Free Comic Book Day Results, Part 1 of 2: the Better Half of the Stack

Avatar vs. Fantasy Dudebros

Even in the world of Avatar: the Last Airbender. some guys think they gotta dominate everything. Art by Faith Erin Hicks.

As previously recounted, my wife and I had a ball on Free Comic Book Day 2014 this past Saturday. Readers of multiple demographics, especially a heartening number of youngsters, flocked to our local stores and had the opportunity to enjoy samplers from all the major comic companies and dozens of indie publishers.

How did the finished works do? Did they present an enjoyable, self-contained experience? Were they welcoming to new readers? Did they adhere to the old adage that every comic is someone’s first?

Of the nearly five dozen items offered to retailers nationwide, my wife and I carried away twenty-five in all, in addition to numerous other items I purchased using money instead of good will. My favorites from my FCBD 2014 reading pile were the following:

Avatar: the Last Airbender/Itty Bitty Hellboy/Juice Squeezers (Dark Horse) — Most of this year’s FCBD books were samplers of two or more properties, all the better to increase reader exposure to as many potential new worlds as possible. Best of Show in my book was Avatar: the Last Airbender, with a ripped-from-the-headlines tale about exclusionary hobbyists and young girls who aren’t yet ready to face oppression alone. I’ve never seen the cartoon and should probably avoid the movie forever, but its third annual A-plus FCBD contribution makes me wonder if perhaps I should see if it’s on Netflix. Of the other two stories: Art Baltazar and Franco’s “Itty Bitty Hellboy” two-pager is fun Harvey Comics silliness; and David Lapham’s creator-owned “Juice Squeezers” deliver anti-bullying teen science revenge and might make a lively Nickelodeon TV show if they could afford giant CG ants.

Project Black Sky (Dark Horse) — I’ve avoided nearly all of Dark Horse’s recent super-hero revivals with one exception, Fred Van Lente’s Brain Boy, who costars here with the equally rebooted obscure hero known as Captain Midnight. The obnoxious young psychic and the time-displaced super-captain (sounds familiar, I know) are irritated buddy-heroes partnered against hyper-intelligent but non-verbal gorillas for whom letterer Nate Piekos rose to the challenge of finding a way to bring ASL to life in comics. Add in the textured art/colors of Michael Broussard and Dan Jackson, subtract one gratuitous “‘MURICA!” joke (the internet finds those a lot funnier than I do), and this may be the best Dark Horse super-hero comic I’ve ever read. (I was never a fan of their Comics’ Greatest World line, so…yeah.)

Hip Hop Family Tree Two-in-One (Fantagraphics) — This was a random pickup at one shop that I didn’t even realize was this year’s Fantagraphics FCBD contribution until hours later. Excerpts from the nonfiction series’ first volume by indie cartoonist Ed Piskor (American Splendor, Wizzywig) provide educational highlights from the history of rap music, from its early 1970s growing pains in NYC’s outer boroughs to slightly later, nonetheless major personalities like KRS-One and producer Rick Rubin just before the turn of the decade, all served up with an accurate comics/rap compare/contrast prologue, pretend-aged paper decay, and an homage to Marvel’s 1986 25th-anniversary cover motif. As a former white college boy who counted more than a few rap albums in his old cassette collection, a lot of this history is fascinating to me even though it’s been years since I last bought a rap album by someone besides the Beastie Boys. Might’ve been Cypress Hill, can’t remember offhand. Regardless, something like this belongs up on the shelf next to Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe.

Eric Orchard's Maddy Kettle

Maddy Kettle headlines this year’s Top Shelf Kids Club sampler. Art by Eric Orchard.

Top Shelf Kids Club 2014 (Top Shelf) — Two excerpts this year from upcoming books, neither of them being Owly for a change. The better of the two is Eric Orchard’s Maddy Kettle, about a young girl and her floating toad on a road trip to find the witch that turned her parents into rats. It’s dark and quirky and has goblins and young me would’ve loved to see more. The other half of the book is Rob Harrell’s Monster on the Hill, comedy-fantasy set in an 1867 England where each and every small town likes to be proud of the monster that terrorizes it. I laughed more than once, but whether or not it qualifies as “kids club” material depends on how your family feels about “bloody Hell” as an epithet choice. It would’ve given me pause in my son’s youth, but it’s your call.

Guardians of the Galaxy (Marvel) — Soon to be a major motion picture! An easy intro to the five cast members is written not as a set of dry dossiers, but as a welcome-to-the-team convo between Tony Stark and the newest Guardian, Corporal Flash Thompson, current handler of the alien bioweapon known as Venom. Brian Michael Bendis’ thorough but snappy dialogue decorates a perfunctory action demo that’s pretty much all incoming readers need if they want on board before the film’s August release. Also enclosed are several pages from the upcoming original graphic novel Thanos: the Infinity Revelation, in which writer/artist Jim Starlin returns to the character he personally turned into a major threat that you’ll be seeing in distant Avengers films over the next five years.

