Is any major publisher embracing digital comics in so compelling a manner as Top Shelf right now? A few months back, I enjoyed Alex Robinson’s Lower Regions: Defense of the West Gate, a digital-only project for $2 on Comixology that follows up his “Lower Regions” hack & slash dungeon fantasy book from 2007. It’s a 26-page comic that I’m guessing wouldn’t have otherwise been seen, except maybe as a convention special or similar, due to publishing economics. And, while a little slight, I’m sure that many of Robinson’s fans enjoyed the snippet of a story as much as I did — after all, “some Marla” is better than “no Marla,” and “some Robinson” is better than waiting until his next major project comes out.
But as much as I enjoy indie fantasy comics such as Lower Regions, I must say that Top Shelf’s latest digital offering, Double Barrel, ups the ante. The same two-dollar price affords the reader more than 120 pages of story split between the non-related Zander Cannon (of Smax and Top 10 fame) and Kevin Cannon (Far Arden). An intro, a letters page, and a text piece on “how to get off your butt and draw a graphic novel” are nice bonuses and bookends for the meaty, meaty middle: the first installments of two serialized stories, “Heck,” by Zander, and “Crater XV,” by Kevin (which is a follow-up to Far Arden, starring the same central character, Army Shanks.) Future volumes promise to be the same price for about half the size, still a monumental bang for your buck.
Of course, if the content isn’t worth a damn, it doesn’t matter how much you’re getting, right? But everything is at least enjoyable, and some of the content really stands out. Capsule reviews:
HECK by Zander Cannon
“Heck” has a really creepy premise, some fine cartooning, and I quite enjoy the stylized design of the whole thing. A washed up high school football hero, nicknamed “Heck,” returns to his home town for a funeral and discovers his family home literally has a gateway to hell in the basement. Of all the directions this could go, Heck sets up an agency for which he’ll travel to hell to seek answers from or get messages to the dead . . . for a price. There are definitive rules for how hell works–where the party in question would have ended up based on his or her sins; how Heck can communicate with his client while way-down-under, how different areas of hell and its denizens can be circumnavigated.
It’s complex and heady and interesting, but all the talky-talky makes the story a little more ponderous than breathtaking, at least until the first trip downstairs begins. Granted, this is just chapter one. The art is odd, stylized, and maybe the perfect vehicle for the out-there premise.
Heck himself strikes me as oddly gravelly, I imagine his voice to be like a throaty Nick Nolte type. Amy, Heck’s perpetually veiled love interest/client, may subtly be as creepy as anything else in the book visually (this is a good thing). Those over-wide, almond eyes with blank irises emphasize something of a lack of humanity, even as Heck’s chiseled face hint at a man who’s been chewed up and spit out a few times too many. Design-wise, Heck’s mummy-like sidekick is a standout–a PVC figure of which would be right at home among the tchotchkes at Urban Outfitters.
On balance: an initial thumbs up based on fine start, original premise; very interested to see what comes next. If it’s more weird, conceptual stuff in action (rather than being talked about), I think this’ll be a winner.
CRATER XV by Kevin Cannon
As mentioned above, this is a follow-up to Kevin’s Far Arden, which itself was a highly original tome concerning the adventures of Army Shanks’ adventures on the Canadian High Seas. Shanks has basically let himself go, but seems to be on the verge of getting wrapped up in an outer-space exploration adventure, even as he finds an innocent girl to protect (perhaps to right the scales on past failures).
I like Far Arden quite a bit — but Kevin seems to have leveled up with “Crater XV.”
While Far Arden was successful in integrating humor, I found “Crater XV” to verge on hilarious in parts thus far. The send-up of government diplomats was bitingly funny. The cartooning is terrific, with really effective use of shadows and movement and lettering to further the action or the visual jokes. The pencils are a lot tighter than Far Arden, but even so still invoke that sort of rubbery, exaggerated violence and movement to a satisfying hyper-level. And the more serious undertones give it some weight, much as the predecessor.
While I don’t think you need to have read Far Arden to dig Crater XV, it’s readily available digitally as well–400 pages for $5 as of today.
While I’d be remiss to leave paper comics behind, if books like Double Barrel prove to be the wave of the future, I’ll feel a
hell heck of a lot better about it.