Friday, October 24, 2014

Planet Gigantic #0 and #1

Planet Gigantic #0 and #1
Story and letters by Eric Grissom
Art and cover by David Halvorson
Action Lab Entertainment

Planet Gigantic is an entertaining new all-ages science fiction series from Action Lab Comics, with a classic 50's sci-fi feel to it. Issue #0 tells the origin story for two of the main characters, and issue #1 contains two stories, "Planetfall" and "Lyana the Seeker."  These are good stories for school-age kids and up, and are engaging, mysterious and fun.

Issue #0 isn't necessary for enjoyment of the series, but provides some helpful background that is alluded to more indirectly in issue #1. The Wunderkind Corporation (great name for a futuristic company) genetically engineers two children, siblings Yuri and Valentina*.  Valentina has the ability to manipulate gravitational fields, and Yuri has power over electromagnetic energy. They're sent into deep space to collect and analyze mineral samples, aided by an android called MOTHER. The story jumps ahead 15 years, where Yuri and Valentina are doing analysis outside their ship when them come under attack from space spiders(!).  Using their skill and abilities, they're able to return to their ship, but it's heavily damaged in the attack.  They're going to have to set down...on a GIGANTIC PLANET.

The "Planetfall" story in Issue #1 picks up immediately thereafter. It begins with a beautiful, pastoral scene, the tranquility of which is disrupted with falling space debris (the Wunderkind ship). Yuri and Valentina survive the landing, but MOTHER does not (however they're able to save what appears to be her CPU). The siblings begin wandering towards a castle in the distance, only to find a rock monster battling a group of what appear to be soldiers. The twins intervene to subdue the monster, and are greeted by Queen Neva of Woodmere (the realm in which they've landed, and one of the realms of Planet Gigantic). Rather than thank them, she takes them prisoner, and after a brief struggle they are subdued.

"Lyana the Seeker" introduces, well, Lyana the Seeker, one of the Seekers who serve Queen Ina, ruler of the skies. She is the greatest of the Seekers, brilliant acrobats for whom nothing is impossible. She's on a mission (flying on her winged lion Syd) to retrieve an ancient artifact known as the Eye of the Sun. She makes her way into the tomb of Zon the Betrayer (essentially a floating skeleton that has formed islands around it over time). Using her intelligence and skill, Lyana enters the tomb inside Zon's skull (whoever he or she was). There she discovers something surprising, but eventually (by using both her skills and compassion), she gets the artifact she was seeking.

There's a lot to enjoy in the first few issues of this series. What's clear at the outset is that the creative team is setting this up to be a big (or, GIGANTIC) anthology series where they can tell many different stories, which might intersect at some point. As it's been introduced, there are seven realms on Planet Gigantic, and we've only seen two of them. So, there's potential to expand the series and do a lot of world building.

The art here is bright, dynamic and engaging.  Many of the elements of the series, from the cover to issue #1 to the design of Yuri and Valentina's space-suits, is evocative of classic 1950's science fiction magazines, but with a modern twist (like digital readouts inside their helmets).  Halvorson has an attractive, painted watercolor style here with big, vivid colors well-suited for the subject matter.  Explosions (of which there are a lot, particularly in "Planetfall" are rendered with jarringly bright colors, and some excellent sound effects lettering from Grissom.  Halvorson's lines are dynamic and rough, as in certain places (such as when debris streaks down from the heavens), he goes outside the panel lines. This works nicely to show how disruptive and destructive the falling debris is, compared to the peaceful scene before.

The human (or humanoid) characters are rendered in an exaggerated, angular, cartoon style. In farther-away shots, the character's features are rendered with only small details, but still very expressively (it reminds me a little of Calvin & Hobbes meets Darwyn Cooke, at least in the expressive facial acting). The action and fight sequences in this story are drawn in a big- exciting way. Valentina and Yuri's powers are rendered nicely in those sequences, as her gravitational powers are given a circular effect, and his electromagnetic powers are visualized with something more like a Kirby crackle.  In "Lyana the Seeker," Lyana spends a lot of time in flight, and Halvorson does a great job of portraying the openness and sense of movement in those scenes.

