Author Archives: Ricardo Denis

Review: Abbott 1973 #1

The minute I finished the first Abbott book by Saladin Ahmed and Sami Kivelä it became my go-to recommendation for people looking to get into comics. It still holds that position. A lot of it is due to how much like a contemporary comic it feels like, as if you were reading something that couldn’t have come out any other time, despite it being set in 1970’s Detroit while also borrowing ideas from the political thrillers and horror movies of that decade.

To say I was anxiously awaiting the first issue of its second arc is an understatement of the highest order. Following the investigations of journalist Elena Abbott—“a  detective for the people,” as the comic proclaims—feels like taking a journey through the underbelly of America’s unique version of systemic racism, a brutal trek through it with the intention of deconstructing all of it with dark magic thrown into the mix to further power the metaphors at play in the story.

Abbott 1973

The second arc seems to be operating on the same wavelength, with Abbott facing yet another supernatural threat fueled by racial animosity, only this time the powers of corruption are looking to dismantle the candidacy of a Detroit mayoral candidate poised to become the city’s first black person to take up the position.

Set in 1973, Ahmed and Kivelä keep the titular journalist from straying from her old-school investigative methods, echoing movies like All the President’s Men in terms of how it develops a sense of danger that bubbles up with each attempt at shedding light on the potential sabotage of the black mayoral candidate. Each new sliver of information dug up through her investigation raises the stakes not just for the story she’s working on but for her very own sense of safety.

Ahmed and Kivelä achieve this in the first book, which focuses on elected officials dabbling in dark magic to keep black communities in a constant state of chaos and instability, a tactic that allowed the ruling class to justify anti-black measures in the name of public safety (not to mention precious votes).

In Abbott 1973, the protagonist is now well aware of the dark influences that are trying to disrupt Detroit’s political structure while also being conscious of the fact magic and journalism have a complicated history with the public standard of veracity and reliability.

Abbott 1973

While these ideas are difficult to separate from the character and her story, Ahmed and Kivelä manage to complicate Abbott’s daily grind even more with an added focus on social notions of femininity in the public arena and in the professional workspace.

The comic dives into these obstacles through a new black character that comes into Abbott’s newspaper organization as its latest publisher, a man called Mr. Manning. This new figure of authority insists on keeping up appearances concocted by male-dominated notions of etiquette and behavior, instructing Abbott on how women should dress and behave in the workplace.

Given the story’s focus on change, and how the election of Detroit’s first black mayor stands as a plea for it, Abbott 1973 #1 looks to the country’s past to reflect on the current state of politics, be it racial or otherwise. Just how deep the comic will go to comment on this remains to be seen, but it’s well on its way to add something to the conversation (especially in the context of a very divided United States that’s growing further apart on a daily basis).

Kivelä’s art continues to favor that 1970’s grittiness prominent in that decade’s movies, deftly weaving realism with supernatural sights that carry a kind of violence to them on mere presence alone. Each character looks storied, the result of a long line of personal experiences that carry over into their overall looks.

Abbott 1973

Mattia Iacono’s colors complements the seventies vibe of the story beautifully with muted colors that make the darker elements jump out of the page even more when they manifest themselves. It creates a heaviness around the more horror-inclined sequences and can feel downright oppressive when Abbott as at the receiving end of them.

On the dark magic side of the story, Abbott 1973 is careful not to allow it to get lost in the social commentary that’s clearly in display in every page. Be it in hints of paranormal activity or outright terror, the hauntings Ahmed and Kivelä have cooked up for Abbott feel like an organic element of the story and they do their fair share of the worldbuilding. They are integral to the comic’s message and are smartly implemented.

Abbott 1973 #1 is a perfect continuation of Elena Abbott’s investigations into how magic has been taken over by racists bent on keeping America divided. Ahmed and Kivelä have one of the best characters in comics in their hands and they seem to be well aware of it. Abbott is the kind of creation one hopes becomes an industry staple, producing hundreds of stories for years to come.

Script: Saladin Ahmed Art: Sami Kivelä
Color: Mattia Iacono Letterer: Jim Campbell
Story: 9.0 Art: 9.0 Overall: 9.0 Recommendation: Buy and brush up on Detroit history


Purchase: comiXologyZeus Comics

The true star of The Next Batman is Derington and Bonvillain’s Gotham City

For a DC Comics first, the publisher’s first black Batman as part of its official cannon and multiverse, Future State: The Next Batman #1 is somewhat underwhelming. That’s not to say it’s a bad comic, but given its short runtime and the fact this was to be a momentous occasion, this first entry of the miniseries set within the world of Future State is not the statement on the future of DC I thought it would be.

But these observations largely concern the new Batman’s character development and plot progression domains. I believe writer John Ridley could’ve gone for a more explosive opening rather than the more subdued and slow-paced intro he settled for.

Future State: The Next Batman #1

Fortunately, Future State: The Next Batman #1 is very much a two-sided coin, with the other side belonging to Nick Derington’s kinetic and vibrant illustrations and Tamra Bonvillain’s pop-like colors. What this team achieved with their share of the storytelling goes above and beyond what the words accomplished, giving us a new and truly different take on Gotham City.

Future State is presented as a dystopian version of the DCU in which a private police force called The Magistrate is cracking down on masks in the name of law and order. As such, this short jump into the future feels more science fiction than the usual superhero comic. There are traces of cyberpunk and classic police state imagery coursing through the majority of the Future State stories. Derington and Bonvillain take full advantage of this to give a masterclass on worldbuilding through their version of Gotham while still honoring the city’s past iterations.

In a surprise twist on the traditional Batman formula, Derington and Bonvillain decide to bathe Gotham in colors. Whereas artists such as Greg Capullo, J.H. Williams III, Frank Miller, and Jim Lee have gone for more of a modern gothic look for their Gothams (all unique in their own way), Derington and Bonvillain aim at altering the city’s very identity with more lights, which means less shadows to hide in.

Future State: The Next Batman #1

Whereas the artists gave us a city defined by dark alleyways and towering symbols of moral corruption, Derington and Bonvillain opted for a Gotham that’s wide awake and somewhat paranoid. It’s hard to escape the sensation that Batman is being watched from all sides and that Gotham is playing against the hero’s strengths. As consequence, Future State Gotham becomes a living trap that forces Batman to do his bidding while being completely exposed to the police force that patrols the city.

