COMICS: John Reviews “Freshmen – Volumes 1 and 2” by Seth Green, Hugh Sterbakov, Leonard Kirk and Will Conrad

The Freshmen, Vol. 1

Freshmen, Vol. 1

Judging by his choices in projects alone, Seth Green must be a really cool guy.  He’s done everything from Austin Powers to The Italian Job, Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Greg the Bunny, and created his own late-night cable TV phenomenon from scratch in Robot Chicken.  Even with all that under his belt, Seth was not completely satisfied with his place in the pantheon of geekery, so he and friend Hugh Sterbakov set out to dominate their next medium of choice: Comic books!

Enter Freshmen, a charming tale of fourteen first-year college students (and one pet beaver) who would have had enough trouble learning who they really are and adjusting to life on their own without suddenly gaining some very awkward super-powers! Like most college students, they struggle with grades, party till they puke, and discover new things about themselves and others.  Unlike most college students, they have to balance all of these things with saving the world!  It’s PCU (for once, a college story that doesn’t mirror Animal House!) meets Mystery Men, but with far more developed characters and darker dramatic moments.  It’s fun for the whole dormitory!

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COMICS: John’s Double Shot of BOOM!

Since the next two books in my to-review pile are from BOOM! Studios (publisher of 2 Guns and Talent, among many other fine works,) I thought I’d review them together.  After all, what company is more suited to a “double-shot” than one called “BOOM!”?

Cover Girl

Cover Girl

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COMICS: John Reviews ‘Zombies Calling’ by Faith Erin Hicks

Hey, kids! Do you like zombie stories, but have to wait until you’re older to watch R-rated movies like Shaun of the Dead? Well, you don’t have to wait any longer for your living dead fix! Faith Erin Hicks’s first original graphic novel, Zombies Calling, is a fun-filled and action-packed horror tale that has all the fun of popular zom-coms like Evil Dead, Shaun of the Dead and (to some extent) Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but with a PG rating!

Jocelyn (or “Joss,” as she prefers to be called) is a reasonably typical Canadian college coed. She’s terrified of her mounting student loan debt, is enamoured with British culture and positively obsessed with zombie media. She claims to know all of “the Rules” of zombie fiction, though she has a much harder time remembering to study her actual coursework. On an otherwise ordinary day, her most exciting dreams and worst nightmares are realized as zombies overrun the campus! Joss quickly barricades herself and her friends (studly, dimwitted jock Robyn and sardonic mall-goth Sonnet) in her dorm room where they plan to use Joss’s knowledge of “the Rules” to survive until help arrives.

Will Robyn, Sonnet and Joss survive the zombie outbreak? Will Joss still have to face the nightmare of insurmountable debt? Will she ever get to realize her dream and visit Merry Olde England? And what’s the deal with the zombies, anyway?! The answers to all these questions and more are waiting to be read by you in Zombies Calling!

Judging by her love for the subjects in this book, Faith Erin Hicks must be nearly as zombieand Britishobsessed as I am. There are dozens of homages to the great creators and works of the sub-genre, from the first pair of zombies exclaiming “Grr! Arrgh!” to Joss’s scathing derision of the lone “fast zombie.” Pay close attention to the posters on Joss’s dorm room wall for a few more nods. Joss longs for a zombie-destroying cricket bat, but has to settle for a change jar and, later, a spork (which makes for some of the best humor in the book!) And what would a piece of zombie fiction be without some form of social commentary? The zombie master puts things into a very humorous perspective that anyone can understand, but college students will especially appreciate.

It took until nearly the end of the book for me to stop judging it by standards that do not apply. Zombies Calling is not cut from the same cloth as any of its predecessors, with the possible exception of Shaun of the Dead. If you are expecting a dark tale about the collapse of society in the face of rampant consumerism (of flesh!) or any other heavy social metaphor, you are looking in the wrong place. This is a light-hearted look at zombies that stabs the fourth wall with a mighty jab from its blood-covered spork. Its ideal adaptation (in my mind) would be an animated prime-time special on Cartoon Network. I say a special rather than a movie because it is rather short in length, only taking one hour at most to read through (if you’re not hunting for homages.)

Faith Erin Hicks not only wrote Zombies Calling, but pencilled, inked and lettered it as well. She admits that her style is reminiscent of Bryan Lee O’Malley (Scott Pilgrim) and Andi Watson (Clubbing, Glister, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and I completely agree. In particular, Sonnet bears a striking resemblance to Charlotte, the protagonist of Clubbing. The characters each have their own unique looks (Sonnet notwithstanding) and the action is kinetic and dynamic without being graphic. Also, it’s very funny to watch Joss fend off packs of zombies with nothing but a hybrid utensil. The panel layouts are straightforward and easy to follow, which is perfect for an all-ages (or at least ages 8 and up) book.

