Author: Marc Alan Fishman

Marc Alan Fishman’s Snarky Synopsis: The New 52 – Futures End #7

Marc Alan Fishman’s Snarky Synopsis: The New 52 – Futures End #7

Futures EndWritten by Brian Azzarello, Jeff Lemire, Dan Jurgens, and Keith Giffen. Art by Aaron Lopresti, Art Thibert, and Hi-Fi.

I beg you, dear reader, to not skim over the author credits in this review. Azzarello. Lemire. Jurgens. Giffen. A master of noir, the macabre, cape and cowl, and team action. I want you to let those names and their respective bibliographies soak into your brainpan.

And now, I want you to forget it. All of it. Forget amazing runs on Batman, Animal Man, Justice League, Superman, and 100 Bullets. Why? Because Futures End doesn’t read like it even strolled adjacent to the parks where any of those celebrated authors lived. Instead, we get another chapter that advances banal plots that all lead towards the next editorial status quo to deal with in the next publishing quarter (or year, or what-have-you). If you don’t care to stick around to read the maple-syrup-thick snark I’m about to lay out on this waste of thought and talent, then take these words and call it a day: Futures End is a passionless money suck, and is yet-another-symptom in the ever-ailing world of big-comic event-driven fiction.

To sum up the issue itself is to merely check off the minor plot points that continue the threads of the litany of plots. In the Phantom Zone, Agent Frankenstein fights Black Adam. He wins, but loses a limb. I guess we should care about that, but the guy is literally sewn together bits already. Losing one bit doesn’t really lend itself to intense dramatic action, does it? Elsewhere, Deathstroke and Hit Girl (or whatever her name is – which doesn’t matter because she’s clearly being presented like Hit Girl) discuss adding Grifter to their team. Grifter is told this, and basically seems fine with it. Oh the melancholy! Then there’s Firestorm, who visits a memorial celebrating the loss of life he had a hand in creating. Joy! And we cap off the book with a skirmish in the park – Terry McGinness (Batman Beyond, don’t cha know) and Mr. Terrific fight while the Key and some ne’er-do-wells discuss being bad.

Time for a bit of a digression, kiddos. You see, not that long ago, there was this weekly book called 52. It was penned by a fantastic foursome of their day. To be fair, all four men are still incredible. Mark Waid, Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns, and Greg Rucka. Each man basically took a single story set inside the ever-shifting DCU, and over the course of 52 issues laid it out in tandem with the other three.

Over the course of that year-in-comics, there were certainly issues akin to Futures End where really there was more moving of chess pieces than there was definitive action and progress. But by and large, each issue was worth the read. Each issue contributed a very dissimilar set of heroes and villains that ultimately came together to showcase the richly detailed universe that houses half of the most recognizable licensed characters in all of creation… and then placed them dutifully on the shelf, and played with the want-nots, has-beens, and forgotten ones instead. It was the best of times.

Futures End #7 is the worst of times. As I alluded to above, the book just reads as passionless plot. I take that opinion to heart, as I myself am amidst the writing process on something of similar direction. In the era of writing for the trade, the middle chapters fall prey to only existing as means to the eventual end. Because they serve so many masters, they end up feeling hollow. Things happen. Stuff moves forward. But when you cram an issue with no fewer than five plot lines, and literally nothing gets resolved, or any twists are revealed… the trade becomes an end not worth waiting for. At least, not when the scripting and pacing do not take into account that every issue could stand to be a jumping on point. FE #7 not only craps on that concept, it revels in it.

Allow me to admit it straight up: I haven’t read a single panel of any previous issue of Futures End. Outside the pithy knowledge I have that this is some kind of epic that has to do with robotic evil duplicates from an alternate timeline or dimension, and at some point Luthor will run the Justice League… I know nothing. Picking up the seventh issue is of course complete reader-suicide. I don’t know why Frankenstein is in the Phantom Zone. I don’t know why Ronnie Raymond is to blame for whatever tragedy befell his kin. I don’t have the slightest clue what Terrifitech is, or why Batman Beyond is trying to blend in as a bum (who apparently drops fifty dollar bills because… the Internet?). But I digress. Simply put: I shouldn’t have to know any of those six-issue long backstories to enjoy a good comic.

If it’s the absolute I believe in now – having been a weekly reviewer for nearly three and a half years (and a fan and reader for two decades) – it’s that Erik Larsen was right. Every comic stands to be someone’s jumping on point. And it’s issues like this one that lend me to believe why comic books continue to ebb and flow but never seem to be more than a niche medium clinging to life in between the blockbuster movie adaptations. Stories like 52 actually attempted to prove that comic books still had sway – and that Alan Moore isn’t just a crazy loon in a castle. By making a book that used the continuity and novel-length girth of plots, DC proved that a comic book need not be a cartoon or mega-plex people pleaser. Futures End instead returns to the roots (and not that Jack Kirby / Steve Ditko / Stan Lee kind) of the industry; kitchy low-brow action stories that only target those who want a punch, kick, and an occasional tit. Sorry, we’re better than this.

When the credit-roll on your book reads like a who’s-who of modern top talent.. when your art team delivers admirable visuals to the script… when you have literally an entire universe of characters – including the top-shelf ones – at your disposal… when you have the carte blanche to create with compatriots that each in their own right could handle the book by themselves, you are not allowed to phone in an issue. Hell, you’re not allowed to phone in one panel. For fuck’s sake, you’re not even allowed to trip up over a single Rao-damned word balloon.

Future’s End is indicted on all counts. This was a lazy chapter in a lazy crossover that feels more by-the-numbers than seat-of-your-pants. It aspires to do nothing other than advance plot at a snails pace – sans style, sans grace. For shame, DC. For shame Brian Azzarello, Jeff Lemire, Dan Jurgens, and Keith Giffen.



Marc Alan Fishman: Make Your Comic Book Happen!

Understanding ComicsIt would seem my last few posts have been quite popular, and as such, I figured this whole be transparent thing served me well. Stands to reckon that I oughta continue whacking the cash piñata while it’s raining likes, retweets, comments, and the whatnot.

