Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: my wife and I observed Free Comic Book Day 2015 this past Saturday. Readers of multiple demographics, thankfully including lots 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. As an incentive for the younger recruits, the shop we visited split the all-ages material apart from the rest and put up “KIDS ONLY” signs discouraging greedy adults from hoarding everything and leaving nothing behind in their wake.
I never grab copies of everything, and this year I took even fewer items than usual because I don’t really have the time or inclination to be the guy who thinks he’s obligated to read and respond to everything. I came away with a dozen comics of varying interest levels and finished reading the last of them the next morning. In my mind, each issue ought to be a satisfying experience for any new reader who opens the cover without any foreknowledge. Historically, each publisher’s offerings tend to fall into one of six story levels, ranked here in order from “Best Possible Display of Generosity and Salesmanship” to “Had to Slap SOMETHING Together, So Whatever”:
1. New, complete, done-in-one story
2. Complete story reprinted from existing material
3. A complete chapter of a new story with a proper chapter ending
4. Partial excerpt from an upcoming issue that will also contain all these same pages
5. No story, just random pinups or art samples
6. Disposable ad flyer shaped like a comic
The twelve comics in my FCBD 2015 reading pile came out as follows, from least favorite to definite favorite:
12. Legendary Comics Preview (Legendary Comics) — This new IP-generating publishing offshoot of Legendary Pictures boasts a committed lineup of top talents — Mark Waid, Chris Roberson, Steven Grant, Pete Woods, Fiona Staples, Matt Wagner, Simon Bisley, Judd Winick, et al. — but for now all we’re given are three unlettered pages from a Pacific Rim sequel, three more from another title, one or zero teaser images from several other projects in early development stages, and ads for a couple of previous books now on sale. The company seems promising, but there’s no real reading here except a few marketing blurbs.
11. Captain Canuck #0 (Chapterhouse Comics) — Canada’s most famous Canadian comics hero (as opposed to Wolverine, America’s most famous Canadian comics hero) is receiving his next reboot written and drawn by Kalman Andrasofszky (X-23, NYX), and with retro backups by Ed Brisson and classic Cap artist George Freeman (Elric of Melnibone, Marvel’s long-ago Jack of Hearts). The four-page reboot excerpt is enough to show Cap is a hero who can negotiate a high-altitude drop, and that’s all there is. The six-page backup is a caption-heavy backstory recap for newcomers like me who know zip about him. I’d rather read a Cap story than read about other Cap stories, but I appreciate the attempted introduction. The back half is filled out with light Official Handbook entries for the supporting players, which I would’ve liked more when I was a young fan of Marvel’s OHOTMU and DC’s Who’s Who.
10. Secret Wars #0 (Marvel Comics) — A ten-page prologue to this summer’s major Marvel crossover event stars Franklin and Valeria Richards, Alex from Power Pack, a talking Dragon Man, and several unnamed underage strangers whose big plan for the upcoming catastrophe is to run and hide. Valeria recaps some relevant Illuminati shenanigans, but I disliked being reminded that these same never-named, unexplained strangers are the reason I couldn’t get into Jonathan Hickman’s FF in the first place. Irrelevant extra: an eight-page excerpt from a Marvel Heroes/Attack on Titan crossover previously released only in Japan. At least I assume it’s an excerpt and not the complete saga. Famous Marvel good guys punch oversize monsters that I kinda recognize thanks to cosplayers, and then more Marvel good guys show up and THE END. Yay fight scenes? I guess?
9. Tales of Honor #0 (Top Cow/Image Comics) — A done-in-one follow-up to a previous miniseries I’d never heard of, which in turn was based on a series of David Weber novels I’ve never read. For rookies like me, there’s a page-long intro crawl twice as long as any Star Wars movie infodump, followed by a two-page mini-encyclopedia cataloging the dozens of planets, chronology of major events, their military rank system, and various other in-depth social-studies aspects of this vast universe, all in near-microscopic magnifying-glass font. I sloughed through the scroll, skipped pages two and three, and still got the gist of their space-skirmish tale, which was a few pages of action plus several pages of exposition, about the same content as an average Star Trek: the Next Generation episode. I imagine this is much cooler for Weber fans than it was for me, but at least it had a beginning and an end.
8. The Phantom (Hermes Press) — I’ve never been a fan of the original comic strip, but I’ve dabbled in a few comics starring the Ghost Who Walks, depending on the talents involved. Two short stories are reprinted from comics that came before my time, but one of them features art by a young Jim Aparo, who would later become the definitive Batman artist of my childhood. His style wasn’t yet solidified, but I can see glimpses of the swashbuckling excitement and the distinctive lettering that would follow in The Brave and the Bold and The Outsiders. So this was kind of an unexpected treasure.
