August 31, 2013

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Baltimore Comic-Con Spotlight 2013: FUBAR Press

The FUBAR booth really attracts attention.
Welcome to another 2013 Baltimore Comic-Con Spotlight entries. Over the course of this week, I will be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at another of my favorite conventions, the Baltimore Comic-ConYou can check out all of my spotlights for the Baltimore Comic-Con from both this year and prior years here.

"Oh Great," you think as you look at the incredibly elaborate booth set up in the Baltimore Comic-Con Artist Alley, "another group of people trying to sell me a zombie comic. Pull the other leg, pal, it detaches and festers in your hands."

Trust me, that would have been my reaction, too. Zombies replaced Pirates as "The Thing" at comics shows and it seems like they're hanging around everywhere, not unlike the supposedly real horror itself. The fact is, a lot of zombie stories suck. They don't tread any new ground, are often illustrated poorly (using the excuse that the characters are a wreck, so they don't have to look good), and just cause me to roll my eyes.

FUBAR, however, was a bit different. I had a friend, Rafer Roberts, working with them, so I was willing to at least take a look and see what I thought.

Turns out, sometimes there's new ground to tread in the world of zombies after all.

What makes FUBAR different is that they pick a solid theme (WW2 Western and Eastern Theatres, as well as early American History) and ask all of the creators involved to write/draw stories that fit that theme. You can't just toss mindless bloodsuckers at a group of plucky people when you work like this. In order to pass the muster roll, you have to think about how zombies might fit into the world of that time. So in the case of the WW2 Eastern Theatre (review here), zombies are Kamakazis or part of the experiments the Japanese performed on their hapless prisoners.

Sure, not every story is quite as strongly themed as that, and as with any anthology the quality varies, but overall, this is a great way to show that you can do a good zombie story that stand out among the glut of them on the market. That's why I highlight these guys every year. If you have any stomach at all for zombie comics, at least give them a look. You might just find like me that sometimes it's worth giving a second look to a concept you'd normally dismiss out of hand.

Gonna be AWOL at Baltimore Comic-Con? Then have a look at FUBAR's website, which has a link to their store.
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SPX Spotlight 2013: Tony Breed and Finn and Charlie are Hitched

Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

I'm always on the lookout for interesting webcomics, especially ones with ties to SPX, and last year I was introduced to Finn and Charlie are Hitched and my comics-reading life was better for it.

Publishing weekly, usually on Tuesdays, Tony  Breed's characters wind their way through daily life talking about the kinds of things that most people do, though taken to some comedic extremes. Not unlike Curls, it has the feel of a comic that could easily be in the newspaper, making it a good addition for folks who enjoy that style of comic.

The thing that makes Finn and Charlie different is that the center of the comic is a gay married couple, their family, and (mostly gay) friends. But like the best stories that involve queer characters, that's just a part of the lives of those involved. Sure, it might come up a bit more often as part of the plot, but Breed doesn't have his characters jumping up and down screaming HEY LOOK WE ARE SAME GENDER ISN'T THAT SO DIFFERENT AND PLEASE READ US!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You know there are comics out there that do that.

Breed, thankfully, isn't one of them. Recently, he commented on one of his own recent strips, stating, "I want this comic to reflect the reality that I see around me." That shows, the longer you read the comic. This is a strip about living life as a people moving closer and closer to middle-age. Since I fit that description, the concept resonates with me.  The things that happen here might be fictional, but they look back at those of us in the real world and how we deal with situations that occur as we're growing up.

Well, maybe not the whole thing about having a nephew that sets up orgies. THAT might be just a bit too far from the norm. At least in my family.*

Finn and Charlie are the main characters, described by Breed as "a misanthrope and a goofball, respectively." They're joined by Finn's brother Gus, Candy and Mandy (competitive sisters), Mandy's gay son, and a few others. It's a small core that helps keep the strip from wandering too far away.  Most stories link for a few weeks at a time, allowing for continuity and giving Breed time to finish his ideas, keeping this from being a long line of one-and-done gags or commentary. His art style is basic, with just enough unique details to keep the characters from looking alike. A bit of a hairstyle change here or added girth to a body there does most of the work. His coloring style feels a bit like a watercolor wash, though I think that a processing effect. Either way, it brings out the backgrounds nicely and gives the strip a more polished look.

It's a really cool comic that I'm glad to have found. At SPX, Tony will have the first three Finn and Charlie collections, along with a mini-comic he did a few years back and a new comic, pictured above, about food, complete with recipes, that I am looking forward to picking up at the show.

Hitched to something else on the weekend of SPX? You can find Tony's webcomic and store here.

*Disclosure: I have no nephews, so it's a moot point.
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SPX/Baltimore Comic-Con Spotlight 2013: Curls Studio

Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at one of the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

Welcome also to my first 2013 Baltimore Comic-Con Spotlight entries. Over the course of this week, I will also be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at another of my favorite conventions, the Baltimore Comic-Con. You can check out all of my spotlights for the Baltimore Comic-Con from both this year and prior years here.

Many comics are the work of a collaboration of efforts. When the team is in sync and firing on all cylinders, with a strong vision of what they want to accomplish, the results are some very entertaining comics.

That's definitely the case in the work of Curls Studio, the name of the collective work of writer/artist Carolyn Belefski and writer Joe Carabeo, who also does amazing film and video work, though that's outside the scope of this preview. The two work together to create fun comics that replicate the style of a newspaper strip but have a level of energy that I find lacking in the work of most strips running today.

Belefski and Carabeo collaborate most often on stories of Roxy and Dean, two thieves with good hearts. Often, their targets are folks who have the law on their side, but not morality, putting them in a bit of a Robin Hood-like class, except I'm pretty sure they tend to keep every penny they pilfer. The pair pop up in various anthologies and Curls offers a collected edition of their adventures.

Carolyn also works solo on the webcomic Curls, which updates twice a week. It's a cute slice of life comic with recurring characters that fans of Richard Thompson's Cul-de-Sac would definitely love. (Belefski is a member of Team Cul-de-Sac, and will be on the panel Sunday at 11am at the Baltimore Comic-Con for the organization.)

Unfortunately, the pair do not have anything new of their own to offer long-time fans. However, Belefski is now the editor of Magic Bullet, and they will have copies of issue 7 available at both shows in addition to the Curls collections, prints, pins, mini-comics, and other items that they've put together over the past few years. Make sure you catch up on anything you may have missed (I personally recommend the Carnival anthology or the Legettes, review here) and be sure to stop by and say hello!

Can't make Baltimore or SPX? Have Roxy and Dean stolen your time?  Yikes! Well, go to the Curls site, which has a link to where you can buy things from Carolyn and Joe.

August 30, 2013


You Should Go to the Baltimore Comic-Con on September 7th and 8th, 2013!

For most people, September means back to school.

For me, for the past few years, it's meant time to go back to one of my favorite shows, the Baltimore Comic-Con!

Held each year in Baltimore, Maryland, at the Baltimore Convention Center, the show is a great blending of big names and smaller creators, not unlike Heroes Con in Charlotte, North Carolina. This year, the show is from 10am to 7pm on Saturday and 10am to 5pm on Sunday. There's also a pre-show event on Friday that will put you in with the best names in comics but also set you back $195. Regular tickets are $40 for the weekend, $25 for Saturday only and $20 for Sunday only.

If you are planning to go to the show, I highly recommend getting tickets in advance. The line-up for Baltimore is insanely on long on Saturday, and Baltimore gets very hot and muggy, especially for those in costume. Speaking of which, if you like seeing folks dress up and can only make one day of the show, Sunday will feature the annual costume contest, so plan accordingly.

