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Runoff: Chapter 1
(W) Tom Manning
(A) Tom Manning
Oddgod Press
BW, 144 pages $11.95 US

With so much to choose from on the shelves these days, I have to wonder how many great comics mainstream audiences are missing out on. I read a fair amount of books each week, and as a card-carrying geek, I try to keep up with industry news. Still, there's so much out there that some of the smaller independent titles go completely unnoticed, while assembly line garbage sells like hotcakes. Not too surprising in a world where reality television controls the population, but disappointing nonetheless.

Every so often, however, when the planets are aligned, independent books break through the clutter and make themselves known. Sometimes they're critically acclaimed in major publications. Other times they rise to fame through word of mouth. And still other times, the creator sends you a review copy and asks if you'd like to read it. That's how I was introduced to Runoff. I had never heard of creator (and Williamsburg resident) Tom Manning's self-published title before it showed up in my mailbox, but it turned out to be one of the more hypnotically engaging and satisfying books I've enjoyed in quite some time.

Strange things are afoot in the small mountain town of Range. A group of poachers has been mysteriously torn to pieces, and their bodies have been found alongside a sinister roadkill corpse the locals have named "Mr. Teeth", on account of his formidable dental work. As if that's not bad enough, ghosts have been sighted all over town, along with a weird little floating thingy that looks like a cross between a Lego character and Japanese animation. And on top of everything, it seems people can enter Range, but no one can leave. As the housing shortage grows, so does the body count, and the mystery deepens in the dark woods of northern Washington.

Runoff's pages are filled with dead monsters, ghosts, psychotic recluses, violence, humor, pirate hats, Warren Zevon references and helper monkeys, but most of all, it's got authenticity. Manning grew up in Enumclaw, Washington, and his familiarity with small towns in the Pacific Northwest is impressively evident. He writes believable characters in a realistic setting that just happen to be going through some crazy supernatural shit. It's like Northern Exposure meets Twin Peaks and 30 Days of Night with a touch of that twilighty show about that zone. And it works really well. Everyone from the shifty mayor to the simple truck driver is not only convincing, but appealingly human. As a reader, you care about these characters and what they're going through. Range is a comfortably familiar town, even though it doesn't exist.

The book's format echoes the quirky, small-town feel of the story within its pages. From its awkward dimensions to its experimental layouts and style, it's clear that this is a homegrown endeavor. The black and white artwork is rough, the lettering is raw, and the pages have a dark, photocopied feel to them. But rather than detract from the story, Manning's approach enhances the book's unique and alternative status. This is a talented guy who wanted to create a comic book, and he went out and did it - no bullshit, no glamour, no compromise. And it's a damn good one. You can tell this thing is a labor of love, and as a reader, I felt fortunate to be let in on one of comics' best-kept secrets.

My only complaint is that after the four collected issues are over, we're left with more questions than answers. And with a quarterly publishing schedule, it may be some time before we uncover the dark secret haunting the residents of Range. With the support of a mainstream publisher, we'd be seeing this book on a monthly basis with no shortage of fanfare and critical acclaim. Then again, the small press obscurity is all part of Runoff's grassroots charm. If Mr. Manning needs time to tell his story without sacrificing this book's quality or sincerity, then I'm happy to say it's worth the wait.

For more on Tom Manning and Runoff, check out www.robotsandmonkeys.com.

Final Grade: A-


The Losers #11
(w) Andy Diggle
(a) Jock
FC, XXX pgs w/ ads $4.50 CAN / $2.95 US

The Losers is one hell of a fun comic book. You just can't go wrong with likeable characters, a great team dynamic and non-stop action. It's the closest you'll get to watching an action movie without…um…actually watching an action movie.

For those not "in the know", shadowy CIA bastard 'Max' is after something buried on a volcanic island in the Persian Gulf. Since he's the one who betrayed The Losers years ago and left them for dead, they're trying to find it first. And back-from-retirement agent Stegler is hot on their trail. Also, there are rockets and explosions. Hooray!

Like the rest of the series, this issue is well-written, nice to look at, and over far too soon. That's my only complaint about The Losers - it's an incredibly enjoyable read, but with the heavy focus on action, it's frustrating to read in installments. It's kind of like watching Die Hard in 10-minute clips spaced a month apart. The trade paperbacks are where it's at.

Final Grade: A-


New X-Men #156
Marvel Comics
(w) Chuck Austen
(a) Salvador Larroca & Danny Miki
FC, 32pgs w/ ads $3.25 CAN / $2.25 US

You'd think Chuck Austen could write a decent X-Men story, considering he knows firsthand what it's like to live in a world that hates and fears him. Nevertheless, this week brings us another crappy installment of New X-Men, the fourth X-book to fall out of Austen's ass this month. Issue #156 is the conclusion of the Bright New Mourning storyline, which is supposed to pick up the pieces from Grant Morrison's run. It's also the last issue before next month's big Reload event that shakes up the entire X lineup. New X-Men will revert back to X-Men. Uncanny X-Men ditches Austen and picks up Chris Claremont, but whether or not that's an improvement remains to be seen. And the rest of the X books combine into Super Happy Mutant Fun Party. Or something like that.

