January 30, 2012

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The Show Must Go On

Written by Roger Langridge (with Gordon Rennie)
Illustrated by Roger Langridge
Boom! Studios

Long before he was the brains behind two great Boom! properties, The Muppet Show and Snarked!, Roger Langridge was an indie cartoonist with a whole host of ideas and concepts.  Some of those find their way between the covers of this collection from Boom! Studios, which is a grouping of "orphans" (as described by Langridge) ranging from everything from a vaudeville act haunted by their past to a skewering of superhero comics to over-the-top samurai fighting.  The action is a mile a minute, because regardless of the cartoon, The Show Must Go On!

It doesn't take long to see just how Langridge got the job writing the Muppet Show, as the highlight of this collection is the open set of stories featuring Mugwhump the Great and his partner, a talking ventriloquist's dummy named Billy Woodentop.  They're part of a show that has all sorts of misfits and acts that go horribly, comically wrong.  But the jokes are just the window dressing on a more sinister plot that involves a classic theatrical relationship gone horribly wrong, with poor Bill caught in the middle.  Filled with tons of action, sarcastic remarks, and bad jokes (along with vehicular homicide in the name of humanity), this part of the book was the highlight of the collection for me.  Langridge said in his introduction that there are more Mugwhump stories in his head, and I certainly hope that's true.

From start to finish, this was an excellent story that is both comic and tragic at the same time.  For every time we laugh at the antics of Billy and Mugwhump, we can also feel an emotional pull, as the two friends struggle with their changed reality.  The plot is actually remarkably complex for what appears to be a romp, showing that even in the silly, there can be significant craft (a concept that is strongly present in Snarked! as well.)

Next up and scattered throughout are the philosophical adventures of Frankenstein and Shirley Temple, an odd pairing if there ever was one.  Walking through a series of different worlds, they talk about world views that range from the serene to the cynical.  It's quite a change of pace for Langridge, and reminds me more of someone like James Kochalka.

Also mixed in are a scientist (Dr. Sputnik) and his companion (Spud), who is designed to look like an animated potato.  They have neo-1950s science adventures, with as much trademark skewering as Langridge can manage.  I think my favorite is when Dr. Sputnik is faced with the danger of Queen Zelda, in a great nod to the fear of women found in "boys adventure" stories.  These are more lighthearted romps than Mugwhump, but were also a highlight of the book for me.

A third recurring character, Jack Shit, the devil, did not do a lot for me.  I found his adventures less interesting than any of the others in the book, with the jokes falling flat, at least for me.  It was by far worst sections of the book, save for the one-shot Rave of the Livid Dead, which I did not care for at all.  I think these stories, which seem to be going after particular culture points, are a bit dated in time.  They also seem to veer off randomly down tangents.  Not all comedic comics are going to work for all people, however, so it's entirely possible what were weak spots for me might end up being favorites for you.

Gordon  Rennie helps out with two features that take up most of the center of the book, The Kabuki Kid and Dr. Spin.  The former is about a murderous samurai whose companion is a radical Maoist.  They cleave a path through everything from corporate culture to consumerism to the entertainment industry, in a manner that reminds me quite a bit of Groo.  The jokes are a bit less subtle, but Langridge can match Aragones step for step in visual gags and satire, as we see everything up to and including a Godzilla robot.  The panels have an insane amount of detail that takes time to work your way through, and by the end, regardless of the amount of destruction, it's a fun time to be had by all--except those killed, of course.  Also, did I mention the whole thing is tied in to Spaghetti Westerns, linking them back to their story roots?  This was another enjoyable part of the collection, and I think most people will find it to be their highlight, because of easy access into the material being ridiculed.

Dr. Spin was my second favorite storyline, but I am a special case since the topic on the skewer are superhero comic books, a part of my life for over thirty years now.  It was easy for me to pick up every single reference Rennie and Langridge come up with here, which might not be true for most readers.  If you are a fan of comics, everything from Silver Age covers to the insanity of alternate realities to the Batcave to extreme character makeovers (a popular topic when making fun of capes comics) are featured here.  Once again, Langridge's art bobs and weaves its way across the frantic pages, with countless details that you can spend hours scanning for little details.  (See if you can spot Tin Tin in a cameo role.)  Rennie's script shows his understanding of comics complexities and is filled with nods, winks, and barbs at just about anyone who's ever put together a superhero script.  I absolutely love the plot of this one, as Dr. Spin must find out why all of comic reality is going wrong (with a visual aid from Langridge that is a credit to his genius as a storyteller) and solve the problem in the most convoluted way possible.  From continuity limbo to an ending that is elegant in its simplicity, Dr. Spin should be a joy to read for anyone who ever wanted to travel the multiverse.

The Show Must Go On inevitably comes to an end, but as Langridge notes in the introduction, these characters are his (and Rennie's) and therefore, may have future lives.  The beauty of self-creation lies in the freedom to do whatever you want, and it shows here, again and again.  Not everything is a winner, but so much of it is so excellent that this is a must-read for any humor comic fan.  You want there to be a curtain call as soon as possible.

January 29, 2012

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Single Minded: Rex Zombie Killer #1

Break out your shotgun shells, because today, Single Minded is wandering into to zombie territory!

Rex, Zombie Killer #1
Written by Rob Anderson
Illustrated by Dafu Yu
Big Dog Ink

Five animals band together to try and survive in this world of the walking dead.  Rex, "a hyper-intelligent golden retriever", leads the group and plans strategy.  Brutus is a brawling pit bull who won't give up.  Buttercup, the corgi, doesn't quite understand what's happening.  Snowball, a cat, would rather take a nap, but helps in a pinch.  Finally, there's Kenji, a very large gorilla with a baseball bat and the heart of a pacifist.

Together, they must make their way across the zombie-torn land, hoping that a human doctor can save them and keep them safe.  But with danger around every corner, from both the living and the dead, do these five creatures stand a chance?  Find out in Rex Zombie Killer!

We always look at how a zombie apocalypse might affect humans, but rarely do we consider the plight of the poor animals of the world.  They have brains, too, you know, and I cannot think of a single instance where the outbreak of the walking dead came as the result of an animal's actions.  Effectively, they're screwed and it's all humanity's fault.  The hurt and confusion and almost certain death for the rest of the mammals in the area would seem to make for a good story, but I'm not sure I've ever encountered it--until now.

Rob Anderson, who was one of the writers involved in the innovative Great Zombies in History, does a great job again of making the legion of the undead interesting to me despite their saturation in comics by pitting a band of creatures together in a story of hope, fear, and survival.  The idea is brilliant, and I don't know why it's not been used before.*  It would be extremely frustrating, for example, to be a dog surrounded by canned dog food and know you can't eat it.  There's new horror to be mined in the idea of your best friend (humans) being turned into your enemy without warning.  You can show what happens to human kindness in a crisis, as it relates to the creatures we are supposed to be caring for.  A story like this has all kinds of potential, and I'm happy to report that Anderson is already mining that potential from the first issue.

A good zombie movie has a varied group of people who must work together to survive, and there's often a fair amount of conflict and doubt that goes into that process.  In this case, Anderson uses different species of dog and the addition of a lazy but goodhearted cat and a gorilla to create his tension.  Kenji, while not being the focal character, is perhaps the most interesting.  He's a gentle giant, and really does not seem to be able to process what is going on.  Without him, the others are almost surely lost, as they cannot wield the bat or open doors or do any of the things needed to survive in this world.  If Anderson chooses to go down that road, a story where Kenji is out of the picture and the rest must fend for themselves would have a lot of high drama.

But even if he doesn't, a pacifist great ape doing his Mickey Mantle impression as the need arises is still pretty great, especially when drawn by a talented artist such as Yu.  Yu was also a part of the Great Zombies in History project, and I praised his work there.  His art here is top notch again, with several innovative panel designs (such as the one that opens the comic, set in an abandoned supermarket) and zombies that are terrifying without being needlessly gory.  I like that Yu is able to show the terror and violence of the situation without splattering blood all over the page.  I've complained in the past that horror too often equals blood and gore, when sometimes what you don't see is just as terrifying.  Anderson and Yu get this, such as when a man is about to beat Brutus.  We don't need to be shown the bloody dog to get the point.  Our minds can do it for us.