Sadly, no Stan Lee this year, but Kevin Smith is coming, and there are also ticket packages for programming with Smith, just as there were for Stan Lee. Smith is screening a new cartoon movie with Jay and Silent Bob, so long-time fans are in for a treat.

The show is celebrating thirty years of Usagi Yojimbo with a special appearance by Stan Sakai and an art book dedicated to his signature work. I am definitely grabbing a copy of the book, and am hoping to get Stan to sign it, if I am lucky enough to be able to meet him.

As always, Baltimore has a murder's row of talent coming to the show. Besides Smith and Sakai, there's George Perez, Sal Buscema (Saturday only), Neal Adams, Mark Bagley, Mark Waid, Mark Buckingham,  Marky Mark, Brian Bolland, J.M. DeMatteis, Dan Didio, the Simonsons, Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, Joe Staton, Herb Trimpe, Barry Kitson, Adam Hughes, and several of Britain's finest, such as Paul Jenkins, Roger Langridge, and Bill Willingham.

I could go on and on just listing the familiar names to you. But sometimes it's more fun just to wander around and realize you can monopolize the time of someone like Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez because no one else but you found his booth.

This show also features great panels with publishers, such as Marvel, DC, Boom!, IDW, and Valiant, just to name a few. There's also one on one celebrations of Sakai, Perez, and Ramona Fradon, if you prefer to sit on on creator-level conversation.

Baltimore's got an Artist's Alley that always attracts interesting folks who aren't on the major radar--yet. This year, you can meet the Amelia Cole team from Monkeybrain, swing by Curls Studio, see that zombies still have a thing or two to offer via the FUBAR collective, and look at the small-press pubs like 215 or Visionary.

Many, many folks sell original art or do sketches at this show. With the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who in the offering, I'm sure Whovians of all kinds will find many items to their liking, given how many I saw last year. (Given it is the 50th, I am now of a mind to get a few myself.)

Perhaps best of all, Baltimore even has a show focus for kids! There's an entire part of the show for kid-friendly creators (highlighted by Archie's Dan Parent) and programming targeted at young comics fans. I love that this show does that and does it be recognizing that what they are interested in may not be the same as what we, adults, are interested in.

The Baltimore Comic-Con has something for just about everyone, without feeling like it's too spread out for any person. If, like me, you are a lover of all things comics, then it's like dying and going to heaven.

As I do with SPX, but on a smaller scale, look for posts in the lead-up to the show highlighting creators you should seek out, panels you should visit, and a few tips for newcomers. This is show with a lot to see and do, and it's my pleasure to help guide you.

I hope to see you at the show next week!

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SPX Spotlight 2013: Rob Ullman

Not Actual Cover but Actual Cool Art
Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

It seems like forever ago when Erica first gave me a Rob Ullman diary comic (which I reviewed here), but I was quickly attracted to his slick line work, sharp sense of humor, and his fondness for Pittsburgh sports teams, especially hockey.

As the years have gone on, Rob and I have had many conversations over comics and sports and (along with Katie Sekelsky and a few others) felt the pain on showing up to SPX just as our poor Pirates have fallen apart. (But not this year!)

Rob himself has also gone on to quietly build a really impressive lineup of comics, art, and other projects. He's participated in the Animal Alphabet project, done work for a Penguins hockey fan site, and is designing a Pirates shirt, which hopefully will be ready in time for SPX. He's done work for a CD, frequent commissions (some of which have even ended up as tattoos), and prints.

Ullman is easily at home illustrating any kind of story. He'll draw you the cutest animals of all time or the gruff life of a hockey player (review here of his hockey work, co-created with Jeffrey Brown), all with the same smooth, slick style. That's what makes Rob's most notable work in the area of traditional pin-ups. While other creators who focus on the female form end up with unrealistic and exploitative work, Ullman's females, while being incredibly sexy, never feel like something you'd be embarrassed to show to a friend.

Sure, Rob can joke about it, even calling his art collection "The Lurid Art of Rob Ullman" but he manages to ensure that the very attractive women he draws aren't ever in a position that makes them feel like they're anything other than being proud of who they are. He's never going to feature "Catwoman in Bondage" like some idiots always seem to manage to bring with them to comics shows. The man loves pretty women, and draws them with a lot of respect. Also, no matter how sexy they're shown, they always look like real people. No stupid unrealistic curves to be found in an Ullman pin-up!

This year, Rob takes his talents at drawing women to a new mini-comic, called Diamonds are a Girl's Worst Enemy. It's 36 pages and should be ready in time for SPX, featuring a series of heroines who struggle to deal with the fact that most men are jerks. I've only seen part of it so far, but it looks great (of course) and features Rob's patented razor-sharp humor.

Ullman will also have any spare copies of his existing minis (such as the Alphabet drawings, Hockey Tales, and his art book) and prints. I don't know if he'll have time to do any drawing at the show, but if you are into commissions, talk to him about drawing your favorite character or a cheerleaders for your hometown sports team, because I guarantee you Rob will do an amazing job on it.

Even if it is of a Baltimore Raven or Philadelphia Flyer.

Got pinned down and can't make SPX? Go have a look at Rob's web store and pick up a book or two.
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SPX Spotlight 2013: Retrofit Comics

Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

It's hard to believe that Box Brown's Retrofit label is over two years old now, but that's the case. I couldn't be happier about the fact that this mini-comics publisher is still going strong. Anything that promotes getting more mini-comics out there is a good thing, and I'm a big fan of the subscription model, as regular Panel Patter readers know.

It also doesn't hurt that Box is a great guy, and does wonderful work in the field of comics himself. (Look for Box's spotlight coming up soon!)

I was a charter member of Retrofit, though I prefer now to pick my comics ala carte, because I have the luxury of living just down the street from a Retrofit comics distributor, the excellent Atomic Books. I quickly found the quality of Box's selections to be top notch, with work from several of my favorites, including James Kochalka (review here) and Colleen Frakes (review here). Even the ones that explore the Crumb-like end of the spectrum, while not to my taste, were of high quality for the sub-genre of mini-comics that they came from.

In 2012, Retrofit was all over my favorite mini-comics list (you can see it here), with another favorite creator, Noah Van Sciver, joining John Martz's Gold Star and L. Nichols' Flocks. There were a few others that just missed, too.

The quality and variety of Retrofit Comics is pretty amazing for such a small press. Box manages to find some of the best people to work with, such as the creators I've named above. Other names to work under the imprint include Charles Forsman of Oily Comics and the upcoming End of the Fucking World from Fantagraphics, Josh Bayer, and Jason Turner. Retrofit did an alt-manga tribute (Secret Prison 7), too, with creators showing their love of the crazier styles of Eastern comics.

Each of these creators brings their own style and vision to the work. You might get philosophy with Kochalka, a slow burn with Martz, and viscous lashing out at popular culture with Bayer. On the other hand, some are very introspective, like Nichols or Tom Hart. Unpleasant characters abound in Van Sciver and Forsman. The art ranges from the wild abstracts of Bayer to the realistic sketchiness of Van Sciver and the more cartoon-like work of Kochalka and Frakes. Variety is the key with Retrofit and what makes it so cool as a publisher.

