The comics publishers that give out on Free Comic Book Day are more than just comics you don't have to pay for. Every single FCBD comic is a way to score a new reader -- something comics as a whole desperately needs. Some publishers try grab readers through a FCBD issue that reeks of Hollywood film synergy. Others attempt to promote new projects with a commitment-free prelude issue. Some even just provide a ripping good story hoping that people who like it will come back for more.
No matter the method, the Comics Bulletin staff has banded together to take on this year's slew of free comics and give some quick reviews of the FCBD comics they grabbed.
2000 AD (2000 AD)
Equally split between new stories about old characters and introductions to new(er) 2000 AD creations, the FCBD release is a pretty handy entry point for fans who haven't grown up on the mag. John Wagner's Judge Dredd story "S.A.M." in particular encapsulates the appeal of Dredd without drowning new readers in his convoluted mythology and intimidating back pages. Val Semeiks and Cliff Robinson's comedic art and the bright coloring by Chris Blythe help pull Dredd into the 21st century in a way that doesn't sacrifice any of the character's fierceness.
Dan Abnett and Richard Elson's Kingdom story will likely also appeal to unfamiliar readers who know Abnett mainly for his work on Marvel's cosmic characters, concerning as it does warriors perpetually fighting space bugs. The biggest surprise, though, may come from the Shakara entry, which features truly bold art from Henry Flint and a neatly bleak capsule story that could be the best representation in the release of what 2000 AD is really all about. Namely, creative violence and Dark Star-influenced sci-fi.
As a small taste of a huge bibliography, it's decidedly appetizing.
Amazing Spider-Man (Marvel)
Y'know who likes Spider-Man? Everybody. As such, he's a no-brainer to feature in a FCBD special, and this year's Amazing Spider-Man issue straddles the line between playing to the fans and appealing to the casual reader, offering a story that takes place in regular Marvel Comics continuity but offers a self-contained story that can be enjoyed without knowing anything about the character outside of seeing the movies.
Dan Slott writes a very old-school kind of single-issue comic book story that they just don't make very much these days, where Spider-Man comes across a problem (Spider-Woman is robbing banks!) and fights a villain (the Mandrill!), but his script reminds us why this was once a viable model: in the tradition of Stan Lee, Slott scripts with an amazing amount of personality, with jokes and snappy dialogue to distract from the formula. Plus, the whole thing is pencilled by Humberto Ramos, whose hyperstylized art has never looked better or more energetic. I've often had trouble deciphering his work in prior years, but here every panel is perfectly clear.
To entice readers into keeping up with Marvel Comics, Amazing offers a couple pages teasing what's to come in the book (including the "Spider-Island" story arc) as well as a five-page preview of Fear Itself #1. It's probably the best method to gain new readers: write a good, accessible story and then direct them to the more complicated event stuff.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold (DC)
The second feature packaged with the lackluster Young Justice comic, Batman: The Brave and the Bold (co-starring the Flash) grabs hold of the leftover threads of a cape left behind by the television show, which was cancelled for reasons that no one understands.
Overall, the book gives a good feel for the Batman character that a kid can grab hold of and respect, without giving them the heebie-jeebies. It reminds me a little bit of the comics I read when I was a kid, and thatís no bad thing. Iíve been waiting for well-written, kid-friendly superhero books for a long time, and Iím thrilled that we are seeing so many come out.
The story is rather simple and straight forward, but enjoyable nonetheless. The art has a simple style, but good anatomy and excellent perspective. Well done by the writer, artist and the DC Kids team for making this one available to new readers.
The Darkness II: Confession One Shot (Top Cow/Image)
Darkness II: Confession is basically a prequel for the upcoming second Darkness game that's set to release on October 4, 2011 on both Xbox 360 and PS3. To anyone who's played the first game, this comic will be mostly a recap of the events you've already seen. However, there are a few new pieces of information that are used to set up for the continuation of the storyline that make it a worthwhile read.
The comics starts out with Jackie Estacado, the wielder of the Darkness, talking to a gravestone in a cemetery. Mostly it's all him confessing his crimes (all the activities of the first game) to the person who died that he cared for deeply and asking for forgiveness. That's one of the reasons I really enjoy reading about Jackie Ė he hates the fact that the Darkness is a part of him, but he embraces it because he needs to. Shows a strength of character that you don't generally see anymore. Anyway, the issue touches briefly on the members of the Estacado family that held the power of the Darkness before Jackie. For those of you who don't already know, the Darkness is passed from father to son like some kind of demented keepsake. You can't give it up, but you can choose what to use its power for, to a certain extent anyway. It's a never ending battle between the wills of the user and the Darkness.
The first Darkness game was average -- neither the best nor worst game I've ever played, but I did enjoy it as a fan of the comic series. The way this one-shot set up the plot for the next game, I'm seriously considering replaying the first one and buying the sequel, so I guess this issue served its purpose. I'd recommend reading it if you're a fan of Darkness game or comics; just be careful of the spoilers from the first game if you haven't already played it.
