Category Archives: Reviews – Indy/Small Press

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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Coover Girl

Gingerbread Girl original graphic novel
Writer: Paul Tobin
Artist/Cover artist: Colleen Coover
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
Price: $12.95 US

I pre-ordered this softcover graphic novel because I’m a big fan of artist Colleen Coover’s work. I didn’t even bother to find out what the story was about before committing to its purchase, so the subject matter was a complete surprise as I made my way through the first few pages of the book. To describe writer Paul Tobin’s plotting and narration choices as unique and unconventional would be an understatement. At first, the storytelling approach and the odd idea at the heart of the story struck me as a bit off-putting, but the premise and the narration quickly started to grow on me. What’s really appealing about this book are the character studies. While the focus is on Annah, the main character, the repeated jumps from one narrator to another offer the writer an opportunity to explore a number of secondary or even inconsequential characters in an unusual way. Of course, the book’s greatest strength is Coover’s charmingly sweet yet ever-so-slightly saucy artwork. Publishing information in the front of the book categorizes this as a mystery book, and it’s a fitting label, as there are no definitive answers but a satisfying read nonetheless.

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Brother Power, No Geek

Black Dynamite: Slave Island
Writer: Brian Ash
Artist/Cover artist: Jun Lofamia
Colors: J.M. Ringuet
Publisher: Ape Entertainment
Price: $5.95 US

I haven’t had a chance to see the Black Dynamite movie, but I’m quite interested in the Michael Jai White-starring vehicle; its satire of blaxploitation films of the 1970s looks like a lot of fun. One needn’t have seen the flick to appreciate and enjoy this comic book, which makes me want to see the movie even more. Like what the movie promises, this comic satirizes movies such as Shaft to great effect, but it also celebrates those films. With the title character’s exaggerated machismo, unparalleled skills in martial and carnal arts, and singular vision of black empowerment, Black Dynamite spotlights the ugliness of racism by mocking it relentlessly. This comic book also pays homage to comics storytelling of the 1970s, from the pencilling style, colors and even the lettering. And as Dynamite’s Luke Cage-like garb on the cover demonstrates, comics in the 1970s weren’t without their own spin on the blaxploitation genre.

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Mars Needs Better Moms

The Martian Confederacy Volume 2: From Mars With Love original graphic novel
Writer: Jason McNamara
Artist/Cover artist: Paige Braddock
Tones: Braddock & Brian Miller
Publisher: Girl Twirl Comics
Price: $15 US

Three years ago, I was entertained and amused by a science-fiction graphic novel that was unlike other sci-fi books. Low on visual detail but packed with fun and intelligent ideas, The Martian Confederacy proved to be a great read. I was thrilled when the creators touched base recently and gave me a sneak peek of their followup effort. The same characters are back in this sequel, but the premise shifts considerably when the plot takes them off Mars and into new socio-political circumstances. But what really drives the story forward is the relationship between the two main protagonists, which serves as an amusing, saucy conflict, given Boone’s playboy attitude. Also charming is the artwork, which is far simpler in tone that one usually finds in a science-fiction comic book or graphic novel.

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Road Trip

The Road to God Knows… original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Von Allan
Publisher: Von Allan Studio
Price: $12.95

When it comes to the slice-of-life genre in comics, there’s a rich vein of storytelling strength to be found in independent and self-published works. Often, writers and artists starting out in the medium wisely stick with what they know rather than delve into fantasy or action stories. Von Allan is one such creator, who offers up a period piece about an awkward teenage girl who’s lost in her own life. Marie’s struggle to find herself or any happiness in difficult and painful circumstances is normally the kind of story I love to see from indy creators, but the plotting here is incredibly slow. Furthermore, the conflicts don’t seem to go anywhere.

There’s certainly a heartfelt tone to the writing, and as a Canadian, it was fun to see cultural elements unique to the Great White North incorporated into the script. Ultimately, though, I think the creator would have benefitted from some strong editing and guidance. Furthermore, while it’s easy to see that Von Allan has strived to establish a realistic look in the artwork, he needs to work on perspective and anatomy.

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War Games

Drone #1
Writer/Editor: Scott Chitwood
Artist/Cover artist: Randy Kintz
Colors: Garry Henderson
Letters: Troy Peteri
Publisher: Red 5 Comics
Price: $3.50 US

I rented one of the Call of Duty video games for the Wii a few months back. While I enjoy a good first-person shooter, I’ve always found that the guys who play those online war games get way too good at them, which makes the multi-player mode of such games a less-than-fun experience for more casual players such as myself. So while I have a general disinterest in such war games, I have to give the guys at Red 5 Comics credit for developing a comic book that explores the implications of the gaming generation on a military industrial complex that’s becoming more and more intertwined in technology in the 21st century. Writer Scott Chitwood examines the natural evolution of warfare and technology with the notion of a remote-controlled soldier. Artist Randy Kintz’s style is more in keeping with the grounded-gamer connection than the grisly nature of warfare, but it works pretty well, despite the lack of definition. Overall, Drone is solidly entertaining, exceeding its seemingly superficial, generic qualities with a good premise that’s intelligently executed.

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Times with Orange

Blood Orange mini-comic
Writer: Justin Giampaoli
Artist: Grant Lee
Publisher: June Lake Press
No price listed

Reviewing comics affords me the opportunity to sample material (a) of which I might have been unaware, (b) in which I may not have had an initial interest or (c) to which I might not have had access. Blood Orange falls under the latter category, as mini-comics tend not to see wide distribution. This one (out of California, I think) is a slice-of-life story based on a poignant premise. That being said, writer Justin Giampaoli and artist Grant Lee offer up some awkward storytelling. It’s an interesting foray into amateur comics craft, and when one looks at Giampaoli’s previous dabblings in the medium, one can see that his writing has evolved over time.

A mother and father struggle as they reach a dark turning point in their lives, and while they don’t know they’ll get through it, they are determined to do so. Weighing on their minds more than anything else, though, is how to broach the subject with their young son, who will no doubt be unable to understand the family’s plight. Instead, father and son go outside and pick oranges from the tree growing in the front yard. The boy spends the next week blissfully unaware of the problems with which his parents must contend as they shelter him from the storm in their lives.

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