My Top Twenty Comics of 2013

Welcome back once again to my annual countdown of my favourite comics from the year that was.  You might have noticed that while on the previous three occasions I’ve ran this countdown on my blog the list has been a Top 10, this time round it’s been expanded to a Top 20.  And that is testament to how much of a truly spectacular year 2013 has been for comics.  There has been a wealth of fantastic new titles launched over the past 12 months, while established books have gone from strength to strength, and we’ve even seen a few comics that had been on the decline finding a new lease of life to blast them back onto the radar.  There were so many quality comics that it didn’t feel fair to just put a spotlight on the best 10 this year.  Indeed, it proved to be a struggle narrowing the list down to a top 20, even!  2013 has been a banner year for comics.  At this point I tend to talk a little about how my own reading habits have shifted in the intervening year.  Last year I talked about Image being on the rise, and that trend has continued in 2013, with Marvel and DC all but dropping off the map in my weekly comics haul while more and more Image titles get added to the point where they now utterly dominate my monthly reading.  A reminder of my rules for eligibility: the comic has to either be a graphic novel/oneshot released in 2013, or an ongoing/miniseries that has had 3 or more issues released in 2013 at the time of writing.  This means that while the likes of Velvet, Pretty Deadly, Drumhellar and The Sandman: Overture had stellar first issues, none of them have had enough issues for them to qualify.  Perhaps they’ll show up on next year’s list!  Finally, I should point out this is the first year I’ve done the list that Scalped wasn’t in contention, having finished last year, so that top spot is WIDE OPEN!  Who’ll be #1 of 2013?  Read on and see…

 

20. SWAMP THING

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Swamp Thing is a title that suffered from something of a steep fall from grace.  I remember way back when issue #1 hit as part of DC’s New 52 launch, written by Scott Snyder and drawn by Yanick Paquette, I declared it the best of all DC’s new #1s.  But going into the “Rotworld” storyline I felt the quality slip a little, and so I had resigned myself to likely dropping the title after Snyder’s departure, only deciding to give incoming writer Charles Soule a go for an issue to confirm my decision.  Boy was I wrong!  Charles Soule, working mostly with artists Kano and Jesus Saiz on rotation, has knocked this title out of the park since coming onboard, utterly reinvigorating the series and giving it a bold new direction and sense of forward momentum.  Rather than trying to ape Snyder’s style, Soule is doing his own thing here, returning Swamp Thing to more of a pulpy superhero aesthetic, and letting Swamp Thing make some cool, inventive uses of his plant powers.  Every month, Soule does something new to impress me.  First, he’s gifting Alec Holland with a natural, relatable voice through his narration.  Then, he’s finding fresh wrinkles in the history of The Green to expand and enrichen Swamp Thing’s mythology.  Then he utterly leaves the rest of the Villain’s Month oneshots in the dust with a tale that succeeds in making Anton Arcane skin-crawlingly scary again.  Now, with this current story featuring Swamp Thing battling Jason Woodrue over The Green’s avatar mantle, he’s hitting us with some of the most nail-biting cliffhangers and shock reversals of Big Two comics.  Meanwhile, Kano and Saiz carry on the tradition of Wrightson, Bissette, Veitch and Paquette with their flair for visual innovation, crafting awe-inspiring page compositions.  I’ve said it before, and I’m not the only one to make the comparison, but for me, Swamp Thing has become DC’s answer to Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s Daredevil, in the way it can feel both like an homage to all that’s come before and a fresh new start unburdened by the darkness of past storylines, and is just pure, exhilarating fun.  Those who did drop the comic after Scott Snyder left are missing out!

 

19. CHEW

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Chew continues to see-saw in and out of my top 10.  As I said last year, it’s not really a reflection on the quality of the title, which has remained consistently entertaining and laugh-out-loud funny, but more on the emergence of hot new titles vying for attention.  It’s interesting, because I can remember when Chew was the new kid on the block, arguably the first in that new wave of white-hot Image issue #1 buzz-books, and now it has reached the point where it is a most venerable stalwart of the Image lineup, several years and nearly 40 issues into its run.  I think one factor in its slip down the rankings this year is that it feels like there have been a lot of occasions where the wait between issues has been a good bit longer than a month.  I seem to be going through this pattern lately of getting the new issue of Chew when it comes out, and not being able to really recall what happened in the previous issue, and taking a while to getting round to read this latest one.  But then when I finally do sit down to read the new issue, I immensely enjoy it and feel keen to get to the next chapter.  And then the cycle repeats itself.  So, Chew might be in need of a little extra spark to reassert itself up amongst the best of the best in Image’s ever-growing lineup, but it’s definitely not in any danger of being dropped, as John Layman and Rob Guillory continue to deliver a comic packed with delicious goodness. 

18. STRANGE ATTRACTORS

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Charles Soule again, this time paired up with Greg Scott in this delightfully smart and inventive comic from Archaia.  This was one of my best purchases from New York Comic Con, with Archaia’s typically superb production values making it a beautiful hardcover graphic novel package.  Strange Attractors tells the story of bright academic Heller Wilson becoming the protégé of aging genius/eccentric Dr. Spencer Brownfield, who may or may not have spent the past 30 years secretly keeping New York City running through the power of super-maths.  It’s a masterfully-structured tale, the various narrative threads weaving together like strands of a complex equation.  There’s an ominous air of impending doom hanging over much of the story as it steadily moves forward, quietly immersing you, but the end result is surprisingly inspirational and upbeat.  A highly potent love letter to New York City, and one that certainly made me miss it, having read this shortly after returning home to Scotland.  This year has really seen Charles Soule mark himself out as a real writer of note, and I for one am keen to see what he has lined up for 2014. 

 

17. SHELTERED

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If you’d told me that Lazarus wouldn’t make my top 20 list back when I read issue #1, I’d have laughed you out of the room.  I remember being hugely impressed back when I read the first issue of that new series, thinking this was sure to be one of the standout debuts of the year… then a week later Sheltered came along and trumped it.  Sheltered #1 was just a textbook example of how to grab readers by the proverbial baw-hairs and DEMAND their attention and continued reading, with Ed Brisson evocatively building up a well-realised status quo and ruthlessly tearing it down all in the space of a single comic book.  Out of the ashes of that devastation has risen a tense, haunting tale about children forced to become adults and largely failing at the task, and a harsh study of survival and evil.  And the art of Johnnie Christmas and colours of Shari Chankhamma give the whole thing an ethereal, dreamlike aesthetic, a work of strange, glacial beauty that creates an interesting contrast with some of the horrific things that happen within these pages.  There are many ways Sheltered could go from here, but at this point it has all the makings of a 21st Century Lord of the Flies. 

 

16. GHOSTED

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I’m sure I’ll be writing similar notes throughout this list, but it says something about the incredibly high standard of comics output in 2013 that Ghosted places where it does.  Earlier drafts of this list had both this and Sheltered secure in the top 10.  But rest assured, this is more a reflection on the superlative quality of the year’s books than any slight on Ghosted, a delightfully inventive genre mash-up.  Joshua Williamson’s irresistible “I wish I’d done it first” concept is to mix the classic heist story with the haunted house genre, with our protagonist Jackson T. Winters assembling a crack team of criminal experts for a daring robbery, not to steal money or diamonds, but to steal a ghost from a notorious murder house.  It seemed like a delicious hook for a miniseries, so pure and self-contained.  But the latest issue wonderfully opened up the idea into a bigger world and set the stage for how Williamson’s high-concept could sustain an ongoing.  Though I worry for how the next arc will fare without the indelible contribution of artist Goran Sudzuka, who in 5 issues has excelled in crafting a slick, cool signature style for the book.  Still, the series is off to a strong start, and I’m keen to see what happens next.

 

15. INFINITY

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I had largely sworn off the big Marvel/DC event crossovers.  I gave up on Fear Itself, disregarded Brightest Day, skipped Flashpoint, passed on Avengers VS X-Men, ignored Age of Ultron, dismissed Trinity War.  Not since 2010’s Siege had I read an event in its entirety.  But this year has proven to be something of a vintage year for events.  DC’s offering, Forever Evil, has thus far proved pretty enjoyable, though it didn’t quite make the cut for this list.  Marvel, meanwhile, gave us Infinity, a comic I almost never read due to all the talk about how it was impossible to read without a detailed knowledge of Jonathan Hickman’s entire Avengers and New Avengers runs or without buying the tie-ins in those respective books: as a rule of thumb I never buy tie-ins outwith the core event title that I supposedly “have” to read.  But on a whim one day I bought and read the first 5 issues of Infinity and was utterly engrossed, and more recently the 6th and final chapter brought it all home nicely.  You can absolutely enjoy this story without the tie-ins, though I’m sure they make it richer.  This is an event story that actually feels like an event, with Hickman generating an epic, sweeping tone and a grandiose scale.  The combined threat of the Builders to the galaxy as a whole and Thanos to Earth in particular creates a sense of seemingly insurmountable adversity, making it all the more awesome when The Avengers triumph in the face of it.  Thor gets one of his most badass moments ever.  An ultimate underdog fight between Black Bolt and Thanos is set up so powerfully that I was made into a fan of the Inhumans.  Various characters I’d never heard of before were presented as major players who I’m now invested in learning more about.  And the finale managed to both provide a satisfying resolution and set the seeds for numerous storylines that will likely be picked up on down the line in Hickman’s various Avengers titles, as opposed to just being an advertisement for the next event.  Easily the best crossover event from either company in years, and a shining example of how it should be done. 

 

14. THE WALKING DEAD

WalkingDeadNeganWhat a decline The Walking Dead has suffered in my estimations over the years!  After ranking near the top of my list in 2010, it dropped off the top ten in 2011, and by early 2012 I was beginning to question if I was just buying the book out of habit and whether or not I should just drop it.  But issue #100 marked a major turning point for the series, reinvigorating Image’s most famous series and giving it a compelling new direction that saw the title on an upward curve throughout the rest of 2012.  That trend has continued into 2013, with Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s zombie opus now the best it’s been in years.  And a big part of that is down to the new Big Bad, Negan.  A lot of people argue the series was at its absolute best during the Governor/Woodbury saga (I disagree, personally identifying the period immediately after the departure from the prison, up to and including the “Fear the Hunters” arc as the best, though the Governor stuff comes close), and that the loss of momentum has been due to the lack of a similarly formidable villain.  Well, now Negan has truly filled that void.  He’s a suitably different beast to The Governor too, with a twisted code of ethics and dark sense of humour that has at times even made him weirdly likeable: who thought I’d go from instantly wanting him dead in issue #100 to ranking him as one of my favourite characters?  I still want him to get his comeuppance, though.  The series is going from strength to strength with the way it has built up this new, wider world for Rick, Carl, Michonne and co to exist in, and with the 10th Anniversary “All Out War” storyline already proving explosive, it seems things are set to get even better!

 

13. FATALE

Fatale4Another comic to go from strength to strength this year, Fatale was always an interesting series, but one that very much went for the slow-boil approach.  But with its past couple of arcs, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’ blend of noir and Lovecraftian horror has really started to turn up the heat.  First, a collection of standalone issues from various periods in history served to expand the mythos of the series in fascinating ways.  And now, Fatale has soared to new heights with this current storyline, with the timeline jumping forward to the indie music scene of the early 90s, and a disquieting moral fable that has served to crystallize the haunted tragedy, the irresistible allure and the poisonous influence of our mysterious protagonist Josephine more compellingly than any other storyline in the title up until now.  Up until now we’ve been told how all men fall for her and find themselves obsessing over her, but this story has truly immersed us in this happening and made us believe it.  With the way Brubaker and Phillips has introduced this poignantly human cast of characters and systematically destroyed them reminds me of the classic “24 Hour Diner” issue of The Sandman with Dr. Destiny.  Fatale as a series continues to evolve and improve, while this arc in particular stands as the best single thing Brubaker and Phillips have done since Criminal: Last of the Innocent. 