Green Lantern (DC)
A rerelease of an issue of Green Lantern: Secret Origin by Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis. I have to admit Iíve never read it -- I skipped over that volume figuring I knew the story. I was right, but there are some nice additions that I had not realized were in there: the inclusion of Atrocitus as well as a good deal of back story associated with Ferris Air made it a fun read all the same. More importantly -- my Dad read it and enjoyed it! If a comic can do that, it gets an extra bump in score!
The Intrepid Escape Goat (Th3rd World Studios)
The Intrepid Escape Goat was a joyous little read. The pitch is easy. It takes place in Egypt in the 1930s and features the world's greatest escape artist, Thomas Fleet, a serious-faced goat in a suit. He's lured into a pyramid, where a fez-wearing snake sells him out to a French naval admiral who's bitter about being stationed in the desert. There's magic, booby traps, a mummy princess, a high speed train getaway, and a good amount of punches. It's the type of rarin' adventure you'd expect from an old Donald Duck comic.
In fact, this is exactly the book I'd want to read to a child while doing all the voices. But Escape Goat's easy enough for a kid to pick up and read on his or her own. The colors are bright, the layout is friendly, and the action flows in an intuitive way. Smith also makes good use of perspective and shading, so your eye never gets bored.
The FCBD preview is a fun self-contained story and bodes well for the first issue, "The Curse of the Buddha's Tooth," coming out in July. I think I'll be picking it up.
Kung Fu Panda (Ape Entertainment)
Kung Fu Panda is a fun book for kids. I look forward to reading it to my son, who is a big fan of the movie even though he is only 3. The book contains two different stories: the first writer-driven, the second more art-driven.
The dialogue in the first story, which follows the movie formula of Po, the hero, working alone, does a good job of capturing the feel and dialogue of the characters. There are a few awkward moments caused by the fact that, outside of the lovable panda and his master, the other characters of the Jade Temple are blank slates. As a result, their dialogue falls a bit flat. However, the villain of the piece (who is an animal I cannot identify) has a classic kung-fu villain feel to him: swaggering, overconfident, uncomplicated -- perfect for an introductory story for kids so they can concentrate on understanding the hero. The story gets a bit heavy handed with the lessons towards the end, but overall it was enjoyable.
The second story, which features no dialogue, features a series of panels of kung-fu combat. Even though the artist has a very different style from the movie, the movements and beats in the panels match that of the movie. Each character of the Jade Palace feels unique and vibrant on the page.
Locke & Key (IDW)
Kudos to IDW for using Free Comic Book Day to promote a critically acclaimed series with a forthcoming fall television pilot instead of, you know, a comic about the Ghostbusters teaming up with Spock or something. Despite having virtually no previous familiarity with the premise of Locke and Key, I can now say that I feel completely informed -- as well as somewhat excited -- about the unique fantasy-horror tale this book has to offer.
However, the bulk of that has little to do with the story presented here, which is merely an excerpt from the seriesí third volume. Itís mostly an action sequence, some of which is admittedly well executed, that seems to provide a rather shallow picture of the saga that has unfolded. The real gem is the synopsis on the inside front cover, where writer Joe Hill succinctly and wittily catches readers up with the three-years running story so far. If the pitch to Fox network executives looked anything like this, it is easy to see why theyíd be eager to send a royalty check Hillís way.
Loose Ends/I.C.E. (12 Gauge)
Loose Ends is the standout of the flipbook, billed as a ďSouthern crime romance,Ē and featuring atmospheric writing and art from writer Jason Latour and penciller Rico Renzi. The series shows promise, but unfortunately suffers from severe truncation. It's a tasty morsel, but it feels like too little to really tell.
I.C.E. is muddled down by standard-issue references and repurposings. Ignoring the rote action (complete with a slow-mo panel sequence), the book doesn't quite hit the mark. The humor is obvious and poorly timed, and the action is exaggerated -- I.C.E. stops cars and raids warehouses; they don't bang it out with thugs on conveniently abandoned highways. Jose Holder's art is quite good, but the scripting by Doug Wagner is a step behind.
The Mis-Adventures of Adam West (Bluewater Productions)
If youíre going for a peculiar and kooky premise, youíd be hard pressed to find a better Free Comic Book Day offering than Bluewaterís The Mis-Adventures of Adam West, a preview of an upcoming series starring the man who defined the character of Batman for a generation. His Caped Crusader days long behind him, the book finds West in the role of washed-up actor lamenting the publicís disinterest in the noble and virtuous Hollywood heroes of yesteryear.
However, just as this by-the-numbers story seeks to criticize the Jack Bauer and ďIím not wearing hockey padsĒ type of modern anti-hero, it turns a blind eye to well known facts about Adam Westís career. Not only did West gain a notorious reputation for being a freewheeling playboy in his personal life, but his í66 Batman series was essentially a parody of the kind of upstanding citizen ethic that the character here aims to memorialize. Add that to the fact that this giveaway is just one half of a flipbook featuring a rather ďMature Readers OnlyĒ looking vampire tale, and itís hard to view these Mis-Adventures as anything but disingenuous.
