Monday, February 14, 2011

Teen Angst Begins Its Comeback in Comics

If only the Teen Titans were this much fun (mash-up by Cliff Chiang)
 That headline will either make you roll your eyes and loudly sigh, or you are eagerly awaiting to hear about new books treading familiar coming-of-age territory. You can count me in the latter category! I've always enjoyed melodramatic adolescent adventures, whether in early seasons of Buffy or between the pages of Invincible. But as the average age of comic book readers has climbed higher, the need to appeal to teen readers has declined. Beloved characters have grown up as well; Spidey falls somewhere between 20-something and young professional, the X-Men have been teachers longer than they've been students, and the original Teen Titans have opted to drop the Teen. Even the once young Robin has taken on Batman's role in the past year. The newer generation of teen-centric titles are scarce compared to yesteryear, not to mention the fact that they've seen a noticeable drop in quality and focus in recent years. Marvel teen properties like Runaways have been bogged down by universe relevant storylines, while DC's offerings are slim. Sean McKeever, the original scribe for Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, has proven time and again how well suited he is for crafting teen dramas (I'd love to see him take on Runaways), but even his recent work on Young Allies has more heroics than angst taking up space in the stories. The extraordinary circumstances teen super heroes face just make their unrequited crushes and questionable judgement more interesting, but saving the day isn't the only thing that keeps me reading. It's the drama of it all! Never mind my own vicarious desires to read about teens; it's quite a challenge to find titles that can appropriately be recommended to a young teenager.* With all of the complaints about a shrinking market, maybe publishers should try catering to the much ignored tween market, that place between Tiny Titans and Teen Titans. I'd really like something else to give my 14 year old cousin besides the Twilight graphic novelization.

I'm happy to report that a few good teen dramas outside of the capes and tights crowd will easily satisfy one's desire for juvenile tales. One is cemented in the reality of collegiate life in New York while the other presents more supernatural obstacles for its high school characters. Both titles sit precariously between the simplicity of youth and the overbearing complexity of adulthood, while providing readers with the many thrills that come along the way.

New York Five
Writer: Brian Wood
Artist: Ryan Kelly
Publisher: Vertigo

I missed the first volume of this series, New York Four, but after taking a chance on the first issue of this sequel I may have to track it down. Centered on the lives of five female NYU students, New York Five sees the returning characters begin their second semester of freshman year. Brian Wood does a thorough job of bringing new readers up to speed on the intricate details of their lives, whether they are weirdly obsessing over a professor (Lona), losing their job (Merissa), or trying to make amends with their tragically-hip sibling (Riley). It's an immediately engrossing mini-verse, largely because of the creative team's attention to detail. Wood gives each character a soundtrack and bite sized philosophies with their introductions, and artist Ryan Kelly has drawn five girls as uniquely different as the boroughs of the city. It's a testament to Kelly's skill that the characters still demand attention amongst the intricate black and white cityscapes. New York Five is a lot like the Gossip Girl series minus the debauchery and constant suspension of disbelief. But unlike the similarly New York set show, the characters of New York Five are more defined and easily distinguishable from one another. Imagine that, a story in the comic book medium boasting a more obvious third dimension than a television series (note: I'm not actually surprised). If you need more convincing to pick up this title, Vertigo has printed the first several pages of New York Five in the back of many titles; just pick up your January issues for Fables, House of Mystery, or Hellblazer to try it out.

