12:03pm

Wed May 4, 2011
Monkey See

A Guide for the Perplexed: Your Trusty FREE COMIC BOOK DAY Checklist

It's that time of year again, people. Free Comic Book Day.

Walk into a comics shop this Saturday and you'll be handed a bunch of ... well. I mean, it's right there in the name, isn't it?

FREE COMIC BOOKS. It's one of those magical three-word combinations that, to a certain segment of the population — my segment — sends a low thrill through the body. (See also: "gin and tonic," "fried pork chunks.")

Follow this link for a tool that'll locate a participating comics shop near you.

FCBD — the comics industry's annual attempt to reach beyond true-believers like me and wrest money (or at least glancing ATTENTION) from normals like you is now ten years old. And a strapping ten-year-old it is, too, finally ready to change out of those short pants and swap that hilariously oversized lollypop for ... a pack of candy cigarettes, or something.

What's this year's crop look like? Do the offerings reflect the medium's limitless potential, its ability to tell many different kinds of stories in a mind-boggling variety of ways?

Well, sorta. There do seem to be slightly fewer superhero entries, and slightly more all-ages books than usual. In terms of outreach strategy, that's a good thing (superheroes may be the medium's dominant genre, but it's one that many non-comics readers reject outright.)

There also seem to be more books tied-in to existing licensed properties (movies, shows, toy lines) which is ... inevitable. Some of these will be solid, even clever and inventive; some will read like a marketing department's cynical attempts to maximally cross-promote their synergistic content streams. Which is to say: They'll suck.

But you won't know until you try them, and that's the joy of Free Comic Book Day, really: It's a big, bright, beautiful and stylistically variegated medium, and Saturday's your best chance to sample it for yourself.

Some of the free books are original works, some are reprints from soon-to-launch or ongoing series, and many are simply samplers of several titles in a given publisher's line.

Some stores will have all of the FCBD books listed below, some just a handful. Some stores will allow you to pick the books you want, some will hand you a pre-selected sampler pack.

I've had a chance to look through the online previews here, and have grouped the books into broad categories. Here, then, once again, I offer a guide to the year's FCBD titles - one that is geared to the sensibilities of the non-fan, of the comics agnostic.

But don't rely on me: Head to the shop. Talk to the clerks and tell them the kind of movies, books and television shows you like, and they'll recommend titles to try. (Yeah, I know it's FREE Comic Book Day and all, but do think about buying SOMETHING, while you're there.)

ALL AGES

Once again, the roster of all-ages books looks particularly strong.

Pep Comics: Featuring Betty and Veronica

You know who doesn't like a bright, friendly, boldly colored Archie adventure? Churls, that's who. Dyspeptic churls.

Mouse Guard/Dark Crystal

This two-in-one book offers a new adventure in David Petersen's gorgeous series about teensy li'l badass warrior mice trying to make their way in a world full of predators. The other book looks to be some concept sketches from an upcoming series based on Jim Henson's film, The Dark Crystal. Now me, I've got a low tolerance for all things Gelfling and Gelfling-adjacent, so I'll just enjoy the Mouse Guard story.

John Stanley's Summer Fun

A collection of vintage comics by the beloved John Stanley - the man behind Nancy, Melvin Monster, Dunc and Loo and other classic strips, this book's gonna get snapped up quick.

Rated Free for Everyone

Another two-in-one book, this one previewing two upcoming graphic novels for kids from Oni Press, Power Lunch, in which a kid learns that the foods he's been told he's allergic to actually grant him super powers, and Sketch Monsters, in which a girl's drawings come to life and terrorize the city. Lots of fun, and great-looking, kid-friendly art.

Top Shelf Kids' Club

This 6-story anthology from Top Shelf includes Andy Runton's charming Owly, James Kolchaka's funny, freewheeling Johnny Boo, and a story by Ray Friesen called Pirate Penguin vs. Ninja Chicken, which ... come on. Like you need to know anything more.

Bongo Comics Free for All

Technically this book should be listed under Licensed Property Limbo, below, as it's a Simpson/Futurama tie-in. But as publishers go, Bongo's stuff is dependably funny and imaginative. Plus the Simpsons story is about Ralph Wiggum. So. I mean.

Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse

A collection of Mickey's daily strips from the 30s, by Floyd Gottfredson, finds Mickey entering Pluto into a dog race and facing off against gangsters. A nice glimpse of the character back when he got his hands dirty, before he got kicked upstairs to become a corporate logo.

Young Justice/Batman: Brave and the Bold

Another book that should probably get consigned to Licensed Property Limbo or The Spandex Set Heard From, as its based on two Cartoon Network series, but I've been digging the Batman: Brave and the Bold comic, and the Young Justice story looks like it'd make a solid entry point for younger readers curious about the superhero genre.

THE SPANDEX SET HEARD FROM

Superheroes. They're here, they're dear(ly loved); get used to it.

Amazing Spider-Man

A preview of an upcoming story-arc in the ASM series. Literally a preview - on the FCBD site, this particular offering looks to be inked pages without color, dialogue, sound effects or narration. So uh. Yeah.

