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Anthologies should be good!

by  in Comic News Comment
Anthologies should be good!

It’s always fun to check out anthologies.  The danger, of course, is whether every story will be good enough to justify the cover price.  What’s a consumer to do?

Our first selection is Popgun (volume 1), a hefty anthology from Image that will set you back 30 bucks.  But it’s 446 pages long!  As the guy at the store said when I bought it, “It’s five pounds of awesome.”  It’s not exactly five pounds, but it is quite awesome.


It’s tough to really talk much about anthologies, especially one like this, which is filled with stories by different creators (our next book is written by one person, and the third shares a theme).  You can get very good stories and not very good stories, and the question is whether the good outweighs the bad, and if the good is good enough to make it worth the coinage you will drop on it.  There are a bunch of stories in this book that don’t really work, but even some of the ones that don’t quite work are still interesting.  In anthologies, some ideas that would not work as longer stories can be very good 4- or 8- or even 12-page stories, and that’s what we get in this book, which makes for some fun reading.


                                       (Art by Carlos Lerma.)

The collection of talent in this book is absolutely staggering, and there’s really something for everyone.  If you like different art styles, you can go from the whimsical yet troubling style of Carlos Lerma on the first story in the volume, “Your Hand In Mine,” a beautiful and nearly wordless story about a fantasy world that isn’t what it seems, to a Mike Allred Frank Einstein story from 1990 (which begs the question of how many of these stories are new, or at least relatively so); from the Kristian Donaldson-influenced art of Corey Lewis in “PINAPL,” a crazy kung fu fight, to the Gene Ha-influenced art of Milton Sobreiro in “Remnants,” a creepy sci-fi tale; from one manga style by Chamakoso in “Solomon Finch vs. 100 Vampire Bikini Girls” to a different manga style in “Supertron” by Sheldon Vella; from big, brash superhero stylings in “Tiger-Man in Mark of the Squid” by Marcelo di Chiara to rough woodcut stylings in “A Head Among Skulls” by Kris Anka; from creepy photo-realism by Matt Timson in “Old Habits Die Hard,” a nice detective story, to “Triple Scoop,” a manic monster story with child-like (in a good way) art by Graham Corcoran.  The art styles don’t clash; they blend nicely.  You can never be sure what you’re going to get, but for the most part, they are good-looking stories and occasionally nicely inventive.


                                         (Art by Corey Lewis.)

The stories often fall into tweaking cliches, and it’s why I don’t love the book as much as I’d like to or as much as the art deserves.  There are only so many zombie/kung fu/vampire/alien/robot/ghost/superhero stories you can take, and there are many permutations of those sorts of stories in this collection.  The creators usually try to find interesting spins on the themes, but there’s only so much you can do before it becomes repetitive.  The best stories in the volume are those that don’t fit into those molds.  “Your Hand In Mine,” the first story, features Lerma’s fanciful art, but is also sweet and tragic at the same time.  My favorite story is the second one in the volume.  Titled “Me & the Cat Own the Lease on the Flat” (and I’ll ignore the poor grammar in that title) and created by Jamie S. Rich and Joëlle Jones, it’s the bittersweet story of the aftermath of a relationship’s end and how people move on.  It’s a beautiful little tale.  “The New Brighton Archeological Society” (and let’s skip the spelling errors as well!) shows up in three short stories by Mark Andrew Smith and Matthew Weldon, and features four children of the world’s greatest explorers who get up to all sorts of goofy adventures.  It would make a charming all-ages comic.  Jim Mahfood‘s contribution, “She’s Out of Reach,” is a nifty little love story with a twist, and although I’m not a huge fan of Mahfood’s writing (all the tics of which are on display in this story, including his weird obsession with pop culture), in short bursts it’s fine, and the art is excellent.  “Palamon’s Conundrum,” by Benito J. Cereno III and Nate Bellegarde, is one of those ghost stories, but it’s a grand love story too, and works well.  There’s a disturbing story called “The Fall of Geometry” by Coleman Engle (and take that title literally) that is drawn like a kid’s story but is much darker than that, and a weird Western story called “They Shoot Ponies, Don’t They?” by Mark Sable and Rob Guillory that will change your outlook on little people.  Erik Larsen contributes a tale called “Cheeseburger-Head,” which is exactly what it sounds like and is surreally funny.  Brian Churilla and Jeremy Shepherd’s “Egg-Centric,” which features the Engineer, who’s now in a mini-series from Archaia Studios Press, shows up in a weird short story that shows how the character has evolved, even in a brief time, as he’s much more of a dick in this book than he is in the mini-series.  There are a lot of contributions by more famous creators, as well: the aforementioned Allred, Mahfood, and Larsen, as well as a very funny Mexican wrestler story by Andy Kuhn, a weird “cycle of nature” story by Jonathan Hickman, a horror story by Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix, a story about a jazz artist by Moritat, and a story about the power of myth by Richard Starkings.  Phew!


