Where I come from, comic book stores let you pick only three items on Free Comic Book Day. Here are my selections from the 12th annual event, held on Saturday, May 3, 2014.
The Transformers vs. G.I. Joe #0
By Tom Scioli & John Barber
Published by IDW Publishing
There's quite a lot of kid-targeted comics out on FCBD, and not a few items gunning for the 'every Wednesday' audience, but this is perhaps the most unusual out of either camp. It's the prelude to an upcoming big battle miniseries between popular toy/cartoon/movie franchise characters licensed by IDW, but it's also an auteur piece for Tom Scioli, who rose to prominence on the strength of Jack Kirby-inflected projects both solo (The Myth of 8-Opus) and in collaboration (Gødland, with writer Joe Casey). Here, Scioli provides all drawing, letters and colors, with Transformers writer and IDW senior editor John Barber serving as co-writer: purportedly the two worked by passing wildly different script drafts back and forth until consensus was reached. I believe it.
It's very easy to describe the mechanics of this comic, but tricky to really convey what it's like. My personal biases pull me towards 1930s manga, with its teeming crowds of figures traversing flat spaces, but parts of it nearly hearken back to Richard F. Outcault's busy scenes of antic street life burlesque - note the robot peeking into the G.I. Joe action from the top of the page above! Really, though, it's like a lot of action figures, toys, finding themselves arranged around locations-as-playsets; a few pages later those character identification cards start finding themselves getting shot full of holes and knocked into the air by the rough play of the figures: a child causing a big mess from bashing his things together.
Of the 16 story pages in this comic, only 4 have more than two panels at work at a time. There is remarkably little in the way of 'cinematic' juxtaposition of points of view, loaning a certain deliberation to the panel-to-panel action; in a set of annotations toward the back of the comic, Scioli writes of wanting to "reward" close reading by encouraging the observer to follow the small characters around, which is to say investing the still image with the imagined, invisible movement traditionally reserved for the gutter. To me, though, the sensation is more tableau vivant: action-as-stillness, witnessed from a literal and psychological distance, yet no less pleasurable for its artifice.
As a result, this is a unique comic in that while it's a work heaving with nostalgia, like so many others, the feeling of retrospect is conveyed in primarily visual terms. As with many tableaux vivants, it is like we are witnessing an arrangement of history, artfully positioned with the understanding that we cannot so much touch it or climb inside to live in its virtual universe as study its attributes to capture something about the era. I am not, I confess, as fond as Scioli of melodramatic, wordy dialogue and narration, which gets voluminous at times - I prefer the less chatty icons of his best comic, Satan's Soldier. The best pages here, then, are as above: a scream as conveyed through the overlaying of lightning crack visual static atop a round, futile word balloon, with the cosmic agony of the robot's bark running tidily along the bottom row. The shape of the sound effect provides the feeling, the balloon the suggestion of delivery, and the words a dislocated narrative context (as it is). Perhaps this is superhero deconstruction!
You can see too that the vines in the topmost panel have grown unruly, like looping scribbles, colored over as if at patience's end - boyhood again. By this point major characters have suffered grave injury in rare closeup, and the world itself seems fit for a tantrum. Scioli writes that he means the intrusion of spectacular injury as a turning point from "swashbuckling fun" to a realm of consequences. I'm left wondering how his drawings will continue to develop - if the purpose of this holiday is to leave me wanting more, they've done it.
Magic Wind FCBD
By Gianfranco Manfredi, Pasquale Frisenda and Laura Piazza
Translated by Igor Maricic; English lettering by Steven Espinoza
Published by Epicenter Comics
Also in his annotations, Scioli makes an interesting point about how the writers of the earlier G.I. Joe media came of age in a period where the western was a defining genre, though the taste didn't catch on with the generation they were addressing. If you look to Europe, however, the American cowboy has enjoyed a longer run in comics as an active figure; here, for example, is an excerpt from a late '90s episode of an Italian hybrid series pairing gunfights out on the range with supernatural elements. The English publisher, Epicenter, is now up to its fourth collected edition of stories, employing similar materials (I'm presuming) as a colorized Italian reprint project which began in 2013. The production values are not spectacular - the dialogue is sometimes stiff, I caught one spelling gaffe and one apparent typographical error on my first read-through, and the art is surrounded by a generous border, probably owing to the state of the materials at hand.
Still, there's some interest in Pasquale Frisenda's art. Half of the Magic Wind books Epicenter has released so far have featured drawing by the late José Ortiz, a sure hand with the genre, but Frisenda introduces sharper, more Hugo Pratt-like approach, conservative in layouts but crisp in frame-by-frame activity. It maintains interest in the simple story by creator Gianfranco Manfredi, a musician/author serving up an amnesiac ex-soldier-turned-white Sioux shaman and his amateur detective/skeptic/alcoholic buddy Edgar Allan Poe as they contend with dangerous natives, sinister Mormons, a tragic saloon girl, a tough lady stagecoach driver with a secret, and maybe a big, phallic monster - nothing exceptional, but made with sturdy enough craft. There's definitely worse out there for free.
The New 52: Future's End #0
By Brian Azzarello, Jeff Lemire, Dan Jurgens, Keith Giffen, Ethan Van Sciver, Patrick Zircher, Aaron Lopresti, Art Thibert, Mark Irwin, Jesus Merino, Dan Green, "Hi-Fi," Carlos Mangual & Ryan Sook
Published by DC Comics, a Warner Bros. Entertainment Company
Being that my local shops had maintained their unbroken streak of never, ever, ever ordering the 2000 AD sampler, I decided to give this one a shot; lots of people had been complaining on Twitter that it embodied everything wrong with DC superheroes, and, well - I was curious to see why. Immediately, I noticed that a crew of at least 14 people -- 4 writers, 8 line artists, an "art consultant," an undisclosed number of studio colorists, a letterer and a cover artist (which adds up to more than 14, since some of them perform multiple roles) -- was assembled to produce these twenty pages of comics, but that doesn't really bother me in and of itself; Future's End is going to be a weekly series, and if you were to specify all of the uncredited parties who work on the average weekly manga serial, including editorial, you'd probably get a similar-ish number. Hell, I *suspect* Keith Giffen (a credited writer and the aforementioned art consultant) is functioning in a manner not unlike a manga editor, supervising the page breakdowns with an eye toward clarity and consistency.
That said, any nascent sympathy I might have had for the project was squished by the act of reading the damn thing. My god, what a bland, boring comic! Set in an obligatory evil-future-in-which-heretofore-death-proof-superheroes-are-suddenly-quite-easy-to-kill -- I don't know if this timeline has been set up in prior DC comics, and I don't really care -- the last remaining super-people are hunted down and "assimilated" into the cyber-insectoid legion of Brother Eye, an old Jack Kirby concept used here in a manner similar to the Borg from Star Trek. Basically, it's a lot of pages of superheroes discussing their communal desperation from discrete locations before getting murdered, and then Batman gets his arm ripped off, but not before sending Batman Beyond back to the past, a la The Terminator, to stop a mystery person from causing the catastrophe, a la the old crossover Armageddon 2001. And then it turns out the "past" is actually five years subsequent to the present continuity... not unlike the "One Year Later" gimmick surrounding a prior weekly series, 52.
You can see the problem. I don't even read very many superhero comics, yet there still wasn't a single moment in here that didn't feel acutely derivative of either (1) older DC comics or (2) the most obvious of SF genre touchstones. Worse, the storytelling is preoccupied with flitting from one cloister of characters to another, assuming the reader's familiarity and lingering on their ill-defined dramas; the result in a cataclysmic threat entirely lacking in impact or grandeur, or even much in the way of effective grotesquerie (the sole, basic exception is below). I presume this is due to each of the four writers being assigned groups of characters to cover - not a bad approach in some circumstances, but this kind of world-smashing story demands a sense of universal danger, and all we're given here are tepid vignettes, as if everybody has been locked in a different windowless room to finish their work.
