March 31, 2014

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Interview with François Vigneault about Linework NW (April 12, 2014)

One of the things I'm excited to do once I move over to the West Coast in a little over a week is to start going to the shows out there, which are some of the best around. While I will miss my East Coast shows, this is a great new opportunity for me.

I couldn't ask for a better introduction, as Linework NW comes on April 12th, and barring catastrophe, will be my first comics show as a Portland resident! Though they're extremely busy, François Vigneault, the show's co-organizer (along with Study Group's Zack Soto) took some time to do an e-mail interview with me. Here's what he had to say:

Panel Patter: For those who may still be unaware, tell them a little bit about the purpose of the Linework NW show. Why did you come together to create it?

François Vigneault: Linework NW was created to fill what we perceived to be a void in the Portland comics scene, a art-forward festival that was small enough to be fun and manageable, but enough of a draw to bring in amazing talent from outside of the city and attract the biggest possible cross-over audience. Portland is well-known at this point for being one of the major comics communities in the country, but despite hosting shows like Rose City Comics Con, the recently retired Stumptown Comics Fest, The Projects, and the Portland Zine Symposium (all shows I've always enjoyed), there didn't seem to be the sort of marketplace-driven show that catered to what I would think of as Portland's core cartoonist and illustrator demographic: Visually adventurous and independent creators.

Panel Patter: Linework NW isn't designed to be a replacement for Stumptown, but can you speak briefly about the differences between the late show and the new Linework NW?

Vigneault:  The main differences that I see would be matters of atmosphere, focus, and accessibility. We are a free event, showcasing a tightly curated selection of artists, right in the middle of the city. I think that our venue, the Norse Hall, is a really fun and relaxing place to attend a show, it is right in the center of town (one block north of Burnside in the Central Eastside district), and is a charming old building within blocks of dozens of amazing restaurants. I think that by having Linework there we are really making it clear that we are NOT trying to be the same sort of show as Stumptown, which in recent years has been held in the somewhat cavernous Convention Center, the same spot that other, more mainstream shows like Wizard World and Rose City Comic-Con are held. We want to put forward the idea that we are an indie-driven event, from the moment you walk in the door.

Panel Patter: Who are the organizers behind Linework NW? What can you tell readers about them?

Vigneault:  Zack Soto and I are the founders and chief organizers. We are both cartoonists and small-press publishers; Zack is the creator of The Secret Voice and the publisher behind Study Group Comics (they are running a great Kickstarter, by the way!), I am writing and drawing a comic called Titan and have run the small-press publishing house Family Style for the last ten years. We are also being helped by an amazing circle of folks: Sam Marx, who also helps to organize SPX, Shanna Matuszak, who is the Co-Editor at Study Group Comics and the Gallery Manager at Reading Frenzy, Sean Christensen and Emily Nilsson of Gridlords, Matthew Davison of Dueltone Printing, and many others. We are also relying on the help of dozens of volunteers on the day of, and we are still looking for more... email if you are interested!

Panel Patter: What were some of the challenges in putting together a small press show in such a short time, and how did you handle them?

Vigneault:  There are many, many challenges, but luckily we had some strong experience between us that allowed us to pull it together. For my part, I previously ran the San Francisco Zine Fest for six years, so I had a good idea of the difficulties that awaited us. I would say the biggest thing is just juggling all the various balls at once. If you put too much focus on any one thing you soon realize you have neglected some other, essential part. We also had some nasty surprises with last minute cancellations; you've always got to have a back-up plan for those contingencies!

Panel Patter: The show is free to the public. What drove that decision, especially when many similar events charge a nominal entry fee?

Vigneault:  We are really trying to make a show that is as friendly and welcoming to the wider audience as possible. I think the first and most important thing any festival has to do is simply be free and open to the public. Most comic conventions charge a ticket fee to get in, ranging from $8 to hundreds of bucks! That has always been crazy to are asking people to pay money to get into a big hall to spend more money? The only people that works on, in my opinion, are folks who have already "bought in" to comics fandom. As much as I love comics fans (I am one myself), I don't think that is the way to grow the art form. Our hope is that by making the show free we will be a fun destination for all sorts of folks who might be interested in art or comics casually, but who would normally balk at attending a normal convention.

Panel Patter: How did you create the process of selecting publishers and creators for the show?

Vigneault:  We always had the intention of curating the festival's exhibitors; I think that offering spaces on a first-come, first-served basis just can't work in the modern, lightning-quick internet era. Inevitably folks who you want at the show will be left out. We also had a strong idea that we wanted the show to be a very strong roster of what we (very subjectively) consider to be the best work out there. In order to make sure that we were considering things from a variety of viewpoints, Zack and I enlisted the help of three amazing illustrators with keen critical eyes to help us: Meg Hunt, Kinoko, and Justin "Scrappers" Morrison.

Attendees will notice right away is that the Norse Hall is small. We had the option of looking at other, larger venues, or even renting out a second ball room at the Norse Hall, but instead we embraced the size constraints, and I think that made our curation process for the exhibitors really key. I think that if you look over the exhibitor list you will agree that we have a really tremendous pool of talent signed up. We also tried very hard to expand the concept of the show beyond just comics, which is one of the reasons why we call the show an "Illustration & Comics Festival" and not vice versa: We want to foreground the fact that we are looking to be something different. Of course, there's no arguing matters of taste, and not everything at the show will be for everyone, but I think that anyone will be able to come in and find illustration and comics work that really speaks to them.

Panel Patter: Tell us about special guests Jim Woodring and Michael DeForge, and why you wanted them to be the first-ever guests of Linework NW.

Vigneault:  Two amazing talents who are, I think emblematic of the show's ethos. Jim Woodring has long been a huge inspiration to Zack, myself, and countless other cartoonists; and iconoclastic talent with a truly singular vision. He's been creating his absolutely amazing work for decades now, and in all honesty he is probably producing the best work of his career right now. He's not slowing down for anyone.

Michael DeForge is, I think, one of the most important creators working in the comics medium today. Always exploring new techniques and methods and pushing the art form forward. The amount of work that he has put out in the last few years is astounding, and I can only imagine this is just the beginning for him. We are honored to be hosting both our guests this year, and we think that attendees will definitely be able to see some interesting parallels between Jim and Michael's work.

