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Boulet
Boulet

Wednesday is New Comics Day

Boulet
Boulet

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. Le Long Voyage


By Boulet

This past week was exciting for fans of webcomics that push the form in new and innovative ways. We saw two major postings that had the internet abuzz with praise. The first came from Gilles Roussel, the artist known as Boulet, one of France's first and most prominent web cartoonists who has been publishing comics at www.bouletcorp.com for nearly 10 years.

Last week, Boulet posted a new comic in which the hero of the story (himself, presumably) crawls down the toilet and descends, seemingly forever, towards the center of the earth. The comic is done with 8-bit pixel art, reminiscent of classic video games. This is a departure from Boulet's usual hand drawn style of cartooning but is wholly appropriate for telling this particular story. It's a fantastic voyage, similar to Alice's trip down the rabbit hole, but these days we associate such quests more with video games than anything else.

What's great about this comic is—as the name suggests—it is long. Tall, actually. It is made up of multiple images, stacked seamlessly on top of each other so that it can be read in one very long, continuous scroll. Scott McCloud, author of the seminal book on comics theory Understanding Comics, coined the phrase "Infinite Canvas" (actually he did it in his 2000 follow up Reinventing Comics) to denote the untapped ability of webcomics to push past the constraints of the typical comic book page. This is a good example of what he was talking about. In many ways, the entire web is now adapting to the infinite canvas idea, especially by embracing the vertical scroll. With wider bandwidth and faster devices to browse with, websites are free to fill their pages with infinite amounts of content and now webcomics are following suit. 

It's been often debated that webcomics should be more horizontally oriented and keep their content sitting above the indiscriminate and mostly imaginary "fold" of the web page. It was believed that scrolling interrupted the reading process and took the reader out of the story. Recently, we've seen a lot of webcomic sites like What Things Do and Study Group Comics display the pages of each comic stacked together on one screen. Especially when read on a tablet or smartphone, vertically scrolling through a comic feels natural and more akin to flipping through a book than clicking though web pages.

Boulet's Le Long Voyage is worth experiencing again and again on different screen sizes to appreciate how well it reads in different formats. If you don't speak French read it again in its translated version and get all the verbal jokes you missed when you were just watching the pictures scroll by.

2. Time

By Randall Munroe
xkcd.com

This week's second notable webcomic actually began its story back on March 25, when Randall Munroe posted the first panel in a new comic called Time on his popular and long running webcomic, xkcd.com. Thirty minutes after that, the panel refreshed into a slightly different panel. Thirty minutes later it changed again, and so on and so on until last week, four months later, the story came to its conclusion at 3,099 panels, taking the concept of serialized storytelling to a brand new level.

As new panels appeared, xkcd loyalists followed closely, creating Wikis and forums devoted to hypothesizing on the true nature of the story. Some sharp eyed readers even examined one scene with a night time sky full of stars to determine that, based on the positioning of the stars and the absence of one particular star, this story was taking place 11,000 years in the future. Some have even devised methods of watching the panels strung together in both click through and self-playing formats.

Time starts out unassumingly sweet and simple as we watch two tiny stick figures build sand castles, making them taller and more elaborate as they go. This goes on for a good 400 panels or so until a slight feeling of dread seeps into the scene and one of the characters remarks, "I don't understand what the sea is doing." The two figures eventually embark on a quest to learn what is out there beyond the sea, which is the only thing that they have ever known. What they find is strange, beautiful and apocalyptic—and just beyond their ability to fully understand.

Xkcd comics are deceptively simple looking, consisting mostly of stick figures and silhouetted landscapes, but conceptually and in terms of character gestures, movement and even world-building, they are some of the most complex and thought out comics out there. Time is one of the finest examples of this.

Wired and Slate recently published articles discussing what Time is really all about. There are a number of ways to view the whole thing, but I enjoyed this piece from GeekWagon. Click through each panel or watch a YouTube video of it.

3. Trillium #1

By Jeff Lemire; with colors by Jose Villarrubia
DC Vertigo

Jeff Lemire is a prolific writer and artist. While currently one of the star creative forces behind a number of DC Comic's superhero titles like Green Arrow and Animal Man, he also finds time for his own personal projects, like last year's Underwater Welder. Lemire works in a fast and loose style that probably allows him to get his ideas down on paper fairly quickly. It also makes his books instantly recognizable as his own.

