May 30, 2011

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Written and Illustrated by Various Creators

Normally I post a scan of the cover itself, but I loved the look of all those copies on a rack, with the hand-stamped KIDS each looking just a bit different from each other.

Kids is a themed anthology of stories having to do with childhood in some way. Whether it's looking back at a time past or seeing things as a child sees them, the stories all have a strong connection to the idea of what it is like to be a child.

Most of the stories are playful in nature. The opening story by Melissa Mendes stars a child who sneaks outside to commune with nature in a naughty way. "The Kittens Hate You" by Lydia Conklin shows why you should never put your trust in a cat's love, while Joe Lambert's two-pager displays the silly things we used to do as kids. (Personally, I always counted to nine.)

Interestingly enough, there are two witch stories, both of which use the innocence of a child to show an adult a new possibility. I wonder if Charles Forsman and Max de Radigues realized they were doing similar ideas for the same anthology?

Perhaps the saddest story, appropriately enough, is about the oldest kid in this anthology, a 17 year old. James Hindle tells the story of Edward Canary, who had a friend named David once upon a time. They shared quite a bit, living on the edge of society together, until David moves on, leaving Edward in the metaphorical "Trash Heap" of the title. It's a story of loss and separation that all kids must face at some point in their lives.

Nate Beatty has the longest entry, a time-capsule of a comic that involves break dancing, boom boxes, and the Statue of Liberty. It brought back vivid memories for me, but I do wonder about its relevance for anyone under 30, which I would think is the primary audience for a mini-comic. I liked the way a camcorder was so important to them, as the fact that my grandfather had one was such a huge event in our family.

Artistically, this anthology is very much true to the roots of the mini-comic/zine experience. None of the creators featured here are bad artists, but the emphasis is on the story, not the line drawings. There is an economy of line usage and people are portrayed in ways that emphasis the cartoon nature of the medium, rather than realism. This is more Jeffrey Brown-Gabrielle Bell territory and there's nothing wrong with that at all. If you are a stickler for "fine" art, Kids will be disappointing to you, however, so just be aware of that going in.

Kids is a generally heartwarming anthology with stories designed to make you think about your own childhood experiences. It's definitely a nostalgia trip, even when the setting is slightly fantastical. If you want to pick up a copy, you can do so at the project's blog.
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Introducing Digging Into Digital, Coming Friday June 3rd

Over the past calendar year or so, I've gotten more and more into reading comics digitally, whether they are webcomics, comics designed to be read online, or even single issue comics that are being presented in another format. It's definitely becoming a much larger part of my reading habits, and as such, I want to give it more of an outlet here on Panel Patter.

Starting this Friday, and working roughly though not exactly on a weekly schedule, will be a new feature here on the blog, joining Sunday Readings and Year of Takahashi, called Digging into Digital. Digging into Digital will be my chance to talk about the comics I'm reading on the computer, whether it be webcomics, pdfs, or comics in cloud from places like Comixology and other providers.

Though the focus will be heavily on reviews, the same as Panel Patter as a whole, Digging into Digital will also talk about my experiences as a reader of comics online, news about digital and webcomics as needed, and hopefully some interesting commentary as it relates to comics as an online medium instead of a print medium.

Right now, digital comics are the exception and not the rule, but I think that will change as time goes on, at least for readers like me who want the quality of reading interesting stuff but don't feel the need (or have the room) to keep buying and storing binded collections of paper. Digging into Digital is my chance to chronicle my experiences as we move through these changing times, and your chance to participate in the discussion, both positively and negatively if you are so inclined.

I'm really excited about this new feature and I can't wait to explore this digital world with you. Please tune in on Friday as I don my cyber-mining hat and start Digging into Digital!

May 29, 2011

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Sunday Readings 5-29-11

A few things to pass along for your Memorial Day Weekend reading pleasure...

First up, Ty Templeton pokes fun at multiple things, most notably Memorial Day for superheroes. Thanks to Comics Cavern for that one.

Those of you with creative skills who work within the small press medium should check out this new group called Small Press Commandos, who are setting up challenges for artists to try. First up is a Jack Kirby homage. I'd join in, but I don't think Kirby Krackle looks good on stick figures.

Need more free comics? David Brothers has some suggestions.

Long-running webcomics are sometimes hard to get into. Atomic Laundramat just had a refresher course and is well worth checking out. Superheroes need somewhere to keep clean, right?

Twitter pal Ben Towle is running an Animal Alphabet for any creator wanting to jump in. Here are two of my favorites, from Rob Ullman and Sam Wolk.

On the manga front, Brigid Alverson talks about Tokyopop licenses and who might go where. I'll be honest, I'm a lot less hopeful than she is. I think Hetalia is the only one who will catch on, at least while print is still the way most folks get their manga.

Happy Sunday, everyone!

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Great Zombies in History 1 to 3

Written by Various Writers
Illustrated by Various Artists
Elevator Pitch Press

I don't remember when the zombie craze got re-started, but now that it's here, like zombies themselves, the desire to put them in books, comics, and movies seems like it will never die, not unlike the lifeless mockeries themselves.

Generally speaking, I am a bit zombied out. While I tend to be willing to give most things zombie a try, it takes some work to get me to like it. You can't just have zombies and expect me to like your story. There has to be a hook, a new twist of some kind, to get me to care. Heck, the hook doesn't even have to be original--it just has to be interesting.

That's where this series from Elevator Pitch Press comes in. It's a zombie anthology comic, which of course we've seen before in a number of iterations. But this time there's a twist that's not exactly original, but its certainly interesting.

According to the premise, there are things missing from our history books, stories within the tales we all know so very well, that our teachers and historians just don't want us to know. They are the stories of the great zombies in history. Working both for good and evil, these zombies eat at the tales you thought you knew.

That's a spectacular idea for an anthology series, at least for me, because I like history and I like zombies. It provides a wide variety of settings and premises, meaning that old zombie tropes can be given new life by changing up the setting and characters. It also means Zombie George Washington, and while I wish he'd have been drawn a bit better, it is really hard not to get excited about a comic that adds another layer to the legend of the Father of Our Country. ("I cannot tell a lie. I crave human flesh," never gets used, however, which is a shame because it would have been *awesome.*)

The premise is certainly exciting, but how is the execution? Not too bad, actually. Sometimes when reading comics from extremely small publishers, the art is thin. That's not the case here. Editor Rob Anderson has done a good job of finding people who can actually draw, especially in the first two issues. There's a splash page in issue one (which tells the story of the 300 fighting off a zombie horde run by Xeres) by DaFu Yu that I lingered over for several minutes, looking at all the details packed into the page. Yu is definitely the best artist in these three issues, but Leandro Panganibon, Antonio Bifulco, and Richard P. Clark also do a good job with their pieces as well.
The stories, too, are actually a bit better than I expected. It's hard to tell a good story in only a few pages, and the only complaint I have here is that I don't think comics like this one (and Boom! Studio's Zombie Tales) need to try and shove three stories into every issue. It's okay for an anthology comic to only have two stories, especially if they are strong ones. I liked the fact that each of these tales set things within a recognizable historical context, and even made a few interesting choices, such as to pick a lonely time in Roosevelt's life or to place a fight in the middle of the War of 1812. There's even a brief explanation in the table of contents, in case a reader doesn't know the history behind the alternative history. That's a nice touch.

Of all the stories, my personal favorite was the one about the cosmonaut. Kevin D. Lintz sets up an idea (we don't know what we're messing with in space) and executes it in a way that tells both a complete story and would allow for more, if anyone was so inclined. It's from the second issue, which definitely is the strongest of the three. If you want to pick one issue up as a sample, I'd suggest that one. The other two stories feature Zombie Washington and Teddy Roosevelt, Zombie Fighter, both of which are also quite good.

Zombie stories are a tricky thing to do right. They certainly don't appeal to everyone, and those who have problems with gore won't like these comics at all, but then again, they probably knew that from the word "zombie." Those with an affinity for the undead are in for a treat, however, as this is a strong entry into the zombie comic field. I'm definitely looking forward to more issues of this anthology, whenever they come out.

May 28, 2011

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Baltimore Time Travel Anthology

Written and Illustrated by Various Authors

Last night I had the pleasure of stopping by the release party for this anthology mini-comic at Atomic Books in Baltimore, Maryland. Co-released with a zine on snocones, it was a very well attended event. I missed most of the party, but I was able to grab a copy of the anthology itself, which was of course the point of going.

The general theme of this anthology is time travel, though the idea is very loosely interpreted at certain points. We have clear cut use of time travel from some creators and others that I just can't quite seem to figure how they manage to work the idea into the narrative. In a few cases, time travel is a metaphor, which is a neat idea, but I have to admit the science fiction fan in me was a bit disappointed that more stories were not like Jonathan Eaton's absolutely hysterical "Hitler Kitty," where a hungry stray ends up changing history.

Now of course, not all good time travel stories include tabbies turning murderers into mommies, but my idea of a time travel story involves doing something that relates to moving about in the time stream in a way that is not currently possible. As a result, I admit my reaction to this collection is a bit mixed.

There are definitely some cool stories in here that use the theme quite well, most of which tend to be towards the front of the book, Eaton's story, of course, is the best, but there is also Kim Te's dangers of being a time travel mechanic, Gavin Schmitt's portrayal of a time travel paradox (complete with some great secret agent names), Melody Often's subdued approach, and Emilja Frances' almost heartbreaking idea of what time travel could be. Had the anthology contained almost entirely stories in the vein of these, I would recommend it without hesitation, as they are all quite good in their own way. They show off the power of a themed anthology, because while no one would miss the concept, the execution is vastly different in every case.

I liked a few of the other stories in the anthology as well, but their link to the theme was very tenuous. Josh Van Horne tries a choose your own adventure that's a cute idea but is more about tripping than traveling. Tim Yingling's story would make a great Twilight Zone episode, with a gotcha ending that fits perfectly but is time travel only in the conventional sense. Finally, Monica Gallagher uses an imagined revenge across the ages, which is a cool trick, but not time travel in the traditional sense.

Baltimore Time Travel Anthology is a little weak on theme but very strong on enthusiasm and effort. As with any anthology, there are stories I liked and stories I didn't, and if you put ten people in a room, we'd all have our own different opinions on which worked best and which did not. I really wish this had been a bit more tightly edited for theme, but if you like reading mini-comics and want to get a feel for those in the Baltimore area, this is a great way to do it. I only wish they'd have included a biography page or a way to link these artists back to their work and websites. Perhaps that can be added to the project website or in a future edition.

If you want to pick up a copy of this in your future, you can go to Atomic Books in Baltimore or pick up the book online.

New Webcomic: Delilah Dirk by Tony Cliff

It's quite rare that I get to be one of the first people to talk about something, but sometimes I'm on Twitter at just the right moment to do just that. Such is the case with this debut of a new webcomic, Delilah Dirk, by Tony Cliff, and I couldn't be more pleased about it.

Delilah Dirk is set in Turkey in the 19th Century, and according to Cliff it's about a young man who owes his life to a "brash adventuress" (she's the one in the center of the picture to the left) who is also responsible to endangering it in the first place. The webcomic is a serialization of a 160 page graphic novel, which means the story is already completed and assuming the hosting holds up, readers will be able to get the entire story in 4 to 6 page increments. (Cliff says he will dole them out in ways that provide the best cliffhangers.) You can get updates via RSS, Twitter, or even good old fashioned e-mail.

If the story seems vaguely familiar to you, these characters appeared in a Flight anthology, the fifth one to be exact. This is the beginning of Delilah's story, and I wonder how the piece we've already seen will fit in--if it does at all. Going back and having a look, it seems like Cliff's illustration style has improved over time, which is always a good thing.

The first four pages are all set up, but they are beautiful set-up. The opening shots of Instanbul show a level of craft and detail that set a comic like this above many others available for free on the web. This is not a whim or a side project. This is a bona-fide comic, one that Cliff hopes will benefit from web exposure and possibly be in bound form eventually.

If you like fun adventure comics, get on board with this one now. The setting and world are drawn beautifully, it has a strong female lead (which is another great feature of the prior story from Cliff with these characters), and it's hard to argue with free.

You can get started here. Delilah Dirk will update weekly on Saturdays. This is definitely going on my RSS list, and it belongs on yours, too.

May 23, 2011


Olympians Volume 2: Athena: Grey-Eyed Goddess

Written by George O'Connor
Illustrated by George O'Connor
First Second

O'Connor continues his re-imagining of the Greek myths as superheroes with this look at Athena, daughter of Zeus. The Fates spin the web of stories surrounding the virgin Goddess of War, Knowledge, and several other things (like modern women, Athena is nothing if not a multi-tasker) as they reveal the secrets of the Olympians to the reader.

Watch as Zeus makes the same mistakes as his father but with a rather unusual result, as Athena springs from her father's head (in a really cool visual designed by O'Connor) and soon shows she is the equal of many others in the Pantheon. Young and restless, Athena soon sets out on her own, but she's also more than willing to help out her fellow gods with her power and council. Sometimes at the head of the tale, sometimes lurking in the background while mortals do her bidding (or face her father-inspired wrath), Athena's reach is nearly equal to that of her dad. From fighting giants to settling grudges in the most cruel fashion, as O'Connor notes, Athena is not a goddess to be messed with.

The second Olympians book is far less linear than the first one was. While the story of Zeus is effectively an origin tale, O'Connor uses this volume to tell a variety of tales with or about Athena. It makes for a slightly clunkier read, because the Fates have to do some fancy footwork to link the stories together. On the other hand, it's great to see so many of the myths starting to get their due, from Perseus to Arachne. I really like the fact that O'Connor doesn't waste too much time explaining who everyone is. We'll (hopefully) meet them all in time, so a few passing references are all we need at this stage of the game.

I think my favorite part of this volume was the triple origin of the name Pallas, as I only knew one of the legends O'Connor illustrates. It's also one of the best uses of the Fates-as-narrators, because they can explain to a young reader that these stories are wide and varied and often contradict each other, all without lecturing. As with Zeus's tale, O'Connor scores as the best adapter of these myths for young adults simply by not trying to educate as his primary objective. The goal here is to tell a good, compelling story, and he succeeds admirably while also staying close to the source material, which students can then pick up on their own if they're so inclined. My guess is that they will be.

Perhaps the best part of Athena, however, is that this book is a 70 page spotlight of a strong female character who can hold her own against an overbearing father, sibling rivalry, and those who seek to thwart her power as a leader/goddess. She is shown fighting against the odds and standing up for herself and in O'Connor's hands, comes out of every adventure on top. While this is cheating a bit by selecting the right myths to make her look better, I think it's great that not even tragedy prevents Athena from fulfilling her potential as a powerful member of the Greek Pantheon. This is a great book to give to a young woman to show her that there are plenty of female heroes out there--if you know where to look.

As with the first book in the series, O'Connor's art is designed to echo a superhero comic book, complete with dramatic camera angles and heroic-looking characters. They speak in common language, with the Fates providing the Stan Lee narration (without the pomp, thankfully). This would be a pretty work with no ability to relate to children if it were still trapped in the ancient language, translated stiffly. O'Connor's decision to have lines like "Hahahahahaha! No." is a brilliant touch. He also can be quite subtle, such as when he references Zeus's adultery by just having him cast a glance in Hera's direction. O'Connor doesn't flinch from the brutality or crass nature of these myths, either, which is also to his credit. They are always tactfully depicted, but that doesn't mean the more mature themes aren't covered, albeit in a more restrained form.

I'm a huge fan of this series, and I can't wait for Hera, coming out later this year. O'Connor's Olympians series takes the best parts of old-school capes comics and really old-school legends and puts them together into a whole that's shaping up to be a young adult's Ovid. I can't wait to read more, and I hope he's able to cover many more of these stories I grew up with as a child. I can recommend the Olympians series to children of all ages, but especially to those with a love of myth looking for a good way to hook your own young Athena. Just make sure you keep her away from your spears, just in case.

May 21, 2011

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Quick Hits: Hulk: Gray

Written by Jeph Loeb
Illustrated by Tim Sale

After enjoying Daredevil: Yellow a whole lot on a re-read, I decided to give this one another chance. I had picked it up in single issues way back when and was definitely dissapointed at the time. It paled in comparison to Long Halloween and Daredevil, both in the story and the art.

This time around, I liked it better, but there's still something missing. I think the problem is that Bruce is just too maudelin and trying to capture those early days are tricky because Stan and Jack just did not know what to do with the Hulk. There is so much better work that Mantlo, David, and even Bruce Jones did with the character that trying to recall a simpler time just doesn't work here.

The Hulk in Loeb's hands is complex and simple, at the same time. He can barely speak but he thinks hard. Rick loses his charm and is far more punk kid than wily partner. And Betty is not quite independent but not quite helpless, either. Loeb trips over himself trying to make all this work, and the story suffers for it.

Sale is also not at his best here, opting to use a Hulk parody as his model, for reasons that escape me. Nothing looks right because every time the Hulk shows up, perspective is skewed. Sale is always an artist of impression not realism, but here he's taken it too far.

Overall, while this story still captures the essence of good, old fashioned capes comics in a way I appreciate, it does not hold up as a classic to be read over and over again. This one is probably only worth seeking out for the most fervent Loeb and Sale fans.

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Irredeemable Volumes 5 and 6

Written by Mark Waid
Illustrated by Peter Krause and Diego Barreto
Boom! Studios

[Note: I read these in single issue form, digitally. I am guessing based on the 4 issues per trade pattern that this will be the content of volumes 5 and 6.]

As if dealing with a homicidal former hero isn't bad enough, now the remains of the Paradigm have to start looking at the specter of aliens. The Vespa are here, and...they were invited? Say what? Meantime, the Plutonian has issues of his own--romantic ones, to be exact. But not for long if the Vespa have their way. Can the Plutonian fight not just one world, but two, especially when the second has been dealing with his kind for years? It's enough to make you crazy. Just when you think things might start to get easier, it all becomes even more complex in the world of...Irredeemable.

One of the things that's astounded me about Irredeemable is Mark Waid's ability to take typical situations we see in superhero comics all the time and twist them into warped mirror images of the stereotype, daring to do things that might not play if we used characters who were better known. Never has this been so obvious as when Modeus makes a key revelation about the nature of his battle with the Plutonian. We all know which hero-villain combo Waid is talking about here, and it's NOT Superman and Luthor, but I can't imagine a world where DC would allow any creator to play with their toys in this manner.

(Nor should they, if I may be allowed a digression. Part of the reason why current capes comics are so messed up is that both Marvel and DC allow creators to go down personal digressions that harm the core nature of characters that should have universal appeal and flexibility. What I love about Irredeemable is that Waid is breaking no toys except his own.)

The Modeus-Plutonian interaction is definitely the high point of volume five, although the revelation that a previously unblemished hero made a potentially Faustian bargain no one knew about is a close second, because it yet again shows that in the world of Irredeemable, no one is safe from corruption, except maybe Kaiden, and I figure she's due pretty soon.

The decisions made by that one hero drive most of the action of the final four issues, which should make up volume six. The Vespa step in to take care of earth's Plutonian problem, but his extreme mental instability plays havoc with their orderly nature. Waid plays some nice tricks with this, but I do think he overplays his hand a bit with the dream sequences, an idea that's been done to death and doesn't get anything added to it here. Tony's position at the end of this volume definitely makes it clear that he's not out of the picture yet and has quite a few people to add to his enemies list. There's also the problem that Plutonian's removal is not unlike Planet Hulk, in a really depraved way. I'm hoping this part of the story gets better as we move into the next set of issues.

While I enjoyed but didn't love the off-world action in issues 20 to 23, the scenes with the Paradigm were perfect. Waid makes it clear that Plutonian's removal doesn't solve a darn thing, as the rebuilding process is not the cakewalk Surviver wants to make the world think it will be. While the Paradigm works to fix the world and its own broken ranks, Mr. Qubit keeps fretting about what lies ahead. But is he over-thinking things? It's hard to tell what Waid wants us to believe, because the players involved in deducing the truth leave us no reliable narrator to trust. I honestly have no idea if we're getting the straight story or if Waid has another surprise or two up his sleeve. My guess is on the latter.

These issues are a mix of Peter Krause and Diego Barreto art. As with the prior trade, Krause's is the far more expressive work and I'm sorry to hear he's left the series for the foreseeable future. Barreto is better here than when we first saw his work, but I just think he leaves too many fine details out, and I liked the way Krause would give us small details within larger panels. Irredeemable loses a bit of subtlety in Barreto's hands, but it's not like the art is bad. I just wish there was more going on that just straightforward storytelling. Then again, given how many bad artists DC has in its stable right now, straightforward storytelling is apparently a rare talent these days.

Irredeemable continues to have more layers than a Royal Wedding cake, and I love the corrupted complexity of the series. Waid has so many balls in the air, it's going to be a fascinating process to see how he catches them, one by one. I do hope that he starts to bring things back to earth (so to speak) soon, however. The story is really stretched thin here, and if he adds any more quirks, I'm afraid the whole thing might break. But if anyone can manage, it's Waid, because this is just what he excels at. Irredeemable is still the best "dark Superman" story I've ever read, primarily because in the world of Irredeemable, no one is innocent and no one is safe. This still gets my highest recommendation, especially for those looking for mature capes stories that don't just get dark and miserable because they can. In the case of Irredeemable, there's just no other choice--and that's what makes it so good. I'm definitely looking forward to reading this on a as it appears digitally basis going forward.

May 20, 2011

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Karakuri Odette Volume 3

Written by Julietta Suzuki
Illustrated by Julietta Suzuki

Want yet another piece of evidence that Tokopop had quite a few things wrong with it? Check out this blurb from the back cover of Karkuri Odette: "She's a hot robot in high school." Anyone who has read the first two volumes is probably shaking their heads in both disbelief and disappointment, because as we all know this manga is about as far away from a boy's robot fantasy comic as you can get. With bad marketing like that, who needs enemies?

For those new to the series, Karakuri Odette is the story of an android who wants to be human, and opts to experience life as a real high school girl. She's got a lot to learn while trying to keep her existence a secret, with only a few select people and a fellow android knowing the truth. Odette soon finds that living life as a real person is a painful process, with everything from lunchroom etiquette to the concept of "like" being almost as hard to grasp as the idea of dreaming, which she clearly cannot do. Despite great strength, Odette is learning she has many, many weaknesses.

The solid storytelling and art continue here in this midpoint volume, with Odettte maturing nicely as a character while Suzuki makes it clear she's got so much to learn it could take hundreds of stories to tell them all. It doesn't prevent the manga from having quite a bit of appeal. Far from it, in fact. This story works because we know that Odette will never be perfect. There's no happy ever after story when you're part of the human race. We can see that again and again, especially in the opening story, which is downright heartbreaking. I also love Suzuki's ability to capture the angst involved in young romance. Don't we all know the pain of not being liked back?

It's this idea of living that is lacking from the usual girl robot stories, and I hate that Tokyopop was marketing Odette in that way. It was a total mistake that may have hurt sales. Of course, the whole thing is moot now, anyway.

You might still be able to find Karakuri Odette, and if you do, I highly recommend it. It's great storytelling about a difficult time, through the eyes of one who just longs to be accepted and probably never will. This is a really great comic, and I recommend it without reservation.

May 18, 2011

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Groo: Hell on Earth

Written by Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones
Illustrated by Sergio Aragones
Dark Horse

Battle is Groo's business, and business is good--if only he can lead his new army in the right direction. As Groo wanders around in comic ways, his world is slowly changed, as a more modernized setting starts having some very familiar problems. Can Groo's friend the sage convince people to change their ways in time to save the world? Only if Groo can get out of the fray, and that's no easy task. If things don't change soon, there may be hell to pay in Groo: Hell on Earth.

I've been a fan of both Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones going back quite literally to when I was a child (for Garfield and Mad, respectively). This is the first time these usually strong creators have put together a work that I actually disliked, which was a huge disappointment for me. If I had started with this comic instead of the many other Groo books out there, I don't know that I'd seek out more, which is a real shame

Groo at its best is a sharp satire of both the sword and sorcery genre and of human nature. Evanier has always walked a fine line with this idea, managing to give us his opinion of such things as rich businesses and corrupt politicians while still coming up with concepts that were laugh out loud funny. The jokes were always the primary thing, with social commentary backing up the banter. This allowed any reader to get the jokes, enjoy Aragones' amazing and underrated visuals, and also digest some deeper meaning from seemingly silly comics.

That's not the case this time around, as the narrative unwisely splits between Groo's comic antics and an extremely serious set of lectures by the Sage about the dangers of global warming. The sage's parts have no trace of comedy in them whatsoever, and as a result, Groo's inability to do anything right just looks like a distraction in an otherwise dire documentary.

Unlike prior Groo outings, where the serious met the silly head-on and blended seamlessly, Hell on Earth reads like very thinly veiled political opinion piece that tried to tack on a humor plot to cover the op-ed. Evanier says this wasn't his intention in the afterward, but I'm afraid that's how the comic comes off, at least to me. Much of the story is spent going over climate change issues that are right out of the New York Times science section and the moral of the story is that we have to change our ways now before even worse things happen. I'm not advocating that climate change isn't happening, but I also think Evanier is being disingenuous about saying he's not sure if climate change is real. The idea that we should address it anyway, just in case, feels like a screen to me, one that I don't even understand why he feels necessary to create.

Politics aside, this story just isn't very good. Groo is shunted almost to the side, bursting on the scene like an unwanted drunken friend at a New Year's Party, where they came after going somewhere else first. There are the patented Evanier running gags, but they do little to make the story enjoyable, because sooner rather than later, we're back to the doom and gloom. The characters we meet this time are paper-thin, used only as avatars of good, evil, or talking heads. They lack the depth needed for good satire and seem to exist primarily so that the Sage can talk to them about climate change. I know characters can be lightweight in a comedy, but a lot of these folks in Hell on Earth felt like they were filled with helium, which is a shame.

Despite a weak plot, Aragones' art is still quite strong. The Minstrel gets a different item on his lute almost every frame he appears in, crowd scenes are still deftly decorated, and the expressions on his characters' faces are as good as ever. He's still the master of his craft, and hopefully the next Groo effort will match his strong art with a return to form for Evanier's scripting.

Hell on Earth is just off-kilter, and I think that's because there's so much focus on bringing reality into the picture. Reality and Groo should shake hands, but never hug. This was like watching an after school special, staring Groo and the Sage, with the ultimate lesson being that only children (they're our future!) can save the world. Evanier can do better than that. You can do better by reading other Groo collections. Hell on Earth is a rare miss in an overall strong catalog of comedy.

May 17, 2011

Project I'm Looking Forward To: Jim Henson's Storyteller

I don't generally write much about publisher PR, but ever since I heard about the Jim Henson Storyteller project from Archaia, I've been pretty excited. The Storyteller series was criminally underrated, showing Henson's genius extended far beyond the Muppets, as good as the Muppets were.

A few years ago, I re-watched them all on DVD, even the lesser-known Greek ones, and I fell in love all over again. It's so awesome that this is coming to comics, and I admit I want a second edition before I've even seen the first.

Nate Cosby just revealed the cast list, and I had to share, because it makes me even more excited than ever: Jeff Parker, Paul Tobin, Colleen Coover, Katie Cook, and Roger Langridge are all a part of this collection. How cool is that?

Cosby didn't reveal the cover artist, but I'll take a stab and say either P. Craig Russell, James Jean, or Charles Vess. They'd all be amazing contributors to this book, and all have fantasy ties that would be appropriate to the work.

Anyway, I can't wait for the comic to come out. I have a funny feeling it's going to make my best of 2011 list.

Jim Henson's Storyteller will be available from Archaia in September 2011.
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A Year of Takahashi Week 15: Breaking the 4th Wall, Breaking the Jokes (Ranma 1/2 Volumes 18-20)

My year-long look at the work of Rumiko Takahashi continues here. A great creator deserves a whole year of examination! You can find all of the posts here.

Written by Rumiko Takahashi
Illustrated by Rumiko Takahashi

The dance of love and hate between Ranma and Akane continue through these three volumes, as their personal relationship issues spill over across all these adventures. Watch as Ranma faces the despair of Ryoga, tries to be a cheerleader, helps a variety of lost loves, and might even start to sort out his complicated feelings for Akane. Or not.

Every good series has stumbling points, and this is definitely one for Ranma 1/2. While we have what I think is the first set of fourth wall breaking jokes, continuing the pattern of capturing the humor of Looney Tunes and the Marx Brothers, these stories feel generally flat. The madcap insanity is missing, replaced by a calmer set of jokes that play heavily off the on again, off again relationship between Ranma and Akane.

Instead of having the characters do increasingly crazy things, it seems like Takahashi is pulling back a bit here. The stories have a more traditional comedy feel to me, and I honestly don't like the change. There's still a sense of fun, but I just don't get that same buzz from these that I did from the previous volumes. Coming off the absolutely insanity of the prior few trades, this is quite a comedown.

The problem, I think, is that when the focus is on the will they or won't they nature of the Ranma/Akane relationship, it's hard to just be silly. Instead of finding Ranma's continual denials here funny, they start to grate after awhile. Obviously, he can't admit he loves Akane or the series is over, so why keep putting him in these situations, only to move on to being a jerk, time and time again?

Several of the stories this time feel recycled, which doesn't help matters. The Queen of the Black Rose is back, again using the pictures of Ranma as a girl as the focal point. Then Ranma and Akane must team up to defeat an outsider, in this case a martial artist cheerleader. This feels far too much like the time they got on ice skates together. It was probably less noticeable at the time, but reading these in trade form just feels like more of the same.

The nadir, however, is when Ranma's mother comes to town. Ranma of course is not a "real man" because of the curse, and that means he needs to die. The jokes are supposed to be around the idea of Ranma hiding as Ranko, but I didn't think this was funny at all. Hiding your true self from your parents is something all too many children have to do. The whole idea is mirthless to me and smacks of a variation on the mother-in-law theme, which is a joke I don't much care for anyway.

We wrap up with a cheap fat joke involving Happosai. Rather than go for the interesting idea that maybe Happosai loves all women, we go instead for a lowbrow crack that an overweight matronly ghost is cursing him, leading to antics trying to get Happosai to steal granny panties.

Come on, Ms. Takahashi--you're better than that.

All in all, this was the most disappointed set of comics in Ranma 1/2, and shows that any good series have rough spots. Next week, things should pick back up as we keep on moving through what is still my favorite Takahashi work.

May 16, 2011


Panel by Panel: April 2011 in Review

April has come and gone and it's hard to believe the year is now over 1/3 of the way finished. I had more of a return to form this past month, though I find myself still reading an abnormally low number of indie books. This month also seems me dabbling more with digital comics, something that I think will be a trend as the year goes on and I work more from my computer and less with paper books. I'm not keeping a digital versus print count--yet, though it's something I may consider doing soon.

This month also features a new category, Single Issue Superheroes, as I expect to be reading more indie superhero stuff digitally, and thus not in a collected form.

That all being said, let's see how April 2011 shaped up for me in terms of my reading plans...

Indie Books (2)
  1. Zombie Tales: Good Eatin' by Various Writers and Artists
  2. How To Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden
Zombie Tales was just okay, as the stories and art felt generally rushed. Probably only needed reading for the most hard-core zombie fans. How to Understand Israel is a candidate for non-2011 book of the year.

Manga/Manhwa (14)
  1. 20th Century Boys Vol 4 by Naoki Urasawa
  2. Chi's Sweet Home Vol 1 by Konami Kanata
  3. Bleach Vol 9 by Tite Kubo
  4. Bleach Vol 10 by Tite Kubo
  5. Bleach Vol 11 by Tite Kubo
  6. Ranma 1/2 Vol 13 by Rumiko Takahashi
  7. Ranma 1/2 Vol 14 by Rumiko Takahashi
  8. Ranma 1/2 Vol 15 by Rumiko Takahashi
  9. Ranma 1/2 Vol 16 by Rumiko Takahashi
  10. Ranma 1/2 Vol 17 by Rumiko Takahashi
  11. Rin-Ne Vol 1 by Rumiko Takahashi
  12. Rin-Ne Vol 2 by Rumiko Takahashi
  13. Rin-Ne Vol 3 by Rumiko Takahashi
  14. Rin-Ne Vol 4 by Rumiko Takahashi
As this was the Year of Takahashi's month to host the Manga Movable Feast, Takahashi dominated my mange reading, accounting for 4/7ths of the manga I read this past month. It was some of the best of Ranma 1/2, but the jury is still out on Rin-Ne. All of these books were discussed in reviews on Panel Patter.
    Mini-Comics/Zines (8)
    1. Magic Bullet 1 by Various
    2. Magic Bullet 2 by Various (2011)
    3. Dogs of Mars 1 by Tony Trov, Christian Weiser, Johnny Zito, and Paul Maybury
    4. Fried Rice Issue 1 by Sean K. Dove (2011)
    5. War of the Woods #1 Season 1 by Matthew Petz
    6. Valentine 1 by Alex de Campi and Christine Larsen
    7. Valentine 2 by Alex de Campi and Christine Larsen
    8. Valentine 3 by Alex de Campi and Christine Larsen
    With the exception of Magic Bullet, these were all digital comics, and they were all pretty darn good. Definitely worth seeking out, and most of them are on Comixology. Look for some reviews soon.

