January 31, 2014

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Dark Horse Plans Stan Sakai Tribute Book

Cover of the Dark Horse Tribute book.
As some of you may know, Stan Sakai has had a personal tragedy that has left the fan-favorite creator in a time of need. There have been quite a few posts and tweets on the subject, so I won't go into it much here. Sakai has been getting published by Dark Horse Comics for quite some time now, and the company announced today that they are creating a Stan Sakai tribute book, both to celebrate 30 years of Usagi Yojimbo and to help Mr. Sakai with his expenses.

From the press release:
“It has been an absolute pleasure publishing Stan’s work over the years, and recently collaborating with him directly on 47 Ronin,” said Dark Horse’s president and founder, Mike Richardson. “With the thirtieth anniversary of his most beloved creation, Usagi, and in a time of need for Stan and his family, we are honored to publish this tribute to Stan and his work. We are donating all of the proceeds to Stan and his wife, Sharon. We hope you will join us in honoring one of the comics industry’s shining lights.”
This is a really cool thing for Dark Horse to do, given that they could easily have created something similar, kept the money, and still sold a large number of copies, even if the contributor list might not have been quite as long for a profit-making endeavor. I have a similar book that Baltimore Comic-Con did, and the illustrations are lavish, varied, and well worth what I paid for it, and that's coming from someone who doesn't often buy art books.

Bill Morrison's contribution. Very on-model!
Here's a sampling of who will be included, again taken from the release (I've trimmed it to names that stood out to me, there are many more on the release):
ADAM HUGHES | ALEX MALEEV | ARTHUR ADAMS | BATTON LASH | BILL MORRISON |  BRIAN MICHAEL BENDIS | DAVE GIBBONS | DAVID MACK | ERIC POWELL | GABRIEL HARDMAN |  HOWARD CHAYKIN |  JEFF SMITH |MARK CRILLEY | MATT GROENING | MATT WAGNER | MICHAEL ALLRED | MICHAEL AVON OEMING | MIKE MIGNOLA | RICHARD CORBEN | SERGIO ARAGONÉS | TIM SALE | TOM MANDRAKE | WALTER SIMONSON | 
 They are apparently still taking contributions, which is pretty awesome, too. Personally, I'm wondering if Chaykin's will feature a humanoid animal brothel, because, you know, Chaykin.

The Stan Sakai tribute book, which is being called The Sakai Project: Artists Celebrate Thirty Years of Usagi Yojimbo, will be released July 23rd. Personally, I can't wait to see it, and assuming I can afford it, will definitely be picking up a physical copy to linger over what plans to be some amazing art.
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RobM's Single Minded for 1/29/14: Campbell's Turtles Have Quiet Strength

I'm not fully caught on every series I'd like to be reading right now, but I am finally getting to this one earlier than usual for a change. Here's the single issue comics that made me want to talk about them this week, starting off with the criminally underrated Ross Campbell's art on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles...

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 30
Story by Kevin Eastman, Bobby Curnow, and Tom Waltz
Written by Tom Waltz
Illustrated by Sophie Campbell and Ronda Pattison
IDW

Michelangelo may be a party dude, but he's also keenly aware of the problems facing the Turtles in this subdued issue that focuses squarely on the characters.

This series just keeps getting better and better. The idea of Mike looking at what's going on is perfect, because his perspective isn't as heavy-handed as any of the other Turtles, which means its unvarnished. Using his letter to their friend back home to set up the scenes works incredibly well, allowing Waltz to build from there.

An issue like this one is hard to hold together with so much going on, but Sophie Campbell and Ronda Pattison are up to the job. From the opening scenes, where Mike goes from earnest to curious as he hits on how to phrase the letter, to the final tender moment of the Turtles together as a family along with Alopex, the entire issue strikes a balance between concern, fear, and caring. It's a fragile peace that's about to be disturbed, and we see that in the eyes of these humanoid characters as they stare at each other and out at the reader. Despite much of it taking place at night, Pattison keeps things just clear enough for the reader to catch the little details Campbell puts in every panel.

The strongest part of the issue, though, is the expression of Leo's personal demons. First Campbell goes for horror as the trees themselves encircle and menace the Turtles' former field leader, who is seen from an angle instead of head-on. Then just as he's about to fall prey to bloodlust, we shift to his vision of his mother. Campbell softens her lines and flattens out the art a bit to give it a fresh, almost mural-like look while Pattison turns pastel with the coloring, to set it apart from the dark reality of Leo's actual world. When we return to the present, it's a very different Leo, one who is finally ready to begin healing, and we know this not from the text but from the look Campbell gives him, reaching out an arm and widening his eyes, baby-like.

TMNT has been one of my favorite comics since I started reading it about two years ago, and it hasn't lost a step. This isn't just good licensed comic work--it's great comics, period.

Adventure Time 2014 Winter Special
Written and Illustrated by Luke Pearson, Jeremy Sorese, T. Zysk, JAnet Rose, and Allison Strejlau 
Boom! Studios

A series of stories set in Wintertime unfortunately left me cold as the creators weren't able to manage the level of insanity and fun needed to make Adventure Time sing on the printed page.

The first story, Snow Hope, finds Finn and Jake ganging up on the Ice King without a good reason, then Finn being captured by a sinister force within his wooly jumper. There's nothing really silly going on, there are almost no jokes, and the resolution is far to straightforward to work within this world. Pearson doesn't seem to understand that these characters need more than just action to make them work, and it's not helped by his inability to vary the style and shape of the panels. Everything is a straight-on shot of the action within a twelve panel grid, and he never takes advantage of Jake's shape-shifting powers. There's just no fun in this one, and that's a big part of Adventure Time's appeal.

Pups in Persil from Sorese takes Finn out of the picture and only uses Jake for a cameo, focusing instead on BMO, which means that there's not a lot to do except watch the portable video game system ride the back of Tree Trunks while escaping from ice cats and trying to release a fire dog. The lack of strict panel work is interesting as the reader must follow the action of the characters and Sorese leads the eye across the page with a clever use of a long and winding path. But in the end, the jokes and insanity aren't here, making for a cute but dull story.

The Earl of Lemongrab is a peculiar choice for a feature, and this one, too, just doesn't bring anything, as Finn and Princess Bubblgum only show up for a closing remark on how grumpy he is. Turns out a humanoid lemon doesn't care for Winter. Who knew? T. Zysk just wasn't able to get me interested in this one at all.

Janet Rose and Allison Strejlau finish things out with the best feature, with the gang hanging out in an igloo that gets zapped by fire, then attacked by a horrible--but delicious--monster. The characters talk more on model here, with Jake morphing to save the day ("I got this!") then realizing even his stretching powers aren't enough ("I don't got this!"), the kind of playful words and visuals that the other stories lacked. Characters flow and morph in Strejlau's depictions, and we get cool concepts like Finn whipping snowballs at the creature while Jake forms himself into a living supply chain of white projectiles. In the end, it's all a misunderstanding because the beast is merely sad because he's a baking failure.

Unfortunately, one story's not enough to recommend this one. Better to stick with the main series and the mini written by Tobin and Coover.

Never Ending 3
Written by Adam P. Knave and DJ Kirbride
Illustrated by Robert Love, Felix Perez, and Heather Breckel
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Charlie barely has time to deal with his lack of powers when a crisis hits that proves how selfish he's been as this look at the nature of being a neigh-immortal superhero comes to a philosophical close. 

