Author Archives: Derek Heid

Review Gideon Falls #1

Jeff Lemire doesn’t sleep. Ever.

This is the only reasonable conclusion I can draw from the immense workload that the man puts out on the regular, whether it be as a writer (Bloodshot: Salvation, Moon Knight, Descender, and about a billion besides) or as an artist (his recent work on A.D.: After Death comes to mind among a girth of others), or as both artist and writer (Royal City, Trillium, Sweet Tooth, The Underwater Welder…the list goes on). I started working my way through his immense portfolio after discovering Trillium on a fluke at my local shop a few months back, which is more difficult than you might think: the minute I’m finishing one, Lemire is churning out thirty more.

One of those newly churned series is Gideon Falls, his latest authorial work alongside artist Andrea Sorrentino, colorist Dave Stewart, and letterer Steve Wands. Graphic Policy was fortunate enough to have the chance to review the first issue before its March release, and having done so I am now forced to revisit and expand upon my initial premise: Jeff Lemire doesn’t sleep – and with Gideon Falls, he and the rest of the creative team promise that none of us will either.

The initial adverts for Gideon Falls billed it as having something of a horror vibe, and without going into too details here the first issue promises something truly creepy to come. There’s a sense of some of the common threads that tie Lemire’s other works to each other, chief among them the premise of two disparate worlds lashed together by the machinations of A Veiled Grand Design, but rather than feel contrived or predictable this structural unity provides the familiarity normally associated with a genre study. Lemire’s world-blending manifests in the as-of-yet unspecified shared circumstances of city-bound obsessive Norton and errant, possibly disgraced Father Wilfred, culminating in a final pages reveal that can be described only as “creepy as all get-out”.

Ominously titled “The Speed of Evil”, Gideon Falls #1 carries a cinematic quality, the story unfolding as one might expect from the first act of a crime drama or, appropriately, psychological horror flick. We’re given glimpses of central charater Norton’s deteriorating mental state as he picks through his city’s garbage, alongside indications that he may not be as sick as others think he is, but it isn’t until the final few pages that the depths of his vision – or the depths of his psychosis – become clear. The same is true for Father Fred, a priest whose apparent exile to Gideon Falls isn’t touched upon save for vague flashbacks concerning an apparent fall from grace. While readers expecting any sense of the wherefores or hithertos out of issue one are going to leave sorely disappointed, those that dig a gripping sense of what’s-to-come will be delighted: we stumble onto the nuances of the mystery alongside the Norton and Fred, and so when they are perplexed or left with a chill, so too are we.

Lemire’s work couples nicely with Sorrentino’s character designs and backgrounds.   The dinge of the city and the lazy small town atmosphere is carried nicely through Stewart’s contrasting warm/cool color schemes, and there is haze of decay over most everyone and everything that makes a few brilliant moments of red stand out as alien – and dangerous – in an otherwise fugue-like world. Sorrentino’s characters are distinct and yet ghostly, and a deliberate lack of detail around eyes and in expressions isn’t so much jarring as a little unsettling, especially fitting in a world that we begin to understand is not quite right.

I likewise applaud the creative team for its excellent use of silence: the panels are unencumbered by nearly all effect bubbles, which ironically makes the depicted ambient noises – the jangle of trash, the passing of a car, the rustle of a grassy field – all the more effective. It’s proof positive of the notion that less is more, and it likewise underscores the eerie, deliberate absence of something that runs throughout this largely-quiet first issue.

What that something is, I can’t say – not because this is a spoiler-free review, but because so many threads have been left purposefully loose that as a reader all I grasped was an off-putting sense of wrongness permeating the fabric of Fred and Norton’s world before a final reveal that, while shocking, delivered only more questions. I look forward to discovering what lurks beneath the surface of the desolate, deceptively innocent world that they inhabit – a world that isn’t quite right, but isn’t yet ready to tell its secrets.

If you’re a fan of a good story, eerie imagery, and bleak, evocative coloring – or you’d like to cure an excess of sleep with a solid case of the creeps – you should be first in line to pick it up.

 

Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

Early Review Gideon Falls #1: the Speed of Pain

Jeff Lemire doesn’t sleep. Ever.

