flames are strikingly contrasted with the cool, hazy colors of the skyline.  The art then zooms in on the man in flames over the next few pages, until that's all we see.  It's a hell of a way to open the series, as it raises so many questions (which eventually do get answered), and the jump to the next sequence (which takes place in the interrogation room of a police station) poses a remarkable contrast. The colors are muted and spare, and the setting of a sterile office is a far cry from the sight of a man singing while burning alive. 

The decompressed pacing in this story feels helpful in setting a mood and tone.  There are a number of wordless pages throughout the story, and while the issue takes its time moving from place to place, it doesn't feel slow. Rather, I think we're deliberately meant to take in each location and scene, and feel a slower sense of movement similar to what Wolfe is experiencing (almost in real-time) as he takes action (or is acted upon) throughout the issue. Taylor provides a nice variety of layouts here, from 4-panel pages that deliberately (slowly) track Wolfe's (or others' movements) to 6 or 7-panel pages, where the action and tension is sped up.  It's a great use of panel variety to control the flow of time and pace of reading.

Overall, Taylor (who previously worked with Kot on an issue of Zero) has a relatively realistic approach to figure and design (somewhat similar to that of several of Kot's other Zero collaborators, Will Tempest and Jorge Coelho). Characters are stylized in a slightly rough way, but Taylor pays a great deal of attention to facial expression, body language, and all of the people depicted (from Wolfe to Gibson to the girl at the murder scene, to random bus passengers) feel like they're drawn with the idea that these are real characters with inner lives. Taylor does highly skillful work regarding the action and settings. Some locations (like the interior of a police interrogation room) are spare and sterile, but the inside of a bus or a neighborhood street scene or Gibson's mansion are highly detailed, almost photo-realistic (like some of the work of Sean Murphy).  Clayton Cowles also contributes some great, thoughtful lettering - in particular, the dialogue bubbles of one character in particular provide a fun, monstrous quality that echoes the appearance of the character.  Tom Muller also contributes here (as he has with other books written by Kot) to the strong overall look and design of the comic, including a dramatic spread in the inside front and rear covers.

Scenes such as when Wolf walks back his home after getting off of the bus provide an interesting contrast; as the street (homes, cars, a dog) are hyper-detailed and realistic, and Wolfe is drawn in a more stylized way, and the colors from Loughridge are handled in a limited (not monochromatic but very few colors), much more atmospheric palate.  In a scene like that, it feels like the art team is simultaneously trying to ground the story in a sense of reality through detail, but the highly atmospheric coloring both lends a sense of hot, muggy air, and also gives the story a more ominous feel, well suited to the dark magic that runs throughout the issue.  One of the characters in the story makes the same point when he describes Los Angeles by saying "This city is a blend. It's desert and it's woods and it's ocean and it's cheap junk and it's expensive junk and it's ugly and it's beautiful and it's fiction and it's real."  

This feels very much like what all of the creators are trying to do in the first issue of Wolf, which is to say establish this setting as a place of dichotomies, where the ordinary coexists with the magical; where Cthulhu-men have typical disputes with their vampire landlords.  Where good men try to help solve people's problems and get to the truth, even if it involves talking to dead people.  I'd strongly recommend Wolf to anyone interested in crime stories with a supernatural, political twist.

* A striking way to begin an issue, this was also used to great effect in the first issue of Project Superpowers: Blackcross.

** A pretty clear nod to Donald Sterling. 

*** A nod, perhaps, to Harvey Keitel's character of The Wolf ("I'm the Wolf, I solve problems") in another fantastic, LA-story, Pulp Fiction.

Monday, July 27, 2015

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Boom!'s Strange Fruit #1 is Bitter


Written by Mark Waid and J.G. Jones
Illustrated by J.G. Jones
Published by Boom! Studios

I realize that this combination review and commentary piece is a bit late, but that's because I didn't want to just jump in with a knee-jerk reaction, though it turns out that my first impression is still my lasting one--this is a bad comic that probably should not have been published.* Normally, I'd just leave it to others to talk about (and I'll be pointing you to some of the best commentary I read shortly), but I did not want this one to slide or walk. It's a comic that claims to be a passion project on a hot-button issue, but ends up actually showing just why the racial problem in America is so damned deep: Instead of attacking the real problem-white folks who refuse to look at the sty in their eye while boasting they don't have a log like those other white people over there-Mark Waid and J.G. Jones opt to ensure they don't offend any of their white audience.

When the comic was announced, with no people of color involved, I had reservations. This was not allayed by early reviews, which tripped over themselves in being both as positive and generic as possible. (Usually, this means that there's going to be a problem with a big-name book.) When I read the issue (and full disclosure, I am on the BOOM! Press List, and have been for some time), it was basically every single possible fear I'd had brought into life.

I wasn't alone in this. Here's just a sampling of commentary from others, all of which I encourage you to read in full. There was also a lot of talk about the book on Twitter, but I'm not sure how easily that's searched.

