So, as promised, I'm traveling in the UK this week from the States and wasn't sure whether I could crash in on a UK retailer, but Orbital Comics in London graciously agreed to let me look around and rifle through their books. Everyone knows how great Orbital is it seems, and I've heard about their frequently rotating door of events from the mainstream to the indie, gathering international creators for signings, but seeing it for myself helped explain their personality and success to me.
They have a massive selection of mainstream and indie titles, both in collections, single issues, and original graphic novels and carefully cultivate their stock to be a one-stop shopping experience for comics readers. One thing they do which is nifty is place recent issues in reverse chronological order for the past three weeks, and clearly labeled as such, so you can pick up books you might have missed recently. Great idea. They also have a gallery for original art exhibitions which they use for their events, again, having distinctive areas of the store for segments of comic interest. Very wise move.
Add to that the bold and upbeat yellow signature color on the shop that's located right at Leicester Square and not far from Covent Garden and you have a unique package of accessibility, smart stock, and absolutely delightful staff willing to help out as much as needed. If I'm singing a paean for Orbital, they deserve it. They are a powerful hub for comics culture in London, and their own Chris Thompson is Bleeding Cool's Pop Culture Hound on the Hounding podcast with major creators and very interesting topics every week. Catching up with Chris in person was a highlight of the visit for me.
[Chris Thompson and Rich Johnston outside Orbital]
There are several anticipated releases this week which I snatched at Orbital—from The Fox #3 to the return of Bob Fingerman's Minimum Wage from Image. Also Iron Man: Iron Metropolitan, Drumhellar, Five Ghosts #8 and Hinterkind were on my list. But I am in the UK, so in honor of that I picked up a December edition of the UK-based Phoenix anthology magazine to have a look through since I've heard so much about it.
The Fox from Red Circle/Archie Comics this week has one of my favorite covers so far, and that's saying something considering there have been variant covers by Paul Pope, Fiona Staples, Darwyn Cooke to name a few, and the covers have always had such a crisp and clear design element that they are entirely distinctive on the shelf. This time we get a kind of lava monster which, in keeping with the Silver Age homage of the book, might remind you of the Human Torch, but it really takes me back to some of the earliest appearances of the Torch in Golden Age strips—so visually distinctive that they stay in your mind. But we open issue #3 with such a bizarre and mythological situation that it becomes a magnet for psychological interpretations of hero stories. Paul Patton, aka The Fox, is standing with and extra his own severed head in hand, uncertain what it means to him to find it on a pike outside a cave as he tries to save the Diamond King from his enchantment into a terrible being. Will his "sly, foxy brain" be enough for the denizens of this underworld journey. This is what Carl Jung and later Joseph Campbell called the "midnight journey", where a hero passes through a kind of land of the dead facing terrors and overcoming versions of themselves. In essence, they have to reject what they don't want to be in life before they can create a self they want to be. Here lots of beasties assault the Fox and he has to come up with tailor-made solutions to handle and reject each, all while abusing his "doll head" severed head in disgust by bouncing it around with him.
The Fox is facing "death's slobbering oral cavity", purple but memorable prose from Dean Haspiel and Mark Waid, and in essence, this is the issue we've been waiting for when the confusion and sleights of hand The Fox has faced in his transmogrifying adventure become pointed, with a direct goal and purpose he's willing to pursue fully. At great personal risk. The pride of place in this issue is taken by Haspiel's double-page spread that features a cut-away of the Fox's journeys through different tunnels, and we see multiple versions of his gymnast-like antics through them. It reminds me of 8-bit video games, great illustrated books from fairy tales and mythology, and even paintings of hellish lands like those produced by Heironymous Bosch. But there are some surprise guests toward the end of the book you'll have to read to believe. The Fox #3 is a solid and visually powerful installment in a well-planned miniseries, ramping up the pace and significance of the storyline while giving you room to pause on the striking imagery. You can read Bleeding Cool's interview with Haspiel about Issue #3 of The Fox here.