I would recommend Zombies Calling for anyone who enjoys zom-coms and can laugh at their better-known conventions, but doesn’t require layers of subtext underneath the menace of flesh-eating undead. It may still be a bit too much of a horror book for younger readers, but I would put it on par with your average R.L. Stine book in terms of scariness. As joss would say, it’s bloody brilliant!

BOOKS: John reviews Alex Robinson’s “Too Cool to Be Forgotten”

Have you ever had that horrible dream where you find yourself back in high school, dreading the inevitable pop quizzes and lunchroom social climbing?  I know I’ve had variations of that nightmare every few months since graduation.  But what if you really were transported back in time and forced to relive your most awkward teen years?  Alex Robinson tackles this idea in a surprisingly gripping, funny and touching way in his latest original graphic novel, Too Cool to Be Forgotten.

The story begins with 39-year-old Andy Wicks seeking the help of a professional hypnotherapist to cure his addiction to smoking.  A prematurely balding mid-level manager at a moderately successful software company with a wife and two daughters (one from his wife’s previous marriage), Andy’s life is about as mediocre as can be imagined.  He has had no luck kicking his addiction to cigarettes, and so agrees to put his skepticism aside and attempt hypnotherapy for the sake of his wife’s (and children’s) health  Under the hypnotic light, he is getting very sleepy…

…When he wakes up, he finds himself (much to his surprise and alarm) in his old high school.  As if that wasn’t odd enough, people seem to be reacting to him very differently.  When he checks his reflection in the bathroom mirror, he is shocked to find that not only is he back in his high school building, he is sixteen years old and back in high school! Is he doomed to repeat the most awkward and embarrassing years of his life all over again?  Will he be able to return to the future without making drastic changes to history?  Will he learn why any of this has happened?  Well, I don’t want to spoil it for you.  You’ll have to read it for yourself to learn the truth.

I will gladly tell you, however, that the book is a joy to read from start to finish.  Hollywood executives, if given this premise, would probably have turned out a typical drek-fest (“It’s 13-going-on-30 BACKWARDS meets Never Been Kissed!  We’ll cast We’ll cast Jennifer Garner and Miley Cyrus as “Andie Wicks,” take out the smoking angle, and make it a musical!!!”)  Thankfully, Alex Robinson refuses to go down that road.  The result feels much more like a combination of Superbad and Garden State, with a spoonful of generic John Hughes thrown in to give it that distinctive ’80s flavor we all know and love.  Speaking of that ’80s flavor, Alex stuck to actual high school yearbooks for his stylistic inspiration instead of the more “traditional” movies of the era.  He remarked in an interview that, “I don’t know how it was for other people but I was really surprised looking back at how un-eighties [kids in the eighties] actually looked. There were still a lot of kids with long hair, almost more seventies looking, instead of the spikey, new wave look that Hollywood featured at the time.”

Swinging back around to my Judd Apatow and Zach Braff comparisons, I would say that Alex shows in Too Cool To Be Forgotten that he has the same talent for giving characters realistic voices for both comedy and drama, letting them show more personality and depth of character than the average teen story.  The book gets a bit emotionally heavy toward the end, but it is handled in a way that reminds me of the most human parts of Garden State (specifically the conversation between Andrew and his father near the end of the film.) I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the exceptional quality of TCTBF‘s artwork, which manages to capture the feel of vapid teenageriness as easily as it expresses deeply powerful emotional imagery, though the transitions between the two are sometimes less than seamless.  Still, there are pages that will stick in your memory long after you read the book, and ones where you’ll understand the emotions of the scene before you even start paying attention to the panels themselves.  I’ll throw out three other (wildly different) artists that I was reminded of at turns: Webcomic superstar Scott Kurtz (of PVP fame), legendary (and somewhat legendarily awkward) comix artist R. Crumb, and king of unusual panel layouts J.H. Williams II.  I’ll warn you, though, visual art is not really something I have as much familiarity with.  When it comes to those comparisons, your mileage may vary.

I highly recommend Too Cool to Be Forgotten to anyone who enjoys character-driven stories that feature light-hearted humor mixed with real, touching moments.  I especially recommend it to anyone who has ever woken up in a cold sweat, panicked that they didn’t study for that final exam or that they’ll have to go stag to the prom (even when they know their prom happened years ago.)  Those nightmares may never go away, but maybe TCTFB will help you appreciate how lucky you are to have gotten out of high school alive.

P.S.: It’s worth noting that TCTFB is a very quick read.  If you’re determined, you can probably read it from start to finish in under two hours.  I recommend that you take your time, though, since some of the more subtle bits of dialog and artwork are what make the book such a joy to read.