This week, Lemire returns to DC's Vertigo line (where he previously published his recently completed series Sweet Tooth) with a new 8-issue mini-series called Trillium. It is a tragic sci-fi love story about an English explorer searching for the Lost Temple of the Incas in 1921 and falls in love with a botanist researching a newfound species on the edge of space in the year 3797. Their unlikely love is doomed to bring about the end of the universe.

Lemire paints the entire story himself in watercolor on paper but he is joined by colorist Jose Villarrubia who colors the 1920s section to give that part a slightly different look from the 3797 section. With the story taking place in two different time periods, the first issue is set up as two separate but interlocking stories and formatted as a "flip book" with two covers. One story reads one way; flip the book around and read the other story the other way. Not sure how this might work on digital devices.

You can read an 8 page preview of Trillium here.

4. Moth City

By Tim Gibson
Flying Whities/Comixology Submit

For the past couple of weeks, it seems like I've talked a lot about these new "Guided View" digital comics that are popping up all over the Comixology Comics app. It's a new format that a number of comics companies are experimenting with and it allows for a little more of an active experience on the comics page with panels and word balloons building on the screen as the story progresses. Another example of this is a creator-owned book available through Comixology's Submit program called Moth City. But, enough about the format, let's focus instead on the fact that is is a quality book with  a strong premise and an unusual setting that doesn't need the technological gimmick to make it interesting. 

Set on an island off the coast of China, Moth City is a thriller involving a mysterious WMD developed by an American tycoon (who dresses like a cowboy) and the murder of a scientist that sets off a series of events that may bring this island into a war between Chinese Nationalists and the Communist army. Writer and artist Tim Gibson has set up an intriguing adventure here with an exotic locale, exciting chases, some family drama and a few surprising plot twists. In fact the most recent issue ended with a very unexpected twist that turned the story a little on its head. Gibson comes from the film industry, having done concept illustration work for big Hollywood blockbusters like Tin Tin and Avatar, and he has a great sense of pacing as well as design (as you can see by the cover). 

Moth City #4 is available on Comixology this week and the previous three issues are available there too. Read more about it here on MothCity.com where you can also read the book as a free webcomic as well.

5. Robocop: Last Stand #1

Based on a screenplay by Frank Miller; written by Steven Grant; art by Korkut Öztekin; cover by Declan Shalvey
Boom! Studios

This week's entry in the seemingly ever-growing world of licensed Hollywood and toy properties adapted as comics is the first Robocop comic, published by new license-holder Boom! Studios. This 8 issue mini-series takes an unused screenplay for Robocop 3 that was written by comics legend Frank Miller and gives it to Steven Grant, a veteran comics writer who recently wrote the comic turned Hollywood action flick 2 Guns. Grant is a good choice to work with Miller material. Having written many a Punisher comic, he's no stranger to tough-as-nails heroes dishing out blood-splattered justice.

In the real world, cyborg police officer Alex Murphy is probably not the answer to the recently bankrupt city of Detroit's numerous problems, but in this near future vision of Detroit from the Robocop universe, he is their last hope. The police department has been disbanded and the the Omni-Consumer Products (OCP) mega-corporation is set to transform what's left of old Detroit into its utopian vision of the future, Delta City, forcing many of its under-privileged citizens out of their homes. 

Grant is joined by Korkut Öztekin, a Turkish artist who I believe is turning in his first major comics work here. His style seems to balance the right level of disturbing violence and broad, satirical humor that the material needs. Also, check out that striking cover by Declan Shalvey who has been designing some of the most dramatic covers for a variety of comics over this past year.

Read a preview here.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

Why limit myself to just listing five comics each week? There's so much else out there.

Sidekicks #1
J. Michael Straczynski returns to his patented brutally realistic take on the superhero genre with this new 12 issue mini-series about a goofy kid sidekick whose life hits the skids when his partner and mentor is murdered. Tom Mandrake, who has drawn many a superhero comic in his career, adds some Bronze Age levity to the misery. Here's a preview.

The Bunker #1
Joshua Hale Fialkov and Joe Infurnari just launched this new Digital First series on Comixology about a group of friends who find an abandoned bunker in the woods. Available now on Comixology.

A Bag of Marbles
A graphic novel adaptation Joseph Joffo's autobiography about his experience fleeing from the Nazis as a young boy. Contains beautiful painted artwork by French cartoonist Vincent Bailley. More info here.

Thor by Walt Simonson Vol 1
This is an affordable softcover edition containing part of the recent omnibus collection of Simonson's classic run on Marvel's Thor during the 1980's. It has been recolored to appeal to modern eyeballs.

