Welcome to the third annual Still on the Shelf: Free Comic Book Day Rundown!

This year’s event seemed a little more subdued than last – no major comic movie was released this weekend (maybe they didn’t want to alienate Marvel or DC by picking one over the other?), and the pre-event chatter wasn’t as intense as it has been in years past. Still, the comic shop was packed, and it seems like the comic community woke up to it at the last minute. The publishers, though, prepared well – this might have been the best crop of Free Comic Book Day contributions yet.

Those who have read my previous recaps (2004 2005) will recall, in this column I give a rundown and some brief comments on each of the comics offered. This year, I am going to add a little wrinkle – a rating. If for no other reason than to give the SOTS Halibut a little workout over here, each entry will be given a rating out of 5 SMACKS, 5, of course, being the best possible contribution a publisher can make for Free Comic Book Day.

If you are familiar with my reviews, I am notoriously difficult, and have never actually given anything a 5 rating. In a review, a 5/5 to me means that a particular issue is the absolute best a single issue of a comic can possibly be. I have never seen a comic that good, and thus have never ranked an issue 5/5. However, while the quality of the story does weigh heavily in these rating, the ranks in this article are only judging the quality of the entry as a Free Comic Book Day contribution, and thus a few managed to get full marks.

So what does this mean? Well, I have noticed that a few publishers don’t really seem to get that Free Comic Book Day is not Free 32 Page Ad Day. Naturally, all of these books are ads by their nature. Why participate if you don’t hope that someone will like your product, and buy more issues? But when you tell a non comic reader about Free Comic Book Day in the hopes that they will visit their local comic shop, you expect that if they do go, they will get an actual free comic book. That means a complete story that, while perhaps referencing another issue, can be read, understood, and enjoyed completely on its own. Sometimes you can get away with an excerpt from another comic, but simply a collection of preview pages chosen at random doesn’t really fit the bill.

Each ranking will take three factors into consideration – Original Content (either unique to the issue or previously unreleased), Overall Quality, and Story Completeness (does it stand alone?). An issue with full marks is high quality, contains new or preview material, and can be enjoyed without ever reading another issue from the publisher. Though hopefully it is good enough to make you want to check out more of their products.

Like every year, I would like to thank Nuclear Comics (28985 Golden Lantern #B107 in Laguna Niguel, CA – (949) 363-1263) for making sure that these issues were available to me for this article this year. I feel like a hog having all of these issues pulled for me, but rest assured that like every year, I keep the stack in my office and pass them out to anyone who might be interested in them once this article is written. Check out Nuclear Comics if you are in the Southern California area, it is my LCS of choice and worth the trip.

This event really is about getting new readers to give comics a chance, and those of us who are already on the bandwagon need to help facilitate that. So don’t corrupt these issues with bags and boards or tuck them away in a dark box in a closet somewhere. Get them out there – pass them out, and make sure anyone who might want to read one gets a chance. More readers means more money for the industry, and a better chance that your favorite title won’t fall due to low sales. And even better – more comic readers means more people you can share your love of the medium with. Isn’t that reason enough?

Without further ado, in the order I read them – the Free Comic Book Day 2006 Rundown


Archie’s 65th Anniversary Bash #1. Written by Dan Parent, Art by Parent and Jim Amash.

Starting things off this year is Archie’s contribution to FCBD, usually the strongest in 2004, and one of the weakest last year. This year’s was in between, a little camp mixed with a good introduction to the titles they offer. This year mark’s Archie Comics’ 65th Anniversary, and the story of Archie possibly having to leave town leant itself well to a bit of a retrospective of the whole Archiverse. Not exactly high marks for story, but it did do something to introduce the Archie line to the potential new reader.