Working again between past and present, Knave and Kirkbride finish off the duel between Archie and Charlie with a fascinating use of the former's obsession to redeem the self-loathing sins of the latter. I don't want to give away too much here, but I really like how Charlie, who sees the mistake in his denial of his gift, takes the lead in doing his part to make up for it so that no one else might pay for his own sins.

Does he succeed? That's left up to the reader in a purposefully ambiguous ending.

What's less ambiguous is that Love's art works best when he's doing the inking. Combined with Perez, the unique, Erik Larsen-like look is rounded out and exposes the flaws in anatomy that work when the inks are flatter. The layouts are still strong, but they lack the exaggeration that made them distinctive in the first two issues. They carry a nice sense of emotion but overall, it's just not a good match, at least to my eyes. Breckel's colors are vivid and bright, however, allowing the linework to shine through and still keeping the shades bright and distinctive.

Never Ending was a very good mini-series that explored an aspect of super heroism and what happens when a normal guy has the weight of the world on his undying shoulders. It was just the right length and I'd love to see more of these self-contained pieces from the writing team of Knave and Kirkbride.

Copernicus Jones Robot Detective 1
Written by Matt D. Wilson
Illustrated by Kevin Warren
Published by Monkeybrain

This one is exactly what it says: A noir story, drawn in grey tones, featuring robots mixed in with the femme fatales, bookies, schemers, and the mob. How much you enjoy it is going to be entirely based on how you feel about the premise.

The story itself is pretty standard noir stuff. A private detective of grey morality takes on a too good to be true case in order to cover his bets and then some. He gets mixed into a mess with the mob, who want to fit him for magnetic overshoes as the caper takes on several sinister turns.

I love old crime fiction, so I had a lot of fun seeing it adapted for the inclusion of bots. Wilson isn't afraid to call them out (like having a bottle of oil instead of whiskey in the desk) and Warren is good with the little touches, like denting Jones' face in the impression of brass knuckles. Plus, we get a robot in a trenchcoat and a fedora. Really hard to go wrong with that. Warren's style is similar to Scott Wegna, but with a bit of a sharper edge, and I admit that the Robo thing is probably why I drew a parallel.

The plot is fast-paced with a lot of action, and the only problem so far is that it's not exactly doing anything new with the tools of a noir story, save for including robots. I hope to see some more as we move along, because the premise is fun but it needs more to hold up against the tons of other things out there to read with cool concepts and a way to make the story more varied.

Furious 1
Written by Bryan JL Glass
Illustrated by Victor Santos
Published by Dark Horse Comics

A woman with superpowers and a touch of anger finds setting the message almost impossible in another story taking on the difficult task of finding a way to deconstruct the genre that hasn't been done before.

I'm not one of those who thinks that Watchmen ended the ability of anyone to discuss superheroes from a critical perspective, but I have seen it go horribly wrong. You have to find just the right angle and be careful not to just make it a depressing, morose mess.

Thanks to crisp, engaging dialogue, starting the story in the middle and working around the subject, and nailing the fact that the media would go extra hard on a violent female hero, Glass and Santos dodge the pitfalls and set up a heroine who is far from perfect, living in a world that, just like ours, tends to enjoy finding the worst in people. Glass's plot is especially good at showing that our protagonist isn't going to be perfect, such as when she's beating a Susan Smith-like Mom half to death while forgetting the kids she was trying to save in the first place.

It's hard to do everything right, and when everyone from the cops to convenience store customers to the talking heads are in your head, it's no wonder that Beacon (aka Furious) isn't able to stop and be logical about what's going on around her. That's the key to make this one work, and so far the balance between control and chaos inside Furious' head is a great dynamic.

Glass is helped by his art partner, Victor Santos, who balances Furious the hero with Furious the human. She wants so desperately to make her life work, but she literally can't even manage to keep all of her eggs in one basket--a lovely visual metaphor that the creators cleverly slip in. The art ranges from bright coloring to dull shades, depending a lot on the main character's mood, which is a nice touch. There's a great sense of dynamic action and the poses Santos selects for Furious, such as when she angles away from bullets or the multiple tight panels crashing together, really give this a visual feeling that matches the story.

Furious is probably gonna fly under the radar because it's not done by a high profile writer or artist, but there's a lot of potential in this one and it's well worth checking out.

Black Science 3
Written by Rick Remender
Illustrated by Matteo Scalera and Dean White
Image Comics

While Grant lies dying, flashbacks abound in this third issue that feels like an issue designed more for trade reading than single issue consumption.

One of the things I've become more attuned to over time, having read in singles, then trades, and now singles again thanks to moving to digital, is whether or not an issue of a comic reads well as its own thing. I have to be honest here--this one doesn't.

After putting us on edge in a world where the First People are united, technologically advanced, and beating the shit out of Europe, Remender takes us back to see more of Grant having an affair with his assistant. We already saw this last issue, and reinforcing it here doesn't serve the issue in the here and now. It dulls the impact of the battle scenes and slows down the plot. I get the need to show them being zapped into this nightmare scenario as a flashback, but that's placed--correctly--at the end of this issue. Going over the affair and the dysfunctional nature of the team is just not important right now when you only have 22 pages to work with. 

On the other hand, as part of 120 or so pages of Volume 1, it will barely be noticed. This is a case of writing for the trade, and it really hurts, especially since Scalera and White absolutely nail the terror and horror of the team's situation. They're overwhelmed by superior tech and sheer numbers, and it drives them to do things they wouldn't ordinarily. We see this thanks to the way Scalera has them react, such as the body language between the women who hate each other as they realize that more soldiers are coming, possibly for them. The characters hide behind rocks, stare at each other, and in the end, kill, just to stay alive.

Scalera's art is extremely angular here, which means that everything points towards vanishing points, whether it's an explosion, the placement of an awkward wedding ring, or the way we look down on a pack of terrified humans completely out of their depth.

The visuals here are great, but if issue four continues this pattern, I'm moving this one to trade-waiting status. The script and art are amazing, but the plot is feeling more like a 120 page story instead of 6 20-page mini-plots, which is how a serial comic should be.

That was what moved me most for this week. How about you? 

January 30, 2014

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Ninja Girl

Written and Illustrated by Bonesteel
Self-Published

A young woman risks everything against a horde of zombies just to have a date with a real human being in a story with some quiet humor but whose strength lies in its layouts and use of the medium.

On his site, Bonesteel mentions that the comic was based on the idea of a side-scrolling video game, and he captures that effect perfectly. Each page moves the story forward, without panels, as we watch our protagonist take care of all the obstacles in front of her. Sometimes that will happen quickly while at other moments, she has to fight off the same zombie for a few scenes. It's a bit like having a static flipbook in front of you, looking at the changes in movement from action to action, frozen in time.

As you can see from the examples, the art itself is not featured in great detail. The titular Ninja Girl is a set of lines with a ponytail and occasionally some clothing accessories to prep for the date. Her foes, shown all in black so we know they're her opponents, are similarly designed, with a few changes here and there. The main artistic focus is on the ability to preserve the side-scroller conceit. That means there are times when a set of pages will have more white space than you might normally expect, because later on a building will need to occupy that part of the page as she moves through and past it.

That's the draw of this one for me--the idea of comic as video game. You can tell Bonesteel is familiar with side-scrolling games, as he takes the reader into various locations, from a dead mall to a an underground sewer to a school (complete with a shoutout to You Can't Do That on Television). While none of these scenes are depicted in great detail, there are plenty of little touches that make them stand out and give the reader reason to linger.

