Series Condition: Harrow County

Some comic fans seem to really avoid horror comics. It’s like that one genre that they won’t try. The art tends to be too ‘scritchy-scratchy,’ too gritty. The characters are too paper-thin. This is what they would say. I’m not saying I’m the biggest horror comics fan, but I have to say that the comic medium and horror really mesh well together, especially when the creators are top-notch.
With that said, I would recommend Harrow County to any comics fans who aren’t horror fans. It’s a beautifully rendered book, unlike anything I’ve seen out there. With a likable, well-rounded protagonist, an indelible setting, and a unique cast of supporting characters/creatures. If you are a fan of horror in comics, then why aren’t you reading this already?

Harrow County
Writer: Cullen Bunn
Artist: Tyler Crook
Publisher: Dark Horse
32 issues (Complete Series)

The art is what really drew me (see what I did there?) to this book. Tyler Crook does the penciling, the beautiful sinuous inking, and the even-more-beautiful watercolor and gauche color-art. While we’re at it, he also does the lettering. How was it that he was able to do this many issues in just __ years?(There were a fill-artists on a few issues.) His artwork is stunning and inviting—cartoonish and yet also emotionally devastating when need-be. HIs art kind of reminds me of David Rubin’s, although more tactile and nuanced. Also—perhaps because of the setting—it kept reminding me of Walt Kelly’s Pogo cartoon. Each watercolored panel is sumptuous—like you’re wading through a collage of classic children’s lit illustrations. Arthur Rackham or Maurice Sendak or even Bill Watterson (when he’d take Calvin and Hobbes out into the jewel-toned forest).

Even when the images are horrifying, there is still an inviting warmth to the pages. It’s a sort of weird, ‘ghost story’ dichotomy that reminds me of those old ‘scary-for-kids’ movies from the 80s, ‘Watcher in the Woods,’ or ‘Lady in White.’

Cullen Bunn is the writer, and Harrow County seems to be set in his native North Carolina. The era seems to be perhaps the thirties or forties (after prohibition, before Mayberry). As I mentioned, the tone of the book feels nearly ‘young-adult’—except when it veers into skin-flaying and cannibalism. It’s a very unique tone, and especially for the first several issues, you really feel for the main character, Emmy.

Emmy emerged as an infant from a tree where a horrible witch was hanged. The people of Harrow County (the people who killed the witch) trepidatiously take in Emmy. There are other strange creatures that live in the woods that surround their town, and they aren’t completely unused to dealings with magic (more on that later in the series). But as Emmy approaches her 18th birthday, there’s more and more dread among her neighbors that she is going to turn into the new incarnation of that evil witch. Emmy herself begins to suspect that their worst fears are true. Throughout the series, we see her battling with her newly emerging powers, and her darker impulses. She’s a fin character.

The series just wrapped with issue 32. It’s interesting that while most comic series tend to segment their stories into 6-issue arcs, Harrow County works in 4-issue arcs. Which makes for shorter trade paperbacks when the arcs are collected, but also tighter, more winnowed-down stories. There isn’t much padding in these issues, and I liked that. Tight and simple and always moving toward and endgame every four issues. Maybe that also helped to contribute to the straight-forward, easily-digestible, ‘young adult’ vibe. I really liked the arcs on Kammi and Emmy’s friend Bernice. I like where Bunn takes her character. Emmy’s ‘family’ is introduced interestingly, but later in the series they don’t live up to their potential. The arcs that focused on their mythology seemed less interesting to me.

Overall, I look forward to seeing what Bunn and Crook do next. Bunn has already written some fine X-Men arcs. I’m also looking forward to checking out Dark Ark (about a version of Noah who rescued mythological beasts from the Flood) and Unholy Grail (Camelot and Lovecraft? Sign me up!)

Want to read some other of my ‘Series Condition’ posts on comic series?
The Spire
Sliver Surfer
Y: The Last Man







I just read: Sharaz-de

Until about a year ago, I wasn’t familiar with Italian illustrator and comic-artist Sergio Toppi. Which is a shame because his work is brilliant. It reminds me of the fluid abstraction of Bill Sienkiewicz, the bold action and scale of Walt Simonson (who contributes a foreword to this edition), and some of that realist detail that you see in advertising illustrations of the 60s. This last bit is probably not surprising considering that Toppi started off as an advertising illustrator before transition to graphic novels about cowboys and soldiers, historic figures and the icon Arabian Nights mythos—which is what is collected in ‘Sharaz-de.’ Unfortunately Toppis passed away in 2012 at the age of 80.

