August 30, 2012

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SPX Spotlight 2012: Colleen Frakes and Island Brat

Welcome to another entry in my SPX Spotlight 2012!  You can find all of my SPX Spotlight posts, including those from past years, by clicking here.

I'm a little sad that I didn't become aware of Colleen Frakes' comics until last year, but I am very happy that I did.  She has earned a Xeric Grant and won an Ignatz award, and it's easy to see why.  Last year, her Tragic Relief 12 (Drag Bandits), which was published by Retrofit Comics, made my best mini-comics list.  Colleen is extremely talented, and I'm looking forward to seeing her at SPX again this year.

For the spotlight, I'm looking at Island Brat, the mini-comic she put out last year, with the assistance of Koyama Press.  Frakes, as it turns out, spent almost ten years of her childhood living on a prison island!  Now that doesn't meant she was such a terrible brat that they locked her away and threw away the key. (Though wouldn't THAT make for an interesting mini-comic?)  Her parents had a job there, and because the prison was only accessible by air and sea, it was easier to just live there.

It's a very unique situation, and makes for an interesting look at how different life can be if you are not connected easily to the outside world.  In some ways, it reminded me of my recent visit to Ft. Monroe, which, while far easier to reach, still has that sense of being its own entity, and, just like Frakes' prison island, it is recently shut down.

Frakes opens the comic by talking about the difficulty of writing autobiographical comics and muses about whether she's lost the ability to express herself outside of comics.  It's a great intro and gives some insight into her thought process and why her comics are so detailed.  From there, we get a tour of the island, as Frakes and her family take one last look at the place they called home for nearly a decade.  It's a bittersweet tour, as many of the objects on the island slowly begin their inevitable decay, away from human hands.  This is especially true when they visit their home one final time.  The knowledge that this is the last time they'll ever see it really hits home, especially when they find a memento left behind.

Over the course of the comic, Frakes gives us a brief history of the island and even a map, so that we can place the geography she illustrates for us and that her family interacts with.  I thought that was a really nice touch, reminding me of something I might use if I were going to an old historic site.  Which, when you think about it, is exactly what Frakes is doing for us.

The story is not just about nostalgia, however.  Frakes splices a few old memories here and there, including her frustration at not being able to easily see her friends, but finding a way to deal with the isolation by reveling in the beauty surrounding her (the island was also a nature preserve).  I can understand how the memories might be mixed like that, as I lived a rather isolated childhood myself, which grew harder as I aged and my friends wanted to hang out, but were too far away.

Frakes discusses her desire to make things as accurate as possible, and I think she did a great job.  Her sketches of the buildings and people are done in varied kinds of brush strokes (unless I miss my guess), giving the whole thing a distinctive look that you don't find in very many mini-comics.  Frakes' art resembes something you'd see in the New Yorker more than in, say, MOME, and that's perfectly okay with me.  Her figures are loose and able to show a wide range of expressions with just a few simple lines, which is important in a memoir-style work like this one, where the internal monologue is minimal.

Funny at times and wistful at others, in just the right amounts, Island Brat is a great autobiographical work that would be perfect for anyone just experimenting with the genre.  If I am reading Frakes' store correctly, she should have Island Brat 2 available at SPX as well as this book.  Anyone who likes personal stories, childhood memories, or short stories with great art need to stop by Colleen's table at SPX this year.  If you can't, her website is a good place to start, with links to the books she currently has available.

August 29, 2012

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Baltimore Comic-Con Spotlight: 2 Mini-Comics from Monica Gallagher

[Here's another of a few Baltimore Comic-Con Spotlights I will be doing before the show on September 8th and 9th.  Where indicated, these creators also cross over with SPX Spotlights.  You can read all of my Baltimore Comic-Con Spotlights here.]

Go for the Eyes
Middle School
Written and Illustrated by Monica Gallagher
Self-Published (Eat Your Lipstick)

Strange but true:  I know two talented artists who also have played roller derby!  How crazy is that?  While one of them participates in live art shows, the other works in webcomics and minis.  Her name is Monica Gallagher, and she will be at the Baltimore Comic-Con with her set of books, comics, and prints.

Ms. Gallagher writes not one, but two webcomics, which is pretty amazing to me, as I can barely handle writing for two websites and keep to a regular schedule.  Boonie N. Collide is about the day to day life of a roller derby girl, and has been going on for over 100 strips now.  There are collections of the strips for those interested.  Gods and Undergrads takes a mythological turn, starring a girl in college with ties to the Greek Gods.  There are two collections of that series as well if you want to catch up.

For this review, I'm concentrating on two of her mini-comics.  Go for the Eyes, featured above, is Monica'a latest mini, and features her reflections on self-defense.  How to protect yourself is an important issue in anyone's life, but given how often women are targets of violence, it takes on an additional meaning for young women.  Gallagher talks about how she fantasized about being an action hero, the impact of seeing Sarah Connor in the movies, and her attempts to learn the same moves she watched in films.

The mini is both comic and serious, depending on the subject.  We can laugh at the idea of wanting to be just like the kung-fu people in the movies, but when she describes the rage of a friend or her own failure when jumped by (thankfully) a friendly face, there's a very serious tone.  This is an excellent look at the nature of protection and reminds me very much of a topic of a good feminist zine.

Moving to another time in her life, Middle School features a short story about life at a camp shortly before moving into 6th grade.  Gallagher had been one of the top dogs in elementary school, but moving into the middle years changed her status and left her as insecure as anyone else during that time.

The comic features a few incidents from the camp that show the common theme of growing up that we've seen from other writers working in this time period, such as Raina Telgemeier or Hope Larson.  Alliances change on a dime, every action is magnified a million times, and trying to stay cool is the most important thing in the world.

Middle School is a short but enjoyable look into a time period that might be best forgotten, if it weren't for how well it shaped many of our later years.

Gallagher's art style varies in the two minis.  Middle School uses more traditional panels, working within some rather cramped lines and a grayscale that periodically hurts the art a bit.  Monica uses very wide eyes to express the emotion of the time and her character designs are varied well, so its easy to tell who is taking part in the action.

Go for the Eyes works more free-form, with no set panels, kind of like a latter-day Eisner graphic novel.  The narrative ebbs and flows across the page, sometimes with guidelines, sometimes not.  The text moves along with the art, which is freer, looser, and stronger, which makes sense because it's newer and Monica has improved her skills.  Some things remain consistent, such as distinctive characters and the expressive eyes, but it's clear how much better Gallagher is getting, even if there's not a huge difference in time between the two comics.

Baltimore is just big enough that mini-comics folks can get lost in the shuffle.  If you like auto-biographical comics with some strong reflection and solid art, definitely stop by Monica Gallagher's table.  If you can't make Baltimore, her website (with links to her webcomics and comics for sale) is here.  Check it out!

August 28, 2012

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SPX Spotlight 2012: AdHouse Books

Welcome to another entry in my SPX Spotlight 2012!  You can find all of my SPX Spotlight posts, including those from past years, by clicking here.

AdHouse Books, run by Chris Pitzer, has a long history of bringing both quality and quirkiness to SPX.  The small publisher works with a diverse group of individuals, from Stuart Immonen to Joey Weiser to Paul Pope to Adam Hines.  Chris's taste is diverse but his curating skills are top notch.  While I haven't loved every book I ever got from any publisher, AdHouse's ratio is very high, and I can trust Pitzer to steer me in the right direction.  You can see my other AdHouse posts here.

For SPX this year, AdHouse is expecting to have four books that are new to the show, pending the ever-fickle nature of shipping.  Here's a little information on each of them (I obviously haven't read them yet) to help you with creating your SPX shopping list.

Notebook by Jimm Rugg.  Jim Rugg is just about as versatile as AdHouse itself, being just as at home illustrating a story about teenage girls as he is doing various style homages for a book like Afrodisiac, which lampooned the Blacksploitation comics of the 70s and early 80s.  This is a sketchbook of Rugg drawings, cleverly designed to mimic a real notebook.  Anyone who enjoys collecting sketchbooks from their favorite artists should love this one, and I can vouch for the quality of the Immonen sketchbooks that AdHouse produced, so I am sure this one is excellent as well.

White Clay by Thomas Herpich.  When Chris describes a book as "beautiful and strange" you can definitely believe it will be both.  Herpich has links to Adventure Time, which revels in being absurd, so I'd expect visual antics aplenty in this comic.  I'm intrigued to see what this one is all about when I make it to the show.

