Author Archives: Ricardo Denis

Review: Outer Darkness/Chew #3

Outer Darkeness/Chew #3

The new definition for something that is badass, funny, bonkers, cosmic, and just downright bizarre all at the same time is Outer Darkeness/Chew. Use it in a sentence! For example, “that new David Lynch movie is completely Outer Darkness/Chew!” Okay, there’re a few grammatical kinks to work out, but it still does the job of describing what is surely the wildest ride in comics today. The only thing it did wrong was end.

The third and last chapter of the very short crossover series embraces all of the culinary and sci-fi horror beats it had established in the previous entries to cap it all off as neatly as possible. The crew of the Charon (the spaceship housing the characters from the Outer Darkness comic) found a way to create living holograms out of the two main characters from the Chew universe, Tony Chu and Jack Colby, in order to communicate with an alien race that only speaks through food. Chu’s abilities allow him to do the same and he is successful, but then he learns he isn’t real and that he originally comes from a comic book universe.

And that’s just the premise.

This book works as a fascinating look at how the creative mind works and how well-suited comics are for letting imagination run free, crash into a tree, and then produce an unforgettable story. John Layman, Afu Chan, and Rob Guillory are all conscious of the ridiculous amounts of crazy they can bring to the comics page while never compromising the story. It’s impressive to see the rules of the two stories in this crossover—which are already self-indulgent and gleefully over the top—get broken and remade into fresh and unpredictable story threads.

Outer Darkness/Chew #3, Image Comics

Fans of Chew have a lot of Easter eggs and callbacks to look forward too, especially every time Poyo is involved. There’s an interesting twist with the mechanisms that allow the holograms to exist that brings the crossover full circle and gets the comic to speak in the voices of the two original comics simultaneously. If one felt that the first two issues might lean too heavily on Chew or vice versa, this third and last issue is where the creators get the balance between the two just right.

Afu Chan’s art captures the spirit of the Chew characters despite being drawn in the style of Outer Darkness. I did wish Rob Guillory would’ve have illustrated the Chew characters throughout the story as his cartoony designs are quite striking and so imbedded into the identity of that book. But this is a minor gripe and I know it is asking for a lot. Still, I wouldn’t have minded more Guillory pages in the crossover.

In the letter’s department, Pat Brosseau manages to infuse the text with the same energy exploding out of the panels. Demons and other creatures possess different text fonts to capture the sound or feel behind the words they impart. It adds another layer to the storytelling and it makes each page feel even more alive.

In a perfect comic book world, this crossover would be its own on-going series. The setting, the exchanges between characters, and the cast as a whole is more than enough to sustain a long-running series for years to come. Alas, it came down to three issues. Thankfully, this brief trek into crossover territory turned out to be the most fun I’ve had with a comic in a while. It makes me want to read more unusual crossover stories (perhaps one with another John Layman or Rob Guillory title? Say Leviathan or Farmhand?). Regardless, what this story brought was well worth the read and is sure to become a favorite for many, many readers.

Script: John Layman Art: Afu Chan and Rob Guillory
Story: 9.0 Art: 10 Overall: Buy and then write the creators demanding more of it!

Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review


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Movie Review: Da 5 Bloods is an essential part of Vietnam War cinema

Da 5 Bloods
Da 5 Bloods, Netflix

Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods is a new Vietnam War movie classic, worthy of a spot among Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon. These movies all stand on their own and are inherently different because Vietnam itself was so unlike conventional warfare. It quite simply resists a particular storytelling mold due to it being a very singular kind of conflict, a different species of war. For Lee’s movie to make it into that list it needed to honor that same level of uniqueness present in those other films. I can gladly say it overwhelmingly achieves this.

Da 5 Bloods follows a group of four black Vietnam War veterans that go back to Vietnam to look for a box full of gold they buried during a mission with the intention of retrieving it later on. The group is led by Stormin’ Norman, played by an intensely magnetic Chadwick Boseman, a leader/teacher figure that basically acts as the Bloods’ own war version of Malcom X and Martin Luther King.

The film alternates between flashbacks and the present time (where it spends the majority of its time), with no de-aging tech used for the four main guys during flashbacks. Boseman’s character is the only one that looks young in the flashbacks because he’s the only one who didn’t make it out of the war.

It was so refreshing not being distracted by any de-aging techniques, which made The Irishman such a frustrating watch for me. I couldn’t go five minutes at a time without asking myself why a another actor wasn’t cast in the role of the younger Robert DeNiro.

In fact, the decision not to make the four main characters younger digitally also plays into some of the film’s strongest themes: combat memory and PTSD. That the same actors played both past and present versions of their characters gave the flashbacks a tragic sense of remembrance that communicated the very rough reality of how combat vets never truly leave the war behind. It’s a constant thing that makes vets think their wars never really end (another theme explored in the movie).

