I've just spent the last few days reading all 12 issues of this incredible anthology, and after all my intense studying of something like 1000 pages of comics, I've come to a really stunningly obvious conclusion: Dark Horse Presents really does represent everything that's good about comic books. Editor Mike Richardson has assembled an anthology comic that is unique, diverse, and full of intriguing material from an amazing assemblage of often brilliantly talented creators. Every issue contains a mix of some of the finest writers and artists in the world of comics — not just that amazing crew listed above, but also brilliant, legendary cartoonists like Neal Adams and Howard Chaykin, still creating challenging and intelligent work.
Most of all, Richardson has a fascinating intent for DHP, a subtle but extremely specific agenda that any comics reader should appreciate: Richardson wants to bring great and unique comics by great and talented creators to readers who will find the material interesting. Juxtaposing all these diverse comics next to each other allows comics fans to discover comics that they may never have found. I've been reading comics for most of my life but had never had a chance to read many issues of Carla Speed McNeil's Finder. And McNeil's stories have been a revelation — a tremendously fascinating and thoroughly unique world filled with complex characters who feel full of life. I've fallen in love with the world that "Speed" created, and I might never have discovered it without the brilliant editorship of Mike Richardson.
Best of all, the comic costs a mere $7.99 per issue. If my math is right, that's about the cost of two issues of Avengers vs. X-Men. Umm, need I say more?
Well, yeah, because all of these stories deserve some individual love…
Nexus: Bad Moon Rising Chapter 1
(Mike Baron/Steve Rude/Glenn Whitmore)
Nexus is back — the classic comic from Mike Baron and Steve Rude, the unjustifiably forgotten greatest science fiction comic of all time, featuring some breathtaking art and a slew of easter eggs and other cool treats for older readers of this series like me — plus hopefully some new coolness for new readers. I've been reading this comic for what seems like a hundred years at this point, and this series never disappoints. Steve Rude's art just gets more and more polished all the time, while Mike Baron demonstrates some of the best and smartest attributes of world building — namely that it seems a smart writer has a nearly infinite amount of stories that can spin as much from the characters in the story as from the events that the comic depicts.
Unfortunately I do have a few complaints about this story. Rude's character work is as great as it ever has been, but he doesn't draw a lot of backgrounds. There are an awful lot of panels and pages where characters seem to exist in a great cloud of white or yellow or purple in the background. For a comic that should be all about literal world building, Rude doesn't do nearly enough to place the reader in that world — see my comments below on the Finder story for thoughts on this sort of world building done right with the art.
And while Baron's writing is smart and clever, sometimes it's too clever — a reference to a classic Credence Clearwater Revival falls flat for me, while many of the twists and turns of this plot seem to revolve around knowledge of Nexus's universe.
But for all its flaws the return of Great Nexus is a real treat. Great Goulessarian, it is!
Mr. X: Hard Candy Chapter 1
Mr. X is back — the equally classic psychological horror/sci-fi/urban mystery mash-up has — has also returned to comics, with some cool page design, an equally bizarre mystery and the best, most art-deco illustration in comics.
Dean Motter's classic creation has always been all about the dizzying cityscapes, mysterious characters, wonderful design elements and complex page layouts. And by those criteria he delivers a classic Mr. X story. The splash page alone is a really stunning piece of work. And if the story leaves me a little bit cold because it's more about the design than the characters on some level — well, that actually is kind of perfectly well suited to this story as well.
Aliens: Inhuman Condition Chapter 1
(John Layman/Sam Kieth/John Kalisz)
There's a new Aliens story in DHP #12 — by the amazing creative team of John Layman and Sam Kieth — that features a bizarrely existential menace that is as spooky and haunting and downright weird as the Aliens that linger in the background of this story like a bad dream.
I'm struggling to figure out a term to use for Sam Kieth's art here. Maybe… existential? Weirdly unspecific about the characters he draws? His work here has passion and energy and a completely appropriate sort of otherworldly feel that is perfectly well suited for science fiction stories.
The reader never quite feels comfortable in this story, always a bit lost and full of a completely logical sort of questions. These aren't questions like you might find in most comics, or even most stories featuring those horrible movie star Aliens. We're left wondering why Jean is carrying her pink bear everywhere she goes, and whether the bear can actually speak. We are wondering why she apparently left home and why Jean's mom seems oddly unconcerned about her. We're wondering why there are so many identical humanoid robots and what in the world the Aliens have to do with all of this.
