MonkeyBrain Comics Review Roundup

Earlier this week, comic book writer Chris Roberson and his editor/publisher wife Allison Baker launched MonkeyBrain Comics, an imprint of their existing MonkeyBrain Books which specializes in creator-owned comics, brought to market via an exclusive digital relationship with ComiXology.

The announcement came originally that the company would be launched on July 4, but when it exploded onto Twitter and started to build buzz, they opted to launch five new monthly series all at once on Monday afternoon instead.

Representing the same kind of angry, individualist spirit that Image Comics represented at its founding, MonkeyBrain comes into being at a time when Roberson—co-creator of iZombie with Mike Allred and onetime Superman writer for DC—is enjoying his highest-ever media profile in the comics industry after publicly blasting DC over Before Watchmen and then being fired for it.

Banding together with a team of talented, award-winning and under-appreciated talents, he’s started his own ambitious comic book company that deserved a look.

So here we are, looking. Each of the five launch titles are reviewed below.

Aesop’s Ark #1

Written by:  J. Torres

Art by: Jennifer L. Meyer

The premise:

The animals in the hold of Noah’s Ark while away the time and keep their spirits up during the Flood by sharing fables and parables.

The skinny:

It’s beautifully-rendered, cleverly done and takes advantage of both the medium of comics and the digital format. That said, it’s just a bit too precious for me. Maybe I’m a cranky old cynic, but this doesn’t just feel like any old “talking animals” comic. It feels like We3 had all of the weirdness taken out of it and left only the adorable parts.

There’s also the problem of the premise. Taken on its own merits, the story might be entertaining enough but if you didn’t read either the solicitation text on ComiXology or the blurb in the inside cover, it would be virtually impossible to know what the premise of the story was. The fact that they’ve got biblical lore—the whole thing takes place on Noah’s Ark—blended with Aesop’s fables is actually a really clever approach to a title…but if I didn’t go in knowing it, I have my doubts that I would have figured out what was going on with the whole “boat thing.”

At the end of the day, it makes me want to see more from Meyer, but maybe not here. Torres is an established talent who’s done a lot of appealing work in the past,  but this particular volume won’t speak to everyone, and didn’t to me.

Next month:

This one just didn’t grab me enough to bring me back a second time. It’s likely the kind of story I’ll read in trade, especially because the sort of story it is added to the caliber of talent will make it awards bait next year…but it isn’t for me.

Amelia Cole and the Unknown World #1

Written By: Adam P. Knave & D.J. Kirkbridge

Art by: Nick Brokenshire

Lettered By: Rachel Deering

The premise:

A young girl with magical powers and the ability to travel between the two known planes of reality, loses that power at the same time she discovers there’s a third plane she was never told about—and that it’s her birthplace.

The skinny:

If I had to pick one of the books that really jumped out at me at first glance and begged to be read, it would have been Amelia Cole. Something like a cross between Harry Potter and Chris Roberson’s own terrific Memorial, it’s the kind of book that has a lot of promise on the face of it even though the creators are the ones who, if I were to do an inventory of the entire MonkeyBrain lineup, I had the least awareness of going in.

It was not, in the end, my favorite title, but it was certainly an intriguing and enjoyable ride. Perhaps my hesitation comes from the fact that it feels so similar to Memorial, and that for my money I’d prefer more from Roberson and Ellis—but certainly it’s not a derivative work, as this would have been in progress before Memorial ever hit the stands. It’s hardly fair to deduct points for originality when it’s unlikely they were aware of any similarities.

That’s the unfavorable comparison; the more favorable one I can make is that this title reminds me a lot of what I had hoped Anima would be like back when I was a kid. Launching in the wake of DC Comics’ Bloodlines story arc, Anima was the story of a young woman who harnessed her magical and pseudo-scientific powers to be a kind of Johnny Thunder for the skater set. The battle in this issue’s opening pages reminded me quite a bit of the look and feel of that title, but while Anima never really lived up to its potential in the two years or so that it was in print, this one feels like it’s coming out of the gate pretty strong.

In this case, unlike with Aesop’s Ark, it’s the writing that really draws me in and the art that leaves me somewhat cold—which is too bad because while the book is uneven, there are images, pages and sequences that really knock your socks off.

Next month:

I’ll certainly give it a try. From the beautiful cover to the clever concept, it’s something I really wanted to like and the fact that it didn’t live up to all of my expectations is probably as much or more my fault than it is the book’s.

Bandette #1

Written by: Paul Tobin

Art by: Colleen Coover

The premise:

Think of Catwoman, if instead of being an oversexed and schizophrenic antihero, she was more a playful thief with a heart of gold and a running narrative. That’s Bandette, and it’s every bit as fun as it sounds.

The skinny:

Drawn in a style that’s reminiscent of a children’s book or a really good newspaper strip, Bandette looks both simple and beautiful in the same way that something like Batman: The Animated Series managed to pull off. And while the Catwoman comparisons are reasonably apt, and are likely to pop up again and again in interviews and reviews, it’s equally true that if she weren’t a female character with a mask on, she could just as easily be compared to Hudson Hawk (she even sings as she breaks in) or Psych’s Pierre Despereaux.