Da 5 Bloods
Da 5 Bloods, Netflix

As stated earlier, the story stays the great majority of its time in the present. Their final mission in Vietnam–the retrieval of the buried gold–brings with it discussions on reparations and why black soldiers specifically deserve what’s rightfully theirs due to fighting for an America that didn’t respect them nor acknowledged their sacrifices back on the homefront.

This theme stuck with the movie throughout, making sure it was a part of every discussion that took place between the four vets. Spike Lee makes the point come across even clearer with his signature cuts to archival footage of black protests and black leaders like MLK and Malcom X adding their two-cents on any given discussion, even if it’s in presence alone. It evokes a kind of continuity for the black soldiers, seeing in Vietnam a contradiction of the very idea of military service. Why fight when black lives are being disregarded back home? Why not find this gold and give it back to the people? These questions lie at the heart of the film.

Black Lives Matter discourses are also echoed throughout the film thanks to its aggressive focus on how black military service means an entirely different thing altogether when compared with white military service. This sets this particular Vietnam War movie apart from the others, making it so different and unique in its own right. Apocalypse Now, for instance, explores war as madness. Platoon goes for misguided leadership, the absence of order, and a complete lack of accountability in war. Full Metal Jacket approaches the war as a morally corrupt and senseless act of mass violence that’s too far gone for it to be redeemed. Da 5 Bloods is about how something as historically charged as race in America completely changes what soldiers fight for. How society treats these soldiers at home will determine how their war is fought on the battlefield.

Da 5 Bloods
Da 5 Bloods, Netflix

In other words, America brings a multitude of Americas to war, each meaning something different depending on who you ask and what color their skin is.

Delroy Lindo’s character, Paul, best exemplifies all of these metaphors. Paul is the character that most visibly carries the trauma of war on his persona. He’s unstable, angry, and resistant to help from the other vets. He’s a challenging character to engage with, but the movie’s genius is often seen through him as we go from being frustrated with Paul to understanding why it’s been so hard for him to leave the war behind.

Lindo puts on a performance for the ages. He grabs the audience and pulls them in close to him whether they want to or not, but it’s all for a cause. Spike Lee entrusts him with his signature monologue sequences, in which an actor stares straight to the camera to address a problem head-on and without restraint. Lindo steps up to the challenge and gives a monologue that we should be discussing for years to come as it ruminates on what happens when a country asks its most oppressed communities to go to war in its name. The monologue ties in well with the opening scenes of the movie in which we see archival footage of Muhammad Ali explaining why he refused to serve in the Vietnam War is shown.

Actors Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Norm Lewis, and Clarke Peters all do a fantastic job stepping into the shoes of the other three vets. They represent a cohesive unit that also struggles with leaving the war behind while also representing what Vietnam meant to them through their own character arcs. Clarke Peters in particular always keeps up with Lindo’s intensity, playing the part of the moral compass without falling to the trappings of passing judgment on any of his friends. Jonathan Majors as Paul’s son also becomes a mayor player as his fractured relationship with his father manifests and changes as the movie progresses. To a point, he represents inherited trauma and how the war extends beyond the combat veteran’s experience to become a generational problem.

Da 5 Bloods
Da 5 Bloods, Netflix

Da 5 Bloods is a powerhouse of emotion, politics, and black history that easily fits in with the Black Lives Matter movement currently voicing their anger on the streets today, but it never takes for granted that it’s first and foremost a Vietnam War movie. It’s important it doesn’t run away from that as the black experience in war has seldom been explored with the seriousness it deserves.

Vietnam War cinema in America has largely been dominated by white experiences of it. Spike Lee’s Vietnam War movie is invaluable because it sheds light on why it’s important everyone knows that not every soldier fights for their country for the same reasons. The color of a soldier’s skin dictates which version of America they’re fighting for, and they all differ on their definition of freedom.

Review: Outer Darkness/Chew #2

Outer Darkness/Chew #2

There’s no comic on the stands right now that’s having as much fun with its characters than Outer Darkness/Chew #2. This short three-issue crossover story from the minds of John Layman, Afu Chan, and Rob Guillory has reached its halfway point and it made sure every little bit of story got ramped up to 11. Oh, and it doubled down its most metafictional aspects and, well, I think they created a new type of meta in the process.

OD/C #2 sees Tony Chu and John Colby from Chew questioning the means through which they were transported to the world of Outer Darkness to speak with an alien that only communicates through food. They immediately realize that the whole “time-traveling” mumbo jumbo they got as an explanation for their presence isn’t all that genuine. And then it all goes meta.

