February 28, 2014

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Digging into Digital: Kel McDonald and Dark Horse Launch Misfits of Avalon Online Ahead of Print Release

In a press release from Dark Horse and on her own website, Kel McDonald announced that her upcoming book from Dark Horse Comics, Misfits of Avalon, would also be serialized on her website each weekday until the publication date.

McDonald describes it briefly as follows: "As I told Publisher’s Weekly yesterday, Misfits of Avalon will be about a group of magical girls who are jerks. They are giving magic rings and must retrieve a magic sword." Dark Horse adds that the series will tie in with the Arthurian myths, and that "they [the girls] may not be the heroes in the story..."

The complete first book (McDonald states there will be three in all) is scheduled for an October print release, and serializing it will give the book time to build an audience, just as McDonald has done for her other projects, including Sorcery 101. She is an extremely prolific creator and anthologist, being the person behind a series of fairy tale books featuring legends from different continents.

This is not the first time a book has seen a web pre-release, and it makes sense because many webcomic readers also want a hard copy for their bookshelf or a collection for their digital device, either to read a story for the first time or re-read it all in one bite.

Naturally, there are only a few pages up at this time. We see one of the girls looking very much like any ordinary young woman, starting her day--or maybe, not starting it, as the case may be. The linework is McDonald's usual quality, refined over time. She does a great job with setting up the panels with lots of details, like notes on the fridge or a stray wine bottle, that give us an idea of who this person is before we've even gotten to know her.

It's nice to get in on this one from the start and see how it develops. You can find the comic here, and it is available to read via the best way to read webcomics, Comic-Rocket as well.

Misfits of Avalon will publish in October from Dark Horse Comics.
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Get in the van with Vandroid 1

Vandroid 1

Written by Tommy Lee Edwards and Noah Smith
Illustrated by Dan McDaid and Melissa Edwards
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Vandroid is an ambitious multimedia project/love letter to 80's action movies by Tommy Lee Edwards, Noah Smith, Dan McDaid and Melissa Edwards. The aim of the project is to "resurrect" a lost-classic movie called, of course, Vandroid. They've discovered the trailer for the movie and even a short clip from the soundtrack (I understand the full soundtrack will be forthcoming). The comic (this will be a 5-issue miniseries) is an adaptation of the "recently unearthed" screenplay for that lost classic. If you enjoyed the low-rent science fiction and action movies of the 1980's with tough guys, big guns, and bigger hair, then you will love not only this book but the whole Vandroid experience. 

Vandroid tells the story of Taylor Grey, an unscrupulous computer designer whose very first attempt to activate an artificial intelligence goes horribly, fatally wrong. Taylor's employer is unwilling to continue the project (Project Horizon), but Taylor has other shady backers that are willing to do so (as shady backers are wont to do). So Taylor decides to take this project to his old roommate at MIT, a down-on-his-luck drug-addicted schlemiel named Chuck Carducci, who once made a name for himself in the 1970's designing custom vans (and is also apparently a robotics genius), but is now an object of scorn and ridicule as a has-been and burnout. Chuck's so low that even his drug dealer is telling him to get himself together. 

But Chuck has dreams, and this robotics project is just the thing to get him back on top. Taylor knows Chuck is desperate, and glad to have the work, and so Taylor takes full advantage. Chuck pours his heart and soul into making this android his greatest achievement, and (spoiler alert) he succeeds. He's built this android to be everything he thought he was, and everything he wishes he could be.  Not only that, but the android has absorbed Chuck's journals and diary entries so the android decides that it, in fact, is Chuck Carducci. Not surprisingly, things go about as well for Chuck as you would expect. At the end of the first issue, the Vandroid is on the loose and Taylor finds out what happened to Chuck. 
This issue sets a high bar for the ones to come. Everything in this issue feels not just authentic to the 1980's, but authentic to the sub-"Terminator" level science fiction movies from the 1980's (think of something like "Trancers" or "The Wraith"). From the cheesy "fake science" dialogue at the beginning of the book, to the fact that the main protagonist (Taylor Grey) looks like the perfect 80's amoral character (he made me think of some combination of Gordon Gekko from "Wall Street" and Ellis from "Die Hard" but with hair courtesy of Van Halen and the computer genius of Steve Gutenberg's character from "Short Circuit"), to the vans and the cars and the hair and the clothes. 

The art from Dan McDaid has a rough, stylized feel, and in certain panels had some kinetic action that reminded me a little of a gritty, slightly less loose Paul Pope. The coloring here is great as well, as it sets a somewhat dirty mood occasionally crossed with the glitzier environs of Southern California. The creators have tapped into something great with this one. I'm not sure if this would resonate with someone younger but as a child of the 1980's I kind of fell in love with the images in this book.  

There's great storytelling in Vandroid, not necessarily in the sense that "Watchmen" is great (though the story is extremely engaging and the dialogue is fantastic); instead, what they seem to have tried to achieve here was something fun and authentic to the style of 1980's B-movie cinema. In that, this is an extremely successful first issue.

To truly experience Vandroid, don't just read the book. You need to see the trailer and listen to the music. These have clearly been created with a lot of love; the book (and the project as a whole) doesn't feel at all like mockery or satire but instead like a detailed, entertaining homage to a genre and a time gone by. So, put on your ray-bans, adjust your mullet, and pop some Rockwell* into the tape deck, and take a ride in Vandroid.

* "Somebody's Watching Me". Come on, you know you loved that song.


February 27, 2014

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The Dancing Dead Rats in The Remains #1

Written by Cullen Bunn
Drawn by A.C. Zamudio
Colored by Carlos Nicolas Zamudio
Monkeybrain Comics

The Remains #1 is one helluva creepy comic book.  It's hobo horror as a man, Cole Jensen, walks up to a farm, seeking a bit of work. Or that's at least what he says he's there for.  Or maybe it’s the rats that are really the creepy part, the dancing rats that are introduced early in the story more as a child’s exaggerated sense of the world.  Cullen Bunn’s writing lures us into the comic but it’s A.C and Carlos Nicolas Zamudio’s artwork and colors that really make us squirm as hobos and rats become these darkly sinister manifestations of some hidden evil that moves in the shadows of the farmhouse.

Zamudio’s drawings set the scene by painting a picturesque farmhouse.  Taking place over forty years ago, her drawings are timeless, giving the setting an innocent feel.  Two sisters play, argue and do chores around the farm as their aging father has to accept that he can’t run the farm as he once used to.  Things change; things grow old and it’s eventually up to the young to support and work for the old.  Zamudio shows us one of those summer days when these kinds of changes are just beginning.  The oldest girl, Birdie, is eager to help her father.  Zamudio draws these moments a rustic innocence. Even when Jensen shows up, he’s a grotesque man but you can never be too sure whether he’s really that way or if it’s just Birdie’s perception and imagination at work coloring our own first impressions of the man.

