Wednesday, January 30, 2013


I am closing out Top Shelf month with an e-book I bought from Comixology for my Kindle Fire. Yes, they sell digital, too!

The facile way to describe this book would be to call it Stephen King's "The Body" meets District 9 set in Australia (I almost wrote Alien Nation, but that just means I am OLD). But Blue is much more than that. Part immigrant allegory and coming of age parable, the story follows a group of surly adolescents as they skip school, go surfing, swear, and argue amongst themselves. Apparently, their small town has gone to pot because of the influx of blue aliens who have moved in and overtaken neighborhoods, have their own unique kinds of food, and taken all the available work. Or maybe the local economy just dried up and the blue folk are convenient scapegoats. One day, these kids decide they are going for a trek down the railroad tracks to see the body of an unfortunate alien who was in the way as a train rushed by. All the while, issues of racism, classism, and national pride ring through the plot and characters.

This deceptively complex book disarms the reader with a very cartoonish style, and writer/artist Pat Grant demonstrations some great storytelling skills. It is an outstanding debut work, one that smacks of technical and artistic expertise. That said, this Melbourne-based comics creator is a relative newcomer and has worked on a variety of small projects listed here. He also is interested in surf culture and has an excellent essay about the history of Australian surfing and underground comix as his influences in the back pages of Blue.

Reviews I have read online have been very complimentary about this freshman effort. Andy Khouri called it "an uncommonly sophisticated look at prejudice and localism." Bill Sherman wrote, "Sharply unsentimental and often darkly funny, it makes a powerful debut for artist, writer and, zinemaker Grant—a must read for anyone invested in following literary comics." Slate's Dan Kois called it "thoughful and complicated" and added that it "really stuck with me after I read it."

A preview and much more is available here from the publisher.

The whole book is also available online here, though I think it is still well worth its purchase prices. Support an author who is starting out!

Also, if I have not a great job selling you on the book - or if you are already onboard - you should check out Pat Grant's SHAMELESS PUBLICITY DOCUMENT!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Check out this site: The Graphic Novelist

Thanks to Bucky Carter for pointing out this blog where a 12-year-old reviews graphic novels. It is well-written, and I love getting to see his perspective on things.

Go check it out!

Right now!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Less Than Heroes

Top Shelf Month continues, showing that there is even room here for superhero comics at the table, especially if they are of a different flavor.

Less Than Heroes, like volume 1 of Sulk, is a loving parody/homage to superhero comics, but with an eye toward reality and absurdity. It simultaneously lampoons the "grim and gritty" faux realism of some superhero comics while also depicting amazing and interesting world-building and situations. The world here depicted is full of superheroes and dangerous threats, and every major US city has a sanctioned super-team of some sort to protect it from harm. These teams are full of unionized, pompous people who share characteristics with the worst attributes of professional athletes. They are mercenary, stubborn, and petty, the lot of them. Then there is Threshold, the defenders of Philadelphia.

Because there is not much in terms of threat level in the City of Brotherly Love, they have decided to go no frills and hire a loosely affiliated quartet of heroes, Mr. Malevolence (the strong guy), the Cosmopolitan (a hipster magician who uses pop culture to cast spells), Recoil (who may not have powers and is obsessed with dental hygiene), and Meridian (the token female). Together, they eat snacks, hang out, get on each others' nerves, and handle the problems that arise, including a mystical, frightening stamp collector, and a Lightning Man. That is, until some of the New York supervillains get tired of getting their butts kicked and decide to relocate to city with more manageable heroes.
This book is the creation of David Yurkovich, a comics creator who has a few other publications under his belt. His works tend to fall under the "quirky" category, including Death By Chocolate, about a superman made of the sweet stuff, and the stream of consciousness, urban-set series Nocturne. He has a website, Sleeping Giant Creations, where he has links to his various comics and web projects, including his tribute to the stricken comics creator Bill Mantlo. His love for comics comes into fuller relief in Less Than Heroes in a thoughtful essay on superheroics that closes the book.

Reviews I have read about this book have been very positive. Michael May wrote that "it is full of thought and wonder." Lee Atchison offered this opinion, "The artwork is blocky and irregular, and it may take some getting used to for those who aren't hip to alternative art, but I think it's quirky and fits, completely, the characters, the setting, the plot, the atmosphere ... you name it. It's perfectly suited, in other words, to the story it tells." Peter Hemminger added that the book's "noble goals are tempered by realistic demands. Maybe that's what makes it so much more interesting than your average superhero comic." I would not say the book is for everyone, but I appreciated its unique art style, fun characters and plot, and creative situations. 

A preview and much more is available here from the publisher.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Lovely Horrible Stuff

Top Shelf Month continues, today with a look at a work from a prominent, prolific comics creator.

The Lovely Horrible Stuff is an interesting work from Eddie Campbell, a Scotsman who now lives in Australia. Over the years he has written and drawn a disparate array of comics, creative, autobiographical, and fantastical, and also received numerous awards and nominations. He may be best known for his collaboration with Alan Moore on the Jack the Ripper tale From Hell, his semi-autobiographical Alec comics, and following the adventures of the god Bacchus in the modern day in Deadface. In recent years, he has also written and drawn more thoughtful works such as The Fate of the Artist as well as historical fiction like The Black Diamond Detective Agency and The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard. He blogs about comics, life, and his work here.

In this book Campbell tackles the topic of money in two ways. The first half is a personal history of finance, weaving together family lore, tales of marriage and in-laws, along with accounts of the recent international financial tribulations and real estate woes that end up as legal battles. The second half of the book is more a travelogue, detailing a trip he and his wife made to Yap Island, a small, tropical Pacific locale where the inhabitants have a large, spherical stone currency named rai. Throughout both sections we are privy to charming and eclectic flourishes, including William Shakespeare writing comically verbose collections letters, carousing Polish tourists, and the exaggerated adventures of the Irish Capt. David O'Keefe.

This book was a cerebral pleasure, with a great amount of thought going into the illustrations, a combination of photographs, painting, digital writing, and linework, as well as the multiple approaches to pondering the uses and effects of money, both real and imagined, on people's lives. Reviews I have seen online are largely positive. Marci Swank offered her opinion, "The illustrations highlight the great comic drawing skills Campbell has, which help to depict the meaning behind the words, as well as adding humor to the story." James Smart summed it up as "a quirky, vibrant graphic novel." Kirkus Reviews' Jenna Crispin offered a more measured review, saying about the book, "It has immense charm, but it’s a little thin."

There is a preview and much more information available here from the publisher.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance

Top Shelf Month enters its second week with a "real" book.

I was a little bit surprised when I cracked open this little hardcover that it was not a graphic novel at all, but a book with illustrations added to spruce up each chapter. Along with a biting portrait of each vice president, from John Adams to Dick Cheney, is an occasional scene portraying a specific life event, but the majority of this book is words. It sort of reminded me of the Secret Lives series from Quirk Books, which I have enjoyed very much. Each entry has a short summary of each person's life followed by separate entries about notable accomplishments, dubious doings, calamitous events, and/or an interesting quotation. In all it was a very entertaining and informative read. After reading this book I can tell you:
What is striking about this book is just how random, uneven, and seemingly pointless the office has been historically. Some VPs are immensely talented while others just seem hopeless or inept. Some hardly knew who their running mate was, and some treated the office as a political death sentence. A select few had great accomplishments, though it seems that most simply held and office and lingered. I gained much insight into how insanely and arcanely politics often runs in the US after reading many of these passages.

It was difficult for me to find much information about this book's creators. Writer Bill Kelter is a businessman and contributes to sites like Politico. Artist Wayne Shellabarger does not have a lot of comics credits, but he is known for having drawn an array of rock posters in the past. The duo speak more about their collaboration on this book in this interview.

All the reviews I have seen online about this book have been glowing. Curt Holman called the book "playful" and added that its worth comes in how well it "illuminates the flaws and foibles in a political system that manages to elevate unworthy candidates while letting talent go to waste." Anthony Bergen gushed, "Veeps is a great read.  I loved it, and couldn’t put it down until it was finished.  It’s also a great-looking book, with fantastic art and a sweet design." Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow wrote that the book was "a snarky, thorough look at the foibles and missteps of the vice presidency," and added, "I had no idea how completely comic the office has been through the years."

There is a lot of information about this book, including a movie version, at its official site. Here is a preview and much more from the publisher.

Monday, January 14, 2013

RIP, Keiji Nakazawa

Keiji Nakazawa, the creator of the Barefoot Gen manga series and survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima, died last month at the age of 73. He was 7 years old when the bombing occurred, and dealing with it became the focus of much of his life's and comics work. Barefoot Gen was a very widely read series, one of the first manga to be translated into English and other western languages.

The Los Angeles Times ran the best obituary for him I could find in English. Here is a list of numerous tributes and informational sites from The Comics Reporter. 

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Van Helsing's Night Off

Top Shelf Month continues with a look at some of the work they publish from international comics creators.

