Indie Comic Capsule Reviews

I haven’t done a lot of reviews for comics not from DC or Marvel. It’s not that I don’t read any, but I’ll admit that my reading has become more superhero-heavy since the economy cut the legs out from under many small publishers. Meanwhile, DC and Marvel have doubled down on their bid for market share by adding more titles to their lines. But also, too many small press titles fizzle away on their own or are obviously bad enough for me to drop them before I have enough material for a review.

Here are reviews of five new or recently-completed series, and as mentioned below, the amount of time that some of these took is a good explanation for why I can’t do more regular indie comics reviews.

cover to Captain Swing #1

Captain Swing and The Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island

Captain Swing and The Electrical Pirates of Cindery Island

Warren Ellis’ comic writing in recent years has fallen into two categories: He’s doing a few Marvel series about superheroes who act especially edgy and cynical, which I don’t read. He also writes creator-owned series for Avatar Press, which I’m now wishing I didn’t read. Captain Swing is the latest: It took until October of this year to finish a four-issue series that began in February of 2010. That’s long enough for the idea of steampunk pirates to go from slightly original to completely cliché.

The story reads like late-period Ellis, a simple echo of his past hits. The heroic, distinctively-costumed Captain Swing leads a band of freedom-loving outlaws just outside of oppressive 19th-century London, and the only honest cop in the city must decide whether to help them. Ellis informs the work with more historical background than a typical steampunk story, and artist Raulo Caceres hits a feel somewhere between the detailed clockwork of the genre and the Avatar house style. The story shouldn’t be bad, but it feels a bit simple and clichéd, and there was certainly nothing that justified half-year delays between issues.

This will likely be my last Ellis comic for a while.

Grade: D+

cover to Comic Book Comics #1

Comic Book Comics

Comic Book Comics

This is a non-fiction work about the history of comics itself, mostly focused on the American market. Telling such a story in comic form is appropriate, but it doesn’t always work well. Long stretches of this series read like a straightforward essay, with the art playing a secondary role. Only occasionally do the panels actually feature dialog or provide information that the text didn’t already cover. The illustrations do increase readability and help to reinforce some messages, but as an example of comics craft, it’s disappointing. This is especially true given how established Fred Van Lente has become as a writer. (Artist Ryan Dunlavey has done little comics work beyond this. He is skilled and creative, but too cartoony for the current mainstream styles.)

However, the content is exhaustively-researched and well-argued. From little factoids to major topics, this covers the early days of Disney animation, the modern struggles with piracy and insular communities, and everything in between. This is no hands-off textbook: Van Lente and Dunlavey are willing to take sides on everything from the Stan Lee vs. Jack Kirby debate to whether the Direct Market was a betrayal of casual customers.

Comic Book Comics does provide a very dense read when compared to most other comics. And while it’s generally interesting, it’s rarely a page-turner or especially memorable. I’ve taken away many little factoids from these comics, but forgotten much of the information.

(It should also be mentioned that it took almost four years for this six-issue series to complete, without any releases at all in 2010. It is easier to forgive than Captain Swing, since there are no plot threads to follow from issue to issue and it’s more obviously a labor of love, but that is still pretty bad. The final issue even explains how late-shipping comics have contributed to the recent boom-and-bust cycles in the market, without any trace of self-awareness.)

Grade: C+

By the way, the rest of these reviews are for series all came out on a professional monthly or bimonthly schedule:

cover to Dark Horse Presents #1

Dark Horse Presents

Dark Horse Presents

(Based on issues 1-6)

This is the latest iteration of the anthology that first appeared when Dark Horse launched as a new comic publisher twenty-five years ago. Eighty pages long for only $8, it generally features ten stories per issue (holding pretty consistently to an eight-page length each) and no ads. It’s a great deal for American comics, assuming you like the content. The stories offer enough variety that most people are guaranteed to like some, but will probably be disappointed by others.

The company has used this anthology is an example of the variety that Dark Horse’s catalog offers, and they’re not far off. (The only thing missing is their deep manga offerings, though since those are reprints, there is probably no realistic way to get those creators to contribute eight-page stories to this.) It’s actually very interesting to see the artists who represent Dark Horse’s beginnings placed next to the current stars. For the most part, the sort of material they used to publish hasn’t aged well.

Neal Adams’ Blood, for example, has some interesting ideas about a secret war between aliens that guided early civilization, wars, and the Knights Templar. However, it’s obscured behind a hyper-violent story of a boringly competent vigilante, as if Adams doesn’t trust the story to succeed without edgy (for the 80’s) superhero trappings. Howard Chaykin’s Marked Man also flirts with some interesting ideas – the protagonist is mundane, but genuinely unlikeable and unrepentant – but it also has no real hook to keep the reader interested. It mainly serves as a reminder of how disappointing Chaykin’s recent output has been. The Concrete stories are decent, but the “philosophical, realistic” twist on a superhero origin story is much less fresh than it was when it debuted. The best of the old guard has been Carla Speed McNeil’s new Finder storyline, with strange tales of a supernatural delivery service that stand alone but seem to be building up to something.

