Chris’s Indie Summer Circuit

Welcome back, one and all! I trust the New Year brought happiness, love and no small amount of liquor.

To dive straight back into it, I’d like to throw something at you all before we return to the monthly arrivals of superhero texts from the Big Two. I’d like to tell you all about Image Comics.

Now there’ll be a fuller-length explanation over on that other blog I write but to put it simply, Image Comics is one of the biggest and best comic book companies out there for publishing independent and creator-owned material. It provides a far greater degree of freedom in terms of content and a broader level of creativity in terms of narrative and character. I’ve spent most of the summer reading a lot of their books, partly because DC and Marvel had a bit of a nap from trade releases over Christmas, and partly because last year’s superhero offerings were, on the whole, disappointing.

This is not to say I’m swearing off superheroes and going so pretentious that I sound like I’m guffawing at the peasants every time I speak, but it does mean a larger number of Image and similar companies making appearances in my reviews every now and then. Because, seriously, they have some pretty freakin’ excellent stuff going at the moment, some of it by writers even the superhero-narrow-minded would know. Thus, here’s a brief selection of some of the best Image series I read over December and January. They won’t be given traditional scores this time around, but rest assured they are most definitely worth checking out.

Something to keep in mind as well – Image tends to be cheaper per book than most of the DC and Marvel stuff. So if you’re after “bang for your buck”, like I am, consider checking these out if only because you get vastly superior stories for comparitively economical prices.

Written by Tim Seeley, Art by Mike Norton

As many are aware by now, zombies appear to be as rooted in the modern cultural zeitgeist as flairs were in the 80’s. It seems the shambling grotesqueries of the walking dead now have a permanent place in the social constructs of the 2000s, and every man and their dog wants to get in on the action. Preferably with machetes and handguns.

In defiance of contemporary tradition, author Tim Seeley instead opts for a different take on the undead – rather than being Romero-esque walking corpses, the dead return to life in a manner similar to Torchwood‘s miniseries Miracle Day in that they stay whole, speak English and, unlike Shaun of the Dead, can’t necessarily have their head removed or brain destroyed in order to silence them.

Revival, touted as a “rural noir” about death, really feels like something a bit fresher than the zombie norm. It’s almost nothing like The Walking Dead except for the slightly Deep South setting, and the interpersonal dilemmas juxtaposed against the the resurrection of deceased loved ones – and all the political, social and religious problems that implies – are explored realistically and compellingly. It does take a little while to get going, but once you hit the climax of the first issue you’ll be hooked. God knows I was.

The artwork compliments the storytelling with fleshed-out colours, great use of colour contrasts and some wonderfully grotesque and creepy imagery that gives it extra kick. There’s an old woman with a pair of pliers that manages to do things that got to me way more than some of the goriest panels in Walking Dead. I pray I’m never going to need dentures one day.

Admittedly Revival‘s first volume is a tad short, and you’ll probably breeze through it in an hour or two, but as the start of what looks like an intriguing, unique twist on the undead genre it’s definitely worth a read.

Speaking of innovating an existing genre…

Written by Jonathan Hickman, Art by Nick Pitarra

Between movies, video games, alternate reality novels and cross-stitch patterns, World War II-era narratives have been, for all intents and purposes, done entirely to death. Yeah, we know, Hitler was a bad egg and the Japanese really need to think about who the better ally is when the next global conflict breaks out. And yeah, it’s kinda fun doing parallel universe stuff where good ol’ Adolf gets machine-gunned by Jewish-American freedom fighters while Quentin Tarantino stares at their feet.

But really, it gets a bit samey after a while – seeing the Nazis get their asses handed to them is only satisfying so many times. That is, until you get to Jonathan Hickman’s Manhattan Projects, an alternate reality take on WWII that features noted real world scientists – namely Einstein, Oppenheimer and Fermi – being brought together under the aegis of not only building the bomb that is destined to crash-tackle Hiroshima, but of creating and studying otherworldly weaponry to arm a planet that may soon find itself in the center of universal interest.

The story feels like a great mash-up of Torchwood, The X-Files and Men in Black with a dash of the science of Batman and a little bit of Doctor Who influencing it here and there. Oh, and with the violence of The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones added throughout. The artwork by Nick Pitarra is strongly reminiscent of the full-lipped, facially-lined masterworks of Frank Quitely, with quite a few unsettling visuals throughout (I seem to be into those a bit right now).

If I have one complaint it’s that there’s not much of a story per se, not until the last couple of issues (like Revival, it’s a little on the short side). It feels like one big introduction to the world, setting and characters, with a few little setups for future plotlines here and there. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still damn good and a great break off from regular alternaverse WWII fare, but don’t go into it expecting the kind of involving beginning of action and story that you get in Revival or the fast-paced plot present in…

Written by John Layman, Art by Rob Guillory

Everyone remember Invader Zim? Take the art style from that, wrap it in a blanket made of the surreal moments in Rocko’s Modern Life and the whimsical bits of Pushing Daisies, blend in a parody of the avian flu crisis from a few years ago, and include some dialogue and humour that wouldn’t be out of place in a Joss Whedon story.

In a nutshell, that’s Chew.

The world is bleak ever since chicken was outlawed as food following a viral outbreak of killer bird flu, and it’s up to men like Tony Chu – part of an agency regulating food-related crimes – to keep the peace. The only thing is Tony is a cibopath, meaning he can get mental impressions from things he eats. This can include how it was made, what pesticides were used on it and, in the case of several human bodies he needs to ingest bits of, how they were killed.

Part of me is glad I got into Chew a little later than others, because it means there’s several volumes I can pick up straight away rather than having to wait months for the next one. And thank goodness I can because the story is awesome. I haven’t laughed this much in a graphic novel since the Scott Pilgrim comics, and it’s all got this wonderfully off-kilter humour and demeanour that really sets it apart from others in the genre. The artwork has this creepy, exaggerated-proportions quality to it that doesn’t get obnoxious for me, aiding the storytelling and, in some cases, hitting you with more humour in one image than most superhero comics can give you in an entire novel. It all feels wonderfully organic (if you’ll pardon the pun), and the fact that writer John Layman has stated he has a beginning, middle and end plan for it makes me glad the humour most likely won’t go stale after several trades’ worth of gags.

Chew also provides a great contrast to the gritty seriousness present in…

Written by Ed Brubaker, Art by Sean Phillips

If you don’t know who Ed Brubaker is by now, read this first. Then come back here.

Fresh from having left Marvel in the dust and ending a Captain America run that will be remembered for decades hence, Brubaker takes a bit of a mash-up of noir crime drama and otherworldly Lovecraftian horror to create Fatale. The story follows Josephine, the apparently ageless eponymous femme fatale, who has the uncontrollable ability to ensnare men with her wiles whether she wants to or not. She’s embroiled in two worlds – the present day, where the unwitting Nicolas Lash investigates Josephine and the impossibilities or her being, and the 1930s, in an America even seedier and black-bellied than the one Brubaker wrote about during Captain America and Daredevil.

I don’t want to give away too much else of the plot (mostly because I haven’t finished it just yet, so the ending may completely suck – personally I doubt it) but this is definitely one worth investigating. Nothing is clean or simple or sparkly in this grim depiction of monsters, mad men and marvelously-proportioned madams (I really shouldn’t alliterate. Ever). Sean Phillips’ grungy artwork bears similarities to Michael Lark and Alex Maleev (both, coincidentally, former Daredevil artists), and really packs a wallop.

Admittedly, like Manhattan Projects, it takes a little while to get going. I found the first couple of chapters a little laggy, but once you get past the intro it takes off a bit better. Like Saga, Fatale is shaping up to be the kind of book I’ll wait for with bated breath when new collections are announced. Like everything else in this sampler, it just feels really unique in an industry that seems to either mostly rip each other off or stay mired in the same regurgitated plots all year long.

And at the end of the day, that’s what Image Comics’ work has really given me – unique stories. Tales I want to see more of because they’re different, not because they rely on superhero name branding or endless physical violence to solve all their problems. Don’t misunderstand me, superheroes do and always will hold a very special place in my heart, and as long as the right people are employed I’ll continue to read the good ones. But every now and then, when releases slow to a trickle or you get sick of seeing spandex-clad onomatopoeia on-screen at all times, find the Image section in your local store and pick something off the shelves.

Who knows, you might find something you like even more than Batman acting like a thirteen-year-old.

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