Bunn already plants that doubt in our head with the very first lines of the comic, “The dead rats danced the day the hired man came around.  My father might have scolded me for saying such a foolish thing.  He didn’t care much for dreams and fancies-- nightmares either.”  Bunn’s writing captures an American simpleness.  Birdie, her sister and her parents aren’t complex people even if Birdie at first seems to have an active imagination.  Bunn and Zamudio are telling one of those all-American farm stories that is about a by-gone era.  A stranger comes to town, she’s frightened by him and suddenly we can’t help but see him through her eyes.  He is a frightening figure but her dad welcomes him in, giving him a job and a place to sleep out by the barn.

And then we see Birdie’s dancing rats.  Bunn and Zamudio take us into the barn and the whole world changes.  Even just the simple job they’re given of going into the barn to hunt and kill rats is enough to make your skin crawl.  That in itself is frightening but the barn proves to be a much more sinister and evil place than anyone knew.  Is it a coincidence that Birdie and her sister discover the truth just as he new hired hand sits outside of the barn, perched like he’s waiting for something?  The Remains #1 is about the darkness that only children can see and Bunn and Zamudio drag us into a world where things that are dead don’t stay dead and strangers are a portent to something much, much more horrific than the world we live in.

You won’t want to go into a barn after reading The Remains #1.  Just the simple chore of watching the two sisters and their dog hunt and kill the rats that infest the barn is enough to keep you up at night but then Bunn and the Zamudio’s have to twist events even more, creating this gnawing feeling at your soul all as Cole Jensen sits outside, having a smoke and waiting for you to emerge from the darkness.  Everything changes when he walked up to the house but it feels like whatever is in the barn has always been there.
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Subscription Comic News: Restructured Oily Offers First Bundle and Cartozia Tales on Sale

My new favorite publisher header.
Anyone who reads Panel Patter on a regular basis knows that I love getting comics in the mail. Here are two pieces of news relating to getting comics in the mail, for those who are of a similar interest.

First off, Oily Comics has revealed its first bundle plan now that it's moved out of the monthly schedule, as publisher Charles Forsman announced a little while ago. I'm happy to see that it didn't take long for Forsman to put together something new, which looks to be a potential model for future orders from the company. Instead of doing small quarter-sized minis, it looks like there will be one feature book (in this case, written and drawn by none other than Noah Van Sciver!), along with what I expect will be minis in the old Oily tradition. Also offered as part of the package are prints and a fancy envelope. Other creators involved in this bundle are Forsman, Aaron Cockle, and Dan Zettwoch on the comic side and Jessica Campbell on the print end.

Forsman hopes to add more if possible, and I love that his contribution is "something." The package will be limited to only a run of 200 and is $20.

Meanwhile, the much-delayed third issue of Cartozia Tales will soon be on its way to subscribers and in celebration, editor Isaac Cates is offering a sale on a 10-issue subscription for a limited time. I reviewed (and loved) the first two issues and am happily subscribed to this one, but now is a great time to get in, as the reduced rate of $62 is only about $6 an issue, which is a steal for a 44 page mini-comic with some of the best creators whose careers are about to really take off, like Lucy Bellwood and Jen Vaughn, along with existing stars such as James Kochalka and Ben Towle.

For those needing a refresher, Cartozia is the story of a shared world where the main creators rotate from issue to issue across parts of the map, meaning that a storyline started by one person may be finished by someone else. With guest stars mixed in, there's a lot of visual and creative variety.

Both are great opportunities that aren't to be missed. Make sure you check them out now, before they're gone!
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Nix Comics Works to Kicks-Start 2 Rock 'n' Roll Themed Books

Nix Comics publisher Ken Eppstein, no stranger to reaching out to crowd source projects above and beyond the usual Nix Comics Quarterly/Western/For Kids line, has another Kickstarter project funding now, looking to get funding via pre-orders for two comics with a music theme.

All of Nix Comics have a strong tie to records or music, because of Eppstein's past running a record store, which he opted to shutter in favor of publishing comics instead.

From the news release, a description of the first offering, "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Record Stores?":

“Adapted from a true to life story about meeting The Ramones by Bela Koe-Krompecher from his popular eponymous blog about the Columbus punk and indie rock scene of the 90s.  Do You Remember Rock N Roll Record Stores is a story about the punk and indie rock scene of the 90s, from the record stores to the seedy bars.  It harkens back to a day before celebrity culture made our idols unapproachable caricatures.  On the edges, this comic is about a couple of goofy record store kids meeting the Ramones, at its core this comic is about a part of our past culture that is sorely missed.  
Do You Remember Rock N Roll Record Stores will be a 24 page, B&W comic written by Bela Koe Krompecher, adapted by Ken Eppstein and illustrated by Andy Bennett."
This one is clearly close to Eppstein's heart, and anyone who is old enough to remember when record stores--hell, CD stores for that matter!--were a thing should find a lot of commonalities in the narrative.

The second offering is longer, at 72 pages, and is, I believe, Nix Comics' first foray into doing a reprint. Again, from the news release, a description of "Pure Entertainment #4 Pocket Book:
"Originally published in the 80s by Look Mom, Comics!, Pure Entertainment #4 brought together some of the best cartooning talent in alternative comics from the New York area (and beyond!) to celebrate, denigrate and generally disseminate Rock Music.  Many of the artists in Pure Entertainment went on to bigger and better things and this reprint will provide a great "Then and now" perspective on these great cartoonists. 
Pure Entertainment will be a 72 page, B&W 5" x 7.5" pocket book edited by Pete Friedrich and featuring pieces by Bob Camp, Peter Kuper, Mort Todd, J.B. Bonivert, Dave Simons, Bobby London, Gary Hallgren, Gene Fama, Michael Fontanelli, Eric Cartier, Voss, Liberatore, and many more! The book includes a huge range illustrated of bands and songs – from early Roxy Music to New York Dolls to Devo to Geza X and everything in between, plus lots of original storylines! Many of the artists in Pure Entertainment went on to bigger and better things and this reprint will show their amazing original stories and also provide a great "Then and now" perspective on these great cartoonists."
The primary goal of this Kickstarter is to ensure there's sufficient interest in the comics, so Eppstein has the goals set up accordingly. $8 gets you the Record Store comic, $13 nabs the reprint, and $18 gets you both comics in a bundle. There are higher options, too, including prints and even an Ice Cream Sunday party, if you are local to Nix Comics' home in Columbus, Ohio.

As of this writing, the project is at about 66.6% funded, which is cool because rock is the tool of the devil, but Satan won't be satisfied (and neither will Ken) until this one hits 100%. Nix Comics have a very high production value and a strong sense of theme, and these two look to be no exception. If you like rock, especially if you're about 30 or older, this is a project to investigate and give some of your hard-earned money.

You can find (and fund) the Nix Comics Kickstarter here.
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Look Straight Ahead

Written and Drawn by Elaine M. Will
Cuckoo's Nest Press/Alternative Comics

Jeremy Knowles has a lot of problems. He's relentlessly bullied at school. The girl he likes is dating his best friend. And perhaps worst of all, the entire weight of the world rests on his shoulders as God tasks him to save the world with the power of art and a precise number of Kit-Kat wrappers. This breathtaking debut graphic novel by Canadian writer/artist Elaine M. Will tackles the subject of mental illness in an imaginative display of artistic styles, panel placements, typefaces, and splashes of color to provide a glimpse into Jeremy's hallucinatory state.

Jeremy, a high school senior, hasn't slept in weeks. When the book opens, he's stumbling along a highway, thinking about death. Though he is soon shown back in school, the effects of his sleeplessness are evident. As Jeremy's behavior becomes more erratic, he escapes into his art, but finds only more demons out to torment him. Finally, things come to a head when Jeremy freaks out on his parents' front lawn. He wakes up in a mental hospital, where he pieces together what has happened to him with the help of his doctors, his fellow patients, and his initially distant but ultimately well-meaning parents.

It's not a straight line from madness to sanity, though. Will's portrayal of the aftermath of bipolar disorder is quite realistic, as Jeremy suffers a relapse and is given a wide berth by his classmates. The book is also unflinchingly realistic in the way medication affects artistic ability, when a phantom asks Jeremy if he'd truly be willing to risk his life for the power to draw again. Jeremy must struggle against his own drawings come to life, in a battle for both his stability of mind and the integrity of his artistic vision.

Will's artistic style is varied, with some of the early scenes having an almost comic-strip-style feel, while the hallucination scenes are more finely detailed, portraying a different layer of reality where Jeremy must fight monsters and bargain with demons. The way dialogue can cross over into different panels and the scattershot placement of panels reminded me a little of Nate Powell, but then, you don't really want a clean formatting in your book about manic depression. Though most of the book is black-and-white, brief splashes of color (and once, a whole page) are used to signal Jeremy's hallucinations, a bit of Technicolor trickery that completely worked for me.

This semi-autobiographical story was one of the last winners of a Xeric Grant, and Will was certainly a worthy recipient. Look Straight Ahead receives my highest possible recommendation for both its great art and its important subject matter that might strike some people a little close to home. Check out her site to receive updates or read the entire book for free, although I really think this book works better in paper format.

February 26, 2014

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Undertow 1 (of 6)

Undertow 1
Created by Steve Orlando and Artyom Trakhanov

Written by Steve Orlando

Ilustrated by Artyom Trakhanov and Thomas Mauer
Image Comics

Can you imagine what it would be like to be an air-breather? Picture the strangeness if somehow your lungs had evolved to take in dry air, as opposed to the life-giving water that we all breathe. How would society evolve on dry land? It's hard to imagine, as all we've ever known is life beneath the surface, within the might of Atlantis, the greatest city in all the seas.

Ok, so none of that is true. But, after you take a look at Undertow you may be convinced that such a world exists (though you might not want to go there as it looks pretty dangerous).  Undertow is a new series that imagines an Earth that evolved very differently from our own; intelligent humanoids live beneath the ocean. Above ground, it's noteworthy that humans have only gotten to the point where they can use tools.

Our way into the story is a character named Ukinnu Alal. He joined the military to flee from his affluent, sheltered, boring Atlantean life. When we meet him, Ukinnu's group is under attack by the legendary anarchist and terrorist Redum Anshargal. The story then shifts to Redum's narration and perspective (the perspective shifts could be clearer here as I only realized on a subsequent read that we change narrators). Redum is the captain of a airship called the Deliverer; we see that Ukinnu has joined Redum's group who live free, exploring outside of Atlantean society.
There are dangers above the surface. We see in a dramatic vulture attack (which may not sound that scary but these are some big, mean-looking vultures). There's good tense back and forth between Ukinnu and Redum which teaches us more about the nature of Redum's ship and his goals (and we learn that there are over 5,000 people living aboard the ship). Finally, there's a group heading out into a mission to the surface of the world, looking for a legendary creature known as an "amphibian". This could be the key to enable Atlanteans to develop the ability to breathe air.

This is a great start to a series and is a jam-packed first issue. I understand this will run as a miniseries, but there's clearly a rich, complex world being created that would allow for more stories.* Visually, the storytelling is bright, strong and expressive, though there are a few places where the action is a little unclear (though this may reflect the chaos being depicted in scene).

The art reminds me a little of what Matteo Scalera is doing in Black Science, but in a rougher way.  There is an intricate, highly detailed and stylized look, and it's complemented by some stunningly varied, creative coloring. Thomas Mauer uses a rich palate of colors - under the sea, aboard different parts of the ship, and on the surface of the earth. It's all highly varied and helps the reader grasp the scope of the story.

The story shares another similarity with Black Science, in that the main character is a believer in science and free inquiry, and stands outside of and opposed to a corrupt, materialistic society. Science fiction is a great way to deliver social commentary along with cool ships and alien worlds, and though it's only one issue, it feels like the creators have something interesting to say about the costs and benefits of seeking freedom outside of society's laws and conventions (also, monsters). If you're looking for a rich, exciting new science fiction/action story, consider diving into Undertow.

*Editor's Note: Five Ghosts was also a mini that became an ongoing based on sales. This may be a way for Image to test run ideas, which is far better than the old way of just disappearing over time. -RobM

February 25, 2014

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Merrick The Elephant Man Kickstarter is no Freakshow, Worth Backing

Photo: Ladies and Gentleman! It is my great pleasure to finally present to you Merrick: The Sensational Elephantman! a comic by Ward & Parker, Issue #01 is now available for FREE download!

CBR = https://mega.co.nz/#!J94SFIhT!ogYwQR1WPFO9ocUrYhj0-hMrDeyJvqpCTCT8IvvD304

PDF = https://mega.co.nz/#!88YgxA7J!9IyKyHxwf6oiZileP8aro1ogX4y0N4z_unLHyEPy3_c

ISSUU = http://issuu.com/theelephantmancomic/docs/merrick-issue-1-digital

Also make sure to check out our Kickstarter to fund the next three issues!

Merrick: The Elephant Man 1
Written by Tom Ward
Illustrated by Luke Parker and Nic J. Shaw

"Merrick: The Elephant Man" tells the true(ish) story of Joseph Merrick, a man living in late 19th century England who suffered from an extremely rare condition that caused his unusual appearance. The story of his life has (as you are probably aware) been previously told in other media, including a play, and a 1980 movie directed by David Lynch. However, none of that is necessary to appreciate the story being presented here.  This is a well-told, gorgeously illustrated story, which effectively conveys the fear, sadness and general somber tone befitting the tragic life of the protagonist.

