DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN’S HAND

(Shane Hensley/Various Writers and Artists; IDW PUBLISHING/VISIONARY COMICS/PINNACLE ENTERTAINMENT GROUP; 2015)

Dead-Mans-Hand

What an absolutely beautiful book this is! Anyone familiar with Shane Hensley’s DEADLANDS role playing game will recognize the characters and the concept and will be immediately drawn into this world of gun-play and spiritualism. Likewise, anyone who remembers THE WILD, WILD WEST (the 1960s television series or the updated movie version starring Will Smith) will recognize the science-fiction/steampunk feel present here (especially in the first story, “The Devil’s Six Gun”) or, if you’re familiar with the early ’70s DC comic, WEIRD WESTERN TALES (home of El Diablo, a spooky Zorro knock-off with awesome art from Gray Morrow and, later, Neal Adams; the pages of WWT also saw the debut of Jonah Hex, one of DC’s most endearing western characters), you will definitely want to check out DEAD MAN’S HAND, a book that is filled with demons, spirits, monsters and supernatural happenings aplenty. Of course, these new era stories are more violent, more graphic, with far more blood than those earlier creators could depict. With that in mind, allow me to amend my first sentence to read, “What an absolutely beautifully written and illustrated book this is!”

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN'S HAND: "The Devil's Six Gun" (Written by DAVID GALLAHER, art by STEVE ELLIS)

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN’S HAND: “The Devil’s Six Gun” (Written by DAVID GALLAHER, art by STEVE ELLIS)

The majority of the collection compiles the original four issue run of Image Comics one-shots, beginning with “The Devil’s Six Gun” by the award-winning team of David Gallaher and Steve Ellis. The tale follows the life of scientific genius Copernicus Blackburne, a man driven to explore the unexplained. When the sewing machine repair shop he works for is given a military contract to develop new firearms, Copernicus creates and refines the protean pistol, the most accurate and deadliest weapon known to mankind. His efforts draw the attention of an American benefactor, Samuel Tygian, who commissions Copernicus to further refine his pistol, producing the ultimate weapon. As Blackburne immerses himself into his work, a series of unfortunate events robs him of his family, his home and… well, let’s just say that you should always read the fine print before signing any contract. Gallaher’s story is taut as a bowstring, while still adding little bits of personal information that allows the reader to develop an empathy toward the lead character, even as we follow his walk down the path to destruction; Ellis’ artwork is intricate and filled with a life that very few of today’s comic artists are capable of producing. The story sets the tone nicely for what’s still to come.

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN'S HAND: "Massacre At Red Wing" (Written by JIMMY PALMIOTTI and JUSTIN GRAY, art by LEE MODER and MICHAEL ATIYEH)

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN’S HAND: “Massacre At Red Wing” (Written by JIMMY PALMIOTTI and JUSTIN GRAY, art by LEE MODER and MICHAEL ATIYEH)

Massacre At Red Wing,” written by long-time Jonah Hex scribes Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, is a story about a girl and her dog. The young woman’s path finds her seeking her past and fulfilling her destiny; Clementime is searching for her mother, an Indian woman, who thinks that her baby daughter was put to death by her rapist, a white man who may have more than a touch of demon blood coursing through his veins. Having gained certain information that may lead her to her mother, Clementime is traveling to a small town called Red Wing. Along the way, she comes across a community beset by demons. She considers leaving demon and human alike to their own fates, but decides to intercede, using her mystical powers to defeat the demons and, with her dog’s help, gain additional knowledge as to the whereabouts of her mother. Once she reaches Red Wing, the story reverts to a rather standard tale of rescue and revenge. In this case, though, “standard” doesn’t mean bad or even particularly predictable… the title pretty much tells you where this story’s going; it’s just a well-used plot in the Western genre, whether in comics, movies, literature or any other medium. For the most part, the story is character driven, with some fairly graphic violence tossed in just to remind the reader what kind of book they’re reading. The art by Lee Moder (with colorist Michael Atiyeh working with a palette that’s far brighter and more inviting than most would use for such a tale) is very much in the style of the great Gil Kane, with beautifully rendered figures and graceful action sequences. “Massacre At Red Wing” is one of the most visually stunning pieces of comics work you’re likely to see.

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN'S HAND: "Death Was Silent" (Written by RON MARZ, art by BART SEARS and MICHAEL ATIYEH)

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN’S HAND: “Death Was Silent” (Written by RON MARZ, art by BART SEARS and MICHAEL ATIYEH)

The gritty, atmospheric “Death Was Silent” is an Old West take on the whole INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS scenario. Hoyt Cooper arrives in town on a bleak, rainy day, a body draped over his saddle. Cooper, whose tongue was cut out by “savages,” wears a slate board on his chest. The board has had a spell cast on it, allowing Cooper to “speak”; whatever he thinks, appears on the board. The slate announces that Cooper has shown up to kill everyone in the town, which is completely infected by an alien being. With a little help from an unexpected source, Cooper goes about ridding the earth of the alien mother and her offspring in a brutal display of violence. Series editor, Ron Marz’s story has everything that you could ask for in a western yarn laced with science-fiction elements and just a touch of voodoo; the artwork, by Bart Sears, matches the feel of the script perfectly… dark and moody. Atiyeh is back, using much harsher colors… drab and dreary, evoking the gloomy atmosphere of an inhabited town, as well as the weather conditions the story takes place in. Of all of the stories in DEAD MAN’S HAND, this one comes closest to the feel of those early Jonah Hex tales.

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN'S HAND: "Black Water" (Written by JEFF MARIOTTE, art by BROOK TURNER and C EDWARD SELLNER)

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN’S HAND: “Black Water” (Written by JEFF MARIOTTE, art by BROOK TURNER and C EDWARD SELLNER)

Black Water” is a tale of greed, lust and revenge, with equal parts Greek mythology, Scottish lore, ancient Chinese curses, TREASURE ISLAND, THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. Harmon Rappaport, a rich and ruthless man, has been on a quest to find a woman he saw only once (and that, after being hit with a musket ball during the Civil War); after a visit to a spiritualist, where he learns that the woman is dead, Rappaport plans a voyage to the mystical maze of Shan Fen, where the seer says the woman can be found. The siren call of the woman leads Rappaport, his body guard Ian Fairfax and a gunslinger and self-professed “guide” named Lyle Crumbfine set out on a paddle steamer heading downstream, in search of the maze; also along for the ride are the vessel’s captain and several other interesting passengers. Three nights into the trip, the boat is destroyed by a waterspout, leaving the passengers to struggle toward the beach and safety. What lies ahead is an exciting journey of sea monsters, ambushes, death and revenge. Jeff Mariotte weaves a suspenseful yarn, exploring the extent and the deprivations that one man will go to acquire the one thing he cannot have; Brook Turner’s intricate art shows the influences of some of the legends of the field, including – most evident – Neal Adams, Joe Kubert and Rich Buckler. Visionary Comics honcho C Edward Sellner’s deft hand and astute eye turns in a brilliant color job.

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN'S HAND: "What a Man's Got To Do" (Written by MATTHEW CUTTER, art by ULISES ROMAN and DOUG SPENCER); "Vengeful" (Written by SHANE HENSLEY, art by SEAN LEE, MIKE MUNSHAW and C EDWARD SELLNER)

DEADLANDS, VOLUME ONE: DEAD MAN’S HAND: “What a Man’s Got To Do” (Written by MATTHEW CUTTER, art by ULISES ROMAN and DOUG SPENCER); “Vengeful” (Written by SHANE HENSLEY, art by SEAN LEE, MIKE MUNSHAW and C EDWARD SELLNER)

One of two new stories to this edition is called “What a Man’s Got To Do.” Written by DEADLANDS brand manager, Matthew Cutter, and illustrated by Ulises Roman (with colors by Doug Spencer), the short piece delves into Indian mysticism and spirit animals, as Lucas Pitt joins a posse that is, ultimately, massacred by the outlaws they were hunting. With Pitt, the only survivor, on the run from the villains, he and they quickly discover that Lucas is a completely different… animal when he’s sleeping. DEADLANDS creator Shane Hensley supplies the script for the other new story, “Vengeful.” A marshal’s idyllic retirement is shattered by an escaped convict, intent on exacting revenge on the marshal and his wife. As the outlaw and his gang sets fire to the couple’s home, leaving the bodies to rot, we are quickly reminded that, sometimes, even a righteous soul can want vengeance. The art, provided by penciller Sean Lee, inker Mike Munshaw and colorist Sellner, is spacious, befitting the wide-open land it depicts. Other unique bonus features include a roleplaying supplement for the DEADLANDS RELOADED game, character concept sketches from Steve Ellis, Lee Moder and Brook Turner and a preview of the first DEADLANDS novel, GHOSTWALKERS, written by Jonathan Maberry and due from Tor Books this fall. Whether you’re into the RPG or not, whether you’re into weird western comics or not, you are still going to love the storytelling and the magnificent art of DEAD MAN’S HAND… don’t miss out.


THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN

(Jill Lepore; 410 pages; ALFRED A KNOPF PUBLISHING/RANDOM HOUSE BOOKS; 2014)

secret history of wnder woman cover

If you’re going into THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN expecting a major discourse on some secret comic book origin story of the Amazon princess, you are definitely looking in the wrong direction. The book is more of an historical look back at the suffrage and feminist movements of the late nineteenth and the first eight decades of the twentieth centuries. It also works as, quite possibly, the most comprehensive and accurate biography of Wonder Woman’s creator, William Moulton Marston, who was – to say the least – a deeply flawed individual. Many of Marston’s flaws and foibles were at the core of the character’s creation and writer Jill Lepore’s examination of his early scripts and notes highlights his attempts to forward his fervent feminist beliefs through a series of failed teaching positions and “scientific” experiments that were – and, I’m being generous here – borderline, at best.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (AMERICAN SCHOLAR 13 1943-44) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (AMERICAN SCHOLAR 13 1943-44) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

Almost from birth, William Moulton Marston surrounded himself with strong, independent thinking women; he had to… he was far too lazy to have any job other than the odd “professorship” that allowed him to practice his borderline kinky experiments virtually unmolested. His aunt, his female students and lab assistants and his wives carried the financial burdens of the classroom, laboratory and household. A student aide and paramour (Olive Byrne, niece of famed feminist and trail-blazing birth control advocate, Margaret Sanger) was brought into the home as nanny to his two young sons; when she became pregnant, Marston made her wife number two, telling the two Missus Marstons that the third (and eventually fourth) child would continue under the tutelage and care of number two, while the more successful number one would be called “Mother” to all four and continue to bring in the household funds. The fact that these women didn’t kill him (or each other) must be proof that females are, indeed, the superior sex… cuz I woulda beat the guy like a baby seal.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (DC Comics editorial meeting, 1942, with William Moulton Marston. artist Harry G Peter, editor Sheldon Mayer, publisher MC Gaines) (Publicity photo)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (DC Comics editorial meeting, 1942, with William Moulton Marston. artist Harry G Peter, editor Sheldon Mayer, publisher MC Gaines) (Publicity photo)

But, anyway, the great character of the women in his life DID give Marston the template for the first female super-hero; the fact that he was able to snow the editors and publisher of DC Comics with the concept that Wonder Woman’s strength was best exhibited by her continually being bound in some form or other (almost always by the male of the species, with chains being the favorite mode of bondage, though the Amazon was also harnessed into a straightjacket, locked in an electrified cage and hogtied with a rope) speaks volumes to the man’s mastery at the art of humbuggery. When the thought police came a-calling, he would be sure to have all of his Amazons in a row, usually in the form of one of his smitten female colleagues or some borderline-legitimate psychologist who moved in the same semi-reputable circles as Marston, ready with their own convoluted explanations of how depicting such scenes of bondage would, ultimately, empower women to become the family, political and social leaders that is their destiny; disputes and wars would cease, leading to a Utopian society with peace and love and dancing.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of WONDER WOMAN #7, Winter 1943) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of WONDER WOMAN #7, Winter 1943) (Art by HARRY G PETER)

The guy musta been doing something right, however, as Wonder Woman became wildly popular. And, not just among the young boys who were the vast majority of comic book readers at that time; Princess Diana had found a new audience as young girls all across America began reading her adventures and emulating her amazing feats in their backyards and living rooms. When two members of the Justice Society of America, the Flash and Green Lantern, were awarded their own books, the editors of ALL STAR COMICS conducted a readers poll to which hero should take their place within the ranks. Wonder Woman was far and away the victor. However, Marston wasn’t writing the adventures of the JSA, so the Amazon was made official secretary of the team, in charge of holding down the fort while the men were off fighting evil and in charge of coffee and snacks during meetings. These tales were, by and large, written by legendary comic scribe, Gardner F Fox, though it has long been rumored that Robert Kanigher may have ghosted several of those JSA adventures. That would actually make some kind of since, as Kanigher hated not only Marston, but his creation, as well. This visceral dislike of the character led to the eventual dumbing down of the Wonder Woman strip, as Kanigher was named as Marston’s replacement upon the latter’s death in 1947, a post he held for more than 22 years; suddenly, Diana Prince’s alter ego became a besotted and lovelorn member of the weaker sex, falling prey to ridiculous scheme after ridiculous scheme as she pined away for her boss in Military Intelligence, Captain (eventually Colonel) Steve Trevor. Trevor ended up saving the Amazonian warrior as often – or more often – as she saved him.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of MS #1, July 1972) (Art by ROSS ANDRU and MIKE ESPOSITO)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (cover of MS #1, July 1972) (Art by ROSS ANDRU and MIKE ESPOSITO)

As the turbulent sixties were coming to an enlightened end, Kanigher finally relinquished his hold on Wonder Woman in 1968 and Diana relinquished her powers to become a mortal woman, working as a secret agent to clear Steve Trevor of a bogus murder charge. The death knell for this “liberated” Wonder Woman came with the December 1972 issue, a “special Women’s Lib issue.” Denny O’Neil was gone, too, replaced by… Robert Kanigher, back for another (short-lived) round. The damage to the venerable character had been done during Kanigher’s first monumental run and, seemingly, month after month, the poor scripts and ill-conceived attempts at relevancy piled degradation upon degradation on the Amazon princess, even as a new publication from the National Women’s Political Caucus called MS featured her on the cover of their debut issue in 1972 (which may have prompted the return of the original Wonder Woman costume and powers a few months later). Wonder Woman remains a stalwart of DC Comics, considered to be an integral part of “the Trinity,” with Superman and Batman. A couple of generations of new creative teams have removed the layers of tarnish to return the character to something much closer to the character William Moulton Marston originally envisioned nearly 75 years ago. Lepore has delved deep and dissected every aspect, every historical event that has gone into the creation of the first female super-hero; likewise, she points to the many ways that Wonder Woman – and, by extension, Marston – has molded the history of the women’s movement since she first burst onto the scene in 1941. You don’t have to be comic book fan to enjoy THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN, nor do you have to be a woman or a feminist to appreciate the history and politics that led to Wonder Woman’s creation and longevity; the book is just a good, thought-provoking read.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (author Jill Lepore) (photo credit: DARI MICHELE)

THE SECRET HISTORY OF WONDER WOMAN (author Jill Lepore) (photo credit: DARI MICHELE)

It should be noted that since the book’s publication, several descendents of the Marstons have come forward to dispute many of the assertions that Ms Lepore puts forth regarding the family and their lifestyle; for what it’s worth, much of this information has been floating around for quite awhile and I tend to support the Lepore’s version of events. I’ll leave it to you to make up your own minds.


AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE, NUMBER 20

(Adam P Knave/DJ Kirkbride/Nick Brokenshire; 19 pages, digital; MONKEYBRAIN COMICS, 2015)

AMELIA COLE

The AMELIA COLE series follows the adventures of a young woman, raised in the magic arts by her aunt. Amelia uses her magic to cross between two separate worlds, one where magic is the norm, the other where science rules (the realm she believes to be her home world); in each world, the other discipline is unheard of. The series works in arcs of six issues each but, they are not self-contained… the finale of one arc leads directly into the plot and storyline of subsequent arcs. So, before getting on with specifics on this issue (the second chapter in the fourth story arc), let’s get a little bit of insight into the characters and the basic premise of the overarching story in this superb, tightly scripted series, shall we?