The only weakness in the art are the faces of the animals.  Yu is working hard to give them emotions, which is cool, because they are our focal characters.  The problem is that sometimes the heads of the dogs, Buttercup in particular, look a bit off, as though they don't quite fit the rest of the body.  It only bothered me in a few places, mostly towards the beginning of the story.  The level of detail and ability to tell the story visually more than make up for this defect, however.

I really liked two things about the plot of this first issue.  First, Anderson does not try to give us huge tracts of information in the opening pages.  We get a good feel for the characters based on the supermarket scene, replacing the need to talk about their differences.  There's no overlong explanation of why zombies exist.  Anyone picking this book up is going to have a familiarity with the genre, and doesn't need yet another "alien artifact/experiment gone wrong/terrorist bomb/etc." set piece.  He can do it later, if he likes, but I don't think this story would be hurt at all if we never knew why there were undead at the door.  We see that some humans are alive in a way that drives the narrative, and the set piece that gives our pack a purpose is short and sweet.  Anderson is not wasting time.  This is an action-packed zombie story, which is my preference.  Giving the reader time to think and logic things out is a bad idea in speculative fiction, at least in my opinion.

The second thing I like is that despite being a first issue, we get a really complete story.  This is helped by having a fifty page start, but even if you split this book in two, the first issue would end with a dramatic decision of the animals to fight for the life of their friend.  If you are going to write a serial comic, then it should be able to be read issue by issue, without feeling like it's a 100 (or 120) page story broken up arbitrarily.  Anderson gets this, and it shows.  While I am really looking forward to seeing how the animals deal with the big reveal that comes after the climactic battle with both humans and zombies, I still left this issue feeling like I got a narrative that works within its page count.

As we leave the pack, there's a lot of ground to cover, a map that's laughable in its vagueness, and danger behind every tree.  Can these creatures survive?  I don't know, but I certainly want to find out.  I think anyone who reads this comic will want to find out, too.

Rex Zombie Killer is $3.50 for just over 50 pages of comics.  You can order it now in the February Previews catalog, with order code FEB12 0806.  Thanks to Rob Anderson for the review copy!

*Obviously, there's a good chance that it has and I just haven't seen it.  However, given that I am inclined to horror fiction, you'd think I'd have at least heard about a book or comic or movie that used animals as the protagonist in a zombie story.  Feel free to point me in the direction of something in that vein, as I'd be happy to read it.

January 28, 2012

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Dust off the Panels: 3 More Matt Wiegle Minis

Head to Head
Wiegle for Tarzan
The Ghosts
Written and Illustrated by Matt Wiegle

I thought I'd actually read all of my Matt Wiegle mini-comics, when I found this stash in one of our Ikea magazine holders that we use to keep all of our mini-comics and zines.  I am a big fan of Wiegle's storytelling, so I was actually quite pleased to find these.

Wiegle is one of those creators who makes good use of the format in which he works.  The stories play out well in quarter-page format, with each page being roughly a panel.  The story (or joke, depending on the comic) turns on the idea of the reader seeing it one image at a time.  I really like how these truly are mini-comics, not just stories cut down in order to offer them to the public in this format.  So what did I think of these three "lost comics?"  Find out below!

Head to Head is one of Wiegle's joke comics, featuring two characters who have a link in some way (angel and devil, whale and plankton, and so on) saying or doing something funny.  For example, the biblical pair are playing Scrabble, with the angel coming up with Jesuits and the demon playing Vibrator across it.  Others are paired due to their names, and one is just a funny picture set piece you might find in Reader's Digest.  The ideas are clever at times, but I don't think this is Wiegle's best work.

Wiegle for Tarzan is far more like it.  Matt Wiegle, in a comical self-portrait that shows he is by no means qualified for the job, is applying to be New York's State Tarzan, a job he maintains is held by a man who is resting on his laurels.  What follows is a well-drawn and extremely funny sequence where Wiegle explains the role of the State Tarzan and why he would make a better choice.  The whole this is done entirely deadpan, as though it made complete and logical sense, which is why it works so well.  This is one of my favorite Wiegle comics.

The Ghosts  is an Inuit tale, adapted by Wiegle into a modern setting.  It's the story of a man haunted by the mental ghost of his wife, so he decides to leave everything behind him.  Before he can do so, however, a more substantial ghost appears, and causes a most unusual jealousy.  As I noted above, Wiegle uses the pacing inherent in a story you can only see two panels at a time to weave the reader further and further into the madness of the main character, until he inevitably snaps.  The drawings also appear to alternate between black on white and white on black, which adds to the creepiness and gives the art a dimension it might otherwise have lacked.  In addition, Wiegle's scratchy lines really highlight that there is something unearthly about the whole proceedings.  It's great workmanship from a strong storyteller.

I am lucky enough to usually be able to get more Wiegle comics at SPX every year.  If you aren't so fortunate, you can pick up copies of these and other Wiegle titles by clicking here. 

January 26, 2012

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The Bulletproof Coffin Volume 1

Written by David Hine
Illustrated by Shaky Kane
Image Comics

Steve Newman has a very odd and macabre job.  He tidies up after someone is dead, sending things off to the junkyard where they belong.  But sometimes, things catch his eye.  Little, kitschy things, mostly related to pop culture.  The dead don't need them, so what's the harm?  Steve keeps them in his attic, tucked away from two bratty kids and a wife he seems to dislike for unknown reasons.  One night, Steve finds some comic books that shouldn't exist, and his life is immediately torn upside down.  Faster than a golden age artist can ink, Steve is drawn into a world that involves the very characters he's reading on the page, as his whole life plays out in front of him in full four color insanity.  Is Steve part of a desperate attempt to save the world, or just completely nuts?  Only two old creators know for sure, and they may not be telling!  Find out the truth in the story of the Bulletproof Coffin.

I'm really glad this was a part of Image's digital holiday sale on Comixology late last year, because I'm not sure that I would have picked it up otherwise.  The idea is intriguing, but I have no experience with either of the creators, so without an incentive to try it, I might have taken a pass.

That would have been a big mistake, and I urge you not to do the same thing.  This is exactly the kind of meta-textural comics homage that works so well for creators such as Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, and Alan Moore, and I think David Hine stands alongside them with this book in terms of crafting a tale that looks inward but manages to do so in a way that works.  It's no easy trick, either.  If you reference too heavily, then the reader is either confused (they don't get the references) or annoyed by how clever the writer is trying to be.  If you don't reference enough, then it looks like a weak attempt to cash in on books that use an old-school feel in order to try to do the same thing that creators such as John Byrne or Kurt Busiek can manage effortlessly but are failing to replicate (or worse, trying to blatantly copy).

On top, you have the problem of trying to ensure that your plot makes sense, when it is weaving in and out of reality.  Hine has to be very careful that his plot lines up neatly on all counts, because any mistake in this regard sends the entire story collapsing into chaos.  He manages this very well, however, with only a few moments where the reader might have reason to question how something is possible.  Like any good writer dealing with a complex subject that probably would not hold up to extreme scrutiny, Hine keeps the plot moving briskly enough that all but a few readers will happily accept what is happening, and not worry too much about things like how a wristwatch can exist without having a true starting point.  After all, any time travel or alternative reality story, from Man in the High Castle to Dr. Who, has a hard time staying intact if you pick at it too long.

With a wave of his hand, and references/homages that extend into back page material and ads, Hine (along with his artist, Shaky Kane) keeps us bobbing about and looking at all the cool stuff while he skirts a few potential problems.  There's so much about comics history that Hine uses in the story that even if you only know the barest of information about Western comics, you'll be able to get the point.  We have previously unknown stories of Golden Age characters who are every bit as brutal or exploitative as their real-world counterparts.  There's a dead cop exacting revenge, a buxom jungle girl who's often barely clothed and is constantly threatened by "natives", a mysterious figure, a cursed man--from an Egyptian source, of course!--who must help others, and the character Steve slowly gravitates towards, Coffin Fly.  Each gets a brief outing as a comic book, with the stories increasingly involving poor Steve.  They also start to become more modern, with things like zombies and Viet Nam playing roles.  By the time Steve confronts the source of the comics, we even get a glimpse of modern re-imaginings for these characters--something long-time comics fans are all too familiar with these days.