Bonvillain’s colors excel at creating this effect. Even when in an alley, nothing is entirely drenched black. There’s a light source in every panel, as if a spotlight were always trained on Batman. It creates a sense of inevitable surveillance and raises the stakes in each action sequence because of it.

Future State: The Next Batman #1

Derington’s line work is full of movement and fluidity, taking a step away from the brooding and inky settings Gotham is known for. For a dystopian version of iconic city, the comic prefers to keep things from looking too futuristic. In fact, it’s in the Magistrate’s security officers and gadgets that The Next Batman finds its science fiction elements. Batman’s mouth covering does give the character a semi-futuristic look and sets him apart from the previous Batman, but Derington and Ridley put him in a future in which architectural and technological change has come slowly.

Despite that, the comic emits an almost neon glow that remind readers that the new Gotham is no longer the hunting ground of Bruce Wayne’s Batman. It seems to demand a new Batman take to patroling its streets. It adds to the comic’s sense of discovery and strangeness. This Gotham doesn’t belong to the New Batman yet. It has to be tamed. As a result, this turns the caped crusader into a candidate for the title of city protector. As of yet, he’s merely in the running for the position.

Future State: The Next Batman #1
The Next Batman #1

Fans of Batman Universe, written by Brian Michael Bendis, will have a lot to look forward to in Future State: The Next Batman series as well given Derington’s already impressive interpretation of Batman and his world in that book. In Batman Universe, colored by Dave Stewart, Derington goes for a more Brave and the Bold vibe that highlights Batman’s visual versatility. He gets to play with more fantasy elements here than in Next Batman, but the sense that he’s talented enough to make Batman his own is already present there.

The visual quality of Future State: The Next Batman #1 guides Batman’s character development down less conventional paths. That the city is so new as well means we as readers are also testing this Batman out. He has to win our hearts and our hard-earned money come new comics Wednesday. So far, Derington and Bonvillain are making a strong case for it on visuals alone.


Purchase: comiXology – Amazon – Kindle – Zeus Comics

Why the Best Horror Book of 2020 is Clown in a Cornfield

Clown in a Cornfield
Clown in a Cornfield, cover

To an extent, the title of Adam Cesare’s latest book, Clown in a Cornfield, feels like an affront to expectations. We have a YA horror book about teens navigating social media, high school, and rage-filled teachers all hinging on the promise of an actual clown possibly picking off kids in a cornfield. Having read Cesare’s excellent, and surprisingly meta, cannibal movie homage Tribesmen, which shows a profound love and understanding for 1970s horror cinema, I knew something else was hiding in the fields. And that something turned the book into one of the best examples of horror fiction in the context of Trump’s America, and the year’s best in the process.

Clown in a Cornfield follows Quinn, a high schooler that moves into the town of Kettle Springs with her dad following the death of her mom. Now an ex-city girl, Quinn goes about understanding the town and its people but also the looming presence of its recent past, the thing that divides the town into those who see progress as moving forward and those who see it as keeping up with traditions. This is where the titular clown comes in. The rest deserves to be read.

The setup is deceptively recognizable, seemingly on purpose. The story starts with a look at Quinn and her dad going though a short adjustment period, Quinn in particular getting to know the people she’ll eventually get to rely on to survive the deadly events that clown authors.

Cesare takes his time putting every piece in place before taking the reader through a hellish gauntlet of inventive slasher violence, all of which takes cues from John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and a lot of 1990’s horror movie imagery if only to build on them and make them his own. Once the killing begins, the book settles into high tension and doesn’t let up even when commenting on the ideas that prop up the story.

The buildup to the clown horror comes with a few twists on the formula that sets this story apart from the conventional slasher. The teens that drive the story don’t fit the traditional mold of jock, nerd, hot, or final girl characters of old. Instead, Cesare skillfully dodges some of the sexual and “school as a rite of passage” subtexts that govern a lot of classic slasher stories in favor of showing a group of teens that more genuinely reflects the current state of American society.

Adam Cesare

Instead of prom and homecoming queen and king competitions or relationship woes tied to characters losing their virginity, Cesare creates a cast of young Americans that talk about guns, are comfortable around them, and know how to handle them; that embrace social media and make it a point to flirt with its most dangerous aspects; and who know perfectly well what they represent to the older townsfolk (hints of The Lost Boys here).

Kettle Springs is a small town where it’s not hard to imagine every other car sporting a ‘Make America Great Again’ bumper sticker. And yet, the book doesn’t judge the entirety of the town for its conservative leanings. On the contrary, it provides a more complicated human panorama of it, with varying degrees of political inclinations even within the targeted group.

This is perhaps one of the most impressive things Cesare accomplishes with his characters. He breaks away from the black and white morality of the traditional slasher, in which the ‘good’ teens and the ‘bad’ teens could be identified from a mile away, in favor of presenting teens that are not just different from one another but also from the preconceived notions we have of them. This bleeds over into the book’s take on what small-town America was, is, and could be.

Explaining what Cesare does with slasher morality in the story would result in spoiling some the book’s biggest surprises, but it does make for one hell of a killer clown. Frendo is a part of the town’s economic history, being the face of an abandoned factory that at one point was at the heart of Kettle Springs. He was a symbol of success at one point only to later become an imposing symbol of defeat.

Frendo wastes not a single instance of violence on simplicity. Every death, blood spurt, or dismemberment is masterfully choreographed, unafraid to go into detail, leaving the reader with just enough information to let him or her fill in the rest. It’s also hauntingly realistic in parts. Whereas many slasher movies go over the top to create memorable death sequences, Clown in a Cornfield keeps things more plausible, holding back to make the more explosively violent parts truly unforgettable.

Frendo is one unsettling clown, but what drives the killings and how sinister things get in the process is what really scared me to the core. Unlike the Freddies and the Jasons of the genre, Frendo is one killer I completely believe can come after me. Whereas the aforementioned slashers are known for carrying a sense of dark fantasy and myth about them, Frendo seems like an actual inevitability should America continue on the path it’s currently on.

Adam Cesare gave us an important horror book in 2020, one that hits closer to the real horrors America has lived through these past four years. Its commentary on tradition, progress, and what’s expected of newer generations is as sobering as it is terrifying. Give Clown in a Cornfield a read and make sure your windows are closed and your doors locked because Frendo isn’t the stuff of nightmares. It’s the stuff of reality.

