My Top Ten Comics of 2014

Hello and welcome once more to my annual countdown of the Top 10 comics of the year. You’ll notice that, after last year’s inflated Top 20 list, I’m back down to 10 for 2014. That’s not to suggest that the quality of titles being released is in decline, but rather that I’ve probably been buying a little less comics this year, having to make some ruthless cuts to my pull list as having less and less free time to read through my comics has left a larger and larger pile of unread books to try to get to. That, and the fact that it took me ages to write that Top 20 list last year! 2014 has been another year of change for me, as while last year I talked a bit about how the number of Image titles I was reading had skyrocketed, this year I’ve had to drop a few of those. And while last year I said that I’d all but stopped reading Marvel and DC’s output, Marvel at least has made a big comeback for me, with an array of quality launches this year. Also noteworthy is the ascendancy of BOOM! Studios, with such quality output as The Woods, Memetic, Curse, Black Market and The Empty Man, and I’ve really been enjoying Oni Press output like The Life After and The Bunker. As ever, there are plenty of great comics I couldn’t fit into my top 10. Aforementioned indie offerings The Life After and The Woods, and other cracking indie titles like MonkeyBrain breakouts D4VE and Headspace, not to mention Image debuts like Spread, Wytches, Roche Limit and Deadly Class. Even some previous Top 10 mainstays like Batman, Saga and Sex Criminals, while maintaining a consistent quality, didn’t make the cut. Charles Soule wrote stellar comics for both Marvel and DC that came close to qualifying in She-Hulk and Swamp Thing respectively. Coming agonisingly close and actually being present in the list in an earlier draft was the delightful, charming, funny, surprisingly tender and emotional Dungeon Fun, by breakout genius Scottish creators Colin Bell and Neil Slorance. But what we’re left with is a collection of truly superb comics, some you may already be reading, others you should seek out. Let’s get right into it…
10. LEGENDARY STAR-LORD

LegendaryStarLordI figured out numbers 1-9 on this list pretty quickly, but there was a real fight for this final spot on the list. Just take a look at that vast “Honourable Mentions” list above to show how many quality comics were in contention. But I think the main two that got closest were this year’s Guardians of the Galaxy expansions, Legendary Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon. Both were fun, action-packed titles, and I have a hard time deciding which one I loved more. Rocket Raccoon is just fantastic, Skottie Young is doing stellar work on that title, and it was perhaps the title that had the bigger immediate “WOW!” reaction of the two. But it’s Legendary Star-Lord that has grown on me even more over the course of their respective runs. Star-Lord is my favourite Guardian, and Sam Humphries has, in this series, crafted a version of Peter Quill that does justice to all iterations of his character. The surface level that immediately grabs you as the series begins is how spot-on a pastiche of Chris Pratt’s excellent cinematic portrayal it is, right down to the dude-speak and man-child party lifestyle. But as the series has progressed, Humphries has skilfully weaved what might have seemed like a soft character retcon to make it feel like an appropriate character evolution that stays faithful to the haunted, guilt-ridden moral pragmatist that starred in the definitive Abnett & Lanning Guardians of the Galaxy run. There’s even the inclusion of an updated version of transport/confidante Ship from the very earliest Star-Lord appearances from the 1970s. The bombastic artwork of Paco Medina is a revelation, and it’s his bright, energetic visuals that really hammer home the glorious comedy beats: from Kitty Pryde dancing in a giant banana suit to Quill on an awkward date dressed in a bad ’80s prom tux. Straddling a line between rewarding single-issue stories and steadily building up an intriguing overarching narrative, Legendary Star-Lord is a gem of a comic that makes a great case for why Star-Lord is a hero deserving of his own solo title.
9. EAST OF WEST

EastOfWest10East of West has slipped a little from its #2 ranking last year. Don’t get me wrong, Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s sci-fi/Western opus still ranks up there with Image’s best titles and is always a book that gets read very soon after I get home from buying it at the local comic shop. If anything, the lower placement is reflective of not poorer storytelling, but more subtle storytelling, with Hickman and Dragotta carefully expanding the world and often replacing the more sweeping scope of the initial arc with a series of one-shots exploring the various nations of this alternate America. All were interesting to varying degrees, though at times this approach left me missing some of my favourite characters and wondering when certain plot beats would be followed up on. But when the various threads start to weave together and the individually-defined forces start to clash, you really feel a sense of culmination, and the sheer scale feels even more epic and breathtaking for the build-up that set it up. With what has been set up as of the latest issue I read, Hickman seems primed to take this world into even darker places as the narrative enters its next phase. But it’s the team of Nick Dragotta and colourist Frank Martin that continue to steal the show with each passing chapter. There’s not an issue that goes by where I don’t have to stop at least once and just marvel over the construction of a page. Still arguably the most visually stunning art team in comics.
8. ANDRE THE GIANT: LIFE AND LEGEND

AndreTheGiantI’ll get this out of the way: you don’t have to be a wrestling fan to love Andre the Giant: Life and Legend. All you have to be is a fan of fascinating life stories, realised with wonderful comics storytelling by Box Brown. But I’ve been a wrestling fan going back to when I was a little kid, albeit not so much lately. And the first person I can remember being a favourite wrestler of mine was Andre the Giant. The 7-foot-plus tall athlete was, pun intended, a larger-than-life presence, and this graphic biography does a great job of conveying that, with various interviewees sharing accounts of the sheer size of the man and the unique life he led as a result of it that range from the charming to the breathtaking. But his size, which gave him incredible fame and a livelihood, was also an incredible burden. Most obviously, it was a medical condition, one that was slowly killing him. But, as Brown astutely depicts, it also negatively impacted his life in a whole series of constant little inconveniences and humiliations that wore him down, the cold fact that in one context, he was “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” but in another he was just a freak. The biography is more a highlight reel than an exhaustive analysis, but we do get some excellent snapshots of his life. We see how he used to get lifts to school from Samuel Beckett as a boy in France, and we get a look at his time on the set of The Princess Bride. But most effectively of all, Box Brown paints a portrait of an era of American history that holds endless fascination for me: the 1980s wrestling circuit and all the eccentricities contained within. Informative, poignant, and often laugh-out-loud funny, when I read Andre the Giant: Life and Legend back near the start of the year, it became probably the first definite fixture on this list and its place has stayed secure ever since.
7. STRAY BULLETS: KILLERS