Toppi was certainly in his element when it comes to illustrating the world of Arabian nights. His rocky desert landscapes are incredible, and just as impressive is the way he arranges his panels to communicate the passage of time and distance.

His pen carves the faces of his kings and shamans in the same sort of weather-worn majesty that he renders sandstone. Sometimes his vizier and chieftain faces blend in with rock formations or Gustav Klimt patterns, and it all creates this beautiful, dynamic texture of pen-and-ink.

I was also impressed with Toppi’s writing. He condenses the stories to as few lines of dialog. Although this descriptions and introductions are a little longer, and dashed an Old World tone. My favorite story was the set-up in the beginning, which mixes infidelity, sibling rivalry and compassion, and a bit of schadenfreude. (Scheherazade, meet Schadenfreude.)

Plot wise, most of the stories are pretty violent morality plays—full of jealous or greedy characters getting their just deserts. Sort of similar to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, if you read the old-school versions. But all the decapitations and demonic punishments are beautifully rendered, at least!

I just read: Dissolving Classroom

I’m a big fan of two of the Junji Ito’s other two horror comics, Uzumaki and Gyo. So I was excited to try his latest manga.

Ito has a very distinctive style. His ideas feel like they were written by a demented 7th-grader, but that helps him maintain a sort of allegorical mood—and his stories always feel claustrophobic in their dream-time logic. His pen-work can be alternately beautifully dainty and creepily off-kilter, and that also fits the day-dream-to-fever-dream his tone.

Dissolving Classroom is a collection of stories that follow a strangely polite young man, Yuuma, and his gonzo little sister, Chizumi. Both are unique characters, and their both up to some sinister stuff. But I have to say that I found Yuuma much more interesting. He’s a sort of diabolical version of toxic friend. He’s very well-mannered—almost subservient at times—but beneath that bland exterior lurks an ardent devil-worshipper. Literally. Yuuma kills small animals to lure the devil to him. He keeps in constant mental contact with the devil, and those bad vibes he shares can rot away at his new friends, dissolving their brains and their bodies. He’s like a walking Fukushima, and he’s in a continuous state of demonic meltdown.

It’s not entirely clear whether or not Yuuma enjoys the effect that he has on people. He is constantly apologizing for the harm he has done—and will do—but it soon becomes clear that Yuuma’s apologies are his most common M.O. for melting people down. If Yuuma falls to his knees and starts repeating, “I’m sorry… I’m sooo sorry…” you need to run away from him immediately. Early on, it’s revealed that he’s not actually apologizing to the people around him, he’s apologizing to the devil. And those direct transmissions to Hell interact with the human body in the same way a microwave oven reacts with a popsicle.

The concept doesn’t 100% make sense to me. Why is Yuuma apologizing to the devil? Yuuma’s helping to sow death and destruction, and it becomes clear that the devil likes this. But as I mentioned, this is where dream-logic kicks in, and on some gut-level I really synced with this idea of there being something sinister about apologies.

I definitely fall in the camp of people who might say, “Don’t say you’re sorry, do something to prove it.” And of course, no one likes groveling. But Ito shows effusive apologizing to be a passive-aggressive act of self-gratification. Like I said, this idea really struck me as ‘true’ on a gut level. Maybe I needed a Japanese writer to help me grasp this idea—like how the German language helped us define a concept like Schadenfreude, which most Americans had never really thought about before, but innately realized was a real thing.

Anyhoo… The ‘Dissolving’ concept is definitely not a one-trick-pony. With each story, Ito finds new ways to draw out drama—and creeps—from stiff Yuuma and wild Chizumi. The final story is not as disturbing, but it wraps up the saga in a perfect way that left me feeling surprised but also thinking, ‘I should have seen that coming!’

If you’re a manga fan or a horror fan, I’d say check this out!


Series Condition: The Spire

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.39.24 AMI’ve been trying more fantasy genre comics lately, including this 8 issue limited series, The Spire, and Monstress by Marjorie Liu, which I plan to review later. The two series have some similarities with topical parables to issues of today, including cultural melding and intolerance.

