Category Archives: Reviews – Indy/Small Press

From the Small Press (Really Small)

Silber Media mini-comics
Writer: Brian John Michell
Artists: Andrew White, Brian John Michell, Kimberlee Traub & Melissa Spence Gardner
Publisher: Silber Media
Price: $1 US each ($2 international)

I get a few comics in the mail for review purposes, but I found something in my mail a couple of weeks ago that was unlike the typical review package. It was a standard business-sized envelope, not the usual big envelope I often find. Inside I found a folded 8.5×11 information sheet and five tiny packets. Five little plastic sleeves (the kind I imagine is normally used to distribute personal amounts of cocaine) each contained a single a mini-comic — much more mini than the typical mini-comic. We’re talking about comics no bigger than large postage stamps. Writer Brian John Michell offers a diverse array of material — a western, a surreal story of murder of conspiracy, a Dexter-esque crime comic and an autobiographical, journal-like title — that make for surprisingly engaging reads. It’s surprising in part because the artwork for all of these projects is amateurish in tone, but Michell’s scripts are solid. Thumbing through these tiny comics with my meaty mitts was a bit of a pain in the ass, but it was an inconvenience that was ultimately worthwhile.

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It’s Grrrrrrreat!

Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! Volume One hardcover graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Scott Morse
Publisher: Red Window/AdHouse Books
Price: $14.95 US

I’ve been a fan of Scott Morse’s work — both creator-owned (such as Ancient Joe) and work for hire (Batman: Room Full of Strangers) — for several years now. I’ve missed a couple of his more recent efforts because the smaller hardcover books struck me as being a bit too expensive. Such is not the case with Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!. this oversized hardcover is well worth the marked price and more. Morse brings his usual surreal but cute style to bear once again, but this time, there’s a much more personal and revealing tone to his work, The creator exposes himself, sharing his hears, insecurities and hopes with his audience, and his unique art instills a magical quality to his heartfelt emotions and the mundane backdrop of the real world.

It takes a certain degree of confidence and ego to be an artist of any stripe as one has to believe that one’s creations merit an audience. But artist Scott Morse reveals that he often feels as lost as the rest of us. He’s struggling to live a good life, to be a good father. The world around him and the people in it can be frustrating, even infuriating, but when he pauses, he can see the wonder in the quieter, everyday moments as well.

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100 Panels of Solitude

The Deformitory original graphic novella
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Sophia Wiedeman
Publisher: Heart Monster Press
Price: $6 US

The folks at the Xeric Foundation, which provides grants for unknown or up-and-coming comics creators to produce new work, have a great eye for unusual and interesting fare, so when I get a chance to peruse the work of a Xeric recipient, I jump at the chance. Writer/artist Sophia Wiedeman sent along this cute, somewhat disturbing and definitely thought-provoking collection of unusual character studies. The meaning of each character’s journey of self-discovery isn’t always entirely clear, but they’re all engaging. I’d describe The Deformitory is something of a high-end, black-and-white mini-comic, but its digest-size format and the simple qualities of the artwork can’t hide the intelligence, empathy and creativity that abound on each on every page. Wiedeman’s cartoony and organic style, which employed to bring deformed or even grotesque characters to life, nevertheless instills in those figures beauty and vulnerability. The creator also explores different storytelling techniques, at times playing with a wordless approach and at others using bizarre dialogues to tell a story and expose a character’s true, inner self.

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Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

Bradford coverSlemons coverRobot 13: Colossus! #1
Writer: Thomas Hall
Artist: Daniel Bradford
Cover artists: Daniel Bradford/Jeff Slemons
Publisher: Blacklist Studios
Price: $3 US/$4 CAN

Sometimes, it pays for comic shops to have sharp staff members who know comics and know their customers’ tastes. That’s how this particular comic book came to my attention. My local comic shop was so supportive of this indy effort that it ordered more copies of this book than many DC and Marvel releases that were on the stand beside it. I can see why. Robot 13, both the title and the character, boasts the same kind of appeal and cachet that made Hellboy and Atomic Robo such successes (to varying degrees, of course) in the comics industry. Robot 13 was definitely inspired by Mignola’s work, especially when it comes to the visuals. Some might argue Robot 13 is redundant in light of the publication of those other properties, but I was thoroughly entertained and amused, not to mention dazzled by the macabre design for the title character.

