Monday, December 29, 2008

I read every book Zenescope put out last week

In 2005, I bought a copy of Grimm Fairy Tales #1. The cover looked awfully goofy: There was a werewolf that looked like he spent most of his free time at the gym menacing a lingerie model wearing a ridiculously skimpy Little Red Riding Hood outfit, of the sort you would see online ads for before Halloween.

A flip-through revealed the cover and insides didn’t quite match up—the artists were different, and the story seemed a bit less silly than the cover—and bought it. Hell, I thought, I like fairy tales, and I like scantily clad women, so maybe this will be worth a read; if not, I can always review it, so it won’t be a total waste.

I didn’t care for it. In fact, I was kind of shocked out how bad it was, as eroticized fairy tales is something of a cottage industry within fiction writing and direct-to-video/DVD horror filmmaking. If I remember correctly, the story was two-tiered, with a modern story vaguely reflecting a slightly sexied-up, C-movie horror version of Little Red Riding Hood, both of which were told between its covers as an interlocking story (ambitious, I guess).

The art was pretty unremarkable, which seemed like the kiss of death. It was of the same inspired-by-what-was-popular-around-the-time-Image-was founded style that infected comics for far too long, and is now most often seen popping up in unlikely places like Batman, JLoA or various WildStorm titles. For the a comic like this to seem worthwhile to me, I would have expected the art to be top-notch, either providing extremely sexy visuals (and sexiness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, but I don’t really find anything at all sexy about an Ed Benes-like, third generation version of Jim Lee sexy) or an outrageous, ridiculous, hilarious sense of design, like some of the more sigh-inducing McFarlane toys based on fairy tales.

Looking at the cover gallery on, I recognize the next three or four, so I at lest flipped through those; I may have even bought #2, although I have no memories of the contents.

Flashforward five years later, to December 24, and Zenescope Entertainment has successfully built on the Grimm Fairy Tales formula of horror and PG-13 cheesecake featuring interchangeable Playboy model type women under a fairy tale inspiration veneer to have four new books on the racks that week. Zenescope has built up a line of books, many of them spinning off of Grimm Fairy Tales in one way or another.

I find this kind of remarkable. Not simply because I thought the issue (or possibly two) of Grimm Fairy Tales I read was so awful, but because the comics industry is such a hard one to succeed at, especially the direct market, where I see these books (I wonder if they have much of a bookstore or library presence; they certainly don’t seem like the kind of books that would be wildly popular outside the direct market, but I honestly have no clue).

What is the appeal, the attraction of the books? They’re not especially titillating; as far as I could see, there’s no nudity, or even any more near-nudity than you could find in your average DCU comic book these days, so it seems strange to think Zenescope has been able to sustain itself and grow its line based on the presence of scantily clad women on the covers. Particularly given how competitive the market is, and the fact that seeing naked ladies is so much easier for those interested in doing so than it used to be in the pre-Internet days—it’s not like teenage boys have to steal Playboys from one of their friends’ dad’s or hope they find a ripped up magazine in the woods somewhere.

Whatever it is readers see in the line, they see it in sufficient numbers to keep it going remarkably strong. Strong enough that I figured I should probably take another look and see what’s there exactly. So I read all four of the book’s Zenescope released last week.

Beyond Wonderland #4

Story by Raven Gregory, Joe Brusha and Ralph Tedesco; written by Raven Gregory, art by Dan Lester; color by four—count ‘em four—different colorists.

It took me about three pages to realize that maybe checking in on a publisher’s wares like this isn’t exactly the best way to go about it, as I’m obviously walking in on the middle of the movie here. I missed the first three issues of this series, which is some kind of riff on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books as gory horror movies, and according to the solicitation, this is actually a sequel to another miniseries I never read (Return To Wonderland).

It opens with a young, shaggy-haired boy named Johnny (Johnny Liddle, according to the solicit) in a basement, smashing his way through the looking glass into the book’s version of Looking Glass Land.

He immediately runs afoul of a garden of talking flowers, all of whom are more-or-less identical, Playmate-figured women rendered in what seems to be the sub-Benes house style, differentiated by their hair-styles and the skimpy, flower-themed outfits they wear. Oh, and they each talk in individualized dialogue bubbles, with colors and shapes reflecting the breed of flower they are. I generally find the give-everyone-their-own-font style of lettering in comics, but the flower shapes of the bubbles actually made this seem kinda of neat.