Rating:

Archie Comics


Comic Genesis. by Various, Edited by Kelly Price

The format on this one was a little confusing – the intro talks about Comic Genesis as a web strip hosting service, but all of the strips included seemed to have their own link. One would presume that each of these have a regular web comic feature – so Free Comic Book Day would be an excellent way to draw new readers to those sites. Find some strips you like, and check out the site. Easy as that! On the whole it was pretty poor, but there was one standout – Staccato was hilarious. The back half of the book was dedicated to God Mode, basically a PvP clone in concept, though there were a few good puns, the Square/Borg gimmick was pretty good. In all, Staccato was a bit funnier, but it was a much smaller sampling.

Rating:

Comic Genesis


X-Men/Runaways. Written by Brian K. Vaughan and others, Art by Skottie Young and others.

It has been known to happen, believe it or not. Marvel blew me away with this year’s FCBD outing. New material, and not just the same promotion of the same faces? With good quality material? Hats off to them, they did a great job. Young’s pairing with Vaughan for the Runaways story really gave it a light feel – his Wolverine expressions were outstanding. Though contrived, the meeting between the X-Men and the Runaways went off about as it should, and really did a great job introducing the kids to anyone who might have just picked this one up because Wolverine was on the cover. Of course, the Franklin Richards bit was outstanding, and there was a nice intro to the Marvel Adventures Avengers, and a pretty extensive recap of the entire run of Ultimate Spider-Man. After last year’s non-effort on the part of Marvel, they really deserve top marks for this year. This is EXACTLY what they should be releasing for Free Comic Book Day. Well done, a great issue.

Rating:

Marvel Comics


Superman/Batman #1. Written by Jeph Loeb, Art by Ed McGuinness and Dexter Vines.

And the flip side of the coin goes to DC with this reprint of the very old Superman/Batman #1. With all the exciting things going on in DC nowadays, you would think they would go with something a little more timely. Especially something that isn’t plagued with tardiness issues? Maybe something creative – a joint #0 for a few of their upcoming books, a little anthology deal, something. A decent issue, but it only serves to interest people in a story that is well past this point, and anyone drawn into the title would have to work very hard to find back issues and trades. Not the ideal effort. At the very least, it does qualify as a “Free Comic,” so there is that.

Rating:

DC Comics


Justice League Unlimited #1. Written by Adam Beechen, Art by Carlo Barberi and Walden Wong.

DC’s second outing of the month, this one presumably to appeal to younger readers, perhaps those that have watched Justice League Unlimited on Cartoon Network. I guess they are still showing reruns, but isn’t this show pretty well cancelled? And the ads in this thing – one mentioning Powerpuff Girls, which is cancelled! It almost seems like DC didn’t even try this year, which is a real shame, considering that their whole focus these past couple years have been climbing to the top of the comic game, and making this the year for new readers to sample their books. A real let down from the Spin.

Rating:

DC Comics


The Fantagraphics Funny Book #2. By Various.

The second year for Fantagraphics, and this year they are doing pretty much the same thing they did last – a little anthology to show off their talent. As you might expect a lot of it is rough – when you have an indie book dealing with their up and comers, few things are really going to be smooth. Of course, there are bound to be stand outs, and there were a pair here – Jason’s D.V. strips were pretty hilarious, as were Johnny Ryan’s gag comics. Naturally this one is adult themed, so no showing it to the kiddies. Overall a solid intro to Fantagraphic’s line-up.

Rating:

Fantagraphics


Free Scott Pilgrim. By Bryan Lee O’Malley, Back-Up by Andy Helms.

Oni’s outing this year features a brand new Scott Pilgrim adventure. This was my first taste of Scott Pilgrim, and it was a little silly, but nothing to write home about. The back-up, The Aggressive Adventures of Fearless Griggs, on the other hand, was a lot silly and a real chuckler. It’s strength was in word play between the modern “hip” adventurer and the maniacal, over-the top assassin who spoke in some serious hyperbole. Good stuff, it was a fun read.

Rating:

Oni Press


Conan/Star Wars. By Timothy Truman and Randy Stradley, Art by Paul Lee and Douglas Wheatley.

