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.

Cats and comic books: Counter Attack by Alisa Harris

This past February  on Kickstarter there was a fundraising campaign that I happily supported.  Ever since then I have been eagerly anticipating the project that was in the works.  Yesterday the completed book finally arrived in the mail: The Collected Counter Attack! by Alisa Harris.

Collected Counter Attack cover

Alisa Harris is a Queens-based artist & cartoonist.  Michele and I first met her in May 2011 at the Mini Zine Fest held at Pete’s Candy Store, a bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Among the mini-comics that Harris had for sale was Counter Attack, a cute series about her two mischievous cats, Moe and Fidget, that she has been creating since 2005.  Michele and I have two cats of our own, Nettie and Squeaky, and in the last few years I have become a huge cat lover.  I purchased Counter Attack from Harris, and I found it adorable.  (The series is so titled because, as Harris explains “Any cat will tell you: the best position of attack is from the kitchen counter.”)

Collected Counter Attack Moe and Fidget

Harris does a fantastic job investing the illustrated versions of Moe and Fidget with the personalities they posses in real life.  Anyone who has ever had a cat can tell you that felines have very distinctive temperaments.  They can be funny and adorable and mischievous and bossy, often all within the space of a few minutes!  Harris’ ability to capture those qualities, as well as her charming art style, made Counter Attack a big success.  The comics kept selling out and she kept having to re-print them.  That’s when she came up with the idea for a Kickstarter campaign to fund a collected edition of Counter Attack, with brand new material included.

Personally speaking, I believe that mini-comics are a real fount of creativity.  There are many very cool self-published comics out there from numerous talented creators.  That said, I never know how to store or organize them!  So, yeah, since I kept re-reading my copies of Counter Attack, and I also kept misplacing them in my jumbled, disorganized piles of books and comics, a hardcover collection was something that appealed to me.

Collected Counter Attack Alarm Clock

As a cat owner (or perhaps that should be a human who is owned by cats?) I have a lot of identification with the anecdotes and misadventures of Moe and Fidget that Harris illustrates.  I am certain that many humans with feline friends will also find these episodes vary familiar.  After all, what human with a cat has not been woken up at the crack of dawn (or earlier) by a cat who wants their breakfast?  Evidently in Harris’ household, her cat Moe likes to tap her on the head.  In my own case, Nettie will lean over my sleeping face and start poking me in the nose with one of her paws.  If that doesn’t work, and I still refuse to get up, on occasion she will extend one claw and begin prodding the tip of my nose with that, which inevitably works.  Yeah, sometimes Nettie can certainly be bratty!

Collected Counter Attack Well Trained

Cats also like to sharpen their claws.  I understand that this is a natural habit they engage in.  That’s why most people purchase a scratching post for their cats, so that their personal property will not get shredded.  Michele and I got one for Nettie and Squeaky.  I can count on one hand the times each of them have used it.  Instead they scratch everything else: the bed, the chairs, the sofa, the bookshelves, even my comic books!  And all the while they ignore a perfectly good, practically brand new scratching post!  I see from the pages of Counter Attack that Harris also experiences this phenomenon.

The Collected Counter Attack! is a cute, funny book.  Copies can be ordered through Alissa Harris’ online shop.  Also available is a “fun pack” containing the issues of her series Urban Nomad, which she describes as “Quirky true stories about living in the many boroughs of New York City.”  I recommend purchasing a copy of The Collected Counter Attack!, especially if you love cats.  You will be looking through the pages of the book and constantly saying to yourself “Yep, that’s my cat, too!”

Comic book reviews: Rocket Girl #1-5

One of the new titles that I’ve been enjoying lately is Rocket Girl, which is written by Brandon Montclare and illustrated by Amy Reeder.  Last year’s Kickstarter campaign to fund the first issue was such an overwhelming success that Image Comics decided to publish the book.  Rocket Girl #5 just came out, wrapping up the first story arc, while leaving plenty of unanswered questions hanging in the air, no doubt causing many readers besides myself very much anticipating the next installment of the series.

Rocket Girl is the story of Dayoung Johansson, a 15 year old who travels back in time from 2013 to 1986 to change history.  The 2013 that Dayoung comes from is not “our” present / future, though, but a world where the titanic corporation Quintum Mechanics has made tremendous technological breakthroughs, creating a world where glistening high tech skyscrapers, robots, and personal jet packs are commonplace.  In other words, it is a vision of tomorrow very much in keeping with the idealistic future envisioned in the pulp sci-fi novels & movies of the mid-20th Century.