Panel Patter: Most Panel Patter readers are going to be familiar with a lot of the publishers named, especially Fantagraphics, Dark Horse, Oni, Top Shelf, Sparkplug, and Koyama. Who are some of the lesser-known folks that you could highlight for readers to seek out at the show?

Vigneault:  Of course, there are so many creators that is is hard to single out anyone, yadda yadda. But that said, here are some folks whose work I personally find to be really interesting: Sam Alden has been putting out a prodigious amount of work in the last few years, both as a self-publisher and with some of the best indie-comics publishing houses around today. Anyone who is a fan of subtle, emotionally rich, and sometimes bizarre work has got to check out his work. Husband-and-wife design duo The Little Friends of Printmaking produce incredibly charming work that is sure to please, if you pick up one of their gorgeous screen prints as a gift you will be in good standing with that person for life. The Snakebomb Comix crew is bring along a huge posse of creators, including Josh Burggraf, Alex Degen, and many more... If you like your comics funny and raw you've got to pay their table a visit. The fantasy illustrator Julie Dillon is coming up to the show from California, and I love her rich, other-worldly paintings.

Panel Patter: Let's think positive: Linework NW 2014 is a big hit. Where does the show go from here? What would you like to do in a second, fifth,tenth year?

Vigneault:  Ha ha! I'll limit myself to a second year. But we definitely are planning on coming back again next year. We are working out the details now, but we expect to be a significantly larger show next year, with an even broader range of top-notch exhibitors from across the illustration and comics mediums. Maybe we'll even dip our toe into the world of animation a bit more next year! Stay tuned for an announcement at Linework NW itself for more!

Panel Patter: Thanks for doing this, and I hopefully will see you at the show!

March 28, 2014

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Oni Press Previews Plans for 2014, early 2015

Oni Press revealed their upcoming titles for the rest of 2014 and into 2015, and man oh man is it a killer list. Oni seems to really be on the upswing right now, with solid stable of creators who work with them regularly. I've really enjoyed a lot of the books I've read lately from Oni, and as you can see from my highlights here, that's not going to change anytime soon.

These the the ones that stood out for me, with a few notes:

August 2014
To Burma, having nine lives means having nine chances to conquer the globe.  Written by Paul Tobin and illustrated by Benjamin DeweyI Was the Cat is an original graphic novel that tells the tale of an aspiring feline despot, present for many of the modern world’s pivotal changes, but perhaps playing a more active role than anyone would suspect…

McMonigal Adds: Paul Tobin has been on fire with his creator-owned projects like Bandette and Colder. Paired with the amazing Benjamin Dewey (just look at the details on that promo illustration!), this looks like it might make my favorites list.
September 2014
On a summer night, Alden Baylor sits in a field watching the largest meteor shower in human history. What began as teenage adventure becomes something more--the celestial event brings travelers who will change the world completely, and Alden discovers a connection to one of them.

How does a young man who had to grow up fast handle the invasion of his planet? Can Alden keep humanity from oblivion? From writer Jeff Parker(AQUAMAN, HULK) and artist Sandy Jarrell (BATMAN 66) comes this original graphic novel about adolescence, friendship, and hard decisions.

McMonigal Adds:  You had me at Jeff Parker. The premise on this one doesn't jump out at me, but I trust the veteran writer to pull it off. It's nice to see Parker is still looking at his own projects, even as he does work for DC.
September 2014
Joey Weiser’s all-ages hero, the prodigal merman returns! No one knows much about Mer, the underwater kingdom where Mermin the merman was born, but due to a rising conflict with the people of Atlantis, Mermin is needed back home immediately. Which means that his human friends get to accompany him and see all the aquatic wonders of Mer. But once again, Mermin is tight-lipped about his past – even when it’s swimming right in front of him. And there are enemies lurking in the seedier depths of Mer, who’ve got their sights set not only on Mermin, but on Pete and his friends!

McMonigal Adds:  Joey's hit it big with Mermin, and I couldn't be happier for him. Long time Panel Patter readers know I've been a fan of Joey going back to his early work like The Ride Home, and Mermin may be his best concept. It's great to see this one extend to a third book, joining things like Crogan and Salt Water Taffy as strong all-ages books for Oni.
September 2014
Dex Parios is  back in action and she’s sticking around! This September, Portland’s favorite beleaguered P.I. stars in a brand-new, ongoing Stumptownseries written by Greg Rucka and illustrated by Justin Greenwood with colors by Ryan Hill and letters by Crank!

McMonigal Adds:  Always nice to see more crime comics work from Rucka. I'm curious about the ongoing vs. limited series idea on this one. 
October 2014
Cullen Bunn, Joëlle Jones, and Nick Filardi return to their smash hit Viking horror/fantasy series Helheim! Alone in the wilderness and living in seclusion, the Viking warrior Rikard is confronted once again by black magic and arcane monstrosities. But this time, Rikard seeks vengeance against the warlock who was once master to the witches who wove our undying hero's bloody fate.

McMonigal Adds:  I'm not very familiar with this series, but I love Ms. Jones' artwork, so I'm looking forward to checking it out.
December 2014
From the team of late, great writer Nick Almand and artist Jake Myler comes a manga-tinged graphic novel that tells the classic tale of a boy and his sword. Hadashi is a simple boy with simple dreams, but his life changes when a horrific accident maims his hand. Unable to hold a sword, he's kicked out of the dojo he once called home. But the Orphan Blade is no ordinary sword. When Hadashi finds it abandoned in a marsh, he finds that not only is he able to wield it -- the sword seems to be wielding him! Too bad Hadashi isn't the only one interested in the Orphan Blade, and his ownership draws the attention of the Five Fingers of Death -- a legendary and deadly group of mercenaries who have their own magical weapons.

McMonigal Adds:  I'm a sucker for martial arts comics, and I love the sense of motion and action from this promo image. If the rest can capture this magic, I have a feeling I'll really like it.

A new original graphic novel by Jamie S. Rich and Megan LevensWill Ares is a successful divorce lawyer -- which means, invariably, that he's always pissing someone off. He's also a hopeless romantic (go figure). Gigi Averelle is a wedding planner who's seen enough failed marriages to know that true love doesn't exist. And with their respective clients -- movie producer Evans Beatty and Hollywood starlet Carrie Cartwright -- getting hitched, Will and Gigi are about to see a whole lot more of each other. As Beatty's ex-wives come out of the woodwork and cause mayhem for the upcoming marriage, Gigi proposes a bet -- should Evans and Carrie go through with the wedding, Gigi will go on a date with Will. Should they break up, as Gigi suspects, Will must put a full-page ad in the paper revealing the number of marriages he's ruined. Is Will a fool for love, or is this the start of a beautiful relationship?

McMonigal Adds:   Jamie does amazing relationship comics and I've had the pleasure of seeing some of the collaboration between Jamie and Megan for Madame Frankenstein (interview to post soon, hopefully.) It's going to be a long wait for this one, but it should be well worth it.

March 27, 2014

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Interview with Leia Weathington, Creator of Bold Riley

It is with great pleasure that I present this interview with Leia Weathington, Portland comics creator and writer (and occasional artist) behind the Bold Riley series, which is entering its second arc via a successful Kickstarter Campaign that is wrapping up in a few days. Ms. Weathington, working with a variety of other artists, has created a fantasy world ripe for exploration, with our guide being Bold Riley, a young woman with royal (but restless) blood. It's great to see the "Uncharted Fantasy World" idea given a new twist by having a protagonist that's not only female, but queer as well.

Distributed by Northwest Press, the first Bold Riley book made me sit up and take notice, and I'm excited to see what Leia will come up with for the second volume. I spoke with her over e-mail about her own career, Bold Riley, and some discussion of diversity in the comics world. Here's what she had to say:

Rob McMonigal: For those unfamiliar with your work, tell readers a little about yourself.

Leia Weathington: My name is Leia and I'm a writer based in Portland, Oregon. My main series is the fantasy adventure epic Bold Riley but my work has also appeared in Smut Peddler (which is porno for ladies) and Anything That Loves an anthology about non binary sexuality (It's not porno at all.) I also have written a few short stories and essays and I run a podcast called A Happy Go Lucky Podcast with a revolving door of guests with the very funny Bobby Roberts.

McMonigal: Who do you consider your creative influences?

Weathington: Jeff Smith and Mike Mignola are the top two people in comics I was looking up to at a young age. Like a lot of women my age I was heavy into manga and anime. Artists like Fumi Yoshinaga and series like Mushishi, Utena and Cowboy Bebop were pretty foundational for how I approach storytelling. Novelists like Garth Nix, Emma Donahue, Catheryyne Valente, Zora Neale Hurston and Clive Barker always hit my story telling sweet spot. Tarsem Singh and Brian Fuller are two directors who use visuals in a way that I find really inspiring.

McMonigal: Tell readers a little bit about Bold Riley and her world.

Weathington: When we first meet Bold Riley she is, for lack of a better way of putting it, a snotty teenager. She's a princess and while that birthright is something she takes seriously she is also wild, restless and a little selfish. Also she has all of the power and privileges that come with being a princess. She has too much drive for exploration to be fully tied to her duties at home. She at least knows herself well enough not to vie for the throne

The Coin is in a sort of golden age of magic, wonder and exploration. There are a lot of areas on the map that haven't been filled in yet and isolated cultures that have sprung up on their own. The part of The Coin Riley is from is basically the civilized world, and the places she explores in Book one are peoples and places she is familiar with even if she hasn't been to them. As the series goes on she gets further from home and can be less reliant on her social status and preconceived notions about how people behave.

McMonigal: How did you come up with the concept for the series?

Weathington: I think i must have been in my early 20's when I conceived of Bold Riley as a character. Initially it was supposed to be sort of a feminist statement but I got older and became a little jaded with feminist theory. Then I rebooted the series because I felt I had a better command of how to tell a story and craft characters.

A page of Bold Riley by Joanna Estep.
McMonigal: Tell us a little bit about the artists involved in this second volume. How did you select them for the series?

Weathington: I met Zack Giallongo on the Modern Tales family of websites when I first started putting Bold Riley on the web. He did a comic called Pishio the Cat that I was just in love with and then later sussed out that he liked my comic as well. We had been making plans to work together so he was one of the first people I tapped when it came time for book 2. I'm a big fan of the way he draws characters. There is such a mischievousness about them.

Jonathon Dalton I met at a Stumptown Comics Fest several years back. Liz Conley (who has been a colorist for Books 1&2) came back to the table we were sharing with this just...AMAZING hand bound codex style comic called Lords of Death and Life that was a story that took place in Mesoamerica. All of his pages were colored with markers, the dude taped every single page together. I basically hopped over my table to go get one because I was afraid he was going to sell out. I think I gave him one of my  minis and a while later he mentioned being interested in drawing one of Riley's adventures. I was all over that offer.

Joanna Estep I've known since I was 14. We spent most of our teen years working on comics in the same room. I love her art, her design sense, her pacing, everything. She has a really unique eye and her style has this sort of delicate yet really solid quality to it. I've always wanted to make comics with her. I don't think I've ever been on the fence about wanting to work on a project with her. The answer to the  question "Would Joanna look good in this story?" is always "Yes.".

McMonigal: How does the collaboration process work between you and the artists on Bold Riley?

Weathington: First I write the script in a rough form, meaning no pages, no panels. I then pass it on to the artist and ask how much structure they like to work from. I always do page breakdowns but some artists like having the freedom to dictate the panel layout. Then I discuss how I see the visuals looking. I provide reference for things like landscape, costume or just photos I think evoke a certain mood. Then I provide a model sheet for things like Riley's look and accouterments. I like meeting with artists on Skype to have an organic conversation and bounce ideas back and forth.

After that I tend to step back and let the artist have at it. For the most part I don't edit art unless something is glaringly wrong or is a consistency issue.

McMonigal: Northwest Press is your publisher for this series. How did you come to be associated with them?

Weathington: Oh gosh. I don't think I remember exactly when I met Zan Christiansen. It must have been in 2005 or so? I gave him one of my little hand made minis of Bold Riley and we stayed in touch. When I cemented the plan for how to produce Bold Riley, Zan actually came to me and asked if he could publish it. He was looking for more lesbian content at the time and I really liked the way he took care of the content he carried.

A panel of Bold Riley by Jonathan Dalton.
McMonigal: Northwest specializes in bringing material with LGBT characters or concepts into the comics world and raising awareness. What is the impact of having such a publisher in the comics world?

Weathington: It's wonderful. Zan hits the market that I want while producing a fabulous looking book that doesn't exclude it from other readers who may not be in the queer community.

Let's talk about production quality too. Before Northwest Press I was planning on bankrolling the book myself. So that's a little over 200 pages of full color material? Before Kickstarter was on the scene? No. No way. I couldn't have done what I wanted. With NWP though I had the backing to make a really nice looking book with a decent print run.

McMonigal: Similarly, why is it important to create characters like Riley, and do you think that we are starting to see a change, at least in the indie/webcomics world, in terms of seeing more inclusive characters?

Weathington: There are so many different people in the world. Most of the narratives we get presented with are only focused on one small sliver of humanity. And listen, I like a lot of those stories about that sliver, but what it does is create the idea in everyone's mind that the only people capable of going out and doing things are straight, white, male, cis. That's not the way things are in the real world so why does it look like that in media?

There is that question, "does life imitate art or does art imitate life?". I don't think it's an either/or. It's a snake eating it's tail. It's both.

When I was growing up and coming to terms with my sexuality the only narratives I saw queer people in were really fucking bleak. If you fell in love with someone of the same gender you could count on some tasty combo meal of despair. Disownment, loneliness, suicide, savage beatings. Now those things happen to real people but holy shit. There was no escapism or joy in any of those stories.

Bold Riley is what I wanted when I was younger. I wanted a fantasy world with people who looked like me and my friends and loved ones. I wanted to make a place where difficulties could arise but wouldn't have to be tied so much to the real world tragedy many of us experience. I wanted our Conan the Barbarian or Lord of the Rings.

Honestly I think we are starting to see a sea change in media. It's slow and can be one step forward, two steps back but with technology being where it is I think it's opened up more avenues for a larger group of storytellers to put their work out in the world. Webcomics can be a shit show but on the upside, who is gonna tell you "No, I'm sorry you can't make this sci fi story about a black trans woman in exploring the Pegasus Galaxy." You make the work and you put it online. If you get a following then you can possibly be picked up or self publish.

It's not the most satisfactory solution I know, but at the moment it seems to be the only one available. The only other option is giving up which will never be acceptable to me.

McMonigal: And one more in this vein, if you don't mind: Can indie comics create a better, more open world for creators and readers or do we have to keep going after corporate comics to change their ways to achieve this?

Weathington: I think it will have to be. Frankly, the big companies make too much money to have a real stake in change at the moment. Like I said, change is annoyingly slow. My personal feelings on this issue is that if one sandbox is hostile and unwelcoming take your toys and try to build another sandbox.

I have a great deal of admiration and respect for the bloggers, artists and writers who steadily advocate for change in the bigger corporate structure. They are doing  really fantastic work shining a spotlight on the problems in mainstream comics.

I suppose my personal feelings on the issue are that those of us who are locked out of that world for whatever reason should form our own networks, create the best content we are capable of and find as many avenues as possible to target our desired readership. I would like to think that it can only eventually trickle up and bigger, broader change can happen.

Then again that may be me coughing up a bunch of idealistic bullshit but I guess we'll find out.

McMonigal: What's next for you after Bold Riley?

Weathington: More Bold Riley! I've got Book 3 about half way written and my creative team lined up. I've also got a couple projects with Joanna Estep I'm looking for a good home for and I'll be in the Queer Sci Fi anthology BEYOND with Lin Visel as my artist.

McMonigal: Thanks so much for doing this, Leia. You not only write (and draw) some great comics, but you have some really strong thoughts on the larger comics world that very closely match my own. I can't wait to read the series when it comes out!

You can back the Bold Riley Kickstarter here.
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Real Heroes #1

Real Heroes #1
Written and Illustrated by Bryan Hitch
Image Comics

Do you like widescreen, panoramic comics full of humor and big action and characters who look like famous actors? Did you like Galaxy Quest, with its story of actors from a science fiction TV franchise forced to actually become the characters they played? Then I have glad tidings for you, because "Real Heroes," the new book from Bryan Hitch, fills those precise needs.  This is a funny, entertaining first issue.

As the story begins, we see young Chris Reynolds, whose father is a firefighter tragically killed on 9/11. The story then jumps to a scene of dramatic superhero action as superheroes and villains battle throughout the streets of New York City (in a scene suspiciously reminiscent of the Avengers movie). This, as it turns out, is a scene from "The Olympians 2", the sequel to the giant blockbuster which has the second highest box office total in history. The stars of the new movie (including the now grownup Chris Reynolds, who has turned into a dead ringer for Chris Pine) are at the Hollywood premiere, at Mann's Chinese Theater.  There's some funny interactions and a lot of stereotypical scenes regarding Hollywood actors (i.e., sex, drugs and cynicism). Something goes horribly awry as one of the props from the movie (a robot) starts horrifically attacking and killing people, and the "heroes" are transported to the fictional universe in which their characters exist. This fictional universe has been devastated by the absence of the Olympians superheroes, and these actors are given the chance, by a mysterious figure, to be the "real heroes" they've pretended to be on screen.

This is an engaging first issue. If you're familiar with Bryan Hitch's other work (including the recent "America's Got Powers"), then you know what you're getting. This book has the same sort of knowing, sardonic tone that Mark Millar and Hitch brought to the "Ultimates" books. It also provides the same sort of big, popcorn entertainment feel as the movies at which it (gently) pokes. On art, Hitch provides what he's known for and tells the story in a big, cinematic way. While the facial detail of characters can vary occasionally, few can convey huge scope quite like Hitch does. There are fantastically detailed, widescreen shots of action, of cities and of destruction. There are entertaining costumed heroes that are clever riffs on existing Marvel/DC superheroes. There are characters clearly meant to look like real actors (the aforementioned Chris Pine, and I thought I saw Bradley Cooper as well). This is mostly a setup issue, but it gives you a good feel for what you're going to get in this series, and it does an effective job creating anticipation about what's coming next. Will these actors rise to the challenge? Will they make it back to their own world?  It will be fun to find out.

March 21, 2014

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Rocket Girl Flies High, Recommended

Rocket Girl #4
Written by Brandon Montclare
Illustrated by Amy Reeder
Image Comics

Here's how I know I'm getting old. In Back to the Future, the first movie I ever truly loved (I was 9 when it came out and somehow I convinced my parents to let me see it 4 times in the theater), Marty McFly travels back in time from 1985 all the way back to 1955, which feels to him (and felt to me, as a kid) like another planet. In Rocket Girl, a fun new science fiction series from Image, a teenage cop (?!) travels back in time from an alternate 2013 all the way back to 1986, which is for her like a completely different world.  For those of us who remember the 1980's, the idea that it is now the weird foreign place will seem unsettling. Once you get over that realization, take a look at Rocket Girl, as its ambitious plot and gorgeous art will likely win you over.

Dayoung Johansson is a teenage NYC cop from the year 2013, where there are flying cars and robots everywhere, and everything shiny and bright, and Quintum Mechanics is the largest, most powerful company in the world. So that's not the world we live in, and that's the point for Dayoung, who has reason to believe that Quintum is corrupt and has abused the time stream to get to their position of dominance (so powerful that the makeup of the Board of Directors is a government-protected trade secret). Even though changing the past will erase her and her world, she heads back to "our" 1986 to set things right. In the first three issues of the series, she goes up against incompetent 1986 cops, is taken in by Quintum researchers of the past, does some superheroic life-saving, and tangles with some other mysterious visitors from the future.

In the current issue, she is under pursuit all over Manhattan by two Quintum security personnel (who we've seen previously, and have reason to want to go after Dayoung) who've also traveled back to 1986. She knows she's outmatched, but she uses her considerable skills and wit to handle herself as best she can. At the same time, the Quintum personnel in 1986 are trying to make things right and undo whatever damage they believe they've caused.  We also get to see what's going on in 2013, as Quintum is moving against the Police, and things are not looking good for Dayoung's allies or (as the issue ends) for her.

This is a strong series so far. It has fun (and appropriately brain-twisting) time travel elements, a compelling, relatable, teenaged female protagonist, and stunningly detailed, beautiful art. Reeder and Montclare have created something pretty special here. Dayoung is a great character - headstrong, selfless, determined, committed, ethical, and the book's creators have given her a fun world in which to operate. It's a treat watching her, a future teenage police officer with a rocket pack, interact with the strange and foreign world of New York City in 1986. There's also some mystery and potential time travel paradoxes that are hinted at. One of the big draws for the story will be the art.

The art here is beautiful and effective visual storytelling. The series is called "Rocket Girl", and so any artist drawing this story should be able to effectively convey motion. Thankfully, Reeder does that as well as anyone you'll see. The fight and flight sequences (and the current issue is mostly a chase sequence) convey a feeling of weight and substance and drama (particularly in the tight quarters where much of the chase takes place), as well as fluidity and motion.

There are some pretty creative use of panels and of double-page spreads throughout the series. The level of detail is stunning in this book; as Dayoung is being chased through the subway tunnels, the grime and the graffiti on the subway cars gives this book a real sense of place and time. Reeder also has a real knack for facial acting, particularly that of Dayoung who is drawn expressively, and portrayed as beautiful in an age-appropriate way. The comic has a nice amount of diversity generally in a number of ways, which is nice to see.

Apart from making me feel really old, this is an entertaining, visually ambitious, fun series, well worth a look.

March 20, 2014

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Letter 44 Gets a Seal of Approval

Letter 44 #5
Written by Charles Soule
Illustrated by Alberto Alburquerque and Dan Jackson
Oni Press

When you're President of the United States (or in any position of authority), you're tasked with handling whatever happens on your watch. There are the expected challenges (the economy, social issues, war, terrorism) and then of course there's the signs of extraterrestrial life in the solar system. How a President (and a government) would respond to that, in a real-world setting, is the hook of this intelligent and ambitious series from writer Charles Soule and artist Alberto Albuquerque (with colors from Guy Major and Dan Jackson).

The series begins just as Stephen Blades is about to be inaugurated as the 44th President of the United States. He finds a letter waiting for him in the Oval Office from his predecessor, Francis Carroll, who left the country a legacy of unpopular wars and economic uncertainty (Hmmm, sound familiar?). He also left President-elect Blades a letter explaining the real motivation behind many of his choices - there's an alien presence in our solar system, and has been for at least seven years. Moreover, 3 years ago, the US sent a mission into space to investigate in a ship known as the Clarke. The series then covers two different fronts, as it chronicles President Blades and his staff's attempt to get a handle on this situation (and deal with some treachery from within its own administration), and we see the activity aboard the Clarke, as the ship gets closer and closer to the alien presence. 

In the current issue, the scope of the story expands to three fronts. In addition to the President and his staff, and the crew aboard the Clarke, we now begin to see what was hinted at in prior issues - former president Carroll is up to something, and the issue doesn't say exactly what it is, but it's ominous and more than a little suspicious.  Out in space, a few crew members have gone in a smaller ship to investigate a potential alien presence on asteroid, and that interaction doesn't go very well and raises more questions than answers. The President is dealing with his own issues, as he implements a creative way to deal with the treachery within his own administration (which reminded me of a bit from the movie Dave, always a good thing).  

This is an intelligently written, dramatic series (with nice moments of levity). Imagine if they'd found out about aliens on The West Wing, and you get a sense of the tone of the series. Which is to say that the comic has sharp, thoughtful dialogue and is occasionally talky; while there are a number of places where the creative team lets the art tell the story, this is a fairly dialogue-driven series. In addition, the pacing is fairly deliberate; it may potentially read better as a trade. The book does benefit from strong art from Alburquerque and interesting color choices from the colorists. People here are drawn in a stylized, slightly angular manner, possibly meant to highlight key aspects or features of the characters. 
What Soule is doing in this series is very ambitious; he's taking every aspect of this story seriously. Blades is a well-rounded character; he's clearly been placed in a difficult situation but you get the sense he's managing it as well as he, or anyone, could. The discussions between Blades and other members of his administration feel like they take place in a real world full of skepticism, competing agendas, and secrets. Similarly, aboard the Clarke, you get a real sense of the fact that these people have been trapped in a very confined space for a long time; there's tension, sex, frustration, sexual frustration, and even an unplanned pregnancy (I did mention the sex), along with the very real struggles of having to repair a spaceship with no hope of backup. A sense of thoughtful detail comes across in this series.

If an intelligent mashup of contemporary politics and science fiction appeals to you, this is a strong, promising book.