This year’s Dark Horse book is one of those flip two-fers, one half Conan, the other half Star Wars. This is my first taste of Timoth Truman on Conan, who is previously known for his work on Scout. And honestly? He really isn’t holding a candle to Busiek in this sampling. Hopefully this is just a warm up, or Conan is going to fall from grace really quickly. The Star Wars story focuses on the Clone Troopers, and is set during the Clone Wars. A decent action story – not much to speak of, but not bad. Admittedly I kind of expected a little more out of Dark Horse, especially being their 20th anniversary. The preview of Truman’s Conan was a great idea, though it is a shame that it didn’t quite turn out as well as it could have. Truman has tremendous shoes to fill, though, so this might be an example of expectations being way too high.

Rating:

Dark Horse


Mr. Jean. By Phillipe Dupuy and Charles Berberian.

Drawn and Quarterly’s FCBD effort is a reprint of excerpts of Get a Life and Maybe Later, collections of Dupuy and Berberian short stories, and a preview of Tove Jansson’s Moomin.

The Dupuy and Berberian shorts were actually pretty interesting. Naturally not ideally suited for the common comic reader, but they are interesting for those who might like something of a “real life” genre story. Of course, the books were originally French, and there are a few cultural tweaks here and there, but nothing too foreign. In all, they were decent. The Moomin preview, on the other hand, pretty well lost me. Seems it isn’t quite my brand of humor, unfortunately.

Rating:

Drawn and Quarterly


Jack the Lantern: 1942. Written by Michael Angelos, Art by Jerry beck and Tony Bledsoe.

I have actually had the chance to read Jack the Lantern previously – unfortunately I didn’t really enjoy it too much then, so it faced an uphill battle with me this time around. Maybe my previous experiences clouded my judgment on this one, but it just bored the heck out of me. It was a good rundown of the character and a bit about its history, but unfortunately if you aren’t into the goth/ghoulish/demon type story, this really isn’t going to appeal to you. This might be a great comic – sadly, I am about as far from its target audience as you can get. I like a good demon story, but this style just never suited me. Great presentation, but just not my style.

Rating:

Castle Rain Entertainment


Worlds of Aspen. By Various, Edited by Vince Hernandez.

The submission from Michael Turner’s house was about what you would expect, some light stories that focused heavily on the art. I’ve avoided Aspen since it first began, mostly because I am not so much a fan of Michael Turner’s art. Granted, he draws extremely beautiful people, but the trouble is that aside from hair and eye color changes, it is all the same person. The repetition gets old after a while.

Now really, it wasn’t as bad as all that. The first two preview stories, Soulfire: Chaos Reign and Fathom were extremely Turneresque – pretty too look at, but kind of fluffy on the whole (even the Chaos Reign was fluffy, and I don’t think it was intended to be). Shrugged was actually kind of clever, and had a good style. Soulfire, well, being Turner’s main project, you can imagine what I thought of that preview. The issue itself was well put together. It wasn’t original material, but it did give the reader a good look at the Aspen line-up. And if you are a Michael Turner fan, you probably got a lot out of this. Not exactly to my taste, but a decent FCBD issue.

Rating:

Aspen Comics


Buzzboy: Sidekicks Rule!. By John Gallagher, Stephen Silver, and Rich Faber.

Much like last year, this year’s Buzzboy issue contains three shorts stories. This issue appears to be original, and it promises an issue #2 to be available in August. So if you enjoyed this, you might want to keep an eye out for that. Either way – giving an issue #1 out for free is a great hook, hopefully it works out for them.

The same cast and character’s from last year’s Buzzboy have returned again, except a little younger it seems. And there is the Roby Red back-up like last year, but sadly no Major Damage, which is a real shame if you ask me. This was an entertaining read – really light hearted and family-friendly, and a bit silly at times. And filled with action – I am sure issue #2 will be equally as exciting.

