31 March 2005

Indie Spotlight: March 2005

[From the ridiculous to the random to the superb, a quick roundup of notable indie comics (aka, not Marvel or DC proper, though Vertigo, Icon, Image, et al, do qualify) I picked up in the past month. Release dates may vary.]

Lullaby #1 (Written by Mike S. Miller and Ben Avery, Created/Art by Hector Sevilla, Colors by Simon Bork, David Curiel and Ulises Arreola; Image Comics, $2.95) is an intriguing, visually appealing, all ages romp through a fairy tale land that is simultaneously fresh and familiar. Writers Miller and Avery do a relatively nice job bringing Sevilla's concept to life, introducing the two main characters, Alice and Jim Hawkins, but badly botching the transition between their stories while establishing a vague, confusing timeline of events. Alice is up first, a young girl mysteriously thrown into a fantastic kingdom where she's forced to fend for herself, rising to the esteemed position of "Hand of the Queen." The Queen of Hearts, specifically. Memories of her previous life torment her, however, and she sets off on a quest to figure it all out. Meanwhile, young Jim Hawkins is a pirate without a ship, but with "a one-legged parrot and a little wooden boy" as partners, not to mention a bizarre shark-headed sword. At Pinocchio's behest, Jim and company set off to see the Wizard, hoping to help his wooden friend become human again. Separately, each story is fun and well-told, but the crucial segue that connects them is awkwardly handled, as if two issues were edited into one at the last minute. Nevertheless, the individual parts are appealing enough to overlook the minor flaws in the whole. I'll definitely be picking up #2 whenever it comes out.

The Grimoire #1 (Written by Sebastian Caisse, Penciled by Djief, Colors by Kneff, Lettered by Hawke Studios; Speakeasy Comics, $2.99) is sort of the Marcia Brady of the new Speakeasy Comics lineup. While Atomika got the big promotional push and Alex Ross cover, The Grimoire hit comics shops the same week, flying in under the radar. Perhaps recognizing the exaggerated need for an indie title to grab readers immediately, Caisse eschews the standard origin story and jumps right into the action as his protagonist, Amandine, and her raccoon partner, Chai, are on the run. Magic, minotaurs and harpies fly across the page and we're halfway into the issue before an explanation is even attempted, and when it finally is, it's an intriguing setup that piqued my interest. Djief has a nice clean style and uses varied layouts, while Kness' colors work well with the shifting locations. The lettering is problematic, though, smaller than necessary at times for no apparent reason. Overall, a promising debut that manages to outshine its more heavily promoted sister title.

damn nation #2 (Created/Written by Andrew Cosby, Art by J. Alexander, Letters by Clem Robins; Dark Horse Comics, $2.99) packs a lot of action and plot development into its 26 pages of story, including a few effective splash pages that artist J. Alexander makes excellent use of. He's also lightened the overall tone a bit, a problem in the first issue, making his characters and their surroundings a bit clearer and easier to discern. Writer Andrew Cosby amps up the tension and intrigue, teasing the true nature of the plague that has left America abandoned, its borders sealed to keep anyone, or thing, from escaping, while throwing in a couple of plot twists that still have me wondering how he'll be able to wrap things up with only one more issue. If this is simply a prelude to a larger story, I'm hoping they get the chance to tell more of it. If not, I'll be more than happy with the summer blockbuster ending this issue hints at.

Elk's Run #1 (Created/Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov, Art by Noel Tuazon, Colors by Scott A. Keating; Hoarse and Buggy Productions, $3.00), if you haven't been following along the past couple of weeks, is a great debut issue of a promising series with a simple premise: something's not right in the town of Elk's Ridge, VA. Simultaneously evoking aspects of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery" and Stephen King's "The Body," with a slight touch of M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, writer Joshua Hale Fialkov sets an ominous tone as we're introduced to the town through the eyes of one of its teenaged residents, a town no one seems able to leave, whether they want to or not. When someone does try to escape, his actions have dire consequences and things take a turn for the worst. While it's mostly setup, it's effectively done as Fialkov focuses on developing his characters with subtle touches, letting the plot lurk in the background where it belongs. I've previously compared Noel Tuazon's art here to Michael Lark's but, now having seen the issue in print, I'd say he's more of a Craig Thompson, excelling at making the ordinary interesting and distinctive. Combined with Scott A. Keating's muted coloring, it perfectly complements Fialkov's story. If you're looking for something different, look no further. (And, if you haven't picked it up yet, enter our contest to win one of two free copies!)

Alan Moore's Hypothetical Lizard #2 (Created/Story by Alan Moore, Sequential Adaptation by Antony Johnson, Artwork by Sebastian Fiumara; Avatar Press, $3.50) is the second installment in the "sequential adaptation" of Moore's novella, an eccentric tale of wizards and magic that takes place in the City of Luck in the House Without Clocks. "Eccentric" meaning weird, but oddly compelling. Honestly, two issues in and I still don't know what I think about it as it reads more like an illustrated story as opposed to a traditional comic book; a graphic novel in the most literal sense that is probably not best served by the serial format. WARNING: Reading this immediately after a spandex and capes book might make you feel really dumb!

30 March 2005

The Uncanny O-Man: Top 5 Superheroine Crushes (because I'm a big fat nerd loser)

There has got to be something wrong with me to not only write this but to publish it for the entire interweb to see.

  • Poison Ivy: I know. I know. I have issues. But seriously, Pamela Isley is some archetypal image of the sensual woman. I think my favorite incarnation of her is on the animated show. Sometimes, I wonder how they got away with what they got away with for "children's" programming.
  • Phoenix III: In the words of the Silk Spectre II, "Did the costumes make it good?" Honestly though, I suspect that telepaths would make the greatest lovers. We're not even talking empathy here or being sensitive to another's needs. We're talking about being completely in sync with another human being. The entire relationship has got to be improved by that ability. Or, at the very least, she'd be able to project her thoughts for real instead of just staring at me like I was a lump.
  • Major Motoko Kusanagi: Ignoring for a moment her cybernetic body, the Major is an intelligent, resourceful, and very independant character. Frankly, I think intelligent, independant women are hot. It carries over to other fiction I enjoy: Aeryn Sun, Pam Grier, K'Ehleyr. DON'T JUDGE ME!
  • Psylocke: Dude, I know. She's a British woman in an Asian woman's body. I cannot even deal with the level of fetish she represents. But Jim Lee drew her REAL well.
  • Nancy: I don't know which one is hotter... Frank Miller's drawing or Jessica Alba. You know, I didn't even have a thing for Jessica ('cause, see, we're on a first name basis). Actually, I was really against her being Nancy... Then, I, like the rest of the United States of Fanboy, saw the unfinished footage... and I lost my freaking conscious mind. I think I blacked out, slammed my face against the keyboard, and -- somehow -- the impact of my face against the keys composed a love letter that somehow was mailed to Jessica's home address. How the envelope got her home address on it is beyond me, I just know that it did. I would like to formally apologize for that. Jess, I have no idea how that happened. Call me; I'll buy you dinner and make it up to you.

28 March 2005

Adopt a Comic: Win Elk's Run #1

[NOTE: Updated contest info here.]

Generally speaking, the Comics Blogiverse is relatively united when it comes to showing love for indie comics and harping on the need to support them, with several sites even running contests giving away copies of trade paperbacks of series they want more people to read. I've been sitting on the idea myself, planning to run such a contest for 100 Girls when its TPB becomes available, but realized today that, while a nice gesture, when it comes to indies, "waiting for the trade" can often be a death sentence.

Serendipitously, I received in the mail today my order of two copies of Elk's Run #1 direct from its publisher, Hoarse & Buggy Productions, which is due to arrive in better comic book shops this Wednesday. I read a PDF preview of the issue a couple of weeks back, loved it, did an interview with its creator/writer, Joshua Hale Fialkov, and can now happily confirm that the issue is even better in print. Because I live in New York City, I have access to one of the best shops around in Midtown Comics, where my own copy of Elk's Run #1 will be sitting in my folder when I get there on Wednesday.

Sadly, many of you reading this will not be so lucky.

And so, Comic Book Commentary happily announces its first contest, Adopt a Comic, in which we will be giving away not one, but TWO copies of Elk's Run #1. How can you give this excellent comic book a deserving home without spending a dime? Pretty simple, really, you just have to speak up, in one of two categories:

1) Leave a comment here about your local comic book retailer (or, if you're stuck in a direct market No Man's Land, your favorite e-retailer) and what kind of indie selection they offer. If it's great, give 'em props and give us details. If it's lacking, explain why you think that is and what indie publishers might be able to do about it. In either case, include your zip code, which I will check with Diamond Comics Distributors to see what retailers, if any, are in your area. Zip Code is required for valid entry, and must match the shipping address for winning entries.


