Rogue Element #93: The Future of Forteza

By Avril Brown

Fitness is the wave of the future. People are waking up from their high fructose corn syrup comas and realizing that our bodies are temples: you are either a ward or a sacrifice. Eating healthier and engaging in some form of regular exercise is not as painful as people think, and can actually end up being fun and addictive (my first, and certainly not last, tattoo artist told me the same thing about body art. Five tattoos and counting…).

Swordplay is the fighting style of the past. Years ago, people used to live, and die, by the sword. How one handled a blade could determine his or her station in life, the length of said life, and how much poontang was received. Though people are still fascinated by the art and culture of swordplay as evident by wildly successful sword and sorcery series, such as ‘Game of Thrones’, few people have any knowledge of how to actually use one.

Forteza Fitness, Physical Culture and Martial Arts is a brand new facility where the future and the past collide in a flurry of coordinated movements and metal sparks. Western martial arts meets modern fitness in methods and styles unseen in any part of the world in recent history. The range and diversity of skills amassed by the staff of Forteza Fitness is astounding, and the location and setting are ideal for what they offer. In addition to having a separate area for traditional personal fitness training, Forteza will also serve as the practice arena for the Chicago Swordplay Guild which studies close-quarter combat, Renaissance rapier and Armizare, an Italian style of longsword fighting. Membership packages will be available, such as the Modern Combative Membership which will include bi-weekly Martial Blade Concepts classes and several FightingFit bootcamps, and for those interested in joining the Guild the Swordsman Membership offers several Swordsmanship Foundation classes, bootcamps and a variety of Taster and Focus classes. Both packages include additional perks, and for those in need of even greater flexibility in their training schedule, a Multi-Class Punch-Card will be offered for your drop-in convenience.

Forteza Fitness offers a bit of everything for the work out, fighting and fantasy fanatic, all within a few steps of the Montrose Brown line station at 4437 North Ravenswood Ave., Chicago, a location that is well on its way to becoming the most beautiful and architecturally inspiring private gym and training arena. The high ceilings and distinct lack of walls in the center space open the floor, keeping it airy and giving the area an energy all its own. The newly finished wood floors give off a resplendent shine and a tasteful nod to their modern fitness culture, while the original brick walls are a visual reminder of the ancient styles from which many of their teachings are drawn from. There is also a “gymuseum” displaying several pieces of antique exercise equipment, making Forteza even more of a perfect venue for their first major seminar: an introduction to the art of Bartitsu.

What is Bartitsu? Ask Tony Wolf, a New Zealand native and Chicago resident, and the man responsible for bringing Bartitsu back to the Midwest. A fighting method created in the late nineteenth century, Bartitsu combines martial arts, British fisticuffs and stick fighting to produce a practical self-defense style that refuses to fade. Though the original London Bartitsu Club closed in 1902 only a few years after its founding, the art was given a vague reference in one of the greatest ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stories ever penned, and Bartitsu lives on through people like Mr. Wolf who kept it alive and continue teach their skills. Now Chicago residents can feel safer and stronger as they walk the city streets armed with knowledge, confidence and a cane, and what better way for a unique gym like Forteza to open its doors than to a Bartitsu seminar?

Tony’s introductory session on January 22nd called to history buffs, fighting fans, Guild members and Steampunk squires alike. They listened with rapt attention as Tony spoke of the history of this fighting style he is so passionate about, and soon enough he had his new students walking the room, introducing themselves to one another and learning and practicing balance and synergy. “Trust in the sensation,” he instructed as a range of disciples stood with backs pressed together, lowering themselves to the floor and raising themselves back up utilizing said synergy. The connection, unity and sense of strength he inspired in his pupils were a joy to watch, let alone participate in. Laughter erupted periodically as Mr. Wolf’s quips and quirks kept people entertained as well as educated.

“The counter attack is based solely on your opponents’ actions, which is a lovely thing,” Tony told his listeners as he began another demonstration and went on to explain how Bartitsu covers every possible eventuality. There was a tangible hum to the air when Tony told his followers to fetch their sticks (plus a few chuckles as well), and grins erupted on eager faces as they scurried to begin their training with tools. Soon enough the halls of Forteza echoed with the crack of wooden sticks meeting in mock battle and clattering against the floor as partners were disarmed. The flexibility and versatility of Bartitsu is an understandable attraction for a man with interests and skills as eclectic as Tony Wolf, and now he is sharing his passion with those fortunate enough to register for his upcoming six week class (registration is still open for those inclined, and all pertinent information can be found at

Though the men outnumbered the women in the Bartitsu introductory seminar, the numbers are not as skewed as one might think. As with Comic Conventions and varying forms of nerd-dom, women are no longer shy about expressing their interests, though there is photographic evidence of women’s historic involvement in the Bartitsu culture. On the Bartitsu homepage there is a picture of Edith Garrud, a former jujutsu instructor for the English women’s suffrage movement and who studied under a Bartitsu Club instructor, demonstrating a jujutsu wrist lock on her interviewer Godfrey Winn.

Tony varied his choice in demonstration victims, every student both excited and concerned about being Mr. Wolf’s latest punching bag. He remains, however, a gentlemanly professor, and consistently offered clear instructions that were firm but non-painful. A charismatic creature, Tony is an impossible man to ignore, and his teachings are only a taste of the variety of forthcoming programs Forteza has to offer.

