Archive for December, 2016

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Before we get rolling on our look back at 2016 in the world of comics, let’s take a brief moment to acknowledge the passing of two masters, shall we? Darwyn Cooke and Steve Dillon were  very different artists with very different visions and very different styles, no doubt about that, but both were among the very best at what they did, both entered this undeserving world in 1962, and both exited it, leaving it a decidedly poorer place for their passing, in 2016. Both gentleman turned the medium upside – down with their brilliance and created bodies of work that are more than guaranteed to stand the test of time, so I feel it’s only appropriate, prior to diving into our annual retrospective (which, you’ve officially been warned, will take a minute, so buckle in) to say “thank you” and “we miss you” one more time to this pair of undeniable greats. And now, onto the business at hand —

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Wow, it’s been quite a ride, hasn’t it? In a year when both of the “Big Two” decided to hit the “reset” button again, it’s probably fair to say that DC Universe : Rebirth #1 — and the entire Rebirth initiative in general — will go down as the major “event” of 2016, given that it essentially catapulted the publisher from a distant-second-place competitor to Marvel to “Top Dog” in the industry in the space of one month. That doesn’t mean that the comic itself was any good, of course — my feelings on it are well-known and I believe that Geoff Johns and his artistic collaborators Gary FrankEthan Van SciverIvan Reis and Phil Jimenez essentially churned out a stinkbomb here that will ultimately do both the DCU “proper” as well as the so-called “Watchmen Universe” no favors by setting them on a collision course with each other — but at this point, what’s done is done, and in the short run that means we’ve got a two-horse race for the top spot in the Diamond sales charts every month as DC’s decidedly mediocre twice-monthly efforts compete with yet fucking another round of “Marvel Now!” relaunched books that by and large are, in their own way, every bit as uninspired and predictable as their rivals’ four-color “floppies.” Honestly, this has been the most convoluted path back to the status quo that I’ve ever seen, and just goes to show that a bunch of hype is all that’s needed to sell readers on the same old crap. Of the two reboots, Marvel’s is the most promising, given that they’ve made an effort to carve out some space for genuinely interesting and off-beat titles, but you know most of ’em aren’t going to last, as the so-called “House Of Ideas” is putting far more promotional muscle behind crap like this —

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than they are behind intriguing and potentially subversive fare like this :

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So, yeah, on the whole, count me as being more or less completely uninspired by both major initiatives by both major publishers. Marvel’s in the awkward position (although it’s one they’re well used to after last year’s Secret Wars) of rolling out a raft of new books hot on the tail of a major crossover that hasn’t even ended yet, given that Civil War II was beset by the usual delays we’ve come to expect from these things, but I do give ’em credit for having about a half-dozen or so pretty good books stemming from “Marvel Now!” 2016 — and that’s roughly four more than post-Rebirth DC is giving us. For all that, though, once you move outside the Rebirth realm, DC is actually putting out a fair number of quite good books, which brings us to our main order of business here —

Ryan C.’s Top 10 Comics Series Of 2016

Same rules as always apply : these can be either “limited” or “ongoing” series — as long as they came out within the past 12 months in single-issue format (our preferred consumption method around these parts), we don’t discriminate. But it’s not a “real” Top 10 list without at least a couple of “honorable mentions,” though, is it? So let’s look at those first —

Honorable Mention #1 : American Monster (Aftershock)

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Brian Azzarello — whose name will be coming up again later for decidedly less complimentary reasons — is proving he’s “still got it” and then some with this decidedly sleazy, amoral small-town crime series that features a cast of pedophiles, gun-runners, neo-Nazis, corrupt preachers, and other fine, upstanding citizens. And Juan Doe‘s animation-cel inspired art is absolutely killer. Unfortunately, this book has seen so many publication delays that we only got three issues all year. If it was coming out on anything like an even remotely consistent basis, this would not only be “Top 10” material all the way, it might be “Top 2 Or 3.” I love this comic. Now feed me more of it.

Honorable Mention #2 : Power Man And Iron Fist (Marvel)

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David F. Walker is The Man. You could ask for no more perfect writer to chronicle the exploits of Luke Cage and Danny Rand. And Sanford Greene and frequent fill-in Flaviano Armentaro are doing a nice job on the art. Unfortunately, this title got sidetracked for no less than four months into the creative black hole that is Civil War II, and while these issues weren’t bad for tie-in nonsense, they were still — well, tie-in nonsense. Now that we’ve got the real story rolling again, all is right with the world, and you can blame this one narrowly missing out on the Top 10 squarely and solely on Marvel editorial, who steered the ship into “event” territory before it even had a chance to properly get its feet off the ground. It was a real momentum-killing decision, and I sincerely hope it won’t prove to be a fatal one, as well — but it may turn out to be just that given that sales on this series have been tanking in recent months. So much for the notion that cross-over “events” boost interest in a book.