This is the only reasonable conclusion I can draw from the immense workload that the man puts out on the regular, whether it be as a writer (Bloodshot: Salvation, Moon Knight, Descender, and about a billion besides) or as an artist (his recent work on A.D.: After Death comes to mind among a girth of others), or as both artist and writer (Royal City, Trillium, Sweet Tooth, The Underwater Welder…the list goes on). I started working my way through his immense portfolio after discovering Trillium on a fluke at my local shop a few months back, which is more difficult than you might think: the minute I’m finishing one, Lemire is churning out thirty more.

One of those newly churned series is Gideon Falls, his latest authorial work alongside artist Andrea Sorrentino, colorist Dave Stewart, and letterer Steve Wands. Graphic Policy was fortunate enough to have the chance to review the first issue before its March release, and having done so I am now forced to revisit and expand upon my initial premise: Jeff Lemire doesn’t sleep – and with Gideon Falls, he and the rest of the creative team promise that none of us will either.

The initial adverts for Gideon Falls billed it as having something of a horror vibe, and without going into too details here the first issue promises something truly creepy to come. There’s a sense of some of the common threads that tie Lemire’s other works to each other, chief among them the premise of two disparate worlds lashed together by the machinations of A Veiled Grand Design, but rather than feel contrived or predictable this structural unity provides the familiarity normally associated with a genre study. Lemire’s world-blending manifests in the as-of-yet unspecified shared circumstances of city-bound obsessive Norton and errant, possibly disgraced Father Wilfred, culminating in a final pages reveal that can be described only as “creepy as all get-out”.

Ominously titled “The Speed of Evil”, Gideon Falls #1 carries a cinematic quality, the story unfolding as one might expect from the first act of a crime drama or, appropriately, psychological horror flick. We’re given glimpses of central charater Norton’s deteriorating mental state as he picks through his city’s garbage, alongside indications that he may not be as sick as others think he is, but it isn’t until the final few pages that the depths of his vision – or the depths of his psychosis – become clear. The same is true for Father Fred, a priest whose apparent exile to Gideon Falls isn’t touched upon save for vague flashbacks concerning an apparent fall from grace. While readers expecting any sense of the wherefores or hithertos out of issue one are going to leave sorely disappointed, those that dig a gripping sense of what’s-to-come will be delighted: we stumble onto the nuances of the mystery alongside the Norton and Fred, and so when they are perplexed or left with a chill, so too are we.

Lemire’s work couples nicely with Sorrentino’s character designs and backgrounds.   The dinge of the city and the lazy small town atmosphere is carried nicely through Stewart’s contrasting warm/cool color schemes, and there is haze of decay over most everyone and everything that makes a few brilliant moments of red stand out as alien – and dangerous – in an otherwise fugue-like world. Sorrentino’s characters are distinct and yet ghostly, and a deliberate lack of detail around eyes and in expressions isn’t so much jarring as a little unsettling, especially fitting in a world that we begin to understand is not quite right.

I likewise applaud the creative team for its excellent use of silence: the panels are unencumbered by nearly all effect bubbles, which ironically makes the depicted ambient noises – the jangle of trash, the passing of a car, the rustle of a grassy field – all the more effective. It’s proof positive of the notion that less is more, and it likewise underscores the eerie, deliberate absence of something that runs throughout this largely-quiet first issue.

What that something is, I can’t say – not because this is a spoiler-free review, but because so many threads have been left purposefully loose that as a reader all I grasped was an off-putting sense of wrongness permeating the fabric of Fred and Norton’s world before a final reveal that, while shocking, delivered only more questions. I look forward to discovering what lurks beneath the surface of the desolate, deceptively innocent world that they inhabit – a world that isn’t quite right, but isn’t yet ready to tell its secrets.

Gideon Falls releases from Image this March, and if you’re a fan of a good story, eerie imagery, and bleak, evocative coloring – or you’d like to cure an excess of sleep with a solid case of the creeps – you should be first in line to pick it up.

 

Many thanks to Jeff Lemire for supplying Graphic Policy with an advance of Gideon Falls #1 to preview!

