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Mike Marts talks AfterShock Comics

mike marts

Mike Marts, AfterShock Editor-in-Chief

Mike Marts began his career working at Marvel Comics in 1993. Having begun as Assistant Editor, he is now the Editor-in-Chief and a founding member of AfterShock Comics. Having spent twenty years working for both Marvel and DC Comics, he is now shaping the face of independent publishing. Taking a few minutes from his busy life, Marts discussed what makes AfterShock’s emphasis on quality story-telling, the dangers being “All-New” too often and the joy of sharing interests with his daughter.

Graphic Policy: How was your weekend?

Mike Marts: Fantastic. I’m a Bronco’s fan. It couldn’t have been any better.

GP: Did you catch the Captain America: Civil War trailer?

MM: Yes. Yeah, it was great.

GP: Whose side are you on?

MM: (Chuckles.) The side that makes Marvel a lot of money.

GP: Fair enough. It’s a pretty exciting year for Marvel/DC movies. Considering your work with both publishers, do you have a preference?

MM: No, honestly, I’m happy when I see everyone do well. Right now it seems like most studios are firing on all cylinders. They’re really putting some quality product out there so… I’m excited for everything. Deadpool, X-Men: Apocalypse, Civil War, Batman V. Superman, Suicide Squad. Everything’s looking fantastic.

GP: It’s very exciting. Do you find yourself gravitating towards Marvel Studios over Fox or Sony?

MM: Yeah, I think so. It’s probably because most of the characters that are involved in the Fox movie films are characters I worked on and associate with more but… I worked there for such a long time. You know, you see the blood, sweat and tears and hard work that everyone at Marvel Comics puts into the movies. So, definitely over the last ten years I’ve felt much more attachment to the movies Marvel Studios put out.

GP: Who was your favorite writer growing up?

MM: Easily Chris Claremont. Chris wrote the X-Men comics and those are the ones I fell in love with. Those are the ones I started collecting. For me, as a ten-year-old boy, the X-Men were everything. When I first got interested in working in comics and writing for comics, Chris was the person I wanted to be. I was so enamored with his work. It was great being able to work with him multiple times at Marvel.

GP: Does that mean Jim Lee was your favorite artist?

MM: Jim Lee was one of my favorites. Certainly that era was great artistically. I first got into X-Men maybe ten years before that, so John Byrne and Paul Smith were really the main X-Men artists to me. That’s really who I identified with.

GP: What was your favorite story while you were working at Marvel?

MM: That would be a close tie, maybe a three-way tie. If I had to pick one it would probably be Joss Whedon and John Cassady’s Astonishing X-Men run. Over the course of a career, there are so many different arcs that you look on fondly. But it’s hard to look back at that and not see perfection from every angle. Both those guys are just the epitome of perfection in storytelling. I don’t know that I’ve had that happen before or since. They were just at the top of their game, delivering incredible stories. Probably a close second and third for me would be Wolverine: Origins with Andy Kubert and Paul Jenkins and then Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men.

GP: What were your favorite independent titles while you were working with Marvel?

MM: I would bounce around. I never really had an allegiance to any specific company. I would usually follow certain creators, certainly Brian K. Vaughan. Walt Simonson’s work outside of DC and Marvel like his work on Ragnarok, was appealing to me.

GP: What do you feel like set those titles apart from what was being published at Marvel and DC?

MM: It’s something I’ve discovered working at AfterShock, when people are working on their creator-owned projects, I think there’s a certain ownership. Really, it’s almost like being a parent of a story that doesn’t always exist in the mainstream. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen. It certainly does with certain creators. But on the creator-owned projects you see the TLC, that parenting and ownership on everything they are doing because of their personal stake. Not that you’re never getting someone’s best work elsewhere, but I think working on a creator-owned project you’re getting something they are truly invested in and dedicated to.

GP: What was the appeal of taking the position at AfterShock as Editor-in-Chief, going from such large companies as Marvel and DC to the antithesis, a much smaller and unestablished company?

MM: When I look at it, my perspective is I’ve been building towards doing something like AfterShock my entire career. Marvel and DC gave me huge opportunities to prove myself and work on great projects with great creators, but personally I’ve always wanted to build something on my own. I’ve always wanted to start my own company and my partners at AfterShock were cool enough to give me that opportunity. For me, moving from the two big publishers to something brand new never seemed that dangerous, it seemed like the next evolutionary phase of my career.