 

12. ZERO

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Zero is an interesting comic, in that it seemed to be under the radar for quite a while, then all of a sudden it picked up a lot of buzz as the release of the first issue drew near.  Much was made of the innovative approach to the series, which would see writer Ales Kot tell ostensibly done-in-one standalone tales with the eponymous hero, super-spy Edward Zero, with a different artist illustrating each story.  It’s a great concept, one that made me give the series a try, but I was thrilled to discover that the execution was even better.  In the three issues released thus far, artists Michael Walsh, Tradd Moore and Mateus Santalouco have all delivered some stunning imagery, their disparate styles unified by the majestic colours of Jordie Bellaire.  Ales Kot, who has shown creative promise with the likes of Wild Children and Change, here delivers his most accomplished work to date, taking that supposedly episodic framework and in fact crafting an intricately connected narrative tapestry, which we’re uncovering out of chronological order, but which I feel is going to take shape into an immensely compelling whole, once the series has been given more time to unfold.  If Zero continues to build momentum the way it has this early in its run, look at it as a serious contender to leap into the top 10 on next year’s list.

 

11. DUNGEON FUN

DungeonFun2Okay, this one is a bit of a cheat.  As I mentioned in my intro at the top, the usual perimeters for eligibility on this list include either being a graphic novel/oneshot, or in the cases of ongoings/miniseries’, that 3 or more issues were released in the contended year.  Dungeon Fun only had one issue released.  And given that I usually enforce this rule so rigorously, even cutting out MonkeyBrain’s Bandette from inclusion of an earlier draft of my list once I realised only two issues had been released this year, a book has to be pretty special to supersede it.  With Dungeon Fun, there are a couple of mitigating factors.  For one, small press titles work on a very different schedule than something released monthly or bi-monthly through Diamond, and in many cases it’s unreasonable for such books to have more than three issues within a year.  But more pressingly, it’s just too damn good to ignore.  A delightful fantasy romp that has rode a veritable tidal wave of critical adulation here in the UK, drawing comparisons to such diverse inspirations as Monty Python, Adventure Time, The Princess Bride and the Legend of Zelda games, Dungeon Fun is truly “all ages” not in the patronising, ghettoised “Y’know, for kids!” way some interpret it, but in the sense that it can capture the imaginations of audiences of all ages.  The wonderful artwork of Neil Slorance is brimming with energy and imagination, projecting this sense of fun and accessibility, and I was able to see first-hand on the convention floor how kids gravitated towards this book and eagerly grabbed a copy.  And the grown-ups can appreciate the razor-sharp wit of Colin Bell’s script, packing laugh-out-loud gags with a density approaching Airplane levels.  This is a book that lives up to its title, as in terms of pure FUN there’s not a single comic released this year that was able to leave a smile on my face as big as Dungeon Fun #1 did.  I know that last year, quite a few people picked up Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain on the basis of my recommendation in my year-end list, so I can only say that this book comes just as heartily recommended.  Get your copy here: https://sellfy.com/p/3EZi/.

 

10. THOR: GOD OF THUNDER

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And while we’re talking about “books that would have ranked if only 3 issues had been released in the year” scenarios, in last year’s 2012 top ten, Thor: God of Thunder #3 came out about a week after I posted up my list.  And that’s a shame, as if that issue had come out sooner (or the list had gone up later), based on the immense quality of those first three issues, Thor: God of Thunder would very likely have broken my top 5.  Fast forward a year, and again I find myself talking about the intense competition and insanely high quality of 2013’s output having some great titles ranking lower than I expected.  But this shouldn’t be read as any decline in quality from Scalped writer (and perennial favourite of this annual year-end countdown) Jason Aaron’s take on Thor: this remains, in my opinion, Marvel’s best title.  The epic 11-chapter “God Butcher” saga that dominated the first year of the series was Thor’s answer to Batman’s “Court of Owls” epic, in how it used the introduction of a deadly new enemy to dig into its iconic hero’s history, push them to the brink of defeat and despair, and ultimately have them kick mega ass.  And Esad Ribic further demonstrated why he’s one of my absolute favourite artists with breathtaking visuals and a magnificent design for villain Gorr.  We then got a pensive, poignant oneshot exploring Thor’s place as a hero, a god and a man in the modern world, before Ron Garney stepped in on art duties for the currently-ongoing storyline, “Accursed”, which has presented a Malekith far more formidable than his cinematic counterpart, and presented a tale by turns funny, dramatic, and strangely relevant as a parable of the nature of war and military intervention in the real world.  With next year promising the return of Esad Ribic, Thor: God of Thunder should continue to be Marvel’s MVP well into 2014.

 

9. FIVE GHOSTS

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Over the past year or so, I’ve seen talk about how Image is too big now, how it’s become a playground for famous, established names in the comics field to bring their creator-owned properties to, and thus it’s lost its status as the publisher that gives a platform to exciting new creators.  But then something like Five Ghosts comes along and reaffirms Image’s status as a launching pad for the next generation of comics stars.  Though both do have credits to their name, writer Frank J Barbiere and artist Chris Mooneyham could still be considered newcomers to the wider comics stage, and yet they delivered one of the best Image series launches of a year filled with them.  An ode to pulp adventure spliced with a hearty dose of Gothic horror, Five Ghosts introduces us to Fabian Gray, an explorer whose encounter with an artefact known as the Dreamstone has left him with the ability to channel the abilities of five literary spirits.  Cue some relentlessly paced adventure courtesy of Barbiere’s brisk, action-packed scripts, while Chris Mooneyham has emerged as one of the breakout artists of 2013 with his luscious, evocative visuals that hark back to classic comics of the 70s and 80s.  Five Ghosts began life as a miniseries, but it’s no surprise it got promoted to ongoing status.  No one could have read those stellar first 5 issues and not wanted more of this character and this world.  After an enjoyable fill-in issue skilfully illustrated by Garry Brown, Barbiere and Mooneyham are back in the saddle for a second arc that seems set to draw in the swashbuckling pirate adventure into its melting pot of pulp homage.  And if all that wasn’t enough to cement its place in my top 10, each issue of Five Ghosts now comes with added Doc Unknown: the similarly pulp-infused comic from Fabian Rangel Jr and Ryan Cody almost made the top 20 in its own right, and is now a regular backup feature in Five Ghosts.  This title is a joy to read, and from pointing it out to people at my local comic shop to giving copies of the Haunting of Fabian Gray graphic novel out as Christmas gifts, I have and will continue to spread the word to those I know that Five Ghosts is worth your attention.

 

8. THE PRIVATE EYE

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The Private Eye caught a lot of people on the back-foot.  One day, sites began running teaser images of a mysterious new comic from writer Brian K Vaughan and artist Marcos Martin.  What could it be?  Who would be publishing it?  Many of us were preparing ourselves for months of tantalising teasers leading to a big release from someone like Image, but the very next day, The Private Eye launched online, self-published by Vaughan and Martin under their Panel Syndicate imprint, going under a “pay what you want” system, with downloading a digital copy of the comic for free an option.  I’ve bought each issue for $2.99, as it’s easily worth that.  There are few people in comics that do an issue #1 better than Vaughan, and The Private Eye continued that tradition, giving us a dystopian/utopian vision of a future where there is no internet, where in place of online identities people walk around with literal masks to craft their own personas, and the media has become the most powerful law enforcement entity on the planet.  Enter paparazzi/private investigator P.I., and we’re thrown into a futuristic take on a classic, pulpy gumshoe noir.  We’ve had 4 issues thus far, and equally recommended is the special “making of” comic released that delved into the process of creating this comic from the ground up.  Reading this gives you a strong idea of just how centrally involved artist Marcos Martin was in the building of this world and the telling of this story, his vision for the world so integral to the success of the story that his absence is unimaginable.  I’ve read quite a few quality digital comics this year, with MonkeyBrain’s output in particular proving consistently entertaining.  But The Private Eye stands as the cream of the crop. 

 

7. NOWHERE MEN

NowhereMen1Here’s an entry that threw a spanner in the works.  Before heading down to Thought Bubble last month, I thought I had my top 20 pretty much figured out.  I still needed to shuffle around the ordering here and there, but the actual content of the list seemed to be finalised.  But then I bought the first graphic novel collection of Nowhere Men at the show, and decided to read it on the train home to Glasgow… I ended up devouring the whole book in a single frenzied sitting during the journey.  I immediately wanted it in the top 20, popping it in at the bottom spot: this is what finally chopped Lazarus off the list, I’m afraid!  But upon going back to the book and rereading parts, I just fell in love with the craft of the thing more and more, and it steadily climbed up and up in my rankings until it reached the slot it’s at now, and even then I flirted with the notion of putting it higher.  The best comics don’t just tell a story, they create a world for the reader, and that’s what writer Eric Stephenson does with Nowhere Men.  The audacious level of ambition on display here is thrilling, as over the course of the first 6 issues he crafts a tale juggling multiple narrative threads, spanning across multiple generations, and a cast of over a dozen principal players.  It could easily have ended up a train wreck, but Stephenson orchestrates it all with panache, crafting a rich, nuanced alternate history of the world where science had the same kind of pop culture boom that rock-and-roll did in the 1960s, complete with its own answer to The Beatles in the form of the founding members of science dream team World Corp.  It’s a mythology made all the more immersive by the comic’s innovative use of posters and archival newspaper and magazine articles peppered within the comic narrative to flesh out the shape of the world between that pivotal era in the ‘60s and our vastly altered present.  The series as a whole really is a triumph of design, with the team of artist Nate Bellegarde and colorist Jordie Bellaire bringing superheroic flair to the world of cutting-edge science.  Read Nowhere Men, and you really will buy into its central notion that “science is the new rock ‘n’ roll.” 

 

6. SEX CRIMINALS

SexCriminals1aThere are certain times when you know you’ll love a comic as soon as you hear its name.  Such was the case with Sex Criminals.  And I was won over even more when I heard of the high concept behind the series: two people with the power to stop time with their orgasms go on a crime spree.  So, I went into this comic pretty giddy with anticipation, and still managed to be disarmed by how great it was.  I think what took me by surprise is that, though a book like this could have easily just coasted on that central concept and been a whole barrel of fun, it’s instead done something much more.  Over the course of the first three issues, it has managed to craft a genuinely sweet account first of the experience of growing up and discovering your sexuality as a girl, through the heightened prism of our narrator Suzie discovering her powers, then of a boy’s experience of sexual awakening through the story of Jon, then the joy and thrill of beginning a new relationship.  And save for the odd flash-forward, we haven’t even got to the “criminals” part of the title yet!  Reading the phenomenal letters page just confirms the chord these issues have struck with real life experiences of the readers.  And on top of all that, it’s genuinely hilarious, with artist Chip Zdarsky utterly cramming the comic full of brilliant sight gags.  Matt Fraction has been on a real roll lately, but Sex Criminals could very well be the best thing he’s ever written.  Perhaps the only thing preventing it from breaking the top 5 is that, three issues in, I need to read some more to see if the dizzyingly high pace can be sustained over the long term.  Next year’s list will tell the tale!

