REVIEW: Silver Surfer #5 – “One of the most fun comics being published right now”

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on August 28, 2014.

Silver Surfer #5

Why is it that new series about The Defenders always struggle to find an audience? The combination of characters like Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange, and The Hulk allow creators to touch upon a diverse array of big ideas. The cosmic, the supernatural, and the bigtime fisticuffs of superhero comics are all found in this team up and it can make for some incredibly imaginative stories. Silver Surfer #5 is technically about its titular character, but Dan Slott and Michael Allred have managed to squeeze all of the creativity and variety of a Defenders comic into this series, including appearances from both The Hulk and Dr. Strange.

Michael Allred doesn’t need much of an excuse to make comics exciting though. FromMadman to X-Statix, Allred is a consummate comic artist who is constantly pushing the medium’s boundaries. Even in the quietest of pages, readers can find some hook in the art, a quirk that catches the eye. Sometimes it’s simply an odd angle used to create an interesting effect. More often, it involves panels being broken, characters striking bold, Kirby-esque poses, and surreal ideas put to paper. The cover of Silver Surfer #5 speaks to how Allred approaches comic art, The Hulk flying directly at the reader from a surfboard punch with strange effects coating the background. It’s dynamic, creative, and lots of fun.

The highlight of the issue is a series of six pages, all connected by three parallel rows of panels where Allred tells two stories simultaneously. The top two rows focus on the Surfer and Dawn Greenwood, while the bottom row details the battle between Dr. Strange, The Hulk, and some nightmarish monsters. As reality contorts and a deadline approaches, the rows twist and apply pressure to one another. The composition of these pages is used to emphasize the urgency of the situation and its absurd nature. It’s an exceedingly effective sequence.

Allred’s style has always been dazzling, but it also requires a certain tonal fit. His art is fun, dynamic, and entirely original. To have it tell a story that is anything less than that would be a disservice to both Allred and the reader. Together Slott and Allred have crafted a story that is absolutely up to the task. Together, the Silver Surfer and Dawn have had to help save universal entities and the human race. Although the stakes are high and the situations dire, the tone never becomes overly grim or dark. There is an overwhelming sense of optimism that surrounds this comic instead. The heroes are capable and determined. That’s enough to confront even the greatest of threats in this version of the Marvel universe.

What sells this tone is the nature of the conflicts. Silver Surfer is a comic that features brawls, but the real solutions don’t rely on violence. It is really a book about problem solving. For every time a punch needs to be thrown there are two instances where a conversation or a quirky idea would prove much more helpful. Allred makes sequences focused on non-violent problem solving every bit as engaging as an epic brawl between The Hulk and his villains. Slott is a noted Who-vian and his emphasis on creativity and non-violence in Silver Surfer are certainly thematic links to the beloved television show.

Silver Surfer is one of the most fun comics being published right now. It’s helmed by two creators with bold voices and confidence to spare. Together, they’re telling stories filled with imagination and joy. Silver Surfer #5 holds as much potential as even the best Defenders comic, filling every panel with new wonders.

Grade: A-

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Review: Pop #1

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on August 28, 2014.

Pop #1

For me the greatest sin a comic can commit is to be boring. Comics is a medium with more potential than any other. There are no budget considerations and the language of pictures is universal. The only constraint a comic has is the imagination of its creator(s). Curt Pires has established himself as a writer with no limits to his imagination. In Theremin and LP, he’s shown off a bold voice and aesthetic that is now being brought to Dark Horse in the new series Pop. Pires, Jason Copland, and Pete Toms have collaborated to publish a comic that is anything but boring.

I hesitate to describe Pop as being high concept, but there’s certainly a core idea that is easily communicable: Pop stars are grown in vats and controlled by the elite. There seems to be more at play than that idea alone, but it is the easiest one line description of the comic available. It also gets directly to the heart of the ideas Pires, Copland, and Toms are trying to explore in this story. That being the presentation of celebrities is something manufactured, not the presentation of a real human being. Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, and Justin Bieber are all mentioned or included in the comic and are clearly not in control of their own destinies. Instead, they are puppets of corporations used to sedate the masses.

It’s not a difficult metaphor to read into. It’s plain as day that this is an indictment of pop culture. At one point a man in a suit screams at a potential pop star to “satisfy them” while a crowd of onlookers drool with their eyes glazed over. There is no subtlety in a moment like this. The comic is announcing what it is about and what it wants to say. It’s not so much a thesis statement as a billboard with flashing neon lights.

The male protagonist of the story Cooper walks a line between pandering to readers and commenting on the audience. He is a bearded comic book storeowner who feels isolated in the world. There is no doubt that he is intended to act as a potential surrogate for readers. He is the everyman, someone who only looks onto popular culture without being part of it. Whether that is merely to attract a wider audience or challenge whatever audience the comic finds is unclear. His role as the comic reader within this narrative could not any less obvious though.

At the end of the comic, Dustin Beaver appears. Neither his name nor his appearance leave any room for second guessing what celebrity he is based upon. Two goons instruct him that he is to follow orders. His life is not his own and he should be grateful that he is permitted to live. This sequence reveals both Pires’ tendency to go big and obvious, but shows some sensitive touches as well.

The commentary about child stars and the toxic effects of their environments and the adults around them is clear. Beib… Beaver has retired at the age of nineteen and has more in common with a sociopath than a teenager. It’s a nasty display. Yet under all of that ugliness, there’s a sense of sympathy. When attacked, the teenager loses all confidence and machismo. He is revealed to be a child. The violence enacted upon Bieber, as reviled as he may be by some readers, is not cathartic or funny. It’s painful. The sequence shows him to be a victim as well as an offender.

There is a little bit of visual play occurring here as well. The two goons who come to attack Bieber are modeled after punk rock stars. The man is clearly Johnny Ramone and, although I’m not entirely sure, the woman appears to be Joan Jett. These two represent counter culture musicians who were incredibly influential, but rose to stardom outside of the mainstream in dive bars like CBGB’s. The effect of this commentary is much more subtle. Are all celebrities eventually bound to the corporate machine mass-producing pop culture here? Or are they freelancers hired to take out their anger at the system upon the individual stars it produces?