Now it's 2013 and Retrofit is moving into its Fall subscription drive. You are able to order subscriptions right at SPX and pick up the first of the new editions, Picnic Ruined by Roman Muradov. It's 56 pages and Box describes it as follows:
In wispy lines and washes Picnic Ruined is a dreamlike journey through bookstores and parks of nighttime San Francisco, a humorous meditation on flawed memories, obscure writers, and the anatomy of inanimate objects. Roman Muradov's work has appeared in The New Yorker, New York Times and numerous other publications.
In addition, there's a set of cards of 14 famous cartoonists, drawn by Cole Closser, Melissa Mendes, John Pham, Jordan Crane, Steven Weissman and others. I'm really looking forward to seeing those! Box didn't tell me, but I imagine there'll be a few copies of back issues available two, depending on what he has handy.

Several Retrofit creators will be at SPX this year: Noah Van Sciver, Colleen Frakes, L. Nichols, Charles Forsman, Josh Bayer, Simon Moreton, John Martz, Tom Hart, Brendan Leach, Corrine Mucha, and Joe Decie (WHEW!).  So if you are already a fan of Retrofit (and good for you!), then take a minute to look these folks up, too. If they're part of Retrofit, you can be sure they do good work. (Several of these folks are getting spotlights or have one already, if you need further convincing.)

Getting your cyborg butler retrofitted and can't make SPX? Man, are you missing out! But you can always find and buy Retrofit comics at its store, including picking up a Fall 2013 subscription!

August 29, 2013

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SPX Spotlight 2013: Katie Sekelsky and M. Bennardo

Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

I first encountered Katie Sekelsky in her excellent part-prose, part comic Time Traveler's Guide (review here), and am always excited to see what she's working on next.

An avid Pirate fan, which just makes me like her even more, Sekelsky draws sketches on a regular basis chronicling the highs and lows of the baseball season. (It's sure been a lot happier this year.) She even got her art on the PNC big screen this year, which is a huge honor.

She also collaborates with a friend's daughter on mini-comics, which is both adorable and awesome. This year's entry is Dr. Princess, MD, and that's really all you need to know, because that's enough to know it's going to be crazy fun as only a child can come up with.

Sekelsky also did illustrations for another prose-comic combo work, 16 Single Sentence Stories, edited by Matthew Bennardo (who also worked on the Time Travel book). It contains exactly what it says, including work from Alex Shvartsman and A.T. Greenblatt.

Katie's work is definitely a bit different from those of her SPX peers, because it falls more into the line of illustrative prose, ala some of Kupperman's work or the more recent God is Disappointed in You from Top Shelf. It works really well, and she's a creator you want to stop by and see at the show.

Can't make SPX? I expect more than a single-sentence reason! But you can find Katie at her website, with a link to her store to buy her work.
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SPX Spotlight 2013: Fanfare/Ponent Mon

Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

I'm not sure if it was David Welsh or Ed Sizemore that first pointed me to Fanfare/Ponent Mon, but I am definitely grateful. At a time when most of my manga reading was from the big publishers, they showed me that, just like the world of American comics, Japan also had more independent work to offer.

Both Ed and David have retired from active blogging, and the comics review world is poorer for their loss. However, in their absence, the least I can do is promote the publisher who put me onto books like A Distant Neighborhood and The Walking Man (review here, but be warned, it's an early one), two of my favorite manga of all time.

Jiro Taniguchi forms a fair amount of their catalog and rightfully so. He's a top talent, able to take ordinary people and make their lives worth reading about. A pinnacle of his work (if you'll pardon the pun) is The Summit of the Gods. Volume 4 will be available at SPX this year, and they'll probably have a few of the back trades on sale, too. It's a drama with mountain climbing as its major background, but it's more than just that, as all good stories are.

Fanfare/Ponent Mon also brings Western Comics to the table as well. I've only sampled one of these, My Mommy is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill (review here), but it was excellent and is highly recommended if you can find a copy.

This year, SPX will be the place to get a new set of comics from England that won't make wider distribution until 2014. They are from a new group, Atlantic Press, based out of Cornwall, England.

Stephen described them to me as "Some comics, some illustration, some art but all sheer craft. In their own words they produce 'Books that look like they enjoy being books'."

Here are a description of the titles that will be available at SPX:

  • Micanopy Murders : A killer stalks the night in a dark partnership with the summer storms in this quiet Florida township [where the movie ‘Doc Hollywood’ was filmed]. Book One on offer. Regular retail $15.00
  • Something Amiss on the Moor: Three strange children, a barren windswept moor, a peculiar journey and an engineer’s mistake. Things would never be the same again. Cloth bound $20.00
  • Beyond the Wire: A metafiction based on the First World War, blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction. This feeling is heightened by the pages, hand-cut as though blown apart by the conflict. $18.00

I've not see any of these new titles yet, but I can speak from personal experience when I tell you that Fanfare/Ponent Mon's books are of top quality stock. They may cost a bit more than similar books from other publishers, but they are built to last and are stories you'll almost certainly want to re-read, and I say this as a person who does not re-read comics very often.

At the show, Stephen generally runs a discount on purchasing more than one book, and he's happy to talk with you about your personal tastes and steer you towards the best comic for you, not just the one he'd like to sell. In that way, he reminds me a lot of Chris from AdHouse, and in some ways, the two companies share a lot of similarities. Also, Fanfare/Ponent Mon tends to sell out quickly, so if there is something you like--grab it!

If you are a comics fan looking for a way to expand your horizons and maybe sample manga for the first time or see what the world of translated materials has to offer, Fanfare/Ponent Mon is a must-see publisher at the show.

Mountain Climbing instead of going to SPX? Well, when you get back into wi-fi range, go to Fanfare/Ponent Mon's website, where you can order their books directly.

August 28, 2013

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SPX Spotlight 2013: L. Nichols and Flocks

Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

One of the great things about mini-comics is that that often deal with things on a very personal level. In some hands, they are visual zines, which is why there is often a bit of crossover between the two areas (Anne Thalheimer is a good example of this). The shorter format and lack of publishing pressure (even minis backed by Retrofit or Oily aren't expected to meet certain sales numbers) really frees the author up to say what's on their mind.

It also allows the reader a chance to connect on a more personal level. The intimacy of a mini-comic that deals with an issue close to the heart of the author and reader can make for powerful reading.

That was the case for me and Flocks, L. Nichols's story of dealing with her sexuality while growing up in an atmosphere that taught her she was sinful and going to hell for being queer. My own personal experience came later than it did for Nichols, but I can still feel the pain and fear on every page of her comic as though it were my own. Unless you have personally experienced it, trying to determine who you are when you have been told that anything other than "normal" is a ticket to hell leads to serious emotional--and in the worst cases, physical--damage.

Using a rag doll with buttons for eyes as her avatar, Nichols takes us through her early realization of being queer and the things she did to try and escape, like volunteering or getting more involved in the church. An attempt to be a part of a camp just leads to a first crush, and attempts to be heteronormative just cause more trouble.  As her parents get lost in their own world and blame it all on her being awkward, Nichols falls further and further into a deep well of self-loathing.

The story is brutally honest in a way you only get from the best personal mini-comics. Nichols really pours it own, showing the guilt as visual representations, such as condemning words or symbols raining down on her head. There is a total feeling of desperation here, driven mostly by the visuals. Nichols doesn't do a lot in the way of backgrounds, instead having the characters melt into the self-doubting/reflective text. It's a great effect that reminds me just a bit of how shojo manga will use symbols and visual representations that "exist" within the world to help the reader understand the feelings of the characters.

Nichols will have Flocks 1 and 2 at the show, with 3 set to debut at SPX this year. If you are all involved in the LGBT community, this is a must-read comic, just like Katie Omberg's Gay Kid series. But even if you're not, the power of the work shines through in this extremely personal series that was my #1 mini-comic of 2012 in a very competitive field.