Movie Review: The Dark and the Wicked will settle for nothing less than your soul

There’s no other horror movie out there, this year, as sinister as The Dark and The Wicked. It’s relentless and cruel and impossible to stop watching. Director/screenwriter Bryan Bertino has put together a legitimate gauntlet of horrors in an almost micro-setting, focusing on a sister and brother duo that return to their farm home to take care of their haunted and lonely parents. Whatever’s oppressing this family takes no prisoners and is dead-set on indulging in as much evil as it can. It’s some of the scariest stuff to ever have been put on celluloid.

The Dark and The Wicked
The Dark and The Wicked

Bertino has chosen to put loneliness under the proverbial microscope with his movie. It’s mostly about the demons that such a circumstance invites and how family can be the antidote and the poison that enables it all. The small family at the core of the story have all become distant from one another. The siblings went their separate ways at one point in time and looks as if they didn’t keep in touch as they probably should’ve. Their only true connection is a bed-ridden father and an emotionally disturbed mother.

What’s impressive about this setup and how each character develops around is that none of the family’s prior history is flat out explained or dumped on the viewer through exposition. The way the siblings react to each other and speak tells you enough about the distance between them.

Keeping the story so focused on just a few characters really helps drive the point home. The farm where most everything takes place seems remote, almost devoid of motion even. Night scenes are drenched in deep shadows and the knowledge of remoteness heightens the tension. It always feels as if of some impending horror is primed and ready for torture at any given time.

Cinematographer Tristan Nyby deserves a lot of praise for this as the movie’s dread factor comes straight out of carefully selected shots that play with negative spaces and different tones of darkness. This is amplified by the film’s sound design, which refreshingly opts to interrupt silence with demonic growls and hellish sounds that few horror stories opt to indulge in.

The Dark and The Wicked
The Dark and The Wicked

Of course, this all rests on the shoulders of a tight script that wants to play up the devilry, without leaving doubt as to the source of the evil that’s invaded the family. There’s very little time spent with traditional horror tropes such as the one where the people involved spend a good portion of the movie trying to decide if the haunting is real or not. The siblings come to this conclusion fairly quick and know they have to do whatever they can to get everyone far away from their family home and its devil. Their disagreements and unresolved issues, though, is what holds them back.

Actors Marin Ireland and Michael Abbott Jr. are exceptional in their roles as the siblings. They project the burden of family and responsibility in their body language alone and excel in presenting their characters as people that do not know how to navigate the problems they face. Their reactions to the horrors is convincing to the point one can easily relate and see themselves in their position. They transform into people that are just like us. Not special. Just ordinary with a liberally portioned side of hell.

In a way, it does remind somewhat of movies like Hereditary and The Exorcist. The evil is real, which allows the narrative to go deeper into the terror. As a result, we get a story that’s heavy and overwhelmingly oppressive at certain points. The punishment the main characters are subjected to is relentless, but it really opens up the playing field for some very intense and very scary sequences. I won’t spoil those here but get ready for horrifying stuff.

The Dark and The Wicked is also well-paced. Though it hits hard and insistently, the movie never feels lethargic and it makes good use of its hour and a half runtime with something new happening in every scene. There are no repeated instances of self-slamming doors or flickering lights. The entity likes to go straight to the hard stuff.

Bryan Bertino should have everyone itching for a hint of his next movie, whatever that may be. The direction, the writing, the performances, and the tech artistry on display is impeccable. His movie is one that continues to haunt in the days following the first watch. It’s a story that has to be endured, but the reward is an experience unlike no other.

Election Terror: What Happens when the Dead Come Back to Vote in Homecoming

Homecoming
Homecoming

Jane Cleaver: “It’s words. It’s a game. You say whatever it takes to win.”

David Murch: “Well, maybe that’s the problem.”

This dialogue exchange happens early in Homecoming (dir. Joe Dante), a strange but unique zombie story from the Masters of Horror anthology series created by director Mick Garris (The Stand). It serves as a preamble for what’ll come soon after the two conversations between the two characters ends, which flips the zombie formula on its head with bravado. An army of undead war veterans rallies from beyond the grave for one final mission: to vote against the president that sent them to war based on a lie. A lie that killed them.

The episode came out in 2006, two years into George W. Bush’s second term as president, at a point where the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ excuse used to justify the War on Terror was wearing off and being heavily portrayed as the lie that got the US stuck in the Middle East (and the reason why dead soldiers come back to vote in Homecoming).

Homecoming follows a White House speech writer called David Murch as he navigates Bush’s reelection with a team of public relations pundits hellbent on winning the election, by any and all means necessary. During a televised panel discussion, Murch is confronted by the mother of a dead soldier who’s protesting the war, which inspires the conflicted speech writer to sincerely wish her son could come back and tell the world why he died for his country. He gets his wish, only it comes with a battalion of undead combatants desperate to fulfill their civic duty.

Watching it now, just as Americans are casting their ballots on the Biden v. Trump election, it’s unsettling how relevant this story still is, if only for its discussion on how politics is ultimately a game of words. As Murch and his team pick up on the fact zombie votes are leaning towards the other side, a mad dash for control of the narrative takes place. What was first scene as an act of patriotism—rising from the grave to vote—becomes an un-American rebellion looking to steal the election from the living.

Homecoming
Homecoming

While Homecoming is firmly rooted in the context of the Bush presidency, it comments enough on the dangers of political storytelling to effectively turn its metaphors on the politics of today. Murch will struggle with his own morality throughout most of the episode, always hesitant as to how and when to use the undead as part of the campaign. Here’s where Jane Cleaver comes into play.

Basically a stand-in for Ann Coulter, Cleaver becomes the right-wing commentator that puts on her radical pro-America persona when in front of a camera only to later admit she’ll say anything to secure her party’s victory. She basically stands as the unethical extreme of public discourse. The game, as Cleaver puts it, is won by the best storyteller. Homecoming does a magnificent job of proving this point through her, with the other PR people acting as her chorus, encouraging her to further spread her warped political views.

