On May 6th 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 a metric ton of all-ages comics far outnumbering the adults-only options, served up by a plethora of publishers great and small, hopefully many of whom will still be around a year from now.
I never grab copies of everything, and this year I restrained myself a bit more than usual. Sometimes reviewing comics can be fun, but I wasn’t in the mood to read that many kids’ comics in a row. Also left behind were a few books based on cartoons and movies, reminders that some publishers see comics more as a second-tier merchandising stream than as a literary medium unto itself.
The fifteen comics in my FCBD 2017 reading pile came out as follows, ranked from Totally Not For Me to I Would Pay Monies For More, complicated by the fact that several of these contain two or more stories. I considered concocting some sort of system involving grade-weighting and averages that would even up the scores, but ultimately I’ve decided to base everything on subjective non-math and internal whims instead. As most listicles are.
15. Keyser Söze: Scorched Earth (Red 5 Comics) — Story #1: the walking plot twist from The Usual Suspects is back! And this time, he’s a mysterious crime lord lurking around alleys, spooking other bad guys who are too stupid to notice or smell the gigantic gasoline spill they’re all standing in, and then using still more gasoline to paint his name on a brick wall. Yep, that’s our cagey Keyser, master schemer and preposterous poser in a world of one-note slack-jawed tackle dummies. Story #2: chapter one of “The Rift”, in which a 2017 mom and son in Kansas happen across the crash landing of a time-tossed WWII flying ace. It’s labeled “Presented by Jeremy Renner”, a phrase which here means “blatant movie pitch on paper”. It’s kind of an intriguing start, even though it irks me when big Hollywood names try cashing in on comics cachet like that, especially considering how rarely it’s worked.
14. I Hate Image (Image Comics) — I don’t read Skottie Young’s I Hate Fairyland, but it seems to be about a little girl who butchers and slaughters her way through a cutesy sparkly happy dimension and…that’s it? The whole joke? Here she traipses and terrorizes through sundry Image books like Walking Dead, Saga, Trees, Chew, Paper Girls, and more. A few riffs were funny; mostly it’s just meet-maim-move-on, over and over and over again.
13. Buffy: The High School Years (Dark Horse Comics) — I collect Dark Horse’s regular Buffy series, but I haven’t been following the graphic novels aimed at younger readers. This is firmly of the latter, introducing all the basic Buffy elements of vampires, stakes, strong female role-modeling, and Xander on standby, plus the added bonus of a comic shop setting for the occasion. It’s not aimed for my age group, but that’s perfectly as it should be. Behind it is another annual installment of Plants vs. Zombies, which has been stumping me for I don’t even remember how many Free Comic Book Days in a row now. I still have no idea why they’re fighting, or whether the plant characters have backstories, or whether this is a video game or expanded webcomic or what. I assume somewhere out there is a fan base who loves these whatevers to pieces.
12. Bongo Free-for-All 2017! (Bongo Comics) — We stopped watching new episodes of The Simpsons years ago, but I keep picking up their annual FCBD compilation out of habit. Two nonstarters about wheelie backpacks and snot are followed with an amusing tale of Homer and Bart pulling an all-nighter before church and, of all things, a Rod and Todd Flanders underground mini-adventure from classic Batman writer Mike W. Barr, with clever gags and a heartwarming ending of the kind that the show used to do in those distant early seasons of yore. Man, those were the days.
11. Star Trek: the Next Generation: Mirror Broken (IDW Publishing) — Sooner or later every version of Trek must visit the Mirror Universe (can’t wait to see Evil Chris Pine someday), and now it’s time for Picard’s crew to flip their scripts. This prelude stars Lieutenant Barclay (played in several episodes by Dwight Schultz from The A-Team), still an engineer, but less anxiety-prone and more conniving, working his way up the ranks of the Evil Enterprise while Evil Picard strokes his white goatee and Evil Deanna Troi lounges around in a Greek goddess robe. Everything’s grim and gritty, and Barclay fans may squirm in their seats, but presumably that’ll course-correct once the main storyline begins and Our Heroes put them to shame. Presumably.