A good example of this is when Bonesteel includes a pair of escalators forming an X that the girl must get past or when you can see the different types of classrooms in the school by the objects inside them. It doesn't take a lot to make this work, and those elements add a lot to this one.

In the end, Ninja Girl kills a lot of zombies, gets a nice outfit, and teaches a boy to never, ever, gilt a determined woman. It's a cute comic that does a lot without being flashy. If you enjoy comics that try to do something unique visually, like artistic Easter eggs, and have a thing for slow-motion mass murder of the undead, this one is well worth grabbing.

You can buy a copy of Ninja Girl here.  

January 29, 2014

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Whit and Wisdom: 7 Predictions for the Future of Comics


If you read any social psychology or eastern philosophy texts they will tell you that the future is unknowable and that humans are actually poor predictors of what’s to happen.  I believe this to be true, as life has taught me that the only constant is change. I do however, feel that sometimes we can predict trends based on current events. It’s quite evident that the comics world is not only growing, but evolving in ways that previously wouldn’t have been considered. It’s an exciting time to be a cartoonist, as new platforms for exposure and sharing of work pop up every day. At the same time though, it’s daunting, as a larger group of artists compete for the same resources, such as publishing opportunities. Below is a list of my top 7 predictions for the future (at least near future) of the comics world.


1) Micropresses will expand (viva la floppy).

In the past few years we have seen a proliferation of “micropresses” pop up. I’d define a micro press as a small publishing company that predominately publishes “floppies” or shorter form comics without hard covers (this is not always the case though). Furthermore, many of the artists put out are traditionally up-and-comers, newer artists, those who prefer shorter-form storytelling, and well… fellow cartoonist friends. Yes, they can be insular at times, but they allow for a greater diversity of stories being put out and are often strengthened by publishers being cartoonists themselves.

Some of the reasons that micropresses have expanded are because more people are making minicomics/floppies, they need an avenue for funding and exposure, and well…more people are reading them. Another reason is that the tools of the publishing trade are now more than ever accessible to the “average person”. I think micropresses are a fantastic addition to the publishing world, where we often see the same “established” cartoonists being published by the same larger companies. I’m all for publishers building enduring relationships with specific artists, but I like how many micropresses are taking chances on who they publish. I’m not saying that a micropress is the most lucrative or sustainable business, but I foresee the number of them expanding in the next few years.


2)  Comics will become more diverse.

As the general population becomes more diverse and different demographics of people start to read comics more, the material being put out will have to accommodate this. This is not just about having more comics geared towards women or racial/ethnic minorities, but to people living all sorts of lifestyles. And the process for this happening is two-fold. Cartoonists from different demographics will start telling their own stories and finding their own means of producing and distributing them, such as through self-publishing or starting their own presses. Second, if current publishing companies are to stay relevant they will need to expand their idea of what is marketable and publishable. This is already happening, but it will only continue to grow.


3) Older “classics” will be lost to the new generation.

This is not a new thing, but yes, as time goes on, younger cartoonists will not be as familiar with who/what are now considered to be ‘classic’ cartoonists, comics, and graphic novels. Of course there are exceptions, including taking comics history classes or actively seeking out older materials, but younger artists will gravitate to more recent works and if they look back at older ones it will be with a different lens than that of older generations.


4)  There will be more cons than cartoonists.

Yes, this is an exaggeration, but you get the point. There are more and more cons every year, not only in large cities, but smaller ones both domestically and internationally. I think this speaks to the fact that there are more cartoonists and material out there, there are markets for comics in places that people would not have expected, and that comics people are taking the initiative to set up these festivals.

This is great news for cartoonists, as it makes it more convenient to get to local cons (the opposite could be said if you are overwhelmed by the options) and to sell newer work with less lag time in between production. It allows one to build readership more readily. And most importantly, it allows cartoonists to continue to build a community of other artists, industry professionals, and fans.



5)  Digital copies will thrive but so will print comics.

With digital comics marketplaces such as Comixology or Gum Road growing in popularity, many have predicted that print comics will go the way of the dinosaur. Yes, digital comics will continue to grow in popularity given the elevated use of technology and physical convenience of reading something on a computer or tablet, but there’s something to be said for print copies that will continue to make them indispensable. With digital you lose out on the tactile nature of reading as well as some of the visual nuance. I’m not saying one is better than the other. I’m just saying that they will not be in competition, but rather complement each other.


6) Tumblr, Twitter and other social media platforms will become the center of comic criticism.

There has been much debate recently about the state of comics criticism. Some believe that it’s in the hand of a select few that are of the older, white male demographic and that there are few younger and more varied critics out there. I disagree with this to an extent. Yes, I think that these aforementioned critics may be the ones running some of the bigger sites and they might be more ingrained in the “industry”, but there are plenty of “amateur” reviewers running their own blogs and sites.

More reviewers and critics means more variable quality, but it also means more variety in writing styles and analysis. Tumblr is one of the best places to see this and I believe that it is now at the forefront of comics criticism and discussion. Tumblr and whatever future online platforms develop will continue to support the evolution of comics criticism.


7) Comics will become a more respected medium.

Sometimes when you’re so immersed in comics culture, it’s hard to see that many outside of your bubble do not think as highly of it. In fact not only do many not see it as a legitimate art form, but they are unaware or even misinformed about comics in general.

I do think this is slowly changing however as the diversity of cartoonists and work expand, as comics become more accessible for some via digital and online platforms, as bookstores start to develop their comics and graphic novels sections, and as academic institutions learn the value of  using comics as teaching tools.


I’ve always seen comics as a valuable medium and in fact a deeply complex one that takes much effort to thrive in. Cartooning utilizes art, math, storytelling, design and PATIENCE among other things. And if you decide to promote your work, it means developing business and networking skills as well. We should not expect the outside world to fully understand this, but rather to appreciate the fruits of the cartoonist’s labor and honor it as a real profession just like any other.


-Whit Taylor
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DeConnick and Rios Evoke the Theater in Pretty Deadly #4

Pretty Deadly hasn't been an easy series so far. Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios's western has been dense, confusing and with almost each issue so far, the opening recap page has seemed to clear up plot points that were never actually addressed in the previous issue itself. It's been tough and DeConnick and Rios don't appear to want to make it easy for the readers. Trumping the difficulties of the book have been the rewards of the story and artwork. Over the course of the first four issues, Kelly Sue Deconnick and Emma Rios introduced and revealed their characters in dribs and drabs.  They’ve been actually telling a meticulously paced story rather than doing a narrative dump of characters and plot points.  Reading Pretty Dedly #4 is more like watching theatre, we're everything is revealed by the choices of the actors rather than by the pen of the playwright.


By the end of the third issue, they've at least given us strong hints of who all of these characters are but I don't know how much we should trust the characters or the storytellers within the book, a butterfly and a skeletal rabbit. With all of the characters revealed though, DeConnick and Rios bring them together in this latest issue on their paths to confront Death, the patriarch of this comic. There is Death's daughter, his lover's husband, his replacement, his injenue and then there's the trickster, Johnny Coyote, who was the catalyst that brought all of these characters into play.  In this ballad that she's telling, each of the characters is a type and a metaphor, most easily recognized in the on-the-nose name Johnny Coyote. In the fourth issue, Johnny Coyote is one of the main characters but how much should we believe in his words and actions.  For that matter, how much should we believe what DeConnick and Rios are showing us?  There’s more happening here in Pretty Deadly #4 than the words or pictures would lead us to believe.