AMELIA COLE AND THE UNKNOWN WORLD (cover art: NICK BROKENSHIRE)

AMELIA COLE AND THE UNKNOWN WORLD (cover art: NICK BROKENSHIRE)

The first story arc, AMELIA COLE AND THE UNKNOWN WORLD, introduces Amelia, a young woman who suddenly loses everything she loves – her family, her friends, her world. She then loses her beloved aunt and another world and, now, she finds herself trapped in a third dimension that may or may not be her actual birth place. She quickly runs afoul of the law for using her magic powers in an unlawful fashion and, eventually, ends up fighting the authorities’ enforcer, a dark robed mage called the Protector. Defeating the well-meaning puppet hero, Amelia now finds herself the city’s new Protector.

AMELIA COLE AND THE HIDDEN WAR (cover art NICK BROKENSHIRE)

AMELIA COLE AND THE HIDDEN WAR (cover art NICK BROKENSHIRE)

Things really begin to heat up (as if the action in the first series wasn’t enough!) in AMELIA COLE AND THE HIDDEN WAR. As the new Protector of Otysburg, Amelia – along with her pet golem, Lemmy – goes about protecting and saving the populace, regardless of their social standing (mage protection is fine, non-mage protection is in violation of the city’s penal code), something that seriously ticks off the Magistrate, whose puppet strings are being pulled by a dark and mysterious wraith cabal known as the Council. Meanwhile, Hector Garza, the former Protector is fighting another war against other-dimensional demons with Omega Company, a military outfit he signed up with when he lost his job. Neither Amelia nor Hector realize that they are, in fact, fighting a common foe.

AMELIA COLE AND THE ENEMY UNLEASHED (cover art NICK BROKENSHIRE)

AMELIA COLE AND THE ENEMY UNLEASHED (cover art NICK BROKENSHIRE)

As the name emplies, AMELIA COLE AND THE ENEMY UNLEASHED sees the Council come out of the shadows and, after killing the Magistrate, begin to siphon off all of the magic powers on Amelia’s adopted world. Amelia (and Lemmy) and Hector (and the other two surviving members of Omega Company) team up and raise a valiant defense; ultimately, though, the two Protectors are thrown into the other two dimensions: Hector into the non-magic realm; Amelia back to the magic realm.

AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE, issue 19 (cover art NICK BROKENSHIRE)

AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE, issue 19 (cover art NICK BROKENSHIRE)

Which brings us to AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE. With Amelia back in the magical realm, it doesn’t take long for the gendarme to come a-callin’. Hector, trapped in a world where magic doesn’t exist, is enjoying the simple life with… Amelia’s best friend from that dimension. Back in the third realm, the Council has turned Otysburg into a war zone, with Lemmy, Omega Company and their friends the only resistance. So, now you’re pretty much up to date as we move on to a more in-depth review of Part Two of …THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE.

AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE, issue 20, page 1 (Written by ADAM P KNAVE and DJ KIRKBRIDE, art by NICK BROKENSHIRE)

AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE, issue 20, page 1 (Written by ADAM P KNAVE and DJ KIRKBRIDE, art by NICK BROKENSHIRE)

As the issue begins, Amelia is pondering the unavailability of magic tomes on audiobook; Hector is enjoying a quiet meal with Laura, Amelia’s friend; and their friends back on the blended world have come up with a plan: Since the Council are not too particular about their victims, the group will recruit the entire city – non-mage and mage alike – to wage war against their conquerors. While this issue isn’t as action-packed as most of the previous nineteen, there’s still enough action to keep things interesting: Lemmy and the rest are on the run from the Council and trapped in their own home; Amelia has a run-in with a police officer back at her Aunt Dani’s shop but, eventually, she wins him over to her cause, as they begin a city-wide search for Hector; Hector and Laura are assaulted and, while Hector ineffectively waves his wand at the guy, Laura takes control with some moves she learned in a self-defense class; later, however, Laura is amazed as Hector’s powers return full-strength and he saves a man from certain death.

AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE, issue 20, page 2 (Written by ADAM P KNAVE and DJ KIRKBRIDE, art by NICK BROKENSHIRE)

AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE, issue 20, page 2 (Written by ADAM P KNAVE and DJ KIRKBRIDE, art by NICK BROKENSHIRE)

The rest of the book deals with how everybody is handling being in a very different world than the one they woke up in earlier in the day. The characters, the worlds and the story created by writers Adam P Knave and DJ Kirkbride are all so vibrantly real (yeah… I realize that I just said that about magicians, evil wraiths, dimension travel and golems… but, it’s true), that you get caught up in the story and the lives of these characters and can’t wait for the next issue to get here. Nick Brokenshire’s artwork fits the story perfectly… look closely through all twenty issues and you’ll see sly little nods to some of the comics greats (there are several storefronts with names like Frazetta, Toth and Eisner; the heroic leader of Omega Company is named Kubert) and some very recognizable characters from the big and small screens (Wimpy makes an appearance on a Tuesday; Shaggy shows up in a scene, as does the Monopoly dude; Eddie Murphy’s character from THE NUTTY PROFESSOR and Gene Wilder as Frankenstein appear in a research lab). The supporting cast are each drawn with a specific personality in mind, with no short cuts, especially the brilliantly conceived Lemmy. The various worlds are all familiar enough that they could be this Earth, but with enough differences to let us know that we ain’t in Kansas anymore. Nick colors his own pages (with an occasional assist from Ruiz Moreno), working with a very bright… well, actually, more of a pastel… palette that is extremely effective on this strip, proving that a book like this doesn’t necessarily need to be dark and gloomy (though there are those types of scenes, as well).

AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE, issue 20, page 3 (Written by ADAM P KNAVE and DJ KIRKBRIDE, art by NICK BROKENSHIRE)

AMELIA COLE AND THE IMPOSSIBLE FATE, issue 20, page 3 (Written by ADAM P KNAVE and DJ KIRKBRIDE, art by NICK BROKENSHIRE)

And, let’s talk about the depiction of our title character. Amelia isn’t a typical female lead. She isn’t waif thin with an impossibly large bust. She’s just… beautifully average. Amelia Cole is the kind of girl next door that you always had a crush on when you were growing up and the kind of young woman that you could fall deeply in love with and want to be around as much as possible. And, that is definitely one of the things that makes this book so appealing… the fact that the lead character seems so utterly normal and approachable. With the major publishers killing off all of their characters and starting over every few months, you really can’t afford to become too invested in any of those books; the story and art of AMELIA COLE melds beautifully to create one of the best ongoing series that I’ve read in a good little while.

Individual digital issues of AMELIA COLE, as well as the first three six-issue collections are available from Monkeybrain and comixology.com; graphic novels of the first three story arcs, each with unique bonus material, are printed and published through IDW and are available there and from all of the usual suspects. I heartily suggest that you pick up this series from the beginning, in whatever form you like. As the title page of issue 19 says, “If you haven’t, read previous issues. This issue will be here when you’re done… ”


EMPIRE OF THE WOLF

(Michael Kogge/Dan Parsons/David Rabbitte/Chris Summers/Marshall Dillon/Doug Beekman; 125 pages; ALTERNA COMICS; 2014)

DIG030689_1

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF is a four issue limited series – collected here in one place – that explores historical aspects of the Roman empire, melding realities with the mythological story of Romulus and Remus, which, naturally, leads to the introduction of another European legend into the mix – the werewolf. Overall, the story is well constructed, though I did find it a bit confusing differentiating between the characters. I found myself re-reading pages and going back farther into the story to catch up on who was doing what and where they were doing it (and to whom); that problem, I feel, has more to do with the artists’ designs and execution than a jumbled script. If you’ve been around for as long as I have, then you probably remember Barry (Windsor) Smith’s early work on CONAN THE BARBARIAN, THE AVENGERS, IRON MAN and some other Marvel books, as well as Mike Grell’s earliest efforts at DC with THE LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES, GREEN ARROW and, of course, THE WARLORD; while I have come to appreciate the art and storytelling prowess of both of these gentlemen, those early works featured rather stiff figures, with odd angles and extended torsos and faces. Dan Parsons, who pencilled the first two issues, has those same tendencies; David Rabbitte, penciller on the final two issues, suffers the same malady, though to a lesser extent (maybe that similarity is an attempt to retain continuity throughout the series). The colorists (Rabbitte on the first and fourth issues, Chris Summers on the middle two) worked directly over the pencil art, giving the pages a cool painted look, which smooths out some of the problems already alluded to. Don’t get me wrong… while the artwork may be an acquired taste (at least, for me), it is in no way inferior. In fact, both artists prove they are not without talent, as there are several absolutely brilliantly illustrated pages in each of the four issues (plus, Parsons handled the original cover art, which is certainly of a high standard). Also, special mention must be made of the other member of the original artistic team, letterer Marshall Dillon, who was handpicked by Kogge to give the pages the look and feel of those early ’70s Marvel books by such greats as John Costanza and Sam Rosen. His work does, indeed, add a special touch to the book.