Merrick's tale is a lonely one, as he is an outcast in society and is reviled and feared for his appearance. We first see him lying injured in the street. He is found by a Dr. Treves, who knows him. We then jump backwards in time to when Merrick was the featured performer (specimen) in a freak show. He comes to the attention of Dr. Treves, who wants to study Merrick. Merrick is resistant, but eventually comes to be under the Doctor's care.  The relationship is a somewhat difficult one, as Dr. Treves has a clear sense of entitlement and privilege towards Merrick. There's another jump, forward this time, and find that Merrick and Treves parted company for some period of time, where Merrick and others traveled to continental Europe to perform, but Merrick was treated poorly. Unfortunately, these jumps around in time are a bit confusing at times. As the issue ends, we can see that there are other forces, sinister forces, who also have an interest in Merrick.

This is a very well put together comic. The art is extremely strong here, and I don't think it would be unfair to describe it as fairly Mignola-esque (which I and most others would consider a good thing). You have the same striking dark colors, a lot of gray, sharp contrasts, and a "comic" style that nevertheless conveys a great deal of human emotion.

There are some sequences and facial expressions that are more stylized, but I found the art very compelling. The characters here are strongly portrayed as well. Merrick himself is something of a gray Hulk-like character, but the art and story convey his emotions effectively. He's a sympathetic character; even though he comes across as somewhat passive in the story, we get to see his humanity and his unhappiness at his treatment coming through.

Doctor Treves is also a figure whose complexity comes across in this story. He genuinely seems to care for the "Elephant Man" and believes that he is helping, but he is also not above treating the Elephant Man as simply one of his experiments (as when he shoots Merrick without notice for the cause of science). When you hear the Doctor's annoyance at Merrick at having been rude (As an aside I personally don't think it's rude if you want to avoid being shot!), you get a real glimpse into Dr. Treves' regard for Merrick, namely that he should be grateful for whatever regard he gets.

This is the first issue of a Kickstarter Project, and it is the stated goal of the creators to step "between historical facts and turn of the century folklore juxtaposed with the American superhero comic conventions of super powers, masks, secret identities and fantastic adventures."  There's a lot of complex motivation and emotion in this story. Combined with the hint of a larger mystery, and gorgeous, memorably atmospheric art, this is a very strong debut and worthy of being backed, if you are able to do so.

February 20, 2014

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Alex + Ada, or how I learned to stop worrying and love an android

Written by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughan
Illustrated by Jonathan Luna
Image Comics

When I was a kid, there was a whole list of things I thought I would see by the time I was a grown-up. Chief among them was flying cars, but the other thing I kind of thought we'd have more of now is robots/androids.  There of course have been many books, movies, comics and other forms of media regarding androids, robots and cyborgs, and many of them had an apocalyptic feel to them (see "Terminator," "Matrix," "I, Robot" - actually don't see "I, Robot"). But what about scenarios other than the worst case, doom-and-gloom scenario? What would our world look like if artificial intelligence (AI) were relatively commonplace?  Alex + Ada tries to answer some of those questions; more importantly, it focuses on telling a compelling story.

Everything in this story is well-crafted, and the art by Jonathan Luna really helps to set the mood. I hesitate to use the word "clean" to describe the artwork but here it makes sense. From a design perspective, the future depicted here looks a lot like an Apple Store meets an Ikea (sterile and a little cold). The technology is beautiful and seamlessly integrated into people's lives. The art here is subtle, but expressive (you get almost repeating panels where the dialogue moves the story along). There's a lot of solid colors and not a lot of shading or rough lines. It's friendly, accessible art, even for those who don't read comics regularly.

This story is set in a recognizable future, where there are big differences (self-driving cars, AI, "telepathic" technological communication both between people and between people and their technology) but many similarities. Houses, cars, people look basically the same. When we first meet Alex, he's sad and lonely as he's still depressed about the girl that left him.  He has a number of friends who try to cheer him up on his birthday, but to no avail.  Alex's funny, blunt, sexually frank grandmother decides to buy him an android for companionship and maybe sex (you know, just like your grandparents bought you for your Bar Mitzvah) and by the end of the first issue, we see the android, and she's a beautiful "perfect" woman.

Over the next few issues, Alex wrestles with whether to return the android (whom he names Ada) to the manufacturer (spoiler alert, he doesn't), and then he awkwardly, hesitantly tries to get to know Ada by himself and with the help of his friends; the scenes with Alex's friends interrogating Ada are hilarious and feel very down-to-earth.  The story here takes an interesting direction, as Alex finds himself going from being reluctant to keeping Ada, to being disappointed that she's not more "real". She doesn't have much of a personality of her own, and Alex is dissatisfied with this. So dissatisfied, in fact, that he decides to do some investigating.

In the current issue, Alex's quest to learn more leads him to the discovery that, much like when you "jailbreak" an iPhone, it's possible to unlock hidden features and applications in your android. He discovers this in an amusing trip to an online forum (using virtual reality technology which seems to be pretty commonplace in the world of this story). However, jailbreaking your android is not without risk (which owners of any android phone can tell you, ba dum bump)*.

There's a lot that's great about this story. It looks beautiful, and very different from a lot of genre comics - the sparse, utilitarian art helps to set an advanced, slightly cold future, but a completely recognizable feel. The world is a fully-realized one, as Luna and Vaughan have done a lot of world-building. It's clear that androids are viewed with significant trepidation, as there have been a number of violent incidents relating to androids.

What's most well-crafted here are the characters. Although the specific technological questions that Alex is wrestling with are different than those in our own world, his sense of loneliness and alienation feels entirely relatable, and his interactions with Ada are stumbling and sweet. The story moves at a deliberate pace, unlike your typical action or science fiction story where the character interactions can sometimes feel secondary. Here, the relationships and the emotions are the story. For a comic about an android, there's a lot of humanity in this book.

Alex + Ada does what great science fiction does (and ought to do), which is to use futuristic ideas to shine a light on the present while telling an interesting, believable story. Everything the characters experience regarding futuristic technology is an astute commentary on the technology we have now, the ways people lose themselves in it, and the (perhaps unrealistic) expectations we have about the way technology (and material possessions generally) can make us happy. If you like movies such as "Her" or "Gattaca", then this book is definitely worth a look.

*Editor's note: I was actually going to insert that joke. Luckily for me--but maybe not for our readers, James already did. -RobM

February 19, 2014

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The White Suits (1 of 4) - Good Guys Don't Always Wear White

Written by Frank Barbiere
Illustrated by Toby Cypress
Dark Horse Comics

Q: What's black and white and red all over?

A: The brutally violent, visually striking new mini-series "The White Suits" from Dark Horse, by Frank Barbiere and Toby Cypress.

