30 Characters Showcase #12: Boss Snake

This month marks the arrival of the 5th annual 30 Characters Challenge, the excellent event run by ComixTribe publisher Tyler James, where participants have to create a new comic character for every day of the whole month of November.  I participated in the first year, successfully completing the challenge with 30 badly-drawn characters of my own, but haven’t done it again since.  I won’t be participating this year either, but thought it might be fun to spend each day writing up a little showcase to celebrate a new comic character who showed up in comic pages for the first time this year.  Comics are one of the most highly inventive mediums around, and this has been a particularly strong year for pumping out exciting new stories packed with compelling new characters.  Let’s take a look at some of my favourites.

12. BOSS SNAKE

DocUnknownBossSnake1Created by Fabian Rangel Jr and Ryan Cody

Yesterday I featured Doc Unknown, the star of the self-titled miniseries from writer Fabian Rangel Jr and artist Ryan Cody.  Today, I take a look at the first of numerous interesting foes that Doc Unknown has faced thus far.  Boss Snake doesn’t really fit into the larger narrative of that first 4-issue run, and really could have just been cast as a generic gangster bad guy.  But instead, Ryan Cody’s distinctive design makes Boss Snake instantly intriguing.  I’ve always thought Killer Croc was a cool Batman villain, but he doesn’t live up to his full potential because he’s always just presented as a mindless thug.  But here we have someone who captures that potent imagery of Croc, but is matched up with agency and authority to make him a more rounded, formidable foe.

And then Fabian Rangel Jr slips in a backstory and just a touch of tragedy to give Boss Snake nuance, and make him a villain that lingers in the memory long after his role in the story is done.  So memorable was this apparent single-use character that interest in him was enough to spawn a spinoff graphic novel, Boss Snake: Cold Blood, Cold Streets, which was very quickly funded on Kickstarter and ended up far exceeded its goal.  That’s due for release soon, and I for one am eager to read it!

DocUnknownBossSnake2

30 Character Showcase #11: Doc Unknown

This month marks the arrival of the 5th annual 30 Characters Challenge, the excellent event run by ComixTribe publisher Tyler James, where participants have to create a new comic character for every day of the whole month of November.  I participated in the first year, successfully completing the challenge with 30 badly-drawn characters of my own, but haven’t done it again since.  I won’t be participating this year either, but thought it might be fun to spend each day writing up a little showcase to celebrate a new comic character who showed up in comic pages for the first time this year.  Comics are one of the most highly inventive mediums around, and this has been a particularly strong year for pumping out exciting new stories packed with compelling new characters.  Let’s take a look at some of my favourites.

11. DOC UNKNOWN

DocUnknown2Created by Fabian Rangel Jr and Ryan Cody

The first entry in this series was Fabian Gray, the grim, tortured protagonist of Five Ghosts.  But Fabian is not the only uber-cool throwback pulp adventurer to break out onto the comics scene in 2013.  I’ve considered Doc Unknown to be like a lighter sister series to  Five Ghosts, and its eponymous hero is a more upbeat alternative to the haunted Gray.

Doc Unknown really was a delightful miniseries.  Ostensibly a collection of four chapters that largely work together as standalone adventures (with only 3 and 4 immediately following on from one another), they really converge neatly to tell the story of Doc Unknown’s eventful past, and quickly establish a colorful rogues gallery of monsters, gangsters, secret societies, mummies, vampire dragons and cyber Nazis for our hero.  It’s great, action-packed fun, all held together by Ryan Cody’s energetic visuals, and the old-school charm of its protagonist.

All 4 issues are available to buy from ComiXology now, with a graphic novel collection on the way.  And it was recently confirmed that Doc Unknown will return soon, with his continued adventures being serialised as backups in future issues of Five Ghosts.  So we can all hold out hope for a Fabian Gray/Doc Unknown dream team team-up!

DocUnknown1b

REVIEW: Doc Unknown #1

It’s been a while since I read anything from Fabian Rangel Jr.  His werewolf miniseries Extinct was one of my earliest creator-owned comic reviews, where I first noted Fabian as a developing comic book writer worth keeping an eye on.  Then his graphic novel Fall followed through on that initial promise, a poignant tale of childhood, friendship and the loss of innocence (and aliens!) that remains one of the best comics I’ve ever reviewed here.  But since Fall I haven’t had the pleasure of reading anything new from Rangel Jr.  I know he’s had projects, but I haven’t had access to them here in Scotland.  Thank goodness then for Comixology, from which I was able to download the first issue of his latest project, Doc Unknown – or, to give it its full title, Doc Unknown in the Museum of Madness.  It’s been a while, but thankfully it was worth the wait!

