Top Shelf – Read About Comics http://www.readaboutcomics.com Where to find out what's really good. Mon, 16 Nov 2015 17:36:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.5.10 Monster on the Hill http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2013/07/31/monster-on-the-hill/ http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2013/07/31/monster-on-the-hill/#comments Wed, 31 Jul 2013 13:00:25 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2510 By Rob Harrell192 pages, colorPublished 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 [...]]]> 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.

Harrell quickly introduces us to the premise of Monster on the Hill; set in a fantastical version of 1867 England, every town has its own monster up on the hillside that occasionally comes in and terrorizes the local population. These monsters are as much tourist attractions as they are feared, though, with souvenirs sold and trading card sets created. That’s where the poor people of Stoker-on-Avon fall short, with their monster (Rayburn) who hasn’t visited the town in in over a year and a half. Instead, poor Rayburn just mopes and sighs from a distance. Can Dr. Wilkie and street urchin Tim raise Rayburn’s spirits so he isn’t such an embarrassment?

One of the things that was an almost instant attention-grab was how well-realized Harrell’s alternate England comes across to the reader. The monsters being integrated into everyday life, the mad science that crops up in the most unexpected places, the strange xenobiology that Harrell peppers throughout the world in an almost casual manner. The best part, though, is how this plays out into the overall plot with the introduction of the reason why the monsters each pick a town to reside near and occasionally terrorize. It’s an interesting twist that fleshes out the plot into something much more three-dimensional than it first appears, and ultimately plays well into Dr. Wilkie and Tim’s attempts to free Rayburn from his depression.

I also liked that Monster on the Hill is a comic that deals both literally and figuratively with a fight against depression. There’s no denying that Rayburn’s biggest problem is that he’s suffering from depression, after all, and watching Dr. Wilkie and Tim trying to raise his spirits and get him out and active again to help shake off some of weight on his shoulders is a nice attempt to show the symptom in an all-ages book. (There’s only so much in-depth exploration into depression that I’d expect from a book intended to be accessible for younger readers, after all.) When it comes to the monster called the Murk, though, it’s hard to see it as anything but a physical manifestation of depression. Surrounded in darkness and practically feeding on despair, the Murk’s presence drags down everything around it. And fittingly, it’s a character that Harrell has defeated through less-than-conventional means; it’s not a simple "let’s fight it!" way to beat it down, but instead a round-about strategy that only succeeds because of the support of Rayburn’s new friends and an uplifting (again both figuratively and literally) way of looking at things.

Harrell’s art is a lot of fun; for the most part it’s very light-hearted, drawing Dr. Wilkie with white hair and beard and big glasses, or Tim with a pageboy cap to go with his newspaper selling job. Rayburn comes across as amusingly strange and less than terrifying; when he’s complaining about his ineffectual physical prowess, it’s easy to see where he’s coming from thanks to Harrell. At the same time, Harrell can draw dark, too; the scenes with the Murk attacking are much more sinister and nasty, and I love the texture from the clouds of smoke that billow up around him during his rampage. Pages are nicely laid out and easy to follow, and while Harrell uses a lot of splashes, I feel like they’re all at moments that could use that a larger view of the new scenery.

Monster on the Hill is a lot of fun; this is a book to be proud of. I hope this isn’t Harrell’s only detour into the world of graphic novels, because I can certainly see a whole series of graphic novels about the monster-filled alternate-England that he’s concocted. A sequel or something entirely different, all that really matters is that we get some more from Harrell before too long. As much fun for older readers as it is younger, Monster on the Hill is an incredibly strong debut for Harrell. Very well done.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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Double Barrel #1 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2012/06/20/double-barrel-1/ Wed, 20 Jun 2012 13:00:04 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2324 By Kevin Cannon and Zander Cannon122 pages, black and whitePublished 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 [...]]]> 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.

An introductory essay (in the form of a comic) explains the idea behind Double Barrel, and how by releasing the book in a digital format instead of individual issues they’re hoping to avoid the "waiting for the trade" feeling. I’m not 100% if this will forestall that feeling, but considering you’re getting 122 pages of comics for just under two dollars, it’s certainly a price point that a print comic wouldn’t be able to match. The lower price is as good a way as any to try and entice people to pick up these new projects in a serialized format. It’s a fun introduction, in part because of how both Cannons poke fun at the horrible things that they’ve done to their characters (even as characters from the new graphic novels walk up to say hello) and the general, conversational tone of the comic.