These are compelling stories, particularly the tale of Yuri and Valentina. The siblings only have each other, they're stranded on an alien world, and their first encounter with the locals hasn't gone so well. They've got their special abilities, but it's clear the planet possesses significant threats as well. We don't know so much about their individual personalities, but from the #0 issue it seems like Yuri has been getting bored with their stated mission of collecting and analyzing mineral samples (and really, can you blame him?) but Valentina wants them to stay focused on the mission and is a little more cautious.  Thus far, the story has demonstrated that when they work together, they're very powerful and difficult to stop. I assume that as the story goes along we'll see more of their distinct personalities beyond Yuri being the fun and daring one. The story has already shown that Yuri very much needs Valentina as much as she needs him.  Lyana is also a compelling character that kids should instantly like and relate to. Apart from the fact that she rides a flying (and talking) lion, she's brave, clever and resourceful.

I'm often on the lookout for comics that I can read with my kids, looking for both for appropriateness of subject matter, and even more importantly, something they'll find interesting enough to read. I'm happy to say that Planet Gigantic succeeds on all those counts.  There's enough drama, humor, action and danger to engage bigger kids, but not so much as to scare away the littler ones. You'll enjoy it too.

* Nice nods to Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova, Soviet space pioneers.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Kingdom/Order Part 1

Written and Illustrated by Reid Psaltis
Print Edition Self-Published
Digital Edition Published by Alternative Comics
Webcomic Edition via Study Group

An ordinary guy wearing an ordinary tie looks to have an ordinary life. But as soon becomes clear, he's got a strange affiliation with the birds and beasts that finds him driving away from the city and into the woods in the first part of an intriguing, richly illustrated story from Reid Psaltis.

The first thing that really stands out to you when paging through Kingdom/Order is the artwork. Not every creator is able to switch easily between wooded glens and urban banality, but Psaltis is able to make it work. Opening in the forest, with the sounds of creatures dominating the landscape, we aren't quite sure what's going on, other than there will be a focus on the idea of sound and how the main character, an everyman wouldn't be recognizable in a police lineup, reacts to them.

This brings me to the second clever thing about Kingdom/Order, namely the fact that each animal is given their own distinctive image for speaking, none of which are at all decipherable by the reader. We see that animals are going to be important, but they aren't--at least not in this stage--going to be speaking to us or understandable. Later, we come to realize we aren't going to get human speech, either, and that the man, instead of focusing on the humans around him, prefers to listen to what the animals are saying, from pigeons to rats to toads. Hell, even leaves themselves start to "talk" to the man, assuming we're in his point of view. (That's not 100% explicit, but I believe that to be true.)

It makes for a strange atmosphere, and when combined with the heavy use of black ink and panels within panels, there's a definite sense of the unreal, even though just about everything we see (save an expanding hole underneath the subway) is perfect normal. A good example is roughly to the right of this paragraph, where we see an overarching page scene (the subway), with three smaller panels depicting the main action (the man discovering the hole and getting pulled in).

I really like how this effect allows Psaltis to set the scene with a larger image and still provide extra scenes. He sometimes does this over half or even a third of a page, too, which again makes the whole story feel like it has extra depth.

Psaltis' art style is extremely realistic throughout, with most objects receiving quite a bit of detail, like the contours of a pigeon's feathers or the tiles on the wall of the subway station. When not fully fleshed out, they're usually silhouetted in black, but it's still clear what the animal or object is supposed to be. What I found interesting was that most of the human world objects are given more white space and light, while anything to do with the animals, particularly in the woods, is shown mostly in black, with white being used to create details and reverse shading. It's a great effect, and again gives this comic a lot to recommend to a reader who can appreciate the art and craft that went into its design.

Most of this review has focused on the artistic side of things, because it's a bit hard at this point to know the overall story, since this is just the first part (of three planned sections). We understand that the man has a connection to animals, but what he'll do next is as much a mystery to him as it is to us by the end of this section. For some, that may be a bit unsatisfying, as there really isn't any resolution here; Psaltis is just stopping things at a breaking point, but it's not a dramatic one or a revelation. If that tends to bother you, or you like to read complete stories, it may be better to wait for more of the story to be completed. Right now, Part 2 is going live on Study Group, so it looks on pace to finish, always a good thing (and not to be taken lightly, given how many minis I've read where I never got to see the end).

I immediately got behind this one because of the visuals, and I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes. This one is definitely on the strange/mystical side, and anyone who enjoys comics of that type definitely need to check it out.