 

5. BATMAN

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With the ascension of Image Comics, and how (as can be seen by the quantity of their titles to make my list) the vast majority of my monthly reading now seems to be their output, I have considered the possibility of me at some point dropping Marvel and DC entirely.  Could I reach a point where all my favourite creators are doing by far their best work in Image or for other independents, to the point where I feel like I no longer need my superhero fix?  I may have mulled over this hypothetical future briefly, but in truth, so long as there are comics as excellent as Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman out there, I will always remain a fan of superhero comics.  For me, saying “I refuse to read superhero comics” is as limiting as saying “I will only read superhero comics.”  I will read what entertain me the most, and what I feel are the best comics, period, and Batman is serialised comics storytelling at its finest, by any standard.  It had a slight wobble at the start of the year.  As much as I loved “Death of the Family”, the very last chapter didn’t quite stick the landing for me as much as I’d hoped.  Then we had a few more low-key issues that, while entertaining in their own right, didn’t live up to the title at its exhilterating best.  And, as I’ve mentioned before, I hated the concept of “Zero Year” when I first heard it.  But execution is everything, and with one of the finest creative pairings in comics today at the helm, I feel like a fool for ever doubting.  “Zero Year” has been utterly remarkable, with Greg Capullo crafting some of his best artwork yet; really pushing the boundaries and getting increasingly experimental with his layouts and innovations.  And Scott Snyder has skilfully found new wrinkles in the Batman mythos, and ways of making Batman’s well-worn early years feel fresh and dangerous.  One of the big secrets of this title’s continued to success is that, at its core, Snyder has made it a Bruce Wayne character study, with each major arc picking apart a different weakness, bringing out the vulnerability in a character all too often presented as invincible.  In this character-driven approach to its iconic hero, I think people are perhaps misguided in comparing “Zero Year” to Year One.  If anything, it’s Batman’s answer to Birthright.  For the third year running, Batman closes the year out as not only the biggest, but also the best superhero comic currently on the shelves.

 

4. SAGA

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Woe betide poor Saga!  Last year was the closest-fought battle for the #1 spot I’ve ever had in trying to decide between the top two entries in my year-end list.  In the end, Jeff Lemire’s instant classic The Underwater Welder only just squeezed past Saga to top my list of the best comics of 2012.  But I took heart in thinking that Saga was in for the long haul, and was all but guaranteed to top this year’s list.  I had it pencilled in for the #1 spot from January.  But over the course of this year, sadly, I feel like the mighty Saga lost a step.  Only a step, mind, but even that slight faltering, combined with the massive impression made on me by the three remaining entries on the list, were enough to have that prized #1 slot slip from Saga’s fingers once more.  I think its downfall was that a lack of forward motion or a sense of urgency in the plot, particularly in this current third arc.  I do feel like the ending of this most recent issue signals that the proverbial shit is about to hit the fan and things are really going to start moving, but up until now it feels like much of the narrative progression has ground to a halt in favour of just hanging out with the characters and getting inside their heads a bit more.  This would be a bigger problem for most books, but thankfully Saga happens to have some of the best characters in comics, and so hanging out with them is a joy in of itself.  Because while I may bring up the concerns about pacing, I’m almost not bothered about the wider story of the intergalactic war going on, as I’m so engrossed with what Marco, Alana, Prince Robot IV, The Will, Lying Cat et al are up to, the interesting conversations about life and love they’re having.  I’ve actually got a sneaking suspicion that Brian K Vaughan is in fact trying to stealthily get us into an intimate family drama about what it means to be a parent and to be a child, about the families we’re both born into and that we make for ourselves,  and he just cleverly disguised it as a sweeping sci-fi/fantasy epic.  His cast are so fully realised that I already feel like I know them, and so it’s extra devastating when any of them die, or even placed in mortal danger.  And what can be said about Fiona Staples that hasn’t already been said?  In her tenure on this title, she has evolved into one of the premier artists in comics, and each issue is packed with more beautiful imagery and masterful characterisation.  This is true superstar work, and her work here has secured her spot on the comic artist A-list for years to come.  It’ll be interesting to see how Saga fares next year.  Will it go down the list if the pace continues to frustrate?  Or will it go up the rankings if the plot kicks into motion, or if I more fully embrace the narrative working on a whole other level than what I’d perhaps originally anticipated?  Perhaps next year it might even claim that elusive #1 spot?

 

3. THE WAKE

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Surprisingly, Batman is not the highest-ranked Scott Snyder comic on my list.  No, that accolade goes to The Wake, his collaboration with artist Sean Murphy.  With American Vampire spending most of this year in hiatus, The Wake was left to fill the void in Snyder Vertigo output, and it instantly became the imprint’s standout title for the bulk of 2013.  Channelling the likes of Alien and The Thing, The Wake tells the story of marine biologist Lee Archer, taken down to a secret base at the bottom of the ocean with various other aquatic experts, where they quickly end up stranded and pitted against monstrous creatures from the black depths below.  I think there is something inherently alien and frightening about the deep, deep sea, and Sean Murphy’s visuals here prove utterly masterful at capturing that sense of isolation and claustrophobia.  I first became a fan of his on American Vampire: Survival of the Fittest, and what I’ve seen of Punk Rock Jesus is very impressive, but this is Murphy’s most accomplished work yet, true auteur stuff.  Snyder, meanwhile, managed to craft a narrative packed with tension, shock reversals and genuine frights, but his most audacious move has come at the halfway point, which we’ve now reached as the year comes to a close.  If The Wake had just been a 5-part miniseries about this horrific ordeal experienced by this ensemble of characters we come to care about in their deep sea base, it would have been considered a home run success as an intimate, tightly-contained thriller.  But Snyder is instead doing something much more ambitious, weaving vignettes of the distant past and the impending apocalyptic future through the narrative, and setting the stage for the second phase of the series, which promises to explode open the scope of the story into a tale of global dystopia in a catastrophic future where the siege of phase one has escalated into all-out war for the future of mankind.  It’s risky, as if it doesn’t work the whole thing could collapse.  But if he pulls it off, it’s going to be spectacular.  When it’s all said and done, I can see The Wake standing as a trademark comic for both Snyder and Murphy: when it’s all collected in a lovely hardback, that’s always going to be a hot seller.  And I can already see The Wake being a hit movie in a few years.  But that might be getting ahead of ourselves.  First, let’s see if issues #6-#10 can be executed as note-perfect as issues #1-#5 were.  With the talent involved, I’m confident!

 

2. EAST OF WEST

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It’s strange seeing East of West ranked above Saga, considering back when East of West #1 came out I wrote I talked about the parallels between the two titles, and how I felt that Saga #1 did a better job of introducing its world.  In fact, I didn’t warm to East of West right away, originally dropping it after issue #2, so I remained vocal in my affirmation that Saga was the superior series.  But I continued to hear good things about East of West, so I ended up getting the first graphic novel around the time issue #6 came out to give it another try.  As it turns out, I was a fool.  A blind fool!  Something just clicked for me on repeat reading, and I fell in love.  Really, the comparisons with Saga only work on the barest of surface levels, as this is ultimately a different beast.  Saga is using the backdrop of a massive, epic intergalactic war to tell a very small, intimate, personal story about a family’s struggle for survival.  East of West is telling a massive, epic story that’s staggering in scale, so much so I feel like even now we’ve yet to taken in the full scope of its multi-pronged narrative.  It’s a story so big I don’t think I can do it justice in this paragraph, but basically it’s about an alternate history of America, one where the Civil War went a different way and ended up with America divided into 7 nations, and our story begins with the time drawing near where the Four Horsemen are destined to bring about the end of the world.  Only one of them, Death, has his own agenda, one that involves getting revenge on those who wronged him and reclaiming a lost love.  Each issue is an exercise in giving us a piece of the puzzle, unlocking another part of this sprawling world and hinting at how it might connect into the bigger picture.  You get a firm sense in reading that writer Jonathan Hickman has this whole universe intricately mapped out, and each chapter is just him methodically shining a spotlight on it one small chunk at a time.  And that first issue I originally found to be less accessible than Saga #1 has opened itself up as a rich exercise in world-building, and an immensely enjoyable comics package in itself, one I’ve revisited just about as much as Saga #1 by now.  The series as a whole has offered up great reread value for me, with my Volume 1 graphic novel having already got a good battering from how well-thumbed it’s become.  A good deal of that is because artist Nick Dragotta makes the comic an absolute pleasure to look at, each page a breathtaking work of art I want to hang on my wall.  It is Dragotta’s flair for design that has brought Hickman’s vast ensemble cast to life.  As last month’s 30 Characters Showcase feature on my blog demonstrated, East of West has just been a machine for pumping out memorable new characters this year, emerging from the ether fully-formed and instantly iconic.  A friend of mine described East of West to me as Muse’s “Knights of Cydonia” as a comic.  I can see where he got that from, but I disagree.  For me, it’s Ennio Morricone’s “Man with a Harmonica” from Once Upon a Time in the West as a comic.  With East of West, Hickman and Dragotta have crafted a work of desolate beauty that stands as the best new comic of 2013, a year packed full of excellent new comics.  

 

1.  THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS

ManhattanProjects11bIt’s a Jonathan Hickman double-header!  For me, when it comes to comics, 2013 was the year of The Manhattan Projects.  It was always a good comic: it placed very respectably at #6 last year, and almost as early as I’d decided on Saga as my likely #1 comic of 2013, I’d pencilled in The Manhattan Projects at #2.  But in 2013, it’s like a switch flipped and the series catapulted from “very good” to “mind-blowingly fantastic.”  Literally, right from the start of the year: it was January’s issue #8 specifically that I identify as the series truly hitting its stride and launching into a chain of A+ issues that hasn’t been broken since.  The issues released in 2012 were all about setting the stage, introducing us to an alternate vision of 1940s America where the gathering of famed scientists for the construction of the atomic bomb was in fact a cover for numerous other, more dangerous and outlandish experiments, and none of those beloved scientific minds of history were what they seemed.  By the end of last year, representatives of America, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia (not to mention the odd alien planet and alternate dimension) had gathered under The Manhattan Projects and declared themselves beyond the jurisdiction of any one nation.  And so, with 2013, we launched into the consequences of this action, with Oppenheimer, Einstein, Feynman, Von Braun and co pitted against an Illuminati-type organisation of figureheads representing entrenched power and the old way of thinking, led by none other than an orgy-loving mason President Truman, and a reanimated A.I. President Roosevelt.  Yes, this happened.  January’s issue #8 did the unthinkable by making us root for and even grudgingly respect Von Braun, who up until this point (and after it, really) has been portrayed as an unrepentant Nazi bastard, as he battled against the odds against A.I. Roosevelt.  Then issue #9 turned the tables with a massacre montage of Godfather proportions, cementing the scientists’ of The Manhattan Projects’ status as rulers of the world.  It was also the issue that confirmed for me that, more than any book starring The Avengers, the Justice League or the X-Men, The Manhattan Projects is the best team book in comics.  After that, issue #10 saw guest artist Ryan Browne tell an absolutely bonkers story from within the fractured mind of Joseph Oppenheimer, where the absorbed consciousness of Robert Oppenheimer punched horses and witnessed Being John Malkovich type scenes of legions of Oppenheimers engaged in acts of depravity.  Issue #11 switched gears again with a poignant character study of Harry Daghlian, the most human of the entire ensemble cast despite being a flaming radioactive skull in a containment suit.  Issue #12 then flipped that around into an emotional gut punch that cast scenes from earlier in the series in a disturbing new light.  From there, it became clear that, if the first arc of the series was about the team being assembled, and the second arc was about it reaching the height of its power, the third arc was about the team becoming fragmented by threats from within. 

