It’s that time of year again, but slightly delayed! Saturday, August 14th was the 20th annual Free Comic Book Day, 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. It’s one of the best holidays ever for hobbyists like me who’ve been comics readers since the days when drugstores sold them for thirty-five cents each and comic book movies were sad, cheapskate abominations.
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. It used to be the first weekend of every May, but that was among the many, many, many traditions ruined by the COVID-19 pandemic. The publishers who’d planned to participate either canceled their offerings or else eked them out in uncoordinated fashion across random months. A quick internet search tells me at some point the 19th FCBD was held much later in 2020 somewhere by someone, and some can choose to believe that was a thing if they’d like. If true, it was the first one I’ve missed in over a decade. THANKS FOR LEAVING ME OUT, GUYS.
This year the occasion was pushed back to August, hypothetically to give readers time to get fully vaccinated, which went well for some of us, and/or to give other folks time to pretend really hard for the Coronavirus never to have existed retroactively, thus far with anti-spectacular results. The day arrived nonetheless, whereupon my wife Anne and I revived our old tradition of venturing to one of Indianapolis’ several comic shops an hour before they open, hanging out in line with other fans, availing ourselves of any freebies offered while we’re waiting, marching inside when the employees have braced themselves for the onslaught ahead, grabbing some of the free offerings, and spending money on a few extra items as our way of thanking the shop for their service in the field of literacy.
I did absolutely no research beforehand, read nary an article nor announcement regarding this year’s titles, had no idea what to expect, and avoided any reprints of material I’d already read before. Exhibit A: AWA Upshot’s sampler of their J. Michael Straczynski superhero-dystopia titles, which I’m already collecting and can recommend. Exhibit B: that same blasted Lady Mechanika story they keep re-releasing, which I’m fairly certain is celebrating its sixtieth printing.
This particular shop did not order all fifty titles, which is fine by me. I picked up fourteen in all from several companies, not just the majors and in fact omitting a few. My reading pile results came out as follows, ranked upwardly from “Not My Thing” to “Buy More on Sight”. Books that contained two or more stories are ranked according to their best one, no points deducted for their bunkmates’ flaws.
And now, on with the countdown:
14. World of Zorro (American Mythology Productions) – The intro page is quick to remind guests that they should care about Zorro because he was integral to Batman’s origin, and if it was good enough to get the Waynes murdered, it’s good enough for you. The lead preview is Zorro and his dad out of costume and fighting demon zombie mercenaries employed by the nearest crime lord, printed entirely without credits. After that is a decent-looking “classic” Zorro tale translated into English for the first time from some old international edition. Neither the country nor its contributors are specified. I’ve therefore ranked this one dead last for lack of acknowledgments alone, which is some kind of disrespectful 1950s sweatshop nonsense.
Also included are four unlettered, uncolored art pages from an upcoming Zorro project to be written by Don McGregor, best known as a top contributor to the world of Black Panther back in the ’70s and ’80s. Having read some of those tales way back when, I look at these decent-so-far, action-packed pages by Vincenzo Carratu and I have to wonder where they’re going to cram in all those 300-word captions.
13. Enter the House of Slaughter (BOOM! Studios) – A digression from the world of the critically acclaimed Something is Killing the Children, which I’ve never read, involves a cabal of figurative monsters who combine sleek business suits with a colored-bandanna gangsta hierarchy and who task a young independent contractor with hunting literal monsters. A few blood-soaked inaction pinups are outnumbered by lots of grim corporate posturing and four pages of Hickman-esque epistolary inserts. Preexisting fans of Something may warm to new depths revealed or whatever, but I can’t see through the fogged-up windows from where I’ve been left out here in the cold.
12. Fungirl: Tales of a Grown-Up Nothing (Silver Sprocket) – I was lured in by the Simpsons wraparound cover homage; I balked at the NC-17 content noted only on the exterior by the industry-standard, nearly subliminal “M is for Mature!” fine print inside the UPC box on the back cover. Our main character is a nearly faceless, unfiltered id who gallivants through mishaps she stumbles into and misdeeds of her own doing, often with bawdy results. This isn’t aimed at prudes like me, but anyone who thinks Judd Apatow comedies could stand to be a little more flagrantly outrageous, which is probably like 80% of the internet today, might love this and defend it to the death.
11. Batman Special Edition (DC Comics) – Batmania will never, ever stop sweeping the nation, but the main-universe Bat-books are so virulently crossover-prone that I just can’t with them. Jorge Jimenez and Tomeu Morey deliver a uniquely jarring visual homage to the Scarecrow level from the Arkham Asylum game, while a new corporate scientist introduces Gotham City to his privatized security force called the Peacekeepers that I’m sure are totally not OmniCorp knockoffs. But the least believable part is where Batman, stricken by the Scarecrow’s latest mega-super-duper fear toxin, is so overwhelmed that he actually says “please”. Twice. I also can’t with that.