J.A. Micheline makes it clear that this book wears white privilege on its cover, despite whatever good intentions were involved: "The reason why this comic was, amongst other things, A Bad Idea is because two white men are writing and drawing this book about racism and they have already decided that it is about them."

Chase Magnett's excellent full review of the issue was the first review I read, and he really nails the problem: " It is a plainly unnecessary comic book, one that serves no purpose in existing and, due to that, borders on being offensive because of its own heightened sense of importance."

Shea Hennum discusses his struggle with talking about the book but why he ultimately decided to write something on the comic: "It felt disingenuous of me to speak on the book in a big bad way, because I became increasingly convinced that that would’ve made me hypocritically culpable for the same behavior I was lambasting."

Dominic Griffin condemns a passion project with so little passion: "but for me, the biggest issue wasn’t that two old white dudes decided to tell a story principally concerned with blackness as much as the laziness with which they executed said story. Passing off something as fanfiction-y as “black Superman lands in racist South” as a passion project feels even more off kilter when you recall J.G. Jones refering to the book as “an edgy little piece.”"

Like Shea Hennum, I was reluctant to post my own feelings on this comic. I'm still not sure if it is the right thing to do, but here's the thing: If you don't tell a white person they're wrong about racial issues, they assume you agree with them.  So I'm going to add mine, because I want to make it very clear to the world of comics that I think Strange Fruit is a poorly constructed comic that doesn't actually address America's race problems at all. You'll find my views have a lot of similar themes to those posted above. 

Taking out the problematic nature of two white men writing a story that climaxes with the appearance of the "Magical Negro" trope, the final scene is just one last cliché added to the vast pile of them that mar this comic from beginning to end. Every character looks like they walked out of stereotyped casting, with the vast majority of white characters spouting racist gibberish, save the one man of authority who lectures them almost to the point of farce. There is seriously a scene where it feels like he's quoting Wikipedia's entry on the Great Migration of the early 20th Century, telling the good old boys who confront him about how their racism is hurting the economy.

Let me tell you, that's some tension-building pages in a first issue, right there.

You'll thrill to the good white man lecturing the bad ones!

The blanket condemnation is furthered by having a somewhat naïve black man from the North show up to contrast his education with the racists who are too lazy to save their own town and won't listen to his good advice. It's not that this isn't plausible so much as the fact that since it lacks any subtlety and nuance, the reaction is eye-rolling instead of righteous anger against the bad guys of the piece. With no power or agency, the smartest figure in the comic, an African American, in a book that's supposed to take on racism, is powerless while the white folk talk all around him, a recurring theme in the comic.

All of this might work if the plot itself was stronger or more original, but it's not. Despite the hype of it being a passion project, there's no life in this comic at all. The storyline is one we've seen over and over again: Smart people come to tell dumb people they are screwed if they don't listen. A force of nature is an uncaring enemy. Complicating matters is a magical/alien presence in the form of being/object that may or may not save the day, if only it's understood. An ordinary man/woman gets caught up in the middle, while extremes on both sides rage against each other.

"Is this where the Depression-era cosplay line starts?"

It's a cut-copy-paste job, with some dialogue added to ensure we know that racism is bad, and we know that because an educated white southerner tells us so. There's nothing in this first issue that indicates we're getting anything more complex than the above plot summary. That's what I might expect from a lesser writer, but Mark Waid is capable of much more. It's almost as if he's afraid to push his white readers into anything but the safest, "Look at those awful Klansmen, cluck cluck" territory. Worse, without any indication that he and Jones are going to subvert expectations, we're left with an ending that features a gigantic, mysterious black man draped in a Confederate flag to ensure we don't see he's naked, which the ordinary dude he saves helpfully tells the reader the white characters won't like. 

Gee, ya think?

Clearly it's because Klan members don't like men with too many muscles.

Beyond the racial problems with the Boom-published Strange Fruit, it's really just a terrible comic. Nothing about it is surprising, and while that can often be saved by amazing art or dialogue, Strange Fruit's first issue features neither. I discussed the dialogue above, and while Jones paints a pretty picture, he never tries something different or daring. There's no comics code, and Strange Fruit certainly isn't an all-ages book, so why not just let that Johnson fly free? Wouldn't it have been interesting if the visual portrayal of the racists were as suit-wearing, normal-passing upscale white folks who you see everyday instead of Dukes of Hazzard extras while the man trying to stop them was barely clothed at all? What if the mysterious creature had been portrayed as colorless, then changed into a black man to show which side he was on? What if you really depicted what nearly being hanged was like?

See the thing is, doing any of that would have required Waid and Jones to move past the white folks who pat themselves on the back for voting Obama and step into the grimy world of actual racial issues, where no one cares when CNN and other media outlets try to destroy the lives of black victims who are murdered daily by police, assuming they cover the story at all. Or possibly upset the folks who are happy to cheer Marvel's diversity ("Look at that Avengers line-up!") while the company announces dozens of new titles-and not a single solitary black writer. Not even one.
The problem with Strange Fruit from Waid and Jones is not so much that two white guys decided to write a comic about a sensitive subject for millions of Black Americans (though I'll completely back anyone who feels that way), it's that they did it in the most White Northern Middle Class way possible. There's still time for that to change, but honestly, the comic itself gives no indication of this. 

