Comics Grinder continues to seek out and support the best in indie comics like this gem coming out of Cincinnati entitled, MeSseD, which is the nickname for the Metropolitan Sewer District! And, yes, if you sense a theme emerging here, you are correct. The main character is sewer worker Lilliput, a sort of tour guide to the weird, wild and wet world beneath our feet. Who exactly is Lilliput and what kind of misadventures does she get into? Let’s find out.
Issues of MeSseD
What wows me about this comic series is that creator/writer Jay B. Kalagayan, and lead artist Dylan Speeg, are not afraid to play with sci-fi tropes and just have some fun. Our main character, Lilliput, has one main responsibility and that’s to keep the effluent (sewage) flowing freely. But what fun is that? Well, it’s not exactly meant to be fun, is it? But it’s essential, right? You don’t want a day with the effluent NOT flowing, am I right? And it takes a lot to keep that flow going. There are all sorts of monsters out there, like the Clew worms, that need to be confronted and taken down. That’s where Lilliput comes in. Of course, she’s not perfect. For instance, she goes against regulations and keeps a pet rat. There’s much to love here.
Keep up with MeSseD by visiting the website right here.
BANG! published by Dark Horse Comics, writer Matt Kindt (MIND MGMT), artist Wilfredo Torres (JUPITER’S CIRCLE), colorist Nayoung Kim and letterer Nate Piekos. Issue 2 out on March 17, 2020.
Dark Horse is doing very well with its comic book series BANG! John Shaw, its main character, must be America’s favorite barefoot tough guy since Die Hard‘s John McClane. Yeah, there’s a real foot thing going on here so you can file this under “Comics with a Foot Theme.” John Shaw is credited with sensitive feet and described in the book like this: “He’s barefoot. They never hear him coming.” And he even has a pretty good plot to work with: he’s the guy staying one barefoot step ahead of the terrorists in order to stay alive and possibly save the fabric of reality. Matt Kindt has always been a creator who works best with offbeat stories and this looks to have checked all the boxes on weird compelling adventure.
The first printing of BANG! issue 1 sold out ahead of publication, following widespread press attention and endorsements from Keanu Reeves and some of the comic book industry’s most respected writers and artists. Issue 2 of BANG! is on sale from Dark Horse Comics on March 17, 2020.
Panel excerpt from John Constantine: Hellblazer #1
File under Diehard Offbeat Comics: the latest run from the Sandman Universe under DC Comics Black Label, John Constantine: Hellblazer. Sometimes, you just want something nice and weird…and yet familiar. Look no further than the murky and spooky world of John Constantine. You may, at times, find the narrative a bit loopy and hard to follow but a good yarn with some meat on its bones, and plenty of authenticity, makes up for it. Let’s consider a choice panel from the first issue right above. You are in good hands with writer Simon Spurrier. We can jump over to a sneak preview (Issue 4 out Feb 26) via Spurrier’s Twitter right below:
Cannot wwwwWAIT for you guys to meet Tommy Willowtree in #HELLBLAZER 4 next week. He is quite literally everything John isn’t.
John Constantine is back in London, back to his old tricks—and just in time, as things have become very dark indeed in his old stomping grounds. A small-time gang lord has found himself dealing with a big-time outbreak of supernatural weirdness…and without any allies to call on and nothing left to call his own, John doesn’t have much choice about taking a paycheck from one of London’s worst, or accepting the help of one of the gang lord’s would-be foot soldiers. But what should be an open-and-shut exorcism turns out to be anything but…and the author of this madness may just be getting started on their terrible masterpiece!
The original Constantine is back in this series from Si Spurrier (The Dreaming) and Aaron Campbell (Infidel), with nothing to his name but decades of bad memories and an unearned second chance. How, exactly, will he squander it? There’s only one way to find out…
This is one of the most inspired scenarios for a comic that I’ve seen in a while. What if all the great mystery writers of the 193os formed a club–and had amazing adventures? That is exactly what is happening in this totally cool new graphic novel series, The Detection Club, script and art by Jean Harambat, published by Europe Comics. We’re talking about the golden age for mystery writers including G. K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, and Dorothy L. Sayers. This is from the same brilliant talent who created the spy thriller series graphic novels, Operation Copperhead. If you like crisp and witty humor, then this is for you. And, yes, this book is in English. That’s an essential component of Europe Comics, your home for comics from Europe, translated into English.