 

I can happily rattle off issue-by-issue accounts of what went on without needing to go back to my comics for reference, because I’ve read each issue so often as to know the chronology of what’s happened pretty much by heart.  Even without anything else, that alone would probably be enough to justify its #1 spot here.  More than any other comic I read this year, The Manhattan Projects held the most reread value for me, where I could repeatedly read the whole thing from the beginning, or jump into issues out of order, and continue to enjoy it and get more from it.  That to me says I got more enjoyment from these comics than any other on the list, and to put anything else at #1 would be patently dishonest on my part.  But thankfully, there’s so much more evidence to support the title’s claim at the top spot.  Every member of the creative team triumphs in their role.  Writer Jonathan Hickman’s profile is arguably larger than ever right now, coming off Infinity and with his acclaimed role as master architect of the Avengers line for Marvel, but The Manhattan Projects remains his most fun, accessible book.  And it’s so character-driven, too.  Each member of the cast is so well-realised that I find myself thinking about where their story will take them or absently doodling them the way I might do about Batman or Spider-Man, and it’s even made me more interested in reading up on their real world counterparts.  If East of West is a vast puzzle that is gradually pieced together, The Manhattan Projects is much more about instant gratification, throwing jaw-dropping concepts at us and packing crazy revelations into each issue, only to then detonate that status quo and launch us into something new and even more exciting, like Hickman’s daring himself to somehow manage to maintain this crazy pace.  We’ve seen new world orders be formed and dissolved, and central characters have been maimed or killed in the process.  It’s a thrill-ride, but doesn’t sacrifice the smarts in the process.  Artist Nick Pitarra has grown leaps and bounds over the course of the series, going from an intriguing emerging artist who drew influence from some of my favourites in the field to becoming a master storyteller in his own right.  Each issue of The Manhattan Projects is a dense read that I take my time on, and a large part of that is that Pitarra crams into each page visual detail that enriches the narrative and the characterisation, in keeping with the spirit of the script but quite independent of it.  I savour and dwell on each page of a given issue, marvelling at the construction and becoming immersed in this twisted world Pitarra presents to us.  I mentioned that I like doodling characters from the comic, and I end up doodling them in a crude approximation of Pitarra’s style, because that’s how those characters look to me… they seem more real in his style than they do as real physical humans in old photographs.  And his perfect partner is colorist extraordinaire Jordie Bellaire, who textures Pitarra’s figures just right to give them a cartoonish, spritely weight on the page.  Her influence on the aesthetic of the book has become so indelible that she ended up recoloring the early issues she didn’t draw for the trades, because now those early issues just don’t look right without her.  Even letterer Rus Wooton was given opportunity to showcase his deft work this year, with one extended sequence in issue #12 really requiring him to take centre stage and shoulder the weight of the narrative.  These guys really have come together to form what is for me a comics dream team. 

 

I find it galling that The Manhattan Projects doesn’t get more recognition.  Of course, those who read it love it, and sing its praises.  But I sometimes see major comics news sites not bother to review new issues on the week of its release, and it’s been annoyingly absent on some of the year-end lists I’ve seen.  This seemed to be the case with previous list-topper Scalped as well, though its status seems to have grown some since its conclusion.  But it’s there loss, as month in month out, I get more enjoyment from The Manhattan Projects than anything on the shelves.  On an issue-by-issue basis, it’s a joy.  As an extended serialised narrative, it’s a triumph.  And there’s so much I’m itching to see from the series in 2014.  First on the wishlist: what is the secret origin of Ustinov, and how did he end up as a floating brain in a jar?  Will the series maintain its momentum and hold onto the top spot next year?  Who knows?  If this list has shown anything, it’s that there are no sure things, and that there are always new titles clamouring to grab readers’ attention.  But for now, what I can say for certain is that no comic made me love comics in 2013 more than The Manhattan Projects.

ManhattanProjects11c So, to wrap things up, here’s 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

 

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

30 Character Showcase #19: Elliseye

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.

19. ELLISEYE

DungeonFun5Created by Colin Bell and Neil Slorance

Yep, it’s Dungeon Fun again!  This will be a brief entry, as what else can I say to gush about this excellent new comic from Colin Bell and Neil Slorance? This is a book filled to the brim with charming characters, including yesterday’s spotlighted character, heroine Fun Mudlifter.  But perhaps the biggest scene-stealer of all in a comic full of them is Elliseye, the aged wise-man  and de facto community leader of Fun’s pit home.

The thing is, he may he aged, but he might not be quite so wise as everyone believes him to be, in a hilarious undercutting of this particular fantasy archetype.  The whole sequence with him revealing his “prophecy” to Fun provides one of the biggest laughs of the issue.  I just imagined him talking in the voice of Billy Crystal’s Miracle Mike from The Princess Bride.  But just when you’re ready to write Elliseye off as a total buffoon, he surprises us with an act of touching heroism.  He might be another example of a “single service character,” we’ll see, but his appearance here was one of the highlights of this stellar first issue.

Dungeon Fun has now launched, with a launch party set for Plan B Books on Wednesday night.  If you trust my opinion in comics now, please check this book out, as it’s just a joy to read.

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30 Character Showcase #18: Fun Mudlifter

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.

18. FUN MUDLIFTER

DungeonFun3Created by Colin Bell and Neil Slorance

I feel like people must be getting sick of me raving about Dungeon Fun by now, but trust me, it’s worth every word of praise!  If you want to see me gushing about the virtues of the comic as a whole, please refer to the previous post in this very blog, where I talk a bit about its presence at the fast-approaching Thought Bubble.  But here, I want to focus on the particular charms of its heroine and (believe it or not) title character.

Neil Slorance gives Fun an immediately arresting design.  That front cover, with the little girl clutching the massive sword she can barely carry, instantly marks her out as an interesting figure.  Then you open the comic and see how Slorance can tug at the heart-strings, giving us a quietly moving account of her being raised by adoptive goblin parents who then died of old age, leaving her twice-orphaned.  And then Colin Bell steps in to imbue Fun with a lively personality and spark-plug wit, always ready with a pithy putdown and a clever comeback.  She gets to prove her mettle as an adventurer in this first issue, and emerges as an instantly likeable protagonist.  Now, when can I get a Fun Mudlifter soft toy?

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Thought Bubble: A Rundown of Royal Armouries Hall, Table 2

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This coming weekend, I’ll be down in Leeds for Thought Bubble, one of the biggest and best comic conventions in the UK.  There are all kinds of guests and debuts at the show I know I’m excited about as a fan of comics.  But for the rest of you attending the show, here is a handy guide to all the great comics that will be available from my table: Table 2 in Royal Armouries Hall…

ThoughtBubbleFloorPlan2013See us on the right there, just near the entrance?  You can’t miss us!  Anyway, if you stop by Table 2, here’s what you’ll find:

AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE

The critically-acclaimed, award-nominated horror mystery series made a big splash back at Glasgow Comic Con with the debut of its first issue.  Since then, it has continued to pick up momentum, with us selling out of our first print run, then taking the comic across the Atlantic where it did very well at New York Comic Con.  Written by me and drawn by Iain Laurie, And Then Emily Was Gone tells the story of Greg Hellinger, a former cop plagued with visions of monsters and horrific apparitions, and stuck in a miserable life of solitude, until one night he’s visited by a teenage girl called Fiona.  Having learned of his reputation for solving the most impossible of missing persons cases, Fiona recruits him to help her find her missing best friend, Emily.  Their search takes them to the Orkneys, and the remote island community of Merksay, where strange and terrifying things are happening.  As well as bringing the first issue to Thought Bubble, we’ll also be debuting the eagerly-anticipated issue #2!  Also, artist Iain Laurie will be in attendance at the show, so if you want to commission a sketch from the master of macabre, stop by the table sharpish to reserve one!

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BAD SUN

Written by me and drawn by Chris Connelly, Bad Sun is a sci-fi thriller set in a future Glasgow, 30 years after an alien race called the Tchairabun has migrated to Earth.  It tells the story of Lenniidasz Cowan, the first Tchairabun police officer to be promoted to Detective Inspector, who is placed in charge of a new department tasked with overseeing human/Tchairabun relations in Glasgow.  But as an extremist Tchairabun terrorist group emerges, Lenniidasz is torn between this external threat and the prejudices of his human colleagues.  With its Glasgow setting and political subtext, Bad Sun has enjoyed quite a bit of press here in Scotland, getting featured in several Glasgow newspaper articles, and enjoying strong reviews.  Thought Bubble marks the first time Bad Sun #1 will be available outside of Scotland, and artist Chris Connelly will also be in attendance, taking sketch requests.

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BLACK LEAF

Long in development as a graphic novel, artist Garry McLaughlin and I decided to release a special preview edition collecting the first 24 pages of the story as a special convention exclusive for MCM Expo Scotland a couple of months back.  It went down a treat, and ended up being my biggest seller of the day.  Now I only have a limited supply left, and am bringing them down to Thought Bubble.  It’s about a boy who travels to the Scottish Highlands to care for his ailing grandfather, only to encounter ancient magical forces lurking within the local woods.  If you’re interested, get your copy from our table… while stocks last!

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THE STANDARD

The comic that started it all for me, my trademark book, available in comic shops worldwide and on ComiXology.  Hailed by critics and winner of a SICBA award in 2012, The Standard is the story of a superhero mantle spanning two generations, and an examination of the way the world – and its view of what makes a hero – has changed across generations.  Can the old, optimistic ideals of The Standard still be relevant today?  Four issues of the 6-issue miniseries – written by me and drawn by Jonathan Rector – are now available, but remaining stocks are extremely limited.  If you want to get caught up on the series, you’ll have to get to Table 2 quick, as the remaining stock will go fast!

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But it’s not just my comics that will be available from Table 2…

EXIT GENERATION

Sam Read is a good friend of mine.  Some of my best memories of my 2012 England cons – Kapow and Thought Bubble – were of hanging out with Sam, and hearing all his incredible story ideas.  One such idea was for this comic, known in its current incarnation as Exit Generation.  The irresistable premise sees the world faced with a crisis of over-population, and so the vast majority of the population – the world’s best and brightest – set out in massive space armadas to discover a bright new future outwith our galaxy.  But then our story doesn’t follow them, but instead sticks with those left behind on a now nearly-empty world.  Having honed his skill in various anthology shorts, Sam brings his considerable writing talent to his first full-length published comic, and this first issue does a great job of setting up this world and introducing us to some well-realised characters.  On art duties is Caio Oliveira, who I became a fan of with his skillful work in Gordon McLean’s award-winning supehero deconstruction No More Heroes.  Here, Oliveira’s work has grown even more refined, resulting in one of the most polished, professional-looking small press titles you’ll find at Thought Bubble this year.  I told Sam a year ago that I looked forward to tabling with him in 2013, and that has come to pass!

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MASTER TAPE

Watch out for the name Harry French.  He started frequenting meetings for the Glasgow League of Writers earlier this year, and instantly started making waves amongst our little creator collective with his masterful scripts.  With an impeccable sense of pacing and an ear for slick, natural dialogue, he’s one of the standouts in a group brimming with emerging talent.  Master Tape marks his debut comic, drawn by Amaru Ortiz Martinez, and gives us a glimpse into a future-world where the music industry is dying a death, as the world’s youth heads off-world to enjoy the music of the cosmos rather than deal with humdrum Earth bands.  Desperate and on the brink of extinction – quite literally, as it happens! – fading music producer Leo O’Brien resorts to bold and desperate measures to revive his sinking label.  This is such a skillfully plotted book, and perhaps the most impressive thing of all is that I’ve read the scripts for the projects Harry has lined up for after this, and they’re even better!  Harry will be at our table selling and signing.  Get his autograph: in a couple of years, it’ll be worth something!

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DUNGEON FUN

In my humble opinon, this could be THE must-buy book for the whole of Thought Bubble.  At the very least, it’s a tie with Garry Mac’s Gonzo Cosmic, available over in New Dock Hall.  Written by Colin Bell, writer of Detective SpaceCat and letterer of EVERY COMIC IN SCOTLAND, and seeing him pair up with his Jonbot VS Martha artistic collaborator Neil Slorance, Dungeon Fun is a hilarious, all-ages fantasy adventure laced with a Princess Bride style knowing wit.  It’s about a human girl who has lived in a troll pit her whole life, and who decides she’s sick and tired of dealing with the dregs from the world above getting thrown into her home.  So she’s going off on a mission to complain about it… even if she has to navigate a dungeon labyrinth and do battle with three-headed monsters along the way!  Bell’s script is packed with zingers and epic punnery, setting up a story filled with memorable characters.  And you all know I love the art of Neil Slorance.  He gets better all the time, and this could represent a new high for him.  But he manages to maintain that perfect balance of adorable cutesiness and surprising moments of heart and poignancy.  Colin will be signing at the table, and Neil Slorance has a table of his own over at New Dock Hall.  Really, I can’t recommend this book enough.  I’ve said it so many times now, but it is one of the best issue #1s of the year, from any publisher.  Pick it up!

