Free Comic Book Day: The ComicsA comic review article by: Jason Sacks, Daniel Elkin, Steve Morris, Danny Djeljosevic, Shawn Hill
Free Comic Book Day was Saturday, May 5, 2012. We tried to review as many of the comics as possible.
Archaia Entertainment Presents Mouse Guard: Labyrinth and Other Stories
This wonderful small-sized hardcover completely outclassed everything on the stands this weekend, a thoroughly classy and deliciously reproduced presentation of six new short stories from Archaia's finest books. We get a moving little tale from Rust, a surreal tale from Return of the Dapper Men and a very sweet tale of the Cursed Pirate Girl.
Oh heck, this book is the perfect read for children of all ages, a tremendously entertaining collection of classic tales from one of the finest publishers of graphic novels. This book is a total winner.
The Incredible Rockhead
(Stone Arch Books)
Capstone offered The Incredible Rockhead with a Zinc Alloy back-up story for FCBD. If you are a fan of the Captain Underpants stories (and really now, admit it, who isn't), then these two tales may be right up your alley. They are fun, irreverent, fast paced, brightly colored, and absolutely aimed at their 8-12 year old demographic. Both stories move along quickly, simply, and are great gateway comics for kids. The thing that concerned me about both titles, though, was the fact that the heroes of both tales were the classic nebbish who only become self-actualized when they become something other than who they really are. Chip Stone is a "typical geek" with "typical problems" that are pretty much comprised of him being bullied. It is only when he becomes Rockhead that he overcomes his problems. In Zinc Alloy, Zack Allen is also bullied until he builds an "invincible robot." I know this nerd to hero story is a classic archetype, I just wish that there were better messages to give to kids who are being bullied than "someday you may become a superhero, THEN you will be appreciated."
Hey, Valiant Comics are back, and I honestly didn't realize they were gone after the recent abortive Dark Horse Comics reboot. Regardless, the good folks at Valiant are back and are ready to strike gold with a revival of their line. This comic contains previews of two of the revivals, X-O Manowar and Harbinger.
The X-O story features lovely artwork by Cary Nord and tells the story of an Italian rebel against the Roman Empire who finds himself in battle with aliens rather than Romans. This story is fine as far as it goes, but gives me no reason to want to revisit these characters. There's just not enough here that feels fresh and compelling enough to make me want to come back. I liked the preview of Harbinger more. The execution of this story of a group of super-powered misfits, by Joshua Dysart and Khari Evans, has some real energy and vitality that I thought was quite fun. The depiction of super-powers in this story was intriguing and fun.
The back of this issue contains interviews, script samples and ads. Valiant would have been more likely to get me to pick up their books if they ran more story excerpts, but this is a well-edited and well-put-together book.
Superman Family Adventures/Green Lantern/Young Justice Super Sampler
To hook the kids young and prepare them to stop reading comics when they get to the rapey ones, DC offers a three-way sampler of their superhero-themed all-ages comics. On one side, we get a painfully short but extremely charming taste of Superman Family Adventures from Tiny Titans creators Art Baltazar and Franco, which appears to be a mildly simplistic version of the Superman characters and dynamics we're already familiar with. But, like I said, it's for the wee ones and anyone who doesn't need grit in their superhero antics (i.e. me). Let it be known that Art Baltazar seems to be the only artist who can make Superman's New 52 costume look good.
On the flip side, we get a complete Green Lantern short written by Baltazar and Franco that shows the pair taking on superheroics for a slightly older crowd and mostly succeeding, story-wise. The big failure of this story is the art of Dario Brizuela, who seems to have drawn exactly whatever the script said the characters were doing. That is, he completely disregard things like backgrounds (I know it's a "pocket universe" but yeesh) and spatial relationships and sequential storytelling. How is the complete story in this book the biggest disappointment?
Then you turn a couple pages, get to the Young Justice story and see how Christopher Jones has an expert handle on sequential action art and backgrounds and even though it's a preview for Young Justice #16 it still feels way more satisfying than the Green Lantern story.