There are times when a story just grabs you and makes you take notice. The White Suits is one of those times (in this case,more like grabs you, slices your hand off, and shoots you in the leg). This is the story of a group of feared Cold War-era killers that appear to have returned. It's also the story of an amnesiac man who has a connection to the White Suits, and an FBI agent who is after them. This first issue sets up the characters and their motivations, and it very effectively establishes a gritty, violent noir tone.

The artistic storytelling in this book is striking. The characters have a grimy, almost deliberately ugly look to them, which tells you clearly the sort of world into which you're delving. Most of the book is done in black and white but occasional color (mostly red) is used very effectively to convey emphasis, set a scene, and call attention to a dramatic or gory moment (of which there are many). There's not a lot of dialogue in this book, and it's not needed, as the visual narration tells you all you need to know about what's happening in the story. There are also some full-page panels that you'll want to linger on, because they're almost Steranko-like visual explosions seen through a grindhouse lens.

The book starts with pulpy narration, and we learn that the narrator is our amnesiac, who although he doesn't know who he is, has a certain set of skills such as knowing when he's being followed. This element reminded me a little of the "Bourne" movies (never a bad thing). We then see the White Suits in action and they are stunningly violent and effective. We next see the consequences, as the rest of the criminal element try to figure out how to respond to this new threat. Lastly, we see the amnesiac, as he's been followed by a woman who he confronts. As it turns out, she can more than hold her own against him. More importantly, she can help him figure out the truth about himself.

If you want an engrossing story with blood splatter, mystery, and serious visual punch, then give "The White Suits" a look.

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"Storytellers Ought To Remember This." -- The Sixth Gun #38

The Sixth Gun #38
Written by Cullen Bunn
Illustrated by Brian Hurtt and Bill Crabtree
Oni Press

This feels like one of those issues where everything changes.  Not in the “everything you know is a lie” kind of way but in the “it’s time to shake up the status quo and reset the comic” way.  Trapped in the small town of Brimstone, Drake Sinclair, Becky Montcrief and their band of misfit would-be-world-saviors/destroyers/recreators are under attack by a posse of snake men who are eager to get their hands on Drake and Becky’s powerful guns.  Also after Drake is Asher Cobb, Drake’s reluctant, mummified ally who only assisted Drake so that he could have the love of his life back once Drake remade the world with the power of the guns. It seems like he’s done it many times in his past lives and that he’s destined to do it again in this life. That is if he can save his friends and allies and get out of the town of Brimstone alive.

Bunn and Hurtt work as competing co-creators on The Sixth Gun.  Bunn is a natural storyteller; you can imagine being out in the woods, sitting around a camp fire and completely mesmerized as he pulls out one macabre story after another out of the night sky.  Bunn’s storytelling in The Sixth Gun #38 is easy, clear but sublimely dark.  As longtime allies are killed or captured by the enemies forces, Bunn doesn’t pull any emotional punches but he doesn’t linger long on any of the moments.  Where he does linger, it’s to let the actions of Drake or someone else sink in with the reader.  Asher Cobb has been a horrifically tragic figure since Bunn and Hurtt introduced him in the second storyline.  To Drake, he’s been more of a blunt tool than anything else as he let Cobb believe what he wanted to about how Drake was going to use the guns.  

Actually all of Drake’s allies have been to one degree or another tools for him to use, including the possessor of one of the powerful six guns, Becky, although she has the potential to be more than that to him and also to be far more powerful with the guns than he could ever imagine being.  But Cobb is the only one following him that he truly hates so when Cobb turns on Drake, there’s no second thought or remorse in our “hero” as he deals with his betrayer.  Bunn uses this confrontation amid all the other battles of Drake’s allies to remind us just who Drake is and the drive he has to achieve his goals of destroying the gun.  And in one of those moments of lingering, he also reminds us of the price that Drake has already paid on his quest.  

Under a different artist, The Sixth Gun #38 would be a much darker story and morally harsher story.  Brian Hurtt and colorist Bill Crabtree have this really, different approach.  Their pop and lively styles camouflage Bunn’s darkness.   Hurtt can do the dark and brooding stuff; you can see that in his and Bunn’s initial collaboration The Damned.  His work on The Sixth Gun has been more lively.  He’s drawing a pop western that subtly hides the dark soul of this series.  This latest issue sees the apparent killing of one of Drake’s main allies, the capture of a reluctant ally and Drake dealing with Cobb, never an ally- just more of an accomplice.  Hurtt gives each of these moments a physical dimension.  The ultimate fate of Cobb isn’t so much Drake having to put down a rabid dog as it is a physical damnation of Cobb’s already damned soul.  “The Second Gun spreads the Fires of Perdition” we’re told over and over again and Hurtt and Crabtree take that idea and makes it something we can understand through line and color.  

The Sixth Gun #38 is not some rough and craggy western.  There’s no Clint Eastwood or Sergio Leone in sight of this as Bunn and Hurtt traffic as much in fantasy as they do in western, if not more.  While Bunn works in the darkness and Hurtt and Crabtree provide light and form to the story, the synthesis is a western that’s not really a western.  The western is the setting of The Sixth Gun but it’s not the true genre of the book.  Bunn and Hurtt are telling a fairly straightforward fantasy story, including a heroic journey by the stories main characters, but the western setting colors your perception of it much differently than if it were in some more typical fantasy world.  The Sixth Gun #38 continues the great but sly genre mashup that Bunn and Hurtt have been playing with since the beginning.  

February 18, 2014

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Single Minded for 2/12/14: Prime-8s is a 10 while The Fuse Blew Me Away

Time for the column I can't seem to ever get done earlier in the week, it's a look at the weekly books from February 12, 2014, starting with one of the best Jack Kirby homages out there, Prime-8s...

Prime-8s 2
Written by Michael Moreci and Steve Seeley
Illustrated by Kyle Latino and Jordan Gibson
Monkeybrain Comics

Secrets are revealed in this pull-back issue that brings a darker side to the story of the Prime-8s that continues to be a love letter to Jack Kirby and one of Monkeybrain's best books.

It's very daring for Moreci and Seeley to hold off on the action for a bit to get into the origin of the team, but it works very well and adds a layer of depth to the romping nature of the plot. Not that there's anything wrong with a romp, but the best comics are the ones that can be fun and yet hit on some serious ideas, too. That was a big part of the appeal of Hoax Hunters, so it's no shock to me that the pair return to the idea here.

Mandrill is our focal character here, and his haunting dreams (given a great set of Kirby Krackle by Latino and bold, almost psychedelic colors by Gibson) lead to a flashback that changes the nature of their mission and probably links to the main villain, unless I miss my guess. Latino continues to make no bones about his comics influences here, right now to including a collage as part of the space narrative. 

A collage!