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 1 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAN PARSONS and DAVID RABBITTE)

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 1 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAN PARSONS and DAVID RABBITTE)

The first issue (or Book I, to be more accurate) is sub-titled “The Savage North” and introduces the two protagonists, centurions of the Second Augustan Legion, Canisius Sarcipio, a former slave, and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, nephew to the emperor, who are leading their forces through Britannia, convinced that the only way to civilize the Celts is to conquer them; failing to civilize the Celts, nothing less than their utter destruction will do. As their general, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, joins them, it would seem that their decision has been made for them: Genral Vespasianus has discovered the eviscerated body of a fellow soldier, the work of a Druid sect under the leadership of a giant named Caradog. As the general and centurions lead their armies, intent on destroying everything in their path, they encounter Caradog, a killing machine who quickly dispatches over a hundred Roman soldiers as well as Vespasianus, all in the name of his ancestor, Remus. As the general lies dying of his wounds, he gives his command to Canisius; Lucius and Canisius pursue Caradog, eventually catching up to… something that definitely isn’t human. At home, in Rome, Canisius’ beloved, Lavinia, a Virgin of Vesta, is troubled by dreams and visions of death and defeat. Her visions prove to be right; as Lucius is bitten by the monstrous Caradog, Canisius forces the fight, allowing his friend to escape back to the Roman encampments. Meanwhile, Lavinia, cursing Vesta, vows that if Canisius does not return, Rome will burn. There’s a lot of groundwork to digest in “The Savage North,” and much that needs to be explained. The story is off to an action-packed start but, for it to be told properly, it cannot maintain this break-neck level.

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 2 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAN PARSONS and CHRIS SUMMERS)

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 2 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAN PARSONS and CHRIS SUMMERS)

However, with Book II, “The Mark of the Beast,” even though the action doesn’t slow appreciably, the story does advance nicely… so, what do I know, huh? Canisius’ battle with the beastial Caradog leaves them dead or dying – the former from a vicious bite from the latter; Caradog from his own weapon, a mystical sword called “Moonblade.” By now, we all know what’s happening here, right? Caradog and his followers are werewolves, a fact that can only mean… Canisius isn’t dead, just weak from loss of blood, with the added bonus of the lupine infection passed on from his foe’s bite. In the meantime, Lucius (who is also infected) claims sole command of all Roman forces in Brittania, seeking the glory that will make it possible for him to ask for the hand of the lovely Lavinia; he didn’t necessarily seek the death of his friend but, he certainly intends to take advantage of it. Canisius awakens, naked and freezing, as a Druid sorceress named Ambrosia appears. Ambrosia, knowing the warrior’s fate, has purposed to bring out the beast in Canisius, thinking that he may be the chosen one, who will lead the Celts to ultimate victory. Upon Lucius’ homecoming, he is – naturally – rebuffed by Lavinia. There’s a nice bit of Royal Court intrigue, as the “conquering hero” is feted by his uncle, the emperor, and his ambitious mother. I guess if you wanna call the last few pages of this chapter a “surprise ending,” that works as well as any. Differentiating between the two primary characters is a lot easier in this issue, mainly because they’re never together. Again, the writing is crisp; the artwork features flashes of brilliance but, still, the characters occasionally suffer from a… uh… stiffness, I suppose, is the best word. Parsons’ action scenes seem to be more fluid here than in Book I, so that’s a definite plus.

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 3 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAVID RABBITTE and CHRIS SUMMERS)

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 3 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAVID RABBITTE and CHRIS SUMMERS)

An origin story of sorts opens Book III, subtitled “The Blood of Remus.” The legend of Romulus and Remus, sons of the Roman god of war, Mars, born of a virgin, unfolds in the first six pages of the chapter, offering insight into the main tale of EMPIRE OF THE WOLF. Mythology buffs will remember that the twins were raised by wolves and, eventually, Romulus’ lust for power led to the death of Remus at his brother’s hand. David Rabbitte’s art and Chris Summer’s use of subdued earth-tones to color these pages are the best of the series so far; the opening splash page alone is a thing of compositional beauty, boding well for the rest of this book, as well as the final chapter of the series. As the Druid Ambrosia relates to Canisius the legendary tale, he begins to understand and accept what has happened; his memory also returns and he is determined to return to Rome and Lavinia. Upon entering a Roman outpost, he is met by an old friend who is surprised to see him; it seems that Lucius has declared him dead and has become the cruel emperor Nero. Now, Canisius has another reason to return home: To liberate Rome and his beloved and to seek revenge on his traitorous friend. As his plans now seems to dovetail with that of the Druids, a plan is formulated and the group boards a Roman galleon returning to Rome. While on board, a Roman officer attacks Ambrosia, triggering the lupine change in Canisius. Meanwhile, back in Rome, the desire of two great leaders, Lavinia, witnesses a brutal attack by the beastial Lucius, sending her fleeing from the city. From that point, things get a bit muddled, with shipwrecks, vengeance-seeking corpses and some very confusing scenes taking place in a cave; originally, Canisius appears to be under the thrall of a sibyl who has taken the form of Lavinia but, suddenly, the scene shifts to another cave where Lavinia is hiding from the wrathful Lucius, who has managed to hunt her down. As long as you pay close attention to the captions, you’re gonna know what’s going on but, now that both Lucius and Canisius are basically in the same situation, the identity problem has, again, reared its utterly confused head. Our heroes simply look too much alike for a casual reader to browse over this part and not come away scratching their head. The pencil art throughout the cave scenes would have benefited from some inks, as the shading leaves the faces looking a bit muddy; other than that minor complaint, the artwork is, overall, a vast improvement over the first two installments. With a little more exposition mixed in with the action, Book III has set up what should be an exciting and eventful finale.

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 4 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAVID RABBITTE)

EMPIRE OF THE WOLF: Issue 4 cover, page 1 (Cover by DAN PARSONS; Written by MICHAEL KOGGE, art by DAVID RABBITTE)

Book IV is “Empire of the Wolf,” an epic culmination of Michael Kogge’s two decade journey to tell this story. It begins with Canisius’ journey through Hades, searching for the soul of Ambrosia; the Druid, however, did not perish in the shipwreck and she – and several surviving members of the sect – are saved and brought to Rome… entertainment for the emperor. Lucius, allying himself with Lavinia’s father, has taken her as his reluctant empress and, as the brutal Nero, sends Ambrosia and her companions to certain doom, facing a menagerie of wild beasts in the gladiatorial ring. When Canisius appears from the depths of Hades, the two old friends battle for supremacy, with a fight that rages throughout the city. With Rabbitte now coloring his own pencil work, the art takes on a more atmospheric tone, especially the scenes at the River Styx and in Hades and the fight scenes. I’m really not the type of person who enjoys delivering spoilers, so… I’ll just tell you that, in this version, the historical burning of Rome definitely does not happen while Nero fiddles. The finale of EMPIRE OF THE WOLF also features reversals of fortunes, acts of revenge, scenes of comeuppance, historical references that give the story a vibrant ring of truth and a very satisfying ending. I don’t know if Kogge has any plans for a sequel, but if he does… sign me up. By the way, how about that brand new, awe-inducing Doug Beekman painting that appears on the cover of this collection? I would stack that up against any (non-Frazetta) cover to ever grace an issue of CREEPY or EERIE.