10. Captain Canuck: Year One (Chapterhouse) — He’s bigger up north than here in the U.S., but Cap is one of those FCBD stalwarts who visits us once a year on the holiday like a Santa who just brings the one present and has much rockier muscles. In addition to returning writer Kalman Andrasofsky, Cap’s creative cred is bolstered with a name you wouldn’t expect: Canada’s own Jay Baruchel, costar of many an R-rated sex comedy and the voice of Hiccup from the How to Train Your Dragon films, credited as co-writer rather than “presenter” (he also pens a lengthy, affectionate intro). Part one of three delves into new hero backstory involving the Afghanistan battlefront, some sharp twists ‘n’ turns, reams of research into wartime jargon, and solid art from New 52 survivor Marcus To. I’m no Canuckophile or whatever his fans might be called, but this is several cuts above the usual Hollywood vanity-project level, setting aside the major drawback that Cap’s costume is absent everywhere except on the cover.
Filling out the back pages is the wildly incongruous Die Kitty Die, from the minds of Archie Comics veterans Dan Parent and Fernando Ruiz, in which Josie the Teenage Witch deals with a bunch of Harvey Comics pastiches mixing it up at her beach house party. A few jabs at the comics industry are right on target, but I’d think the subsection of comics fans who want adult imitation Archie products isn’t terribly large. And why this is paired with all that Afghanistan war zone seriousness in the front half, I have no idea.
9. Secret Empire #1 (Marvel) — Story #1 to me was disposable on arrival, the kickoff to the summer blockbuster crossover event that should wrap up the much-reviled Hydra Steve saga once and for all so we as a fandom can move past this fiasco. I don’t like crossovers anymore and nothing about this muddy excerpt convinced me I’m missing out on essential happenings. Story #2, on the other hand, is a treasure: a sneak preview of the forthcoming Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man relaunch written by Chip Zdarsky, whose off-kilter wits are the perfect fuel for sassy Spidey sarcasm. Along for the ride are the old Vulture with a refreshed arsenal and an all-new, younger Trapster who makes them both feel like geezers. I’d love to see tons more of this if every issue came with a zero-crossover guarantee. In all, this FCBD one-shot would’ve ranked nearer the top of the list if it had just been the Spec Spidey tale, no Captain Nazi, and lots of screen shots of Zdarsky’s Twitter feed.
8. Underdog (American Mythology) — The mighty mutt is back with perfect timing! He’s flying, punching, winning, and rhyming! There’s something old, something new, both aimed at kids of differing ages. Here in the now, Shoeshine Boy finds he can’t change to Underdog because some fiend has sabotaged all the phone booths in town, which means kiddie readers will have to ask Mom or Dad what a phone booth is. As intermission, Commander McBragg tests their vocabulary and ends with a suitably groan-worthy pun. For a coda, a 1970 Gold Key Comics reprint shows off the comedy stylings of underrated writer Steve Skeates (Aquaman; Crazy Magazine; Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham), who could pun with the best of ’em, though I’m not sure it was necessary or desirable to preserve the original comic’s flat, primitive coloring. In general, everything about this seems tailored more to nostalgic adults than to today’s kids, most of whom probably haven’t even seen the Jason Lee live-action flop that’s about to celebrate its tenth anniversary. Then again, maybe one shouldn’t underestimate the timeless appeal of a flying, talking dog.
7. BOOM! Studios Summer Blast (BOOM! Studios) — Three comics in one, leading off with a new David Petersen Mouse Guard tale, which is always a good bet. Closing out the issue is “Coady and the Creepies”, sort of a next-gen Josie and the Pussycats but snarkier. A header proclaiming “Lumberjanes Proudly Presents” had me raising my bat a bit unfairly high from the start. Most oddly appealing to me was Sam Sykes and Selina Espiritu’s “Brave Chef Brianna”, about a young human lady opening her own restaurant for humans in a city full of monsters and apparently only one other human, who may not be enough of a clientele by himself to meet her profit projections. I’m guessing every issue won’t be just twenty pages of her weeping at empty tables and filling out loan applications to keep her poorly researched dream alive.
6. All New Guardians of the Galaxy (Marvel) — The #1 movie in America thinks you should also buy comics with the Guardians in them. In the hands of Deadpool writer Gerry Duggan and ex-DC Comics artist Aaron Kuder, our antiheroes are as rascally as ever, pulling off a heist with equal parts klutziness and panache, while a new Big Bad waits in the wings. Drax has an odd personality crisis that’s not explained for new readers, but anyone who liked the movie should be disappointed here only in the lack of Gamora beyond a few talking heads.
