Sunday, October 25, 2020

In a Glass Grotesquely

2020 has been a turbulent year, full of turmoil and tragedy. One of this year's biggest losses for me in the world of comics was the sudden death of Richard Sala. I love his distinctive art style, which was reminiscent of many influences, an amalgamation of Mad magazine details and Expressionism as well as elements of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey. He was excellent at creating tone and crafting punchy, creepy, compelling stories.
 
In a Glass Grotesquely contains one large story and three shorter, black and white pieces. The three final stories are more emblematic of Sala's general style: dark, claustrophobic spaces full of terrible and weird characters. The lead tale, "Super-Enigmatix," originally serially published as a webcomic, contains many elements of what made Sala's work so memorable and exciting. Tonally, it's like a old-time movie serial, packed with plot and powerful visuals. It features a mysterious genius figure bent on murder, conspiracy, and sowing chaos. There is an army of armed female assassins, giant killer plants, and many red herrings/plot twists. It also strikes me as being a story that at once recalls the past in terms of genre but in terms of theme speaks to contemporary matters such as reality television, fake news, and government manipulation. It plays as both loving homage as well as biting satire. I find it fascinating just how timeless and timely this book is. 
But, this being a work by Richard Sala, for me it's biggest selling point is the artwork. The main story is rendered in color, and it contains a number of fantastic elements, including a wonderfully disguised antagonist, a bevy of evening gown-clad women, monster plants, monster-masked villains, and some psychedelic, dreamlike layouts. He was masterful at designing worlds for bold characters and bombastic action.

All of the reviews I have read about it online have been positive, though I feel they don't quite account for how much bitterness is mixed in with its sweetness. Jason Sacks called it "a classic Sala style delight that brings new treats on every page." Graham Johnstone called it "an enjoyable romp" that will sweep readers along with its "joyful energy." Sala speaks more about all of his works, but "Super-Enigmatix" specifically in this interview.

In a Glass Grotesquely was published by Fantagraphics, and they offer a preview and more here.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Something is Killing the Children, Volume One

A million years ago when I was a wee ankle-biter in a comic shop, I remember Vic Bertini, the owner of Iron Vic Comics ("He rules Poughkeepsie with an iron fist!"), saying about Neil Gaiman's Sandman series that it was the only book that brought "Vassar girls" into his shop. From what I've read, the series whose first five issues are collected here, Something is Killing the Children, has similar drawing power for non-typical comics shop goers. After reading this trade paperback, I can see why. It's got an intriguing premise, compelling characters, and scenes that are genuinely horrific.

The setting for the story is the small town of Archer's Peak, where, as of the start of the book, at least 15 children have either been killed or gone missing. And by killed, I mean butchered, chopped up, and left in pieces. The entire town has been traumatized and is desperately searching for answers. One boy, James, who somehow survived a monster attack contacted a woman named Erica Slaughter. She has monster-killing expertise and a mysterious backstory. Not to mention that she carries around a stuffed octopus toy that she has regular conversations with. Her methods are unorthodox, to say the least, and I found her absolutely compelling.

Erica knows how to make an entrance...
As for the rest of the town, it is filled with a complex set of characters. James is sort of an outcast, and many students at his school suspect he is a murderer. Tommy is a manager of a local restaurant whose sister is missing, and he begins to tail Erica and complicates her work. The local police department, populated via nepotism, is flummoxed to the point of accepting unorthodox help. All of these various motivations and characterizations are what make this book work so well.

The artwork is appropriately spooky, with horrific monsters and lots of great storytelling that helps build suspense. This book does not show all the gory details, but it shows enough to get the reader to fill in the gaps in ways that elevate the horror. Plus, there are some very cool visual designs, particularly Erica's "work gear," complete with its creepy mask and power tools.

I have to admit I am not typically fan of horror comics, but this series is utterly compelling. I put it in the pantheon of superb, frightening, and unsettling horror comics with Southern Cross and Wytches. This volume collects the first five issues of the series, which was originally meant to be a limited series but has since been made ongoing.