GP: A lot of publishers start out very specialized. IDW focused on horror for a long time. Avatar still focuses on mature content. But from books like Super Zero to Insexts, there is a lot of variety from one book to the next. How would you characterize AfterShock to someone who had not read its work?

MM: AfterShock as a company is the top-name creators telling the best stories possible. The fact that we have such variety is a lucky by-product. Our first goal is the best possible story, a story we’re interested in reading, unique and different. Something that hasn’t been done before. The fact that we have so much that’s different coming out has been our secondary goal, but it’s certainly not the first goal.

GP: Your CEO, Jon Kramer, and President, Lee Kramer, both have backgrounds in film and television. How big a consideration is the ability to crossover into movies when you’re considering a new story?

MM: It’s not the first thing we think about. But, certainly, it’s fantastic if the story has legs for something beyond comic books. The cool thing is with John and Lee’s experience, we’re in a great position to quickly enter into different areas of media if we choose to go down that path. The infrastructure is always set up. Other publishers don’t always have that experience and may add extra steps along the way. In our company, we have a lot of experience not just in film and television but distribution, publishing, in social media. We have a good mix of people.

GP: Would you say there’s a possible burnout of interest in television shows and films that started as comics?

MM: If there is, I don’t think it’s anywhere in the near future. If you look at everything that’s on the networks today and so many things hitting the theaters, there are so many projects that have originated in comic books. And so much of it is really high quality. Everything from Marvel’s Netflix shows to their movies, I, Zombie and Lucifer and Gotham. Even things my daughter watches like Teen Titans Go! is high quality. I don’t think it’s luck that this is happening. People who grew up reading comic books and loving that art form know what it’s like to put together a quality story. Now these people have grown up and are in industries like movies and television and video games. They’re applying that storytelling foundation and background to the stuff they are working on today. I really don’t think there’s an end in sight because there’s so much good quality in the libraries of what’s been done.

GP: How old is your daughter?

MM: Six. She’s home sick today so I’m taking care of her.

GP: That’s a wonderful age. My daughter is eight and we’re just getting into Tolkien.

MM: That’s so cool that you are guys are getting into Tolkien! I can’t wait to get there. I can’t wait for the day she picks up a Harry Potter book. We spend so much time doing Star Wars together. She loves all the Marvel and DC superheroes. It’s a good thing.

GP: It absolutely is. She’s lucky to have you to share that with.

Many writers know the pain of approaching a publisher that is accepting submissions from artists but not from writers. What’s your advice on how they might find some advantage?

MM: You know, everyone has their own different story and there’s no magic formula. You can never give up in this industry. There’s only a few spots and so many people vying for those spots, so many people who are great in their own right. You have to persevere and stand out from the pack, find some special way of making noise and getting yourself seen without becoming pushy, annoying or overbearing. It’s a magic line and not everybody finds it. Some people do and still are not able to break through. That’s how tough it is. But when you do, you are in. You are part of a brotherhood and there’s not really any going back.

GP: Andy Schmidt once told me when I asked a similar question about how to talk to editor’s when the position is “we won’t look at unsolicited material” that you might try approaching the editor directly and saying, “May I please send this to you.” What are your thoughts on that approach?

MM: Every company has their own way of looking at stuff. We don’t look at stuff unsolicited. I recommend people putting stuff up on their site and then telling the right person it’s there. Then people can go look at it. Being in contact and letting people know you’re out there is a good thing. If you’re not telling people to go look at it then you’re already working from a point of disadvantage.

GP: I’ve been reading comic shop owners who are saying the sales for Marvel and DC are down. Do you have any insight as to why?

MM: No, I don’t. Certain companies have a certain title count they’re aiming for each month. Not AfterShock, but certain companies do. They may be required to get a certain amount out each month. Not all the time but what that can sometimes mean is you can dilute your existing talent and maybe diminish the quality of your product. If there is a decline in mainstream sales, my guess might start there.

GP: Do you think that events like Marvel NOW and New 52 that are intended to bring in new readers ultimately drive people away?

MM: No, not necessarily. I was involved in New 52 quite a bit. The best intentions are always involved in launches like that. I do think they can capitalize on what they’re trying to do, draw in new readers while retaining the existing readership. Certainly with DC’s New 52 there was great success and great reviews. It seemed we were bringing in new readers, bringing back lost readers and satisfying our existing readers. Where some of that can fall short, not speaking of anyone specifically, is when you don’t stick to a plan or what you’re promising. Maybe you shift gears too suddenly by saying, “Wait, here’s something ‘All-New’…” you’re sending mixed messages. You’re not fully following through on the promise you made last month or last year. Comic readers are highly intelligent and have seen every relaunch, sales gimmick, marketing trick in the past. When you have something like that where you’re trying to bring the new while you retain the old, you have to continue with that. Sometimes that might mean not being able to take some other chances. But you have to stick with your message and what you promise.

