April 30, 2014

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Southern Bastards #1

Southern Bastards #1
Written by Jason Aaron
Illustrated by Jason Latour
Image Comics

Southern Bastards is a new crime book written by Jason Aaron and illustrated by Jason Latour. Much like the lead character, we're a stranger ourselves in this tale of a town hiding something rotten. Although the mysterious, crime-ridden small town is a familiar theme, the creative team here brings a sense of grime and authenticity that makes this book interesting and will serve the series well.

As the story begins, there's a man driving a moving van on a country road leaving a voice mail message for someone; we've crossed into Craw County, Alabama, home of the 5-time state champion "Runnin' Rebs". The man's name is Earl, and he's come back to his hometown to clean out his family's old house.

While he's at the house he pays his respects to his father's grave (next to which a large tree has grown - it's been a while) and Earl remembers a time when his father, the town's Sheriff, beat up a number of men outside the house. Next, Earl goes to a diner owned by "the Boss" and is approached by a man named Dusty who knew Earl years before, and who warns Earl to get out of town. Dusty is desperate to see Coach Boss (apparently the "Boss" is also a coach; there's a lot of emphasis on football in this town); unfortunately things don't go as expected, and Earl ends up saving Dusty's life from others who work for Coach Boss and who, well, don't really seem interested in letting Dusty go talk to Coach. Dusty warns Earl that he shouldn't have gotten involved. Later on, Earl comes back to his house, and the book ends on a dramatic back-and-forth sequence of Earl cutting down his tree while things end pretty badly for Dusty.

This was a solid debut issue. The skillful artwork (and particular artistic choices) from Jason Latour set a tone here; the first image we see is a dog taking a dump on the side of the road directly under a number of signs for local churches (Thor: God of Thunder this is not). From the first page, the washed-out colors and rough lines give us a sense of the story to come; these colors are contrasted with the bright red that colors the flashback scenes of violence from Earl's childhood. There's also a slight sense of ugliness that permeates everything and everyone. 

The story feels familiar; it brings to mind the movie "Walking Tall" and other stories of one man going up against a corrupt figure that controls a small town. We don't know much about Earl. He was a great high school football player, and his father was once a sheriff that went after criminals with a big stick (again, like in "Walking Tall"). He's also got an instinct to get involved and help people, even though he's just in town to clean out the old house and put it up for sale, and even though its clear he fled this town a long time ago and doesn't want to be back.  

This is a promising start to a series. Come for the crime, the high school football and the BBQ; stay for the strikingly illustrated tale of a (seemingly) good man reluctantly getting in over his head. 

April 29, 2014

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Lumberjanes #1

Lumberjanes #1
Written by Noelle Stevenson and Grace Ellis (series created by Noelle Stevenson, Grace Ellis and Shannon Watters)
Illustrated by Brooke Allen, Maarta Laiho and Aubrey Aiese

Lumberjanes is a terrifically fun, spooky and good-natured book which nicely captures the excitement and danger that is an essential part of growing up. I hesitate to use the term "all-ages" because for some reason that term seems to scare people off. However, this is a book that should appeal to kids, grown ups, vampires, werewolves, and anyone else.

This is the story of five "hardcore lady types" spending the summer at Miss Quinzella Thiskwin Penniquiquil Thistle Crumpet's Camp for Girls Hardcore Lady Types. They do what any self-respecting camper would do when they encounter a vision of a bear woman; they sneak off into the woods at night. All of a sudden they're surrounded and attacked by three-eyed foxes. The lady types more than hold their own, and the foxes eventually disappear into smoke before delivering a mysterious message. The campers are unsuccessful at sneaking back into their bunk, and their no-fun counselor Jen catches them and brings them to the bunk of Rosie the camp director, who we discover is a lot cooler than Jen, and who knows something about the mysterious goings on in the woods. She prepares the girls that they may see some strange things this summer...

This is an enjoyable, accessible first issue. Each of the girls has a distinct personality and we can see immediately that they're strong, brave and resourceful, and the creators effectively demonstrate their friendship. They're also illustrated to show a diversity of age, ethnicity and body types, so a kid (or grownup, for that matter) could easily find a character with whom they could identify. The art here is somewhat "cartoony" while still conveying emotional reality along with the fantastical. The story is written to be accessible for kids, but not in a condescending way. There are some very funny moments, and the dialogue has wit and feels modern. There's enough silliness, mystery, action and humor here to keep readers of all ages engaged and wanting to know more (and joining the Lumberjanes because it seems awesome). A strong debut.

April 28, 2014

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Rob Kirby Has a Conversation with Whit Taylor

Whit Taylor is an east coast twentysomething cartoonist who appeared on the scene in 2011 with what she calls her first “real” title, Watermelonand Other Things That Make Me Uncomfortable as a Black Person. Her latest, Up Down Clown, an 80 page graphic novel, just debuted at moCCA in April. Whit is not a trained artist, but an instinctual one, with a smart, thoughtful, wide-ranging approach to storytelling, alternating the autobiography of her philosophically-oriented zine Relics with the pure silliness of an Behind the Music-style satire called Stethoscope Microphone. 

In 2013 she was nominated for the Outstanding Series Ignatz award for the five part Madtown High, a semi-autobiographical look at high school life in New Jersey, and she has just been nominated for 2 Glyph Comics Awards for Best Writer and Fan Award for Best Work, both for her 2013 title Boxes (the Glyphs are for African-American achievements in comics). Whit also writes comics reviews and conducts interviews (just like this one!), but we didn’t get around to talking about that. We talked about other interesting stuff, though, as one always does when talking with Whit, so hop on the Interesting Stuff Train and join us. 

Rob Kirby: Hey Whit. So you're tabling at MoCCA (day two) right now. How's it going?

Whit Taylor: The show is going well! I'm a bit of a zombie right now because it's been such a busy weekend, but I wouldn't miss it! James Kochalka just stopped by my table in a very understated sort of way and I was secretly freaking out. He checked out one of my comics which I told him was about a funk band. He thought I said "punk" band, and I think was a little less jazzed about the idea of funk. But he gave me a recommendation for a movie called "A Band Called Death." Top of my Netflix queue!  I'm starting to think I want to write a journal comic about this weekend.* You know, little anecdotes like that.  [Note: She did! Check them out.]

Kirby: Okay, I must tell you that you have to see that movie, it’s really excellent. It's a documentary about 3 black brothers in Detroit Michigan (my hometown) during the 1970's that formed this amazing, basically punk rock sort of band - they were completely ahead of their time. The fact that they were African American just adds to their mystique, that they were making music that was outside their culturally imposed box. Does that resonate with you at all?

Taylor: Yeah, actually it does; particularly the "outside of their culturally imposed box" bit, especially as it applies to existing as a black woman in the "indie" comics world (I put indie in quotes because I have no clue what it actually means). I think the landscape is changing for sure, but there aren't tons of women of color in this scene that we HEAR about. I think this speaks to two things: 1) Perhaps a lack of awareness of the indie comics world in the larger black community and 2) a less than hospitable environment at times for women of color who want to tell stories their way.

Kirby: Whit, to be honest, other than you I don't know of any other black women currently working in indie comics (for our purposes here let's equate "indie" with non-mainstream comics - i.e. someone not working for DC or Marvel, etc). And very few black men. Okay, three off the top of my head: Daryl Ayo Brathwaite, Victor Hodge, and Keith Knight (Burton Clark, a very talented artist best known for his contributions to Gay Comix in the 80's, has been inactive for years now, as far as I know). This scene is overwhelmingly white. I've always figured that for whatever socio-cultural reasons the scene simply didn't attract that many African American creators. Do you think my assumption is misplaced? Do you know any other African American women and men publishing indie comics?

Taylor: Although there are not a lot of black women currently working in indie comics, they are definitely out there. The first person who comes to mind is Jennifer Cruté. She's an illustrator as well as an autobio cartoonist who does some solid work. I met her a few years ago at a show and saw her again at the Black Comic Book Festival at the Schomberg Center in Harlem this winter, where she was on a panel of black female indie cartoonists moderated by Regine Sawyer, another black women on the scene. The Ormes Society, named after Jackie Ormes, is also a great support system for black female creators and has a comprehensive listing of artists on their Tumblr. They've been very generous in giving my work some exposure.

I've met the majority of current black cartoonists at the East Coast Black Ageof Comics Convention in Philly. It's a pretty small show, but one where there is a lot of solidarity and mutual support for black people forging their paths in independent comics. A lot of the work seemed to be more focused on fantasy/action/superhero type work and not as much "indie" as we might define it thematically, but it was creators largely self-publishing their work.

I think exposure and access are definitely big issues. I grew up in a small New Jersey suburban town with a comic book shop down the street from me and kind of stumbled into the indie thing through living in a college town (aka. Providence, RI), where I discovered the work of Jeffrey Brown, Peter Bagge, and Craig Thompson, to name a few. The store was selling these comics because they were catering to a certain demographic which they knew would be receptive to it.

