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Wednesday is New Comics Day

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Every Wednesday, I highlight the five most exciting comic releases of the week. The list may include comic books, graphic novels, digital comics and webcomics. I'll even highlight some Kickstarter comics projects on occasion. There's more variety and availability in comics than there has ever been, and I hope to point out just some of the cool stuff that's out there. If there's a release you're excited about, let's talk about it in the comments.

1. March Book One


Written by Congressman John Lewis with Andrew Aydin; art by Nate Powell;
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Probably the most important graphic novel release of the year tops our list this week. March Book One is the first of a three book autobiography by Congressman John Lewis, the last surviving member of the "Big Six", the organizers of The Great March on Washington in 1963 to call for civil rights for African Americans. Lewis' life story, from growing up raising chickens in Alabama to helping organize one of the most important movements of the 20th Century, will be documented in this series, and the fact that he chose to do it as a graphic novel is remarkable though it follows a historic precedent. 

In 1958 a comic called "Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story" told the story of Martin Luther King, Jr. in order to help spread his ideas of non-violent protest. It was chosen to be produced as a comic partly to slip under the radar of those who were, at the time, confiscating and burning literature distributed within the black community, but also because by telling its story with words and pictures it could reach and inform the largest possible audience of all ages and education levels. You can learn more about this comic and read it in its entirety here.

Lewis took inspiration from that comic when choosing to tell his story this way. He is helped by Andrew Aydin, who works in his Congressional office on telecommunications and technology policy, and by artist Nate Powell, who is instrumental in bringing this book to life. Powell is an award-winning writer and artist who often takes on ambitious subject matter such as Swallow Me Whole, his breakthrough 2008 graphic novel about schizophrenia. He has quietly become one of the most interesting, important and prolific graphic novelists being published by Top Shelf. His artwork, made up of his active, ink-drenched brushed lines and beautifully thought out page compositions, is always wonderfully integrated with the written word of his captions or dialogue. He is the real deal when it comes to using this medium to its fullest advantages in the aspect of storytelling.

Lewis is the first sitting Congressman to write a graphic novel, and this book sports the first cover blurb written by a former U.S. President (Bill Clinton). Lewis is even going to be making signing appearances at places like next month's Small Press Expo to promote the book.

This first volume of Lewis' story begins with his childhood and ends with his non-violent lunch counter sit-ins and protests against segregation in Nashville. You can read a 14 page preview of the book here at Top Shelf's website.

2. Infinity #1


Written by Jonathan Hickman; art by Jim Cheung
Marvel

Although Marvel's most recent event book Age of Ultron just ended a couple of weeks ago, their newest one is already starting up. For a while, both Marvel and DC were weighing down the natural story progression of many of their titles by hitching everything to a neverending cycle of line wide "events." We've had a reprieve from that for a couple of years, but that may be over now. 

However, unlike many previous event books, Infinity is driven by the singular vision of one particular writer rather than a committee of writers and editors. 

Jonathan Hickman has been building to this story in the pages of both his Avengers and New Avengers comics since they both began this past year. His most recent issue of Avengers found the team heading to the other end of the universe to face the threat of a group of alien beings called The Builders who plan to destroy humanity and rebuild it in their own form. That leaves Earth unprotected, and Thanos (the big guy with the pink face we saw after the credits in the Avengers movie) steps in to take advantage of their absence. 

Well, "unprotected" is a loose term. There are of course still a whole lot of Marvel heroes on Earth that will have to step up to the Thanos challenge, particularly the group referred to as the "Illuminati," who are the stars of Hickman's New Avengers comic. They consist of Reed Richards, Captain America, Black Panther, Iron Man, the Sub-Mariner, the Beast, Dr. Strange, and Black Bolt, and they will most likely play a major role in this book.

Hickman excels at these kinds of universe-threatening epics, as his recent runs on the Avengers books and Fantastic Four before them have shown. With his dramatic narration setting the scene, he writes superhero comics that seem to have more gravity (and gravitas) than most. And that's just in an average issue. It will be interesting to see what happens when he is unleashed on an all-important event book like this.

Here's a preview of Infinity #1.