For what it's worth, I don't think Waid is racist. Quite the opposite. I'm not personal friends with him, but he's not a wallflower, so his feelings are pretty public, and I believe him to be a well-intentioned man who thought he was trying to help show how awful racism was in the south in the early part of the twentieth century. Jones I don't know at all, but again--there's no reason to think ill of him in this regard. It's just that they've ended up with a work that's basically anti-racist, but in the self-congratulatory, "I'm so much better than those folks waving a Confederate Flag" sort of way that white folks use to allow themselves to ignore when their friends discuss "bad neighborhoods" or tsk tsk a college-educated black athlete for showing pride in his abilities.

That's the real issue here. When racism is shown in an almost Looney Tunes comical manner, it's very easy for white folks to distance themselves from it. I'm not immune to this, either. But I try my damnest to think about and listen to what people of color are saying and experiencing. It's difficult, lifelong work, looking critically at yourself and the world around you, and trying to make it a better place for those who weren't born white in America. I fail at it every day, and sometimes I don't like it when it's pointed out to me. But I try to listen and improve myself, all while knowing tomorrow might bring another failure.

However, that's honestly not true of many white people. Plenty are happy to pretend racism is something that happens only in obvious ways. This is a comic that fits right into that mindset. At no time would any right-thinking person ever see themselves in the villains here. They'd identify with the speechifying dude. That's not moving racial politics forward. Of course overt racism is bad! If you are going to tackle racism, you need to get into its more subtle forms, and that's something that Waid and Jones don't do. 

Rather than bothering with the new single issue copy of a comic called Strange Fruit, I highly suggest instead that you read Joel Christian Gill's excellent nonfiction collection of hidden Black American history by the same name, published by Fulcrum. I wrote a lengthy review of the book here. You'll be much happier, might learn about some new, real-life heroes, and will be supporting actual diversity in comics. It's a win all around, and shows that discerning comics readers are too savvy to fall into self-congratulatory traps.

*If you're going to start down the "that's censorship" road, please just do us a both a favor and stop reading. Saying someone should have thought better before publishing something isn't censorship, it's commentary. Yes, they had a right to publish Strange Fruit, and lots of folks--myself included--have a right to say, "That was a bad idea."

Sunday, July 26, 2015

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Humble Bundle Made with Kickstarter features Spike Trotman and Others


By now it's pretty common place for there to be comics-related Humble Bundles, so I'm not apt to point them out on a regular basis. However, I'm making an exception for this one because it contains several comics anthologies (and a few pieces of prose) that I think are well worth your $1 (or $11 or $15, depending on the level of your pledge).

This particular bundle has a focus on projects that got their start on Kickstarter, even if in certain cases they were later picked up for more widespread distribution. Available in PDF form and DRM-free, as per usual, the bundle has some great books at each level.

Starting off with the "pay what you want tier," we have Dinosaur Comics (and oh yeah, Squirrel Girl) writer Ryan North's choose your own adventure book about Hamlet, "To Be or Not To Be." That premise is amazing, and I've yet to meet a person who didn't like the book. Also in that tier is an anthology featuring several of my prose-writing friends called "Help Fund My Robot Army" which features stories of fictional Kickstarters from a speculative fiction perspective.* There's also Ryan Browne's "God Hates Astronauts" available at this level.

If you pay the average (currently $10.27), you move into some really prime territory. The two Spike Trotman-related comics are here, her horror anthology "The Sleep of Reason" and the how-to guide "Poorcraft." You can also snag another comics anthology "The Big Feminist Butt" which features a range of perspectives on feminism, including some that are unlikely to agree with your own views. There's also two issues of John Joseph Adams' "Nightmare" online magazine as well as a great anthology that gives Steampunk a well-needed, non-European perspective, "Steampunk World."

Go all the way to $15, and you get the Greg Pak written, "Code Monkey Save World," and a FUBAR stand-alone comic, "Mother Russia," by Jeff McComsey, to scratch your historical communist zombie itch. 

It's a great bundle of stuff, and I only mentioned the books I've read or wanted to pick up. There's plenty more in this bundle, too, But if you want it, better hurry--it ends in just a few short days. Over $100,000 has been raised so far in this bundle, showing the power of alternative publishing/sales models. You can be a part of that, too--and pick up some great late-summer reading while you're at it.

*Disclosure: I also work as a first reader for the editor of that book, John Joseph Adams.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

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Graphic Nonfiction: Emi Gennis Gets Mysterious with the Dyatlov Pass Incident

I've written before about Emi's nonfiction comics and how she does a great job taking real-life stories (in this case, Wikipedia's list of unusual deaths) and putting them on the printed page. While this is an older one of hers, from 2012 (and originally published in a Hic and Hoc anthology), it was new to me!