7. I.C.E.: Bayou Blackout (12-Gauge Comics) — Credit where due: a Jason Pearson cover is a surefire way to lure me to your comic. Inside is chapter one of the third arc in a gung-ho action-cop series I’ve never heard of, which has one interesting cop-bonding scene bookended by a pair of shootouts, but writer Doug Wagner (The Ride, assorted Batman comics) knows there’s more to comics than explosions, and knows how to set up a cliffhanger ending, even though it would mean a bit more if this weren’t my first exposure to them. Anyone who likes old Stallone films or Miami Vice could dig this. Even more to my liking is the backup, a not-for-kids tale of “The Ride” by writer/artist Tomm Coker (DC/Vertigo’s Blood & Water) that loosely connects a fast car, the legend of bluesman Robert Johnson, and soul-selling devil-trickery, all rendered in the kind of intricate black-and-white linework rarely seen in today’s computer-coloring dominion.
6. Terrible Lizard #1 (Oni Press) — Imagine a rebooted Devil Dinosaur and Moon Boy, except Devil is an orange (not red) T-Rex and Moon Boy has been fired and replaced with a lonely teenage girl. A time-travel experiment brings the dinosaur king to the world of today, the two isolated outsiders bond, add some outlandish monsters, and the rest sells itself. Props go to Marvel writer Cullen Bunn and artist Drew Moss for some inspired all-ages Godzillaesque fun.
5. Hip Hop Family Tree Three-in-One (Fantagraphics) — Excerpts from Ed Piskor’s cartoon history of old-school rap seem to start and stop at random points, but if you’re interested in detailed biographies of larger-than-life personalities like Kool Moe Dee, Def Jam founders Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, NWA’s DJ Yella, the actor formerly rapping as LL Cool J, and tons more where those came from, skip these out-of-context samples and go buy Piskor’s books today. You won’t regret it. Also in this hefty 56-page giveaway is a short story from Dash Shaw’s Cosplayers — neat comics about people who love comics — in which an odd shop owner relays his theory linking various unexplained phenomena to Jack Kirby’s 2001 sequel. It’s as trippy as it sounds, and I think I’d like to see more.
4. Avatar: the Last Airbender (Dark Horse Comics) — I’ve never seen a single episode of the popular animated series, but my past notes show this as Airbender‘s fourth consecutive thumbs-up FCBD entry, this time teaming Gene Luen Yang with Finder creator Carla Speed McNeil. Ty Lee goes home, reconnects with her sisters, foils circus evil, and learns that individuality and group membership each have their benefits and aren’t always mutually exclusive. Of the two backup stories, Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover’s “Bandette”, about a whimsical young thief, is the more charming of the two; the other, based on the game Plants vs. Zombies, I so didn’t get at all, enough that it knocked the book a couple of spots down the list. I guess you had to be there.
3. All-New, All-Different Avengers (Marvel Comics) — I have high expectations for anything with Mark Waid’s name on it, and for the most part those standards are upheld in this self-contained sneak preview of the post-Secret Wars Avengers starring Ms. Marvel, young Nova, Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, the current versions of Thor and Captain America, same old Iron Man, and Marvel’s newest big-screen sensation, the Vision. It’s funny and thrilling and at some point Mahmud Asrar turned into a top-notch artist when I wasn’t looking, but it bugs me that, in the same universe where the old Avengers were constantly knocking and grounding the Young Avengers for their inexperience, now we have an A-team staffed by three rookies whose front-line positions are a triumph of zeitgeist over historical consistency. And this is coming from a reader who really likes Ms. Marvel’s series and has three Ultimate Comics Spider-Man trades in his reading pile. The book’s other half is an Inhumans done-in-one by Charles Soule and Brandon Peterson that’s professional in every way, and does a much better job than Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has of making the Inhumans not-boring. I still rebuke Marvel’s insistence that I have to like them, but at least the story held my attention from start to finish, unlike some S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes.
2. Doctor Who (Titan Comics) — Three new stories starring the three most recent Doctors! Twelve’s is a not-bad science lesson about the chemistry of quartz that could be a decent insert in a kids’ educational magazine. Ten and his comics-only companion Gabby Gonzalez limit themselves to a quiet night in the TARDIS laundry room but still run afoul of an exotic presence, so that’s a silly treat. The winner is Eleven and his own comics-only companions Alice and Jones in the most meta of all FCBD titles, about a fiendish alien invasion spread entirely through free books. It’s a gutsy move to make reading a weapon of the enemy on this special reading holiday, but cowriters Al Ewing and Rob Williams clearly enjoy playing with narrative in more ways than one.
1. Comics Festival 2015 (Beguiling Books/Toronto Comic Arts Festival) — The best comic in the stack is a non-licensed indie anthology of creative coolness from a crowd that includes Kate Beaton, Mariko Tamaki, Gillian Goerz, Svetlana Chmakova, the Cory Doctorow, Jen Wang, and, best-of-show in a tough competition, Faith Erin Hicks taking an overdone superhero trope and its corporate implementers to task in a new Superhero Girl short called “The Death of Kevin” that needs a few awards heaped on it. But really, the entire one-shot is an A-plus grab bag.
And that’s the free reading pile that was, which I’ll admit has given me a few spending ideas. See you next year!