Comic relief

From superheroes to horror to kid stuff, our guide to Free Comic Book Day offers graphic fun for all.

Topics: Books,

Comic relief

This Saturday, May 3, is the seventh Free Comic Book Day — an annual tradition in which comic book stores around the country give away free stuff, host creator signings, put things on sale, and generally encourage merrymaking. (To find a store near you that’s participating in FCBD, see this site.) As usual, both major and independent comics publishers are publishing special issues that will be given away in stores — 41 different titles in all, although not all participating stores carry all of them, and most stores have a limit of a few freebies per customer.

This is a big week for American comics in general — it’s no accident that Free Comic Book Day falls on the day after the “Iron Man” movie’s opening, and superhero buffs may also want to snag a copy of “DC Universe Zero,” a 50-cent special that came out this Wednesday. For that matter, a few independent publishers have arranged to distribute giveaways this weekend outside of the FCBD system: Keep an eye out for “Diamond Comics” and “Nerd Burglar.”

The official 2008 slate of free comics includes almost no mature-readers-only titles, and a wide selection of kid-friendly titles — although, as usual, some are much better than others. Here’s a quick overview of most of the giveaways you may find at your local store, sorted by category.

Long-Underwear Types

“All-Star Superman” (DC)

A reprint of the first issue of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s splendid reinterpretation of Superman. It’s so finely tuned and compressed that it sums up his origin in eight words, Quitely’s artwork is exquisitely airy and worth lingering over for its subtle details, and the whole thing’s brimming over with crazy ideas and joyful energy. A

“Atomic Robo” (Red 5)

A pretty clever idea — a shirt-and-tie-clad robot in the Cold War era, dealing with the threat of Communist nuclear science — it’s decently if a bit awkwardly executed, with appealing design and color work. The “Neozoic” backup, about two adventurers’ fight with a dragon, is just as pretty but more clichéd. B+

“The Death-Defying ‘Devil” (Dynamite)



Yet another “dark, modern” revival of a character from the ’40s. The mute hero of this one was once known as Daredevil, but has no relation to the character currently bearing the trademark. Not only is it a (tediously familiar) setup for an actual story to be published elsewhere (in “Project Superpowers”), we only get 10 pages of story amid all the ads. C-

“Love and Capes” (Maerkle Press)

A neat little romantic comedy in superhero drag: The Crusader wants to find exactly the right moment to propose to his girlfriend, but family issues, holidays and occasional spates of crime fighting are getting in the way. It’s an airy, self-contained coda to the recent miniseries, and artist Thomas F. Zahler makes visual ideas from contemporary animation work on the page. A-

“Marvel Adventures Iron Man & Hulk & Spider-Man” (Marvel)

This old-fashioned action-adventure story (part of Marvel’s line aimed at younger readers) teams up three of the superhero world’s big movie stars, and also features Machu Picchu, gigantic talking ants and magic rings. It’s funny, energetic and mercifully self-contained — smart 11-year-olds will treasure this. A-

“The Moth” (Rude Dude Productions)

Steve Rude is a first-rate superhero cartoonist — his stuff is kinetic, elegant, witty and smooth. That’s still no excuse for throwing together a bunch of unrelated pages from his 4-year-old miniseries about a circus-based mystery man, adding a little narration, and calling it a “collector’s edition.” C

“X-Men” (Marvel)

Give them credit for offering a complete, otherwise unavailable story of the mutant superheroes (and a spunky Welsh teenage girl who joins the team), drawn by star artist Greg Land, whose photo-inspired style works well here. Mike Carey’s story is X-Men-by-numbers, but it’s a decent introduction to the long-running series. B

Horror Business

“Broken Trinity Prelude” (Top Cow)

Stjepan Sejic’s artwork often looks like a cross between movie CGI and heavy-metal soft porn, but he’s got some mighty impressive design chops. If this teaser for a Witchblade/Darkness/Angelus crossover had an even vaguely coherent or interesting story, it could be promising. Sadly, it doesn’t. C+

“EC Sampler” (Gemstone)

Curious readers of David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague” may want to see the early-’50s stories from EC Comics that caused all the ruckus. The four short stories reprinted here are peculiar choices, though — Harvey Kurtzman and Alex Toth’s “Dying City,” a brutal tale of the Korean War, is still powerful, but the others are marred by corny twist endings. B

“Hellboy” (Dark Horse)

Three short, complete tales set in Mike Mignola’s chiaroscuro-laden, Lovecraftian horror-adventure mythos. They all get over on mood and mystery more than plot, but they’re treats for fans of the series (or the movie), and “Out of Reach,” a police procedural that ties in with Mignola’s “B.P.R.D.” project, is actually chilling. A-

“Salem: Queen of Thorns” (Boom! Studios)

A preview of screenwriter Chris Morgan’s new series about a demon hunter in 17th-century Salem, where the infamous witch trials are complicated by the actual presence of the supernatural. It loses points for obviousness — think the guy who says “secure the rabble and discipline these cowards” might be a villain? — and for cutting off just as things get going. C+

Didn’t This Used to Be a Book/TV Show?