A great effort for Skydog once again. Hopefully this will turn on a few new readers to their upcoming series.

Rating:

Skydog Comics


Liberty Girl #0. Written by Dennis Mallonee, Art by Daerick Gross and Mark Propst.

I really enjoy reading Heroic Publishing comics whenever I get a chance – it seems like they remember a certain something about comic books that we seem to have forgotten in this day and age. Sure, we get more literary-quality comics, but we have forgotten how to suspend disbelief, revel the pure, archtypical character, and just enjoy a super-hero comic book. In fact, if there is a failing for Heroic, its that they don’t often consider that some of their potential readers might not know how to do that anymore!

Liberty Girl is a preview issue for the new series getting started in August, so the already get high marks for new material. The story itself? Pretty decent. The character is going to need some developing, but it was basic – a superhero stepping in to help regular folk. Down to earth… so rare. A pretty decent start – definitely interested in seeing issue #1.

Rating:

Heroic Publishing


Bongo Comics Free-For-All!. By Matt Groening.

Pretty run-of-the-mill Simpsons comic – a few short stories from the Simpsons, Radioactive Man, Pie Man, and Futurama. They were oddly enjoyable, really no less funny than the show, though you do have to imagine your own voices. It always amazes me to see how much Simpsons comics don’t suck. You’d think they would be lame, but I have enjoyed every one I have ever read, on some level at least. This issue was a decent sampling of what they have to offer, and was more than enjoyable on its own merits.

Rating:

Bongo Comics


Transformers: Infiltration/Beast Wars. Written by Simon Furman and Chuck Dixon, Art by E.J. Su, Guido Guidi, and Don Figueroa.

It only makes sense that IDW would use this opportunity to show off their new Transformers license. I was especially excited for the peak at Beast Wars, a series I was very much looking forward to at Dreamwave before their sudden demise.

When reading this sample though, I couldn’t help but wonder, who picked these pages anyway? Everything included was just previews to existing or upcoming issues, and it seems like they just picked the first couple pages and printed them. Almost all exposition, very little action, heck, I don’t even remember seeing Optimus Prime on any of the pages! You’d think they would throw in an awesome fight sequence in there just to get the juices flowing, and make you want to buy an issue. But I don’t even think I want to give this to my boss’s kid, a big Transformers fan, because it is going to bore the poor kid to tears.

If they weren’t going to include original content, IDW should have taken more care in choosing what preview pages to include. These just aren’t going to turn that many potential readers on to IDW’s Transformer line.

Rating:

IDW Publishing


Walt Disney’s Donald Duck. By Don Rosa, Pat and Shelly Block, and William Van Horn.

What, taking a BREAK from the usual offering of Carl Barks classic stories? Say it ain’t so! A bit of a disappointment right out of the gate, but Don Rosa is no slouch either, so I tried not to let it get me too down. Still – Barks is what I have come to expect from Disney Comics on Free Comic Book Day. The three included shorts were all decent, and all featured Donald Duck and Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Each was a preprint of a story that appeared in Walt Disney Comics and Stories previously, but not for the past decade (18 years for the Rosa story).

There wasn’t really any surprises in this issue – it was the exact sort of thing we have come to expect from Gemstone’s Disney line. While there is certainly nothing new stylistically with the Disney Comics, it does continue to be interesting to see them stacked up against other contemporary books, and see how well they fare. And their usual too-high price point isn’t a problem here, this one’s free. The book itself might get a younger reader interested in Disney Comics, unfortunately few would be able to afford them. Still – a good outing, not as good as their Barks features, but passable.

Rating:

Gemstone Publishing


G.I. Joe Sigma 6. Written by Andrew Dabb, Art by Chris Lee and Ramanda Kamarga.

Sigma 6 is the newest G.I. Joe cartoon, and this issue, of course, reprints the first in the series based off of that show. It is all ages friendly, and one would presume fairly true to the cartoon.