The reality is, even if cities are racially diverse numbers-wise, this doesn't mean that they are integrated community-wise. I worked in lower-income, predominately black and Latino neighborhoods for a few years in LA and I can't recall seeing any comic book shops in these areas. Yes, Meltdown Comics was on Sunset Blvd. not too far away, but that wasn't the clientele. So if you're not around this stuff and on top of that are not seeing people like you (or your experiences) reflected in any of the work, what is your incentive for getting engaged in this world necessarily?

On top of that if you want to be an indie cartoonist and self-publish, it requires somewhat of a financial investment, particularly in the beginning. This is a real issue, and one that might pose a challenge particularly for lower income folks.

I can imagine for black cartoonists, that they might feel out of place in certain indie circuits, if they are not seeing faces like their own. This is not specific to comics though. For me, yes, it's always been an issue, and one which may affect how my work is received (more on that in a bit), but growing up as one of the few black kids in a predominately white town, it's something I've kind of gotten used to. I think people go to places where they feel like what they are making will be valued, you know? Comic readers are increasingly looking to step outside of their comfort zones with what they are reading, but yes, sometimes I still wonder if for instance, if my comics on race and identity are off-putting to some because they feel like they can't identify with them or don't want to read about it.
Excerpt from Watermelon

Kirby: I relate to so much of that, Whit. As a creator in the “queer” category (which I sometimes feel confined by, to tell the truth), I know it took me forever to really get going on becoming the cartoonist I was born to be - it wasn’t until I saw Gay Comix and the work of folks like Howard Cruse that those possibilities began to open up to me, that I had real incentive - and a template - to start working.
Anyway, I want to know how now how much solidarity you felt with those creators at the Black Age of Comics Convention you mentioned.  How did they respond to your work? How did you respond to their superhero/fantasy work? Ultimately, how much creator bonding happened beyond skin color? (For other people could I replace "skin color" with sexual orientation or gender.)

Taylor: Well, I think it's an overall solidarity and support of each other’s' work, regardless of the genre. I don't have to be particularly drawn to someone's comic, but I respect that they are doing their work in an environment that may not be as encouraging of black artists to do their thing. I mean, some people were responsive to my work, particularly my comic 'Watermelon', which deals directly with race, but others were not interested in the type of comics I make. And I don't think that's unique to the black comics community. People like what they like.

Whit, wondering how to keep the Robs of Panel Patter straight.
Kirby: Too true. Let’s talk more specifically about your comics. Tell me all about your new book, Up Down Clown (which I had not read as of this interview) - what was your inspiration?

Taylor: So, it's always hard for me to pitch this book, because I'm not sure how to do it justice. What do I say? This story is about a birthday clown with bipolar disorder? Well that's technically what it's about. But beyond that, it's about a guy struggling with mental illness and how his moods interfere with his creativity, emotional stability, relationships, and ultimately his sense of self.

When I was writing it, a friend of mine warned me that I should make sure the main character was likable. I think I always have this in mind, even though every character is inherently flawed. Gabe Scallop, the main character, has a lot of self-loathing, primarily because he feels like his moods have taken him on a ride to the point where he lacks control. He can be very self-absorbed, as many are when they are not well emotionally. But deep inside, I believe that he wants to have a functional life, and even some happiness. I think his humanity is apparent.

My inspiration came from a lot of sources. I've been surrounded by issues of mental health my whole life. My father is a mental health professional and my mother a social worker, so I grew up talking about these issues and consequently my own feelings, a lot. I probably knew what the DSM was before I even got into comics - an exaggeration, but you get the point. I got a masters in public health with a focus on health education, and more specifically mental health literacy. And I now work at a art college counseling center, where we deal with everything from students with adjustment issues to more serious conditions like schizophrenia and psychosis. There were/are people in my family who have struggled with mental health issues, and I myself have always battled with depression and anxiety. So, it's part of who I am.

A lot of the story is about that balance between being a creative and maintaining emotional stability as it applies to medication. This is a controversial subject in some ways and something that many creatives with mental health issues struggle with. Medicine does not solve every problem, but the struggle with many has been that idea of medicine taking the "creative edge" off, even if it decreases mood lability. That's what Gabe struggles with throughout the story, and I tried to capture the difficulty of adhering to a medication regiment when you feel that it affects part of your identity.

Excerpt from Up Down Clown

Kirby: A lot of cartoonists have talked about and done stories about their own mental health issues, like OCD, anxiety and/or depression. Do you think there a correlation between creativity and mental illness?

Taylor: I mean, anecdotally I think there is. More and more people are doing those retrospectives where they look at people like Emily Dickinson, Van Gogh, Elliott Smith, or Marilyn Monroe and speculate whether they were suffering from mental illness, particularly mood disorders. Those things are hard to prove, even if you look at their histories. But on the other hand, if do see merit to it. Some correlational studies have been done as well as neurological research, but I do not feel qualified to really go into those without more knowledge.

Kirby: Do you have a personal support system specifically for cartooning?

Taylor: With the exception of my brother, who is a musician, no one in my family is an artist. On top of that I never went to art school, so I didn't make cartoonist friends that way. I've made cartoonist friends over the years from going to cons and online correspondence. Sometimes relationships that are initially based on communication about projects can morph into deeper relationships, which is nice. I've also met a lot of great people in the Boston area. The comics scene here is not as booming as say, in NYC, but there are some of us up here.

Kirby: I always ask people this, because I'm obsessed with the issue: how are you juggling your day job & general life responsibilities with your comics work and writing?

Taylor: I find it to be challenging, but luckily I don't have that many responsibilities to anyone other than myself at this moment, so I have more time than usual. It's definitely tiring to come home after working 9-5 and then work for a few more hours on comics, especially when I feel like I do my best work in the mid-morning, but that's life. I used to struggle with that, but now have kind of accepted it. Yes, in an ideal world I'd be a full-time or part-time cartoonist, and that's something I aspire to way down the line, but I try to be grateful for the time I have and maximize it to the best of my ability.

Kirby: Totally random stupid question: Mayonnaise or Miracle Whip?

Taylor: I HATE both. I generally have an aversion to creamy condiments and dressings of any sort, including ranch dressing, so these things terrify me.

Kirby: To wrap up, what are you working on, Whit, what's up next in 2014?

Taylor: I’m currently finishing up a comic I'm doing for Sparkplug Books called The Anthropologists, which is a semi-autobiographical story about a trip I took into the Australian Outback as an anthropology major in college. It explores a lot of the issues I'm interested in, including race, human nature, cultural tourism, and friendships.

Cover to The Anthropologists, forthcoming from Sparkplug Books
I'm also editing an anthology with Ninth Art Press, cartoonist Dan Mazur's Boston-based publishing company. The theme is subcultures, which I came up with given my interest in social science. The pieces are pouring in and they're quite exciting both artistically and thematically! It'll be out for SPX. 

And as for the next project...I have no clue. I am turning 30 this month, so maybe I'll do a mini called Saturn Return. (laughs)

Many thanks to Whit for talking to me! To investigate more of her work, just mosey on over to her website: http://www.whittaylorcomics.com/ and her Tumblr blog: http://whimsicalnobodycomics.tumblr.com/ 

Until next time, when I’ll be talking to Tony Breed, keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars (I didn’t make that up. If you know where it came from you are my pal).   Rob K.

All images © Whit Taylor

April 27, 2014

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Where have you gone, Evan Dorkin? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

There are many sayings that could easily sum up Evan Dorkin's The Eltingville Club #1:

"There but for the grace of God go I."

"With great power comes great responsibility."

"Gaze into the abyss and the abyss gazes into you."

"Absolute power corrupts absolutely."

But perhaps the most accurate philosopher and thinker we can quote talking about this comic is Walt Kelly's Pogo when he said, "I have seen the enemy and he is us."

For the past 20 years or so, Evan Dorkin has tried to keep us comic fans honest even if we haven't always seen it. In Dork! and Milk and Cheese, he has jabbed at the fannish mentality but with The Eltingville Club, he has been holding up a mirror to us. Even since the earliest days of online internet fandom on Usenet, The Eltingville Comic Book, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror & Role-Playing Club has been an brutal reflection of the fanboy mentality. These four boys, each with their own snobbish specialty about some geekery, have been the worst of us.  They have been the people we've known who get so high on their own useless knowledge that they look down on everyone who doesn't know or appreciate the minutae of the expanded universe of Star Wars

These are the people who would wear at shirt that says, "I like my fan girls like I like my coffee.  I hate coffee."  And they are the ones who wouldn't see this as funny or ironic. It would be the truth for them. 

Dorkin's The Eltingville Club #1 should be funny as he skewers fanboys left and right. From lousy comic shops who refuse to carry anything other than Marvel or DC comics to fans who enjoy the act of hating more than anything else, Dorkin viciously attacks the ugliness of fandom. Dorkin has absolutely no sympathy for his characters, only sadness, disappointment and a healthy amount of contempt. They think of themselves as "true fans," the ones upholding the vigorous standards that any real art form requires. Instead, they're the ones building up the walls around their precious love, protecting it from the "fake" fanboys and fangirls.  When one of them finally gets a job in a comic shop, for lousy pay and work, it's the culmination of a little life as he's reached the peak of existence, just like that high school quarterback who has no dreams beyond becoming the starter and winning the state championship. 