From there we dive right in, kicking off with Zander Cannon’s Heck. It’s got a great story hook—former high school football player Hector "Heck" Hammarskjöld comes back home having inherited his father’s mansion, discovers a portal to Hell in the basement, and turns that into a business—and the writing in Heck is fun. Zander Cannon quickly sets up the premise behind Heck and dives right in; the strange twists and turns behind what it means to journey into Hell and how you get messages out are inventive and intriguing, and Zander Cannon just as quickly shows us the real danger behind what they’re doing. The end result is a story that’s tense and instantly exciting, and makes me eager to read more; in other words, exactly what Double Barrel needs to do. Zander Cannon’s art, though, isn’t quite as robust as I remember it from projects like Smax or The Replacement God. He packs a lot of panels onto each page (in the realm of 11-15 per page) but that means there’s a lack of detail. We get a lot of tight close-ups on faces with little in the way of backgrounds, but even then the faces aren’t quite as expressive as we’ve had in previous comics. Ultimately I like the story of Heck a great deal, but the art isn’t quite up to the same standards.

Kevin Cannon’s Crater XV is a sequel to his graphic novel Far Arden, which was a good adventure story with an amazingly bleak ending. For now, Crater XV feels like it’s along those same lines. Right now there’s a good vein of humor moving through this story of adventure and secrets set near the Arctic Circle, although every now and then there’s a moment (like the early deaths of two people who antagonized Shanks) that might startle you a bit. It moves at a nice pace, though, and while the story isn’t quite as instantly engrossing as Heck was, this story involving students, pirates, and Russians is good enough to make me want to read more. Kevin Cannon’s art feels nicely rich in Double Barrel, with a great deal of texture and detail on his pages. Little moments like a hold full of crabs come across as menacing, and on the whole it looks good, generally sticking to a 2×3 panel grid (with the occasional panel borders knocked out to merge some together). It’s definitely the best-looking part of Double Barrel #1, and it’s fun to boot.

This month includes a few bonus features; first we get two pages of True Tales of Jin, in which Zander Cannon gives some glimpses into fatherhood which are fairly entertaining. Also included is the first installment in a 12-part essay titled How To, with this one being, "How to Get Off Your Butt and Draw a Graphic Novel" where Zander Cannon writes about how to get moving, create an outline, have room to improvise, and more. It’s a well-thought-out essay, and budding cartoonists definitely should pick up Double Barrel for this alone (although the rest of the comic was good too, of course). All in all, Double Barrel #1 is a solid, entertaining first issue. There’s enough to entice you back as a reader for more, and on the whole I enjoyed it a great deal. Will I read more Double Barrel? Absolutely? Should you? I think so, too.

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Liar’s Kiss http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2012/04/16/liars-kiss/ Mon, 16 Apr 2012 13:00:41 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2259 Written by Eric SkillmanArt by Jhomar Soriano120 pages, black and whitePublished 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 [...]]]> 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.

Liar’s Kiss is a comic that at first seems familiar; a private investigator spying on a woman to prove that she was faithful to her husband, only to reveal that all this time she’s been cheating on her husband with the private investigator. And when the husband turns up dead, through various twists of fate the pair of them realize that their little game may have plunged both of them into the hot seat. Here’s the thing, though; we learn the first piece of information on page three, and we’re not even a dozen pages in before the next piece is revealed. Each new chunk of information is paced out perfectly; we learn more about Nick Archer the investigator, Abbey Kincaid the cheating wife, and all of the other characters at a speed that keeps you jumping and guessing. And with each reveal, you start to realize that there’s no one in the book you can trust to give you an honest answer.

Skillman never makes Liar’s Kiss feel rushed, even as it moves at a sharp pace, and that’s not an easy feat. I think that it’s the greatest strength of the script, able to unfold the story at a good clip but somehow still have time to stop and explain everything in good detail. It certainly helps that the protagonist of Liar’s Kiss is a private investigator, so Nick Archer has time to stop and ask people what’s going on, what their relationship to the Kincaids is, and so on. But even then, I never got the impression that we were getting huge information dumps or visits by the exposition fairy; it comes across natural and entertaining. The continual escalation of the plot of Liar’s Kiss certainly helps that overall flow; Skillman never lets the book feel slow or dragging, two words that are often associated with a lot of explanations in a book.

