Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: on May 5th I once again had the pleasure of once again observing Free Comic Book Day, the least fake holiday of them all, that annual celebration when comic shops nationwide offer no-strings-attached goodies as a form of community outreach in honor of that time-honored medium where words and pictures dance in unison on the printed page, whether in the form of super-heroes, monsters, cartoon all-stars, licensed merchandise, or entertaining ordinary folk. Each year, America’s remaining comic book shops (and a handful in the UK that can afford the extra shipping charges) lure fans and curious onlookers inside their brick-and-mortar hideaways with a great big batch of free new comics from all the major publishers and a bevy of smaller competitors deserving shelf space and consideration.
This year my Free Comic Book Day involvement took on a different form. My local shop offered a special deal that sounds crazy on the face of it: for a fair sum of money, we could pre-purchase a bundle of all 52 Free Comic Book Day comics that their stores planned to order. Normally these would all be free, but you’d look like a schmuck for casually walking in, picking up all 52, and walking right back out. Instead they set aside copies of all those comics, bagged ’em up, and let buyers pick them up late Saturday afternoon, once all the furor and hubbub had subsided. I went for it. I liked the idea of playing the role of patron, donating extra cash to help facilitate Free Comic Book Day for other folks in town, in a way that would help my shop offset the costs.
I spent the rest of Saturday night and nearly all of Sunday reading all 52 and then posting my impressions on Twitter after each comic, along with photo excerpts from every single comic. I took photos rather than scans because (a) our scanner sometimes ruins the hard work of comics colorists, (b) I wanted to capture the feel of comics on actual physical paper, (c) I wanted to test my new phone, and (d) snapping pics was faster than scanning. This reading/photography project took until 11:30 p.m Sunday night to complete, and would’ve taken until sometime Tuesday if I hadn’t cut corners somewhere. I had to put this entry off for a few days because I needed a break after spending so, so much time with them all.
This entry, then, is a condensed version of that epic-length tweetstorm: my ranking of the twenty best books of the bunch, followed by my six least favorites of the entire stack. I never trust a comics reviewer or website that shares nothing but relentlessly glowing opinions — nor, conversely do I trust a critic who hates all comics and can’t be pleased — so this is my way of not becoming that which I disparage.
Up first: that happy Top 20. On with the countdown!
1. Maxwell’s Demons #1 (Vault Comics) — A boy genius is called to fight in another dimension’s war, which may or may not involve his favorite stuffed animals, all beneath the notice of his alcoholic dad. Science fiction in the vein of Ender’s Game and The Last Starfighter by way of Calvin & Hobbes but with a dash of Chronicle to give it a darker resonance. I’d never heard of writer Deniz Camp before this, but he’s absolutely one to watch.
2. Street Angel’s Dog (Image Comics) — Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca warm up for the next chapter in their popular graphic novel series with a done-in-one that gives the scrappy homeless heroine a dog, sort of. Funny/sad with a bit of animal cruelty (though justice is meted!) and a huge moment of WHOOOAAA in a good way. My son once did a report on a Jim Rugg book for school, but returned it to his school library before I could flip through it myself. It’s nice at long last to have a turn with him.
3. Spongebob Freestyle Funnies 2018 (United Plankton Pictures) — An anthology of shorts starring the most-water absorbent cartoon hero ever features great bonus strips by James Kochalka and Maris Wicks, but the winner is the headlining “Super-Villain Team-Up”, in which Our Hero and a most unusual version of Mermaid Man parody today’s superhero crossover events in a style harkening back to the glory days of EC Comics’ original MAD before it went magazine-sized.
4. Invader Zim (Oni Press) — Several comics were based on TV series I’ve never seen. This was the best of those. I know smart folks who adore what Jhonen Vasquez has done, and now I agree — they are smart. This reprint of a 2017 issue is just 22 pages of TV binge-watching (a la Portlandia‘s famous Battlestar Galactica sketch) but the characters’ dedicated inertia is utterly delightful.
5. Sparks (Graphix/Scholastic) — Ian Boothby and Nina Matsummoto, previously responsible for some of the best Simpsons comics around, quickly won me over with two cats (think Pinky and the Brain, but cats) performing heroic deeds together by piloting a robot dog suit. Rin-Tin-Tin meets Pacific Rim in a mesh of comedy that had me cackling at midnight Saturday/Sunday and had to send myself to bed before my punchy delirium woke up my family.
