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Friday, November 14, 2014

Opinion: The legend of Old Zeekle

Posted by on Fri, Nov 14, 2014 at 10:58 AM

Brockton McKinney
  • Brockton McKinney
NC Comicon
Durham Convention Center
Saturday, Nov. 15–Sunday, Nov. 16

I’m sitting at a table in a hotel ballroom at an undisclosed location on the East Coast.

To my left, a Stormtrooper with a boom box that’s been playing the X-Files theme on a loop for the past two hours has decided to dance in front of his table. He appears to be doing the Electric Slide.

To my right, a vampire clown is attempting to bum a cigarette from the now-adult actor that played the little kid in the Child’s Play films. This is not a dream. This is life on the comic convention circuit. This is my life: Con Life.

I’ve been on the comics scene for a decade, but I still consider myself a newbie. As one of the smallest fish in a massively talented pond, I’m one of the thousands of folks trying to make a career writing comic books now. By the end of this year, I will have been a guest at 26 comic book-related events or conventions. Last year, it was more than 30.

My childhood pal and constant table-mate, Bo Fader, is an amazing artist, and he and I rarely turn down an invitation to any show. We have books to promote, people to meet, flesh to press and miles to travel. It can be a grind but … I love it. And it produces some amazing road stories.

The scene above is from our “Year One”—our origin story, if you will. Let’s return to that moment. It’s probably the third show we’ve ever done, and even so, I can tell that it’s not going very well. It’s a three-day event and we’re only halfway through the first afternoon, but I’m already scared.

Bo saw a toy from the movie Alien that he wants to buy, but so far, that’s been the high point. We’ve been sitting at the table for hours and not one person has come by. Worrisome, especially when the owner of the convention walks up with a look that reads as very sad, or perhaps very constipated. I ask how it’s going.

“Not good, boys,” he says gravely. “Should be more people. My head hurts. I could just kill myself.”

Although I feel that it’s probably unprofessional of him to be scaring me like this, I pipe up and beg him to please not kill himself. I say that the show will most likely get better, right? He just mumbles something and walks off. As the Stormtrooper begins Electric Sliding to the X-Files theme, Bo says, “This might be a bust. I’m gonna go ahead and buy that Alien before we bail.”

But Bo decides not to purchase a toy he can't afford, and we focus instead on drawing some new pieces to sell. I’ve got my head down, scribbling something, and when I look up, an older gentleman has sauntered over to the table. He begins to peruse our display of the comics we write and draw, especially the zombie drawings—famous cartoon characters we’ve redrawn as the undead. This nice fellow seems intrigued.

“You turn people into zombies?” he asks.

“Well, mostly cartoon characters, but yeah, we can zombify anyone!” Bo says. He is jubilant. This might be our first sale of the day.

“You should do Old Zeekle,” the man says, smiling back.

I do not know who Old Zeekle is. I look at Bo. He does not know who Old Zeekle is. “Oh … um … who?” I smile weakly. We are going to lose this sale.

The man says nothing and continues to look through the zombie book. I shoot a glance at Bo. Can the man not hear me? Bo looks confused as well, but he is relentless, and asks: “Who is Old Zeekle?”

The man looks up slowly, but does not acknowledge the question. He stares at both of us and we uncomfortably stare back.

“Eh,” he grunts and walks away.

We’re both smiling now. That was weird, and if we weren’t going to make a sale, at least we had something funny to cheer us up.

“Who the hell is Old Zeekle?!” Bo chokes out between laughs. And of course, the older gentleman hears him.

Ah, come on. He’s like five tables down the row and now he can hear us?

“$%&# YOU!” he shouts, extending the boniest middle finger I have ever seen. I’m not joking. It’s like his gnarled hand was made for the sole purpose of giving the greatest middle finger the world has ever known, and we are lucky enough to be the recipients.

It freaks us out and we shut up. We weren’t making fun of the guy; we’d just had a crappy day and were genuinely cheered by the exchange. But life is too short to dwell. It was lunchtime, and my stomach was growling like Chucky from Child’s Play. If we could at least get some hotel chow, it would be the only win of the day.

Bo grabbed what little money we had and went off to find the arena concession stand in search of filthy corndogs. When he came back sans corndogs, he had a horrible look on his face.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. I was cranky and my stomach demanded filthy corndogs. “Where’s the food?”

“Come on,” Bo said gravely. “You gotta see this.”

I followed him to middle of the convention center, which wasn’t visible from our table, and tried to discern what he was on about.

“Look.” Bo pointed to a giant banner hanging on the far wall.

It was a massive, majestic portrait of a man in repose—of the older gentleman. It said he was “Guest of Honor.” It said he was a “Ghost Hunter.”

It said his name was “Ron Zeekle.”

“Ah, #$#%,” I said. How were we supposed to know he wanted us to draw him?

We sat back at our table after obtaining the corndogs, which were, in fact, quite filthy. It wasn’t long before the owner of the show dropped back by to have words with us. He looked suicidal as usual, and he begged us not to curse at the guest of honor anymore.

We could have fought it, arguing that it was actually Old Zeekle who cursed at us; that his crypt-keeping finger had shown us great malice. But we stayed quiet. We realized we’d kinda been dicks and had learned a valuable lesson. That happened a lot at first, and we eventually recorded such lessons in our “Con Rulebook.” Over the years, we’ve crammed the book full.

A few selections from the Rulebook we'll be keeping in mind at NC Comicon this weekend:

—Always be respectful of everyone at the show.

—Be aware of the guests you’ll be around at the show.

—You’re lucky to be here. Act like it.

—Don’t touch anybody. I don’t give a damn how cool their costume looks.

—Always be on time. (We struggle with this one.)

—Always stay until the show’s over. Never desert your table, even when beer awaits. (We struggle with this one.)

A decade of screwing-up makes for a fairly enormous rulebook, but those will do for now. I’ve got some insane convention stories, like the time a convention manager asked us to kill a ghost. Seriously. Ask me about it at NC Comicon.

