Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Ugly American Report: Alex + Ada + Ryan Lee!

Alex + Ada
Image Comics
Scripts: Jonathan Luna & Sarah Vaughn
Art: Jonathan Luna

This week I'm going to walk you through what's going on in the Image book Alex + Ada, and why I think it's worthy of your attention.

My interest in the book stemmed from two sources. A) I don't always love what the Luna brothers do, but it's always pleasantly off the beaten path. B) I like all stories about losers banging robots.

The only problem with the "losers banging robots" schtick is that it always follows the same track. These stories are dressed up like science fiction, what with the mechanical woman and all. By the way, it's almost always a hapless human dude set up with a stunning female robot, rarely the other way around. Conventional wisdom says that women are too "emotional" to go in for the robotic cool indifference. Personally, I think a look at sales figures on the Rabbit vibrator speaks otherwise. But I'm digressing. The point is, these usually end up not being science fiction stories at all, but folk tales about social skills, relationships, and "soul".

The guy in these stories always have an interested flesh-and-blood woman lurking around in the background, and the man is just too oblivious too notice. At first the man is reticent to invest anything in the robot, but the script writers give her some sympathetic puppy dog moments, and the easy sex is just too good to pass up.

Inevitably, the robot dame completely loses her shit and starts killing everybody, starting with the rival meat woman. Then the loser finally gets some balls, dispatches with the psycho roboto-gina, and hooks up with the real girl. He finally realizes at the end that while there are advantages to a woman you can spray off with a hose when finished, what you really need is a woman with heart. There are tons of these things out there, but my all-time favorite is the new-fangled Outer Limits episode "Valerie 23", with Bill Sadler.

Imagine my surprise to find that while Alex + Ada knows the "loser bangs a robot" rules well, it carves itself a deeper path, and one built with some actual science fiction.

Alexander Wahl is the loser in question. It just wouldn't be a Luna brothers production without a healthy dose of sexual frustration and social awkwardness. I'm no licensed psychiatrist, but I have the distinct impression that neither of the Lunas ended up as King of the Prom in high school. Plus, we can smell our own.

Alex has been without his ex-girlfriend Claire for seven months when the story picks up. One gets the feeling that it was her idea, not his. He's sad, he's lonely, and he's not quite ready to get back on the horse.

Enter Betty-White-style inappropriate grandmother. She's enjoying the benefits of her own Tanaka X5 droid, and decides to drop the $800,000 and buy a girl robot for Alex on his birthday.

This is all pretty standard, and the story even includes Isabel, the obligatory "interested real girl" lurking in the background. All of the expected pieces are there, but then Alex + Ada starts separating itself with deeper thinking and world building.

A lot of care has gone into the technology background of the Alex + Ada set. You've got two major rivals in Prime and Nexaware. Alex actually has Prime wired into his head. He can give his house commands, and it obeys. He has a litttle hoverbot named Otto that brings him his coffee and cooks. He can think at his shower and specify the temp he wants. If another individual is also wired with Prime, the two can share an entire conversation without moving their lips - the thoughts simply transfer seamlessly. Kinda cool. Kinda creepy.

Nexaware is not doing as well as prime, because about a year before the story begins, there was an issue with the P-011 artificial intelligence program. Thirty four people died in a robot killing spree, and now robotic sentience has been outlawed. People are still using robots for all sorts of purposes, but there's a tension in the air. One of the characters is military, and lost a leg in battle. He claims he would have lost a lot more than that without robotic assistance. So it's complex. I like complex.

The devil, as always, is in the details, and the Luna/Vaughn tandem seem to get them all right. The tech is post-modern, but it all feels right. Ada needs 4,000 calories a day to run stay "full". One of the characters wonders if she poops. This is the first thing I would have wondered as well. Alex doesn't answer. Nothing's 100% efficient, so I think she does poop. But then, as a founding member of Chronic Insomnia, I sort of have to think that.

Alex activates Ada by pressing and holding her ear lobe, and then she delivers the most wonderful instructional speech. It's spot-on corporate PR-speak, but with a warm twist. I don't want to ruin it for you with specific spoilers, but the rules cover the usual Asimov territory and a few items Asimov missed that make perfect sense. Whichever writer has their fingerprints on that opening salvo from Ada - bravo!

It feels like Luna and Vaughn have carefully considered most everything about artificial intelligence and humans interacting with technology, or at least enough to make it easy to accept the world they're handing you. I think there will be some personal growth for Alex, and I look forward to all of that. But it's the "bigger picture" elements that interest me even more.

The Alex + Ada world is futuristic, but they're still dealing with the same types of human-disconnect issues that we are. The culture is simultaneously too comfortable with burying itself in tech, and also slightly horrified by it. I mean, is there anybody under the age of 30 not looking at their phone right now? We're into it, deep.

But we're also starting to recognize the psychic costs of that, particularly when examining the lack of empathy exhibited on forums, Twitter, Facebook. We're a torn beast, wearing a public face obsessed with sensitivity, and trigger fingers primed for action like never before. It's dissonant, and tiring, and it seems to be getting worse, not better.

The problem Alex has with Ada is that she isn't human enough for him. She's cute, but she has no agency. Ada is quite quick to tell anybody that she doesn't and can't have opinions. She laughs when Alex laughs, because Alex is laughing. It's gratifying in short bursts to have somebody cave to your needs once in awhile, but unless you're Jeff Dahmer, eventually you want to see some evidence that the other person is engaged with life.

So Alex calls Tanaka and asks if anything can be done, and of course they try to up-sell him with a couple of extra skill packs. Not what he was looking for, but another fantastic example of how Luna and Vaughn always seem to get the devilish details right.

What really struck me about that scene was when Alex asks the Tanaka rep if they are in fact human. It was subtle, but to me powerful. Because these days we don't know. We don't know if the person on the other end of the phone is really human, or a recording, or a person just running a script, which isn't really a person at all. We don't know if Manti Teo has an actual girlfriend or a fictional construction. Do we really need to see an actual politician at a press conference when we can all perfectly replicate the same old bullshit that it is going to tele-prompter out of their mouths?

The machines are getting too enticing, and we're getting altogether too machiney and disconnected, and that's the kind of thing I'm interested in. Alex + Ada is all over that stuff, but not in a sledgehammer, preachy way. Which is exceedingly rare in comics these days. Comics do so love the sledgehammer.

I don't know, I could go on and on about this book. Alex + Ada is currently three issues into its run, and I've read each of the issues multiple times. I don't do that with many comics. You can't just race through it, either, or you'll miss the subtle stuff. There's a scene where Alex and Ada are watching TV together, and news footage of the Nexaware Massacre comes on screen. There's no captioning or dialogue outside of what the newscaster is saying. Alex is just watching Ada, who is absorbing all this quietly, without expression, eating her bowl of cereal.