While these sequences and others can be incredibly obvious, they’re also exceedingly effective. Copland’s character work easily conveys changes in expression and mood. He is able to subtly adjust seduction to anxiety with a few alterations to a woman’s eyes and mouth. There’s never any doubt as to what characters are doing and feeling, which allows the script to easily make some big tonal shifts.

One very panicked sequence erupts from a calm conversation and plays true to life, or as true to life as you can get with a mechanical centipede embedded in someone’s arm. The characters falter with their words and are unable to effectively communicate. Their directions and thought processes are entirely communicated through facial expression. It’s tight storytelling and reveals the strength of Copland as a collaborator.

Pete Toms’ colors make the comic every bit as much as the line work. Bright, bold colors fill the backgrounds of many panels and affect strong emotional connections. Neon pink is used in panels with an almost nude woman, titillating the reader like they were standing outside of a strip club. Oranges and yellows are paired with moments of horror, feeling every bit as unnatural as some of the more surreal threats. Toms applies muted palettes, choosing the exact right colors for each panel and object.

Pop #1 is a comic that will make you think. It has a lot to say and wants to speak with a big voice. It tries to use all of the tools of the comics medium to make that voice as loud and effective as possible. Composition, color, dialogue, the creators are aware of all of these components and want to make them work in an engaging way. While they may not always succeed, the very attempt itself can be effective. Pop #1 is a lot of things. It can be blunt and self-involved, but it can also be astute and quite funny. It is always beautifully drafted and colored. The one thing it is never is boring. And that’s the most important thing I can ask from a comic.

Grade: B

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REVIEW: Inhuman #4 by Charles Soule & Ryan Stegman

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on August 27, 2014.Inhuman #4

You can’t manufacture success in the arts. Hollywood has been trying to do so for decades and, even with significantly more money and resources than the comics industry, it often fails. It’s difficult to predict which projects will and will not discover an audience. Projects designed to succeed are no more likely to do so than those expected to flop. Inhuman is proof of that.

On its surface Inhuman has all of the right ingredients. Charles Soule on words and Ryan Stegman on art present a collaboration with plenty of talent and mainstream credibility. It’s also receiving plenty of attention, featuring in Marvel’s big marketing campaigns and even having been added to the over-sized relaunch of Amazing Spider-Man. Despite the talent and attention, something doesn’t quite click.

Inhuman #4 is divided into two narratives, an A-story and a B-story. The A-story has all of the features of a big superhero comic: big names, big settings, and big decisions. Medusa and Inferno, two of the stars of Inhuman are both featured alongside guest star Thor. Yet the events in this story fall flat. There is a lot of sound and fury, but when it ends I was left to ask “Why?”

Talking heads discuss New Attilan and argue over policies. The conversation is entirely driven by the needs of exposition, rather than character. I held a clear understanding of the politics of the Inhumans and why Medusa was making certain decisions by the end of the issue, but neither knew nor cared about any of the characters present. They were speakers providing points of information, not actors and that left me cold. Thor is the only character to display much personality (not a stretch for a Norse god who speaks with an incredible accent).

Even the cliffhanger surrounding one of these characters falls flat for a similar reason. It plucks a character from obscurity and presents him and his action with much gravity. Yet with a little thought, the sequence is revealed to hold little dramatic importance. No decision needs to be made and readers lacking insight into Inhuman lore may be more confused than concerned.

The B-story functions much better, featuring two less recognizable characters with a lot more personality. They’re actions and abilities live up to the promise of being something more than human. What they do is intriguing and so are they. The character called Reader comes across as a bit of a mystery, but his confidence and kindness provide him with a heroic air. The newest introduction to the cast is brash and cocksure by comparison, which allows the two to play off of one another.

What really makes these sequences work is Stegman’s art. Stegman shows that he is a consummate draftsman in an action sequence where rockets and gunfire pour in and time is made malleable. Explosions hit the page with a real sense of impact; they push against the edges of the panels and bleed with force. A sound effect rolls through a nine-panel page providing a sense of power to the gunfire. The most impressive effect is how one character influences time. Comics rely on static images to convey a story, making the cessation of time or movement difficult to translate. Stegman ably shows the slowing of time followed by its complete stop.

This issue contains some interesting moments, but does very little outside of the ordinary. It capably moves through plot points and positions characters, but effects little emotion or drama. The storytellers are certainly competent, but there’s nothing here that sets the comic apart from any of the other ensemble superhero books being published today. Inhuman #4won’t offend any readers, but it’s not likely to excite many either.

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Manhattan Projects #23 Review

 

This article was originally published at Infinite Comix on August 27, 2014.Manhattan Projects 23 - 1

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara walk into a casino and discuss how much they love money and hate poor people.

This isn’t a joke. It’s The Manhattan Projects… and also a joke.

The series has always presented history with a equal parts humor and irreverence, but that’s never more obvious than when new characters are presented. The Manhattan Projects #23 unleashes three titans of the Cold War for the first time, and it probably has Archie Brown (it’s okay to read things besides comics) employing a hearty facepalm across the Atlantic.

In addition to the dull witted, cruel spirited, and vainglorious depictions of Cuban revolutionaries, this issue introduces Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Subtlety is out the window with this Texan. He dresses like a cowboy and literally shoots from the hip. He stands in stark contrast to the drug-addled and sex-crazed John F. Kennedy. It’s not difficult to imagine the ghost of John Wayne possessing Nick Pitarra as he draws this rendition of LBJ.

That doesn’t even touch upon the increasingly sickening visage of Leonid Brezhnev accompanied by a three-headed cyborg. His tentacles twisting, ready to manipulate appearances to suit his nefarious needs.

Manhattan Projects 23 - 2

Now stop and step back.

After reading the first few paragraphs of this review, something about how The Manhattan Projects functions becomes abundantly clear. It is a comic rife with history and politics. Every character is a caricature of an historical figure. They are morphed and transformed into mad parodies, but those parodies only function based upon an understanding of the history, the politics, and the nuances they are based upon. Enjoying this comic requires an understanding of post-WWII history and Cold War politics.

The Manhattan Projects is an incredibly smart comic playing itself off as being a dumb one.