The flowers are introduced in a two-page spread, which you would usually reserve to reveal something really big and cool.

The flowers fondle and sweet talk Johnny, but he’s saved by a giant, toothy…hill. I think.

He soon finds his mom, who looks to be about the same age as him, wearing a ripped up Naughty Alice In Wonderland Halloween costume and chained up in a dungeon that he himself ends up chained up in.

His mom is being menaced by a creepy Mad Hatter-looking guy with a knife, who is her brother—Johnny’s uncle, then—and who proceeds to lick his sister’s face. This infuriates Johnny, who escapes, murders the Mad Hatter, and then goes to free his mother, who asks that he instead kill her.

This was my favorite part of the book, because Johnny took practically no convincing at all to murder his mother. It took only three panels for her to convince him to kill her.

Then Johnny skins his uncle, and he becomes the new Mad Hatter and proceeds to start stalking his own sister.

Grimm Fairy Tales #33

Written by Dan Wickline, pencils by Jordan Gunderson

First of all, note the numbering. This title made it to issue #33! That is pretty damn impressive right there. See, I didn’t like the first issue of this book one bit, but look! It made it to #33! Think about Virgin Comics for a minute. Remember them? Do you know how many of their books lasted 33 issues? I know, right!

Hell, Blue Beetle thirty-fourth issue comes out this week, and it’s been cancelled. And that was a DC book. He could team up with Batman and Superman at the drop of a hat, and he’s not going to make it to forty issues, whereas this title has hit #33 without giving any cancellation notice that I’ve heard of.

Well, I didn’t like this any more than I did #1. The design sense and the skill with which the art is rendered hasn’t changed much, and it has a somewhat sickly look…I believe of the sort that comes from coloring pencils with no ink (There are no hard, black lines or bold outlines…everything seems soft and fuzzy).

Apparently, GFT has burned up some of the more popular ones, as this is “Three Snake Leaves,” which a red-haired lady with a generic-looking book says is one of the more obscure fairy tales, one that was never made into a movie.

How’s the story go? There’s a scantily clad sick lady whose illness is cured by leaves brought to her by a snake. However, she starts acting increasingly snake-like, and her husband comes to a bad end.

This is paralleled by the main story, which is pretty silly.

There’s this guy whose wife is dying of terminal liver cancer, and who, in his spare time after work, is experimenting with various snakes in his basement lab to develop a cancer cure. He succeeds! But, like the wife in the story, his wife gets kinda snakey. The red-haired lady tried to warn him by letting him borrow her book, but he didn’t read the story.

The whole think culminates in a splash page shock image, but it didn’t seem worth the reading to get to. Maybe I was just jaded, having read the Kazuo Umezu stories IDW collected under the title Reptilia: If you really want to read stories about snake ladies that will scare the living shit out of you, you really oughta read Reptilia. (This is the face you will make the entire time you read it).

Grimm Fairy Tales Annual 2008

Written by Raven Gregory, Mike Kalvoada, Ralph Tedesco; art by Claudio Sepulveda, Axel Machain, Martin Montiel and Siva

And not only has it lasted 33 issues, there’s even an annual! Blue Beetle never had an annual! Manhunter never had an annual!

Like all of these books, this has multiple covers. Here, it's only two—the others all have three, including a holiday variant. I actually kind of like the Ale Garza one above. It's not a great composition or even a great image, but I like Garza's style in general; there's some personality to the art. I don't actually know what it has to do with the stories with in though. The Grim Reaper is in it—kinda—but no women dressed in...whatever they're wearing there.

In general, I’m a fan of annuals. I think they’re great, and wish every comic I read had an annual—a nice, big, fat, extra-helping of a comic I already enjoy. No one really seems to do annuals anymore; DC and Marvel both publish them, but they aren’t usually annuals (they don’t come out once a year), hardly any titles actually have them (just two to four a year or so, out of the whole line) and they’re just as often for characters that don’t even have books (Friday Marvel will release an Ultimate Hulk Annual, for example, even though there isn’t an Ultimate Hulk monthly, bimonthly or quarterly…why not just call it Ultimate Hulk #1 then? Sheesh).

So, if I liked Grimm Fairy Tales, I might like this But I don’t, and I didn’t.

This does function as I’d expect an annual to, though; it’s very much a feast of what you’d normally get in the monthly, by some of the same creators.

