Heroes of the Comics (Fantagraphics)

HeroesOfComics
CREDIT: Fantagraphics Comics

Rating: 5/5 – Fabulous Portraits and Bios of Legendary Comics Creators.
by ComicSpectrum EiC Bob Bretall.

Drew Friedman is a veteran artist, having been published in seminal underground comics like Raw and Weirdo. Magazines like Heavy Metal, National Lampoon, and Mad.  He has also been drawing fabulous portraits of celebrities for a looong time.  If you’re unfamiliar with his work, check out his web-site.  Friedman draws movie stars, sports figures, comedians, politicians, musicians, and more.  And in this book we find collected the work where he chose to turn his able pen to comics creators.  And not just any creators, these are the giants of the fields.  The title of the book does not lie, these are the Heroes of the Comics.

In addition to 83 wonderfully rendered full-page color portraits we are treated to capsule biographies of each on the opposing page.  You may know some of these creators, but most people will not be familiar with them all.  I’ve read a lot of comics and a lot of comics history and I discovered a few names in here that I was unfamiliar with, but I know them now.  And how cool is it to see the faces of the men behind the comics you know and love?  Or, in some cases, the creators behind the comics that inspired the comics that inspired the comics that you know and love…  Check out the Fantagraphics web-site where you can download a 21-page preview of this fabulous 9″x12″ hardcover tome.

Check out portraits of people you likely know: Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko.  And what about Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Carmine Infantino, Ramona Fradon?  Frank Frazetta, Joe Kubert, Alex Toth, Russ Heath, and many many more.  If you love comics and you care about the creators behind those comics you love, you owe it to yourself to check this book out.  It’s a visual treat and a learning experience wrapped into a single hardcover.  Thank you, Drew Friedman.  Thank you, Fantagraphics.

Reviewed by: Bob Bretall
(bob@comicspectrum.com
)
https://comicspectrum.com/ Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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Letter 44 Vol. 1 (Oni Press)

Letter 44 Volume #1
CREDIT: Oni Press

Rating: 4.5/5 – A Political Thriller with a Healthy Dose of Science Fiction.
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Adam Alamo.

On his first day in office, newly-elected President Stephen Blades takes charge of a nation embroiled in two wars, an economy on the brink of collapse, and a failing healthcare system. Sound familiar? Well, don’t get too comfortable as that familiarity ends when President Blades opens a letter left by his predecessor. The letter details that seven years prior NASA discovered an alien presence in a nearby asteroid field, where they appear to be building an unidentified structure for an unknown purpose. Keeping this knowledge a secret from the public, the president nearly bankrupts the country and ramps up the war effort as a catalyst to develop advanced military technology and train soldiers for what may be an eventual alien invasion. He also sends nine astronauts on a mission to space to discover what these aliens are building and whether or not they are threat to Earth. President Blades is sworn into office just as these astronauts are about to make first contact.

Letter 44 Vol. 1 collects issues 1-6 of Charles Soule’s creator-owned book that is part political thriller and part science fiction. It was the political thriller part of the book that really surprised me. In the hands of any other writer, I would expect this type of book to be straight up science fiction, devoting most, if not all, of its time to the looming alien threat. Instead, attorney-by-day Charles Soule turns your average alien invasion into an enthralling political story as President Blades comes to grips with this new reality and weaves his way through the opening days of his presidency. Foul play runs amok as agents of the prior administration go to lengths to ensure the status quo and I had at least three jaw dropping moments that had nothing to do with aliens. It could be argued that working for the Blades Administration is more dangerous than a mission into outer space! Suffice to say, in a medium where science fiction, superheroes, and fantasy drive the market, I found the political part of this story the most intriguing.

That’s not to say that the other half of the story is any less captivating. The astronauts face numerous challenges as they approach the aliens and eventually make contact. Not all of these challenges are external, as the crew of nine (really eight, but that’s a plot point yet to be addressed) deal with their own interpersonal issues. It’s tough to get to know a large cast over several months of a comic’s release, so this is one advantage of a collected edition. Nevertheless, Soule does a decent job of fleshing out the characters and making them distinct enough for now. Future issues will hopefully continue to develop this crew. The aliens are not at all what I expected, which is a good thing. If I had to describe first contact with them, I would say it was like meeting floating geometry in a surreal painting. Granted, geometry was never this deadly, despite the opinions of my 14 year-old self. The astronauts investigate these aliens with vigor and I suspect we have only just scratched the surface of what they are and what they are planning. The pacing to the eventual reveal was just right, though I admit that I continually and selfishly urged the astronauts to dive in and learn more.

Letter 44 is my first experience with the art of Alberto Jimenez Alburquerque. He has a unique style that took some getting used to, but has become as much a part of the story as political power plays and geometrical aliens. It is with the latter that his ridged, angular lines plays especially well, though to be fair most of the book deals with ordinary folks in ordinary locales. Though I find it unlikely to happen in this book, I would love to see Alburquerque tackle some muscular, sinewy monsters or superheroes. I think this young artist is definitely one to look out for.

This first volume of Letter 44 is a political thriller wrapped in a cloak of science fiction. Whereas Soule could have easily turned this into a shoot ‘em up, us versus them story a la any number of similar books or movies, he’s instead pulled away the curtain to show us how those who pull the strings might react. The answer is, not surprisingly, politics as usual. The series is currently on issue #8, so there is time to pick up this first volume and get caught up for the second story arc, which I can tell you has doubled down on every premise introduced in this volume.

Reviewed by: Adam Alamo
(adam@comicspectrum.com
)
https://comicspectrum.com/ Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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The Weirding Willows Vol. 1 (Titan Comics)

WWillows V1
CREDIT: Titan Comics

Rating: 4.5/5 – Do We Need Another Fairytale Book With Public-Doman Characters? Yes!
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow.

When The Weirding Willows premiered in Titans A1 anthology monthly, I approached it with some apprehension. The last thing the comics world needs right now, I thought, is yet another mish-mash of public domain characters a la Willingham’s Fables, and the numerous other books, copiers, and hangers-on it has generated in its wake.  So I tread cautiously as I made my way through this first collection, and found myself enjoying Dave Elliott’s take on a small patch of earth which serves as the nexus point for a number of magical realms. The artwork is positively stunning, whether it’s the painted style of Barnaby Bagenda or the more traditional heavier inkwork of Sami Basri (in the latter part of the book). Equally compelling was the appearance of characters both familiar and some not seen in a considerable time. When was the last time you sat down with a copy of The Wind in the Willows?

Some of the mainstays are here as well. Alice…yes, that Alice…is the central character, living with but working against her father, Dr. Moreau, as he continues his beast-splicing experiments. Pity poor Alice, who has appeared in numerous books, manga and video games as a grownup looking to find her way back down the rabbit hole. Yet with the advent of television shows like Grimm and Once Upon A Time, it seems we’ve only scratched the surface of her looking glass. (Yes, I went a long way for that one…my apologies!)

Moreau has a patron – a certifiably wicked woman who requests some flying monkeys – and when his colleague Doolittle shows up with a new shipment of animals he’s trapped (he’s the son of the original), the presence of a panther and bear should be an easy clue for any Kipling fan as to when a certain man-cub will show up. Throw in Frankenstein’s monster, Dr. Jekyll, and Peter Rabbit and you have a cast of characters familiar yet given new life by Elliott’s capable scripting.

The main thrust of The Weirding Willows focuses on Alice’s attempts to keep the secrets of the surrounding countryside from her father. The land is a junction of portals to Wonderland, OZ, Neverland, Mars, Pellucidar (Hollow Earth) and Elysium. Did I mention Mars? Yes, a certain four armed Barsoomian makes an appearance in this book, which brought an ear to ear grin to this Burroughs fan’s face. A number of side-plots occur and the second volume is set up beautifully by the events of the first. The only problem now is waiting for that next volume to come out.