Tell me that wouldn't make your balls shrink straight up into their natural orifice.

There are potential trouble spots. The pages are laid out very cinematically - many of the pages feature vertical layouts of widescreen shots that vary only slightly. Sometimes to string out an awkward silence, focus on facial expressions, sometimes to cinematically spell out action points.
To me, that's not using the medium to its full advantage. If you slow down and allow yourself time to absorb the effects, they do still function. But these cinematic techniques are better suited for film.

Some may find the pacing an issue. There is an awful lot of talking in Alex + Ada, and when people aren't talking, they are often staring at each other. If you really had your hopes on the "loser bangs a robot" angle, they are certainly taking the scenic route. Not only are they not banging after three issues, they haven't had a proper snog yet.

I don't mind the talking, because I'm pulling quite a bit of story out of it. You could do an Alex + Ada book club and have plenty to talk about, because there's a lot buried in context. But some of you don't want context, so be warned. This is not robotic fetish porn. This is about people and their relationship with technology, and the nature of human intimacy.

I've been impressed by Alex + Ada, and more importantly, I've been enjoying it as a story. I don't know exactly where Luna and Vaughn are headed with this, and that's a good thing. At the end of issue three, Alex is getting into deep caverns of the Prime-net looking for somebody to (illegally) help him give Ada some sentience. This just can't end well, can it? I honestly don't know, because the creators are playing the story with a little more sophistication and a little against type... but I eagerly anticipate finding out.

If your store is not carrying this - ask. I think Alex + Ada would work very well in trade form, and some of you favor that format anyway. I'm telling you, though, if you want to see the work completed, you need to support the monthly comics. You can wait for the trade on Avengers, because that's going to sell enough copies without you to subsidize the collection. If you want Alex + Ada to live, (and I'm telling you that you really do) they need those sales NOW. Let your retailer know that you'd like this in your pull or on the shelves, so that the publisher knows there is a market for the material.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Market Spotlight on: Usagi Yojimbo TPBs

Usagi Yojimbo is an odd little success story. Stan Sakai scripts and draws the adventures of a samurai rabbit, faithfully set somewhere in the Edo period of Japan. He's a bunny rabbit.

Ordinarily when the Ugly American starts in with talk of bunnies, well, there isn't much nice to say. Not so here. Here, Sakai creates a unique blend of historical reference, funny animal art, and modern pop culture. It's part biography of Miyamoto Musashi, part homage to Sonny Chiba, all by way of Walt Disney.

On paper, that formula is probably too precious to work. And it's in black-and-white, which usually doesn't help. In reality, Stan Sakai has made it his life's work and essentially willed it into viability with love and sweat. I can't think of a single source that read the book and didn't have glowing praise for its quality.

I can't speak to the contents of the book myself. Period pieces are generally not my thing. That has not kept me from selling boatloads of the Usagi Yojimbo trade paperbacks from Dark Horse at profits ranging from excellent to obscene.

Usagi Yojimbo is in a weird spot right now. Sakai stopped producing the book in early 2012 to divert attention to the 47 Ronin with MIke Richardson. The promise was that Sakai would pick up where he left off with Usagi when 47 was complete. Well, that hasn't happened yet, and 47 Ronin wrapped up about a year ago.

Editor's Note: Stan Sakai’s wife, Sharon, is currently recovering from a debilitating illness. She is currently convalescing at home after a lengthy hospital stay. She requires 24 hour care and expensive medicine, neither of which the family's insurance covers. This explains the lack of new Usagi content. If you would like to help the Sakai family, you can visit this link. It has also come to my attention that Ryan Lee himself has donated some of his sales of these books to the Sakai family. Good on you, Ryan.

That's both good and bad for the secondary market value of the Usagi Yojimbo trades. Because the comics are not being published monthly, there's little reason for Dark Horse to focus on keeping the material in print. As the supply continues to dwindle, prices go up.

The lack of serialization cuts the other way, though. Without a regular comic to inspire interest in the character and stories, the demand for the product will eventually dwindle, and that will suppress prices.

As I type this, however, I can confirm that it is fairly easy to command multiples of cover on several of the Usagi Yojimbo trades, particularly if they are in nice condition. Nearly a third of the series is profitable, even paying full retail. Return of the Black Soul, Grasscutter 2, Duel at Kitanoji, they all make money. The best books tend to cycle as things go in and out of print. The three Usagi books that currently fetch the best prices are:

Book Three: Wanderer's Road
Book Eleven: Seasons
Book Twenty One: Mother of Mountains

You Amazon minimum prices on these books in new condition start at around $80 and go up from there. Is it realistic to expect to sell your book at those rates? The short answer is; probably.

Actually, let's talk about pricing and risk management for a bit. Today I bought 4 Usagi trades from one of my local establishments, and the jewel of the pack was a very nice copy of Mother of Mountains. That book is in a very solid NM (9.4) condition.

The particular grade won't really matter to my customer, except that it allows me to safely sell my book in the "New" category. When my buyer receives their book, he or she will be pleased with the condition. It's important not to overgrade your product if you want to sell long term. Bad reviews do catch up with you.

When I get to Amazon to sell my book, I'm quite pleased to find that the current minimum prices for Usagi Book 21 are $178 for both new and used copies. That's pretty crazy. You don't get mins like that unless the book is seriously scarce, in serious demand, or both. So now the question is - what do I list my copy for?

The amateur surveys those prices and does one of two things. Either A) they undercut the lowest offer by a penny and try to get $177.99 for the book or B) they jump the price to around $200, figuring that their divine glow should attract customers even if they aren't being perfectly competitive on price.

I listed my lovely new copy for $ did I arrive at that figure?

Experience is my guide there. I've sold many Usagi trades, so I've got a pretty good handle on what I can get for the books based upon previous sales. Frankly, I think it far more likely that I'm going to get about $60 for that book, not $80.

Some may ask - why not try for the $179? What's the harm? To be fair, it's actually not a horrible thing to reach for the golden ticket. I have sold a copy of Usagi Book 11 for $100, so it's not completely out of the question. If you can actually sell the book for $180, it would be silly to leave that $100 on the table, of course. And if you're on top of things enough to pay attention and adjust the price on your stock regularly, there really isn't much harm in chasing the huge score... for a very brief period.

There is a definite downside to chasing pies in the sky, though. The biggest issue? Dark Horse goes back to press on the book, and instantly your $180 treasure is now the "old crappy edition" of a book that is readily available for $10. And then you don't feel so smart for trying to wait out the big fish.

I bought that copy of Mother of Mountains for $16, and if I can flip that for $80 this week, I'm ecstatic. After Amazon takes their 20% cut, I'm left with about $48 in profit - profit that I can then pump into another book that I can (hopefully) quickly churn into yet more profit.

