May 30, 2017

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All-Ages or Small-Ages #29 (Mossy #1 by Kieran Shiach and Traci Shepard)

See all of the past entries of All-Ages or Small-Ages here.

There are a wide array of all-ages comics out there from the classic Archie comics, through the  Sonic the Hedgehog and Disney, all the way to the original properties such as Lumberjanes. You might look at one of these books and think that, as an adult, it doesn’t have much to offer you. As someone who has discovered a deep fondness for titles such as this, I’ve been surprised by how rich and complex the stories can be. All-Ages or Small-Ages? is a feature that takes a look at the books that fall under this banner and attempts to analyse whether or not their assigned label is apt; is it a book that you can read along with your children?

This resurrected feature will resume its original format in the coming weeks, but this introductory soft-reboot will have a different approach. It features an interview with one of the creators as well as a chance to help with the creation of a very unique piece of work.

Kieran Shiach made a name for himself online by serving as an assistant editor for the much-missed Comics Alliance,  but following its closure has set up home at the well-known Polygon and The Guardian. Not content to stop there, Shiach has now struck out as a content creator of his very own, teaming up with talented newcomer Traci Shepard, and created a Kickstarter for his all-ages book, Mossy. I was fortunate enough to sit down him and discuss his new project, which has just gone live on Kickstarter, and find out about his influences and exactly what makes Mossy stand out from the crowd.

May 26, 2017

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For Your Eisner Journalism Consideration (Weekend Pattering for May 26th, 2017)

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ADVANCE REVIEW: Babyteeth #1 by Donny Cates, Garry Brown and Taylor Esposito

Written by Donny Cates
Art by Garry Brown
Letters by Taylor Esposito

Cut to a blackened hall: the protagonist has been consumed by darkness and is recording a final plea to their loved ones on the recording device that they have to hand. An axe-murderer or hulking beast is lurking just around the corner, ready to tear our protagonist limb from limb; the most important thought running through their head is: "If only I had more time".

All of the markers of Babyteeth’s opening scene are that of a classic horror yarn. However, Cates and Brown play off these expectations and demonstrate that it’s not that kind of story; the have far more to add to the world, the characters and, arguably, the genre.

Donny Cates is a rising star of the comic book industry. With accolades such as God Country, Redneck, Ghost Fleet and Paybacks under his belt, he has become somebody that everyone is gradually realising that they should be paying attention to. Garry Brown is similarly lauded, coming off a substantial run on The Massive with Brian Wood.

Beginning high-drama stories in the middle is a time-honoured tradition that Cates is unafraid to shy away from. Within the space of only a few pages, Cates is able to infer so much backstory and drama-yet-to-come from a few select phrases that you’re sucked into that all-consuming darkness alongside the character and strapped in for the journey.

Brown’s sketchy style feeds the darkness, stripping away the safety of precision and replacing it with the unsettling sense of the unknown. A large proportion of the background shadow has been filled in with jagged, disconnected and crossed lines, telling us that there is more to this situation than immediately meets the eye; the resulting effect is that this darkness feels limitless but simultaneously claustrophobic.

The remainder of the story follows the aforementioned “Character in the Dark”, Sadie Ritter as, in the present day, she nears the end of her pregnancy. For reasons currently unknown, she lives shrouded in shame, hiding her bump behind a backpack, but now has to process the fact that the birth might not be as simple as she might have hoped. However, the beauty of this introductory issue is that it doesn’t feel the need to spell out the intricate details of the “rules” of this world - it allows the story time to breathe, dangling just enough threads that you clutch onto them tightly, but leaving a lot open to interpretation.

Omens are littered throughout this single issue, building the sense of the supernatural and the suspense, leading to an extraordinarily satisfying and ominous conclusion. As previously mentioned, Brown has a detailed, but not completely clean, style that builds beautifully on the tone of the story that Cates is creating. Brown's colours build upon that by using a realistic, fresh pallet for the majority of the story and then smacking you in the face with flashes of red, yellow and black for the more dramatic moments.

Supernatural stories such as this one require a human factor to provide the stakes of what we’re playing for. While Sadie is a compelling character in her own right, it is her relationship with her tough-as-nails sister, Heather, that grounds this story in its relationships. There is one moment in particular where Sadie’s recorded message to her son, that forms the narration that frames this story, blends seamlessly with Heather saying "I'll be right here". It cements to the reader that this is a story with stakes; no matter what these characters run into, their familial bonds will hold them together.

It’s often difficult for me to pinpoint exactly what makes a Donny Cates story feel like a Donny Cates story. Some writers have a discernible patter or narrative convention. Cates is a writer who manages to create some of the most unique ideas, all the while drawing in the most talented artistic teams to work alongside him. Fortunately, Babyteeth is not the exception to this rule. The nuance in the story itself has been coupled with such pitch perfect art, making this book one to watch.

If Donny Cates hasn't managed to get on your radar by now, then you need to catch up.

