Rocket Girl #1

Rocket Girl #1, by Brandon Montclare & Amy Reeder, Image Comics, October 2013

Rocket Girl #1 I’ve been doing a poor job on my plan to review a comic book per week, but I’ll try to make up for it, starting with the fun comic book Rocket Girl.

Rocket Girl was the subject of a successful Kickstarter over the summer, and is illustrated by Amy Reeder, perhaps best known for the Vertigo series Madame Xanadu, of which I enjoyed the art but felt it was let down by the story. (You can read a few of my comments on that series here.) I’m not familiar with writer Brandon Montclare, however.

The premise of this ongoing series is that Dayoung Johansson (age 15) is a member of the New York Teen Police Department in the near future, and persuades her boss that Quintum Mechanics has managed to change the past so it becomes the dominant corporation. Dayoung – the title character – arrives just as Quintum is kicking off their first big experiment – and promptly passes out. Taken in by a few of the scientists, she has to maintain her equipment with ancient technology, and then responds to an emergency elsewhere in New York City where she captures a criminal, and then escapes the local cops.

The kicker is that Dayoung comes from the year 2013, and has travelled back to the year 1986. And you may have noticed that there’s no Quintum Mechanics, New York Teen Police Department or Rocket Girl in our 2013.

I like the premise, and the first issue is a lot of fun, driven mainly by Dayoung’s enthusiasm (and nifty costume). Reeder’s artwork is excellent – oh how I love when an artist can draw dynamic panels that have backgrounds!

The story is a little shaky; I immediately wondered how Dayoung could show up and threaten to arrest the Quintum scientists, pass out, and not have them do something nefarious to her – like turn her over to the cops – never mind that she actually ends up staying with one of them in her apartment. It looks like the series is setting up a “hero and her team of supporting scientists” scenario, which feels cliche – especially since none of the supporting characters have much personality at this point – but could work out. And to balance out the plotting issues, the dialogue is solid and often witty.

So it’s a bit of a mixed start, but I’m optimistic that the early bumps can be overcome, while still being a fun, energetic series.

Goodbye to the DC Universe

With this week’s publication of Earth 2 #16, I’m dropping the last three comic books I’ve been buying set in the DC Universe [1]. This despite the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger, but with writer James Robinson leaving, it feels like a good point to jump off.

[1] Earth 2, World’s Finest and Batgirl.

Where DC and I have parted ways is that they clearly are interested in pushing their characters, whereas for me it hasn’t been about the characters for years, it’s been about the creators. I follow the creators I’m interested in, and I want to find people with interesting voices and novel stories to tell, and stories that are going to develop their characters and go somewhere.

But it seems like DC treats their creators as fungible, and the stories in the New 52 mostly have a mediocre sameness to them. None of them have truly excited me – the closest is Gail Simone’s Batgirl, clearly the standout voice of the New 52, but the weight of crossovers and events has dampened my enthusiasm for any Batman title. So I’ve gradually dropped them, until September’s “Villains Month” event presented a good opportunity to make a clean break. (I like to say that “a good jumping-on point for new readers is a good jumping-off point for old readers.”)

(Another is “creators, not characters”, though “creators, not properties” would be more accurate.)

I don’t really know what’s going on in DC editorial, but stories like the creators of Batwoman leaving the book after not being able to have their heroine marry her girlfriend reinforces my perception of it being all about the marketable properties for them. Setting them up for movies and TV shows, I guess (that being where the big money is). And, well, I don’t care about that. The recent Batman films were good because of Christopher Nolan, not because they starred Batman.

So this is goodbye. Not necessarily forever – I’m still buying several Vertigo books and creator-owned titles that DC publishes such as Astro City. But the New 52 is clearly the culmination of plans that DC editorial has been brewing for years, and it’s just not resulting in the kinds of comics that I want to read.

Brain Boy #1

Brain Boy #1, by Fred Van Lente, R. B. Silva & Rob Lean, Dark Horse, September 2013

Brain Boy #1 I have three different introductions to this post:

First, it’s been a while since I finished reading the first issue of a comic book and said out loud, “That was fun.” Brain Boy #1 met that exacting standard.

Second, Brain Boy was actually an early-60s comic published by Dell, which Dark Horse has reimagined. Wikipedia has a little info about the title.

And third, Brain Boy got a preview in Dark Horse Presents, Dark Horse’s fine monthly anthology series, and it impressed me. That story will be collected in a future issue, I understand, but it was on the strength of that story that I picked up this first issue. Anthology comics are good for something!

