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Comixology

Wednesday is New Comics Day

Comixology
Comixology

Every Wednesday, I highlight the five most exciting comic releases of the week. The list may include comic books, graphic novels, digital comics and webcomics. I'll even highlight some Kickstarter comics projects on occasion. There's more variety and availability in comics than there has ever been, and I hope to point out just some of the cool stuff that's out there. If there's a release you're excited about, let's talk about it in the comments.

1. New School

By Dash Shaw
Fantagraphics

Dash Shaw is one of the new generation of exciting comic creators who exist in a nexus between comics and the New York contemporary art scene, much like Paul Pope and Molly Crabapple. Shaw's 2008 debut graphic novel, Bottomless Belly Button, made a huge impression on the comic and book publishing world with its deceptively simple drawings and whopping 700-plus page count. It had profound things to say about the way modern families interact and was just as good as any literary prose family drama you'd see in the New York Times Book Review. Since that book, he has experimented with webcomics (Bodyworld), short comic stories (collected in The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century A.D.), animation, and even music. 

New School, his first major graphic novel release since the 2010's Bodyworld, tells the story of Danny, a young boy trying to bring his older brother, Luke, home from a remote island with an amusement park called Clockworld, that recreates historical events. Set in the '90s, Danny is a fan of both the X-men and Jurassic Park, and the story, told through the distortion of his point of view, seems to fuse elements of those bits of pop culture together.

Shaw is an experimental artist and storyteller. He uses a combination of ink drawing, hand painted animation cels, Photoshop and other media to create this book. A glance at the pages here shows a bold, unusual use of color that seems part Power Mastrs, part Asterios Polyp.

2. Lazarus #1

Written by Greg Rucka, art by Michael Lark, colors by Santi Arcas
Image Comics

In Greg Rucka's dystopian vision of the future, our current economic woes have extrapolated out to the point that all the world's wealth has been divided among just a handful of powerful families. One of those families, The Carlyles, have genetically modified a women they named "Forever" into their own unkillable assassin and protector. Forever has been led to believe that she is a true daughter of the Carlyle family but she is treated more like an animal or a machine and human nature—if indeed she is truly human—causes her to question who and what she really is.

Rucka is known for writing strong female characters—Renee Montoya from Gotham Central, Carrie Stetko from Whiteout, Tara Chace from Queen & Country, and the list goes on and on—though less for writing science fiction, so this is both familiar and unfamiliar territory for him. He has re-teamed with Gotham Central artist Michael Lark, whose realistic drawing style, inked with expressive brushing, is reminiscent of some of the great realist cartoonists like Alex Raymond, Alex Toth, or David Mazzuchelli. Both Lark and Rucka typically work in a very street-level method of storytelling which will most likely make the sci-fi aspects of this story pretty palatable for those that normally shy away from that kind of stuff.  

You can read a preview of the comic at Greg Rucka's website.

3. Demeter

By Becky Cloonan
Comixology

Becky Cloonan (Demo, Conan, The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys) recently released the third and final installment in a series of mini-comic short stories she has been self-publishing the last couple of years. Following Wolves and The Mire, Demeter is another beautifully illustrated tale of medieval horror that delivers a satisfying and nearly poetic story in just about 30 some odd pages. You can tell by reading this or any of the two previous mini-comics that Cloonan's heart is in telling these types of stories.

Demeter shows us two lovers who were torn apart by the sea and brought back together by a terrible bargain. The story reads almost like a dark poem and Cloonan's black and white artwork—richly inked and matched with digital gray tones—is sexy and very creepy. I highly recommend buying the print version of the mini which you can order for $5 through her online store because the design and printing is just luscious in person. However, the real reason I've mentioned it this week is that Cloonan has just released it digitally through Comixology's Submit program for creator-owned comics where you can read it for just 99 cents.

