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Fellowship of Reconciliation

5 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Fellowship of Reconciliation

Every Wednesday, I preview the five most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, Comixology, Kickstarter and the web. If there's a release you're excited about, let's talk about it in the comments.

1. Martin Luther King And The Montgomery Story

Written by Alfred Hassler and Benton Resnik; artist unknown
Fellowship of Reconciliation/Top Shelf Comics

Back in August, Top Shelf Comics published March: Book One, a new graphic novel autobiography written by Civil Rights hero and US Congressman John Lewis (along with co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell). What inspired Lewis to tell his story in this format was a comic book published in 1957 called Martin Luther King And The Montgomery Story, a recounting of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama and an introduction to King and his philosophy of non-violent protest. This comic was integral to the rise of the civil rights movement in the U.S. and now is being released for the first time as an official digital comic.

The original comic was produced by a non-profit, civil justice organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) which to this day still distributes the book in pamphlet form, translated into many languages. FOR's Director of Publications at the time, Alfred Hassler, wrote the comic with help from Benton Resnik, a veteran of the then-struggling comic book industry. They worked on it with input from Dr. King himself and Resnik managed the production of the comic, but no credits were printed in the book. To this day it is not known who the artist of the book was. FOR has now partnered with Top Shelf Comics, the publisher of Lewis' graphic novel, to distribute the book in a digital bundle along with March: Book One via the Comixology digital platform for web, tablet and mobile devices. 

The comic tells the story of how the Montgomery Bus Boycott came to be, from Rosa Parks quietly refusing to move to the back of the bus to the Supreme Court ruling bus segregation in Montgomery illegal. It also tells, in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s own words, how the "Montgomery Method" could be used to gain freedom across the nation and how similar methods were used by Mahatma Gandhi. It is very nicely illustrated, and even though it is dated in its comic book style and fairly antiseptic in its portrayal of the uglier parts of the racial struggles of that time, it is still a very compelling and informative read. 

When Dr. King and the Fellowship of Reconciliation were looking for the best way to get the message of the Montgomery story out to African Americans, the idea of producing it as a comic book appealed to them for a number of reasons. Primarily, the use of pictures and words would allow people of all ages and reading abilities to understand what was being told. At the time, many blacks who were found reading books, newspapers or magazines by white employers would see them confiscated and destroyed. Comic books, having been recently decimated as an industry by a panic that targeted them as a cause of juvenile delinquency, were the perfect "low brow" delivery method to fly under the radar of suspicious white segregationists. 

The comic spread far and wide, delivering King's message to those who needed it. It directly inspired peaceful protests across the nation, such as the Woolworth sit-in by The Greensboro Four, and has even inspired similar movements in South Africa and most recently in Egypt where it was translated into Arabic and Farsi. It might possibly be one of the most important comic books ever made and it is now exploring a new avenue via Comixology.

I highly recommend reading this detailed history of the making of the comic, written by March: Book One co-author Andrew Aydin.

At this time, the comic cannot be purchased individually but you can buy it with March Book One for $9.99 on Comixology here and all the proceeds go to the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

2. A Gas Gas Gas

Written by Nate DiMeo; art by Dan Berry

BoingBoing has become quite the breeding ground for high quality webcomics of late. Branching from the success of Ed Piskor's Hip Hop Family Tree (which is hitting stores this month as a graphic novel from Fantagraphics), they started a new webcomic from Lea Hernandez two weeks ago called Bani Garu, and this past week launched the first of a new series called Memory Palace Comics.

Nate DiMeo is a producer and contributor to various NPR shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition and is the host of his own podcast The Memory Palace. Each episode of his show tells a true but perhaps little-known story from a broad range of historical subjects presented in the vein of popular storytelling radio programs such as This American Life. DiMeo decided to begin adapting some of these stories visually by partnering with cartoonist Dan Berry to create this new webcomic.

Berry himself is no stranger to podcasts. He is the host of one of my favorite podcasts, Make It Then Tell Everybody, in which he interviews other comic artists and illustrators about their process. He is a British cartoonist who works primarily in pen and watercolor. His charming style, within the creepy but humorous context of this piece, has a bit of an Edward Gorey or Richard Sala vibe to it.

In "A Gas Gas Gas", DiMeo and Berry tell the true story of a mysterious incident in 1944 in which over 20 people in Mattoon, Illinois suddenly and mysteriously were stricken with gas poisoning. Who or what was causing this widespread epidemic? The story unfolds in the way that listeners of shows like This American Life or RadioLab will find familiar and enjoyable, as the narrator attempts to get to the truth of the matter at hand and put it into a little bit of perspective.

You can read "A Gas Gas Gas" here and DiMeo suggests listening to the original podcast here as you read along for added effect. Hopefully, more installments will be added soon.

3. Amazing X-men #1

Written by Jason Aaron; art by Ed McGuiness
Marvel Comics

Nightcrawler, the X-men's adventure-loving, teleporting, demonic-blue elf, died three years ago in the crossover event Second Coming, sacrificing himself to save the so-called "Mutant Messiah" named Hope. Three years is kind of an eternity for any character to be dead in the world of superhero comics. Then again, there has been a darker, more violent version of Nightcrawler from the "Age of Apocalypse" alternate universe that has been hanging out in comics like Uncanny X-Force for most of that time. Also, in Wolverine & The X-men, there have been ongoing appearances by mischievous creatures referred to as "Bamfs" who seems to share Nightcrawler's teleporting ability and the sound effect ("Bamf!") it makes. I guess there's also a Nightcrawler in Marvel's Ultimate Universe of comics which is still chugging along (barely). So, these three years have not been totally devoid of Nightcrawler but, if you've missed the real deal, good news: He's coming back in a new series called Amazing X-men.

Marvel already publishes more X-men books than most people can reasonably keep up with, but this new one is actually replacing the recently ended Astonishing X-men, resulting in no actual net gain of X-books. It is written by Jason Aaron and will act as a companion book to Aaron's popular Wolverine & The X-men. The cast of that book, which centers around the teachers and students of the Jean Grey School For Higher Learning, has grown quickly since it launched in 2011. Aaron and Marvel have decided to move some of the regular non-student cast into this more classic, X-men team adventure comic so that W&TXM can re-focus on being a book about the school. 

In the first arc of this new series, Wolverine receives a message from the afterlife from his old friend Nightcrawler and decides to form a team to help bring him back. The new team consists of Storm, Northstar, Iceman, Beast and Firestar. Yes, that Firestar. Originally from the old Saturday morning cartoon Spider-man and His Amazing Friends, Firestar has been kicking around the Marvel Universe for years without finding a real permanent place. This is the first time she'll be a member of the X-men.

Nightcrawler's death had a big emotional impact on his teammates and his loss has been felt by all of them, but especially Wolverine. One of the reasons Logan has become the headmaster of the Jean Grey School was to try to be a better man in honor of his old friend. It's one of the great things about the X-men as a team book how its large, sprawling cast relates to each other in different ways. Wolverine, especially, seems to have poignant relationships with many of the longtime members in ways that soften his tough guy exterior. These are the kinds of things that  Chris Claremont, the architect of the modern day X-men from the 70s to the 90s, instilled in the DNA of the book. New writers like Jason Aaron come into these books seeking to capture some of that old magic in their new stories.

There's a short preview of the first issue available here.

4. Maria M.

By Gilbert Hernandez

Some of my favorite Gilbert Hernandez comics are ones that he wrote to be comic adaptations of fictional B-movies starring his popular and endearing creation, Fritz, the buxom, lispy therapist-turned-actress. So far there have been three: Chance in Hell, The Troublemakers and Love From The Shadows. It's a clever device that allows Hernandez to tell sexy, pulpy stories that are outside yet still connected to the continuity of his usual stories about the immigrants and descendants of the fictional Latin American country of Palomar. He always seems to deftly capture the B-movie quality of films like this in his drawings through his staging of scenes, his "camera angles" and his use of stilted dialogue. The fact that these stories are actually movies made within Hernandez' Palomar continuity is mostly incidental to the reading of the books but they add a fun meta-layer to it for  fans of his work.

In his latest, Maria M., he adds a new layer to the concept. In this "movie", Fritz is starring in an adaptation of the life story of her mother Maria, which Gilbert has previously told in his classic graphic novel Poison River (originally serialized in the long-running, groundbreaking anthology comic he has done with his brother Jaime, Love & Rockets). So, for the record, this one is a comic book adaptation of a fake film adaptation of the fictional life of a comic book character. In the book, we meet Maria as she comes to America and is lured into the world of pornography and crime, eventually marrying a drug lord. 

Fantagraphics has a NSFW 13-page preview here.

5. Alex + Ada #1

Written by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn; art by Jonathan Luna
Image Comics

The Luna brothers (Jonathan and Joshua) were Image Comics mainstays in the early 2000s, producing three back-to-back high-concept mini-series that combined a Hollywood style of lite comedy and suspenseful drama packaged with polished digitally colored artwork whose use of blurs and lighting effects gave their comics a glossy sheen that makes them look like stills from an animated film. Beginning with Ultra, their super heroine as Sex in the City romance comic followed by Girls, a zombie-horror story in which the "zombies" are beautiful, naked, flesh-eating women, and finally The Sword, a Kill Bill-stye revenge story involving a supernatural sword, the Luna Brothers made fun genre comics, usually starring strong female characters. And then, in 2010, they took some time off from making comics.

This week, one of the brothers, Jonathan, makes his return to comics (without Joshua but the two plan on a new collaboration soon). Coincidentally, he's been gone from comics the same amount of time as Nightcrawler has been dead, and similarly, it feels longer than it's been. This time out, Jonathan has teamed up with writer Sarah Vaughn who is making her debut in print comics after a nerve injury forced her to abandon the drawing of her webcomic co-creation Sparkshooter

Alex + Ada is a 12-issue mini-series set in the near future, in which a lonely, detached young man named Alex is given the gift of a state-of-the art female android named Ada to be his romantic companion. With Luna's cold, emotionless take on this world, think Weird Science directed by Stanley Kubrick. The future Alex lives in is a mere extension of our own, with humans living a very passive existence, telepathically thinking commands to various artificially intelligent devices around their homes and offices ("Unlock door." "Lights on."). A year before, an incident occurred in which the first AI achieved sentience so the lines between humans and robots are blurring, which sets the stage nicely for the story's unnatural romantic pairing. 

You can read a preview as well as an interview with Luna and Vaughn here.

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Kevork Djansezian, Stringer, Getty Images
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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The Charming English Fishing Village That Inspired Dracula
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Whitby as seen from the top of the 199 Steps

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

"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

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."

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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