Review Date: Friday, July 13, 2012

Here in Bongo Congo

Good King Leonardo has decreed that we kick-off this week's column with a review of a new nonfiction book on the current status of the comic book industry, followed by reviews of three new comic book titles.  So let's get right to our reading material and see what these new publications are all about:

Comic-Con And The Business Of Pop Culture
Publisher: McGraw Hill
Rob Salkowitz: Author
    McGraw Hill has just published a new non-fiction book that examines both the flagship San Diego Comic-Con and the wider issue of the future of comic books within the ever-changing world of the global multimedia entertainment system.  The investigation is authored by Rob Salkowitz, a self-confessed 40-something comic fanboy who also happens to be an experienced business technology consultant, futurist and instructor in the Digital Media program at the University of Washington.
     Even non-fanboys and fangirls are aware of the rise of comics in the past generation to a lucrative position at the center of American popular culture.  Salkowitz begins his investigation by initially charting that ascension, centering upon the evolution of San Diego Comic-Con from a small 1970 funny book show to today's multi-media Hollywood extravaganza that attracts at least 130,000 attendees every July for a four-day mega-media blitz. The story quickly shifts to the July 2011 Comic-Con, in which Salkowitz and his fellow fan wife Eunice immerse themselves in the San Diego transmedia experience that crossconnects and ultimately dwarfs the traditional comic book industry with all forms of modern-day technological visual delivery at a global scale.
     Its a dizzying trip through Comic-Con, as Salkowitz deftly lays-out the complexity, depth and color of an industry that on the one hand has exploded with Hollywood corporate commitment and funding while on the opposite extreme experiences ever more balkanization and confusing fragmentation, as new technologies accelerate such trends as hands-on fan involvement, print-on-demand production and creator-owned properties that all jostle for attention and ultimate domination of the comics industry.
     However, the theme of the book isn't Comic-Con in and of itself, but rather how the San Diego experience encapsulates the bigger struggles occuring in 2012 for the heart and soul of the general comics-related entertainment industry.  Such megatrends as Hollywood embracing big-budget comic movie productions and digital comic book downloading have moved comics into what Salkowitz calls the world of "transmedia."  As such, in the transmedia environment, the traditional Batman comic book is now interlinked with Batman movies, animated t.v. shows, digital downloads, fan-based creative endeavors and of course video games, such as the "Lego Batman 2" game which received a positive review just this morning in my local town newspaper.  The result is a dizzying choice of ever-changing entertainment options, all of which accelerate the decline of the traditional back issue comic-collecting hobby as well as a nationwide plummeting of sales for monthly new issue, traditional print comic books.
     The strength of this investigation is two-fold.  First, we're treated to many interesting facts about how we got to the current crossroads in the comics industry as well as facts regarding the current state of the genre.  My favorite nugget culled from this information category is a fascinating explanation of how the comic book publishing industry back in the 1980's completely ruined the "training," so to speak, of comics reading within the general populace by abandoning traditional pharmacy sales in order to sole-source sales through emerging speciality comics shops.  This lessening of common retail outlets offering comics took parental purchase power out of the sales picture, as parents were more inclined to buy their youngsters comics during routine family shopping excursions as opposed to going out of their way to visit the unfamiliar new concept of specialty shops.
     Secondly and more importantly, Salkowitz brings his professional corporate analysis skills to bear in analyzing the comics industry's future place in the ever-expanding transmedia world.  Using the management technique of scenario planning, he postulates four potential future paths for the health of the comics industry.  Creatively labeling these scenarios as Endless Summer, Infinite Crisis, The Expanding Multiverse and Ghost World, these hypothetical futures range from positive comics expansion into the new transmedia alternatives to negative decline into a niche specialty hobby on par with antiquing or poetry reading.  Salkowitz emphasizes that no one scenario will be predictive of the true future, but rather elements of two or more of these alternatives will likely blend into a true future reality for the industry.
     Beyond the obvious conclusion that this book is a fun and entertaining read for all of comic fandom, this is an important book in many respects; similar to its subject matter, Salkowitz's investigation transcends the niche of comicdom, interconnecting our fun hobby with wider societal and popular culture issues.  There are very valuable lessons offered here on understanding such interconnected subjects as the global economy, ever-accelerating advances in popular technology and communication, mass media and the traditional genres of art and creativity.  "Comic Con And The Business Of Pop Culture" itself even transcends traditional publishing sales categories, with its subject matter making it a worthy and valuable addition to reading lists on corporate management, futurism and sociology.  The book breaks new ground in our understanding of the overdrive characterizing today's popular culture and as such deserves to be at the very top of any recommended reading list, from summer reading to management references to academic reading lists.
     So take advantage of the various methodologies explored in the book: whether by traditional bookstore or internet purchase, whether in traditional print format or Kindle/I-Pad/Whatever, by all means purchase and read a copy of this groundbreaking work that illuminates all that is happening right now in the fast-paced and ever-shifting world of American and global popular culture.