There are a lot of parallels between Cleaver’s philosophies and Kellyanne Conway’s media performances (which she had to put on as the former counselor to the President), especially when she was asked to explain or defend Trump’s comments on most about everything. There’s a scene in Homecoming, after the soldiers have revealed who they’re voting for, where Cleaver doubts the legality of undead voting after previously championing it. She supported the undead vote before she knew the problem it posed to her party. Conway’s “alternative facts” statement comes to mind here, which was uttered when asked to comment on the actual number of people that attended Trump’s inauguration. It’s as if you can trace a solid genealogical line, if you will, from Bush era politics to Trump era politics. The side with the best spin on information wins the crowd, and potentially their vote.

Homecoming
Homecoming

It should come as no surprise to Joe Dante fans that this movie is as blatantly political as it is. As Homecoming’s director, Dante pulls out every trick in his book to make each metaphor land. Be it the violent nature of American politics (seen in his werewolf movie The Howling) to a people’s inability to keep chaos at bay by following simple instructions (Gremlins), Dante likes to put his movies’ messages in full view, covered in blood if he has to. Homecoming is no different.

During a televised Presidential rally, Murch and Cleaver ruminate on Bush’s ability to command an audience. Cleaver asks just what it is about the President that makes people adore him. Murch responds, “He’s not stupid. He has a way to make stupid people feel like they’re just as smart as he is.” A bit crude, but it speaks to the power of storytelling. In Bush’s America, militaristic values were the way to win hearts and minds, especially after 9/11. There was an appeal to patriotism that the Bush administration took and turned into a party value. As a result, to criticize the war was to criticize the need to protect America, to badmouth its soldiers. Being anti-war meant being un-American.

Homecoming

In Trump’s America, the idea is to show America as a place that’s been robbed of greatness by liberal policies that see their own country as the problem. The principle is the same. It’s just a matter of taking outdated story elements out and putting new ones in. By then, it’s a race of two stories and it all boils down to the side that tells it better.

Homecoming is a horror story with a call to action. It’s not cynic in its entirety but it’s not entirely hopeful either. It’s about awareness. Stories are never one thing or another in the world of politics. They’re in constant spin and can spiral out at any moment to the benefit of those who can harness their power best. It might take zombie voters to come back and put us all in our place for things to get better. Until then, it’s up to the living to make sure we don’t screw up so bad this time.

The Creepshow Animated Special is a fun Halloween watch covered in gore

Outside of manga, animated horror films or specials are few and far in between, which is why Shudder’s announcement that Creepshow series was going to give animation a shot for Halloween was so surprising. And yet, perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised us that much. The Stephen King, George Romero, and Bernie Wrightson creation did come into being as an homage to the EC horror comics that inspired them in the first place. Given the overlap between comics and animation, the visual language they share, it was quite simply the next logical step.

Thankfully, the Creepshow Animated Special delivers in this form, presenting a pair of violent and clever stories that adapt stories written by Stephen King and Joe Hill. Each story runs for about 20 minutes and wastes no time getting to the bloody bits, taking care of not leaving the plot and character development out to dry. They transition well into the show’s pastiche-driven interests.

Creepshow Animated Special
Shudder

A word on the animation, though. The special is presented in a motion comic style of animation (as previously seen in the Watchmen motion comics that came out almost in conjunction with Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the classic comic). There’s motion on-screen but not to the extent one might be expecting. It’s not the most sophisticated or intricate of styles out there, but director Greg Nicotero squeezes as much as he can out of it to great effect.

The first story comes from the mind of Stephen King and it’s called “Survivor Type,” about a man stranded on an island with the body of a dead woman after their ship sinks. The second one is called “Tweetering from the Circus of the Dead” and is adapted from a Joe Hill story. This one focuses on a teenager that gives a play-by-play Twitter account of the terrifying happenings that take place inside a sadistic circus.

Both stories are twisted enough to make for great visual adaptations. “Survivor Type” is a very bright story where every instance of terror is highly visible and in full color. It feels like an EC tale in that it’s gauche and grisly sense of violence dials up the blood and gore to its highest setting. “Tweetering from the Circus of the Dead” follows along the same lines but plays around with a darker color palette. Still, the carnage is allowed to display the full gamut of colors that comes with dismemberments and bloodletting fans of the exploitation will certainly appreciate.

Creepshow Animated Special
Shudder

All of this would’ve been in vain had the voice actors for each story failed to rise to the occasion. Fortunately, they do. The main character of “Survivor Type” is played by Keifer Sutherland and his performance perfectly captures the man’s egotistical and immoral spirit, imbuing his backstory with the necessary roughness required to make the landing.

Hill’s story is performed by Joey King (The Kissing Booth, Slenderman) and while her part isn’t as fine-tuned as Sutherland’s, she still manages to capture the sounds of a social media obsessed teen. What stands out in King’s segment is how her character’s sarcasm shifts into outright horror and shock as the story progresses. King gets to explore different aspect of her voiceover skills and it helps maintain a good sense of urgency as the character tweets about gory acts and dead things.

The animated approach for this special does achieve another thing that is worthy of note. It more closely resembles the comic book look both the original movie and series managed to capture on-screen. It fits well with the spirit of Creepshow and it is nice to see that connection make it through.

Creepshow Animated Special
Shudder

Speaking comics, Eric Powell (creator of The Goon) designed the creatures that feature in Joe Hill’s segment. This gives the story and even more present comic book feel and further cements the relationship between both mediums. Each creature is a treat to see shamble on-screen and they deserve to be explored closer to appreciate all the details Powell managed to squeeze into them.

The Creepshow Animated Special was a pleasant surprise that made me want to see more of these horror motion comic animations in the future. That might already be in the works as the final images of the special seem to hint at a Christmas offering. Consult with whatever dark forces are available to you to make sure we get more of these stories in the very, very near future.

Review: Werewolf by Night #1

Werewolf By Night #1
Werewolf by Night

The origins of Marvel’s cult favorite Werewolf by Night, which was published in the early seventies as its own series, is a particularly interesting one when compared with the new series that just launched this year. Creators Roy Thomas, Jane Thomas, Gerry Conway, and Mike Ploog (who also illustrated Marvel’s version of Frankenstein) saw in the original comic a refreshing break from superhero stories. It was an escape into horror. The latest version of the lycanthrope, though, forgoes horror for super-heroics. So much so that it might’ve been more appropriate to call the comic Super-Werewolf by Night.