The Detection Club page excerpt
First off, you need to know that there really was a Detection Club and it must have been something! Just imagine all of these world-class writers meeting on a regular basis, helping each other out with their craft, and even writing books together under the name of the club itself! I don’t think I was aware of this and, if I was, I’d forgotten. So many years and beers ago, you know. But now I’m fully aware of this fact thanks to this wonderful graphic novel series. So, that is the basis in reality for this series but Harambat takes it much further and places a select bunch of our writer heroes in quite a madcap adventure involving a crime-solving robot who may or may not have just committed murder! So, lots of fun for all ages, even for much older kids at heart such as myself.
Panel excerpt: Our main characters all in row.
I really like to showcase panel art. There are so many reasons to do this. The main reason is to simply get a closer look! This makes sense, just as you would focus on a particular passage in any novel. It gives us a moment to savor the process. What is key about Harambat is that he loves to draw. This is quite evident in the above example. Too many young aspiring cartoonists believe that any scrawl that they produce is priceless. That wrongheaded thinking is much too ingrained in the indie comics community. Yes, there is a place for spontaneity and a loose and sketchy style can be quite legitimate. But look at the dazzling results you get from rigorous care in the pursuit of refined essentials. Everything reads as very crisp and clear! You want that kind of clarity!
The Detection Club page excerpt
Harambat is an auteur cartoonist who truly loves to write and draw economically. It is a very functional approach that makes it easier to tackle such an ambitious project that involves characters with formidable back-stories. We’re talking about some of the greatest popular writers of all time–either intimately known by readers or at least recognized to some degree. There are expectations already in place. Many readers coming to this graphic novel already have some notion as to who Agatha Christie was and expect someone unusual and clever–and will expect the same from her contemporaries. Any reader attracted to this book is already curious about the world of mystery and crime fiction and related matters. Harambat is there to deliver on all counts: he fills in the blanks, connects the dots, and thoroughly entertains. All the characters are drawn in a direct and clear way, easy to keep track of, easy to relate with. Then you bring in the villain, an eccentric billionaire living on some secluded tropical island with a huge robot at the center of a murder mystery. Bingo! What a premise to kick off this series!
The Detection Club: Part 1 is an 86-page book, available in digital format on various platforms. For more details, visit Europe Comics, your home for all European comics, all digital, all in English.
Craig Frank’s new graphic novel, Cool Valley, published by Fahrenheit, provides an intimate look at childhood with a masterful command of the comics medium. Frank has a zeal for storytelling that is rooted in his background in animation and his overall passion for creative pursuits. In fact, the reader will see Frank’s first stir of interest in comics and drawing within the pages of his new book. I was completely won over by Frank’s debut graphic novel from a few years ago, the quirky and surreal, JFK: Secret Ops. Read my review here. This new book shares a similar live wire sensibility, set in a small town in Missouri in the 1970s, packed with an uncanny amount of vivid details.
Cool Valley by Craig Frank
There’s a bit of Huck Finn mixed in this series of vignettes interlaced together building up to a sobering existential assessment. Along the way, there are more than some touches of the supernatural too. Actually, it may have been helpful to bring the supernatural elements to the forefront due to their compelling thematic strength. What is intriguing, and deliciously spooky, is how Frank ultimately approached things by having all the scary stuff gradually emerge! So, it’s something of a toss up. You can start in with a story already with built-in expectations or you can surprise an audience with unexpected material. Going in, the reader does not know to expect anything about demons. That said, the reader quickly picks up from the first few pages that there’s a melancholy and strange tone brewing.
Cool Valley by Craig Frank
Demons aside, young Frank is jumping from one misadventure to the next. While talk of demons is only one aspect to this narrative, that eerie sense of dread is woven throughout, especially since it involves a series of tragic events that gradually, then suddenly, take over amid a narrative that includes both sorrow and joy. Frank does a wonderful job of presenting this tableau of light and dark, always wondering about meaning, always daring to express frustration with elusive answers. This is a mature work for all ages that thoroughly respects and rewards the reader. It’s a great work for young adults and older adults alike.
Cool Valley by Craig Frank
Craig Frank has taken a very original and idiosyncratic path with his comics–and that is where the most authentic comics come from. It’s great for a budding cartoonist to follow an influence and emulate his or her favorite artist. We can always have yet another cartoonist who echoes the cool vibe of Daniel Clowes. That’s a tall order and to be applauded when it works. However, it’s even better when you develop a style and vision all your own and that also takes time and dedication. And another thing, sometimes the next graphic novel is the one that catches on and lifts up the one that came before. I think Cool Valley is definitely a perfect entry point to Frank’s work. Then make your way over to his hilarious JFK: Secret Ops and then…well, we’ll just have to see what Craig Frank comes up with next!