Early morning Fighting Fitness classes, Martial Blade Concepts courses (modern, practical self-defense) taught by one of the only local and fully vested instructors in the art, medieval swordplay and premiere personal training are just the beginning. Find Forteza on Facebook and keep watch for the launch of their website, opening galleria and oodles more to come. The future of Forteza looks bright, lit by the rising stars of modern fitness and the glean of polished swords. En garde!


Written and Drawn by Leela Corman
Published by Schocken Books
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by SpazDog Press

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Taking a look at a couple of new graphic novels…

UNTERZAKHN is a powerhouse effort by writer/artist Leela Corman, and one that will stick in readers’ memories for a while once they put the book down. Set in the early 20th century, we meet sisters Esther and Fanya as they navigate immigrant life in New York City. As they get older, their lives take wildly divergent paths- Fanya goes to work for a woman who performs abortions, and Esther takes on a new name while dancing burlesque and working as a prostitute. Yet as different as their lives seem to be, the two sisters live parallel existences in ways they could never guess. Everything here is really excellent- Corman’s character work captivates, the dialogue has an authentic ring to it, and she makes you believe in and understand who these two women are. The art is just detailed enough to immerse you in the world, letting you truly feel like you’re back a hundred years and seeing what life was really like for people. If it sounds like the book isn’t a bundle of laughs, you’re right- what humor is here is outweighed by tragedy. But happy endings weren’t exactly the norm back then. I have the feeling that next December, when I start whipping up a top ten list, this book will require some more discussion.

Some local Arizona folks have joined together for UNITE AND TAKE OVER, an anthology featuring short stories inspired by the music of The Smiths. Much like other efforts dealing with Tori Amos, Belle & Sebastian, and Bob Dylan, the creative teams have been granted a lot of latitude in interpreting the work for the page. What this means isn’t really any different than what you get from most anthologies: a mixed bag of results. Some of the work here is really very good, and really catches the eye- Sterling Gates’ “William It Was Really Nothing” is as good as any piece that I’ve read in an anthology of this type. But some of the work is not yet ready for primetime, even in the alt-comix arena. Perhaps the strongest aspect here is in the book’s conceptualization and design- UNITE looks a lot better than most small press collections tend to. SpazDog has made rumbles that they’re going to continue doing more books in this vein, and as they do, the artistic talent level should continue to improve, as well as the overall execution. I’ll be watching and rooting for them.


Written by Jeff Roenning and Drawn by Robert Love
Published by Image Comics

Reviewed by Marc Mason

A young woman walks into a diner and begins to tell the story of the apocalypse in ALPHA GIRL, an interesting- if unsatisfying- debut hitting shelves right now. Our narrator, Judith Meyers, lights up a cigarette once she sits in a booth, which tells you immediately that something has gone horribly wrong in society. I’m not sure that there’s anyplace left you can do that anymore- at least not without getting arrested. While that’s supposed to tell us a little bit about the state of the world, the smoking is also meant to give our lead character an “edgy” quality. That part doesn’t quite take, though.

Apparently the apocalypse was started at a cosmetics company (shades of RESIDENT EVIL?) and has to do with an experiment in pheromones getting out of control and spreading. Indeed, we spend a little over half the book following the two scientists responsible and the sequence of events that leads to the outbreak. The sequence is actually quite entertaining, and has a nicely subtle sense of humor about it, which I respected. The writing is very light and the pacing is strong. But there’s also a disconnect- Judith describes them as “assholes” but the duo never quite come across that way on the page. Instead, the shit that the scientists get put through paints them more as tragic figures forced into a corner.

Now, perhaps we’re meant to see Judith as unreliable narrator, but there are no other clues in the book to indicate that to be true. Indeed, the real issue I have with ALPHA GIRL is that we end issue one knowing very little about the title character at all. She had a shitty home life and she and her brother got put into foster care. That’s about it. You know a lot more about the scientists after reading this comic than you do Judith, and that’s a problem from a structural point of view.

I’m not suggesting this is a bad comic- it has some conceptual wit, the art tells the story effectively and is pleasing to the eye, and the dialogue is nicely executed on the page. But it isn’t as successful as it should be. When the book is called ALPHA GIRL, then at the end of issue one, I should have an idea of who she is, what her mission is in the story, and an idea of where things are headed. But the backstory of the apocalypse interrupts that. I’d have rather gotten more Judith and seen the apocalypse material held off until issue two. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

CHEW 22-23

CHEW #22-23
Written by John Layman and Illustrated by Rob Guillory
Published by Image Comics

Reviewed by Avril Brown

CHEW’s latest story arc ‘Major League Chew’ is in full swing with parts two and three covering a lot of (rather painful) ground for our hero. Just when Tony Chu thinks he will be able to settle in nicely in his new position as a traffic cop where he is beloved, appreciated and celebrated, he gets the living shit beaten out of him by a blast from the recent past.