3. Cartozia Tales #1



Various Writers and Artists
Cartozia

Arguably one of the great aspects of comics that are almost unique to the medium is how multiple writers and artists can collaborate on multiple stories in an effort to build one shared universe. Sure, this may occur in small doses in books or television, but Marvel and DC have spent over half a century perfecting this form of large-scale storytelling in a way that no one in any other medium has done. Outside of those two giant universes, we'll often see the birth of smaller worlds and universes set in motion by ambitious creators seeking to make something special on their own.

Cartozia Tales is a new all-ages indie anthology comic that is based around the concept of a map. Editor Isaac Cates has coordinated a great idea for this series in which he takes a map of this fictional world of Cartozia and divides it up among the group of regular creators who are devoted to each issue. The first book is filled with a number of short 4-page stories that each take place in a particular section of Cartozia, and each ends with a cliffhanger of sorts. In the next issue, Cates will assign that section of the map to one of the other creators and have them pick up the story where it left off, potentially giving their own take on the characters, mythical creatures, and plot direction of that particular story. Cates has assembled a talented group of up-and-coming regulars including Mike Wenthe, Lupi McGinty, Jen Vaughn, Caitlin Lehman, and more. In addition, each issue will feature more established guest contributors such as James Kolchaka, Ben Towle, and Evan Dahm. The first issue features Dylan Horrocks and Jon Lewis, and Horrocks' story, I have to say, is pretty much guaranteed to make you smile. Especially if you have a little girl. 

I've had the opportunity to read the first issue and my 5 year old daughter is especially enamored with it. Its imaginative, fantasy-based setting and kid-friendly cartooning make it appealing for readers of any age. There is also an emphasis throughout the book on maps and cartography including a fun instructional exercise on map-making that your kids can do at home (my daughter is now on a whole mapmaking kick thanks to this).

Cartozia is launching a Kickstarter this week but you can subscribe to their comic now through their website.

4. The Bunker #1


Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov; art by Joe Infurnari
Comixology Submit

A recent notable entry into Comixology's Submit program for self-published comics is a new series called The Bunker. It begins when a group of friends discover an underground bunker with their names engraved on the outside and it leads to visions of a bleak, dystopian future that may be the result of their own actions, intended or unintended. It immediately draws to mind similarities to Stephen King's It and Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys, not to mention Lost, which one of the characters actually acknowledges in story. 

Fialkov has developed a bit of a cult following for his various projects over the years starting with his horror series Elk's Run which was under-appreciated in its time and plagued by publishing issues. After some recent work for both Marvel and DC, he is returning to creator-owned material here and using Comixology's publishing platform with a smart plan in mind. The first issue contains 35 pages to introduce the story and is priced at $1.99. The following issues will be published monthly and contain 12 pages of story each, presumably priced at the optimal digital comics price of 99¢. Digital allows independent creators to experiment with things like page count, publishing schedules and price, and no one combination of the three has become an industry standard yet which makes this an interesting time for such ventures.

Joe Infurnari has worked for almost every publisher in comics and has published numerous webcomics on his own and through collectives like Act-i-vate. His expressive way of drawing people almost brings to mind a Young Adult graphic novel style but with a definite edge to it that plays well to the horror of Fialkov's plot.

You can buy the first issue of The Bunker through Comixology's website here.

5. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century #1


Written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin
Hermes Press

Buck Rogers is a character that probably needs no introduction. For most comic book fans, neither does veteran writer/artist Howard Chaykin—but Hermes Press however might require some explanation. They're a small independent publisher that primarily focuses on reprints of classic material like the original Buck Rogers newspaper strips from the 1920s. 

With that historical perspective in mind, they've brought on Howard Chaykin to bring Buck Rogers back to the roots of Philip Francis Nowlan's original creation, which started with the story Armageddon 2419 A. D. (published in Amazing Stories in 1929) with the hero being a World War I fighter pilot who find himself suspended in time and awoken 500 years in the future. In this four issue mini-series, we'll see Rogers team with Colonel Wilma Deering to free the United States from the oppression of alien-influenced China.

Chaykin is the ideal choice to take on this book. He has a penchant not only for sci-fi action but for period drama and the fashion and style that goes along with it. The preview images alone call to mind Chaykin's past work on books like American Flagg!, Cody Starbuck, and Blackhawk.

Take a look at this unlettered preview over on the Westfield Comics blog.


HONORABLE MENTIONS

Why limit myself to just listing 5 comics each week? There's so much else out there.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1
IDW is the latest publisher to try to revive this old superhero title once drawn by Wally Wood. Longtime T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents fan Phil Hester lobbied hard to become the writer for this book and now gets his chance to put his mark on it. Here's an interview with Hester.

Marooned - Kickstarter
Tom Dell'Aringa's long-running webcomic is in the process of raising funds for a hardcover collection and is already well past its goal. Marooned is a funny and really well done strip about a stranded astronaut (drawn in kind of a Dagwood Bumstead style) and his robot sidekick, Asimov. Contribute to the Kickstarter if you'd like.

Right State
An extremist militia group is planning to assassinate America's second African American president and the best chance to stop them is a former Special Forces war hero turned right-wing media pundit who must infiltrate the group. A fascinating political concept for this new Vertigo graphic novel written by Mat Johnson, who previously explored race in America in the acclaimed Incognegro. You can find more info here.

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The Plucky Teenage Stowaway Aboard the First American Expedition to Antarctica
The Ohio State University Archives
The Ohio State University Archives

Documentary filmmaker and journalist Laurie Gwen Shapiro came across the name "William Gawronski" in 2013 while researching a story about Manhattan's St. Stanislaus, the oldest Polish Catholic church in the U.S. In 1930, more than 500 kids from the church had held a parade in honor of Billy Gawronski, who had just returned from two years aboard the first American expedition to Antarctica, helmed by naval officer Richard E. Byrd.

The teenager had joined the expedition in a most unusual way: by stowing aboard Byrd's ships the City of New York and the Eleanor Bolling not once, not twice, but four times total. He swam across the Hudson River to sneak onto the City of New York and hitchhiked all the way to Virginia to hide on the Eleanor Bolling.

"I thought, 'Wait, what?" Shapiro tells Mental Floss.

Intrigued by Billy's persistence and pluck, Shapiro dove into the public records and newspaper archives to learn more about him. She created an Excel spreadsheet of Gawronskis all along the East Coast and began cold-calling them.

"Imagine saying, 'Did you have an ancestor that jumped in the Hudson and stowed away to the Antarctic in 1928?'" Shapiro says. She got "a lot of hang-ups."

On the 19th call, to a Gawronski in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, an elderly woman with a Polish accent answered the phone. "That boy was my husband," Gizela Gawronski told her. Billy had died in 1981, leaving behind a treasure trove of mementos, including scrapbooks, notebooks, yearbooks, and hundreds of photos.

"I have everything," Gizela told Shapiro. "I was hoping someone would find me one day."

Three days later, Shapiro was in Maine poring over Billy's papers with Gizela, tears in her eyes.

These materials became the basis of Shapiro's new book The Stowaway: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica. It's a rollicking good read full of fascinating history and bold characters that takes readers from New York to Tahiti, New Zealand to Antarctica, and back to New York again. It's brimming with the snappy energy and open-minded optimism of the Jazz Age.

Shapiro spent six weeks in Antarctica herself to get a feel for Billy's experiences. "I wanted to reach the Ross Ice barrier like Billy did," she says.

Read on for an excerpt from chapter four.

***

As night dropped on September 15, Billy jumped out of his second-floor window and onto the garden, a fall softened by potatoes and cabbage plants and proudly photographed sunflowers. You would think that the boy had learned from his previous stowaway attempt to bring more food or a change of dry clothes. Not the case.

An overnight subway crossing into Brooklyn took him to the Tebo Yacht Basin in Gowanus. He made for the location he'd written down in his notes: Third Avenue and Twenty-Third Street.

In 1928 William Todd's Tebo Yacht Basin was a resting spot— the spot—for the yachts of the Atlantic seaboard's most aristocratic and prosperous residents. The swanky yard berthed more than fifty staggering prizes of the filthy rich. Railroad executive Cornelius Vanderbilt kept his yacht O-We-Ra here; John Vanneck, his Amphitrite. Here was also where to find Warrior, the largest private yacht afloat, owned by the wealthiest man in America, public utilities baron Harrison Williams; yeast king (and former mayor of Cincinnati) Julian Fleischman's $625,000 twin-screw diesel yacht, the Carmago; General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan's Rene; shoe scion H. W. Hanan's Dauntless; and J. P. Morgan's Corsair III. The Tebo Yacht Basin's clubroom served fish chowder luncheons to millionaires in leather-backed mission chairs.

Todd, a great friend of Byrd's, lavished attention on his super-connected pal with more contacts than dollars. He had provided major funding for Byrd's 1926 flight over the North Pole, and helped the commander locate and refit two of the four Antarctic expedition ships for $285,900, done at cost. Todd loved puffy articles about him as much as the next man, and press would help extract cash from the millionaires he actively pursued as new clients; helping out a famous friend might prove cheaper than the advertisements he placed in upmarket magazines. Throughout that summer, Byrd mentioned Todd's generous support frequently.

Two weeks after the City of New York set sail, the Chelsea, the supply ship of the expedition, was still docked at the Tebo workyard and not scheduled to depart until the middle of September. Smith's Dock Company in England had built the refurbished 170-foot, 800-ton iron freighter for the British Royal Navy at the tail end of the Great War. First christened patrol gunboat HMS Kilmarnock, her name was changed to the Chelsea during her post–Royal Navy rumrunning days.

Not long before she was scheduled to depart, Byrd announced via a press release that he was renaming this auxiliary ship, too, after his mother, Eleanor Bolling. But the name painted on the transom was Eleanor Boling, with one l—the painter's mistake. As distressing as this was (the name was his mother's, after all), Byrd felt a redo would be too expensive and a silly use of precious funds. Reporters and PR staff were simply instructed to always spell the name with two ls.

As Billy eyed the ship in dock days after his humiliation on board the New York, he realized here was another way to get to Antarctica. The old, rusty-sided cargo ship would likely be less guarded than the flagship had been.

As September dragged on, Billy, back in Bayside, stiffened his resolve. No one would think he'd try again! On September 15, once more he swam out during the night to board a vessel bound for Antarctica.

Since his visit two weeks prior, Billy had studied his news clippings and knew that the Bolling was captained by thirty-six-year-old Gustav L. Brown, who'd been promoted weeks earlier from first mate of the New York when Byrd added the fourth ship to his fleet. Billy liked what he read. According to those who sailed under Brown's command, this tall and slender veteran of the Great War was above all genteel, and far less crotchety than the New York's Captain Melville. Captain Brown's education went only as far as high school, and while he wasn't against college, he admired honest, down-to-earth workers. Like his colleague Captain Melville, Brown had begun a seafaring life at fourteen. He seemed just the sort of man to take a liking to a teenage stowaway with big dreams.

Alas, the crew of the second ship headed to Antarctica now knew to look for stowaways. In a less dramatic repeat of what had happened in Hoboken, an Eleanor Bolling seaman ousted Billy in the earliest hours of the morning. The kid had (unimaginatively) hidden for a second time in a locker under the lower forecastle filled with mops and bolts and plumbing supplies. The sailor brought him to Captain Brown, who was well named, as he was a man with a mass of brown hair and warm brown eyes. The kind captain smiled at Billy and praised the cheeky boy's gumption—his Swedish accent still heavy even though he'd made Philadelphia his home since 1920—yet Billy was escorted off to the dock and told to scram.

A few hours later, still under the cover of night, Billy stole back on board and was routed out a third time, again from the “paint locker.”

A third time? The Bolling's third in command, Lieutenant Harry Adams, took notes on the gutsy kid who had to be good material for the lucrative book he secretly hoped to pen. Most of the major players would score book deals after the expedition; the public was eager for adventure, or at least so publishers thought. The catch was that any deal had to be approved by Byrd: to expose any discord was to risk powerful support. Adams's book, Beyond the Barrier with Byrd: An Authentic Story of the Byrd Antarctic Exploring Expedition, was among the best: more character study than thriller, his grand sense of humor evident in his selection of anecdotes that the others deemed too lightweight to include.

Billy was not the only stowaway that September day. Also aboard was a girl Adams called Sunshine, the "darling of the expedition," a flirt who offered to anyone who asked that she wanted to be the first lady in Antarctica. (In the restless era between world wars, when movies gave everyone big dreams, even girl stowaways were not uncommon.) Brown told a reporter that Sunshine had less noble aspirations, and soon she, too, was removed from the Bolling, but not before she gave each crew member a theatrical kiss.

As the early sun rose, Captain Brown called Billy over to him from the yacht yard's holding area where he had been asked to wait with the giggling Sunshine until his father arrived. The captain admired Billy's gumption, but it was time for the seventeen-year-old to go now and not waste any more of anyone's time.

As Lieutenant Adams recorded later, "Perhaps this matter of getting rid of Bill was entered up in the Eleanor Bolling log as the first scientific achievement of the Byrd Antarctic expedition."

*** 

From THE STOWAWAY: A Young Man's Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Copyright © 2018 by Laurie Gwen Shapiro. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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#TBT
The Truth Is In Here: Unlocking Mysteries of the Unknown
chartaediania, eBay
chartaediania, eBay

In the pre-internet Stone Age of the 20th century, knowledge-seekers had only a few options when they had a burning question that needed to be answered. They could head to their local library, ask a smarter relative, or embrace the sales pitch of Time-Life Books, the book publishing arm of Time Inc. that marketed massive, multi-volume subscription series on a variety of topics. There were books on home repair, World War II, the Old West, and others—an analog Wikipedia that charged a monthly fee to keep the information flowing.

Most of these were successful, though none seemed to capture the public’s attention quite like the 1987 debut of Mysteries of the Unknown, a series of slim volumes that promised to explore and expose sensational topics like alien encounters, crop circles, psychics, and near-death experiences.

While the books themselves were well-researched and often stopped short of confirming the existence of probing extraterrestrials, what really cemented their moment in popular culture was a series of television commercials that looked and felt like Mulder and Scully could drop in at any moment.

Airing in the late 1980s, the spots drew on cryptic teases and moody visuals to sell consumers on the idea that they, too, could come to understand some of life's great mysteries, thanks to rigorous investigation into paranormal phenomena by Time-Life’s crack team of researchers. Often, one actor would express skepticism (“Aliens? Come on!”) while another would implore them to “Read the book!” Inside the volumes were scrupulously-detailed entries about everything from the Bermuda Triangle to Egyptian gods.

Inside a volume of 'Mysteries of the Unknown'
Chartaediania, eBay

Mysteries of the Unknown grew out of an earlier Time-Life series titled The Enchanted World that detailed some of the fanciful creatures of folklore: elves, fairies, and witches. Memorably pitched on TV by Vincent Price, The Enchanted World was a departure from the publisher’s more conventional volumes on faucet repair, and successful enough that the product team decided to pursue a follow-up.

At first, Mysteries of the Unknown seemed to be a non-starter. Then, according to a 2015 Atlas Obscura interview with former Time-Life product manager Tom Corry, a global meditation event dubbed the "Harmonic Convergence" took place in August 1987 in conjunction with an alleged Mayan prophecy of planetary alignment. The Convergence ignited huge interest in New Age concepts that couldn’t be easily explained by science. Calls flooded Time-Life’s phone operators, and Mysteries of the Unknown became one of the company’s biggest hits.

"The orders are at least double and the profits are twice that of the next most successful series,'' Corry told The New York Times in 1988.

Time-Life shipped 700,000 copies of the first volume in a planned 20-book series that eventually grew to 33 volumes. The ads segued from onscreen skeptics to directly challenging the viewer ("How would you explain this?") to confront alien abductions and premonitions.

Mysteries of the Unknown held on through 1991, at which point both sales and topics had been exhausted. Time-Life remained in the book business through 2003, when it was sold to Ripplewood Holdings and ZelnickMedia and began to focus exclusively on DVD and CD sales.

Thanks to cable and streaming programming, anyone interested in cryptic phenomena can now fire up Ancient Aliens. But for a generation of people who were intrigued by the late-night ads and methodically added the volumes to their bookshelves, Mysteries of the Unknown was the best way to try and explain the unexplainable.

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