You can get it digitally from Alternative here.
Here's the link to Part 1 on Study Group
And here's Reid's website

Zenith: Phase 1

Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Steve Yeowell
Published by 2000 AD

While best known for publishing Judge Dredd, the long-running British comics anthology 2000 AD frequently publishes stories within different continuities. Zenith is one of these offerings, and it's also the first long-form comics work of Grant Morrison, better known as the writer behind the amazing modern relaunch of the Doom Patrol. (And some other stuff. This reviewer only knows about the Doom Patrol.)

The titular superhero is the offspring of two other superheroes, members of the government-bred team Cloud 9, which was itself created in the moments after World War II in order to protect Britain from rogue Nazi supermen. (Its previous safeguard, a superhuman named Maximan, was blown up along with his Nazi equivalent by an American atomic bomb. As one does.) Cloud 9, however, came of age in the swinging sixties, and the ones who don't disappear become hippies and malcontents, eventually losing their powers along with their ideals. The second-generation Zenith is himself a Billy Idol-esque rock star who uses his powers as mere stage pyrotechnics. But when Britain is again threatened by crypto-Nazis performing the Ritual of the Nine Angles (Grant Morrison, everybody!), will Zenith have the strength to put aside his fame and get the remaining members of Cloud 9 back together for one last fight?

As the story goes on, readers learn that just as Germany hasn't lost its Nazis, the surviving Cloud 9ers haven't lost their powers. The team includes Peter St. John, a mystic turned Tory politician, an alcoholic Welshman known as the Red Dragon, and mild-mannered journalist Ruby Fox as Voltage. Together with Zenith, this very British superhero squad takes on Lovecraftian monstrosities, and if the final act is a bit of a deus ex machina, it can mostly be forgiven. The art is of a standard superhero style, occasionally panning out to a splash page (some of which are in color), but mostly arranged in a typical grid. It's a fun comic, even if the Morrison-isms only come out in dribs and drabs. (Though this reviewer did notice the description of a failed Cloud 9 test baby in the form of a living whirlwind that "rose up in a storm of shapes, speaking in tongues, and simply would not die.")

The real question is, does this hold up? Yes and no. While the story is weird and fast-paced, it's also quite dated, both in the references to eighties culture and in the general style of storytelling. It is clear even without being told that this is a story by a new writer, one obviously influenced by the deconstructionist work of then-revolutionaries Frank Miller and Alan Moore. One gets the feeling that this probably wouldn't have been reprinted (in a deluxe hardcover, no less!) if it hadn't been for Morrison's current cachet.

If you're a diehard Morrison fankid, you'll want this in your collection. Same if you're a huge fan of 2000 AD. But if you're new to either, start elsewhere. Zenith is a history lesson in the early years of both Morrison and deconstructionist comics in general, and can be appreciated as a comic in its own right, but there is weirder and stronger stuff out there by Morrison.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Flowers of Evil

Written and drawn by Shuzo Oshimi
Published by Vertical Inc

It seems to be a pretty common consensus that middle school sucks. It’s a time in which a lot of things change, when you start to come in to who you are and figure out what you enjoy and start to get the vaguest inklings of what you want. It is before you know what is normal, and start to question if you are (even though you’re pretty sure you’re not and that funny feeling you get sometimes or all those stupid pimples make you a freak). Coming of age is a terrifying thing, no matter who you are, or where you’re from. The Flowers of Evil is a bildungsroman in the vein of Palahniuk, exploring self-imposed isolation as well as the societal boundaries of normal and perverse during an emotionally intense time in one’s life, and it does so in a way that is both intellectually and emotionally engaging.

A quiet middle school boy steals his crush’s gym clothes in a fit of emotion, but he is seen by Nakamura, the strange (and somewhat sadistic) girl from his class. She forces him to sign a contract guaranteeing their friendship, threatening to tell his secret should he ever break it. The story is ultimately about loneliness, that singular, sad person who is just a little too awkward, a little too different to make friends easily, and it is meaningful for this reason. Oshimi’s art is excellent – I never found myself confused as to who was who, nor was I ever unclear on what was happening in the story. In particular, I was blown away by his panel layouts. There were several times in the eleven volume series that I found myself simply fascinated by his creative usage of panels and page.

It is often difficult to force oneself to consider not only the circumstances, but personality of someone else. It’s hard to accept that another person’s reality is extremely different from our own, that what they see and what they think will never be exactly the same as what you see and think. Nakamura is a lonely girl, sad and strange. When she is presented with the possibility that she is not alone, that Kasuga is an individual who is unlike the rest of the placated shitbugs that surround her, and may be as different as she is, she takes full advantage of the chance (and him) to finally have a friend. She gets her hopes up, she thinks she may have found what she needed. What both she and Kasuga find, though, is not what either of them expect. It is this dive into the nature of solitude, feeling and filling that need to have someone else who is like you, as well as the reality/relatability of Nakamura’s character, that makes The Flowers of Evil such a powerful book.

