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.

The Dark Knight Rises

Critics gushed over The Dark Knight, I think not entirely justifiably. While Heath Ledger’s performance was a revelation, the script was a little weak, full of gimmicks and with a disappointing climax. On reflection, I think it fundamentally suffers because its theme – the one imparted by its antagonist, the Joker – is one of nihilism. While nihilism can be used effectively as a contrast to the protagonist, The Dark Knight left me feeling a bit like the Joker had won. Contrast this with Batman Begins, which is all about the protagonist finding the meaning in his life, and which has an entirely satisfying conclusion.

The Dark Knight Rises concludes the trilogy, but its opening sequences seem to push The Dark Knight even more to the side: Rather than Batman (Christian Bale) continuing to work against crime from outside the system, he’s retired, and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse. Harvey Dent’s death and Batman’s sacrifice (taking the rap for Dent’s death) lead to a golden age in Gotham City, as the Dent Act puts criminals away for years, at only the cost of Commissioner Gordon’s soul (Gary Oldman), maintaining the lie. Truly, it seems the Joker beat Batman (because why would the Joker care of a bunch of criminals get put away?).

Eight years after the events of the previous film, cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) breaks into the private wing of Wayne Manor, setting in motion events which turn Gotham upside-down. The mysterious criminal Bane (Tom Hardy) has his sights set on the city, bringing Batman out of retirement for a showdown.

While also a long film, I felt that Rises moves right along with few slow periods (few times that I was willing to go to the bathroom, for instance). It’s got secrets (who is Bane? Why is he gunning for Gotham?), humor (especially in Batman getting back in the saddle), some tense fights, and characters set low and then fighting to their catharsis. It’s properly a sequel to the first film, with the second just being set-up, and the story is, ultimately, better than either of its predecessors. It ought to hold up on re-watching, too.

More after the cut, but here there being spoilers:

Continue reading “The Dark Knight Rises”

Daytripper

I made the mistake of staying up late last night to read Daytripper, the graphic novel by twin brothers Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá. I only say “mistake” because Daytripper is a poignant, at times heart-wrenching story of a man’s life, so I was pretty wrung out by the time I finished it.

The man in question is Brás de Oliva Domingos, who is introduced to us as a 32-year-old obituary writer. This first chapter is very much the midpoint of Brás’ life: He has a girlfriend he loves very much, a best friend he hangs out with at and after work, and he’s the apple of his mother’s eye, but he also lives in the shadow of his father – a famous writer, and an emotionally distant man – and he’s struggling to find purpose in his own life. Each of the ten chapters of the book takes us into the past or the future from this point, to show us significant events in Brás’ life.

The structural conceit of the book is that each chapter ends with Brás’ death, and a brief obituary written about him. I found this to be the weakest part of the book, as it seemed to cheapen the emotions of what had gone before in the chapter, making it seem a little too sentimental, making each chapter feel needlessly tragic. Moreover, reading into the book I often wondered how Brás’ life as he lived it to the final chapter diverged from some of the situations where he died. Sometimes he dies through mere circumstance, but other times he or someone else makes decisions which must have gone differently for him to live to other chapters. Most significantly, what happens to his best friend Jorge, which chapter has a powerful conclusion, but which I doubt Brás could have left alone in the world where he survived, but he seems to have dropped it. Filling in the alternatives to those events would have at least given the gimmick more meaning.

That detail aside, the book’s strength is in fleshing out Brás’ life chapter by chapter, starting with his age 32, backing up to show what sort of a man he was to get to that point, and then stumbling forward into how he matures (with a brief aside to his childhood). While Daytripper has some overtones of magical realism, the story overall is more grounded, and the brothers do a wonderful job of painting a picture of the characters and their emotions. In particular we see Brás going from a wide-eyed innocent to a world-weary, almost defeated young man, to a more mature man shaping his own life. But we see all the frustration and joy he experiences along the way, and that’s where the book’s magic really comes from.

(His friend Jorge has a story arc which plays off of Brás’ own story, and which is nearly as powerful, considering he has much less screen time.)

But as with any story which follows a person’s life all the way through, the ending is melancholy (and punctuated with a moment of similar sadness at the end of each chapter). Though it’s to the creators’ credit that they build a character that we’re invested enough in for it to have so much of an impact. Especially when staying up late at night.

