Free Comic Book Day: The joyous post-mortem

Two Saturdays ago was Free Comic Book Day, for me a holiday not unlike Christmas or my birthday.

The first Saturday in May is the day the comics industry promotes itself to the comics-curious, as well as to the comics faithful who need a nudge to step into a new title. Each participating publisher makes certain of its books available to stores for cents on the dollar — some of the offerings are upcoming titles, some are older but ideal for “jumping aboard” a story, some are excerpts or anthologies, and some are even published exclusively for the day. (My copy of “Umbrella Academy” from FCBD 2007 is a treasure beyond measure.) On the whole, it’s a smorgasbord of capes-and-tights, indie comics, serial storytelling and kiddie fare.

Not every shop shares and shares alike. When traveling in Cincinnati one FCBD, I visited a shop that limited me to three (3) comics, no more. But my everyday FLCS (that’s friendly local comics shop in nerdese) is way too cool for that. Comix Revolution loads up on the books, and doesn’t smack your wrist when you take ’em. They know that it’s good for business when people can sample it all.

This year’s selection included a lot of fun stuff, including a healthy selection of kid stuff that my children glommed onto. After gorging on it all, there are two samplings  I want to mention:

Atomic Robo from Red 5 Comics

Atomic Robo

I follow comics news, and I usually know of obscure stuff even if I don’t know it. But I had never heard of “Atomic Robo” or its publisher, Red 5. Well, they’re on my radar now, thanks to the FCBD story, “Why Atomic Robo Hates Dr. Dinosaur.” That title alone is a good start, and it just gets more beautiful from there. Seriously, get a load of this:

I know, right? So good.

"Behold the pulpy fruit of my vastly superior reptillian intelligence!"

So yeah, there’s nothing more I can say here. It’s awesomeness speaks for itself. Volume One: Atomic Robo & the Fightin’ Scientists of Tesladyne features a Giza pyramid turned steampunk supertank. Booyah! Get thee to your own FLCS and buy a copy post haste, as I did. (Need help finding a shop? This tool is all you need.)

Skyscrapers of the Midwest, from Adhouse Books

Skyscrapers of the Midwest

This wasn’t a free selection, but Comix Revolution brought in author/artist Josh Cotter for a signing of this nicely bound volume from AdHouse Books. Purely on the strength of their recommendation (I trust my comics purveyors implicitly) I bought a copy and had Cotter autograph it for me. The first clue to what I would find within: Cotter took a good two or three minutes to draw a doodle and sign my book — a time commitment unheard of in the autograph game. Well, the art I found inside the book exhibited the same kind of meticulous pen work and crosshatching that can only come from a guy taking his own sweet time on something he loves.

What a wonder this book is. “Skyscrapers” follows (loosely) a boy and his younger brother coming of age in a rural nowhere town. But other characters hop in and out, including giant hobo-like robots who tramp over the landscape, unseen, like ambivalent gods. Cotter frames chunks of the book as, alternately: high-school yearbook, pulpy Silver Age comic, dream sequence and an Art Spiegelman-like autobiography starring anthropomorphic animals.

His style resembles the intensity of R. Crumb, partly for that autobiographical viewpoint, but also for the art style of sweetly cartoonish animal characters inhabiting precisely drawn environments. It also brings to mind (that’s how you know I’m a serious critic — I said “brings to mind”) Chris Ware, whose “Jimmy Corrigan” and “Acme Novelty Library” books feature some panels so languidly paced you can almost hear the clock ticking. (That nicely worded observation isn’t mine, but I can’t recall who said it first.) Cotter is really young, too, so how he’s developed such weathered chops is beyond me. Look at this sequence of a kid moping over his meal at a Booster Club Chili Supper:

"Skyscrapers of the Midwest" by Joshua W. Cotter

The kid has just been teased by his friend about his secret infatuation with a pretty girl. The friend abandons him there, threatening to tell her about it — just your run-of-the-mill pre-teen devastation.  The cafeteria slowly empties out around him as he stews in his misery. Plotwise, this sequence could have been conveyed in one panel. But Cotter makes sure you feel what it’s like to grow up in Barnard, and that includes those moments of heartbreak, loneliness and boredom.

And joy, too. One pillar of the book’s arc is of Cotter’s younger brother who loves, and loses, his favorite toy dinosaur. His brother uses the dino for all kinds of fantasy play, and even after this little stuffed plaything is wrenched away and tossed by bullies, this character never really loses his optimistic outlook and gleeful attitude. These are characters you can believe in and feel for.

On the back of the book, Cotter calls his story, “the winding tale of a young cat, his little brother, and the creeping shadow of imminent adolescence in the American heartland.” Cotter’s keen memory of childhood — not just what happened, but how it felt — gives that imminient adolescence more density than a mere creeping shadow. I’m not sure even J.D. Salinger had this keen a grip on what it’s like to grow up.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Free Comic Book Day: The joyous post-mortem

  1. Anneke

    I have never heard of free comic day…. Must make note for next year for the boys. Sadly, I seem to lack the comic-appreciation genome.

    • jdrewscott

      You know, I’ve been thinking about that very genome lately, and how everyone *should* be able to discover it, tucked away ever so latently, if they could only experience those titles that elevate the medium.

      Most people are familiar with the capes-and-tights fare, but even when those types of stories are well done, the mainstream tends to lump the whole world of capital-C Comics into the ghetto of juvenile junk.

      I think it’s time I post about some great titles that will activate that genome in no time, Anneke. Stay tuned.

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