(*and if you're one of the very few poor souls who has not yet read Preacher, I'd strongly recommend you to download the first issue of that for free from dc comics here. I can't even begin to describe how gob-smackingly brilliant that series was!)
- Planetary: This is a fantastic series which I've only started to read recently. I've seen a fair bit of Warren Ellis' other comics, and enjoyed them greatly: Red was a brutal little drop-kick of an action thriller, Ocean was a cracking popcorn sci-fi blockbuster, and his recent retelling of Iron Man's origins in the Extremis storyline was one of the most exciting and satisfying mainstream superhero comics I've read in years. Planetary is just something else entirely though. It's an epic super-hero fantasy, with sci-fi trappings and a conspiracy plot. It explores the possibility that all genres of popular pulp fiction from the last 100 years could exist in one plane of reality; everything from the escapist adventure serials from the early 20th century, and the Japanese Giant Monster (Kaiju Eiga) movies of the 50's and 60's, to DC and Marvel's iconic superhero comics, Hong Kong gun-fu action movies and even the grim and gritty 'graphic novels' which became prevailent in the late 80's, when comics finally became acceptable adult reading material. And that's all just in the first 7 issues! It's told from the perspective of 3 'archaeologists of the impossible', who are attempting to retrospectively piece together the secret history of the 20th century. At time of writing, the series is nearing the end of it's 27 issue run, and I seriously can't recommend it highly enough. If you're curious, you can download the first issue for free (and competely above board) from the Wildstorm website. Alternatively, read Ellis' original proposal for the series in his own words here, and check out the rest of the thoughtfully put together and insightful Planetary Appreciation Page, which includes notes on each issue to fill the unsuspecting reader in on the myriad of references they may have missed.
- Sof' Boy : Archer Prewitt is the creator of Sof' Boy, and he splits his time between cartooning and recording albums (both with his band and solo). In the late '90s he produced the first two issues of Sof' Boy, a satirical comic strip about the adventures of a cartoon character with childlike innocence and an eternally sunny disposition. The twist is that Sof' Boy exists in the real world; he sleeps in a cardboard box in an alleyway, a freakish anomaly who always manages to find himself in harm's way when he wanders around his local neighbourhood. Above all else, this is a very funny read, as Sof' Boy's encounters with the world he has very little comprehension of is played up for slapstick (and gruesome) laughs. It seems to be making all sorts of comments on the state of American culture right now, but the combination of pitch black humour and unashamed and resolute optimism make this an immediately engaging read. The first two issues are long out of print, but I picked up a "jumbo sized double issue reprint" from Dave's comics in Brighton this year. You should be able to order this from your local comic store, or from the Drawn and Quarterly website for about 4 quid. If you look up Prewitt's details on that website, under the 'News' section you'll get to read a really cool article on him from the Guardian in 2005, which will no doubt do his creation a lot more justice than I could manage!
- Grendel - Devil by the Deed: Matt Wagner is a comics creator who I've got a lot of admiration for, as an artist he has a very strong sense of design, and as a writer his Grendel plots (aswell as the recent Batman and the Monster Men miniseries) combine action and suspense into some of the tightest thrillers you'll find in a comic book. Throughout the 20+ years of the comics, the persona of Grendel has spanned many centuries into the future, although the character's origins are to be found in a single 48 page comic from 1988, set in the present day, called 'Devil by the Deed'. It is in this comic that Wagner introduced Hunter Rose, a hyper-intelligent and ultra sadistic sociopath, in a very real sense the 'ultimate villain' of all comic book history. In this story we learn of his tragic rise and fall from power, told in narrative text encorporated into gorgeous hand-painted art-deco styled page layouts. It's a tragedy of shakespearian depths and proportions, made all the more impressive since Wagner self produced it whilst in his mid twenties. Originally published by Comico, 'Devil by the Deed' was reprinted by Dark Horse in 1993, and at their website you'll find a whole bunch of downloadable Grendel goodies, including animated trailers, webcomics, wallpapers (see below), plus some audio and video interviews with Wagner himself. With the character's 25th anniversary in 2007, you can expect to see a lot of Grendel in the year to come. More of Wagner's artwork can be found at his own website.