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And that’s the rundown!  Really, you’re spoiled for choice, with a diverse range of cracking comics to choose from.  Stop by our table and grab them all!  Table 2!  Royal Armouries Hall!  Thought Bubble!  November 22nd-23rd!  BE THERE!

Glasgow Comic Con Review Roundup!

GCC13TableIt was Glasgow Comic Con this past weekend, and I had an absolute blast!  I was there exhibiting, sharing a table with artists Iain Laurie and Chris Connelly.  I was selling the first issues of my two new books – And Then Emily Was Gone and Bad Sun – and debuting issue #4 of The Standard, as well as copies of the earlier issues and the 1-3 graphic novel from last year’s con.  This was the con’s first year in the new venue of the CCA, right in the heart of the city centre, and I have to say it was a big improvement.  It’s a lovely venue, marvelously designed, and though there were a few minor issues it seems the response I’ve been hearing from both attendees and exhibitors was that they loved the locale.  The sun was glorious all weekend, perhaps a little too glorious on the Saturday as the top floor turned into a hotbox.  But it gave the whole event a fantastic summery atmosphere.

Overall, the con was a huge success.  Sadly, team And Then Emily Was Gone didn’t go home with any SICBA awards, despite being the only comic to be nominated in every category.  However, I made more in comic sales than at any other con I’ve attended thus far, with the most rewarding sales at all being people who either bought one comic on the Saturday and came back to buy the rest on the Sunday, or who had bought The Standard at last year’s con and loved it so much they came back to buy my new stuff.  Beyond the financial side of things, though, it was a pleasure getting to chat to friends old and new, be it fellow comics pros or passionate, enthusiastic comics fans.  One particular highlight for me was seeing this guy pop up in a Frying Scotsman costume!

FryingScotsmanCosplayBut the purpose of this blog isn’t to talk about my experiences as an exhibitor.  I want to talk about how I enjoyed the show as a fan of quality creator-owned comics.  Over the weekend I got a few sketches, jumping back and forth between Iain Laurie and Neil Slorance.  Here’s a look at them:

Bonnie Shaw from AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE, as drawn by Neil Slorance.
Bonnie Shaw from AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE, as drawn by Neil Slorance.
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Gordon from AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE, drawn by Iain Laurie.

Neil Slorance's version of Harry Daghlian from THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS.
Neil Slorance’s version of Harry Daghlian from THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS.
Joseph Oppenheimer from THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS, by Iain Laurie.
Joseph Oppenheimer from THE MANHATTAN PROJECTS, by Iain Laurie.

That Oppenheimer is perhaps my favourite of the bunch.  It makes me wish I had exploited Iain’s good will and got similar onesheets for the whole cast of The Manhattan Projects.  Beyond the sketches, there were of course the comics.  Here are my quick thoughts on the comics I picked up over the weekend:

DARK ASCENSION:  Winner of both Best Writer and Best Artist at the SICBA Awards, Jim Devlin does his most accomplished work yet with this dark thriller.  The main story is 14 pages long, telling a pulpy noir/horror tale of a former grifter lying low as a circus clown who is faced by a sinister figure from his past.  The second half of the book is taken up by a reprint of a tale I read back in 2011, my first exposure to Devlin’s work.  It’s an appealingly nasty little story on its own, but when placed in the context of the main feature it creates this picture of the world of Dark Ascension being like Sin City with a dash of Lovecraftian horror lurking in the background.  It feels like Devlin is crafting the opening salvos of an ambitious, expansive mythology, and I can’t wait to see him progress further into this dark, intriguing narrative.

METRODOME:  The other Glasgow Comic Con debut from my artistic collaborator Iain Laurie, this sees him reuniting with Roachwell partner Craig Collins.  In a testament to Iain’s diversity, this is a very different type of comic from And Then Emily Was Gone, in both tone and execution.  The big supervillain smackdown Craig Collins creates is fun, but the most fascinating aspect of this comic for me is the whole process of how it was put together, as Craig explains in his foreword.  Craig’s fevered imaginings, paired with Iain’s twisted visuals, results in a compellingly weird piece of experimental fiction.

COSPLAY KILLERS:  I didn’t quite know what to make of this.  At first I thought this was supposed to be about a superhero team, which made me feel rather uncomfortable about the extremes of casual violence inflicted on people for seemingly dubious motives.  But if you view the eponymous Cosplay Killers as a gang of psychopaths whose actions we’re not supposed to condone, the whole thing takes on a Grand Guignol black comedy vibe – severed heads in the dishwasher! – that makes for suitably debauched entertainment.

RAYGUN ROADS:  This comic slipped totally under my radar, but over the Saturday buzz for it was building and building.  By the time Sunday came I knew I had to buy it to see it for myself.  And I’m glad I did.  This psychadelic slice of hyper-pop lunacy from creator Owen Michael Johnson is one of the most fiercely original bits of storytelling I’ve encountered all year.  The plot takes the idea of a band of being from a realm of pure imagination colliding with the humdrum regular world as a launching pad, then flies off into the stream-of-consciousness stratosphere, aided by trippy, dynamic artwork.  The whole thing is presented like music in comic form, which seems oddly fitting.  I’ll definitely be on the lookout for the completed edition later this year.

CACACHUTE COMICS:  A collection of various comics shorts made by Coralie Bouguerra.  The earlier stuff in the book feels a bit rough around the edges, but by the time we get to “Sheol” and the second installment of “Zombies, Love and Rock N’ Roll” the work becomes noticeably more accomplished, culminating in the clever little epilogue “It’s Over”.  “Sheol” in particular is noteworthy, a grimly comic account of a lonely, depressed woman’s spectacular mental breakdown.

VAMPIRE VIXENS OF THE WERMACHT:  One of the breakout hits of the convention, selling out on the first day, I was lucky enough to pick up a copy of Alex Ronald’s magnificent grindhouse romp.  Everyone has been rightly gushing about Ronald’s amazing, superstar artwork – as Mark Millar points out in the foreword, the only reason Ronald isn’t an A-list talent right now is that he decided video games would be a more profitable career path and he has only just recently decided to re-enter the comics field – but the story too is a delight.  It features a sexy Nazi vampire hellspawn teaming up with a priest to fight the wicked occult forces of the Third Reich.  Cue a tale that infuses the spirit of adventure from the “boy’s own” war comics of old with the titillation of the raunchier Hammer Horror films.  If you like your breasts opulent and your penises severed, this is the book for you.  A perverse delight.

iHERO:  My good friend and table neighbour Luke Halsall wrote this, paired up with artist (and fellow table neighbour) Graeme Kennedy.  The result is both doing their most ambitious work to date.  Luke’s story, about the creation of an iPad/iPhone/iPod style gizmo that allows anyone to become a superhero, and the effect that has on the world, is a significant step up from the more small-scale, self-contained effort of his Mind Palace comic debut.  Graeme, meanwhile, leaps genres from the murky crime of Villainous to classic superheroics with a twist.  Once again he triumphs with a great cover design, which I saw customer after customer be drawn to on the con floor.

MAXIMUM ALAN:  As bonkers and nigh-indepicherable as the first installment, this splurge of raging id continues to get mileage out of putting Alan Moore in one ridiculous, humiliating predicament after another.  If you ever wanted a shot of esteemed comics luminary Alan Moore’s bare arse as he gets spanked, this is the comic for you.  But this second issue enjoys a major boost over the first one, as it marks the inclusion of Neil Gaiman as a character, brought to life arguably with even greater aplomb than our title character.

And this was just a selection  of the books available.  I had been meaning to pick up SICBA-winner Big in Japan, Royal Descent, See Far Enough and the new issue of Fatman & Ribbon, but was so caught up in selling  I never got round to it.  But I was once again taken aback by all the creativity in the Glasgow comics scene.  Another successful show…. the road to Glasgow Comic Con 2014 begins now!

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REVIEW: The Amateur Astronomer’s Journal

With Glasgow Comic Con approaching, you can expect many of my upcoming reviews to likely be dominated by the latest offerings of the Scottish independent scene.  As mentioned in my recent preview of the con, one of the comics I was most excited about checking out was The Amateur Astronomer’s Journal, from cartoonist Neil Slorance.  After first coming to my attention with his fun artwork on Jonbot VS Martha, Neil really put himself on the radar with Nine Lines of Metro and Seven Days in Berlin, his good-natured autobiographical travelogue comics that I marked out as among the best creator-owned comics of last year.  The Amateur Astronomer’s Journal is a return to the realm of fiction, with a oneshot that has scooped up multiple SICBA award nominations.  Does it live up to the hype, or does it buckle under the weight of expectation?

I’m pleased to report that the answer is very much the former.  The Amateur Astronomer’s Journal is a delight, another elevation from an emerging comics talent who continues to refine his cartooning style.  At first glance, with his noseless, smiley-style faces and his handwriten lettering, Neil Slorance’s work may appear rough and simplistic, and that may have been the case in his earliest output.  But now, particularly with The Amateur Astronomer’s Journal, I think it’s clear that Slorance has a structure and evolving style all his own.  Like Art Balthasar or Dustin Nyugen’s Lil’ Gotham stuff, or even the more adult output of Jeff Lemire or Matt Kindt, there is an appearance of looseness and simplicity, but it follows its own internal logic, and is actually finely crafted with a grasp of pace and storytelling that can not just be replicated by any layman.  Right now, Neil Slorance’s work sits nicely in the realm of small press, with a charming, personalised touch to the handcrafted physical product, but with a bump up into the production values I feel like his style could also settle nicely into a more mass-market comic publication.

Similarly, the story is ostensibly straightforward, about a young woman who escapes the stress and bustle of the big city to enjoy a quiet night out in the countryside stargazing with her telescope.  But Neil Slorance has mastered a discipline I shall hereby refer to as “the ninja feels,” where you think you’re reading a slight, cutesy adventure, only for a powerful amount of heart and pathos to sneak up on you and turn the whole thing into a surprisingly emotional reading experience.  See, this isn’t really about astronomy at all, no matter how much of the book is taken up with “this star is cool” and “that planet is interesting.”  It’s about loneliness, and the isolation that can so often be a part of adult urban life, and the ways we try and capture the happiness of our simpler childhoods.  This may be projection, but the wording of the woman finding “her dad’s old telescope” or remembering how her dad “used to take her stargazing” gave me an impression that her father was dead, and this had been left to her.  But even if that’s not the case, there’s still an argument for how we lose that intimacy with our parents as we grow older and can never quite recapture it.  Our protagonist’s loneliness is brought into starker relief by a blighted love story filtering through the periphery of the tale, one whose resolution should soften even the hardest of hearts.

The Amateur Astronomer’s Journal is the most accomplished work yet from a cartoonist I’m enjoying more and more.  His reputation has quickly flowered on the Scottish comics scene, and I think he’s now well-positioned to connect with a wider audience.  His offbeat brand of sweet slice-of-life is something the comics world can always use more of, and I eagerly await bigger projects from Neil Slorance and the bigger audiences they will deservedly attract.

AmateurAstronomersJournalThe Amateur Astronomer’s Journal is available to buy in print from Neil Slorance’s online shop, or digitally for Kindle.