For today's installment of Graphic Nonfiction, have a scary story from 1959, when Communist Russia has to deal with nine dead bodies that appear to have met an untimely end. There's clear storytelling and yet some really nice, creepy vibes in the linework here. Emi ends with notes about the story, if you want to learn more.

Here's a sample from the comic:


You can read the entire comic here.

Friday, July 24, 2015

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Weekend Pattering for July 24th, 2015-- Comics and Big Macs

** What have we been up to in the last few weeks of July?  Well, as usual, we've been pattering about stuff that has panels in it:


** I'm on the final days of my summer vacation so this New York Times list of great summer comic book and strip reads may be a bit late for me but maybe there's still time for you to get a book on this list to read during your vacation.  A couple particular favorites of mine from this list are Paul Pope's Batman Year 100 and Jeff Lemire's The Underwater Welder.

** I don't usually do Patreon drives but there are many things that I like about Tom Spurgeon's drive for The Comics Reporter that have made me decide to take the Patreon plunge.  The first is that it is Tom Spurgeon.  Spurgeon is a great ambassador for those of us who approach comics from a more journalistic or analytical viewpoint. I also like that Spurgeon is experimenting with a monthly PDF magazine and want to see what that will be like.

And as long as I've set up a Patreon account to support Spurgeon, I'm also supporting Graeme McMillian and Jeff Lester's Wait, What podcast campaign as well.  What I like about Graeme and Jeff's campaign is that a percentage of what they raise goes back into supporting other creator's Patreon campaigns.  I think that's a great use of this system that's been set up.



** Colin Smith has a good piece up about how comics can make talking heads interesting.  It's utterly amazing how boring so many modern comics are because they don't know how to dynamically tell stories.

As more comics have tried to move into either a more cinematic or realistic style, too many writers and artists have lost track of just how to tell stories in ways that are unique to comic books.  For as horrible and crass as some of Frank Miller's comics are, just look at the ways that he tells his stories.  Exposition doesn't have to be just about characters talking.  It'a about how the panels and characters move across the page.



** Rob Kirby offers a brief preview of What's Your Sign, Girl?, an upcoming anthology that he's editing.

** Chris Butcher writes about comics that so-called mainstream fans don't consider "real" comics.
So, the comics industry was able to successfully ignore the massive success and new audiences that the manga publishers brought with them. But you know who didn’t? Kids publishers. Scholastic Graphix. Papercutz. Abrams. First Second. Kids Can Press. Even Yen Press’ arm at Hachette. They saw that with the right conditions, you could get someone other than males aged 18-49 to read comics, and have it be incredibly successful. These publishers paid attention and put together imprints to publish original work specifically for the audiences that the comics mainstream insisted didn’t exist: Kids, girls especially, tweens and teens. And the books sold well. Won new audiences. A whole industry of “original graphic-novel” based creation sprung up that simply did not exist before the success of manga, the success of Bone at Graphix, of Twlight: The Manga at Hachette, Nancy Drew & Hardy Boys graphic novels, Binky the Space Cat, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, American Born Chinese. Or Smile, by Raina Telgemeier. Smile, which sat on the bestseller list for a year and was largely disregarded by the comics industry. Incredible bestsellers, many with outside-of-comics media attention, largely ignored, deliberately ignored. Because their success didn’t fit the paradigm. They weren’t comics. They were ‘for kids’.
This reminds me of something that Deb Aoki tweeted a couple of weeks ago during Anime Expo.
To which Chris Arrant, the current editor at Newsarama responded:
Full disclosure that I've been known to write reviews for Newsarama's Best Shots team.

Comics are such a weird thing.  It's so fragmented that it's hard to figure out what's what sometimes.  O.k., it's hard to figure out what's what most of the time.  There's just so much of it that I don't think anyone has a view of what's comics really is.  Is it the direct market?  Is it everything that falls into Scott McCloud's definition of sequential art?  Is it an art form or a communication device?  Is it superheroes?  (Yes, in this day and age, that's a legitimate question that's probably more relevant now than it was 10-15 years ago because all most people see are superheroes.)


Comics are so much and every one is different in wonderful ways.  To have a catholic view of comics is actually pretty difficult because there is so much of it and it's coming at us in so many different ways today; comic shops, book stores, web comics, digital comics, manga, BD, mainstream, alternative, independent, conventions, festivals, magazines, comic racks, graphic novels, OEL and untranslated.  The list just goes on and on.

It's hard to know where to begin and end when it comes to paying attention to comic books.  I'll admit that superhero comics books are still just too damn easy for me.  They're the junk food that goes down oh so easily that I can completely turn my brain off and dive right into them.  I read them because they're comfortable, familiar and safe.