This is not a manga for everyone. I, personally, loved it. But there are several elements that may turn some people off. The nature and point of the story, combined with the age of the characters as well as the implied (but never explicit) sexuality and perversion, may make this an uncomfortable read for some. However, I feel The Flowers of Evil tackles a topic that needs to be discussed, and does so in a way that is tasteful and engaging. If you can appreciate a coming of age story that actively discusses all of the weird stuff that happens at that time (in a rather Palahniuk-esque way), then The Flowers of Evil should be in your to-read stack now.

Monday, October 20, 2014

You Should Go to the Locust Moon Comics Festival on October 25th

While I personally no longer live on the East Coast, I wanted to make sure anyone who does is made aware of the Third Locust Moon Comics Festival, being held in Philadelphia, PA on October 25th from 10am to 6pm. As in the past two years, the show will be held at the Rotunda in North Philadelphia, one of the nicest places I've ever been to for small comics/zine shows.

Though I wasn't able to make it the first year due to personal issues, I had an awesome time when I went last year, as I noted in this con report. A combination of a few bigger names (Steranko was the special guest in 2013) along with a ton of indie creators and publishers from around the Philadelphia/New York area, it actually did a great job of complementing the Small Press Expo, not copying it. Sure, a few folks were the same, but I also found plenty of people I hadn't come across yet, selecting some new comics to try and add to my ever-growing roster of indie creators that I follow.

This year looks to be just as good, if not better than their last show. I really wish I could make it, but as with SPX, going to shows on the other side of the country is probably out of the question, at least for now. Still, if you live within a few hours drive or bus ride from Philly and are into the kinds of comics that we feature here on Panel Patter, then you definitely need to make plans to go. The show is free, with a suggested donation.

Need convincing or want some help on who to see at the show? Here are some of the people I'd be looking for if I were going. All links go to profiles of the creators written up by Locust Moon, which really saves me some time (thanks gang):

  • Alisa Harris's collection of cat comics, Counter Attack, should be available at the show, She also has other minis available, too.
  • Bill Roundy has moved more from autobio work and short, funny minis to being the guy who can tell you where best to get a drink in New York City. Either way, he's got a great eye for detail and is a lot of fun just to talk to.
  • Bill Sienkiewicz has evolved into one of the most distinctive creators in all of comics, using a combination of realism and extreme abstraction in a way no one else can match. If you're old, you may remember his early 80s Marvel Covers, which set a bar that others are still reaching for.
  • Brian JL Glass is the writer of Mice Templar and Furious, among other projects.
  • Carey Pietsch is one of the Dirty Diamonds crew, and does amazing work with watercolors. She was recently featured on Panel Patter in an interview by Whit Taylor.
  • Cathy G. Johnston was an Ignatz nominee this year and is one of the newest creators I've started following. She, like Carey, also works well in the area of watercolors.
  • Cody Pikrodt is another person to have an interview on Panel Patter, this time by Rob Kirby. He runs a small publishing line (Ray Ray) and has his own series of mini-comics.
  • Farel Dalrymple is part of Portland-based Study Group, and that's where I think I first ran into his work, which also features watercolors. He's a creator on the rise, so make sure you check him out now, before he explodes in popularity.
  • Jamie Tanner created The Aviary from AdHouse Books, one of the strangest comics I've ever read. If you like your stuff on the tightly drawn but weird side, look him up.
  • Kelly Phillips is another of the Dirty Diamonds, and has started a new mini-series about her time running a Weird Al fansite. So yeah, obviously, she's a person of interest to me!
  • Nobrow Press is a small publisher with a line of great comics that are not to be missed.
  • Pat Aulisio is a comics creator in his own right and also publishes via subscription as Yeah Dude. He'll do everything from abstract work from stoner jokes, sometimes in the same comic.
  • Paul Pope is doing an ongoing series of books about Battling Boy, from First Second. I loved both that have come out so far, as well as his oldie but goodie, Batman: Year 100. Battling Boy was one of the best-received books in 2013.
  • Rafer Roberts is a long time friend of mine, and has been getting his well-deserved due by appearing in all of the Valiant 25th issue specials. What you must get from him at the show is Nightmare the Rat, about a creature from a Laurel and Hardy film who steals teeth. 
  • Retrofit Comics  really got the subscription service for mini-comics idea on the map, even though I know others were doing it, too. Representing them will be co-publisher (and Big Time Star) Box Brown along with Josh Bayer. Box's Andre the Giant was critically acclaimed, but my favorite work of his are when he gets a bit more abstract and uses his art style in very geometric ways. Meanwhile, Josh Bayer taught me not to dismiss comics in the raw style, between his anthologies and work like Raw Power and Theth. This is a must-visit stop when you go to the show.
  • Tom Sioli is the man best able to fill Jack Kirby's shoes, and if you ever wondered what the King might look like doing Transformers and J.I. Joe, look no further than Tom's newest mini-series from IDW. He'll also have Godland, 8-Opus, and plenty of other great, Kirby-infused stories.
  • Whit Taylor is the Ignatz-nominated creator of The Anthropologist as well as the editor of the new collection, Sub Cultures.  I hear she writes for an indie comics website, too. Can't think of the name...