Here is a book trailer for Cool Valley:
And here is a panel discussing the relationship between comics and animation at SPX this year that includes Craig Frank:
Joe Hill, #1 New York Times Bestselling author, is the current go-to creator for a certain quirky brand of horror. Head over to DC Comics and you’ll find he’s been set up with his own fiefdom, Joe Hill Presents Hill House Comics. In there you’ll find such tasty treats as the series, Basketful of Heads. Over at IDW, Joe Hill offers up a five-part miniseries, Dying is Easy, which sets his sights on the often turbulent world of stand-up comedy. It might be fun for you as an audience member but it’s not so easy up on stage, even if you get some laughs. With art by Martin Simmonds, this is a comic that brings on the atmosphere and authenticity of what’s it like to struggle as a comedian. Bad enough that it’s a rough business but it can always gets worse.
On point art by Martin Simmonds.
Our story focuses on an ex-cop comedian who somehow gets in over his head when he finds himself thrust into a blood feud. In the capable of hands of Joe Hill and Martin Simmonds, this first issue sets the tone for what promises to be a satisfying crime thriller. If I was a betting man, which I am on occasion depending upon who is asking, I would place my bet on this comic. Give it a solid 10/10 rating.
Dying is Easy is published by IDW Publishing and is available as of Wednesday, December 11, 2019.
From time to time, I like to go back and explore work. The Crippler’s Son, is a short graphic novel quite worthy of a revisit. It is by Max Riffner, published by Fantagraphics, and available as a digital comic at comiXology. What strikes me as interesting about this book is the attention to character development and a strong consistent look throughout. Riffner favors a classic indie style (James Sturm, Daniel Clowes), very clean lines, understated tension. He puts his considerable talents to use here in the service of a story about, James, a young man at a crossroads. James is drifting, a diffident individual trapped in banal settings. He has a life but he’s not flourishing. On the first page, we get a clue as to what preoccupies James: the lackluster career of a pro wrestler known as, The Crippler.
The Crippler’s Son by Max Riffner
Aside from that seemingly obscure interest in pro wrestling, James is a medical student and he has a lover, Mike, who he struggles to emotionally connect with. As we progress, we discover just how important pro wrestling is to James. As it turns out, pro wrestling is at the nexus of James’s existence. There’s a significant family connection that has the potential to empower or destroy James. This is quite a quirky premise and my hat goes off to Riffner for pulling it off. Lots of fun action to boot. Riffner brings the scene to life with plenty of kayfabe!
The Crippler’s Son by Max Riffner
The Crippler’s Son, by Max Riffner, is highly recommended. Now, just a few more words about the creator. As all of us cartoonists know, there is no guaranteed financial gain from the act of creating a work of comics. You do it because you love it. If you get good at it, it will show and demonstrate that you take your art seriously. Such is the case with Max Riffner. I think he’s found a wonderful balance between following one’s passion and making a living that fits and compliments it. Be sure to visit him and learn more at his website right here. And pick up a digital copy of The Crippler’s Son at comiXology right here.
While they stock all kinds of comics, Orbital Comics in London has quite an impressive collection of small press comics. Will Humberstone, Orbital Comics indie comics expert, assisted me in tracking down some of the store’s best titles currently in stock. I include here all the titles that he suggested. While I was in the store, I was impressed with a very tidy and organized shop. I found an upbeat environment with first-rate customer service. By all means, while in London, do make sure to visit Orbital Comics! I begin with some photos of the shop. This includes staff members who worked on some of the titles reviewed here: Ryan Jenkyns on Forged #1, and Valentina Sannais on Starfall #1.
Ryan Jenkyns and Valentina Sannais
Small Press Reviews
Forged #1 by Michael Eckett and Ryan Jenkyns
Forged #1, written by Michael Eckett and illustrated by Ryan Jenkyns, is a sweet all-ages ongoing series that proves to be a rather nice showcase of talent. I can see big things ahead for this series mostly geared toward younger readers. A boy off on big adventures! Stay tuned.
Starfall #1 by Adam Blackhat and Valentina Sannais
Starfall #1, written by Adam Blackhat and illustrated by Valentina Sannais, is an action adventure story with quite a lot to unpack. It seems that we are picking up the story right in the middle of momentous events with characters dealing with a lot of issues. Oh, and they also happen to have superpowers! Much to enjoy here and we’re only getting started. Visit the webcomic here.