Honorable Mention #3 : Love And Rockets (Fantagraphics)

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I’m not too proud to admit it — seeing the first issue of this new series from Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez on the shelves of my LCS, and back in its original magazine format at that, was enough to make me tear up just a little bit for a second. It was hardly an issue for the ages or anything, but everything about this just feels right. I love it when life comes full-circle, I love Los Bros., I love their characters, and I love this world. It’s a shoe-in for the Top 10 next year, but one issue is simply too small a sample size for me too include it in good conscience this time out. Not that I wasn’t tempted.

Honorable Mention #4 : The Fix (Image)

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Nobody does fuck-up criminal low-lifes like Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber, and in the pages of this book they up the ante by making their fuck-up criminal low-lifes cops, to boot. This comic is all kinds of perverse and depraved fun, and I’d dearly love to have found a spot for it in the Top 10, but there simply wasn’t room for more than — well, shit, ten titles. Nevertheless, it’s a series you absolutely should be pulling.

And now onto the main event —

10. Doom Patrol (DC’s Young Animal)

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The flagship title of Gerard Way‘s new “art comics” imprint, this book is proving a mere three issues in that it’s gonna push these characters in directions even Grant Morrison never dreamed of. Way and artist Nick Derington are doing the genuinely unthinkable here — producing a well and truly experimental comic with the full blessing of one of the “Big Two” publishers. All may not be lost, after all.

9. Deadly Class (Image)

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Rick Remender and Wes Craig gave us the “Holy Shit!” moment of the year in comics when they actually fucking killed their protagonist (doubly shocking when you consider he was an obvious stand-in for a youthful Remender himself) twenty-some issues in, but the new crop of students at King’s Dominion Atelier For The Deadly Arts is decidedly less interesting than was the last, hence the drop for this series from its loftier perch last year.

8. Southern Bastards (Image)

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Jasons Aaron and Latour just don’t let up. This deep-friend southern noir is loaded with so much gallows humor, spot-on characterization, and low-rent evil that not even a spotty publication schedule and a lackluster fill-in issue could keep it outta the Top 10. A legend in the making, even if it ends up taking a decade for it all to get made.

7. Jacked (Vertigo)

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As near as I can determine, nobody other than myself actually read Eric Kripke and John Higgins’ superb six-part tale of pharmaceutically-charged super-hero revisionism, and that’s a damn shame as it’s one of the single finest and most honest portrayals of mid-life crisis that this beleaguered medium has ever produced, and the art is simply sensational. Do yourself a favor and grab it in trade — you won’t be disappointed, and you won’t hate yourself for that beer gut and receding hairline anymore, either.

6. The Vision (Marvel)

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Enough ink — both physical and digital — has been spilled in praise of Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta‘s admittedly Philip K. Dick-inspired techno-Shakespearean tragedy that adding to it just feels like piling on against the rest of the industry at this point. Suffice to say all the superlatives you’ve heard are true and then some and yeah, this one has “destined to be talked about for years to come” written all over it.

5. Hip Hop Family Tree (Fantagraphics)

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Ed Piskor put the wraps on the 12-part single-issue reprintings of his cultural history milestone earlier this year, and while I’ll certainly continue to collect and enjoy his oversized hardcover volumes, there was just something about having these previously-told stories presented on cheap, pre-yellowed newsprint that was beyond awesome. And the last issue even came packaged with an old-school floppy record — that was actually a code for a free digital download, but whatever. This book was more satisfying than a 40 of Olde English on a hot summer day.

4. Glitterbomb (Image)

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Jim Zub and deliriously-talented newcomer Djibril Morissette-Pham came out of nowhere with this series about Lovecraftian horror intersecting with the seedier side of post-fame Tinseltown (with bloody results) and just blew me the fuck away. The surprise hit of the year for this armchair critic and a book I can’t stop thinking or talking about. The first trade should be out soon enough and collects the self-contained story presented in issues 1-4,  and they’re coming back in late 2017 with a new arc that — man, I just don’t even know where they go from here. But I’m dying to find out.

3. The Flintstones (DC)

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Believe it. Mark Russell and Steve Pugh are putting out the most socially- and politically-relevant comic on the stands, and the satire in this book is by turns hilarious and heartwarming. A truly “mature” take on characters we thought we already knew everything there was to know about, and consistently one of the smartest books you’ll have the pleasure of reading. I don’t know that I have words to adequately describe how unexpectedly awesome this series is — when I said that DC was actually putting out some damn good stuff outside its main Rebirth line, this is exactly what I was talking about. If you’d have told me a year ago that one of the books I was going to be most eagerly looking forward to month-in and month-out was going to be The Flintstones, I would have thought you’d lost it. In fact, I probably would have said that Donald effing Trump had a better chance of being elected president. And yet, here we are — ain’t life crazy? And shitty? But at least we have this comic, and as antidotes to a new age of right-wing anti-intellectual barbarism go, you won’t find much better.

