Saturday, December 13, 2014

Peter Pan Collars Don't Lie: The Deceptive Simplicity of Operation Margarine

Cartoonist: Katie Skelly
Publisher: AdHouse Books

Katie Skelly knows her way around exploitation: what to show, who not to cover up, where to put the accents, when to be bold and how much of each. Her 2012 debut graphic novel, Nurse Nurse, was a tease in all the best ways, a goofy nitrous high of see through strips held together by a barely there narrative, but the charm, oh, the charm. Skelly’s characters possess all the pathos of Shultz’s Peanuts with the charisma of a Daniel Clowes or a James Kochalka oddball. Operation Margarine sees Skelly pin the needle to the right and give a throaty roar of a creator in full.   

The lives of bad good girl Margarine (sounds like bombazine or aubergine) and bad ass Bon-Bon have become dead ends, or worse, cul-de-sacs. Margarine is a society gal (Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night wearing Mia Farrow’s pixie cut from Rosemary’s Baby) fresh from a recent breakout from a psych ward, Bellefrew. Bon-Bon bears the scars of too many bad relationships with other women’s men, she steals, favors black leather biker jackets and alcohol. Margarine and Bon-Bon want the same thing: escape. Their problem is neither one knows where nor what they’re escaping to.

Operation Margarine plays like Skelly’s riff on truth or dare, expect ‘dare’ is the only option. For Margarine and Bon-Bon, truth (especially the past) is a fink, painful, messy and best put in the rearview mirror. When Margarine asks Bon-Bon, "So, where you from?" the response she gets says a lot, "Marge, I have an idea. Let's skip this part. Let's just be ... new people." In other words, 'nuff said. The motorcycles they ride, the clothes they wear and cigarettes they smoke act as signifiers, these girls are bad, sure, but they’re not drawn that way; those peter pan collars don’t lie.

Skelly’s work is a study in deceptive simplicity. From her line to her writing and from her character development to her panel composition, all of it aims to exploit the reader’s expectations, to write off a lack of realism for a lack of depth. To read a Katie Skelly comic is to pay attention to small details. As austere as each panel may be each one contains all the information the reader needs and nothing less. Skelly’s neatness and orderliness is her tell. Like her characters, Skelly seems to say, ‘go on, underestimate me, I dare you.’ Like the man sez, “the sweetest kittens have the sharpest claws.”

Skelly’s art of deception comes correct in her cartooning. To maintain appearances, Margarine’s blond urchin cut offsets Bon-Bon’s black bouffant, dark and light, good and bad, a binary pair if there ever was one. This kind of black and white dichotomy gives Skelly a unique way to use and exploit her B&W comic to her full advantage. After an ambush and an octane-fueled flight from the heterochromia iridum Billy and her gang, the ‘Faces of Death,’ Margarine and Bon-Bon cool their boot heals around a campfire under a star filled desert sky.
 
In all Operation Margarine’s one-hundred-and-four pages, this is the one moment Skelly chooses to draw as a full page, a silent character study of peaceful repose. Margarine’s eyes close as she takes a drag on her cigarette. She supports herself with her left arm, her posture is open. She wears her leather jacket like a wrap, a society girl through and through. Opposite Margarine, Bon-Bon, holds her cigarette away from her body, her big eyes narrow on the campfire smoke and the stars in the sky. She sits with her legs curled up (coiled) in front of her and slings a leather clad arm around her body like a black iron bar. She looks as hospitable as a rattlesnake. Such a simple and serene image, so quiet and yet Skelly makes it thunder with heartfelt and complex emotions of these seemingly clichéd characters.

In the following page, Skelly drops the black-and-white-good-girl-bad-girl aesthetic and everything becomes a bit more … transparent. Except for two small square panels in the upper left (scorecards of who’s who), Skelly turns Margarine and Bon-Bon into blanks, outlines. Margarine, always the naïf (at this point, at least), says, “I’ve never been in the desert before.” Bon-Bon responds, “only one thing to know about it … there’s nowhere to hide.”

The combination of Bon-Bon’s words with the composition of the page and that final panel mark Skelly as a master cartoonist and storyteller. She provides all the portent and foreboding of a horror movie as she dwarfs Margarine and Bon-Bon at the bottom of the frame to make them look small in the midst of a cold, dark and uncaring universe. And then there’s the second half of Bon-Bon’s sentence -- the ‘there’s nowhere to hide’ part -- which provides an extra little turn of the screw and acts as the knockout punch to the wind up of the facing page with all its perceived serenity. Troubled and in trouble: Bon-Bon and Margarine laid bare. This is the style of delicacy, drama and dread with which Skelly operates in Operation Margarine, all of it in one (not so) simple panel. 

In Nurse Nurse and Agent 8 -- an erotic web-comic at Slutist.com -- Skelly sugars off her love of Barbarella and other trashy genre-specific kitsch to create something singular, something very Skelly. She’s less an imitator and more a genre-stylist; innovative and comfortable in the cottony familiarity of genre. Yes, Operation Margarine is about two wayward wanton women who ride motorcycles through the desert in search of satisfaction if not solace and should Skelly want to ape such exploitive fare like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! she will, but Operation Margarine ain’t it. Still, it’s fun and to mix and Skelly sure as hell accessorizes like it’s going out of style.