While this book was probably great for the younger reader, I had some bias to overcome in reading it. Last year’s Devil’s Due contribution featured a Defex preview, as you might remember, a book that has since been totally forgotten along with the rest of the Aftermath line. In the last year, Devil’s Due has gone from being one of the more original publishers to relying almost solely on licenses for comic adaptations of popular lines. As sudden and swift as that change was, it still bugs me – especially considering how much I was enjoying Defex. Add to that that this G.I. Joe is only barely similar to the one I grew up with – the biggest sore thumb was Destro… what did they do to his head?

Maybe all this proves is that I am just a grumpy old man, who don’t get “kids these days.” The issue was ok, and should appeal to the younger crowd. I do with they didn’t need to rip up G.I. Joe to do it though! I am actually surprised they took this approach, honestly, in pushing the all ages book, I expected them to go after the regular comic audience.

Rating:

Devil’s Due


Impact University Volume 2. By Various.

Just thinking back to the ego-trip that was last year’s introduction to the FCBD Impact University issue makes Colleen Doran’s into all the better.

If you ever wanted to create a comic, though, this might be something you want to look at. Impact produces a series of books that are designed to help you create comics, with industry professionals offering advice and tips on any aspect of the process. This issue was a good sampling of the kind of things you would see in their line. Though I do have to admit, I did get a chuckle out of the Photo reference section – while generally informative, Greg Land’s section basically promoted tracing. Considering the fact that Land is criticized for over-using photo reference, his three page section was an almost comical confirmation of the critique.

If you fancy yourself a comic creator, or a future creator, you might want to check this issue out to see if Impact has anything to offer you.

Rating:

Impact Books


Owly: Breakin’ the Ice. By Andy Runton.

Owly! Yes!

Looks like Top Shelf learned their lesson last year, and decided to stick with Owly as their face for Free Comic Book Day. Like last year, this was a great call. This issue is once again a new Owly story, promoting the line of graphic novels. And geez, just like last year, it was awesome. Runton has achieved the pinnacle of artistic storytelling, the way he conveys emotion in those simple panels is just awesome. The whole range – anger, nervousness, sorrow, desperation – Owly blows me away once again.

It is very all-ages friendly and great for just a simple comic fan that enjoys a powerful story. You wouldn’t think a kids book about a shy little owl could be powerful, but here you are. Top Shelf rises to the top on Free Comic Book Day for the second year in a row with this entry.

Rating:

Top Shelf Productions


Bluff & Tales from a Forgotten Planet. By Yoshik Watanabe, Giovanni Masi, and Ben Dunn.

I have seen a lot of press from Narwain Publishing over the past few months, but this was the first chance I really have had to see what they put out. It looks like these are previously published shorts- previews of two of their titles.

The Bluff story was nice – heartwarming, of course, a decent all ages book with a pair of interesting protagonists… Bluff, the bull terrier, and his flea named Flea, who observe the dynamics of the family that adopted Bluff (reluctantly) after almost killing him with their car. That one has the potential to be a good series, though it might not draw the average comic reader looking for something a little more exciting. Tales From a Forgotten Planet was a sci-fi-ish buddy manga deal… a group of spacefarers that acts pretty well exactly like you would expect any group of kids to act in an Anime show. Great if you like the genre, but it was lost on me. There was also a few one page rundowns of some of their titles.

Overall this was a nice introduction to Narwain, and well worth the time for the Bluff story alone. Plan to look for that series here myself.

Rating:

Narwain Publishings


Amelia Rules!: Funny Story. By Jimmy Gownley.

Another Amelia Rules! Contribution from Renaissance Press this year, a publisher that clearly understands that you don’t change something that works. Amelia worked last year, and it sure works again this year. Last year’s issue had Amelia moving to a new town and dealing with that and her parent’s divorce. This year’s had her dealing with her Mom starting to date again.