Layman, Chan, and Guillory take this opportunity to really play around with the idea of one fiction inside another fiction and how it can essentially blow up into an entirely fresh and new kind of world-building. Tony and John realize they were brought into the spaceship, The Charon, by way of some kind of projection that extracts them from their comic book world. And by comic I mean the actual, literal comic. They even mention, and pass judgment, on its creators, Layman and Guillory.

A lot of the issue’s comedy finds itself lodged in this dynamic, with Tony trying to understand what reality is, or if it’s even something that exists for him and his friends, knowing they’re all part of a story created by Layman and Guillory. This actually serves as a good introduction to Chew, as John Colby proceeds to explain the comic’s history along with a few key details here and there. It doesn’t spoil Chew, though. But it makes a good case for diving into the comic whether you’re new to it or not.

With the knowledge of this meta mess Tony and John find themselves in comes the worry of what’ll happen once their services are no longer needed. From here, the story takes on a whole new life and the Food-Talking Alien plot takes a backseat to the fight for the meta survival of the Chewverse.

As fun and outrageous as this is, the shift did take me by surprise, with speed bump or two along the way. The change drastically shifts the balance of the story towards the Chewverse, leaving Outer Darkness a little in, well, the dark. That side of the story feels a bit underdeveloped in this second issue, especially in terms of character development. It makes me wish this crossover were an issue or two longer so that the Outer Darkness crew got some more breathing room.

Also, as much as I love Afu Chan’s art, I wish Guillory’s art also featured more in the issue, and the crossover as a whole. I hope the creative team takes advantage of the different visual styles in both series to mess around with the art in the upcoming final issue.

I did appreciate the scope of the fan service and easter eggs found in the comic. Fans of Guillory’s newest work, for instance, will have a thing or two connecting it to the stories found here and Afu Chan seems to be sneaking in pop culture references in the monster designs (with one in particular reminding me of a famous clown who was seen in theaters not too long ago). This is what I meant by world-building earlier. Each page brings something with it that connects it to the different series, and they can only go bigger. I’m thinking the next issue will double down on this.

I can honestly say I have absolutely no idea what issue #3 of OD/C is going to bring, and this makes me very happy. Despite Outer Darkness being left out a bit in this part of the story, what Layman, Chan, and Guillory have achieved here is gleefully unique and well worth the price of admission. If you buy one comic this week, make sure it’s this one.

Story: John Layman Art: Afu Chan and Rob Guillory,
Story: 9.0 Art: 9.0 Overall: 9.0

Recommendation: Buy and then read all of Chew

Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review


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Review: Basketful of Heads #7

Basketful of Heads #7

Basketful of Heads deserves to be mentioned along the same lines as Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave and Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance, movies that flip the idea of revenge on its head. These films create characters that match male violence with a unique female resolve to return it in kind, and then some. Joe Hill and Leomacs’ story about a girl with a magical axe and the means to use it on corrupt and evil men does precisely that while also adding a thing or two to make the violence on display say more than it’s usually allowed to.

This seven-issue series, largely inspired by the aforementioned films plus a healthy dose of EC Horror comics, sets its aims on a cast of evil men that try to keep lead character June Branch from rescuing her boyfriend—a police officer named Liam that threatened to expose the corruption behind Brody Island’s own police force.

Issue #7 brings things to an already expected final showdown with the biggest and baddest cop of the bunch, but it does so with an unexpected twist. I won’t spoil it here, but Hill and Leomacs wade through lesser known waters to look at different kinds of evil and just how well they work in tandem even when they’re not directly related. Just how severely the men who succumb to these evils should be punished is a question that is answered as clear as an axe to the neck. It makes you think on what’s tolerable and what shouldn’t be.

That the final confrontation has echoes of Cape Fear in it and how it plays out also adds to the overarching sense of discovering new roads towards retribution that deal with the bad things we’ve yet tired of facing.

As has been the case throughout the entire run, Leomac’s art and Dave Stewart’s colors continue to bring out every ounce of 70s horror the story taps into to the forefront without letting those same elements overpower the narrative. There’s a sense of impending blood-letting that is carried by the colors that crescendos to the point of complete synchronicity with the unraveling of the story.

Letterer Deron Bennett continues to take advantage of every opportunity to give the SFX and the text a life of its own. Bennett does an amazing job of giving everything a very rhythmic and animated quality, with sounds bleeding into the background and speech bubbles threatening to burst with the violence behind some of its lines. Basketful of Heads had a team that understood the story and what it needed to shine.

If the first six issues didn’t make it clear enough, Hill’s script set out to make the story’s message crystal clear in its conclusion: bad men make the world a horrible place, and they’re good at it. The talking heads of evil men hound June almost constantly and each new male character that emerges into the story is always just shy of having a sign over his head reading “bad man about to get chopped.”