May 25, 2017

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Finding Family in Gengoroh Tagame's My Brother's Husband Volume 1

In his book My Brother’s Husband Volume 1, Gengoroh Tagame does something very off-putting; he makes you suspicious of a homosexual man. He makes you slightly afraid of a stranger who’s traveling in a land that’s strange on many different levels. This is a book about being scared and unsteady and Tagame puts his reader in the position of relating to multiple points of view of this book, both straight and gay. My Brother’s Husband challenges everyone from its characters to its readers to take a step outside of what they know and to realize just how much larger this world is than realize it is.

Tagame envelops three stories into one in his book. There’s the story of Yaichi, a straight man having to confront his own thoughts and beliefs about homosexuality when his dead brother’s husband shows up on his doorstep. There’s the story of Mike, a gay Canadian man experiencing a culture that doesn’t know how to accept him and others like him even as he's mourning his husband's death. And then there’s the story of Yaichi’s daughter Kana, a young girl for whom all of this is new and she doesn’t quite understand what she’s experiencing. Tagame fills each of their stories with love and uncertainty as they discover their family but are challenged by what their family means. Mike faces all kinds of adversity just because he loved another man and much of that comes from his late husband’s own brother.

As Yaichi reacts to meeting his gay brother-in-law for the first time, Tagame shows him struggling with how he’s been conditioned by his culture to deal with homosexuality and how he begins to see past his own experiences to understand his late brother and Mike. But it’s not an easy journey for Yaichi as he habitually treats his brother-in-law different because he’s gay. When Mike, a big and gregarious man, give the reserved Yaichi a hug, Mike wants to immediately yell “Let go you homo!” Instead, he awkwardly asks Mike not to hug. It’s a bit more polite than what he thought but you can see on Mike’s face that he understands a bit of the sentiment behind the request.

Throughout the book, Tagame sets up these situations that challenge you to view Mike as an awful and unrealistic stereotype as a gay sexual predator or Yaichi as a close-minded and prejudiced man. Through Yaichi’s point of view, Tagame (a gay Japanese artist himself) explores how quick we are to judge people by what we assume about them by association rather than what we learn about them by getting to know them. And like Yaichi, as we get to know Mike, we can see what a great guy he is. He’s a husband in mourning who’s trying to learn about his husband’s family and, in the process of that, discover his own family.

While Tagame is crafting this family drama, he wonderfully turns the male gaze back upon itself as both Yaichi and Mike are drawn as chiseled manly men. Tagame draws scenes of them bathing, changing clothes and working out with an eye toward the shapes and bulges of their muscles. If the panty shot is a staple of manga, Tagame even plays with that with a couple of underwear shots that frame the groin in a lingering way. His male-on-male gave functions as undermining the conventions of manga and the way it draws the female form. It also functions as eye candy for Tagame’s audience and even as a way of creating a gay point of view for a straight reader.

Through his narrative eye and through his character work, Tagame forms his book’s larger point of view that is remarkably not about sex or sexual preference but about basic human empathy. As a gay text (and I’m not even too sure that it’s that,) My Brother’s Husband Volume 1 ends up creating a story about how we treat one another. Whether it’s Yaichi’s latent fear and misunderstanding of gay people or even Mike’s difficulty of understanding the restraint and reserve of another culture, Tagame’s story explores how we encounter and react to people we may not know or understand. My Brother’s Husband Volume 1 lovingly shows a family coming together, having to learn about how they’re the same and how they are different, and learning to accept both the similarities and the differences.

May 23, 2017

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REVIEW: American Barbarian

American Barbarian
Written and Illustrated by Tom Scioli
IDW Publishing
Here's what you need to know about American Barbarian, the insanely great (and kind of insane) graphic novel from Tom Scioli. The hero and his family live in a post-post-apocalyptic America and the titular Barbarian Meric (along with his father and brothers) have red, white and blue striped hair. The family has served as counselor and protectors to the kings of New Earthea. The relative peace of the Fortress in which they live is destroyed with the arrival of a seemingly unstoppable foe; he's a giant evil pharaoh named Two-Tank Omen (you know, like Tutankhamun) with tanks for feet. Just to repeat, EACH OF HIS FEET IS A TANK. IDW recently published a paperback edition of American Barbarian, I strongly suggest you pick it up.  

Scioli is one of the best, most interesting artists in comics today. His figure work, design sense, DIY aesthetic, they're all very recognizable. Scioli's style very much feels like an homage to the work of Jack Kirby, and I think the intent there feels very evident. Scioli is very much playing with the toys that Kirby created. In Godland (with writer Joe Casey), Scioli explores out-there cosmic science fiction that's evocative of the Fantastic Four and the Celestials. In American Barbarian, Scioli tells a story that feels like an homage to Kirby's Kamandi crossed with Conan the Barbarian
American Barbarian: The Complete Series
More than just the linework and style or even the subject matter, what Scioli conveys in his work that serves as a great homage to Kirby (and makes for a great comic generally) is the constant sense of bombast and action that comes across in the art. Character movements are exaggerated, larger than life. Even when the characters are perfectly still, they look they could leap or explode into action at a moment's notice. Scioli's skills as a sequential storyteller are first rate. He uses innovative and varied panel layouts to keep the story moving, and brings as much of a sense of motion and energy as you can bring to a static medium. I'm reminded of the work of Mike Allred, not with respect to the specific art style, but more with respect to Allred's ability to use exaggerated action and motion to tell an exciting tale that works both as a dynamic, emotional story, and is also meant to be evocative of great silver-age work (being "over the top" is a feature, rather than a bug).

Scioli's linework certainly feels evocative of Kirby, but it feels like Scioli takes what made Kirby great and pushes it in a more indie, underground ad absurdist direction. His characters feel even more stone-faced and cartoony, and less like they're meant to be "realistic" than faces that Kirby drew. They actually feel like drawings of heroic action figures come to life (Scioli really perfects this style in his wonderful Transformers vs. G.I. Joe comics). His design work in American Barbarian is fun and absurd; he's got no interest in what a "realistic" post-apocalyptic society would look like. There are monsters and robots and dinosaurs, and they all have a great deal of personality and detail and life to them.  

Scioli's colors also pop off of the page. There's a ton of bright colors, and jarring color combinations that really convey the strangeness of this world. There's an interesting contrast between the bright colors and the off-white pages on which the comic is printed. The effect is to make this comic feel like an aged, timeless artifact. Scioli's attention to detail also extends to entertaining (and sometimes hilarious), hand-drawn sound effects lettering that feels like an integral part of the art.
American Barbarian: The Complete Series
What also distinguishes Scioli as a storyteller (in addition to his engagingly absurd art) is his goofy sense of fun and humor (present in American Barbarian and his other comic work).  A villain named Two-Tank Omen. A lion-man with a robotic face named Gali-Leo. The whole comic is full of great and ridiculous puns and jokes, occasional juvenile humor (such as when Meric grabs a giant monster by the proverbial laser-shooting balls and uses those as a weapon to kill the monster). 

Scioli's idiosyncratic sense of humor really puts his stamp on American Barbarian and makes this much more than a Kirby homage. American Barbarian is action-packed, hilarious, bombastic, and surprisingly moving. The numerous little touches in this book make it feel like a labor of love. I give it my highest recommendation.

May 22, 2017

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Comicpalooza 2017: Highlights

Last weekend I had a chance to attend Comicpalooza in Houston, Texas, which was a terrific event. It was my first experience at this convention and I wanted to share a few comics-focused highlights.

A crowd scene at the George R. Brown Convention Center 
Comicpalooza is a big convention with a broad geek culture/scifi/fantasy/pop culture appeal; it's not specifically a comics-focused show. Thankfully for me though, there was a small-but-strong selection of comics creators, and I had a chance to speak with talented folks. 

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A Study in Legends #2 (Oracle of Seasons/Oracle of Ages by Akira Himekawa)

See all past instances of this column here

With the new release, Breath of the Wild, receiving all manner of accolade from the most unexpected of sources, The Legend of Zelda franchise has been revitalised and has never been more in vogue.

For the few who weren’t fortunate enough to grow up in the 90s saturated in video games, The Legend of Zelda is a franchise that is steeped in complex continuity, interweaving between worlds and throughout time. What remains constant, however, is a protagonist named Link that strives to save the titular heroine, Zelda.

Back in 1998, a staggering 19 years ago for those of you who want a reminder of your age, Nintendo commissioned the legendary manga duo Akira Himekawa (with pen names A. Honda and S. Nagano) to adapt their most popular game to date, The Ocarina of Time, into a serialised manga. As is discussed in the afterword to the first collected volume, Akira Himekawa jumped at the chance to work on a game that they themselves were hotly anticipating.

Akira Himekawa would soon go on to adapt eight of the games in turn, putting their own little spin on each independent universe, which were released to wild acclaim in Japan and even found some success overseas. Fortunately for those of us who were unlucky enough not to have access to the material at the time of its initial release, Viz Media have been gradually re-releasing collected versions of the material in so-called “Legendary Editions”.

These editions include a limited portion of coloured pages at the beginning of each volume, while also bundling in supplementary material such as accompanying magazine interviews and bonus stories that hint at a world even broader than that seen in the games themselves. This column will cover each of these five collected “Legendary” volumes, analysing their commitment to the original source material and whether or not they can be judged on their own merits.

NOTE: All images in this article should be read from right to left, in the original manga style

If you were to analyse the Zelda stories that have been selected for adaptation into manga, you wouldn’t be remiss to consider the decision to take a pass through two relatively ignored games, Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages, a strange one. While the plot is not as immediately iconic as Ocarina of Time, once you've reached the final page of this volume and taken yourself through the same journey as our legendary hero, the choice becomes abundantly clear.

Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages were two games released concurrently in 2001 as two parts of a single whole. While each game was possible to play independently, there was an incentive to purchase both, following the model started by the original Pokémon. A code was provided upon completion of the first that would be inserted at the beginning of the second, bringing the seemingly disparate stories together into one. This "Legendary Edition" maintains this spirit, bringing the two separate manga volumes together for the first time, subsequently creating one complete story.

