Now in its eighth year, Free Comic Book Day was tied this time to the release (not counting the Internet leak, of course) of the fourth X-MEN film, X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE. Here’s a guide at what was worth grabbing and what was worth leaving behind, for most of the titles, with thanks to Speeding Bullet Comics for the advance copies.
THE JOHN STANLEY LIBRARY FEATURING NANCY & MELVIN MONSTER (Drawn & Quarterly) — If you can only get one FCBD offering this year, I’d recommend this blast from the past, hands down. Not only does the flip book sports nifty new covers by Seth, but the reprinted goods inside are great. John Stanley’s MELVIN MONSTER is good-natured, but his take on Ernie Bushmiller’s comic-strip character of Nancy made her more mischievous. They don’t make them like this anymore, sadly.
WOLVERINE (Marvel) — You’d think with Wolvie kinda being the star of the show this year that Marvel would want to make a splash. So what gives with the yawner of a cover and the strangely reduced size? The story inside is just fine, with a pre-X-MEN Wolverine slashing his way through a nest of electronic bugs and other plugged-in foes. I sure dig the ending, too.
ALIENS / PREDATOR (Dark Horse) — Having started the whole AvP phenomenon, Dark Horse now seeks to break it back up into two separate franchises again with a relaunch. This offers a sneak peek of both sci-fi terror titles, and both are quite cool. The ALIENS story of a researcher who studies them doesn’t end like you’d expect, and the PREDATOR one reveals a rather sleek new model. Both are marked as “to be continued,” yet stand alone on their own just fine.
COMICS FESTIVAL! (Legion of Evil) — As the table of contests screams, “EVERYONE LOVES CANADIANS!” This ’09 edition of the Great White North’s indie anthology yields lots of tastes of Canuck talent, many delighting in the short-and-sweet surreal strips of absurdity. It packs nearly two dozen stories into 32 pages, with my favorite being Ben Shannon’s POWER RANGERS parody “The Go-Friends.” Not all the stories score, but if you don’t like one, just turn the page.
DC KIDS MEGA SAMPLER (DC) — To call this “mega” is pushing it, but it does expose you to excerpts from three DC Kids titles, all of which are worth your children’s allowance: BILLY BATSON AND THE MAGIC OF SHAZAM!, BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD and the strip-oriented TINY TITANS. The Batman/Blue Beetle team-up here is the standout, with the duo plunged into a WORLD OF WARCRAFT-like online game. A couple of worthless SUPER FRIENDS puzzle pages round out this otherwise stellar one.
ATOMIC ROBO / DRONE / WE KILL MONSTERS (Red 5) — One of last year’s highlights, Atomic Robo returns for another retro-styled, tongue-in-cheek outing, this time having a shootout with a talking dinosaur as they debate time travel. The ending is choice. The preview of DRONE is an underwhelming thing involving the military, robot soldiers and forced dialogue, but WE KILL MONSTERS has promise, especially considering it’s from the team who created Sci-Fi’s mystery miniseries THE LOST ROOM. (Haven’t see it? You totally should. Just buy it — you’ll love it.)
TRANSFORMERS ANIMATED / G.I. JOE (IDW) — As much as I’m looking forward to this summer’s G.I. JOE feature film, I’m not on board with the current comics — at least not based upon the two shorties here. The Larry Hama-scripted Duke origin is the better of the pair, although nothing to enlist for. But they sure beat the TRANSFORMERS ANIMATED tale. I still contend these Transformers comics make little to no sense, but then again, I’m no fan of that franchise. Granted, the art is colorful; I’ll give it that.
STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS — GAUNTLET OF DEATH (Dark Horse) — The less said about STAR WARS comics, the better. Can’t stand them; unless you’re a diehard fan, they’re like trying to read Braille. Flip this one over, however, and you’ll get a little taste of other Dark Horse series, including USAGI YOJIMBO (cute), EMILY THE STRANGE (strange) and BEANWORLD (wonderfully insane). There’s also an Indiana Jones story that’s true enough to the spirit of the films, so score it if you’re a fan of that whipcracker.
SHONEN JUMP SPECIAL (Viz) — How’s about a little manga? And one written by Stan Lee, no less? It’s ULTIMO, about a mechanical boy and his equally mechanic archenemy Vice (subtle, Stan). There’s also a sorcerer character that looks like Stan. And unfortunately, the script is undoubtedly Stan, full of exposition that reads more like notes to artist Hiroyuki Takei than intended captions. Show, don’t tell, Stan! Don’t get too invested in the story, because this one ends right in the middle of the action. Don’t know who’s gonna be excited about the bonus pinup. (Actually, I shudder to think.)