This new take on the character replaces the Transylvanian-born Jack Russell with a young man from the Hopi tribe known as Jake Gomez. He lives in a reservation with his grandmother Rora and is helped by a young woman called Molly.

The creative team of Taboo (from the Black Eyed Peas), Benjamin Jackendoff, and Scott Eaton establish these three characters as a tight unit, where the loss of one them would prove catastrophic to their own sense of identity. Granny Rora is the group’s storyteller, the source of the myths and legends that explain Jake’s relationship with his hairier side, if only metaphorically.

The story follows Jake as he protects the reservation and its surrounding area. Unfortunately for him, word of a wolf-like creature has reached certain parties that are interested in hunting the creature down. Elsewhere, an experiment gone wrong promises to shake the foundations of Jake’s life as he fights the wolf within and comes to terms with his existence.

Werewolf By Night #1
Werewolf by Night

While the story is nothing like the 1970’s version, it does borrow a lot from that decade’s more socially aware brand of comics. The new werewolf scares white hunters away from tribal lands, faces the results of an experiment gone wrong, and ultimately finds evil in the form of a giant corporation submerged in unethical practices.

While these problems are worthy of their own comic book series, they end up traversing well-trodden territory here and there doesn’t seem to be much of an intention to go the extra mile in terms of inventiveness. As a result, the comic comes off as far too simple for its own good. It’s not a particularly fresh take on the classic monster either, nor the superhero world it very much wants to be a part of.

In fact, the new superhero-like identity forced upon the werewolf seems to be more interested in incorporating the character into the larger Marvel universe rather than carving its own unique space within it. There’s space for horror in the Marvel universe and Werewolf by Night can still help make that happen, but it has to do more in the coming issues.

Werewolf By Night #1
Werewolf by Night

Scott Eaton’s art, on the other hand, does a great job at world building and produces an especially vicious werewolf design. Every scene involving the werewolf carries a ton of violence in it, albeit more figuratively than literally. There’s a force behind it that captures the sheer monstrosity that is a werewolf. Unfortunately, the wolf also has moments when he looks like he’s presenting himself as a viable option for a future Champions or Young Avengers comic. I wouldn’t mind that happening, especially because Native character are still in short supply in mainstream media, but I’d hope they make the character somewhat more unique and compelling in this regard.

The comic is not without its charm and it does have heart. There’s a chance future issues complicate things well enough to take our werewolf into uncharted territory. The first issue of Werewolf by Night is no indication of this, but there’s enough here to build on.

Story: Taboo, Benjamin Jackendoff Art: Scott Eaton
Inks: Scott Hanna Color: Miroslav Mrva
Story: 6.0 Art: 8.0
Recommendation: Wait for the compendium and buy some wolfsbane while you’re at it.


Purchase: comiXologyKindle

Review: Goosebumps: Secrets of the Swamp #1

GOOSEBUMPS: SECRETS OF THE SWAMP #1

It’s easy to admire how Goosebumps approaches YA horror, especially in pursuing dark stories without the intention of dialing down the evil behind them. This is the case with the new mini-series set within its universe, Goosebumps: Secrets of the Swamp, where three girls find themselves in the middle of a battle between werewolves and wolf-hunters. With this setup, writer Marieke Nijkamp and artist Yasmín Flores Montañez kick-off a story that updates the classic Goosebumps formula with a strong and diverse cast along with familiar monsters offering new scares.

The story follows Blake, an expert gamer looking to pass the summer beating high scores online. Her aunt, whom she is staying with, tries to get her back into the real world with hints and clues as to the myths and legends of the town of Fever Swamp. Horror starts to creep in with this revelation as Blake meets Lily and Cara and tales of swamp monsters start circulating between them.

Flores Montañez and colorist Rebecca Nalty do wonders with the setting. Fever Swamp looks vibrant and colorful but dangerous as well. There’s something about a swamp setting that screams blood and monsters and the art team does a great job of capturing it in all its terrifying glory. Colors seamlessly transition from lighter into darker variations of themselves and in the process help carry the storytelling as it moves towards all-out horror.

Goosebumps: Secrets of the Swamp #1
IDW

The characters’ facial expressions make them feel instantly relatable given they’re so storied and alive. By the end of this first issue, I felt as if I had been reading these characters for a long time. It speaks volumes to Flores Montañez’s ability to bring life into the comics page and the characters that inhabit them.

Nijkamp’s script is expertly paced and allows the story to unravel without heavy exposition dumps. Nothing is explicitly and definitively explained, allowing for a grander sense of the unknown to settle in. As the monsters of the swamp start coming out of the dark, we get the sense that they’re carrying stories with them that don’t conform to the classic trope of ‘good vs. evil’.

Secrets of the Swamp remarkably offers a lot of story in each panel. Details that range from the text on a character’s shirt to the way they move and even how their hair is styled all play into the uniqueness of each character’s identity. This comic feels well lived in. It makes sure readers come back to its world to further uncover its mysteries.

Goosebumps: Secrets of the Swamp #1 is a strong start to a YA horror story that can set a good example as to how to get the most out of the genre. The creative team for this comic is in perfect synchronization and it shows. Stay with this comic. There’s a lot of horror to be had with the promise of more to come.

Story: Marieke Nijkamp Art: Yasmín Flores Montañez Colors: Rebecca Nalty
Story: 9.0 Art: 9.0 Overall: 9.0 Recommendation: Buy, read, and then visit a swamp (just not alone)
.

IDW Publishing provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review


Purchase: comiXologyAmazonKindle

Interview: Genius Animals? creative team talk conspiracies, making comics, and pink dolphins

Genius Animals?
Genius Animals?

During the 1990’s, conspiracies were living the dream (mostly in basements with good internet connection and without the distractions of Tik Tok videos). A lot of it was owed to the cultural shifts that series like The X-Files and Unsolved Mysteries inspired in the minds of those who had an informational itch that could only be scratched with a good conspiracy theory.

Vali Chandrasekaran and Jun-Pierre Shiozawa have a clear understanding of that itch, and by tapping into something of a love story wrapped up in disappearances, talking animals, and conspiracy theorist radio shows, this creative team have come up with one of the most unique and strangely funny comics to have come out in a long time. It is called Genius Animals? The question mark is important.

The comic follows Alexandra Lakshmi and her search for her missing boyfriend, Todd. None of this information prepares you for what the book dives into after the initial setup. Alexandra’s journey leads her into a world of privileged information and conspiracy-making that she’s largely introduced to by an octopus holding a flash drive.

The best way I’ve found to describe the book is as a spiritual successor to The X-Files’ funny episodes. Fans of the series will remember that the show had a set sequence of episodes lined up to keep the story from being overwhelmingly lore-heavy. It had a creature-of-the-week episode, main story episode, and sometimes there would a comedy episode that poked fun at some of the show’s more serious elements.

Genius Animals? embodies that type of episode by expanding it into an entire comic book series, keeping the comedy present all the way through. This isn’t to say the book takes itself less seriously because of it. Much like the funny X-Files episodes, Genius Animals? approaches lore and world-building with jokes, with an odd sense of goofiness and satire propping everything up. Each instance of funny adds to the narrative and colors it.

Visually, the book takes a few stabs at wordless sequences to play up some of the absurdity and some of the comedy behind the premise and it succeeds in very unexpected ways. The lack of text in these sequences means there’s no written punchline. Each panel, each movement, has to be capable enough to carry the comedic rhythm of the story. Shiozawa takes full advantage of these sequences and makes them dynamically approachable. You’ll want to look at every panel carefully to spot any other jokes or visual gags that makes the sequences even funnier.

Chandrasekaran’s script is surgical with its jokes, especially because there’s so much going on behind each one. It’s as if every joke in the book is a world unto itself. They’re less about the punchline and more about how they can help explain the conspiracy-ridden world Alexandra and her friends navigate. They’re storytelling jokes.

I sat down with the creative team behind Genius Animals? to talk about the good old days of conspiracy and why Warner Herzog should be in more comics. It follows below.

Genius Animals?
The Creative Team

Ricardo Serrano: I actually wanted to start with how you guys got into comics in the first place. Have you been lifelong fans or was it something that you’ve always been interested in and just decided to jump into?

Jun-Pierre Shiozawa: I think the first time I actually saw a comic, held a comic in my hands, I just saw the potential of what could be done with it. I was struck with how much drawing could be done. I was always drawing as a kid. And I could see that comics were an outlet for somebody who, like me, just loves to draw continuously. I remember I would go into art classes (from high school into university), into fine art classes, and it was mostly about abstract and conceptual work, not so much straightforward rendering and drawing of figures, spaces, and environments. People would come up and say your work is more illustrative, you know, as kind of a diss. It was a little bit pejorative. I was actually told that by my high school art teacher, that my work was a little too illustrative. And I was like, that’s kind of cool.

Vali Chandrasekaran: He got it! Great!

Shiozawa: But the thing is, where else does an artist just have this freedom? The freedom to say and draw what you want in such and extended way. It takes a high degree of discipline and range of knowing how to draw different things. Looking at that as a kid, looking at the way that cars are drawn, how figures are drawn and facial expressions or fights, planets even, it really inspired me growing up. When I got to university, that’s where I started meeting other people like me that were interested in comics. They were submitting and just doing their own comics. I was like, okay, maybe I can make my own comics.

Chandrasekaran: I came to comics from the side of loving jokes. Like from when I was a kid, I always loved jokes. I loved comedy. So I was really into the funny pages and my era of that was Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. To this day, I think The Far Side is the funniest thing in the universe. I mean, I think there’s a lot of it in the DNA of Genius Animals. It’s both weirdly philosophical and very childish at times, which I really love. But it wasn’t until college when I started looking into other comics. I didn’t really read superhero comics that much, but then some friends gave me alternative comics where I got to read Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, and later Sam Henderson’s Magic Whistle.

I was suddenly into this new kind of comedy I’ve never even seen before. These guys were highlighting the absurdity of everything in a tone I’ve never seen before in my life. So I started getting into it as a different form of comedy, more of an outsider alternative comedy, which was taking hold when I was in college in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Genius Animals?
Genius Animals?

Serrano:. Both of you know how hard it is to pull off comedy. In TV and movies you have the benefit of movement and sound. Not so much in comic books, where everything on the panel gains movement and sound in the reader’s mind, to a certain extent. You might have some very funny jokes written down, but you have to find a way to both textually and visually make them funny. So, what’s it like to write comedy for comic books?

Chandrasekaran: That was the biggest things we had to learn while doing this, because the comedy of it was very important to me. And I had no idea how to do it in a comic book. Jun had a way of delivering jokes visually that really worked. We continued to refine it in a way over time, because sometimes I would get panels and pages back and I would say “Jun, this looks great. Everything is right. I just don’t know why it’s not funny.” Jun would say let me try one more thing or let me try something else and then we would get to where we wanted.

I would say an example of this dynamic can be found in how Alec Baldwin and Ed O’Neill approach comedy. These two comic actors do something with their performance that’s called ‘throwing away a joke.’ They don’t really try to nail the punch line to tell you like this is a joke. I remember being in script readings where one of them would turn around and reach the punchline without anyone seeing their face, which many people think is key when telling a joke. The joke is almost always funnier when you’re in somebody’s face. But no, they’d play around with the delivery. What they were doing was creating a real comic persona, over time, rather than just delivering jokes.

And so one thing Jun and I would talk about is whether there’s too much pressure on a particular line on any given panel and is it sustaining the panel or not. We then figure out a way to make it work. Jun would either reorganize the panel or he would have the bubbles from coming off the panel as if from another page. It was a fun process because I didn’t have the language for it. I would just kind of say what I’m saying now and then we’d figure it out.

Serrano: I can see how setting up a punchline can basically telegraph the joke way before it has the chance to be funny. In film, the camera stays with the person saying the joke and if that person’s facial reaction isn’t too funny it kind of gets ruined. That’s not a problem Jun has with his characters’ facial expressions, which are hilarious when they need to be, even if it’s in the case of a dog looking at you the wrong way. So how did you approach that, Jun?

Shiozawa: Well, I found that a lot of times I wouldn’t really know how hard to get the punchline across. Sometimes the joke would be just in the text, right? The text is there, you see it, and it’s just a funny line. But then in other cases I had to think about the timing in the visuals or the delivery, all these other things that might be a little bit more elusive or a little bit more subtle. In those cases I actually found that often it would be necessary to push the joke to make things a little bit sillier.

