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Dark Horse Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

Dark Horse Comics
Dark Horse Comics

Every Wednesday, I preview the 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.

The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story


Written by Vivek J. Tiwary; art by Andrew Robinson and Kyle Baker
Dark Horse M Press

There have been many books written about the legend of the Beatles over the years, but even the peripheral figures who were there during the Fab Four's rise to fame have interesting stories. Some of the people telling these stories have taken to the graphic novel format, perhaps so they can capitalize on the iconic imagery associated with the band. A couple of years back we saw a beautifully illustrated graphic novel about the tragic love story between former Beatle Stu Sutcliffe and photographer Astrid Kirchherr called Baby's in Black. This week brings another gorgeously produced book, this time about the Beatles' manager and the man responsible for making them famous, Brian Epstein.

In The Fifth Beatle, Vivek Tiwary has extensively researched the life of Brian Epstein, a project that has taken him over ten years to complete and has utilized the amazing artistic talents of Andrew Robinson to make this one of the most visually compelling graphic novels of the year. Tiwary is a Broadway and film producer who has never written a graphic novel before. He seems to have plans to bring this story to film as evidenced by the mysterious "The Film" tab on the book's official website. As someone who bridges the business and creative sides of entertainment himself, the story of The Beatles' intrepid manager seemed to be one he could attach his own feelings and aspirations to pretty readily.

The real star of this book, however, is Robinson, who has done mostly cover work since making an initial splash with his creator-owned sci-fi western Dusty Star back in 1997. His work here is simply stunning. He uses a combination of watercolor, marker and ink to create caricatured, yet realistically detailed drawings that feel like Mad magazine's Mort Drucker combined with the cinematic sheen of a beautiful animated film. Robinson's page designs are like wonderful, fully rendered paintings without feeling stationary, especially when he uses a number of widescreen, double page spreads. The only thing missing is a soundtrack. In one sequence he uses a superimposed image of the 45 record of "Love Me Do" over scenes of Epstein and company tracking the single's climb up the charts. It's done in a way that reminds you of a film montage set to a rollicking hit song. 

Robinson is joined by legendary cartoonist and animator Kyle Baker, who takes over the book for a sequence in which Epstein and the Beatles go on an adventurous trip to the Philippines. Baker's cartooning style is much looser and crazier than Robinson's, and he gives the scene the feel of a dreamy interlude, even though much of the core story is already peppered with imaginary elements.

Epstein's story is fascinating both for his managerial skills and because he was a gay man (as well as a Jew) living in the U.K. when homosexuality was still illegal. Despite his success, his life was lonely and tragic until his sudden death from a drug overdose in 1967 at the age of 34. Seeing how Epstein had to struggle and hide in a less enlightened era prompts you to reflect on how far we have come, and how far we still need to go.

Tiwary is admittedly very loose with the facts in this book and even has Epstein say, "You can't believe everything you read. Especially when it comes to myself and the Beatles." There are a number of hallucinatory scenes, and at least one character that is a fictional construct. This may turn off some readers who prefer strictly factual biographies, but maybe this book is about the bigger picture and the beautiful pictures it brings with it.


Dark Horse has a preview of the book on their website. Or you can find out more at the book's official website.

Meet The Somalis


By Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollock
Open Society Foundations

Journalist Benjamin Dix and cartoonist Lindsay Pollock spent six months this year interviewing Somali immigrants living in seven European cities – Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Leicester, London, Malmo, and Oslo – about the experiences they and their families have been through since fleeing their homeland and assimilating in Europe. Dix and Pollock have turned their hours of interviews into 14 first-person accounts that Pollock has illustrated into emotionally engaging and personal stories they've called Meet The Somalis.

