THIS WEEK IN COMICS! (3/13/13 – Digital Comics Ultimate Apocalypse: Aftermath)

As you may be aware, the future ended this past weekend after Marvel announced the limited availability of 700 free comic books via their Marvel Unlimited digital comics app. In a manner metaphorically not unlike the publisher's flooding of direct market retailers with excess product, straining limited resources so as to muscle out competition, the resultant run on FREE ITEMS caused the power source for the Marvel Unlimited app -- digital comics retail giant comiXology -- to gasp and shudder and, finally, buckle under the strain of one zillion downloads. Unfortunately, a crashed server for comiXology (where, in the interests of full disclosure, I used to write a movie review column) (no, seriously) means no sales for any of the multitudinous publishers looking for access to the primary source for digital comics distribution. And all this right after the company announced a new digital 'self'-publishing profit-share initiative!

But perhaps it might be healthy in the long term for publishers and consumers alike to consider the fragility of digital access, particularly access dependent on the continued existence of the distribution platform; should comiXology go away someday, what will happen to all of the digital comics you've 'bought,' which cannot be copied onto a more stable, private archive?

Still, not all tablet-ready digital comics exist in so tenuous a state. For standalone projects, there's always the option of the app-as-book, the most deluxe purveyor of which is Tokyo's own Panel Nine, actually run by a British fellow, Russell Willis, and focused on heavy-duty releases of works by British artists like Eddie Campbell, David Lloyd and Hunt Emerson. And I really do mean heavy - in order to afford the reader the smoothest possible scrolling and panel-by-panel viewing, with no load times, a Panel Nine app tends to run into the hundreds of MBs' worth of storage space, which is no small amount for an iPad.

I'm generally willing to put up with this requirement, however, as the primary motive behind my reading of digital tablet comics is access to works I wouldn't otherwise easily find. And let's face it: British comics are slow to arrive in physical form in North American comic book stores.

The latest Panel Nine release perhaps best tickles this fascination of mine, as it's a totally original compilation of otherwise scattered, self-published British indie comics. I'm referring to artist Terry Wiley's VerityFair, published more-or-less annually since 2008; the Panel Nine VerityFair app collects issues #1-3, leaving a fourth issue orphaned for now. Wiley is not unfamiliar with digital publishing, as British publisher AAM/Markosia has also released five digital compilations of Sleaze Castle, a prior series Wiley created for the British small press scene of years ago with writer Dave McKinnon and occasional also-writer Adrian Kermode. Indeed, VerityFair is a spinoff from that earlier, b&w work, a slice-of-life drama focusing predominantly on female characters against a backdrop of fantastical genre stuff in manner that absolutely cannot help but strongly recall one of its avowed inspirations: Love and Rockets.

The similarities are obvious, but fascinating. Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez may be a continuing inspiration to young and old, but very few comics have actually seemed influenced by the sprawling multi-generational sagas Los Bros have maintained; I mean, how could they? Publishers of new, alternative comics typically don't last the three and a half decades that Fantagraphics has, which makes steady serialization difficult. Yet here is Terry Wiley, not simply drawing his characters in a thoroughly cartooned, Jaime sort of manner, but similarly spreading his attentions across a myriad of ages and body types, honing in especially on a middle-aged protagonist -- 44-year old occasional actress and full-time manic eccentric Verity Bourneville (not her real name) -- who has grown noticeably older from her earlier appearances in comics the artist indeed drew quite a while ago.

Several of these comics are helpfully included as supplemental features in the Panel Nine app, albeit mainly in the same way you'd plug such things in as the backmatter of a print collection. More digital-exclusive is a page-by-page audio commentary by Wiley, who at the push of a virtual button will pipe up for anywhere from ten seconds to about a minute, mostly to explain in-jokes, difficult slang and UK pop cultural references, of which there are many. This is a very, very British comic, luxuriating in local color and provincial language while Verity trucks through comedic scenarios relating to her on-and-off media 'career,' charged throughout with a steady acknowledgement of her very potent neuroses; a murder mystery of sorts also sneaks in before the cliffhanger finale.

So, it's an entertaining comic with an interesting history, though I know that's not what's caught your eye, scandalized reader. Unlike the Sleaze Castle compilations -- fundamentally just a bunch of small press b&w comics crammed together into e-books -- VerityFair, despite its origins in self-published comic book chapters, seems almost native to digital by way of Wiley's adoption of heavily, self-evidently digital art-making. I have not done a count, but I would estimate that nearly two-thirds of the backgrounds in this 88-page comic (extras bring the total page count up to 156) have been put together with the 3D modeling program SketchUp, often leaving Wiley's cartooned figures inhabiting an uncannily late '90s video game world. Look closely at the table and chairs and the checkerboard carpet two images up. Gaze in terror at the very real cat invading Verity's kitchen just above... and we all should wish for such a blazing blue bathroom!

