12.29.10 Reviews

Scalped #44 (DC/Vertigo): Davide Furno helps Jason Aaron deliver what is superficially an end of the line story for Baylis Earl Nitz. Like nearly every issue of Scalped, it completely defies expectation and takes a hard left when the audience was leaning right. Nitz faces off with his handler, Chief Red Crow, and eventually some Jordanian terrorists, which drastically changes the direction of his FBI mandate on the Rez. Furno’s blocky and angular style is a good match for the rigid tone of the story, yet there are some nuanced background details I’ve not seen before from him, which seem to echo someone like Sean Murphy. This issue bristles with the same visceral sex, danger, and power that the entire series runs on. It’s a very small quibble, but Nitz makes a reference to his handler being out of Langley. Well, usually Langley is for the CIA, Quantico would actually be for the FBI. But, I’m just nitpicking. At the end of it all, Aaron reverses a very tried and true writing trick. The adage is to put your protagonist where they’d least like to be in order to illicit the most drama from them. Well, Nitz wants to die. So, what does Jason Aaron do? He makes him a hero instead. Grade A.

Echo #27 (Abstract Studio): I am seriously running out of ways to explain the strengths of Terry Moore and this title. Storywise, yeah, Julie is still growing and Ivy is still regressing mentally and physically. There are confessions along the way as Ivy puts into play one last hail mary pass with the denouement rapidly approaching as the series winds down to issue 30. There is a brutal and inventive killing staged in a body bag, which happens so professionally and discreetly, you can almost miss it. But the thing I noticed more than anything was the ability of Moore to depict these emotionally complex postures and facial expressions. He really is the best. He doesn’t just show first tier emotions like “happy” or “sad,” but more intricate and overlapping feelings like exasperation, panic, jealousy, and longing. Grade A.

SHIELD #5 (Marvel): There’s a tone to the writing here that has a certain gravitas to it I really enjoy. It’s there in the Hickman lines like the “razor’s edge between personal pragmatism and the dream of something better.” Weaver delivers the visual delight as usual, the big double page shot 600,000 years in the future, with a broken moon, an aging star, and pyramid ruins in a jungle lost to time is really impressive. There are fun elements to the story. One particularly ambitious sequence involves the transmutation of elements vis-à-vis SHIELD internal politics. It comments on the natural world progressing into binary opposed paradigms once humans get involved. It’s pretty cerebral stuff thematically, yet I still feel lost when it comes to any actual story taking place. We’re 5 issues in and I’m still not sure why anyone is doing any of the things they seem to be doing, or what the ultimate objective is. The set pieces along the way are fun, though. Nathaniel Richards and Howard Stark in their 1950’s, steampunk, MIB, Batmobile, Transformer thing? Yeah, that’s cool. Hickman even gets a nod in to Matt Fraction’s Nikola Tesla story The Five Fists of Science. At the end though, I can’t help but think narrative clarity is being sacrificed for highly engaging aesthetics. Grade B+.


My 13 Favorite Things of 2010

This is my 5th year at offering a “best of” list, and although the format has changed slightly from year to year, the core essence has always remained the same. These are the books that somehow survived their way through my highly subjective personal criteria, the books that I found to be the best executed, the books I most looked forward to reading, the books I was loyal to, the books I didn’t have to qualify or make excuses for, the books I was proud to evangelize to those around me, the books it was a pleasure writing about, and the books that made important contributions to the medium. I would be remiss in not also giving some honorable mentions to those that just missed the mark, those projects that I just couldn’t quite seem to fit into a finite group of 13 in good conscience no matter how many times I attempted to reconfigure the list.

There was the raw potential of Stumptown (Oni Press) from Greg Rucka and a total gentleman named Matthew Southworth. There was the book that nearly every critic enjoyed, but didn’t seem to have a fair chance right out of the gate, S.W.O.R.D. (Marvel) by Kieron Gillen & Steven Sanders. There was the incomplete and seemingly stalled Captain Swing & The Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island (Avatar Press) from Warren Ellis & Raulo Caceres. There was the uneven and severely delayed Joe The Barbarian (DC) from Grant Morrison and the amazing Sean Murphy. There was the old reliable reimaging of The Lone Ranger (Dynamite Entertainment) from Brett Matthews & Sergio Cariello. There was the explosive re-launch of Uncanny X-Force (Marvel) from Rick Remender & Jerome Opena; we’ll see if they can sustain the momentum. I’ll always love those first three issues of Batman & Robin (DC) from Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely, but the series never quite seemed to recover from the rotating art stable that followed. It was a treat to see Nathan Fox’s art on full display with Fluorescent Black (Heavy Metal). I also enjoyed Afrodisiac (AdHouse) from Brian Maruca & Jim Rugg, Billy Hazelnuts & The Crazy Bird (Fantagraphics) by Tony Millionaire, and Dash Shaw’s BodyWorld (Pantheon).

Without further preamble, and in no particular order, here are My 13 Favorite Things of 2010...

DV8: Gods & Monsters (DC/WildStorm): The act of picking a single Brian Wood book to appear on this list is like some bizarre Sophie’s Choice style proposition. Overall, I’d say that DMZ, Local, and DV8 are now my “Holy Trinity” of favorite Brian Wood projects, a statement which alone shows his crazy range. Observing this year specifically, there were plenty of options to select from, with various issues of Northlanders in play, DMZ having some amazing moments (the street art issue featuring Decade Later by Danijel Zezelj or the Wilson issue featuring art by Nathan Fox are instant classics), but his collaboration with Rebekah Isaacs on DV8 was something special. Now, before I go off on a rant here, let me just say that I thoroughly enjoyed this examination of the failed utopian ideal that is the superhero paradigm. On three separate occasions, I compared it to Watchmen. Yeah. Anyway, I’ll long ponder the fate of “what could have been” in the WildStorm Universe.

Echo (Abstract Studio): You can literally see the formula that acted as the catalyst for one-man-band Terry Moore to construct the premise of this severely under-appreciated work. He took something he already knew how to manipulate very well, the slice of life relationship grandeur of his Strangers in Paradise opus, and fused it seamlessly with the type of classic 1960’s atomic paranoia that subconsciously fueled Stan Lee and the Marvel stable in the Silver Age heyday. The result is a deep human drama at heart, but with the rack appeal of superheroic visual delight. The combination is utterly unique, with impeccable execution, therefore the best of its kind.

Invincible Iron Man (Marvel): It’s predictable that Marvel keeps trying to capitalize on box office success and belch out additional Iron Man titles and mini-series, but none can match the purity and dogged determination of the core title. It’s because the main title is written by Matt Fraction. Yeah, I too thought Casanova was amazingly fun and clever, and there are certainly select elements of Uncanny X-Men that I enjoy, but Iron Man is the high water mark in Fraction’s library. With Salvador Larroca riding shotgun for every single issue (a feat of consistency nearly unheard of these days), there is simply no better modern example of this particular craft. It’s thoughtful long form superhero storytelling with a contemporary social charge at its finest.

Wasteland (Oni Press): To be completely objective, Wasteland experienced a few stutters and stumbles this year, and if I was ranking this list in any sort of hierarchical order (which I’m not), it would have gotten knocked down a few notches. But, the important point is that it would have still been on the list. The team lost some serious momentum by only putting out a meager 3 issues in 2010, and then suffered the loss of regular series artist Christopher Mitten. But, as Antony Johnston and new artist Remington Veteto recharge their creative batteries and gear up for a run in 2011, the work itself remains a clever cautionary tale, a rousing adventure epic, and a unique vision that infuses a vibrant variety of genre much needed into the medium. We also got a second Apocalyptic Edition, which is worth its weight in gold and could have made it onto the list all on its own. If you haven’t heard the message by now, go read Wasteland.

Scalped (DC/Vertigo): The numbers don’t lie. When I go back and scour the archives, I find that the series I have given the most “Grade A+” marks to in single issue format is none other than Jason Aaron and RM Guera’s Scalped. While that is a powerful argument all by itself, it completely misses the gut-wrenching visceral response induced by the work. Scalped crackles with energy, sexuality, danger, surprise, complexity, and authenticity. I’ve been saying this shit for years now, but with its inherent social commentary, a network like HBO is insane for not courting Jason Aaron and the PTB at DC. In the wake of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and rival network phenoms like The Wire, Mad Men, True Blood, and The Walking Dead, Scalped is like a sweaty quivering virgin waiting to be plucked from relative obscurity to hit the prime time exposure of the masses. Network executives, you’re falling down on the job every single day that you’re not making this a reality.

Batwoman: Elegy HC (DC): JH Williams III is the ultimate collaborator. Let’s do a little game called proof by counter-example. If you imagine anyone else on this character, we would have gotten a fairly well written take on a new character from Greg Rucka, which might have not been extremely memorable, save for the mainstream media’s fixation on lesbians in pop culture. With Jim on board instead, the book was declared an instant classic, the run was promptly collected in this hardcover format, and a new ongoing was finally announced. Not only is Kate Kane cemented into DCU history with ties to Flamebird and a few other b-characters, but the art is gorgeous! Williams seems to formally deconstruct the page, and then reconstruct the narrative using new figures and shapes, patterns of recognition and conveyance of information never seen before. Whether he’s aping other creators and periods of continuity, or embarking on his solo experimentation, it’s as if he’s created a new method for processing images, one that embeds and synthesizes themes intended by the writer into the very fabric of the page design, layouts of the panels, and figures contained within. It’s not subtle process improvement of an existing practice, but a completely new method of doing business that’s discontinuous. It’s the very definition of innovation.