Lots of people will be flocking to SPX. Not you?  That's okay, you can find Flocks at Nichols' online store.
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SPX Spotlight 2013: Rep. John Lewis and March Book 1

Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

Top Shelf has always been one of my favorite indie publishers, as long-time Panel Patter readers know. The quality of their books, both in content and in presentation, never fails to impress.

This time, they've taken content to a new level, bringing something that I don't think I'd ever have expected to happen to the world of comics: A book co-written by a sitting United States Congressman. And not just any Congressman, either, but Rep. John Lewis, the last living speaker from the March on Washington, held 50 years ago today.

That is simply amazing to me. The medium of comics has come so far. As more and more people come to the realization that comics are an art form of their own that young people really attach themselves to, I think we'll see more of this, but Top Shelf gets to the be the first.

Working with his aide, Andrew Aydin, and comics artist Nate Powell (a favorite of Erica's), Rep. Lewis begins his story by looking back at the moments that forged his desire to be a part of the social justice movement, including his first meeting with Dr. King. The graphic novel moves from past to present, using President Obama's first inauguration as a jumping off point. As the congressman moves through parts of his early life, we see a few funny moments (he used to preach to chickens and even tried to baptize them) mixed in with the larger shadow of oppression, such as when he has to use the broken down school bus or when the shadow of threats to his family forces him to pull back on a plan to integrate an all-white college.

Lewis describes in detail his path to a non-violent protester, starting with being inspired by a speech from Jim Lawson to learning how to resist attackers without attacking back. As the book nears its climax, Lewis is involved in trying to integrate the lunch counters in Nashville. It's slow, painful work, and not everyone within the African American community is solidly behind the methods of Lewis and his fellow protesters. The book ends on a note of hope, as Nashville gives in, and the tide of progress moves one step closer to the shore.

One of the things I really like about this book is that Lewis doesn't pull any punches. He's frank about the fact that the older generation of African Americans weren't always conducive to the work that he, Dr. King. and others were doing. His parents, beaten down by Jim Crow, always said to keep out of the way. Leaders in the NAACP weren't always supportive, either.

It's also nice to see the book isn't trying to make history nicer than it should be. The n-word flows freely here, because that's what Lewis and the other heroes of his book faced on a daily basis. Seeing them practice being insulted and attacked was especially powerful for me. Nate Powell is an amazing artist, and his depictions of crucial and difficult scenes like that one help make this book one of the best non-fiction comics I've read.

A perfect example of this is the visit to Buffalo. Powell uses body language clues and facial expressions to show that the white people interacting with Lewis in the north are vastly different from those of the south. It's subtle, but clear. Similarly, his depiction of Nashville's mayor, who sweats out a difficult decision but ends up doing the right thing, shows a lot of power in just a few adjustments of posture. Powell ensures that every character in the book is distinctive, even those we only see for a panel or two. His likenesses are strong without feeling like he copied from a photo. When Dr. King or Rep. Lewis move around the panels, they flow naturally.

I really appreciated Powell's work here. Every book from him gets a little bit stronger in terms of his craft. His thin lines allow him to hone features and details, while the washed style of shading allows him to blur and obscure at will. He uses an increase of dark and light backgrounds to highlight key moments. Powell's facial work is especially strong here, bringing out hope or hatred as needed. He plays it pretty straightforward in terms of panel construction, relying on figure placement and varying close-ups with long shots to keep the work varied. I especially liked how certain things are almost doodled into the background, as though Lewis's memory is drifting out from things that are clear to ideas and concepts. It's truly stellar work.

As anyone who follows the news knows, the Civil Rights Movement is far from over. The rights of people of color are being challenged daily, as are those of women and the queer community. We need to remember that only through struggle and staying vocal and prepared can we win the humanity and dignity that can so easily be taken away form us by those in power. March is a book that puts that fact squarely in our faces.

It is a book everyone, young and old, needs to read. I really hope its message is getting to those who most need it, namely the young people for whom the torch must be passed for the work of Dr. King, Rep. Lewis, and many, many others to continue and thrive.

Can't make SPX? March right to Top Shelf's website and pick up a copy of March. You won't regret it.

August 26, 2013

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SPX Spotlight 2013: Evan Dahm

Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

Relatively speaking, it's easy to start a webcomic, if you have the money to get the server space going. To do it right takes lots of hard work and dedication, which any long-time veteran of the webcomics scene will tell you.

To have three stories (two complete one in progress) that always update regularly, plus side-stories as time, money, and interest allow is quite an accomplishment, and that's just what Evan Dahm has done. Without a lot of fanfare, Dahm has built himself a world that is both interesting and incredibly well drawn.

Evan started with Rice Boy, back in 2006. He describes it as a surreal fantasy story, and that fits. After all, one of the first characters we meet is a machine being whose face changes every time we see him to a different black and white still shot. He wants help with finding someone and the story expands from there into a large cast of characters, including the titular Rice Boy, who is probably the most simply designed character of them all. As the story progresses, it gets increasingly strange creatures as Dahm moves the story bit by bit and we discover more of his innovative world.

Order of Tales Came next, and featured a new set of characters and time period. (Disclosure: I have only sampled this one. I really need to get back to it.)  This one follows a character who is the last storyteller, involved appropriately enough, in lost history. The work here is amazing in its use of black and white, using dark space to create a mood, thick linework to enhance details, and an overall improvement in Dahm's craft.

The current storyline is Vattu, a print of which I've featured above. It shows Dahm, in a return to color, using differing shades to enhance the elements of his panels, just as he used shading in Order of Tales. Vattu is about a nomadic tribe and its struggles, playing out across three-times-a-week updates.

A series of webcomics so well-established are hard to get into sometimes, but I appreciate the Dahm has his site so well organized. It makes starting and catching up incredibly easy for a new reader. He takes his work seriously, and the results show, both in professionalism and in the quality of art and story.

Evan will be at SPX again this year, with his printed versions of Rice Boy and Order of Tales. He may also have his Art Book from Benign Kingdom, which I think are printed now. If you like epic fantasy mixed with strange things (Hi there, Saga fans!), definitely check out Evan's body of work. I think you'll come away as impressed as I am.

Lost in you own epic and can't make SPX? You can find Evan's comics on the web here, with a link to his store to buy the books directly from him.
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SPX Spotlight Side Note: Newsarama Featuring SPX Countdowns!

As many of you know, one of the things I do in the world of comics is work with Newsarama's Best Shots team, who do some of the best work around at reviewing comics that come out at the comic book store (and your favorite digital device) every week.

I could not have felt more honored for the work I do here than I was when David Pepose invited me to try out for the team, and in the year plus since I joined, my respect for David and the rest has only grown.

Thus, it brings me great pleasure to learn that one of my colleagues at Newsarama, Zack Smith, is also working on spotlighting creators who will be at the Small Press Expo in September.

Smith, who has written about creators he met at the show for 'Rama, has taken it one step further this year. Like the work I do here for the SPX Spotlights,  Zack is going to take readers into the world of small press comics for Newsarama, finding names both well-known and lesser-known for readers and potential attendees of the show to seek out.

I'm really excited about this, because while Panel Patter has a great ear to the ground for SPX, there's only so much time for me to cover the show. In addition, Newsarama's main audience are those who are heavily into mainstream comics, where my work here is more in the world of indie comics to begin with. Zack can use the huge platform of Newsarama to bring folks who don't know much about indie comics into the fold, just like I was guided into the world of indie comics about a decade ago now.

On a personal level, this is a chance for me to see who all is out there in the SPX mix that I might have missed, so I'm happy for that opportunity, too!

