Over the past few years, Kickstarter has helped some exceptional comics see publication, and Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream (Locust Moon) is one of the biggest. Really big. Not only does this anthology feature some of most acclaimed names in comics, it also measures in at a mammoth 16 by 21 inches, the broadsheet newspaper size of Winsor McCay’s original Little Nemo In Slumberland comic strips. It’s a huge endeavor for a small publisher like Locust Moon Press, and it’s a rousing success, beautifully paying tribute to McCay’s seminal work by interpreting his vision through the perspective of over a hundred remarkable cartoonists.
The stories in this anthology run the gamut from lighthearted comedy to heartbreaking drama, with some creators offering fairly straightforward continuations of McCay’s concept while others move in more experimental directions. Most of the stories are only one page, showing off the individual creators’ ability to tell a complete story in a condensed space, but quite a few artists choose to create two-page spreads that are especially forceful in this book’s oversized format. Bill Sienkiewicz and David Mack have the two longest stories in the anthology at four pages each, with Sienkiewicz telling a hauntingly dark and bleak story about Nemo’s death in Slumberland while Mack brings his influential creation, Kabuki, into McCay’s world to further explore themes he delves into in his creator-owned work. Other artists also bring their signature characters to McCay’s dream world, including Michael and Laura Allred’s Madman, Dean Motter’s Mister X, and Jill Thompson’s Scary Godmother.
It’s fascinating to see creators like J.G. Jones, Paolo Rivera, John Cassaday and Laura Martin, J.H. Williams III, and Farel Dalrymple modify their distinct styles to reflect McCay’s work, and they take full advantage of the complete freedom presented by the central concept of a boy who falls asleep and is taken to a world where anything can happen. Some artists like Katie Moody and S.M. Vidaurri choose to go the autobiographical route and look at how McCay’s work has directly influenced them, while others examine Little Nemo in a historical context, like R. Sikoryak’s exploration of Sigmund Freud’s discoveries about the nature of dreams and how they relate to reality.
Some cartoonists are here to have some fun, like Andrea Tsurumi, whose tale about Nemo going bra shopping in Slumbraland ends with a hilarious punchline when Nemo wakes up and checks the status of his chest. Nemo is constantly falling out of bed, and Galen Showman uses that common occurrence as the starting point for a darkly comic piece about what happens when all those tumbles lead to significant damage to Nemo’s health. A common theme is that Nemo’s adventures in Slumberland are directly influenced by what he’s feeling in real life: He’s attacked by squid monsters after eating calamari; his gas after eating hot dogs and sauerkraut for dinner turns him into an interplanetary balloon; a cold becomes a stampede of animals coming out of his nose; and his mother’s jazz music causes him to dream of a reality-altering trumpet.
There are quite a few stories about how the limitless imagination of childhood fades as one grows older, revealing just how astonishing it is that McCay was able to create such a fanciful work that has influenced countless people to remember the joy of creation without any inhibitions. Ultimately, Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream is an anthology about the infinite potential of the comic-book medium, an inspiring work that shows what can be done with a few pages and a lot of creativity. It’s a true triumph and a wonderful tribute to McCay’s legacy, establishing Locust Moon Press as a major new force in the comics industry. [OS]
Although the actual space was torn down years ago to make room for a now-defunct grocery store, Fort Thunder is the gift that just keeps on giving, lo these many years later. For those who came in late: Fort Thunder was a warehouse art space in Providence, Rhode Island, founded by RISD students Brian Chippendale and Mat Brinkman (a whole bunch of others were involved but those are two you might recognize). It was around from 1995 to 2001 before being evicted to make room for said supermarket. Even though it’s long gone down the memory hole, people still care, and are still beating trails in the wilderness outside the burnt remains of the Fort.
It’s not just casual association that compels us to begin with a tip of the hat to Fort Thunder. Mickey Zacchilli went to RISD, too, even if she got there too late to physically throw her body in front of the bulldozers. There’s a page by Chippendale in the Fan Art section in the back of Rav (Youth In Decline), the collection of issues #2-6 of Zacchilli’s self-published series of the same name. It’s a nice page, but it only highlights how far Zacchilli has already traveled from these familiar referents.
