A chronological history of Ben’s comic reviews.
Click on the cover image next to the excerpt to read the entire review.
Gatsby’s greatness is the result of unfiltered, unmitigated hope for a relationship that ended years ago. For nearly 200 pages, Gatsby tries to manipulate time and feelings like a god. But we are not gods, and we cannot repeat the past. . . . Time spent wandering is time lost. So when the protagonist of Christopher Sebela’s Shanghai Red declares in an early scene that she is “taking every moment of it back,” readers should take note.
Not a single panel of Maus is wasted. In one scene, as Nerdwriter points out in his YouTube video essay about the novel, Vladek dominates the page, invading all panels and towering over his son like a titan. On a later page, photos fall from panels like tears down the paper, landing in a heap that spills over the edge of the page.
Part of that exposition focuses our attention on Agent Amanda Cross, a skilled, flawed, and somewhat volatile operative who has been directed to uncover information that may help prevent future atrocities. In this issue, Cross emerges as one of The Weatherman’s more three-dimensional characters, painted with the perfect blend of sharply focused motivations and multifaceted feelings.
Google Low Moon, and you will find several mentions of the deep sadness that radiates from the novel’s pages. Anthony Farruggia of the Chicago Examiner called it “melancholic, deadpan humor,” and author Glen David Gold described it as “achingly melancholy,” a phrase so cacophonic it might induce the very feeling it describes. But these descriptions, while true, are incomplete . . .
Though The Weatherman’s version of futuristic, colonized Mars is relatively similar to modern-day New York, the art and coloring still manage to inject the story with a cyberpunk aura, like a mildly visualized version of Neuromancer or a less gritty version of Transmetropolitan. Bold reds, yellows, and oranges pop from blocky grey backgrounds, and panels are organized carefully on the page, each offering something relevant.
Larger-than-life panels house thick silhouettes of sympathetic characters that seem to flow from moment to moment like spirits, often propelled by wisps of ink and shadow. And threaded throughout that visual fabric is earnest feeling. Some graphic novels use plot as a driver of emotion, but Blankets allows feeling to drive the story.
The narrative is just bones. It lacks the meat and muscle needed to be compelling—or even coherent. Andy’s opinion of Whitey, for example, bounces wildly from blame (“Whitey f***ed everything up”) to unexplained acceptance (“the first thing I wanted to do was go have a beer with him when I was released”), which is somehow both cliche and inconsistent.
Writers Pete Wallis and Thalia Wallis present each topic as a somewhat polished problem for the teenagers, and then the characters work through it together. The novel reads like a slightly edgy after-school public service announcement for suburban teens, but the story’s stylistic deficiencies help to create a uniquely approachable aura, making the novel safe for all readers.
We watch Smallville because we appreciate the fun absurdity of melodrama, and I recommend Captives for the same reason. . . . The comic’s histrionic dialogue and blatant characterization overshadow any emotional gravity otherwise suggested by the plot, thus giving the reader permission to interpret the comic’s lack of relatability as narrative brevity.
Sacco’s artwork lifts the heavy burden of this narrative with the practiced strength of someone who has lived these moments. The artwork is grainy, like an unfinished sketch—and it matches the narrative perfectly. . . . The art of Josephine depicts a New York City—and, by extension, a United States—that is in the middle of its process.
. . .seeing Deep Singh slide down a Futurama-esque glass tube to visit his gadget-testing cousin Preeti in an “underground secret facility”—ably rendered by artist Amit Tayal—minimizes the narrative’s need to be particularly subtle, so most readers will feel comfortable with the relative superficiality of the comic’s protagonist in this first issue.
[A] Rapunzel-esque medieval fantasy comic about a pretty girl in a tower and the host of sexually frustrated men who attempt to save her. . . . Like the film version of The Maze Runner, this comic suffers from some forced dialogue and a lack of believable characters, but the comic’s most notable hiccup is its basic premise. I will not root for a teenage boy who is infatuated with a hot girl in a tower.
The story’s narrative bounces a bit too quickly from emotion to emotion, and the characters are predictable and relatively two-dimensional. But all of this is understandable: Ink Island is for children, and narratives that cater to children are different than narratives that cater to adults (as they should be—there’s a reason that Dora and Diego don’t act like Don Draper).
A film version of Godshaper would have the swift movements of Guy Ritchie’s Snatch and the cinematic visuals of Guillermo Del Toro’s entire filmography. The first issue of Godshaper contains a couple double-page spreads, and Goonface fills each with blasts of blue, purple, and orange that sizzle between silhouettes of Herculean characters.
Chunlin Zhao’s artwork is polished. Thick-lined, Nickelodeon-esque characters move in front of glossy backgrounds. Several pages feature large panels with expansive backgrounds and small-scale characters, which is fitting for a comic about time travel: compared to the grandeur of history, a single person seems small.
Crawl Space is one part surrealism, one part Romanticism, one part existentialism, and four parts Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. Multicolored panels burst from each page, offering an almost overwhelming visual experience. Reading Crawl Space is like listening to Wizzard’s “Angel Fingers” with your eyeballs.
If Demonic had a soundtrack, it would be Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny reportedly described the sonata’s first movement—the adagio sostenuto—as “a nocturnal scene, in which a mournful ghostly voice sounds from the distance,” and this description matches several elements of Christopher Sebela and Niko Walter’s haunting comic.
Without the burden of dialogue, panels are able to burn with color, and background artwork—often vast and simple to enhance the protagonist’s isolation—is not obstructed by overbearing bubbles and squares. Claire Connelly’s clever comics contain copious amounts of this molten melancholy, and Paper Crown is among the best of Connelly’s impressive work.
Subversive art forces us to question our contentment with the status quo. Popova challenges long-held shibboleths about different genders, and it does so without mercy for those who subscribe to prejudiced traditions. For some of Popova‘s characters, the desire to challenge oppression takes the form of a “thirst for justice, retribution, and blood.”
Bradley Adan and Michael Milham have created a comic that straddles the line between two different narrative worlds. Super Ready Battle Armor‘s left foot is planted in the slapstick absurdity of shōnen manga (少年漫画), but the comic’s right foot touches something more mature—something beyond the comedic action-adventure narratives of similar comics.
The steampunk elements of the story wax and wane throughout the issue—some panels are less Jules Verne and more Philip K. Dick—but each page contains enough multicolored movement to captivate readers.
Rich Foster writes his narrative with Whitman-esque intensity. When poet Walt Whitman writes “I launch all men and women forward with me into the Unknown,” he is acknowledging the alluring, terrifying mysteries of life and eternity, and the interactions between narration and dialogue in Floyd Solar reveal similar conceptual commentaries.
Lange’s Warp Zone is an existentialist tribute to Afrofuturism packaged as a high-concept comic. The protagonist, Mungo, spends much of his time trying to have an authentic reaction to the absurdity that surrounds him, and his journey toward authenticity is both entertaining and frustrating.
Follow the Leader‘s second issue reads like a bloody version of a William Blake poem. Depictions of naiveté and purity permeate a narrative that, at its core, is a commentary on youth and acceptance. Larranceville’s local park is a carnivorous Neverland filled with hungry Lost Boys.
The Baron is a shaggy-haired blend of Daniel Plainview and Steve Zissou, and he has the confused intensity of Michael Keaton’s character from Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman. Like Kanye West, the Baron is not afraid to alienate those around him, favoring conviction over friendship—even if that conviction is misguided. What makes the Baron unique, however, is the simplicity and absurdity of his failure.
Before enjoying the delicacies of McCluggage’s nuanced narrative, most readers will feast on the comic’s multicolored artwork. The thick-lined silhouettes of McCluggage’s weathered characters pop from the panels, contrasting the comic’s often hazy, uncomplicated backgrounds. This disparity in detail highlights McCluggage’s commitment to meaningful characterization: Follow the Leader is, in part, about people and the choices they make.
As a character, Hotshot has the wit of Peter Parker and the style of Jaime Reyes, but he lacks subtlety. Some panels push the character beyond believability, and the “hectic life as an art student” element of the narrative seems artificial.
As someone who believes that E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is an overhyped Hallmark card masquerading as a feature film that glorifies home invasion, I am hesitant to connect emotionally with any work that highlights the unlikely buddy-cop pairing of a small alien and a young human, but Sara Rising consistently elevates this scenario to new, socially relevant heights.
Bill Campbell explains the purpose of APB: Artists against Police Brutality in his introduction: “what we desire is to simply further the dialogue, make some people see this debate in a different light, perhaps change a mind or two, and, most importantly, exercise our freedom of speech in honor of all those who have had their voices silenced.”
The Living Finger is getting out of hand—and I love it. . . . The narrative adds depth to the finger, contemplating the nature of the leechlike appendage. In a few pages, Wendy evolves from a weird body part to a relatively multifaceted character.
Like a violent, undeveloped version of Woody Allen, Gritt rambles through a series of blood-filled panels, provoked only by self-deprecation and testosterone. Gritt has potential, but this issue does not offer much beyond clichés and violence.
. . . if Blue Moon is ever adapted into a film (which would be rated R for nudity and disturbing images), I imagine the soundtrack would be simple—even pleasant at times—consisting mostly of ghostly orchestral riffs and curious piano compositions like Carly Comando’s “Everyday.” Interestingly, it is this understated allure that makes Ben Gilboa’s story so horrifying.