In ‘The Spire,’ the world is separated into two basic races, humans and the ‘sculpted’ (sometimes called ‘skewed’ or just ‘freaks’).  There are several types of sculpted, each mutated with extreme appearances and abilities. All of the sculpted are able to live in the outside world, which is a toxic desert wilderness. Because of the harsh environment, a good deal of the human population are squeezed in a towering city of stacked ghettos that gives new definition to the term ‘vertical growth.’

The Spire
Writer: Simon Spurrier
Artist: Jeff Stokely
Colorist: Andre May
Publisher: Boom!
8 issues (A completed limited series)

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.44.43 AMIn this city, the titular Spire, humans and sculpted live almost literally on top of each other. The mix of weird ‘ethnicities’ will seem familiar to anyone who’s read  China Mieville’s New Crobuzon novels (and if you’re haven’t, you should check them out!), but Spurrier makes his world unique, with medieval/feudal politics and parables to today’s political climate–all knitted together in a nifty detective story.

The series’ protagonist is a sculpted woman named Sha who is the city’s chief of police. Sha is trying to stop a masked killer. Of course, the killer’s victims are far from random, and Sha eventually realizes that the killings are connected somehow to incident that befell the Queen-mother thirty years ago, while she was pregnant. Coincidentally, (or is it?!) Sha has a gap in her memory that has erased everything in her memory that is older than thirty years. Also, (coincidentally?!) Sha is in a clandestine relationship with one of the Queen-mother’s daughters.

IScreen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.39.57 AMt’s a compelling and intricate mystery. I was able to figure out some parts, and I was pleasantly surprised by others.

The other distinctive aspect of this series is the art. The art here is very cartoony in places, it reminds me of loose, doodle style you might see in a comic strip in a local alternative newspaper. The art adds some levity to the story, here and there, and it is definitely not a conventional match for a fantasy series. But it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

The coloring is undeniably beautiful, though. Andre May uses a palette from the back row of the crayon box. Ultramarine, salmon, orchid, turquoise, pea green, and ‘off key’ pastels that add an otherworldly feel.

As I said, it you like comics and Mieville novels–or the Gentlemen Bastards books–then I think this series could be worth a try.Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.40.49 AM

Series Condition: Y: the Last Man

I have a confession to make… I’m a pretty lame comics fan. I’ve never read any of the classics of the 90s or early 2000s. I know nothing about Sandman or Starman. I’ve never read Preacher, Powers, or Planetary. I don’t know the difference between Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis.

But I’m hoping to bone up on comics knowledge by reading some of the modern classics over the next few years. The first series I tackled was ‘Y: the Last Man.’ Here are the basics:

Y the Last Man Issue 1Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Pia Guerra (primarily)
60 issues
Years: 2002 – 2008

Of all the comics on my bucket list, YTLM has the catchiest premise. A mysterious calamity sweeps across the globe and kills every male of every species—except for one young man named Yorick Brown and his pet monkey.

Before I started reading, it was hard to predict what the tone of the series would be. Given the premise, I might have expected some gratuitous male-fantasy wish-fulfillment, something like ‘I Am Legend’ re-imagined by the people who brought us ‘Van Wilder.’ Or, given Vertigo’s reputation for heady, ‘alternative’ titles, I might have expected a 60-issue allegory about misogyny, or ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’ The series is actually like something written by Joss Whedon, Brian Michael Bendis, or Lev Grossman. Very character-driven. Lots of charming dialog, occasionally punctuated by action scenes. Overall, YTLM is a prolonged road trip, with Vaughan speculating on how a sudden a lack of men would affect different cultures around the world. He presents some pretty interesting ideas.

The titular mister is an aspiring escape artist… He’s training a helper monkey… His mother is a U.S. senator… His girlfriend is on a walkabout in Australia… He’s named after a Shakespearean character who’s famous for being dead…  Mmmkay. Despite this weird confluence of uniquenesses, Yorick is, at his core, an everyman (an onlyman?). Unless he discussing random trivia about world history or etymology, Yorick is not particularly bright (other characters point this out continuously). He’s pretty weak. He’s pretty slow. He’s annoyingly sanctimonious, if the plot calls for it. He’s kind of a goober, not at all smooth with the ladies, and constantly pining for his unreachable girlfriend, while wandering through a world of 3 billion eligible bachelorettes.