If you’re thinking of jumping into the deep end to make your own independent comics, the process is several columns long, kiddo, so consider this the prequel to the finale that was last week. Step one in making a comic could be a litany of sundry topics. I could talk about choosing your audience, or ascertaining your skill level, or learning how to collaborate. But the former is more about the sale (which we’ve already covered), the latter is far more personal in regards to your own level of humility and your need for control. I’d like to focus today on Unshaven Comics’ writing process – how we get from concept to actual words on the page – served up to you in bite-sized content chunks in a rich snarky gravy. Eat up.

Notes, notes, notes. Then more notes.

Beyond the initial spark of an idea we choose to explore, Unshaven Comics likes to begin our stories by simply spit-balling our way through every loose idea jangling around our collected beardspace, in regards to said comic. A blank document is opened (typically on Google Drive because being able to work and share a live document in the cloud makes for easy workflow… #synergy). And then the ideas just start spurting out. Matt might chime in how we need to focus on the armor and weaponry. Kyle will jump on the history and backstory that exists for the characters. I myself tend to ask the big picture questions: “What are we really trying to accomplish in this story that hasn’t been done before?”

My personal take before I start a comic is typically more business-minded. Call it the Jewish stereotype living well inside me, but I love being able to build a product I have sincere passion for as a fan and be able to eventually turn a profit from it. You can clearly see why Unshaven Comics works well as a unit: we each play to our strengths, and play off one another. That doesn’t sound dirty, does it?

So, we brain-vomit out all our fleeting thoughts into a working document, and then like a good grilled brisket, we let it rest.

Beat it. Beat it. Don’t you let me repeat it.

After a bit of time to stew in the ether of our privately shared note-pile, the next step in creating our comic is to hash out the main story beats we’re set to cover in the issue. These are the main ideas – scenes, really – we need to cover to get us from start to finish across the 36 or so pages. And for those playing at home, this is actually two blocks of 18 pages, one set for me, one set for Kyle and Matt. We start at the opening of our book and talk our way through the issue. As opposed to the note stage, here we consider the three-act structure, rising action, and all those loose ends needed to be tied together before we roll the credits. This stage is often rife with digressions that could last minutes, hours, or even days. Matt will think of a cool action beat we need to reach – and I’ll inherently feel the need to one up him – before we both realize we’ve created an impossibly cool moment that equally excites us to share with the fans, and instill pure terror in us because now we have to draw it. For what it’s worth, when we hit that stage, I’ve always known it to the sign that we’re ready to move forward.

Outlines in the sand.

So, let us say for Curse of the Dreadnuts 3 (coming soon to a comic con near you!), I have a story beat that calls for Sora, the Purple Samurnaut, to activate his hidden power of teleportation portal creation. It’s then my duty to figure out within my given set of pages (18) how long I need to draw the moment out.

I can’t recommend the books by Scott McCloud enough. As Mr. McCloud would instruct, the amount of time in a comic page, or even between one panel and the next, is entirely fluid in the writer’s hands. I could make the story beat itself seven pages long – exploring the creation of the first portal, the journey through it, shots of Sora’s facial expressions (paired with angsty caption boxes, oh my!), and maybe even a flashback to his youth to bring together a larger theme. I could just as easily make it half a page – blip, port, blip, crash, and scene. The key here is the outlining of the comic itself.

It’s typically here that I personally like to look over all the beats I need to cover in my given set of pages, divide evenly to start, and then start fiddling scene to scene. I give more time to beats that need more exploration, and I constrict lesser scenes to the necessary plot points I need to hit. In my example above, since this was the first time Sora would activate this latent ability, I’d felt a need to draw the sequence out; 4 pages from start to finish. And to ensure I was doing more than the expected, I introduce the second major beat of the issue, interspersed throughout the sequence. In lay-mans terms? I used the comic format to my advantage – using the digression of one scene to eat time away from the other, thus increasing the tension as Sora hurtles untethered towards his demise.

Sage Advice I Was Once Given

“If your character is going to go outside to get the mail, and all you do is show him opening the door, walking to the mailbox, pulling out the mail, and walking back inside… you’re wasting my time as a reader. Every panel is an opportunity to show someone something – even the mundane – in a new and interesting way.”

But I digress.

The outline for Unshaven Comics is the lynchpin by which our books are created. From a simple listing of scenes with their appropriate page counts, we’re able to see a birds-eye view of our comic before pencil ever hits the paper. And when that outline can be tweaked no more? We write out panel to panel what needs to be shown in order to communicate the scene and beat in question. After all these initial thoughts and scribblings are captured? Well, then it’s on to step two, kiddos. Stay tuned.

Next week: Dr. Photoshoot, or How I learned to stop caring what someone more talented than I can do, and love my models instead.


Marc Alan Fishman’s Snarky Synopsis: “Figment #1”

Written by Jim Zub. Art by Filipe Andrade and Jean-Francois Beaulieu.

FigmentEver have a thing (in this case, a cartoonish purple dragon) on the tip of your tongue and you’ve just got to figure out where you’ve seen it before? I had to break down and look up Figment on Wikipedia. Figment is a Disney dragon who starred (Troy McClure style) in several shorts used throughout the Disney World theme park. So it would seem here, a salvo of Mouse-driven comic bookery, now put out by Mickey’s favorite movie-makers: a comic based on a barely-there cartoon character. Sure as hell beats a live-action Eddie Murphy star-vehicle about Tomorrow Land, I suppose.

Jim Zub, of Skull Kickers fame, turns in a script that could easily fare in a direct-to-DVD cartoon adaptation with ease. I am pleased to report that Zub comes from my favorite camp of all-ages content creators – building a book that doesn’t speak down to kids with crude humor or simple language. Instead he tells a simpler story, backed by a load of stylish flair and characterization. Our hero, the brilliant (and brilliantly named) Blarion Mercurial, is one of many fine minds working at the Academy Scientifica-Lucidus. Tasked by the demanding Chairman Illocrant to find new sources of energy, Mercurial is the quintessential dreamer with a heart of gold and a head in the clouds. We soon learn that Blarion himself is a man of meager means, given a shot at greatness because of his intrepid mind. His solution to the steam-punky world’s need for more power? The power of the mind, bay-bee. And his Integrated Mesmonic Convertor is the kind of kooky contraption a child might come up with on a rainy day.