StrayBulletsKillersWhat a fantastic year 2014 has been for fans of David Lapham’s seminal crime epic, Stray Bullets. With no new chapters published in some time, and the series arguably never getting the widespread acclaim and recognition it deserved, it seemed in danger of being consigned to history as an unfairly forgotten comics classic. But then Image Comics signed a new deal to revive Stray Bullets last year, prompting the series to be posted up on ComiXology. Then, this year, the original run was finally brought to a conclusion with Stray Bullets #41, followed by the whole series being released in a deluxe omnibus called “The Uber Alles Edition,” allowing a whole new generation of readers to get absorbed into this dark, ruthlessly bleak saga. And then we got Stray Bullets: Killers. David Lapham has slipped effortlessly back into this seedy world and its inhabitants, like slipping into an old pair of comfy slippers, not missing a beat. As always with Stray Bullets, Killers seems to operate on the fringes of the crime genre, looking at how regular people on the fringes are impacted, or how their moral decisions can have a ripple effect. The backbone of Killers has been the blossoming and ultimately wilting romance between recurring protagonist Virginia and Eli, two flawed characters who make mistakes, but who we come to deeply care about, and whose happiness we become highly emotionally invested in. A happiness which, if Stray Bullets has taught us anything, shouldn’t be expected to last. Killers is often a low-key series, and as such even now is still to some degree being overlooked, not always getting mentioned amongst the other great Image titles of the past year. But Stray Bullets: Killers is actually better than most of them, and has produced some of the best single issues of any comic in 2014.
6. THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS

MP19AlbertReturnsLast year’s #1 didn’t quite reach the same heights on this year’s list, in fact slipping to the ranking it held back in the 2012 list. But that’s hardly to suggest that writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Pitarra’s bonkers revisionist history tale of mad science gone wild is in decline. This is a series that continues to fire on all cylinders with big, crazed ideas. Talking dog Laika got her own standalone adventure in space. The original Albert Einstein from our Earth came back to our reality to confront his evil parallel Earth doppleganger, and we got to see the mad journey across countless realms he had to brave to return home. William Westmoreland joined the cast as a hardcase with an ear necklace who took on an elite alien killing machine and won. We discovered that Che Guevara and Fidel Castro had their brains replaced by evil Communist aliens. And it all built up to a take on the assassination of JFK (magic bullet and all) that was about as bonkers as we’ve come to expect. The visuals of this book from Pitarra and colorist Jordie Bellaire continue to be an absolute delight, packed with detail and character quirks that had so much to the fabric of the story and make it what it is. The cast and the scope of this series continues to get bigger and bigger, and so the year ended with The Manhattan Projects going on hiatus, with a promise to come back in 2015 with more character-driven arcs focusing on the various narrative strands one at a time. Whatever format The Manhattan Projects takes going forward, you can be certain that I’ll be onboard!
5. THOR: GOD OF THUNDER

ThorGodOfThunderFor the sake of clarity, it’s Thor: God of Thunder – the 25-issue series drawn largely by Esad Ribic, which ended a few months back – which is my included entry on this list, rather than the newly relaunched Thor, also written by Jason Aaron. Not that the new series, isn’t really great – honestly, save for the new issue #1, it’s pretty much a continuance of the narrative from God of Thunder and part of the same overarching saga – but it’s just getting started, really, so if I must pick one title for inclusion on this list I’ll go for Thor: God of Thunder. This title was excellent right from its beginning, and during the “God Butcher” storyline quickly established itself as one of the crown jewels in Marvel’s lineup. But it was with Esad Ribic’s return to the series in “Last Days of Midgard” that the title reached its greatest heights, and Jason Aaron cemented his status as best Thor writer since Simonson. This storyline told two tales. One narrative was of an Earth in the future that had been left as little more than a ravaged husk, old King Thor left to defend it against Galactus come finally to claim the remains of the planet that had thwarted him for so long. Here we saw Ribic at his finest, depicting a Galactus that truly inspired awe and terror, underlining the impossible odds Thor faced in fighting him. The other tale was in a present that eerily foreshadowed the desolation of the future, with evil corporation Roxxon embarking on dangerous, morally repellent initiatives that bring them into conflict with Thor. Now, Jason Aaron has already made major contributions to the villains in Thor’s mythos without even using arch foe Loki: from introducing the terrifying Gor to giving real teeth and wickedness to Malekith in a portrayal that put his cinematic appearance to shame. So it’s not a statement I make likely when I say that Roxxon figurehead Dario Agger was the most vile, repellent villain Thor faced in the whole series. He was a great opponent for Thor, because he was not someone Thor could just hit with his hammer. He was a very Earthly evil, hiding behind lawyers and dirty corporate tricks and playing on a level even a heavy-hitter superhero like Thor struggled to keep up with. From beginning to end, Thor: God of Thunder was a delight: dramatic, scary, and often surprisingly funny. It seems like we should expect more of the same from the new Thor.
4. THE MULTIVERSITY

PaxAmericanaAs a huge Grant Morrison fan, The Multiversity has long seemed like one of those dream projects, long discussed, that I’d forever been looking forward to, but felt was never going to actually come to pass. It’s literally been years that Morrison has been talking about this, so even when it appeared in solicitations, I still don’t think I quite believed it was finally happening. I don’t think I believed it until I held that first issue in my hands. But now that it’s launched and the first few issues have been released, I can gladly confirm that it has met and even exceeded expectations. This is Morrison’s trip through the Multiverse, at once a medley of returning characters and recurring motifs from his past work, and trailblazing into new terrain. The first issue was dizzying in scope, giving us a sense of a vast, mad DCU filled with depth and intricacies to a degree we haven’t really seen since the New 52 began back in 2011, and also giving us the return of CAPTAIN CARROT! After that we got a glorious, pulp-inspired rendition of the JSA, with great portrayals of the likes of Doctor Fate. Next up was a universe populated with the various legacy heroes following on from their iconic predecessors, like Morrison doing Jupiter’s Legacy better than Millar. But best of all was “Pax Americana,” drawn by art legend and frequent Morrison collaborator Frank Quitely, which saw the pair tackle the original Charlton heroes like Blue Beetle, Captain Atom and The Question that served as the basis for Watchmen. And, never one to shirk from ambition, and being quite bold as brass in the face of Moore’s criticisms about Morrison copying his work, Morrison and Quitely tackle head-on the very ideas of comics structure that Moore and Gibbons were exploring with Watchmen, and arguably pushes the envelope even further. Frank Quitely is possibly my favourite comic artist ever, so it’s not lightly that I say this could be some of his finest work to date, with the assured colour palette of Nathan Fairbairn acting as the perfect compliment to his style.  What I’ve loved about every issue so far, though I can also see it being a bit infuriating, is that rather than just creating a bunch of one-and-dones, Morrison has written a collection of fantastic issue #1s, all of which end having introduced us to an immersive world and leaving us desperate for an issue #2 that will never come. Such amazing craft and world-building throughout. This is a barmy celebration of DC’s Multiverse, and of superhero comics in general, done in a way only Grant Morrison can. Fantastic.
3. DAREDEVIL