Chapel Hill’s Brockton McKinney is the writer of Ehmm Theory (Action Lab Entertainment) and Freddie Mercury: Agent of Champion (Red Stylo). He is also a contributor to the anthology Torsobear: Yarns from Toyburg. Find him on Twitter @BrocktnMckinney and learn more at Lost Story Studios.

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    A local comics writer who appears at NC Comicon this weekend shares a mortifying tale of the convention life.

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Thursday, October 2, 2014

Comics roundup: A civil rights legend, Congressman John Lewis, visits Durham in comics and real-life form

Posted by on Thu, Oct 2, 2014 at 11:00 AM

“Durham Reads Together” and The Durham Comics Project

A major public figure with an connection to comic books will be in Durham this weekend: Georgia Congressman John Lewis, the legendary Civil Rights Movement leader who is the last surviving speaker from the 1963 political rally in Washington, D.C. where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Rep. Lewis’ life and experiences have been adapted into the graphic novel trilogy March from Top Shelf Comix, which has published acclaimed works such as Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Craig Thompson’s Blankets. The first volume of March was chosen by the Durham County Library to kick off its “Durham Reads Together” program in July.

March is a lyrical, impressionistic work based on Lewis’ memories of his early years and the Civil Rights Movement. The first volume deals with his impoverished childhood and the challenges of training for the passive resistance practices favored by King and other leaders. Lewis was inspired to join the movement based on a comic book about King, which has also been reprinted by Top Shelf.

There are a whole slate of events coordinated with Lewis’ visit (the full schedule is here). On Saturday, Oct. 4, Lewis will lead a march from the Durham County Library’s main branch on Roxboro St. to the Civil Rights Mural by the Durham Arts Council building. Lewis will hold a rally at the mural with Andrew Aydin, an aide who helped adapt Lewis’ story into comics form with artist Nate Powell.

Lewis also holds a reading and discussion of March at NC Central University’s B.N. Duke Auditorium at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, followed by a dessert reception at Hill House at 7:30 p.m. Tickets to the reception are $75 and will benefit the Durham Library Foundation. On Sunday, Oct. 5 at 3:00 p.m., Lewis appears at the Hayti Heritage Center for “Durham Remembers Together,” talking about the Civil Rights Movement and the 1963 march with The State of Things host Frank Stasio.

If you can’t make it to Lewis’ events, the Durham County Library will host a discussion of March with Gail Williams, called “Visual Imagery and the Civil Rights Movement,” at noon on Friday, Oct. 10 at the Bragtown Library Family Literacy Center. And March co-author Aydin returns to Durham to talk about “Martin Luther King Jr. and the Comic Book that Changed the World” at the Southwest Regional Library on Oct. 26.

On Saturday, Oct. 11 at 3:00 p.m., the Sanford L. Warren Branch Library screens the documentary White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books by Georgia State University professor of African-American Studies Jonathan Gayles. The film explores how portrayals of African-Americans in comics are tied to the racial attitudes of their eras, from politically incorrect African-American sidekicks such as The Spirit’s Ebony White in the 1940s to the sometimes-awkward attempts at introducing black superheroes in the 1960s and 1970s to more nuanced depictions such as Milestone Media’s books for DC comics in the 1990s and beyond.

The Durham County Library has several other comic book events planned for October, including an event with illustrator Eric Knisley at the East Regional Library on Oct. 23 where he’ll show teens how to draw events from their lives as autobiographical comics, plus a session with Jared Axelrod on Oct. 24 on “Teen Costuming.”
On Friday, Oct. 24 at 7:00 p.m., the library holds an event at Cocoa Cinnamon to premiere The Durham Comics Project, a special collection of comics by local cartoonists depicting events in their everyday lives and community that has been put together over the past year. It will be followed by “ComicsFest” on Saturday, Oct. 25, which will feature a variety of guests and comics-related panels that will be announced closer to the event.

NCComicon and ComiQuest

November will also be a major comics month for Durham, with the NCComicon returning to the Durham Convention Center along with the ComiQuest Film Festival at the Carolina Theatre on Nov. 15 and 16.
As we previously reported, NCComicon faces new competition from the corporate-owned Wizard World chain of conventions, which opens a celebrity-studded event in Raleigh next March. Perhaps in an effort to step up to the challenge, NCComicon has countered by bringing in several cult celebrities as guests.

For fans of the cinema-skewering Mystery Science Theater 3000, they’ve got Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff, who previously visited Durham with the Cinematic Titanic troupe a few years ago. In an even bigger coup, they’ve gotten John Barrowman, star of the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood and costar of the CW’s Arrow. Barrowman’s presence isn’t completely surprising, as NCComicon co-owner Tommy Lee Edwards, a comic book artist, illustrated a Torchwood comic co-written by Barrowman and his sister Carole Barrowman, who also appears at the convention.

The ComiQuest film festival lineup has also been announced. Films this year include Tim Burton’s Batman from 1989, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, the anime classics Akira and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, 1980’s Flash Gordon, 1982’s Conan the Barbarian, 1999’s cult animated favorite The Iron Giant (animator Stephen Franck, who worked on the film, will be in attendance), and last and definitely least, the 1986 mutilation of Marvel Comics’ classic satirical character Howard the Duck, which has gotten renewed attention thanks to Guardians of the Galaxy.

Please, for the love of God, check out the original comic by Steve Gerber. This film does not even come close to doing it justice.

Foundation’s Edge anniversary

And finally, if you’re a comics fan looking to save a few bucks, Foundation’s Edge on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh celebrates its 27th anniversary with a sale on Oct. 4 and 5. It’s a good chance to pick up a few early Christmas gifts, or something for yourself, such as that Deathlok the Demolisher trade from Marvel that just came out. Just don’t grab them all, as certain reporters have a copy on their wish list.