Before readers are given the story behind Chu’s run in with a baseball bat, issue #22 covers the variety of shit assignments Agent Caesar Valenzano has found himself saddled with since Chu’s transfer to traffic, and what Caesar’s former partner, Savoy, has been trying to accomplish with Chu’s daughter since he kidnapped young Olive. When that issue wraps up, you can practically hear the ominous music playing in the background as Olive finally shows us what she’s got.

Issue #23 shows readers what Colby’s been up to since his transfer…to the all-female (and animal) operated USDA. We got a glimpse of these badass chicks and their animal partners in the final showdown involving Poyo, the homicidal rooster, and they are unsurprisingly a little frosty towards their new male recruit. Colby is left trying to solve cases with his new partner, Buttercup the lion, and having to deal with his cantankerous boss (a peace with he is hoping to achieve by utilizing a method we’ve seen before), all the while trying to get a hold of Chu, who seems to have disappeared.

Back to the baseball bat, as Tony is being held hostage by a rather unstable gentleman with an unorthodox mission which is so bizarre, even by CHEW standards, that you have to read it to believe it. CHEW continues to score points on all the boards it has become famous for, and as always delivers a great story while leaving readers hungry for more.


Rogue Element #92: Caught in a Love Triangle

By Avril Brown

I am a Rogue and Gambit fan. This is evident by the first comic book I ever purchased, my many rants on the subject, the rather large tattoo on my upper back, and the multitude of prints, posters and pictures covering the walls of my petite studio. They are one of my favorite couples in all of fandom, and I cherish every panel starring the two of them where they are not fighting, breaking up or trying to kill one another.

When I first met the X-Men, they were a cartoon show I obsessively watched after school in the early ‘90’s. I immediately fell for Rogue’s sauciness and Gambit’s sexiness, they way they snipped at each other but obviously still cared for one another, and the bittersweet tension between the two of them due to her inability to have skin-to-skin contact without draining him of his life force. Manna from heaven for an eleven-year-old Cancer sign with a penchant for fantasy and true love. I can still remember how my heart lurched during one episode when she lost her powers, and right before she’s about to be experimented on by the bad guys Gambit confesses his love and kisses her. Oh, swoon…

The possibility exists that I am still in love with that cartoon couple. Though Rogue and Gambit from ‘X-Men: The Animated Series’ are the reason I got into comics in the first place, comic book Rogue and Gambit are different creatures than the moving pictures. A lot has happened in the years since these characters were first created, both before the show and after, changing the couple for the better, and for the worse, and back again.

One, or even ten columns would not be sufficient space to dive into the details of Rogue and Gambit’s relationship, so fast forward to the latest drama: Rogue recently acquired control over her life/power-sucking powers, which have long been an understandable thorn in the side of their on-again, off-again affair. Though Rogue requested breathing room following this immense alteration in her life, it appeared, briefly, that she was going to spend her time with Gambit. Enter the third party.

Magneto, the Master of Magnetism, is as old a character as the original X-Men. He was their first, and arguably their greatest, villain. A complex, scarred, and incredibly powerful individual, Max Eisenhardt aka Erik Lehnsherr has been a foe, a friend, a hero, and a teacher, but most of all he has been the source of many an unforgettable story.

One such tale occurred years ago in the Savage Land, Marvel’s equivalent to the Lost World, complete with dinosaurs, pet saber-tooth kitties and hot people in skimpy animal print scraps. For reasons too complex and comic-y to get into, a de-powered Rogue and a weakened Magneto had teamed up with Savage Land native Ka-Zar to save his people from the evil Zaladane. Though nothing was explicitly stated, several panels and well-chosen words alluded to the fact Rogue and Magneto had something akin to a relationship while fighting side-by-side. However, by the end of the story arc Magneto had in essence declared himself when he killed Zaladane over Rogue’s protests that they bring her in alive, thus ending whatever it was they started in the Savage Land.

When Rogue returned to Westchester with her powers intact she met recent X-Men recruit Remy LeBeau, a red-eyed, sweet-talking scoundrel who seemed to take a liking to her despite her untouchable nature and his obvious love of skin-to-skin loving. Sparks immediately flew between the Southern Belle and the Cajun Swamp Rat, and twenty years of heartwarming and soul-crushing stories have followed as their relationship has taken up-turns and downward spirals. One could even argue that they were written for each other: the beautiful, emotionally damaged woman who cannot touch, and the handsome, womanizing man who cannot stop. Both Southern, both spicy, both former villains trying to walk the straight and narrow.

However, change is constant in the comic book world, thus bringing us back to the love triangle. Following the devastating effects of three little words uttered by a crazy witch (“No more mutants”), the mutant race went from being one step away from dominating the planet to numbering under two hundred individuals. A lot of craziness followed, and in the midst of it all Cyclops, an original X-Man, became a general and leader for the remnants of mutant kind, relocating them to an island off the coast of San Francisco known as Utopia.

Magneto has been many things, but his primary goal has never changed: he seeks unity among mutant kind. After witnessing Cyclops’ success, he bent the knee and acknowledged him as leader, abandoning his life of villainy and joining the X-Men, thereby putting him on the same island as a recently-made-touchable Rogue.