IN SEARCH OF THE COSMIC SNAUSAGE: THE GREG MCCRARY INTERVIEW

PART ONE: AN INTRODUCTION (OR, HOW THIS THING ACTUALLY CAME ABOUT)

Greg McCrary creates a unique piece for a fan (uncredited photo)

Greg McCrary creates a unique piece for a fan (uncredited photo)

Sometime after Jeremy and I launched the Mule, we wandered into Star Clipper, a great little comics shop in the Delmar Loop in the University City area of Saint Louis. As fate would have it, there were several members of the creative consortium called Ink and Drink plying their wares out front, as was their wont at least one Saturday a month. We left them our contact info and… didn’t hear anything from them. Fast forward to late December, 2014 and another visit to the Clipper. This time, the sole representative of the comics guys was Greg McCrary, creator, writer and artist of the wildly insane LASER DOG. I cornered him (actually, I walked up to his table and introduced myself) and told him that we were interested in doing a piece on the local scene. He was stoked… I was stoked and, after a couple of small bumps in the road (from both of us), we decided that e-mailing our questions and answers would be the quickest, most efficient way to introduce you to the creative side of the Saint Louis comic book scene. Somewhere in there, Greg mentions that he’ll sell you a copy of LASER DOG if you see him on the street; that’s true. In fact, he’ll draw an entire LASER DOG strip on your arm if you ask him to… that’s how much he loves to draw and create. Ya gotta like a guy like that. Oh, and in case you were wondering, the other guys of Ink and Drink are insanely talented, too. You can check ’em out here: inkanddrinkcomics.com.

PART TWO: THE INTERVIEW (OR, THE RESULTS OF PART ONE)

An original Laser Dog piece (art by GREG MCCRARY)

An original Laser Dog piece (art by GREG MCCRARY)

THE MULE: LASER DOG is like a sci-fi free for all – a little loopy, with a bizarre sense of humor, and yet, there’s plenty there to make you think… little social commentaries rolled into the story and art. Where did the idea for LASER DOG come from?

GREG: The very idea of Laser Dog manifested itself while I was at work. I used to work at Six Flags, drawing caricatures and, during the later years, my time there was quite mind numbing, boring. On one particular day, my co-worker, a very talented artist, Harrison Weathers, was requested by a patron of the park to draw a caricature of her dog from her phone. So, Harry does so and when he was finished, the lady very much enjoyed the picture and paid and left happily. When she left, I turned to Harry and told him, “that drawing was terrible… ” Which he replied, “Yeah, I know. I’m going to try that again.” As he was beginning to draw his second attempt of a caricature dog, it was pretty much turning out to look exactly the same as the first drawing. Harry noticed this as well and gave up prematurely before filling in the eyes. When I saw the empty void in the drawing of that dog’s eyes, it hit me like a kick in the nuts. “It looks like lasers should be coming out of those eyes,” I proclaimed out loud. And, from there, my body took over and colored what has come to be known as LASER DOG. The other co-workers and I were instantly obsessed and we all relentlessly began to draw and write our very own stories of Laser Dog. However, I was the only one out of all of us who was dedicated/insane enough to follow through and make a comic about our obsession, created out of our maddening boredom. (That was very long… sorry.)

THE MULE: Were you one of those kids in school? The one that was always getting in trouble for doodling and drawing and making fart noises to make the other kids laugh?

GREG: I actually don’t recall being that disruptive or getting in that much trouble during my elementary and high school years. Although, I don’t think my teachers were entertained by the idea of me doodling during their lectures. But, I felt that I actually focused more while I was drawing and I listen better, believe it or not. But, I was definitely the wise cracking rascal out of the group and I still do make a fool of myself and love to hear people laugh at my expense.

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (cover art by GREG MCCRARY)

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (cover art by GREG MCCRARY)

THE MULE: Okay… here’s the major question: What breed of pooch is the cosmic hound? I’m getting the scent of a pekingese or, maybe, a bichon frise.

GREG: Well, Laser Dog is Everything. And yet, he is Nothing. So, I always say that he is Every Breed of Dog. And yet, he is No Breed of Dog (pretty much any question about Laser Dog can be answered through this motto).

THE MULE: You self-publish LASER DOG. What types of obstacles have you encountered with that DIY approach, if any? Conversely, what advantages are there to publishing the book yourself?

GREG: I think the biggest obstacle you face as an indie comic is the budget. I’m responsible for paying for everything so, unfortunately, I can’t print as many as I or the consumer may want. But as far as the benefits, there’s not much pressure. No “real” deadlines and I get the final say. Although, not putting deadlines on your project could also leave you to some serious procrastination.

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 7, by GREG MCCRARY)

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 7, by GREG MCCRARY)

THE MULE: There is so much happening in your layouts and art. I was concerned that the digest size may not do your work justice. However, after seeing the first issue digitally at webtoons.com, those scenes just seem to jump off the page… uh… the screen. In a perfect world, what medium does Greg McCrary feels best suits the free-wheeling style of LASER DOG?

GREG: I always imagined it as a comic, but honestly Laser Dog is very versatile. I can see it in any medium: web comic, animation, live action movie/TV show, whatever. And I encourage anyone who wants to see that happen to go ahead and do it. Laser Dog is a free marked; anyone is encouraged to make their own comic, oil painting or marble bust for Lasy-D. Laser Dog is like life, you can’t own it or take possession of him. You can only participate with Laser Dog and I welcome anyone to do so.

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 14, by GREG MCCRARY)

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 14, by GREG MCCRARY)

THE MULE: The covers are amazing pieces of art, as well. How do you feel about coloring the inner pages? Do you prefer leaving the inside of the books black and white?

GREG: Well, once again, this goes with budgeting mainly. It just makes more sense that I do black and white because it’s the cheapest and most affordable. I can see LASER DOG benefiting in color; however, black and white is all I can afford. But I love gray-scaling and working with black and white, so it doesn’t bother me too much. But, I can totally understand some people wanting some more visceral stimulation.

LASER DOG, ISSUE TWO (cover art by GREG MCCRARY)

LASER DOG, ISSUE TWO (cover art by GREG MCCRARY)

THE MULE: You’ve published two issues of LASER DOG and a third issue (the conclusion to the heart-stopping two-parter, “The Legion of Mullets”) is imminent. So, where does a fella pick up his very own copy of LASER DOG?

GREG: Well, you could have picked it up at Star Clipper. But, unfortunately, they’re going out of business, so you can only get a copy there before February 7th. I’ll find several locations to sell out of later this month, but you can order issue one or two on indyplanet.com and if you see me on the street, just holler at me and I’m sure I’ll have a copy for you.

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 22, by GREG MCCRARY)

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 22, by GREG MCCRARY)

THE MULE: Tell us a bit about your background and other projects. What drives Greg McCrary to do the things he does?

GREG: I graduated from Meramec Community College with an associate degree in Graphic Communications. I drew caricatures out at Six Flags for six years. I really honed my skills working out there, learning the art of exaggeration from a lot of great artists. So, a lot of my influences come from caricature artists: Joe Bluhm, Jeremy Townsend (aka Jert), Tomokazu Tabata. My earliest influence is Genndy Tartakovsky; DEXTER’S LAB definitely was a big deal in my childhood. But, later comic influence goes to SCUD; I love the character designs and the flow of the story and the paneling. But, as far as what drives me to draw, it’s nothing I can pin point. It’s almost as natural as breathing, I just need to do it (it’s more bordering on a curse or a compulsion). But I love drawing. I would die without my art.

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 23, by GREG MCCRARY)

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 23, by GREG MCCRARY)

THE MULE: There’s a small cadre of comic book creators in the Saint Louis area. Do you get together, like a support group, to work out ideas and collaborate on projects?

GREG: I’m a part of the group Ink and Drink. We get together and try to produce a comic twice a year. I sometimes get with friends and try to collaborate on a comic, either coloring or doing a cover or helping on backgrounds.

THE MULE: Aside from LASER DOG 3, what can we expect to see from you in the next few months?

GREG: I’m not sure if it will come in the months soon to come but, I’m working on two projects with a couple of friends that will hopefully be printed within the not too distant future. Marie Enger will be helping me out on a comic I’m making called SKITZO. It’s a POKE’MON clone type story, but it’s centered around schizophrenics who battle their illusions instead of creatures. And, I’m writing a story for my buddy, Michael Minter (aka Makuto) to draw. It’s called “Into the Dark.” It’s about a world of magic and three sorcerers that try to master the science that makes up the magic of that world.

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 24, by GREG MCCRARY)

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE (page 24, by GREG MCCRARY)

THE MULE: Finally… what, exactly, is LASER DOG LIVE and where can one catch a performance of the same?