Much like the EC Horror comics of old, the message is spelled out without an ounce of subtlety in the process. While it’s an interesting message to keep exploring (being that it’s timeless, unfortunately), I did feel it tried way too hard to make sure everyone got it. It’s classically moralist—a true ‘good vs. evil’ story that’s comforting to have around when grey areas get too muddy—but by the final pages I was getting a bit impatient with it as I had got it from the first issue onward.

Fortunately, this doesn’t interfere with the enjoyment of Basketful of Heads. The final moments do a great job of bringing everything full circle and the twists and turns in this final issue do bring new things to the table in terms of who also deserves the axe but doesn’t always get it. It’s worthy of discussion and it invites a controversial opinion or two. I guess that’s the thing about stories with axes. No matter the cut, they always leave a bloody mess behind.

Story: Joe Hill Art: Leomacs
Color: Dave Stewart Letterer: Deron Bennett
Story: 9.0 Art: 10 Overall: Buy and read it to your axe

DC Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review


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Milo Manara honors the heroic women of the COVID-19 pandemic

Legendary Italian artist Milo Manara has a niece that works as a nurse, an essential worker. She’s in the trenches, right smack in the middle of one of Europe’s most worrying Coronavirus hotzones: Italy. Manara, inspired by the work his niece and every other essential worker takes on daily despite the risk of infection, has taken to pen, paper, and ink to recognize the degree of heroism each one represents in a series of illustrations dedicated to them.

by Milo Manara

Fans of Manara expect erotic and sensual explorations of female beauty, the politics of sex, and even the more deceitful aspects of sex as a means of control (see his work on The Borgias, co-created with Alejandro Jodorowsky). For his COVID-19 Heroes illustrations, Manara reins in the eroticism to focus entirely on showing his gratitude to the women who brave the virus to fulfill essential duties.

Manara started posting these illustrations on his Facebook and Instagram pages on March 15, starting with a piece called “It’s You Against Me, Now!” in which a nurse stares down a giant COVID-19 molecule. He captioned the post with a simple yet resounding “Grazie.”

“It’s You Against Me, Now,” Milo Manara

The illustrations feel like an attempt at preserving the memory of these workers as a means to keep a visual record of the things women have put on the line to help keep the world turning. They still have the overall look and feel of the women Manara is famous for illustrating, but the purpose is to provide a visual profile that kind of speaks for itself at a mere glance. And it succeeds in every aspect.

Another valuable and important point Manara makes through this project relates to the very definition of ‘essential.’ We see nurses and teachers, but we also see vendors, women doing deliveries, supermarket cashiers, and crossing guards, all presented as equally important. It’s as if Manara’s urging us to recognize that all work is essential, regardless of its nature.

by Milo Manara

Milo Manara is currently 74 years of age, so he’s in one of the more vulnerable groups of people affected by the pandemic. According to a Heavy Metal article, he’s surviving by staying inside with the help of his daughter, who brings him groceries and supplies. In essence, this is Manara paying his debt back.

For the full gallery of Manara’s COVID-19 heroes, click here.

Shudder’s CURSED FILMS is a surprisingly noble look at notorious horror cinema

Cursed Films
Shudder

The idea of a cursed film evokes images of satanic creatures standing behind the camera, corrupting what’s captured on celluloid. It’s a kind of subgenre in its own right, a kind of supernatural conspiracy theory hub for fans that do not believe in coincidence when it comes to set fires, mysterious crew deaths, and filming disasters. Shudder’s new Cursed Films docuseries traverses this particular horror terrain, and it does it well, but thankfully not in ways I was expecting.

Cursed Films is a five-part documentary series focusing on five films widely considered to be cursed by horror fans, collectors, and even casual moviegoers, especially those that love to dig into the mythos behind productions marked by tragedy and controversy.

The cursed movies explored in the docuseries are The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The Omen, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and The Crow. As of the time of this writing, only the first three films have been explored in the series.

Those expecting a gratuitous indulgence in the dark stories surrounding these films, and validation of popular beliefs, will not leave entirely satisfied. I say this as a good thing. Cursed Films is, surprisingly (to me, at least), a very serious deconstruction of horror myths, where fact and fiction are separated and then dissected to get at the root of why people like to think cursed movies exist.

The first episode dives straight into perhaps the most controversial movie of the bunch, The Exorcist. My personal favorite horror movie (traditionalist that I am, I guess), William Friedkin’s movie about a girl possessed by a demon has been mired in darkness since day one. People worried that the actual making of the film resulted in the legitimate summoning of Lucifer and his army of possession-hungry demons. Injuries sustained by actors during production and even unexplained set burnings seems to confirm all of this to eager followers of the happenings of The Exorcist’s initial release.

People lined up in droves to see The Exorcist.

