It’s that time of year again, but slightly delayed on my part! Saturday, May 7th was the 21st 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 in rare instances real-world protagonists. 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 comic shops 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. After the online-only FCBD of 2020 A.P. (Annus Pandemus) and the delayed-gratification post-vaccine FCBD of August 2021, this year’s model returned to the traditional observance on the first weekend in May. Also per tradition, a major comic-book movie was released the same weekend and sucked up an awful lot of my free time that otherwise might’ve been spent reading and then writing-about-reading.
Per our family custom, my wife Anne and I ventured to two different comic shops, picked up samples, and spent money on a few extra items as our way of thanking each shop for their service in the field of literacy. Of the nearly four dozen FCBD titles available from publishers great and small, neither shop ordered all of them. I was particularly disappointed by two glaring omissions on the part of both stores (a Titan Doctor Who one-shot starring Jo Martin’s Fugitive Doctor, and the Humanoids Incal Universe sampler whose contributors included Mark Russell), but consoled myself with surprises from the available universes. I picked up twelve titles in all from several companies, my smallest FCBD stack in years. My reading pile results came out as follows, ranked woefully subjectively and upwardly from “Not My Thing” to “Buy More on Sight”.
And now, on with the countdown!
[DISQUALIFIED]. Teen Titans: Beast Boy Loves Raven (DC Comics) – First in line not because of quality, but because it wasn’t from 2022. This was among the 2021 leftovers and reruns overstocked at one shop. The YA reboot imagines the two teammates as traveling strangers who meet-cute while avoiding their parental issues, though Raven’s are literally hanging on her (that dastardly Trigon is trapped in her necklace). In lieu of truly evil blood ties, young Mr. Logan carries only a monkey in a backpack, which doesn’t sound out of character. Both are several dimensions removed from the Wolfman/Perez originals I grew up with, but the important flavors are there. Again, this would’ve ranked far higher if I’d actually picked it up last year, so that’s partly on me.
11. Bloodborne (Titan Comics) – Based on the hit video game, which I’ve never played and which I forgot was a thing till after I grabbed this, so I began at a disadvantage. Six pages of ads serve as preamble, with recaps of the first four story arcs that share so much copy/pasted verbiage, they all but confirm nothing of import happens from one to the next. Then all we get are five (5) actual story pages, in which a young lad escapes olde-tyme torch-bearing villagers by ducking into a church filled with creepy statues. Then, more ads. That’s it, that’s the sample, though in its favor is the art of Piotr Kowalski, working very much in a finely tuned P. Craig Russell key.
10. Nottingham (Mad Cave Studios) – One of Robin Hood’s Merry Men — a disposable recruit, not one of the big names — deviates from plan and does some vengeful murder during an easy-peasy dinner-poisoning robbery. Local authorities demand justice, but in this prequel era the Sheriff of Nottingham is not yet fully given to the Dark Side and tries maintaining allegiances in both worlds. The colors are so distractingly splotchy and not-quite-human, like Monet trying to dab inside the lines with his brush between his teeth, that it took me three tries to look past them and fully concentrate on the emotional movements leading to the tragic ending. Cliched ironic Christmas carol use doesn’t help.
9. Trese: Last Seen After Midnight (Ablaze Publishing) – Based on the Netflix anime based in turn on the Filipino graphic novel series, neither of which I’d heard of, but in my defense there’re some 7,000 different Netflix series that I, as a subscriber, never hear about till they’re canceled. Our eponymous heroine is a supernatural investigator, in this case tasked with tracking down the haunted force that murdered a serial rapist in a city park. The main characters are introduced with quick and mostly deft strokes, though one shape-shifter confuses matters, especially the part where her normal form is nearly Ms. Trese’s twin. That said, the black-and-white renderings breathe life into the angry forest spirits and the action in general. I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more samples.