The title character is Matt Price, the world’s most powerful telepath (also a telekinetic). What do you do if you’re the world’s most powerful telepath? Raised by his parents’ employer after their deaths (hmmm), he now is “on loan” (?) to the Secret Service, where he works as part of the security detail on the most sensitive assignments. Oh, and he hates being called “Brain Boy”.

How do you write a story about a man who can know what everyone around him is thinking? Perhaps taking a cue from Alfred Bester’s classic SF novel The Demolished Man (which is also about telepaths), figuring that out seems to be part of the challenge. Price is approached by a man who claims to be able to deliver information about his parents, but he doesn’t actually have it; he “knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy”, and while Price could track that guy down, it would take time and resources. Or, he can do a job he’s being asked to do, even though it goes against his orders, guarding a dictator who’s visiting the United Nations. Before the first issue is out, there’s a turn, followed by a last-page twist, in this first of a three-part story.

Writer Fred Van Lente is perhaps best known for Incredible Hercules and Archer and Armstrong, both of which I would describe as “fun but light”. Brain Boy feels like it has the potential to be more substantive, especially if Price develops as a character (neither Hercules nor Archer are characters with a lot of development potential, albeit a lot of humor potential). Van Lente has a droll sense of humor, though it tends to result in a whimsical atmosphere rather than a lot of direct laughs. But he mixes in some hefty material here, as the story gets more serious throughout the issue, which is what the story will need to work.

R.B. Silva’s art has a very modern look, and the layouts and finishes are both strong (abetted by a complex coloring job by “Ego”). Some of his figures are a little hard to read (especially the ones with any facial hair), so there’s room for improvement there.

Overall it’s a very strong first issue. It takes place in the same universe as Dark Horse’s Captain Midnight revival (which is itself pretty good), but you don’t need to read that book to enjoy this one (and hopefully it will stay that way, as I’m pretty much done with crossovers at this point). While I could imagine the challenge of trying to keep coming up with clever ways to challenge Brain Boy might eventually wear thin, hopefully Van Lente can get at least a year’s worth of neat stories out of it.

Thor, God of Thunder #9

Thor, God of Thunder #9, by Jason Aaron & Esad Ribic, Marvel, August 2013

Thor, God of Thunder #9 If you’re not reading Thor, God of Thunder then you’re not reading the best title Marvel’s currently publishing (with apologies to Mark Waid and his excellent Daredevil series). To be sure, Thor sucked me in immediately because it takes place in three different time periods, but it’s got more going for it than that.

The premise is that an alien, Gorr, has decided to kill all the gods in all of the universe, earning the title “The God Butcher”. In the 10th century, Thor encounters him on Earth and manages to fight him off after being tortured by him. In the 21st century, Thor learns of him again and tries to hunt him down by researching other gods throughout the cosmos. And in the far future, Thor is the last survivor – and king – of Asgard, besieged by the God Butcher’s forces.

This issue is the middle of the series’ second 5-issue arc, “Godbomb”, in which Gorr in the future is building a bomb which will kill all gods. Through various machinations, the Thors of the past and present have ended up in the future, and the three Thors launch an assault on Gorr to stop his plan. This issue is essentially a big fight between Gorr and the Thors, and it’s quite well done. As it’s not the conclusion of the story, you can probably guess at the end of the issue, but it’s a good ride.

Jason Aaron (who wrote the great series Scalped for Vertigo) has been writing for Marvel for a while, but I haven’t read any of his titles. He knocks it out of the park in this series, raising questions about what purpose gods serve, the nature of an entity who can kill all gods, and where both sides fall on the moral spectrum. He also does a good (though not terribly nuanced) job of distinguishing between the brash young Thor, the professional modern Thor, and the world-weary future Thor. Artist Esad Ribic does a great job with the figures, but is light on the backgrounds (conveniently, most of this issue takes place in space). No artist that skimps on backgrounds ever achieves top-tier status in my book, but Ribic is good overall.

Thor consistently ends up on top of my to-read stack each week, and will as long as Aaron can maintain this level of storytelling.

Astro City #1

Astro City #1, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross, DC/Vertigo, August 2013

Astro City #1 It’s been two-and-a-half years since the last issue of Astro City (the Silver Agent two-parter), but it’s back with a new ongoing series. While one always wonders if they’ll rattle off another 12 or 14 issues and then go on hiatus for a couple more years, I’m willing to give them plenty of leeway since Astro City is to my mind the best superhero comic of the last 20 years (and it’s not even close).