But more than just metaphors, DeConnick writes these western characters theatrically. Westerns are always great stories to have larger-than-life characters and DeConnick embraces that convention. Ginny, Death's daughter, is the Clint Eastwood character here. She's the taciturn wild card who has her own agenda that has yet to be revealed. Sissy is the girl who Death is afraid of. DeConnick plays with these characters as if they were elemental forces. These are men and women involved in a game with death but they are much more than that. Almost all of the characters reveal themselves to be some aspect of Death, even if it's as his opposite, Life.


This is a western taking place in familiar looking plains of a young, untamed country but Rios comfortably shifts from a very literal riverside where Coyote rescues Sissy from last issues revealing flood to Death’s flowery underworld.  Rios luscious artwork helps highlight the other-worldliness of the story.  Imagine what it would look like if Paul Pope drew an episode of Lone Wolf and Cub in the style of Goseki Kojima.  There’s a natural ease to Rios’ drawings as she uses her lines more to invoke a sensation rather than to literally depict an image.  With Jordie Bellaire’s deep, vibrant colors, Rios captures the movement of the world, from rushing waters to blowing grass to the rough violence of an old, blind man’s sword fight with Death’s daughter.  But she also captures the stillness of characters lost in thought, even one as inhuman as Death. Like Pope or Kojima, Rios is great at capturing the ebb and flow of the story and reflecting it in the artwork.


Pretty Deadly #4 is many things.  It’s lyrical; it’s mythological; it’s harsh and it’s tough.  It’s a story of fathers and daughters but DeConnick and Rios haven’t yet really shown us what that story is.  Is it going to be about cruelty or love?  So far as we see in this issue, it’s been about both as DeConnick and Rios’ ballad of Death and his daughters is still only in the opening verses and the creators are still keeping secrets from the characters and the readers.

January 28, 2014

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Gorgeous Art Preview: Dark Horse's King Conan the Conqueror #1

If you ever follow along with me at Newsarama (and I hope you do!), you'll know I was a big fan of the recent King Conan mini-series from writer Tim Truman and artists Tomas Giorello and Jose Villarrubia, Hour of the Dragon.

Hour of the Dragon was the first half of this classic Howard story of Conan as ruler, and the team adapted and drew the hell out of it. They hit every note right, from Conan's dialogue to his visuals to the narrative boxes that were so close to Howard I couldn't tell the difference.

Now they're back, with King Conan the Conqueror #1 on February 26th, and I'm incredibly excited for the second half of this story to begin. Dark Horse was kind enough to pass along these preview pages and I'm sharing them here so you can see just how amazing the art and story is for this one.

Look at those details! Look at the way Conan stares out at the reader/ruler, defiant despite being backed into a corner by his enemies. See how the older Conan is still a figure of power. The energy and action flow off the page, even in the recap scenes.

You can find the back issues of this one at your favorite local comic book shop or online at Dark Horse Digital. Make sure you catch up now, so you're ready for this one on February 26th.
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King Bone Press Kickstarter Looks To Tickle Your Funny Bone with Comics

King Bone Press, a small press imprint with a lighthearted touch to its approach, is in the closing days of a Kickstarter for their 2014 titles.

They are looking to drum up support for their 2014 efforts, which they define as releasing "many more unique and exciting books into the universe" but only specifically talk about five of them, which are part of the reward materials for the Kickstarter.

This is not a fly by night operation, with six years of experience and several anthologies (and even another Kickstarter project) under their belt. Ryan Kelly of Three did a cover for one of them, though nothing in the comics themselves. The biggest knock on this one, in fact, is that most of the folks involved don't have a lot of name recognition, a common issue with indie publishers. There are so many and often are so regional or localized to their corner of the internet, that running a Kickstarter can be a bit tricky.

However, King Bone does a great job of presenting themselves to outsiders like me. Their website is smart and professional, and they offer both print and digital options, a key sign of understanding the changing nature of comics publishing. Even the digital is available in DRF-free PDF, if you are so inclined.

The comics themselves that make up the 2014 Kickstarter are as follows:

  • Hellbillies, a comical take-off on horror and suspense that finds the road to hell is paved with rednecks.
  • Bandthology III, the last of a series of anthologies with a musical theme
  • Caperbet, a heist comic
  • My Hero, where the villain gets to kill the hero, ala Edison Rex
  • World's Strongest Mailman TP, about a guy with good pecs who also delivers your bills.

I don't know anything about these beyond the Kickstarter descriptions, so it's hard for me to tell you if they'll be good or not. But at $11 for the digital option, which gives you copies of these plus Bandthology I, for a total of $2 per comic, it's a pretty inexpensive experiment.

One way to see if they might be for you is checking out their free digital offering, which features several of the same creators. I did, and thought the lighthearted tone was enjoyable enough to give this one a shot at the lowest tier.* I would suggest doing so as well, because humor is their main weapon and that's a very subjective thing. What works well enough for me might not be to your taste.

In the first of the free sample stories, Michael Jackson's time is due, but can he delay it? Lots of pop music references abound in a joke story that's cute, if a bit on the rough side in terms of illustrations. The second story featured Greek Myths and an origin for the name Steve. The art is stronger, but the jokes aren't quite as funny. Again, your mileage may vary.

If you're a fan of indie, small press work and like a lighthearted touch to them, then definitely take a minute and back this one in its final days. Per the campaign itself, these books may not see print and digital releases otherwise. It's a sobering comment, but that's reality for a tiny publishing house. They only need $3,000, but failing to get it might require scaling back. This is the kind of thing that Kickstarter was made for. So if you're interested, definitely back it so these comics get made--and you (hopefully) get to laugh at some comics comedy across 2014.

*Generally speaking, I usually only promote Kickstarters I've personally backed or would back, if finances didn't prevent it. I don't see the point in telling you about something I didn't like enough to contribute--or at least try.

January 27, 2014

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Single Minded for 1/22/14: de Campi Shows Her Range in MLP: Friends Forever

Welcome to another edition of Single Minded, a look at ongoing issues that came out each week. Happy to be getting to this sooner, but there are still several books I'm behind on that I need to catch up before the go into the round up. This one's also a bit shorter because I covered Edison Rex 13 and Peanuts 15 for Newsarama, so go check those out, then come back here.

Now let's talk about some of the things that came out this week that caught my interest, starting with Panel Patter favorite Alex de Campi:

My Little Pony: Friends Forever 1
Written by Alex de Campi
Illustrated by Carla Seed McNeil, Jenn Manley Lee, and Bill Mudron
Published by IDW

A cooking competition gets an unlikely entrant, showing taste is in the eye of the beholder in a cute one and done story that targets the jokes at a wide audience.

Let's pause for a minute and realize that this one is written (and lettered) by Alex de Campi, who isn't exactly known for her all-ages material. It's about the most unlikely pairing of writer and subject I've found recently, but Alex shows quickly she's just as much at home making Mark Evanier-style pop culture jokes that use kid-friendly characters and tell a story that works for both adults and children.

Pinkie Pie is a natural for the cooking contest, but it's the addition of Applejack to the proceedings in case of mistaken identity that makes the story work, as the pony's laid back attitude serves as a counterbalance to the high-stakes nature of the other competitors. When Applejack "replaces" Marine Sandwich, a radical who takes it personally, the jokes fly fast and furious, ending in a slapstick routine (and showing de Campi's strong reliance on timeless humor standards to drive the jokes).

Carla Speed McNeil, another unlikely contributor to the proceedings, does a great job with the difficult task of making characters who barely have any distinguishing elements or poses look good and have a bit of variety. She concentrates on the eyes and changing up the mouths as much as possible, while keeping the ponies moving if at all possible. Lee and Mudron finish the job with bright coloring and ever-changing backgrounds.