DaredevilDepressionDaredevil, as written by Mark Waid and over the past couple of years mostly drawn by Chris Samnee, is a comic that has existed on the periphery of my perception for quite some time. I’ve always been aware of the popularity and critical acclaim behind the title, and I’d read an issue here or there, but 2014 was finally the year I dove in, thanks to the Marvel NOW relaunch that relocated Matt Murdock to San Francisco, but largely kept the tone, cast and overarching storylines consistent from the previous volume. I used this opportunity to give Daredevil a try, and at last I was hooked. I went back and bought the whole of Volume 3 in the three deluxe hardcover editions, stormed through it, and was left kicking myself for taking so long to jump on the bandwagon. When looking at how influential this title has been – you could argue it has inspired a whole line of creative thought in Marvel’s publishing output, from a shift to shorter story arcs, to an increased spotlight on more stylised, cartoony artwork over more glossy, cookie-cutter fare – it’s easy to overlook just how brilliant Daredevil remains, and how it’s still setting the bar. So, let’s take a closer look at this year in Daredevil, in particular the title since it was relaunched as Volume 4. As stated above, while the locations are fresh, much of the themes are carrying on from what came before. And, in particular, this underlying notion that Daredevil’s bright, upbeat “new beginning” where he’d make a conscious decision to be happier was perhaps less secure than it first seemed that has been niggling away since Waid’s tenure began has really been scrutinised and drawn into the open. We got the first allusions to it in the two-part Original Sin tie-in (surely one of the best tie-ins that event produced) where we explored Matt’s mother, and discovered she suffered from post-partum depression when Matt was an infant. This exploration of mental illness built up to the high-point of the volume: the recently-completed “Purple Children” storyline, where longtime Daredevil foe The Purple Man sets loose a group of his illegitimate children whose more primal version of his mind-controlling powers may be even more potent than his own. On one level, this worked as a thrilling superhero story, with The Purple Man as scary and nasty as ever. But it also served as an excellent study of depression, and the continued stigmas surrounding mental illness that prevent people seeking help. Daredevil has long been one of the best developed superheroes in comics, and Waid manages to add a new dimension to his personality in an utterly believable, relatable way. And Chris Samnee’s artwork! Every page is a joy to behold, with clean lines packed with vibrant, kinetic energy, bolstered by the crisp colours of Javier Rodriguez and, more recently, Matthew Wilson. Even as a character who has had some rather definitive, iconic artists draw him, Samnee may have emerged as my ultimate Daredevil artist. Believe the hype. Daredevil by Waid and Samnee is simply the most perfectly-realised superhero comic on the shelves today.
2. THROUGH THE WOODS

ThroughTheWoods1While the marketing may have been focused on Original Sin and Future’s End, for me, right from when I first heard about it late last year, I knew that Through the Woods by Emily Carroll would be my “event comic” of 2014. The immensely talented Emily Carroll first came to my attention with “His Face All Red,” a chilling webcomic that to this day is one of the creepiest, most perfectly-structured horror comics ever. And so I was highly excited by the prospect of this graphic novel anthology, collecting “His Face All Red” in print for the first time alongside a collection of original short horror tales. After spending half the year breathlessly anticipating Through the Woods, I was very pleased when the final product lived up to expectations. Emily Carroll has a distinctive approach to horror, a lyrical quality that makes them feel like old fables, or forgotten children’s tales with a sinister underbelly. And like those children’s tales, her stories play with primal, universal fears: the loss of loved ones, or that those you care about are not all that they appear to be. Her artwork complements this vibe by being quite simple and childlike, but deceptively detailed and still capable of repellent, horrific imagery. Every story in the collection is strong, there’s not one dud here, but if I had to pick my favourites, in addition to the previously mentioned “His Face All Red,” I’d pick out “The Nesting Place” – a bloodcurdling mix of Cronenbergian body horror and Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt – and “In Conclusion,” the epilogue which deftly plays with the imagery of Little Red Riding Hood to bring the book to a simple but unsettling close that will linger in the memory and induce shudders long after reading. This year, we’ve been spoiled with a treasure trove of quality horror comics, so much so that I even wrote about it on my blog. But standing above them all is Through the Woods, and with this collection, Emily Carroll has cemented her status as the Queen of Comics Horror, second only to the legendary Junji Ito when it comes to using the comics medium to craft fear. And speaking of Junji Ito, I’ve learned that he has a new collection getting translated into English, due for a 2015 release. Now I know what my “event comic” of 2015 will be, then…
1. SOUTHERN BASTARDS

SouthernBastards1There are certain books that you know right away you’re going to love. Southern Bastards was one of those books, where as soon as it got announced at Image Expo, I knew it was going to be a must-read. Anyone familiar with my previous annual top 10 comics lists or with my blog in general will know that I absolutely adore Scalped, Jason Aaron’s masterpiece. It attained the #1 spot on this list on multiple previous years during its run, and I wrote some very detailed, lengthy blogs dissecting some of the stuff I love about the gritty crime saga. It’s the series that established Jason Aaron as one of my favourite writers, and has led to be following him onto his work with Marvel, which I’ve enjoyed. But with Southern Bastards, drawn by his recurring collaborator Jason Latour, Aaron seemed to be setting up a book primed to fill the void left in my comics-reading life by Scalped when it ended. And in 6 issues, the book has done just that. Hell, you could argue it had done that by issue #1. Given that you could suggest Scalped took a story arc or so before it really got going, you might even argue that Southern Bastards has launched itself out of the starting block even faster than that classic. Immediately, you could tell this was two masters at work, with a sweaty, sun-scorched atmosphere that immersed you in the Deep South. Craw County is simultaneously depicted as a tangibly awful place that no one would want to go near, but also so well-realised in its scenery and its diners selling fried pie that I kinda want to go there. Latour’s red-hewn colour palette helps a great deal with this distinctive atmosphere, as does his hard-bitten character design. This is a tough world, and one laced with pain and tragedy. At first, we think we’re getting one kind of story, and we imagine we’re seeing the well-worn story tracks laid out before us. But then that train is derailed in the most gut-punching, upsetting of fashions. “Upsetting” is something this book does well. I think I’ve had my heart broken reading this comic half a dozen times in as many issues. It feels like we’re still in the opening salvos of a much larger narrative, so the bigger picture of the plot may not yet be clear, but what truly elevates this comic are the characters. They feel nuanced, like real people (though maybe people you’d never want to actually meet), with Aaron once again displaying real skill for finding the bruised humanity in even the most seemingly awful of people. Six issues in, and already Southern Bastards feels like appointment reading, the book I know I’ll rush to read immediately as soon as I get it home, its cast of characters already nestling their way into my brain and into my heart. One thing that somewhat sets it apart from Scalped is acclaim. Scalped was one of the best comics ever, but it always felt a bit like an underrated gem, beloved by those who discovered it but overlooked by wider audiences. I would put it at #1 on my lists while beseeching people to give it a try. On the other hand, I write this knowing that Southern Bastards is almost a boring choice to top my list with, as everyone seems to be putting it in their lists. But sometimes a choice is obvious because it is absolutely deserved. And I for one am glad that the rise of Image Comics and creator-owned comics means that a comic as excellent as Southern Bastards can get the recognition and respect it deserves. Roll on year two!
And that’s that! What will next year’s list bring? Will Southern Bastards be the first comic since Scalped to take the #1 spot more than once? Or will one of the books currently slated for a 2015 release that I’m eagerly looking forward to, like Junji Ito’s Fragments of Horror or Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor, nab the top spot? We’ll have to wait until next December to know for sure. In the meantime, as ever, I’ll end with an overview of the annual standings, and what comics have made the #1 spot each year I’ve ran this feature on my blog….