Truthfully, Dorkin is hilarious.  If you've spent any serious time in a comic shop or online, The Eltingville Club is people that you know and have ran into. The ways that Dorkin dissects them is just brutal but he pegs them so perfectly. As a humorist, Dorkin has always been about capturing the absurdity of these things that we elevate and praise. He's always been about giving a giant middle finger salute to all this stuff that we accept because we think it is "art."  With The Eltingville Club #1 though, there is something else happening. It's like he's become resigned to the way things are. He's been railing against this fannish ugliness for almost two decades and nothing has changed. The Eltingville Club has been around since the earliest days of internet fandom and thre are still trolls lurking around every virtual and real corner. 

This issue begins the end of The Eltingville Comic Book, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror & Role Playing Club.  On the last page (spoilers I guess,) Dorkin flashes back to the four young, optimistic boys as they're first forming the club.  "C'mon, guys!  Do you wanna argue about stupid crap or do you wanna have fun?  I mean, isn't this supposed to be about having fun?"  Instead, they turned into every other bitter fan who haunts comment sections and Facebook now.  They're the ones who make everyone one else feel like they don't belong.  That's the way that they've always been since Dorkin first introduced us to them years ago.  You think that we would have come farther than this by now but sadly these social misfits are just as real and relevant today as they were back in the Nineties.   Now they just spend their time online, spewing their filth under names like "HSolo1977" and "Wolverine4Evah."

Evan Dorkin has tried to keep us honest over the years.  He's tried to beat us into kindness and he's tried to show us just how mean and cruel we have been when we can hide behind the power and anonimity of fandom.  And we haven't learned a thing as we can see by the stories of how scared and petty that fandom becomes when something tries to intrude on their safe havens and comfort zones.  The Eltingville Club started out as a joke, something we could easily laugh at but now it has become a scary reflection of a part of us as these guys arent' just a caricature of an extreme end of fandom but have become an all-too-real reminder that these guys are out there, harassing and making threats to anyone that dares try to improve their beloved and precious fetishes.  Congratulations reality.  You have now officially turned into what was once a joke.

We need Evan Dorkin.  We need someone to tell us just how awful we are. 
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Written and Illustrated by Tara Abbamondi

Remember when you were told not to step in puddles as a child?

Remember not following that rule any time you could get away with it?

Well, Maggie wishes she'd taken the advice of her mother in this well-illustrated fantasy that has touches of whimsy and woe wrapped into a modern-day fairy tale.

Mixing a bit of Alice in Wonderland with Grimm's Fairy Tales, Ms. Abbamondi creates a world where one wrong turn changes the life of a girl forever. After disobeying her mom. Maggie falls into a puddle and is taken to another world, where her appearance will save them all--for a price.

I don't want to say much more than that because I'd give away the story, but it's a great dilemma, which brings up some questions, like how much free will Maggie has in making her decision. She's clearly manipulated by Neena, the spirit that saves her/traps her but the alternative to being an unlikely savior was meaningless death--or was it?

The story is just ambiguous enough on this point to make it incredibly interesting to me. Maggie is seen to be extremely willful, so the idea of her landing in a situation that's infinitely worse than having to listen to a parent and how she deals with it (which we discover in a clever, natural way) makes for a compelling story, even if it is extremely brief.

I also like the way this one feels like a fairy tale without being a slavish copy of one, a problem we see far too often when creators who love old stories try to make a "new" one that comes out as anything but. Tara's plot will make you think of stories you know (the idea of falling down the puddle, having the townsfolk try to solve the problem, the idea of unending rain, etc.) but they don't feel cobbled together or taken from anything. Similarly, the dialogue is organic--there's no attempt to artificially create a world that sounds like late period Middle English, for example.

Ms. Abaamondi's visuals here are quite strong in terms of the panel constructions. When Maggie is discovered to be the solution to the town's problem, they almost overwhelm her, something we see by masses of hands reaching out to her, giving a feeling not unlike a horror movie--which for Maggie, that's not far off the mark. The scenes inside the water use blacks to great effect, allowing Maggie to stand out against its murky, deadly depths. There's also some great perspective views in this one, with the attention focused on Maggie's boots, which play a major role in her dilemma.

Unfortunately, as with The Stolen Lovelight, there's still some work to be done on emotional range and backgrounds, with the latter giving us just enough to follow the story but lacking a real sense of place that a fantasy story like this one needs to firmly ground the setting for the reader. However, that's a common thing with many mini-comics, and I've grown used to it. I just wish we saw a bit more pushing in this area from the new generation of mini-comics artists.

Overall, this one was a lot of fun to read and re-read, and I highly recommend it. You can get a copy directly from Tara here or see her at an upcoming show.

April 26, 2014

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Dr. W C

Written and Illustrated by Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen's iconic, fourth wall-breaking character is back in action, this time in a full-length feature that takes up all but two pages of the mini as two bullies turn his own words against him, forcing him into a battle of wits and words.

As I've written before, I'm a huge fan of Andrew Cohen's work with Dr. W, from the first time I ran into it as part of Magic Bullet 1, if I am remembering correctly. It's a lot of fun to see Cohen play with panels and have the figures inside the comic literally interacting with the entire world around them, including the artificial barriers constructed by the creator, Cohen himself.

After a one-age comic where Dr. W berates himself for not doing anything new or adventurous, we get just that in the second, main story. Even the comic itself makes commentary!

The full-length adventure begins ordinarily enough, with Dr. W trying to create something of his own,, when he's interrupted by two tough-looking men. They harass him, and in typical fashion for this series, Dr. W gets thrown out of the panel and watches (at the same time as the reader) as they mock his efforts. It's at this point that things get really strange, as the words themselves rise up an begin to menace those who took them for granted. Soon they're out of control, flowing across the entire page and gobbling up everything around them. Only Dr. W can save the day, but it's a rough road even for him, as he tries to wrestle his unruly creation back into shape.

The artwork here is just stunning. The creature flows and engulfs everything, forming and unforming as it goes along, taking over a panel box and eventually constructing a monster-like humanoid whose skin is covered in words. And yes, they are actual words, changing in each panel. Cohen spares no detail here, which is part of what makes it so amazing. Many others would have just entered gibberish or scribbles, but not Andew; this is a word monster and it is drawn accordingly.

While fighting, Dr. W's signature puns and double meanings are in full force, such as when he mentions having to get behind his words or saying he won't be swallowed up in words. The art is the main draw here, of course, but I've always appreciated that the jokes are verbal as well as physical, and that's highlighted here as well.

Perhaps my favorite part of this is that, in the end, Dr. W's words come back to haunt him. So true, right?

A versatile and talented creator, Andrew's work is always a highlight whenever I get something new. And while I'll always enjoy his historical work (either solo or in collaboration with Matt Dembicki), I can't wait for the next Dr. W comic. After you read this one, I think you'll agree. These just keep getting better and better, keeping me at the edge of my own panel waiting for the 4th installment, whenever it show.

You can buy Dr. W C and Andrew's other words here.

April 25, 2014

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Single Minded for 3/5: Valiant Gets My Goat and Other Comics

Hello again, folks! I'm continuing my catch-up work with some comics that caught my eye from March 5th. It's highlighted by the third issue of Tobin, Coover, Clark, and Cogar's Adventure Time mini...

Adventure Time The Flip Side 3
Written by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover
Illustrated by Wook Jin Clark and Whitney Cogar
Published by Boom! Studios

Finn and Jake Wasteland no time trying to find a hare-brained way to wave the land of Ooo in yet another great issue of this mini-series that is the best use of the Adventure Time characters I’ve seen so far in a comic.

Refusing to be completely linear in the narrative, Tobin and Coover once again put us in the middle of the action, this time teamed with Marceline, whose vampire powers frequently save the day with amazing exaggerations by Clark. The plot of this issue is self-contained within a larger framework, and is filled with the usual collection of puns, silly jokes, and a few lines for the adults in the room (like Jake flipping through an unseen magazine quipping, “Oh, I’m Looking”). This time around, our heroes are out to see if they can find a lost pet to return the verve of the only person who can save everyone. To do it, they must venture into a land of outlaws and creatures that get sillier by the page.

Wook Jin Clark’s art is outstanding as usual, with his rubbery characters, little touches (such as drawing a rubble monster to share Marvel’s The Thing patterns while Finn complains about things being “grim”), and ability to sell the jokes that the writing pair come up with. I adore his Marceline, who freely ranges from pretty Goth to horrifying monster at the drop of a hat as the story requires it. There’s so many great touches, like Ice King losing out in a Princess stealing awards show or Finn trying to emulate Marceline and failing badly, that show the creative team working in perfect harmony.

Whether it’s hatching a really insane scheme, fighting an epic battle, or running away, this is Adventure Time at its best. There’s car chases, giant rabbits, a wily villain, and even a fart joke. What more can you ask for? If you haven’t gotten to read this one yet, stop hating yourself and do it.

