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Aleks Sennwald and Pete Toms
Aleks Sennwald and Pete Toms

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

Aleks Sennwald and Pete Toms
Aleks Sennwald and Pete Toms

Every Wednesday, I write about the most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, bookstores, digital, Kickstarter, and the web. Feel free to comment below if there's a comic you've read recently that you want to talk about or an upcoming comic that you'd like me to consider highlighting.


1. The Short Con

by Aleks Sennwald and Pete Toms
Study Group Comics

True Detective meets Encyclopedia Brown but set in a girls' orphanage

Popowski (Pops) is a brilliant but hot-headed detective who has been assigned a new partner, Branwell, a brooding loner who just joined the department after suffering a terrible, existential tragedy. Pops and Branwell are also kids who live and work out of an all-girl orphanage, solving crimes involving vampires, mummies and, now, the murder of Branwell’s parents.

The Short Con, serialized on the excellent Study Group Comics website, is a fun comic that seems made for the reader who loves both True Detective and Encyclopedia Brown. Aleks Sennwald's charming drawing style is effortlessly funny as she and writer Pete Toms tackle classic detective tropes with little girls in place of weary old men. There's been less than 20 pages posted so far, but it’s already full of so many brilliant little ideas. One of my favorites is that the “police chief" is the nun who runs the orphanage and makes Pops drop five cents into a jar every time the precocious detective breaks the rules.

Sennwald and Toms have been updating The Short Con with new pages every Friday since April. It’s a standout among many great comics in the constantly revolving Study Group collection. It’s easy to catch up here.

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2. Angie Bongiolatti

By Mike Dawson
Secret Acres

Sex and socialism in post-9/11 New York

Last week, Mike Dawson published a very personal essay on Tumblr titled, "Advice to the mid-career cartoonist who has failed to build an audience.” In it, he lament the poor sales of his newest book Angie Bongiolatti and ponders the value of working on long form graphic novels versus shorter, web-friendly comics. It ended up setting off a firestorm within the indie-comics blogosphere with some people empathizing and appreciating the honesty and others sharply criticizing Dawson and his publisher’s marketing of and expectations for the book. Ironically, I had already planned to include Angie Bongiolatti in this week’s list even though I missed the actual release date (the fact that I missed it, despite keeping pretty up on these types of things, may be part of the problem) but the controversy may make this the most apt time to highlight it anyway.

The title character of Angie Bongiolatti is at the center of an ensemble of 20-somethings living in post-9/11 New York. Angie is a politically conscious activist working as an animator for a small e-learning company and is involved in planning a protest of the World Economic Forum. Her personality has a certain gravitational pull on her male acquaintances whose intentions are probably driven more by sexual desire than political altruism. Dawson examines the good and bad of socialism and capitalism through the viewpoints of various characters while also interjecting illustrated essays by the likes of George Orwell and Arthur Koestler.

A politically heavy book about socialism—even one with a good amount of sexual content and humor—is not going to connect with mainstream audiences despite how skilled and insightful Dawson is as a writer. He approaches his graphic novels more like a literary novelist than most cartoonists. You could imagine Angie Bongiolatti working very well as a contemporary novel, raising the question of whether it could even find its perfect audience as a comic book. As in his last book, the Ignatz Award-winning Troop 142, Dawson tells difficult stories about real and complicated people which he doesn’t present through fantasy devices like magical realism that would make them more allegorical or just plain comic reader-friendly.

Angie Bongiolatti is an interesting, if idiosyncratic, work from a talented cartoonist. It was released earlier in the summer and if your local comic shop or bookstore doesn’t have it you can order it from the publisher here.

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3. Palm Ash

By Julia Gfrörer
Self published

A tragic drama set during the Diocletianic Persecution

Julia Gfrörer’s debut graphic novel Black is the Color was released by Fantagraphics last year to much acclaim, making many critics' Best Of lists. She creates somber, shocking, and darkly funny comics that approach magical and spiritual subject matter as well as real, honest emotions with a wry sense of humor. Her thin-lined drawings have an honesty and spontaneity while very clearly conveying the exact emotion and action she aims for.

Just a few weeks back, Gfrörer released her most recent book for sale on her Etsy shop. Palm Ash is a 20-page black-and-white xeroxed mini comic about early Christians and their Roman tormentors during the Diocletianic Persecution. Within a handful of short scenes, she tells the story of three primary characters: Simeon, a Christian who, every time he is sent to the lions, causes them somehow to miraculously fall asleep; Dia, a servant and—secretly—a fellow Christian who tends to Simeon; and Drusus, one of the Roman soldiers who all seem to carry on illicit relationships with their servants.

This is a very dense mini comic that you’ll want to read a couple of times through to catch the subtle interactions. Gfrörer is deliberate in how she frames her characters from panel to panel almost giving you the feeling that you're viewing actors in a stage play. Each page is drawn in a consistent 9-panel grid that conveys a calm, distant view of the action even when some pretty horrifying stuff happens.

You can order a hand-stapled, xeroxed copy of Palm Ash from Gfrörer’s Etsy store for just $5.

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4. Moonhead and the Music Machine

By Andrew Rae
Nobrow

A boy with a moon for a head helps his fellow classmates embrace their weirdness

In Andrew Rae’s graphic novel, Moonhead and the Music Machine, a socially awkward high school student named Joey Moonhead spends his days disconnected from the reality of school and home life while the giant moon he has for a head drifts off to explore the far reaches of his imagination. After discovering his parents' old rock albums (in a wonderful sequence of visual homages to the classic vinyl covers of '60s and '70s era concept rock albums), Joey meets Ghost Boy (who is covered by a sheet) and the two wow their classmates with the joy of rock and roll and their individual weirdness.

Moonhead is a visually imaginative book with some truly great sequences, particularly when Joey is rocking out or when his head is going off on his journeys. Rae, a prolific illustrator and member of the UK-based Peepshow art collective, has a clear, colorful style that mixes together children’s book and underground comix aesthetics (I should note that this is probably more for teens rather than all-ages fare).

Here is the usual photo set from Nobrow Press that emphasizes the quality of the book’s production.

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5. Animals #2: Pigs

By Eric Grissom and Claire Connelly
Frankenstein’s Daughter

A working-class pig has a run-in with humans that have escaped from a slaughterhouse

Pigs , the second installment of Eric Grissom and Claire Connelly’s Animals trilogy, hit Comixology through their Submit program for self-publishers last week. In this series, the roles of animals and humans have been reversed so that humans are slaughtered and sold as food in restaurants and grocery stores while animals choose whether or not to show them empathy.

Pigs focuses on an employee at one of the human slaughterhouses, a quiet pig, living a simple life of going to work every day and coming home to watch reality TV with his wife. When some humans escape the slaughterhouse and end up in his backyard, the pig has to make that choice about how to treat them.

Grissom and Connelly’s trilogy consists of short single issue comics that are thoughtful character studies set against a theme of vegetarianism and animal cruelty.

View a preview and buy Pigs on Comixology here.

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8 Things You Might Not Know About Ziggy
Welcome Productions, YouTube
Welcome Productions, YouTube

Devoid of pants or much of a personality, cartoonist Tom Wilson’s Ziggy has been prompting pleasant chuckles out of readers since he first appeared in newspapers in 1971. The bulbous-nosed little unfortunate has, against the odds, become a highly recognizable character, extensively merchandised on everything from greeting cards to pencil erasers. Before the inevitable big-budget CGI reboot happens, check out some facts about Ziggy's history, why fans were upset when he once spoke, and the bittersweet origin of his distinctive name.

1. HE WAS ORIGINALLY AN ELEVATOR OPERATOR.

Ziggy had a circuitous route to the comics pages. The character was first created by American Greetings executive Tom Wilson in the 1960s. (Wilson would later have a hand in creating the Care Bears and Strawberry Shortcake.) Doodling an elevator operator who commented on the mundane events inside his small world, when Wilson first tried to sell it as a comic strip, there were no takers. When he resurrected the character for a 1969 American Greetings humor book, When You’re Not Around, the odd little man intrigued the wife of a Universal Press Syndicate executive. By 1971, Wilson and Ziggy were in 15 newspapers, a number that would eventually reach over 500. 

2. THE NAME “ZIGGY” WAS CHOSEN VERY DELIBERATELY.

Ziggy is often depicted as beleaguered and exasperated at the various obstacles life puts in front of him, from faulty ATMs to soured relationships. (He prefers to socialize with animals.) Wilson gave him the name “Ziggy” because the letter “Z” comes last in the alphabet and Wilson thought that was a proper position for his character, who often came last in life. (Another story has Wilson hearing the name from a colleague’s barber and remembering it.) In one strip, Ziggy is seen waiting for a rescue after a flood—but the responders are going in alphabetical order. In 1974, Wilson told a reporter that his full name is “Zigfried.”