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less (DC/Vertigo): HtUIi60DoL (whew!) never crosses the line into preachy territory, but has the potential to be used as an educational tool. I consider myself pretty well-read, well-travelled, and well cultured for an American, but I learned some things that I didn’t know about the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Writer/Artist Sarah Glidden combines alternating points of view and a concise historical timeline with her own experiences in the Birthright Israel Program. The discussion runs from events affecting the region pre-World Wars, all the way through The Six Day War, to the present. It addresses the enigmatic disputes between Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt. Glidden brings an open-minded and mature tone, with no easy summary or answer. There are no “good” or “bad” characterizations here; it’s just a tale of two groups locked in struggle over what is surprisingly not a Holy War, but inherently a land dispute. How To Understand Israel makes no pretense at offering a solution, but does illuminate the concerns on all sides, and the reality of living there today. Most of us know that comics don’t have to be just escapist entertainment, but that the extraordinary ones can also function at a higher level of influence. In the same way I’ve wanted to prescribe DMZ as a text in college classrooms, this book too offers insight into a current political climate. Glidden’s art is not flashy, but still effective for the tone she wishes to strike. She cleanly presents events in a neutral fashion with sort of a European style “ligne claire” that allows the audience to attempt the formulation of their own opinions without being swayed overtly by authorial voice.

Punisher MAX: Butterfly (Marvel): Much to the chagrin of The Jersey Troll, I gave this one-shot by Valerie D’Orazio and Laurence Campbell a “Grade A+” and declared it an instant winner. It was an insightful examination of crime, the crime genre’s function in society, and criminal protagonists vis-à-vis their psychological drivers, only enhanced further by allusions to D’Orazio’s poignant real world experiences in the industry. The book was fantastic, leaving me craving more from the creator. In some odd corollary, catalyzed by my real world experience with him, I learned two really valuable lessons about the reviewing business. 1) Even with my experience and credentials, I would never profess to be an expert at anything (“expert” is a mighty big word and I hate when I see it on candidates’ resumes), but there is actually one thing I am an expert at. I’m an expert and knowing what I like. 2) When the content is free, audience complaints are heard on kindness alone.

Daytripper (DC/Vertigo): Daytripper is at times whimsical and ethereal, but it never falters to argue the central philosophical tenet of relishing the journey and not waiting around for one’s invariable final destination in life. I had a few minor quibbles with the tone in which the writers chose to relay their message at times. Occasionally, I felt that the delivery extended beyond sentimental and dipped its toe into saccharine waters, but that concern is largely overshadowed by Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon’s fresh voice, vibrant pencils, and emotionally lush colors thanks to the contributions of Dave Stewart. It also sparked a lot of conversation and speculation about meaning, which is something I can’t say for most of the repetitive genre garbage littering the stands these days. I think it’s also remarkable because it’s a testament to the evolving tone that the Vertigo line is capable of assuming, with critical darlings possessing an Alternative Comics spin, such as the work of Jeff Lemire, Matt Kindt, or Sarah Glidden. With DC Entertainment “sunsetting” (excuse the corporate speak) WildStorm, Vertigo could very well be the “new” imprint to watch.

Sweets (Image Comics): I don’t really mean this with any disrespect; I just couldn’t resist the sound byte. Sweets is what Stumptown should have been. Sweets was barely on my radar screen, but a chance encounter with Kody Chamberlain at SDCC led me to it and it hit me hard. I kind of overdosed on crime comics in the last few years and never paid them much attention. Noir seemed de rigueur, but Sweets came out of nowhere and seemed to eclipse all of its kin. It’s just better. There’s the rich texture and authenticity of the crime noir aspects, but an entirely different strata of meaning that contains commentary about the fragmentation and disenfranchisement of the post-9/11, post-Katrina, post-Bush, faux post-racial Obama era of politics in the US, serving as a cultural cautionary tale. The fact that Chamberlain writes, pencils, inks, colors, letters, and designs the book also ups the appreciation meter dramatically. You can’t fake this level of craftsmanship.

Strange Tales: Volume Two (Marvel): Not the whole series mind you, and not even the entire first issue, it’s really just based on the inherent strength of two pieces! It’s Rafael Grampa on Wolverine and Frank Santoro on Silver Surfer. Santoro’s Surfer was sparse but highly effective. It relied on iconic imagery, capturing the detachment and tortured essence of the character. Grampa’s Wolverine is, like, quite possibly the best Wolverine story ever(?). It’s more Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler than some hollow Chris Claremont melodrama. It’s the only Wolverine story that really makes any semblance of sense. It’s instantly the quintessential definitive take on the character. It might as well be the last Wolverine story, because nobody will ever say anything more crisp or more unique, nobody will ever be able to get inside the head of the character and reconstruct it for an audience more completely. Yeah, just those two strips garner this appearance on the list, though I will say that I also enjoyed the heck out of Jeffrey Brown’s Scott/Jean/Logan neurotic triangle in the second issue.

Absolute Planetary: Volume Two (DC/WildStorm): Fantastic Four was ushered in to kill the pulps. Planetary is Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s living embodiment of that publishing dynamic. It’s that and so much more, rousing action series, Ellis’ sci-fi extrapolation that exercises dusty corners of your brain, and gushing love letter to the industry. Planetary honors the past, and cherishes the future. It’s my favorite modern comic. It sits proudly on my shelf as just two absolute editions, though it took more than 10 years to complete. It’s the profound intersection of a writer functioning at his prime with a superstar artist in lockstep with the intent and flair necessary to function on multiple levels. It can be digested as pure entertainment, crafty construction where individual parts appear beautiful but taken together form a breathtaking mosaic of storytelling, and it’s also an agile and virile piece of industry meta-commentary. In the world of comics, it’s the rare coupling of written word and aesthetic desire, forming one of those cultural high points that will likely never be out-performed. It contains the type of intelligence, consistency, and attitude I love, all mired in one beautifully compelling package.

Absolute All-Star Superman (DC): Shit, I don’t even like Superman! There’s really only one other Superman story I can say I truly like, and that’s Steven T. Seagle and Teddy Kristiansen’s It’s A Bird. However, that book was more about the act of creating, about the inspiration to write coming out of real world experiences, for both Seagle in this incarnation and Schuster and Siegel in the original. Superman himself makes scant referential appearances, so to some extent, as much as I like it, I disqualify it as a “true” Superman story. But again, this book features a writer functioning at their peak of clarity, with a stellar artist they were simply destined to collaborate with. It’s the best take ever, on the world’s most iconic comic book character ever, in the definitive format. So, of course it’s on the list! I don’t have much else to say about Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s achievement; I enjoyed the extras included in the Absolute Edition. There’s plenty of sketches and more detail about the twelve Herculean trials, and absolutely no ambiguity as to what the story itself means or what the denouement is intended to convey. It was meant to read this grand. All-Star Superman is an artistic height for this property and I think it’s impossible to top.

While there was certainly a continued shift toward quality over quantity, 2010 felt like a pretty good year for me and comics. I reviewed massive quantities of books over at Poopsheet Foundation, which allowed me to cover more ground on mini-comics and the small press side of industry. I was even promoted to the Senior Reviewer position, often times feeling like I had more to say about the indie small press than the genre repetition and 7-day news cycle of the mainstream press. Back at 13 Minutes, I had reviews and thought pieces link-blogged by The Comics Journal, The Comics Reporter, and Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources. I witnessed my best month (and year) ever in terms of web hits thanks in part to creator Twitter and Facebook accounts being, well, all a-twitter. 13 Minutes was even nominated for a Paradox Comics “Oscar” in the hotly contended “Best Web-Site” category. I managed to grab a couple more print pull quotes and finally completed something I’d been threatening for a while, a sprawling 10 part analysis of “the voice of our generation” with The Brian Wood Project. I met so many creators online and at SDCC this year, and enjoyed the tangible synergy between critic and creator than can still organically exist.

At the end of the day, my entire mainstream comic book world is represented pretty well by this list. I read one Marvel book regularly thanks to Savant Magazine alum Matt Fraction, a bunch of Vertigo books thanks mostly to Brian Wood and a dash of Jason Aaron. In terms of genre breakdown, a little less than half of the books were superhero-y by my loose calculation, with a diverse and eclectic mix comprising the balance, from autobiographical, to the crime genre, all the way out to post-apocalyptic craziness. With books like Planetary and DV8 wrapped, the WildStorm imprint will fade quietly into the night. Perennial favorites like Wasteland and Echo remain stalwart selections. Occasionally I might follow a creator I’m loyal to, like JH Williams III or Valerie D’Orazio. If I like a book enough, I’ll upgrade to an elite format, like All-Star Superman. I read a bunch of mini-comics on the side. The End. To some extent, comic books (not the people or the industry) is a shrinking world for me. To use a painful analogy, it’s as if I’m continually panning for gold, editing out more and more silt in order to discover the few remaining nuggets to be found, which keep the entire endeavor afloat a little while longer.