Glasgow Comic Con 2013: A Creator-Owned Comics Preview

So, there’s a comics convention coming up in July that I’ve been looking forward to all year.  “Oh, San Diego?” I hear you ask.  Nope!  I’m talking about Glasgow Comic Con!  Sure, the climate ain’t as sunny as SDCC, but for the past two years my hometown con has put on a hell of a show.  In 2011 and 2012, the event was held in the Mackintosh Church Arts & Heritage Centre, a lovely venue full of character which I personally enjoyed, as it was so unlike your typical convention hall.  However, the downside was that it was way outside the City Centre, so getting there was a bit of a chore.  But for the third annual Glasgow Comic Con, running from Saturday July 13th to Sunday July 14th, the organisers have switched to the Centre for Contemporary Arts, better known as the CCA: a cracking, upmarket venue with a brilliant location right in the heart of the City Centre.  Things are primed for this year’s convention to be the best yet!

As an independent creator, there’s one thing in particular that makes me really like Glasgow Comic Con.  Yes, the show has had its share of high-profile guests – with the likes of Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Jim Starlin and Mark Millar all making appearances over the past couple of years – who are game for panels and signings.  Yes, there are bargains on back issues and graphic novels to be found in the exhibitor area.  But last year, something that has stood out to me is that, perhaps more than any other con I’ve attended, the “star attraction” seems to be local creator-owned comics.  Last year, there were many reports of quick sellouts of sizeable amounts of stock from numerous indie creators, with a recurring problem (and a good one to have!) being pros selling out of all their stock by the end of the first day or the start of the second day and have nothing left to offer even as fans kept on coming up to their table looking for stuff to buy.  I personally had my most profitable convention ever at last year’s show, and I’ve exhibited at Thought Bubble and New York Comic Con.  I had some of the easiest pitching experiences in my life: I have a little blurb rehearsed in my head that I cycle out on punters on the convention floor, but often at Glasgow Comic Con I’d only make it as far as “Hi, can I interest you in my comic, The Standard?” before they’d cut me off with a “YES PLEASE!” and put money in my hands.  There were folk who just started at one end of the show floor and went through every small press table, buying something from everyone.  There’s something about the Glasgow comic fanbase that has a strong interest in supporting local talent, it seems.  It’s reflected in the prominent, popular “local” sections in our comic stores.

Given the highly positive experience of last year, there has definitely been a buzz around the thriving Scottish comics community over the past several months, a feeling of just about everyone working away on something in hopes of getting it ready in time for the con.  I for one love it that the debut of the latest comic from this local creator or that is feeling like an event and an attraction that will be drawing people to the convention.  Of course, I’ll be there as a pro and an exhibitor, but as a reader, the thought on getting my hands on the latest work from Neil Slorance or Craig Collins is a major draw.

Bearing all this in mind, we return, in a roundabout way, to the purpose of this feature.  I want you all to be as excited about the wealth of Scottish comics being showcased at Glasgow Comic Con as I am, so I want to do a rundown of the diverse range of creator-owned comics debuting at the show.  I firmly believe there’ll be something for every comics fan available.  Let’s get started!

THE STANDARD

TheStandard04_18pSelfishly, I am opting to begin by promoting myself!  I shall take that as a perk of being the guy to write this thing!  For me, The Standard was the comic that started it all.  My first experience attending a convention in any sort of professional capacity was Glasgow Comic Con 2011, where The Standard #1 was nominated at the Scottish Independent Comic Book Awards (or SICBAs) affiliated with the convention.  Fast forward to 2012 and I had a table at the show, and The Standard went from being an award-nominated comic to an award-winning title, with me earning the Best Writer trophy for issue #3.  As mentioned above, I had a hugely successful con, with my graphic novel collection of the first 3 issues of the series proving to be a big seller.  And now, a year later, after much demand, The Standard #4 will finally be ready to make its debut at the con!

TheStandard04_05pWe’re just putting the finishing touches on it now, and I have to say, I’m so proud of the work everyone has done on this.  From a scripting perspective, I’d say it’s a leap forward from the previous three issues.  Jonathan Rector’s artwork is perhaps the best it’s ever been.  Mike Gagnon is settling very nicely into his role as permanent colourist – the first person to last more than one issue in the role!  And Kel Nuttall continues to deliver consistently ace letters.  I’d definitely say The Standard #4 is the best of the series thus far…. and Glasgow audiences will get to read it before anyone else in the world!  We’re currently pencilled in for a worldwide Diamond release in October, but attendees at the convention will be able to pick up their advance copy in July, a whole 3 months earlier!  Not only that, but this will be a Glasgow-exclusive edition, with a new cover by Scottish artist Iain Laurie drawn specially for the show.  It’s still in development, but here’s a sneaky peek:

IainLaurie4CoverBut that’s not the only comic I’ll be debuting at the con…

BAD SUN

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Chris Connelly has some form at Glasgow Comic Con.  He was one of the aforementioned small press success stories last year, with his debut comic Reality War selling out in record time and marking the young artist out as an emerging creator of note.  It was at Glasgow Comic Con 2012 that the two of us really got to chatting about the possibility of working on a comic together.  And from those discussions came Bad Sun.

For those of you unfamiliar with my previous conversations about the comic, Bad Sun is a sci-fi comic set in a future where an alien race known as the Tchairabuns have migrated to Earth, and have now been living amongst us for some 30 years.  While most stories may adopt a setting of New York or Los Angeles, or maybe London, to show how the world would react to such an event, Bad Sun is set right here in Glasgow, Scotland.  It’s not a locale used often in sci-fi tales, but I think the local angle will be highly appealing to the comic fans attending the convention.  The story centres around Lennidasz Cowan, a Tchairabun adopted in infancy by human parents who forged a trailblazing career in the police force, and who now finds himself appointed the leader of a new taskforce dealing with human/Tchairabun relations in Glasgow.  In this role, he has to deal with both the machinations of a Tchairabun extremist terrorist group and the anti-alien prejudices felt by some of the city’s human population and even his own team.

The first issue of this new 6-part miniseries will be on sale at Glasgow Comic Con, and contains both a 24-page main story, drawn by Chris Connelly, and a 5-page backup tale drawn by Jason Mathis of School of the Damned fame.  We’re packing in the content here!  Both Chris and I will be at the table selling the book, so come along to meet the co-creators and pick up the first chapter of what could be my most ambitious comics narrative yet!  Chris Connelly will also be selling original art and prints, and doing commissions most likely, so you won’t want to miss that!

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That leaves one more book of mine to promote…

AND THEN EMILY WAS GONE

coverIain Laurie has good form at Glasgow Comic Con.  Back in 2011, he was award-nominated for his stellar work on Roachwell, where I first became a fan of his.   In 2012, he didn’t have a table or an official presence at the show, but I did buy off him my copy of Iain Laurie’s Horror Mountain, which ended up being the best thing I got at Glasgow Comic Con 2012.  Now, at GCC 2012, I’m pleased to report that Iain Laurie will be tabling with me and Chris Connelly, doing commissions (an original Iain Laurie sketch is near the top of my con wishlist) and helping me sell copies of the first issue of And Then Emily Was Gone, the 5-issue miniseries we have co-created.

Page3And Then Emily Was Gone begins with Greg Hellinger, a man who sees monsters.  Formerly a police detective with the Missing Persons Bureau, renowned for his ability to find people thought lost forever, the visions Hellinger is afflicted with have left him a broken man.  But then a 17-year-old girl called Fiona shows up at his door.  Her best friend, Emily, has gone missing, and Fiona has reason to believe only a man of Hellinger’s unique skill set can help her.  So begins a journey to Merksay in the Orkney Islands, a strange place where horrible things are happening…

The benchmark Iain and I often talked about while developing this comic was Twin Peaks.  We wanted to capture that weird, slightly off-key vibe, permeated with a cloud of dread hanging over everything.  I think this simultaneously manages to be both Iain Laurie’s most mainstream work and my most bizarre and out-there.  It’s an unusual comic, to be sure, but one I’m highly proud of.  I’ve said it until I’m blue in the face, but it bears repeating that I am unbelievably excited to be working with Iain Laurie, particularly on such a subtantial project, and I quite simply cannot wait to share it with you.

Page7And thus ends the self-promotion!  This is by no means all about bigging myself up, as I’m just one of several local creators showcasing work at Glasgow Comic Con.  For starters, And Then Emily Was Gone isn’t the only debut featuring artwork from the venerable Iain Laurie.

METRODOME

Metrodome1Iain Laurie reunites with Craig Collins, who paired with Laurie for Roachwell in 2011 before making a splash with his Haunted Bowels at last year’s con, for a new anthology of strange tales.  In the convention’s three-year history, Craig Collins singular creative voice has already made him something of a fixture.  The unique visual stylings of Iain Laurie have proven to be a worthy match for Craig in the past, so I’m keen to see where that collaboration takes them with Metrodome.  The actual plot remains elusive, beyond the vague teaser of “The Fight for Survival, The Battle for Ultimate Victory!”  But considering the talent involved, this is already a guaranteed con purchase for me.

Metrodome2Guaranteed to have a major presence at the con is Black Hearted Press, Glasgow-based comics publisher and also the organisers of the convention.  They have a veritable slate of quality projects primed to unleash on  con attendees this July, both established brands and exciting new titles.  Let’s take a look at what they have in store…

THE SCHOOL OF THE DAMNED

SchooloftheDamned5Arguably the flagship title of Black Hearted Press, The School of the Damned has already proven successful enough to sustain its own spinoff title, The Children of the Damned.  Played like a love letter to the classic Universal horror movies, the series focuses on a school of monstrous misfits derived from the iconic horror archetypes of that cinematic golden age, set against the backdrop of WW2-era Nazi Germany.  I’ve spoken fondly of the series myself in earlier reviews, with its mix of clever plotting by John Farman and lush artwork first from James Devlin in issue #1 and then Jason Mathis in issues #2-#4.

With The School of the Damned #5, launching at the con, we welcome a new art team to the fold in the form of Thomas Crielly and John Howard.  I’ve had a glimpse at some of the stuff these guys are doing, and it is lovely stuff, living up to the high benchmark set for the visuals on this series by their predecessors.  This issue, the penultimate chapter in the series’ first arc, promises a major character death and a beast of a cliffhanger, and also boasts the jawdropping cover by the mighty Alex Ronald seen above.  I presume the rest of the series thus far will also be available, and I heartily recommend that horror fans check this quality series out and catch up on the story so far.

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‘Great concept; good characters; intriguing storyline; art and writing up to the task – terrific!’ – Ian Rankin

LAPTOP GUY

On the opposite side of the spectrum from the Gothic stylings of The School of the Damned, and a testament to the diversity of their lineup, comes Laptop Guy.  Originally a comic by cartoonist Sha Nazir about the adventures of the eponymous laptop-headed protagonist, this series relaunch sees Nazir return on art duties while joined by writer Jack Lothian.  The series has been reinvented as a metatextual, very loosely “biographical” comic about a fictionalised version of Sha Nazir and his struggles to make the previous incarnation of Laptop Guy, here characterised as an utter turd of a comic: “Failure has a new name,” reads the tagline, “And that name…. is Laptop Guy.”.  I’d call that harsh, as I found the original Laptop Guy to be a charming book, and I know people who speak of it fondly, but it does make for a funny conceit to build the narrative around.  This is billed as a “sitcomic”, a term I’ve had in my head for ages and am so pissed that Sha got to capitalise on it before I could, and having got a sneaky peek at the issue, I can confirm it does bring the funny, and shades of the movie Adaptation.  At the very least, Laptop Guy #1 is more successful than its fictionalised counterpart!  The first instalment of this relaunch will be available at the con, so check it out for yourself.

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‘A guy with a laptop for a head… Weird and funny. – Bill Bailey

MAXIMUM ALAN

MaxAl_1_reprint_layoutAnother offering from Black Hearted Press, this one is truly bizarre.  It’s a violent, surreal tale, starring legendary comics writer Alan Moore.  And Alan Moore.  And Alan Moore.  And Alan Moore.  And Alan Moore….