I've never been a big fan of the Top Cow books despite the fact that I'm quite fond of Marc Silvestri, but I enjoyed this intro to the Top Cow universe quite a bit. Both stories in this issue are intros and recaps of the Top Cow Universe, and what a crazy universe it is, filled with fleshy youth serums and strange mystic amulets. The longer story, "Unbalanced Pieces" by Tim Seeley, Diego Bernard and Fred Benes, is especially well done -- though the narrative structure of it kind of distanced me from the story itself. Everything is well thought out, fun and intense. It's good to know that Top Cow is still creating some outrageous comics, even if they're a bit weird and mystically oriented for my personal tastes.
(Th3rd World Studios)
Finding Gossamyr was Th3rd World Studios' contribution to FCBD 2012 and it may well be the most interesting one of the bunch that I read. The story revolves around a young boy who is, I guess, somewhere on the autism spectrum. His older sister seems to be his sole caregiver and she is in way over her head. As the book opens, she is signing away her conservatorship over to some sort of school. While this is going on, the young boy, Denny, is taking an entrance exam for admission The exam consists of exploring a math theorem which has never been proven. But Denny is kind of a savant. According to his sister, he "doesn't create or innovate. He just …never gets anything wrong." Denny begins to solve the unsolvable theorem, and, as he does, he seems to open a portal to another dimension or universe or something. This freaks him out because he senses that there is great danger in allowing the doors to open. This whole thing seems original, intriguing, and fraught with all sorts of narrative possibilities. I was amazed at how quickly I was drawn into a story that was filled with so many confusing aspects to it. I'm not exactly sure who the intended audience is for this title, but I think I may become part of that group, whoever they are supposed to be. The backup story, The Stuff of Legend Volume 4 Preview by Mike Raicht, Brian Smith, and Charles Paul Wilson III also seems pretty intriguing. This is also a dark tale seemingly meant for kids, but is a little too creepy for that demographic. Wilson's art is fantastic and I may have to delve into this title as well.
DC: The New 52
This is a very entertaining teaser for all the bad craziness that will be happening in the DCU later this year and into 2013. I have to admit that I went into this book a bit skeptical about how much I would care about the material presented here, but the sheer professionalism and attention to continuity in this main story completely won me over. And the giant four-page spread actually made me cackle like a child. I wasn't too excited about the changes happening to the DC Universe in 2012 but this comic won me over a little bit. Well done, DC.
The British sense of humor is the greatest sense of humor in the world, sod you America, and hurray for 2000AD. YEAH. I'm putting that out there. Feel offended, you guys. The offering this year comes in the form of a mini-magazine, compiling a few of the stronger characters from the past few years and getting top-notch writers like Al Ewing and Rob Williams to write them. Both writers create the standout stories from the issue, with Williams' Ichabod Azrael western story a particular delight. There's not only a devilish sense of humor through all these stories -- which is compounded by the adverts, which are just as much fun in some cases -- but a sense of meanness you just don't get in American comics. The writers are free to do whatever cruel things they want to their characters, and create unfair landscapes for these genre-driven pieces to inherit. It's a great advert for 2000AD as a whole, with a new intro from original Judge Dredd creator John Wagner and interesting stories. Also there's a black-and-white Alan Moore story at the back, if that's the sort of thing you like.
Burt Ward: Boy Wonder/Wrath of the Titans
What a weird combination from Bluewater! One half of this book tells the story of Burt Ward from the old Batman TV show traveling through some sort of device onto the planet Pluto in the far future. The art on this story, by Ramon Salas, has a few elements of light and fun, but he falls into an odd trick in the last few pages that served to distance me from the story rather than make it more accessible. The story is kind of cute and fun, with a nice little dig at twitter and some other humorous elements. Unfortunately the story feels a bit too juvenile in the wrong ways (see my review of the Carl Barks Donald Duck FCBD issue below for the right way to tell kids' stories). I wanted to like this story and was a bit charmed by it, but the weird energy of the story just didn't click with me.