Seasons follows a dancer from a travelling troupe that reveals herself as the herald of seasons, whereas Ages tells the story of a kindly, Snow White figure that gets her ability to control the time-stream turned against her. Fighting against a towering brute and a Queen with a costume that begs for a Maleficent joke that I refuse to make, Link is struggling desperately against superior forces from the very beginning.

The overarching plot in these two sections is the story of how our protagonist, who goes by Link if you’d forgotten, attempts to become the hero that his family already see him to be. Born with the pattern of the legendary Triforce on his left hand and a family history of noble warriors, it’s a life that he’s been relentlessly pushed towards and, despite it being what he actually wants, one that he’s beginning to rebel against.

One of the main weaknesses of the Legend of Zelda series as a whole is its lack of character growth. For those who are unaware, a large proportion of the games follow different people, all of which possess the same name and affinity for green clothing. Beyond their status as silent protagonists, this single quality prevents any chance of us seeing the after-effects of each adventure and therefore actually watching these characters change and grow.

However, one accidental positive to original decision to make a silent protagonist is the excitement of seeing how Himekawa interpret the personality that Link is required to have to make each plot function correctly. While the aforementioned immature Link seen in these two stories draws parallels to that of the child version seen in Ocarina of Time, there’s a very believable brashness to this version that ages him down considerably, but also making his gradual transformation more rewarding.

Bringing these two divergent stories together with a single ending gives a view of Link’s journey that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. He begins Seasons as a precocious young teenager with a burgeoning ego and, through his interactions with both of the oracles and the supporting cast that he meets along the way, he emerges as the fully formed hero that we know him to be. The character progression is unmistakable and brings with it all of the swelling optimism that shines like a beacon in times like these.

Although both stories have their own merits, the overall quality of Seasons stands the most resolute: Link is forced to confront his intentions and values after finding himself faced with a villain, Vox, who is both stronger and vastly more experienced than he is. There’s a tangible unnerving quality to Vox from his first appearance, with his ability to decay the nature around him, while swatting our hero to the side effortlessly. For reasons that will hopefully be immediately apparent, the Oracle of Seasons, Din, takes issue with the way in which Vox conducts his business.

Din’s first appearance in this story is its most visually defining moment. One of the most challenging aspects of creating comic book/manga art is conveying motion in an inherently static medium; with Din taking the vocation of “dancer”, the issue is compounded further. Fortunately, Himekawa’s tendency to exceed the borders of panels adds a degree of fluidity to Din's movements that transcends anything else happening on the page at the time. Din is unquestionably stunning, without the need for any objectification. Take note American comic artists - this is how you create visual appeal without sexualisation.

Similarly, the oracle in Ages, Nayru, maintains a regal and dignified air that demands your attention whenever she’s on panel. Nayru commands the flow of time in the way that us regular folk chew gum. However, her antagonist, and the person who takes control of her body, is the needlessly sadistic Veran, that flits between bodies with a similar ease. Who-can-we-trust-when-the-villain-could-be-any-of-us tales are far from unique, but one of the bodies in particular has a fascinating backstory and a stunning design.

Queen Ambi, the royal that Possessed Nayru corrupts, has two prominent spikes as part of her headdress that make her appearance striking, if not particularly unique (due to the obvious comparisons). Fortunately, seeing Veran looming over her shoulder, whispering into her ear as she talks, strips all of the levity away, reminding us of the damage that an autocratic power can enact on a population.

With Nayru, Queen Ambi and Veran taking up prominent, if often antagonist, roles in this story, Ages passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. Himekawa delve further into each character's unique personality and backstory than has been seen before, making them feel like the fleshed-out female characters that are often scarce in what is otherwise a remarkably progressive franchise.

The plot itself is a very standard one: rescue the princess, celebrate, rescue the second princess. If one wished to be reductive and pair it down to its basic elements, that is how the story plays out. The Legend of Zelda franchise is one that is known primarily for its remarkable ability to build worlds and infer a substantial amount of history; fortunately, these stories deliver that in spades.

In particular, Oracle of Seasons has a very straightforward "Save the Princess" story, but Himekawa have focused more on fleshing out the ancillary characters. These include a delightfully bombastic witch named Maple and a boxing kangaroo who goes by the name of Rocky Ricky. Team-ups are a rarity in this universe, so it makes the innocent friendship between these three youngsters all the more endearing. Unfortunately, Oracle of Ages doesn't manage to compensate significantly enough.

As someone with a hunger for convoluted time travel stories that I can't fully wrap my brain around, the original Oracle of Ages game provided a fun, twisted analysis of the effects that wreaking havoc on the time-stream can create. While there are some flashes of what time travel has wrought on the general populace in this manga, the focus is almost entirely drawn to a single point of the country’s history: a moment in Link's direct past. It’s understandable that needs must when simplifying an vastly complex story down, but it lost a lot of the charm that the original game had.

With the heroine after which this franchise is eponymously named taking a back-seat, you get the first look at the countries which exist outside of the land, Hyrule, in which the majority of the other games take place. You see the familial bonds of a travelling circus troupe in Seasons and the heartbreak of a Queen in Ages. This volume gives you a chance to see story beats and overall plotlines that usually get relegated to the background by a spunky, young boy saving the world.

If you come into this franchise for the almighty battles against world-destroying forces and the continuity-heavy arcs, then the Oracle of Season/Oracle of Ages saga isn't going to be the one for you. Similarly, if you dislike your original canon being simplified, then this won't work for you either. Stripped down though they may be from the original games, the fact remains that the world in which all of these wonderful stories take place just got that little bit wider, giving these adaptations a very special place in my heart.

May 21, 2017

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Death Isn't Proud, But She Is Funny in Kim Reaper by Sarah Graley

Written and Illustrated by Sarah Graley
Published by Oni Press

Don't even pretend that you haven't kept staring at a classmate because you have a crush on them, then make it a little weird by jumping into a dimensional vortex with them.

Okay, maybe not. But Becka, a young woman who digs the Goth look of fellow student Kim, does just that, only to discover that the potential love of her life, whom she hilariously refers to as "fine art" and "100% cutie with a booty," is actually the Grim Reaper.

Sort of.

You see, apparently they contract out to college students who need money, kind of like that Student Painters scam that was all the rage in the 90s, and Kim's job is to help people's pets move on to the afterlife. It comes with some great perks, including the ability to travel anywhere, but when you have a chaotic wanna-be love interest tagging along, mixing work and pleasure complicates things in a story that's both full of over the top comedy moments and really strong plotting.

A comic like this isn't really a hard sell for me. As soon as I saw the cover above, I knew this was one I wanted to check out, but the question was: Would it live up to the promise of that cover?

The answer is a resounding yes, yes it does.

From the opening pages, where Graley makes it clear that Becka is obsessed with Kim, we see the tone of the book. Becka claims she is Goth because she has a skeleton inside her, a line that made me laugh out loud as I was reading. Naturally Becka reacts strongly to the idea of a portal, and then again once she sees Kim doing her job. Meanwhile, Kim plays the perfect straight man, upset at the interruption to her work, which she finds perfectly normal. When the pair get caught, things go into joke overdrive, as an energy-drink freak turns out to be the owner of the soon-to-be-dead pet and finds them mid-reaping. 

The whole thing is absolutely absurd, and Graley knows it. Instead of trying to keep a lid on the premise, she blows it open in a splash page that's so great I don't want to spoil it by including it here. Suffice it to say: Never mess with a crazy cat owner of either gender, ok?

And that's another thing I really like about Kim Reaper. Across these first two issues, Graley doesn't worry about what gender usually is assigned to what role. Becka's antics at the opening are particularly funny to me because she's a parody of the geeky boy who wants the girl. (Ironically, the one that first came to mind as I thought about this was Oni's own Scott Pilgrim!) The gender flip on the crazy cat person also works well, because we expect one thing and get another. Graley does a great job with this in the first two issues, including a dramatic change in Becka's feelings, once she comes face to face with what it might be like to be part of Kim's life. Understanding tropes is a key part to subverting them, and Graley shows off her knowledge at every turn.

After setting up the premise in issue one, Graley shifts the focus in issue two to what it might be like to wield Kim's power. What starts off as being pretty cool (especially to love-struck Becka) turns increasingly dangerous, as we see that Kim's enjoyment of her job as a part-time reaper comes from a desire to take risks. In this way, she's a walking metaphor for those who seek thrills, by both living close to death and working for it. It's absolutely brilliant. Becka's reaction to this revelation puts a different spin on the premise, as Kim keeps making decisions that could hurt her--and those around her. The consequences of which look to be playing out as we move into issue three.

It's a great story, and Graley's art style works well by making everything slightly exaggerated in the first place. Her people have gigantic heads on top of spindly necks, allowing her to have them emote with expressive eyes and eyebrows. Mouths grow and shrink as needed, and pupils are easily replaced by symbols. She does a great job with making clear how Kim and Becka feel based on their facial expressions. We can tell when Kim is starting to show her love of danger, for example, based entirely on how she looks, even as we can tell that Becka is losing her interest in her new crush. Graley's bodies are short, only about three heads big, and they don't change much from panel to panel, as the focus is on the oversized faces and their features. However, I do like that her body shapes are different for each character, something we don't always see from creators.

The background panels are also designed to be functional, rather than the focus. Taking a cue from manga, there are a lot of times where Graley opts for the fictional representation, such as when Becka has pastries surrounding her after trying to talk Kim into working with her at the bakery instead of stealing cat souls. Most of the time, however, it's easy to see where we are, whether it's in an old pirate ship or inside a crazy cat person's home. Helping this is a willingness to adjust the panel grid structure as the story dictates, being willing to cut panels diagonally, for example, to heighten the effect of a scene.

I really enjoyed the first two issues of Kim Reaper, and I'm looking forward to more. Sarah Graley is clearly having a lot of fun creating a story about a person who might just be in over her head, and the slightly serious touch to an otherwise outsized concept is a lot of fun. If you haven't tried this one yet but you enjoy romantic comedies, make sure you pick up this one right away. I think you'll dig it!