Van Helsing's Night Off is a clever riff on many of the Universal Monsters (e.g. Dracula, Frankenstein's monster, the Wolfman). Here, they are depicted in a very stylistic manner, distilled into a few distinct shapes, and let to pinball around in panels reminiscent of a daily newspaper comic strip. Though the whole enterprise seems simplistic on face value, the artist packs much playfulness into his wordless drawings. The settings are mundane, such as the Wolfman sitting around the house reading a newspaper and trying to deal with the full moon, but they are deftly humorous both narratively and graphically. Just looking at the Frankenstein monster's hugely clunky clodhoppers, Van Helsing's impressively tall stovepipe hat, and the Bride of Frankenstein's humongous hairdo make me smile.

Austrian comics creator Nicolas Mahler has been prolifically producing comics for various publications and also as stand alone works. His work tends toward the darkly comic, as seen here and in his other works Lone Racer, about a former race car driver, Spam, where he changed spam emails into comics, and the superhero comedy Angelman.  Here is his official site (which is in German). He speaks more about his work and the state of graphic novels in Europe and abroad in this interview with Inkstuds.

I have to admit I was disappointed at first when I got this book because it did not contain a continuous narrative but was won over by its charming drawings, tough-in-cheek treatment of the characters, and expertly executed punchlines. A sense of logic is quickly established through the episodes, and these simple-looking players take on lives and personalities in short order. Other reviews I have read share my positive reaction. Entertainment Weekly's Rachel Lovinger opined that "the dark, campy humor will delight and mystify mature monster fans." Suzie Lackey called it "a wonderful achievement in the medium of graphic novels and comics" that "can be enjoyed around the world without the restrictions of language."

A preview and more is available here from Top Shelf.

Saturday, January 5, 2013


As Top Shelf Month begins, we dive into a series from an established talent.

Sulk is a one-man anthology by Jeffrey Brown. Brown is a prolific comics creator known for his intimate autobiographical works, such as Clumsy, as well as far ranging parodies/homages like The Incredible Change-Bots. His art style is distinctive, a mix between cartoon and realism, and here he has grown ever more capable with his writing voice. This series tends to be more toward the parody/homage spectrum of his work, and thus far there are three compact volumes.


Bighead and Friends

Volume 1 follows the adventures of Bighead, a superhero in the vein of 1970s Marvel Comics, with dramatic cliffhangers, stories that reference each other, insane villains, and bombastic action. Some of the stories chronicle his early crime-fighting days as Little Bighead. In his mature adventures, he confronts adversaries like the Claw, the Grapplers, the Bowler, the Beefy Hipster, and even himself. Over the course of these stories, of course he dies, meets the Devil, Jesus, and Buddha, and has to fight his way through demons to be reborn. It is apparent that these adventures are outrageous, overblown, and surprisingly silly, but there is also a sincere affection for these superheroic conventions. Brown at once parodies these adventures while also capturing their joyful parts.

Sean T. Collins called it "a funny, intelligently drawn superhero humor comic."

Deadly Awesome

The second volume is more like a manga, with one MMA fight comprising the totality of the book's plot. Brown stages the action with great detail and attention, and his visual storytelling is quite excellent. What puts this story over the top is its crazily intense and intricate dialogue (both external and internal) that lends an inappropriately undue amount of gravity to the proceedings. The fight is a formulaic one, the up-and-coming brawler Eldark Garprub versus the cagey veteran Haruki Rabasaku, but Brown's artfulness keeps things interesting, fresh, and exciting. This parody cleaves closely to its source material, but its love for fight stories shines through even as they are exposed as overinflated bags of wind. The net effect: I really got into this story, snickering at its pomposity but also wondering in suspense who would win.

J. Caleb Mozzocco wrote about it, "The story is more or less all sports story cliché, but Brown livens it up with a lot of extremely weird touches, and a wild use of various layouts that give the book a surprisingly fluid look."

The Kind of Strength that Comes from Madness!

This third volume of Sulk is less of coherent whole than it is a survey of caffeinated science fiction and fantasy stories. Pirates, college students with huge, remote controlled robots, and long-haired martial artists populate these pages. There are vampires fighting unicorns, giant lizards terrorizing cities, and astronauts taking substances to augment their abilities. Things often end poorly for those involved, transforming the clever twist endings of Twilight Zone episodes or formulaic Silver Age monster comics into something like a blunt object. These stories wink at those past tales in part in admiration, letting us know we are in on a joke, but they are also pretty brutal in their execution. Except for its ending with a jokey story about time-traveling babies, I felt this book was very dark in comparison with the others.

This volume is probably the one I have seen least positively reviewed, mostly, I feel, because of what Sean T. Collins observes, that "the anchor point in The Kind of Strength That Comes from Madness is much harder to locate." It is a satire about pretty wide genre conventions.

The series as a whole seems to me very well received. The reviewer at Avoid the Future wrote about these three volumes, "the stories in Sulk are nothing if not concise, and, like most good short fiction, waste nothing in their construction. Every panel and word is valuable, and consequently, it’s difficult not to feel absorbed whilst reading it." It is difficult to read these books and not conclude that Brown is very good at making comics of many varieties.