2) Leave a comment about your favorite indie comic book currently being published and why more people should be reading it. Be persuasive, but concise. Save the long-winded reviews for your own site! Due to their prime visibility in the front of Previews, comics published by Image, Dark Horse and DC/Marvel's various imprints are NOT considered indies for the sake of this contest.

The contest will close and TWO winners will be selected at Noon EST, April 15th. Ideally, there will be one winner from each category, but not necessarily. The best two entries, as judged by me, will win. Individuals may submit an entry for both categories, but no more than one for each. Winning comics will be shipped FREE via First Class mail.

Please feel free to spread the word about this contest. And be sure to check out Greg Burgas' Scurvy Dogs contest which ends this Thursday.

NOTE: If you're reading this on the LiveJournal feed, please go to the main site to leave your comment entry.

UPDATE: If you're having trouble leaving a comment (Blogger's been buggy the past few days), email me your entry at glecharles at gmail dot com.

ménage à trois: 3/23/05

[One Marvel, one DC, both published the previous Wednesday, plus a random indie from whenever I feel like it, each reviewed quickie-style: 1 Minute=bad, 10 Minutes=good. Connections, if any at all, may be forced purely for the experience.]

Thanks to an impromptu trip south to Virginia for the Easter weekend -- a trip which inadvertently led to a new column, Retailer Spotlight, coming soon -- last Wednesday's comic book haul didn't get the kind of first-reading that would allow for the usual graphic threesome. Instead, it's an orgy of spandex-clad heroes, with a few gritty exceptions -- money shots only.

Araña: Heart of the Spider #3: This has gone from being not particularly distinctive, to trying way too hard. Blame the writer, editorial direction, or both, but I can no longer defend this title's existence. Because I'm a sucker for lost causes, I'll complete the arc hoping something changes, but then I'm likely done with it: 6 Minutes

Runaways (Vol. 2) #2: Still liking it, but Vaughan's schtick here is too similar to what he's doing over in Ultimate X-Men, and what were subtle wink-winks in the previous issue seem a bit more forced here: 7.5 Minutes

The New Avengers #4: Old-school, farfetched team building with a snarky sense of humor (and the Savage Land!), Bendis is obviously having fun here and only the overly cynical and jaded would hold a grudge against him for it. But where's the letters page? 8 Minutes

Daredevil #71: My first time with Bendis' take on ol' hornhead, his Mamet schtick feels a bit dated but overall it's an intriguing setup for what I believe is his swan song: 8 Minutes

Batman: Gotham Knights #63: Several issues back, writer A.J. Lieberman put an interesting spin on the Joker cementing this title as my favorite Batbook that's not Gotham Central. He's now playing with Poison Ivy and I'm liking where he's going with it: 8 Minutes

Plastic Man: Kyle Baker talks a good game - "The problem is smart children don't have as much money as grown idiots, so we make the books for grown idiots who want to read about crying Martians who talk a lot." - but as my first issue of this cynical little comic, beyond the great layouts, I was left wondering WTF?!?! Call me a grown idiot, but I'll be holding onto to my money next month: 5 Minutes

Conan #14: Anyone skipping this comic because it's Conan - you know, the Barbarian? - is missing out on a superior monthly pleasure: 9 Minutes

Sleeper: Season Two #10: Kicking into overdrive for the series' endgame, Brubaker and Phillips set the table nicely for what looks to be a fulfilling climax: 9 Minutes

The Expatriate #1: I couldn't stop thinking about how much I enjoy The Losers as I read this, specifically how important it is to have at least one appealing, or at least intriguing, character when you go the gritty noir route: 6.5 Minutes

24 March 2005

Tomboy's Take: Maus I & II Make History Approachable

The Holocaust is an intimidating and frightening subject, but Art Spiegelman's Maus I: My Father Bleeds History and Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began makes it more accessible without dumbing it down, enabling his father's emotional tale of life in Auschwitz to reach an audience it probably wouldn't have otherwise.

When the Maus books came out, in 1986 and 1991, respectively, Spiegelman went from being an underground comic artist to a key contributor of revolutionary literature to the canon. As comic books, Spiegelman's work risked being shoved aside as belonging to a disrespected genre dominated by superhero books aimed at adolescent boys and young men. They also brought the media spotlight to his family's personal matters in a way that some may have feared would be demeaning to the memory of the Holocaust. Instead, the Maus books helped revolutionize the graphic novel format while also receiving credit in academic settings. Spiegelman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Maus, and countless academic works encompassing topics from oral storytelling to Holocaust in the media have referenced it.

In the Maus books, people are characterized as animals, with Jews as mice; Germans, cats; Americans, dogs, etc. Having this true story told through animals, though, doesn't lessen its value, emotional impact, or integrity at all. In fact, its innovative attempt at telling a difficult story is admirable, inspiring, and smart.

It's amazing how much expression Spiegelman portrays through his characters. The stark black-and-white format adds to the books' bleak atmosphere, accentuating the text without detracting from or having to carry it. There are scenes where, instead of using an anthropomorphic character, Spiegelman portrays his characters in "real-time" as humans wearing masks of their respective animal totems. This reminds us that these are real people who lived through these events, and that while the masks represent an important part of who we are, there's always someone behind the mask worth noting.

Spiegelman alternates between telling his father Vladek's story as it was lived in Auschwitz, and his own story as he interacts with the person his father became. As the stories progress, switching between past and present, we see reflections of how history has affected Vladek's current-day mannerisms, and how his actions in turn have adverse effects on Art's life. The dialogue is always emotionally intense, and it's rare that Spiegelman has to rely on commentary-only text boxes to help move the story along. He constantly reminds us that the stories come from recorded interviews with his father, but he moves his story effortlessly into a dialogue format between the people who populated his father's history, then comes back seamlessly to the present time, proving how closely intertwined past and present really are.

Maus II opens up with Spiegelman depicting how difficult it was to deal with the success of the first book as people come at him wanting to know the "moral of the story," when all he wants to do is tell a powerful, important story. He succeeds, completing the sequel and finishing Vladek's story.

When I first read these books for my college Holocaust and the Media class, my classmates and I were intimidated by its depressing nature. Upon rereading them, I remembered how accessible the format made the Spiegelman's difficult story. The Maus books are brilliant examples of how the graphic novel can be used as educational tools in the classroom. They're also an appropriate and highly effective medium to portray important and difficult events in history in an approachable manner to an audience who probably wouldn't run out and grab a traditional non-fiction book on the Holocaust.

Maus I: My Father Bleeds History (Pantheon Books, 1986; $14.00); Maus II: And Here My Troubles Began (Pantheon Books, 1992; $14.00) By Art Spiegelman.

23 March 2005

The Uncanny O-Man: Top 5 Overrated Comics / Characters

  1. Superman: Woo-hoo. He's super. Woo-hoo. Big freaking deal. The thing about Supes that blows is that there's no internal conflict. There's no hubris, ferchrissakes. Plus, he's an omnipotent white man. Scary. (That he is a response to the Nazi image of the perfect Aryan being is beside the point. Considering Azzarello has him going to a priest for counselling, he doesn't count anymore.)
  2. Spider-man: I don't get the appeal. First of all, A) He is a whiny little b@st!ch. It's entirely his fault that his Uncle Bed died. Why is he a hero? Guilt. Greaaaat! We need more community service superheroes. If his Uncle Ben hadn't gotten shot, Parker would have just gone about his day profiteering off of his powers. Humanity be damned as long as he got his payday. Pig Fugger!
  3. X-Men: If you have to ask...shoot yourself. Seriously. Take a knife and slowly cut through your jugular. I'm not joking here. Open up a bottle of household cleaner and drink all of it. Jump in front of a school bus. I want you out of the gene pool.
  4. Spawn: I heard a story once that McFarlane would draw a bunch of panels, throw them up into the air, and whatever order they landed in would be the order he made the book. Despite the epic-level suspension of disbelief required, I believe it.
  5. Sandman: Now, I'm not saying it's a bad comic, I'm just saying it's overrated. "Doll's House" remains one of my favorite comic storylines. But it sorta peaked there and went downhill. There! I said it. Go ahead and post your nasty comments. You know I'm right. Sandman uses the same formula that Gaiman used on his Miracleman books: take a really boring main character and develop his supporting cast, create (inherit) a mythos around said boring character to make him not so boring (a la Alan Moore), and voila, we, the fans fall for it.

21 March 2005

Retro: Orbiter (TPB)

Prior to 9/11, there were many who believed that my generation's defining moment happened on January 28, 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff from Kennedy Space Center, instantly killing all 7 crew members aboard, including the first teacher scheduled to fly in space, Sharon Christa McAuliffe. I was in 11th grade at the time and while it was definitely a notable moment, I recall feeling somewhat removed from it all, born a year and a half too late to have any memory of Neil Armstrong's historic walk on the moon and therefore lacking any real emotional connection to our space program.