This series is a collaboration between writer James Tynion IV, artist Werther Dell'Edera, and colorist Miquel Muerto. Tynion IV is known for his GLAAD Media Award winning series The Woods as well as writing a large number of Batman-related titles for DC Comics. Dell'Edera has drawn a number of titles for DC's Vertigo imprint. Muerto is a colorist with many credits for companies such as Boom! Studios, Vault, DC, and IDW. Tynion IV and editor Eric Harburn speak about the series in this interview.

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been positive. Jenny Robins wrote, "While there’s nothing earth-shatteringly original in the story, there are more than enough strands of intrigue to keep you turning the pages, from the mysterious Slaughter family Erica belongs to, the efforts of the local police, and of the relatives of the missing kids and their already layered stories." Justin Monday wrote, "The unique plot, excellent character writing, and nailbiting presentation are sure to excite, intrigue, and scare the hell out of you." Gregory Paul Silber opined that the series's "slow start may discourage some readers, but its first volume has loads of promise for patient ones."

Something is Killing the Children was published by BOOM! Studios, and they offer a preview and more info about the series here.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Lon Chaney Speaks

Lon Chaney was notoriously private during his life, once even stating, "Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney." This book, Lon Chaney Speaks, takes a shot in filling in some of the gaps about his private life, but as is written in the author's note that opens the book, it is more of a "imagined biography."

For those who don't know, Lon Chaney was an actor who began working in vaudeville, transitioned to silent movies, and finally made his speaking debut in a movie just before he died. He is renowned as "the man of 1,000 faces" for his pioneering make-up and special effects work. He was famous for portraying monsters and other gruesome creatures in his films, most notably The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. This book recreates movie posters for most of his films and also provides adaptations for his more famous roles. It also portrays events from his private life, including a rocky first marriage, an uneasy relationship with his son Creighton (later known as Lon Chaney, Jr.), and a happier second marriage. It also shows behind the scenes glimpses of how he slowly built his career into one of the most notable in Hollywood history.

This book is a clear labor of love that is very well researched and referenced. I adore the scenes and adaptations of the films, and the personal moments are all well staged as executed in terms of portraying strong characters and memorable events.The bold storytelling is reminiscent of the art style often employed by illustrators of the day (especially Syd Hoff), which adds to the historical tone of the story. A variety of colors are used, though each vignette is rendered mono-chromatically, which helps with shifts in time and space as well as indicates what is "real life" and what are movie scenes. I am a big fan of comics, old Hollywood movies, and monsters, so this book is right up my alley. It's gorgeous and informative, a must have for any monster or movie fans who are into comics.

This book's creator Pat Dorian is a filmmaker and cartoonist who has worked on high-profile projects for AMC and Adult Swim. He also teaches animation at the Pratt Institute. This book is his graphic novel debut, though he began the project as two mini-comics titled "Lon Chaney Talks."

All of the reviews I have read of this book have been full of praise. In a starred review, Kirkus called it a "dazzling debut" that "captures the voice and soul of Lon Chaney." Publishers Weekly called it a "spirited homage." Steven Thompson wrote, "It capsulizes his life just enough. He’s depicted as a less than perfect man, getting along as well as he can in a less than perfect world."

Lon Chaney Speaks was published by Pantheon, and they offer a preview and more here.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Last Pick: Rise Up

There is a burden on trilogy finales to tie up all the loose ends in satisfying, and increasingly novel, ways. In this sense I think that Rise Up is a successful capper to the Last Pick series. It is a gratifying conclusion to an action narrative but also goes beyond into more nuanced territory. I don't want to spoil too much about it, but I will say that it is thrilling and full of "heck yeah!" moments where the alien invaders get what's coming to them. There are also a number of family reunions, including twins Sam and Wyatt (which may be a spoiler, but it's on the COVER), though they are  tempered with sadness and loss. Along the way, there are also some quiet moments, bursts of humor, and great character work. One thing this book excels at is depicting characters in diverse, individualized ways that make them memorable. 

What really drew me to this series was the sheer amount of gruesome aliens throughout the book. They are drawn in a way that is very playful and filled with delight, as ugly as they are. But behind this monstrous facade is an important look at how assumptions can turn into prejudices. Many of these creatures have been manipulated, and as you can see from the preview, some even fall in with the rebellion. 

As an added bonus, in this book there are lots of mech-suits used to battle the aliens. Mech-suits are cool.  

I love how all the Last Pick books explore how being disabled is not the same thing as being useless. The ruling aliens have dismissed entire swaths of the human population for being too old or somehow otherwise defective for physical or mental conditions. However, Wyatt and his crew prove them wrong. They are scrappy, crafty, and quite effective at what they do, on a universal scale. It's rare to find a book that balances having a message with also being exciting, but this one pulls off that trick.

This book's creator Jason Walz is a comics creator and special educator. Beside the Last Pick series, he is also known for his Eisner Award-nominated Homesick as well as A Story for Desmond.

The reviews I have read of this book have been positive. T Drecker wrote, "There's a wonderful sense of family and friendship, which gives the tale heart. While this is sold as a novel for young adults, I can easily see older middle graders enjoying it quite a bit as well." Kirkus Reviews gave it a starred review that summed up, "An affecting and unforgettable SF series with heart." As of this post, it currently has a 4.30 (out of 5) star rating on Goodreads.

Last Pick: Rise Up was published by First Second, and they offer a preview and much more here

A review copy was provided by the author.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Volume 1

I grew up reading a lot of Archie Comics, and I have a soft spot for those characters. In the recent decade, Archie has been doing a lot of work to update these characters, bringing in some high caliber creators to do so. Although Sabrina the Teenage Witch has never been one of my favorite titles, I am very taken with the creative team here, especially writer Kelly Thompson and artists Veronica and Andy Fish. I have to say that this series delivered some top notch entertainment.

This series, originally published as 5 issues, has everything I want from a Sabrina comic: high school drama, mysterious monsters, moments of genuine suspense, magic, modern-day witches, and a snarky, talking cat.
It even kicks some of these features up a notch, but I won't spoil things here by saying how. Suffice it to say that Sabrina is the new girl at Greendale High School, which attracts some wanted attention from a couple of love-lorn boys, Harvey and Ren, as well as unwanted attention from mean-girl Radka. As Sabrina settles in, makes some friends, and gets acquainted with high school life, she also finds herself the target of attacks from magical beasts that roam not only the woods but the high school. Unraveling this mystery detracts from her academics, but when her aunts get involved Sabrina finds she has to bail them out as well.

As I wrote earlier, I love this creative team, and they bring so much to this book. Thompson writes lots of clever dialogue but also spins a compelling mystery/horror plot with style. The Fish art team creates ambiances that suit the humor/drama of high school while also portraying some frightening beasts and appropriately spooky magical events. The coloring also plays a big part in creating appropriate tones that make the artwork dazzling. This book was thoroughly entertaining, and I recommend it for fans of YA horror or supernatural fantasy.

Thompson has written a bunch of comics series for various publishers over the past few years, and some of my favorites include Hawkeye, West Coast Avengers, Captain Marvel, and Nancy Drew. Veronia and Andy Fish have collaborated on a number of comics projects, including a few other Archie series and the horror series Blackwood. Thompson talks about her work on this Sabrina series in this interview.

Reviews I have read about this book have been generally positive. Nick Smith called it "an excellent restart to this classic series." J. Caleb Mozzocco wrote, "Thompson and artists Veronica Fish and Andy Fish are telling what is basically an adventure comic, with character-driven humor, drama, and yes, plenty of cool-looking monsters, but never so much of any of those elements that they threaten to overwhelm the comic and push it into another genre." Oliver Sava opined, "There’s a lot of potential in this new take, but also room for improvement."

Sabrina the Teenage Witch was published by Archie Comics, and they offer a preview and more here. A sequel series titled Something Wicked has recently been published.