Jonathan Hickman and Nick Pitarra are having a lark at complex issues, playing to their truths while exaggerating the story to insane extremes. Hickman has never had a reputation for being silly. His love of complex plotting and nuance fit perfectly within a fascination with one of the most secretive and dangerous periods of world history. Pitarra’s wonderful designs, farcical details, and perfectly executed sequences allow the comic to be easily read. On its surface it can be seen as a silly romp. Yet he’s the same man who is pulling out the details that sting a little too. He’s the artist that strung a necklace of ears around General William Westmoreland’s neck. That’s the some dark stuff. It’s also hilarious.

Manhattan Projects 23 - 3

The Manhattan Projects isn’t for everyone. The madcap humor and crazy designs function alone, but are only truly great when placed in context. With context they become subversive, and insightful, and poignant, without ever losing the sense of fun that inspires them. It’s a strange line that Hickman and Pitarra are walking, but they walk it well. They have woven historical commentary into a story so out of this world that it could only be told in comics. It’s unexpected and continues to take me by surprise even after twenty-three issues.

Smart comics and fun comics are not two different things. The Manhattan Projects #23 is proof that they can be one and the same.

Score: 9/10

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World’s Finest: Planetary #7: Time To Be Someone Else

 

Planetary 7 - 1

Chase Magnett: The British Invasion of the 1980’s is one of the most important events in modern comics history. Creators like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and many others first rose to prominence in the late 80’s. Their diverse body of work changed not only the superhero comics which they were brought across the pond to write, but Western comics as a whole. They had strong authorial voices which they used to experiment with the medium and explore new ideas. Even today, the effects of that period are still felt; much of Moore’s work has yet to fall out of print, Gaiman’s Sandman has returned for a new series, and Morrison’s DOOM Patrol and other series are being revitalized in hardcovers.

Few characters capture what it meant to be part of this moment in comics history in the same way that John Constantine does. Created by Alan Moore in the pages of Saga of the Swamp Thing, he was written in his own series by British and Irish creators like Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, and Warren Ellis. It’s no surprise that Ellis chooses a Constantine analog, Jack Carter, to explore this period.

Ellis is well suited to explore the causes and effects of these comics. He was part of the third wave of Vertigo writers, following up the earlier works at Vertigo with comics like Transmetropolitan (which plays into this story as well) and lived in England while Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister between 1979 and 1990. He focuses on her government as the central cause for the weirdness and anxiety present in these comics. It’s an analysis that, while somewhat simplistic, discovers an important connective tissue between all of these creators and their works.

In his introduction to V for Vendetta in 1988, Moore wrote of England, “It’s cold and it’s mean spirited and I don’t like it here anymore.” That sense of removal and fear can be found in almost every homage from Cassaday. It’s also a period of history that is difficult for Americans to completely understand. Thatcher was a far less affable leader than Ronald Reagan and is still loathed in many parts of the country. Her policies were divisive and harmful, especially to blue collar workers and unionized labor. American readers benefited from her unintentional effect on creators, but did not have to struggle with her government. That pain is palpable in the overcast coloring and solemn expressions of Cassaday’s work. It captures the mood of these comics very well without mocking them too much.

This is obviously the big overview of the issue dealing with the complex economic and political issues that helped to create the works Ellis is examining. Ray, how effective of a guide do you think Jack Carter makes to this complex scene?

Ray Sonne: In terms of 80’s comics, Hellblazer was the ultimate example of the British Invasion, wasn’t it? It was so successful that Vertigo published it between 1988 to 2013. 25 years. Not only that, but John Constantine was very much the British impression on American comics. A testament to this is his introduction in Swamp Thing, since it was a property created by Americans, but in its most famous state a revitalization by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, and John Totleben.

There are tons of homages in this issue of Planetary, most of which that came after Hellblazer’s first issue. Sandman #1 came out in 1989. That same year saw Morrison’s first Doom Patrol issue with Richard Case on pencils. While superhero comics were also heading to places no one had seen before, to me they were a little stagnant in comparison. Sure, Frank Miller got a few good jabs at Ronald Reagan and his policies in 1986s The Dark Knight Returns, but his dystopia was still at a safe distance. The above mentioned Vertigo comics weren’t. Their creators were embroiled in grimness and oppression every day. Constantine’s bitterness and cynicism could very much reflect that and that’s why Planetary #7 follows the basic structure of a Hellblazer issue to a tee. Dark cover with a translucent picture and a creepy, mystical, faintly Satanic quote; A poetic title like “To Be in England, in the Summertime”; Lots of British slang to the point where it’d be surprising to hear if Ellis managed to miss a single swear word; This issue’s got it all.

Planetary 7 - 2

So Jack Carter not only works as a guide, but his “death” is also the death of an era. The funeral gathering, in truth, is not just his. It’s for all the characters that we see on these pages (or at least those particular iterations of them, since both Animal Man and Swamp Thing were brought into the main DC canon in 2010). It’s fitting, given that funerals are meant to be a ceremony of reflection of the years one spent on this Earth. I’m not so sure I agree with Snow’s (Ellis’s) observation that “they look faintly ridiculous” since there is a certain timelessness to many of the characters we see. The themes of systematic oppression that echo throughout their existences is something, unfortunately, always relevant.

What really does wrap the comic back to this point, as always, is the aesthetic. Chase, is there anything that really stuck out to you in this issue?

CM: John Cassaday does an excellent job of establishing the aesthetic in this issue. All of the analog characters are morphed into a variety of ridiculous forms. They ultimately appear to be separate from the story because their appearance is so disassociated with that of Planetary or Jack Carter. When the analogs are featured in the foreground of a panel, it’s like looking through a window onto a different story instead of watching the current one unfold. That distance between Planetary as contemporary, living characters and these others as relics of the past is also created in setting. David Baron offers a London that is constantly overcast in navy hues and blacks. It’s a place that Planetary is only visiting, not one where anything is currently happening.

This all connects to Ellis’ criticism that the Vertigo comics of the late 1980’s served a valuable purpose, but are no longer relevant to contemporary comics. It makes sense that he sets much of the story in a graveyard, considering he is expressing a desire to bury the past in order to move forward.