If I chase the $180, who knows? I might just get it. But it's very likely to take a year or more to line up that buyer, and the longer I wait the less likely the market is to cooperate with those inflated values. Even if I get the $180, if it takes me a year to do so how much more could I have earned churning books that actually sell instead of watching this monster collect dust? The risk/reward just isn't there for me to chase insane dollar values.

I don't know...there are risks either way. Given the choice, I like to err on the side of flipping things quickly and moving on to the next opportunity.

Speculation on: Felicity Smoak

If you read the Ugly American's review of Arrow a few weeks ago, you know that where there is Smoak, there's fire. In my pants.

I love pretty much everything about Felicity Smoak as portrayed by Emily Bett Rickards,
and I just can't be alone. She makes for an adorable cult favorite, and that often means back issue interest. So the question is - where did Felicity Smoak make her first comics appearance? Ultimately, that's what the collectors are going to be most interested in.

The answer depends on how you look at it.

The first time a character named Felicity Smoak hit the comics scene was in Fury of Firestorm # 23, published in 1984. That character bears little resemblance to the Arrow series character, though. Fans of the Arrow series will not recognize that character, either by appearance or temperament.

That iteration of Felicity Smoak was a dark haired woman, and a bit of a battle axe. She's similar in that she was into computers, but after that the comparison fails. That character has essentially no connection to Green Arrow, and in fact wound up becoming Ronny Raymond's mother-in-law.

The hardest of the hard core collectors will tend to gravitate toward this issue, even though the character depicted in the book doesn't "feel" like the Rickards persona the world at large is actually attracted to. First matters most on these issues, generally.

As I type this, there is no detectable spike in value on Firestorm # 23. That's a good thing. That just means you can still get in cheap. Listen, it took collectors more than 25 years to figure out that Nightwing's first appearance in Tales of the Teen Titans # 44 was significant. Sometimes it takes the world a little while to catch up. Again, that's a good thing.

I've been buying copies of the book in VF-NM for $2 each. Even if I'm wrong about the future value of this comic, it won't cost you much to play. If you're into Felicity Smoak, there's no reason not to chase down this affordable little gem for your collection.

This is part of what makes collecting fun, and there's really nothing wrong with it, regardless of what the pundits will tell you about back issues and the horror of speculation. I really like that character, so what's wrong with adding that piece of her "history" into my collection, particularly when it costs less than a cup of coffee? It makes me happy, and it makes the retailers happy, too. Win-win.

The thing is, for some collectors, the old Pre-Crisis Felicity Smoak just won't be good enough. She doesn't walk, talk, or act like the girl they're in love with. So where does the Arrow version of Felicity first appear in comics?

Well, her first comics appearance actually began in cyber-space. The Arrow comics series begins as a digital-only comic before it hits the stands in print. You can't bag and board the digital Arrow chapter 20 and stuff that in your long box, though. For print purposes the Arrow version of Felicity first appeared in Arrow # 7.

If you can find it in your LCS, I'm sure it's sitting there at its original $4 price tag. It's hard to find, though, in my experience. Do I expect to eventually see a surge in interest for that comic? Yes, I do.

Traditionally, it's Firestorm # 23 that would see the bulk of the back issue interest, The game is changing, though. Nobody (outside of myself, it seems) wants to recognize how much of the market is actually driven by women.

I think that there a ton of women interested in Felicity Smoak, and I don't think most of them care a lick about the old Firestorm character. I think they're interested in the blonde with her hair in a ponytail and her foot in her mouth. I predict that group is going to be far more attracted to Arrow # 7, and there will be enough of them chasing that book to create a significant price increase.

Incidentally, in my travels I've been finding it far easier to find that 27 year old Firestorm comic than to locate the Arrow book that just came out over the summer. This is why I just shake my head and grin when the Wise Elders of comics try to tell me that modern books aren't scarce or suitable for collecting. You keep thinking that. I'll keep making money.

Happy Hunting!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Special Ugly American Report: Where Are They Now?

Fame is a fickle mistress, particularly in the comics racket. This week, the Ugly American hits the pavement and tracks down a few comics legends once omnipresent, now more elusive than Sasquatch itself.

Some of these discoveries will shock you. Some of them might be stuff that I just made up whole cloth. All I know is....nobody owns the truth. Nobody owns anything, really. You know who taught me that? Shia Labeouf. Shia Labeouf. 'Nuff said.

Where Is Grant Morrison Now?

You probably remember him as the guy who wrote Vimanarama or Seaguy, but it wasn't that long ago that Grant Morrison was in fact piloting the Batman schooner.

In fact, Morrison's mojo was so strong he was able to launch not one but two different iterations of Batman, Inc. within two years of each other. He maintained a presence so powerful that he was able to plop Batman, Inc. into the Batpool, even though his continuity shared no resemblance whatsoever to the rest of the titles. Then when he "killed" Damian, the other Bat-folks were forced to agree with this take and pretend that they shared narrative space after all. His power and influence were resplendent.

Then....nothing. Batman, Inc. volume two concluded after 13 issues, and Morrison went missing without a trace. There was a mini-series over at Image with a flying blue cartoon horse. There were rumors of a really sexed-up, kinked-out Wonder Woman book. But those rumblings had been under the surface for years, and they bore no fruit.

Well, the Ugly American found Grant Morrison where he least expected - dancing on his television screen. Yes, it turns out that the comic "rock god" has more in his bag of tricks than literary cantrips - he's one hell of a Speaker Dancer.

At first I didn't recognize him, transfixed as I was by those hypnotic hips. But when my gaze eventually rested upon the dancing diva's bald pate...I knew it could be no other. It was King Mob dancing in that Tostitos commercial. It was Grant Morrison.

I had to know what prompted this radical shift in creative energies. Had he always possessed the Gift of Sway, and it was only now he felt comfortable selling his wares? Had Morrisoncon produced an epiphany, finally freeing him to chase his true calling?

The truth is that I will never know. He said a bunch of stuff, but it was all delivered in his inimitable Scottish gibber-speak. With no translator available, I simply smiled, nodded, and gave thanks to all that is holy that I was able to share those brief moments with the Danny Terrio of comics. But I did not understand a damn thing he said.

Where Is Nate Simpson Now?

A generation before me will always recall where they were when they learned that JFK was shot down in Dealey Plaza. My generation has a different touchstone. Each of us can describe with perfect accuracy where we were when Nonplayer # 1 hit the stands in April 2011.

It was without question the grandest achievement in the history of comics, garnering a Russ Manning award on the strength of a single issue. Nonplayer instantly earned a Hollywood option, a stub so strong that Jane Goldman was tapped to write a script for a story that didn't even exist yet.

It was the pinnacle of comics, but so much more. Some of the lame rose to walk again. That was Nonplayer. There were whispers that subsequent digital distribution of this sublime artifact might cure tuberculosis. I don't think that happened. I think tuberculosis is still with us. It feels like people are coughing less, though, and that's pretty good.

