Before I say anything about the Thought Bubble Anthology, I should point out that I am very much a fan of anthology comics in general. I've found over the last few years that my taste in comics reading has veered steadily away from mainstream superheroic material towards independent or small press material of all sorts, and in these areas anthologies are both commonplace and a great (and affordable!) way of sampling the work of a wide array of creators. With a good editor at the helm, an anthology gives you the chance to try out a whole bunch of wildly different styles and stories, and with any luck the enjoyment you derive from the stuff you enjoy outweighs the disappointment you feel from the stuff you don't enjoy.
I'm not sure who's the editor for the Thought Bubble Anthology, but whoever they are, they've done a magnificent job of pulling together a disparate group of talented creators spanning mainstream US comics, UK independent comics and the small press scene and producing a damn fine slab of comics.
Rather than assign scores to each feature, I'm going to pick out for special attention the seven contributions that are not just good but great comics, a demonstration of how writing and art come together to do something special. Having read through the comics without checking the contents/credits list first, I was delighted to discover that two of these seven features are from last years Northern Sequential Art Contest.
What could have easily been a simple "steampunk comic title puns" strip is elevated, by some gorgeous artwork, to something much greater. And the puns were good to begin with.
Sheret and Baczynski's names will be familiar to anyone who follows UK independent comics, most recently from their contributions to Paper Science (brief diversion – if you've gotten this far into this review and for some reason haven't bought yourself a set of Paper Science issues, go to http://wearewordsandpictures.bigcartel.com/, order them and come back. All done? Good. Let's carry on.) and this particular collaboration is magnificent – they really do work excellently together and, given the comparative breathing space given to this work compared to most other contributions, this is the highlight of the whole anthology for me. Showing a real flair for visual storytelling coupled with some lovely stylised two-tone artwork, they give us a story about seeking out the weird and special all around us, wherever we might be at any given time.
Dad's Ear (Steve Reynolds, NSAC 18+ 1st prize, 1 page)
Steve Reynold's page is a deserving winner of last year's NSAC – it combines a confidently cartoonish art style reminiscent of Alan Nolan or Rob Guillory with deft visual storytelling and some great gags, as we're regaled with the tall tales Steve's dad allegedly used to enforce household discipline. Fantastic stuff.
The Clicking Machine (Martin Simpson, NSAC 18+ 2nd Prize, 1 page)
The Clicking Machine is a strong contender for highlight of the anthology (another fine comic from a deserving NSAC prize-winner) with some stunning painted artwork and a story that's more evocative in one page than many might manage in an entire issue. In one page Martin Simpson provides jaw-dropping imagery (I'm reminded of Richard Corben or Ben Templesmith, and it's no bad thing to be compared to either of them) and a story that's simultaneously about the perils of unfettered obsession and the irrepressible freedom of spirit that great art can inspire.
The Immortality Drive (Ollie Redding & Lee Barnett, 1 page)
Another close contender for "best of issue", The Immortality Drive combines an excellently-told sci-fi story (I suppose it helps I'm a big fan of well-told science fiction, particularly short stories) and some textured water-coloury artwork.
Soon ( Warren Ellis, Tula Lotay, Ollie Redding, 1 page)
More deftly-told sci-fi about scientific progress and how we use it to change the world (though in this story it doesn't go "Boink"), this time from one of my favourite comic writers, once again paired with some lovely artwork. The visuals here are gorgeous, again making use of a two-colour art scheme. There's a panel showing several characters dancing here which is up there with the best of Jamie McKelvie's art (with McKelvie being where the bar is set, as far as drawing characters dancing is concerned).
Get Me Off This Freaking Moor (Kate Beaton, ½ page)
You might be a bit confused by this – compared to the other selections, the artwork here is rather spartan. To which I say "yeah, but it's Kate freaking Beaton". It's quite possible I can't judge a Beaton strip harshly – it's one of those comics that is sufficiently in tune with my sensibilities that I can't help but enjoy it.
What then, of the remaining strips? There are well over a dozen more contributions making up the rest of the issue. While they aren't, in my opinion, as good as the features I've listed, they're all good, enjoyable contributions, encompassing a breadth of art styles and storytelling approaches. The diversity of art styles and narrative approaches is impressive, as is the quality – bear in mind that the stuff I had to leave out of the list above includes material by the likes of Skottie Young, Sean Phillips, Ivan Brandon, Dave Johnson and Fiona Staples.
Overall, I think that if you enjoy anthology comics and like to get a taste of different styles, you'll find a lot to like in this year's Thought Bubble Anthology.