Halloween! Yes the greatest day of the year draws near. Forget the empty calories and regretful sugar comedowns that come with candy binges, for there are comics on offer this Saturday and they are ALL FREE! Yes, Halloween comes early. Praise Cthulhu.
In order to make sure the Comicfest swag was adequately previewed, I stood in front of my bathroom mirror, said "Halloween Comicfest" five times and, lo, most of them appeared at the measly cost of my soul, my firstborn and my tickets to next month's Angel Olsen gig. Consider these comics good for All Ages unless marked like this: (M) or I seem particularly apprehensive about their content in the mini-reviews.
ACTION LAB PRESENTS (ACTION LAB)
It's all uphill from here, folks, I promise!
Featuring samples from four Action Lab titles, Action Lab Presents is a pretty ho-hum affair. Opening with a title called Miraculous, you have to be concerned when you see a credit listed as "Art arranged by Cheryl Black." Now, I'm not sure if Cheryl's done all the work here or what (the credits are kind of unclear), but if you like entirely computer generated art in your comics, boy, you're in for a treat. I do not, so let's move on as I have no real idea what's going on here story-wise. It appears to be based on some sort of card game. I'd clarify that but I can't really be bothered. Sam Ellis and Christy Blanch's Monster Dojo rests solely on a Karate Kid gag that's sure to go over the heads of its target audience, but with a gaggle of cartoony monsters, the kids might have some fun with this nonetheless, I guess. Ghouls Scouts by Steve Bryant and Mark Stegbauer is kind of like Oni's Junior Braves of the Apocalypse (in which scouts battle zombies) but...well, not as good. That might be a bit unfair as there are only six pages presented so give it a read and judge for yourself. Rounding things off is a four-page sample from the ongoing Puppet Master comic based, yes, on those horror movies of the same name. It's a little strange to have a "Teen Plus" comic included with all this All Ages fare, but alarmed parentals be cool - this is a pretty innocuous inclusion, no puppet murder-carnage, I swear.
(M) AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE HALLOWEEN COMICFEST EDITION (ARCHIE)
Note: as this is rated Teen Plus "for violence and mature content," I've marked it (M) to be on the safe side.
Perhaps I've read to many comics too quickly in putting this column together, but I'm struck by how Afterlife With Archie, underneath it all, may be a comment on life as a fictional comic book character, doomed to entertain the masses, month after month, incarnation after incarnation, never finding peace, not even in death...
For the fans of this series, this Halloween Comicfest edition of Afterlife With Archie is the first issue of the second story arc, presented in black, white and grey. For newcomers, Afterlife With Archie brings the zombie apocalypse to Riverdale. Gone is the Dan DeCarlo cartoonishness to the art and the milkshakes and "aw, shucks" stories - this is serious business. It's also pretty good. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's scripts bring both the soapiness and the drama of The Walking Dead and filters that back through the sprawling cast's well-established inter-personal relationships. Artist Francesco Francavilla brings noir-ish moodiness and the perfect balance between the cartoonishness of the old-school Archie with the realism of someone like Sean Phillips. I've not read the second arc, but this issue is a strong start. In many ways, this is the series that spawned not only the line-wide Archie reboots but I bet that without this, you don't have DC's Scooby Doo and other Hanna-Barbera books (see way down below). Grab this little trendsetter if curious.
ASPEN PRESENTS: THE ADVENTURES OF THE ASPEN UNIVERSE (ASPEN)
Something felt a little off about Aspen's All Ages Comicfest book at first glance. Artist Siya Oum attractively cartoons the whole thing in black and white but the pages feel somehow empty. However, upon arriving at a colouring activity page I realised that the whole book is really designed to be coloured by you and/or your kids. There's word puzzles, dot-to-dots and more also included but, seriously, grab those Derwents out because there's literally hours upon hours of colouring to do here. If this is all an accident, it's a very happy one, but I'm going to give Aspen the benefit of the doubt here and say good job to them - even if that cliffhanger at the end of the book's second story, Charismagic: Sparkle, is a little cruel. You don't have a little cat running in terror from a clearly predatory bear in a kids book and leave it at that, guys...
