Tuesday, May 1, 2018

ALL STAR RECOMMENDS: FREE COMIC BOOK DAY REVIEW BONANZA 2018


ALL STAR RECOMMENDS: FREE COMIC BOOK DAY REVIEW BONANZA 2018
Cameron Ashley

Hey, you! Yeah, you! Oh, it's really good to see you, it's been ages, huh? What, you thought I'd miss Free Comic Book Day?! No way, pal.

Yes, this Saturday, May 5th, is FCBD 2018 and boy, howdy are there lots of comics you should read. Yep, I've read them all and this year is stacked. Here they all are, as always alphabetised by title and ratings are noted where a publisher has included one. They are:

(A) All Ages, (E) Everyone, (T) Teen, (M) Mature.

Have a blast, get them funny books!



2000AD REGENED (A)

No, you did not read that rating incorrectly. 2000AD, for over four decades consistently the most subversive, punk rock, anarchic, anti-authoritarian comic book to ever melt the minds of impressionable teens everywhere, has put out an All Ages book for FCBD 2018. It's an odd choice to pull this particular alien out of the space helmet but perhaps it's the most subversive decision possible in its own weird way - surely nobody expected this. It works largely because the de-aged versions of the classic characters we are given are played pretty straight - this is not Tiny Titans or Lil Gotham, these are in-continuity tales of Judge Dredd and Johnny Alpha, Strontium Dog, as youths with content tailored to fit. Cadet Dredd kicks us off by writer and long-time editor Matt Smith and artist Neil Googe. The ageing, old school Dredd reader in me rankled at the concept at first, but "Crowd Control" is a well-executed little tale of young Dredd on the beat with his superior at an Aeroball game that, naturally, gets a little too unruly for the young authoritarian. Googe's art is absolute eye candy, making the most of a concept that, on the surface, seems half-baked at best. Strontium Dog follows Cadet Dredd, with a young Johnny Alpha trying to work his way into the ranks of the galaxy's most feared bounty hunters. Like Cadet Dredd, this is bright, poppy stuff with Ben Willsher's art giving Carlos Ezquerra's original '70s concept something of a modern animated look. Think Strontium Dog goes Young Justice and you've got it visually. Alec Worley's script is short but action-packed, doling out all the information, both conceptual and plot related, new readers will need to follow along.

Following several pages of neat word searches, spot-the-differences, puzzles and mazes (somebody please tell me that mandrill astronaut Chet Jetstream is a real comic) comes an okay Future Shock short and then an equally okay D.R & Quinch story in which the beloved pranksters travel back in time in order to sandwich their way into comic book infamy. Both serve their purpose but do fumble the ball considering the strength of the openers and puzzle pages. 

At the end of the day, it's hard to fault the 2000AD crew for taking such a novel, 180 degree turn with their FCBD material and one that, hopefully, will ignite in younger readers a love for these characters and keep them around long enough to melt the minds and create young punks everywhere for decades to come.



ADVENTURE TIME (KABOOM!) (A)

Readers expecting the further adventures of Finn and Jake from Pendleton Ward's Adventure Time series are in for a couple of surprises. First, Finn and Jake are absent. In their place are Fionna and Cake from (Wikipedia tells me) the ninth ever episode of the Cartoon Network show. Fionna and Cake are gender-flipped versions of the characters we're familiar with but that's not the biggest surprise here, which would be just how beautifully, strikingly illustrated this FCBD issue is. Artist Christine Larsen works from a script by Kiernan Sjursen-Lien and has turned in some simply superb work. A quick look at her Tumblr reveals an artist ready to go in any goofy Fantasy setting but everything here, from character design to colour choices is just stellar, with strong but strangely delicate lines and a constant attention to detail. Awesome stuff. On their way to Prince Gumball's semi-annual Punch parade, our heroes face all manner of roadblocks from the literal (giant boulders) to the metaphorical (ginormous trolls). Will they get their special bowl of punch to the party unspilled?? Tune in on FCBD to find out. Terrific work by all involved, Larsen in particular, who has a more than promising career ahead. Grab this!


THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN/INFINITY (MARVEL) (T)

With his controversial Captain America run behind him, writer Nick Spencer seems to be having fun with his new gig on Spider-Man as Marvel prepares to relaunch yet again. And if classic Spidey is what you're jonesing for, Spencer isn't playing around, providing a script filled with Spidey's trademark snappy patter, a classic super-villain battle and a down-on-his-luck Peter apartment hunting that's probably the issue's highlight. There's a really odd moment where Spidey lets a bad guy go that seems uncharacteristic to say the very least (...Uncle Ben, anybody?...) but artist Ryan Ottley's bouncy, exaggerated cartooning is perfect for the character and might just make you forget all about that. Packed with a classic Spider-Man twist at the end, this is a nice window into what Marvel has in store for their iconic character.

A dense multi-page recap of Guardians of The Galaxy follows, getting everybody up to speed on not just the team, but the state of the cosmic side of the MU as another Infinity Stone story looms, just in time for the Avengers: Infinity War movie. If you're keen to play catch up, here's the easiest way to do it - it's laid out well and covers a lot of ground considering the amount of pages allotted.


THE AVENGERS/CAPTAIN AMERICA (MARVEL) (T)

Kicking off rock-solid writer Jason Aaron's run on The Avengers comes this FCBD prologue of sorts from Marvel. Wisely paring back the line of Avengers titles to a single book (hallelujah!), Aaron has stated his intention to make this *the* Marvel title to read. Interestingly, Sara Pichelli handles the art here as her svelte, realistic heroes are about as far away from regular series artist Ed McGuiness' blocky mastodons as you can get. Aaron's only flaw here is to try and get too much story set up in such a short space, but Pichelli does an admirable job keeping up with what's demanded of her. Plus, hey, I'll take Aaron's effort at coherence over a mindless slugfest any day, particularly when it looks as good as this. Aaron's widescreen concepts are always a little loopy and his run on Avengers promises to stick to this trend with caveman Avengers and the threat of an ultimateevil Celestial looming as the writer whips us back and forth across centuries. It's wordy but it's fun, and may just be the ticket to get you making yours Marvel again.

A sample of celebrated writer Ta Nahisi-Coates and superstar artist, Leinil Francis Yu's upcoming run on Captain America rounds us out. In the shadow of a destroyed Hydra organisation rises The Power Elite, a cabal of powerful individuals (including Thunderbolt Ross and Norman Osborne) seeking to remake America into the country they wish it to be. First on their hit list - the original super soldier himself, Captain America, and they have an army of their own super soldiers willing to take on the task. If you wanted Cap to go back to punching Nazis, this could very well be the comic for you. Coates is politically astute and hopefully can sink his teeth into his hyper-coloured dissertation on a very divided real-world America. Yu's pages are lacking their usual polish and finesse...okay, let's just say it, they look rushed...but his knack for dynamic action remains unfettered. An intriguing start.


BARRIER #1 (IMAGE) (M)

I really appreciate a comic that allows itself plenty of room to breathe whilst still being aware that - at its core- it must entertain. Barrier #1 by veteran writer Brian K. Vaughan and frequent artistic collaborator Marcos Martin is one such mainstream comics rarity. True, the duo has an expanded page count to play with (and play with it they do), but over its fifty-plus page count, Barrier #1 proves itself to be a fascinating character study armed with a ripping conclusion that's also paced with deliberation and patience. So confident is Vaughan in his artist's stylishness and storytelling ability that much of the book is near silent or in Spanish, allowing Marcos to pick up the weight of the telling of this tale. A standout sequence of pages sees Barrier's two main characters, Liddy, a female Texan ranch owner in the crosshairs of a Mexican cartel, and Oscar, illegally crossing into the US from Honduras, separately going about their days and nights yet, existing under the same starry night sky or blazing sunny day, the duo is already connected - as we all are - even before the narrative collides them together. It's lovely work.