Originally Published @ Poopsheet Foundation

This year was even more difficult than last year to down-select from so many appealing contenders. With 169 books reviewed here at Poopsheet Foundation alone, settling on the finalists was a grueling process. I spent hours reviewing and rethinking every selection vis-à-vis their competition. The first couple entries were relatively easy. I actually knew the moment I read them that they’d be contenders and other books would inevitably be chasing them all year long trying to knock them out of position. The other finalists ranged from some familiar mini-comics creators and small press publishers to those relatively unknown to me. For example, Patrick Keck seemed to come out of nowhere and made a strong and lasting impression. Some creators offered multiple projects. For example, Noah Van Sciver put out a terrific issue in the form of Blammo #6, but in this Sophie’s Choice style proposition, I ultimately settled on the purity of Complaints instead. Some publishers simply refused to be ignored; Sparkplug Comic Books ended the year with two very deserving finalists.

I would be remiss in not giving some honorable mentions to additional creators like Lauren Barnett (Secret Weirdo), Katie Skelly (Nurse Nurse), Ryan Claytor (And Then One Day), Ryan Standfest (Funny/not funny), Pete Hodapp (Yawning Void), Julia Gfrorer (Flesh And Bone), Jason Ciaccia & Aaron Norhanian (The Sinister Truth: MK Ultra), and the gang at the Boston Comics Roundtable (Inbound 5: The Food Issue), whose work I enjoyed immensely, but couldn’t seem to squeeze into a finite list no matter how many times I attempted to rework it. Without further preamble, here are the Best Mini-Comics & Small Press Titles of 2010…

PTERODACTYL HUNTERS by Brendan Leach Ptero Hunters is the clever cornerstone in what I’m calling the “Newsprint Revivalist” movement, joining mainstream offerings like DC’s largely uneven Wednesday Comics and indie breakouts like Pete Hodapp’s Yawning Void. Leach presents a scraggly-lined story that’s epic in scope, utilizing the grand spectacle of action adventure that the name surely implies, but wisely roots it in the effortless accessibility of emotional family drama. It blew me away.

RAMBO 3.5 by Jim Rugg Honestly, without any hyperbolic ranting whatsoever… this is absolutely one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. In any year. In any medium. Jim Rugg has surreptitiously supplanted guys like Dennis Miller, Jon Stewart, and the crew of subversives responsible for the TV show Archer on FX; he is my new comedic guru. For those of us that politically lean toward the liberal left and feel that something has been deeply amiss in this country ever since that village in Texas lost its idiot a few years ago, then this is certainly for you.

COMPLAINTS by Noah Van Sciver I can unabashedly say that I love all of Noah’s work. Blammo is particularly amazing, and I sincerely hope that you all supported the grass roots Facebook Campaign to put him to work on Howard the Duck for Marvel’s Strange Tales anthology, because that’s something I want to see as a fan. That said, Complaints had a purity of spirit, a crystal clear aesthetic, and a POV that is among the best that modern DIY self-publishing has to offer. This is the future of the scene.

BURN COLLECTOR #14 by Al Burian Burn Collector operates in two hemispheres; it respects the past and had me typing missives like “Kirby crackle” in my review, but also looks to the future with a dystopian angst, where books might not exist, but the vibrancy of underground comics would still live on. Burian’s contemplation of our “visual symbolic language” is essential reading for the DIY crowd and their position in culture. Comics are holistically moving toward center, along with graffiti, music, and contemporary art, and this convergence of influences is occurring “beneath the radar of the curators of high culture.” It’s powerful stuff, a sobering call to arms for the creators who will rise up and usher in tomorrow.

THE RATNEST #2 by Patrick Keck The cover technique is simply exquisite. In one fell swoop, this lavishly designed book justified the existence of the tactile sensory experience of print comics and exposed one of the critical weaknesses of the drive to digital. On the storytelling side, it was an effective exercise in thematic cycle, and in the evolution of form. I called it back then, and nothing I can say today will be as heartfelt and intense; The Ratnest is a “refreshingly great” and “paradigm shattering objet d’art.”

BOGWITCH #3 Edited by Patrick Keck Yeah. Not only can he create, but he can also “herd cats” as I like to say, and curate an anthology style book. Patrick Keck’s editorial hand is as strong as his creative one. It’s got Chris Cilla. It’s got Malachi Ward. It’s got Thomas Stemrich and Joe Sobota delivering “Reds, Pinks, and Whites,” which is a fickle, honest, direct, and unflinching look at society. “Rescue Boat” by Weston Wilson amazed me with prose on par with Ernest Hemmingway. It’s about helpless desperation, fragile existence, and intricate contemplation. The intensity of purpose on display grabs you by the throat and never lets go.

BOUND AND GAGGED Edited by Tom Neely Speaking of herding cats being an additional talent… there’s Tom Neely. The Blot was my first exposure to Neely’s work and it catapulted itself into the position of being an all time favorite. It was the juxtaposition of two anachronistic aesthetics, a Floyd Gottfredson inspired Disney quirk, with Neely’s almost fetishistic appreciation of classic horror. As if I wasn’t seething with enough jealousy, he then turns in this amazing editorial effort. The entries include work from Tom Neely himself, Elijah Brubaker (Reich), Chris Cilla (The Heavy Hand), David King (Lemon Styles), Josh Simmons (Jessica Farm), Noah Van Sciver (Blammo), John Porcellino (King Cat), Dylan Williams (Reporter), and Ryan Standfest (Funny/not funny). The roster reads like a damn who’s who of who I consider industry leaders and personal favorites. This book is a perfect little snapshot in time of the best creators the industry has to offer.

LEMON STYLES by David King As we ultimately concluded here at Poopsheet Foundation, this is like “Charles Schulz for the 21st Century.” There’s no additional collegiate vocabulary word I can lay down, no clever turn of phrase I can construct, or witty analogy I can conjure to adequately express the praise. The work is a continual attempt to reconcile the way the world is with the way the world should be. Bravo to Dylan Williams and Sparkplug Comic Books for putting out so many great books this year in general, and specifically their strong support of King’s work!

THE HEAVY HAND by Chris Cilla Once again, I’ll reiterate my remarks about Sparkplug Comic Books and the general strength of their line. I’ve never met a Sparkplug Comic Book that I didn’t like. I felt so engrossed by the bizarre world-building and immersive nature of the experience reading The Heavy Hand. I haven’t felt such a visceral gut level reaction to a book since the first installment of Jessica Farm by Josh Simmons. Chris Cilla is like the wayward bastard lovechild of Robert Crumb and Charles Burns.

KARMIC BOOK by Carrie Taylor Carrie Taylor’s quiet little effort really deserves a “Special Prize” in the selections this year for stretching the definition of what a mini-comic can be. It graciously retains its status despite content that defies categorization, the blurring of mixed media influences, the lack of a specific genre, and beautifully textured technique that feels like Taylor’s own uniquely inventive intellectual property. It’s different from all that came before, and will likely remain so from all that comes after.

Flesh And Bone @ Poopsheet Foundation

“As this will likely be the last mini I review in 2010, it’s a great high point to end the year on.”

Check out my latest full review over at Poopsheet Foundation.


12.29.10 Releases

You just can never tell when these holidays are going to hijack the shipping schedule, but it looks like new books will still be out on Wednesday the 29th. First up for me is Scalped #44 (DC/Vertigo). I might also check out SHIELD #5 (Marvel), which is really late, and don’t ask me what’s going on in the book, but it sure looks amazing and inventive. There are some shops who will apparently be receiving Terry Moore’s Echo #27 (Abstract Studio) as well, but since #26 was just out, I doubt I’ll see the next issue at Sea Donkey’s so soon. That’s a wrap on 2010.

The Great Statistical Purchasing Analysis of 2010!

This is the third sequential year that I’ve attempted some form of statistical analysis on my comic book purchasing habits, and it seems very clear that a multi-point trend may be developing. In short, I am spending significantly less money and bringing home fewer and fewer books with each passing year. This is true in a year over year comparison, but even more dramatic when looking at the numbers on a two year cycle. Before I dive into my own thoughts and analysis, I’ll just present the raw data for you to absorb. I seem to be technically incapable of converting an MS Excel chart into a jpg or gif file to drop into Blogger (blame it on MS Office 2007), so in lieu of the slick graphs I built, here’s a cold boring look at the three years worth of data I’ve compiled so far:

Total Purchased: 259 (Singles): 55 (Trades): 314 (Total)
Total Spend: $777 (Singles): $1,200 (Trades): $1,977 (Total)
Weekly Item Avg: 4.98 (Singles): 1.06 (Trades): 6.04 (Total)
Weekly Spend Avg: $14.94 (Singles): $23.08 (Trades): $38.02 (Total)

Total Purchased: 197 (Singles): 26 (Trades): 223 (Total)
Total Spend: $697 (Singles): $521 (Trades): $1,218 (Total)
Weekly Item Avg: 3.79 (Singles): .50 (Trades): 4.29 (Total)
Weekly Spend Avg: $13.40 (Singles): $10.02 (Trades): $23.42 (Total)

Total Purchased: 169 (Singles): 18 (Trades): 187 (Total)
Total Spend: $616 (Singles): $413 (Trades): $1,029 (Total)
Weekly Item Avg: 3.25 (Singles): .35 (Trades): 3.60 (Total)
Weekly Spend Avg: $11.85 (Singles): $7.94 (Trades): $19.79 (Total)

Since comics still seem intent on working in a weekly publication cycle, I’m always drawn to the weekly end of the purchasing trends. As you can see in terms of plain volume, rounding to the nearest whole book, I was essentially purchasing 5 floppies and 1 TPB or GN per week in 2008. That number dropped to 4 floppies per week and 1 TPB or GN every two weeks in 2009. At the end of 2010, the data shows that I’m now buying on average just 3 singles per week, with 1 TPB or GN every three weeks, which was barely enough material for me to highlight a deserving Graphic Novel of the Month as was the custom at 13 Minutes. In fact, if readers look closely, there’s a month or two that I basically skipped because I didn’t think anything I bought was good enough to showcase.

