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Written and Drawn by James Callahan
Published by Gigantic

It’s difficult not to love a book that has the opening line “This was the day the giant robot zombies came.” And while DIRTVILLE has a couple of bumpy spots, the love that line generated pretty much stuck around for the duration of the book.

Milton is a quiet, introspective boy who leads a pretty pathetic existence in Dirtville; his parents are dead, he’s in hock to the church for their burial, and half of his house has collapsed into a sinkhole. His only means of income in this shitty little town comes from chopping wood and selling it, and he is universally reviled by the rest of his youth demographic. That is, with the exception of Betsy; Betsy might just be the only decent person his age in the whole place, but with her brother and his violent friends on the loose and looking to do Milton harm, how long can that last?

Plus, there’s that little matter of the earth having been invaded by Martians whose technology is reviving the dead. With robots tiny and large on the loose, there wouldn’t seem to be much time for anything, really.

Of course, these two plots are on a collision course, and shall inevitably become one. What starts as a simple story about the misery of a dead-end existence becomes an action story that plays as a metaphor for whether or not any type of existence in Dirtville is truly worth living. If all you have is chopping wood and a decaying house, is there anything worth fighting for? And is the rest of the town’s population just kidding itself?

In truth, the metaphor gets a little heavy handed at times. You don’t have to have taken English lit to see what Callahan is trying to say about the fate of Dirtville’s residents. But that’s a fairly small complaint, considering how well he executes the rest of his story. DIRTVILLE is a solid, strong first effort at long-form storytelling for this artist, and it is worth your time to give it a look.

Marc Mason

Written by Macon Blair and Drawn by Joe Flood
Published by Gigantic

You might recognize Macon Blair as the name of the protagonist of TEENAGERS FROM MARS, but it turns out the character was based on a real guy, and he makes his graphic novel debut with HELLCITY, the first of a three volume series. The setup is pretty simple: Hellcity is the capital city of the underworld, and the souls that have been sent there share the space with the infernal demons that populate the place. Humans are forced to review their lives and how they fucked them up by seeing a “counselor” and they get stuck with demonic roommates who always drink the last beer or steal their stuff. So basically, Hell turns out to be a lot like your first two years of college, stretched to eternity.

Bill Tankersly found his way to Hell in classic fashion: he committed suicide when a demon killed the love of his life. Now this former hardboiled gumshoe carves up meat in a kitchen devoted to feeding the locals, seemingly forever trapped in this drudgery. But when a sexy demoness shows up on his doorstep with an offer to change his fate, Tankersly’s death gets a whole lot more interesting.

HELLCITY uses the classic tropes of pulp fiction to construct a somewhat rational version of Hell; banality plays a huge role in how the souls of humans are dealt with in the netherworld, which isn’t a surprise considering how much of a Hell most humans create for themselves on Earth through the same means. But those tropes also extend to the classic detective genre; Tankersly must deal with a femme fatale, an offer that feels too good to be true, and his rising hopes that maybe his end won’t be horrific forever. But he is also smart enough to know that he’s being played, and that he needs to come up with useable information to use as leverage to prevent his living death from becoming far, far worse.

Blair and Floor piece together a decently intriguing mystery, but it isn’t until the final couple of pages, when the plot really kicks up a notch, that the book feels like something that could be bigger than it is. The cliffhanger is a whopper, and you are genuinely left wondering exactly what the Hell will happen in book two. So, even with the knowledge in your mind that some of the tropes and clichés of the pulp genre getting completely overplayed, there’s still anticipation for the next chapter. And when you’re only putting out book one of three, as a creator, that’s all you can ask for.

Marc Mason

Written by Phil Hester and Drawn by Stephen Segovia
Published by Harris Comics

Every demon’s nightmare and every fanboy’s dream girlfriend makes her return to comics in this one-shot, and thanks to the presence of the always excellent Phil Hester, this is one of the best Vampirella stories in recent memory.

The plot is fairly simple: a man is narrating the story, ostensibly from some sort of “Hell” (whether or not it’s the real deal is one of the story’s mysteries), telling an unknown voice about the day the most sexually alluring woman he had ever seen walked into his tattoo parlor and asked him to make her his canvas for his greatest work. From there, the tale becomes one of mystery, sins revealed, and horrible fates delivered to deserving souls.

Many Vampirella stories focus on her role as a big-time ass-kicker, but Hester takes a different route in utilizing the character’s talents. Violence takes many forms in our world, and seduction and sensuality can be just as brutal as any punch or kick. Sometimes, they’re far worse. By playing with the character’s role as a sexual icon, Hester creates an atmosphere that reminds you of the best stories from the old EC comics and Rod Serling’s best work, particularly with his wonderfully satisfying ending. And for once, there’s a good reason for the double dose of cheesecake we get with the art, as it plays an actual role in the plot; fortunately, Segovia delivers the goods and still manages to tell the story in solid fashion.

The book also contains the results of a recent talent search that Harris undertook, looking for future Vampirella artists. Not only do we see the work of the winner, but we also get a look at all of the finalists’ efforts, and each gets a brief interview. Adding these extra elements to an already excellent lead story makes this an excellent value for your three yanqui dollars.

Marc Mason

Written and Drawn by Jason Martin
Published by Super Real Graphics

Martin’s “reality TV meets comics” series sort of settles in to a comfort zone with issue three. The previous two issues focused more on introducing the parody elements to the story and establishing the characters. Now, with his pieces on the board, the creator can show exactly how the characters’ powers work, how they’re going to interact as a “team”, and in moving the story forward a bit.

On the flip side, “a bit” forward is really all we get. We do see how the contestants’ suits active their powers, we do see them put their powers into play… but not a lot else happens. In fact, when it comes to the fight, two pages of it take place in the dark, so the panels are pure dark, excepting dialogue. But the book finally gets back to what it does best at the end, which is letting the characters speak and interact with each other.

The book comes to life in those last five pages, as secrets are spilled, alcohol is consumed, and the group starts “getting real.” This sequence is sort of the comic equivalent of the new “Real World” kids stripping down and hitting the hot tub. I’m not sure at this point, because we haven’t seen enough of it, whether or not Martin’s strong suit as an artist is going to be in depicting action on the page. But as this series has progressed, we have seen that he’s very good at bringing these five characters out in full force through their dialogue. And right now, that’s more than enough to keep me reading.

Marc Mason

DORK #11
Written and Drawn by Evan Dorkin
Published by Slave Labor Graphics

Every four years, we elect a President. In four years, you can graduate from college. In four-year increments, we add an extra day to the calendar year.

You can also wait four years for one of your favorite creators to bring out a new issue of his masterwork series. Such is the case with Evan Dorkin and DORK.

It isn’t as though Dorkin has let his immense talent wither on the vine over the last four years. He’s been writing for TV, providing gags and stories to magazines, and writing for other luminaries such as Jill Thompson. Plus, he’s become a new father… so he’s had plenty on his plate. So it’s more than forgivable that the DORK series has collected a bit of dust; we haven’t been denied the opportunity to enjoy his work. And now that a new issue is here, it proves to be more than worth the wait.

Previous DORK issues have been a mis-mash of short stories and gags; the short stories included the “Eltingville” kids and the adventures of Dorkin’s Devil Puppet, and the gags have fallen into the four-panel strip or single panel categories. But DORK #11 is nothing but gags; the stories are absent, and that means we get an explosion of pent-up creativity out of the artist. And happily, over the course of 200+ gags, there are an ample number of laughs to be had. Whether it’s “David Byrne Gets Alzheimer’s” or God reading the bible and thinking that maybe he was drunk during a good portion of it, there are no boundaries that keep Dorkin from getting a good giggle out of the reader.

He also provides some new takes on old classics like “How To Get Sued”, and adds new recurring bits like “Hank Jenkins, Chronic Masturbator”. This serves to reward the longtime Dorkin admirer, as well as introduce the new reader to his sense of humor and pacing. Unquestionably, this is one of the best comics to be released in 2006, and it will be hard to top it when it comes time to tally up the year in December. While a four-year wait isn’t ideal, if the material continues to be this strong, I’m more than happy to wait until 2010 to get another dose.

Marc Mason

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