Cassaday constructs another interesting visual aesthetic in this issue when a superhero crash-lands into the midst of the story. The hero is dirty and distraught. He screams about being ruined by Jack Carter, his origin and morality both having been inverted from that of a clean and noble archetype. The depiction of this character is distanced from that of the Planetary team as well, but in a different way. Whereas the earlier analogs were treated solemnly and with some degree of respect, this hero is filthy and covered in horrible details. Although Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s The Boys would not debut for another nine years, there’s are clear similarities in both Cassaday and Robertson’s depiction of the superhero.

Here is Ellis’ reason as to why the stories of this era need to be left behind. The warped nature of this stand-in for superhero comics is ugly and dumb. He is the result of creators attempting to replicate the successes of the late 80’s rather than moving on with new ideas. What was once interesting or inventive is now loud and obvious.

One point you rose that struck me as interesting was the recent resurrection of characters like Swamp Thing and Animal Man during DC Comics’ New 52 initiative. Both of those comics held strong connections, in plot and theme, to the series written by Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. Yet they both pale in comparison to their origins, lacking the innovation and bravery that set those comics apart. This emphasizes the way in which Ellis chooses to end the comic. Although Jack Carter may not really be dead, he chooses to take on a new identity. In changing himself, he subverts faking his death and transforms the issue into a funeral for John Constantine.

He transforms himself into a recognizable and, relatively, new character though. What do you think Ellis and Cassaday are attempting to say by creating this very obvious transition?

Planetary 7 - 3

RS: Published from 1997 to 2002, Transmetropolitan can be seen as kind of a bridge of sorts between the two centuries. Although the series is set sometime in the 23rd century, its futuristic stylings and were very appropriate for the end of the 20th century. 2000 was, after all, supposed to be the year for science fiction to become reality through technological evolution. Arguably, it didn’t fail at living up to some of these expectations, despite our persistent lack of flying cars.

Spider Jerusalem, a character created by Ellis and and Robertson, is from the future and therefore represents the future in Planetary #7. Regarding Cassaday’s several allusions to Robertson’s style, there is the possible acknowledgement that Robertson’s style, too, is the cusp of the 21st century. Considering that Robertson’s realistic style is part of a school of art that first came out in comic books in the late 90’s and has persevered for over 15 years, Cassaday’s claim doesn’t seem too outlandish.

Before realism and cinematic styles became the dominant comic book art style, the 90’s were known for exaggeration more than anything else. Unrealistic body proportions and numerous lines were both important elements of “x-treme” style. Arguably, realism could be seen as the pendulum swinging the other way in regards of providing less unnecessary detail and correcting human anatomy. Similarly, Miracleman (or Marvelman, depending on your area) represents another pendulum swing.

A few of the same British creators who brought us the grim and gritty stories and retellings that this character stands for seem to now be quite over them. Ellis is not the only one to criticize this era. In fact, I initially mistook this pastiche for Shazam (originally named Captain Marvel), thinking that Ellis, like Grant Morrison, had remorse over the “maturation” of the children’s character.

Planetary 7 - 4

It’s interesting, Chase, how you find this character obnoxious, because I thought he was so depressing. As of the time of this writing, we still have a few days to go before Multiversity #1 is published. Among the seven Multiversity issues, Morrison has announced one to be an all-ages comic that features the Marvel (Shazam?) family. This is significant because of the characters’ treatment in the most recent years. The morbid 80’s characters that we see in this issue of Planetary were largely either original creations or reboots of long-forgotten DC properties whose creators had a lot of flexibility in what could be done with them. To the point: while many of these characters’ dark stories were appropriate for both their creators’ time period and setting, the same tone stretched out toward the rest of the comic book industry. Thus, characters like Captain Marvel’s tone were completely changed from original intent due to to the company’s interest in selling them to adult readers.

Shazam and Miracleman were designed to be positive forces for the future, not grim commentary on the present. While turning Miracleman dark may have worked well on a literary level, I can’t think of a time in Shazam where making him “mature” really resonated. Both situations, regardless of whether or not they “worked,” however, are inherently negative. This goes against the kind of positive change that Planetary, while actually mature, preaches.

This isn’t the place to go over how DC and Marvel vastly undercut themselves back in the early 90’s by limiting themselves creatively in such ways, but Planetary #7 remarks on turning away from that. John Constantine was an original character introduced in a rebooted Swamp Thing – and he himself has been rebooted in the 21st century to something different. Not the kind of different Ellis and Cassaday try to express here, which is perhaps a heck of a lot more optimistic, potential-wise, than the kind of Constantine we have right now, but it’s a newness. Regardless the publishing business’s faults, there will always be new comics and new stories to tell. The medium isn’t dead; it has a new life with each unique telling. And that’s what matters.

Bonus Round!

Chase:

- In addition to the many obvious allusions to Vertigo titles from the 1980’s, there is even a reference to a specific issue. The analogs of Dream and Death from Sandman are seen feeding pigeons together in one panel. This is a callback to Sandman #8, “The Sound of Her Wings”, commonly viewed as the breakthrough issue of the series.

- The Drummer throws his WHAM! soda again in this issue. It’s little cues like this that make such an odd character appeal to me. There’s a story behind why he’s always drinking this obscure fictional brand that we may never know.

- Although American comics reaped many great creators from England and Ireland during Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister, many great creators stayed at home as well. 2000 A.D.’s output during this period is truly incredible. For anyone interested in reactions to Thatcherism in comics, Nemesis the Warlock is essential reading.

Ray:

- Timothy Callahan over at ComicBookResources notes that soon after Ellis finished writing this issue of Planetary, he quit his writing duties on Hellblazer. This was due to Vertigo cancelling the publication of his Hellblazer issue “Shooter” after the Columbine High School tragedy. “In other words, John Constantine couldn’t, ultimately, provide an outlet for Ellis’ voice. That, he would find in Spider Jerusalem and “Transmetropolitan” a series that began before his “Hellblazer” run and lasted, at Vertigo, for a few years after he left John Constantine behind.”