Morning Glories
Writer: Nick Spencer
Artist: Joe Eisma
Publisher: Image / Shadowline
Morning Glories has been recommended to me many times in the past few weeks, so I finally picked up a fourth print of the first issue. The first volume of this series will be released within the next few weeks, and thank goodness cause I'm already hooked. The newest class of arrivals for the elite boarding school, Morning Glory Academy, have been told time and again that they have the potential to achieve greatness. What the administrators have in mind for their student's "better future" is yet to be seen. It doesn't take long to realize that once you enter MGA, there's no leaving until your role has been fulfilled. I actually read this issue from cover to cover twice, and considering how many books I have in my "to be read" pile that's saying a lot. Part of my desire to reread the book was for for the purpose of clarification (a lot happens) and that density left many opportunities for discovery in a second read. Mostly it was just fun to pick up again. Joe Eisma is relatively unknown, and his artwork feels a little ripe at times. The backgrounds can be noticeably bare, and the sinister creature introduced within the first few pages feels a bit Scooby-Doo-ish. His strength is clearly in the characters. The first issue sees Eisma creating a wide range of emotional states, often with hilariously spot on facial expressions (Zoe in particular). It would have been nice to see more diverse style in the characters, especially the women. Outfits range from busty, less busty, to modestly busty, unsurprisingly popular choices for women in comics. Personal taste aside, Eisma's style is appropriate for the material. What would a horror-tinged teen drama be without a little t&a? The book is frequently compared to Lost, but I think that does the book a disservice. Unlike the creators of Lost, I'm hoping Nick Spencer has a better idea of where he is going with the concept rather than arbitrarily introducing paranormal elements without explanation. I don't mind the suspense of waiting for answers, but if I get to the end of this series and it turns out "they're all dead!" I will never read another book compared to Lost again. A more apt comparison may be to say Morning Glories is like Battle Royale with a splash of Breakfast Club. Favorite character so far: Ike. He's like Chuck Bass meets Patrick Bateman.

* (I do realize that there are a number of wonderful all ages books that can be recommended to younger teens, such as Bone, Mouse Guard, The Plain Janes, and the recent Wonderful Wizard of Oz. But as you may notice, many of these are self contained series, no longer ongoing (see also Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane), or not in the mainstream thus harder to find. But this post is about a lack of books with teenage characters. A lack of titles produced specifically for readers age 10-14 is a subject worthy of its own post in the future!)

Friday, February 4, 2011

Retail Therapy Part VII: Challengers Comics + Conversation

Challengers as seen on the much warmer 24 Hour Comics Day this past October.
(This post is part of an ongoing series where I attempt to visit every single comic book store within Chicago city limits. You can read more about the project here!)

Location: 1845 N Western Ave #2R in Bucktown
Public Transit: Nearest buses are the Western (49) and Milwaukee (56), nearest train is the Western blue line.
Monday through Friday: 11:00 to 7:00
Saturday and Sunday: 11:00 to 5:00