Dayoung, though, is not content.  A member of the New York Teen Police Department, she sees the tremendous political and economic power being wielded unopposed by Quintum Mechanics.  And then an anonymous informant known only as “Joshua” informs her that Quintum came to power by sending technology back through time to the founders of the company in 1986.  Convinced that “crimes against time” have been committed, Dayoung sneaks into Quintum headquarters and utilizes their time travel tech to go back 27 years into the past and avert what she regards as the perversion of history.

Rocket Girl 5 cover

Brandon Montclare poses some intriguing questions in his scripts.  I constantly find myself wondering if Dayoung Johansson’s mission is justified.  Unlike so many other science fiction stories involving traveling in time to alter history, the 2013 seen in Rocket Girl is not some sort of dystopian or post-apocalyptic nightmare.  So far we have mostly just seen the members of the NYTPD and Quintum Mechanics, which makes it difficult to get a feel for what sort of life the average citizen has in Dayoung’s 2013.  But it doesn’t seem all that different from the “real” 2013.  Actually, it seems a bit more pleasant, with cool technology.  And you don’t seem to hear anyone talking about global warming, pollution or crime.

Yes, Quintum Mechanics appears to be a shadowy, amoral corporate entity with too much influence.  But what happens if Dayoung succeeds in undoing the apparent alterations to the time stream?  Rather than a world where Quintum is manipulating events from behind the scenes, we would have “our” 21th Century where the Koch Brothers and their like are pulling the strings of power.  It is not going to be a “better” world, just a different one with similar flaws and corruptions.

There is also the implication that the board of directors of Quintum actually want Dayoung Johansson to travel back to 1986, that her attempt to alter the past is a crucial part of the corporation’s rise to power.  Montclare is definitely playing around with the notion of temporal paradoxes here.  It’s mind-bending stuff.  We even see people from 1986 meeting Dayoung for what is, from their perspective, the first time, and then 27 years later running into her again, where she doesn’t know them because, in her personal time line, she hasn’t yet traveled back in time.

And that got me thinking… I would not be at all surprised if the mysterious informant “Joshua” turns out to be the 2013 incarnation of someone we have already been introduced to in 1986.  It would certainly be interesting if “Joshua” was revealed to be Annie, the idealistic pink-haired Quintum Mechanics scientist who quickly befriends Dayoung upon her arrival in 1986.  Because people do most certainly change over a quarter century, and the Annie of 2013 would not doubt have a very different view of the world than her younger self.

Rocket Girl 1 pg 9

Dayoung Johansson is a well-written character.  She is very much a teenager, impulsive and headstrong, full of a simplistic idealism about how she thinks the world ought to be, disdainful of anyone over 30.  I can look at Dayoung and recognize aspects of the sort of person I used to be when I was in high school.  Yeah, if you had given me a jet pack and a time machine when I was 15, I would probably have made a mess of the timelines in some sort of ill-considered attempt to “fix” history.

The artwork by Amy Reeder is fantastic.  As I’ve written before, I’ve been a fan of her work since I first saw it on Madame Xanadu several years back.  Reeder continually gets better as time goes by.  I was impressed by the Halloween Eve special she did in 2012, her first collaboration with Montclare (although they knew each other from when he was her assistant editor at Vertigo).  Reeder is now creating even more impressive work on Rocket Girl.

One of the most striking things about Reeder’s work is her stunning layouts.  She utilizes some very unconventional, dramatic storytelling techniques.  They are especially effective in the action sequences where Dayoung is kicking ass or rocketing around, zig-zagging all over the place.  Reeder definitely  imbues her still images with a genuine sense of dynamic action.

Rocket Girl 4 pg 10-11

Reeder is also especially skilled at rendering her settings.  I already knew from her work on Madame Xanadu that she excelled at depicting historical setting in lavish detail.  Here in Rocket Girl she both imagines a futuristic 2013 full of bright, streamlined technology, and she recreates the gritty urban sprawl of New York City in the mid-1980s.

Rocket Girl is briefly going on hiatus, with issue #6, the opening chapter of the second story arc, scheduled to come out in September.  If you missed the first five issues, I recommend picking up the trade paperback which is due out next month.  It’s an intriguing, thought-provoking, fun read with incredible artwork.