The homages and little visual Easter Eggs are a credit to Hine and Kane.  While Kane's artwork is almost primitive in nature, resembling a less refined Paul Grist or John McCrae, it works very well here, partly because Golden Age comics art is often quite primitive as well.  The characters are almost flat at times, giving a sense of unreality to the proceedings that I think helps the reader know that something isn't quite right.  While not possessing the technical skills of some of the artists I've seen to comics homage work (it's going to be really hard to beat Gene Ha or John Cassiday), Kane's variety is impressive.  Characters in the book all get their own visual quirks that fit their role.  I could easily imagine any of the Golden Age stories actually existing in a book akin to All Star Comics, and their odd shapes and violent acts play out vibrantly across the page, aided and abetted by the extremely strange choices in color, which appear to be done by Kane (I cannot find a separate colorist credit).

Though I really enjoyed this story and I liked how the ending fits the rest of the plot like a glove, there is a bit of a muddle at the end where Hine gets in his digs at the major publishers of comics.  I don't think it was necessary to be as heavy handed as we see here in order to tell this story.  I get that money can ruin comics, but I think the allusion is taken a bit too far in the final issue.  It's brief, however, so it doesn't bother me enough to scare anyone away.  Just be ready for a bit of muttering "I get it" under your breath as we approach the final pages of the story.

The Bulletproof Coffin is a solid mini-series that plays with reality and comics history in a way that any fan of those concepts should enjoy and people who like both should really love.  There's a lot to like in this one, and I'm glad I got the chance to read it.  I think you will be, too.

January 21, 2012

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Single Minded: Dead Man's Run

 It's time to keep being Single Minded!  While every other edition I've done so far of this feature have been in relation to a digital comic, this time I actually have a paper copy in my hands this time.

It feels weird!

Anyway, this time around, I'm examining Dead Man's Run, Written by Greg Pak and illustrated by Tony Parker.  Aspen Comics.

Prison life can be hell, as anyone will tell you.  It's not easy being the person guarding any powder keg, let alone one with a mysterious set of subbasements.  When Captain Romero faces an outbreak at the prison, he learns the secret of his institution--it's literally got a link to the damned.  Just how can you stop a riot in a place where corruption and evil are as common as the foul air that's found there?  When the captain finds out he's just as damned as the rest, only an innocent soul can save the day, whether he wants to or not.  With souls on the line and damnation at every turn, what will happen next in this Dead Man's Run?

Long-time Panel Patter readers know that I love Greg Pak's writing.  He's good at long-term planning (witness his years on Hulk), creating new and engaging characters (both good and evil), witty dialog (Hercules, anyone?), and taking familiar concepts in new directions.  In this case, Pak is working with all of the mythology surrounding our perceptions of hell, starting with Dante and working his way around others.  In this case, Pak has pictured the land of eternal damnation as a giant prison, which is a brilliant idea.  That in and of itself would make this comic worth reading.  But Pak adds to the idea, by showing that it's a prison rife with corruption and problems, where anyone who gets there can use their evil nature to survive, and perhaps even thrive.

If it ended there, we'd be golden.  Except that Pak raises the stakes even higher, by showing that good people end up in hell, too, often through no fault of their own.  In such a terrible, hopeless place, how long can they hold out?  We get the Cartographer, a young man who can work his way through any maze, and his sister, a young girl with full faith in her brother, trapped in this place through the mechanations of a flawed prison guard.  Dead Man's Run looks to be a story about faith, redemption, and determination, with a huge possibility that all will be lost in the end.  In just these two short pieces of story, Pak sets up so much, and does it all while giving the reader a good story that can be read issue to issue, which is no easy task these days.

Though it's early yet, I love the characterization.  Romero is the bad guy we can sort-of like, who isn't about to go down easy.  The cartographer is a good person who is about to be tried to his limits.  Will he gain his sister but lose his soul?  Or break open hell itself to the earth, damning all in an attempt to right the wrong of his and his sister's deaths?  Is his sister as good as Pak is letting us believe?  And what of the Warden of Hell, who seems like a vile person but might be just as trapped as the cartographer and his sister?  So much is hinted at, giving this series huge potential that I can't wait to see developed as the story moves on.

I've never seen Tony Parker's work, but I really like the look he brings to the series.  The character designs are crisp, with fine linework that appears to be a house style for Aspen, based on the other ads in these comics.  He does a lot of good camera angle work, with characters reaching out to the reader at times, which makes for a creepy feeling, given they're pulling for you from hell itself.  I wish there was a bit more emotion in his faces, and a few scenes were a bit hard to follow, but overall, it's very solid work that keeps the script moving.

Dead Man's Run looks like a great series, and I'm glad to have gotten a chance to read this one.  My only complaint is that Aspen, despite having a digital presence on multiple platforms, is not offering this electronically.  It's hard for me in my cramped space to keep single issue comics.  I really wish that I could buy the next set of issues for my computer and iPad instead of in print.  But since Pak is so good, I might just make an exception.  If your comic store can get this for you, order it.  Anyone who likes Pak needs to get on this series now, or they're going to regret it.  Fans of conceptual comics will be damning themselves if they forget to grab this one as well.  Dead Man's Run is going to make a good run of comics.  Start reading now!

My thanks to Greg Pak for providing a review copy.  If you are interested in having a comic reviewed by me, please contact me at trebro@gmail.com.

January 20, 2012

Saga of the Power Heroes Book One

Written by Derrick A. Rivers
Illustrated by Derrick A. Rivers

Titan is patrolling the streets when a mysterious beam transports him to a new location.  He's soon joined by other heroes, who have been gathered for a noble purpose.  Metal Hawk wants them all to work together--but can they?  When a deadly foe puts the theory to the test, a new world of heroes is born in this opening issue from Derrick A. Rivers.

One of the great things about self-published comics is that if you have the time, inclination, and ability, you can create anything you want.  Some people go for abstracts, others raw imagery designed to shock.  There are people who write out their stories of personal pain and struggle while others build whole pages around a clever joke.

In the case of Derrick Rivers, this comic and the series that follows it is his love letter to Marvel Comics.  Though the characters are modified, of course, it's clear that this series is designed to be an homage to the Avengers and a time when superhero comics were a lot clearer in terms of who were the villains and who were the heroes.  As a person who grew up on the same comics that Rivers did, I can appreciate his desire to work within that mold, as there really are very few comics out there right now that follow those guidelines.

The story itself is a pretty familiar one to any longtime reader of superhero comics.  A hero feels that teamwork is necessary, there's doubt and confusion, and ultimately, they pull together in the end.  Each character gets to show off their powers and their value to the team, and it ends with the promise of more adventures against powerful foes.

While it's true that there's not a lot new to be had in Saga of the Superheroes, I appreciate its honesty in that regard.  This is a man having fun with his work, creating characters from archetypes and giving them cool adventures.  It's a bit like a visual version of playing with toys, and I don't mean that in a bad way.  The artwork and character designs are better than average for this type of book, and it's amazing that a fan comic like this can have more diversity in one issue than DC and Marvel can manage in a year.  Some of the dialog is a bit corny, but that matches up with the feel of the comics Rivers is emulating.

Overall, I had fun reading this.  It was an enjoyable romp with likable characters and made me smile as I imagined Mr. Rivers acting out these ideas in his head before writing them, just like I used to think about the adventures I might create for my favorite heroes.  This is a comic you can easily give a child with no reservations, or read to them with a knowing wink about the source material.  Saga of the Superheroes is going to be of appeal only to a specific subset of comics readers, but for the right person, it would be the perfect fit.  You'll know on a quick glance if it is for you.  If you think it might be, don't hesitate to grab it.  I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy.

January 19, 2012

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Single Minded: Newish #1s: Steed and Mrs. Peel, Fatale, and Memorial

Welcome again to another edition of Single Minded, where I look at comics I'm reading in  single issue form.  This time around, I thought I'd examine three recent #1 issues for you, all of which come highly recommended.

Steed and Mrs. Peel #1.  Written by Grant Morrison.  Illustrated by Ian Gibson.  Boom! Studios.

If you had asked me my favorite British television show of all time just a few scant months ago, I'd have named The Avengers without hesitation.  Nothing else even came close, including Monty Python.  Dr. Who has changed all that, of course, but that doesn't mean I haven't been looking forward to this one since Boom! announced it.  Grant Morrison, the master of the twisted plot, writing a story for a show who reveled in being as weird as possible?  This was a no-brainer for me, and it's definitely just as good as I'd hoped.