In terms of dollars and cents, from 2009 to 2010, I went from spending approximately $13/week to $12/week on floppies, just a 12% decline. For TPB and GN activity from 2009 to 2010, the average spend went from $10/week to $8/week, showing a 21% drop. One of the interesting observations about this is that the rate of decline between floppies and their overall price is not decreasing at a proportional rate because the average price point on singles is increasing over time. In 2008, the average price point was an even $3, in 2009 it rose to $3.53, and in 2010 it was $3.65. In the span of just two years, that’s an average jump in price of 22% on the single issue titles I buy. Basically, this is the result of many $2.99 titles becoming $3.99 titles from The Big Two, and some assorted second tier publishers coming in at other assorted price points like $3.50 or $3.95.

For me, the most startling way to look at this data is to examine the longest term possible and compare total spend weekly and annually from 2008 when I started tracking it directly to 2010. It’s an aside, but I wish I’d captured 2007 data, because I know for a fact I spent WAY MORE money on comics that year based on my income level and it probably would have been the peak purchasing year. Sheesh, it was the year I dropped $1,400 alone on an original page of Paul Pope art from his DC Solo short “Teenage Sidekick” that won the Eisner Award. But, let’s work with the numbers I DO have. For all intents and purposes, this two year comparison from ’08 to ‘10 shows a 50% reduction in total purchasing habits across the board. Half! In 2008, I spent about $2,000 total on comics, or about $40 per week. In 2010, I spent a total of about $1,000 on comics, or about $20 per week. Those numbers are scary if that’s any representation of my age group and/or demographic and their declining interest based on everything from macro-economic factors to the intrinsic quality and perceived value of the material being published.

You know me, I like to make bold predictions based solely on pattern recognition. So if we project that two year cycle all the way out, it means that in 2012, I’ll be spending $500 a year on comics, or about $10/week on average. In 2014, it will be $250 per year and just $5 per week (which should get me about one book by then). In 2016, it would yield $125 per year and $3 per week. If you run this forecasting model to exhaustion on the two year cycle, in the year 2026, I will spend just $3 on comics for the entire year. At today’s prices, which obviously will not hold, that would be just one single floppy all year long! I’ll be 52 years old in 2026 by the way; will we even have dead tree style books by then? Won’t there just be some ocular implant that I beam the data directly onto from the central cortex? The only thing I am certain of is that time will tell if this trend holds or if it is an anomalous blip when shown in a longer term context.

For now, it’s got me a little worried that my interest in comics is generally waning. I could easily blame it on the financial drain of the economy or the prioritization of kids and not having as much discretionary income to dispose of on fast fiction. But deep down I know it’s probably an equally robust mixture of those financial concerns along with the perceived value in the quality of the product, not to mention my admittedly highly subjective taste. You can just go down the line and start wiping out major portions of the potential market share and “spendable” product. For example, I’m not buying any of the plethora of Green Lantern titles, woosh – gone, or any Batman titles, woosh – gone, or any Superman titles, woosh – gone, or any Avengers titles, woosh – gone, or any Spider-Man titles, woosh – gone, or any Hellboy or BPRD titles, etc., etc., etc. I’m not loyal to any company or property or single character; if anything, I’m loyal to some creators.

Brian Wood writes something? I’m there. Warren Ellis writes something? I’m there. JH Williams III draws something? I’m there. Nathan Fox draws something? I’m there. Paul Pope decides to bust out a new project? I’m so there! But the general shift in the industry is that creators don’t seem to be staying for long runs on any properties. Brian Wood cranking out 72 issues of DMZ is an anomaly. Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca being on 30+ issues of Invincible Iron Man uninterrupted is an anomaly. How often does someone like Paul Pope actually put out an original project? Let’s see, Battling Boy was announced as early as San Diego Comic-Con 2007 and still isn’t out. Many of the creators I like are so specialized that they don’t even work on regular ongoing titles, but are more in the niche special project category or engaged in limited runs, stuff like J3 on Batwoman, or Morrison & Quitely on All-Star Superman, or the sporadic Rafael Grampa project, whether an OGN like Mesmo Delivery or a small slice of an anthology like his recent Wolverine story in Strange Tales.

That type of interest on my part doesn’t bode well for regular sustainable readership of an ongoing monthly title. I’m not saying I’m done with comics. I love comics. But I’m finding far fewer instances of interest for me personally. I’m finding far fewer books that I subjectively deem worthy of spending my money on. I’m finding far fewer books that I buy being retained in the collection long term. I’m finding far fewer that are nuanced enough to go back to for multiple readings, thus finding less perceived inherent value. I’m finding far fewer single creators that I trust enough to follow with a completist mentality. I seldom find an attractive convergence of something “special” like, say, Warren Ellis and John Cassaday on Planetary that draws me in. It seems, for now, that the empirical data certainly supports what my gut’s been telling me for a while, that there’s a general sentiment of majority disinterest. Yet I want to be interested, so long live the minority.

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The 12 Days of Comics: 2010 – Day 13 (Bonus!)

Ryan: Merry Christmas! For those of you who have already grown weary of family time (or just don’t believe in Jesus), Justin and I thought we would post a BONUS update to conclude our “12 Days of Comics” collaboration by sharing some of our honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the list, but were pretty darn close. Justin, you wanna’ start this ball rolling?

Justin: I’ve been examining our list holistically and we’ve covered a lot of ground, Ryan. We’ve included a whole host of interesting titles from second tier publishers, more than a couple all-ages selections, some solid adventure books with pulp and sci-fi roots, a small array of powerful mini-comics, two very different Vertigo comics, and even managed to squeeze in some non-US Manga. I think it’s really interesting that we managed to avoid the industry’s most prolific genre, superheroes, and that there are no Marvel Comics included on the list.

In the spirit of spreading around the love a little, my bonus selection will attempt to fill that perceived gap in the market for any readers so inclined. I was tempted to go with the “Wednesday Comics” Hardcover from DC, because the size alone is a spectacle and would make a grand gift. “Wednesday Comics” also has a plethora of top shelf artists, like Kyle Baker, Paul Pope, Ryan Sook, Dave Gibbons, and I was surprised to enjoy the inventive Flash strip from Karl Kerschl. However… with two DC imprint books already sitting proudly on the list, I’m going to go with Marvel’s modest 5-issue series “S.W.O.R.D.”

"S.W.O.R.D." by Kieron Gillen & Steven Sanders (Marvel Comics)
Demographic: Fun-Loving Adventurist, Superheroes!
Selected by: Justin Giampaoli

Justin: “S.W.O.R.D.” is an under-appreciated gem that was never really given much of a chance to succeed in the direct market. At the time, it featured a relatively obscure creative team, written by Kieron Gillen (“Phonogram”), with art by Steven Sanders (“Five Fists of Science”). It featured a relatively new supporting character from Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s “Astonishing X-Men” run, Abigail Brand. But, the book debuted something like a year after that series finally wrapped, so interest had faded significantly and momentum was lost. Abby is the Director of the Sentient Worlds Observation & Response Department (S.W.O.R.D.), which is the extra-terrestrial counterpart to S.H.I.E.L.D. Her boyfriend is Dr. Hank McCoy, aka: Beast, from the X-Men.

The premise of the book is that Earth is basically under constant daily threat from off-world incursion. The eclectic band of cast members seems to continually be on the edge of disaster, slimly averting near annihilation from the alien deluge through a combination of luck, bumbling, diplomacy, and skill – pretty much in that order. Gillen uses a lot of familiar Marvel Universe toss-aways, like Lockheed (Kitty Pryde’s Dragon), Death’s Head II (Intergalactic Bounty Hunter), Beta Ray Bill, and even introduces some of his own creations. For example, the sentient android, Unit, brings to mind the ominous computer HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” He’s cold and clinical and steals every scene he’s in with his cunning, distracting you with a disturbing smile while he plots your death 13 moves ahead. I sincerely hope that another writer comes along to make good use of this stellar creation.

Sanders’ art is well-suited for the comedic timing and tongue-in-cheek tone required of this big fun adventure book. I think that “S.W.O.R.D.” would appeal to anyone in search of an off-beat old-fashioned space-faring romp, someone that doesn’t take the constant threat of the end of life on this planet as we know it too seriously. The 5 single issues are really easy to find in dollar bins (you’ll spot those beautiful John Cassaday covers), but Marvel also collected it and awkwardly re-branded it under the X-banner as “X-Men: S.W.O.R.D. – No Time to Breathe.” It’s one of those books that was critically acclaimed, but just didn’t sell well, so what was intended as an ongoing series got truncated into a one-arc mini-series. I was sad to see it go prematurely. It’s worth a look.

Ryan: Huh! That’s interesting that we completely neglected “The House of Ideas.” Well, it’s funny that you mention Marvel, because one of my potential picks was from them.