Quantum and Woody 0
Story by James Asmus and Tom Fowler
Illustrated by Tom Fowler, Allen Passalaqua, and Matt Milla
Published by Valiant Entertainment

The secret origin of Woody's destructive goat finds it has closer ties to the boys than they realize in a one-shot return by Tom Fowler to the series he helped reboot.

Zero issues are a tricky thing, and not just for frustrated collectors who have to figure out how to keep their comics in sequence. Going back in time sometimes leads to unfortunate retcons and other problems. Not so here, partly because of how close this comes to the start of the series, and partly because Asmus and Fowler are the creators here.

As per usual, the issue is filled with as many comedic moments the creators can pack into a little over twenty pages. We open with our dynamic duo trying to get rid of the goat, who destroys everything it can. Soon, it's reflecting on its adventurous life, escaping from its farm and winding up in the middle of a scientific expo where their father and the villains from the first arc are both lurking. The ending gives us a hint at a future plot point which should be hysterical if/when Asmus gets back to it.

The fun and joy in this series comes from the fact that nothing is off-limits, and the horrendously racist things that the evil clone woman comes up with ("Ebony Tesla" at one point had me on the floor) are a highlight. Dancing on that razor's edge is no mean feat for Asmsus, but the fact that anything and everything gets lampooned (including the reader, if they don't know Spanish!) makes it work. The verbal interplay of the younger Woody (who wants to deathrace his goat against Eric's) is perfect, and the body language given to everyone in the comic by Fowler helps time the verbal gags just right. In some cases, he drives the entire comedy, such as when the goat encounters everything from a football team to bigfoot.

It's a winning combination that just keeps on going strong. I'm sure this ride will have to end as the series gets integrated into the wider, more serious Valiant world, but while it lasts, anyone who likes comics with humor in them absolutely must start picking this one up. It's comedy gold every time.

Starlight 1
Written by Mark Millar
Illustrated by Goran Parlov and Ive Svorcina
Published by Image Comics

When he was young, Duke was an Air Force pilot with a fantastic story of an alien world he could never return to, but circumstances change at the end of his life in this intriguing first issue that caught me by surprise.

I have a lot of mixed feelings about Mark Millar's work. For every perfect deconstruction of the Marvel Universe (the first two trades of the Ultimates are the best example of this I've ever seen), there's the veiled racism and ultra violence of Kick Ass. But if there's one thing being a part of Newsarama's review team taught me, it's to give everything a fair shake* so I figured I'd give this one a shot.

I'm glad I did because at least in this opening salvo, there's a lot to like. Duke had an amazing adventure and a chance to rule with a gorgeous woman by his side, but he gives it up to return to the life he's always known, only to face derision for it (which we discover in an uncharacteristically subtle way by Millar, via a series of newspaper cuttings). The story picks up when the reason for Duke's decision dies of breast cancer, leaving him with uncaring children and a future of misery--until the unexpected ending, which sets up the series.

Parlov's a new name for me, but I'm going to be watching for him in the future. His style is perfect for this comic, mixing a heavy dose of Howard Chaykin with just a bit of P. Craig Russell for the science fiction elements. His characters emote well, and are drawn square and heroic--even Duke, despite his advanced age, looks like a character ready for action. His backgrounds set the scenes perfectly, whether it's fantastical spires and space ships or the mundane pictures framed in a bedroom of a longstanding couple. Combined with just the right unrealistic/realistic set of colors from Svorcina, the art on this one really pops.

Starlight is a potential sleeper hit, and I'm looking forward to more.

Archer and Armstrong 18
Written by Fred Van Lente
Illustrated by Pere Perez and David Baron
Published by Valiant Entertainment

Archer tries to shoot straight with Bloodshot but misses his mark in this first issue of a crossover that doesn’t play to writer Van Lente’s strengths but still works pretty well, all things considered.

This opening salvo in a crossover that pushes the diametrically opposite duo into Bloodshot’s crosshairs actually went better than I expected, as Van Lente is allowed to use Armstrong to keep the comedy flowing, as the immortal man kegs out while Archer gets down to business. It’s a great ploy that lets Project Rising Spirit go after the team by dividing and conquering, but because the rest has to be pretty darn serious, I miss the outrageous jokes and pokes at the various right-wing organizations of America and the wider world.
There’s some good plotting in this one, and Fred has a pretty good handle on Bloodshot and how his own history is going to make him sympathetic to Archer’s recently revealed origin. How this crossover uses that link will be key to its success.

Pere Perez is back, and I love seeing him on this book. His facial expressions match Van Lente’s dialogue perfectly, whether it’s a snide remark or a discussion in the heat of battle. He has some great panel structure work in this one, such as when Archer and Bloodshot mirror each other’s actions. Even the star on Archer’s chest is placed so that when he’s fighting Bloodshot, we notice the similarity to the red circle on the nanite-infused killer’s own shirt.

The battle scenes are just amazing, picking the right moment to highlight a punch or a firefight. In fact, Archer’s agility (he’s positively Spider-Man-esque here) really shines in a way I don’t think we’ve seen before.

I miss the old comedic style of this book, which seems to have shifted to Quantum and Woody. But if we do need to go darker, this is the way to do it. I’m looking forward to part two in the pages of Bloodshot soon.

Bad Blood 3
Written by Jonathan Maberry
Illustrated by Tyler Crook
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Trick and Lolly look for help to stop the vampires who are poised for a bloody return to humanity in a third issue that gives the overall story more depth and promise.

The first two parts to this story didn’t do a lot to wow me. I liked the idea of what happens when a leukemia patient is bitten by a vampire, but the rest of the story was so dire and, frankly, so stereotypical (still a problem), that I didn’t put it on the review pile before. Despite piling on the clichés again this issue (Lolly is a junkie who was abused by her father, which turned her to vampire worship), the idea that people perceived as broken by the rest of humanity might be their only hope against a rising vampire threat is enough of a neat idea to get me to keep going with this one.

Maberry’s plotting and pacing are decent, as there’s nice ebb and flow to the action here, and the build up to the climactic battle worked well for me. But the dialogue is really rough. The two characters are still pretty self-loathing, and the references to other vampire-hunting concepts doesn’t do it any favors. The Vampire speak in speeches that belong in old Bronze Age comics, and there’s just something overall that feels unnatural about the give and take between Trick, Lolly, and their world.

Crook’s vampires are pretty creepy looking, and he does a solid job of getting the atmosphere right for a dire story about broken people. His character designs are fluid and they wear clothing that fits for a visual impression of the underside of society. There’s some great expression work on the faces of his figures and some of the set pieces (like Trick holding Lolly in a dumpster after getting the crap kicked out of them by a vampire) are picture-perfect. Unfortunately, the coloring work is in the “bland brown” style, which mutes the impact because the general background visual is rarely different from page to page.

Bad Blood has its flaws, and they may be too much for you. I’ll see where it goes from here, but I’m open to it growing on me.

*Which I try to do. But there are a few creators who are on the permanent ban list.
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Oily Comics November 2013

With the new set of Oily Comics showing up at my door just before I moved to Portland, I realized that I wanted to finish up my look at the original, monthly works.

For those who might come to this new, Oily was a monthly subscription service that provided 5 small, quarter-sized mini-comics each month. Run by Chuck Forsman, who is keeping the imprint but revising how he puts it together, it was a great way to get a small dose of comics in your life every month.

So in the penultimate batch, what did we have? A brief review is below. Most of these comics are still available from Oily directly, or wherever finer mini-comics are sold:

Blood Visions 3 by Zach Worton features a rather familiar couple on the front cover. On the inside, the story of strange, blood-related occurrences continue, with a pair of image-sensitive cops not understanding the scope of the problem. A new scene starts at a party, and I bet the next edition will feature some blood there. This one, honestly, while well-drawn, has a problem with abrupt endings based on the small page count, making it a bit hard to follow month to month.

The Desk by Leslie Stein, is a cute one-and-done about a little girl who walls herself up into her room in order to try to gain attention from busy family members by turning it into "Lorry's Room." The plan fails when nature calls, leading to some great comedic work by Stein. Featuring thin, crisp lines with a lot of detail, this one was a highlight in this month's batch.

Dumpling King 4 from Alex Kim ramps us the action as the old man is revealed for his true nature in some strong, angular work from Kim, packing as much illustrative power as possible into such a small space. With the secrets out in the open and ordinary young men caught in the middle, it's going to be a lot of fun to see where this goes next. Kim's art is very distinctive, with almost no soft or round lines to be found. He varies shades and makes everything that's going on quite clear. I'm worried I'll never see the end to this story, which would be a shame.

Outside 3 finishes the run from Marc Geddes and Warren Craighead. This one never did anything for me, unfortunately, and the final installment was no exception. The work is just too abstract. I'm not the target person for this style of comic.

Teen Creeps 5 is a nearly wordless issue, as Dawn's plans for the illegal drugs she purchased are not what you might have expected. It's a clever idea, but I expect the consequences won't work out in the way Dawn is thinking. Each step is clearly outlined by Forsman, and the final line is note-perfect. Unfortunately, Forsman seems to disagree, as this is an aborted story now.