Even when I was a kid and played with "girl" toys, I never had much of a thing for these characters so I'm not the target audience here, but I liked this one well enough to want to read more, if the team returns for another issue. As a one-and-done, this is a great way for folks who like the creators to jump in and out as needed. If you like solid, all-ages comedy, this is a solid pick up, even if you don't fall into the world of MLP as a general rule. de Campi and company prove they can tell a good story without a need to be into the characters themselves.

Hacktivist 1
Created by Alyssa Milano
Written by Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly
Illustrated by Marcus To and Ian Herring
Published by Archaia (Boom!)

What if the creators of Facebook wanted to change the world by using their coding skills to help activists and revolutionaries? And what if the US Government wanted to back their efforts? That's the premise on this title that was big on promotional backing due to a high-profile creator but didn't do much to impress me.

I'm always a bit dubious about comics that brag about being created by someone but you can't find their name anywhere in the actual details. This one was actually better than most of its ilk, but as my buddy Aaron Duran said over at Newsarama, it feels like it was written by a person who watches a lot of spy movies instead of someone who understands how it all works.

We begin with a desperate group of people agitating against the Tunisian Government, but the finer details of why are left alone, because that would be too complex for the light tone of the book. Props for hitting on a region with political issues instead of creating a fictional one, but given that the revolutionaries would more likely be Islamist  and therefore unlikely to be led by a t-shirt clad woman, it feels like the writers were tone-deaf to the actual parties and picked it to be topical.

From there, the focus shifts to the two Facebook creator analogues, one of who likes to play fast and loose and gets caught, but it's okay because the well-dressed CIA agent wants the good looking computer geek into the Family. It's just far too pat and easy, and yes, I'm sure things will go wrong, but I only know this because, like Nate in the book, I do in fact read a lot of Ludlam-like books and stories.

The art by To and Herring doesn't help matters, being far too slick for the gritty revolution sections and stilted during the long, boring exposition about Nate and his partner. Panels are drawn at an angle just to do it, with no purpose to the design of the visuals. The character designs are generic, and the whole thing feels like it could be cut and pasted out of this comic and into another one without changing the story.

Hacktivist is a nice idea, but the execution is sorely lacking, to the point that I'm not sure I'll continue into a second issue. There's just not enough here to keep me going, when things like Think Tank are doing the whole "Government does things you don't know about" premise so much better.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Utrom Empire 1
Written by Paul Allor
Illustrated by Andy Kuhn and Bill Crabtree
Published by IDW

The story behind Krang is revealed at last, mixed in with what's been going on for the would-be conqueror as Paul Allor tackles a spin-off series going on roughly at the same time as the main books that's well done but probably only for the hard-core fan.

IDW is absolutely fearless about putting out extra titles alongside their main books, which is pretty impressive for a smaller publisher. They certainly take a Big Two approach when it comes to a comic like this, which enhances the world of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles but doesn't expect to be a big seller.

If you are a fan of the re-imagining, then this one is a treat. The Fugitoid and Stockman are back, working at similar yet cross purposes as they wish to stop Krang. Meanwhile, Allor gives the Utrom Empire a backstory that just wouldn't fit into an arc of the main series. By linking the two concepts together, showing Krang's insane doubling down on trying to retain control, we get a nice echo because in its own way, Fugitoid is about to do the same thing.

Andy Kuhn returns to a Turtles book again, though this time paired with Crabtree instead of Pattison. He does some great work making the Utroms look animated despite being brains outside of their protective jars, giving them strong emotional looks. His character work for everyone else is a bit weaker, with some nice panel constructions but lacking some of the tension you'd like to see from an action comic. Crabtree uses a lot of tone shading for this one, which works, but neither can the frequent lack of depth or backgrounds on the page.

Utrom Empire isn't going to be for everyone, but if you really dig the IDW Turtles (and I do), then it's worth grabbing. Otherwise, the main book is plenty.

Pretty Deadly 4
Written by Kelly Sue Deconnick
Illustrated by Emma Rios and Jordie Bellaire
Published by Image Comics

Things begin to fall into place as the players in Deconnick's intricate drama meet up for a confrontation with consequences for all involved in another absolutely gorgeous issue of Pretty Deadly.

I love Deconnick's rich language, because it really adds to the mood. These characters are obscure on purpose and speak accordingly.Every once in awhile though, this book teeters on being just a bit too obtuse. When the girl who wasn't killed asks why no one ever gives a straight answer, the reply back is "What fun would that be?" Well, I get that, but you have to be careful you don't overdo it. There are some moments where this one could use a bit more clarity, especially when dealing with just why Death needs the girl in the first place. I'm sure all will be explained in time, but it has to be soon.

The art on this issue is spectacular as always, and as long as Rios and Bellaire keep knocking it out of the park, Deconnick gets a lot of rope to tell her story. The scenes in Death's realm steal the show, as usual. Countless butterflies (colored bright orange) form into the woman that has failed Death. Grey roses litter the ground, their number turning them from something of life into a bone-like structure that saps life. Rios' linework in these sections looks a bit like something Walt Simonson might have crafted for his underworld, and it's stunning.

Scenes in the mortal world are just as strong, as Rios shows the desperation in the faces and bodies of the Mason and Ginny, the daughter of his wronged love. In some panels, nothing but the raw emotion of battle is shown, while others provide a look at their savage brutality. Meanwhile, Bellaire, who really should be winning this year's Eisner for Best Colorist, enhances the look and feel of the book with backgrounds that give clear indicators of place changes and small details like the different shades of a person's bruised face. Green eyes pop out at the reader from Coyote while Ginny wears black rings around hers that change slightly based on her emotional state.

Every mystery must have its solution, and we're definitely working towards some resolutions here. Deconnick is giving readers plenty of clues, mixed in with metaphors and veiled references that are almost as pretty as the artwork. I'm just hopeful that this one will stick the landing. When the story is so complex, doing so is crucial. As it stands, I'm definitely up for the ride.

Good Samaritan: Unto Dust #1
Written by Mike Luoma
Illustrated by Federico Guillen and Ken Lateer
Published by Glow in the Dark Comics

A priest with powers exorcises crime in Vatican 2-era Boston but his biggest foes might be within the ranks of the cloth in a horror story that shows the difficulty in trying to reform a faith.

Father Sullivan is the typical good priest working with a corrupt structure who has the power to make significant changes. In this, he's the same kind of character as the "good cop in a bad department" theme and Luoma sticks close to the parallels, as Sullivan becomes ensnared in parish politics, all while the reader knows its the Cardinal that's the problem. The dialogue suffers a bit in its earnestness, but overall the plot is solid, if familiar. How you feel about that will depend on your personal taste.

Guillen's art appears to be pencils without ink, as the shading of the buildings have a graphite look to them, but in this era of digital pencils, it's hard to tell. The overall feel is very loose and unstructured, with the supernatural elements looking sketchier and appropriately ephemeral. Scenes of normal life are played pretty straight, though with some good changes in perspective. The coloring is vivid, despite using a lot of darker shades and hues. For something on this level, it's pretty strong work.

This one was sent to me, and appears on Comixology Submit. If you like religious-themed horror, it's worth taking a look at, but be aware there's some rough spots.

X-Files/Ghostbusters: Conspiracy
Written by Erik Burnham
Illustrated by Salvador Navarro and Esther Sanz
Published by IDW

The Lone Gunmen travel to New York to call on you-know-who in a story that's a lot of fun but continues to cause issues in terms of how these characters can all share the same world.