Naturally, in as comprehensive a package as this, there is an explanation supplied. In an interview with publisher Willis in the 'back' of the app, Wiley mentions Understanding Comics for its theory of placing simplified characters against realistic backgrounds to promote reader identification - a passage that names Jaime Hernandez, in fact, as a practitioner of the approach. More pragmatically, one is again reminded of the circumstances separating steady-publishing Hernandez from self-publishing Wiley, who's doubtlessly shaved off the time it takes to complete these probably-non-lucrative chapters, probably in the spare time he has from pursuing other means of supporting himself.

That said, there is very little doubt that Locas looks utterly timeless from the perfect integration of every element of every panel in Xaime's incomparably smooth lines. Wiley's present work, in contrast, all but screams out the jangled limitations and compromises of digital comics-making, sometimes distractingly so. I cannot say that every page is saved by its artist's faculty with character activity, itself at times seeming overly posed, or overacted, which I suppose at least clicks with the work's theme.

I like the other 1/3 of panels better, those with photographic backgrounds. Eddie Campbell did a bit of this in The Lovely Horrible Stuff, to more complicated and satisfying ends, but there's a certain Sim & Gerhard effect nonetheless to Wiley's extensive usage, which doubly flatters my impure engagement with digital tablet comics as a whole: the foreign experience, here placed firmly in a very real London. At times Wiley even indulges in 'period' flashbacks, manipulating photographic images to arrive at some approximation of '80s and '90s London (maybe only as recalled) as backdrop to some well-observed scenes, like that of a callow young Verity gleefully horrifying her politicized boyfriend with an enthusiasm for Margaret Thatcher premised in nothing beyond a simple, visceral identification that the very serious lad just cannot understand - presaging, thus, the disconnect between them for all of their lives.

That is the best of VerityFair, wherein circumstances collude to make the images' limitations and shortcomings seem natural. And even when Verity bursts into song, as above -- and oh, there is nothing that annoys me more than songs in a comic delivered through words -- Wiley's voice is always available to fill you in on what song he's modeled it after, maybe sending you away from the app and onto YouTube. He'll still be there when you get back, which is good comfort in these troubled days of demand.


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, or, in the event of a holiday or occurrence necessitating the close of UPS in a manner that would impact deliveries, Thursday, identified in the column title above. 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.



Hand-Drying in America: This, of course, is the new release from Ben Katchor, one of the most reliable performers in 'literary' comics of the sort a bookstore browser of above-average information might recognize on sight, if not by name than at least by 'oh, he drew that other thing, right?' Right! Pantheon is again the publisher, and the subject matter of these no-doubt Katchorian vignettes is "the many ways our property influences and reflects cultural values." A 12" x 12" hardcover, 160 pages in color. Preview; $29.95.

Hair Shirt: And this is another British (publisher's) arrival, one I've heard a good deal of praise for since its initial English-language publication via SelfMadeHero in 2011, though the project first appeared on the French market in '10; Abrams now distributes a 6 1/2" x 9 1/2" hardcover package to North America. The author is Canadian cartoonist and animation illustrator Patrick McEown, whom some of you might remember from his contributions to Dave Cooper's old Weasel series... or maybe Grendel: Warchild, or Bob Fingerman's Minimum Wage, or any number of vintage Aircel titles. He's been around, and now he's pulled a bit of everything from a contribution to 2003's The Dark Horse Book of the Dead to a late '90s Disney Adventures serial in putting together this 128-page story of reunited ex-lovers whose array of individual traumas threaten to pull down their contentment in an apparently hallucinatory and allegorical manner. Looks fantastic, give it a flip. Preview; $24.95.



Naoki Urasawa's 21st Century Boys Vol. 2 (of 2): As improbable as it seemed back in 2006 when the first volume of Monster dropped, here stands Viz at the very end of its publication effort for the 'mature' works of megastar artist (and early '00s scanlation favorite) Urasawa, whose current Billy Bat series will have to be handled by somebody else, given that it's published by a competing Japanese entity. Maybe now's the time to announce the Master Keaton license? Is Pineapple Army due for a revival? Hey, did you know both of those series were co-created by ex-Golgo 13 scriptwriters? I could use more of that too, and I will entirely ignore the possibility that the seinen/Urasawa boom was strictly a product of the crazed expansion of the manga market in the mid-'00s, now likely to remain a closed historical period! But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, there's still 200 pages of climactic stuff imminent; $12.99.

