"POPGUN" - The Ultimate Comics Mixtape

We have long known the joys of mixtaping here at CBR News. The compiling of material specifically chosen for friends and colleagues - whether to broaden their creative palettes, enhance an existing collection of a favorite artist, or just for the purposes of rocking out - is both a communal and communicative act, and one that's expanded beyond music and into the mediums of film, television, photography, podcasts, and now, comic books.

Certainly, comics anthologies have existed for nearly one hundred years, but rarely has one been assembled with the ethos of the mixtape so pronounced as "PopGun" vol. 1, the latest anthology from Image Comics. Featuring new and rare work from creators as diverse as Mike Allred, Erik Larsen, Andy Kuhn, Corey Lewis, Dave Crosland, Jonathan Hickman, Jim Mahfood, Danny Hellman, Derek McCulloch and many, many more, "PopGun" is designed to be the ultimate comics mixtape.

"'PopGun' is a very conscious and methodical effort to help elevate comics out of the niche it inhabits and take its rightful place in mainstream pop culture," co-editor Joe Keatinge told CBR News. "Sound a little over ambitious? Yeah, definitely, but I really think comics could do better. It deserves to. The creators in 'PopGun' produce work I believe the world at large actually wants to see, even if they don't know it. Our hope is this gives them the necessary exposure."

Indeed, while a must-have collection for the comics faithful, "PopGun" is also a zealous primer to the comics industry - both indie and mainstream - for people who've never before set foot in a comics store. "It's the best of comics, pop art and music mashed up under one perfect bound cover," Keatinge said. "The goal is for it to not only hit the comic store shelves, but it should be sitting inside specialty shops along side vinyl records, art prints, and the like."

Added co-editor Mark Smith, "'PopGun' is creators doing their own thing, and doing it very well. This makes going from one story to the next all the more interesting, because you really don't know what's coming up next. The works inside are so diversified and staggering."

One contribution sure to entice fans new and old is that of Mike Allred, who besides creating "PopGun's" distinctive and eye-catching cover is reprinting in the book his first ever Frank Einstein (aka Madman) tale. "I was flattered to be asked to do the cover given the amazing group of talent involved, as well as contributing my first Frank Einstein story," Mike Allred told CBR News. "I was inspired by the project and humbly feel it's one of my ten best covers ever."

The first appearance of Frank Einstein, titled "On the Record," was originally published in 1990, in the black and white "Creatures of the Id," and appears in "PopGun" in full color. "My lovely wife Laura provides her usual above-and-beyond coloring skills to both contributions," said Allred, whose story is inked by Bernie Mireault, known for his "The Jam" and contributions to Matt Wagner's "Grendel." "[Bernie's] one of the most underrated cartoonists ever; a true original and cult hero among many of his peers.  His 'Jam Urban Adventure Color-Injected Turbo Adventure From Hell' one-shot remains one of my all-time favorite and highly influential comics ever.  Someone should reprint it.  A lost classic."

The sentiment of Allred's remarks and the resurrection of his first ever Frank Einstein story are indicative of the "PopGun" mixtape-style philosophy. "There are big-name creators doing material they're not known for, new creators the world needs to hear about and rare tracks that may have gone otherwise forgotten," Keatinge said. "People who are into comics will read 'tracks' by big name creators the likes they've never seen from before, rare 'tracks' previously forgotten about, and new artists they've never heard of, but will be dying for more from."

One such creator is Corey Lewis, known to some for his work on Oni Press' "Sharknife." For "PopGun," Lewis contributed "PINAPL," a prelude to his upcoming Image series of the same name. "'PINAPL' is a comic story about a katana rock-star protecting an ambiguous fruit," Lewis told CBR News. "It's set in a neo-reality future-fantasy world where people become famous through bloody battles, get sponsored by hi-standard gangs and get free shoes for their sword-slinging abilities."

"The book consists of people Mark and I feel the mainstream would want to read, if given the opportunity," said Keatinge of "PopGun's" talent selection process.

"I really wanted a group of folks that were ripping it up in comics," Mark Smith added, "making lots of noise with their work, and putting great work into everything they did who made comics with passion. For me comics are about states of energy. 'PopGun' deviates a lot from the boring anthology format and it's more about a pulse, but also a comic book mixtape with no theme, template, or preset formula or style to it."

In the weird, experimental B-side category of the mixtape, Image Comics co-founder and "Savage Dragon" creator (and CBR columnist!) Erik Larsen debuts in "PopGun" his "Cheeseburgerhead," an all-new creation that Keatinge compares to something one might see in Daniel Clowes' "Eightball" rather than Larsen's previous material.

"Nick Derington turned in a beautiful story entitled 'Manhunt' I am dying for the world to see," said Keatinge. "There is also a lot of undiscovered talent in there such as Marley Zarcone, Coleman Engle, and Sheldon Vella," who contributes the outlandish "Supertron."