The book’s humor really takes it to the next level, and also divorces it somewhat from those inevitable comparisons to Catwoman. The light-hearted opening sequence immediately identifies Bandette both as incredibly skilled at what she does and immensely likable, but a major hole in her strategy proves that she’s not just another “master criminal” who can only be undone by the machinations of a genius cop or superhero.

Sometimes, after all, the world just interferes and no matter how well you know someone’s itinerary, it still might just be a smokescreen for a weekend away from work and family.

The fact that she has a working relationship with the police is an interesting wrinkle; after spending most of the book watching her run from private security goons, the idea that a cop calls her up to basically come in and help foil a robbery suggests that the levels of complexity that are buried in this simply and beautifully-rendered book won’t be fully clear for a while.

Next month:

You couldn’t keep me away. If there’s any justice at all in the world, this book will be a huge hit. The only people who will read it and turn up their noses will be the same ones who never understood Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis’ Justice League books and think that anything fun is by definition childish. That's right, I said it: If you don't like Bandette, it's because you hate fun.

Edison Rex #1

Written by: Chris Roberson

Art by: Dennis Culver

Colors by: Stephen Downer

Lettered by: John J. Hill

The premise:

The world’s greatest criminal genius, constantly foiled by a caped do-gooder, finally vanquishes that foe once and for all, but finds himself compelled to live out his archenemy’s final wish and become humanity’s protector.

The skinny:

This one was, of course, always going to have a microscope on it. Chris Roberson, former writer of Superman for DC Comics (with whom he had a recent and massive public falling out), takes on a very Superman-like character in his first issue as the co-founder of a new publishing venture.

I always thought Roberson was a great Superman writer hampered by a bad situation with editorial and J.Michael Straczynski’s shabby “Grounded” story, and he proves it here, giving Valiant and Edison Rex (that’s Superman and Lex Luthor to you and me) an issue to really shine before he sets up the series for what’s to come.

It should be noted that this doesn’t even feel like Superman, per se, as much as it feels like All-Star Superman, and it explores one of the same major themes. When your villain is someone who sees himself as a hero, because you are after all a scourge from which he needs to liberate the world…what happens when he wins? Isn’t he morally obligated to either start behaving heroically now that his major obstacle is out of the way, or else cede the moral high ground and admit he was fooling himself the whole time? Edison Rex is faced with that realization and chooses to keep his high ground, thank you every much, to the confusion and exasperation of his loyal companion M’Alizz.

In the end, even though everyone will say “Oh, it’s Roberson doing Superman,” and there will likely be some accusations that he’s doing it to tweak his nose at DC, it’s a great book that deals in one of the most basic things that post-Watchmen comic book storytelling has always done: it examines the superhero genre by reducing its most identifiable character to archetypes and then reusing those archetypes in a new and different way.

The most impressive thing about Edison Rex, to me, is the way it manages to avoid that trap that almost all of these types of books fall into, where the supporting cast and character designs are so derivative that they almost become silly and attempts to avoid trademark infringement while remaining identifiable land you in a place where your characters seem too generic and dull. The characters seen here are anything but, and it feels more like DeMatteis and Cavallaro’s The Life and Times of Savior 28 than it does Superman. In a very good way.

If there’s a criticism to be leveled at this truly excellent book, it’s that Roberson’s decision to go superhero right away will probably be held against him by reviewers and cynical fans who will wonder what the point is of striking out on your own if you’re going to reinforce the existing model. There will also, no doubt, be those who wonder loudly whether “stealing” and killing Superman was his way of retaliating against the publisher for Before Watchmen, a project he’s been very publicly against. And that all creates a wall of background noise that takes away from the fact that this book is brilliantly executed and has a heart and sense of levity that’s missing from many books, including the only truly similar title I can think of, Mark Waid’s recently-concluded Incorruptible.

Next month:

Oh, hell yes. Even though it’s hard to argue that All-Star Superman could have benefitted from a Lex Luthor-driven sequel, there’s that part of you that always wanted to see what he did next…and that’s what we’re getting here, but without the baggage of being tied to a mythology where characters can’t experience substantive change.

The October Girl #1

By Matthew Dow Smith

The premise:

A girl who’s depressed about her boring, workaday life finds herself face-to-face with the imaginary friend she hasn’t seen since childhood—and he’s got an ominous message with him.

The skinny:

Let’s get the obligatory Drop Dead Fred reference out of the way first: Yes, there’s a similarity here.  Only in the same way that Justice League or The Authority is similar to Mystery Men, though; The October Girl really relies on your sympathizing with Autumn, and it certainly seems to be pointed in the direction of something bigger and more ambitious.

It’s also a story that benefits greatly from Matthew Dow Smith’s unique visual style, with both parts of the concept—the mundane and the fantastic—seeming like they’re right in his wheelhouse and likely to be improved by his presence.

That said, this is the only book that really moves at a “decompressed” speed. While it seems to zip right by in the reading of it, not a ton has happened by the end of the first issue. That said, it didn’t suffer from the pacing because Autumn’s life kind of seems like it should feel that way. Nevertheless, it’s likely to age really well as a collected edition when it eventually goes that route, while some fans will have a hard time getting on board with the singles (price point should help, though).

Next month:

You really have to, don’t you? In spite of being a bit on the predictable side, that was a killer cliffhanger that capped a great first issue featuring some really stylish art.