I love comic shops. Bookstores, record stores, and good ol’ brick and mortar comic book shops are some of my favorite places in the world, and destinations I seek out whenever I’m visiting new cities. I am not, however, blind to the developments of the digital age. Most of my music listening is done via iPod, I own a Kindle, and, of course, I have a comiXology account.
Having access to the world’s biggest distributor of digital comics (and an iPad to read them on) becomes a necessity when one of my favorite cartoonists debuts his new project as a digital exclusive. Zander Cannon, whose Replacement God in the 90’s made me practically buy stock in Slave Labor Graphics (anyone need a copy of the first issue? recent database updating reveals six copies in my archives) partners up with Kevin Cannon for the first issue of Double Barrel (Top Shelf, $1.99).
Cannon and Cannon aren’t related, they’re just lucky enough to both have badass names. Indie publisher Top Shelf took advantage with the “double barrel” appellation for the series. The two cartoonists are each serializing their own stories, but they come together in an illustrated introduction to the anthology in order to explain the motivation for this digital-first endeavor.
When the individual epics are completed, they will be collected and, based on Top Shelf’s track record, bound as beautiful begging-for-the-bookshelf paperbacks, readily available in all our favorite comic shops. In the meantime, however, we get to show our support for cartoonists who have rapidly seen the market for indie floppies vanish. Unless you’re someone like Daniel Clowes or Chris Ware, it’s near impossible to get a publisher to advance you on a graphic novel that will, in all likelihood, take you a year or more to complete. In the absence of individual issues from small publishers, spending a few bucks on the first part of a lengthy story makes great sense for both the consumer and the producer. Don’t get me wrong — I do love the physical artifact. I would rather pay a few more dollars (or a lot more dollars; did I mention that this first issue is 122 pages for two bucks?) to have my hands on a folded-and-stapled comic. But that doesn’t work anymore. And I’d rather see these guys keep producing. It’s like the indie band that sells a song to a car company for TV commercials. Fantastic. Get paid, and get to making more music.
Of course none of this matters if the comic isn’t worth reading. Luckily (and not surprisingly), both parts of this double-barreled anthology are excellent.
Zander Cannon’s Heck tells the story of a former high school football star who discovers a gateway to hell in the basement of his father’s spooky house. The enterprising Hector starts up a messenger business that allows clients to contact their dearly departed, and by the end of chapter one we’re prepped for a big case. The adventure features Dante’s geography (especially rewarding for anyone similarly enamored by The Inferno), a beautiful grieving widow, temporal detective games, and a shambling sidekick barely held together by bandages.
Zander’s talent for storytelling, pacing, and comedic subtlety is as good as ever. The layouts and styling of Heck, however, are different from what I remember of his earlier work: more panels; simpler, but more expressive, illustration. There’s a Tom Hart / James Sturm influence that, together with a beautiful use of stark black and white, creates full-page sequences that are dense but engaging. That’s where digital tools suffer though: in order to make it readable on your device, you’re probably going to opt for comiXology’s guided technology, which flows through the story a few panels at a time. Although you can choose to view an entire page, the size becomes problematic. One more reason to buy the collected edition in the future.
Crater XV by Kevin Cannon continues the adventures of Army Shanks, whose salty Arctic escapades were first featured in 2009’s Far Arden. Kevin’s art has always been superb, fluid and dynamic like Craig Thompson, but with great layers of hatched detail and background. The Shanks stories are great reads too, though, and if Crater even comes close to the 400-page yarn that its predecessor turned into, we’re in for a fun ride.
Double Barrel includes letters, sketches, an essay on creating your own graphic novel, and a few other smaller strips. It’s a revelation at only two bones and, if they maintain their promised monthly release schedule (future issues are advertised at 50 pages; still an outrageous bargain), one of the best reasons to embrace digital comics.