2010: Scalped
2011: Scalped
2012: The Underwater Welder
2013: The Manhattan Projects
2014: Southern Bastards

Thanks for reading, everyone. Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

SouthernBastards2

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Is 2014 Comics’ Summer of Horror?

EmilyInterviewTeaserOver the past couple of months, it feels like I have been immersed in horror. Over the course of this month in particular, it’s starting to seem like my every spare moment has been dedicated to talking up my horror comic series, And Then Emily Was Gone. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid my social media PR onslaught, here’s the series synopsis:

Greg Hellinger is a man who sees monsters. Driven to the brink of madness by monstrous apparitions, he is tasked with finding a missing girl called Emily. Hellinger’s search takes him to a remote community in the Scottish Orkney Islands, where strange and terrifying things are happening…

Equal parts Twin Peaks, True Detective and The Wicker Man, with an atmospheric rural Scottish setting, And Then Emily Was Gone is a comic I’m really proud to have written, and artist Iain Laurie, colorist Megan Wilson and letterer Colin Bell have all done stellar work. The five-issue miniseries will be released monthly by ComixTribe, with the first issue hitting comic shops in July. That means this is the month it’s in the Diamond Previews catalogue available for order, and that’s left me thinking a lot about the marketability for this weird little book. From the early stages, there was concern that there might not be an audience in the comic market for this kind of morbid, gruesome story, that this might sit as something of an oddity among the more bombastic, action-orientated fare available in Previews. But recently, it’s started to occur to me that something dark is afoot in the comics world. Horror comics are on the rise, and now And Then Emily Was Gone is feeling less like a strange curio and more like a small part of a big movement.

EMILY 0108Just look at the new releases on the shelf of your local comic shop this week. Wednesday 7th May marked the launch of two new horror titles: Nailbiter and The Woods. Nailbiter is an Image Comics series from writer Joshua Williamson and artist Mike Henderson, about a small town in the American heartland that has been the birthplace of 16 prolific serial killers, and the disquieting secrets that town may hold. It was first announced at Image Expo in January, and did not seem like the most high-profile unveiling of that weekend. But over the past couple of months, I’ve watched buzz steadily built, first as people were floored by the blood-drenched preview art coming from Mike Henderson, then as the word-of-mouth started slipping out from those who’d read advance copies and were blown away. There was something palpable in the air that Nailbiter was going to be very special indeed, possibly the latest Image #1 to make a big splash. It says a lot that in the week that both Marvel and DC’s big crossover events of the year debuted – Original Sin and Future’s End respectively – the coverage and “book of the week” accolades going to Nailbiter threatened to upstage both of them. And having read the first issue myself, I can assure you it’s worthy of the hype. Mike Henderson’s moody artwork is a revelation, and while Joshua Williamson already turned heads last year with his impressive work on Ghosted, but Nailbiter sees him up his writing game once more. A single issue efficiently presents us with a well-realised world with intriguing/disturbing characters, and a steady accumulation of dread literally visualised on the page with a recurring THUMP-THUMP, THUMP-THUMP, THUMP-THUMP heartbeat growing ever more prevalent.

Nailbiter1

But as impressive as Nailbiter was, in my humble opinion The Woods just about matched it step-for-step. From Boom! Studios – the latest addition to their slate of quality original content as they become ever more serious in emerging as a match for Image’s dominance of the creator-owned market – from writer James Tynion IV and artist Michael Dialynas, The Woods tells the story of a high school filled with pupils and staff which is suddenly and without explanation teleported to an alien world, at which point the people in the dramatically relocated building very quickly find themselves having to fight for their lives against monstrous alien beasts out to hunt them. The plot very quickly becomes gripping, and drew me in as a reader both in terms of the immediate tension presented in the high-stakes nature of the characters’ plight, and in a more overarching sense of thinking of the larger mystery behind how and why the school was brought to this world. But what really made The Woods stand out was the characters. Amongst the 513 people caught in this extra-terrestrial event, a small core ensemble of characters quickly emerge as figures to care about and get emotionally invested, already been drawn as real, likeable kids whose safety we are going to fear for. It’s very much cut from the same cloth as Manga horror classic Drifting Classroom, pushing the same buttons of intense claustrophobia, child endangerment and what sides of human nature will emerge out in the wilderness, but with enough of an American twist to give it its own identity.

TheWoods1So, two horror comics debut in the same week, both are quality books with buzz and critical acclaim behind them. What is it indicative of, if anything? It’s not like the comic medium is any stranger to horror. There’s in fact a rich history of horror comics. The biggest creator-owned comic in the industry today is The Walking Dead, ostensibly a horror comic, though I’d argue it’s evolved into more of a sweeping post-apocalyptic epic. And in recent years we’ve had our share of modern classics in the genre: Locke & Key, Severed, Echoes. But what stands out as different this year is the density with which these horror titles are hitting, and the splash they’re making. Nailbiter and The Woods both seem poised to go from strength to strength, but there are more debuts on the horizon. Spread, written by Justin Jordan and drawn by Kyle Strahm, is built around the delicious high-concept of “The Thing meets Lone Wolf and Cub,” and boasts some truly blood-curdling imagery. It caused a sensation at last year’s New York Comic Con, and now Image Comics have picked it up and have it slated for a July release. It got a major spotlight in this month’s Previews, and is already starting to build something of a social media steamroller behind it as that advance buzz brews. Watch this become one of the sleeper hits of the summer.

Spread1As the summer continues to roll on into August and beyond, some of the biggest names in comics will be getting in on the action. Writer Scott Snyder and artist Jock – the creative team behind one of the most celebrated Batman stories of the past decade, The Black Mirror – are reteaming for Image Comics to bring us Wytches. Now, Snyder is no stranger to the horror genre. One could argue he cut his teeth in the genre, with both his breakthrough Vertigo hit American Vampire (which since its Second Cycle relaunch has really seemed to bring the horror to the fore) and the aforementioned Severed. Even his mainstream DC work on the likes of Batman and Swamp Thing has had a fair share of horror elements injected into it, and The Wake was rich in horror trappings before morphing into an equally compelling but tonally distinct entity in its second half. So it makes a statement when Snyder talks about Wytches being the darkest and scariest he’s ever gone. This is something that’s quite fascinating for me, as horror is still something of a frontier in comics, and creators are still experimenting with how best to use the medium to scare the reader. Snyder has already been amongst the most successful, with Severed in particular making for harrowing reading, so when some of the best in the field are pushing at the forefront and striving to go further than they ever have, it suggests it’s an exciting time to be a fan of horror comics.

Wytches1Pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in a horror comic is also on the agenda for Nameless, another Image Comics offering. This also sees the reunion of the creative team of an acclaimed Batman run, this time Batman Inc, as artist Chris Burnham pairs up once more with writer and comics legend Grant Morrison. Details of this series have been sparse, and we don’t even have a concrete release date yet, but Burnham has talked about this being “the ultimate horror comic,” while Morrison has suggested that his ambition is to capture the zeitgeist and use Nameless to project a definitive statement about what frightens us on a primal level in modern society – “doing hopefully for now what H.P. Lovecraft did for the wartime generation,” as Morrison puts it – and considering that when Morrison set out to make the definitive statement on the superhero he gave us All Star Superman, we should all be very afraid at what he has in store for us with Nameless.