Morrison picks things up roughly where the show left off, but quickly makes it so that Emma has to return to Steed's side.  There's a mole in the organization, and Steed must find out the culprit, with the help of his old ally.  As our two characters weave their way through chess pieces with human heads, deadly blood drives, and houses shaped like ships, any fan of Morrison or the old TV series will be extremely pleased.  Gibson is not the best at likenesses, but he does okay with Steed.  (It would be very hard to capture Diana Rigg and do her justice, anyway.)  He shines at the oddball sets, however, and creating a sense of creepy menace.  My only complain is having to wait a month for issue two!  Highest possible recommendation on this one!
(Thanks to Boom! Studios for the review copy.)

Fatale #1.  Written by Ed Brubaker.  Illustrated by Sean Phillips.  Image Comics.  A mysterious woman at a funeral leads a man down a path that includes a secret novel from a hack writer, people trying to kill him, and some truly gruesome murders.  It all seems to center around her, a woman who can get men to fall for her a moment's notice.  But she's clearly not the only thing that's distinctly...Fatale.

It's a little hard to describe this story so far because it's just getting started.  Right now, it's a hard-boiled noir story with horror mixed in, which is almost as close to my wheelhouse as Morrison writing Steed and Mrs. Peel.  Sean Phillips' art is as excellent as ever and the story felt complete to me, despite having quite a few twists and turns and mysteries to be revealed later.  I love dropping magic into the world of corrupt cops and dangerous damsels, and I like this well enough that I plan to buy it day and date going forward.  Recommended for anyone who likes noir or horror.  Or preferably both.  I have a feeling this is going to be on a ton of people's best of 2012 lists, including mine.

Memorial #1.  Written by Chris Roberson.  Illustrated by Rich Ellis.  IDW.

Amnesia might be the worst kind of mental illness.  Em has it, and nothing she does jogs the slightest bit of memory.  But perhaps there's a key to her past life in the form of a magical shop she didn't even notice at first.  When Em steps inside, a whole new world opens up, one that features talking cats, allusions to characters that are familiar yet strangely changed, and an evil villain that must be stopped before her power grows even further.  But how in the world is Em going to manage this when she has no idea who or what she is?

I have become a huge fan of Chris Roberson and was excited to hear he was working on a new comic of his own making.  This has all the hallmarks of other series I like, such as Fables, but does not feel like a carbon copy all, not even when there's a shared character (or at least an implied one).  The world that Roberson and Ellis created here is fascinating, and I already want to know how it came to be and what is going to happen to it.  I'm a sucker for a talking, sarcastic cat--call it the Garfield effect if you must--and I love that things only seem to be getting stranger as they go along.  It's early yet, but the dialog is crisp, the pacing is fast, and if you love seeing writers play with archetypes and concepts from classic literature, this is going to be a treat.

All in all, it's a great time for new comics.  All three of these are on my must-read list, and I think they'll be on yours, too, once you try them.  Digital is opening new worlds for me in terms of my reading, and I couldn't be happier to be single minded right now.

Any other #1s I should be trying?  Let me know in the comments!

January 16, 2012


Digging into Digital: Studygroup Opens Webcomics Portal

The mini-comics publisher Studygroup debuted a webcomics portal today, promisingly free content from five creators every Monday through Friday, with additional one-off stories mixed in periodically.

The site consists of the content available to the reader on the main page, with links to contributor information, the webcomics themselves, information about Studygroup's print publications (along with a store where you can purchase them), and a blog.  The editors of Studygroup are hoping for readers to make this a regular part of their internet routine, and have smartly included an RSS feed to make that job easier.  (I have noted before that no matter how good your webcomic might be, if I can't put it in my RSS reader, I won't read it.  I do not have the time or inclination to go hunting up your webcomic, not when there are so many out there to read.)

According to the blog entry that goes along with the debut, the tone is extremely light.  They joke about having "too much free content" and encourage those who feel bad about this to buy their books, and even invoke the age-old chestnut about the site not being a library.  Their plans to keep up daily content, both in terms of comics and the blog itself is extremely ambitious, and I wonder just how much lead time they have right now.  I'm not familiar with their print comics, so I do not know if they are serializing older material or if these comics are brand new.  (If you do know, please tell me in the comments.)

While things are early yet, this set of webcomics looks promising and the admittedly limited samples I saw were enough to convince me that I should add the site to my feeds.  I like that the contributors appear to be a mix of comics veterans (including a person who worked with Jonathan Lethem), a few who may be new to the genre based on their bios, and people who might be better known for working in other artistic mediums.

I took an extended look at Danger Country from Levon Jihanian, the Monday comic and therefore the one most new visitors will see if they look today.  The first set of pages (and yes, there's more than one page per week, at least for this comic) were intriguing to me.  Someone is telling a story of what happens when the gods get angry, in the grand traditional of sages giving out the lore of their people.  I am betting that the protagonist will try to do something to change the status quo, and I look forward to finding out what.  The art on Danger Country is fairly pedestrian but gets across the information clearly.  What stood out to me, however, was the coloring, which is varied and bright and brings the overall quality of the art up quite a bit, at least for me.

Studygroup editor Zack Soto provides a bonus comic, a short piece titled Day 34 that can be read in its entirety.  From 2003 (if I am interpreting it correctly), the story is of a man lost at sea who finds a strange hole in the ocean.  The hole has a set of stairs, which is a great gag, and leads to a deadly secret and a struggle for life.  It's a very good one and done story and Soto's rough lines and imperfect style fit the tone just right.

The other comics, which start later this week, look interesting, with the possible exception of Yankee, whose premise of a dumb American doesn't really work for me.  Lone Wolf appears to be a ghost story, while Titan has sci fi elements, and Mourning Star appears to be somewhat post-apocalyptic, if I am reading the description correctly.  That's a nice variety of work, with a high likelihood of something for everyone.

If I have one minor complaint, it's that each comic does not have its own RSS feed.  That's a curious choice, as it forces readers who like feeds to read all the comics or none of them in that way.  I'd suggest giving the option to do individual feeds.

Overall, Studygroup looks to be a webcomics portal with a lot to offer fans of mini-comics.  Definitely check it out and see what you think!
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Dr. King, Comics, and Why Race Still Matters

My personal favorite Dr. King
Editor's note:  This post is probably going to upset a few people.  I'm sorry for that, because if you feel like the "race problem" is over in America (and elsewhere) and that there's no need to examine racism, intentional and otherwise, in the 21st century then you are either sadly naive or a bigot, depending.  You won't like this post, and rather than curse my name, why don't you just move along?

Editor's note 2:  I write this post with a bit of hesitation, not because I do not believe strongly in what I am about to say, but because I am white.  I have privileges that I get just by being white.  I can't know what it's like to be a minority in this country.  But I try to look at this as objectively as possible, and I think I can speak, however distantly, on this subject.  Please bear with me and forgive any missteps.  They are made not in malice, but in an attempt to highlight what I consider to be real issues.

Today is the day in the United States where we mark the anniversary of the birth of Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr., the face of the modern civil rights movement.  It's not his actual birthday, mind you, but people like holidays at the end of weekends more than they like recognizing the sacrifices made by a great man.  It's sad that having a three day weekend trumps the purpose of having the day off, but that's incredibly American.

Sadly, for a lot of people, today is just a bonus day to sleep in.  Just as we like to pretend there's nothing wrong with so many other issues in America that aren't germane to comics, I think there are quite a few people who know that Dr. King fought against unjust laws in the South and now those laws don't exist, so everything is just fine.

Those people are wrong.  Dr. King's Dream wasn't answered when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act.  They didn't get fulfilled when an African American became President.  Just because Eddie Murphy was the biggest name on Saturday Night Live and Oprah was the darling of white middle class soccer moms doesn't mean the problems he pointed out are over.  In fact, they can be the exceptions that end up proving the very rules.