More Rockin' Reprints in Latest Nix Comics Kickstarter

Columbus, Ohio's favorite mixer of music, comics, and horror, Ken Eppstein, is back to work on reprinting two more projects with the help of a pre-order campaign via Kickstarter.

Eppstein, the publisher of Nix Comics, has been using Kickstarter to fund additional publications above and beyond his Nix Quarterly, Nix Western, and Nix Comics for Kids offerings. As with past Kickstarter pre-orders, the projects relate closely to Ken's love of rock n roll, horror, and comics. (For those who don't know, before going into comics publishing, Eppstein ran a music store.)

This time out, the headliner is a collection reptinting Darren Merinuk's Rockin' Bones series. I'm not familiar with it, so I'll go ahead and use Ken's description:
Darren is one of the premier punk, garage and surf artists in the world, who has done 100s of picture sleeves, album jackets and gig posters for bands all over the world.  His Rockin' Bones comics, rife with pin-up girls, monsters and greasy rock idols are inspired by inspired by Cramps records, b-movies and teenage humor mags, are a lost gem of the 90s B&W comic explosion. 
That's definitely in the same vibe as Ken's own comics writing work in Nix, making it a good companion piece. The art samples he's shared look amazing, too--right in that neo-EC Comics style where the creator understand how to use the tropes of the past and re-mix them for a modern audience. The pages on the Kickstarter campaign show tons of stuff going on in every panel, with an illustration style that's right out of the alt comix scene, from the more detailed side that doesn't go off into the raw territory that leaves me personally cold.

Art from Rockin' Bones 
The trade will be pocket sized and $120 pages. It includes a bit of new material as well from Merinuk as well as his perspective on working in comics.

The opening act is a gathering of Ken's now-defunct webcomic Pander Bear, in which Eppstein, along with artist Bob Ray Starker, expressed their frustration with having to do constant promotion in order to keep their various projects alive. It's something anyone who is involved in promotion can understand, even if you're not a comics creator, as the titular character, a man who dresses as a bear and promotes Nix Comics, goes about trying to shill while keeping a shred or two of dignity left.

Pander Bear is a book and record set, because, well, it's Ken here, and any time he can get music into the mix, he will. There's a two-sided 7 inch, which includes the sure-to-be-a-classic* "I Want You To Want Nix" which parodies a certain popular song while encouraging people to buy Nix instead of the crappy comics they're likely to pick up instead.

Set up as gag strips with a punchline, Pander Bear should be fun reading, if you are at all cynical. Lord knows I am, so I get the jokes immediately.

Art from Pander Bear
Assuming listening to the song didn't scare you away from Ken (or this site) for life, the reward tiers start at "pay what you want" for digital PDFs (and I am glad to see that Eppstein is using this strategy which has worked for other Kickstarters I've backed/followed and of course for Ryan Estrada's Whole Story outings) to a $25 combo for both books, which are also available individually.

Higher tiers include getting your very own Pander Bear, posters, original art, and a near-complete run of Nix Comics's line, including the Westerns and Quarterlies.

I've read Nix's publishing line for several years now, both the work where Ken is the main writer and his side projects such as this one where he's selecting other projects to bring back into the public eye. They're always of high quality and those who like music and comics will find Nix's material right up their alley.

