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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. March Book One


Written by Congressman John Lewis with Andrew Aydin; art by Nate Powell;
Top Shelf

Probably the most important graphic novel release of the year tops our list this week. March Book One is the first of a three book autobiography by Congressman John Lewis, the last surviving member of the "Big Six", the organizers of The Great March on Washington in 1963 to call for civil rights for African Americans. Lewis' life story, from growing up raising chickens in Alabama to helping organize one of the most important movements of the 20th Century, will be documented in this series, and the fact that he chose to do it as a graphic novel is remarkable though it follows a historic precedent. 

In 1958 a comic called "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story" told the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. in order to help spread his ideas of non-violent protest. It was chosen to be produced as a comic partly to slip under the radar of those who were, at the time, confiscating and burning literature distributed within the black community, but also because by telling its story with words and pictures it could reach and inform the largest possible audience of all ages and education levels. You can learn more about this comic and read it in its entirety here.

Lewis took inspiration from that comic when choosing to tell his story this way. He is helped by Andrew Aydin, who works in his Congressional office on telecommunications and technology policy, and by artist Nate Powell, who is instrumental in bringing this book to life. Powell is an award-winning writer and artist who often takes on ambitious subject matter such as Swallow Me Whole, his breakthrough 2008 graphic novel about schizophrenia. He has quietly become one of the most interesting, important and prolific graphic novelists being published by Top Shelf. His artwork, made up of his active, ink-drenched brushed lines and beautifully thought out page compositions, is always wonderfully integrated with the written word of his captions or dialogue. He is the real deal when it comes to using this medium to its fullest advantages in the aspect of storytelling.

Lewis is the first sitting Congressman to write a graphic novel, and this book sports the first cover blurb written by a former U.S. President (Bill Clinton). Lewis is even going to be making signing appearances at places like next month's Small Press Expo to promote the book.

This first volume of Lewis' story begins with his childhood and ends with his non-violent lunch counter sit-ins and protests against segregation in Nashville. You can read a 14 page preview of the book here at Top Shelf's website.

2. Infinity #1


Written by Jonathan Hickman; art by Jim Cheung
Marvel

Although Marvel's most recent event book Age of Ultron just ended a couple of weeks ago, their newest one is already starting up. For a while, both Marvel and DC were weighing down the natural story progression of many of their titles by hitching everything to a neverending cycle of line wide "events." We've had a reprieve from that for a couple of years, but that may be over now. 

However, unlike many previous event books, Infinity is driven by the singular vision of one particular writer rather than a committee of writers and editors. 

Jonathan Hickman has been building to this story in the pages of both his Avengers and New Avengers comics since they both began this past year. His most recent issue of Avengers found the team heading to the other end of the universe to face the threat of a group of alien beings called The Builders who plan to destroy humanity and rebuild it in their own form. That leaves Earth unprotected, and Thanos (the big guy with the pink face we saw after the credits in the Avengers movie) steps in to take advantage of their absence. 

Well, "unprotected" is a loose term. There are of course still a whole lot of Marvel heroes on Earth that will have to step up to the Thanos challenge, particularly the group referred to as the "Illuminati," who are the stars of Hickman's New Avengers comic. They consist of Reed Richards, Captain America, Black Panther, Iron Man, the Sub-Mariner, the Beast, Dr. Strange, and Black Bolt, and they will most likely play a major role in this book.

Hickman excels at these kinds of universe-threatening epics, as his recent runs on the Avengers books and Fantastic Four before them have shown. With his dramatic narration setting the scene, he writes superhero comics that seem to have more gravity (and gravitas) than most. And that's just in an average issue. It will be interesting to see what happens when he is unleashed on an all-important event book like this.

Here's a preview of Infinity #1.

3. Cartozia Tales #1



Various Writers and Artists
Cartozia

Arguably one of the great aspects of comics that are almost unique to the medium is how multiple writers and artists can collaborate on multiple stories in an effort to build one shared universe. Sure, this may occur in small doses in books or television, but Marvel and DC have spent over half a century perfecting this form of large-scale storytelling in a way that no one in any other medium has done. Outside of those two giant universes, we'll often see the birth of smaller worlds and universes set in motion by ambitious creators seeking to make something special on their own.

