Comic book reviews: Fearless Dawn by Steve Mannion

Yipes! It’s been almost two weeks since I’ve posted an update to this blog.  I’ve been crazy busy with stuff, and with catching up on sleep, and with getting woken up at four in the morning by my cats.  In any case, today I will be looking at a couple of recent projects from someone who I regard as one of the most talented creators currently working in the comic book biz: Steve Mannion.

Fearless Dawn in Outer Space cover

It was in the pages of Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty #10, a very bizarre, funny, offbeat issue published in 1999, that I first discovered Steve’s amazing art.  Subsequently, he has worked on Batman, the revival of Tales from the Crypt published by Papercutz, and a number of creator-owned projects.  Over the past 14 years, I’ve watched Steve grow in leaps & bounds as an artist.  He has such an amazingly funny, sexy style to his work.  It’s reminiscent of the classic art from the EC Comics titles of the 1950s.

One of Steve’s signature characters is Fearless Dawn, his sexy yet sweet, ass-kicking, pistol-packing, goofball heroine.  Two of Steve’s most recent books featuring the character are Fearless Dawn in Outer Space, published by Asylum Press, and Fearless Dawn: Hard Times, which he self-published through a Kickstarter fundraiser.

Over the last several years, Steve has been experimenting with pencil-only pieces.  He tried out this style on some beautiful commission pieces which can be viewed on Comic Art Fans.  This has culminated in his amazing work on Fearless Dawn in Outer Space.  The entire book is shot from his pencils, and it looks absolutely stunning.

Fearless Dawn in Outer Space pg 6

Dawn’s long time nemesis, the nutty Nazi femme fatale known as Helga Von Krause, has relocated to the Moon with her army of fascist zombies.  This, of course, sets Dawn off, and she is jumping at the chance to rocket into space and kick some kraut caboose.  Dawn’s boss, the Chief, isn’t exactly thrilled at the idea of his most impulsive agent going off half-cocked on a personal vendetta, and tries to ground her.  Meanwhile, Helga and her forces discover that living on the Moon isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  After a series of shenanigans, Helga & Co return to Earth, where they encounter Doctor Wigglestein, a super-scientist with more than a few loose screws who is breeding dinosaurs on a tropical island.

(At this point the story is continued in Fearless Dawn: Jurassic Jungle Boogie Nights, but I don’t have a copy of that one.  Hopefully at some point in the future Steve will collect it and the other recent Fearless Dawn specials into a trade paperback.)

Skipping forward, we come to the just-published Fearless Dawn: Hard Times.  The art on this one was even more amazing.  It’s great to see Steve continue to experiment with and evolve his style.  His work here is somewhat akin to Wally Wood meets Geof Darrow.  The change in the atmosphere of the art definitely suits the story.  Dawn’s beloved pet pug has been dog-napped by Helga and her forces.  Dawn, who has a tendency to overreact to everything, shifts into a fatalistic grim & gritty mode, and is ready to go out in a gun-slinging blaze of glory in order to take down Helga once and for all.

Fearless Dawn Hard Times cover

Story-wise, Steve goes in an interesting direction with Hard Times.  In previous Fearless Dawn stories, his plots and continuity were, I will admit, somewhat sketchy, serving mainly to help link together a series of hysterical gags and good girl artwork.  That never really bothered me, because it was obvious that Steve’s main goal was to have fun drawing some cool, funny stories that the reader enjoyed, and he was very successful at that.  With Hard Times, though, there is more of an emphasis on establishing links back to previous stories and the developing of ongoing subplots.  Steve even takes Helga, who previously was pretty much a send-up of the “Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS” type bad girl of pulp fiction and grindhouse flicks, and he begins to develop a back-story for her.  I’m really interested in seeing where all of this goes.

And I guess that ties in with another aspect of Steve’s artwork that I really like.  He draws very beautiful women, but his artwork never comes across as sexist or demeaning.  Steve often renders his women with curvy physiques, so that they look rather more like burlesque performers than, say, porn stars.  I would not be at all surprised to learn that Steve was a fan of Bettie Page.  Even a character like Helga Von Krause, who has very fetishistic overtones, is both played her for laughs and written with a real take-no-prisoners attitude.