Rest in peace, and thank
you forever for
Justice League Unlimited.
While there are many issues relating to race in America, I want to specifically look at comics.  Anyone who reads about comics and news of the industry knows that minority involvement in mainstream comics is shallow at best.  It is difficult to name high-profile African American creators in comics, and we recently lost one of the best, Dwayne McDuffie.  Even those who are fairly well known are not on the biggest superhero books, such as Justice League or Batman or Fantastic Four or the Avengers.  Kyle Baker does an adults-only version of Deadpool, and while that character is popular, it's not like that book is selling in the top 25 of superhero comic books.

There are certainly others whose names are recognizable to those who read a lot of comics, but I don't think any of these creators who are household names, with no offense intended (and apologies if I am discounting them).  Ron Wilson drew some of my favorite Thing stories, but that was decades ago.  Brian Stelfreeze used to do Batman covers, but you have to go back to the Clinton Administration.  Keith Pollard did Amazing Spider-Man around the time I was born.  Christopher Priest once edited the wall-crawler, but I don't think he's written anything for Marvel or DC in about ten years now.  I loved Darryl Banks' art style, but I wouldn't know the last time I saw it.  There are a few others I could name-check here, but I think you get the point.
They meant well.
I think.
While we've come a long way in terms of portrayals of African American characters in superhero comics and have even progressed to the point where Luke Cage can be in charge of a group of Avengers (the cool one, if you ask me) and a Batman spin-off book features a hero from Africa, it's troublesome to me that the people working on DC and Marvel comic books are almost exclusively white.   As I write this, DC does not have a single African American creator working on their books after recent changes.

Not one.

You can do all you can to improve portrayals of minorities in your books, but young African Americans reading these books need more than just characters that look like them (though that is a step in the right direction).  They need to be able to read these books and say, "Hey, this is something I can do because there are people just like me already doing it!"

Love that belt buckle.
This is where we circle around to an argument that happens everywhere.  I have heard more times than I care to count the "race doesn't matter" trope.  That argument claims that it doesn't matter the race of the person involved, because we are all equal.  It's further compounded by its odious counterpart, "only the best should be allowed to do it" followed closely by "you want quotas."

All of that is bullshit.

Let's start with the first one.  I work with a large population of African American youth.  As a consequence, when I'm not reading comics, I also read about how young minds operate.  Guess what?  Studies show that kids look around and notice who is just like them!  And when they don't see people who are like them, they figure, perhaps even unconsciously, that the job in question is not for them.  So when they read Green Lantern or Fantastic Four or Invincible, and none of the people involved are black, too many of them will think that they can't work in comics, either.  It's not something you pick up on, until you're reading a student write "that person is just like me" on their paper.

And then you see it on a second paper.  Then three, four, and five.

So don't tell me that having African Americans writing and drawing comics doesn't matter because race doesn't matter.  That's just not the case.

The second argument, that only the best should be working in comics, is almost laughable.  Go look at comic books with six inkers and try to tell me with a straight face that we have only the best working right now.  I'm not even going to name check some terrible creators who have books right now with Marvel and DC.  We all have our preferences, but to claim that these and only these people can work in the industry (some because they have for over twenty years and that is their only selling point) is a joke.

As for the third argument, no, quotas are stupid.  No one is clamoring for quotas when they say that there need to be more minorities in comics.  But when Ann Nocenti is only your second female writer, you have a problem.  When you cannot find a single African American that you think could write a comic, that's a problem.  This is not a case of asking for a percentage, this is a case of saying that you just can't ignore the fact that your creative teams are whiter than the poster board they're drawing on.

I'm not saying that Marvel or DC are trying to be racist.  I think Chris Sims said it best when he felt the lack of African American creators is due more to a lack of thinking than thinking of discrimination.  My point is that to try and claim that this doesn't matter is misguided at best and harmful at worst.  We ignore diversity at our peril, all of us, whether we are readers, writers, bloggers, artists, editors, or publishers.  We can keep chasing the same 100,000 aging readers who are overwhelmingly white by giving them a steady dose of Rob Liefeld, Howard Mackie, Brian Michael Bendis, and other familiar names or we can look at inspiring the next generation of creators, starting now.

Don't get me wrong.  I love a lot of the creators working today, and I'm glad to see them working.  I also want well written and well drawn books, regardless of the race of the creator.  But I think that ignoring this problem is hurting the industry.  I am a comics evangelist.  I want more comics, and I want more people reading comics.  One of the ways to do this is to have more people of different races working on superhero comics.  While I love my indie comics and my self-published minis, their audience is limited.  Only a book like Superman has the power to let young men and women like the ones I work with know that they, too, can work on a comic book.

Now that's a dream Dr. King could get behind.

January 15, 2012

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Dust off the Panels: Accident Bear Goes Fishing and Rabbit Shadows

I really enjoy buying mini-comics, but sometimes I don't always remember to read them as soon as I get them and they end up in my to-read magazine folder.  Some of these will end up here in a Dust off the Panels post.  The following are two minis that I believe we got at SPX 2010, but don't quote me on it.

Accident Bear Goes Fishing.  Written and Illustrated by Jonathan Eaton. 

In this short, silent comic, a black bear with really bad luck ends up having a series of increasingly comic misfortunes.  What starts off by missing a juicy fish progresses from waterfalls to sharks to pulling a Wil E. Coyote.

It's a total joke comic that has all the hallmarks of a good comedy, with the timing and increased severity working in harmony with art that attempts to be as straightforward as possible.  This isn't a comic for the ages, but it was a lot of fun to read.  Eaton did a great job with this one, and I'd definitely read more from him.  You can get a copy for yourself here.

Rabbit Shadows.  Written and Illustrated by Jason Viola.  An ordinary working class rabbit discovers the ability to manipulate its shadow into amazing shapes.  He's the toast of high society--for a bit.  Taste is fleeting, though, and soon the bunny will see the dark side of fame.

This is another wordless comic, but it's very different from Eaton's.  Viola's protagonist is an everyman character who manages to find a way to make it big, doing something no one else can do.  Most of the comic is showing the arc of success that the rabbit has, along with visuals that either mildly skewer the world of art or provide a few comic moments.  There's no explanation of how or why the character can strip his shadow, because that's not the point.  We are to look at how success can change a person and how losing it all can make them appreciate the little things in life.

I thought Viola's linework was great here, with quite a bit of detailing in the backgrounds, which is often lacking in mini-comics.  The story follows a logical arc, and we're left understanding that this rabbit won't let the opinions of the art world ruin his life.  As with Eaton, I'd be happy to read more Viola again.

If you want to read Rabbit Shadows, you can get a copy here.

January 12, 2012

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Another Superhero "New Reader" Experiment: Witchblade 151

A few days ago, I posted some thoughts about how it was cool to get a free copy of Savage Dragon 175, but the issue was so complexly structured and designed for established readers that I found myself leaving the comic with no desire to get #176--or go back and pick up the story from the beginning.

I figured I'd try again, this time with a comic I'd only read part of one issue of before, several years ago.  I'd seen a lot of good press for Witchblade 151, the start of a new arc with a new writer and artist.  I figured it would be interesting to see how it compared.  The difference was like night and day, as you'll see.

Witchblade 151.  Written by Tim Seeley.  Illustrated by Diego Bernard.  Sometimes, life sucks when you're a private investigator.  That's what Sara finds out, as her move to Chicago has some serious consequences.  When a case turns odd and she ends up framed for a death actually caused by a deadly mystical creature, Sara may have to decide if following the path of law and order is really possible for her after all.  It's a new direction for the star of the title and the wielder of the...Witchblade.

This issue actually starts off with a weird interlude written by the outgoing creative team that explains that something big has happened and the world is not quite what it should be.  I was intrigued, but at the same time, I don't see the link between it and the issue itself.  However, as it is a self-contained interlude by a different writer, I'm not going to hold it against Seeley.  In addition, despite being short, it actually told me everything I might need to know, should it be relevant later.  There are some mystical items of great power that should never be together (a concept that's a staple of fantasy, so I can grasp that concept easily), and they got together, with big results that aren't going away quietly.  Got it, Ron Marz.  Good show in a few pages, and I could move on quickly.  I just wonder if this was necessary or not, but again, not a huge deal because it was not confusing at all.