But then, then the angelic fountain stopped flowing. 2011 concluded with no further issues of Nonplayer. 2012 suffered the same horrifying fate, then a grieving world kissed 2013 good-bye with Nonplayer again non-playing. Why? Why, God, why?

Some convenient cover stories were manufactured to sate a media plagued with Nonplayer Fever. Something about a broken collarbone, and day job with a video game company...diaper-changing for the immaculate Baby Simpson.

The Ugly American has uncovered the truth, and it is a sobering one. Nonplayer is a work so transcendent, it has surpassed all laws of time and space, and cannot be observed by those trapped in the corporeal.

While humans are simply not equipped to absorb a perfect work like Nonplayer, our loss will be the gain of the Gygax Continuum. This cryptic race of trans-dimensionals will be the beneficiaries of all seven issues of the transformative comic series, at which point Nonplayer will become God and the universe will wrap around full circle and start over again.

For those of us constrained by pedantic concepts like dice. We aren't seeing it. Sorry.

For now, Simpson continues dutifully waking at 4am to continue work on this universally critical work. If you see him, you should thank him. Or more appropriately, prostrate yourself before his eminence. Should an issue of Nonplayer # 2 hit the stands, however, don't be fooled, and don't look at it. It won't be the real thing. I believe that even a pathetic paper replica hinting at the contents of the trans-dimensional Nonplayer might do some Lovecraft stuff to you not to risk it.

Where is Robert Kirkman Now?

Once upon a time a young man from Kentucky had a dream, that his super-pontiff Battle Pope might take the world by storm.

Dreams don't necessarily take off without a hitch, though. Sometimes the world simply isn't ready. While Battle Pope supplied most of the requisite trappings of the dominant comics genre, it was a little too "indie" to take. Dreams aren't just ether, though. Dreams take work, and determination, and this kid from Kentucky doesn't have any quit in him.

His kinetic kid-friendly title Super Dinosaur also went extinct recently. Seems like Kirkman just can't catch a break. Have you seen him lately? Where is he now?

Well, the Ugly American caught up with him, and it turns out he never really disappeared. His superhero magnum opus Invincible is still going, and Kirkman is looking to shake things up with issue # 111. It's going to be a turning point in the series, "like three # 1s in one!" says the new house ad. Will the new direction work, at least enough to keep the series on life support? Maybe. Just maybe.

The Invincible story is a testament to Kirkman's perseverance, but also an indictment of the comics industry and a readership plagued with arrested development. Invincible is a solid story, but what a shame that comics are stuck with a stable of stupid old men trapped in a rigid obsession with stupid old superheroes.

I mean, it's not like you could just crank out a bunch of comics featuring rainbow-colored ponies that girls used to play with in the 1980s and expect it to sell or something.

Still, we here at the Ugly American maintain hope that someday the comics constituency can break free from the shackles of its infantile predilection towards capes and tights and support titles outside of those juvenile confines. Like Saga. And Sex Criminals. And Sandman. And Black Science. And Manhattan Projects. And Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And Pretty Deadly. And Bone. And Chew. And One Piece. And Archie.

If only we had a marketplace that could support titles like that. Perhaps the future won't be so backwoods, and ironically that spunky kid from the backwoods of Kentucky might find a place for himself in this medium. The Ugly American is certainly pulling for this Little Engine That Could.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Ugly American - Shadowman # 13 review!

Shadowman # 13
Script: Peter Milligan
Art: Roberto De La Torre

I was fully prepared to bail on Shadowman after issue # 12. Then I got the next Previews and discovered that Peter Milligan was taking the reins. Well, crap. Milligan always gets my attention because of the inspired work he did in the 90s on Shade, The Changing Man. That's some of my favorite stuff of all time, and the idea of him turning Shadowman into Valiant's own little Vertigo title seemed like a welcome change.

And that's pretty much exactly what Milligan has accomplished here; he's transformed Shadowman from a polished action book to a grimy horror book about tainted souls. The previous 12 issues of Shadowman weren't bad, mind you, but neither did they connect with me. That particular Jack Boniface was kind of a pretty boy, a little smarmy, and things lined up a little too easily for him. He didn't do a damn thing to earn his power, it was just there for him. Matter of fact, he claimed the Shadowman loa by throwing his mother's protective trinket in the drink during a petulant little rage.

It's not exactly a hall-of-fame origin story. "How'd you become Shadowman? Apprentice for years under a Houngan with an attitude, who made you sacrifice everything to hone your discipline?"

"Nah, it was in the bloodline. I threw a tamper tantrum, and when my necklace came off the spirit took me over. I have no idea what the hell I'm doing at any point, but what I lack in competence I more than make up for in omnipotent supernatural power."

"Huh, sounds great. Sort of. Actually, kind of lame. Good luck with the undeserved might bailing out your utter absence of aptitude."

So once the Shadowman loa hit Jack, he instantly became an object of attraction for all kinds of nasties, who wanted to use his power for their own infernal purposes. There was also The Abettors, the obligatory good guys who want to use the darkness to fight for the light, blah blah blah read it a million times.

Dox was the smart ass mentor, and Alyssa was the dream girl landing in his lap, and of course she was single, and of course their adventures were going to bring them together, and it was just entirely too neat and tidy and Deus Ex Machina-laden. If Jack Boniface ever hit a rough patch, either his possessing spirit or his new-found guardians would just bail him out. While the execution was perfectly clean, I just wasn't into it.

Enter one Peter Milligan. The first thing he did was wipe that little car-salesman smile off of Jack's face and turn him into a psychological wild card. He wakes up in alleys with bodies next to him and blood everywhere. If he strains really hard, he can kinda remember killing all sorts of people, and he started young. Sometimes he hears things that shouldn't be talking.

Because of that little swerve, The Abettors now have an entirely different relationship with Jack. He might just be shit nuts...he's definitely not ready to handle the Shadowman loa. As far as The Abettors are concerned, that's a death sentence for our former pretty boy. And that's infinitely more interesting to me.

I like the fact that we don't quite know whether we should be rooting for Jack or not. I like the idea that Jack doesn't really have any friends any more, except perhaps Alyssa, and that relationship is also made significantly more interesting to me now that there are obstacles in the way. I like the fact that Milligan makes it absolutely explicit that the Shadowman loa is not a nice thing. It's such an asshole that even the other voodoo spirits couldn't deal with it. It's not friendly with Jack, or anything else. It's not there to help. Yes! Give me that!

In fact, the whole engine behind Shadowman # 13 is that Jack just wants the damn thing out because it's mean, and it makes powerful people want to kill him. Alyssa tips him off about a punk mambo, at which point we really kick up the Vertigo flavor a notch and Milligan gives us a punk Mambo, which is all the Hellblazer you could ever ask for.

