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Creature Tech cover
Creature Tech cover

What makes for a good comic?

I’d have to stay story comes first, but – unlike a regular book – art also comes into it. This is rather obvious, I know, but there’s more: the pacing is crucial as well. It doesn’t have to be fast – or slow – to be good, but it has to be right for the story. If it’s an introspective exploration of human character, it should take its time; and too many slow moments in an action adventure will send the readers yawning. But this, of course, is not enough – you also need characters that are believable and you make them believable mostly through their actions and their dialogue. Both have to be consistent – not necessarily consistent with real life (where’s the fun in that?), but consistent with the story’s reality.

The first time I read Doug TenNapel‘s Creature Tech (from Top Shelf) I couldn’t put the finger on why I didn’t like it. It had neat technological innovations. It had wonderful art. It had a fast-paced story with loads of cool monsters. It had an effeminate British undead scientist with a neat sense of humor. What’s not to like?

The second time around, I got it: the pacing’s wrong and some of the dialogue was, well, horrible. Both of these were not consistently off, but when they were, it yanked me out of the story, of the world – it made everything seem unbelievable. Less fun, too.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Which is kind of what happened to Dr. Michael Ong when he moved to Turlock, California, to head the Research Technical Institute.

RTI – or Creature Tech, as the locals have it – is more than Ong bargained for, as is Turlock. Ong, you see, was born there – and he isn’t happy to be back. And Creature Tech is full of crates, and until he’s catalogued the lot, he’s not getting a transfer. As if this wasn’t enough, the crates’ contents are, how shall we put it, slightly odd. Or is it more apt to call, just as an example, an alien slug beast with revolving teeth and a multi-talented symbiotebizarre“? One wonders.

Ong is handling all of this with a certain amount of success, but then two things happen at once: one of the crates turns out to contain the shroud of Turin; and Dr. Jameson, a long deceased mad scientist, appears as a ghost to steal the shroud and revive himself. Jameson, however, is not just your run-of-the-mill undead evil nemesis. He has made a pact with a demon, and can turn ordinary cats into raving, roving, roaring, randomly-shaped beasts of destruction. Oh, and he’s out to conquer the world with the help of inter-galactic giant space eels. Obviously.

You may think I’ve just thrown dozens of spoilers your way. Not so. All of this is just the premise for the story, which now picks up the pace, introduces a love interest to Dr. Ong, explores his relationship with his parents, veers into religious themes, casually throws a half-man/half-mantis security guard into the mix and gallops onwards to an action-packed climax.

Now, as if all of this is not impressive enough – and the imaginative prowess behind Creature Tech is awe-inspiring – TenNapel almost manages to make it work. Somehow, much of the book doesn’t seem crowded or rushed, and the world is – remarkably – not only believable, but not that different from our own.
And then there’s the art.
Oh, the art.

TenNapel is, let us not mince words, a master. This is not only because he’s an excellent artist, demonstrating line-work as impressive as I’ve ever seen, but because he doesn’t let the art go over the top: it’s there to serve the story. The synergetic effect is quite wonderful, and everything else about the art – lettering, layouts, even sound-effects – works as well.

But then come characterization and dialogue. The book only has two significant characters – Dr. Ong and Dr. Jameson. Jameson is rather one-dimensional, but in an original sort of way, and, after all, he’s a zombie mad-scientist – so no complaints there. But Ong, who carries most of the book on his shoulders, is supposed to make amends with his father, learn to live with an altered medical condition, struggle with theological issues, initiate a romantic relationship and stop a horde of hell-cats hell-bent on enslaving the world. The character collapses under the strain and stops being believable before he’s even begun: is he a geek or a rebel? Why does he fall for his love? When and why did he become an atheist, and why is it even important? All of these – and many more – just get left behind as the story races on. If the story was just about action and monsters none of this would matter, but it aims to cover more “serious” issues and, mostly when it comes to Theology, fails.

What, really?
What, really?