Most of all, I never would have bought an issue of an Aliens series, even one by Layman and Kieth if it hadn't been in this anthology. And I ended up loving the story. See, that Mike Richardson is a smart editor!
Finder: Third World Chapter 10
(Carla Speed McNeil/Jenn Manley Lee/Bill Mudron)
There's a new chapter of Karla Speed McNeil's Finder, a completely bewitching journey to a complex and completely fleshed out world that feels simultaneously comfortable and completely alien all at the same time, and illustrated with some equally complex and wonderful art.
McNeil has been the star of these twelve issues for me. Her work on this serial has been nothing short of brilliant — serving up an incredibly complex worldview in the most absolutely compelling possible way. In this story, a Finder finds himself in a completely strange place called the Third World — a place where nobody has the slightest idea why it got its name. McNeil probes that idea in some really intriguing ways, bringing in tiny little elements that add up to some completely intriguing characters.
She has a fantastic knack for adding the small and unexplained details that bring her world to life, giving readers a thoroughly intriguing and thoroughly mysterious look at a strange world. Are the characters on the first pages dying clothes or doing something else? Is the boy on page two wearing a soccer shirt? Is the man on page three a Hassidic Jew or something else entirely? What in the world is the true story of Third World anyway?
It's all mystery and folklore and humor and a piercingly intense intelligence and I really must seek out the Finder collections from Dark Horse because this stuff is a virtual textbook on how to do great comics.
Criminal Macabre: They Fight by Night Chapter 3
(Steve Niles/Christopher Mitten/Michelle Madsen/Nate Piekos)
There's a new Criminal Macabre story written by Steve Niles starring his fantastic Cal McDonald and Mo'lock, with Niles's customary mix of horror and humor and awesome intensity and very cool character moments. It's yet another great example of world building — huh, is that the secret hidden theme of this comic? That the creators build complex and interesting worlds for their characters to live in? — and Michelle Madsen's loose but fulfilling art gives this story a wonderful sort of slacker intensity that perfectly fits the spirit of the story that the team is telling.
There's yet more smart work in this comic, building a specific world in which the characters live. The redheaded werewolf lives in a very specific location, and the team makes it an important part of their work to make the place seem real. If that's not the mark of professionalism, I don't know what is.
The Creep Chapter 2
(John Arcudi/Jonathan Case/Nate Piekos)
And the Creep story that continues in this issue has a surprising amount of sweetness and character-building as it builds an eerily calm story about suicides in a small town, with gorgeous art by Jonathan Case and smart writing by John Arcudi. I can see why Case is so critically acclaimed these days. His art has a wonderful sense of specificity to it, even with its somewhat cartoony art style. The characters in this story all seem to be carrying the weight of the world on their ample shoulders, and Case does a wonderful job of conveying their pain.
Okay, I hope you'll forgive me for rushing through the last few stories in this comic. I told you this was a massive handful of comics!
The Eltingville Comic Book, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and Role-Playing Club goes zombie at the hands of the always breathtaking Evan Dorkin, as our favorite band of geeks see their moment of pop culture glee evaporate, as always, by the fact that geeks eat their own.
We get more mystic creatures lurking around the pages of the Occultist, as two rather complex heroes work to track down zombies and other mystic creepy-crawlies, including one so inept that he actually drives a stake through his own heart — thanks to the always fun Tim Seeley and the equally fun Victor Drujiniu.
Francesco Francavilla delivers a noir hero from World War II with the Black Beetle, a dark and intense journey into wartime blood and guts.
And — as if all that isn't enough – we get horror of a completely different sort, as two loser prison escapees meet their hellish fate in a classic story by the great Harlan Ellison, "Sensible City."
What a fantastic group of comics. You'll be hard pressed to find a better 80 pages of comics between the covers of any book.
It's an easy choice. You have the choice of buying a collection of some of the finest creative material ever to grace the pages of a comics magazine, or you have a chance to buy this month's regurgitated, thoroughly unsatisfying, complete and utter crap that will just drive you crazy anyway.
What the hell are you thinking? Go for the quality stuff.