Nameless1But even with these big name talents with debuts lined up, there is one horror comic that I’m looking forward to more than any other. Ever since I first heard about it last year, there has been a graphic novel pencilled in as one of my premiere comic events of the year. The graphic novel I’m talking about is Through the Woods, by writer/artist Emily Carroll. When last I heard, it was set for a July release, but the marketing has been quite low-profile. But those who know about it are very excited about it indeed, as Emily Carroll is arguably the current master of the horror comic. His Face All Red is one of the single greatest horror stories to emerge from any medium in recent years. Like all the best horror, it stays with you long after you’ve finished reading, makes you think, makes you ask questions then leaves you troubled in the late hours by the implied answers. Her work has been a big inspiration to me in terms of opening my eyes to what kind of horror was possible in comic form. And up until now, her output has all been in the form of free webcomics. Through the Woods marks Emily Carroll’s first foray into the realm of print, with His Face All Red being collected with some new stories. Any horror fan should be marking this down as an essential purchase. In the grand picture of “the summer of horror” and the rise of horror in comics, Through the Woods could end up being the most important book of all.

ThroughTheWoods1There’s a quote from actor/writer Mark Gatiss I particularly like, spoken at the beginning of the BBC documentary series, A History of Horror:

The cinema is where we come to share a collective dream, and horror films are the most dreamlike of all, perhaps because they engage with our nightmares.

Just as horror films at their best have a unique power with the way they utilise the tools of that medium in the most visceral and potent of ways, I think that the comic medium has the same potential for engaging the senses. It’s a visual medium, and a well-crafted image can be seared on a reader’s psyche, yet despite the notable works in the field I feel like much of that potential remains untapped. Recently, I feel like horror cinema has lost much of its edge, and there haven’t been that many genuinely great horror films over the past several years. So, I talked about the frontier before, and I believe that more and more comics could become the proving ground where we go to scare ourselves in the most inventive and rewarding manner. For years I’ve felt like the horror market for comics could be huge, and this year it feels like we could be taking major steps in that direction. I don’t claim to be anywhere on the level of all these exciting works making their way to comic shops in the coming weeks and months, but if all the “summer of horror” does indeed prove to be a significant movement in the comics industry, I’m proud that And Then Emily Was Gone can be part of it.

Emily1BRossmo

And Then Emily Was Gone #1 is released in July.  Pre-order your copy now, Previews order code MAY141251.  For more info, follow the Facebook page or check out the official blog.

Through the Woods is released in July.  Pre-order your copy now, Previews order code APR141272

Spread #1 is released in July.  Pre-order your copy now, Previews order code MAY140579

Wytches is released in August.  Nameless does not yet have a release date. 

Nailbiter #1 and The Woods #1 are available to buy now from all quality comic shops.

REVIEW: Headspace #1

I’ve talked before about the good work MonkeyBrain Comics have been doing, publishing quality projects from some exciting up-and-comic indie comic creators, people who I’ve watched develop and grow as storytellers and seem well placed to benefit from the larger profile MonkeyBrain gives them.  It seems like the next generation of breakout Image comics creators are already doing exciting work at the ComiXology-exclusive publisher.  Headspace is written by another indie creator I was already familiar with: Ryan K Lindsay, perhaps best known for the backmatter he provides for Sheltered and Strange Nation and his academic writing on Daredevil, but also an accomplished writer in his own right with the likes of Fatherhood and Ghost Town, not to mention a short in ComixTribe’s own The Oxymoron.  Here, teaming up with the art duo of Eric Zawadski and Chris Peterson, as well as colorist Marissa Louise, he is getting perhaps his most substantial platform yet.  Does he deliver the goods?

At first, I wasn’t really sure what to make of Headspace #1.  The initial setup, with moody protagonist Shane having an existential crisis as the sheriff of dead-end town Carpenter Cove, didn’t really grab me, and some seemingly non-sequitor scene transitions and shifts in tone left me feeling more alienated from proceedings.  But over the course of the issue, the different strands come together in a way that, while it’s still not entirely clear, feels less confusing than it feels like a mystery waiting to unfold.  With a clever central conceit aided by some nicely hard-boiled narration by Lindsay, Headspace awards reader patience with a strange, unsettling narrative that promises to take us down a rabbit-hole.

Visually, artists Zawadski and Peterson gel together pretty seamlessly.  The sequences in Carpenter Cove offer the best opportunities for memorable imagery, which results in some memorable visuals and character designs.  The thick lines and soft, simple color palette give the book a bit of an Amelia Cole vibe, which can feel a bit strange given how much darker a tale this is than that other, well-regarded MonkeyBrain title.  But for the most part, it works.

This first issue is rounded out by an extended editorial from Lindsay, going into detail on everything from how the project came to be to what the ideal soundtrack to listen to while reading would be.  Throughout it all, his passion for the story is clear, and it’s quite infectious.

MonkeyBrain have been spoiling us with a dense array of quality titles recently.  And while Headspace may not quite place itself on the top tier of that library yet, all the component parts are in place for a story that could grow into something special.  An intriguing opener, and well worth checking out.

Headspace1Headspace #1 is available to buy now from ComiXology.

REVIEWS – Land of the Rats: Gastrolithicus, Trip, Leftovers #4, Dober-Man, Poop Office #2

Another review round-up!  Let’s get right to business…

LAND OF THE RATS: GASTROLITHICUS

Cartoonist: Mark Nasso

Publisher: The Underground Forest

Price: $4.00

Land of the Rats is something of a visual delight.  Writer/artist Mark Nasso crafts this graphic novel around a series of impressively-structured pages, mostly splashes.  His heavy lines and surreal imagery captures a real Charles Burn quality.  The story isn’t particularly compelling, too often falling into the realm of the inscrutably vague.  But even if Nasso doesn’t yet stand out as a writer, with his work here he manages to mark himself out as an artist of note.

landoftheratsgastrolithicusLand of the Rats: Gastrolithicus is available from the Underground Forest online store.

TRIP

Cartoonists: Walker Farrell and Kelly Matten

Publisher: Ape Entertainment

Price: $15

Trip is a comic that’s pretty light on plot – the whole story boils down to two girls trying drugs at a a party – but in that loose framework it manages to find quite a few nice moments.  In the character of Lou in particular, we get a credible depiction of the anxieties many teenage girls face.  Both Kelly Matten and Walker Farrell’s art is light and accessible, while showing enough flexibility to get suitably weird once the drugs kick in, with some nice layouts that experiment with how the comics medium can be employed to depict the sensory impact of psychadelics.  It’s been done in other comics before, but Farrell and Matten bring it together into a warm, personable tale about youthful experience.

TripTrip is available to buy from Amazon.