March 19, 2014

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Sovereign #1

Sovereign #1
Written by Chris Roberson
Illustrated by Paul Maybury
Image Comics

Sovereign is an ambitious new fantasy series from Chris Roberson, with art by Paul Maybury. As an introduction to a broad new world of magic and mystery, this story works well by giving some clues, but creating enough questions and hints to hook in a new reader. This comic has a more "formal" feel that also helps to set the "high fantasy" tone; it follows the tales of 3 different groups of people and each tale is preceded with an introductory page and relevant quote.

The first story concerns the Luminari, a religious/spiritual order known for its silence. We meet an older male priest, a younger male warrior and a female "sister" of their order, as they are just underway on a journey to present themselves to the Horse-Lords, but find dead bodies in their path. As they attempt to properly attend to the dead, demons appear to possess the bodies of the dead, and the Luminari must do battle with this supernatural threat.

The second tale introduces us to the Horse-Lords, a ruling class of people (like the Mongols or Arabians, perhaps) who travel by (you guessed it) horse. The story centers around the young crown prince who rejects the decadent, corrupt ways of Court and lives for the hunt, and for riding free across the open lands. As his tale ends, his life is about to change dramatically.

Lastly, there is a tale at sea, of a ship traveling to Khend (the land of the Horse-Lords). Pol Ravenstone  is a man of research and science traveling to Khend, with Lady Joslyn Evrendon (perhaps part of a religious order, but a diplomat in the service of their Queen), on a ship captained by Argus mag Donnac (loyal to Lady Joslyn). This last group has the clear appearance of being English and Scottish (or the equivalent in this world). The ship is attacked by a giant shark/sea-creature, that happens to have been dead (or undead) for some time already.

There's a lot to appreciate in this first issue. You'll want to linger on the art, which is detailed and dynamic. There's a few panels where the action is slightly confusing, but otherwise the sequential storytelling is very effective. There are a variety of panel layout choices here (which makes each page interesting and distinct), and Maybury's style is reminiscent of Paul Pope. Additionally, the color choices really work to differentiate the feel of each story. As for the over world itself, this seems to be a place where magic has existed, but is less prominent than it once was. Society appears to be moving in a direction of reason and logic, but with the demons and the undead shark, there's signs of a return of dark magic to the world. The story also hints at a world full of politics, alliances and intrigue. It presents a land full of racial and societal diversity. The Horse-Lords are clearly very important, as the Luminari travel to pay tribute to them, and the ship passengers travel to do research in the Horse-Lords' land; hopefully the different narratives will come together in an interesting way.

It's not easy to say too much about a series after one issue, but for fans of the fantasy genre generally or big tales of war, magic and intrigue such as the Game of Thrones series, this is a promising start.

March 18, 2014

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Whit Taylor Interviews Mike Dawson

Mike Dawson
Mike Dawson is the author of Freddie &  Me: A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody, a memoir of his childhood obsession with Queen, and Troop 142, a sorid tale of a New Jersey Boy Scout troop away on a week-long summer camping trip.
Entertainment Weekly called Freddie & Me "undeniably contagious", while the UK Daily Telegraph said it was "Charming, sincere and above all, expressively drawn'. Troop 142 was nominated for multiple Ignatz Awards, including Best Graphic novel, and was the winner in the Best Online Comic category.
He is also the author of a collection of short stories entitled Ace Face; The Mod with the Metal Arms, published by Adhouse Books, and was the co-host of Ink Panthers Show!, a long-running comics-themed 'lifestyle" podcast. Mike was also once the host of a comics-interview podcast on The Comics Journal, named TCJ Talkies.
He lives in Fair Haven, New Jersey with his wife and two children.
I have been a fan of Dawson's work ever since picking up Troop 142 and have eagerly awaited his next project. Dawson will be debuting his new graphic novel Angie Bongiolatti (Secret Acres) at MoCCA in early April. I decided to ask him questions about his latest work as well as some more general comic-world related ones.
Whit Taylor: So, let's talk about the new book. I'd like to know why you chose this topic and what meaning it has to you. 
Mike Dawson: This book is extremely personal to me, despite being a work of fiction. I feel very exposed by it. The story reveals much of my own thinking about political engagement, gender roles, and sex; topics readers are likely to already have strong preexisting feelings and opinions about. Even the choice to excerpt key passages by Arthur Koestler and George Orwell, feels very revealing. It shows that these passages moved me enough that I opted to incorporate them into my work. I feel like I need to be prepared to defend that choice, in ways I didn’t feel the need to defend appropriating Queen lyrics or aspects of Boy Scout culture in my previous work. 
WT: Yeah, I guess any comic one does is inherently political in some way, but some will be viewed that way more than others. How would you "defend" it hypothetically?
MD: The passages prescribe a world-view, unlike, say, the Queen lyrics in Freddie & Me, which just reveal my musical taste. People won’t necessarily disagree with the world-views presented in the excerpts. I’ve already encountered this, with people who’ve seen early drafts of these comics, Koestler’s essay especially.
In terms of defending the choices, it’s still too early in the publication process for me to have a great handle on how the comic will be received. Maybe it’ll actually work very well for most readers.
WT: Your previous works, such as Freddie & Me and Troop 142, are autobio/sem-autobio to my knowledge. What was it like to transition into fictional storytelling? Are there any elements of this that come from your life experiences?
MD: There are elements that come from my life: I was working at a dot com in New York, during that period before and after 9/11. I used to meet with friends at bars in the city to write comedy scripts, and I ran into an old college friend on one occasion, who encouraged me to come out to a Socialist meeting and also to the protest march against the WEF. But, I do consider this book very much fiction. With Troop 142 and even more with Angie Bongiolatti, I feel like I’ve found this approach to storytelling where I draw upon my life experience for scenarios, but develop characters to exist in those same situations. It works well for me, drawing upon my life as a starting point, and then seeing the directions things go in from there. 
WT: I know you've worked with Secret Acres before. How did they receive this piece, given that it was a change from your past work?
MD: I guess I’m not sure… This was the first time I've ever gone into writing a story with a publisher already in mind. In the past, finding a publisher for my work has always been something I've had to figure out, along with the actual writing of whatever I’m working on. This book is the first time where I've already had people willing to publish the book, even in those early stages. There were pros and cons to it. I think on the negative side, I might have been kind of a pest to Secret Acres, nagging them for feedback too frequently along the way. This might have been because I kept this story offline while I worked on it. Having work put on the web is good for getting that feeling of a response while you’re in the middle of something that takes a long time to finish. I haven’t put any of this out there, really. So, it’s possible that I leaned on Secret Acres a bit to replace that need for response. They were good about it though - they managed to keep me at bay until I was at a point where feedback was truly useful.