To tell you the truth, just writing the name of this movie down gives me chills, irrational though that may be. It’s the only movie that gets scarier with each viewing for me, and yet Cursed Films took me down a different path with it. It dedicated most of its runtime to explaining why people so aggressively associate the devil with the movie and why horror inspires audiences to pursue such dark trains of thought.

The show features psychologists, religious scholars, key production and cast members, and writers all mostly aligned within the idea that the only thing that can curse a movie is its audience. Psychological terms are conjured up to explain why fans gravitate towards curses to explain the mysteries of their favorite movies, all of which have perfectly plausible explanations (for the most part).

The Exorcist episode, for instance, debunks a lot of its myths by looking at the PR campaigns of a desperate movie studio hellbent on turning a profit while also looking at how some of the accidents in the workspace actually happened. It even includes talks on the impact of the work culture the movie’s director created during filming, which is well documented.

Perhaps the most potent and surgically precise look at a cursed film can be seen in the Poltergeist episode. Two deaths and rumors about the macabre nature of certain props have been circulated enough for some people to confirm the tragedies that accompany the franchise are the results of a curse, possibly originating from beyond the grave.

Scene from the movie Poltergeist.

What Cursed Films does with this movie is nothing short of masterful, going from legend to legend in an attempt to dispel the “curse,” which for the series means proving no such thing exists. It looks at the psychological and supernatural value people put into objects and locations seen in popular films and how it translates into a whole tradition of people visiting fictional haunted places as if they’re actually haunted.

I’ve participated in this, although not under the impression the place I visited was really haunted. I once had the chance to drive close to where the Amityville house from the infamous 1979 Amityville Horror movie was located. The fact the movie was loosely based on “true events”—that have since then been disproved—made the opportunity all the more enticing, so I took it. I saw the house. People live there. I saw no ghosts walking around, not a single swarm of flies hovering over its windows, and no blood dripping from its walls. In fact, I saw other houses that looked almost the same neighboring it. So much for a place housing one of the gates of Hell.

I thought about this short trip to Amityville a lot while watching Cursed Films. The show’s deconstruction of what could be termed as magical-horror thinking made me rethink the entire experience. It’s interesting because even though I knew the house wasn’t haunted, I did feel unsettled. The power of the movie, and the story it’s based on, had definitely charged the place with a supernatural sensation that was hard to shake off. In the end though, it was just a house. For the few minutes I was there, the only thing haunting it was a curious horror fan holding up traffic to take in one of horror cinema’s most iconic locations. Watching Cursed Films, one can feel a lot like this, especially if you’re prone to give into urban legends.

Cursed Films aims at reminding people horror fiction is just that, fiction. And it needs that emphasis on fiction. In fact, the docuseries suggests these myths and legends do a disservice to the people behind the scares, the ones who work for a living to get a scream out of people in the movie theaters. It’s a meditation on the power of belief when it comes to the representation of evil in film. It wants us to consider that movies themselves don’t have to be haunted to become superior works of horror fiction. They can achieve that pretty well on their own, without the necessity of being cursed.

The Creative Comics Shop: Diamond and the industry’s push for survival

Diamond Comic Distributors

The moment comic book shops started transitioning to mail orders and curbside pick-ups due to the COVID-19 pandemic, fans and owners alike have been waiting for the other shoe to drop. On March 23, 2020, the drop came in the form of a letter from Diamond’s chairman Steve Geppi. In it, we learned that the distributor would not be taking orders on new products. Anything slated for an on-sale date of April 1st would not be shipped.

Given that local comics shops rely on weekly comics sales to stay alive (although some stores have done wonders with their backlogs to make them an even more essential part of their business model), this sounded off an alarm many expected but no one wanted to hear.

The letter goes on to specify what exactly it is that this means for Diamond. Geppi spoke about how hard it was to make the decision and explained that it boiled down to the safety of his team and shop owners alike. Health in the workplace is essential and no one can fault Diamond for taking measures to ensure its workers remain safe, but the decision to stop distribution didn’t hurt any less because of it. One thing did stand out from the letter, though.

In his message, Geppi offered some advice to owners that continue to operate remotely: get creative. He says:

For those retailers who remain open in various forms, I encourage you to let loose your own creativity. For the time being, you will be able to replenish your perennials from Diamond and/or Alliance, but you should also remember the stock you already have in your stores. If your doors remain open, it’s likely you will have customers who will continue to seek diversion from events of the world. Special sales, promotions, and even eBay can help you bring in cash during this trying time.

Initially, this sounded to me a bit like “you’re on your own.” To be fair, Diamond did state it will be evaluating debt accrued and credit options to help out stores affected the most by the economic pressures of the pandemic. But the stores that might receive any help from Diamond are those that would’ve already survived the pandemic’s hit on the market, in all its dimensions. This consideration made it difficult to take Geppi’s words as the rallying cry for comic shops that I think it was intended to be.

