Category Archives: Reviews – Indy/Small Press

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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My Favorite Martians

The Martian Confederacy original graphic novel
Writer: Jason McNamara
Artist/Cover artist: Paige Braddock
Colors: Brian Miller & Paige Braddock
Publisher: Girl Twirl Comics
Price: $15 US

The Martian Confederacy isn’t your typical science-fiction story. It’s hard to nail down. It’s humorous. It’s political. It’s action-packed. It’s touching. It’s off the wall. This quirky, small-press effort has a lot to offer its readership, but it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be all things to all people. McNamara’s characters and dialogue are a lot of fun. Even the villains have a certain charm. The book as a whole is definitely light-hearted, but it boasts a couple of nastier, gory moments that make for not-unpleasant jolts in the flow of the narrative. The Martian Confederacy and its creators face some challenges. Some fans of small-press or indy comics might think a sci-fi graphic novel isn’t something that would appeal to them, just as fans devoted to more mainstream action-comics fare mightn’t be drawn to it either. Ultimately, both factions would be well advised to give it a chance. It’s undeniably fun, and it just gets more entertaining and enjoyable the further one gets into the book.

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Return to Splendor

Many Happy Returns
Licensable Bear segments:
Writer/Greytones/Letters: Nat Gertler
Artists: Rusty Haller & Ryan Estrada
Greytones: Nat Gertler & Ryan Estrada
“Too Rich To Be Guilty – A Crossfire Tale”
Writer/Greytones: Mark Evanier
Artist: Dan Spiegel
Letters: Thom Zahler
“Perry Had a Pimple”
Writer: Haywood Banks
Artist: Rusty Haller
“General Chatters”
Writer/Artist: Daniel Schneider
“Clawface – A Journey Tale”
Writer/Artist: Bill Messner-Loebs
Cover artists: Dan Spiegle & Bill Messner-Loebs
Publisher: About Comics
Price: $3.99 US

This book derives its title mainly from the fact that it returns a couple of important small-press, creator-owned properties that garnered a fair bit of attention in the industry in the 1980s. I’d read a couple of Crossfire comics in the past, but I’d only ever heard of Bill Messner-Loebs’s Journey, featuring a very different kind of Wolverine as the protagonist.¬†For introducing me to the latter, Many Happy Returns scores a lot of brownie points, and I’m pleased to see we’ll be seeing more of Journey in the form of trade-paperback reprints from IDW Publishing.

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Fence Post

White Picket Fences: Double Feature original graphic novel
Writers: Matt Anderson & Eric Hutchins
Artists: Micah Farritor, Brian Mead & Tim Lattie
Colors: Micah Farritor & Brian Mead
Letters: David Hedgecock
Editor: Kevin Freeman
Publisher: Ape Entertainment
Price: $6.95 US

While this book reads more like a short collection of a couple of issues, the Comics Space website for the property bills it as an original graphic novel. Actually, it’s an original graphic anthology, with the same setting and characters appearing in all three stories. This is my first exposure to White Picket Fences, which apparently has already been published as a limited series, with another on the horizon. It’s a cute, comic tribute to science-fiction and super-heroes of a bygone era. While entertaining, there’s little that’s actually original to be found here — save for its visual style. The exaggerated, angular art on the opening and closing sequences, as well as an unconventional approach to coloring, really held my interest. While there’s not a great of logic in how the characters act in these stories, there’s no denying the charm, sense of adventure and — most of all — innocence that draws one into this all-ages book.

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Terry Moore is Back (back back back back…)

Echo #1
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Terry Moore
Editor: Trey Moore
Publisher: Abstract Studio
Price: $3.50 US

Well, last week saw the return of Jeff Smith with a new, self-published series, and now, we have Strangers in Paradise creator Terry Moore throwing his hat back into the indy comic ring again. March is proving to be a good month for fans of the best self-published writer/artists of the past couple of decades. Moore’s soft, realistic approach to the human figure is back in full force, and it’s just as pleasing to the eye as it’s been in the past. What’s surprising about this new series is the subject matter. Echo is firmly entrenched in the super-hero genre, and while Moore is no stranger to super-hero comics, it’s certainly not what one expects from his self-published, creator-owned work. This debut issue offers a fairly standard origin for the heroine of the series; actually, the plot is rather cliched. What allows Echo to stand out as something more than a stereotypical super-hero title is Moore’s characterization and ear for dialogue. While the action and premise are extreme yet cliched, the characters remain grounded yet intriguing. I’m not so much interested in what’s going to happen to Julie next, but I am interested in who she is.

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Smith and Guessin’

Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Jeff Smith
Publisher: Cartoon Books
Price: $3.50 US (not printed on publication)

The new Indy Movement is underway with the release of a new, self-published title from one of the three biggest names in comics self-publishing. Jeff Smith amazed us all with Bone, and he even broke through an industry barrier, capturing the attention of non-comics readers, tapping into a wider market. Last year’s announcement of this new project was one of the more exciting pieces of North American comics news, and now, it’s finally here. It’s a delight to see more work from Jeff Smith, but what’s most interesting and engaging about RASL is the dramatic shift it represents in his storytelling. The softness and expressiveness we’ve come to expect from Smith’s art is still apparent, but the subject matter and protagonist boast a harsher tone, making for a surprising change. Don’t misunderstand me, though… it’s a welcome change. It’s entertaining to watch Smith exercise some different muscles in terms of plotting, characterization and dialogue. His rogue thief hero and the mystery that surrounds him will no doubt appeal to just about any reader, and not just those familiar with Smith’s work or fans of the medium.

