May 31, 2014

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Dynamite Entertainment Gets the Shaft and Other Literary Deals

In a flurry of press releases over the past several days, comics publisher Dynamite Entertainment expanded their work with licensed properties, re-affirming a few of their existing agreements and adding new ones, most notably the estate of the writer of the Shaft novels.

A complete run-down of the agreements, with links to the full releases:

Now before you think I'm just parroting some PR stuff here, there's some really notable content here. For example, John Carter of Mars was recently made into a movie by Disney. You'd think that one would head to the House of Ideas to adapt, but instead, it's Dynamite who is not only maintaining the rights but has the ability to more than their previous deal allowed. From the release:

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., the company founded by the author to protect and maintain his literary creations, and one of the comics industry's leaders, Publisher Dynamite Entertainment, announced today a comprehensive agreement that will see the return of Burroughs' original "John Carter: Warlord of Mars" to the pages of comic books, comic strips and graphic novels.  The agreement allows for the world-wide publication of the John Carter universe as well as "Lord of the Jungle" and ERB's library of archival material. 
The initiative comes on the heels of the reacquisition of comic book rights by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. that had been held by Walt Disney Pictures and its Marvel Entertainment subsidiary, as well as a recent legal settlement with Dynamite that cleared the way for Dynamite to introduce key characters and plot elements from the John Carter backstory that were, until now, absent from recent comic book interpretations. 

"It was important to us that we reacquire the comic book and comic strip rights from Marvel Entertainment so we could reintroduce them in the market place.  We're excited to see the exploits of Edgar Rice Burroughs' first science fiction adventure hero brought to life in their fullness by the passionate creative talents assembled by the folks at Dynamite," said James Sullos, President of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. "They're true fans - and it shows on every page and in every idea they've shared with us.  Now fans everywhere will be able to appreciate the original adventure stories that later spawned Flash Gordon, Superman, Star Wars and Avatar."
I quote this at length because I think there's some really interesting notes there that relate back to my opinions on licensed comics (and why Star Wars fans should be very, very concerned). Look at this sentence again from Sullos, emphasis mine: "They're true fans - and it shows on every page and in every idea they've shared with us."

Now of course that's a bit of hyperbole, and I bet that if John Carter the hadn't been snake bitten and focus grouped to death, Disney would have pushed harder to keep things. Still, it's good to keep in mind that it's usually in the best interest of the property involved if the folks doing it give a damn.

While I don't have an attachment to the character, the comics historian in me is interested primarily in the reprints of the original comics, which the release notes include "1940s comic strips by John Coleman Burroughs, the son of Edgar Rice Burroughs." That's just the sort of thing I love to try out!

John Carter fits the strong pulp vibe Dynamite already has with Lone Ranger, Green Hornet, Shadow, Flash Gordon, Doc Savage, and others in various stages of print. It's good to see this one find a home that works and fans should be able to look forward to.

The other significant item here among deals for comics based on popular properties is the acquisition of the rights to publish comics based on the iconic--but also controversial--character, Shaft.

Again, pulling from the release, which I am quoting at length for a reason:
Dynamite Entertainment announced today their agreement to bring John Shaft into the Dynamite fold!  The agreement covers not only original comics and graphic novels, but also new prose, and includes the right to re-print all existing Shaft novels.
John Shaft is a fictional character created by writer Ernest Tidyma.  A tough, take no guff detective who composer/singer Isaac Hayes described him, in the Oscar-winning Theme from Shaft as: "the Black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks."
Most people are familiar with John Shaft via the movies, the original 1971 film, and it's two sequels, all starring actor Richard Roundtree in the title role, which helped spawn the 70's blaxploitation film movement, and make Shaft a household name.  There was also a Shaft film in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson reprising the role as Shaft's nephew.

But between 1970 and 1975, Ernest Tidyman actually wrote seven Shaft novels:
  • Shaft (1970)
  • Shaft Among the Jews (1972)
  • Shaft's Big Score (1972)
  • Shaft Has a Ball (1973)
  • Goodbye, Mr. Shaft (1973)
  • Shaft's Carnival of Killers (1974)
  • The Last Shaft (1975)
These novels have long been out of print, and Dynamite intends to bring these back and make them available again.  In addition, the new prose stories and Original Graphic Novels will be the first new Shaft stories, outside of the movie, since Tidyman's passing.  Further editorial plans for new comics and prose will be announced at a later date.
Ernest Tidyman was quoted on the origins of Shaft: "The idea came out of my awareness of both the social and literary situation in a changing city. There are winners, survivors & losers in the New York scheme of things. It was time for a black winner, whether he was a private detective or an obstetrician."
 Now here's the thing on this one. While Shaft has certainly come into the consciousness of just about everyone and the song was even lampooned during the early years of the Simpsons, it's also very, very much a product of its time and because of its links to stereotypes and the explosion of Blackspoitation films, this has the potential to be political dynamite for the publisher, if you'll pardon the pun.

The press release seems to recognize that, and tries to both emphasize the popular culture points (like referencing the song) while also putting it in the best light possible by using a quote from the author that shows his well-intentioned affirmation.

Well yeah, I'm pretty sure the original Luke Cage comics were designed to be a positive role model, but there's also clearly racial stereotyping going on in those early issues (a black hero who uses his power for pay when all the white heroes did it for free sure seems like a problem to me, looking back). Similarly, no matter how much Mr. Tidyman wanted Shaft to be "a black winner" there's some parts of that mythos that are going to be troubling for a modern reader.

Unlike updating Flash Gordon, where the clear racism surrounding Ming can be blunted by emphasizing his alien nature or even Vampirella, who can be given  makeover where she controls the sexual power of her character, it's going to be a lot more tricky to put together a Shaft that both retains the things that popular culture wants to see but also removes the racism. Whoever takes over the title is going to have their work cut out for them, because it's very easy for Shaft to devolve into the unreadable and blatant racism of (ironically another Cleveland white writer) Brian Azzarello's 100 Bullets.

I'm not saying it can't be done. After all, (yet another Clevelander) Brian Michael Bendis found a way to make Luke Cage retain his essential nature while showing him as a modern, self-confident African American hero who can and does lead teams of other heroes without care for pay and yet worry about the safety of his family or protecting parts of New York City that other heroes might forget. My point is that it's got to be right from the start and Dynamite needs to tread carefully. Otherwise, they could be facing a serious backlash.

Or maybe there's a market for playing to the stereotype, in which case, I just weep for comics. Please don't make me weep for comics, folks.

All in all, it looks like Dynamite is making a major play to be a force in the link between prose and picture with these moves. Adaptations of prose properties is a tricky proposition, and Dynamite is betting heavily on making it work, giving them an identity that they've been building with the creation of a large pulp line. Only time will tell if this was a smart approach, but with Boom! marketing to the hipster crowd and Dark Horse looking to other parts of the television/movie spectrum, ramping up their part of the literary adaptation genre seems like a smart plan.

May 30, 2014

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Boom! Studios Launches YouTube Promotional Channel

Continuing their push to increase their influence in the world of comics, mid-major publisher Boom! Studios announced on Wednesday the creation of a new YouTube channel dedicated to discussing and promoting its new books out each week.

Cleverly called BOOM!Tube (at least until Warner Brothers speaks with their lawyers*), the first two webcasts went up right away.
From the press release:
May 28, 2014 - Los Angeles, CA - Award-winning publisher BOOM! Studios is excited to announce the launch of BOOM! Tube, an all-new weekly series from the BOOM! Studios' YouTube channel dedicated to sharing the latest news on comics, creators, and announcements from the publisher. The series will provide weekly news on the latest titles coming out from BOOM! Studios and its imprints, including Archaia, KaBOOM!, and BOOM! Box. 
“This is what we mean when we say, ‘Come innovate with us.’ We’re always looking for new ways to engage with our fans and since YouTube is one of the largest social networks on the planet, this was the obvious next step,” said BOOM! Studios Vice President of Publishing & Marketing Filip Sablik. “BOOM! Tube is a way for us to share our passion for our latest releases, along with what goes on behind-the-scenes, special creator interviews, and a few fun surprises along the way.”
The first is an introduction, with the primary host Stephanie Hocutt and her first guest discussing the purpose of the channel. It's a bit too cute for my taste (fake party hand waving to stock music), but I realize I'm not the target audience here.