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    Plus news on some unexpected guests at NCComicon

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Pull List: Southern Bastards worth keeping company with

Posted by on Wed, Aug 27, 2014 at 1:50 PM

Southern Bastards
by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour
Image Comics

The Image Comics series Southern Bastards is a tribute to the South, both its warm, sunny side and its sordid dark side. If you’re from the South, you approach such projects with wariness. They tend to ladle on the magnolias and moonshine with a heavy hand and, depending on the writer’s viewpoint, overdo the reverence or, more often, soak it in so much vitriol that it collapses in a soggy mess.

But read three pages into Southern Bastards and the fictional Craw County of rural Alabama will feel real. What transports you are the little details—the Baptist church sign with the preachy aphorism, the “Keep Alabama Beautiful” anti-littering road sign, the proud “Home of the 5-time State 4A Football Champion” boast on the Welcome to Craw County sign. The town has the frozen-in-time look of so many small communities dotting the South, with a weathered hardware store, the BBQ joint where everyone grabs lunch and the Compson Bank (yes, that’s a nod to Faulkner).

Writer Jason Aaron and artist Jason Latour know their subject. Aaron, known for work on titles such as Scalped and various Wolverine and Thor stories, was born in Jasper, Alabama, which he describes in a note at the end of the first issue as “the birthplace of the guy who played ‘Goober’ on The Andy Griffith Show and the 400-pound fighter they call Butterbean. … I was raised on Hee-Haw, the Crimson Tide, pork rinds and Jesus.” Latour, who has worked on such projects as Scalped and Django Unchained, was born and raised in Charlotte and lived in Georgia and Florida. His note says the series is for "them," the Southerners "we're afraid we might really be," the ones who make him angry "because I love the South with all I've got." 

My father was born in Jasper too. I grew up a half hour or so from Birmingham, or “the big city” as one of Craw County’s ill-fated characters calls it, surrounded by cow pastures that turned into subdivisions. So when I say that almost every page of the series’ first three issues provokes nods of recognition and rueful smiles at how well Aaron and Latour nail the small touches, it means something. It’s like a doctor giving a thumbs up to a TV medical drama or a lawyer approving of a courtroom tale. It just doesn’t happen that often.

Southern Bastards focuses on Earl Tubb. He grew up in Craw County, was a star on the beloved high school football team and fled to the war in Vietnam as soon as he could to get away from the place and his father’s shadow. His dad was sheriff, and he cleaned up the county using a big stick, becoming a statewide celebrity (the stick is even autographed by Joe Willie Namath and Bear Bryant). The last time Earl was in Craw County was about 40 years ago for his father’s funeral. But he’s back now because his uncle, who had been living in the family place, has gone into a nursing home. Earl is there to clean out the old homestead so it can be sold. He plans on being there for about three days before leaving for good.

Things have changed in Earl’s absence. Not the town: Small southern towns rarely change. Buildings age but people still go to church on Sundays and high-school football games on Friday night and discuss both experiences over a slab of ribs. What’s changed is that there seems to be a new person pulling the strings—Coach Boss. “Coach” because he’s also the coach of the Running Rebels football team. Details are still emerging, but it's clear that anything that happens in Craw County happens either at his behest or with his tacit permission. Players on his team serve as muscle, beating up folks who owe money, for example.

“Don’t take any of my starters,” he growls when issuing one order, “we’ve got two-a-days starting tomorrow.” In one panel his expression seems to be a sly nod to the legendary Bear Bryant, the Alabama football coach who’s been dead for years but who Tide fans pay homage to with houndstooth hats, houndstooth ties and houndstooth bikini tops. (For me, Coach Boss prompts thoughts of Nick Saban, particularly when he’s distracted from dealing with the problem of Earl because he’s too busy complaining about the hurry-up, no-huddle offense an opponent runs.)

Earl doesn’t want to get sucked into this mess. It’s not his fight. But circumstances pull him closer to the middle of it and he makes a choice that even he doesn’t fully understand. As he puts it at one point, “I hated my daddy so much … so much that I grew up to be just like him. Made his same damn mistakes. Maybe this … this is the only way I can make up for the both of us.”

As the big stick makes clear, the story is influenced by the old Joe Don Baker Walking Tall movies and the true story of Sheriff Buford Pusser, who carried a trusty stick while bashing heads and cleaning up a small Tennessee community. I suspect that Aaron is also familiar with the history of Alabama’s Phenix City, which was so rampant with corruption, gambling and prostitution in the 1940s and 1950s that it earned a national reputation as “Sin City, USA.”

While Aaron’s writing is spot on, Latour’s visuals are equally authentic. The looks on the faces of fans at a football game during a big play, a truck with a rebel flag plate, the pain and violence of vicious attacks, Earl’s weariness, all propel the story and keep you immersed in its world.

Issue No. 4 publishes Sept. 3 and is being touted as the end of the first story arc. Read the first three superb issues now so you can join me in anticipation of that one. At the back of the book in issues 2 and 3 have been letters from fans. A few have ended with the ubiquitous Alabama expression of “Roll Tide,” which in that part of the world is not just a cheer but a greeting and a benediction, depending on the context. I can’t say that, but I hope Aaron and Latour can appreciate this next statement for the respect and admiration it is meant to convey ... War Damn Eagle!

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    How rare: a story about the South actually feels like it's in the South

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Heroes, wizards and signings, oh my!

Posted by on Fri, Jul 11, 2014 at 11:31 AM

  • Eric Hoover and Alan Gill of Ultimate Comics/NC Comicon
  • file photo by D.L. Anderson
San Diego Comic-Con International officially opens on July 24, but for Triangle residents unable or unwilling to travel 3,000 miles to stand in line with thousands of other fans, there are a number of comic-related events coming up in the Triangle, ranging from visits from top creators to superheroes coming to “life” on stage.

One of the most surprising events comes on Saturday, July 12, when Chapel Hill Comics owner Andrew Neal says goodbye to retail with the store’s self-proclaimed “Greatest Signing of All Time,” featuring creators Jim Rugg (Street Angel, the comic book version of TV’s Adventure Time), Tom Scioli (Transformers vs. G.I. Joe, Godland), Ed Piskor (Hip-Hop Family Tree) and Chris Pitzer (publisher of AdHouse Books). The four creators specialize in doing both their own wildly experimental concepts and more “mainstream” superhero books, an analogy that’s perfect for Neal’s career as a comics retailer.

