For a few years back in the early 2010s horror mash up stories were all the rage. Take an innocuous but well known thing and mix it with a fantasy horror trope and a new hit was made. These were most evident through books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and probably a few others not written by Seth Grahame-Smith. Though that genre has been dormant for a few years, it’s come back quite well with the recent release of Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer.
Written by David Crownson, Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer takes place (appropriately) in 1860, deep in the heart of America’s days of Slavery. It opens with a slave family, the Edgefields, as they escape their plantation in search of a life as free folk. When they run afoul of a trio of shady white men, the Edgefields stand their ground only to discover that these men aren’t exactly what they seem to be. Luckily, a mysterious stranger, the eponymous Harriet Tubman, shows up to save them.
One of the things I liked most about the book is the humor. Within the first couple of pages, Crownson makes a joke at the expense of one of his characters and it’s brilliant because it serves a higher purpose than a mere moment of levity. In addition to setting the tone for the book, that initial joke lets the audience know that despite the heady subject matter, they’re allowed to laugh at the story. This is a necessary cue for readers like me, a middle class white man, during the times that the N-word gets bandied around. That word would (rightfully so) make modern audiences uncomfortable but was necessary to tell a story that borrowed heavily from the time of slavery and Harriet Tubman’s real-life struggle. Crownson breaks the ice early to alleviate any possible squeamishness.
The art on the book is superb. Courtland Ellis’ art is smooth, his figures realistic and graceful. There are no overly muscular men rippling through torn shirts. His women aren’t bodaciously disproportioned, and in fact have noticeably different body types. Ellis uses subtle facial expressions on his characters to portray emotions and tip the readers off to what they’re thinking, but he’s then able to go all out during the funny moments. It can be a jarring juxtaposition at times but really ramps up the humor.
The art isn’t perfect, though. Most of the pages are beautiful, however, there’s some panel progression that feels off. Some of the character movement is choppy and stilted, which is detrimental in a book that relies heavily on fight scenes. Thankfully, it’s easy to overlook because there are so many other things to enjoy but hopefully it improves as the series progresses.
Ellis also shines in how he draws backgrounds, notably in the way he uses large brushstrokes to signify foliage. It’s drastically different from mainstream comics and I absolutely love it.
My biggest problem with the book is the dialogue. While most of the characters’ speech is smooth and energetic, the story is sprinkled with one-liners that just seem trite and unnecessary. It tended to be more good than bad, though.
I also wasn’t a fan of the localized dialect. This was probably included to show how different groups speak differently and was effective in establishing the world the story takes place in. I felt like it slowed down the reading experience, forcing me to puzzle out what the characters were saying. I understand that I’m splitting hairs here and maybe sound a little pedantic but this was definitely my take away from the reading experience.
Also, I need to point out the book’s poor punctuation. Normally I don’t even notice the lettering in comic books but the fact that this drew my attention means that it really stood out. Granted, some of the punctuation choices may have been stylistic but there are some instances that are just inconsistent, making the lettering come off as lazy or rushed. Again, I have hope that this will be remedied in future issues.
Despite its flaws, though, one thing that Crownson gets right is the mystery surrounding Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer. His opening chapter focuses on establishing the characters. He doesn’t dive too far into why the vampires are chasing runaway slaves or even where Harriet comes from. We know nothing of her past, her upbringing, or how she knows how to fight. Crownson reveals just enough to whet my appetite but not too much that I lose interest and don’t return for the second issue.
Having purchased Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer on a whim during Free Comic Book Day (it was funded through a successful Kickstarter), I have no idea how to get a physical copy of the book. However, you can buy it in digital on Comixology and Peep Game Comix. And I wholly recommend you pick it up. Not only is this book a fun read but it’s also an interesting take on the horror mash-up genre and the life of one of the most prolific American humanitarians.
As one of the smaller independent presses, Lion Forge Comics is not very well known. Most of their line up consists of comics based on popular 80s franchises (as well as a few not-so-popular). As of recently, though, they are jumping into the super hero game, starting with the release of Catalyst Prime: Noble, a prelude to their upcoming Catalyst Prime universe.