2. The Sheriff Of Babylon (Vertigo)

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The Vision may have gotten all the attention, but Tom King‘s best series of 2016 — by a wide margin, in my view — was this Iraq-set murder mystery drawn heavily from his own experiences as a CIA case officer during that bloody boondoggle of a war. Every aspect of this comic is almost painfully authentic, and Mitch Gerads rounds the package out with artwork so gritty you can feel the sand underneath your fingertips. This. Shit. Was. Amazing. Or maybe that should be “is” amazing, since — well, more on that in a minute.

1. Providence (Avatar)

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I’m out of superlatives, honestly. I review each issue of this series as it comes out, and my mind is blown more completely every time. I said last year that Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows were potentially creating the comic of the young century with this volume of their “Lovecraft Cycle,” and with one installment left to go in this 12-parter, I think it’s safe to say we can take the “potentially” qualifier out of that statement :  Providence is, in fact, the best comic of the century so far.

Wait, though! We’re far from done —

On the graphic novel front, it’s gotta be said that 2016 was a banner year, as well, in many respects — but I’m always a bit perplexed on how best to assemble a “best-of” list when it comes to the GN format because it only seems fair to subdivide it down into wholly original works, trade collections, old-school vintage reprints, etc. Throw in the fact that may “original” graphic novels got their start as serialized installments on the web, and things get even dicier. What really constitutes “new” work anymore? Still, there is definitely plenty outside the realm of the single-issue “floppy” that deserves a mention, and so —

Original Graphic Novel Of The Year : Patience By Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics)

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Five years in the making, and it shows in every panel on every page. Clowes outdoes himself with each new project, it seems, and this is jewel in his creative crown — until the next one, at any rate. Love, obsession, longing, time travel, regret, loneliness, desolation — even optimism? This work encompasses all of it and then some; a monumental achievement of staggering proportions.

Best Collected Edition Of Recent Work : American Blood By Benjamin Marra (Fantagraphics)

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Anyone who’s read Terror Assaulter : O.M.W.O.T. knows that Ben Marra exists on a planet of his own, and this collection of the self-published works issued under his awesomely-named Traditional Comics imprint runs the stylistic gamut from insanely exaggerated pseudo-“realism” to Gary Panter-esque primitive id-channeling. WaPo columnist Maureen Dowd as a sexy super-spy? Bloodthirsty barbarians from distant worlds? Gang-bangers who do nothing but fuck and kill? Freed slaves who can tear white men apart with their bare hands? It’s all here, in suitably gaudy purple-and-white.

Best Collected Edition Of Vintage WorkMarvel Masterworks : The Black Panther, Volume 2 By Jack Kirby (Marvel)

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In recent years, the awesome body of work produced by The King Of Comics during his second, late-’70s stint at Marvel has finally been given its due as the visionary output it so clearly was, but while books like Machine ManThe EternalsDevil Dinosaur and “Madbomb!”-era Captain America have now taken their rightful place among the rich pantheon of Kirby masterworks, Jack’s Black Panther run from that same period still doesn’t get anything like the love it deserves. Hopefully this handsome hardbound collection will finally start to clue readers in to what a magical and imaginative Wakanda Kirby created in this high-flying techno-fantasy epic.

It wasn’t all good news, though, and since we’re on the subject of T’Challa, we might as well segue into some of 2016’s lowlights —

Most Disappointing Series Of The Year #1 : Black Panther (Marvel)

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There’s no doubt that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a literary and journalistic genius, and his voice in this ugly new Trump-ian era is more necessary and urgent than ever. Unfortunately, he can’t write a comic to save his life, and his dour, humorless, self-absorbed, navel-gazing take on The Panther reads like a relic of the worst sort of over-wrought 1990s excesses. This is a genuinely lousy title, and it doesn’t help that neither of its usually-reliable artists, Brian Stelfreeze and Chris Sprouse, are delivering anything like their best work.

Most Disappointing Series Of The Year #2 : Batman (DC)

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Tom King giveth, and Tom King taketh away. We’ve already covered the great stuff he’s given readers in 2016, but he’s also taken one of the most consistently-good super-hero books and turned it into a massive fucking train wreck. Lots of people were jazzed when he was announced as Scott Snyder‘s replacement on the “main” Bat-book, but King has struggled to find a “voice” for Bruce Wayne either in or out of the cape and cowl, his two major storylines to date have featured ridiculous plots, and 13 issues in all we can really say is that he writes a pretty good Alfred. The illustration by David Finch on the first five-issue story arc was atrocious, and the only thing that saved this title from being dropped from my pull for the first time ever was when the magnificent Mikel Janin took over art chores with the second arc and delivered work of absolutely breathtaking scope and grandeur. Still, at this point, I have to say — when he goes, I go. And I think he’s gone after next issue. And yet, horseshit as this book has been, it’s nothing compared with our —

Worst Comic Of The Year : Dark Knight III : The Master Race (DC)

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Unmitigated garbage that plumbs new depths of hopelessness with every issue, Brian AzzarelloAndy Kubert and Klaus Janson (with nominal involvement from Frank Miller) are doing something here no one thought possible : making fans yearn for the days of The Dark Knight Strikes Again!  (which, admittedly, I’ve always liked, but no one else does). Also, they seem to be doing their level best to match that title’s glacial publication schedule. At this rate, we’re gonna wait three years to complete a story that’s been a total waste of time from the outset. This series is honestly starting to rival Before Watchmen  in the “artistically-bankrupt blatant cash-grab” category. I expected nothing from it, true — and yet somehow we’re getting even less than that.