GREG: LASER DOG LIVE was an interpretive dance/show, based on the first issue of LASER DOG that my friend, Caitlin Hafer, put on in San Francisco. It was quite a show. Unfortunately, it was only a two night event. There are no plans for a World Wide Tour (at least, not yet). You can take a look at the performance on YouTube if you type in “Laser Dog Live” or, you can look it up on the Laser Dog Facebook page. I have it posted on the wall.

THE MULE: Thanks, Greg, for the peak inside your vast cranial cavity and for the insight into the world of LASER DOG.

GREG: Thanks for your interest in LASER DOG and… never forget: Laser Dog is everything. And yet, he is nothing…

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE in-house ad (by GREG MCCRARY)

LASER DOG, ISSUE ONE in-house ad (by GREG MCCRARY)


DEADLANDS PROMOTION

(UPDATE BELOW)

DEADLANDS Promo

Back in the day, when the only comic books that I had access to were from Marvel, DC and the Warren black and white magazines, I bought and read just about every title from those three publishers. As they began to price me out of their market, I drifted on to other things, buying only the hardcover collections of some of my favorites. Now, however, with the Mule expanding past the music coverage that fLUSH and fLUSHstl was known for, I’m playing a bit of catch-up, especially with the ever-expanding world of indie imprints and studios. Which brings me to Visionary Comics and a title called DEADLANDS. DEADLANDS began as a role playing game (for those unfamiliar with RPGs, think DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS, but set in Old West), expanded to a series of one-shot comics published by Image and, now, has grown to include novelizations, new comic stories, a proposed television series and more.

Now, IDW Comics is issuing a trade paperback (TPB) of the four Image one-shots, which will also feature a couple of new stories (one written by DEADLANDS creator, Shane Hensley), as well as a preview of the first novel, GHOSTWALKERS (by Jonathan Maberry and due from Tor Books this fall). While the TPB won’t be in your favorite comics shop ’til March, Visionary is offering a pre-order special for the collection, called DEAD MAN’S HAND. Here’s how that works: Through the January 29th deadline, pre-order the book at your favorite shop, post “I just got dealt the #DeadMansHand at (name of shop where you pre-ordered)” and e-mail a link to that post to PreOrderPromo@visionarycomics.com; you will then receive two free PDF books, a copy of the comic book THE KID, and a DEADLANDS RELOADED game book of your choosing. Pretty cool, huh? The Visionary web-site has all of the details here: visionarycomics.com/pre-order-dead-mans-hand-now-get-free-books; if you wanna check out the book, you can go here: visionarycomics.com/feature-dead-mans-hand-creator-spotlights.

So… full disclosure time here: Neither myself nor the Mule are associated with Visionary Comics, IDW Publishing, Tor Books or any entity involved with this project. I contacted Visionary because I thought the book looked like something I would enjoy. Likewise, the Mule just thought that our readers would like to check out what we think is a really cool weird western comic book (review coming soon) and get a bunch of free stuff, to boot… or not… your call.

UPDATE: Due to popular demand, this pre-order promotion has been extended through Monday, February 16, 2015. You’ve still got time but, it’s running out faster than you think!


EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE

(Brockton McKinney/Larkin Ford/Jason Strutz; 129 pages; ACTION LAB COMICS, 2014 – collecting EHMM THEORY, issues 1-4, 2013)

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE (from Action Lab’s Danger Zone imprint) collects the first story arc starring the recently murdered Gabriel Ehmm and his pet, a kitten named Mister Whispers, which died from starvation after Gabriel’s death. “Cat, Quantum and Contrition” starts, fittingly enough, in a cemetery filled with killer midget clowns, three days after Ehmm is shot by his jealous girlfriend. From there, the story starts to get weird. Gabriel – and by extension, Whispers – finds himself on a kinda existential journey of self-discovery involving talking animals (including the ball of gray fur sitting on Ehmm’s shoulder), murderous senior citizens, Saint Peter and his gas chamber teleportation device (except not really), deadly cyborg crustaceans, a team of oddball super heroes (who really aren’t), multiple realities and, of course, those knee-gnawing zombie midgets! In other words… What’s not to like?

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 1 cover, page 18 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 1 cover, page 18 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

After the brief introduction (which comes back around), writer Brockton McKinney brings things into focus where the whole thing started – Gabriel Ehmm’s origin story, if you like – as our intrepid hero returns home with a surprise for his girlfriend, Stacy; she, of course, has a surprise for him, too. Soon, Gabriel wakes up dead, with the adorable Mister Whispers sitting on his chest, asking “You okay, dude?” The befuddled pair are soon joined by a cigar-chomping Mafioso-looking guy, nattily dressed in white and sporting a well-trimmed white beard and perfectly quaffed and ponytailed white hair. Why would they question such a being when he introduces himself as God’s gatekeeper, Peter? Which brings us back to the beginning and the graveyard of tiny terrors. Gabe and Whispers are overpowered by the zombie horde and saved by an ax-wielding senior citizen, a woman named Alyona Tarasov who knew Gabe’s birth father and, so… the ride of Gabriel Ehmm’s young unlife is about to begin. A quick note about Larkin Ford’s artwork (and the besutiful color work by Jason Strutz) is necessary here: It is absolutely mesmerizing, especially the cemetery sequences and the murder sequence. This initial chapter (the first issue of the series) can be a bit confusing, with enough twists and turns to make your head spin but, with a promise that all eventually will be made clear, we move forward.

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 2 cover, page 11 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 2 cover, page 11 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

And, indeed, as chapter two opens, we find Gabe, Whispers and Alyona on the road, seeking the father he never knew, as the old Russian explains her relationship with Aaron Ehmm and why she didn’t bat an eye at the dead talking cat. It seems that she and her sister, Dominika, first met Aaron at college in 1982, where the brilliant young Ehmm was turning the heads of students and faculty, alike. A professor’s tale of a talking rabbit he encountered at the South Pole began to consume the elder Ehmm. Before Alyona could continue her story, the car is set upon by a giant, cybernetically-enhanced crab in another well-drawn sequence. The action comes fast and furious as, with the Russian being poorly over-matched, GODD shows up. Wait… who? The Guardians of Dimensional Defense, three super-powered beings and a pair of intelligent robots: Mindwolf, the team leader, who introduces GODD as “the good guys; the Thermal Ghost, a being of blue flame; Alchemist, who looks like a shabby, shaggy mummy; the Emp, a foul-mouthed, smart-aleck little robot, who’s kind of a cross between HERBIE (from those crappy old FANTASTIC FOUR cartoons) and Skeets (from the not-crappy BOOSTER GOLD comics), who has a serious problem with Mister Whispers (there’s a wicked funny exchange between the two); and an impressive looking female ‘bot called TAMMI (which stands for Technologically Advanced Mechanized Military Instrument). While Gabe and Whispers are dutifully impressed and more than ready to accept the team’s help, Alyona isn’t so easily swayed and pretty much tells ’em to take a hike. The final two pages of this chapter reintroduces “Saint Peter” and the true villain of the piece… ah, but that would be telling, wouldn’t it? McKinney, aside from writing a really great fight scene, has begun to unravel the plot twists with more answers promised for the third installment.

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 3 cover, page 12 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 3 cover, page 12 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

That third installment starts with another beautifully rendered sequence, as Alyona relates more of the story: Aaron, Professor Lanny Crowell (who had seen the rabbit at the South Pole), Dominika and she had traveled to the Pole in search of a possible reason for the talking bunny. What they found was a dimensional anomaly… a portal to other worlds and other realities. Again, the story is interrupted, though not in a fashion as dramatic as a cyborg crab and a super-powered dust-up. The trio has arrived at their destination: Jon Kaye Town Hospital, where an old friend of Ehmm the elder currently resides. Spoiler alert: Tym isn’t the drooling husk in the wheelchair. So, Tym joins the group on their journey and relates more of the story, with more talking critters and the introduction of Gabe’s mother, the Princess Emera, from an alternate dimension… the very dimension the portal chose to spit Aaron into. Tym’s story ended, the four arrive at the last known residence of Aaron Ehmm, where Gabe has a total meltdown at the prospect of seeing his father for the first time. From here, things are brought into clearer focus as the good guys begin to separate themselves from the bad guys, with the unexpected return of Gabe’s girlfriend, Stacy (who has, by this time, gained an “e” to become Stacey), and another wicked fight sequence between GODD and Alyona and Tym, ending in what, I suppose, would be called a “double betrayal.” Another well-written, beautifully rendered installment ends with an exploding door, an injured Alyona and a shotgun wielding Aaron Ehmm.

