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Wednesday is New Comics Day

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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;
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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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The Little Known Airport Bookstore Program That Can Get You Half of What You Spend on Books Back
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Inflight entertainment is a necessary evil, but the price can quickly add up without the proper planning. Between Wi-Fi access and TV/movie packages, you can run into all kinds of annoying additional charges that will only increase the longer your flight is. Thankfully, there is one way to minimize the cost of your inflight entertainment that’s a dream for any reader.

Paradies Lagardère, which runs more than 850 stores in 98 airports across the U.S. and Canada, has an attractive Read and Return program for all the books they sell. All you have to do is purchase a title, read it, and return it to a Paradies Lagardère-owned shop within six months and you'll get half your money back. This turns a $28 hardcover into a $14 one. Books in good condition are re-sold for half the price by the company, while books with more wear and tear are donated to charity.

If you haven’t heard of Paradies Lagardère, don’t worry—you’ve probably been in one of their stores. They’re the company behind a range of retail spots in airports, including licensed ventures like The New York Times Bookstore and CNBC News, and more local shops exclusive to the city you're flying out of. They also run restaurants, travel essentials stores, and specialty shops. 

Not every Paradies Lagardère store sells books, though, and the company doesn’t operate out of every airport, so you’ll need to do a little research before just buying a book the next time you fly. Luckily, the company does have an online map that shows every airport it operates out of and which stores are there.

There is one real catch to remember: You must keep the original receipt of the book if you want to return it and get your money back. If you're the forgetful type, just follow PureWow’s advice and use the receipt as a bookmark and you’ll be golden.

For frequent flyers who plan ahead, this program can ensure that your inflight entertainment will never break the bank.

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Musée du Louvre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
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How a Notorious Art Heist Led to the Discovery of 6 Fake Mona Lisas
Musée du Louvre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Musée du Louvre, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Human civilization has changed a lot over the past five millennia—but our instinct toward fakery, fraud, and flimflam seems to have remained relatively stable. In their new book Hoax: A History of Deception (Black Dog & Leventhal), Ian Tattersall and Peter Névraumont sift through 5000 years of our efforts to con others with scams and shakedowns of every description, from selling nonexistent real estate to transatlantic time travel. This excerpt reveals a convoluted art heist that netted not one, but six, of Leonardo da Vinci's most famous portrait(s).

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is, by a wide margin, the world’s best-known Renaissance painting. The pride of Paris’s Louvre museum, it is hard nowadays for a visitor to get a good look at. Not only do heavy stanchions and a substantial velvet rope keep art lovers at bay, but a jostling horde of phone-pointing tourists typically accomplishes the same thing even more effectively. While you can expect to scrutinize Leonardo’s nearby Virgin and Child with Saint Anne up close and in reasonable tranquility, you are lucky to catch more than a glimpse of the Mona Lisa over the heads of the heaving crowd. And that’s just getting to admire the painting: With elaborate electronic protection and constantly circulating guards, stealing the iconic piece is pretty much unthinkable.

At a time when the standards of security were considerably more lax, around noon on Tuesday, August 22, 1911, horrified museum staff reported that the Mona Lisa was missing from her place on the gallery wall. The Louvre was immediately closed down and minutely searched (the picture’s empty frame was found on a staircase), and the ports and eastern land borders of France were closed until all departing traffic could be examined. To no avail. After a frantic investigation that temporarily implicated both the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the then-aspiring young artist Pablo Picasso, all that was left was wild rumor: The smiling lady was in Russia, in the Bronx, even in the home of the banker J.P. Morgan.

Two years later the painting was recovered after a Florentine art dealer contacted the Louvre saying that it had been offered to him by the thief. The latter turned out to have been Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian artist who had worked at the Louvre on a program to protect many of the museum’s masterworks under glass.

Vincent Peruggia, Mona Lisa thief
Vincent Peruggia
Courtesy of Chronicle Books/Alamy

Peruggia reportedly told police that, early on the Monday morning before the theft was discovered—a day on which the museum was closed to the public—he had entered the Louvre dressed as a workman. Once inside, he had headed for the Mona Lisa, taken her off the wall and out of her frame, wrapped her up in his workman’s smock, and carried her out under his arm. Another version has Peruggia hiding in a museum closet overnight, but in any event the heist itself was clearly a pretty simple and straightforward affair.

Peruggia’s motivations appear to have been a little more confused. The story he told the police was that he had wanted to return the Mona Lisa to Italy, his and its country of origin, in the belief that the painting had been plundered by Napoleon—whose armies had indeed committed many similar trespasses in the many countries they invaded.

But even if he believed his story, Peruggia had his history entirely wrong. For it had been Leonardo himself who had brought the unfinished painting to France, when he became court painter to King François I in 1503. After Leonardo died in a Loire Valley château in 1519, the Mona Lisa was legitimately purchased for the royal collections.

So it didn’t seem so far-fetched when, in a 1932 Saturday Evening Post article, the journalist Karl Decker gave a significantly different account of the affair. According to Decker, an Argentinian con man calling himself Eduardo, Marqués de Valfierno, had told him that it was he who had masterminded Peruggia’s theft of the Mona Lisa. And that he had sold the painting six times!

Valfierno’s plan had been a pretty elaborate one, and it had involved employing the services of a skilled forger who could exactly replicate any stolen painting—in the Mona Lisa’s case, right down to the many layers of surface glaze its creator had used. By Decker’s account, Valfierno not only sold such fakes on multiple occasions, but used them to increase the confidence of potential buyers, ahead of the heist, that they would be getting the real thing after the theft.

The fraudster would take a victim to a public art gallery and invite him to make a surreptitious mark on the back of a painting that he had scheduled to be stolen. Later Valfierno would present him with the marked canvas, which had allegedly been stolen and replaced with a copy.

This trick was actually accomplished by secretly placing the copy behind the real painting, and removing it after the buyer had applied his mark. According to Valfierno, this was an amazingly effective sales ploy: So effective, indeed, that by his account he managed to pre-sell the scheduled-to-be-stolen Mona Lisa to six different United States buyers, all of whom actually received copies.

Mona Lisa returned to the Uffizi Gallery in 1913
Museum officials present the (real) Mona Lisa after its return to Florence, Italy's Uffizi Gallery in 1913.
The Telegraph, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Those copies had been smuggled into America prior to the heist at the Louvre, when nobody was on the lookout for them, and the well-publicized theft itself served to validate their apparent authenticity when they were delivered to the marks in return for hefty sums in cash.

According to Valfierno, the major problem in all this turned out to be Peruggia, who stole the stolen Mona Lisa from him and took it back to Italy. Still, when he was caught trying to dispose of the painting there, Peruggia could not implicate Valfierno without compromising his own story of being a patriotic thief, so the true scheme remained secret. Similarly, when the original Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre, Valfierno’s buyers could assume that it was a copy—and in any case, they would hardly have been in a position to complain.

Decker’s story of Valfierno’s extraordinary machinations caused a sensation, and it rapidly became accepted as the truth behind the Mona Lisa’s disappearance. Perhaps this is hardly surprising because, after all, Peruggia’s rather prosaic account somehow seems a little too mundane for such an icon of Renaissance artistic achievement. The more flamboyant Valfierno version was widely believed, and is still repeated over and over again, including in two recent books.

Yet there are numerous problems with Decker’s Saturday Evening Post account, including the fact that nobody has ever been able to show for certain that Valfierno actually existed (though you can Google a picture of him). Only Peruggia’s role in the disappearance of the Mona Lisa seems to be reasonably clear-cut. Still, although it remains up in the air whether Valfierno faked his account, or whether Decker fabricated both him and his report, the Mona Lisa that hangs in the Louvre today is probably the original.

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