Neal started off working for the comic shop when it was the Rosemary Street bookshop Second Foundation (previously known as Foundation Bookstore, which spun off the shop Foundation’s Edge in Raleigh) in the 1990s. In 2003, he bought the shop and gradually phased out the science fiction and fantasy books to focus entirely on comics before moving the store to its current Franklin Street location in 2005, expanding the space a few years later.

With fire-engine-red walls and 1800 feet of retail space, Chapel Hill Comics earned acclaim for cultivating a diverse style of comics, illustration and storytelling. Visitors are likely to find not just current issues, but also small, self-published mini-comics, art books ranging from classic magazine illustrations to reproductions of Little Golden Books, even Japanese candy for fans of anime. Occasionally, the store has sold unique items, such as a cover for issue No. 1 of the Adventure Time comic drawn by Neal himself (a 500-copy print run ultimately sold through with some help from eBay).

Neal recently sold the store after being approached by Ryan Kulikowski, a former ESL teacher who wanted to own a comic shop. Though Neal will be staying on in an advisory capacity for a few months, similar to the transition when Quail Ridge Books & Music in Raleigh changed ownership last year, he’s made it clear that he simply wants to do something else at this point in his life.

Whatever Neal decides to do now, the changes he brought to Chapel Hill Comics as owner helped introduce Triangle residents to a wide variety of books and their creators, and Saturday’s event, which starts at 6 p.m., should help him go out in style.


While Chapel Hill Comics is bringing in a number of alternative creators to help send Neal off, over in Raleigh, there are worries that a new comic book convention could be a case of corporate comics trying to push a small business out.

Wizard World, a chain of comic book conventions spun off from the late comic book magazine Wizard, recently announced that part of its 2015 expansion will include the Raleigh Comic Con at the Raleigh Convention Center on March 13–15, with initial guests including Buffy the Vampire Slayer veteran James Marsters and Star Trek legend William Shatner, who already hit Raleigh earlier this year.

The move is controversial, as the Wizard World chain has been accused in the past of trying to push out smaller, locally-run comic book shows. In 2005, the show received an avalanche of bad press when it announced a 2006 Atlanta show that would be the same weekend as HeroesCon, a popular Charlotte show run by local shop Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find.

Comic pros that enjoyed HeroesCon protested this swipe at “the little guy,” including former store employee Matt Fraction, now a major writer at Marvel Comics. This actually worked out in HeroesCon’s favor: Dozens of A-list comic book pros, including Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitian), Bryan Hitch (The Ultimates) and others, signed on as guests in protest, with many returning in subsequent years. The Wizard World show changed its date as a result.

In the Triangle, Wizard World’s arrival has struck a similar ominous note with the people behind NC Comicon, which is run by Durham’s Ultimate Comics and has enjoyed increasing attendance and expanded venue space each year since it started at a Morrisville outlet mall in 2010. This year’s show in November is expected to be its largest yet, with announced guests including Fiona Staples of the Image Comics hit Saga.

On Facebook, Pittsboro-based comic book artist Tommy Lee Edwards, a co-owner of NC Comicon, called the Wizard World shows “The Walmart of conventions” and said they had announced a date closer to NC Comicon, which this year is November 15 and 16, before he spoke with them.

Edwards also noted that almost no comics-related guests had been announced for Wizard World, and that the cost of a three-day pass was $75—more than double the $35 for NC Comicon’s two-day show. Whether this turns into a Wizard World/HeroesCon-type battle remains to be seen, though as an Ultimate Comics employee told us, “If it does, it’d be great if we could get Warren Ellis to come to the Triangle.”


If you can’t make it to the Chapel Hill Comics event, you can always kick off the weekend by heading to the Southland Ballroom in Raleigh on Friday, July 12, for the Marvel vs. DC Comics Burlesque Revue(see this week's issue of the INDY), featuring local performers stripping down as their favorite superheroes and super-villains. The event starts at 10, and for the audience, the feeling is that no matter who wins ... you win.

Or if you’re looking for something more family-friendly, there’s the Marvel Universe LIVE! show at PNC Arena July 18–20, where the Avengers and others hit the stage with all manner of cool pyrotechnics. The cast includes a Durham native (see our full story in next week’s issue). This might be a dare for DC Comics to bring its similarly-themed “Batman Live” to the area, or at least a tour of the infamous Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark musical, with music by U2 members and a reputation for injuring stuntmen.

Fun fact: Former Marvel head honcho Jim Shooter wrote a script for a Spider-Man arena show in the 1980s that was never produced, though he’s since posted it online. Whatever the current Marvel show is, can it compete with one that ends with Doctor Doom being dragged to Hell by the Dread Dormammu, True Believers?


Even as it plans NC Comicon, Ultimate Comics has several signings coming up at its home store, including a “Doctor Who Party” on July 26, celebrating two new comics series from Titan Books based on the long, long, long-running British SF classic.

There’s also a signing by Charles Soule on August 16. Soule has become one of the most prolific superhero writers of the last few years (on top of his work as a practicing lawyer), with runs on Swamp Thing, Superman/Wonder Woman and now the high-profile, upcoming Death of Wolverine miniseries from Marvel, which promises to kill off the lucrative metal-handed mutant. We don’t think it’ll take.

For late July and early August, the Cary Barnes & Noble has multiple events, starting with “Get Pop Cultured” July 18–20, which includes a costume contest on July 19. A “DC Comics Spectacular” takes place July 23–27, starting with “Batman Day” that includes multiple exclusive Bat-books and a chance to win a Mini Bat-Signal. Not to be outdone, there’ll also be a “Marvel Comics Day” to coincide with the release of the Marvel film Guardians of the Galaxy on August 2, where kids can learn to draw superhero characters, and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles “Jr. Ninja Training Academy” event on August. 4. The celebration concludes with a “Page & Screen” event featuring books adapted into major films on August 9–10, including The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones and others.