I know I'm a broken record on this, but how private would the X-Files really be in a world where New York City has had several very public ghost outbreaks and there's even a branch in Chicago? Why would the FBI try to cover up things that Mayor Bloomberg (or his analogue) is paying for with tax dollars?

I'm sorry, I just can't get that out of my head, and it does ruin the enjoyment of seeing the Gunmen refuse to keep their hands to themselves and nearly causing a serious ghost outbreak, while Ray and company bicker and banter over them like they were little kids meddling in a science lab. Burnham does an excellent job mixing the two groups of quirky characters together, getting lots of little things right, but overall, all we get is a confirmation of the future-helper theory, which could have been done without involving the Ghostbusters.

Navarro's art for the Gunmen is great, but his likenesses for the Ghostbusters are really off-model, as though it was okay to photo-reference the character actors but he was afraid Bill Murray's lawyers might have words if Venkman was too on-model. His ghosts are suitably creepy and realistic, and he handles the comedic tone well, but this one's just not doing anything for me, and I might be done with this one. Not ever crossover is a good idea, as this one is showing--which is shame because the main idea is so darn good.

That was the notable stuff from my perspective that didn't get a longer write-up. How about you? Anything I should double back for? Let me know in the comments.
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Deadly Class 1

Deadly Class 1
Written by Rick Remender
Illustrated by Wes Craig and Lee Loughridge
Published by Image Comics

A young man on the streets is wanted by the law--and a very unusual group of fellow outcasts--in this series that takes the idea of Charles Xavier's X-Men and turns it into something more realistic.

First issues of creator-owned projects are always a tricky thing, because you want to tell a strong story but you also have to set up the world for the reader. Remender nails it on this one, using the fact that Marcus is homeless and hiding out as a way to explore the desperation of his world, late 80s San Francisco. Reagan is President and the world is a cold, uncaring place for a displaced youth who didn't want to be in this country in the first place. He's clearly wanted for something, but the details aren't clear. A mysterious organization wants him, too, setting up the big reveal of a teenage assassin school, complete with a secret hideout, quirky headmaster, and rules that Marcus is sure to break.

It's a lot to talk about but thanks to strong collaboration with the artists, Remender is able to space out his dialogue with visuals that add to the mystery, taking the edge off the exposition. A ton of tight panels (sometimes as many as 12 by my count) break up the flow of the reading, putting specific emphasis on the lines, as we concentrate on the look or body posture of a character as they deliver a plot point or key decision. It's not Remender's best dialogue, but the art does a lot to help it out while we wait to get to the good stuff.

Look at how much those faces tell us!
The biggest draw (no pun intended) on this one for me is the art. Craig and Loughridge combine to give this one a distinctive feel. Craig's linework is detailed and realistic, looking like a more restrained Paul Pope. You can see every crease on the Headmaster's suit. In a splash page covered in smaller panels, every drop of Marcus' blood is accounted for, as are the tears from his face ans the tiny flecks of rubble created from a gunshot. Facial expressions drive the action, with a lot of close-ups to see the terror in a cop's face or the calm demeanor of one of Marcus' rescuers.

Crag's fine detailing is preserved by the coloring of Loughridge, who works hard to emphasize the details rather than bury them in shading. Eschewing the usual path of coloring everything in realistic tones that you might find in a book like this one, Loughridge feels free to break from the pattern whenever it suits him. Some pages are tinted a dull pinkish red, with everything based on that template. In other cases, he uses dark blues, doing the same thing. Yellow forms the basis for several other pages. I don't know why the creative team went in this direction but it's brilliant. When Loughridge mixes these tones together in a single page (such as when dull plum becomes varying shades of blue), the contrast hits the reader full in the face.

Loughridge setting the color tone.
The coloring choices take the emphasis off what something should look like and puts the focus on what Craig wants it to look like, which is really innovative. This wouldn't work on a comic where you need the coloring to be standard (like a superhero book, for example), but it's perfect for Deadly Class. The idea of using varying shades like they used to do in 1960s comic books but without barreling over the line art is a really good one, and I'd recommend this one to readers based on that alone.

Fortunately, however, there's plenty of other things to like about Deadly Class. We have plenty of mystery (Why were people after Marcus? Who does this league of assassins assassinate? Can any of them be trusted?), a main character who has a strong voice of disaffected 80s youth, and a premise that's unrealistic and yet grounded in the reality of 1980s America all at the same time.

Deadly class is a book you don't want to be schooled on later and is highly recommended.

January 26, 2014

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Sunday Readings 01/26/2014

Hello again to the weekly links post here at Panel Patter, where I give you some suggestions for Sunday reading. A collection of odds and ends from the various links I may have looked myself and it's possible you may have missed.

A quick side note before we begin. For some reason, Panel Patter outside links were not changing color. This has been fixed. No more hidden links!

***  Matt Bors' The Nib is an excellent site that puts up comics daily Monday through Friday, collecting together everyone from Erika Moen to Tom Tomorrow. I'm hoping to do a review of it soon, because in this era of no Google Reader, sites like The Nib are important to finding comics that you like. Best of all, my understanding is that Bors pays the creators involved to be syndicated by him.  I mention all this because my lead-off link today is one I shared myself on my own personal networks earlier, namely a cartoon explaining the history of cat litter. Andy Warner tells the tale with witty illustrations (I especially love the ash cat prints all over the house) and cold hard facts. Just imagine your life without cat litter for a moment, and thank the dude that made it next time you're cuddling your kitty.

***  Women's History Month may not be until March, but this Tumblr blogger has decided to start the party early, with a different focus each week in February, including an internet launch party for the new Ms. Marvel and a week dedicated to Sif. The blog runner is a bit slash-happy*, but the overall effort is well worth lauding and calling attention to. Put this one on your dashboard, Tumblr-types.

***  At the risk of pulling a hipster moment, I was supporting comics projects on Kickstarter long before it was cool--or a regular thing that self-published folks (and some not-so-self-published folks, like Fantagraphics) did to raise money for their project. For whatever reason, the Kickstarter thing really eats at some people, which makes no sense to me. Now that I think we've learned that the accepted practice is to only back projects that are already completed (like taking a webcomic to print or creating a print run for a completed issue) or those with big enough names that failure is incredibly unlikely (such as Scott Snyder being on board for Rachel Deering's In the Dark horror anthology), it's a logical business model where the creators involved get money via a pre-order system, and maybe are able to pocket a bit on the side, if they're lucky.

This move definitely side-steps publishers, but that's not the worst thing in the world. Sometimes a pub has a thin margin and can't risk your baby failing. Sometimes the pub itself is small and uses KS to get the funding it needs to pay for the books it wants to publish (such as Yeti Press did last year)/ Sometimes you're just obsessive enough that you want complete control. That's perfectly okay, if you understand what you've potentially giving up by not going through a regular publisher, even a small one like 2dCloud.

I say all this because of this great research piece by Corey Blake for Robot 6 about how KS would be 2% o the direct market. That puts it in line with Boom! and Valiant in terms of market share. If you think of Kickstarter as just being a distributor that takes a cut (you know, just like Diamond), then really, what's the big deal here? It feels like this one is just a bunch of anger over just not liking that the old ways are dying.

