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Top Shelf

Wednesday is New Comics Day!

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Top Shelf

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. Creepy presents Steve Ditko

Collected works written by Archie Goodwin with art by Steve Ditko
Dark Horse

After co-creating Spider-man and Dr. Strange, the enigmatic Steve Ditko left Marvel Comics in 1966 (after drawing the 25th issue of Amazing Spider-Man), mostly due to creative differences with writer and editor-in-chief Stan Lee. He went on to Warren Publishing, where he collaborated with writer Archie Goodwin on 16 short stories for Creepy and Eerie magazines that ran from 1966-1967. All 16 of these stories are collected here together for the first time in this hardcover volume from Dark Horse as part of their ongoing reprint series of the classic Warren horror comics.

The infamous congressional hearings in the 1950s that resulted in the creation of the Comics Code Authority—a self-regulatory alternative to government regulation meant to keep "harmful" content out of comic books—caused horror and crime comics to disappear from the comic racks where they were soon replaced by more kid-friendly fare like superheroes. Warren Publishing in the late 1960s found a way to skirt the Comics Code by putting out their horror comics Creepy and Eerie as magazines rather than standard sized, less expensive comic books. Without the need to consider them "comic books" and obey the restrictions of that format, Archie Goodwin and the various artists he worked with were free to create more adult material about taboo subjects like the occult and black magic. 

Ditko is a highly influential artist, but has always been an idiosyncratic one. His superhero comics never looked like anyone else's and often veered into psychedelic and surreal territory. He had pushed against the boundaries of the then still-forming Marvel House Style as much as he could, and at Warren he was free to take it even further. With the higher quality printing of the magazine format, he switched to an ink wash style that really allowed him to play up the dark atmospherics of these weird stories.

From here, Ditko would move on to Charlton comics, where he created characters such as The Question and Blue Beetle, but many feel these Creepy and Eerie stories were classic Ditko at his best.

2. Monster on the Hill 

By Rob Harrell
Top Shelf

Here's a great all-ages choice for the week. Rob Harrell is a cartoonist who has done two syndicated comic strips: Big Top, which ran from 2002 to 2007, and, more recently, the ongoing Adam@Home. Harrell's first book is out this week from Top Shelf and it looks like it's a lot of fun.

Monster on the Hill is set in 1860s England where every town is terrorized by its own monster and the townspeople actually love it, turning the threat into a tourist attraction and something to take pride in. One town, however, is stuck with a depressed little monster named Rayburn who can't seem to pull himself together enough to be frightening. 

With the help of a local doctor and a young street urchin, Rayburn goes on a quest to meet other, scarier monsters to help him find his inner beast.

You can read a 7 page preview on Top Shelf's website and see for yourself that the book is entertaining in a way that reminds me very much of Jeff Smith's Bone

3. The Motorcycle Samurai #0

By Chris Sheridan
Top Shelf

Indie comics publisher Top Shelf has been embracing digital comics these days— notably with the Double Barrel series, in which Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon serialized two separate graphic novels in some high page count 99¢ digital comics. Now they're debuting a book from a brand new creator named Chris Sheridan and are utilizing the next-generation digital comics technique that Marvel calls "Infinite Comics," DC calls "DC2" and Comixology has given the rather unsexy moniker "Guided View Native." To be fair, the name simply calls attention to the fact that the format is based primarily on Comixology's revolutionary "Guided View" technology that allows readers on mobile devices to easily move from panel to panel within a comic. As I discussed in two other comics here the past two weeks, this way of reading digital comics is more advanced that the original Guided View method and is more integrated into the actual storytelling. Panels build in sequence as you read them, word balloons don't necessarily appear all at once initially, and the "camera" may pan back and forth across a large panoramic scene to reveal individual story beats. 

The Motorcycle Samurai #0 is a preview issue that introduces us to a desolate, ghost-town setting, the kind of cinematic landscape that is tailor-made for an ambush. And that's exactly what happens to the titular motorcycle samurai as she transports a mysterious, masked companion on the back of her bike and stops to get a drink of water. What proceeds is something very reminiscent of a fight scene from Kill Bill and it uses the pans and panel builds of Guided View to its advantage in making this a fun and dynamic read. 

Sheridan's art style is fast and loose in the way he renders characters which some may find rough but others may find energetic. His background is in animation and design and it shows in his sense of tension and pacing. He also seems to have a good sense of how to use this Guided View format to his storytelling advantage.

You can buy the preview issue for only 99¢ on Comixology.

4. Last of the Mohicans

By Shigeru Sugiura

The Last of the Mohicans was a novel written by James Fenimore Cooper in 1826 about the French and Indian War in the America of the 1700s. Modern audiences are more likely familiar with Michael Mann's film adaption from 1992 starring Daniel Day Lewis. Back in 1953, though, Shigeru Sugiura created a children's manga adaptation of the novel that was a big hit in Japan. Shigeru was a popular manga artist who wrote and illustrated many books that were done in a light, humorous style that appealed to kids. 