On the flip side is an equally odd piece, a kind of illustrated storybook story based on the movie Wrath of the Titans. This one is also illustrated by Salas and features some art that is really quite attractive and interesting -- using an animated style, Salas tells a story with real drama and energy. Oddly, though, on facing pages, a prose narrative runs alongside the story. The prose distanced me from the tale being told, rather than connecting me to it, which was disappointing because I really wanted to enjoy this story.
Yo Gabba Gabba
Oni Press tossed out Yo Gabba Gabba this FCBD and it made my brain melt a little. As my son is now 14, he was too old to have watched the show, and because of this, I never watched it either. But I had a sense of what it is, although I have no idea why. Anyway, imagine my surprise when I opened up the first page and found out that this FCBD issue of Yo Gabba Gabba featured the work of one of my favorite comic book artists, Mike Allred. Mike Allred on Yo Gabba Gabba??? This may have been the best artist/concept match of the year.
This comic is nuts. I know it is supposed to be for the really young crowd, but, given enough lysergic acid diethylamide I think anyone can groove on it -- which I think is the concept behind the show, too. This thing is thick with psychedelic colors and pictures and creatures and places and … and... and... stuff. It's WOWZERS to the extreme. It's also filled with all that sharing is good and lying is bad and being kind to each other is important and recycling is the best. You know, that kind of hippie crap that gives parents the go ahead to plop their little Susie or Billy in front of the TV for a couple of hours and let it do the socialization for them. Anyway -- Yo Gabba Gabba, after reading you, I am in serious need of someone to talk me down.
Image's entry this year contains short excerpts or teasers from six series as well as a series of house ads for other series. The preview of the new Tim Seeley/Mike Norton series Revival stole the show this issue for me, with its tremendously spooky vibe and terrifying implications. It really did spook the crap out of me, which is of course the whole point of the comic.
The other stories were varying levels of fun. None were bad at all and all have an energy and professionalism to them that make them intriguing. Near Death by Farber and Gugliemini is an intense little crime drama short-short, while Niles and Morse's Crime and Terror is a cool, expressionistic short-short. The G-Man story here is surprisingly dark, while the It Girl and the Atomics story is surprisingly sweet.
Overall this is a nice collection but in terms of organization it might have been better to have a little bit of editorial comment in it.
My Favorite Martian
This FCBD, Hermes Press gave away My Favorite Martian which is a reprint of the orginal Gold Key Comic printed in the mid-1960s. Hermes Press is releasing all of the My Favorite Martian comics in deluxe hardcover format, and this FCBD offering provides a little taste. I used to love this show when I was a kid. It was in heavy syndication rotation back then, and for some reason (probably my angst and my alienation -- boo hoo), this show really clicked in with my latchkey kid sensibilities. Seeing it in comic form though, sort of made me question what the fuck I was thinking back then. The show had you suspend disbelief to a pretty large degree -- here was a Martian living among us who (hijinx ahoy) didn't want you to find out he was a Martian. The comic, or at least what Hermes offered in their FCBD shot, had me just shaking my head. I think you have to be one of those people who are pretty fanatical about their fandom for My Favorite Martian to enjoy this. It's not quirky enough to be cool, it's not bad enough to be good, and its not smart enough to give you the wink that lets you know that we are all in on the joke (hipsters, that means you). Imagine trying to explain this whole concept to a fourteen year old boy as you go through the book together. When his face started crushing into itself from incredulousness, I knew it was time to move on. Still, if you are one of those people that has a shrine to Uncle Martin in your garage or something -- this is YOUR TIME, baby!
Bad Medicine #1
How generous of Oni to provide us with a full first issue of Bad Medicine where other companies just provided previews. That's a smart decision by Oni because it allows the story by DeFelippis, Nunzio, Mitten and Crabtree to breathe a bit, We get a feeling for the texture and complexity of the lives of these characters, and a nice sense of the supernatural threats that they are dealing with. I really liked the grungy, dirty feel of this story, with its very ground-level cops investigating a completely strange and possibly mystical crime. The characters have depth, the story is intriguing, the art is unique -- this is a great FCBD find and definitely a series I will look for in the future. And best of all for Oni, this is a series I wouldn't have thought to pick up if it hadn't been included in Free Comic Book Day.
