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Monday, March 16, 2009

The Castaways - A Suspended Animation Review From 2004

Tucker Freeman is 13 years young, and living the hobo's life on the road. Not because he wants to, mind you, but it's the age of the Great Depression, and, in the wake of his father walking out on the family, he feels it's his responsibility to go out and find work, so as to be a help to the family, instead of a burden. Along the way, he meets an interesting individual, who becomes a trustworthy friend; an old hobo named Elijah Hopkins. During his time with Elijah, Tucker learns about being a hobo (as opposed to a "tramp," or a "bum"), as well as being a decent human being.

Written by Rob Vollmar, The Castaways is a poignant, thoughtful, engrossing tale, largely influenced by conversations with the author's grandmother, as well as a documentary on the Depression. You see, there is a great deal of emotional investment in Castaways, and it shows. Vollmar doesn't write two-dimensional characters, here. Somehow, he manages to breathe a semblance of life into Tucker and Elijah, making the reader care about what happens to them. This book is a fine compliment to Rob's skills as a writer.

Artist Pablo G. Callejo uses a highly-detailed style of rendering that is easily as important as the writing for bringing the characters to life, in this tale. Reminiscent of Rick Geary's work, Callejo excels in the black and white medium, showing a wonderful grasp of light, shadow and textures. Though his characters' expressions are sometimes over-simplified, overall, he shows much promise in this area, as well. I hope to see more of Pablo's work, in the future.
The Castaways is highly recommended for all ages, and is believed, by this reviewer, to be a great candidate for a classroom comics selection, being both entertaining, AND historically relevant.

The Castaways, published by Absence of Ink Comic Press, 56 pages, $5.95. Look for it at comic shops, comic conventions and online auctions. For the comic shop near you, call 1-888-comicbook.

Review by Mark Allen

Button Man - A Suspended Animation Review From 2004

Harry Exton is a "button man;" a paid killer. And he can't stop killing. He daren't, you see, because he's been hired to play a game... a killing game. At any time, he, and other mercenaries, may get a call from one of the "voices," men they never meet face to face, who decide the time, place and players. But Harry wants out, which is against the rules. How does he escape this vicious cycle when even the other button men will kill him to keep him from leaving?

The scenario of Button Man is fairly straightforward; its execution (no pun intended) is what is so remarkable. Originally written for a British comic entitled Toxic, it later ended up running in the U.K.'s 2000 AD. In 1995, it was collected in an oversized graphic novel format by Kitchen Sink Press.

Lucky for comics readers in the U.S., as it could be considered one of the most engaging comic works of the last couple of decades. Writer John Wagner weaves an intensely visceral tale that goes right for the reader's jugular. Exton, the leading character, is extremely believable as a ruthless killer, not hindered by any ethical restraints, but unsatisfied with a situation out of his control. There are no redeeming moral qualities to Exton, so readers shouldn't look for them. Wagner stays true to the character.

What to say about artist Arthur Ranson's work...? We don't see enough of it in the U.S. Much has been said about comic artists with a sense of realism in their work. None, however, has outdone Ranson. His fine line work and detailed composition are seen in every aspect of his craft. Combined with the 9" x 12" format, Button Man achieved a "cinematic" look years before such a style became popular in comics books.

Button Man is recommended for adults who enjoy great action, mystery and intrigue.

Button Man, published by Kitchen Sink Press, 96 pages, $15.95. Find it at your local comic shop.

Review by Mark Allen

Broad Appeal - A Suspended Animation Review From 2004

"Womens is frickle," says Popeye, and he is right. But the one-eyed sailor doesn't generalize enough. Women are also intelligent, kind, loving, loyal, industrious, nurturing, and social--very, very social.

Broad Appeal is a paperback anthology, a social gathering of words and art about the lives and thoughts of women. It is published by The Friends of Lulu, a "national not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting the works of female cartoonists and involving more women in the readership of comics". That is a worthy mission but one with an inherent problem that, when reversed, leaves women yelling at men. Despite a cover blurb that reads "An Anthology....for Everyone!", everyone may buy, but only women cartoonists are allowed inside.

Friends.... is a discriminatory organization. A discussion on equality must wait for another column.

A discussion of style, however, is appropriate in Suspended Animation, but difficult. Why? The word broad can be an insulting comment on a women's anatomy or mean "wide, full, complete". Broad Appeal is stylistically wide and full.

The art in each one-to-four page piece ranges from a minimalist doodle to a polished, realistic style. Overall, it looks like a '60s under-ground comic book, and no one will either like or hate every style represented.

Its content is what will separate the men from the boys from this title. Don't except much adventure in the broadest (sorry, I couldn't resist) sense of the term. A tiny sliver of the superhero, SF, and fantasy genres does little to diminish a huge pie about female relationships.

This is a Chick Flick on paper.

But wise men know that unless you understand the gender, you will never enjoy the fruits of the list that began this column.

And that list is far from complete.

Broad Appeal is recommended for women of all ages, and for men with the courage to want to understand women of all ages.

Broad Appeal/128 pgs. & $9.95 /available at comics shops and

Michael Vance

The Bristol Board Jungle - A Suspended Animation Review From 2004

"Reality TV" has come to comic books. This paper documentary is about students butting heads with the real work involved in producing a comic book, and was created by a real college class at the Savanna College of Art & Design. That means that The Bristol Board is a fanzine (a magazine produced by amateurs) with high production values.

But it is more. While it's true that the stories within the larger context of this graphic novel are too short and unpolished to entertain on their own, that larger story is entertaining.

Its strength lies not in the superhero, 'indie' or manga/shojo girlie styles of art and story, but in the extremely well done characterization of the students and their interplay in and outside of the classroom.

Comic book fans and budding cartoonists should see much of them-selves in The Bristol Board.

Review by Michael Vance

Bone - A Suspended Animation Review From 2004

I wish comic books were a part of mainstream America. I mean, the millions of people who enjoy the comic strips in their local newspaper, but scoff at the thought of reading a comic book (what's up with that?) really don't know what they're missing. Especially considering those exceptionally good books that I believe mainstream America would enjoy, if they gave them a chance, and if someone got them into mass marketing. One of those books is Bone: Out From Boneville, the first collection in several volumes, by creator, writer and artist Jeff Smith.

What is Bone? It's a combination of things, really. Things like fantasy, adventure, humor, and even a little horror, done in such a way that all ages can enjoy. It's Dungeons and Dragons, meets Walt Disney, with just a bit of The Lord of the Rings tossed in. Yet, it all smacks of freshness and originality.

In this volume, the three Bones (Phone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone) have been banished from Boneville (where else?), and are on their own in a strange land containing talking bugs, vicious, but not-too-smart rat creatures, a rather large red dragon, and the like. Landing smack-dab in the middle of an ages-old conflict, one of the Bones is sought out by the rat creatures, who hope to rid the valley of the "Great Red Dragon." Adventure, intrigue, and hilarity ensue.

Not only does Jeff Smith's elaborate writing and characterization thrill the reader, but his artwork is unmatched in it's ability to render simple cartoon-like characters and well-detailed, dramatic ones in the same frame, all of whom he is somehow able to make the reader care about. There is, quite simply, no reason for anyone not to take the first volume of Bone for a spin. They would soon desire more.

Bone: Out From Boneville, published by Cartoon Books, 142 pages, $12.95.

Recommended for all ages, Bone: Out From Boneville can be found at comic shops, comic conventions, some bookstores online auctions and at

Review by Mark Allen