The device harnesses the power of thought to generate electricity. Or that’s what Blarion would like it to have done. But like any good thrill-a-minute adventure book of days past, his invention doesn’t seem to work exactly that way. Instead, it created a sentient being built of pure imagination. Figment, the quirky and cute purple dragon – once an invisible pal to a young (and maybe lonely?) genius, now made real! But Zub doesn’t get long to revel in the science, as our hero is put back to the task at hand with seven days to solve the energy problem. I won’t spoil the ending – I know, that’s a change for me – but suffice the say the script zigs where I thought it might zag. It sets up the book for future chapters that clearly will be more frenetic than this first installment.

Concerning the actual words on the page, I reiterate my glee at a script that has no problem speaking above the target audience’s head. It causes would-be readers to stretch their vernacular in order to meet the mental demand of the story. That being said, this is a fun and whimsical book. One that I fret to admit I came in ready to hate with all the piss and vinegar I could muster.

Not to knock poor Walt, but Disney has not been synonymous to me lately with tons of good will. Cracking open this comic though reminded me of the company that set the tone for my childhood with aplomb. “Figment” is akin to those pieces of cinematic fiction that define generations of youth to strive for excellence. The fact that Jim Zub chooses to explore psuedo-science, and pair it with working-class sensibilities, and never take cause for a fart gag? It’s a sign to me that the all-ages comics are continuing to put to shame the cape and cowl sect – far more apt to dissolve into mindless action than tell a good story.

Art chores by Filipe Andrade and Jean-Francois Beaulieu give us a simply grand visual experience to enjoy. Andrade’s scenes are all awash in detail – sketchy detail – that show us an artist truly building a world … and perhaps layer abandoning it. His hand is loose and gestural, but his finished figures are hefty beneath the layer of slightly erased doodles. Beaulieu’s colors elevate the book to the stratosphere it aims at. Warm tones bring figures to the foreground against cooler-toned environments. And the bare hint of an occasional glow or knockout lend themselves more towards a painterly page than a Photoshopped one. While I had a few flashbacks to artists like Ryan Sook, and even Gene Ha in small doses, Filipe and Jean-Francois build a comic book that is simply a joy to read through. The fact that we can spent nearly 80% of the book without the titular dragon, and not miss it? It’s a sign that their work takes Zub’s script and carry us through universe-building without being a drag.

Zippedoo-da. Zippedee-aye. My, oh my, what a wonderful day! “Figment” hit my pull-list like a ton of bricks – the idea of a Disney-penned also-ran, made into a needless comic book – but ended up making my day. Jim Zub and the team of artists build a tale of brilliance that celebrates the power of thought, the joy of imagination, and yeah … there’s a dragon in it too. When fiction strives to elevate it’s target audience through the use of fine language and adult concepts, and present it without pretense? You get an end-product that both the parent and child can enjoy on their own terms. Whether you’re a fan of Mickey or not, Figment is a fine comic to seek out. You needn’t dream about it further; here’s one piece of your imagination made real.


Marc Alan Fishman: Sell! Sell! Sell Your Comic!

Comic BooksHey kiddos! I decided I wanted to add a touch of linkbaiting this week to my article. Since the interwebs just goes gaga (but not Lady Gaga) over lists, I thought it was time I give you one… as I lay out to you the secret sauce that makes Unshaven Comics’ Big Mac. That Big Mac is, of course, the reason why we are (in part) as successful as we have been at comic conventions throughout the Mid-West and East Coast. Over the last five years, we’ve cultivated pitches for each of our books, such that it becomes abundantly clear to those standing in front of our table that they need the book we place in their hands.

In between discussions of great grub, good flicks, and other bric-a-brac, many of our fellow creators have asked Unshaven what lands us our good sales and closing ratio. And rather than write a book and sell it to them, I thought it’d be fun instead to even the playing field. So, without any further padding, let’s get into those tips you yourself need to turn your pet project into a product-moving behemoth.

1. You have my undivided attenti – Hey! Zombies!

When you’ve made eye-contact with a potential customer (a “fan,” if you will) and you’ve politely asked them if you can tell them about your comic book – you are doing that, aren’t you? – be clear that you have literally thirty seconds or less to captivate them. If you can’t get through the biggest reasons why your comic is appealing to them in that time? You might as well sit patiently and wait for your mother to walk by the table to listen to all you have to say. This isn’t a proclamation about the attention span of the millenials mind you… this is Advertising 101. So, tip 1: Keep. It. Short. Sassypants.

2. It’s like chocolate meets peanut butter.

Clichéd as it may be, a good pitch saves time by referencing previously available material. Yes, I know that your book is a beautiful and wholly original snowflake. But you know what? I don’t care. When you can tell me that your book is like Fight Club and My Little Pony, I’m free to the do the mental math quickly. Barrier to entry is now lessened, or the wasted time on someone you’re not going to sell to is shortened. So, pick a piece of memorable fiction that matches your book’s genre, and potentially style or mood. Present your X meets Y statement as such that your pitchee knows you’re not speaking on the quality of your piece, so much as the headspace you’re aiming for. In other words, don’t say “It’s like Star Wars Meets Titanic, because it’s just. That. Epic.”

3. People want story first, not characters.

Even if your book follows a single solitary soul for twenty some-odd pages, as a potential buyer I can’t be sold on a character in 30 seconds. Why? Because your characters are likely dimensional. They have depth, nuance, and shades of grey. A person can’t easily be quantified in a single sentence. But your story can. As I’ve been building here: you have limited real estate of ear-time with your would-be-fan. What will make them by your book is not how witty the banter may be… it’ll be the hook of the story. Just because your book stars Robo-Jesus doesn’t mean I instantly want it – it’s how Robo-Jesus fights a horde of rabid leprechauns that sells me on the issue quickest.

4. Leave room to breathe.

Ain’t I a stinker? Here I am building you up for what must feel like a drag race to a sale, and now I’m telling you to slow down! I’m not evil, trust me. Here’s the thing. 30 seconds is actually longer than you think. If you’ve followed along this far, you have a good idea what Unshaven Comics likes to do: We hop in, and tell our audience what our book is about, and end right on the hook. And then we breathe. We look the fan in the eye, and see that they absorb what we’ve said. Some folks will immediately have questions. Some will snicker with a “oh, really? Now what?” Others will ask where the line for Gene Ha starts. In any event, we build a nice pregnant pause into the pitch to force the customer to interact with us. Why? Because while we are trying to sell them, we’re not trying to be the late Billy Mays. It’s not a scream-a-thon until you beg for money… it’s actually a conversation.

