ManEaters: Where Multimodality Does Not Equal Quality

by Tara Lawson-Harris

In seventh grade, I had a group of about four boys yell at me in front of the entire class for daring to speak up in social studies. Their main argument: “she doesn’t know what she’s talking about because she’s on her period.” I wasn’t on my period. But how was I supposed to prove that? So I let them shout me into silence, hoping that my female teacher would tell them about the inappropriateness of their comments. Instead, when I fell silent the teacher turned to the boys and engaged them in conversation. Not a single girl spoke up for the rest of class. 

Seventh grade was fourteen years ago for me, and I still remember that moment. I remember the anger, the humiliation, the knowledge that what I had to say mattered, and the realization that no one cared. Those feelings still resonate for me. I wanted ManEaters to take that rage and turn it into something cathartic and powerful. Instead, I got ads for the fictional EstroPop and a nonsensical plot.

My primary issue with ManEaters comes from the way that it is written, not from its politics. There are currently ten issues out, and 20% of those issues do not address the storyline at all. One of the issues is a magazine from the fictional world, and another issue is the instructions to a game. The remaining issues have entire pages dedicated to fake ads, most of them for EstroPop, the drink for men to avoid having too much estrogen in their systems. Comic books only have about 22 pages to tell their story, and nearly 1/4 of the story so far isn’t telling the story. The few moments that do focus on the story are condensed into fewer pages, and as a result, major details and transitions get overlooked.

For example, issue number 7 ends with a missing girl being found by the main character’s mom hiding in the main character’s house. Then the mom says that the girl is not a panther, and the reader finds out that the mom is a panther. Issue number 8 is the instructions to a game. Issue number 9 starts with the main character and the no-longer-missing girl in a recovery camp. Which makes no sense. Why would the rebellious panther mom put her daughter in a recovery camp? Were they forced to go to this camp because it was discovered that the main character had gotten her period? At some point the reader finds out that there’s a “plan” for the recovery center, but why this specific center? 

I want to like ManEaters. I want to be charmed by the genre bending issues that are instructions to a game or fake magazines. To be impressed with the fake ads for EstroPop. To feel like I understand and relate to the plot. As a feminist, I feel obligated to love this book because it was written by a woman and has a feminist message (at least, I’ve been told it does). It even got nominated for an Eisner Award, which is one of the highest awards a comic book creator can get. But I Just. Do. Not. Like. It. Wasting so much of the reader’s time with multimodal gimmicks is just bad writing. 

Multimodal gimmicks can work in more traditional storylines — for example, look at Squirrel Girl and how every issue starts off with a twitter thread. However, the attempts to have a radical plot overlaid with the gimmicks makes the narrative come across as scattered and uncoordinated at best. After that incident in middle school, I wanted to read a book that talked about getting your period. I didn’t want the book to focus on menstrual cycles per se, but I did want them addressed. I used to read a lot of fantasy, which meant that I was reading about characters that didn’t have bathrooms or tampons, and I always wondered how the female characters dealt with this lack of resources. Even in modern YA, I’ve never read about someone bleeding through their pants or being paranoid about leaving a stain on a chair. A feminist comic book where girls and women getting their periods was the main point of the story seemed like the perfect first step to normalize representations of women’s periods. A step to normalizing the idea that periods and pms-ing does not make women crazy. 

Without some type of traditional storytelling move (plot, setting, narration), the book comes across as not knowing what it’s about. It comes across as being thrown together in an emotional dump at the last minute and expecting all women to say it speaks to their experiences. A lack of trans representation aside, this experience absolutely does not speak to me. It doesn’t come close to the anger I felt, or to the anger I know other girls feel. It doesn’t speak to the struggle of hiding a thick wad of plastic up your sleeve while you walk to the bathroom. The anger because you shouldn’t have to hide a hygiene product. 

I want to love Chelsea Cain’s ManEaters. But when a book doesn’t try to relate to your emotional experiences and relies only on flashy gimmicks, the reader isn’t going to be emotionally invested in the book. I wasn’t.  

As a feminist reader, this review is difficult for me. I want to support this book. I want to feel angry and fired up about the stereotypes around menstrual cycles. Instead, I read that book and was annoyed that I had spent time and money on it. But giving the book a negative review could mean that someone wouldn’t read it. If they aren’t reading it, then they aren’t buying it, and if they aren’t buying it then the creators don’t get any money and the publishing company doesn’t get any data saying that talking about periods is a selling point for some readers. So am I obligated to buy a book that I don’t enjoy because of the feminist issues behind it? If I do buy it, am I telling the publishing industry that I am okay with bad writing as long as it’s feminist? It’s a conflicting place to be in as a reader, and I still don’t have an answer that I’m satisfied with. 

Have opinions on the book? Sound off in the comments below. 

Current Canon Builders: Venom

by Steven Harris

Current Canon Builders is an ongoing series that Critically Comics publishes that focuses on the stories of today that will most likely end up being in the canon of tomorrow. Since we typically reserve podcast discussions for completed works, this column will solely dedicated to works that are still being published, but have displayed the qualities of a book that will be discussed, analyzed, referenced and loved in the years to follow.