The premise behind Catalyst Prime is that a massive asteroid is heading to Earth and only 5 astronauts are able to stop it. It’s a fairly straight forward premise, one that leaves a lot of room to work with. We’ll learn more about what they’re calling “The Event” on Free Comic Book Day when Lion Forge gives out copies of Catalyst Prime: The Event. From there, the Catalyst Prime universe will slowly unfold in seven monthly comic books. One of these is Catalyst Prime: Noble, which focuses on David Powell, one of the astronauts involved in The Event and what becomes of him in the following year.
The main cast of Noble is only two characters, the aforementioned David and his wife, Astrid. Writer Brandon Thomas was wise to structure the introductory chapter like this as it made it easy to follow. Being new characters, we don’t know much about the kind of people David and Astrid are, so throwing a wide cast at new audiences may become confusing and alienate readers. By paring that down to two, especially two who are so closely tied together, Thomas create a far simpler reading experience while getting the most out of the story.
Most of the issue focuses on David, who has no idea who he is but shows some powerful telekinetic abilities, being pursued by a specialized military team. Everything is left ambiguous; we don’t know why David’s on the run, why these men are chasing him, or who the mysterious “she” is that sent them. It’s a well written, well paced scene that’s enhanced by Roger Robinson’s art.
What I like most about the art is Robinson’s style. He uses a lot of lines, most especially in his figures and when indicating motion. It’s very different from a lot of the more mainstream comics and lends the book a gritty feeling. I use “gritty” as it’s supposed to mean; coarse and dirty, not dark and broody as it’s become to be known. Which I mean as a compliment. The scene involved David being chased by a group of large men through a sandy, desert town. One word that should be used to describe this is “gritty.”
The panel progression is very cinematic. From the very first page we get a slow zoom out from Astrid’s wedding ring as she sits nervously in a waiting room. This transitions to a flashback of not long before, revealing the reason she’s nervous. That lasts less than a page before we return to the present moment, when Astrid is given terrible news and breaks down in tears. Three pages is all it takes to recap her harrowing experience losing her husband in The Event and it’s all that’s needed. Wonderful work by both Thomas and Robinson.
I also loved the end twist. It’s a pretty big reveal that most writers would dangle in front of readers, dropping little clues here and there through subsequent issues in order to keep them on the hook. But Thomas tells us up front at the end of the issue who is masterminding the hunt for David. It’s a great reveal because it opens so many more questions that entice readers to come back without resorting to clichés and cheap tricks.
As a fan of super heroes, it’s nice to break away from the worlds of Marvel and DC, which are steeped in so much history that it’s often difficult to keep up. Catalyst Prime offers a reprieve from that, with strong characters that we get to see evolve and grow in real time. It’s also great to see a comic so deftly blend the techniques of filmmaking into its storytelling. I hadn’t heard much about Catalyst Prime before reading Noble but now I’m definitely looking to go deeper into the universe.
I know this review is a little late considering the issue has been in shops for a couple of weeks now but I really need to talk about Ghostbusters 101. Since IDW announced the title, I’ve eagerly awaited its release. It marks a big step for Ghostbusters as merges the original team with the team from the 2016 reboot movie in comic form.
As the intro to a 6-part limited series, the first issue sets the stage perfectly. There’s not much in the way of action, though the first few pages do pull the reader in quite well. They also serve to introduce new readers to the personalities of the original team of Ghostbusters.
From there we get a glimpse at Walter Peck, the Ghostbusters’s government liaison, and the first seeds of the story arc take root. Basically, the team needs to deviate from their paranormal investigation and elimination and go the route of educators to produce additional revenue. I know it sounds very droll, and for the most part it is. But writer Erik Burnham realizes this and takes the time to poke a little fun at it to help lighten the mood.
Before I get more into Burnham’s writing, let me say that I’m a big fan of Dan Schoening’s art. He takes a lot of inspiration from the actors’ looks from the film but interprets them in his own way. This makes the comic characters feel like separate entities even though the comics relies heavily on the lore of the film. To contrast that, he draws the new team in the spitting image of the actresses, which helps pull the realism of the new movie into the comic. Granted, this is probably due more to likeness rights than character interpretation. I’m sure the producers planned heavily on multiple revenue streams with comics being one part of that.
