Trouble with Comics

ADD Reviews Fatale #1 by Brubaker and Phillips

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips stretch their considerable creative muscles to make Fatale #1 an electric and delicious start to their newest project together.

I’ve been a fan of this creative team since they first came to my attention on Sleeper, followed them singly and together on pretty much every other title they’ve worked on, and cite their ongoing Marvel/Icon book Criminal as my current favourite ongoing title. “I like it so much I started a blog,” I’m tempted to say.

None of this is news if you’ve been reading me for any length of time at all, so I won’t bore you with further explication of the esteem in which I hold Brubaker and Phillips’s joint comic work; just take it as a given that if they are working together, you’re going to be reading comics in the finest tradition in terms of style and substance. Single issues that read well all by themselves no matter where you are in the storyline, complex characters that surprise and delight; lush, convincing images that invite you in to the world being created before your eyes.

Fatale, like Sleeper and Criminal (oh, and Incognito, too, yes) does all that, and does it all quite well. But it also goes places Entrancin’ Ed and Sure-Fingered Sean never have before; the duo set their new book in a dark world of mystery and horror inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft (another of my favourite writers). This isn’t the icy, brutal sexual terror Alan Moore delivered in his excellent Lovecraft homage Neonomicon, however; Brubaker and Phillips craft a more baroque feel for this new world we’re discovering, all dark corners and unknown terrors that invite exploration. The mood is set from the very start, as a dour group of people gather in the rain for a funeral. Strangers meet, words are exchanged, and questions quickly arise. And just like that, we’re immersed in a new world of darkness and wonder.

The first-person narration of main character Nicholas Lash feels comfortable and intimate, but the strange things that begin to happen to him unfold so quickly that you’re as disoriented as he is by the way the world turns out from under him. As he immerses himself in a story-within-the-story in the form of a previously unknown manuscript brought to him by a beautiful and mysterious woman who may be much more than she suggests. The scenes depicted from the manuscript really give Phillips a chance to show what he can deliver, as we get a luminously noir scene-setting city street depiction so detailed and visually stunning that it’s also called-out for the issue’s back cover illustration. We see truly creepy thugs reminiscent of The Strangers in Dark City or The Gentlemen in the “Hush” episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, but by way of Herge’s Thomson and Thompson. Visually witty but still filled with horror and dread. 

How does the story Lash reads relate to the death of his godfather? Who, really, is the beautiful and intriguing Jo? Why does the gore and spatter emitted by a chest-wounded thug seem…wrong, somehow? Lots of questions, and you’ll want to read further and get the answers. Brubaker’s best comics writing by now has the same spare confidence and bravado of a master musician, and Phillips brings a level of detail and verisimilitude to this story that is virtually unknown in regular monthly comics these days.

Fatale #1 delivers value for the dollar, too; in addition to a longer-than-average story (24 pages instead of the usual 22 or more recent usual 20 in some titles), Brubaker writes an introductory text page, something that is always welcome, especially in a first issue, as it provides context and communication with the reader that is always off-putting when absent. Additionally, the always-excellent Jess Nevins has been tasked with writing an essay explaining Lovecraft and his works, a piece accompanied by a truly stunning and evocative Sean Phillips illustration of Lovecraft and his greatest, most fearsome creation. 

Fatale #1 is exactly the sort of comic readers need; an engrossing story, superbly illustrated, sharply written and with enough substance and ancillary material to justify the cover price. Any publisher wondering how to do it right should explore every aspect of this issue. Any reader wondering why comics don’t satisfy them anymore should compare Fatale #1 to any other book on the stands, because it blows them all away.

Alan David Doane 

Addendum: Ed Brubaker responded to this review on Twitter, saying “You got one detail wrong, but you’re sort of meant to. The ’50s part of the story is not the manuscript he reads.” 

ADD’s 10 Best Comics of 2011

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon) — Nuanced and bold, a new high-water mark for Criminal, which continues to be the best regularly-published comic book around. Check out the Flashmob Fridays reviews.

Incognito: Bad Influences by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon) — Not quite as soaring as the very best of Criminal, Incognito still manages to entertain and provide the sort of thrills corporate comics don’t even bother with anymore.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969 by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill (Top Shelf) — This series has only gotten deeper and better since freeing itself of DC’s control.

Neonomicon by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (Avatar) — There was a lot of outrage and controversy surrounding this title, but I thought Moore conveyed a lot of subtext and genuine horror in this Lovecraft-inspired title, every issue of which had me giddily anticipating more, even as it plumbed the darkest depths of human and inhuman cruelty. 

Daredevil by Mark Waid, Marcos Martin and Paolo Rivera (Marvel) — As Tucker Stone recently noted in his interview with Tom Spurgeon, this title stands out simply because it is good superhero comics, and Marvel and DC don’t know how to do that anymore. It is, therefore, a miracle. Flashmob Fridays covered this one recently, too.

Treasury of XXth Century Murder: The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti by Rick Geary (NBM) — If you’re not following this continuing series of self-contained graphic novels centered on true crimes of the past, you are missing out on some of the most entertaining, witty and well-crafted comics being produced in the world today.

Little Nothings Vol. 4: My Shadow in the Distance (NBM) — Whimsical, genuine. Here’s my review.

Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight - Marshall Rogers (DC Comics) — My nostalgia gene doesn’t usually express itself, but the Englehart/Rogers/Austin Batman stories were the first Batman comics I ever loved, and my 10-year-old self is very happy this collection exists.

Avengers Academy by Christos Gage, Mike McKone, Tom Raney and others (Marvel) — Not quite as good as Daredevil, but head-and-shoulders above the average, unreadable current-day Marvel comic. And any book with art by Tom Raney gets a look from me, because he is just an amazing artist and brings a great deal to the projects he works on.

Walt Disney’s Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes by Carl Barks (Fantagraphics) — Quite simply, some of the best comics of all time, in the most beautiful design and format of any book I saw all year.

Five Questions for Box Brown

I first reviewed some Box Brown comics about a year ago, when it seemed like no one had much heard of the emerging cartoonist. I had became aware of him on James Kochalka’s message board, and in the year since I looked at Everything Dies, Brown has fairly exploded into the consciousness of people interested in comics, not least because of his efforts with Retrofit Comics. On Friday over on our new spinoff blog Flashmob Fridays, the [FMF] team weighs in on Brown’s latest effort, The Survivalist. — Alan David Doane

Who are you?

I’m Box Brown. I’ve been making comics of all kinds since 2006. Lately, I’ve been working on a lot of non-fiction comics but The Survivalist is pure fiction so that was an exciting change for me.

What led to the creation of your new book The Survivalist?

When I set out to create The Survivalist I wanted to put a specific character type in the center of the story. Noah is a conspiracy theorist. He’s the type of guy who’s highly influenced by the stories of the Bilderberg Group and the Illuminati and he believes that “big pharma” is to blame for a lot of the world’s troubles. As a skeptic, I’ve become interested in these types. It’s so opposite my own thinking that it just fascinates me. I’ve listened to countless documentaries and podcasts about conspiracies. It was through these podcasts that I became interested in all of the weird products that are advertised to conspiracy theorists (tent, dehydrated food, urine-to-water systems). The book really started out with that character and his things. I really wanted to get into the mind of a person like that.

What is the fascination?

What would motivate someone to become this extreme type? How true to their convictions are they? Ultimately, I think Noah isn’t much different from anyone else really. I still find those types interesting.

Not to give anything away, but it seems like there could be a sequel to this work.

Not sure if Noah will ever reappear, but his favorite podcaster “Dick March” probably will. He was my favorite character to write, even though he appears only as a disembodied voice.

How do you fit The Survivalist into context with your previous comics?

I think people who haven’t read the story though would be surprised that while drawing it, it reminded me more of my old webcomic Bellen! than Everything Dies. A lot of the dialog is between these two major characters, male and female. It’s not a romantic relationship as it was in Bellen! but their dialog is kind of similar. I’m hesitant to get deep into the plot as most people haven’t read it yet.

Buy The Survivalist from or directly from Blank Slate. For reviews of The Survivalist, visit Flashmob Fridays this Friday. 

