REVIEW: The Walking Dead #100

As the writer of a series of review columns called The Creator-Owned Zone, it would be remiss of me not to share my thoughts on the biggest creator-owned comic of the year.  In fact, word is that The Walking Dead #100 is on course to be the biggest comic of any kind this year, projected to sell more than any Marvel or DC release in 2012.  Pretty impressive for what started out as a little indie book that could.  Issue #100 is a huge milestone for any comic, particularly a creator-owned series that has made do without the corporate backing or brand recognition of an iconic superhero, and that in the case of The Walking Dead has had the same creative team for the vast majority of its run.  Between this huge release (commemorated with an array of variant covers from some of the biggest artists in comics), the series’ current and now longstanding dominance of the bookstore graphic novel sales charts, and the upcoming 3rd TV season of The Walking Dead among the biggest attractions of the as-of-this-writing ongoing San Diego Comic-Con – with a panel in the massive Hall H usually reserved for the big movie previews – it seems like we are in the triumphant summer of The Walking Dead.

I must admit, I’ve had mixed feelings about all of this.  As someone who has been a fan of the comic for the past few years, it’s been so great to see the television show hit so big, opening up this world to a much larger fanbase and in turn getting more eyes on the comic.  It remains a surreal joy to see Robert Kirkman’s profile continue to raise, with his executive producer status on the show turning him into a bit of a TV personality, with regular fixtures on AMC’s Talking Dead show and guest appearances on other media.  As a fan of creator-owned comics in general (and indeed, as someone who wants to write my own), it has been very exciting to see this area of the comics industry flourish, with more high-profile quality titles launching and some of the industry’s biggest and best names launching new creator-owned properties, something which I believe the huge crossover success of the Walking Dead machine has played no small part in facillitating.  However, while I’m generally pleased for the title’s success, lately I’ve felt my passion for the product itself wane.  I feel the TV series stumbled in its second season, meandering and aimless save for a few notable bright spots, though it did recover in the last few episodes to deliver a strong close.  More worryingly, the comic itself has faltered for me.  Though the series as a whole comfortably stands amongst my all-time favourites because of its dizzying high-points, for over a year now I just haven’t been gripped by the latest story developments.  At points I’ve wondered if I was just buying out of habit, with the title going from first on my read list on the week of its release to nearly last, and though the storytelling remained solid enough to ensure it wasn’t in immediate danger of being dropped, I was unsure if the series could continue to hold my interest long term after that #100 milestone.

But then The Walking Dead #100 came along and just blew me away.

Rather than stopping the plot dead to do some special anniversary one-off story, Kirkman made the wise decision to just make this another chapter in the ongoing story, albeit a highly dramatic, utterly gripping one.  After being built up for the past several issues as an off-panel menace, the main thrust of this issue is finally getting to meet Negan, the leader of the tyrannical army of mauraders called The Saviors, who keep the various communities of survivors under their thumb.  And boy, is he a total scumbag.  I already want him to die a horrible, horrible death.  Many believe The Walking Dead was at its absolute best during the Woodsbury/Governor saga, as The Governor was one of the vilest villains to ever appear in a comic book, and having such a potent antagonist helped to really put the whole plight of the protagonists into focus.  Post-Governor, the series hasn’t been able to deliver another foil in The Governor’s league, with focus instead shifting to this recurring idea that any threat the group faces are poseurs, and no match for our battle-hardened protagonists when it comes to sheer viciousness.  Negan is not yet quite so repugnant as The Governor, but what makes him a compelling villain is, at last, we finally get the sense that our heroes are once again hopelessly outmatched, faced with evil they can’t hope to fight against.  And so their struggle to do so has already captured my emotional investment.

