Rich Johnston, myself, and Ed Saul parceled up the Free Comic Book Day offerings amongst ourselves to read and review, and some were that ones that I was particularly anticipating. But I also took a dive more widely into what this year had to offer readers in order to glimpse what simply turning up at the shop might expose readers to and what choices they might make. Here are my reactions to 24 Free Comics that will be available on May 3rd in many shops near you.
Avatar: The Last Airbender/Itty Bitty Hellboy/Juice Squeezers, published by Dark Horse
Gene Luen Yang and Faith Erin Hicks make an excellent team on Airbender taking on themes of sexism and struggle for confidence and identity among young women with triumphs that make them far from "ordinary". Itty Bitty Hellboy by Franco and Baltazar takes us into the "ghostifying" of Rasputin and handle the short form storytelling with strength, really highlighting the art and humor value of each panel they create here. Juice Squeezers, coming to graphic novel this year, by David Lapham and Lee Loughridge is a surprisingly gritty teen story that handles bullying and all kinds of gross-outs with impressive characterization, and don't forget the giant bugs. A densely-packed read and wide-ranging offering from Dark Horse this year.
Far From Wonder, Volume One: Hatter M, published by Automatic Pictures
I hadn't read the Hatter M series of graphic novels before and this first issue reprint does make a useful introduction to the world of the story, and the bonus here is the artwork on this issue by Ben Templesmith. This Hatter tracking his lost Wonderland princess Alyss through Paris of 1859 is quite magical, brooding, sparky, and unpredictable and will capture the imagination. There are definite "squiddy" elements for fans of Templesmith and the touches of photo-realism create plenty of mood. Look out for cameos of Jules Verne and echoes of Kafka.
Rise of the Magi, published by Top Cow from Image
I was particularly looking forward to reading Rise of the Magi, having heard writer on the series Marc Silvestri describe all the book's strange premises and humor in his own words at Wondercon and being taken over by its wild flights of fancy as he did so. It sold me before I saw the book, and when I did, the art by Turkish illustrator Sumeyye Kesgin with colors by Jasen Smith seemed so uniquely balanced with Silvestri's outlook that a world where magic is a way of life (resulting in many a joke like Walnut-phones) and violence and danger are nevertheless presented with their own brand of realism confirmed my enthusiasm. This magic-carpet repair boy hero is going far this year, I predict. This issue #0 will be followed in the same month by issue #1 from Top Cow so get on board now for a powerhouse of talent in this new series.
Entropy, published by Epicenter Comics
Entropy captures that flavor of a totally diverse perspective on comics we get when a book is brought over from European sources and the artwork by Well-Bee is haunting, suggestive, and highly emotive. The writing still contains traces of a "translated" feel that has its own charm, but the worlds the comic sets up are worth checking out in the upcoming 4-part graphic novel series. Oh, and there are sword fights in this tale of resistance against an oppressive regime.
Worlds of Aspen 2014, published by Aspen Comics
The omnibus issue contains Damsels in Excess, The Zoohunters, and a fold-out poster featuring some of Aspen's upcoming works. Damsels in Excess is a strange, strange story that nevertheless is clever in its premise. It's like Desperate Housewives meets reality TV versions of the same meets fantasy medieval-ness. And it's a world without men where women are very competitive and catty as their high-ranking status only encourages. The Zoohunters is very highly recommended. With art by Peter Steigerwald, the world of the story is compelling in every line and detail as our sci-fi based creature hunter deals with the illegal trade of strange beasts, and Steigerwald creates a sense of wonder in each spread and panel. Watch out for it when it starts as a series this autumn.
FCBD Previews, published by Previews World
This is a Scott McCloud style introduction to the features and usefulness of Previews and though that's certainly a marketing tool, there's plenty of potential here for actually educating readers in a way that may help them get the comics they want and benefit from reading Previews. It introduces readers to the different sections of Previews, even walking them through filling out order forms to make sure their LCS carries the books they want to read, and with so many new comics from Image and others lately, as well as creator-owned imprints, those skills are becoming imperative to getting the most out of the current market. It also comes with a FCBD poster folded in and a guide to help get superhero movie-viewers into the related comics that already exist.
Giant-Sized Action, published by Red Giant
Tesla is a semi-historical action piece with plenty of chases and intrigue following the inventor under the pressure of sabotage, as well as a budding romance with his assistant. It's highly readable, though I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the constant rebuff of a female character proving the source of humor and her own mopey reactions. Still, there are elements that suggest she'll take on a stronger role down the road. Wayward Sons also treads a tricky path in handling Native American elements. I say that because the radar immediately goes up for stereotypes being used. However, so far the characters who possess super powers with a sci-fi twist have some subtlety in their portrayal, and the settings show research.
Shadow Children invites readers into an "elsewhere" reality where children who have been mistreated by adults in the "real" world seem to go under the dark protection of mysterious beings. It's a Twilight Zoney Neverland where central characters are introduced and many of the interpersonal tensions are established. This book has potential because of its unsentimental handling of youthful aggression and a blending of horror with fantasy. This might be a series to keep an eye on. Darchon is a very unusual book, toeing the line between magic/horror and a discussion of mental illness as a central character becomes convinced he's the voice of a comic-based sorcerer. The story keeps you guessing about just how dangerous these possible delusions might be to himself and the world around him.
Pandora's Blogs/Duel Identity
Pandora's Blogs has strong artwork and winning colors, and makes a valiant effort to be relevant to young teen life, brings in romance, weird tale elements, and of course, high-school drama. It's hard to tell from this short narrative whether this will be a "monster of the week" storyline, which may be recommended, and if for your sins you've ever seen Hemlock Grove, this is like a kinder, gentler version of that soap-operatic Netflix narrative, including an experimental medical center. Duel Identity has an edginess to it that may expand well during full narratives and also some very confident artwork. This superheroine created by a company who owns and directs her actions relishes going under cover as a human and may not be as goody-goody as she seems at first, an interesting ambiguity in characterization. It would be nice if most of the plot of the first story wasn't about toying with multiple romances and her power over men since the story is doing well to set up a female hero otherwise, but the elements of the story put in place may bring out more substantial storytelling later in.
The First Daughter/Magika
The First Daughter surprised me as a story because its wackiness and leaps of imagination-challenging logic seemed unlikely to win me over in such a short format, however, the artwork is sprightly and confident and the idea that the "first daughters" of American Presidents might form some kind of sleeping super alliance to save the world is, in the end, quite bold and fun. This looks to be a book that encourages female hero identification among young audiences and handles that attempt well. Magika has stellar artwork in painted style and seems to conjure the worlds of video games like Zelda and is certainly steeped in fantasy tradition. It has a simple plot, a host of foes to be avoided, and focuses on a slightly "new" character to the world of Magika to help reader identification set in.
Valiant Universe #1 Handbook, published by Valiant Entertainment
Bear with me a moment: YES, YES, YES. Valiant have made a hugely good decision to produce this book. In fact, is there any way they can keep offering it in shops for free after FCBD? Or perhaps free with a purchase of another Valiant comic?
Condensed into a single comic we have an explanatory tour of the entire Valiant universe character by character, and it even clues in the reader on events that relate to multiple characters. It's well-designed, easy to use, and something to keep out to refer to as you pick up new storylines and books. If you read no Valiant books, start here. If you read some Valiant books, you'll enjoy the humor and descriptions behind the history of your favorite characters, and then by checking out some of the other entries you'll be able to gage more easily which ones you'd like to try next. It's a very funny read for all takers, and gives away some information about characters like the Goat you might not have elsewhere, teasing at upcoming stories. Way to knock it out of the park, Valiant. This is exactly what FCBD should be doing to engage new readers and give current readers new leads on what to pick up.
Armor Hunters, published by Valiant Entertainment
Armor Hunters contains previews of upcoming storylines happening quite soon, like Rai, and packs in the content with interviews and a poster for readers. For those reading Valiant books right now, it's one to snatch up quickly and revel in the upcoming artwork as well as check out lists of how the crossover will play out between different series. It's a strong set up for the future of Valiant.
Top Shelf Kids Club, published by Top Shelf
Top Shelf presents two excerpts from graphic novels, including Maddy Kettle, an upcoming book, presented in lavish full-color format that's going to teach kids that comics can be beautiful and immersive. Monsters of the Hill is also included and ads to the storyline of the graphic novel. This is a comic kids will fall into, and also shows off the quality of Top Shelf all-ages narratives while giving a useful tool to adults (who will also enjoy reading it) in that the graphic novels themselves range from 15 to 20 dollars, and this is a great way to test out whether a young reader is going to really take a shine to the book before making that investment.
The Smurfs/Ariol/Dinosaurs, published by Papercutz
Peyo's original grandeur is brought to new audiences in these classic Smurfette tales featuring many of the question one does feel like asking about Smurf life given a little thought: how exactly does Smurfette cope with being the only female and receiving too much male attention? But her own coyness is critiqued, too, in this adventure, and there's always a lesson underlying Smurf interaction. Annoying Orange is also "getting what he deserves" in this book with a focus on the importance of positive attitudes, with artwork that's bound to appeal to all-ages readers. Ariol, always a win, is adorable as usual, but extra funny for comics fans due to its setting of an Angouleme-like comic festival and the struggles kids have with over-stimulating crowded environments. Papercutz infuses this issue with plenty of strong narrative and equally strong artwork that's a diverting read.