I knew a little bit about what Minimum Wage would entail as it returns, from interviewing writer and cartoonist Bob Fingerman once the news broke about the series from Image, but since I wasn't reading comics that much in the 90's, this is a treat for me to see Minimum Wage in single issue format in this new incarnation. In the interim, Rob Hoffman has married Sylvia, at age 22, and things have…changed considerably since that moment of optimistic commitment. It starts off again as a narrative in the year 2000 (Fingerman prefers to write given a little distance of time and perspective in this fictional narrative with autobiographical elements), and the use of the term "chillax" already had me breaking a smile reading. I've had conversations about this word in parlance with friends. I note that because that's what Minimum Wage has always done even when it was not acceptable to do so in comics—makes the reader think, "I recognize that! Yes, that's my life". So page one is right on the money for that experience.
Fingerman has not held back on the detailed, lavish artwork for each panel and page. There's a careful design here with wandering, leading speech balloons that take you into the page space in a unique way. The brilliant dialogue just keeps coming in this issue, and there's such a real-life feel that I feel like I'm immediately plugged in to Rob's beleaguered world. Fingerman has a way of keeping you on the page that totally flies in the face of common practice for fast-read overly decompressed storytelling aimed at larger arcs. For that reason you feel comics history in the pages, from comic strip storytelling to the densely packed narratives of self-published 'zines making the most of space. And yet this is an Image book—no doubt you are getting your purchase price here in terms of engagement and content. The dialogue is also impressively foul while still being funny—like a night out with plenty of identifiable types of friends we probably all have. Not surprisingly, Rob ends up being more of a real human being having real conversations than a party-hound. When he returns home—that's when we get his explanations for the changes in his life and reflections on the same. The painful but frank discussions he has with himself on the need or use of being bitter as a writer, the vagaries of online dating—it all becomes material to entertain and engage. I had no doubt that Mininum Wage would be a triumphant return this week, but I'm still blown away by the quality and craftsmanship. Whether you read the original series or not, you'll fall right into step with this story. Pick it up and don't put it down.
Drumhellar from Image is back this week after making a strong start in the wilder side of the occult (and that's saying something). The powerful artwork by Riley Rossmo has been one of the most immediate draws for me, a radical balance between unusual colors that flood the panels and sensitive linework. But the plot is getting wackier in the pursuit of "dinosaur ghosts" from both Rossmo and Alex Link and the premise that they might just have "souls". Drum Hellar's personal life is stalling, as he admits he is unpredictable and things might not work out. The different views of this complex central character do raise questions and interest around him as he becomes semi-mythological even in his own narrative, described as a "weird old guy with a pet floaty cat". When Drum Hellar descends into hallucinogens, we get some of that Rossmo artwork unleashed in a double page spread and some visionary garden-of-Eden like imagery that even Drum Hellar doesn't know how to interpret, but it lays the ground work for his bigger quests as a person. One final teaser for you that recommends the book: blue Triceratops ghosts make for great comics.
Five Ghosts #8 arrives with its oceanic adventures, piratical in nature and ahoy! We have Cap'n Cates (based on comic creator Donny Cates of Buzzkill and IRL friend of Five Ghosts writer Frank Barbiere). It does look a bit like him, actually. Hopefully real-life Cates will avoid such life-threatening situations, but hey, it's just comics. I'll go out on a limb here and say that Five Ghosts artist Christopher Mooneyham (a Kubert School graduate) has matured in his style while he's been working on this book though he started from an incredibly high standard initially, and you can see those developments in this issue. The lines are bolder, with more pop and confidence, without losing the sketchy, emotive aspects that has always helped establish time periods by going for an engraved or even pen-and-ink etching feel. "Lost Coastlines" is developing well with Fabian trying to be "proactive" and keeping up with his "hands on" attitude in his missions but he's going where he's never gone before—into "shipmate" territory. But I have to admit, I'm waiting pretty intently when I read this comic for Fabian to break out his "ghosts" powers in the way readers might wait for a transforming superhero to transform and kick some ass.
