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.
"The Strangers" (Oni Press)
Oni did not come to mess around – for their headlining FCBD offering, they're giving away the complete first issue of a new ongoing series. And this series, "The Strangers" by Chris Roberson and Scott Kowalchuk, is flat-out fantastic. It's a supernatural superhero super-spy whirlwind, a headlong leap into a world of cold war paranoia and mysterious villainy, suave occultists and cocktail-swilling secret agents. It's sleek, stylish, and well worth seeking out; a comic this good would be a bargain at any price.
I'm not putting a spoiler warning on this review because there's nothing to spoil here – the lead story is simply set-up, prelude, and ominous gloom-and-doom portent. It features Thanos, but you'll know that if you look at the cover. It features Thanos being evil, but that's no surprise; he's a villain. It's not even really a story at all, it's an ad, a teaser for a comic that's going to come out later this year; ten pages of self-important dialogue and spooky aliens. It does exactly what that scene at the end of The Avengers film did, but it takes longer.
However, the art (by Jim Cheung) is lovely. And there's a back-up feature that I also can't spoil, because it's a reprint of a short story from 1977, by Scott Edelman and Mike Zeck, about Thanos fighting Drax The Destroyer. Which is great, and a nice little diversion. And tucked in the back of the book, there's a four-page sample of the upcoming Avengers graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Mike McKone.
So while the Drax vs. Thanos reprint is a nice little bonus, this still ends up being a dud as a Free Comic Book Day offering. A cliffhanger to a story that hasn't been established yet isn't very effective at making me want to come back for more… Cliffhangers work best once you know the characters, and have some grounding. The books that work best are the ones that tell a compelling story, and pull me in based on the quality of the work, as opposed to simply teasing a story that may or may not end up being interesting. (Marvel did a great job of that with their 0.1 preview issue for Guardians Of The Galaxy – shame they couldn't pull off the same trick here.)
Oh well. Missed chances.
"Star Wars / Captain Midnight / Avatar" (Dark Horse)
Now THIS is how it's done! In a mere eight pages of "Star Wars" comic, Brian Wood manages to introduce characters, build suspense, create a satisfying conclusion, and make me hungry for more. Along with artist Ryan Odagawa, he takes old favorites Darth Vader and Boba Fett and weaves them into a fast-moving blast of a story, full of double-crossing, laser fire, and outer-space action. I finished reading it, stopped, and flipped back to the beginning to go through it again.
The back-up stories are quite worthwhile too. The "Captain Midnight" piece is little more than a teaser, but it sets up a larger story while including plenty of action, and is perfectly enjoyable on its own merits. And while I have no familiarity with the mythos of "Avatar: The Last Airbender," the short adventure here was enough to pull me in and get me curious.
"Mass Effect / R.I.P.D. / The Fabulous Killjoys" (Dark Horse)
Dark Horse's other FCBD offering doesn't quite hit the highs of the first. The "Mass Effect" feature is pretty good, a short story of a man attempting to prove his worth, triumph over adversity, and fly spaceships. But the other two stories here seem a little cramped and confused, sacrificing inspiration and/or clarity in their attempts to wedge themselves into the tight space provided. And that's a shame, because they both seem to have great potential. The "R.I.P.D." piece has an interesting séance-gone-wrong set up, but loses itself in quick cuts and questionable storytelling choices. And the "Fabluous Killjoys" story just packs too much into a short few pages: it's full of mad ideas and interesting characters, but lacks the all-important room to breathe.
My verdict on this one is "Qualified Success" – I ended up enjoying a story I didn't expect to ("Mass Effect"), and despite my reservations about these two stories, I'm intrigued enough to check out the "R.I.P.D." collected editions (and the upcoming movie adaptation), and I'm looking forward to getting a better look at "The Fabulous Killjoys" when issue #1 comes out in June.
"Superman: Last Son Of Krypton special edition" (DC Comics)
This seems a bizarre choice for a frontline FCBD title: a reprint of a Superman story from 2007, set in the now-outdated and discarded timeline of the pre-"New 52" DC Universe. It has the advantages of being a perfectly solid Superman story, and having the entire storyline that it kicks off readily available in paperback – it has the disadvantage of featuring an origin and costume for the lead character that don't match the new issues being released each month. And the added disadvantage of not mentioning or in any way promoting the collection of the complete story that I referred to in the previous sentence. So it's a missed opportunity to promote bookstore sales, and a non-starter for leading new readers toward picking up new DC titles.