Satellite Sam #2
I missed talking about issue 1 when it came out last month, but Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin's crime drama set behind the scenes in a 1950's live sci-fi TV show is off to a great start. You can see a preview here

Questionable Content turned 10
Some of the great long-running webcomics are hitting the decade mark now. Jeph Jacques' popular Questionable Content strip just did it last week. Here's Jacques' understated acknowledgement of the milestone.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
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History
How a Shoemaker Became America’s Most Controversial Mystic—and Inspired Edgar Allan Poe
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

Andrew Jackson Davis may not be a prominent figure now, but in the 19th century, he amassed a dedicated following that helped give rise to Spiritualism, a once-popular religion that believed in communicating with the dead. Davis used the teachings of a German doctor named Anton Mesmer to enter trance states that he claimed allowed him to see into space, the afterlife, other worlds, and even the human body. His metaphysical exploits earned him the nickname the “Poughkeepsie Seer,” and while frequently derided by his contemporaries, he inspired at least one well-known American writer: Edgar Allan Poe.

A HUMBLE SHOEMAKER

By all accounts, Davis had a fairly unremarkable childhood. He was born in Blooming Grove, New York, in 1826. His father, a shoemaker, was prone to drink, so Davis and his sister picked up odd jobs to support the family. Most of his schooling came from a then-popular program where teachers taught advanced students, who then taught one another. Ira Armstrong, a shoemaker/merchant he apprenticed under, later recalled that Davis's education “barely amounted to a knowledge of reading, writing and the rudiments of arithmetic.”

In the 1830s, Anton Mesmer’s teachings became popular in America thanks to several impassioned lecturers in New York and New England. Mesmer, who had found fame in Europe in the late 18th century, believed he could use magnets and his own touch to move “magnetic fluids” through the body, healing his patients of everything from the common cold to blindness. Though his theory of animal magnetism, as he called the existence of such fluids, was discredited by the French Academy of Sciences in 1784, medical professionals later became curious about Mesmer’s ability to manipulate his patients into altered mental states. Doctors—conventional or otherwise—studied the phenomenon of mesmerism, traveling across the country to demonstrate their findings.

It’s this mesmerist renaissance that first brought Davis into the public eye. In 1843, a Dr. James Stanley Grimes traveled to Poughkeepsie, New York, advertising his ability to induce trance states. Many Poughkeepsie residents attended the production—including Davis, although he wasn't entranced as advertised. The visit excited the community, especially a tailor and acquaintance of Davis's named William Levingston, who began dabbling in mesmerism himself. One day in early December, Levingston asked if he could mesmerize Davis, and he succeeded where Grimes had failed: Davis, while blindfolded, was able to read a newspaper placed on his forehead, and listed the various diseases of a group of witnesses.

Rumors soon swirled about Davis’s abilities. After that first session, Levingston mesmerized him nearly every day, and hundreds crowded into Levingston’s home to gawk at the spectacle. The sessions followed a pattern: Davis would enter a trance state and diagnose visitors with maladies, and then Levingston would sell remedies. The pair eventually began to travel, taking their show to Connecticut.

Some of Davis’s advice was unorthodox. For deafness, as Davis wrote in his autobiography, The Magic Staff, he once recommended a patient “catch thirty-two weasels ... take off their hind legs at the middle joint, and boil that oil which Nature has deposited in the feet and the parts adjacent thereto.” This preparation, he went on, “must be dropped (one drop at a time) in each ear, twice a day, till the whole is gone—when you will be nearly cured!”

Sketch of Andrew Jackson Davis on a yellow background
Internet Archive, Flickr // Public Domain

However, Davis swore off parlor tricks in 1844 after he claimed to have teleported 40 miles in his sleep. During the episode, he purportedly spoke with the ghosts of the Greek physician Galen and the Swedish scientist and philosopher Emmanuel Swedenborg, who hinted that Davis had a higher purpose. Galen gifted him with a magic staff, although he was not allowed to keep it. The tale mirrored that of Joseph Smith, who around 1827 had claimed a holy messenger guided him to golden plates on which the Book of Mormon was written. The year after the teleportation episode, Davis decided to part ways with Levingston, and moved to New York City in the company of Silas Smith Lyon, a doctor, and two Universalist ministers, William Fishbough and Samuel Byron Britton.