The art also shines in more than just the characters. Schoening knows how to create movement on the page. His panels are dynamic and exciting, which really goes a long way to telling a great story.
The pencils are enhanced by Luis Antiono Delgado’s vibrant colors. All of the detail and depth he puts into the characters and environments adds life to the book. Also, I love the different effects Delgado uses, such as the glow of the ghosts and the proton streams. They go a long way to making the comic feel cinematic and are beautiful touches.
As the sole writer of Ghostbusters at IDW, Erik Burnham has a strong grasp of the characters. Just like Schoening, he takes influence from the movies but also manages to make them his own. Venkman is still flippant with a dry-wit, Spengler the stoic intellectual. But Burnham takes license and veers the characters into unexpected directions, which is fantastic since it makes the stories less predictable.
But again, just like Schoening, he basically carbon copies the new team into the book. Burnham’s dialogue for Tolan, Holtzmann, Gilbert and Yates is so on point that I could practically hear the actresses’ voices saying the words. This is not a complaint. Since most readers may not be as familiar with the new Ghostbusters, this is a perfect introduction for them into the comic book world. In addition, it’s wonderful to see these great characters brought back to life since we probably won’t be getting a sequel due to less than stellar box office turnout for the film.
After that glowing praise for both the writing and the art, there is a glaring drawback of this issue that needs to be addressed. It is heavily steeped in backstory. Characters make many references to previous events which could easily lose readers who haven’t kept up with the IDW series. Without a doubt, this shows how tightly knit Burnham keeps his narrative, that he can make callbacks to the team’s earlier adventures. But the addition of the new team is bound to draw new readers. Younger readers whose first introduction to the Ghostbusters is the 2016 movie. If they have trouble following the story because of these callbacks, then they may be unlikely to keep up with the series. I’m not saying Burnham should have omitted the references completely, but an old-style Editorial Notes showing previous issues may have been helpful.
I feel that it’s an important step in the IDW series because it brings the new team of Ghostbusters into the comics-verse. Given the vitriol the reboot received, all from the fervor that was created by the casting of four women in the lead roles, having this team of Ghostbusters interact with the “classic” team goes a long way in showing the nay-sayers that a reboot doesn’t negate its predecessor; in this case, it enhances it. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to the rest of this series.
You may have seen the hashtag #FCBD on your favorite social medium as of late. In case you were confused by the jumble of letters, that stands for “Free Comic Book Day.” The day is quickly approaching, happening on May 6th of this year. If you’ve never heard of the event, we’ve put together a short primer to help you out.
What is it?
Taking place on the first Saturday of every May, Free Comic Book Day is an international event in which comic book stores give away comics to anyone who comes in. It’s not every comic, mind you; there are a wave of comics branded with the FCBD logo which are eligible. But these titles span such an array of genres and ages that you’re bound to find something that appeals to you.
FCBD has been such an outstanding success that 2017 marks its fifteenth year in existence.
Where is it?
Everywhere! OK, well, not really everywhere. Not all comic shops participate in FCBD. Luckily, there’s a comic shop locator on freecomicbookday.com that will point you to your nearest participating store.
What can I expect?
Here’s where it gets fun. First of all, you can expect free comics. However, which comics is up to the shop. There are different tiers of offerings available at different stores so it all depends on how your local comic shop is participating. That Store Locator should help you determine where to go if you want to score a specific issue.
Ah, now you’re asking the right questions.
There’s a ton of good stuff. Fans of Marvel and DC movies won’t be disappointed as both Guardians of the Galaxy and Wonder Woman get the FCBD treatment this year, just in time for their respective films to hit theaters. But Marvel is also offering a chapter from their Secret Empire storyline while DC taps the popular DC Super Hero Girls for a comic.
Archie Comics gets into the mix with two titles of their own. The first is an all-new Betty & Veronica with art by the amazing Adam Hughes. Archie will also be offering a comic based on the popular Riverdale television show from The CW. That one should go over nicely.