I think I may have still liked Creature Tech – because, really, it has so much going for it – if the only problem was Dr. Ong. But TenNapel doesn’t trust his readers to understand what’s going on, and from time to time the characters pause to state the obvious. I may be going out of a limb here, but I suspect that when an alien creature has just pierced your heart, you don’t pause to state “it has pierced my heart!” before collapsing. And when you stumble unto a highway and bright lights approach you – as is clearly indicated by the beautiful art shown above – you’re not going to say “bright lights!”. This is devastating to suspension of disbelief. Suddenly, you’re not in a wondrous world where work is reached by a plant/worm tunnel; you’re sitting in a chair, reading a book.

Creature Tech is not all bad. Actually, it’s mostly good, often excellent, and many people love it. But the occasional spalshes of “bad” paint, for me, the whole thing a rather depressing shade of mediocre.

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His Books <br>of Forbidden Knowledge, Volume One</i> cover

Mr. Monster vol. 1 cover

It was a dark and stormy night when I stumbled into the mysterious shop in one of the city’s winding side-alleys, seeking shelter from the pouring rain. The lights seemed to be out, but a sole candle was burning, its flickering flame sending shadows racing up and down the jumbled heaps of books.

“Yessss? What do you require”?

Omitting a startled yelp, I whirled in the direction of the hoarse whisper, in the process knocking over some books from one of the countless shelves. Suppressing a shudder, I crouched to pick them up.

“Sorry! Ah, I mean, I didn’t mean to startle you, ah, you startled me, eh… I mean, I mean I was just looking for…”

The gaunt figure stood up, mostly hidden by shadows, and pulled its long limbs and many joints into the  semblence of a man with eyes that seemed to shine a dull red. Its voice was no louder, but somehow more penetrating.

“Oh, never mind what you were looking for. Why don’t you follow me into the sanctum? We can discuss it there, yessss?”

There was something tempting about the offer. It seemed to suggest warmth and darkness and tranquility. Still frozen in mid-crouch, I was about to dreamily obey.

CRACK-A-BOOM!

The thunder was almost instantly followed by a flash of lightning that threw the store into sharp blacks and whites, revealing the face of my host.

Only four blocks down the road did I notice I was still screaming as I ran, and that I couldn’t stop. I attempted to put my hand over my mouth and suddenly understood  I was clutching the book I was in the process of picking up.

This is how the curse came upon me. This is how I entered the pit. This is how I came to be in possession of Michael T. Gilbert’s Mister Monster: His Books of Forbidden Knowledge, Volume One.

Well, not really. But if I was living in Mister Monster’s world, it could have happened much like this – only it would have been funnier.

Mister Monster– known to the medical world as doctor Strongfort S. Stearn – lives atop Slaughter Mountain, where the rain never stops. He’s that kind of guy, you know. His stately mansion is shared only by his assistant, the voluptuous Kelly Friday – and the occasional visitor in need of assistance. Our story opens with one of these visitors – Myron Clotz, an I.B.M employee who just happened to be bitten by a werewolf. Lycanthropy, it turns out, is the dumps – it’s wrecking havoc with Myron’s efficiency ratings, the mean guys at the were-devils athletic club demand he joins them and his romantic relationship with Millie Feinstein is off to a shaky start (he tried to rip out her throat, you see).
Luckily for Myron, this is just the sort of problem Doc Stearn solves before he even has his breakfast cereal. Not so luckily, though, he usually solves it with his 45s. Things soon get hairy, as it turns out the were-devils were following Myron, and their leader, a giant albino werewolf by the name of Crudlick, has every intention of getting rid of the pesky Mister Monster. And now, yes, you guessed it – all hell ensues.

And this, dear readers, is just the first story. Mister Monster moves on to fight a laboratory experiment gone horribly wrong in ‘The Hemo-Horror’, is transported to a different dimension in ‘No Escape from Dimension-X’, fights a rabid mutated cell when (yet another)  experiment goes (again) horribly wrong in ‘The Demon of Destiny Drive’ and more.
And he does it with style.

Mister Monster is Michael T. Gilbert‘s creation. Gilbert has worked for Disney for many years, but hasn’t really managed to make a name for himself as a prominent comics writer. This is also the case with Mister Monster, which has been around for twenty years, but didn’t get regularly published anywhere – hopping from Pacific (they crashed) to Eclipse (they crashed too) to Dark Horse (they’re okay) and then to Atomeka (not doing too well, actually). And this is a pity. It’s a pity because Gilbert deserves more; it’s a pity because Mister Monster deserves huge success; it’s a pity because it’s a testimony to how intolerant the comics field has become to non-standard stories.