“Bongo Comics Free-For-All! 2008″ (Bongo Comics)

A trio of Simpsons stories — the superhero parody is slightly less funny than a not-so-good episode of the series, the manga parody is borderline offensive (what, they can’t do better than kamikaze and bad-translation jokes?) and the one about Bart refusing to bathe … well, the less said the better. C

“Graphic Classics” (Eureka)

Some of these five adaptations of supernatural literature are appropriately weird and distinctive-looking, especially Milton Knight’s frenetic take on Lord Dunsany’s “A Narrow Escape” and Simon Gane’s blobby, wildly distorted version of Conan Doyle’s “John Barrington Cowles.” But impressionable youth might come away from this thinking that Edgar Allan Poe and Mary Shelley are boring. B-

“Maximum Ride” (Yen Press)

The first installment of a series based on James Patterson’s fantasy novels about a family of part-human, part-bird hybrids. NaRae Lee’s artwork is a decent evocation of generic manga, and fans of the books won’t be too disappointed, but this excerpt doesn’t even manage to communicate the premise of Patterson’s story clearly. C+

“Transformers Animated” (IDW)

Constructed from stills from the first episode of the Cartoon Network show, this one-shot features the shape-changing robots battling giant bugs. These drawings were made for the small screen, not for the page; it’s a jumpy mess in print, and this is ultimately a comic book based on a TV show based on a movie based on another TV show based on a line of toys. C

The Arty Edge

“Gekiga!” (Drawn & Quarterly)

Short excerpts from forthcoming translations of two vintage Japanese comics: Seiichi Hayashi’s late-’60s “Red Colored Elegy” (in which a pair of young lovers experience inarticulate angst) and Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s early-’70s story “Hell” (in which a photographer is tormented with guilt over his photo of post-bomb Hiroshima). There’s just enough to get a sense of both artists’ style, but the snippets of story are unsatisfying. B

“Ignatz” (Fantagraphics)

A sampler of the high-end Ignatz art-comics line, with excerpts from nine current or forthcoming volumes (including the first few pages of Kevin Huizenga’s “Pulverize,” the best comics story published in English so far this year) — but no complete stories. Some of the artwork is exquisite, especially the preview of David B.’s dreamlike memoir “Babel,” although the cheap reproduction here does it no favors. B

For the Small Fry

“Amelia Rules! Comics and Stories” (Renaissance)

A sampler of Jimmy Gownley’s sweet-natured series about an energetic tween girl and her pals, with excerpts of two longer stories, one of them a Very Special Episode about a girl whose dad is being called up for the Army. Gownley’s at his best when he explores the Calvin & Hobbes territory of kids’ fantasy lives, but there’s not enough of that here. B

“Comic Book Diner” (Sky-Dog)

An assortment of short stories about robot heroes, talking ostriches, a kid werewolf and so on, some of them very nice-looking — Ray Friesen’s funny-animal western is particularly cute. Too many of them, though, talk down to their audience, and the inconclusive excerpt from what’s billed as “the greatest animated movie … you’ve ever read!” really should’ve skipped the print stage. B-

“Gumby” (Wildcard Ink)

A “coloring comic book special” — meaning it’s printed in black-and-white — this stream-of-consciousness tale of the little green clay guy journeying into his own mind in search of a computer worm ought to be amusing, but it ends up as aimless, thinly disguised stoner humor, drawn by committee. C

“Jughead” (Archie)

Archie and his pals spend the length of this issue shilling for Geppi’s Entertainment Museum, an institution run by the guy who owns America’s only major comics distributor. There’s also a mystery plot involving a sinister “fabricator” that can make exact duplicates of rare collectibles. But wouldn’t that be a good thing? C-

“Kid Houdini and the Silver-Dollar Misfits” (Viper)

Harry Houdini running away from home in 1886 to join the circus — and solve mysteries — sounds like a fun idea. Unfortunately, the story is incoherent and devoid of period flavor, and the visual storytelling is hopelessly jumpy. The backup is a fragment of what appears to be a mystery starring characters who talk too much but are drawn with no mouths, like the “Love Is” kids. C-

“Owly and Friends” (Top Shelf Productions)

Andy Runton’s wordless woodland-creatures series has earned the “Teletubbies” set’s adoration. (This year, Owly and pals build a picnic table). And James Kochalka’s “Johnny Boo” story is as adorable as a 3-year-old’s logic. The other two features, regrettably, are cuteness unmodified by anything that might take their sticky edge off. B+

“Shonen Jump” (Viz)

If your kid is already crazy for “Naruto” or “Bleach,” this eye-gouging manga sampler (with three baffling, nearly context-free excerpts) won’t have much new to offer. If she hasn’t gotten into them yet, it’ll just come off as impenetrable noise. D+

“Sonic the Hedgehog” (Archie)