There, Lyon placed Davis into trance states several times a day, during which time he would lecture on science and philosophy while also diagnosing patients. Fishbough, meanwhile, would transcribe Davis’s transmissions, which were published as his first book, The Principles of Nature, Her Divine Revelation, and a Voice to Mankind in 1847. Davis combined Spiritualism with utopianism, describing a heaven-like space where all would be welcomed by a Mother and a Father God. Academics of the time soon noticed Davis’s insights were nearly identical to writings that Swedenborg had published years before: Both Davis and Swedenborg claimed to see a spiritual world beyond our own, where all humans could be welcomed into heaven, regardless of religion.

Christian leaders called Davis’s text heretical, while newspapers referred to the book as “ridiculous” and “incomprehensible.” One professor of Greek and Latin at the University of New York said the book was “a work of the devil,” and displayed an “absurd and ridiculous attempt at reasoning.” Joseph McCabe, in his 1920 book Spiritualism: A Popular History from 1847, declared that there was “no need to examine the book seriously” since it contained so many scientific errors. Notably, The Church of New Jerusalem, founded on Swedenborgian ideas, never publicly endorsed Davis’s theories.

Despite this criticism, Davis attracted passionate defenders. George Bush, a Swedenborgian scholar and distant relative of George W. Bush, was among his champions. He insisted that a simple youth like Davis had no access to Swedenborg’s texts and must have been communing with spirits. In 1846, when the French mathematician Urbain-Jean-Joseph Le Verrier postulated the existence of the planet Neptune, supporters were quick to write the New York Tribune claiming Davis had already discovered the eighth planet. “As to the asserted fact that this announcement by Mr. Davis was made in March last,” Bush declared, “I can testify that I heard it read at the time; and numerous gentlemen in this city are ready to bear witness that I informed them of the circumstance several months before the intelligence reached us of Le Verrier’s discovery.”

Detractors were just as vocal. When Fishbough admitted to extensively editing Davis's words, a reviewer at the London Athenaeum couldn’t contain his derision: “That a seer ‘commercing’ with the Mysteries of Nature should have needed an editor in this technical sense is remarkable enough," he wrote. "It might have been supposed that the Revelations which brought to an uneducated man the secrets of Science might have brought him grammar, too, to express them in.” Fishbough countered that it would have simply been too much work for Davis to pay attention to such tiny details.

"MARTIN VAN BUREN MAVIS"

Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

One of the more prominent people occasionally making fun of Davis was Edgar Allan Poe. In the satirical “Mellonta Tauta,” Poe wrote in a preface that “Martin Van Buren Mavis (sometimes called the ‘Toughkeepsie Seer’)” had translated the story—thus poking fun at Davis and his acolytes. Poe also included Davis in his “50 Suggestions,” brief witticisms published in 1849 that took aim at popular beliefs and theorists of the time: “There surely cannot be ‘more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of’ (oh, Andrew Jackson Davis!) ‘in your philosophy,’” Poe wrote.

Yet Davis’s The Principles of Nature may also have inspired the prose poem “Eureka,” in which Poe proposed his theory of the universe. The work has puzzled critics since its inception: Poe’s use of humorous nicknames in the text (he refers to Aristotle as “Aries Tottle”) point to “Eureka” being a satire, but historians have pointed out that several of Poe’s intuitive concepts actually anticipated the study of scientific phenomenon like black holes and the expanding universe.

Several historians have also remarked on the way Davis’s demonstrations in New York influenced Poe’s short story “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” which follows a mesmerist who puts an old man into a trance on his deathbed and watches his body float between life and death. Davis had claimed his trances put him in a state near death, freeing his mind to travel to spiritual realms. In his book Occult America, writer Mitch Horowitz notes that Poe completed the story in New York the year he met Davis. Dawn B. Sova also mentions in Edgar Allan Poe A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Work that Poe used his observations of Davis’s trance sessions to complete the story.

For his part, Davis himself seemed somewhat taken with Poe. Of meeting him in 1846, he wrote in Memoranda of Persons, Places and Events, “My sympathies are strangely excited. There are conflicting breathings of commanding power in his mind. But … I saw a perfect shadow of himself in the air in front of him, as though the sun was constantly shining behind and casting shadows before him, causing the singular appearance of one walking into a dark fog produced by himself.”

Charlatan or not, it was an eerie observation to make of a writer who would meet his end three years later.

Davis himself would live a long and rich life. He continued to lecture and write books until the 1880s, doing away with his scribe for later publications. He then earned a traditional medical license and moved to Boston, serving as a physician until his death in 1910. Though he sought to distance himself from the spectacle of spiritualism later on in life, Davis’s humble background and curious rise to fame made the “Poughkeepsie Seer” one of the movement’s most notable figures—and one who still maintains a strange resonance today.

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