Hardly a comprehensive article, more like a little survey of the books I had enough thoughts on to write about. All the rest were pretty standard 4- or 5-out-of-10 material, nothing special either way. I always find these promotion days most interesting as kind of a mini-"State of the Industry". You can tell a lot about the comic book world by looking at who's trying to sell you what...
Weathercraft and Other Unusual Tales, by Jim Woodring. Fantagraphics.
Kind of a lackluster outing from the best publisher going, but I guess if Fanta is about three things they're cutting-edge comics, editorial aesthetism, and money troubles. Especially this year, with a lot of great reprint books coming, it kind of seems like Gary Groth & co. couldn't be bothered to put together a particularly stunning loss-leader. Of course, it's still a very fine read -- 32 ad-free pages of Jim Woodring miscellany, including a preview from his new book. Going by the look of the art, it looks like Weathercraft, Woodring's first graphic novel, will be aiming to capture a little of that R. Crumb Genesis sales magic. The drawing is still unmistakably unique, but there are definite details that mimic Crumb's current style: sparser backgrounds, more short-lined, abrupt hatching and less psychedelic squiggle-zones, a greater focus on the human(oid) figure. The handful of older Woodring material in the back of the book provides some interesting contrast; it's cool to see an old master evolve. Best panel:
Iron Man/Thor, by Matt Fraction, John Romita Jr., and Klaus Janson. Marvel.
This is actually pretty impressive, especially given the truly horrid comics Marvel has inflicted on past FCBD patrons. The A-game's brought this year, though, in a cool, breezy superhero yarn that incorporates more than enough Stan 'N' Jack action and cockeyed social commentary to make up for the high-concept inanity of the plot. Matt Fraction is a better-than-average superhero writer, and stuff like Thor is just his speed, mixing unfathomable space divinity with characters who are all a little removed from the norm. But his Iron Man comics all read like fanfic by a kid who takes the James Bond villains' doomsday weapons way too seriously -- the biggest problem with this issue. Happily, the apocalyspe-machine of the month is played as much for laughs as chills, and Romita's art is pretty much the Platonic ideal of what a modern Marvel should look like. Like almost all superhero comics, there's some stuff here that's simply dumb, but unlike most of them, it surpasses those parts with technical solidity and interesting ideas. Best panel:
War of the Supermen #0, by James Robinson and a few other people of similar talent. DC.
OK: this, right here is why Marvel is a more successful company than DC. Does DC produce better comics? Yes. Has their company overseen any work of lasting value in the past five years or so? Yes. Has Marvel? Not really. (Brendan McCarthy's Spider-Man isn't finished yet.) BUT: on Free Comic Book Day, the opportunity for comics companies, especially the superhero companies, Marvel puts out a light, fun, accessible slice of heroic escapism -- written and drawn, no less, by creators with better than average capabilities. Marvel puts out a good comic, basically, something that might persuade a civilian or two that y'know what, comics are cool 'n' shit, maybe I'll check out that Kick-Ass graphic novel. They do it right.
What does DC put out? This utter abomination, a continuity-heavy, idea-vacant brawlfest with terrible art and hackneyed, generally stupid writing. This is not a comic that will make anyone want to read more -- it's not even a comic I imagine most non-readers will want to finish. Any marketing being done is aimed at the 40K-ish folks who read the Superman books regularly; the ones to whom this comic won't just be screaming into a completely abstract void. By which I mean, even though I could understand what was going on in the comic (only because I've got a big backlog of DC continuity knowledge), my reaction was "Who fucking cares??" There is literally nothing in this comic that I can even imagine would interest anyone who wasn't already more invested in the DCU than I am. Offering up misshapen turds like this on Free Comic Book Day only makes the medium look stupid, impenetrable, artless, useless. DC takes a lot more shit than they deserve, but sending this comic out as a PR liason is like sending Henry Kissinger to a peace conference with Hitler. I never thought I'd see a free comic that was overpriced, but this rag is an embarrassment to the lives of the trees that died so it could be printed. Best panel: there isn't one.