Remake 3xtra by Lamar Abrams.  Abrams returns to the world he created a few years ago with three stories featuring the same group of characters.  I'm going to admit, I haven't read the original book, but I know a lot of people thought it was excellent. AdHouse still has Remake in stock and I imagine will bring a few copies to the show, so if you like this one, you might be able to get a copy of the first book, too!

Pope Hats #3 by Ethan Rilly.  The ongoing series continues with more decisions for the protagonist trying to negotiate life when you want to be the best, but the price is higher than you may be willing to pay.  This is another one that has quite a few fans among my friends but I haven't gotten to...yet.

As you can see from these four books, the lineup for AdHouse is quite diverse.  When you're making your list of things to do at SPX in September, make sure that a stop at the AdHouse table is on your list.  You are guaranteed to find a good book (or two or three...)!

August 27, 2012

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Baltimore Comic-Con Spotlight: Rachel Deering's Anathema 1

[Here's the first of a few Baltimore Comic-Con Spotlights I will be doing before the show on September 8th and 9th.  Where indicated, these creators also cross over with SPX Spotlights.  You can read all of my Baltimore Comic-Con Spotlights here.]

Written by Rachel Deering
Illustrated by Chris Mooneyham

In a time when there is still much fear hatred, and suspicion, an ancient evil takes advantage of a young woman wrongly condemned, using her soul to build its power.  Only the love of her partner can save her and stop the return of an evil demon.  The price, however, might very well be her humanity.  It's a love story mixed into the horror genre in the first issue of Rachel Deering's Anathema.

Rachel Deering, perhaps best known right now for her association with Womanthology, is a big fan of horror and it shows the moment you open up this comic.  From the first page to the very end, the story takes one darker turn after another, creating a great evil that is spread by the bigotry of those who claim great faith.  All of the key elements of a good horror story are here, linked together in such a way that the plot flows naturally.

When I read a horror comic, I'm not expecting a new plot, but I do like to see how a new person tackles familiar themes.  Here, Deering takes part of "Witchfinder General" and mixes it with demonic orders, vampires, and ultimately, werewolves.  It's really amazing how well these disparate ideas blend with each other, packing so much into an opening issue.  At the same time, the story never feels rushed.  We're introduced to the wronging of a young woman and we feel the pain of her partner who refuses to come to her aid.  That partner learns just how horrible a fate her lover has succumbed to, and now we have a heroine who must risk everything to make things right.  Whether she does or not, and the triumphs and failures of her quest, are left up in the air for now, giving Deering a lot of room to maneuver and determine just what kind of a story she wishes to tell.

As in all good stories that feature LGBTQ characters, the relationship between Sarah and Mercy is played naturally.  They have a bond which has been tested and while the nature of the love does drive the death of Sarah, there's no attempt to scream "Hey look!  Lesbians!" in the same way that certain publishers have been known to do when working with queer plot points.

I would have enjoyed the story of Anathema regardless (it's right in my horror wheelhouse), but Deering really chose a great artist for this issue in Chris Mooneyham.  Working in an angular style that reminds me of the Buscema brothers if they had been slightly scratchier in their linework, he brings a mood to the proceedings that shows just how dark and dire the situation will be.  Aided by colorist Fares Maese, who knows just when to obscure and when to bring things into sharp relief, Mooneyham keeps the visuals varied while also telling a solid story with his portrayals.  His depiction of Sarah's soul being taken as well as a later appearance by her ghost are positively chilling, and his transformation scene with Mercy is top-notch.

From plot to art to script, Anathema is a high-quality horror story that shows you don't need to be backed by one of the major independents to make a great comic.  Rachel should be at Baltimore Comic-Con on September 8th and 9th, and I highly recommend any horror fan stop by her table and pick up this book while they can.  You'll enjoy this one a lot.  I know I did!

August 26, 2012

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SPX Spotlight 2012: Steve Seck and Life is Good

Welcome to another entry in my SPX Spotlight 2012!  You can find all of my SPX Spotlight posts, including those from past years, by clicking here.

If Steve's Seck's comics have any insight into his personality, he's got a keen eye for looking at the terrible side of humanity.  Using a beer bottle, a pair of alligators, a tree, and a flower, Steve finds a way to show how our world has a lot of people who aren't necessarily bad, but aren't exactly good, either.

When Brownie (the beer bottle) loses his job, he spirals down, finding alcohol and people that aren't exactly working to try and make their lives better.  Seck uses them to show the ways in which we can destroy ourselves, either by being lazy (Charles, the naked Gator), arrogant and self-aggrandizing (Dr. Peace Rock, the flower with his petals pulled back into a pony tail), unduly influenced (Unity, the tree, as well as Brownie), and living like the world is one big frat party (Sewer Gator).  Their story is funny, but has a hint of tragedy as well.  We know people like that.  Sometimes, we are those people.  Steve understands this, and is careful not to be overly judgmental when he puts them together on the page.

Seck's illustrations are very creative in terms of the anthropomorphization of everything from animals we easily recognize to letters of the alphabet.  Part of the fun of reading it as a series is to see what background characters Seck slips in.  Over time, Seck's main figures really grow, as his artistic ability improves.  By the time we move into the recent stories, Brownie, Charles, and the gang have a full range of emotions across their face, which allows Steve to really develop his stories.

Stories are the key here, because while most funny animal books tend to be one-shot deals that are heavy on the reset button, Life is Good has characters that grow and change over time.  It's part of what makes this so much fun to read, and highly recommended.

For SPX, Steve plans to have the first collected edition of Life is Good, which I am honored to be one of those he used for a cover blurb.  You can get that for $14, with re-drawn art and an epilogue, or, if you prefer to sample the series, I'm sure Steve will have single issues along as well.

In addition to Life is Good, Seck will have a Sweetie Snake short story (Glutton for PunHISSment), as well as prints.  Anyone who likes stories that build a cast and are both witty and willing to allow their cast to be less than ideal people should definitely find Steve Seck and Life is Good at SPX.

Can't make SPX?  You can find Steve's website here.

August 25, 2012

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Digging into Digital: Ryan Kelly Puts Funrama #1 Online for Free

One of the things I love about Twitter is randomly finding out about a great comic that I likely would never have heard of otherwise.  I then try to make others aware of it here via Panel Patter.

This is one of those cases, and if you don't like Funrama after reading the first few pages, I would be shocked.  It's written and illustrated by Ryan Kelly, who is a creator I have heard a lot about but haven't actually read anything by him, at least that I can recall.  That's going to change as quickly as possible, after reading Funrama #1.

A project stemming from Kelly's youth (he has a sample page on the website, in the about section) that went on for a very long time but sadly never made it to the present day, as almost every copy was lost. While I was making badly illustrated fan fiction, Kelly was creating new and interesting characters.  (This is why he makes comics and I blog.  It's better that way.)  Returning to the characters in college and then again as a pitch to several publishers, which none of them took him up on, Kelly opted to go the self-publishing route for his revamped ideas.

I'm really glad this saw the light of day in all its pure insanity, rather than getting diluted.  From the opening pages, which feature a character named Bomb Cat, it's clear this is a comic that isn't about anything other than mindless, silly violence, going as over-the-top as possible.  In later pages, one of the Mutant Punks steals the Mona Lisa to use as a serving tray for his girlfriend, who is featured on the cover image above.  As a group, they attack the Mall of America, and when America doesn't sufficiently care, they go after the president, leading to the best line of the comic, which I won't spoil here.

The humor is irreverent and the destruction is off the scale.  This is like a good Lobo comic mixed just a bit with the social commentary of Warren Ellis's Transmetropolitan.  These characters don't give a #$%^#, and the result is unclassifiable mayhem.  As Kelly writes in the narrative, they aren't anarchists, they aren't pirates--they're just a bunch of really, really powerful punks.

Kelly's art style is as refined as the characters he draws are raw.  There is intricate detailing on almost every page, from character design to backgrounds.  He uses shadowing, strong panel structures, and changing angles to keep the story moving briskly.  Everyone from the villains to their victims have emotions written right on their faces, with the overall picture being drawn in a very realistic style that's a bit like Kevin Maguire, though with just a rougher touch around the edges.

From dialogue to pacing to art, this comic works in perfect harmony, barreling at the reader full-force and leaving them wanting more.  You can read issue 1 online for free and I'm betting like me you'll be back to buy issue two, either as a PDF or paper copy, directly from Kelly.  (I really wish he'd put #1 up as a PDF for sale, too.)  He says he's in this one for the long haul, mapping out a general story idea and with a willingness to keep publishing it, even if no one else wants to.  I really hope that's the case, because I'm hooked and I want more.  Here's betting any of you who love fun comics will, too.
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SPX Spotlight 2012: Morgan Pielli and Indestructible Universe Quarterly 8 and 9

Welcome to another entry in my SPX Spotlight 2012!  You can find all of my SPX Spotlight posts, including those from past years, by clicking here.