Through the 1960s, Shigeru's popularity began to wane, so he started to push his style into more surreal, psychedelic territories, aiming his stories more towards older audiences. Then, in 1974, he re-adapted Last of the Mohicans in this new avant-garde approach and created one of the great manga masterpieces of the late 20th century.

American publisher PictureBox, with the help of historian Ryan Holmberg, has translated this book and is releasing it as the first volume in its new "Ten Cent Manga" series (hold your horses, the actual price is $22.95). This series of books will explore the ways Japanese and American cultures influence each other—in this case, how Shigeru adapted this quintessential American story in a way that draws parallels to American westerns and "ten cent" comics of his era while filtering them through the lens of his own culture. 

This will be the first Shigeru book to be released in its entirety in English. You can read more about the book and order it from PictureBox's website and also read more about the Ten Cent Manga series and future installments.

5. A bunch of new comics from MonkeyBrain

Despite the name of this column, comics don't always come out on Wednesdays anymore. Especially not digital comics which seem to come out of nowhere and land on any day of the week they want to. Not needing to be listed in catalogs months beforehand for retailers to pre-order means that more often the comics are being distributed into readers "hands" quicker but without weeks or months of press to call attention to them. This past week, Monkeybrain Comics celebrated completing their first year in business and winning an Eisner Award for Best Online Comic for Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover's excellent Bandette by launching five new titles all at once at last week's San Diego Comic Con. Here are a few of those books that look the most interesting:


Written by Anina Bennett, art by Paul Guinan

Originally published in Dark Horse Presents in the 1990s, this sci-fi series about clones and robots deals with societal issues like food crises and clone rights issues. These stories were widely praised in their time and are being reintroduced to a new audience now.

Avery Fatbottom #1

By Jen Vaughn

Avery Fatbottom: Renaissance Fair Detective is a comic with a very charming title, written and drawn by Jen Vaughn, that aims to have fun with a novel premise—a comedy/mystery about a Ren Fair organizer. This will obviously appeal to anyone who has partaken in the medieval cosplay rituals of the Ren Fair addict but at its heart it's a character-driven comedy with romance, mystery and some bawdy limericks.

Detectobot #0

Written by Peter Timony, art by Bobby Timony

Detectobot #0 is a free preview issue of a fun-looking new series from the Timony Brothers who previously gained recognition for their series Night Owls, which was published on Zuda, DC's early experimentation with webcomics. This one is about a scientist who builds a robot whose sole purpose will be to solve the mad doctor's eventual murder. 


- The San Diego Comic Con was this past weekend. We've all heard the news that was announced about a Batman/Superman team-up film in the works and the next Avengers movie being titled Avengers: Age of Ultron, but there was not a lot of breaking news about actual comic books. That seems to be the case more and more each year at that show. Small press publishers are usually told not to try to break news during SDCC or else you'll be drowned out by the news from the big companies. Maybe now even the big publishers are saving their news for a weekend when they don't have to be overshadowed by news about their own movies.

- Still, the Eisners had their big awards ceremony and there were some real deserving winners showing what a great year in comics it has been.

- Marvel did announce that there would be a new Wolverine Origins book written by Kieron Gillen and Adam Kubert that will pick up where the first book left off in exploring Logan's missing early years. Plus, continuing the trend of mixing and matching their book title adjectives, Marvel also announced a new X-men book called Amazing X-Men.

Darwyn Cooke announced the next book in his series of adaptations of the Parker crime novels.

Chuck Palahniuk announced that he will be doing a sequel to his novel Fight Club and it will be a graphic novel. No word on what artist he is working with or who will publish it but this will be a major release when it eventually comes out.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.


With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.


In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.


Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.


Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.


Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)


Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.


The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."


    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."


      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”


      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      Courtesy Chronicle Books
      Inside This Pop-Up Book Are a Planetarium, a Speaker, a Decoder Ring, and More
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      Courtesy Chronicle Books

      Designer Kelli Anderson's new book is for more than just reading. This Book Is a Planetarium is really a collection of paper gadgets. With each thick, card stock page you turn, another surprise pops out.

      "This book concisely explains—and actively demonstrates with six functional pop-up paper contraptions—the science at play in our everyday world," the book's back cover explains. It turns out, there's a whole lot you can do with a few pieces of paper and a little bit of imagination.

      A book is open to reveal a spiralgraph inside.
      Courtesy Chronicle Books

      There's the eponymous planetarium, a paper dome that you can use with your cell phone's flashlight to project constellations onto the ceiling. There's a conical speaker, which you can use to amplify a smaller music player. There's a spiralgraph you can use to make geometric designs. There's a basic cipher you can use to encode and decode secret messages, and on its reverse side, a calendar. There's a stringed musical instrument you can play on. All are miniature, functional machines that can expand your perceptions of what a simple piece of paper can become.

      The cover of This Book Is a Planetarium
      Courtesy Chronicle Books


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