Review: 'A1 Annual #1' is the Perfect Christmas Gift that You Didn't Know You Wanted

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks

A1 Annual #1 is like that perfect Christmas gift that you really wanted under your tree this year but didn't realize it actually existed. The latest anthology comic by my pal Dave Elliott, one of the finest packagers of comics collections around, is a terrific gift for any comics fan, the sort of collection that spans decades, continents and creative styles in order to deliver a gift that will warm your heart all year.

This book is a nearly 200 page collection, between hard covers, of comic stories and art from some of the greatest creators who have ever worked in the industry. It starts with a wonderful story by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, ends with a delirious story by Kevin Eastman and Simon Bisley, and in the middle delivers readers treasures from creators who we know well, whom have never heard of, and from whom desperately need to hear more.

There are so many highlights here that it's hard to choose where to start, but the heart of this book is clearly the longest piece in the book. You may not be aware of the work of Sandy Plunkett – hell, I don't know the name hardly at all and I consider myself a pretty broad authority on comics art – but after reading his tale "Tales of Old Fenario", you'll want to find more comics by him.

Plunkett's yarn is a gloriously illustrated tale of Dickensian magic set in a town that feels both Victorian and mythological, all tumbledown buildings with clapboard walls, police in Keystone Kops type outfits and every item in the world delightfully handmade. Plunkett creates such a rich and intriguing world that it's very easy to find oneself sinking into the space he creates, to become luxuriously caught in the story he's telling like a familiar bedtime tale told by your mother.

This is revelatory work that feels a parable for something much larger and much more important, the kind of material that makes a reader feel he's witnessing something rare and special, so that by the time we reach the ending that manages to be both heartbreaking and uplifting, we know we've been on a thoroughgoing journey.

Jim Steranko reminds readers why he's a comics legend with his piece in this volume. I'm sure "Frogs" has appeared somewhere else in Steranko's vast repertoire of comics magic, but I'd never seen it before reading it here, and I was swept away in the wonderful comic storytelling game that he creates. See, "Frogs" can be read backwards and forwards, right to left and left to right, and your understanding changes each time you consume it in a different way – each time effective in a completely different way.

Just as fascinating as the idea is Steranko's explanation of it, a visionary explanation of how the mind processes complex camera changes and how each person can and would create the piece differently. Not only did the piece make me think about the poor frog, but it made me contemplate the nature of storytelling and consider how something I create might be different from all the other creations in the world. Now that's interactive entertainment!

As I mentioned, the book begins with a classic Simon & Kirby five-pager. All S&K stories are classics by definition, but this piece has an eloquent sense of peace at its center, the work of two men who are so confident in the material that they create that every moment in the tale, every little image presented, is placed exactly just so, with each moment in place and the clever ending the ideal keynote for the quickie we've just read.

I love how Elliott presents "Island in the Sky" just as it was originally created, with the dots from the four-color printing process displaying on the larger, nicer and slicker paper here than the newsprint that it first appeared on. This gives it a wonderful analog feel that is an ideal contrast with the much more digital appearing pieces elsewhere in the book, and the spacegoing tale it tells. Kirby's art looks best with its profoundly hand-created nature left intact; as such it's the perfect piece to start this book.

Scott Hampton delivers maybe the most beautiful piece in this volume, with a gorgeously painted version of the Biblical parable of Daniel. Hampton's been painting comics for three decades now and shows his mastery of that element of comics form with this brilliantly exciting tale that features some of the deepest depths of field in the art that I can remember.

More than the backgrounds and settings, though, Hampton's people are well-characterized in his art, with deep set eyes that speak of so much deep inner life; iron forged by the cold, uncaring hands of the men who keep other men as slaves. If you know the tale of Daniel you know the tale that Hampton is telling, but you've never seen it like this, with a rich color palette and gorgeous depiction of people and animals that gives everything the sense of it being both alive on the page and a perfect distillation of the complexity of humanity.

By the time we reach the final two-page spread and witness the end of hubris and the fall of a king, we've been through a lot in these 12 pages. Though the piece is short, it resonates deeply.

Oh, but that's not all. That's not nearly all that our friend Dave gives us in our overflowing box of gifts. He also gives readers a seldom-seen, tremendously clever bit of Mr. Monster lunacy by Michael T. Gilbert and Alan Moore, from when Moore was in his most fecund and creative period. This one is ingenious in its wackiness, a lurid and absurd journey into Technicolor flash and inexplicable craziness, rendered in an almost neon set of tones on the slick paper in this book. It'll burn your eyes out, kid, but you'll want this as much as Ralphie wanted that BB gun.

Have I persuaded you yet? I'm not a paid shill (though I play one on TV) and I get nothing from telling you that this book is wonderful, but I still haven't talked about the charming "Weirding Willows" piece by Elliott, Barnaby Bagenda and Jessica Kholine, or the mysterious "Grendel" short by James Robinson and D'Israeli that will wedge itself into your mind and not let itself go, or the weird-ass "Weird's Finest" story of a fake Batman and Superman that will cause you to contemplate your fanboy biases, or or or.

Merry Christmas, my friends. I have a book that any comic fan will love. When you dig into this book, you'll realize that Santa – in the form of Dave Elliott – can bring great gifts after Christmas, too.

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