You get the idea.  Issue #1, which I picked up at the convention last year, began with the real Alan Moore going about his misanthropic daily life, only to be confronted by an army of murderous parallel dimension Alan Moores out to eliminate him.  And things got weirder from there.  This year, writer Ross Leonard and artist Brian Rankin are back with a second helping, as issue #2 debuts in time for the con.  I have heard whisperings of cameos from other famed comic creators, too!  The solicit describes Maximum Alan as “a comic trip unlike any other”, and no one can argue the uniqueness of this oddity, that’s for sure!  I thought this was a good laugh, and I’m sure the second chapter will be more of the same.  Look out for it at the show!

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ROYAL DESCENT

The final Black Hearted Press book to be featured at Glasgow Comic Con, and perhaps the one I’m most looking forward to.  The high concept behind the series just sounds brilliant.  With the fall of the British Government and society in ruins, a new and powerful political party takes the reigns in this dystopian vision of a future Britain. The Austerity party’s first act is the public execution of the British Royal family… by their own hand.  From there we launch into what seems to be “The King’s Speech meets Battle Royale,” which promises to make for a brutal, controversial, eerily relevant comic experience.  John Farman has some big ideas for this one, and all the artwork I’ve seen from John Howard suggests he’s a real talent of note worth keeping an eye on, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this ends up being a breakout hit of the convention

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Black Hearted Press are a veritable juggernaught of Glasgow comics, and as you see will have a wealth of material on offer at the con.  But there is a wide selection of other creators also showcasing their comics at the show.

GLoW 2

Glow2The Glasgow League of Writers is a great network of creators based in and around the city, who meet fortnightly for a kind of writer’s circle for comic to read and provide feedback for each other’s scripts.  It’s an invaluable creative resource, one I’m proud to have been a founding member of.  At last year’s Glasgow Comic Con, our debut anthology, creatively titled GLoW 1, was another of the con’s sell-out successes.  That first volume was on a superhero theme.  This second volume, with the similarly creative title of GLoW 2, has switched genres to horror.  With a wider stable of writers and artists contributing, and a higher quality of storytelling all round, I’d say those who picked up the first anthology at last year’s show and enjoyed it definitely won’t be disappointed by this follow-up.

I’ve got two stories in GLoW 2: “Floorboards”, drawn by my old friend James Fairlie, and “Open House”, drawn by my Bad Sun collaborator Chris Connelly.  And there’s also work from a whole range of new and established Glasgow talent.  Be sure to head over to the GLoW table and check it out!

Open_House_Page_4Speaking of GLoW members…

NO MORE HEROES

NoMoreHeroes4A little anecdote I never tire of telling is that, at the very first GLoW meeting back in 2011, the very first script on the agenda was Gordon McLean’s No More Heroes #1.  Back then, it was clear Gordon was writing something special, and since then we’ve seen that first draft script grow into a 4-issue miniseries, we saw the original roughs and sketches of artist Caio Oliviera, and then we saw it all blossom into a complete comic.  And at last year’s SICBA awards, No More Heroes walked away with the coveted award for Best Comic.  Since then, the remaining issues have been released, and now the conquering hero returns to Glasgow Comic Con with the complete series in tow.

The story only got better with each passing issue, so Gordon and his comic must surely be considered front-runners to make lightning strike twice for awards glory.  It really is a fantastic series, a dark twist on the superhero genre that sees a hapless Everyman dragged into a murky world of violence and villainy after his dismissive response to what he believes is a prank call results in the suicide of a famed superhero.  Whether it’s catching up on the whole series or scooping up any issues you missed, this is a highly recommended purchase for your Glasgow Comic Con visit!

NoMoreHeroes3aTHE MIND PALACE

MindPalaceLuke Halsall is another founding member of the Glasgow League of Writers.  Perhaps best known for his journalistic work for Geek Syndicate and his prose work that has found quite the following on the Kindle market, his comic work has mostly been limited to shorts in anthologies.  The Mind Palace marks Luke’s first foray into a substantial solo comics project, an anthology piece filled with various shorts, all written by Luke and drawn by a wide range of artist, covering a variety of genres but unified with an uneasy weirdness of tone.  Luke is notorious for his iron-clad pitching abilities on the convention floor, so whether you plan to or not, expect to leave Glasgow Comic Con having bought a copy of The Mind Palace, along with an odd sock and a bridge.

MindPalace1I’ve also heard reports that Luke Halsall will be debuting another top secret comics project at Glasgow Comic Con, drawn by Villainous artist Graeme Kennedy (who will also be selling Villainous alongside writer Gary Chudleigh).  Keep your eyes open!

VAMPIRE VIXENS OF THE WEHRMACHT

VampireVixens1Two years ago, artistic wunderkind Alex Ronald made everyone’s eyeballs explode with his stunning artwork in Vampire Vixens of the Wehrmacht, a story being serialised in the Wasted anthology.  He ran away like a bandit with the Best Artist SICBA that year, and has spent the time since even further honing and refining his craft to the point where not just your eyeballs, but your whole cranium is at eruptive risk from exposure to his perverse visual delights… as Vampire Vixens of the Wehrmacht is back, this time not just as an anthology short, but as a full, self-contained oneshot!

Vampire Vixens of the Wehrmacht features the wartime adventures of a gorgeous Nazi Vampire defector and a pompous British Army chaplain as together they take on Hitler’s occult horde.  It’s boobs, blood, guns and gore with political correctness thrown out the window.  That’s the setup, and that’s really all you need, isn’t it?  Ridiculous, high-octane exploitation, with Nazis, vampire, Nazi vampires, and more cheesecake than you can poke a stake at.  And it’s all held together by Alex Ronald’s stunning painted artwork, chanelling the likes of Alex Ross and Jon J Muth.  Alex will be tabling at Glasgow Comic Con, where he’ll be offering Vampire Vixens of the Wehrmacht with two variant covers, in a volume boasting an introduction from none other than Mark Millar.  This is sure to be a hot item at the show.  I know I’ll be buying it!

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TEAM GIRL COMIC

One of Glasgow’s most popular indie comic exports, Team Girl Comic has found fans all across the UK.  I for one saw them make a killing at the Thought Bubble convention in Leeds last year.  The central conceit of Team Girl, as the title might suggest, is that it’s a comics anthology created entirely by female cartoonists.  Their open submissions policy has seen a diverse range of content in past issues, with a few schoolkids even contributing from time to time, but quality stalwarts such as Gillian Hatcher and MJ Wallace remain a recurring presence in the series.  Their latest issue – Team Girl #8 – will be available at the con, as will earlier issues, I’m sure.  These books seem to go down really well with the all-ages audience, I’ve noticed, though that shouldn’t be taken to mean kids only: there’s enough charm and smarts on display for readers of all ages to enjoy. 

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However, I’m pleased to report that Team Girl Comic won’t be the only offering from the talented Gill Hatcher…

BUNNY BEHIND THE MOON

BunnyBehindTheMoonPart comic, part children’s storybook, Gill’s latest project looks quite simply delightful.  Wonder is a little schoolbunny with unusually long ears. One day these ears start to receive strange messages – someone appealing for help. Could it really be a bunny astronaut lost in space? Wonder must use her intelligence and bravery to rescue the bunny behind the moon.  Packed full of adorably-drawn bunnies, this book is set to overload your “Aaaaaaw!” sensors, and should prove a great showcase for the skills of Gill Hatcher as she moves from the collaborative Team Girl network into a project where the spotlight is all on her.  I remember reading an early draft of the script for the book way back when at a GLoW meeting, and thoroughly enjoying it, so I’m highly anticipating seeing the finished product.  I expect it to do very well at the con.

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BIG IN JAPAN

BiginJapanAnother talented new creator who’ll be presenting at Glasgow Comic Con is Morag Kewell.  I knew Morag as one of the Hope Street Studios crowd, though I thought of her as more of an artist of models and crafts like hand-made jewellery as opposed to comic illustrations.  But it turns out Morag has multiple strings to her bow, as at the Dundee Expo earlier this year, this comic book travelogue of her trip to Japan proved to be a big hit.  I had thought of Neil Slorance as the undisputed champion of the comic travelogue, but it seems like this sub-genre is a growing niche on the Scottish comics scene.  It’s a nice demonstration of how comics are a medium, not a genre, and any kind of story – including non-fiction stories – can be told in the format.

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FAT-MAN AND RIBBON

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I gave the #0 preview issue of this fun superhero parody a positive review back when I read it, but said that it was really just a teaser, and that the proper issue #1 would be the real test of the book’s quality.  And now, Fat-Man and Ribbon #1 is set to launch at Glasgow Comic Con.  When Matthew Charles Marlowe, C.E.O. of the world renowned clothing empire Fat Men, Inc., is suddenly confronted by the dastardly machinations of sinister and powerful forces of anarchy he has but choice: become the hero his city kinda sorta needs! Set in the fictional, future capital city of Scotland, Metro Scotia, Fat-Man and Ribbon is a semi-autobiographical tale of justice, adventure, intrigue and hetero life partnerships.  Written by Martin Ferguson, and with wonderfully crazed artwork by Andrew Docherty, I am expecting to be entertained!

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COSPLAY KILLERS

CosplayKillers1Written and drawn by Craig Longworth, Cosplay Killers has been cropping up in comic shops all over Glasgow, and now Craig will be bringing the first issue to the city’s native comic convention.  The book’s about a ragtag group of misfits enacting violent retribution on a “hit list” of what they feel to be the worst of society.  It’s Craig’s debut comic, from what I understand.  I remember the excitement and terror of trying to put my first comic out there with The Standard #1 a couple of years back, so kudos to Craig for diving in with Cosplay Killers.  It looks like suitably bonkers small press fun!

CosplayKillers2But I’ve saved perhaps the best for last…

THE AMATEUR ASTRONOMER’S JOURNAL

AmateurAstronomersJournalI’ve been interested in Neil Slorance’s work since his collaboration with writer Colin Bell on Jonbot VS Martha.  It has a quirky, cartoony cuteness to it that contains a surprising amount of expressiveness once you get into it.  But where Neil truly came into his own was with his aforementioned travelogues, Nine Lines of Metro and Seven Days in Berlin.  Making the jump from artist to cartoonist, Neil added another string to his bow, showing his art could be more than just cute and funny, it could be poignant and even heartbreaking, and pack surprising emotional wallop.  I was so impressed by Neil’s 2012 output that I’m now automatically invested in anything with his name attached, meaning this announcement of a move from non-fiction back to fiction for Neil is highly intriguing to me indeed.

Incorporating some of Neil’s real-life passion for science and astronomy, the plot of The Amateur Astronomer’s Journal is likely evident in the title.  But Mr. Slorance promises a bit of “sap” (his word) too, so I’m preparing for a tale that’s bittersweet and moving and brings all the feels.  This will probably be my first purchase at the show, and it’s a debut I’m anticipating more than most Marvel/DC stuff on the horizon.  Check it out for yourself to see what all the fuss is about.  And while you’re at Neil Slorance’s table, be sure to pick up his earlier books, and maybe get a sketch from him while you’re at it.  He really is a nice, talented fellow.

AmateurAstronomersJournal1So many great creator-owned comics for you guys to buy.  And that’s not including the other awesome comics from Glasgow creators I know to be in development, but which sadly won’t be ready in time for the show.  Stephen Sutherland and Gary Kelly’s pulse-pounding thriller Neverending, Garry McLaughlin’s mind-boggling sci-fi epic Gonzo Cosmic, and the top secret new collaboration from Colin Bell and Neil Slorance… each one of these not being available for me to get my hands on at Glasgow Comic Con is devastating in itself, but all three of them being absent is quite simply heartbreaking.  I’ll keep my eye out for all three in the hopefully not-too-distant future!

Hopefully this highly lengthy piece has demonstrated just how much talent there is in the Glasgow comics scene.  There is a rich selection of creator-owned comics set to be featured at this year’s Glasgow Comic Con, a lineup so strong I’d willingly match it up against the small press corner of any con in the world this year.  If you’re a comic fan in Glasgow, you have no excuse: get yourself to Glasgow Comic Con, CCA, July 13th-14th.  If you’re a fan of quality independent comics from further afield, on the other side of the UK, hell, the world… you should make the pilgrimage to Glasgow for this show.  Come join us, you can sleep on my couch!