Or if you want something a little smaller and more intimate, you can head to the long-running Raleigh Comic Show at the Crabtree Valley Hampton Inn & Suites on August 24. Held four times a year for more than two decades at various Triangle hotels, it’s a short but fun affair that attracts top retailers from surrounding states, with back issues ranging from beaten-up quarter bin fare to classic first issues that go for thousands of dollars. If you ever wanted to own the first appearance of Spider-Man or the X-Men, head on over—though you might have to take out a loan first.
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    Andrew Neal sells Chapel Hill Comics, Wizard World threatens local conventions and other local comics news

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Monday, May 26, 2014

The Pull List: Letter 44

Posted by on Mon, May 26, 2014 at 4:47 PM

Letter 44 No. 6
by Charles Soule and Alberto Jimenez Albuquerque
Oni Press 

Conspiracy theorists' fantasies take to the page in Letter 44, a new series currently unspooling from Oni Press.

Its central premise is established when, on inauguration day, the 43rd president of the United States (that would be George W. Bush in real life, thinly veiled as Francis T. Carroll in the comic) leaves a letter for the 44th (Barack Obama in reality, Stephen Blades here) revealing that yeah, he lied to start wars in the Middle East. But he did so because the truth would have been too much for people to handle.

That truth is a large alien presence located in the asteroid belt near Jupiter. Little is known about them, but there are indications that the aliens have more than interstellar sightseeing in mind. From that revelation, writer Charles Soule spins out plot tendrils including political double-crosses on Earth and lustful entanglements among the secret crew of men and women who have spent three years in space approaching first contact.

Soule has produced series such as 27 and Strongman for indie publishers as well as Swamp Thing and Red Lanterns for DC, so he has chops. The story—part Scandal, part Star Trek and part soap opera—travels at a brisk pace. We’re only six issues in and there have already been assassination attempts, betrayals, reprisals, births in space and heroic sacrifices. Soule effectively balances the twists and turns of the ground-level political machinations with scenes of the (generally) noble half-scientific, half-military mission among the stars.

Illustrator Alberto Jimenez Albuquerque is at his best with the space mission parts of the tale. There's more room to stretch out when imagining planetary landscapes and he does so where appropriate. But it took three or four issues before the renderings of the faces of several political characters ceased to be a distraction. Several of them appear lumpy and distorted, hard to recognize from panel to panel.

Still, the story is what keeps you turning pages, even if its parts aren't quite as original as it thinks. Summer, the season of blockbuster popcorn flicks and thrill-a-minute beach reads, is an apt time to get into the series. You'll quickly find yourself wondering what the alien agenda is and if the humans can overcome their common, petty flaws to rise to the occasion.
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    What if G.W. Bush’s “weapons of mass destruction” were not only real, but alien-powered?

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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Free Comic Book Day swag picks

Posted by on Wed, Apr 30, 2014 at 12:25 PM

Following this week's article on Free Comic Book Day, Zack Smith picks a few freebies to watch for this Saturday.

Guardians of the Galaxy—This team of C-list cosmic heroes is aiming for the A-list with a movie this summerMarvel Comics offers a tie-in to the ongoing series, written by superstars Brian Michael Bendis and Dan Slott, as well as a kid-friendly spotlight book on Rocket Raccoon, a fierce space-critter poised to be the film’s breakout star. “I think people are really going to respond to that book and that character,” Ultimate Comics owner Alan Gill says. “When the film comes out, every kid in America is going to want their own Rocket Raccoon.”

Transformers vs. G.I. Joe—Even if your days of playing with these long-running toy lines and reading their comics are long gone, it’s worth checking out this ’80s-style book from IDW Publishing. It’s rendered by Tom Scioli, whose over-the-top designs and homage to comics legend Jack Kirby make this a treat even for those who aren’t fans of Robots in Disguise or Real American Heroes.

Uncle Scrooge: A Matter of Some GravityFantagraphics Books’ reprints of classic Uncle Scrooge and Donald Duck stories by Carl Barks and Don Rosa are some of the best all-ages comics out there, and this issue spotlights a couple rarely-seen Rosa stories. “They’re great books for kids and adults alike,” says Foundation’s Edge co-owner Richard McGee.

KaBOOM! Summer Blast—Speaking of kid-friendly books, this sampler of various licensed and all-ages titles from BOOM! Studios includes everything from Peanuts and Garfield to a number of Cartoon Network favorites. “I think that’ll go over particularly well because of Adventure Time and those other cartoons,” says Chapel Hill Comics owner Andrew Neal.
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    Following this week's article on Free Comic Book Day, Zack Smith picks a few freebies to watch for this Saturday

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Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Pull List: Afterlife with Archie

Posted by on Thu, Apr 24, 2014 at 10:27 AM

Afterlife with Archie No. 4
by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla
Archie Comics

As an elevator pitch, it must have sounded unthinkable: “It’s Archie meets The Walking Dead!” That’s just a hair less outrageous than, say, Care Bears meets The Killing. (Okay, that actually might rule.) Our carrot-topped klutz has had some unusual crossovers before—remember when he met the Punisher?—but those were still cheesy gags that conformed to Archie’s bright, cartoonish world.

It’s hard to imagine how post-apocalyptic zombie horror could ever dovetail with the squeaky-clean teenage fantasyland of Riverdale, and harder still to imagine that its copyright-holders would ever sign off on it. Then you read Afterlife with Archie, which blends them so effectively that the insane premise winds up seeming like a no-brainer. (To be clear, The Walking Dead is shorthand for this zombie style and is not actually affiliated with the title, but the Archie license is official.)

Right out of the gate, Afterlife with Archie announced that it wouldn't be pulling any punches with a first-issue cover featuring a rotting Jughead Jones wearing his classic crown-shaped cap. By committing fully to a world of jet-black noir, the creators have produced something beyond a gimmick—a truly chilling horror comic that stands on its own without using the license as a crutch.

