Free Comic Book Day part 8: Do I want more?

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The point of all of this FCBD business has been, of course, to attract new readers to comics and to attract existing readers to comics they might not otherwise try. Some try to present something familiar to people who’ve never picked up a comic before and others attempt to pump up the hardcore for the next publishing cycle. This year saw all of those approaches in play. The most new-reader-oriented titles tend to be the all-ages ones like Tugboat’s Dragons! or the licensed books like Darkwing Duck/Rescue Rangers, Richie Rich and Geronimo Stilton/Smurfs, from Boom!, Ape Entertainment and Papercutz, respectively. DC’s main offering, Green Lantern/Flashpoint, is in the pump-up-the-hardcore camp (with probably-unfulfilled movie-tie-in aspirations), while Marvel’s two offerings fit more into movie-tie-in (Captain America/Thor) and “appeal to comics readers who don’t currently read a particular title” (Amazing Spider-Man).

I’ve gone into how successful or not those various titles were in previous parts. So how did some of the others do?

The Next Day/Kenk
Pop Sandbox
By Paul Peterson, Jason Gilmore & John Porcellino/Alex Jensen, Jason Gilmore & Nick Marinkovich

These are both short previews rather than standalone stories and read more like part of a press package than consumer-oriented products. The Next Day is about survivors of suicide attempts, while Kenk is about a prolific bicycle thief. Both previews are so short (six pages and four pages) that they don’t provide much more than the high concept of each book. Each also has a one-page description of the book which, by offering more than a tiny snapshot of tone and visual style, did a better job of presenting the material than the selected previews. I’m interested in seeing more of both books, but not more so than I was before reading the previews. Note: after not finding this on the Free Comic Book Day website and noticing there’s no FCBD logo on it, I’m now wondering if maybe this is part of a press package that has been repurposed for FCBD. If that’s the case, I’m willing to go easier on it, since all I’d expect from that is a synopsis and a sense of what the book looks like.

Rating: Ask me tomorrow

I.C.E.: Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Loose Ends
12-Gauge Comics
By Doug Wagner and Jose Holder/ Jason Latour & Chris Brunner

I.C.E. displays a weird tendency that several of this year’s FCBD comics succumbed to: quitting just when the story is introduced. The comic is a mess of pacing. Of the 12 pages, eight are taken up with what I guess we’re supposed to understand to be I.C.E. business as usual, some agents apprehending someone trying to cross the US/Mexico border, a slog to get through with confusing action and off-putting art. One follows up with everyone congratulating each other afterward, another wastes time with inconsequential, boilerplate dialogue as two agents climb some stairs, and only on the final page do we get something that isn’t business as usual, presented in a splash page with no dialogue. Clearly, we’re meant to be intrigued and pick up the first issue, but other than that there are some headless people, there’s nothing to tell us why we care about this case enough to want the agents to solve it, and the characters themselves have been blank slates so far. Add in the slog to get to this point and there’s nothing to hook a reader to continue.

On the literal flipside, the artwork, the colors, and even the lettering are more appeaing in Loose Ends. The dialogue sounds more real and the people seem more interesting, but the eight-page preview falls into many of the same traps. There’s a quote from Jason Aaron on the cover, so this may be a good story once you actually get to read it, but that doesn’t happen here. The cover also says “Southern crime romance,” but there’s not much evidence of that inside. Sure, there is a crime background—one character runs drugs. But any hint of why today is different from any other day he runs drugs is left out. Who the romance will be between beats me. If the cover didn’t say “romance,” nothing inside would have tipped me.

Stories need some setup, stuff that can be paid off later and lend some shape to the narrative, but setup isn’t what sells stories or else every movie trailer in the world would be the first two minutes of a film. If you’re going to release a preview rather than an original story, figure out where the juice of the thing you’re selling is and print that. Tell us about what’s in the room instead of showing agents walking up to the room or you’ll run out of pages before anything interesting happens.

Rating: Wake me when the story starts.

