On May 7th my wife and I had the pleasure of once again observing Free Comic Book Day, the least fake holiday of them all. 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. This year’s assortment saw more all-ages comics than ever, so this wasn’t just an outreach to longtime fortysomething collectors who need no further enticement.
I never grab copies of everything, but this year I got a little more grabby than I thought. This entry was procrastinated days past its relevance expiration date because it took me that much longer to find the free time to read them all, even those I could speed through in three minutes flat. In my mind, regardless of total consumption minutes, 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
Surprisingly, none of this year’s samples settled for option 5 or 6. Good show, publishers.
The comics in my FCBD 2016 reading pile came out as follows, from least favorite to definite favorite:
19. Spectrum #0 (Automatic Publishing) — I usually avoid comics co-created by actors as illustrated TV/movie pitches, but the name of Firefly‘s Alan Tudyk on the cover caught my eye. After a sluggish, uninviting, 370-word all-text prologue (for a Star Wars film it’d make a ten-minute opening crawl), the comic proper is divided in two halves, one about Our Hero and his current role in an anti-alien rebellion, the other about an ethereal lady taking over a spaceship from her alien captors through indecipherable powers, decorated throughout with still more sci-fi names that the overlong intro didn’t mention, all accompanied by frequently inscrutable illustrations failing to convey what’s actually happening. I should’ve stuck to my guidelines.
18. Avatarex: Destroyer of Darkness (Graphic India) — Inimitable comics legend Grant Morrison and a not-bad artist introduce a new Indian superhero who awakens aboard a spaceship, acquires his weapons, and goes on and on and on about how awesome he is. That’s twelve pages spent on the print equivalent of an I-am-the-greatest old-school rap single. Also included is an excerpt from Morrison’s ongoing 18 Days, in which other Indian superhumans or possibly deities are at war with each other and prepare for the oncoming battles by debating their conflicting philosophies. The Hindu discussions are weighty but the excerpt ends before they take on enough context. I’m taking it on faith that’s Morrison literati superfans have already annotated every sentence of this at extreme length.
17. Mixtape 2016 (Devil’s Due/1First Comics) — Three excerpts: li’l Mercy Sparx, one of the few Devil’s Due characters still around in any fashion, which means more to her current readers (not my thing); Squarriors, which are like Mouse Guard with angry squirrels and unhelpful flashbacks; and an excerpt from Badger #4, the recent revival of the classic Mike Baron/Jeff Butler character that was one of my early faves when my teen self first discovered comic shops. Val Mayerik’s art captures all of Badger’s strengths — martial arts and unfettered loopiness — but anyone who doesn’t recognize him, or his old pals Yak and Yeti, will probably be lost and wondering why he’s facing Vladimir Putin in an MMA match. That’s, uh, typically how things go for him.
16. Civil War II (Marvel Comics) — Story #1 is an excerpt from the upcoming annual very special Marvel company-wide summer blockbuster mega-crossover event spectacular that will shake up the Marvel Universe irrevocably forever or whatever. It’s just the heroes gathering so Thanos can appear from nowhere and beat on them for a while, two of them not looking so good by the end. Jim Cheung’s art looks pretty as always, but so far I don’t care. Story #2 introduces the all-new Wasp, Henry Pym’s #1 fan who hopes the late doctor doesn’t mind her stealing his shtick. I’d forgotten the pleasures inherent in the art of Alan Davis, but I tend to avoid superteam books noawadays and will therefore be disconnected from whatever happens to her next in All-New All-Different Avengers.
15. DC SuperHero Girls (DC Comics) — It’s DC’s all-women answer to Muppet Babies but instead of a nursery they’re in high school. Intended for younger audience who like short, sparse sentences but are prepared for new vocab words like “wormhole”, “evaluation”, “carelessness”, “trendsetter”, and “cliffhanger”, a word here which means “an unsatisfying ending like this comic’s that means you’ll have to beg your parents to buy you more comics if you want to find out what happens to Supergirl next”. To be fair, this non-canon side trip treats some of the characters with more respect than their New 52 counterparts have received. And girls will love the all-new all-dreamy Comet the Super-Horse!