WT: You start off with text from Arthur Koestler. His words as well as those of other "radical" writers and thinkers appear throughout the story. What informed what? Meaning, did you choose these texts first and then base your story on that? Or did you write the story first and then choose pertinent excerpts?
MD: It happened organically. I went through a period where I was very worked up about the evils of Soviet Communism, and was reading a lot on that subject. I came across this essay by Arthur Koestler in a book called The God That Failed, which was a 1950 collection of works written by ex-Communists, explaining how they’d all been card-carrying members of the party, but then had all experienced disillusionment along the way. I liked all of the essays, but the first part of the Koestler piece really stuck with me. This is what I chose to adapt. At one point, I was going to do a straight adaptation of his entire essay, as its own comic, but as I was simultaneously developing this story about political activists in 2002 New York, I kept feeling that it could be possible to get the two things to somehow fit together. At a certain point, I made the decision to just focus on the beginning of Koestler’s essay, where he contrasts radical utopias with religious zealotry. I found this idea very provocative, and wanted to have it be the part of his essay I kept in my story. 
The choice to contrast Koestler’s essay against an autobiographical piece by Langston Hughes came as I was working on this story. I read Hughes memoir, I Wonder As I Wander, and found that it shook up a lot of my thinking about Koestler’s work. 
So, I guess the answer to the question is that some of the texts were there at the beginning, and served as a basis for the story, and then other texts were integrated into the comic as I worked.
WT: What does the term 'dialectic' mean in the context of your work?
MD: The key point in the Koestler essay for me is right at the beginning where he talks about a dialectical spiral, where both the revolutionary and the religious zealot imagine a utopia exists at the end of history that is identical to one they believe existed in a lost paradise of the past. I found this idea very provocative. It’s one of the key purposes of including the Koestler text.
I don’t think I personally use the word dialectic elsewhere in the comic, but it does feel like an appropriate term for what I think is going on with the book. The story mirrors an internal debate I’m having with myself, contrasting different points of view and perspectives in an effort to find some kind of truth. I think many readers may assume because of the subject matter, that I came to this story with some kind of a pro-Socialist agenda. This is not the case. I came to the book with natural left-leaning tendencies, but also with reservations and suspicions. 
WT: Do you have any concerns about how the Koestler and other excerpts will be received by the reader, given their complexity?
MD: I do. It was something of a technical challenge as a cartoonist, to try and get the Koestler excerpts to work in a way where I hope readers won’t completely gloss over them, because the ideas in them I think really do add something to the main narrative. 
Inserting dense blocks of text into comics is a challenge. I think readers process comics and prose differently. Anyone is capable of reading blocks of text, we do it all the time when we read normal book-books, not comics. But, when a block of text is sitting in the middle of a comic, I think our brains struggle to absorb it in the same way. Because I think we take in comics at a much more rapid pace, it’s a switch to have to slow down right in the middle of something. 
WT: The text block pages differ artistically from the comics pages. What mediums did you use? And why did you choose to use two artistic styles?
MD: I drew the regular comics pages using a crow-quill nib and ink. I did the Koestler excerpts using a soft lead pencil. I hadn’t drawn in pencil like that for a long time, and it was a lot of fun to use those different tools. 
I tried a number of approaches to the adaptation before settling on the pencils, with the goal of finding a way of presenting them where I hope the reader’s mind can click over and hopefully absorb the essay as they read the book. I chose to present the text using a typewriter looking font, and to completely jump to a different style of illustration for those sections. In previous incarnations of the adaptation, I was making comic pages that looked much more similar to the rest of the comic, but I was really concerned that readers would just skim that stuff if it looked like everything else, just with lots and lots of words.
The pages are setup to look kind of like storyboards, which ties in to the work the characters are doing at the e-learning company. Both the characters and I were trying to take fairly complex blocks of text, and illustrate them in a way to make them readable and easy to understand.
WT: For the comic sections, which most of the book is comprised of, how do you think your style lent itself to the story?
MD: I have some early drafts of this book drawn in different styles. I settled on something that was satisfyingly “visually dense.” I wanted to get a feeling of a full, cluttered environment. This is different than the style I drew Troop 142 in, which was more visually spare.
WT: Let's move on to the characters. Angie Bongiolatti is quite fascinating and complex. Why do you think Angie holds so much power over people?
MD: A challenging thing for me was getting a firm grasp on Angie as a character and not just the person that all of the other characters orbit in the story. She does serve as that person, very much so - all of the other characters revolve around her and/or desire her or her attention. But she had to feel like a character herself, and there are many aspects of her personality which are more difficult for me to understand. Primarily the fact that she holds firm political convictions, unabashedly. It’s difficult for me to express my own ideals in that same concrete way. 
WT: What were your influences when writing her character?
MD: Aspects of Angie’s life are based upon a character I created in a very old mini comic called Cabaret, which features a sexually experimental couple called Steve and April. The Steve character remains pretty much the same in this book as he was in the mini-comic. I felt that the April character was no longer the same person, so I changed her name to Angie. I took the last name Bongiolatti from someone I went to High School with. I always just like the bouncy sound of the name, especially coupled with the first name Angie. 
WT: You mentioned earlier that you explore gender roles in this piece. This seems to tie into the male characters revolving around and desiring Angie. How did you develop these characters?
MD: Male characters are easy for me to write. It’s a lot easier for me to imagine their world-view. I’d spent so much time depicting a very male world in Troop 142, it was part of the reason that I wanted to put a woman front and center in this new story. 
WT: One of the most intriguing characters in my opinion is Angie's friend Kim. Can you talk a bit about how you developed her character, what you think she contributes to the story, and why you chose to physically render her the way you did?
MD: Kim was one of my favorite characters to write. Her politics exist to the far left of even Angie’s. Angie believes in the slogan “Another World is Possible,” and she believes that world can be achieved through progressive solutions. Kim’s outlook undermines a lot of that. Kim doesn’t believe in building a better world, she believes that the only solution is to tear it all down and let it burn. And she’s kind of an alpha bully about her political convictions. What I like the best about Kim is that a lot of what she says is actually not wrong. I think even for myself, there’s very little in that philosophy of “everything is basically fucked” that can be argued against. The question to me is how to proceed with the business of being in this world while conceding that there are possibly insurmountable problems facing us. 
The choice to depict Kim physically the way she is, was something I thought about quite a bit. I like her unique look. I like that it’s not totally clear what her backstory is, and exactly what her gender role even is. I went through moments of second-guessing, worrying that if I depicted a potentially non-cis person as a heel in my book, there’d be a backlash that I was somehow criticizing that whole community. I decided though, that Kim is an individual, and isn’t a representative of an entire group of people. She has strongly held convictions, and I didn’t need to soft-pedal that, or change the way I was depicting her out of fear that she’d be interpreted negatively.
WT: Sex plays an important role in this story. Most of the sexual encounters seem to deal with miscommunication, frustration, shame, jealousy, and lack of compatible needs. Why did you feel this theme was necessary to include in the book?
MD: There are aspects of this book that I felt almost helpless to incorporate, despite the fact that including them presented their own writing struggles. A version of this book that does not include any examination of Angie’s sexuality could have existed. But to me, that side of the story needed to be in there, even if that’s all the stuff that makes this book uncomfortable for me to share with my family and parents on the playground, etc. I saw Angie as having these different, almost compartmentalized sides to her, and I wanted to find the point at which they intersected. I don’t want to give away how I feel this all resolves, but my feeling about the outcome is that Angie walks away from the story without shame.
WT: Why did you choose for your characters to work for an e-learning company?
MD: The choice to have them at an e-learning company works well thematically. There is a side to the industry which seeks to bring about positive social change, which is increasing access to education through technology. At the college level especially. On the other hand, the company depicted in the story is still a for-profit capitalist enterprise. And, undermining the Utopian ideal of a higher-learning education for all, is the very real existence of a gap in access to technology, especially in lower income communities. 