This first issue of this new series feels like it’s trying to be a new phase in the comic’s history. Not only has the biggest mystery of past issues been solved (what happened to the Silver Agent?), but it kicks off with a mysterious character named the Broken man, a conspiracy theorist with purple skin and white hair, who spends the issue talking directly to the reader (or so it seems). He takes on a brief tour of the city, focusing on a giant door which materializes over the river. He also suggests that a shadow entity he calls the Oubor is behind, well, something going on in the city. The Broken Man is clearly a few guppies short of an aquarium, and who he is, what he’s doing, and how much of the truth he’s telling (if even he knows) is clearly going to be a component of this new series.

One of the neat things about Astro City has been that the “present day” tracks along in real time, so the earliest issues of the series occurred in the mid-to-late 90s, and this issue takes place in 2013. This means that some heroes have dropped off the grid, some have gotten older, and a few – like the Samaritan and Winged Victory – don’t seem to have aged at all. But we’re also reintroduced with Ben Pulliam, who was the main character in an earlier issue of the series, having just moved to the city with his two daughters. He’s older now, and his daughters are adults, and his mid-life crisis is a component of the story.

I’ve always characterized Astro City as basically being about what people living in a world with superheroes think about that, and how they react to it. And “people” in this case includes the heroes and villains. I suspect Busiek feels he’s writing about people living their lives in this world, but at its best I think the book is about how their lives are different from ours because of these changes. Sometimes they’re extraordinarily different, and sometimes they’re not (one could argue that The Samaritan is just an exotic sort of workaholic, for example). Astro City has a quixotic history (in my opinion) with mixing the cosmic and the mundane; the characters’ thoughts and reactions get lost amidst their actions – this was a problem I had with The Dark Age (which I reviewed in depth here). This issue takes a fairly cosmic turn towards the end, so I have a little trepidation regarding where the story is going. But overall Astro City (and Busiek as a writer generally) has such a strong track record that I’m willing to give it a lot of leeway.

Brent Anderson is one of the most underrated artists in comics, able to bring life to Busiek’s world, as well as character and setting designs by Busiek, Alex Ross, and himself. Occasionally his characters are not the most expressive (he does stern and sad expressions better than, say, joy or surprise), but that’s a nitpick.

Overall I’m just delighted that the series is back, and that they have almost a year’s worth of issues in the can. It should be fun.

Deathmatch #6

Deathmatch #6, by Paul Jenkins & Carlos Magno, Boom! Studios, May 2013

Deathmatch #6 I’ve been wanting to get back to writing weekly entries on comics again. This time around I’m going to focus on one comic per week. To start it off I’ll touch on a great comic that came out each of the last two weeks, and luckily for me there were two great comics for me to write about.

There are a couple of behind-the-scenes stories surrounding Deathmatch. First is writer Paul Jenkins’ statement on why he left writing for DC and Marvel – he’s now exclusively at Boom. Second is that Boom, like IDW, seems to be making a play to become one of the larger publishers, though in its case it seems to be angling to become more like Image (superheroes and science fiction), while IDW is taking the Dark Horse avenue (licensed titles and adventure books). One wonders whether what attracted Jenkins to Boom will stay in place as (and if) the company gets bigger and more prominent.

In the foreground, however, we have Deathmatch, which is Jenkins creating a superhero universe out of whole cloth, but then putting all the main characters in a mysterious arena where they’re forced to fight to the death in a single-elimination tournament. It’s Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars taken to the next level, without the preconceptions about who should win a particular bout.

It’s a hell of a hook, which is what made me buy the book in the first place, but the story is the characters trying to figure out who’s capturing them and why they’re being forced to fight (never mind how they’re able to mess with their heads to make even the purest heroes in the arena). With a large cast not every character shines, but many do, especially the unpowered Sable, Mink and Rat, who have been leading the investigation into who’s holding them and why.

This particular issue occurs just after the character had a chance to look behind the curtain as the complex’s power supply temporarily went down. Some scores were settled, and something awful was glimpsed in battle with Meridian, the book’s Superman equivalent. But the Manchurian realized the danger and reactivated the facility and the games went on. This leads to Dragonfly (a young man who’s retired but has been roped in nonetheless – that’s him on the cover) confronting Meridian, learning another piece of the puzzle in the issue’s cliffhanger.

