You know what I love? I love anthologies. You know what doesn’t sell? Yep, you guessed it.
It is a structural shortcoming of the direct market that anthologies almost never sell. This is in marked contrast to the newsstand, where anthologies dominated for decades. Lately I’ve been really enjoying DC horror books from the late '70s and early '80s, perhaps the last true flowering of the anthology format in 'mainstream' American comic books. Pick up any old random issue and you never know what you’ll find. Eight pages drawn by a living legend with effortless chops. Six pages written by a future superstar in their first assignment. Usually something fun in the form of a page of a horror host cackling away, possibly even a Sergio Aragonés or Dave Manak gag strip.
But the sad truth is that the format was already beginning to fade by the early '80s. Perhaps the last truly successful one was Marvel Comics Presents, which sold well on the newsstand but also usually had Wolverine on the cover. When the newsstand ceased to be a factor in sales the book went away. Periodic revivals have fallen flat on the truism that ongoing anthologies, even devoted to superhero material, are a tough sell in a direct market where a large percentage of comics are pre-sold before they even ship. Books like House of Mystery or The Unexpected were perfect for newsstands and spinner racks, easy for casual readers to flip through and stick in the cart. Dip in or out depending on whether the cover caught your eye. That’s not how people buy comics anymore, and hasn’t been for a long time.
I do quite love them, still, and try to support them whenever possible. You never really know what you’re going to get with an anthology, and that’s all to the good.
Which brings us to our book for today: XINO, a new sci-fi anthology from the good folks at Oni. Edited by Zack Soto, Gabriel Granillo and Jung Hu Lee. As far as these things go, it's got a really strong batting average. A few home runs, nothing less than a base hit. They pulled pretty widely from across the industry - a few grizzled vets, a few up-and-comers, the usual mix. A good blend of different types of talent working on different kind of stories.
Most of them have a bit of a horror edge. If this were Britain I might say they were in the vein of “Tharg’s Future Shocks,” but we’re not, so I won’t. Many of them are about technology gone awry, which seems to be a dominant mood in a lot of sci-fi lately. It’s hard to share any optimism about technology when every example of the technological advancement in the modern world, without fail, turns out profoundly harmful in one way or another. There’s no regulatory oversight. Self-driving cars are killing people in the street. All the fantastic technological advancements that could help us stave off the effects of the climate crisis are hoarded by for-profit entities who see no profit in staving off the effects of the climate crisis. Every new paradigm in computer technology is a scam trying to steal our wallets and sell our data to malign actors, in that order. Even space exploration, that last bastion of hope for a better tomorrow through technology, has been corrupted by the grasping tentacles of the private sector.
All of these ideas come in for an airing here. Take, for instance, one of the standout features, “The Chip,” from the first issue. Written by Chris Condon and drawn by Nick Cagnetti - he of Pink Lemonade fame, and in fairness one of my favorite current cartoonists. The titular chip is a gaming enhancement that plugs the player's brain directly into their game. It also apparently turns you into a murderer. Now, as I enjoyed this story, I’m not going to dwell too much on the fact that it’s got a similar premise to the forgotten 1994 sci-fi slasher Brainscan; as I’m the only person reading these words who remembers that movie, it’s not worth dwelling on. Point is, after the upbeat Allredesque ambition of Pink Lemonade I wouldn’t necessarily have predicted Cagnetti could turn on a dime to give us some truly affecting horror imagery, but sure enough that’s just what he does here. The final images of the poor protagonist chased by the police and pulling wires and circuits out of his own forearm are quite memorably unsettling.
The ever-dependable Shaky Kane shows up with “Rabbit Trap,” also from the first issue, written by Jordan Thomas. Thomas and Kane previously collaborated on Weird Work, a crowdfunded miniseries now being reprinted at Image, as well as the forthcoming miniseries The Man from Maybe, also from Oni. Kane is a good match for horror material, with his Kirby-by-way-of-Gilbert-Hernandez stylings a strong match for upsetting stories. “Rabbit Trap” is an alien invasion scenario couched in mid-century anti-Communist paranoia. Well-trod territory, sure, but effective for all that, especially given the degree to which that precise brand of paranoia has made an unfashionable return in recent cycles.
The standout from the second issue for my money would be the David & Maria Lapham number, “Free Hugs, or The Ballad of MegaVortex!” Considering he made his name doing crime comics, David Lapham has always had a good feel for sci-fi. Warriors of Plasm doesn’t get much love these days, but it was a very nice looking book, in addition to being weird as holy fuck. “Free Hugs” is about a future where human beings are afraid to touch one another under any circumstances, a scenario that mandates rather elaborate workarounds for childrearing and babymaking. The protagonist is confronted with the specter of a person who actually wants to stop in and say “hello,” for real, and wouldn’t you know that doesn’t turn out so well.
Zander Cannon appears in the second issue as well, working with mystery novel and comics writer Alex Segura on “Finale,” a story about fighting giant monsters in the far future. Cannon knows a few things about drawing giant monsters by now. TCJ’s own Hagai Palevsky shows up with artist Carson Thorn for a four-page story about resurrection that manages to be the most depressing thing in an anthology filled with unsettling looks at the future of the species. Artyom Trakhanov has been turning heads lately, and his contribution with writer François Vigneault is one of the strongest from all three issues. I won’t give away the twist, but “The People” is an excellent story about anthropology in the future. Beautiful work.
Of especial note in the second issue, pay attention to Alissa Sallah’s “B&B.” Sallah is new to me, and arrives highly influenced by manga. Most importantly, however, she’s one of only a couple people across these three issues who go straight for comedy. “B&B” is the story of the most reckless man in the world, sent to Mars because the Earth didn’t want him. Sort of like Groo in space, he manages to destroy literally everything he touches while remaining unharmed by the consequences of his misadventures. I could read a whole book about Dom Bonchamps, easy.
The other funny story, from the third issue, is Dan McDaid’s “Sticky Tape” - the only one of these stories to tackle the question of superpowers, albeit the particularly terrible superpower of having extraordinarily bad luck. It’s got psychic cats who inexplicably only show up for just a couple panels, the kind of creative restraint for which you usually have to consult Augustine of Hippo. Worry not, issue #3 has a second cat-centric feature: “Buster,” by Andrew Carl and Sophie Franz. Franz is heavily influenced by Dan Clowes - not the usual reference for a genre cartoonist, but it looks really nice. Might need to check out more of her.
Every issue has good artists, some of whom I haven’t even mentioned. Phil Hester has a story in the first issue, “She Took the Air.” I’m always happy to see his work, and he serves up an ultra-compressed story about deadly combat at the end of the world. A whole graphic novel’s worth of story in a handful of pages. I really like the colors on “Visceral” in issue #3, written by Justin Jordan and illustrated by Molly Mendoza. Perhaps the purest horror here, the colors are strongly reminiscent of Stipan Morian’s work for the excellent 20th Century Men.
Am I being too nice? I worry sometimes, these days, that I'm too nice. But the facts are plain: anthologies like this only exist in the 21st century as labors of love on the part of hard-working editors. Even the best sell poorly. As it is, they managed to get three issues of a dynamite anthology out the door, and that meant cherry-picking from some of the best talent they could find. Makes sense the batting average is so good. They could afford to be picky. Even the stories that didn’t jump out as spectacular were still well-done and interesting. Maybe if they had to do it every month they wouldn’t be able to hit all the marks so well, but for these three they really pulled out all the stops. Good on them. More like this, please.
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Cover art above by Matt Lesniewski.