Actually, Yorick can’t be blamed for his lack of assertiveness. In the wake of the gender-cide, a cult of misandrists (the opposite of misogynists… look it up!) are gathering in the cities. And foreign agents are hunting him because they view the last living source of y-chromosomes as an asset that’s worth killing for. In general, the post-plague world is not a very safe place to be. Infrastructures are failing, crime is rising.

In the way YTLM portrays a crippled-but-not-devastated society, it reminds me of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Instead of post-apocalyptic, YTLM is semi-apocalyptic. And Vaughan brings up some good points. What would happen to the world if half the population dropped dead? What do you do with all the bodies? And since soldiers, airline pilots, mechanics, sailors, and construction workers tend (or, in this case, tended) to be men, what happens to those pillars of our society? In some ways, I think Vaughan is too pessimistic. For instance, in one of the first few issues, Yorick is nearly crushed by an improvised sanitation worker, because she can’t figure out how to work the brakes on a garbage truck. Then the woman gets out of the car wearing a ridiculous skimpy outfit for her job, which is gathering half-decayed corpses.

Hmm. Not the most practical outfit for harvesting corpses.

Hmm. Not the most practical outfit for harvesting corpses.

I have to say that the first issues of YTLM were the hardest to get through. They’re full of kinda dumb and unrealistic scenes like the one above. Yorick makes his way across the semi-apocalyptic landscape to his mother, who is now one of the highest ranking officials in the U.S. government. Within pages of being reunited with her son—who has miraculously survived a Biblical plague, who may be the one chance the human race has of continuing the species—Mrs. Brown agrees to let him journey across the continent with a single bodyguard. On foot. It makes no sense at all. If this series was at all realistic, Yorick should have spent the next 60 issues locked in a bomb shelter impregnating Olympians and valedictorians. But no, instead he stumbles across the country, continuously falling into trouble that is often highly avoidable.

But Yorick picks up some interesting friends, and I stuck with the series, mainly based on its sterling reputation. Then we get to issue 19. And that’s when the series truly kicks into gear. There is probably a term for the type of character that is introduced here. She is a mouth-piece for the readers, and basically she tells Yorick what the readers probably want to tell him: “Stop being such a douche!” It’s a similar sort of role that Spike played on ‘Buffy the Vampire’ and ‘Angel,’ with the way he would ground the protagonists with a snarky remark when they started to get too mopey or irrational. After issue 19, Yorick stops being so mopey and irrational, and the story is a blast from then till the end. At the same time, Pia Guerra’s penciling gets better and better. She starts off excellent at convey emotion through facial features, but her figures are her compositions seem a bit stiff. By the end, her stuff is cinematic. Perfect. The coloring also gets better, I can’t think of another example of coloring so adeptly conveying mood and setting.


An example of early YTLM artwork, and artwork from later in the series.

It’s interesting to think of how Vaughan might have changed direction as the plot progressed over six years. It felt to me like he had a loose outline of where he wanted to go. The first few issues establish several possible causes for the plague (some mystical, some biological, some quasi-scientific), and I wonder if some of these red herrings were also possible alternative that he wanted to keep in his back pocket if he had decided to take the story in a different direction. It’s also interesting to see new characters pop up and old characters fade to the background, as if Vaughan realized that they had become obsolete. In that way, I guess writing a comic series can be like being a show-runner on a 12-episodes-a-season TV show. I don’t think there’s any question that Vaughan makes some fine choices for his primary characters, that he adapts nicely, and that he most definitely sticks the landing at the end. And I have a feeling that the story of Yorick and his friends will stick with me for a while.

Series Condition: The Royals, Masters of War

I think most writers would kill to come up with a idea as awesome as Rob Williams’ premise for ‘The Royals: Masters of War.’ Here it is: Royal blood is truly divine, and every king, prince, princess, duke and emperor across the planet has been granted superhuman powers by birthright. Now throw those super-powered nobles into the catastrophic turmoil of WWII and let’s see what happens!

royals_mastersofwarWriter: Rob Williams
Artists: Simon Coleby, Gary Erskine
Total Issues: 6
Published: 2014
Publisher: Vertigo (DC)

Royals is a mini-series, written with a sort of ‘just-the-hits’ mentality. It has a very clean, driving narrative which makes it a fun, easy read. It’s like a summer blockbuster, if summer blockbusters had subplots involving euthanasia, genocide, and incest.

