Photo ©2013 Marnie Ann Joyce
By Patrick A. Reed
This year's Free Comic Book Day is the biggest and craziest yet, with more than 50 different comics from various publishers vying for shelf space and room in your shopping bag. Some titles are geared for kids, some feature mature content, some are fit for everybody – and thus, we present this handy field guide, so you can know what to look out for.
(A quick note: While these comics are free to the general public, they are NOT free to retailers. Comic shops order and pay cost for each and every issue they give away, and therefore, not all of these titles will be available in all stores.)
There's a great variety of comics for young readers at this year's FCBD. Here's a few of the best:
"Molly Danger" / "Princeless" preview (Action Lab Studios)
This issue is the one of the highlights of this year's celebration: the first official appearance of Jamal Igle's long-awaited "Molly Danger." Molly is a super powered ten-year-old who works for a mysterious organization named D.A.R.T. (the Danger Action Response Team), and in this short introductory tale, she battles a mad scientist and his giant walking robot suit. It's quick, it's clever, Igle's art is clear and clean, and the whole production crackles with energy. I've been looking forward to this project since it was first announced, and this preview lives up to my high hopes, and leaves me hungry for more.
The second story in this issue is a sample of Action Lab's "Princeless" series: an appealing fable of girls riding dragons, battling princes, and defeating standard-issue fairy-tale chauvinistic stereotypes.
"Sesame Street" / "Strawberry Shortcake" (Ape Entertainment / Kizoic)
This "Sesame Street" sampler features Elmo (as Super-Elmo) and Grover (in his Super-Grover guise) learning important lessons about believing in yourself and the joy of helping others. It's nice to see the "Sesame" characters come to life in this medium, the story flies by (and in the case of Super Grover, often crashes into things along the way) and the art by Amy Mebberson does a wonderful job of capturing the elasticity and emotions of the central muppet characters. The flip side of the issue contains three tiny tales of Strawberry Shortcake and her pals, is chock-full of sugary sweetness and fruit-centric puns, and is super-cute.
"Mouse Guard" / "Rust" flip book (Archaia)
Archaia has an amazing slate of young-readers titles, and though only two are featured on the cover of this issue, there's far more than that lurking within: new stories from the worlds of David Peterson's "Mouse Guard," Royden Lepp's "Rust," Sean Rubin's "Bolivar," Jim Henson's "Labyrinth," and Nate Cosby and Chris Eliopoulos's "Cow Boy." The "Mouse Guard" piece is a love story told in text and tapestry, the "Labyrinth" chapter tells of a day in the life of the valiant fox Sir Didymus, "Rust" follows a young boy with a jetpack as he helps with chores around the farm, the "Bolivar" vignette puzzles over specifics of dinosaur classification, and the centerpiece, "Cow Boy," has fun with the conventions of the flip-book format as it tells a story in two directions at once.
"Top Shelf Kids Club "(Top Shelf)
While I think of Top Shelf for their adult-oriented work with Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar, Craig Thompson, and Jeff Lemire, they also publish a wonderful roster of all-ages titles, and this black-and-white FCBD offering contains samples of many of those: James Kochalka's "Johnny Boo," Christian Slade's "Korgi," Ray Friesen's "Pirate Penguin Vs. Ninja Chicken," Andy Runton's "Owly," Jess Smart Smiley's "Upside Down," and a preview of Rob Harrell's upcoming "Monster On The Hill" graphic novel. Each of these mini-stories is quick and charming, and suitable for all ages of readers, though the "Owly" story in the front presents a problem: the formatting is simply too cramped and confusing for small readers. The sixteen tiny panels per page make it difficult to follow along, and the thin black lines don't pop nearly enough to make it comprehensible to kids – even I, as a life-long comic reader found it tough to read. It demands more space to breathe (the full-page panel that ends the story looks lovely), and it's a shame that such a fun little story is presented in a way that doesn't play to its strengths. That being said, the rest of the book looks great, and gives a taste of many other wonderful series.
"Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: New Animated Adventures" (IDW)
I haven't followed the more recent incarnations of the "TMNT," but I picked this book up and had no problem diving right in – all the elements seemed immediately familiar: the four brothers bickering and battling, sensei Splinter offering guidance and wisdom, an evil genius threatening the city, and robots getting kicked, sworded, and nunchucked. It's a rollicking, radical ride of reptilian action that has pretty much everything I want in a Turtles comic.
"NFL Rush Zone" (Action Lab Studios)
This is a book about a young kid who is also a superhero – in times when America is threatened, he heads to the Football Hall Of Fame, dons a super-mecha-football-uniform, and teams with the living embodiments of team mascots to battle evil. It's both as brilliant, and as awful, as that capsule description suggests. My main problem with this book, however, is the back-up story, a preview of the new "Skyward" series. It starts out like a nice little story, a girl waking up and preparing for her day… And then the last panel shows said young girl stretching in a skintight outfit and, in one tiny moment, it embodies every awful male-gaze/pin-up/cheesecake cliché of modern-day comic art: tits, ass, flexing young woman-as-object. It stopped me in my tracks, and made me flip back to the cover to make sure I was still reading the same NFL-themed comic. Especially as Action Lab is the company that produced the purposefully feminist and forward-thinking "Molly Danger" / "Princeless" book that I reviewed above, I'm really troubled that their other "young readers" FCBD offering contains a straight-up dose of good old-fashioned lascivious sexism. It's one panel, but that's more than enough to send a message to readers.
So yeah. Skip this one.
"Ugly Doll Comics" (Viz Kids)
Now here's something incredible. This comic features not only "Ugly Dolls," but also three other big-name licensed properties: "Hello Kitty," "Pokémon," and "Mameshiba." Two "Ugly Doll" stories lead off the book, and form a sort of whimsical mess of non-sequiturs and nonsense – Tray goes to the moon to get pie, and a pair of Ice Bats practice flying with their eyes closed. The next section is a excerpt from a "Mameshiba" graphic novel, following two little bean-dogs on the run from a ghost. The "Hello Kitty" story is wordless, but mixes pictograms and pantomime to marvelous effect, telling a clear and engaging tale about Kitty and her camera on safari. And the book wraps up with a four pages of Pokémon mini-strips and trivia, which should appeal to any fans of the franchise. This is a book to get; any young reader is bound to start off knowing at least one of these properties, and they'll most likely have some new favorites by the time they finish.
"The Smurfs" (Papercutz)
Drawing from Papercutz' substantial library of licensed properties and translated books, this giveaway features three stories of "The Smurfs", a selection from the "Annoying Orange" series, and a short tale of "Ariol," a humanoid blue donkey. The lead story tells of a cuisine-based battle between the Smurf village, a hungry ogre, and the Smufs' constant nemeses, Gargamel and Azrael. The other two one-page Smurf stories are simple set-up and punchline gag pieces, and both are perfectly amusing. Annoying Orange is a character that I've never cared for, but the story herein, set in a bowling alley, is actually quite charming. And the "Ariol" story that rounds out the book is a bizarre little look at the title character losing himself in a book and the world going on around him.
"Kaboom! Summer Blast!" (Kaboom Studios)
Kaboom didn't produce any new "Adventure Time" material for this book, but they did do the next best thing: the lead story here is a reprint of the much-acclaimed "Choose Your Own Adventure-Time" from "Adventure Time" #10, which allows the reader to lead Finn & Jake through different paths of the story, and follow the varying obstacles and jokes that lie along the way. It's one of the best comic tales of the last few years, and this is a welcome encore appearance. The rest of the book contains samples of Kaboom's other titles: A four-page Regular Show story set in an amusement park, a tale of prehistoric characters from the "Ice Age" series, a brief drawing tutorial (courtesy of good ol' Charlie Brown), a "Garfield" story that gently mocks the obsession with keeping comic books in perfect condition, and a brand-new Herobear And The Kid piece by Mike Kunkel. Each of the six inclusions in this book are good-to-great, packaged together, they're essential.
"World Of Archie Digest" (Archie Comics)
Archie adapts its trademark digest format to the Free Comic Book Day model, offering 100 pages of stories from throughout the company's history, starring Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, Josie & The Pussycats, Sabrina The Teenage Witch, and all the rest of the Riverdale gang. There's no surprises here, just a heaping helping of all-american teenage hijinks. What more could you ask for?
(Other notable all-ages comics to keep an eye out for this year include Hermes Press' "Scratch 9," a superpowered feline frolic; Drawn & Quarterly's "Pippi Longstocking" / "Anna & Froga" flip-book, which features reprints of classic "Pippi" comic strips, and a quartet of short stories about a girl and her frog; Oni's "Rated FREE For Everyone!!" showcasing their new "Mermin and Grogan" Adventures titles, "United Plankton's Spongebob Freestyle Funnies," a selection of new stories featuring the undersea character; and Marvel's title promoting their new "Hulk And The Agents Of S.M.A.S.H."/"Avengers Assemble" cartoons; and DC's similar release promoting their "Beware The Batman"/"Teen Titans Go!" animations.)