NASCAR HEROES ORIGINS SPECIAL (Starbridge) — They’re NASCAR drivers! They’re superheroes! They’re forever branded with logos! They’re also terribly stupid, and this has to be one of the worst ideas for a comic I’ve ever seen. Oddly, it contains more actual story than most of the other FCBD fare, but that doesn’t make up for a lame concept and clunky art. Even if I were into NASCAR, I can’t see myself warming up to this one, seemingly existing only from a marketing angle. (Do NASCAR fans even read?)
THE WORLD OF CARS: THE ROOKIE #1 (Boom! Kids) — In terms of kiddie comics, you could do much, much worse (see immediate above and below entries) than this spinoff of the Disney/Pixar film. Lightning McQueen is front and center, of course, in a nearly complete issue that is bright, bold and utterly harmless. Rounding it out is a brief look at THE INCREDIBLES, dealing with mayhem on a zoo outing, and I don’t know about you, but that’s the book I wish had anchored this one.
SONIC: EVOLUTION OF A HERO (Archie) — Everyone’s favorite blue, based-on-a-video-game hedgehog is given the ol’ history treatment here, in an issue that’s an absolute waste of paper. Rather than give kids a new story, this one takes some panels from previous adventures and uses them as mere decoration for a text-based “for those who came in late” recap, as if anyone would be confused. It’s SONIC, not LOST. The most appealing thing about it is an ad for sour bubble gum. There’s also a cover gallery in the back, but when the covers are literally no bigger than my thumbnail, what on Earth is the point? It sure won’t win new young fans.
BONGO COMICS FREE-FOR-ALL! (Bongo) — I’ve never been too impressed with THE SIMPSONS in comic-book form, from what little I’ve seen, but the lead story in this issue of three of ‘em is genuinely funny, starting with Milhouse’s opening line of “And I got five bucks from my dad! Nothing pays out like divorce guilt, Bart!” That tale is a parody of fast-food giveaway comics, featuring Krusty the Clown. There’s also a FUTURAMA story and another SIMPSONS one, with Bart and Homer as superheroes Captain Cupcake and Pieboy.
BLACKEST NIGHT #0 (DC) — BLACKEST NIGHT #0 serves as an advance taste to this summer’s next big event for DC, all centered around Green Lantern, in mourning after the death of Batman. There’s a reason I dislike these types of epic crossovers: They tend to be inaccessible to the average reader, and as smart of a scripter as Geoff Johns is, the final page left me scratching my head. I get it’s supposed to be a huge reveal, but I was left asking, “Wait, who’s that?” If you know, you’ll probably get more of it than I did.
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES #1 (Mirage) — Those masked reptiles are 25 years old! Feel elderly yet? Having never seen a TMNT comic, it was nice to finally get a glimpse of the true Turtles. The original issue, which is reprinted here in full, is certainly darker than the movies and toys and overall merchandising machine would have one believe. It’s in black-and-white, which lends it an underground feel. How amusing to read in co-creator Peter Laird’s intro that the whole enterprise was intended as “a one-shot deal.” Lucky for his bank account, it wasn’t.
FCHS (AdHouse) — Those initials stand for Forest City High School, and this serves as your lead-in to the full graphic novel coming this fall. FCHS is a character-driven look at the senior year of several students, but don’t expect much character development in these two excerpts. On the surface, it reads like a seriocomic version of ARCHIE, and one when where they engage in heavy petting. The second half of the issue switches gears with the superhero parody Max Guy — amusing at first, but wears out its welcome.
THE AVENGERS #1 (Marvel) — Like WOLVERINE, this one’s a weird, dinky size, but its guts are good, although stuffed with twice as many characters as need be. Thor falls at the hands of a Norse ice demon and into the arms of Spider-Man, who swings into action alongside Captain America and the rest of The Avengers. But the so-called Dark Avengers show up, too. Writer Brian Michael Bendis keeps things snappy, as expected.
ARCHIE PRESENTS THE MIGHTY ARCHIE ART PLAYERS #1 (Archie) — Four stories are offered here, under the guise of Archie and his gang portraying parts, as if they were in movies. Whatever. To me, the appeal of Archie has always been about them in their high school setting, and not assuming roles in Westerns and historical scenarios laden with really bad puns. Like, really bad. Still, the image of Betty as a mermaid and Veronica in a Cleopatra outfit has to fulfill some kind of long-buried childhood fantasy, no?