As her podcast, Trash Twins, with Sarah Horrocks makes plain, Skelly is familiar with the high-brow notions of low-brow culture. Again, Skelly shows herself to be a ‘playa’ when it comes to genre tropes, exploitations of exploitations. In Operation Margarine’s inevitable showdown scene, Bon-Bon and Margarine are met by the book’s big bad, Billy, or at least her long legs.
This gunslinger stance, one lone duelist framed by the forked legs of another, is a trope in and of itself. Skelly plays off this ‘Western’ iconography, yes, but as seen through the lens of the ‘bad girls lost in the desert’ storyline and Skelly’s love for the exploitation genre, this image also riffs off of a similar showdown from Russ Meyers’s “belted, booted and buckled” masterpiece, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!  


There are more than a few throw-down/show-downs in Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and all of them frame up the physical assets of the three leads, especially the iconic Varla played by the even more iconic Tura Satana. When Varla and Rosie (Haji) confront the old man (Stuart Lancaster), Meyer foregrounds his lead’s backsides like twin colossi in black denim. Their prominence in the foreground squeezes the small frail handicapped hermit and his big dumb son as well as the frame itself. It’s clear who has both the upper hand and who draws the camera eye. For what it’s worth, Meyer cuts to this same shot (the exact composition) six times in less than two minutes, always heavy-handed, always the pervert.
 


Like Meyer, Skelly exploits the iconography to make it her own. The long legs and short skirt of the dangerous Billy frame the smaller and less powerful Bon-Bon and Margarine. Billy becomes a Goliath; so much so her upper body doesn’t even fit in the frame. To this point in the story Billy has only been the threat of a knife. Now Skelly pulls that knife and shows it to her heroes. Whereas Varla and Rosie were the intimidators in F,P!K!K!, Skelly subverts the subversion and makes her heroes the demure and defenseless ones. This intimidating image calls back to Bon-Bon and Margarine in the desert being crushed by an unfeeling universe except now that menace sports thigh-high black boots. A killer figure for sure. Once a knife like Billy gets pulled, someone has to die and someone has to live to tell the tale.

For all its female empowerment, Operation Margarine has balls in more ways than one. All in all, it’s a coming out party with Margarine as its débutante. She’s the object of the title and the story. But it’s the ‘operation’ or in this case, the operator, Bon-Bon, where the story and Margarine get their strength. Like her namesake, Bon-Bon has a hard shell, but she’s soft(er) on the inside. She looks out for Margarine. She is her protector, her champion and in a way, Margarine’s (re)maker and creator. Katie Skelly is a Bon-Bon. She knows to create, no matter the medium or the raw materials, means to let go. At the end of Operation Margarine Bon-Bon lets go, she has to, and so too does Skelly. Ride on, Margarine, ride on.

Operation Margarine is available from AdHouse Books or directly from Katie Skelly.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

God Hates Astronauts #1

Now, Albert Einstein was a fuck-up as a cartoonist, that said which by the way is redundant in both writing and speech because, you know, you just said what you said and therefore never mind but he did manage to say something very smart and Einstein-ey-ish about starry-eyed dopes like God Hates Astronauts writer/artist Ryan Browne. No less of an authority than the internet says Einstein (supposedly) said: ''Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.'' Pro-tip: using overused clichés (talk about redundancy) like this one from Einstein (allegedly) in one's writing is like using the phrase 'that said' in everyday speech. That said … few piss into the wind or shovel shit against the tide better than Browne. God bless you and your tortured need for acceptance.

This is Browne's third (maybe fourth) attempt to (throat-clearing noise) launch this pet franchise of his into the hands of indifferent comics readers. First, GHA was a web comic, than a successful Kickstarter (backers even received what they ordered) and then a trade paperback published by Image Comics and now an on-going. Insanity. Pity colorist Jordan Boyd and letterer Crank for hitching their wagon Browne's star.

God Hates Astronauts #1 defines the word 'mistake' and (for once?) is a total miscalculation on the part of Image Comics. There can be little doubt Browne has Image Comics Publisher Eric Stephenson's dirty pictures. Perhaps GHA #1 is a 'mercy-publication' and somewhere out there in some sub-sub-sub-library of some Northern California court an intrepid soul would find a sealed presentment or some out of court settlement … the case of Browne vs. the board of Image Comics shareholders. Who knows. Who cares.

Honestly, why pay the $3.50 cover price for God Hates Astronauts #1 when in six months even the variant cover, by no less than Geof Darrow, will crowd out other has-beens and never-weres in the quarter bin or stuffed into grab bags at Free Comic Book Days for decades to come? Future generations will mistakenly stumble upon this paragon of defiance against good taste -- especially when there are so many post-apocalyptic zombie noir comics, crossover events and other original sins -- and ask wha?

Wow.

Why the ire for the plucky upstart Mr. Browne and his (albeit) feeble attempt to slice off his own piece of the creator-owned pie? Simple … satire. See, satire doesn't sell. Satire is the creeper in the corner who shows up uninvited, you know, like educational programming on corporately-owned TV stations. Best to air such dreck at 5 AM when the drunks finally pass out. That's the audience for God Hates Astronauts, blackout drunks, maybe masochists. Absurdity is an outlier, horses shouldn't drink beer from the bottle and the foibles of comics shouldn't be tweaked, whether playfully or not. Browne's a tweaker. His jokes depend on gratuitous visual gags, silly sound effects, bestiality and a deep knowledge of Billy Bob Thorton's filmography, four things no one asked for, ever. With, perhaps, the exception of 3-D Cowboy and The Impossible, God Hates Astronauts #1 is a comic best described as not for everyone.