I think if the Bunnies ever found this book, they'd be really pissed about the fact Milligan appropriated a white Londoner for his Haitian priestess. I thought it was fresh, unexpected, welcome, and entirely respectful. That character isn't shitting on the culture, she liked it so much she dove right in and made it her own. If you really wanted an inclusive world, that's what it would look like - punk chicks from England practicing hoodoo.

I don't think the Fuzzies would tolerate Milligan ret-conning Boniface into a guy with a history of violence, either. They would call it perpetuating the stereotype of the Angry Black Male. I call it Potentially Making the Story Interesting. I don't think we'll know until much further down the road whether Jack really is violent at his core or not, because we can't really trust his memories, and we don't know how much of that violence that may or may not be happening is due to the Shadowman loa. So I would advise the Bunnies to relax, but they're not very good at that, and they also don't listen to me.

I'll tell you where the new Shadowman really won me over, though. In order to perform the separation ritual, the punk mambo requires a human skull. Can't be too rotten, can't bee too new. So he goes to a graveyard and digs until he finds a skull that seems just about right.

At that point, a couple of good ol' boys from Louisiana with shotguns start firing at him. Now, this is where 99/100 comic book writers will take out their propaganda pen and start putting racial slurs in the character's mouths. How else are you going to break your scapula patting yourself on the back over how not-racist you are?

But that's not what happens here at all. These particular rednecky types are just pissed that somebody is making off with their skulls, but then resign themselves to the loss because the one Boniface made off with wasn't really one of the "purdy ones".

He doesn't say so explicitly, but the implication is that these guys are raising up the graveyard material for their own sexual gratification. They aren't racists per se, they're just irritated that somebody might be interfering with their primo masturbatory aids. Now that's a story, and that's how you put some meat on the bones of your story while giving the audience a little credit.

On the way through the swamp, some aboriginal looking dude silently points him in the right direction. No words, no introduction, no clue if that guy even actually exists. He could just be in Jack's head. It's just creepy, and atmospheric.

Speaking of atmosphere, I think the Roberto De La Torre art is a step in the right direction. Gone are the clean lines, in are the scratchy Bill Sienkiewiczy lines. Or maybe they're the Ghost Ridery Texeira lines. Either way, I'm into it. This is not a superhero book any more. This is a Vertigo horror book, brought to you by the fine folks at Valiant.

If you still haven't looked in the direction of Valiant yet, you're making an error. I recommend anybody trying any and all of their titles, because there hasn't been a low-quality offering from the new Valiant yet. In particular, I'm enjoying Harbinger, Bloodshot, and now I'm totally engaged with Shadowman. If you like your comics dark and smart, this is your new favorite toy. If you were a fan of the vintage Vertigo books like Shade, Swamp Thing, and Hellblazer, this was absolutely born to love you.

Shadowman. It's new. It's different. Now is the time to get into it!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ugly American - Why Do Comics People Hate Comics So Much?

One of my least favorite archetypes of the comic book realm is the Self Loathing Pro/Fan. No matter how many ground-breaking works are produced, no matter how deeply the medium penetrates popular culture and consciousness, there remains a segment (a significant segment) that just can't stop apologizing.

What's disturbing to me is that as the medium has grown out of its self-imposed, Wertham-inspired, artificially fabricated juvenile stage, ignorance about what comics are and what they accomplish seems to be getting worse, not better. And the bulk of this ignorant rubbish isn't coming from without, but from within!

The people who should know better about comics know the least. The people who owe the most do the most damage. Here are three items I've bumped into in just the past thirty days:

Alan Moore tells BBC News "Someone came up with the term graphic novel. These readers latched onto it; they were simply interested in a way that could validate their continued love of Green Lantern or Spider-Man without appearing in some way emotionally subnormal."

When the Metro had the gall to ask Nic Cage if doing animated features connected with his well-documented interest in comic books, he replied "Look, the truth is I'm not obsessed with comics. I don't read comics as a 49 year-old man. Not that there's anything wrong with that but I have other interests that are more in tune with where I'm at right now."

Vivek Tiwary is the writer of "The Fifth Beatle", a much-acclaimed biography of Brian Epstein. I recently listened to an interview in which he declared that his comic book is definitely not a comic book. "There's nothing comic about it", Tiwary explains.

I feel a bit weary having to explain this stuff 20 years after Scott McCloud published Understanding Comics, but apparently we need a refresher course, so here goes -

Comics are a medium, not a genre.

What does that mean? I think Neil Gaiman summed it up best, so I'll paraphrase him and say that comics are an empty glass, and you can fill it up with anything. It's just words and pictures, folks. You can do whatever you like with them, there is nothing inherently "mature" or "juvenile" about them. We've seen plenty of both ends of the spectrum.

Comics are simply a method of delivering information, usually in story form, because human beings are Story Machines. It's what we do, it's who we are. What would your reaction be if I said to you "Yeah, I'm 42 years old for crying out loud, I don't watch television any more." That would sound absurd, wouldn't it? When do you get too old to read novels?

These are just story delivery mechanisms, containing a wide variety of material amenable to "all ages and tastes" as Strange Adventures would put it. This is demonstrably true for all mediums, including comics, not that you'd get that idea from the nonsense pouring out of the medium's most notable figures.

Let's start breaking this ridiculous propaganda down, starting with the Alan Moore stuff. A few words about the credibility of Alan Moore as regards comics in general and superhero comics in particular - he has none.

That little BBC diatribe about "emotionally subnormal" superhero comics readers began with the admission that he hasn't read a superhero comic since he finished Watchmen. That was what, almost 30 years ago? If he hasn't looked at a thing in thirty years, how is he able to justifiably comment on it?

Alan Moore is the guy who wrote Lost Girls, in which he decided that what the world really needed was our favorite fantasy literary heroines penetrating each other with kitchen implements. So when Moore wants to opine about others "emotional normality", I'm not sure he's dealing from a very strong hand.

The real point is that he's demonstrably wrong about all of it. All of it. In the first place, to talk about "superhero comics" as though they're all the same thing is aggressively stupid. I'm not even talking about the wide diversity of comics material available, I'm talking about the incredible variations between Marvel superhero books sitting next to each other on the same rack.

Yes, Green Lantern is doing very different things from Chris Ware's Building Stories. But also, Hawkeye is doing very different things from Cable & X-Force. Young Avengers bears absolutely no resemblance to Avengers: Endless Wartime in terms of appearance, themes, target audience, or tone. To speak of superhero comics as a single thing with a similar focus is to speak from a position of profound ignorance.

Let's talk about the concept of The Superhero for a moment, shall we? Let me break your brain here and point out the obvious - there is nothing inherently mature or juvenile about them. Superheros are just symbols, shortcuts to pointing at things greater than ourselves. They are a convenient method of increasing stakes, elevating drama, and capturing the imagination of the audience.