Six Ways to Read Comics for Free

I originally wrote this for back in 2008. It seems to me it’s more relevant than ever, so I thought I’d dust it off as food for thought for budget-minded readers as 2012 approaches.

There are not too many people I know that are not feeling the pinch right now, and have been for the past several years. The price of nearly everything seems to have increased by up to 200 percent or more, and short of space aliens landing and gifting us with a new, working financial system, there’s no reason to think things are going to improve. If you love comics, now is a great time to explore alternative ways of reading comics. Here are six ways you can satisfy your thirst for great comics without cutting into your household budget.


Your Local Library
— One of the fastest-growing markets for comics is the library right in your hometown. Librarians talk to each other a lot, and for the past few years they’ve been talking about comics. Now, a visit to your local library may or may not turn up all sorts of graphic novels; mine, for instance, has a sizable manga section as well as great works like The Castaways by Vollmar and Callejo and the entire Sandman collection by Neil Gaiman and company. But they don’t have all the graphic novels I would like to read. What can you do in a situation like that? Luckily, your library is very likely not an island.

Many libraries are part of regional networks that trade books, and that interlibrary loan system opens up your choices to a far vaster array of books than is at first obvious on the shelves of your brick and mortar library. Go online and investigate the options your library makes available to you, or stop in and ask them if they have an interlibrary loan program. If they do, ask how you can access its listings to see what’s available to you. Search for “comics,” “graphic novels,” and of course, run a search for the names of authors whose work you’d like to read.

You’ll also find prose books on the subject of comics, books on how to create your own comics, and DVDs related to the subject as well. You’ll need a library card, of course, but that’s one resource no thinking human being should ever be without. Once you start looking into the options at your local library, and the other libraries they allow you access to, you may never have to spend a dime on comics again!

* Online Comics — Your options for reading comics online are limited only by your tastes and your willingness to experiment with new ways of delivering comics to your brain. Some people will never adjust to reading comics on a computer screen, while others take to the idea like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Newsarama posted an article on the subject, and a LiveJournal writer posted his gigantic list of free, online comics. That list is far from complete, but it will give you an idea what is out there, and take you months to read all the strips if you choose to do so.

And, I have to mention my favorite online strip, American Elf by James Kochalka; his site has free access to the entire near-decade of his daily diary strips, as well as other features, many of which are free. And if you really dig his stuff and have a couple bucks a month to spare (or 20 bucks a year), it’s all yours along with the comfort of knowing you’re helping one of the internet’s online comics pioneers (and most talented cartoonists, to boot) feed his family.

* Have a Seat — Many bookstores, from big chains like Barnes & Noble to your local independent bookstore, provide a comfy chair and a welcoming environment in which you can relax and browse their wares.

This isn’t entirely for the sake of charity, of course — they know a certain percentage of browsers will succumb either to guilt or heightened interest from perusing an interesting book for a while, and those people are more likely to spend some money from time to time. It costs the stores virtually nothing and increases their bottom line.

Now, don’t be obnoxious about it — browse one or two books, keep them clean and salable, and put them back where you found them when you’re done. And if you can afford it now and then, definitely spend some money in these stores to show them that offering this sort of service is a wise policy that pays off in the long term.

* Friends with Comics Benefits — As if my previous suggestion didn’t make you feel enough like a freeloader, here I go, suggesting you borrow comics from your friends. Face it, some of your friends have better taste in comics than you do, and if you promise to treat their comics right, they just might let you take home some great reading material once in a while.

Of course, it’s only fair that you return the favour and let them borrow a few of your comics. I know the very suggestion fills you with dread and sets a dull buzz going in the base of your skull, but come on, they’re only comics. Share, already!

* Torrential Downpour — Have you explored the comics available through BitTorrent? I don’t mean illegal ones, either. Sure, there are plenty of those to be found if you know where to look, but there are also public domain and creator-approved torrents that you can download and enjoy with a clear conscience. Despite what some archaic organizations might like you to believe, BitTorrent is a great way to share files with your fellow internet users. A great program to use is uTorrent, which doesn’t use much of your computer’s memory and has a boatload of options you can tweak to get your BitTorrent experience the way you want it.

Sequential Swap — Finally, a great way to get rid of your old, unloved graphic novels and replace them with fascinating new reading material is Sequential Swap. This site puts comics readers all over the globe together and allows them easy access to the trade lists of all the participating members. I’ve done scores of swaps on Sequential Swap over the years, and most everyone on the site is friendly and fun to swap with. You’ll have to pay shipping costs to get your books to your fellow swappers, but in the US if you send by Media Mail, the average graphic novel costs just two or three bucks to send anywhere in the country, a real savings over the 15-25 dollars you’d otherwise have to pay for the graphic novel you’ll receive in return. 

Believe me, I’m feeling the pain of this economic paradigm shift, too. I’ve tried every method on this list, and they all work. See which ones match your temperament, interests and resources, and explore the wide world of free comics. Let me know how you make out, and if you have any other tips for free comics reading, feel free to email them to me and I’ll pass them along here on TWC.

— Alan David Doane
ADD Reviews Dark Horse Comics’ Watermark

The dictionary defines a watermark as “faint design made in some paper during manufacture, that is visible when held against the light and typically identifies the maker.” Dark Horse defies this rather conventional view with its digital watermark, by making it bold, not faint, visible at all times, and applying it not to paper but to digital review copies rather than paper.

"Wait a minute," you’re no doubt saying, "I’ve seen a digital watermark on promotional items from Marvel, and they’re not that bad." Well, that’s Marvel, my friend. They stick a watermark in the corner, sometimes obscuring a small part of the artwork, but Dark Horse? They want to make certain you can think only of the watermark when trying to immerse yourself in whatever it is that lies beneath it:

See what I mean? Now multiply that times 6 panels or so per page for 242 pages. I think you’ll agree that, for staying top-of-mind and really drawing the reader’s (well, reviewer’s) attention, The Dark Horse Watermark really hits it out of the park. No matter how hard I tried (for some damned reason or other) to read the material — it might be comics, I guess, maybe — underneath that watermark, at the end of the day, it’s all I could see, all I could think about, all I care to mention of the file I received. Kudos to the genius that thought up this amazing way to promote a watermark. Job well done.

Flashmob Fridays Returns!

If you’ve been with Trouble With Comics from the start back in 2009, you may remember a weekly feature called Flashmob Fridays. Chris and I have decided to bring it back, spinning it off into its own blog and bringing in some new writers (and some who worked on the first version of FMF) to get together each week and converge on a single comic or graphic novel. We hope you’ll join us for the new Flashmob Fridays. An introduction and archives of the original posts are up now, first new post likely to appear a week from tomorrow. Be there!

Alan David Doane 

There are two types of fans: superhero fans and comics fans. The problem is that most superhero fans mistakenly believe they’re comics fans.
Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads!

The ads in comic books are just no fun anymore.

Video games, movie ads, glossy full-page appeals to whatever dollars the kids have left over after buying the latest and greatest MP3s on iTunes, or whatever kids are spending their money on these days. Mine seem to spend it all on energy drinks. But it’s not like kids are reading comics anyway, right?

When I was 6 years old, I started reading comics, and I was the prime audience for the ads you’ll find all over Mail-Order Mysteries (Insight Editions). Author Kirk Demaris, who appears to have had a childhood much like mine, dives deep into the truth behind the hype of these frequently ludicrous and always dubious little ads, the ones that stick with me after all these years.

How could they not? I was one of the suckers who bought the stupid piece of metal you put in your mouth to supposedly throw your voice. It did nothing. I sent away for the foot locker full of 2-D army guys that weren’t even as entertaining as the ad that promoted them. Sea Monkeys? Of course I bought them. They were freeze-dried brine shrimp about the size of a molecule, and if they lived long enough in your tap water, you might kinda-sorta think you saw one swimming in there, just before they died. These are memories that last a lifetime.

And now in this highly entertaining new collection you can not only relive those nearly-criminal ads (or see them for the first time, if you’re too young to remember them), but find out the truth about the crap your hard-earned nickels and dimes eventually got you (sometimes you mailed in your money and that was the end of it — believe you me). 