    Superhero Stuff (7)
    1. The Mighty Volume 1 by Peter J. Tomasi, Keith Champagne, and Peter Snejbjerg
    2. The Mighty Volume 2 by Peter J. Tomasi, Keith Champagne, and Chris Samnee
    3. Flash Rebirth by Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver
    4. Daredevil: Yellow by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
    5. Green Lantern: The Sinestro Corps War Vol 1 by Geoff Johns and Others
    6. Green Lantern: The Sinestro Corps War Vol 2 by Geoff Johns and Others
    7. Spider-Man and the Secret Wars by Paul Tobin, Patrick Scherberger, Terry Pallot, and Clayton Henry
    Spider-Man and the Secret Wars was a rare Marvel Adventures miss for me, as instead of getting the competent hero, Tobin opts for making Peter young, inexperienced, and a bit of a jerk. He's miscast here as an antagonist to the Hulk and then thrown out of his depth against Galactus and Doom. Not one I'd recommend. Geoff Johns continues to do what he does, and while it's interesting on some levels, I'm just not the target audience for his Hal Jordan is awesome and Barry Allen is more important than we've given him credit for type of stories, where Silver Age ideas are given the bloody 2000s treatment. I would love to see him do Metamorpho: Rebirth, however, just to see if he tried to claim Rex was more important than Wonder Woman.

    Daredevil: Yellow was the best of this bunch, an underrated Loeb-Sale collaboration.

    Single Issue Superheroes (1)
    1. Action Double Feature #1 by Tim Seeley, Sophie Campbell, Dennis Hopeless, and Mike Norton (2011)
    This was fun, and I hope to see a second issue soon. See my review for more details.

    Erased the Panels

    I figured I'd give one of the Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon bio-comics a try, but I found Che to be a dry slog and gave up after awhile. Colon's art is okay for what he's given, but despite death and desperation, there's just no life in the panels. It's like looking up someone in the encyclopedia--you get what you need, but it's not something you want to make a habit of reading. Anyone care to me there's better example of their work, or is this typical?

    That was my month in reading for April 2011. How was yours?

    May 15, 2011

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    Sunday Reading 5-15-11

    Here are some things I came across that might interest you that definitely interested me, as I sit here on what has turned out to be a lovely Sunday afternoon...

    Cornered is a fun blog that looks as those almost-forgotten (and probably not really missed) boxes that featured the main character in case they were shoved behind others on the (somewhat missed) news rack or spinner. This is a shiny Daredevil and here is an awesome contribution from when Anthony Vokojevich was only ten. Me, I never progressed past stick figures! Also notable of late was Mike Maihack's Supergirl. Mike draws Cleopatra in Spaaace!, a webcomic I've been following since it started.

    Panel Patter favorite Joey Weiser lifts his creative curtain and explains his original ending for Cavemen in Space, speaking of things dealing with the outer atmosphere of the cosmos.

    Another of my favorite artists, Jeffrey Brown, keeps us posted on what he's been working on last month. That's a lot of projects to juggle, but I'm glad he's doing so well.

    Talkin About Comics talks about Robot Dreams by Sara Varon. This was one of the early comics I discovered when I really started reading non-capes stuff more frequently. His take on the book is interesting.

    Perhaps I should try this approach at the Viz offices, but request Android instead...

    I'm extremely excited that Andi Watson is doing new Skeleton Key comics, and I'm even more excited that there's a good chance they'll end up on the Dark Horse Digital app, even if I have to wait a bit. This seems like a great excuse to break out my trade collection. Way to do things in a quality manner, Dark Horse!

    Speaking of online happenings, a site I didn't know about before called What Things Do is coming back, with Kevin Huizenga and John Porcellino among the contributors. There are so many digital options out there these days!

    From the webcomic front, Bug, which is still going strong, has a funny series on raising the son of the devil, starting here. And, just a bit older, Dinosaur Comics destroys common games.

    Lastly, in honor of seeing the great Thor movie yesterday, here's Sean Phillip's Iron Man, Steve Lieber's Thor, and Chris Samnee's Captain America. Avengers Assemble!

    Tyrannosaurus Beth #1

    Written by Matthew Petz
    Illustrated by Matthew Petz

    If sugar is near, evil-doers better fear! Beth is a relatively normal teenage girl who has an interesting experience at the dentist, and the next thing you know, she's got the ability to change into a Tyrannosaurus Rex. What better to do with this strange power than to fight crime? After all, chasing robbers and robots is an awful lot of fun!

    This is one of those comics that's just plain fun to read. Beth is an engaging character who clearly loves what she does, without having a lot of angst or baggage. The comic itself doesn't think too hard about its premise, either, which is a nice change of pace. Too many creators seem ready to explain everything and a lot of times, that sucks some of the fun and life from the idea. Not Matthew Petz, who happily described this one to me as his attempt to come with his own version of the Incredible Hulk.

    That sense of fun from his voice definitely carries into the comic. There's quite a bit of story packed into a limited number of pages, as we see Beth's origin story, a fight, and even a rogue's gallery. The artwork is clear and crisp, looking just a bit sketchy but in a practiced manner. Best of all, Beth is a positive female character who is, unless I read things wrong, of Latina origin. It's nice to see a creator going that direction for a change.

    My only problem with Tyrannosaurus Beth is that there's apparently only one issue. I'd love to see more of this young heroine from Petz if he gets a chance to work on her story again.

    I got my copy of Tyrannosaurus Beth at a show. You can order one from Mr. Petz here.

    May 14, 2011

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    Short Stack Volume 1

    Written by Shawn Gabborin (with a few others)
    Illustrated by Various Artists
    Angry Gnome Comics

    Angry Gnome is one of the best names I've seen for a small press company. The logo is pretty cool, too. I admit the name caught my eye and made me stop by the table to see what they had to offer. The primary answer was this anthology collection, written by Angry Gnome founder Shawn Gabborin with illustrations by a plethora of artists.

    As is obvious from this cover, Short Stack is a horror anthology, which means picking it up wasn't exactly a difficult decision for me, made easier by the entry-level friendly price for a trade paperback. The basic concept is that Gabborin tries to do all sorts of two-page horror stories, with a "gotcha" ending that attempts to take a familiar premise and give it some twist that the reader isn't expecting. Kind of like speed dating through the Twilight Zone.

    The stories themselves show a remarkable variety of ideas from Gabborin. There's everything from revenge plots to aliens to zombies to vampires to the general cruelty of the twisted human mind. Some characters are obsessed with hate, others kill out of misplaced love. We've got monster hunters and serial killers mixed in with some fantasies and delusions. No two stories are exactly alike, and no story is more than two pages. Aided by the wide variety of artists, this collection flows nicely, without feeling repetitious despite the common theme and quick resolutions.

    Not every story is a winner, but that's to be expected with an anthology comic, even if it shares a common writer. The stories tend to get stronger as the anthology progresses, in my opinion, with the best story by far being Smith. Gabborin packs so much into that two page story, giving a lot of psychological depth with probably less than 200 words and good camera angles from Anna Fitzpatrick. Other favorites included Insuronce upon a Time (which shows not even fantasy companies want to pay claims), Slumber Party (so much for dying in your underwear!), Equal Trade (which gives us a rather angry gnome...), and the extremely poignant Making Room.