Pulling off a one-man anthology is tricky, but when you are able to do it successfully, the results are amazing.  Having complete creative control of the contents means you can work within themes and artistic styles, providing variety or consistency, depending on your mood.

Morgan Pielli, like Noah Van Sciver, has a very strong handle on how to work within this style, and while the two do completely different things with the concept they have one thing in common--excellent comics.

Pielli's anthology is called Indestructible Universe Quarterly, and it collects the comics he initially puts on the web.  Each mini-comic features a series of stories that vary in length, telling tales in a variety of genres, sometimes mixing them together.  You can't find Pielli himself in the stories, but you can gain insight into his mind by reading enough of the issues together.  His work will appeal to those who are fans of wonder, mystery, and soft science fiction, with a pinch of horror here and there, almost always of the psychological kind.  When I reviewed some of Morgan's comics last year, I likened him to Ray Bradbury.  Anyone who is a fan of the prolific writer would do well to look into Pielli's work, as there are definitely strong similarities.

Morgan's artwork shows a strong handle on creative use of black and white space.  His comics often use heavy patches of black or while to heighten the impact of a scene, such as the subway car in panel four above, which comes from issue 9 of the series.  He also is good at finding ways to make background images interesting.  Unlike a lot of mini-comics creators, Pielli does not leave the background as an afterthought.  In almost every comic, he uses the background to set the mood, often creating a background that is slightly unnerving.  Part of what makes Morgan's comics better than other minis I've come across is this attention to detail.

You can tell that Pielli is a graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies based on his figure work, which means that there is an emphasis on what the character is feeling more than how they look.  I happen to like that approach, because it gives depth to the characters without needing to resort to dialogue crowding out the illustrations, but it might not appeal to everyone.  While his character designs are deceptively simple, they tell a lot by what they do.

For SPX, Morgan will have Indestructible Universe 8 and 9 available, along with back issues of his earlier comics.  Issue 8 has two stories, The Worry Tree and A Forged Man.  The former uses an ongoing visual narrative trick that relates to the story title which I thought was particularly clever and really makes the visuals interesting.  A man encounters a strange tree that ends up changing his life forever.  Meanwhile, the forged man finds an old foe who has a lot to say.  Their battle of words leads to a conclusion that I definitely did not see coming and would have made a perfect Twilight Zone episode.

Pielli changes the pace in issue nine, opening with an homage to John Carpenter.  Framing it like a song, Pielli provides images to words from a Carpenter movie.  I had no frame of reference, but the illustrations were strong and definitely drew well from the source material.  City of Crowns finds us in court, with a man using an old story with echoes of modern issues to defend himself.  Morgan's art here is smaller, almost claustrophobic at times, and he uses a looser style than usual.  After a one-page thought piece, IUQ9 ends with Quantum, another Twilight-zone like piece.  Looking quite a bit like Paul Grist's work, Pielli gives us a man who preys upon the weak in a very unique way, with an ending that's bound to make you think.

Unfortunately, Morgan does not have an online store, so you'll just have to go to SPX to see him and get his comics.  If you like strange stories with a twist or thought pieces that stir the imagination, Morgan Pielli is not to be missed at SPX!

August 24, 2012

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SPX Spotlight 2012: Joey Weiser gets Kaijubetical!

Welcome to another entry in my SPX Spotlight 2012!  You can find all of my SPX Spotlight posts, including those from past years, by clicking here.

Anyone who's read Panel Patter for years know that I've been a fan of Joey Weiser since my very first SPX show, back in 2008.  (Ironically, I actually bought "The Ride Home" from his table without him being there, something rarely do today.) He's a very versatile creator, working in the all-ages realm, with characters ranging from kiddie versions of classic monsters to cavemen transported in time to his ongoing mini-comic Mermin, which features a powerful aquatic creature come to land under mysterious circumstances. Joey even does periodic work for the ongoing SpongeBob Squarepants comic. You can see all of my posts relating to Joey Weiser here, which cover quite a bit of his career.

One of the things that Joey and I have in common is a love of bad movies (we're both big MST3K fans) and Japanese monster movies in particular.  Joey has me seriously outclassed in this regard, in both knowledge and dedication, and I love when I get to talk with him about them.  Weiser likes them so much, he even created a webcomic about several giant creatures living together and acting like normal people--sort of, called Monster Isle.

Joey's fondness for Godzilla and Co. led to him doing a mini-project over the winter and spring, as part of a larger collective idea, creation of a Monster alphabet.  Instead of working on random creatures, Weiser stuck to those from the Toho (and other company) films, and SPX marks the debut of a mini-comic collecting the illustrations together.  Weiser's signature style takes these terrors and gives them just a bit of a kid-friendly touch, reminding me of what might happen if someone tried to market plush dolls of the man-in-a-plastic-suit creations.  They're awesome and a must-grab for anyone who is a fan of these films, either yourself or someone you know.

In addition to the mini-comic, Weiser may have some original sketches for sale along with copies of his past work, such as a mini best-of for Monster Isle, copies of his books like Cavemen in Space, and his newest Mermin comic.  Anyone who likes monsters and all-ages comics needs to check Joey out at SPX.  You won't be disappointed!

August 23, 2012

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SPX Spotlight 2012: Andrew Cohen

Welcome to another entry in my SPX Spotlight 2012!  You can find all of my SPX Spotlight posts, including those from past years, by clicking here.

Andrew Cohen is one of the members of the DC Conspiracy comics collective, several of whom end up under the spotlight for SPX, as they do great things in the mini-comics genre.

Of all the conspirators, Cohen may be the most innovative in terms of his layouts.  His signature character, Dr W., an example of which I have as the picture for this spotlight, is a recurring character in Magic Bullet and is also featured in his own mini-comics.  In his adventures, Dr. W. fails to respect the fourth wall.  But he doesn't so much break it as interact with it, staying completely in character but also finding that the actions in one panel often have consequences in a later one.

I described this as "Will Eisner on steroids" and I think that still holds.  Cohen does a great job of being innovative while still illustrating in a way that appeals to a wide variety of comics readers.  I highly recommend anyone who likes experimental comics work to see what you think of Dr. W.

In addition, Cohen also works on a surreal send-up of strips like Rex Morgan, MD, with a series called Porter Black, which he illustrates while "Art" does the words.  It doesn't play with panels, but the action is completely farcical, such as the first adventure, which takes a young man to the North Pole to investigate an all-too-willing killer.  After throwing convention out the window, Andrew and Art put the characters in increasingly ridiculous situations that they treat as being perfectly normal, culminating in one interesting trek across the country.  Cohen draws the comic almost entirely straightforward, using a style that relies heavily on shading, clever use of black and white spaces, and editorial-cartoon characters who earnestly perform their dialogue.

For SPX this year, Cohen will have new Porter Black and Dr. W. comics, along with another project about bare-knuckle boxing in 1850s New York.  Given Cohen's ability to make things look old-fashioned just by shading, I'm sure that one is going to look great and should be a nice addition to other comics with a historical bent, such as Rob Ullman's Old-Timey Hockey Tales.

If you enjoy comics that tweak the nose of conventions, either in newspaper strips or in terms of design, stop by and see Andrew at SPX.  You'll be glad you did!

August 22, 2012

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District Comics Signing at One More Page, August 19th, 2012

This past Sunday, I had the pleasure to drive down to Arlington, Virginia to visit the cute and well-stocked One More Page bookstore in order to get my copy of District Comics, edited by long-time Panel Patter favorite Matt Dembicki.  Gathered together were well over twenty of the contributors to the new anthology, which was due partly to Dembicki's clever use of local writers and artists.

Despite arriving a bit late to the signing itself, I was happy to see that the store was still quite busy with people picking up their copies of the book and having them signed.  Matt told me it had been even busier early in the day.  Comics talk was buzzing in the air as the creators signed and sketched in the copies bought that day.

The Store Itself
It was an interesting event for me, because I rarely go to book signings.  Seeing so many people just dying to sign your copy was kinda awesome, actually.  They had systems at each of the four tables, to ensure everyone got all the signatures, and being comics folks, the banter while you waited was quite entertaining.