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.

Don McGregor and Trevor Von Eeden are on Kickstarter

There is a Kickstarter fundraiser currently taking place that I really wanted to draw everyone’s attention to.  Writer Don McGregor and artist Trevor Von Eeden are attempting to raise the funding to publish their brand new graphic novel Sabre: The Early Future Years.  I’ve already written about how much I enjoy Von Eeden’s artwork in my July 24th blog post.  Because of my appreciation for his artwork, I’d really like to see this project get funded.  McGregor and Von Eeden’s target is $17,000 to me met by September 9, 2013.  As of this writing, they have only raised $6,631, approximately one third of their goal.  I did pledge a few dollars, but due to my current work and financial situation, I wasn’t able to offer too much.  So I’ve been promoting the hell out of this, really hoping that others can also pitch in.  Here is the link to their page on Kickstarter where you can pledge funds:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/jsacks/sabre-graphic-novel-by-don-mcgregor-and-trevor-von

And below is a preview of Trevor Von Eeden’s artwork for Sabre: the Early Future Years.  It features coloring by George Freeman, who previously worked with Von Eeden on his two volume graphic novel The Original Johnson.

sabre early future years preview

In addition to being a fan of Trevor’s art, I also greatly enjoy Don McGregor’s writing.  He has a very distinctive style of prose, narration, and dialogue, a real sophistication to his plots and scripts.  In the past, McGregor has worked on a number of critically lauded, groundbreaking stories.

In the 1970s, while at Marvel Comics, McGregor did well regarded work with the character of Black Panther in the pages of Jungle Action.  He also had an exception run on Amazing Adventures, chronicling the saga of Killraven, a freedom fighter struggling to overthrow Martian invaders in an apocalyptic future.  Debuting in Amazing Adventures #18, the Killraven / War of the Worlds feature was initially conceived by Roy Thomas & Neal Adams, inspired by the H.G. Wells’ novel.  However, with the character’s fourth appearance in issue #21, McGregor took over as the series’ writer.  He worked with several different artists over the next few issues.  And then an up-and-coming P. Craig Russell became the regular illustrator with #27, producing stunningly vibrant, bizarre artwork.  The two collaborated on Killraven until Amazing Adventures was cancelled at issue #39 in 1976.  McGregor and Russell reunited to craft a coda to their run which saw print as the Killraven: Warrior of the Worlds graphic novel in 1983.

Amazing Adventures 28 cover

It was in 1978 that McGregor teamed with artist Paul Gulacy to create the first Sabre graphic novel, which was released by up-and-coming independent company Eclipse Comics.  In the early 1980s, an ongoing Sabre series was also published by Eclipse, lasting 14 issues.  Comics Bulletin is currently running a multi-part interview with McGregor looking at the origins of Sabre.  Here’s a link to the first installment:

http://comicsbulletin.com/columns/6013/the-great-sabre-interview-part-one-characters-that-are-alive-in-an-alternate-universe/

While at Eclipse, McGregor also wrote a pair of noir mysteries, Detectives Inc.  The first graphic novel, A Remembrance of Threatening Green, was drawn by the talented Marshall Rogers, with the equally amazing Gene Colan illustrating A Terror of Dying Dreams.  McGregor and Colan later re-teamed on a mammoth 25-chapter Black Panther serial “Panther’s Quest” which ran in Marvel Comics Presents.  I’d like to see that one collected in a trade paperback.

Detectives Inc 1 cover

Those original Sabre and Detectives Inc. stories have subsequently been reprinted by other publishers such as Image and IDW.  Those collected editions are well worth seeking out.

So, having gone into all this detail about McGregor’s amazing writing, I really hope that I’ve piqued some interest, and that people will show their support for his latest project.  Separately, McGregor and Von Eeden have each rafted truly exception work in the past; together I expect that they make an amazing team.  I definitely hope that one day soon Sabre: The Early Future Years will be published.  I’ll keep you all updated on their progress.

September 10, 2013 Update: Unfortunately, the Kickstarter fundraiser did not meet its goal, only reaching $11,618 of the needed $17,000.  I was really looking forward to seeing the new Sabre graphic novel.  I am going to keep in touch with Don McGregor on Facebook, and see if he decided to attempt another Kickstarter campaign in the future, or perhaps go another route. Hopefully, one way or another, the book will make it into print in the near future.