Some might brand this inappropriate for an all-ages audience for that fact alone, but I do have to disagree there. Children who are victims of divorce are more common than not these days, and though you would like to think that an eight year old wouldn’t be dumped off at a babysitter so that her Mom could go have a social life – it is a fact in this day and age, and a real conflict that kids have to deal with. The “mirror” sequence was priceless – all the things a kid would want to say to a parent embarking on a “date,” but would be afraid to, for fear of punishment.

Once again, Amelia proved to be one of the best FCBD entries this year – nice to know that some things don’t change.

Rating:

Renaissance Press


Image Comics: Future Shock. By Rick Remender, Jerome Opena, Joe Casey, Tom Scioli, Richard Starkings, Robert Kirkman, and others..

You know, there aren’t many better ways to make me smile on a Free Comic Book Day entry than to start it off with Fear Agent.

This year Image went the preview route, pulling four page samples from future issues of Fear Agent, G0dland, Invinvible, Noble Causes, Savage Dragon, Shadowhawk, Spawn, and Witchblade – a good sampling of their various ongoing books. Unlike the IDW Transformers book, it seems like these preview pages were chosen with much greater care, and actually gives the reader a good idea of the characters and themes of the individual books.

While not entertaining on its own, it is a decent preview of what Image has to offer. They did seem to forget that Free Comic Book Day isn’t about glorified ads for a line, but a free comic. The pages included were often semi-self contained (The Shadowhawk one was nice), and could stand on their own as entertaining, it still wasn’t the same as a more flushed out story. A good entry, but more of an ad than anything, and that isn’t what this day is about.

Rating:

Image Comics


Keenspot Spotlight 2006. By Various..

Another huge entry from KeenSpot, though about 16 pages shorter than last year’s contribution. Still, that leaves 105 pages, so who is complaining?

Much like last year, this year’s KeenSpot is an anthology collection of shorts from their line (everything from webcomics to graphic novels). You know, it wasn’t all that bad. Sure some things stuck out more than others, and some were just plain bad. But that is par for the course for indie productions like this one. There was simply a ton here to see, and through it all there had to be a few things that would appeal to anyone. And that is what an anthology is all about, isn’t it? A lot of this isn’t exactly my thing, but I have to give them credit for another great entry.

Rating:

KeenSpot


Arcana Studio Presents 2006. By Various..

Arcana Studio traditionally puts out a great Free Comic Book Day entry – they seem to have gotten the concept right from day one. Yes – promote your work, but made a comic book. Not an ad disguised as a comic book. This year they kept up that standard.

The first thing I noticed was the graphic upgrade on Kade – it looks like they are using some CGI these days. It’s been a while since I read an issue of Kade, so I have no idea how long they have been doing that, but it does look good. The stories in this issue were good. They do look to be new – and generally do stand on their own. The Ezra story does have something of a cliffhanger, but the story itself stands on its own, and it makes sense to put something in there to make the reader want to hunt down the next issue.

Three years – three outstanding Arcana contributions. It is also really nice to see them evolving, really learning their trade. Each passing year the books are sleeker, the dialogue better, and the art and artistic storytelling smoother. They always had a good vision and a decent product, but it really seems like they have come of age. It is gratifying to see.

Rating:

Arcana Studio


Like every year, there are one or two items that I miss due to availability issues. This year was no different, but it was pretty painful. I missed the Tokyopop contribution, which wasn’t so bad for me, not being a fan, but I did miss out on the Adhouse Books and the Viper issues, both of which I was really looking forward to. I am really disappointed to have missed them – hopefully I’ll be able to track down copies of the issues eventually.

Overall, much like last year, this year was even stronger than the year before. It seems that the publishers are really getting the hang of this event, and are putting more time and effort into making it a success. Marvel coming to the table this year, finally, was a real exciting change: with luck, this will be more than a one time thing, and next year’s entry will be just as brilliant. DC – the gauntlet is down! Let’s see something phenomenal next year!

Until 2007 …