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The Degradation of Church and State

Project H original softcover graphic novel
Writer/Artist: Brandon Carstens
Publisher: Wonjoolaai Studios
Price: $16.95 US

Comics are an international medium, popular the world over, obviously. When one thinks of the medium in a global sense, though, the terms “American comics,” “Euro-comics” and manga come to mind readily. South Africa certainly doesn’t make that short list, so it was with interest that I delved into this graphic novel by South African creator Brandon Carstens. To my pleasure, I found that South African culture factored heavily into this murder mystery/conspiracy story. Even better was Carstens’s exploration of the notions of faith and secular thinking and how they affect the manner in which a society functions. He touches upon the conflict between nostalgia for simpler times and the undeniable power of new technologies have over the 21st-century consciousness. There’s no denying that Carstens’s ideas are challenging and engaging. Unfortunately, his storytelling skills distract from those ideas. There’s a lot of great potential to be found in this graphic novel, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired. I suspect Carstens would be well-served by working an editor and polishing his line art.

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Winter Blues

Old Man Winter and Other Sordid Tales
Writer/artist/cover artist: J.T. Yost
Publisher: Birdcage Bottom Books
Price: $6.95 US

Self-published comics are often one of the richest sources of different ideas and unique storytelling in the comic-book industry. Whereas corporate comics are inextricably mired in maintaining the status quo, creators who are answerable only to themselves have the freedom to do, say or depict anything they want. Disappointing forays into self-publishing can be those that don’t avail themselves of that freedom or those whose creators lack the skills to match their passion for the medium. This anthology from writer/artist J.T. Yost is no disappointment. It’s one of those examples of the new and the different and the unique. The main story, from which the book derives its title, is a wonderfully touching and melancholy study of a difficult and awkward phase of life. That story — a new work from the creator — is honest and down to earth. The rest of the material in this anthology was previously published, but chances are you’re like me and are unfamiliar with all of the stories. While “Old Man Winter” is relatable and straightforward, Yost’s approach in the other stories is more unconventional and experimental in tone. Yost, in this Xeric award-supported book, demonstrates a diversity of style, subject matter and emotion that proves that he’s a well-rounded and skilled storyteller.

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They Gave Me a Loaner While Mine’s in the Shop

Jan’s Atomic Heart original graphic novella
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Simon Roy
Publisher: New Reliable Press
Price: $5.95 US

I don’t think I’ve ever heard of New Reliable Press. I’d never heard tell of comics creator Simon Roy. And I certainly never heard of Jan’s Atomic Heart before, so when the publisher provided an advance preview of the book for review, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. That probably enhanced my appreciation of this book, as it kept surprising me. At first, I didn’t realize it was science-fiction, even with the cues on the cover, as the opening sequence dances around the sci-fi premise. As I continued to read, I enjoyed the writer’s unconventional examination of friendship, so much so that I didn’t see where he was leading me with convincing and provoking background details of a political and military nature. Jan’s Atomic Heart is both incredibly grounded and mind-blowing in its originality. It’s touching and frightening. Roy has crafted a compelling story that’s relevant and relatable, and if that’s not enough, he brings it to life with inventive designs and a slightly rough style that brings out the humanity even in characters that doubt their own humanity. The fact that this book is being published by a lesser-known outfit will mean this book will likely fly under a lot of readers’ radar, but Jan’s Atomic Heart merits a lot of attention from a lot of people.

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Cut to the Chaser

Soul Chaser Betty original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist/Publisher: Brian “BMan” Babendererde
Price: $14.95 US

This graphic novel’s been sitting on My Big Pile of Books for Review(TM) for some time now, and I have to admit that my delay in picking it up and reading it stems mainly from the fact that its creator is clearly inspired by manga concepts and style. I’m not the biggest fan of manga, though there are a few high-quality books that have won me over in the past. Soul Chaser Betty isn’t one of those rare, mind-blowing books, but as I began to read it, I found a capably crafted, solidly presented piece of Amerimanga…. at first. The further one delves into Brian Babendererde’s book, the more it becomes cluttered with formulaic elements. While the creator developed a solid premise, cast of characters and a look that are clearly in keeping with the tastes of the manga niche market and used them as the foundation for this project, his tendency to keep adding and adding and adding to his mythology overburdens the storytelling. At best, Babendererde is guilty of having too many ideas and characters floating around in his head and failing to hold some of them in. At worst, he’s tried to incorporate as many stereotypical genre elements as possible in an effort to come up with a winning, magic combination, not in the name of storytelling but promotional efforts.

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Pull Sword A from Slot B in Rock C

Arthur: The Legend Continues #1
“Dawn”
Writer: Martin T. Pierro
Artist: Cristhian Zamora
Letters: Percival Constantine
Cover artist: Atula Siriwardane
Editor: Connie Voss
Publisher: Cosmic Times
Price: $3.50 US

One of the mistakes that some indy creators make (and let’s be honest, some of the big publishers make it as well) is dedicating so much of their time and precious resources to ideas and plot premises that have been explored as thoroughly and frequently as Wilt Chamberlain’s nether regions. Writer Martin Pierro has opted to tell the story of the return of King Arthur in a far-flung, dark time at which he’s needed the most. It’s hardly cutting-edge genre fiction. I suppose one could argue that there’s an established audience for this sort of fare, but I can’t help but believe that new, unknown creators would earn more attention by exploring more unconventional territory. Still, the creators’ passion for what they’re doing here shines through in the material, but that’s not enough to hide the awkward pacing and figures.

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Voyage to a Parallel Girl

Dean Koontz’s: Nevermore #1
Writer: Keith Champagne
Artist/Cover artist: Andy Smith
Colors: Andrew Dalhouse
Letters: Bill Tortolini
Editor: Derek Ruiz
Publisher: Dabel Bros. Publishing
Price: $3.99 US

All I really know of the Dabel Brothers is that they have something of a spotty business reputation in the industry. Of course, that shouldn’t have a bearing on the quality of the work they publish, so I approached this latest endeavor with some curiosity. Dabel Bros. Publishing has hired a couple of mainstays of mainstream super-hero comics — not industry stars, but reliable talents — to bring this Dean Koontz property to life. Overall, it’s fair typical science-fiction fare, but it’s executed well. While there’s really not a lot of suspense at play given the familiar nature of the premise, the capable pacing and action draw the reader into the story. Similarly, while the art and designs won’t set the comic world on fire, they’re handled adeptly, telling the story clearly.

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Spirited Discussion

Smuggling Spirits hardcover graphic novel
Writer: Ben Fisher
Artist/Cover artist: Mike Henderson
Letters: Adam Markiewicz
Publisher: Studio 407
Price: $20.99 US

The whole premise for this book is to be found in the title and the double-meaning of “spirits.” It refers to both liquor and the supernatural, and from there, Fisher’s story flows naturally. He sets his story in a Prohibition-era United States beset upon by hordes of monsters. To be honest, it’s the historical elements that are more interesting than the supernatural ones, but Fisher and Henderson blend those disparate elements together nicely. Smuggling Spirits is entertaining, well-crafted, small-press effort. The book is like a cross between Sin City and Road to Perdition, heavily garnished with a melange of monsters. The biggest problem facing this project is how much it’s clearly inspired by and borrows from Frank Miller’s noir crime comics, but that’s not to suggest the plotting and storytelling are wanting.

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Out and About

Shirtlifter #s 2 & 3
Writer/artists: Steve MacIsaac, Fuzzbelly & Justin Hall
Cover artist: Steve MacIsaac
Publisher: Drawn. Out Press
Price: $8.95 US (#2)/$10.95 (#3)

Self-publisher Steve MacIsaac was kind enough to send a couple of review copies of his work in the mail. He and I went to the same university and both participated in student media; if memory serves, we were both cast members in a play one year at the campus theatre. When I learned that he was living in the United States and crafting highly praised comics, I was definitely interested in seeing what he was up to. There’s just one problem: Diamond Comic Distributors won’t send erotic comics north of the 49th parallel, so I’ve not seen it shops in my neck of the woods. MacIsaac informs me Diamond didn’t carry his first issue, but these two subsequent comics were available through the distributor. Still, whether it’ll do so for future editions is uncertain, and MacIsaac says it’s difficult to get shops to carry gay material. Of course, there are other ways to get one’s hands on MacIsaac’s comics (ordering through his website, for example), and after reading these two anthology comics, I highly recommend that those with an interest in well-crafted slice-of-life comics do just that. MacIsaac’s comics have been described as gay erotica/porn, and sexuality definitely plays a vital role in his storytelling. Personally, I can’t view material such as this as pornography, given the incredibly strong characterization, genuine dialogue and compelling inner conflicts that MacIsaac pours into his work.

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Beagle Boy

The Life and Times of Genghis Dhag mini-comic
Writer/Artist/Comic artist: Erik Denis
Publisher: Genghis Khan Publishing Yurt
Price: $7.50

Erik Denis is a civil servant who loves comics, loves his family and loves his dog. And those loves have found their way onto the printed page — pages he printed up himself in the form of a mini-comic. Denis’s narrator professes not to be a dog person, but his writing captures the amusing quirks of a beagle’s behavior, not to mention the precociousness of toddlers. Genghis Dhag is a charming collection of one-page strips, charming enough to give the flaws in the storytelling a run for their money. In the end, the cuteness and humor don’t overcome the overly simple artwork and disjointed flow, but neither do the flaws eclipse the strengths. Ultimately, I think Denis’s future forays into comics storytelling would be well served by collaboration, by teaming with an artist who has a less amateurish style or even some fellow writers who can serve as de facto editors.

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War ‘Zine from the War Zone

No Enemy But Peace one-shot
Writer: Richard C. Meyer
Artists: Martin Montiel Luna & Richard C. Meyer
Letters: Thomas Mauer
Publisher: Machinegun Bob Productions
Price: $3 US

This self-published effort is based on a true story of one soldier’s experiences and actions during a key battle in Iraq not long after the United States invaded more than five years ago. On simply that basis, the storytelling is compelling, given that it purports to be real rather a fiction designed to shock and/or inform. The greater draw of the book is the passion of its creators, which clearly shines through. Their intent to honor the actions of U.S. troops is obvious, as is their love of the medium they’ve opted for the presentation of their tribute. Still, the fact that this foray into comics storytelling is new to them is undeniable. It’s difficult to follow the flow of the action and plot, as neither the art nor the script provide enough cues to allow the reader to differentiate among the characters or to see clear transitions from scene to scene or setting to setting. The detail in the art is crisp and clear, and I can’t help but think that there would have been more clarity had the book been presented in color rather than black and white. While there are flaws here, the writer and artists also show potential. It’s quite likely that they’ll learn from this effort and refine their craft for future offerings the writer promises in his foreword.

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Water, Water Everywhere

The Undersea Adventures of Capt’n Eli Vol. 1 original graphic novel
Writer/Artist: Jay Piscopo
Cover artist: Steve Rude
Publisher: Nemo Publishing
Price: $9.99 US

It’s common to hear industry stakeholders and lovers of the comics medium calling for more all-ages titles to serve as gateways through which younger readers can enter and discover the world of comics. The Undersea Adventures of Capt’n Eli isn’t one of those comics. It will appeal to kids, but it’s certainly not an all-ages title. And that’s OK; others have called for kids-only comics, and there’s definite value in that marketing approach. Frankly, adult readers probably won’t like Capt’n Eli that much; I know I didn’t. The book doesn’t just wear its influences on its sleeve. It skins those influences alive and wears their pelts like they were trophies. Creator Jay Piscopo doesn’t hide his inspirations; he states them outright. At the heart of the property is the notion that discovery and adventure, real or imagined, can be the sources of pure, innocent joy. Kids who know nothing of Jonny Quest, Aquaman’s origin or Golden Age super-hero comics will probably get a kick out of this adventure book, while adults will simply be reminded of the strength of older, more original material.

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