YOW! A "John Stanley Library" Grab-Bag, by John Stanley. D&Q.
Hot stuff, especially for kids like me who love this kind of material but don't want to pay 30 bucks for a hardcover with three issues of Melvin Monster. Quibbles with D&Q's pricing aside, this pamphlet offers up 32 pages of carefully-chosen Stanley yarns (6 stories!), acting first as an excellent advertisement for the aforementioned "Stanley Library" books but also as the opposite of the DC book, a great, eye-catching lure for non-comics readers. Case in point: I went to FCBD with my girlfriend this year, and she absolutely gravitated toward the faux-newsprint paper and benday colors in this thing -- like, she was excited about the idea that she could read it. A while ago I said to somebody that the Seth-designed Stanley books seem designed to look like a lot of non-readers' idea of "vintage comics", that they're calculated to evoke the innocent fun people assume '60s kids had reading the books' contents more than they are the contents themselves. Regardless of intent, the battle's won: this is a great ambassador to the uninitiated, and also an enjoyable read for confirmed fans. Best panel:
Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom/Magnus, Robot Fighter, by Jim Shooter, dennis Calero, and Bill Reinhold. Dark Horse.
Eh, this was okay -- two stories repositioning the old Dell Comics properties that Dark Horse coxswains through today's markets, leading into ongoing series' written by that hack among hacks, Jim Shooter. Aside from Solar artist Calero's grotesque overuse of computer coloring, there isn't really anything wrong with this comic: both stories have clear narrative arcs, serviceably introduce their characters and milieus, give the hero something to punch, and wrap it up with just enough threads left dangling to lead into the new series, if the reader's interest should be sufficiently piqued. In that, these stories are right up there with the better half of what DC and Marvel are publishing these days. Depending on how insensible to good comic art a new reader was, it's just as likely they would check out the continuations of these stories as those of Iron Man and Thor.
What bugs me about this comic, though, is how indicative it is of Dark Horse's unwillingness to even consider being anything but the third-best mainstream publisher (and in practice, the fifth-best). I mean, come on. How successful can these series possibly end up being? I imagine opening sales of 20K would be huge. What possible good, whether financial or aesthetic, is going to come out of more hawkings of one bad character and one character that was only ever good because Russ Manning drew him? Dark Horse doesn't only publish mediocre comics -- they've got an entire universe of high quality Hellboy-related material at their disposal, some Frank Miller work, a library of Paul Chadwick stuff, a new Rafael Grampa series coming out in a few months... but no. Potential converts get a fifth-rate Marvel knockoff by an ex-Marvel editor, with no commercial or story potential beyond the outer limits of the properties' conservative original series. Keep dreaming big, guys. Best panel:
Library of American Comics #1, by various. IDW.
It was interesting to look at IDW's two FCBD offerings this year. One was just a catalog of their (typically pretty poor) contemporary books, and one was this, a raft of samples from upcoming reprint projects. The Library of American Comics books are just great: their Terry and the Pirates exhumation alone was one of the very few projects in which the re-presentation of older works transcends the commercial and begins looking like art. Since then, there have been more excellent releases every time you turn your head -- I liked their Noel Sickles retrospective and the recent Bringing Up Father tome best. At this point it's really a juggernaut that rivals Fantagraphics' reprint program, which is saying something, and this preview comic seems to indicate that it'll only be getting better. There are excerpts from surprisingly good early Blondie and Archie stories, and a few great color spreads from Al Capp's Herge-meets-Wally Wood peak on Lil' Abner, but the big items are an ad for a 400-page (!) Alex Toth biography that looks like it'll be pretty incredible, and best of all a few choice pages from Cliff Sterrett's hallucinogenic flapper epic, Polly and Her Pals. This last is an absolute treasure trove of experimental comics whose one previous collection has been out of print for years. Its resurrection should be glorious, especially in the advertised 12"x16" format. Yep, that juggernaut won't be slowing down for a while. Best panel: