Lately, I haven’t nearly enough time writing about comics, and when I have, the focus has been, somewhat understandably, on larger publishers. But in the 21st century, we have an array of small-press concerns that appear to be making a solid going of things in the marketplace, carving out a small but hopefully viable niche for themselves.
One of those smaller publishers is Action Lab Entertainment, perhaps best known as the home of Jamal Igle’s Molly Danger property. There’s much more going on at Action Lab (and its Danger Zone imprint) than that, though, as the digital review copies it provided to me demonstrated. I thought I’d write up some capsule reviews of several of the publisher’s offerings, all due out this week.
Monty the Dinosaur #2 (Action Lab Entertainment)
by Bob Frantz & Jean Franco
This is an absolutely charming kids’ title that’s in the same spirit as Calvin and Hobbes and Winnie the Pooh. It’s about imagination and friendship and silliness. Sophie’s best friend is Monty, a young T-Rex who finds himself in the world of kids rather his extinct brethren. The pals are beset upon by unusual and unlikely challenges, such as finding a way for a dinosaur to attend school and a worldwide banana shortage at a time when a growing tyrannosaur could really use some potassium. Jean Franco’s art is clean, simple and fun. His minimalist designs nevertheless allow for quite expressive characters. His artwork struck me right away was a charming cross between the styles of classic Little Lulu comics and the more modern cartoony of Art (Tiny Titans) Baltazar. In additional to the Lulu and Baltazar influences, there were other elements that reminded me of the styles of such animators as Craig McCracken and Jay Ward. Franco’s primary colors are vibrant, reinforcing the imaginative and joyful tone of the strips.
I think what I enjoyed most about Bob Frantz’s writing here is that the friendship isn’t perfect. Monty takes offence easily, and Sophie forgets too easily what pushes her dinosaur buddy’s buttons. Frantz uses some tried and true premises here, classic kids’ comics fare, so there’s not much in the way of novelty for the grown-up crowd, but it does hit some fun nostalgic notes. What hinders this book somewhat is the price tag. Four bucks is a lot to ask of a comic that reads so quickly. That’s not a criticism of the craft at play here, though, but more a sad reality of publishing in the 21st century. 7/10
Tomboy #8 (Action Lab Entertainment/Danger Zone imprint)
by Mia Goodwin & Michelle Wong
There’s something truly creepy and compelling going on in this comic series, which appears to focus on corporate corruption and murder, and the young, superhuman teen girl who sets out to right wrongs and exact vengeance for the chaos wrought on the innocent. Tomboy is part horror comic, part crime drama/mystery, and it clearly draws its influences from the world of manga and anime. The design for the intense anti-heroine (from which I assume this comic derives its title) is striking. I also loved the decision to “cast against type” by making the hard-nosed, lead detective look like someone’s nana. There’s a lot to like about Tomboy, and I’m definitely curious about it. However, I can’t say as though I enjoyed this reading experience, as it was defined by the confusion it evoked in me rather than any sense of entertainment. This was my first issue of the series, and I had great trouble figuring out what’s going on. Mia Goodwin’s script is intelligent, complicated and challenging, all elements I would normally welcome in my reading material, but it’s also highly inaccessible. There’s not enough exposition here for new readers. One might argue this is the sort of comic series that might not attract new readers or shouldn’t dwell on backstory, but I would disagree. Any kind of episodic fiction should be open to the possibility of new audience members, but Tomboy comes up short in that regard.
Michelle Wong’s artwork is more than capable, and as I noted earlier, the design for the title character’s empowered form is sharp. However, there’s a cartoony look throughout the book — mainly in the character’s faces — that runs contrary to the harsh and intense nature of the plot. I was surprised there wasn’t an inkier look at play here, given the downtrodden, serious and stark elements that are front and centre throughout the story. It’s clear the creators have some real storytelling chops, though, but some editorial guidance to ensure the inclusion of more exposition would be wise — or at least the crafting of some “previously in Tomboy” text. 6/10
Zoe Dare Vs. the Disasteroid #4 (Action Lab Entertainment)
by Brockton McKinney & Andrew Herman
Like Tomboy, Zoe Dare suffers from an inaccessible tone. What’s offered up here is a bombastic spoof of the sci-fi and adventure genres that strikes me as a lot of fun, but I’m really at a loss as to exactly what’s going on or why it’s happening. Mind you, this appears to be the final issue of the series, so the lack of emphasis on inclusion of new readers is more understandable (but nevertheless represents a misstep, I believe). By the end of the issue, the over-the-top qualities of the writing really take over, and one can’t help but tickled by the silly excesses. McKinney and Herman’s script is a bit clunky at times; one robot sidekick (there are a couple of them, for some reason) overuses the term “hashtag;” it was grating by its third appearance, to be honest. It doesn’t help that the titular heroine starts off the issue in a sullen state, and that her friends wring their hands over her potential fate. Those elements work against what is clearly meant to be lighter, goofy read. The sudden appearance of Zoe Dare’s treasured motorcycle at the end of the issue really helps to pep things up.
The artwork is a mixed bag. Herman seems to be striving for something of a playful, cheesecake style, reminiscent of the work of Joe Chiodo. I think Herman focuses the reader’s attention too much on Zoe’s physical attributes. The backgrounds are surprisingly lacking and bland. The absence of any kind of details in the settings is distracting and makes the comic less fun, less visually stimulating. The colors are sadly muted and drab as well, running contrary to the energy of the plot and script that surges later in the issue. 5/10
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