Harry Moyer’s artistic style is a blend of Fernando Botero and Gary Larson. Most characters appear somewhat bloated, and their curvy, elastic outlines add motion to the panels, giving the impression that the characters are swaying—or shaking.
Writer Paul Allor and artist Louie Joyce have created something special: a clever, quick-paced fantasy miniseries that thoughtfully explores several pressing sociocultural issues. Given its multifaceted characters, intelligent dialogue, seamless pacing, and enchanting artwork, Past the Last Mountain proves that indie comics are capable of telling stories that are both engaging and meaningful.
For those who value originality, reading Thorus: Lord of the Super Gods is a frustrating experience. Thorus, the feebly characterized protagonist of the comic, is a thinly veiled combination of Hawkman and Thor. The comic’s villain, a motiveless brute who speaks like the teenage antagonist of an after-school PBS sketch about bullying, is a clear blend of Thanos and Galactus.
Halfworld: The New Pioneers paints a bold picture of collective apathy against a backdrop of cyberpunk debauchery, and it portrays hope—faith in humanity’s ability to overcome its own flaws—as an accident. The characters in Halfworld: The New Pioneers have given up.
Reactions to this protagonist come in two mutually exclusive forms: apathy or disgust. Either Jason is an empty vessel that carries the reader from moment to moment, or he is an intensely lonely sociopath who falls in love with Wendy, his pet finger. Hopefully, future issues will point us in the right direction.
Nick Cagnetti’s artwork feels like a dream, and it keeps the narrative’s tension intact. Cagnetti spills misty shadows onto the pages, weaving them through the lives of the characters. The Spirit of the Shadows, the comic’s undead protagonist, seems to glide through the panels like a fog—steady and overpowering.
Like mystic versions of Dr. Frankenstein, these gifted individuals mold bits of imaginative thought into real-life creatures, most of which are odd, Cronenberg-style monstrosities. Art is a reflection of reality, and the often tortured manifestations of the Creators reflect the troubled minds of those who create them.
Kudos to Emilio and James Rodriguez. For the first time since I read a couple of volumes of Kurtis J. Wiebe’s Rat Queens several months ago, I laughed out loud—really out loud, an earnest laugh that came from my gut—while reading a comic.
Like a grotesque version of Don Hertzfeldt’s Bill trilogy, Test Tube explores the unfiltered, prickly realism of human experience. The relatability of the characters is impressive—and unwelcome. With numbing persistence, Gonzalez exposes the oddities of his characters’ ambitions, offering long chains of surreal images in messy panels.
If you heard regret, longing, some whimsy, and hints of anger, you sensed the same emotions that exist in Snow Brigade, a haunting new comic by Jonas McCluggage that, according to the comic’s dedication page, is inspired by Mew’s alternative mini-ballad about cold, single-minded yearning.
Sara Rising pairs the social commentary of Freaks and Geeks with the sci-fi elements of Greg Mottola’s Paul, resulting in a fast-paced, profanity-laden, intergalactic romp that includes a misogynistic fast food manager and an imagination-dependent alien weapon.
To travel the cosmos, you need to find a Warp Zone. And to find a Warp Zone, you need to talk to Jack Elsewhere. That is the premise of Warp Zone, an entertaining, imaginative new comic by Ted Lange IV. Warp Zone is gimmicky, but it is also self-aware, which means that the abrupt expositional panels and narrative breaks are intentional.
Like a somewhat tunnel-visioned version of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, David Wohl’s Santeria: The Goddess Kiss attempts to capture the indignation of ancient gods. Oonaa is a proud god, and this comic catalogues her quarrels with an equally prideful 21st century.
The creation of Luminous Ages was clearly a labor of love. Some panels are breathtaking, filled with vibrant colors and Brobdingnagian characters. Reading some pages of Luminous Ages is like playing Magic: The Gathering at a Pink Floyd concert.
Deer Editor is smart—deceptively so. The tablet-view comic, which is about an anthropomorphic journalist named Bucky, is peppered with a number of obligatory deer-related puns, but Deer Editor does not limit itself to Popsicle-stick humor.
The comic is lean. Every bit of dialogue contributes to the expansion of Empress‘s universe, a universe that contains a nuanced sociopolitical hierarchy and a rich variety of alien species…and dinosaurs.
Forget what you think you know about Bigfoot. Co-creators Josh Eckert and Kevin Olvera have created a world in which Bigfoot has a family, a tribe, and a sordid past. Interestingly, however, the popular sasquatch does not make much of an appearance in the first two issues of this comic. Bigfoot appears only as a pastel flashback in this otherwise vivid tale.