In his first graphic novel entitled House, writer/artist Joshua Simmons tells the tale of a trio of teenagers (one guy and two girls) who stumble upon an abandoned, dilapidated mansion in the middle of a forest. At first, the teenagers freely meander through the mansion, taking a few moments to walk across the roof, skinny-dip in a submerged section of the residence, and explore the seemingly unending hallways. At the same time, there is a subtle subtext of jealousy as two friends move towards a budding romance. After walking through a labyrinth of corridors, the trio eventually find themselves in a room decorated by a solitary painting.

The painting (also the cover of the book, above) is a haunting head-and-shoulders image of a bearded general William Sherman-like figure in a Civil War-era uniform. Any indication of warm humanity is lost within the dark recessed of the man’s sunken eyes. While there are no pupils to speak of, the sullen figure appears to be looking right at you. Basically, it’s kinda creepy.

After staring at the painting for a few seconds, the teenagers discover a boarded passageway that leads into the trio’s shocking journey through the house.

What makes Simmons’ story so unique is that it’s told entirely with black-and-white visuals without the use of any words whatsoever. Everything in the story is communicated through the visuals by way of Simmons’s scratchy linework and his remarkable composition. The first half-dozen pages are open and white. But as the teenagers make their way towards the mansion, the imagery becomes dense. Once they are inside the house, white is replaced with black and the artwork becomes more claustrophobic.

It’s difficult to go into further detail about House because it really is one of those books you have to experience for yourself. I know that might sound cliché but there’s a discovery that comes along with the story; a horrific, intense discovery. Even using the words “horrific” and “intense” in this review don’t mean a thing unless you take 5-10 minutes to go through the pages and follow the trio through the mansion. Then you'll get it. Then you’ve gone on the 80-page ride as Simmons intended. Then you’ll understand when I say that I doubt a collapsing stairwell has been rendered in such a frightful fashion. Is that a tease? Damn right it is!

You can find out more about Joshua Simmons at his website and his blog. You can purchase a copy of House at the Fantagraphics Books website.



Postcards: Stories That Never Happened

Random House Publishing imprint Villard entered the graphic novel arena with a splash after their acquisition of the critically acclaimed Flight anthology series and the subsequent publication of Elk’s Run. Villard continues to “[position] itself on the leading edge of popular culture” with its newest book, Postcards: Stories That Never Happened.

Edited by Jason Rodriquez, Postcards is a collection of stories inspired by actual vintage postcards gathered from flea markets, antique shops, and second-hand stores. The postcards may be limited to a single paragraph of text, but the creators that have contributed to this anthology have allowed their imaginations to fill in the blanks and tell the “true stories that never happened”.

Some of the recognizable names that provide stories for this 208-Pages black and white anthology are Joshua Hale Fialkov (Elk's Run), Tom Beland (True Story Swear To God), Robert Tinnell (The Black Forest), Matt Kindt (Super Spy), Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), Ande Parks (Capote in Kansas), and Phillip Hester (Deep Sleeper).

While all the stories are interesting and creative, here are a few that merit highlighting:

“Time” by writer Tom Beland details the story of Mr. Lewis; an elderly man who finds himself “counting the days…The days [he has] left on this world” after the loss of his dearly beloved wife Myrtle. Beland takes a sad but honest perspective on lost love and the joy of finding it, even if it is through the natural tragedy of death.

Written by Ande Parks and illustrated by Joseph Bergin III, the 8-page “Taken On Faith” follows a recent widow and her poor judgment in handling her deceased husbands affairs. When the widow meets the sly Mr. Falkeastein, she finds out that his affection is focused on her money rather then for the impressionable woman.

Even as one of the shorter stories in the book, at five pages, “Send Louis His Underwear” imparts a sinister impression. Using a seemingly innocuous line from the postcard (that also supplies the short’s title), writer Matt Dembicki’s tale would make Hitchcock proud. And illustrator Jason Copland’s gorgeous atmospheric artwork flawlessly heightens the narrative’s morose tone.

“Res Libero” by writer A. David Lewis and illustrator Danielle Corsetto tells the tale of young Gretna. Gretna is stuck in the country with humdrum parents and a lackluster existence. However, when Gretna’s cousin Verna provides the young girl with an opportunity to escape her monotonous life, Verna must choose between her small town or the big city. Lewis and Corsetto get extra credit for taking a rather vague postcard message and transforming it into a potent parable on the choices we must make and the choices we regret not making.

Finally, “Tic-Tac-Bang-Bang”, written by Stuart Moore and illustrated by Michael Gaydos, is a late-nineteenth century tale of tic-tac-toe con men and the dangerous roads they traveled. The photorealistic artwork by Gaydos supplies all the believability you’ll need to accept a particularly quirky, almost far-fetched, anecdote on confidence men and friendship.

For more info on Postcards: Stories That Never Happened, to check out preview pages, and learn more about the creators, visit the Eximious Press website.