In his afterword, Fabian describes Doc Unknown as a mash-up of everything he loves about comics, crammed with everything he would want from a comic as a reader.  And that unbridled excitement and energy is certainly reflected in the pages contained within this first chapter.  Doc Unknown is a pulp hero in the vein of Doc Savage or The Shadow, a throwback to the proto-superhero adventures of the early 20th Century.  Tributes to such figures certainly have an established history in the comic books their exploits helped inspire, with Tom Strong one of the most acclaimed, and The Black Beetle the one I read most recently.  But while I found Francesco Francavilla’s pulp throwback to be beautifully-drawn but ultimately uninvolving, leaving me too cold to bother returning for a second issue, Doc Unknown felt in a lot of ways like The Black Beetle done right, taking not just the mould of the protagonist from that earlier era of storytelling, but also the simplicity of plot and denseness of incident and storytelling that made those tales so popular in the first place.

Doc Unknown #1 is not a comic that you could accuse of being decompressed.  In the first issue alone, we are introduced to an interesting villain – Killer Croc like gangster Snake – and given his backstory, while also setting up his evil scheme involving stealing a mystical artefact from a museum.  We’re also introduced economically to Doc Unknown, not by learning his alter ego – which remains a mystery as this first issue ends – but by seeing him kicking ass in action.  We get an elaborate fight scene between the two that involves Doc Unknown battling reanimated mummies and T-Rex skeletons, before culminating in some fisticuffs that see the confrontation resolved.  We’re then allowed time for aftermath and various plot threads to be resolved, as well as a supernatural element introduced with Doc’s ability to see and communicate with the ghost of a murder victim in the museum.  All while setting up a larger overarching plot of a Court of Owls type Illuminati of the rich and powerful out to get Doc because of a MacGuffin that comes into his position.  And we get another major new villain for him to contend with introduced too.  All in the space of a single normal-length issue, when you could imagine this amount of narrative getting dragged out across multiple issues these days.  All this, and we also get a 5-page backup story from the same creative team.  You’re getting more than your money’s worth in terms of content packed into one issue.

One of the things that makes Fabian Rangel Jr a great writer is that he doesn’t feel the need to announce his greatness.  He’s shown some real diversity in his output as he allows himself to take a backseat and let the story do the talking.  He proved more than capable of writing snappy dialogue and quickfire exchanges in Extinct, and showed some impressive narrative tricks for drawing out emotion in Fall, but here it’s all very pared back, minimal panel counts per page, and dialogue snipped back to bare minimum.  Doc Unknown himself is a taciturn figure, not really knowable, though what sense of his personality we do get suggests a more compassionate soul than the steely, hardened vigilante we might be used to, someone who seeks to comfort the loved ones of innocents killed in the crossfire, and even reaches out to understand the motivations of the bad guys he throws in jail.  But Rangel Jr doesn’t make a big song and dance of explaining that in poetic fashion.  It’s mostly implied.

I’ve talked about this as a pulp adventure tribute, but I’ve not used the term pastiche, as I don’t think this feels like an old-fashioned comic.  One of the downfalls of many comics that try to pay homage to eras past is that, even if in some form they succeed, they end up feeling like they’re of that era, and not particularly relevant to readers of this era unfamiliar with that past generation.  Not so with Doc Unknown, and I think that’s thanks to the dynamic artwork of Ryan Cody.  This is a book that never feels stuffy or old, with Cody’s slick, exciting imagery and bright, bold colouring making the whole aesthetic of the comic feel fresh and of-the-moment, something new that you could imagine a kid picking up and falling in love with.  Those minimal panel layouts I mentioned above really work in Cody’s favour, as he makes every page have this widescreen, expansive feel, the action almost spilling out of the page.  I felt the need to read this comic on my iPad horizontally, even though the pages are in portrait format, as each of Ryan Cody’s expansive story beats played out on a scope that demanded they be viewed in that way to appreciate them.  Another of the things that makes Fabian Rangel Jr a great writer is his keen eye for choosing great artists that perfectly fit the tone of the book in question.  And Ryan Cody joins Jethro Morales and Juan Romera on the list of his excellent artistic collaborators.  Mr. Cody now most definitely has a new fan in me.