That was November. I'll try to do December as quickly as I can, closing the book on the old Oily, so I can talk about the new issues that came at the end of March. Tune in then, won't you?

April 24, 2014

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Series Review: The Private Eye

The Private Eye
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Illustrated by Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente
Panel Syndicate

The Private Eye is an ambitious sci fi/detective series, published exclusively online by co-creators Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin under the Panel Syndicate banner. The Private Eye is offered on a DRM-free, pay-what-you-like model. More to the point, it's one of the best comics you'll read, online or offline. The story is set in the year 2076. This is a world which looks somewhat like what you'd imagine the future to be (tall buildings, futuristic cars), but there's no online connectivity. At some point (but well prior to the events of the story), there was an event where "the cloud" burst and for forty days and forty nights, all of everyone's deepest, darkest secrets became public. After that, no one trusted the internet anymore. Privacy is highly valued in the "present" time of the story; people go out of their way with masks and pseudonyms to hide their true identities in order to maintain their privacy. Interestingly, the Press has assumed the role of law enforcement, investigating crimes.

The story centers around a private investigator, known either as P.I. or by the pseudonym Patrick Immelman, who's approached by a beautiful woman (as these sorts of stories often tend to start) named Taj in order to run a background check on herself to see what sorts of dirt might turn up. When she's found dead up dead the next day, the case gets more serious.  P.I. is approached and essentially blackmailed into investigating Taj's murder by her sister Raveena.  P.I. And Raveena are almost immediately attacked and they go on the run, with some assistance from P.I.'s grandpa, who was a young man in our present day and still has a lot of trouble adjusting to the world of the story. Information is a lot harder to come by in 2076, as there is no internet and people's library searches are federally protected. P.I. and Raveena learn that Taj had been under the influence of a powerful man named De Guerre. During course of the first 5 issues, it becomes clear that De Guerre was responsible for Taj's murder (and some others as well) and is on the trail of P.I. and Raveena now, as part of his nefarious scheme to bring back something called "the internet".

In Issue 5, P.I. And Raveena make their way to the library - they get away from librarian shooting at them only through the help of P.I.'s teenage sidekick/driver Melanie. Unfortunately there's a car crash and she's injured at the end of Issue 5. In the current issue, Melanie is recovering in the hospital when she's approached by the press to get her story, unfortunately she's abducted by De Guerre's French henchmen, who engage in a firefight with the reporter. P.I. and Raveena follow a lead all the way out to the old Santa Monica pier, which no longer looks out onto the Pacific, but instead onto a giant sea wall, several hundred feet high. They find the home of Nebular, a scientist who's been working with De Guerre. At the same time, Nebular and De Guerre are heading out to Santa Monica, thereby setting up a big showdown in the next issue.

Vaughan and Martin have created something special with this comic. The story is a richly designed and detailed world, full of amazingly rendered touches. We don't know all that much about any of the characters in the story (as they come from a world where privacy is highly valued), but we're given enough to make them interesting. The art from Marcos Martin and colors from Muntsa Vicente are vibrant, detailed, and remarkably rendered. Every character has a tremendous amount of detail, and the setting (a futuristic world where most people where elaborate masks and costumes when outside) lends itself to the artistic team really getting to let their imaginations run wild. It would also not be a surprise to suggest that Vaughan (co-creator of Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina and Saga) knows how to build a world; he and Martin have done so skillfully here. Like the best science fiction, this story may take place in the future but it's about right now. The way these characters live (zealously guarding their privacy, not trusting any form of online communication) is a great commentary on how we live today, where we share everything online and trust in the security of the cloud. The idea of the cloud crashing down in a flood of data and thereby remaking the world is a great reinterpretation of the Biblical story of Noah*; the world that would emerge afterwards really would have to be different in order to function.

One example of the creative team's skill in world building, storytelling and social commentary is P.I.'s grandpa. He is a great recurring character in the issues and a source of comic relief, but he's a lot more than that. He goes on at various times about how he can't get any wifi or "bars" on his phone, and he's covered in tattoos. He defends the way they used to live, sharing everything because they had nothing to hide. It's funny to see an old person going on about these things, because these are the things that concern us now. So we see in this comic relief that all things are cyclical, and that all of the old people in our lives were young once, and everything we hold to as modern and exciting may someday seem quaint and ridiculous to our grandchildren. If it makes us a little uncomfortable, the creators are doing their job by giving us something to think about along with a terrific story and stunning art.

There's probably something ironic about The Private Eye only being available electronically. Don't worry about that though; this is a rich, interesting, beautifully rendered story in any format.

* A recurring theme in the books being reviewed by me, it seems.

April 23, 2014

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You Should Go To the Brooklyn Zine Fest April 26th and 27th, 2014

It's a little hard to believe that I've known Matt and Kseniya for over five years now, back when "I Love Bad Movies" was only in its first edition, but it's true. I've seen it expand to multiple issues, watched them oversee a movie night related to the zines and now organizing a highly successful (and mini-comic/zine star-studded) festival in Brooklyn every year.

While I never managed to make it myself, and now I'm too far away, I wanted to call attention to this year and encourage anyone in the area to try to make it down to the show. They're trying out something new this time: Each day of the show features an entirely different line-up of exhibitors! I've never heard of doing this before, and I am really curious to see how it works out. The big advantage to this--for those who can make both days--is it allows the show to have 150 exhibitors in a space that normally fits only 75.

Held at the Brooklyn Historical Society, in addition to the creators at their tables, there will be two events held leading up to the show and a few panels during the weekend.

First up is a talk about zines and mixed heritage:
Thursday, April 24th at 7pm / FREE, All Ages:Zines from the Borderlands: Storytelling about Mixed-HeritageFeaturing four Brooklyn Zine Fest exhibitors, this panel will discuss questions like, How can zines create new narratives and representations for mixed-heritage people, LGBTQ communities, and people of color? and, What is the role of zines, DIY and self-publishing within marginalized communities?
 On Friday, there's a reading performance and party, starting at 8pm with an $8 cover charge. It's all ages, but alcohol will be served to the 21+ crowd, so plan accordingly.

Saturday features a discussion about queer and trans zinesters:
Queer & Trans* Zinesters (Saturday 4/26 at 4:30pm)
For some of us, the first time we connected with queer people was through zines. How do queer zinesters — especially queer people of color — tell their stories? How do zines build queer community (or not)? Listen to these panelists speak on how queer and trans* identities appear (or don’t appear) in their zines and how zine culture figures into the rest of their lives.
Featuring: Nia King, Daniela Capistrano, Sarah Mae Allard, and Amos Mac
And Sunday has two more panels:
Collecting Zines (Libraries, Archives, & Collectives) (Sunday 4/27 at 1pm)
Zines are often thought of as impermanent; most have a very limited distribution and are not expected to be distributed forever. However, there are many large and growing zine libraries, archives, and public collections that are making zines more permanent and lengthening their “shelf life.” On this panel, we will be discussing the ethics of zine collecting and how collectors go about their work.
Featuring: Jenna Freedman, Robin Enrico, and Kathleen McIntyre 
Anonymity (Sunday 4/27 at 3pm)
What are the benefits/drawbacks of being a “public zinester”? Some zinesters find that the material they put out might change their relationships with other people if it was put under their real name; some just find it to be part of “zine culture” to be mysterious. Do you put your real name on your zine? Come find out what our panelists have to say about and share your own experiences with anonymity.
Featuring: Carnage NYC, Research & Destroy New York City, and Deafula
As usual when previewing a show, I like to point out who you should see. This is the first time I've had to split it into days!


The I Love Bad Movies zine is for anyone who's ever sat down and watched some truly terrible films and loved every minute of them. Filled with short reviews of some really awful films, this is a great series that you shouldn't miss out on.

Paper Rocket mini-comics has exactly what it says. Home of some great compilation minis like "This Isn't Working,", they are definitely a group to check out.

So Buttons is writer Jonathan Baylis working with a wide variety of creators, including Noah Van Sciver and Fred Hembeck, telling stories of his life that are engaging and touching, and often funny, too. This one's for fans of Harvey Pekar, though it's definitely a lot less bleak!


The La-La Theory is writer (and flea market maven) Katie Haegele, another zinester I've known since I got involved via Erica several years ago. She's collected my favorite series of hers, White Elephants, into a book, and also has other projects involving language, interviews, and other things.

Deafula is a zinester who discusses the ins and outs of being differently abled in America. At times it's angry, hopeful, and funny, as she explains to the rest of the world just what it's like to live in a culture that is anything but hospitable to those who have physical challenges of any kind. Highest possible recommendation on this one.

Steve Seck is one of my best friends in the mini-comics field. I'm not sure if his wife Sara will be there or not, but the pair are a creative force who couldn't possibly work in more different parts of the genre. Steve's work is all about unpleasant characters doing things you know--and they know--they shouldn't, while Sara's is mostly about really cute cats with jobs. If you are an MST3K fan, run, don't walk to this table and get Steve's new print, featuring a whole host of your favorite creators and characters from the movies they attacked over the years.

Marguerite Dabaie is a friend of Steve and Sara, and is an amazing artist in her own right. I reviews her latest series, A Voyage to Panjikant, recently. and it's gorgeous and full of detail. Make sure you stop by!

Liz Prince is one of the best at writing frankly about relationships in her autobiographical work. She reminds me quite a bit, even down to the style, once upon a time, of Jeffrey Brown. Her new collection with Top Shelf should be available when you see her at the show.

I hope you make it to the show and have a great time! You can find more information on the show at its website.
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Translucid (1 of 6)

Translucid (1 of 6)
Written by Chondra Echert and Claudio Sanchez
Illustrated by Daniel Bayliss
Published by Boom! Studios

Translucid is the first issue in a new miniseries from the husband and wife creative team of Claudio Sanchez and Chondra Echert with art from Daniel Bayliss. Sanchez is best known as the lead singer and guitarist for the rock group Coheed and Cambria, and he and Echert have previously co-written the comics Key of Z and Kill Audio. This first issue is a beautifully illustrated work that explores and begins to deconstruct some familiar themes (mostly the strange, symbiotic relationship between heroes and their arch-villains) but does so in an interesting enough way to leave a reader wanting to know more.

The story begins with a scene of a young man in his room designing what appears to be a super hero costume, and then turns to the present day, where super villain The Horse (a well-dressed man wearing a horse's head helmet) has recently been released from prison. The Horse meets with lesser villains The Apocalypse 3; he wants their help in his plan to go after the city's greatest hero, The Navigator. The story goes back and forth between scenes of the young man (who turns out to be the Navigator) in the past, and the present day (and we nicely get to see his imaginative dreams come to fruition).

The Apocalypse 3 have taken the Horse hostage in the Empire Building and have rigged the building with explosives. The Navigator finds the Horse tied up in the building, and the Horse presents him with a choice. If he frees the Horse, the building will explode. He just has to be willing to leave the Horse to be captured or killed. The Navigator makes the typical comic book choice, and the Horse turns things around, essentially punishing the Navigator for being unwilling to make the hard choices. The story ends with a scene of the past, with the young man waking from a nightmare because of a sound of a crashing bottle, and hints of a very difficult childhood.

The story is expressly meant to be a deconstruction of superhero tropes; more specifically, it's meant to be a close examination of the strange, symbiotic relationships between superheroes and their arch-nemeses. This story most clearly brings to mind Batman and the Joker. Like Batman and the Joker, we have a high-tech crime fighter battling against an eccentric criminal mastermind who creates ridiculous elaborate schemes not simply to hurt and destroy, but to test and challenge his heroic nemesis. Much like many people have asked the question over the years "Why doesn't Batman just kill the Joker and be done with it?" here the creators present us with the question of "Why doesn't the Navigator just leave the Horse in the building, rather than allow the Empire State Building, and anyone inside it, to get blown up?"  The story answers this question by telling us that this crazy horse head man is apparently the closest thing the Navigator has to a friend. 

The art really helps sell the story here. Daniel Bayliss is a serious talent. He brings to mind some combination of Paul Pope, Frank Quitely and Nick Pitarra (some pretty great territory to be in). His depictions of the young Navigator, from the detail of a very modest home to the muted tones, convey a "real world" setting. By contrast, when we see the Navigator and the Horse, the colors are more expressive (though the backgrounds and design still feel very real). There are some scenes at the end of the story, when the Horse has drugged the Navigator, that are in the realm of mind-blowing psychedelic visions (easy enough to imagine when your adversary is dressed up like an anthropomorphic horse). Also, given Bayliss' skill as a visual storyteller, the writers here smartly don't overwrite this issue (other than in a panel or two where they tell rather than show).

This series is very much in the Watchmen-esque, "superheroes are psychologically messed up" territory, which is well-trod ground. However, given skillful, effective art, and the weird, interesting and self-aware twists and turns the first issue has already provided, it feels like the creators here have something to say. 

April 22, 2014

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Rob Ullman's Animal Alphabet

 Written and Illustrated by Rob Ullman

Anyone who is a fan of this blog knows my long association and friendship with Rob Ullman, the biggest Pirate/Steeler/Pens fan not living in Pittsburgh.

It's been a rough weekend, given the Bucs are back to their old tricks and the Pens look ready to choke more than the Boston Strangler, so I thought I'd cheer him up by telling you about this gem of a mini from a few years ago.

Back in 2011, a group of cartoonists, many of whom I am either friends with or know of, got together and put together a group Tumblr featuring a different letter of the alphabet each week for six months. For each letter, the artist could pick a corresponding animal of their choice.

(I even did one, in a rare art moment. "L is for Lemings on a Ladder.")

Well, those of us familiar with Rob's art know he can easily draw beautiful and realistic women, but could he manage to do the same for the animal kingdom?

The answer is a resounding yes.

Taking the same slick lines that serve him so well when crafting humans, Ullman puts together images of the selected animals that portray them as neatly as if they were illustrations in a field guide or 19th Century biology book and yet feel just light and airy enough to match his other works. Each creature is front and center, taking up as much of the page as possible, with backgrounds that fit their natures.

(I will forgive Rob for adding an Igloo to the Penguins one, given it *is* the name for the old Mellon Arena.)

This is a unique sketchbook that shows off Rob's talent in a way you can hand to your child, and even, as he notes on the website, let them color the figures in, if they're so inclined. I love themed sketchbooks (I even have one that's an artist's choice alphabet, that I desperately need to get working on), and this is no exception. If you enjoy artbook mini-comics, this is a must-have, that you can get from Ullman's website.

Not convinced yet? Then I leave you with a picture of Rob's Dik-Dik:

What else were you expecting? For shame!
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Cram Yourself with Good Comics at the end of the Study Group Kickstarter

A little over two years ago, I wrote about a new collective of artists who were opening a webcomics portal called Study Group.

Unlike some projects of a similar nature, this one kept on going, even without the benefit of being on RSS (something I really hope they'd change by now, to be honest). Led by Zack Soto and Milo George, Study Group has grown over time and several of the things first serialized there have gone on to a print publication. In addition, Study Group Magazine is two issues into its run so far, with no signs of stopping.

Study Group the website is, I think, a great success, and I'm pleased to see that their Kickstarter is already over its goal with a few days left. The crowd funding is being used to effectively create pre-orders for It Will All Hurt 2 from Farel Dalrymple, Haunted from Sam Alden, the third Study Group Magazine issue (in 3D, no less!), and now Titan 2 from Francois Vigneault and Secret Voice 2 from Zack Soto.

The project has funded, but I wanted to give it a final signal boost to give it a bit more attention, let my readers know about in case they hadn't already seen it (I know I miss good projects all the time), and ensure they get the final stretch goal to make this feature a total of five books instead of just three.

While I am not always active on the website, I have been reading the print editions coming out from it, and I can tell you they are stellar. I reviewed It Will All Hurt 1 and came away extremely impressed with the nature of Dalrymple's storytelling and the quality of his art. I expect the second issue to be just as good, if not better.

I've already read the first two issues of Study Group Magazine, with plans to review the second issue soon. It's a great combination of art and commentary, leaning heavily on the experimental side of things. The articles and comics blend together seamlessly, treating the medium with respect and care and yet also allowing for irreverence in the material contained within at the same time.

If I hadn't been planning to back the Kickstarter, I would have definitely picked up Sam Alden's Haunted, which looked gorgeous. It has full and rich linework and colors that jump out at the reader. It took a lot of willpower not to double dip. If you need further validation of Alden's quality, keep in mind he's a Retrofit Alumni, being a part of this year's group. Long-time Panel Patter readers know of Box Brown's curating quality, as his small press's titles are always finding a place on my end of year lists.

In terms of reward, this is yet another strongly tiered project. After the usual thank-you levels, you can get stickers for $6, Titan #2 for $8, It Will All Hurt 2 for $12, Secret Voice 2 for $12, $15 for Study Group Mag 3D, and $18 for Haunted. There's also a digital tier (YAY!) for $12.

From there, you have a series of combo packs, ranging from groupings of books to retailer incentives to signed editions. There really are a great number of options for anyone with extra funding who wants to have a larger reward.

Study Group are a great bunch of people who I've had the pleasure to meet on a few occasions now. They not only know how to put together a model that is successful, they do it with great comics, too, that run the gamut from the rawest of alternative comix to absolutely gorgeous watercolor work by Dalrymple. Whether it's on the web or in print, it's comics of the highest quality. If you'd like to see that for yourself in either a hard copy or a digital form you can read on your favorite device, take a look and then add a few more dollars on the pile.

You can back the Study Group Kickstarter here.

April 21, 2014

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Single Minded Catch-Up: for 2/26/14: Weak Week for Remender, Strong Week for Turtles

Welcome to the first of my Single Minded Catch-Up posts, in which I go back and talk about books that aren't exactly as new as they were when I was supposed to write this up.