There have been several hints, heated words and light touches between the two since his arrival, and the frequency of those moments increased after Gambit called an end to he and Rogue’s holding pattern and asked her to either be with him or set him free. Rogue did not say yeah or nay to Gambit’s request, but neither was there anything concrete witnessed between her and Magneto…until last issue where they were naked in bed together. My good friend and fellow nerd Ms. Molly Jane was eager to see my response to that particular scene as I read the issue in front of her, but she was a little shocked at my outrage and pain. Her reaction made me wonder: am I living in the past? Are Rogue and Gambit as a happy couple a fanciful notion that has long since been retired? Is it time for her to move on?

The more I think, and write, about it, the more I realize no matter what has occurred in X-Men history and what is to come in their future, Rogue and Gambit are still my favorite couple. I love Magneto as a character; I think he is fantastically multi-faceted, and in some circumstances I like the idea of him and Rogue as a couple. However, Rogue and Gambit, as I have read and experienced and adored the characters throughout the years and their evolutions, remain to me the perfect pair.

I’m a sucker for bad boys who better themselves for love, and while Gambit’s road to redemption includes his own motivations apart from Rogue, there is no doubt she has been a large part of his determination to stay on the wagon. While Magneto obviously cares for her, he had several chances to choose love and redemption over his own goals and refused, and even now it was solely for the good of his people that he hung up his villainous spurs. Gambit is cheeky, lively and loves to tease, while Magneto is largely reserved. Gambit has been there for Rogue as a friend, a non-consummate boyfriend and a lover, while Magneto has barely been there at all.

I know where I stand and for whom my heart beats, but frankly it is all a moot point anyway, and not just because they are fictional characters. The writers of the X-Men books, and almost every major comic on the market, are always changing, therefore the characters are always changing. The creative minds behind the books can stick to a general idea of a character’s personality but they will write the story they want to write, and the editors in turn will publish at will. Fans have no control over what direction the books take (hence the need for fan fiction), only our choice of whether or not we want to continue to follow. Besides, even if Rogue and Gambit get back together, it will only be a matter of time before something else arises to challenge their relationship and their love. Comic books are like soap operas: there are no happy endings for anyone, because there are no endings. The stories (fans, fate and reasonable fees willing) will go on, as will Rogue and Gambit, one way or another.



By Marc Mason

This coming Wednesday, I am making my comic book debut on the stands.

There. I said it. Okay, I’ve been saying it since November on my Twitter feed and my Facebook account, but I’ve never really been quite sure of how to talk about it here. CWR was something I started in order to talk about other peoples’ comics. I wasn’t sure of how self-serving it would be if I spent a lot of time talking about mine. Thus, I have hesitated on it. But now I’ve reached the “fuck it” point- my book is on stands next week and it is something I am incredibly proud of.

I first pitched RED SONJA: RAVEN to Dynamite Entertainment in September of 2009. The story went through a long gestation period, until late this past August, editor Joe Rybandt asked me to pitch a slightly altered version of the story. I did, and it got the green light. I spent the next couple of weeks working on it, getting some excellent early notes from Joe that really guided me in the right direction, then it went out to the amazing hands of artist Lui Antonio (he’s done Sonja before, as well as TERMINATOR and WARLORD OF MARS stuff) and he put my words to page. I’m serious when I tell you this: Lui is a terrific talent. He can do stunning action, quiet moments full of emotion, and everything in-between- and do it well. I couldn’t ask for a better looking book for my first time on the stands. Lui made RAVEN better than I could have hoped for, and I would write something for him again at the drop of a hat. Really, the entire crew at Dynamite is awesome- there is a reason that huge names like Garth Ennis, Alex Ross, and Kevin Smith do books at DE. From Nick Barrucci on down, the place is filled with smart people dedicated to making great comics. The entire process was pain-free.

The genesis of RAVEN came one evening when I was at the grocery store. I was looking at the covers of the awful tabloids at the checkout counter and almost all of them were talking about men leaving women for younger, more attractive mates and/or offering ways for women to make sure that their men never leave them for younger, more attractive mates. It was appalling, a stunning reminder of just how terribly we treat women in our society. As progressive as we like to believe we are, this is still a patriarchal society that is politically and financially dominated by males. Women are making progress but still facing a stacked deck.

Anyway, I went home that night and was reading some comics, and an issue of RED SONJA was one of them. I have a solid history with Dynamite’s version of the character; when I resurrected The Aisle Seat for the magazine version of CWR, the first column was was a lengthy look at the character and the series. A number of outstanding talents have been writing her adventures over the past few years- Mike Oeming, Brian Reed, Eric Trautmann, Arvid Nelson, Luke Lieberman- and the stories have been excellent. So as I read that evening, the thought popped into my head that at least Sonja never had to worry about being replaced by a younger woman…

And then it hit me- what if she was?

Since she doesn’t have a husband or steady lover, it would have to mean that she was replaced in another way. Sonja was resurrected and made into a warrior by the goddess Scathach. What if the goddess found another girl in the same situation she had found Sonja and turned her favored eye to her instead?

What would that mean for Sonja? And what kind of warrior would the new girl turn out to be? Dynamite’s version of Sonja is an intelligent, clever warrior, and though she isn’t exactly enamored of men, she has taken a lover in the series. She accepts that there must be peaceful coexistence between the sexes, even as she proves time and again that a woman is the greatest warrior in the land. The previous Marvel incarnation of the character was more militant about gender issues, which was one of the reasons I never cared much for her. The nuances of that idea were never fleshed out particularly well. Then my nerd side kicked in hard– I had this particular thought roll through my head:

“Dynamite Sonja is kinda like Professor X and Marvel’s version was a little more Magneto.”