GP: I have read other complaints that, while diversity is important, a lot of the diversity we see today is shoe-horned in and feels a bit pandering. How do you feel about characters like Sam Wilson/Captain America or Jane Foster/Thor?

MM: Having worked at Marvel when both those stories took place I can tell you they originated from story ideas. There was never a conversation where people said, “we have to mix things up and increase diversity. We have to have a female Thor or African American Cap.” Those conversations started with Jason Aaron or Rick Remender or whoever coming to their editor saying, “I got a great idea. Something terrible happens to Steve Rodgers and, guess what? Sam Wilson has to take his place.” That conversation may have gone differently at a different company or at a different time but definitely those two instances were born out of true need for original story. I definitely stand behind them. It’s the same type of thing in ’83 or ‘84 when Tony Stark was battling alcoholism and James Rhodes had to step in and become Iron Man. That was born out of story. That was a huge deal. I think sometimes, after the fact, it’s easy for those story-needs to get caught up in hotter topics and the issue of diversity. But more often than not they’re born out of a need for story and I think that’s an admirable thing.

GP: With Dreaming Eagles, AfterShock has quickly demonstrated its own diversity. But where does that importance reside when the subject may not necessitate a certain race?

MM: Well, it’s a good question. But at AfterShock what we promise in our mission statement is to deliver the best stories. From that priority we get stories like Dreaming Eagles. If we get great stories that tackle social issues that’s a double-win for us. The first win is getting a great story and helping someone like Garth Ennis (Dreaming Eagles) or Paul Jenkins (Replica) or Jimmy Palmiotti (Super Zero) to see their dream story fully-realized and printed. If we tackle tough issues in the meantime, that’s a double win for us.

Review: The Walking Dead #151

Twd151he Walking Dead no longer describes the survivors infected by a virus which will turn them into zombies when they die. The Walking Dead seems to describe characters who no longer have an interest in appearing in this book.

Rick Grimes has led the community of Alexandria to relative peace in the years following his all-out war with Negan. Tension has been growing with The Whispers, an animalistic society that wears the skins of the dead in order to coexist with the Walkers. After their leader, Alpha, butchered members of Alexandria and the neighboring communities, the call for war has come again. Rick has now begun to militarize Alexandria to prepare them for all-out war… though no one is likely to call it “all-out war”. That’s the story they just did. (Are they dragging their feet across these issues hoping we’ll forget?)

At this point, Rick has become the man dressed as Mickey Mouse in Disneyland. He’s little more than a figurehead, always present but not really what anyone came to see. Instead, you pass him by looking for the characters you haven’t begun to outgrow. In this case, we’re looking at people like Carl or Michonne. Rick himself acknowledges to the degree to which he’s no longer relevant. Of course, there’s no reason Rick couldn’t be as engaging and as interesting as he’s always been. It just feels at this point that maybe Robert Kirkman himself has grown a bit tired of him. It might explain why his best moments these days (for example, ripping people apart an attacker with his teeth last issue) are just repeats of his glory days (for example… oh, man, that was years ago, don’t make me look up the issue number).

Sadly, even the characters you’re looking for seem disinterested with the story. Michonne’s appearances are so sparse, if this were the television show you would expect she was only making the minimum appearances according to her contract. She actively wants to leave to join characters we saw briefly almost two years ago. She’s not standing with Rick or Alexandria against the Whispers. She’s literally napping on the couch. Meanwhile, other mainstays like Carl and Andrea make no appearance at all.

Dwight’s appearance in Alexandria seems to be a desperate attempt at this point try to bring new life into the series. Rick says, “You obviously have some military training…” in explaining why Dwight should be leading people in his stead. Well, does he or doesn’t he? You’ve known him for years at this point, Rick. Did you ever ask? Or do you simply not care because you’re just done with all this?

In fact, to revisit the television show analogy, it’s hard to escape that fatigued feeling you see in later seasons, just before the show goes off the air. The actors have unexplained absences while they film movies and think about the future of their careers, the writing team clearly begins to run out of ideas and every story is not just familiar, it’s directly taken from a few seasons before. Every issue since “All Out War” has just been building up to another “All Out War” scenario. The only difference is… the bad guys are different.