(M) BLACK-EYED KIDS (AFTERSHOCK)
Nice to see new publisher on the block, Aftershock, getting in on the action with a black and white reprint of the debut issue of Black-Eyed Kids by writer Joe Pruett and artist Szymon Kudranski, whose artwork looks so good in black and white I almost don't want to see the regular coloured issue. All set up here, as a sleepwalking teen alarms the rest of his family and a group of black eyed teenagers commit seemingly random acts of violence across town. Pruett scripts us an intriguing start to the series, with the kids' black eyes and expressionless faces kind of looking like Michael Myers masks thanks to Kudranski's black and white art - which is supremely detailed and uses photographic backgrounds almost like manga artists Inio Asano and Hiroya Oku. It's an interesting and moody effect.
Well worth a look, it's also good to see that collected editions of various Aftershock series are beginning to roll off the pressers. I hope they do well. Black-Eyed Kids #1 is an effective start to the series. It's clearly in no hurry, a good thing, taking its time to build atmosphere and tension to what hopefully is a major payoff down the line.
BOOM! BOX HALLOWEEN HAUNT 2016
The second of many squeeze-'em-in samplers this year, Boom! Box wisely kick things off with a self-contained (I'm pretty sure, I'm a little behind) Lumberjanes story by Shannon Watters and Caret Pitesch all about mix tapes, the joys of music and the pitfalls of "cool." Super sweet stuff. Giant Days by John Allison and Max Sarin has been stealing a lot of hearts so it's nice to read some of that - shame it's just three pages worth. The quality is there, no doubt, and this recap of a group of teenage girls adventures functions well as an introduction to the characters even if it seems to spoil every adventure they've had to date. I can literally tell you nothing about James Tynion IV (does he really need the "IV"?) and Rian Sygh's Backstagers from the two pages presented here. It looks like good comics but I'm not sure who's going to pick the series up based on this alone. Same with Goldie Vance by Hope Larson and Brittney Williams - again, solid comics, talented creators. No idea what's happening.
Boom! Box's effort highlights the joys and frustrations of the comics sample package. It all feels too random, difficult to connect with, despite the obvious quality of the work on offer. Pick this up for Lumberjanes, everything else is a bonus. Looking at it like that, you can't really go wrong.
DC SUPERHERO GIRLS (DC)
Not particularly in the spirit of the day, but you can't really blame DC for loading up this year's offering with hot properties. DC Superhero Girls' free Halloween offering contains a few scenes from an original graphic novel titled "Hits and Myths" which is Homer's Odyssey via Superheroes gone kiddie. This is bright and bouncy stuff by writer Shea Fontana, artist Yancey Labat and colourist Monica Kubina, tossing a selection of de-aged DC characters into a school together who somehow find the time to fight super-crime on the side. It's perfect entry-level comics really, candy-coloured and wholesome but comes with pretty dead-on characterisation all round, even considering Etrigan The Demon is one of the girls' teachers and the throwaway villain at its opening is rather lamely named "Lion Mane." Sheesh. Jack Kirby probably dreamed up fifty throwaway, lets'-get-things-moving villains every day and none of them were ever that bad...
DISNEY: TIM BURTON'S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (TOKYOPOP)
So I actually opened this up and thought there had been some sort of printing error. Readers will have to work harder than they should to figure out what Tokopop's offering actually is -- a slice of Jun Asuka's manga adaptation of Tim Burton's enduring animated classic The Nightmare Before Christmas. I only know this because I bothered to turn to the inside back cover (this edition reads as manga - right to left) make sure my glasses were on correctly and peer at the tiny box advertising the full details of this project. Shame. This is an intriguing and well-crafted effort, from what's offered here at least, with Asuka's pages easily transmuting Burton's gothic stop-motion into heavily toned, scratchily inked manga. I did the research Tokyopop couldn't be bothered doing for this project -- this adaptation was created back in 2004 and its creator only professionally debuted the year before. Handsome work by Asuka. Terrible she's not credited properly by the publishers.
GRUMPY CAT HALLOWEEN COMICFEST 2016 (DYNAMITE)
As with this licenced property's FCBD offering, Grumpy Cat Halloween Comicfest totally overachieves. "I Know What You Did Last Summer, I Just Don't Care," by Ben Fisher and Steve Uy fills the bulk of this minicomic offering, as Grumpy Cat and sidekick Pokey chat about the year's best holidays and visit a haunted house.
Dump trucks of Grumpycash should be unloaded onto Uy's front lawn ASAP to keep him on this property as his lively, witty cartooning is the reason to pick up the book. Look for the stellar cover featuring the titular feline in the rain, JasonVoorhees-style hockey mask askew just enough to make out his trademark grumpy scowl. Fun stuff.
HARLEY QUINN AND THE SUICIDE SQUAD SPECIAL EDITION (DC)
Quick note: Marked T for teen.
Yeaaahhhh, look I don't think it's unkind of me to suggest that this is not artist Jim Lee's finest work but this free comic is an intriguing sample of the rebooting of Suicide Squad into what the publishers surely hope will be a long-term A-list property. I'm guessing the material is drawn from Suicide Squad: Rebirthvand given a new #1 because DC, but don't punch me if this is incorrect as this is not really my area of expertise.
Anyway. This issue is scripted by Rob Williams (whose Vertigo book Unfollow is really worth a look) and largely drawn by Lee and a slew of apparently very harried inkers. The highlight for me, however, is a middle section drawn by Sean "Cheeks" Galloway, who gives Harley Quinn's hallucinatory expository sequence some beautifully curved and expressive cartooning, something like a glossier Tiny Titans, that makes the eventual return to Lee all the more jarring. Still, those curious about all this DC Rebirthing going on or even those just looking for a window into the world of the Suicide Squad post-movie should grab this unreservedly (and then maybe buy the John Ostrander-scripted collections of the original series. That's the good stuff right there!).
(M) HARROW COUNTY #1 (DARK HORSE)
Wise move by Dark Horse here, bringing the atmospheric and perfectly Halloweeny Harrow County back in this freebie edition. I've reviewed this issue before, back upon the launch of this successful series. Nobody minds if I cut and paste that, right? But first, one quick thing to note for completists: this edition comes with a brand new cover by artist Tyler Crook.
There are things not of this realm loose in Harrow County, supernatural beings known as ‘haints.’ Emmy, on the cusp of her eighteenth birthday, feels the pull of the big city just as the mysteries and the paranormal entities of her hometown begin to truly make their presence known to her.
Steeped in the ghostly, Harrow County #1 by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook reads like an unearthed slice of classic American supernatural fiction The creators are immediately at home in their fictional landscape, with Bunn spinning an engrossing camp-fire creeper of a narrative (which, interestingly, grew from a novel Bunn abandoned) over Crook’s rich, earthy and distinctive painted artwork.
JOHNNY BOO AND THE PUMPKIN TIGER (TOP SHELF/IDW)
I had no idea beloved cartoonist James Kolchaka had produced so much Johnny Boo material but (take note Tokyopop - this is how you do it), thanks to the inside front cover, I learned that there are seven volumes currently available, the first five of which can be purchased in a bargain-priced slipcase that I myself might have to add to my shelf.
School Library Journal called Johnny Boo "A landmark book for the kindergarten crowd" and it's hard to disagree. In this little sampler, our little ghost with the ducktail hairdo goes skateboarding without a helmet (uh oh!), gets lectured by little ghost pal Squiggle, accidentally summons The Ice Cream Monster and discovers the existence of pumpkin patch-guarding Pumpkin Tiger. Phew. That's a lot for such a little comic and Kolchaka's absurdist little story is virtually guaranteed to keep the little ones giggling. Thumbs way up.
LITTLE TAILS ON HALLOWEEN! (MAGNETIC PRESS)
Oh my goodness, this is adorable.
Frederic Brremaud and Frederico Bertolucci's Little Tails is the adventures of a puppy and a squirrel named Chipper and Squizzo exploring the wilderness around their home, learning about animals and nature and having a good deal of fun in the process. Educational? Sure. Most importantly though, Little Tails is *gorgeous* with each page featuring a central painted image with sequential penciled panels up top and bottom of each page that look like lost storyboard images from a sadly never completed animated film.
Struggling to come up with Halloween costume ideas, Chipper and Squizzo look outdoors for inspiration, finding the creepiest critters they can. With a maze and a word puzzle included, Little Tails on Halloween packs interactivity with its education. Sleeper hit of Halloween Comicfest? Yep. Ensure you grab this.