As an artifact, it is a thing of rare beauty, a queasy-colored tankōbon about an inch thick and just a little bit taller than the Penguin Classics edition of Kant’s Critique Of Pure Reason. Just holding it is an aesthetic experience of the kind old Immanuel could barely dream. Open the book and the story slithers and screams off the pages onto your fingers. It feels like it’s printed on the kind of obnoxious yellow construction paper out of which kindergarteners cut block letters. You’re never quite certain what she’s drawing with—is it a cheap ballpoint pen or an exquisite ink brush? Where did she get all that Zip-A-Tone from?
Explaining the story in Rav is almost beside the point. There’s this guy named Juice who looks cool but is actually kind of a sucker, and he’s seeing this girl named Sally. They get separated after a midnight fight in a graveyard, and Juice goes on a torturous underground quest to be reunited with his lost love. Meanwhile, Sally makes her way to an IHOP where she meets Snake Prince Edward, a snake prince who helps her fight off some occult bad guys before she turns into a monster cloud, but not before getting her hand cut off. One year later she’s dumped Juice, somehow has her hand back, and is hanging around with Snake Prince Edward on the regular. He seems like an okay dude, so you barely notice that he’s a snake man. Juice is carrying around a kitten and getting involved in sex dungeon dice tournaments, which is certainly more interesting than your last Friday night out.
These pages move, daddy-o. At 276 pages, it feels like the book should be longer than it is, not because you’re missing anything but because you could easily read another five of these in one sitting and not feel the afternoon was wasted. It’s best not to try to decipher all the action on each individual page: If it looks like scribbles and scratches from a distance, you’ll be surprised at how much sense it all makes sense up close. Zacchilli knows how to flip those pages. It’s not really scrunched and tortured at all—it flows like the most violent shōnen you’ve ever read—but it’s got explicit sex and just as explicit pancake-eating. Basically, if you can find a copy, you should buy it, if only so you can sell it on eBay for $200 in a few years when all the cool kids catch up. [TO]
It’s been a while since writer Kurt Busiek debuted a new creator-owned comic series, but the wait has been worth it. Returning to Image Comics for the first time in over a decade, Busiek delivers a jam-packed first issue with Tooth & Claw #1 (Image), a new fantasy ongoing starring a cast of humanoid animals living in a world where magic is a steadily depleting resource. Teaming with artist Benjamin Dewey, colorist Jordie Bellaire, and letterers/designers John Roshell and Jimmy Betancourt, Busiek crafts a riveting introduction to a meticulously detailed world of mysticism and interspecies politics, offering an astounding amount of story in this 48-page first issue.
At a time when many comics run 20 pages for $3.99, Tooth & Claw provides 48 pages for a dollar less, making it one of the best values on the stands. The price point makes it especially appealing, but it’s even better when paired with writing, art, and design work of this high caliber. Busiek has proven himself as one of the strongest world-builders in comics with titles like Astro City and Arrowsmith, and that talent is on full display in this first issue. He gives a deeply thorough look at religion, politics, and class in the floating city of Keneil, and the amount of material covered in this introduction rivals what most creators cover in an entire arc. Busiek builds an entire society in this issue then proceeds to tear it all down, and the work put into setting the groundwork makes those later events all the more devastating.
Much like Juan Díaz Canales and Juanjo Guarnido’s brilliant crime series Blacksad, Tooth & Claw uses anthropomorphized animal designs as shortcuts to character development. Different creatures have different personality traits: The central bull terrier character, Dunstan, projects friendliness and compassion; buffalo slave workers have a threatening aura; and Gharta, a female warthog mystic, is dignified but also a little weary. Dewey does impressive work mining emotion from these animals, and the painstaking detail he brings to his characters is matched by the work he does on the environments. He doesn’t take any shortcuts, which is quite the feat considering how many group sequences require a diverse menagerie of animal characters dressed in their own distinct fashions.