But they also stay faithful to the character archetypes and relationships that those of us who grew up reading "Double Digests" from supermarket impulse-buy racks know so well, adding wrenching sentimental layers to the scares. The modern zombie craze has gotten us used to people eating each other, but Jughead devouring Big Ethel? That’s just sick—and awesome.

Afterlife with Archie No. 4 alternates between flashback sequences of a young Archie acquiring his faithful mutt and that same mutt fighting to the death with an infected Hot Dog, Jughead’s classic pet. In an example of how ingeniously the creators tweak Archie’s world for this context, the outbreak began when Hot Dog got hit by a car and Jughead entreated Sabrina the Teenage Witch for a resurrection spell, which of course went horribly wrong.

While most of the gang—those who are still alive, anyway—take refuge in Lodge Manor, Archie has heroically lit out for his house to check on his parents. What he finds there is so abominable that you might forget this is an Archie comic until he whisks the drop-cloth off his iconic jalopy. It’s a relic of the series’ 1940s origins, a time period that aligns with the waning era of the pulp comics from which this book takes its style. Reprints of lurid, EC Comics-like strips in the back of each issue reinforce the association.

An experienced comics scribe, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is also an award-winning playwright and a TV writer for the likes of Big Love and Glee—which is to say he knows his way around teen melodrama. He brings a more mature psychological complexity to the characters, which plants them firmly in this grim world without adulterating their essential cores. For example, the writer draws out the callousness of Archie's endless flip-flopping between Betty and Veronica, who are barely frenemies here, much less besties. Francesco Francavilla, a modern master of the pulp style, fills the pages with ominously canted perspectives, stark illustrations and a crepuscular Halloween color scheme, rendering the action with a terrible clarity and emotional grit.

Together, the pair extracts a flawless tone of queasy dread from authentic-feeling character beats.

Afterlife with Archie is evidence of how avidly the institution, formerly rooted in reliable comic strip conventions, is tearing up its rule book to stay relevant. Though they're still firmly kid-friendly, Archie Comics have been considerably modernized from their conservative origins, especially in recent years. Riverdale now includes a variety of racially, ethnically and otherwise diverse characters, and gay teen Kevin Keller has proven very popular—though of course, "gay" is tricky to treat in a series that still largely turns a blind eye to teen rites of passage such as drinking and sex. 

The franchise's storytelling, which once amounted to short puns and Vaudeville-style gags, has also gotten bolder and more contemporary. Life with Archie magazine, which is now more like an ongoing serial drama than a comic strip, has Archie split off in two parallel realities, one where he marries Veronica and one where he marries Betty. If you think Afterlife with Archie is dark—well, at least it happens outside of continuity. But Life with Archie, first published in 1958, is canon, and sneaking a peek at upcoming events there, it looks like the worst is yet to come.
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    A classic teen romance and humor comic takes a shockingly dark turn—and the worst is yet to come

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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Pull List: Alex + Ada

Posted by on Wed, Mar 5, 2014 at 8:54 AM

Alex + Ada No. 4
by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn
Image Comics 

In the first issue of Alex + Ada, Alex comes home from a surprise birthday party to find a large crate in his living room. He opens it and discovers a beautiful young woman standing inside, motionless as a mannequin. Reading from an instruction manual, he tugs her earlobe. “Hello,” she says expressionlessly—or is there the hint of a smile?—and steps out of the crate, into one of the most thought-provoking and timely comics stories currently on the stands.

In a world after Siri and Kinect, the idea of talking to computers being part of daily life isn't as science fiction-y as it used to be. The widespread interest in Spike Jonze’s Her is a bellwether of rising popular curiosity about artificial intelligence—especially what might happen when it gets smarter than us. Anyone fascinated by Her would relish this new series, co-written by Sarah Vaughn and Jonathan Luna, who also illustrates. Both stories are romances between a male human and a female operating system. But the comic goes further by embodying the AI in a realistic physical body, a sexy biosynthetic avatar. This lets Alex + Ada explore not just how we relate to AI, but how it relates to us.

At what level of adaptive ability does a robot become sentient? This is a gentle way to broach the more vexing question of how human consciousness is more than subroutines and data in a squishy machine.

Office worker Alex, still getting over a seven-month-old breakup, lives a calm and lonely life, though he never seems alone. Saturated in virtual and augmented reality interfaces, Alex can talk to a projected browser window called Prime Wave, which has a Google-like logo and vaguely ominous ubiquity. This always-on Internet connection is beamed through an implant in his head. He flushes his toilet and runs his shower with voice commands, and a small drone brings him coffee. It’s a plausible near-future where advanced robotics and AI are culturally normalized—The Jetsons, played straight—caught at the tense moment when the technological singularity has just started cropping up.

The singularity is a hypothetical moment when AI will achieve beyond-human intelligence. This would, of course, give them at least a facsimile of free will, which is the core concept Luna and Vaughn are putting through the post-human wringer here. News reports streaming in Alex’s apartment fill us in on a massacre a year prior, where a self-aware corporate software program uploaded itself into worker-robots, then slaughtered warehouse workers, leading to legal restrictions on sentient AI. More recently, an android was recorded attending a rock concert by itself, where it was torn apart by a frightened crowd after bleeding purple in a moshing injury. This is a world on the verge—exactly one verge beyond our times, when non-sentient AI seems poised to enter our lives in revolutionary ways.

Ada is an expensive Tanaka X5 android. Completely realistic in appearance and to the touch, she has the cheerful but slightly stilted conversational style of female computers everywhere. She’ll answer any question (making no attempt to hide the fact that she’s not human) and obey almost any order. But she has no feelings or opinions, no volition, and her uncanny-valley stillness permeates the book's visual style. Its flawlessly neutral tone simultaneously suggests middle-class isolation, distant surveillance and the heightened reality of a consciousness walled in virtual space. The illustration is warm yet clinical, framing precise human gestures in a hypnotic series of soft, bright, cleanly lined rooms. Everything looks freshly scrubbed. The pace is one of tranquilized equilibrium; Luna might spend a whole page on several nearly identical panels just to show us Alex opening his eyes. Smooth and muted colors, crisply separated, seal in the book's glassy, shadowless gleam.

At first, Alex is freaked out by Ada, and there’s a sharply observed scene where he tests a friend’s reaction by floating out the idea of getting an android as a joke. But as he changes his mind, the book develops their chaste (so far) courtship in offbeat rom-com stages. Alex learns to take care of Ada after a casual comment to “don’t go anywhere” causes her to stand still all day without eating, until she collapses. She meets his half-accepting, half-wary, but mostly amazed friends. They watch a movie together on the couch, and she mirrors his laughter. Alex is tantalized by how almost-human she seems; perhaps the missing element of desire is resistance. His tentative quest to make her more human leads, in No. 4, to an immersive simulation of the black net where someone knows how to “wake up” AIs, and he faces the decision of whether or not to awaken Ada's free will.

In four issues, Luna and Vaughn have built a credible world while swiftly narrowing in on a handful of questions, among the many proposed by the possibility of sentient machines: What are the ethics of relating to—or owning, in Alex’s case—a being so close to life, and what does such a being mean for our deeply held human distinctions, our free will and emotional bonds? In one quietly piercing scene, Alex wonders aloud if a customer service operator he’s talking to is even human. The operator replies that he is. But in Alex + Ada’s world, poised only slightly in the future from ours, there's no longer any way to be sure.

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    Going further than Her, Alex + Ada brings artificial intelligence to life—literally

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Monday, February 24, 2014

The Pull List: Daredevil

Posted by on Mon, Feb 24, 2014 at 10:19 AM

Daredevil No. 36
by Mark Waid and Chris Samnee

Look, I like superhero comics, but let’s be real—a lot of them are mediocre at best and sheer garbage at worst. It’s too easy for the big publishers to rely on the strength of franchises rather than storytelling. It’s almost as if Marvel knows I’ll buy the crappiest X-Men books just because I need to know what the X-Men are up to. Though I’m an admirer of Brian Wood’s creator-owned series The Massive, I kind of hate his current flagship X-Men title—why must Wood fill every book he writes with characters spouting quasi-military jargon into Bluetooth headsets?—but 10 issues in, I’m still buying it. (It’s a sickness, I know.)

The silver lining of this bleak dispensation is that gems such as the current run of Daredevil, which draws to a close with its 36th issue, shine all the brighter. Non-comics readers may be familiar with Daredevil—known superlatively as “The Man Without Fear,” affectionately as “hornhead”—only through the dismal 2003 movie starring Ben Affleck, which is a pity. Sure, he’s basically just an acrobat in red tights with devil horns. But scratch below the surface and you’ll find one of the richest character profiles, developed for 50 years now, in superhero comics.

Daredevil’s unique angle is that he’s sightless, but his other senses are sharpened and augmented by bat-like echolocation abilities. By night, he’s a costumed crime-fighter in the gritty alleyways of Hell’s Kitchen; by day, he’s blind social-justice lawyer Matt Murdock. He was set on this path when his father, a boxer, was murdered by a crime boss after refusing to throw a fight. He was trained by ninjas in the classic Frank Miller era. He carries a cane concealing a grappling line that never misses its targeted gargoyle or cornice. He’s a human-scaled hero, not brilliant like Batman or godlike like Superman. Standing up for the underdog in and out of costume, he's character defined, as writer Mark Waid correctly says in his final issue, by his integrity.

This is fertile territory for a writer who wants to really dig in, and Waid is one of the best in the business at robustly characterizing superheroes. His plotting and dialogue have a speedy crackle on par with the best episodic television, and his Daredevil is a brisk blend of romantic comedy, courtroom drama and madcap adventure, with lots of outlandish villains and swashbuckling style.

A smart superhero comic that also remembers that superheroes are supposed to be fun, Waid’s Daredevil would have been a flawless run if not for an odd, rather silly subplot in the homestretch that found Daredevil intriguing with Universal Studios monsters. But the series rights itself for a strong finish in No. 36, which neatly ties up all the plot threads—the outing of Daredevil’s secret identity, the cancer diagnosis of his law partner and best friend, his will-they won't-they affair with the district attorney, a vast conspiracy to undermine his sanity—that Waid has expertly paid out over the last three years. The issue also sets up a new status quo for the next leg of Daredevil’s journey under the same creative team, which is fantastic news.

Last week in this column, I mentioned how the fortuitous combination of creators can produce extraordinary results, and Daredevil is a perfect example. Waid has said that he wanted his run to focus on Daredevil’s derring-do and his unique perceptions of the world. The latter, especially, wouldn’t have been possible without the right artist, and Waid found a perfect match in the delightful Chris Samnee. The book really gelled when Samnee joined on No. 12, building on the strong visual groundwork laid by Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin.

Samnee’s pop art style looks like the kind of stuff Roy Lichtenstein appropriated for art galleries. It’s cartoonish and classic, but with a slick modern sheen. Samnee’s chunky line has a tapering weight that conveys maximum clarity through minimal gestures, with dynamic character action coherently planted in space. One detects the influence of indie legend Mike Allred, who was a guest artist on No. 17. Elements of graphic design intrude on the cartooning, with panel-by-panel progress sometimes giving way to elegantly designed full-page compositions. This style is everywhere these days, and it’s a great thing for superhero comics; you can see it in the even more brilliant Hawkeye (which I’ll write about soon) and in a promising new lawyer/hero book, She-Hulk.

We often see what Daredevil “sees” through his enhanced senses: pink contour lines describing volumetric forms on dark fields; green EKG lines describing heartbeats that work as lie detectors. Waid comes up with ways to make Daredevil’s senses work against him—he is susceptible to chaotic sounds and radar interference—and the creators convey how aural his world is though lots of typographical onomatopoeia. In issue No. 5, bullets coming through a window are rendered as a slanting “BUDDABUDDABUDDA” rather than physical objects. To Daredevil, a boat on the horizon is a white box containing the giant letters “VRRRR.” These kinds of sound effects are a hoary old comics convention (Bam! Pow!), but Daredevil cleverly tweaks them by grounding them in the narrative context. There’s also lots of sensitive stuff about the everyday business of being blind, such as a mention in No. 22 of how Matt Murdock folds different denominations of currency in different ways so he can tell them apart.