The second, going to a full two and a half minutes, features assistant editor Alex Galer as the guest co-host and focusing on a new series from the properties of Clive Barker's Hellraiser. It also starts with awkward talk and motions, then settles down to actually discuss the new title. It wraps up with a whirlwind tour of the new books, with each getting a one to two sentence description with a visual.

Being honest, the opening is cringe-worthy and I don't think it's even going to work for those who are more likely to subscribe to a YouTube station. It's an attempt to be hip, but if they're looking to grab Cartoon Network fans with this, I'm not sure it's going to work. Adults, even ones clearly selected to be closer to the target audience, look really stupid when they try to fake-rave, sorry. Once it settles in (after the first cut), I think it's far more effective. Hocutt and Galer are enthusiastic without being so-over-the-top at that point.

The length is also an issue. I get they're trying to keep this short to avoid people clicking away, but they're not giving folks much to go on. There's nothing of added value here, and there's no strong focus on what makes these books must read books beyond the one feature title.

Still, it's an ambitious idea and one that could work really well for them, especially if they can tweak it to enhance the hooks about their books. Just like having accounts across multiple social media platforms, it never hurts to try.

*For those not kosher on Kirby, Jack named the teleportation device in his 4th World series "boom tubes." The folks at Boom! certainly know this, hence the name, which draws an association between the two. What I don't know is whether the term is trademarked. Regardless, it's a great name for the channel.

May 29, 2014

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DC-Area Cartoonists Come Together for Cartoonists Draw Blood on May 31st

Panel Patter readers who live in the Washington, DC area and are not blocked by their restrictions should stop by and do their part to help ensure there's enough blood to help those who are the victims of sudden accidents or surgeries.

Once again a group of DC-area cartoonists, including Carolyn Belefski of Curls Studio, Jay Payne from BAMN!, and award-winner editorial cartoonist Steven George Artley will be on hand to provide complimentary sketches for those who donate blood.

Details of the event are below:

In association with American Red Cross and National Cartoonists Society, Washington, DC area cartoonists have clotted together to help keep the local blood banks well-stocked.

To schedule your appointment, email Troy and Carolyn at: cartoonistsdrawblood@gmail.com
All blood donors receive a complimentary cartoon sketch by a Washington, DC area cartoonist.

Seekers Church
276 Carroll Street, NW
Washington, DC 20012
(across from Takoma Metro)

Walk-ins are also welcome on May 31.

Cartoonists: Steve Artley, Carolyn Belefski, Bill Brown, Eric Gordon, Mal Jones, Teresa Roberts Logan, Jay Payne, Matt Rawson, Joe Sutliff
This is a really great cause and a chance to pick up a sketch from a cool creator for spending a few minutes with a needle in your arm. If you are able to jump through the hoops, are free on Saturday, and love comics, go help other people--and get a free gift for doing so!

You can find out more about the event on its Facebook Page or the Cartoonists Draw Blood blog.

May 28, 2014

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Top Shelf Includes Three Books in Latest Humble Bundle

In a press release sent out today, indie comics publisher Top Shelf announced they were participating in the Humble eBook Bundle IV, featuring two of their comics in DRM-free PDF form at the basic level and a third if purchasers set their price above the average.

While I do not follow every single bundle, I do know that Image Comics was a part of a recent bundle as well, also offering DRM-free PDFs as part of the package.

The books from Top Shelf in this bundle at the basic level are Wizzywig, from Hip-Hop Family Tree creator Ed Piskor and March Volume 1, the first part of the multiple award-winning graphic novel series co-written by Congressman John Lewis.

From the press release:

Those three titles alone are worth a cover price of $70, but the eBook Bundle also features work by many other authors, including George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Terry Goodkind, and Yahtzee Croshaw. What's more, this project serves as a fund-raiser for both Doctors Without Borders and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Upon purchasing the bundle and choosing how much to pay, customers can select how they’d like the funds to be split among the books’ creators, the two charities, and a “tip” for the Humble Bundle team.
While I have not yet had the pleasure of reading Wizzywig, I loved Piskor's non-fiction account of the early days of hip-hop. His illustrative skills are top notch, and I remember Wizzywig getting quite a few positive marks when it came out. March, of course, was one of my top books of 2013 (along with just about anyone else who made a list).

Getting those two for as little as a dollar would be a steal but the bundle also comes with an anthology edited by George RR Martin,* Sword and Sorcery.

If you pay more than the average ($8.91 as of this writing), you also get From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's take on the Jack the Ripper mystery, published by Top Shelf. While their theory has fallen out of favor, Campbell's linework on From Hell is amazing, perfectly capturing the look and feel of late-Victorian London and Moore is his usual excellent self in the plot and script.

Additional books in the pay more tier are Wizard's First Rule from Terry Goodkind, The Alchemist from Paolo Bacigalupi, and The Executioness by Tobias S. Buckell.

If you have just one more dollar in your pocket, you can get two additional books, Jam by Yahtzee Croshaw and a collection edited by Neil Gaiman, Lovecraft's Monsters.

Humble Bundles are great ways to get a nice selection of books and help a cause. If you've not grabbed the Top Shelf titles in question and are also a reader of genre fiction, this is a good deal to get in on, but be sure to do it soon, because it expires June 11th.

You can grab that Hunble Bundle here.


*I hear he's had some success with this series of novels, Game of Thrones. Maybe you've heard of it?
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Single Minded 3/19: Loki Ragnaroks the Week

Moving right along with the single issue catch-up, here's the books that interested me from 3/19. Make sure you have a look and ensure you didn't miss anything!

Loki Ragnarok and Roll 2
Written by Eric M. Esquivel
Line Art by Jerry Gaylord and Penelope Gaylord
Color Art by Gabriel Cassata
Published by Boom! Studios

Loki's at the top of his game, which doesn't sit very well with the rest of the gods as they try to crash his rock and roll party in another over-the-top issue taking the trickster into a suitable modern setting.

I really love the conceit of this series, where Loki, banished to Earth, rallies the outcasts of the world and makes them believe they're worshiping themselves--when really their faith is in his message, making Loki one of the most powerful gods around. Sure, he talks a good game, but those who know Loki's history can see the cracks starting to show, as his natural arrogance comes to the fore. It's a subtle transition, to be sure, but one that Thor, of all people, notices most quickly.

There's a lot of great things to like here, such as Odin's comments on Loki's heedless recklessness, the idea that Thor slums on Earth when he fights inferior foes, or the portrayal of Thor and Hercules as two impossibly big bruisers who are too stupid to realize they're being played. When a Man of God presses Loki on his supposed affairs with animals, the trickster unflappably pawns it off on being young. It's really great work that's just getting better.

Aided here by Ms. Gaylord, Jerry Gaylord once again gives this series a visual look that fits with Loki's outsider style. His band members have tattoo sleeves, heart-shaped tinted glasses, and an impossibly long pony tail. Loki looks like Jim Morrison reincarnated and has enough chains to anchor a ship. Panel layouts come at the reader from odd angles, keeping their eyes off-balance. There's a thinness to the entire endeavor that reminds me a bit of Immonen, but not quite as slick.

Boom! has a lot of great limited series going on this year. If you skipped Loki to start, go back and grab it. You'll be glad you did.

The Double Life of Miranda Turner 3
Written by Jamie S. Rich
Line Art by George Kambadais
Color Art by Paulina Ganucheau

While Miranda tries to get to the bottom of a cursed acting trouble, her sister discovers a new Boston Brand-ing* trick in an issue that significantly alters the status quo for the two sisters.