That’s when I knew I had my story. Sonja’s replacement was going to turn out to be militant, but with good reason (much like Magneto is, really). She would repudiate Sonja’s ability to live and work alongside men. She would rip Sonja for her costume. She would be the flip side of the coin to the legendary redheaded heroine. She would also be a brunette, just to set the physical differences up as well.

I went back through my Sonja comics and noticed that her primary villains were men. Kulan Gath. Thulsa Doom. Even Loki in these past couple of years. One miniseries did set her up against a sorceress, but it really felt like I had some room to create someone new for Sonja’s rogues gallery: a dark mirror of who Sonja could have been had things turned out slightly different. I named her Raven, wanting to symbolize that dichotomy. From there it went to laying out the details. The one thing I knew was that I had a story that was about something. There was an underlying theme to the action, and a hero’s journey for Sonja to take – as well as one for Raven – for the first time, I genuinely felt like I could step across the line and write the comics instead of just write about them. It was a damned fine feeling.

So I went to work writing the pitch and waited to see how it would all fall out. Some time passed, but now here I am, four days from the book hitting the shelves. I’m not harboring any illusions- I’m an unknown name to most comics readers so it’ll be easy for RAVEN to get lost on the shelves. But I am hopeful that those that find the book enjoy it and see that I did my best to give them their money’s worth.

I’ll share this with you: writing action sequences is not easy. I went into the scripting figuring it would be the easiest part, but it turned out to be far more difficult than I could have ever imagined. But the moment I was most worried about turned out to be my favorite panel in the book. Here is the script for the top of page thirteen:

Panel one:
Let’s go for the iconic shot here, a panel taking up two-thirds of the page, showing why Sonja is the deadliest warrior in the land. On the left side of the panel, which is SONJA’s rear flank, she is being attacked by an ELITE FOLLOWER- and SONJA has blocked the woman’s attack by using the previous ELITE FOLLOWER’s dead body to catch the sword being thrust at her from behind. She is holding the body up by the neck with her right arm. On the right side of the panel, she is blocking the swords of the other two ELITE FOLLOWERS using her own sword in her left hand.

Here is Lui’s incredible version of that panel:

RED SONJA: RAVEN goes on sale Wednesday, January 18th. If your shop doesn’t have it or is out, ask them to reorder. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.


Written by Ed Brubaker and Drawn by Sean Phillips
Written and Drawn by Joshua Luna
Published by Image Comics

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Two new high-profile releases from the Image crew have crossed my desk. Let’s take a look…

FATALE arrives with more heat than any Image book I can recall in recent memory. This is of course due to the creative team. Ed Brubaker has become a household name over the last few years thanks to his Marvel work (especially CAPTAIN AMERICA), and his previous collaborations with Sean Phillips have all been excellent (POINT BLANK, SLEEPER, among others). So the odds were that this was going to be a pretty good book, and… this is a pretty good book. The story follows two different time periods, a corrupt cop, a reporter, a patsy, and a woman who appears to be an immortal femme fatale… plus a little bit of occult drama thrown in, to boot. The script is fantastic, the art is gorgeous, the story captivates. It is precisely what you would expect from this creative duo. I saw that issue one is already heading for a second print, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it had to go to a third. Comics readers are going to want this. It’s definitely something to seek out.

The Luna brothers have made a strong name for themselves through their first three Image series they’ve done together. ULTRA, GIRLS, and THE SWORD all showed a distinctive look and voice from the pair, something that is to be treasured and respected in an era that too often produces bland-looking comics. But now, we have our first Luna solo project. WHISPERS is the story of a young man afflicted with a horrific case of OCD named Sam. However, his disorder is the least of his problems, because Sam is now discovering a new ability- when he sleeps, he leaves his body and can travel to those he knows and hear their thoughts. To say that it becomes sad, as well as creepy, would be underselling it. We don’t get a lot of story in issue one- the pacing is off a little bit- but you do see the potential for where Luna might take the book. I suspect a high level of interest for this book is out there, but Luna is going to have to pick up the pace in order to keep it going.



By Marc Mason

The new year is here, but that isn’t such a big deal- comics come out every week, holidays be damned. However, when it comes to comics conventions, things are a little different. There is a definite “convention season” that runs through late summer, though there are smaller cons running across the country year-around. Phoenix has a decent sized one that’s been running for a few years now, taking place on Memorial Day weekend. But last year, my home town got a second show- the Amazing Arizona Comicon.

I promptly missed the entire thing.

In a lovely bit of irony, I was in San Diego last year during the first Amazing con. The American Library Association’s Midwinter Conference was taking place in the exact same venue where I and 125,000 other people spend a week every July for the largest comicon of them all. As I sat on the edge of the ocean having drinks and dinner during that trip, I texted a couple of friends that I felt like I was cheating on them. All the while, my local comics pals were back here having a good time without me, and all reports indicated that the first year of this new show was a hit.