    There were plenty of others that I liked, and only a few that just didn't quite go anywhere. Most of those were just too straightforward or had artwork that was sub-par. When you're looking at over 50 stories, however, the ratio is pretty good. Gabborin does a good job of matching the story to the artist, with only a few cases where I think the two don't link up very well.

    Short Stack is a throwback to the days of pre-code comics with a host of collaborations that while not always being perfect show a level of enthusiasm that a lot of other comics can't match. This is clearly a labor of love for Gabborin and company and it shows. It's extremely difficult to tell a story in only two pages, as I've mentioned in other reviews, and I think Gabborin does a great job of managing the task, especially as this collection goes along. If you're a horror fan, this is definitely worth looking up. It may be short in stature, but not in quality.

    May 13, 2011

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    Free Comic Book Day Giveaway!

    So I have a bunch of Free Comic Book Day comics, and I don't need most of them.

    Interested in seeing what you think about stuff I either liked or didn't like? Here's your chance.

    Give me a few words about what you think publishers should offer on Free Comic Book Day in the comments. I'll pick one person to get a bundle of comics and publish all the answers in a follow-up post with my own ideas as well.

    Free Comic Book Day: It's a gift that can keep on giving!

    I'll leave this open through Monday, May 16th, and then pick a winner. Good luck, and I look forward to reading your answers!

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    Free Comic Book Day Quick Reviews

    Here's a quick rundown of what I picked up on Free Comic Book Day. None of these are particularly in-depth, of course, but reflect my general impressions. The point of FCBD is to get people to try things, so my main focus is on whether I was intrigued enough to seek out more.

    The Best Things in Life Were Free

    It was a tight race, but Dark Horse's Baltimore/Criminal Macabre was probably the best of the comics I read that day. Not hard to get me to buy into Mignola, but Steve Niles hooked me with his madcap monster movie/noir mashup and now I want to read more.

    I can't believe I hadn't read Atomic Robo before, but I won't keep denying myself for much longer! The story, though short, was hysterical, including a gun show send-up that is one of the best I've seen anywhere. I want to read more. The Foster Broussard backup wasn't bad, but I don't think I'd seek it out. Moon Girl didn't quite grab me.

    Bongo Comics Free-For-All reminds us that Bongo Comics are not only pretty good, but should be the people actually writing the Simpsons. Evan Dorkin and Sergio Aragones (writing a story on his own with words!) are the highlights in an extremely solid pick. I continue to want to read more, since I already do love Bongo's Simpsons stuff.

    Captain America Thor is bittersweet, because for some reason, Marvel is opting to tease readers with great stories like this one by Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee, then put in house ads for things that are infinitely less interesting. I would like to read more, but can't. The Avengers tie-in backup is terrible and makes the Wasp useless.

    I was surprised at how much I liked the Archaia FCBD offering, starting with a really cool Mouse Guard story but also featuring a Season of the Dapper Men that seemed promising and quite a bit of Jim Henson-related comics that I'm looking forward to reading at some point. I want to read more.

    Locke & Key from Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez and IDW got me interested enough in their concept that I picked up the first trade at the store, so it's definitely an I want to read more candidate. Strange that a non-all ages book had an all ages story, though.

    Boom! Studios is the latest to try an Elric adaptation, and I wish them the best of luck, but as their own timeline shows, Elric seems to be a bit of a hard sell. The artwork by Francesco Biagini channels P. Craig Russell and is extremely pretty. Elric isn't my favorite character, but I want to read more.

    Robert Kirkman has quite a bit of range, going from the extreme gore of Walking Dead to the kid-friendly Super Dinosaur. This series just looks like a lot of fun, featuring center of the earth concepts, a non-obnoxious teen lead, and, of course, a cyborg T-Rex that can talk. I plan to read more. Not sure Invincible's bloody body count is a good house ad for the back, though.

    Born to be Free

    Silver Scorpion was a neat idea, I think--get kids together and help them create a character they can relate to. Ron Marz does a good job with what he's given, but this is pretty standard superhero stuff, the kind of character that makes the Marvel-DC D list and shows up in crowd shots. I'd read more, but not at full price.

    I remember when Oni Press was more about relationships than action books, but that seems like ages ago. Spontaneous has an interesting premise (human combustion and a strange link between occurrences) but the art just turned me off. I'd read more, but not at full price.

    Why is there a new comic for Inspector Gadget? It was fun and seemed to capture the patter of the original, but failed to hook me because the publisher opted not to give me a full story. Big mistake, now I don't know if I like you enough to pay for you. I'd read more, but not at full price.

    It hurts to put anything about The Tick here, but the FCBD offering was not what it could have been. As with Inspector Gadget above, the jokes were spot-on and appropriately meta, but cut out way too early in favor of a listing of characters that I neither recognize nor care about (yet) because I haven't read the books they came from. Nice homage to John Byrne on the cover, but it needed a notation of same. Because I couldn't get a solid read, I'd read more, but not at full price.

    Freely Aimed, But Not at Me

    Oni's all ages comics this time out don't seem to have any appeal for adults. Power Lunch might show some promise, but Sketch Monsters has booger jokes, and that's where I'm out. Not for me.

    The Top Shelf Kid's Club looks awesome for kids, but of the stuff in this issue, only the passive-aggressive Kochalka and the hysterical premise of Pirate Penguin vs Ninja Chicken check in at being stuff for everyone. I'm really happy to see Top Shelf doing so well as a kid's publisher, and hopefully this will reach the right kids and get them hooked on comics for a long time. Pretty much not for me.

    Jake the Dreaming is an illustrated novel. Sorry, but that's just not my thing. I read this one casually, and just didn't hook me. Might appeal to those who are bigger YA fans, though.

    Got What I Paid for

    I'm glad I got to read the 2000AD sampler, because now I know how and why DC comics was ruined. Only the Judge Dredd comic was any good, with most of the rest being over-the-top sledgehammer storytelling or poor parodies that wouldn't make Mad's slushpile. Extremely disappointing while also being educational. Pass, hard-core.

    I knew Young Justice, new Young Justice comic, and you, sir, are no Young Justice. Mike Norton's art is good, but the story is entirely too weak and whiny. Despite having the same concept as Peter David's underrated series, this has none of the charm or genuine feeling. I also thought the Batman Brave and the Bold story was quite weak, making me doubt why people are so high on the concept. Disappointing. I'll pass on both.

    Not sure why I thought Bluewater might make a good comic, but the Mis-Adventures of Adam West was a whiny, incomplete mess that makes me question if West even looked at this before giving it the go-ahead. A man who actively petitioned to be on Family Guy complaining about how heroes are treated these days? Really? The Things to Come backup wasn't bad, but man, how does a company like this make so many comics? Very disappointing. Avoid.

    I'm a fan of classic comics, but I just fail to see the appeal of John Stanley. He's the feature of yet another Drawn and Quarterly Free Comic Book Day sampler, and I'm still not getting why people want to re-read these bland, unfunny, uninspired stories. Still not planning on reading this.

    This one pains me almost as much the Tick. Svetlana Chmakova is a great manga artist, but James Patterson's Witch & Wizard reads like it was written from a YA novel randomizer. I have absolutely no interest in this one at all. I'm so sorry, Ms. Chmakova, because I like you but I don't like this stereotypical story from a big-name author who can't be bothered to try.

    So that was my Free Comic Book Day reading experience. I found some new stories I want and found a few to steer clear of. How about you? Care to argue a point or two or talk about anything I missed? Have at it!

    May 11, 2011

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    Free Comic Book Day Done Right: Atomic Books in Baltimore

    Atomic Books Free Comic Book Day in Baltimore

    I had the pleasure of finally getting to participate in Free Comic Book Day for the first time this year, at one of my local stores, Atomic Books in Baltimore, MD. While I am a huge comic book fan, something has always come up on FCBD that prevented me from going, whether it was the opening of an amusement park or a once-a-year chance to see a friend. I’d almost come to believe I’d never get to be a part of one, but this year the stars aligned for me and I was able to get out to the store and see what the publishers were pushing, possibly to a non-comics audience.

