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=4.5.9 Miracleman #15 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2015/02/10/miracleman-15/ http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2015/02/10/miracleman-15/#comments Tue, 10 Feb 2015 17:00:57 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2537 Written by Alan Moore Art by John Totleben 48 pages, color Published by Marvel Comics

When Miracleman #15 was first published in November 1988, saying it was attention-grabbing is a bit of an understatement. Those who were reading the title found themselves confronted with a comic where Alan Moore and John Totleben took the normal [...]]]> Written by Alan Moore
Art by John Totleben
48 pages, color
Published by Marvel Comics

When Miracleman #15 was first published in November 1988, saying it was attention-grabbing is a bit of an understatement. Those who were reading the title found themselves confronted with a comic where Alan Moore and John Totleben took the normal levels of violence present in comics and upped the ante considerably, presenting a series of images unlike anything else published at the time. Since that time, so much of what occurs in Miracleman #15 has been reused and recycled in both comics and other media forms. But with the shock value stripped away, it’s almost a relief to see that Miracleman #15 still holds up to a critical eye; it’s still an excellent if disturbing comic.

Miracleman #15 is the climax to the third volume of Miracleman, with one final issue displaying the aftermath still to come. Moore and Totleben don’t skimp at all on the promise of a fight to end all fights; the battle between Miracleman and Kid Miracleman is more than brutal, it’s apocalyptic for the city of London. That’s something that fits in perfectly with the overarching story of volume 3, suitably titled, “Olympus.” This is the rise of Miracleman and his associates to godhood, and the battle here is nothing short of a god versus the devil himself.

Moore asks the reader what a truly insane and evil person with near unlimited powers could do to the world, and has Totleben deliver the results in eye-searing detail. This isn’t a man who is going to build a crazy device, or perhaps hold people captive. This is carnage, pure and simple; never mind the ruined buildings, but the moments where you see the tattered skins of his victims flapping in the breeze is when you realize that Miracleman isn’t fighting a bad guy, but rather a madman in every sense of the word. The fact that Kid Miracleman is able to accomplish (or rather, destroy) so much in such a short period of time speaks well to what Moore and Totleben are trying to present here: he is a threat not just to Miracleman and allies, but literally the entire planet.

Along those lines, the battle between the forces of good (Miracleman, Miraclewoman, Huey Moon, and Warpsmiths Aza Chorn and Phon Mooda) and evil is suitably difficult. The attempts to stop Kid Miracleman start in a standard manner, but quickly shift to increasingly inventive and desperate. The ways in which first Aza Chorn and then Miracleman ultimately defeat Kid Miracleman are both memorable, but in different ways. Being inspired by Japanese culture, Aza Chorn’s usage of his Warpsmith abilities to bring Kid Miracleman to his knees feels almost like a Japanese koan. It’s a smart but elegant solution on how to stop an invulnerable foe, and it’s an example of a writer using a logical method to resolve a plot rather than a random, previously unseen power.

And then there’s the final confrontation, something that’s been reused in a series of homages and outright lifts over the years. As a result, readers will probably see it coming far more than those who first picked up the comic in 1988 did. But here’s the thing: strip away the shock and surprise and it’s still remarkably effective. The emotional undercurrent of the scene between the two characters is the big moment, not the surprise of how it’s accomplished. Moore gives both characters so much grief, regret, and sadness that all these years later I found myself still affected by that final scene.

Totleben’s art—recolored by the legendary Steve Oliff—is so amazing that it’s all the more heartbreaking that we get so little art from this raw talent these days. Totleben’s thin, graceful lines are so beautiful that it makes the hideousness of Kid Miracleman’s rampage that much more memorable. The aftermath is haunting, a level of carnage that it would be hard for anyone to not be permanently changed by. For a moment that literally changes the world (as you’ll see in next month’s aftermath), Totleben and Oliff deliver over and over again. There’s not a single artistic misstep here; Totleben handles every emotion from rage to sorrow, and Oliff’s recoloring of the pages is so deftly handled that it makes you feel like he had been the original color artist right from the start.

Even the page layouts of Miracleman #15 are the sort of craft that now is a bit more common but at the times was a step ahead of most artists. Look at the panels on page 2, drawn as jagged shards tumbling down like the wreckage that Kid Miracleman has created. It’s almost hard to notice them at first because you’re so busy seeing the horror that they encapsulate. But every page is like that, thought through carefully to provide the strongest impact on the reader, and one that rewards multiple re-reads.

Miracleman #15 was for many ears a legendary comic, one that commanded incredibly high prices in the back-issue market. It’s easy to claim that happened because people wanted to see the gore and destruction. I think the reality is something far more important: it’s the climax to all of Moore’s revamp of the comic, a confrontation building since the very first installments in Warrior magazine. Does it deliver what it promised? Most certainly. All of these years later, Miracleman #15 succeeds because of the intelligence, the emotion, and the amazing craft on display here. The series coming back into print, finally, was most definitely worth it so that new readers can see it all for themselves.

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Officially Entering Hibernation http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2014/01/27/officially-entering-hibernation/ http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2014/01/27/officially-entering-hibernation/#comments Mon, 27 Jan 2014 15:32:57 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2528 Well, this isn’t so much a new decision as it is making an ongoing situation official: Read About Comics is, for the time being, entering hibernation.

I’d hoped to be back on a regular schedule last summer, but after about a month a lot of things that pay the bills got much much busier, to [...]]]> Well, this isn’t so much a new decision as it is making an ongoing situation official: Read About Comics is, for the time being, entering hibernation.

I’d hoped to be back on a regular schedule last summer, but after about a month a lot of things that pay the bills got much much busier, to say nothing about currently working on a Masters in Library and Information Science. And so once again, something had to give, and that something was Read About Comics.

I started writing reviews regularly for iComics.com back in 1999, and then shifted over to my own site here in August 2006. And while I still write reviews every week for Comic Book Resources, that doesn’t mean that I’ll miss writing reviews here a great deal. To those who have linked or responded to reviews, or merely posted some appreciation from time to time, my sincere thanks. To my peers who are writing their own reviews, my admiration. And to the people who, eight years later, keep posting in the comments section of the Queen Bee review hoping for a sequel… while sadly I don’t think your wish will ever come true, I do admire your persistence and eternal hope.

(And speaking of which, I’m changing the comments feature so that they close after a certain number of days. Sorry, Queen Bee fans.)

I do hope to occasionally post a review or two here, namely ones that for whatever reason (more than anything else, not fitting into the weekly review format) wouldn’t work on CBR, but we’ll see how that goes. For now, no promises. But again, my thanks, and I’m sorry that it’s taken so long to admit the inevitable had occurred.

—Greg

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Hilda and the Bird Parade http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2013/08/09/hilda-and-the-bird-parade/ http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2013/08/09/hilda-and-the-bird-parade/#comments Fri, 09 Aug 2013 13:00:06 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2524 By Luke Pearson40 pages, colorPublished by Nobrow Press

In the past couple of years, you might have noticed a small British publisher named Nobrow Press starting to make an impression on the comics market. Their books are impeccably designed and printed with extremely high quality, making owning them not only pleasurable for their contents but [...]]]> By Luke Pearson
40 pages, color
Published by Nobrow Press

In the past couple of years, you might have noticed a small British publisher named Nobrow Press starting to make an impression on the comics market. Their books are impeccably designed and printed with extremely high quality, making owning them not only pleasurable for their contents but also their presentation. And while I’ve sampled several different books of theirs and made mental notes to try more, it’s Luke Pearson’s books starring Hilda that have grabbed me the most. Hilda and the Bird Parade is the third and latest one in this series, and in many ways it’s not only the most relatable but also the most charming.

Pearson quickly brings new readers up to date in the first few pages of Hilda and the Bird Parade. You don’t need to have read the first two to grasp the basics; the adventurous Hilda and her mother used to live in the countryside, but they’ve just moved into the city of Trolberg. What starts as an attempt from Hilda to get to know the local children and make some friends rapidly turns into a new fantastical adventure involving a talking raven, getting lost, and the ever looming and mysterious Bird Parade. Pearson’s writing here is almost immediately immersive, and the fact that Hilda herself is new to Trolberg makes it all the easier to get pulled into the story as a reader. She’s equally in the dark as the rest of us, and we get to piece things together alongside her.

After portraying Hilda as a free spirit who gets to rome around in the expansive outdoors in both Hildafolk (which gets a new hardcover edition named Hilda and the Troll later this year) and Hilda and the Midnight Giant, it’s an interesting step forward to have Pearson tell a story where Hilda’s mother is suddenly much more protective and worried about her daughter’s adventures. It’s a great progression from the first two books, and it’s also a clever inversion from the setup we normally see in children’s adventure stories. Instead of the shift from city to country being where the great unknown exists, for Hilda and her bother it’s the complete opposite.