The comics industry in my lifetime is littered with superhero universes created all at once which never panned out. Jenkins has wisely created a whole bunch of characters with sufficient backstories to make them characters, but doesn’t dive into flashbacks or a lot of detailed history. Rather, how the characters interact now is the focus. It’s made it to the top of my to-read pile each week it’s come out, and I’m eager to see where it goes. (And, assuming anyone’s left alive at the end of it, whether Jenkins gives us some insight into what the heroes’ world is like once they get back to it.)

Carlos Magno’s art is terrific. I recall his work as some of the better art in Countdown to Final Crisis (damning with faint praise, since hardly anyone else in that terrible series looked much good at all) He has a Dave Gibbons-like layout style (figures always drawn in freeze frame, with no motion lines) with an inking/rendering style a bit like George Pérez. He draws fully-realized backgrounds, too!

I’m not sure how long Deathmatch is slated to run, but 2 more issues or 6 I’m planning to enjoy it entirely.

Resident Alien: Welcome to Earth

Resident Alien: Welcome to Earth TPB, by Peter Hogan & Steve Parkhouse, Dark Horse, 2013

Resident Alien: Welcome to Earth If you’re looking for a clever little graphic novel that mashes up science fiction and mystery, then check out Resident Alien. I read the first chapter when it was serialized in the anthology Dark Horse Presents a couple of years ago, but somehow I missed the mini-series that finished out the story. So I was happy to find this collection.

I’m mainly familiar with writer Peter Hogan from scripting Alan Moore’s Terra Obscura series from a decade or so ago, and I’m not really sure how much of that was Moore and how much was Hogan. Artist Steve Parkhouse has been around for quite a while and I’ve seen his work here and there dating as far back as Warrior; his art style resembles that of Dave Gibbons, but I think it’s a little more organic.

The premise is that an alien crash-lands on Earth, scuttles his ship, and uses his mental powers to make everyone on Earth see him as a retired doctor, Harry Vanderspeigle, and he moves to a rural town to wait for someone to come rescue him. But when the town’s doctor is killed, he’s recruited by the sheriff to both play coroner and fill in for a while. Harry both gets intrigued by the mystery, and by the opportunity to become part of a community. Of course, he’s risking both his life and his cover, especially if he happens to run into a one-in-a-million person who his mental powers won’t work on.

It’s a simple story, but thoroughly enjoyable. Hogan doesn’t get bogged down in the details of how Harry’s powers work, and keeps his powers well-defined (he doesn’t seem able to pretend to be a shapeshifter, for instance, and though he is unusually perceptive in reading human behavior, he’s not actually telepathic). And the mystery is pretty good, too.

If this is the only volume of Harry’s story we get, then it’s a good one. But I hope there’ll be more.

The End of Comics Buyer’s Guide

I read this morning that the owner of Krause Publications has announced that the venerable comics periodical Comics Buyer’s Guide is ending its long run.

CBG (as it’s commonly known) was a regular part of my life for a long time. I first discovered it back in the mid-80s when voting for the annual CBG awards (which, at one time, were a big thing in comics) was announced in places other than CBG. I believe everyone who voted received a free copy of CBG #600 – I did, at any rate, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t pay for it. This was an extra-sized issue, the cover sporting a Mike Grell illustration for the upcoming Batman/Jon Sable mini-series (which as far as I know never actually happened). CBG was published in tabloid newspaper format, which was a novel thing for a teenager like me. It contained a huge letter column and was chock-full of comics news not readily available to most teenaged fans in those pre-Internet days.

I subscribed immediately. My first regular issue was #607 (which of course triggered my collector-mania to want to find #601-606, but I never actually tried). As I recall, the front page of that featured an article on the upcoming DC series Hex, which did see print. That first issue of Hex was cover-dated September 1985, which means CBG #600 must have come out sometime in 1984.

CBG was a weekly publication, and was anchored by three things: News, that voluminous letter column, and a large ad section in the back. The letter column saw the publication of several controversial letters over the years, most memorably (for me) that by “Name Withheld” arguing that comics writers were not really needed anymore since comics artists could do the writing side of the job perfectly well. Much hilarity ensued. I believe the identity of “Name Withheld” (one of the rare times a letter-writer’s identity was not published at his request by CBG) was eventually sleuthed to be a fairly notable comics artist, though I was never certain of it myself.

I subscribed to CBG for a little over 15 years – a bit past issue #1600, I think, so over 1000 issues – and I read it promptly and regularly for almost that whole span. I had a few (astonishingly poorly written) letters published in it over the years (my comics letterhacking career is not one I look back on fondly, for the most part), but despite that I enjoyed the hell out of the paper.

One enduring contribution CBG made to my life was the discovery of amateur press associations, and I spent a good chunk of the 1990s participating in a variety of APAs. I made several enduring friends directly or indirectly through membership in APA Centauri (which I discovered directly through CBG because the central mailer of the time ran classified ads to drum up membership in 1987) and Capacity.

CBG was edited by a couple of long-time comics fans, Don and Maggie Thompson, when I first subscribed. They were level-headed and even-handed (in my opinion, anyway), and kept the paper from going off the rails through various instances of tumult in its pages. Don passed away in 1994, which was a Big Deal for readers at the time, even for someone like me who was never really involved in comics fandom. Maggie continued to edit the paper solo afterwards.

I think CBG was ultimately done in by the Internet, as news and conversations drifted off to bulletin boards. It lost me when it converted to a monthly magazine format in 2004, as it was the weekly dose of news and letters which kept me interested in it; a monthly – but larger – publication didn’t interest me, as I liked reading each issue in a single sit-down, and the letter column became much less lively. My subscription happened to run out (a coincidence because I was renewing for multiple years at a time at that point) about a year later, and I decided that 1000 issues was an adequate run.

Some CBG writers have been observed the magazine’s end online:

  • John Jackson Miller outlines the history of CBG in a meaty obituary.
  • Maggie Thompson looks back briefly, and then looks ahead at what’s next for her.
  • Heidi MacDonald of The Beat reminisces.
  • Tony Isabella calls writing for CBG “the longest and one of the most rewarding continuing relationships of my career.”

Peter David regularly runs his old CBG columns on his web site, although it may be a while before we see another one, or a reminiscence of his own, as he recently had a stroke.

Though it’s been nearly 8 years since I stopped subscribing to CBG, its cancellation after over 40 years of publication (hey, it’s almost as old as I am!) still feels like the end of an era.

Webcomics I Read (2012 edition)

Just in time to beat the end of the calendar year, it’s time for my annual round-up of webcomics I’ve started reading in the past year. As usual, I cover both strips I liked and strips I that didn’t work for me, and quite a few in between. If you’re just interested in the good stuff, I’d most recommend Derelict, False Positive, Guilded Age, Widdershins, and Carpe Chaos.

You can find my past entries here: 2009, 2010, 2011.

Let’s get to it:

  1. The Adventures of the 19XX, by Paul Roman Martinez: I discovered this strip through its Kickstarter, and backed it because I find buying the physical collections is a great way to catch up on a long-running Webcomic (more convenient than clicking through a couple hundred web pages). The second volume is wrapping up on the web now. The premise is that of a group of adventurers in the early 1930s who are crossing the world looking for mystical artifacts which could change the future, perhaps by preventing the second World War that’s coming. They’re opposed in this by a secret cabal who want these artifacts for their own purposes (usually to rule the world). The story features a lot of period settings and technology, so it has an Indiana Jones feel to it.

    That said, I’m lukewarm towards the strip. The storytelling is pretty flat, and the dialog often feels stiff. The characters – and there are a lot of them – are pretty simple and their motivations are not very strong. Since the strip has a strong pulp feel all of this is in keeping with that, but there are a lot of pulpy stories around today which have more modern sensibilities underlying that pulp feel, and this one doesn’t measure up. The art is pretty good, but again often feels stiff, carefully laid out but not very fluid.

    Overall if adventures in this time period are your thing, then you’ll probably enjoy this. But if not, then it probably won’t be.

  2. Balazo, by Bachan: Bachan is the artist for Power Nap, and he’s quite good. Balazo is the English-language site of this Mexican illustrator’s work, and I’d characterize it as “lightweight, but entertaining”. It involves anthropomorphic characters, and focuses on the adventures of an outside-the-boundaries cop. In that way it somewhat resembles the print comics Grandville or Blacksad, but it’s not as hard-hitting or meaningful as either.
  3. Boston Metaphysical Society, by Madeleine Holly-Rosing & Emily Hu: I came across this at APE and decided to check it out. It looks like it’s being published as a webcomic with the intent of ultimately publishing it as a comic book mini-series. It’s a steampunk adventure about a group working to contain psychic forces which have been unleashed on the world, in the structure of a young woman trying to persuade an experienced male agent to let her accompany him. Various historical figures show up, too.