Demaris has a lot of fun with the subject at hand, showing off pictures of the real stuff you’d get and going into some detail about the swindlers who masterminded this decades-long scam that touched the lives of millions and probably netted the companies hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, which they laughed all the way to the bank with. It’s a brilliantly-conceived trip down a narrow back alley of comics history that was long overdue for exploration, and unless you have no sense of humour or history, you’re sure to enjoy the book. Much more than I enjoyed those flat-ass army guys, that’s for sure.

Alan David Doane

The publisher provided a copy for the purpose of review.

The Unluckiest Characters in Comics

Friday the 13th always brings thoughts of bad luck, even to the least superstitious of us. This week we barely avoid the dreaded day, as the 13th falls on Thursday. Good luck for us. Here’s a look at some of the characters with the worst luck in the history of comics…

Uncle Ben Parker — Bucky came back. Jason Todd came back. Gwen Stacy’s clone’s had more revival tours than Kiss. But Uncle Ben? 

Despite the occasional tease — such as when writer Peter David and the late artist Mike Wieringo brought him back, kinda sorta in Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, poor ol’ Ben Parker just seems to stay dead, dead, dead.

And staying in the Spider-Man mythos for a moment… 

Harry Osborn — You’d think it would be great, being the carefree son of a multi-millionaire industrialist. The chicks, the cars, the pills…oh, the pills…! 

Even better, though, when Harry’s old man — who constantly berated him for failing to live up to his expectations — died as an accidental result of his own misdeeds, Harry inherited his wealth and even his secret identity as The Green Goblin.

But, Harry failed to live up to his father’s dreams even as a supervillain, continuing to never quite reach Norman’s expectations, and finally dying, poisoned by his father’s own Goblin formula.

Even more unluckily, Harry was reborn in Marvel’s “Brand New Day” storyline, which hopefully will be retconned out of memory eventually. Like his dad, Harry is a character who never should have been brought back, as his revival creates far more questions than answers, and stinks of creative bankruptcy.

Joe Chill — Ever heard of this poor fellow? He was directly responsible for the creation of Batman. 

Now, Joe Chill lived to a ripe old age and never really suffered the fate due him for the double murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. But how unnerving would it be if Batman showed up and confronted you with the truth? 

So of course, Joe Chill did what any sensible hood responsible for the creation of every gangster’s biggest nightmare would do…he told his fellow criminals. 

And, with forgiveness and understanding, those fellow criminals thanked ol’ Joe the best way they knew how. 

He’s really chillin’ now.

And, finally, the all-time champion #1 unluckiest character in all of comicdom…

Shermy — Originally one of the stars of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, Shermy was in fact the first with a speaking role. 

Alas, over the years Shermy faded into the background along with (non-Peppermint) Patty, Violet, and other ultimately minor characters as Snoopy, Lucy and Charlie Brown came to dominate the strip. Ivan Brunetti paid tribute to Shermy in “Whither Shermy,” one of my all-time favourite comic strips (available in full-color in Schizo #4). 

I always look for Shermy to pop up at baseball games and in line for movie tickets as I read along through the decades in The Complete Peanuts, the great, ongoing reprint project from Fantagraphics Books. Alas, with the series now into the 1980s, we’re well past the point where Shermy will ever play a significant role again (his very last appearance came in 1969). It’s a sad way to end up for the guy who started the whole thing off. And people think Charlie Brown is unlucky.

Alan David Doane

Related: Shells: A Modest Proposal 

ADD Reviews Little Nothings Vol. 4: My Shadow in the Distance

When it comes to comics, I feel like I don’t know what the hell I like to read anymore. I know it’s corporate superhero comics that have abandoned me, and not the other way around, but it really makes me feel like a bit of an idiot when someone asks me (as they frequently do), “What are you reading these days?” Because they usually mean, “What superhero books do you recommend?” And the answer to that, really, is, not a one. The only thing published by either Marvel or DC that is active on my pull list at the comic shop is Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, and that’s put out by Marvel’s Icon imprint with, as far as I know, little input or advice from Marvel. Just based on my own observations, Ed and Sean seem to be doing it all themselves, which is fine, because set free of editorial interference, they’re creating one hell of a body of work, there in the only monthly comic book I care much about at all.

But man, I have tried hundreds, if not thousands of times over the past five or six years to re-immerse myself in the  superhero universes that introduced me to comics as a storytelling medium. I tried Fraction’s Iron Man for a while, and that was okay as long as it was read in chunks of 6 or 8 issues at a time, but I need more than “okay” to keep my interest. I tried Hickman’s FF for the same reasons John Jakala laid out recently, and bailed out after four or five issues for the same reasons he did. Blah, indeed. Since Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s Authority is one of my favourite comics of all time, I gave the first issue of the new Stormwatch a try, and my God but it is fucking dire. If that’s what “The New 52” can do for me, I’ll pass, thanks very much all the same. Hawksmoor and company really never were the same after Ellis and Hitch left the title (and frankly, neither were Ellis or Hitch), and one day I’ll learn to let go of the hope that anyone at all will ever be capable of making good comic books about those characters again.

(Digression: I recently re-read Brubaker and Nguyen’s Authority: Revolutions and realized how harshly I had initially judged it; it’s nowhere near as good as the sacred First 12, but it does actually feel like those characters and it nicely sets up the team for a new era that sadly never was realized. My biggest criticism, really, is I wish Henry Bendix looked more like Henry Bendix as drawn by Raney or Hitch. But other than that, it’s good. If you’re a fan of The Authority but gave it a pass, try it now.)

So, yes, to get back to the point: I’ve loved reading comics since 1972, but I feel like I am a dying man in a desert free of quality comics entertainment. It’s not that there aren’t great comics being published, but that the transition to graphic novels and away from serialized periodical storytelling makes it far less likely in any given week that I am going to be banging down the door of the comic book store on Wednesday, desperate to get at this week’s gem. I’d give anything, really, to return to the days when Eightball, Love and Rockets, Nexus, and Acme Novelty Library, to name a few, were being issued in floppy form, and far more often than we see any iteration of any of them now. Never mind some era (1980-1987, maybe) when DC and Marvel had enough of a critical mass of talented creators working for them that guaranteed at least three or four good titles from each of them every month. As it is now, the “big two” (chuckle, snort) might as well be dedicated solely to publishing pamphlets about, say, country music; or farm equipment; or liver and headcheese recipes. Any of those topics would generate as much interest from me as the current Marvel/DC output in the hands of the current (mis)management and current fan-fiction brigade of creators.

So, yeah — what a delight to read a comic I enjoyed from cover to cover!

Little Nothings Vol. 4: My Shadow in the Distance is just the usual dose of Lewis Trondheim wonder and whimsy — a little slapstick as he tries to figure out how a sink with three knobs instead of the usual two works. A little rumination on mortality as he wrestles with nasal polyps, in a sequence that really clenched my sphincter for me (you’re welcome). A little hanging out with other comics creators, a little travel, and lots — every page, dear reader — lots of gorgeously-rendered pen-and-watercolour illustrations of the environs in which Trondheim carries out all these adventures. 

Lewis Trondheim is one of the greatest living cartoonists. It’s not even an argument. His work is immediately accessible, profoundly universal, and deeply hilarious. When he makes you laugh (and he will), it’s not just a sight-gag or well-observed human foible. It’s that you are so invested in his character and his world that it’s as if you are laughing at yourself, because in a way, you are. I can’t think of anyone in comics other than Charles Schulz who so brilliantly and intuitively understood human nature and conveyed it and depicted it as well as Trondheim does.

And I always forget how skilled Trondheim is at the callback. He almost always lets you forget something then hits you with a surprising and delightful reference to it later. There’s one of his best here in this volume, and I don’t want to tell you where it is, but believe me, you’ll know it when you see it, and you’ll love it, and it will make you realize how lucky we are to have comics by Lewis Trondheim in this day and age. 

Alan David Doane

Buy Little Nothings 4: My Shadow in the Distance from