Looking forward, looking back: Royal City #1-5 retrospective

A few weeks ago at my local comic shop, I got to talking to a fellow comics fan, a guy who was looking to dig into a few new titles. He was looking for something with a solid story, sympathetic characters, a sense of catharsis – everything that the traditional cape stories he was taking a break from didn’t provide.

“Jeff Lemire,” I suggested.

“Which titles?” he asked.

I repeated, “Jeff Lemire.”

I am admittedly late to the train when it comes to Lemire’s work; scores of voices louder and stronger than mine have preceded my enthusiasm for his library of stories. There is nevertheless something worth saying about a creator whose entire collection is noteworthy, so much that when a reader inquires about fresh material you only need mention the author’s name to know that anything they pick up will be golden.

My new friend left the shop with a copy of A.D.: After Death, Lemire and Scott Snyder’s fantastic three-issue sci-fi-with-a-twinge-of-pathos epic. His interest in limited series over monthly runs meant a pass on Lemire’s work on Moon Knight, an introspective take on a decidedly offbeat character, and, most unfortunately, a pass on the first story arc for Lemire’s most interesting ongoing project: Royal City.

I’m five issues in at the time of this writing and eagerly awaiting the drop of issue six, what will be the beginning of the second story arc for the series, and not since Ales Kot’s run of Bucky Barnes: Winter Soldier have I had less of an idea of where a story is heading yet been so keenly invested in its characters. Lemire’s way of worldbuilding is at once lush, nuanced and full, and barebones, veiled, and reserved. His characters come into themselves as much through what is left unsaid as through what is known, leaving a great deal of their motivations and pasts up to the speculation of the reader. His environments, owed to his signature art style and washed out, weathered coloring, are bleak in the best possible sense of the word. As in A.D. and Trillium, Lemire balances humanity with fantasy in a way that allows for fantastic events – the voice of a dead boy hauntingly reaching out to his father through a radio, for instance – to occur without a blink.

Like many of Lemire’s works, Royal City plays with the idea of breakdowns in communication and the degradation of relationships in light of significant trauma. The specifics of the Pike family’s tragedy and just how young Tommy met his end are as-of-yet undefined, and nevertheless I am invested in the goings-on of their fragmented attempts to cling to what was.  With patrons as fickle as the comics audience can be, a story like Lemire’s is shaping up to be can be something of a gamble; taking five issues – as many months and then some – on what amounts to the build-up of the impetus  for everything that has come to pass has alienated other works, causing them to fold long before their time because the investment was never-quite-there. Where Lemire succeeds and others fail is I believe in his focus on the journey rather than the payoff, on his attention to the pathos of his characters and all that they experience along the way. We may not know what it is that has caused Tommy Pike to have such a significant impact on those he left behind, but it is in those character’s interactions with his fleeting memory – be it his strung-out teenage self, or the wide-eyed innocence of his youth, or the wizened, pragmatic Tommy that serves as a spirit guide in issue five’s culminating exchange – that paradoxically make those details all the more and less important.

The second story arc of Royal City begins with issue six in a week’s time and promises a trip back in time: into the early nineties, and to a time when young Tommy Pike was more than an agonized projection of his siblings’ guilt. The story promises more of Lemire’s excellent worldbuilding to bring us into a world at home and apace with the titular setting: a town that hasn’t changed much in two decades, and whose aversion to the times seems poised to drag it to ruin. It’s the kind of small town that exists, for me, in my memories: it isn’t my home town but at the same time it is, in many respects, and it’s the kind of place that I can look on with contempt and nostalgia in equal parts – and I’m certain I’m not alone in those feelings.

Like the Pikes, we find ourselves drawn to what was, sometimes inescapably so, be it for the best or otherwise.

Royal City #6 is set to hit your shops October 11th. If you haven’t picked it up yet, you can still catch up.

Educator’s Perspective: “Sh*t My President Says”

It’s said that no work of literature is written in a vacuum.

One of the first things you learn to do as an undergrad in any course in literature is to unpack the political, cultural, and societal implication of whatever it is you’re reading, because whether the author intended it or not, he or she was assuredly influenced by the circumstances in which it was written.  Even as a high school student I learned that Shakespeare’s fascination with witchcraft in Macbeth is likely an influence of the King under which he was writing, who had an interest in the occult himself; The Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm both have their roots in a kind of British political anxiety, and the only way that On the Road can be more of a manifesto of the early counterculture movement is if copies of it are beaten by riot officers.

Yet I’ve always been more interested in the political, cultural, and social capital hidden away in the more obscure media, the stuff that, for whatever reason, has for so long escaped the notice of conventional scholarship. Though teachers have long adored the political cartoon there remains a strange, standoffish attitude toward the comic book, as though we’re all still in the 1950s and Dr. Wertham is sitting across from us making all sorts of uncomfortable eye contact over a stack of World’s Finest. Thankfully that attitude has receded significantly in recent years and I’m happy to see more and more that teachers like myself are having success in using the rife political and cultural content of comics as a springboard to discuss ideas as diverse and grandiose as race relations, diplomacy, and the importance of de-mystifying the “other”ness of foreign cultures, peoples, and ideologies.

The conversation about the political and sociocultural implications of comics – really, of all media – is always hobbled somewhat when it hits a K-12 classroom environment.  There begin conversations about correctness and age-appropriateness, and whether a book can or should be introduced to the student population for fear of indoctrination. Year after year mainstays like The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird are called into question by school boards and parent groups across the country, and while their reasons are varied they general boil down to what we want our children to discover about who and what we are.  Works that are censored for classroom use have a common thread: they oftentimes highlight the worst of us, in an attempt to ensure that we avoid making the mistakes of our ancestry.

That being said, it seems highly unlike that Shannon Wheeler’s “Sh*t My President Says” will ever see regular use as a implement of classroom instruction, given that it is both a comic book, and therefore still a subject of academic uncertainty by some of my colleagues, and demonstrative of one of the most deranged, startling, and ultimately embarrassing garbage fires of the 21st century.  It is eye-opening in its candor, tragically funny, vitally informative, and ought to be required reading for anyone hoping to study the political machine of the early 21st century. It may very well be one of the most important historical artifacts of this decade.

All because of Twitter.

“Sh*t My President Says” is a perfect example of the historically-embedded nature of media. Even without Wheeler’s accompanying caricatures of Trump as a riotous toddler with a phone fetish, the collection of our mentally-errant President’s 140-character temper tantrums provides a sobering look at just how we got to where we are. Taken with Shannon Wheeler’s supplemental artwork, the Tweets take on a second life: their childishness is thrown into a stark relief with the inclusion of the author’s idealized boy king Trump, and indeed the whole work might read as a fiction were we not living it as we are now.

From a teachable standpoint, nothing beats a work that provides the subject’s words as they were uttered while simultaneously offering a responding critique of them. In this way Shannon Wheeler has submitted to his audience a kind of living primary source, an artifact that both serves to document history as well as record our collective reaction to the oftentimes unbelievable events of our current political climate – which, of course, is a form of history in and of itself.

Is it teachable? Absolutely, and pertinently so: in much the same way that we recognize the crassness of the language in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or the sexuality of “The Awakening” as indicative of the societies and cultures of the time in which they were written, Wheeler’s compilation of the fractured thoughts of our enfeebled Commander-in-Chief are likewise a reflection of the state of our society. Wheeler provides a means to process an pivotal event in American political history in a way that is accessible for its simplicity, honest for its presentation, and as painless  an experience as it could be possibly be for the author’s satirical approach to her bumbling, foolhardy subject matter.

Nevertheless, I give Mr. Wheeler a great deal of credit for his work in compiling this trainwreck of a timeline in recording the Trump tweets he has.  For the levity with which it is presented, there is something truly sinister about seeing these words become actions, and those actions engender other, more awful actions. Longtime exposure to those levels of ego-maniacal word vomit cannot be healthy for an individual, and I hope sincerely that Mr. Wheeler recovers quickly for his exposure.

While its unflinching revelation of the worst of our potential all but guarantees it never sees widespread classroom use, I fully expect that passages from “Sh*t My President Says” will find their way into political science and literature classrooms across the globe. This cutting work of comics journalism is a vibrant reminder of how we ended up in this mess, and I wager that there’s more than a few daring educators willing to make the case that, like Mockingbird and Rye, just because something is uncomfortable doesn’t mean that we turn a blind eye to its implications.