Tickets are available to buy from the CCA or Plan B Books, or online at the official website.  Get yours now!  This show is gonna be the baws, and as both an exhibitor and a fan, I can’t wait.

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REVIEW: Seven Days in Berlin

Earlier this year I reviewed Nine Lines of Metro, a travelogue by cartoonist Neil Slorance chronicling his holiday in Barcelona, and gushed about how it was a lovely comic full of charm and heart.  Seven Days in Berlin is a sort-of sequel to that book, featuring Neil’s trip to Berlin to stay with Lisa, the girl he had a romantic moment with in Barcelona.  Does this second travelogue succeed in recapturing the magic of the first?

I’m pleased to say that yes, Seven Days in Berlin is every bit as good as Nine Lines of Metro, perhaps even better.  As was the case with the last travelogue, there’s a real sense of immediacy about the comic (it was released in November 2012, telling the story of what happened on October 2012) that makes it feel more personal.  The fact that Neil Slorance writes, draws, hand-letters and publishes the books himself heightens this sense of intimacy between creator and reader.  Indeed, the biggest strength of these travelogues remains Neil himself.  And I don’t just mean in terms of his distinctive art style – so simple, yet capable of capturing great little emotional beats – but in terms of how immensely likeable a presence he becomes within the perimeters of the story.  As our narrator and lead character, he very quickly becomes someone we can relate to and who we are emotionally invested in.

As a travelogue, the comic paints an interesting portrait of Berlin.  The big touristy aspects of the city are largely overlooked in favour of its more quirky, unusual elements.  According to Neil, you don’t get to know the character of a city by visiting the famous hotspots, but by getting lost and wandering around the back alleys, by going to parties and hanging out with the people who live there.  Slorance’s offbeat stylings mean that the whole thing isn’t necessarily straight-faced recollection of fact either.  There are some instances of fun embellishment, such as when Neil has a shamanic conversation with  a smiling giant tortoise.

On a deeper level, I think Seven Days in Berlin works even better as a love story.  Much as is the case with his approach to travelogues, Slorance doesn’t go for the obvious beats.  There are no grand, passionate kisses against some windswept, scenic German backdrop.  But it’s in the little moments, such as Neil waking up in the middle of the night and remembering how nice it is to have someone sleeping next to him, that their relationship becomes so tangible and endearing.  It’s such a lovely wee romance, and much of the comic is about seeing that relationship blossom, seeing two people connect in a natural, everyday way that would make even the stoniest of hearts believe in The Power of Love.  But then all of a sudden things take a bittersweet shift and, combined with the heartbreaking imagery of the last leaf falling from an autumn tree, we come to realise that this hasn’t been a story about two people coming together, but rather about two people saying goodbye, perhaps for good.  And once again I found myself taken aback by how this sweet, cartoony little book could leave me with a lump in my throat.  I mean, I know Neil in real life, but I forgot that and found myself wanting to shout “GO TO SOUTH AMERICA WITH HER, NEIL!” at Neil Slorance, the character.

I just love these books, and hope they become a recurring series.  We should send Neil off on holiday to interesting places so he can make comics about them!  They’re not quite like anything else in the Glasgow indie scene, and even in the wider comic market, I believe that the combination of the travelogue format with the adorable, emotionally evocative art style is distinctive enough for Neil to carve his own little niche.  Seven Days in Berlin is a delightful comic from a consistently enjoyable creator, and it comes with my seal of approval.

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Seven Days in Berlin is available to buy here, or you can buy both travelogues together here.

REVIEW: Nine Lines of Metro

With Glasgow Comic Con approaching, I’m really on a kick for local indy comics right now.  I’m of the opinion that Glasgow’s comic scene is as rich and diverse as anywhere, and there is a real wealth of all kinds of talent to be found here.  As proof that comics can take all kind of forms, take the subject of this review: Nine Lines of Metro, written and drawn by Jonbot VS Martha artist Neil Slorance.  This is a comic travelogue.  It might seem like an unusual choice for a comic, but as I’ll explain in my review, it actually works really well.  As I’ve said repeatedly before, comics are a medium, not a genre.

Nine Lines of Metro covers Neil’s recent trip to Barcelona.  And by recent, I mean VERY recent: he returned home on 31st May 2012, and I was able to buy the finished comic on the shelves of my local A1 Comics now at the end of June, less than a month later.  That’s one of the most impressive things about comics: how direct and current they can be, and in this comic in particular it lends vividness and immediacy to these captured moments in time.

When done well, a travelogue gives you a tangible sense of place, and in that sense the comic medium in fact lends itself very well to the format.  Perhaps even more than a photo, Slorance’s drawings of the various landmarks and locales he visited show us not just the places, but his experience of them, making this an all-the-more personal journey rather than just a tourist brochure.  I’ve mentioned before how simplistic Slorance’s artwork is, he himself calls it “childish”, but somehow even with this rudimentary linework, you really do get a palpable sense of Barcelona, or the Barcelona experienced be Neil Slorance, at least.

That “childishness” also reflects in the writing, with an opening of, “hello, I made this book while on holiday at the end of may 12: I hope you like it.”  With the short sentences, and the almost entirely functional account of his experiences, it almost reads like a primary school report: “My summer holiday.”  This only becomes a problem when the writing occasionally slips into primary school grammar, with commas, periods and even capital letters at the start of sentences and names falling by the wayside.  Apart from these hiccups, ever, I think this is a deliberate device, as though the book initially seems very simplistic – “This happened on the first day of my holiday, then this happened on the second day of my holiday,” etc, etc – over the course of its modest 22 pages Nine Lines of Metro unfurls hidden depths, and surprising poignancy.

This is embarrassing to admit, but when I got to the end of the book, I had a lump in my throat, and I didn’t know why.  Looking back through it again, perhaps it’s because I find Neil’s experiences relatable.  I recognise that feeling of being down on yourself, and needing to get away to somewhere else to come out of your shell and be the you that you want to be a little more.  Or perhaps it’s because the ostensibly happy story of Neil’s great holiday to visit his friend Morv is laced with a subtle sadness, as all holidays have to end and eventually you have to go back home.  Neil smiling as he says farewell to Marv, and that smile gradually fading over the course of his time in the departure lounge and transition into the plane leaving Barcelona in the last page is really understated, so much so it might not even have been deliberate and I’m reading something that’s not there, but I found it to be quite powerful.  Or perhaps it’s just because this is such a nice, touching book.  Though the brief moment of connection with Lisa at the festival is perhaps the standout sequence of the comic, ultimately this is a platonic love story between Neil and Morv, an unashamed celebration of how great it is to have a friend that you’ll always be close to, no matter how far away they are.

If you were to see Nine Lines of Metro on the shelf, you might be inclined to overlook it.  A rudimentary skim through the interiors might make you scoff at the roughness and apparent lack of detail.  But you’d be wrong.  This is actually a beautiful wee book.  Inspiring, too.  It makes me tempted to try doing my own comic travelogue the next time I travel somewhere.  Though I doubt I’d be able to do it as masterfully as Neil Slorance does here.  Highly recommended.

Nine Lines of Metro is available to buy locally in Glasgow, or from Neil’s Etsy store.

REVIEW: Jonbot VS Martha

This past week, I receieved news that at this year’s Scottish Independent Comic Book Awards, The Standard is nominated for Best Comic, and I’m nominated for Best Writer.  I was of course delighted to hear this news, but I was almost as delighted to see Best Writer recognition also given to my Glasgow League of Writers cohort Colin Bell, and to see his webcomic Jonbot VS Martha also make the Best Comic shortlist.  I have been a fan pretty much since the weekly series began, though I had missed some instalments here and there.  Upon deciding to review Jonbot VS Martha this week, I read the whole thing from the beginning to where we are now, and it made me appreciate anew just how great a job Colin Bell and artistic collaborator Neil Slorance have done.

I could explain the premise, but I think it’s better summuraized via the tongue-in-cheek “opening credits” sequence:

As you can see, Neil Slorance’s art is pretty rough and basic?  But you know what?  It totally works.  Yes, there are some inconsistencies: Martha’s hair color changes so often it surely must be a deliberate running gag.  But behind the simplicity of the characters and locations, Slorance manages to convey a surprisingly diverse range of emotions on those blank faces, crafting expressions that help a comedy beat hit home precisely.  And isn’t that one of the wonders of comic book art?  How, with just a few lines, an emotional connection can be established, and a character with heart and personality can be brought to life?  Take the eponymous Jonbot.  His face is two circles and a line.  But Slorance absolutely imbues those plain features with character, and those 2 circles and a line can convey a wide range of emotion.  A lot could be written about how much of that comes from Slorance himself, and how much of it is us mentally filling in the gaps, but that’s the topic of another piece, not this review.

As a final example of Slorance’s contribution, allow me to point to one of the best chapters of Jonbot VS Martha thus far, a psychadelic dream sequence that takes the form of an artistic jam session, a different artist drawing each panel, including a couple of familiar faces I’m fans of such as Iain Laurie and Dave Stokes.  Some of these images are rendered in far more detail than Slorance’s work, and they look stunning.  But still, it doesn’t quite feel like Jonbot VS Martha, and when Slorance comes back in the following chapter, it’s very much a welcome return.  In the same way that Greg Capullo has done with Batman (this may be the first time that Neil has been compared to Greg Capullo), Neil Slorance has branded this series with his own specific style, making it very difficult to imagine the story told any other way.

But with all this talk about Mr. Slorance, let us not forget Mr. Bell!  It’s quite funny, Colin Bell was at our table at Kapow Con giving out free sample mini-comics to promote the webcomic, and they seemed pretty popular with kids.  Parents would pick one up and be all like, “Here, Sarah, this is a wee comic with a robot in it!”  Oh, those poor children!  Though Neil Slorance’s art is quite cute and almost chibi in places, that is delightfully contrasted with Colin Bell’s caustic brand of humour.  There’s surealism, comedy so black it borders on bleak (“Daddy probably doesn’t have a soul”) and a liberal dose of bad language.  Not for the kiddies, then!

Though I’m sure he would ardently deny it, in person Bell is a bit of a loveable grump, a curmudgeon, and that absolutely comes through in his characterisation of Jonbot, so much so that I found it very hard not to imagine Jonbot speaking in Colin’s voice!  On this note, also bearing in mind how Jonbot’s relationship with his daughter has grown into the emotional core of  the overarching story, and considering that Bell himself is a new father, Jonbot VS Martha is actually a surprisingly personal comic, or at least as personal as a story with robots can be.  This relatable quality is likely what gives the series that added layer of depth beyond the laughs, which emerges at times as an almost poignant quality.

Not that Jonbot VS Martha is short of laughs.  The webcomic is regularly peppered with killer one-liners, and in the early stages of the series Bell showed a real knack for pacing out done-and-one stories around concise, precisely-aimed gags.  More recently, however, rather than resting on his laurels, Bell has experimented with how the constraints of the format and nature of the story can withstand a more longform narrative, with compelling results.  Colin is perhaps best known as a commentator on comics, writing reviews and articles for Newsarama and other sites and blogs, so it’s interesting to see how someone who clearly knows his stuff from an analytical perspective applying that knowledge to making a comic of his own.  I’m definitely keen to  see Colin Bell turn his storytelling skills to more ambitious projects in the future.

Jonbot VS Martha is one of my favourite webcomics, and I for one can’t wait until a bit more material is compiled, and we see it collected in a nice printed edition.  It will most definitely be an addition to my bookcase.  Until then, check out the webcomic for yourself, and see why it’s very deserving of its award nominations.

Jonbot VS Martha can be read online here.