- Cinema Panopticum: Another creator who splits his time between producing independent comic books and performing music is Thomas Ott. Although he's Swedish, Ott is currently based in Zurich and Paris- but you wouldn't be able to tell from his latest book, as he rarely uses words, and it features no dialogue at all. 'Cinema Panopticum' is an anthology book, including 5 tales of dark contemporary fantasy (I feel that 'horror' is too strong a word). It's a gorgeously produced book, hardback bound, and featuring Ott's trademark scratchboard artwork (where the images are produced by scratching white lines onto an initially pitch black surface). In effect, Ott is drawing the pictures in reverse; fleshing out the light from the shadows instead of vice versa. The result are panels which are iconic, timeless, and display an uncanny 3-D depth. An easy comparison for this sort of collection of stories is to genre schlock tv like 'The Outer Limits' or 'The Twilight Zone', although I also found myself reminded of the skewed poignancy of 'Donnie Darko' as I read it. The lack of words certainly make it a brief read, but the freakish charm of it will stick with you for far longer. 'Cinema Panopticum' is available, along with some of Ott's other work, from the Fantagraphics website.
- Blacksad: This is one of my absolute favourite comics right now; in terms of cinematic storytelling, charismatic plotting and absolutely spot-on character design, I really can't recommend Blacksad highly enough. 3 volumes have been produced so far, written by Juan Diaz Canales with art by Guarnido, which tell the story of Blacksad, a tom-cat private detective in an anthropomorphic Raymond Chandleresqe prohibition era Los Angeles. The cops are all dogs, the gangsters are all rodents or reptiles, and every other animal inbetween gets drawn into the film noir plots. Even though the art looks like Disney, it's all adult stuff, which frequently features graphic violence, bloody killings and nudity. The second volume, 'Arctic Nation' comes into it's own though, when it explores themes of extremist racism in the west, with fascist white-furred animals waging campaigns of terror against those that are coloured. The third volume takes an equally frank look at communism in '30s and '40s LA. There is bad news though; the books were published originally in France by Dargaud, and the English translations are painfully slow at following through. Currently only the first two volumes have been published in English (by ibooks), the first called simply 'Blacksad', the second called 'Blacksad: Arctic Nation'. But you can see excellent previews of all three volumes at the Dargaud website (volume 1 here, volume 2 here and volume 3 here), albeit in French. You can download screensavers here, including those seen below. If nothing else, I'd recommend taking a few seconds out to watch the animated trailer for volume 3; even though it's not yet available in english, it captures perfectly how cool, sexy and street-wise this comic really is.
- Ex Machina : If I was to choose my favourite ongoing monthly series which is currently running, it would have to be Brian K Vaughan and Tony Harris' Ex Machina. Much like Preacher* before it, Ex Machina shows that the most dynamic and compelling modern comics can be strung out from an ingenious initial high concept . Ex Machina tells the story of a retired super-hero, Mitchell Hundred alias 'The Great Machine', who becomes the Mayor of New York City. As such, it mixes everyday political insight with superhero thrills as Hundred's dangerous past catches up with his high profile present. In fact, co-creator Harris summed up it's cinematic style very well when he described it as 'The West Wing' crossed with 'Unbreakable'. It is very much a story born in the shadow of 9/11 (in fact those events are central to the developments of the characters), there is a darkness at the core of the story, surrounding the origin of Hundred's mysterious abilities (he can 'talk' to machines) and tied into what will be his foreshadowed fall from (mayoral) power. Along the way it covers such topics as censorship, homophobia, celebrity, spiritualism, terrorism and most importantly, friendship. In terms of plotting, script and storytelling, I think the first issue had a more profound effect on me than any other single issue for years (you can read it for free from the Wildstorm website here). The official website is fantastic fun, and more than a little bit creepy. It's also an absolute treasure trove of information on the comic and creators, and has huge amounts of Harris' brilliant artwork to peruse.