Literature isn’t written in a vacuum – but sometimes the stuff that inspires it sucks nonetheless.  It’s our job to learn from it, and works like Wheeler’s make that possible.

Review: The Not-So Secret Society

Matthew and Arlene Daley’s Not-So Secret Society promises an adventure appropriate of all ages, crafted by its creators’ background as parents and educators. In my initial review of the preview material I expressed tentative optimism toward the work, an engaging and original story about five friends and a machine that can bring candy to life; my only hesitation was born not from the comic itself but from the promises made by others like it. Educator-made comics, I noted then, often sacrifice quality for instructional relevance.

Having had the chance to read the full volume, I’m relieved to say that The Not-So Secret Society is not guilty of the crimes of its peers. The Daleys have crafted a story that integrates a healthy enthusiasm for the principles and curricula of S.T.E.M. (that’s fancy teacherspeak for “science, technology, engineering, and math”) while keeping true to the core of the world they’ve crafted.

In talking about what The Not-So Secret Society does right as an educator’s comic, it’s ironically most important to discuss the parts of the comic that don’t explicitly deal with educational material. We first meet Ava, Aiden, Madison, Dylan, and Emma – the titular “Not-So Secret Society – as they attempt to crack open a doorway to a mystical world in a subway station. From the outset, it becomes clear that this is a work that is not so overly concerned with its educational aims that it will forgo making a little mischief along the way. What’s more, the fleeting glimpse of something closing the mystical portal from the other side suggests what the Society might find itself exploring next, or it might be a clever sight gag: either way, it’s a promise that this story is not so enamored with the hard sciences that it forgets the crucial role that imagination plays in any kind of learning.

As I read on, it became clear that the Daleys were driving toward that exact point with their story. The Society’s involvement in a city-wide science fair, a rivalry with fellow scientist team The 5Zs, and the revelation that their “living candy” experiment all quickly swerves the work toward science fiction rather than science fact, and left me wondering about the classroom application of the work as a whole – that is, until I stopped reading the work as a testament to the joys of hard science and started to appreciate it for what it was: an extremely well-crafted work about the importance of ethics and morality in the S.T.E.M. fields.  While there is a little light science mixed in here and there, the bulk of the narrative seems far more interested in the why and how rather than the what – a unique angle that’s both far more essential and much more engaging.

When the results of the Society’s science fair endeavors come to light, so do questions about why science-minded kids like them might go into the field to begin with. Is it for fame and adoration, as seems to be the case with their rivals in the 5Zs, or is it, as Aiden puts it, to invent things for themselves? It is after all when the Society stops focusing on trying to upstage their peers that their work gets the most traction: though they miss out on the big prize, their work gains them the respect of a visiting scientist and an open invitation to visit her at a neighboring museum.  The message is one of collaboration over commercialism, functionality over publicity, ethics over ego. It’s a monumentally timely message for students leaning toward the fast-paced and results-focused field of applied science.

Taken as a comic book, The Not-So Secret Society does a great deal to make itself visually as well as conceptually appealing. Wook Jin Clark’s art style is reminiscent of the Saturday morning cartoons I grew up on with a bit of a manga flare thrown in for good measure (note the exaggerated “shock” lines when a character is taken by surprise, or the phantom limbs that mark where arms and legs were when a character makes a quick gesture). The paneling that makes up most pages is clean and easy to follow, frequently broken up by splash pages that do a wonderful job of setting the tone and scope of the Society’s world while making exceptional use of Elonora Bruni’s immensely varied color palette. The world of the Society looks expansive, vibrant, and alive, the perfect mix for the enthusiasm that the Society (and the Daleys) bring to the story.

Following the main work are a dozen-plus short comics using the central Society characters and showcasing their further exploits in school, around town, and elsewhere. Each is put together by a slightly different creative team and all do a nice job fleshing out the main characters – which, if I’m being fair, is the one area that the main story fell a little flat.  The backup stories do a nice job of expanding on the Society members’ personal quirks, something the central did in passing whenever it could but never had the time to which to devote a great deal of exposition. Also of note is a series of reading guide questions following the story, which I will go into in more detail in an upcoming review.

