October 26, 2009

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Quck Hits: Tarot Cafe Volumes 1-3

Tarot Cafe #1
Written by Sang-Sun Park
Illustrated by Sang-Sun Park

This is the first book in a series about Pamela, a Tarot reader with some secrets of her own. In this mostly set up first volume, we don't learn as much about Pamela as the clients who come to see her. The biggest thing I learned? Be careful what you ask the answers to! This is done in a very pretty line-drawn style that I enjoy quite a bit, and the stories are well-written. Probably the best manwha I've read, not that I read very many.

Tarot Cafe Volume 2
Written by Sang-Sun Park
Illustrated by Sang-Sun Park

Continuing the adventures of Pamela, the Tarot reader. This is done in a very pretty line-drawn style that I enjoy quite a bit, and the stories are well-written. This volume brings some continuity to the series, moving away from the random stories of volume one and tying things into Pamela's past a bit more, along with the standby of any good manga/manhwa series--recurring characters. Definitely worth checking out.

Tarot Cafe Volume 3
Written by Sang-Sun Park
Illustrated by Sang-Sun Park

By this third volume, we're getting to know Pamela's past quite a bit more, and that actually detracts a bit from the book's appeal. While I like getting backstory for our protagonists, it felt like this time around, it was a bit distracting from the theme of the manhwa. However, I still liked it quite a bit. This is done in a very pretty line-drawn style that I enjoy and the stories continue to be very strong, if a bit off the point this time around. This manhwa comes strongly recommended.

October 25, 2009

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Blood Orange #4

Written by Various Authors
Illustrated by Various Artists

This is the final installment of Blood Orange, which was probably for the best. By this time around, the credits are not even in any particular order, which makes no sense to me. Why would you opt to do this as an editor? To anger your reader? To "challenge" them? Just to show you're so hip you don't need to tell us who's doing the artwork?

Well, it annoyed the hell out of me and made it hard for me to appreciate the stories contained within, as this anthology series sort of limps to a close.

Some Googling tells me Rebecca Dart did the opening story, which seems to be mundane until you start peering at the background and notice the subtle changes going on from page to page. All of a sudden, there's quite the story going on, and you start peering at it to see what's happening next. This was probably the highlight of this edition of Blood Orange.

Nicolas Mahler gets a slightly longer story that reminds me of something Jason might have done, as a man in a hospital bed suddenly starts to life his life fully.

Ted May pokes a bit of fun at zinesters with Supply Chain Management, which makes sense only in places, but features a caveman distro, complete with real cave men, so it's hard to complain. That one is probably funniest to those who know folks in the zine world.

Closing things up is an extended piece by Tobais Tak, whose work has probably been the most consistent of all the contributors to Blood Orange. He's got the skewed fantasy thing at work again, this time transitioning into a pseudo-romance. I wasn't quite able to make sense of the ending, but his artwork is visually interesting, and I liked the idea of mashing up genres.

Overall, Blood Orange was definitely an experiment that worked more often than it didn't, but seemed to run out of steam fairly quickly. Still, for those looking for new artists and comics that would have trouble making it on their own in book form, Blood Orange is worth a shot--and also pretty cheap on Fantagraphics's website. If you're willing to take a chance, you might find a new favorite or two.

Blood Orange 1 Blood Orange 2 Blood Orange 3
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Blood Orange #3

Written by Various Authors, including Jeffrey Brown
Illustrated by Various Artists, including Jeffrey Brown

I have to admit that I wasn't really impressed by the third edition of Blood Orange, especially compared to the first two.

The first problem is a decision not to tell you exactly who is doing what by page. I don't see the point to that, other than to annoy the reader.

The second is that the first few pieces, which are apparently by Pakito Bolino, Ben Jones, Fabio Zimbres, and Alex Baladi, are so abstract as to lose my interest very quickly, because none of the art gives me anything visually to hang my hat on. If they had been split up, I might have enjoyed the presentation a bit better, but as it was constructed, I was disappointed.

The first piece I actually liked was by Anders Nilsen, whose work I'd read in Mome. This piece is also similar to the other one I'd read, with simple characters discussing an odd form of philosophy. The artistic change is refreshing, and his acid comments on society are always welcome to me.

Jeffrey Brown makes a repeat appearance, with an excerpt from AEIOU. It's a bit weird to see them out of "context" here, after you read the book. However, it's a good sampling of the material in his larger work, and because he chooses a section, it doesn't feel out of place unless you've read the entire story.

The rest of the stories are not bad, but nothing special. Nicolas Mahler gets another one-pager, Ulf K wonders about the differences between humans and birds, and Scott Teplin draws some intricate abstracts.

None of it, however, is must-read material. Blood Orange 3 is a bit of a disappointment for me, but that's the risks you run with an anthology series. Pick up the first two editions and if you like them, go ahead and move to part three. Otherwise, this one's skippable, unfortunately.

October 24, 2009

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Blood Orange #2

Written by Various Authors, including Jeffrey Brown
Illustrated by Various Artists, including Jeffrey Brown

I actually read this edition of Blood Orange first, waiting for my wife before we headed down to SPX 2008. I think the idea was to prepare for indie comics work by grabbing a short grouping of indie comic stories.

(What can I say? I was a different reader then.)

As with Blood Orange 1, this is a set of short stories by a variety of writer/artists with no two creators working exactly alike. The biggest difference is that with less contributors, each story can be a bit longer.

That means that Cole Johnson's Eighteen gets to run five pages of teenage angst and Chris Wright's touching story of a lonely astronomer gets 18 pages to say everything he'd like. The tale of a man doomed not to be able to touch that which he truly loves would not work in the seven pages allotted to the longest stories in the first edition.

Helge Reumann doesn't need a lot of space to show a rather humorous out of body experience, as a dead man frantically sees how helpless he is to prevent damage to his dead carcass. Not everything needs a lot of space to work. Reumann's use of heavy black ink and strong art likes really helps the narrative. I'd like to see more of her work.

The only person I knew in this group was Jeffrey Brown, and he checks in with one of his little stories from his life, this time about narrowly avoiding a ticket. Brown's stories rely on your ability to relate to him, and I do. If you find his other relationship work boring, however, this is not seeking out just to find a short Brown story.

Lauren R. Weinstein has another one-page comic, this time a sort of choose-your-own-illustration that I thought was kinda neat, and then just a bit later, Rebecca Dart breaks the fourth wall all over the place (literally) in a two-page spread that does a lot with very little illustration.

Tobias Tak only gets one page this time, but uses it well to tell a funny little riff on the granting a wish them, while Ron Rege, Jr. closes things out with a flatulent bunny that is equally funny.

Overall, I think the quality level in Blood Orange 2 is a bit higher than the first volume, and it might have actually been a better place for me to start. If you want to see what Blood Orange is all about, this is probably the one to pick up. Just be warned--this is an anthology of creators on the edge of comic creation, so it's NOT for everyone. I, however, enjoyed it quite a bit!
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Blood Orange #1

Written by Various Authors, including Kevin Huizenga
Illustrated by Various Artists, including Kevin Huizenga

As I've mentioned before, I'm a big fan of anthology series. The key is to understand that you're not going to like everything in the anthology. If you go in with that idea, you'll enjoy it a lot more.

That's definitely the case with Blood Orange, a series that hangs out on the edge of indie comics and dares you to stretch out your taste a bit.

Most of the material consists of one-page strips that do their best to contain the gag all in a set of small panels, such as Birdgame by Lauren R. Weinstein, which shows a set of birds using a viewmaster as a movie theatre or Rick Altergott's The Toilet Bomb, which is exactly what you think it is.

Others are a bit longer, like Grandad by David Collier, featuring an old man jabbering on about his health, with the usual lack of a point.

The best stories use their space to make the story work. Fingertalk by M. Kupperman looks like an instructional comic and parodies the idea of learning the inside story of crime. Fanny & Benny Go to a Baill by Tobias Tak spends just enough time on the story to let the punchline build to an absolutely awful pun (that I loved, of course!). Death and the Maiden really minaturizes the artwork, maing it look as though you're viewing movie film one frame at a time.

I have to admit, however, that a few stories just didn't make any sense to me. A labor of Love, Jazz/Asthma, and even Kevin Huizenga's Fight or Run? were just a bit too bizarre for me. However, that's part of what makes an anthology of this nature work for me as a whole. I got to see some artwork that I'd never pick up if that was all the book contained, but as a part of a flowing set of short narratives, I can appreciate the experimental nature of the work without having to love all of it.

In addition to the wide variety of narrative styles, Blood Orange also provides diversity in the art itself. Some are tightly-drawn, realistic-looking pencils, while others use blocky figures, woodblock-like art, or even characters that are essentially stick figures. While I might not have been able to follow the story, I often could appreciate the artwork of the creator.