A mixture of silly (two dog heroes challenge the old, disguised Prime-8s to come clean) and serious (the nature of sacrifice), Prime-8s is a book I look forward to seeing every time I get a list of the new Monkeybrain books for the week. If you haven't tried this one yet, I urge you to do so.

The Fuse 1
Written by Antony Johnston
Illustrated by Justin Greenwood and Shari Chankhamma
Image Comics

A giant space station full of problems is just the place for a young, no-nonsense cop and an aging, cynical partner who doesn't want him--or a set of underclass murders in a first issue that made me stand up and take notice.

There's so much to like about this one, which immediately shows it's going to be full of dry wit when a cute girl trying to escape her tax bill explains this to one very patient policeman. The humor continues when the two future partners meet for the first time over a dead body, trading barbs as the sincere newbie doesn't realize he's pushing around his senior officer. That theme continues as Ristovych banters her way into personal records and argues about just why a man with a 75% clearance rate is coming up to the Fuse, with its lack of resources and high crime.

That's the second piece that Johnston, Greenwood, and Chankhamma get right from the start. Without going into extensive exposition, we get a feel for this near future world by looking around. It's full of normal humans, so there's no magical powers or alien races. The people dress like they do on Earth, and while the technology is a bit more advanced, we're still dealing firmly in a world with the same general class and crime problems as the home planet. Folks don't like being involved in a crime case, but they sure want to gawk. Even the businesses aren't far removed from those you find in the seedier sections of any major city, which leads me to think we'll eventually find the Fuse is just as segregated in terms of class as, say, Baltimore.

Greenwood's character designs are thin, angular, and mobile. That means he's able to use them to frame panels, or keep them active. Even when just standing, they don't pose. He switches easily from long shots to medium views, but isn't big on close-ups. Despite this, there's a lot of expressiveness, thanks to body language and clearly defined eyes and mouths, even when pulling back from the characters.

In some ways, the Fuse hits familiar crime comic notes, so if you are looking for innovative comic work, this isn't going to be your bag. On the other hand, if you love crime comics and want to see the concepts moved out into near space, with colorful characters and a mystery that's going to be bigger than it looks at first, make sure you pick this one up. Speaking as a fan of the detective genre in all its forms, I give this one high marks.

EGOs 2
Written by Stuart Moore
Illustrated by Gus Storms
Published by Image Comics

Duece's plan to save the world is a pale copy of past heroics as things go horribly wrong as one foe Masses against him in a strong second issue of this series that features flawed characters trying to do the right thing.

After the slow build in issue one, I was pleased to see things move much more quickly here, as we open with Pixel realizing that talking to your evil mother about your marital problems isn't the best idea and transition into Deuce's team of clones going after the ultimate big-bad, Masse. Moore's playing a bit off the Galactus template with this villain, but he keeps it to general concepts only, which is good. The battle against him takes up most of the issue, and the reader soon learns that Deuce can't even keep Himselves in check, which means that the universe is in pretty deep shit.

Instead of realizing his mistake, Deuce is about to double down, and it's going to be fun to see just how this plays out, which I hope involves his jaded son, who also continues to serve as the narrator. Moore does a great job of taking a bad situation and making it worse, showing how desperation can make a man go to lengths and lines he should never cross.

I still have some issues with the art on this one. Storms' linework gets the job done, and his absolutely destruction of the clones in battle is well-designed and just a touch horrific, as we see body parts floating around space. I also liked his design for the prison guards and the Legion of Superheroes-like variety in potential applicants for the new team. But in a story as dark as this one, the light coloring touch is jarring and misplaced, especially when combined with the lack of heavy inks. The actions of the characters are serious, but it loses impact in the pastel shades Storms selected for this one.

Despite that slight issue, this one's a sleeper hit that's worth looking at. I'm very curious to see where the story goes from here.

X-Files Season 10 9
Written by Joe Harris
Illustrated by Greg Scott and Art Lyon

An art change makes a jarring--and negative--impression on another filler story that's starting to become a disturbing pattern for this series that's losing steam.

One of the things that's a problem for licensed books is when the artist thinks the best way to handle this is to heavily photo-reference the characters. One of the things I liked about Michael Walsh was his refusal to do this. Mulder and Scully were recognizable, but they were also clearly his version of the iconic pair.

Greg Scott goes in the opposite direction, opting for hyper-realistic depictions, and it's a huge let-down for me. He's not tracing pictures, because the two are mobile enough to indicate Scott is working off his own layouts. However, it's also very clear he's trying to make them feel like they are the actors themselves, and his pages feel less like a comic book issue and more like a storyboard for a television show that doesn't exist. There's also the problem of obscured views, as either Scott or Lyon overdo the shading for most of the comic, leaving huge swaths of art you can barely distinguish, though it's clear there are things drawn that are just hard to see.

Joe Harris doesn't help any, with a script that feels like a paint-by-numbers X-Files story: Open with a creepy scene, bring in Mulder and Scully, put one of the team in danger (Scully this time), hint at larger factors at work, and bring in the other member of the team to aid in the rescue.There's a few clever quips, but my overall impression was boredom. This one needs to get better fast.

There was some other cool stuff this week, but I'm a bit behind on Think Tank and others, so a short one this time. What did you read this past week that maybe I overlooked? Hit me up in the comments.
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Creepy Comics 15

Creepy Comics 15
Written by Doug Moench, Peter Bagge, Alex de Campi, Dan Braun and Bruce Jones
Illustrated by Mike Norton, Dave Stokes, Peter Bagge, Henrik Jonsson, and Ramon Torrents
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Two incredibly strong original stories are paired with a troubled reprint in another issue of Dark Horse's horror quarterly.

Veteran horror writer Doug Moench takes a turn at the "rob a tomb at your peril" theme by taking the reader to Guaeamala, where a man with advanced technology stops at nothing to go after a pristine treasure to sell it to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, there's a reason why everyone from the local inhabitants to the Director of Archaeology and Antiquities tries to stop him. This goes exactly how you think it would, with a satisfying end for the would-be explorer and a new horror unleashed on the world.

Mike Norton and Dave Stokes crowd the panels just a bit too much in the early going, fighting against Moench's typically wordy characters by giving each panel plenty of details during the expositions sections. Once we switch out to the pyramid, they have more room to breathe and their creature, whom we first meet in humanoid form before turning into a Carnage-like being, is fast-moving, viscous, and terrifying. There's nothing innovative here, but it's still a lot of fun for classic horror fans.

Meanwhile, Alex de Campi makes her Grindhouse work look tame, penning possibly the most disturbing story Creepy has featured since it re-started under the Dark Horse banner. A musician goes out into the woods to recover from a break-up and write a best-selling album. He's "taking a selfie" level smug until things start to go south as we learn that he's really a shit who cheated on his girlfriend. Flipping between her feelings and his increasing misfortunes, we soon see that the singer-songwriter isn't going to be getting a leg up on the competition after encountering relatives of his ex's favorite pet.

The pacing on this one is great, especially because of the slow way the horror ramps up until it gets to "Oh God, that's disgusting--but awesome" level by the time the musician is being attacked. The level of body horror here is set to eleven, and de Campi is aided and abetted by Henrik Jonsson. His panels really sell the story, with tight close-ups of menacing or bulging eyes or changing the reader's perspective to increase the level of horror. One panel actually made me briefly turn away, and I'm not squeamish at all. The level of detail is strong throughout, especially in the end splash page.

Ending on a horrible pun that shows de Campi's understanding of dark comedy, this is one of the best horror stories I've read in years from a master of the genre.

Speaking of dark comedy, Peter Bagge's buffer pieces are as funny as always, as the Creepy family has exaggerated antics like home-grown chiropractic care, running away from home, and hoarding too much stuff. With little touches like a stuffed Dodo or literal skeletons in the closet, Bagge, working with edior Dan Braun, does a great job in the "Sergio Aragones" role.

Unfortunately, the choice of reprint in this one is really bad. Bruce Jones writes a story that's simply unacceptable to a modern reader, about a wealthy man who exploits those around him, especially women. He loves them and leaves them, until he goes to "the tropics" and effectively steals and eventually rapes a native priestess. The man gets it in the end, but still--this is cheap, lazy, racist storytelling with women as nothing more than props. Ramon Torrents does okay with what he's given, refusing to rise to the bait and taking the luridness out of the narrative as much as possible. Still, it's one thing to put this in a collection of the originals, but for the life of me I can't figure out why it's in a modern book as a selected reprint.

However, don't let that stop you--just read all the new stuff, and you'll find another great addition to your horror comics collection.

February 17, 2014

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Alisa Harris Collects Cat Antics in Counter Attack! Kickstarter

Everyone knows it's so incredibly difficult to get me to look at a cat comic--ah heck, who am I kidding?

You all know I'm firmly in the tank for cat comics, so I won't even joke about it. I've previously reviewed Alisa Harris's Counter Attack! series and I was very happy to learn that she was putting together a collection of the series via Kickstarter, in a hardcover package with additional art. It's the perfect gift for the cat lover in your life (I backed the project so I could send one to my mom), including yourself (and got one for me while I was at it).

Unfortunately, as of this writing, the Kickstarter needs a little help to get to fans of felines everywhere. It needs another $4,000 with about a week to go. If you haven't backed the project yet, perhaps this interview will convince you. I spoke with Alisa via e-mail about her Counter Attack!, owning cats, her creative process, and touching up older artwork. Read on for more...

Panel Patter: For readers who may be unfamiliar with you, tell them a little about yourself.

Alisa Harris: I grew up in Pennsylvania and moved to New York City to study animation in college. I've loved comics since I was a kid and started self-publishing my comics about 9 years ago. I write and draw mostly autobiographical work about my cats (Counter Attack!), living in New York (Urban Nomad) and I also make a web comic of vegetarian recipes (Cooking Up Comics).

Panel Patter: Who are some of the people or things you consider a creative influence?

Harris: My earliest influences were the Sunday Funnies in the newspaper, specifically Snoopy and Calvin and Hobbes. I was always a fan of animated Disney movies and the classic Looney Tunes shorts. Some of my more recent creative heroes are Craig Thompson, and pretty much any French cartoonist. Seriously, they’re all amazing! I also look at fine art and nature for inspiration and enjoy people watching especially in a busy place like Manhattan. There is so much great character design walking by if you just stand still to observe it.

One of Alisa's Mewses, Moe, Who is *not* a KS reward, sorry.
Panel Patter: What is Counter Attack?

Harris: Counter Attack! is a comic series starring my two gray cats named Moe and Fidget. The comics are mostly little moments that I record of their silly, annoying and cute antics. The name came from my love of puns and double meanings. Moe tends to be the aggressor but once in a while Fidget will retaliate. They also love to launch their attacks on one another from the kitchen counter.

Panel Patter: What made you start Counter Attack?

Harris: In 2005 I went to San Diego Comic Con for the first time and wanted to make a mini comic to sell there. I wasn't sure what I wanted to work on and as the deadline grew closer, I turned to my cats for inspiration. Sure enough they helped me out and within a week I'd drawn a bunch of silly things that they do and made copies of the comic at the local Staples.

Panel Patter: Cats frequently alternative between being adorable and being frustrating. Why in the world do people--including you--own cats, anyway?

Harris: After having stepping in cat vomit or cleaned up broken wine bottles at one in the morning, this is an excellent question. I think we just can't help ourselves. Both of my cats were strays as kittens and they are just so adorable when they're little and helpless. I grew up in the country where we always had at least one cat roaming around outside. As an introverted child they were always my companions and confidants. Once I moved into an apartment that allowed animals, I was happy to have cats again.

An example of the art changes for the collected edition.
Panel Patter: You've mentioned in your updates that you are touching up some of the artwork. What made you decide to do that, and what are the types of changes you are making to the originals?

Harris: After I made the first issue of Counter Attack!, it was a few years before I returned to the series to make another issue. Over that time my drawing skills had improved and I'd changed my style to be a bit cleaner without using any cross hatching on the backgrounds. I don't usually advocate going back over old work, but since it was only 16 pages and in my opinion didn't fit in as well with the newer art I decided to rework it. I used a lightbox to sketch directly over the originals so there's not much difference in the panel layouts. I mostly cleaned up the anatomy a bit and left out the additional cross hatching on the backgrounds.

Panel Patter: Talk a little bit about your creative process. How do you create a Counter Attack piece?

Harris: Counter Attack! starts with everyday observation. I'm always noticing when the cats (my 'mewses,' if you will) do something new or different. I take a few minutes to jot ideas down when they strike me throughout the year. I keep a big folder of sketches and phrases where I pull the most interesting ideas from. When I'm ready to compile a new issue, I'll go through the folder and make a list of the ideas I want to include. Then I mock up the comic layout on cheap computer paper so I can figure out how I want the pages to flow. This is when I can move panels around and decide if they should be in a different order. I use a pencil to rough out the drawings on Bristol board and then ink the pages with a brush and India ink. I sketch out, ink and watercolor the covers for each issue on watercolor paper. The covers for each of the individual issues will serve as chapter headers in the Collected Counter Attack. Then I scan all of the art into the computer to clean up any messy parts in Photoshop. I import the cleaned up pages into InDesign and prepare them for print.

Anatomy of a new cover.
Panel Patter: You also have a webcomic based on cooking, called "Cooking Up Comics." How did that get started?

