"Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Always Darkest" by Joss Whedon and Jo Chen
Jo Chen is by far the best of the Buffy artists I’ve seen, able to strike a perfect balance between celebrity likeness and original art that stands, lives and breathes on its own. Her tendency to give characters played by actresses with small breasts remarkably larger bra sizes aside, her covers tend to be the very best part of the (admittedly terribly few) Buffy books I’ve read, and I can say with some confidence that my BTVS TV series virginity aside, I’d certainly read an ongoing comic if Chen drew the interiors.
So in that Chen drew this whole story, it is awesome.
On the other hand, it’s only three pages long, and it took you far longer to read the last few sentences than it will take you to read this story. It’s a dream sequence most notable for Spike and Angel going all yaoi, with a little punchline ending.
"Rapture" by Michael Avon Oeming and Taki Soma
This is an eight-page sample of Soma and Oeming’s vaguely-Christian post-apocalypic adventure, which I believe is currently being published as a miniseries.
There’s this gal flying around with a scarf and a magic spear (The Spear of Destiny…maybe…?), fighting cannibals at the behest of a flying, cloaked character called The Word who probably isn’t actually Jesus Christ, but man, isn’t weird to have a character named “The Word” and a Christian post-apocalyptic fantasy story?
He looks kinda like a spooky superhero and has an upside-down pentagram on his chest.
Oeming’s art is, as always, a pleasure to read, but this sample didn’t make me want to read Rapture comics. I wouldn’t mind reading a review of the eventual trade paperback though, if only so I can understand what the book is actually about.
"Dreamstar" by Gilbert Hernandez
So, is DC ever going to hire Hernandez to do a Power Girl comic?
"Penny: Keep Your Head Up" by Zack Whedon and Jim Rugg
Unlike a lot of the stories herein, this one doesn’t seem to be attached to any sort of larger comics series or franchise. Instead, it’s just a well-made, sweet little eight-page story about a lonely young woman trying really, really hard to save the world through acts of social activism, and having trouble getting a date in the process.
By the time I closed the book, I think this remained one of my favorite stories in the volume.
"Martha" by Dave Chisholm
It’s two old men in a little car vs. a young woman on a motorcycle in this weird little Road Warriors kinda story with a twist ending. I love Chisholm’s art.
"A Day at the Zoo" by Carolyn Main
This is actually my very most favorite story in this volume. It’s about a grade school field trip to a zoo, and the many crazy things that happen to poor Violet and her pet gerbil while they’re there. It’s…it’s kind of hard to describe exactly. You can read it for yourself here (please do!), and then proceed to her website where it’s quite easy to burn an hour or more taking in all her great art and comics.
"Em and Gwen: Magic Spell" by Farel Dalrymple
Dalrymple is an artist who, like Jim Rugg from a few stories ago, is one whose work, style and line I admire so much that it hardly matters what he’s drawing, so long as he’s drawing it. Like, whatever the actually story is supposed to be about, whatever the events in it or the dialogue, I just like looking at the way Dalrymple draws fists and faces and curbs and walls and telephone poles and fences and the corners of buildings and so on. Also, he’s a fantastic letterer.
This is one of the several stories in this volume that I have no idea if it’s connected to something else or is supposed to be a standalone story.
It’s about two girls named Em and Gwen. We meet Em winning what looks like a prearranged fight with a boy from a private school. Then she goes to a magic tree that Gwen apparently lives inside to get the sweatshirt she left there. And that’s, well, that’s it, really.
As literature goes, it ain’t great, but there are some nice moments of comics working as only comics can, and it is all drawn (and lettered) by Dalrymple.
"Flower Mecha" by Angie Wang
Okay, here’s another one that is on my short list of favorites. The plot? A girl is on a picnic, when she’s attacked by pollen. She retaliates by getting inside her Flower Mecha, but then she’s attacked by a bird, a bee and a butterfly, which necessitates upgrading into a different mecha.
While there’s some funny word play, and the story is rather amusing, it’s the way that Wang tells it that is important here.
Each of the eight pages is divided into three rectangular panels stacked vertically. The style is old-school fine art Japanese, and everything depicted is highly-stylized to fit with that aesthetic, even the more modern stuff like goggles and racing gloves employed by our heroine when she’s seen within the cockpits of the mechas. The action in each sequential panel whips in alternating opposite directions, making for a exhilaratingly, violently kinetic work. It’s only 24-panels long, but God is it action-packed.
Actually, don’t listen to me try to find the right words. Just go read it. And if, like me, you were unaware of Wang’s work, you should check her and it out here and here.
"The Secret Files of the Giant Man in Paris" by Matt Kindt
The format of Kindt’s graphic novel 3 Story: The Secret History of Giant Man played such an important role in the story, that an eight-page, side-story would seem all but impossible. But Kindt does it, and does it well.
"Tickets" by Mike Lawrence
Eh, I did not care for this story at all. It’s well drawn, but way too precious, with narration that makes the fairly obvious beats of the story over-obvious.
Also, I thought the old lady exploded during the panel with the SPLATHOOM!! sound effect in it.
"Piper’s Pet" by Nicholas Kole
A little kid using a piece of delicious-looking pie as bait in an attempt to catch a pet. Why kind of fish are attracted to that particular bait? This two-page, 16-panel story provides the answer.
"Face of Evil" by Tory Novikova
The moral of this story about a mysterious pirate is, if I’m reading it correctly, that girls are evil. I thought so.