Value-subtracted bonus: a sneak peek at what Academy Award Winner John Ridley has in store for Bat-fans seems to suffer from rushed art and the assumption that I’m already reading Bat-books on the regular. Every time I glance at the current DCU, not a single storyteller will tell me in-story who Luke Fox is deep down, how or why he’s now a spare Batman, or why he’s wearing Bat-armor that makes Christian Bale’s clunky togs look positively balletic. Ridley’s recent Black Label miniseries The Other History of the DC Universe was an amazing feat of canonical reinterpretation in a 21st-century context and should be required superhero reading; this, so far, is not.
10. Spider-Man/Venom (Marvel Comics) – Remember when Into the Spider-Verse ended with those wise words of superhero empowerment, “Anyone can wear the mask…you could wear the mask!”? Who knew Ben Reilly the ’90s Spider-Clone was listening and thought Miles Morales was talking to him? The erstwhile Scarlet Spider is back with a new costume and some corporate backers who did not read ’90s comics. His slugfest with old Daredevil foe Bushwacker is perfectly serviceable (though I snicker whenever Marvel calls penciller and former DC freelancer Patrick Gleason a “Young Gun”), but as someone who grew up loving nearly any and all Spidey comics for years until the ’90s drowned them all in a shallow pool, I’ve never had any vested interest in Reilly, who is definitely not my Spidey. Then again, my former Spidey is a total crossover magnet nowadays, so technically I no longer have a Spidey. Except maybe Shameik Moore and/or Tom Holland.
Speaking of crossovers, anyone like me who skipped last year’s King in Black on principle can now learn its aftermath: Venom is now the anointed symbiote king! So today he’s flying through outer space and tracking down space pirates with his own Venom Corps on space patrol, while his son Dylan is back on Earth and has his own symbiote. As if all this didn’t already beg six dozen questions, the most baffling one looms: they got Bryan Hitch to draw Venom? THE Bryan Hitch? THAT Bryan Hitch? BRYAN HITCH? On VENOM? THAT Venom? THE Venom? So now he’s BRYAN “VENOM” HITCH? I, uh…wow, okay, I guess?
9. All-Star Judge Dredd (Rebellion) – Three tales from the world of Mega-City One starts strong with Al Ewing (Immortal Hulk) and Casper Wijngaard (Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt) diving into the pitch-black joke of their legal defense system. Innocence is never presumed, everyone is guilty, shades of grey are even guiltier, and not even lawyers can weasel out of tyrannical scrutiny. Because in a world where the cops are also the judges, lawyers are just a vestigial middleman.
Two backups follow, one besting the other. If you think Dredd’s tough, wait’ll you meet his boss, a Chief Judge inexplicably named after actress Barbara Hershey yet resembling her not one iota. Apparently she’s tough as nails, yet terminally ill and therefore has nothing to lose, more so than any Judge has anything to lose to begin with. Rounding out the trilogy, “Dreadnoughts” is a prequel set in America, which, if I’m reading this correctly, became cruelly authoritarian first and then England followed its lead…because of rampant street protests fourteen years in our future so bad that The MAN has to upgrade his quashing methods, and so on. For anyone who spends too much time on Twitter, none of this is a stretch or surprises overmuch, which makes it useless as a truly science-fictional piece except maybe to the sociopolitically sheltered.
8. Red Room (Fantagraphics) – Ed Piskor, the distinctive mind behind such great and thorough history lessons as Hip-Hop Family Tree and X-Men: Grand Design turns his attention to the Dark Web and the sinister world of snuff films that allegedly proliferate there for an irredeemably corrupted audience. Once again narrating via vignettes, Piskor juggles rhythms and color schemes hither and yon, shifting gears from urban legends to inspired-by-true-story evils and back again, then curiously culminates with “Juniper”, a sort of dark-side Harvey Comics riff about kids who make friends with a deformed creepy girl. Its chibi-headed cast is vaguely cute, which in turn makes its bleak edges all the more disturbing while magnifying the strong Evan Dorkin influence in Piskor’s handiwork. Is it all ripped from the headlines that THEY don’t want you to read? Or was Piskor traumatized by watching 8MM too many times? Whichever the case, it’s the most haunting release on this list, no contest.