As fun as the earlier books were, it’s Hilda and the Bird Parade which I think will strike a chord with its readers above the others. While I suspect few will have actually encountered a talking bird in need of help, many will know all about moving to a new locale and finding it hard to make friends and fit in. Pearson does an excellent job of showing how Hilda is out of sync with her schoolmates; the way that Hilda focuses on the "wrong" pieces of entertainment, or how she misses the point of their games until it’s too late. Pearson makes the other kids a little too rotten here and there—surely at least one or two of them aren’t quite this bad—but at the same time, we are seeing the events through Hilda’s eyes (and there’s a lot to be said for peer pressure). Regardless, the disorientation and bewilderment that Hilda goes through is just as gripping as Hilda trying to help the hurt raven, and these two halves of the story work beautifully together.

It’s hard to talk about Hilda and the Bird Parade without touching on the art, of course, as it brings just as much charm to the book as Pearson’s equally excellent writing. Hilda herself is adorable, with her little stick legs, big head, and beret perched perfectly on her blue hair. Her charm just oozes off the page, and you can see the eager expression on her face whenever it’s a new place to explore or a new sight to be seen. It’s the surroundings of Trolberg that really grab you in Hilda and the Bird Parade, though. He’s able to bring so much of it to life; the twisty streets, the strange statues, the sea of rooftops. When Hilda gets to a high vantage point to see all of Trolberg spread out below her, her exclamation of surprise is easy to understand. Pearson makes it just as breathtaking for the reader as for Hilda, and it gives us a much better idea of just how large this metropolis really is.

The creatures of Hilda and the Bird Parade are just as much fun to look at. Pearson brings them all to life in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. The explosion of birds from the tree is fun to stare at and just look at all the different types and colors of birds, for example, and the dreaded salt-lion is able to shift from innocent kitten to terrifying adult in the blink of an eye. When we finally see the infamous Bird Parade, I love that it’s more about the crush of people than the floats and spectacle of the parade itself; Pearson does a great job of letting us see it as the short Hilda would, surrounded by adults everywhere. And of course, with Hilda and the Bird Parade printed in an oversized hardcover album edition, it gives Pearson even more room to let his art spread out for readers to drink in.

Hilda and the Bird Parade makes Pearson three-for-three in his success with the Hilda books. Hilda and the Bird Parade is charming and touching, and is truly meant for all ages. This is the kind of book that you can’t read just once; once you’ve started, it’s hard to put down. If you’ve never read any of Pearson’s comics, any of the Hilda books is worth a sample. Just be warned: once you’ve read one, you’ll want the other two, too. Fortunately, that’s a good thing. Highly recommended.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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Beach Girls http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2013/08/07/beach-girls/ http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2013/08/07/beach-girls/#comments Wed, 07 Aug 2013 13:00:06 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2522 By Box Brown and James Kochalka44 pages, black and whitePublished by Retrofit Comics and Big Planet Comics

Beach Girls is the first comic I’ve picked up from Box Brown’s Retrofit Comics, a small boutique line of individual comic books by a wide variety of alternative comic creators. I’ll admit that I felt a little drawn [...]]]> By Box Brown and James Kochalka
44 pages, black and white
Published by Retrofit Comics and Big Planet Comics

Beach Girls is the first comic I’ve picked up from Box Brown’s Retrofit Comics, a small boutique line of individual comic books by a wide variety of alternative comic creators. I’ll admit that I felt a little drawn to the comic almost immediately off the bat thanks to its larger dimensions; running at 7 7/8"x10 1/2", this magazine-sized comic immediately brought to mind the indy comics of the ’80s and ’90s that I’d bought in great numbers. And now that I’ve read Beach Girls? I feel like that initial impression was not misplaced.

Brown’s story for Beach Girls is easy to follow; Pheobe and her two friends are at the beach on vacation, with Pheobe feeling out of place and inadequate next to her friends. At the same time, local surfer Hank is railing on the summer’s influx of "beach girls" even as he appears to be struggling to find his own place in the world. Needless to say, the two meet and things progress from that collision of worlds. What’s nice about Brown’s writing for Beach Girls is the overall feel and progression of the comic; it would be easy for this to turn into the ultimate romance cliche, but it’s much to Brown’s credit that the characters steer it into a different direction. This is much less about "will they get together?" but more along the lines of, "What will Pheobe learn from her experience at the beach?"

I don’t want this to sound like it’s some sort of after-school special, because it’s not. Instead Brown gives us a story where the emotional course mimics the overall pull of the ocean, dragging the characters in and out in a surface where they can fight it, let it drag them away, or learn to navigate its currents. That’s where Brown’s story for Beach Girls shines, because while the plotting itself is a little short when you look at it, it’s the mood and emotion that will stick with you for a while afterwards. Little moments pop up to subvert your immediate expectations here and there (when Pheobe asks Hank if they’re bound for something romantic, the response and reaction that follows is wonderful), and the end result is a joy.

