Tuesday, May 3, 2016

ALL STAR RECOMMENDS: FREE COMIC BOOK DAY BONANZA EDITION!


No time for much preamble -- it’s Free Comic Book Day time!!

Here is your guide to (almost) every single comic being given away this coming Saturday in alphabetical order by title. I got hold of forty-five of the fifty books on offer (with Z2 Comics Lab, Oddly Normal, Overstreet 2016, Phantom and Sonic The Hedgehog missing) and although it’s not a clean sweep of the titles, I hope you get something out of this preview.

I also sincerely hope you all have just the best time on FCBD 2016. Plan ahead, would be my advice; you otherwise might get overwhelmed by choice, as you’re about to find out...

THE COMICS


2000AD (REBELLION)

The 2000AD crew send Judge Dredd out, lawgiver blazing, in a bid for your attention and not just for FCBD but hopefully well beyond it. I’m assuming long-time editor Matt Smith put this comic together and kudos to him because it’s both smart marketing (including access to heaps of free digital comics and even music) and is a pretty ace read to boot.

No less a talent than Mike Allred provides a typically cool cover and this is reason alone to pick the freebie up. Allred’s recruitment is a surprising sign of what’s inside, with many North American creators making the move to Mega City One to support their British fellows. Eric Powell kicks things off by illustrating a full-colour Dredd tale from a script by Alex Worley. The story’s a little more towards the Mad-satire end of the 2000AD humour spectrum, but the premise is timely and it’s a cool thing to see Powell illustrating Dredd. He was born to draw that jawline.

Hannah Berry and Dani’s Fodder: Fiends from the Eastern Front is an interesting change of pace. Reductively speaking, it’s a horror/conspiracy story set during the Vietnam War. It’s about as far away from Mega City One future madness as you can get, but it’s impressive stuff, beautifully drawn by Dani, and more of it can be accessed for free digitally thanks to a code at the story’s end. Good show, Rebellion people.

Peter Milligan returns to Bad Company, ably accompanied by artist Rufus Dayglo who provides a loving illustrative tribute to the late, great Brett Ewins (former artist on this series) that will please long-time fans to no end. John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra even manage to squeeze in a short Strontium Dog number and Barry Island and Henry Flint give us a quick Tharg’s Terror Tale (the periodical’s short, EC style shocker), the latter being possibly the only thing that feels slightly superfluous here. But again, it’s self-contained and free. No room for complaints here. And yet again, a link to more free digital content is provided. Brilliant move, Tharg.

Closing things out, editor Matt Smith recruits Joelle Jones (!) to draw his self-contained story, Ratfink: The Big Empty. Jones’ art is just lovely in black and white and, essentially complete right here, this story is another highlight from a big, generous and super-smartly marketed comic. Get this, get this! It’s the FCBD concept executed almost perfectly in my opinion– really zarjaz stuff overall.

 

ARCHIE #1 (ARCHIE COMICS)

Featuring content from the relaunched Archie #1 by Mark Waid and Fiona Staples and even managing to squeeze in a few pages of Jughead #1 by Chip Zdarksy and Erica Henderson, Archie Comics wisely give readers (like me) yet to try their rebooted titles an easy in with their FCBD freebie. You’ve likely read this stuff already, but I hadn’t and it’s good stuff. Waid remains one of the real masters of solid, character-driven pop comics, turning in an easily digested, very fun and open to all readers take on Archie – a far trickier task than he makes it look. The choice of Staples as the title’s artist is inspired, giving the whole gang a modern but still very comic book look that easily jerks the half-century old Archie aesthetic into 2016 while remaining, y’know, funnybook looking in its quirkiness.

Zdarksy and Henderson’s take on Jughead seems similarly solid from the few pages included. Grab this if you’ve yet to give it a shot. You might be surprised. It looks like a pretty impressive reboot overall to me.


 

ASSASSIN’S CREED (TITAN)

Titan’s first of two giveaway comics presents a tale from each of their Assassin’s Creed books,Assassin’s Creed: “The Chair” by Anthony Del Col, Conor McCreedy and Wellington Alves and Assassin’s Creed: Templars: “Great Wall” by Fred Van Lente and Dennis Calero. These are serviceable enough action efforts, the latter of the two the clear stand-out, as you would expect from a creative team as experienced as this, mixing a fair bit of intrigue and moody noirish darkness into its setting of late 1920s China.


ATTACK ON TITAN: ANTHOLOGY (KODANSHA COMICS)

Smart, smart move by Kodansha Comics in giving the FCBD hordes a taste of their upcoming Attack On Titan Anthology. In case you’re unaware, this September sees the release of a 240-page hardcover taking the manga/anime phenomenon and handing it over to a pretty star-studded crop of Western creators. Included in this preview are glimpses at a rather baffling take on Hajime Isayama’s post-apocalyptic monster-hunting property by the Batgirl team of Cameron Stewart, Brendan Fletcher and Babs Tarr, a straight-up action piece by Michael Avon Oeming and some quirky gag strips by Evan Dorkin and Sara Dyer. These three comics alone should make you curious, but what makes Attack On Titan Anthology a must-have on FCBD is a sneak peek at Tomer and Asuf Hanuka’s contribution. It is so gorgeous and gripping you may well find yourself placing an immediate order for the book. Grab this.


AVATAREX (GRAPHIC INDIA)

Postmodern Kirbyism meets Indian mythology in writer Grant Morrison and artist Jeevan J. Kang’s Avatarex, a handsome giveaway from publishers Graphic India. Space station Shamballa comes online and with it the being inside – Avatarex, the “man-god” who Shamballa promises will “know darkness beyond measure.” I’ll not say much more, save for this seems very much like Morrison riffing on classic Lee/Kirby Thor. I could be wrong, not much is given away here, but from the preview’s ending, it seems likely that Avatraex’s arrogance will be his downfall. A curious start to the series.

Some script pages follow, for anyone who ever wanted to see how The Moz gets it done, and then a preview of 18 Days, by Morrison and (unless I’m missing it) an artist unnamed here, shame on you Graphic India! Whoever drew it, it’s fairly handsome work, with hints of Cloonan and Avon Oeming. In true Morrisonian style, the universe is created over the course of three short pages and “war is born.” An intriguing, if really compressed start to a reworked creation myth by Morrison and company, to be unpacked and explored further in the first volume of this series. Morrison fans and those who like their comics cosmic and borderline hyperbolic will likely dig Avatarex. I’m always intrigued to see how Kirby’s magic can be remixed and Morrison’s certainly working in that vein with these tales.


AWAKE (ACTION LAB)

Cli-Fi for kids seems a tricky proposition, balancing the needs for adventure and character development without being heavy handed with your message is, on paper, a difficult prospect. Writer Susan Beneville throws both her young readers and her characters into the deep end in Awake, balancing two storylines with as much environmental disaster as a short comic will allow. Floods and twisters, unfriendly, overpopulated urban centres and open, barren planet surfaces are all here in this tale of young students learning to explore and control strange elemental powers. 

Brian Hess’ art is straightforward and basic, but he keeps his characters consistent and his sequence of torrential rain turning into a flood is a highlight of the book. Overall, it is perhaps a little too fractured in its narrative, but the team at Action Lab could be on to something here. Give this a shot, dystopian kids!



BOB’S BURGERS (DYNAMITE)

Several tales from the world of Bob’s Burgers by various writers and artists fill Dynamite’s offering, all of them perfectly in keeping with the style and tone of the cartoon they are based on (which I like quite a bit from what I’ve seen). For me, however, the real highlight is the pin-up section at the comic’s rear that, along with a really cool painted front cover by Sara Richard which kind of looks like Peter Kuper art directed it, brings a surprisingly illustrative feel to the Groening-esque character design the show has. Particular mention must go to Derek Schroeder, whose painting of Bob in the style of “The Son of Man” by Magritte is super good. I kind of want to hang them both side by side....


 

BONGO COMICS FREE FOR ALL 2016 (BONGO COMICS)

Okay, it’s comics with The Simpsons in them. I don’t need to say much more than that really as it’s exactly as advertised and it’s perfect for what it is. There’s a sizable amount of material here, big ups to Bongo, but a special shout-out must go to artist Nina Matsumoto who has the aesthetic of the show down so perfectly that this may as well be cells clipped from an episode and pasted onto the page. Evan Dorkin is also present and accounted for, bringing his trademark thickness of line to Groening’s world. Good stuff. Plus you can even “Build Your Own Bender” thanks to the inside back cover, so your kid’s post FCBD activity comes already sorted...assuming you’re okay with your kid cutting up his or her comics and assembling beer drinking robots.


BOOM STUDIOS 2016 SUMMER BLAST (BOOM/ARCHAIA)

Boom Studios somehow manage to squeeze six comics into their absolutely stellar FCBD effort. Kicking things off is Jim Henson’s Labyrinth tale, “Stone Cold”by Cory Godbey. I had no idea Boom/Archaia even had the Labyrinth license, but it’s clear from this offering that they took the responsibility of bringing the beloved movie to comics very seriously. Godbey’s six-page story features the huggable Ludo afflicted with a nasty cold. That’s it. That’s all it needs to be, actually, because this is absolutely beautiful comics work. In fact, such pretty pages bringing such a sweet little story to life actually being given away for free may well leave you feeling like you’ve stolen something from your favourite comics shop.

Compounding the guilt, Labyrinth is followed up with a story from David Petersen’s award-winning and long-running Mouse Guard (which I had somehow never read before), “The Tale of Piper The Listener.” Keeping the illustrative standard at ridiculously high levels, this is just so lovely. Celanawe, our rodent protagonist, is lonely and melancholy, still struggling with the death of a loved one years earlier. He finds some solace in the story of Piper The Listener, a fellow mouse who endeavoured to learn the languages of all animals, not just that of her own species. This is really touching stuff and just created with complete love. I’m going to order Mouse Guard right now. That’s how much I loved this.

Boom: 1.
Cam’s Wallet: 0.

After such self-contained magic, the inclusion of a teaser sampling of upcoming graphic novel The Cloud by writer K.I Zachopoulos and illustrator Vincenzo Balzano, feels a little mean. Again, however, it’s attractive comics, feeling something like the classic Moonshadow in its style, dreaminess and whimsy.

Box Brown is here to bring cartooning back to its attractive basics, appropriately for a self-contained Adventure Time story called “Dirty Dungeon” which sees Finn and Jake trying to retrieve a magical crystal from a mountain of...let’s call it “dirt.” Good stuff again, shifting the tone into the territory of humorous adventure for the run home. Nice to see Brown doing gigs like this in-between his own idiosyncratic works.

Jen Wang and Christine Norrie slice off a section of their upcoming Lumberjanes tale, “Don’t Axe, Don’t Tale” for us. Featuring the Lumberjanes foraging for edible plants and stumbling upon an old encampment with a ghost story attached, spooky stuff clearly lies ahead for everyone’s favourite friends.

A preview of Goldie Vance by Hope Larson and Brittany Williams closes proceedings out adequately with a brief look at a girl detective who lives in a hotel and is doing...something...it’s not made really clear what’s going on. The pages shown are well crafted, however, showcasing the upcoming comic’s aesthetic well. 

All in all, this just feels like Boom/Archaia are totally showing off and, well, why not? This is All Ages material done expertly well, showcasing a variety that shifts in tone wildly, but doesn’t take much of a dip in overall quality. Terrific comics – heart-stealing at the top end, in fact. Sigh. You’ll really need to get this.


BRUCE LEE: THE DRAGON RISES #0 (DARBY POP PUBLISHING)

Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon, provides an introduction to Darby Pop’s All Ages resurrection of the Dragon, giving it the family stamp of approval and making it clear that she was heavily involved in the conception and execution of this new title. Co-written by Shannon with Jeff Kline and with art by Brandon McKinney, she brings her dad back from the grave after forty years and thrusts him into the modern world as an amnesiac trying to find his place in society. Thanks to an encounter with an old friend, Bruce learns who and what he really is, but will he still be able to be “like water” in the 21st Century? All signs point to yes.

Sadly, Bruce Lee: The Dragon Rises does not come with a bottle or can of “Bruce Tea.” This is actually a real thing advertised at the rear of the comic and would no doubt go a long way toward quenching your thirst as you wait in line for your free comics. You could probably use that ginseng boost, I’m sure.

Despite being part of this obvious Bruce Lee marketing machine, there’s something really touching about Bruce Lee: The Dragon Rises. There’s a clear element of wish-fulfilment here, with Shannon Lee imagining just what it would be like to have her father mysteriously come back to us as healthy and full of life as he was right before his mysterious death. She’s even constructed the comic for consumption by readers of roughly the same age that she was when Bruce passed...which is pretty fascinating if you think about it.

 

CBDLF PRESENTS DEFEND COMICS: FCBD EDITION

This is greeeeeaaaaaaat. Essential non-profit organisation Comic Book Legal Defence Fund (CBDLF) comes to the FCBD party with just a terrific sampling of comics aimed at younger readers and mostly centred on the themes of censorship, reading, open discussion and democracy. It’s a stacked line-up too, with Mrs Ashley’s favourite cartoonist, Lucy Knisley plus Andy Runton, James Kochalka, Veronica Fish and John Patrick Green included. I could have done without the inclusions of Asha Ascending and Space Battle Lunchtime, but only because they function solely as advertisements for those two particular creations and take away from the core purpose of CBDLF’s offering somewhat. However, do make sure you pick this up – it’s heartening to see anti-censorship messages so skilfully portrayed, examined and executed for younger readers. Excellent.



CAMP MIDNIGHT (IMAGE)

The first of two all-ages books from Image this FCBD (the other being the missing Oddly Normal, sorry), Camp Midnight sees veteran writer Steven T. Seagle paired with New Yorker artist Jason Adam Katzenstein for an original graphic novel, a fair sample of which is provided for you here for free, natch!  “Reluctant teen camper” Skye has somehow been dropped off at the wrong camp (uh oh!) and instead of making smores and singing Kumbaya (or whatever it is kids do at these things), she’s surrounded by witches and creatures and fellow children with quite literal monsters inside of them (which is nowhere near as scary as I just made it sound).

Seagal keeps his pages to a maximum of three panels, allowing young readers to breeze through the comic and Katzenstein’s stylistically messy artwork real room to get inky. The visual storytelling isn’t super hot, a drawback of having only three panels per page, and at times I wasn’t exactly sure who was who, but it bounces along quirkily and the hook, when it comes at the end of this sample, is actually pretty cool.  As an ad for a 240-page kids book, it works well. Just how much it will appeal to your kids, I’m not really certain but Seagle did co-create Ben 10 so he clearly knows what he’s doing. Plus I always found Quentin Blake’s scratchy illustrations for Roald Dahl books kind of unappealing and he’s very much beloved, so it’s quite likely I’m an idiot. Pick this up and maybe let me know what the younger readers in your lives think? As I said, the hook is a good one.


CAPTAIN AMERICA/SPIDER-MAN: DEAD NO MORE (MARVEL)

Super-slick artwork by Jesus Saiz, a man who clearly loves an expressive face, highlight Marvel’s Captain America offering, giving readers a chance to keep their movie-Cap fervour burning by sampling Steve Rogers’ latest ongoing.

I have no idea what’s up with Cap’s new shield – it’s self-regenerating or something? – but I’m down with Hydra being way less cartoonish and more of a widespread political/terrorist organisation of which seemingly anyone could be a member of. This is a *very* modern take on Cap, with Rick Jones being some sort of MU wikileaks mastermind, massive civil unrest and Hydra orchestrating riots and terror attacks globally, and it’s all snappily delivered via Nick Spencer’s lively script. Pretty good stuff, actually.

Spider-Man has a quick fight with the Rhino and we learn of a resurrection in the Spider-verse that promises shocking revelations to come in the tease for “Dead No More.” Dan Slott and artist Javier Garron present a perfectly acceptable, if fairly generic, short Spider-story, but hey, it’s slick, it’s free and with that last page reveal, Spider-fans will want to get their hands on this. Trust me on that.


CIVIL WAR II/ALL-NEW ALL-DIFFERENT AVENGERS (MARVEL)

Things blow up! Mortal peril abounds! Thanos has a big gun! So much is crammed into this Brian Michael Bendis/Jim Cheung/John Dell effort and the storytelling really suffers as a result of the compression. Having said that, this will probably be the hot ticket FCBD book as it kicks off Marvel’s next uber-event, Civil War II, and if you’re a Marvel fan, you’ll really want it, because…. *Arghhhh must…not…spoil…*

Also: Mark Waid, Alan Davis and Mark Farmer present (part of) a tale of the new Wasp from the All-New, All-Different Avengers title. It’s always nice to see fresh Davis art – he is such a craftsman - and this is sure to be appreciated by other long-time fans. Weirdly, I thought Brian Stelfreeze was inking from the opening page, but no, it’s good old Mark Farmer wielding the brush over Davis once more and it looks gooooood. But however pleasing the Wasp story is, I can’t help but think that this effort would have been better served by just going full-bore into Civil War II and giving the whole comic over to Bendis and co. to give their story the space it needs to breathe. But I am old and crotchety so Marvel fans, do not be discouraged – you really will want to grab this. Seriously. Stuff happens. And lots of it.



DARK LILY & FRIENDS (SPACE GOAT PUBLISHING)

With so much material offered for younger readers this FCBD, and a fair bit of it excellent, Space Goat’s offering of four sample-sized sections from titles Dark Lily, Monster Elementary, Rocket Queen & The Wrench and Mage, Inc. may fly under the radar. All titles are competent enough, however, with Dark Lily (about a Goth girl who lives in a castle on the moon but finds herself transported to Earth) the standout. What’s interesting is the variety in style and story on offer, from the aforementioned Dark Lily, to monster kids, anime-inspired armoured heroes and magicians, Space Goat are casting a wide net and at least one of these may well click with your kids.


 

DC SUPERHERO GIRLS (DC)

Okay, bear with me here. The characters of the DCU are children and are off to a school for super-powered folk where Gorilla Grodd is vice principal and Crazy Quilt is actually on faculty.  IT’S A MADHOOOUSSEE! Obviously an All Ages book aimed at young girls, DC Superhero Girls takes a core cast of Supergirl, Batgirl, Posion Ivy, Wonder Woman, Cheetah, Katana and…umm…Bumblebee (??) and uses them to teach us life lessons both in and out of the classroom.

Writer Shea Fontana does have a good grasp on the characters core traits (It’s really nice to see Ma and Pa Kent acting like the beautiful, warm humans they are once again, even if it’s in the space of a comic for little kids) and Yancey Labat’s art is suitably vibrant and cartoony – a brave attempt to tear your child’s eyes away from your iPhone. “But why do they look kinda like Bratz?” I mused to myself as I was reading. The answer lies on the back cover: this is a product designed to push a toy line. It’s all good, though. Really.  This is bright, wholesome, surprisingly character-driven stuff. Your young ‘un may well love it. I gave it to a five-year-old girl and she really liked it.




DOCTOR WHO (TITAN)

Four stories, featuring one incarnation of the Doctor each, can be found in Titan’s thick, glossy Doctor Who offering. The Doctors included, of course, are the four most recent actors Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi, all created by some experienced comics journeymen including Robbie Morrison, Simon Fraser, Si Spurrier and Nick Abadzis. It’s Abadzis and artist Elenora Carlini’s “The Tenth Doctor” (Tennant) that’s my fave, with Carlini looking like a super star in waiting for her expressive, modern work that shows glimmers of comedic manga expression to go with her spot-on version of Tennant and some impressive perspective work. Whovians should snap this one up.


 

DREAMJUMPER (SCHOLASTIC)

More All Ages fun with writer Greg Grunberg (some guy from Heroes and Felicity apparently) and artist Lucas Turnbloom’s Dreamjumper which debuts in full in July from Scholastic. Turnbloom’s cartooning is a little on the basic side, but it is clean and clear and the pages are open and will easily be navigated by younger readers and Grunberg’s script moves fast and fills the action with all manner of colourful characters.

Young Ben finds himself in a nightmare landscape populated by not only the monsters and creatures that plague his dreams, but also those of his friends…who are actually here with him. It’s kind of a Nightmare On Elm Street for really little ones and it should capture the attention of your kids for a bit. I’m not sure it’s a particularly memorable effort, but, hey, JJ Abrams likes it as both front and back covers do attest and he knows a lot more about these things than I do. Seriously though, in execution, it’s a savvy effort to get young readers into the medium, I recommend it for that alone.


 

GRUMPY CAT (DYNAMITE)

You might assume that given I’m the human equivalent of Grumpy Cat when discussing the seemingly bottomless pit of licenses being chased by certain companies that I’d hate this. Well, you’d be wrong actually. I like cat comics so much that I actually once dedicated virtually an entire column to them. Anyway, several stories are included here, including Grumpy Cat and peppy sidekick Pokey trying to be superheroes, playing detectives trying to solve the mystery of why the food bowl is empty, and trying to figure out just how to be famous (which is pretty ironic, really). The dynamic between the eternally grumpy star and his always-positive friend fuels the title and while it’s no Nekopanchi in variety (what cat comic could be?), Dynamite’s Grumpy Cat freebie features some solid cartooning, particularly from Michelle Nguyen who draws the grumpiest of all cats. It’s, dare I say it, good!


HILDA/ALISSI/FANTASY SPORTS (NOBROW)

Flying Dogs! Stone trolls! Miniscule houses kidnapped, tiny occupants and all, by runaway clumps of earth! Luke Pearson crams so much adventure into the pages of his joyful Hilda, creating a comic that will keep readers of literally all ages on their toes with its energy and constant creative surprises. Pearson’s attractive cartooning and dense but playful layouts keep the pace high and his characters distinctive. Hilda has been on my “to read” list for far too long and I’m plum out of excuses now, as you will be, thanks to NoBrow allowing us to sample it for free.  Pick it up and see just how much little Hilda can cram into her day and still make it home for dinner (just!).

But that’s not all! Also included is a short Alissi story by Marguerite Abouet and Mathieu Sapin. Packing as much charm as Hilda, this cute little tale of little West African girl Alissi and her brother arranging a paid screening for friends of a film called “Spectreman” on their television set only to be interrupted by their returning father is a perfect introduction to this French series, which appears to feature an exclusively African cast. It’s both ace and adorable, a worthy follow up to Hilda.

But there’s still more! A slice of Sam Bosma’s Fantasy Sports rounds the book out. Bosma’s lively cartooning closes things off perfectly with both sports and inter-dimensional travel on offer for the reader still somehow hungry for fun and adventure. Thumbs way up, NoBrow.


HOWARD LOVECRAFT AND THE FROZEN KINGDOM (ARCANA)

Apparently tying into a cinematic version of this property, Arcana’s Howard Lovecraft is a puzzling effort. Re-imagining weird horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft (whose work is being thoroughly dissected in an extremely mature fashion over in Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providence) as a “strange and lonely child” – undoubtedly true—having a snowball fight with Cthuhlu is not something I think any of us expected to ever witness. The incongruity of this scene alone may make you curious and, don’t get me wrong, scripted by Sean Patrick O’Reilly and drawn by Chris Umiga, this is a fine comic for kids, it’s just that anyone at all familiar with the real life Lovecraft may well be scratching their heads at the prospect of this...complicated...man being reincarnated as a character for children.

Also included here is a look at The Unknowns, created by none other than Stan Lee, written by Chris “Doc” Wright and drawn by Alec Oteno. It’s elevator pitched as “Ben 10 meets Men in Black with a rock and roll soundtrack.” This probably confuses me just as much as it does you, but it does feature a gorilla playing the drums which means it’s impossible to dismiss outright.


 

JUNIOR BRAVES OF THE APOCALYPSE (ONI)

Given almost the gravitas of The Walking Dead but emphasising action/adventure over actual horror is Junior Braves of the Apocalypse from Oni Press. A troop of plucky scouts returns from a camping trip to find their parents gone and their town overrun by zombies. Ahhh! Apocalypses Now and Everywhere!

The script by Greg Smith and Michael Tanner moves lighting fast, giving younger readers nary a moment to take a breath and Zach Lehner’s expressive yet loose cartooning is a good fit. Doubters rest assured, it really is an all ages book despite the grimness of its premise – The Drifting Classroom this is most definitely not. The inside back cover references The Goonies as a signpost for the direction this is leaning and I’d even toss a dash of R.L. Stine in with that. Solid horror-tinged adventure comics for all.


LADY MECHANIKA (BENITEZ PRODUCTIONS)

Joe Benitez’s self-published Lady Mechanika features a Victorian-era P.I. who’s “the sole survivor of a mad scientist’s experiments which left her with mechanical limbs.” Righto. Pretty much resembling a steampunk Witchblade in aesthetic, it will undoubtedly appeal to those who love that “Early Image” look of Jim Lee and, particularly, Marc Silvestri. Fair to say that it’s really not my favourite art style in comics, but there is, honestly, a really well designed and eye-catching mechanical bird included and the stylised energy of Benitez’s pages should capture the attention of those who love their heroines posed dramatically. All jokes aside, it is a solid concept with a strong female lead who is at no point turned into cheesecake, which is a big plus. The steampunk-inclined amongst you should give it a look as Benitez does a great deal of work visually word-building, meaning he’s giving us much more than just comics sizzle, and props to him for that.

 

THE LEGEND OF KORRA/HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON/PLANTS VS ZOMBIES (DARK HORSE)

The absolute shocker for me in doing all this is discovering just how high the quality of so much of the available All Ages material is. This in particular has no right to be as good as it actually is, with all three of the features within featuring compelling little stories and, especially in the case of the first two, simply wonderful comics artwork.

Michael Dante DiMartino and Heather Campbell’s tale of Nickelodeon property The Legend of Korra, “Friends for Life,”tells the story of how Korra and her animal companion, Naga, met. Campbell’s art is simply excellent, from her layouts to her characters, it’s just top notch cartooning, with the slight roughness to her lines adding some extra vibrancy and life. Doug Wheatley’s stylish, super-detailed art for Dreamworks’ property How To Train Your Dragon pops off the page and writers Dean DeBlois and Richard Hamilton give him plenty to work with, from a sprawling cast of humans and dragons to a variety of fantastical locales. Really good. Wrapping things up is Paul Tobin and Brian Churilla’s Plants vs. Zombies which, also, is far better than I ever thought it would be, even considering the pros at its helm.

Thumbs up, Dark Horse – this is a great little package, perfect for younger readers.


 

LOVE AND ROCKETS (FANTAGRAPHICS)

My own personal absolute must-have from the day’s smorgasbord of sequential art is hands-down Love and Rockets FCBD. On the short list of the all-time great comics native to the English language, brothers Jaime, Gilbert and (very rarely) Mario have created their iconic title for over 35 years now. I’ve been reading it for well over 20 (!), which makes witnessing characters I’m emotionally very close to aging in real time on the page as I do in real life alternatively touching and harrowing – they all, each of them, are as mortal as you and I.

Gilbert’s world has historically been Palomar, his fictional South American country, with a storytelling sensibility that’s part Gabriel Garcia Marquez, part Russ Meyer. Centred around his main character Luba, as complex a creation as we’ve seen in the medium, his tales have spread outwards both generationally and in locale as Luba’s family extends and extends and makes the move Stateside, as half-sisters she never knew she had are revealed.

Jaime’s Locas stories feature the trials and triumphs and relationship complications of Maggie and Hopey, punk rockers, friends, on again off again lovers. Like Gilbert’s work, the cast has expanded and while the social-realism of the stories has sharpened, Jaime, as with his brother, is unafraid to still sprinkle the odd tale with magic realism, the surreal and the superheroic.  Jaime, indisputably one of the finest cartoonists on the planet, is at the peak of his creative powers – witness the heartbreak felt by innumerable readers just a couple of years back after his The Love Bunglers collection was released for proof of that (I myself was a weepy wreck).

Fantagraphics was built on the bedrock of this title and, with a relaunch imminent it’s the perfect occasion to celebrate this long-running, groundbreaking effort. Two stories are included, one by Jaime featuring Maggie, Hopey and “Frogmouth” Viv, and one by Gilbert featuring Luba’s half-sister Fritz. Synopsis pages are included for the curious newbies (who I hope are legion) as are pin-ups by artists Liz Suburbia, Brandon Graham, Sammy Harkham and Jordan Crane, a cool bonus for long-time fans who rarely see other artists interpret the cast.

Over the last few years, the comics readership has been clamouring for more diversity in the gender, sexual orientation, race, socio-economic circumstances and body type of the medium’s characters. Well, here they are, everything and everyone you ever asked for. They’ve actually been here for longer than most reading this have probably been alive, existences catalogued by their two creative architects in as an authentic, DIY and punk rock a fashion as humanely possible, living and breathing on the black and white page. Pay them a visit this FBCD and you, like me, may well never want to leave their company. Consider Love and RocketsvFCBD absolutely essential.


 

MARCH (TOP SHELF)

Top Shelf presents a scene from each of the books forming the acclaimed, best-selling March trilogy by Senator John Lewis, co-writer Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell. Functioning almost as trailers for the books, a brief synopsis of each volume is included along with a sequence and readers will get a real sense of time and place through Lewis and Aydin’s narration and Powell’s expressive artwork, perfectly capturing the turmoil of the ‘50s-‘60s.

Over the course of this FCBD edition, Lewis, a pivotal figure in the civil rights movement and a staunch believer in non-violent action, meets with Martin Luther King, encounters Malcolm X and both faces obstacles both political and life-threatening in his efforts to ensure African Americans obtain the right to vote.  As much of March is dense historical fact as visual narrative, it’s a difficult book to preview. It’s an excellent evocation of a critical time in American history, however, and the project’s success and status as required reading in numerous classes across that country, are proof enough of it’s power and quality. Stirring stuff.


 

MIX TAPE 2016 (DEVIL’S DUE/1FIRST COMICS)

Devil’s Due/1First Comics give readers a selection of their wares in their Mix Tape 2016. Writer Josh Blaylock and artist Matt Merhoff kick things off fairly strongly with Mercy Sparx: Year One, giving readers all they need to know about the character with one well-written caption. Born in a space between heaven, hell and purgatory, Mercy Sparx arrives on Earth on a mission from God. There’s some nice art from Merhoff, who’s particularly good with his monsters, and things end intriguingly with Mercy given an unlikely guardian.

Mike Baron tells a tale of his long-running Badger character, with veteran Val Mayerik handling the art chores. “No Dis-Putin’” sees Badger fighting none other than Vladimir Putin in an MMA bout. Yes you read that correctly.  It is exactly that. No more. No less.

Writer Ashley Witter and artist Ash Maczko present their Squarriors– a tale of warrior squirrels in a world where animals have been given “rational thought.” Maczko’s art is realistic and painterly in its execution but the camaraderie shown between these mighty squirrel buddies quickly turns bloody and surprisingly violent. I’m not sure who’s up for comics with mangled and bloody squirrel heads, but if you are, here it is. Clearly, it’s trying to be the anti-Mouse Guard, but I just found it befuddling and slightly sadistic, imagine Watership Down was a snuff film. I showed it to my wife and she went from “aw” to “oh my God!” in a heartbeat. Really weird.

Closing proceedings out is “How To Dragon Your Train” a short story from the Public Relations series by writers Matthew Sturges and Dave Justus and artist David Hahn, who’s the real star of this four-pager (and possibly the entire comic), the story of a train derailed by a dragon egg left in the middle of the tracks. The jokes are pretty juvenile, the script overwritten but Hahn’s an experienced hand and his clean, beautifully inked work is really, truly worth a look.



MOONCOP/A TOM GAULD SAMPLER (DRAWN & QUARTERLY)

Beloved cartoonist Tom Gauld’s Mooncop arrives this September and D&Q have handed FCBD over to him on a silver platter. Opening with a self-contained little slice from Mooncop with the titular law enforcement officer on the hunt for a lost dog on the surface of the moon, a sampling of Gauld’s terrifically clever and humorous cartoons is also included. Presenting quality comics over explosive cliffhangers is a D&Q hallmark and this publishing ethos spills over to this generous freebie. This one will likely fly under the radar, but make no mistake -- D&Q’s preview of Mooncop is a true highlight of FCBD. Ensure you pick this up. You’ll be charmed.


ONE PUNCH MAN/MY HERO ACADEMIA (VIZ)

Viz wisely capitalises on the roaring success of webmanga done good, One Punch Man by writer One and artist Yusuke Murata for their FCBD offering. The opening few pages of volume one are given to you here and they just whizz by at breakneck speed thanks to the typically open, decompressed page layouts typical of shonen manga. Reading this came as a bit of a visual shock after reading so much dense, compressed material (particularly as this FCBD issue is virtually twice the size of the regular One Punch Man editions), so if you’re picking up a ton of free comic offerings, pop this in the middle of your reading for something of a palate cleanser. Anywho, the hero who does it “for fun” and whose gimmick is to end a foe with a single blow does indeed get to punch something just the once in the space allotted, so rest assured the book comes as advertised.

My Hero Academia by Kohei Horikoshi backs One Punch Man up. Not really my thing, but younger readers in love with manga may well gravitate towards its big-eyed energy. Viz knows exactly who it is targeting with this effort and its clear mission statement is appreciated (probably by retailers most of all). Youngsters or indeed anyone curious about the One Punch Man explosion should seek this out.

 

PINK PANTHER (AMERICAN MYTHOLOGY)

Two, count ‘em, two Pink Panther tales are yours for free in American Mythology’s Pink Panther FCBD effort. S.L Gallant gives us the brand new “Pan-Thor” in which the titular cat stumbled upon the hammer of Thor and uses it for home renovation and cooking. It’s okay. For this ol’ timer though, the good stuff is up back with “Pink Volcano” from 1994. Warren Tufts’ handsome cartooning looks positively, gloriously retro in comparison and with its hand-lettering and four-colour process colouring (I miss you colour dots!) “Pink Volcano” may give the older reader nostalgia pangs. I actually don’t remember Pink Panther comics looking this well crafted. There are even some new pencil-only pages for an upcoming story included at the rear and, thinking about it, Pink Panther FCBD is actually a really nice little primer on the comics creation process. Not only that, but, in a weird way,a showcase of comics history itself - how they are made and how they were and how they are now.  Deep. Grab this for the comics curious kid in your life.



POKEMON (VIZ MEDIA)

Let’s be honest – this is not the prettiest comic you (or your kids more likely) will ever read, but it’s packed with little quizzes for impressionable young Pokemon-filled minds to accompany the numerous four-panel comics herein and actually may well end up occupying a fair bit of your youngster’s time.


ROM/ACTION MAN (IDW)

There’s an ad calling for your support of the Bill Mantlo fund in this IDW comic that relaunches Hasbro properties Rom and Action Manfor reasons I can’t make too much sense of. Anyway, that’s a worthy cause right there.Both features are visually great, with Rom’s updated armour sleek and eye-catching. I’ll leave you to form your own opinions about the quality of the stories, certainly suitable for their target audience of teen boys, but after years of waiting for the return of Rom, narratively, this feels a little flat. Again, though, your boy may love this with the passion of a young Brian Bendis reading a Bill Mantlo/Sal Buscema Rom from the ‘80s.


SANJAY AND CRAIG PLUS HARVEY BEAKS (PAPERCUTZ)

I had no idea what these two Nickelodeon properties were before reading this, but these are fun kids comics from Papercutz. Sanjay and Craig features the adventures of young Indian boy, Sanjay Patel, and Craig his talking pet snake. Goofy in all the right ways, the two stories presented here, “Lord of the Pipes” and “Fight the Future with Flavor”, are by writer Eric Esquivel with artist Sam Spina. In the first, Sanjay’s dad loses his wedding ring down the garbage disposal and Craig goes down after it only to find another realm where the wedding ring is treated as a magical object. In the second, future Sanjay travels back in time to warn present Sanjay not to eat a certain samosa. Good times.

Harvey Beaks is an adorable little bird who, over the course of his two stories, plays a game of hide and seek with his friends that goes wrong in a particularly gross way and has a crafting party that inadvertently triggers mass paranoia about an alien invasion. Both tales are by writer Stefan Petrucha (with the writing staff doing the hard yards on the first) and artist Andreas Schuster. It’s entertaining stuff. Man, the kids are going to busy on Saturday.


SCIENCE COMICS (FIRST SECOND)

I wish Science Comics was around when I was a kid…I likely would not be the dunderhead I am today. At any rate, First Secondpresents a Science Comics sampler for FCBD and it’s really good. Maris Wicks (see SpongeBobbelow for more free Maris!) gets charmingly autobiographical as she takes us through her lifelong love of both science and comics and how they came together for her Science Comics: Coral Reefs book for the publisher. Really charming stuff. Up next is a preview of Jon Chad’s Science Comics:Volcanoes Fire and Life, which both spins a post-apocalyptic tale and gives us all a good learning about volcanoes. First Second look to be really onto something with these books. See for yourself when you pick up this All Ages treat.


 

SERENITY/HELLBOY/ALIENS (DARK HORSE)

A fairly schizophrenic offering from Dark Horse tonally, but with three – count ‘em – three ALL NEW stories created specifically for this issue and an utter wealth of talent involved, this one should be high on your must-grab list for FCBD.

Kicking things off is a Serenity tale by Chris Roberson and Stephen Byrne. Sorry everyone, I know virtually nothing about Serenity...or Firefly...except that it’s like Indiana Jones in space or something...? Anyway, Roberson’s script is breezy and bouncy in a suitably Joss Whedonesque way and Byrne’s art is vibrant and playful. Fans of the source material, feel free to yell at me if it’s a total misrepresentation of the show/movie, but it’s a solid offering.

I may not know anything about Serenity, but I know a big buttload about Hellboy and an extra big buttload about artist Richard Corben, who long-suffering readers have put up with me mentioning more columns than not at this point. “The Mirror” is a terrifically Gothic short, perfectly suited to the talents of both Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, scripting his big red baby here, and the aforementioned Corben who just smashes this, making it an absolute must-have for Hellboy completists and Corbenphiles alike.  Mignola’s such a pro at crafting these mini Hellboy stories, and “The Mirror” is no exception.

Rounding things out is an all-new Aliens story tying into the brand-new Aliens: Defiance series by the regular team of writer Brian Wood and artist, and local (yay!), Tristan Jones. Look. Jones has been waiting most of his life to draw xenomorphs full time and it totally shows. He’s bringing a level of care and detail to his pages that raise the bar for the franchise. “Extravehicular”is about as explosive and tense as eight pages will allow, and is both a great little reminder that this title is one to watch and an excellent way to round out a super generous, A-list creator filled effort from Dark Horse. Terrific reading.


SPECTRUM (AUTOMATIC PUBLISHING)

Okay, so I had to look this one up. Apparently there was crowdfunded web show called Con Man with actor Alan Tudyk (from Firefly) starring as an actor who once captained a ship on a show just like Firefly called Spectrum and now Tudyk and co-writer PJ Haarsma (who co-produced Con Man) are bringing that fake show to comics as a real comic in a four issue series titled Spectrum. Pretty sure that’s right.

Okay, so how is it and what’s it about? Well, aliens attack the earth and a captain named Rakker (drawn to resemble actor Nathan Fillion, also from Firefly) is having visions of a glowing woman named Ketheria, also known as The Scion, who seems powerful beyond measure and is hunted by the aliens and everything is leading to a spaceship called Spectrum. It’s pretty convoluted stuff actually, especially for something so basically scripted, but artist Sarah Stone’s work, in the Fiona Staples/Greg Tocchini mould is well worth a look. I have the slight feeling that I’m not really in on the joke and that fans of both Firefly and Con Man will grasp this far better than I’ve been able to, but either way, Spectrum is worth a look.


 

SPONGEBOB FREESTYLE FUNNIES (UNITED PLANKTON PICTURES)

SpongeBob stories ahoy! But for me, this 28-page freebie is highlighted by two things: “Flotsam and Jetsam: Ocean Facts” by Maris Wicks and the amazing “Patrick’s Guide To Getting Stuff For Free” by James Kochalka.  The latter is a genuinely funny set of pointers for obtaining free swag (including “#9 WAIT FOR IT TO SNOW” with a drawing of James sticking his tongue out to catch snowflakes as he exclaims, “Free snacks!”) and a bunch more.  The former is a double page spread in the comic’s centre starring and narrated by an adorable piece of volcanic rock that quite helpfully instructs us all on volcanoes, mountains, the earth’s crust, and more. Geology has never looked so adorable. All this plus two SpongeBob stories and more. Come for Kochalka and Wicks, stay for the rest of the hijinks. Thumbs up, SpongeBob Freestyle Funnies.



STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE #0 (IDW)

This ain’t your momma’s Strawberry Shortcake! Or maybe it is, actually, I have no idea.  All I know is that the pixyish Strawberry Shortcake has a café called The Berry Bitty Cafe and her friends Sweet and Sour are planning to celebrate the anniversary of it opening. But planning a party is no easy feat as these girls are about to find out. Bubbly, colourful stuff by writer Georgia Bell and artist Amy Mebberson (who also provides a pretty striking cover, I have to say). A thoughtful guide to the Shortcake Universe (as we might as well call it) is also included, with breakdowns of all characters and their pets, so your daughter will be totally hip to the cast and their ongoing baking shenanigans. Blueberry Muffin runs a bookshop and likes to read, so she’s totally my fave.


STREET FIGHTER V #1 (UDON)

It’s a little difficult to take this super-seriously after reading four volumes (so far) of the superlative (and more grown up) Last Man, but I’ll try my best. Udon gives you three rock ‘em, sock ‘em roughhouses from their Capcom-licensed video game property, all filled with anime influenced art and martial arts aplenty.

Of the three, “Sibling Rivalry” by writer Ken Siu-Chong and artist Jeffery “Chamba” Cruz is the one I liked best, featuring siblings Sean and Laura Matsuda facing off in the finals of a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu tournament. Cruz really brings some energy to his pages and his clean, attractive line merges well with what I’m assuming is something of a house style for this title. For the snobbier among you, his pages resemble those of French artist Bengal a little and that’s no bad thing. The moral of the story (the new beats the old hands down) is more than somewhat questionable, but for flashiness it gets bonus points.

The comic is rated “Teen +”which seems a little harsh unless the bosomy women who throw fists between the covers are cause for concern. Sure the boobs are, you know, rather...prominent...but I’ve no issue with that as long as the women they are attached to are presented as strong and capable, which these women most certainly are—it is titled Street Fighter after all. But, hey, I’m not the father of your kids (...pretty sure...), so over to you.

All in all, it’s vibrant piff-pow stuff but if supplies are exhausted by the time of your visit don’t give a spinning back fist to Mitch or Jimmy or Jen, especially not Jen; you’d regret that (maybe pick Sean or Troy if you think you can handle their sad eyes afterwards) for this is one of the more disposable comics on offer.


THE STUFF OF LEGEND (TH3RD WORLD STUDIOS)

To celebrate the upcoming release of their 5th volume of The Stuff of Legend, Th3rd World Studios go right back to the beginning reprinting the FCBD issue that launched their entire franchise.

It’s a premise that lives or dies on its execution: a young boy is dragged into his closet, a portal to a land of darkness, by the boogeyman. His toys come to life and bravely march on into hostile territory in a bid to reclaim him. Thankfully, writers Mike Raicht and Brian Smith and show-stealing illustrator Charles Paul Wilson execute this very well. It all sounds a lot like Toy Story, but Wilson’s realistic, detailed illustration adds extra depth and weight to something that really could just be a fluffy rip-off. Things go into overdrive when, as they enter the boogeyman’s realm, the toys, including a teddy bear, toy soldier, a jack in the box clown and more, become very much “real” and though outnumbered are ready to fight.

If you’ve not read this before, give it a shot. Its striking visuals may leave you (and your youngsters if you have them) wanting more.


SUICIDE SQUAD #1 (DC)

DC Comics, caught right on the verge of a huge re-relaunch of its titles, makes the best of things by offering an FCBD edition of Suicide Squad #1 from 2011. Not a bad plan when you’ve got a mega-movie on the way featuring the property.  Essentially a group of captive villains sent out to undertake life-threatening missions by the government in exchange for possible freedom (if they survive), Suicide Squad has always had a killer premise and a revolving cast of characters made up of A-list, B-list and Z-list villains from across the DCU thrust into a mad tsunami of kill-or-be-killed situations.

Snyder-grim (Zack or Scott, take your pick) in tone, this debut issue sees the team being brutally tortured by captors unknown to ascertain exactly who their bosses are as we learn of them individually through flashback sequences. Written by Adam Glass and illustrated Frederico Dallocchio, Ransom Getty and Scott Hanna, you’ll likely see the twist coming a mile away, but the cliffhanger at issue’s end is admittedly a morbidly compelling one. Personally, I wish some classic ‘80s Ostrander/McDonnell content was included for some historical context of the book but, hey, I’m a Grandpa in terms of the average comic reading lifespan.  I wouldn’t hand this off to young readers as it gets gruesome, but tonally it seems on par with the upcoming film so if you’re a new reader curious and wanting to get in on a perfect jumping-on point, this is the Suicide Squad book for you.


THE TICK (NEC)

Okay, deep breath. Hi, my name is Cam. I’ve read comics for over thirty-five years but I’ve never, ever, read an issue of The Tick or watched his cartoon or even that live action show with Puddy from Seinfeld in it…I know. I can’t really believe it either.

Well if you, like, me have never read The Tick, NEC very thoughtfully help you and I out with three stories of superhero goofiness. The first included, “The Council of Ticks” by Jeff McClelland and Duane Redhead is my fave, with The Tick raiding the fridge that he and roommate Arthur share to feed innumerable versions of himself that inexplicably start showing up from other parallel universes. I believe The Tick is headed back to the small screen soon, so fans can celebrate with this timely release and us newbies can dip our toes in the water to see what all the fuss is about.


VALIANT 2016 (VALIANT)

Valiant Comics has jam-packed their FCBD offering with previews of numerous titles designed to showcase the publisher as a whole for the rest of the year. It’s an overly busy book but it’s undeniably enthusiastic and with slices of Valiant Universe event “4001 AD”, “Bloodshot Island,” Faith, Archer and Armstrong and Divinity II included, it does allow the reader a chance to take in quite a few corners of their universe as well as showing off some top names in creators Matt Kindt, Jeff Lemire, Mico Suyanan and more.

Interestingly, the included advertisement for the Faith trade paperback collection is an even more compelling argument to read that title than the actual pages included (although there’s nothing wrong with those). I had no idea it had garnered so many five and four-star reviews, it really does appear to be a critical darling. “Bloodshot Island” seems like a cool mash up of Battle Royale and Edge of Tomorrow with a whole stack of Bloodshots thrown in to blow stuff up, and the inclusion of an advert for an upcoming effort titled Britannia is worth picking this up for alone – seriously. *That’s* an ad. As a whole, Valiant 2016 is quite choppy in execution, but there’s a lot of quality to be found here, as you’d expect with such accomplished creators featured.  Several comics teased pique my interest and yours may be too. Mission accomplished.


WE CAN NEVER GO HOME/YOUNG TERRORISTS (BLACK MASK)

The comics equivalent of that post-punk revival band you discover by complete accident and fall totally in love with (cough**Protomartyr**cough) is Black Mask. Publishing edgy, angry, sweary, violent and yet still poppy comics, they know we know they’re cool and so they push on with confidence, output increasing in both speed and swagger, seemingly, hopefully, exponentially.

With their punk aesthetic very much in mind, Black Mask hands us a cassingle-comic complete with A Side and B Side, featuring new material from tried and true acts We Can Never Go Home (“Dead Set On Destruction” by Matthew Rosenberg, Patrick Kindlon and Josh Hood) and Young Terrorists (“Lies from My Father” by Matt Pizzolo and Amancay Nahuelpan). I’m not going to say anything else except that the melodies are infectious, the rhythm sections tight. Make sure you grab this.


WORLDS OF ASPEN 2016 (ASPEN COMICS)

The presence of a pro like co-writer Joshua Hale Fialkov (working with J.T. Krul) saves this one, but even having read this prologue to a line-wide event for Aspen Comics, I have very little idea what’s actually going on. Major characters are introduced, initially in opposition, but are not named or even properly defined until we get to the supplemental character bio pages at the back (contrast this with Mercy Sparx earlier which does both things in the space of one well written caption).

Environmental calamity has again raised its head, with the Pacific Ocean completely dried up, and Aspen, a beautiful young woman who can transform into water (nice irony there, have to say), walks it. Artist Jordan Gunderson profiles a suitable facsimile of the late Michael Turner, founder of this company, and fans of the slick style he was known for will find much to appreciate here but everyone else may well find this an unfortunately confusing affair. However, if you’re a super hero reader searching for something new and more self-contained than the sprawling universes of the big two, curiosity alone should lead you to Worlds of Aspen 2016. It may well click with you in ways it did not for me. The beauty of FBCD is obviously that you lose nothing for trying. With giant dragons and a woman who can turn into water in a world barren of it, there is certainly promise here.


See you next week. Love your comics.



Cameron Ashley spends a lot of time writing comics and other things you’ll likely never read. He’s the chief editor and co-publisher of Crime Factory (www.thecrimefactory.com). You can reach him @cjamesashley on Twitter.

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