Box of Comics: After Dark #0 & The Royal Historian of Oz #1

One foolproof way to guarantee my purchase of a new comic book single is to only charge one (1) American dollar for it. (As a wise man once said, "I'd buy that for a dollar!") The first-one's-a-buck philosophy has been floating around comics for a few years now, providing a spike in sales and awareness, lessening the impact of any potential buyer's remorse. Vertigo has been at the forefront of the lone greenback game, but some other publishers have ventured into the business, as well. Let's take a look at a one dollar introduction that works, and one that does not.

After Dark #0 by Peter Milligan, Jeff Nentrup, Sara Biddle, Clayton Cowles, Renae Geerlings, and two fellows named Antoine Fuqua and Wesley Snipes, though I'm pretty sure it's not the Wesley Snipes from 30 Rock so, like, who could it be? (Radical Comics)

Has the Great Council of Bloggers, sequestered in their swamp headquarters, come up with a catchy buzzword for "the genre of comics which are blatantly illustrated movie pitches"? Because I've found another one, and it's called After Dark. The "created by" credits are attributed to Antoine Fuqua, director of Training Day, and Wesley Snipes, who may or may not know how to use the three seashells. Saddled with actually writing the darn thing, however, is Peter Milligan, often a writer of damn fine comics. Unfortunately, he must have a boat payment coming due or something, because the story here just isn't very good.

This paragraph would normally be the place where I briefly recap what the premise of the story is, and critique how Milligan goes about presenting said premise to the reader. As it stands, however, I have no idea what this comic is about, despite having read 17 pages of it. It appears to take place in a dystopian future, where it's dark during the day, and night is... worse? There's a Snake Plissken/Riddick sort of badass who gets captured and charged with a mission to rescue a lovely lady savior who might be dead, accompanied by a crusty cop who takes drugs to turn off his amygdala. With that last guy, I can see Milligan peeking out of the dark clouds, but otherwise, the story is made up of so many unoriginal parts, it has to be a movie pitch, right? The art, by Jeff Nentrup (with "Additional Art" by Sara Biddle, whatever that means) is as murky as the plot, as dark as the world in which the story takes place. Everything appears overly rendered, as if it was digitally painted by a sentient Photoshop. There's not much dynamism to the book's appearance.

This comic also comes with an eight-page preview of Steve Pugh's next Hotwire series, which looks crazy and weird and stunningly beautiful. It shares a painterly art style with After Dark, but differs in approach. There's an ethereal look to the coloring, giving a ghostly glow to the proceedings-- which is fitting, as the star is a detective exorcist. The layouts are strong, the characters are marvelously expressive, and the hobo ghost of Alan Moore kills a guy with a pipe wrench (this is my reading of it, anyway). Looks like a lot of fun, so yeah, buy it when it comes out (which is sometime this month).

I want to like Radical's stuff, and it looks like they have at least one comic (Hotwire) worth purchasing. Periodic samplers such as this one would entice me further into what they publish. Judging purely from this one, though-- well, you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both and there you have...

The Royal Historian of Oz #1 by Tommy Kovac and Andy Hirsch (SLG)

Kovac and Hirch's new Oz comic, on the other hand, does exactly what these one-dollar-number-ones (or $1#1s, for short) should be doing. I would never have noticed or purchased this comic were it not for the low, low introductory price, but I'm definitely glad I gave it a shot, because it's great. Three cheers for a lack of expectations!

From this CBR interview, Kovac comes off as a diehard Oz fan-- or scholar-- but thankfully, this comic doesn't come off as a nostalgic, rose-colored love-in. Kovac's story takes us several decades into the future. It's a realistic future, where things are pretty similar to today, only slightly crappier (though the cars run on electricity, as seen in one neat panel detail). Our protagonist is teenaged Frank Frizzle, whose father is a failed writer, pumping out perpetually-rejected Oz manuscripts, desperate to bring optimism back to the world-- something his cynical son is sick of, as they're broke. When Frizzle the elder finds the silver slippers, however (those of you who have read the book know ruby slippers are for chumps), everything changes.

What's this story about? Like a lot of stories these days, it's about stories, and ideas. In this case, it's about a particular story world-- Oz. Jasper (the father) is desperate to rekindle the world's love for Oz, and become the titular "Royal Historian"-- the one who chronicles Oz as if it were a real place. This being fiction, of course it's a real place. What Jasper really needs to find is redemption, as a father. His son, Frank, resentful of Oz but destined to be caught up in it, and both ashamed yet defensive of his father, has to be the one to see Jasper's dream through. So in one way, it seems the story's setting itself up to be about bringing these good ideas back to the world, and saving us from our cynicism. But on the other hand, it could be about letting go; Jasper's always sought out escapism in the land of Oz, and is simply doing so literally now. His son wants him to let go of Oz, and come up with some original ideas for a change. Does the story hinge on Frank "finding" Oz, or Jasper letting go of it? I guess I'll have to keep reading. So far, though, this definitely isn't "just" another Oz story, and I'm quite glad of that.

Kovac does excellent work with the characters, persuading the reader to care about them within a few pages. Frank is conflicted, protecting his father from creditors and copyright holders, but also argumentative, trying to tether his father to reality. Jasper knows himself only as a writer, but is unsure of his capacity for original ideas, and beginning to fear he has no talent at all. To him, Oz is an ideal to live up to; to his son, it's an inherited burden.

Andy Hirsch's art brings the whole thing to life, though, so let's not forget him. There's some excellent cartooning in this issue, with a tremendous level of detail, and an infinite depth of field in every panel. His characters are distinctive, "cartoony" yet believable (for those of you deathly afraid of "cartoony" art), and his command of body language and facial expressions are excellent. Look at the sad sack, slumped over Jasper in the early scenes, and compare that to the more confident, Doctor-Who-y Jasper in the closing scenes. The glimpse we get of the familiar Oz characters is a beautiful illustration. The best allusion I can make about this artwork is that it's what a Pixar movie would look like if they used hand-drawn animation.

The Royal Historian of Oz was a great little find, and I definitely recommend it.

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