Still, if I had been here, I’m not sure I would have ultimately enjoyed it. The Saturday of that first show (today is the exact same Saturday, one year later) was the assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords. Over in San Diego, I was hanging out with some fellow Arizona library peeps, and we were all pretty freaked out. I took time out of the day to watch some truly terrible news coverage, and that was a mistake that I still wish I could take back. I was also frantically texting friends who live in Tucson, trying to ascertain if they were safe and unharmed by the gunman’s rampage. In short- like many, I was buried in my thoughts for a while, and it was a rough day. Had I been home and the con that day, I would have actually heard the news earlier and likely left the show anyway.

I thought about that a lot today.

But it’s a new year and this time around I’m sitting out the ALA conference, so this afternoon, I made my way to the Mesa Convention Center to check out the new kid in town. The venue itself is one I’m very familiar with- the Phoenix con used it for a few years, and the Arizona Library Association has also used it for annual conferences in the past. It’s a decent venue with many problems- space is limited, and public transportation sucks beyond belief. A big key to getting kids to turn out for a show is making it easy for them to get there. If they struggle to get a ride, well, you’re boned. The Phoenix con now sits right off of the light rail, which has really driven attendance upward. Still, as I arrived, I couldn’t help but notice that I had to park in East Jesus, Ohio- the parking lot was packed. As I and my Sherpa finally made it to the front door, I could see that the show was definitely hopping, which was nice to see.

The front desk was easy to spot, and the staff was very friendly and helpful. This in itself is huge- new shows usually struggle a bit to pull things together and find something resembling efficiency, but Amazing was a smooth operation. I got my wristband and headed in.

As I did my initial walk through the floor, I bumped into John Layman (CHEW) who was off to do a writers’ panel. That sounded like a good way to get my feet wet with the show, so I joined up and we wandered the convention center until we found the room. The panel was pretty entertaining- John, Joe Casey, J.T. Krul, Scott Lobdell, Kyle Higgins, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Tom Hutchison, and moderator Brian Augustyn entertained the crowd with their thoughts on scripting, pacing, structure, and planning. We got a couple of interesting glimpses of what it’s like working in DC’s new 52, discovered just how differently everyone handles the writing process, and Lobdell- a former standup comedian- did his best to get the audience laughing. The only downside was that the room had no microphones (whoops!) and the guys wound up removing the table and sitting in a semi-circle. I would have liked to tape it, but there was no place to put my recorder. Oh- and I also came to the realization that, as strange and offbeat as his comics are, they are merely a reflection of the real Joe Casey. He might just be the lunatic you’re looking for.

(Apologies to Billy Joel.)

From there, it was down to business. I wanted to get a few interviews done, but crowds were so steady, it was difficult to carve out time to talk. I managed to get Joshua Hale Fialkov and Sina Grace done, and I’ll have those online in the next couple of weeks. They were both excellent subjects and offered up great material. You’re gonna love ‘em.

I also did some shopping. Spazdog Comics, who are local, had a large chunk of cheap graphic novels, and I got four books for $20. Can’t beat that. I also had a good chat with the always excellent Henry Barajas, who was stepping away from doing standup for the weekend to help out his comics pals. I also managed to squeeze in brief chats with some of the folks I know on the Phoenix retailer scene, including Marco Regalado of Pop Culture Paradise. PCP is the shop closest to my house, the one shop where I still pop in and occasionally drop cash, and also the place where I’ll be signing on the day that RED SONJA: RAVEN comes out. Marco was set up at the show with a really nice booth, and he had child actor Chandler Riggs signing. Riggs plays “Carl” on the TV version of THE WALKING DEAD and that’s a huge coup for the store. Hopefully it brings Marco tons of traffic and wallets waiting to be emptied.

If there was a truly disappointing aspect to the show, it was Artists’ Alley. The size and layout were fine, but… Look, there were just way too many people there with banners featuring ridiculously drawn women. Poses that would result in a broken back. Tits that would result in a broken back. There were far too few people with, y’know, actual sequential art skills. I get that everybody has to do their own thing, but there was a lot of arrested development in that area of the show.

I was also surprised at some high profile absences. Todd McFarlane and his company were absent. Some other local pros like Jay Fotos and his crew weren’t there. And shops like Collector’s Paradise and Gotham City Comics didn’t set up, either. If this show continues to stick around, I’ll be interested to see if more of the locals filter in.

The big draw of the show was the presence of writer Robert Kirkman. At this point, Kirkman has come close to establishing himself as the face of the American comics market. THE WALKING DEAD remains a ratings juggernaut on television, and the comics continue to rise in sales. Throw in his incredible trade paperback sales, and it is entirely possible that he could have bought a ton of cars and had them parked in the lot, just to make me have to walk that far to get into the show.

He could do that. Really.

I’d have tried to set up an interview with him, but at this point, it may require the sacrifice of a fatted calf. I’m not sure what I’d ask him anyway. Besides “can I have all the cash in your wallet?” I suppose.

Kirkman’s presence was another way in which the show impressed me. The lines were orderly and never blocked any of the nearby aisles. Trust me when I tell you: that never happens in San Diego. The convention folks showed great wisdom in where they placed the Skybound booth, period. This is the kind of detail that can easily get lost or overlooked, but the Amazing folks did a terrific job of laying out the entire show- traffic flowed smoothly at every hour of the day.