Matt Dembicki and others Talking Comics
I have not had a huge opportunity to read the book yet, but I skimmed a few pages, and it looks awesome.  Anyone who is a fan of hidden history--and I am HUGE fan of hidden history--is in for a treat, as there are stories about early baseball, an attempt on Truman's life, and medical oddities, all waiting for you inside.

Matt will have copies of District Comics at Baltimore Comic-Con and SPX, or you can probably order online or try your favorite local bookstore in the DC/Baltimore area.  I'm happy to report its circulating in the Baltimore County Public Library.

For more pictures from the signing, including the most posed Rafer Roberts picture of all time, you can see the complete set on my Flickr page.

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SPX Spotlight 2012: Koyama Press

Welcome to another entry in my SPX Spotlight 2012!  You can find all of my SPX Spotlight posts, including those from past years, by clicking here.

Today's spotlight falls on a publisher making their SPX debut, one that I admit I am not terribly familiar with, but I am looking forward to meeting them at SPX this year and picking up a a few books.

Founded in 2007 by Annie Koyama (hence the name), the publisher has a healthy number of books behind its name already, mostly from artists that, according to a recent interview, Koyama herself likes.  In this way, she reminds me quite a bit of Chris Pitzer of AdHouse books, another small publisher with a stable of artists that Pitzer himself likes.

Looking over the roster of existing books and artists shows that Ms. Koyama sure has an eye for quality.  Dustin Harbin, Colleen Frakes, Joseph Lambert, Michael DeForge, and Chris Eliopoulos are just a few of the names you might recognize.  Even Ed Emeberly has some involvement with Koyama.  I spent a little time looking over the art of some of those featured on the artist page and came away both impressed and planning to spend some money if the books look as good as the samples.

Based on what I saw, there is something for everyone.  Some artists are finely detailed, like Harbin, or do illustrations that could easily be framed in a gallery.  Others are more alternative comix work, which is sure to appeal to many of those attending the Small Press Expo.  The variety from one small publisher is actually quite amazing and I think you'll be impressed.

For their Fall 2012 lineup, which should be available at SPX, Koyama has four titles available, details of which can be found on the news page.  I have not ready any of them yet, but all of them look interesting and I expect I'll leave the show with at least one or two of them, depending on my show budget.

 The Infinite Wait and Other Stories by Julia Wertz promises short stories with looks at everyday life and personal moments.  The autobiographical comic genre can sometimes get a bit crowded, but from the previews I saw on Ms. Wertz' site, this one looks like it might rise above the gang, if only because one story features something I used to do.  I think a big draw to auto bio comics is to have a connection to the work, and it seems like I might be able to relate to Wertz's life.  Fans of the genre and creators such as Jeffrey Brown and Gabrielle Bell definitely need to take a look.

Lose #4 by Michael DeForge.  Other comics fans that I respect really dig DeForge, though I am only familiar with him in the vaguest possible terms, based on twitter links I've gone to here and there.  He works in the one-man anthology genre, which I'm really getting into lately, so I'm looking forward to checking this one out.  When a comic is described as "a comic that blends the banal with the bizarre to create a mélange that is filled with horror and discomfort, humanity and humour" it gets placed squarely on my radar.  From the descriptions, this looks like people who enjoy Noah Van Sciver and others
like him should investigate.

The Big Team Society League Book of Answers by Toronto jam comics collective Team Society League (Aaron Costain, John Martz, Steve Wolfhard, and Zach Worton) might be the most intriguing of the bunch because it has the potential to be the type of book I might not normally like, but will absolutely fall in love with upon scanning it.  Comics collaboration was a lot of fun in those Whole Story books I read, and this one promises "an adorable cast of characters doing abominable things" which sounds pretty awesome.  Of the four comics, I think this is hardest to predict who might best enjoy it without a reading.  While you're at the table, why not just take a peek and see if it's for you?

Diary Comics 4 by Dustin Harbin is another small collection of the introspective, insightful, and opinionated cartoonist who draws some of the thinnest lines I've ever seen.  If you ever catch Harbin on Twitter, you know that he's extremely thought-provoking (even if you don't agree with him, as I don't on Comixology, for instance) and his comics are no exception.  With finely detailed visuals to go along with his meditations, a Harbin book is an exercise in dialogue and expression that is almost unique in comics.  Anyone who likes to theorize should be a fan of Harbin, if they aren't already.

I'm looking forward to adding Koyama Press to my list of things I want to seek out at SPX.  From what I've seen based on its website, you should, too!

August 21, 2012

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SPX Spotlight 2012: Box Brown and Retrofit Comics

Welcome to another entry in my SPX Spotlight 2012!  You can find all of my SPX Spotlight posts, including those from past years, by clicking here.

While I'm not a fan of every single release from this publisher that debuted last year around this time, I think the concept is excellent.  Why not a rotating slate of indie comic creators of a wide variety of talents and styles under one roof, publishing monthly?  The idea is so awesome, and I'm happy to see that it's still going strong after 12 months.  Created and overseen by Box Brown, Retrofit is even expanding into specials, such as a tribute to Garo manga.

The artists who have worked under the Retrofit banner include James Kochalka, Colleen Frakes, and Noah Van Sciver, which means you have Eisner winners, Xeric recipients, and Ignatz winners in the stable.  That's extremely impressive to me, given you'd expect to have to go to a big indie like Fantagraphics to have that level of recognized creators.

My taste tends to run more to the Frakes/Forsman spectrum of Retrofit, but for those who like their comics with a rough edge to them (I usually describe this as those who take the limits Robert Crumb established and dance about three yards past it), creators such as Ian Harker are also a part of the group.  Like other small publishers, Brown looks for and finds the best of a variety of styles and gets them to do a mini-comic for him that retail for $5.00 each.

Brown himself is no slouch, either.  Working in both print and webcomics, his style falls somewhere in the middle, able to work complex philosophy and crude humor together in a way that shows his own varied artistic interests and influences.  Box was recently heavily involved in the Whole Story project, offering collections of some of his projects, and I was extremely impressed with his work.  Being both irreverent and deep at the same time and with a strong interest in the complexity of religions of all kinds, when you visit the Retrofit table, don't forget to look into Brown's work as well.

For SPX this year, Brown will hopefully have a new mini, Killman, that he describes as "giant robot suits and a guy fighting against the universe itself," which sounds awesome.  Hopefully Doctor Doom will let it pass customs, as I hear it's coming from Latveria over to the States.  I'm sure he'll also have a few of his own older minis as well.

Retrofit will have several new and new-ish items for the show:

  • SP7, the manga tribute I mentioned above, as alt-comix artists take their stab at right to left work.  I kickstarted this one, but if you missed your chance, you can get a copy at the show.
  • Flocks #1, which deals with sexuality and growing up Christian, by L. Nichols.  This is one I really want to pick up.  Reading various accounts of dealing with identity is a focus of mine, and the medium of comics really can bring things home in a way prose cannot.
  • New Sludge City by Brendan Leach.  Box tells me this is about a dystopian Manhattan, which sounds like fun.
In addition, Box will be bringing along whatever back issues he has of Retrofit, and he notes that several of the creators he's published will be there (including the award-winning trio mentioned earlier) so if he's out of a copy, they might have them at their tables.

Retrofit Comics is an awesome small publisher taking a new approach to a monthly comic publishing schedule.  If you can't make SPX, you can read more about it here.

August 20, 2012

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SPX Spotlight 2012: Noah Van Sciver and Blammo 7

Welcome to another entry in my SPX Spotlight 2012!  You can find all of my SPX Spotlight posts, including those from past years, by clicking here.

Noah Van Sciver is a relatively new creator to me (I'm actually more familiar with his superhero-drawing brother) but his storytelling technique, short-story mindset, and willingness to be brutally honest when working autobiographically quickly caught my eye.  Able to make some really awful people interesting, Noah's work should be appealing to fans of Jeffrey Brown and Box Brown, and probably other cartoonists not named Brown.

Van Sciver's latest project, which he tells me will debut at SPX, is The Hypo, published by Fantagraphics.  Noah's first graphic novel, the subject is none other than a young Abraham Lincoln, focusing on one of the uncertain times in his life.  A comic that's also about an icon of American History drawn by a man able to craft dark and moody work that's compelling reading?  I'm all over that, and can't wait to get my copy in just under a month.  You can find more info on The Hypo at Fantagraphics, where you can also pre-order the book, if you can't make SPX.

