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Hot Ink — The Unwritten #9, Barack the Barbarian #4, Neonomicon Hornbook

INSTANT CLASSIC – The Unwritten 9

I know that I’ve talked a lot about Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ Vertigo series lately, and I’d normally be hesitant to cover the same book over and over again in this space. But issue #9 of “The Unwritten” is by far the best comic book to be released this week. In fact, with this week’s issue, I’d go so far as to say that that this series has earned its place among the best of Vertigo’s ongoing titles.

Look at your bookshelf. Are there neatly grouped collections of the trades of books like “Transmetropolitan,” “Y: The Last Man” and “Fables”? Because if the answer is yes, you’re probably going to want to figure out where you’re going to fit your trades of “The Unwritten.” If Carey and Gross can keep up the level of work they’ve achieved on the story so far, this series is going to earn that spot on your shelf.

Issue 9 wraps up the series’ second story arc, and it is fantastic. It groups Tom together with others on his journey, provides more evidence of who he might really be, presents new obstacles for him to face, and it drives him forward with a dangerous threat following behind. All of the time spent getting to know the prison warden and his family over the past few issues pays off spectacularly. I’m normally impressed if a single issue can include one twist that I genuinely did not see coming. This one has them on just about every page of its latter half.
Tom Taylor has been wrongfully imprisoned for several brutal murders, and the shadowy conspiracy determined to eliminate him takes the opportunity to finish Taylor off while he’s trapped. And so as heavily armed men set fire to the prison and set off riots among the inmates, Tom must escape. But he’s not alone. With him is Savoy, the journalist who sneaked in disguised as an inmate to get the scoop on Tom’s story, but the two can’t leave without Lizzie, the young woman who first brought Tom’s attention to the doubts about his past.

I don’t want to give too many plot points away, but I will single out one mostly spoiler-free moment that Carey and Gross handled quite well. As Tom searches the prison storeroom for his personal possessions, he finds a doorknob his father left him. Tommy Taylor, the boy wizard hero of Tom’s father’s books, had just such a doorknob which could magically create doors on bare walls.

Tom is faced with a dilemma. He can try to use the object to create an escape route. If it works, he will get away from the burning building filled with out of control murderers. But it will also support the case that Tom is actually Tommy Taylor the boy wizard somehow transformed into a real human being, something that Tom desperately wishes not to be the case. He’s almost happy when it looks like the knob isn’t going to work. And his reaction when it does is handled with the best of deft touches. Of course, the fact that he does all this while a friendly winged cat is perched on his shoulder should have given him some idea of how it was all going to turn out.

So to summarize quickly: This is a series that kept showing promise, kept being good, and so I continued reading and waiting for the moment when it became great. This is the week that happened.


ACTUAL ISSUE FHTAGN – Neonomicon Hornbook

Avatar Press released a special hornbook of Alan Moore’s “Neonomicon” this week. You may ask, what is a hornbook? This would be because you are too lazy to look it up yourself on Wikipedia. But the definition there is archaic, and Avatar seems to be working with a new, somewhat altered definition of what a comics “hornbook” means. From context, I take it to mean this: a hornbook is an unfinished preview version of a comic that Avatar has decided you should give them two dollars for. As befitting a Lovecraft book written by Alan Moore, this is an idea of another age obviously devised by despicable hidden powers to prey on the weak-minded.

It’s 2010, people, and that means it’s the future and we have the internet. Comixology previews dozens of comics a week for free, giving readers a chance to take a glance at the first six pages or so without committing to buying anything. Other companies have released discounted $1 first issues of a new series to hook people in. So Avatar offering a nine-page preview with a price tag of $1.99, is, not to mince words, a rip-off.

Now, I’m not saying they’re openly lying about this being a full story. If you read anything about the book on Avatar’s website, they’re upfront about the fact that this is only the first nine pages of a new story by Alan Moore with art by Jacen Burrows continuing the Lovecraft-influenced books Moore has had previously published by Avatar. But there are going to be people who pick this one up because it’s got Alan Moore’s name on the cover and not bother to either flip through all the way to where the story ends unfinished or immediately notice the small text box on the third page declaring this to be a preview only. It’s not at all made clear on the cover or the title page. This way this book is designed doesn’t scream “preview,” instead it whispers it under its breath at the end of the sentence and hopes you don’t notice.

I will say one thing, and one thing only, in the book’s defense. It does include some added material, including five pages of script by Moore. If that’s the sort of thing that interests you, and it is appealing to me, then the book might be worth your money. Watching the thought and detail Moore puts into the description of each panel is fascinating. But it seems strange that Avatar decided to only include the accompanying script for five of the nine pages. Would it have taken that much effort to add the other four to their two dollar preview?

Also, if you look at the details of Avatar’s description by clicking here, you’ll notice they promise “some of Moore’s original script, special design sketches, and an all-new interview with Jacen Burrows.” And only one of those three is present in the finished book. There are no design sketches, and there is no interview with Burrows. Avatar’s claim that this is “far more than just a preview book” is as false as a promise from Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos. And you shouldn’t need to be versed in Cthulu Mythos to figure out that’s not a name that should inspire trust.

This is the type of first look that most other companies are giving away for free to help draw in new readers to their title. For an online preview or a Free Comic Book Day promotion this would have been fine. But two dollars is a little much to ask for what Avatar’s providing here.

DESTINED TO WEAR HIS CROWN UPON A TROUBLED BROW – Barack the Barbarian 4

There are two reasons that comics tend to make the decision to shy away from commenting on politics. First, there’s the concern of alienating potential readers. People of all political viewpoints might be interested in buying your comic, but when you cast the believers of a particular ideology as the villains of your epic tale of heroism, you run the risk of not being all that popular with the real life adherents of the disparaged belief. You know, kind of like the reason that only the most masochistic of organized crime mo
oks have “Batman” on their pull list.

But there’s a second, differently practical reason for making the decision to steer clear of all things political, particularly recent events. Comics take so long to be created and have all their issues go to press that often, by the time your story is finished, the political climate is quite different from the one the creative team was talking about when they began the series.

This is the fate that is unfortunately realized by issue four of “Barack the Barbarian.” My initial impression of Larry Hama and Christopher Schons’ series may have been a little harsh. When I picked up the first issue I was concerned the verbal and visual puns would quickly become tiring. And I must admit now, with its initial story arc completed, the puns didn’t become any more tiring than they initially were. And I have a lower tolerance for puns, or “pundurance”…

I’m sorry, I’ve just spent five minutes slamming a door on my hand as a form of contrition. That won’t happen again. Please pardon the typing errors likely to follow. Anyway, Barack the Barbarian’s distinctive sense of humor isn’t my thing. But I have to admit that Hama’s good at the style he chooses to work in and is able to keep it fresh. He carefully deploys inspirations from the 2008 campaign to satire, and rarely is the same joke hit more than once.

But what isn’t fresh about “Barack the Barbarian” is its connection to the political atmosphere of the moment. The book is an artifact of how Obama supporters felt a year ago, filled with a sense of triumph, gratified by hard work that finally paid off, and giddy with the hope that things were going to turn around. And while I’m sure most Democrats would rather have Obama in office right now than the alternative, the three month period between Obama’s election and his inauguration would appear to be, at least so far, the high point for most of his supporters.

Things have been less than great since then. Goals have been declared and not met. Hopes remain unrealized. The scene at the comic’s end, where Barack puts aside the sword to relight the torch of liberty with inspiration from justice and science is poignant, but reality isn’t quite there yet and there may be a few snags along the way if it ever does get there.

Unintentionally, the effect of the book ends up being something of a downer. The fact that hundreds of years later the people retelling the story of Barack’s triumph are living in the middle of a new ice age, where Washington D.C. has been covered with glaciers stretching to almost the top of the Washington monument, isn’t played for tragedy. But because it’s a more-believable-than-I’d-like direction we might be heading in, it only enhances the sensation of “even after electing Obama, we may all still be screwed” which permeates the book.

I hope that the day never comes when I’m reading a Superman story where he punches an asteroid while real-life astronomers are actually monitoring an asteroid on a collision path with the Earth. But if I do, I imagine it’ll feel something like this.

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