The bad guys are different! So, yes… The Walking Dead has a chance to breathe new life into its pages by showing us more of the Whispers and Alpha, by establishing new characters there instead of focusing on the extras in Alexandria. We’re getting training scenes with characters who either won’t die or who will die to the great indifference of the reader.

Does anyone care if Gabriel decides he wants to train? This is a genuine question becomes it seems any reader-interest in Gabriel died many years ago. Was anyone surprised that Eugene made contact with someone on his radio? The wide-eyed ending at someone actually responding to him via the radio is ridiculous. We know there are other people in the world, we’ve been seeing new communities show up for years. Eugene knows there are other people. And if he didn’t know it, why is he so surprised? He was clearly using the radio because he expected he could get in touch with someone.

The hardest part of the series is being one hundred and fifty-one issues in and wondering at what point to give up and walk away. Every issue is discouraging and it forces even the most die-hard fans to ask at what point are you are simply dead with no interest in coming back?

Story: Robert Kirkman Art: Charlie Adlard
Story: 5 Art: 7 Overall: 6 Recommendation: Pass

Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

Review: The Sheriff of Babylon #3

The Sheriff of Babylon #3BANG. From investigation to assassination, the dangerous world residing in the pages of The Sheriff of Babylon strikes out at its main characters this issue.

Following the murder of one of his training officers in post-invasion Iraq, Christopher seeks to find out who’s responsible. Quickly realizing there is no authority in place to deal with this kind of investigation, he seeks the help of Nassir and Sofia to compensate for the fact that he’s an L.A. cop trying to solve a murder in Baghdad. After Nassir and he discover the victim’s family butchered, it seems that the trail has run cold.

This features some blowback from the investigation as our focal characters find themselves being targeted. While Nassir and Sofia find themselves in greatest bit of trouble, Christopher remains virtually unscathed. Perhaps it could be said no one wants to strike out at an American. It’s also very interesting to consider of the three, Christopher is the most straightforward and honest. He may be the most clearly virtuous of the characters while the others find themselves more endangered in a “live by the sword, die by the sword” philosophy. Christopher stands out not only from the other main characters but from most other gritty-crime stories that choose a flawed, anti-hero to focus on. It makes him likeable and fresh as he presses to solve a murder no one else seems to care about.

However, we’re quickly seeing what’s at the root of this story is how your community reaches out and pulls you down when they feel you have betrayed them. Sofia and Nassir are considered turncoats, people who have worked against the best interests of their respective people, and now their lives are in danger because of it. Perhaps what Sheriff of Babylon really is promoting is loyalty.

This is issue is more Tom Clancy than Dick Wolf, the art more like the storyboard for a tense political thriller than a dry “whodunit”. Of all the fantastic books writer Tom King has on the stands right now, this is by the far the best. Not only standing above his own work, but towering above anything else being published at the moment. Mitch Gerads’s course realism creates the perfect witness to danger and tension within this world. From his angles to his close-ups, he shows himself to be as much a cinematographer as a comic book artist from issue to issue.

Story: Tom King Art: Mitch Gerads
Story: 9 Art: 9 Overall: 9 Recommendation: Buy

Review: Providence #7

providence07-portraitProvidence has not enjoyed the same pacing as it’s precursor, Neonomicon. This continues to be a story for avid fans of Alan Moore or the New England horror genre vaguely resembling H.P. Lovecraft. This is not a book for a casual reader. However, for the Moore/Lovecraft fans of the world, it’s hard to resist grabbing each issue as they come out.

Newsman Robert Black left his job behind to explore enduring American occultist traditions. Hoping to understand the culture for the sake of his new book, he has passed from town to town discovering increasingly bizarre, and even deformed, communities. Now his investigations are beginning to take a toll on his mental health and he’s less sure where reality begins and ends.

This story begins by continuing to undermine the reader’s own estimation of what is going on. As violence erupts around Black while Boston riots and burns. Reality seems to warp just of Black’s attention, begging the question “has Black yet escaped the intrusions into his mind?”. The reader who demands an answer to everything will probably not enjoy this as much as the one seeking a story depicting an altogether new look on reality. That reader will enjoy this story very much.

Black meets with a photographer, named Ronald Pitman, who has worked with the communities Black has been interviewing, a man sympathetic to the horror and lingering confusion those experiences bring. However, he only has more horror to offer, if only in a more direct fashion.

Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the book too much to Neonomicon but knowing this was a prequel with the same creative team, it seemed fair to expect the same abject terror that had been provided previously. This story unveils itself very slowly and, maybe appropriately for a story simply about research, with no concept of destination. While this issue has its pay-off (though nothing as stark as the mind-stealing rape scene of the last issue), the constant cryptic nature of the characters can be a bit maddening. For example, this may have been the first issue that features a scene, however short, between two characters outside of the perspective of the main character. Is there an allusion to a relationship that will be revealed later or is it entirely whimsical? When every character is speaking into their shoulder or nervously looking off-panel, the reader starts to wonder what they cannot see. It may be a demonstration of Moore and artist Jacen Burrows’s ability to capture the mind and command emotion, perfectly inspiring the paranoia and uncertainty that Robert Black himself is dealing with.

Skip this next paragraph if you’re looking to avoid spoilers.

The exploration of the tunnel, drawing visual ties to Neonomicon and expanding that world a bit, was certainly the most exciting part of the book. The revelation of the creatures living beneath Boston presented the explicit horror that my, perhaps pedestrian, tastes demand. Furthermore, the massive creature named “King George” and his relationship with Pitman touches closely to traditional Lovecraftian themes, namely the concept of unimaginable darkness living plainly, if only unseen, in conjunction with the mundane. The practice of King George and his people of eating the dead is presented very matter-of-factly, pulling man down from his position of lord of dominion and into a lower spot on the food chain. King George is sympathetic to the emotional plight of others while being very dispassionate about the practices of eating the dead who rot above. His affected-speech effectively feeds his disparity from the humans he lives beneath without being distracting.

Burrows continues to shine in this issue. His ability to create very plain and average people contrasts perfectly with how well he captures complex emotional expression. No one looks as mad and delighted as his characters, nor does any monster look to be as perfectly blended between dark fantasy and reality. From scenes of melee to the saprovores to which King George belongs, Burrow’s visions perfectly compliment the situations and characters Moore offers.

Story: Alan Moore Art: Jacen Burrows
Story: 7 Art: 8 Overall: 7.5 Recommendation: Read

Review: Klaus #3

Klaus_003_A_Main

Klaus continues to develop into an exceedingly interesting and nuanced world. More than the conflict itself, the imaginative interpretation of folklore is fascinating.

If the story of a winter ghost visiting children one by one every year was somehow not engaging enough for you, Grant Morrison has a new Santa story that may catch your interest. Here Santa is a wild man trying to save the sorrowful town of Grimsvig from the joyless rule of Magnus, who has outlawed Yuletide celebrations under the guise of trying to increase output from the coal mine the town’s men work in. Santa, or rather Klaus, has known the town in better days and seeks to return happiness and celebration to it.

Klaus began as really interesting concept released close enough to Christmas to really make the book fun. After the first issue, it seemed a shame that it was only part of a six-issue miniseries and that the story would not conclude until well after Christmas came and went. It seemed to be a real missed opportunity. However, with each issue the story unveils more and more of itself and further piques interest. Though everything continues to be an assimilation of Christmas iconography, it is done in such a way that that it expands the interest in the world beyond simply a passing seasonal investment. At this point, the tragedy is not that the story didn’t finish in time for Christmas, it’s that the story will end at all when such an interesting setting continues to unfold each issue.

The characters are obviously familiar. Not simply Klaus in his representation of Santa but relationships like the romantic connection between Klaus and Magnus’s wife, Dagmar. However, the way this world continues to set itself apart from expectation and traditional folklore prevents anything from cliché or tired.

The story works the imagination, trying to anticipate what goes on beyond the pages. The living toys that Klaus creates, are they related to the living wood he cut from a dead tree? Is the dark spirit dwelling within the coal mind the story’s version of Krampus? Seldom is a reader given so much in a story that they care to ask what lies ahead. It’s that suspense and curiosity that makes this book such a strong seller.

Keeping up with the great Grant Morrison, Dan Mora does a marvelous job creating the visual aesthetic for this book. From the hulking yet approachable Klaus to the beauty of the woodland spirits, Mora continues to prove to be a fantastic choice developing this character and creating this world.

Story: Grant Morrison Art: Dan Mora
Story: 8 Art: 7 Overall: 7.5 Recommendation: Buy

BOOM! Studios provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

Review: Cry Havoc #1

cry havocNot new but fresh, Cry Havoc brings a story of using monsters for militaristic means. It’s a premise we’ve all seen before, but the feminine tone and perspective prevent the story from being stale.