It could never happen in North American comics for a variety of reasons, but I like to imagine a version of this book that goes even further in the direction of manga consolidation. A weekly serial of that sort would have Ethan Van Sciver (say) put in charge to assemble the art team on his own, with everybody made to pursue his specific level of detail in depicting meat intermingled with steel; that's how the flicker in quality endemic to all-hands-on-deck projects like this is typically absent from Japanese comics of similar manpower: an even heavier top-down dictation, intent on covering every aspect of the page.
But then, I know I'm just fucking around here. The point of something like Future's End is to serve up the potential for juicy continuity modifications and peeks at alternate versions of shared-universe characters, because that is what readers of DC superhero comics are assumed to want. Tone and color is secondary; if anything, it might at least vaguely approximate the goofy-ass 'darkness' of popular licensed video game series like Injustice and Batman: Arkham, which, all things considered, are probably played and enjoyed by as many kids and teens as anything notionally 'fun' in superhero comics. If DC attracts enough of that audience to the books, they won't ever have to change a damn thing about themselves to enjoy continued sustenance. Even the banal, fill-in-the-blanks plot evokes the derivative scenarios of many action video games, where you don't really need to worry about weak writing, theoretically, when the simple fact of interactivity can carry the day.
A shame you can't do that with comics. Here, it's just weak.
PLEASE NOTE: What follows is not a series of capsule reviews but an annotated selection of items listed by Diamond Comic Distributors for release to comic book retailers in North America on the particular Wednesday identified in the column title above. Be aware that some of these comics may be published by Fantagraphics Books, the entity which also administers the posting of this column. Not every listed item will necessarily arrive at every comic book retailer, in that some items may be delayed and ordered quantities will vary. I have in all likelihood not read any of the comics listed below, in that they are not yet released as of the writing of this column, nor will I necessarily read or purchase every item identified; THIS WEEK IN COMICS! reflects only what I find to be potentially interesting.
Weapons of Mass Diplomacy: I've been hearing a *lot* of great things about this one. Yeah - out in the office blocks and 24-hour diners, where folks talk about French comics. This is Christophe Blain, teaming up with writer "Abel Lanzac" (aka Antonin Baudry, an adviser to then-Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin and eventual diplomat to the United States) for a fictionalized, bleakly comedic account of France's response to the U.S. case for the Iraq War in the days before Freedom Fries. You don't need me to sell you on Blain's cartooning skills, but know that the final installment took home Best Album at Angoulême 2013. The full series is compiled into this 8" x 10.5" SelfMadeHero hardcover, 200 pages in color, distributed to North America via Abrams. Samples; $24.95.
The Complete Cul de Sac: And here is a big, heavy tribute to Richard Thompson, whose Cul de Sac lived a short life as a syndicated newspaper daily -- September of 2007 through September of 2012, though the strip had been around in a limited, painted capacity since '04 -- but nonetheless attracted a hugely affectionate gang of admirers to its farcical depictions of suburban life as examined by odd and willful children. As with Bill Watterson and Gary Larson, now you can have it all in an 8.5" x 11.3" slipcased set from Andrews McMeel - two softcovers, 648 pages in total, with an introduction by Art Spiegelman; $75.00.
The Big Feminist BUT!: Comics About Women, Men and the IFs, ANDs & BUTs of Feminism: Being a new themed anthology concerned with the contradictions in gender roles and feminism today. Editors Shannon O'Leary & Joan Reilly look to have put together an impressive lineup of contributors, brimming with Gabrielle Bell, Ulli Lust, Ron Rege, Jr., Vanessa Davis, Lauren Weinstein, Andrice Arp, Jeffrey Brown, MariNaomi and many more, including Journal contributors Shaenon Garrity and Rob Clough. A Kickstarted project, distributed to comic book stores under the auspices of Alternative Comics, 200 pages. Official site, Journal review; $20.00.
Sugar Booger #2: Also from Alternative this week - I can't remember if I mentioned the first issue of this, but Kevin Scalzo is putting together this series of 5" x 7" color comic books about a blue bear with candy boogers who has adventures and stuff, and they look pretty cool. Appropriate for most ages, I'm told. Interview; $5.95.