But these have also featured new stories from current hot talents like Fábio Moon and Eric Powell, and Andi Watson (somewhere between the old and new sides here) has provided his own lighthearted tales in the past couple issues. The highlights may be two amazing stories from the Beasts of Burden world, which seem to shine in eight-page doses. This all covers less than half of the talent that has appeared so far, with something for almost everyone.

In general, I was disappointed with the first couple issues, but they have gotten consistently stronger as the anthology established itself. Some of the upcoming creators (including Mike Mignola and Brandon Graham) sound even more promising. It’s difficult to know how to recommend this, though. I don’t want to tell people to start at the beginning (which filled out pages with self-serving interviews and a Star Wars story), but since over half of the stories in each issue are chapters in serialized stories, later issues don’t make satisfying starting points, either. It seems that readers are required to pay their dues for a few months before they can fully appreciate Dark Horse Presents. With that out of the way for me, though, I’m looking forward to what comes next.

Grade: B-

cover to The Red Wing #1

The Red Wing

The Red Wing

Jonathan Hickman only appeared on the comics scene a few years ago, but he’s already become one of Marvel’s top-tier authors. This meteoric rise was perhaps a bit too fast for his own good: Hickman is an inventive writer with a good shot at becoming the next Grant Morrison, but he’s apparently learned that cranking out ideas at top speed is better than taking the time to hone them. He’s dipping back into the indie pool with his Image comic The Red Wing, which demonstrates this all too well. It has great ideas, but never ties them together for a satisfying conclusion. It’s arguably intentional, as this is a bleak study of war and human nature, but it still feels more like an introduction than a complete story.

The conceit is that time travel has become reality, and like most technological advances, it’s used mainly for warfare. Increasing the scope of war, of course, just makes it more damaging. Causality and time paradoxes don’t exist here, meaning that people can lay waste to entire eras with no more care than we might destroy a country we’ll never have to see again.

There are two stories here: The presumably main one is the adventure of two friends who have just enlisted as time-traveling fighters. It’s clichéd, perhaps intentionally so, introducing the story’s themes and settings in an accessible way. Meanwhile, the real exploration of ideas is in the story of the father to one of these men. He has become lost in time and discovers the truth about the mysterious enemy who is laying waste to the Earth in the “current” timeline. This father and son dynamic is repeated throughout the story. Time travel wars are an unsubtle metaphor for our impact on, and responsibility to, other generations.

Though Hickman’s iconic, distinctive design sense is found on these pages, the art itself is by Nick Pitarra. His work is clean and professional, keeping the scenes with talking heads or lifeless technology from being dry. When ships travel through time or meet an explosive end, he captures the shattering reality with eye-catching, technically impressive work.

This presents fascinating ideas that are fun to read and even worth discussing afterwards. It falls short as a story, though, leading to nothing other than whatever philosophical conclusions its readers will draw. That’s not a bad thing, but I believe Hickman is capable of elevating both stories and ideas without sacrificing one for the other. Sometimes it helps to remember that, despite all the stories he’s already responsible for, he’s still at the start of his career.

Grade: B

cover to Sergio Aragonés' Funnies #1

Sergio Aragonés' Funnies

Sergio Aragonés’ Funnies

(Based on issues 1-5)

The prolific cartoonist, best known for MAD Magazine and Groo, now has his own monthly comic book, His work has always mixed an ambitious anarchy with a touch of comfortable predictability, and this is no exception. Each issue follows the same structure, with elements both excellent and disappointing. The MAD-style gag cartoons are there, of course, and sometimes really funny. But these sketchy black-and-white illustrations feel a little like filler when given a whole page each, and they lose something when not mixed in with all the other things that made MAD great. And the puzzle pages are just baffling. Aragonés’ distinct busy style is a great fit for them, but I doubt that this comic has very many young readers who will care about solving them.

Fortunately, though, there are a few multi-page (and color) stories in each issue. These are fun, even if the humorous twists are sometimes predictable. But the highlight is the autobiographical stories that Aragonés includes. He’s had an amazingly eventful life despite all those hours at the drawing table, and even the simple stories of his childhood are interesting. This is an old man reminiscing to good friends, and it’s an enthralling experience. Who would have expected a man best known for his comedy to write such excellent memoirs?

Really, evaluating Sergio Aragonés’ Funnies comes down to a question of quantity as well as quantity. There are at least ten pages of pure genius in each issue. The question becomes whether that’s worth the price of a full comic issue or not.

Grade: B

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