A few highlights (or at least titles that I’m most excited for) include:
- TMNT: Dimension X prelude from IDW
- The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess/Ocarina of Time from Viz Media
- Doctor Who from Titan Comics
- Buffy: The High School Years from Dark Horse Comics
I’m also excited for Lion Forge Comics, which is using Free Comic Book Day as a stepping stone to launch their newest series, Catalyst Prime: The Event. Written by Christopher Priest with art by Joseph Illidge, the solicit for Catalyst Prime sounds pretty solid and this should be a good series. And with the intro to the series being free, it’s worth checking out,
Of course, that’s not all that will be available. Head over to the FCBD website for the full run down. (http://www.freecomicbookday.com/catalog) (Also, once again, not all of the titles will be available everywhere. You may want t check with your local shop to see if they ordered the one you’re looking for if they participate at that level.)
Yes, so much more!
Because this is such a huge event for local comic stores, many of them go all out to promote it. One of my local shops brings in members from the 501st Legion, a devoted group of Star Wars costumers who make various charity appearances. Every year you can see them roaming the sidewalk outside of the store, greeting pedestrians, interacting and taking pictures with customers waiting on line and just bringing an air of joviality to the occasion.
Yet another of my local comic and gaming store had cupcakes. Yes, homemade cupcakes with little plastic rings featuring Thor and Iron Man. That was a tremendous treat. (Sadly, this store has since gone out of business. I was definitely looking forward to seeing what they did for FCBD this year.)
Many comic book stores also host writer and artist appearances. They’ll invite creators to interact with fans, sign autographs, sell sketches… They basically turn Free Comic Book Day into little comic cons.
Some stores will host free or paid raffles and give customers a chance to win some cool prizes.
A lot of the supplemental fun is up to the individual comic shop and not hosted by FCBD so call your local store to see what, if anything, they may be planning.
I hope many of you are planning on visiting your local comic shop(s) on Free Comic Book Day. If you do just remember, these comics are free to you but the stores still have to pay for them. So when you get your free stuff, make a purchase as well. Like any other business, local comic shops only survive if they turn a profit. If you want to be able to enjoy Free Comic Book Day in the coming years, show them some monetary support.
In the coming months, DC Comics will be releasing a slate of comic books featuring the reimagining of some of the most iconic cartoons characters ever, including Scooby Doo and Flintstones. As a preview to this, a few of this month’s Annual issues feature crossovers and backup stories of a selection of Hanna-Barbera’s other characters. One of these crossovers takes the Suicide Squad, a team of villains put to good use in a government wetworks program, and pairs them with the Banana Splits, a group of rock-n-rolling anthropomorphic animals from a show that aired in the late 1960s.
Full disclosure: I never watched the Banana Splits. It was way before my time. The only reason I even know about it is from the Liz Phair cover of “The Tra La La Song” on the Saturday Morning Cartoons Greatest Hits soundtrack. But that song is so ingrained in my psyche that when I saw the Banana Splits were featured alongside the Suicide Squad, I needed to pick the issue up.
The story opens with the Banana Splits getting chased by the police for a relatively minor traffic infraction. Through a misunderstanding, they’re arrested and sent to Belle Reve where they catch the eye of Amanda Waller, who just happens to be looking for a team of patsies to back up the Suicide Squad on a mission that has gone south. The two teams meet and, as expected, high jinks ensue as they join forces and take care of an unimportant plot point.
Written by Tony Bedard, the issue was not nearly as fun as I wanted it to be. Though most of DC’s readership likely has no idea who the Banana Splits even are, Bedard solves this problem by making a quick introduction of the characters by the second page, then immediately cracking a joke about how no one remembers them anyway. Unfortunately, that’s one of the few jokes that hits. Much of the issue is devoted to half-hearted humor and easy one-liners. The opening sequence is meant to be played for laughs, with the police mistaking Fleegle’s wallet for a weapon and immediately opening fire. Given how often stories like these flood the news waves, it’s actually surprising that this was meant to be funny but, well, here you go.
Even the tone of the book vacillates from page to page. Suicide Squad is, in general, full of mindless, action packed stories. Banana Splits, on the other hand, is mostly family friendly slapstick humor. Bedard manages to jam both of these tones into the story but they are often at odds with each other. The animals come off as gentle and easy going but two pages later are brawling in the middle of a prison riot. The sudden switch in characterization is jarring and the only way it works is just to shrug it off and go with it.