MUMMY'S ALWAYS RIGHT (COMIX TRIBE)
Gaws is a kid who also happens to be a mummy. His mummy is also a mummy and she is, apparently, always right. In this installment of Joe Mulvey's Mummy's Always Right, Gaws attempts to pick a Halloween costume - difficult to do when you’re already one yourself and runs an imaginary gauntlet of comic book ideas, told over a sequence of splash pages, as he imagines himself in the garb of various costumed heroes and villains. Shout-out to colourist Jules Rivera here, who elevates Mulvey's cartooning greatly with some really nice and painterly work. Not the most memorable effort of the day but this is cute, inoffensive stuff, perfect for kidlettes of all ages.
MY LITTLE PONY: HALLOWEEN COMICFEST 2016
It's My Little Pony. You'll either be inclined to pick this up or not, I'd imagine. I know nothing about this property (sorry!), but this comic by writer Rob Anderson and artist Amy Mebberson looks like pretty solid All Ages pony fare to me. Perhaps I'm going crazy, but I almost swear there's a Tezuka Unico bounce to the posture some of Mebberson's ponies and extra points to the team for actually delivering on the theme -- spooky dreams, missing books and apparitions all make their way through the story. It's all harmless though, so saddle up pony lovers of all ages.
QUILTE (COMIX TRIBE)
So apparently Comix Tribe is putting out something called C Is For Cthulhu: The Lovecraft Alphabet Book which, I have to be honest, I kind of wish was their Comicfest giveaway despite how intriguing John Lees and Iain Laurie's Quilte actually is. The best way to describe Quilt is also the most unfair- but I'm going to do it anyway. A kind of underground comix version Clean Room, Quilte sees Dr. Karla Quilte, Dream Therapist, entering her patient's dream states to help them overcome severe traumas. Things, as they must in horror comics, go awry...
It's tonally dark stuff, with artist Iain Laurie playing a Dave Cooper goes Doctor Strange riff (another unfair comparison, sorry guys!) over the course of these bad acid trip pages, with clever layouts aplenty. Apparently, the duo also completed a project called And Then Emily Was Gone, which I'm keen to take a look at. For adults and older teens, I'd say, Quilte may well fly under the radar but it is generously sized and really worth a look. Now where's that Lovecraft Alphabet book at?
PEACH AND THE ISLE OF MONSTERS (ACTION LAB/AW YEAH COMICS!)
A bewildering, Bendis-storm of word balloons will confront the young reader who picks this effort up, but expositional info-dumps aside, Peach and The Isle of Monsters by writer Franco Aureliani (dial it back a bit, Franco!) and artist Agnes Garbowska has a lot to like about it. Featuring a feisty heroine, Peach, who apparently was born of a peach, who takes an ancient sword and attempts to stop the creatures on the Isle of Monsters that steal from her village nightly, this is a good little teaser overall with some decent cartooning...but man, those word balloons....
SCOOBY APOCALYPSE AND HANNA BARBERA PREVIEW EDITION (DC)
Sandwiched into this Comicfest freebie are pages from each of DCs four Hanna-Barbera re-imaginings, Scooby Apocalypse, Future Quest, Wacky Raceland and The Flintstones. There's not really enough of any of them here to critique except to say that each of the four titles looks way better than expected (Future Quest excepted - that was the title that initially made rock solid sense to me).
So what is going on here? Well, Scooby and the gang face a monster-filled apocalypse thanks to writers Keith Giffen and J.M DeMatteis (whose work on various Justice League books in the '80s remains an all-time DC highlight) and artist Howard Porter (whose work has improved immeasurably since his tenure on the Grant Morrison helmed Justice League of the '90s). Jonny Quest and Hadji team up with the more "super-heroic" characters of the Hanna-Barbera stable, including Space Ghost, Birdman and The Herculoids, in Future Quest. Scripted by Jeff Parker, Future Quest steals the show, as it should with the *beautiful* art by Evan "Doc" Shaner and the legendary Steve "The Dude" Rude. Editorial deserves a huge pat on the back for assembling this creative team - it's pitch perfect comic creator casting. The Flinstones go grown-up thanks to writer Mark Russell and criminally underrated artist Steve Pugh who looks to be putting out career-best work on this title, which is kind of mind-boggling when you think about it. Rounding things out is Wacky Races by writer Ken Pontac and veteran artist Leonardo Manco whose computer-aided, hyper-detailed artwork breathes new life into Dick Darstardly, Muttley and co. It's comics as Hors d'oeuvres, all in all, not something I'm usually in favour of as these things tend to get a little muddled, but as pure promotion Scooby Apocalypse and Hanna-Barbera Preview Edition is a success.