Our heroes (and anti-heroes) are the British royal family. Sorry, these are all characters from an alternate history. So you don’t get to see a teenage Queen Elizabeth kicking Nazi booty. But we do see other historical figures: Churchill, FDR, and Eisenhower, to name a few that I noticed. And a lot of the big WWII milestones are there. As I mentioned, the book has a ‘just-the-hits’ mentality, so we see our nobles fighting at Midway, Stalingrad, and Normandy. It’s kind of like a video-game in that the characters seem narratively obligated to battle in a snow level, a water level, an urban landscape, etc.

The Immortal Emperor!!

But the story does have some nuance as well. The series plays nicely with our basic understanding of 20th century history. It turns out that after this timeline’s French and Russian revolutions (which were just as lethal for super-powered royals as they were for ours), the other monarchies decide to downplay their powers, and to not use them to interfere in the affairs of commoners. But England’s Prince Henry sees the atrocities of the blitz and decides that he can’t stand idly by. So we’re treated to the gratifying scene of a ’superman’ decimating Nazi planes and troops. (Side note: Thank you Authority and Invincible for setting the trope of superhumans punching through the skulls or torsos of mere mortals. It’s pretty gnarly.) Of course, that one moment of patriotic gratification has unpredicted consequences, as monarchs and emperors on the Axis side begin to wade into battle. Things escalate quickly, and you shouldn’t expect Henry’s war to end like WWII ended for us.

Our hero, flying through Nazis

The first issue starts with a ‘flash-forward’ in which we see Henry battling a shadowy Nazi super-soldier. Henry mentions regret for drawing first blood, anger at a mysterious betrayal, and a thirst to avenge his beloved sister. Obviously we’ve seen this flash-forward technique before (I remember American Hustle used it. Breaking Bad used it a few times. Goodfellas and Fight Club as well?). I researched and found out the dramatic term is ‘in medias res.’ So that’s good to know. This scene effectively sets up the mysteries that will run throughout this short series. Who is this German badass? How can Prince Henry beat him? What happened to his sister, and who betrayed them? Williams’ plot plays out all of these mysteries quite nicely.

Related link: Series Condition: Invincible, or that other great long-running series written by Robert Kirkman.


Let’s make this ‘tabula’ a little less ‘rasa.’

I hope you will bear with me, o non-existent reader, as I chug my way through this first blog post. It’s a bit daunting to stare at a blank webpage and consider clicking ‘publish’ on this sucker, even if the chances of anyone reading this are nil, especially since it is my FIRST post. I’m considering this just another piece of rebar buried in the cement that will anchor my eventual ‘Media Platform.’

Why do I write? Because coming up with a story from scratch, and having it enter someone else’s head and stick with them—if just for a little while—seems pretty cool. I don’t really expect to ever earn a living writing. I’d call this whole thing a hobby, except that makes it sound more trivial than it feels to me.

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer; I wanted to be a comic book penciller. I created characters like Manticore (copyright 1985) and Flora and Fauna (copyright 1986), drew one picture of them, and then spent the rest of my time daydreaming their adventures. Over time, as I matured (yes, I’m using that term sarcastically) I realized I was spending more time imagining spin-off series and 12-part crossover mega-events than actually drawing my characters in said mega-events. (Side note: I was a big fan of the Uncanny X-Men in the 80s, so it was only natural that my make-believe comics empire would involve spin-offs and crossovers.)

Eventually, real life crept in, and I abandoned the pipe dreams of writing and illustrating. Here and there I flirted with the unattainable. I submitted pencil samples to Marvel and DC Comics. I took one intensely frustrating crack at a first novel. But for the most part I stuck to my career as a graphic designer, and I was happy. Then I started dating a girl who had written a 500-page fantasy manuscript.


That girl became my wife and my inspiration for attempting another novel. I’ve been writing in my free time ever since. We have two kids, and free time is exceedingly rare. But lately it seems like I’ve been writing more and more. There’s many exciting things happening in the industry, and I guess you can say that has me excited.

Here’s hoping I can get a few readers excited as well.