Saturday, May 13, 2006

Free Comic Book Diary: The Comics, Part 4

This is my final installment of FCBD reviews.Narwain: Bluff & Tales From A Forgotten Planet

Animation buffs will no doubt remember the short-lived CBS series "Family Dog." Bluff is like that, only with the key addition of personality to the characters. As such, it works far better than that series ever did. This story, a sort of origin/zero issue, is a nice little tale in which pretty much everyone is looking for some kind of external peace, but end up getting internal peace instead when Bluff joins the family. Of course, this hardly satisfies most of them, and the adventures will continue. The picture we get of each character, however, is real and interesting enough to merit coming back. And there's a great deal of heartwarming moments, best exemplified by Bluff's fascination with baby Tommy as an example of "human puppies." I also enjoy the character of Flea, who provides a second viewpoint into the lives of the human characters. As for TFAFP, I'm not sure what to think; it appears to be an SF anthology series, but we only get an example of one type of story, the manga-ish Stellar Losers in "Clean House." It's amusing enough, with one particularly inspired gag, but doesn't give an overall feel for the series as a whole. As a publisher, though, it appears Narwain is doing a good job of filling several niches left unused by the overall comics world, and I hope they stick around as a member of the sub-mainstream.

F&W Publications: Impact University 2006

I'm always in favor of how-to material from the pros, so it's good to see F&W making this offering again. I was a bit disappointed to find out that Colleen Doran's contribution to this book was limited to an introduction, but the rest of the material is top-notch. It's artist-heavy, focusing on drawing fantasy figures, but the lessons are worth paying attention to (although I got a snarkish kick out of Greg Land's first piece of advice on drawing beautiful women being "find a photo"). Peter David, longtime contributor to F&W's Comics Buyer's Guide, rounds out the lesson with useful advice on finding conflict in stories and the ubiquitous three-act-structure.

Drawn & Quarterly: Mr. Jean

Okay, okay, I fold; the Europeans, and the French in particular, do an excellent job of making comics about ordinary life. Despite my usual proclivity towards larger-than-life stories, the down-to-earth exploits of Depuy & Berberian's eponymous schlub drew and kept my attention. The pieces in this collection center on relationships, both our own and those of others that affect us; the vignettes are simple but effective. I was less enthralled by the autobiographical behind-the-scenes pieces on the lives of the creators; material like that rarely makes a truly interesting story, and it ends up feeling more like a drawn anecdote. I'm not sure what to think of Tove Jansson's Moomin, but I'm not against it based on what I see here.

Sky-Dog Press: Buzzboy Sidekicks Rule! #1

I like the premise of this Buzzboy series (a sidekick must soldier on alone after his mentor, and the rest of Earth's premiere hero team, disappears), but the execution leaves a bit to be desired. John Gallagher throws us a lot of material to deal with in just 22 pages, most particularly the mystery surrounding the character of Becca. There's also a dig at Frank Miller's All-Star Batman that, while funny, takes up too much space and isn't particularly relevant to the story. I think the story could have benefited from a rewrite, streamlining some of the concepts down and making for a story that's less all over the place. The other feature, Roboy Red, has orange robotic apes, and I can't find fault in that.

Fantagraphics: Funny Book #2

This year, Fantagraphics decided to showcase some of its up-and-coming artists in its anthology offering. My problems with it are the same as I had with last year's: an inadequate table of contents and confusion of bizarre subject matter with significance and talent. There is some worthwhile material, particularly Megan Kelso's Founding Zombie, Jordan Crane's untitled contribution, and R. Kikuo Johnsons' Cher Shumura, but much of it seems to rely on either shock value or poorly-crafted absurdity, neither of which makes for interesting or enlightening reading. For a company that prides itself on providing adult, literate comics, Fantagraphics seems to enjoy showcasing a great deal of immature and unfocused talent.

Tokyopop: Tokyopop Sneaks

The only digest-format offering on FCBD, Sneaks provides first looks at three of the manga-leader's upcoming Ameri-Manga series, storytelling in the Eastern style by Western artists. The strongest of the three is the lead offering, Kat & Mouse, which blends the teen school drama and young mystery genres well to create a textbook example of a successful young readers series. The characters are quickly endearing, and Alex De Campi's writing style is smart and witty. Rather than simply ape manga tropes, she and artist Frederica Manfredi wisely pick and choose parts of the style to blend with western standards to create a book that will give hardcore readers of either school something they haven't quite seen before. The second preview, Mail Order Ninja, is an action/comedy series aimed at young boys, and it's perfect for that market. It avoids taking itself too seriously, throwing a good deal of smart self-referential humor at the reader, but also sets up an intriguing premise: sure, having your own ninja for a year is cool, but can it really solve all your problems (and what happens when your year is up and you have to give it back)? The characters are somewhat stock (the nerdy best friend is actually named Poindexter), but put through unusual paces that makes them stand out. This series, coupled with Kat & Mouse, makes a good one-two punch for the parent looking for reading material for kids of both genders. I wish I had equal praise for Sea Princess Azuri, by Erica Reis, who I am forced to conclude is an 11-year-old girl. This series is so full of Trapper-Keeper style cutesiness that I could feel the cavities growing in my teeth with every page. Most amusing is the "sealicorns," as it's painfully evident that they came about because Reis simply combined the two cutest creatures she could think of, and not out of any knowledge of the real-life narwhale. The plot is the princess cliché that chokes neophyte writing from, well, 11-year-old girls, and that reminds me of more than a few intolerable Lord of the Rings & Harry Potter fanfics. Diabetics should avoid this at all costs. Tokyopop should sell legions of stuffed toys off of this one, though.

In all, FCBD offered a wide range of material to the enterprising reader. Between these books and the ones I was unable to pick up, there should be something for everyone in the offerings. However, it's also clear that some publishers use the event more wisely than others, and that some creators aren't quite ready to play with the big boys yet.

I'll see you all at FCBD 2007.

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