Olivier Coipel/Marvel Comics
Olivier Coipel/Marvel Comics

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

Olivier Coipel/Marvel Comics
Olivier Coipel/Marvel Comics

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. Thor #1

By Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman and Matthew Wilson
Marvel Comics

Thor’s a woman now. Deal with it.

In the first issue of the new Thor, the thunder god has fallen and been deemed unworthy to lift his mighty hammer, Mjölnir, which lies forsaken on the surface of the moon. The inscription (as you can see in the image below) suddenly changes to read, “Whosoever holds this hammer, if SHE be worthy…”

Yup, this is the issue you’ve been hearing about everywhere from ComicsAlliance.com to The View. By the end of this issue, a woman will pick up the hammer and become the new Thor, possibly signifying a major shift in how Marvel views the demographics of its readership. It’s also possible that it's just a short-lived publicity stunt. Only time—and sales—will tell if this is as big as Marvel wants us to think.

Whatever their intent is, the publisher seems hell bent on shaking up the status quo of their A-list heroes. They’re currently in the process of killing off Wolverine and will soon be handing the mantle of Captain America to an African-American hero. This has been a big year for diversity among the Marvel characters (even if the creative teams behind them are still mostly white and male).

Marvel has kept a tight lid on who this new Thor will actually be, but promises that she will be the real Thor (not a “Thorita” or “She-Thor”). They’ve signified this by not only keeping the name of the hero “Thor,” but also by keeping Jason Aaron who has been writing Thor since the last relaunch two years ago.

Here’s a preview.

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2. Gotham Academy #1

By Becky Cloonan, Brenden Fletcher, Karl Kerschl, Geyser, and Dave McCaig
DC Comics

Something a little different for DC Comics: a teen prep school drama set in Gotham.

Marvel is not alone this week in making some shifts in how they attract new (read: female) audiences. Gotham Academy is a new series that is set firmly in the “Bat-verse” but is otherwise very different from the type of books DC generally publishes. It is written and drawn to appeal to a younger and primarily female audience that other independent comics and webcomics have long proven is out there but that publishers like DC have been reticent to attract in the past. Paired with this month’s upcoming redesign and relaunch of Batgirl, DC is taking some steps, albeit in a somewhat different approach from Marvel, to make some comics that will hopefully appeal to this audience.

Gotham Academy takes place in Gotham City’s prestigious boarding school whose benefactor is local billionaire Bruce Wayne and whose school grounds seem prone to mysterious and supernatural happenings. The first story arc focuses on Olive Silverlock, a student who seems to have experienced something over the summer that has affected her relationship with her boyfriend Kyle. We also meet Kyle’s little sister, Maps, who follows Olive around, and Olive’s antagonist, Pomeline Fritch (if nothing else, this book is going to add some fantastically memorable names to the DC Universe).

While Marvel is diversifying their characters more than their creatives, DC seems to be making moves to do both. Gotham Academy is written by Becky Cloonan who is primarily known as an artist but has written and drawn some very impressive and award-winning self-published comics like The Mire and Demeter. She is joined by co-writer Brenden Fletcher who will also be working on the new Batgirl series and artist Karl Kerschl who is best known for his award-winning webcomic The Abominable Charles Christopher. This is a young and interesting creative team that stands out markedly from what you might consider the usual DC “House Style.”

Here’s a preview.

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3. Maddy Kettle Book 1: The Adventure of the Thimblewitch

By Eric Orchard
Top Shelf Productions

A young girl sets out to change her parents back from being kangaroo rats.

If you follow Eric Orchard on Twitter, Facebook, or almost anywhere else, you’ve probably seen his progress on his series Maddy Kettle. Orchard is active on social media and uses it as well as any artist out there to engage with his fans and invite them into his process. Those fans are probably delighted to see the first book in this series hitting bookstores and comic book shops now.

In the first volume of this all-ages series, we meet young Maddy, an eleven year old girl whose parents have been turned into little kangaroo rats by the Thimblewitch. When the same creature steals her floating spadefoot toad Ralph, she goes off on her own to save Ralph and hopefully turn her parents back to normal. The story really picks up when she meets a couple of traveling cloud cartographers, a bear, and a raccoon named Harry and Silvio, who serve as the book's comic relief.

Orchard’s illustrations have a weighty simplicity that's mixed with an intricate, cross-hatched texture as if they were drawn from dramatically lit clay figurines. There is a weird darkness to his style that is not unlike the classic children’s horror stories of Edward Gorey, while Maddy Kettle's magical nature may remind some of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.

Maddy is a smart, resourceful heroine, which parents of young girls are always looking for more of. While this is the beginning of a future book series, this volume stands nicely on its own. Top Shelf has a preview here.

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4. The Hospital Suite

By John Porcellino
Drawn & Quarterly

A mini-comics and zine legend recounts his battles with OCD, tumors, and depression.

John Porcellino is one of the most influential cartoonists that most readers have never heard of. Like the old saying about the Velvet Underground—not many people listened to them at the time but everyone who did started their own band—Porcellino has influenced a whole generation of mini-comic and zine creators with his autobiographical series King-Cat. Started in 1989, it is the longest running mini-comic of its kind and Porcellino has used it to share some very personal aspects of his life. His new graphic novel, The Hospital Suite (published by Drawn & Quarterly), collects a group of his most harrowing and personal stories yet.

In 1997, Porcellino began suffering from stomach pains that doctors couldn’t explain. Repeat appointments eventually led to the discovery of a tumor in his intestines. But this is just the beginning of his troubles. From tumors to warts to debilitating cases of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and depression, Porcellino’s life began to fall apart for the next few years. He lost almost everything—even, for a time, his ability to make comics.

This would be a tough book for those prone to health anxieties, but I think it will strike a chord with people who have suffered from illnesses that have upended their lives. The chapters where he recounts his OCD are especially affecting and upsetting in their sheer extremity. There’s a scene where he finds a Godzilla movie at the library that he’s been craving to see again since he was a kid, but he gets it in his head that watching the film may possibly conjure up the monsters in reality and he returns it, unwatched. It's a scene that is heartbreaking the way Porcellino tells it.

Porcellino’s cartooning style almost seems amateurish at a glance. Its simple pen lines do what they need to do in conveying his story but nothing more. The book itself is even printed with a stark white, no frills cover, much like his mini-comics. Drawn & Quarterly has a preview here.

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5. Underwhelming Lovecraft Comic Synopses

By Patrick Dean
UnderwhelmingLovecraft.tumblr.com

Various Lovecraft stories done in one comics page.

Earlier this year, Patrick Dean had been posting some great drawings of low-key, “underwhelming" creatures on his Tumblr that, if actually created by legendary horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, would have ended up in his discarded ideas pile. Last month, Dean decided to take his fondness for Lovecraft down a different road by creating one-page comic synopses of some of the writer’s short stories. Keeping with the “Underwhelming” theme, he crams the essence of the stories into a few panels and often wraps them up with a punchline that conveys Dean’s own dry sense of humor. It's partly an exercise in concise storytelling and partly a way to have fun with Lovecraft's typically humorless tales of creepiness.

There are a handful up on his Tumblr so far; feel free to dip back into the archives to browse his Underwhelming monster drawings.

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Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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DC Comics, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
The Dark Knight Is Returning to Theaters for a 10th Anniversary IMAX Re-Release
DC Comics, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
DC Comics, Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Believe it or not, today marks the 10th anniversary of the release of The Dark Knight, the second entry in Christopher Nolan’s game-changing superhero movie trilogy. To mark the occasion, Warner Bros. is bringing the movie back to four IMAX theaters for a limited one-week engagement in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Toronto, beginning on August 24th, Variety reports.

Many people consider The Dark Knight the best film in the Batman franchise (Tim Burton and LEGO-fied movies included). The film currently holds a 94 percent “fresh” rating with both critics and audiences on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the highest-rated movie in the Batman universe.

Much of the film’s acclaim came from Heath Ledger’s brilliant turn as The Joker—a role that won him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar (making him the only actor to win that award posthumously). Even Michael Caine, who plays Bruce Wayne’s ever-dutiful butler and BFF Alfred, admitted that he wasn’t sold on the idea of bringing The Joker back into Batman’s cinematic universe, after the character was so ably played by Jack Nicholson in Burton’s 1989 film, until he found out Ledger would be taking the role.

“You don’t try and top Jack,” was Caine’s original thought. But when Nolan informed the actor that he was casting Ledger, that changed things. “I thought: ‘Now that’s the one guy that could do it!’ My confidence came back,” Caine told Empire Magazine.

The film will be screening at California's AMC Universal Citywalk Imax, New York's AMC Lincoln Square Imax, San Francisco's AMC Metreon Imax, and Toronto's Ontario Place Cinesphere Imax. Tickets for the limited engagement go on sale on Friday, July 20th.

[h/t: Variety]

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