So, yeah- Amazing is a solid little show. Here’s the issue, though- it’s going to remain little if it stays in Mesa. Space is limited there. Maybe that’s a good thing- a convention should never try to be more than what it really is. It’ll be interesting to see what happens, and I honestly don’t know where they could go that would give them greater space without them fully duplicating the May show. For now, though, I’ll give this one a tip of the hat and suspect that you’ll see me there again a year from now.


BOOM! Reviews

By Avril Brown

Irredeemable #33
Written by Mark Waid and Illustrated by Diego Barreto

‘Irredeemable’ opened with the world’s greatest, and more powerful, hero flipping out to an extreme degree as he murders several of his former teammates and millions of people. Building upon that amazing introductory issue this book has evolved into one of the most entertaining superhero dramas available on the racks today.

The Plutonian has been through a lot since his little tantrum on Earth, and now after working as alien slave labor, battling (and recruiting) his way through an intergalactic insane asylum and sneaking a teleport back to Earth, readers finally learn his origin. We know why the Plutonian snapped, we’ve seen some of his past, but now we witness his origin and what made him a hero.

‘Irredeemable’ is at a great point right now for new readers as the crossover between its sister series, ‘Incorruptible’ is in full swing, and as they both are explaining the beginnings of their title characters it allows first-timers a chance to enjoy the story without getting confused by continuity.

Incorruptible #25
Written by Mark Waid and Illustrated by Marcio Takara

The writing on ‘Incorruptible’ has not been as consistently entertaining as that on ‘Irredeemable,’ but I do still enjoy watching Max Damage attempt to figure out what the hell he is doing. The concept was intriguing enough from the beginning: a super villain goes straight after watching the straightest superhero eviscerate several continents, and after two years of up and down story lines I feel like the book is finally getting somewhere.

Max has been a little slow on the uptake since he went un-evil, but although he does not always go about things the smartest way he does seem to genuine want to do good in the post-Plutonian world. Now his actions are shrouded in mystery as he has been cut off from every person he ever trusted and invested himself on an unknown project.

As with ‘Irredeemable,’ this book is primed for new readers due to the origin crossover happening now for both titles, and with the next issue of ‘Incorruptible’ it will be concluding, hopefully with one hell of a bang. All readers, both fresh and vintage, will be granted new information about Max Damage, and hopefully inspiring new creative avenues for this former bad boy.

7 Warriors #1-2
Written by Michael Le Galli and Illustrated by Francis Manapul

I was intrigued by the idea of a title starring seven women warriors, but two issues in and I am not impressed. Seven warriors are recruited in a monarchial society by a worried queen who wishes her son to be transported to a safe location, where he is to breed with the healthiest and most genetically viable high-born woman there to preserve the royal line.

SPOLIER ALERT: The fact that these seven top female warriors are serving as stud-escort aside, three of them also happen to die by the end of the second issue, thus confusing me as to why this title is called ‘7 Warriors.‘ I will give it a couple more issues to see if ‘7’ fleshes out anymore, but I was hoping for a bit more from such a promising premise.

Key of Z #1-3
Written and Created by Claudio Sanchez and Chondra Echert, and Illustrated by Aaron Kuder

Attempting to bring in ‘yet another zombie comic book’ in this saturated market means the book needs a good strong start and something new to bring to the zombie-infested table. Though it has yet to be confirmed, three issues in and ‘Key of Z’ would hint as to possessing both.

There is a supernatural aspect to this book, besides the obvious, in the form of some form of musical mind control over the undead. Politics and weapons dominate almost every zombie story at some point or another, and this one is no different. ‘Key’ also takes place in Manhattan, which is unoriginal but practical for a post-zombie apocalyptic world as it provides lots of architectural variety within a smaller space.

Time will tell if ‘Key of Z’ will be able to hold its own against the other zombie books present today, but ideally there are enough different subsets within the zombie world that ‘Key’ will be able to present itself as a fresh concept worthy of a comic book and/or zombie lover’s attention.


Rogue Element #91: Almost Famous

By Avril Brown

When I am not off gallivanting half-naked at various Comic Conventions across the country, I have a day job working in the Animal Behavior and Training Department at the Anti-Cruelty Society in the River North neighborhood of Chicago. The ACS is Chicago’s oldest animal shelter, founded in 1899 with the objective to improve the lives of working horses, and it has grown over the years into a multi-faceted animal welfare organization, not only adopting out dogs and cats to new homes, but also spaying and neutering thousands of animals every year, educating the public in animal care, responding to animal cruelty calls, offering dog training classes and providing a free animal behavior hotline.

Needless to say, the ACS is no stranger to the media, particularly since exposure to the public is essential for a non-profit agency that depends solely on donations. The work my colleagues and I do, however, is not normally advertised. We make no secret of the fact Anti-Cruelty is an open admission shelter: we will accept almost any dog and cat, regardless of health or behavior. Given the fact we are a large but not limitless facility, this naturally means we cannot guarantee that every animal we take in will find a home. There are several reasons why an animal cannot be re-homed, but the two most common are medical and behavioral. The latter is where I come in.