Moving on to a book I have first-hand experience with, Blammo 7 opens with some patented self-depreciating humor, in which Van Sciver pokes fun at the media's need to sensationalize comics news by terrifying them with an indie comic book.  It sets the tone for the rest of the issue, which balances on the razor edge of comedy and tragedy, even when examining the origin of Van Sciver's birth religion, Mormonism.

The first main story features a man whose first name is Jesus, a loser who gets tempted when a hot girl loses her wallet filled with cash on the bus.  His internal angst is both funny and poignant, leading to a punchline that I didn't see coming, yet was extremely appropriate.   Noah keeps the story going just long enough and makes a good use of tight paneling to drive the plot, letting his slightly shaky style really drive the emotion on Jesus's face.

"Because I Have To" is the longest feature in Blammo 7, complete with a visual intro and outro, giving some extra meaning and importance to the story.  A man who's suffering the loss of a brother is in danger of sinking even lower when a lost little girl insists he help her trick or treat.  They grow slowly closer, as the man  does his best to be a better brother to her than the one who left her behind.  In the end, she, too, is almost lost, and in a great transition, it's changes everything for the man.  There are sweet, dark, and comedic moments back to back to back in this story, showing Van Sciver's wide range as a storyteller.  "Because I Have To" reminds me quite a bit of the postmodern fiction I used to read a lot of before I moved to comics and non-fiction as my two main reading options.  The visuals fit the story well, being more open and empty to start, just like the man's life, only to get more full as his attachment to the girl grows.  I think this is my favorite of the Van Sciver stories I've read.

Two shorts that are quick, punchy, and bloody remind us of Van Sciver's alt-comix inspirations (a chicken goes to hell in one of them, wishing he'd read more from a Chick Tract) before we move into where we learn the origins of the Mormon religion.  Van Sciver is a former member of the church, explaining in a text piece later that his mother left the faith and left Van Sciver to deal with the idea that all he thought was true was actually a lie.

Having your values questioned leads to doubt and skepticism in all things, something I can relate to, and something you definitely see reflected in Noah's work.  Anyone who's seen the South Park episode or read anything about Mormons will be familiar with the story, which Van Sciver plays respectfully straight, letting the improbability of the actions of Smith speak for themselves.  (Then again, not to get off on a tangent--how do we determine that Smith is improbable, but a man who starts a reform movement in ancient Israel is the Son of God?)  The artwork here is the most straightforward, which makes sense if you're doing a historical piece.

The issue closes on another short horror note, one that would have fit perfectly in Creepy Magazine,an archive of which I just happen to be reading lately.  Never trust a person who doesn't trust the postal service!  Creepy and suspenseful, it ends things on a chilling note and makes me look forward to more stories in a future Blammo collection.

Noah Van Sciver is one of the best I've read at doing a one-man anthology comic.  If that's your thing at all, or if you like alternative comix that have a story to go along with their edgy material, he's a person you should  visit at SPX.

August 19, 2012

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SPX Spotlight 2012: Dustin Harbin

Welcome to another entry in my SPX Spotlight 2012!  You can find all of my SPX Spotlight posts, including those from past years, by clicking here.

Dustin Harbin is not a cartoonist for the faint of heart.  He's knowledgeable, witty, insightful, and blunt.  Shy is only in his vocabulary so he can accuse others of being too timid to say what they think.  He's the type of guy you want on your side, but woe to those on the other side of the table, especially if it's you.

What that means is that when Dustin takes his talent for argument and humor and brings it into the comics world, sparks fly, and I mean that in a good way.  Regardless of the subjects covered in any of his Diary comics collections or other works, Harbin will play straight with his readers, offering facts to back up his opinions.  He's not afraid to offend, which I think makes for better comics, and I also appreciate that when he's thinking about a sensitive topic, Dustin's also willing to admit that his views may not be popular or appealing.  When this honesty is blended with an eye towards a clever joke, visual or verbal, it makes for a creator I'll keeping buying from, time and time again.

But enough about the text, let's talk about his art!  I chose the print above for this piece because it's one of my favorite Harbin works.  (I own a print of it, and I buy maybe 2 prints a year.)  If you look carefully at it, you'll see that the drawing is full of meticulous line work, which is typical of Harbin's style.  When I had Dustin sketch something for me, I got to see this process close-up, and even for a quick piece, he took time to use the same style, carefully connecting his pen strokes to make a complete picture.

Whether it's his cartoonish visage of himself, a quick history piece on a US President, or a reflection of a childhood memory, Dustin puts a lot of effort into making his fine lines into a complete picture.  Though each drawing involves quite a bit of lines, not unlike Rafer Roberts, the result is less sketchy than you'd think it might be and the end result is delicate, rather than the rougher style I tend to expect from that type of work.  The lines come together so well, especially if you take the time to examine them carefully.  I highly recommend that you do so!

For SPX, Harbin should have his usual array of books, including past editions of his Diary Comics series, the DHARBIN 1-2 collection (which is my favorite of his, I think), and his thoughts on awards, which I reviewed earlier this year.  I also expect prints, and fans of prints should buy at least one, maybe two.  (I recommend the Dinosaur one, which I sadly have no place to put in my apartment.)

Dustin will be with the Koyama Press folks, who are getting the Spotlight treatment later this month, and you should be able to get his newest diary collection at SPX, printer willing.

Can't make SPX?  I'm sorry, it will be fun, but you can find Dustin Harbin's website here, where you can pick up some of his books and prints.

August 18, 2012


SPX Spotlight 2012: MariNaomi

Welcome to another entry in my SPX Spotlight 2012!  You can find all of my SPX Spotlight posts, including those from past years, by clicking here.

I first encountered MariNaomi's work in an anthology about breakups called "This Isn't  Working: Comics About Ex-Boyfriends" which was one of my favorite mini-comics from 2011.  She is an extremely prolific creator who works within the autobiographical genre and is known for her brutal honesty about her life.

I find that makes for the best kind of personal comic, and MariNaomi is no exception.  In the shorts I've read by her, she's always quite frank about her subject.  This is a sketch diary, so be aware the art is raw, but the content I think gives you an idea of her work.  Another example, from her newspaper work, is this interview with someone I hope to meet someday, Alison Bechdel, but that's cheating a bit because it ends up going into prose.  Here's one more, about smoking and quitting that's rather close to my own experience.

For SPX, MariNaomi will be bringing along the following, none of which I am personally familiar but touch on some themes that definitely interest me.  These are pretty much all mature-audiences only, if that matters to you.

  • Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22 This is her book about growing up that shows just how unflinching her work can be, if the description of "sex, drugs, friendship, and juvenile delinquency in the '80s" is even remotely close to accurate.
  • Sister Spit Tour Diary If the diary entry intrigued you, this might be the comic to get.  A travel diary about being on tour for Kiss & Tell, as part of a group of writers and artists.
  • Five True Fans presents... Them's the Breaks, Kid!  A new anthology featuring five creators (Cassie J. Sneider, MariNaomi, Ric Carrasquillo, Tessa Brunton), each telling their own stories.
  • Not-So-Butch features hand-painted covers and talks about girls MariNaomi liked who "didn't like me back."
  • Sleep Deprived is true story that already creeps me out by mentioning bedbugs.

MariNaomi will also have copies of Little Heart, A Comic Anthology for Marriage Equality, which makes me a bit envious, because I'm still waiting for my digital copy from the kickstarter.  If you thought the idea was cool but didn't contribute, SPX will be a chance to get your copy.

My taste in mini-comics definitely has a large section for autobiographical works.  If yours does, too, then definitely stop by MariNaomi's table.  Can't make SPX?  You can visit her website here, where you can purchase comics directly from the creator.

August 17, 2012


SPX Spotlight 2012: Rich Barrett and Nathan Sorry

Welcome to another entry in my SPX Spotlight 2012!  You can find all of my SPX Spotlight posts, including those from past years, by clicking here.

Rich Barrett is a brave man.  He's not afraid to base a story on one of the most tragic moments in American history.  You have to give him credit for that, but what's even better is that the comic is quite good and worth your time.

Prior to looking up Barrett, I was generally unfamiliar with his work.  There are just so many webcomics out there that it's impossible to keep up with everyone.  Like a lot of the newcomers on this year's Spotlight, I knew the name via mutual Twitter friends and/or have spoken to them on Twitter now and again.  In Barrett's case, I remembered him from the Alphabet projects that have been going on over the past year.  I was easily able to catch up with the story via affordable PDF editions and now I have a new story that I'm very interested in following along with.

Barrett will be at SPX with hard copies of the first two volumes of the collected edition of his webcomic, Nathan Sorry.  So far, I've read what I imagine are the contents of volume one, and it's definitely intriguing. A low-level corporate drone is used and abused by his boss, who turns out to be one hell of a white-collar criminal (and possibly worse).  When Sorry misses his flight to New York City, he's saved from death at the hands of the 9/11 terrorists.  He's also in possession of one hell of a golden parachute.  What he does next, and how he got to this position, form the narrative of this thriller.

The idea is brilliant.  In the confusion of the attack, the initial death estimates were well over the casualties of the Battle of Antietam, then settled months later to a horrifying, but far lower, total.  It would be easy to disappear, and given how crappy Sorry's life was and the overwhelming temptation of his opportunity to start over, his actions feel natural given the set-up presented to him.

What becomes clear almost immediately is that Sorry is not going to be very good at this.  He's told once in the early flashbacks that he doesn't have the aggressiveness needed to succeed, and I have a feeling this is all going to end badly for him.  Of course, in the meantime, there's plenty of story to tell, with Barrett expanding the world from both directions.

Barrett's illustration style reminds me a bit of his colleague Ben Towle in the way that he uses colors in his work, as well as the shading style and ink lines.  The characters themselves look different as they attack radically different subjects, but the overall feel is complimentary, at least to me.  I really like how Barrett positions his characters on the page to draw the reader's attention to things that aren't mentioned in dialogue.  The art says what the characters refuse to, such as in the example above where it's clear that Sorry is in a world that he doesn't belong in.

While Nathan Sorry is a thriller in terms of its plot, something you might find as a late-summer movie, it does move a bit more slowly than it probably should in the early going.  Barrett is building the mystery carefully, but sometimes I wish he'd move things along a bit faster.  It's hard, because he's got to tell us Sorry's past as well as his future.  However, for a story of this type, I think a bit more action might have helped really sell it for those who like this genre.  Overall, however, it reads quite well and the concept of waiting for the other shoe to drop firmly and finally on Sorry's head is a great storyline to follow.

In addition to the two volumes of Nathan Sorry, Barrett will be bringing along a set of alphabet animal flash cards and postcards of his alphabeasts.  [You'll find several of the alphabet folks appearing in the spotlight, because a) I love alphabet themes and b) I know a number of the participants.-Rob]  If you cannot make SPX, you can find more on Rich Barrett at his website.

August 16, 2012

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SPX Spotlight 2012: Katie Omberg and Gay Kid 4

Welcome to another entry in my SPX Spotlight 2012!  You can find all of my SPX Spotlight posts, including those from past years, by clicking here.

Today the spotlight shines on long-time Panel Patter favorite, Katie Omberg.  I've been reading Katie's comics since 2008, and you can find all of my posts relating to her work here.  She writes comics that mostly feature common, everyday concepts that anyone can relate to.  Working mostly in an autobiographical style, Omberg talks about her life frankly and honestly, showing both the good and the bad. It tales a lot of guts to do that and I have quite a bit of admiration for those who do.

Katie's latest comic, which will be available at SPX, is Gay Kid 4, the newest outing in Omberg's series of mini-comics exploring aspects of her life that interact with her sexual identity.  This time around she examines a sleepover in which the girls, just at that age where they know a bit about body image, are playing harmless games of comparison.  Except for Katie, it's just a bit more exciting than it is for the others.  She doesn't understand what it means, but the event leads to a friendship ban that was puzzling at the time but becomes all too painfully obvious for the modern Omberg.

This is a very painful entry to read.  Looking back at childhood memories can be difficult at the best of times, and those times where parents took friends away from you are the worst of those.  To add that the reason was homophobia--at like age EIGHT!--makes it all the sadder.  Katie's final reflection on this event is just gut-wrenching when you think about it, and is a scene that I am sure still happens to this day.

I felt like the third issue of Gay Kid looked a bit rushed, but this issue feels like it had more time and care given to it.  Omberg's art style is loose and sketchy as per usual, which will either appeal to you or not, depending on your taste.  The difference this time is that it feels like she's done a better job of thinking out the visuals that go along with the narrative.  The looks on faces and actions portrayed match up better to the story, which is important because a lot of the impact needs to come from implication, rather than outright statements, since there's a combination of innocence and understanding going on at every moment.

Gay Kid continues to be a great look into the sometimes uncomfortable parts of a person's life, one who is roughly the same age as me (I think I have her by a few years).  There's a lot of emotional issues about growing up then that shape who we are today, and I give Katie a lot of credit for writing about it, especially given some of these memories are unpleasant.  If you like autobiographical work that's frank and honest, you need to stop by and see Katie Omberg.  Gay Kid 4 would be an excellent place to start.

August 15, 2012

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SPX Spotlight 2012: The DC Conspiracy and Magic Bullet 5

Welcome to another entry in my SPX Spotlight 2012!  You can find all of my SPX Spotlight posts, including those from past years, by clicking here.

I couldn't think of a better way to open the SPX Spotlight this year than with the Magic Bullet anthology.  It's hard to imagine an SPX without a relatively new edition of this free tabloid anthology that really sets the bar for how to do a collection of comics designed for a wider audience than just traditional mini-comics fans.

For those unaware, the DC Conspiracy is a loose collective of Washington, DC-area creators of all kinds and sometimes includes friends of theirs from outside the group, depending on the project.  They meet periodically and often work together on different projects.  Many of them are at the Small Press Expo this year, and you'll see some of these names again in SPX Spotlights of their own.

The DC Conspirators were some of the first creators I read when I got into mini-comics, and many of them are more than just creators to me, they're also my friends.  They're extremely talented people and good eggs, at that.  When you go to SPX, they're generally together, so make sure you swing by their various tables and see the wide variety of comics available.  When a person's name is bold in this review it means they'll be at SPX this year.

Magic Bullet 5 is Matt Dembicki's last as the editor, turning the reigns over to Carolyn Belefski.  He goes out with a bang, as this issue is not only oversized (I want to say it's roughly twice as big as the first Magic Bullet) but also deals with the end of the world, which we all know is happening in 2012, right?  (So better start reading those comics you've been meaning to get to!)  The tabloid is roughly 11x17, mimicking the comics pages of old.  Each creator gets a full page to work with, with a few exceptions.  What the creator does with that page, whether it's tight paneling or a splash page, is up to them, but for this issue, the comic must be themed around the end.  Beyond that, anything goes--and it usually does.

Themed anthologies are my favorite, because you get to see how different folks approach a similar idea.  I'm very impressed that the selection here is so varied.  There is everything from the Twlight Zone approach (which is used by Dembecki in a clever gotcha! moment) to reminders that we are our worst enemy (either politically, as suggested by John K. Snyder, or in our actions, as Monica Gallagher posits in a witheringly sarcastic look at our blase attitude towards climate change).  Michael Brace's take is one of the best I've seen in terms of the Biblical approach to the end times, showing God might not be too pleased with the ones who were supposed to represent him on earth.

Given this is about the end of the world, those who use recurring characters had interesting choices to make. Rafer Roberts takes an extra page this issue to give us an extra-long story of Nightmare the Rat, who is chosen to bring about the apocalypse.  Nightmare's reactions are hysterical, and I love that his weakness is the same as the Incredible Hulk.  Using the same ultra-retro style with narrative below the panels, Roberts once again is a highlight of the issue.  R.M. Rhodes and Evan Keeling cleverly keep their ongoing story moving by using this as a chance to talk about how a person's world can end, even as the rest of the world keeps moving.

Getting the coveted center spread, Carolyn Belefski and Joe Carabeo use each panel as a countdown, building to the ambiguous ending that lets the reader determine the fate of their pair of criminals.  I really liked the way this one took a lot of different things that might happen at the end and put their value in perspective.  (That's similar to what John Shine portrayed, as he "interviews" different people about their apocalyptic plans.)  Meanwhile, Andrew Cohen once again plays with panels, as Dr. W. plays with words and ends up placing himself in a box.  Literally.