Something else that has perhaps served to drain the excitement from the series in recent months is that things had seemed to get a bit less dangerous.  This was a comic that ruthlessly upheld its “No character is safe” policy, famously wiping out almost the entire cast during one climactic set-piece.  But with the TV series coming along and characters becoming beloved to a wider audience, I started to think Kirkman might have begun pulling his punches, having characters miraculously escape the clutches of death when before they’d have been bluntly offed.  Plus, the move to this new community offered up a new bunch of expendable ciphers who could be offed and provide a body-count where necessary while the remaining core cast remained relatively safe.  Not the case anymore.  I won’t go into spoilers, and I’m not saying anyone necessarily dies in this issue, but for the first time in quite a while, numerous of our old favourites are put in a position where we seriously fear for their chances of surviving.  And getting that old feeling of dread back into this book reminds us how effective this series can be as a horror comic.

Charlie Adlard’s art, paired with Cliff Rathburn’s slick grayscales, remains as potent as ever.  It’s funny how, when Tony Moore first left the book, some grumbled about Adlard’s less flashy style.  96 issues later, Adlard has proved to be a machine, and has utterly made the aesthetic of this world his own.  He has a real knack for “acting”, powerfully depicting the emotions of the ensemble, which has served him well over the comic’s run.  And, as demonstrated to devastating effect in this issue, he can get really nasty when he has to.  One extended sequence of violence even had this jaded, “seen it all when it comes to violence” reader recoiling from the page.

The Walking Dead #100 is a triumph, one of the best single issues this series has had in ages, and a perfect demonstration of what this comic does so well when it’s at its best.  I want Negan to get his comeuppance NOW, but I suspect we’re at the beginning of an extended arc now.  After this issue, I’m definitely onboard to see where that arc takes us.  The Walking Dead #100 absolutely lives up to the hype, and if it does end up being the year’s biggest comic, it’s deserving of the accolade.

REVIEW – Chaos Campus: Sorority Girls VS Zombies #11

Today, I read Alpha Girl #1, the latest hyped-up new Image issue #1 to be released on the year of the publisher’s 20th anniversary.  It often seems like a new series from Image gets an automatic buzz around it, but I’d venture to say that Alpha Girl was only the second best “teenage girls VS zombies” comic I read this week, with first place going to this 11th issue of Chaos Campus: Sorority Girls VS Zombies, from writer B. Alex Thompson and artist Kewber Baal.

I get a lot of indie issue #1s sent to me for review, but it’s more unusual for me to get an issue #11.  I think that alone is commendable: that this is a concept that creator Thompson has kept running for a whole 10 issues already, with no end seemingly in sight.  Getting a miniseries off the ground is ambitious enough, so taking the ongoing approach is extra-ballsy.  Even more ambitious is the fact that Thompson has also woven in a crossover with Dogwitch, another title from publisher Approbation Comics.  Bearing all this in mind, it’s also a big point in this comic’s favor that, despite issue #11 being my first exposure to Chaos Campus (or, indeed, Dogwitch), everything felt very accessible to me, and as a first time reader I felt like I was quickly caught up on everything I needed to know.  Not just in terms of a handy collection of character bios in the opening title/credits page, but in terms of characters reflecting on events that happened previously and demonstrating their personalities and relationships through their interactions with each other.

The story is pretty lightweight and goofy, but I think that’s the point.  In spite of serious peril in the form of zombies, axe murderers and assorted magical beasties, Thompson keeps things light, zipping along at a fun pace with another one-liner or sight gag never too far away.  It’s a shame that Violet – apparently, the guest-star from Dogwitch – is apparently only onboard for this issue, as she steals the show here, with some pithy put-downs and a surreal blend of humor that’s akin to my tastes.  The other girls are fun too, though, particularly Paige, who I got a real “Willow from Buffy” vibe from.

Kewber Baal does a good job with the art.  Each character is distinctive enough, and the locations are well rendered.  There is a slight tendency towards cheesecake at points – which I suppose is to be expected from any comic with “sorority girls” in its title – with one upskirt ass shot proving especially audacious.  But, I guess this is a compliment, the cheesecake isn’t as ridiculous as it could have been, or what you might have been led to expect from the cover.  And some of it’s so over-the-top – take the extended “Oh no, my clothes have disappeared!” sequence – that we have to assume it’s being played for laughs rather than titillation, and is supposed to be a parody of comic book cheesecake.  It’s not like some comics I’ve read, where I’d be embarrassed if a female friend caught me reading it.

Chaos Campus: Sorority Girls VS Zombies, may not be the most deep or profound read you’ll experience from a comic, but if you were expecting that with this title then you need to have your head examined.  This does what it says on the tin, providing action and laughs, and made for a brisk, enjoyable read.  Here’s to the next 11 issues!

Chaos Campus: Sorority Girls VS Zombies #11 is available to buy from IndyPlanet, or read the whole story as a webcomic at chaoscampus.com.

REVIEW: The Sixth Gun #13

In the past, I’ve spent quite a bit of time singing the praises of The Sixth Gun.  This supernatural Western series from Oni Press, written by Cullen Bunn and drawn by Brian Hurtt, was one of the best new comics of 2010.  The first storyline, “Cold Dead Fingers”, was a pulpy rollercoaster ride that served as the perfect antidote to the “deconstruction” of many contemporary comics, with more packed into each single issue than you’ll find in 6 issues of many Marvel titles.  The second arc, “Crossroads”, showed an impressive change of pace, Bunn demonstrating that he was equally adept at the slow boil in a more horror-tinged tale seeped with atmosphere that showcased a steadily escalating sense of dread.  And all the while, as each issue provided a full and satisfying reading experience in its own right, the overarching mythology of the series continued to be built upon and the characters continued to be developed.  Now, as The Sixth Gun enters its second year, can it maintain the high quality?

Unfortunately, it would seem that The Sixth Gun #13 and this current arc, “Bound”, aren’t quite up to the level of what has come before.  This is something I’ve never had to say about a chapter of this series before… but it was a very quick read.  One of the things I’ve loved about The Sixth Gun thus far is it felt like every issue took us to some new and exciting place or situation.  But the entire body of this issue is just a continuation of the fight that began last issue.  And while the comic normally gives us gasping cliffhangers, this time round I literally turned the page to make sure there wasn’t more story I was missing, because the issue just ends, practically mid-conversation.  “Is that it?” is not my normal reaction to reading an issue of The Sixth Gun.

However, I don’t want to come down too hard on Cullen Bunn, as there is plenty he does right.  One of his biggest strengths with his work on this title has been his ability to continually add strange and interesting new characters to the mix, effortlessly building on his ensemble and making even bit-part players and single-service heavies feel rounded and compelling enough that they might be featured stars of extensive sagas in some lost world.  That trend continues this issue, with the further development of last issue’s new arrivals: sinister necromancer Eli Barlow, and Asher Cobb, a hulking mummy who may have more complex motivations and connections to the history of the narrative than we first believed.

Bunn also continues to do well with his established central cast, particularly our enigmatic protagonist Drake Sinclair, whose development takes a surprising turn here.  The final page may not have been a cliffhanger, but my anticipation over finding out what comes next for Drake will be more than enough to bring me back for issue #14.

One area where this issue certainly isn’t lacking is the visuals.  The action setpiece that dominates the issue revolves around zombies (and the aformentioned mummy) laying siege to a train, in a monster-mash homage to the classic “train robbery” setpiece of many a classic Western tale.  And the illustrations of Brian Hurtt, combined with the lush colors of Bill Crabtree, perfectly bring this to life.  Hurtt’s panel layouts emulate the sense of rapid movement one might get in a runaway train, with his cramped panel layouts suggesting the confined space of a train carriage.  The visuals put us right in the heart of the drama.

This may not be one of the better issues of The Sixth Gun, but even a weaker instalment of this excellent series is better than much of the comics on the market.  And I’ve built up enough faith in Cullen Bunn’s storytelling abilities to feel confident that, in the end, “Bound” will all come together just as nicely as “Cold Dead Fingers” and “Crossroads”, and The Sixth Gun will continue to excel in its second year.