Louise was young, a bit irresponsible and very much in love with her girlfriend. That was before being attacked in the street by a werewolf (hey, it’s tough being a street musician). Now she volunteers with a special forces unit, hunting down monsters in the hopes of being cured from her affliction.

What really brings this story to life is the insight writer Simon Spurrier breathes into his characters through their dialogue and insights. Louise’s girlfriend’s first appearance takes place at the zoo where a fair amount of time is spent discussing hyenas. Specifically, the topic of matriarchal practices and pseudo-penises lends itself to this feminist lens, usurping the dominant status of males while placing the power and ferocity in our central character without the demand of actually demonstrating it within the first issue.

Louise and her group of militants are seeking out another werewolf, rogue commander Lynn Odell. In this regard the story also manages to set itself apart from Marvel’s Legion of Monsters and DC’s Creature Commandos by taking its feminist approach to Louise’s human experience. Instead of her lycanthropy being gimmicky, it serves as an effective metaphor for her inner power and emotional complexity. Further, the sororal conflict allows more of a cultural review than similar stories that feel more like they were written by an eight-year-old boy playing with his action figures.

Most interestingly, this comic employs three different colorists, each tasked to one of the distinct time periods in the story. This is a fantastic choice by Emma Price and most effective in tying the chronology of the stories wandering narrative together. With zero confusion and little to no explanation, the reader jumps through Louise’s life without needing to reorient or seek out context clues. All three colorists are very talented, but Matt Wilson stands out with his attention to Ryan Kelly’s line-work. Wilson’s warm tones provide great dimensionality and awareness as to where the light falls in each scene. The mundane details to the supernatural glowing bring the Afghanistan-portion of the story to life all thanks to his skill.

Though the rest of Louise’s mysterious team will surely be important in later issues, they serve largely as a distraction here and, in a way, even undermine how special she is. If she were the only character with powers or special circumstances, the lycanthropy would seem to really make Louise stand out as a powerful woman. If all the characters were werewolves, it would seem to be a metaphor for the hidden power within everyone. That so much time is spent establishing that everyone else is a bit different but not really getting into how really distracts from what is, so far, the story of a woman coming into her own strength. The rest of the team confuse the metaphor.

The tone is on-point which makes it easy to believe these observations will be resolved going forward. In fact, it’s the book’s voice that makes the next issue so enticing. Now, would anyone like to place bets on whether or not Louise killed her girlfriend?

Story: Simon Spurrier Art: Ryan Kelly
Story: 7 Art: 6 Overall: 6.5 Recommendation: Read

Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

Review: The Walking Dead #150

The-Walking-Dead-150-Tony-MooreIssue #150 began selling out in stores across America minutes after hitting the stands. Walking Dead fans have been eagerly anticipating what waited behind the blood soaked cover. So, what heartache did they discover this time?

Rick Grimes has led the community of Alexandria to relative peace in the years following his all-out war with Negan. Tension has been growing with The Whispers, an animalistic society that wears the skins of the dead in order to coexist with the Walkers. After their leader, Alpha, butchered members of Alexandria and the neighboring communities, the call for war has come again. Rick has sought to caution a hasty response and unrest has grown because of it. This month’s issue is titled “Betrayal”.

Traditionally, Robert Kirkman saves the most seminal moments for issues like this. Moments that change the course of the comic, that reshape the cast of characters, cause dedicated readers to fear issues like #100. So #150 has been cause for great concern. Kirkman breaks from tradition in this issue. Instead, what we have plays more like a “best of…” or, more appropriately, “do you remember…?” The story fails to advance in anyway and Rick doesn’t show us anything we haven’t seen before.

Do you want a spoiler free review? This issue fails to capture the moments that propel the title’s popularity, moments which have become more and more widely dispersed as years go on. Whether Kirkman no longer has the time to dedicate to Walking Dead or whether it has become such a cash cow he is now afraid to mess with the equation is unclear. The palpable fear has for many years been on this side of the comic, from the moment the reader picked it off the stand until they closed it and began to dread what would happen next month. That palpable fear more and more seems to be coming from somewhere in Image Comics, somewhere in the creative process. The raw storytelling has burned out and the flavor of the comic seems forever spoiled.