This looks to be yet another chapter in the book of Nix, and well worth spending a few dollars on, if you are a horror-music-comics kinda person. Given you can "sample" for only $1, there's very little risk for what I predict will be a very high reward.

You can back the Nix Comics "Rockin' Bones vs. Pander Bear" Kickstater here.

*hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. Ahem.

Interview with Rachel Dukes

At SPX this year, I had a pretty awesome opportunity to sit down and talk with a few of my favorite creators. Now you, yes you, get to share in our exciting conversations about stuff and things.

Rachel Dukes is the creator of Frankie Comics and a frequent contributor to a variety of anthologies and zines. She self publishes her own work, as well as the work of her friends, and may or may not be working on a graphic novel due sometime in 2015. Her work is often about cats, normally her own cat, and her comics tend to have an autobiographical ring to them. I was able to talk to Rachel about her inspirations, animation, cats, and art as catharsis.

Possible Trigger Warning: This conversation very briefly touches on the topic of sexual abuse.

Guy Thomas: Why do you make comics?
Rachel Dukes: It’s something I’ve always done. I’ve been drawing since I was really little. I was four when The Little Mermaid came out and I thought I wanted to be an animator. Almost immediately, I decided that was too difficult and that I should be a cartoonist.

I create comics as a way to process emotions and understand the world. Sad stories are almost always written for me to process my own feelings of loss or detachment (though the content is rarely directly autobiographical). I write cat stories/gags (like Frankie ComicsFrankie’s Busy Day and Coffee Cats) to entertain myself, for fun. I use anthologies (like Beyond or Subcultures) to create work with my friends.

Thomas: How do you think that animation influenced your comics?
Dukes: It’s hard for me to say. I watched so much children’s media growing up. I still watch a lot of television and movies made for children. It's a genre I've never grown tired of.

I recently realized that I hold children’s media to a higher standard than most things. I get really angry when I feel like a studio has fumbled messages in children's films. I do think people are getting closer to a better standard of morals and storytelling geared toward children, but it could definitely be better.

Thomas: Miyazaki would talk a lot about how he would make movies that make him happy – he’s an incredibly depressed man. Do you think that when you make media for children and young adults, you use that as a way to make yourself feel happy, and to show people how to help themselves be happy too?

Dukes: 100% yes. I get significantly more enjoyment out of the creation process on my all-ages work than I do from the projects I’m creating specifically for adults or young adults. Especially the cat stuff. That’s what makes me laugh.

Thomas: What do you think was most influential on what you do, besides The Little Mermaid?

Dukes: With regard to children’s media?

Thomas: With regard to what you create, and how you create what you create.

Dukes: If you look at how I draw cats, it’s obvious that I was obsessed with Sailor Moon as a teenager.

Thomas: Weren’t we all?

Dukes: We all were. Most people don’t draw cats exactly like that, though.
I didn’t realize I did that until recently, either. A couple of weeks ago I was getting ready for a Sailor Moon gallery show in LA. I was drawing my piece for it and I thought "I gotta look up how to draw Luna for this show. I have to figure out how to draw this cat. ... OH! It’s exactly how I draw every cat ever."

But to answer your question about influences: other cartoonists that influenced me would be Terry Moore, Brandon Graham, Yuko Ota, Liz Suburbia... plenty of other modern peers who are still creating comics today.

Thomas: When you look at your own work, and you look at what you do with it: what you think it does for other people? What do you think about that?

Dukes: It’s hard for me to look at my own work objectively. By the time I’m done creating anything I generally hate it because I’ve looked at it for too long. (At least temporarily.) So it’s really hard for me to look at my work and see what the reader gets out of it. But, you know, reading comics and watching movies is a subjective experience. Everyone will get something different out of the same piece.

Thomas: Why do you think comics are important? Both to yourself and to society.

Dukes: For myself, creating comics is definitely the thing that saved my life. Comics gave me a sense of self at a time in my life where I had none. They helped me gain a sense of self-reflection and overcome crippling depression and anxiety as a teenager.

As a medium, it’s important for society for many reasons. At a basic level, they’re a good tool for children's reading comprehension. They’re good for strengthening learning through visual storytelling (the visual comprehension component, not just language comprehension).

You can do a lot of things in comics that you can’t do with other media, in regards to storytelling. They’re an outlet for creators, they’re an escape for readers. There are a lot of different ways that comics are important for people.

Thomas: What are you working on now?