Suffice to say that The Not-So Secret Society avoids all of pratfalls of other educator-comics by being original enough to be a work all its own. NS3 is a comic that is not concerned with educational content but educational practice, and thereby becomes something of a uniqueness amid the myriad of S.T.E.M. works already on the market. From an educator’s standpoint, The Not-So Secret Society certainly has a place in elementary- and middle-grade classrooms, both as a way to introduce an interest in the potential for the future of hard sciences and to act as a sort of ethical calibrator.  The Daley’s work serves to expose students to not only what they can do with a background in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but why and how they ought to do it.

An Educator’s Take on The Not-So Secret Society

Matthew and Arlene Daley’s The Not-So Secret Society is the next in a long line of comics made for and by educators with the explicit purpose of classroom use – a line that often varies in its quality and content, but generally has its heart in the right place.

As both an educator and an advocate for the intellectual and academic merit of the Comics medium, I’m firmly in the middleground of excited and tentative when a new educator-based comic is announced. Where content is concerned, I’ve seen more than a few well-intentioned educators more or less butcher the medium through fundamental misunderstandings of how comic books function, resulting in little more than an illustrated textbook; where tone is concerned, I’ve been disappointed more than once with a sanctimonious, pedantic tone struck toward a reading audience that we teachers know – we know – responds best to guidance when it comes from a place of mutual respect and openness.

Thankfully, The Not-So Secret Society appears to avoid both of these issues.  Billed as “an all-ages adventure that celebrates the value of teamwork and lifelong friendships”, the Not-So Secret Society follows the misadventures of a group of friends whose science fair project, a candy-making machine, inadvertently unleashes more than they bargained for on their city. The preview copy I had the chance to read promises a straightforward and accessible all-ages romp without a trace of condescension. Characterization of each of the main characters is clearly defined, if a little cut and dry, and follows the “stock school clique” format you’ve seen before – which, given the target audience, isn’t surprising nor a negative. The art is easy for young eyes to follow without being so simple as to lose the interest of older readers; there’s plenty of detail in the backgrounds and enough of a Saturday cartoon vibe to evoke memories of Recess, The Weekenders, and other dearly departed early morning classics.

I am curious to see where the co-creators’ education experience will come to pass, as the bit of the issue I was given to sample played very little to overt pedagogy or any kind of explicit subject area content (or, really, anything apart from setting up the story itself), but as far as I am concerned that is a good sign. If the Daleys can take a story about a candy-machine-gone-bad and somehow spin it into a lesson worthy of classroom inclusion, then more power to them.  There’s also the equally-valid notion that the endgame is the focus on “teamwork and lifelong friendships” that the overview promises, which has its place in the classroom but is less in demand as an explicit lesson, especially in the era of truncated instructional minutes and concerns about time, time, time.

Perhaps not surprising is the boost of confidence I feel for this title knowing that it is being published by an imprint of BOOM! Studios. BOOM! has become an easy favorite of mine over the past year for its fearless embracing of that which falls just shy of the traditional comic book reader’s tastes while still maintaining a family-friendly atmosphere. Titles like Adventure Time and Steven Universe come to mind, but also Lumberjanes, The Backstagers, and the masterful Power Rangers reboot all speak highly of a publisher that, while not as flashy as the big guys, certainly knows how to choose its horses in each race.  I may still be on the fence when it comes to the direction that The Not-So Secret Society will lead, but its inclusion alongside such noteworthy titles is worth consideration.

Don’t misunderstand: The Not-So Secret Society is still a young reader’s book. I can see its simplified structure and easygoing narrative style as an excellent fit for a late elementary school classroom, and clever development of the story might even suggest it as a contender for middle school libraries – but beyond that, I think it’s easy to pass on this one unless you’re an educator, mentor, librarian, or otherwise have a vested interest in this work’s intended audience.

The Not-So Secret Society makes for an easy read for the young comic book reader in your life, with its easy visuals, straightforward storytelling, and the publishing power of BOOM! behind it. I’m excited – and hesitant – to see where the Daleys take their candy-coated adventure, and whether it lives up to all that it could be.