I’m going to close on something of a high note for DC, though, if you can believe it, because they also get the award for —

Best Development Of 2016 DC’s Young Animal

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I’m still not sure what the hell a “pop-up imprint” is, but Gerard Way has one he can call his very own, and so far all four series released under this label’s auspices — Doom Patrol (as previously discussed), Shade, The Changing GirlCave Carson Has A Cybernetic Eye and Mother Panic — have been not just good, but great. While at first DCYA sounded like little more than a stylistic heir to vintage-era Veritgo to my mind, in fact its aims seem to be much different, while admittedly utilizing a number of characters and concepts from that fan-favorite period. This is an imprint where anything both goes and can happen, and we’ve sorely needed that for waaaaayyy too long. In short, this is the most exciting thing either of the “Big Two” have done in — shit, as long as I can remember. Long may it continue.

So — What About The Year To Come?

By the sound of it there’s plenty to be excited about, from Warren Ellis spearheading the re-launch of WildStorm to the debuts of much-publicized new series from Image such as God Country and The Few, but my most-anticipated events of 2017 (at least as far we know now) would have to be —

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March 31st (seriously, guys?) is slated as the provisional release date for Providence #12, and to say that I can’t wait to find out how it all ends would be an understatement of criminal proportions. It would also be an equally-proportionate understatement to say that I’ll simply “miss” this series when it’s over. So, ya know, maybe take your time with that last issue, after all.

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The so-called second “season” of The Sheriff Of Babylon is due to hit sometime in the latter part of the year and, simple as the “teaser” image shown above was, it was still enough to get me excited. And finally —

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January sees the release of the first installment of Kamandi Challenge, a “round-robin” 12-part series from DC starring The Last Boy On Earth that features a different creative team on each issue trying to solve the cliffhangers left by the folks the month before, as well setting up new messes for the next bunch to get themselves out of. This is the first of what I hope to be many releases commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jack Kirby that we can look forward to over the next 12 months — in fact, DC has just also announced an omnibus hardcover reprinting of Kirby’s entire original Kamandi run, so let’s hope that 2017 really will be a vintage year for fans of The King.

Whew! Okay! We’re done for the year! Enjoy your holidays — or what remains of them — and we’ll see you back here in January, when we get to start the whole thing all over again!

 

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Has it really been three years already?

Yup,  guess it has been that long since Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez locked (sorry) the doors of Keyhouse and concluded their modern long-form horror masterpiece, Locke & Key, and while the time has certainly flown by in many respects, now that we’ve been granted entry into the most mysterious home in Lovecraft, Massachusetts one more time, the truth is that it also feels like it’s been a lot longer than that.  Maybe that’s why it’s good to know, especially right before Christmas, that you (or, in this case, we) actually can go home again.

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Okay, sure, Locke & Key : Small World #1 may be a good, old-fashioned “one-shot” — and it may be set in the past (specifically the early part of the 20th century) and feature a different cast of characters than the one we came to know in the series proper — but that doesn’t mean it’s not a seamless addition to Hill and Rodriguez’ mythos or that it’s anything less than an absolute delight. In fact, for long-time fans of this world, reading this book is almost certain to make you feel like — dare I say it — a kid at Christmas.

The perpetually cynical (a group to which many insist I belong myself) have always said that “familiarity breeds contempt,” of course, but based on the evidence offered here, I humbly beg to differ. Small World serves up nothing you can’t and/or won’t see coming from a mile away — the “surprise” ending, for instance, is nothing of the sort — but for all its predictability and simplicity, it’s much more undeniably charming than it is the product of rote and clinical calculation. An old favorite pair of slippers doesn’t represent anything unexpected or challenging or different, either, but is there anything better to slide your feet into after being out on a cold winter’s day? Tried and true things in life are great comforts, my friends, and in this suddenly-much-more-uncertain world we find ourselves in these days, we need ’em more than ever.

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If you’re getting the distinct impression that there’s nothing precisely essential about Locke & Key : Small World, well, shit — I can’t deny that’s absolutely true. Nothing in these pages will enrich your appreciation of the original series or shift your understanding of it in any way. There are no new perspectives to be had or secrets to ponder. But between Hill’s meticulously-crafted script, Rodriguez’ absolutely breathtaking richly-detailed art, and Jay Fotos’ amazingly well-chosen colors, what we have here is a near-perfect representation in microcosm of what made this series such a runaway sensation in the first place. It’s almost impossible to imagine somebody not being utterly transfixed by this gem of a comic, to the point where I can easily imagine one who may be new to this world feeling downright compelled to track down everything that’s come before once they’re read it. “Newbies” are hardly the so-called “target audience” for this book, it’s true — and I can’t see anyone unfamiliar with the franchise being willing to plunk down the $4.99 cover price that IDW is asking for a standard-length, single-issue publication (okay, that’s a bit of a lump of coal in our collective stocking, I suppose) — but there are bound to be some out there, and my money is on them becoming instantly hooked. Every aspect of this comic is expertly executed. Every single one. And whether you’re falling in love with Keyhouse and its denizens for the first time or all over again, it doesn’t matter — “love is love,” after all, as the title of another IDW special that hit LCS shelves this week reminds us.

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As I mentioned already — probably more than once — the comforts of beautifully-established “known quantities” are at a premium these days. I love comics that push my thinking in new directions and upset the apple cart of my preconceptions, but there’s always a place on my pull list for books that counteract life’s uncertainties and give me exactly what I’m hoping for. Locke & Key : Small World is the best example of this type of storytelling that it’s been my pleasure to encounter in an awfully long time, and for half an hour it let me pretend that all was right with the world, so ya know what? For all my bitching about the fact that this thing cost five bucks, who are we kidding? That feeling is absolutely priceless.

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From what I can tell, “micro-budget” writer/director/producer Ryan Callaway is a pretty cool cat. Sure, you could argue that I’m biased toward any and all “Ryan C.”s in the world, but seriously — when I wrote a middling review of his film The Girl In The Cornfield a couple weeks back, he was not only gracious about it, he actually went so far as to engage in that rarest of internet rarities with me afterwards : a respectful and productive conversation that acknowledged his flick’s strengths and weaknesses in a manner that showed he harbored no ill will towards me for not showering his efforts with unmitigated praise. Granted, my appraisal was hardly negative on the whole, but ya know what? I get the distinct impression that even if it had been, he would’ve been okay with that, too — and in a world where far too many backyard Burtons and dime-store DePalmas take it as a personal attack when you don’t immediately acknowledge them as the next Hollywood superstar in the making, that counts for a lot with me. For that reason alone, then, I decided to give his latest, 2016’s The Watchers : The Beginning Of Sorrows, a shot when I noticed it available for streaming on Amazon Prime the other day.

In fairness, this 50-minute production is hardly what you’d call a “feature-length” film, and it’s also, apparently, the third entry in a series (titled The Watchers, as if you didn’t already know) produced by Callaway and his wife, Amy — but even for all that, I didn’t feel terribly confused or anything going in, as the story stands fairly well on its own. The title’s a bit on the long side, sure, but when you consider that it’s basically an “episode” in a longer narrative, even that makes sense in context. So, now that we’ve got all that out of the way, we just have to answer one question — is it any good?

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As with almost all movies of this nature, the answer is “yes and no.” The story’s certainly interesting enough on its merits : Madeline Tanner (played by Haley Chapel) had been searching for her missing kid sister, Briana (Rachelle Bieber) for about six months, and appeared to be making something vaguely resembling progress, when the truly inexplicable happened and she ended up disappearing herself! Madeline was convinced that the answer to her sibling’s whereabouts was to be found in the realm of the supernatural, and her own spiriting away (lame pun pretty much intended) has certainly confirmed that suspicion in the mind of her best friend, Laura Leeds (Elizabeth Wellman), who is now taking up the reins of the investigation herself despite the “double danger” it represents. Will she find one or both of the subjects of her search — or just end up yet another “missing persons” statistic?

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The acting is up-and-down in this one, it’s true, but “up” gets the slight edge in the final tally as Wellman in particular cuts a pretty fine performance despite obviously lacking anything like formal training. As for everyone else, what the heck — most of the rest of the performers acquit themselves reasonably well, at least the majority of the time, and again the Callaways are to be commended for assembling an almost- entirely-female cast and giving them reasonably-fleshed-out roles that don’t simply call for them to either scream, strip naked, or both. Not that I necessarily mind either of those things, of course, but it’s well past time that horror, in particular, gets its head out of its ass and acknowledges that women are people, not props or plot devices. It seems downright bizarre to me that a maker of “homemade” films in New Jersey is doing a better job of that than purportedly “progressive” Hollywood, but such is the way of the world, I guess.

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On the directorial front, Callaway shows a bit less style here than was on display in The Girl In The Cornfield, which featured some genuinely breathtaking shots on occasion, while this flick, by contrast, is more of a “point-and-shoot” affair — and while that certainly doesn’t mean that it looks actively bad in any way (especially by “micro-budget” standards), it’s definitely not what you’d call visually ambitious, either. There could be a million and one perfectly reasonable explanations for this — most (if not all) having to do with time and money, of course — but I guess I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit disappointed by the overall “look” of The Watchers : The Beginning Of Sorrows.