Brown’s art here is great, too; he has a medium-weight, confident ink line that is smooth and sparse. Brown doesn’t waste any ink here and the end result is a simple, almost iconic look that both gives you enough detail to tell everyone apart and to set a mood, and leaves enough detail out so that you can also project your own additions (or people you know in real life) onto the finished page. Brown’s art hits all of the big moments well, and there’s something about the way that he puts the pages together that brings to mind the comics that Jeff Mason used to publish under his Alternative Comics banner. I love when he occasionally shifts the reader’s view, too; the over-the-stage shot of the musical performance, for example, does more to set the mood and the feel for the venue than a typical sea of heads ever could have. Add in the larger dimensions to the comic, and you end up with an attractive end result. My one complaint is that Beach Girls could have used an editor to eyeball the comic before publication. Punctuation is occasionally missing, and there are a couple of misspelled words here and there. (Because it’s only ever mentioned once, I still can’t decide if Pheobe’s name is a misspelling of Phoebe or not.)

James Kochalka contributes a 10-page back-up story to Beach Girls, titled "Dweeb." It’s one of his more aimless stories, mostly a conversation between two little fantasy creatures observing a passed out woman who eventually starts to wake up. If there’s anyone who does aimless well, though, it’s Kochalka. It’s silly and funny, and I feel like Kochalka doesn’t overstay his welcome. (An entire comic of "Dweeb" might have been a bit much.) Perhaps more importantly, it’s a good match for the rest of Beach Girls, with both of them drawing from a similar artistic viewpoint in how they approach the page. There’s no huge visual clash when you finish the main story and hit the back-up, and I feel like that’s exactly how this sort of arrangement should work.

Now that I’ve read Beach Girls, I’ll definitely have to keep my eyes open for more Retrofit Comics publications down the line. This was a fun charmer of a comic, and I appreciated the larger dimensions, paper stock, and overall format too. There would definitely be something slightly lost reading this as an electronic comic; the physical object here is part of the attraction. All in all, a fun little publication.

(Disclaimer: Years ago I regularly worked one day a month at Big Planet Comics.)

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Retrofit Comics

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Usagi Yojimbo Vol. 27: A Town Called Hell http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2013/08/05/usagi-yojimbo-a-town-called-hell/ Mon, 05 Aug 2013 13:00:55 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2520 By Stan Sakai208 pages, black and whitePublished by Dark Horse

There are a handful of comics that have gone on for years and years and are reliably excellent. The problem is that, after a while, it’s easy to take them for granted that they’ll always be around and always be fantastic. Having gone on hiatus [...]]]> By Stan Sakai
208 pages, black and white
Published by Dark Horse

There are a handful of comics that have gone on for years and years and are reliably excellent. The problem is that, after a while, it’s easy to take them for granted that they’ll always be around and always be fantastic. Having gone on hiatus early last year so Stan Sakai could work on 47 Ronin, I do occasionally worry that being forgotten could be the fate of Usagi Yojimbo. But with a new collection now on the shelves, now is as good a time as any to find out what you’ve been missing all this time. Because trust me, Sakai’s long-running samurai epic is still a pleasure to read from start to finish.

This latest volume, A Town Called Hell, has a story structure that works well for both a serial and collected format, something that regularly eludes many comic creators. Sakai’s stories here open and close in the small town of Hell, as we get to watch ronin Usagi first arrive and offer assistance to the townspeople after two different organized crime bosses use the area as a war zone, and then later return to help clean up what turned out to be unfinished business directly related to his first attempt at help. It’s a fun way to tell a continuing story, with time passing between the two visits to Hell and Usagi getting into other adventures and strange encounters as he wanders the countryside. It’s only when his past catches up with him that he discovers what needs to be done, and Usagi Yojimbo circles back around for a second pass into the forsaken town.

A Town Called Hell, and Usagi Yojimbo in general, succeeds in no small part due to the strength of how Sakai writes its main character. Usagi himself is both noble and pragmatic; it’s too easy for people to write a character that’s supposed to be the hero as also unrealistic or a little too "good." Here, Sakai keeps Usagi very realistic; he makes mistakes, he’s not afraid to kill (the body count here is higher than a new reader might expect), and when cornered by a rambling old woman he’s not against finally fleeing when her back is turned. That’s not to take away from the plotting, which is generally strong too. There are three stories in-between the two Hell sagas, and of them the first two ("Nukekubi" and "The Sword of Narukami") serve as perfect examples of Usagi Yojimbo. The first dips into Sakai’s interest in Japanese mythology—springing a traditional monster on a startled Usagi—while the second has more to do with how to maintain personal honor while avoiding taking a fatal journey. Both of them have a good beginning, middle, and end; it’s all carefully put together and in a manner where it’s a satisfying and logical conclusion. Only "Teru Teru Bozi" stumbles, with a second half that ultimately feels like a cop-out. It appears to serve as a distraction for the final panel, which is a set-up for future stories with the return of a villain from the series’ past, but in addition to being meaningless for newer readers it doesn’t balance out the slight and forgettable nature of this rare misstep.