Before discussing the issue in a way that contains spoilers, let’s just say that the book began as a small group of people living in a camper. It developed characters. The experience was personal. Now every subplot gets two or three pages at most. There are no new characters the reader can connect with. For how little investment has been made fleshing out people rather than setting, killing off members of the core cast may kill the book. Maggie, Michonne, Rick, Carl, Andrea… once they’re gone, who make this book standout from any other zombie series? Kirkman needs to start focusing on meatier stories rather than setting up big events so we can learn to love new people in the process, so we can lose some of the people we no longer believe have anything to fear, and resume wondering what will happen from week to week.

Now, for spoilers.

Rick Grimes, the closest thing to Conan the Barbarian the people of Alexandria have, is attacked by two older men who attempt to scare him and proceed to try and beat him to death. As a reader, it doesn’t resonate. Even caught off guard, we’ve seen Rick tear people to pieces. In fact, his patented go-for-the-throat approach is, yes… something we have seen before. So why did these characters think they could take him and why was this what was offered in terms of creating tension for the reader? It would be like Mario getting jumped by two goombas. There would never be a doubt what the outcome would be. This unintimidating moment is what takes center stage in place of the horror we have felt in the past watching Lori and the baby shot or Glen be beaten to death in front of Maggie.

It’s a great disappointment.

He then proceeds to fill six pages with another speech about returning to old-world values of peace and morality (while he likely still has the taste of throat in his teeth). Six pages that accomplish nothing. He talks about forming an army. Well, guess what? We discussed that last issue. He talks about making the world the way it used to be. Guess what? Rick has been doing that for years. And he spared the attacker who let him go? Of course, he did! He’s the “good guy”. So while it was certainly the virtuous thing to do, it was another moment that failed to offer any surprise. Meanwhile, Alpha and the Whispers continue to be unseen. Do we care that Rick is going to militarize Alexandria? No. We have literally already seen Alexandria go to war and win. The reader doesn’t doubt it can be done because it’s already collected in various trades.

The heartache discovered in this issue seems to be the promise that the golden age of the book is gone, and the suggestion that we’re in for a repeat of the forgettable “All-Out War” storyline. “Betrayed” seems like a better description for a readership that deserved to see this issue be a return to the classic storytelling of The Walking Dead.

Story: Robert Kirkman Art: Charlie Adlard
Story: 5 Art: 7 Overall: 6 Recommendation: Read

Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review…
….though I’ll admit I bought both the Tony Moore and Charlie Adlard covers

Cover Art featuring Tula Lotay

STK693917People warn not to judge a book by its cover. Sometimes the cover deserves its own discussion.

This week’s pick burns brightly upon the racks, drawing even the passing eye to the radiant work of Tula Lotay. Lotay’s vibrant colors have adorned books like Supreme: Blue Rose, The Wicked + The Divine and Curb Stomp. This week her talent is featured on the latest issue of Slash & Burn, the tale of a recovering pyromaniac turned investigator. “My editors Jamie Rich and Molly Mahan at Vertigo gave me an outline of the story and a few ideas for what they wanted,” Lotay explains. “I just took it from there.”

The story follows Rosheen, a young woman straddling her responsibilities to the fire department and her darker appetites. Deeply sexual, very much alive and always attempting to stay in control, Rosheen lends herself perfectly to the passion and vulnerability typical of Lotay’s work. “I wanted something to feature sexiness and romance, the comic is a bit steamy, so I wanted the cover to interpret that. There is also an element that the main character, Rosheen, is not quite sure what is happening, who to believe, so I wanted the reverse down cover to reflect that, it can be viewed right way up or upside down.”

Above, we’re lucky enough to see Lotay’s process as she combines watercolors, inks and digital media to layer together a textured and engaging piece. “I’m pretty happy with this cover, I hope it creates a sense of intrigue, and makes people wonder, ‘who are these characters?’ There’s a sense of danger there with the lighter, a naked frame that could light something, both the characters are coming from different places which is also reflected in their different positions.”

Slash & Burn #3 hits stands this week. Make everyday a little better by following Tula Lotay on Instagram and Twitter, and check out her some of her work at her website.

Review: Hero Hourly #2

hero-hourly-preview-page-01The most enjoyable book of the year. Yes, I’m calling it already.

Hero Hourly is easily the funniest book in years. Constant, inappropriate and laugh-out loud humor waits on every page.

In a corporate ruled by middle management, defined by rules that make no sense and plagued by the laziest co-workers imaginable, even superheroes aren’t immune. In this world, wearing a mask and matching underwear outside your one-piece suit is the same thing as wearing a green apron. Of course, being an hourly employee at a company that specializes in super heroics has its own drawbacks. Imagine instead of dealing with a pain-in-the-ass customer you had to deal with Godzilla.