                                          (Art by Erik Larsen.)

Obviously, there’s a ton of cool stuff here.  I can’t really explain about each story very well, but it’s good value for your money.  It’s the kind of thing that’s great to read, because it exposes you to so many creators who bring such nice energy to their work and who you might not have known about.  Even if all the stories don’t work perfectly, the fun of reading the entire collection helps balance that out.  So here’s some more examples of the art from the stories:


                                         (Art by Joëlle Jones.)


                                            (Art by Jim Mahfood.)


                                     (Art by Milton Sobreiro.)


                                          (Art by Andy Kuhn.)


                                               (Art by James Stokoe.)


                                     (Art by Matt Timson.)


                                 (Art by Graham Corcoran.)


                                      (Art by Matthew Weldon.)

It’s hard to justify spending 30 dollars on an anthology, but Popgun is a pretty darned cool collection of comics.  I didn’t mind spending the money, because it’s so chock full of coolness.  Be aware, though, that it’s a bit of a mixed bag, story-wise.

The next anthology is Of Scenes and Stories, which is written by Gary Reed.  He was nice enough to send this to me, and I’d like to thank him for it.  It’s coming out in February from Transfuzion Publishing and costs 25 dollars.  It’s a big hunk of old comics, however, that are hard to find, so it might be for you.


As the title suggests, some of the selections in this book are not complete stories, as Reed picks some “scenes” from longer stories that he thinks give a good idea of the whole.  Reed, who was the publisher of Caliber Comics back in the Nineties, is also a rather prolific writer, and so he has a lot to choose from.  Plus, a lot of good artists cut their teeth with Caliber, so this book has stories illustrated by Guy Davis, Michael Gaydos, Michael Lark,  Vince Locke, Patrick Zircher, and Mike Perkins.  Part of the charm of the book is checking out early work by these artists.  Reed also introduces each scene/story with some nice background about it, including letting us know what happened to the artists after they drew these selections.  Reed throws in some illustrated prose as well, and the book is a very nice package for your ducats.


                                           (Art by Guy Davis.)

The stories, as always in an anthology, run a gamut of quality.  Reed obviously has some favorite themes, including examining horror ideas from different angles and historical fiction, and they come through in this book.  “For a Poet Dying Young” is a nice short story with art by Galen Showman about the aftermath of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s death and whether it’s a good idea to be so passionate about your art.  The story of “Cortez” is rather dry, as Reed just narrates the course of the Spanish conquest of Aztec Mexico, but Mitch Waxman‘s lush pencils make it visually stunning.  Michael Lark’s story, “Murder of the Mad Monk,” is a wonderfully rendered horror story about Rasputin and the ghosts of Tsarist Russia.  One of the “scenes” in the book is “No-Man’s Land,” which is about trench warfare in World War I.  Charles Yates gives the art a gritty look that fits well with the story.  Another “scene” is “Troy,” which is the opening scenes of Reed’s Trojan War epic (which precedes Age of Bronze).  Philip Xavier has a very nice Kevin Nowlan look to his pencils.  The horror stories in the book include “Inferno,” which is about a journey through Hell and therefore looks very hellish (not surprisingly) with Michael Gaydos’ pencils, and “Orlak,” the story of a man with steel hands who kills when he blacks out and is darkly illustrated by David Hill.  There’s an excerpt from the graphic novel Renfield, which is about the man who prepared the way for Dracula (it’s a pretty good comic, too, nicely drawn by Galen Showman) and a sweet love story about Frankenstein’s monster after he is left in the Arctic (yes, a sweet love story).


                                         (Art by Philip Xavier.)

Three of Reed’s more long-running series, Deadworld, Baker Street, and St. Germaine, are also spotlighted with selections.  It’s neat to see early Guy Davis art on the latter, and the various selections from the former give us an intriguing look at a world populated by zombies, with humans existing precariously side-by-side with them.  Deadworld is still being published, so this acts as a bit of an advertisement for the series.  St. Germaine, which is about an immortal, concludes the volume with a few nice tales, one about the Russian Revolution, one about the Salem witch trials, and a third, which is a very nice story about death and memory.


                                           (Art by Vince Locke.)

The “mundane” stories, that is, the ones that strip out the “genre” aspects and focus instead on the realistic characters, also work well.  The first story in the volume, “True Love,” is, on the surface, a typical “john-falls-for-the-hooker” story, but a nice twist at the end reveals that it’s something far more insidious.  “The Caretakers” is about garbageman and the nobility of that profession, and it’s a bit preachy, but handled well.  “Ghost Sonata” is a liberal adaptation of the August Strindberg play, brought into the modern world, and is a beautiful and tragic tale about living with the past always looking over your shoulder.