"R.J. Jr., The Dragon’s Librarian" by Alec Longstreth
I quite enjoyed this short story about a book-hording dragon, his own personal librarian, and by the latter for get new reading material by the former.
Longstreth’s art is very simple in design, but the panels are all very busy and detailed, which is sort of a neat trick the more I think about it.
I didn’t much care for the backwards name gags though. They’re just kind of there.
"The Origin of Man" by Kate Beaton
This is a two-page, full-color comic strip in which Charles Darwin thinks he’s discovered which animal man has evolved from (Hint: it’s native to the Galapagos), but is laughed at by his fellow scientists, who embrace an even more ridiculous theory.
The great thing about Beaton is that almost everything she draws because of the way she draws it, a two rare but completely invaluable talent in a cartoonist. The look on Darwin’s face in each of these panels is honestly enough to crack me up, devoid of context.
"An Early Sunset" by Joseph Lambert
"The Catch!: A Wondermark Tale" by Dave Malki
I admire the hell out of Malki’s Wondermark and the way the strip’s constructed, both in regards to the imagery and the plotting, but this story seemed to go on a page or two too long for my tastes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty funny, and at least two disparate threads are brought together in a satisfying conclusion, but I think Wondermark works much better in smaller bites.
"Sinfest: Street Poetry"
Tatsuya Ishida, doing what Tatsuya Ishida does best.
"Achewood: The Garage Sale" by Chris Onstad
This is an eight-page, full-color story that deals with the familiar subject matter of Teodor having a grage sale, and Roast Beef showing him how it’s done.
It’s a fine example of Onstad’s considerable virtues as a writer, including a random assortment of fully realized, highly idiosyncratic characters that belong to an unusual subculture (i.e. garage sale regulars), and his regulars essentially just being themselves, interacting with a specific set of circumstances (Asks Ray, “What’s the chick scene at a garage sale? Pretty bad?”).
"Werewolves on the Moon: Versus Vampires—Bad Blood" by Dave Land and the Fillbach Brothers
I didn’t much care for this one. It’s actually a sort of prologue to the Werewolves on the Moon Dark Horse published, but because of that they aren’t actually on the moon at all during this eight-page story, nor do they fight vampires…in fact, there are no vampires at all. So the title doesn’t do much to prepare one for the story, which is essentially a light-hearted crime story wherein all the participants are werewolves for a reason that is never made apparent.
"The Goon and Ann Romano: Gone Dishin’" by Ann Romano and Kristian Donaldson
This Romano character showed up in the previous volume, writing the introduction and appearing in a not-very-good-at-all story full of lame celebrity gossip jokes.
This one’s a lot better, in large part because it involves The Goon, Franky and the weird world of the Goon.
There’s a bar fight involving fish-men, and a giant octopus cook holding a cooking utensil in each tentacle and neither of those are the best part—the bartender is a monstrous fish-person who has lost each of his hands and had them replaced with hooks, and yet he’s still—successfully!—in disguise, wearing a fake beard.
The Romano character doesn’t really add much other than pop culture references and a Lindsay Lohan joke (Is it cool making fun of Lohan? It just seems kind of mean to me at this point), but Romano the writer does a pretty decent Goon story.
"The Marquis and The Coachman" by Guy Davis
Davis’ dark, bizarre-looking, alternate history hero stars in a short eight-page story in which he encounters and battles some of Davis’ typically strange monster designs. It’s been a long time since I read the original Marquis comics, and I’ve sort of forgotten the exact premise, but I enjoyed this short little peek back into that world, and Davis’ art is always a pleasure to read, perhaps especially in a case like this, where it’s in service of a story that is all Davis, from the words to the settings to the character designs to the architecture.
"And What Shall I Find There?" by Mike Mignola, Joshua Dysart and Patric Reynolds
Migonla simply co-writes this Hellboiverse story about a very young Trevor Bruttenholm in 1939 rural France, where he seeks the supernatural answer to an obscure art folklore mystery. It’s a typically pleasant horror story of the sort Mignola is now known for, and while Patrick Reynolds art lacks the high degree of stylization present in that of Mignola himself or many of his collaborators (Guy Davis, Duncan Fegredo, Richard Corben, etc), it’s certainly effective and pleasant enough.
"Star Wars: Dark Times—Blue Harvest" by Mick Harrison and Douglas Wheatley
I could count the number of Star Wars comics I’ve read on one hand, and my interest level in the franchise at this point is probably at the lowest point it’s ever been in my life (I was born in 1977, and thus quite literally grew up with Star Wars), so I was expecting this to be rather hard to get through.
I was therefore quite pleasantly surprised that it was a fairly engaging read, and by the time if was over I found myself wanting to know where the story it sets up continues so I could find out what happened to the protagonist, a retired Jedi knight forced to become a bounty hunter.
I suppose that has a lot to do with Harrison’s skill as a writer, and the fact that he is basically telling a story that would make just as much sense in ancient Japan or the American Old West as it does in space. That is, it’s not contingent on the setting or, at its heart, a Star Wars story. It’s just a story that happens to be in space, and happens to bear the Star Wars brand name. (In fact, if it weren’t for the presence of some alien species—whatever race Hammerhead is from, the Asian stereotype banker aliens of the new trilogy—I recognized from the movies filling up the crowd scenes, I probably wouldn’t even known this was a Star Wars comic).
It also has to do with how lush and fully realized Wheatley’s artwork is. Richly colored by Dave McCaig, they achieve the more beat-up, lived-in aesthetic of the original trilogy, which seems appropriate given the subject matter.