    Atomic Books is one of those awesome stores that did not limit picking up comics, asking only that you pick only those you really wanted and that you take only one of each book. They’d even taken pains to keep a knowledgeable person by the comics to talk to people about them and organized them so that the kid-friendly books were all together, making selection easy for parents. In addition, they ran a sale on all comic-related items and put out some older books (a few of which had links to FCBD material) on a deep discount.

    Any person walking by was greeted by free books and a friendly face, with compelling reasons to at least look deeper into the store. From my limited time hanging out at Atomic Books, this setup was working quite well for them. People were attracted to the table, the small store had quite a few folks inside, and it seemed like their cashier stayed busy just about the entire time. Folks were poking around the new release table, seeing what everyone from Kodansha to Drawn and Quarterly had to offer. (This store is less heavily focused on superhero comics.)

    I know that my experience with FCBD is limited, but my feeling is that this is how FCBD should work. I don’t think I could be bothered if I had to ask permission for certain free comics or bring a demo copy up to the desk for retrieval. If I was new to the idea of a comic shop, barriers like this would be an extreme turn-off. Casual interest needs to be met at the door. Think about having an open house. Would you wander in if the door was shut, the punch was under glass, and it required running a gauntlet just to eat a cocktail wiener and see what the party was about? Now imagine yourself as a parent, staring in at a store with Adam Hughes busts, doing its best Spencer’s impression? Why would you even try?

    Though it seems like Free Comic Book Day has morphed into an event where hard-core comics readers come out for free samples and signings, I think that is generally a mistake. Sure I love free comics, and yes, I took my share. But this event shouldn't be about me, or, quite frankly, about most of you reading this. It should be a chance for people who haven't touched a comic in years to see what's out there, from the newest Spider-Man storyline to a variety of books for all ages, with characters both new and familiar. Those are the people FCBD needs to hook, not us.

    By being friendly and welcoming, Atomic Books might just have the right idea. If every story tried that approach once a year--or even better, once every few months--there might be some extra customers gained, and publishers would look at what they want, not just what the usual 30,000 or so people who buy the same story over and over want.

    Publishers, retailers, and readers would all be better for it.

    Thanks again, Atomic Books. You did a great job, and I'd love to see people follow your lead. See you on my next visit. I hope I see some of those new faces next time as well. We gain when we grow, not when we are insular. Let's keep that in mind for next Free Comic Book Day.

    May 10, 2011

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    A Year of Takahashi Week 14: Takahashi's Rodney Dangerfield Manga (Rin-Ne)

    My year-long look at the work of Rumiko Takahashi continues here. A great creator deserves a whole year of examination! You can find all of the posts here.

    Written by Rumiko Takahashi
    Illustrated by Rumiko Takahashi

    If there's one thing I learned as the host of the Rumiko Takahashi Manga Movable Feast, it's that people just aren't very fond of Rin-Ne, whether they are people who read all sorts of manga, folks without a strong attachment to Rumiko Takahashi, or those who even went so far as to write fan fiction back in the day.

    When I started bringing this up on twitter, I got a whole host of replies back, some of them from the same people who were giving the series lukewarm comments, reporting that they did in fact like Rin-Ne. The thing is, though, if you look at the comments objectively, Rin-Ne is a series that, not unlike Rodney Dangerfield, just can't get no respect.

    The question is, does it deserve it?

    Let's face it, life is pretty hard for Rin-Ne the series. It's the latest creation from a creator that's in the pantheon of manga greats. It comes on the heels of her arguably most commercially successful series. It was given the rare boost of being simultaneously released online in both English and Japanese. But perhaps most significantly of all, it's Takahashi's first series to be released entirely in the blog-tweet-status era of the internet, where reactions are shared more often, more widely, and with the least amount of barriers to sharing.

    Sure, there's been an internet for a long time, and message boards and newsgroups disseminated information about manga just about as soon as the manga boom happened in the United States to say nothing of international internet usage. However, it was not omnipresent the way we experience the internet today.

    Rin-Ne is a new series and as such, there are still a lot of kinks to be worked out. Instead of reading having private thoughts about these issues, they're all over the web and as a result, I think a certain buzz is generated about Rin-Ne that it's an okay series, but nothing to write home about. I wonder if some of the critical problems Rin-Ne has are related to the large volume of commentary out there today.

    That's not to say we should talk less about books as they come out or stop having so many review blogs, because that would be both stupid and hypocritical. (I am not a fan of certain long-standing critics who seem to think that the world of comics criticism belongs only to them and to whom they deem worthy.) What I am saying is that I think Rin-Ne is born into a world with a) a lot more manga to choose from and b) a lot more freedom to express critical ideas, and as a result, is taking some hits that Ranma 1/2 and InuYasha could also have seen, had they started in the 21st Century instead of the 20th.

    The world of reading is a very different place today than it used to be, and even Rumiko Takahashi can't escape that reality. What has worked in the past doesn't necessarily work today, and that brings me around to the content of Rin-Ne itself.

    Former Marvel Editor in Chief Joe Quesada got in a lot of trouble with older comics fans (and some older comics creators) by saying that retro-style superhero comics just don't sell. People don't want books set in older continuity with older mores; they want edgier, contemporary material. What does this quote have to do with Rin-Ne? Despite being popular enough to graze the New York Times Bestseller lists for manga, I think that part of the issue with Rin-Ne is it feels like a manga caught in a time machine. Despite all we've seen in manga over the past dozen years or so, Rin-Ne and Takahashi seem stuck in the very wheel of re-incarnation that's part of the plot of the series. Rin-Ne is fun, but it just doesn't feel fresh. It's more like picking up something from a longbox and re-reading it than being part of a new comic.

    I fully realize that Takahashi is not the most original manga-ka. I like her work a lot, but in terms of style, her comics tend to look similarly and take one of two paths, serious or silly. The thing is, in the past I've always gotten a sense of refinement of style. I feel like while you can draw connections between Maison Ikkoku, Ranma, InuYasha, and even One Pound Gospel, there's always been just enough change to make them feel like they're in their own world, as it were.

    This time around, I just don't feel that. Takahashi is doing what she does best in terms of setting and characterization, but instead of feeling like something new, four volumes of Rin-Ne for me is more akin to getting a story set in the world of Ranma 1/2, staring an extremely toned down Ranma and Akane in the lead roles. We're back in school, we have really unbelievable plot devices that take us completely out of reality, and we have a lot of dumb jokes. Even as things start to shift into more complex plotting (at which Takhashi seems to still excel), I just can't shake the fact that Rin-Ne feels less like its own entity and more like a ghost of the past. It's only 1/4 its own manga, if you'll pardon the pun.

    That's not to say I don't like Rin-Ne, because I do. I am a huge fan of Ranma 1/2, so getting more of the same is okay with me. Yes, debtor hell is full of obvious gags. Yes, the money jokes are going to get run into the ground. Yes, I like seeing characters take pratfalls at every opportunity. I've enjoyed Rin-Ne so far, and I'm sure I'll keep enjoying it. But I will enjoy this in the way that I might enjoy anything by a favorite creator--I'm looking for the familiar, the comfortable. Just like I want REM to sound like they did in the late 1980s (and am happy because they do), I want Takahashi to entertain me with silly jokes. So far, she has in Rin-Ne.

    Just because I like the familiar, however, doesn't mean I can't ask for the familiar to have some new twists. That's where I think most people get hung up on Rin-Ne, especially in those first fe, key volumes. There's just not a lot that's new there beyond the character names. If REM only wrote music based on their best prior hits, covering the same topics, I'd probably get bored and others might stop listening entirely. By the same token, if Rin-Ne doesn't start to branch out, I'm not sure I'll be reading by volume ten, though I'm in at least through volume five.

    It is a very different reading (and entertainment) world out there. With so many choices, people can only give books so many chances before they move on. It's quite understandable that Rin-Ne is shedding long-time Takahashi readers, because quite frankly, it's not new, it's not different, and it's not as good as what she's done previously. You don't get respect just by name value alone anymore. You have to earn it. I'm not sure Takahashi has managed that with Rin-Ne. In the final analysis, being a good story, and not a great one, might just not be enough.

    May 7, 2011


    Online Free Comic Book Day Happenings

    Please note I will be updating this and editing it as I find out about stuff throughout the day. Check back and see if there's anything new. Newest update 7:00 PM.