Visually, Usagi Yojimbo: A Town Called Hell is a treat from start to finish. Sakai’s always been good with action sequences—which is fortunate because there are a lot in the series over the years—but I think at times that his abilities elsewhere are overlooked. He’s got a strong sense on how to stage panel-to-panel progressions; when Usagi and Kato reveal themselves to the men who are supposed to be on the lookout for the duo, the panels on the left hand side of the page have that slow burn of them pulling off their hats, while on the right hand side we see a combination of glee and self-assuredness shift into utter panic. It’s simultaneously a punch line and a building up of the anticipation of the battle that’s to come.

Sakai is also an artist who understands when he should be drawing his beautiful, detailed backgrounds, and when it’s best to just let readers focus solely on the characters in the foreground. When Usagi is suddenly startled by a monstrous flying head, for example, Sakai takes the time to draw the contents of the simple hut that it’s zooming around within. It serves as a contrast here; the ordinary with the fantastic, and that difference helps emphasize the strangeness of the situation as well as Usagi’s surprise. Conversely, in the sequence mentioned earlier, all the focus should be on the people involved rather than the place that they’re standing; you don’t want anything to distract from their facial expressions.

Hopefully we’ll get another Usagi Yojimbo collection or two soon (there are still 13 uncollected issues); it would be great to have the series finally caught up in this format to then lure in new readers when individual issues return. Either way, though, Usagi Yojimbo: A Town Called Hell is one of those real treats that you can’t help but fall in love with. Sakai’s a master of both writing and drawing, and there’s a lot to love here. If you’ve never read Usagi Yojimbo before, this is a perfect place as any to begin.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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Big Plans: The Collected Mini-Comics and More http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2013/08/02/big-plans/ Fri, 02 Aug 2013 13:00:02 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2516 By Aron Nels Steinke360 pages, black and whitePublished by Bridge City Comics

I’ve read and enjoyed Aron Nels Steinke’s books in the past, but I was especially excited to read Big Plans: The Collected Mini-Comics and More. His graphic novel Neptune is an all-ages book, and The Super Crazy Cat Dance is for very young [...]]]> By Aron Nels Steinke
360 pages, black and white
Published by Bridge City Comics

I’ve read and enjoyed Aron Nels Steinke’s books in the past, but I was especially excited to read Big Plans: The Collected Mini-Comics and More. His graphic novel Neptune is an all-ages book, and The Super Crazy Cat Dance is for very young readers. So in reading Big Plans, it would be a jump to lots of comics that weren’t necessarily created with the younger audience in mind. What I found was a collection of memories, reflections, and struggles in getting through life. And ultimately, this is a collection where I think having all of these stories together gives you a stronger overall experience.

The majority of the stories in Big Plans are, despite the word "big" in the title, small in scope. That’s part of the appeal of the book; it’s not these huge crashing events, but lots of little glimpses and snippets of Steinke’s life. One story can be about a memory of playing Nintendo while a sibling is about to be taken to the hospital; another one is about strange noises in a house that can’t be easily explained. As you get more of these pieces laid side-by-side, you begin to get a good feel for the personal that Steinke presents through his comics.

A lot of Big Plans is self-deprecating on Steinke’s part. Some of it is regretful, as he looks back on his behavior and regrets decisions that he’s made. Other times it’s funny, like celebrating the first time he receives a piece of hate mail about his comics. And when there are times when his decisions might seem out there to a reader, I appreciate that it’s presented frankly and without any additional justification. A prime example of this is, "The Terrorist," when Steinke and his girlfriend grow increasingly convinced that two people on their cross-country flight are terrorists. As their panic grows, they finally make a choice that I suspect will surprise many readers. But even when things don’t go exactly as expected, there’s that strong conviction that ultimately holds the entire piece together. This is from Steinke’s point-of-view, and as a result, it doesn’t deviate from how he sees the sequence of events. It’s a strong piece of storytelling, and I think that’s Steinke’s real strength in Big Plans; big or small, the stories he tells are related in a way that pulls you in and holds your attention.