Green Lantern

With the movie coming out, DC decided not to feature an issue from the ongoing Green Lantern series, which is neck-deep in a complicated intergalactic war taking place across the multicolor "emotional spectrum" (long story; never mind). Smart. Instead, they're offer an issue of a recent mini-series that depicted the character's origin.

Captain America/Thor

A tale of all-ages adventure from the creative team behind the late, lamented Thor: The Mighty Avenger finds the God of Thunder teaming up with Cap to face down some nefarious doings in Camelot. This is one to seek out, if you can. Chris Samnee's beautiful, expressive art matched with Roger Langridge's eager embrace of the goofier aspects of superheroing is something to see.

Silver Scorpion

Comics as global peace initiative. The character of the Silver Scorpion - a Muslim from a fictional Syrian city who loses his legs in an accident and becomes a superhero who can mentally control metal - has a high-minded pedigree: He was created at an international summit for disabled youth as part of President Obama's efforts to build international friendship.

The Tick

The beloved 90s superhero satire The Tick is back; The Tick New Series, as the title matter-of-factly promises, chronicles all-new adventures of the muscle-bound, muscle-headed costumed adventurer. The FCBD book includes a scene in which Our Hero beats up on some nefarious street performers ("SHUT UP, MIMES!") But the reason to pick this up is for the sneak peek at "The Tick's Giant Circus Maximus," the definitive, encyclopedic guide to the Tick's universe. READ! Scarf Ace's secret identity! PERUSE! The contents of Caped Cod's utility belt! PORE OVER! Desparadoe's extended family (Deer Prudence, No-Eyed Deer). Welcome back, Tick.

LICENSED-PROPERTY LIMBO

No guarantees, here. Tread carefully.

Avatar: The Last Airbender/Star Wars: Clone Wars

Another two-in-one book, this one featuring new adventures of the Avatar (not the James Cameron one, the Nickelodeon one.) I miss the cartoon series very much, and the preview seems to capture its spirit and ingenuity in a way that the live-action movie OH MY GOD VERY MUCH DID NOT. Also includes a tie-in to the Cartoon Network CGI Star Wars series, if that's your thing.

Darkwing Duck/Chip N' Dale

This two-in-one book offers a double-dose of Disney: A reprint of the first issue of the masked canard avenger's ongoing title, and a reprint of the first issue of Chip N'Dale: Rescue Rangers, which should slake your kid's thirst for chipmunks on mini-bikes for, like, at least a day.

Geronimo Stilton/The Smurfs

"Bestselling children's book character" Geronimo Stilton (really?) (I am an old and childless man) stars in adventure involving dinosaurs, time travel and pirate cats. Also: Bad mothersmurfer Gargamel smurfs upon a smurfily smurfing adventure and smurfs — smurfily enough — a smurf, with smurfy results.

Kung Fu Panda/Richie Rich

Still another two-in-one book: Po the Panda goes on a perilous quest to secure an antidote when his friend lies dying by a poisoned sword-wound (Hey Kids! Comics!), while an updated-for-the-00s Richie Rich finds his Hawaiian vacation interrupted by an SEC investigation into his sub-prime lending and his vast network of Laotian sweatshops. No, kidding, by a volcano. Also a preview of a Strawberry Shortcake series. Because it's 1983, evidently.

Path of the PlanesWalker II

I think the promo copy says it better than I can: "The Path of the Planeswalker II Preview represents the high quality story-telling and illustrations readers have come to expect from the world's most popular trading card game, Magic: The Gathering." So, that.

The Darkness 2: Prequel

Deep breath: A comic book prequel to the sequel of a video game that was adapted from a comic book. About a dude who can conjure anything he can imagine by wielding an unholy shadow-force that is CHAOS ITSELF! Um, except when he gets too near a strong light source. LIKES: Dimmer switches. DISLIKES: Halogen lamps, lightning bugs, glow sticks.

Inspector Gadget

See above, in re: It being freaking 1983.

Sonic the Hedgehog

An all-new story finds everyone's favorite video game mascot/nocturnal, insectivorous member of the order Erinaceomorpha — although, truth be told, the dude looks more like a blue woodchuck with dreads — facing off against an old enemy.

BEST BETS

Locke & Key

Definitely one to pick up. This series, about a family living in a creepy old house filled with doorways to mysterious destinations, takes the time to build real characters before unleashing its high-concept premise upon them. In this issue, an old enemy comes back to quite literally haunt the Locke family. Soon to become a Fox television series! But don't hold that against it!

Super Dinosaur

Robert Kirkman, writer of The Walking Dead, Invincible and other series, presents the secret origin of his latest creation, Super Dinosaur. I'll say that again: SUPER DINOSAUR. What are you, made of stone?

2000 AD

A sampler of some notable work from Great Britain's weekly science-fiction comics anthology; for over three decades, 2000 AD has launched many of today's best-known comics creators, and it's still going strong. This FCBD edition contains a fittingly diverse assortment of styles, subjects and approaches; not for the very young.

Atomic Robo

Last year, the Atomic Robo book was one of my favorite FCBD offerings — a witty, well-executed series with a retro look but a contemporary sense of humor. This year's FCBD offering finds mechanical adventurer Robo judging the National Science Fair, and it's looking like another must-get.

Baltimore/Criminal Macabre

Dark Horse Comics offers a two-in-one-book of supernatural adventure: A tale of Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden's Lord Henry Baltimore, a WWI soldier turned into a vampire as he lay dying on the battlefield, and Steve Niles' Cal MacDonald, a P.I. skilled in the uncanny who finds himself hired, in this FCBD issue, by Frankenstein's monster. The moody art, by Ben Stenbeck (Baltimore) and Christopher Mitten (Criminal Macabre) would be it's own selling point, except, you know. It's free.

Civil War Adventure

History Graphic Press presents "historically accurate" tales of the War Between the States. It's bloody and deliberately unpretty fare — in a story called "Gator Bait," someone gets axe-murdered on page 4, and becomes swiftly ... shall we say titular ... three panels later — but it's never not fun. From the promo copy: "Check out the 'Battle Field Amputation' fact page!"

Elric: The Balance Lost

This summer, BOOM! Studios is launching a new series starring Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion Elric, written by Chris Roberson. The FCBD issue offers a preview of the adventures of Elric, a frail albino who is doomed to maintain the balance between Order and Chaos, and blah blah blah Multiverse blah blah blah. Yeah, you know what? Here's some sample dialogue: "So come! Who shall be first to slake the unquenchable thirst of my black blade? Whose life shall I take to preserve my own? BLOOD AND SOULS! BLOOD AND SOULS FOR MY LORD ARIOCH!" Now. Either that grabs you, or it resolutely does not. If it doesn't, move on. If it does, come over here and sit by me. And pick up this issue on Saturday.

Jake: The Dreaming

Not a comic, but an illustrated novel by Adam Freeman and Marc Bernadin, with eye-popping art by Andrew Jones. Jake is a kid who daydreams epic adventures and finds he can travel through others' dreams. Which comes in handy when the children of his town start falling into a permanent sleep. Classic premise, beautiful-looking stuff.

Intrepid Escapegoat/Stuff of Legend

So there's this turn-of-the-20th century international adventurer/magician/scientist. He travels with his mummy-girl-assistant. Also he's a goat. I mean ... right? I'm gonna link to the online preview, because I want you to look at the cover of this issue, and tell me you're not on board. Check out his expression of goaty concentration as he stares at that floating pyramid, with his fingers at his temple. Come on. Seriously.

Witch and Wizard

This first chapter of an upcoming adaptation of James Patterson's novel series is the only manga represented in this year's FCBD offerings, which kind of sucks, considering how many readers manga has brought to the medium over the past few years.

Spontaneous

A kid whose father died mysteriously sets out to investigate why incidents of Spontaneous Human Combustion are on the rise. Atmospheric art by Brett Weldele, and writer Joe Harris clever approach (our hero can sense who's about to flame on, and must find a way to gather as much information from them as he can before the big light show) make this a series to watch.

FOR THOSE WHO LIKE THAT SORT OF THING, THAT IS THE SORT OF THING THEY LIKE

ICE

A sneak peak at issue #1 of a soon-to-launch series about the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The online preview is certainly action-packed (a car chase becomes a helicopter chase just a few miles from the US-Mexico border, bullets, headshots, a gun named Betty) and the promo copy promises a "ruthless Mexican drug cartel." You know, as opposed to those tender-hearted Mexican drug cartels which are so much in the news these days.

Overstreet Guide to Collecting Comics

A primer, in comics form, to the collection, grading and pricing of comics.

Worlds of Aspen

Aspen comics offers their diehard fans this sampler of their titles (Fathom, Soulfire, Lady Mechanika, etc.). Hard to make heads or tails of the online preview — steampunk chicks with guns, demon-wings, dark magic — but Aspen's the home of some of the most unabashedly cheesecakey comics to ever cheese a cake. 14-year-old boys everywhere, rejoice.

... BUHWUH?

Top 10 Deadliest Sharks/Prehistoric Predators

The Discovery Channel is coming out with a line of graphic novel versions of their most popular programs. Well. SOME of their popular programs. The ones about sharks and dinosaurs. Which inspires us to ask: What other Discovery comics are in the pipeline? A superhero adventure starring suitably-lantern-jawed Mike Rowe? A navel-gazing black and white indie comic about the Mythbusters, in which Adam and Jamie endure a painful breakup and comfort themselves with obscure mope-rock? A robot from outer space that transforms into Cash Cab? Only time will tell.

The Misadventures of Adam West

Bluewater Comics specializes in taking public information about various celebrities — taken from interviews and press kits — and ginning up unauthorized biographical comics. They've done everyone - politicians, pop singers - and now they've turned to Adam (60s pot-bellied Batman) West. I was prepared to dismiss this, as so many previous Bluewater offerings have proven forcefully dismissible, but damn if the preview comic doesn't have a good gag or two. And I mean: it's Adam West. Worth picking up if only to see how they deal with his foray into such Skinemax fare as Young Lady Chatterly II and The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.