Comic book reviews: Stray “Who Killed the Doberman?”

Stray is a project that writer Vito Delsante has had in the works for a few years now.  Following the completion of a successful Kickstarter campaign, the four issue Stray miniseries was published by Action Lab Entertainment, with the conclusion released last week.

Stray 1 cover

Delsante and artist Sean Izaakse tell an interesting variation on an old superhero formula.  The protagonist of Stray is Rodney Weller.  When he was in his early teens Rodney was the costumed crime fighter the Rottweiler, partner to the vigilante known as the Doberman.  There are certainly parallels to the classic Batman & Robin relationship here, although Rodney is the Doberman’s actual son, and the Doberman did not become a masked hero until after his wife died.

Through a series of flashbacks Delsante & Izaakse show Rodney becoming the Rottweiler and fighting at his father’s side.  We also see the eventual, biter break-up of their partnership.  Rodney becomes convinced that his father regards everything in stark terms of good and evil, and is unable to recognize that some criminals are not actually bad people, but have been driven to break the law by economic desperation.

The disillusioned Rodney leaves home and becomes a sought-after organizer of parties & raves.  Along the way he becomes something of a criminal himself, peddling the addictive drug Gsmack to club-goers.

Unfortunately for Rodney his latest girlfriend kills herself while under the influence of Gsmack.  He is hauled in by the cops for drug possession and manslaughter.  At the police station Rodney then receives more bad news courtesy of Detective Brooks: the Doberman has been murdered.

Stray 2 pg 5

Although the “Who Killed the Doberman?” story arc is ostensibly a murder mystery, it is really concerned with examining Rodney and his ambivalent feelings towards his father.  With the Doberman dead, Rodney is left with a great deal of unresolved anger towards his father as well as his former allies.  He is also uncertain if he should follow in his father’s footsteps and assume the identity of the Doberman in order to track down the killer.

I know that I often complain about decompressed writing in comic books, so perhaps it’s odd for me to suggest that this story might have worked better if it had been an issue longer.  At the end of part three Brooks informs Rodney that he’s figured out the identity of the murderer.  I was surprised because I didn’t think that Delsante had presented any real clues, much less actual suspects.  When I bought issue #4, though, I first re-read the previous three issues, and this time I did notice that Delsante had sprinkled in a few subtle clues here & there.

It was also odd that Delsante never gives the murderer any sort of motive other than good old fashioned insanity.  It felt like there should have been an explanation for why the killer specifically chose the Doberman and the other victims.  There seems to be some sort of history connecting them all that Delsante just barely hints at.  Well, at least it gives him something to explore in a subsequent miniseries.

Delsante is perhaps overly ambitious in these four issues of Stray.  He introduces a large supporting cast and alludes to various complex relationships and past events without having the room to really delve into any of them.  However, Delsante is nevertheless successful in the primary focus of his story.  He develops Rodney into an interesting, three-dimensional character (although he never explains how Rodney got into dealing drugs).  And, again, all of that background material lays the potential groundwork for a number of future stories.  I really would like to find out more about all of these characters and their histories.

Stray 3 pg 9

I was previously not familiar with Izaakse.  So naturally I did the Google thing.  It appears that Izaakse is relatively new to the biz.  Before Stray he worked on Pathfinder, a fantasy series published by Dynamite.  For someone who has only been doing comics for a few years, Izaakse work here on Stray is very good.  His action sequences are definitely dynamic and exciting.  There is also a great deal of detail to his art.

More significantly, in a story such as Delsante’s, which is very concerned with character development, there are a number of lengthy scenes of dialogue.  Izaakse adeptly handles these “talking heads” sequences.  He lays out those pages very well, turning in some strong storytelling.  The narrative definitely flows well from panel to panel.

Stray 3 cover

A number of artists contributed covers to Stray.  The prolific Mike Norton illustrated the cover for the debut issue.  ChrisCross, a really dynamic artist whose work I definitely enjoy, drew the cover for issue #3.  Hold on a sec, is that an actual pit bull behind the wheel of that car?!?  Man, that’s just too cool.  Yeah, I think that future issues of Stray should have Rodney going out on patrol with his dog Sam.  Maybe Sam really can drive a car!

There were variant covers for Stray as well.  Khary Randolph, Shawn McGuan, Paige Pumphrey and Julian Lopez each drew a really cool variant, and I wish that I’d been able to get copies of them.