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 4 cover, page 12 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: Issue 4 cover, page 12 (Written by BROCKTON MCKINNEY, art by LARKIN FORD and JASON STRUTZ)

So, the fourth and final installment (issue four, if you’re counting) isn’t the action-packed throw down that you would expect… not to say that there isn’t an action-packed throw down, there is and, all you really need to know is this: “Robeartopus!” It is every bit as mammoth and weird as it sounds. There is plenty of exposition, explaining the whys and how-fors of everything that has happened and is happening. But, even so, you will find yourself so engrossed in the story and art that you’re really not even aware that every third panel isn’t some scene of carnage and mayhem. This issue is so densely written, with everything explained (while also setting up the next story arc), that I really can’t reveal much without spoiling the end of one of the most adventurous story-lines in comics history. Yeah, yeah, yeah… I know… hyperbole much? Well, boys and girls, I suggest you pick up this collection and decide for yourselves. Now… here’s the one problem with EHMM THEORY, BOOK ONE: The story and art are exemplary but, for some reason that eludes me, EVERY page from the original single issues is included here. That means that at the end of each installment, there are pages of in-house advertisements for then-upcoming Action Lab releases, including the next issue of EHMM THEORY (a total of at least 12 pages over-all). A minor complaint, but one that really seems to annoy me with all of the company’s collections. Both physical and digital copies are available at the Action Lab site, at ComiXology or, even cooler yet, visit your local comic shop.


BOO! 2014 HOLIDAY SPECIAL

(Various Writers and Artists; 41 pages, digital; MONKEYBRAIN COMICS, 2014)

BOO! 2014 HOLIDAY SPECIAL

The goofy anthology BOO! premiered in October 2013 as a four issue limited series, featuring stories populated by the usual monsters, zombies, vampires, ghosts and ghouls in classic EC Comics horror twist ending fashion… well, more like a MAD! magazine version of its bigger, scarier EC brothers. The title returned this past Halloween, as a one-shot and, now, because that Claus dude is so scary, BOO! is back with seven new Christmas-themed tales of the ookey, hidden behind a R Crumb worthy cover by Jon Morris.

BOO! 2014 HOLIDAY SPECIAL: "Humbug" (by KELLY TINDALL); "The Case of the Curious Claus" (written by DYLAN TODD, art by MATT DIGGES and PETE TOMS)

BOO! 2014 HOLIDAY SPECIAL: “Humbug” (by KELLY TINDALL); “The Case of the Curious Claus” (written by DYLAN TODD, art by MATT DIGGES and PETE TOMS)

Kelly Tindall’s “Humbug,” as the name implies, is a modern day version, a cynical update of “A Christmas Carol,” one of the most loved Christmas redemption stories of all time. The artwork’s a bit rough around the edges, but the story and the “shock” ending more than make up for any shortcomings in the art department. “The Case of the Curious Claus” is a take-off on SCOOBY DOO, WHERE ARE YOU? featuring a group of youngsters called the Creep Crew. The lighthearted script (by Dylan Todd) has an underlying message about the loneliness that many people (in this case, a young girl at a childrens home) experience during the holiday season and the predators who prey on the lonely. As one would expect, the jolly elf ain’t so jolly and… well… he ain’t so elfy either. Matthew Digges and Pete Toms team up for a passable job on the art.

BOO! 2014 HOLIDAY SPECIAL: "Up On the Housetop" (by JORDAN WITT); "Claus" (by MATT SMIGEL); "Secret Santa" (written by RJ WHITE, art by MANNING KRULL)

BOO! 2014 HOLIDAY SPECIAL: “Up On the Housetop” (by JORDAN WITT); “Claus” (by MATT SMIGEL); “Secret Santa” (written by RJ WHITE, art by MANNING KRULL)

Jordan Witt’s story and art blend nicely to deliver a tale about a Bear in the woods and a young woman alone on Christmas Eve when, “Up On the Housetop,” click, click, click! Which, of course, could mean only one thing: There’s something evil up on the roof! This story is probably my favorite of the seven on display here. “Claus,” by Matt Smigel, is a weird, wonderful ode to a dark lord and a woman scorned. Smigel’s art has a tripped out, REN AND STIMPY quality that is not unappealing in its own way; the story mixes the same whacked-out kinda cartoon vibe with just the right touch of Lovecraftian lore. After reading this one, you can’t help but feel the holiday love and cheer. “Secret Santa” (story and art by RJ White and Manning Krull, respectively) takes the classic Universal Monsters and turns them on their heads. The ultimately heartwarming tale also features cameos by Jack Skellington from THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and ol’ Kris Kringle himself.

BOO! 2014 HOLIDAY SPECIAL: "The Yule Log" (written by KARLA PACHECO, art by SEAN POPPE); "Forget Me Not" (by SCOTT FAULKNER)

BOO! 2014 HOLIDAY SPECIAL: “The Yule Log” (written by KARLA PACHECO, art by SEAN POPPE); “Forget Me Not” (by SCOTT FAULKNER)

Karla Pacheco’s “The Yule Log” explores the pagan celebration of the winter solstice and how we good Christians commandeered the festival to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior. The manic artwork of Sean Poppe definitely conveys the brutality and the excesses of the early church. The story is absolutely the most horrifying of the lot because… it’s history; it forces each of us to look within ourselves and not allow our zealousness (for whatever) to override the real message: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “Forget Me Not” is a disturbing science fiction story of an all-consuming space virus. Scott Faulkner’s story is well-paced, his simple pen and ink art (embellished with cool green washes) moves the narrative along nicely. Even though the ending isn’t necessarily unexpected, it is disturbing nonetheless. Okay, after Halloween and Christmas editions of this thoroughly enjoyable anthology book, what’s next? I mean, I wouldn’t mind a Groundhog Day special… April Fool’s Day… Arbor Day… hey, who says you gotta wait for a special holiday at all? I would seriously love to see what sort of non-holiday stories these people can come up with.


THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER, NUMBER 4

(Jamie S Rich/George Kambadais; 17 pages, digital; MONKEYBRAIN COMICS, 2014)

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER #4

Artist George Kambadais had an idea; he contacted writer Jamie S Rich with details of his idea. A young woman named Lindy Tuner has been murdered, in her superhero garb, as the Cat. Lindy’s spirit visits her younger sister Miranda, who, after digesting the fact that her sister was a superhero and… a dead one, at that, decided to pick up the mantle, hoping to give her sister justice. Rich was intrigued and, a few months later, the first issue of THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER was published by digital comics pioneers, Monkeybrain Comics.

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER #4, page 3 (written by JAMIE S RICH, art by GEORGE KAMBADAIS)

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER #4, page 3 (written by JAMIE S RICH, art by GEORGE KAMBADAIS)

Actually, now four issues into the series, this “origin” story takes center stage, as Miranda, with help from Lindy, closes in on the killer. To catch you up, the first issue was kind of a meet and greet, as we’re introduced to novice costumed hero Miranda, in mid-battle with a couple of super-baddies, part of a group known as the Blockheads. The Cat is up to her ears in toy building blocks (sorta like Legos) but, refusing her ghostly sibling’s aid, she works her way out of the problem. Unfortunately, she loses the bad guys along the way. The second and third issues, a two-parter called “If You Have Ghosts,” lays the official groundwork for this issue. These stories are fast-paced, exciting and a really fun read, written to appeal to everyone, aged twelve and up… especially girls. I’m not sure if it’s the subject matter or merely Kambadais’ stylistic art but, I find myself making comparisons to the old Hanna-Barbara Saturday morning cartoon, JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS; it’s sort of an odd style that evokes the work of the great comics and cartoon artist, Alex Toth (who designed characters and backgrounds for most H-B shows in the ’60s, including JOSIE… ), and the artistic team responsible for the amazing look of another animated series, SAMURAI JACK.

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER #4, page 4 (written by JAMIE S RICH, art by GEORGE KAMBADAIS)

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER #4, page 4 (written by JAMIE S RICH, art by GEORGE KAMBADAIS)

Kambadais is a master of odd angles and perspectives, as well as an overall intriguing page design; he, like Toth, does so very much with so few lines, allowing his color art (or, as on the “If You Have Ghosts” issues, the excellent color designs of Paulina Ganucheau) to do much of the heavy work. Rich, for the most part, never over-scripts; he seemingly manages to cram two or three pages of exposition into a panel or two… sometimes, in a line or two. To be sure, the premise of …MIRANDA TURNER isn’t a new one. Ghosts, spirits and mysticism of some sort have been a part of comics pretty much since that very first issue of ACTION COMICS (you know the one… the one that starred Zatara, Master Magician and that guy in the red cape and drawers): Deadman, the Spectre, Ghost Rider, Solomon Grundy and – DUH! – the Spirit, among about a jillion others. The difference here is the kitschy slumber party feel of the sisters’ relationship, a sibling rivalry that runs deep, even in death… until someone else starts messing with one or the other. Miranda is determined to find Lindy’s killer while forging her own path as the Cat; Lindy is determined to keep Miranda safe while helping her find the answer to her own murder. I must say that, so far, the experience has been a very pleasant surprise, especially for a guy who’s been reading comics since the early 1960s.

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER #4, page 5 (written by JAMIE S RICH, art by GEORGE KAMBADAIS)

THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER #4, page 5 (written by JAMIE S RICH, art by GEORGE KAMBADAIS)

If there’s a pre- or early teen girl in your circle of influence, particularly those interested in Manga or Anime, you could certainly do worse than introducing them to THE DOUBLE LIFE OF MIRANDA TURNER. My only complaint is that, in the nearly two years since the debut issue, there have (obviously) only been three more issues published and… well, that twist ending at the end of this issue has me looking for the next installment, like, NOW! All four issues of this great series, as well as the entire Monkeybrain digital library, are available for purchase (99¢ each) at comixology.com; you can check out previews of this and other books at monkeybraincomics.com. There are plenty of titles suitable for every age group. Monkeybrain is the perfect introduction to comics for kids of all ages.


COMIC BOOK FIRSTS: VAMPIRELLA

(Edited by Bill Parente; Don Glut, Forrest J Ackerman, Tom Sutton, Frank Frazetta, Billy Graham, and others; WARREN PUBLISHING; September, 1969)

Vampirella 1 cover

In 1969, the world was in flux; it seemed that every day saw some type of major change. Comic books, reflecting those changes, were trying new things just to keep pace. Warren Publishing, the home of horror anthology black and white magazine sized comics CREEPY and EERIE, decided that the sexual revolution was the perfect time and backdrop to introduce a sexy new character, an inhabitant of a planet called Draculon, where blood flows like water… in short, a planet of vampires. I was just short of my eleventh birthday when VAMPIRELLA #1 hit the magazine racks. I was big into comic books and horror stuff and… well… I mean… look at that cover! Of course, I was gonna buy the thing! But, was the rest of the world really ready for a sci-fi vampiric BARBARELLA knock-off? Again, I say, “Look at that cover!” The original series ran for 112 issues, so… yeah, I think that the world was ready for VAMPIRELLA. So, aside from the amazing Frank Frazetta painting on the cover (have I mentioned that cover?), was this thing worth my hard-earned (well, hard-begged for, actually) four bits? Uh… yeah!

VAMPIRELLA #1 ("Vampirella of Draculon" written by FORREST J ACKERMAN, art by TOM SUTTON)

VAMPIRELLA #1 (“Vampirella of Draculon” written by FORREST J ACKERMAN, art by TOM SUTTON)

From front to back, you’ve got some fun horror/thriller/sci-fi type stories, in the same anthology fashion as CREEPY and EERIE – the title character only appears in one actual story and as hostess for the rest of the book. Editor Bill Parente joins Frank Frazetta (who contributes a pen and ink Vampirella… “Vampi” to her friends… that’s every bit as cool as his cover painting) with a welcome from our hostess: “Hi, there! Welcome to the coolest girl-meets-ghoul mag on the market!” Vampi creator (with Trina Robbins) Forrest J Ackerman writes the first tale, “Vampirella of Draculon,” which ostensibly works as an origin for the girl from Draculon. The story is rather short, as such things go – a mere seven pages. The art is provided by Tom Sutton, who’s work is… an acquired taste, to say the least. Actually, to be fair, Sutton became a favorite in the early ’70s with his work on GHOST RIDER, DOCTOR STRANGE, Morbius, the Living Vampire in VAMPIRE TALES and more at Marvel. There’s a whole lot of story and exposition in these seven pages, trying to jam (maybe) too much set-up for Vampi’s arrival on Earth in the next issue.

VAMPIRELLA #1 ("Death Boat" written by DON GLUT, art by BILLY GRAHAM)

VAMPIRELLA #1 (“Death Boat” written by DON GLUT, art by BILLY GRAHAM)

Death Boat” is the first of five (!) stories scripted by Don Glut. It’s a vampire story with a twist, illustrated by the wildly talented Billy Graham (who had a hand in creating LUKE CAGE, HERO FOR HIRE for Marvel Comics). The “shock” ending is a little contrived, but I did mention that Billy Graham drew the thing, right? The next two tales (also by Glut and also featuring twist endings) feature two more of my all-time favorite comics artists: Reed Crandall and Neal Adams.

VAMPIRELLA #1 ("Two Silver Bullets" written by DON GLUT, art by REED CRANDALL)

VAMPIRELLA #1 (“Two Silver Bullets” written by DON GLUT, art by REED CRANDALL)

Two Silver Bullets” is a different take on the “loupe garou” legend. The premise is set in the first panel of the story, as a Canadian trapper’s daughter is attacked by a wolf… a werewolf. Crandall’s artwork has a great woodcut style that was tailor-made for the black and white medium of Warren’s magazines. Throughout his Warren career, some of his best works were those based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. By the time VAMPIRELLA #1 hit the stands, Reed had been drawing comics for almost 30 years. That experience definitely shows through the pages of “Two Silver Bullets.”

VAMPIRELLA #1 ("Goddess From the Sea" written by DON GLUT, art by NEAL ADAMS)

VAMPIRELLA #1 (“Goddess From the Sea” written by DON GLUT, art by NEAL ADAMS)

The breadth and power of Neal Adams’ art is certainly on display with “Goddess From the Sea,” more so as the pencil-work is unadorned by the usual India ink “finishes” that comic book readers are accustomed to seeing. The morals to this odd little mermaid story are simple: “Beauty’s only skin deep.” and “You should watch what you wish for… you may just get it!”

VAMPIRELLA #1 ("Last Act: October" written by DON GLUT, art by MIKE ROYER)

VAMPIRELLA #1 (“Last Act: October” written by DON GLUT, art by MIKE ROYER)

Before he became THE inker for Jack Kirby at DC, Mike Royer produced some very nice pages for Warren, including “Last Act: October” in this issue. It’s a tale of revenge, a witch’s curse and the supernatural powers that are unleashed on All Hallow’s Eve. There’s another trick ending here, but it actually works fairly well this time around. “Spaced Out Girls” is a rather bland science-fiction story with artwork by Tony Tallarico (though some sites I’ve visited credit penciller Bill Fraccio with Tallarico inking). The results are… interesting. Writer Nicola Cuti bookends Don Glut’s five scripts with “Room Full of Changes.” The story is strangely confusing… something about a murderous room or some such… but I’ve always liked the unique style of artist Ernie Colon. So there you have it. The stories work better than half the time and the art, for the most part, is off the chart good.

VAMPIRELLA ARCHIVES VOLUME ONE utilizes the original VAMPIRELLA #1 cover painting by FRANK FRAZETTA

VAMPIRELLA ARCHIVES VOLUME ONE utilizes the original VAMPIRELLA #1 cover painting by FRANK FRAZETTA

VAMPIRELLA #1 has been reprinted – in part or in whole – several times over the ensuing 45 years, the most recent as part of Dynamite Entertainment’s VAMPIRELLA ARCHIVES VOLUME ONE in 2010. The huge (380 pages plus) hardcover features the first seven issues of the original Warren magazine, with additional stories by the likes of: writers Doug Moench and the legendary Gardner F Fox and artists Jeff Jones, Jack Sparling, Dan Adkins and Frank Bolle, among others. For more info on the VAMPIRELLA ARCHIVES series and other Vampi related books, check out www.dynamite.com.