Harris: I enjoy cooking now but I didn't always love it. I made Cooking Up Comics for my college-age self who really only knew how to boil pasta and make salad. I'm vegetarian so I wanted to make it more accessible for people just starting out as vegetarians to cook for themselves. Comics seemed like the perfect way to show the step-by-step instructions for cooking.

Panel Patter: What's different about making a webcomic versus making a straight to paper mini?

Harris: There is a decent amount of planning needed for both, but for my webcomic I tend to schedule out my recipes for the whole year all at once. It helps me to stick to a schedule each month and stay on track for finishing each comic weekly if I know ahead of time what recipes I'm planning. Aside from writing the scripts which I tend to do on paper, I create Cooking Up Comics entirely on the computer. Urban Nomad and Counter Attack! are mostly done on paper with final cleanup and page layout done on the computer. My process for Urban Nomad is fairly similar to the one I outlined for Counter Attack!, but there is more script and dialogue writing involved.

A panel from Cooking Up Comics.
Panel Patter:What are some tips you can give a person who wants to reduce the amount of meat in their daily diet?

Harris: I think the easiest way is to start replacing one meal a day with one that doesn't contain meat. I know a lot of people who have lowered their meat intake (and cholesterol) by doing this. Once you have a few vegetarian recipes that you can go to, you don’t really miss that every meal doesn’t contain meat. Something simple like rice and beans or a vegetarian chili can make you feel full. A vegetarian meal doesn’t have to be just a salad! For me, it was easiest to cut out beef first since I never really liked it and continued eating chicken for a while. I cut back on the number of times a week I was eating chicken or fish and soon I wasn’t even missing it!

Panel Patter: Besides Counter Attack and Cooking Up Comics, where else can readers find you? Any new projects coming up?

Harris: My autobiographical series Urban Nomad is available in my online shop (http://alisaharris.bigcartel.com/) and I'll have a table at MoCCA in New York and TCAF in Toronto this spring. The Collected Counter Attack! has been on my to-finish list for a few years now, so I'm really happy to be bringing that to completion.

I've been getting lots of questions lately on whether I'll be making a book of Cooking Up Comics, so I suppose that may be next on the agenda. I completed the Picture Book Idea Month (PiBoIdMo) challenge (http://taralazar.com/piboidmo/) this past November so I have a bunch of children's book ideas that I'd love to flesh out more. Too many ideas, not enough time!

Panel Patter: I know the feeling! Best of luck to you on making the Kickstarter and your other creative endeavors. 

You can back the Collected Counter Attack! Kickstarter here.

February 16, 2014

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Sunday Readings 02/16/14

Welcome to another Sunday Readings, where I link you to some things that I found interesting over the past week or so. Hopefully, you'll find them interesting, too!

*--Leading off is Brent Schenker's article that appeared on The Beat not too long ago, offering research data that shows women are nearly 50% of comics readers. Someone tell Cartoon Network, eh? Something very telling here: Shenker shouts out Marvel for understanding female fans are there and launching books accordingly. None of this addresses the "comics are more than those things you get on Wednesday" problem, but it's a strong start.

*--Speaking of that perception problem, Panel Patter Pal Ben Towle just destroys it in this short and succinct post addressed at those who think there are no more kids comics. Someone please tell all those people buying Smile and Drama they aren't really reading comics. Just go ahead and try it. Let me know how that works out.

*--In the spirit of Valentine's Day, Bryant Dillon pens a love letter to Dark Horse Comics over at Fanboy Comics. It's very much a fanboy sentiment right down to "squee-ing", but the sincerity is heartfelt.

*--Raighne Hogan, publisher of 2D Cloud, interviews Virginia Paine, the publisher of Sparkplug Books.

*--Retrofit Comics profiles one of its 2014 creators, Antoine Cosse.

*--I'm a big fan of Zainab Akhtar, who runs the Comics & Cola blog. Here's Zainab's list of 20 graphic novels to look for in 2014. So many good choices on there!

*--Finally, a plea for a second Judge Dredd movie by Steph Mernagh. Please listen, Hollywood! The first movie was one of the top five comics movies of all time for me, just a bit under Avengers, mostly because I never thought I'd live to see an Avengers movie done well. It's easily the most inclusive superhero movie I've ever seen and features a future that--gasp!--isn't just white and strong female characters abound. Which is exactly why we'll likely never see a sequel and instead get a "reboot" that "fixes" the problems by appealing to jerks. Damn it.

I should have been linking creator Valentines and Anti-Valentines, but I've been trying to stop spending so much time on Twitter. Sorry about that. But I do have two cool pieces of art for you:

*--Lewis Trondheim draws Calvin and Hobbes.
*--Paul Smith kills it on a Doctor Strange commission.

That's what I was looking at. Did I miss anything? Share a link in the comments, please!
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The Royals: Master of War 1

Written by Rob Williams
Illustrated by Simon Coleby
Published by Vertigo Comics

To paraphrase a misquote of F. Scott Fitzgerald, "Royalty are different from you and me, because they have more money. Also, super powers." That is the premise behind the terrific first issue of "The Royals: Masters of War" created by Rob Williams and Simon Coleby. In the world of this story, the royalty of differing nations have not only money, wealth and power, but superhuman abilities such as super strength, flight and telepathy.  We meet the royal family of England during World War II, recognizably different from the actual royal family of England during the war. (Side note: Wouldn't "The King's Speech" have been improved if Colin Firth made his triumphant speech and then flew off to kick the crap out of the Nazis?).

At the beginning of the issue we're shown a dramatic aerial assault, beautifully illustrated by Simon Coleby, and we get to see young Prince Henry in action (and he's very impressive). We then jump backwards in time to learn about what brought us to these dramatic moments.  We meet a younger, less weathered Prince Henry, his sister Rose (Henry and Rose seem to have a very close relationship), their loutish older brother Arthur, their father King Albert (who apparently is a rarity in that he does not possess super powers), and the military personnel who work with the Royals. In this world, the royals of differing nations have agreed to a non-involvement pact preventing them from using their special abilities in war, but Prince Henry is young and idealistic and bristles against this restriction.

This is a great mashup of superheroes, alternate history, secret history and social commentary. The dialogue has wit and spark, the characters feel believable, and the visual storytelling is grand, epic and powerful. While being completely Coleby's own style, the look of this book brought to mind the "Shift Ships" story line from Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch's run on "The Authority" (also involving an alternate England), along with Hitch's work on "The Ultimates". If you are a fan of those series, give this a look (and if you're not a fan of The Authority or the Ultimates*, seek professional help).

This book immediately creates an interesting world about which the reader wants to know more, combined with epic, widescreen art that beautifully conveys real human emotion, the grit and horror of war, and the wonder of super-powered beings. It's a striking, skillfully executed debut issue, and I highly recommend it.

*Editor's note: I sincerely hope James is referring to the Millar-Hitch Ultimates only here. Otherwise, we need to talk!-RobM