In conclusion, while there are several hiccups to Delsante’s writing, on the whole he does quality work on Stray.  I really hope to see more from him in the near future.  Rodney is too good a character not to be featured again.  The letters page in in issue #4 announced that Stray will be co-starring with Molly Danger and Midnight Tiger in a special scheduled for release in November, which is good news.

Stray TPB cover by Dean Haspiel

I certainly recommend this miniseries.  It’s a good read with quality art.  If you missed these issues then you are in luck.  In what is an extremely fast turnaround, Action Lab is releasing a Stray: Who Killed the Doberman? trade paperback on June 10th.  The amazing Dean Haspiel illustrated a brand-new cover for this collected edition.  So there’s your second chance to pick this one up.

Free Comic Book Day 2012 at Jim Hanley’s Universe

As you may have noticed, I go back & forth in terms of topics.  Most of the time I write about comic books & sci-fi, but occasionally I will share my thoughts on political or societal issues.  I hope the shifting of gears isn’t too disconcerting!  In any case, today I’ll be going back to the lighter side of things, and talking about Free Comic Book Day 2012, which this year was on May 5th.

I went to the big event that was held at Jim Hanley’s Universe, a comic shop on 33rd Street in Manhattan by the Empire State Building.  The store was giving away the Free Comic Book Day special issues released by Marvel, DC, and a variety of independent publishers.  I decided to go with the “indies” this year, and got the spotlight books from Image, IDW, and Valiant, plus The Censored Howard Cruise published by Boom! Town.  The books were understandably of a promotional nature, with mostly excerpts from upcoming comics and interviews with creators.  I was disappointed that the IDW volume was nothing but a big catalog, but looking through it, they do publish a diverse range of titles and graphic novels.

In addition to the give-away books, Jim Hanley’s Universe had several comic book creators as guests: Robert Venditti, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, Dan Slott, and ChrisCross.

Venditti is the writer helming the re-launch of X-O Manowar from Valiant Comics.  I read a lot of the original Valiant titles back when I was in high school and college.  For a while, they had some good books.  Hopefully the company’s revival will bring about some quality titles.  Venditti was signing copies of the first issue of X-O Manowar.  I bought a copy, which I haven’t had a chance to read yet.  But skimming through it, the artwork by Cary Nord & Stefano Gaudiano looks amazing.

What can I say about Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez?  He is just an amazing artist who has worked at DC Comics for several decades.  The thing is, he is not what you would regard as a “household name,” because he’s never had a lengthy stint drawing any particular series.  But the odds are very, very good that you have seen his work without realizing it.  In the 1980s and 90s, he was the main licensing & style guide artist for DC, producing hundreds of pieces of artwork that were used on all manner of products: t-shirts, cups & mugs, posters, toy packaging, etc, etc.  Of the work he has done which is credited, Garcia-Lopez illustrated some amazing stories, working on characters such as Superman, Batman, Jonah Hex, and Deadman.  I am especially fond of his depictions of Wonder Woman.  He draws the Amazon princess as a stunningly beautiful yet strong and confident figure.  In addition to getting several books signed by him, I was fortunate enough to get a quick sketch of Wonder Woman from Garcia-Lopez.

It was cool meeting Dan Slott again.  He is probably one of the nicest guys in the comic book biz.  Slott’s been writing Amazing Spider-Man for the last few years.  I brought along my copy of Justice League Adventures #11, which was a very moving, emotional issue, to get autographed.  It turns out that was one of Slott’s favorite comics that he’s worked on, and he explained the background behind how he came to write that particular story.

Finally, I ended up waiting on line a while to get ChrisCross’s signature on a few books.  He was generously doing free, detailed sketches for everyone who wanted one, and there were a bunch of teenagers in front of me getting drawings by him.  Considering that the last time ChrisCross was at JHU he took the time to do a nice Batman sketch from him, I figured that I ought to be patient and let some other people have their turns.  Besides, ChrisCross is an amazing artist, so I definitely wanted to get a few things autographed.  I asked him if he was working on any new projects, and he said he is, but the details are top-secret.  I’ll just have to keep my eye out for his work in the future.

So that was Free Comic Book Day at JHU.  As you can imagine, it was really crowded & hectic, but a lot of fun.  It looked like the staff was ready to drop from exhaustion, though, and I don’t blame them!

I took a few photos at JHU which I posted on Flickr.  Here’s a link:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/bh123/sets/72157629626265134/

Anyway, if you happen to be in the New York City area, Jim Hanley’s Universe is a cool comic shop that’s well worth checking out.