***  This one isn't strictly comics, but I share it because it meshes with my strong digital-first philosophy and puts the lie to something I hear over and over again. Turns out that contrary to popular belief, people are reading. They just might not be reading the way--or the things--that book snobs want them to read. Note how high the digital numbers are. That's where the perception gap is, I believe. Because overpriced bookstores that carry too many copies of the same book or promote the wrong parts of their business and newspapers are closing, everyone thinks "OH MY GOD NO ONE READS." That's simply not, true--we're just evolving as readers. It's the same as those who only look at Diamond numbers to find out what the best selling comics are, without realizing that Smile and Drama have kicked Batman's ass for a year now.

Perceptions and bias always trump facts. I'm sure I'll be seeing "OH MY GOD NO ONE READS" links in my feed later this year, just like the perpetual "NO GIRLS READ COMICS" links that don't look past their narrow corridors into the wider world of readers and reading.

***  Art Alert 1:  Heidi MacDonald of The Beat spots this really early Jack Kirby art, which is a great find. There's more once you click into her short article about it.

***  Art Alert 2:  Tom Scioli shares some of his sketches for his upcoming GI Joe/Transformers work.

***  Art Alert 3:  Speaking of Transformers, look at this amazing Incredible Change-Bots art from Jeffrey Brown, who writes a parody that's better than the original source material.

***  Finally, Atomic Books continues its series of Best of Lists with cool creators. Here's the opinion of Box Brown, Liz Prince, and Josh Bayer, respectively.

That's it for me. What did you read this week that maybe I missed? Feel free to share in the comments.


*Hey if you like slash, more power to you. Enjoy it! Just not my thing. I'd rather see people concentrate on making their own characters and promoting them, personally. Why use that creative effort on something you'll never control and aren't at least getting work for hire payment?

January 25, 2014

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Judge Dredd Mega-City 2 Issue 1

Written by Douglas Wolk
Illustrated by Ulises Farinas and Ryan Hill
Published by IDW

An exchange program finds Judge Dredd sent to a city that's unlike anything he ever wanted in this tongue-in-cheek fish out of water story gets off to a great dark comedy start with absolutely amazing art.

I'm a little late to the Judge Dredd party, but I have become a big fan recently, catching up on older adventures here and there and reading the newer stuff, both from 2000 AD and IDW. The new movie sealed the deal, which I guess means it helped make someone a Dredd fan.*

So if I can appreciate and enjoy the premise of sending Dredd somewhere that doesn't want him killing anybody, I can only imagine how this one is for those who have been fans for years. They'd know his violent history even better than me, so watching him get frustrated by his inability to mete out justice the usual way would be even more amusing.

As it stands, this one really plays things fast and loose. We open with Dredd in a high-speed chase where he has to argue with his handlers about camera footage and try to apprehend someone with "friendly bullets" that bounce harmlessly off the fugitive's car. The gun itself is shaped like a water pistol and has a smiling teddy bear on the side, in one of many, many visual jokes that Farinas and Hill include.

By the time Dredd grounds the guy, he's thwarted by disguises and heavy traffic, leading to verbal wordplay that meshes nicely with the art. Dredd can't cross the street, because there's a ton of vehicles, ranging from a garish pink bus-like thing (complete with yellow smiley face), the futuristic equivalent of a clown car, and even a man wearing a retro space suit with a spring on his ass to bounce from place to place.

And of course, a person flipping off Dredd.

Little touches like that are all over the place, and I don't know who exactly came up with them, though if it's anything like the Roberson-Culver collaboration on Edison Rex, it's likely a combination of the creators involved, working out of the same thematic ideas. There's just so many of them, making this a comic you go back and re-read over and over again. Things like a scene of Dredd, back in Mega-City 1, shooting at perps on a giant truck with people falling off, bleeding and dying make you stop and look at just how many things you missed the first time. (For example, until Jen Vaughn pointed it out, I missed the middle finger guy.)

Smiling Gun is Smiling.
Getting back to the script for a moment, Wolk's characterizations are so strong. Dredd is unbending, caring only about the law, but now he's in a world where the law adjusts if the money flows, and his concept of right and wrong are at odds with what he's going to have to uphold, like it or not. There's a lot of comedy to be mined from that, and Wolk nails it, especially Dredd's hatred of the televised nature of all his actions. We see that this is very natural for everyone else, and his discomfort is bound to be a major plot point as we go along. Meanwhile, the citizens gawk, even as Dredd himself fumes.

This leads to some great lines, like the interrupted dialogue of "First name Doing, last name T--" or Mega-City 2's Judge Kennedy telling Dredd he has "an East Coast attitude"--which is something I might need to get use to soon. But we also have a darker edge running across things. There's a hint that everything isn't as bulletproof as Mega-City 2 would have Dredd believe, and finding it could end up being bloody and explosive--just the kind of story that's perfect for the character. After all, if you want something rooted out, wouldn't Judge Anderson (if she's still alive) be a better choice?

Something fishy is going on, and I'm sure we'll find it out just at the right time.

How long did this take them to draw??
In the meantime, this one is worth grabbing for the art alone. I've talked a bit above about how good Farinas and Hill are, and I can't stress that enough. Things like viewing a scene of a crime being committed from the visor of Dredd's helmet or showing highways that go off in Escher-like directions are just the tip of the iceberg. When you look at things such as the two-page splash that introduces us to Mega-City 2, anyone with an appreciation for fine art in comics will be blown away.

I can't even begin to imagine how long it took Farinas to draw that splash. Everything--and I do mean everything--is detailed. We get advertisements, highway signs (with a nod to the first movie Dredd, Stallone), smog, flying objects, and more cars than a Detroit factory line in the 1960s.  Then Hill comes in and colors the cars in different shades, no matter how small they are.

Let me say that again, because it's worth repeating: First Farinas draws hundreds of cars on a splash page, then Hill gives them different colors to ensure we understand that Mega-City 2 is a place based on variety and color.

That's just not done anymore in most comics. In an age where there are creators who draw blank faces on background characters, these two are making sure tiny vehicles are individualized as much as possible and calling George Perez a punk. These two are putting on a show, and they do it in a soft, rounded way that gives it a distinctive look from someone like, say, Jim Mahfood, who might be inclined to do a similar splash page but would fill it with angular lines and ink fills that dirtied up the proceedings. This is a very clean and bright look, whether it's Judge Dredd's iconic outfit or the supporting characters for a television shot he interrupts, annoying everyone.

This is one damned fine comic, and even if you barely know anything about Judge Dredd, you really need to read it. Anyone with an appreciation for what comic art can do will be amazed with the results in this first issue. I know I was. It's going to be hard for the team to outdo themselves, but if anyone can, I think they might just pull it off. Either way, I cannot wait for the next issue. Get in on this one now and be ahead of the curve.

*Seriously, guys. That movie not only was excellent, it may be the most diverse superhero movie I've ever seen and even showed people of color living in the future--if it's a bit of a bleak one. Probably a top five superhero film for me.

January 24, 2014

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Some Thoughts on Colorists for Colorist Appreciation Day

Adrienne Roy, one of the best
of the old colorists.
While hitting up Twitter earlier today, I was informed that it's Colorist Appreciation Day, which was loosely put together with a hashtag of the same name. I wish there'd been more notice--or maybe I just missed it, because I have been thinking a lot about the way comics are colored and would have worked up a longer blog post about it.

Still, I didn't want to let this go without a few words, so consider this a preview. Some time I might, either on my own or with others, sit down and do something longer on the subject. Color in comics is a very important subject and definitely worthy of further discussion.

Also, please note these are the opinions and perspective of a comics fan. I am not a color artist or any other kind of artist. Things that I think may be way off base because of it. And a final note: I'm sure I'm going to forget to talk about someone I respect and admire here, so I apologize in advance. This is more of a series of loosely connected thoughts to mark the occasion.

