3 Trades, 3 Creators, 3 Heroes


One of the most compelling reasons to go to a comic book convention is to, well, shop.  Not only do you get a chance to see stuff you totally forgot about (Spectreman episodes on DVD!), you get to see all kinds of books that you have heard about, all on a single table. Oni Press usually has the best of those kinds of tables where you just find yourself ogling over the different books and doing your blow your food money on "just one more" hardcover trade.
At Wondercon, I was doing a fair amount of digging around the booth and ended up asking Conor and Ron for suggestions, and, being the good guys they are, they basically threw a few books at me, many of which I bought and have since devoured (I finished one on the flight back, actually) and now, finally, can write about in this edition of 3 Trades…  Let's do it in order of consumption, shall we?
Scott Chantler's Northwest Passage is one of those stories you'd think you would have read a bunch of while you were a kid, but, in actuality, never did. You know what I mean? Like, as a kid, I heard all about Daniel Boone with his hat and his crazy looking gun, and knew that he fought Injuns and there was some kind of fort and then…like, the hat, right, mentioned that…with the gauntlet? Didn't he run some kind of gauntlet–not the "Wizard needs food" kind but the "run between two lines of angry dudes with axes and see if you can survive" kind?  With the frontier? Coonskin, right?
Like, as much as I would have liked to have read some kind of life on the wild frontier story, I don't think I actually did, or at least, I only read a few, which made this book really interesting for me.  It is a pretty basic tale–hero is about to leave the fort, but right before, fort gets overrun, hero must deal and, in the process, learns a bit about himself, his estranged son and his bitter rival–but the story is nicely grounded in history, as made clear in the wonderful annotations that follow the story. 
For my money, the annotations are half the reason why the book is so interesting. They not only provide fascinating historical background that provides some context for the story, the annotations provide real insights into creating good comics. They are very well written and remind me of a really good director's commentary, where it's less about "oh, we shot that scene and then had a fantastic salad after" and more about the challenges of building a shot, pacing a scene and editing the story to make it flow better.  The author also admits some mistakes he made and what he did to correct them, which I found incredibly useful and compelling (I am of the school that you learn much more from the mistakes you make then the successes you achieve).  
In a way, Northwest Passage is two stories in one. It is a swashbuckling story of derring-do, with compelling characters who have a shared backstory that you find yourself wanting to hear much more about (always a good sign), great action and surprisingly touching themes, set in a time that, when you think about it, isn't all that long ago, in a land not all that far away. If it were only that story, that would be great–it would be a 4-5 star book, easy. But, with the annotations, you are getting another story as well, the chronicles of creating the book, which, a a comic book fan, I found just as compelling.  
I should add that this black and white book features some truly wonderful art by Scott Chantler. His character design calls to mind an almost Disney-esque line quality with proportions that remind me very much of World of Warcraft characters, which, of course, are also very much like heroic Disney characters.  While I tend to gravitate towards more detailed, gritty work, I very much enjoyed the art, which at first was almost incongruous to the subject matter, but, as the story rolled along, it became more and more perfect.
The next book was pretty much totally different. Whereas Northwest Passage was a classic adventure set in days gone by, The Big Book of Barry Ween: Boy Genius was this happy collision of so many different genres set in the present day, as  written and drawn by Judd Winnick.  My gut comparison is to say it's Calvin and Hobbes meets The Venture Brothers with a dash of Jimmy Neutron, possibly with a Ritalin chaser, but I think that cheapens it a bit.  I hadn't heard of the series before, and this volume, which collects all of the issues, just reminded me of how many comics–good comics, great comics–there are out there that I would never, ever have picked up if I had some help.
For those of you don't know, Barry Ween is about a kid who was basically a genius since inception–like, he's just a suuuuupergenius 10 year old with a 350 IQ when the story gets going, but he's just got this wicked sense of humor, this super dry, super world-weary tone that is just hilarious.  Seriously, I laughed outloud throughout this book, because this kid is just…he's just so..he's both harsh and sarcastic and–well I had a similar feeling when I saw the original South Park Xmas Card, you know?  Like, to see these littles kids swearing like sailors and telling jokes that were far beyond their years—that's comedy, I gotta tell ya.