Finishing off the series' first two-part story, Miranda and Lindy work the investigation from different angles, ending up at the same culprit who claims to have knowledge of Lindy's murder. Because of the short nature of a Monkeybrain title, this one moves quickly, and the resolution felt a bit rushed. It probably would have been okay to do one more issue on this arc, letting the mystery build a bit and allowing the impact of Lindy's new ability to sink in for the reader.

The line art also didn't seem to click as well this issue, either. Some of the detailing work and innovation was missing this time, with Kambadais going for standard panel design for most of the issue. He has a really cool concept to work with, but in the end, it feels like the colorist, Ganucheau, who carries the heavy lifting, shading the world to reflect Lindy's increased role.

I still really like Miranda Turner, and the dynamic between Lindy and Miranda, already a bit strained due to Miranda trying to carry on her sister's work, just got a whole new wrinkle. It's been two months since this issue came out, so hopefully the time delay will allow it to go back up a notch. Even at this level, it's still a fun comic, but the innovation of the Lego Block issue 1 is slipping a bit.

White Suits 2
Written by Frank J. Barbiere
Art by Tony Cypress
Published by Dark Horse Comics

As the White Suits continue to ravage the scum of the Earth in America, an unlikely alliance between a possible former member and an FBI agent who wants the truth leads them right into the thick of things--but not quite how they'd hoped, as this ultra-violent series continues.

If you're squeamish about visual violence, this is not the book for you, as Barbiere once again has artist Tony Cypress mow down people with abandon, in linework that's as angular and jarring as the plot. The Suits are killing everyone around, but the gangs are about to fight back, leading to some extremely foul mouthed exchanges that veer on the edge of being over the top, but manage to stay just on the right side of things.

Because we're still knee deep in multiple mysteries, it's hard to tell how things will resolve. However, I like the way things are set up and that Barbiere doesn't waste time on a lot of soul-searching. The characters move and act quickly, because to delay is to die.

While we wait for some clues, readers can focus on the layouts of Cypress, who will not be to everyone's taste. Clearly influenced by Frank Miller's Sin City or the work of Bill Sienkiewicz, Cypress's figures are well-defined and yet also abstract, able to shift along their vantage points and either be extremely detailed or fade into the backgrounds. The use of black, white, and red is clever, and those who can appreciate the type of style Cypress is going for will have a lot to enjoy.

White Suits is brutal, but it's a good kind of brutal, telling the story that way because it needs to. Fans of 100 Bullets should give this one a look. I think it's a lot better, but with a similar vibe.

Curse 3
Written by Michael Moreci and Tim Daniel
Art by Riley Rossmo and Colin Lorimer with Tamra Bonvillain
Published by Boom! Studios

Laney's mental dual with the wereworlf turns physical even as the town turns against him as this series moves towards its conclusion, linking things nicely and upping the stakes.

Without giving away too much, I really love the way Moreci and Daniel draw Laney and the werewolf's stories together until they are almost inseparable. Both are driven by demons, in their way, and it looks like both are headed for a tragic ending, especially if Laney can't figure out a way to clear his name. Given the supernatural nature of the real criminal, that seems unlikely.

There's no clear demarcation in terms of art, but my best guess is that it depends on the scene, as there are subtle shifts between present-time moments and those set in the past, especially in terms of the coloring. Both are well crafted in their way, with the flashback moments just a bit looser in construction, with the wolf drawn without worrying about stray lines. Regardless of who drew which page, it's easy to follow the shifting scenes and the wide variety of panel sizes and shapes keeps it visually interesting.

Part of the fun of reading a horror story, especially one set up the way Curse is plotted, is seeing what happens when the characters have dug themselves a hole too deep to recover from. That looks to be the case for Laney here, and I can only imagine how this one is going to wrap up in its final issue.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Utrom Empire 3
Written by Paul Allor
Line Art by Andy Kuhn
Color Art by Bill Craftree
Published by IDW

The origin of Krang finishes and Fugitoid makes a fateful choice as this mini-series wraps up with hints at a future story arc in the main series.

I really like how this series gives Krang a backstory that makes him more than just a tin-plated dictator. Despite his desire to move his people out of the cycle created by his father, Krang to some extent is trapped by it, as he fights new battles to keep things together. Meanwhile, Fugitoid plays a dangerous game, and his character consistency--naivety, shines through as he hopes to do the right thing, even as the reader can predict certain choices won't go well.

Andy Kuhn's work on most of the issue is stellar, but I admit, it's jarring to see his angular Turtles after the smooth, slick work of Campbell on the latest arc. They feel a bit box-like and the emotions are harder to read. He also does not do a good job with April's new hairstyle. However, as with the first two issues, his portrayals of the Utroms give them distinctive looks, and Crabtree's coloring makes everything feel a bit alien without going overboard.

This series did exactly what a mini should do--flesh out a world. Anyone who is a fan of the main series definitely needs to check it out.

*That's a horrible pun. I'm really and truly sorry. If you're asking, "What pun?" then you're Deadman to me.**

**That's an even worse pun. Sorry. I'd say "It won't happen again" but we both know it will.
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Flash Gordon #1 - 2

Flash Gordon #1 - 2
Written by Jeff Parker
Illustrated by Evan "Doc" Shaner and Jordie Bellaire
Dynamite Entertainment


FLASH!!! AAAAAHHH!!! SAVIOR OF THE UNIVERSE!!!!

Flash Gordon has been around as a character for around 80 years. However, this is not a character that has constantly remained in the public consciousness. So, there are a lot of people who probably aren't that familiar with the story of Flash Gordon (other than the not-that-great movie* and very great Queen song**). Ideally, any new version of the character and story should both stay true to the spirit of the original classics, while making the story feel relevant and interesting for modern audiences. Thankfully, Flash Gordon from Jeff Parker, Doc Shaner and Jordie Bellaire excels on both counts. This is a terrific new book, particularly for someone (like me) who has little familiarity with the classic pulp series.

Issue 1 begins by showing us our 3 main heroes one year ago. Dale Arden is a science journalist reporting on the demise of the space shuttle program. Dr. Zarkov is drinking a bunch of men under the table to gain possession of rare crystals. Lastly, Flash Gordon is bungee jumping off of a bridge to the admiration of his fans when he's interrupted by an employee of his father's, to convey the message from his father that he's not going anywhere in life.

We then jump to a year later, where Flash, Dale and Zarkov have in fact gone somewhere, all the way to the planet Mongo where they're being pursued in a air chase. They fly through portals from one world to another, and they (and we) see glimpses of different worlds, apparently all under the control of Mongo and its emperor, Ming the Merciless. The team escape to a world called Arboria, which is full of (not surprisingly) giant trees and giant animals. Eventually, they are saved from a giant bug by a swashbuckling group of blue people to whom Dale has the good sense to lie and say that they are there on official business from Mongo.

In the second issue, the people of Arboria (especially their leader, Prince Barin), are suspicious of this group of "historians" from Mongo. The Arborians host the representatives for a dinner, and Flash impresses them with His daring and skill. They accompany the Arborians on a transport being taken to a factory, where Arborian men are being turned into mindless soldiers for the army of Ming (who is shown in a few scenes, enough to see his cruelty). Flash's heroic and impulsive instincts come through (he doesn't seem like he can help himself), and their secret is revealed. What dangers await them? Tune in next month to find out. 


This is a great book. It's a straightforward, uncomplicated comic, which may sound like faint praise though it is not meant to be. There's a clear sense of narrative in this book, even though the issue begins with one year earlier, most of the story takes place in the present. The story is also clear and accessible - the little snippets about each of the main heroes that we see is enough to give us a sense of the characters, and throughout, each is written in a consistent and interesting way. We learn that Dale has the common-sense brains of the group, and that Zarkov is easily distracted but very effective in his way, and that Flash has a strong moral compass that sometimes leads to impulsive decisions. Parker's writing throughout the story so far conveys great compassion and humor. 


All of this is made clear by their actions so that by the end of two issues we already feel like we know them pretty well. It's also helped by the stunningly great and effective artwork from Doc Shaner with vibrant, gorgeous colors from Jordie Bellaire. Shaner's artwork here is great storytelling in addition to being beautiful - his facial acting is very expressive for each character, and the action here is clear and easy to follow. Each issue has some great detail and varied coloring, and successfully conveys both big and small moments. Shaner's style is somewhat like Chris Samnee, with slightly more "realistic" character design, and conveying both a modern and "old school" sensibility.

All these elements add up to a very strong first few issues, and a fun, modern, adventure story with classic appeal.

*Starring Richard (Rocky Horror) O'Brien and future James Bond Timothy Dalton, I might add!

** Everyone should stop what they're doing right now and go listen to Queen.



May 27, 2014

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A Body Beneath by Michael DeForge

Written and illustrated by Michael DeForge 
Published by Koyama Press

 It’s the images in Michael DeForge’s A Body Beneath that really dig beneath your skin. They’re just not right in the head. If you could separate DeForge’s story in this collection from the artwork, you could almost mistake a few of the stories for ones by alternative stalwarts Chris Ware, Chester Brown or Adrian Tomine. DeForge’s short story “Dog 2070” feels like a classic alt comic about a middle age loser who is disconnected from his family, culture and the world. It could be almost any Daniel Clowes’ story. DeForge’s Stephen is cut from the cloth of the prototypical angsty male who has grown up to be awkward and socially inept in almost every case. It’s one of those lovable (i.e. pathetic) loser stories that so many comics have been made about. But more like Brown than Tomine or Ware, DeForge makes you squirm in as you read it thanks to his surreal art. Think of Brown’s Ed the Happy Clown crossed with Pendleton Ward’s Adventure Time.

 DeForge's comics live in this weird nether space as a twisted reflections of our fears and insecurities. The stories in A Body Beneath work as nightmares and horror. His drawings are mesmerizing as he turns the world into something both beautiful and vulgar. His characters are anything but handsome or pretty. They're sweaty, gangly things that more represent what we actually think we and the rest of humanity are rather than what we want to be. He throws these sometimes cute and sometimes revolting characters into an uncaring world. "Living World," a story about first loves and mind altering substances turns the world into a bad acid trip. The laws of nature are bent to alter our own perceptions of reality. DeForge's drawings are nothing like what we see when we look outside of our windows but they reflect a secret reality that we experience when we close our eyes.

For DeForge's comics to reflect our worst dreams, we have to have those nightmares and fears. DeForge zones in perfectly on those bad dreams, everything from the perverse and secret history of Canadian royalty to the most basic fears of sex. His secret history of the Canadian Royal Family is everything we fear (and yet secretly want) from any royalty. There are secrets in every closet that he lays out from secret rituals to unknown members of the family. It's right out of any conspiracy gossip rag except that DeForge makes it more alien and monstrous than anything we would want to imagine. These are the people that rule and it seems so normal and right. DeForge creates a secret royalty that's so outrageous it's more believable than anything any royal family probably does partake in.

In A Body Beneath, there are the stories that are so unbelievable that they feel so solid and then there's the stories that take the normal and make them unbelievable sublime. "Dog 2070" is one such story. The other is "Someone I Know," a story where after visiting a sex club, David begins developing a second layer of skin beneath his normal skin, one of leather and metal studs. It's the thoughts of sex that lead to a body altering sexually transmitted disease. DeForge alters the world around us into a nightmare state in these stories that reflect back on us. We accept these stories and these dreams as some heightened reality in DeForge's stories because none of them feel so far gone into the realm of fantasy to make us doubt them. DeForge brings us to the brink but never pushes us over it into a clear fantasy world.

DeForge's stories in this book are not about how the world is but how we fear it is when we're not looking. In his previous books Very Casual and Ant Colony, DeForge still plays with their nightmarish qualities but he pushes you clearly beyond the point of reality. Ant Colony builds this completely other world of insects and hierarchies that clearly signal that you've stepped into something else. The stories in A Body Beneath never give you that kind of comfort. They never give you that out from the feeling that they're showing you some world that is more real that the world you experience day in and day out. A Body Beneath is about the world that exists once you've given over to dreams and nightmares. It's worlds of fears, insecurities, diseases, grime, filth and simply scary things. In a confessional forward to the book, DeForge admits thinking, "This probably won't be a very cohesive collection. Maybe that's fine..." DeForge's cartooning is the cohesive element because in each story as he gives us stories and images that we don't want see but he makes them so beautifully gruesome that we can't look away.
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Brass Sun 1

Written by Ian Edginton
Illustrated by INJ Culbard
Published by 2000AD/Rebellion

In a world that's quite literally part of a giant machine, the sun that sits at the heart of it all is dying. Linked physically and culturally to the heart of the system, doomed men grasp for power and kill all who might look for a solution outside their control. When Wren, granddaughter of a fallen cleric, is tasked with saving her world, she finds it a daunting task in this mini-series from the long-running and well-respected British anthology series, 2000AD.

First appearing in 2000AD itself, this storyline immediately grabbed the attention of the serial's readers, and it's easy to see why. From the opening pages, where we begin with a tight shot of many, many gears, colored yellow to reflect their celestial origin (see below), it's clear that this is going to be a science fiction story that blends elements from fantasy, history, and contemporary into a whole that quickly draws the reader into the action. We quickly sense that something is wrong, that power has corrupted, and that if things don't change, all is lost.

Just marvel at the amazing design of this panel.
That's a familiar theme, but it works well here, because Wren is such a compelling character. Edginton doesn't spend a lot of time making us care about her--it happens naturally. We can tell her great love for her grandfather, who holds a secret he'll take to his grave, and it plays out in the narrative without belaboring the point. We see that she's resolute and willing to take risks, without some long-winded speech about it. Wren's actions show that if anyone can save these people as their sun winds down, it will be her.

Sometimes I feel like plots where all is lost and only one person (or a plucky few) can save the day are boring, but I really enjoyed Brass Sun's opening. Instead of making the situation completely improbable, the creative team makes it plausible, thanks to little touches like linking the grandfather to the establishment, which goes a long way to explaining how he's able to manage some of the underground work we see here. There's nothing wrong with high stakes and long odds, provided you set it up the right way. Brass Sun does, and it makes it a quest I want to stick with.

The other thing that I liked about Brass Sun is its clever integration of history and contemporary events. The idea of a corrupt, tottering authority with religious ties trying to hold science back knits this one together with both the attacks on poor Galileo and the collision course with disaster Earth is on currently. When Wren's grandfather notes the problem--folks with power don't like to give it up, even to save their own lives--it resonates loud and clear to our own world and time. We sit and watch the seas rise, the storms rage, and nothing is done because the folks making billions might only make millions if they had to give up their polluting power plants, decrease individual car use, and other life-saving measures that at the rate we are going, won't happen fast enough for it to matter.*

Artist Culbard really does an amazing job here building up the visuals for Brass Sun, starting with that opening sequence I praised earlier. After showing the universe in its connected complexity, we're lead into a world with looming architecture, robed figures, and soldiers who are mindless and cruel. The figure work is a bit on the stiff side, but Culbard makes up for it with backgrounds that are simply outstanding and facial expressions that vividly capture the dialogue that Edginton gives them. The confrontation between the grandfather and the religious leader radiates tension, while Wren's first moments alone show so much of her emotional state, even without doing any special visual tricks. There's a grace in the simplicity of the linework on the people that makes the intricate workings of the buildings and space views really pop. It's a great design choice, really, that suits Brass Sun well.

Unfortunately, we don't have the luxury of clever plotting to give us a chance at hope, the way that Wren may be able to find a solution to her world's problem. What we do have is a great reprint of an innovative world who takes the idea of a scale model universe with all its tiny wires and gears and turns into a living, breathing thing on the printed page. If you, like me, missed this in its original run, make sure you take a look at this in your local comic book shop or on your favorite digital device tomorrow. I think Brass Sun will rise to the top of your favorites list quickly.

*Sorry, anyone reading this who is stupid enough to think climate change isn't real. You're an idiot, and thanks to you, we're all gonna die.
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Interview: Antony Johnston Talks about Umbral Volume 1

Antony Johnston
A long, long time ago, I read a little spin-off series from a Greg Rucka creation, Queen and Country: Declassified, written by a man named Antony Johnston. I enjoyed it a lot, but I really hadn't thought about it in years.

Then I got a chance to start reading The Fuse, Johnston's near-sci fi crime book coming out monthly from Image Comics. I've written good things about that series, both here and on Newsarama, and once I put the connection together, I realized I had to start reading Umbral, Johnston's other new series from Image Comics, this time with a Dark Fantasy setting.

In a word? Wow.

Co-created with artist Christopher Mitten, Umbral is the story of Rascal, a young woman in the wrong place at the wrong time who ends up being one of a select few who realize that demons are at work taking over her city. Called Umbral, these nightmarish creatures threaten all humanity and Rascal might just be the only hope the world has got.

I sat down with Antony for an e-mail interview about Umbral, whose first trade paperback will be at your favorite local comic book shop or digital device tomorrow, May 28th. To celebrate, Image Comics has Issue 1 for free for a limited time as of this writing. On May 28th, Comixology will also have Issue 1 free in its store, for those of you who prefer the cloud service. Over the course of our electronic talk, Antony discusses Umbral, his lengthy history in comics, and working with frequent collaborator Christopher Mitten, the artist behind Umbral.

Rob McMonigal: For those who may be unfamiliar with you as a creator, tell them a little bit about your past work.

Antony Johnston: You may not be familiar with me, but you're almost certainly familiar with some of my work; like Daredevil, which I co-wrote with Andy Diggle during the Shadowland saga, or the original Dead Space videogame, for which I wrote the game and tie-in comics. So I guess it depends on your particular brand of geekdom.

I've been writing comics for 15 years, and my work includes Wasteland, the epic post-apocalypse series from Oni Press; Fashion Beast, the adaptation of Alan Moore's 'lost' screenplay; for Marvel I wrote Daredevil Season One, Shadowland: Blood on the Streets, and the Deadly Hands of Kung Fu tie-in during Spider Island; I wrote most of the Dead Space tie-in comics; and now at Image, besides Umbral, I also write The Fuse.

In games I've written quite a few Dead Space titles; I co-wrote ZombiU, in many people's opinion the only WiiU game worth a damn; I worked on Shadow of Mordor, the upcoming Lord of the Rings game; I wrote the CSR Racing and CSR Classics iOS games; and a bunch more besides.

I get around.

McMonigal: Hah! How would you describe Umbral to a potential reader?

Johnston: Umbral is a new dark fantasy by me and Chris Mitten, with whom I previously created "Wasteland." It's the story of Rascal, a young thief who breaks into the royal palace to steal a precious jewel but ends up witnessing the horrific murder of the king and queen in a dark magic ritual...!

Turns out that Rascal has stumbled upon a stealth invasion by the Umbral, shadow creatures that everyone thought were just a legend. But the Umbral are very real, very dangerous…and now Rascal holds the key to stopping them.

McMonigal: What gave you the idea for the series as a whole?

Johnston: Umbral came about simply because I wanted to make something new with Chris; and luckily for me, the feeling was mutual. So we talked around a few ideas, mainly thinking about genre, and what Chris enjoyed drawing.

As it happens, both Chris and I are big fans of The Dark Crystal, and dark fantasy stuff in general, and I knew it was an area where his imagination could run wild, as well as one I'd enjoy writing. So we figured we could do something good in the genre.

Then it was just a small matter of spending months sweating over building an entire world and mythology for the story to take place in...!

Rascal and her World.
McMonigal: The characters in Umbral immediately make a reader stand up and take notice. Can you talk a little bit about their creation and their personalities, from your perspective?

Johnston: Rascal is the closest thing in Umbral to a classic reluctant hero — she doesn't actually want to be a hero, or the centre of attention, and really wishes someone else had been saddled with this shit. But she's also selfish, cynical, and suspicious, which I think makes for an interesting lead character. Especially as she's a young girl, not a muscle-bound sword-fighter.

Dalone kind of fills the classic guide/mentor role, but again, not in the way you'd expect. He's not very good at it, for a start. He's unsure of himself, lacking in some fairly basic knowledge of the world, and he smells of rat piss from living on the streets for god knows how long. But by the end of Book One, it becomes clear there's a lot of more to this mad old hobo than a first glance would suggest.

Shayim is the group's warrior, the fighter capable of protecting the more intellectual members. She's the antithesis of Dalone; supremely self-confident, someone who knows and accepts her place and role in the world. And that's why she's a non-white woman; the last thing I wanted was for the most physically capable character to be some default square-jawed hero. That's not what Umbral is about.

Finally, Profoss Munty is our drunken academic, another archetype we're having fun with; and he was actually the character who surprised me the most during development. When I first created him, there was no suggestion of him being an ex-soldier. But as I dug further into the world history, and the idea of the eternal Azqari-Yuilangan war came to me, it made sense that Munty would have been forged in that particular fire and escaped to become an academic.

An Umbral confronts Rascal.
McMonigal: Relating to that question, one of the things I liked most about Umbral so far is that while it is very much steeped in its dark fantasy roots, the characters feel fresh and modern, particularly in their dialogue. How did you come up with the "voices" for the book, particularly Rascal and the Umbral?

Johnston: I wanted Rascal, and all the 'regular' characters, to have a modern lilt to their speech; it just didn't feel right for a young girl to be talking in 'high fantasy' style dialogue, all thees and thous and "good morrow, fine yeoman."

Honestly, I have nothing against that stuff, and I love a bit of Tolkien as much as anyone, but it didn't feel right for Umbral. Because we're seeing this world through the eyes of a young person, it felt right that she should talk without airs and graces.

The Umbral actually talk normally, like most of the other characters, and that again was deliberate; if they're going to imitate humans, it makes sense that they'd adopt human speech patterns as well.

They simply do it in purple balloons with a spiky typeface, which I guess you can trace back to my love of Sandman. That was the first comic where I saw a character consistently speak in a different colour, not just a different balloon shape. It's one of those lovely things unique to the comics form.

McMonigal: It's a really nice touch, too, especially when done right. Moving outwards a bit, I noticed that your comics work concentrates heavily on genre fiction, whether it's fantasy (like Umbral), science fiction (The Fuse), or the idea of a post-apocalyptic dystopia (Wasteland). What draws you to create these speculative worlds?

Johnston: I was talking to Katy King about this on End of the Universe the other day, and she floated an interesting theory; that it's a way for naturally insecure writers to exert control over something they can master, an orderly world where they're in charge. I don't know if that's 100% accurate, but it certainly makes a weird kind of sense, and so maybe that has something to do with it.

Psychoanalysis aside, though, I just think speculative worlds are really cool. I love building worlds, I've done it since I was a kid, so I guess it's natural that my fiction work would focus on that, too.

McMonigal: Related to that, who are some of your favorite authors that might influence your work?

Johnston: Oh, far too many, but it won't tell you anything about my work. I mean, three of my biggest influences are William Gibson, Jeff Noon, and Greg Rucka. But I defy anyone to find a direct indication of those influences anywhere in my work...! They're more influences on my mindset and approach.

With Umbral specifically, the most obvious inspiration was The Dark Crystal, as I mentioned earlier. And then more generally there's stuff like Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Elric of Melnibone, Battlestar Galactica (yes, really), the movies of Guillermo del Toro, the music of Devil Doll, and the animation of Jan ┼ávankmajer; plus, of course, a little bit of Game of Thrones. We all live in Martin's shadow, these days.

But without wishing to protest too much, these are all general mood and atmosphere influences, more than anything. My greatest inspiration for Umbral is simply Chris' artwork. That's what gets me revved up when I sit down to write the next issue.

A page from Queen and Country: Declassified.
McMonigal: I believe this is your third collaboration with Christopher Mitten, if I did my research properly. What makes him someone you return to when working on a new project?

Johnston: You're correct; the first thing we did together was Queen & Country: Declassified Volume 3 back in 2005, and we "clicked." It was clear to us both that we shared a lot of opinions about comics, how to make them, what we expected from a story, and so on.

And that's still why I like working with him now, almost a decade later. It helps that he's a lovely guy and a complete professional, of course. But really, it's all about the art, and his crazy imagination. I regularly give Chris the weirdest things to draw, or ask for some crazy epic vista, and he goes above and beyond every time. I love it.

McMonigal: Are there any challenges involved in doing two series with the same artist at roughly the same time, as Wasteland wraps up and Umbral begins?

Johnston: The main challenge is scheduling, and figuring out our timetables, but this has been in the works for long enough that we figured all that out a long time ago. I don't mean to imply that it's easy! Far from it. But it's a known factor.

If you mean in terms of separating one story from the other, though, that's not an issue at all. Wasteland and Umbral are so different — in tone, style, even format and colour — that there's no 'bleed' between them. The only thing they have in common is me and Chris.

McMonigal: In your comics career, you've worked with many different notable artists, like Ross Campbell, Mike Norton, Eduardo Barreto, and Ben Templesmith, just to name a few. Their styles are all quite different. As a writer, how do you adapt your scripts to take advantage of the talents of your collaborative partner?

Johnston: I actually don't, not really. Sure, I'll give certain artists more leeway to do crazy splash page stuff, or ask others for more character work. But for me that comes naturally out of the story, so that's where I focus on ensuring the story fits the artist, or vice versa. Get that part right, and the script will naturally fit their style.

McMonigal: Let's wrap up with a bit more about Umbral. At this point in time, how fleshed out is the world of Umbral? Do you already know the places Rascal will visit in her quest to stop the Umbral, or is that something that comes to you over the course of writing, as you develop the story? How far do you plot ahead?

Johnston: It's pretty well planned out. Everything to do with the grand mythology of the Oculus, Luxan and Tenebros, and the Umbral themselves is all detailed. If I didn't have all that straight I wouldn't have been able to even start writing, because the mythology and legends wouldn't hang together.

The overall history of Fendin and the Shadow War is detailed, and I know enough about most of the places Rascal and her companions will be visiting to talk about them. That's why we were able to include the map in the first issue, because I know what's in those parts of the Kingdom. Fleshing out the day-to-day details of those regions is an ongoing process, though.

As for where they're headed, I don't want to say. Even knowing their route would give away some of the story. Suffice to say we'll visit several different areas of Fendin, as Rascal and her companions flee the Umbral. And yes, we'll visit at least one other country, too.

Intrigues and secrecy in Umbral.
McMonigal: Is there anything you can tell readers about the next arc of Umbral?

Johnston: We're working on Book Two, The Dark Path, right now. It takes our unlikely heroes through the 'Bulaswode': a strange, misty forest full of dangers and weird creatures, including the deadly Silvali riders, called Wodelings.

Rascal will have to face her past, and battle against a sense of hopelessness. Dalone's own past will return to literally haunt his nightmares. As for Shayim and Munty... well, they've got their own secrets to worry about.

By the end of it, none of them — especially Rascal — will ever be the same again. Would you expect anything less?

McMonigal: Of course not! Before I let you go, is there anything beyond The Fuse and finishing up Wasteland coming up soon that you'd like to mention?

Johnston: Nothing that I can talk about right now. I'm working on several videogames, and planning more comics, but everything's either under NDA or still in the early planning stages. Suffice to say, I have a busy year ahead of me...!


And for anyone who wants to keep up-to-date with my work, bookmark antonyjohnston.com. Everything I do, every appearance, announcement, and publication, appears there first.

McMonigal: Thanks again for taking the time to speak with me, Antony. I can't wait to see where Umbral goes from here as well as your other creative works. For fans of non-cape genre comics, your work is some of the best being created right now.

Umbral Volume 1 will be out May 28th from Image Comics. Digital singles are available now, either from Image or Comixology. The first issue is currently free on Image's site, and will also be free on Comixology on May 28th.

All images used in this interview belong to the creators and are drawn by Christopher Mitten.

May 25, 2014

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Undertaking of Lily Chen

Written and Illustrated by Danica Novgorodoff
Published by First Second

When Deshi Li's brother dies suddenly--and as a bachelor, his deeply religious parents send him on a quest to find a bride for the brother to share in the afterlife. But it won't be easy, as the dying tradition sends him down into the darker parts of Chinese culture and into the arms of a young woman who can change everything for Deshi in this ambitious graphic novel whose strong visuals make up for a few weak moments in the plot.

Opening with a struggle between Deshi and his brother which leads to the brother's death, Deshi is guilted into finding a ghost bride for the brother. That leads him into trouble, as it is completely illegal, forcing him to grow more and more desperate. When a corpse snatch and grab goes wrong, Deshi meets Lily, who chafes at the idea of another old and dying tradition--marrying off a daughter to solve a financial problem.

Together, they run slowly back to Deshi's fate, where he must decide whether or not he can further ruin his life to make his dead brother "happy" in the afterlife. Meanwhile, Lily, who sees him as her savior, slowly learns the truth, forcing Deshi to make his choice.Things do bog down a little bit at this point, as we see many interruptions on the road back, cuts to other characters, and a few moments that are included just for the joy of drawing the visuals. That's for a purpose, though, because each of these vignettes takes us a little closer to showing just how screwed Deshi is, caught between duty and desire, and beliefs he is expected to share and respect. This is also true of Lily to a lesser extent, but she does not have a conflict--Lily rejects the ideas of her parents outright.

All of those moments explode when the grave robber runs into Deshi and Lily, followed quickly be her father. Novgorodoff's intricate plotting brings us to the moment of truth for both of them, and their decisions will change their lives entirely. The denouncements show you can't run from your past forever, a powerful theme that, unfortunately, does get undercut by Novgorodoff by resolving things a bit too neatly and resorting to an urban legend that's been proven not to work. There's certainly enough light fantasy going on in the narrative to justify it, but given Lily's no-nonsense attitude, I felt like an ending grounded in her practicality would have fit in better.

The story is certainly good enough to hold its own, despite a few pacing issues and the choice of ending, but the main reason to read Undertaking is the art. It's very difficult to create a comic with watercolors, but those who do it well (like Eddie Campbell) quickly become some of my favorite creators, because I am a big fan of how watercolors look, either in a book or hanging in an art gallery. Novgorodoff pulls off some illustrations that are simply divine, making the reader linger over their construction. Her use of watercolor effects (like smeared paint) is extremely innovative, too. I don't think I've even seen Campbell try purposeful smudging, though admittedly I've not read his entire catalog.

While others might have tried to ink creations such as the ghosts that supposedly haunt Deshi, Novgorodoff uses her brush to delineate them, giving them an especially ephemeral quality. It also allows her to create backgrounds where the colors blend more naturally, like in real life No matter how good a computer colorist is--and there are plenty of them--you can't recreate two different shades of wet paint meeting together on paper, and mixing with its impurities. That's something unique to working with watercolors, at least in my opinion, and Novgorodoff is a master at her craft here.

Adding to the art is Novgorodoff's linework, which is very thin and fluid, reminding me quite a bit of Lewis Trondheim. While characters have a consistency that makes them easy to identify, such as the Conehead-style head of the grave robber or the square nature of Lily's father, their structure and anatomy is loose enough to allow her to exaggerate or shrink proportions as needed. Deshi's legs can grow longer if he needs to walk away fast. Lily's dress is almost a living thing in terms of its expressionism. And let's not get started on the poor legs of Lily's father, who have to hold up his vast chest that's as big as a small car.

The detail work is also incredibly strong, which is where many independent creators break down. Lily's house has tons of miscellaneous bottles and containers, an old pipe, and a crack in the wall. In another example, there's trash under a stairwell, and you can count the individual items. Novgorodoff works hard to make sure we are completely enmeshed in this world where Old and New China meet, a universe where folks still walk small village paths and yet also fly aircraft. We need the small touches to know what type of place Deshi and Lily come from--a complex culture that wants modernity but also small religious temples.