Reading through these comics I was struck by how many similar unfortunate scenarios seem to play themselves out in multiple stories: the refugees whose lives are put on hold for years while being forced to explain their escape over and over to officials looking for a reason to send them back; the young men arrested because their skin color or religious garb make them a suspect; the guilt and longing for family back in Somalia and the lives they had before war ravaged their home. I mention these similarities not to say the stories are repetitive (they are definitely not) but to underscore the sense of shared experiences that have affected a large group of people in different ways. Each account is unique and fascinating, and each makes for a captivating little story on its own. Pollock does an outstanding job bringing these stories to life, relaying the personality and character of each Somali she and Dix have interviewed. 

Each of these stories really stuck with me after reading them. Some are emotionally wrenching, but some are heartwarming and uplifting as well. In the span of just a few pages each, they manage to give you such a clear sense of the struggles these men and women and their families have faced that you are rooting for them to achieve as much of their dreams as is possible. In some cases, these dreams are hopefully achievable goals like earning enough money to send home to their family, doing well enough in school to get into the university of their choice, making new friends in their new European community. In other cases the dreams are seemingly hopeless: returning to the Somalia they once loved, being reunited with their families, escaping bigotry and suspicion from the white Europeans that now surround them.

I found out about Meet The Somalis via a blog post by comics critic Zainab Ahktar who writes a very heartfelt review of it here. I'm not aware of other cartooning work that Pollock had done, but her work here is impressive, especially if it is a debut. The nature of this piece and her cartoony, crosshatching style is very reminiscent of the great comics journalist Joe Sacco. Hopefully we will see more projects like this from her.


The Meet The Somalis comic was made possible by the Open Society Foundations' At Home in Europe Project whose mission is to advance equality for groups that find themselves excluded from civic, political and cultural life in Europe. They have made the comic available on their website here. I would recommend downloading and reading it via the PDF link in the sidebar rather than the web interface they've provided.

Harley Quinn #0


Written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner; art by various
DC Comics

If you were ever a fan of Batman: The Animated Series from the '90s, you are no doubt familiar with Harley Quinn, the Joker's right hand woman. An original character from that series, she eventually became a supporting villain in the Batman comics. Her personality on the show, with her "Girl Friday" moxie and over-the-top Brooklyn accent, made her extremely popular with fans, and she has been a staple of the comics convention cosplay circuit ever since. This week, DC launches her own ongoing series with an issue 0 illustrated by seventeen high profile artists.

Harley Quinn has courted some controversy recently. The "New 52" version (after the 2012 reboot of the DC Universe) has seen her represented as more psychotically violent and scantily clad than fans of the character's original rendition appreciated. Her appearances in Suicide Squad have been lumped in with numerous examples of DC representing their female characters as sexual objects. In the lead-up to this series, DC promoted a contest for up-and-coming artists to draw a page in this opening issue. The scene DC chose to promote the contest required artists to draw her on the verge of electrocuting herself while naked in a bathtub. In fairness, the character is often steeped in outlandish, consequence-free violence like something out of an old Warner Bros. cartoon. Without that context though, the contest seemed tone-deaf, and DC had to issue an apology.

We'll see how that scene works and who the winning artist is in this star-studded issue featuring artists such as Darwyn Cooke, Becky Cloonan, Jim Lee, Walt Simonson, Harley Quinn creator Bruce Timm, and the series' ongoing artist, Chad Hardin. 

Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Connor will be writing the series. They have some history with taking an overly sexualized DC character and giving her some personality after they pulled off the trick with Power Girl back in the mid-2000s. In that short-lived but critically acclaimed series, they brought a sense of humor and some modern sensibility to a character that had become known only for her cleavage. Harley Quinn is a different kind of character, and it looks like Palmiotti and Connor will play up the humor but steer clear of reality. This issue frequently breaks the fourth wall with characters and comic creators interacting on the page.


Here's a preview of a few pages and another preview here.

Violenzia


By Richard Sala
Fantagraphics

Venerable comics publisher Fantagraphics made news last week by launching a Kickstarter to crowd fund their next season of books to stay afloat. They easily reached their goal within a week in what may end up being a game changer in terms of the public perception of publishers using Kickstarter to offset some of their risk. It was an unexpected move for Fantagraphics, a publisher more associated with reprinting classic comic strips than actively engaging in modern Internet-related networks.