You can read Zack's first post about SPX here, covering A Stray in the Woords. Zach's posts look to be interview-centered, so those interested in how these comics come to be will have a lot to look forward to.

I didn't see a tag on Newsarama for the posts, so you may have to just search (but the search function works very well). I hope you'll take the time to check in on Newsarama's SPX coverage in addition to mine, because the more people who stop by, the more the indie comics scene can get major coverage. If the interest is there, the coverage will follow. In the end, we all win--especially the creators going to the best comics show on the east coast, SPX!
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SPX Spotlight 2013: Noah Van Sciver and Blammo 8

Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

Noah Van Sciver is without a doubt one of my favorite creators working in the indie comics field today. Erica and I are both big fans of his work, which we first discovered when we picked up a copy of Blammo 6 (Erica's review here), and it's continued to this day.

Van Sciver was also featured in last year's spotlight for Blammo 7 (review here) and he was the only creator to make my favorites list in 2012 for both a mini-comic (1999) and a graphic novel (the excellent Hypo, which I still need to review), showing his craft in both the short and longer forms of comic-making.

Noah's work runs the gamut, ranging from fictional stories of people who've made mistakes to incredibly well-researched historical pieces to personal tales that show Van Sciver is a very complex individual, a trait that shows up in his comics. For those who don't know, Van Sciver is an ex-Mormon, and that effectively means being cut off from most of his family, because it's a religion whose ties run deep. (An ex-Catholic myself, I can completely relate to how your religious upbringing never leaves you, even after you leave it.)

His latest work is Blammo 8, which Noah was kind enough to send me in advance of SPX. It is just as good as its predecessors, and if anything, is showing that Van Sciver is only getting better as he goes along. After opening with a skewering of EC Comics letter pages and a few jabs at his own abilities (one letter states Dark Horse wouldn't publish him and another suggests he practice more), we move into another collection of shorts that once again offers a little bit of everything.

The highlight here for me was the unexpected adaptation of a Grimm Fairy Tale. I wouldn't have expected him to do one, but The Fox and the Wolf works well under his guidance. He decorates every panel border, works hard to make the backgrounds the characters inhabit suitably timeless and each panel selection highlights the action described in the caption, such as when dishes are broken or the wolf is threatening the fox. I wouldn't mind seeing more of this, maybe as a collaborative anthology with others who might not normally be associated with a project of that kind.

We also get the usual relationship stories, ranging from the touching (Expectations, in which a man worries about becoming re-associated with mutual friends of an ex-girlfriend) to the disturbing (She's Losing It, a deadly tale of the difficulty of dating when you're socially awkward). We also get a return of the hell-bound chickens, which was fun and unexpected, and the wry skewering of Punks versus Lizards. Van Sciver also includes a few short, one to two page stories that range from serious to silly, mirroring their larger counterparts.

Showing that he is once again a master of the one-man anthology, the art styles on these comics range just as much as their content. Expectations finds Van Sciver playing with his use of shadow, taking the character in and out of the light, as he withdraws and exposes himself to potential pain and drifts in and out of certainty. It's a great use of style to reinforce the overall theme.

On the other hand, Charles the Chicken Gets Tough, is drawn loosely, alt-comix style, with seemingly little regard for how it's constructed--but that's deceptive. There's just as much care put in to making the comic feel raw as there is in making it seem intricate. I love the comic pacing on this one, and though it could not be more different from his Grimm adaptation, the panel selection serves the same purpose--the visuals drive the story by matching the dialogue of the characters.

Punks versus Lizards is somewhere in between the finer work and that of the alt-comix style. There's a lot of care taken to make the world intricate and the monsters have great proportion. But you also see the lizards having sex and the tone is definitely a shout-out to DIY comic-making that clearly appeals to Van Sciver, even if he is increasingly moving away from the raw presentation of his talent. (In this way, he reminds me quite a bit of Box Brown, even if their artwork is vastly different.)

Blammo really deserves a collection (Top Shelf? Fantagraphics? Kickstarter?), but until that time, do yourself a favor and pick up the individual issues. They're well worth the $5 and Van Sciver really puts on a one man show that fans of mini-comics shouldn't miss.

Got a case of the Hypo so you can't make SPX? You can find the last 3 issues of Blammo at the Kilgore shop.

August 25, 2013

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Before Watchmen: Nite Owl/Dr. Manhattan

Written by J. Michael Straczynski
Illustrated by Andy Kubert, Joe Kubert, and Bill Sienkiewicz (Nite Owl)
Illustrated by Adam Hughes (Dr. Manhattan)
Illustrated by Eduardo Risso (Moloch)

Written and Illustrated by Darwyn Cooke (Minutemen)
Written by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner (Silk Spectre)
Illustrated by Amanda Connor (Silk Spectre)
DC Comics

Haunted by a mother who never spoke up, Dan Dreiberg takes solace in his hero, Nite Owl, until he's moved into the role himself. Now trying to be the hero his mentor wants him to be and paired with the ruthlessly single-minded Rorschach, Dan struggles to be the hero he wants to be in a world that will push you as far as you let it.

Aware of past, present, and future, Dr. Manhattan broods on what might have been, then takes action to make it so. Unfortunately, it has unforeseen circumstances, leading to a splintered multiverse with disastrous outcomes. The only way to make it right might be to create a tragic ending for untold thousands and even Dr. Manhattan himself. It's a lot of philosophy and theoretical physics--and no guaranteed right answer.

Hidden within the shadows of the Watchmen universe, Moloch reoccurs time and time again. Now, about to die, he tells his story, hoping for redemption by sacrificing himself for the sins of the world.

All three are stories in the time...Before Watchmen.

I am aware that in certain circles, these comics were very controversial, appearing as they did when creators rights fights were flaring all over the place. But I think they need to be separated from that and looked at as comics, not as part of a political issue within the comics community. My goal here is to tell you whether or not they might be worth reading to you as comics.

As a dual piece of disclosure:  1) I think Watchmen is a good maxi-series that is highly overrated in the comics canon and 2) DC was kind enough to provide me with a review copy of this collection. (Thanks!)

JMS is one of those writers that is either hit or miss for me. For example, I own the first several trades of his Amazing Spider-Man run, which given they're a) a re-purchase for me and b) I've pared over 50% of my trades in the past three years is really saying something. On the other hand, starting with Gwen Stacy having sex with Norman Osborn, I couldn't stand his work with Peter Parker, eventually dropping the book after he turned Peter into a bully.

So I wasn't sure what to expect in this collection, but I was pleasantly surprised after finishing it. His portrayal of Nite Owl and Rorschach's relationship is absolutely amazing. In many ways, the book is just as much about Rorschach as it is Nite Owl, showing us an amazing parallel between them. Both were in abusive families and both turned to fighting for justice. The difference is that while Dan finds Hollis Mason, who channels his anger and tempers his rage, Rorschach has no such guide and drifts into the waiting arms of a preacher who is anything but saintly. Both men must eventually move away from their guides, and seeing them do this the resulting consequences for everyone is part of the magic of this story.

While some might be disappointed that this is more of a co-feature than just a spotlight, I think it was the perfect way to write the story of Nite Owl. Dan is a nice guy, an everyman, who wants to do the right thing. On its own, that's kinda boring. But set it against Rorschach and pair him with a woman of dubious morality and motive, and he's able to shine in the contrast. Like us, Dan wants what's right, but may fail in getting there. His growth drives the story, even if it's not the only growth we see.