On the whole, though, fans of “this sort of thing” should find a fair amount to like here, provided they make the usual allowances one must for production values and the like. For my own part, whatever that’s worth, I found myself reasonably intrigued by, and involved with, the proceedings throughout, and chances are that if there’s a fourth Watchers film, I’ll give it a go — and hey, I expect that I’ll probably end up enjoying that one (assuming it happens), as well.

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A few weeks back, we took a look at what Marvel was doing with the “classic” Clint Barton iteration of Hawkeye in the pages of Occupy Avengers #1, but Clint’s not the only archer at loose ends in the MU these days — his protege/successor/sidekick, Kate Bishop, is on her own on the West Coast and finally ready to step out of her mentor’s currently-troubled shadow after playing second-fiddle to him in the last three (Jesus, guys, seriously?) Hawkeye series by starring in her own solo book. And since a year apparently can’t go by without a new Hawkeye #1, December 2016 sees our annual quota met with the first issue of Kate’s new title courtesy of writer Kelly Thompson, artist Leonardo Romero, and colorist Jordie Bellaire. But does it hit the mark?

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Based on what’s on offer here, I’m pleased to answer that question with an enthusiastically tentative (how’s that for an oxymoron?) “yes.” Thompson has a superb handle on her protagonist’s voice, mannerisms, speech patterns, and overall attitude, and since “attitude” is the arguably the most dangerous (and fun) metaphorical arrow in Kate’s equally metaphorical quiver, that counts for a lot. As we watch her attempt to set up shop as a private eye in Venice Beach, California, we get sass and smarts to spare, are introduced to a tight but intriguing supporting cast, and hey — there’s even a pretty slick Point Break-esque bank robbery sequence that plays out in a manner that you could almost be forgiven for calling charming. Yeah, alright, Kate’s first case does seem like a rather standard-issue affair, but there’s even hope for that, as the last page shows that what we thought to be a rather “open-and-shut” affair is probably anything but. In short, then, the operative word here is fun, and that’s something that’s been sorely missing from any Hawkeye book since Matt Fraction and David Aja left the building.

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Romero’s art is of the “crisp, clean, and contemporary” variety, with some cartoon-ish influences at the forefront that suit the tone of the script quite well, and while it’s not what you’d call outright remarkable in any way, it’s certainly several steps above merely “competent” and definitely reinforces the comic’s overall “let’s not take ourselves too seriously here, folks” tone. I’m not sure that his style would work on, say, Captain America or any other “traditional” super-hero book, but on this one, it not only does the job, it does it well. Bellaire’s color work is always among the best in the business, of course, and here she employs an uncharacteristically bright and lively palette that further cements the feeling of fun and light-hearted (though hardly insubstantial for all that) adventure established by the line art while eschewing the temptation to fall completely over into the whimsical and/or farcical. The end result is that rarest of rarities these days : a single-issue “floppy” that both reads and looks like it was intentionally designed to be experienced as such, rather than simply as the first chapter of an inevitable trade paperback collection — and this, friends, is something that I dig very much, because the monthly (or thereabouts) single is still where my heart as a comics reader lies.

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On the subject of monthly singles, though, I don’t think it’s any secret that I was less than enthusiastic about yet another “Marvel Now!” relaunch back when it was originally announced — even if its arrival meant that Civil War II was, mercifully, over with — but I have to say that on the whole I’ve been more than pleasantly surprised by what’s come out of it, particularly as far as our two favorite bow-slingers are concerned. Any gripes I have about the new Hawkeye #1 are very small indeed (for instance, while I love Julian Totino Tedesco’s cover, shouldn’t it say “The Adorable Archer Takes Aim — At Danger?”), and for anyone who’s been waiting for Marvel to “get it right” with the Hawkeyes again, between this book and Occupy Avengers it looks like they’ve done just that. Thompson, Romero, and Bellaire have scored a real bull’s-eye with readers on this one, and ya know what? It doesn’t hurt a bit.

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After the debacle that was The Warning, I was just about ready to throw in the towel on “micro-budget” horror available via Amazon Prime’s streaming service (until the itch demanded to be scratched again a few months down the road, of course) , but as Al Pacino once famously said : “Just when I thought I was out — they pull me back in.” And the flick that pulled me back in? Writer/director Steve Hudgins’ 2012 Madisonville, Kentucky-filmed effort — made for the princely sum of $10,000 — Spirit Stalkers.

On paper, of course, there’s nothing here that sounds like it should be better (or worse, I suppose) than anything else : the cast and crew of our titular ghost-hunting paranormal “reality” show need a big ratings boost to avoid cancellation, and they think they’ve “found a winner,” so to speak, with the story of Gloria Talman (played by Hudgins’ producer partner P.J. Woodside), who’s got an eye toward turning an old home she’s purchased into a bed and breakfast — but first she’s gotta take care of this little ghost problem that’s plaguing the joynt. Nothing we haven’t seen any number of times before, right?

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The smart thing about Spirit Stalkers is that they know their only chance to stand out from the pack is to get the little things right : the crew, led by Hudgins himself as Reuben, is smart and skeptical and won’t jump at every inexplicable noise or flickering light, thus ensuring that when scary shit over and above that does happen it’s worth being scared about; genuine twists and turns are put at the forefront while cheap “gotcha!” moments are kept to a minimum; “found footage” POV camerawork is interspersed (fairly seamlessly, I might add) with standard “point and shoot” scenes so you don’t get bored with hand-held, “shaky cam” nonsense; effectively-staged shots lend the production a genuine sense of ambiance and dread; characters are given a reasonable amount of depth and personality rather than conforming to simple one-note archetypes;  best of all, there’s an actual plot underpinning the events here, and just when you think you know what’s happening, well — rest assured, you don’t.

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Sure, you could argue that “I guess it all comes down to execution,” but there’s definitely more to it than that in this instance — Hudgins has a good eye and more ability than your average “homemade horror” filmmaker, it’s true, but there’s also a fair amount of imagination at work here, and at the end of the day something very akin to a wholly unique take on tried-and-true tropes emerges, the likes of which Hollywood has been trying (and largely failing) to find for some time. I guess if you want to do this kind of thing right, you need to go to Kentucky.

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Do you have to make some of the typical allowances for amateurism with this flick that you do with most “micro-budget” productions? Sure. The acting is competent but hardly Oscar-worthy, certain effects don’t come off as well as the filmmakers would probably like them to, a handful of wayward sounds creep in here and there, and the quality of some of the camerawork can be dodgy on occasion — but elements of obvious “cheapness” are surprisingly few and far between here. This is, by and large, a very well-executed piece of work and everyone involved, whether in front of the camera or behind it, should be — and hopefully is — justifiably proud of their efforts.

So, yeah — I guess I’m not done with “micro-budget” horror quite yet. Spirit Stalkers is far and away the best of these sorts of flicks I’ve caught on Amazon so far, and offers proof positive that some of the best would-be auteurs can be found right in our own neighborhoods. I highly encourage anyone who values imagination over spectacle to give it a shot; I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

 

 

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My recent forays into the depths of Amazon Prime’s streaming horror queue have yielded some interesting results — indeed, on the whole I’m ready to feel reasonably optimistic about so-called “micro-budget” genre filmmaking again — but then along comes something that not only confirms, but unquestionably amplifies, everything that all the nay-sayers who don’t even bother with this sort of thing assume to be true : the acting is laughably bad, the script is loaded with cringe-worthy dialogue, the plot is hopelessly redundant and unoriginal, the low-rent production values are embarrassingly amateurish, yadda yadda etc. etc. It is, therefore, my distinct displeasure to present perhaps the — errrmmm — finest example of all these frequent criticisms writ large that I have yet some across, director Dirk Hagen’s 2015 atrocity The Warning.

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Honestly, the word “bad” seems too simple — and frankly too kind — to describe what’s on offer here : ambitious TV news reporter Taylor Skye (played by Summer Moore, who also wrote the script) is looking to put together a pilot episode for her own urban legends-themed “reality” series, and to that end returns to her hometown of Manitou Springs, Colorado and enlists the aid of a couple of her old high school friends, Brad (Jeff Allen) and Angel (Tiffany Joy Williams) in order to help her debunk the persistent myths about Satanic cult activity that have swirled around the area for years. The problem, though, is that there are rumblings about mysterious happenings in the woods just outside of town that seem to indicate that these stories are more than just local gossip, and so it’s time to go investigate, right? And time to get lost. To get in fights that threaten to divide the group (not that they exactly “got along” in the first place). To hear strange noises and see strange sights off in the distance. And, finally, to learn far too late that there’s no escape and that these devil-worshipers are very real indeed.

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Even by the admittedly lower standards of “found footage” no-budgeters, this is particularly lame stuff. I’m not sure how much was spent on this production, but it couldn’t — or at least shouldn’t — have been more than a couple thousand bucks, and chances are that if you got a few of your friends together in front of your camera phone for a day or two, you’d be able to crank out something at least this good, and quite likely a damn sight better. I honestly wonder  what prompted Hagen and Moore to even make this thing, as they clearly have nothing to say and nothing new to add to the picture, nor is there anything on offer here to make prospective financiers of future projects think to themselves “these are people I’d like to shovel some money at,” so — why? The tone of the proceedings is so over the top, and the characters (particularly Skye) so unlikable that it’s obvious they’re hoping to sort of spoof the “mockumentary” genre even as they slavishly conform to all of its most basic “commandments,” but that’s pretty tough to do none of the performers are talented enough to either “play is straight” or “play it for laughs.” At the end of the day, then, I believe the term we’re looking for is pointless.