If you've not read this five issue series online at the creative duo's Panel Syndicate site (as I have not), this follow up to the also excellent The Private Eye is coming to print - one time only, I believe - in five weekly-shipping, oversized, issues, specially designed to maximise the potential of Martin's gorgeous landscape pages. Issue #1, of course, is yours free of charge this FCBD, albeit in a more lo-fi format than you can expect if you actually pay for it, but Martin's thrilling action scenes and attention to detail in quieter sequences still shines in this FCBD issue.

Pretty much a master class in modern mainstream comics, Barrier #1 should be read by all, thoroughly pored over by those who enjoy the mechanics of comics construction and those special edition landscape-formatted, cardstock cover editions should be ordered post-haste. Wonderful.


BERLIN (D&Q)

What more to say about a comic this uniformly excellent and universally praised? For twenty years, Jason Lutes has written and drawn this obsessive project, chronicling the city of Berlin through the rise of Nazism. Berlin is stirring historical fiction, seen mostly through the eyes of everyman characters as their city falls under the spell of fascism and heads into a global conflict. Lutes is a magnificent draftsman, bringing the period to life gorgeously and his distinctive cast of characters, each so perfectly human, will draw you into his narrative tapestry. With a complete single volume forthcoming (an absolute must-have on any comics readers shelf), Drawn& Quarterly celebrate the project's conclusion and trumpet its evergreen status with their FCBD effort - the full first issue of the series complete with a revealing interview with Lutes at the rear. Savvy stuff from D&Q to release this and hopefully a legion of new readers tumble all the back to September 1928 upon opening this comic and are compelled to see the journey through. Ensure you pick this up if you are a new reader, it's status as a classic is well deserved.


BOB'S BURGERS (DYNAMITE) (T)

It's been an age since I’ve seen an episode of Bob's Burgers, but it's good to see the comics Dynamite publish based on the series continue. This year's FCBD effort features three complete stories and fans of the property will find much to enjoy here. A particular highlight is the middle tale, "Bizarre Bazaar" in which Bob obtains some magic pineapples that are irresistible to his customers. It's almost a bit Bob's Burgers goes EC and it's good stuff from writer Justin Hook and artist Tom Riggin. What's really appreciated here is how visually different all three of the stories are, with DC veteran Brad Rader and Kimball Shirley both doing some interesting work. All in all, a fun tasting plate here with both Titanic and Where The Wild Things Are used as cheeky inspiration for stories,and each tale strikes a different tone fairly successfully. 


BONGO COMICS FREE-FOR-ALL 2018 (BONGO COMICS) (A)

There's a rock-solid reliability to Bongo's Simpsons comics line. Characters are visually on model, often to the point of almost looking like animation cells, and stories are short and punchy with characterisation so dead-on you'll possibly even hear their voices when reading. Having said that, it's surely getting tough to crank these stories out, as by now what has not been done to or with any of these characters? Interestingly, of the four stories included in this year's Free-For-All issue, it's writer/artist Dean Rankine's two-page Milhouse tale "Feet of Fury" and writer Shane Haughton and artists John Delaney and Andrew Pepoy's "Hillbilly Abduction" that are the standouts. The reason for this is that in both stories, Rankine and Delaney/Pepoy go slightly off-model, keeping characters we all know (Milhouse, Cletus the Hillbilly) instantly recognisable but slightly tweaked with each artist's individual styles. After, what, thirty (?) years of The Simpsons a little visual shake-up in these comics is a breath of fresh air. Other than that, there's not much to say. If you like The Simpsons pick this one up, you won't be blown away, but you won't be disappointed. Hopefully, however, Bongo publishes more work with artists freed from the character model sheets. As other licensed FCBD books this year, particularly Adventure Time and Spongebob, characters can be taken further off-model to surprisingly beautiful results.


COMICS FRIENDS FOREVER (FIRST SECOND) (A)

First Second showcases a range of All Ages material in Comics Friends Forever and, with this one, that old chestnut may be true - there's probably something here for everyone. Personally it's Vera Brosgol's leading tale, an excerpt from her graphic novel Be Prepared, that's the strongest. Brosgol (who also pens a really lovely introduction about how comics are great on their own but possibly even better with friends) gives us a slice of her graphic memoir about when she was a little girl from a Russian family trying to fit in at summer camp. Not the most thrilling of premises, I'll admit, but Brosgol is a wonderful cartoonist and visual storyteller. Her pages, created in inky black, white and green, flow brilliantly, her dialogue is peppy and the potential of the completed finished project seriously has me considering picking it up - it's honestly charmed me. Hope Larson's All Summer Long follows and also holds promise. Thirteen-year-oldBina has been banned from television all summer and, with friends away, must find new ways to amuse herself. Larson's not quite the cartoonist Brosgol is, but I suspect this one (armed with one of thebest covers of the year) is poised to do very well for the artist. 

Charise Mericle Harper's The Amazing Crafty Cat packs in the cute quite well and, obviously designed for really young readers, could hold some broad appeal. Birdie is a young girl who has her own superhero alter ego - Crafty Cat - who helps her get out all of sorts of jams...such as having a food-stained dress. Fun!

Zita The Space Girl by Ben Hatke follows the adventures of Zita and her friend Joseph who have found a device from outer space that just so happens to open a portal to somewhere far, far away. Hatke's sketchy artwork and muted colours are all fine and the little cliffhanger included is an intriguing one. 

Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham's Real Friends closes us out. It's the story of two schoolgirl friends, Shannon and Adrienne, reunited after several years apart. The problem here is that Adrienne has other friends, cooler friends, and Shannon begins to wonder how their friendship will survive. Young girls will likely eat this one up and it's a fitting closer to a really strong selection of material from First Second. Absolutely worth your time.



CRUSH (JY/YEN PRESS)

Crush is Russian-born Canadian Svetlana Chmakova's follow up to her two previous, successful graphic novels, Awkward and Brave, centred around a multi-cultural group of middle school friends struggling with typical teen issues, emotions, relationships, all that good stuff we all went through and hope to never ever go through again. *Shudder.* Anyway, Crush focuses on Jorge Ruiz, the big kid in school. Kind-hearted but enormous, Jorge stops bullying and generally gets on with school life with a fair amount of stoicism. The straight man in a group of whacky, extroverted friends, notably Olivia and Garrett, Jorge suddenly finds himself going to pieces in front of Olivia's friend Jazmine. Yes, Jorge realises he has a dreaded crush (dun-dun!) and finds himself suitably freaked out. 

How Jorge is going to cope with this dilemma presumably forms the bulk of the forthcoming graphic novel. Honestly, this is really quite good and Crush seems set to continue Chmakova's hot-streak of lauded, award-winning stories. It's really sweet without being saccharine and, at least so far, is honest about boyfriends, girlfriends and teenage love and refuses to speak down to its audience. Chmakova's cartooning is fairly basic, but her body language is terrific and she has a great grasp on the facial expressions of her young cast. 

A short preview of W.IT.C.H by Elisabetta Gnone, Francesco Artibani and Alessandro Barbucci is also included. Not much is revealed other than the promise of a lively drawn, supernatural coming of age story, but it's quite the come down after such a strong lead tale. Pick this one up for Crush if YA is your bag.


DC SUPERHERO GIRLS (DC) (A)

Juggling the personal and costumed lives of its character far better than many a main DC book does, this year's DC Superhero Girls overachieves yet again. At this point, I should probably stop being surprised at how well crafted these comics, based on a toy line, actually are. Featuring strong teenaged versions of a litany of female DC mainstays, the focus this year, in this chapter from forthcoming graphic novel, "Date With Disaster," puts the spotlight well and truly on Barbara Gordon, Batgirl. Babs, along with Catwoman, Supergirl and others, investigate a mysterious explosion at S.T.A.R Labs, deal with a sexist mayor and wonder just what to do about poor old Commissioner Gordon's love life. Really well scripted by Shea Fontana with the bounciest of cartooning by Yancey Labat (enhanced by the vibrant colours of Monica Kubina), this really is a pretty entertaining little number and, hopefully, both quality and sales keep this property around for a long time. As long as Fontana and Labat stay at the helm, I promise not to be shocked at how good this is in 2019.