I’ve seen Moon and Bá’s art from time to time (notably on Matt Fraction’s Casanova, and Gerard Way’s Umbrella Academy), but their work here is far better than I’ve seen before: The art is more detailed, the faces more individual, and the expressions more nuanced than I’ve seen from them before. (Their art styles are so similar I can’t tell who draws which story, and they’re only credited jointly.) Maybe they’ve just become better artists since that earlier work, or maybe they just put their all into this project of theirs.

While Daytripper left me feeling melancholy, and I thought it did have some storytelling flaws, it’s still a terrific graphic novel, and well worth your time and money.

Hobbes and Bacon

By far the entry on this site with the most hits is the one about Calvin & Hobbes‘ last strip. It also gets a lot of comments like “That’s not the real last strip!” from people people who surf in there and just read the title and the strip in the entry without reading any of the actual entry. Sigh. Internet nitwits, what can you do?

If you’re a fan of C&H, though, probably the closest you’ll ever get to a fix of new strips comes from a webcomic called Pants are Overrated (now apparently defunct), which did an occasional strip about Calvin all grown up, but really more about his daughter Bacon (!) who hooks up with Hobbes in much the same way Calvin did.

You can read the four strips they did here:

  1. 26 Years Later
  2. Parents are so weird
  3. No time to spare!
  4. A better game

Good stuff!

Before Watchmen

Before Watchmen, the upcoming project from DC Comics, has been the talk of the comics world for a little while now. Here’s my two cents on the project.

First, I do get a little tired of Alan Moore saying that he wishes comics companies would stop exploiting properties he created that he doesn’t own, or that he co-owns. On the other hand, he has his wishes, and the media keeps asking him what he thinks of the latest project based on his work, so what do they expect him to say? “Oh gee, you’ve worn me down, so I’ve decided that it’s great they’re doing this.” So I think people who complain about Alan Moore complaining doth protest too much. As long as people keep doing new projects based on his work we’re going to keep hearing him complain about them, so we just have to accept that and move on.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a less-necessary set of books than prequels to Watchmen. It was a gorgeous and influential book which was complete unto itself, and which is tightly tied to the creators who made it (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons). Moreover, it pretty much plumbed the depths of all the major characters, and what was left unsaid was left so deliberately. Any prequels I think would only be interesting to the extent that they inform a new reading of the original book, but since Moore and Gibbons aren’t doing the prequels, I expect they’ll feel superfluous.

It’s strange to me that DC would do prequels to the series, rather than a sequel, since building something new on top of the original might genuinely move the book forward. But doing prequels just seems like a cynical effort to squeeze some more money out of the property – cynical because it indicates that DC is too timid to do anything daring.

Which is ironic because, as Moore has said, the whole point of Watchmen was to do new things with the medium (graphic novels) and the genre (superheroes). You can argue to what extent they succeeded in being truly innovative, but the book clearly greatly influenced comic books for years after it was published. Going back and further rooting around in the backstory of its milieu seems contrary to the spirit of the book itself – and thus all the more cynical.

But in pop culture all old fads end up coming back and being revisited or reworked eventually. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad, sometimes they’re fresh, and sometimes they’re stale. The only way this project is different from DC relaunching the Doom Patrol/the Teen Titans/the Suicide Squad one more time is that it has Alan Moore complaining about it.

Just remember: The great thing about literature (graphic or otherwise) is this: Regardless of whether or not Before Watchmen ends up being a cheap knock-off of the original, we can always go back and enjoy the original. Considering how many superhero comics have devolved into a serpent swallowing its own tail, that’s an important fact to remember.

Webcomics I Read (2011 edition)

It’s been over a year since my last webcomics round-up (you can find my first two such posts here and here), and I wanted to squeeze in a new such entry before the new year. As usual, I found a few I really liked, and there are a few that I don’t much like, but I’ve tried to give them a decent chance. Here are webcomics I’ve started reading in the past year, listed alphabetically:

  • All New Issues, by Bill Ellis & Dani O’Brien: A slice-of-life gag strip set in a comic book shop, I still giggle at the clever title from time to time. Unfortunately the strip otherwise is only so-so: The art is decent, the gags are pretty routine, and I find the characters to be flat. Probably not a strip I’ll follow for much longer.
  • Atomic Laundromat, by Armando Valenzuela: Another slice-of-life gag strip, this one drawn in a manga-like style and concerning a young man who runs a laundromat for superheroes and super-villains. However, I have the same problems with it that I have with All New Issues, in both art and writing. One recent arc involved the protagonist’s father, a major superhero, on trial because he has a tendency to indecently expose himself in public, which could have been amusing if it had been totally over-the-top, but just seemed creepy given the understated way it was written. Bad Guy High worked some similar territory, but was a more compelling strip, I think. Not to mention Evil, Inc.
  • The Bean, by Travis Hanson: I discovered Hanson at APE in 2010, and have three of his prints framed and hanging on the wall. The Bean is his ongoing strip, a fantasy adventure about a boy having a very bad day, a goblin invasion, and the various heroes and supernatural creatures involved in it all. Very nice artwork, and the story is moving right along, albeit with a number of side trips to follow all the characters. My one lament is that I wish it was in color.
  • Bucko, by Jeff Parker & Erika Moen: The title character is a down-and-outer who stumbles on a dead body and tries to solve the crime, a challenge since he ends up on the run from the police. I started reading this strip hoping for some real detective fiction with a side of whimsy, but the crime is an extremely small part of the strip, and it’s been more like a romp through some alternative subcultures (my interest in Juggalos: zero). Moen’s artwork is simple and features a lot of swoops and curves, but while it’s effective enough, the style isn’t my cup of tea. I’m just clearly not the target audience for this strip.
  • Destructor, by Sean T. Collins & Matt Wiegle: Now here’s one that I am the target audience for: Destructor is a powerful armored man rampaging across a fantastic world with the goal of… something. But he seems to be assembling allies for some goal not yet revealed. Each chapter is pretty nifty: Destructor invades a city of crocodile-men, Destructor stages a prison break, Destructor frees a powerful and mysterious woman. There’s more mystery than character so far, but the mystery (and the adventure) is quite a lot of fun. Wiegle’s artwork is inventive and effective. I haven’t seen this strip getting much buzz, but it’s a good one.
  • Doghouse Diaries, by Will, Ray, and Raf: Basically xckd for non-geeks: It’s got stick-figure artwork, popover second-punchlines, and a generally snarky attitude, but so it fills very much the same space. The humor leans to the crude side, but it’s still fairly funny. No, I’m not blown away, but it’s an okay gag-a-day strip.
  • Dresden Codak, by Aaron Diaz: “42 Essential Third-Act Twists” is the funniest thing I read all year. I ordered a print of it. Dresden Codak is partly an ongoing strip, and partly a gag-a-day strip (well, more like a gag-every-three-weeks – it takes Diaz a while to do each strip, but the art is often gorgeous). Either way, it’s entirely geeky. The first extended arc, “Hob”, involved time travel, the singularity, alternate universes, and all that good stuff. The main character, Kim, is a scientist almost of the Girl Genius variety. She’s not a very likable character (she shares a little of her egotism and inability to relate to others with Sheldon Cooper from the TV show Big Bang Theory), but the ride is quite enjoyable.

    Diaz passes time between the few major arcs with various one-off strips, and a few shorter arcs. Another good sample of the hardcore meekness of the strip is “Dungeons and Discourse” (“Abilities – Immune to metaphysics”), along with, of course, “Advanced Dungeons and Discourse”. If those don’t convince you that this is a great strip, well, then there’s no hope for you.

    I think I’m dreadfully late to the party in discovering Dresden Codak, but it did mean I got to spend an afternoon laughing my ass off as I caught up. Highly recommended.

  • Drive, by Dave Kellett: A science fiction humor strip, similar in that regard to Spacetrawler: The SF is serious, but the storytelling is light and funny. A tough mix to brew, yet here we have two different strips doing it well. Drive concerns a human empire built on FTL technology inherited from aliens, and controlled by a single family. A mysterious alien is discovered who can pilot one of the ships better than anyone else, but he doesn’t remember who he is or where he came from. The empire is interested in him because they’re about to go to war with the race that created the FTL drive, and they’re clearly going to lose if they can’t find an edge. An eccentric crew is given a ship to try to solve the mystery. Politics, adventure, and humor. Only drawback is that updates have been sporadic.
  • d20Something, by Mitz: His wonderful supervillain strip Plan B ended earlier this year, and this is his new one. Unfortunately, it’s not as good. It features a collection of Dungeons & Dragons type 20-somethings (each with their own character class) living in modern society and dealing with various monsters who also live there. I find that none of the characters are distinctly drawn (I couldn’t really tell you anything about any of them at this point), and the plot doesn’t yet seem to be going anywhere, problems that Plan B didn’t have. I still like his art, and some of the gags are amusing, but color me disappointed by this one so far.
  • Ectopiary, by Hans Rickheit: A serialized graphic novel, a girl and her mother come to live in an exotic house, with unfriendly hosts and strange things going on in the yard. The girl’s curiosity of course gets the better of her, and she’s getting caught up in whatever it is that’s happening. The story doesn’t move fast, but it’s making progress. The art is intricate and beautiful, especially the highly-detailed backgrounds. I’m not sure where it’s going, but I’m enjoying it. Hiatuses occur from time to time when life gets in the way of the artist.
  • Family Man, by Dylan Meconis: One of the most polished webcomics out there as far as the art and web site go, Family Man takes place in 18th century Germany, and is the story of Luther Levy, a half-Jewish young man (with a nose longer than Cyrano de Bergerac‘s) who was ejected from the school where he pursued a Theology degree. He ends up as a teacher at a rural university and falls in love with the rector’s daughter. Oh, and we’re promised that there will be werewolves at some point.