Yes, Browne is an über-talented cartoonist and writer. And yes because of GHA he's more than likely going to end up having to pimp himself out as an über-talented cartoonist Uber driver when he's inevitably pantsed for defrauding comic book speculators who were (innocently) buying God Hates Astronauts #1 not to read (where the fuck have you been?!?) but because it was published by Image Comics, so money. Caveat Emptor dumbasses.

The good news is God Hates Astronauts will run eight issues, ten, at best, an adulterated un-fucked-around-with distillation of why we can't have nice things. Embrace the insanity, embrace the stupidity: God Hates Astronauts #1.

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Keith Silva knows satire and sarcasm are fool's errands so he started a twitter account: @keithpmsilva

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Tick #1

This review originally ran as the 'Dig the Long Box,' a column on the now defunct RCB.net 

New England Comics (NEC) in Brockton, Massachusetts was where I went after weeks of mowing lawns or stacking wood. Today, I think of it as a kind of nostalgic 'doper's dream,' the LCS as cathedral; phalanxes of long boxes lined up like a secretarial pool in a 1930's screwball comedy, comics covering the walls in clear Mylar sleeves that intensify gaudy covers, and (in my mind) acres of space  to wander (wonder?). NEC was where I was first struck by the lightning bolt of The Dark Knight Returns, learned what the word 'covet' really meant after seeing The Incredible Hulk #181, where I first encountered the earth-pig (Cerebus), made the acquaintance of Daredevil and when I first saw The Tick.

The Turtles hit at the apogee of my adolescent comic book collecting. My world was black and white and everything was anthropomorphic, skilled in some Martial art and a parody of a parody of a parody. No, I do not own copies of Geriatric Gangrene Jujitsu Gerbils or Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, yes, I did buy a lot of issues of Boris the Bear, one issue of something called Buce N Gar, and I even own a couple of the worthless issues of Albedo Anthropomorphics. Oh, sure, I did my required reading for Marvel and DC, but if it was black and white and put out by some fly-by-night independent publisher nobody had ever heard of, before (or since), I had to have it.

Original 'The Tick' strip
Creator-owned wasn't (really) a thing back then. In the mid-1980's, the black and white independent revolution in comics was just getting started. It was still more-or-less of a camp and not the Wild West boom town it would become. Eastman and Laird had staked their claim and the sharpers and innocents alike were quick to fill the speculators demand which meant both promise and a lot of lousy comics. When NEC published their own comic book, The Tick, from a strip that had run in their newsletter, it was a definite must have. Like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (New Hampshire, sadly) the Tick was local, the creation of a fellow member of the Commonwealth, Ben Edlund, so, I bought it.

Sidebar: Like so many other comics from that time in my life, I own this #1 and that's it. I didn't know The Tick lives on until, my friend (and inveterate hoarder), Aaron Meyers, vehemently chastised me in a tweet. [Shortly after this review posted I sent my The Tick #1 to Mr. Meyers and the home he runs for comics, it's a safe space where I know The Tick #1 will be well cared for and happy] Apparently, there's money in these creator-owned comics, well, the 'good 'uns,' anyway, sucks to be you, Fish Police. I never saw the live-action The Tick TV show with 'the face painter.' I knew there was a cartoon (1994), I guess (?), but by then, as James Robinson says in Starman, 'I'd moved on to wine and women.' NEC continues to publish The Tick on occasion, so, good on them and good on Edlund. The various, sundry and (I hope) profitable permutations of Edlund's creation are all beyond my ken, so, let's stick to 1988 when all there was was a black and white comic book about a wannabe superhero who wore a View-Master around his neck.     

The Tick #1 feels different from all those other black and white critter books of the 1980's, see, it's (a bit) oversized. If a cheap, easy (and somewhat subtle) joke like that bends back your antenna, The Tick is your jam and Bob's your uncle -- the unnecessary reference to British slang here is not important to understanding The Tick; however, it does add to the absurdist nature of this comic. The Tick triumphs as comic and concept because Edlund understands parody and comedy are at their funniest when the characters take themselves seriously, the seriouser-er, the funnier-er. So acute (and so serious) is Tick, his story begins in a mental institution. Yes, superheroes stand-in as our modern myths, blah-blah-blah, and yet, Nano-suit or not, a guy in a cape would not fly outside a green screen or the pages of a comic book; and that, of course, is part of the fun. The Tick is in itself a parody of a parody (TMNT and its clones), but Edlund knows being self-referential is only (really) funny when one is self-aware as well.   

Other than from the force of his own internal monologue, issue #1 offers no explanation of how the Tick goes from being a padded room, where he feels restrained and bored, and a page turn later is leaping from rooftop to rooftop. As the saying goes, 'nuff said. Tick and The Tick moves fast. By page three, Tick admits he once thought his destiny was to ''become emperor of Greenland'' and then to ''build a Polynesian longship in my garage,'' and now he decides destiny has tapped him to be ''this city's superhero.'' And so it goes.