4. Batman/Superman #1

Written by Greg Pak; art by Jae Lee
DC Comics

I imagine that the "/" in Batman/Superman is intended to give a modern, edgy and internet-y feel to an old idea: the Batman & Superman team-up comic. Historically, there has almost always been a comic with DC's two top-selling characters featured together, but usually it has been called World's Finest. That name is already being used for a comic starring their two female counterparts, Huntress and Power Girl, but it's name recognition value is limited to longtime, in-the-know comic fans. This book looks like it's aiming for a newer audience, particularly due to its use of artist Jae Lee. 

Despite his popularity and his years doing them, Lee can often seem like a daring choice for a superhero book. His style is dark and foreboding; his smoky, ethereal backgrounds can give you the sense that his stories are taking place somewhere in hell. But, he is coming off doing the best work of his career on The Dark Tower books for Marvel and Before Watchmen: Ozymandias for DC. His recent switch to developing finished art from his pencils rather than inks has given his work a new, more detailed and dimensional appearance.

Lee and writer Greg Pak have set this comic during what we longtime comic book fans like to call "Year One" where they examine the first ever meeting between the two title characters. Since DC relaunched all their comics and, to a certain extent, the continuity within them, this is uncharted territory that many fans have been anxious to see.

It was recently announced that the "/" will be a thing as a new series called Superman/Wonder Woman will begin in October.

Here's a preview of some unlettered art from Batman/Superman #1.

5. Utsubora: The Story of a Novelist

By Asumiko Nakamura
Vertical

Asumiko Nakamura has become one of the most acclaimed mangaka in Japan, but her work is little known here in the U.S. She began her career over ten years ago, creating erotic and romance manga and has become particularly known for her yaoi (also known as "Boys' Love"—homoerotic manga that is primarily aimed at younger, female readers). Utsubora is considered her masterpiece and is the first of her books to be chosen by U.S. manga publisher Vertical to be translated and released here in order to gauge the appeal of her work for potential future releases.

Utsubora: The Story of a Novelist is a noir mystery about two novelists, actually. Aki Fujino is a young author who is about to release her debut, titled Utsubora, when she is found dead from an apparent suicide. Shun Mizorogi is a once acclaimed novelist who is in a creative dry spell when he meets and becomes infatuated with Aki Fujino as well as another woman who looks just like her and seems to share her same memories.

Information and preview images of this book is sparse, but this glowing review contains a number of sample pages and they look absolutely stunning. Nakamura's thin, caricatured line work is gorgeous to look at. Her sense of page composition and willingness to let her scenes breathe quietly on their own seem to create a contemplative, mysterious atmosphere. 

This new book is a large, complete volume of the entire story that was serialized in Japan. It weighs in at 464 pages and is written for mature readers with some scenes and overall themes that may not be appropriate for younger audiences.

MEANWHILE, IN COMICS NEWS THIS PAST WEEK: 

- Kim Thompson, co-founder of Fantagraphics Books, passed away on June 19th after a long battle with lung cancer. He was 56. Thompson was one of the most influential figures in comics, being integral in bringing to the public the finest work from the most reputable cartoonists in the industry such as Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez. Over at The Comics Journal, an array of cartoonists that have been affected by Thompson's life share their touching and funny stories about him.

- Archaia, the struggling publisher of such acclaimed books as A Tale of Sand and Mouse Guard, was acquired by Boom! Studios, another piece of growing evidence that Boom! is quietly building itself into a major player in the comics industry.

- Despite the success of Man of Steel at the box office, some major shakeups are occurring amidst Warner Brothers and DC Entertainment. Jeff Robinov has been forced out as Warner Bros. president and a new leadership team is moving up in his place. Robinov had been directly overseeing the DC Entertainment division which includes the comics publishing portion. And Legendary Pictures, the studio that partnered with Warner Bros. to develop all three Christopher Nolan Batman movies and the latest Superman film, has ended the partnership over a contract negotiation dispute. This has been a successful creative partnership but does it mean that Warner Bros. and DC are looking to be more like Marvel in how they control the movies made from their properties?

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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#TBT
The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
chartaediania, eBay
chartaediania, eBay

In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
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Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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