I often talk about how I've been a comic book fan since I learned to read. And when I had a lot less comics to read (which, looking back, is both a good thing and a bad thing), I knew them inside and out, right down to dialogue. I carried new ones with my to my grandparents' houses and would read them to other members of the family.

Since I read a lot of Marvel Tales, collecting the Spider-Man reprints, I knew Stan Lee, John Romita, Gil Kane, and many others long before I understood the reasons why Jack Kirby was amazing or that John Byrne was notorious for changing things. While others cooler than me were reading TMNT in black and white, I was still mostly into Marvel books, with a bit of DC here and there.

I knew the books so well I could even tell you the differences in the lettering between Artie Simek and Sam Rosen and why I thought Artie was a bit better. (I've always had opinions.)

But you know, I barely noticed the colorists. And I don't think that's uncommon.

As I grew a bit older, I learned how much I liked Adrienne Roy's colors on the Batman books, but it was mostly a "they're brighter" sort of thing. Very unrefined. Even now, I'm ashamed to admit that beyond Glynis Wein (Oliver), I don't think I can name a colorist from the older books off the top of my head. 

Who Colored This? Not even
the internet seems to know!
Spectacular Spider-Man 200 is one of my all-time favorite comics. I have no idea who colored it, and neither does the Grand Comic Book Database.

Says a lot, right?

If you look at my reviews, I list writer and artist and publisher. But until recently, far too recently, "artist" only meant the person penciling and inking the book. I can pat myself on the back all I want for trying to talk about the line work in things when others sometimes slip into "writer-stuff-only" mode, but for the longest time, I didn't bother with something that's essential to the viewing of a comic book.

When you phrase it that way: "How can you exclude one of the key visual elements of a book?" it seems stupid to even consider. And yet, as a rule, the colorist doesn't get a lot of comments when books are reviewed. 

It took working with David Pepose and the Best Shots team at Newsarama to make me re-think things. Listing the colorist when doing long form reviews made me start taking note of who was coloring my favorite books. I started to notice the way that Ronda Pattison's work on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles helped the reader know which Turtle we were following so that the line artist didn't have to make artificial changes or constantly draw their weapons or masks. When a book was over-processed, as some of the early Valiant issues were, I realized that wasn't so much the people drawing the book as those coming after them in the coloring area.

Just being forced to list the names of the entire creative team, not merely the "top tier talent" opened my eyes to the fact that comics are so much more than just writer and line artist. I'm still learning about how they work in harmony together (and how they can ruin things, if uncoordinated), and there are times (such writing a 125 word pellet) where discussing the color art isn't one of the three to four things you can mention. But now that I think in these terms, I look at comics very differently.

Bellaire adds blood to Kelly's art.
Take the series "Three" for example. It features Kieron Gillen as the writer, with Ryan Kelly on line art. Kelly absolutely kills the depictions on this thing, which is highly recommended if you haven't read it yet. But the color work from Jordie Bellaire, who for my money might be the best colorist in comics right now, is what seals the deal. Her additions, such as small drops of unrelated blood across several of the pages, makes the comic complete in a way that just giving a tint to the backgrounds would not. 

In another example, Pretty Deadly, Bellaire helps show the reader when the scene has shifted, based on the way she's coloring the characters, the backgrounds, and the objects. We switch freely and easily between Death, Life, and the opening narrative scenes because there are visual clues from the shading, leaving Emma Rios free to use her linework to tell us more about the characters themselves and the world we live in.

It's no coincidence that a lot of my favorite books have "Jordie Bellaire, Colorist" attached to them.

Coloring this monthly has
to suck.
I could go on all night just giving examples. As much as I enjoy Steve Lieber in black and white, Rachelle Rosenberg's colors bring out the best in his work on Superior Foes. (You should get an Eisner nom just for having to keep coloring the Shocker over and over again without needing a trip to Ravencroft.*) But she also did a heck of job with the colors on Alabaster: Wolves. While the overall tune is muted because of the bleak world Dancy lives in, part of why we know it's so bleak is because of the tones she uses. When bright red blood is spilled, it's all the more striking because Rosenberg has kept the shading bland, allowing it to stand out. Little touches abound, such as the slight coloring of Dancy's nose or the bit of dirt on the werewolf's feet in her human form.

Rosenberg, like Dave Stewart, understands that different books require different looks. Stewart is probably the best known colorist in comics today, winning most of the awards available to colorists. While many try to emulate his style--and fail badly--Stewart's look is very deceptive. He works in the world of brows, grays, and other muted tones, but is able to get so much more out of them by knowing just when to keep to the darkness and when to move into the light. He balances dull white, dilluted red, and gray-blue so well in BPRD: Vampire, to name a recent example. Even when I find a book to be pedestrian, Stewart's colors usually will be enough to keep me reading.

The problem is that Stewart has been so successful, some in the coloring world thing that every book needs to look like this. It's essential for Hellboy's world to have a pervading darkness. Batman can live in that world, too, to a degree. But one of the best things that even happened to Daredevil was getting him back to the bright red shades of his early days. I really hate when a colorist tries to be Stewart, especially when they lack his subtle touches. The results can be dark, dreary, and hard to read.

We're not in Mega-City 1 anymore, Toto!
But this is a celebration of color, not a critique of the genre. So let's move on to one last positive example, one that just came out this week. When you think of Judge Dredd's Mega-City 1, you tend to think of a world that's grimy and gritty, right? So when Dredd must go to Mega-City 2, which is the polar opposite of Mega City 1, the last thing you want to do is make it look visually similar to the city we're familiar with.

Enter Ryan Hill. In Hill's hands, Mega-City 2 is a flashy, neon place with plenty of pinks and light greens and other things you'd only see meshed with grimy blacks to create a garish look if we were in Mega-City 1. On the other hand, Mega-City 2 makes these all look normal, because they are everywhere. Even the shading on Dredd is lighter than usual, but he's still the darkest figure in any room he enters. The speed lines are even pink, for God's sake!

When we flash back to Mega-City 1, Hill shifts things, making the same basic colors duller and flatter. We don't need any artificial clues to know the place. Like Bellaire on Pretty Deadly, Hill does the work for the rest of the creative team with the color art. 

Imagine this in dull brown, and weep.
That's the type of thing a good colorist does these days. When they do their jobs as well as the writers and artists we know and love, they are an essential part of the creative picture, and should not be overlooked. In lesser hands, something like Amelia Cole might not feel the same, because it lacks Ruiz Moreno's bright, old-school superhero shades. Imagine that book for a minute, with its little visual touches from artist Nick Brokenshire, buried in a mire of brown because the colorist thinks that's the way all book should look. Would it have sold out at IDW and merit a second volume of stories? 

Maybe, but somehow I doubt it.

So let's take some time to make sure we're recognizing the contributions of these creators who are every bit as important as the writer and the line artist. I can't go back and pretend I always cared, but I can recognize why we should, and vow to do more of it in the future. (I'd like to think I already am.) Not all colorists need to be praised for what they do, just as sometimes a book might feature linework that's just okay and only needs a brief mention, or when a book's art is the draw over the scripting.

But to ignore it is wrong, and far too often, comics fans are guilty of this when the colorist's name isn't the same as the writer and/or primary artist. Let's change that now, and use Colorist Appreciation Day as a springboard to looking more fully and deeply at the books we love to read.

*Yup, I sure did name Marvel's answer to Arkham right there. MMMS, that's me.)