Blood Orange is definitely not for everyone. You have to be willing to step outside of your reading comfort zone to see the value in these extremely short stories. If you are willing to take a chance, you might find something you like!
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Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser

Adapted by Howard Chaykin
Illustrated by Mike Mignola and Al Williamson
Dark Horse (Originally Marvel/Epic)


Good stuff, right?

Well, not always, at least not for me in this case.

Chaykin and Mignola both have a strong attachment for Fritz Leiber, a writer who came after Robert Howard and Lovecraft and wrote sort of a hack-and-slash-meets-noir world that works great for them but frankly falls flat for me.

Now perhaps that's the failure of Chaykin to translate it to the comic medium, but I think a lot of it has to do with the source material. I just could not get myself interested in the two protagonists. Fafhrd and gthe Grey Mouser are rogue thieves who mess with the thieves' guild and lose their sweethearts violently. After the typical revenge, they then just sort of plug away as though they'd lost at cribbage or something and had to kill a few people to make up for it.

Typing this, I realize that's the problem. The deaths of the women before we even get a reason to care is so senseless and typical of so many fantasy stories--and yes, I include comic books in this--that my feminist-leaning side said, "this sucks" and nothing could get the story back on my good side. I can deal with the damsel in distress if it's done the right away but this one's so ham-handed (either by Chaykin or his source) that I can't get around it.

Gwen Stacy's death wasn't tossed away as a minor plot point--it still resonates today. These deaths were just thrown in there, made the main characters angry, and we moved on. The women didn't matter at all to the story the author wanted to tell, other than as furniture, and I didn't care for it.

Thus, no matter how potentially interesting things got, I just wasn't ready to enjoy myself. Two magical beings, ghost wolves (the only story in the collection I rather liked), and religious cynicism are thing I'd normally like in a comic, combined with the two men's growing friendship. But like watching an episode of a TV show and not finding it compelling, further reading just didn't motivate me to get over my annoyance back on page twenty-two or so.

The careless treatment of the girlfriends wasn't the only problem with this collection, however. Because Chaykin and Mignola just chose these stories at random, there's no sense of consistency. As Roy Thomas and Kurt Busiek can tell you, when you're adapting things to the comic medium, you must find a way to link stories together. After all, that's what happens in comic books--the end of comic 1 starts the beginning of comic 2, and so on. This series did not do that at all, leaving my scratching my head between chapter breaks trying to figure out where I was in these character's lives. That made my problems worse, since I wasn't exactly digging them to begin with. A few linking panels would have gone a long, long way, even if they were just added for the trade.

There's only one real reason to read this, in my opinion, and that's Mignola's art. As always, he's put together a creepy world with shadows everywhere and a fine sense of how to draw magical beings with menace rather than majesty. He even gets around the Marvel rule of "keep the characters moving" which takes some doing, since this was originally a Marvel Epic book. I am a huge fan of his art, and it's in fine form here.

All in all, though, I don't think it's enough to recommend to anyone. However, if you really like fantasy and are already a fan of Chaykin and/or Mignola, this is probably woth a look.
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Online Manga: What's the Answer? Chapter 1

Written by Tondabayashi
Illustrated by Tonabayashi
Viz (online via Ikki)

I am really terrible about reading comics online, especially if they don't have a way to do RSS updating. This is a shame and I wish I were better at this, as there's a lot of interesting stuff out there.

A case in point is "What's the Answer?", a new series for Viz's Ikki website. This is quick, quirky fun that I think would have difficulty finding success as a print-only venture in the United States, but works well as an online vehicle.

Like something out of Mad Magazine (I almost typed "the late, lamented..." then remembered DC hasn't totally killed it yet), What's the Answer? provides a very quick--and apparently normal set-up, only to give the reader a set of joking answers.

That's certainly not the type of thing that's going to appeal to everyone, let alone enough to justify a print run. But the gag is cool enough that I think more people should read it, and so I wanted to plug it here.

The first installment, viewable at the link above, features a question about jolly old Saint Nicholas. What does he do the night before Christmas? Laundry? Reflect on his lifestyle choices? Something a bit darker? You'll have to click to find out.

I think the best part of What's the Answer? is that unlike most manga, you don't really need to read a lot to see if you like it or not. Read this first episode. It will take you all of a minute. If you like it, then you can stop back for more. If you don't like it, well, we're going to have to have a conversation.

What's the Answer? is part of Viz's onlike Ikki presence. If you can handle web-reading better than I can, check it out. (It even uses a comics reader that works right to left!) Heck, thanks to What's the Answer?, I might stop back more often, too.

October 19, 2009

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Art School Chronicles Year 3

Written by Jessica White
Illustrated by Jessica White
Self-published (Heroes and Criminals Press)

The format and tone of Ms. White's ongoing mini-comic change radically for the third edition of her thoughts on going to art school.

While the drawing has improved even more from the past volume, the confidence of the author has not. This time around. White is having serious doubts about her future. From the first page's depressed self-portrait in a traditional gallery to the metaphorical use of bridges and paths to illustrate the narrative, the story almost needs no words to convey her inner conflict.

That's not to say the narrative is unimportant. If the last comic kept the reader at a bit of an arm's length, this one draws you in and gives you a very good understanding of White's feelings during her third year of school.

Have 15 years of dreams come to naught? Can she come to grips with the low place art plays in today's society and negotiate the problems of creative politics? What about her desire to give back to the world versus the thrill of just creating for creation's sake?

Those are just a few of the thoughts that White considers in this comic. It's a great narrative and I think anyone who is looking for their place in the world can relate to it.

The only mild issue I have, and it's White's comic so she can do whatever she wants, is that we learn almost nothing about her actual experiences in school this time. There's a lot about what to do, but not a lot on what she's actually doing. It takes the story in a vastly different direction, which is not a bad thing, but should be noted for those who are mostly interested in her school life.

White promises in the back of this comic that she will finish the series, and I hope she does. I really want to see how she gets from this confused time of year three to her current business, which seems to make me think the story has a happy ending.

I'm sure there's a great story in there, when she's ready.

If you'd like a copy of Art School Chronicles, you can pick one up at Black Light Diner Distro. [A copy of this comic was provided by the distributor for review. It was pretty easy, because I live with her.] You can also visit Ms. White's website for more on what she's doing currently.

October 18, 2009

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Art School Chronicles Year 2

Written by Jessica White
Illustrated by Jessica White
Self-published (Heroes and Criminals Press)

Just by looking at the cover, you can tell there's a major change in the artistic quality between year one and year two of Ms. White's ongoing series about her decision to change her life and go back to art school for print making.

Part of this is that she is no longer doing it as past of a 24 hour comic project, but I think a bigger aspect of this is a greater interest in the medium of zines and wanting to invest more time in the finished product.

Or maybe she just likes drawing a ton of rabbits. I'm not quite sure.

In any case, there is a strong focus on White's love of drawing and it shows from the first panels on, as wood paneling gets intricate details, clothing is more completely covered, and incidental drawings abound.

Year two finds White struggling to find an artistic identity, using various influences to refine her style and critics like Scott McCloud to find out more about creating comics. They're on the move again, to a new city that will help further White's degree. This time, there are more people working with her, and it helps to make the transition easier, I think.

However, all is not perfect. White's work is not quite as much as she'd hoped, and then there's an academic issue to deal with. All in all, it's a scary time, but she's going to press on into year three.

The craft takes center stage this time, both in discussion and page layout. White plays with the structure of a comic, using changing camera angles, and character size to reflect mood. What's a bit lost, however, is the touch of the personal. White only mentions her non-art life in passing, and mostly at the end, almost as an afterthought. I liked the balance of the first year a bit better, personally.

Art School Chronicles continues to be a good read, however, and definitely worth following into year three.

If you'd like a copy of Art School Chronicles, you can pick one up at Black Light Diner Distro. [A copy of this comic was provided by the distributor for review. It was pretty easy, because I live with her.] You can also visit Ms. White's website for more on what she's doing currently.
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Art School Chronicles Year 1

Written by Jessica White
Illustrated by Jessica White
Self-Published (Heroes and Criminals Press)

This is the first in a series of mini-comics about Jessica's experiences in art school. Written as part of a 24-hour comics project, it features very brief, simplistic drawings that convey the action without going into the more detailed linework that Ms. White will show in the later editions.

In this chapter of White's life in art school, she describes her decision to go back to school for print making, the move across the country, and the early days of her time at school. She condenses time well, going over paper writing (and the contradictions in the academic world), an early design idea that did not work as planned, and how she became interested in doing zines.