"Strange Tales II" by Various (Marvel Comics)
Demographic: Indie-Artist with Superhero Ties
Selected by: Ryan Claytor

Ryan: As the title suggests, “Strange Tales II” is a follow-up project to “Strange Tales,” a mini-series originally published in 2009 which released a hungry pack of indie comics creators onto the untouchable Marvel properties they all grew up reading. This three-issue anthology of short stories by lesser known comics artists presents some unique looks at the superheroes we’ve all come to know.

Not only are there some fun and unexpected shorts in here, but the “Strange Tales” series functions as a fantastic bridge for either of the polar comics fans in your life. If you have an adamantly underground curmudgeon who refuses to look at a publication from “The Big Two,” just dangle names like Alex Robinson, Dash Shaw, The Hernandez Brothers, Harvey Pekar, Jeff Lemire, Jeffrey Brown, Shannon Wheeler, and Tony Millionaire in front of him/her, and then count the seconds until they snatch the issue from your hands. Conversely, for the “Marvel Zombie” on your shopping list, this will introduce them to a number of new (to them) creators who all have a healthy body of work behind them. Once they discover a creator or two from this expansive anthology, they’ll broaden their horizons by seeking out some work from that particular creator.

Honestly, I missed the boat on “Strange Tales I” (which I’ll be rectifying in my next back issue search), but “Strange Tales II” already has me itching for a third installment. Kudos to Editor Jody LeHeup for having the courage and organizational prowess to help this project come to fruition. Aside from that, I wanted to highlight a couple more bonus mentions that didn’t quite make my “12 Days of Comics” cut, but were all tied for 13th place.

“Chip” by Richard Moore, from Antarctic Press. Great for the dry-humorist on your list. Chip is about the littlest gargoyle who, try as he might, is not very scary. Moore’s classic deadpan humor makes these issues fly by.“Reich” is another comic by a single creator, Elijah Brubaker, and is published by Sparkplug Comic Books. “Reich” is a historical re-telling of the life of Wilhelm Reich, a psychoanalyst working in the field of sex research. This ambitious project is 7 issues into its run and perfectly suited for the fringe-interest historian on your list.

Justin, did you have any other honorable mentions you’d like to reveal before we finish our 2010 collaboration? Maybe you’d like to veto one of my bonus titles, just so your veto doesn’t go to waste (and make me look like the only jerk who decided to use it)?

Justin: I thought about vetoing “Strange Tales II” just on principle (read: to mess with you), simply because at the time of this writing only 2 of the 3 issues have actually come out so far, making it an incomplete work. However, since none of the stories carry over from issue to issue and can all function as standalone treats, I refrained. Besides, in my opinion, “Strange Tales II” #1 has, perhaps, the best single Wolverine story, like, ever. It’s by Rafael Grampa, and I’ll be talking a little more about it later this month during “My 13 Favorite Things of 2010” at 13 Minutes. It’s astounding that Grampa actually found a new take on an extremely well-tread character. Between that story, Frank Santoro’s sparse and iconic “Silver Surfer” story, and the Jeffrey Brown neurotic “X-Men” triangle between Scott/Jean/Logan in the second issue, this volume succeeds where the previous fell short for me. The only things memorable about the first volume of “Strange Tales” are the hilarious M.O.D.O.K. strip and the Paul Pope cover. You’re in for a treat there, Ryan.

Other than seconding that selection, I’d just like to get quick plugs in for two additional books. The first is “The Sinister Truth: MK Ultra” (Pop Industries) by Aaron Norhanian and Jason Ciaccia, about a real world CIA/military mind control initiative focused on the assassination of Fidel Castro. It should appeal to any Cold War Historian or Government Conspiracy Buff. The second book is “Inbound 5: The Food Issue” (Boston Comics Roundtable), which is an anthology of food related short stories. It contains a plethora of high quality strips, is one of the best anthologies I read this year, and underscores the strength of the Boston mini-comics scene. It would make a kitschy and unique present for any foodie on your shopping list.

Thanks again, Ryan, for another fun end-of-the-year project. Merry Christmas!

Ryan: Back atchya, Justin. ‘Twas a pleasure, as always. And a Jolly Christhannawanza to you and yours.


The 12 Days of Comics: 2010 - Day 12

"The Possum & The Pepper Spray" by Pete Hodapp (Self-Published)
Demographic: Slice of Life, Rural Contemplationist
Selected by: Justin Giampaoli
Subsequent Interview by: Ryan Claytor

Justin: Even though Pete Hodapp recently won the Isotope Award for Excellence in Mini-Comics for this book, I think it risks flying under the radar of most comic book consumers out there, so I’d like to highlight it as my next selection. I reviewed this book for Poopsheet Foundation and the comp copy thankfully came with a handwritten note from Hodapp explaining that he was tired of reading autobiographical comics that focused on life in New York or LA. He set out to capture just a bit of the experiences found in the rest of the country. The book takes place in rural Wisconsin, and is ostensibly about this ongoing battle of wills between Hodapp and an invasive possum, but the larger theme is about the incessant clash between urban and rural ways of thinking in our society.

Hodapp seems to have mastered basic anatomy and figure work, while the basic mechanics of smooth panel transitions and foundational storytelling no longer elude him, so he’s now at a level where he’s experimenting in other areas. His eye for graphic design is strong; he can flip the switch between minimalist screen printed covers, and wildly ornate page designs. I’ve only read three of Hodapp's books, but it’s really a joy to watch him tinker and see the wide variety of results he can produce. “The Possum & The Pepper Spray” is a good introductory piece because it most resembles a traditional comic. His other works are a bit more challenging, being a miniature flip book entitled "Pump," and a newsprint style opus called “Yawning Void.” I’d encourage anyone interested in mini-comics or something off the beaten path to track down Pete's work at: http://www.yawningvoid.blogspot.com/

Ryan: This sounds right up my alley, even down to the niche demographic you pegged. I'm struggling to think of a question to respond with, but all I can think of is "Where do I place my order?" Ha-ha! It's not very apparent on his website. Okay, okay, I've got a better one. You mentioned he has a couple other books: one is a flip book and the other is a newspaper something-or-other. Is this newspaper piece comics in the traditional sense, and if not, how exactly does it veer from the comics medium?

Justin: I think emailing Pete is the best bet; I checked the Poopsheet Shop over at Poopsheet Foundation, and I couldn't find it on that or any other small press distribution sites. The newspaper piece, “Yawning Void,” is fairly traditional sequential storytelling. The collected comic strips contained come in all shapes and sizes in that piece, but they're still "comics." The only reason I lumped it into that slightly more "challenging" category was because of the different format. It's folded like a newspaper, ala DC's recent "Wednesday Comics" offering, and might throw someone for a loop if they were looking for a traditional single issue "floppy" on the rack.

Ryan: Just a quick follow up; I emailed Pete and I'm a little embarrassed to say that I missed the "Stuff You Can Buy” link on his page, located conveniently at the top right of his website, in capital letters and excessive asterisks, no less! Thanks, Pete! Can't wait to read my newly purchased copy of "The Possum & The Pepper Spray."

Shut Up & Love The Rain @ Poopsheet Foundation

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Susi Sorakuopassa @ Poopsheet Foundation

“The beautiful final image is a haunting one; it’s a picture that lends some hope to the aspiration that we may all be ‘naïve enough to reach for the stars.’”

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The 12 Days of Comics: 2010 - Day 11

“The Complete Peanuts” Collections (Fantagraphics)
Demographic: Comics Traditionalist Production-Junkie
Selected by: Ryan Claytor
Subsequent Interview by: Justin Giampaoli

Ryan: Even though we are restricting our “12 Days of Comics” list to comics published this year, I’m going to “take it back to the old-school” (as the hep-cats say) with a reprinted collection of “Peanuts” from Fantagraphics Books. These beautifully designed 300-some-odd-page books have been published twice a year since 2004. The publishing project’s aim is to reprint EVERY ONE of Charles Schulz’s 17,897 strips from his 50-year run on “Peanuts.” Each edition is lovingly wrapped with star-studded introductions and (more importantly) immaculate book design from the incomparable Seth, a masterful cartoonist in his own right and long-time “Peanuts” fan. At the end of each year, Fantagraphics packages the two “Peanuts” compilations published that year as a boxed set, which is littered with more Seth-designed “Peanuts”-inspired art.

Like almost every human alive today, I grew up reading “Peanuts” in those forgotten relics called newspapers. These collected editions have given me a chance to experience “Peanuts” in a new light; chronologically as they were printed. They’ve also allowed me to see the progression of character design, both in terms of aesthetics and personality. But in addition to experiencing some of these early strips for the first time and re-experiencing the later strips from a different perspective, those of us interested in comics history now have a product that is not quite so ephemeral as “Peanuts‘” initial printing. These hardback books are printed on gleaming-white, thick, paper stock which showcases the pen and ink line work gorgeously and is designed to stand the test of time. The boxed sets have been a perennial favorite gift of mine, and maybe they will be for the right person on your list too.

Justin: This is a great choice that just *feels* appropriate for the Holiday Season because of the luscious packaging. I own just the first 3 of these or so, and then fell out of the habit of purchasing them for some reason. This is a good reminder to potentially start up again. I wanted to hone in on something you touched on, which is the progression of the characters. Something I was unaware of previously, but loved about the first couple installments, was that a character named “Shermy” was intended to be the anchor of the four original cast members, but you can slowly see Charlie Brown steal the spotlight based on audience feedback. It’s also a treat to see the design of the characters morph over time as Schulz’s style settled, and then even as his health began to slip in later years and the line work became jittery. Please tell me you’ve been to the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa?!

Ryan: YES! On my first tour in the summer of 2007, I made a point to stop there as I drove down from the Pacific Northwest back to my (then) home in Southern California. It’s a pretty amazing place. I’ve even made a subsequent stop or two after that. Over the course of my half-a-dozen years of conventioneering, I’ve met a creator or two who work behind the scenes in the licensing offices. One trip, I even got a tour of these offices, saw Sparky’s ORIGINAL DRAWING ROOM, and MET JEAN SCHULZ BRIEFLY! It was pretty amazing. But, yes, even if you don’t get a behind the scenes tour, it’s still well worth the trip to Santa Rosa.

And I love the story of Schulz’s line work in later years. I’ve heard that Schulz was really distraught about this wavering line quality in his later years. I think Art Spiegelman talks about it in his “Comics 101” presentation. Anyhow, as a creator it’s easy to see how a development like that in one’s work could really shake the artist’s confidence. But it really became a signature of his artwork and celebrated by his worldwide audience. Just do a quick Google-search for “Charles Schulz wobbly line” and you’ll see a lot of reviewers fawning over its charming and inimitable quality.

Chickenbot’s Odd Jobs #2 @ Poopsheet Foundation

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12.22.10 Reviews

Invincible Iron Man #33 (Marvel): It's a seemingly unrelated observation, at first, but I noticed that the last WildStorm comic came out today. I couldn't escape the feeling that I'd seen all this before with Joe Casey's WildCats run, the CEO superhero with a radically alternative energy source that could change the world. Oh well, steal from the best I guess. There's a lot of internal monologuing used here to recap for the audience, but it's hidden away in one big long chase sequence that would otherwise play fairly dull. There is a big bomb dropped not only about the relationship between Ezekiel Stane and the Hammers, but also the origin of the youngest Hammer, which I won't spoil, but it's something involving a character that Fraction has already started to move onto the board and something that he'll likely get a lot of mileage out of, something that I've mentioned should probably be introduced into the next Iron Man movie. It's all about as entertaining as usual, but my favorite part is the involvement of Jamie McKelvie again. It's not an interlude sequence this time out, but a short bonus feature that's sort of "a day in the life of Tony Stark." It's done purely with visual beats in an entire world that's networked around him. It's the kind of prescient thinking you'd expect to find in such a forward leaning futurist comic. The end result is that Pepper really is Tony's center, and Fraction keeps layering interesting plot threads together. He's proving that, with Larroca's seamless art fading into the background, he can be a storyteller who has mastered the art of inserting human drama into otherwise typical superheroics. Grade A.

Cyclops #1 (Archaia): This is a new 8 issue series from Jacamon and Matz, the team that brought us The Killer. The year is 2054 and the story revolves around a sci-fi thriller postulating war as entertainment, with Doug Pistoia looking for work. I feel like I've seen this done before in recent movies, that video game reality mentality, and the slick packaging, all in a cold PKD meets James Cameron future. There's a sketchy quality to the art that I enjoyed; you can almost see the original pencils reveal themselves underneath some of the coloring. The technique provides a lived-in realistic feeling. Along the way, there are some beautiful shots of Florence and New York and their urban skylines of the future. Pistoia is being indoctrinated into a privatized global security firm with a UN mandate. I thought it was a little implausible that he'd be swallowing the company lines so hard and then trying to sell them to his wife, who fights at first, but then just sort of blindly accepts. There seem to be a few minor characterization stumbles like that, possibly some nuance being lost in the translation from a Franco-Belgian comic originally published by Casterman, but otherwise there are some interesting ideas at play. The company wants you to believe that they're just creating good field operatives, but that's tied directly to ensuring a continued revenue stream and good ratings. There's not just making soldiers, they're fashioning stars. Grade B+.

Uncanny X-Men #531 (Marvel): I'm still reading the "Previously..." page and I'm already getting annoyed. Lobe? The Collective Man? Who comes up with the names for these villains? I guess continuity is totally out the window; Angel is here leading a de facto X-Men team while the island is quarantined, yet he's also fighting Apocalypse's Final Horsemen on the moon in Uncanny X-Force? Similarly, in Uncanny X-Force, E.V.A. is infected and Fantomex is also very much occupied with the team, yet here they're both with Kitty and Emma? For a group of titles that can be so interconnected when big dumb events take place, there is an utter disregard for obvious continuity mishaps like this when you're not being suckered into buying 10 titles in the latest inter-company crossover. Feels a bit like burning the candle at both ends in an unfair consumer fashion. Anyway, I enjoyed Scott talking down Namor, the idea of adamantium poisoning, Dr. Rao, the banter between Emma, Kitty, Sebastian, and Fantomex, and some of the isolated bits of dialogue as the team begins to address the X-impostors. Fraction does a good job turning some accepted ideas on their head in this arc, like the mass populace not being fearful of mutants, but fearful of not being a mutant. Fantomex is usually portrayed as a pretty with-it dude, so it's hard to believe he'd make a mistake like the one he made. That seemed like more of a dunderheaded impulsive Deadpool kind of move. Artistically, it's all a little too bright and cheery for me, though not as cheesecake and devoid of backgrounds as some earlier efforts on the title have been. Here's a New Year's Resolution I'm going to try and make stick: sliding this title off the pull list in order to secure a slot for Uncanny X-Force in its stead. Grade B-.

The 12 Days of Comics: 2010 - Day 10

“Neely Covers Comics To Give You The Creeps!” by Tom Neely (I Will Destroy You)
Demographic: Horror/EC Comics Fans
Selected by: Justin Giampaoli
Subsequent Interview by: Ryan Claytor

Justin: Simply put, Tom Neely is one of my favorite indie artists working today. I religiously buy every single book he produces, and even the anthology style projects he’s involved in. One of my all time favorite books is “The Blot,” but alas, it didn’t come out this year, so I’d like to suggest “Neely Covers Comics…” It is essentially a pin-up book of his interpretations of old EC Comics style horror covers, but serves as a terrific primer for those curious about his artistic style.

The brilliant thing about Neely’s work is that he combines two anachronistic styles which have no business being together. His figures bear some semblance of resemblance (heh) to early Disney work from Floyd Gottfredson. Readers will swear that they can spot white Mickey Mouse gloves and other subtle features on the figures that are pulled from their psyche and steady diet of Disney. Those residual TV and movie cues are overlayed with storytelling content that has an almost fetishistic appetite for classic horror motifs. The result is this oddly compelling composition of cute affable figures doing ironic, disturbing, or downright despicable things. Neely’s visuals are absolutely striking. He’s the type of illustrator I’d want to collaborate with in any capacity, be it the design for a web-site, an off-beat company logo, a late night animated show, the album cover for my band, or even a comic. For more information: http://www.iwilldestroyyou.com/

Ryan: This is an easy veto for me. You lost me at, “It is essentially a pin-up book.” I like narrative with my art. Especially if I’m going to plunk down my hard-earned $6, I’d like it to last a while, rather than just a passing glance at each page. This veto is not so much a slight to Neely or yourself. In fact, as usual, after your description I feel as though I have another artist to add to my “to read” list. Maybe this new release would work for a long-established Neely zealot, but I definitely won’t be making a book of covered covers the first work of his I pick up. Let’s hear about your back-up comic.

Justin: ARGH! Honestly, I wasn’t trying to sneak one past you here, but the thought crossed my mind that this might happen since you’ve been itching to use your executive veto power! I can’t argue with your logic. I sincerely hope you do track down some of Tom Neely’s work in spite of the veto. I recommend “The Blot” wholeheartedly, and if all else fails, Tom is set up in the Small Press Pavilion every year at SDCC, so buy it then!

As for a replacement selection, oh, it’s so tough! I’m tempted to go with “Afrodisiac” (AdHouse) by Jim Rugg & Brian Maruca (plug time!), which is a biting dose of blaxploitation parody operating on the reclamation of stereotypes and examining society’s fear, jealousy, and fascination with black men, particularly their prowess with white women, but I want to keep the mini-comics vibe alive, so…

“Henry & Glenn Forever” by Igloo Tornado (Self-Published)
Demographic: Hard Core Rockers, Not Easily Offended
Selected by: Justin Giampaoli
Subsequent Interview by: Ryan Claytor

Justin: Igloo Tornado is an art collective comprised of Tom Neely, Gin Stevens, Scot Nobles, and Levon Jihanian. This is a collection of strips featuring Henry Rollins, Glenn Danzig, Daryl Hall, and John Oates (of the eponymous “Hall & Oates” if you didn’t catch it). The subversive magic of the book is that it flips every audience expectation on end. Despite their hard-edged real world personas, Henry & Glenn are very much a couple. They possess the dubious sexuality and are overly emotional, while Hall & Oates live next door and are portrayed as the gruff Satan Worshippers. Neely takes the Floyd Gottfredson affectation I cited above, and lays a Chester Gould motif over it, so that Rollins looks like a dark-haired, menacing punk fashioned after Dick Tracy. The result is this dichotomous portrayal of aesthetic and content, enveloping the audience in a modern slice of wit, acerbic sarcasm, and deadpan humor. Personally, I prefer the purity and consistency of Neely’s solo work, but you can certainly understand why this book continues to sell out and, probably generalizing, has a loyal following from places like the Razorcake Magazine crowd in LA. Get in on the fun at: http://www.iglootornado.com/

Ryan: Ha-ha! Nice mini-plug for “Afrodisiac” up there. Sly, Justin, sly. Let’s get back to your actual choice, “Henry & Glenn Forever.” When I was on tour this past summer, I saw this book on several coffee tables where I crashed and counters where I signed. It seemed to be all the indie buzz at Comic-Con this past year as well. I can see this making a great, unique, underground gift for that rock enthusiast in your life. It’s sure to inspire a “Wha– What is this? Where did this come from?” type of awestruck joyous response… for the demographic Justin listed above. Maybe since I’ve seen this publication before, I don’t have quite as many questions about it as I do about the collective who produced it. Besides “Henry & Glenn Forever,” have the collective produced any other, uh, collective projects? From the limited information available on the Igloo Tornado website, it seems like the collective is more of a space for them to promote one another’s work than to produce collaborative projects together. Am I right, or am I just skimming their website too quickly?