When The Tick takes its bow, Edlund is in college, not even old enough to drink (legally), but he was already seriously soused on comics. The opening panels of issue #1 show an artist who has heroic poses down pat and a writer with every heroic trope under his fingernails. It is safe to say, Edlund read a lot of Daredevil and paid close attention to ol' hornhead's penchant for bouncing off of conveniently-placed flagpoles. Edlund runs a flagpole gag a full seven pages, the sound, ''wub wub wub'' acts as ambient noise while a cigar-chomping vagrant takes the Tick down a peg or ten.

The deepest cut happens when the man asks the Tick: ''Didn't you escape from an insane asylum a coupla weeks back?'' The Tick thinks: ''My mind reels and spins at the speed of light as I search for the perfect response … the perfect alibi for the past two weeks.'' After an ''ah,'' ''eh'' and a few other mono-syllabic noises, the Tick answers: ''No,'' another clue Edlund gets it. Comic books are time-less. There's no clock and no calendar when it comes to sequential art, so try to keep up. 

The Tick is nigh-invulnerable which means he is not invulnerable. So should he fall off a roof and then through a concrete sidewalk or get hit by an on-coming subway train, he'll survive, but he's going to feel it. Like Quixote, the greatest danger to the Tick is the Tick as he shows when he is easily defeated by a common drinking straw and his own ego. Tick sidekick, Arthur, is nigh-noticeable in this issue. He doesn't interact with the titular Tick, but he can be seen flying around in the background while Tick dispatches with some nigh-Frank-Miller-looking-ninjas.  Arthur's nigh-appearance means Edlund has plans for Tick, more adventures and more chances to hole up at Hopper's after a long night of fighting crime or almost.

Ticks are common where I grew up in Massachusetts. They live in wood piles and hide in tall grass. I like to think Edlund knew about the nigh-invulnerableness of ticks when he came up with the character and I marvel at fervid and fecund imagination that filled in the rest of the details. The Tick is no superhero and he is certainly not a roach. What Tick is is a good idea for superhero. He's makes comics comic -- an anodyne to the super serious superheroes, a hero for every and all ages. Not the superhero you need, but the superhero you want.      

Hello, Old Friend

[originally published at comicsbulletin.com]

The postcard comes from the good people at Howard Johnson, and yes, the reservation number still works. The sketch of Michelangelo and the signature are courtesy of Peter Laird, co-creator of The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The nerve to ask Mr. Laird for his signature and a sketch -- for free -- derives from a quality most twelve-year-old boys hold in surplus, ignorance. I know I did.

Until my pilgrimage to TCAF this past year, I had been to exactly one other gathering of my tribe. The show was in Boston at (yep, you guessed it) a Howard Johnson's hotel. I would put the show around 1985 or '86 about the time my turtle-mania was almost at pique. At the time I thought of 'the Turtles' as a New England 'La Cosa Nostra,' this thing of ours. The Turtles were local. Sure they were created in a different part of my 'neck of the woods' (New Hampshire). I had at least ridden through that state which for a kid caught in the tight Ouroboros-like circle of family, school and church was a damn sight closer (and therefore more real) than anything from New York City, where, so I thought, all comics came from.

When someone mentions 'the Turtles,' I think of Mirage studios, that's my permutation and those are 'my turtles.' When Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #5 is released Mirage switches from printing in the oversized format to more standard comic book dimensions. Those oversized early editions (even #3 and #4) were always hard to come by back then so I must have bought them at the show. This allows me to (somewhat) carbon date meeting Laird and Kevin Eastman because they signed the inside front cover of issues #4 and #6, but not #5. Why? When I met Eastman and Laird they were a phenomenon, but not yet the franchise they would soon become. For me, seeing these two men and getting their autographs was personal. As far as I was concerned an author, artist and athlete was as mysterious and as intangible as God. So this was word made flesh. 

My father took me to the show. If I had to I'd guess there were as many vendors selling baseball cards as comics that day. I could be wrong. There was no cosplay -- seeing a woman dressed as Dagger would have set my pubescent brain to tilt for forever -- no artist's alley and as for advertising there might have been an ad in a local paper on in the back of the N.E.C. newsletter.

From what I can remember Eastman and Laird were set up at a banquet table in a hallway (maybe an atrium?) apart from the main room where the show was being held. Their appearance was a total surprise (which will come back to bite me in the ass, read on). Besides their signatures on TMNT #4 and #6 and Eastman's signature on Raphael -- why I didn't get Laird to sign it as well is lost to the mists of time -- and the postcard I have little else to tether my fractured memories. I do remember it took Laird less than a minute to draw Michelangelo. I (try to) copy those same quick motions I saw him use when I draw any of the Turtles, even today; they've been sketched on my brain and under my fingernails.

Here's where my good fortune falls apart (somewhat). When I get home I tell my cousin to come over. When I show him 'my haul' he immediately runs home, in tears. I had no idea what had happened. My aunt calls about five minutes later and bitches me out good. My cousin was claiming he had asked me to get him something if anyone 'cool' shows up. I can't remember if he did or didn't ask and either way my aunt wasn't buying it. I'd like to think I made good and gave him something of my spoils as penance for my sin of omission. Maybe that's why my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #5 isn't signed? Maybe I gave it to my cousin and bought another one to replace it. C'est la vie.   