Undertaking of Lily Chen isn't a perfect book by any means, but it deserves credit for being an extremely ambitious concept that works in nearly every detail. With two main characters you'll immediately fall in love with, problems of familial expectations that are easy to relate to, and some of the best watercolor work I've see in a comic, it's easy to forgive the shortfalls. This is just the kind of book First Second is good at publishing, and it's well worth your time to pick up.

May 24, 2014

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Daddy Lightning by Tom Hart

Written and Illustrated by Tom Hart
Published by Retrofit Comics

A poet just wants to live on the beach with his baby daughter, but practical concerns get in the way in this silly yet touching tribute to the artist's late daughter, taken too young.

"Daddy Lightning," the titular character, is shown struggling to keep things together, with a fussing baby and seemingly no idea how to handle it. When he's given advice by a professional, things get a bit better--until his daughter's needs strap his already limited resources.

Desperate but refusing to give up, the father has crazy dreams about a chorus of disapproving mothers, which blend into the reality of fighting to be the person he wants to be and compromising to make ends meet, shown by taking a raking job when poetry doesn't work out. The comedic exaggerations stand in for real life worries about a child's safety, needs, and the burdens of being  father, all done with just enough humor that if you're not careful, you'll miss the points and hidden messages inside Daddy Lightning.

That would be a shame, because it's those ideas that really make this one work. "Daddy Lightning" the character may be fun to watch as he constantly changes diapers and gets desperate enough to use a snail as a pacifier, but what we're really seeing are the troubles of trying to balance wanting your own life and being a parent. It's almost impossible to manage, and I give a lot of credit to those who I see doing it.*

Hart's visual presentation of that message is a lot of fun. Opening without worrying about the pair's origins, he goes straight to the problems, allowing his loose lines to create comedic exaggerations as needed by the overall plot. You'll laugh as you see a man trying to run while pulling up his pants, a running gag in the comic. When the father, a bunch of waving lines, approaches the grocery who is as calm as the sea on a windless day, it's a great transposition of images.

There are a lot of little touches that add to the mix, like when "Daddy Lightning" tries to think of good father-child stories, and fails after going over Cronus and Oedipus or his desire just to have a simple waffle, which stands in (like taking a crap) for all the things a good parent sacrifices for their child.

Reminding me a bit of James Kochalka in its combination of humor and humanity, Daddy Lightning is another solid comic from Box Brown's Retrofit line. There should be a few hard copies out there, and if not, you can pick one up digitally at the Retrofit store, in handy, half-price PDF form.

*I'm not a parent. I can barely handle cats. Part of the reason is because I was terrified of failing to make that balance. Getting it right is probably the hardest thing for a human to do.

May 23, 2014

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Single Minded for 3/12/14: Moore and Storms Have Quite an EGOs

Still working my way through the single issue stuff. I know I should just declare "bankrupt" and start fresh, but I am stubborn, so here we go anyway. Plus, I'd hate to miss getting a chance to talk about some great comics, leading off with Image's sleeper sci-fi Superhero series, EGOs...

EGOs 3
Written by Stuart Moore
Art by Gus Storms
Published by Image Comics

With a weapon of Masse destruction* bearing down on over eight billion people, Deuce and his estranged wife much make peace to save the day--even if it wrecks what's left of their relationship as this strong first opening arc concludes.

One of the things that made Marvel's characters so appealing for decades was the fact that no matter how great the battles were, it was the personal strife that made you feel so close to the heroes involved. Sure, Ben Grimm would clobber Doctor Doom, but he did it because no matter how painful things got, it couldn't match the personal pain of growing up on the streets, fighting for respect, being overlooked as stupid, and finally having yourself turned into a monster. Moore gets that approach, which is why the opening sequence, where Deuce and Pixel argue about his decision to use his evil mother-in-law's technology, is so powerful. A large section of the universe is at stake, but for these two characters, it's about respect and trust between them. The fact that Deuce may have doomed billions is just the icing on the cake, like coming home drunk with lipstick on one too many times.

When things move into action mode, it's a great set piece that uses every part of the team effectively and even gets a spot or two of humor in the mix, as the robot complains about being used in a racist manner by being hooked up to the ship. They save the day, but it's clear--and this is where we move from Silver Age Marvel to modern deconstruction--that Deuce's motives were anything but pure. His broken nature is going to keep this team from being the shining beacon of humanity that the media thinks they are, and watching it go down should be part of the fun of the series.

While the coloring still feels off to me based on the comic's tone, Storms continues his strong layout work, making each of Deuce's clones have their own look and personality--which Moore subtly shows are starting to stick. The facial features really drive the tension between Deuce and Pixel and the portrayal of Masse shows some great understanding of how to make a cosmic, complex being.

EGOs is a real sleeper hit that I highly recommend. It's only three issues in so far, so it's easy to get into the series as well. Check it out.

Copernicus Jones Robot Detective 2
Written by Matt D. Wilson
Art by Kevin Warren
Published by Monkeybrain

Copernicus might just kick the bucket if he can't find a way out of a squeeze play that pits him against his own client in this second issue that's filled with clever gags and references while holding true to the hardboiled detective genre.

Sometimes it's just fun to read a comic that's not trying to be more than it is. This one is purely designed to be fun, as we explore a world where robots and humans live together in a noir world where corruption is rife and danger is behind every corner. Jones is your typical gumshoe with a strong moral--if not ethical--compass, and it's fun to see how he tries to make things right even as the odds are stacked against him. Little touches, like an attempt to throw a live rodent into a bucket of water (called a "reverse toaster") or new, appropriate insults, like "rusthole."

Warren's art on this one keeps that feeling of fun, with some really impressive expression work on the robots, which is no mean feat. They still feel mechanical, but at the same time, you can tell what they are thinking by the lines in their metallic faces or the placement of an angled joint. Backgrounds are still a little light, which is a shame for a period piece, but Warren does appreciate--and use--shadow to help with the noir feeling, which is mixed with comedic moments, like Copernicus jumping out a window of a crime scene or hiding in a bush.

This one has a limited appeal, but if you're the right audience, it's great fun. Just an enjoyable book all around, with strong emphasis on fun.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 32
Story by Kevin Eastman, Bobby Curnow, and Tom Waltz
Written by Tom Waltz
Line Art by Sophie Campbell
Color Art by Ronda Pattison
Published by IDW

The Turtles fight for their lives while April learns honesty is the best policy as this arc sadly comes to a close with more great character moments and linework that's some of Sophie Campbell's best.

I'm not going to belabor how good this issue is, mostly because I've already said it for the past few issue of the arc. The plotting team gives us a nice resolution to Leonardo's recovery, with a hint that perhaps he's not so recovered after all. Raf's mistakes with Alopex shine brightly, thanks to some great script work from Waltz and a rapid shift from naked rage to unfortunate understanding in the looks on his face, all captured by Campbell, who really goes out with a bang. The action sequence is lively, plays with perspective to give the most punch to kicks, sword strikes, and other moments of the brawl. Watching Campbell go from the gentle moments of the past few issues to this hard-core fighting shows her range nicely. As per usual Pattison gives everything vibrant colors, which to my eyes look especially bright here, as though even the shading it coming out of the shock of Shadowfall.

By the end of the issue, the group is on the move again, ready to face their problems head on. I can't wait to see what happens with them next.

Bloodshot and H.A.R.D. Corps 20
Written by Christos Gage and Joshua Dysart
Line Art by Tom Raney
Colors by Gina Going
Published by Valiant Entertainment

Archer is captured! Armstrong is very, very drunk! Bloodshot's team is conflicted! The mayhem continues and is pleasingly *funny* as a nice bonus in the second part of this crossover.

Used to doing the heavy writing on serious plots for Valiant, Gage and Dysart show their comedy chops, giving Bloodshot some droll lines and Armstrong a great set of jokes, both physical and verbal. My favorite might be sticking his girth into a Shriner-style clown car, toting a huge mega-bazooka. Raney deftly handles his end of the bargain, managing to capture both the power of Armstrong and his inherent comedic nature.