5. But what am I actually buying?

Brass tacks: After you’ve dropped the setup and the hook. After you’ve compared your book to common fiction they know. After you’ve maybe answered a quick question about the art. It’s time to close the sale. In case you’re not familiar – and if you’re not, shame on you – watch Alec Baldwin tell you how it’s done.  Always. Be. Closing. The key to finishing strong, is to cut to the chase. Tell your interested party what they’re holding in their hands. How many pages is it? Is it color? How much does it cost? And then, as awkward as it may be, you have to then ask them if they’d like to give it a try. No arm wrenching necessary; just a polite notification that yes, you are indeed a business, and what you’re attempting here is to keep that business open. Your fan won’t mind the hustle, if you don’t mind the humility.

6. Don’t forget the upsell, or the closer.

When you’ve reached step 5, you have a sale or a runner. If they are willing to purchase, it literally loses you nothing to offer an upsell. For Unshaven Comics? It’s typically a free sticker, button, or poster, with purchase of another book. So, yes, for the cost of two comics (one of which you’ve now told yourself is worth purchasing) you now get something potentially cool totally free. Yessir, that’s an upsell. Or, perhaps you have someone on the fence. They like the idea, but… hey, it is five bucks. So, now, you need a closer. Offer to sign the book. Or eat the cost on a button, sticker, or poster. At the end of the day, issues moved are issues moved. And everything you should be doing on a cold sale is try to move that book.

Alrighty everyone. Seem simple enough? It’s not. Like I’d said above: it took us five years, and what I could figure as being literally 3,000+ pitches to get where we’re at. But don’t be discouraged. Remember that at a convention you’re in your element. The people walking that floor are there to be wowed. It’s your chance to wow them. Keep it short, keep it uncomplicated, be witty where you can. Be upfront about your price, and be ready to upsell if you can. And last but not least? Know that the worst a fan will ever say to you ultimately is ‘no’. So… if I haven’t ask you yet, stranger…

Can I tell you about my comic book?


Marc Alan Fishman’s Snarky Synopsis: Amazing X-Men Annual #1

Amazing X-Men Annual #1Written by Monty Nero.  Art by Salvador Larroca, Juan Vlasco and Sonia Oback

It’s fitting to me that this week Mike Gold pontificated on how mainstream comics are either targeting either the kiddies or the adulties. OK, technically, he was ranting – rightfully so – that the industry at large is seemingly devoid of wonder. Well, Mr. Gold, Monty Nero got at least half right. Amazing X-Men Annual #1 could only be targeting that sect of fans that exist between youngsters and the snarky old. Here’s a book that sets out to cover the smallest ground possible, tell a quick and potent adventure, and wrap up on a deep character moment.

Of course, what we get is a by the book, seen-it-before plot-by-numbers that leaves one wondering what purpose the book serves in the greater scheme of things. Then again, that may just be my inner-old-guy being a d-bag. So, I’m going to make every attempt now to smile my way through what might have once been an angry review. Chins up kiddos!

Nero’s script revolves around Ororo Monroe, also known as Storm (and several dozen other names, as we learn mid-battle cry!). We find out that during her adolescence, a great sandstorm was ravaging a village. Ororo made way to save T’Challa – the Black Panther – but could do nothing else. Flash forward to the present, where a world-weary survivor of that devastation has recently gained mutant (or mystic?) powers. Meruda, now an angry god of the sand, lays waste to his homeland, whilst stealing away a distant cousin of Storm. Cue the opening titles!

Soon thereafter, the X-men arrive on scene, and what follows is a ton of fighting. For what it’s worth, the battle here is at least meaningful, in so much that our villain has just cause to want to hurt the mohawked veteran of Charles Xavier’s school. And while she faces Meruda, Wolverine, Firestorm, Iceman, and the Beast battle an ancient god – resurrected, and holding the soul of Storm’s brethren in check. All in all, if it were a cartoon, there’s be plenty of punching to enjoy.

Artistically speaking, Salvador Larocca lends his formidable pencils to the cause. As I’d enjoyed much of his run previously on Iron Man, many of the same strengths continue on the page. His meaty figures are always placed dutifully in kinetic panels that keep the eye moving through his pages. Emotions are clear, and easily read. Backgrounds, whether they be ransacked deserts of Africa or high tech cabin shots of the latest X-Jet, are beautifully rendered. Inks and colors only add to the final product. I’m always apt to point out the Photoshoppery in today’s modern comics, but here Larocca and company are doing it right. Special effects like the knockouts on Nightcrawler’s ‘BAMFs’, or the almost painterly treatments on Meruda’s sand-constructs just look cool. Where others are quick to use filters and such to mask issues, Salvador does it right – using the tools of the digital art bin to elevate his work to the quasi-future sci-fi space to add to visual excitement of the comic.

If you’re looking to be sated with pleasantry, well, stop here. Amazing X-Men Annual #1 is good clean honest fun. It’s a one-and-done adventure that is worth a gander perhaps for the pretty art alone. And for fans of Storm, well, you’re getting her in rare form here. So, consider this issue a sunny day, clear of rain by a country mile!

Still with me? Good. I can’t take it any longer. Nero commits a sin of the industry that nearly pushed me out as a fan not that long ago. His script and plot are so duh-duh simple that I can’t look past it. Annuals in the modern era are usually used for one of very few purposes: to re-establish a baseline for the book, to give a young and upcoming creator a spotlight that doesn’t require a multi-issue arc, or to set the tone for the next arc to come. Here, we get the second. And with it, nails on a chalkboard to me. Nero to his credit, has had several great successes professionally. Here he dips his toe into the X-waters, but does so tepidly. I can’t help but lay a finger of blame less on him than Mike Marts, the editor.