Atomic Robo #1 (Volume 7)
Publisher: Red 5 Comics
Brian Clevinger: Writer
Scott Wegener: Art
Nick Filardi: Colors

     Everyone's favorite sentient robot is back this month with the premier issue #1 in Volume 7 of Atomic Robo, published by Red 5 Comics.  For the uninitiated, Atomic Robo was created in 1923 by Thomas Edison's inventor rival Nichola Tesla.  As the genius head of Tesladyne research corporation, Robo has globespanning science/explorer/thriller adventures.  The extremely popular series is well-known for three elements: dry wit/tongue-in-cheek humor, the clever story element of setting each 5-issue story volume in a different post-1920's historical era and the sporadic appearance of Dr. Dinosaur, one of the more entertaining idiot villains in current comic book publishing.  Atomic Robo is the creation of writer Brian Clevinger, artist Scott Wegener and colorist Nick Filardi.

     The new multi-issue story arc is entitled "The Flying She-Devils Of The Pacific."  Set in 1951, the issue #1 plot unfolds in three acts.  Act One is an extended fight scene; as Robo tests an early jetfighter prototype, he stumbles into an airbattle between two groups of high tech air combatants.  Act Two unfolds after Robo is shot-down and rescued by one side from the battle.  The premise unfolds that the rescuers are a group of former South Pacific female WW II Allied soldiers who went AWOL after the war, apparently continuing combat against a similar group of Japanese deserters.  Everyone's using high tech weaponry designed by a few eccentric inventors affiliated with each side of the fight.  Act Three focuses on the Japanese side of the secret war, as in a bridge to next month's issue #2 story segment, the Japanese forces successfully complete phase one of a new strategy to finally win the 6-year-long post-WW II conflict.

     I'm an unabashed major fan of all things Atomic Robo, from the artwork to the humor to the highly entertaining personalities of Robo and his regular support characters, so its doubtful that I would stray from heaping high praise on any new issue of this title.  However, there are a few story elements within Volume 7 that differentiate the current storyline from the previous story volumes and are worth noting.  First-up is a deeper layer of story detail and dialogue than found in previous Robo issues.  I've been frustrated at times by the quickness of earlier Robo tales, fast-paced with minimal story narrative and dialogue.  There's a lot more story meat in this issue, giving the reader the feel of almost two story segments in one issue.  A second element worth noting is the plot premise itself.  Hats-off is due to writer Brian Clevinger for coming-up with a very fresh and unique WW II spin-off storyline.  There's a fun science fiction feel to the story concept of a secret WW II conflict continuing in the South Pacific for years after the real-world 1945 end of the war.  It should be fun to see where this fictional history takes us in upcoming story segments.

     Our third interesting story element is an emphasis on strong female characters carrying the storyline.  Atomic Robo has always been a comic title that features strong women, whether they're brilliant Tesladyne scientists or fellow adventurers who rescue Robo and save the day as much as their male counterparts.  This story element is featured even more front-and-center in this tale, with issue #1 introducing some very entertaining individual women characters who together comprise the all-female Allied fighting forces against the seemingly all-male Japanese military forces.  These three story elements combine with the usual high quality of this title to produce the most entertaining volume yet of this remarkable and just-plain-fun comic book adventure series.  So an obvious thumbs-up positive review recommendation to get onboard with issue #1 of this latest Robo volume and while you're at it, check-out the back issues and graphic reprint compilations of the first six volumes, all available at That's Entertainment!

