Liberty Annual 2011

Edited by Bob Schreck and Greg Tumbarello
48 pages, color
Published by Image Comics

I’ve always been a big fan of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (which defends comic creators and retailers against freedom of speech lawsuits), so when they started producing a Liberty Annual every year, I was on board. It features a wide range of top-talent creators old and new, from Matt Wagner and Fred Hembeck to J.H. Williams III and Carla Speed McNeil. While a lot of anthologies for a charity are slightly cringe-inducing (a mixture of good and bad because everyone was let in because of the charity nature of the book), it’s nice to have a comic like Liberty Annual 2011 that you can recommend with a clear conscious because it’s good.

This year’s Liberty Annual is a curious mix in terms of themes; some go for the traditional free speech route, others pick up the "it gets better" message in regards to the bullying of LGBT teens, and a few just go their own way entirely. Wagner, for instance, goes for the it gets better message in a Grendel story, where a young kid gets a bit of encouragement from an older mobster who was almost killed for being gay but saved by Grendel. It’s a strange story the more you look at it, though; the mobster survives because Grendel uses the old "do you really follow everything else that the Bible tells you?" chestnut, but from there he’s forever on the run and looking over his shoulder to keep from being killed. Even Wagner clearly gets that this isn’t a terribly happy ending, as the main character follows his it gets better phrase with, "Even if it’s a bit hard to tell at times." Still, with such beautiful art from Wagner—whose craft is always exquisite—it’s the sort of high quality where the strange stumble is ultimately saved by everything surrounding it.

The two best stories to take that theme are from Michael Vincent Bramley and Fred Hembeck, and from Kazim Ali and Craig Thompson. Bramley and Hembeck tell a short, silent two-page story about aliens where one is ostracized for being different, only to finally find someone else who is the same way. It’s a thoroughly simple story, but it’s got a sweetness about it that makes it click in such a short amount of time. The final panel, where the two aliens (who "speak" in a word balloon with a right-pointing blue arrow, rather than the left-pointing red arrow of everyone else) share a heart-shaped word balloon is great, with Hembeck’s trademark simple style providing a real tenderness.

Ali and Thompson’s story runs seven pages is a little deeper, about a man who struggles with his Muslim faith and trying to reconcile it with his homosexuality. Ali’s script is thoughtful and non-judgmental, telling of the narrator’s personal journey to understand who he is and how he fits in. It comes beautifully to life thanks to Thompson, with rich illustrations that leap off the page. For people who haven’t been ready to leap into Thompson’s massive new graphic novel Habibi, you can look at this story as a primer for Thompson’s big return to comics. Just staring at the final panel with the garden is amazing, and seeing Dave Stewart color his pencils is an added bonus.

A.J. Lieberman and Riley Rossmo have the best story when it comes to basic censorship, with their characters from Cowboy Ninja Viking coming across the ALA’s list of banned and challenged books. Those who aren’t familiar with some of the challenges over the years (my all-time favorite is The Diary of Anne Frank over being "a real downer") will probably be shocked, and while the story is mostly about the main characters talking about the various bannings, it’s still entertaining thanks to the way in which Lieberman writes the script. Also noteworthy is Dara Naraghi and Christopher Mitten’s piece, in which Naraghi talks about living in Iran and having a school principal try to force him to convert a classmate that practiced Baha’i instead of Islam. It’s a creepy story the more you think about it, and Naraghi’s pleasantly conversational script makes you feel like you’re sitting down with him at a cafe and chatting.

The last category of just unrelated stories has a couple of winners, too. J.H. Williams III’s "It’s Not a Trick" is a peculiar little story about a card trick, and while there’s not much plot, the reveal at the end managed to tickle my fancy. And of course, even a two-page spread focused on a deck of cards as drawn by Williams still looks great. Carla Speed McNeil’s "Dunce" with an autobiographical story about what it’s like to have a child with Down Syndrome. It’s a surprisingly personal piece, about being a little squeamish about disability, the repurposing of words to be negative if they describe something we don’t like, and her own understanding about what her son is going through. McNeil’s light, cartoony art style for this story might lull readers into a false sense of security, but it’s a strong piece that will undoubtedly get people to stop and think.

Only a small handful of pieces feel like a misfire. Kevin McCullough and Dave Cooper’s one pager feels juvenile rather than funny, and a tiny pointless; likewise, Judd Winick, Thiago Micalopulos, and Rodney Ramos’s piece goes for humor but for whatever reason never quite hit the mark for me. Considering this adds up to 3 pages out of a 48-page comic, that’s a success rate I’m more than pleased with. I could have done without the random pin-ups along the way, but if they draw more readers into buying the comic, well, I’m not going to complain.

Liberty Annual 2011 has a strong showing, overall; a nice reminder that yes, charity comic anthologies can actually be good and not just a fundraiser where you ignore substandard pieces because of where the moneys are going. If you haven’t been picking up the Liberty Annual comics, this is a good a place as any to begin. Check it out; not just because it’s for a good cause, but also because it’s a good comic.

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