7. The Legend of Korra (Dark Horse Comics) – I’ve never seen an episode of Korra or Avatar, but their FCBD short stories were consistently the best every year back when Gene Luen Yang was writing them. He’s since moved on, but the inheritors aren’t doing too badly. The lead anecdote, in which an incident of ‘Bender vandalism distresses a few folks, is a gentle debate starter on the subject of conflict resolution and the proposal that perhaps some minor crimes can be resolved and amended via forms of discipline other than soul-killing incarceration or bloody revenge. It’s not a bad avenue of thought to explore.
As an old softie I was more enchanted by the second story, an “Avatar” trifle in which some sensei-ish restaurateur named Iroh (he’s…someone, I’m guessing?) remarks on how he pretty much has every bit of happiness he could want from this life, all while he fails to notice the overly kindly overtures from a woman his age who has quietly become his best customer. Old-fashioned romance comics, should they exist, never seem to appear within 100 miles of me, so perhaps it’s that scarcity and the cast’s ages that makes this all the more adorable. After all, sometimes the man who thinks he “has” everything may simply not be paying attention. And if you can live long enough to get an ‘A’ out of life, why not heed the call when life suggests you could go for an A-plus?
6. Star Wars: The High Republic Adventures (IDW Publishing) – Despite Anne’s lifelong Star Wars fandom, we’ve been opting out of Lucasfilm’s heavily hyped new era and the multiple entry points thrown at us during its inorganically transmedia launch. IDW, chief licensee for assorted Disney and Marvel IPs in youngster-comics form, likewise has their own High Republic YA beachhead that allays some of my fears. The lead story is simple action for kids who just want to see good vs. evil, lightsabers and space monsters. Much better is the backup tale, an excerpt from their ongoing series’ first issue. It introduces two main characters in single-page recaps that brought me up to emotional speed with engaging efficiency; tries to assure skeptics that Yoda is here and therefore the High Republic totally “counts” as actual Star Wars; and looks fantastic as rendered by longtime SW comics contributor Harvey Tolibao (Knights of the Old Republic), whose work looks vastly better than it used to, possibly because he’s gotten even better with age and probably because I always hated how Dark Horse used to send artwork straight from pencils to colors and bypassed inking altogether. This SW:THR taste had more memorable moments than half the Marvel SW comics I’ve read and forgotten in the past two years.
5. Suicide Squad: King Shark Special Edition (DC Comics) – The toothy scene-stealer from the summer’s best and biggest bloodbath (which I’ve seen but keep failing to write about) gets his very own miniseries courtesy of Tim Seeley and Scott Kolins, reliable pros firmly in their element. In a rare display of compromise, Amanda Waller lets Our Villain go on furlough for a very special family reunion out in the Pacific, saddled with a mandatory tag-along — replacing the film’s Ratcatcher II with a differently criminal young lady called the Defacer. A cameo from Harley Quinn, a moment of well-timed butchery, and other short, sharp shocks are among the Suicide Squad staples along the way in this apropos film follow-up, if a bit brightly colored.
DC readers who prefer grim-and-gritty at its grimmest and grittiest may dig the backup, in which Brian Azzarello scrapes the Red Hood’s convoluted past across a bed of rusty nails before pouring a salty Amanda Waller into his wounds and, yadda yadda yadda, Jason Todd is coming soon to the Suicide Squad. Azzarello’s work tends to shrug me off, but Alex Maleev’s obsidian-chiseled linework is an inspired match…though I have to wonder why the top and bottom margins of every page are so weirdly wide, as if this story were originally distributed as a digest-sized prize inside adult breakfast cereals.
4. School for Extraterrestrial Girls (Papercutz) – Jeremy Whitley, creator of Princeless and writer of the underrated Unstoppable Wasp, joins forces with artist Jamie Noguchi (Yellow Peril) to assemble yet another team of diversely complicated teen power-girls. This time they’re aliens consigned to space boarding school, learning to navigate their own hangups as well as each other’s, and of course misadventure ensues. This intermission recaps their first volume and sets the stage for their relocation to a new setting in the next volume, this time with boys in it, who will probably ruin everything because, well, boys being boys, exactly as I remember boyhood. New readers are brought up to speed quickly and sympathetically, while anyone who benefits from repetitiveness as a learning tool can refer to each character’s dossier in the back pages, 95% of whose data was already covered in-story.
3. Avengers/Hulk (Marvel Comics) – In an alternate timeline where “gods” are murdered in droves like fragile insects and the once-complex B-list hero Deathlok has been casually devalued into a clone-army template, an “all-new” supervillain team that’s like Exiles by way of Amalgam Comics has adopted the dormant Masters of Evil brand for their own nefarious purposes that will probably climax in some 2022 company-wide Avengers crossover I won’t be reading. The band formerly known as Earth’s Mightiest Heroes now desperately aspires to become The Authority, a bit like elderly men trying on Miami Vice pastels. In their pursuit of a blockbuster cinema vibe they’re wallowing in exactly the sort of preposterous bombast that The Authority foresaw and satirized in the first place.