If you want to talk about power and responsibility, Spider-Man is a good way to do that, because he's got heightened power, and therefore heightened responsibility. It's a good shortcut, or at least it can be. It certainly has been for a good portion of Spider-Man's existence. Spider-Man and his power set are a tool, a vehicle to get an audience to pay attention to stories and life lessons, because the extraordinary elements are fun and exciting. How is this a problem, exactly?

Superheros are not a new thing, by the way. If you shit on those comics, you must also shit on Homer, Ovid, Mary Shelley, and the Bhagavad Gita.

Do you think Alan Moore and his little cadre of Fuzzy Bunnies would dare utter a disrespectful syllable about the Gita? Never would they ever, because they are intellectually dishonest.

The only difference between The Authority and those ancient mythological texts are temporal. It's the same types of hyper-sigils offering shortcuts to the concerns of the authors/readers of the day. Does that sound immature to you?

So when Nic Cage says that he doesn't read comics any more because he's 49 years-old, I don't know what the hell he's talking about, and neither does he. When did he get too old for stories? He certainly doesn't seem opposed to making money on them.

I mean, wasn't that Nic Cage I saw recently butchering the character of Johnny Blaze in those Ghost Rider movies? I guess he's decided to he's too old to read the books, but his elevated sensibilities were perfectly capable of turning a good character into an Elvis clown caricature. I guess when you get old and wise enough, you're ready to be in tune with Elvis clown caricatures. Oh, and cashing big fat checks. Don't forget them! That sounds intellectually consistent and pregnant with integrity, doesn't it?

So, you'll forgive me if I don't hang on every word of Nic Cage's regarding the merits of the comic book medium or the superhero genre. It's just amazing to me that these comics have provided him with those big, fat, Hollywood checks and in return he publicly loathes them. "Not that there's anything wrong with that" is transparent code for "something's wrong with that."

Why can't he just shut his mouth, or simply admit that he doesn't read the books any more? There's no crime in that. I just don't understand the purpose in perpetuating the ridiculous myth that people outgrow comic books. The appropriate response to that question should have been - "You know what, I'm a poseur now. Haven't read the books in years. The end." I guess he just wanted that quiet comfort of showing everybody how much better he is than them, and how "above it all" he is. Consider me unimpressed with that.

I don't think Vivek Tiwary is in that "I'm better than you boat" when he claims his comic isn't a comic. To be perfectly fair, I'm not sure what his intentions were with that comment. It's possible it was just a joke, and he meant that since Fifth Beatle isn't a humor book, it wasn't "comic" in nature.

Maybe, but I don't think so. I think he was juxtaposing his purely biographical work against his (entirely false) notion of what comics are - Sunday paper funny strips and juvenile superhero power fantasies.

I'm not angry with Tiwary, I honestly think he doesn't know any better. My issue is that Fifth Beatle is an exceptional work, it's gaining the kind of media attention that could help expand the comics customer base, and I feel like he's out there debasing the medium in general and promoting his book as an outlier of quality in a sea of childish dreck. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Just as an aside, I know that somebody out there is going to play Word Cop on me and say that Fifth Beatle isn't a comic, it's a true "graphic novel" because it's an original long form work and not a collection of previously serialized material. Congratulations on that, I guess, but a graphic novel is just a longer comic. The Fifth Beatle is a comic book. Sorry.

Comics are just words and pictures, people! Sometimes they're good, sometimes they aren't. Sometimes the subject matter is sophisticated and mature, sometimes it's not. If you want to decry bad comics because they're that I say "fine", and also "duh". But this thing where we pillory the entire medium or even the superhero genre as though it's all the same.....wake up! Maybe read what you're pooping on before you comment, and get it right. Go read McCloud, then read it again.

I find it particularly repulsive that the worst offenders of false comic book propaganda are those who have profited the most. Where is the gratitude? Where is the love? Consider it my fervent wish that we in the comics community make this our New Year's Resolution:

Let's get informed and stop hating ourselves. Please?

Also; did you know that 'The Ugly American' is now available as a 'Beautiful Chinese' product? Head over to the Wear Monsters Dwell swag page at Society 6 and pick up your very own TUAR mug.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Ugly American 2013 Year in Review: Comic Book TV!

Walking Dead
I haven't watched an episode of Walking Dead since Season 1. I don't even know what season the show is currently on, or whether it is currently on, or could it be on hiatus right now?

I don't know, and I don't care. Why don't I care? If I'm being honest, I pretty much loved every episode of Walking Dead from the first season. Loved em'.

I can't explain why I don't care, I'm way into horror, and I'm way into comics, and I have nothing but fond memories of the Walking Dead shows that I did see. But if you asked me:

"Ryan, would you rather watch a new episode of the Walking Dead, or this documentary on Olivia Newton John?"

I don't know what I'd pick. I'd probably go with Olivia Newton John. I'd be interested to know what the set was like on Xanadu, or the pitfalls of working with a young, pig-headed John Travolta. Plus, I want to get physical, physical, let's get into physical with her. 'Cause I'm Old School.

So I'll give Walking Dead a solid C, sight unseen. Does that seem fair? No. No, it doesn't. There is no "fair" here at the Ugly American. There is only Zuul.

I watch Arrow episodes all the time. I call the show "Melrose Arrow", because that's what it is. It's a big fat Melrosey, Falcon Cresty ball of superhero soap opera.

I'm not particularly into Green Arrow, because he's generally portrayed as a tedious little lefty, which doesn't impress me. And I'm not a fan of soap operas, either. I should never, ever watch an episode of this TV show at any time. And yet, it happens a lot. Every time I get done finishing an episode of Arrow, I think to myself:

"Why do I watch this show?"

And then I sit down a bit later, scroll to see what's on the DVR and then gleefully exclaim:

"Oooh, an episode of Arrow!"

And then I watch it. I watch Arrow differently than you do, by the way. Every time they flash back to Ollie's tour on the island, I just hit the fast forward. Do not care. What's extra awesome is that it never interferes with my ability to absorb or appreciate those things happening in the present. No never, not once. All of those island scenes could have been scrapped....should have been scrapped.

Look, you're not Lost, OK? I'm not entirely sure that Lost was Lost. Just forget the flashbacks and concentrate on showing me guys without shirts, will ya?

Season 2 of Arrow is significantly different. Last year, Mr. Queen had a list of people his father didn't like, and his solution was to bury arrows in those people's faces until they stopped breathing. I was never quite sure how to feel about that. It seemed a little ballsy, and a little real, and I liked that.

If you were on a crusade to clean up your city, you'd probably do better just using your money to run for office and changing things straight up from the inside. But if you were to eschew that option, then the move is not to punch the villains in the solar plexus and wind them. You perforate their faces with arrows until they stop moving. That's reality, and that was season 1, and that felt.....unsatisfying, somehow.