- Hip Flask : Anyone wondering what the movie Blade Runner would've been like if Harrison Ford's character had instead been played by a giant hipopotamus, could do a lot worse than checking out Hip Flask from Active Images. It's a dystopian future film noir thriller, written by creator Richard Starkings, with help from Joe Casey, and fully painted art by Ladronn. The creative origins of the title character, a Hippo Private Detective dressed in fedora and trench coat, apparently lie in the advertising of comic book fonts from typeset company Comicraft in the late '90s. Since then, a sci-fi mythology has been created around Hip Flask, and fleshed out over the last four years in three gloriously realised volumes. The irregularity of the series is a crippling fault though, and has prevented the storyline from building any kind of momentum so far. This may change soon, with the arrival of a monthly sister title; 'Elephantmen' from Image comics. The Hip Flask Website serves as a comprehensive introduction to this dazzling world. It even provides flash trailers for each of the three issues so far (issue 1, issue 2 and issue 3). The tagline ("Prepare to cross over to a world full of hurt") is bizarrely downbeat; not to mention unfortunately remiscent of John Goodman's signature threat from The Big Lebowski ("You're about to enter a world of pain"). However, the mock news reel trailer for the first issue of Elephantmen reflects the quirky nature of the series far better. It's too early to say whether the story will develop into a classic of the genre, although the neon soaked visuals have already ensured that it won't be soon forgotton.
- Leviathan: Ian Edginton (writer) and D'Israeli (artist) are two british comics creators who's work I've started to read only recently, although they've both been turning out top-notch comics separately and as a team for quite a few years. I first read their adaptation of HG Wells 'War of the Worlds', and then followed it with their sci-fi thriller sequel 'Scarlet Traces', both from Dark Horse. D'Israeli's highly stylised full colour artwork here combined vibrant cartoon energy, compelling layouts and grisly details, perfectly portraying the mix of action, suspense and intelligence of Edginton's plots. You can see previews of both stories on the Dark Horse site (here and here) . Last year the team serialised a second WotW sequel called 'Scarlet Traces: The Great Game', also previewed on the Dark Horse site (1, 2, 3, 4), which I'm eagerly awaiting for release in hardback format in May 2007. In the meantime though, I'm really glad I picked up the recent collection of the pair's 2000AD period horror 'Leviathan'. This is really a Lovecraftian fantasy set aboard the titular ocean going vessel, a gigantic doomed metropolis which makes the Titanic look like a rubber dinghy. Edginton specialises in merging genres which would not normally cross paths, and creating realities which are rich and textured, and also slightly skewed from our own. His heroes are also often irregular, erring away from the iconic young protagonists usually seen in mainstream adventure comics. It makes for storylines which seem more literate, and somehow allows the unreal aspects to become more... real. D'Israeli's artwork is typically brilliant here, even in it's monochrome form. Making greater use of shadows to accentuate the gothic horror, while still maintaining the period details, his work comes over like an inspired cross between Herge and Mike Mignola. I gather that D'Israeli used a computer to generate these impressive images from scratch, and he's even produced a rather excellent website as a tutorial of his techniques, pragmatically titled; How D'Israeli Drew Leviathan. At just 74 pages, 'Leviathan' is a brief but surprisingly satisfying thriller; a hybrid of 'Silent Hill' and 'Titanic' which should be enjoyed by fans of both.