8. Marvel Voices (Marvel) – Excerpts from their intermittent one-shot anthologies that celebrate characters and creators from across a spectrum of minorities and demographics, all of which would feel more generous and laudable if they weren’t largely compartmentalized into one-shot anthologies. The lead story starring Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur is a cute primer for kids; Jeffrey Veregge’s stylized three-pager is a succinct rundown of Marvel’s Native American heroes, many of whom I recognize and who’ve certainly added up over the years; and a team-up between X-Man Bishop and Wave from the Agents of Atlas (I know of them but not her) is charmingly done-in-one. I’m less enthused whenever new faces are paraded past me en masse without the courtesy of naming them so I can learn about them, as happens here with several anonymous LGBTQ super-folks, Brother Voodoo’s son, and a Portuguese guy who is a shark and seems nice, whoever he is. (Is he DC’s King Shark’s cousin? Does he also have a theme song?) I have this same complaint whenever a Big Two storyline crams six dozen guests into the panels but only names, like, five of them. Cantina-alien action-figure background dumps are a poor way to attract new readers to existing characters. Are they supposed to scan the comic and do Google Image Searches on each and every face so they can figure out what to buy next or learn why they should care about them beyond their single-panel mannequin poses?
7. Stranger Things/Resident Alien (Dark Horse Comics) – Dark Horse celebrates their popular IP licenses that haven’t been revoked or stolen by other companies yet. The Stranger Things interlude reminds fans that, when season three ended sixty years ago, Eleven lost her powers and is more jittery than ever. It also reminds me how irritating licensed comics are when the artists are forced to trace photos of the actors’ blank faces and are forbidden to give them any expressions. (Eleven gets a few feels, but Jonathan and Will are practically rubber-stamped.) Meanwhile in the backup, we longtime readers of Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse’s recently wrapped Resident Alien are treated to a surprise reunion, a sort-of ghost story that’s one last low-key vignette of folksy dramedy nothing like the far wackier, more widely seen Syfy adaptation. Whatever I can get of the old-school Dr. Vanderspeigle, I will cheerfully take.
6. Dark Crisis #0 Special Edition (DC Comics) – I docked this 5000 points because it directly follows the recent “The Death of the Justice League” event. Any superhero story whose title begins with “The Death of” and was published after 1992 is stupid on principle. I then restored 4000 of those points because Joshua Williamson and Jim Cheung lean into that very stupidity: nobody in this story believes for one second their heroes are gone forever. Well, except Clayface, which is why the Flash has to come around and show him up. As our man Wally West reminds a concerned youngster and us, “It’s not really a question of if we will have a new Justice League…or when…the real question is who?” I’m still not buying their Dark Crisis ultra-mega-crossover, but I appreciated the gentle touch of self-aware heroism.
5. Kaiju No. 8/Sakamoto Days (Viz Comics) – Two solid arguments why I should read more manga. The first story concerns an anti-Kaiju task force soldier who has a slight conflict of interest: he’s recently been turned into a kaiju himself, except he can contain his new form inside his human form…well, mostly, if no one angers or distracts him. I’m faintly reminded of Jack Cole’s Plastic Man, both in its cop-with-a-secret premise and its slapstick. The backup tale likewise balances comedy and drama, as a hitman-turned-family-man embarks on a gleefully hyperkinetic chase to snag a “hot” in-demand kiddie backpack for his daughter from the nearest mall. It’s what if Jingle All the Way didn’t suck, capped off by an Archie Comics-style punchline ending with a gun in it…which seems a tad less amusing at this moment.
4. Hollow (BOOM! Box) – Teenage San Francisco transplant Isabel Crane moves to Sleepy Hollow, NY, where her new high school proudly owns the Washington Irving tale and all its iconography. Not everyone loves the connection — classmate Victoria Van Tassel begrudgingly goes through the motions of the annual town Halloween festival and her mandatory role in it that’s been handed down through generations, not necessarily on a volunteer basis. There’re some slap-happy jocks, a shady elder, a potential romantic angle, and possibly an actual Headless Horseman. After the way that one Fox drama lost its head, it’s cool seeing someone trying a new angle on the mythos without interference from Hollywood politics.