Blade of the Immortal Vol. 26: Blizzard: Also striding toward an eventual conclusion is this last living legacy of defunct manga packager and longtime patron-of-the-seinen-arts Studio Proteus, the founder of which -- Mr. Toren Smith -- died just over one week ago. I think I recall there being some recurring controversy over whether the laborious cut-'n-paste/retouch process employed to reorient creator Hiroaki Samura's art to left-to-right reading (as he wouldn't approve of simply 'flipping' the art) did or did not make mincemeat of the series' various action scenes... all part of the complicated history of manga in English. Anyway, here's another 224 pages, from Dark Horse. Note that Samura has already announced his next Japanese series: Tatazumeru Snegurochka, a story about a woman and her manservant in 1920s Russia to be serialized in Manga Erotics F, which could mean 'porn,' but could also denote a artist simply unwilling to put up with editors telling him when his characters can and cannot fuck, and ready to take the show to an 'alternative' venue to get it made; $19.99.

Paradise Kiss Vol. 3 (of 3): Meanwhile, on the other side of prolificacy, Ai Yazawa has been MIA from serialized comics entirely since an illness prompted the hiatus of Nana back in 2009, although she did publish a short comic earlier this year, with more purportedly to follow, suggesting that *maybe* she's prepping for a full-scale return. Until then, enjoy this concluding 312 pages of a Vertical republication of an older series by the girls' comics superstar, about MODELING and DRAMA and STUFFFF; $19.95.

Mickey Spillane's From the Files of Mike Hammer: Dailies and Sundays: Being a 9" x 12", 192-page Hermes Press hardcover collection of the complete 1953-54 run for a newspaper strip based on Spillane's famous detective character, notable for the participation of talents from the comic book arena, including artist Ed Robbins and longtime Charlton script man Joe Gill. Possibly the antithesis to Paradise Kiss, although I suspect Max Allan Collins will not be covering that avenue in his included supplementary essays; $49.99.

Crossed: Badlands #25: It ain't The Walking Dead numbers, but Avatar's sort-of-zombie-tinged shock horror series has now reached a nice landmark for any ongoing concern out of the back of Previews -- indeed, technically this is issue #50, if you count the various predecessor miniseries, the 2011 3D special and the recent 2013 Annual -- and celebrations will kick off with the return of co-creator Garth Ennis, teaming with reliably enthusiastic Avatar regular Raulo Cáceres (ex-Eros Comix!) for the latest storyline, a four-part thing promising to blend the writer's fondness for war comics right in with the horror. I liked Ennis' last Crossed story a lot, so hopes are high. Preview; $3.99.

Spongebob Comics #18: Similarly, "#18" is nothing to sniff at, and while I don't usually mention the goings-on over at United Plankton, there's been a steady spritz of interesting talents working at this mighty media tie-in series. This issue, for example, boasts art by genuine Air Pirate Gary Hallgren(!!), along with contributions from Silver Age superhero artist Ramona Fradon and accomplished YA comics veteran Aaron Renier; $2.99.

Change #4 (of 4): This Ales Kot-written Image series has gotten some worthwhile attention for (among other things) the weathered visual sense brought to the table by Morgan Jeske and colorist Sloane Leong, the kind of pages where you can practically guess everyone's body temperature. Definitely the most striking comic book comic in the stable right now, and here's where it ends; $3.50.

Wolverine #1: Ah yes, I've heard of this hot new superhero character "The Wolverine" - what innovative adventures might we expect? I dunno, but Alan Davis is the artist of record, and Paul Cornell has written some decent stuff. A Very British Wolverine. Also available from Marvel this week is the first softcover compilation of that hugely-admired Matt Fraction-written Hawkeye series. Wolverine preview; $3.99.

Comics and Narration: Finally, your book-on-comics-that's-maybe-releasing-this-week -- it's not actually on Diamond's list, but I've heard it may be popping up in certain stores, and I really think it's worth highlighting -- the gala sequel to Thierry Groensteen's landmark 1999 study The System of Comics, a 2011 supplement to/challenge of the original work, including thoughts on narrators, rhythm, 'fine' art, webcomics, shojo manga and more. Translated by Ann Miller, published by the University Press of Mississippi at 192 pages in hardcover; $55.00.


BONUS PLUG: I completely missed my opportunity to tie this in with IDW's new Ditko Monsters: Gorgo collection last week, so please accept an added value link to The Ditko Public Service Package, a Kickstarter campaign(!) launched by longtime Steve Ditko cohort Robin Snyder to reprint a 1991 industry satire that'll run you close to $100.00 second-hand today on the low end. Over 75% funded after only one week live, but who will be the rational actor to push it into the green? Disregard all notions of charity! Observe the facts in front of you! Do you want this book? It's your liberty to choose!!