Soriano’s art in Liar’s Kiss is interesting and attractive; in some ways it reminds me a bit of taking Frank Miller’s earliest Sin City art and then stripping it down in terms of the number of lines, and avoiding the heavy blacks. There’s a scene early on in Liar’s Kiss where Nick comes to talk to Abbey right after her husband is discovered dead, and it’s beautiful; just a handful of lines to carve out the edges of her hair and blouse, a few more lines used for the facial features and tears running down her face. It’s a level of minimalism that is impressive in part because of how much expressive detail is still achieved. Add in some good sequential storytelling and you end up with a good looking crime book. It works at the smaller dimensions, and it’s got an attractive cover that pops out with its use of black and pink; not necessarily a combination you’d associate with this genre, but it feels right.

Liar’s Kiss is a book that I think quietly slipped by a lot of readers when it was published this time last year, and that’s a shame. It’s a fun read, one that moves quickly and then lands a strong conclusion before there’s ever a chance for it to drag. Skillman and Soriano have created an enjoyable noir graphic novel in Liar’s Kiss, one that deserves some attention. I’ll happily read more books by then down the line.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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Blue http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2012/01/25/blue/ http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2012/01/25/blue/#comments Wed, 25 Jan 2012 14:00:46 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=1998 By Pat Grant96 pages, colorPublished 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 [...]]]> 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.

In an afterward/essay, Grant admits that there’s a certain similarity between one of the main ideas of Blue and Stephen King’s novella “The Body” (which was turned into the film Stand By Me). After all, in Blue the three main characters of Christian, Verne, and Muck decide to head out and see a dead body on the tracks that was hit by a train. In the case of Blue, though, there are two things to keep in mind. First, Blue is based on an actual experience of Grant’s as a teen of going to see a dead body in the same situation; and second, that Blue has a lot more packed into its pages than just a hunt for a body.

I think the element of Blue that grabbed me the most was the usage of the the blue-skinned, tentacled aliens that are arriving in the town of Bolton. Issues of immigration are just as contentious in Australia as other parts of the world, these days, and Grant’s “blue people” can certainly be seen as an allegory for any group of people that look outwardly as different than the locals. There’s something instantly touching about the first scene that introduces the blue aliens, as they pause to dress in a way to try and blend in, and slowly move through Bolton performing generic events in everyday life. It doesn’t matter if you view them as actual aliens or merely people from another country; the more you get to know about the blue people, the more it’s hard to keep from feeling bad for them. Grant gives them a strong visual, too; not just in their appearance, but by their graffiti/scrawl/tags that they leave on the walls. They look almost like hieroglyphics, packed in tightly in a way that lets you decode their meaning when you look closely, but becomes an overwhelming buzz of static as you take in more and more of it in a single glance.

The main characters are interesting in that Grant doesn’t go the easy route of making Christian a particularly wonderful person. He and his friends are, after all, skipping school and more than a touch of hoodlum. We get an introduction to them that comes across as spiteful and bullyish; it’s not until a few pages later that you realize that they’re not the villains but in fact the protagonists. With Blue being told in flashback by Christian, Grant also lets us see early on the kind of person he turns into, and he’s not terribly pleasant. More than a touch xenophobic, it seems hard at first to find yourself able to warm to this sort of character. And yet, that’s part of the strength of Blue. Christian and friends might not be the brightest or most pleasant of characters, but they’re compelling. The more we see them wander through town and up the tracks, the more Grant drags you into their small world. From the childish taunts to the destructive games that they clearly don’t think all the way through (until it’s too late), these are pitch-perfect depictions of teenagers. And even though we know how Christian’s life is going to end up, it’s hard to keep from hoping that somehow, impossibly, they’ll shape up. When we get to the climax of Blue, it’s a surprisingly gripping and emotional moment; the fear and hesitation there really leaps off the page and grabs you as a reader.

Blue‘s art is great, a slightly devolved, cartoonish style that reminds me of artists like Dave Cooper and Patrick McEown. Their faces and features are simple, but their over-the-top nature hides a bit of expression that grows on you with time. They’re comical to look at, even as there’s an edge of steel to their creation. But even as you marvel at his oblong, distended characters, don’t let it distract you from the backgrounds, or the page layouts. Grant fires on all cylinders there; the rock that Muck throws arcing through several panels in a 6×5 layout, or the resulting sprint down the train line even as trees and buildings alike sprout up all around them. The amount of detail in something as simple as an abandoned (and wisely, never truly explained) machine is great; it feels alien and dangerous at a glance, even as you want to get closer and focus more on it while the story moves on. Something as simple as a pattern of waves is hypnotic in nature, thanks to Grant.