Challengers Comics + Conversation presented a uniquely complicated task for Retail Therapy. My history with the owners makes me a little more than biased. I worked for co-owner Patrick Brower for several years before he opened Challengers, and I have remained close friends with him since. When my husband and I wanted to have a Star Trek theme wedding, Pat offered to officiate and host the nuptials inside of Challengers. How can I possibly talk about this comic book shop in an objective manner? Well it is near impossible to separate the store from the owners, even if you haven't known them for years. Pat and Dal are the reason this store is the way it is, and no one else could have made a store quite like it. From top to bottom, Challengers Comics + Conversation is the result of Pat & Dal's combined ambition, love, and dedication to the comic book reading experience. I may be more aware of this than first time shoppers, but it is a fact that anyone quickly learns once they become a regular customer.
Pat and Dal insisted on straightening the shelves before I photographed the store.
As soon as you walk into Challengers it's obvious that this is a different approach to the comic book retail outlet. I have heard people refer to it as a "bizarro" comic book shop because in many ways it is the opposite of what you'd expect. The high ceilings and ample natural light give it a very open feel. Artwork is a prominent feature within the store, from the wall directly behind the counter adorned with drawings, to the exclusive original art prints for sale. One cannot comment on the aesthetics of the store without mentioning the carefully chosen color scheme; all fixtures in the store are red and white, from the carpet, couches, shelves and on most days, the owner's clothes even match the decor. Another modern approach taken by Challengers is in the community aspect of the store. They host an ambitiously large amount of events (some I have blogged about in the past) including a monthly book club, signings, Magic, and the Contest of Challengers podcast; they maintain a socially engaging website complete with store webcam; and now there's even an art gallery attached to the store. Readers have many opportunities to meet creators of their favorite works at signings here, and now they can purchase the  original art from those books as well.
The Rogue's Gallery as seen on the January 14th opening for The Sixth Gun exhibition.
Did I mention they have comics, too? For all of the "Challengers is different!" rhetoric, they still meet (and by their large selection exceed) the basic needs of comic book fans. The issues are arranged by Marvel, DC, Independent, and a Local Artist section as well. Trades are arranged by publisher, with non-DC and Marvel titles alphabetized by author. You'll also find trade shelves for All Ages, Manga, Discount, and How-to. No matter what you're looking for, there are no shelves that are left unlabeled. Even the t-shirts have "New This Week" signs. The organization of Challengers is nothing short of meticulous. They also carry a few toys, cards, and novelty items (see Scott Pilgrim plushies), but these are carefully chosen and reveal soft spots for the owners such as Dr. Who and Buffy. They certainly don't carry every Marvel Select or DC Direct toy, but you'll find a good selection of statues and t-shirts (with girl sizes! I must point this out because it is still not the norm at many stores). They no longer carry back issues,  which will be noticed by avid collectors searching for key issues. I expect like many stores these days, trades have replaced the demand for back issues.
Each event earns a place on the walls Challengers. They're entering their fourth year soon and wall space is limited.
Challengers may sound overwhelming if you are a "get in, get your books, get out" kind of reader that likes to get lost amongst unkempt piles of merchandise. You won't find piles of any kind here to hide behind, and the word "conversation" isn't in their namesake to be catchy. The owners are friendly, but in very different ways. Pat is the one who will probably remember your name the second time you come in. He's more than willing to help you find your new favorite book, tell you about the upcoming events on the horizon, or offer a seat while you wait for the next bus to pass. Dal is less hands on. He himself prefers anonymity as a shopper, and tends to let customers dictate the level of interaction. During events Dal mans the register and let's Pat be the social butterfly. The community aspect of Challengers may not be fully appreciated by the solitary reader, but both owners will always help you find what you are looking for.
Pat (left) and Dal (right) pose in front of the wall of sketches
Have I been objective in my observations? To the best of my abilities I believe so. But when you personally know a proprietor, whether your experiences are good or bad, it's difficult to separate the two. Would I go to Challengers if I didn't know and like the owners? You're damn straight I would. But I can guarantee I wouldn't be a stranger for long. Chances are you won't either.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Retail Therapy Part VI: G-Mart Comic Books

(This post is part of an ongoing series where I attempt to visit every single comic book store within Chicago city limits. You can read more about it here!)

Location: 2641 N Kedzie in Logan Square
Public Transit: Nearest buses are the Diversey (76) and Milwaukee (56); Nearest train is the Blue line Logan Square stop.
Monday: 12-7
Tuesday: 12-7
Wednesday: 12-8
Thursday: 12-7
Friday: 12-8
Saturday: 12-7
Sunday: 12-6

G-Mart Comic Books has flown under my radar for several years, and I suspect that may be the case for many Chicago comic book fans. Geographically, it is not easy to get to for a Northsider like myself. Located in Logan Square, it took a good hour to reach, and even when I was in the neighborhood, I still managed to miss it despite being across the street. After wondering too far down Kedzie, I stopped at a local 7-11 and asked the employees if they knew where the comic book store G-Mart was located. Befuddled looks then led to long explanations about how no no, not around here, maybe on the North side, but, no way man, I don't think so. In truth, I was just about a block north of where I needed to be, but you'd think I was asking where to find Lake Michigan. G-Mart isn't quite the rarity the locals might think, but it is true that the West side of Chicago has less stores than the North side. G-Mart could definitely use some more obvious signage to indicate its presence considering it sits at a major intersection within view of the Logan Square blue line, and yet I have never noticed this store, even when I was in search of it.
Hey, I have a Batman standee in my living room, too!
Walking into G-Mart feels like entering a friend's living room that also happens to be a comic book store. Complete with a large couch, coffee table, and television, you can immediately find refuge from the cold and browse a book while you defrost. The only thing missing is an Ikea lamp and rug to bring the room together. I find a lot of stores have couches these days, but G-Mart has one that is actually large and comfortable. Molly and Ryvre, the two gals working the store during my Saturday evening visit seemed to easily avoid the temptation to lounge as they were busy with filing and other work behind the counter. They were both friendly and open to offering their opinions on books without it feeling like pressure to purchase. Everyone that came in during my visit was treated like an old friend. Conversations seemed to pick up where they left off, pull lists were handed out without prompting. The atmosphere and general familiarity between customers and employees is easy to understand considering the store's history. The owner opened G-Mart in part because he realized he could get enough of his pals together to qualify for a discount if they all bought their books directly from the publishers. That favorable arrangement extends to customers today as qualifying club members receive a generous 35% off their subscriptions. After opening the first G-Mart in Champagne, IL, the owner extended the discount-for-friends model by opening this second location in Chicago. He now lives in New York but the Logan Square store is clearly left in capable hands while he runs the online store.
The new issue selection is quite large and varied, but you'll have to request any back issues
On to the merchandise! G-Mart has a decent selection of new titles, with the issues arranged by DC, Marvel, and Independent. G-Mart places some of their new trades on the same shelves as the individual shelves. As retail therapy continues, this is quickly becoming a re-occuring pet peeve of mine. I have yet to see one store successfully, nay, consistently accomplish this task. Visually it breaks up your line of sight, like seeing a semi parked amongst cars. A "new this week" trade shelf is sorely missed in many shops, not just G-Mart. Considering how many trades are released each week of long finished series, re-releases, and graphic novels, these don't have a place among the new issues, so why find a spot just for the latest Amazing Spider-Man reprint?

The majority of the trades are organized by genre, many of which are ones I haven't seen before. There are sections for music, critically acclaimed titles, superhero prose, GLBT, Noir, zombies, and a few creator specific ones (someone who works here is a big Straczynksi fan). Organizing books in this ultra-detailed manner gives the impression of a much larger selection than is actually present in the store. This is surely a good thing since I found myself noticing books that probably would have been lost in the shuffle if they had simply been alphabetized. The more stores I see, the more certain I am that arranging titles by genre is more successfully accomplished with trades than floppy issues. G-Mart also has a small selection of back issues that consist of quarter books and dollar books. Some of these titles are debatable as to which bin they belong in considering books in both bins look pretty beat up without bags and boards, but either way you can easily find good deals. Just don't expect to find any books from before the 80's. G-Mart actually has an extensive back issue collection sold mainly through the website, but the books themselves are on the premises albeit out of site. The staff will happily provide the issues upon request! (See comments for further explanation)
Molly (left) holds up an issue of Unwritten, a title recommended by herself and Ryvre (right)
One of the employees, Ryvre, makes several speciality items that are sold in the store. These include t-shirts of her own design and buttons made from recycled comics. You can also purchase posters designed by employees, and the manager Paul will sketch characters for you if you ask. Beyond the handmade offerings, there are a few statues and Hero Clix, but no action figures and little in the way of novelty items. (Surely the Captain Hammer t-shirt makes it worth venturing to the West side?) Molly and Ryvre claim that the welcoming atmosphere and friendly staff are enticing for Chicago comic fans during the winter, and they will also be hosting D&D in store. Even on a frigidly cold Saturday night, G-Mart shoppers were out in full force, proof of the store's appeal. Like many gems in Logan Square, the locals may want to keep this store a hidden secret. Here's hoping that recommendations like mine will help change G-Mart from beloved shop of hip-to-it Westsiders to worthwhile destination for Chicagoland comic book fans.

So there appears to be some sort of "blizzard" descending upon Chicagoland at the moment; luckily I have a few stores yet that I have visited but simply haven't published. I will also be posting a mid-point update / reflection once I hit my 10th store! You can see the progress here on the blog, and also on this handy google map where I mark the locations of the stores as I visit them.