Part of the charm of Big Plans also comes from Steinke’s art. It’s a deceptive style, one that looks simple at first but has far more detail than you might catch at a glance. With dots for eyes and a thin line for a mouth, it’s great how much expression Steinke can get out of his characters. As you start to draw in the art, you’ll find so much attention paid to everything on the page; individual grains on the wooden floorboards, dots all over a jacket to create a sense of texture and pattern, hundreds of individual leaves on a bush. I also like how Steinke isn’t afraid to not fill up the entire page with panels, to help control the pacing from one moment to the next. Some pages are entirely full, others will have just one or two, giving emphasis to those moments and deliberately slowing you down in that part of the story. It’s a smart technique that you don’t see used very often in comics.

Big Plans: The Collected Mini-Comics and More is a charming compilation of comics from a creator who I feel just keeps getting stronger with time. By the time you get to "The Intruder" (which was originally in Big Plans #5), it’s hard to not see the amount of growth in his creations. The lines are stronger and more confident in his art, and his storytelling skills have formed an inviting rhythm in his pages. With mini-comics often hard to find, it’s nice to have an attractive and well-packaged collection like this available.

Purchase Links: Amazon.com | Powell’s Books

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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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Gamma One-Shot http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2013/07/29/gamma-one-shot/ http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2013/07/29/gamma-one-shot/#comments Mon, 29 Jul 2013 13:00:46 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2514 Story by Ulises Farinas and Erick FreitasArt by Ulises Farinas32 pages, colorPublished by Dark Horse

Originally serialized in Dark Horse Presents #18-20, the Gamma One-Shot is a strange beast. It serves as both a complete story in its own right, as well as what feels like a pilot for future comics down the line. It [...]]]> Story by Ulises Farinas and Erick Freitas
Art by Ulises Farinas
32 pages, color
Published by Dark Horse

Originally serialized in Dark Horse Presents #18-20, the Gamma One-Shot is a strange beast. It serves as both a complete story in its own right, as well as what feels like a pilot for future comics down the line. It feels like a mixture of Pokemon and Godzilla, but while Ulises Farinas and Erick Freitas wear their influences on their sleeves, it goes into places and directions that the originals would never touch. But best of all? There’s no doubt in my mind that the Gamma works better as a collected comic than it did as a serial.

Right from the start, Gamma heads into some dark territory as we meet Dusty, the "coward" who hangs out at the local bar and lets people punch him for $50 a pop. Once the greatest monster trailer ever—capturing and harnessing a series of strange creatures with different abilities to fight other such monsters—he was accused by the media of being a coward who failed the human race when in the great monster wars, he finally abandoned his base as it was being overrun. And then, with no warning, Dusty’s given a shot at redemption on a local scale. But of course, nothing’s quite that easy in Gamma.

If you squint, it’s easy to see where Farinas and Freitas’s story is coming from; in many ways this is a grown-up Ash from Pokemon whose prowess with Pikachu and company has ultimately failed him against creatures the size of buildings. I don’t think the license holders would ever go for a story where Ash lets himself get beaten up for money and then spends it all each evening on whores, though. Farinas and Freitas pull a nice fake-out in Gamma; at first we see Dusty as a guy who’s just down on his luck and not that bad. By the time he’s sobbing uncontrollably and declaring himself a coward, though, there’s no denying that Dusty is at best damaged goods, and at worse someone who’s let himself become what everyone declares him to be. Farinas and Freitas don’t lose sight of giving us a small version of a hero’s journey, though. There’s not a massive redemption at the end—with just 24 pages of story and eight of them being a flashback, that would be impressive—but there doesn’t need to be. Instead the duo merely send Dusty onto a new path than the one he started on. It’s smart, because at this point they can tell us more Gamma stories down the line, or just as easily leave things there with the idea that he’s starting to get his life back together. Either way, it’s just about perfectly paced.

Farinas’s art in Gamma is amazing; all you need to do is look at the cover with the masses of strange and bizarre monsters coming over the hill to understand that. Farinas draws with a thin line, one that reminds me of artists like Brandon Graham. I love that this is a world where Farinas can just go berserk with lots of crazy detail; the signs of Dusty over the bar that he works out of ("Spit on Him," "Beat on a Coward! Stay 4 A Drink!"), the "Whores Whores Whores" painting over the brothel, even the run down porch and battered roof of the house that Dusty and his wife live in. It would be easy to focus exclusively on just the monsters—and they are wonderfully inventive and crazy and fun to look at—but Farinas doesn’t lose sight of the rest of the comic in the process. I also like the small touches that don’t draw attention to themselves; giving all of the flashback panels rounded edges instead of hard 90 degree angles is a good visual shorthand to let the reader know what’s going on, but it’s something that just happens rather than being pushed into the reader’s face.