Blue is a great introduction to Grant as a comic creator, and if that isn’t enough there’s a strong and informative essay about both Grant’s life growing up as well as the Australian surf comic scene, something I’d never heard of before (but which appears briefly in Blue). Blue is scheduled for a March 2012 release, and trust me when I say that it’s a winner. Blue is a strong, focused graphic novel that is bound to impress.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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Any Empire http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2011/10/19/any-empire/ http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2011/10/19/any-empire/#comments Wed, 19 Oct 2011 13:00:00 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=1908 By Nate Powell304 pages, black and whitePublished 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, [...]]]> 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.

Any Empire shifts back and forth between the teenage and adult years of its three main characters; Lee, Sarah, and Purdy. As kids, they’re worried about fitting in with their classmates, moving across town, and figuring out who keeps mutilating box turtles. They’re problems that they try to solve in a manner that only children do, inspired by Nancy Drew or perhaps trying to wiggle into a personality hole that you don’t truly fit into. In many ways it’s this half of the book that spoke to me more; the problems are big in part because they are big to the kids, but also because in many ways they’re precursors for what’s to come in their lives. You feel for them because all three of them are trying to find their own place in a world that seems so much bigger and nastier than what any one of them is ready for, and the idea of them out in it and alone is a worrisome one.

If all we’d had in Any Empire was that half of the book, it would have been a success. But Powell takes Any Empire a step further; instead of making us wonder how these events will shape them for what’s to come, we get it as well. In some ways it’s this adult half of the book (interspersed among the childhood pages) that is more heartbreaking. Purdy, who always seemed the most lost out of the three of them, has chosen a path that promises him that he’ll belong, but if anything he comes across as the most out-of-place in the world of adults. It’s an uncomfortable, sad path that he’s gone down, and one that rapidly shifts from bad to worse. Lee and Sarah at least feel a bit more in touch with the world around them, each trying to still move forward. Seeing Sarah—who during the school years was the most proactive in trying to make the world a better place—on a career path that has her still trying to help others is probably the most refreshing part of the entire graphic novel. Her job may suck and it is soul-crushing in parts, but she’s still out there giving it her all and it’s a pleasant moment to realize that life hasn’t managed to entire slap her down.

The ending of Any Empire is an odd one, and it’s hard to discuss the book without giving away what initially feels like a huge incursion of surreality into the book. But without talking about too much on what happens, a quick note to future readers: it’s actually based heavily on what really did happen in our past. Powell takes a little talked-about, hard-to-believe project of the armed forces and applies it to Any Empire. It’s bizarre and initially took me off-guard, but after a little research (and realizing that no, Powell hadn’t made this up) I was that much more impressed that Powell was able to integrate it into the book in the manner that he does. If anything, the surreal nature comes about in part because of the townspeople’s reaction; you feel just as off-kilter and confused as they do.

Of course, Powell’s art is as attractive as ever. His thin, delicate lines swirl and wisp around the page, and his characters all wear their hearts on their sleeves. From their relatively innocent faces early on, to the more weary and beaten down expressions on the later pages, I find myself impressed at how well Powell has aged them to make the different eras immediately distinct while still making them look like the same people. The pages are well laid out, too; progression from one panel to the next is smooth and fluid, and something as simple as some shading in just the right places can help establish the weather, from bright and sunny to dark and cold.

Any Empire is, like Powell’s previous book, a story that delves into the inner psyches of its young characters as they shift from childhood to adults. It doesn’t give any easy answers, but the journey from start to finish grabs your attention and doesn’t let go. Any Empire might not have that immediate hook that all readers are looking for, but I think those who start it will be pleasantly surprised with the journey.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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Gingerbread Girl http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2011/03/28/gingerbread-girl/ Mon, 28 Mar 2011 12:00:08 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=1732 Written by Paul TobinArt by Colleen Coover112 pages, black and whitePublished 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 [...]]]> 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.