Benito Mambo: Last year NBM put out what I believe was the first book by Belgian artist Christian Durieux to arrive in English - An Enchantment, one of several BD albums produced in cooperation with the Louvre. Now Humanoids arrives with a new 10" x 13", 120-page hardcover edition of a 1999 work, not previously seen in English: a "fable" (says the publisher) about a little dancing boy's journey away from expectations and toward love and friendship. Colorful and lively drawing, on first glance. Preview; $34.95.
The White Lama: This, on the other hand, has been released by Humanoids in its English-translated entirety twice: first in 2000-01, as a set of six oversized albums matching the original French releases, then in 2004 as a pair of softcovers published in association with DC. Still, there's no reason why a 296-page all-in-one hardcover brick won't come in handy. It's writer Alejandro Jodorowsky's very loose 1988-93 rendition of the story of Jetsun Milarepa, a Tibetan Buddhist figure here transposed to the 19th and 20th centuries for a journey through history and enlightenment. Maybe one of the most approachable Jodorowsky comics, with art by frequent collaborator Georges Bess. The dimensions are 7.9" x 10.8". Extensive preview; $39.95.
I Kill Giants - Fifth Anniversary Edition: Very interesting path taken by this one. It was originally released as a seven-issue Image miniseries in 2008 & 2009, where I think a lot of the visibility came from writer Joe Kelly, a superhero veteran and member of Man of Action Studios, which had created the popular boys' media franchise Ben 10. The artist, however -- Madrid-born Ken Niimura -- brought an unexpectedly vivid intensity to Kelly's scenario, concerning a troubled girl's dreamy battles against fantasy creatures and the sad shit going on in her more everyday surroundings. It was manga-influenced work that seemed to know how manga works, and its collected edition gradually picked up an appreciative audience. Then, the book won a Gold Award from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs' International Manga Awards, no less than Big 3 manga publisher Shogakukan elected to publish a Japanese translation as part of their alternative-flavored IKKI line of comics, and now Niimura has a *new* Japanese-language book out, the shorts collection Henshin, which just dropped in March. AND: we're back to Image, with this no-doubt celebratory 232-page, 5.9" x 8.3" edition (actually a bit smaller and thinner than 2010's 300-page, 8.2" x 11.3" "Titan Edition"), promising creator interviews and other goodies; $19.99.
2000 AD #1880: Okay, I'm breaking my own rule here - Diamond is totally not distributing this tomorrow, and you probably won't see a physical copy unless you live in the UK. Digital editions are available, however, and that's a perfectly valid format for enjoying the start of the new Indigo Prime serial from British SF/horror comics MVP John Smith, here joined by artist Lee Carter, his collaborator from 2008's Dead Eyes. The last Indigo Prime series was my favorite superhero-ish comic from that year: a loud, purple rush of breathless amorality engendered by the cosmic stakes necessary for today's slick franchise revivals. And speaking of conflict, Judge Dredd creator John Wagner and artist John McCrea are in the middle of a serial about American teenage gun massacres... OF THE FUTURE. All this, and Pat Mills' Sláine battling to save a woman outfitted primarily in leather straps. Samples; $2.99.
Alley Oop: The Complete Sundays Vol. 1: 1934-1936: Your big slab of vintage strips for the week, a 12" x 16" Dark Horse hardcover compiling 128 pages' worth of squarely Stone Age dealings from V.T. Hamlin. Samples; $75.00.
The Complete Peanuts Vol. 21: 1991-1992 (&) The Complete Peanuts Paperback Edition Vol. 1: 1950-1952: Oh, but the funnies shrunk, and so we arrive, finally, at the latest Fantagraphics offerings from the work of Charles Schulz, including a 344-page batch of strips from the feature's last decade, as well as a new softcover reprint of the very earliest stuff. Introductions by Tom Tomorrow and Garrison Keillor, respectively. Samples old and new; $29.99 (hardcover), $22.99 (softcover).