Which combines Atomic Robo, a talking robot named Dr. Dinosaur and the Large Hadron Collider. Let it be known Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener know how to deliver like nobody else in comics. Never forget.
Kaboom! have long been the greatest publisher around, with books like Snarked, Peanuts, Adventure Time and the upcoming Garfield series all having a surprising, charming, incredible level of quality. So for Free Comic Book Day they had to pick and choose between several critically acclaimed titles all at once, and only put out two. And so, they chose Peanuts and Adventure Time. Back to back to each other, both comics are a collection of smaller strips all bundled together to create a small snapshot view of the universe that they both create. So while the Peanuts section is a mixture of classic Schulz and (whisper this quietly) a superior story from Vicki Scott, the Adventure Time section goes completely mad and races all over the place. Series writer Ryan North handles the main story, but there's also a long story about tiny bacon people and some stuff about vampires. As I expect from Kaboom! these days, both comics are thoroughly madcap and enjoyable, with some great gags, fun storytelling, and superb artwork. It's impossible not to be charmed, and please send me photos if you ever decide to try and face-five somebody.
Barnaby and Mr O'Malley
Crockett Johnson's classic Barnaby has been a glaring omission in the great comic strip reprint wave of recent years. The strip has been acclaimed by some of the most thoughtful and intelligent critics in comics and pop culture, so it's extremely wonderful that the good people at Fantagraphics have decided to finally publish this strip. Unfortunately for me, anyway, this strip didn't quite live up to its hype.
I consider myself a student of comics, but I'd seldom had a chance to read a whole sequence of Barnaby strips. Unfortunately, after reading about 30 strips I found that the strip just didn't quite click for me. The strip has a sweet and charming spirit to it, and the characters are lively. But I just couldn't find myself connecting much to these characters. Their adventures are charming and fun but just somehow don't connect with me. The meandering stories didn't seem as fun as they could have been, and I never quite got into the characters. Sometimes there are creations that are supposed to be classics but for which your heart doesn't beat faster; this is one of those creations. I'm happy that Fantagraphics are reprinting this strip but it just didn't connect much for me.
The Buffy story is a silly little throw away, but of the best kind. Promised a vacation on Spike's bug-ship to faraway worlds, one of the little critters catches an alien infection and starts moulting. Cool scenes of Buffy in all the right Ripley poses (but with more clothing!), and lots of silly jokes about how stupid it is for bugs to be invaded by bugs, and why they're following Spike anyway at all. Typical George Jeanty art, which is apparently love it/hate it, but I'm on the "gotta have it!" side. I'm more on the "make it stop!" side with Felicia Day comics, which is the other half of the book, but your mileage may vary. Overall, a kewl little freebie slice of the Season 9 Buffy/Whedon-verse, disposable but diverting.
I don't know much about 12-Gauge Comics, but it seems like some pretty interesting things are going on over there if their FCBD giveaway this year is any indication. This year they gave us Anti flipped with The Ride, and both titles are just brutal and confusing enough to make me consider wanting more (which is the purpose of FCBD really, isn't it). Anti, which is written by Peter Calloway and features art by Daniel Hillyard, seems to be about demons and demon hunters, but mostly it is about action and gunshots and blood spurtin' and a guy who is really, really good at throwing knives. I got into the rhythm of the book pretty quickly, although I was a bit confused as to what exactly was going on. Hillyard's art shows its Riley Rossmo influences, which is always a good thing. I would be interested to find out more about this title and see where the story is going. On the flip-side of Anti, though, was The Ride -- and ooooooh Mama that was quite a ride. This black and white acceleration is all about brutality and misogyny and terror and murder. It was a slow build to a rather nasty end, and the end was not where I was expecting this story to go when it began. It's ugly. Let's just say that the sound effect THONK is repeated six times before we get a CRIK and then CRACK. The Ride is not for the faint of heart. It is, though, for someone who wants some interesting storytelling.