A large part of my job entails performing temperament evaluations on shelter dogs to learn more about their personalities (whether or not they know basic obedience commands, or if they like to play fetch, for example), and to test for aggressive tendencies. The animals who demonstrate a dangerous level of aggression are euthanized, but there is a whole lot of gray area in between ‘mushy mutt’ and ‘deadly dog.’ Given my knowledge and experience in animal behavior, shelter workings and dog training, I have to make the decision of what animals can be saved.

A little over a month ago this aspect of my job was featured in the Chicago Tribune newspaper, written by reporter John Owens and photographed by Nancy Stone. The front page had a picture of my boss and I sandwiched around a little feathery yapper of a dog named Lily, who was in the process of licking our faces, and the main article found on page seven boasted a ginormous picture of yours truly, getting all smiley and curvy with a mutt named Oscar. My boss loves that picture, citing how “awesome” the body language is on both me and the dog. (I must admit, my admiration of the quarter-page-sized picture extends beyond body language and into somewhat vain territory, such as how great my hair looks.) The article itself was much larger than I had anticipated and it expanded beyond the pages of the Tuesday Tribune; an online version coupled with the companion video Mr. Owens put together and released several weeks before the article came to print was available on the Tribune website, and the Chicago Redeye featured an abbreviated version as well.

Though initially I bristled at the headline, “Making life-or-death choices,” I realized it was a knee-jerk reaction to a familiar sore spot, because that is the truth. I do make life or death decisions every single work day, and more often than not, I hate it. My co-workers and I are only half-joking when we say we love dangerous, aggressive, I-want-to-feast-on-your-entrails type dogs. They make it easy. All dogs CAN bite, just like all humans possessing the necessary motor functions CAN pick up a gun and shoot someone, but that is not to say either species WILL do such a thing unless provoked to a breaking point. The truly terrifying animals are the ones who barely need a nudge one way or another before deciding to act with extreme prejudice, because they are in fact faster, stronger and deadlier than us puny humans. If a dog wants to bite you he or she is going to bite you, therefore allowing one of these hair-trigger canines out into the world is the equivalent of handing a loaded gun to an unstable person in the middle of Daley Plaza. Someone IS going to get hurt. So when it comes to making a life or death decision about such a dog, I do not hesitate. I actually feel like I am doing a good thing by choosing death, because with that choice I could very possibly be saving a life.

Fortunately, there are few animals surrendered to the shelter that are considered to be extremely dangerous. Unfortunately for me, my job is emotionally harder because I am choosing death for some dogs that, for any number of reasons, may not necessarily need to be euthanized. I never make the decision lightly, and I do feel I am making an educated and informed choice, but my soul still aches.

When John Owens asked if he could write an article about my work, I made it abundantly clear what exactly it is I do and I explained the strength and range of my emotions regarding my position. Like a good reporter, he didn’t let it go and pursued what he felt was something worthy of an article, and like a good writer, he presented the subject matter in a clear, engaging manner. After reading the article, I was impressed, relieved and grateful. He understood the job, he did not pass judgment, and he included quotes which demonstrated our love of animals in addition to the necessity and the positives of what we do.

Having the details of my job illustrated in a major Chicago newspaper felt…good. There were the obvious upsides to my new-found fame: my phone was blowing up all day with congrats and comments from friends and family. Over the holidays I had several relatives tell me how they saved a copy, they pointed it out to their co-workers, I look so adorable in the pictures, etc. Even my gynecologist sent me a copy of the Redeye article with a note saying she enjoyed the read. Of course, there were a few scathing comments left on the online version, mostly from inflexible “no kill” advocates with one or two made by obvious idiots, but for the most part the feedback was positive. I am not so malleable where my entire world is comprised of other people’s opinions, but it lightens my heart to know people can read that article and tell me they understand the difficulty of my every day decisions.

Emotional heaviness aside, being almost famous is pretty cool. Admittedly, I sort of enjoy being in the spotlight (shocking, I know, coming from someone who traipsed about three comic conventions this past year wearing nothing but white straps). This may be a childhood thing, but growing up (and GOD do I feel old just starting a sentence like that) the newspaper was still a big deal. Naturally the really famous people are the ones frequently seen on movies and television, but it still meant something to be written about in the paper. Though the abundance of social media platforms have diluted the strength of the paper, my feelings about making the front page of the Chicago Tribune are as giddy now as they would’ve been when I was ten.

Yes, I enjoy being a feature here and there, and although Mr. Owens’ article made me happy, and sad, just like my work, the question remains of whether I want to continue making headlines as Avril Brown, Animal Behavior Specialist, or Avril Brown, Writer, Interviewer, Reviewer, Professional Nerd. I like being photographed at Cons and interviewed by people in cosplay. When donning my Clark Kent clothes, I also relish being the interviewer, razzing with my subject and learning more about comics and the culture. I love immersing myself in almost every aspect of the comic world, in front of the camera or behind the lens.

Making life-altering decisions has never been my strong suit, but it is beyond time I gain some clarity and focus. Though I would never be able to choose one or another (I will always be an animal advocate, and I will always adore comics and nerdy pop culture), here’s hoping with a brand new year and the dreaded 3-0 creeping up (in six months, people, so let’s not go crazy) I will be able to make some choices on what life I want to live.