Dr. Strange DVD

When Marvel released the news that they were producing direct-to-DVD animated films based on their characters, my initial reaction was: “It’s about time.”

DC characters have been a given in the Saturday morning and weekday afternoon cartoon lineups since 1992. First there was Batman: The Animated Series followed by Superman, Batman Beyond, Teen Titans, and The Batman. Now in 2007, we’ve also seen the addition of The Legion of Superheroes on KidsWB. In that same time, Marvel’s major contributions to the animated superhero universe have been limited to the X-Men animated series (1992) and the Spiderman animated series (1994). And while you can’t take away the House of Ideas’ current box-office reign (Blade, X-Men, Ghost Rider, Spiderman, Electra, Daredevil, Hulk, Punisher, Fantastic Four) versus DC’s latest cinematic releases (Batman Begins, Superman Returns, Constantine), you’d think that Marvel would’ve jumped into the animated game earlier.

Well, better late than never.

The first direct-to-DVD Marvel feature out of the gate was Ultimate Avengers followed by its sequel, Ultimate Avengers 2. The third animated film, The Invincible Ironman, was released in January of this year. Now, with Dr. Strange, that makes four Marvel DVDs. In my opinion, both Ultimate Avengers films were less than impressive and The Invincible Ironman was just a big mess. But with Dr. Strange, I think Marvel is finally onto something.

The feature starts with a rollicking intro scene where we see a group of mysterious magical warriors attempting to stop a giant iguana-like creature. No one can see the battle and the creature’s final defeat except for an innocent passer-by named Dr. Stephen Strange. Strange dismisses the incident and continues to make his way to the hospital where we are introduced to his distinguished surgical credentials and his House-like bedside manners. But when he loses the use of his hands in a car accident, Strange will do anything to doctor once again. After exhausting traditional medical options (which includes a visit to a certain Dr. Donald Blake aka Thor), the disheartened doctor is about to pull a Jimmy Stewart from a bridge when he is approached by Wong, an emissary to the powerful Ancient One. Wong tells Strange that the Ancient One can heal his hands if he is willing to travel to Tibet. So after a long journey across the globe, a Jesus-like looking Strange arrives at The Ancient One’s Tibet fortress and begins his Karate Kid/Kill Bill 2-styled training. In time, the Ancient One provides Strange with the physical and spiritual healing he needs before revealing Strange’s ultimate fate as the Sorcerer Supreme. Of course, the real drama kicks in when Mordo, the Ancient One’s star pupil, feels slighted by Strange’s presence and deserts the side of angels to help the evil and exiled Dormammu. The finale sees Dr. Strange use his medical expertise, don the powerful Eye of Agamotto, confront the treacherous Mordo, and force Dormammu back to the dimension he came from.

As you watch Dr. Strange, particularly in the middle of the film after the action moves to Tibet, you get the sense that the producers were watching Batman Begins and The Last Samurai. The “foreigner with a destiny” archetype comes off strong and slightly contrived. Nonetheless, I’ll give them credit for staying focused on Strange and providing him with some actual characterization. There are moments when the emotion comes off heavy-handed, especially in the flashbacks to Strange and his deceased sister that go dramatically overboard and on the verge of laughable. But even those scenes work in demonstrating Strange’s motivations. The producers even establish Mordo as a good foil to Strange. Their relationship culimates in a great line towards the end of the film where Mordo declares that he uses the blade to destroy and Strange replies by stating he uses the blade to heal.

On the technical front, this is Marvel’s best animated direct-to-DVD film. The animation is sleek and can be described as Peter Chung (Aeon Flux, Pitch Black: Dark Fury) meets Jeff Matsuda (Jackie Chan Adventures, The Batman). CGI is used but only sparingly (cars, planes, backgrounds) and not to a distracting/detracting degree. The voice talent is spot on, except for the obvious miscasting of Dormammu. Halfway through the movie we’re warned of the sizable threat that is Dormammu. But when he finally appears (in pretty cool fashion), Dormammu’s voice is so light that his presence becomes anticlimactic. Finally, the score really stands out. Not since Batman: Mask of the Phantasm have I heard an animated movie score that rivaled the energy and scope you might experience in an epic live-action movie. The end credits also deserve a nod with the running showcase of vintage Dr. Strange comic artwork.

Overall, of the four DVDs released to date, this is probably the only Marvel animated flick I’d comfortably add to my collection. Strange purists be warned; the producers did take liberties with the Sorcerer Supreme’s origin. But if its in the name of good filmaking, I’m all for it. I like Dr. Strange as a character, the story was good, the animation was first-rate, and the overall production was solid. So whether you choose to buy it or rent it, definitely check out Dr. Strange.