Not that I hate bombast on reflex, mind you. I’ve largely avoided the works of Donny Cates because my first exposure to his writing was a creator-owned title with a self-declared ethos of “LOOK AT ALL MY F-BOMBS!” which is not my favorite kind of first impression. But here in the back half, a prelude to his upcoming Hulk run targets my inner 12-year-old’s sweet spot with a seemingly straightforward yet imaginatively destructive duel with MODOK’s latest upgrade. Complemented by Invincible artist Ryan Ottley, who clearly cherishes all the same Sal Buscema back issues I do, Cates unveils the next chapter in Bruce Banner’s life: the Hulk is going to outer space! Yes, again, but unlike the last two times he was shipped out there by force, this time it’s his idea and he’s charting his own course to the stars. Why? Good question! I might have to hop aboard.
2. Black + Calexit (Black Mask Studios) – Nowadays when I see a wider range of publishers on shop shelves, it’s weird and frustrating that I rarely notice Black Mask books among them. Last time I did, We Can Never Go Home blew me away. This helpful look at two of their current books shames me for my neglect.
Black, which investigates a superhero world where only Blacks have powers, is a concept rife with possibilities, but here dallies largely with supporting characters and holds me off to the periphery, invoking mild curiosity at best. Calexit has its own what-if proposal, a future in which California attempts to secede from a dystopian America not too far removed from Judge Dredd’s, but emphasizes character over plot by drawing a sharp focus on two of its leads, a club bouncer and a law student who share an intimately friendly Before Sunrise all-nighter moments before everything around them commences falling apart. Whereas many comics rush to reach the “good parts”, co-creator/company co-founder Matteo Pizzolo and artist Carlos Granda (Grimm Fairy Tales) treat characters as foundational first before shoving them headlong into the SF crisis ahead. Calexit just shot to the top of my want list.
1. Blade Runner Origins/2029 (Titan Comics) – Firmly in line with Sturgeon’s Law, 90% of all comics based on movies or TV shows are crud. Artists try too hard to capture actors’ likenesses and sacrifice any and all glimmers of emotion that can’t be directly traced from photo stills. Writers fear misguiding the actors’ voices and reduce themselves to constructing wooden dialogue entirely of catchphrases lifted from those beloved previous works. Studio executives’ underlings issue arbitrary edicts regarding what can or can’t be done with their precious IPs and bowdlerize the remains. In my experience they’ve generally been among the most unreadable comics ever. The same holds true for some of Titan’s past publications that I had to stop looking at so I could stop thinking unflattering things. I expected nothing more from their Blade Runner extension. Both tales wisely discard all known characters and create their own, and avoid the time frames from the two films in favor of prequel and midquel modes. Normally I’d find that annoying, but given how deeply I was affected by Ridley Scott’s world as a 10-year-old back in the day, this time I forgave the sidestepping.
The “Origins” lead tale, set ten years before the first film and forty before the second, benefits from moody imagery by Fernando Dagnino and Marco Lesko as it introduces its detective and lets even its onetime passersby enjoy some finer details as they come and go. Out of FCBD necessity it’s unfairly truncated just as the first mystery arrives in the form of a replicant who dies weirdly but not that weirdly if you’ve seen the first one. It’s close to tantalizing, but mostly to its own cast.
Ten years later in 2029, writer Mike Johnson (usually one of IDW’s go-tos) and artists Andres Guinaldo (Justice League Dark) and a returning Marco Lesko invite us to follow yet another detective, a shade more finely hard-boiled than the last. Aahna “Ash” Ashina has the kind of name only a pulp writer could love and merely six pages to drag us into her weary beat, but in no time flat she’s stalking a replicant who’s hiding in a shadowy studio filled with half-finished Greco-Roman replica statues. He’s one created being lurking among other created beings, each one an idealized form captured by its sculptor but ultimately flawed in design…or possibly not, depending on which end of the chisel you’re standing. It’s short, it’s swift, it’s subtle in a graceful way as it contrasts the human urge to duplicate itself across millennia with the sudden way a single killing stroke, or a single bullet, can end Art in a flash. Toss in a fleeting connection to the “Origins” opening act, and Ash’s SF-noir stopover sheathes neatly inside its layered milieu.
…and that’s the free reading pile that was. See you next year, economy and hobby livelihood willing!