Publisher: Marvel Comics
Ed Brubaker: Writer
Michael Lark: Pencils
Brian Theis & Stefano Gaudiano: Inks
Bettie Breitweiser: Colors

     Marvel Comics is currently up to issue #7 of its Winter Soldier title.  As all Good Marvel Readers know, the Winter Soldier is a current-day persona of Captain America's sidekick James "Bucky" Barnes, who was revived by Soviet agents after his initial WWII death and brainwashed to serve as a Cold War Soviet assassin.  These days, a memory-restored Bucky/Winter Soldier has espionage adventures working with his sidekick the Black Widow/Natasha Romanov in coordination with U.S. spy services.  This comic book title is currently scripted by A-list writer Ed Brubaker with pencils by Michael Lark, inks by Brian Theis and Stefano Gaudiano, and colors by Bettie Breitweiser.

     Issue #7 is part two of a multi-issue story arc entitled "Broken Arrow."  A page one narrative summarizes the story so far, explaining that rogue former Soviet agent Leonid Novokov whom Bucky had mentored in his bad old days is on the attack, killing former stand-ins of the Winter Soldier on order to flush Bucky out into an open confrontation.  In the first half of the issue, our duo, in partnership with CIA Agent Sitwell, follow Novokov's trail of carnage as he kidnaps an American research scientist.  When the Black Widow discovers a secret past of the scientist relevant to her own personal history, the action ramps-up in the second part of the tale, as the good guys conduct a fast-paced raid on the suspected location of their prey.  After a dramatic car chase, the story segment ends in a cliffhanger to issue #8, as Novokov both springs a trap and reveals an unexpected motive for his actions.

     This is a very entertaining non-mega event comic book, of the high quality that I've come to expect from comics creator Ed Brubaker.  In many ways, Brubaker is the legimate Marvel heir to the late, great Gene Colan, consistently delivering serious thriller stories that blend real world situations with various Marvel hero characters in a visually-pleasing cinematic graphic style.  Reading this comic book is a visual experience akin to watching an entertaining television or movie spy thriller.  While the entire creative team deserves credit, a particular shout-out is due to colorist Bettie Breitweiser, whose color pallette and shadings are pitch perfect for the tone of this style of spy adventure.

     Again, I don't want to be a spoilsport and reveal any specifics, but there's a host of entertaining twists and plot surprises scattered throughout this issue.  Those story gems, combined with the writing and artwork quality detailed above, ultimately mix together to produce a very satisfying hero/thriller adventure tale.  So yet another positive thumbs-up review recommendation to definitely include this enjoyable comic book in your ever-growing pile of summertime new comic books.

Publisher: New England Comics Press
Benito Cereno: Writer
Les McClaine: Art

     There's an issue #100 special edition of The Tick currently on the new issues shelves.  Many fans are no doubt aware of the colorful background story to the origin of this popular character.  The Tick was created by 18-year-old Ben Edlund in 1986 as a newsletter mascot for Norwood-based New England Comics.  When Edland further produced a few black-and-white issues for the comic shop, the character took-off huge, eventually going national and crossing genres from nationwide comic book sales to a three-season Fox network animated series, culminating with a short-lived 2001 live-action Fox series starring well-known comic actor Patrick Warburton in the title role.  The Tick is an iconic parody of superhero comics, with our good-hearted oddball hero fighting crime to the sound of his nonsensical battle cry of "Spoon!"  Issue #100 is written by Benito Cereno with art by Les McClaine.