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I take no level of joy or satisfaction in thoroughly trashing a film made by folks who have, as the saying goes, “nothing but a dream,” but seriously — fuck dreams. If you don’t have some actual ability to back your big ideas up, just do yourselves — and the rest of us — a favor. If you don’t know how to make a movie, then don’t make one until you do. The Warning is literally a flick that never should have been made, and one you definitely shouldn’t watch under any circumstances.

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Upon first pass-through, you could almost be forgiven, a few pages into Providence #11, for thinking that you must have missed an issue somewhere along the way. Not just because of the massive delay between the previous installment and this current one (though that certainly didn’t help matters), but because the tone, tenor, and most crucially the tempo of everything have so clearly changed, and so quickly. Gone is the comic that spent most of its time showing our protagonist either taking long walks or having deep, philosophical conversations while all the genuine horror taking place both around and, crucially, to him escaped his notice, and in its place stands a story about a man who is fully awake, fully aware, and understandably scared to death — and when the dam of blissful denial breaks, all bets are off as surely as the brakes are on this frenetically-paced, deliberately- whiplash-inducing issue. The apocalypse is on, both personal and global, and it’s all set to the tune of You Made Me Love You, as sung by Al Jolson!

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Most of the bizarre personages (and not-quite-personages) that Robert Black has met over the course of his travels through haunted New England circa 1919 are back in the opening splash page for this issue (titled, incidentally, “The Unnamable”), but before you even have a chance to ponder too much over who Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows have both included and excluded in this massive “jam panel” (as well as why they were either left in or out), the wheels on our hapless hero’s metaphorical mental train begin to come off, and a couple of “chance” encounters with old “friends” only serve to grease the tracks that eventually lead Black to — well, you can see for yourself on the main cover, as pictured at the outset of this review. And there was a record playing the last time we visited this particular establishment, as well, way back in issue number one.

Still, while Black’s physical life may be coming to an understandable end here, a great deal of the proceedings this time out are focused on how his influence, by means of his “Commonplace Book,” (which we shan’t be getting any further excerpts from) continues in perpetuity, and a heady mix of rapid-fire vignettes show us both how a number of the “fictional” stories to which we’ve been introduced cocnclude, and how various events in the (forgive me for using the term, but) “Providence universe” mirror those of our own, “real” world. Be on the lookout, for instance, for William S. Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and, of course, H.P. Lovecraft himself (among others) in this extended epilogue that calls to mind Moore and Eddie Campbell’s “Dance Of The Gull-Catchers” appendage to From Hell, and keep http://factsprovidence.wordpress.com handy while you’re at it, as my friends there, who always do an incredible job with their annotations, have surely out-done themselves with their on-the-spot scholarship this time around. Seriously, guys, you’ve crossed the threshold from “interesting” to “invaluable” with your efforts here, and while I always do a first read cover- to- cover before consulting said site, never was I more tempted to break that rule than with this issue.

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The little details all matter more than ever here in number 11, as well, as there are no “little details.” The panels with the record playing are all straight-ruled, for instance, while most others are unevenly hand-ruled. Brown Jenkins’ car turns up again at a precisely-timed-yet-unexpected moment. The Kirlian-type effect first introduced with the arrival of Johnny Carosa re-enters the picture. And a panel displaying any number of consumer products related to the Cthulhu Mythos arrives as commentary on the commercialization of this once-dark and foreboding universe just as Moore’s script plunges us into the blackest heart of its essential truths in a more fundamental and inescapable fashion than anyone since — well, who are we kidding? Since Lovecraft himself. There are no accidents here. And that might be the scariest thing about it.

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To say that Providence #11 has it all is probably doing the concept of “all” a disservice by selling it short. This issue is heartbreaking, harrowing, insightful, crazed, meticulous, mysterious, engrossing, thought-provoking, imaginative, beautiful, desolate, darkly humorous — all in the extreme. How we get from the end of Robert Black’s life (though not his story, which is one of this series’ main themes, of course) to the modern, post-Neonomicon world is one of the most invigorating and intoxicating comics reading experiences I’ve ever had the privilege of partaking in, and while  I have some minor quibbles with it on the artistic front in terms of a small handful of choices that Burrows — who for the most part does masterful work here — makes in terms of angle and perspective in certain panels (why is Dr. West/North’s disembodied, speaking head so darn far away?), and I’m definitely less than thrilled (though, sadly, hardly surprised) by Avatar’s decision to continue charging $4.99 for this title despite the fact that the absence of the “Commonplace Book” backmatter reduces the page count from 40 to a standard 32 this time out, you know what? Griping about those details when confronted with an artistic achievement of this magnitude, scope, and dare I say it grandeur almost seems petty — and pointless. After all, who are we kidding? All is Yuggoth. All is lost.

Ain’t it just grand?