14. We Can Never Go Home/Young Terrorists (Black Mask) — Story #1 is an interlude that takes place amidst one of my favorite comics of 2015, bridging the gap toward the second WCNGH arc coming later this year. It fits well within the first arc and is every bit as shocking, though I’m too biased to tell if it does much for newcomers. Story #2 is my first glimpse of Young Terrorists, a less subtle and much more sadistic, nihilistic tribulation of the sort that stopped entertaining me years ago. For those who like this sort of thing professionally crafted, here some is.
13. Camp Midnight Free Comic Book Day Special (Image Comics) — Excerpt from the upcoming graphic novel written by Steven T. Seagle (House of Secrets, Ben 10), about a weird girl sent to a spooky summer camp for monster kids. I think the excerpt lopped off a few too many pages at the start, but the whole promises to be better than just the one part.
12. Bongo Free-for-All! 2016 (Bongo Comics) — The annual batch of Simpsons Comics reprints contains a few painful clunkers, including a two-pager that felt like 30-year-old MAD Magazine leftovers, but two stories both written by Ian Boothby — one a Homer/Pieman story, the other some hijinks in which Bart convinces everyone Principal Skinner is a vampire — got a few chuckles out of me, which is more than I can say for the average new Simpsons episode these days.
11. Lady Mechanika FCBD (Benitez Productions) — Joe Benitez is a fully accredited, upper-tier member of the Marc Silvestri/Top Cow comics design school, which can be a nifty art style to behold if you can overlook the heroine’s curiously modest boob window. I’m not familiar with Lady Mechanika beyond the one time I saw a Lady Mechanika cosplayer win a Gen Con costume contest, but the done-in-one new tale moves briskly, introduces other cyborgs like her as well as a set of nemeses, and threw in a few surprises I didn’t see coming. Two excerpts from other LM works show off even better art by Benitez and other collaborators. It’s not for kids, but this was a more interesting read than I expected.
10. Oddly Normal #1 (Image Comics) — Reprint of the first issue of the creator-owned all-ages series by Otis Frampton, one of the artists behind the YouTube series How It Should Have Ended (one among my very few YouTube subscriptions). The titular young girl is a green-haired, pointy-eared, half-witch outcast mocked at school, saddled with parents who don’t get her, and confused by powers that may have just kicked in. A fast read aimed squarely at all the other young oddballs out there. I can relate.
9. Steve Rogers: Captain America (Marvel Comics) — Story #1: after being dead for a few years, then resurrected and elderly for several more, Steve Rogers was recently rejuvenated and returned to his Star-Spangled Avenger role thanks to some contrivances set up in the recent Avengers Standoff: Welcome to Pleasant Hill very special Marvel mini-crossover event, of which I read exactly one issue. Cap’s comeback looks great thanks to artist/colorist Jesus Saiz, and ends with a declaration of an official War on Hydra, which is tempting to follow but probably leads into twelve more crossovers, so I’m reluctant to commit. Story #2 stars the amazing Spider-Man, whose version of Peter Parker is barely recognizable to me. He’s undergone so many changes ever since “One Moment in Time” severed my last remaining childhood emotional ties to him years ago. Dan Slott’s writing style never disappoints me, and “One Moment in Time” wasn’t his fault, so I can acknowledge this as a pretty fun prologue to yet another upcoming very special Spider-Man major crossover event that will pass me right by.
8. Rom #0 (IDW Publishing) — ROM, Spaceknight, one of my beloved childhood toys, is back from a long, long stint in licensing limbo! And now IDW’s got him instead of Marvel! But for some reason at the end of this intro, probably for legal reasons, he calls himself “Rom the Space Knight”, which is wrong wrong WRONG. And the revamped Dire Wraiths are pale anime impersonations of Sal Buscema’s classic creepy designs. But Rom still has his trusty Analyzer and Neutralizer, and his silver armor with just some corners rounded, and his starchy Bill Mantlo speech pattern. It’s a promising start, as nostalgia reboots go. Story #2 is a revival of Britain’s own “Action Man”, about whom I know zilch beyond what writer John Barber’s afterword tells me, but his passing-of-the-mantle does a nice job of connecting the old GI Joe precursor to a young, befuddled successor left to figure out how Action Man things work. It’s got a breezy Young James Bond vibe and deserves a second look.
7. Serenity/Hellboy/Aliens (Dark Horse Comics) — Story #1: River Tam turns the Firefly cast into a really precious bedtime story that’ll warm the hearts of fans like me who still miss Wash. Story #2: Richard Corben draws Hellboy and mostly leaves me cold. Story #3 is connected to Brian Wood’s Aliens: Defiance, which I’ve been on the fence about trying or skipping, so I’m at a disadvantage. The art of Tristan Jones and colorist Dan Jackson is a strong selling point, I’ll give it that.
6. The Tick Free Comic Book Day 2016 (New England Press) — Our annual Free Comic Book Day reminder that New England Comics is still in business even though Tick creator Ben Edlund hasn’t been an active contributor in a long, long time. The lead story, in which the Tick meets dozens of other alt-universe Ticks, reminds me of Alan Moore’s run on Supreme, except this was funnier — the funniest Tick story I’ve read in a long time, truth be known. If regular Tick comics ever appeared at my local shop in any of the other 51 weeks every year, I might have to revisit these old, silly friends more often.
5. Doctor Who: Four Doctors (Titan Comics) — Four new shorts with each of the modern-era Doctors! The Tenth is bogged in the current comics’ status quo, Eleven and Twelve face revamps of classic-Who adversaries I don’t know, but the Ninth — my “first Doctor”, for the record — wins with Rose Tyler and Captain Jack at his side against a “geohacker” who reshapes planetary surfaces like a bored intergalactic Banksy. All four stories get each Doctor right and are worthy additions to any Whovian’s comics library. A trade collecting Titan’s first Twelve arc was one of my non-free FCBD purchases to support our local shops, so hopefully it’s more of the same niftiness.
4. Mooncop: A Tom Gauld Sampler (Drawn & Quarterly) — Reprints of the British cartoonist’s single-panel gags from The Guardian are great on their own, but the lead story, taken from the forthcoming graphic novel, is good quirky sci-fi about life on the still-desolate Moon in a time when the novelty of living on the Moon never quite took off. Gauld’s website contains more samples and pointers in case this wasn’t nearly enough, which it wasn’t. More, please.
3. Legend of Korra/How to Train Your Dragon/Plants vs. Zombies (Dark Horse Comics) — The Airbender/Korra universe always wins at FCBD, and the streak continues here with the origin of how Korra met her dog. I think. I’ve never seen an episode of either show, but in print they always impress me. Likewise the Dragon short gives cast members a chance to tell their favorite dragon tales with varying degrees of unaware humor, but all tie together at the end with a heartfelt nod to Hiccup’s dearly departed father, of which I approve. I’ve still never played Plants vs. Zombies, but this year’s story (versus a mad scientist zombie) is more coherent and funnier than last year’s. Well met.
2. Science Comics (First Second) — The title says it all: comics about science, and not necessarily just for the kiddos. In story #2, Jon Chad delivers a handy precis on the wide world of volcanology and answers the important issue of “why volcanoes”, but I’m even more enamored of story #1, in which Maris Wicks tells the inspiring true story of how her double-proficiency in comics and oceanography led her to taking scuba lessons for art’s sake. Many folks are lucky if they can do one thing they really love; Wicks is the rare victor to realize you don’t have to settle for just one.
1. Spongebob Freestyle Funnies (United Plankton Pictures) — Maris Wicks completists can then move on to this one, in which she has a two-pager about underwater mountains. There’s also a mostly okay opener by Israel Sanchez (I haven’t watched enough Spongebob to know that his arms can regenerate, but okay, sure) and a one-pager by James Kochalka called “Patrick’s Guide to Getting Stuff for Free” that had me in stitches (“#4: draw a picture of it and pretend that it’s real”), but the winner and champion of Free Comic Book Day 2016 stars Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy, in a super-hero throwback tale written by old favorite Evan Dorkin (Beasts of Burden, Eltingville) and illustrated by Ramona Fradon, a longtime DC Comics artist who graced the ’60s through the early ’80s with work on the original Aquaman and the long-running Super-Friends comic based on ye olde cartoon. To have her drawing a spiffy Aquaman parody in the classic action-adventure mold after so many years in retirement is one of the most brilliant ideas any publisher will have this year.
And that’s the free reading pile that was, which has given me quite a few spending ideas. See you next year!