Dukes: I’m drawing Frankie Comics #3 and a ten page back up story for Garfield. I'm writing a pitch for an Adventure Time back up story. I just started thumbnailing my first graphic novel for Abrams, which I’m supposed to turn in in January... So, fingers crossed.

Thomas: Can you talk about the graphic novel?

Dukes: I can't say much yet. The book is centered around a young woman's recovery from sexual assault. But it's less about the instance itself and more about inner strength and recovery as a process.

Thomas: I’ve noticed that in this particular community there are a lot of people who have had some sort of traumatic experience, sexually or otherwise. Do you think there is a reason why people who have had bad things happen to them find themselves pulled toward comics and cartooning?
Dukes: In my personal experience, the people close to me: most of survivors are strong, autonomous people who don't ask for help in general - even small, normal things. They don't want to burden others, right? They've always been that way, independent of their traumatic experiences. And so, when something like this happens, they have to process it in some other way.

And, you know, it's hard to talk about the bad stuff in life. Even in the safest of spaces. At some point you just get tired of talking about it. So it's only natural to find some other outlet for those emotions, or that ongoing narrative in your head, or whatever it is. You have to put that somewhere. For those of us that are artistically inclined, you’re going to create work about it. Whether it’s poetry, or drawing, or journaling; whether it’s directly, very expressly about that traumatic event, or you write about other content themes just to process your emotions... You write it down, you draw it out.

Thomas: That got dark for a minute. Bringing it back. So, you really like cats.

Dukes: I do.

Thomas: Cats are nice.

Dukes: Yeah. (Laughs)

Thomas: Do you just really like cats, and is that why you write a bunch of comics about cats, or is there a thing? Is there a particular reason for that?

Dukes: I have always really really liked cats. Since I was a toddler I had wanted to have a cat. I was, I am still, actually dreadfully allergic to cats. Asthma attacks, swollen and watery face, the works! I am very, very allergic to cats. So I never got to have one, growing up, to quell that need.

In my early 20s, a cat walked into my apartment and sat down with me. As though we had known each other all our lives! Amazingly, I didn’t have an allergic reaction to her. So, after convincing my partner the cat wouldn't kill me, and some "hide the cat from the landlord" hijinks: I got to keep her. And that is Frankie.

So now, through my 20s, I finally got to fill this lifelong void and feel the enjoyment of being around a cat all the time. Frankies such a huge part of my day to day process that it was inevitable that I would start creating comics about her. Frankie Comics started as a practice exercise during my senior year at CCS. I did them to entertain myself but the internet found them relatable as well. I enjoy making them so I figured it was something to keep doing.

I've created other cat related comics that were not specifically Frankie. There was an assignment at CCS called The Ed Emberly Project where you had to draw a six-page comic in the style of Ed Emberly. I drew a story about a cat who loses his teapot, and he has to go on an adventure to get his teapot back. I drew a relationship comic, Stay With Me, that was about a cat and a wolf...

I wrote and drew a children’s book about Frankie at CCS as well, where Frankie is a stand-in for the child character. It’s a story about moving and being confused about what moving day is. She wants to hang out and do normal stuff but my partner, Mike, and I are awake and moving boxes around. She’s like “I’ll go eat some food!” and we pick up her food and take it and away... she’s like “I’ll go play on my cat tree!” and I pick up the cat tree and take it away... that sort of thing. It’s about transition, confusion, and how cats don't like change.

Clearly, I enjoy cats. Once I started making comings about Frankie, it was clear I couldn't avoid my destiny any longer.

Thomas: Do you think you’re going to combine your enjoyment of making books for children and your enjoyment of making books about cats?

Dukes: I've talked to a children's book agent about the Frankie/moving day book. I was told that if I redrew it in a traditional children’s book fashion and cut the text down (so that it was a new readers book), he might consider pitching it.

I'd like to take some time this fall to redo a couple of pages from it and put together a pitch packet. I have so much other, pressing work on my slate in the immediate future though. I’m not sure when I’m going to get around to it.

Thomas: If you were going to tell someone to read one book, what would it be?

Dukes: The thirty dollars on Blankets is still the best thirty dollars I’ve ever spent.

Thomas: What advice would you give to aspiring cartoonists?

Dukes: Draw comics. Don’t wait till you get "good enough." You'll get "good enough," as you go. Do it now.

Thomas: What’s your favorite dinosaur?