Interestingly, like all three DC offerings, the Hanna-Barbera sample is geared toward moving collected editions rather than monthlies and I have to say, it makes a pretty compelling argument to pick them all up...
SPIDEY #1 (MARVEL)
Apparently containing material taken from an oversized Treasury Edition (Treasury Editions are back? That's so great!) is writer Robbie Thompson and artist Nick Bradshaw's Spidey #1. Nothing really Halloweeny going on here, but what readers will find is classic Spider-Man - Pete fights a villain, Pete goes to High School, Pete has to act dumb in front of Gwen Stacey while Spider-Man beats up Doctor Octopus (lifting something unbearably heavy in the process), Pete goes home to Aunt May. It's pretty paint-by-numbers stuff on the surface, a "greatest hits" kind of Spidey story, but here's the thing - there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Thompson's script is simple and straightforward, cramming an origin into a single opening page and clearly and concisely rolling his story out thereafter. Bradshaw, however, looks like an absolute superstar here. His Spider-Man is lithe and expressive despite the mask, his art is detailed and fun - he's still channelling Arthur Adams but there's a lot more going on here than just imitation. All in all, this is a solid introduction to the character for new Spider-Man fans and a reminder, perhaps, of how you can still make classic, simple stories in the Stan Lee mould work seamlessly in 2016. Really good.
Note: Marked Older Teen.
Ahead of December's can't-miss complete hardcover collection, Viz's Tomie Comicfest edition will have fans of weird horror rubbing their hands together gleefully. Tomie, the femme fatale who returns from the grave over and over again, capable of making any man do her bidding, is one of the prototypes of the J-Horror monstrous women and it's a treat to see one of her bizarre tales given away. Fans of her creator, Junji Ito, will love seeing his artwork at regular comics size and "Mansion," the story given away, packs in Ito's trademark weirdness and talent at creating truly unsettling situations as well as some of the most striking body horror ever seen in comics.
"Mansion" is part Gothic, part psychodrama, part body horror romp but the less said about this the better, really. Horror is difficult to do effectively in comics but what the medium excels at is its ability to bend our reality into disquieting new shapes. There aren't many creators as adept at doing this as effectively as Junji Ito. If you like horror, you must pick up Tomie.
THE UNBEATABLE SQUIRREL GIRL: YOU CHOOSE THE STORY (MARVEL)
Another not particularly Halloweeny entry, but one that's a tonne of fun nonetheless is The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl: You Choose The Story #1, which is actually #7 of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl reprinted as a new #1 because Marvel.
Anyway, I literally just realised after all these years that the name "Squirrel Girl" makes a lot more sense when pronounced in a North American accent. I also just realised that I'll have to start reading this series at some point soon because it's really very good. Introduced by none other than Galactus himself is this "Squirrel Girl simulator" issue in which you can choose what Squirrel Girl does over the course of several adventures. Writer Ryan North and artist Erica Henderson are clearly having a ball here as our heroine battles The Swarm, Bonehead and homework over the course of this self-contained issue, and this unique series really feels like something of an outlier in this era of supposedly editorially driven corporate comics. Oh, and Koi Boy. Haha. Koi Boy...Good times.
WRAITHBORN (BENITEZ PRODUCTIONS)
Joe Benitez's Wraithborn #1 gets its '90s-styled pages reprinted in this freebie. Featuring a teen schoolgirl by day, supernatural slayer by night, Wraithborn feels a bit like "Todd MacFarlane's Buffy" if that makes any sense, with a script (by Marcia Chen) that somehow feels pretty plodding despite all manner of stuff exploding off the page in angular panels. I much preferred Benitez's FCBD offering, Lady Mechanika but fans of the particular comics dynamism that Benitez admittedly excels at will find much to like amidst all the glowing swords and armoured beasties.
See you next week. Love your comics.