Fearless Dawn Hard Times pg 12

Speaking of Helga, a couple of years ago I commented to Steve that I thought his character, if she existed in real life, would be exactly the kind of gal that Sandra Bullock’s sleazy ex-husband Jesse James would go for.  Steve laughed, and responded that Helga would break him in half.  Hmmm, yeah, I could see that happening!

If you are not familiar with Steve Mannion, I highly recommend checking out his work.  You can see what he’s currently up to on his blog, and back issues of his comic books are available at the Indy Planet website.

Comic books I’m reading, part three: independent titles

It’s the Fourth of July, American Independence Day, and so today I’m going to do a rundown of what independent comic books I’ve been reading recently.  For the purposes of simplicity, I’m just going to consider anything that is not Marvel or DC as an independent.  And I’ll be covering graphic novels in a later post, because otherwise this one is going to be way too long!

I’ve already written an in-depth review of The Grim Ghost before, but I wanted to mention it again.  Written by Tony Isabella, with artwork from Kelley Jones & Eric Layton, for my money The Grim Ghost was the best superhero comic book of 2011.  This six issue miniseries published by Atlas Comics unfortunately ran into some distribution problems with the final issue.  As I’ve heard it, Diamond Distributors decided to cancel (or, as they would say, “re-solicit”) the shipping orders for a number of small companies at the end of last year, so that they could focus their resources on sending out the copious amounts of DC’s New 52 titles that were being ordered by comic shops.  That’s the problem when it comes to dealing with a monopoly, folks, you’re at the mercy of decisions like that.  Anyway, I was eventually able to obtain a copy of #6 by ordering it online from the Atlas Comics website.  It was a great conclusion to a fantastic story.

Grim Ghost 2 cover

As I’ve posted before on this blog, I’m currently following Erik Larsen’s long-running Savage Dragon and his revival of Supreme, both published by Image Comics.  Larsen is one of my favorite comic book creators, a total fountain of colorful characters & imaginative ideas, and I really look forward to seeing what he does next on each of these titles.

Additionally, there is another pair of books from Image, written by Joe Keatinge, that I’m reading.  The first is the re-launch of Rob Liefeld’s Glory, which Keatinge is doing with Ross Campbell.  The other is a brand new series, Hell Yeah, with artist Andre Szymanowicz.  That one is really interesting, as it looks at “the first generation raised in a world where superheroes exist,” to quote Keatinge himself.  The protagonist, Benjamin Day, learns that across myriad alternate realities, other versions of him are being murdered.  The identity of the killer is revealed within the first few issues, so it’s not a whodunit but rather a “whydunit,” so to speak.  Keatinge’s writing is very riveting, and I cannot wait to find out what happens next.  The artwork by Szymanowicz is very well done, having the feel of something out of Heavy Metal.

Steve Mannion is an artist with this incredibly wacky, zany, sexy art style.  His work is somewhat reminiscent of EC Comics, both Wally Wood’s sci-fi spectacles and the offbeat humor of Mad Magazine.  I first discovered Mannion’s artwork when he drew an utterly baffling, but nevertheless very funny, issue of Captain America about twelve years ago.  Mannion went the self-publishing route for a while, but in recent years he’s had his books coming out through Asylum Press.  His signature character, Fearless Dawn, has been featured in several books.  The most recent have been Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp and Fearless Dawn in Outer Space.  I haven’t had an opportunity to pick up the second of these yet, but The Secret of the Swamp was an insane riot, just lots of crazy fun.  Mannion continues to grow as an artist, and I cannot wait to see what he does next.

Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp
Fearless Dawn: The Secret of the Swamp

Over at IDW, there are a few licensed titles I’ve been picking up.  The main one is G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, written by Larry Hama.  That’s the series which continues the continuity from the original comics published by Marvel back in the 1980s and 90s.  It seems like Hama is having a lot of fun writing this book, and it’s definitely an exciting read.  I’ve also been picking up some of the Doctor Who books, which do a good job of capturing the feel of the series.  Right now IDW is publishing the improbable but entertaining Star Trek / Doctor Who: Assimilation miniseries, which has beautiful painted artwork by J.K. Woodward.  This one is more of a natural fit than you might think, as the Borg are really pretty much the Cybermen with a bigger budget.  So it makes sense to combine those two cyborg menaces, and then have the crews of the Enterprise and the TARDIS come together to confront them.