This week they've made another unexpected first. At the urging of cartoonist Richard Sala, they are releasing his latest comic as a "digital first" release through Comixology before it is available in print. Sala is a veteran of the comics industry (as well as animation) having gotten his start back in Art Spiegelman's RAW magazine in the '80s. He has a number of horror and mystery graphic novels to his name such as Peculia and Delphine. His whimsical, almost children's-book drawing style, mixed with black humor and frightening violence, has influenced many of today's up and coming artists such as Emily Carroll.

In Violenzia, Sala introduces a new female heroine who stoically disrupts ritualistic sacrifices and Appalachian meth labs with two handguns and an endless supply of bullets. The violence is mostly bloodless but with a Tarantino-level body count. It's a light read and a nice low cost entry into discovering Sala's work.

You can buy Violenzia on Comixology for $4.99.

Hawaii


By Jed McGowan
www.jedmcgowan.com

Jed McGowan released a new webcomic this week called simply "Hawaii" that tackles the "life story" of the islands, beginning with their volcanic birth at the bottom of the ocean 500,000 years ago and ending with their last rocky remains crumbling back into the sea 20,000,000 years from now. It's a wordless and wonderful exploration of geographic cycles at an extreme macro level.

McGowan describes himself as a "science nerd." Not only did the depiction of what happens when a volcanic island is formed appeal to him, but the way he has depicted it is a visual homage to "pre-digital age" science illustrations from the mid-20th century. While scrolling through the panels of the comic on his website, you get the feeling that you are looking at scans from an old magazine or text book from the 1950s. He achieved this look by drawing in charcoal on paper and then digitally coloring and manipulating the image. The effect makes it feel both retro and brand new at the same time. Perhaps because the subject is such a classic tourist destination, I also got the feeling of looking at an old travel brochure despite the fact that human life makes only the barest of cameo appearances in these pictures. 

You can read "Hawaii" on McGowan's website where he also has some of his previous comics for sale, including his graphic novel Lone Pine which won a prestigious Xeric Grant in 2010. You can also read his webcomic called "Voyager" from earlier this year, where you can see he first worked out some of the techniques and themes he plays with in "Hawaii."

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Animals
15 Incredible Facts About Pigeons
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Though they're often described as "rats with wings" (a phrase popularized by the movie Stardust Memories), pigeons are actually pretty cool. From homing instincts to misleading rump feathers, here are 15 things you might not know about these avian adventurers.

1. THEY MIGHT BE THE FIRST DOMESTICATED BIRD.

The common city pigeon (Columba livia), also known as the rock pigeon, might be the first bird humankind ever domesticated. You can see them in art dating back as far as 4500 BCE in modern Iraq, and they've been a valuable source of food for thousands of years.

2. THEY WON OVER CHARLES DARWIN—AND NIKOLA TESLA.

Pigeon-breeding was a common hobby in Victorian England for everyone from well-off businessmen to average Joes, leading to some fantastically weird birds. Few hobbyists had more enthusiasm for the breeding process than Charles Darwin, who owned a diverse flock, joined London pigeon clubs, and hobnobbed with famous breeders. Darwin's passion for the birds influenced his 1868 book The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, which has not one but two chapters about pigeons (dogs and cats share a single chapter).

Nikola Tesla was another great mind who enjoyed pigeons. He used to care for injured wild pigeons in his New York City hotel room. Hands down, Tesla's favorite was a white female—about whom he once said, "I loved that pigeon, I loved her as a man loves a woman and she loved me. When she was ill, I knew and understood; she came to my room and I stayed beside her for days. I nursed her back to health. That pigeon was the joy of my life. If she needed me, nothing else mattered. As long as I had her, there was a purpose in my life." Reportedly, he was inconsolable after she died.