I was also impressed with how this story (and the others in this collection) tied in to the work of Darwyn Cooke.  These books came out around the same time as DC's New 52 initiative, and story coordination in DC's new paradigm has been...uneven, to use a charitable term. On the other hand, there's not a single thing in this collection that contradicts Cooke's work with the original Nite Owl (Mason) and we even get echoes of certain scenes, seen this time from a different perspective.

A final reason to love this story is the artwork. Andy Kubert is the penciller, but the true love here is for the inkers, his father Joe and, when Joe died during the series, Bill Sienkiewicz. The elder Kubert's inks really give a rougher edge to his son's lines, adding shadow and depth that really enhance his work. In a story like this one, having a Jim Lee-like look would be out of place. A layer of grime is added over top of the solid layouts, made just sketchy enough to be a tough city background. I was worried that Sienkiewicz taking over the inks would bury Andy Kubert entirely, but he's extremely restrained here, to the point that it would take a big fan of his work to notice the difference in inkers. THAT really impressed me. Things do get a bit messier in overall composition when he takes the reins, but it's still Andy Kupert's style, just roughed up a bit. The blending works well, and in the end, this is a story whose visuals match the quality of the script.

Unfortunately, that match isn't quite so good with the Dr. Manhattan story. Adam Hughes is a very good cover artist. In some ways, his stiffer figure work is a better match visually for Dave Gibbons. His depictions of the characters here are really good. He even gets that Dr. Manhattan can't be "stacked" because his exposed penis is a reference to his impotence to change history (at least I think it is). Each design is unique, and he flips between time periods effortlessly, even doing a solid job on likenesses.

But with a story as complex as the one JMS gives him, the art works a bit against the story. It would have been better, I think to combine Hughes with someone else, to really show the varying timelines to be starkly different, or find an artist better able to differentiate. As it stands, as we move across the changing worlds created by the extremely philosophical nature of JMS's story. In some ways, this was an attempt to try something along the lines that Alan Moore himself did in Promethea, with trying to make the story push the edges of what a comic book could do. I just don't think Hughes was up to the task.

I did really like how JMS gives Dr. Manhatten a problem that's enough to vex him. He's stupidly powerful. Using him against common criminals would have been moronic. Having him walk through his life and analyze it (which is what I feared was going to happen) would have been boring. Instead, JMS has Manhattan play god with himself, and ends up nearly breaking the entire world. It's a great story for a character who's tricky to get right, I think.

Last up in here is the Moloch story. Added late to the Before Watchmen groups, it's only two issues long, but that's just enough time, I think. This could have been a throwaway story about villainy, but instead JMS works it into a tale of redemption, at least in the main character's eyes. Moloch is a boy born with physical defects, and the brutality of his peers drives him to murder that, while not acceptable, is certainly understandable. The progression from magician to murderer is done so well, and showing how he felt about the various superheroes attacking him and his attempts to get out of the circle after so many years of repeat failures is a nice commentary on the superhero genre. JMS really nails the repetition and tedium of the cycle of villain vs hero, even if it is one of my favorite styles of comics.

As we move through the story, the idea of the villain shifting from Moloch to Ozymandias, known to the reader but not to Moloch, is a smooth and subtle transition. For just a brief moment, Moloch doubts that he has done any good at all, then is calmed by the notion that he is playing a part in what he refers to as a magic trick. The seamless transition back to his start is great storytelling by JMS, and it's nailed by Risso's visuals.

I'm a huge fan of Risso's work, even if he is often paired with Brian Azzarello, whose writing alternates from brilliant to racist, depending on his subject. He does so much with this two-parter, transforming Moloch from loser to power broker to loser again, just by subtly changing his appearance and body language. His scenes in the first issue really set up the text, especially when we begin the murders. His angular work is quite different from that of the Kuberts or Hughes, really making this one stand out on its own. He uses shadow to obscure truths, places panels at odd, disconcerting angles, and does a ton of character work just in little facial ticks. Risso also gets the best panel in the entire collection, showing Ozymandias in a Jesus-like pose, ready to redeem Moloch. I have no idea if that was in the script or Risso's idea, but it's brilliant work.

This collection of Before Watchmen stories isn't quite as good as the first one I read, but if you are a fan of these characters or the creators involved, don't be afraid to look this one up. It's got very good stories to tell you, if you can get past the hype from those who believed they never should have seen print and are definitely recommended.
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SPX Spotlight 2013: Jim Rugg

Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

My first experience with Jim Rugg was in the pages of Street Angel, which I think remains my favorite of his books (review here, but it was an early one, so quality isn't the best). Sure, he's gone on to other cool things, like Afrodesiac, which I think many would consider to be his signature work, but there's something about the way Rugg makes Street Angel completely believable that causes me to return to that book in a way I don't for most comics. (I'm notorious for rarely re-reading my comics--too much new stuff I want to get to!)

Rugg's strength is in his ability to do just about anything he wishes and make it match the style of the genre he's going for. Afrodesiac is unbelievable in its ability to not only replicate the blackspoitation-style comics of the 1970s but by the end, Rugg actually transitions the look and tone of such books as they were slowly phased out of publication. THAT is talent.

He's also the artist for one of the best of the late Minx titles, The Plain Janes (review here) which is probably about as far away as you can get from 1970s comics, though to some degree, it was an attempt to grab readers normally excluded by comics--and failed.

Rugg's more recent work finds him doing shorter pieces, such as Rambo 3.5 or a quick zine that I believe is completely sold out now. He worked with Foxing Magazine as the first issue art director, put out a sketchbook through frequent collaborator AdHouse Books, and now has a new comic called Supermag, featured above. The latter should be the big thing for Rugg at SPX this year, which is described as a collection of comics and art.

The man keeps himself very busy, even doing the art work on an Iron Man 3 review with Laura Hudson.

Jim Rugg is an incredibly talented artist who doesn't limit himself, making his variety something that many comics fans can appreciate, because he's not locked into a particular fan base, whether it's the nostaglia crowd, the artistic set, or others. What's even more impressive is that Rugg does this all so well, making him well worth seeking out at SPX this year if you haven't done so already.

Can't make it to SPX? That's just plain wrong. But you can find Jim's work and more information at his website. Jim does not appear to have an online store, so I'll link to AdHouse for you.
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SPX Spotlight 2013: Cara Bean

Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

James Kochalka was a huge influence on my taste (and still is) when it comes to independent comics. His heartfelt and brutally honest autobiographical comics captured my attention and led me to investigate those of others. While I read less of them now than I used to, I still really appreciate cartoonists who find new and varied ways to talk about their life, without aping the style of Kochalka.

That's a pun intended here, since Cara Bean's main mini-comic is called Gorilla Year. It's mixed between things that are real and things that aren't. which means that get a bit of a fictional vibe to the autobiographical narrative. She has two editions of the comic available as I write this.

My first experience with Bean's work was The Gremlins Movie Incident, a cute mini-comic revolving around a movie that absolutely terrified me as a child, Gremlins. (It is the movie, after all, that caused them to make a PG-13 level.) Bean's work on this one really hooked me on her as a creator, though for some reason, I don't think I ever reviewed it. I liked how Bean captured the feelings related to the movie quite well, which is essential to cartoonists of her genre.

Bean also appears in This Isn't Working, an anthology of stories about ex-boyfriends (review here), with a tightly-wound story using knitting as a focal device. Again, the storytelling is quite strong, making up for artwork that is a bit more primitive than some of her peers, especially in the same anthology.

Her newest work tells the story of being an art teacher. I don't have a copy yet, but it's on my list of things to look for at SPX. As a former teacher myself, I can't wait to see what her crisp eye for autobiography tells us about her own experiences.

Can't make SPX? Well, don't feed your mogwai after midnight next time. However, you can find Cara on the web here, which includes a link to her store.

