5 Most Interesting Comics of the Week

Fellowship of Reconciliation FORUSA.org
Fellowship of Reconciliation FORUSA.org / Fellowship of Reconciliation FORUSA.org

Every Wednesday, I preview the five most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, Comixology, Kickstarter and the web. If there's a release you're excited about, let's talk about it in the comments.

1. Martin Luther King And The Montgomery Story

Written by Alfred Hassler and Benton Resnik; artist unknown
Fellowship of Reconciliation/Top Shelf Comics

Back in August, Top Shelf Comics published March: Book One, a new graphic novel autobiography written by Civil Rights hero and US Congressman John Lewis (along with co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell). What inspired Lewis to tell his story in this format was a comic book published in 1957 called Martin Luther King And The Montgomery Story, a recounting of the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama and an introduction to King and his philosophy of non-violent protest. This comic was integral to the rise of the civil rights movement in the U.S. and now is being released for the first time as an official digital comic.

The original comic was produced by a non-profit, civil justice organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) which to this day still distributes the book in pamphlet form, translated into many languages. FOR's Director of Publications at the time, Alfred Hassler, wrote the comic with help from Benton Resnik, a veteran of the then-struggling comic book industry. They worked on it with input from Dr. King himself and Resnik managed the production of the comic, but no credits were printed in the book. To this day it is not known who the artist of the book was. FOR has now partnered with Top Shelf Comics, the publisher of Lewis' graphic novel, to distribute the book in a digital bundle along with March: Book One via the Comixology digital platform for web, tablet and mobile devices. 

The comic tells the story of how the Montgomery Bus Boycott came to be, from Rosa Parks quietly refusing to move to the back of the bus to the Supreme Court ruling bus segregation in Montgomery illegal. It also tells, in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s own words, how the "Montgomery Method" could be used to gain freedom across the nation and how similar methods were used by Mahatma Gandhi. It is very nicely illustrated, and even though it is dated in its comic book style and fairly antiseptic in its portrayal of the uglier parts of the racial struggles of that time, it is still a very compelling and informative read.

When Dr. King and the Fellowship of Reconciliation were looking for the best way to get the message of the Montgomery story out to African Americans, the idea of producing it as a comic book appealed to them for a number of reasons. Primarily, the use of pictures and words would allow people of all ages and reading abilities to understand what was being told. At the time, many blacks who were found reading books, newspapers or magazines by white employers would see them confiscated and destroyed. Comic books, having been recently decimated as an industry by a panic that targeted them as a cause of juvenile delinquency, were the perfect "low brow" delivery method to fly under the radar of suspicious white segregationists.

The comic spread far and wide, delivering King's message to those who needed it. It directly inspired peaceful protests across the nation, such as the Woolworth sit-in by The Greensboro Four, and has even inspired similar movements in South Africa and most recently in Egypt where it was translated into Arabic and Farsi. It might possibly be one of the most important comic books ever made and it is now exploring a new avenue via Comixology.

I highly recommend reading this detailed history of the making of the comic, written by March: Book One co-author Andrew Aydin.

At this time, the comic cannot be purchased individually but you can buy it with March Book One for $9.99 on Comixology here and all the proceeds go to the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

2. A Gas Gas Gas

Written by Nate DiMeo; art by Dan Berry

BoingBoing has become quite the breeding ground for high quality webcomics of late. Branching from the success of Ed Piskor's Hip Hop Family Tree (which is hitting stores this month as a graphic novel from Fantagraphics), they started a new webcomic from Lea Hernandez two weeks ago called Bani Garu, and this past week launched the first of a new series called Memory Palace Comics.

Nate DiMeo is a producer and contributor to various NPR shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition and is the host of his own podcast The Memory Palace. Each episode of his show tells a true but perhaps little-known story from a broad range of historical subjects presented in the vein of popular storytelling radio programs such as This American Life. DiMeo decided to begin adapting some of these stories visually by partnering with cartoonist Dan Berry to create this new webcomic.

Berry himself is no stranger to podcasts. He is the host of one of my favorite podcasts, Make It Then Tell Everybody, in which he interviews other comic artists and illustrators about their process. He is a British cartoonist who works primarily in pen and watercolor. His charming style, within the creepy but humorous context of this piece, has a bit of an Edward Gorey or Richard Sala vibe to it.

In "A Gas Gas Gas", DiMeo and Berry tell the true story of a mysterious incident in 1944 in which over 20 people in Mattoon, Illinois suddenly and mysteriously were stricken with gas poisoning. Who or what was causing this widespread epidemic? The story unfolds in the way that listeners of shows like This American Life or RadioLab will find familiar and enjoyable, as the narrator attempts to get to the truth of the matter at hand and put it into a little bit of perspective.

You can read "A Gas Gas Gas" here and DiMeo suggests listening to the original podcast here as you read along for added effect. Hopefully, more installments will be added soon.