Dukes: Probably apatosaurus? They eat tree stars, right?

You can find Rachel at her website, her Tumblr, and her Twitter.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Get Deadly with de Campi and More Grindhouse in November

Though able to easily transition from writing My Little Pony to Lady Zorro, Alex de Campi is at her best when able to let loose and write without fear of restraint. That was obvious in the excellent 8-issue mini-series, Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight, which debuted last from Dark Horse and included everything from a female prison ship to alien insects.

Now Grindhouse is back for a second helping of 70s drive in movie themed-comics, with Alex once again scripting and a new series of artists helping her craft 4 more 3-part adventures.

Debuting November 12, the first two parter finds de Campi teaming up with well-regarded artist R. M. Guera (of Scalped) for a holiday-themed horror-fest called "Slay Ride," which is described as "a brutal holiday tale of revenge and supernatural terror."

The series this time is fully titled, Grindhouse: Drive in, Bleed Out and I for one can't wait to see just how depraved de Campi can get this year. If we start to get an annual helping of horror like this, I certainly wouldn't complain.

Dark Horse was kind enough to pass along the preview below, to whet your appetite. Enjoy, and don't forget to pick this one up on November 12th!

Friday, October 17, 2014

Dash Shaw's Doctors

Reading Dash Shaw’s latest book Doctors (Fantagraphics) is like stepping into a claustrophobic rainbow-hued episode of The Twilight Zone. This may sound uncomfortable to the prospective reader and that’s because it is. Doctors is not an easy book to read. It’s challenging, not necessarily because of its plot, but because of the relationship between the storyline and art. Shaw’s choices seem calculated, almost painstakingly so, but they are ultimately successful, as they create an enduring uneasy mood which leaves the reader with lingering moral questions.

The story begins when an older woman named Miss Bell falls into a romance with a younger man who she meets at the public pool. This is her first romance after the death of her husband and she appears to revel in her second chance at love until her daughter Laura shows up. Laura is not quite herself, eventually revealing to Miss Bell that she is not actually her daughter but a projection of her memory. Miss Bell has actually died and this is her afterlife. Miss Bell remains resistant to the idea that this life is not real, but eventually begins to question it, only to “wake up” after being revived by the Doctors.

The Doctors, spearheaded by Doctor Cho, use a Charon, his one of a kind medical device, to catapult rich people with unsettled financial situations into “afterlives” which then allows them to be revived long enough to tie up loose ends before dying again. And the track record proves that these patients tend to die very shortly after being brought back to life.

The story follows Miss Bell’s second shot at life and her rapid mental deterioration as she looks for her young lover in vain. Tammy Cho, Doctor Cho’s daughter, who runs this secret operation with him and their assistant William, is the only one who questions the ethics of such an operation. The real Laura (the projection in Miss Bell’s afterlife was manipulated by Tammy) may have wanted to revive her mother to settle her estate, but now she and Tammy shoulder the burden of what to do with a living dead person bereft of meaning and connection in a world she should no longer belong to.

Doctor Cho feels no responsibility to his patients. In fact, he’s almost inhuman himself. The effect of his callousness and narcissism on Tammy runs throughout the book, helping to explain a woman who is essentially an extension of her father.  Interestingly, Doctor Cho’s only sense of obligation and loyalty is to his old friend Clark Gomez, a self-made wealthy man, who reveals to Dr. Cho that he is dying and would like to use his services to buy more time. Despite Tammy’s resistance to this idea, Dr. Cho proceeds, even deciding to participate in Gomez’s afterlife to disastrous effects.

Shaw’s storytelling is impeccable. The specifics of the story are peculiar and complex, yet conventional enough not to alienate the reader. What gives the piece a push into something completely unique is Shaw’s visuals. His panels, largely comprised of medium and close up shots, create cramped, dense spreads that do not let the reader follow the story with distance. You are in it whether you like it or not. His line is functional, meaning that the drawings relay what is intended without any frills. His facial expressions and body movements are somewhat flat. But his compositions are deliberate and smart.  His use of color is also crucial to the mood of the story. Pages range from deep purple to jarring yellow. Certain panels or images differ from the rest of the page. This color instability contributes to the uneasiness and unpredictability of the piece and is crucial in setting this story apart from others like it.

I greatly appreciate Shaw’s continued ability to craft a story with a high level of conscientiousness while not over-working it. It’s a hard balance to achieve, but as Doctors illustrates, it’s a joy to experience when well executed.