I would continue on for a few more years as a youth in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles army. The last issue I have is #12 which came out in September 1987. So by the time the 'Turtle Power' becomes an international slogan I get my first taste of the sneering privilege that comes from saying 'yeah man, I knew them when it was all about the music … err comics' and by then I was on to something else. I don't think my cousin really cared about not getting an autograph. I think he was pissed he didn't get to meet Eastman and Laird. Maybe it was karma for the time he used a brick as the trash compactor and smashed my C-3PO. I sold most of my comics that were worth anything -- Amazing Spider-Man #129 -- to finance buying concert tickets and fancy CD box sets. I did keep my Turtles comics and the postcard.   

So what? Why was Peter Laird so nice to me, so gracious? What am I supposed to do thirty years later?

One of my (many) regrets from TCAF is I kept missing Ross Campbell. I had heard him talk on Kelly Thompson's '3 Chicks Review Comics' podcast about his love of the Turtles and how getting to draw them for IDW was a dream come true. I wanted to ask him if he had met Laird (or Eastman) and tell him about the postcard. I was too impatient to wait in line and too preoccupied with other goings-on. So, I missed my chance.

When I recently reviewed Campbell's work on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #29 I felt the nostalgia, that 'turtle power.' I don't know which turtles are Campbell's turtles and it doesn't matter. His aim is true, his love apparent. When talent meets opportunity the result isn't some slavish pastiche, it's the best kind of creative act, it's inspirational and a revelation. Campbell does what every artist aspires to do with a franchise: find the joy, the charm and the creative energy of the original and make it personal. Campbell's art on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles makes the personal personal and that is grace. 

I've wanted to write about 'the postcard' for some time and Campbell's work put it in perspective. For me, the postcard signifies the decency in people and how acts of charity should resonate beyond the mere beneficiary. The 'why' is unimportant, it's the act itself that's sacred. What Peter Laird did for that thin-as-a-whip, oblivious boy with the postcard was to give him a gift; to show him (me) kindness and thoughtfulness. I called it luck, but good fortune is a better way to describe it. Now, almost thirty years later I see it for what it is: grace.

Many people have shown me such kindnesses in my life and in my time writing for Comics Bulletin, Jason Sacks chief among them. Grace is a two-way street and so I hope I have done and continue to do the same for others in 2014. The work goes on.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

(startin') to Go Steady!

In early September 2013 I became a regular contributor to Comics Bulletin's weekly review column, 'Singles Going Steady.' This kind of prescribed writing (each review runs about 400 words) allows me to work different muscles and (hopefully) permits me to not always run over the same old ground.

Going on two years writing about comics, I still find it curious so many reviewers race to be the first to post their thoughts on 'this week's comics.' I get it. Unless you get advances (I do and so does CB and so can you, probably, if you ask) what's the rush? I'd like to think something I write inspires someone to buy Sheltered or Locke & Key. That's not too egomanical, is it?

For me, writing about comics is a conversation. If I got more chances to talk comics more often with other people maybe I would write less -- Jason Sacks just felt a shiver go down his back.

These reviews ran in September and October of 2013 on Comics Bulletin.


Sheltered #3
(Ed Brisson, Johnnie Christmas, Shari Chankhamma; Image)

Sheltered #3 proves when there's nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire. The stakes rise higher and the screws get tighter as artist Johnnie Christmas, colorist Shari Chankhamma and writer Ed Brisson continue to take a 'slow match' approach to one of the year's most incendiary comics.  

If you've been living under a rock, Sheltered tells the story of (what's left of) Safe Haven, a survivalist enclave. After stockpiling and digging in in preparation for the end times, each and every adult is murdered … by their own children. Yep. The Isaac of these 'children of the pre-apocalypse' is Lucas. His opposite number is Victoria. She and her friend Hailey are away from the compound (and apparently) the only two unaware of Lucas's plan when the guns were drawn.

Lucas's charisma has carried the day, but not everyone on 'team Lucas' is … well, well -- parenticide leaves a mark. Victoria and Hailey have holed up in a bunker and although Lucas has the numbers, Hailey and Victoria have … Victoria. Sheltered #3 marks the first battle in the war between the two sides.    

Christmas is a forced-perspective samurai. Victoria's gun is drawn, but never fired; it's a weapon of intimidation not incrimination. Christmas foregrounds the weapon -- a hand cannon ready to go off – to show the threat of violence, not the act itself, not yet anyway. Victoria is the last in line and Christmas makes sure she's oversized even though she's outmatched.

Something is always burning in Sheltered, evidence, corpses, or emotions and Chankhamma captures it in pumpkin and persimmon. These shades of orange appear as blocks of color to background extreme furies like when Lucas explains to Victoria why the adults had to die or when some of the younger conspirators refuse to toe the line. Chankhamma brings the fire to Sheltered's creatives.

Brisson's spare approach to storytelling borders on McCarthy-esque. The reader receives only what is needed and nothing more. Hailey and Victoria's story of survival nests inside (is sheltered by) the overarching narrative about the survivors of a survivalist compound; it's a smart move by Brisson and adds depth and scale to an otherwise small canvas. I suspect this nesting instinct to expand to other characters until morale improves which should occur the first of never.