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Venom #7 cover by Ryan Stegman, JP Mayerand Frank Martion

Full disclosure, I do not identify as a Venom fan. Still, the core concept (a symbiotic alien who attaches itself to broken people to become a super powered anti-hero) is interesting and can lead to some pretty entertaining stories. The closest I’ve come to identifying as a Venom fan was during Rick Remender’s 2011 run that reimagined Venom as a covert special ops mercenary superhero. A large part of my admiration for that run comes from Remender focusing on Iraqi War veteran Flash Thompson and his own personal demons.

However, while the majority of fans enjoy this run, they still largely identify with the Eddie Brock version of Venom — the sometimes brain-eating lethal protector with an on-again off-again hatred of Spider-man. Personally, outside of the character’s initial story arc, I have never understood the character. He seems like a leftover artifact from the EXTREME! 90’s era of comics that never had anything more than surface level depth.  With a bias already in place, Marvel’s 2018 Venom series had a lot of heavy lifting to do in order convince me to read past issue one. Thankfully, that challenge was met

Under the guidance of Donny Cates and Ryan Stegman, Venom has become a must-read book. What was once a one dimensional character has become a compelling, emotionally conflicted anti-hero who is not only struggling to find his role in the world, but finding a way to stop an all encompassing and maddening cosmic horror. 

At the start of Cates and Stegman’s run, Eddie Brock is at an all time low. Living in a dirty apartment, Brock is established as a pill popping vigilante  who wrestles with his symbiote other. Cates writes the symbiote unlike any other writer to date.  Over the course of the series, the symbiote becomes much more than Eddie’s alien passenger— he is becomes a manipulative, abusive lover.  And despite all of the emotional trauma that the symbiote puts Eddie through, the reader can feel the pain Eddie has whenever the symbiote abandons him. The love between Eddie and his symbiote transcends the page, and is one of the most unique relationships in the comic industry  today. Through a LGTBQ lens, Eddie Brock is potentially the non- heteronormative hero that the comic industry has needed for years. Only time will tell how Cates continues to evolve the complicated relationship between Eddie Brock and his alien passenger. 

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Art from Venom #3, by Ryan Stegman, JP Mayer and Frank Martin

The highlight of the first arc of Cates &  Stegman’s Venom book is the introduction of the new character Knull. The creation of Knull is a masterclass in how to properly introduce a new character. Knull’s background  is effortlessly intertwined with not just Venom’s history, but with the history of Marvel cosmic. What makes Knull stand out in the current comic landscape is not just his Lovecraftian aim to wipe out the light from the universe but his loyal Earth-based cult. While Knull is imprisoned in a far corner of the universe, a select handful of humans are convinced that Knull’s crusade against life itself is just. Stegman’s design for Knull takes inspiration from Dracula and is a perfect match for the motivation for that Cates has given with the character. Within their first arc, Cates and Stegman created a creator who is undoubtedly going to remain in the Marvel Universe for the  foreseeable future. 

While the introduction of Knull and revamping of Carnge are great reasons to check out the first arc of the series, the emotional core of Cate’s Venom run can be found in the second arc. The revelation that Eddie Brock has a son adds a much needed emotional anchor to the book. As Eddie fights to save the universe from Knull’s crusade, he must now also navigate the path of fatherhood. While not everyone has an evil symobite living within them, Eddie’s fight to deal with his inner conflicts while attempting to be a better parent is a struggle most young parents can deal with.  By giving Eddie a son, Cates has added another level of inner conflict to him that humanizes the mostly alienating character. 

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Cover for Web of Venom: Ven’Am #1 by Ryan Stegman, JP Mayer and Frank Martin

Furthermore, Cates is using the vast canvas of the Marvel Universe to simply tell some pretty cool stories. The Ven’am one shot is a gem of a story. The issue drops a symbiote enhanced solider in the middle of a war-torn Vietnam jungle. While there, the protagonist meets up with Wolverine and Nick Fury to fight rogue symbiotes. Equal parts Predator, Commando, and The Thing, the story Cates presents is the coolest forgotten story Marvel has produced in years.

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Cover art for Aboslute Carnage #4 by Ryan Stegman, JP Mayer and Frank Martin

With the launch of the Absolute Carnage mini-series, it is now more evident than ever that Cates and Stegman are producing work that will likely define their careers. The duo has reinvented the mass murdering symbiote Carange in a way that is absolutely terrifying.  The  90’s edge lord psychopath  is now more than a villain who murders for shock value; he is now a conduit for Knull’s will on Earth and is trying to awaken the elder god in order to bring about the end of the universe. Cates ability to make the return of Carange something that fans eagerly awaited for is nothing short of astounding. However, the best part of Absolute Carange is seeing the art trio of pencilst Ryan Stegman, inker JP Mayer and colorist Frank Martin cut loose. Stegman’s pencils are crisp. Mayer’s inks perfectly bring out the detail in the pencils. Martin’s color make the images pop off the page due to the nightmarish glow he’s added. No other artist team are this insanely in sync with each other right now in the comic industry. Each splash page feels destined to become an iconic image. 