- Mouse Guard :A creator who seems to be just starting out on an illustrious career in the comics world is David Petersen. He's just recently achieved widespread success with his miniseries, 'Mouse Guard', for Archaia Studio Press. It's an anthropomorphic fantasy adventure, in which a small group of warrior mice must survive the perils of the local forest's wildlife, long enough to uncover a conspiracy threatening to engulf Lockhaven, the heart of their mouse community. Although the storyline is largely standard fantasy fare, the humour, action and tension is raised to a higher level through the inventive use of mice as protagonists. What's more, the delicate pen and watercolour artwork of Petersen shows a huge attention to detail, and makes for some subtle characterisations. The episodic nature of the story does admittedly stifle the plot a little in the first half, but by the last three installments the adventure rips along at cracking pace to an excellent swash-buckling climax. Another defining characteristic of the series is it's abnormal aspect ratio; the pages are effectively shorter and fatter than standard US comics. This allows Petersen to play about with some truly panoramic panel layouts, as can be seen from the previews of each issue on his website here. It's a combination which has proven very popular with the public and critics alike, as attested by the dozens of positive reviews on the ASP comics website. A good interview with Petersen, exploring his influences and future plans for the Mouse Guard recently appeared at Comic Book Resources. I'm not sure if it's due to the anthropomorphic protagonists, or the action based storytelling, but this comic reminds me of Eastman and Laird's early adventures of the 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'. I really hope Petersen and the Mouse Guard will repeat their phenomenal success too.
- Marvel Online :I'm really reluctant to endorse a link to a Marvel comics website, on account of the terrifying monopoly they share with DC over the entire US comics industry. But. The online library of digital comics to read, gratis for free, and legally, on the Marvel site is one of biggest treats a comic fan will find on the web. For the last two and a half years, Marvel have been posting a diverse selection of comics from their archives here, ranging all the way through their 40+ year back catalogue. The only caveat is that you have to register with the Marvel website, but you can opt to not have them send you any junk email. Once you do that, you get full access to the constantly growing digital library, using a rather swish prototype digital comics browser; you can view comics in a choice of 1 page view, 2 page view or 'intelligent panel' view. This last option involves some neat animated transitions between panels, and is the closest you'll get to matching the genuine reading experience online.
Marvel aren't being completely altruistic by offering these comics for free, it's an attempt to address the growing digital piracy of comics which has been eroding their profits for the last 5 years or so. They also haven't posted any entire storylines; only single issues, so if you want to read more you need to buy the whole book (available from all good bookstores etc.). What's more, the comics browser still has a few bugs, and seems to break down every couple of attempts. But when it's working, it looks awesome, artwork has been cleaned up, colours have been remastered, and it all literally jumps out of the screen.
There are probably a lot of nonsense comics in the library, but a few diamonds in the rough that I've noticed in passing are:
* The first issues of current hot titles like: Ed Brubaker's 'Captain America', Dan Slott's 'She-Hulk', Brian Vaughn's 'Runaways' and Peter David's 'X-Factor'
* The first issue of Joss Whedon's blockbuster run of 'Astonishing X-Men', and the summary of the rest of the arc in 'Astonishing X-Men Saga'
* The first issue of Jack Kirby's original 'Eternals' series from the seventies, compared against the first issue of Neil Gaiman's naughties redux, also titled 'Eternals'
* The classic first appearance of the Avengers in 'Avengers' #1 from the sixties, alongside the team's recent demise in 'Avengers' #500
* The bonafide origin of Spider-Man's black suit in 'Secret Wars' #8
* Some personal favourites of mine; 'Nextwave' #1 and '4' #1
- The Damned :Horror comics are starting to become a bit too overrun with zombies these days for my liking. Fortunately, the 2006 miniseries The Damned continues the tradition of such independent hits as 'Hellboy' and 'The Goon' by blending old EC horror comic staples with cinematic noir storytelling. In this case though, that is done quite literally, in a tale of prohibition era mob-warfare between several demon gangs. The hero, Eddie, is a perennialy cursed private detective who effectively cannot die; or rather, who never stays dead for long. Over the course of the 5 issue miniseries, Eddie uncovers a plot which will rock the criminal and demon underworld to it's core. Writer Cullen Bunn and artist Brian Hurtt's series has been described as a cross between 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and 'Millers Crossing'. To it's credit though, the story owes more to the glorious period detail, explosive violence and rich characterisation of the Coen brother's work. The stylised, grey-scale artwork portrays the blend of retro and otherworldly equally well, and if anything, Hurtt's linework becomes even crisper as the series progresses. The official webpage of the series is especially impressive, containing loads of background details on the horrific world of the The Damned, news of the creators and sneakie peakies at the planned sequel. The collection of the first series, Three Days Dead, is available now from Oni. To whet your appetite you can even download the first double-sized issue of the series for free from here!
- Outer Orbit :I don't normally read sci-fi or fantasy comics (you'll gather from above that I'm much happier with either super-heroes, horror or noir). But based on the 4 issue miniseries Outer Orbit, from Zach Howard, Sean Murphy and Reed Buccholz, maybe I should check out more. This is a farcical sci-fi comedy-adventure which is absolutely bursting with characters, ideas and action. The storyline is pretty inconsequential; it's just an excuse for the odd couple protagonists, two aliens named Krunk and Quinn, to be pursued across the galaxy by a variety of bounty hunters and space-gangsters. The telling of the tale is anything but ordinary, as it flashes back and forwards in time, from the viewpoints of different characters. The driving force of the comic is the fairly adult comedy, which comes as a cross between Abbot and Costello slapstick, South Park satire and Monty Python nudity. In fact, one of the best examples can be seen in the 4 page preview from the first issue here. The energy of the story never wavers, and Sean Murphy's artwork and production design are terrifically kinetic from start to finish. Dark Horse are going to be releasing a collection of this miniseries in October 2007. Sci-fi doesn't get much more irreverent than this...
- I Killed Adolf Hitler:The springboard for this short story is the popular conundrum: if you could go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler, would you be able to do it? The Scandinavian writer/artist, Jason, goes on to pose the questions; what would happen if the attempted assassination backfired, and how would the world have developed, morally, in a 20th century where WW2 never occurred? Although this isn't really a time-travelling thriller, it's a May-to-December love story and a deliberately paced black comedy. The main power of Jason's storytelling is in the minimalistic character designs and the sparse dialogue; the reader finds themself projecting onto the disfunctional characters in order to drive the storyline. The less said about the rest the better, as the joy of the story comes in seeing the plot developments unfold towards a bittersweet and rewarding conclusion. On the strength of this 48 page book, I'll certainly be trying to hunt down some more of Jason's publications from Fantagraphics!
- Super F*ckers :I must admit, I really just wanted an excuse to reproduce the 2 panels shown below. A super-hero comic called Super F*ckers doesn't really need any further explanation, the title says is all. The creator, James Kochalka, is most widely known for his all-ages parable Monkey vs Robot, so it's quite a surprise to see he has produced one of the most profane books in the history of comics. Having said that, I haven't seen very much of his infamous daily sketchbook diary American Elf, so I don't know if this is more representative of his work. This is basically a South-Park styled spoof of pubescent super-teams, with several layers of irony so thick you could cut them with a rusty spoon. It's all a bit of a guilty pleasure, and at time of writing issues 1, 2, 3 and 4 are available from Top Shelf.
- I am Legion (Je Suis Legion) :Written by French Screenwriter Fabien Nury with art by American superstar John Cassaday, this intelligent, gripping theological/occult thriller set against the back-drop of the WW2 struggles in Europe was originally published by Humanoids in France between 2004 and 2008. The story concerns a Nazi plot to manipulate the ghoulish mind-control powers of an apparently innocent Romanian farmgirl, and the efforts of the Allied forces to uncover a related conspiracy on the homefront. It's a meaty read, with multiple plot-threads entwining several sets of characters across international locations, and yet the skilled plotting also includes and abundance of revelatory twists and break-kneck action, keeping it accessible and utterly compelling throughout. Cassaday's artwork and storytelling is brilliant as ever (I've already blown smoke up his work on Captain America and Planetary), and his efforts here explain the snail's pace progress he made on Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men, which he produced for Marvel Comics over the same period. A high quality English-language reprint was serialised by DDP in 2009, and it seems that a collected edition is planned, although a release date hasn't been announced at time of writing. Embedded below is a swanky trailer for the third and final volume of the original Humanoids series. If you can't view it, you may need to download the newest version of the Flash player; and if you can't understand the text, then I'm afraid you're going to need to learn to read French...