Power Rangers, published by Papercutz
This issue of Power Rangers makes the most of drawing in readers who may be fans of the show by introducing characters in both incarnations with tie-in elements and explanatory notes, but the artwork is actually highly realistic and caters well to teens in particular. There are plenty of robots, monsters, and interaction between team-members that creates a believable world for the comic, and with a dose of humor thrown in, it's an impressive book that speaks to new readers and die-hard fans alike.
Finding Gossamyr/Past The Last Mountain, published by Th3rd World Studios
The painted, fantasy-style artwork of Finding Gossamyr creates a sense of wonder that engages the senses immediately and hits on universal themes about a young man bored of a farming life (though there are dragons to entertain him) and hoping to take on a bolder, more warlike role. The first volume of this graphic novel series is already out in hardcover, and a second volume is coming next winter, so it offers the chance for readers to jump into the world of the story at an early juncture. And it is likely to find converts due to the high quality artwork alone. Past the Last Mountain is one of those books that combines genres in unexpected ways, from government agencies in black suits attempting to control "trolls" and the painfully adorable perspective of the creatures themselves breaking loose into a harsh world. There's a realism to the suffering in the narrative that promises some seriousness as well as playfulness to come and convinces me to look out for the rest of the story when it arrives.
Magic Wind, published by Epicenter Comics
Magic Wind is a proper traditional Western adventure, only it has elements of Lovecraft, and though the Native American shaman (see above concern about stereotypes) makes me squint a little, the fact that this book is definitively drawing on a Spaghetti Western influence and a homage to past narratives may explain some of the characterization. Gianfranco Manfredi and Pasquale Frisenda's excerpt from an upcoming graphic novel collection (volume 4) features Edgar Allen Poe as a character, by the way, and also giant monsters erupting from deep in the earth. There are chase scenes, blood-spattered bodies, and of course Native American legends accounting for these Lovecraftian beasties. It's a comic that has a strong sense of purpose and you have to admire that commitment to its own aesthetic and premises
Project Black Sky, published by Dark Horse
I was hoping that this book would be in my hands soon, but I managed to not realize until I actually saw the cover that Project Black Sky was coming together in this way for FCBD. I've written about Black Sky on the site a few times as an overarching element bringing together the more superheroic elements of the Dark Horse universe, and this issue features both Captain Midnight and Matthew Price, aka "Brain Boy" as they begin to unravel the conspiracy behind the project itself. It explains some of the elements that have been popping up in other books fairly well and contains reveals not to be missed by fans of any of the more hero-inclined books from Dark Horse right now, with implications for Black Out among others. There are checklists contained in the book that preview which books will be part of the upcoming crossover as well. What I didn't expect was the emphasis on humor from writer Fred Van Lente on this book, and it was refreshing, fast-paced team up tale as an "oldie" and the following generation in the form of Price face off across vast differences. Inside jokes to pop culture icons like Twilight Zone and various ape comics and films make for a fun read. In particular, the use of sign language in speech bubbles is also inventive and you'll find out what may happen when a protective agency becomes too mired in their own attempts to control unusual forces. For a FCBD book, this is a don't miss issue that's a major player in upcoming Dark Horse books. It should be clear by now that you should make it a point to get this book. Do.
Guardians of the Galaxy, published by Marvel
This book has some of the most impressive action sequence spreads I've ever seen in comics. I kind of hate to say that, because FCBD is about so much more than the Big Two, but though I'm a Guardians fan so was looking forward to reading it, I didn't foresee how winning a book it was going to be. My hypothetical break-down of how this book became so impressive runs as follows: Brian Bendis, Nick Bradshaw, Scott Hana, and Morry Hollowell knew that this book needed to introduce entirely new readers to the Guardians comics, probably brought in by hearing about the upcoming film. They realized they needed to introduce each character to the reader/identification character in the comic, so decided to go all out on the illustrative artwork as each character was presented. So they created these amazing intense snapshots of the Guardians in action, and then layered it by placing panels right over those action scenes, making the reader feel embedded in the action. That's why I'm saying the book is impressive artistically because it works due to its attention to detail. Hollowell's colors are also pretty glorious. There is a "plot" otherwise to the story, but I won't spoil it further. The book also contains a preview of Thanos: Infinite Revelation for the upcoming graphic novel by Jim Starlin and a preview of the Spider-Verse event, this scene set in Shakespeare's world of the Globe Theater. And the latter is hilarious. No doubt these books will be in high demand, but get one if you can.