3. THEY UNDERSTAND SPACE AND TIME.

In a 2017 Current Biology study, researchers showed captive pigeons a series of digital lines on a computer screen for either two or eight seconds. Some lines were short, measuring about 2.3 inches across; others were four times longer. The pigeons were trained to evaluate either the length of the line or how long it was displayed. They found that the more time a line was displayed, the longer in length the pigeon judged it to be. The reverse was true too: If the pigeons encountered a longer line, they thought it existed in time for a greater duration. Pigeons, the scientists concluded, understand the concepts of both time and space; the researchers noted "similar results have been found with humans and other primates."

It's thought that humans process those concepts with a brain region called the parietal cortex; pigeon brains lack that cortex, so they must have a different way of judging space and time.

4. THEY CAN FIND THEIR WAY BACK TO THE NEST FROM 1300 MILES AWAY.

A pigeon flying in front of trees.
iStock

The birds can do this even if they've been transported in isolation—with no visual, olfactory, or magnetic clues—while scientists rotate their cages so they don't know what direction they're traveling in. How they do this is a mystery, but people have been exploiting the pigeon's navigational skills since at least 3000 BCE, when ancient peoples would set caged pigeons free and follow them to nearby land.

Their navigational skills also make pigeons great long-distance messengers. Sports fans in ancient Greece are said to have used trained pigeons to carry the results of the Ancient Olympics. Further east, Genghis Khan stayed in touch with his allies and enemies alike through a pigeon-based postal network.

5. THEY SAVED THOUSANDS OF HUMAN LIVES DURING WORLD WARS I AND II.

Pigeons' homing talents continued to shape history during the 20th century. In both World Wars, rival nations had huge flocks of pigeon messengers. (America alone had 200,000 at its disposal in WWII.) By delivering critical updates, the avians saved thousands of human lives. One racing bird named Cher Ami completed a mission that led to the rescue of 194 stranded U.S. soldiers on October 4, 1918.

6. TWO PIGEONS ALMOST DISTRACTED FROM THE DISCOVERY OF EVIDENCE OF THE BIG BANG.

In 1964, scientists in Holmdel, New Jersey, heard hissing noises from their antenna that would later prove to be signals from the Big Bang. But when they first heard the sound, they thought it might be, among other things, the poop of two pigeons that were living in the antenna. "We took the pigeons, put them in a box, and mailed them as far away as we could in the company mail to a guy who fancied pigeons," one of the scientists later recalled. "He looked at them and said these are junk pigeons and let them go and before long they were right back." But the scientists were able to clean out the antenna and determine that they had not been the cause of the noise. The trap used to catch the birds (before they had to later be, uh, permanently removed) is on view at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

7. YOU CAN TRAIN THEM TO BE ART SNOBS …

Japanese psychologist Shigeru Watanabe and two colleagues earned an Ig Nobel Prize in 1995 for training pigeons, in a lab setting, to recognize the paintings of Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso and to distinguish between the painters. The pigeons were even able to use their knowledge of impressionism and cubism to identify paintings of other artists in those movements. Later, Watanabe taught other pigeons to distinguish watercolor images from pastels. And in a 2009 experiment, captive pigeons he'd borrowed were shown almost two dozen paintings made by students at a Tokyo elementary school, and were taught which ones were considered "good" and which ones were considered "bad." He then presented them with 10 new paintings and the avian critics managed to correctly guess which ones had earned bad grades from the school's teacher and a panel of adults. Watanabe's findings indicate that wild pigeons naturally categorize things on the basis of color, texture, and general appearance.

8. … AND TO DISTINGUISH WRITTEN WORDS.

In a 2016 study, scientists showed that pigeons can differentiate between strings of letters and actual words. Four of the birds built up a vocabulary of between 26 and 58 written English words, and though the birds couldn't actually read them, they could identify visual patterns and therefore tell them apart. The birds could even identify words they hadn't seen before.