Source: http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=27857

-The Drummer makes Planetary certainly stick out in one panel where he plays a GameBoy Color during the cemetery sequence. Although another detail meant to highlight the quirkiness his character, the presence of the console firmly plants the team in a very 90’s time while every other character who surrounds the remains very 80’s.

-With all the homages to different artists, the Hellblazer story-telling style, and various characters, this issue very much ties Planetary to its larger belonging within the comic book medium. Novels and other fictional mediums have always borrowed heavily from one another (Ex. The Bible—>John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”—>Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—>the science fiction genre) and Planetary does an excellent job of tracing the historical legacy of comic books while also carrying its own stories.

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Interview: Eric Powell: Always Striving for More

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 26, 2014.

If you don’t know who Eric Powell is, then you’re missing out on some of the best comics being made today. Powell created The Goon fifteen years ago and his creation has grown in stature to stand alongside such comics icons as Hellboy and Usagi Yojimbo. It’s a powerful mix of comedy, horror, and pathos that is both a love letter to comics and something entirely new. Powell recently returned to The Goon after taking a hiatus and spoke with Comics Bulletin writer Chase Magnett about the series at San Diego Comic Con.


Powell Interview - 1

Chase Magnett for Comics Bulletin: So it’s the 15th anniversary of The Goon. You’ve been doing this for a while and The Goonhas become an icon within comics. One that I think is comparable to Hellboy or Usagi Yojimbo. How are you feeling looking back at the very first issue and seeing where you are now?

Powell: I would have never expected to have this level of success when I did that first issue. It was a hope, but I never could’ve expected it. I still look at it like I’m still chugging away. I’m not satisfied with the art. I always want to strive for more. I keep working, and doing a better job with the book, and telling better stories, better artwork, and – even though I’ve been doing the book for a while –  I still want to make a better product.

Magnett: Are you still excited about telling The Goon after all these years? Is that the thing that’s still your burning passion?

Powell: It’s still fun. I’ve been doing it for fifteen years and it’s still fun. I get pretty fickle easily, pretty bored with things. But every time I draw something, it’s still fun. At some point I might get tired of it, but so far, not so much.

Powell Interview - 2

Magnett: You mentioned that you’re not always satisfied with the artwork. Occasion for Revenge… There’s a change that I think is noticeable. You’re doing your own coloring on it, which is a change. What are the things you’re trying to change with the new mini-series, since it’s almost a new re-launch for the series?

Powell: With the coloring I definitely wanted to take a different direction. I wanted to use color to set mood and tone rather than just slapping color on everything because that’s how it’s done. I mean there’s a standard way that comic books have been done for years. People are breaking out of it, they’re starting to do different things, but they’re still going from pencils to inks to colors. That process, it’s just… Why? Why not try different things?

I’ve always experimented a lot with the art in the book and it’s never been a constant look, because it’s something I do to keep myself interested. With this new stuff I really wanted to desaturate it a little bit. I always wanted The Goon to be a black and white book for one, and because of the way the industry is there are a lot of shops that won’t carry something if it’s black and white. So with this I really wanted to desaturate it to give it the feel of a black and white book a little bit, but there’s still enough color in there. I’m using it in places to give it a little bit of impact and really set an atmosphere. That’s really the approach I’m taking.

Magnett: It’s interesting you mention black and white coloring. One thing that struck me about the first issue of Occasion for Revenge was it felt like I was reading a noir film on paper. It actually felt like actually watching that type of movie to some degree, like it captured the feel of sitting in the theater watchingThe Big Sleep.

Powell: Thank you, that’s kind of what I was going for there. It’s kind of straddling that line of trying to get that film noir look but also something that’s a little bit more modern and – I don’t know exactly how to put it – a graphic kind of design to it. I’m playing around with that a little bit.

Powell Interview - 3

Magnett: One interesting thing about The Goon, especially with the back-to-back publication of One for the Road and then Occasion for Revenge, is that you have these big tonal shifts in the story, and the art shows that as well as the writing. You’re able to go from slapstick humor with Nazi gorillas and move to a story that’s outright heartbreaking. Did you design The Goon to allow you to experiment and go in those different directions?

Powell: Yeah. When I first set out, I was always like “I’m going to do whatever I want to do in this book”. If I want to do a sad story, if I want to do a funny story, science fiction story, horror, just run with it and go in the direction I want to go. And I think it makes it more fun for me. Again, it’s one of the reasons I can do this book for fifteen years and not get tired of it. It keeps it exciting for me because I can do anything I want, and I think it also keeps it exciting for the readers, because every time you pick up an issue you’re not quite sure what you’re going to get. Something as a comic reader myself that I get tired of, I see something that is just predictable. It’s like “Well I’ve read that book, I pretty much know what’s going on. The story might be a little different, but I pretty much know what’s going to happen in every issue.” And that’s the good thing about The Goon and the way I start it off is that I can explore and take it in a bunch of weird directions.

Magnett: Obviously, your direction for Occasion for Revenge, is that it’s going to a very dark place. The opening is a sort of side-story that sets up a mood that is very ominous for the future of the rest of the series. Is there something in particular that pushed you to want to tell this story and create that mood?

Powell: Well, it’s been a build up. In the “Return of Labrazio” storyline I introduced one of the zombie priest’s race of witches. He leaves during that story and says “I’m going to collect the others and return”. I wanted that to sink in and give it some time to build. I took time to come up with stories. I don’t want to just throw something out there and have it like “Well, I want do this. I don’t have all the story in mind, but let’s just fudge through it”. I want to give it enough time to really develop in my head and have a good, solid story. So when I did bring them back, it wouldn’t feel like some big throwaway. It’s got a lot of impact, it’s going change the mythology of The Goon for the future. It’s pretty somber. It’s pretty sad.

Magnett: So there is a bit of a map as to where you want to take The Goon long term and of the big moments that will occur down the road?

Powell: Yes. This mini-series, Occasion of Revenge, and the one to follow it, they’re not just stories. It’s going to change the mythology. It’s going to be really impactful on the future of the book and how I’m doing it. If you are a Goon fan, then you don’t want to miss it. You definitely want to pick these books up so you see what happens.

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Magnett: You obviously have a very clear image of the story you want to tell and the overall arcs and themes. I think one of the cool things about The Goon is that when it wants to, Frankie and The Goon can capture a real sense of humanity. Does much of their personality or their stories pull from your own life?