    In the large, it resembles The 19XX, down to similar flaws in both writing and art. It’s okay, but feels very rough. (The site also feels like it was assembled around the turn of the millennium and is awkward to follow from the RSS feed.)

  4. Carpe Chaos, by Eric Carter, Jason Bane, Anthony Cournoyer, Daniel Allen and others: I picked up a collection of this science fiction webcomic at APE last year, but it took me a while to catch up on the full site. This is a “soft” SF story, in that it’s more space opera then crunchy science; it focuses on the interactions of several alien races (which all look extremely alien), exploring themes of tolerance, understanding, difference, prejudice, and the like, highlighted by the different outlooks of each of the species. It’s very well done, and the individual stories are generally excellent. The creators clearly have a large universe they’re working in, but it’s often not at all apparent to the reader at which point on the timeline a story occurs, which makes some of the stories a little confusing. Other than that my biggest complaint is that it updates infrequently, but it’s well worth reading. All-digital art by multiple artists is quite good, too.
  5. Cat vs. Human, by Yasmine Surovec: Gag-a-day comics about the author and her feline obsession. Funny if you love cats, probably not if you don’t.
  6. Cyanide and Happiness, by various: Another gag-a-day strip by multiple people, all working in a common almost-stick figure style. Highly cynical and irreverent, often being deliberate obscene, occasionally with punchlines that seem like non-sequiturs. I guess this is one of the more popular webcomics, but I think it’s merely okay. If you can’t tolerate gratuitous obscenity and nastiness in a strip, then avoid.
  7. Derelict, by Ben Fleuter: After going a while without finding a new webcomic I really adored, Derelict was a revelation: Fantastic artwork, fine world-building, and a gripping story. The heroine is a young woman in a future after the world has been flooded, operating her own salvage ship and trying to stay alive in a changed world where no one can be counted on to be friendly (and which is also populated with some strange things). The details in the art are stunning at times, and the atmosphere of loneliness punctuated by occasional hope is powerful. The biggest downsides are that the heroine’s face sometimes looks awkward (although she’s very expressive), and the erratic update schedule. Despite these, I still recommend it highly.
  8. False Positive, by Mike Walton: An anthology comic written and mostly drawn by Walton, each story lasts a few weeks and is frequently in the horror vein. If you enjoy The Twilight Zone then you’ll probably enjoy this, although the illustrations are sometimes quite graphic. Walton’s art is outstanding, and his coloring – which uses a distinct limited palette for each story – compliments the art very well. “Season two” just started, but read through season one – you won’t be disappointed.
  9. Guilded Age, by T. Campbell, Phil Kahn, Erica Henderson & John Waltrip: I had tried to read this once before and got bogged down, I don’t know why. When I tried again this year, I was hooked. From the start it’s an entertaining medieval fantasy strip (I guess it’s based around World of Warcraft), though it takes a few chapters to get going as initially it’s a series of vignettes mixing adventure and comedy, focusing on a band of five heroes. The strip features a number of anachronisms, especially in turns of phrase and the attitudes of the characters, which seem to be there to add some color and relatability for the reader.

    The strip really comes together in chapter 8, which reveals a number of previously-unrevealed things about the world, and providing a larger structure for the story which makes you really feel for our heroes. There are strong indications of what’s really going on, but it’s taking a while to get there (not that the journey isn’t enjoyable on its own).

    Read this one from the beginning; there are several hundred pages to catch up on, but it’s worth it. Just be a little forgiving of the first few chapters, until the story finds its feet.