    Meconis’ art shifts between the slightly-cartoony and the dead-on realistic (favoring the former style for the figures, which makes the latter more striking when it’s employed). The story – now over 230 pages in – is not exactly galloping along, but it’s well-crafted and witty. At a page a week, I wonder how many long-time readers are getting over-eager for the shoe to drop.

    The first chunk of the story has been collected in a high-quality paperback edition, which you can order from Meconis.

  • Frankenstein Superstar, by John Hazard: The Frankenstein monster in modern times, having married and settled down. Hazard’s art is among the best out there, but the stories and jokes are not, as the humor often feels cheap if not gratuitous. There’s an ongoing mystery involving a friend of the couple which suggests something more serious in the future.
  • The Gutters, by Ryan Sohmer & various artists: Ryan Sohmer, writer of Least I Could Do, has been doing this several-times-weekly graphic editorial of the comic book industry for a year and a half. Think of it as The Joy of Tech for comic book fans rather than technology enthusiasts and you get the idea, with the difference that Sohmer uses swear words and R-rated imagery a lot more. Overall I think I’ve been numbed sufficiently by the comic book blogosphere’s snark about the industry that nothing here is fall-over funny to me (and honestly sniping at DC and Marvel these days seems not only too easy, but de rigueur), but some of his observations are still pretty good. If you’ve been looking for the comics blogosphere distilled into comic strip form, then this is the strip for you.
  • K and J, by Sara Park Sanford & John Sanford: The story of two sisters and their Korean mother, focusing on their growing up and the culture clash of Korean and American values. A bit wordy, but otherwise really good. While the art is on the sketchy side, it actually works quite well. Updates have been sporadic recently, but it’s worth catching up on.
  • Kukuburi, by Ramón Pérez: Delivery girl Nadia finds herself shunted into a surreal alternate dimension where she joins a variety of weird creatures in a struggle against a skeletal entity. The strip is just recently back from a long hiatus, so my memory of the storyline is pretty fuzzy; my general recollection is that it was a fun ride but hard to discern who all the characters were and what their motivations were. The art is outstanding.
  • Lady Sabre and the Pirates of the Ineffable Aether, by Rick Burchett & Greg Rucka: Fairly new, this is a straight-up adventure strip by a couple of comic book pros (Rucka also writes novels). Wild west steampunk with a side dose of the supernatural. Too soon to know where it’s going – the characters have barely been introduced – but it’s enjoyable so far.
  • Let’s Be Friends Again, by Curt Franklin & Chris Haley: Irreverent pop culture satire, sort of The Gutters crossed with Penny Arcade – there’s not much continuity, and if you’re not familiar with the subject matter then it probably won’t make any sense to you. I don’t really understand the meaning of the title, but it’s enjoyable for what it is.
  • Living With Insanity, by David Herbert, Paul Salvi & Fer: I’m not sure what to make of this one. It often seems semi-autobiographical, concerning writer David Herbert’s struggles to make it in the comics (or other writing) biz, but there have been extended sequences involving zombies, aliens, and whatnot. Overall my brain has summed it up as “Whatever the writer feels like writing.” A recent arc involves one of the characters hiring a busty model to represent his super-heroine. It’s just earnest and irreverent enough to keep me reading (updates can be infrequent), even though I’m not sure what to make of it.

    Artist Salvi recently left, replaced by new artist Fer, whose style I like better, although neither is a very polished artist. Still, the webcomics landscape is littered with artists who started off unpolished and grew to be quite good. I don’t know if Herbert has greater aspirations for the strip (it feels like when it grows up it could be something like Least I Could Do), but if not, it’s enjoyable enough.