LEFTOVERS #4

Cartoonist: Jason Pittman

Publisher: Self-published

Price: $3.99 print/$0.99 digital

Leftovers #4 was actually a pretty brilliant comic.  I was a bit wary that this would be another case of a mid-series issue of a comic being submitted where I’d be left feeling lost as to what came before.  But this was completely accessible, feeling like it had everything I needed to appreciate the story contained within and that I hadn’t missed anything.  Upon further reading, it seems this is because Leftovers follows a done-in-one anthology format.  For this particular story, cartoonist Jason Pittman triumphs on every level.  The story was heartfelt and really drew me in, as Kaleb’s battle with an anxiety disorder manifests itself in the form of superhero/supervillain doppelgangers doing battle in his subconscious.  This is visualised in the story by having the real characters and events depicted in black-and-white, while Kaleb’s costumed surrogates are presented in full colour.  Pittman also has a really nice, textured visual style too, understated, but with a real mastery of the small gestures of expression and body language that make a character feel real.  A real attention-grabbing book that has put Jason Pittman on my radar as a creator to watch.  And though I didn’t feel lost at the start, by the end I was left really wanting to read what happens next.

Leftovers4Leftovers #4 is available to buy from IndyPlanet.

DOBER-MAN

Writer: Travis M. Holyfield

Artist: Edward Whatley

Editor: Erica J. Heflin

Publisher: GrayHaven Comics

Price: $3.99

Another fantastic read!  This was right up my alley, being a loving pastiche of the old Batman TV series and playfully poking fun at some of its superheroic tropes.  Travis Holyfield’s clever story involves a disgruntled henchman getting wise to the fact that he can make much more money by ripping off the deluded supervillains who hire him than in trying to fight Batman and Robin analogues Dober-Man and Beagle, with many comic setpieces ensuing.  It’s all brought wonderfully to life by the expressive artwork of Edward Whatley, who produces some hilarious character and costume designs.  In particular, the humiliating uniforms the henchmen are made to wear makes for a great recurring gag.  This was a joy to read, and I hope we get more Dober-Man adventures in the future!

DoberManDober-Man is available to buy from the GrayHaven online store.

POOP OFFICE #2

Cartoonist: Ben

Publisher: Naked Grape Comics

Price: $1.99

I didn’t get Poop Office at all.  Everything you need to know about it is in the title.  It’s an office, but everyone in it is talking poop.  So, basically, the whole comic is just repeat vignettes of people having basically straight-faced office-based conversations, only everyone talking is a jobby, and all their names are turd-related puns.  If that description has you splitting your sides, then this is the comic for you, but I was just left scratching my head.  After reading about half a dozen of the skits I started to suspect the whole thing was actually an avant-garde deconstruction of the way we as a society seem to find poop jokes inherently funny, but I fear that’d be be giving it too much credit.  Sorry, this one just wasn’t to my taste.  Or should I say… wasn’t poo my taste?  Oh ho ho!

PoopOffice2Poop Office #2 is available now from ComiXology.

REVIEWS – Lightweightz: The Anthology, Part Two, New-Gen: New Dawn #4, Diskordia #1, Deathridge #1, Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers #4, Noctua #2

Sorry for the long absence of these reviews.  Real-world stuff has got in the way of me being able to keep on top of stuff like this.  I can’t promise a return to regularly-scheduled programming going forward either, but I shall try my best to make up for lost time by cramming in as many reviews as possible here:

LIGHTWEIGHTZ: THE ANTHOLOGY, PART TWO

Writer: Justin Martin

Artist: Przemyslaw B. Dedelis

Colorist: Lya

Letterer: Przemyslaw B. Dedelis

Publisher: R-Squared Comicz

Price: Pay what you want

This Christian-themed comic about teens with developing superpowers has some novel concepts, though the execution is ultimately lacking.  Justin Martin is clearly a strong idea man, coming up with quite original approaches to superpowers rather than the generic “super strength” or “super speed”, crafting gifts that have some symbolic resonance with the experience of being a teenager, and the experiences of the various characters represented in each vignette.  However, the stories, while solid ideas for tales on paper, fall a little short in the actual writing, with some flat dialogue or – a nitpicky bug-bear of mine – sentences that don’t properly use commas!  The art of Przemyslaw B Dedelis and the colors of Lya are fine, if a bit simplistic and at times staid.  A fine idea and a worthwhile read, even if the final package feels a bit insubstantial.

Lightweightz1Lightweightz: The Anthology, Part Two is available from the R-Squared Comicz’ official website.

NEW-GEN: NEW DAWN #4

Writers: J.O. Matonti, Abdul H. Rashid

Penciller: Jomar Bulda

Inker: Analiza Chris Agot

Colorist: Sean Forney

Letterer: Matias Timarchi

Editors: J.O. Matonti, Julia Coppola

Cover: Abdul H. Rashid, Edgar Arce

Publisher: A.P.N.G. Enterprises

The New-Gen series from A.P.N.G. Enterprises must be something of a masterclass in marketing.  While seemingly having little visibility in traditional comic news circles, they have built up quite a presence, with a reportedly successful Free Comic Book Day release, nearly 40,000 followers on Facebook, a distribution deal set up with Marvel and a feature film adaptation starring Mark Hamill reportedly in development.  So it’s a bit of a shame that the core comic product doesn’t quite live up to the fanfare.  Reading this comic, the writing felt a bit stilted and inscrutable at points, and if this had been an issue #1 I’d have felt like it wasn’t until the issue’s end that things started to get going.  But this is issue #4 of a 5-issue series!  Given the uneventful nature of proceedings at this stage, I can’t imagine what the writers filled three issues with up until this point, and while it’s understandable that a reader might be confused about what’s going on when coming into a book on issue #4, my confusion was more problematic in that I had no real idea of what the larger story was supposed to be.  Thankfully, New Dawn #4 is redeemed by the stellar art team of Jomar Bulda and Analiza Chris Agot, with colors from Sean Forney.  The art team manage to craft a visual aesthetic that feels reminiscent of John Cassaday’s work on Planetary, giving the book a slick, professional sheen.

NGNDNext-Gen: New Dawn #4 is available from select comic shops.

DISKORDIA #1

Cartoonist: Andrew “Rivenis Black” Blackman

Price: $1.99

I enjoyed this book.  Cartoonist Andrew Blackman, also operating under the pen name “Rivenis Black”, has crafted a suitably fun, surreal world packed with loopy invention.  The main character, Jackal, has a touch of Mary-Sue about them, but the enigmatic Squid Girl has a marvelous character design, albeit one that’s unlikely to become a popular cosplay choice.  But while Blackman presents himself well as a writer, it’s as an artist that his true strengths emerge.  His layouts are dynamic and offbeat, his characters expressive, his colours vibrant, and his imagery suitably mind-bending.  Rivenis is truly a Jack-of-all-trades, with only his lettering falling short at this stage.  I was intrigued enough by the goings-on here to consider checking out the other issues available from the creator’s blog.

Diskordia1Diskordia #1 is available to buy from ComiXology. The series is also available to read for free from Rivenis Black’s blog.