Gingerbread Girl opens by introducing us to Annah Billips, a young woman who has two potential dates ahead of her, a love for being a tease, and a hatred for labels. She also has a twin sister, Ginger, who was created when Annah’s father pulled Annah’s homunculus out of her brain (the part which creates your sense of touch) and transformed it into a separate person. Or, alternately, it’s just a huge analogy for the heartbreak that Annah went through when her parents divorced. Or maybe it’s just a glitch in Annah’s mind, and she’s hallucinating the entire thing. Or maybe it’s just a lie?

Right from the start, Gingerbread Girl plays with the head of the reader, presenting a series of possibilities and then leading you down a twisting path to try and figure out which is the real answer. I’d say that Gingerbread Girl utilizes the literary technique of the unreliable narrator, but that’s not quite the case; instead it uses ten different unreliable narrators, each weighing in with their observations, facts, and theories about what’s really happening. But then again, the narration is one of the great strengths of Gingerbread Girl.

In this book, Tobin lets his characters switch back and forth between addressing one another, and turning to the reader and breaking the fourth wall. Each one of them has their own voice and perspective on what’s going on. So after Annah explains that she’s got both a boy and a girl coming over for a potential date (and she’ll leave with whomever arrives first), we then get girlfriend Chili’s feeling on the matter. To use a slightly tired metaphor, it’s number of puzzle pieces, and as each one clicks into place it lets the reader get a better grasp of the big picture. Just following Annah words would ultimately leave the you without a sense of what’s really happening, and the other narrators are an essential piece of the puzzle.

Of those narrators, it’s Chili whom I think gets the strongest voice in the book. Gingerbread Girl is ultimately all about Annah and the possibly-real Ginger, but it’s the little admissions from Chili that stuck with me the most. From her admitting that she changed her hairstyle to one that would turn Annah on, to holding up a previous panel of the comic and rolling her eyes, Chili is a fun and interesting character in her own right. But it’s her admission that sooner or later they’ll break up when Annah’s "crazy" gets in the way, her wondering if they’ll end up friends afterward, and how Annah’s marching like a tin soldier makes Chili’s heart skip a beat that gets me in the end. She’s the most together out of any of our numerous narrators, and it’s somewhat apt that she gets the final words in Gingerbread Girl. Tobin’s script created a memorable experience in the book overall, but it’s in Chili that he also ended up with a character that will stick with me.

Credit is also due to Coover, whose light and cheerful art carries the story forward. Her characters look great, with a soft but consistent line all around, cute little dots for eyes, and just a smattering of freckles on Annah’s face. When Annah conspiratorially tells the reader that she’ll go on a date with whomever shows up first, it could end up as a cruel and nasty sort of scene; instead, Coover’s art makes it seem almost playful with a big grin on Annah’s face as she holds up fingers to explain her statement. Coover does a great job with the storytelling, too; using symbols on occasion to bring across ideas in the text. And in the final scenes, as Chili reminds us what the most important facts of the entire story are, they’re illustrated with emotion and humor and love in such a way that it makes Chili and Annah feel like real people, not just comic book creations.

Gingerbread Girl is a blast of a story, one that is best told through the medium of comics. From references to earlier pages, to a scene illustrated as a cut-out paper doll (complete with outfits), to the occasional animal narrator, it’s hard to imagine this being tackled in any other format and working quite as well. I’m absolutely in love with Gingerbread Girl, and I’m already dying for another Tobin and Coover collaboration. Top Shelf is currently running the story on their site as a web comic as part of a lead-up to the May 2011 publication date; if you’re not convinced that this is fantastic (because it is), why not go and sample it for yourself? Gingerbread Girl is a joy and a half, from start to finish.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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Ax: Alternative Manga Vol. 1 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2010/11/15/ax-vol-1/ http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2010/11/15/ax-vol-1/#comments Mon, 15 Nov 2010 07:00:58 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=1578 Edited by Sean Michael Wilson400 pages, black and whitePublished 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) [...]]]> 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.

Like most anthologies, Ax: Alternative Manga Vol. 1 is a mixed bag in terms of both quality and genre. Some stories are slice of life, while others dip into the more fantastical realms. If I had to pick a single story that would typify what I was expecting from Ax: Alternative Manga, it would probably be Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s "Love’s Bride," about a man whose relationship is going downhill, while simultaneously learning about the courting rituals among monkeys. Like so many of Tatsumi’s stories, it’s a piece with offbeat and slightly deviant characters, and Tatsumi isn’t afraid to depict moments like his protagonist (seen from behind) masturbating to a photo of his girlfriend. "Love’s Bride" doesn’t offer easy solutions to the problems posed, and everyone is slightly flawed in their own way. It’s a fascinating little snapshot, and one that ends in a place that lets the reader draw their own conclusions as to what exactly will happen next.

That said, once I started reading Ax: Alternative Manga, I found a much wider array of stories and tones than I had expected. For instance, Shinya Komatsu’s "Mushroom Garden" could just have easily seen print in the Flight anthologies as in Ax: Alternative Manga. Komatsu’s story of a young man who starts growing mushrooms that slowly take over his fantasy city is almost dreamlike in its sense of wonder and imagination; it’s short and sweet, and while it’s certainly a bit odd in places it’s that sort of wide-reaching net that makes Ax: Alternative Manga ultimately so interesting, because you’re not entirely sure just what you’re going to get next. Akino Kondo’s two linked stories ("The Rainy Day Blouse" and "The First Umbrella") for instance, is almost more of a mood piece than anything else, as a young woman deals with the mundane task of buying an umbrella, and how it briefly links to a childhood memory. It’s beautifully drawn, with sparse lines but beautiful postures that remind me of children’s books. For instance, when the protagonist is walking outside with her new umbrella, looking up at the (rainless) sky, there’s something about her chipper pose and tiny half-smile that immediately brings to mind those classic illustrations I saw as a child.

Some of the stories bring a fantastical element into our real world that immediately grabbed my attention. Ayuko Akiyama’s "Inside the Gourd" is a delicately illustrated story about a young man who looks into a gourd that is supposed to house a caterpillar but instead shows visions of a young woman growing up in a beautiful garden. Akiyama’s story reminds me of the magical realism literary style, never fully defining how this story has happened but instead simply going with the flow and letting its story blossom over time until it gets to a conclusion that offers a promise to the reader of what surely will happen next. It’s one of the early stories in Ax: Alternative Manga Vol. 1, and it’s at that exact moment that I felt the book was going to offer much more than I had initially expected.

There’s a slightly sillier, humorous aspect to some of the other stories that bring the fantasy into our reality. Both Yusaka Hanakuma’s "Puppy Love" and Namie Fujieda’s "The Brilliant Ones" are crudely drawn, going-for-the-joke stories. From a woman that gives birth to puppies instead of human babies, to a student that explodes into a mass of maggots, they deliberately subvert the reader’s expectations and go for the strange. Neither is the sort of story that you’ll remember later because of their art, but the strange combination of laughs and grim moments (especially in "Puppy Love") will make them stick with you.

Only a small handful of stories ultimately didn’t work for me. Pieces like Yuka Goto’s "The Neighbor" or Kotobuki Shiriagari’s "The Twin Adults" felt both crude in art and also storytelling, but without providing a punch like Hanakuma or Fujieda that made it memorable. And while stories like Shigehiro Okada’s "Me" at least have some slightly strong art, there’s a certain lack of coherence that just doesn’t make everything connect. Still, for every slight misstep like Mimiyo Tomozawa’s "300 Years" (which seems designed solely to shock rather than to make a point), there are disturbing but interesting pieces like Katsuo Kawai’s "Push Pin Woman" or Hiroji Tani’s "Alraune Fatale."

While I doubt there’s a reader out there who will like every single story in Ax: Alternative Manga Vol. 1—I’m not entirely sure even the editors would expect that to happen—there’s such a wide variety of story here that there’s a little something for everyone interested in manga’s own alternative comics scene. I’d love for Ax: Alternative Manga to become a regular tradition at Top Shelf Productions; this new glimpse into the side of Japan’s comics industry that we rarely see has me that much more eager to go on a return trip to Ax: Alternative Manga, and soon.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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Playwright http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2010/08/30/playwright/ http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2010/08/30/playwright/#comments Mon, 30 Aug 2010 07:00:39 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=1487 Written by Daren WhiteArt by Eddie Campbell144 pages, colorPublished 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 [...]]]> 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.

Each of The Playwright‘s ten chapters is a different vignette about the protagonist of the book, never referred to as more than the Playwright. At first it looks like an affection on the part of White, but the further into the book you read, the more it becomes clear. Reading those early chapters, focusing on the Playwright’s immense issues with dealing with the rest of the world (women and family in particular), it starts to shape up into a much larger work about our protagonist’s mental landscape. He’s slightly damaged, more than a bit neurotic, and out of place from the rest of the world. He’s unable to function quite like everyone else, and so instead he processes everything through his scripts. It’s not the most normal way of dealing with reality, but once you see it as the only way he can connect his inner feelings and turmoil to what’s actually happening, the Playwright becomes a much more interesting character.

It also helps that White isn’t afraid to slowly change the character of the Playwright over time. It would have been easy for the book to begin and end with the main character in the same position in life, making this just a series of observations on the Playwright’s part that we get to watch slowly play out. But at the halfway point of the book, things began to shift just as the reader might otherwise grow tired of the titular character. Given new responsibilities and a genuine supporting cast, the Playwright slowly becomes sympathetic once we see him deal with the same people and problems over an extended period of time. It becomes increasingly clear (if it wasn’t already) that he’s not a bad person, just one who over the years was mistakenly left to his own devices and matured in all the wrong ways. It’s certainly no coincidence that the neglect that happened in part due to his parents focusing on the needs of the Playwright’s mentally disabled brother is eventually undone by the return of the brother into the Playwright’s life, although not in any big or dramatic fashion. Rather, it’s the moment that gets the proverbial ball rolling, and the second half of The Playwright ends up that much more interesting.

Campbell draws The Playwright in a landscape format, with two or three panels side-by-side (almost as if we’re reading an extremely extended comic strip), then painted over with what looks to be watercolors. It’s an attractive look, despite (or perhaps because of) its distinctly average looking characters. Campbell draws nothing but ordinary people throughout The Playwright, and it’s that down to earth normal view of the world that helps contribute to my ultimate interest in the book. It would have be easy to make the Playwright into a hideous man to help play up his negative aspects, but he just looks slightly silly and out of place. His stiff poise and slightly unkempt hair bring both an attempt at being gentlemanly and a slight failure to his character, and I can’t think of a better way to sum up the character. White’s script may go a long way towards selling The Playwright, but Campbell’s art seals the deal.

I was actually prepared to not enjoy The Playwright; boiling the book down to its absolute basics, it sounded more like a title about a character you wouldn’t want to read about, a thoroughly unlikable person. I can’t help but feel that the wrong aspects of the book were played up, though. At the end of the day, The Playwright sneaks its charm in when you aren’t looking, and paints a robust view of a character who is anything but simple. The Playwright is a book I’d be happy to have on my bookshelves.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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Moving Pictures http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2010/08/25/moving-pictures/ http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2010/08/25/moving-pictures/#comments Wed, 25 Aug 2010 07:00:42 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=1482 Written by Kathryn ImmonenArt by Stuart Immonen144 pages, black and whitePublished 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 [...]]]> 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.

Stories set in World War II are a dime a dozen, but right off the bat Kathryn Immonen takes it in a different direction than most, letting her story revolve around a Canadian woman, Ila, who is trying to catalog and relocate as many works of art from the basement of a Parisian museum to keep them safe from German forces and the fighting that has broken out throughout the country. It’s a nice twist on the normal "resistance" story, shuffling paintings instead of people.

Of course, there’s more to Moving Pictures than just moving art around. The bulk of the book involves an extended interview session between Ila Gardner and Rolf Hauptmann, a German officer. That’s where Kathryn Immonen starts playing with her reader, letting her characters start circling around one another in a careful dance where Kathryn Immonen doesn’t let you know the intended destination, or even who is truly leading the other. That’s left up to you, trying to piece together the sequence of events and what exactly the Germans are looking for in their questioning of Ila. As Kathryn Immonen’s narrative jumps into flashbacks and then back to the present with no warning, you’re left to question who or what—if anything at all—is being saved.

I don’t mean to make it sound like Kathryn Immonen’s writing is obtuse, because it’s not. It’s actually carefully constructed, moving you step by step through a sequence that Immonen has carefully mapped out to its conclusion. Even people who might get lost by the turns and detours throughout Moving Pictures on their first read-through will still have a lot to enjoy here, for that matter. I love the way Kathryn Immonen writes dialogue; it has such a natural flow to its construction that it comes across as sounding more real than just about any other writer in comics. And when Ila and her fellow workers talk about art, it’s a joy to just sit back and read what comes out of their mouths.