  • The Meek, by Der-shing Helmer: I discovered this strip at APE last year. I’m not sure how to describe it: It’s sort of a post-Renaissance, pre-industrial setting with a variety of characters at various levels of society, from thief to noble. The strip updates erratically and the story is slow, so it feels like it’s still in the prologue stage. Helmer’s art is absolutely gorgeous, though, from figures to layouts to coloring. She’s collected it into 2 comic book issues (so far), which look equally lovely. I’m hoping the direction of he overall story will soon be revealed.
  • Ph.D. Comics, by Jorge Cham: Gag-a-day strip about the dangers and humors in academic life, sometimes quite clever. Probably worth following for anyone who’s serious pursued a graduate degree, and probably not meaningful to anyone who hasn’t.
  • Power Nap, by Maritza Campos & Bachan: Science fiction adventure strip with a good dose of humor. In the future, drugs allow people to go without sleep – unless you’re allergic to the drugs, as our hero, Drew, is, in which case you try to sleep as little as possible so you can keep up with the competition for your job, and then you fall asleep at awkward times and/or experience strange hallucinations. Smart and funny, with very good art, and the first major twist to the story just occurred, so this is a good time to jump in and catch up.
  • Rigby the Barbarian, by Lee Leslie: Woman archaeologist is suddenly transported to a barbaric world where she takes on a Conan-esque role of sword-wielding savior. Overt gender politics in this one, as you might guess, but it’s pretty clever and well-illustrated, and the fact that Rigby doesn’t take any crap from people who want to put her in her proverbial place (and she has the big sword and prophecy to back her up) makes it an entertaining ride. It’s been on hiatus for a while (looks like the archives are not currently accessible, either), but promises to be back in 2012. I’m looking forward to it.
  • Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen, by Dylan Horrocks: Cartoonist Sam Zabel struggles with depression, and then his characters come to life and start talking to him (or do they?), and he finds himself lost in their worlds (or does he?). Metaphysical angst, and good artwork, mimicking a variety of art styles as the story calls for it. Unfortunately another strip which goes into hiatus from time to time.
  • Savage Chickens, “cartoons on sticky notes” by Doug Savage: The only strip I’ve added in the last year that updates every weekday. Gag-a-day strips which are pure irreverence with a dash of geekism. Fun.
  • S.S. Myra, by “Tom Walker”: If you’re looking for a covertly pornographic science fiction strip, then you’ve found it. Newlyweds Bran and Tink are given a starship as a gift and head off on it on their honeymoon. The ship’s computer, however, has the personality of the previous owner, who was, uh, rather hedonistic. Played for broad humor – NSFW, but surprisingly not-very-raunchy and not much nudity.

    Tom Walker is definitely not also known as Christopher Baldwin of Spacetrawler (he even says so); the fact that their art style is nearly identical is just one of those weird coincidences.

  • Unsounded, by Ashley Cope: Serious medieval fantasy, somewhat similar to The Meek, and with similarly excellent artwork. The story focuses on Sette, the daughter of a man who I think is probably a mob boss, who’s been sent on a mission with an undead warlock, Duane Adelier. Duane is capable, focused and serious, while Sette is a capable thief, but lacks focus or seriousness, and gets out of tough scrapes more through luck than skill. She’s still a girl, and gets overwhelmed by some of what she sees along the way. The story meanders all over the place and it’s not clear where it’s going, but it’s still pretty fun, and the world is inventive. And as I said, the art is great. Hopefully the story will get better as it goes along. If you like The Meek then you’ll probably like this, and vice-versa.

I’ve stopped reading some strips I’ve previously listed: Last Call updated less and less frequently and was losing its cohesion anyway. Bad Guy High and FreakAngels both ended. And Something Positive just never grabbed me; the art was too stiff for my tastes, and the humor didn’t work for me either.

A few strips seem to be on indefinite hiatus, but if they ever come back I’ll keep reading them. These include Aardehn, Border Crossings (the artist departed), The Guns of Shadow Valley (too bad, this sort of strip really needs regular updates to work), Maya, Moon Town (supposedly returning in 2012), and Rocket Road Trip.

The Defenders #1

The Defenders #1, by Matt Fraction, and Terry & Rachel Dodson, Marvel, December 2011

The Defenders #1 is a bad comic book.