Spontaneous #1
Oni Press
By Joe Harris & Brett Weldele

I’d say Oni shut out FCBD last year; The Sixth Gun got serious buzz and actually ran out at every store I went to, so I didn’t get to read it until later. A year later, the series continues to get great attention and recently won the Director’s Choice award at Stumptown. So Spontaneous was one to check out. I don’t think it’s a perfect first issue by any means, but it avoids a lot of the mistakes of the comics listed above. For one thing, it’s the complete fist issue, which gives it the space to take a, forgive the expression, slow burn approach. We get the time to get to know the characters and for tension to build. But not spending enough time with the I.C.E. agents wasn’t the only problem. Here, the captions reveal a POV on page one, our protagonist exhibits some strange behavior on page two, and a major event has occurred by page six. We end with a cliffhanger, but it’s not the first sense of something weird, it’s our heroes in mortal danger. This is a miniseries, people. This is how you do it.

There’s a definite Chew influence on display in the way that the story takes a very specific, offbeat entry point into weird genre investigation, coupled with tongue-in-cheek narration and even a fast-food setting. Melvin has developed a method for tracking and predicting potential victims of spontaneous combustion—burners—and Emily is a freelance/unemployed investigative journalist following up on a burner who ignited in the mall food court where Melvin works, and it goes from there. Weldele’s art is very similar to how it was in The Surrogates, and it works just as well here. His use of sketchy details and a monochrome palette combine the focus of black-and-white with the storytelling possibilities of color, and the predominance of yellows and oranges keep the theme of combustion constantly in mind. There’s certainly enough here to make me want to know what happens next.

Rating: Hot.

Rated Free For Everyone
Oni Press
By J. Torres, Dean Trippe, Joshua Williamson & Vinny Navarrete

Neither of the stories in here completely grabbed me, seeming just a bit too familiar, but of course they’re for kids, who may not have seen it all before. I was more impressed by the art of Sketch Monsters (loved the way that the creatures that come from the sketchbook are colored and rendered) than the story, which was simply functional, and more impressed by the story of Power Lunch than the art, which was somewhat stiff. Both had fun concepts, though, and might grab kids. Importantly, each is a complete story that gives a good sense of the tone of the books they’re promoting.

Rating: Little growing up to do.

Top Shelf Kids Club
Top Shelf Productions
By Andy Runton, Christian Slade, James Kochalka, Ray Friesen, Jess Smart Smiley, and Chris Eliopoulos

Top Shelf once again used their FCBD comic as a grab bag of their various all-ages titles, with a brief story from each of their regular artists. Some are exceptionally trifling, but each gives a good sense of what their respective book lines are like. I found the Owly story slightly harder than usual to parse, but I got there, and it was charming as always. The Korgi story was a standard outing, fairly shallow but beautiful. I laughed at the conclusion of the Johnny Boo story. Of the new offerings, the art style of Upside Down sucked me in, the Pirate Penguin vs Ninja Chicken short didn’t totally grab me, though I appreciated its secret origin of Free Comic Book Day, and Okie Dokie Donuts impressed me with its weirdness, at least. I already follow many of these, but I can easily see kids moved to find more based on the stories in here.

Rating: :)

Michael Moorcock’s Elric: The Balance Lost
Boom! Studios
By Chris Roberson, Francesco Biagini & Stephen Downer

This seemed like a good place to end for now, because it was never going to grab me personally, as I’m not a fan of fantasy, but the package nonetheless impressed me. The ten-page story shows Elric in action, introduces his essential conflict, that his sword compels him to battle in order that his own life force will be restored when it kills, and delves into his place in a multiversal procession of reincarnation. That’s a tall order for such a short story. Just as importantly, the story is followed by an appreciation by Boom! publisher Ross Richie and a history of Elric in comics, which is exactly the sort of material that helped me wrap my head around Dark Horse’s Conan comics. So, not for me, but if I was a fantasy buff, this is just the kind of package I imagine attracting my attention.

Rating: Lost on a technicality


So there you have it. I don’t think this year’s offerings were the strongest, but there was a great variety, and at the very least, seeing how different publishers seize the opportunity of stores full of new readers is instructive. The major takeaway lessons for me are: actually give aways something free, a full issue or original story, and failing that choose a preview that is actually representative of the story and tells readers why they have to see more. It’s surprising how many publishers haven’t put those things together, but good to see that some have, and very effectively. Till next year!

(P.S. I actually got a lot more free comics this year, so depending on how lazy I am in the next week, there may be straggler reviews.)

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