With Absolute Carnage shaping up to be only the end of phase one for Stegman and Cate’s Venom saga, fans will be talking about this run for years to come.(Another testament to Cate’s unique vision of the the symbiote mythos is simply comparing the main mini-series to other souless tie in mini-series by authors who fail to modernize the concepts in an equally captivating way.)

 If Cates and Stegman can maintain the momentum, quality and dedication to continuing their well polished super powered anti-hero horror saga, this will not only become the defining Venom story – it will become the story that defines how writers can transform aimless properties into must- read fan favorites. Venom by Donny Cates and Ryan Stegman started off as underdog of a book that no expected much out of and in under two years have made it a book that will undeniably one day end up in the canon of all time great graphic novels and comic books. 

Killing Vertigo: How the Black Label Replaced DC’s Most Important Imprint

by Steven Harris

Since its inception in 1993, Vertigo Comics has been the home to foundational works such as Sandman, Preacher, 100 Bullets, Fables, Scalped, and Y: The Last Man. It is hard to imagine what the current comic landscape would look like without these books. Without the original content published through Vertigo, the creator owned comic boom that Image Comics has been enjoying for almost a decade now would have never occurred. (Vertigo does not afford creators the same control over their work that Image Comics does; publishing through Vertigo means that DC Comics/Warner Bros. owns the rights to book and not the creators.)

Earlier this summer, DC Comics announced that they were shutting down their Vertigo Comics imprint. The news came as a surprise and to the dismay of many long time comic book fans. For many readers, Vertigo Comics was the home for their first mature readers book and holds s special place on their shelf.

 However, Image Comics is not responsible for the death of Vertigo Comics. 

When they announced they were closing Vertigo Comics, DC Comics made it very clear that they were the ones to blame.  DC was shutting down Vertigo Comics as an attempt to streamline their publications. Staring in January 2020, DC will have only three labels on their books: DC Comics, DC Kids, and DC Black Label.  DC will continue to publish their in- continuity superhero books under their main brand, while all ages material will fall to the DC Kids imprint. The Black Label will be the isolated imprint that is meant for mature readers only.  In their official press release, DC Comics Editor In Chief, Dan Dido, explained ““We’re returning to a singular presentation of the DC brand that was present throughout most of our history until 1993 when we launched Vertigo to provide an outlet for edgier material….that kind of material is now mainstream across all genres, so we thought it was the right time to bring greater clarity to the DC brand and reinforce our commitment to storytelling for all of our fans in every age group. This new system will replace the age ratings we currently use on our material.”

In theory, their plan seems simplistic. It is only when you start to explore what the “Black Label” is that their plan to bury Vertigo Comics falls apart. At every new announcement DC seems to be undermining their original goals for the Black Label imprint. 

When the DC Black Label was announced in March of 2018, it was promised to be an imprint that would allow top tier talent to tell DC stories without the burden of continuity. Each book would have its own individual release schedule and format specific to each book (For example Batman: Damned and Superman: Year One are both oversized magazine format series while Batman: Last Knight on Earth has a traditional comic book format). With talent such as Frank Miller, John Romita Jr.,  Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo it makes sense why DC was giving a form of carte blanche with their characters to these creators. In the past, DC has enjoyed both critical and commercial success from the creative teams, so of course DC would grant them more freedom.  For writers who have not worked for DC in the past (such as Kelly Sue DeConnick and 12 Years A Slave screen writer John Ridley) that level of freedom on iconic characters is an immense draw. If the Black Label were to  only exist as a place to tell mature themed super hero stories, then both it and Vertigo Comics could peacefully coincide. However, the creative freedom promised to the creators may have been nothing more than a pitch to get readers interested.  The first issue of Batman: Damned featured a panel that contained a shadowy outline of Bruce Wayne’s penis as he was climbing out of his Bat suit. In re-printings, that outline has been censored out. Clearly, the Black Label does indeed have some limits that DC is not comfortable with creators pushing. 

DC’s creation of the Sandman Universe was the first warning sign. Spawning from 2017’s Dark Knights: Metal event by Scott Snyder  and Greg Capullo, DC Comics launched the Sandman Universe within Vertigo Comics. Each series published under the imprint has ties to Neil Gaiman’s original Sandman series. Despite early critical success, the Sandman Universe books have failed to capture a massive commercial audience. With Vertigo closing down, DC has already announced their plans to continue the books under the Sandman Universe banner, but under the DC Black Label imprint.  

Despite Sandman being synonymous with Vertigo Comics, January 2020 will see the first publication of Sandman material outside of Vertigo Comics since its creation in 1993. (While some Sandman characters have occasionally shown up in the main DCU, no series primarily focusing on the characters have been published under the DC Comics brand.)  The decision to create the Sandman Universe as a separate brand was a conscious effort by DC to begin separating the connection that the Sandman IP once had with Vertigo Comics. It remains to be seen if creators assigned to the Sandman Universe books will enjoy the same supposed creative liberty as their Black Label peers. 