DEATHRIDGE #1

Cartoonist: Ashley Hewerdine

Publisher: FunkyDoodyCool Comics

I wasn’t so keen on this one.  The story Ashley Hewerdine sets up is potentially interesting, with shades of League of Gentlemen, but the comic is let down with its visual presentation.  The artwork is really rough, with a bit of an MS Paint vibe in the linework, though there is the occasional nice image: an amusing silhouette sex scene springs to mind.  The lettering is similarly shoddy, with bubbles at times looking clunky on the page, and the words within sometimes missing full stops amid other technical issues.

Deathridge1Deathridge #1 is available to buy from select comic shops. More information here.

Z-GIRL AND THE 4 TIGERS #4

Writer: Jeff Marsick

Artist: Kirk Manley

Color Flatter: Miguel Marques

Publisher: Studio Z

Price: $5.00

Here we have another issue #4 of a 5-issue mini, but this manages to work much more successfully as a standalone read.  Yes, there was a good deal of “What the hell is going on?”, but the plot still managed to be a whole lot of fun in its own right, with enough of the mythology and the wider stakes at play presented to get my teeth into and make me want to go and get caught up.  The martial arts movie/sci-fi mashup (with zombies!) plays out a bit like a grindhouse-infused mix of Doom and Thundercats, with writer Jeff Marsick keeping the plot chugging along like a freight train, packed with incident, while still finding room for character moments that flesh out his sprawling cast.  Meanwhile, the art of “Manly” Kirk Manley is a delight, with heavy lines and enlarged figures that call to mind the work of Stephen Bissette, or the creature feature comics of the 1970s and 80s. This is one of those occasions where you read a comic and enjoy it so much that you feel it deserves to be playing to a bigger market.   A retro treat!

ZGirl4Tigers4Z-Girl and the 4 Tigers #4 is available to buy from IndyPlanet.  The previous issues are available from DriveThruComics, priced at $0.99.

NOCTUA #2

Writer: Andrew M. Henderson

Artist: J.C. Grande

Colorist: Eagle Gosselin

Letterer: David Paul

Publisher: Alterna Comics

Price: $1.99

This turned out to be another compelling read.  A crime story about the murky world of human trafficking, with a vampire twist, Noctua builds on the momentum of its first issue with this second chapter.  Here, writer Andrew Henderson displays a real talent for writing truly vile villains, with numerous characters displaying their heinous ways in a darkly inventive manner.  J.C. Grande, something of a regular of these reviews, also crops up with some of his most refined artwork to date, wonderfully complimented by the understated colors of Eagle Gosselin.  I wasn’t too keen on the HIV angle the vampire aspect of the story took in a shoehorned-in flashback, but aside from that niggle, the story being built up here is highly promising.

noctua_2

Noctua #2 is available to buy from ComiXology.

REVIEW: Strange Nation #4

For anyone out there who has followed my creator-owned comics reviews from the beginning, Strange Nation must seem like something of a dream team.  It’s written by Paul Allor, a writer I’ve spent quite some time over the past couple of years acclaiming, with my gushing reviews for Clockwork and Orc Girl making it abundantly clear I saw him as a rising creator destined for big things.  It’s drawn by Juan Romera, an artist who I’ve expressed similar admiration of.  He caught my attention with anthology shorts in the likes of Tall Tales from the Badlands and the aforementioned Clockwork, and floored me with the visuals he brought to Fall with writer Fabian Rangel Jr.  It’s published by MonkeyBrain, the breakout comic company of 2013 for me, a publisher whose output I’ve been uniformly singing the praises of for months now.  All these enticing elements weaved together to tell a story of conspiracy theories and the weirdness lurking under the surface of American culture, with the first issue making a statement that all involved were raising their game and giving us something special.

So I think it’s something of a shame that Strange Nation hasn’t received more acclaim.  Those who’ve read it have loved it, but it doesn’t seem to be up there with MonkeyBrain’s most publicized titles.  It could be because, for the first three issues at least, Allor was keeping his narrative cards held quite closely to his chest.  Interesting things were going on and engaging characters were being introduced, but we weren’t quite getting a peek at how it all connected together, with Allor seemingly content to go slow-and-steady with how the strange goings-on started to unfold.  But then we had that highly memorable shocker of a closing page in issue #3, and here with issue #4 we jump into high-gear.  Almost immediately, it’s madness: rioting Sasquatches, UFOS, Elvis mounting a daring rescue mission.  And we get a fuller picture of the larger narrative at work here, with the exposure of a big secret lying at the heart of America’s corridors of power, the ultimate conspiracy story for our journalist hero Norma to pursue.

I worried a bit that, with the first issue, the most compelling character was human/primate hybrid Joe, who…. SPOILER ALERT…. died at the end.  That first chapter worked as a poignant standalone portrait of a life not lived, the kind of thing we know Allor can excel at.  But in subsequent issues, Allor has skillfully fleshed out the recurring ensemble, to the point where we have a rich cast of characters with their own distinct personalities and nuances.  There isn’t as much deft characterization here as the previous issue, which believably depicted Norma’s strained relationship with her parents, her mother in particular.  This issue by necessity is much more plot driven.  But the kindly recluse/alien Dr. Milo was still a refreshingly complex standout.

Romera, as always, excels.  He’s someone who with simple lines can portray a deceptive depth of emotion, a skill that has served him well in the past, and which makes him an ideal partner for Allor’s economic storytelling.  Here, he gets the chance to play more broadly comedic, absurdist notes than he might often get to do, and seems to relish the chance to go wacky.  Some of the reaction shots to a herd of Sasquatches kicking in postboxes are just cracking!  And the bright, flat color scheme gives everything a vibrant, fun feel, so even when things are ominous there’s a breezy, romp-like aesthetic at work.

As is to be expected with MonkeyBrain, the backmatter is a delight.  There’s an enthusiastic letters page, followed by Ryan Lindsay’s recurring column on the cultural impact of the strange phenomena explored in the series, always an engaging read packed with fun trivia.  Then we have a gallery of pinups from artists new and established.  An extra treat for this 4th issue is the original script for issue #1, presented in its entirety.  MonkeyBrain really know how to put the boat out with these ComiXology packages, perhaps better than any other publisher when it comes to value for money.

Strange Nation is a comic most worthy of your attention.  It boasts a quality pedigree of talent involved, and an intriguing story that unveils new layers with each passing chapter.  Most definitely a series you should be catching up on!

StrangeNation4Strange Nation #4 (as well as the rest of the series) is available to buy from ComiXology.

REVIEWS: A Visitor’s Guide to Dempsey, Theodicy, Sticky, Zombolette’s Floppy, Life Through the Lens

It’s another review medley this week, as I try to plough through my backlog.  Let’s get right down to business!