RESURRECTION #0 (Oni) — A prelude to a newly relaunched series, RESURRECTION takes place in a post-apocalyptic New York, after some sort of bug/alien invasion. The guy who knows all about it wants the world — or what’s left of it — to know the secrets behind it; the government has other ideas, of course. This one’s interesting, if a bit unoriginal, and I’d like to see how it plays out from here. I wish Oni had dropped the annoying TEK JANSEN backup feature to give the lead story seven more pages.
DABEL BROTHERS SHOWCASE (Dabel Brothers) — This indie publisher had a pretty good launch this year with DRESDEN FILES and DEAN KOONTZ’S FRANKENSTEIN, and looks to continue a largely winning streak based on these three previews. There’s another Dresden story, in which the wizard saves a girl from a troll; a brief skirmish based on the cult film THE WARRIORS; and — now this is timely — a tale based around a new flu epidemic, this one mutating humans into super-powered ones. For those who don’t like pictures, there’s an excerpt from Aaron Allston’s STAR WARS: FATE OF THE JEDI — OUTCAST in the back.
THE STUFF OF LEGEND (Third World Studios) — Here’s a taste of a two-issue series, and lo and behold, it actually whets your appetite. It’s about a war, albeit one fought in a child’s bedroom, between a box full of toys — you know, dolls, action figures, stuffed animals, all that — and the big ol’ boogeymen in the closet. That’s a great concept, and it’s treated with seriousness instead of silliness, thankfully (hence the monochromatic art).
SAVAGE DRAGON #148 (Image) — Past exposure to SAVAGE DRAGON struck me as lazy, sloppy storytelling. This issue, however, makes a marked improvement! Maybe it’s the higher paper quality or hiring out for a better letterer, but the changes make all the difference. Here, green cop Savage Dragon partners with the public-domain Daredevil (there’s a welcome essay about his Golden Age origins in the back) and the Little Wise Guys to get his kidnapped children back. Against all odds, I loved it.
LOVE AND ROCKETS: NEW STORIES (Fantagraphics) — By no means have I consumed the entire output of the Hernandez brothers, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a LOVE AND ROCKETS story that was bad. Ditto for the quartet gracing these pages. It’s kind of weird to see them tackling sci-fi superheroes (“Ti-Girls Adventures”), but it’s done in their typical idiosyncratic style. My favorite was “Sad Girl,” about a monstrous-breasted teenage movie-star wannabe who swears the unreleased flick she shot wasn’t porn. After the Drawn and Quarterly offering, this would be the other shining star of this year’s FCBD.
STUDIO 407 SAMPLER (Studio 407) — Sometimes samplers can be counterproductive, if the previews you offer are so out-of-context, they lack a hook. This is one of those. Four series are teased: HEROES UNLIMITED, SURFACE, HAVOC BRIGADE and THE GOLEM. I can’t tell you squat about the first two, but HAVOC has some neat-looking robots. Only THE GOLEM generates any grounded interest, with a well-managed update of the Jewish myth.
MERCY SPARX: UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT #1 (Devil’s Due) — Apparently, this is a relaunch of the Mercy Sparx character, but damned if I’ve ever heard of her before. She’s a red-skinned devil girl who hunts down angels gone bad. The art is suitably cartoony and fun to look at, but the story throws so many characters at you, that I couldn’t quite grasp all of what went down.
APE ENTERTAINMENT’S CARTOONA PALOOZA #2 (Ape Entertainment) — This sampler boasts some of the highest-quality paper, yet little content worth the slickness. The worst of the half-dozen stories is R.P.M.: RAPID PERFORMANCE MACHINES, which is a syllable-packed way of saying “Transformers ripoff.” FEMME NOIR looks like fun, and WHITE PICKET FENCES to a lesser degree, but the rest — GO-GO GORILLA, URSULA WILDE and ELDERS OF THE RUNESTONE — glossed over instantly.
ATTACK OF THE ALTERNA ZOMBIES (Alterna) — This was the only perfect-bound digest of the bunch, but with less-than-perfect insides. The lead story — amusing, but to a point — has Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln fighting zombies while hopped up on magic mushrooms. Other stories involve an alien war, a lost cartoon animal, death-row inmates and two more starring Jesus. (Geez, one-trick pony much?)
WILLIAM SHATNER PRESENTS (Bluewater) — Would the words “William Shatner Presents” sell you a comic? (A movie? A jar of peanut butter? Anything?) Me neither. Yet here are small helpings of three series for which he’s come up with the stories: THE TEK WAR CHRONICLES, MAN O’WAR and the kiddie-leaning QUEST FOR TOMORROW. All are terrible. I’d recommend using it for toilet paper — it’s about as flimsy — but tossing it in the recycling bin would be a better use. —Rod Lott