Announced in June 2019, Hill House comics will be an imprint of mature themed horror comics that will be personally curated by best selling author Joel Hill. The aptly named Hill House books will be launching in October 2019 as part of the Black Label. Only one of the four Hill House comics will be written by Hill. Aside from one book by industry pro Mike Carey, the remaining books will be penned by or other authors who are new to the comics industry.  By the time Hill House was announced, it was clear that Vertigo was already being put out to pasture. From a marketing standpoint, it makes since to create the small imprint and use the acclaimed author’s name as the primary sell point for the books. However, in hindsight — it seems odd to create a new mature readers themed imprint before killing the old one. If anything, publishing the Hill House imprint on the Vertigo banner may have been enough to ignite interest in the imprint again. 

Hill House won’t be the only original content published under the Black Label. The Last God by Phillip Kennedy Johnson and Riccardo Federici is schedule to be released in fall of 2019. Separated from main DCU continuity, The Last God is an original creation and has no ties to the man DCU. With the original idea that the Black Label was created to give creators a space to work with pre-existing characters, its baffling that this series will be published under that label instead of at Vertigo Comics. The success of Tom King and Mitch Gerdos’s Sheriff of Babylon shows that fans will still flock to Vertigo Comics when an original series demands their attention. ( Fun fact: Sheriff of Babylon was been so well received, it has now been incorporated into the curriculum at West Point’s CIA training classes.) 

However, the absolute final nail in Vertigo’s coffin was the announcement of a new John Constantine: Hellblazer series that is being launched as a part of the Sandman Universe brand underneath the Black Label imprint. Many fans rejoiced at John Constantine finally making his way back to a mature themed series after spending several years as a part of the DCU proper. The original Hellblazer series ran from 1988 to 2013 for over 300 issues and acted a lighting rod for some of the best talent in the comic industry. As the longest running mature themed book on stands, Hellblazer was once the crown jewel for Vertigo Comics. To bring back a mature themed Hellblazer book under any imprint other than Vertigo Comics is a sign that DC has lost faith in their Vertigo brand. 

In a perfect world, the replacement of Vertigo Comics by the Black Label should have been easy. As originally promised, the Black Label could have been a place where mature themed stories could be told without being bogged down by continuity. The inclusion of new content under the Black Label muddies the water slightly — but it still could’ve worked by firmly establishing that anything published under Black Label was not in continuity. These simple but hard lined two rules would have justified the creation of the Black Label….

…but this is comics. Nothing is ever THAT simple.

DC has begun to republish several fundamental graphic novels and comic books under their newly minted Black Label. Books that were previously determined to be all ages are now being shipped under the mature themed Black Label. To publish Watchmen under Black Label, makes sense — However, the idea that Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman or Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier series are now going to be labeled as mature themed is absurd. Anyone who has read either of those books would not hesitate to testify to their inoffensive and earnest nature. By publishing this under the Black Label, DC is losing a potential new audience for those books. 

The idea that all Black Label series will be not bogged down by continuity is going out the window with Geoff Johns’ Batman: Three Jokers series. Originally teased in 2016’s Justice League #50, Geoff Johns revealed that at least three different individuals have operated in Gotham as “The Joker”.  Since this story originated in the main DCU continuity Justice League book, it stands to reason that when Batman: Three Jokers is published, it will indeed directly effect the main DCU continuity Batman. Already, DC is undermining their original idea that everything published under the Black Label is not tied down by continuity. 

Lacking a clear cohesive vision of what their Black Label imprint should be, DC Comics may have preemptively killed their most important imprint in Vertigo Comics. Vertigo may return someday, just like it arrived in 1993, as a lightening bolt from nowhere that changed the way fans view the comic medium. However, until then, Vertigo is now just a relic of the past — a talking point of the comic shop inquisition who will say “I was there when Y: The Last Man was being published monthly” as a way to bolster their own self importance. Instead of continuing Vertigo’s legacy of ushering in new talent and unforgettable narratives, DC Comics has lost faith in their imprint…a move that could ultimately result in fans losing faith in DC Comics. 

Mini-Episode 2: Interview with artist David Finch

by Steven Harris & Tara Lawson-Harris

Join us for our second mini-episode of the Critically Comics podcast! We had the opportunity to comic creator David Finch. Finch has been an instrumental part of several landmark comic book runs of the past twenty years. He has worked for both DC and Marvel providing art for books such as Batman, New Avengers, Moon Knight, Forever Evil and Wonder Woman. We talked to Finch about what it is like working for such a wide variety of writers, which of his work he’s most proud of, and what he would like to see go into the canon of all time great comic books and graphic novels.


I Am The Walking Dead: Growing Up With The Zombie Series

by Steven Harris

DISCLAIMER: This post will have spoilers for not just The Walking Dead #193, but for the entire series.  A more thoughtful analysis of the series and the finale is to come at a later date. 