There's also a bit of time to go over her personal life, ranging from a trip home to sleepless nights to finding out she was allergic to her cat. Give the length of time covered and the brevity of the content, I really like the fact that she gives us a personal touch to go along with her thoughts about making art.

I think the most interesting part of the story is when White talks about her thoughts on art itself, debating the merits of the traditional art museum, the dichotomy for every artist between making money and doing the art they want, and the question of comics-as-art. (That's a really thorny one in comics circles--I'd love to see White do a comic just on that subject.)

This is a very open conversation with the reader about White's life change and how it's affecting her. It is a personal comic at its most effective--telling a story that is close to the author's heart while also talking about a subject that any reader can relate to (a life change, being in school, thinking about the medium in which you work). That makes it a mini-comic I can easily recommend.

If you'd like a copy of Art School Chronicles, you can pick one up at Black Light Diner Distro. [A copy of this comic was provided by the distributor for review. It was pretty easy, because I live with her.] You can also visit Ms. White's website for more on what she's doing currently.
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White Bread

Written by Austin
Illustrated by Austin

I picked this one up at last year's Richmond Zine Fest, if I am remembering correctly. It's a little philosophical piece using the idea of a slice of white bread as an avatar for a white teen(?) living in the suburbs.

Our cute but troubled avatar (he wears Converse sneakers) walks through his world, looking at every aspect of his life, from trying to experience the world to forming attachments to exploring the world around him. We see some of the positives (social action, jamming in a band) and negatives (distractions, television news, drug addiction) of life, concisely presented in a few pages.

By the end, our edible avatar encourages us to look for support and not to give up on our dreams. It's positive reinforcement in comics form, and while the artwork is pretty basic, I enjoyed the message. And sometimes, that's the most important thing.

No idea where you can find this one, but Austin apparently lives in Ohio, so maybe try a local fest around there. I wonder if he's done anything since?

October 17, 2009

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Surrogates Flesh and Bone

Written by Robert Venditti
Illustrated by Brett Weldele
Top Shelf

So if you haven't read Surrogates yet, I'd recommend you read that one first before opening this one up. First of all, that's going to give Top Shelf more money, which they totally deserve. Secondly, it will help you appreciate this prequel all the more.

That's not to say that Flesh and Bone does not hold its own as a story. If it required the first to make it work, then I would not have liked it as much as I did. However, there's a notable amount of weaving between the two and I would hate for a new reader to miss them by trying to read the story in chronological order.

As a rule, I do not like prequels. I always feel like they're constrained by what has come before. There's only so far to grow because otherwise, it will conflict with what we already know.

In the case of Flesh and Bone, however, there's a definite feeling that this was a story that Vendetti and Weldele already wanted to tell and left clues to it in the first book for when they were ready to put the work on paper.

Flesh and Bone takes us back to the time when surrogates were just getting off the ground, and, as with any new technology, no one was ready for the implications the new creation would have on society. When a spoiled brat takes his father's unit out for a spin and ends up going a bit too far, it's time for the law to step in. But how?

That's where a young patrolman named Greer comes into the picture. On the scene of the crime, Greer shows his prowess and soon is given a larger role as the case escalates further, into issues that combine race, class, and humanity into one very powerful problem. Before he knows it, Greer is in over his head as long-term frustrations boil over into a riot unlike those that came before.

When all is said and done, a day of reckoning is pushed back into the future, an everyone is happy...for now.

Unlike the first Surrogates, this story is not a mystery. Vendetti lays the facts before the reader and helps to fill in some of the clues hinted at in the original volume. We get to see Greer's wife as an early adopter of surrogate technology, explaining much. VSI's corporate mechanations are on display as well, with several tense conversations that provide a backstory to the goings-on in Surrogates. The Prophet is here, too, and he doesn't come off any better than most charasmatic preachers of our own time, too, and might even share a common background.

Those are just a few of the links between the two stories, and they're in there to remind us this is part of a series. However, they act more like "Aha!" moments than detractors from the main storyline, which reminds me quite a bit (in a good way) of watching a television drama like Homicide.

We have Greer (the new, idealistic cop) working with a seasoned veteran and seeing first-hand how the legal system can be twisted by those with power. There's also a DA who might blink in the face of skimpy evidence, corrupt defense attorneys, and pages upon pages of boiling anger waiting to be exploded into the climax.

But at the same time, things can work out in the end, as long as you don't forget your aim. It's a lesson Greer clearly kept with him, as I think the idea of doing the right thing is a strong part of his character in both narratives.

As with the first story, Vendetti does a great job of setting the tone with his dialog. While this is not a noirish detective story, he still uses his characters' words to paint an atmosphere where the world is just fine--as long as you don't make any waves. There's also a slightly lighter tone to the story. Characters are a bit more flippant, one scene is written entirely for laughs (and a few others are definitely written to be darkly humourous), and the whole picture is that of a time that doesn't have the onus of years of surrogate lifestyle to dull its senses.

Weldele's pencil work also has a lighter touch. His coloring patterns are less oppressive, chracters's eyes are just a bit wider, and the whole thing feels more open than the world Georgia is headed for in just a few decades. (I still wish his pencilling work was just a bit more structured, however. The multiple crowd scenes in this one all feel to me as though they could have used a bit more time. I know that a stylistic choice, it's just one I'm not a big fan of.)

Overall, there is less of a feel of failed humanity and more of a humanity that isn't sure what choice to make. That makes it less Philip K. Dick in tone and maybe more like a Twilight Zone episode where you can't tell if this reality is better or worse than the one we live in. For some, this shift in writing style may put them off, but I think it's Vendetti changing his voice to meet the story, not the other way around.

No one in this story, except maybe the Prophet, has an handle on where things are going. The police don't even have surrogates yet (in a move that mirrors underfunded cops in our own time), the law doesn't have a way to link surrogates to their owners, and everyone is making judgements based on old rich-poor/black-white arguments that are soon to be moot once body style is just a mail-order away. (This is even discussed as part of the storyline, which I greatly appreciated.)

Overall, I think Flesh and Bone is a very good story that, thankfully, does not try to merely immitate its predecessor. Vendetti changes the plot, the pacing, and the writing style to give us a more detailed look at the players involved. The plot is still important, but it's not the focus, because we already know how the story ends. That means the characters, even if some of them (McEvoy, the lawyers) are used as stock actors, have to take center stage--and they do. If we need to focus on the interaction between Greer and a a stoolie, we'll get a great set of dialog that helps us understand the Greer of Surrogates. Even Weldele, while keeping the scenery familiar, uses color to change the mood and tone of the story this time out. About the only thing that stayed exactly the same (or maybe even better) was the quality of the supplimental material, particularly the application for a surrogate!

It was clear that there's a lot of territory to be mined from the world of the surrogates, and this prequel is a good start in that direction. I'd love to see more from Venditti and Weldele in this large sandbox, perhaps a sequel to show life after the events of the first book, now that we have a window into the world that came before it.

If you enjoyed Surrogates, definitely pick a copy of this up. You'll be glad you did.
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Written by Robert Venditti
Illustrated by Brett Weldele
Top Shelf

I wish I could say I was cool and read this before the movie was coming out, but I'd be lying. Oh, I had it on the shelf before the movie, thanks to my good friend Noah, but I did not get around to reading it until shortly after I picked up the prequel from Top Shelf at SPX.

When you think of Top Shelf as a publisher, you probably think of Jeffrey Brown, James Kochalka, and Craig Thompson, or maybe even Ignantz Winner Nate Powell or Alan Moore. What you don't think of, as a rule, are more traditional comic books.

Well, with the Surrogates, it's time to think again.

Vendetti and Weldele craft a tale that would fit right in with the world of Vertigo, Image, or Dark Horse in the home of diary comics and personal expositions as we learn of a future Georgia that's dominated by the scientific wonder that is the Surrogate.

At some point in the past of this future, a man named Lionel Canter created a way for people with disabilities to live their lives again by creating a doppleganger capable of living their lives for them. A great innovation that exploded (with corporate help) into a real-life virtual reality, where everyone over the age of 18 had the chance to be whoever they wanted and do whatever they wanted--all without leaving their doorstep.

Never age, never die, never leave your room--a sort of wet dream for World of Warcrafters everywhere, even if the Surrogates still had to go out into the world and work meanial jobs like their human counterparts had way back when. There's even talk of moving into juvenile models, saving parents the heartache of possibly losing their own child to accident or crime! What could be better?

That's the status quo which is rudely interrupted by a strange being who attacks Surrogates seemingly at random but may have a darker purpose in mind. Soon Detective Harvey Greer, a focal player at the start of the Surrogate wave back in the day, is caught up in a web of intrigue that involves complacency, coverups, cultists, and cops--and maybe a realization that the current state of affairs is not all it's cracked up to be.

Alliteration aside, Greer learns that to fight this criminal he might just need to do the unthinkable--return to his imperfect human body. Only be mingling with those who spurn the Surrogates (a dubious Prophet and his Reservation) and those who created them can Greer find out the truth. But will it be too late when the pieces fall into place. And does a now all-too-human Greer really want the culprit caught after all?

The Surrogates is a science fiction story mixed with a police procedural, and is compared by Top Shelf to a Philip K. Dick story. That's not too far off the mark, as there is a definite affinity to "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" in the narrative. However, Vendetti works harder to build a comprehensive story and plays up the human elements a bit more than Dick's fiction as a rule, which seems far more interested in showing the lack of humanity in all of us.

It is much easier to relate to Greer and his conflicted opinion of the world than it is to emphathise with Deckard and his own conflicts because Vendetti is trying to show that Greer understands emotion and sees it slipping away while Deckard is probably too far gone as a person to live up to the task of sorting out what emotions are and who can have them.

As a result, following Greer's train of thought as he tries to get others to see why it might be worthwhile to be a human (while at the same time working hard to preserve the rights of others to remain surrogates) worked for me a bit better, though I enjoyed both stories and can see echos of Androids throughout Surrogates. Your milage on this may vary a bit, but when considering Vendetti's story, I think using Dick as a frame of reference is a good one and useful for drawing your own ideas about the merits of the story's ending.

I don't want to go too far into how the book ends because as with any good mystery to do so would spoil the contents, but I think it follows a logical progression of the actions of Greer, the Prophet, the Surrogates, and others. Whether or not those actions are correct or were the only way for things to play out is an entirely different matter. Part of what makes this such a good story is that Vendetti doesn't let the reader off that easily. Could certain consequences have been avoided? And what's more, should they have been? I know I was left asking those questions, and I'm sure you will be too, after reading.

As for the mystery itself, I think Vendetti does a pretty good job in a limited space (this was only a five-issue series) of giving the reader sufficient clues to figure out what's going on, including a few red herrings and actually allowing the reader to come to the solution if they've been paying attention. I always like it when the writer plays fair with the reader, and Vendetti does so here. The fact that I had it figured early on did not detract from my enjoyment at all--better that then madly flipping backwards trying to figure out how something happened, in my opinion.

I was also pretty impressed by Vendetti's ear for dialog. He's managed to find a way to blend science fiction jargon with the noirish feel of the dectective story and not have either sound like they come from a 1930s pulp story. (Or, alteratively, he did make it sound like it came from a 1930s pulp story, and that's why I liked it. Hard to tell with me, honestly, given my tastes.) The personal scenes with Greer and his wife especially have the ring of modern conflict of personal pain rather than a stereotypical argument to move the plot. This would have been a good story regardless, but Vendetti's script writing helps make it even better.

This is normally the place where I'd complain about Weldele's decision to digitize straight from his pencils, as I am a big fan of inking work first. However, I have to admit that I was less jarred by the technique than I have been in the past. Part of that might have been the nature of the story--a noirish narrative with sketchy artwork flows better than, say, the bombastic nature of a more traditional superhero story, or even a straight fantasy work. I also liked the inclusion of actual photographic images to help with the backgrounds. There were some places, though, where I felt the artwork was just a bit too flat for my taste.

As is the trend these days, Surrogates has a lot of non-comic pages within the trade, adding background information to the narrative without taking extra pages for exposition. I have to admit, I only tend to scan those pages, but the level of detail that Vendetti and Weldele went to on some of them--the ads for Surrgates are amazing!--is worthy of note. Those who take the time to read everything will be well-rewarded, I think. There's also some enjoyable goodies in the back, including all the covers, how a page went from script to art, and even a deleted scene that I think was a good choice for omission.

Top Shelf is getting some well-deserved attention due to the movie tie-in, and I hope those who go to see Bruce Willis will stop and pick up the comic Surrogates is based on. Those who like detective stories or science fiction will be well-rewarded, too. Don't let someone read this for you--you'll want to enjoy it for yourself!

October 16, 2009

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Webcomic I Like: Monster Isle

I don't read a lot of webcomics, which is kinda weird, because I'm always online and I like comics. And I use RSS like it's a two-dollar whore, so it's not like I can't say I have no way of following them.

So I guess my resolution for 2010 is to try and read more webcomics.

We'll start this off with Monster Isle from a favorite of mine, Joey Weiser. A weekly comic that comes out in a local paper first, Weiser places it up on his site a week after the print version. Featuring a Godzilla model, a mystical monster, and a space alien, they live together on an Island and have typical Weiser conversations together.

So far, the biggest story is that a Spock-like alien wants to conquer the earth, but might just stay for snacks instead.

If you like offbeat humour and watching comical versions of classic monsters, then give Monster Isle a try!
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The Late Night Gang

Written by Joey Weiser
Illustrated by Joey Weiser

I first read Joey Weiser in The Ride Home and was quite pleased to find him again at SPX this year. I grabbed this and another work I'll review as soon as I finish it.

"The Late Night Gang" features Weiser's distinctive comic art style, with strong emphasis on the facial features of his characters and light-hearted storytelling. Although this is only a short set of stories, they work very well.

This mini-comic features three kid-versions of movie monsters, the Creature, Dracula, and Frankenstein. The Creature (Henry of the Black Lagoon) gets the longest feature, in a story called "Bad Apple." Our young monster tries to go to school unmolested, but a weirder adult monster won't let him alone until he takes an apple--again and again and again. It's great comic timing, and Weiser's art style makes it work.

Victor Vampire is a nifty name for a vampire. It's even better when Victor is a spoiled adolescent who doesn't want to drink his blood and has a childish brother who repeats what he's saying in kid-speak. BWOOD! It's a short set piece, but it made me smile.

Last but not least is the story of Andrew, son of Frankenstein, who tries to help a witch and mummy get their cat out of a tree. There's only one problem--the cat hates Andrew, and the results are just about what you'd expect. The gag is simple, but funny because hey--who doesn't want to see a junior Boris Karloff fall from a great height?

From checking out Joey's website, the gang are slated for more stories, and I look forward to seeing them in the future. You can grab Late Night Gang at a comic show or directly from Mr. Weiser. I definitely recommend his work, and this seems like a perfect comic for the season.
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Flight Volume 5

Written by Various Authors
Illustrated by Various Artists
Villard (Random House)

Once more from the top, Flight is an anthology series, perhaps my favorite anthology series, that started with a group of like-minded artists and has branched out into a children's book and over 70 different artists.

This is the fifth edition, and it has the same mix of familiar artists (Michael Gagne, Kazu Kibuishi, and Scott Campbell, just to name a few) along with a few new artists and at least one returning from an earlier volume. It's a pattern within the Flight anthologies, and it works quite well.

The biggest change this time, at least in my opinion, is that the stories tended to skew a bit older for the first time in a long while. That might have to do with the addition of the kid's version, or it just might be that I was just so happy to on my way home that I was really into my reading. It's also possible that the increased length of the individual stories helped develop them a bit better. Either way, there was a lot I liked this time around.

As with my review of the previous edition, I'll stick to the stories I liked the best. This is by no means anything against the other stories, I just don't want to end up with a set of plot summaries.

"The Aquaduct" by Tony Cliff is interesting because it takes the usual male-female dynamic in a pulpy adventure story and flips it, with Delilah Dirk being the overconfident jerk and Mr. Selim the long-suffering but intelligent side kick. It worked well enough for me, but I have to admit the idea that we get a female hero, only to have her be a tool, was kinda disappointing.

Reagan Lodge's "The Dragon" made me actually interested in a fantasy story, which takes some doing for me, as it's not usually my thing. I didn't quite get everything that was going on, but the idea of a lowly character battling a very innovative dragon design by Lodge makes the story stand out.

"Beisbol 2" picks up the story of Francisco Sanchez, now in America and getting ready to start in the major leagues, where a major league jerk holds court and stands in as the typical steroid-era bruiser who helped ruin the game. As a boy starts to give up on his dream, Sanchez stands on his principles and does what he thinks is right, no matter what the cost. Richard Pose's art is fairly simplistic, but he captures the feel of a baseball game well and also harnesses the anger of many at what has happened to the game. Oh if only that scene at the end were true and not the fairy tale--sports would be a better place.

What if those voices inside your head were real? "Worry dolls" by JP Ahonen riffs on a familiar concept, leading to vaudeville hijinks ranging from sleepwalking to saving the day, all from a character who can't even manage to pay his rent. The dialog and ending line really pick this one out of the pack, since the idea of little men inside a person's head has been done so many times. I don't ask for something to necessarily be original so much as entertaining. (You can blame this on superhero comics if you'd like.) Ahonen satisfies my request on that score with delightful characterization and some pretty cool graphical work that shows off what a computer can do. (Apologies if the entire thing was hand-drawn, but it looked digital to me, at least in spots.)

My favorite from the fourth collection is back, "Igloo Head and Tree Head in Disguise" brings more Scott Campbell goodness to the table. This time, our two heads find out that wacky hijinks can ensue when you disguise your head with--another type of head! Thrill as the two heads opt to infiltrate the war club and make them bow to their will.

"The Changling" by Sarah Mensinga really struck me for some reason. I've heard the tale of fairies taking people's babies before but I've never seen it used like this before. A young woman who bucks tradition ends up being with child is taken from all she knows to avoid shame. On top of everything else, she's run into danger with the wee people! Is there any possible way for this story to have a happy ending? Maybe, just maybe...and that's why I liked it so much.

Sitting right in the wheelhouse of the Flight series, "The Chosen One" uses artwork that might fit within a children's book to tell a story that skewers all the dreams we had (have?) about being selected to perform a task only we can manage. Our protagonist walks through a video-game like story to an increasingly skewed ending that ends up showing the true nature of most dreamers. Well done work from Dave Roman.

Nabbing the top spot for me this time is an artist I've liked before, Joey Weiser, who takes his gift for storytelling and places it into the story of "Timecat", a feline who really craves dinner but can't get his human to serve him. What to do? Time travel, in a manner only a cat can mange. Weiser's story gets extra points for including a reference to Devil Dinosaur. His ability to use facial expressions to tell much of the story is pretty darn keen.

Again, these were just the best of the best for me. You might like "The Courier" best, a story about a young man debating his place in the world, and I wouldn't fault you one bit. Or maybe the comical "Evidence" by Graham Annable would stand out for you like a skeleton. I mean, I didn't even include "Scenes in Which the Earth Stops Spinning," which is exactly what it sounds like.

Flight Five is my favorite of the anthologies since the second one, and it might even be my favorite of the series so far. I can't wait to read Flight Six, and I encourage you to start on the Flight series today!

October 14, 2009

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Flight Volume 4

Written by Various Writers
Illustrated by Various Authors
Villard (Random House)

So yes, I am corny enough to have taken Flight with me to the airport. This is me we're talking about, so don't act so surprised.

Just in case anyone's going directly to this review and not those of the other volumes, I'll just briefly mention here that Flight is a series of anthologies that started with a group of friends and has expanded over time to include a wider range of artists.

The original group had a concentration in animation, leading to artwork that was often stretching the limits of what the printed page could reveal. It was very solid work, and has continued to be good, if a bit more child-oriented as time went on.

By this volume, the pattern is well established and the results continue to be spectacularly solid for an anthology. At least one story keeps going, such as Michael Gagne's "The Saga of Rex," but for the most part these appear to be standalone works.

There weren't any stories in here that I didn't like, but I will concentrate on those I liked the best for the purposes of this review, to help give you an idea of what's inside this time out. I'm sure each reader's favorites would be different, there's so much to choose from!

"Food from the Sea" by Amy Kim Ganter, is about two rival food vendors who end up getting so consumed in their greed they forget the bigger picture. It also shows what happens when customers follow a company blindly. This is my favorite kind of modern fairy tale--you can get the point, but it doesn't get in the way of the story.

"Cyclops!" by Israel Sanchez, tells the story of, well, a cyclops, who tries to fit in amongst the world around him. Done almost entirely without words and almost entirely within 12-panel page grids, Sanchez takes us through years of the protagonist's life, in a way that's both charming and funny. Plus, the gag at the end is classic.

"The Window Makers" by Kazu Kibuishi is a touching story about the way in which artisans are disappearing as time goes on, and people move into more standard careers.

"The Forever Box" by Sarah Mensinga looks like an ordinary imaginary story but has an ending that slams you in the face. I would normally say that's a problem, but Mensinga structures the story in such a way that it works.

But the scene-stealer for me is Scott Campbell's "Igloo Head and Tree Head," a delightfully funny story about exactly what the title describes---two creatures with an igloo and a tree on their head, respectively, who live with others who also sport interesting headgear, like poolhead, canoehead, and my personal favorite, public library head. The story is simple, but the different heads are hysterical. I was not expecting this one at all, and it's my pick of the anthology.

"The Rabbit Mayor" is a Mayan folktale adapted by Jon Klassen, who doesn't do a lot with the art, but the mock woodblock style fits the piece. Why are rabbits always the crafty ones?

Clio Chiang has an interesting look at another fairy tale, this one being Little Red Riding Hood. The two main characters talk about story and what people want out of a legend in a way that reminded me pleasantly of Gaiman.

"The Story of Binny" by Lark Pien has the feel of a fable, but is modern to my knowledge. A loner goes to a zoo and encounters a talkative animal that's also feeling left out of the world. They form an unlikely partnership that may just be a bit too one-sided. Soon, the man is off to return the binny to his home. But what is he to do in the binny's world?

Again, this is not to slight the other stories that were in here, whether it be Raina Telgemeier's tale of a girl who just wants to be part of the group in "Dinosaur Egg," Graham Annable's killer stick figure, or the wavy lines of Neil Babra's "The Blue Guitar."

Flight is a fantastic anthology series, and it's one I'd recommend without hesitation.

October 12, 2009


Manga Monday 11-12-09

Haven't had one of these in awhile, but here's a few things I read that I thought I'd share:

An Ohio town with too much time on its hands is all up in arms because a manga has nudity in it, and it's available in a library. For shame! The Precocious Curmudgeon pointed me to this follow up article, which talks about how libraries struggle with shelving. I think it might help if they went back and actually *read* the manga, trades, and graphic novels on the shelves. I've occasionally blanched at getting out a clearly adult-themed story that was in the kids section.

The Manga Critic gives her list of the worst manga she's read. I remember reading #10 on the list and feeling pretty much the same way. I'm pretty sure the one I liked least of all was Tokyo Tribes, though I also remember disliking GTO pretty strongly, too. How about you?

October 11, 2009

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Flight Volume 3

Written by Various Writers
Illustrated by Various Artists
Villard (Random House)

Here's the third edition of Flight, a very cool anthology by a group of artists who got together to write comics under the general theme of flight. I will be honest, I loved volume two so much that it was hard for this one to top its magic. While I liked it quite a bit, I don't think it managed to live up to that one, which so far is the best of the three I've read.

It's not that there's anything wrong with the quality of the stories, far from it, in fact. It's the feeling that for this collection, there was an emphasis on a more juvenile tone, even more so than volume two.

A lot of the protagonists are younger, dealing with imaginary monsters turned real, such as "Old Oak Trees" (one of my favorites), "Jellaby", and "The Lumbering Beast." Other stories, while not featuring children, do seem geared that way, like "The Rescue" or "Polaris", a girl who hovers to a tragic end.

There's certainly a fair share of dark, like the dying soldier who remembers his childhood playing war, "In Due Time", or "Conquest," about some Vikings off to die. But those seem almost out of place when you have "The Great Bunny Migration" around, you know?

Flight is a great series, and I still highly recommend this one, but if you're turned away from a story that seems geared to a lower age group, you may not like this one as much as the others.
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Flight Volume 2

Written by Various Writers
Illustrated by Various Artists
Villard (Random House)

The second, larger edition of Flight continues the tradition of telling short stories often with graphical design at the forefront. A lot of the same artists are back this time, and one of the stories gets continued from volume 1. This time, the Flight crew gets help from the excellent Doug TenNapel and also Jeff Smith, bolstering the roster just a bit.

The general theme of flight is still there, though this time some chose to do a flight of fancy or a flight from prison, which is a nice touch. The experimental work is gone, too, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your tolerance for those who wish to stretch the limits of the printed page. Given the size of this edition, I think it would have been okay to include some non-traditional work, but maybe there was none submitted by the group.

Favorites this time include the opening story, Smith's very short and funny story about universal travelers, a nifty little story of death called "The Ride", and a great parody about Icarus. But the best one of all has to be the one that's told with stick figures and sticky notes. Now THAT is my kind of story!

This is not to say those were the only good stories--far from it. Despite the larger size, the quality of this edition is amazing. I could easily talk about the child pirate, TenNapel's funny and touching story of faith (that has a great sequence in a store that just got in a "special" shipment of ape dung), magic bubbles, bounty hunters, a boy who wishes only to act but stays loyal to his fishing father, the ghostly street car, etc.

About the only argument one could make about this anthology is that it seems to skew much younger than the first volume, and therefore the art morphs into a more cartoonish style that might put some people off. However, just because the art is less technical does not mean the stories are any less enjoyable than in the first volume.

While some anthologies might sag under the weight of this many pages, the Flight team is just so good that no matter where you open this up to, you're going to find something good. Your favorites will no doubt be different from mine, but I cannot see any comics fan not liking this book. I'd even recommend it to non-comics fans who enjoy short stories with the theme of flights of imagination. I can't wait to read book three.
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Flight Volume 1

Written by Various Authors
Illustrated by Various Artists
Villard (Random House)

A collection of short stories by a set of primarily web authors who got together and pitched a print anthology, the first of a series.

The quality of the stories is very high and ranges from tales of friendly animals to more manga-like real life stories to a few fantasy pieces, all loosely based around the idea of flight.

There are even a few experimental works, though I think those don't translate as well to the comic book panel as they may have on a computer screen.

My favorite of the collection is The Maiden and the River Spirit by Derek Kirk Kim, a delightful short fable. However, I don't think there was any story I did not like, which is quite rare for a collection such as this.

The only problem with Flight, at least for me, is that some of the stories in this volume feel incomplete. It's not that they feel excerpted from a longer work so much as they seem to end too abruptly, as if page count cut them off.

That takes away from the reading experience a bit, but if that's the worst thing you can say about an anthology, it's doing something right. There are plenty of good writers and artists in Flight, and I definitely recommend it!

Taking Flight

This Sunday's feature will be the Flight anthology series. I do not own the newest, Volume 6, just yet, but I hope to get it soon.

Flight was a project created by friends who were either doing animation or comics or both. It has become big enough that there is now even a series aimed at a children's audience.

Quite a few of the stories continue from one book to the next. Some others don't show up for a while, then reappear.

At first, the idea of flight seemed to dominate the stories. Now it's a bit more about taking a journey with the characters. But the quality is solid from start to finish and it is probably my favorite anthology that I've read.

You can learn more about Flight on their blog. In the meantime, please fasten your safety belt and we'll be serving beverages here on the Patter when we reach cruising altitude. Enjoy!

October 10, 2009

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Trebro Tees Off: Batman: Fortunate Son

Written by Gerard Jones
Illustrated by Gene Ha

[If it seems like I tee off on bad Batman stories so much, it's because I will read just about anything with Batman in it. I admit it, I am part of the problem.]

My friend Noah often tells me not to read something. Sometimes, I don't listen to him. My mistake.

This one goes into the (hopefully) never issued "Worst Batman Stories Ever Told" collection. Bats plays grumpy old man to Robin's whipper snapper, as we are asked to swallow two rather hard to believe ideas at once:

1) That Batman never listens to any rock and roll, to the point of having to educate himself in an archive and
2) That he links Rock and Roll to crime.

Since both of these are preposterous ideas the entire thing falls on its face as Robin tries to come to the defense of a criminal because he likes his music and Bruce makes stupid statements over and over again. If Gene Ha hadn't done such a nice job with the art, I doubt I'd even bothered to finish.

The story limps along for twice its needed length, as the Dysfunctional Duo chase after a deluded rocker who has managed to make his entire fan base into an unruly mob--not with some sort of Joker-backed gas or anything, just because they're young rock and rollers. Kids these days--if you aren't beating the boys with a belt or keeping the girls out of college, they end up becoming young hooligans.

They finally stop the rampage in a decidedly unsatisfactory manner, find out the man responsible, and manage to only take one of the perpetrators of all this to jail. DC should have taken Jones to jail for writing this one. Apparently, the late Archie Goodwin thought this was a good idea. That's a shame, because there's nothing at all good about one. Heed my friend's
advice and stay away.

Plastic Farm Volume 1 Sowing Seeds on Fertile Soil

Written by Rafer Roberts
Illustrated by Rafer Roberts, Danielle Corsetto, Dennis Culver, Dave Morgan, Wendi Strang-Frost, and Jake Warrenfeltz

This was one of the few "big' purchases I made at SPX this past year, taking a chance on the trade rather than grabbing a few of the single issues after paging through it and talking to the author. It's the beginning of a lengthy series that, while it's certainly not as cute as "Bone," has the same feel of a tightly planned idea headed by one person who has a vision for the material.

Either that, or it's the work of a madman who is having visions. I'm honestly not quite sure.

Regardless, this is one twisted idea of a story that follows quite a few disparate paths that only begin to show their cohesiveness by the ending section--a perfect way to close act one of a storyline. Written as single issues in various formats and apparently now also as a web-based comic, the trade reformats things a bit and also places the material in 17 sections, as opposed to the original twelve issues.

The story of Plastic Farm is that of a man, Chester, who is either totally crazy or has the potential to reshape the world. Roberts unveils this concept by weaving in and out of time, starting with the most interesting idea (a dinosaur-riding cowboy who can make weapons appear ala a superhero) and building through the mystery of why this Chester guy might be the unwitting pawn of a plans of a sinister cult who've monitored him since birth.

Rather than give the reader a linear progression through the story, Roberts brilliantly skips all over the place, letting us put together the pieces over the course of about 300 pages of comics. This causes some head-scratching here and there (I'm still not so sure about how the hungry cannibals fit in) but in return gives the reader a rewarding chance to engage himself in the material. Several times, I found myself saying, "Wait a minute, isn't that so-and-so from an earlier chapter?" and going back to look. It's at those moments where the story really shines and shows that Roberts knows exactly what he's planning and how he wants to reveal it.

This does, however, make it a bit hard to describe the plot to a potential reader, especially since the best part of Plastic Farm is in seeing how the plot unfolds in amongst the weavings of about a half dozen character arcs.

I will do my best, however, to explain the story in brief: As I mentioned, Chester is at the heart of a potential conspiracy story that involves a strange cult. This cult may or may not be responsible for turning the world into a fake reality--or plastic farm. Everything in this story, from dream cowboys to lost pilots to human guinea pigs, ties into that idea in some way. By the end, Chester has revealed some of his secrets to a rag-tag group of people (along with the reader) and a confrontation is soon to be had. But how do the others fit into Chester's story?

I'll be honest--damned if I know. But I'm betting that Roberts does.

Helping with the off-kilter nature of the material is the mixture of artistic styles. Roberts gets a small group of artisans and sets them loose on some of the material inside. This allows for a different look when we're dealing with, say, the cannibals versus the farcical story of a rich widower who makes an asinine mistake. Roberts himself does a fine job with his artistic contributions, keeping the eye of the reader off-balance at all times and using unique page structuring for the critical denouncement.

There is a lot of innovative art choices in Plastic Farm, far more than you might expect from something like this that has the overall style of a scratchy comic artist. The use of black spaces, continual shifting of page layout (helped, no doubt, by the varying artists), and the very clever use of some old Kirby tricks works quite well here.

About the only thing one could use against Plastic Farm is that it is definitely not a restrained work by any means. This is Robert Crumb-South Park-Eric Powell territory, with quite a few crude jokes, more f-bombs than an HBO special, and quite a bit of disturbing imagry. (Roberts himself notes he asked one artist to tone it down a bit, then went ahead and made the image worse when he drew it himself.) I have no issue with "low-brow" humour (after all, the Goon is one of my favorite comics), so I found it funny, if a bit gross here and there. If you aren't one for that type of material, then Plastic Farm may not be a good choice for you. (Sample a bit of it online, at least, before you commit to the trade.)

Plastic Farm was a pleasant find from SPX, and I'm glad I picked it up. Filled with a bit of mystery, a little noir, cracks on religious ferver, the promise of hope, and even a little baseball, this story features a sampling of everything in order to create a whole that both makes perfect sense and is totally screwed up all at the same time. In short, Rafer Roberts knows how to tell good comics.

You can buy a copy here
, or see Roberts at a comics show somtime. But don't tell him I forgot to mention the hilarity that is the sequences with the four-eyed creature. Those are just silly, Tom and Jerry type fun. (Nevermind, I managd to find a place to toss that in, too. Now this review is complete. Go to the website and check it out!)
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Agents of Atlas

Written by Jeff Parker
Illustrated by Leonard Kirk, Kris Justice and Terry Pallot
Reprints by Various

So yeah, this is where I admit to how badly I suck sometimes at getting around to reading amazing comics. I just read this a few days ago, on my trip.

Feel free to mock me now.

I know Jeff Parker is a great writer. And I love the idea of using old characters in fresh ways that does not involve killing them off. Plus, as the icing on the cake, the whole thing is based off an issue of the old What-if? series that I love so fondly.

In other words, this is going to be a very positive review of a series that most folks have already read, if they're inclined to read it. But I'm going to talk about it anyway.

Agents of Atlas opens with Ken Hale, the one person (sort of) still around to tell the secret story behind the creation of an Avengers team decades before Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and the rest got together. Parker deviates a bit from the original premise, which you can chalk up to either Hale's embellishment or the fact that this is not quite the same group as in the What-If story. (God bless Marvel and its belief in alternative earths.) Either way, it's hard times for the soon-to-be-late Jimmy Woo.

Or is it?

Before you can say "Why did we let Tony Stark run this group?", there's a whole lot of explosions, a gorilla using 4 guns at once, and jokes about Uranus. The next thing you know, a Wakandan S.H.I.E.L.D. agent goes semi-rogue following the adventures of the best supergroup no one's ever heard of, as Woo and his crew (slightly changed by life over the years) try to solve what was going to be Woo's last case--the mysterous Atlas company.

As the team starts to gel again despite the usual Marvel personal problems (and kudos to Parker for Marvel-izing the Atlas heroes without taking away their appeal or turning them all grim and gritty), they soon discover that Atlas may be more than any of them realized. Can they survive the challenge that almost cost Woo his life?

And what happens when you find out there's a whole lot more to the story and 21st Century life is a lot more complicated than the days of Patriots versus Commies?

Agents of Atlas is, at heart, a spy-story that probably has more in common with Nick Fury's aventures than it does with, say, the Avengers which Wikipedia attaches the Agents to. While Woo's team may have superpowers, the way he runs the team is far more like the "spy stuff" I've read in Fury's long back history. As such, it's a bit harder to go over the plot without spoiling too much. But one thing I appreciate is that Parker plays fair with the reader about the mystery--everything is in place, if you were looking correctly.

(Yes, I'm still bitter about 52 and not getting clues that were helpful.)

Kirk's artwork for the series works well with the material Parker writes for him. I remember him working with Peter David once upon a time, and thinking that he really molds his images to the needs of the writer without compromising on the quality of the art. That's true here as well--the characters have a bit of nostalgic shine to them and Kirk refrains from showing graphic violence that's so popular these days. Overall, I was reminded of Pat Olliffe, and not in a bad way.

I would also be remiss if I didn't mention how seemlessly Parker addresses possible issues about the characters' histories (particularly Marvel Boy) and creates some real backstory for the others. Not only that, Parker even leaves open quite a bit of possible story options for later, like Ken Hale's true history, M-11's programming, and whether or not Jimmy is the only person involved with ties to the Yellow Claw.

This is a team that wants to be together and make the world a better place--but it's also a team with more secrets than Dick Chaney's private files. Not knowing doesn't hurt the overall story arc, but boy are there several places where a long-time Marvel reader like me was thinking "I wonder if...", particularly when T'Challa is involved in anything. (I owe that all to Priest, one of the best guys not currently writing a comic.)

In addition to being a great story, Parker works hard to make sure this team has all the elements a good group needs. Hale is the comic relief--he talks about being an expert lock picker, then crushes it with his paw--ready to diffuse the tension with a well-played line. Marvel Boy is the reluctant hero. Namora is the impulsive vengeful spirit--Captain America without the idealism. Venus is the sexpot, straight from the pulps. M-11 is an inigmatic robot who may very well end up being the most interesting of them all. And leading them is a complicated man with a fixed vision, who knows how to lead (and maybe mislead?) a team.

C'Mon Jeff Parker--give me the Nick Fury/Jimmy Woo one-shot set around the Steranko years that we desperately need!

This trade is a bit more expensive than usual, but it's well worth it, and not just because the 5-issue mini is so damned good. There's all kinds of bonus material, such as text stories, Hale's hysterical list of the Atlas operations they visisted, and behind-the-scenes artwork and notes.

But really, what sells this trade for me is that Marvel includes each character's first appearance, in full color and often rediculous premise (Venus, I'm looking at you). So we get to see a vintage Submariner story, a romance comic, Marvel's attempt at a lame post-war Superhero, and two horror comics, one of which was even drawn by John Romita Sr. It's fun to see how far--and sometimes, how not-so-far--comics has evolved over the last 60 years or so.

And, as if that weren't enough, watch as Roy Thomas plots the idea of using Golden Age heroes in the first place, as the final entry is the rather roughly drawn but entirely enjoyably written What-if story is included as the final piece of this puzzle.

This is a nice collected effort by all involved. Agents of Atlas is a great comic, and I feel bad that I wasn't supporting it in single issue form. I just don't really read that way anymore, but if this ever comes back again (the ongoing is in limbo, from what I understand), I am totally adding it to my pull list. (Yes, I know, there's the X-Men crossover thing right now. But I just don't know if I can get into that...)

I can't think of anyone who wouldn't like Agents of Atlas. Jeff Parker's work on this title is outstanding. Go out and find a copy of this right away! (And then buy more Agents stuff in single issue form when it starts up again!) This definitely makes my "Top of 2009 list" and if you haven't read it yet, but read it in the next 3 months, I bet it will make yours, too.
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Mildly Irritateing

Written by Katie Omberg
Illustrated by Katie Omberg
Self-Published (Fancy Graphics)

No, that's not a typo. It's part of a joke on the cover, which, because Ms. Omberg does not have a web presence for her comics, I can't share with you.

This, the last of the minis we got from her at SPX, is a collection of short thoughts, ranging from why she writes comics to burning her tongue to being careful about sugar highs.

Mildly Irritating continues the personal comic direction of "Suggestion Box" and was written/drawn after a conversation with a friend, who suggested that Omberg "draw what you know best."

I can relate to a lot in this one, though I think the introduction is the strongest section, where Omberg discusses how anger is what causes her to be most creative, going back to when she was a child. It seems like that's true for a lot of artists I like--their best work happens when something gets them going or there's a problem in their life. (Samuel Clemens, I'm staring at you.)

The section on handwriting is also pretty interesting. I was wondering about some of her handwriting quirks, and this explains them pretty well. I used to play around more with mine, but these days, I just try to write in all capitals because my penmanship sucks. (Sorry, Mom.)

As with the previous review, this is a comic that only people who like personal comics should read. If you're the type that only likes fictional work, you'll be sorely disappointed. But if you like Kochalka's diary strips, then this should be something you'd enjoy.

I hope Omberg fights her procrastination more often and has something new for me to read at SPX next year!
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Suggestion Box

Written by Katie Omberg
Illustrated by Katie Omberg
Self-Published (Fancy Graphics)

[So I did a terrible job of getting all 4 reviews up on the same day, but that's why I'm in the minor-minor leagues of comic blogs. Until I can hit the curveball, I can't get a September call-up. Here's the rest of those promised Omberg reviews.]

Suggestion Box is in the wheelhouse of mini-comic/zine work, the story of your job and the really awful people you end up meeting along the way. In Omberg's case, she finally quit at a frame store when the employees changed and the soccer moms got too annoying.

The bulk of the narrative deals with a jewish lady who is absolutely in love with her art work and also with the sound of her own voice. Our poor cartooning protagonist must listen to silly explanations of amateur art, a "9-11" story, and more as the lady goes on and on, oblivious to her audience.

Omberg's art style is much more refined here, as she works on making the characters look different, spends a two-page spread showing how a painting is bound (which I thought was a pretty neat touch), and uses good page layout to keep the reader's eye interested.

Personal story comics are not for everyone, but if you like them (and I do), give this one a read if you can find it. Omberg tells a brief story in a funny, concise manner--exactly what a mini-comic should do.

Go Vote in the LuLu Awards!

I love the fact that many comics awards are fan-friendly. It causes a few oddities here and there, but man, the fact that I've voted on the Ignantzs twice now makes me feel kinda special.

Well, you don't have to travel to Maryland for this one--the LuLu Awards are here, and you can simply expend an e-mail to participate. For those who don't know, Friends of LuLu is an organization that focuses on women in comics and making a male-heavy genre a little more of a friendly place for female readers, writers, and artists.

The ballot is here. Go Vote!

October 5, 2009


Taking a Few Days Off

I will be traveling for work and will be away for a few days. So no updates, though I am likely to Tweet here and there about what I'm reading on the trip.

I packed my bags with 10 trades, 2 manga, and Veeps.

Yup, I'm the guy reading comics in business class.

See you when I get back!

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Parasyte Volume 3

Written by Hitoshi Iwaaki
Illustrated by Hitoshi Iwaaki
Del Rey

I really should just start buying Parasyte and stop waiting for it at the library. Oh, the old dichotomy of purchasing versus just "renting" it, you bedevil me once again.

As we open this volume, the parasytes are starting to realize they can't win this battle without better knowledge of the enemy. They send a minion to the high school of our very own Shin, with the hopes of a truce. But Shin doesn't trust this sudden change in focus, and soon trouble brews between Shin and his new "friend," Shimada.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government is starting to notice that something is amiss and looks to make plans of their own, while not panicking the general populace. But how to fight an enemy that can be anyone, and will other governments even want to?

As the various players start to move ever-closer together due to a confidence with Shin's father, the conflict simmering between Shin and Shimada blows up in a fashion that it may not be possible to cover up. What happens when a mass murderer attacks--with witnesses? Can Shin talk his way out of this one? Should he even try? And that's to say nothing of the police...

One of the things I've liked best about Parasyte so far is that it balances telling the story of Shin with giving us just enough about the parasytes without going so far into infodumping as to be boring the reader. This volume continues that trend nicely. While Shin tries to come to grips with the changes in himself (and maintain a pretense of normality), we also see the two sides that Shin represents prepare to go to war with each other as the ability to hide the coming conflict from the Japanese people gets harder and harder.

The best part of this is that, even within a horror context, it all feels perfectly natural. The villains quietly plot strategy, and get more creepy with every appearance. (One panel particularly chilled me, but I'll leave it for you to find on your own.) The government is slow to react and wants to prevent a panic, something that sure matches with past history of governments everywhere. Sensational TV shows are the first to get the truth, even if they're only doing it for the ratings. Shin's friends and classmates notice a change, but only a select few really examine him closely. Shin himself sometimes worries more about himself than the big picture.

They're all very human reactions, and in this volume, they're all on display with a mix of calm and horrific violence that it seems only horror manga can manage. (That's part of why I like it so much.) Iwaaki's artwork ranges from the perfectly domestic school and office scenes to bloody figures being rended from top to bottom by a disfigured creature with an ease that seems to mix Dan Clowes with Bill Sienkiewicz at times. It's a wonderful juxstoposition that fits the conflicts within Shin himself perfectly. His layouts this time also seem more impressive this time out, but maybe that's just because I was thinking about page layout recently. Either way, they work to move the story along rather than just hold the artwork together.

I really like Parasyte and it makes for great Halloween reading. If you can find a copy and don't have to send to Lima to get one, give it a try today.

October 4, 2009

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The Owl

Written by Katie Omberg
Illustrated by Katie Omberg
Self-Published (Fancy Graphics)

Again, no image for me to use here, so pardon the block of text.

The Owl is of a similar vein to How to Master a Foreign language, with the main point being to set up a joke at the end. This time, it's a stupid person berating an owl for not going out and getting worm.

Well, as we all know, owls are wise, and this time, the owl is not only that, but he's a wise-ass as well, getting in the last laugh on the idiotic person who doesn't know what an owl does with its time.

This story is not quite as funny as the other joke book from Omberg, but does show the same good sense of timing. Again, I'd like to see an extended piece from her with the same model.

I'm afraid I can't tell you how to get this one, you'll just have to keep your eyes peeled. Also, be sure not to anger an owl. I'm just saying.

October 3, 2009

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How to Master a Foreign Langue in Twenty Pages!

Written by Katie Omberg
Illustrated by Katie Omberg
Self-Published (Fancy Graphics)

As I mentioned, Ms. Omberg doesn't have a web presence for her comics, so I don't have any images to use.

This mini-comic from 2006 would probably not pass muster with quite a few comics readers, as the illustration is that of a stick figure sitting beside an ever-evolving old-school boom box.

But don't let the simplistic nature of the art prevent you from enjoying a joke-book comic that reminded me fondly of the old Donald Duck cartoons where a voice would be talking to Donald about trying to be a better person--er, duck--with increasingly frustrating results that often ended in absolute destruction.

In this case, our poor protagonist gets increasingly frustrated as they try to learn Italian. Things are okay to start, but once the tape gets rolling, the trouble starts. If you've ever tried the tape method, this is quite familiarly territory, and the punchline, while predictable, still brings a smile to my face.

Omberg knows how to tell a short, funny story, and I liked her timing on this one. I would love to see her do the same style in a longer, more detailed form.

I'd love to tell you where to get her comics, but I'm afraid I can't. Just keep your eyes out!
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Focus on...Katie Omberg

In a few cases I have quite a few mini-comics or zines from the same person, so I'm thinking that periodically, I'll do a day of reviews of that person's works that I have.

Today's feature will be on Katie Omberg, a wonderful young cartoonist that I had the pleasure of talking to for a few minutes at SPX. Unfortunately, she does not have a website for her work, so you'll just have to see if you can find it at a show sometime.

Watch as we go from the personal comic to little jokes in twenty pages. I think you'll agree she's a fun new discovery, and I hope to see more of her work soon.

October 2, 2009

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Showcase Presents Batgirl

Written by John Broome and Various Writers
Illustrated by Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, Curt Swan, Don Heck, and Various Artists

You don't need a bat computer to figure out I was very disappointed in this collection. While I figured that the comics would be a bit sexist here and there, I had no idea how poorly Barbra was written as Batgirl, having basically grown up with her as the extremely powerful information broker Oracle.

I really like Babs Gordon as a character. She's smart, pretty, exceptionally strong (before the Joker harmed her), and able to take on just about anything. Not even the horrors visited upon her by the Joker and having a Dick for a boyfriend can slow her down.

Unless of course she's being written by a bunch of pandering idiots who can't bare to let her shine on her own. That's the case here, as we get "over 500 pages of comics!" where Babs is treated like a girl, a primadonna, a frail creature, etc. She worries about her looks, she tries to impress guys, she's given stupid things to fight--at one point, she must save a model who will pick the next dress fashions--and she often needs some male character to bail her out.

Perhaps the most annoying part of all this is her sometime-boyfriend who's a wanna-be detective with a bum leg. Now there's nothing wrong with a disabled person being given a starring role, but his usage just makes the writing of Babs even worse. Batgirl is athletic, but it's often a *lame man* who has to help save her. Just what does that tell you about either editorial or the writers in relation to Batgirl?

If this was one of the 1950s collections, I could almost understand. But we're in 1975 by the time we're done here, for God's sake. And while the last few stories are a bit better than the early ones, Babs is still seen as needing saved all the time.

There's very little reason for reading this one, I'm afraid. The artwork, with the exception of a little Curt Swan and Gil Kane action, is pretty poor (Don Heck's section looks like he scribbled it on a napkin, though perhaps that's a problem with the reproduction.) Combined with the infuriating plots and dialog, this was a plodding read and a total disappointment. Ms. Gordon is far better off as Oracle, if this is the best they can do for her as a crime fighter. Ugh!

I like reading old comics, but sometimes it might have been better to leave them in the bargain bin. You can do better with other collections, I think.
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Forty Four Presidents and a Letter to a Cat

Written by MZA
Illustrated by Sputnik

I love funny takes on history, and one of my all-time favorite skits from Animaniacs is the US Presidents bit, so this one is a natural fit for me.

The mini-comic is exactly what it says it is--a little book about the 43 presidents at the time of the writing, a generic person where 44 will be, and a really touching letter about the anxiety of a left-leaning person about what was then the upcoming 2008 Presidential election.

You should have a pretty good idea of what you're in for when you turn the page and George Washington's description reads "...is the first white president." While there is often a grain (or more) of truth in the irreverent take on a particular president, the focus is going to be on the joke.

So while John Quincy Adams might get a serious comment about the Civil War, it's sure that the follow-up president, Andrew Jackson, will end up with a joke about how people didn't like his wife. This semi-serious, semi-comic patter works quite well if you're inclined to that sort of thing, and I definitely am.

While Benjamin Harrison bemoans his placement between the Grover Clevelands and Taft lovingly remembers the custom-made bathtub, the various other presidents get their day in the sun, biting remark by biting remark. Carter's obsession with the lust in his heart perhaps being the best of the modern presidents.

MZA and Sputnik even take the time to riff on the Bush-Clinton animosity, with both "talking" about replaying the other's most embarrassing political moments.

If there's one minor flaw, it's that some presidents get more space than others. I'd have rather seen each get a full page, and the two-pages (Woodrow Wilson needed a 2 page spread? Really?) get stripped down to one. But that's an extremely minor complaint for a zine that's really quite funny. Heck, even the characatures are pretty well done. I've seen far worse in a newpaper editorial.

The Letter to a cat section is far more serious, though tinged with the same irreverence, such as when MZA suggests he'd like to hang out with McCain and Palin, even if they don't know the difference between a Zapatista and a Zapatero. There is a real sense of concern for why other people did not see the problems a McCain-Palin Presidency might have caused and how hard it can be when family members disagree politically, a situation I can definitely relate to.

Pairing a serious zine essay with a silly set of comic sketches might seem like a bad idea, but it really works. It reminds us that every time there's been an election in this country, there've been real issues at stake. Choose wrong, and we end up with the Buchannan and Hardings of the world. And that's no joke.

If you'd like a copy of Forty Four Presidents and a Letter to a Cat, you can pick one up at Black Light Diner Distro. [A copy of this comic was provided by the distributor for review. It was pretty easy, because I live with her.]