August 23, 2013

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SPX Spotlight 2013: Drawn and Quarterly

Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

It would seem very strange to have a year at the Small Press Expo in which Drawn and Quarterly did not make an appearance. The Canadian publisher is a fixture of the show, offering a wide variety of offerings from the relationship stories of Adrian Tomine (who will be making a return to the show this year) to Kate Beaton's hysterical historical commentary to the more abstract work of Anders Nilson (who is also coming to SPX again this year). They also dabble in reprinting classics, though not as much as, say, Fantagraphics.

Their output shows a range, but it is very curated. These are the kinds of comics that get discussed at length in the Comics Journal and analyzed in-depth. D&Q produces almost exclusively hardcover editions, designed to be an object on your shelf. They aren't a prestige format publisher per se, but you'll find a lot of time is taken in the design of their comics, and often that leads to cover prices that are higher than industry average for similar material.

If you're the type who longs to have endless bookshelves of comics, you'll immediately fall in love with the formatting of D&Q books. They really are gorgeous.

I haven't been reading as much from them lately, which I need to catch up on. However, you can see my past reviews here. For this spotlight, I'll mention the recent books that look interesting to me, as they are the ones most likely to be at the show. My apologies if you get excited about one of these and then they aren't available.

  • Co-Mix from Art Spiegelman is listed as a September release, so I am assuming it will be ready for SPX. The 120-page collection promises an overview of the influential Maus creator's body of work, which has now stretched into over six decades, which few can lay claim to in the US Comics industry. 
  • Adrian Tomine is up to 13 in his Optic Nerve series. The artist, who owes a lot to label-mate Daniel Clowes, did collection about getting married that I thought was awesome, but his other work is a bit too close to Clowes for my taste. However, if you are a big fan of that style of comics, this is sure to be good.
  • Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki will be on my list and is one of the highlights for mini-comics fans attending SPX who also have a strong liking for manga. D&Q reports that this is one of the most popular characters in Japan, and I'd like to have a look for myself. My manga reading isn't what it used to be, but this intrigued me.
  • Rage of Poseidon is listed as an October 2013 release, but I'm including it here just in case the appearance of Nilson means they'll have copies at the show. In his signature style of abstraction, Nilson tells a story about religion, using Poseidon as the focal point. The preview of this looks awesome and a must-grab for Nilson fans.
  • Seth, who broke the back and bank of many an SPX fan in 2012, has a new book, Palookaville. Budget accordingly, but at least this time, it's only a normal-sized book.
  • There's also a new Moomin reprint, Moomin and the Sea. It's really nice to see this classic series getting such a nice treatment from D&Q. Volume 8 of the complete works is also scheduled for September, so it may be sitting on the table at SPX as well.
  • I really enjoyed the excerpt from Marble Season that was part of Free Comic Book Day this year, showing a different side to Gilbert Hernandez. The full version is available now, and is also on my shopping list.
  • Michael DeForge is a creator on the rise. You can get in on the ground floor by picking up his debut graphic novel, which Drawn and Quarterly published early this year, Ant Colony.

Those are just a few of the comics awaiting you.

Being Drawn and Quartered? Well, you probably won't be making to SPX, but in case you get reincarnated, here's a link to Drawn and Quarterly's store. You can also find them in any good comic shop that isn't mainstream comics only, like Baltimore's Atomic Books.

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SPX Spotlight 2013: Matt Dembicki and Andrew Cohen

Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

Two of my favorite mini-comics creators are working together again, this time on a biography of Lincoln Beachy, which Cohen says is the first chapter in the story of a "forgotten American superstar," which he promises will have Edwardian fashion and a million gallons of Niagra Falls water. 

I'm pretty sure that's figurative. Otherwise, best to bring along an extra bucket or two with you to SPX.

Dembicki and Cohen are familiar collaborators with each other. Cohen appears in both of Dembicki's excellent anthologies, Trickster (a collection of Native American myths, with each story featuring a Native American involved in its retelling) and District Comics (a trove of hidden stories about Washington, DC, also highly recommended). In addition, the two worked together on another history mini-comic (The Brewmaster's Castle, which I reviewed here) and also on an online comic, Spadefoot.

The pairing works well, as Dembicki's straightforward approach to writing dovetails nicely with Cohen's art skills, which, while fully able to be cartoonish (see Dr. W, reviewed here), also do a great job of presenting realistic history. Cohen's mini featuring Irish immigrants, A Mutual Feeling, nailed the setting and sentiments of the time period. I haven't seen this newest work yet, but I see no reason why it won't be in the same vein.

If you are a fan of comics set in or about historical periods, then you definitely need to check out not only this mini, but the larger District Comics, which features stories by Dembicki, Cohen, and other Panel Patter spotlight creators, such as Rafer Roberts, Curls Studio, and Troy Jeffrey-Allen. 

If you are more into lighthearted comics that play with conventions, then Cohen's Dr. W, a fourth-wall destroying feature where the panels are an active part of the characters' world, should be right up your alley. Those who like comics based on music definitely will want to investigate Howzit Funnies, Cohen's blues-inspired work. I read and liked the first issue and am excited to read more.

In addition to curating anthologies and working on mini-comics, Dembicki also is the author of the amazing nature documentary-as-comic Xoc (review here), the story of a shark and its dangerous journey across the ocean. Avoiding the pitfalls of many animal comics, Dembicki's work sticks to the facts and doesn't try to humanize the creatures at all, though they do speak out their animal instincts.

Both Dembicki and Cohen also contribute to the DC Conspiracy-led tabloid anthology, Magic Bullet (reviews here, here, here, and here), which feature not only their talents but those of a ton of amazing creators throughout the DC/Maryland/VA area, along with a few friends who are a bit more spread out. That's where I first met Dr. W, whose antics play quite well across the entire page of a newspaper. Meanwhile, Dembicki's stories vary from touching remembrances to quirky uses of cockroaches.

It's not breaking the fourth wall to tell me you're missing SPX, but it is disappointing. But you can find some of Matt and Andrew's work at the DC Conspiracy store, and Matt's anthologies are in finer bookstores across the region, often in the local section.

August 21, 2013

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SPX Spotlight 2013: Sara Lindo

Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

I'm very pleased to have been a fan of Sara Lindo's going all the way back to 2009, when I saw this green mini-comic with a pink brain on it and opened it up to find the incredibly endearing adventures of two lobes who couldn't be more different.

Since then, I've gone on to read everything Sara has published, and never regretted it for a moment. In addition, she also pointed me to Steve Seck and Morgan Pielli, so I have her to thank for more excellent comics.

I profiled Steve in my prior post, stating that his characters were basically the anti-Lindo. If Seck's work is about showing people who are at best flawed and at worst really awful folks, Lindo's work takes the opposite tack. Her creations are well-meaning, trying to do the right thing, though sometimes still failing to get it right, such as one half of the brains in Super Lobotomy (see review here). Carl, her construction worker cone, wants to love, but he's getting conflicting advice on how to get there (see review here).

And then there's Ike, a cat who works on Wall Street. Do I even need to say more than that? (See review here.)
Flush with Lindo Cats
The above is a print Lindo should have with her at SPX. She also has some others, generally themed around cats, because they are awesome. (Sara and Steve actually have a one-eyed cat, too, just like Erica and I.)

Lindo's art style matches her comics as well, with rounded lines and bold strokes that really enhance the story. She also does really cool symbolic work, since often, her characters cannot speak. She deftly makes it easy to believe a cat would go to work, drawing it as straightforward as possible. There's never a huge amount of background work, but the characters are all strongly designed and take center stage.