To say I was there at the beginning may be a lie. I cannot pinpoint the exact moment I boarded the fandom train that was The Walking Dead. While the book started in October 2003, my memory of picking up issue #1 was around the same time that Green Lantern: Rebirth (the start of an equally influential and personal run to me) came out — however that book would not be released until October 2004, a full year later. What may be a more accurate statement is that The Walking Dead was there at my beginning. 

It should not surprise anyone that growing up I was more of what is referred to as an “inside kid”. Despite playing on sports teams, a lot of my adolescent summers were spent playing video games and reading and rereading (and rereading and reading) comic books. Now as an adult, I cannot tell you how many times I have read The Walking Dead. However, what I can do is tell you what was happening in the book at each pivotal moment in my life:

January 2006 – Writer Robert Kirkman published a blog post for CBR for his “Buy My Books” Colum where he attempts to tell people to not waste their time by trying to break into the comic book industry. (Link) Kirkman’s words cut my teenage self to his core and sets me on the path of becoming an attorney. This comes on the eve of The Walking Dead #25 being published.

August 2006 – As I transitioned into high school, Rick Grimes and company started to encounter Woodberry residents for the first time. 

Late 2007 / Early 2008 – With every paycheck from my first job as a cashier, I made sure enough money was put back to ensure that I could purchase each new issue of the NO ONE IS SAFE arc. 

May 2010 – I graduated from high school and The Walking Dead hits issue 72. As I started to about going out into the wider world, Rick Grimes and company started to branch out into Alexandria community. 

July 3, 2010 – I am able to meet Robert Kirkman one last time before I moved away to college and the Walking Dead becomes a world wide phenomena.

December 2011 – I walked up to Robert Kirkman at a signing at A+ Comics & Collectibles in my hometown of Lexington, Kentucky with the freshly released issue 92 in my hands. I joke and tell him that I am going to law school because of what he wrote five years ago on his blog. He awkwardly laughed it off. We ran into each other again later that evening at a screening of David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. He apologized to me again.

July 2012 – I moved in with my girlfriend. As we shared an apartment and discussed what our relationship would look like moving forward, Glenn had  his head bashed in by a baseball bat. 

August 2014 – The Whispers emerged as the new antagonists in the book as I started law school.  

April 2017 – As I marry my wife, Rick Grimes learned that his wife was doomed in issue 166.

July 2017 – When Carl started his new role in the Hilltop community, I was studying to take the BAR exam.

July 2019 – As I start to drown in work and feel that I am not in control of my life, one of the few constants in my life is suddenly gone — The Walking Dead is over. 

As a fan who has grown with the characters in the book, it is hard not to feel slightly betrayed. It still has not sunk in that I am never going to see any of these characters again. For the past sixteen years, this book has been there every month in my holds folder…and now it won’t be. From an artistic standpoint, Robert Kirkman deserves a standing ovation for ending the book in this manner. It’s a perfect analogy of how characters died in the book — it was often sudden, upsetting, and unpredictable.  I am incredibly grateful for the endings we do get in the final issue. As I sat on my porch and read the final issue, tears welled up in eyes seeing how far some of the characters have come from their introduction. Listening to the rain, I cried full tears at seeing how far Michonne had come during the course of the series. She is a character who was literally thrown into the depths of hell, and seeing her come through the other side is so damn empowering. 

Endings are always hard. They never full satisfy the entire fanbase, and some fans will renounce the entire series due to their hatred of the ending. Personally, I am not a fan of the way Kirkman summarizes the last sixteen years of storytelling down into a simple children’s story. It is a trope that is over-used and allows authors to glance over years over storytelling for simplicity’s sake (I’m looking at you Sweet Tooth).  Reducing the growth the characters had over decades down into single panels (and in the case of Negan — off screen) is bothersome. For a series that has taken its sweet time by dragging out storylines, the abrupt nature of the ending of beloved characters is startling and almost feels like a disservice. However, I realize I only feel that way because I have seen these characters grow at a rate of 22 pages a month for the past sixteen years — my mind has still not adjusted to the fact that they’re officially gone forever now. When you step back and look at the series as a whole,  Kirkman’s unexpected finale ends on a high note. There was never any doubt that this book was Rick Grimes’s story, so it only makes since that the book ends with his death. Kirkman could’ve pulled a David Chase Soprano’s ending and immediately cut to black the moment of Rick’s death. The finale is a gift in a lot of ways — we are not entitled to any sort of closure for non-Rick Grimes characters; this is Kirkman’s story after all and he owes nothing to fans. The finale hammers in what a heroic character Rick Grimes is and why he should be on par with an Odyessus or Vladek Spieglman. The sacrifices that Rick made in his lifetime for the greater good are inspiring. Furthermore, with the finale that Kirman does give us, he shows that people can overcome the difficulties of their lives — that they don’t have to be defined by their tragedies.   

Without The Walking Dead being published on a monthly basis, the comic book industry has a titanic void to file. Without The Walking Dead being published on a monthly basis, I have a titanic void to fill. All great literature impacts the reader on some level, and I can say without a doubt The Walking Dead has affected my world view. I doubt we will see a book on this caliber again, and I am truly grateful that I was able to experience the story in real time.