Cartozia Tales is a new all-ages indie anthology comic that is based around the concept of a map. Editor Isaac Cates has coordinated a great idea for this series in which he takes a map of this fictional world of Cartozia and divides it up among the group of regular creators who are devoted to each issue. The first book is filled with a number of short 4-page stories that each take place in a particular section of Cartozia, and each ends with a cliffhanger of sorts. In the next issue, Cates will assign that section of the map to one of the other creators and have them pick up the story where it left off, potentially giving their own take on the characters, mythical creatures, and plot direction of that particular story. Cates has assembled a talented group of up-and-coming regulars including Mike Wenthe, Lupi McGinty, Jen Vaughn, Caitlin Lehman, and more. In addition, each issue will feature more established guest contributors such as James Kolchaka, Ben Towle, and Evan Dahm. The first issue features Dylan Horrocks and Jon Lewis, and Horrocks' story, I have to say, is pretty much guaranteed to make you smile. Especially if you have a little girl. 

I've had the opportunity to read the first issue and my 5 year old daughter is especially enamored with it. Its imaginative, fantasy-based setting and kid-friendly cartooning make it appealing for readers of any age. There is also an emphasis throughout the book on maps and cartography including a fun instructional exercise on map-making that your kids can do at home (my daughter is now on a whole mapmaking kick thanks to this).

Cartozia is launching a Kickstarter this week but you can subscribe to their comic now through their website.

4. The Bunker #1


Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov; art by Joe Infurnari
Comixology Submit

A recent notable entry into Comixology's Submit program for self-published comics is a new series called The Bunker. It begins when a group of friends discover an underground bunker with their names engraved on the outside and it leads to visions of a bleak, dystopian future that may be the result of their own actions, intended or unintended. It immediately draws to mind similarities to Stephen King's It and Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys, not to mention Lost, which one of the characters actually acknowledges in story. 

Fialkov has developed a bit of a cult following for his various projects over the years starting with his horror series Elk's Run which was under-appreciated in its time and plagued by publishing issues. After some recent work for both Marvel and DC, he is returning to creator-owned material here and using Comixology's publishing platform with a smart plan in mind. The first issue contains 35 pages to introduce the story and is priced at $1.99. The following issues will be published monthly and contain 12 pages of story each, presumably priced at the optimal digital comics price of 99¢. Digital allows independent creators to experiment with things like page count, publishing schedules and price, and no one combination of the three has become an industry standard yet which makes this an interesting time for such ventures.

Joe Infurnari has worked for almost every publisher in comics and has published numerous webcomics on his own and through collectives like Act-i-vate. His expressive way of drawing people almost brings to mind a Young Adult graphic novel style but with a definite edge to it that plays well to the horror of Fialkov's plot.

You can buy the first issue of The Bunker through Comixology's website here.

5. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century #1


Written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin
Hermes Press

Buck Rogers is a character that probably needs no introduction. For most comic book fans, neither does veteran writer/artist Howard Chaykin—but Hermes Press however might require some explanation. They're a small independent publisher that primarily focuses on reprints of classic material like the original Buck Rogers newspaper strips from the 1920s. 

With that historical perspective in mind, they've brought on Howard Chaykin to bring Buck Rogers back to the roots of Philip Francis Nowlan's original creation, which started with the story Armageddon 2419 A. D. (published in Amazing Stories in 1929) with the hero being a World War I fighter pilot who find himself suspended in time and awoken 500 years in the future. In this four issue mini-series, we'll see Rogers team with Colonel Wilma Deering to free the United States from the oppression of alien-influenced China.

Chaykin is the ideal choice to take on this book. He has a penchant not only for sci-fi action but for period drama and the fashion and style that goes along with it. The preview images alone call to mind Chaykin's past work on books like American Flagg!, Cody Starbuck, and Blackhawk.

Take a look at this unlettered preview over on the Westfield Comics blog.


HONORABLE MENTIONS

Why limit myself to just listing 5 comics each week? There's so much else out there.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1
IDW is the latest publisher to try to revive this old superhero title once drawn by Wally Wood. Longtime T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents fan Phil Hester lobbied hard to become the writer for this book and now gets his chance to put his mark on it. Here's an interview with Hester.

Marooned - Kickstarter
Tom Dell'Aringa's long-running webcomic is in the process of raising funds for a hardcover collection and is already well past its goal. Marooned is a funny and really well done strip about a stranded astronaut (drawn in kind of a Dagwood Bumstead style) and his robot sidekick, Asimov. Contribute to the Kickstarter if you'd like.