Barky and the Bootmaker by Jasmine Parker
Barky and the Bootmaker, by Jasmine Parker, raises the bar high as this is a professional illustrator so maybe it’s a little unfair for someone with finely-honed artistic chops to blast into the slower-paced world of indie comics–or is it? It’s debatable, I suppose, but I really truly favor those comics creators who do work hard at their craft, keep polishing it, and demand a high level of excellence in their work. And then you have to ask, When is a work too slick? Ah, now there’s the rub–when to know you’ve got just the right vibe in your comics! I guess you have to sniff it out. In this case, Ms. Parker does a fine job with a very silly story that will have the tikes rolling in the aisles.
The Blade of Arozone by J. Edward Scott
The Blade of Arozone, by J. Edward Scott, is one of those little books where maybe I’m just not connecting with it all the way even though I really want to. If you enjoy a bit of sword and sorcery, then this might work for you. I think the best thing going here is the artwork. There’s a lot of promise here. For such a short work, you need to wow your reader with something really tasty. Not too busy either. So, keep on truckin’ and really have fun. Maybe I’m not seeing quite enough fun in these opening pages while I do see that elsewhere from this artist online.
Stutter by Joe Stone
Stutter, by Joe Stone, almost lost me with the cover. But, once I leafed through it, I knew that here was a serious cartoonist that I would need to focus on and give him his due. I can see that care has been put into character development, composition and pacing. Yes, it is an autobiographical story about one man’s struggle with stuttering. It has a nice crisp clarity to it. The style is a confident clean line, a cartoony semi-realistic approach that a lot of cartoonists use today. Stone is among one of the better examples I’ve come across. It’s an impressive and sharp mini-comic.
Shivers in London, Part 1 by Niki S. Banados
Shivers in London, Part 1, by Niki S. Banados, is another all too brief work that leaves me wanting more. Again, lots of promise here just like in Mr. Scott’s The Blade of Arozone. The art does have a nice ethereal quality to it but I’d just have to see a lot more of it. If this is an opener meant to entice the reader, then I need more of a wow factor. That said, I’m intrigued and look forward to more.
Cat Disco by Rebecca K. Jones
Cat Disco, by Rebecca K. Jones, is a work that has come to the party prepared to rock out. Now, fair warning, Ms. Jones is a seasoned illustrator so she has a lot more toys to play with and a lot more experience. I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a fun read or anyone interested in becoming a better cartoonist. This story is told with sly wit and great confidence. It’s not easy to pull off but this is the sort of work that can carry the reader away. It’s a story about a house cat who decides to take a walk on the wild side and see what the street cats do at night–and then it goes on to deliver! You too will believe that cats love to disco! Bravo!
Heads by Ed Stockham
Heads, by Ed Stockham, seemed at first glance to be one of those classic twee mini-comics that tries one’s patience. However, years of mini-comic reading have taught me to not rush to judgment. Now, the art is very simple and raw but there’s a confidence running throughout that won me over. I think Mr. Stockham’s work, based on this little book plus what I see on his website, has just the right combination of a good sense of timing, artistic sensibility, and joie de vivre.
Seller on the Threshold by Claude T.C.
Seller on the Threshold, by Claude T.C., is a masterful little work by someone who spends a lot of time drawing and loves it. I see here a wacky sense of humor and the creative discipline to back it up. Is this the work of an inspired amateur who works at a professional level? Or is this the work of a professional who works at the level of an inspired amateur? You see what I mean, don’t you?! It’s polished, but not so slick that the life has been sucked out of it. This is the good stuff.
Some Short Stories by Knifeson Yu
Some Short Stories, by Knifeson Yu, is a collection of light vignettes where very, very little happens. This is an all too brief wisp of a sampler. But I like the wee bits of teaser found here. Seems like the work of an animator who is happy to just dabble in comics for now. We shall see.
Cindy and Biscuit: Sundays by Dan White
Cindy and Biscuit: Sundays, by Dan White, is another impressive work by a professional illustrator. This is A-game work. The story is a lot of silly fun, reminiscent of Calvin and Hobbes but very much its own thing. Cindy keeps seeing all sorts of amazing creatures and going off of all these larger-than-life adventures. Okay, maybe it’s a lot like Calvin Hobbes but it’s still very much its own thing! Five stars and lots of glitter!