2019 Eisner Best New Series Roulette

by Steven Harris & Tara Lawson-Harris

Last month, the 2019 Eisner Award nominations were revealed. The Eisners are awarded to those who are succeeding in the comic industry and pushing the envelope in comic book storytelling.  One category to watch this year is the The Best New Series category. For the first time in Eisner history, publishing company Image Comics has completely swept the category.  Despite knowing about some of these books, neither of us have ever read any of the series nominated. In order to figure out what all the fuss is about, we each read the first issue of each nominated series at random and have provided our initial thoughts below! 

Bitter Root #1 

Creators: David F. Walker, Chuck Brown, Sanford Greene, Rico Renzi 
Publisher: Image Comics
Release Date: November 14, 2018

Steven’s Initial Thoughts:

I was very impressed with the first issue of Bitter Root!  Despite being a fan of Walker & Green’s Power-Man & Iron-Fist book that was published at Marvel in 20__, I must admit I was unaware that this book even existed.  The premise of an all black family based out of 1920’s Harlem, who uses a combination of witchcraft and steampunk technology to fight demonic manifestations of racism and hate, is a book that I never knew I wanted.  The family dynamics of the Sangeryeo clan are laid out clearly in a way that doesn’t feel like the characters are exposition machines merely there to catch the reader up to speed.  Artist Sanford Greee and colorist Rico Renzi are a fantastic combination.  The opening pages that take place in a Harlem Jazz club feel alive and full of creative energy.  Bitter Root feels right at home in a world where creators like Jordan Peele, Ryan Coogler, and Boots Riley are attacking age old problems that people of color face in the modern world.  By the end of the first issue, I can see this book potentially finding its place into the canon one day because of its unique ethnogothic flavor. 

Tara’s Initial Thoughts

This book seems to be the most complex and important of the nominees. It’s well researched, and it’s clearly driven by passion and rage. I don’t think it’s my favorite book at this point, but I can tell that this book is needed in the industry. It’s one of the books where I’m not the target audience, but I can still see why the book matters— I’m sure many comic book readers feel similarly about ManEaters. I do like the characters in this book, especially Blink and Berg. The way Berg uses language is entertaining for the reader, and also serves to slow the reader down to process what is being said, which is a nice touch. 

Crowded #1

Creators: Christopher Sebela, Ro Stein & Ted Brandt, Triona Farrell, Cardinal Rae
Publisher: Image Comics
Release Date: August 15, 2018

Steven’s Initial Thoughts:

Out of all the issues we reviewed for this post, I found Crowded to be the book I was least likely to return to after its first issue. The book is wonderfully clever with its satirical look at the modern practice of relying on crowd sourcing apps and where that practice could potentially take us. However, its central characters were not compelling enough for me to continue to follow. The twist at the end of the first issue was easy to guess and the central dynamic between the main characters felt so strained that I can not seen how this book can exist long term. I think this story is better suited as one off OGN. 

Tara’s Initial Thoughts: 

I liked this book reasonably well. When it first opened I was reminded of Heroes for Hire in the sense that you could hire superheroes. As the story progressed, that idea combined with what was basically Kickstarter Murder. The emphasis on technology in this work makes it grounded and relatable, but also runs the risk of making it too trendy. 

My favorite character is Vita and I’m interested to see where her character development goes. Charlie stresses me out, and I kinda want to see her get her ass kicked. However, I can see the chemistry between the two, and I suspect that there will be a romantic plot line between them, although I’m not sure if there’s any textual evidence for that prediction. 

Man-Eaters #1:

Creators: Chelsea Cain, Kate Niemczyk, Rachelle Rosenberg
Publisher: Image Comics
Release Date: September 26, 2018

Steven’s Initial Thoughts:

I have made no secret about how much I’ve missed Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Bitch Planet series. After the first read through of Man-Eaters by Chelsea Cain, Kate Kiemczyk and Rachelle Rosenberg, it is seems a worthy successor has made its way to the spinner rack. By utilizing a ludicrous concept (that women get their periods they become unstoppable feline killing machines), the creators take aim at the stigma around mensuration and femininity in our society. The quirky narration is aided Niemczyk’s clever splash pages that firmly establish the book’s satirical tone.  Out of all the first issues selected, the final page cliff hanger of this book felt like a gut punch. I am intrigued by how long the creators can sustain this book and how far they are willing to push the envelope. 

Tara’s Initial Thoughts:

I like the humor of the book a lot. It’s very sarcastic and witty. It takes a normal bodily function and exaggerates it to the point of “horror”, but it’s a comedic horror. The idea of women’s mood swings and hormones coming from their “pussy” and not men’s rather intolerable behavior is definitely inventive. Taking it to the next level with women’s periods turning women into literal pussies, or giant cats, is also interesting on an animal studies level. I would have to do more research into this, but on a first take, I’ve never heard of a big cat attacking someone for no reason. It’s always because someone invaded their personal space (like we see with a lot of attacks that happen at zoos), or because they were kept domesticated in private homes, or because of illegal hunting (which also makes a solid parallel to rape, unfortunately). 

However, I was expecting a bit more substance from the first issue. I might be biased on this front because, as a comic book reader, I generally trade-wait. But I got to the end of the issue and was surprised that was I there— I turned the page, the story was over, and I was disappointed because nothing much had happened. The entire comic was this weird exposition-through-action thing that writers do when they have to world-build. And I get that a lot has to happen before the story can really unfold; world-building, mood setting, and characters are all things you have to develop up-front. However, I still feel like the entire first issue could be summed up in the one page summaries that some comics have before the story starts— you will especially see it with cross-over events. Which is basically all a way of saying that the first issue felt like exposition, and that the real action will start in the next few issues. I loved the first issue, and I wanted more, but it reminds me of Y: The Last Man and I’m slightly worried that it will be too trendy of a book because of the sarcasm; since comics are written in a serial format, that trendiness can work for sales and not for long-term canonical reasons.

Gideon Falls #1

Creators: Jeff Lemire, Andrea Sorrentino 
Publisher: Image Comics 
Release Date: March 7 2018

Steven’s Initial Thoughts:

The first issue of Gideon Falls reads like the fist chapter of a long forgotten Stephen King novel.   Jeff Lemire— best known for his quieter and more introspective pieces like The Nobody, Essex County & The Underwater Welder —is charging head first into new territory with his first horror series. The mysteries set up within in the inaugural issues are compelling —  but also carry faint echos of LOST or the Dark Tower series where threads are laid but I’m hesitant to pull on due to fear of unsatisfying resolutions. However, without a doubt the most promising part of Gideon Falls is the art of Andrea Sorrentino. On the Secret Empire episode of the Critically Comics podcast, I previously declared my admiration of Sorrentiono’s style and innovative layouts. It is my hope that Gideon Falls will unleash the creative floodgates and let Sorrentino go absolutely bananas with his art duties. 

Tara’s Initial Thoughts:

I think I read the first issue when it came out, but I had forgotten about it. So reading this felt familiar and distant all at the same time. I loved this first issue and would 100% keep reading. I’m curious to know how Norton and Father Fred will intersect. I also want to know why Norton is drawn upside down so much. I’ve always enjoyed reading about people who are maybe crazy, but probably aren’t, and this book has that. I feel like my love for this book means that I should be saying deep complex things about it, but I don’t have deep complex things to say. I liked the tone and how it reminded me of Castle Rock and Fargo. I’m drawn to the characters— I immediately trust both of the m but am wary of that fact at the same time. 

Sky-ward #1 

Skyward #1

Creators: Joe Henderson, Lee Garbett
Publisher: Image Comics 
Release Date: April 18 2018

Steven’s Initial Thoughts:

Despite its simple concept, Sky-ward seems primed for an multi-media adaption. The main concept of living in without gravity seems perfect for a film or VR video game — it would allow for the world to feel so much more alive.  Based on the first issue alone, I can’t shake the vibe that this book was created in hopes of auctioning off the adaption rights in the future.  While the world of Skyward is fun, none of the characters or conflicts created within the first issue do not demand that I return in the future.

Tara’s Initial Thoughts:

I really like the cover, which is why I read it before Jeff Lemire’s book, and let’s be clear: that is the only reason. But it turned out to be a solid read. I felt like there was action, without giving away too much of the plot. The ending was great because it introduced a new character and a new set of stakes for the main character (who at the beginning of the book, I wasn’t expecting to be the main character). The plot of 20 years without gravity and people can’t even remember life without gravity. How. Fucking. Cool??!  Also, based on they first issue, I expect that this will be a great book for disability studies.  

One thing that I like about the book is that it feels outlandish without feeling crazy. I don’t expect to start floating, but if I did start floating and there was a scientist saying “I told you so” I’d be like “yeah, you did, but I didn’t read your article because there are way too many articles in academia, also I suck at math.” 

But I really love that it features a woman of color because the world needs more WOC-led books. Also, the prose is great. It’s been really hard for me recently to be invested in a story for the story and not for feminist, animal studies or non-fiction characteristics, but this book does exact that. But also I feel weird about it because Joe Henderson is a white guy and not a POC. 

Isola #1

Creators: Brenden Flethcher, Karl Kerschl
Publisher: Image Comics
Release Date: April 4 2018

Steven’s Initial Thoughts:

Disclaimer: High fantasy is typically not my cup of tea. However, the world and characters introduced in the first of Isola have intrigued me to return for at least one more issue. As a fan of the creators previous Gotham Academy book, I have no doubt Fletcher & Kerschl can successfully manage the task of world building at an appropriate rate. Despite feeling like this is equal parts King Arthur legend, Star Wars, and Avatar, Isla still feels fresh in large part to Kerschl’s art style. If the creators play their cards rights, Image may have another Saga level smash success on their hands. 

Tara’s Initial Thoughts:

As far as quality goes, this book is definitely top tier—up there with Gideon Falls. It did a ton of world building in a way that didn’t feel like world building, but instead felt like I was just reading a story. It also set up a lot of questions that I look forward to finding out the answers to. The art was beautiful, and I absolutely loved seeing how the Queen looked compared to the other animals in the story. My only complaint is that I would like a bit more character development— at this point I don’t know if the main character is a woman or still a teenager, or why she is with the Queen and no one else is. But I suspect those questions will be answered in the next few issues. 

Final Thoughts:

Steven’s Prediction: I think the book that impressed me that most was Bitter Root. Out of all of these books, Bitter Root has a premise and world I’ve never seen remotely like. After the first issue I’m rooting for this book to have a health life span. However, the book I am most likely to follow the most is Gideon’s Fall. Based on how other locked-box mystery stories have let me down in the past, I am not quiet sure if I’m ready to commit to another story in that genre.

Tara’s Prediction:
My favorite book was Isola, mostly because of its incredible art, but also for its beautiful prose. However, the book that I think is most likely to win the Eisner for Best New Series is Bitter Root. Its subject matter is both important and timely, and the voices feel very fresh.

Football, BBQ, and Moonshine: The Best of Southern Comics

by Tara Lawson-Harris

There’s a new trend in independent comic books—the Southern comic. And these books are delicious. Featuring Southern staples like down-home barbeque and moonshine, these stories highlight what the region is best known for. They also emphasize other great qualities of the South—strong family bonds, a desire to fight for what’s right, and an ability to overcome challenges like poverty. The issues these books tackle, such as racism, the opioid epidemic, and religion, are simultaneously distinctive to the region and relatable to the entire United States.

Unfortunately, this new genre is created almost exclusively by white men, which means you get a lot of the same tropes over and over. There’s a lot of room for growth. I mean, all you really need to do is create a story where the female character isn’t a waitress, stripper, or soldier and you’ve broken new ground. But while there’s a lack of diversity in terms of creators of the genre, the characters being written about are relatively diverse. At least two of the five feature women of color, and one has several people of color included in the story.

So without further ado, here are five great comic books about the South:


S

Southern Bastards by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour (2014, ongoing series)

By far my favorite comic on this list, Southern Bastards is about how the reverence of football leads to a culture of violence and corruption. When Earl Tubbs comes back to his Alabama hometown to settle his affairs, he immediately clashes with the football coach, who is known for having ties to crime in the area. This sets off a violent chain of events that leads to the introduction of the real protagonist: Roberta (Berta) Tubbs, a biracial woman and U. S. Marine who isn’t taking shit from anyone. The first 4 volumes are out now.

What makes it Southern: Football. It’s basically a religion in the book and in the South.

Loose Ends by Jason Latour, Chris Brunner, and Rico Renzi (2017, 4 issue mini-series)

Loose Ends is the only comic on this list that features characters of at least 3 different races. A self-proclaimed “southern crime romance,” the narrative centers on a biracial romance between an African American woman and a white man. While the main story takes place in the American South, there are flashbacks to some of the characters being at war in the Middle East. The characters avoid being stereotypes, and are relatively well developed. There are a lot of characters in the story, so the narrative can be confusing at points.

What really makes this story stand out is the coloring by Rico Renzi. He is best known for his use of bold, neon colors, but in Loose Ends he combines those neons with monochromatic spreads, creating a visual that you never get tired of.

What makes it Southern: Overcoming poverty.

Moonshine by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso (2017, ongoing series)

From the creative team of 100 Bullets, werewolves make moonshine and refuse to sell it to a New York gangster in 1929. Enough said.  

What makes it Southern: Bootlegging, which is foundational to the region’s history.  

Warlords of Appalachia by Phillip Kennedy Johnson and Jonas Scharf (2016, 4 issue mini-series)

This book is set in an alternate history where there was a second civil war, and Kentucky is the last state to hold out. I do want to emphasize that this is not a civil war based on slavery or racism, but instead on freedom of religion. The story focuses on Kade Mercer, a former Kentucky Guard who mostly keeps to himself, until his son is kidnapped by the United States government. Singled out by multiple groups for multiple reasons, Kade must navigate territories haunted by violent drug addicts, all while leading civilians to safety and avoiding being hunted himself.

What makes it Southern: The emphasis on drugs, religion, and family.

Cannibal by Brian Buccellato, Jennifer Young, and Matías Bergara (2016, ongoing series)

This series is about a society where the Yellow Fever returned, and in order to get rid of the plague, people infected were given medicine called a Y-PAK. What the CDC didn’t know when they issued the medicine was that a side-effect caused people to have to eat human flesh—otherwise they die of fever. What makes this story different from zombie stories is that these people are still fully functioning—they have jobs, families, and most importantly, remorse. Cannibal is set in set in Florida, where the outbreak is just now starting.

What makes it Southern: Florida swamps, and the mistrust of outsiders.

This list is not exhaustive of all the Southern books on the market, but it will give you a solid foundation of the genre. I fully expect that some of these books will end up being discussed on the podcast to see whether they belong in the canon.  The quality of these books are a bit of a mixed bag, but as more diverse voices and new stories get published, this will definitely be a genre to watch. I for one, can’t wait to read more of it.