  10. The Hero Business, by Bill Walko: A superhero strip in which the heroes have a publicity company, it’s been around for a while but I just started reading it recently. It’s written like a soap opera, drawing comparisons in my mind to Love and Capes. L&C is to my mind the better of the two, having a stronger character focus and, well, generally better gags. Walko’s art is quite stylized, with the characters all looking like teenagers to my eye. Overall it’s a cheerful strip – kind of an homage to 60s and 70s superhero comics – which hasn’t won me over yet.
  11. Incidental Comics, by Grant Snider: This came to my attention via his oft-reblogged comic “Pig Latin”, his site is a series of understated, philosophical jokes which should appeal to fans of xkcd or certain New Yorker cartoonists. A recent favorite of mine is “Story Structures”. His art is somewhat minimalist, but still eye-pleasing.
  12. Rich Morris: An artist who did an epic Doctor Who comic titled “The Ten Doctors”, and who does various other strips on this site. These are strips he does for fun in his spare time, so the art is often sketchy, but he’s obviously quite skilled (I think he’s a commercial artist by profession), and TTD is very good. He hasn’t updated much since I started following him, but check out his archives.
  13. Nerf Now!!, by Josué Pereira: I have to say this is one of those strips that I just don’t get, at all. I think it’s a somewhat meta strip based around video games? It seems to involve a curvaceous woman and her friend who is a tentacle (?), in a series of gags without a running storyline. It’s drawn in a simple manga-esque style, but I just don’t get it.
  14. The Oatmeal, by Matthew Inman: Another irreverent gag strip, whose creator got a lot of attention recently for thumbing his nose at a lawyer who pressured him. That incident aside, the comic is generally funny, though probably not everyone’s cup of tea. Inman’s exuberance comes through in every panel, including in his ode to Nikola Tesla, giving it a rather different attitude than the usual wry humor of many gag-a-day strips, and one that feels more genuine than, say, Cyanide and Happiness, which often seems nasty just to be nasty. The Oatmeal is surely not for everyone, but I like it.
  15. The People That Melt in the Rain, by Carolyn Watson Dubisch and Mike Dubisch: A creepy comic about a mother and her daughter who move to a new town and promptly get rained on by frogs, and then learn that actual rain burns the people who live there. The comic follows the daughter, Laura, learning about the curse that hangs over the town, and the various effects it has on its inhabitants and visitors. The strip went on an extended hiatus, and when it came back the art seemed sketchier and murkier than before, and the story feels like it’s meandering around rather than making progress. It’s okay – you might find it easier to follow than I have.
  16. Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, by Zach Weiner: SMBC is a popular gag-a-day strip with no recurring characters and strips that run from a single panel to ten or twelve. Subject matter is typically irreverent and sometimes over-the-top, with a regular theme of taking ideas to their logical and ridiculous extreme. Despite this, the strip doesn’t really grab me: It’s not as clever as xkcd, not as profane as Cyanide and Happiness, and the art is simple bordering on sketchy. I know lots of people who are fans, but it doesn’t do a lot for me.
  17. Shortpacked!, by David Wallis: I’ve actually already stopped reading this one. It’s a slice-of-life strip centered around employees of a toy store, with hijinks that regularly ensue, but it just didn’t grab me: I found it hard to tell the characters apart and the gags didn’t really work for me. The art is okay, on the simple side. Overall I think Comic Critics covers similar territory more effectively (though to be fair I find a comic shop a lot more interesting than a toy store). On the flip side, All New Issues also takes place around a comic book store, and I like it only a little more than Shortpacked!
  18. Wesslingsaung, by Eric Cochrane: This has to be the most exotic comic I’ve found this year, as most of the characters are nothuman. The title character is, well, I think he’s an adventurer who travels his world – occasionally traveling through time – with a centipede-like partner named Gossip. Wesslingsaung is looking for humans, and eventually finds one, and then his adventures really begin.

    It’s a strangely compelling strip, although its dreamlike quality and loose plot has made it hard for me to follow, and the characters’ motivations are still murky to me. It feels like it could be a much better strip with some additional clarity. On the other hand, the inventiveness is appealing, and though Cochrane’s art is fairly simple, it’s equal to the story in inventiveness. So I’m sticking with it to see where it’s going.

  19. Widdershins, by Kate Ashwin: Taking place on the cusp of the Victorian age (the first story starts in 1833), Widdershins is a town in an England where magic is real. There have been two complete – but separate – stories so far. The first features artefact hunter Harry Barber and down-on-his-luck young wizard Sidney Malik forced to work together to recover a valuable treasure. The second involves a pair of wanderers who get caught up in an evil plot involving mystical spirits. The third story started recently and returns to Barber and Malik for their next adventure That’s putting it all very simply, but both adventures involve colorful characters and incredible plots, and it’s quite a fun ride. Ashwin’s art is on the cartoony side, but detailed enough, and it fits the fairly lighthearted tone of the strip. Refreshingly, it’s not really steampunk because all the fantastic elements are magic, not science.

    It also had a Kickstarter recently.

  20. The Wormworld Saga, by Daniel Lieske: This is not your typical webcomic. For one thing, each chapter is published in its entirety when Lieske finishes it, with several months between each (there are four chapters currently up, the last having been published in August). For another, each chapter is a single vertical “page” with panels arranged within it, and you scroll down continuously to read it. This gives it a look like no other webcomic I’ve seen, and the fact that Lieske’s full-color art is gorgeous helps too.

    As for the story, it’s about a boy in our world in 1977 who discovers a portal in his grandparents’ house to another world, a fantasy world in which he is apparently destined to be a major participant. It has themes of childhood imagination and wonder, but also alienation and being thrown into adult concerns while still a child. But while lavishly envisioned and illustrated, the story is (so far) not much more than that; I enjoyed reading it more for the art than because I really wanted to know what happens next. I’m also somewhat suspicious of any story with the world “saga” in the title, as it always strikes me as being a little pretentious (or at least non-descriptive). But if youthful fantasy if what you like, then you’ll probably love this.

APE 2012

Saturday I headed up to San Francisco for this year’s Alternative Press Expo. This is my third year going, and I was a little disappointed this year compared to the last two years.

As a lead-in, take a look at Travis Hanson’s review of the show from an artist’s perspective. It was enlightening for me to read: APE not being a show where you’re likely to make a lot of money for a vendor (maybe not even break even if you’re flying in), the wide variety of skill levels and artists who aren’t sure whether they’re doing this as a hobby or a career.

As an attendee, I mainly go to discover new graphic novels to read. Consequently there are a few vendors who don’t interest me but I imagine would interest others (a few who sell art supplies, a few who are basically retailing independent/alternative comics and graphic novels, and the “multimedia” ones who are selling dolls or crafts or statues or whatever). But there are a large number of artists who seem to be only selling prints, or published sketchbooks, or posters. I guess a bunch of these artists probably work in animation or graphic design and like to do fantasy art on the side, and want to make a little money off it, or get their name out there, or network, or whatever, but I mostly admire these artists’ work as I walk past and figure that if they decide to get into the graphic storytelling business then I might be interested, but putting out a few (to my mind) random items doesn’t really pique my interest. I’d rather you had a story to tell!

Now, my feeling is that APE is supposed to be highly inclusive of all sorts of artists, but the ones who are just selling prints or portfolios are I suspect the ones who are treating their art as more of a hobby than a career.

Which brings me to my main point which is that it seemed like there were a lot more of that kind of artist at APE this year than in the last 2 years, and fewer artists who were selling graphic novels. Fewer people who had stories they were telling.

(Aside: Trav, whose post I linked to above, does both. I’ve bought a few of his prints – which really stand out above most other artists – and I pledged to his most recent Kickstarter for the next volume of his fantasy series The Bean.)

There seemed like fewer webcomics artists present this year, and they’ve been a big source of material I’ve bought the last two years. And a few ones who were there didn’t seem to have any new volumes compared to last year. Which is fair enough, but it did mean I didn’t buy anything from them. (I did see the booth for The Adventures of the 19XX, but since I also pledged to his Kickstarter, I didn’t buy anything from him.)

So I spent about 3 hours walking around, and a little more taking a break and looking through some of what I did buy. Here’s what I did pick up:

  • A couple of books from Top Shelf: Wizzywig by Ed Piskor, and Any Empire by Nate Powell. My friend BC, whom I ran into (along with our friends Trish and Jared) strongly recommended I buy Wizzywig, so I picked it up and thumbed through other stuff at the Top Shelf booth.
  • The Martian Confederacy volumes 1 and 2, by Jason McNamera and Paige Braddock. I’m not sure why I didn’t buy this before, as I like science fiction and I’ve enjoyed Braddock’s Jane’s World series.
  • The first volume of The Dreamer, by Lora Innes, a webcomic that I think is in my “to catch up on” folder, about a woman in the present day who has vivid dreams of being in the Revolutionary War. I had a short discussion with the artist about this folder, and ended up recommending that she try NetNewsWire as an RSS reader now that Safari on the Mac no longer supports RSS reading (as I wrote at some length here).
  • The Legend of Bold Riley, by Leia Weathington and a host of artists, about (it seems) a lesbian princess adventurer.

Not a really big haul, which makes me think that perhaps I should take a year off from APE next year and come back in 2014 when there will have been more turnover. I dunno. On the other hand webcomics creators don’t seem to show up every year, so who will I miss next year if I don’t attend? Balanced against that is the time spent on the trip up to San Francisco, which knocks out most of the day.

I had a pretty good time, but I suspect that first year will be the high-water mark for me in finding a whole bunch of new material to read.