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Bullet Points

Scorn #1
Writer: Kevin Moyers
Artist/Cover artist: Philipp Neundorf
Publisher: Septagon Studios
Price: $3.50 US

A lot of comic books cross my desk, and a good number of those are independent or small-press outfits crafted by amateur or tyro creators who still have some development ahead of them. I usually find something in those efforts that I enjoy, even if it’s just the creators’ passion and enthusiasm. I’d never heard of Septagon Studios, and I assumed I was in for another bargain-basement comics effort. While the creators still have to refine their skills a bit, there’s a lot of promise to be found in Scorn. It’s a story about violence begetting violence, about the potential for grief to consume oneself and just about growing up. There’s a gritty intensity to the art that’s in keeping with the tone of the story, and the somewhat unconventional approach to the sequential art really allows artist Phillip Neundorf’s work to stand out. This is a solid debut effort from two unknowns, and I suspect that as they hone their storytelling in the coming years, we may see higher-profile projects from them, either together or teamed with others.

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Feel the Burn

Afterburn #1
“Chaos and Profit”
Writer: Scott Chitwood & Paul Ens
Pencils: Wayne Nichols
Inks: Nick Schley
Colors: Marc Hampson & Andrew Dalhouse
Letters: Troy Peteri
Cover artist: Matt Busch
Publisher: Red 5 Comics
Price: $2.95 US

The first Red 5 Comics release I read, Atomic Robo, impressed, so when I sat down to delve into another one of their titles, I had high hopes. With Afterburn, I found the same kind of energy and sense of adventure as I did in Atomic Robo, but this project lacks the storytelling polish and flair of that other book. To be fair, they’re rather different comics; Afterburn isn’t played for laughs, for example. But whereas Robo hit all the right notes, the creators behind Afterburn falter when it comes to detail, both in the script and the art. There’s actually an intriguing premise, but the script presents what seems like important plot information but then races on ahead of it. The artwork is impressive at times, but it’s also inconsistent. It seems like everyone is rushing through this story, desperate to maintain a certain intensity, unfortunately sacrificing the reader’s chance to connect with the characters and absorb the story.

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Sketchy Memories

50 Reasons to Stop Sketching at Conventions
Writer/Artist: Stuart Immonen
Publisher: One Horse Leadworks
Price: $5.95 US

As creator Stuart Immonen notes in the back of this book, 50 Reasons first saw life as a daily web comic in 2004, allowing the super-hero artist to flex a different set of artistic muscles. He later adapted and collected the toons to create this small, attractive volume, and it’s been for sale on Immonen’s website for some time. I’d noticed it and heard good things about the book, and I’d been meaning to order a copy. Recently, I spotted it on the shelf at my local comic shop, and I was thrilled to see this odd little product reach a wider set of readers by more conventional means.

I’ve been to a few comic conventions in my time, twice making it to the granddaddy of North American cons, Comic-Con International San Diego. I’m a fan of cons, and I’m very much a fan of con sketches. I’ve a small, themed sketchbook to which a wide variety of industry artists have contributed. Among them is Immonen himself (offering up a weird but fun caricature of Kurt Busiek, torturing the artist during their Gorilla Comics collaborative period). But there are awkward, annoying and even ugly sides to conventional culture, and Immonen does an excellent job of conveying those elements in a succinct manner.

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G.I. Robot

Atomic Robo #1
“The Will to Power”
Writer: Brian Clevinger
Artist: Scott Wegener
Colors: Rhonda Pattison
Letters: Jeff Powell
Cover artist: Michael Avon Oeming
Publisher: Red 5 Comics
Price: $2.95 US

As I read the background text in the inside front cover of this issue, describing the title character and his history, I was struck by how much the character has in common with Hellboy. The main difference between the pair is that Hellboy has supernatural origins, while Atomic Robo’s foundation is to be found in history of science and science-fiction. As I delved further into the comic, I found that the similarities hold true, save for the fact that the creators here play things up much more for laughs. If anything, Atomic Robo is reminiscent of another Mike Mignola project. It’s rather like The Amazing Screw-On Head Light. The simpler tone of the art is in keeping with the more irreverent side of the property as well. I can’t say that Atomic Robo is the most original comic book I’ve stumbled across, but it is entertaining. Hopefully, future issues will bring more ambitious and original plots while preserving the property’s comedic appeal.

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Everybody Hurds

Pictures of You original graphic novel
Writer: Damon Hurd
Artist/Cover artist: Tatiana Gill
Publisher: Alternative Comics
Price: $11.95 US

It’s been far too long since we’ve seen new comics work from indy, slice-of-life writer Damon Hurd, but those of us familiar with his short but universally strong list of previous work can take solace in the fact that the wait is almost over. Later this month, Alternative Comics will release Pictures of You, a followup to Hurd and artist Tatiana Gill’s previous collaboration, A Strange Day. That previous project chronicled the first meeting of a couple of kindred spirits, the beginning of a beautiful love story. Pictures of You is a prequel, following the same characters as they follow separate, sad paths the year before. Gill’s art isn’t the sort of clean, tight work that manga and super-hero genre readers are accustomed to, but it’s grounded and honest, more than compensating for any superficial inconsistencies. Readers will be hard pressed to feel disconnected from this story. There are universal elements at play that makes Pictures of You a compelling read. One can easily relate to pieces of the various characters, but really, that comes as no surprise. It’s what Damon Hurd does best.

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