Of course, I read a lot of other comics because they're uncomfortable, unfamiliar and dangerous.  And in the end, I probably get a lot more out of those than I do out of the superhero comics.  Secret Wars is fun (there, I said it publicly) but honestly, there's nothing to it.  It's Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic producing empty calories that just go to your waist in the same bad ways that McDonalds does.  Remember that documentary Super Size Me?  That's Marvel.  That's DC.  And it's probably most of the direct market even if Dark Horse, Image and Oni Press are the equivalent of ordering off of the more nutritional parts of the menu.  You know, the stuff that doesn't taste as good but you tell yourself that it's healthier and better for you.  They're the salads to Marvel's Big Mac.  

Maybe we ignore other types of comics because we don't want to consider just how unhealthy what we're digesting really is.  And the scary part of this is that our unhealthy habits are leaking into the rest of the world.
Box Office Mojo's All Time World Wide Grosses as of July 23rd, 2015
Three out of Ten of the top largest grossing movies are based on Marvel Comics right now. This is the world that we wanted right?  And look at the rest of that list.  There's not a lot of variation in the type of movies that these are.  Frozen and maybe Titanic are the outliers, aren't they?

Butcher and Aoki are right to call out comic fandom for what they will and won't talk about or consume but let's not act like it's just comic fans that are so myopic in their viewpoints.  As Arrant pointed out, the coverage at Newsarama is at least partially dictated by the hits that certain stories gets and that's the audience deciding what it wants.  It's the digital version of voting with their wallets.

We're well into an age where being a comic fan in 2015 is fundamentally different than being a comic fan in 2005.  It's much more than the difference between fans in 2005, 1995, 1985, 1975 or 1965 ever were.  As the fanbase has shifted and evolved in the past ten years, the hardline camp of "true comic fans" have remained static and they're the ones that drive traffic to sites like Newsarama, Comic Book Resources and Bleeding Cool.  They're not necessarily "comic fans" but more of a subset of it-- let's call it "direct market fans" even though they will probably chafe at that designation.  And Newsarama, CBR and Bleeding Cool are direct market sites. And the comic book movies that are becoming very popular are the direct market movies.

It's all too easy to have a narrow view of comics even as we're celebrating diversity.  Diversity means so much more than Ms. Marvel or Batgirl.  It means Smile and Drama.  It means Sunny and it means One Piece.  It means Noah Van Sciver and Whit Taylor. Diversity in comics means getting out of the safety of comics that are probably written and drawn by people who look like you, who have read the same things that you've read and have the same worldview that you have.  Diversity is great and it's about time that we accepted it more than as a token gesture of development of comics.

Comics are changing greatly right now.  If you're not, I'd like to say get ready to be left behind but I don't think that's going to happen.  Most likely if you're not flowing with the changes, the types of comics that you've always read are going to always be produced and you're always going to have your safe places on the internet.  But if you're not willing to change because you like what you like (and honestly, there's nothing wrong with that,) just get out of the way of those who are trying to find the new, the diverse and the challenging.

If comics are as simple as Scott McCloud's definition of them, comics should be everything we want them to be and they should be better than they are now.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

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The Photographer


The Photographer: Into War-torn Afghanistan with Doctors Without Borders
Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, Frederic Lemercier
Published by First Second

Photojournalism, Afghanistan, oral history -- it sounds like heavy stuff, and it is literally heavy as well -- in a coffee table sized, 288 page book, and I’ve avoided reading this book for as many years as I’ve been encountering it at my local library. But at some point, when you’ve read everything else on the shelf, The Photographer calls your name, and you must answer. And I am so very glad I did, finally. It’s the all too true story of photographer Didier Lefèvre’s stint traveling through rural Afghanistan with Doctors without Borders (MSF) in the mid-1980s. The country was in the midst of war with the Soviet Union at the time, and landmines, internal strife between towns and factions, and extreme poverty marked the experience of rural Afghan life. Lefèvre sets out to document this rural existence so utterly foreign to the Western world  - and often seems in total awe of both its beauty and tragedy himself. His photographs of traveling caravans, MSF surgeries, invalids young and old  and the rolling hills  of the countryside are  utterly foreign but resonate powerfully and familiarly with universal experiences of personal interconnectedness, the value of work and sacrifice, and physical suffering.


The story is divided into three parts, the first being Lefèvre’s tenuous acclimation to Afghanistan and its cultural landscape - especially the tricky process of discerning who commands respect and who truly deserves it.  The second part was perhaps the most emotional, in which he recounts the work of the MSF doctors, who do everything they can in spare and sometimes squalid conditions, working to gain and keep the trust of populations who’ve had very little access to modern medicine. The doctors’ devotion to their work, even when it seems futile or hopeless, is absolutely breathtaking -- and to think that they continue work like this throughout the world is an awesome thing. The third act, in which Lefèvre’s decides he can no longer follow the MSF workers who have decided to extend their mission for a few weeks, and his disastrous attempt to forge his own path back to civilization, is almost unbelievable in its intensity and moments of white-knuckle fear, but having gotten to know Didier in the first two sections, you find yourself all in and almost reliving the experience of being stranded with a wounded horse, near death, on a snowy mountaintop for days.