    We all know that this is the 10th Anniversary of Free Comic Book Day, which is now something of a cottage industry. What you might not know is that there are some online activities going on as well.

    For instance, Chris Sims (of Comics Alliance) and company at Awesome Hospital have created files for the first two chapters that you can download for FCBD. This is a great way to catch up on a cool webcomic.

    Know of something happening online for Free Comic Book Day? Add it in the comments so I can check it out and add it to this list!

    May 6, 2011

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    Jormungand Volume 6

    Written by Keitaro Takahashi
    Illustrated by Keitaro Takahashi

    Koko shows mercy and Valmet does not, as we pick up the stories started at the end of the last volume. While Valmet (with Jonah’s help, whether she wants it or not) seeks revenge against the man who destroyed her unit, Koko tries to keep the remaining troops in line in the face of a surprise attack. As the battles rage across two fronts, it’s clear Koko’s mini-empire has some issues to deal with. There are some cracks at the edges of this volume of Jormungand.

    One of the main things I noticed in this issue was a major shift in the tone of the book. Almost from page one, Koko has been shown as being in complete control of her situation, even when hit with the unexpected. No matter what is thrown at her, Koko ends up on top. She’s shown as never losing her cool (except in a playful, comic way), never at a loss, and able to get her troops to do anything asked of them.

    As we progress through this volume, however, Takahashi starts showing us that Koko’s grip on her world is extremely fragile. She knew Valmet might leave, sure, but I think she’s actually surprised that it happened without her knowing it did. With one person off the reservation, even for a short time, what stops others from freelancing? It’s a huge question mark hanging in the air over this entire storyline, and I am looking forward to seeing how Takahashi addresses this as we go along.

    The general lack of control displayed here is shown in small ways. Koko opts to be extra-violent, losing her normal control in the heat of the action. She’s incapable of making kill shots I think she would have taken in earlier storylines, and her decisions at the end of the book do not seem like smart ones. Koko may think she’s controlled Valmet’s issue once and for all, but the reader can see that’s not true. The same goes for her latest handling of an assassination plot against her. There are further seeds planted in the ending of this volume, waiting to be sewn later. Or, if you prefer, Koko has left quite a few dominoes in place, and she may not get a say in how they drop.

    Thus far, Koko has been shown to be the lesser of multiple, complex evils. We’ve rooted for her and her team, and that drove a lot of the first five volumes’ action. She’s very much the focal character by now, from general storyline to cover. I think starting now, we are going to watch her take a slow, inevitable slide into defeat, or at least a major tragedy. No matter how noble, a villain must always fall in the end for the story to feel finished. With this volume, I think Takahashi is moving us in that direction. The mostly happy, thoughtless action movie, with almost A-team like violence is over. Reality is setting in, and I think this change is both appropriate for the characters and good for the reader.

    Interestingly enough, as the violence becomes more real and less glorified, it also starts moving to the sidelines. We don’t see most of Valmet’s fighting, and several of Koko’s battle climaxes also happen off the page. I’m not quite sure why—it’s not like anyone reading Jormungand would have an issue with graphic violence—but it did take away some of my attention, as I kept looking to see what I missed, only to find it wasn’t there. Takahashi is trying to do the “horror off panel” thing, but I think that’s a mistake. We need to see the horrors going on. Cutting away is distracting to the story, not enhancing it. (Recall that I am reading in translation. It’s quite possible this is a censorship issue, in which case just disregard this paragraph entirely.)

    Jormungand started off as a light-hearted action romp with some side depth that made me want to stick with it. Now it’s become a far more complex tale, and if anything, I like it even better. Every time I finish a volume, I want to read more, because Takahashi has created a complex set of characters that are progressing from trade to trade. This is rare in an action story of this nature and extremely welcome. I came for a popcorn thrill and got so much more. It’s a great ride that I hope keeps going until its finish.

    I’m sure people tend to shy away from Jormungand because of its theme. That’s a mistake. This is really high-quality story told using the props of a 1980s action film. Peel back the layers and you find so much more than meets the eye at first glance. If you’ve passed on Jormungand before, try picking it up again, maybe from Volume 5. I think you might end up staying with this manga longer than you expected.

    May 5, 2011

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    Convention Report: Comics Geek Speak SuperShow

    Convention season began a little early for me this year, as I decided to take advantage of being closer to the East Coast to start checking out as many conventions as I can. First up this year was the Comics Geek Speak Super Show, held just outside Reading, PA on April 30th and May 1st. I only attended the first day, so this write-up is based on Saturday.

    Comics Geek Speek Entrance

    The Super Show was a bit of an odd selection for me, because I actually do not have any interaction with the Comics Geek Speak podcast. However, after hearing about the con and knowing that several people I wanted to see would be a short drive away, I figured it would be worth going, even if I wasn’t a part of the podcast culture.

    The drive itself was a bit tricky. The convention is not in Reading proper, and matching Google to signs on the highway did not go so well for me. It was then a bit intimidating to pull up to a gun show. I’m not a stranger to firearms, but when you’re expecting artwork and see AK-47s, the feeling is a bit strange.

    Once I got inside and to the right place, I walked into a show that was really hopping. People came in and out for the entire time I was at the show, and it was clear there were a lot of people who already knew each other, from the tabling artists to the general crowd. I opted against any of the Saturday panels, as they related to getting into comics or doing podcasts, and neither are my preferences at this time. As with the con itself, I’m sure that’s a bigger draw for those so inclined.

    Rafer Roberts from Plastic Farm

    I did my usual walk-through, seeing what might look interesting and what was a must-do as a high priority. For me, that meant seeing Rafer Roberts of Plastic Farm, who has a new edition of the first trade that just came out. I also quickly sought out Fred Van Lente, telling him how much I like his comics and picking up a complete edition of Action Philosophers, now with even more philosophy. I also wanted to see what Katie Cook of Gronk had to offer, but the first Gronk collection won’t be available until later this year, so I opted for a quick painted sketch.

    After making sure I had those important areas covered, it was time to look around and see what was interesting to me. A lot of the creators had some web-based product, so I made sure to pick up their cards or postcards or what have you so that even if I didn’t buy something from them at the show, I can see what might intrigue me later.

    What I noticed primarily about the Super Show is that a lot of the creators did work together or had some of the same ideas. Whenever I perused collections, I saw names that I may have passed at another booth. This was both a positive and a negative, because while it made for some cool collaboration, it did cut down a bit on the variety of comics available at the show. This does not mean that everyone was doing the same thing, but there was definitely a pattern towards superhero-influenced drawing styles.

    As at any other show I go to, I look for ways to introduce myself into the material of an unknown creator, and I was happy to see that the folks at this show had given potential readers plenty of ways to do so. There were definitely a nice supply of $1, $2, and $3 examples to feast on, and were I definitely picked up a few to try. There were also some very affordable longer collections in the $5 and $10 range. Not all of these were to my taste (nor should they be), but I am glad to see creators taking the smart approach, giving people something to try before they make a major investment.

    Besides the major items I mentioned above from Roberts and Van Lente, I picked up the following things that looked interesting to me:

    Three sketches in addition to Katie Cook’s drawing for me, which I will put in a later post.

    The first three issues of Great Zombies in History, which seemed like a fun riff on the familiar zombie tropes we all know and love (or loathe).

    Tyrannosaurus Beth, by the creator of War of the Woods, Matthew Petz.

    The Kids anthology, which got some good Twitter press.

    Woman King, from 2009 Ignantz winner C Frakes.

    A Super Ugly sketchbook collection, which sold me by having the Muppets turned into Superheroes.

    Short Stack, by Shawn Gabborin and various artists, which tries to tell horror stories in only two pages.

    Show Crowd

    Overall, not a huge hall, but I’m definitely looking forward to reading them. I also hit the jackpot and won one of the raffle items, the 6th volume of Dark Horse’s Creepy Archives, which would have made the trip worthwhile no matter what else I found that day.

    The Comics Geek Speak Super Show was a nice way to open my con season for 2011. It’s a small show but had a lot of enthusiastic creators and if you are part of the Geek Speak community, I’m sure there’s even more enjoyment to be had since it’s a chance to see virtual friends. Next up, if I can swing it, will be Heroes, which would be another first for me. Yay for living on the I-95 corridor!