I should clarify, I’m commenting on this situation as a concerned comic book fan who buys weekly periodicals, the bread and butter of the current comics market in America. I’m standing on the outside of this, given I’m not a shop owner, but following industry developments and writing about comics has given me some insight into the workings of Diamond and just how difficult it is to rely on one major distributor of the product.

All of this led me to think about the concept of creativity in sales, which the letter alludes to. I remember thinking that shops were getting creative with their stock well before the pandemic hit and that many stores had already put certain ideas in motion to stave off closure because of economic constraints coming from many different shifts and outdated ways of thinking from multiple sides of the industry. Diamond is not the only entity to carry the blame here (lack of unions, the volatility of freelance work, and the state of print media, in general, are important factors as well).

This pandemic, though, did put the spotlight once more on one of the comic book industry’s biggest problems, market-wise: weekly periodicals cannot continue to depend almost entirely on Diamond if comics are to survive in print. We need more options.

As this pandemic has shown (and if nothing changes, it’s possible we see a repeat of this), a single comic book distributor cannot account for the survivability of an entire industry.

The comic shop owners that adjusted to the new normal—and responded in kind by fully embracing outside-the-box problem solving—have shown that creativity isn’t choice but a rule if they are keep their doors open, even before a pandemic forced them into stretching that creative streak further.

There’ve already been a lot of stores that have found that becoming more of a community-driven space (invested in creating local shop culture through reading, talks, author events, and creative discussions) results in a loyal customer base that will do most of its comic book purchases with them.

Anyone Comics in Brooklyn, for instance, has been churning out social distance events to keep its customers ‘in the store,’ if you will. They hosted a social distance signing with writer Vita Ayala on March 26, complete with Q&A and the promise of customers getting free signed books with regular orders; Midtown Comics in New York has offered generous discounts on entire purchases to motivate buyers; and Challengers Comics in Chicago has teamed with SKTCHD to give customers the chance to win a new Hoth Battle scene Star Wars sketch by Daniel Warren Johnson.

If anything, the chaos that the Coronavirus pandemic has unleashed will make many of these stores stronger once we get clear of it. But not everyone is going to survive. One of the reasons survival isn’t guaranteed lies in Diamond remaining a necessary evil for weekly periodical distribution.

Competition is key, and stores all around the country have shown they are willing to experiment in order to keep selling comics well into the future. Back issues can be made appealing again, trades can be discounted, and figures can be sold in fairly priced bundles. But having a diversified market is essential as we move forward, with a mind to prepare for any other crisis that might come our way. We can’t assume nothing like this will ever happen again.

I’m not calling for the dissolution of Diamond nor for it to close its doors to let others take over. I just think it can do better and it should focus on contingency plans that don’t require the suspension of sales in times when stores need them the most. It can be via limiting the size of orders, coordinating with shops to ship the product in strategic spots to replenish stock, or even offering more generous discounts for local comic shop owners when certain social conditions call for them.

Comic shops are doing their part, putting ideas out there to keep customers happy and satisfied. Maybe it’s time Diamond took their own advice to heart and start getting creative.

Review: Stealth #1

Stealth #1

Stealth is a hard read, as is the case with most stories dealing with mental illness. It holds nothing back as it takes a measured look at the dynamics between a father and son struggling to make sense of a particularly rough psychiatric condition. Of course, everything’s made harder when it’s revealed the father’s a superhero that can confuse innocents with criminals due to his mental state. Needless to say, this comic lands as hard as a punch to the gut—and then some—and it has every intention of saying something important about the subject matter.

Written by Mike Costa and illustrated by Nate Bellegarde Stealth centers on a Detroit-based black superhero—the titular Stealth— as he faces a crisis-like challenge: Alzheimer’s. His son, reporter Tony Barber, is already aware of the situation, just not of the fact his dad is a superhero. That is until he walks in on his dad in full hero getup, looking as if lost in his own home. From there we get to the central question of the story: should Stealth be taken out of the superhero game, even if it means leaving a crime-riddled Detroit without its protector?

Costa and Bellegarde do a great job of balancing classic superhero tropes with the metaphors and messages surrounding the overarching narrative, which is driven by Stealth’s condition. They seem to be aware of the importance of not letting the mental illness factor drown out the superhero element, and vice versa. One of the ways they do this is by mixing tried and true superhero traditions in order to shape them into something easily recognizable.

Stealth is basically a combination of Sam Wilson’s Falcon, Batman, and a hero’s burning need to save a city. Daniel (Stealth’s real name) wears each influence on his sleeves. Some of Sam Wilson’s influence can be found in Stealth’s suit, a high-tech winged suit that looks like it was taken from one of the most recent iterations of the character in the current Marvel universe.