3. Amazing X-men #1

Written by Jason Aaron; art by Ed McGuiness
Marvel Comics

Nightcrawler, the X-men's adventure-loving, teleporting, demonic-blue elf, died three years ago in the crossover event Second Coming, sacrificing himself to save the so-called "Mutant Messiah" named Hope. Three years is kind of an eternity for any character to be dead in the world of superhero comics. Then again, there has been a darker, more violent version of Nightcrawler from the "Age of Apocalypse" alternate universe that has been hanging out in comics like Uncanny X-Force for most of that time. Also, in Wolverine & The X-men, there have been ongoing appearances by mischievous creatures referred to as "Bamfs" who seems to share Nightcrawler's teleporting ability and the sound effect ("Bamf!") it makes. I guess there's also a Nightcrawler in Marvel's Ultimate Universe of comics which is still chugging along (barely). So, these three years have not been totally devoid of Nightcrawler but, if you've missed the real deal, good news: He's coming back in a new series called Amazing X-men.

Marvel already publishes more X-men books than most people can reasonably keep up with, but this new one is actually replacing the recently ended Astonishing X-men, resulting in no actual net gain of X-books. It is written by Jason Aaron and will act as a companion book to Aaron's popular Wolverine & The X-men. The cast of that book, which centers around the teachers and students of the Jean Grey School For Higher Learning, has grown quickly since it launched in 2011. Aaron and Marvel have decided to move some of the regular non-student cast into this more classic, X-men team adventure comic so that W&TXM can re-focus on being a book about the school. 

In the first arc of this new series, Wolverine receives a message from the afterlife from his old friend Nightcrawler and decides to form a team to help bring him back. The new team consists of Storm, Northstar, Iceman, Beast and Firestar. Yes, that Firestar. Originally from the old Saturday morning cartoon Spider-man and His Amazing Friends, Firestar has been kicking around the Marvel Universe for years without finding a real permanent place. This is the first time she'll be a member of the X-men.

Nightcrawler's death had a big emotional impact on his teammates and his loss has been felt by all of them, but especially Wolverine. One of the reasons Logan has become the headmaster of the Jean Grey School was to try to be a better man in honor of his old friend. It's one of the great things about the X-men as a team book how its large, sprawling cast relates to each other in different ways. Wolverine, especially, seems to have poignant relationships with many of the longtime members in ways that soften his tough guy exterior. These are the kinds of things that  Chris Claremont, the architect of the modern day X-men from the 70s to the 90s, instilled in the DNA of the book. New writers like Jason Aaron come into these books seeking to capture some of that old magic in their new stories.

There's a short preview of the first issue available here.

4. Maria M.

By Gilbert Hernandez

Some of my favorite Gilbert Hernandez comics are ones that he wrote to be comic adaptations of fictional B-movies starring his popular and endearing creation, Fritz, the buxom, lispy therapist-turned-actress. So far there have been three: Chance in Hell, The Troublemakers and Love From The Shadows. It's a clever device that allows Hernandez to tell sexy, pulpy stories that are outside yet still connected to the continuity of his usual stories about the immigrants and descendants of the fictional Latin American country of Palomar. He always seems to deftly capture the B-movie quality of films like this in his drawings through his staging of scenes, his "camera angles" and his use of stilted dialogue. The fact that these stories are actually movies made within Hernandez' Palomar continuity is mostly incidental to the reading of the books but they add a fun meta-layer to it for  fans of his work.

In his latest, Maria M., he adds a new layer to the concept. In this "movie", Fritz is starring in an adaptation of the life story of her mother Maria, which Gilbert has previously told in his classic graphic novel Poison River (originally serialized in the long-running, groundbreaking anthology comic he has done with his brother Jaime, Love & Rockets). So, for the record, this one is a comic book adaptation of a fake film adaptation of the fictional life of a comic book character. In the book, we meet Maria as she comes to America and is lured into the world of pornography and crime, eventually marrying a drug lord. 

Fantagraphics has a NSFW 13-page preview here.

5. Alex + Ada #1

Written by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn; art by Jonathan Luna
Image Comics

The Luna brothers (Jonathan and Joshua) were Image Comics mainstays in the early 2000s, producing three back-to-back high-concept mini-series that combined a Hollywood style of lite comedy and suspenseful drama packaged with polished digitally colored artwork whose use of blurs and lighting effects gave their comics a glossy sheen that makes them look like stills from an animated film. Beginning with Ultra, their super heroine as Sex in the City romance comic followed by Girls, a zombie-horror story in which the "zombies" are beautiful, naked, flesh-eating women, and finally The Sword, a Kill Bill-stye revenge story involving a supernatural sword, the Luna Brothers made fun genre comics, usually starring strong female characters. And then, in 2010, they took some time off from making comics.

This week, one of the brothers, Jonathan, makes his return to comics (without Joshua but the two plan on a new collaboration soon). Coincidentally, he's been gone from comics the same amount of time as Nightcrawler has been dead, and similarly, it feels longer than it's been. This time out, Jonathan has teamed up with writer Sarah Vaughn who is making her debut in print comics after a nerve injury forced her to abandon the drawing of her webcomic co-creation Sparkshooter

Alex + Ada is a 12-issue mini-series set in the near future, in which a lonely, detached young man named Alex is given the gift of a state-of-the art female android named Ada to be his romantic companion. With Luna's cold, emotionless take on this world, think Weird Science directed by Stanley Kubrick. The future Alex lives in is a mere extension of our own, with humans living a very passive existence, telepathically thinking commands to various artificially intelligent devices around their homes and offices ("Unlock door." "Lights on."). A year before, an incident occurred in which the first AI achieved sentience so the lines between humans and robots are blurring, which sets the stage nicely for the story's unnatural romantic pairing. 

You can read a preview as well as an interview with Luna and Vaughn here.