Powell: You always put a little bit of yourself in a story. There are always experiences or people you meet or just your view of the world that goes into the art that you make. So the Goon and Frankie are not based on real life people or friends of mine or any kind of interaction like that. But friendship and loyalty are extremely important to me as a person. I feel that I don’t make close friends that easily, but when I do, I’ll walk over glass for that person. And I expect the same out of my friends and I feel lucky that I’ve been able to surround myself with really good people that I love dearly and are really great friends. So that plays into the art I make, where their friendship is really important. I think you always put a little bit of yourself in your work, but at the end of the day it’s fiction.

Magnett: One for the Road and Occasion for Revenge are the first comics after a bit of a hiatus. How does it feel to be back? Is it invigorating at all to be doing the series again and putting the work back out there?

Powell: Yeah, it feels really good. I’m especially excited about the new format. Because the bi-monthly thing we had going, and I would have to take breaks to work on other things, so with it being a bi-monthly format with breaks in-between, I think it was really confusing for the readers. With the new mini-series format, it’s straightforward. It’s like, “Here’s four issues, they’re going to come out monthly, and then a few months down the road, four issues, come out monthly” and keep it a whole lot less confusing for everybody.

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Magnett: One last thing I wanted to touch on is that The Goon is a series that has a very strong voice and holds a unique place in the medium. But I think you’re also somebody that does a good job of wearing your influences on your sleeve and being aware of the people that inspired you. There’s a great Frank Darabont essay where he talks about Will Eisner and how The Goon isn’t necessarily an homage, but you can see comics history in it and then see history being made. How aware are you of your influences? Are there certain people you look to that really shape how you see comics and how you create comics?

Powell: Those guys are huge influences. Jack Davis, who we just got a cover from and I was over the moon to get that, I’m a huge fan. Will Eisner is amazing. He’s obviously a huge influence. I try to be influenced by people and not copy people, which is a hard thing. I don’t want anyone to ever look at my work and go “Oh, that was a great Will Eisner story” or “That was a fun Will Eisner story” or something like that. I want them to go “That was a good story. You could tell he’s influenced by Will Eisner.” I definitely want people to see the influence because I want to pay respect to those guys, but I never want people to view it as a rip-off or anything like that. That’s the worst to me. Be influenced by people, but don’t copy. It’s a fine line, but I try not to do that.

Magnett: Moving back, what’s the future of The Goon hold?

Powell: Well you’ll have to read Occasion for Revenge to find out, because I’m not going give anything away.

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Review: Dark Horse Presents #1 Succeeds In Assembling A Diverse Array Of Talented Storytellers And Stories

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on August 25, 2014.

Dark Horse Presents 1 - Cover

Anthology series are tough to review. At their best, they represent a wide array of talent telling a variety of different stories. That diversity results in lots of high and low points. Even in the best anthologies, readers are bound to find some comics they love and others they would rather skip. And Dark Horse Presents has been one of the best anthologies in comics for the past twenty years.

It succeeds in assembling both a diverse array of talented storytellers and stories, a snapshot of Western comics. That makes it impossible to discuss as a single title though. So here’s a few quick glimpses at what Dark Horse Presents #1 has to present.

The Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot

Story and art by Geof Darrow

Colors by Dave Stewart

Lettering by Peter Doherty

There’s a reason this is the first comic featured and on the cover. It’s really darn good. Frank Miller and Geof Darrow originally created these characters, but Darrow is flying solo on this story. The story features the titular robots squaring off against a kaiju-like monster threatening beach goers on the Fourth of July. Darrow has an extensively detailed style that serves this battle very well. The monster feels truly monstrous. It’s not the only monster present though. The crowd on the beach is grotesque in its own way, portrayed as the worst stereotypes of Americans imaginable. Detailed with guns, beer cans, tattoos, and a general look of disinterest, they make for a revolting lot. The images of apathetic crowds mix nicely with pun-heavy dialogue to create a story that’s equal parts action-packed and humorous. Darrow isn’t quite alone though. He has Dave Stewart and Pete Doherty along, providing colors and letters respectively. With their help this comic is an artistic slam-dunk. Even if you’re not a fan of the puns, you’ll be salivating at the eye candy.

Kabuki: The Psy-Chic

By David Mack

Kabuki could be referred to as eye candy as well, but its style couldn’t be more different. David Mack’s work is dream-like and difficult to define, using a multi-media approach. Pictures, paints, and pencils overlap to form some beautiful pages. The art is gorgeous, but is not conducive to clear storytelling. The mysterious nature of the plot and lack of definition create a mood much better than a narrative. Like Big Guy and RustyKabuki is an extension of a larger story. Unlike it, readers unfamiliar with that narrative won’t be able to access this one.

Resident Alien: The Sam Hain Mystery (Chapter 1)

Story by Peter Hogan

Art and lettering by Steve Parkhouse

This debut may please fans of conspiratorial science fiction. Featuring an alien with the personality of a good-natured con man, it introduces readers to his ill-conceived attempts to make money and fly under the radar. It’s a well-executed introduction that sets up the protagonist and the central conflicts. I can’t say much more about it than that though. Steve Parkhouse’s line work serves the story well, but he is never provided much of an opportunity to do anything interesting. The story itself is written well enough, but no particular element leaps out as being new or innovative. It is only the first chapter and has plenty of interesting directions to grow, but this installment is nothing special.

Dream Gang (Chapter 1)

Story and art by Brendan McCarthy

Lettering by Nate Piekos

Whereas Resident Alien didn’t provide much room for the visuals to potentially hook readers,Dream Gang never lacks for interesting panels. Primarily set in a dream, it takes advantage of its surreal concept to toy with backgrounds and characters. Psychedelic images are introduced on almost every page. Dream cops, far out monsters, and sentient towers are all well designed and the most enjoyable elements of this comic. Although the colors play to the strangeness of the setting, the constant exposure of bright hues can wear out the eye. Hot pinks and glowing yellows become the new normal without something to contrast them against. These colors are effective as a border to the story though, filling the bleed. The story itself isn’t particularly enticing. I can recall all of Brendan McCarthy’s designs and some of his imposing panels now, but the names of his characters and their goals escape me.