"'Supertron,'" Vella told CBR News, "is the tale of big mega-muscle robots, capable of wide scale death and destruction in a story that deals with the two most terrifying threats of a middle-class suburban childhood: getting your new clothes dirty, and getting busted for swearing. In your younger days, if you ever scrapped at the local playground, rolled with your very own 'gang,' or got a strict 5:30 pm curfew, then this story should give you a nice dose of nostalgia."

"I wanted to do an anthology that placed entertainment on the frontlines," said co-editor Mark Smith of "PopGun's" wildly eclectic content. "Something that really was more mainstream and with something for everyone. I wanted to do something that takes risks."

Indeed, Smith sees "PopGun" as wholly unique in an expansive anthology landscape that includes such titles as Villard/Random House's "Flight" series; Marvel Comics' "Marvel Comics Presents"; MySpace and Dark Horse's "MySpace Dark Horse Presents"; Image Comics' own "24Seven" series, and countless numbers of assorted small press anthologies.

"I think '24Seven' is one of the best anthologies to come out over the last several years," Smith said. "I'm in the first one. It's a great book. There's no point in emulating what [editor] Ivan [Brandon] and company are doing there. Our approach and content are entirely different. With anything if you try to emulate, you come up short of the thing that you are trying to emulate. But if your drive is inspiration and passion in your work and creation, then you come up with something very original and more reaching.

"A lot of other anthologies play everything boringly safe with underwhelming stories and they don't take many risks at all," continued Smith. "The art is good and it is eye candy but that's about it. With some other anthologies, it's like, 'Let's make something so safe, abstract, and repetitive that no one dare criticize it.'

"A lot of anthologies have fallen into too much of a formula. 'PopGun' is more fight and more of a rebuttal piece to what other anthologies are doing.  Instead of wistful melancholic stories about hopes and dreams of talking squirrels, 'PopGun' is more a big block paper full of broken noses and cracked ribs, flash and thunder, spite and revenge. It would act as the antithesis to what other anthologies are doing."

Smith and Keatinge are putting their money where their mouths are, contributing a combined total of ten pieces to "PopGun," including Keatinge and Van Nuñez's "Motorcycle Boy Kills Danger" and Keatinge's personal favorite, Mark Smith & Johann "Ullcer" Leroux's "Rex Onazuka: The Japanese Wasp," which you can read for free in its entirety right here on CBR.

Two names with which many comics readers are already familiar are John Reppion and Leah Moore , writers of Dynamite Entertainment's "Raise the Dead" and Wildstorm's "Albion." For "PopGun," the husband-and-wife team worked with artist Matt Timson to debut their new creation, Deadeye, in a story called "Old Habits Die Hard."

"Our story serves as the long overdue introduction of one Scott Struldbrug; a private eye working in the city of Los Muertes in a parallel 2007," John Reppion told CBR News. "Something happened back in 1958 that changed everything, but life goes on. Well, sort of. Anyway, nuns, guns, mobsters, martinis; our little tale has it all and we hope everyone digs it 'cause we've got plenty more Deadeye adventures up our sleeves.

"We've been devolving the Deadeye universe with Matt Timson for a couple of years now in secret," Reppion explained. "Matt has really brought his own slant to the project and helped us develop things in a slightly different way. I think people are really going to be blown away by his artwork and hopefully they'll be begging to see more. We were also lucky enough to have the great Thomas Mauer helping us out with the lettering on the strip. What's not to love?"

"The best stories are built from conflict," declared Mark Smith. "At the core of any good yarn is the battle of wills." Servicing this outlook in a singularly entertaining way is artist Jamie Roberts, aka Jamwah, who with writer Stephen Reedy created for "PopGun" a story called "Doxy Proxy."

"Jesus and the Anti-Christ team up as a crime fighting super duo to fight hypocritically violent pro-life extremist!" Reedy told CBR News. "We wanted to make a story that met the action/fun quota of simple entertainment - Guns! Violence! Giant monsters! - while using the contrast of crazy situations to serve as both meaningful shock value and ridiculous substance. 

"The art for a lighthearted religious satire involving such heavy subject matter, ranging from a woman's right to chose to an angry Buddha, must be very specific," Reedy continued. "After a few frustrating months of searching, Jamie was found deep in the abysmal network of strangers' MySpace pages. His style was perfect, totally new and was done in record time. I do not see how the experience could have been more efficient and rewarding."

"Our contribution is an epic, action religious satire," Jamwah said. "Jesus and the Antichrist busting heads as a crime-fighting duo is something that I personally have wanted to read for some time. You're going to see martial arts, miracles and killer whales."

Stephen Reedy contacted Jamwah through MySpace with the simple proposal: 32 pages in two months. "It became 36 pages, but that's by the by," said Jamwah. "I read the script and just sketched character designs like a crazy person. The script is very easy to visualize, and very funny. Stephen has been enthusiastic from the word go, and it's really infectious. Also, he sent me an air freshener for my car, which is now the best part of my car."