I’m not used to seeing Stuart Immonen draw a black and white book, but seeing his work here makes me yearn to see more from him where he doesn’t have a colorist to fill in the details. Stuart Immonen uses the stark black and white look as a tool in its own right, from the very first page with Ila sitting in a triangle of light in an otherwise dark room, to the effect of white pages falling amidst a black background. Stuart Immonen uses a thin line with sharp edges here, something that those used to his softer art with inker Wade von Grawbadger might find a little surprising. It’s a great look though, interacting not only with the dark interrogation room as it slices its people into focus, but with the slightly ragged edges of the museum and the streets of Paris. Even people in the backgrounds are often cloaked in shadow, pushing them into the foreground or background as needed. It’s a effective use the dark inks, and he doesn’t miss a trick. Stuart Immonen sticks with variations on a six-panel grid here for his pages, not resorting to trickery but instead providing a straight-forward, easy to read progression of action from one panel to the next. It’s good solid storytelling, and considering a large portion of the book is two people talking in a darkened room, Stuart Immonen is able to still bring tension to Kathryn Immonen’s script.

Moving Pictures is the kind of book you’ll want to read two or three times to fully enjoy, each journey through war-torn Paris revealing something new and interesting to the reader. Kathryn Immonen is proving herself to be a writer to watch for, and her leap into a new genre here shows great strength and familiarity with it already. I’ve enjoyed Kathryn Immonen’s work at Marvel to date, but Moving Pictures is easily my favorite of her comics yet. Whatever Kathryn and Stuart Immonen work on together next, I’m already sold. Make time in your reading schedule to fit this book in.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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Far Arden http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2009/10/28/far-arden/ http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2009/10/28/far-arden/#comments Wed, 28 Oct 2009 04:00:14 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=1081 By Kevin Cannon384 pages, black and whitePublished 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 [...]]]> 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.

The book certainly starts on a light, jokey note as noted pirate Shanks and his partner in crime Hafley try and steal back Shanks’s old boat the Areopagitica. Hafley and Shanks’s dialogue as it goes back and forth is not entirely serious, and even when the action kicks in and Shanks goes up against two members of the Royal Canadian Arctic Navy, there’s an element of fun about it. For quite a while, that’s the tone that Cannon takes with the story. From Shanks’s picking up of an orphan who starts playing with the "puppy blankets" that he finds in the boat’s hold, to the "who’s capturing whom?" flip-flops of Hafley’s fortune, it’s a cute and slightly silly story. Divided up into chapters, you can even use Cannon’s divisions as an effective serial adventure, reading one chapter a day and seeing how the characters get out of their latest spot.

As Far Arden progresses, though, the book starts to pick up a more serious tone. Supporting characters start dying, in sudden and almost random moments that will take most readers by surprise. We start learning about the darker side of some of our heroes, and learn they aren’t all they presented at first. The first half of Far Arden seems so warm and inviting that it almost seems strange that people would be looking for a mythical tropical island in the Arctic Circle. The further you get into the book, though, the more you find yourself feeling Nunavut’s chills and bleak landscapes, and begin to understand the attraction of Far Arden. It’s more than just a physical escape, it’s a refuge from the bleak world that surrounds it. The desperation of heroes and villains alike trying to find Far Arden becomes that much clearer and compelling. That said, it’s hard to avoid the large white elephant in the room, the conclusion of Far Arden. Even with some of the grimmer material up until this point, it feels wildly out of place. I don’t have a problem with an unhappy ending of a book, but this seems to still come out of nowhere with such a vengeance that it left me reeling.

Cannon’s art reminds me a bit of Marc Hempel’s work on books like Tug & Buster, with crisp black and white art that doesn’t go overboard on details. Instead, he takes his time working on the little things that make his art a lot of fun. Over-the-top sound-effects (who knew a headlock involved a sound?) and large, thick lettering that makes the comic feel a little more back-to-basics in a good way. The smaller dimensions of the book help Cannon’s art as well, I think; everything feels slightly more compact and tight, letting the dark shadows come together and congeal on the page. With no shading or half-tones in Far Arden, Cannon has to rely on nothing but the absolute basics of black and white to provide texture and depth, but I think it comes across well.

Far Arden is a peculiar book, when it’s all said and done. Was it a satisfying read? Definitely. There’s no denying, though, that the book zooms from one extreme to the other; you can almost see Cannon hitting a point in the narrative where he’s changed his mind about what he wants Far Arden to be and goes about shifting it into another form entirely. I’m curious to see what he’ll do next, although I must admit that I hope his next book decides a bit earlier just what tone it’s planning on shooting for. A lot of readers are going to feel stung by the end of Far Arden.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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