When given essentially a blank slate and a simple goal (pick an X-Man and write an issue that celebrates them as a character), the possibilities are near endless. Nero picks Storm, one of the most powerful, nuanced, and meaty characters on the team – whomever is on the team this week, I suppose. His choice to use a bit of her past to create conflict is even better; it gives credence to the battle as I’d said. But his choice to deliver the story as a literal straight shot is what grinds my gears. When a plot is as simple as this, it’s a veritable invitation to a debutant ball for a writer! Nero could have played with time, with flashback, with sequencing, or even with the psuedo-science of Meruda and Storm’s comparable power sets.

But he delivers none of it. We literally go from the standard cold-open to the X-men reading about the cold-open to them traveling to Africa to fighting to resolution. I’m even apt to note when a book chooses to do things simply with the beats, it can be made up for with style. Nero though, learns the hard way the Achilles heel of all X-books: more members mean less opportunities.

Ultimately, Amazing X-Men Annual #1 is a book only a tweener could enjoy: simple in plot, heavy in action. But as Mike Gold would note: it’s devoid of wonder. Too engrained in familial angst, monologuing, and excuses for quips or violence. Normally I’d take the opportunity to lay waste to the book with a grand trail of snark behind me, perhaps declaring that this book represents all that’s wrong with modern comics (or some such line). But there’s no need: This book is simply a missed opportunity to be great. And that alone is enough shame for one week.


Marc Alan Fishman: “Why Are You Here? No Math!”

That li’l headline quote came courtesy of the fine gentleman who sat across the aisle from me at my orientation survey in art school. The line got him a ton of applause from the student body. It made me sad.

So, why the anecdote today? Well, it’s ‘cause I’ve got math on the brain. Math, not meth. Meth is next week. At the Indy Pop Con last weekend, amidst a crowd that could best be described as ther, and ready to spend absolutely nothing, Unshaven Comics made strides in becoming better friends with another staple to the artist alleyways we’ve been haunting in recent past. Jim McClain and his Solution Squad comic have been making their way from Jim’s middle-school math problem solving class to the hallowed hallways and conventions since April, 2013. As Jim was so nice as to gift us with his extra badge (because the fine folks at Pop Con seemed to misplace the money we so nicely spent on the extra badge for our third member), I returned the favor by staffing his booth during his panel.

It brought me back to the genesis of Unshaven Comics. Our first jaunt into the indie scene was an “Edu-Tainment” piece entitled The March: Crossing Bridges in America. Selling it at our very first Wizard show felt like arm wrestling Superman after having the flu. Trying to sell something rooted in education to an audience hungry for mutants, gore, sex, and zombies makes for a hard sale nearly every time. And as I sat at the Solution Squad booth with passersby glancing long enough to read Math and immediately look elsewhere… it was a veritable time warp to five years ago. That is, until the pitch found my one and only sale for the hour.

A gentleman stopped by the table. With no quizzical look denoting he was lost, I was aghast. “Can I tell you about The Solution Squad?” I beamed. He nodded quickly. I pitched the book – a team action-adventure story that also happens to teach you something by issue’s end – and he plunked down his money without question. “I’m a teacher,” he said with a knowing grin. He went on to tell me that while he himself was a social studies teacher, he recognized that the book would be a great find to bring back to his school. Soon thereafter, Jim returned from his panel reenergized by his attendees, and I took myself back to the land of immortal kung-fu monkeys and zombie cyborg pirates in space.

And here I sit, days later, with math still on my mind. Jim recognizes that he more than almost anyone else in the alley, is at a critical disadvantage in distribution. Indie publishers have a hard enough time selling their wares amidst the competition. Adding in a niche audience of middle-school math students is akin to selling Wolverine to season ticket holders at the opera. But in that fact comes the inspiration and beauty of both Mr. McClain’s mission and the state of our independent scene. The fact that the Solution Squad exists is tribute to the ideology that comics can be a positive tool for education, so much so that Jim himself uses the book – which meets both Indiana state educational standards as well as the nefarious Common Core we all resent on Facebook – to start lessons in his classroom. He recognizes that from his comic he can capture the attention of the ADD-riddled post-millennial generation born into social media and smartphones. Better still, Jim recognizes he (alongside the Reading With Pictures crew) is knocking at the door to a real revolution.

Comics help break down the barriers to entry for students. Perhaps long associated with kitsch more than anything else though, it’s taken decades of amazing works hitting the shelves for the public at large to exit the caves when it comes to adoption and acceptance. But for every “I learned to read with comics!” retort I’d been privy to from the passing trolls at Wal-Mart, so too comes a “Maus and A Contract With God moved me to tears” from synagogue members when I was 13.

Gentlemen like Jim McClain recognize this fact and makes strides from the trenches to locate those educators roaming the convention floor in hopes of snagging his clientele from the bottom up. All while targeting administrative contacts with partnerships for webcomic distribution and shared lesson plans for a top-down approach. In other words, leave it to a teacher to school a guy like me in proper networking and audience building.

Beyond the semantics though, the fact that our indie scene, complete with digital distribution channels and our one-off printing models build to the greater good. Never before in our industry was it so easy for a person with a plan (and a ton of work) to transition to a person with a product. With each passing year, our economy and market will continue to divide and shrink. While great denominators like blockbuster movies and professional sports will still dominate the consumers’ GDP… niche market leaders will find viable business in wholly segmented markets. In layman’s terms: there’s an audience for literally everything being made today – it’s just a matter of finding it. In the mean time, it’s all about rolling up those sleeves, and sinking money, time, and love into being that lone math teacher next to the anime-sexpot-hack-gore print seller.

Sure Unshaven Comics may leave a convention loads lighter than Jim perhaps… but we know that at the end of the day The Samurnauts will linger as a passing love; the Solution Squad may lead the next generation to solve the great equations of life itself.

And that kiddos… is one lesson that adds up to me.

For more information on the Solution Squad, including purchase information for classrooms, simply visit


Marc Alan Fishman’s Snarky Synopsis: C.O.W.L. #1

cowlWritten by Kyle Higgens and Alex Siegel, Art by Rod Reis

Glazing over the racks this week, a single book sparked a twinkle in my eye. A bold and graphic cover, with a simple acronym placed  – C.O.W.L. – and it beckoned to me. A closer inspection… Chicago Organized Workers League. A glance inside: A mashup of Mad Men-esque style, combined with capes and my hometown? Sure, Astro City and other books have played plenty in the space. But none that were specific to Chicago. None that name drops streets like Ogden and Wacker and dumps an actual map in its inside cover. Call me soft (and pull back a stump!), but I couldn’t resist. Glad I took the chance, the book is tip-top.