3. WILSON TRAINED HIS SON TO DRAW HIM.

When Wilson died in 2011, his heir apparent was already selected. His son, Tom Wilson Jr., had been drawing the strip since 1987. Long before that, the elder Wilson would sit with his son at a table, draw Ziggy in a precarious position—a safe plummeting toward him from above, for example—and then instruct his son to draw a way out of the jam. Ziggy, Tom Jr. later said, was like his “successful little brother.”

4. HE WAS ENGINEERED TO BE LOVABLE.

Despite his general haplessness, Ziggy often draws sympathy and affection from readers. Wilson felt his large, circular nose and rotund body engendered feelings of warmth and told his son to go easy on his line drawing work. “Let’s keep Ziggy round and lovable,” the artist said. Ziggy also breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to readers, a technique Wilson felt further strengthened the feeling of companionship.

5. HE WOUND UP PAINTED ON THE SIDE OF A WATER TOWER.

For years, locals in Strongsville, Ohio have craned their necks to take in a curious sight: Ziggy appears on the side of one of their water towers. Wilson was from Cleveland, and when he heard a local sports team had painted the character up there in 1975, he offered to render a better portrait. Firefighters lifted him on a crane and allowed him to paint Ziggy next to the school’s mustang mascot. When the Cleveland Water Department threatened to cover him as part of a new paint job, residents signed a petition to prevent them from going through with the plan.

6. HE HAD HIS OWN BOARD GAME.

There was no limit to the kind of Ziggy product tie-ins hitting stores, including shirts, calendars, and mugs. But 1977’s A Day with Ziggy might be the most memorable. Players assumed the role of the put-upon blob, trying to avoid landing on a space that would worsen Ziggy’s day.

7. HE MET GENE SHALIT.

Ziggy first popped up in cartoon form in 1981, when he “appeared” in a segment with Today film critic Gene Shalit. Strangely, readers wrote in expressing disapproval of the spot, noting that Ziggy's voice didn’t mesh with what they had imagined he might sound like.

8. HE WON AN EMMY.

Ziggy made the jump to animation in 1982 with the ABC primetime special Ziggy’s Gift. Written by Wilson, it afforded Ziggy fans a closer look at the character’s daily life, including his sparsely-furnished apartment and a gig dressing as Santa for the holidays. At Wilson’s insistence, the character didn’t speak to avoid another Shalit situation. The special won an Emmy in 1983. Ziggy still wasn’t wearing any pants.

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12 Burning Facts About Hellboy
Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

Two decades before he would become a two-time Oscar-winner for The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro set out to make a movie about his favorite superhero: a big red demon with a big gun and a heart of gold. It took years to finally get the film off the ground, but in 2004 Hellboy finally made it to theaters, adding another piece to the beloved supernatural filmography that’s made del Toro a favorite among genre fans for a quarter of a century.

Though it never rose to the box office heights of The Avengers, and it never reached the end of its planned trilogy, Hellboy remains one of the most imaginative, thrilling superhero films of the 21st century. From early script changes to an accidentally deleted scene, here are 12 facts about how it was made.

1. HELLBOY WAS GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S FAVORITE SUPERHERO WELL BEFORE HE MADE THE MOVIE. 

Guillermo del Toro grew up with comic books, noting that he was flipping through them before he even knew how to read the words. That childhood fondness for the medium stayed with him into adulthood, and by the time he’d reached his early 30s he’d not only discovered the work of Mike Mignola, but began to consider the Hellboy creator one of his great comic book visual influences alongside legends like Will Eisner, Bernie Wrightson, and Richard Corben.

“Mignola, in my later years, already as a young adult, fascinated me with his use of light and shadow, with his amazing bold line work, but also with the way he gave birth to my favorite superhero in my adult years, which is Hellboy,” del Toro said during the recording of the Hellboy Director’s Cut commentary track.

When del Toro and Mignola finally met during the making of Hellboy, they bonded over a mutual love of folklore and pulp fiction, becoming fast friends and collaborators. 

2. THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT FEATURED INTERVIEWS WITH HELLBOY WITNESSES.

In the world of the film, Hellboy is viewed as an urban legend and tabloid story, not unlike Bigfoot. The film’s opening credits underline this with blurry photos, grainy videos, and newspaper headlines meant to depict widespread eyewitness accounts of the creature. Agent Myers (Rupert Evans) further emphasizes this point when he exclaims “He’s real!” upon meeting Hellboy for the first time. 

According to del Toro, this idea was initially supposed to play out in a much more overt way through the film’s screenplay. In early drafts, parts of the film’s story were told through eyewitness interviews with characters claiming to have seen Hellboy.

“So people would be saying ‘I saw Hellboy over here. I saw him jump,’ and a kid saying, ‘I saw him on the rooftop.’ Now everybody does it, but back then it was 1997, '98, and I thought that was a great idea,” del Toro said. “That was the first thing we cut out of the shooting schedule because [the studio executives] didn’t understand it.”

3. IT COULD HAVE BEEN MADE MUCH SOONER.

Though Hellboy’s live-action debut occurred relatively early in the 21st century’s superhero movie boom, he could have been more of a comic book trailblazer than he turned out to be. According to del Toro, if it weren't for reluctant studio executives, the film could have come out as early as 1998, making it a contemporary of Blade rather than Spider-Man 2.

“The one thing that particularly infuriates me is that this movie could have been made in 1998,” del Toro said, noting that the film would have then pre-dated X-Men (2000), Spider-Man (2002), and even The Matrix (1999). At the time, though, many studio executives considered the comic book movie label “almost an insult,” and so Hellboy kept getting pushed back. In between the time it could have been made and the time it was actually released, del Toro made his comic book movie debut with another dark superhero film, Blade II, in 2002.

4. DEL TORO WROTE HIS OWN CHARACTER BIOGRAPHIES.

By the time Hellboy hit theaters, creator Mike Mignola had already been building his own mythology and supporting cast around the character for a full decade. While the film is a loose adaptation of the first major story arc of the comic, “Seed of Destruction,” del Toro couldn’t help adding his own touches to everyone’s backstory. Even before he began work on the script, del Toro wrote out detailed character biographies for each major player in the Hellboy story, which were then included on the eventual Director’s Cut DVD release.

A particularly amusing example from these backstories: The fictionalized version of historical figure Grigori Rasputin (Karel Roden) is said to have disliked “greasy food,” and while he really did die in 1916, he was resurrected in 1936 when Nazi occultists mixed his stolen ashes with the blood of the innocent.

5. HE ALSO ADDED THE LOVE STORY.

Long before his fantasy romance The Shape of Water earned him two Academy Awards, del Toro was imagining tales of unusual creatures falling in love with human women, and Hellboy was one of them. The romance between the title character (Ron Perlman) and Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) didn’t exist in Mignola’s original comics, where Sherman’s stronger connection was (ironically, given The Shape of Water’s subject matter) with the aquatic creature Abe Sapien (who is played by The Shape of Water's Amphibian Man, Doug Jones). Latching onto a particular moment in the comics in which Hellboy is enraged by the thought of Liz’s death, del Toro envisioned a story in which his demonic hero could fall in love with a pyrokinetic woman, and was particularly enticed by the image of that woman engulfed in flames kissing a fireproof creature. That particular storytelling decision made del Toro’s Hellboy significantly different from Mignola’s, who modeled the character after his father, but the creator ultimately allowed the departure in the final film.

6. RASPUTIN WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO LOSE HIS EYES.

In several sequences throughout the film, the character of Rasputin wears a pair of small sunglasses, even in scenes set at night. This was not done simply to make him look cooler (del Toro recalls comparisons made to The Matrix), but because del Toro originally planned to take away the character’s eyes. In the film’s opening sequence, Rasputin is sucked into the very portal that baby Hellboy is drawn out of, causing him to vanish from Earth for decades until he’s resurrected in the present day. Del Toro wanted the portal to create a “cosmic eye-gouging” effect that would rip the character’s eyes out of his head, but it simply didn’t work in a PG-13 film.

“I thought the eye-gouging, the cosmic eye-gouging, was not graphic enough for people to get the point,” del Toro said.

So, the shot of Rasputin losing his eyes was cut from the theatrical release, but restored for the director’s cut, along with a deleted scene in which the character is given a set of glass eyes.

7. LABYRINTHS ARE A RECURRING THEME IN THE FILM.

Del Toro is a director known for his keen attention to detail. As a result, various recurring visual themes appear in all of his films. For Hellboy, he focused on the idea that “a man is made a man by the choices he makes,” and while the film’s story conveys that as Hellboy must choose between the ideologies of Rasputin and Professor Broom, he also sought to convey it through visual metaphor. To do this, del Toro settled on the recurring motif of the labyrinth. It first appears as part of the opening credits sequence, when the entire logo becomes a kind of maze, then reappears as Ilsa (Bridget Hodson) and Kroenen (Ladislav Beran) weave through mountainous terrain to find Rasputin’s resurrection site. To bookend the metaphor, Rasputin’s mausoleum in Moscow also functions as a kind of labyrinth. Even the metal gates leading to the BPRD’s headquarters resemble the lines of a maze.

8. ONE SCENE WAS ACCIDENTALLY DELETED BY SEVERAL PROJECTIONISTS.

While several scenes from del Toro’s Director’s Cut were left out of the theatrical release, even the version of Hellboy shown in theaters wasn’t always complete. As del Toro later recalled, some “careless” projectionists in “dozens” of theaters accidentally removed one key sequence from the film’s final act as they were assembling the reels. At the end of the scene in which Liz activates her fire powers to burn the Sammael creatures away, a rock flies directly at the camera lens, creating a brief blackout. That scene is supposed to be followed by a shot of an unconscious Myers waking up on the ground to find Ilsa and Rasputin standing over him. The blackout confused some projectionists into skipping over the scene of Myers waking up, so some theatrical audiences were taken directly to the scene that followed, in which Myers has already been captured and chained up. According to del Toro, he set up an email contact form for moviegoers to report this misstep and got numerous replies, though the studio was not able to correct all of the errors.

9. IT FEATURES MANY FREQUENT DEL TORO COLLABORATORS.

Beginning with Cronos (1993), del Toro has built a large and diverse company of frequent collaborators, many of whom continue to work with him to this day. Several of these collaborators contributed to Hellboy, both in front of and behind the camera, including actors Ron Perlman (Cronos, Pacific Rim, Blade II) and Doug Jones (Mimic, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water, and more), composer Marco Beltrami (Mimic, Blade II), and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim and more).

10. IT SUFFERED BACKLASH BECAUSE THE WORD “HELL” IS IN THE TITLE.

During the Director’s Cut commentary for Hellboy, del Toro praised the film’s marketing team for finding ways to sell the film to the public, noting that it wasn’t always easy to attract audiences to a film called Hellboy. Some theaters refused to show the movie, while others retitled it Helloboy in an effort to calm potentially offended patrons. The problem was exacerbated by the presence of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which opened a few weeks earlier and remained a big box office draw during the Easter holiday.

“Especially on Easter, some theaters mysteriously dropped the movie when it was still making money,” del Toro recalled.

11. IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE THE FIRST FILM IN A TRILOGY.

Hellboy opened on April 2, 2004 to strong reviews and a box office return good enough to merit a sequel. Just weeks after the first film hit theaters, Hellboy II was a go, with del Toro, Perlman, Blair, and Jones returning. With the knowledge that he would get to continue the story, del Toro envisioned a superhero fantasy trilogy, which moved closer to becoming a reality when Hellboy II: The Golden Army opened in 2008 to more critical acclaim. As time passed, though, a third film began to seem increasingly unlikely, with Perlman in particular noting that the epic scope of del Toro’s plans could be too taxing on the budget as well as Perlman’s own physical health. After years of holding out hope that the trilogy could be completed, del Toro finally announced in 2017 that all plans for Hellboy 3 had been scrapped.

12. BUT A REBOOT IS IN THE WORKS.

Del Toro might not get to finish his version of the Hellboy story, but that doesn’t mean Big Red won’t hit the big screen again. In May 2017, just months after del Toro announced an end to his version of the tale, Mignola revealed that the character would be rebooted as part of a new film franchise. Directed by Neil Marshall (The Descent) and starring David Harbour (Stranger Things) in the title role, the new Hellboy film is set to hit theaters on January 11, 2019.

Additional Sources:
Hellboy: The Director’s Cut special features (2004)
Guillermo del Toro: Cabinet of Curiosities (2013)

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