Detail is the key word when it comes to Tooth & Claw, and this entire creative team has clearly put an immense amount of thought into each aspect of the book. Jordie Bellaire’s coloring accentuates the tonal shifts of the scripts with ease, beginning with a sunny, optimistic palette that is a stark contrast to the high-impact coloring of the issue’s tragic later moments. Magic may be a regular part of this world, but that doesn’t mean it’s not something fantastic, and Bellaire emphasizes the spectacle of the mystical elements with vivid hues that pop against the more subdued palette used for scenes of domesticity. A climactic spell-casting scene is awash in wildly fluctuating rainbow colors, creating an ethereal atmosphere that brings splendor to a scene that ultimately descends into gruesome horror.
There’s a retro quality to this book that is highlighted by Roshell and Bettancourt’s lettering and design work, using a stylized font that is more expressive than the usual computerized lettering in modern comics. The word balloons feature no borders but have a coarse black line that connects the text to the speaker, a small but effective detail that creates the impression of hand-lettering without requiring that level of labor. Every element of Tooth & Claw has been finely tuned, and at $2.99 for a double-sized first issue, it’s a can’t-miss introduction to a new series by some of the industry’s top talents. [OS]
Flesh & Steel: The Art of Russ Heath (IDW) is a handsome, hefty tribute to one of the great unsung heroes of comics. Conceived as the catalog for a retrospective exhibition of the same name in Palma De Mallorca, Spain, the exhibition and catalog were both labors of love on the part of Spanish comics scholar Florentino Flórez, and the affection for the subject shows on every page of lovingly reproduced original art and never-before-seen sketches and paintings.
Heath is a relatively underappreciated figure in American comics history—without the peculiar cult followings of Toth or Ditko, or the legacy of Kubert or Kirby, he’s a figure set slightly apart. Part of this is a consequence of contemporary bias: Heath disliked superheroes and avoided drawing them whenever possible. He repeatedly turned down Batman at DC in the ’50s and ’60s in favor of war heroes like Sgt. Rock. He created the Haunted Tank with Robert Kanigher, even though he apparently hated the series because of Kanigher’s repetitive scripts. He wasn’t too fond of the Sea Devils, either, for whom he produced some of his finest art, even though he still preferred scuba divers to superheroes. He didn’t care for fantasy, even thought he did excellent work in that genre. He disliked and continues to dislike Kirby. Throughout his career he was an arch-realist, with no affection for exaggeration or cartoonishness in general—this despite the fact that he could switch back and forth between realism and the lurid neon cartoonishness of Playboy’s Little Annie Fanny effortlessly. (Oh yeah, he lived in the Playboy Mansion, at Hef’s invitation, for six months in the ’60s. Let that one sink in.)
Heath lived an interesting life, but as a biography this catalog falls short, at least partly due to Flórez’s affection for his subject. Read between the lines and Heath is revealed as a principled but very prickly man, confident in his skill as well as his bluster. Reading through Flórez’s disorganized but enthusiastic chronology, it’s easy to see how Heath, despite his best efforts, might have earned his reputation for difficulty. But really, the reader isn’t in it for the notes, but for the lavish illustrations and the pages upon pages of original art, including multiple complete stories from his time with DC and Warren. Heath liked to ink his own pencils, and when he does so the results are nearly flawless, with nary a line out of place in even the most exquisitely detailed crosshatching.
IDW typically does well with these types of tribute volumes, so it should come as no surprise that this one is pretty darn great. We should consider ourselves lucky to live in a time where artists such as Heath can survive not only to receive their dues, but can inspire lovingly curated reference volumes such as these, which deserve a place of honor on bookshelves and in libraries across the world. [TO]
Donny Cates’ Buzzkill was one of the most impressive debuts of last year, offering a refreshing take on superheroes by detailing the struggle of a recovering addict who gains superpowers when he’s inebriated. (Fans of that series will be pleased to learn the creative team will be reuniting for a sequel, The Paybacks, next summer.) Cates co-wrote that series with Eliot Rahal, but The Ghost Fleet #1 (Dark Horse) proves that he can deliver a thrilling story on his own, offering a white-knuckle sci-fi action mystery that lands with incredible force.