But wait! There’s more! If you really really like transmedia tie-ins, also enclosed is a preview of Marvel’s next Defenders do-over, which naturally stars the Netflix quartet and not any previous actual versions of the Defenders. Since this is Marvel’s comic universe and not TV, both Iron Fist and a returning Diamondback are 300% more tolerable here, so for that alone it wins.
5. The Tick (New England Comics) — I never see that thick-skulled avenger of wrongdoings on store shelves except on FCBD, though it’d be cool if that upcoming Amazon series were to change that. Lead story: Our Hero, who knows nothing about himself, throws his first birthday party and of course decides the main event should be a super-villain battle because that’s exactly what he does for fun. Backup story: a super-powered Election Day send-up whose goofy spoofery of all sides is closer to fair-and-balanced than most comedians and news channels. He may be over thirty years old, but that big brave bug still has some life in him.
4. Doctor Who: Four Doctors (Titan Comic) — Twelve and Bill, our current Doctor and companion, host a framing sequence that retrofits a new/old friend into stories starring Nine, Ten, and Eleven, all of which add up to a cautionary tale about the dangers of letting an entire civilization forget its history, even if they thought it was too terrible to preserve. Writer Alex Paknadel nails both Capaldi and Mackie’s voices exactly right, down to the part where I keep chuckling a lot at their zingers and near-instant chemistry.
3. Guy Delisle: Hostage (Drawn + Quarterly) — I had high hopes for the talent behind the 2014 book A User’s Guide to Neglectful Parenting and wasn’t let down. DeLisle shifts from everyday humor to real-life drama in this excerpt from the recently released hardcover graphic novel, based on the true story of a Doctors Without Borders admin who spent three months as a captive in isolation. The FCBD sample lists none of those details that I found by cheating (i.e., reading the Amazon blurb), instead giving us a portion of the story when it’s just him, his oppressive handcuffs, and fleeting glimpses of his graceless hosts. As an added bonus, there’s an excerpt from Poppies of Iraq, Brigitte Findakly’s forthcoming memoir about her childhood in Iraq and subsequent move to France, brought to life by French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim as what could be the next Persepolis. Both these books are going on the want list.
2. Catalyst Prime: The Event (Lion Forge) — Christoper Priest, one of my all-time favorite writers, who’s so awesome that he’s even got me collecting a DC Rebirth title, helps jump-start a new super-hero world with a one-shot involving a team of astronauts, a catastrophic meteor storm that strikes Earth, and a conspiracy beneath it all orchestrated by one of the least guilty-looking characters. Priest’s writing (abetted here by co-writer/editor Joseph P. Illidge) demands a reader pay attention, assemble their own clues, leap from points A to B with no hand-holding, and watch in shock as complicated ulterior motives are revealed, extracted slowly and judiciously like blocks from a Jenga tower. The first four pages are a jumble of super-team flash-forwards that will surely make more sense one year and fifteen comics from now, but everything else points straightforwardly to a new universe worth watching if any of our local comic shops order Lion Forge’s future titles. Fingers crossed really hard on this.
1. World’s Greatest Cartoonists (Fantagraphics) — The great-granddaddy of the indie scene commissioned all-new shorts from a killer lineup of longtime idiosyncratic cartoonists. Personal favorites here include Dash Shaw (about a pair watching one of The Hobbit chapters at the theater in HFR 3-D and suffering the consequences), Noah Van Sciver (about a bar debate between a Bukowski fan and a Bukowski superfan), Jason (I’m a big fan of his Hey Wait…), Hip-Hop Family Tree‘s Ed Piskor, and a wacky short from Anya Davidson that’s about Free Comic Book Day and about the obviousness of making her story about Free Comic Book Day. Some vignettes are in black-and-white; some are purely figurative; one is inspired by Muhammad’s first revelation; and one features the death of Pepe the Frog. Proof positive there’s so, so much more to comics than super-heroes, horror, R-rated sci-fi, and toy licenses.
…and that’s the free reading pile that was. See you next year, economy and hobby livelihood willing!