As with any anthology, it's impossible to talk about every entry, but here are a few others I especially enjoyed:

  • William Brown notes that if the world collapses, those who have lied to their rabid followers may be in for a shock.  Drawn in woodcut style, I thought this was a great look at political reality.
  • Ed Contradictory turns his page into a nursery rhyme, which was very unique and featured several clever couplets, including the idea that losing waffles is as bad as dropping a nuke.
  • Who better than Al Roker to meet the Mayan Gods, asks Joe Sutliff.
  • I thought Marc Bryant and Mal Jones' playful comparison of the different "end times" myths was clever, particularly using the early as a polo ball.  Of course something that bans lefties would be apocalyptic!
  • Taking a different tack on that idea, A. David Lewis and Chris Piers point out that we are constantly predicting the end of the world, but we truly die in the smaller disasters.  The devil--and death--are in the details, as the earth and humanity die the death of a thousand cuts.  
Though a bit short on panel innovation this time, Magic Bullet 5 makes up for it with some very strong comic work and an amazing job of sticking to the theme.  Dembicki can take a bow for this one, as can all of the over fifty creators involved.  You can pick up Magic Bullet 5 for free, and I guarantee you'll want to explore the work of those you find inside.  I can't wait to see what Belefski and Magic Bullet 6 have in store for us.
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Panel Patter Shines the 2012 SPX Spotlight!

The 2012 edition of my favorite show, which is referred to in the Panel Patter household as "Rob's Christmas" is almost here!  The annual Small Press Expo, located in North Bethesda, Maryland, will be held on September 15th and 16th, at its newly-expanded home at Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center.

I'll be talking extensively about the show over the next month, including show advice, panel recommendations (if it's released in time), thoughts on the show's annual Ignatz awards, and a tag-team with periodic Panel-er Erica on who you need to see.  Those who are interested will get plenty of information and be ready to get the most out of their SPX experience, whether it's their first time or fourteenth.

For anyone who has never been, the Small Press Expo is the San Diego Comic-Con of East Coast Small Press/Alternative/Self-Published Comics.  It is THE show for that genre on the East Coast, drawing exhibitors from all over the region (and even across the country) and providing a place to debut books that might get lost at other Cons, along with a definitive, show-voted award.

I put that regional modifier on it, because unlike superhero comics or even the major independents like Boom!, Image, IDW, and Dark Horse, the small press/alternative/mini-comic world is very much a regional affair.  The internet may make it easier for me to know that, say, some great creator in Seattle is making awesome autobiographical comics, but I am a lot less likely to encounter her than I am some guy who hangs out in Brooklyn who can put the pieces of paper right in my face at SPX.

Last year, I created a series of special entries for Panel Patter (along with the help of Erica and Sarah) shining the spotlight on different creators before the show.  That was so much fun, I'm not only doing it again,  I've started it sooner so that I can accommodate even more great creators, including a few who are new to me in 2012.  Need shopping suggestions?  The SPX Spotlight can help!

Keep an eye on Panel Patter for the next month for SPX Spotlight entries, highlighting everyone from well-known publishers like Fantagraphics to local comics regulars (such as members of the DC Conspiracy) to those I'm just starting to enjoy work from that I picked up last year.  I'll do this right up to the show itself, and you can find all the SPX Spotlight entries here.  Enjoy, and I'll see you in Bethesda!

NOTE:  If you are a creator and want to get in touch with me for the SPX Spotlight, you can do so by e-mailing me.

August 11, 2012

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Dust off the Panels: Groo The Hogs of Horder

Written by Mark Evanier
Illustrated by Sergio Aragones
Dark Horse

If it wasn't bad enough that Groo caused economic havoc just by entering a town and accidentally destroying it, now he's doing even more damage with a few careless words than he ever did with a sword!  It's a lesson in power, politics, and purses in another Groo mini-series.

While I love both Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones, separately or together, I have to admit I was disappointed in Hell on Earth, the last Groo trade I read.  While Groo has always had a political bent, the nuance and humor was lacking as Evanier hammered away at his readers, most of whom probably agreed with him on climate change anyway and didn't need quite that much brow-beating and less than subtle commentary.

While there is still quite a bit of thinly disguised politics in the Hogs of the Horder, some of which is a bit ham-handed, Evanier does a better job of mixing it in with Groo's antics.  I have no problem with political satire, but Groo is also about lampooning other things, like its Conan the Barbarian roots.  The idea of Groo is that he brings ruin to everything he touches, and that's the key to what makes this one better and is in fact really clever if you think about it.  Groo not only frays and destroys with his swords, this time he's just as damaging by suggesting, quite innocently, that the merchants of Horder buy the products of Khitan.

From this little moment, Groo creates a spiral of bad decisions, from hiring him in the first place to a series of thinly-veiled American corporate buisnessmen trying to use Groo's unintentional ruination of their businesses to borrow funds and rebuild.  While they do this, making decisions such as chariots with "more horses" or buying solely from China Khitan while laying off all the workers.  The ruler of Horder tries to fix things by going to war with a supplier of a key economic feature, horses but when that doesn't work either, only a Sage with advice (that's unusually poor, for him) can save the day:  Ask Khitan to loan Horder money.

In the end, Evanier shows that this cycle just won't work, even if it's the one we're trapped in.  The story ends by showing an alternative path, one that we've forgotten about.  How well it might work, I don't know, but it made for an interesting ending in a story that doesn't offer much hope for those of us living in one of those moments of transition.  That's probably Evanier's point, and it's a good one.  Just as Horder doesn't get itself into this mess in a day, neither did the real world, and dealing with the consequences will leave just as much unsolved as we see here when Groo leaves Horder a far lesser place than when he entered it.

Any Evanier-penned story has its running gags, and this one is no exception.  There's an ongoing issue with Groo and boats that gets increasingly funny with time, as well as some great moments when the merchants try to use Groo to their advantage and find it doesn't always work.  Groo's puzzled looks and words as he fails at job after job are also quite fun and part of why this one was a return to form in terms of scripting.

I've never had a question as to Sergio Aragones' artwork, which is top-notch regardless of the project.  He is without peer in the comedic art realm and shows no signs of losing a step in terms of his drawing ability.  Groo is manic in this comic, usually only standing still long enough to deliver a laugh line as he fails to understand what is going on around him.  His destruction scenes are drawn in intricate detail that puts any other working artist to shame and Aragones is at home doing both splash pages and smaller panels.  So many years of drawing figures has made him an expert at getting the right pose or facial feature to match his long-time collaborator's script.  Even the worst Groo story will be worth reading just to look at Aragones' art.

If you take your politics a bit blue and haven't checked a Groo series out in a while, this is the one to go for.  It's pointed in commentary, but there are plenty of barbs to go around and the farcical nature of Groo balances the less subtle parts.  I enjoyed this one, and long-time Groo fans will, too.

August 7, 2012

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Atomic Robo 7: The Flying She-Devils of the Pacific Issue 1

Written by Brian Clevenger
Illustrated by Scott Wegener
Red 5 Comics

We're in the time of the Korean War, when the balance of power in the Pacific was very much up in the air and a lot of ruins from World War 2 still lie about for any enterprising individuals.  When Robo runs into trouble flying a new prototype, he encounters some of these scavengers and finds not all of them are friendly.  It's a bad situation for Robo and his only saviors are a group of women with an agenda of their own.  Science fiction mixes with witty banter and a few doses of historical fact in a new Atomic Robo mini-series.

It's always fun to have a new set of Atomic Robo stories, especially now that I am fully caught up with them and rely on Clevenger and Wegener to forgo sleep in order to make more Robo comics for me and its many other fans.  Doing a series of minis instead of an ongoing series allows the pair to move about in time.  While last volume found Robo more or less in the present day, this time we're cast back to the early 1950s, with Robo and the rest of the world still feeling the impact of the huge war they just finished that the She-Devils say is still going on for those who want the parts strewn about the Pacific region.  (Oddly, there is no mention of the Korean War despite the proximity.  I'm not sure if that will come later or if it just never happened in Robo continuity.  Anyone know off the top of their head?  Please mention it in the comments.)

The idea of having scavengers making science fiction items from World War 2 scrap is brilliant.  Even better is the natural feel that Clevenger gives this concept.  Robo, full of typical American male feelings, is shocked at the idea that girls are acting like modern-day pirates, with the ability to design machines that are the equal or better of Robo's own technicians.  The women, on the other hand, refuse to accept their 1950s-era role as second-class citizens, putting away their skills and knowledge to tend to the home.  They want to live life the way they choose, and so end up on an uncharted island together, risking their lives just to have what Robo and his male companions take for granted.

It's absolutely ludicrous that Clevenger has faced charges of being sexist for creating this set-up.  Robo's reaction makes perfect sense for the time period, and to make him totally cool with the idea of women doing male things wouldn't make sense at that time.  Obviously, if he were this shocked in a story set in 2012, we'd have to have some words for Mr. Clevenger.  As if that weren't enough, in a bit of exposition that's frankly a bit tedious (and must not have worked), Clevenger painstakingly hand-holds the history-challenged reader through the sexual politics of the time.  That shouldn't have even been necessary, and it's even included as part of a meta-joke as the Captain of the She-Devils turns into Basil Exposition from Austin Powers for Robo (and the reader's) benefit.  The dialogue, from "Better get used to it" to Robo's impressed opinion of the She-Devils, clearly indicates that Clevenger is on the side of the women and not the culture in which Robo himself has grown up.