At the time this story is set, most people were still accessing the web through dial-up connections, so there existed a great divide. Having Angie work at an e-learning company made sense to me. The idea of making education more accessible to people would square well with Angie’s political leanings. But the realities of capitalism do catch up to her and the company over the course of the story.
WT: What was the biggest lesson you learned from making this book? What challenged you the most?
MD: It’s hard to say. I find that all writing is a learning process for myself. I think writing long-form stories can be a way to really pick-apart my own preoccupations, and hopefully come out changed on the other side.
WT: I'd like to move on to some more general comics world-related questions. Which artists do you feel inform your work stylistically the most?
MD: I was looking at Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary while working on this book. It’s probably one of my favorite comics, and I just love the way she cartoons.
WT: What about the cartooning medium resonates with you? I know you have a painting background, so why the transition?
MD: Well, painting was just something I had to do, because I had to choose a focus for my BFA, and cartooning wasn’t offered in schools back in those days. I spent most of my college years trying to incorporate cartooning into all my paintings as much as possible. Since graduating in 1998, I’m not sure I’ve painted anything since.
To me cartooning is the best way in which I express my ideas. I’m most comfortable writing in that format. Essay writing is very different to me. I have a harder time laying out my ideas just through typing, and I feel much less confident to stand behind the things I write on the keyboard as I am to stand behind the things I draw in comics form. Keep that in mind as you read all these responses to your questions! 
WT: The independent comics world has changed significantly in the past few years. How would you characterize these changes? And how do you feel that affects your position as a more established graphic novelist?
MD: There was a move towards long-form graphic novels around 2005-2006, that I feel lucky to have been swept up in, as it’s a format I feel very well suited to. I like spending a long time on a story, really settling down into a book and working through it over a couple of years. I get the impression that the trend may have shifted away from the graphic novel in recent years, but I think it’s something I’m sticking with.
It remains to be seen how changes in the industry will affect me. At the moment Secret Acres is going strong as far as I can tell. But it’s hard to know what things will look like in another 3 or 4 years, when maybe I have a new book ready. Something I think the independent comics industry has learned in recent years, is what a huge role an individual person can play in the scene. Like Picturebox was just one guy, publishing all sorts of cartoonists who might not otherwise have been published. When he closed up shop, I assume that means all sorts of cartoonists are looking elsewhere to find outlets for their work. It leaves a hole. Other micro-presses seem to spring up, but again, those are always just one or two people.
There seems to be very little real infrastructure in this little corner of comics. Exciting things happen here, conventions seem more popular than ever, but the whole thing always feels very fragile at the same time.
WT: Who are your favorite cartoonists working today?
MD: I like a lot of cartoonists. Dylan Horrocks, Eleanor Davis, Tom Kaczynski, Vanessa Davis, Sarah Glidden, Joe Sacco, Jason Lutes, Noah Van Sciver, Nick Abadzis, Kevin Huizenga, Gabby Schulz, Joe Lambert… these are all favorites. I like narrative. I like the work of my friends Alex Robinson, John Kerschbaum, and Tony Consiglio. I am looking forward to seeing the next things they do. I recently enjoyed The Property by Rutu Modan and Special Exits by Joyce Farmer. 

WT: Speaking of Alex (and Tony), why did you decide to wrap up 'Ink Panthers!'? Is this IT or is there the possibility of bringing it back one day?

We basically felt like the project had run its course, and we both didn't want it to be something that sputtered on too long past its expiration date. We both agreed that the actual act of recording conversations was something we really enjoyed, but all the stuff that went along with it: trying to schedule time to record, thinking about bringing guests on the show, was starting to feel like a chore. I think this is "it." We have plans to record the occasional one-off thing together, but I know Alex is having a great time doing Star Wars Minute these days, and I feel like if I ever went back to podcasting, I'd want to maybe do a more comics-focused show, similar to the TCJ Talkies show I used to do for The Comics Journal. Right now I'm enjoying having some time off though.
WT: What is one thing you want to tell the world about you that is completely unnecessary to share?
MD: When I fall into one of those Wikipedia/Youtube rabbit holes, I am most likely finding myself looking up things about Action Park or the Basket Case movies. Or I’m watching clips like this  to see if it’s possible for me to get through them without getting all weepy.
WT: Funny you should mention Action Park. The other day, a good friend of mine was reminiscing about how she had an injury back in the day at that notoriously dangerous place. Jersey pride...sorta? Anyhow, thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
MD: Thanks for asking me to do this. It's great to finally get to talk about this project.
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