6. The Mall #0 (Scout Comics) — A tiny publisher blatantly aiming to become a Hollywood IP farm throws down hard with this drama about a 1984 video game geek, a Mob legacy, a daring bet, a risky deal, and one of those old shopping-mall piano stores that never had customers. Tangled, deadly serious in tone, and sharp enough to avoid the easy trap of nostalgia overdose.
7. Starburns Presents #1 (SBI Press) — Patton Oswalt! Dan Harmon! Starburns from Community! They’re making comics! Oswalt’s true tale about a visit to the Hollywood Walk of Fame has heart and obscure DC callbacks; Harmon and co-writer Eric M. Esquivel bring a Luthor-esque villain origin with realistic ugly child abuse and a tantalizing main character that would be a great fit for Jemaine Clement. Two other shorts are included, both on the cutesy-strange side.
8. Crush (Yen Press) — Svetlana Chmakova’s follow-up to her previous YA books Awkward and Brave, this time centering on a big, confident, respectable high schooler who turns flabbergasted when he realizes there’s a girl who likes him. Charming, and I want to see more.
9. Relay #0 (Aftershock Comics) — Prologue to a new sci-fi series about slow-burn galactic conquerors whose toolbox includes space missionaries and 2001 monoliths. Highly literate and fairly intriguing, depending on where the allegory is going. If the ultimate point is “HAW-HAW, YOUR RELIGION SUCKS!” then I won’t be along, but at this point before all the cards have been turned face-up, it’s well done for what it is.
10. Adventure Time with Fionna and Cake (Kaboom!/BOOM Studios) — A return engagement for Fionna and Cake, gender-swapped versions of usual heroes Finn and Jake who triumphed in a single episode. They’re back and on a quest, debating the merits of fearing strangers vs. helping them, and slamming grimdark fanfics in between life lessons. All-ages super-fun.
11. Comics Friends Forever (First Second Books) — One of two FCBD samplers from the graphic novel publisher, this one pulled well ahead on the strength of an excerpt of Vera Brosgol’s upcoming all-ages book Be Prepared, which hits Peanuts-level notes with one girl’s summer camp insecurities. That’s a pretty high bar to reach. Additional solid teases from Hope Larson and Charise Mericle Harper are among those rounding out the lineup.
12. Shadow Roads (Oni Press) — I’m a few volumes behind on Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt’s The Sixth Gun, but the new spin-off — very nearly the only horror title in the entire FCBD stack — promises more Western suspense and reminds me I really ought to catch up on the original series, too.
13. DC SuperHero Girls: Date with Disaster (DC Comics) — The hit cartoon, now on paper! It’s girlish and whimsical at times, but the super-hero action scenes are straight-faced, and writer Shea Fontana refuses to dumb it down or talk down to the fan base. Setting aside the slightly frilly parts and brighter colors, it’s a lot like the all-ages DC Universe of my childhood. Anyone who wants their favorite DC heroines without any dark baggage would do well to check this out.
14. The Ghost in the Shell: Global Neural Network (Kodansha Comics) — My lone Ghost in the Shell experience prior to this was the original anime film, which I watched a good twenty years ago on grainy library VHS, which left me frightened and confused even as a former fan of ’80s cyberpunk SF. A friend tried to summarize the products released since then, and the fear and bafflement began to resurface. Much more accessible is this self-contained story from the upcoming Global Neural Network anthology, incentive to go further into the universe if not as far as the lambasted live-action U.S. film.
15. World’s Greatest Cartoonist (Fantagraphics Books) — The long-lived Grand Poobah of the independent comics scene continually supports the most eclectic cartoonists around, particularly in this sampler that mixes excerpts with brand new stories. I don’t connect quite so readily some of their more Dadaist, less linear offerings, but I liked the new Dash Shaw vignette, Ellen Forney’s bit, some reliable Jim Woodring bizarre animals, and a one-pager from Georgia Webber about the time she once spent several months literally voiceless.
16. The Only Living Boy #12 (Papercutz) — One of the leading contributors to the 741.59 shelf in the juvenile section at your local library, Papercutz steps into the FCBD spotlight with one of its ongoing titles, action-fantasy about a displaced Earth kid and the motley crew he’s assembled far from home. Creators David Gallaher and Steve Ellis once beat an old message-board peer of mine in a webcomic contest, and continue that rewarding partnership in a boys’-adventure vein.
17. Transformers: Unicron #0 (IDW Publishing) — I’m shocked I liked this, but I do have to remind myself Michael Bay doesn’t do comics. This prelude begins the end of the bots’ long run at IDW, soon leading to a no-holds-barred, planet-killing robo-pocalypse. A solid setup for a major event in the making (also guest-starring fellow Hasbro toy ROM Spaceknight!) ends with two Autobots dead because seriously THE END IS NIGH.