This volume collects the three mini-series, 12 issues in all (I guess there is a new volume in the works?)  — and it's a nice beefy collection to take with you.  It was really fun to see Winick's art get better as the years went by; the first series came out in 1999, with the second mini series coming out from 2000-2002, so, like, I am waaaaay late in getting on this bus, but the bus still runs fine.  The stories are all basically one and dones until the last collection, which is one larger story.  
While the main character Barry is compelling on his own, it is his interactions with his friends and family that really make these stories memorable. I mean it's fun to watch some kid say stuff like:
At 8 months of age, I made my first high-powered telescope by cannibalizing a video camera and an Atari 2600 (not like anyone was going to miss it). And my studies have concluded that extraterrestrials exist…and they're generally a bunch of jerk-offs. Alien visitation to Earth falls into two categories. One: The National Geographic Special. These are camera crews who come to Earth to film us in our natural habitat. And Two: The intergalactic equivalent of cow-tipping. It's predominately drunken alien frat-boys mutilating cattle, flying in observed airspace, and anal probing. But there are exceptions to these two categories…
But there is a lot more to the book than that. Like many a superhero, he understands that if his friends and family knew about his abilities, they would be in danger. While his one buddy, Jeremy, is aware of Barry's powers, he's also a ten year old kid who is, well, a very easily distracted kid and oftentimes, Barry treats him accordingly.  But still, when the government mistakenly kidnaps Jeremy, thinking he's Barry, Barry…well, Barry takes care of the situation with serious sense of command and finality.  Sara, the object of Barry's affections, is another intriguing character, who has a whole arc of her own, especially in the last series of stories and is a welcome addition to our duo.  
For the most part Barry Ween is jam packed with jokes, action, explosions and awkward situations, there are several genuinely touching moments, especially toward the end. By the end of the series, Winick shows us (perhaps a bit heavy handedly) the strain that Barry is under. I mean, you really start to identify with the pressure that this little kid is under, having all this knowledge, all this power, and is struggle to live some semblance of a normal life. I was really affected by the end of this book and the last panel of the story really stuck wtih me.  
The Big Book of Barry Ween: Boy Genius has some great additional material as well, including character designs, breakdowns of various pages and even a fun additional story co-written by Greg Rucka, that takes place right before a certain lady named Carrie gets started on a job deep in the artic.  It's pretty funny.
Finally, I quite enjoyed the art, which reminded me a big of Phil Foglio, who drew a great series called "What's New with Phil & Dixie" for Dragon magazine so many years ago. Winick's characters are wonderfully expressive–Barry's got a scowl that could rival Batman's–and Winick's storytelling skills are very solid.  As I flip through the pages there are many sequences that I want to read all over again, and I have a feeling that as soon as I get through my stack of comics, I'll probably re-read this volume. It's a lot of fun and well worth checking out. Oh–one last thing–it's really not for kids, okay? It looks like it could be, but as soon as you start reading…nuh-uh.
The last trade I want to talk about is another black and white, single creator book called Crogan's March, by Chris Schweizer.  This is the second installment in The Crogan Aventures, which tells the tale of several descendents of a particular (fictional) family.  Like Northwest Passage, it is the kind of story that I always wanted to read about–it takes place with a member of the French Foreign Legion, which I was first exposed to in Abbott & Costello in the Foreign Legion, which seemed to play every other month on one of my local TV stations. Now, like, I don't know about you, but the Legion was really, for me, the definition of adventure–at least from what I knew about it when I was nine years old.  I mean, an army stuck in the middle of the desert that would take anyone, including criminals, into their ranks, with no questions asked? Where men with dark pasts strived to move beyond their past lives, to do something good?  I mean, awesome, right? As a kid, I couldn't wait to learn more about this kind of stuff!
And I never did.  Never. Ever.  Like, I didn't even really remember the movie until I opened the book and all these memories of "stuff I gotta get more of in my life" came flooding back. I was stoked on this book–I couldn't wait to read it. Like Barry Ween and Northwest Passage, I settled in, ready to finish the book in a night or two.
It took me two weeks.
Now, to be fair, it has been a crazy time, with the move and everything, but for whatever reason, this book never really grabbed me.  Like Northwest Passage, it has deceptively simple art, nice, sweeping lines, great character design…but it just kind of stayed simple, you know?  Which is usually just fine, but when you see Schweizer start drawing the native Tuaregs, he really does some truly beautiful, detailed work with the outfits and it's just so good that it's mildly irritating when the art goes back to "normal".  
Now, the story's not bad, in fact, in reminds me a lot of Northwest Passage. We have the hero whose five year service with the Legion is about to end, who ends up being thrust in one last adventure after his fort falls to invaders (wow, it's a lot like Northwest Passage, actually! Funny.), who has to make some tough decisions and ends up, well, becoming a true hero.  The thing is, that's pretty much the entire plot. There's no "B" plot to speak of. There's a mildly annoying, after-school special-like framing device that I guess is necessary (takes place in the modern day, the kids are goofing off, the dad decides to tell the story of this particular ancestor to teach the kids a lesson), but the thrust of the story is ultimately kind of disappointing, reminding me a bit of what happens in Saving Private Ryan.  I don't want to spoil it, but for whatever reason, I was just not as inspired by the story and I think the lack of another story kind of made this book feel like it was just droning on a bit.  But, I mean, the dad at the beginning of the book is telling this guy's story, right, so that makes sense, dad's just gonna tell this one character's tale. From a storytelling point of view, though, this book really drove home how a solid B-plot can make the main plot sing, that when you just focus on one storyline there's a risk of the reader getting tired of it.  There's also a few pages that take place in entirely black panels (the characters are in a cave) which lasts entirely too long and is, frankly, a bit annoying.  
I don't mean to dis the book, though. I just think that compared to the other trades I read, it was a distant third.  I am pleased I read it, though, and I think I will check out other Crogan Adventures…but I think I will page through them a bit first.
These trades, as a group, shared a few things in common. First they were all the work of one driven individual who took care of the art and the story, and I gotta say, I just…you can feel the passion in these pages that the creators had for the characters and the story. As we have discussed before, when the writer is also drawing the pages, there is an honesty in the storytelling that is so pure, the conduit from the writer's brain to the reader's is just…well, it's all there–there's no other person diluting the intent of the author.  So very cool.  
The stories also told the stories of very compelling individual protagonists–like, sure, most books have a single character we are rooting for, but these books really focused heavily on the weight of responsibility that the main character feels, a sense of duty to do the right thing for the people he was taking care of.  We have Barrry who is learning the strains of having to take care of his family and friends as he keeps his intellect secret, we have Peter Crogan, who is about to move on to another l chapter of his life after fulfilling his obligation, and we Northwest Passage's Charles Lord about to bid farewell to his life of exploration, his youth, and fade into retirement.  
I love that Oni Press exists. They remind me of the folks at the Criterion Collection–they have a specific focus on quality work and they take great care to present the work in the best form possible. Even though two of these books were in paperback, they are sturdy books, with great cover art and quality pages.  Like so many other Oni Press books, they deserve a spot on your bookshelf, within easy reach, so you can read them again or share them with a friend. If you haven't checked these books out, do yourself a favor and look for them at your local shop or get 'em online.  I don't think you'll be disappointed!

Mike Romo is an actor in LA and can't think of anything else to say about that. Email him or follow him on twitter!


  1. All three of these sound interesting.  I’ll have to check out the Oni booth at NYCC this fall.

  2. I read the Annotated NW Passage out of the Library last year and I agree that it was really great. I have seen the Crogan books before but never tried them out. Looks like it’s time to remedy that.

  3. Yeah, I visited that booth for the Scott Pilgrim swag and came out with Multiple Warheads and Wonton Soup.

  4. I LOVE the Crogan’s Adventure books!  My favorite thing on Free Comic Book Day was the Oni Press Free For All where we got a peak at what an aged Catfoot Crogan looks like. Awesome!

  5. Well looks like I am off to pick up my copy of The Big Book of Barry Ween: Boy Genius. I actually cannot wait.

  6. Barry ween was my favourite book when it was coming out. I couldn’t open that link, but if there is new ween coming that’s the coolest news I’ve heard today.

  7. All three of these books are sensational.  Some of my favorite indie comics for sure.