For SPX this year, Sara will have Super Lobotomy, her prints, and possibly a new cat book if she can get it done in time. She should also have some copies of her older comics hanging around, so get those while you can. Finally, Sara joins the ranks of the awesome folks who've been in Magic Bullet, the DC Conspiracy tabloid anthology, with an appearance in the upcoming issue 7.

Having a brain operation so you can appear in a comic but can't make SPX? Here's Sara's website, which has a link to her online store.
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SPX Spotlight 2013: Steve Seck and Monday Saddies!

Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

I first found Steve Seck via Sara Lindo, and I'm glad I did, because both members of the cartooning couple are not only great creators but awesome people as well.

While Sara tends to look at the brighter side of life, Steve revels in making comics about the worst sort of people--but at the same time, he's also able to make them very human. (Well, kinda. They tend to be animals, actually. Animals that act human.) They make mistakes and try to cover them up. They have drinking problems. They curse and litter and have some disturbing preferences.

In other words, they're ordinary people. We know folks who do similar things, though not to the extremes that Seck presents to the reader, and that's part of why we're able to laugh--sometimes uncomfortably--at his characters.

Monday Saddies! 2 is set to debut at SPX this year, and if issue one is any indication, readers who enjoy comics about characters making bad life choices are in for a treat. I've not had an opportunity to read issue 2 yet, but issue one was one of my favorite minis of 2012.

In Monday Saddies!, Seck takes his general use of imperfect characters and ramps it up to 11. The first issue features a Yogi Bear-like set-up, though the real relationship is between Sweetie Snake and Ranger Bradley, with the Yogi analog only featuring to show how just how low the other two characters can stoop. Sweetie abuses his privileges and then moves on to abusing Ranger Bradley, who finds this isn't the worst setup in the world.

Things accelerate, as they always do, and in the end--NO ONE LEARNS ANYTHING!

It's awesome, and anyone who is a fan of Peter Bagge will want to grab this, as it's definitely in a similar style. Like Bagge, Seck captures the feeling in his art as well as his dialogue and plot. As you can see from the cover above, his work is sharp and jagged. The images jar the reader out of the "funny animal" comfort zone just as much as their actions do.

Issue 2 features a whole new set of characters, but looks to be in the same vein as issue 1. Both will be available at SPX, as will Seck's Life is Good series, which merely features folks who are unpleasant.  (Review of issues 6 and 7 here.) You can get Life is Good in singles or also as a trade paperback.

In addition, Seck will also have a print of MST3K characters. Steve and Sara, like all quality people, are huge fans of the show, and this print plan of his sounds awesome and ambitious!

Can't make SPX?  Life is bad!  But you can find out more about Life is Good and Steve's other comics by visiting his website, which also links to his store.

August 20, 2013

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SPX Spotlight 2013: Jess Fink and We Can Fix It!

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a book for mature audiences, and will be reviewed accordingly. You've been warned.-Rob]

Welcome to another entry in the 2013 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, I'll be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at the best convention, the Small Press Expo.  You can check out all of my spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

I'd heard a lot of good things about Jess Fink and her work, but this was my first personal experience with any of her comics. After reading We Can Fix It!, this won't be my last.

Sometimes I think it's a rule that indie cartoonists have to look inward for one of their projects at least once. Some make it their career (Jeffrey Brown, Gabrielle Bell) while for others it's a thing that they do and move on.

I'm not sure which will be the case for Fink, but I love what she's done with the concept. Instead of the standard navel-gazing we see in such books, Fink has given it a narrative hook that allows for her message, when she's ready to tell it, to come through loud and clear.

We Can Fix It! begins with a humorous premise. Fink, having learned how to time travel and acquired a cool jumpsuit to go along with it, promptly decides to go back and time and relive her sexy times. Unable to stay out of her own way, Fink not only ends up performing the ultimate in acts of masturbation, she starts trying to make her past better by offering advice on how to best handle her sex life. It begins innocently enough, but when Fink gets tired of being, well, finked on, she starts to rebel.

Flustered, we see Fink go further and further back in time, trying to find a way to make her life better and change that which wasn't meant to be altered. It's both comical and tragic, with Fink's visuals setting just the right tone. By the time she's yelling at a very young Jess who can't understand why her mother has to be away so long (but from the perspective of an adult, Fink of course can), we as the reader are ready for Fink's central point of setting up the story the way she does: We cant' dwell on or change the past, and doing so can be very harmful.

Instead, Fink argues it's better to focus on the happy times and remember them with all your heart in your very own time machine. The rest of the book is spent doing just that, as Fink relives past exploits, like getting in trouble in art class or planning to make a comic. By the time she is reunited in the present, she understands the value of the past and how to use it better.

The message is very uplifting, though it might contrast sharply with the personal feelings of others. Fink states that head space is precious and it should only be used for good memories. While I agree that the past cannot be changed, I am a little leery of the idea of forgetting all the pain that got you to be the person you are today. [EDITED TO ADD: Fink correctly pointed out to me that her point wasn't so much "focus only on the good" as it's "hey, don't forget you have good memories, too." I missed that when I did the review, but on a re-read of that section, she is correct. -ROB]

However, that's only a small philosophical difference and doesn't impact on my enjoyment of this comic at all. Fink, who is no stranger to doing comics with sexual themes (she's been in several erotic comic anthologies and her first Top Shelf Book, Chester 5000, is a collection from her Victorian-era erotic webcomic), dishes freely about some of her exploits, such as reflecting on what a terrible job she used to do at blow jobs. That willingness to make fun of herself really helps the comic shine, and the overall tone, despite some serious moments, is very light. (This is a comic, after all, where time-traveling Fink shits on the head of a school bully to make her past-self laugh.)

Perhaps my favorite part is where Fink is trying to give her younger self advice on reading better comics (don't we all wish we could do this!), and in the middle of trying to improve her taste, gets caught right back up in Ranma 1/2. Some things just aren't easily given up, no matter how much your taste changes.

Visually, this is also a very fun comic. Though there's quite a bit of talk about sex, we don't ever actually see any, relying only on traveling Fink to know what is going on. It's an interesting choice, but I thought it worked. This book's main point is to talk about how we deal with our past, not to get a person thinking about sex per se. (However, if you'd like to see Fink doing just that, there are some samples on her website.)  Fink does a great job of making herself look different every time we see her in the past, so that it's easy to keep track of her timeline, since the comic itself is non-linear. It might be the length or color of her hair or the size of her character's chest, but I thought that was a nice touch.

Her line work is very much in a non-realistic style. Characters get eyes that can be everything from mostly normal to Annie-like dots. Noses are rounded or sharp lines. There's a consistency of proportion and aren't exaggerated, but they can be changed to create a bigger visual impact. They're drawn in a simple style that gives Fink a lot of flexibility and I was extremely impressed by how steady the work was from start to finish. Though they certainly aren't real people in depiction, they come across as feeling very human. They move around their world easily, bending and twisting s Fink requires them to do to heighten a joke or provide an emotional power, such as an uncomfortable scene with her father.

I came away from We Can Fix It! extremely impressed. This may only be Fink's second book, but I certainly hope it won't be her last. Those who read personal memoir comics who aren't prudes need to get a copy of this right away, preferably at SPX. Jess Fink is a creator to watch, and I'm positive she's got a very bright future ahead of her.

Can't make SPX, and don't own a time machine? You can find Jess Fink on the web here, with a link to buy her books from Top Shelf (and a few rather naughty comic samples, too!).

Thanks to Top Shelf for providing a copy for review purposes.