9. FLUFFY PIGEON FEET MIGHT ACTUALLY BE PARTIAL WINGS.

A white pigeon with curly feathers and fluffy feet.
iStock

A few pigeon breeds have fuzzy legs—which hobbyists call "muffs"—rather than scaly ones. According to a 2016 study, the DNA of these fluffy-footed pigeons leads their hind legs to take on some forelimb characteristics, making muffed pigeon legs look distinctly wing-like; they're also big-boned. Not only do they have feathers, but the hindlimbs are somewhat big-boned, too. According to biologist Mike Shapiro, who led the study, "pigeons' fancy feathered feet are partially wings."

10. SOME PIGEONS DISTRACT FALCONS WITH WHITE RUMP FEATHERS.

In a life-or-death situation, a pigeon's survival could depend upon its color pattern: Research has shown that wild falcons rarely go after pigeons that have a white patch of feathers just above the tail, and when the predators do target these birds, the attacks are rarely successful.

To figure out why this is, Ph.D. student Alberto Palleroni and a team tagged 5235 pigeons in the vicinity of Davis, California. Then, they monitored 1485 falcon-on-pigeon attacks over a seven-year span. The researchers found that although white-rumped pigeons comprised 20 to 25 percent of the area's pigeon population, they represented less than 2 percent of all the observed pigeons that were killed by falcons; the vast majority of the victims had blue rumps. Palleroni and his team rounded up 756 white- and blue-rumped pigeons and swapped their rump feathers by clipping and pasting white feathers on blue rumps, and vice versa. The falcons had a much easier time spotting and catching the newly blue-rumped pigeons, while the pigeons that received the white feathers saw predation rates plummet.

Close observation revealed that the white patches distract birds of prey. In the wild, falcons dive-bomb other winged animals from above at high speeds. Some pigeons respond by rolling away in midair, and on a spiraling bird, white rump feathers can be eye-catching, which means that a patch of them may divert a hungry raptor's focus long enough to make the carnivore miscalculate and zip right past its intended victim.

11. DODOS WERE RELATED TO TODAY'S PIGEONS.

Two blue and green Nicobar pigeons.
iStock

Though most of this list focuses on the rock pigeon, there are 308 living species of pigeons and doves. Together, they make up an order of birds known as the columbiformes. The extinct dodo belonged to this group as well.

Flightless and (somewhat) docile, dodos once inhabited Mauritius, an island near Madagascar. The species had no natural predators, but when human sailors arrived with rats, dogs, cats, and pigs, it began to die out, and before the 17th century came to a close, the dodo had vanished altogether. DNA testing has confirmed that pigeons are closely related to the dodo, and the vibrant Nicobar pigeon (above) is its nearest genetic relative. A multi-colored bird with iridescent feathers, this near-threatened creature is found on small islands in the South Pacific and off Asia. Unlike the dodo, it can fly.

12. AT ONE POINT, MORE THAN ONE-QUARTER OF ALL THE BIRDS LIVING IN THE U.S. MAY HAVE BEEN PASSENGER PIGEONS.

Wild/feral rock pigeons reside in all 50 states, which makes it easy to forget that they're invasive birds. Originally native to Eurasia and northern Africa, the species was (most likely) introduced to North America by French settlers in 1606. At the time, a different kind of columbiform—this one indigenous—was already thriving there: the passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius). As many as 5 billion of them were living in America when England, Spain, and France first started colonizing, and they may have once represented anywhere from 25 to 40 percent of the total U.S. bird population. But by the early 20th century, they had become a rare sight, thanks to overhunting, habitat loss, and a possible genetic diversity issue. The last known passenger pigeon—a captive female named Martha—died on September 1, 1914.

13. THEY'RE REALLY GOOD AT MULTITASKING.

According to one study, they're more efficient multitaskers than people are. Scientists at Ruhr-Universitat Bochum put together a test group of 15 humans and 12 pigeons and trained all of them to complete two simple jobs (like pressing a keyboard once a light bulb came on). They were also put in situations wherein they'd need to stop working on one job and switch over to another. In some trials, the participants had to make the change immediately. During these test runs, humans and pigeons switched between jobs at the same speed.

But in other trials, the test subjects were allowed to complete one assignment and then had to wait 300 milliseconds before moving on to the next job. Interestingly, in these runs, the pigeons were quicker to get started on that second task after the period ended. In the avian brain, nerve cells are more densely packed, which might enable our feathered friends to process information faster than we can under the right circumstances.

14. PIGEONS PRODUCE FAKE "MILK."

Only mammals produce genuine milk, but pigeons and doves (along with some other species of birds) feed their young with something similar—a whitish liquid filled with nutrients, fats, antioxidants, and healthy proteins called "crop milk." Both male and female pigeons create the milk in the crop, a section of the esophagus designed to store food temporarily. As is the case with mammal milk, the creation of crop milk is regulated by the hormone prolactin. Newly-hatched pigeons drink crop milk until they're weaned off it after four weeks or so. (And if you've ever asked yourself, "Where are all the baby pigeons?" we have the answer for you right here.)

15. ONE STUDY SUGGESTS THAT, GIVEN THE RIGHT CONDITIONS, THEY'RE AS GOOD AT IDENTIFYING CANCER AS DOCTORS.

We've already established that pigeons are excellent at differentiating between artists and words, but a 2015 study revealed they can also distinguish between malignant and benign growths in the right conditions. Researchers at University of California Davis Medical Center put 16 pigeons in a room with magnified biopsies of potential breast cancers. If the pigeons correctly identified them as either benign or malignant, they got a treat, According to Scientific American.

"Once trained, the pigeons' average diagnostic accuracy reached an impressive 85 percent. But when a "flock sourcing" approach was taken, in which the most common answer among all subjects was used, group accuracy climbed to a staggering 99 percent, or what would be expected from a pathologist. The pigeons were also able to apply their knowledge to novel images, showing the findings weren't simply a result of rote memorization."

Mammograms proved to be more of a challenge, however; the birds could memorize signs of cancer in the images they were trained on but could not identify the signs in new images.

No matter how impressive their results, "I don't anticipate that pigeons, no matter how good they become at pathology or radiology, will be playing a role in actual patient care—certainly for the foreseeable future," study co-author Richard M. Levenson told Scientific American. "There are just too many regulatory barriers—at least in the West."

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Pop Culture
Jim Henson's Labyrinth Is Being Adapted Into a Stage Musical
Henson Company
Henson Company

More than 30 years after its cinematic debut, Labyrinth could be hitting the stage. In an interview with Forbes, Jim Henson's son and Henson Company CEO Brian Henson shared plans to transform the cult classic into a live musical.

While the new musical would be missing David Bowie in his starring role as Jareth the Goblin King, it would hopefully feature the soundtrack Bowie helped write. Brian Henson says there isn't a set timeline for the project yet, but the stage adaptation of the original film is already in the works.

As for a location, Henson told Forbes he envisions it running, "Not necessarily [on] Broadway, it could be for London's West End, but it will be a stage show, a big theatrical version. It’s very exciting."

Labyrinth premiered in 1986 to measly box office earnings and tepid reviews, but Jim Henson's fairytale has since grown into a phenomenon beloved by nostalgic '80s kids and younger generations alike. In the same Forbes interview, Brian Henson also confirmed the 2017 news that a long-anticipated Labyrinth sequel is apparently in development. Though he couldn't give any specifics, Henson confirmed that, "we are still excited about it but the process moves very slowly and very carefully. We're still excited about the idea of a sequel, we are working on something, but nothing that's close enough to say it's about to be in pre-production or anything like that."

While fans eagerly await those projects to come out, they can get their fix when the film returns to theaters across the U.S. on April 29, May 1, and May 2. Don't forget to wear your best Labyrinth swag to the event.

[h/t Forbes]

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