 
Locke & Key: Alpha #1
(Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriquez, Jay Fotos; IDW)



 
As Tuco tells Blondie in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly: ''You see, in this world there's two kinds of people, my friend: Those who read Locke & Key and those who should.''
 
If Locke & Key is beyond your ken, I am envious, envious for the blessed moment you crack the spine on Locke & Key Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft and discover the true consequences of ''the magic of comic books'' and ''the power of storytelling.'' This review is not for you; you have some reading to catch up on.  
 
Locke & Key: Alpha #1 hurts. It's visceral and corporeal, a story felt, in the gut, in the heart and in the soul. Above all, Locke & Key: Alpha #1 is not a story one ruins for others. These are, after all, anxious times for our heroes, as Kinsey says: ''I need to feel something besides panic.''
 
For this penultimate issue, storytellers Gabriel Rodriquez, Joe Hill and Jay Fotos choose to fight, to do the 'meat work' Locke & Key has been leading to since it began. Three talents (four counting letterer Robbie Robbins) at the height of their powers -- not a line, word, or shade out of place.
 
Rodriquez's cartooning is on a higher plane -- there's no other way to put it -- backgrounds, figures, all of it. Each panel roils with detail, every crease in every hat and hoodie, the sutures stitched across Rufus's face, and, of course, the terror, the desperate certain terror. The legions of demons Rodriquez draws in triumph and in repose rival a Fuseli nightmare. His character work has so much verve (such a spark) it's easy to miss a riff on a Renaissance master and the Almighty.
 
Fotos finds Nigel Tufnel's ''none more black'' black for almost every scene except when something is aflame: people, buildings, 'whispering iron.' His delicate colors for starry skies and the crescent moon are the story's only comforts.
 
Where did Joe Hill learn to write dialogue like this? He had to learn those filthy words, abject anger and maniac passion somewhere, right? What Hill does best is animate evil. In Dodge, Hill offers a gift: a villain's villain.
 
See Dodge's eyes. The shine? It's experience, knowing it's time for these creators to slip the long shadows of influence and begin to cast their own envious shades of inspiration.


 
Prophet #39
(Brandon Graham, Simon Roy, Giannis Milogiannis, Joseph Bergin III, Matt Sheean, Malachi Ward, James Stokoe, Aaron Conley, Lando, Ron Wimberly; Image)
 
Brandon Graham is the Yeezy of indie cartoonists. Prophet #39 shows he knows how to party.
 
Under Graham's watch, Prophet has been an art first comic. Often, in the case of Marvel and DC, artist showcases get ghettoized i.e. Batman Black & White and Marvel Knights. I admire Graham's chutzpah (with Image's blessing) to put out an on-going non-anthology title with an emphasis on cartooning and an unfussiness in regards to monotonous narrative continuity. For a creator who boogies to the music in his own head, it's a comfort to know Graham's got the industry juice to pull off Prophet in the first place. Art takes such a priority in Prophet #39 the credits are listed on the back cover. Ballsy.
 
Oftentimes when nine artists contribute to a single title it smacks of unreasonable deadlines and assembly line drudgery. Prophet #39 comes off as the exact opposite of a work-for-hire slog -- it's an artistic bacchanal that serves as a family album for Diehard. Each artist takes a crack at the more-human-than-human robot's life (lives?) across the millennia. Series artist Giannis Milogiannis counts off (on the inside front cover) with two half-page panels showing Diehard's current iteration as he noodles on an alien woodwind in a quiet starship corridor, ''an old song played by an old robot,'' poetry in both word and image.
Simon Roy, Prophet's other regular artist and the issue's co-writer, rounds out the proceedings. He bookends the story with what Diehard was up to before he meets up (again) with John Prophet in the current storyline. Prophet #39 is a must see for the five pages James Stokoe turns in and for the one panel from Ron Wimberly. One panel? Hell yeah, it's Ron Wimberly, dude's got big ups! Wimberly's cameo has Iron Giant-type heart and charm. Stokoe, the Woo-ping Yuen of comic book battle royales, gets to draw Diehard with a chainsword (a nod to Maximum 'Max' Absolute in King City).
 
It's fashionable nowadays to wrap a story arc with a palate cleanser character study. Where Graham and Roy break from tradition (?) is to show Diehard's life in montage, a life of war, but also full of families, children and brothers-in-arms. Graham makes Prophet more than its reductive descriptor, 'Conan in space,' by letting the sci-fi fly and allowing creators to create. Prophet #39 goes the does likewise for the 'old robot.'
 
 
The Wake #4
(Scott Snyder, Sean Murphy, Matt Hollingsworth; Vertigo)
 
The Wake #4 marks an interstitial entry in this otherwise nonstop go series. Either by coincidence or in service to its neither here nor there plot, much of the action in this issue takes place in a tunnel -- O.K., technically a pipeline, but you catch my drift. The Wake #4 exists between stations, between acts. For those 'waiting for the trade' these events will float passed like so much krill.
 
If it sounds like I'm damning The Wake #4 with faint praise, I'm not. A comic drawn and inked by Sean Murphy and colored by Matt Hollingsworth is a gift and should be treated as such.
 