Rocket Raccoon, published by Marvel
I was also anticipating this book with its lovely cover by Skottie Young, but it's another book that you can't quite predict until you have it in hand. It brings out the true wackiness underlying the Marvel universe in a way that some Marvel books seem wary of and does that to the nth degree. It poses the question of what Rocket gets up to under his "own devices" and the answer is morally ambiguous mayhem. We open with bejeweled and begowned regal creatures and bright, popping colors adorning space-battles and the depiction of central characters is like Wind in the Willows with a light dusting of acid hallucinations. There's cartoony violence and an impressive use of unchained panel layouts (many of the panels accented in deeply etched brightly colored frames) and all the characterization you'd want from Rocket based on prior knowledge of the character. There's bravado, plenty of sustained damage, and an extra feature of "Space Oddities" included that devolves into even wackier territory. Yep, Rocket deserves his own series and here it is at last.
2000AD, published by Rebellion
This FCBD edition of 2000AD is the best value of the day. At 48 full-color pages, it's a very generous presentation from Rebellion for readers, and reminds American readers of the texture and experience of the full-sized print magazine and what it has to offer. The creators on this issue are an all-star cast and the cover caption of "Got your attention punk" speaks well for the presence of the comic, making other FCBD offerings, no matter how appealing, look thin and flimsy by comparison. The cover is a homage to Spider-Man's famous junking of his suit in a trash can as Dredd walks away from his uniform in badge-stamped boxer shorts. Here we have included Judge Dredd, Slaine, Anderson: Psi-division, Absolom, Durham Red (by John Reppion and Leah Moore), and Rogue Trooper. It's a carnival-ride of excessive, beautiful artwork, humor and sci-fi elements that shows off the talent of all the contributors and the possibilities still on offer from anthologies. Hopefully, it'll turn the heads of new readers, or readers who have intended to keep up with 2000AD and might be brought back into the fold. It's an offering that one could easily spend a large chunk of FCBD reading and appreciating because there really isn't a lesser moment in the entire book. And that's challenging for American mainstream comics and should be.
Skyward/Midnight Tiger, published by Action Lab
Skyward is already a runaway success, the brain child of Jeremy Dale, and this story displays the same extreme commitment to detailed artwork that the series is known for but also fills in backstory and history in a way that ads to a reader's experience of the mythos of the story. It suggests a lot about the nature of conflict and the roots of violence to bring an extra dimension to the storytelling as well as setting up the tensions about to break in future stories. Midnight Tiger sets up an origin story for a new hero steeped in comic books as a teen who gets a little too close to "meta-human" action for his own good. Ray-Anthony Height shows off a firm grip on linework in the art for the story, and though the plot is fairly simple, it establishes the world of the comic for new readers without heavy exposition and engages with themes like gang-violence and the ways in which fantasy finds inspiration in reality.
Zombie Tramp/Ehmm Theory, published by Action Lab
This "mature readers" comic comes with plenty of parental advisories, so take note. Zombie Tramp has something of a Tarantino feel as this zombie is capable of proving very alluring to unwary drivers before preying on their weaknesses in a life "full of blood, carnage, and rage". But she's also on a quest to hone her magic and strength and maintain a far from typical zombie form of self-awareness. Dan Mendoza's art has a very distinctive feel, and his panel layouts are compact and interesting as much as his colors are well-chosen for his mid-western setting. Not for kids but an interesting development in occult-zombie narratives for adults coming to print this July. Ehmm Theory is also for adult readers and is an off-the-wall reality-bending narrative that I'm not sure I yet understand but was certainly entertained by. Particularly the heavy-swearing tiny cat with a jet pack eating tootsie pops. There are also dressed-up scary monkeys. Anything but boring and worth checking out. This comic also contains a preview of noir-styled Dry Spell, and Ken Krekeler's artwork is of note, watercolory and heavy inked in a story that looks to have Constantine-like occult elements.
Ipso Facto, published by Automatic Pictures
Ipso Facto is a somewhat harsh narrative in terms of its psychological and emotional overtones, but in that way, it takes itself seriously as a sci-fi narrative and the book is nothing if not realistic in its approach to relationships, familial and romantic, and the mental impact of crisis. The artwork is confident, the colors well-balanced, and the narrative closely follows its protagonist in a memorable way. For me, it's appeal lies in suggesting the ways in which we can be our own worst enemies and the fact that I'm thinking of such big themes means that the story is not just about science-fiction spectacle. It's a worthy read to get you thinking of what sci-fi can do as a genre and why its increasingly relevant in comics for creators and readers.
Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter