As much as I like digging through the quarter bins for a run of Punisher 2099, the real action at a convention always comes from browsing through Artist's Alley for the new books that you can't get anywhere else. As much as the focus at conventions falls on superheroes, there's a lot of great independent stuff out there that you can pick up directly from the people who made it -- and it's especially easy at a convention like Charlotte's HeroesCon, which gives a huge amount of floor space over to the indies.

I always make a point to grab stuff that looks interesting, so as convention season kicks into high gear this summer, I've got some of the highlights of what I picked up, from Becky Cloonan, Benjamin Marra and more!First up, one of the most creative comics I've seen in a long time: Andy Hirsch's Flashlight Comic.

Some of you may know Hirsch as the artist on Slave Labor's Royal Historian of Oz, but what caught my eye when I stopped by his table was the thick slab of comics that you see above. It's actually only twelve pages long -- and now that I think of it, I'm not sure I ever caught a title beyond "Flashlight Comic" -- but it still managed to provide one of the best reading experiences I had at the show.

It's a short, quick horror story about a trip through a creepy, abandoned house at night, but Hirsch sets it up in a way I've never seen before. He prints the linework on a plastic transparency, with the dark background and splashes of light on a page behind it. The bottom of each page is open, so you can slip the attached "flashlight" between them and move it around to explore each page. It's a great idea, and it allows Hirsch to play around with light and shadow in a way you don't often see, like having the "beam" cover up a reflection in a mirror, as though you're actually shining a flashlight on it.

The effect is incredible. Not only does it make you feel like you're observing the events from within the story itself, but only having that small disc of "light" to shine on all the shadowy corners of the house adds to the atmosphere in an amazing way. Everything feels a little more claustrophobic and oppressive, even if you're reading it while you're standing in the middle of a bright, noisy convention hall when you're checking it out. The only real drawback is that it's an expensive $20, but even that's understandable when you consider how many layers each page has, and how Hirsch has glued each one together himself.

In a lot of ways, this is a comic that does a lot of things that you'd really only expect to get from a digital book, but seeing them done this creatively in a physical form is astonishing, and Hirsch's sequential storytelling is top notch. It's definitely worth checking out.

Speaking of things that use print in interesting ways, Tom Scioli had mini-comic versions of his amazing Satan's Soldier available at the show as well:

If you haven't read Satan's Soldier, it's... Well, it's sort of hard to describe, even for someone whose entire job is describing weird comics. It's basically the incredible Tom Scioli unleashed onto the Internet to tell a story about a Superman-type character who has twice the hair curls and roughly one million times the evil. The first thing he does is pop a guy's head off with his thumbs, and things just get weirder and crazier from there, to the point where Scioli himself once called me a "weirdo" when I told him I loved it. It is great, and if you haven't been reading it, you need to.

If you clicked that link, you may notice that the latest strips have been done up as luridly flashing animated gifs, and while that doesn't translate to the page, Scioli made the effort of capturing that energy by printing the minis on pink paper. It's a simple choice, but it adds just the right amount of eye-popping madness to the scenes of babies flying around with heat vision, blood-spattered space-headbutts and more. I'm hoping the series gets the full hardcover treatment like American Barbarian did, but until then, this'll hold me over.

Next up, Chris Wharton's Giant!:

I picked this one up based purely on flipping through it at the show, and while I was completely unfamiliar with Wharton's work, I'm glad I did. I assumed it was a collection of a webcomic, but while you can read the first 20 pages of it online, it turns out that it's an original graphic novel that Wharton funded on Kickstarter. It's a fun book with some fantastic art, telling the story of Deedrick, a hapless alchemist who kicks off a sequence of unlucky events that raise a giant who wants to destroy his entire town. It's a breezy read -- most of Wharton's pages are splashes, but it manages to not feel padded out at all despite that. Instead, the effect is more like watching a cartoon, something that Wharton's expressive, animated figures support.

What really grabbed me, though, as weird as it may sound, was the size. Giant! is a little pocket-sized paperback. It's 4" by 6", a size that was apparently inspired by a book that Wharton saw at a previous HeroesCon. I wish there was a way to convey that size to readers... wait, here we go:

As trivial as it might seem, I like seeing books like this that play around with the format, just like Hirsch's transparencies. It's fun, and you see it a lot more with independent comics than anywhere else.

A little more standard in format, but certainly no less awesome, was Becky Cloonan's Demeter:

Becky Cloonan is incredible.

If you're familiar with her work already, that's probably all I need to say. If you're not, then you need to be, because she does some of the best work in comics, period. Her art is moody and expressive on a level most creators can never get to, and when she turns her attention to horror, like in Demeter, the results are always pretty great.

It's a full-length story, and it's the perfect showcase for her strengths. Sharp storytelling, heavy expressions that say more than the dialogue, even some great tricks with lettering that put a barrier between the reader and the characters that'll make you feel like a creepy voyeur, underlining the themes she's working with. Demeter is, I believe, the third of these minis that Cloonan has done, with Wolves and The Mire being the other two. They're all pretty fantastic, but Demeter is far and away my favorite so far.

Finally, we have Benjamin Marra's Traditional Comics:

When I saw that Marra was set up at HeroesCon, I literally walked to his table and said "Give me one of everything you have." Fortunately, this included his last copy of the first issue of Night Business, the amazingly titled story of a ballerina turned stripper turned vigilante.

I've wanted these things since I first saw Marra's promo video for them a while back, for reasons that are probably obvious...

...but I haven't had the chance to grab them until now, and they are bananas. They're built to echo the weird indie books of the '80s Black and White Boom in every aspect, right down to the newsprint pages. They're like the comics version of the dustiest, creepiest corner of the VHS video store from 20 years ago, and as the record will show, that's an aesthetic to which I am extremely partial.

I think the best bits, though, might be Marra's author bios on the inside back covers of each issue. Here's the one from #3:

That is Marra, as a centaur, proclaiming victory and checking out the "art scene." All the bios are different. These are my favorite comics ever.

And those are just the highlights of what I picked up this year. There were new books from friends of mine like Ken Lowery and Robert Wilson IV's Like a Virus, Jordan Witt's four new mini-comics (full disclosure: I show up in two of them), Andrew MacLean's Head Lopper (which actually looks even better in print than it did digitally), and more. There are great creators doing great comics out there, so take a swing through Artist's Alley and find a few -- especially if you're going to San Diego this year.

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