The art team, consisting of Ben Caldwell on pencils, Mark Morales on inks and Jeremy Lawson doing colors, manages to hold the story together though it’s not the most eye-catching display. The progression is easy to follow and Caldwell varies his angles to keep the pacing interesting, however, there is very little of note throughout the book. The colors are flat, panels and characters lack detail, and most everything is presented without subtext. Though I do have to say that I enjoyed many of the facial expressions Caldwell gives to the Banana Splits gang; not only did it seem difficult to give these animals humanistic expressions and make them feel natural, but they actually happened to be the funniest part of the book.
In addition to the main story, the book features an 8-page back-up starring Snagglepuss, another classic Hanna Barbera character that doesn’t have much of a millennial fanbase. This short was written by Mark Russell and imagines Snagglepuss in the center of the House Committee Un-American Activities during the 1950s. ‘Puss is a flamboyant playwright and he’s being questioned on what’s deemed his less-than-savory attitudes. Most of his dialogue is snarky and capitalizes on the literal interpretation of questions he’s asked, something that those who’ve seen a Snagglepuss cartoon would expect. But the story takes a swerve and settles into a social commentary on the importance of writers and how they’re perceived by society.
The art of the Snagglepuss story is just as clever as the writing. Howard Porter’s pencils are sharp and full of life, providing rich detail to his characters and environments. His panel layouts tend to get a little confusing, especially when he varies the angles to such a degree that it’s difficult to get a take on the scene, but given that almost half of the tale is set in a courtroom, this was likely intentional to keep things from getting boring.
Steve Buccellato’s colors are just as deep. Despite Snagglepuss being a large, pink cat, Buccellato approaches the character in such a way that his appearance in front of a bunch of business-suited men doesn’t come off as ludicrous. Luckily, Buccellato was smart enough to understand that the satire is evident in the concept of the story and bright, outlandish colors would have subverted it.
Overall, I do give credit to DC Comics for dusting off an old franchise like Banana Splits and introducing it to modern audiences. And while pairing them with the Suicide Squad was a bold move, it isn’t one that worked out too well. Instead of a one-off story in an annual issue, I would have prefer to see them in a mini-series of their own, to allow the writer room to expand on the characters and round them out a little more. At the very least, it may have been prudent to put the title into the hands of a different writer, one that’s less willing to turn a troubling social issue into a joke.
The Snagglepuss story is a prelude to a full series coming in the fall and is the most enjoyable part of this particular comic book.
Grade (Backup story): A-
It’s that time of year again when we have a day of reflection and I sort through everything I’ve read and make a top graphic novel list of sorts. This year was difficult in a tremendous amount of ways, but I found solace among the pages of this spectacular medium. Comics were DOPE AF this year. There were so many fantastic stories. There were so many in fact, that I had to make three separate lists for all the books I wanted to include.
Without further ado, let’s get to my top graphic novels of 2016, ranked in no particular order! My criteria were few:
- Released at some point in 2016
- Stand alone or collected a mini-series
- I thought about it a lot throughout the year
LEGEND OF WONDER WOMAN
POISON IVY: CYCLE OF LIFE AND DEATH
STEVEN UNIVERSE & CRYSTAL GEMS
UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL BEATS UP MARVEL UNIVERSE
DRAWN & QUARTERLY
X-MEN TP WORST X-MAN EVER
In a quiet seaside town, a gas station clerk named Huck secretly uses his special gifts to do a good deed each day. When his story leaks, a media firestorm erupts, bringing him uninvited fame. As pieces of Huck’s past begin to resurface, it’s no longer clear who his friends are-or whose lives may be in danger. Mark Millar’s bright, sweet story about a man particularly good at finding is akin to laying in bed in the sunlight on a Sunday afternoon. A completely pure story among this year’s indie sci-fi dystopias.
That rounds out my top 10! It was not an easy task and I’m already not looking forward to doing one of these for 2017. Did I miss one of your favorites? Let me know in a comment!