IDW is also publishing Godzilla.  I bought the first few issues of their initial title, Kingdom of Monsters.  That had nice art, but the writing just never clicked for me, and I ended up selling them on Ebay.  I was much more impressed with the five issue miniseries Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths, written by John Layman, with artwork by Alberto Ponticelli.  That was an incredibly deft blending of the kaiju genre with a noir hardboiled crime story.  Layman wrote some very compelling human characters.  Ponticelli’s art was stunning, offering stunning giant monster action sequences, as well as more human moments.  Gangsters & Goliaths was published last year, but it has been collected into a trade paperback, which I highly recommend picking up.

Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths #1
Godzilla: Gangsters & Goliaths #1

I got the first two issues of the new X-O Manowar series published by Valiant.  So far so good.  The writing by Robert Venditti is very well done.  He appears to have done a great deal of research into the historical era that the initial story arc is set in.  The artwork from Cary Nord & Stefano Gaudiano is quite impressive.  I really enjoyed the original Valiant books in the 1990s, so it’s nice to see them return.  X-O Manowar is definitely a great initial title for their reboot.  Hopefully I will have the funds to continue picking this one up.

I certainly cannot close out an entry on independent comic books without mentioning Love and Rockets by Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez, published by Fantagraphics Books.  Since around 2001, I gradually began reading Love and Rockets through the collected editions.  And within the last four years, I’ve really got into the series, as my girlfriend is a huge fan of the works of Los Bros Hernandez.  Having someone I could discuss these stories and characters with really made them come alive for me even more so than in the past.  As I have written previously, the Hernandez Brothers have both created large casts of interesting, multi-faceted, nuanced, compelling characters.  I often find myself talking with my girlfriend about these characters and the plotlines they are involved in as if they were real people & events.  And, of course, both Jaime and Gilbert are incredibly talented artists who not only draw amazingly beautiful women but also know how to tell a story through pictures.

Love and Rockets: New Stories #4
Love and Rockets: New Stories #4

For the last few years, Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez have been releasing Love and Rockets as a giant-sized, hundred page annual publication.  Love and Rockets: New Stories #4 came out last autumn, which hopefully means the next edition will be on sale in a few months.  In New Stories #4, Jaime continued the story of Maggie and Ray’s on-again, off-again tumultuous romance, as well as the tragic tale of Maggie’s brother Calvin.  Jamie’s story had a really dark, heartbreaking occurrence, followed by an ending that seems deliberately ambiguous.  It reminded me of his classic tale “The Death of Speedy,” where Jaime left it up to the reader to decide exactly what had happened at the conclusion.

In his half of the book, Gilbert appears to be continuing his recent practice of creating graphic novel adaptations of the B-movies that his character Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez has acted in.  Fritz’s niece Killer (at least, I think that’s how they’re related… I’d love if Gilbert would put together a family tree for his characters, there are so many of them) follows in her aunt’s cinematic footsteps in New Stories #4, starring in a very strange vampire story.  There seems to be a great deal of subtext and symbolism to Gilbert’s recent stories, and they no doubt benefit from repeated readings.  I think that at times his work is perhaps too obscure.  But at least it does require you to think it through, and work to interpret it.

This is an aspect that both Gilbert and Jamie’s work possesses, that their stories are not something you can just breeze through.  There is a very substantive quality to their works.  Love and Rockets is not the easiest read out there, but it is worth taking the time to try and figure out what the Hernandez Brothers are attempting to articulate through their stories.  In other words, they really make you think, definitely a good thing.

There are obviously a great many more really good independent comic books currently being published besides the material I’ve covered in this blog post.  Unfortunately, financial and time constraints prevent me from picking up more of the books out there.  Just remember that those books do exist.  They may not be as easy to find as the latest big events from Marvel or DC.  But it is well worth it to take the time to seek out all the great stuff being published.  The creative future of comic books really doesn’t lie with the Big Two any longer, but with the creators working on new & exciting projects released through the smaller independent publishers.