Normally, the cupboard is a bit bare at the end of the month, but this one featured a ton of new #1 issues, making for a rather long column. So there's a ton to talk about, whether it's new Gail Simone, old Charles Schulz, or some series that could be sleeper hits for you. All in all, there's 11 books in here, because as we all know from my 'Rama work, I'm never more at home than when saying a few things about a lot of books.

Let's begin with one of the two Rick Remender books, which had an amazing issue one.

Issue two? Not so much.

Deadly Class 2
Written by Rick Remender
Illustrated by Wes Craig and Lee Loughridge
Published by Image Comics

Marcus learns about his new home in a series of cliché set pieces and the amazing artwork can only do so much to save this second issue that fell flat for me after a promising first issue.

This might have been the most disappointing book I’ve read recently, mostly because the first issue had so much action and potential. But unfortunately, instead of building on that steady, moving beat, Remender opts instead to methodically take Marcus through life at the assassin school, taking pains to hit every single stereotypical school trope possible: The wise headmaster, the racist hicks, the hot-blooded, lust-filled Latinos, aloof and mysterious Japanese folks (and form the romantic interest, because we need an exotic beauty), the outcasts who break the rules, the homophobic jock, and the good natured wimp who befriends the main character.

That would be fine as far as it goes (I’m no stranger to reading comics that revisit themes), but I can’t find anything new happening with them here. We could easily have ended with the line about “the dagger they put in your back is real” and moved forward, using our vast prior knowledge of such scenarios to fill in the gaps while we move into the more interesting parts (like the classes themselves, Marcus’s object of revenge, and what happens when a student fails an assignment). Instead, this one just beats us over the head with how hard it’s going to be for Marcus, who doesn’t fit in anywhere, something it only takes about three pages to actually express.

The Craig and Loughridge art team, which I praised extensively in my review of issue one, do the best they can with the story they’re given here. The coloring tricks that worked so well in issue one are present again, and have the same effect, setting the mood and place for the reader and enhancing Craig’s panel structures and figure placements. There’s a greater use of blacks here, adding a nice edge. Craig’s character designs fit Remender’s stereotypes well (another reason we don’t need the endless exposition scenes—the art tells more than the dialogue can) and he gives them a lot of great body language and expression.

Still, this one hit a sophomore slump pretty badly. I’m hoping for better in issue three, but if it’s more of the same, this one might be out of the rotation.

My Little Pony Friends Forever 2
Written by Jeremy Whitley
Illustrated by Tony Fleecs and Lauren Perry
Published by IDW

Three ponies try hard to make their mark, but get into trouble when their assistant is a trickster with powers, leading to pages of parodies in Princeless writer Jeremy Whitley’s My Little Pony debut.
I thought I was done reviewing MLP comics, but here comes another of my favorite writers, following on the heels of Alex de Campi’s series-opening one-shot. This one was a little harder for me to follow along with, because I have zero familiarity with the characters so I wasn’t able to fully grasp the backstory.

Once I got the premise of the unaffiliated ponies and their desire to get a cutie mark and that Discord was a Loki/Q style character possibly trying to be a better creature, the story is a lot of fun. After briefly showing the ponies’ failures, Whitley has Discord take up the challenge of putting them in increasingly convoluted scenarios, trying to figure out what they’re good at.

Line artist Tony Fleecs matches Whitley step for step at this point, easily switching from generic sports scenarios to a rather familiar spaceship to a series of panels that feature everything from waling the plank to hysterically cute rogue cops. I continue to be impressed with how the artists on this series can manage to make the ponies do things and act humanoid while still keeping them looking very much like the iconic toys that the book is created to help sell. (I will ding Fleecs for drawing a d8 when the dialogue calls for two d6, however.)

Jeremy’s ear for dialogue that serves him so well on his signature series also plays out here. He’s able to write lines that are fun, but turn things a bit serious when needed, such as the wrap-up scene, where the characters discuss what they’ve learned, a hallmark of writing a series for kids. There’s still plenty of jokes for the adults in the room, though, and the overall plot and story are very much all-ages in the best sense of the word.

Generally speaking, I’m not going to tell you to go read a MLP comic, but for the second month in a row, I’m going to ask you to make an exception for this one, another solid entry in this anthology.

Furious 2
Written by Bryan JL Glass
Illustrated by Victor Santos
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Cadence tries to get ahead of her press as Furious, but a figure who seems to know her all-too-well looks dead set on ruining everything in another reflective issue about the nature of identity and redemption mixed with violence, heroics, and a realistic look at how cops would deal with a cape.

This is a very clever comic that's only getting better as it progresses. Though it can occasionally require a bit of page flipping to make sure you're on the right track, the idea of trying to make the world a better place when you did your part to ruin your share of it registers strongly. Mixing a bit of natural sexism with tongue in cheek media references (I caught those real twitter handles, guys!), Cadence's struggle is not only in controlling (and understanding) her powers but in trying to figure out her place. It's a fight she's been doing almost since birth, in poignant scenes that echo the familiar child-star disasters we know all-too-well.

Victor Santos' linework remains sharp, despite having to switch between past and present. His panel work here is extremely impressive, such as using a rifle scope view to portray some of the action or breaking things at odd angles, allowing the story to dictate the layouts. Some of the choices are a bit odd here and there, cutting off the main action, but overall, this innovative style serves the plot well and gives it a distinctive look compared to similar comics.

Furious is doing a good job with its deconstruction of the nature of being a hero, and the new element of either a split personality, clone, or some other antagonist with similar powers should prove interesting as we move into the next issue.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 31
Story by Kevin Eastman, Bobby Curnow, and Tom Waltz
Written by Tom Waltz
Illustrated by Sophie Campbell and Ronda Pattison
Published by IDW

The Turtles quiet respite breaks apart violently as their sanctuary is invaded and the fragile trusts built up may soon fall away as one of the quietly best comics out there keeps on being amazing.

After illustrating so many touching personal scenes, Campbell gets to show off that she's no slouch at drawing action, either--as those of us who read the Glory reboot know so well. Thanks to clever plotting by the creative trio that leaves the heroes unaware of the attack, when Shredder's new bird-themed warriors attack, it's devastating, putting the Turtles back on their heels. Sophie captures that perfectly, showing the team ready to fight but not on top of their game.

I've spoken extensively before about how much Campbell and Pattison bring to the table artistically, and this issue is no exception. From the playful fighting romance of Raphael and Alopex to April's Campbell-girl makeover, the issue has his stamp of design all over it, with Pattison's coloring bringing out the best in Sophie's work. But the best moment so far in the arc might be the look of betrayal in Raph's eyes when he believes Alopex was the cause of the ambush. His eyes grow wide, preparing to pounce, and letterer Shawn Lee pulls his words right out of the dialogue balloon, finishing the effect.

It's note perfect, and my only complaint is that this arc will soon be over, and we'll have to wait for more Campbell Turtle work. If you aren't reading this one, shame on you.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Utrom Empire 2
Written by Paul Allor
Illustrated by Andy Kuhn and Bill Crabtree
Published by IDW

The backstory of Krang and his people continues against a new fight for their survival, as alliances shift and twist in the deadly wind of this second issue.

As I noted for the first issue, this is one for the hard-core Turtles fans only. But if, like me, that includes you, then you are in for a treat, because Allor's writing here is some of his best. He's able to make Krang something of a sympathetic figure, even as his ruthlessness is on full display. The idea of his opposition to a grand empire at a young age cuts the reader like a knife when balanced against his current state. At the same time, Stockman's fly-self gets a slight twist, as the mad scientist tries to bring everything down around him and the Fugitoid is stuck in the middle.

Kuhn and Crabtree do a great job with keeping the visuals dancing back and forth between past and present, making both worlds come alive. Despite dealing with talking brains, robot bodies, and the odd dinosaur, Kuhn still manages to get emotions across with the posing of limbs, both real and artificial. Crabtree keeps things varied with an ever-changing color palette, shading the Utroms in a variety of pinks and purples.

This issue leaves everything in an upheaval, with a very real chance we may see an end to Krang's Dynasty. I've had a lot of fun reading this spin-off, which helps build a world thankfully (at least so far) immune to that upcoming disaster of a movie.

Edison Rex 14
Story by Chris Roberson and Dennis Culver
Words by Roberson
Art by Culver and Stephen Downer
Published by Monkeybrain

A look behind the scenes of Edison Rex's new empire shows quite a few cracks in this breather issue that continues to show that Edison's world isn't as happy as he hopes it will be.

Split across several cut scenes is a main arc showing what it's like to be an ordinary henchman for one of Rex's lieutenants, focusing on two young women who bond over the difficulty of staying in uniform. We've seen low-level looks like this before elsewhere, so it's not quite as interesting as some of Roberson and Culver's past parallels. That could be partly because the point is to use them as a way to see the chinks in the armor, so even as we see them taking breaks or going out for drinks, the reader's thoughts are on how this plays out in the overall story.

Culver shines bouncing from place to place and character group to character group. He's easily able to show one page of L.A.R.V.A. in a romance pastiche then roll into a science division marching like automatons. There's no a lot for him to do visually here, but holding the disparate parts together is enough.