Emmanuel Guibert, who has groomed and guided this fascinating story into the graphic novel format, is a master of this particular genre. The graphic visualization of a powerful oral history is the focus here, which he does by obtaining a true knowledge and intimacy of the person whose story he is representing. He’s also produced  Alan’s War and How the World Was, which  recount the life of an American G.I. before and during World War II  - a story that got told simply because Guibert met Cope as an older man living in France. Guibert’s artwork is precise and selective, but draws your attention and directs it  to the words of his subject instead of  trying to impress us with to his own incredible artistry. In The Photographer, it’s particularly interesting to have his work interspersed with Lefèvre’s photographs of the actual events. It’s lyrical,nearly seamless, and an extremely absorbing, simultaneously  journalistic and deeply emotional collage.


In the end, Emmanuel Guibert's highly detailed illustrations, intensely researched stories, and holistic understanding of his subjects' strengths, flaws, values and passions can seem a bit daunting when you crack open one of his books -- he's handing on all the work he's taken to get to know someone deeply over to you. But don't be afraid! His work is some of the most innovative use of the graphic novel format I've ever seen, without a hint of gimmick to it, and some of the smartest and most accessible use of oral history out there, irregardless of format. Do yourself a favor, do the rewarding work of reading it -- you'll be glad you did, and hungry for more.


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

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Wart - Book 2 by Ammar Al-Chalabi and Chris Welsh


Written by Chris Welsh
 Art by Ammar Al-Chalabi
At the end of Book 1, Wart had been kidnapped once again and was about to meet some cunning and yet wholly incompetent Dark Monks. After spending his last few nights being dragged from dimension to dimension, Wart's sanity is on the verge of collapsing and the small snippets of information he receives are nowhere near enough. Despite this book rejoining the story during another hijacking, it also shows Wart starting to embrace the world that he's found himself in and the beginnings of him driving his own journey.
During his trip to each dimension last issue, Wart was told by each group that he encountered that each of the other groups was malevolent and not to be trusted. This book's meeting with the Dark Monks completes the cycle by telling us that they believe that even the Elder Gods themselves have been infiltrated. This is a clever decision that takes the dramatic irony which usually helps the reader and turns it against us, blurring the lines between good and evil even further.
Despite all of the supernatural politics  and treachery, the book never takes itself too seriously. It retains its fantastic combination of humour and horror from the first book via character moments and lines that wholly juxtapose the dramatic scenes surrounding them. Along with that, there are some delightfully self-referential moments that make light of the genre that this book fits in. While this could potentially be jarring, it lightens up the tone of the series just enough that you feel as though it belongs. Whether or not this is an indication about Wart's ultimate fate remains to be seen.
notTakenTooSeriously
Al-Chalabi's artistic style really sucks you into this disgusting and yet inviting world with the right level of harrowing and exaggerated features. The detail with which he depicts the many creatures that Wart encounters is remarkably nightmarish. Even in groups of similarly styled creatures, each of them has a distinct enough style that they each feel unique.
When Wart falls into the void, there is some gorgeous panel work that, when coupled with the narration boxes guiding his fall, create a wonderful feeling of motion. However, there are some zoomed-in panels where an establishing shot would be have been helpful to fully glean a point of reference for what is occurring. The context can usually be gained by looking at subsequent panels, but can occasionally break up the flow of the story.
A specific colour pallet has been selected for each of the worlds that Wart travels between. The world of the water-dwellers has a blood-red sky to match the unquestionable horror that we encounter there. The previously mentioned Dark Monks exist in a world between worlds and exist in front of an appropriately white and disturbingly empty background.
The main world where Wart remains trapped in an asylum is covered with varying grey and black tones. This allows us to subconsciously associate this area with depression and loneliness and yearn for the colourful worlds that come with adventures outside of it. However, when Blythe makes her first appearance, the colour of her blue dress stands out against the background as a shining light of hope and a promise of something better.
colourContrast
One of the defining mysteries of the last volume was the enigmatic woman with the mysterious numbers carved into her face. While there were hints in bonus chapter 3.5 about her location, Wart remained completely clueless. Through a series of events, he is finally able to track down the person that he believes is his path out of his living nightmare. Instead of a comforting promise, both Wart and subsequently the reader are greeted with hostility.
By introducing Blythe as a confrontational and untrustworthy character, it highlights the plight our main character has found himself in. Even though she signified his only hope in a world out to get him, Wart has to deal with the fact that she only takes him along because he was in the right place at the right time. The epitome of Wart's life currently appears to be misjudging situations and finding himself getting either physically beaten or dismissed as unimportant. By creating a lowly punching bag as a protagonist, Welsh has created a far more compelling character that you hope will eventually take complete control of his destiny and fight back.
blytheIsRude
As with the last book, the collected version of the story comes with a bonus little story as a reward. It provides another little story that explains the history behind a recurring and previously unexplored character. It is amusing and tragic in equal measures and is a great addition to the universal lore being constructed here. If you're in love with this world and are looking for an excuse to splash out on these collections, then the bonus stories will definitely please you.
With the recently announced Kickstarter to raise money for Book 3, Wart has a bright future and looks to be expanding further and further on what it's already established. Now that Wart has found himself no longer alone, the book seems to have found itself shifting towards its humorous nature. Knowing the Lovecraftian stories upon which this comic is based, this is likely a shield for future tragedy. This team knows how to work together marvellously with the light-hearted and yet ominous story intertwining with the art. Go and get involved in this series before it gets away from you.

