By Shawn Perry
The past year has no doubt been one of the best for indie comics and not just for big-name publishers like Image Comics and Dynamite Entertainment but small publishers as well!
As we look towards the New Year it is a fact worth celebrating that we live in a time where decades-old superhero mythologies are just one small piece of a diverse pie constantly being filled with the custard of new voices and fresh perspectives from all around the world.
When I started this column it was just a way for me to learn how to create my own book and meet new people. While I can proudly say that both those goals were accomplished this year the true value of this experience was worth far more than anything I could have hoped for … it has been a dream come true to be given the platform to wave my flag for artists that have done so much without any guarantee of financial compensation or, in all seriousness, much to be said in the form of a guaranteed audience. But what makes these artists so special is that they do what they do because telling their story is reward enough. Nuff said!
Without further preamble, as I have a great deal of respect for all of the artists who have been featured on Indie Spotlight this year it was with great difficulty that I have selected the top fifteen books in honor of the New Year (at risk of rehash I made the books in my most recent spotlights ineligible). I present to you, in no particular order, the best of Spotlight on Indie Comics in 2014.
1. Forever Winter (issues 1-2) by Joel Lolar takes place in a post-apocalyptic world trapped in an endless winter. Taking place in Urban New England, Lolar examines the nature of man by exploring the survival tactics of a unique range of well-written characters. The book also features strong artwork by Jacob Rhodes, Rian Miller and Jesse Munoz of Stockpile Comics. Barring nuclear war, look out for the third issue later this year.
2. Masterplasty (issue #1) by James Harvey is a plus-sized comic book that packs a great story in with the experience of carrying a high-bro art portfolio. To his credit, Harvey utilizes the unique endowments of the book's size with brazen skill and creativity. The story is about the perils of pursuing perfection and misinterpreting beauty for, in short, anything material. While the thrill of enjoying the oversized artwork at your local diner or on a subway commute is worth the 3.99 price tag alone it is the afterword by Harvey that really made me certain that we have only seen a glimmer of what this brilliant young artist is capable. Buy now.
3. The Ascendant (issues 1-2) is the product of Wayward Raven Studios and is written by Mark C. Frankel with art by Christopher Hanchey, Rich Cardoso and Cara Kelley. This adventure story follows Cail, a jaded demon sworn to protect mortals, along with the immortal Faustus, who made a deal with the devil that came with a tragic price. It kind of reminds me of The Sandman mixed with National Treasure…if Nic Cage was Constantine. That may not be the right analogy but the story through the first two issues has been mysterious and action-packed with enough sword fights, succubus and dry humor to leave you waiting for more so check them out here and look for issue #3 in 2015.
4. Boots and Pup: Collected Craziness by John Yuskatis Jr. is a collection of hilarious web comics starring the odd couple he has been writing for ten years now known as Boots and Pup. Boots is the son of an accountant whose only dream in life was to be as boring/stable as his parents… Pup is an orphan raised by circus clowns on the planet hobo and pretty much an out-of-control rascal and together the two make-up a fun and engaging duo suitable for all-ages. Yuskatis' digital artwork shines as the duo explores outer space, unemployment, alien worlds, villainous crabs and everything in-between. Great gateway series for families which you can pick up here or at shops like Midtown Comics.
5. Man-Gull (issues 1-2) by Rian Miller is about a murderous seagull with the arms of a man and the cognition abilities of an action hero with only one goal on his mind: bloody, bloody violence. Featuring dazzling art and just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek humor Miller graces the world with a book that is equal parts smart, weird and pretty badass. While the motivations and rational plausibility of the titular anti-hero are left largely unanswered after two issues, as you have probably surmised, the spirit of the book isn't about logic but rather how awesome it is to see a gun-toting seagull bust through a ten-story window and fly away leaving debris and bloodshed in his wake. This book is so awesome that when I first read it I wrote a really bad song about it and am completely stoked for the third issue to drop from Stockpile Comics later this year.
6. Healed (issues 1-5) by George O'Connor and artist S. Griffin of Homeless Comics explores a world without illness that is surprisingly dark. The art is black-and-white but nothing is simple in this story where conspiracies to restore illness are fleshed out by characters with logical and, in their own creepy ways, altruistic motives. Among its strengths Healed wields great pacing as O'Connor deftly explores the many ways in which people destroy themselves with the cleanest possible bill of health through eight-page episodes. Healed does not cater to optimism but includes a unique hopefulness and a great ending that makes this story special. In short, the next time you're in the mood for an ambitious comic that will really make you think bring home Healed from Homeless Comics.
7. How I Made the World is written by Liz Plourde and illustrated by Randy Michaels. Plourde presents an grounded portrayal of the meandering realm of burgeoning adulthood that is college. In the first issue her sharp-witted protagonist battles oyster cravings, sleep deprivation and midterms in a class run by a professor who is likely stoned the entire time. Plourde's characterization of Liz and her friends is smart while Michaels provides a vibrant rendering of her world that is full of life. The book really does not talk down to its audience and would be one that I recommend to anyone, period.
8. Gatecrashers (issues 1-4) is written by Zach Mortensen with artwork by Sutu of the now-infamous Modern Polaxis. Gatecrashers are a gang of ambulance drivers who represent the public's last hope in a dystopian future that has taken the whole district thing into The Hunger Games slash Warriors territory. There are a lot of moving pieces to this book and I really enjoyed how the vibrant art style matched the electric pace of the story. Things start with a bang when a bomb is detonated at a protest rally and Hex, the first Gatecrasher on the scene, quickly finds herself in a race against time for her own survival. The first four issues comprise book one which is available here.
9. The Cask of Amontillado is a beautiful adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's classic tale of horror by Enrica Jang and Jason Strutz. The story takes place at a masquerade ball in Venice back in 1796 where we meet a miserable loner by the name of Montresor who solemnly wallows amongst the other partygoers like an displaced fan of The Cure at Riot Fest until he runs into the tragically well-meaning Fortunato who does his best to the spaz up. The two exit the party in search of the titular cask of Amontillado which brings them to a dark dungeon and…well, in case you have not read this story I will just say things do not go great for Fortunato whereas Montresor proves to be far more than the tepid wallflower he appears to be at first glance. Strutz's art is disgustingly good and if The Cask of Amontillado is any indication than the duo's upcoming full-length original graphic novel is sure to be a huge hit. According to Red Stylo's website the book will be a sequel that expands and continues the tale of Montresor fifty years after committing the perfect crime.
10. Tales of Mr. Rhee: "Karmaggedon" by Dirk Manning is follows paranormal trouble-shooter, Mr. Rhee, as he protects five orphans in the middle of Armageddon. While it makes perfect sense that Mr. Rhee would be a survivor amidst the sort of catastrophe that befalls his world there is no sense in why he chooses to take responsibility for five children. We come to understand where his heart comes from through a series of flashbacks that flesh out the character like an extra-dark episode of Lost mashed with The Walking Dead. The heart of the story is the relationship between the children and Mr. Rhee and serves as a powerful example of how the best heroes ultimately gain their strength from innocence.
11. Man vs. Rock (issues 1-3) by Kevin Bieber and Victor DeTroy is an epic piece of revisionist satire that centers on the fact that mankind's mistreatment of rocks will one day be its doom. Bieber and DeTroy leave no stone unturned in this riff on summer blockbusters that features fluid pencils and a whole lot of (increasingly male) nudity by Jared Lamp. By the third issue the series has reached an apex in which the lunacy of the premise has been replaced by more rocks in which the truth of the rock's power is irrefutable, and well, things get pretty weird but it's a road well-worth traveling despite some of the more painful gravel you will endure. This is not an all-ages read and requires a pro Jonah Hill sense of humor…because it um, rocks really hard and things.
