Steven Surman's Five Independent Favorites of 2010

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There’s a question that continually pokes my brain as I read a fresh comic book from a hopeful, independent creator: “Why bother?”

It’s a sad, cynical quandary, but a fair one none the less. Because, truly, why bother? Major publishing and media companies alike are falling to their knees. Some have accounting books so far in the red they could be mistaken for a murder scene. And if publishers are fast approaching the looming day when they will have to tackle the digital medium head-on, what chance does the forgotten world of small and independent publishing have?

A fair question for me, perhaps, but I’ve learned that questioning the purpose of their books rarely enters into the creative equation of budding writers and artists. For true talents create because they must, and not simply because they want to. This is where the muse is born, outside of material considerations like financing and publishing. Of course they’re eventual concerns, but not until after the spark has ignited and the story, through both words and art, has been told.

I’ve had the privilege of reading countless independent comic books this past year, all of which are true labors of love. And while there are some I didn’t enjoy personally, most of them I liked—but all of them I respected as the personal expressions that they were. And then there is the handful, the small selection of titles that stand out among all books for their strength of story and the potency of their artwork.

From this year, there are five books that stand out among all others. These are not awards I’m handing out, so the following titles should not be confused with the 2010 BF Awards. Rather, these are special mentions on my part; books that I want to personally enter into the Broken Frontier discussion one more time this year.

And my five independent favorites of this year are:

1.) Penny for Your Soul

Preacher and Vertigo are two comparisons I repeatedly make in regards to this Big Dog Ink miniseries. It tells the story of Danica, the proprietor of the Eternity Hotel and Casino, where for the small price of one’s soul, any visitor will be granted $10,000 to use as he or she sees fit. It’s an operation Danica and her gal pal, Mary “Maggie” Magdalene, have been overseeing for some time now. It’s little surprise, however, that the forces of both heaven and hell have taken notice of the souls being siphoned off by the Eternity. And thus, Danica’s adventure begins.

Writer Tom Hutchison is a master storyteller here. Not one panel is out of place nor is one word misused. He maintains total control over every single aspect of this series’ interiors. And by his imagination, a fresh and bold story comes to life that challenges the status quo of religion for the faithful and nonbelievers alike. This wouldn’t be possible without the lively illustration of J.B. Neto and the shimmering colors of Oren Kramek.

Learn more about Penny for Your Soul and Big Dog Ink.

Read my original reviews of
Penny for Your Soul #1, 2, 3, and 4 as well as my interview with Tom Hutchison.

2.) Aposperos: Merchant of Souls

This book is visually arresting. I first saw the cover and some sample interiors when Broken Frontier ran a press release from Visionary Comics announcing the book’s release. At that moment, I was spellbound. After reading the first issue, the story of Nikolaos “Niko” Carris—who poses bargains to those in desperate need, all for the price of a simple soul—came alive for me.

The initial attraction of Aposperos certainly is the amazingly vivid, photo-realistic interiors of artist George Martzoukos, but the script of writer Nektarios Chrissos poignantly conjures a story of hope and exile, salvation and damnation. What’s so tricky about the story is it’s often unclear which is which. There’s only one digital issue thus far, but I can’t recommend this book enough, especially when considering its low price for download.

Learn more about Aposperos: Merchant of Souls and Visionary Comics.

Read my original review of
Aposperos: Merchant of Souls as well as my interview with creators Nektarios Chrissos and George Martzoukos.

3.) The Marvel

It’s a small miracle a book like this was ever conceived, let alone written, illustrated, and printed by Cellar Door Publishing. The marvelous talent of writer Richard Carbonneau saw potential not in some fantasy he dreamed up in his head, but rather in the factual adventures of a real-life scientist and sorcerer, John “Jack” Marvel Whiteside Parsons. Without the genius of Parsons, we wouldn’t have discovered solid rocket fuel, which would have changed the history of NASA.

But Parsons was also a man steeped in the occult, so much so that he operated the American sect of his Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.) organization and was so close to Aleister Crowley that he called him “father.” Writer Carbonneau plundered as much secondary research as possible, and when he didn’t find enough, he investigated himself. The resulting book is an amazing feat of graphic storytelling, capturing both Parson’s factual accomplishments and the hazy speculations about his occult knowledge. Carbonneau’s artist, Robin Simon Ng, uses a stark chiaroscuro style that is heavily lined with fine detail. This is one of the most original and courageous graphic novels I’ve read in a very long time.

Learn more about Richard Carbonneau and The Marvel.

Read my original review of
The Marvel as well as my interview with Richard Carbonneau.

4.) Reed Gunther

The Harry Potter novels taught me personally that there is such a thing as an “all ages” genre in prose. Well, along with David Petersen’s Mouse Guard, Shane and Chris Houghton’s Reed Gunther series taught me the same for comics. The adventures of Reed, his faithful (bear) steed, Sterling, and their plucky pal, Starla, are goofy, bombastic, and slapstick. But they’re also lovable, charming, and youthfully refreshing—it’s impossible not to feel like a kid again after reading this series.

Writer Shane Houghton’s stories are deceptively crafty. Yes, they’re filled with boisterous life and airy fun, but he also spins a consistent and even yarn every time. The same can be said for the artwork of his brother, Chris Houghton. His style booms with the energy of a Sunday comic strip, but don’t rule out his eye for detail. When this illustrator needs to put in extra hours to give the scenery of Reed Gunther its proper due, he always rises to the occasion. A book like this simply makes me feel happy.

Learn more about Reed Gunther.

Read my original reviews of
Reed Gunther #1, 2, 3, and 4 as well as my (sort of) interview with Shane and Chris Houghton.

5.) Harbor Moon

Military veteran Timothy Vance has never met his father before, but when he receives a mysterious phone call from him, he knows he has to visit him at his home in Harbor Moon, a foggy and quiet town that doesn’t appreciate visits from strangers. And when Tim arrives, a mystery unravels that he’s unprepared to handle.

This graphic novel from Arcana Studios was written by Ryan Colucci and Dikran Ornekian and illustrated and colored by Pawel Sambor. Because Colucci insatiably seeks reviews for his work, the book has been covered by several outlets. And while Harbor Moon has received largely positive reviews, the originality of the book’s premise is sometimes called into question. But to question this is to miss the point of Harbor Moon. Here we have a graphic novel that is taking a standard formula and expounding upon it exponentially. The narrative flow is feverishly addictive and artwork of Sambor is hauntingly vivid. Genre fans rejoice: this is a book I highly recommend.

Learn more about Harbor Moon.

Read my original review of
Harbor Moon as well as my interview with Ryan Colucci.

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