A VISITOR’S GUIDE TO DEMPSEY #1

Writer: Thom Compton

Publisher: Self-Published

Price: Free

I should qualify this review by saying that, in general, I hate photo comics.  Just the whole concept of them irks me, and so I find a hard time enjoying them, with rare exceptons.  So any photo comic is going to be faced with an uphill battle to win me over.  But I feel that, even when attempting to set aside my prejudices and judge photo-comic A Visitor’s Guide to Dempsey on its own merits, the execution falls very short.  The photography is inconsistent, with creator Thom Compton at points managing some evocative imagery, but too often the actors seem to just be posed in positions that vaguely match the narrative without really doing any acting or emoting to sell it.  Speaking of the narrative, it feels really muddled and unclear, and not in an opaque, mysterious way, but more in a “important information isn’t being conveyed very well” way.  But perhaps the biggest setback of all is the presentation, which is woeful.  In the version I read, at least, many images were squeezed onto the page in a manner that made them blurred or misshapen.  And the lettering was not really lettering at all, looking more like typed-in words put in a text box with a bubble crudely drawn around it… and even then there were instances of misspellings and words being shoddily erased and replacement words crammed into their space.  I was going to skip reviewing this, as I hate writing negative reviews, but I do feel like there’s a good concept here, a kind of anthology series documenting the weird goings on in a small, close-knit community.  But some serious righting of the ship is needed in subsequent issue if the concept is to be redeemed.

VisitorsGuideDempseyA Visitor’s Guide to Dempsey #1 is available to read for free on Scribd.

THEODICY #1

Writer: Chad Handley

Penciller: Fernando Brazuna

Inker: Ryan Boltz

Colorist: Milan Ghibliest

Letterers: John Burton, Jeruvia

Publisher: Self-Published

Price: $4.99

I was a bit wary of this going in, as I felt like it was going to be a Dawkins-type “Oh ho ho isn’t religion dumb?” polemic.  But in fact, writer Chad Handley gives us an even-handed, measured depiction of the role religion plays in the world.  His atheist protagonists compellingly lay out their case against God, but they are presented as flawed figures whose conclusions are cast into doubt.  And while for many it has become easy to present religious believers as gullible idiots, in this near-future world plagued with suffering and tyranny, both believers and members of the Church are portrayed sympathetically, with the need for faith presented as understandable, whether or not it ends up being misguided.  Fernando Brazuna and Ryan Boltz’ artwork varies in quality, with some instances of ropey anatomy or dodgy expressions, and the coloring of Minan Ghibliest is a little flat.  But there are some striking images here, and the comic is held together by a compelling, well-realised story by Handley.

Theodicy1Theodicy #1 is available to buy from IndyPlanet.

STICKY #1

Writer: Dale Lazarov

Artist: Steve MacIsaac

Publisher: Self-Published

Price: $3.50

I have to confess that this is my first time reviewing a gay erotica comic.  In fact, to my knowledge it’s the first time I’ve reviewed any type of erotica.  I’ve talked about comics that featured sex in them, sure, but those were still primarily about plot and character, with any sexual element used to enhance those.  The “gay comics” of Dale Lazarov, however, are marketed as erotica, with the presumed primary goal being to titilate and arouse.  Nothing wrong with that in theory, though going in I had my doubts about whether the comic medium was best suited to such an endeavour in the internet age.  Of course, the other handicap I had is that, as a heterosexual male, gay porn was inevitably going to leave me cold.  The front cover, featuring a young man licking the nipple of a very hairy older gentleman, wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, and reading the ensuing comic with cold, forensic detachment just had me asking awkward questions that would probably ruin the erotic mood, “Would an old man really lower his ass onto a dick like that, wouldn’t it hurt his knees?”  “That’s an impressive amount of spunk those two lads just sprayed everywhere, how did they manage to get it on the wall clock?”  I found myself in the reverse of most porn viewers, in that I was keen to fast-forward through the sex and get to the story!  So given that I’m not the intended audience for it as a piece of erotica, and it’s not really fair to judge it through standard perimeters of plot and character, all that remains is to judge it on the quality of the creative team.  And Dale Lazarov and Steve MacIsaac clearly know their stuff.  Lazarov’s script is utterly silent, free of dialogue, but he still manages to convey the differing personalities of both the older and younger lover, and crafts a simple but accesible narrative.  He shows a good deal of trust in MacIsaac’s visuals to carry the bulk of the storytelling, given how much of the interaction and dynamics between the pair is conveyed in the art, and MacIsaac excels here.  It’s actually a very well drawn book, with convincing human anatomy that is not hyper-muscular beefcake physiques as are often seen in comics, but rather lifelike depictions of the male form.  And his heavy inks give the visuals a McKelvie style softness that mean this is a comic with quality production values, where I can recognise the craft behind it even if it’s not for me.

Sticky1Sticky #1 and other comics from Dale Lazarov can be found at his website.

ZOMBOLETTE’S FLOPPY #1

Cartoonist: Scarlette Baccini

Publisher: Bathwater Books

Price: $7.00 AU

Zombolette originally began life as a series of short strips, collected into an anthology released as a graphic novel last year.  This is the first instalment of the character making the leap into the serialised comics format, though rather than the switch in form bringing with it a shift in narrative approach, this issue reads very much like a collection of strips.  This first issue has an episodic structure, made up of three mostly self-contained short adventures for our zombified title character and her giant talking guinea pig sidekick.  Of these, the first is the definite standout, with Baccini displaying a sharp, acerbic wit that puts Zombolette on just the right side of nasty.  The second story is too brief to really go anywhere, but is centred around one admittedly great gag.  By the third part I was feeling a bit tired of the diminishing returns, but by the end Baccini had taken the blackly comic core joke and pushed it to such ridiculously macabre extremes that I was just about won over again by the end.  One thing that remains consistent in quality throughout is Baccini’s lively artwork, her bold, heavy lines and generous ink washes giving her highly-stylised characters a rich, textured feel on the page.  It has its hits and misses, but fans of dark humor and/or intriguingly quirky visuals might want to give Zombolette’s Floppy a look.

Zombolette1Zombolette’s Floppy #1 is available to buy from Bathwater Books’ webstore.

LIFE THROUGH THE LENS #1

Writer: Kent Olsen

Artist: Sabine Ten Lohuis

Publisher: Self-Published

Price: $5.50

The climactic scene of Life Through The Lens involves a heated debate between two film critics over the film they’re reviewing, in an exchange that becomes quite evocative of the comic as a whole.  “The film meanders from scene to scene with no real purpose,” says Richard.  His fellow critic, Jerald, disagrees, defining that the film has an “experimental narrative” and “breaks conventions in all the right places.”  Sadly, it seems this comic is an attempt to do something like how Jerald envisions the film in question, but my assessment ended up being more in line with Richard.  The book claims to be a first issue, but the story doesn’t seem to have anywhere to go beyond a oneshot, with an aloof tone that keeps the reader at arm’s length.  But the major positive for me that kept my interest held throughout the comic was the artwork of Sabine Ten Lohuis.  The delicate, wispy lines and light washes give the comic an energetic, fluid feel, reminiscent of a more stylised Dustin Nyugen.  The characters are highly distinctive, and have a particular vivacity about them.  I shall definitely be keeping an eye open for Sabine’s distinctive visuals in future projects.  I do think it’s a shame that only writer Kent Olsen is credited on the cover, though.

LifeThroughTheLensLife Through the Lens #1 is available to buy from IndyPlanet.