May 20, 2017

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Graphic Nonfiction: Ben Passmore on those New Orleans Monuments

It's awesome that New Orleans is finally taking down their statues that honor the legacy of racism and murder, and I say that as a person who has probably read more on the Civil War than about 90% of America. We can no longer tolerate leaving these statues up (or, if they must be up, surround them with the context of their hate, which was the solution Baltimore, MD came up with).

As the push to knock hate off its pedestal was reaching critical mass, Ben Passmore over at our friends The Nib took some time to explain just what was going on. I bring attention to that column here as a way to celebrate a little victory against hate in an era where bigots and racists run the Executive Branch. We can fight and win!

Plus, I really dig Ben's style on this comic. He adopts a very conversational style, while continuing t give you the context you need. His comics use exaggeration, little manga-ish side arrows, and a bit of creator insertion into the narrative. Here's a few panels to show you what I mean:

You can and should read the whole comic here.

It's a take on non-fiction comics that blends the research of a third-person article with a bit of the flair of an auto-bio comic, even as we realize it's unlikely that some scenes happened as depicted. This feels like someone writing a comic column, and it's a neat idea. This wouldn't work for every subject, but Ben really nails it here, keeping the reader engaged (and angry, I hope), while still making sure you know the history, including political reluctance to get rid of these damn things.

By now, we have a bit of an ending for the story, with the monuments going down one by one. I hope Ben was there to see it and get the last laugh on those who hold these pathetic, horrible figures in a place of honor.

May 18, 2017

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Exploring Life After Hockey and Family in Jeff Lemire's Roughneck

Sometimes the lessons from our childhoods are the hardest lessons to unlearn. When he was a kid, all Derek really learned from his father was how to be a sonovabitch, a lesson that served him well as an enforcer in the NHL until he went too far. Instead of having a long and fulfilling career playing hockey, Derek now spends his days as a short-order cook and his nights getting drunk, watching hockey, getting into bar fights and barely avoiding spending the night in jail in the town he grew up in. Jeff Lemire’s latest book Roughneck shows a man trying to live his life by a toxic masculine code that was handed down from generation to generation.

When Derek’s sister Beth returns to their hometown, it’s not so much that she brings trouble with her (which she does) but that she gives Derek another chance to be a brother and part of a family. But Derek doesn’t even really understand what that means. Both Derek and Beth carry some serious emotional damage with them that was inflicted on by their cruel father that caused them to leave home as soon as they could, one through hockey and one running away when there was no other alternative. Lemire is often interested in how people’s past shapes who they are now but Roughneck is all about that as Derek and Beth are such products of their hometown that, for better or for worse, everyone’s natural actions are to protect and shelter them.

What’s striking in this book is just how quiet and still Lemire lets it be. It’s the cold stillness that you can only experience during or right after a snowfall when the rest of the world is wisely inside and warm but you’re not. Lemire seems comfortable letting his drawings tell the story. Without getting the details, you can see both Derek’s hardness toward his world which melts to a protective tenderness when Beth re-enters his life. As always, Lemire’s characters carry the weight of their world in their faces and on their shoulders, allowing Lemire visually tell his stories through the narrative transformations of Derek and Beth.

As this brother and sister try to run away from their past, it’s no wonder that they end up in their hometown where it all started. This return to their childhood home hasn’t been any kind of return to childhood for them. Derek is haunted continually by his own failed hockey career as people keep trying to get his picture or measure their own toughness in comparison to him. When Beth shows up, she’s on the run from an abusive boyfriend and quickly falls into old habits that force Derek to be brotherly. And the only way he knows how to do that is to beat up the men who are hurting Beth. That’s the one and only lesson Derek ever learned from his father; let your fists do your talking for you.

So everything that’s happened in Derek and Beth’s lives have led them back to their childhood home, the people they knew when they were kids and a chance to make all the old mistakes again. While Lemire’s storytelling is really evocative and compelling, the story itself feels very basic as ultimately this is a story about characters with daddy issues. Even the events of their lives feel very afterschool special-like as the choices that the characters make don’t really challenge themselves or the readers in any illuminating way. Roughneck is laced with a lot of potentially interesting avenues he could explore but for some reason or another, Lemire doesn’t have the room to really delve into any of them.

Jeff Lemire’s Roughneck is an ultimately average story that’s full of some great comic storytelling. Lemire’s story is solid but there’s nothing here that you haven’t seen in any of these kind of stories before. As he moves through the paces of this story, Derek and Beth’s paths feel very plotted out because we’ve seen this type of story before about adults who never really learned how to be anything but their parent’s children. Lemire’s cartooning continues to dazzle. There’s no one else who shapes the story visually the way that he does. Roughneck’s story just doesn’t have the narrative weight behind it to keep up with its storytelling.

May 15, 2017

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REVIEW: Swordquest #0 by Chad Bowers, Chris Sims and Ghostwriter X

Written by Chad Bowers, Chris Sims
Illustrated by Ghostwriter X
Color Flats by Karl Fan
Lettered by Josh Krach
Published by Dynamite Entertainment

When it was first announced that there was to be a comic adaptation of an Atari game, even though I was unfamiliar with the original series, there was part of me that was apprehensive about the literary merit of yet another reboot for a modern audience. Even though Bowers and Sims (X-Men '92, Guardians of the Galaxy #1.MU) have proved themselves an outstanding comedic writing team on mainstream properties in recent years, it still felt unnecessary. Fortunately, my initial estimations could not have been more incorrect.

For those who are unaware, Swordquest is a series of real-world video games that were released in the 1980s for the Atari 2600, each with its corresponding comic tie-in, that promised a range of extravagant prizes for those in the audience who could combine the two and extract the clues. Prizes included a talisman made of 18K solid gold and a gold crown that had been encrusted with diamonds and rubies, each valued at approximately $25,000. Unfortunately, Atari fell victim to the video game crash of 1983 and the ongoing competition was discontinued.

Swordquest #0 picks up 30 years after this cancellation. Our protagonist, Peter Chase, is an ex-fan of the Swordquest franchise, and is now a 45 year old man, working late into the night at his office-job that, despite his lack of enthusiasm for, he dedicates himself to. He then learns something that throws his life into disarray, setting off a chain of events that drag him back into the fantasy world that he abandoned so many years before.

From the very first page, it's clear that Bowers and Sims are writing a love-letter to the video games that have been so formative in their childhoods. While the specific references to Swordquest are there, this a comic for anyone that has graduated from the all-consuming world of those pixellated video games into the real world, only to discover that it's not as fantastical and fulfilling as you might have imagined it would be.

While there is a definite morose air to this introductory issue, it is by no means a morbid cesspit of despair. Peter Chase has been stagnating in his life, but it is only now that he has no other choice, that he is forced to rediscover that zeal, that vigour, that so many of us lose as we enter into a life with rent, bills and likewise unavoidable commitments.

The sheer quantity of little details included in these panels is exceptional. Ghostwriter X inserts a character-select screen, heart containers and point counters into panels, fully immersing you in the video-game theme of this story, while also providing a stark reminder of how all-consuming video games used to be in your youth. Ghostwriter X captures the jagged retro style perfectly, juxtaposing it beautifully with an otherwise modern and clean art style.

If that wasn't enough, there are also these individual "Game Tip" panels at the end of many of the pages that will be very familiar to anyone that has experience with the game manuals and guides of a time gone by. However, instead of guiding a decision in a video game, they relate to Peter's next action in the story, guiding him with an undefinable dramatic irony to the place that he most needs to be.

They fluctuate from the recognisably vague "Keep an eye out for hidden treasure" to the oddly specific "Take a deep breath before heading into a fire to avoid smoke inhalation". Without knowing which of the creative team was responsible for this detail, the adulation will have to be assigned to each of them in turn. Bowers, Sims, Ghostwriter X: that decision was inspired.

Every aspect of this issue feels deliberate; each component feels deliberately placed, either there to build atmosphere or to directly drive the plot forwards. The art feels very grounded in reality in both the modern day setting and in the fantasy world, compounding again and again how important video games can be to young children and how bittersweet that feeling is when it disappears.

There was a part of me that expected this story to be a lackluster rehashing of a video game that, due to its age, would have had little to offer. Instead, Bowers and Sims have found a story to tell with much more poignancy. The real-life story of the Swordquest contests itself is baffling and fascinating in equal measure, epitomising a very specific period of time in the history of media that so many people can relate to.

Buy this book if you want to have your heart broken in the most poetic way: with the truth.

Swordquest #0 is free on Comixology right now - there's literally not a reason for you to miss it.

May 14, 2017

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Afar by del Duca and Seaton Dreams up a Great Story

Written by Leila del Duca
Illustrated by Kit Seaton
Published by Image Comics

A young woman who dreams of leaving her family's nomadic life begins to literally dream of being elsewhere, finding herself transported to other realms when she sleeps. With dangers lurking in the waking and dreaming world, the cost of Boetema's decisions in both places take center stage in this gorgeous, thoughtful story that hopefully is the start of much more.

The premise of Afar is one that's close to my heart. Like Boetema, I dream in complete worlds and sometimes it makes it hard for me to get rest. I don't think I astral project, but when I am a part of the dream, it takes complete control of me. I can be there for moments, days, or even years, all during what is probably no more than a few minutes of REM dreaming. Seeing del Duca and Seaton bring this concept to life was pretty exciting to me, especially since they take the concept and really do some amazing things. 

We've read the "dreams are real" plot before--it's not new--but the pair add elements to it that make this graphic novel stand out. Too often we'd have pitiable white boy/white girl in a bad situation who wishes they were elsewhere. Instead, Boetema is the daughter of migrant workers who can barely keep a roof over the heads of the family. They aren't cruel or uncaring parents, but their actions, like wearing out their welcome as we open the comic, have consequences.