Colorist Javier Rodriguez plays a major role in the pitch-perfect look, with his bold blocks of bright, smooth hues perfectly matching the poppy, slick vibe of the book. Even the letter boxes hit just the right notes, so no stray hairs disrupt this creative team’s seamless, modern, iconic tone. Between this series and the moving, artistically ambitious mini-series Daredevil: End of Days, these are exceptional times for ol’ hornhead. There are highlight standalone issues, such as the fantastic “blind date” (double entendre fully exploited) of No. 12 or the Silver Surfer team-up in No. 30 (seeing Daredevil riding with the Surfer, a character as cosmic as he is terrestrial, is fanboy manna). But starting at the beginning in trade paperback form is highly recommended, as this is one of the most stylish, fresh and vibrant superhero runs in recent memory.
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    Mark Waid and Chris Samnee's just-concluded Daredevil shows a fresh way forward for superhero comics

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Monday, February 17, 2014

The Pull List: Trillium

Posted by on Mon, Feb 17, 2014 at 5:31 PM

Trillium No. 6
by Jeff Lemire

Traditionally, mainstream comics are made by assembly line. This guy writes the story and that guy draws the pencil art. Another inks it in, while two more add color and text. It’s a practical consideration for companies managing a lot of monthly books, but it’s also what makes comics a singularly collaborative medium. These roles aren’t as rigidly defined as they sound: Some writers give loose directions while others plot out every panel; some pencillers define each wrinkle while others leave detail to inkers and colorists. So each gestalt of creators has a style all its own, at best producing surprising or dazzling results beyond the capacity of any one person.  

But there’s also unique value to be found in the visions of lone writer/artists, who find more leeway to patrol the borders of their work in the indie and creator-owned worlds. While comics by committee can be spectacular, those made by driven individuals have a special clarity of perspective, and as with other forms with deeply ingrained conventions, comics excel at magnifying personal style through the lens of familiar structures, like sonnets or sonatas. After looking at one autonomous comics maestro, Matt Kindt, in the column of Feb. 6, I’m recommending another today: Jeff Lemire, whose limited series Trillium vividly demonstrates the sparks that can fly when writing and art are coiled together by a single mind.

As creator of acclaimed series Sweet Tooth, Lemire is no stranger to the monomaniacal approach, and he writes, draws and (with help from José Villarrubia) colors Trillium, which is on issue six of eight from D.C.’s creator-owned imprint, Vertigo. Though Lemire has said that Brian K. Vaughan’s surprise hit Saga was an inspiration, his work here actually has more resemblance to Kindt’s in Mind MGMT. Like Kindt, Lemire deploys a rude, nervous line and fills it in with ruddy, watery patches of color. Like Kindt, he takes a familiar genre—science fiction instead of the spy thriller—and twists it into a mind-bending metafictional shape. And like Kindt, he does so using ingenious, meticulously plotted storytelling methods that wouldn’t be possible in any medium but comics.

There are two storylines in Trillium No. 6. In 1921, an institutionalized woman named Nika has troubling memories of another life in the stars, and of a man she met in a jungle. That’s where she flees after a dramatic escape, drawn to the strange temple that seems to be a doorway between distant eras. In 3797, a man named William, who can somehow remember the trenches of WWI, sets out to look for her, bearing down on the same temple in his time. But here’s the twist: The future storyline is printed upside down, so that you have to flip the book over every few pages. The pace accelerates as the timelines converge, and by the climactic meeting, you’re turning the book over panel by panel like a mad captain spinning a wheel, piloting the careening story. Not only does this create a mounting sense of panicky speed, it visually reinforces the metaphysical game at play. The comic book form is rife with unique opportunities for manipulating time and space, and Lemire takes full advantage of them, with the method of the telling visually reinforcing the tale.

Trillium began in issue No. 1 with Nika as a botanist in 3797, searching for the titular flower, which is the only vaccine against a sentient plague that has driven humanity to the far corners of space. William is an explorer in 1921 who is leading an expedition in the Peruvian jungle to search for an Incan temple. When their searches converge on the same site, time gets topsy-turvy, and the nature of the Trillium flower, which seems to have psychedelic properties, has yet to be revealed as the series enters its home stretch. While this story is intriguing, it wouldn’t have half its impact without Lemire’s novel storytelling gambit. The first issue was a classic flipbook, with Nika’s story on one side and William’s on the other, printed upside-down with its own cover. Having taught us how to read Trillium, Lemire cranks up virtuosic variations in subsequent issues. In No. 5, for instance, Nika’s story runs forward across the top panels while William's runs in reverse along the bottom, twisting the narrative into a Möbius strip. This allows for visual ironies and echoes that underscore the pair’s mirrored fates, with some panels forming subtle compositional refections of different times. Lemire also knows when to lay off—the second and fourth issues have no flips because the protagonists are in the same time-stream—which keeps the format meaningful rather than being a gimmick. 

Trillium may work best for experienced comics readers, as the nearly physiological effects of the turning panels won’t be fully felt by anyone who hasn’t deeply internalized the left-to-right flow of comics. But it’s still a hell of a story that sounds some very deep themes. It palpates the sense we all sometimes feel of having lived other lives; how certain places call out to us in mysterious ways, as though we had known them before. It’s also essentially a love story, making literal the notion that there are people we would chase across worlds. Most vividly, Trillium illuminates how linear, collective time is just a story we tell ourselves, when in fact, each individual inhabits his or her own stream—a stream complicated by the vast simultaneity of memory—so that time really moves in harmonies and discordances and slithering crisscrosses. The visual way Lemire orchestrates these temporal strands leads to an immense chime of satisfaction whenever they meet at a congruent seam, in the same way that lovers fleetingly do before they're inevitably torn apart again.
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    Jeff Lemire's sci-fi love story puts an ingenious visual spin on his games with time and space

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