Wizard Chicago Photo Fest Part 5

Admittingly, I'm not a big "capes" comic reader. If something at Marvel or DC rubs me right, I'll definitely pick it up. But for the most part, I have few fanboy needs...except for the DC's animated universe action figures. I fell in love with all the animated series' and once they started releasing Justice League Unlimited figures, I was hooked.

Here are some con photos showcasing some of the upcoming JLU figures...

...upcoming The Batman figures...

...and figures from the upcoming Superman/Doomsday direct-to-DVD movie.


Wizard Chicago Photo Fest Part 4

Here are a few "mug shots" from the con...

Around Comics podcaster extraordinaire Tom Katers (with hat) and Word Balloon magic man John Siuntres.

Secret Skull and Black Metal artist Chuck BB.

The men behind The Damned: writer Cullen Bunn and artist Brian Hurtt (hint: Brian's the one in the Freddy Kruger shirt).

ZigZag Comics man J. Chris Campbell...and me, talking about, well, comics.

Michael "Micronauts" Golden.

Groove Junction artist Andre Szymanowicz.

Butterfly webcomic creator and Project: Rooftop editor Dean Trippe.

Gabe "Galvo" Bautista givin' the people what they want.

The man behind Big Boy and Rusty, Hardboiled, and Shaolin Cowboy: Artistic demi-god Geof Darrow...and lovely daughter.

Artist/painter Mark McHaley taking a brief respite from a commission.

Michael Oeming works on a "sketch" (yeah, right...that piece was way more than a sketch...damn talented bastard...I mean, nice guy) of his new Image series, The Mice Templar.

Criminal Macabre and Strange Girl artist Nick Stakal.

Patrick the Wolf Boy booth sans creators Art Baltazar & Franco.

Image Comics founder and comics industry cornerstone Rob Liefeld.


Wizard Chicago Photo Fest Part 3

Next up, a few cool-looking statues from the con floor...

Ironman about to do some repulsing and Hawkeye taking aim.

Yup, he's evil.

Bob Kane-styled black and white Batman statue sweetness.

And now for the statue that hands down stole the show: a Weta sculpt of a T-Rex fighting King Kong. Not only was it huge, the price was hard to beat.


Wizard Chicago Photo Fest Part 2

Here are some pretty photos of some pretty pictures seen on the con floor...

Batman animated goodness.

Batman Beyond animated goodness.

A Geof Darrow original Big Boy drawing on velum. A-m-a-z-i-n-g.

Considering how big of a Space Ghost fan I am, there was absolutely no way I could get through the entire con without snapping a photo of something Space Ghost related.

The photo may be blurry, but a Darwyn Cooke original is still f@#$in' awesome.



Wizard Chicago Photo Fest Part 1

This past weekend, fanboys and fangirls came to the great city of Chicago to partake in the geek-gasm that is the Wizard World Chicago convention. I was in attendance for my fifth straight year and it was a great time. I got to meet tons of awesome creators, bought a few things, and took a few pictures. So here for your viewing enjoyment, a few shots from Wizard World Chicago '07...

Outside the belly of the beast.

The craziness that is the con floor.


Large (but surprisingly light) statue promoting the upcoming BioShock video game.



Galaxy Trio - Part Four

With all the characters inked and colored, I couldn't forget the Galaxy Trio's space cruiser, Condor One. Instead of actually drawing the ship, I did a quick, loose sketch on a scratch sheet of paper, scanned it, and finished it in Photoshop. So here's Condor One...Now for the background. Gravity Girl and Vapor Man may be flyers but poor Meteor Man is stuck on the ground. In my original thumbnail sketch for the pinup, I wanted the characters running dramatically towards the camera. So I painted a distant planet surface with a slight tilt to the ground...

After adding the three characters, Condor One, and working some Photoshop magic to make the separate elements come together, here's the final shot...

You can see a bigger version here.

I had a heck of a time trying to render Gravity Girl's powers. In the cartoon, she simply shot a pretty generic gray-colored ray but I wanted to level her up and show how cool looking her powers could be. In the end, I leaned towards an electric crackle, Jedi powers look. I think it came out pretty good. I also added a slight trail to Vapor Man's vapor trail to make it more organic.

The Birdman pinup was fun but this one was a good challenge. I'll have more retro animated pinups in the future but for the next few weeks, it's back to my projects.



Galaxy Trio - Part Three

And for the final member of the Galaxy Trio - Gravity Girl.

Gravity Girl’s ability to control gravity allowed her to shoot energy beams to repel, lift, or attract anything that got in her way. Although it's only mentioned in a single episode, it turns out Gravity Girl is also the daughter of the king of Gravitas. Seeing that she's a princess, the first thing I thought of was Wonder Woman and the way she was characterized in Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. Wonder Woman was depicted as being regal and powerful and that's exactly what Galaxy Girl should be like. So I gave her face a little more attitude, demonstrated through a strong jaw line and Betty Davis inspired eyes.

Here are the inks...

And here are the colors...

Tune in tomorrow for Condor One and the final pinup.