Mouse Guard/Dark Crystal (Archaia)
The best FCBD comics present compelling stories that make the reader want to read more about the characters depicted in them.
The Dark Crystal side of this comic takes one approach toward that goal, by presenting an intriguing prologue to the storyline that will be played out in the new Dark Crystal graphic novel. This tale is sumptuously drawn, with fantastic world-building by Brian Froud, Brian Holguin, Alex Sheikman and Lizzy John. I was completely immersed in the world that the creators build in this story, but unfortunately since it's been may years since I saw the Dark Crystal movie, a lot of the context of this tale was lost on me.
On the other hand, the Mouse Guard half of this book succeeds perfectly, both in building a complete world and in building a absorbing story to which any reader can relate. David Petersen brilliantly builds a fully realized world with compelling lead characters. This tale is a wonderful parable with a thoughtful moral lesson. I'd never read any Mouse Guard stories before the FCBD book, but now I absolutely want to read more stories of these heroic mice!
Pep Comics (Archie)
Jesus, this comic has a lot of pep in it. More importantly, Pep Comics an original 23-page story made especially for Free Comic Book Day. Because Archie comics are so widely read, the best thing the publisher can do is give the uninitiated a representative example of what to expect from the average Archie comics.
The story focuses on Betty and Veronica as they, fueled by memories of their own childhood clubhouse, start an after-school program for Riverdale's legions of neglected latchkey kids -- which makes sense due to the overwhelming lack of parents in town. Writer/penciller Dan Parent writes solid script that delivers a non-heavy-handed message with some seriously funny jokes (Jughead turning Veronica's fall from a tree into a popular ringtone is surprisingly LOL), but the art's a bit lacking whenever there's actual physical movement to be conveyed.
Pep Comics also contains Betty and Veronica themed activity pages such as word finds and word unscrambles, none of which I took part in because I was raised to fetishize books, not draw in them.
Spontaneous by Joe Harris & Brett Weldele (Oni Press)
This may sound like typical critical hyperbole, but fuck it. Spontaneous is almost certainly the Sixth Gun of this year's Free Comic Book Day and not just because it's published by Oni. Rocking a decidedly fantastic premise and the innovative, abstract expressionist style Brett Weldele has down to a science at this point, Spontaneous is a book that will be flying off the shelves soon if the universe is just.
Essentially an investigative science adventure about spontaneous human combustion, Spontaneous is the story of Melvin, a kid with a weird past and an obsession with the statistic of human combustion. Ghost Projekt scribe Joe Harris imbues Melvin with a scientific coldness that seems at odd with his years, but when you learn about his past it makes sense.
Outside of a purposefully annoying foil in the form of "investigative reporter at large" Emily Durshmiller, Spontaneous is a joy straight through. If you missed this debut issue on FCBD, I urge you to get yourself on the waiting list for the series' July premier.
Top Ten Deadliest Sharks/ Dinosaurs & Prehistoric Predators
I intentionally chose the Top Ten Deadliest Sharks/ Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Predators flip book because it is so far different from the normal FCBD offerings. When you read about the adventures of Spider-Man week and after week, itís nice to break away and find something completely different. And so I found this.
Itís an educational comic! Itís fun and functional, so donít be afraid that it might be boring because itís a Discovery Channel joint -- it contains facts and blood, and who can say no to that? Along with a true account of a violent shark attack of the coast of Australia and a quick look at prehistoric alligator there is also a third story about people getting gorged by a cape buffalo. Itís the thrills of Worldís Most Dangerous Animals smooshed into a mini comic. Itís aimed at the younger kids -- and the twentysomethings as well -- all those who are still enamored with dinosaurs and think Shark Week is the best programming on television.
Top Ten Deadliest Sharks is already available in print and Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Predators will be hitting shelves later in May.
Young Justice (DC)
Young readers should read better stuff than this book. On what is one of the few misses of the FCBD material, sadly Young Justice just doesnít live up to the hype that the series has had on the Cartoon Network. The characters spend most of the 10 or so pages as talking heads not doing very much but whining and moaning in low self-confidence, amplified by a character who is supposed to be Psycho Pirate, even though you canít really identify him as such due to the way he's drawn. I am kind of hoping that someone will just reboot the whole concept back to the fun that it was in the late '90s.
For more Free Comic Book Day Coverage, check out our other FCBD features:
Comics Bulletin's FCBD advance review of Image Comics' Super Dinosaur: Origin Special
Comics Bulletin's FCBD advance review of BOOM! Studios' Elric: The Balance Lost
Comics Bulletin's Interview with FCBD founder Joe Field
Comics Bulletin's FCBD field report
Comics Bulletin's Interview with Alternate Reality Comics owner Ralph Mathieu
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