3. Avengers/X-Men/Eternals: Judgment Day (Marvel) – For years I’ve refused to indulge deeply intrusive crossover events, my loathing of which I’ve documented right here and then also here. Then Marvel let Kieron Gillen mastermind their upcoming three-way mashup. That’s unexpected and wholly unfair. A/X/E stems directly from his ongoing writing gigs on Eternals and Immortal X-Men, their only hero-canon ongoing series that I’m currently collecting. Eternals‘ star narrator The Machine likewise makes this prologue with its wry, self-aware fashion and confirms it’ll largely be an extension of the same two titles I’m already enjoying. Granted, I don’t care for Marvel’s 65 different Avengers teams and gave up on the rest of the X-Men’s Krakoa saga during the pandemic, so I’ll likely only be buying the chapters written by Gillen. Nevertheless, I find myself in a “never say never” situation as I consider the first crossover to intrigue me in ages, since probably 2011’s Fear Itself, whose best and most lucid tie-ins centered on Kid Loki in Journey Into Mystery…written by, as it happens, the aforementioned Mr. Gillen.
Two backup tales are included: one introducing Blade’s daughter, soon to star in her own book (or maybe she’s appeared before, I wouldn’t know and didn’t get excited enough to fact-check); and one starring Mary Jane Watson and her Aunt Anna, who I haven’t seen around in a long, looooong time. I honestly can’t believe she’s still alive. (And she’s tickled pink to be here, too: “I’ll take every day I can get! I want to see how Succession ends!”) But instead of supporting Spider-Man, now they’re PR flacks for the X-Men, as part of the wide-scale supporting-cast cross-pollination Marvel keeps doing among their various editorial stables, a bizarre departure from their long-standing cast-siloing practices. And then at the end there’s an extremely confusing robot, and I have no idea whether it’s from an X-book I skipped or it’s a new entity to all readers. Unless it reappears in one of Gillen’s books, I may never know.
2. Guardian of Fukushima (Tokyopop) – Preview of a French graphic novel about the Fukushima disaster and the true story of one man who refused to evacuate despite the radiation because he felt someone should stick around and tend to all the abandoned animals. The emotional scale escalates quickly from everyday kindly living (with a touch of mythic storytelling for the kiddos) to earthquake chaos to the resulting tsunami whose catastrophic arrival ends on a perfectly awe-striking cliffhanger note. In some respects we know what comes next, but I dread/wonder how it’ll happen and look in this version. I’m genuinely curious to see what’s on the next page. That’s exactly the kind of anticipation these FCBD samplers should be creating.
1. Clementine #1 (Image Comics) – Based on the hit video game, which I’ve never played, which in turn is based on the other stuff. I gave up on Kirkman and Adlard’s OG Dead after what they did to Michonne in volume 5, and bowed out of the AMC version when Abraham and Glenn did, though my own departure was far less grisly. I found myself engrossed anyway in the further adventures of the titular teen heroine. Set after her games’ end, Clementine walks the wilds alone as zombies amble and shamble hither and yon, each of which she dispatches despite a rather noticeable physical setback. Soon she stumbles across a survivors’ village; for once it’s not the same tired arc about how long she can stay before the population turn evil or get overwhelmed. It’s about how even the fiercest loners can use a helping hand from others, even if only for a short while, and have to find that awkward balance between a need for short-term human contact and a deeper preference for long-term self-reliance, all while learning how to adapt to new circumstances.
I was unfamiliar with writer/artist Tillie Walden till now, but maybe the best compliments I can pay her first Clementine tale are that (a) I cared enough to fact-check that paragraph, and (b) at a bookstore this past weekend I made a point of picking up her 2019 graphic novel Are You Listening? because I wanted to see more right away.
Also enclosed are glimpses of two other forthcoming books in Image/Skybound’s YA initiative: Everyday Hero Machine Boy, which is cute but aiming for an audience much younger than me; and the fantasy Sea Serpent’s Heir, with art by Pablo Tunica that’s among the prettiest of any of the books mentioned in this entry.
…and that’s the free reading pile that was. See you next year, humanity and supply chain permitting!