Category Archives: Reviews – Indy/Small Press

Not a Bullseye

The Charlton Arrow #1
Writers: Paul Kupperberg, Roger McKenzie, Michael Mitchell, Lou Mougin, Steven Thompson, Mort Todd & Larry Wilson
Artists: John Byrne, Sandy Carruthers, Javier Hernandez, Rick Stasi & Barbara Kaalberg, Michael Mitchell, Joe Staton & Mort Todd
Colors: Javier Hernandez, Michael Mitchell, Mort Todd & Matt Webb
Letters: Mort Todd & A. Machine Jr.
Editor: Fester Faceplant
Publisher: Comicfix
Price: $6.99 US

Charlton Comics, for the most part, has been relegated to little more than a footnote in comics history, best known as the source of a number of super-hero characters (such as Blue Beetle, Captain Atom and the Question) that DC acquired and that served as the inspiration for the characters in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen. But there was a lot more to the publisher than that handful of heroes, as this tribute comic attests. I knew Charlton published a number of romance, horror and war comics as well, some of which are honored in this thick anthology. But the more important thing to remember about Charlton as a publisher was as a base for some of the top talent in the industry, from the 1960s into the 1980s. John Byrne, Jim Aparo, Dick Giordano and others got their starts there, and it was also home to such established talents as Steve Ditko and Pay Boyette for a considerable period. I got the chance to pick this book up from one of the contributors at a small local comic expo earlier this year, as I was happy to support a friend and a celebration of a noteworthy corner of comics history. Like most anthologies, though, The Charlton Arrow is a mixed bag, with some solid, entertaining comics craft and some that miss the mark.

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Buzz Words

With a Buzz In Our Ears We Play Endlessly mini-comic
Writer: Gibson Twist
Artist: Rori! de Rien
Publisher: Live Nude Comics (self-published)
Price: $5 US

My savvy comics retailer put this mini-comic in my hands, suggesting it’s something I’d enjoy and find interesting. I’d been vaguely aware of Gibson Twist’s self-published comics, as my local comics shop carries his work, but I hadn’t delved into it. While I found the price I was quoted to be a little on the high side for such a thin book, I decided to give it a shot all the same. I’m always open to looking at something different, and I’m pleased I did in this case. With a Buzz… is a delightfully simple comic — so much so that one could argue it’s a little on the predictable side. But Twist’s message, despite its simplicity and obvious nature, is one that adults can overlook far too easily in life. I wish the activities depicted in this mini-comic were as commonplace as they’re suggested to be here, as there’s really not nearly enough silliness, innocence and self-satisfaction in the world as there should be.

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Out of Africa

Tüki #1
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Jeff Smith
Publisher: Cartoon Books
Price: $3.99 US

Jeff Smith is a member of select club of comics creators who have worked almost exclusive for themselves, who focus their efforts on creator-owned properties and have managed to find great success with work they’ve written and illustrated themselves. Smith, with his epic Bone, has already carved out a spot of honor for himself in the history of the medium alongside such stalwart talents as Dave Sim, Terry Moore and more. But fortunately for those of us who appreciate his craft. I also appreciate the breadth of genres and material he’s opted to explore over his career. I’m pleased (but not surprised) to report Tüki boasts the same sense of wonder and humor that made Smith’s landmark Bone such a success. Tüki stands apart from the original runs of its older siblings in that it’s being presented in full color, and it’s a wise choice. The format for this comic is also a noteworthy difference. Tüki offers just about everything Smith’s fans love about his storytelling, but it still finds ways to do it in new ways. Hopefully, its release on the same day that this year’s Comic Con International opens in San Diego will ensure it’s not overlooked by a wider audience.

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Seconds original hardcover graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Bryan Lee O’Malley
Drawing assistant: Jason Fischer
Colors: Nathan Fairbairn
Letters: Dustin Harbin
Publisher: Ballantine Books/Penguin Random House
Price: $25 US

Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim books are undeniably a master work in the medium of comics, and I fully appreciated his approach in those books. That being said, they weren’t graphic novels that really clicked for me, though it was certainly no fault of O’Malley’s. The young, slacker, characters and the immersion in gamer culture were just so alien to me. I didn’t and couldn’t connect with the title character and his world. Nevertheless, I was anticipating this new O’Malley project just as much as other comics enthusiasts. Imagine my pleasure and surprise to find one of the key elements emerging in its opening pages was the protagonist’s sense of generational isolation from the younger people working in her restaurant. I immediately connected with Katie, and the message at the heart of this book is a philosophy I’ve observed for years, ever since my professional and personal lives came into focus in my 30s.

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Inmates Ruining the Asylum

Doing Time original graphic novel
Writer: Brad Sullivan
Artist: Amilton Santos
Colors: Tiago Fernandes & Oracle
Letters: Fred C. Stresing & Adam Wollet
Publisher: Back Row Comics

Doing Time is the sort of genre story that clearly has its origins in the title itself. The writer has taken a phrase about a prison term and imposed a new, dual meaning on it, making the “time” part refer to time travel. At its heart, it’s a simple and even fun concept, and the good news is that writer Brady Sullivan’s plot and characters never take themselves or the premise too seriously. For an independent project, the production values here are pretty solid — professional-level lettering, fairly clear though standard comic-art art style — and there’s a sense of diversity in the cast of characters. There’s just one problem: those characters are pretty much all loathsome. I get that when the central plot is about a prison break (even one through time), the protagonists aren’t all going to be palatable, but even the one non-criminal in the bunch is unlikeable. Sullivan seems to have as his foundation here the punny premise and a clear ending he had in mind, and on that foundation, he piled hate, misogyny, stupidity, sex and as much gratuitous violence as he could fit in a graphic novella (which was clearly originally crafted as a three-issue limited series). There’s potential in the storytelling here, but the writer and artist could definitely have used some guidance and input to refine their efforts.

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Nifty Shades of Grey

Grey Area #1 – While the City Sleeps
“Nightshift,” “Nightwalker” & “Nightlife”
Writer/Artist: Tim Bird
Publisher: Avery Hill Publishing
Price: £3

It’s always fun and interesting to delve into a well-crafted, earnest small-press comics publication. Sometimes, you find a powerful, emerging talent in the world of comics, and sometimes, you find a glimmer of promise in someone who clearly loves the medium to the point that he or she has to be involved with it. With Grey Area, I found someone, Tim Bird, who falls somewhere in the middle of that part of the comics-creation spectrum. He’s told three short stories here in the same setting, on the same night, and he offers three different perspectives, exploring three different aspects of the human condition and experience. It’s an interesting experiment that he ultimately pulls off, but some of the choices in his storytelling, while offering some clarity in the subject matter, keep the reader from completely immersing himself or herself in the atmosphere and mood of the pieces. There’s a great deal of potential here, and some of the storytelling is quite compelling. Overall, I have to say this was a pleasant surprise, especially since this themed collected of short stories ends on a stronger and more positive note.

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I Call Shotgun

Hobo With a Shotgun #1
Writers: Dave Howlett, André Myette, Josh Rodgers, Shawn McLeod & Jay Arnold
Artists: Mike Holmes, Andy Cotnam, André Myette, Patrick Burgomaster, Josh Rodgers, Shawn McLeod, Mike Campbell & Jay Arnold
Colors: Nathan Boone, André Myette, Patrick Burgomaster, Josh Rodgers & Shawn McLeod
Cover artist: James White
Publisher: Yer Dead Productions
Price: $2.99 US

Like the uber-violent B-movie of the same name, this comic book is regionally produced. Starring Rutger Hauer, Hobo With a Shotgun is a little known film that was shot and produced in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the material in this anthology comic inspired by the flick was also crafted by Halifax creators and those from surrounding regions. Several of the creators boast a strong connection to award-winning comic shop Strange Adventures, and this comic was made available at my local Strange Adventures store as well. Despite having not seen the movie, I decided to give this comic a glance, in part to support independent and local comics talent. Like many anthologies, Hobo With a Shotgun is a mixed bag, boasting some strong, professional material and some that pales in comparison. Given the fact I was generally unfamiliar with the source material, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed some key stories. And given the strength of those stories, I was surprised by the inclusion of far more crude and amateurish efforts as well.

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Leth Is More

Ultimate Kate or Die #1
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Kate Leth
Publisher: (self-published)
Price: $5 US/CAN

When I decided I would be attending DCAF: the Dartmouth Comic Arts Festival this past weekend, I endeavored to familiarize myself with some of the cartoonists on the exhibitor list whose work I hadn’t sampled in the past, and one of Kate Leth. I’ve been aware of her for a while, as my local comics shop has had some of her mini-comics and this more polished comic-book collection of her web strips on hand for several months. I never delved into them before, but I’m pleased DCAF prompted me to do so. Leth’s work exudes a number of admirable qualities: whimsy, strong opinion, cultural awareness and openness. But what I enjoyed about it most of all was her brutal honesty, not just about the problems she’s seen around her in her life, but about her own challenges and perceived shortcomings. While the approach to the storytelling is different, Leth’s honesty is the same kind that makes Tom Beland’s True Story Swear to God such a compelling and personal series. Furthermore, Leth is definitely a name to watch for. While she’s had work published in such titles as Locke & Key and The Adventures of Luther Strode, she has worked lined up with Boom! Studios Adventure Time comics, and that will no doubt introduce her to a much wider audience.

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Burning Down the (White) House

The Loxleys and the War of 1812 original hardcover graphic novel
Writer: Alan Grant
Artist/Cover artist: Claude St. Aubin
Colors: Lovern Kindzierski
Letters: Todd Klein
Historical essay: Mark Zuehlke
Editor: Alexander Finbow
Publisher: Renegade Arts Entertainment
Price: $19.99 US/CAN

I’ve been meaning to sit down and write this review for a couple of weeks now, but July 1 — Canada Day, the anniversary of Confederation — seemed like a fitting time to write about a graphic novel focusing on a key period in Canadian history. What drew me to the book wasn’t so much the connection to my homeland’s past (and my need to learn more about the War of 1812), but rather than reputations of the various creators involved in its creation. Perhaps what piqued my curiosity the most was the fact that although established, mainstream Canadian creators such as Claude St. Aubin and Lovern Kindzierski participated in the book, the publisher recruited some top talent from beyond the Great White North, such as longtime Batman and Judge Dredd writer Alan Grant and Todd Klein, the most heralded letterer of the past couple of decades. Together, they’ve put together a professional package that informs and entertains, though its value definitely lies with the former aspect. Initially too saccharine for my taste, the book eventually and appropriately takes on a harsher tone in the second act. What struck me the most about the book was how dedicated it is to one perspective, casting the Americans firmly in the role of villains — so much so I expect the book’s appeal south of the 49th parallel will be quite limited.

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Future Imperfect

Hope For the Future #13
Writer/Artist: Simon Perrins
Publisher: Self-published
Price: $4.30 US/£2.70

When one reviews comics regularly, a lot of independent and self-published material makes it way across your desk (or desktop, as the case may be). There are a lot of unknown, tyro and amateur creators out there eager to promote their work, eager to catch the eye of other professionals or publishers — and, most importantly, eager just to have people see their work. Once in a while, a reviewer can happen upon a diamond in the rough, a gem of a book that hardly anybody knows about. Hope For the Future isn’t one of those gems… but it boasts the promise of being one. It’s not a diamond, but neither is it a lump of coal. It just needs a little more pressure, a little more polish, to become what it could be. I have no idea what Hope For the Future is about (and I’m not convinced creator Simon Perrins does either), but he strings together a number of scenes that impress. The problem is that those scenes don’t fit together or connect to one another in any meaningful way. His dialogue is sharp, the ideas compelling, whether they’re about the impossible or the everyday, and his art is occasionally powerful and fairly serviceable overall.

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Curious Case

Short Hand one-shot
“The Toothless Fairy”
Writer: Jason McNamara
Artist: Rahsan Ekedal
Price: $5 US

Jason McNamara loves him some comics. I’m familiar with him from his work on the entertaining Martian Confederacy graphic novels, and he’s billed as the “writer-in-residence” for lauded comic shop Isotope. McNamara passed along his latest project, Short Hand, for review, and it’s a much different project than his two Martian Confederacy books. The premise — a 12-year-old boy detective with progeria, making him look like he’s at the end of his life rather than the beginning — is a solid one. And while this appears to be a one-shot, there’s definitely life in the concept beyond this one story. In fact, McNamara’s plot leaves the door open for more. Unfortunately, Short Hand suffers from a couple of flaws: up-front spoilers that ruin the reveal to which the story builds, and artwork that seems to take what’s meant as a lighter story a bit too seriously. Nevertheless, it’s a promising effort and worth checking out if you run into McNamara during the 2012 comics-convention circuit.

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Let’s Hear It for the Boys

Friends with Boys original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Faith Erin Hicks
Publisher: First Second
Price: $15.99 US

Faith Erin Hicks is a member of a small but vibrant comics-creating community in Halifax, Nova Scotia, the city in which I was born and visit when the opportunity presents itself (which is rarer these days than it once was). That tenuous connection alone was enough to get me to look at Hicks’ earlier works, but it was the talent I found in Zombies Calling and The War at Ellsmere that got me coming back for more. With Friends With Boys, Hicks establishes herself as a skilled and grounded storyteller, who manages to instill fun and whimsy along with the melancholy and introspection of her coming-of-age stories. With this book, she proves herself to be a cartoonist of the caliber of Bryan Lee O’Malley, Hope Larson (both of whom were once a part of that Halifax-area collective of talent), Sarah Oleksyk, Colleen Coover and the like.

Friends With Boys isn’t really meant for me. I’m a 41-year-old dude with a career, a kid and a wife. While I was never one of the cool kids growing up, I was never really an outsider either. Hicks’ story of a young teen trying to transition from home schooling to high school, from a traditional family to a single-parent situation, from the familiar and comfortable to the untested and alien — it resonated for me. And if it clicked so well for me — someone who couldn’t be further removed from what I assume if Hicks’ real audience — then I can’t imagine what a rewarding experience Friends With Boys will for be someone who can identify more closely with the story’s central character. I know it’s only February, but I feel like I’ve already read one of the best graphic novels of the year. You want to know just how good this book is? Hicks made it available (gradually) to read online for free, and I read a digital galley — and I’m still going to buy a physical copy.

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Near-Death Note

The Next Day original graphic novella
Writers: Paul Peterson & Jason Gilmore
Artist: John Porcellino
Editors: Richard Poplak & Alex Jansen
Publisher: Pop Sandbox
Price: $16.95 US/CAN

The title is a little misleading, as the bulk of this book is about the days and years leading up to the decision — be it spontaneous or considered at length — to take one’s own life, but it does fulfill the promise of the title as well. I hadn’t heard of this project before a review copy of the graphic novella made its way to my desktop, but I’m incredibly pleased at having the opportunity to discover this poignant and powerful examination of the human psyche. And while the book explores the histories and thoughts of four real people who attempted suicide, my use of the singular form of “psyche” is apt, as the writers and the subjects expose just how many common experiences lead people down a dark path to the wrong but seemingly logical choice. In contrast to the honest and gut-wrenching script, the artwork is surprisingly simple in tone. One way to view the artwork would be as amateurish, but another is to note the basic, minimalist approach reinforces the notion that any of these four people could be someone the reader knows, someone the reader loves or even someone the reader sees in the mirror every day.

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You Gotta Have Faith

Just the Usual Superpowers softcover collection
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Faith Erin Hicks
Publisher: Self-published
Price: $12 CAN

In the world of comics, rarity is a frequent topic of conversation, at least among collectors (as opposed to readers). I fall into the reader category, but I was thrilled to get my hands on a truly rare sample of comics storytelling, but the real treat isn’t its rarity, but the strength of the craft within its pages. Just the Usual Superpowers is a collection of comic strips that ran in an arts culture newspaper in Halifax, Nova Scotia (where Hicks lives), and she’s collected them. But the book isn’t in wide distribution. As I understand it, Hicks brings copies with her to conventions for sale directly to comics fans. The one exception is Strange Adventures in Halifax, an Eisner award-winning comic shop that she frequents. Well, the owner of Strange Adventures actually started his business where I live in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and he finally brought some copies for sale in his original shop during a recent visit. I quickly grabbed one up, as I’ve been anxious to read it. Hicks has impressed me with her previous graphic novels, and she doesn’t disappoint with this collection of strips poking fun not only at the super-hero genre but at life in one’s 20s.

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Ifs, Ands or ‘Bots

Heaven All Day
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: John Martz
Publisher: Adhouse Books
Price: $4

This comic book caught my eye by way of a quick glance at one of the shelves at my local comic shop. It looked like a fun mini-comic, but as soon as I picked it up, I realized it wasn’t just a mini-comic. Most mini-comics are simple, photocopied, homemade comics — at least, when I think of a mini-comic, that’s the impression that jumps to mind. But this book — distributed by Adhouse Books and made possible through a Xeric Foundation grant — is much more polished than my idea of a mini-comic. The production values are high. More importantly, though, is the fact the storytelling is nuanced and challenging. John Martz’s visual style is a simple one, but he’s able to say so much with his minimalist approach. Martz’s message is certainly a timely one, given global economic turmoil, joblessness and a spreading wave of protests against corporate greed and government irresponsibility. Some of Martz’s meaning in this silent story is loud and clear, but I found where the two main characters connect to be a bit more ambiguous but nevertheless intriguing.

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