- Echo :Terry Moore's creator-owned comic, Echo, would be worth mentioning solely on the basis of Moore carrying out all the writing, art and lettering chores by himself, all whilst maintaining a monthly schedule. The fact is that ontop of that achievement, it's a cracking read; a slow-burner chase thriller with conspiracy and superhero trappings. Refreshingly, the deliberate pace of the extended storyline and emphasis on rounded characters actually draws comparisons closer to tv shows like Lost and Fringe rather than any other comics on the shelves right now. With his previous independent title, Strangers in Paradise, Moore established a reputation for successfully writing realistic female protagonists, and this is continued with Echo's main character, Julie Martin. Although one of the plot devices requires that she takes her top off on a fairly regular basis, so I can't really pretend that this is revolutionary step in women's lib comics. An intellectual subtext about the role of science driving warfare and vice-versa undercuts the whole story, adding a sense of gravity which perhaps foreshadows dark developments yet to come. However, in a departure from the pseudo-science and psycho-babble which pervades the majority of superhero and sci-fi fiction these days, the science and mathematics which Moore presents in Echo is painstakingly researched and actually seems to ring true. Storyline and script aside, Moore's black and white artwork is light and dynamic, convincingly portraying a cast of distinct characters, and making the most out of the sprawling desert landscapes. The storyline has been so far been unfolding for a year and a half, and with many questions still to be answered, Echo may well develop into one of the first classic female superhero comics of the modern age. Newcomers can get up to speed on Terry Moore and all his various projects on his blog.
- Guerillas :Brahm Revel's black + white indie comic Guerillas belongs to a fairly select club - being a comic that is set in the Vietnam War but that is not written by Garth Ennis. It's a 9 part miniseries of double-sized issues (50 pages each) which tell the story of wet-behind the ears G.I. John Clayton as he serves his first tour of duty in the 'Nam. The reader soon learns about Clayton's insecurities and misgivings about being in the war, and how isolated he has been in his life so far, whether in failing to relate to his war-veteran father as he grew up, or in his sense of alienation from his platoon of fellow G.I.s as they progress through the perilous jungle. In fact, it's not long before before the platoon step into a Vietcong ambush and are almost completely wiped out; all but Clayton are slaughtered before a mysterious force counter attacks and tears apart the VC force. However, the first issue has a neat twist reveal on the final page, which I'm now going to completely spoil for you... the platoon which rescues Clayton are infact a troop of US Army-sanctioned combat-trained heavily-armed apes. It's not really a spoiler actually; Revel's website gives as much away itself in it's brief synopsis: "GUERILLAS follows a hapless new recruit who falls in with a troop of specially trained chimpanzees during the Vietnam War. As they hump through the damp jungles of Southeast Asia it becomes unclear if these chimps are a stable fighting unit, or an erratic and volatile pack of animals...". You see, the chimps are a US military project gone AWOL, and it's not long before an equally animalistic (but possibly even more deadly) clean-up crew are dispatched into the jungle to recover the lost troop, dead or alive. So it's sort of a high-concept mish-mash of Platoon, Short Circuit and Every Which Way But Loose. Or more appropriately, it bears comparison to recent anthropomorphic war-parable comics We3 and Pride of Baghdad. The storyline is expertly paced; unfolding in a deliberate manner which spans scenes of combat action, character building, dark comedy and social commentary. A number of developments are deliberately ambiguous, foreshadowing twists that may or may not materialise, and that build a palpable sense of tension into proceedings. Revel's artwork is Aces too; he uses loose brush strokes which create a believable jungle setting, and which captures the diverse characterisation of the chimp protagonists. The bad news for me is that Revel's initial run on this comic published by Image stalled less than half-way through, at issue 4; since he was creating this tale in his spare time, and had to abandon it in favour of other more lucrative projects to pay the bills. The good news is that Guerillas has transferred to Oni Press, and will now be re-released from the start as a series of 3 graphic novels instead. I'd grumble at having to pay to buy the first half of this story over again, but I suspect it's going to be too good to miss!