Justin: As far as I know, you’re right. Igloo Tornado seems to be more of a promotional platform for the work of the independent creators involved. I only came to be aware of it via Tom Neely, and am unaware of any other projects the collective may have put out working in unison.


The 12 Days of Comics: 2010 - Day 9

“Hypotheses” by Virginia Heinen (Time Enough for Lunch Comics, Self-Published)
Demographic: Cutting-Edge, Experimental, Biological-Slant, Slice-of-Life Comics
Selected by: Ryan Claytor
Subsequent Interview by: Justin Giampaoli

Ryan: I am WAY excited about highlighting a selection from one of my stand out students, Virginia Heinen. Don’t get me wrong, I was blessed with more than my fair share of motivated students this year and I don’t mean to play favorites, but Virginia repeatedly came to class with ambitious and avant-garde scripts, continually re-worked her dialogue and pacing throughout her illustration process (even after our script critiques were finished), and that motivation did not wane even through the difficult part of the semester when final projects abound and it would have been easy to cut a corner or two in order to finish her final book. Because of all this, she produced one of the most accomplished and professional projects from any of my comics classes, in this or previous years. Assuming Virginia continues creating comics, I’ll be proud to say she was once my pupil.

Virginia is a science major with an interest in art, but to see her accomplished illustrations you’d think she was an art major with an interest in science. She has a great understanding of how to render biological forms, whether those forms are human or otherwise, and her interest in science and music delivers a fresh voice to the comics medium. Assuming you are willing to lay down a paltry $4, you’ll be rewarded with Virginia’s take on all four of our short-story comics assignments completed over the past four months, her meticulous eye for packaging details, an unexpected formatting experiment, and the first publication from a name you’ll soon come to know. You can order yours by emailing Virginia at heinenvi[at]msu[dot]edu

Justin: Sweet! I’ve had really good experiences with the work of some of your past students, such as Austin Hendry and Matt Dye, to name just a couple. Perhaps it’s self-promotional, but I hope you’ve been encouraging your students to send me their work for review purposes. From your description, Virginia’s craft and presentation ability seem strong, but for me, story trumps everything. Tell me this isn’t just an exercise in experimental packaging and formatting so that I don’t have to invoke the veto on you, Claytor! I have no feel for the plot or any narrative structure solely from your proud prose. What’s the hook? What’s the elevator pitch?

Ryan: Ha-ha! Well said. Sometimes I get a little wrapped up in the quality of presentation, but I was honestly trying to leave content as a bit of a teaser. It sounds like maybe that came across as more vague than teasing, so I’ll try to outline her book quickly. In my class, we have four short projects throughout my semester-length introductory comics course. The first is an “Artist Statement” comics project. I really want my students to start thinking about their own work, be that in comics, painting, ceramics, or underwater basket weaving, and start to consider themes that unify their work and reasons why they create their art. Unfortunately, this whole artist statement practice is usually neglected until grad school, which is a crying shame. My students have all been smart enough to begin tackling these questions about their own work. I’m not saying it’s an easy first project, but I think it gets them in a proper, contemplative frame-of-mind for crafting intelligent comics. Virginia’s artist statement talks about her first love, science, and how she doesn’t consider herself an artist, which, ironically, is mentioned in this gorgeous, letterbox, painstakingly-rendered panel filled with double-helixes, animals she’s studied, and self-portraits. As I mentioned before, it really feels like a new, yet accomplished, voice in comics. Our second project is a wordless comic, attempting to forward narrative through images alone. This is her experimental wordless comic that I don’t want to say much about, except for the fact that it’s really well done, it works with the theme of music, and one of the more ambitious assignments from this past semester. The third project is an autobiographical short story, where she talked about hunting for frog samples out in the swamps. Their final project is wide open in terms of theme. After taking notes all semester, creating short stories and critically discussing canonical readings and one another’s assignments, I let them script whatever topic most interests them without any restrictions except for page count. Sometimes, even after a whole semester, they’ll get a little overzealous with their scripts, and I have to rein them in a bit. There is, after all, only so much time to work. So, how’s that for an elongated elevator-ride pitch?

Justin: And you say you don’t like to write, ha! Seriously, that gives me a much better feel for the uniqueness of the project; the double-helix bit sounds very intriguing. I’m sold!


12.22.10 Releases

This is going to be a THIN week for me in terms of books I'm interested in, not to mention the additional lack of diversity regarding those titles. When all else fails, Matt Fraction holds down the mainstream fort, offering two titles from The House of Ideas. One is essentially an "old reliable," while the other is extremely inconsistent, being purchased on naught but inertia alone. Yep, it's Invincible Iron Man #33 (Marvel) and Uncanny X-Men #531 (Marvel). That's all, folks.

Tonight And Every Night @ Poopsheet Foundation

"The book is a powerful little burst of ideology, commenting on the cyclical and predictable nature of the news media as just another empty pop culture consumable."

Check out my latest full review over at Poopsheet Foundation.

The 12 Days of Comics: 2010 - Day 8

"The Lone Ranger" by Brett Matthews, Sergio Cariello, and John Cassaday (Dynamite Entertainment)
Demographic: Sergio Leone or Period Drama Film Fans
Selected by: Justin Giampaoli
Subsequent Interview by: Ryan Claytor

Justin: My next selection is Dynamite Entertainment’s "The Lone Ranger." Dynamite has turned the re-imaging of classic and pulp properties into a real cottage industry, with titles such as “Dracula,” “Dan Dare,” “The Complete Alice in Wonderland,” “The Green Hornet,” “Buck Rogers,” and “Zorro.” By far, the best of the line is this title, which is written by Brett Matthews, penciled by Sergio Cariello, with art direction and covers by John Cassaday. It strikes that delicate and effective balance that re-imaging projects should aspire to. It combines the strengths of the story's pulp roots, but tempers it with the voracious pop culture expectations of a modern audience. It retains the basic essence of tortured Texas Ranger turned vigilante folk hero John Reid, but infuses the story with contemporary sensibilities regarding romance, action, drama, and psychological intrigue. It’s not brutal Western violence merely for the sake of itself. It doesn't rest easy on stock character archetypes. Instead, it offers thoughtful contemplation about man’s place in a morally complex world. It carefully examines the choices we make, how they affect those around us, and the wisdom that may be gleaned from those experiences.

Cariello’s art lends a clean and austere beauty to the rugged environments. The pencils are framed by Cassaday’s gorgeous covers and (acting as art director) his interior layouts. That combination of Cariello and Cassaday's talents imparts an immersive cinematic quality to the adventure. Every shot feels like a wide expanse where you can imagine the world extending far beyond the panel borders. Brett Matthews' writing experience in the TV and film industry shows; “The Lone Ranger” is one of the best comics I’ve seen at pacing. He uses a style of storytelling that relies on the artistry of visual beats instead of leaning on the crutch of words, really using the power of the medium to its fullest extent.

I think it would obviously appeal to anyone into The Old West era; I know my family has some die hard fans of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. But, it would also work for anyone interested in a great human drama set in an atypical environment, or even entry level creators looking for an example of how to hone their skills. “The Lone Ranger” emphasizes storytelling vs. empty flourish in the art, and restraint vs. expository verbosity in the dialogue. The first 3 trades of the series are available, and as I understand it, the series has just a single issue to go before it wraps. Dynamite will likely be collecting the entire saga into one definitive edition as well.

Ryan: Man, each time you bring up some title I haven't heard of, my inner cynic thinks, "BORING!" and I've got my fingers poised to type "VETO" (I'm really itching to use this thing. Ha-ha!), but by the end of your explanation I'm thinking about BUYING, not vetoing. The emphasis on storytelling, pacing, and environments are all things I touch on in my university comics class and makes me think I should read through this for example pages to show my students. I teach students that are 18 years old and over, so this question isn't so much for me as it might be for parents and teachers of younger folks, but; what would be an appropriate age restriction for this book? I know you mentioned some violence, and I don't know what other mature content is present. Can you narrow the target demographic with a minimum age?