Kyle Higgens and Alex Siegel certainly know their way around pacing. The book itself starts with a beautiful cold open action sequence. A soviet spy/super villain takes a team of heroes along for a ride as he makes way to escape from a botched assassination of a local Alderman. No better way to show case powers these days then the super villain on the run schtick. We meet Blaze, Radia, Arclight, and Recon of the Tactical Division – the SWAT team, if you will. After that, the rest of the book deals mostly with the Investigation and Patrol Division, which have less fancy code names. Higgens and Siegel crib style heavily from Top Ten; but skew less towards the fantastic and astonishing in lieu of gritty realism. The powers are more or less ordinary, it’s really a substance over style in the final presentation. In lesser terms, the writing duo delivers Law & Order by way of X-Men First Class, kept tightly packaged in a single city. It’s slick – but breathes easier because there’s little push to make the scope to wide-lensed after the initial salvo.

If there’s any bones to pick with the script, then they come solely entrenched in the Bechdel Test. The lone lady between the pages barely registers as more than a Sue Storm stand-in. Funny enough too, that she’s marginalized in her single scene moment with the COWL captain. I’ll note. though, that this is clearly a tongue-in-cheek moment. I’ll safely pray is just a set-up for a bigger and smarter payoff in the future.

Normally I’d have more running commentary about the script and dialogue. Frankly, there’s little else to say. But I can attest that the art chores by Rod Reis are plenty worthy of my prose. The presented style is a schizophrenic post-modern Marvel. Part Rotoscoped photos, part digital painting, part scratchboard scrawl, all daringly idiosyncratic. Reis channels Bill Sienkiewicz, Brett Weldele, and Brent Anderson amidst his own unique flashes. At its best the book is a chic and deconstruction of kinetic form and deciphered emotions. In lesser spots, it’s a slap-dashed race to the next panel. As a digital artist myself, it’s hard not to see the easy roads taken in certain shots, but Reis is clever when he hides his tracks. By integrating characters into a Rotoscoped background, and literally smudging them together, he creates a look we’ve seen before, but smartly never in this era.

It’s interesting to me how much I accept Reis’ styling here, over what might be considered a more technically proficient house style book from Marvel or DC. It sets in motion an opinion that has been evolving in my taste over the last year or so. The current trend at the big two – DC more so than Marvel by a magnitude of ten at least – is proportional, slick, and Photoshopped to a squeaky-clean finish worthy of Oxy-Clean. Reis and C.O.W.L. spit in the faces of Superman and his Pine-Sol brethren. Of course when you look at the comparison of artists in the aforementioned paragraph above, it should come as no surprise. But I digress. The fact is that modern technology can quickly suck the life out of a comic book, as talents artists see their pages merely as means to an end. It’s when boundaries are stylistically pushed that the medium shows why it’s still so unique and viable in the marketplace.

When companies choose to churn out the capes and cowls (no pun needed here), and don’t challenge their art teams, we lose. The biggest gripe that carries itself to art critics of our precious comics being ‘kitsch’ come largely due less to the by-the-numbers stories, and more towards the simple, repeated, and dull art. When one can’t tell a Superman comic from an X-Men book, it’s less because of the tight-knit, overly complicated costuming and more because the big-muscled, pin-up, repeats that coat the pages.

However, with Marvel’s recent efforts like She-Hulk, Rocket Raccoon, and Ghost Rider I can see the tides changing. To bring it back to “C.O.W.L.”, Rod Reis proves that when the art takes a chance to add layers of complexity to the script… the book itself becomes infinitely more interesting. Had this book been phoned in by any number of overseas half-price pencilers, inked by a team of cut-rate work-for-hires, and then colored by a finishing service, I doubt I’d be as chipper as I’ve been. Digression over.

Kyle Higgens, Alex Siegel and Rod Reis have captivated me. Sure, I was an easy sell given the real estate buried in the pulp. But beyond the cheap pop of recognizing my hometown, came a stylistic experiment that built up a simply police procedural into a universe building Mad Men with a set of super powers. It’s why Image continues to stand tall with a catalogue of boundary-pushing sequential fiction. Color me happy kiddos, and do yourself a favor and give a gander to the gams on this hot little number.

Marc Alan Fishman: Babyface, Heel, or Tweener?

In the pro-wrestling world, you are either a babyface, a heel, or a tweener. If you’re not down with the lingo and you’re suck at contextual clues: babyfaces are the heroes, heels are the villains, and tweeners straddle the line between the two. It’s always clearcut amongst the older generations that the lines between good and evil should be black and white.

In the golden era of comic books (and wrestling, while we’re at it), good guys were lantern-jawed and stood for the righteous. Villains sported crooked smiles, and completed acts of tyranny for no more purpose than the love of chaos. But with the modern era came the shades of grey. Personally, I live for those shades.

My favorite wrestler is CM Punk, a tumultuous canvas of ashen tones, made into a grappler. In his infamous pipe bomb promo (feel free to watch the entire brilliant tirade if you have an hour to kill here) Punk crossed the line between his then heel persona by breaking the fourth wall harder then it’d ever been broken before in the WWE. Through a scathing set of brutally honest speeches, the WWE Universe (the fans) soon learned that the straight edge superstar was more than a set of catchphrases and lack-of-merchandise. Amidst a hot crowd of vicious booing, Punk made his point: he wasn’t an out-and-out heel, he was a human being capable of good and bad. Eventually Punk got everything he wanted, including becoming a bonafide tweener where even if he completed acts of depravity, it was accepted as being a part of a bigger whole. It’s a theme that occurs elsewhere outside the squared circle.

The Punisher, Wolverine, Venom, dare I even say GrimJack, et al… the venerable anti-heroes. Good guys that do bad things, and we love them for it. They cross the line where Batman, Superman, or Professor X grit their teeth and shake their heads. As an audience, we respect, and even love that those heroes are forced to make the hard choices. But the devils that sit on our shoulders whisper sweet nothings to us – we want to see the villains pay the ultimate price. We want to see that the means justify the ends. We need to see that villains can’t always get away with murder, rape, and the like. And yes, we love it when those good men do bad things, because wish fulfillment is a vice we can all enjoy. Ask every Tarantino character immortalized in celluloid.

Most recently I’ve found a love for NBC’s Hannibal, which seeks heavily to relish in the subtle pathways between the light and dark sides of man. Dr. Lecter is a monster – a veritable Satan if ever there was one – but in his defense, he tends to only eat the rude. Humorous perhaps, but we as the audience are made to feel a wisp of compassion every now and again for the man-monster that Hannibal is. Much like Bret Easton Ellis makes us root for sociopathic serial killer in American Psycho. Never before had I read a novel where I’m rooting for a man to feed an ATM a kitten before. But there, Ellis shaped the world as such to make me see that beyond the pure chaos that Patrick Bateman represented, was a man living as a metaphor for the facade that existed in the go-go eighties. Can’t get that reservation at Dorsia? Well, that’d drive you to murder too, when you know that missing that squid-ink carpaccio is akin to you just being a failure in everything at life! Get my meaning?

And let’s get a little spoilery, if we can, eh? Seen Days of Future Past yet? If not, skip down a paragraph. For the rest of you, what did you think? I thought “Wow! They really played up the notion that these were actual human beings capable of an array of emotions!” Now I know that’s a bit of a complicated thought coming from a movie that was mostly made as an apology for The Last Stand, but I digress. Of all the things that made the movie enjoyable to me, was the fact that characters like Professor Xavier, Raven, and Eric Lehnsherr were allowed to respond from a place of emotion and thought, rather than because of a plot dictating them to do what’s right or wrong. In one of the best set pieces of the film (barring the whole Quicksilver sequence which was just fun as all get-out) came when Magneto decided that he was done being a pawn in a greater plan. With Bolivar Trask not murdered, the future was in flux, and Magneto, freed of his concrete and plastic prison stole a baseball stadium, rewired the Sentinels, and attempted to stage a bit of a coup. And when he lost? His best friend didn’t do the right thing; he let him go because he still cared for his troubled friend.

Therein lay the heart of my love for the tweening of fiction. When authors (me included) allow characters to be more than the sum of the plot and story beats, the audience is better for it. While there is a time and a place for white and black, I implore you to look beyond the simple. Complexity breeds intelligence. Intelligence allows for a deeper enjoyment of a piece of art. It’s sure fun when Al, Kung Fu Monkey Master of the Samurnauts clocks the evil pirate Blackstar with his bo-staff because it’s clear he’s the good guy… it’s a nice beat. But the true fans will enjoy the moment further because they know that when Al makes the critical strike, it’s make because of the torturous acts Blackstar used on former Samurnauts in the name of chaos. The blow is beyond justified – it is struck with anger, hatred, and desire for pain. Those shades of grey elevate what would be good defeating evil, into a personal vendetta.

At the end of the day, aren’t we all better people when the world is depicted in three dimensions?


Review: Marc Alan Fishman’s Snarky Synopsis – Ultimate FF #2

Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov. Art by Tom Grummett, Mario Guevara, Juan Vlaskco, Scott Hanna, Mark Pennington, Jay Leisten and Rachelle Rosenberg.

Ultimate FFOnce I adopted Eric Larsen’s creed of “all issues are jumping-on issues” I’d like to say I’ve become a better comic reader because of it. Using that motto has removed the excuse “… maybe it’s better if I’d read the backstory” from my fallback position when an issue is subpar. In its place comes the knowledge that a comic can be judged devoid of context. The dialogue can be snappy without previous knowledge of what came before the page you’ve read. More to the point: jump into Silence of the Lambs 45 minutes in and it’s still a great movie. I say all of this because I need you all to understand: Ultimate FF #2 is an absolute top-to-bottom atrocity. No context needed.

Let’s start with the script / plot / words on the page. Joshua Hale Fialkov generally grasps the beats and characterizations of his Future Foundation. Beyond that grasp though, is a mishmash of simplistic and idiotic dialogue awash in a plot dug out of a half-read Dungeons and Dragons campaign, topped liberally with incoherent action sequences to pad things out. The plot as it were: Sue Storm’s FF field team investigates the disappearance of some 130 wealthy Atlanteans. They arrive, things get weird, and then there’s fighting. Tah Dah!

I understand that it’s hard to effectively move a complex plot in only 20 pages or so, but then I think of all the other amazing comic books I’ve read – one shots, parts of a whole, or otherwise – and I come to the bitter conclusion that the modern trope to write for the trade is merely an excuse. I like to equate a single issue of a comic to a single episode of a cartoon. If Ultimate FF #2 were on TV, it’d be akin to one of those 12-minute shorts they traipse out during Adult Swim. It’s short, it’s shallow, and its attempts to ride on more style than substance falls on deaf ears.

All this, and the big ending is a tongue-in-cheek nod to issue three’s impending catfight. Yawn.

While I admit that I’ve not dabbled in the Ultimate universe for years, the tenants and tent-poles that make up the characters must hold true. And Fialkov seems to want only to revel in them without any further exploration. Akin perhaps to the remake of Ocean’s Eleven remake, sans the Julia Roberts subplot. FF here is just Stalwart Sue, Angry Douche Doom, Generic Black Guy Falcon, and Rich Douche Iron Man on a tepid adventure to fight the multiverse, or the garbage therein. That caveat I can buy – it gives us a good excuse as any for this rag tag team of type A’s (minus Falcon, of course) to get into nasty spills. But unlike Matt Fraction’s whimsical Defenders or terse and tepid Others (where that tepidness was a perfect foil), this team is a collection of islands that only know the melody amongst one another. And when the first big reveal gives us Namor, we simply add another tool to the chest. Emphasis on tool.

Artistically, I’m nearly at a loss for words. If you count my accurate list above, you will see that it took seven people to put together twenty pages of loose, scrappy, crappy art. At first, I was almost won over: the delicate inking and detailed underwater environmental renderings were certainly an antithesis to today’s modern photoshoppery. But the devil is in the details, and here Tom Grummett and Mario Guevara fail to deliver on their initial pages’ promise. Figures are jerked and crammed into panels without care or cause. And the litany of inkers scrawl excessive lines throughout, causing tons of unnecessary visual confusion. From Namor’s oddly shaped five-finger forehead and Doom’s spastic cape, to Falcon’s always-hash-shaded-muscles, there’s nary a page that doesn’t contain an obvious rush or flub. And given that over half a dozen people touched this issue? I’m aghast with curiosity as to how this passed mustard with anyone calling themselves an editor. All this, and I haven’t even talked about the colorist!

Long considered the unsung hero of the medium, here Rachelle Rosenberg barely decided to show up. The book itself is a constant juxtaposition of old-school simplistic flat art, layered over generic paper texture, all adding to the facade of an older book. But these tricks belie the truth that this is an ugly ass book and the color choices do nothing to elevate that fact.

While there’s a masochistic part of me that enjoys that no added glows, knockouts, or filtering try to hide the scrawl and plunder, even the most basic color choices here – on model or not – are unflattering and unsettling. And to the person that picked a lime green logo over a purple, blue, and sky blue palate for the team? I implore you to go back to Parsons, and retake fashion design, and color theory.

Perhaps I’ve been too mean, too hard and harsh to poor Joshua Hale Fialkov and company. Or perhaps, I’m apt now to cast a pall on those waste opportunity with the biggest and arguably best comic book publisher in print today. These are revisions of classic characters, in an all but open world, ready for modern spins and serious explorations. In the wake of that opportunity sits this muddled mess of in-fighting, back-biting, and herky-jerky art. Ultimate FF #2 spends too much time trying to be witty and gritty, instead of layering nuance, complexity, and exploration that should be the foundation of the book.

Erik Larsen is right: every comic is a jumping on point… and as such, I suggest those interested in this new iteration of the Future Foundation jump elsewhere.


Marc Alan Fishman: Don’t Let Your Dreams Crush Reality

Yeah, you read that right. You see, while spending a rushed weekend at the super-fantastic MCBA Spring Con (Hi Russ!) in Minneapolis, me and my Unshaven cohorts had nearly 14 hours of drive time round trip to gab about literally everything on our minds. And, boy, did we exhaust our brains. We discussed every TV show we’d seen in the last season. We reviewed every comic we’d read in the last month. We reminisced about junior high school, high school, and our college years. After that hour was done, we resorted to actual work.

Ever wanted to know how Unshaven Comics writes and conceptualizes issues of The Samurnauts? Well, even if you don’t, you’re gonna find out, kiddo! It’s during great long drives to conventions that we crack open the laptop and plot out 36 pages of Samurai-Astronaut action at a time. We start literally at page 1 panel 1, and begin to plan. We argue about pacing. We dissect character moments. We plod through action sequences. We get distracted and take an hour to discuss the look of a giant robot. We try hard to remove child-like grins from our bearded maws to no avail. And by the time we need to stop for gas, munchies, and snacks, we’ve built up the finale to Curse of the Dreadnuts.

The second half of our trip allowed us to daydream a bit. Between sips of Mountain Dew, and drags off of various candy bars, we imagined a world where all our hard work would have paid off. You see, no surprise, we plan on launching a major crowd-funded campaign when the final issue of Curse is rounding the bend. We’re going to be seeking funding to get us to the Licensing Expo in Las Vegas, in 2015. There, we intend on doing what we do best – pitch fearlessly – in hopes of snagging a deal to take the Samurnauts property to the next level.

No doubt you see how hard we must have been dreaming. For you see, shortly after that jaunt into the surreal, we envision someone optioning our licensable property for a TV show. And shortly after that, we were buying office space in Downtown Homewood Illinois and running our lives on the small fortune we’d amass.

And there we sat, in the still of the night… the engine hum and highway hypnosis setting in. Wisconsin is a boring state to drive though when it’s pitch black out. After a few beats passed, I’d snapped out of our collective haze of profiteering. “But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, boys. We haven’t even finished the colors on issue 3.” A wave of cold, honest truth passed through us. With it came the most wondrous moment of clarity after our long weekend.

Whether we crowdfund our way to Vegas, or not… whether we ever turn Samurnauts into the global phenomenon we know it could be… whether we ever realize any reality beyond our current station – traveling by car, anchored by day jobs, and still floored that we have legitimate fans – truly it’s been the journey that has been the prize all along.

For the last half a decade, I’ve had the opportunity to see my two best friends grow into consummate professionals. Matt Wright produces insanely detailed, beautifully nuanced, forever under-appreciated commission work at every convention that the greats don’t take time to complete. Whereas others I’ve seen in the Alley whip through markered slap-dashery in order to profit, Matt always feels compelled to turn the hard-earned dollars of the fans into frame-able art. And Kyle Gnepper? Beyond his abilities in plotting, writing, and word-smithery, he’s the backbone of Unshaven Comics. Any success we’ve ever enjoyed comes squared solely on his silver-tongue and fearless nature. Kyle has forced himself to stand hours on end, literally hawking wares to every passerby. We’ve equated him to the Predator. Heat signatures walk by, and they are politely pounced on with true passion.

To wreck our reality with needless navel-gazing is truly absurd. Certainly when we launched ourselves as a company, the intent was to break-in to comics at breakneck speed. After five years, we realize that’s a dream no longer worth having. We know the reality – there’s no barrier to entry in the industry. We’ve been faking it until we made it, and no one has been the wiser. DC and Marvel will likely never call, but the fans who pick up our book and declare that it looks like nothing they’ve ever seen (and they love that) prove to us that we need not ever be a part of the big two.

Nor do we feel compelled to land at Boom!, Avatar, Image, or Dark Horse. Much like the Mouse and the Warners… there’s little reason to serve in heaven while we rule in Hell. And as such? We’ve toured the Midwest, shook hands with the East Coast, and are now looking West. We’ve put literally thousands of Samurnauts into the hands of the unsuspecting public. We’ve done it on our own, and now enjoy having a reputation (small as it may be) with a growing fan base. To destroy that reality with pipe-dreams of piles of unknown riches is akin to losing sight of what we’ve been after all along.

The reality is we’re living the dream now, and no amount of money should get in the way of that continuing.*

*But don’t get us wrong. If you want to license the Samurnauts, call me, e-mail me, or wink loudly. We’ll sell out in miliseconds.