Gamma is strange and fun, and while I know that Farinas is busy on Catalyst Comix (also for Dark Horse, written by Joe Casey) at the moment, I hope we get a sequel before too long. There’s a lot of potential just begging to be explored; so much of it is just dropped in little hints and sidenotes, and with any luck they’ll get followed by down the line. Even if it’s just Dusty getting beaten up again, though, there’s so much energy and excitement in the art that I’d read a comic with just that, too. I’m glad that Dark Horse Presents offers creators a chance to dream up stories like this, but considering how well it flows when combined into a single comic, I’m even more happy about Dark Horse stopping to collect these DHP stories from time to time. It’s not too late to jump on board and tell everyone in five years time, "Yeah, I was reading Farinas’s comics years ago." Check it out.

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Avery Fatbottom: Renaissance Fair Detective #1 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2013/07/26/avery-fatbottom-1/ http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2013/07/26/avery-fatbottom-1/#comments Fri, 26 Jul 2013 13:00:23 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2507 By Jen Vaughn24 pages, black and whitePublished by Monkeybrain Comics

I will freely admit that while you can’t judge a book by its cover, sometimes a book’s title is more than enough to get me to buy a copy. That was the case with Jen Vaughn’s new comic Avery Fatbottom: Renaissance Fair Detective #1. And [...]]]> By Jen Vaughn
24 pages, black and white
Published by Monkeybrain Comics

I will freely admit that while you can’t judge a book by its cover, sometimes a book’s title is more than enough to get me to buy a copy. That was the case with Jen Vaughn’s new comic Avery Fatbottom: Renaissance Fair Detective #1. And while the end result might not be exactly in line with what you’d imagine with a title like that, there’s more than enough to amuse in this whirlwind tour of life at a Renaissance fair.

Avery Fatbottom: Renaissance Fair Detective #1 follows our titular hero as she prepares for the first day of running the local Renaissance fair. With her friend Gwen by her side, and also being on a third date with high school teacher Benn, Avery serves as our guide to the ins and outs of the different attractions and traditions at this particular fair. In many ways the comic is a walk through this sort of event; there’s not that much plot, but I’m not convinced that there needs to be just yet. Vaughn is giving us, at least for now, a character-driven story. The hook isn’t "what happened to Loxley the elephant?" but rather seeing Avery interact with Benn and Gwen.

With that in mind, it’s a relief to say that the characterization in Avery Fatbottom #1 is pretty strong. Even before Avery and Gwen cry out, "Friends forever!" on the second page, it’s already obvious what good friends they are with one another, and that’s thanks to just six panels. Vaughn is able to quickly create those sort of bonds through the dialogue and the art working together; their pre-fair "checklist" is not only cute, but it comes across as a comfortable ritual that they’ve clearly gone through dozens (if not hundreds) of times in the past. It’s that sort of warm teasing that brings the affection to the forefront; by the time Benn shows up for his date with Avery, the fact that Gwen is tagging along feels natural because we’ve seen the two interact so closely.

There’s still some little plot bits to lure us into later installments, too. Loxley’s sudden collapse hasn’t been explained, after all, and the hints about why Avery now runs the fair on her own promise an emotional explanation down the line. Perhaps more importantly, though, I want to see more of Avery and Benn with one another. Even with the teasing and slightly ribald final panel (if you’ve been paying attention), there’s still a lot that Vaughn can do with the two together, and it should be fun.

Vaughn’s art is nice, telling the story in a six-panel grid and using ink washes over the pencils to help provide texture and depth to the art. Vaughn’s at her best when it comes to the looks on her characters’ faces, though. Avery’s look of concentration as she prepares to throw the axe is almost prayerful, for example, and I love the look of attraction that Benn has on his when he kisses her hand. I wouldn’t mind seeing some more backgrounds here and there in future issues—this is a setting where there’s so much to see, after all—but on the whole it’s an good, pleasing style.

I love that companies like Monkeybrain have provided a platform for comics like Avery Fatbottom: Renaissance Fair Detective #1. It’s perhaps not the most commercial of ideas, but with it being provided through a digital platform, Vaughn and Monkeybrain can skip past a costly print run and provide it at a low price that makes it easier to both distribute and sample. And you know what? For a buck, it’s well worth your time. I bet you’ll be coming back for the second issue; I know I will. It’s fun.