Known to many for their Eisner and Eagle-nominated and Glyph-winning graphic novel "Stagger Lee," Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix contribute to "PopGun" the touching but chilling tale of "Jenny Greenteeth." "It's based on a horrific old wives tale from England that my grandmother scared the hell out of me with when I was a child," said writer Derek McCulloch. "I welcome this opportunity to pass on an irrational fear of seaweed to a whole new generation."

Newcomer artist Kevin Myers debuts his first published work in "PopGun," in a story written by Michael Woods called "Rocket Racers." Said Woods, "On the surface, 'Rocket Racers' is a story set in an alternate 1960s where people race professionally with rocket packs. But, really it's about a man having to choose between the woman he loves and the thing he is passionate about most. 

"Kevin Myers is an absolute joy to work with. He brought my script to life in a way I wasn't expecting. This is our first collaboration and hopefully not our last."

Other "PopGun" contributors new to the comics scene also include Joe Suitor , who turned in the striking "The Goblin Sisters." In true mixtape fashion, Suitor's piece is but one element of a larger whole spread out across multiple formats and records – or in this case, comic books. "The story is sort of a 'deleted scene' from a graphic novel I'm working on for Ape Entertatinment called 'Monoluminant,'" Suitor told CBR News. "There will be another 'single' in the fantasy anthology 'Fablewood,' also coming from Ape in January."

Another new and unconventional talent is Galvo , author of the "PopGun" contribution "Amo Jamon." "The story came about shortly after I found out that someone I look up to highly, Brand Graham, had come down with a touch of cancer," Galvo told CBR News. "The way he took and ran with it, as if it wasn't there inspired me so much to do the best I can with comics. The story itself isn't anything like how Graham dealt with it, and the twisted end probably came from me being hungry at work."

Writer D.J. Kirkbride turns in "Soulless, Man Without a Soul," which he describes as "the story of Jimmy Soulless, a corporate hitman with a distractingly appropriate last name. He's no good at filing his reports or making the morning coffee in the office kitchen, but he can kill anyone management asks him to without fuss."

"PopGun" co-editor Mark Smith discovered Kirkbride's collaborator, artist Anjin Anhut, in the comics internet community. "He sent me a link to Anjin's site and said, 'I'm thinking about this guy for Soulless," explained Kirkbride. "I said, 'Holy crap! He's awesome!' Anjin came up with a really unique look for the story and drew it (and colored it and lettered it) like a champ . He's my new hero."

Fans of "Invincible" may remember the world-wandering, demon-whupping, spirit exorcising Benadante, Hector Plasm, whose "Invincible" back-up stories were recently reprinted in Image's "Hector Plasm: De Mortui." Creators Benito Cereno, Jacob Baake and Nate Bellegarde return in "PopGun" with the new short story, "Hector Plasm in Palmon's Conundrum."

"This makes 'PopGun' the only place to get a new Hector yarn this year," said artist Nate Bellegarde. "So if you enjoyed last year's 'De Mortuis,' you better check the hell out of this joint. Especially since I draw a lot less like a blind manatee now. Spoiler! This story has maybe some ghosts in it!"

Of his "Hector Plasma" collaborators, Bellegarde remarked, "Benito Cereno, Jacob Baake and I (Hector Team Tri-ector as we're more widely known [in my make-believes]) are like three gloves with the ability to execute ever so slight changes in size so that at any given moment we may seamlessly fit together in any of the six possible arrangements. In short, working with these two gentlemen is a living Hell the sorts of which I would never dare to wish upon my worst enemy."

Those creators we've spoken to are just a handful of "PopGun's" total contributor count, which is all but incalculable and includes dozens of big names, smaller names, and brand new names in all areas of the craft, from writing and drawing to lettering and coloring. "I know a lot of people and I started to invite a lot of my favorite folks that I knew, that were doing incredible work, and 'PopGun' started to grow and grow and become more and more epic," explained co-editor Mark Smith. "I invited Joe [Keatinge] in to do a story and to get his advice about the book and he had some great ideas, so I brought him in to help me manage everything and be an editor on the book. From there it just grew and grew into a beast -- a very sexy beast, mind you."

Obviously, "PopGun" vol. 1 comes with an auspicious "vol. 1" on the cover, and co-editors Keatinge and Smith do indeed have plans for subsequent mixtapes. "Mark and I would love to do one a year for the foreseeable future," Keatinge said. "Given the nature of the project there's no reason it should end."

"Yeah, I'd really love it if I croaked and 'PopGun' outlived me," agreed Smith. We've set a really high bar with this first one, so now it comes down to seeing how we can outdo ourselves for this next one. It's a little bit daunting.

"I really love comics that have a pulse and I think many of my favorite comics have a state of raw energy to them," Smith continued. "Inspiration is and was found everywhere. But mostly, it was the idea of, let's get all the best folks and contemporaries, whose work we love and enjoy, put them together in a room and see what happens."

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