Anyway, the last issue was awful. This one is too. Cyclops and Beast bicker like teenage girls. The evil robot is destroyed, but never explained. The search for Cassandra Nova in the ruins of the X Mansion is promptly abandoned. Ignorant humans start a riot and the X-Men save the day. Jean Grey's return is not-so-subtly hinted at yet again - twice. Wooden, uninteresting and unconvincing characters spew laughable and contrived dialogue. Hackneyed plot elements are beaten to death. And my faith in this title swirls ever further down the toilet.

Final Grade: F


New X-Men #157
Marvel Comics
(w) Chuck Austen
(a) Salvador Larroca & Danny Miki
FC, 32pgs w/ ads $3.25 CAN / $2.25 US

What's old is new again, as New X-Men drops the New and reloads with its old title, plain old X-Men. Still with me? Doesn't matter. It's time for more Chuck Austen!

Issue #157 kicks off the 4-part Black Holes storyline, and it's actually a decent Austen book. By this I mean it's not terrible, just boring and mildly annoying. The Xavier institute has been rebuilt with lots of skylights, and life is starting over for the wacky mutants roaming its halls. New students are arriving, X-men teams are changing, and tempers between teammates are flaring for no good reason. Through the eyes of young Josh Guthrie, we're reintroduced to the X-men universe, both new and old. You might remember Josh as the Angel clone who starred in Austen's southern-fried mutant version of Romeo and Juliet. If you weren't aware of that horrible storyline, I'm sorry you had to hear about it from me. Oh, and the issue closes with the apparent return of Xorn. Grant Morrison must be spinning in his grave.

These introductory jumping-on-point issues are really hard to screw up, and though the dialogue is as brutal and obvious as always, Austen does an adequate job of going through the motions. The problem is that he has absolutely no idea how to write these characters. The X-Men have always had some internal conflict, but more than anything they found strength together and worked as a team. Ignoring this, Austen makes every single character painfully unlikable through manufactured soap opera drama. Josh sulks throughout the entire tour. Havok and his wife (the completely unnecessary Nurse Annie) bicker about trust and jealousy. Iceman bitches at Havok about everything. And everyone complains to Cyclops. If this is how the X-Men are going to act, bring on the Sentinels.

Final Grade: C-


B.P.R.D. - A Plague of Frogs
Dark Horse
(W) Mike Mignola
(A) Guy Davis
FC, 32 pgs w/ ads $4.25 CAN / $2.99 US

Hellboy is back, baby! Well, not really. The last true Hellboy story was The Third Wish, and that was published over two years ago. Since then, we've had to settle for the uneven Weird Tales anthology, a series of mediocre B.P.R.D one-shots, and a style-over-substance motion picture. These have been nothing more than distracting side projects, empty calories at best, and though they've featured the characters we all know and love, they haven't carried any impact on the big picture that began back in the day with Seed of Destruction.

Everyone knows that a REAL Hellboy story features a story and art by Mike Mignola. And though we're not there yet, if Plague of Frogs has taught me anything, it's that one out of two ain't bad. With the critically acclaimed creator back in the writer's chair, this is the first Hellboy story that actually feels like an important part of the Mignola mythos, and at this point, I'll take what I can get.

In the previous two issues, a giant mind-controlling fungus with the power to turn people into frog monsters has escaped from a B.P.R.D. warehouse. Turns out the fungus is the godling Sadu-hem (harbinger of the entity Orgdru-Jahad), recently reborn from a spore collected from the ruins of Cavendish Hall. Having possessed a crazed professor in the warehouse, the creature has escaped and made its way to the seemingly deserted Lovecraftian town of Crab Point, Michigan, with the B.P.R.D hot on its trail.

In the middle installment of this 5 issue miniseries, things go from bad to worse. Roger the Homunculus has been incapacitated, Johann Krauss has been torn to pieces and the remaining expendable B.P.R.D agents have been disposed of in the typical fashion. Meanwhile, Abe Sapien and Liz Sherman are helpless at the mercy of the possessed townspeople, gathered in the dilapidated Church of Mysteries that serves as Sadu-hem's house of worship, as Kate Corrigan faces down an army of resurrected skeletons. It's not looking good.

What might have been yet another B.P.R.D throwaway story is given some real importance in Mignola's hands - the whole affair is just about drenched in his mythos. There are references to almost every previous Hellboy miniseries, most notably Seed of Destruction, from which the frog monsters and cult of Sadu-hem are resurrected. Plus, we've got the creator's terse, humorous and believable dialogue on every page (Johann Krauss being referred to as "Talking Bag" is a particularly nice touch). And most of all, we've got genuine character development, as even Abe Sapien's origin is hinted at for the first time. With Mignola in the driver's seat, this series finally feels like the real deal. Even without Big Red, this is a real Hellboy story - accept no substitutes.

Guy Davis' pencils are rough, and they certainly can't compete with Mignola's famous woodcut style, but they serve the story well enough. Beyond that, if you consider yourself a Hellboy enthusiast, there is no reason you shouldn't be reading this series. Everything about this story feels comfortable and familiar, and when all is said and done, this feels like it'll be an important chapter in the Hellboy saga. Now all we need are Mignola's artwork and Hellboy himself, and I'll be one happy bastard.

Final Grade: A-

--Dave Brennan
[email protected]

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[email protected] | June 2004 | Issue 51
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