This year, Ollie does his best to not kill anybody, and for a really stupid reason. It's some guilt-ridden jag he picked up in an epiphany over Tommy's dead body. I don't think the realization is earned, and it doesn't really make strategic sense... and I totally like it way better now that he doesn't kill people. I"m becoming a walking contradiction in my old age, I think. I just like the show better when he's not a murderer, even if it makes no sense.

This is a show of hot people doing hot things, and if you can just accept that fact and lay down for it, you're probably going to be OK. If you want to watch Stephen Amell with his shirt off, I totally understand. He's no Jensen Ackles...but he'll do.

I'm in it for Felicity Smoak. That girl is adorable. They have a running bit where she's constantly slipping double-entendres that betray her burning lust for Queen. It shouldn't work, but it really does.

Katie Cassidy is actually so hot it's annoying. What makes it worse is that her character is a train wreck with no redeeming qualities. I'm not interested in her waffling on relationships, I don't buy her leaning the other way as the ultra competent legal eagle, and I super don't care about her booze or pill intake.

Most of the people in the show are irritating, really. I should probably hate it. It's got a pretty strong sense of purpose, though. It's committed to its action elements, and they are strong, in my opinion. I skooch up in my chair and get primed every time he picks up that bow and overdoes his mascara. The fighting is great, (aside from those ridiculous super-strength effects) and especially in season two they've done a good job of ending on cliffhangers and escalating the plots.

The plots aren't particularly good or compelling, though....there's a lot of Occupy/99% excrement in the Sebastian Blood "Save the Glades" plot, and Summer Glau's talents are utterly wasted on sneering in board rooms for the "Corporate Raiders" plot. These things are moving forward, though. It's all very kinetic. That's what probably saves Arrow, I think. You may not agree with all or most of the choices, but it knows what it wants to do and then gets very kinetic with it.

I'm giving Arrow a B+ for its action and sex appeal. There's no real spiritual substance or quality about it, so I have hard time giving it an A. But it's executing its nonsense with aplomb, so I'll tip the cap as far as I can on that.

Agents of SHIELD's not terrible. I feel like that's the only review anybody needs, but we all just keep gnawing away at the show trying to figure out exactly why it isn't fulfilling in any meaningful way.

In my opinion, this particular emperor has no clothes because it's all formula and no vitae. I don't think anybody actually cares about any of's just checking things off lists:

obligatory Marvel easter eggs - check
obligatory Whedon-speak - check
obligatory dour bad-ass characters - check
obligatory "whacky" smart characters - check
obligatory flawed characters with "hearts of gold" - check
obligatory soft hearts growing out of their comfort zone - check
obligatory overlap with recently released film - check

And it just goes on and on and on like that. I never feel as though the writers are putting anything of themselves on the page. I never feel as though the show feels willing or able to take any creative risks, or pull any tricks for the sheer joy of it. I never get the feeling that any of these episodes was ever built on the foundation of "Wouldn't it be fun if we did something like this?"

Agents of SHIELD is a victim of our expectations. It dutifully checks all of them off a list, and by doing so fails at each because of the transparent nature of its false face. Its an expensive card from Hallmark with no personal notation - it's expensive, it looks right, it satisfies the minimum requirements of the social contract....but it has no soul. You set that card on the TV for a couple of days to keep up appearances, but really you just want to throw it straight in the trash where it belongs.

There's nothing unprofessional about an expensive Hallmark card with nothing personal scribbled inside. It's not terrible. But that's the best you can say about it.

I don't know if I blame Marvel or ABC or anybody else for producing that patchwork quilt of focus group fodder. That show has to be expensive to make, and I'm sure Marvel feels that there is a lot riding on it. If SHIELD succeeds, it could open the door for a lot more cash cows. If it fails, you run the risk of closing minds and shutting doors. It may not be rational, but I'm sure Marvel is desperately concerned that a SHIELD flop plants the idea that "comic books might work in movies, but they can't sustain a weekly audience" in executive's minds.

When the stakes get that high, you either go for broke or you play it as mathematically safe as possible. That's what Marvel did here. Like I said...I can't blame them, but the results are predictably uninspired.

On the plus side, Chloe Bennet is ridiculously hot.
I call her Chloe Wang, because we go way back, of course. And if I'm going to be perfectly fair, I do tend to enjoy the relationship between Fitz and Simmons, even if we've seen that playbook run 1,000 times before and know exactly where it's all going.

I'll give SHIELD one other nod - Peter Macnicol was absolutely fantastic as the Asgardian poonhound in the "angry stick" episode. That character resisted most expectations. I wish the show would do a little more of that.

I still watch the show when it's on, usually. Sometimes a couple of episodes will stack up before I can summon the energy to plow through them. It's definitely not something I anticipate. But it's not terrible.

Because it isn't terrible, I'm giving Agents of SHIELD a straight C. Because Joss Whedon is attached to the project, I also hold out hope that there could be a swerve down the road that redefines things. Maybe? Right now it looks like a C, though.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ugly American 2013 Year in Review

2013 Book of the Year: Hawkeye
Marvel Comics
Scripts: Matt Fraction
Art: David Aja, Francesco Francavilla, Annie Wu, Matt Hollingsworth, others

Every time I get done reading an issue of Hawkeye, I set the book down with a puzzled look on my face and state out loud:

"I can't believe Marvel is publishing this comic book."

I kinda mean that in all the pejorative ways you think I do. I have a complicated relationship with Marvel comics. I respect their ability to make short-term profits while simultaneously pouring kerosene all over themselves and fumbling with matches. They produce wildly entertaining comics for the most part, and attract the best talent in the industry.

But finding Hawkeye at Marvel Comics is like discovering a 4 Michelin star chef at a Mos Eisley tavern.

It just doesn't fit. This is a "superhero" comic in which the superhero will wear anything except his costume, and balks at folks even mentioning his alter ego. It's a superhero comic that firmly believes that an Event is when Lucky the Pizza Dog gets his own issue.

It's hard to describe exactly how Hawkeye transcends Pop Art into Art Art. Easier just to show you, maybe. A great deal of the book is built upon the insanely complicated relationship between Clint Barton and Kate Bishop, who also carries a bow and the Hawkeye name. Here's a scene from issue # 13:

It's almost impossible to get at all the subtext buried in that little bit of elegance, but I'll try to unpack a bit of it.

Clint is a broken man with a good heart. He never actually means to do harm, but he can never be bothered to curb his impulses enough to avoid it. Particularly when it comes to women. He knows he ought not get involved with Kate, who is far too young for him. It feels sort of inevitable, though. He won't stop himself - that's his history, and he's still an emotional child.

As the physical adult and card-carrying Avenger, Clint is in the....I don't know, authoritative position? But here Kate is playing the part of wife, or maybe even mother. For most basic human interactions, (in this case they're preparing for a neighbor's funeral) Kate is actually in control.