Titan continues to impress and astound with their releases. Not only are these collections gorgeous hardcovers with beautiful artwork, solid writing, and plenty of extras and notes thrown in, books like The Weirding Willows beat the odds by giving me what I didn’t think I needed – yet another book about fairy tale characters, but ended up wanting very much. You many not think you need this book, either, but let me assure you, you do.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow
(al@comicspectrum.com
)
https://comicspectrum.com/ Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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God Is Dead Vol. 1 (Avatar)

god-is-dead-vol-1
CREDIT: Avatar

Rating: 3/5 – So Many Great Ideas That Are Not Fully Explored.
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Shawn Hoklas.

God is Dead is full of great ideas, which is no surprise considering it’s co-written by Jonathan Hickman. Unfortunately, those great ideas fall flat as this first volume quickly rushes through them, never exploring one for too long and never allowing the reader to see those ideas take on greater meaning. At times because of the quick pace and the potential of the ideas falling short of their potential, it almost feels as though Hickman and co-writer Mike Costa are at odds with the direction this book should go. God is Dead is an entertaining read, but it falls short in the promise of its premise.

As the story opens, apocalyptic scenarios are ravaging the planet. Floods, earthquakes and more are killing millions of people. As the world looks to their gods for some type of answer to their prayers, Zeus is the first god to arrive on earth looking to be worshipped. From there, over the course of this book’s first six issues more and more gods arrive and begin to war with one another which doesn’t bode well for the human population. The heroes of the book are a small group of scientists that look to create their own god, a god of science, in hopes of stopping the ancient gods from destroying the world. Each idea along the way is strong, but it’s the execution along the way that fails.

As the group of scientists attempt to create their first god, they argue whether or not there needs to be a story about it’s birth that would get others to believe. It’s a compelling argument that’s relevant to today’s analysis of religion, but the idea is introduced in one panel, and moved away from just a few panels later. Also, as each god is introduced they all feel relatively the same. Loki and Zeus are both similar in their personalities and the way that they speak so at times the only differentiation is from the art. The gods are all violent, and all just a tad crazy. All the other gods like Anubis, Bast and others eventually all do battle with one another, giving the book a heavy dose of violence which Avatar is usually known for, focusing more on that and less on the religious differences and the motives behind their wars.

Artist Di Amorim does a nice job with art as he presents the gods in all their regality, each with their own set of unique features. Although there are at times too many battles in the book, this is where Amorin shines. His action scenes are fantastic and many of them have an epic feel to them. Unfortunately the regular humans lack the same polish, making them feel flat and simple. There’s also a couple problems with storytelling even in the art. In a particular scene a god is starting to form and after first appearing with four arms, a couple panels later she’s down to two. It’s something that shouldn’t be missed, but unfortunately is, again making the book feel rushed.

Overall, God is Dead will entertain, but it feels like it could be so much more. In an industry that is decompressing the writing, at times it’s refreshing to read a book that tells a full and detailed story in six issues. Unfortunately, there’s so many great ideas waiting to be explored within this first volume and none of them get their fair share of time except for the violence. Hickman has proven to be a solid writer so hopefully later volumes are paced a bit slower, I’m just not sure if I want to take the time to find out.

Reviewed by: Shawn Hoklas
(shawn@comicspectrum.com
)
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The Sakai Project HC (Dark Horse)

SakaiHC
CREDIT: Dark Horse

Rating: 5/5 – 100s of Artistic Takes on Usagi Yojimbo.
by ComicSpectrum EiC Bob Bretall.

I you love Stan Sakai’s character Usagi Yojimbo you’ve probably already bought or ordered this.  If you’ve never heard of Usagi you should be checking out one of the collected editions of Saki’s ronin rabbit.  It may feature anthropomorphics, but it’s got more humanity than many of the other comics on the stands.  If you’re just a lover of great art, taking the subject out of it, again, this is a must-buy.

In case you were not aware Stan Sakai’s wife Sharon became ill a few years ago.  Even though the Sakai family does have health insurance (not something every comics professional has the foresight to purchase) that insurance still doesn’t cover all necessary out-of-pocket expenses.  That’s where the Comic Art Professional Society (CAPA) and Tone Rodriguez came in.  They had the idea of doing a benefit book.  Then Mike Richardson of Dark Horse stepped up to the plate and offered to completely cover the costs of producing this book and donate all proceeds to the Sakai’s on top of that!  PLUS, all the original art (and a lot of other donated art not featuring Usagi) was auctioned off and those proceeds went to the Sakai’s.

Taking all that off the plate, this is a gorgeous book in it’s own right and well worth buying even if it wasn’t a benefit for one of the greats of the comics field and one of the nicest creators you could ever hope to meet (as anyone who has met Stan at a convention will surely attest t0).  This is a book I’ll revisit and flip though time and time again.  Play “guess the artist by examining their style” when you cover up the art credits on each page with a finger and drink in the art.  It’s a great tool for training your art appreciation.

As an art book alone this stands head and shoulders above ordinary sketchbooks and art books.  I love the idea of seeing hundreds of artists do their interpretation of the same character.  Every image is a unique artistic vision and spotlights both the style of the artist producing it and typically captures some core aspect of the common character being portrayed (in this case Usagi).  At $29.99 for 150 pages of wonderful art this is a terrific deal, and since all the profits go to Stan & Sharon Sakai, it’s a wonderful cause as well.  You benefit from the art you get to appreciate, Stan & Sharon benefit from the sale of the book, it’s good all around!  Seek this book out!  Let’s buy so many they need to go to a second printing!

Reviewed by: Bob Bretall
bob@comicspectrum.com
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Archie: The Married Life Book #1 (Archie)

Archie The Married Life Book #1
CREDIT: Archie Comics

Rating: 5/5 – Archie All Grown Up.
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Adam Alamo.

My sole experience with Archie prior to this last year was picking up copies of Archie’s Double Digest at the grocery store as a child.  I long ago moved on to what I thought were more “serious” superhero comics and never looked back. Then along came Afterlife with Archie, which not only threw zombies into the mix, but replaced slapstick humor with mature themes and situations. Spurred by this and news of Archie’s impending death, I decided to give Life with Archie a try, a series that for the last few years has focused on two possible futures (one in which Archie married Betty, the other Veronica). Archie: The Married Life Book #1 collects the first six issues of this series, each issue featuring one story each from the two possible futures. In other words, this collection is jammed packed with a lot of fantastic material that has definitively cemented me as an Archie fan for life!

Each story begins with a short recap of their respective wedding bliss (originally published in Archie #600 – #605). However, there is no required reading before tackling Life with Archie and the recaps are sufficient to jump right into the series. Having read the marriage stories, they weren’t as good as I imagined and actually lowered my expectations going into Life with Archie. To me, the marriage stories fell flat and the characters were as one-dimensional as ever. That being said, Life with Archie immediately redeemed the whole concept by setting itself up as a bit of soft ret-conning to flesh out the details hitherto glossed over. As the story progresses, we see how the single decision by Archie to choose either Betty or Veronica alters the respective futures. Some of the differences are major, but most are subtle. The supporting cast in particular seems to play similar roles in each future, but they choose to deal with their situations differently in each.

Co-writer Paul Kupperberg admits in one of the forewords that at times he had trouble keeping track of the different storylines because there were so many similarities. I’ll admit to experiencing the same thing, having more than once gone back through the book before starting the next chapter. Despite this, Kupperberg and his co-writer Michael Uslan do a masterful job of ensuring continuity throughout. They even introduce the concept of a multiverse to explain not only the two futures in the book, but also the multitude of Archie related books released in the past 70 years. It is hinted throughout the book that this concept will be explored further in the series and I look forward to that. Until then, we are treated to a cast of characters that through their personal trials learn and grow and break free from the shackles of their previously assigned roles. Through all this growth, the art Norm Breyfogle maintains the Archie style that is as distinctly recognizable as the characters themselves. To the untrained eye, it is indistinguishable from any Archie art of the past. I would say that it is much cleaner and crisper.

In terms of story, character development, and overall Archie mythos, Archie: The Married Life Book #1 represents the very best Archie I’ve ever seen. Archie and his crew grow up and break away from the small town life that has held them captive for 70 years. In doing so, they reject their assigned archetypes what seemed to be more simple personalities in the kid’s stories to reveal a depth of character that I never expected in an Archie comic. Nevertheless, it maintains that bit of nostalgia that Archie always seems to elicit. I think that this reinvention of Archie is just what was needed after so many years and I look forward to not only the next book in this collection, but the future of the Archie brand as a whole.

Reviewed by: Adam Alamo
(adam@comicspectrum.com
)
https://comicspectrum.com/ Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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The Graveyard Book Vol. 1 (Harper)

Graveyardv1
CREDIT: Harper

Rating: 5/5 – A Magical Graphic Adaptation of Gamain’s Award Winning Novel.
by ComicSpectrum EiC Bob Bretall.

This graphic adaptation is equally suited for people who have read Neil Gaiman’s prose version or who are experiencing it here as a graphic novel for the first time.  I read the prose edition when it first came out in 2008, and one of the chapters “The Witch’s Headstone” was first published the year prior to that in Gaiman’s all-ages “M is for Magic” anthology.  The Graveyard Book is the tale of Nobody Owens (aka Bod) who is raised by an assortment of supernatural guardians, primarily ghosts, in a local graveyard after the murder of his parents by “the man Jack”.

When you’re dealing with core material that is of the quality of Neil Gaiman’s Hugo and Locus award winning novel it’s a really touchy thing.  There would seem to be a lot of downside for the adaptation to not hold up to the prose, kind of like how people will often say that a movie is not as good as the book it was based on.  This is happily not the case here, P. Craig Russell has done a stellar job of selecting an art team with styles that are similar enough in tone to make the whole work hold together, but each is different enough that it gives every chapter a charm all it’s own.  Why all the different artists?  Russell said in an interview that it would have taken him years to get the book out if he illustrated it all, but by doing the overall design and illustrating a chapter here & there he was able to get the book out in a much more timely fashion.

Each chapter of the book is a standalone story focusing on Bod as he grows up, each chapter being spaced 2 years after the previous one.  The nature of the storytelling and the temporal difference from each chapter to the next melds perfectly with the various art styles.  Kevin Nowlan takes Chapter 1 as the infant Bod is adopted by the inhabitants of the graveyard.  Chapter 2 is done by P. Craig Russell himself as Bod finds a friend.  Chapter 3 is by Tony Harris (illustrating the real world) and Scott Hampton handling art on the other side of the Ghoul-Gate (and this transition works surprisingly well).  Chapter 4 is the story of the Witch’s Headstone, illustrated by Galen Showman (and my favorite chapter of the book).  Jill Thompson brings us Chapter 5 which is the story of the Danse Macabre and we finish with a short interlude by Stephen B. Scott setting up the action for the second half that will be out on September 30th covering Chapter 6 through the end of the book.

Gaiman’s prose is wonderfully brought to life by P. Craig Russell and the cast of other artists.  While each Chapter stands on it’s own, there is a clear through story that beautifully captures Bod’s growth, education, and maturation as he travels through his life in the graveyard.  It’s certainly an unusual way to grow up but at the same time it felt relatable and that’s part of the magic Gaiman is able to weave as a master storyteller.  Whether you’ve read the story before or not, you owe it to yourself to sample this visual adaptation of Gaiman’s enchanting story.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough and it will be challenging to wait another 2 months to read the second half.

Reviewed by: Bob Bretall
bob@comicspectrum.com
https://comicspectrum.com/
Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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