Sometimes you just have characters that are saying things that are funny enough and then what you have to do is give them a design that looks like the jokes have been specifically written for the type of people they are. A lot of it is in their facial expressions. You have to basically know when to let the text just do its job knowing your character designs will do their part.

Chandrasekarana: I specifically remember a scene where we kept working the comic rhythm of it. Eventually, what we landed on was having the speech bubbles strung together in a way where they overlapped each other, a lot. So you’ve got the sense that they were talking in rapid fire. It was fun to work on because by changing the image and the way the text was presented in it, you could hear the joke differently.

Genius Animals?
Genius Animals?

Serrano: Okay, let’s talk about Werner Herzog. He’s in the comic, under the name Werner Notzog, and he is hilarious. The line between reality and fiction blurs with him because of his own abstract and cryptic ways. If you’ve ever seen a Herzog documentary or have just listened to him talk, you’ll know Herzog in Genius Animals is the real deal. How did he make it to the story?

Shiozawa: I have to say, the Herzog material totally came from Vali’s script. When I read the words in the very beginning of the story I was like, man, this is hilarious. And so specific. There’s a scene where we’re in his office and there are all these different things in the background. It looks like a volunteer put it all together. A lot of it was just like, we need to have this and that because it’s all part of the total ambiance of the character. And I love his films, but I think I wouldn’t have had, frankly, the courage to actually put him down on paper like that unless he was the driving force behind the story and have to just go for it. So I just was like, alright, here we go. Let’s put him in the forest, put him in the Amazon jungle, and just get him to come in as like a superhero basically.

Chandrasekarana: In the beginning of chapter two, when we see him first in the forest, that’s one of my favorite images. And then one of my favorite jokes is, when he’s in his office, he’s sitting at his desk and behind him there’s a photo of himself wrapped by a boa constrictor and one of his assistants is about to shoot the boa constrictor.

Serrano: I noticed! And then having him end almost all his interventions end with “humanity must embrace madness.” Stuff that you hear him say over and over. It’s just a very unique source of comedy. In fact, it speaks to one of the other strengths of the comic: its unpredictability. Genius Animals was described to me as a mix of The Big Lebowski and The Crying of Lot 49. But then I start reading and I see that it’s a kind of love story functioning as a metaphor for relationships and secrets.

And then every page turns into something completely different that I couldn’t have ever imagined. There’s some X-Files stuff in it, the funnier episodes where all types of odd and weird things are played for smart laughs. In some parts, even, it also felt like The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror stuff had made it in too. What was the thought process behind this story? When did you start writing something and only to say ‘you know what, this needs conspiracy theories and talking animals or else it’s not going to work?

Chandrasekarana: You know, there were a couple things coming together at the time, when I was coming up with the story. One was I was working on 30 Rock. And I loved that show. We did something on that show that was very specific. I met Tina Fey and she knew she didn’t an a normal TV show. You know, Jack and Liz aren’t going to end up together, things like that. We didn’t want to know what the show is about on purpose. So I was playing at subverting expectations.

As a result of that I had spent a lot of my professional career writing jokes, but I never wrote about people in love, really. I was almost running away from it. So I thought, this is the major emotion people feel and chase. I’ve been wanting to come up with something funny and strange in that world.

I was also at the time really obsessed with the very notion of narratives, like why human beings need narratives. I like the idea of trying to come up with a scenario where narrative is important to the characters themselves. If you get into reading about mindfulness, the main thing they get at is we need narratives, because it’s what gave us an evolutionary advantage. If you see some mammoths coming towards you, for example, you think “Oh, this is going to be a bad area for us to set up camp.” See that’s the idea behind it. But because of that, it also creates the problem of consciousness, which is like our brains are constantly trying to string together narratives to justify why we need to do certain things. And it makes us crazy.

Over all of recorded human history, there’s always been mindfulness movements that are basically about stopping us from getting too much information, be it from radio or the internet or TV. You know, things like looking at the stars will make you lose your mind and then you’ll never get it back. It makes you crazy to have this overwhelming stream of information all the time. So I wanted to come up with a story that was like, “Well, what would you do if you can’t or don’t want to believe your mind?” That means accepting that you’re crazy. Or if you do believe your mind, it’s the craziest thing in the world. I was interested in what happens if you don’t like any of the two choices. What then?

Genius Animals?

Serrano: And the art captures this so well in the process. In fact, Jun’s visual style also taps into the type of weird and odd storytelling bits that you would see more of in 1990’s film, TV series, comics, and so on. Was that something that was in in your mind a lot in terms of imagery for the Genius Animals?

Shiozawa: I think I was trying to definitely get some Big Lebowski into the overall vibe. There’s Coen Brothers imagery where it’s kind of like the real world but it’s also a little bit off and maybe a little bit ominous around the corners. But then it’s also really funny as well, like silly and absurd. I wanted there to be this feeling that this is our world. But if we really take a good look at it, like, everything is a little bit off. I was going for things that were a little off kilter.

In a way, I wanted the comic to come off like this odd black and white world that’s anything but black and white in the story, but I just felt like color and facial expressions and jokes and humor and all of that were part of the fabric of the story. I felt like that whenever I would just read the lines from the script. It’s what it evoked for me. So I said to myself that I shouldn’t fight it too much. It was all so well imbedded in the script.

Serrano: Moving on to conspiracies. Your approach to conspiracies in the book forces your characters to go through a lot of fantasy in their pursuit of the truth, to try and see what sticks as truth and what doesn’t. It’s a bit old-school 90’s in that regard.

In today’s world, where we have QAnon and Pizzagate and all of these other full-fantasy conspiracies making the rounds, where do you think Genius Animals? stands in light of them. Is there such a thing as a good conspiracy? Can they still be a source of some truth or are they just all populated by people who pee on bunny skeletons?

Chandrasekarana: It’s interesting because Genius Animals? came up a while ago, when it felt like the more silly conspiracies were slowly disappearing. We took it as a return to the idea of narrative and how we try to find meaning and explanations of the world.

I was always fascinated with that Art Bell radio show Coast to Coast (paranormal-themed deep dives into conspiracies and unexplained phenomena). That show came up with the craziest explanations possible for what was happening behind the scenes. People really bought into it. I mean, you have those very classic UFO abductions stories that gave people a burning desire to know everything about it. We need to explain stuff! It’s like non-negotiable.