There’s a framing story involving two characters whose storyline must run through the ongoing—and which I might appreciate more if this wasn’t the third time I’ve read one of Zenescope’s Grimm Fairy Tales books—that culminates in an old-school Tales From the Crypt-style twist. In between, stories are told, each a horror movie-like riff on a nursery rhyme: “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary,” “Humpty Dumpty” (he’s just a big, fat bald guy, not an actual egg) and “Hush Little Baby.”

1001 Arabian Nights: The Adventures of Sinbad #6

Written by Dan Wickline; art by Rod Pereia and Alexandre Benhossi

This one seemed to be the most traditional action adventure comic of this bunch. While the others riffed on public domain characters, this one stars one, and while they were attempts at horror, this belongs to a different genre all together.

Again, I’m in the middle of the movie here, but basically there’s this roguish sailor by the name of Sinbad having some adventures with his colorful crew, including some kinda monster-y looking man and a coupla scantily clad ladies (but not more scantily clad than, say, Wonder Woman).

This specific adventure involves members of his crew rescuing a captured queen, while Sinbad confronts someone called Kabtrit and his naked, mouth-, nose- nipple- and genital-less lava ladies.

Wickline’s dialogue is action movie ready, and the artwork is sometimes vaguely Howard Porter-like (and probably the best I’ve seen in any of these books). I didn’t see anything here that set a fire under me to dig up #1-#5, or eagerly away #7, but in a lot of ways this seemed to be the strongest book of the bunch, at least in terms of meeting it’s own aspirations.

While the sexiness and horror in the fairy tale books isn’t particularly sexy or scary (at least by my definitions of those words), this is a straightforward Sinbad-as-superhero adventure and it reads like one.


LurkerWithout said...

You're confused by the viability of this line, while I just take it as further proof that large portions of the comics direct market audience are stupid and tasteless with shockingly large amounts of disposable income...

tomorrowboy 2.9 said...

"Then Johnny skins his uncle, and he becomes the new Mad Hatter and proceeds to start stalking his own sister."

You are making this up.
The comics old ok in the shop I worked in. Or well enough for us to order at least a couple of copies every month. I think people buy them cause they like the covers.
It's probably the same market as Tarot, except that one has actually nudity.

Greg said...

Zenescope publishes one book that I'm interested in, The Straw Men, which features Brett Weldele on art and is a creepy adaptation of a novel about a serial killer and a man searching for the truth about his past. It's very good, and if they make enough money on fairy tale porn so that they can publish good stuff, I say bring on the fairy tale porn!!!!

Tony said...

What's up with the ripped up porno in the woods? You're the third person I've heard of that encountered that when they were a kid.

malpractice said...

I buy Straw Men from Zenoscope for the Brett Weldele art (and it's not a bad story either), but that's it. I usually see these Grimm Fairly Tales books in the previews, and thought pretty much the same thing "who buys these ?".

Phillip said...

I read the first two or three issues of GFT (which is more than I woulda read if I had to buy my own copies) and although the stories were crap, what really stood out to me was how bad the art was. I recall mostly heavily photo-referenced art, and in the last issue I read (#3 or #4) there was a blonde character whose face was practically traced from a recognizable blonde Hollywood actress but the problem was that it was a different actress in almost every panel! Madonna, Drew Barrymore, Nicole Kidman, Lisa Kudrow, etc. etc., and they all had different hairstyles! But it was supposed to be the same person! In the same scene! It was unbelievable. Glad I wasn't paying for it...

Caleb said...

What's up with the ripped up porno in the woods? You're the third person I've heard of that encountered that when they were a kid.

I suspect there are movies where kids find porn magazines in the woods. I never actually found a whole one in the woods...just occasional pieces of of one.

Anonymous said...

Believe it or not, I have an explanation on the ripped-up porno (which I dutifully explained to my wife when we were watching CSI where that was an issue). You don't want to dispose of mags in the garbage for fear of the wife finding out. And you ain't giving it away because that leaves a paper trail. So the best way to ditch it is if you're in the woods, perhaps using the excuse that you're going out for a walk.

The more you know!

chris said...

My theory on why these are semi successful:
They use familiar superhero style art and colouring but they're not superheroes so they don't compete with fanboys' favourite characters.

Anonymous said...

I think they sell well because they're good.