18. Amazing Spider-Man (Marvel Comics) — In which our friendly neighborhood wall-crawler kicks off his next Marvel relaunch (sigh) with the return of old villains, the company of Mayor Wilson Fisk (I, uh, may have missed some developments?), and the ol’ Parker wit on point. It’s old-school hero fun, but docked several notches on the countdown because writer Nick Spencer’s previous works include the maddeningly secretive Morning Glories, the ghastly Infinite Vacation, and the “Captain America, Super-Nazi” storyline that had mobs of comics fan ready to burn Marvel down. Chances are, sooner or later this will eventually all go horribly wrong, too.
19. Lady Mechanika (Benitez Productions) — I only tend to encounter Joe Benitez’ steampunk heroine on FCBD, but it’s still one of the best-looking books of the day, and eminently readable if a bit short on solid answers and extremely To Be Continued. Half of this was already reprinted for a previous FCBD, but is paired with a new tale that promises to lead to more gear-filled goods.
20. My Hero Academia (Viz Media) — The manga in this year’s entries assumed readers would recognize the preserved right-to-left reading pattern without explanation, which shows how far that section of the comics field has come in the last 25 years. This one had two stories, leading with My Hero Academia, which is DragonBall Z meets Disney’s Sky High, which is not a compliment. But I dig the textured linework on the monster-hunting RWBY backup, which nicely balanced its action lines with judicious use of white spaces and Bob Ross happy trees.
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As promised, the following were my least favorite comics. Some obviously weren’t aimed at me. Then again, neither were some of the great ones listed above. These are alphabetical by Your Mileage May Vary.
* Miraculous Adventures of Ladybug & Cat Noir (Action Lab Comics) — I had to Google this one because I no longer have a small child to keep me in touch with today’s kiddie cartoons. Simplistic fare meant for very young girls who prefer only twenty words per page and like learning new vocab like “desperate” and “judgmental”.
* Howard Lovecraft’s Big Book of Summer Fun (Arcana Press) — I hoped this was a satire. I’m now fairly certain it isn’t. This recaps two animated films that amounted to What If Kid H.P. Had Cartoon Adventures Like Coraline or ParaNorman. Long before I knew he had bigotry issues, Lovecraft’s turgid verbosity was never my thing, and trying to make him and it cutesy is a laughable notion. I just shook my head while reading. A lot.
* Bongo Comics Free-for-All 2018 (Bongo Comics) — Simpsons comics soldier ever onward, still accepting money from the show’s last remaining fans and still grasping for plots. This time around: Cletus meets Kang & Kodos! It’s Lisa’s turn to do Krusty’s show! Bart, uhhh, doin’ Bart stuff! Laugh counter: 0.
* Power Rangers: Shattered Grid (BOOM Studios) — Maybe fans will love the idea of them reimagined as a pompous Parliament of Toys debating whether or not to fight the evil Jason David Frank of Earth-3. They might even gasp when a longtime cheesy character is murdered for shock value at the end. This former Saturday morning phenomenon was after my time and will therefore never have me clamoring for anyone to render their impression of Alan Moore sophistication using this particular set of toys.
* The Legend of Korra (Dark Horse Comics) — The titular tale has cute pets and a nifty lesson about selflessness, but is seriously hobbled by its goofy backup story “Arms”, based on a Nintendo fighting game where everyone has Slinky arms. Um. Why. How. WHAT EVEN IS THIS. Possibly for anyone who thinks Stretch Armstrong is too complicated.
* The Overstreet Guide to Collecting (Gemstone Publishing) — Literally a PSA for collecting stuff and things — not just comics, but collecting any objects that you think are really keen, as long as they’re in a field that’s covered by one of Overstreet’s many hobbyist price guides. Because if there’s anything we’ve learned from the fields of comics, stamps, Hot Wheels, or Beanie Babies, it’s that any really fun thing can be turned into an investment strategy for the sake of securing your retirement funds. Speculation and profit are cool; reading pleasure and artistic merit are options, but not features.
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…and that’s exactly one-half of the reading pile that was. If you’re interested in seeing the original live-tweeting of all 52 comics, you can jump to the first tweet in the tweetstorm and just keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling. Internet detectives can scrutinize them closely and notice which ones earned any interaction, which one has the most popular creator on social media, and which photo I forgot to crop. See you next year!