After a set-up issue like this, I'm hoping we move into a bigger story with the next issue.

Tomb Raider 1
Written by Gail Simone
Illustrated by Nicolas Daniel Selma, Juan Gedeon, and Michael Atiyeh
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Regrets? Lara Croft has more than a few, and they come back to haunt her in a rather morose opening to this new series that feels a bit too close to Simone's recent Batgirl work.

I want to note right away that I have no connection at all to the Tomb Raider games. As best as I can recollect, I never played it, even at a friend's house. So my impressions here are based solely on this as a comic, not as an adaptation.

And to be honest, while I really like Simone's work on Batgirl (when it's not stuck in a crossover) and especially on the new Red Sonja, this one didn't really grab me. What I do know about Croft is that she's an adventurer, kind of a female Indiana Jones. After a teasing, action-packed opening, most of the rest of the issue is spent with Lara internally beating herself up for a past event that haunts her and the rest of her team. While there's a crazy event that ends the issue and sets up a world of the supernatural for Lara to face, the middle is just a slog of morose regret. I've gotten plenty of that in Batgirl lately, thanks.

Selma doesn't help matters, drawing competently but without bringing any life to the proceedings. A perfect example is when Lara thinks she might have to kill a friend. Instead of showing the tension with a tight grasp on her pick, Selma shows her hand frozen in place above it. It's a passive gesture and the rest of the issue is similarly designed. Backgrounds fall in and out, struggles look posed instead of passionate, and it always feels like it was the moment before or after that the reader should see, instead of the one chosen by the artist.

I will give Selma props on one thing, however: His design for Croft makes her look like an athletic woman, someone who probably played sports and would be at home swimming in the Olympics. This is not the improbably chested pixel person of the games*, and that's a good thing.

Because this is Simone, I'll give it some time to work. But honestly, I was disappointed all around, especially for a title that was hyped up.

The Remains 1
Written by Cullen Bunn
Illustrated by AC Zamudio and Carlos Nicolas Zamudio
Published by Monkeybrain

A strange man comes to an ordinary family farm and causes trouble of the supernatural variety in this opening salvo of a horror story that uses some familiar tropes quite well.

The thing about horror is that it isn't so much about creating something new as it is finding a way to use the things that scare us in a way that's entertaining and engaging. It's very rare for something to be completely unique (Madame Frankenstein being the exception that proves the rule), so the key is to see how apply the ideas and concepts of horror to your particular project.

In this case, Bunn uses the child protagonist to tell a story that she's managed to survive, but only after extreme pain, which the comic will show for us, piece by piece. After setting up how normal her world was before the change, we go straight to an incredibly creepy drifter who the narrator immediately distrusts but the father feels they need. It's not long before something kinda creepy in its own right (giant, hungry rats) gets worse as the rise from the dead in the first sign that something's wrong.

All of this is captured in great, period-feeling detail by AC Zamudio, whose work I liked when I saw it in Monkeybrain's Real West #1. Given a longer piece to work with, she applies the same touches of light and shadow, alternating goodness with menace. The aging, ailing father looks a bit like Pa Kent while the design for the villain, Cole, is pure menace. His long face and leering, toothy grin, makes it clear he'll be trouble, but in true horror tradition, only the girl can see it. The backgrounds make it clear that this is a family who are just getting by, with buildings that are slightly run down, adding to the overall feeling.

If you are a horror fan, this is well worth checking out. As per usual, Monkeybrain's signature quality shines through.

Black Science 4
Written by Rick Remender
Illustrated by Matteo Scalera and Dean White
Published by Image Comics

Grant is getting what he deserves but it's another team member who pays the price as this time-lost group forms a poster child for dysfunction in a brilliantly drawn issue that's lagging badly in the scripting.

Ward is the star of the show here, doing his best in a shitty situation to keep everyone alive, even Grant. He shows a level of courage and dedication that sets him apart from the rest, which makes his final fate all the more tragic, even though you know it's coming from the start. People like Ward are the cannon fodder lesser men like Grant and his boss Kadir use to get ahead.

It would be a great set piece--except that Remender gets Stan Lee disease and gives Ward an unnecessary narration that states the obvious and pulls away from the drama and wonder that Scalera and White bring to the proceedings. From an opening sequence that pits technologically advanced Aztecs against falling bombs from German airplanes to an awesome decapitation that features some of the best speed lines to heighten the vanishing point I've seen in some time, this might be the best issue yet from a visual perspective.

Scalera's facial expressions are some of his best, with the sharp, angular lines creating exaggerations that fit the characters' sharply defined natures (even if their words and actions are pretty stereotypical here). Ward's determination and Kadir's cowardice are on full display, thanks in large part to the character placement and frequent use of tight looks created by the art team. White's color work here manages to make things look dark and rainy but keep everything clear enough to see, with a range of shades that blend together nicely.

The best parts of Black Science so far are the fantastic creatures and situations that the team finds themselves in. That's enough for me, but as with Deadly Class, I am hoping the writing portion of the creative team steps it up a notch before this one also bogs down. These are some great visuals, and they deserve stronger art to go with them.

Peanuts 16
Written by Jeff Dyer, Nat Gertler, Vicki Scott, and Charles Schulz
Illustrated by Scott Jeralds, Justin Thompson, Robert Page, Paige Braddock, Andy Hirsch, Lisa Moore, Art Roche, Donna Almendrala, and Charles Schulz
Published by Boom! Studios

Lucy gets a rare moment of self-reflection, Linus learns even invisible art is commercial, Franklin gets a feature piece, and Charlie Brown is heartbroken at Valentine’s Day once more in a set of stories that continue to take good, safe care of Charles Schulz’s creations.

Leading off is “The Doctor is Way In” from the best writing/artist team on the book, Scott and Braddock. Lucy gets frustrated and decides to seek advice--from herself. Getting at the heart of one of the most difficult characters for a modern reader, Scott’s climax where Lucy assures herself she must be right after all is spot on to Schulz’s vision, I think.

Lucy also features heavily in two other stories, “She Loves Me…She Loves Me Not” from Dyer and Hirsch and “The Airtist” by Dyer, Jeralds, and Thompson. In the former story, she devastates poor Charlie Brown about his lack of a love life while the latter features her commercialization of Linus’ innocent finger-drawings in the air. Dyer isn’t able to strike the right Lucy balance in either story, making her either too cruel (vs Charlie Brown) or too domineering (vs Linus). I liked Airtist better, because it does feature the vast imagination of the Peanuts gang, able to find wonders in blank canvases and giving Snoopy a chance to play yet another role.

The Franklin story is a bit troubling, because why is the only primary Peanuts character of color given the story about *shoes*? Peppermint Patty would have been just fine for this one, being the character most associate with athleticism. Still, it was nice to see him as a main character, even if he’s ultimately outdone by Snoopy, which of course happens to just about everyone in Schulz’s world.

I don’t have a lot of art notes here because this series really keeps the lit down on the character designs, unlike Garfield, which now features a back-up story each issue with an indie artist drawing Jim Davis’ characters however they wish. I’d love to see variety in the art, but except for a few minor variations in shading from Moore to Roche and perhaps an eyebrow position here or there, you can drop one version of Lucy or Snoopy into another in this issue and would barely notice.

This is a book for those who like fun, safe new stories using the Peanuts gang. It has a mission and executes it well. Whether or not you like that mission is going to be up to you.

Tales of Honor 1
Written by Matt Hawkins
Illustrated by Jung-Geun Yoon (with Linda Sejic)
Published by Top Cow/Image Comics

Honor Harrington's may have finally caught up to her in this first issue that's set in the world of David Weber's novels and chooses an unusual place to begin--with the hero restrained and facing certain death--in an opening issue that was honestly better than I expected.

Military Sci-Fi isn't really my thing. Baen, the publisher of the Honor Harrington novels, is extremely good at what they do, but it's a label I rarely go to because of the nature of their work. So I came into this one blind but curious, and I thought that despite the strange choice of starting points, Hawkins did a pretty good job. With Harrington reflecting on what got her into this mess that looks headed for a state execution (but probably won't end there), it gives him time to provide backstory without killing the mood. We see that Honor is determined, fearless, and unflinching, no matter the odds. There's even an admission that being a woman in the military, even in the future, is a rough road.

Yoon's art is Photoshop heavy, which does hurt the comic because of its frequent feeling of uncanny valley and stiff characterization. It works okay for the space scenes, but when we get into the figure work, Harrington's expression barely changes between being in action, appearing before commanding officers, and preparing to be tortured, which is a real problem. While I had no problem visualizing the military portions of the plot, I found myself wishing there was more in the way of background details to flesh out the story.

In a world where so many things are adapted, I think there's a place for Honor Harrington, and kudos to Top Cow for looking beyond the usual suspects. I'm not the target for this one, but I included it here because I'd like to see it do well. If you like military space opera, this could be a big sleeper hit for you.

*Do you know they padded Angeline Jolie's bra when she played Croft in the movie???? Good Lord.