12. Flutter by Jennie Wood might just be the most unique story I have encountered in the past year regardless of medium and I saw Dallas Buyers Club and Blue is the Warmest Color. Maybe it's just that I have nothing I can compare it to in my personal lexicon but it's definitely unique. In short-form the story follows Lily – a girl with the power to morph her body into anyone and she has spent her whole life moving from place to place without ever really experiencing anything. She's pretty prickly-sedated at the start of the story but that all changes when she crashes face-first into the girl of her dreams and the only problem is the girl isn't gay so she uses her powers to become person that girl is really dreaming of: an athletic guy that will listen to her. Lily soon finds herself the star of the basketball team and the apple of her girlfriend's and the only problem is that she isn't him. At its core Flutter packs a great message along with a welcome dose of action and beautiful high-color artwork by Jeff McComsey as Lily learns the hard lesson that sometimes the biggest obstacle in life is not letting the morons in it cause us to limit ourselves into their small-minded paradigms…which is always hardest when they're right about one thing you don't want to admit and stupidly wrong about everything else, which is typically par-for-the-course in high school unfortunately. Wood is probably my artist to watch out of everyone on this list and that's saying something.
13. First Law of Mad Science by Mike Isenberg and Oliver Mertz is about a scientist who creates a popular brand of retina implants that are like Google Glass in the form an contact lens and it works great until the user starts seeing weird green stuff that isn't there (or so they think…) and by the end of the first issue the fate of the world is at stake and only the scientist and his family can save it. Mertz and Isenberg prove to be talented storytellers in with a human story about family. The best thing about this story is that the entire main cast is interesting and in my opinion includes at least one hell of a breakout character in the robotic daughter. The art by Daniel Lapham just shines throughout the story and I can't wait for issue six to drop from Noreon L.L.C which, in a clever bit of self-marketing, also happens to be the name of the company at the core of the story's plot.
14. Return to Rander (issues 1-4) by Tony Sedani is the story of a hero's search for identity juxtaposed against another man's search for revenge. The protagonist of the story is a warrior striving to lead a life of peace as he searches for the answers to his past and his only clue is a mysterious land known as Rander. On the other side of the morality spectrum stands the Matador who commits large amounts of violence throughout the tale in search of the protagonist. Aside from the piles of bodies, caught up in this are an pregnant women, her abusive employer and an aging lawman who brings a lot of intrigue to the story. This epic tale reflects the old adage that the best hero/villain duels are between people who were once very similar before an event sent them in two juxtaposed directions. In the end the story of good and evil is told with a tearful goodbye and hopeful smile leaving behind a pile of bodies as the survivor stands on a boat beating against the current to Rander…a place that is as much about the missing pieces as it is about everything we can become in life. While the series reaches a very satisfying conclusion Sedani has said that a return to the world of Rander is not out of the question so keep tabs for more from Stockpile Comics.
15. Number One written by Gary Scott Beatty (Seductions, Jazz: Cool Birth) with art by Aaron Warner (Adventures of Aaron) is nothing short of a masterpiece. It is the story of how a boy's passion for stories drew him into a career as an comic shop owner and how his earnest love for others helps him overcome the challenges he faces both personally and professionally. He relates his passion for comics to his relationship with his Grandfather, his friendships and the timeless stories of religious texts and ancient civilizations.
Number One is a raw, emotional tearjerker with a powerful message about what it means to earn true success. As his store struggles he has to fend off debt, depression and deal with a painful divorce but his perseverance pays off when an article leads to him being celebrated as the hero he always was and his store becoming the success story it always deserved to become…honestly, I cried during this one and you will too because the story is true and what makes the ending so beautiful is that it is indicative of the era we are living in where geek culture has earned its day in the sun thanks to the many years of hard work, passion and love of men and women like the protagonist in Number One have given to the industry. You can accuse me of hyperbole if you like but Beatty and Warner have made an all-time classic here that reminded me of my own heroes like the ownership of A Hero's Legacy, The Geek Bar and A Comic Shop.
It has been a hell of a year and you can rest assured that the best days are yet to come. Until next time True-Bleeders thanks for making Indie Spotlight a joy to create in 2014 !
Shawn Perry is a comic book and film enthusiast striving to be here now. He currently rests his head in East Hartford, Connecticut. Tweet him @thesperry and email him about life and your stories at Shawn.Perry88@gmail.com.