DIE KITTY DIE (CHAPTERHOUSE) (T)

Hot tip for newbies who grab this - towards the end of this comic there's a full-pageadvertisement for the first two volumes of the collected Die Kitty Die. Read this first, as there's actually a synopsis of this series that will be appreciated. Oh, hell, I'll just go ahead and save you the trouble: Kitty is a witch (at no point mentioned in this comic or last year's FCBD comic) who also has a comic based on her life. The twist is, the sales are plummeting and her publisher wants to kill her off not only in comics form but in "real life" to boost sales. The latter part of this premise is made pretty clear in "I Love You To Death" as Skip Stone, publisher of Kitty's comic has actually succeeded in his diabolical plot. This is pretty meta stuff from creators Dan Parent, Fernando Ruiz and Rich Koslowski, not as mind-bending as meta-Grant Morrison or funny as meta-Spongebob Squarepants, but it does have it's moments. Drawn attractively in the Archie style, this is a vast improvement on last year's tale (which was sandwiched in the back of the Captain Canuck giveaway) and is worthy of its own issue. The brilliant J. Bone provides a double-page spread of Kitty's various "TV incarnations" that's a visual highlight, but as much as the story needed just a little more set up, it's not at all bad.


DISNEY PRINCESS (JOE BOOKS) (A)

Joe Books, whoever they are, bring younger readers a bounty of surprisingly well made newspaper style strips for FCBD 2018, all featuring The Little Mermaid herself, Arial and co. Pun-filled gags abound from a virtual bounty of writers, as does some really strong cartooning from just as many artists. You won't find too many seams in this thing though despite the apparent construction line of workers, a quick flip will have you convinced it's a sole artist or team producing the entire book - and there are a *lot* of little comics strips here - it's only on a closer reading you'll be able to play spot-the difference a little. Quality comics for kids in short, digestible chunks, is a money idea, so if you've got your own Disney Princess in your life, this is the comic for them.


DOCTOR WHO (TITAN)

I'm not sure how much value there is spending too much time on this, since I'm almost positive that this is something of a curiosity for Whovians only. Three tales of various Doctors, the Tenth, the Seventh and the Eleventh, are presented to us by Titan Comics, and they all do a fair promotional job of advertising Titan's line of solidly constructed Doctor Who fare. For me, the real draw is the last two pages, where the new comics adventures of the latest, and first ever female, Doctor are teased. That alone should seal the deal for Whovians and, maybe, for anyone else looking for a new female-led, solidly made SF comic.


GHOST IN THE SHELL: GLOBAL NEURAL NETWORK (KODANSHA)

Hot on the heels of the recent Attack on Titan anthology which saw the hit manga property get a makeover by hot stuff American comic creators, comes Ghost In The Shell: Global Neural Network, a similar idea riffing on Masamune Shirow's enduring cyberpunk classic. Kodansha kindly gives us a single complete tale from the project for FCBD, "Automatic Behaviour" by writer Max Gladstone and art by David Lopez. There's quite a visual disconnect at first, as Lopez's fairly realistic style with its thickly inked lines is worlds away from Shirow's bubbly, scratchy cartooning, but this is fairly solid stuff overall. An appropriately dense, if a little dry, story bouncing around in time and place between Laos and Shanghai and featuring Shirow's familiar cast of characters, "Automatic Behaviour" may befuddle newcomers somewhat but should intrigue readers familiar with the property just enough to consider giving the September-debuting collection a pre-order. In either case, The Ghost In The Shell: Global Neural Network FCBD is a curiosity well worth a look.


INVASION (CHAPTERHOUSE)

Oh, no! The aliens indirectly responsible for Canadian superhero, Captain Canuck, receiving his super powers have returned to Earth and they are not pleased! Justin Trudeau, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin have a spirited debate over what to do about this deadly menace and the latter two hotheaded world leaders send their own personal super-goons off into a futile conflict with this extra-terrestrial armada while our cooler-headed Canadians ponder the problem before resolving to solve it once and for all. Assembling a team of his own kind of Canadian Avengers as Toronto crumbles around him, Captain Canuck stands ready and willing to fight! Yes, this thing is bonkers. In addition to Trump, Trudeau and Putin, the top half of the world-famous CN tower gets lobbed at an enormous alien spacecraft. That's my in-laws hometown, you monsters!

Honestly, I could have done without all the world leaders babbling at each other (Trump’s cameo seems a pretty shallow way to garner some interest in the title) but many will appreciate the payoff to this exchange. Veteran artist Leonard Kirk provides some pretty stylish work overall, particularly in some frenetic action sequences. There's plenty of detail but a roughness to the art totally suited to the apocalyptic tone the writers, Jay Baruchel and Van Jensen are going for. Make no mistake, Kirk is indeed the star of this Canadian smackdown and he draws in a style near unrecognizable from what I recall of his past work. The script by Baruchel and Jensen is pretty paint by numbers "superhero epic," but it’s a clearly told story with enough information about its protagonist, its supporting cast and its evil aliens to get unfamiliar readers up to speed and that's appreciated. Pretty surreal to see Toronto destroyed in comic book like this, particularly in such a typically super hero way, but whatever you make of it what can’t be denied is that Chapterhouse delivers a well-made package. There’s enough of the main story to allow readers to make up their minds about the project and the rest of the book is made up of full-page ads for other Chapterhouse books, some of which sound decent. Invasion won’t be high on anybody’s priority list, I'm sure, but you could do way worse this FCBD if you like the capes and cowls. For example, it's way better than the hot messCivil War II FCBD effort from Marvel a couple of years back and this alone should have the underdog Canadian publisher, who seems well aware of just how ridiculous the whole endeavor is, feeling triumphant.


JAMES BOND: VARGR (DYNAMITE) (T)

(This review is taken and edited from All Star Recommends July 5th, 2016

This new comics-Bond is ripped from the books rather than the films, drinks neat bourbon instead of a martini shaken not stirred (Bond trivia titbit: bourbon is Fleming-Bond’s drink of choice when not in a social setting), makes a bomb with little more than plastic explosive and a cigarette, and in the cold open to issue one (given to us by Dynamite this FCBD) throws cinder blocks at his enemy before engaging him in a shovel fight. Gone is the camp satire of the pre-Daniel Craig films and gone also is the international jet setting playboy vibe that the Craig films (well at least the first two) maintained for their protagonist. Back is the short black hair and the scar on the cheek of Fleming’s murderous professional. 

“Vargr,” the first of two story arcs in this new series by writer Warren Ellis and artist Jason Masters is obviously as real world as it can be. Ellis, ever the futurist writer, hits the perfect pitch of conspiracy, speculative technology, violence and, yes, dapper sartorial choices for his legendarily English pulp character. “Vargr” is so restrained in its use of fantasy that it’s almost a shock at first. Comics require no real “production budget” (outside of the obvious) and the temptation to go balls-out, Moonraker bonkers must have been tempting to someone along the way. There is much irony in the fact that the most “stripped back” Bond I’ve ever encountered comes from the medium with the greatest history of melodrama and things blowing up spectacularly and ridiculously. 

The violence is brutal and real with brains exploding in loose gelatinous blobs from frequent headshots. The hand-to-hand combat is fought in close quarters with the resulting strikes/stabbings/chokeholds proving fittingly visceral – props to Masters for bringing the action to gritty life. The glamour of Bond is stripped right away as never before as a result of this care, this careful scrubbing away of glitz and wealth, and the injection of visual noir elements to many of this story’s settings. 

Then there is the grunt of the nine to five. Bond eats in the MI6 cafeteria, deals with regulations and is presented as, essentially, a murderous bureaucrat, punching the tickets of the Queen’s enemies at the behest of management. Lines like, "No tradecraft required. All I had to do was locate the actor in question and eliminate him," recreate the affectless banality of the murder trade that Fleming made such a core character trait. 