Purchase Links: ComiXology

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Lobster Johnson: A Scent of Lotus #1 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2013/07/24/lobster-johnson-a-scent-of-lotus-1/ http://www.readaboutcomics.com/2013/07/24/lobster-johnson-a-scent-of-lotus-1/#comments Wed, 24 Jul 2013 13:00:54 +0000 http://www.readaboutcomics.com/?p=2505 Written by Mike Mignola and John ArcudiArt by Sebastian Fiumara32 pages, colorPublished by Dark Horse

Lobster Johnson: A Scent of Lotus #1 is the latest comic starring Mike Mignola’s character who straddles the pulp crime and horror genres. In an ever-expanding universe of titles spun-off from Hellboy, it’s easy for some of the comics to [...]]]> Written by Mike Mignola and John Arcudi
Art by Sebastian Fiumara
32 pages, color
Published by Dark Horse

Lobster Johnson: A Scent of Lotus #1 is the latest comic starring Mike Mignola’s character who straddles the pulp crime and horror genres. In an ever-expanding universe of titles spun-off from Hellboy, it’s easy for some of the comics to fade into the background more than others. But reading Lobster Johnson: A Scent of Lotus #1, I appreciate that Mignola, John Arcudi, and Sebastian Fiumara do their best to keep this comic memorable thanks to some particularly strong images that they’ve conjured up.

In many ways, Lobster Johnson reminds me of the pulp character of the Shadow, with several operatives that keep him informed while he explores a series of mysterious deaths. This time the deaths involve couriers for the Chinese organized crime group known as the Tong. But even as Lobster Johnson is exploring the killings—ones that the Tong themselves are failing to retaliate against—the police are trying to track down Lobster Johnson himself. And of course, the best way do to that is through his own people…

What’s nice about this latest Lobster Johnson comic is that it both builds on what’s been established up until now, but also works well as an issue #1 for new readers. When Cindy shows up, for example, you’re able to instantly pick up that she’s an investigative reporter who also has a connection to Lobster Johnson. Mignola and Arcudi do this not through exposition, but just through natural sounding dialogue and the basic structure of the scene. In a sea of comics that regularly have a new #1, it’s refreshing to have creators who understand that if there’s a #1 on the cover, the comic’s structure should be welcoming to new readers.

The plotting in Lobster Johnson: A Scent of Lotus #1 is also worth noting as being strong. The story itself forms almost a sort of bell curve; it opens and closes with Lobster Johnson in action, bounding across rooftops and smashing into buildings. In the center, though, Lobster Johnson fades into the background and we get to see everything else swirling around and coming together. Lobster Johnson is in many ways a bookend, kicking things off and then coming back once all of the other plot elements are firmly cemented and have displayed themselves to the reader.

Fiumara’s art on the first three issues of Abe Sapien this year was simply amazing, and rest assured that he’s still just as good. The first three pages alone could be used in sequential art classes explaining how to tell a story. On the first page, Fiumara handles the slow theatrical zoom-in on Lobster Johnson perfectly; starting as a silhouette, then slowly pulling in closer, letting Lobster Johnson start running directly towards us as the "camera" tightens on his face. As he leaps to another building, Fiumara pulls off something especially impressive on the second and third pages. The second page is almost entirely one splash of what’s happening down in Chinatown, with a dragon parade crashing through the streets even as Lobster Johnson himself is just a tiny dot up at the top. At the same time, he gives us a small inset panel that shows Lobster Johnson plunging down… and when you turn the page, there’s a perfect drawing of his body connecting with the new roof. With the way that his body compacts doing so, you can almost feel the impact; there’s actually no need for the "whump" sound effect, really, because Fiumara’s drawn it so perfectly that you mentally insert the sound yourself.

It’s the end of the book where the art really starts cooking, though. Shooting someone in an alleyway and jumping through a burning mansion, the action is even faster moving and more energetic than those first three pages. Fiumara’s collaboration here with colorist Dave Stewart is especially impressive; the flames almost lick your hands from the page, with a soft texture and glow that comes from the duo working well together. And then, when you get to the last page, Fiumara brings Mignola and Arcudi’s creepy idea to life in a way that makes you jump. Both the contented smile of the central figure, and the disturbing creatures running around it as the fire continues to burn… well, this is a way to have all of the creators of a comic work well together to present a strong cliffhanger to make sure readers return next month.

With so many comics in the "Mignolaverse," it would be easy to let some pass by and to pick and choose among which of the Mignola-helmed comics you choose to read. With books like Lobster Johnson: A Scent of Lotus #1, Mignola, Arcudi, Fiumara, and Stewart make it hard to decide to skip it. This is an excellent comic, and one that fulfils a niche that few other comics explore. Good stuff.

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