                                     (Art by Mark Bloodworth.)

It’s a cool book to look at because of all the good artists working on it, and Reed shows a very good flair for coming up with excellent plots and interesting takes on well-worn genres.  The biggest problem with the book is that Reed isn’t the greatest scripter.  Like Keith Giffen and Steve Niles (to name two), he is a very good plotter, but when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of writing dialogue and narration, he falls short too often.  His narration is often grandiloquent to the point of pretension, and he can’t pull it off.  His dialogue is better, and works fine in the mouth of a pompous character like Sherlock Holmes (in the pastiche “Amazing Mr. Holmes”) but doesn’t always fit when someone else is saying the words.  His characters often speak like they’re giving a lecture, whether it’s on the simple joy of manual labor (“The Caretakers”) or the evils of Hell (“Sinergy,” about a man’s journey through the netherworld).  In small doses, it’s not bad, but when it’s all here in one big volume, it becomes much more obvious.  It makes the stories a bit less enjoyable, because we’re far too aware of the writer’s presence.


                                         (Art by Michael Lark.)

Despite that, Of Scenes and Stories is a very interesting book with a lot of stuff that you just don’t see in regular comics.  Reed has a lot of excellent ideas, and it would be nice to see more creators tackle a wide variety of genres and themes instead of pigeon-holing themselves.  Reed might not be the greatest writer, but he does try a lot more things than most creators, and it’s that willingness to explore other kinds of fiction that makes this a very cool collection.  If you’re interested in it, remember that it’s coming out in February and can probably still be ordered through Previews (not that I would advocate using Previews, because it’s evil, but it’s still a good way to get books).

Our last anthology is Munden’s Bar, a new collection of short stories by IDW that were originally featured as back-up stories in GrimJack (IDW is also reprinting that, and you should really check it out) and which costs 20 bucks.  As Mike Gold explains in his introduction, Tim Truman, the artist on GrimJack, said he couldn’t do a full-length issue (back when issues were 28 pages long) every month, so they decided to add a series of back-up stories so that Truman could keep up.  John Gaunt, GrimJack himself, owned a bar in Cynosure, the city that spins through various dimensions, so stories set in the bar starring a wide variety of characters was a no-brainer.  John Ostrander, GrimJack’s creator, wrote many of the stories, some in collaboration with Del Close, and some great artists showed up to draw the things.


As these are short stories with odd characters in a science fiction setting, they rely on twists and shock endings very often, but that’s part of the fun.  Steve Bissette‘s contribution, “D. T.,” shows what happens when an alcoholic’s hallucinations come to life and how they cope with existence after he dies.  Bissette, who can draw creepy monsters like few others, is a fantastic choice for the story.  Hilary Barta, on the other hand, is the perfect choice to draw a more whimsical story about a magician who inadvertently causes a bar brawl.  Mike Baron and Steve Rude do a story that appeared while First was trying to get Nexus from Capital Comics.  Jerry Ordway draws a weird tale that takes full advantage of Cynosure’s unusual status, as a man sees himself, albeit from another dimension, get shot in the mirror behind the bar and decides to punish “his” murderer.  Those kind of things never end well, do they?


                                     (Art by Steve Bissette.)

It’s perhaps not surprising that the two nicest-looking stories in the book are drawn by John Totleben and Brian Bolland.  Tim Truman writes the Totleben story, about an old woman who wants to be young and beautiful and visits a wizard to get it.  Unfortunately for her, the wizard has a different idea what “young and beautiful” means, but she learns this too late.  The Bolland story, “Mother’s Calling,” is very creepy and, of course, looks wonderful.  It’s so rare to see Bolland do anything other than covers, and this 8-page story reminds me why I would buy an instruction manual if he drew it.  Well, if wishes were horses …


                                     (Art by John Totleben.)


                                   (Art by Brian Bolland.)

This is a wildly fun comic book.  Like all IDW books, it’s a bit over-priced (20 dollars for 110 pages as opposed to 30 dollars for 446 with Popgun), but there aren’t really any bad stories in it, and plenty of great art to look at.  Why look – more cool art from the book:


                                     (Art by Hilary Barta.)


                                         (Art by Steve Rude.)


                                        (Art by Rick Burchett.)

So those are some anthologies you might want to check out.  I would say they’re all worth the money, not because all the stories are great, but because they all give you something out of the ordinary and a bunch of different, wonderful art.  And it’s always fun to see someone like Erik Larsen do something unusual, or Brian Bolland interior art, or Michael Lark back before he broke big on the scene.  So if you’re a short story fan, you could do a lot worse than to check these books out.

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