Top Shelf provides lots of information and previews for each volume in this series (click the links to see more about volumes 1, 2, and 3). 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Top Shelf Month Begins!

Based in Marietta, Georgia, Top Shelf Productions is one of the preeminent publishers of graphic novels in the United States. They offer a range of works, from free webcomics to kid's club works to more mature content. Their stable of creators is pretty diverse in terms of nationality, style, and focus, and it includes Alan Moore, James Kochalka, Jeff Lemire, and Andy Runton.

Publisher/editor Chris Staros is also President of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and he has been a stalwart promoter of good comics and graphic novels for years.

This month I will be featuring various works Top Shelf has published. I hope you enjoy reading about these books as much as I enjoyed reading them!

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

My Top Graphic Novels from the Last Year

I read a lot of comics and graphic novels over the course of a year, and I review the majority of them on this blog. What follows is a list of my favorites that I wrote about here, plus two whose reviews are to come in the new year. Most are from 2012, but I could not resist including a couple from 2011 that I did not get to reading until this past year.

From 2012:

My Friend Dahmer
A deeply creepy and thought provoking book, this graphic novel haunted my thoughts for days and weeks after I read it. Not really voyeuristic, instead it depicts a slow descent into depravity by painstakingly small degrees. This book disturbed me by how much I could relate to some of the characters and situations as well as how they would all lead to eventual horror. Derf's art is incredible in its mix of realism and cartoon. His storytelling is also dead on, with tension-filled sequences, humorous interludes, and painful observations. Maybe the best thing I read in the past year, this graphic novel is an impressive masterpiece.

This graphic novel was a close second in my brain. I really enjoyed Ed Piskor's tragic and compelling account of a fictional super-hacker whose exploits were based on real-life events perpetrated by others. The story beats and art were so expertly laid out they kept me intrigued, while the blend of fiction and reality left me fascinated and wanting to learn more. The story focus, style, and delivery all combined to make this book a highly satisfying reading experience.

Friends with Boys
Faith Erin Hick's tale of adolescence, family drama, friendship, school, and a ghost was one of the most heartfelt and evocative books I read all year. Her character work is strong in terms of her art design but even stronger when it comes to her writing. Each person feels three-dimensional and also intriguing. I was sad to come to the end of the book and realize I could not spend more time with them.

One Dead Spy
The first volume of Nathan Hale's Hazardous Tales hopefully augurs a long series of sequels. This book is at once informative, entertaining, and inventive. It made me laugh at loud while also teaching me much about the American Revolution. Intelligent in delivery and rich in details, it may just be the best historical adaptation I have ever read in graphic novel form.

Cruisin' with the Hound
Sadly, we lost comix institution Spain Rodriguez this year, but we also saw the publication of his works I most appreciate. This book collects various stories that have appeared in anthologies over the years about his formative years as a gang member and roustabout in the 1950s in Buffalo, NY. The artwork is masterful and the stories pop with energy at once sexy, rough, familiar, funny, and bittersweet.

Glory: The Once and Future Destroyer
I just read this book in the past week, and it is everything that superhero and episodic comics should be. Ross Campbell's art suits the wide range of bloody battle scenes, alien creatures, and quiet, emotional moments. Joe Keatinge's writing takes a tired Wonder Woman knock-off and reinvents her as a hulking and formidable character while surrounding her with a fantastic supporting cast and intriguing narrative situations. Every chapter ended with a cliffhanger that kept me wanting more.

The Graphic Canon, Volume 1
Russ Kick's edited book of literature, myths, and legends includes works from many nations and eras and has as diverse a cast of comics creators adapting them. Not everything in this volume is A-1 material, but the hits far outnumber the misses, and the ambitiousness of this first of three volumes cannot be denied.

Here are my couple of books published last year that I could not resist including:

Freshman: Tales of 9th Grade Obsessions, Revelations, and Other Nonsense
One of my greatest comics joys in the past year has been finding the work of Corinne Mucha. I love her mini-comics, and this book is an excellent look at adolescence that is evocative, empathic, and not cloyingly nostalgic. The characters are familiar and real; the situations awkward and memorable. Mucha's cartoonish style, comic pacing, and storytelling chops are excellent.

Infinite Kung Fu
Kagan McLeod's epic combines the best aspects of kung fu movies, supernatural fighters, undead adversaries, and legendary tales. The action sequences are incredible, the cast of characters intriguing, and there is a guy who can punch you so hard you cough up centipedes. Extremely fun and engaging.

There you have it, not a top ten, but my Best of Last Year.

Thanks for reading my blog. Happy New Year!