Monday, July 20, 2015

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Week(end) Pattering for July 20, 2015-- Post Con Links

** Call me "Sal Paradise" because I'm on the road!  (I always find that a little Jack Kerouac humor goes a long way with the kids.)
“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
** In case you haven't noticed, this is a few days late because I spent the better part of a weekend driving to see Civil War LARPers.  Only they go for the respectful name of "re-enactors."  Sounds legit when they put it that way.

** This past week the world was in post-SDCC malaise.  Everything big comic-wise was announced leading up to SDCC but there was one big piece of news announced early during San Diego that has surprisingly not gotten a lot of play.  On the Thursday of the big show, it was announced that B.P.R.D. cowriter John Arcudi would be leaving the Mignolaverse books later on this year. Arcudi has a 10+ year run working with Mike Mignola on The B.P.R.D. and various other related books and helped architect the end of the world with Mignola.

With all of the writing for the past 10 years credited to both Mignola and Arcudi, it's sometimes tough to tell exactly what's Arcudi's doing and what's Mignola's.  At a very high level, Mignola seems to be the overall vision setter of everything that happens while Arcudi is the one that makes it happen.   Arcudi's maybe even been the sensible one who has kept everything focused and moving forward.  It will be weird to see B.P.R.D. books without Arcudi's name on them.

Along with the news that Arcudi is leaving, announcements were made that Chris Roberson and Paolo Rivera would be joining Mignola on a new Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. comic. So that's exciting as well.



**Eddie Campbell talks to Paste about the first omnibus of his Bacchus series that was just released by Top Shelf Comix.  If you've seen his Alec omnibus The Year Has Pants, this new Bacchus collection is just about the same size.
Despite the mythological trappings, there’s plenty of the ordinary in “Bacchus.” At its heart the title is mostly about two men-Bacchus and Simpson-drinking, philosophizing, traveling and swapping stories. Simpson in particular speaks with a hyper-literate specificity that seems to suggest he might be Campbell’s surrogate in this world, but Campbell says there’s plenty of himself in Bacchus too.

“They’re probably the light and dark of my personality,” he says. “That bookish side of me comes out in Simpson, and when I’ve had two or three gin and tonics the other side comes out.”
** After this week's reveal of Marvel's hip-hop variant covers, David Brothers wrote about the poorly thought-out execution of this particularly when looking at Marvel's track record of hiring black creators.
Axel Alonso said Marvel has been in a long dialogue with rap music, but that isn’t true. It’s a long monologue, from rap to Marvel, with Marvel never really giving back like it should or could. Break the Chain was decades ago, you know? (I did appreciate the Aesop Rock shout-outs in Zeb Wells & Skottie Young’s fantastic New Warriors from way back, however!)
He also links to an related and enlightening comic by Whit Taylor at The Response.

Shawn Prior also talks about this move by Marvel, framing the conversation around artists that it would have made sense for Marvel to recruit for his campaign.
These creators spoke to an audience that felt alienated by most of the geek crowd when they went to comic cons or comic book stores because of their love for Hip-Hop and the culture. It helped others relate and bridge a gap with others between Hip-Hop & comic books. It brought folks together. There was a love in the creation of these covers.

And all the covers these artists created MADE SENSE. There was a rhyme, reason, and purpose behind every piece of art and cover.
** Berkeley Breathed is doing more Bloom County!! He's publishing on Facebook so I had to back off of my usual stance of following creators or celebrities on that system because, come on, this is more OPUS!!!  And it's not like Breathed hasn't tried to come back to these characters before, usually to less than spectacular results.  But his cartooning hasn't missed a step yet.  Looking at his characters, his line, his pacing, you'd think that it's 1985 again and Breathed is having a lot of fun with that as well.


Gary Tyrell writes about the influence of Bloom County on webcomics.

** Comic writer Van Jensen has an interesting insiderish view of San Diego Comic-Con International.
I talked with a couple of guys who work for a company that creates geek-centric board games, and they came to Comic-Con to scout it out to potentially set up a booth in the future. Their product would fit in, without question. But they said they’re dead set against tabling at Comic-Con. They see the show as too big for its own good, so busy that everyone who isn’t an A-list star gets lost amid the noise.
Comic conventions are in a fascinating place right now.  You've either got the big gargantuan shows that are more about culture and business or you've got the art festivals that are about a different type of comic than what Reed Exhibitions or the San Diego organizers seem concerned about right now.  In Chicago, we have two very different shows in Reed's C2E2, a SDCC wannabe (actually more of a NYCC wannabe) and CAKE, very much a gymnasium, get-the-gang-together show.  We've also got a Wizard World, but the less said about that, the happier we'll all be.