When Murphy is being celebrated for his Asterios Polyp, American Flagg! or The Airtight Garage, today's reader will look back and brag about reading The Wake, in singles. Murphy's cartooning verve goes from louds (vivisection, an eyeball attached only by its optic nerve) to softs (pleas and promises). A master of negative space, Murphy's characters look scored out from the living ink itself instead of the other way around. God bless you Sean Murphy.
 
Hollingsworth's colors on The Wake call to mind the look Matthew Libatique got for the inside of Tony Stark's helmet in Iron Man. Whereas in Hawkeye, Hollingsworth's art provides pulpy vigor, his colors in The Wake add dimension, such is his astonishing range. The shades of calendula and electric green he uses for the heads-up display of the mini-sub tell the story of all hell breaking loose as much as Murphy's pencils and inks and Scott Snyder's words. Also, look for the Easter egg, third screen from the right.   
 
From its start, The Wake has followed an unusual pace as if it told in some 19/16 Frank Zappa-like time signature, or math rockers channeling King Crimson. Which is another way of saying Snyder really wants The Wake to feel epic.
 
Amid the action-adventure of the main narrative, Snyder peppers in Kubrick-ian 'Dawn of Man' type sequences bordering on Prometheus. These flashbacks deepen the mystery (somewhat), but at this inchoate stage in the overall story these past pastiches read like a malfunctioning strobe light in an already dim room.
 
What happened to the steampunk-dolphin from the first issue? Why hasn't Snyder gone back to the future and instead remained in the past? Noble savages with laser cannons have caché, but so too does Darwin from seaQuest DSV.

 


Rocket Girl #1
(Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare; Image)
 
Amy Reeder makes Rocket Girl #1 go. Her composition is magnificent, her layouts majestic and her colors sumptuous. Never has a video game arcade had so much showroom shine or looked so clean. And yet for all Reeder's first-class art, Rocket Girl's story is stuck in coach.  
 
The pitch for Rocket Girl is genius: Dayoung Johansson is a fifteen-year-old female detective in the New York City Teen Police Department in 2013. Totally radical. She travels across space and time to 1986 to, as she says, ''investigate crimes against time'' and ''save the world.'' Bad. Time traveling law enforcement officials are nothing new in comics, but few can cop to a jet pack as SOP. Bitchin'.
 
Anyone with basic cable understands how time travel is fraught with confluences, conundrums and complications. Writer Brandon Montclare makes a smart choice to damn the conventions and let Reeder's art propel the story. It's smart because there is time (nudge nudge) to explain how young Johansson's efforts will impact her future and again, Montclare and Rocket Girl have Amy Reeder.
 
Where Montclare's script gets gnarly is how it establishes stakes. Detective Johansson tasks herself with investigating Quintum Mechanics for ''cooking the history books -- going back and playing in the time stream.'' O.K., if the future is so ethically bankrupt, so time-corrupt it's the least dystopian future in history, except, according to the story's timeline, 2013 is the past. What? This 'past as prologue' is a time and place (NYC) the police commissioner, who rocks ruby red Jubilee shades, sez, ''Quintum Mechanics brought back from the brink.''    
  
And the mustache twirlers from '86 Dayoung is so fit not to acquit are nowhere near nefarious enough in their high waisted slacks, hoop earrings and bustiers, set aside the taste shown in the comic books kept in their apartments. Perhaps that's the point. Perhaps knowing the beginning of the end is brought on by the cast of St. Elmo's Fire makes the future (or the past) more reprehensible.
 
I have a lot of respect for Montclare. I backed his previous effort with Reeder, Halloween Eve, when it was a Kickstarter and did likewise when the duo first launched Rocket Girl in the same fashion. I will continue to support their efforts because the work holds potential. If Montclare muscles up to the heights Reeder consistently achieves, Rocket Girl will fly. Godspeed, Rocket Girl.
 
 
Multiple Warheads: Downfall (One Shot)
(Brandon Graham; Image)
 
In between stories about the poetics of love for a partner and the ecstasy of double penetration from both a human penis and a sutured on ''severed werewolf penis,'' Brandon Graham gives in to reflection: ''I sure drew a lot of butts in this comic. Maybe I'm just over thinking it. Hmmmm.'' The next drawing shows an earlier iteration of Graham as he pulls up in something that looks like two butts stuck together with ''Bumz 4 Lyfe'' written on the side and, oh yeah, this Graham has a butt for a head and the car (?) makes 'butt, butt, butt' sounds. 2013 Brandon's response sez it all:

Multiple Warheads: Downfall reprints three stories from 2003, 2004 and 2007. In most cases when a writer publishes their juvenilia or a musician releases demos it's because the publisher or record company is looking to make some quick cash off of sycophantic fanboys (the easiest of easy marks). As long as the market will bear it, so be it.
 
There's a flipside to this kind of cynicism which sez work like this shows the artist at his most naked, most authentic and most raw. If the self-awareness of letting his own ass swing in the air isn't clear enough, Brandon Graham doesn't need his readers to see him naked or unguarded. He's more than happy to drop trou and call himself on his own shit.
 