Right State
An extremist militia group is planning to assassinate America's second African American president and the best chance to stop them is a former Special Forces war hero turned right-wing media pundit who must infiltrate the group. A fascinating political concept for this new Vertigo graphic novel written by Mat Johnson, who previously explored race in America in the acclaimed Incognegro. You can find more info here.

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How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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12 Facts About James Joyce
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

June 16, 1904 is the day that James Joyce, the Irish author of Modernist masterpieces like Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and who was described as “a curious mixture of sinister genius and uncertain talent,” set his seminal work, Ulysses. It also thought to be the day that he had his first date with his future wife, Nora Barnacle.

He was as mythical as the myths he used as the foundations for his own work. So in honor of that June day in 1904—known to fans worldwide as “Bloomsday,” after one of the book’s protagonists, Leopold Bloom—here are 12 facts about James Joyce.

1. HE WAS ONLY 9 WHEN HIS FIRST PIECE OF WRITING WAS PUBLISHED.

In 1891, shortly after he had to leave Clongowes Wood College when his father lost his job, 9-year-old Joyce wrote a poem called “Et Tu Healy?” It was published by his father John and distributed to friends; the elder Joyce thought so highly of it, he allegedly sent copies to the Pope.

No known complete copies of the poem exist, but the precocious student’s verse allegedly denounced a politician named Tim Healy for abandoning 19th century Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell after a sex scandal. Fragments of the ending of the poem, later remembered by James’s brother Stanislaus, showed Parnell looking down on Irish politicians:

His quaint-perched aerie on the crags of Time
Where the rude din of this century
Can trouble him no more

While the poem was seemingly quaint, young Joyce equating Healy as Brutus and Parnell as Caesar marked the first time he’d use old archetypes in a modern context, much in the same way Ulysses is a unique retelling of The Odyssey.

As an adult, Joyce would publish his first book, a collection of poems called Chamber Music, in 1907. It was followed by Dubliners, a collection of short stories, in 1914, and the semi-autobiographical A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (in which Clongowes Wood College is prominently featured) in 1916.

2. HE CAUSED A CONTROVERSY AT HIS COLLEGE’S PAPER.

While attending University College Dublin, Joyce attempted to publish a negative review—titled “The Day of the Rabblement”—of a new local playhouse called the Irish Literary Theatre in the school’s paper, St. Stephen’s. Joyce’s condemnation of the theater’s “parochialism” was allegedly so scathing that the paper’s editors, after seeking consultation from one of the school’s priests, refused to print it.

Incensed about possible censorship, Joyce appealed to the school’s president, who sided with the editors—which prompted Joyce to put up his own money to publish 85 copies to be distributed across campus.

The pamphlet, published alongside a friend’s essay to beef up the page-count, came with the preface: “These two essays were commissioned by the editor of St. Stephen’s for that paper, but were subsequently refused insertion by the censor.” It wouldn’t be the last time Joyce would fight censorship.

3. NORA BARNACLE GHOSTED HIM FOR THEIR PLANNED FIRST DATE.

By the time Nora Barnacle and Joyce finally married in 1931, they had lived together for 27 years, traveled the continent and had two children. The couple first met in Dublin in 1904 when Joyce struck up a conversation with her near the hotel where Nora worked as a chambermaid. She initially mistook him for a Swedish sailor because of his blue eyes and the yachting cap he wore that day, and he charmed her so much that they set a date for June 14—but she didn’t show.

He then wrote her a letter, saying, “I looked for a long time at a head of reddish-brown hair and decided it was not yours. I went home quite dejected. I would like to make an appointment but it might not suit you. I hope you will be kind enough to make one with me—if you have not forgotten me!” This led to their first date, which supposedly took place on June 16, 1904.

She would continue to be his muse throughout their life together in both his published work (the character Molly Bloom in Ulysses is based on her) and their fruitful personal correspondence. Their notably dirty love letters to each other—featuring him saying their love-making reminded him of “a hog riding a sow” and signing off one by saying “Goodnight, my little farting Nora, my dirty littlef**kbird!"—have highlighted the NSFW nature of their relationship. In fact, one of Joyce’s signed erotic letters to Nora fetched a record £240,800 ($446,422) at a London auction in 2004.

4. HE HAD REALLY BAD EYES.

While Joyce’s persistent money problems caused him to lead a life of what could be categorized as creative discomfort, he had to deal with a near lifetime of medical discomfort as well. Joyce suffered from anterior uveitis, which led to a series of around 12 eye surgeries over his lifetime. (Due to the relatively unsophisticated state of ophthalmology at the time, and his decision not to listen to contemporary medical advice, scholars speculate that his iritis, glaucoma, and cataracts could have been caused by sarcoidosis, syphilis, tuberculosis, or any number of congenital problems.) His vision issues caused Joyce to wear an eye patch for years and forced him to do his writing on large white sheets of paper using only red crayon. The persistent eye struggles even inspired him to name his daughter Lucia, after St. Lucia, patron saint of the blind.

5. HE TAUGHT ENGLISH AT A BERLITZ LANGUAGE SCHOOL.

In 1904, Joyce—eager to get out of Ireland—responded to an ad for a teaching position in Europe. Evelyn Gilford, a job agent based in the British town of Market Rasen, Lincolnshire, notified Joyce that a job was reserved for him and, for two guineas, he would be told exactly where the position was. Joyce sent the money, and by the end of 1904, he and his future wife, Nora, had left Dublin for the job at a Berlitz language school in Zurich, Switzerland—but when they got there, the pair learned there was no open position. But they did hear a position was open at a Berlitz school in Trieste, Italy. The pair packed up and moved on to Italy only to find out they’d been swindled again.

Joyce eventually found a Berlitz teaching job in Pola in Austria-Hungary (now Pula, Croatia). English was one of 17 languages Joyce could speak; others included Arabic, Sanskrit, Greek, and Italian (which eventually became his preferred language, and one that he exclusively spoke at home with his family). He also loved playwright Henrik Ibsen so much that he learned Norwegian so that he could read Ibsen's works in their original form—and send the writer a fan letter in his native tongue.

6. HE INVESTED IN A MOVIE THEATER.

There are about 400 movie theaters in Ireland today, but they trace their history back to 1909, when Joyce helped open the Volta Cinematograph, which is considered “the first full-time, continuous, dedicated cinema” in Ireland.

More a money-making scheme than a product of a love of cinema, Joyce first got the idea when he was having trouble getting Dubliners published and noticed the abundance of cinemas while living in Trieste. When his sister, Eva, told him Ireland didn’t have any movie theaters, Joyce joined up with four Italian investors (he’d get 10 percent of the profits) to open up the Volta on Dublin’s Mary Street.

The venture fizzled as quickly as Joyce’s involvement. After not attracting audiences due to mostly showing only Italian and European movies unpopular with everyday Dubliners, Joyce cut his losses and pulled out of the venture after only seven months.

The cinema itself didn’t close until 1919, during the time Joyce was hard at work on Ulysses. (It reopened with a different name in 1921 and didn’t fully close until 1948.)

7. HE TURNED TO A COMPLETELY INEXPERIENCED PUBLISHER TO RELEASE HIS MOST WELL-KNOWN BOOK.

The publishing history of Ulysses is itself its own odyssey. Joyce began writing the work in 1914, and by 1918 he had begun serializing the novel in the American magazine Little Review with the help of poet Ezra Pound.

But by 1921, Little Review was in financial trouble. The published version of Episode 13 of Ulysses, “Nausicaa,” resulted in a costly obscenity lawsuit against its publishers, Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, and the book was banned in the United States. Joyce appealed to different publishers for help—including Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press—but none agreed to take on a project with such legal implications (and in Virginia Woolf’s case, length), no matter how supposedly groundbreaking it was.

Joyce, then based in Paris, made friends with Sylvia Beach, whose bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, was a gathering hub for the post-war expatriate creative community. In her autobiography, Beach wrote:

All hope of publication in the English-speaking countries, at least for a long time to come, was gone. And here in my little bookshop sat James Joyce, sighing deeply.

It occurred to me that something might be done, and I asked : “Would you let Shakespeare and Company have the honour of bringing out your Ulysses?”

He accepted my offer immediately and joyfully. I thought it rash of him to entrust his great Ulysses to such a funny little publisher. But he seemed delighted, and so was I. ... Undeterred by lack of capital, experience, and all the other requisites of a publisher, I went right ahead with Ulysses.

Beach planned a first edition of 1000 copies (with 100 signed by the author), while the book would continue to be banned in a number of countries throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Eventually it was allowed to be published in the United States in 1933 after the case United States v. One Book Called Ulysses deemed the book not obscene and allowed it in the United States.

8. ERNEST HEMINGWAY WAS HIS DRINKING BUDDY—AND SOMETIMES HIS BODYGUARD.

Ernest Hemingway—who was major champion of Ulysses—met Joyce at Shakespeare and Company, and was later a frequent companion among the bars of Paris with writers like Wyndham Lewis and Valery Larbaud.

Hemingway recalled the Irish writer would start to get into drunken fights and leave Hemingway to deal with the consequences. "Once, in one of those casual conversations you have when you're drinking," Hemingway said, "Joyce said to me he was afraid his writing was too suburban and that maybe he should get around a bit and see the world. He was afraid of some things, lightning and things, but a wonderful man. He was under great discipline—his wife, his work and his bad eyes. His wife was there and she said, yes, his work was too suburban--'Jim could do with a spot of that lion hunting.' We would go out to drink and Joyce would fall into a fight. He couldn't even see the man so he'd say, 'Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!'"

9. HE MET ANOTHER MODERNIST TITAN—AND HAD A TERRIBLE TIME.

Marcel Proust’s gargantuan, seven-volume masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu, is perhaps the other most important Modernist work of the early 20th century besides Ulysses. In May 1922, the authors met at a party for composer Igor Stravinsky and ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Paris. The Dubliners author arrived late, was drunk, and wasn’t wearing formal clothes because he was too poor to afford them. Proust arrived even later than Joyce, and though there are varying accounts of what was actually said between the two, every known version points to a very anticlimactic meeting of the minds.

According to author William Carlos Williams, Joyce said, “I’ve headaches every day. My eyes are terrible,” to which the ailing Proust replied, “My poor stomach. What am I going to do? It’s killing me. In fact, I must leave at once.”

Publisher Margaret Anderson claimed that Proust admitted, “I regret that I don’t know Mr. Joyce’s work,” while Joyce replied, “I have never read Mr. Proust.”

Art reviewer Arthur Power said both writers simply talked about liking truffles. Joyce later told painter Frank Budgen, “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘No.’”

10. HE CREATED A 100-LETTER WORD TO DESCRIBE HIS FEAR OF THUNDER AND LIGHTNING.

Joyce had a childhood fear of thunder and lightning, which sprang from his Catholic governess’s pious warnings that such meteorological occurrences were actually God manifesting his anger at him. The fear haunted the writer all his life, though Joyce recognized the beginnings of his phobia. When asked by a friend why he was so afraid of rough weather, Joyce responded, “You were not brought up in Catholic Ireland.”

The fear also manifested itself in Joyce’s writing. In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the autobiographical protagonist Stephen Dedalus says he fears “dogs, horses, firearms, the sea, thunderstorms, [and] machinery.”

But the most fascinating manifestation of his astraphobia is in his stream of consciousness swan song, Finnegans Wake, where he created the 100-letter word Bababadalgharaghtaka-mminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk to represent a symbolic biblical thunderclap. The mouthful is actually made up of different words for “thunder” in French (tonnerre), Italian (tuono), Greek (bronte), and Japanese (kaminari).

11. HE’S THOUGHT OF AS A LITERARY GENIUS, BUT NOT EVERYONE WAS A FAN.

Fellow Modernist Virginia Woolf didn't much care for Joyce or his work. She compared his writing to "a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples," and said that "one hopes he’ll grow out of it; but as Joyce is 40 this scarcely seems likely."

She wasn't the only one. In a letter, D.H. Lawrence—who wrote such classics as Women in Love and Lady Chatterley’s Loversaid of Joyce: “My God, what a clumsy olla putrida James Joyce is! Nothing but old fags and cabbage stumps of quotations from the Bible and the rest stewed in the juice of deliberate, journalistic dirty-mindedness.”

“Do I get much pleasure from this work? No," author H.G. Wells wrote in his review of Finnegans Wake. “ ... Who the hell is this Joyce who demands so many waking hours of the few thousand I have still to live for a proper appreciation of his quirks and fancies and flashes of rendering?”

Even his partner Nora had a difficult time with his work, saying after the publication of Ulysses, “Why don’t you write sensible books that people can understand?”

12. HIS SUPPOSED FINAL WORDS WERE AS ABSTRACT AS HIS WRITING.

Joyce was admitted to a Zurich hospital in January 1941 for a perforated duodenal ulcer, but slipped into a coma after surgery and died on January 13. His last words were befitting his notoriously difficult works—they're said to have been, "Does nobody understand?"

Additional Source: James Joyce

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