From the cover, it has all the hallmarks of something that should be a pretty good comic book: Matt Fraction has a good reputation (I’m not a big fan of his Casanova series – just not my thing – but I quite liked his run on Iron Fist with Ed Brubaker; and I heard good things about The Order). The Dodsons are fine artists (though Terry’s pencils always remind me of Adam Hughes’ style; he’s moving gradually away from that, though). Also, I’ve always had a soft spot the the Defenders; I love Doctor Strange, and this particular combination of heroes (Doc combined with the Hulk, the Sub-Mariner and the Silver Surfer, with a few others tacked on for good measure) usually leads to some quirky stories.

While the cover is a bit drab in its colors (why is everyone wearing some combination of red, white and blue-gray? What happened to Namor’s green swim trunks, or Iron Fists’s green costume, or Doc’s bright-blue outfit and bright-red cape with yellow trim?), it’s still promising.

But the story: Ugh!

“Breaker of Worlds” starts with mayhem in Bucharest as a giant black creature causes rampant destruction. Not exactly something we haven’t seen before – Kurt Busiek’s terrific run on Avengers featured something similar – but not the worst premise for a story.

But then we but to Doctor Strange waking up after casually sleeping with a student, and realizing it was a mistake (as does she). This feels utterly out of character for the good Doctor; certainly he’s slept with his student before (back when they were called “apprentices”) (unless he’s a university professor now, which wouldn’t make much sense for the character), but it was always in the form of a serious relationship. Indeed, Roger Stern’s great run on the title in the 80s was greatly concerned with his relationships with a couple of women in his life.

Then the Hulk shows up, and asks Doc for help – which is apparently hard for him, although the old, childlike Hulk felt that Strange was one of the few people in the world he actually trusted. The pair gather Namor and the Silver Surfer (who seems to have the new ability to transform himself into snow, which seems gratuitous), and the Hulk explains that his anger and power have taken on their own form, a creature called Nul, Breaker of Worlds, which is the black creature we saw earlier. He’s come to the Defenders for help, but he can’t help himself since he could be sucked back into becoming part of it again.

None of the Hulk/Nul stuff makes much sense, either. I’d assume that Fraction is going to explain it all (How can the Hulk’s rage and anger become personified? Who’s behind it? How did the Hulk break away from it? How could he be sucked in again? Why hasn’t this happened before in the Hulk’s years of existence?), but it’s presented as a fait accompli and I don’t have a lot of faith that it will be explained. (Indeed, some of it should probably have been explained by the Hulk, himself, in this issue.)

Since the Hulk can’t go along, he recommends the Red She-Hulk pitch in instead. Red is Betty Banner (well, I guess she’s back to being Betty Ross now) for reasons I neither know nor care about (having lost interest in the recent “Red Hulk” stories after about 4 issues), and she’s something of a nonentity of a character here – charitably, I’d say she’s Marvel’s answer to Power Girl. (I always thought Ms. Marvel was Marvel’s answer to Power Girl.) And wait, if the Hulk can have his rage and power extracted into a separate entity, why couldn’t any other of the Hulks not have the same thing happen to them?

The team also brings in Iron Fist to provide transportation, since his alter ego of Daniel Rand is rich and owns a super fast plane. I find Fist’s portrayal here to be immensely annoying, as he’s something of a weenie geek who just wants to read comic books when more important things are going on. This doesn’t feel like Iron Fist’s character at all – it’s too cutesy, and not serious enough (hmm, just like Doctor Strange).

Anyway, the plane gets shot down, and the team gets ambushed. End issue one on this cliffhanger (well, with a little more thrown in, but that’s the bulk of it).

The story here is pretty pedestrian, but that’s not a crime. It’s tough to write a superhero comic that really breaks new ground. But the characterizations are really annoying. Only Namor comes out of the issues not seeming like a substantially different character than the one I’m used to, and that’s just bad writing. Maybe Marvel’s trying to mix up all their characters (in which case, I really have no interest in following them), or else Fraction’s just getting too cute with the characters, writing them the way he wishes they were rather than how they actually are. That my two favorite characters in the book – Doctor Strange and Iron Fist – are the most changed just makes it worse.

The Dodsons’ art is fine, of course. Ironically (given my earlier Power Girl comment), it seems like their style is evolving to look a little more like Amanda Connors’. The colors often seem a bit washed out, though, making many of the pages seem a bit flat.

But that’s not enough to make me want to keep reading. If issue #2 isn’t significantly improved then I don’t see myself continuing with the series. Which is too bad because I had been looking forward to this series, and this issue was really disappointing.