That he is a black superhero, though, opens up a whole slew of racial politics that can make their way into the treatment the character’s alter ego, especially when considering Detroit’s actual track-record with the black population. It feels as if the city will stand for something more than just another innocent worth saving.

Image Comics

In fact, echoes of Batman come through with the comic’s surprising focus on the city of Detroit itself. Costa and Bellegarde take every chance they get to show just how important Stealth is to the city and its continued safety. You get the sense that benching Stealth in this story would be as catastrophic as taking Batman out of Gotham. This is magnified by Bellegarde’s designs for Stealth. He’s always presented as a towering figure, a superior agent of justice.

And yet, that same degree of care that’s afforded to the hero’s presence is then flipped to ramp up the tension surrounding the situation. Once we’re made aware of Stealth’s diagnosis, the story’s emotional spectrum opens up and we’re left with a heartbreaking portrayal of a man that can end up doing a lot of damage in his attempts to do good. Costa’s script does wonders in putting the reader through a revolving door of emotions that makes one scared for the hero but also for those that can get badly swept up in his path. Again, what would happen if Batman could no longer distinguish friend from foe?

Tamra Bonvillain’s colors add to this play of superheroes tropes and mental health representations by going for the spectacular during action scenes, on one hand, to then going for a more restrained touch for the more intimate sequences. It makes everything blend in organically as it essentially guides readers through the multiple metaphorical worlds contained in the comic with smooth transitions. The colors here set the tone and then account for each change in it.

Both versions of Stealth, new version on the left, original version on the right.

It should be noted that Stealth is based on a Robert Kirkman and Marc Silvestri comic that sticks to many of the same storytelling beats of the original story but with some key changes. Kirkman and Silvestri’s Stealth is a white man and his son is navigating what appears to be a recent divorce. This changes the dynamic quite a bit. Skin color can ultimately dictate the feel of the story, whether it wants to or not, and the expectations that come with black characters in terms of representation are already felt throughout Costa and Bellegarde’s Stealth.

Additionally, I consider Costa and Bellegarde’s Stealth to have a much better hold on pacing. Costa’s script pulls off a brilliant gamble with misdirection early on that focuses on the son and the real identity of Stealth, leading to a reveal that was very well orchestrated. Kirkman’s script lets you in on most of the story’s secrets early on and, as a result, doesn’t feel as profound as it does in the new version. It’s still an interesting read, but I prefer Costa’s and Bellegarde’s take.

Stealth #1 presents a world of conversation starters regarding mental illness, hero worship, and straight up comic book storytelling. It’s a story about checking in with our heroes to know when they’ve reached their limit and when to flip the roles to take care of them. It’s about a kind of responsibility we need to own up to more than we actually do.

Script: Mike Costa Art: Nate Bellegarde Colors: Tamra Bonvillain
Story: 10
Art: 10
Recommendation: Buy, and get ready to shed a tear or two

Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a free copy for review.

Review: Outer Darkness/Chew #1

Outer Darkness/Chew #1

There’s something special about crossovers between non-superheroes comics. Usually, a Marvel or DC crossover comes with expectations of event-like conflicts and big action set-pieces. Creator-owned crossovers, on the other hand, tend to live and die by the strength of their characters and the culture they carry from their own comics. This is definitely the case with Outer Darkness/Chew #1, from John Layman, Afu Chan, and Rob Guillory, a coming together of sci-fi, horror, and comedy of epic proportions from two books that rival each other in terms of the sheer storytelling madness they produce.

The comic starts with the crew of the Charon (from Outer Darkness) engaging with a Cibulaxian alien ambassador that only engages in conversation over food. No external communicator can help in the situation and the chef responsible for comms meets a gleefully violent and premature end early on. The captain of the Charon, Captain Rigg, is then forced to resort to plan B: traveling in time to bring Tony Chu in, a Cibopath that can dive into the memories of the things he eats (from Chew).

Outer Darkness/Chew #1 requires prior knowledge of both series to fully appreciate. Writer John Layman, who wrote both series, basically says as much in his letter to the fans at the end of the issue, when he talks about how the book approaches the Chew parts of the book as a kind of coda to the original series (which ran for 60 issues from 2009-2016).

From the Outer Darkness side of the equation, an understanding of the concept is pretty much all you need, which is basically made up of bits from The Exorcist, Star Trek, and Event Horizon. Honestly, I would recommend reading both series as they are very good on their own and are well worth the price of admission. Maybe then come back to the crossover.

The story succeeds in making both the Chewverse and the Outer Darknessverse converge as if they were naturally meant to since their inception. It even makes it a point to recognize changes in how the characters look within the story once they crossover.

Rob Guillory, co-creator of Chew, illustrates his part of the story in the original style of the book with Afu Chan, co-creator of Outer Darkness, doing the same. When Tony Chu is brought aboard the Charon, Afu Chan takes over and the characters acknowledge the change in their looks. They are baffled by it, even.