Justin: That's another great question, Ryan. I think the safest answer is that "The Lone Ranger" would get an "R" rating. There's a fair amount of "shoot-out" style violence, and even some isolated instances of brutal pillaging and attempted rape. It's always done extremely tastefully, and I think the darkest elements actually come from the moral choices portrayed. One of the most macro questions the series asks is "when is it ok to kill?" There's a fine line between justice and vengeance. Obviously I think it also depends on the kid, my parents were pretty cavalier about not editing or filtering my pop culture consumables, so for liberal leaning parents of relatively mature kids, "PG-13" might suffice, but for the record I have to go with an "R." Perfect for your college students! I might have a few stray issues around the house, so I'll set them aside for when I see you later this month.


The 12 Days of Comics: 2010 - Day 7

"Echo" by Terry Moore (Abstract Studios, Self-Published)
Demographic: Relationship-Driven Pseudo-Scientist
Selected by: Ryan Claytor
Subsequent Interview by: Justin Giampaoli

Ryan: Not one to rest on his “Strangers in Paradise” laurels, comics artist and self-publishing icon, Terry Moore, is at it again with his next series, “Echo.” Known for his realistic portrayal of female lead characters, Moore continues this theme in “Echo” with a government-funded scientific experiment-gone-wrong as the driving narrative force.

“Echo” is another one of the few titles on my monthly pull list (I think I might be down to about 3 now). Each installment delivers another well-plotted, well-paced, and well-delivered issue that is chock full of accomplished character renderings. Moore certainly has a knack for character development, allowing nearly every player to grow into a wholly-realized person. His sharp and perceptive attention to depicted emotions comes through as one of the many highlights of the series. In addition to that, the pseudo-science aspect of the mysterious “Phi Project” is well-integrated into the cast of characters and creates some enjoyable, dramatic, and high-pressure scenarios for the different people involved to bounce off of and react to.

Currently, “Echo” is on issue #26, with an announced end at issue #30. You can find single issues if you want to test out the story for a small price, but Moore, a savvy self-publisher, is quick to collect his single issues into trade paperbacks, each one compiling 5 issues into a single book. I would highly recommend starting your test subject on the first trade; I have a feeling the results will be positive.

Justin: What’s the opposite of a veto? You will get absolutely no argument from me regarding the inclusion of Terry Moore’s “Echo.” You’ve got all of the basics covered, Ryan; it’s one of the best books coming out today. What I *don’t* like is when people just casually dismiss this as a “female superhero” book, because it’s really not. The way I pitch “Echo” is that it combines the strong interpersonal dynamics of “Strangers in Paradise” with the type of sci-fi backbone and atomic paranoia (gamma rays, radioactive spiders, and genetic mutations) that fueled the Marvel Silver Age. It’s a brilliant mash-up of those tropes. Moore is an absolute craftsman and it would warm my heart if he got into the teaching end of comics some day. As for purchasing options, I have to believe that, as he’s done with “SiP,” he’ll offer the entire series collected in an omnibus format at some point in the future.

Ryan: I can only assume as much. If I were to guess, we’ll probably see something akin to an “Echo” Omnibus hit the shelves around Comic-Con 2011. He usually releases something substantial for the big show.


The 12 Days of Comics: 2010 - Day 6

"Black Blizzard" by Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Drawn & Quarterly)
Demographic: Manga Historian
Selected by: Justin Giampaoli
Subsequent Interview by: Ryan Claytor

Justin: After your last selection, I thought this might be a nice segue into a book called "Black Blizzard" from Drawn & Quarterly, edited by Adrian Tomine (“Optic Nerve”). As you know, Ryan, I’m a big Yoshihiro Tatsumi fan. I, like many, consider him to be the father of Modern Manga, and this is the one influential book where you can see a shift in tone begin to take hold. The material presented here in this 2010 volume released under Tomine’s watchful eye was originally published in 1956, but it’s an interesting ephemeral artifact to read when you do so in context.

Prior to the shift, Manga had largely been comprised of short gag strips done purely for humor, but Tatsumi felt that approach was extremely limiting and he wanted to demonstrate the versatility of the medium by ushering in a term he coined, “gekiga,” or “dramatic pictures,” and expand the burgeoning Japanese industry to include more adult genres. It's an odd bit of synchronicity, but this was roughly the same time period when Will Eisner started toying around with the term “graphic novel” as a way to differentiate comics with more adult themes. “Black Blizzard” was one of his first major works to attempt this shift in tone.

On the surface, it’s a pretty straightforward murder mystery, focusing on a pair of ex-cons on the run, but structurally you can see the remnants of the model Tatsumi was attempting to replace. The first few pages of the book are done in color to attract new readers when it was originally serialized. There are even some vestigial sight gags and a slightly cartoony vibe thrashing around in their death knell as the adult themes supplant them. Tatsumi was really fascinated with noir, and you can see him pushing “Black Blizzard” toward being a psychological thriller that functions on a deeper level. He employs very Hitchcock-ian pacing and framing. American cinema was hugely influential to him during the reconstruction of Japan post-WWII.

So, that's my pitch for “Black Blizzard.” It's $19.95 for a 144 page softcover. It's a good chunk of entertainment for a relatively low price tag. In my opinion, this is essential reading for any fan of Modern Manga. This book represents a pivotal moment that affects the tone of the industry even today.

Ryan: I’m trying to recall the Tatsumi book that Candace and I bought a while back. It was either “Abandon the Old in Tokyo” or “Good-Bye.” Regardless, while it was a really interesting look into Manga history for me, the harsh tone of the book made it a pretty awful gateway comic book for her. For a time, we were reading a short story each night from that book together. She ended up losing interest about halfway through because she felt the characters weren’t very relatable and many of their actions were pretty despicable (themes of adultery and murder were commonplace). Does “Black Blizzard” explore the same sort of themes?

Justin: It could have been “The Push-Man & Other Stories” too; all of them have their disturbing moments. “Black Blizzard” does contain some of those elements, but they’re handled much more topically, referential, and even lighthearted. For example, a character might explain “there was a murder,” but you never see it occur on panel. While “Black Blizzard” works for someone fairly well versed in Manga or Tatsumi specifically, I would actually recommend “A Drifting Life” as a gateway to Yoshihiro Tatsumi. It’s got a deep autobiographical perspective that’s right up your alley, and is basically Tatsumi telling his own story and putting context around the historical industry events I described above.


The 12 Days of Comics: 2010 - Day 5

"Usagi Yojimbo" by Stan Sakai (Dark Horse)
Demographic: Short-Story Historian
Selected by: Ryan Claytor
Subsequent Interview by: Justin Giampaoli

Ryan: In my humble opinion, one of the most consistently solid monthly titles being released right now is "Usagi Yojimbo" by Stan Sakai. Sakai, the series author, illustrator, and original creator, has been producing the title for a quarter century and shows no signs of slowing down. With such a considerable amount of experience behind him, Sakai deftly crafts single-issue stories (a dying art-form) on a monthly basis as a single creator.

*Pause for reflection on that last sentence*

Work ethics aside, "Usagi Yojimbo" follows the character, Miyamoto Usagi, an anthropomorphic rabbit bodyguard, as he wanders through Feudal Japan in the 17th century. Sakai builds a surprisingly somber mood (for a "funny animal" series) through his use of tempered pacing, well-crafted character demeanors and philosophies, and multiple-panel establishing shots. Bits of history are woven into each tale and there are usually historical reference notes at the end of each issue.

I'd like to address a couple common concerns for newcomers to "Usagi Yojimbo." First, contrary to what one might think, the historical facts do not get in the way of Sakai's storytelling. It feels more like the creator is leading you into an unexpected education, rather than forcing a bunch of facts into some semblance of a narrative. Another potential set-back for new readers is that they might be intimidated about entering a series with 25 years worth of publication history to catch up on. In response to that I would re-emphasize the fact that nearly every issue is a done-in-one format (each issue is a self-contained story), making almost every issue an entry point.

Conveniently, there are introductory, middle-grade, and aficionado ranges of “Usagi” gifts to accommodate any level of interest this season. New issues are available every month and usually self-contained, eliminating the need to track down those hard-to-find back issues in order to complete a storyline. “Usagi” is also collected in several reasonably priced trade paperbacks which compile half-a-dozen or more issues in each collection. Finally, for the “Usagi” enthusiast on your list, Fantagraphics (the first of several publishers of the "Usagi" series) is releasing the preeminent holiday gift on December 17th, 2010: a 1200-page volume collecting all 38 issues of the original Fantagraphics “Usagi Yojimbo” run with tons of bonus material included.

Justin: Hold on, I'm still reflecting on the lost art of the done-in-one single issue story... Yeah. I can't really think of another ongoing book that's structured that way. That's interesting. I've tried random issues of “Usagi” when I've found them in quarter bins, but I can't honestly say I've ever given it a serious fair chance. I know you made it a point to indicate that every issue can function as a potential jumping on point, but give me a story arc or two that really has the magic. What specific collected edition would you have me read to maximize the potential of getting hooked on the world Stan Sakai has created? BTW, the Fantagraphics edition, nay - tome, looks great! I had the "Art of Usagi Yojimbo" book that Dark Horse put out, and that was also gorgeous.

Ryan: Honestly, I’d probably point you toward his more recent Dark Horse trades (Dark Horse being his most recent and longest-lasting publisher). I think Stan Sakai has grown more confident in his storytelling and pacing with age. “Grasscutter” won the Eisner Award for “Best Serialized Story” in 1999, if you fancy that sort of thing. But, really, so much of his recent work is a lesson in storytelling for me. Each issue, I’m impressed with his zoomed-out environmental shots, nicely paced 22-page tales, and quick, effortless line work.