After brawling across multiple pages, Armstrong loses his partner (seems to happen a lot) but forms a plan, even as Project Rising Spirit learns they may not be so well prepared to handle Archer's amazing potential. The way in which Obidiah takes on his foes is an unexpected twist that's perfectly in character, with Raney once again stepping in to make the plot work by coming up with just the right visual.

I was really dubious about this crossover, but this second part was some of the best Archer and Armstrong moments I've seen so far this year. Now the ball is back with Van Lente, who can hopefully give serve and keep the jokes flowing like beer and return the tone to its usual irreverence.

Beasts of Burden Hunters & Gatherers One Shot
Written by Evan Dorkin
Illustrated by Jill Thompson
Published by Dark Horse Comics

The Beasts gang are back in a one-and-done story pitting them against an ancient, unseen evil in a deadly chase to save the forest from an unstoppable predator in an issue that's enjoyable but feels a lot like filler.

I remember first reading the Beasts in a series of small anthologies Dark Horse created called "The Dark Horse Book of..." which I quite enjoyed. Dorkin makes the talking animal trope work extremely well (no easy task) and Thompson's painted art gave it quite the distinctive look and feel. I'm really looking forward to the next major arc, in which many of the threads being hinted at, both here and elsewhere, start to evolve.

The problem is that this one loses a bit of impact by *not* moving the threads. We get vague references to troubles elsewhere and the story ends with the crows and the rats conspiring together, but otherwise, it's a "monster of the week" tale with Dorkin's patented quips and Thompson's fine brush work. The pair do a great job of making it exciting, as the beasts create a relay race that strongly reflects their individual strengths as characters, and we start to think that maybe someone in the company will meet their fate this night.

Unfortunately, though, it's the kind of thing that would work if it was issue two of a mini-series or issue 37 of an ongoing, but on its own, just doesn't have enough life to make it work. If this were the first time I'd encountered the characters, I'd miss the depth and complexity that Dorkin and Thompson worked so hard to build in earlier encounters. This one just didn't register for me as much as I'd hoped, but I still enjoyed it. It's just more a book for long-time fans instead of a way to get folks clamoring for a new mini, and that disappointed me.

Again, this is a very personal reaction, and may not reflect the issue's merits as a whole. Take that for what it's worth.

Manifest Destiny 5
Written by Chris Dingess
Line Art by Matthew Roberts
Color Art by Owen Gieni
Published by Image Comics

Lewis and Clark gear up to kill the strange plant people as this series starts to grow on me, no pun intended.

I have to admit, for whatever reason, the first several issues of this title didn't work for me at all, and it's still got some rough edges, particularly in terms of the pacing and dialogue. The high concept (What if there were supernatural creatures in the Louisiana Purchase?) should be right up my alley, but it just felt very stilted to me, as if the existence of the monsters were all that was needed to carry out the plot.

To some degree, that's still true here, but the idea that Lewis' scientific curiosity might be the death of them all and the idea of a semi-sentient plant monster that absorbs mammals, Borg-like, has me intrigued. With the addition of Sacajawea to the party, there's just enough going on to make me want to see how it plays out. Unfortunately, right now, that's still going slowly, though the big reveal at the end of this issue promises more action to come.

I have no complaints at all about Roberts' artwork, which captures the historical setting well, then adds fantastical elements without missing a beat. The plant creatures are horrific in their detail, not because they're rotting or disgusting, but because they look like the animals who've been subsumed and can never return to their humanity. I really liked that touch, as it takes advantage of the old horror idea that the familiar can be scarier than the unreal.

Manifest Destiny is a mixed bag for me at the moment, but if you were on the fence, take a look at this issue and see what you think.

Ghost 2
Story by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Chris Sebela
Line Art by Ryan Sook, Drew Johnson, and Andy Owens
Color Art by Dave McCaig
Published by Dark Horse Comics

Elisa pairs with a demon who might be able to help her, but whose agenda is he serving, as subplots build in a second issue with plenty of action and gorgeous layout work from Sook.

One of the things that sets Ghost apart from other monster-killing comics is the idea that while Elisa wants to destroy the demons who are invading Chicago, she also has a very personal quest--to find out once and for all who she is. Despite a general mission to stop evil, this drive to regain what she's lost at the hands of the enemy can sometimes put her into a blind spot or trap. That's the case here, as other pressing issues are subsumed to Elisa's desire for knowledge. When--not if--that comes back to hurt her will be a major part of this arc, unless I miss my guess.

Despite only having Sook on layouts for over half the issue, there's a strong sense of continuity thanks to having only one inker, Andy Owens. Sook's style is perfect for a book like this, with smooth, rolling lines that give everything just a touch of unreality about them. He varies the look and shape of the panels nicely, and Elisa always takes the spotlight in whatever situation she's in. McCaig's coloring is clever, too, such as making the demon club a burnt orange or keeping Elisa's white ghost costume a shade brighter than anything else around.

Ghost has been a pleasant surprise so far, and is worth look at, even if you don't have much experience with the character.

East of West 10
Written by Johnathan Hickman
Line Art by Nick Dragotta
Color by Frank Martin
Published by Image Comics

Death takes a holiday to the land of his assistant Wolf's father, searching for a child whose potential as the Great Beast is the center piece in the other Horsemen's grand plan, but a new figure shoots into the picture as this admittedly confusing but intriguing story continues.

With Hickman, you always have to play the long game, waiting to see how all he's envisioned starts to come together. We're seeing that a bit here, as the threads begin to intertwine and it becomes clear that the end result is going to be disastrous for all involved. There's a ton of veiled references here and possible clues, which could easily be dead ends or false positives, depending on Hickman's choices.

The highlight is the opening sequence, though, as Death's sacrifice for information creates an amazing series of antagonistic lines that promise much of the destruction to come. Though only two pages long, it packs a strong punch, thanks to Dragotta's focus on the eye that Death gave up to get information that may only come to haunt him.

Because the story is a bit, well, obtuse, a lot of the work falls on Dragotta to keep it interesting for the reader, and he succeeds, with little touches like a dead tree in a wasteland with various skulls and bones dangling from its lifeless limbs or the fight sequence against Wolf's father, which is told almost entirely in visuals instead of words. You have to linger to note that the crow adjusts Death's pistol, for example. It's great work and shows that when done right, the visuals in a comic can--and should--be able to tell the story, too. We don't see nearly enough of that.

I'm still struggling with East of West a bit, because of the still-vague nature of the plot. But I think it's starting to come together, and probably will read amazing in the trade.**

Nosferatu Wars One Shot
Written by Steve Niles
Art by Mention3
Published by Dark Horse Comics

A vampire love story ends with an abrupt, barely explained twist setting up future stories instead of completing this one in another unsatisfying effort from Steve Niles.

No amount of wistful, abstract visuals from frequent Niles collaborative partner Mention3 can save this one, which overdoes the gothic tone from the beginning as a vampire narrates life with his partner, an aggressive female who doesn't care to stand on ceremony. Just as they face persecution from their own kind, aliens--aliens--drop into the picture, separating the pair.

That would have been an odd, but interesting ending, except Niles pushes it into "Oh yeah, she took over the world" territory with an off-hand reference that feels like it was cribbed from story notes. Which is appropriate, because this one-shot, which originally appeared in Dark Horse Presents, feels like it's still in the draft stage but was rushed out before forming into a cohesive plot.

Working hard to keep it together is Mention3, and given their talent lies in varying things from panel to panel and often using representative images and shapes instead of clear-cut layouts, that's just not fair to ask. This time around, there's more cohesion to the narrative visuals, and I actually really liked the layouts and design.

Unfortunately, however, it's just not enough to recommend this one, which would be okay filler in an anthology but does not stand up at all on its own. Horror fans can find better, either from Niles or elsewhere.

*I bet I already used that joke. Tough. It's a great opening.

**East of West and Hickman as a writer are very good examples of why I think certain ideas/writers should just go straight to graphic novels.