I was just reading about a South American legend of the pink dolphins the other day. Apparently, there are these pink river dolphins that live in this like sort of mystical, magical underwater city underneath the Amazon river. According to legend, at night they’re supposed to turn into very dapper handsome fishermen and seduce women, and then go disappear back into the river. And so if someone has a baby, and they don’t know who the father of the child is…it was a pink dolphin.

So you have this lie, basically, that people came up with that we as a society all decided like, okay, we need that in our lives because it creates a social explanation, a social function, and we’re going to all publicly believe it. I find that to be sort of fascinating and very fun.

Genius Animals?

Shiozawa: That’s exactly how I felt when I was going through the script and trying to capture that old-school conspiracy look, where radio shows and Bat Boy was what was on everyone’s minds. These were the conspiracies we grew up with. Mom and pop conspiracies with the Roswell UFO mystery leading the charge. There was a point when we were making revisions where we discussed not making our characters look like they’re QAnon enthusiasts or anything we’re explicitly seeing today. The closest we got was we ended up putting in the Men’s Rights activists in the bar scene, where every conspiracy group meets for a drink in their own little tables.

Chandrasekarana: And even then we wanted to make sure they looked like losers.

Serrano: And that’s, I think, a great closing remark to cap off this conversation. Moral of the story? Return to the conspiracies of the 1990s. Get some X-Files in your system and believe responsibly. Thanks for the time, guys!

Chandrasekarana: Thank you!

Shiozawa: Thanks!

Genius Animals? can be read in its entirety online at https://geniusanimals.net/.

Why Lovecraft Country’s ‘I AM’ episode is the beating heart of the HBO series

Lovecraft Country, episode 7 “I Am”

(Beware! SPOILERS abound for Lovecraft Country “I Am.”)

If you’ve stuck with Lovecraft Country up to episode 7 you might’ve already realized that this show is on a mission.

Each episode, almost self-contained in scope, puts the series’ heroes in situations more commonly found in storytelling genres dominated by white male narratives. War, horror, adventure, and science fiction each get the chance to be used as statements on the perils of narrowing the possibilities of story by not acknowledging the rich differences found in diversity.

The lead up to episode 7, thus far, has seen the show put its own racially-conscious spin on the haunted house story (ep. 3 “Holy Ghost”), the Indiana Jones-like adventure story (ep. 4 “A History of Violence”), the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-like doppelganger story (ep. 5 “Strange Case”), and the classic war/romance story (ep. 6 “Meet me in Daegu”), each sharing in cosmic horror as the common thread. While Tic (played by Jonathan Mayors) is still the driving force behind the main story, this layered exploration of genre lets every character have their turn behind the wheel.

It’s with episode 7, though, where the show lays its heart and soul bare, with us looking in as if through an open wound that shows signs of healing. It’s aptly titled “I Am.” and it’s where science fiction comes in to drive the following point home: not only does black representation matter, it can create stories the likes of which we haven’t been allowed to see.

In this episode, Hippolyta (played by Aunjanue Ellis) takes to the road to find answers about her husband’s death and the secrets pertaining to an orrery she had previously found. Her search leads her to a mysterious observatory that can open a rift in reality to other dimensions and universes.

Hippolyta’s love for astronomy is played to great effect here. What was once an endearing character trait that made her more relatable and interesting turns her into a key character with access to information few others in Tic’s group can access. Hippolyta felt like a strong background character all the way up until this episode and not having her play a more central role in the unraveling of the main mystery after everything that just happened to her would be doing a disservice to the character.

Lovecraft Country, episode 7 “I Am.”

What makes “I Am.” the proverbial heart of the show lies in its approach to science fiction as a genre that feels tailor-made to portray the black experience. The specter of systemic-racism creeps into the episode as Hippolyta’s journey into the multiverse puts her into several potential realities her character could’ve perfectly fit into if given the chance to define herself within it, hence the episode’s title. The show takes the opportunity to celebrate possibilities rather than merely protesting the lack of representation, something it’s already established and done well in previous chapters.

Throughout her multiversal jumps we see Hippolyta become one of Josephine Baker’s dancers in 1920’s Paris, an Amazonian warrior from the all-female Mino or Dahomey military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey, and a space explorer cataloguing alien life in a fashion similar to how her husband researched new safe routes for his travel guides, an activity he didn’t allow her to participate in for fear she would get hurt on the road (an excuse Hippolyta challenges in the episode to great effect).

Lovecraft Country, episode 7 “I Am.”

Each version closes with Hippolyta declaring “I Am…,” which claims the character’s right to create her own self-identity within each genre, unencumbered by the expectations and prejudices of white male-dominated perspectives.

The episode goes lengths to portray each version of the character as deserving of their own series. It continues the show’s mission of showing how black representation in these genres has been absent or downplayed for far too long, denied by a culture that systemically devalued non-white perspectives (and still does). We get a sense of the type of stories we’ve lost in the process.

While that sense of loss is present and palpable–as it is in every episode thus far–the storytelling realities the show has brought to the fore also come with an unrelenting sense of hope. Hippolyta’s science fiction voyage and its several stops provide new avenues of story that demand to be explored. It amounts to a resounding “it’s about damn time” for the masses.

Fans of HBO’s Watchmen can find certain converging ideas between Hippolyta and Dr. Manhattan, especially in that show’s eighth episode, “A God Walks into Abar.” Manhattan’s decision to give Angela Abar, a.k.a. Sister Night, the choice of remaking him into a black man in that episode spoke to the importance of giving black creators the leading voice in the storytelling process so what we can see how new perspectives come to life. Something similar happens with Hippolyta, only she’s recreating herself under her own conditions with no need for anyone’s permission.

“I Am”/”A God Walks into Abar”

Lovecraft Country’s “I Am.” is yet another statement on the importance of self-identity and creative agency in fiction. The show has been successful in showing how fiction can respond to the needs of many, regardless of skin color, but it’s in this chapter that we see the argument come full circle. It’s a call for justice in representation with the guarantee that it has no intention of settling for anything less than creative control. Hippolyta is now the new face of that claim in Lovecraft Country, and it looks like “I Am” is the new rallying cry.

« Older Entries