Wrestling with Demons (Chapter 1)

Story by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray

Art by Andy Kuhn

Colors by John Rauch

Lettering by John J. Hill

Of the three first chapters in this collection, Wrestling with Demons is the best. Artist Andy Kuhn isn’t given very much to play with until the final page of this story, but he makes the most of each panel. He establishes the characters through their body language while crafting an appropriately eerie ghost town behind them. The interactions between father and daughter feel real here. John Rauch’s colors help to create a great atmosphere as well. Shallow browns help to bring the Southwest to life, while his darkening sky adds to the tension and horror of the story. Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray provide an excellent script. Just like Kuhn’s body language, their spoken language feels natural and gives readers a reason to invest in both characters. Of the three ongoing stories, this is the one I am most excited to read next month.

Sabertooth Swordsman: Colossal Casuals Crusade

Story and lettering by Damon Gentry

Art by Aaron Conley

Colors by Joseph Bergin III

Sabertooth Swordsman serves as a perfect bookend to this volume, capturing a similar tone and style to Big Guy and Rusty, but brought to life by Aaron Conley, a comics newcomer, alongside Damon Gentry and Joseph Bergin III. Although Conley is strongly influenced by Darrow, and perhaps Ulises Farinas, his work stands out on its own strengths. This story is entirely silent, although I did not recognize that fact until a second reading. There are some growls and sound effects, but Conley relies almost entirely on the visual language of comics to tell this story. He does so perfectly.  Panel transitions are directed by actions and momentum. At no point is there any confusion about what is occurring or how to read a given page. Even in a spread that looks like Billy from Family Circus dropped acid, it’s clear what is happening. Add in some flair for sight gags and booby traps, and you’ve got an impressive, funny comic. The visual storytelling is so good that you may forget some comics use words too.

All six of these stories are sold for $4.99, as much as many comics that contain half as many pages. The first and final stories alone justify the price of admission for me, but I’m sure that experience will vary for everyone who picks this up. The only thing I can guarantee is that you are bound to find something you like here, and potentially discover something new. That’s the beauty of anthologies like Dark Horse Presents; there are comics for everybody.

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Review: All-New Ghost Rider #6 Is A Stand Out Issue

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on August 25, 2014.

All-New Ghost Rider 6

All-New Ghost Rider #1 was met with critical praise that I don’t think anyone really anticipated any Ghost Rider comic would ever receive. From the very start I was confident that it was the best iteration of the character I had read. Writer Felipe Smith’s characters were well crafted, sympathetic, and presented a unique perspective in superhero comics. But what really sold the comic was Tradd Moore’s art. Full of bombast and energy, it jumped off the page and made it clear that All-New Ghost Rider was unlike anything Marvel was publishing.

So when Moore announced he would be leaving after issue five, the question was whether anyone could hope to fill his shoes. Today we received the answer: Absolutely.

Damion Scott with inker Robert Campanella has continued the story of new Ghost Rider Robbie Reyes with dynamic panache. Scott seems to be aware of the high expectations and responds with an explosive two page spread of Robbie street racing. Car chases and races are one of the most difficult things to pull off in comics. The excitement of tons of steel rocketing across pavement is hard to convey through static images. Scott makes this race feel every bit as exciting as something from a blockbuster though. He uses the momentum of actions in each panel, as well as sound effects, to pull the eye between every moment. It reads quickly and feels fast. The transitions between the second, third, and fourth panels are incredible. Robbie’s hand on the shifter pushes you down into a bird’s eye view of the race that spins out around a corner. It is a masterful composition. This spread embodies everything that Scott and Campanella bring to the table and serves as a thesis for their style.

His work is not without some flaws though. Scott is heavily influenced by graffiti art that translates well into bombastic forms and perspectives. It is not so helpful in less dynamic sequences. When page compositions become more standardized and character’s action smaller in nature, the panels appear flat. The storytelling is functional, but the magic element found in the race is gone. The same applies to understated emotional reactions. Scott creates some incredible work with big moments, but the smaller ones lack something.

Colorist Val Staples adjusts her own artwork to mesh with Scott and Campanella’s. The colors in All-New Ghost Rider #6 are flatter than before, in order to work better with the rougher line work and less fluid forms. The overall tone of the comic has been maintained though. The sequences that take place at night feel very similar with long shadows and deep purple and orange hues.

Scott’s lead characters continue to carry the story. The loving relationship between Robbie and his younger brother, Gabe, has me deeply invested in what happens to them. Their relationship feels honest, bringing out the best in both of them, but also exposing their flaws. The supporting cast is less well conceived. The clichés of supportive inner city teacher and high school bully have been given names, but their personalities remain limited at best. Scott includes a scene at the end that is emotionally manipulative, but still works like crazy. The final panel of which is absolutely heart breaking.

All-New Ghost Rider is continuing to be a stand out title amongst the current line up of Marvel Comics. By bringing on board artists like Moore and Scott, with powerful, individualized voices, the publisher has resurrected a C-list character and made him feel all new.

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ADVANCE REVIEW: Wayward #1 Is A Beautifully Told Introduction To A Brand New World

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on August 25, 2014.

Wayward 1 Cover

Wayward #1 features plenty to hook readers: mystery, action, mysticism, and more. But the most interesting component of the comic may be its clearly defined sense of place. Set in Tokyo, the debut issue begins on the tarmac of Narita International Airport and proceeds to explore one of the greatest cities of the modern world.

Tokyo is an easy city to caricature, especially from a Western perspective. It has a reputation for being an eccentric city. Although different from other major metropolises like New York and London, it is still a city filled with people trying to survive and enjoy life. It’s a very real place, not a cartoon. In Wayward, Jim Zub (words), Steve Cummings (pictures), and John Rauch (colors) work together to establish readers in Tokyo as it really is.

Rather than send Rori, the hero of Wayward, to Shinjuku (the neon lit tourist hotspot typically associated with the city), she first goes to Ikebukuro (a shopping district). Cummings’ renderings of this area and its surrounding neighborhoods are true to life and will be recognizable to readers familiar with the city. The fronts of shopping centers, the side streets, and even the interior of an apartment all capture the truth of living in Tokyo. The setting manages to be distinctive and revealing, but avoids being obvious or cliched.

That purposeful and precise sense of creation comes through in other aspects of the comic as well. The first issue covers the course of a single day, opening with the light of dawn pouring through a plane window (with the kanji for “Japan” inscribed in condensation) and closing near midnight. Rauch’s colors are what bear this natural transition between times of day and allow it to affect the changing mood of the issue. His blues shift as the day moves from morning to afternoon, altering from an aquamarine tinged with purple to richer sea blues. As night approaches, the sky is cast in burnt oranges before revealing a black sky. The change is something that is not obvious because of how naturally it occurs. Yet upon second and third readings, it becomes clear that this transition is purposeful both structurally and thematically.

As the lights of day fade away, the first supernatural elements appear. Tokyo is transformed from the modern city Cummings and Rauch first present to a place filled with magic. This turning point highlights the value of creating a clear sense of place both spatially and temporally. Darkness acts as a transformative force that alters the world and allows the creative team to introduce a thrilling action sequence. Minor elements from earlier in the comic, like a recurring cat and Rori’s special ability, are shown to be important and allow the story to dramatically change its tone without being disruptive. Cummings and Rauch explain Rori’s ability visually, taking full advantage of the medium and earning a very exciting moment at the end of the comic.

No matter how well the mood, setting, and art functioned, Wayward #1 would not be a success without its protagonist and guide, Rori. Rori is presented as a fully developed character from the very first page. Raised the child of an Irish father and Japanese mother, she is moving into a new culture for the first time in her life. It provides a sympathetic hook into the life of a teenage girl. Although it’s not a life I am familiar with, Rori remains relatable and her cautious optimism about exploring a new country is a familiar experience for globetrotters, veterans, and anyone else who has moved between countries. The challenges of entering a new country, joining a new school, and discovering new abilities reflect fears that we all face when confronting change.

From start to finish, it’s clear that the creative team of Wayward has complete control over their story. They understand what is important and bring their craft to bear in order to translate those ideas clearly. In creating vivid, believable representations of Rori and Tokyo, they have discovered fertile ground in which to explore the magic of their story.Wayward is a beautifully told introduction to a brand new world that I cannot wait to explore.

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Advance Review: ‘C.O.W.L’ #4 Starts to Ignite a Complex Story

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 25, 2014.

COWL 4 - 1

Of all the major types of narrative conflict that are taught in English classrooms, “Person vs. Society” may have the most potential for depth and complexity. Yet stories that feature people combating the systems and constructs of society typically seem to lack nuance. The interesting questions about government and other man made systems are missing. Why do these systems exist? Can they be improved and, if so, how? Do the good these systems create outweigh the bad? They’re replaced by direct conflicts between good people and bad systems.

That is not the case with Kyle Higgins and Rod Reis’ C.O.W.L.

Set in 1960’s Chicago, the series features the world’s very first union of superheroes. There are flashy battles and costumes, but the real drama of the series focuses around the corruption within C.O.W.L. (Chicago Organized Workers League) and Chicago’s municipal government. Like many superhero comics, the inclusion of super powers simply allows mundane, human conflicts to be made more exciting and dramatic for a larger audience.

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That premise allows Higgins and Reis to address a wide variety of issues. Prejudice in the forms of racism and sexism feature prominently. There are also aspects of classism at play. Setting the series in the 1960’s allows for these conflicts, just as prevalent today, to be played up and made more obvious. It is the same route taken by Mad Men, examining modern problems through the lense of a period piece. Two of the series most intriguing characters, Reginald and Kathryn, are featured in ongoing storylines that naturally examine these prejudices in how they affect their own sub-plots. Their inclusion as two of the central perspectives in this ensemble story help make C.O.W.L. a comic that is truly emblematic of diversity.

The central conflict of the series, and the one which frames issues of prejudice, is the struggle between organized labor, government, and other manmade systems. C.O.W.L. #4 presents the beginning of the League’s strike and the tension it creates between its employees, the police, and the people of Chicago. Higgins did an excellent job of presenting the cases for both the union and the city in previous issues, so the strike can be seen as sympathetic, even if some of the strikers are less so.

As an organization C.O.W.L. is filled with people, not heroes or villains. As people they act both heroically and villainously, but are ultimately all flawed. A confrontation between Reginald and one of the League’s better known heroes presents this truth clearly and gets to the heart of what the series is about. Decisions are made not based upon what the right thing to do may be, but what the needs of C.O.W.L. are at the moment. Good men make compromises for the bad decisions of others in order to serve a greater institution. This is the dramatic heart of the comic. No institution in this recreation of Chicago is perfect, but they all seek to serve an important purpose. They are not presented as behemoths for good or evil, but as flawed constructs composed of individuals.

COWL 4 - 3

Those individuals are very well constructed by Reis. His artwork in C.O.W.L. is distinctive and lends a shadowy, sometimes surreal, feeling to many sequences. It is never unclear though. Each character has a fixed appearance and one that allows their emotions and thoughts to shine through on their faces and body language. Without the clear presentation of individuals, the examination of systems would be a non-starter. Chicago also feels like a living, breathing city in his art. It is as much a character as anyone else in the story.

Reis is aided by Stéphane Perger in the fourth issue. Perger makes for a natural fill-in, but the breaks between Reis and Perger’s work are still noticeable. Although the costumes help to ensure that most characters are easily recognized, some faces and forms seem off when alternating between the two artists. A conversation that takes place at the strike is filled with characters who seem just slightly different. Perger may be the best possible artist to assist this comic in making deadlines, but the transitions are distracting nonetheless.

C.O.W.L. #4 represents what this series is all about. Much of the first three issues was used to set up characters and conflicts. The drama thus far has been a slow burn, but here it begins to ignite (sometimes literally). Higgins and Reis have carefully laid the groundwork to tell a complicated and nuanced story, and reader’s patience is going to be rewarded starting here. There are plenty of good superhero comics being published today, but very few great comics about the systems we create and operate within. That is what makes C.O.W.L. a unique comic and one worth reading.

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