Endswell by Peter Morey
Endswell, by Peter Morey, pay perhaps be the most ambitious work of the whole lot here in its own way. I mean, it has an ambiguous and quirky cover. You can only hazard a guess as to what it’s about. And, even once in, you don’t know for sure where it’s heading but you’re hooked. The opening pages have that ideal crisp and clear quality that is so crucial to bring the reader in. The characters are really saying things that are interesting and advancing the plot. You know the main character has got some problems and he’s taking part in some sort of therapy, whether he really wants to or not. All very intriguing. This gets an A-plus and whatever else I can say that is upbeat and supportive. Seriously, really good stuff!
Archie vs. Orbital by Joe Jinks and Will Humberstone
Archie vs. Orbital, art by Joe Jinks and script by Will Humberstone, is a fun little book that pits the Archie gang against the Orbital Comics staff! This is lighthearted fun as you might expect. That said, it is far more involved than you might expect too! The pacing is spot on and it has a tasty factor about it. Archie and the gang are not very nice in this comic. Think horror, scary horror. I recommend you pick it up.
Tom Spurgeon, a heroic champion of comics, especially small press comics, has passed away. It saddens me greatly to find this out today. There is definitely a personal note to this. Tom was always a great supporter of independent comics and all of those folks within that orbit through his regular posting on his blog, The Comics Reporter. He was gracious enough to include me among this group and would mention my efforts here at Comics Grinder from time to time. I did get to meet Tom a couple of times in person and he was always the gentleman, generous with his time and always upbeat. The comics industry knows his name very well. He will be missed.
Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63 by Marcelino Truong
Here is one family’s unique experience with the Vietnam War byway of the diplomatic corps: Such a Lovely Little War, written and drawn by Marcelino Truong, published by Arsenal Pulp Press. As a cartoonist and writer, I’m attracted to the more idiosyncratic works in comics and this led me to the work of Marcelino Truong.
A family terrorized.
These deeply personal comics resonate the most with me. Add to it the fact that the author is dealing with being bi-racial, and feeling out of place, and that gets my genuine attention. Truong’s mother, Yvette, is French and his father, Khánh, is Vietnamese. It is circa 1961 and the family has left Washington, D.C, the home they’ve known. Khánh, as cultural attaché at the Vietnamese embassy, has been called back to Saigon where he will become the personal interpreter to the new president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem . Thus, our narrative unfolds. It’s quite a perspective, one that is up close and encased in a bubble, in step with the cheeky title to this graphic memoir.
One boy’s adventure is another boy’s horror.
Truong’s story is triggered by a need to come clean with as many facts as possible. The Vietnam War is many things. One boy’s adventure is another boy’s horror. A boy safely tucked within the circles of affairs of state will witness one thing. A boy who is part of a family in the killing fields will witness another thing. Obviously, little Marco and his brother Domi have got a lot to learn if they’re thrilled to see napalm bombs on the wings of a plane upon their family’s arrival in Vietnam. Of course, Marco and his family are in for an education. Truong goes to great lengths to lay out as many pertinent details as possible, the sort of details that can get lost in, well, the fog of war. This is a story of relative safety, even at the most privileged levels, slipping away. It’s up to everyone to know when to jump before reaching that boiling point.
One family’s experience of the Vietnam War.
Truong’s work is another exquisite example of the auteur cartoonist. As I’ve said many times, it is the auteur cartoonist who meets the full definition of a cartoonist: the creator who does it all: the writing, drawing, and even coloring when applicable. These are the three main roles, along with editing and layout, that are often taken up by a creative team. It’s fascinating to study work where you have one creator basically calling all the shots. It can result in a work that weaves together script and art to an uncanny level. It is a tradition favored in indie circles in the States and even more ingrained in Europe. You can even take this auteur profile one step further and say it involves creating work by hand, as opposed to digital, as much as possible. A lot of artist-cartoonists, with Truong being a leading example, prefer to engage with their comics within a painter-cartoonist mindset. You’ll find here in Truong’s art that you can break it down into a series of watercolors, a complex network of watercolors. Truong does an exceptional job of modulating his use of color. This is a delicate balance, a shifting between duo-tone to full color, whatever fits best. It all adds up and enhances the immersive quality of Truong’s exceptional memoir.
Siagon Calling: London 1963-75 by Marcelino Truong
And there is a sequel. If you’re inspired to pursue further, then you will want to read Saigon Calling: London 1963-75. The irony is as front and center on the cover as it could be as you have the main characters strolling down a crosswalk, ala Beatles, with a napalm blast in the background.
Both Such a Lovely War and Saigon Calling are published by Arsenal Pulp Press. And be sure to visit Marcelino Truong at his website right here.