The drudgery of office work, of having bosses, of having your hands needlessly tied up in red tape is perfectly explored, exfoliating away all the romance and potential power fantasy suggested in classic Bond titles like On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Yet Ellis peppers in enough gags to lighten the mood. It's simply terrific.


LADY MECHANIKA (BENITEZ PRODUCTIONS) (T)

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 and that angular panel stacked on top of angular panel page design has dated rather poorly.However it is a solid concept with a strong female lead who is at no point turned into cheesecake, which is a big plus. I also appreciate the care going into to backgrounds and architecture. 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. Two stories are included here: a slice from the character's earliest adventure (which I'm sure Benitez also gave us in 2016 - there's nothing wrong with recycling it, I'm just pointing it out) and a new tale "Two," in which Lady Mechanika's mysterious origin may finally be brought to light.


THE LEGEND OF KORRA/ARMS (DARK HORSE) (A)

Good stuff yet again from Dark Horse's Legend of Korra comics based on the Nikelodeon property, which, in turn, is a spin-off of another animated property Avatar: The Last Airbender. Young, arrogant hero-in-training, Meelo, is given a lesson in humility when tasked to find a bunch of missing pets. Meelo takes on this mission despite feeling it well beneath him. Stumbling upon Nibbles, a lost cat-owl, Meelo's pursuit leads him into an abandoned city, where a further surprise awaits. Michael Dante DiMartino delivers a short but strong script for artist Jayd Ait-Kaci, who is the real star of this team, delivering fine lines and great facial expressions on human and animal alike. It's nice work.

Arms, a new comic based on a Nintendo fighting game, closes this issue off. A Grand Prix of fighting looms and on one of 20% of the population born with...uh...spring arms can be chosen to fight in the tournament as the new Spring Man. Yep. Spring Man. The search for the latest Spring Man forms the bulk of this little story by writer Ian Flynn and artist Joe Ng and what saves it from flopping is the humorous tone of the story. Spring arms are notoriously difficult to control and so sight gags abound, from arms flopping out when doing dishes, to arms crashing into telephones in an attempt to answer the call hastily. If you play the game you might appreciate the amount of effort taken to build some story. It's no Legend of Korra, however.


THE MALL (SCOUT COMICS)

Sigh. No less than three times in a mere 17 pages of The Mall are readers reminded that, yep, it's the year 1984. That's kind of insulting to your customers, Scout Comics people, as we readers have to endure not only that but a slew of gratuitously, needlessly inserted '80s references throughout the story. It's the '80s. Okay, we get it. Jesus. We're not idiots. You're only leaving us wondering why this needs to be set in the '80s in the first place because there seems to be no reason other than because it's the '80s. Editor Courtney Whittamore needs a pay cut.

Here's why I'm annoyed by this: Don Handfield and James Haick III (writers) along with (artist) Rafael Loureiro have a really cool idea on their hands. The concept truly is a bit of a cracker: the illegitimate son of a crime boss finds himself inheriting a store in a suburban shopping mall that's used to launder cash. The mall also houses other mob fronts and personalities and young Diego, half-Cuban, half-mob boss, must navigate his way through this deadly labyrinth and also manage a crush on hottie cheerleader type, Dawn, who of course has a jock boyfriend who is weirdly named Chauncy.

It's abetter idea than I've made it sound, really, but it's seriously let down in the execution by the writers who proceed to drown readers in exposition, desperate to get it all out in the allotted pages. Loureiro does what he can with his art but he doesn't feel entirely home in the period. There is a fair bit for readers to gravitate to, however, particularly those who love a bit of '80s nostalgia. Previews of other Scout titles are included at the rear, all too slight to really get a handle on, but all of which seem (as The Mall does) like they should find a home in many readers’ collections. Take a chance on this, you've got nothing to lose.


MAXWELL'S DEMONS (VAULT) (A)

Not sure if "Creepy little shit!" is appropriate language for an All Ages book, but, hey, I'm an old man. I've never heard of Vault Comics and I've certainly never hear of Denis Camp and Vittorio Astone's title Maxwell's Demons, but here we are, reading it the first issue for free. Max is a genius child living with an alcoholic, abusive dad. At night, he has inter-dimensional adventures with his crew of stuffed animals, all of whom are named after philosophers. Their main aim is to stop The Leviathan, a Lovecraftian monster hovering beyond our reality. Things step up a notch when Max is recruited by Captain Corvus, who Max joins each night for months on all sorts of mind-bending SF adventures. Then, the twist comes, and at the end a choice between light and dark awaits. 

What's great, about this is that it's up to you whether any of these cosmic events are actually happening or whether this is all just a clever little boy's power fantasies dreamed up to escape a pretty horrible reality. I'm sure writer Deniz Camp has his own ideas, but who cares about him, make up your own mind! 

Vault gives us an issue that is essentially self-contained. There's no real reason to venture beyond this issue, where answers to all this probably lie, but if you like it and you may well, a trade paperback of volume one is readily available. Astone's art is an odd mix of gorgeous and haphazard but overall Maxwell's Demons is an intriguing package. I dunno. I might have oversold it a bit, but what it does do really well is let you know exactly what it is and give you enough of it for you to make your mind up as both comics lover and consumer. You can't ask for much more than that for free.


THE METABARON (HUMANOIDS) (T)

Humanoids has come to Free Comic Book Day and the publisher of high-end European fare is not playing around, giving away a comic with the highest production value of any of the 2018 selection. Thick, glossy pages and an even thicker, glossier cover hugging them together, all this effort does make the decision to publish a preview of Book 3 of The Metabaron a bit of a head-scratcher, particularly as a new trade edition of Book 1 hits in a month or so. I feel a little weird complaining about such publishing generosity, but surely a preview of Book 1 would further entice newer readers. Hey, I'm just a guy who writes an occasional comics blog and they are the publishers of most of Europe's greatest SF comics to appear in English, so what do I know? 

Anyway, The Metabaron stars the universe's last Metabaron, No-Name, the universe's greatest warrior, at war with the evil Technopriest over a rare fuel source that, in true Alejandro Jodorowsky style, is a "key to the future of the universe." Typically heady stuff from Metabaron creator, Jodorowsky (who you may know from all-time SF comics classic, The Incal with Moebius, a slew of incredible comics with artists like George Bess and Francois Bouq, and trippy cult flicks El Topo and The Holy Mountain), returning to The Metabaron with a co-writer for this new series of European style albums, Jerry Frissen. The art, by Book 1 artist Valentin Secher is fittingly, cosmically, epic and gives newcomers a good look at the kind of ultra-detailed, painterly comics typical of Humanoids, and with the publisher handily including a guide to what's now known as The Jodoverse *and* a Metabaron timeline (complete with books in chronological order), the attempt at making sure newbies do not feel rudderless in a churning sea of high-concepts is at least made. My advice would be if you're curious, pick this up and flip through it to see if it piques your fancy then use the timeline and Jodoverse guide as a way for you to get fully invested. The Humanoids books are uniformly lovely artefacts - oversized, hardcover affairs - and this taster is odd in a chronological sense, but the Jodo aesthetic is all over it. Job done, I guess.


MIRACULOUS (ACTION LAB) (A)

I still have no real idea what this property is about and I'm pretty sure that this is the third year I've read one of these for FCBD. Normally, as we see elsewhere in the column, that would be a huge problem but this is a comic for young readers, very young readers, and I'm going to cut it some slack. Norman Pierre and Angie Nasca handle the creative chores on both these stories which, I guess, were part of the Miraculous TV show as they've been "adapted to comics" by a separate creative team. This would explain why this comic looks so much like animated cells pasted onto the page, but both "Homework Essay" and "The Notebook" are wholesome, upbeat slices of comic bookery. Unfortunately someone at Action Lab goofed and the last page of "The Notebook" is presented first (D'oh!!) but if you're looking for someone's first comic, a thing to flip through rather than read, and begin to make sense of the medium and how panels work, this might very well be your best bet. 


MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS: SHATTERED GRID (BOOM!)(T)

Of all the comics I was not expecting to actually like, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Shattered Grid was tippy-top of the heap. Really, this is actually a good comic. I'm shocked. I don't mean to sound condescending, but surely we all don't expect a lot from Power Ranger books.Kyle Higgins & Ryan Parrott’s script is smartly put together, exceeding all possible expectation, unfolding the current crisis in Power Ranger reality (an evil, parallel universe version of the Green Ranger) and doles out enough backstory to both get newbies up to speed and yet not bog proceedings down for veteran readers. That's tricky. The art by Diego Galindo is great superhero stuff: dramatic figures, kinetic battles, strong character design and areal willingness to go the extra mile on these pages in terms of background work and overall composition. It's a bit like getting Stuart Immonen on the title. Overall, this is a super serious treatment of a really goofy concept but, guess what, it absolutely works. Colour me a shocked Power Ranger Red but you should really give this one a shot if you gravitate toward the cape comics. No, really.


MY HERO ACADEMIA/RWBY (VIZ) (T)

I love manga. I love it to absolute bits. If manga were a person, I'd give it a big hug and probably kidnap it and take it home and hold it prisoner like Kathy Bates does to James Caan in Misery. This, however, is not the most shining example of the medium. A slice of My Hero Academia's fisticuffs by writer/artist Kohei Horikoshi opens proceedings and it's chaotic. I get the appeal of the Dragonball style smash-'em-all stuff, but Akira Toriyama is a consummate draftsman capable of beautiful work. Horikoshi, however, alternates between some really nice character work and kinetic violence and some really shoddy panels that look so lazily, hastily made I have to wonder if they were handed to an unfortunate assistant at the hour of drop-dead deadline. Me bitching about craft and confusion over story aside, if My Hero Academiafunctions as a young reader's entry point into manga, then mission accomplished.

RWBY, however, is hands-down the single laziest comic I have maybe ever read. Based on an animated series, Shirow Miwa surely has many a manga great rolling in their graves and contemporaries snapping pencils in fury for his absolute refusal to draw any background whatsoever. You should pick this up, seriously, and read it as perhaps the consummate example of bad comics. It's a shame too, as Miwa has a knack for dramatic action characters and battles, but no clue at all about setting a scene and telling a story. Horrid. I'm sorry, but it's horrid and unforgivably lazy work- just as well it's free...


THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS: ZERO'S JOURNEY (TOKYO POP) (A)

No offense meant to the people at Tokyopop, but it's a little mind-boggling that they have the rights to Tim Burton's beloved stop-motion animated film, particularly given that Disney own Marvel and have for quite some time. Anyway, this zero issue is a sampling from the current "Zero's Journey" series in which Jack Skellington's dog, the pumpkin-nosed Zero, ends up lost. And by lost I mean, vanished-through-a-portal lost. As a sentimental fool and sucker for animals, I pretty much ate this up even though the script by DJ Milky and art by Kei Ishiyama and David Hutchison will not stand out on a day filled with so many other terrifically illustrated comics. It's a good little kid's comic though, and will be relatable to any adult who gets pestered by their furry friend as they try and get some work done (no kidding: my dog wanted some attention right as I sat down to type this out).


THE ONLY LIVING BOY (PAPERCUTZ)

With a 400-page omnibus edition in stores and all new adventures from original creators, David Gallagher and Steve Ellis, on the way, it's a wise move by Papercutz to showcase the series this FCBD. It's a generous offering too; a full, complete chapter from the all ages saga, certainly more than enough for newcomers to make up their minds whether or not this series is for them. A kind of supernatural updating of Jack Kirby's wonderful Kamandi: The Last Boy On Earth, The Only Living Boy is Erik Farrell, a young runaway who wakes in a strange land filled with all manner of monsters. Older readers might find the execution pretty rudimentary, but I imagine this may well thrill adventure-seeking kids, so give this a shot if you know a youngster who digs monsters and mad scientists and butterfly-winged women and heroic young boys. Kudos to Papercutz for not only including a handy recap before throwing newbies into the deep end but also an editorial at the rear laying out the past, present and future publishing plans for the character. Jim Salicrup, veteran Marvel editor, is responsible for that - that's how the pros do it, kids!


OVERWATCH/BLACK HAMMER (DARK HORSE) (T)

Sorry folks, I'm hopelessly out of my depth with Overwatch. I'm aware that this comic is based on a massively popular video game about a globe-spanning, armoured peacekeeping force, but I'm no gamer and as such all I can do is talk about this comic and how well, or not, it is made. Andrew Robinson and Joelle Sellner script the tale of an Overwatch member, the muscle-bound Russian named Aleksandra, as she's hot on the heels of an international criminal known as Sombra. The writers do a good job of squeezing in all they can about Aleksandra and her slippery foe, but much of the dialogue here is at best stock and worst painful. Clichés abound - a character that hates robots for personal reasons being the most prominent - but representationally, there's a lot of female and ethnic characters and that's commendable. The art by Kate Niemczk is similarly okay, but I'm assuming fans of the video game (surely the target audience) will find much more to like here than I did.

Sorry again, everyone, but I am also one of the only people in the comics reading world who doesn't think too much of Jeff Lemire's Black Hammer. Don't get me wrong - I'm a Lemire guy - but I find the continued mining of Golden Age superheroes absolutely exhausting at this point. Between Starman, The Golden Age, Alan Moore's Supreme run and legendary Superman story, "Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?," along with about 200 other series I'm currently forgetting, I'm pretty much done on the subject. However, if you're still well and truly on board with superhero...let's call them"reconstruction" comics, I'm objective enough to admit that the Eisner Award-Winning Black Hammer is not only a critical success, but has found a rock solid readership, and with pros like Lemire and artist Dean Ormston at the helm (Wilfredo Torres also provides some artwork here), that's to be expected. There's nothing *at all* wrong here outside of my bias against its subject matter and, as such, my recommendation is that you should absolutely give this a look if you are looking for a new superhero title to devour or, naturally, are an existing fan of the series. 


POKEMON: SUN & MOON (VIZ) (A)

Well blow me down, a Pokémon story that can be followed without anyprior knowledge of the property, which is good because I have none. Moon is on her way to the tropical Alola region to collect a rare species of beach-dwelling seacucumber Pokémon. She has until three PM to get the job done, or she can kiss her payment goodbye. Of course, Moon blows the deadline and, harassed by Team Skull, who run the territory, Moon's going to need some help in making sure she gets what she's owed. Enter: intergalactic delivery boy, Sun. Hidenori Kusaka writes and Satoshi Yamamoto draws both tales in this year's Pokemon giveaway and, while this sure ain't Osamu Tezuka, it's fine manga for kids, particularly if they are still Pokemon maniacs. "Travelling Trainer Tokio" brings our freebie issue home, with young Akira training his Pokemon, Rockruff, how to fight. The duo run into some trouble in the form of a "Wild Pangoro" and need some assistance in getting out of this scrape in one piece. Enter: a Pokemon trainer named Tokio. I'm sensing a bit of a formula here with these stories, but again, Pokemon: Sun & Moon is a good way to introduce youngsters to the right-left reading format of Japanese comics.


RELAY #0 (AFTERSHOCK) (T)

Every year, it seems, on FCBD there's at least one or two real surprise blow-away comics. Well, welcome to 2018's installment of Utterly Amazing Comic You Had Absolutely No Idea About. Three guys cooked up the story to Aftershock Comics' Relay: Eric Bromberg, man of the hour Donny Cates, and Zac Thompson. This many cooks in the plot-broth would normally set alarm bells a‘ringing for your humble reviewer but the script, turned in solo by Thompson, is something pretty special and matched with incredible art by Andy Clarke, the whole package is elevated to yet another level - this is a career-making performance from both men.

It is, however, a difficult one to preview. Relay #0 is a slow burning SF story centered on an interstellar traveller who brings agriculture and irrigation to a primitive society. There is a twist and a good one (if, on the surface, blatantly copied from one of the genre's most famous stories) concerning the universe-spanning system known as The Galactic Relay and its operatives. I can't say any more than that, really, other than that the execution of this story is excellent and Clarke's beautiful, insanely detailed world-building and character work is exquisite. God knows where the forthcoming series will head after this #0 issue, but if you enjoy your SF comics brainy and beautiful, do not miss this. It's exactly the kind of thing that periodicals like Heavy Metal should be running and Aftershock should be commended for having such faith in the strength of this material that they give it to you on what is, essentially, comics' annual binge day. 

If you can get past the inevitable comparisons with a certain titan of SF film and literature, you might just find Relay #0 to be simply excellent, as I did. I'm giving this creative team the benefit of the doubt here, as the work presented thus far is so strong I think they deserve it. Ensure you pick it up and find out for yourself.


RIVERDALE (ARCHIE) (T)

What begins as a piece Betty writes on the history of Pop's restaurant morphs into historical sightings over the years the burger and shake joint has been open (featuring many a crazy cameo) and finally into the paranormal adventures of Pop himself. This self-contained issue by Ross Maxwell and Will Ewing with art by Joe Eisma is a decent introduction to the more mature world of the Riverdale TV series on which it's based, with Eisma wisely making no effort to nail the likenesses of the series' actors, instead choosing to focus on making his pages as lively and dynamic as possible - a commendable effort considering just how much of this issue is set in a diner. With a flashback to a young, afro wearing Pop my personal highlight, there's more than enough lake monsters, Bonnie & Clyde visits and other bizarre drop-ins to make this a fun palate cleanser midway through your FCBD binge. It's a huge improvement on last year's effort, hopefully indicative of the overall state of these comics. Fun stuff.


SHADOWMAN/X-O MANOWAR/HARBINGER WARS II (VALIANT) (T)

This is all solid, professional comics work, typical of Valiant and its hard-working creators and editorial team. However, as I've been banging on about for the last three years now in this FCBD column, the problem with "sampler" style offerings is that if they're not carefully constructed, they can end up being largely forgettable. Valiant's 2018 offering, as with last year's, and that of the year before, is preaching to the already converted. 

Shadowman was my personal favourite Valiant character back in the company's heyday (man, teen me loved those old Bob Hall issues for some reason) but the few pages here by veteran writer Andy Diggle and artist Stephen Segovia do little do win me back. Diggle's in for the long haul, however, as a double-page ad shows us that at least three four-issue story arcs are coming from the writer with, perhaps most excitingly, issues 4-7 illustrated by Diggle's old Thief of Thieves comrade, the vastly underrated Shawn Martinbrough. The same problem with Shadowman's sampling also plagues Matt Kindt and Ariel Olivetti's X-O Manowar. Aric, X-O Manowar, is flying through space and suddenly needs to returns home to Earth -- a journey two months away. Again, the pages are great looking, but the new reader hook is sorely missing. MJ Kim provides a double-page image of the Valiant Universe in 2018 next and it's excellent - kind of like Farel Dalrymple gone manga. A prelude to Harbinger Wars IIrounds us out with Raul Allen providing some pretty spectacular art for Eric Heisserer's script, a script that will leave newer readers a little lost. If you're familiar with the preceding material, you'll have a good handle on what's going on here, however for the rest of us: the US Government is trying to crack down on all Psiot (kind of techno-telepaths?) activity following, I assume, the first Harbinger War. That's about all we know apart from the fact it's really, really well drawn.

If handsomely illustrated, solidly written super hero comics are what you're after, Valiant most certainly has many of them. What I do wish is for Valiant to better entice the new reader as there is a huge missed opportunity here. Look, Valiant people, I'm sorry, it's tough love from a guy who goes back to the Barry Windsor-Smith/Jim Shooter/Bob Layton days and wants these FCBD books to feel *accessible*. In 2016's column, I called their effort "choppy" but quality-filled. Last year (and I literally just looked this up) I said: "Raul Allen's lovely work will keep you turning the pages even if, like me, you've no real idea what's happening in Eric Heisserer's story." God, I'm a broken record. Fortunately, I also said this: "The Valiant faithful...should dig this considerably," and that remains true for yet another year but I'd be surprised to see a surge in new sales and for comics that are potentially terrific, that's a shame. Pretty sure it was Stan Lee who said, "Every comic is somebody's first comic." 'Nuff Said.


SHADOW ROADS (ONI) (T)

Slickwork from writers Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt, creators of The 6th Gun, reuniting yet again but with Hurtt stepping aside to allow A.C Zamudio into the artist's seat. If you're familiar with the writers, the fact that this is rock solid stuff should come as no surprise. Following up the cult hit The 6th Gun with another supernatural Western is a risky move, as comparisons may well abound, but Shadow Roads is really good, a rollicking adventure with a multicultural cast of men and women seeking to cease the incursions of "otherworldly creatures" slipping into our realm from inter-dimensional hotspots called "Crossroads." Splitting its time between London and New Mexico, Shadow Roads packs in a lot of cast for an opening issue, but at no point does it feel choked and also at no point does our creative team dole out horrid gobs of exposition. It's straightforward and easy to follow and A.C. Zamuido (expertly aided by Carlos N. Zamuido on colours) draws the hell out of this thing - this is a seriously handsome comic. Officially kicking off in June from Oni, Shadow Roads comes to you on FCBD highly recommended by this here guy. Big thumbs up.


SILVER (DARK PLANET) (T)

Writer/artist, Stephen Frank's Silver fairly rollicks along with some strikingly composed pages, some stark black and white cartooning (with zipatone, yay!) and a pulpy vibe that I suspect readers will either love or tire of quickly. Franck's project (completed over a series of four trade paperback volumes from publisher Dark Planet) mashes noir with horror as master thief James Finnigan teams with vampire hunter Roslyn Van Helsing (yes, of course she is descended from Abraham Van Helsing) to, according to this comic's back matter, "rob Europe’s richest vampires." 

The opening chapter of this saga gives little away in terms of the overall storyline, focussing on Finnigan's brazen attempt at a silver heist gone awry, but does showcase Franck's desired aesthetic and a genuine knack for keeping events moving at speed. Boasting blurbs from Tim Sale, Bill Sienkiewicz and various comics media, Silver gets bonus points for shrewd marketing even if, for me anyway, it doesn't live up to the excessive hype spattered on its covers. Still, this may end up being a favourite of yours if adventure is your bag. Solid work.


SPARKS! (GRAPHIX/SCHOLASTIC) (A)

Fun times guaranteed with Sparx, the hero dog...well...with the two hero cats piloting and operating a robot dog suit to be precise. Eisner-winning team of writer Ian Boothby and artist Nina Matsumoto create Sparks' adventures, a fun take on the superhero genre. The two cats who make Sparx work are August, an inventor afraid to go outside, and Charlie, crack pilot and all around goof. August's unfortunate backstory ties into the story's main villain, an evil alien in the form of a human baby. It sounds whacky and it is, proof that the most ridiculous of premises are in no way indicative of the final product. Matsumoto is the star of the show. Her characters are cute and expressive and make Boothby's gag-filled script truly work. Give this a look, it's really well crafted and a surprisingly enjoyable read. 


SPONGEBOB FREESTYLE FUNNIES 2018 (United Plankton Pictures)

Perhaps the most burning of questions this FCBD is: Can Freestyle Funnies 2018 somehow top last year's show-stealing effort? The answer is no, but that's an impossibly high bar 2017 set and the good news is that this is still really, really good. Again: I know nothing about Spongebob, so don't think I have some sort of sentimental connection to the property - I've actually never seen an episode - but well-made comics are well-made comics and once again, the United Plankton crew delivers great all-new material. 

"Super-Villain Team-Up!" is your lead tale, written and laid out by Derek Drymon, pencilled and inked by Robb Bihun. Bihun's work is actually reminiscent of Gene Colan and Tom Palmer’s '70s work on Howard The Duck, a nice retro vibe only enhanced by John Kalisz who employs a very limited, throwback colour palette. Anyway, Spongebob is obsessed with the comic book adventures of Mermaid Man (yes, you read that correctly) and, in order to steal a secret patty recipe from the fast food joint Spongebob works at, the villainous Plankton assembles a team of Mermaid Man's real life villains to pull off the burger heist of the century. There's a bit more to the plot than that, but I'll leave that for you to discover as so much of it is gag-based. Suffice it to say that things go delightfully awry. It's fun stuff and, again, the art is terrific. Rounding things out is work by the always-delightful James Kolchaka, with one of two stories illustrated by Vanessa Dabis, and a super-cute Flotsam & Jetsam: Ocean Facts single page piece by Maris Wicks who is building a really special body of nature comics. 

Big thumbs up once again to Spongebob and Friends (and again: if you can find last year's effort, make sure you grab it even if it's not free anymore).


STARBURNS PRESENTS (SBI PRESS) (M)

What is this thing, you wonder. Dude, I've read it and I'm still wondering too. Featuring a great cover by Troy Nixey that sees everyone's fave nerd comedian Patton Oswalt onstage as some sort of alien/monster/mutant attacks his audience, you'd be forgiven in thinking that this is a comedy book. It's not. SBI Press comes roaring out of the gates with Starburns Presents, eager to show off what they've got and here, already, is the problem. With no grounding introductory piece, readers are thrown into a hodgepodge of various excerpts without comment or context. It's comics excerpts in a blender, if you will.

Comics Comics is up first, showcasing Patton Oswalt's script and Troy Nixey's art. Comics Comics is, according to the full page ad included, a forthcoming anthology of comedians and comics artists sharing real life tales. Sounds great, right? What an awesome idea. Oswalt and Nixey, however, turn in a pretty forgettable tale about the time Oswalt saw the two guys employed to cosplay as Batman and Superman near Mann's Chinese Theatre do something nice. It's fine, it really is. It's a sweet story and Oswalt and Nixey pack it with obscure pop culture references (Russ Meyer fans might get a kick out of this one)...but...isn't this supposed to be funny? If I've missed the boat here, man, that editorial providing context sure would have helped.

Oddwell: Flyra's Flight by writers David A. Clarke and Walter A. Bryant III and artist Acacia T Rodarte further befuddles: a fly goes through bootcamp to battle shadowy enemies in the woods. Again, perfectly serviceable stuff, but clearly skewed to younger readers it's a weird fit for a book with an M rating and I'm left wondering if anyone will really care. I don't. Ah-ha! But Hellicious is next and it has some nice, if clearly Skottie Young "influenced" art by Kit Wallis. However, presented to us is a selection of pages carved out of the July-debuting title, written by Alan C. Medina and Mina Elwell, and this does little but demonstrate the problems with using excerpts in sample offerings like FCBD books. There is no context to any of this, no set up, no anything outside of the fact that it's four handsomely cartooned(if derivative) pages featuring a little girl presumably in hell who has a head on her stick for a companion and like to blow things up. Is that enough? Maybe it is. It sounds pretty cool now I read that back...

Rounding things out, and this is a hard one to write about, is Gregory Graves by none other than Dan "Rick and Morty" Harmon, co-writer Eric M. Esquivel (I can't help but feel that the amount of "co-writers" here is telling) and artists Eric Schoonover, Gavin Smith and Mark Stegbauer. That's a lot of people for a comic this average, particularly considering Harmon's involvement. Gregory Graves is a super villain (think Lex Luthor by way of Charles Manson) currently locked up in a not very funny super villain prison filled with not very funny super villain analogues. He receives a visit from his mortal enemy, a red-headed Superman analogue in his red-headed Clark Kent persona. Sigh. Yes, another Superman riff. Another wink-wink, nudge-nudge "deconstruction" of super heroes. Snore. This is, I'm sorry, not very good. It feels like an idea Harmon wrote on a napkin he dropped in his glovebox, forgot about and found right before a meeting with an upstart comics company. Seriously: enough riffing on superhero tropes. Superhero comics do too much riffing on superhero tropes, just leave it alone and give us something new.This is possibly unfair as even the mighty Rick and Morty could seem little more than a riff on Back To The Future if you didn't sink your teeth into it, but from what's presented here I have to call it like I see it. Honestly, Starburns should have probably frontloaded this thing with Gregory Graves, trumpeted Harmon's involvement and given us a little more of it. I think that might have helped things feel a little less haphazardly thrown together. 


STRANGERS IN PARADISE XXV (ABSTRACT STUDIO)

Terry Moore's beloved self-published series Strangers in Paradise returns for its 25th anniversary and, lucky us, Moore's giving the first issue away for free. Originally published between 1993-2007, Moore's SiP was a huge cult hit; a series that created many an alternative comics reader out of Big Two devotees. Moore's clean, attractive artwork and love-triangle plotline brought female readers into comic shops back in the dark days of the early '90s when the Boys Club atmosphere of such stores was perhaps at its zenith and comics speculators, toxic to the industry and the art form, were rife. For that alone, it deserves the success it had. Weirdly, I'd never read SiP before now. I admire Moore's work, the guy's a consummate pro, but the idea of a love triangle book never really appealed to guy who, back in the day, dined on Vertigo and Los Bros Hernandez comics - who could do romance better than Jaime and Gilbert?

As it turns out, that was pretty shortsighted of me. Intrigue abounds in Moore's return to Katchoo, Francine and co. New readers might find themselves a little lost, despite Moore's best efforts at an info-dump scene, but a massive political conspiracy and international crime cartel now lie at SiP's heart and Moore provides a fantastically-executed chase scene and even better character work to keep readers new and old on their toes. There aren't too many creators like Moore left - making their own material and running it through their own operation. It's a commendable commitment to absolute independence. Old school fans will be thrilled by this return and curious readers no longer have any excuses to check out this *true* indie. 


STREET ANGEL'S DOG (IMAGE) (T)

Hands down this year's coolest, most stylish comics giveaway, Street Angel's Dogcomes to us saturated in painted pinks and yellows and it's gorgeous. I've not checked in with Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca's homeless ninja girl since AdHouse collected their initial (black and white) efforts in 2014 and clearly I've been missing out. The skateboarding Jesse Sanchez, the titular Street Angel, fights all manner of wacky comic book crime solo, but now, just maybe, she's found a sidekick. Discovering a group of young thugs harassing a terrified dog, Street Angel gives the gang some patented street ninja justice and claims the canine as her own. The problem is, this poor pooch is hardly cut out for a life on the streets, let alone as a crime fighter, and it's clear the team up isn't going to work out. 

This is simply joyful stuff,a highlight being Rugg providing one of the coolest double page splashes I've seen in a long time early into the book, seamlessly blending art, design and sound effect into a masterful pop art classic. Even though none is needed, a handy synopsis of Street Angel, who she is and what she does, along with her other adventures, all now through Image Comics, is handily and wisely provided - something that every single one of these FCBD books should have but many skimp on to their detriment.

In short, put Street Angel's Dogon your shortest of short lists. Getting something this good for free feels like stealing. Highest possible recommendation for readers of all ages. Don't miss this one.


THE TICK (NEC) (A)

Surely, at this point, we have to consider The Tick to be a multi-media property as evergreen as something like Transformers, if nowhere near on the same level financially. Like his insect namesake, The Tick hangs on, year after year, with new comics and new TV, pretty impressive for a superhero parody book. Three all new stories are given to us yet again in 2018, the best of them being the opener, the Conan spoof "Prophesy of Peril," by writer Jeff McLelland and artist Ian Nichols, the weakest of them the pretty shoddily drawn "30 Minutes Or Less,” by Tony Sedani, in which The Tick halts a pizza thief, and the middling "May The Best Man Win," in which The Tick proves he can't even keep it together for Best Man duties at a wedding rehearsal. A decent sampler for newcomers to see whether or not The Tick's goofiness is for them.


TRANSFORMERS: UNICRON #0 (IDW) (T)

It's the beginning of the end for the IDW Transformers universe as the planet-eating robot, Unicron, comes to devour all in the upcoming miniseries, Transformers: Unicron. Yes, this is essentially Transformers vs. Galactus and, really, why not? The Unicron concept dates back to the apocalyptic 1986 animated Transformers movie, so writer John Barber's text piece here notes, if IDW really is making a major change to the Transformers comics, this would certainly be the way to do it. Barber's script and Alex Milne's art make things feel suitably like a comic book epic, even bringing Rom The Spaceknight along for the ride and essentially wiping out a planet along the way. Characters will live, characters will die and the editorial promises that things will never ever be the same again. If you're a Transformers reader, I imagine this will be simply too much to resist and if so, this comic certainly comes as advertised.


ULTRA STREET FIGHTER II (UDON) (T)

Thanks to the recap page, we discover that beloved video game character Ken Masters was bitten during a battle with some zombies. The bite unleashed Ken's dark side, giving the world "Violent Ken"! Struggling to suppress all his hate, Ken travels to Brazil, where old chum Ryu lives, a man who managed to overcome the urges of his own dark side. This was pretty fun, over-the-top stuff from writer Ken Siu-Chong and artist Hanzo Steinbach. It's the kind of comics where philosophical discussions on the true nature of the self are had whilst two men kick the crap out of each other...much like a Marvel comic now I think of it...

Hanzo's art is positively lurid, in a good comic book way, like Joe Mad coloured in with fluorescent highlighters. Its garishness certainly draws the eye. Siu-Chong, to his credit, wraps this one up in the space between the FCBD issue's covers, a little neat and pat perhaps, but this is Street Fighter after all, and this thing certainly delivers as advertised.


WORLD'S GREATEST CARTOONISTS (FANTAGRAPHICS) (M)

For the second year straight, Fantagraphics generously provides readers with new tales created especially for FCBD by some of, no shit, the world's greatest cartoonists. Some excerpts from forthcoming titles are also included, but by and large we are treated to all-new material tying into existing or ongoing projects. It's hard to be fussy over even the excerpts as we're treated to pages from the astonishing Jim Woodring's final comics project, Poochytown, a hilarious, shocking and seriously insightful slice from Live Stromquist's Fruit of Knowledge (a graphic history of female genitalia: this is *great*) and a bittersweet final page from Ellen Forney's Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice From My Bi-Polar Life. None of these excerpts feel forced or thrown in for the sake of simple promotion, each is well crafted at least, brilliant at best, and showcases each cartoonist's work perfectly. 

Of the new work, I could honestly have lived without Carol Tyler's "Gold Fing-A,"

a bonus scene from Tyler's forthcoming Fab 4 Mania, as it's the only inclusion that feels somewhat forced. Dash Shaw's "Loony Reunion 2018" is something of an epilogue to his incredible Bottomless Belly Button (soon to receive a tenth anniversary edition) and feels more a treat for long-time Shaw readers than newcomersbut it's still really good and, seriously, the rest of these strips are utter gold. Simon Hanselmann brings the awkward as only he can in "Xmas 2019," a short piece that sees old favourites Megg, Mogg and Owl by the grave of Werewolf Jones. Georgia Webber provides a single-page piece tying into Fantagraphics' forthcoming collection of her self-published Dumb, an autobiographical story of Webber's struggles with a vocal injury. I met Webber at TCAF back in 2015, then two issues into Dumb, and she wrote a lovely inscription to my wife, who is a speech therapist. I've read those issues and they are stellar. Webber's one pager here, "Living Without a Voice" is an excellent dilution of her truly emotional work. 

What takes World’s Greatest Cartoonists 2018 from really good to an absolute must-have is Charles Glaubitz's Starseeds short, "Indigo Fables." Starseeds was one of my absolute favourite books of 2017 and, if anything, Glaubitz has only further enhanced his ability to produce intensely psychedelic work since the completion ofStarseeds volume 1. Essentially a meditation on the creative process but also something of a philosophic manifesto on how to truly exist, "Indigo Fables" packs rich colours and intense, dramatic cartooning. The work of Kirby and Pope and others echoes through the pages, filtered through Glaubitz, and returned to us readers as something distinctly original. The narration reads, "Magic consists in not taking directly from the founders, in not appropriating their results. It is better to look for its source, the spring, the roots, the point of origin of its experience and introject (sic) it order to reach our own." Yep. Comics as experience would seem to be Glaubitz's ultimate endgame, connecting his experience in this life with our own through the medium that is comics. A comic as its own psychedelic portal is hardly a new idea, but rarely has it been achieved so brilliantly. Charles Glaubitz, ladies and gentleman: comics pop art shaman. So good they might as well rename it Free Glaubitz Day, put Worlds Greatest Cartoonists high on your list; it's a treat.


WORLDS OF ASPEN 2018: DISSENSION: WAR ETERNAL/NU WAY (ASPEN COMICS) (T)

Aspen celebrates its 15th anniversary with a surprise - no Fathom, no Soulfire, no bewildering crossover event - and instead chooses to focus on its future. It's a wise decision, and one that deceased artist/founder Michael Turner surely would approve of. I don't know what happened to last year's Aspen freebie, but it was really, really hard to find a silver lining in 2016's hot mess. Make no mistake, this will probably not be anyone's favourite FCBD issue but it honestly heartening to see two brand new properties featured and be able to get a handle on both of them. I'm going to shout-out editor Gabe Carrasco, a man who probably get no love as his efforts are buried under a mass of blindingly coloured, flashily drawn pages, but good for you, man.

Okay, enough love let's hop to it. Dissension: Eternal War is a pretty goofy title for creator-artist Jordan Gunderson's first creator-owned project (co-written with Christopher Felder) but I suspect fans of Aspen's material will gravitate to its buxom angels, scratchily-drawn landscapes and genuine attempt to get epically mythical. Opening in pre-historic times, a group of hunters on the trail of an elk trespass into "tainted lands" before being besieged by demons. The script is pretty middling and Gunderson needs to work on his storytelling but, again, I can't imagine that fans of the flashier end of comics being disappointed with this prequel to the upcoming miniseries.

Nu Way by JT Krul, Alex Konat and Mark Roslan (from a concept by Krul, Dinna Wu and Yuyan Song) closes proceedings. Set in the year 20151, in the city of New Sheng, Zihao is a fighter looking to work his way up the ranks. Scar tissue, body modification and posthuman surgery is the name of the game here in this six-part series. Again, fans of flashy action comics might gravitate to this, but I'm not sure Krul's the guy to get the most out of this concept.


THE WORMWORLD SAGA (LION FORGE/CUBHOUSE) (A)

Wait, wait, wait. Time out. Before we get to The Wormworld Saga, let's have a little chat about the work of Amelie Flechais, whose new graphic novel, The Lost Path, is out from Lion Forge's All Ages imprint, Cubhouse and is advertised on the back of this comic. Seriously, if you pick up The Wormworld Saga (and you should), immediately flip it over and take a look at the back cover and just how strikingly gorgeous it is. It made me Google Flechais and her work immediately and I'll be all over her books ASAP. Another FCBD triumph, yay! Anyway, on with The Worldworld Saga by Daniel Leske, whose art cannot match Flechais' in any way, shape or form, but who does have a knack for nice, open pages and putting a cheeky gleam in the eyes of his young protagonists. Young Theodor's father is an artist whose paintings open doorways to other worlds, a secret Theodor keeps with some difficulty. Crushing on pretty young Laura, Theodor spills the beans on his father's talents to her to keep her by his side and the pair finds an itch for adventure that's too irresistible not to scratch. It's charming, well-written stuff. I'm personally not fond of the digital painting employed, but Lieske's various interplanetary landscapes are distinctive and individual, particularly the lush forest, filled with alien flora and fauna we encounter by issue's end, and boy do those magic portals pop off the page. A great tease for what looks to be a hugely promising series for All Ages. However, do make sure you make like I did and image search the stunning work of Amelie Flechais, whose books I'm ordering the moment I'm done with this column.Which, incidentally, is right now.

That's it! Phew! 


See you soon. Love your comics.


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