I really can't figure this one out. There's a new Superman movie coming out, so perhaps they just picked a random story to reprint, and then didn't bother to read through and see if it made sense. But why wouldn't you promote your ongoing titles and current continuity? Why would you end a free comic with the words 'to be continued', and then not tell readers where to find the continuation? I don't know.
Still, as I said, it's a nice enough comic on its own merits. And it has a couple pages in the back giving a sneak peek at the upcoming "Superman: Unchained" series by Scott Snyder and Jim Lee. And, well… It's free.
"Atomic Robo" (Red 5 Comics)
"Atomic Robo" remains, month-to-month, one of the most consistently entertaining comics on the stands. And this giveaway issue is a perfect example of why: twelve pages of a courageous robot in charge of a secret scientific organization, battling a rampaging dronebot bent on destruction. (If there's anything in that description that doesn't sound awesome to you, I'm not explaining things well enough.) Brian Clevinger's script is clear and witty, Scott Wegener's art is dynamic and bold, and there's an intriguing twist at the end that will presumably lead into the next full "Atomic Robo" storyline.
And if that's not enough, the back half of the issue is a bonus preview for "Bodie Troll," a super-adorable new all-ages series by Jay Fosgitt about a little troll that can't seem to scare anybody. (The first issue came out last week, and can be found in all good comic shops.)
"Marble Season" (Drawn & Quarterly)
Gilbert Hernandez's "Marble Season" is a stream-of-consciousness journal of childhood, an autobiographical trip through an early-1960s neighborhood of children playing ball, sitting on concrete steps, starting secret clubs, and wandering through vacant lots and backyards. This excerpt from the full-length graphic novel captures a strange twillght world of innocence, filled with references to the popular culture of mid-century America – evoking the endless suburbia and preadolescent angst of old Peanuts strips, filtered through the bias of personal experience and dispassionate eye of historical memory. Hernandez does a masterful job capturing the emotions of youth, and creates entire personalities with a few thin ink lines – I hadn't heard of this book before, but based on this preview, it just shot to the top of my shopping list.
"Valiant 2013" and "Valiant Masters" (Valiant Entertainment)
Valiant didn't bother to put together actual comics for this year's FCBD, instead releasing two separate pamphlets: one promoting this year's "Harbinger Wars" event, one giving tastes of material from an upcoming series of reprint collections.
The "Harbinger Wars" preview looks interesting, and packs a lot of action into a few short pages, though it was a bit tough to follow for someone (like me) who doesn't have much experience with the Valiant universe and its characters. The rear of the book includes a few short previews for the assorted ongoing Valiant series.
The "Valiant Masters" preview contains selections from the company's classic titles of the 90s, that, sadly, look like they were shot from low-grade printed copies of the comics themselves. Colors are overly deep and muddied, the black lines have a faint blur around them, details disappear into backgrounds. It's not a very impressive preview for an ambitious reprint program – hopefully the final products will be of higher quality than the samples here are.
"Buck Rogers" (Hermes Press)
"Buck Rogers" was the original sci-fi comic hero, and Hermes Press use their giveaway book as an opportunity to present some of his classic adventures to a new audience: this pamphlet collects two of his full-color Sunday storylines from the 1930s (as well as the first seven black-and-white daily strips, and a gallery of vintage memorabilia). Buck and his comrades battle monsters, travel by flying metal cube and projector ray, race through a universe of beautiful art-deco spaceships and ray guns, and shoot through the skies on jetpacks – the visions of the future may seem quaint compared to our modern world of iPhones and instantly accessible information, but the imagination that fills up each panel has lost none of its power to inspire. While it may not be to everyone's tastes, it's right at the top of my favorite FCBD offerings.
(Other notable FCBD books this year include a special issue of "The Walking Dead" from Image Comics; Bantam's "Kellerman/L'Amour" sampler; a preview of Avatar's grotesque and over-the-top superhero / serial killer series "Absolution"; the premiere of Top Cow's full-length cyberfantasy series "Aphrodite IX;" Graphic India's collection of stories about spirits and deities, "Ramayan 3392 AD"; IDW's "Judge Dredd" special edition, which reprints some classic Brian Bolland-drawn tales; New England Comics' all-new issue of "The Tick"; Fantagraphics' "Prince Valiant" collection; and a special issue of famed UK sci-fi comic "2000 AD.")