Sort of. She plays the part of the young adult can see her growing in that "fake it until you make it" way as the issues go by.. She's still a very young woman, though, working her way through confidence foibles and stumbling through a lot of bad decisions. Her pursuit of Clint being one of those bad decisions.

We'll blame Clint if and when that relationship does take an inappropriate turn, and we probably should. But Katie flirts as well. I remember a scene where Clint is packing boxes, and asks for tape. Katie hands him a Scotch tape dispenser - part of that was her being passive aggressive, but part of that was school girl flirting. Do you have a lot of comics in your stack that can build an indelible memory out of packing boxes? Do you have a lot of superhero comics doing that for you?

So there's Clint and Katie getting dressed for a funeral, figuring out how to love each other the best they can, taking turns pretending to be the adult of the situation, balancing their needs to rely on each other with their physical desires, wanting the best for each other while simultaneously waiting for the inevitable calamity.

That's not a quippy piece of pop art...Fraction routinely aims for Art Art, and he nails it in this book again and again and again. Depth. Subtext. Emotion.

There's enough emotion in that scene that Clint can't take it, and has to bail. "Great, now I got another thing to worry about I never worried about before", he says, tugging uncomfortably at his collar.

What he's actually saying is "You taking care of me feels too good, and I don't love myself enough to accept that, and I know this ends with me hurting you any I'm going to skip right to it and say something to break the spell right now." So he does. And it works. He hurts her enough to cut the tension, she leaves in a huff, and he feels like crap.

And that's Hawkeye, the Ugly American 2013 Book of the Year. I can't believe Marvel publishes that comic book, and I can't believe it's a big seller, but kudos to us for recognizing that great stories don't necessarily have anything to do with Thanos trying to take over the universe. This is a special comic, and my greatest hope is that it frees up Marvel to allow creators to take more sophisticated chances.

And please don't misunderstand - I'm not going all froofy on you, here. Not every book has to be Hawkeye. I just like the idea of living in a world where we can rack Hawkeye in with Amazing X-Men and Marvel just trusts that we're capable of handling a variety of approaches.

Other Great Books In No Particular Order

Saga, Image
Another book very comfortable with subtext and sophistication, but dressed in the gaudiest of genre trappings. It's also a book very comfortable with uncomfortable things. Like the child sex trade. Or just regular sex. Or debating the value of "pulling the wagon" for the 99%.

To be honest, Saga is basically the best porn on the stands. The problem with most porn is that it gets so excited about being able to give you the sex that it forgets there are other things in the world, and so it comes off as obsessive and unbalanced. Saga is as dirty as life is, and that's pretty dirty, thank God!

Fiona Staples is a marvel, just in case you weren't aware. I could look at Alana all day long. Don't be surprised if this comic takes the top spot in 2014.

Nowhere Men, Image
This is such a weird little gem. Nowhere Men is supposedly about a world in which science is the "new rock-n-roll", and it does pay some attention to the ramifications of a world in which science is infected with celebrity. It's "Fab Four" scientists are by far the least interesting characters in the book, however. It's possible that the enigmatic Mr. Walker might buck that trend, but we never really see him "on camera", and the only things we know about him are what we learn from other people's perceptions.

It's also possible we never get to see Thomas Walker, and Stephenson just holds him as a legend and a MacGuffin. He's doing the same thing building up Peter Panic, who we've also yet to meet on the page. I'll say this for Nowhere Men - it implies a very large, very strange world. Eric Stephenson builds in a lot of magazine-style interviews and advertisements and such that are just spot-on, lots of fun, and really help you feel immersed.

What else to say without ruining it? I don't want to say much about the plot itself, best to just go and read without too many preconceptions. If you like science fiction with a dollop of horror, this is perfect. If you liked X-Files, yes, come on in! If you like reading creators that take chances telling big stories with big worlds, you should absolutely spend the pittance it will take to buy the first Nowhere Men TPB. Retail is $9.99, and you can certainly find it for less. I don't know exactly where this is going or whether it will pay off. I don't know if the ever-slowing production schedule is going to bog this into oblivion. I do know that the Nowhere Men comics that came out in 2013 were more interesting than 93.8% of what's out there.

Ballistic, Black Mask
This is another science fiction gem from something called Adam Egypt Mortimer and a guy you may have heard of named Darick Robertson. You probably haven't heard of Ballistic, though, largely because it came from Black Mask publishing. I bet your LCS just spaced it.

Ballistic is a delicious little imagination bomb that can't be stopped. A lot of comics writers get very precious with their ideas, as if they're only going to have about five in their whole life. So they dole out the good ones one per issue, or one per arc. Adam Egypt Mortimer trusts his Muse, because he lets a brain bomb rip about every other panel.

This comic looks great, and it's kinetic at a level rarely attempted, much less achieved. Pick up an issue, any issue, and tell me you aren't instantly infected by Ballistic's charms!

Afterlife With Archie
Can you even imagine how good this comic would have to be to crack my Best of 2013 list while shipping only two issues?

You'll never believe how strong a horror story this is until you pick it up and experience it. Whatever your feelings about the Archie universe might be...I'm telling not discount this comic until you've had a chance to see it for yourself.

I'm awestruck at how adeptly Aguirre-Sacasa was able to integrate lame little Riverdale into a straight horror story, and the Francesco Francavilla art is to die for.

Harbinger has now solidified itself as the best of the Valiant Universe, in my opinion. Most of the Valiant titles are strong, so that's significant.

I don't hear many people talk about Josh Dysart as an ascendent talent. That's a mistake. Between his work on Unknown Soldier and now this, Dysart's work is just smarter and edgier than than the pack. Whatever Dysart puts his name on...that's a mandatory test-drive for me at this point.

What shines on Harbinger are the characters and the twists that recharge the plot. You do not know what's me. You do not know what character is going to be driving the A plot at any given moment, because Dysart knows and loves them all so much, there's no choice but to take turns. Toyo Harada is now one of the more interesting characters in the medium, as well.

Avengers Academy was a standout surprise treat this year. Superior Spider-Man is so, so good...why can't they sell that for $2.99? I would ride horses through the streets with a trumpet announcing to the world how good that book was if they just charged a reasonable rate.

East of West has supplanted Manhattan Projects as my go-to Hickman fix. That thing is raw ambition. It suffers for its lack of a rooting interest, but the assholes are certainly interesting, and the scale of that book defines epic.

Snyder and Capullo's Batman is prime cut, and never fails to entertain. When this generation remembers Batman and his supporting cast, it will be Snyder's Batman they remember. The only other DC book that stands out in my mind was Injustice: Gods Among Us. When creators are allowed to do what they want with the toys, good things happen. Tom Taylor did some remarkably fun things with those DC toys.

That's my very brief take on the best of 2013 - which books were your favorites?