Oh, no! He's back!
Oh, no! He’s back!

But Gilbert – or, perhaps, Doc Stearn – is a stubborn fellow. Mister Monster keeps popping up from time to time – his latest book, World Wars Two, was released in 2004 – and this brings his publishing history to at least three published books. This is not too bad for an independent character – that is, a character that inhabits his own continuity (and not, say, the Marvel Universe shared by all Marvel-published characters) and where the rights for the character belong to the creator. In this case, the creator is also the artist, as Gilbert provided pencils or art for almost all of the stories in Volume One, with the help of William Messner-Loebs doing the finished art for all but the last two stories.

At any rate, Mister Monster is a treat. His Books of Forbidden Knowledge, Volume One has several stories written by other writers – including one written by the illustrious Alan Moore, who also wrote the enlightening introduction – but none manage to strike the wonderful balance Michael T. Gilbert seems to pull off so effortlessly. This balance is a heady elixir of slapstick, action, tongue-in-cheek humour and genuine horror – an over-the-top parade of genre cliches that, somehow, seems to re-invent both the genre and itself every few pages. The other writers tend to make Mister Monster’s world too campy, or the character too idiotic, and it’s an easy mistake to make – since, come on, who puts on underpants to fight mutated blood-cell?
Michael T. Gilbert’s Mister Monster, that’s who!

Sadly, Mister Monster: His Books of Forbidden Knowledge, Volume One seems to be out of print, so you’ll have to settle for a used copy. However, Mister Monster: His Books of Forbidden Knowledge, Volume Zero, showcasing some of the later Mister Monster stories published (in black and white) by Dark Horse is still available.

But Don’t make the same mistake I made. Don’t follow me into the pit. At all costs, avoid reading Mister Monster – or you will be doomed to hours of fun.

Doomed, I say.

DOOOOOMMED!

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<i>Boneyard Volume One</i> cover

Boneyard Volume One cover

Michael Paris thought he had a lucky break when he inherited some land from his grandfather. It was located in the remote town of Raven’s Hollow, but that was okay – the municipality was eager to purchase the plot from Paris, and he was just as eager to sell.

However, upon arriving in Raven’s Hollow, Prais finds out a pall hangs over the little town.
Literally.
The townspeople, led by the mayor, are eager to purchase the plot (and by “purchase” I mean “destroy”) – as it turns out the plot houses the town cemetery, which, it turn, houses several, ummm, unusual characters. These include, among others, an animated, cigar-smoking, skeleton called Sid; a shade-totting werewolf; Glumph, a minor demon with a fear of socks; and Abbey, a rather fetching vampire which seems to be leading the lot.

Paris is beset upon by both sides, which need his consent to either get rid of all of this abnormality or, respectively, protect their home. He decides to stay for a while, in order to weigh all positions and options. He soon discovers things are even more sinister than they seem, his time seems to run out, and he’s pressed into action.

Richard Moore does a splendid job – he manages to create a book for the whole family without compromising one bit. Younger readers can enjoy the array of fantastic characters, the bright colors and the action, while older ones can savor the humor, the romantic (and even sexy) touches and even the occasional dash of horror. This is truly a fun read, and while light-hearted, the dedication and talent that has been put into it shines through.
Moore seems to be a versatile artist, at least content-wise: while this is a family-friendly title, he has also released erotically inclined work. The only trace of that here, though, is his excellent treatment of the human (especially the female) form – so there’s nothing to worry about (or expect).

Abbey shows what she's got
Abbey shows what she’s got

Boneyard is an independently published (“indie”) comic that has been ongoing for five years now – a rare achievement in this day and age. The trade paperback collections are published by NBM Publishing – and while the comic appears in black and white, and the trades are first released in b&w as well, they are then re-released in color (done by Jessica Kindzierski). Currently, there are six released paperbacks, the first four of which have been colored.

So far, I have only read Boneyard Volume One, and while it is a short read, it is also a self-contained story-arc, and thus, left me both satisfied and hungry for more.

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