The story begins with a one-page introduction delving into the historical background of the Ghost Fleet, which was founded during the 1815 Battle Of New Orleans when General Andrew Jackson struck a deal with privateer Jean Lafitte, giving pardons to Lafitte and his crew in exchange for information on how to move sensitive cargo and classified information in a way that would be impossible to track. The very first panel of the story showcases artist Daniel Warren Johnson’s skill for dynamic violence, and the action only becomes more exhilarating once the story moves to the present for an outstanding extended chase sequence pitting two members of the Fleet against shadowy figures trying to steal the cargo from the big rig under their protection.
Cates provides an intriguing start to the miniseries that leaves the reader with plenty of questions to be explored over the course of the narrative, but the main attraction of The Ghost Fleet is the stunning artwork from Johnson and colorist Lauren Affe. The car chase is one of the most difficult action sequences to do well in comics, but Johnson stages an intensely kinetic vehicular free-for-all that is brimming with speed and power. He builds tension by emphasizing distance at the start of the sequence, gathering momentum until he reaches a full-page splash that turns a deadly collision into a thing of beauty. The sense of motion in that splash is outstanding, with Johnson using hand-lettered sound effects, bloody viscera, and a sharply angled perspective to capture the full impact of the crash.
The speed is further exaggerated by Affe’s colors, using flashes of orange, yellow, and red to add a fiery heat to the chase. Her palette transitions into sickly green and cool blue once the action has subsided, but those hot colors return for the issue’s final page, another powerful splash that sets up destruction on an even bigger scale for the rest of the miniseries. How the story will reach that moment is a mystery at this point, but judging by this first issue, it’s going to be a hell of a ride getting there. [OS]
For his latest creator-owned series, Tüki Save The Humans, Jeff Smith has taken a decidedly different approach from his past works Bone and RASL. To start, the series debuted online at Smith’s Boneville website, using a horizontally oriented format that made it a better fit for digital devices. It’s also Smith’s only creator-owned series to first see publication in color rather than starting with a black-and-white edition and having those already released issues colored at a later date. But the format isn’t the only thing that’s different. Just as the sci-fi crime noir RASL was a stark departure from the all-ages fantasy of Bone, Tüki Save The Humans #1-#2 (Cartoon Books) has Smith exploring new storytelling avenues with a paleontological tale about the first human to leave Africa following the Ice Age.
Prioritizing atmosphere over narrative, these first two issues are fairly slight on story, but Smith and colorist/designer Tom Gaadt impeccably realize the sprawling environment of a pre-civilization Earth. The first issue begins with a gorgeous landscape shot of Tüki’s world, but Smith immediately narrows the scope for a comedic sequence showing Tüki’s struggle to eat a particularly slippery piece of fruit. This gives him the opportunity to showcase his refined cartooning skill, maximizing character expression and visual detail with a calm, controlled line. Smith uses the horizontal format to engage in more wide-screen storytelling, and there’s a heavy element of spectacle that makes up for the minimalist plotting.
The second issue sees Smith pushing the story in a more action-packed direction as Tüki fights to protect a young boy he discovers on his journey, facing off against a saber-toothed tiger and an evil spirit that takes the form of a 10-foot-tall Gigantopithecus. There’s a primal energy to these sequences that is accentuated by Smith’s animated artwork, and because he’s working with a colorist that can provide texture and dimension, there’s less pressure on Smith to render everything in intense detail. While it’s hard to tell what kind of extended narrative Smith has planned for this series, these first two issues succeed in transporting the reader to another time, and Smith’s passion for this period in Earth’s history comes through on every page. [OS]