Serial anthologies challenge us to ask what constitutes a comic and consider the possibilities of what they can be.
Comic book anthologies never went away. They just became harder to spot since the '60s. One reason is because Dr. Fredric Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent prompted the creation of the Comics Code Authority in 1954. The CCA's censoring made it hard for EC Comics to continue publishing its anthologies, which printed the work of Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman, Joe Orlando, and many other legends in the field.
Another reason is that many anthologies turned into single character books. Dark Horse Presents, Papercutters, Negative Burn, Kramers Ergot, 2000 AD, and dozens of others kept anthologies alive while single-story comics and graphic novels grew to become the big draw to comics readers. They come and go, get canceled without notice, sometimes only get released once a year, and move to digital. This is the way of the serial anthology. Now that the juggernaut of serial anthologies, Heavy Metal (published since 1977), has Grant Morrison as Editor-In-Chief, it joins Amazing Forest and Islands to make up three serial anthologies on stands today that are offering some of the best variety between two covers.
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Island has tied together a wide range of artists, genres, styles, and ideas to create an anthology with a focus on new and underground talent to question the idea of what belongs in a modern anthology comic. Most issues open with either splash pages or short stories that introduce readers to a new world. Sometimes a city, sometimes a landscape, mostly wordless, these new environments begin each issue by bringing the readers into an unfamiliar world which plays on the title of the book, indicating that it doesn't always contain what readers would expect from a mainstream comic. There have been prose stories with sparse illustrations, some in the style of classic zine articles that have handwritten text with xerox-looking black and white images, thanks to Robin Bougie. Add occasional photography, interviews and essays, and you have something that takes a page from R. Crumbs Weirdo.
Island doesn't limit itself to just being a comic or publishing stories that necessarily fit together. It doesn't try to make thematic issues, though the theme of world-building does seem to reappear. It simply gives an audience whatever Brandon Graham and Emma Rios think deserves a spotlight. In issue six, Onta's “Badge of Pride” takes the lion's share of the pages to tell a furry story dealing with a character figuring out his own sexual identity.
In the same issue, there's a splash page where one fashionably dressed woman is about to strangle another fashionably dressed woman wielding a knife. The image, from Katie Skelly (Nurse Nurse), is meant to parody modern fashion ads. Split between the first two issues, and now collected is “I.D.” from Rios. Telling the story of a group of people that swap bodies for various reasons, Rios hits on topics of gender politics, race, personal identity and bigotry in an Orwellian future that is written as well as it is drawn.
More highlights come from what someone expects Brandon Graham to bring: stories built around sci-fi, fantasy and the middle spaces where those two genres cross. In “Habitat”, Graham collaborator Simon Roy uses robots, class war, mutiny, and ancient forces to play with ideas of what it means to be on the right side -- if there is a right side. “Habitat” takes place on a green planet filled with technology, stone houses and Aztec-like ruins, where Cho, a new recruit, finds something that will set him on an adventure and change the history of his people. Something similar happens with Graham's own contributions. Though they're stories that continue with his work in the Multiple Warheads universe, like “Habitat”, they're very much about adventure and taking readers through the imagination and excitement of exotic spaces.
Six months after Island hit the stands, Amazing Forest, an anthology published by IDW, came out. Six issues in, this monthly title contains short stories written by Erik Freitas and Ulises Farinas. While there isn't anything art-house at work here, what makes this anthology unique is the different illustrator assigned to each story. By giving over the scripts to different artists, the writers not only have more hands to help put the book together on time, but the stories take on different tones that add not only to the stories and variety of the book, apposed to chapters that revisit stories from previous issues, but also give the audience an introduction to a range of artists each issue.
With each month containing different stories and artists, the issues move in and out of genres. With fantasy, sci-fi, fairy tales, and even homages to Fletcher Hanks's super hero, Stardust, paired with different illustrators, the diversity of the comic leaves readers not knowing what they're getting into when picking up the next issue. And this is a good thing! The covers may have one story reflected on it, but when you're dealing with charters you've never seen before, it's difficult to know exactly what that cover portends.
In issue three, Job Yamen's fine lines and water colors turns “Ben Franklin, Dragon Hunter”, into a lush but gritty alternative reality that could only be better if it went on for more pages, but works well as a story that ends in time to make the reader's mind continue to turn with its own theories. Issue four's “Edith and the Murderbot” is an example of the team using Jelena Djordevic's expressive faces and masterful crosshatching to form an uncomfortably paced story with an equally eerie plot twist that makes for a great macabre suspense story. The two writers even go into super hero territory in “Villain's Friend”, with a Miracleman-esque tone provided by Jack Forbes to answer the question: what would happen if a villain beat all the heroes? With a good amount of humor, the stories in Amazing Forest don't always take themselves too seriously. On these occasions, the artists chosen tend to have more of a cartoony aesthetic, which showcase the creators ability to use good judgment and find good talent.
In publication for the better part of 40 years (more if you count the magazine it was originally translated from), Heavy Metal isn't new at all. For quite a while it has specialized in rounding up and serializing some of the best European and American comics artists working with fantasy, sci-fi, erotica, sword and sorcery adventures, horror, and did I mention sex? Heavy Metal has been showcasing selections from artist portfolios, taking chances on new talent, and exposing North America to the great comics scene in Europe since before publishers like Catalan Communications made it their goal to collect and translate great works from across the Atlantic. The only difference is that Heavy Metal is still around while Catalan Communications, sadly, is defunct. What's new about Heavy Metal is the presence of Grant Morrison in the E-I-C chair.
With most serialized stories from previous issues almost wrapped up, Heavy Metal 280 shows the taste and talent of Grant Morrison building the index of the institutional publication with the following course: “This, out rebirth issue, features my first gleaning from the bulging Heavy Metal submissions drawer. Presented with hundreds of stories -- I mean literally, honestly, hundreds or more, possibly thousands, or millions, or even fifteen, who can take the time to count these days? -- I started the selection process with this lot.”
If that's truly the way he went about picking stories or not, Morrison manages to put together one of the most diverse collection out there. The nudity in this issue either plays to a story where the characters are savages, shooting arrows in a bizarre loop of unrequited love (Massimiliano Frezzato's wordless “The Key”), or in a naked, not nude, representation that works with the uncomfortable nature of memories, trauma and what happens in the mind's eye (“A Mind Bomb”, Anna Laurine Kornum). With Kornum's story, dark colors surround characters with big black eyes. The nameless main character takes readers through her childhood, where she was obsessed with the atomic bomb and visited by what she thinks is an angel of death. The story concerns itself with how mental health is effected by suppressed memories that can explode at any moment.
Aside from the continued stories of Erike Lewis, J.K. Woodward and Enki Bilal, the story with the familiar feel of Heavy Metal is “Goddess”, by Ryan Ferrier & Hugo Petrus. With fine lines, attention to detail and green palate, the creators tell a pastoral story of Flidias, an Irish goddess that protects animals and nature. Century Guild Art Gallery shows off some of its favorite art nouveau silent film posters and oil paintings by Gail Potocki, whose “Botanical No. 23” is used an alternative cover. Filled with stories that go through fields of horror, fantasy, and lore, Morrison finds room for comedy with Aladin Saad's absurd “Boring Sequential Story”, where references to Batman, Tintin and Little Nemo build a typo-ridden, self-aware misadventure of Galileo and his enchanted telescope. The other good laugh is Morrison's own contribution, the first part of “Bleachhead”, a tongue-in-cheek story about violent aliens taking over the galaxy told with a 2000 AD visual look.
One of Morrison's more interesting picks is the story “Salsa Invertabraxa”, a six part story that will run through his first year. With hyper-detailed digital panels depicting the world of insects, artist Mozchops narrates the habitats and life-styles of invertebrates with a rhyme scheme narrative. The story's poetic device makes it sometimes come off like a children's book. Including something that tip toes the line between comic and children's book, Morrison starts to challenge the idea of what a comic is. Choosing this type of story keeps his readers on their toes, wondering what he'll throw at them next.
Serial anthologies of the past, and some of the present have a tendency to bunch together a type, whether it be books of the golden age that grouped stories by genre, or books today that build upon independent artists or autobiographical stories. With Heavy Metal, Amazing Forest, and Island, three different types of serial anthologies are being published. Each has a different vision and creative focus. Each brings together and uses talent in a different way to build a title and story. But they all mix it up. Most importantly, they ask you to trust to the editors. Trusting the people that put these books together is one of the few ways to get exposure to new talent. Further, they challenge us to ask what constitutes a comic and consider the possibilities of what they can be.