It’s a bit of meta that builds up the crossover quite well and makes each character recognize the distance between their realities. Chew characters transition well under Chan’s pencils and they still seem like they are from another place, which adds to the clash of stories between the two universes.

Layman’s script does a good job of balancing both worlds, especially in terms of tone. Outer Darkness is a more serious tale than Chew and yet they each keep their identities intact throughout the issue. One’s humor doesn’t drown out the other’s horror. This is something that rarely manages to carry over in this type of story, but Layman pulls it off. Let’s see if it manages to sustain itself over the entire arc.

There’s a lot to like about Outer Darkness/Chew #1, especially for fans of the two series. In fact, I’d say that’s precisely the audience it’s seeking. New readers will probably struggle a bit to make everything click, but there’re still enough things going on in the story that anyone could latch onto and follow. There’s just a lot of fun to be had here, and the promise of more Cibopaths in space is always a good thing.

Script: John Layman Art: Rob Guillory and Afu Chan
Story: 9 Art: 10 Overall: Buy and then read all of Chew

Image Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

Review: Join the Future #1

Join the Future #1

Aftershock Comics has been producing stories with a kind of metaphorical vision not unlike the one seen in 2000AD comics. The publisher has taken to pushing series that focus on large scale concepts, on changes and shifts that threaten to alter status quos and established orders (think Harlem Heroesor Judge Dredd). Join the Future #1 is one such comic as it contemplates and worries about a future where technology becomes even more imperialistic in scope and thirsts for utopia under the false pretenses of progress. That the comic goes about this concept in the guise of a Western makes it a series that demands attention.

Zac Kaplan and Piotr Kowalski approach Join the Future as a kind of frontier story where humanity has separated into high-tech megacities that are entirely dependent on technology and Midwestern rural communities that renounce technology altogether, living like farmers and depending on nature’s own bounty to survive. It’s a play on extremes. Tech life vs. organic life.

Owning up to the comic’s title, the story takes it time to show us just how these megacities (maybe a wink to Judge Dredd fans out there) send out representatives—or salesmen, more like—to convince people to sell their lands and integrate into their tech utopias. The idea is that rural life is insufficient when megacities have developed cures for cancer and have unlocked the secrets to limitless food supplies.

In that regard, Join the Future reminded me quite a bit of Neill Blomkamp’s Elysium, where the poor live in a state of extreme poverty on Earth while the privileged social classes live in a space habitat complete with advanced med-bays that cure all kinds of diseases and illnesses. This reflection on two entirely opposite ways of life is as effective here as it was on Elysium (although Kaplan and Kowalski’s comic has a better sense of narrative).

The use of Western archetypes on a visual level elevates the narrative wonderfully as it makes the differences between the megacities and the rural communities stand out in glaring detail. Kowalski does a great job of landing an old-school take on both the cowboy aesthetics of the Midwest and the classic sci-fi look and feel of the cities. The worldbuilding is familiar but dense, doing a lot of the heavy lifting as Kaplan builds up to an eventual clash between tech followers and cowboy traditionalists.

On the book’s approach to character development, we get just enough to establish a conflict that feels like a slow burn towards a long fight against the tech utopias. We follow Clementine Libbey, daughter of the town’s Mayor and big sister to Owen Libbey. Clementine carries herself like a character that will be forced into a leadership role yet to be revealed, a voice that she’ll have no choice but to use in upcoming issues.

There’s a strong YA feel behind Clementine, akin to characters seen in books such as The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner, but she’s also more mature. We get a sense our heroine will dip her toes in both the pro-tech and anti-tech worlds for some time before revealing all of her cards. I’m not entirely sure Kaplan and Kowalski want to paint Clementine as a country hero in its entirety.

On the book’s colors, Brad Simpson does an outstanding job of keeping Kowalski’s old-school Western/sci-fi approach in line with the traditions it uses as inspiration. The megacity setting is bright and crisp, looking like a brand new car straight out of the factory (which says a lot about the city’s identity). Simpson captures every building, every drone, and every surface perfectly and coats it with that high-tech shine. Conversely, the Midwestern setting offers an interesting contrast in colors, with more muted tones that make the town of Franklin and its surroundings seem past their prime. It serves the story quite well.

Join the Future is a comic in no rush to reveal all its cards. In its first issue, we get a compelling situation with several moving parts that are sure to result in some very interesting looks at what the future will be and whether it’s in our best interest to join it.

Join the Future #1 has a March 4, 2020 release date.

Script: Zack Kaplan, Art: Piotr Kowalski, Colors: Brad Simpson
Story: 10.0 Art: 10.0 Overall: 10.0 Recommendation: Buy

Aftershock provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review

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