Similarly, while Boetema expresses extreme frustration at her brother, Inotu, he's not an anchor on their lives or boring or spiteful. Inotu isn't as smart as his sister, but he loves her deeply and is willing to take risks for her. That means that we are grounded in Boetema's real life. We want her to succeed in her dream worlds, but not at the expense of her physical one. This might be the most important difference for me--I'm hard pressed to think of a story such as this where the protagonist's mundane life is as vibrant, exciting, and important to the reader as the fantasy one.

Boetema's normal life.
I think my favorite part of Afar is that there are so many parallels and echoes within the structure. Boetema's parents keep moving, Boetema and Inotu keep moving, and the characters that Boetema possesses in her dreams are also on the move. Boetema's decisions in her waking life impact on Inotu, nearly getting him killed. Her impetuous decisions in one of the other realms also cause dire consequences. At the same time, however, it's clear that sometimes you have to make the best decision you can think of in the moment, and it's never easy. That's just real life--and the creative really drives home the realism, even though we're firmly in fantasy territory, even in the mundane world, which, while similar, is not our own.

The worlds themselves are spectacular. Even those we see only briefly, when Boetema is passing from realm to realm, feel complete and ripe to have stories told in them. Of course, I'm partial to the one with the green cats, but we get disembodied shapes, cloud worlds, bi-pedal bugs, and so many others. I don't know if we will get to see more of these creations in subsequent volumes, but I certainly hope so!
Nice kitty!
Making these worlds feel so alive is a credit to having two great artists working on the book. Leila del Luca may be familiar to some readers as the artist on Shutter, a book with fantastic visuals. It's no surprise to me that when moving to plot and scripting, her mind conceived of such great concepts and fully-formed backgrounds for the characters. I was completely unfamilar with Kit Seaton, but after reading this book, I can't wait to see more from her. Doing all of the artistic work--linework, colors, and letters--Seaton is able to seamlessly switch between the worlds, giving them their own distinctive look, feel, and even style. I want to break those down, at least as best I can without being an artist myself, because I think being able to change your style, even just a little, allows a storyteller to craft something that stands out. (Think of all the different ways Erica Henderson switches styles to make references in Squirrel Girl, for example. That would never work if she wasn't able to vary her linework.) Seaton's primary took in this area is color, but it also shows up in other ways as well.

For the main world, Seaton primarily uses a landscape of burnt oranges, tans, browns, and dark blue, depending on the scene being portrayed, which meshes with the arid climate of Boetema's home. Within this world, populated by characters of color, there is a great variety of skin tones as well. (I wish I didn't have to highlight this, but how many times have we seen comics where all the black characters had the exact same coloring?) Everything is drawn to echo our own world, yet not match it exactly. We can see that the people Boetema and Inotu live with have grand mosaics, patterned pottery, and other little details that make up a culture. Each is intricately detailed, with Seaton refusing to skimp on details. If you could possibly make out a face from the reader's perspective, then she draws the entire face, not a blob.

When Boetema and Inotu change cities, there's an increase in opulence, as befits a larger community, but the basics are the same. We can clearly tell we're in the same land, just a different section. The buildings appear larger, the people more varied in their appearance and the general sense of scope and scale are clearly captured--all without slowing down the plot, because Seaton's visuals give us this impression. There's no need for del Luca to force exposition into the characters' mouths.

Look at that world-building!

The first otherworlds we encounter are colored dramatically differently. An underwater scene is shaded in red, not a traditional blue, while the big cats are in vibrant, clashing green and purple. Both are drawn in the same level of detail as the normal world, so it's the coloring here that gives these sections their own feel, rather than the line art. A parable about a mythical lizard is portrayed with a yellow background and evokes cave drawings, though more advanced, evoking a feeling of ancient legend visually, even as Boetema tells the tale. Meanwhile, Boetema's meeting with others who astral project has an almost pastel feel to it. Seaton backs off the starkness of the black lines, softening the effects and making it feel as though we really are in a dreamland. When it's time to go back to Boetema's reality, the reader's eye is easily able to switch between them. It's really stellar storytelling.

We don't get a drastic artistic shift when Boetema goes to the world where she puts lives at risk. The characters are closer to human, though they have distinctive facial features and an extra finger on each hand. However, the landscape is vastly different, with rocks and trees, and so the background images are less precisely defined. The coloring also uses browns, but with a heavy dose of reds. The clothing of the realm are also distinctive, looking more like space suits than the traditional garb of Boetema and Inotu. Though the linework isn't shifted (as in the case of the fable), there's a definite attempt to clearly highlight the differences, even as the plot shows that regardless of her physical appearance, Boetema is the same young woman inside.

There's so much to like about Afar, and I'm very glad I picked up a copy of Leila when I saw her at a signing. The cast of characters are engaging quickly, they feel like real people instead of being pawns to a plot, the art is high quality, and, perhaps best of all, you can read this on its own, even as you hope for a longer series.

If you didn't pick this up yet, give it a shot. This especially belongs in school libraries, where its positive message and representation are sorely needed. Anyone who loves fantasy is going to find themselves in their own realm of enjoyment!