Maybe it was the circumstance: I got to read this comic on my iPad sat outside on an uncharacteristically sunny day here in Glasgow (it started pouring with rain a couple of hours later, restoring balance to the universe), with “Giorgio by Miroder” from the new Daft Punk album playing on my MP3 player.  It all just felt right.  Maybe it was the fact that I’m already a supporter of Fabian Rangel Jr, and his name on the cover alone is enough to convince me to try a comic.  Whatever it was, I have to say I loved Doc Unknown #1.  A hugely fun breath of fresh air, appealing to readers young and old.  It’s deserving of a much bigger audience than it may get as a Comixology Submit product, and that’s a shame.  In my humble opinion, a savvy publisher would be looking at this as an undiscovered gem and scrambling to pick up the print distribution rights.  But for now, I’m glad I have Comixology, and that I’m able to sample treats like this and have access to burgeoning creators whose work I greatly admire.  It wasn’t easy to recommend his earlier work, great as it was, with its relatively limited availability.  But the digital marketplace is global, so I’m able to most heartily recommend this.  If you like good comics, check it out – it’s only 99 cents, what do you have to lose?

DocUnknown1Doc Unknown #1 is available now from Comixology.

REVIEW: Fall

I always feel like I’m late to the party when it comes to discovering the hot new talents of comics.  I became a fan of Jeff Lemire thanks to Sweet Tooth, when those in the know were already heralding him as one of the next comic greats in the wake of Essex County and The Nobody, for example.  But one of the good things about my review work becoming a bit more prominent and more creators getting in contact with me is that I now might get the chance to be there from the start, and watch a creator grow and mature into a master storyteller.  I think that might just be the case with one Fabian Rangel Jr.

Several months ago, in my review for the second issue of 215 Ink’s werewolf caper Extinct, I said that Rangel Jr was “a rising star to watch in the comics world.”  Well, if his latest effort – Fall, an original graphic novel, also from 215 Ink – is anything to go by, that star has risen.  Extinct was a series I enjoyed, with clever writing from Rangel Jr and some quality artwork from Jethro Morales, but Fall is a superior work.  It covers some similar themes – the isolation of high school, nostalgia for a bygone era (this time the ’90s, rather than the ’80s), and a mix of humor and horror.  But Fall has heart as well as wit, and in spite of the sci-fi elements, feels like a deeply personal tale.  The execution of the narrative suggests a writer who has grown in confidence as well as skill, his voice emerging as he gains a surer grasp of the medium with experience.

To offer a plot summary, Fall is about a lonely boy called Josh who befriends an alien called Russ.  Only it’s about so much more than that.  It’s about the strength of childhood friendship.  It’s about seeing the beauty in a world we float through and all too often take for granted.  It’s about the harsh realities of growing up, and putting away childish things.  This is a story steeped in such earnest emotion that it would take a heart of stone not to get caught up in it.  The narrative may not be set in the ’80s anymore, but that’s the decade the story seems to draw its influence from, reminiscent of such great childhood fables as Stand By Me and, of course, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.  But it’s not all sentimental and saccharine, with an emotional gut-punch at the end that gives the warm glow that precedes it a bittersweet aftertaste.

Amidst all this praise for writer Rangel Jr, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the fine work of artist Juan Romera.  I’ve praised Romera before, noting him as a standout amongst the stable of artists working on the Western anthology, Tall Tales from the Badlands.  In his story for that book, A Thousand Deaths, I noted a similarity to the work of Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon, and the visuals for Fall have a certain Daytripper vibe to them.

Romera’s style is very simple, but that very much works in the graphic novel’s favor, given that dreamy, fable-like quality the story strives for.  The art strikes just the right chord of emotional resonance at all the key moments, from the stunning beauty of the autumn leaves in the eponymous Fall (it’s a title that works on so many levels, but I’ll leave it to you to mull  over them once you’ve read the comic yourself) to the big, round, expressive eyes of Russ.  I should note that Romera’s biggest triumph is the design of Russ himself: he’s suitably cute, cuddly and toyetic, but the battle armor and sharp edges to his features also suggest a little edge, giving him an added cool factor.  The rich, sepia-toned colors aid in enhancing that aforementioned warm glow of nostalgia, and Ed Brisson’s diverse lettering helps to give Russ a distinct voice.  Overall this is a very nice looking graphic novel.

215 Ink have progressed a lot this year, and I’ve watched their development with interest.  They seem to have placed their faith in an intriguing crop of emerging talent, providing for them an open community within which to grow roots.  And now, as a little time passes, we see some of that crop develop into big, impressive… creator trees (to exhaust that metaphor), with 215 Ink reaping the benefits of gaining the loyalty of these folk they saw potential in.  In finding a story to compare Fall to, the first one that springs to mind is Scott McCloud’s seminal work, Zot!  And people who know me and the mad love for that story will know that such a comparison would not be made lightly.

As a final illustration of just how much Fall blew me away, let me relate this anecdote: I have read many comics sent to me for review purposes, I’ve enjoyed most of them, and I’ve found a few to be genuinely great.  But Fall is the first one that I’ve read, then checked out the Previews code (it’s SEP111247, by the way), and seriously considered contacting my LCS about ordering it so I can buy a physical copy to own.  It’s that good.  And you should all be seriously considering doing the same thing.

REVIEW: Extinct #2

I don’t know about you, but I find that first issues of a comic series are rarely the best.  With all the world-building and setting the stage that needs to be done in that opening issue, it seems that usually it’s the subsequent issues where we start to get into the characters a bit more and the story truly finds its rhythm.  Such is the case for Extinct, the werewolf series from 215 Ink.  I reviewed the first issue last month, and though I was very positive in my opening impressions, I concluded with “the jury’s still out on how successful this story will be.”  Well, with Extinct #2, the jury have returned a decisive verdict, and we can see that this is clearly a comic worth following through to its conclusion.

Something that becomes clearer in this second issue is how funny the story is.  Fabian Rangel Jr’s smart scripting vividly brings to life our trio of teenage protagonists as they bicker amongst themselves and try to come to grips with the enormity of the surreal situation they have found yourselves in.  Funnily enough, the impression I got reading this issue was that Extinct does for werewolves what Fright Night did for vampires: tackling a classic monster through the perspective of young characters familiar with all the classic tropes, making the story work simultaneously as a humorous twist on the old cliches as well as an earnest homage to the genre.

It’s not just the kids that Rangel Jr effectively brings to life, however.  The primary antagonists – the nasty principal and his bullying jock son, both introduced in the previous issue, but here emerging as full-blown werewolf Big Bads – are further fleshed out, as they take turns “fleshing out” helpless victims in some blackly comic death scenes.  This vein of dark humor carries on through the subsequent conversation father and son have.  “Dad,” asks young Scott, having just turned into a werewolf and feasted on human intestines for the first time, “What’s happening?”  His father looks on in solemn silence for a beat, before answering with, “Scotty, I think it’s time we had a talk.”  It’s that awkward father/son puberty discussion, rendered absurd by the fact that it’s two gore-splattered werewolves having it.  Just replace a wet dream with gutting the school doctor.

There was a lot of mystery in the first issue, and there remain unanswered questions, but through the arrival of Jimmy’s father James and his werewolf-killing sidekick, as well as the monologuing of our aformentioned evil father/son combo, we start to see the werewolf mythology of this particular narrative take shape, and get a sense of what the larger plot will be moving forward.  But having said that, you still get the sense that there isn’t much story crammed into the issue.  With few pages having more than 3 or 4 panels, this is a very quick read, perhaps lacking in detail in some spots.

However, any sacrifice in depth is more than compensated for in the drama that Jethro Morales brings to the table with his art (assisted once more by the vibrant colors of Juanmar Studios).  The cartoonish yet expressive character designs really enhance the black comedy vibe I’m getting from the book, but when the moment calls for it, he can get menacing with the werewolves, making masterful use of shading and perspective to make these oh-so-familiar monsters feel enigmatic and menacing.  In this regard, I can’t really fault Rangel Jr with his “less is more” approach to plotting: the large canvas he gives Morales on each page to depict his dynamic visuals are a big part of what makes this such an immersive reading experience.  Like all the best writer/artist collaborations, Morales has put his creative stamp on Extinct just as much as Rangel Jr.

Let me also take a brief moment to salute both Rangel Jr and Morales for that last page spread.  Werewolf basketball players?  Surely an homage to the ’80s Michael J. Fox film Teen Wolf.  Genius!

215 Ink are putting out a wealth of quality material right now, but with issue #2, Extinct puts itself right up there with the very best.  Both writer Fabian Rangel Jr and artist Jethro Morales are both rising stars to watch in the comics world.