Monster on the Hill

By Rob Harrell
192 pages, color
Published by Top Shelf Productions

I’ve never read Rob Harrell’s comic strips before (Big Top and Adam@Home), so I had to rely solely on the cover of his first graphic novel Monster on the Hill to pull me in. There was something about that grabbed my attention, though. Part of it was the generally attractive nature of the illustration; the strange colored roots of plants, the glimpses of the dirt hanging underneath the exposed side of the hill, the the strange character design of the monster himself. But more than anything else? It was the "get me out of here" expression on the monster’s face. That was when I knew I had to check this book out.

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Double Barrel #1

By Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon
122 pages, black and white
Published by Top Shelf Productions

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about watching digital comics take off is the different ways that people have approached this way to deliver the medium. DC Comics, for instance, have created original comics that are connected to their characters but are just far enough removed to let them try things a little differently. (The new non-continuity Legends of the Dark Knight series, for example, or Smallville comics.) Some cartoonists are posting a page every couple of days, funding the comic with things like donations, merchandise sales, or Kickstarter fundraisers. In the case of Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon (who aren’t actually related, as they’re quick to point out), they’ve created a new digital comic series titled Double Barrel, where each issue contains portions of new graphic novels, plus additional short stories, sketches, and essays. Based on this first issue, I think they’ve got a good thing on their hands.

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Liar’s Kiss

Written by Eric Skillman
Art by Jhomar Soriano
120 pages, black and white
Published by Top Shelf Productions

Brevity may be the soul of wit, but that hasn’t stopped a lot of comic and book creators from turning out some huge creations over the years. Maybe that’s what I initially found so refreshing about Liar’s Kiss by Eric Skillman and Jhomar Soriano. Clocking in at just 120 pages, I feel like it’s in many ways a lesson of how to tell a story at just the right length. Not too long, not too short, and ready to jump into the conclusion before it overstays its welcome.

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Blue

By Pat Grant
96 pages, color
Published by Top Shelf Productions

I’d never heard of Australian cartoonist Pat Grant before Blue, but in a matter of pages I found myself deeply impressed by the creator. In his graphic novel, Grant does more than just tell a story about three teens on a local adventure; he brings a story together in a way that can be read with as much or as little allegory as you want and still have it provide a punch, and in a way that immerses you in the Australian culture of Grant’s youth that ends up dropping you in, wholesale.

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Any Empire

By Nate Powell
304 pages, black and white
Published by Top Shelf Productions

Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole in 2008 was a disturbing book in the best possible way, one that racked up its share of accolades (including an Eisner Award, two Ignatz Awards, and a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize). At long last, his major-length follow-up is here, Any Empire. And while in many regards it’s a quite-different book than Swallow Me Whole, it does share some slight similarities. Like its predecessor, Any Empire plunges the reader into the minds of three teenagers, and you might not like what you find there.

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Gingerbread Girl

Written by Paul Tobin
Art by Colleen Coover
112 pages, black and white
Published by Top Shelf Productions

Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover’s Banana Sunday comic from a few years ago was a great surprise, introducing me to Tobin’s writing (under the pen name Root Nibot) and showing me a different side to Coover from her adults-only Small Favors comic. The book was a great combination of funny, sweet, and clever, one of those rare books that was really meant for all ages. And while the pair have worked on quite a few comics since then (including a lot of short stories for various Marvel comics), the two creating a new graphic novel together is reason for celebration. Gingerbread Girl is a new direction for the duo, not quite like anything else they’ve created; more importantly, it’s probably their strongest collaboration to date.

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Ax: Alternative Manga Vol. 1

Edited by Sean Michael Wilson
400 pages, black and white
Published by Top Shelf Productions

I’ve been looking forward to Top Shelf’s Ax: Alternative Manga anthology ever since they first announced it. Between reading Secret Comics Japan back in the day (which really needs to come back into print) and the more recent "gekiga" (essentially alternative manga) releases from Drawn & Quarterly (with books like The Push Man and Abandon the Old in Tokyo), it’s been fun seeing some of the different genres and styles of manga being produced in Japan. Ax in Japan was the successor to Garo, the gekiga anthology whose founding is detailed in A Drifting Life. So the idea of a cherry-picked collection of comics from Ax over the past decade? Yes, please.

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Playwright

Written by Daren White
Art by Eddie Campbell
144 pages, color
Published by Top Shelf Productions and Knockabout Comics

I’ve always appreciated that Eddie Campbell isn’t afraid to take on strange projects. In theory, he could have kept writing and drawn Bacchus over the years, which had a built-up audience and a reputation within comics, or stuck with his autobiographical alter ego Alec. But instead, he’s continued to pick up different oddities over the years, the latest of which is Daren White’s script about a socially awkward playwright. It doesn’t sound like something to set the pages on fire, but I figured that Campbell had agreed to it for a good reason. And, of course, he was right. For a book that should have been annoying, White and Campbell make it startlingly compelling.

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Moving Pictures

Written by Kathryn Immonen
Art by Stuart Immonen
144 pages, black and white
Published by Top Shelf Productions

One of the things I’ve come to expect from Kathryn Immonen is that she doesn’t write stories that talk down to her readers. There’s always a lot packed into her scripts, both what’s being directly stated as well as what you have to piece together and infer for yourself. The end result is a reading experience that ends up being that much more rewarding when you hit the conclusion, and that’s something on display in her and Stuart Immonen’s new graphic novel Moving Pictures.

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Far Arden

By Kevin Cannon
384 pages, black and white
Published by Top Shelf Productions

Do you ever feel like you’ve been faked out by a book’s presentation? I certainly did with Kevin Cannon’s Far Arden. Somehow along the way I’d mistakenly got the impression that Far Arden was a light-hearted, full-of-fun, slightly-silly adventure story. To be fair, there are certainly vast portions of the book that qualify with that description. But as the hunt for the mythical Arctic paradise of Far Arden develops, it’s only a matter of time before you start realizing that this book is definitely not all laughs and giggles.

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