In the wake of the space shuttle Columbia's tragic disaster two years ago - exploding during re-entry and, again, killing all seven crew members aboard - NASA suspended all manned space flight while they investigated the accident, and to my adult sensibilities, it felt like submission; the end of an era, and an ominous step backwards. An ill-conceived computerized missile defense system began to look more likely than a human being ever setting foot on Mars.

Now, on May 15, 2005, the space shuttle Discovery is currently scheduled to "Return to Flight," the first manned spaceflight since the Columbia tragedy. Discovery Commander Eileen Collins, when asked about how she'd dealt with the Columbia tragedy, said: "It's time to move on. We will always remember our friends, but it's time to take what they lived for and what they believed in -- space exploration -- and move on and get the Shuttle flying again."

Warren Ellis wholeheartedly agrees.

Ellis recalls Armstrong's "odd little jump from the end of the ladder to the soil of the moon" as his "first memory...being held up in front of a tiny black and white TV set by my mother and being told, 'Remember this.'" And remember it he did, as that moment clearly informs much of his exceptional writing over the years.

His original graphic novel Orbiter - written a few months before the Columbia disaster and published a few months after - is something of a love letter to that "odd little jump" and the achievements it inspired over the years; an ode to the sense of wonder that for a time had telescopes at the top of Christmas lists, and "Astronaut" as one of the most popular answers to the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" It's also a pretty damn good sci-fi story full of the geeky science theory and quirky characterization that Ellis is best known for.

Taking place 10 years after the fictional space shuttle Venture disappeared without a trace while in orbit, NASA has ended its manned space flight program and the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center have inexplicably become a shantytown. Without warning, Venture returns, crash landing at the Space Center with only its catatonic Captain onboard, bringing with it the mystery of its whereabouts for the past 10 years. Where has it been? Where is the rest of its crew? Why is it still intact? And why the hell is it covered in skin?

A story like this obviously hinges on a willing suspension of disbelief, something that itself hinges on the sincerity and believability of the characters, and it is there where Ellis shines, with Colleen Doran's emotive artwork and Dave Stewart's muted coloring bringing his exuberant story to vivid life. The primary characters - the Astronaut Corps veteran, the whiz-kid scientist, the depressed psychiatrist, and the traumatized Captain - are all one step removed from Armageddon clichés, but it's a significant step, the difference being the obvious fondness Ellis has for the subject matter, a palpable sincerity that graces every single panel and accentuates the emotional crescendo of its uplifting conclusion.

Dr. Bracken: Venture went away. Crewed spaceflight was cancelled in the wake of your disappearance.

Captain Cost: Jesus. That's all backwards.
In one of the extras on the exceptional Incredibles DVD, writer/director Brad Bird comments on the set design for his movie, noting that he was going for a futuristic look via the optimism of the 60s, when kids still believed they'd be going to work in jet packs and flying cars in the very near future. Somewhere along the line - the ugly truths about Vietnam, perhaps; or the Cold War threat of mushroom clouds subtly but dramatically changing our perception of scientific progress? - that optimism, the dreams of space travel and "going where no man had gone before" faded to a relative contentment with microwave ovens, the Internet and camera phones.

Orbiter recaptures that previous sense of optimistic wonder; the belief that our future lies in the stars above and that space exploration is not only important from a scientific perspective, but from a humanistic one. That it is through our sheer doggedness and ingenuity that we become better people, and that our generation can come to be defined by great achievements instead of crippling tragedies. Or, as Ellis puts it in his introduction, "Because it is too important a thing to allow it to die in the sky."

Orbiter (DC Comics, 2003; $24.95-HC / $17.95-SC) Written by Warren Ellis; Art by Colleen Doran; Colored by Dave Stewart; Lettering by Clem Robins.

19 March 2005

ménage à trois: 3/16/05

[One Marvel, one DC, both published the previous Wednesday, plus a random indie from whenever I feel like it, each reviewed quickie-style: 1 Minute=bad, 10 Minutes=good. Connections, if any at all, may be forced purely for the experience.]

A healthy week from the Big Two, including several of my regulars, along with a new issue of one of my overall favorites from Arcana headline an unusually expensive week as eBay and Top Shelf added to a heady mix of comic book gluttony. In this episode, the much-anticipated second issue of the new Black Panther is joined by an intense Teen Titans #22 and the stellar 100 Girls #4.

I've spent so much energy the past couple of months defending Reginald Hudlin's spin on Black Panther that I almost feel unable to properly judge it anymore as I really want it to succeed to spite its many detractors. As a result, I have to admit to being a little nervous about this issue, part of me feeling like the stakes had been unfairly raised for it, setting it up for failure. Happily, Hudlin comes through with another solid issue, clarifying somewhat where he's coming from - a retconned Year One told via flashback - while still managing to maintain an air of uncertainty about where he's going. Starting off with a bit of sleight-of-hand story-telling as narrated by Everett Ross, he gracefully recounts T'Challa's origin as the Black Panther before shifting gears to focus on the bad guys and their unfolding plot to infiltrate Wakanda. As decompression goes, Hudlin moves the story along well enough and John Romita, Jr. and Klaus Janson team up for another visual treat, especially during the Panther ritual that includes several pages of wordless hand-to-hand combat. While the sum total will likely end up being greater than its individual parts, this part holds its own nicely: 7.5 Minutes

If I was Dr. Light, and I found out that the JLA had not only mindwiped me, but turned me into a bit of an idiot and tossed me to the kiddies, I'd be a little pissed, too. And looking for revenge. In Teen Titans #22, that's exactly the scenario Geoff Johns delivers with an intense, badass Dr. Light doing a number on the teen super-heroes who are totally unprepared for his newfound ruthlessness, used to the buffoon of old. Johns actually manages to make Dr. Light come off as somewhat sympathetic, to the point where if you're not necessarily rooting for him, you're at least glad to see him get his licks in. While the appearance of the new Hawk & Dove seems to come out of left field - did I miss something last issue? - the cavalry that shows up at the end is well done. Funny thing is, you're left thinking Light could actually take them all on and win. One of the most consistently entertaining comics every month, keeps on doing its thing: 8 Minutes

It's a great feeling when an underappreciated indie rewards your faith in it, continuing to get better and better with each issue. I was concerned that 100 Girls would begin to slip once it got past its initial storyline that had run previously as a Dark Horse webcomic, but thankfully, I had nothing to worry about as Adam Gallardo and Todd Demong have done it again. Each issue reveals new layers to the larger story while deepening the overall mystery, plus they continue to develop the main characters with appealing shades of moral grey. Sylvia Mark is still on the run, now with two other Girls sharing her head, and hot on the trail of another. At the same time, teams of agents are spreading out to retrieve the other Girls that were abducted from the program. Sylvia gets to kick some more ass, demonstrate a great new power, and locate another Girl who gets an effective three-page introduction to close out the issue, and the intial arc, on a bit of a cliffhanger. If 100 Girls isn't already on your pull list, then you don't really like good comics: 9 Minutes

16 March 2005

Interview: Fialkov on Elk's Run

It's a sad fact in the comics industry today that succesfully launching a brand new title is a Herculean feat for the Big Two, requiring a massive marketing and promotion campaign with no guarantees of success. For independent publishers, it's a near impossible task. Even sadder is the fact that the lower half of the Diamond Top 100 - wholly dominated by mainstream super-heroes, historied licenses and/or A-list creators - typically bottoms out around 25,000 copies, making "successful" a somewhat relative term.

So what to do when a really good comic book comes along, one not in the front of the Previews catalog, tied to a well-known license or featuring a Wizard-proclaimed fan favorite creator? You work the hell out of the word-of-mouth angle for all it's worth and hope for the best.

Elk's Run is just such a book, from Hoarse & Buggy Productions, publishers of the surprise hit Western Tales of Terror. Created and written by H&B Editor-in-Chief, Joshua Hale Fialkov, with art by Noel Tuazon and colors by Scott A. Keating, it's an atmospheric tale of strange doings in the small West Virginia town of Elk's Ridge. I had the pleasure of previewing the first issue yesterday and was duly impressed, both with Fialkov's plotting and scripting, and especially with Tuazon's cinematic, Michael Lark-ish artwork. Add Keating's coloring, which perfectly accentuates the edgy, ominous tone of the story, and you've got a stellar debut issue of a promising comic book.

Comic Book Commentary: What's the 30-second pitch for Elk's Run?
Joshua Hale Fialkov: Elk's Run is a story about a small town that's living a double-life. The residents lead a sleepy existence, but, underneath, a full on war is brewing.

CBC: When I read the first issue, Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery came to mind. What was your inspiration for Elk's Run?
Fialkov: The Lottery is a story that comes up a lot. I think the first issue has kind of a similar feel, but, by issue 2 we're off and running in a totally different direction. I lived in a few small towns in my day, mostly having moved into them, rather than being from them, and it always amazed me how tightly knit the communities were, and how much they distrusted "outsiders." I'm also fascinated by cults and militia-type groups, and I've read countless books and articles about them. I had a professor in college who grew up as a member of a "fringe religion," and while far from what actually happens in Elk's Run, a lot of the stories he told us had a bearing on the human interaction and sociological aspects of the storytelling.

CBC: You're planning to tell the story using a different character's perspective in each issue. What made you choose that device, as opposed to a single character or omniscient narrator?
Fialkov: Well, a couple of reasons. Primarily, it gives me the opportunity to write in a variety of genres, all while telling essentially the same story. We go from coming of age, to war drama, to full-out action, and even some psychlogical horror. I think that as a culture we look at these "groups," be they militias, cults - hell, even political groups - and we see them so much from the outside that we don't actually get to understand that, no matter how far off-base they are, each person is there for their own reason and complies with the requirements of their clique with some actual thought, and not just from a blank zombie-like POV. I look at this from more of a psychological standpoint, I guess, as a means to tell the story, rather than letting the psychology be glossed over for the sake of plot, plot, plot.

CBC: You have some great blurbs from Bendis, Ellis and others for the first issue, and yet you've been quite vocal about the pre-orders for it being less than you'd hoped. Why is it so difficult to launch new comics these days? Is it the retailers fault? Readers? Publishers?
Fialkov: Well, it's sort of an interesting time in the industry. Nobody is selling what they should be. Hell, Marvel can't even launch new books, why should I be any different? What it comes down to is that the system in place for comics now - everything from publishers, to distributors, to retailers - is set up as a roadblock for the industry. Shops are forced to take risks on books constantly and, if it comes down to a book from a marginally-known publisher versus the 30-part Batman/X-Men/Superman crossover event of the week, they're going to pick the one with guys they know best. What's funny to me is that Western Tales of Terror (our other book) is nigh impossible for Diamond to keep in stock because it sells out so quickly everywhere it is. That's a book with three strikes against it in the traditional market: it's an anthology, black and white, and independently-produced. Yet, people can't get enough of it. I think that the word of mouth on Elk's Run is what's going to make it happen because, frankly, everybody who's seen it has really flipped for it. We know that it's a waiting game, it just pains us to see that something that was promoted so copiously, and universally praised, can't get traction in the market. I can't count the number of e-mails from other young creators saying, "If a book as good and well-produced as Elk's Run can't get a foothold, how the fuck am I supposed to?"

CBC: The new Red Sonja comic book is debuting with a $0.25 cover price, which reportedly boosted pre-orders to an impressive 200k. A little more than that, actually. Conan did the same thing a year ago, and has since become a mainstay in the Diamond Top 100. Though technically indies, both are well-known properties in the comics world with long histories and, as such, could be considered exceptions. What sort of marketing effort is Hoarse & Buggy able to put behind a book?
Fialkov: I think you nailed it. While Conan and Red Sonja are indies, they're still huge name characters, with huge name talent behind them. So, they're going to get the higher orders. Doing a low price point offer like that has it benefits, to be sure, and we're working on building some of those on a lower scale with some of our retailing partners, but the economics just aren't there to do it on a weird (but beloved) indie book like Elk's Run. I think what it comes down to is just letting people see the books and the floodgates of word of mouth will start to open. At least I hope so. The key thing is that a lot of people assume because a book gets lots of coverage it'll be carried in their local store. The fact is that most retailers are way too busy to spend as much time trolling the internet as we do, and unless the book is in that front half of Previews, they're probably not seeing it. So please, if you like an indie book, even if you aren't going to pre-order, let your retailer know about it. Both retailers and publishers'll thank you.

CBC: How did you get into comics? Is Hoarse & Buggy and Western Tales of Terror your first comics experience?
Fialkov: I come from a TV and Film background. I have an indie feature I produced some time ago now, and had a TV series that got picked up (and then quickly thrown in the crapper after September 11th), and I ended up in Los Angeles looking for writing work. There just wasn't any to be found (the reality boom really messed up the careers of a lot of TV writers) and I wasn't content to just let myself sit around waiting for someone to pick up one of my scripts. So, I took the big step and teamed up with a friend of mine, and we began making mini-comics, webcomics, and cartoons. The webcomics took off, and led us onto making Western Tales.

CBC: What are some of your favorite, non-Hoarse & Buggy comics right now?
Fialkov: I'm a bit of fanatic, actually. I'm a huge fan of all of Brian K. Vaughan's stuff, especially Runaways and Ex Machina. Sleeper is another work of genius, and Brubaker and Phillips just kill on it month in, month out. Warren Ellis and Steve Niles are both doing some very cool stuff in their respective work as well. I think we're lucky in that we have so many great books out right now, but a bit cursed because so few people are seeing them.

CBC: Back to Elk's Run, why should readers seek it out?
Fialkov: Well, I genuinely believe it's one of the best titles on the market today. It's wholly unique from anything else in comics, and has some of the best (and most inspiring) art you can see in a comic today. I can't vouch for the writing, but, the rest of the team are all destined for some goddamn wonderful things.

CBC: Well, I can definitely vouch for the first issue, both the art and writing, and say that it's a comic well worth picking up. I'm certainly going to. Best of luck!
Fialkov: Thanks so much, man.

Joshua Hale Fialkov grew up in Pittsburgh, PA where he got beat up a lot, which lead to him moving to Boston where he got a BFA in writing and directing for the stage and screen, and then worked in the New England film industry, until finally deciding to move to Los Angeles to do it properly. He lives with his long time girlfriend, Dina, and his two cats, Smokey and The Bandit. He is the Editor-In-Chief of Hoarse & Buggy Productions and the creator/writer of Elk's Run.

15 March 2005

Review: Western Tales of Terror #1-3

Comic books I like generally fall into one of two primary categories: 1) well-written, character-driven fare (Gotham Central, Ex Machina); or, 2) old school, straight-up fun comics (Ezra, The Losers). A third category - the thought-provoking, big idea classic - is a rare treat that usually starts in one of the two other categories before transcending it.

Hoarse and Buggy's Western Tales of Terror is a great example of that second category: old school, straight-up fun comics combining the peanut butter and chocolate of Cowboys and Zombies...and it's an anthology, to boot!

Narrated by Pete, a sarcastic, foul-mouthed, undead cowboy - "I seen things that'd make a horse shit his pants... We got some stories that'll curl your arm hair, and straighten your pubic hair... A few special words for that sad sack son-of-a-bitch that put me in this here casket. It didn't stick asshole!" - Western Tales of Terror is an entertaning mix of short and short-short stories by both well-known and up-and-coming talents. The stories, as might be expected, are hit-and-miss, most taking the Twilight Zone approach with twist endings, but thanks to the number of them in each issue, there's likely a couple that'll ring right for almost everyone.

Editor-in-Chief Joshua Hale Fialkov notes in the first issue that: "One of the things we hope sets this anthology apart from others is that we're providing opportunities for young up-and-comers to submit stories and art samples, and get published alongside some of the industry's best and brightest." True to his word, much of the best work comes from the lesser known talent, and the first issue includes such a piece from Jay Busbee and Jared Bivins, "The Deserter," a clever 5-page tale of deception and revenge that is one of the issue's standouts, both in the writing and art. Benito Cereno and Nate Bellegarde's "Hector Plasm" short is an entertaining introduction to an appealing character, sort of an Old West Ghostbuster; while Steve Niles' interesting revenge tale "Reckon This" is hampered somewhat by Nick Stakal's skitchy art.

In the second issue, Stakal's art works better with Phil Hester's creepily philosophical "The Gallows Builder," and Todd Livingston and Eric J. deliver the twist-at-the-end goods in "Belle Dorado." Hector Plasm makes another appearance, but comes up about a page short of another strong entry. In the third issue, Greg Thompson and Marco Magallanes' "Ghosts of the Past" puts a nice spin on the proceedings, hitting a sincere melancholy note with some effective artwork; while Derrick Fridolfs and Richard Garcia's "The Stool" offers a fun From Dusk Til Dawn-ish quickie. Fialkov's own story, "Phineas' Gold" - with Porter McDonald and Scott A. Keating - is a raucous three-part tale of bank robbers, native zombies and a grotesquely deformed arm that successfully anchors each issue.

One of the biggest complaints about the comics industry these days is that drawn-out stories featuring men in tights dominate sales, while too many indies cede the mainstream by offering carbon copies of the Big Two, or being so self-righteous in their independence that they limit their potential audience from the start. To that mix, Western Tales of Terror is a worthy addition to any comics reader's pull list, a perfect throwback to the old days of comic books as simple entertainment, accessible to all, no matter what issue they jump aboard.

Western Tales of Terror #1-3, (Hoarse and Buggy Productions, $3.50/ea); Editor: Greg Matiasevich, Jason Rodriguez; Editor-in-Chief: Joshua Hale Fialkov

14 March 2005

ménage à trois: 3/9/05

[One Marvel, one DC, both published the previous Wednesday, plus a random indie from whenever I feel like it, each reviewed quickie-style: 1 Minute=bad, 10 Minutes=good. Connections, if any at all, may be forced purely for the experience.]

When I first started this column, I figured finding a decent indie to review each week would be the hardest part, certain that my pull list included enough from the Big Two to not ever have to review consecutive issues of the same title. In fact, thanks to Midtown Comics, new indies have been pretty easy to track down each week. Some weeks, though, with Marvel and DC, I've had to double dip from one or the other, tap into their "indie" imprints a couple of times, and once, I just reviewed fanzines instead. Over the past few months, as my pull list has steadily grown, the number of ongoing titles from the Big Two has shrunk to a mere six from Marvel and seven from DC, less than half altogether of my total list. And that's not accounting for the manga I'm planning to add to my diet in the next few weeks! Not sure what any of that means just yet but, this week, it means old reliable Gotham Central (#29) is joined by Ultimate Fantastic Four #16 and, from Speakeasy Comics, Atomika #1.

Greg Rucka needs to figure out a way to keep Gotham Central alive because he is doing some his most impressive comics work in it, as his Eisner Award for the stellar "half a life" arc would attest. This issue continues a new storyline featuring his favorite detective, Renee Montoya, investigating a mysterious basement fire in the Gotham neighborhood she grew up in that left one cop horribly burned and, it's revealed here, mutating, thanks to a chemical booby-trap left behind by one of Flash's Rogues, Dr. Alchemy. Before Montoya and her partner, Crispus Allen, head off to Keystone City to question the Hannibal Lecter-ish Doctor, Rucka does some great character work with her, her estranged father, and her lover, Daria. For all the gritty procedural stuff, the heart of Gotham Central is its detectives, flesh and blood characters doing the dirty work in Batman's shadow whom Rucka and the soon-to-depart Ed Brubaker have lovingly crafted over the past two-plus years. There has to be someone on DC's staff of Bat-writers that can pick up Brubaker's slack and keep this, the best Bat-book being published right now, going strong: 9.5 Minutes

Warren Ellis is really making me sad that I'm going to be dropping the Ultimate Fantastic Four in four more issues as he continues to set the bar at a level so far beyond incoming writer Mark Millar's reach, it's almost embarassing. In his nine-issue run so far, he's wonderfully fleshed out the quartet, nailing their interpersonal dynamics and personality quirks in a way that doesn't feel forced or make the whole thing feel like the remix of old stories it ultimately is. (No pun intended.) After three previous issues of great setup and character development, we get some payoff as the Four make first contact in the N-Zone with Nihil, aka Ultimate Annihilus. Adam Kubert makes him perfectly creepy and organic-looking, and Ellis gives him a diabolical but sensible plan that plays out nicely against Reed's obsessive thirst for knowledge. Solid comic book goodness: 8.5 Minutes

Giddy thoughts of creator-artist Sal Abbinanti's epic, American Gods-like vision quickly faded as Atomika #1 underwhelemed with its debut, but in his defense, it is a planned 12-issue maxi-series so he can't have been expected to load all of his eggs into this first basket. Writer Andrew Dabb offers a pretty straight-forward, if somewhat murky and exposition heavy, origin story, where Atomika is the man-made God of an alternate timeline Soviet Union, birthed from a young boy gone wandering into the depths of the earth itself. Destiny, it would seem, but much is unclear at this point; perhaps a bit too much for its own good. Abbinanti's visuals, including way too many double spreads and splash pages, are rough and surreal and not at all to my tastes. (Neither for that matter is the standard Official Alex Ross Cover™ that doesn't match the interiors in style or tone.) If not for the potential appeal of the overall story Abbinanti put forth in interviews - mistakenly not so much as hinted at in this issue itself - I can't imagine picking up issue #2, based on the art alone. Because of that potential, though, I will, but with extremely high expectations for it: 6 Minutes

11 March 2005

The Uncanny O-Man: This Sucks! That Does Not Suck!

The Wachowski brothers are adapting V for Vendetta. This is frigging horrible.

Then again...at least this time they're not ripping off other people's ideas. They're just going to make them fubar.

While I have no faith in the "appealling to the LCD" Wack brothers, I have utter faith in Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller to not frell up Sin City.

10 March 2005

Comment: Making Comics Thin-Skinned

It's no secret that creative types can be pretty thin-skinned when it comes to their art, especially when they're in their early developmental stages. Personally, when I first got into the poetry slam scene - competitive poetry readings, for the uninitiated, where original poems are performed and then judged on a scale of 0-10 by five random members of the audience - I was pretty thin-skinned, ready to curse out, throw beers at, or fight judges who gave my poems low scores. After awhile, as happens to most poets on the scene, I matured, wrote and performed better poems, and had less and less of a reaction to scores, good or bad. It's a tricky balance, creating art both for one's self and for mass consumption. As a result, criticism, negative and/or contsructive, doesn't really rile me up anymore.

So, what does this have to do with comic books?

Apparently my negative review of DEMO the other day hit a nerve with one Larry Young, "the Chief Visionary, Creative Engine, and Marketing Guru for AiT/Planet Lar," aka the publisher of DEMO. From what I've pieced together, he came here via a Technorati search for Brian Wood which took him to the review, spent more than a half-hour reading a handful of pages before bouncing over to my personal site via the contributor's links on the left, spending another fifteen minutes presumably trying to figure out if I was "anybody" he needed to not offend before locking, loading and firing on the AiT/Planet Lar blog. (Go ahead, read it; it's funny.)

Well, more jammed than fired, as he ignores the majority of my review only to focus on my comparing DEMO to American Beauty - guess he was a fan? - and my aversion to hype. He apparently thinks too highly of the "marketing guru" part of his duties, saying ol' Guy seems to have missed the marketing tagline that was everywhere the first six or eight months: "I'm not who you want me to be.", because he's right, I did miss it as DEMO didn't land on my radar until the 11th issue hit the stands, and I hadn't actually read it until buying all 12 issues from Khepri.com last month. Plus, I work in marketing myself and am generally immune to marketing taglines because I know they don't mean shit, so whatever he and Wood were feeding to Newsarama and other hypenews sites wouldn't distract me from the quality of the product itself anyway.

My favorite part, though, is where he attempts to dull my criticism of DEMO's amateurish final issue by quoting an excerpt of an old poem of mine from my personal web site and...well, it's not clear, really, what he was going for. He either admitted Wood's terribly boring romantic aside was exactly that, or suggested my poem could be the impetus for another 12-issue round of self-indulgent, half-executed comic books. (No, thanks!)

But, hey, what do you want from the so-called "Johnny Appleseed of Comics" who takes such public issue with a low-profile negative review of a comic that finished publishing a couple of months ago and has already been recognized as the best of the Indies by none other than that bastion of journalistic integrity and indie support, Wizard?

Hey, Larry, how many comp copies of DEMO was Wizard getting every month anyway?

"I'm not who you want me to be." That's a great tagline, Larry. Fits me perfectly. Now maybe you should spend a little more time focusing on your admirable mission of publishing quality comic books and a little less time writing half-assed blog entries.

And thanks for the extra traffic, you Marketing Guru, you!

09 March 2005

Review: Comic Book Encyclopedia

When I was a kid, encyclopedias were often frustrating for their lack of depth or currency. These days, with the pervasiveness of the internet, the notion of a printed encyclopedia is about as practical as a hand-cranked engine. Nevertheless, Ron Goulart decided to go the throwback route anyway, and compiled his ambitious and admirable, if deeply flawed, Comic Book Encyclopedia.

A visually appealing piece of work, like Frank Cho's unnecessary Shanna mini-series, there's three immediate signs of trouble before you even open the book. The boast of "nearly 400 big pages" is laughable when you consider the varied history of comics, but it's even more so when combined with the raising-the-bar tagline: The ULTIMATE GUIDE to Characters, Graphic Novels, Writers & Artists in the Comic Book Universe! All that in "nearly" 400 pages?

The final problem with the cover is one of representation. Of the eight images presented, three are of Marvel properties - Spider-Man and the X-Men on the front, the Fantastic Four on the back - and not a single one from DC. No Superman, no Batman, no Wonder Woman. But Strangers in Paradise makes the cut?

The questionable choices don't end there, though, as the insides offer even more puzzlers. Goulart gives a lot of space to long-forgotten Golden Age comics, characters and creators, but proportionately goes a bit overboard, especially in light of the startling omissions and reductions he makes in some places. I'm all for giving props to the old school but how does he justify Siegel and Shuster only getting a cross-reference to Superman, while Bob Kane gets a full page of his own and Bill Finger gets nothing more than a mention therein?

Other notable transgressions include:

Entries for Art Adams and Frank Cho, but no Bill Sienkiewicz?

Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore, but no Grant Morrison?

Watchmen only gets cross-referenced to Alan Moore, but Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld gets a full page?

Danger Girl and Machine Man get entries, but not Black Lightning or Moon Knight? (What? Hell yeah, Moon Knight deserves a listing! His first series was one of the original canaries in the Direct Market coal mine. And Black Lightning was DC's first black superhero to headline his own comic. WTF?)

Graphic Novels get only a page and a half?

Of course, a project like this will never please everyone, but some editorial discretion in forcing a tighter focus could have at least resulted in the first in a multi-volume effort of actual substance. Instead, Goulart delivers little more than a fine overview for the casual comic book fan, and a suitable coffee table book for everyone else. Less Ultimate Guide than Beginner's Guide, I'd say.

I did find something rather surprising buried in the credits on the jacket's back cover flap: "Super Hero is a co-owned trademark of Marvel and DC Comics and is used with permission." Who knew?

For a more comprehensive survey of comic book characters past and present, check out Don Markstein's impressive TOONOPEDIA: A Vast Repository of Toonological Knowledge that more than lives up to its tagline. Not only does he have entries for Black Lightning and Moon Knight, but it's free, online and continually updated! An encyclopedia for the 21st century.

Comic Book Encyclopedia, by Ron Goulart (HarperEntertainment, November 2004)

08 March 2005

Review: DEMO #1-12

[EDIT: Welcome, Larry Young fans! Be sure to also check out my response to what brought you here, here.]

I have to admit to having an extreme aversion to hype. I call it the American Beauty-syndrome, in reference to the inexplicable amount of praise that overrated retread of suburban dysfunction received. I saw it three weeks after it opened, simultaneously impressed and concerned by the amount of hype it was getting, and absolutely hated it. As the hype continued to grow, I hated it even more, nearly bursting a blood vessel when it won Best Picture honors.

DEMO is now my comic book equivalent of American Beauty.

Hailed as the "Indy of the Year" by Wizard, yet snubbed even an honorable mention by The Comics Journal, I can only believe that some people give extra credit to intent when actual content goes missing, because Brian Wood's self-righteous attempt at "a whole new and different take on superpowers" is little more than an interesting concept crippled by half-assed execution. When you get bold and go promising "new and different," you better deliver the goods and Wood just doesn't do it.

Twelve individual stories, very loosely connected by the aforementioned "superpowers" theme, DEMO might best be described as the X-Men Professor Xavier doesn't track down. Or, if you wanted to be snarky, NYX if it were more pretentious and had been published on a regular schedule.

That is, of course, only referring to the issues where Wood actually stuck to his self-proclaimed "new and different take on superpowers."

The first six issues stick to the formula pretty closely, introducing a thinly-drawn character with a special ability ("superpower") that reveals itself as each vignette progresses, all with a very Twilight Zone-ish kind of structure and pacing. The fourth issue, "Stand Strong," is probably the best of the bunch, with Wood's minimalist script benefitting from artist Becky Cloonan's strong storytelling efforts, giving the clichéd tale of a small-town boy faced with growing up an emotional heft the story itself lacks, particularly the virtually wordless final four pages.

In the seventh issue, "One Shot, Don't Miss," Wood offers a clumsy, though well-intentioned, dis to the military's penchant for recruiting "poor, disadvantaged, and minority soldiers" with misleading promises of financial stability. Unfortunately, his brief explanation at the end is much stronger than the melodramatic, black and white spin I paid for. Preaching to the choir - of which I am certainly a member - doesn't qualify as "new and different."

Over the next few issues, Wood deviates from his "whole new and different take on superpowers" and offers "a whole new and different take on" relationships, except, of course, without the "new and different take." It's almost as if he ran out of ideas for rejected New Mutants and decided to instead indulge himself with the presumably unexpected audience DEMO found to work out some of his own personal issues.

The final issue, "Mon Dernier Jour Avec Toi" is a terribly boring romantic aside, four pages stretched to twenty, that reads like something a starry-eyed high schooler wrote to their first love. It closes with a short piece as Wood and Cloonan switch roles, returning to the two characters from the first issue only to cover the exact same ground, adding nothing new to the story or the characters.

If I had been buying DEMO every month, I would have definitely stopped with the clumsy seventh issue, if not before. Having bought them all in one shot, though, including the no frills scriptbook - straight scripts, typos and all, with no extra commentary or anything - I can't help but feel like Wood owes me some money for not delivering on his promise.

I'm hesitant to implicate Cloonan in any of this mainly because it's clear from Wood's scripts that he was calling the shots, and she did some interesting work throughout, especially the great covers. For fans of her art, I'd suggest issues #4-6, 10 and 11 as great examples of her following through on her stated intent to "chang[e] up the style to match each story." If only Wood had met her halfway.

DEMO #1-12 (AiT/PLANET LAR, $2.95/ea; Written by Brian Wood, Art by Becky Cloonan.

06 March 2005

ménage à trois: 3/2/05

[One Marvel, one DC, both published the previous Wednesday, plus a random indie from whenever I feel like it, each reviewed quickie-style: 1 Minute=bad, 10 Minutes=good. Connections, if any at all, may be forced purely for the experience.]

A bit of an off-week for the Big Two found me scouring the shelves at Midtown Comics for something new, different or even vaguely interesting; something more impressive in person than in Previews. Marvel still came up short, with Araña #2 their only title making it into my stack; DC had a couple of books catch my eye, but Lex Luthor: Man of Steel #1 made the best first impression; and from the indie ranks, the appropriately named Alternative Comics represented with the oddball "graphic novella," A Strange Day. In the end, a light stack, but a pleasurable one overall.

In an industry dominated by white guys in spandex, I freely admit that I will buy certain comics simply to support a minority character or writer. That doesn't mean, though, that I'll buy ANYthing, or keep buying it if it sucks. That's the kind of mentality that gets movies like White Chicks greenlighted. Two issues into her solo run, despite its supposedly not being written for me, Araña still has my support, if for no other reason than it seems like so many fanboys want to see it fail, still offended by Marvel's PR campaign that clumsily focused on her ethnicity over her story. While it may not be Watchmen, neither is anything else being published these days, and it's certainly better than half of what is. Fiona Avery writes a fun, old-fashioned comic book that happens to feature a young Latina as the heroine, something that makes it unique in the industry and, unfortunately, results in it receiving extra, typically negative, scrutiny. Marvel's intent, to publish a comic that would be appealing to young girls, is an admirable one, and not being a young girl myself, I can't judge its success in that regard. I can say that I enjoy Araña and her supporting cast, if not necessarily the slowly evolving plot that is the Marvel way, and I was glad to see a specific villain introduced for her to play off of in this issue. I also like Roger Cruz and Victor Olazaba's manga-influenced art with their varied layouts and distinctive character designs. This is the kind of comic book that got me into comics when I was a kid: 7.5 Minutes

I had no interest in Brian Azzarello's overhyped run on Superman, and am completely unfamiliar with his acclaimed Vertigo series 100 Bullets, both primarily because I know him as the writer of the offensive Cage mini-series from a few years back. As a result, the combination of him, writing an unappealing character, initially kept Lex Luthor: Man of Steel off my radar. I do like Lee Bermejo, though, and after reading some good things online about this mini-series, I decided to give it a shot. Comics fronted by villains are always a dicey prospect as most writers are unable to provide the necessary characterization to pull it off, but Azzarello manages an impressive job here, making Luthor sympathetic and Superman scary. Opening with a scene featuring Luthor and a janitor in his office, Azzarello presents a multi-faceted take on one of comics' most famous villains, showing him as capable of good as the evil he is best known for, not unlike the Lex of the Smallville TV show. Empathetic, comfortable in his skin and with his power, he sees himself as an example of humanity's potential, "of the heights humanity can aspire to." In Superman, though, he sees an alien, "something no man can ever be... The end of our potential. The end of our dreams." It's an intriguing setup and Bermejo delivers beautifully, especially in depicting Superman's alienness, making him more Predator than ET. I'll be back for the next issue: 8.5 Minutes

After reading Craig Thompson's wonderful graphic novel, Blankets, I've been on the lookout for similar work -- personal, sincere, unpretentious. By most accounts, DEMO was supposed to be that comic but fell way short in the unpretentious department, and I'm still pissed over the $45 I spent buying the full run and its scriptbook. Undaunted, my search continued and I decided to give A Strange Day a try, partly because of writer Damon Hurd's sincere introduction, specifically his request to: "open this book as the sixteen year old that fell in love at first sight and took themselves all too seriously. you won't regret it." A "graphic novella," A Strange Day is the story of two high school-aged Cure fans meeting cute at the record store the day a new Cure album is being released. They're both social misfits of sorts, alone amongst their friends in their love for the Cure, and they awkwardly stutter-step their way to a first kiss and, more importantly, a first connection. Hurd writes with a sincerity that suggests this could be autobiography, but it's not the self-indulgent navel-gazing typical of such works. Like Blankets, his story stays rooted in the moment its depicting and his characters speak realistically, like "the sixteen year old that fell in love at first sight" he mentions in his introduction. Tatiana Gill's artwork is perfect for the story, heavy on the black for the introverted Miles, while mixing it up for the free-spirited Anna. Her backgrounds are minimal, pulling the camera back occasionally to give a sense of place, but primarily framing the story around Miles and Anna, as it should be. Together, they beautifully capture the jitters and edgy hopefulness of a first love, and true to Hurd's word, I didn't regret it: 9 Minutes

05 March 2005

Free Trade Guerrilla: Superman: Secret Identity (TPB)

Intro time: My name is Oscar and where once I was a rabid collector and all-around comic fiend, I have had to calm my obsession down to where I now visit nationwide bookstores and happily use their cafés to help me catch up on what's happening in the comic book world through trade paperbacks. Not the most precise way to stay in the scene, but it sure is economical!

My last such trip saw me pick up Superman: Secret Identity by Kurt Busiek & Stuart Immonen.

This limited series starts with a rather ridiculous idea, what if there was a kid by the name of Clark Kent in the real world who was actually Superman?

Chapter 1 - Smallville
Well, actually Picketsville, Kansas, which for anybody who lives in the big bad city might as well be Smallville. It's the fall of 1990 and the school year is not starting out well for our typically troubled teen, laughingly named Clark by his (presumably hippie parents) David & Laura Kent. Clark epitomizes the square peg personality as he is not so much a loser as overly pensive and daunted at what the future holds. He gets picked on regularly by the kids in class, is in love with the hottie that sees him as a really good friend, and his parents remain oblivious throughout, his only comfort coming from an ancient Selectric typewriter. Before this issue turns into a bad Dawson Creek episode - were there any other kind? - Clark gets away from it all with a good ol' fashioned solo weekend camping trip and comes back to Picketsville with superpowers reminiscent of the Big S. At this point, Busiek seriously borrows a number of elements from Amazing Fantasy #15 (no, Clark's uncle does not bite the big one) and Amazing Spider-Man #12 - if you're gonna steal, at least steal from the classics! - and Superboy #1, the most recent series (which I know is not a classic,) to help wrap up the intro issue.

Chapter 2 - Metropolis
A twenty-something Clark finds himself in the Big Apple with a staff position at the New Yorker. His literary skills have not gone unnoticed as his boss pulls some strings for "Smallville" and gets Clark a book deal. Things couldn't be better for our hero as his "good" friends see fit to set him up on a blind date with Lois. She isn't thrilled about it either but Ms. Chaudhari (born in India, thank ya very much) makes the best of it and the two fall in love. Clark still helps avert a disaster every now & then in his Big Blue get up since the only thing that is even more unbelievable then seeing a man fly is seeing him fly in Christopher Reeve's old duds. To everyone except those men in black suits and Ray Bans that have set their sights on "Superman." Busiek gets a little more original here but I still can't help but think I've seen it all before. It's not such a bad thing as the gimmick of a real life Clark trying to negotiate the fact that he has to stay under the FBI/NSA/CIA radar lest he be put in a Petri dish, while trying to be fullly honest with his newfound soul mate keeps the story fresh.

Chapter 3 - Fortress
Life is sweet for the Kents in northern Maine. Both are living the fine freelance life as Clark's books are selling well, and Lois is a successful environmental designer. Clark has his "cat and mouse" routine with the government down to a science as he is the planet's secret guardian by day, pumping out manuscripts by dusk, and having dinner ready by night. All that's missing from here is a dog named Krypto (not!), the station wagon and, oh yeah, some kids. Sure enough, Lois drops the bomb and Clark stops thinking about earthquakes in Fairkbanks, Alaska, and starts wondering just how much jeopardy Lois and the little "S" would be in if the Men in Black ever caught up to him. Throughout the series, Busiek tries to answer some of the questions only the most anal of fan boys would have about Superman's ability to successfully hide his identity. For the most part he hits but his best bits are when we see the all-too-human side of Clark try to balance the scales between being the defender of Earth and his new found responsibilities as a father-to-be.

Chapter 4 - Tomorrow
It's Christmas-time and the whole Kent clan is together sharing holiday cheer, even though Clark is in a bit of a mid-life crisis as he begins to accept the fact that he may no longer be able to continue playing as "Superman." His powers are fading and that fact that he has never been able to fully investigate the true origins or exact nature of his powers, for fear that the gov't may catch him snooping, leads him to the conclusion that it's just old age catching up with him. And here is the pitfall of the whole limited run as Busiek can only have this much fun with DC's flagship mythos as long as it's a one-shot deal. Instead of leaving room for this storyline to grow naturally (and most likely by another team), he has to tie up all the loose ends with not just a pretty bow, but also a candy cane and gilded greeting card in one of the most saccharine endings possible.

In the end, Superman: Secret Identity is a fun read and a great departure from the normal Superman we know and sometimes love, and a chance to meet a much more down-to-earth Clark that does all the things we would do if we could, but also has a moral center that leans more towards bright idealist than beatified saint.

Strong kudos to illustrator Stuart Immonen who never overreaches in the entire series. His art remains just as grounded as Clark while still delivering the "faster than a speeding bullet" goods. And an extra wink goes to whoever put in the classic silver age Superman frames as a start to the chapters.

Free Trade Guerrilla gives Superman: Secret Identity a cigar leaning up.

Superman: Secret Identity (DC Comics, 2005; $19.95) Written by Kurt Busiek; Art by Stuart Immonen.

04 March 2005

Review: El Zombo Fantasma (TPB)

Blame it on the Cartoon Network's Mucha Lucha for my even giving El Zombo Fantasma a second glance. Or credit it, depending, but if not for it, this book wouldn't have even registered on my radar and that would have been my loss. I'd never heard of El Zombo's original 3-issue run, published under Dark Horse's Rocket Comics imprint, but I've liked the [completely unrelated] cartoon the few times I've seen it, used to love wrestling back in the earliest days of Wrestlemania, and have been on a zombie/undead kick recently, so I was intrigued by both the cover and the premise.

An entertaining salsa of genres, Dave Wilkins and Kevin Munroe have created an engaging superhero whose wearing of tights makes sense for once as El Zombo Fantasma was "the most famous and notorious Mexican wrestler on the planet." A villain, actually, the kind the crowd loves to hate, and he feeds off the attention, basking in the spotlight. He's murdered after taking liberties with a title match he's paid to throw, losing by disqualification instead of taking a fall, delivering a brutal move on the champion, Captain Courageous. When his murderer approaches, he at first mistakes him for a hypocritical fan, "asking for my autograph after spitting on me at the show."

Fast forward a year, key moments of his life flashing before him as he falls into some sort of purgatory, and El Zombo is presented with a deal:

"Let me make this just as monosyllabically wrestler-friendly for you. If you no help girl and be good, you come back here and you go to hell for rest of... um... oh, yes... time."
The girl in question is Belisa Alejandra Marguerite Consuela Chi-Chi Montoya, a 10-year old spitfire and one of the most wonderful characters to pop up in comics in ages. While El Zombo's name is on the marquee, this is as much Belisa's story as his, and like Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense went toe-to-toe with Bruce Willis, she more than holds her ground here as her own destiny is intertwined with her unorthodox, revenge-seeking guardian zombie.

Munroe spins a fun tale, compact but not light, with more character development in a 3-issue story than many comics deliver over several years' time. These are characters you care about and, when the story ends, want to see more of. Wilkins' character designs are distinctive and his layouts are as energetic as the Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat vs. "Macho Man" Randy Savage bout at Wrestlemania III. Oddly, his style fluctuates between the textured, almost 3-dimensional look of the cover to a flat, cartoony style, seemingly at random. It's not terribly distracting, though it is an odd choice that makes me wonder if having three different inkers credited, including Wilkins himself, had something to with it.

As much as I hate to admit it, I've come to accept that the good old days of ongoing series are pretty much a thing of the past for anyone but the Super-Spider X-Bat group of "icons," and that mini-series are the only hope for a comic like this. Considering Dark Horse's track record with characters like Hellboy, though, hopefully there's a chance I'll see new adventures of El Zombo, and his precocious ward, Belisa, sometime in the near future.


El Zombo Fantasma (Dark Horse Books, 2005; $9.95) Written by Kevin Munroe; Art by Dave Wilkins, Sean Galloway and Theron Jacobs; Colored by Tony Washington; Lettering by Michael David Thomas.

03 March 2005

The Uncanny O-Man: (Belated) February Roundup

Listed alphabetically, quick takes of what I read in February, in 100 words or less. Plus, a pick of the month.

Batgirl: A Knight Alone TPB (DC Comics, 2001)
Man, this was just what I needed. A superhero pick-me-up, if you would. [My constant, internal conflict is that I wanna read GOOD rather than just reading a good comic. That drive for "high art" comics leads me to some good stuff. Most times, it's non-superhero and/or the deconstruction of super-heroes.] It's always great to read a good superhero book. Batgirl's stories suffer the same bizarre problem as old (don't know about current) Nightwing stories, they feel too short. This is the second collection in the series and it follows Batgirl III (or IV, or V, depending on how you count them) as she continues to learn how to be a crime-fighter in Gotham and what that means. (4 / 5)

Channel Zero TPB (AiT/Planet Lar, 2000)
Ignoring that this was written when the author, Brian Wood, was just out of art school, it's a pretty good read. Social commentary in comics is hit or miss with me. While, at times heavy handed, Channel Zero delivers a great look at a totalitarian vision of America. It's the type of thing that only an idealistic student can dream up; Woods' nightmares put on the page. Sadly, some of it has come true. (4 / 5)

The Discovery (Doing Fine)
Eleanor Davis's The Discovery is a fun little ditty about Marie Eugene Francois Thomas DuBois. It's so short that I'm afraid of giving anything away... You can read it online at doing-fine.com. (4 / 5)

Grendel Cycle (Dark Horse, 1995)
I have a thing for Matt Wagner's Grendel. I think it's a great story and a great set of characters. Grendel Cycle is an overview of the Grendel history. It's too much timeline and not enough story. I'd say pick it up if you need to complement or fill in the holes of your Grendel knowledge or collection. (2 / 5)

I've been playing a lot of the Xbox game Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic I. As such, I've become a Star Wars fan again. So you'll see that I read four Star Wars trades last month.

Star Wars: Crimson Empire I and II TPBs (Dark Horse, 1998, 1999)
Basically, you've got one of the Emperor's former, elite guard: Kir Kanos. He's loyal only to Palpatine. He has no loyalty to the remnants of the Empire as it's being lead by Palpatine's betrayers. He has no loyalty to the Rebellion / New Republic. He's one of the most formidable soldiers in the galaxy and he has no friends, no resources, and he's waging a personal war against what's left of the Empire. Oh, and he doesn't give two shakes about the New Republic. (4 / 5)

Star Wars: Tales of the Jedi - The Golden Age of the Sith TPB (Dark Horse, 1997)
The problem with this book is that it's too short. It is partnered with Star Wars: Tales of the Jedi - The Fall of the Sith Empire and only tells half the story. While I'm looking forward to reading SW:TOTJ:TFOTSE, I am hesitant to give a definitive opinion about SW:TOTJ:TGAOTS until I've read SW:TOTJ:TFOTSE. I'll write something more when I've read both.

Star Wars: Tales of the Jedi - Knights of the Old Republic TPB (Dark Horse, 1994)
I think this is my favorite era of Star Wars, 4000 years before A New Hope. I think this is a great introduction to the heroes of this era. Granted we don't learn too too much about the heroes in these short adventures, but you want to see what happens next for them. (3 / 5)

PICK OF THE MONTH: Mr. Bloomburg Finds True Love (Doing Fine)
Straight up, this is a fantastic comic. It's all about the love of the medium. Forget that the story deals with the lines between love and obsession, romantic and creepy. It's the fact that Eleanor Davis had holes punched in a third of the pages (plus two on the cover) where Mr. Bloomburg the peeping tom stares through to the next page. The amount of time and commitment to that idea is genius. This is one of those ideas that will never be mass-produced ('cause it's not cost-effective) and so cool I wish I'd thought of it myself. (5 / 5)

02 March 2005

Review: Vs. System: Marvel Knights, Part II

In part one of this two-part article, I chronicled my discovery of the Vs. System trading card game. After getting hooked, I decided to enter a local Sneak Preview Tournament to play-test the latest edition to the series, Marvel Knights, not knowing exactly what I was getting myself into. Part two follows my journey into what is, in essence, the first step into the world of tournament play.

The pain of waking up at 8 am on a Saturday, and driving from Miami to Margate was dulled once I walked into Comic Connection. They had some issues that were sold out at my local shops so, at this point, the trip was already a success. After speaking with the owner Jim Cantwell, he pointed out where the tournament was being held. Across the parking lot from his shop, groups of people were gathered outside in front of a store. At first I thought I'd made a mistake, but when I walked inside, I realized it was no mistake. I had arrived 15 minutes after the doors officially opened, but the place was already buzzing.

To my right, a table of eight people were feverishly building decks. Up ahead, twelve more people were ripping open brand new Marvel Knights booster packs. Past them, at the back of the room, was where the two judges were stationed. For the next 15 minutes I talked with Feroze Ramcharan and Franklin Debrito, the Upper Deck Entertainment (U.D.E.) judges assigned to this tournament. During that time I picked their brains, and tried to get as many questions answered as possible.

At the end of those 15 minutes I felt confident that I shouldn't be here, but I hadn't driven fifty minutes to just turn around and leave.

The format for the tournament required decks to be built from the booster packs provided at registration. The registration fee was $25, and included 5 booster packs. All decks must have 30 cards, and cannot violate standard deck guidelines. The event is U.D.E. sanctioned, so only members can participate. All that was needed was for me to fill out a small questionnaire to become a member and I was promptly presented an official U.D.E. Membership Card. Awesome! After handing over my membership card, Franklin says to hang tight and wait for the flight to be filled.

Now the million-dollar question is, what the hell is a flight?!?!

Flights are groups of eight people that battle each other. Each person in a flight battles four times, and a computer randomly pairs up people for each battle. After a few minutes of waiting my flight was filled and ready to begin. At this point we were handed our five booster packs, and the clock started. Players have 30 minutes to open packs, assess their cards, and build a deck. Here is where it got really tricky.

Factor in my inexperience with tournament play, and multiply that by the fact that I have no idea how these cards work together. The result was 30 minutes feeling like five. I was tearing those packs open like the children going through the candy bars in Willy Wonka! The problem was, there was no golden ticket for me. All I had was a 70-card puzzle that needed to be whittled into a 30-card deck. The best part is I only had twenty minutes left. I took a look at the players around me, with the hope that I'd be able to pick up a tactic or two on building my deck.

I saw that most players had their cards laid out on the table like a game of solitaire. I then realized they were sorting them by Recruit Cost. Recruit Cost is the number on the upper left hand side of the card which indicates how many Resources you must have in play to recruit that card. You can only put into play one Resource per turn, so if you construct your deck with cards that have a Recruit Cost of 4 or higher, you wouldn't be able to recruit any cards until the fourth turn. I'm no expert, but giving your opponent an opportunity for three free shots at you is clearly not a winning strategy.

After sorting the cards by Recruit Cost I began to build my deck. I used the battle-tested tactic of picking the cards that looked the coolest. By the time I sorted my cards, looked them over, and judged their usefulness I had about 5 minutes left, so I quickly built a deck mixing the likes of Daredevil, Moon Knight, Morbius, and a slew of Crime Lord-affiliated characters.

Two hours later it was all over, and my record was 1-3. My first match was over before it began. I could tell by my opponent's body language he was very, very good. I was amazed by the speed at which he played. Vs. System incorporates elements of chess into the game play, so thinking ahead is the way to win. At my level of experience, though, I'm playing on a turn-by-turn basis while my opponent was working on another level. By round 4, I was severely outmanned and on the verge of defeat. I was getting bombarded by attacks from Concealed Character and had no answer for it. Booster Pack Tournaments keep the playing field level, to a degree, since no one knows what cards they're going to get, but experience and deck-building skills can tip the scales heavily in your favor. Cleary in this round I was outmatched on both levels.

My second match went into round 8, and was more to my liking. I don't want to mislead as I lost definitively, but it was a well-played match. Third time must be a charm, because it was in match 3 that I found victory. It was a very close match, but one card made the difference. In round 6 I was able to recruit Spider-Man: The Spectacular Spider-Man, and by using his Activated Power, I was able to exhaust all my opponents' characters in play. That included two Concealed Characters that I had no way of attacking. After the turn was over my opponents' endurance was below zero and I won. I ended up playing him again in my fourth and final match and this time around, I was slaughtered. I just wasn't drawing any cards of value. The match was over within 10 minutes.

Entering the tournament was a great experience. I found an unexpected mix of people there, ranging from talkative teenagers to slightly weird 50-year olds. There was even an attractive woman in her late-20s/early-30s in attendance. That was a shocker! All things considered, the only thing I'd do different next time would be to play more matches before entering a tournament.

Vs. System gets my seal of approval, and I encourage anyone into caped crusaders and/or card games to give it a shot.