Mooneyham's artwork makes it a pleasure to see Fabian in action, and it's almost like we're waiting for the rest of the cast of characters to arrive—one of the accordion-like appeals of the series. He's one character, but he's also six. That enables to story to move in a stream-lined way at times, then suddenly expand into action sequences that have 5 (or even 6) different ways to catch you off guard and interest you. It's a feature that makes Five Ghosts a unique type of narrative in comics. Lauren Affe's colors keep the feel of the original Five Ghosts arc 'The Haunting of Fabian Gray" while providing an accent specific to this series. I get my wish in this issue—a full page spread of Fabian channeling Robin Hood and being totally badass, the results of which are surprisingly brutal, using the page-turn to great affect. These guys know how to design a comic as well as draw and write it. Yep, issue 8 breathes and moves well as a development on "Coastlines" and, as usual, makes more enemies to keep Fabian running to stay one step ahead.
Hinterkind, from Vertigo, has been a series to watch as a potential long-running page-turner establishing a new kind of cross-genre that deals in science, apocalypse, environmental themes and mythology in a bold way. The cover of issue 4 this week is particularly excellent, from Greg Tocchini, watercolory and gruesome. Things are definitely getting edgier as "grafts and transplants" shape the features of our new supremist regime where "paranoia" has very "deep pockets".
We learn some of the secrets behind the mutants and survivors of the apocalypse who now won't let go of the biggest mistakes of the past, crafting them into a new survivalist mentality and it's a scary revelation about Darwinian behavior. But our underdog prisoners know something about survival themselves, and that's what makes the narrative an even playing field. Being "nice" just isn't going to win in a world like the one established in Hinterkind. We see the results of being apologetic and ethical, and they aren't pretty. How far will our "good guys" seem to go? Will they wind up another misshapen casualty of a dog-eat-dog world? The darker aspects of this story crafted by Ian Edginton lodge in your mind well after reading it, and Francesco Trifolgi's art is firmly committed to a degree of realism that handles evolved "myth" beings just as brashly as his human characters, making suspension of belief a foregone conclusion.
So, now to issue #102 of The all-ages anthology The Phoenix, which came out on 14 December, and is very wintery in theme. First impressions: I am loving the large format magazine feel and the slightly stiffer pages than I was expecting, combined with a texture that makes colors very bold and saturated. In fact, this feels like a mini version of a hardback graphic novel in some ways, which means it's very high quality in production, and yet only retails for 2.99 in British Pounds. It has a total of 19 pages of this densely paneled comic content, with a few pages given over to activities and features for kids. That's a high ratio of comics, high enough that I venture to say adults really might enjoy buying this magazine also. I suppose that would be easier to justify and explain to friends if you have kids in the house, but I won't tell if you don't. "The Dragons in the Snow" by Neil Cameron contains some lovely artwork and colors and tells a neatly encapsulated 4 page tale. This reminds me of the short-form comic skills typical of anthologies in the UK like 2000AD. It's something that brings out the best in comics and challenges comic writers and artists to work at the top of their form.
Some of the stories have a more cartoony look like you might find in Boom! titles for all-ages readers, and they carry their style out with plenty of gusto, densely active panels and unique characters, carrying on in serial form from previous issues of the magazine. Then we get a turn to an almost superheroic adventure style for "Troy Trailblazer" by Robert Deas, which represents a sweep in the anthology from fantasy to funny animal humor, to adventure. That's quite a spread and just what an anthology can do so well. Trailblazer's artwork is very polished as well, sharp-lined with well-chosen contrasting colors and an eye toward motion and action that many US-based kids action comics could take a lesson from. If we don't provide young readers high-quality comics, how can we assure that the next generation will learn the nuances of the artform to make their own medium-challenging work down the road? In all, my first look at The Phoenix impresses me pretty deeply. I expected a few comics, mostly games and ads, and the lighter fare that kids will fairly readily digest. Instead I get gripping near-art comics, fully-loaded into the magazine, and a sense that it's only the best allowed in this anthology. If you are not able to get The Phoenix in the USA easily, like me, check out their digital format. You won't regret it.
Well, that's all from me for now from the UK—lots of traveling, book shopping, and meeting nice comics folks is keeping me busy. And thank you, Orbital—it's been a pleasure meeting you too.
Orbital has an event running this week to check out–A Game Of Thrones exhibition featuring the storyboard and illustration work of Will Simpson, who will be giving a public talk on his work on Friday evening.
Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter