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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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Kevork Djansezian, Stringer, Getty Images
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Pop Culture
LeVar Burton Is Legally Allowed to Say His Reading Rainbow Catchphrase
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Kevork Djansezian, Stringer, Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine the original Reading Rainbow without LeVar Burton, but in August, the New York public broadcasting network WNED made it very clear who owned the rights to the program. By saying his old catchphrase from his hosting days, “but you don’t have to take my word for it” on his current podcast, WNED claimed Burton was infringing on their intellectual property. Now, Vulture reports that the case has been settled and Burton is now allowed to drop the phrase when and wherever he pleases.

The news came out in an recent interview with the actor and TV personality. “All settled, but you don’t have to take my word for it,” he told Vulture. “It’s all good. It’s all good. I can say it.”

The conflict dates back to 2014, when Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to revive the show without WNED’s consent. Prior to that, the network and Burton’s digital reading company RRKidz had made a licensing deal where they agreed to split the profits down the middle if a new show was ever produced. Burton’s unauthorized crowdfunding undid those negotiations, and tensions between the two parties have been high ever since. The situation came to a head when Burton started using his famous catchphrase on his LeVar Burton Reads podcast, which centers around him reading short fiction in the same vein as his Reading Rainbow role. By doing this, WNED alleged he was aiming to “control and reap the benefits of Reading Rainbow's substantial goodwill.”

Though he’s no longer a collaborator with WNED, Burton can at least continue to say “but you don’t have to take my word for it” without fearing legal retribution. WNED is meanwhile "working on the next chapter of Reading Rainbow" without their original star, and Burton tells Vulture he looks “forward to seeing what they do with the brand next."

[h/t Vulture]

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literature
The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps
chris2766/iStock

The train departed King's Cross at 10:25 a.m. on July 29, 1890. Bram Stoker settled wearily into the carriage for the six-hour journey to Whitby, the fashionable and remote seaside village in North Yorkshire. The sooty sprawl of London gave way to green grids of farmland and pasture, and then windswept moors blanketed in heather and wild roses.

Stoker needed this holiday. The 42-year-old manager of London's Lyceum Theatre had just finished an exhausting national tour with his employer, the celebrated but demanding actor Henry Irving. The unrelenting task of running the business side of Irving's many theatrical enterprises for the past decade had left Stoker with little time for himself. When the curtains fell at the end of each night's performance, he may have felt that the energy had been sucked out of him.

Now he looked forward to a three-week getaway where he would have time to think about his next novel, a supernatural tale that harnessed the sources of Victorian anxiety: immigration and technology, gender roles and religion. In ways he didn't foresee, the small fishing port of Whitby would plant the seeds for a vampire novel that would terrify the world. Stoker started out on an innocent and much-deserved vacation, but ended up creating Dracula.

A photo of Bram Stoker
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Stoker emerged from the train station in Whitby, the sounds and smell of the sea would have restored him after the long trip. He loaded his trunk into a horse-drawn cab for the journey up the West Cliff, where new vacation apartments and hotels served the crowds of holidaymakers. He checked into a flat at 6 Royal Crescent, a half-circle of elegant Georgian-style townhomes that faced the ocean.

He often felt invigorated by the seashore: "He's finally on a holiday, away from the hustle and bustle of London, the Lyceum Theatre, and Henry Irving's dominance over him," Dacre Stoker, a novelist and the author's great-grandnephew, tells Mental Floss. "The ocean and the seaside play into Bram's life, and, I believe, in stimulating his imagination."

Stoker's wife Florence and their 10-year-old son Noel would join him the following week. Now was his chance to explore Whitby on his own.

The East Cliff with Tate Hill Pier in the foreground
iStock

"A curious blend of old and new it is," wrote a travel correspondent for the Leeds Mercury. The River Esk divided the town into two steep halves known as the West and East Cliffs. Down a tangle of paths from the brow of the West Cliff, Stoker found himself on the town's famed beach, where people gathered to watch the many vessels at sea or walked along the gentle surf. At the end of the beach was the Saloon, the nucleus of Whitby's social whirl.

"The enterprising manager engages the best musical and dramatic talent procurable, whilst on the promenade a selected band of professional musicians gives performances daily," wrote Horne's Guide to Whitby. Holidaymakers could purchase a day pass to the Saloon and enjoy afternoon tea, tennis, and endless people-watching.

Next to the Saloon, the West Pier featured a long promenade parallel to the river and a three-story building containing public baths, a museum with a collection of local fossils, and a subscription library. Shops selling fish and chips, ice cream, and Whitby rock lined the winding streets. Visitors could watch all kinds of fishing vessels discharging their daily catch, and even hop aboard a boat for a night's "herringing" with local fishermen.

Whitby's East Cliff had a more mysterious atmosphere. Across the town's single bridge, tightly packed medieval cottages and jet factories leaned over the narrow cobbled streets, "rising one above another from the water side in the most irregular, drunken sort of arrangement conceivable," the Leeds Mercury reported.

Above the ancient Tate Hill Pier, a stone stairway of 199 steps (which pallbearers used when they carried coffins) led up the cliff to St. Mary's parish church and its graveyard full of weathered headstones. Towering over the whole scene—and visible from nearly any spot in town—were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a 13th-century pile of Gothic arches that had been built upon the remains of a 7th-century monastery.

"I think [Stoker] was struck by the setting. He's thinking, 'This is perfect. I have the ships coming in, I've got the abbey, a churchyard, a graveyard'," Dacre Stoker says. "Maybe it was by chance, but I think it just became that perfect scene."

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey
Daverhead/iStock

In Dracula, chapters six through eight kick the narrative into frightening action. By then, real estate agent Jonathan Harker has traveled to Transylvania to negotiate Dracula's purchase of a London property and become the vampire's prisoner. His fiancée Mina Murray, her friend Lucy Westenra, and Lucy's mother have traveled to Whitby for a relaxing holiday, but Mina remains troubled by the lack of letters from Jonathan. She confides her worries and records the strange scenes she witnesses in her journal.

On the afternoon of his arrival, according to a modern account compiled by historians at the Whitby Museum, Stoker climbed the 199 Steps to St. Mary's churchyard and found a bench in the southwest corner. The view made a deep impression on Stoker, and he took note of the river and harbor, the abbey's "noble ruin," the houses "piled up one over the other anyhow." In his novel, Mina arrives in late July on the same train as Stoker, mounts the 199 Steps, and echoes his thoughts:

"This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbor ... It descends so steeply over the harbor that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed. In one place part of the stonework of the graves stretches out over the sandy pathway far below. There are walks, with seats beside them, through the churchyard; and people go and sit there all day long looking at the beautiful view and enjoying the breeze. I shall come and sit here very often myself and work."

The churchyard gave Stoker a number of literary ideas. The following day, Stoker chatted there with three leathery old Greenland fisherman who likely spoke in a distinct Yorkshire dialect. They told Stoker a bit of mariner's lore: If a ship's crew heard bells at sea, an apparition of a lady would appear in one of the abbey's windows. "Then things is all wore out," one of the sailors warned.

Stoker ambled between the headstones that sprouted from the thick carpet of grass. Though most of the markers' names and dates had been erased by the wind, he copied almost 100 into his notes. Stoker used one of them, Swales, as the name of the fisherman with a face that is "all gnarled and twisted like the bark of an old tree," who begins talking with Mina in the churchyard. Mina asks him about the legend of the lady appearing in the abbey window, but Swales says it's all foolishness—stories of "boh-ghosts an' barguests an' bogles" that are only fit to scare children.

St. Mary's churchyard
St. Mary's churchyard, which Mina calls "the nicest spot in Whitby."
iStock

For the first few days in August, Stoker was occupied by the summer's social calendar. He likely enjoyed dinner with friends arriving from London, and went to church on Sunday morning. On the 5th, Stoker's wife and son joined him at 6 Royal Crescent. The next several days may have been spent at the Saloon, promenading on the pier, and making social calls, as it was the custom for newly arrived visitors to visit with acquaintances in town.

But Whitby's infamous weather had the ability to turn a sunny day somber in an instant. August 11 was a "grey day," Stoker noted, "horizon lost in grey mist, all vastness, clouds piled up and a 'brool' over the sea." With Florence and Noel perhaps staying indoors, Stoker set off for the East Cliff again and chatted with a Coast Guard boatman named William Petherick. "Told me of various wrecks," Stoker jotted. During one furious gale, a "ship got into harbor, never knew how, all hands were below praying."

The ship was the Dmitry, a 120-ton schooner that had left the Russian port of Narva with a ballast of silver sand. The ship encountered a fierce storm as it neared Whitby on October 24, 1885, and aimed for the harbor.

"The 'Russian' got in but became a wreck during the night," according to a copy of the Coast Guard's log, which Petherick delivered to Stoker. The crew survived. In a picture taken by local photographer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe just a few days after the storm, the Dmitry is shown beached near Tate Hill Pier with its masts lying in the sand.

'The Wreck of the Dmitry' (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
The Wreck of the Dmitry (1885), by Frank Meadow Sutcliffe
Courtesy of the Sutcliffe Gallery

Petherick's account gave Stoker the means for his vampire's arrival in England, the moment when the mysterious East disrupts the order of the West. Mina pastes a local newspaper article describing a sudden and ferocious storm that hurled Dracula's ship, the Demeter from Varna, against Tate Hill Pier. The Coast Guard discovered the crew had vanished and the captain was dead. Just then, "an immense dog sprang up on deck and … making straight for the steep cliff … it disappeared in the darkness, which seemed intensified just beyond the focus of the searchlight," the article in Mina's journal reads. The dog was never seen again, but townsfolk did find a dead mastiff that had been attacked by another large beast.

Mina describes the funeral for the Demeter's captain, which Stoker based on scenes from an annual celebration he watched on August 15 called the Water Fete. In reality, thousands of cheerful spectators lined the quays as a local band and choir performed popular songs and a parade of gaily decorated boats sailed up the river, with banners fluttering merrily in the breeze, according to the Whitby Gazette's report. But through Mina, Stoker transformed the scene into a memorial:

"Every boat in the harbor seemed to be there, and the coffin was carried by captains all the way from Tate Hill Pier up to the churchyard. Lucy came with me, and we went early to our old seat, whilst the cortege of boats went up the river to the Viaduct and came down again. We had a lovely view, and saw the procession nearly all the way."

The final week of Stoker's holiday elicited some of the most important details in Dracula. On August 19, he bought day passes to Whitby's museum library and the subscription library. In the museum's reading room, Stoker wrote down 168 words in the Yorkshire dialect and their English meanings from F.K. Robinson's A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby, which later formed the bulk of Mr. Swales's vocabulary in his chats with Mina.

One of the words was "barguest," a term for a "terrifying apparition," which also refers specifically to a "large black dog with flaming eyes as big as saucers" in Yorkshire folklore, whose "vocation appears to have been that of a presage of death," according to an account from 1879.

"I do think Stoker meant for that connection," John Edgar Browning, visiting lecturer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert in horror and the gothic, tells Mental Floss. "Moreover, he probably would have meant for the people of Whitby in the novel to make the connection, since it was they who perceived Dracula's form as a large black dog."

Downstairs, Stoker checked out books on Eastern European culture and folklore, clearly with the aim of fleshing out the origins of his vampire: Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, a travelogue titled On the Track of the Crescent, and most importantly, William Wilkinson's An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldovia: with Various Observations Relating to Them.

The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
The library building where Stoker discovered Dracula
Courtesy of Dacre Stoker

From the latter book, Stoker wrote in his notes, "P. 19. DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions, or cunning."

The Wilkinson book gave Stoker not just the geographical origin and nationality for his character, but also his all-important name, redolent of mystery and malice. "The moment Stoker happened upon the name of 'Dracula' in Whitby—a name Stoker scribbled over and over on the same page on which he crossed through [the vampire's original name] 'Count Wampyr,' as if he were savoring the word's three evil syllables—the notes picked up tremendously," Browning says.

By the time Stoker and his family returned to London around August 23, he had developed his idea from a mere outline to a fully fledged villain with a sinister name and unforgettable fictional debut.

"The modernization of the vampire myth that we see in Dracula—and that many contemporary reviewers commented upon—may not have happened, at least to the same degree, without Stoker's visit to Whitby," Browning says. "Whitby was a major catalyst, the contemporary Gothic 'glue', as it were, for what would eventually become the most famous vampire novel ever written."

Bram Stoker visited Whitby only once in his life, but the seaside village made an indelible mark on his imagination. When he finally wrote the scenes as they appear in Dracula, "He placed all of these events in real time, in real places, with real names of people he pulled off gravestones. That's what set the story apart," Dacre Stoker says. "That's why readers were scared to death—because there is that potential, just for a moment, that maybe this story is real."

Additional source: Bram Stoker's Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, annotated and transcribed by Robert Eighteen-Bisang and Elizabeth Miller

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