Hatter M, Vol. 1: Far from Wonder #1 (Automatic Pictures) — Like Hip Hop Family Tree Two-in-One it’s a reprint of a first issue I never saw, but it bore the FCBD insignia and it’s new to me. Reimaginings of Alice in Wonderland rarely score points with me (I shed zero tears for the recently canceled Once Upon a time in Wonderland), but for some reason I didn’t mind this one, in which the Mad Hatter is a royal bodyguard assigned to time-travel from Future Wonderland to 1859 Paris to seek his lost Queen Alyss. I snickered at this altered spelling before I dove into the book, a suitable excuse for Ben Templesmith to do stylized, creepy, Templesmithian things, which have grown on me more as I’ve aged. The preface makes sure newcomers are aware it’s Eisner-nominated material, which doesn’t surprise me because I regularly recognize or remember half the nominees in any given year. I can see how that happened here. The nominating, I mean, not the forgetting.

Psychedelic Transformers vs. GI Joe!

The all-new Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, apparently approved by a much more permissive Hasbro regime. Art by Tom Scioli.

Transformers vs. G.I. Joe (IDW Publishing) — The cover’s pink-and-purple color scheme forewarned me something was abnormal. If you know a fan of either toy line who’s ever discussed them while using the word “canon” in a sentence, this book may make them rend their garments. Godland artist Tom Scioli teams up with co-writer John Barber for a wanton display of madcap irreverence that has less in common with your childhood than it does with Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, Brandon Graham’s Prophet, and your parents’ favorite drugs. If you can’t handle the idea of a blond, chatty Snake-Eyes, you may not be prepared to open this. I’m fine with it, but I have occasional pop-culture iconoclasm issues, so mine might not be the example you’ll want to heed.

Spongebob Freestyle Funnies 2014 (United Plankton Pictures c/o Bongo Comics) — In which experienced funnybook technicians like Jacob Chabot, Gregg Schigiel, Sam Henderson, and Maris Wicks take turns with the world’s greatest sponge and his pal Patrick. Amusement abounds, but I super-liked Schigiel’s “Mermaid Man & Barnacle Boy” short, which introduces the long-overdue Mermaid Girl. (Quoth a nervous Barnacle Boy to his mentor: “But I’m still your sidekick, right?”) If you’ve ever liked the cartoon, there’s not much wrong here.

Magic Wind (Epicenter Comics) — American translation of the Italian Magico Vento, a Western horror series that’s been running overseas since 1997. Your Old West hero is ex-military Ned Ellis, now a Sioux shaman who sees visions thanks to shrapnel in his brain. Our man teams up with a sober Edgar Allan Poe and squares off against hollerin’ killer Injuns, kindly Mormons, and what appears to be a colossal, belligerent crude-oil snake. Not for the faint of heart or those who can’t help wondering why we still have books with hollerin’ killer Injuns in them, but Joe R. Lansdale fans should get a kick out of this.

Atomic Robo!

Atomic Robo’s AI systems aren’t so sharp at subtly changing the subject. Art by Scott Wegener.

Atomic Robo/Bodie Troll/Haunted (Red 5 Comics) — To me, Atomic Robo is the patron saint of Free Comic Book Day and an automatic pickup every time for good, whimsical action science adventure. Once again backing him up is trash-craving Bodie Troll, strictly giving kids a well-cartooned, subversive dose of garbage gags. If you find yourself guffawing at the idea of “stinky armpit roots” you’ve come to the right place. Also on hand is Haunted, represented only by a four-page chase scene that offers promising art but otherwise insufficient data to encourage further sampling.

Bongo Comics Free-for-All 2014 (Bongo) — Another year, another year’s-best compilation from the Simpsons Comics people. A tour of Mr. Burns’ underground catacombs, an Itchy & Scratchy send-up of Spy vs. Spy, a tribute to Steve Ditko’s Dr Strange, and a one-page Sergio Aragonés “Where’s Ralph?” puzzle were all funnier than tonight’s overhyped partially-Lego TV episode.

Skyward/Midnight Tiger (Action Lab) — I’ve raved here before about Jeremy Dale’s creator-owned fantasy Skyward and was looking forward to this special. Unfortunately this is a flashback that means more if you’re caught up on the series, and I’ve bought but not yet had a chance to read Volume 2, so my gratification is suspended pending further reading progress. Batting second is Midnight Tiger, a black teen hero strip with occasionally awkward art, some inspired touches (I love the idea of a phone app that helps commuters avoid superhuman fights), a couple of cheesy in-jokes (police code for superhuman fights is a “616”), and an origin-story climax that’s either rushed or missing pages. I do see promise and groundwork being laid for the months ahead, particularly in the opening debate over the average-Joe viewpoint that isn’t impressed by heroes who routinely save Earth as a whole but never take the time to investigate the plight of individual neighborhoods.

To be continued!

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