The main story, by Tim Seeley, holds up extremely well as a jumping on point.  We start in the middle of a dramatic moment for the character.  She's jailed.  We immediately see she's got powers, but won't use them to break free, because she respects the law.  I now know all kinds of things about Sara, and I'm barely at page 3.  That's a great job of writing for a new reader in my opinion, because not only does it help me, the new guy, it establishes that something older readers are familiar with is not going to change.  (Think of a new issue of Batman after a reboot that shows him not killing, when he could do so.  Same concept.)  After a few more pages, we know that Sara is a former cop, turned private eye.  She's struggling.  She's having trouble with this new life.  She's getting older.  However, through all this, she's not giving up.  We see her push through these problems, and just as she tries to do the right thing, it all caves in on her by the end of the issue.  We're now back to the beginning, giving a complete story.  We know why Sara is in prison now.  This issue sets the springboard for the strong narrative question of, "What will Witchblade do next?"

Despite referencing quite a bit of Witchblade's recent history, I never once felt like I didn't know what was going on.  Seeley makes a point of keeping me informed, and doing it in a way that does not feel forced as a general rule.  Some of the internal monologue might be a stretch, but other than that, it's all based on things that happen in-story.  I have a pretty complete picture of Sara by the end, including the things she can do with her Witchblade powers.  The way she discusses being a veteran hero is a nice touch, and I even liked that she's a bit concerned about growing older.  It teeters on "woman worried about girl things" territory, but I thought it was appropriate. Maybe it's because I've been thinking a lot about getting older, but that moment really registered for me.

Now, I've said a lot of good things about this book, but there are some sticking points.  The opening showing Sara in a ripped, short dress, is a bit off-putting, and kinda plays to the worst stereotypes of comics.  The female characters are definitely drawn as sexy as possible, especially in the bar scene.  However, it's not like the male characters in that scene are drawn as anything other than really attractive, so I think it's more a case of the artist wanting to draw hot people than being exploitative for exploitation's sake.  Since Sara seems to have a good head on her shoulders, I can be more forgiving.  It's not like she's waiting for a guy to save her or something.  The artist definitely opts for going for poses that show off curves, but I have seen far, far worse.

Overall, I was intrigued.  I don't know that I'd read this monthly as it comes out, but if Seeley keeps the strong storytelling going and the tone is one of heroic action, I would read more issues in the future.  I think there's a potential for Sara to be a good heroine and treated better than the standard female hero by the current creative team.  (Note:  Not saying the old creative team treated her badly.  I have no point of reference.)  A new reader can definitely hook on to this one and if you like action stories with a bit of the supernatural and sexiness attached, it's worth trying to see if this is for you.

Witchblade 151 is exactly the kind of book you need to create if you are looking to hook new readers.  If you had the right potential non-comics person (someone who likes cop movies with a bit of sexual chemistry, perhaps, or maybe private detective novels with a female lead, like Grafton's series), they could read this and not be ready to reach for a bottle of aspirin.  They might actually reach for issue 152, and that should be the point.  While certainly not perfect, this is the kind of book publishers need to do when they're making a push to gain new eyes on their title.  My hat's off to Top Cow on this one.  Good work to all involved!

January 11, 2012

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Single Minded: Boom! Studios Titles for 1-11-12

Welcome to another edition of Single Minded!  Let's see what Boom! Studios titles are out there for the week of 1-11-12 that I thought were worth talking about...

Snarked! #4.  Written and Illustrated by Roger Langridge.  The unlikely fellowship has a boat and a plan, but can they escape the guard and the evil Sam the Eagle Gryphon?  Langridge once again continues his amazing run on this series that embodies the spirit of his Muppet Show work, but gives him complete creative control and freedom.  I think the most impressive part of the proceedings here is Langridge's ability to make this totally family-friendly, while also including elements that are clearly aimed squarely at the parents (and adult fans).  It's times like this where Langridge shines, particularly in the allusions relating to a large stash of female clothing.  I have to admit, I was a bit surprised to see the use of alcohol in a kid's comic, but it works perfectly.  The art is as good as ever, and while we're finishing up the first story arc here, there's plenty more action to come, and I can't wait.

Operation Broken Wings, 1936, #3.  Written by Herik Hanna.  Illustrated by Trevor Hairsine.  Our story of deceit within the early days of the Nazi regime comes to a conclusion as the major reveals what he's been up to all this time and we have an ending that shows money truly is the root of all evil.  While I found the ending of this story a bit abrupt, I do appreciate that Hanna wraps up the story with an ending that was probably inevitable, and reminds me a bit of the days when anti-heroes weren't allowed to get home to kiss the girl.  There is a good set-up to the finish, and Hairsine should be given a medal for his restraint in illustrating the scenes of torture.  I knew exactly what was happening without blood and gore all over the place.  This story was ultimately about corruption within corruption, and I think it held together rather well.  As I mentioned previously, it should appeal to war comic fans, which is not me, though I can appreciate the craft involved.

That's it for this weeks Boom! titles.  Thanks again to Boom! for giving me a chance to preview these comics.  If you are interested in having your comic reviewed by me, please contact me at trebro@gmail.com.

January 9, 2012

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Wandering Son Volume 1

Written by Shimura Takako
Illustrated by Shimura Takako

Shuichi is a young man with a big problem.  Despite his best efforts, he is not like the other boys around him.  While they move on to standard adolescent things, he has a deep secret:  He'd rather be a girl.

Yoshino is a young woman with a problem similar to Shuichi.  She's a young woman who would rather be a young man.

This is their story.  It's painful, it's heartbreaking, and it's full of cruelty both intentional and otherwise.  It's a journey of exploration that is different from most, because the world doesn't like it when people deviate from the norm.  This is the story of Wandering Son.

The idea of gender swapping and queer issue is not new to comics or to manga.  However, a lot of times the idea of a boy dressing as a girl is used for comic effect, or the queer characters are treated like plot point punching bags, always ready to be as stereotypical as they can so that the reader can feel better about themselves by laughing at them.  It is not often that we see transgender issues taken seriously.  I admit when I first heard about this manga, I was concerned.  Would the author be respectful?  The answer is a resounding "Yes!"

Takako sets this series during a big turning point in the life of any child--as they are going through puberty.  It's a time of questioning and changing for any young man or  woman, even if they have no sexual identity issues.  Adding the possibility/probability of being queer--and the most easily discriminated against kind of queer to boot--really brings the characters into emotional conflict that makes for good storytelling.  Rather than trying to go for an exaggerated accounting, Takako just plays the story straight (no pun intended) and lets genuine pain and realistic examples show the reader how hard it is going to be for Shuichi and Yoshino.

This is a very sensitive topic, and I think part of why this works so well is that Takako does not try to rush things.  The story builds slowly, and at first, we don't even really get much in the way of identity issues.  As things progress, however, incidents are created that put the characters into conflict and make them face decisions that have severe repercussions.  I like that Shuichi and Yoshino are fleshed out a bit, rather than just thrown at the reader, "Hey, here's two transgendered kids!"  Every person is so much more than just their sexuality, and Takako sees that and values it.  We read Wandering Son because of the conflict of identity, but that doesn't mean it's the only thing that can happen in the story or that their gender questioning is the only kind of problems they may have.

I think the key scene in this volume takes place during the school play scenes, where Shuichi is teased and tormented into playing a female character in the drama.  You can see the pain as he tries to get out of the situation but is trapped, and the inevitable conclusion of this set piece really shows just how hard his/her life is going to be.

Takako's illustrations are simple, as with a lot of manga-ka, but they do get the job done.  I wish the characters had a bit more definition to them, but I think the ambiguities are on purpose and demonstrate that the two genders have more similarities than differences.  I don't read manga for the art as a rule anyway, so it's not a problem for me, but readers should be aware that Takako's linework is serviceable but not earth-shattering.  For most people who are used to reading Japanese high school dramas, it probably won't even be all that noticeable.

Fantagraphics does not publish a lot of manga, but the volumes they select are amazing.  Wandering Son is a great series that I am looking forward to following in the years to come.  Sensitive, heartbreaking, and very queer-positive, Wandering Son was one of my best manga of 2011, and I have no doubt that if volume three is released in 2012, that it will make my list again this year.  Anyone who likes serious approaches to important topics that affect many people really need to check this series out.  They won't be disappointed.

January 8, 2012

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Dust off the Panels: Steve Ditko's 160 Page Page Package

Written by Steve Ditko
Illustrated by Steve Ditko

Steve Ditko can be himself in this set of short stories where he's the writer, illustrator, letterer, and editor.  From tales of good cops against corrupt police to horror stories of the psychological to rants of a grumpy, ultra-libertarian recluse, it's all here for you in Steve Ditko's 160 Page Package.