The Censored Howard Cruse
(BOOM! Town/BOOM! Studios)
I was definitely the target audience for this collection of short comics stories by great underground cartoonist Howard Cruse. This comic contains four short comic stories by the acclaimed creator of Stuck Rubber Baby that have the naughty bits censored from each story. The result of that censorship is a group of comic stories that are even funnier than they are in the original, a kind of Mad Libs version of a comic that features nudity and swearing and drug tripping -- but never directly show those scandalous events.
Cruse is a great and often underappreciated cartoonist. The work presented in this comic really shows Cruse at his best. In the back of this comic is a smart and compelling essay about censorship throughout the history of comics by CBLDF Executive Director Charles Brownstein. Brownstein's essay serves to give a good perspective for the strips presented in this comic. This book succeeds in its goal: it made me want to pick up the book that it features. More than that, this comic is a great package in and of itself.
Hey, so there sure are a lot of similarities between Han Solo and Mal Reynolds, aren't there? Dark Horse provoke the comparison by putting their Star Wars and Firefly properties back to back, with both stories written by Zack Whedon. There's even a moment where each character says the exact same line, to further invite people to compare and contrast. Both stories are rather fun, although he proves himself a Whedon through his superior Firefly story. While the Star Wars one is fun, captures the bickering which happens constantly in the films and you always forget about, and has a neat final gag; the Firefly one is simply stronger. He nails the mannerisms of the cast, and has the benefit of brilliant art from Fábio Moon also. The art is nice for both comics, but, y'know. Fábio Moon! It's a fun pairing of franchises, although Dark Horse then offer readers the chance to follow up the Firefly stuff in four or five other comics... or try and get into the vast Star Wars universe, where there are around 5,000 titles to choose between. A little tricky.
I'm at the point now where I have basically stopped reading superhero comics. It's not because I'm too cool for them or because I've outgrown them. It's because they just aren't all that interesting anymore. For some reason I grabbed BOOM! Studios' FCBD offering The Hypernaturals, though and I think I may have misjudged the genre. This book contains everything I should hate about superhero comics. It's even got one of those splash pages where all the heroes are introduced and they are all modeling these ridiculous poses in their impossible costumes. And then there are the names: Magnetar, Musclewire, Halfshell, Kobalt Blue, Astromancer, Clone 46 and Ego and Id? Fuck. Those are some seriously puerile superhero names. Then there's the big unknown threat they have to face which seems impossible to overcome. It's all there. Everything I normally hate about superhero comics -- stupid, stupid, stupid shit over and over again. But what the fuck, Hypernaturals? I have every reason to hate you, and yet I didn't. I actually finished reading this FCBD issue and felt as satisfied as I did curious to keep reading. But I can't for the life of me figure out why. Maybe there is just enough of a sense that all these hackneyed cliches that writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning have vomited into this series are going to all blow up in a spectacular way? Maybe there is enough of a long-tail in this short tale that you can see it twitching just underneath the surface? I don't know, but I'm willing to give The Hypernaturals a second chance. If it turns out to be just another stupid stupid stupid superhero punch at something until it dies book, I will be seriously disappointed. If it is something else, something right on the edge of unique and thought provoking, though, I will buy all the creators of the series a really big sandwich by way of telling them thanks for doing something interesting.
Donald Duck Family Comics
This comic gives readers 33 pages (including the back cover) of classic Carl Barks Duck comics, and it goes without saying that this collection is a pure burst of joy from cover to cover. Smarter writers than me have written about the brilliance of the Good Duck Artist, but suffice it to say this well-chosen collection shows the master cartoonist doing his usual brilliant job of presenting the Ducks. My favorite was the wonderful five-pager "Somethin' Fishy Here", in which a funny gag backfires completely on Donald, while the story perfectly shows how smart and shrewd Uncle Scrooge is. This tale builds wonderfully, illuminating character with sharp insights and funny moments until it finds its only logical conclusion. But each of the stories in this collection shine as real classics.
This is a perfectly put-together collection for which Fantagraphics easily could have charged real money. I for one would have been happy to have paid for these amazing stories. You just can't go wrong with Barks.