     The issue #100 story is entitled "Nigh-Invincible" and co-stars the Robert Kirkman/Cory Walker-created superhero Invincible.  The goofy plot kicks-off with a local turf war breaking-out between rival villain gangs respectively led by Tick perennial villain Chairface and Martin Of Mars, a new villain leader in Town.  When Martin uses a weapon to pull Invincible to our timeline from an alternate reality, its up to the new dynamic duo, assisted by Tick's regular cast of sidekicks, to take-on the new baddie and his gang of blob creatures.  When Martin of Mars accidentally kills the Tick's best buddy Arthur, our hero goes nuts, following Martin back to Mars and with the assistance of Invincible, dispatching the villain in a wacky and mega-scale way.  The issue ends with a surprise twist that will surely lead to the happy return to life of Arthur in the next Tick issue.

     I was quickly won over to this highly entertaining and funny comic book for a few reasons, the first being the top notch humor and storytelling.  The current creative team of writer Benito Cereno and artist Les McClaine just plainly know what they're doing, producing a sharp superhero parody that transcends the regional publishing roots of this title, placing the Tick on par with the best of the funny stuff out there in the wide world of comic book publishing.  A second shout-out is due for the quality of the parody details; in addition to the basic funniness, there's an effective element of superhero satire throughout the issue.  My favorite item in this category is the persona of Martin The Martian, who's clearly a buffed tribute to the pint-sized Martian featured in many classic Bugs Bunny cartoons.  He even delivers the familiar "this makes me angry, very angry indeed..." line from those classic Bugs/Martian confrontations.

     A third tip-of-the-review-hat is deserved for the filler material that follows the 24-page main story.  This oversized anniversary issue is stuffed with articles, columns, previous cover reproductions and sketch/panel reprints well-worth the bargain $6.99 issue price.  My favorite bit of anniversary news gleaned from this material is the dual confession of writer Cereno and publisher George Suarez that this isn't really a 100th anniversary issue!  When one adds-up all of the previous tick issues under various title runs, there's slightly over 100, but what the heck, since there are "at least 99 issues of The Tick prior to this one," why not throw a summertime party and crown the latest issue with the official 100th title designation as the centerpiece for a mid-summer celebration!  That's a wacky philosophy that you gotta love and only adds to the campiness and humor of this Tick special edition.  So by all means, load-up on some summertime laughs with this enjoyable riff on superheroing starring our likeable hero buddy from nearby Norton, Massachusetts!

Contest Winner Announcement!!!
     Our latest contest challenge was for you to pitch to us your favorite current television series within the science fiction/fantasy/horror genre.  The Bongo Congo Panel of Contest Judges received several fine and worthy series nominations, all of which are interesting shows within the genre.  And our winner is (drumroll, please)...Stan Hosmer, who wins with his nomination of Doctor Who as his favorite science fiction t.v. series.  Stan explains that he loves the backstory, the rotating cast of companions and imaginative creatures/villains and how the main character manages to remain a mystery in many ways.  He also admires the fantastic way that the show's creators cover for themselves when whenever there's a substitution of the actor who plays the character of Dr. Who himself.

     For those of you unfamiliar with the show, the series began in 1963 and is the longest-running science fiction television show in the world.  The role of the Doctor has been played by 11 different actors over the years, with the change in person cleverly explained as the good Doctor "regenerating" himself with new features and a new personality.  Congratulations to Stan who wins our first prize $10.00 gift certificate to That's Entertainment!

New Contest Challenge Announcement!!!

     Given that we're in the dog days of summer baseball with our Red Sox mired at the bottom of the AL East Division, the Bongo Congo Panel of Contest Judges has decided to try and cheer-up fans with a baseball trivia contest.  Your challenge is to e-mail us at Gordon_A@msn.com no later than Wednesday, July 25 with the answer to the following question: What are the names of the few Major League Baseball players who have actually played all nine field positions in the course of one game (that includes pitcher and catcher!).  Believe it or not, the situation has occurred more than one time.  As always, in the event of multiple correct entries, our contest winner will be chosen via a roll of the dice.  Please note that our first prize $10.00 gift certificate to That's Entertainment is redeemable for regular retail merchandise or in-store ongoing specials, only.

That's all for now, so have two great summertime weather and comic book reading weeks and see you again on Friday, July 27 Here In Bongo Congo!

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