Reading Downfall is like watching Mean Streets after years of gorging on Goodfellas -- a realization of how the student became the master. 'The Fall' and 'The Elevator' hint at the charms, goofiness and truths Graham displays in the impeccable King City, his masterwork, so far. More than Multiple Warheads: Alphabet to Infinity, Downfall's 'The Fall' proves when organ smuggler Sexica and her werewolf boyfriend Nikoli hold each other, theirs is real love. For all his bad puns and sophomoric toilet humor, Graham is a softy, in love with love and comics.   
 
From the 'this isn't for everyone category' comes the one story here that requires some massaging. As 'Sex' and 'Nik' were gestating in his imagination, Graham was drawing erotica. The result of this ménage à trois (Graham, Nik and Sex) is a kinky bit of male wish fulfillment only Graham could imagine. It's not for kids and it shows a helluva lot of asses in the air. Then again, maybe I'm overthinking it. But … 

 
Letter 44  #1
(Charles Soule, Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque, Guy Major, Shawn DePasquale; Oni Press)
 
Letter 44 produces a kind of Heisenberg Principle of yarn spinning -- the story depends on the observer's influences -- full of unpredictability and creative chutzpah. Read it as a political thriller, a first contact story, a conspiracy theorist's wet dream or a clever reframing of American military policy in the Middle-East and Letter 44 answers.
 
Artist Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque and writer Charles Soule imagine a newly-elected US President who learns every decision his hated predecessor made was because ''NASA detected some sort of mining or construction operation in the asteroid belt, up between Mars and Jupiter.'' A team of ''Special Forces guys and scientists'' were sent to investigate, ''and they're getting close.'' Sound familiar? Of course, except for the NASA stuff. Yeah. Yeah?    
 
A wordy 'what if,' Letter 44 suffers some from Soule hammering at
certain plot points and an insistence on text over image which allows letterer Shawn DePasquale to earn his pay, but forces Alburquerque to draw too many meetings and too many talking heads. The gravity of Alburquerque's cartooning occurs on board the spaceship where colorist Guy Major makes the most of CRT greens and greys. 
 
One of the great magical items in a comic book's 'bag of holding' is the page turn surprise. Letter 44 offers a pair. The placement and plotting of these two moments demonstrates Alburquerque and Soule have timed their story for maximum effect. This diamond is not without its inclusions; however, for these two reveals alone the less one knows the better.
 
 
This week an excerpt was published from an interview with Bill Watterson in the December issue of Mental Floss, the 'get' of the year, hell, the last thirty years. He's asked why it's difficult for fans to let go after a creator moves on. Watterson says, ''… a new work requires a certain amount of patience and energy, and there's always the risk of disappointment. You can't blame people for preferring more of what they already know and like … predictability is boring. Repetition is the death of magic.''
 
Calvin and Hobbes works a different side of the street than Letter 44. What it shares with Watterson's masterpiece is the idea: 'predictability is boring.' If Alburquerque and Soule maintain the energy and promise of this first issue, 'magic will out.' In a story full of probabilities, disappointments be damned. Read Letter 44 and revel in the risk.
 
The Massive #16
(Brian Wood, Garry Brown, Jordie Bellaire, Jared K. Fletcher; Dark Horse)
 
(Word to your moms) in The Massive #15 writer Brian Wood came to drop bombs. Or not. In The Massive #16 Wood repeats the series conceit: what's the role of 'direct action' environmental-activists once the Earth has begun to collapse and survival and subsistence have become the rule of law? Who's left to fight and what's worth fighting for?
 
And then along came Mary.
 
When this series first shipped, magic realism was not on the manifest; The Massive #15 changed all that. Somewhere deep down in the code of The Massive, Wood wrote a hack, a Trojan. Mary. From here on out, (it seems) this series is heading in a different direction and towards a new destination. In a tense scene halfway through The Massive #16, Mag asks Cal the only (?) question that matters going forward: ''Where's Mary?'' Cal's initial response says it all: ''''.
 
For what it's worth, the judges would have also accepted: 'what's Mary?' In a flashback -- and perhaps as a self-fulfilling prophecy -- Mary tells Cal, ''But in the end … not all of us will get what we want.''          
 
In the meantime, a-whaling we go. Like the 'Subcontinental' story arc (#7 - #9), this arc, 'Longship,' looks to ply similar waters in regards to an emphasis on the group over individual interests.
Bors Bergsen is a broken man with good taste in single malt scotch. A former corporate bugbear and (pre-Crash) near the top of Cal's enemies list. Now, Bergsen stands bare-chested in the prow of a Viking longship, the Stúlka, and hunts Minke whales to keep a small community of northlanders alive. What's the harm? Do codes count? Do grudges stand? For Callum Israel, yes and yes. So he bangs the drum and points his ''970-ton military vessel'' at three wooden boats. The horror. The horror.
 
At this moment of madness, Bergsen radios Cal and asks to speak to Mary. Put another way, he begs Mary to intercede -- make of that what you will -- and put an end to Cal's Kurtz-ian craziness. Thanks to The Massive, artist Garry Brown has become a master at drawing world-weary desperation. The look he draws on Cal's face stands at the corner of impotence and idiot resolve. And so, Cal pushes on. As for Mary? Miss Mary—she gone.

 
Sixteen issues in The Massive remains a pillar in this golden-age of creator-owned comics.