Though I am a big fan of Steve Ditko, I've actually never read any of his non work for hire output before, mostly because it's a tad difficult to find.  I grabbed this some time ago, but had not gotten around to reading it until recently.

It's a very strange mix that I probably would not recommend to any but those who are hard-core Ditko fans.  While there are flashes of brilliance, such as when Ditko slowly drives a protagonist insane or when his heroic creations leap into the battle against evil, a lot of the stories reflect his banal philosophy that I am firmly in disagreement with.  Ditko is uncompromising and unwavering in his faith, and he shows anyone who disagrees with him in a bad light.  They come off as fools who are blocking the guardians of true morality from their righteous anger.

For example, social workers are always protecting evil kids who cannot be redeemed, all while spouting the worst of straw men lines.  Criminals can never reform.  There are people who are innovative, but those with (ironically) selfish motives drag them down.  The good of the many is always wrong.  And so on.  It grows very tiresome and overwhelms the good parts, at least for me.

Are there enough good parts to make this readable?

I would argue yes, but again, only for those who admire Ditko's technical skills, which he still has in abundance.  The odd camera angles, the way characters are always reacting to one another (even if sometimes stiffly), and the pacing of the story are all vintage Ditko.  And when he's working more in his classic horror-comic style, the results are actually fun to read.

The problem is that too much is just personal venting or bald expressions of philosophy.  Also, Ditko's presentation of women here is borderline appalling, both visually and in terms of their character.  This is one of those books you read once to examine its qualities, but don't really feel the need to return to.

I strongly admire Steve Ditko's work overall.  He is arguably where a lot of the comic book styles we see today come from, though often they are several generations removed.  I think he can still tell a good story when he tries, but without an editor to reign in his political inclinations, this is a tough read unless you are a member of the Tea Party (and if you are, I doubt you take much stock in me or what I have to say).  I'm glad to see Ditko still working well into his advanced age (one of the few to do so) and I'm glad he's doing what he wants.

But these comics are a shadow of what the man used to do, with their fears and prejudices exposed much like the villains Ditko so loathes.  The art is solid in most places but the stories just can't get over the biases of the man writing them.  It's a great curiosity to observe, and one that can be marveled at (no pun intended) once or twice.  After that, the flaws show all too well.

Those who are curious might want to find this, but I wouldn't look too hard.  It's a 160 page package, alright, but one that comes with a hefty dose of extreme politics.  As such, I can't recommend it.

January 7, 2012

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Single Minded: Boom! Studios Titles from 1-4-12

I'm a little late getting to these this week, but the holidays threw off my schedule a bit.  Here's my take on the latest round of Boom! Studios releases, which include the official debut of their Peanuts series and new issues of some of my favorite Boom! books on the shelf/computer right now.

Incorruptible #25.  Written by Mark Waid.  Illustrated by Marcio Takara.  
This is a bit of a cheat, because it was one of the last releases of 2011, but I wanted to make sure I included it because of the ongoing storyline.  In this issue, Waid takes us back in time to see just why Max is as angry as he is.  The focus here is on the backstory of Max Damage, which was rather overdue.  If he's going to be a character in the mold of the Sub Mariner--or to some degree, Doctor Doom--then we need to know he's worth caring about and is more than just a thug who decided to make good.  In typical Waid fashion, we get a rather amazing revelation that not only gives the series a new dimension, it puts everything that's come before in an absolutely fascinating context--all without a retcon and without having a new reader need to read all that's come before.  It's superb work, and if I have a quibble, it's that I'm still waiting on that big fight.  Right now, I'm not seeing how these two stories link up, but I have a feeling they will.

Irredeemable #33.  Written by Mark Waid.  Illustrated by Diego Barreto.  The third part of the crossover picks up where Irredeemable 32 left off, which strikes me as a bit odd.  I still can't quite figure out how this is a crossover, but perhaps the final issue will clear that up, especially if it continues from where this one leaves off.  The origin of the Plutonian continues here, and we see just why Tony hates Max Damage so much (a link to Incorruptible to be sure, but it's kinda weak).  As Tony's parents move on, leaving the Plutonian to his fate, there's a chance that maybe, just maybe, he could be redeemed after all.  But is he being approached by the right people?  The twists and turns in this ongoing story continue, as Waid uses all his best plotting skills to keep the reader guessing, while playing as fair as possible.  I'm hoping we get a huge resolution at the end of the month, but the bigger question right now is--how does the series keep going if Tony does get better?

Valen the Outcast #2.  Written by Michael Alan Nelson and Illustrated by Matteo Scalera.  Valen and his two companions continue their quest to take Valen's life back into his own hands, but they run into a snag when a bridge blocks their path (a nice trick, since a bridge should usually help a traveler).  Caught between warring factions in the face of Valen's "death", can they make it across before the forces of death come calling for their lost soul?

I liked this issue a lot better than the first, as we got the setup mostly out of the way now and can concentrate on actually telling the story.  Valen's determination is compelling and engaging, and the idea he develops to preserve his undead self is a great idea that I don't think I've seen before.  I'm not as keen on the ending of this particular issue, as I think it's a little quick to move to that particular trope.  Still, this is an enjoyable romp with lost of fighting, characters right out of the pulp mold, and a fast-moving story that scratches my itch for some good old fashioned hacking and slashing.

Betrayal of the Planet of the Apes #3. Written by Corrina Bechko and Gabriel Hardiman.  Illustrated by Gabriel Hardiman.  Prison fight!  The danger for all who are on the wrong side of the conspiracy that's trying to make gorillas the top dog in the ape hierarchy really tip their hand in this penultimate issue of what has been arguably my favorite Boom! comic that I'm reading currently.  As the forces mobilize for their final push for control, General Aleronis starts a counter-revolution, setting up a final battle royale for the fate of the planet.  I love how this series works within the larger framework of the licensed property, creating a story that works without great knowledge but also finds a way to use its source material to great effect.  I'll be sorry to see this finish next month, but I hear there's more good Apes comics on the way, so I'll be sure to read those when they come out.

Elric The Balance Lost #7.  Written by Chris Roberson.  Illustrated by Francesco Biagini.  What started as a few isolated battles against law or chaos are swirling together in ways that our four protagonists can no longer control.  The fight is far more complex than any of them could have imagined, and if the battle is not stopped soon, all may be lost as one side or the other may rule over all, destroying reality as we know it.  Can even Elric, his battered friends, and the new companions stop things before it's too late?

Well, I have a feeling the answer will be yes in the end, but as with all good stories, it's not looking good right now.  Roberson writes the heroes into a hopeless struggle and keeps the reader off balance in terms of who to root for, with some clever plotting that seems to put Elric right up against other characters we've been rooting for from issue one.  It's great writing, and part of why Roberson is one of my new favorite creators.  In addition, Biagini draws the heck out of yet another issue, providing as many weird creatures as Roberson asks for--and trust me, that's a lot.  We're about ready to arc towards the final climax of this story, and I can't wait.

Peanuts #1.  Written by Charles Schultz and others.  Illustrated by Charles Schultz and others.  The kids imprint from Boom! Studios, Kaboom!, finally brings this series to the comic shops and I'm really curious to see how it does.  Mixing classic Peanuts strips with new stories that hew pretty closely to older Schultz ideas, it's an interesting idea that will seem sacrilegious to some and work perfectly for others.  I think this issue does a pretty good job overall, though I think Lucy is coming out a bit badly in the deal, not unlike modern portrayals of Daffy Duck.  Her meanness is a delicate thing, and here I think it's a bit too shrill, though I don't know that a younger audience will notice.  The nods to the larger Peanuts world are great, and I thought having Lucy narrate the how-to section was a fun touch.  This bears keeping an eye on, but I admit I'm not 100% sold on it yet.  It's hard to replace the master, as we've seen constantly in other examples.

That was the week in Boom! for the start of the year.  Did anyone get these?  What did they think?

January 6, 2012

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Why Superhero Comics Keep Small Audiences: Savage Dragon #175 as a Case Study

I'd like to start off this commentary by thanking Graphicly and Erik Larsen for coming together to do something nice for those who have accounts with the digital comics provider.  It's always nice to see creators and companies try to give something back, especially when it might lure additional readers.

However, I'm afraid that after reading Savage Dragon #175 twice, I left it feeling confused and not inclined to add the digital to my unofficial digital pull list.  It, like so many superhero comics these days, has tied itself into knots of old storylines and makes it hard for anyone with a casual interest to jump in without a heavy investment of time.

If you'll indulge me, I'll explain why.

To make a few things clear before we proceed, I came into this comic with a few things that I think should have aided me in my reading, but did not.  First, I actually enjoy Erik Larsen's work, which I know can be an acquired taste for some.  I kept very few of my old paper comic books in the second move, but several Larsen-drawn arcs with Spider-Man and others were retained until I can get solid digital copies.  My issues with Savage Dragon #175 have nothing to do with Larsen or his style.

Second, I am aware of who Savage Dragon is and have read a few comics in the past featuring the character.  I like that he's a sarcastic and powerful being, and I thought the idea that he would be a cop is a great idea for the character.  However, overall, I've not read a lot of the adventures, and my last Dragon comic was somewhere back in the George W. Bush administration.

I figured some things had changed, but I was not at all prepared for what awaited me in this issue.  The Dragon was apparently dead, but then not dead, because of something with an alternative universe version?  A villain brings him back, and now he's the leader of a homeless but ruthless people who want earth?  And at some point, they took earth, but maybe it was an alternative earth?

As the Dragon himself basically says at some point along the line, "What the hell?"

Now I am no stranger to superhero comic books.  I have been reading them for just about thirty years now. But the logic here was so twisted and so confusing that I had no ability to follow it, despite multiple tries.  The whole thing is so far from where it started and so so convoluted that there seemed to be no ground to stand on.  It felt like complications for complications' sake to a new reader.  Why isn't Dragon, who claims to love earth, kicking people's asses and waiting to get home?  Instead, he's making himself at home and I'm making for the door.

Now I understand that Savage Dragon is Larsen's creation, and he can do whatever he wants with the character.  It's part of what sets Image apart, and I appreciate that.  But what was presented to the digital readers of Graphicly is a story that's so far in the middle that there's no finding the start--at least not without a map, which Larsen doesn't give.  (Compare this to the intro pages that Marvel uses frequently.  They aren't much, but at least it's something.)  I can't imagine very many people trying further issues, because new readers either have to suffer along and hope to catch up or spend a lot of money getting versed in the history.

The latter might be good for Larsen's wallet, but I don't see it as a viable plan to get additional readers.

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I think a reader should be able to jump in, tell at least some of what's going on, and be left wanting more.  That's a key part of engaging new readers.  I loved Black Panther: Man Without Fear because I got told what had come before and could enjoy what was there.  I'm reading Wonder Woman and Batman because I barely need any knowledge beyond the basics.  I dropped Swamp Thing because it made me know about Brightest Day and Blackest Night.

Too often, good comics writers--and I think Larsen is a good writer--think too much about what old readers want and not enough about telling good stories for readers new and old alike.  There's a way to do both.  I've read creator-owned stories like Concrete and Jon Sable from the middle, and became huge fans of both.  I've read work for hire material in the middle and been intrigued.

There are also comics where I get an issue in-between and I'm left so lost as to never return.  The creator or workers on the title play to those with long histories rather than all audience.  They're shutting me (and others, I'm sure) out in the process.

That's their right, to be sure.  Larsen doesn't have to write an oversized anniversary issue that's later given out free digitally to entice new readers.  He can do just what he did--take the story in a new direction for people who have long histories with the creator-owned character.  Scott Snyder, who I really like, can make Swamp Thing impenetrable by linking it to DC continuity with dubious origins.  That's his (and DC's) right.

The thousands of people who have been along for the entire ride can talk about how awesome that is.  But at the same time, that is why superhero comics have an ever-shrinking readership.  At some point, people drift away from reading comics, either temporarily or permanently.  At some point, potential new readers show up, especially if there's a reason to do so, like a revamp or a special issue.  I just don't see why superhero comics are determined to keep new readers in the dark and why their supporters argue for new readers to go see wikis and other sites.  Why can't the comic itself stand on its own?

I had almost no knowledge of Dr. Who.  I watched one episode in the middle of 50 years of continuity and was instantly hooked, because all I needed to know was that it was a guy in a time-travelling space ship.  I watched one episode of the character-continuity heavy Community and I was hooked, without needing to know much of anything at all.

If it can be done with other comics I referenced above and with other media properties, it can be done in superhero comics.  Unfortunately, most seem to prefer going the Savage Dragon #175 route.  And that's why a small audience will keep getting smaller.  But hey, at least those 10,000 people will have all that complexity to themselves!  I hope they enjoy it, because I don't.  I'll be off reading comics that don't require so much explanation, having a good time.

January 5, 2012

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Dust off the Panels: Superman Kryptonite

Written by Darwyn Cooke
Illustrated by Tim Sale
DC Comics

It's early in Superman's career, and he's just as liable to make a mistake with his powers as he is in his interactions with Lois Lane.  With Luthor sniping at his heels and a strange new economic power working its way into Metropolis with ties to the gangs in Las Vegas, can Superman survive when his very existence is threatened from an unknown source?  Find out in the pages of Superman Kryptonite!

This is exactly the type of book I love to find at the library.  Darwyn Cooke is one of my favorite creators, especially when he's working in the past, as he does here.  Tim Sale can draw the heck out of anything he touches, in a style that's unique in that it avoids worrying too much about anatomy without making his creations seem like they were drawn in haste by a person without skill.  Combined, I expect them to put together a great story that stacks up against anything else I've read involving the Big Blue Boyscout.

I was not one bit disappointed.

Cooke's story hits all the hallmarks of his work with DC, particularly New Frontier.  Instead of trying to capture the modern zeitgeist, a nearly impossible task per Cooke's own admission, he opts to find a way to integrate the story into Superman's past, with elements that might be modern and might just be the 1950s with a lot of cool toys.  Sale aids him in this regard, with character designs that could get away with being in today's world, but are just as at home in a black and white movie.  Focusing on what makes Clark an iconic character, Cooke shows him as being just as human as the rest of us, with fears and anxieties and imperfections.  At the same time, it's clear that this human-that-is-an-alien-too won't let his fears consume him.  That's what makes him a hero, not his powers.  Cooke gets that, and it shows in this story.

Cooke also does a nice job of capturing Lois's independence, Jimmy's undying energy, the jealousy of Luthor (regardless of the foe), and Perry's integrity.  About the only characters who feel off to me are Clark's parents, who seem to act how Cooke needs them to, rather than as the strong, self-sacrificing parents that I prefer.  It's a minor thing, but I don't like Pa's protectiveness or Ma's passive-aggressive nature here.

Story-wise, the big problem is the way in which Cook introduces the Kryptonite.  I know he was trying to do something that was more culturally sensitive and modern, but the scenes in which the Kryptonite edges towards Superman drag down the rest of the scenes and I found myself wanting to leap ahead to get to the good, character-based parts of the story.  Cooke's strengths lie in his dialog and characterization (and, when drawing, his art), not his plotting, and that shows a bit here.

If Cooke isn't going to do the artwork, Sale is a great fit for him.  The story flows perfectly in Sale's hands, as he works his blocky figures and shadows and stark lines into a story where you might think they wouldn't work.  On the contrary, despite the bright coloring we see here, Sale's work shines.  He does great faces for all of the main characters, uses his exaggerations to great effect, and almost effortlessly makes the whole thing feel so big.

Reading Superman Kryptonite, like reading the Batman story where Bats and the Riddler must fight King Tut, remind me that it's quite possible for DC to commission stories that require almost no prior knowledge, are violent without being gratuitously gory, and best yet--the heroes do their best to never kill, no matter what the risk to themselves.  What a crazy concept!  After finding so much of the New 52 to be failing my expectations, books like this just make me sigh and shake my head.  Superman Kryptonite would have a wide crossover audience, but I guess it's too old-fashioned to make it in the almighty direct market.  That's a pity, because I'd even pay full price to read stories like this monthly.

I'm glad that DC collected this, and I highly recommend it for fans of Cooke, Sale, and Superman.  Now if only we'd get more like this.  I guess I can just keep hoping for collections.