A reprint of the 1993 first issue of this improbably long-running series based on a video game. It’s vaguely interesting to see the cartoonists flailing for ways to make it engaging and kid-friendly, and mostly failing — by the last page, they’re reduced to printing a recipe and a pie-in-the-face gag — but it’s insultingly stupid and dull. D+

“Tiny Titans” (DC)

The first issue of a little-kid-style riff on the “Teen Titans” franchise is cute and pretty to look at, but a serious misfire — virtually all the jokes, dippy as they are, hinge on the reader’s knowledge of superhero comics from the ’80s and ’90s. Which means it’s not actually aimed at current 4-year-olds, but at their ex-comic-collector parents. C

“Walt Disney’s Gyro Gearloose” (Gemstone)

The invention-crazy goose isn’t one of the better-known Disney characters, for good reason. Still, two of the stories here were devised by Uncle Scrooge mastermind Carl Barks (one of them, involving a plague of rats distracted by the world’s most tempting cheese, completed by his disciple Don Rosa); they’re not his best, but they’re still awfully entertaining. B+

Anthologies

“Arcana Studio Presents” (Arcana Studio)

Three incomplete story fragments (grim demon-fighter with sword; black-and-white pseudo-manga; sickly-cute animals confronting the tragedy of human violence) and a pointless superhero vignette. Mediocre to begin with, and docked for the fact that one excerpt actually cuts off mid-word. D+

“Cartoona Palooza” (Ape Entertainment)

Five short, complete stories, with distinctly different visual styles and every comics-genre gimmick in the book: monsters, robots, monster robots, talking animals, monologuing villains, bicycling kids, a hard-boiled lady detective dispensing “blonde justice,” and a jungle adventuress. And not one of them sticks in the memory for an instant after it ends. C

“Del Rey & Dabel Brothers 2008 Preview” (Del Rey)

Bandwagoneering, overcooked comics adaptations of fantasy prose fiction are the bane of American comics right now; this compiles brief, incomplete bits of four of them, of which only Queenie Chan’s manga-inspired take on Dean Koontz’s “Odd Thomas” has any kind of verve. C-

“Worlds of Aspen” (Aspen Comics)

Aspen’s raison d’être is Michael Turner’s stylized, pinup-inspired artwork, so it’s disappointing that he only drew one of these four stories (all incomplete excerpts from various series). The result is that the focus lands on stultifying fantasy scenarios and Turner’s studio-mates’ cluttered, generic evocations of his drawings. D+

Not Actually Comics

“Comics Go Hollywood” (TwoMorrows)

A magazine with five illuminating articles about the relationship between comics, movies and TV. The highlight is probably comics writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway’s discussion of the unproduced “X-Men” screenplay they wrote back in 1984, and the gallery of comics legend Jack Kirby’s Hollywood-related drawings is worth a look too. A-

“How to Draw” (Wizard)

An aspiring artist won’t learn much about accurate anatomy from the boobs-and-butt pose on the cover, but might pick up a thing or two from some of the cartooning tutorials on the inside, especially Kevin Maguire’s guide to facial expressions and the late Mike Wieringo’s tips on pacing. B

“Impact University” (Impact)

Another how-to guide, this time focused on sci-fi and fantasy images, with tutorials from artists like Doug Chiang and Josh Howard. Unfortunately, too many of these artists only explain how to draw like them: “with a mixture of Lamp Black and Viridian, use feathered parallel strokes to create texture to the fins along the side of her tail.” C

Science Fiction Double Feature

“Dan Dare/The Stranded” (Virgin)

Garth Ennis and Gary Erskine’s attempt at a politicized, “Battlestar Galactica”-style revival of the ’50s-era British space hero Dan Dare is promising, if a little stiff; the sci-fi action series “The Stranded” is blatantly a trailer for a potential TV series, but incorporates some clever concepts. Too bad we only get the first handful of pages of each. B-

“Drafted” (Devil’s Due)

It eventually becomes clear that this is about a pan-cultural bunch of Earthlings who have to put aside their differences to shoot the bejesus out of some nasty alien dinosaur-type invaders. But compiling seemingly random pages from six issues of a series, ending on a cliffhanger, isn’t a very compelling way to get that across. C-

“Maintenance” (Oni)

Doug and Manny, the stars of Jim Massey and Robbi Rodriguez’s ongoing series, are the cleanup crew for a cabal of evil scientists; in this issue, they get tossed back to prehistoric times, tangle with wisecracking cavemen riding Segways, and demonstrate the profundity of the chasm between “almost funny” and “actually funny.” B-

“Neotopia” (Antarctic)

The first three volumes of Rod Espinosa’s anime-inspired graphic novel series are available in their entirety as FCBD editions. It’s an anticapitalist fantasy that owes more than a little of its look to Hayao Miyazaki’s “Nausicaa,” and Espinosa spends more time on world building than on making his characters compelling. But it’s hard to complain about free, 168-page, full-color books that are this pretty. A-

Douglas Wolk is the author of "Reading Comics."

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