Listen, knee-jerk crusaders:  You look like an idiot when you do this.  Take the time to read first.  This is like saying a book set in 1851 that featured a slave owner as a character means the book is automatically racist.  When you do this--and you do this all the damned time--you make those of us who try to point out the problems in comics (and other culture) in real examples look bad.  We lose our impact because you're crying wolf at the drop of a hat.  Stop it, okay?

Ahem.  Getting back to the story.  While Clevenger tries to give a history lesson, Scott Wegener turns in yet another amazing artistic outing.  He deftly handles the air fight that opens the series by using a lot of tight panels, reaction shots, and perspective.  Wegener's designs for the female characters make them distinctive and is in no way exploitative.  (Just picture an all-female pilot cast in the hands of, say, Greg Horn.  When you're done shuddering, c'mon back.  I'll wait.)  They have their own haircuts, clothing styles, and body language, showing that it took all kinds to make the war effort work.

As with past Robo volumes, Wegener has his hands full designing new wonders for the world, and this one is no exception.  The coloring is top-notch, using a varied palette to keep the machines, jet packs, secret lairs, and other backgrounds interesting.  Wegener's look and feel is distinctive, and it keeps Robo looking sharp every time out.

Using his witty style and good sense of fun and adventure, Brian Clevenger and Scott Wegener have once again come up with a story that fits their robotic protagonist perfectly.  I can't wait to see how Robo squares his outdated ideals with the modern outlook of the women who are made outlaws by a society not ready to accept them and look forward to the next four issues.

You can get issue one digitally now, and maybe in a comic shop, too.  Issue two of the series is due out tomorrow, in comic shops and digital format.  The nice thing about Robo is that you can start anywhere--now's the perfect time to jump in and fall in love with the bucket of bolts with a tongue of acid and more science than you can shake a stick at.
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Double Jumpers #2

Written by Dave Dwonch
Illustrated by Bill Blankenship
Action Lab

Trouble brews for our computer programmers, as they try to figure out a way to return to the real world while staying alive despite the deadly traps they themselves created!  Meanwhile, the personalities of the characters run amok in the bodies of their originators, adapting to the real world in ways that can only lead to chaos in the streets.  If something doesn't give soon, it's going to be game over for the cast of Double Jumpers!

I was a bit iffy on the first issue of Double Jumpers, but this second issue addressed a lot of the problems I had with the writing and really excels at taking this high concept and creating as much low comedy and mayhem as possible.  Though there's still more foul language than is necessary and I'm a bit iffy on a few of the parts, I thought that Dwonch settles in nicely here and lets the absurd fun rule the day, rather than trying to out-South Park every other comic on the stands.  (Can we really call them stands these days, when so much is digital or mail order?)

The story itself this time, after working backwards from reaction shots again, follows each set of protagonists, shifting roughly equally between them.  While the programmers are trying to figure out how to escape while not fighting among each other, the programmed really steal the spotlight on this one.  They do everything from steal candy from a baby to learning you can't beat the house to beating up a set of rivals whose mouths get ahead of them, all with snappy dialogue and comic misunderstandings.  It's going to be fun to see what adventures they get into next, given that there's still two more issues to fill and this one was pretty packed in terms of action.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that under the humor there is a sinister element.  The programmers do not like each other, leading to a lot of the crass cursing.  As a result, their program is flawed, and just how flawed might now determine if they live or die.  It's a nice touch by Dwonch that could get easily lost within the patter and punches that helps ground the series and is a big part of why this issue improves on the first.

Bill Blankenship continues to excel on the art duties, placing the characters in such a way that enhances the script.  He's equally able to draw both the gaming world and the real world and his designs for the ways in which the computer characters change their human hosts' looks is perfect.  There's great variety in his use of body shapes and ideas, and the reaction shots of those who see the warriors really kills me.  You can lose a lot of the joke with stolid characters in a parody comic, but Blankenship works in harmony with his writer and it shows.

If you were planning on passing after one issue of Double Jumpers, give it another shot.  The premise is as good as ever and now the writing is settling into the job.  The comic returns to the shops and cyber-locations this month, starting in some places tomorrow, so keep an eye out (and a few dollars saved) for this one.  Fans of low comedy and smashing things are sure to enjoy it!

August 4, 2012

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Fatale Volume 1

Written by Ed Brubaker
Illustrated by Sean Phillips
Image Comics

A mysterious woman winds her way into the lives of several men, with the typical results of jealousy and betrayal.  Except this time ancient and unspeakable evils are tied to our lovely lady as her story plays out in a backdrop of crime, corruption, and murder in this first trade of the horror noir comic Fatale.

It wasn't hard to get me interested in this series, which features two of my favorite genres being produced by two of my favorite creators who've already shown their ability to write noir-style stories mixed with other topics.  I wasn't disappointed by what I found, which is a comic that has a lot of world-building and setup, but just enough action to keep the plot moving.  Brubaker's tales might take time, but that doesn't mean they're decompressed, leaving the reader wondering where the rest of the story they paid $2.99 for is located.  Even while we're lead carefully into this story that crosses generations, with the horror and brutality creeping in slowly at the edges and given great revelation panels/pages by Sean Phillips, Brubaker makes sure that there is plenty to watch and observe as the mystery builds to its climax.  At no point in time were readers of the single issues left wanting anything other than the next issue as soon as possible.  In trade, learning the secrets will just be a turn of the page away.

What I love best about Brubaker when he's writing in his own worlds is that there's nothing to conflict with the story he wishes to tell.  I thought the first half of his Cap run was great writing--but not as a Cap story, as he made one of the most aware heroes in all of Marvel look clueless in order to set up his plot.  Here I have no history behind the characters--they are purely his/Phillips', and so anything they do makes sense within their character.  If a cop is crooked, I accept that without question.  If the girl is lying to save her life, I assume we'll keep seeing that as long as we see her.  I know others mourn when writers like Brubaker move entirely into creator-owned territory, but I think it's better for them.  The freedom it gives makes their comics sing in a way that even their best corporate scripts cannot.

Fatale is a perfect example of this, as was Sleeper.  Brubaker effortlessly engrosses us in a noir world, using all the right touches.  He gets that the best noir stories, as I've said before in other reviews, recognize that everyone is tainted and everyone has an agenda.  Whether it's the pair of cops who look rather like familiar faces from Law and Order, Hank's descent into the insanity, or Josephine's using of her male lovers, each character will do whatever it takes to get what they want.  When they step outside of those goals, it always makes you as the reader wonder why, and there are a few cases that have me stumped right now that I expect we'll see the reason for in future trades.

Over the course of these five issues, Brubaker shows why he's one of the best at getting the feel just right.  I mentioned in the single-issue reviews I did of this series that his dialogue fits the characters perfectly, meshing well with Phillips' dark, restrained style.  Each major player has their own voice, and I love when the ordinary humans delve into the demoninc world that lurks just underneath the surface of this world.  There's a sense of danger and being overmatched that treads a fine line with being able to carry the day, and in the end, Brubaker makes it quite clear that things are far from over.

Fatale's a great story, but I'm very glad it's in the hands of Sean Phillips, who by this time is arguably Brubaker's best collaborator.  His work has a shadowy quality that fits in with the noir setting quite well, yet he's able (as we saw with Marvel Zombies) to switch into horror as easily as he can make a reader linger on the frowning face of a police chief stuck in the middle of things he cannot possibly understand.  I love his general sense of understatement, which makes the scenes of gore really pop out (aided in part by a strong coloring scheme by Dave Stewart).  The story flows in Phillips' hands, and my only complaint is that here and there I had trouble telling which of the male protagonists we were following on first reading.  That might partially be my fault or the digital copies I was reading.

When reading a prose story, a lot is said by the reaction of the characters.  In comics, that's the job of the artist, and Philips is a master here.  He'll raise an eyebrow or widen an eye just at the right moment.  In other cases, we as the reader will be intrigued more by what's hiding in the shadows instead of what we can see in the light.  There's a lot going on in the little details, and you can tell that Philips practices regularly to get the look and feel of the book just right.

I recommended Fatale when it was in single issues.  If you were waiting for the trade, now is the time.  This gets my highest recommendation for crime/horror fans, and I look forward to book two beginning soon (I hope!).