There's going to be a lot of talk about the sustainability of these type of shows or what these big types of shows are even about.  But as comics continue to be a driver of pop-culture, it's concerning to see comics become less and less important to these kind of shows.  And maybe it's time that we embraced that.

Look at the Eisner winners this year.  It's a list that doesn't look like anything else that came out of Comic-con.  It's an inclusive list.  It covers a wide range of types and styles of comics.  It's not full of books that are created just to be movie R&D, even if there are a few comics there that already have movie deals.  Even as types of comics become more mainstream because they're the types of comics that everyone is seeing on their movie screens and TVs.  The Eisners, celebrating the "best" of comics as much as any awards can, celebrated the fringe of comics and that's what we should be really looking at right now.  That fringe today is what can be defining the mainstream of tomorrow.


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Lucy Bellwood Launches Baggywrinkles Collection Kickstarter


We've written extensively here on Panel Patter about Lucy Bellwood's creative endeavors, whether it's working collaboratively as part of the (hopefully soon to be back in action) Cartozia Tales group project or on solo work such as her articles on The Nib.

Talented at both autobiographical work or fiction, Lucy's probably best known as the comic creator who knows a ton of stuff about sailing. Now she's taking the non-fiction mini-comics she's been writing and drawing for years, Baggywrinkles, and putting it together into a 100-page softcover collection.

Here's Lucy's description of Baggywrinkles, in her own words:
Baggywrinkles is one-part educational textbook, one-part autobio memoir, and one-part historical joyride.
The issues begin with Bellwood's "running off to sea," and continues with stories about the problems with the concept of walking the plank, nautical tattoos, and even (with co-writer Eriq Nelson) a rather detailed look at Scurvy.

Come on, you know you want that!


If you are familiar with Lucy's work, you know that she's able to weave observations of the world with personal anecdotes, such as her mini, "Back to the Seas Again" which I reviewed here.  A short snipped of what I said:

This comic reminded me a lot of my favorite comic travelogue, Carnet de Voyage from Craig Thompson, because of its mix of personal reflection and the world around the artist. The blend of inner thoughts and external actions is a tricky mix to manage, but Lucy gets it just right.

She also does a great job on the illustrations here. While it's hard to make boats look different from each other if you're a land lubber, I had no problem getting a feel for the life on the boat, thanks to strong panel composition and amazing detail work that absolutely nails the place settings. While most artists might have drawn general backgrounds (if any at all), even the place where Lucy gives a talk is illustrated down to the trees in the background, peeking out against the windows.
Baggywrinkles is in the same vein, so if you liked "Back to the Seas Again," helping to pre-fund Bagglewrinkles is a no-brainer. If you need more proof, they're available online for you to read before you commit to helping with the Kickstarter.

Lucy's goal is $15,000, which she breaks down in detail, similar to what her fellow Periscope Studio-mate Erika Moen did for the Oh Joy Sex Toy Kickstarters, showing why she's asking for this number. To help her meet the goal and ensure the project moves forward, there are tiers ranging from $8 for a digital copy of the book to $12 for a digital collection of her work of the past year along with the new book to only $16 for a print copy of Baggywrinkles (which includes the PDFs as well). At the higher end, you can pay $100 for a signed and numbered print, $350 for original art, or even $550 for a custom watercolor of a ship of your choice. All of those latter items include the book as well.



If Lucy makes her goal and exceeds it, another Panel Pal, Joey Weiser (along with  Michele Chidester) gets involved, adding color to the book. It's always fun to see two comics friends collaborate, and Joey's color work is exceptional. That would be a really cool addition, but first things first--the project needs to fund.


In addition to being a great creator, Lucy is a wonderful person who was very supportive when my spouse and I were moving to Portland, and watching her career really take off in the past year has been an absolute pleasure. Let's cap that year off with a successfully funded project.

You can fund Lucy's Bagglewrinkles Kickstarter here.  For more information on Bellwood as a creatore, please visit Lucy's website.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

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Graphic Nonfiction: Andy Warner Drips Knowledge about Coffee

The new Nib, now with corporate sponsorship,* is still putting out some great work. Here's Panel Pal Andy Warner, who will be at the Portland Zine Symposium this weekend if you're in Portland, Oregon, continuing his fine skills at chronicling neat-but-obscure facts.

This time, Andy's got the scoop on how one woman, fed up with ground-filled coffee, created the coffee filtration system on her own, and was such a big success, she was able to employ her whole family. It's a great story of a woman in business, and Andy's typical strong mix of visuals (this time, with a decidedly lighthearted bent) and just enough factual text, combine for a story that's a must read when you're having your morning coffee.

Here's a sample from the comic:


You can read all of Andy Warner's "How One German Mom Single-Handedly Changed How We Drink Coffee" here.

*I trust Matt Bors not to take bad money, and if it's helping creators get paid, then so much the better. Still, I miss the old Nib a ton.