The book features Saul, our modest narrator trying to get ahead in the world. Armed with a brightly colored suit and a great attitude, he’s taking on the dangers and frustrations life throws his way.

Something that should be made very is clear is that this is not a book that stars a funny protagonist. Every person in this book has great lines, the kind that get you stuck re-reading individual panels out of amusement. This book is an authentic work of comedy from start to finish. While comics like Spider-Man know their character should be funny and struggle to somehow make it work, Hero Hourly shows the web-slinger how it’s done. Reminiscent of books like the original Tick and Quantum & Woody, the title captures the nostalgia of when reading comics was purely fun. It reminded me of when I was a boy reading Wizard Magazine back when it was funny and… still a thing.

Certainly not an all-ages read, Hero Hourly doesn’t shy away from adult language or themes. However, when paired with the cartoonish stylings of Carlos Trigo, this makes for a very disarming feel, rather than a crass grab at toilet-humor. Trigo’s work also helps capture the absurdity of modern life. Yes, everything in this book is surprisingly relatable to the working class, even as its main characters are forced to undergo sexual harassment sensitivity training for a mishandled rescue.

The book isn’t easy to find so make sure you start calling your local book stores now to see who will be carrying the second issue this Wednesday. The first issue is listed for an average of ten dollars on eBay.com but truth be told it’s probably best to go directly to the publisher to order the first issue. This three-issue miniseries from 21 Pulp will be what you’re loaning to your friends and insisting they read years from now.

Story: James Patrick Art: Carlos Trigo
Story: 10 Art: 8 Overall: 9 Recommendation: Buy

Review: No Mercy #6

NoMercy06_coverNo Mercy #6 zeroes in on three of our ten surviving characters. Chad, Charlene and Travis continue their tale of how badly things can go wrong when you travel abroad. The book continues to have its brutal moments but holds its fire in this issue.

It was an attempt to get a leg-up into Princeton. A group of students travel to Central America to help build schools. When their bus careens off a cliff, their group of fifteen begins quickly dwindling. Alone in a dangerous wasteland with no help coming, the kids begin wandering off searching for rescue.

The sharp teeth of this story are starting to dull a bit. As each different group makes it to safety, the reader begins to wonder when No Mercy plans to make good on its promise that no one gets away alive. With so many characters left, in so many different places, it seems strange to focus on only three. It can get a bit difficult following everyone’s story when there is so much going on. If something tremendously pivotal had happened, I could understand the attention but nothing that happens in this issue really translates to the bigger picture.

Charlene and Chad make it to town this issue only to discover their parents may not be too upset they’re gone. These siblings are the most interesting to watch because the intense vitriol between them. Actually, ever since Charlene’s failed attempt to kill Chad a few issues ago, the reader has been in quite a bit of suspense waiting to see what happens. If there were a pair to follow this issue, Alex de Campi chose well. While things continue to be brutal between the two, the issue ends a bit ambiguously. There’s no closure within their own turmoil nor even a clear way in which they have made good on their efforts to rescue the others. Consequently, the story seems to stop suddenly not as a cliffhanger but an interrupted thought.

Mitch, our fake-freegan frying in the… I have no “f” word for desert, is discovered by a few tourists and taken in by them. Not only does his subplot here not advance the story at all, it seems to raise more questions about what the ultimate outcome of the story will be. Not to sound blood-thirsty, but if all these kids aren’t dead when this is over, the second page of the first issue will seem well-crafted but misleading. Obviously, not every issue can be dripping with blood (even if the back of the book is made to suggest otherwise). However, issues that don’t drip blood need to further the story. The amount of time given to the tourists could have made even two pages to further someone else’s plight in the story and keep the tension riding high.

Though de Campi excels at writing brutal stories where no one is safe, this issue takes the steam of out of it a bit and seems to add a bit of punctuation to the title, No… Mercy. To be perfectly clear, while a review copy was provided to me, I still plan on buying my own. While every story must have a slower chapter, I look forward to having the complete collection because of Alex de Campi’s is one of the best writers when it comes gruesome tales and there is no doubt No Mercy will be worth owning.

Story: Alex de Campi Art: Carla Speed McNeil
Story: 6 Art: 6 Overall: 6
Recommendation: Read (if it’s your first issue, but buy it if you have the others)

Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

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