Wait, I thought Dynamite had a virtual monopoly on pulpy hardboiled action hero revivals?
Huh, what’s that? It’s Black Crown not Black Mask? And it’s edited and curated by famed former Vertigo editor Shelly Bond? AND with a punk rock tone? Well, this I’ve gotta see.
Edited by Shelly Bond
Written by Rob Davis, Cathi Unsworth, William Potter, Carl Puttnam, Peter Milligan, Will Potter, Shelly Bond, David Barnett, Jamie Coe, Tini Howard, Cindy Whitehead
Illustrated by Rob Davis, Philip Bond, Martin Simmonds, Jamie Coe, Gilbert Hernandez, Nicole Goux, Tess Fowler, Frank Quietly
Colored by Rob Davis w/Robin Henley, Lee Loughridge, Jamie Coe, Gilbert Hernandez, Nicole Goux, Tess Fowler, Frank Quietly
Lettered by Rob Davis, Aditiya Bidikar, Jamie Coe, Gilbert Hernandez, Nicole Goux, Tess Fowler
Everything you always wanted once a season is packed within these 48 pages including a two-sided pullout poster and a wraparound cover! Delight in regular continuing features like legit publications with literary pedigrees! It all begins with the 10-page regular lead feature, Tales From the Black Crown Pub starring Stacey the barmaid by Award-winner Rob Davis (The Motherless Oven). Recurring short features include Canonball Comics: an exquisite corpse that will not stay dead kicked off by Jamie Coe (Artschooled) and Swell Maps by respectably divine music journalist/novelist Cathi Unsworth. Plus: Space CUDets rejoice: Live from a posh retirement village for wannabee 4-hit wonders we have co-writers/bandmates Will Potter and Carl Puttnam and occasional artist Philip Bond. Plus Plus: Special previews, creator interviews and behind the panel border secrets from Kid Lobotomy, Assassinistas, Punks Not Dead and much, much more!
Welcome to the Black Crown Pub, the central conceit of Shelly Bond’s newest creator-owned imprint, Black Crown. IDW has given Shelly the place to create a weird punk-rock infused world populated by stories and people that would have fit right in with those early Vertigo titles (helped by the fact that a few of these creators were a part of that world).
There is certainly a very specific tone Shelly wants to set up with this quarterly magazine (and it truly is a magazine) but I don’t necessarily know if it’s a tone that I’m on board with just yet. Let me set the stage first and then I’ll explain.
“Black Crown Quarterly” #1 is a collection of previews, short interviews, and magazine specific stories featuring a strange cast of characters. Ostensibly, each of the stories takes place in the same town, or at least there are places that each of these characters reside are on the same block. It’s a bit hard to explain mostly because I myself don’t fully understand it. As of writing, the only other Black Crown book out is “Kid Lobotomy” by Peter Milligan and Tess Fowler and I have no idea how it ties into the idea of the interconnected town. My best guess is that the hotel down the street from the pub is his.
But, really, that doesn’t matter so much; the reason I’m hung up on this is, in the center of the quarterly, we get a message from Shelly, which acts as a short biography for her career as well as a manifesto for what she wants her imprint, and more importantly, this series, to be like. She positions the pub, which opens up the issue, as the center of her imprint, which “anchors the street where characters can commingle and corrupt.”
So, in the spirit of the mad, mad world Shelly is curating, I’ll fragment my review and quickly cover each of the many sections on their own. I will not be discussing the previews in much depth as, well, they’re previews. This’ll be a bit long so buckle in y’all!
The Meta Discussion
As I mentioned before, this feels less like a quarterly ala Vertigo’s quarterlies (I miss those talent showcases) and is, instead, more akin to Image’s “Image+” magazine, with previews and interviews with those comics’ creators as well as other, smaller prose non-fiction sections and a few, short comics.
Going with this comparison, “Image+” focuses on the series they own and the craft; serializing things directly connected to other titles, like, for example the “Wytches” short story, ‘Bad Egg’ as well as Ed Piskor’s auto-biographic “Image of Youth.” In “Black Crown Quarterly,” however, the stories are much more eclectic, focusing less on comics themselves but instead crafting the backbone for a bunch of short, experimental frame narratives: ones deeply infused with the feel of the punk era – of back alleys, of grungy pubs, of the local comic store, of washed up, elderly musicians trying to reclaim the glory days.Continued below
This is a magazine with a position, the center of the wheel from which all other stories go out from, the place that, in the future, should bring together these characters into interesting ways outside of their narratives. Yet, the wheel analogy is not perfect because that implies there is some larger structure to the quarterly that just isn’t there yet. There are no visible hosts like Cain, Uncle Creepy or the hosts of Eerie, even though there is a logic to the quarterly.
Logic as espoused by Shelly
Shelly Bond’s page splits the issue between the original, recurring segments and the previews/creator comments & miscellaneous stuff. It acts as a midpoint cleanser, decompressing us from the out there, quarterly focused segments and letting us switch gears for the previews and creator focused segments. But how are these segments? What are they like?
‘Tales from the Black Crown’
We open on the introduction to the titular pub, Black Crown, and the denizens that spend their days there. Rob Davis fills every panel, giving us a claustrophobic, busy feel to the whole story. Even when the pub is “empty,” it feels full, which sets the tone for the whole quarterly: a packed collection of contradictory but also communal people and stories that come together to create an environment all its own, unapologetic and not necessarily pretty. It has its own logic and story, something we’ll be privy to one day, but not today.
There is this off-kilter feel to the whole story, which is only highlighted by Rob’s style, where everyone has a flat, simple look to them, with lips that all look like they were from a Mr. Potato Head. It isn’t meant to be pretty or easy to understand but it feels so real. Everyone talks over each other; each person has their own strange quirk or hang-up and they all hold themselves at the bar differently. This style isn’t for everyone but I think it works as a tonal introduction to the work of Black Crown, even if it isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing or the clearest narratively (there are at least three different threads at play in just this one 10-page story).
A prose historical tour of Leeds with a musical slant. This is promised to be a recurring segment (probably with a different town) and it makes for a fun read. Considering my lack of knowledge of musical talent (or lack thereof) and my unfamiliarity with punk, I got a lot out of it. It’s short and features some simple, spooky illustrations of what I assume to be band members as well as the crest of Leeds and the author, Cathi Unsworth. Your millage will vary on this segment but for me, I found it a nice breather after the opening’s bar scenes.
‘Rich and Strange’
As a contrast to the opening, Potter, Puttnam, and Bond present us with a much slower story about two washed up members of a band called Cud (which was talked about during ‘Swell Maps’). The humor in this piece is great, the dialogue is snappy and witty (like the drummer from Cud not having a real name), and it really captures the conniving nature of Potter and the senile yet energetic personality of Puttnam.
This feels like a much more solid and less impressionistic story than the ‘Tales from the Black Crown.’ This is certainly helped by Bond’s more detailed and realistic style. He does a great job of setting the pace and getting us connected to these band members through their past and present. The opening page is especially strong, with a dreamlike circular first panel hovering over the Dying Embers Retirement Home, acting as a good view into the state of mind of Puttnam, as it is positioned like a thought bubble.
It feels the most “traditional” of all the stories in here, reminding me of those early Vertigo titles, right down to the coloring, even if it is a bit shinier. This is the strongest part of the quarterly’s originals for sure.
Conversations with creators
The back half of this is filled with small interviews or mini-essays by the creators and each one brings something fun into the picture, giving insight into the creators behind the stories (such as Tini Howard’s love of costuming). These, much like ‘Swell Maps,’ will only interest those who enjoy listening to creators talk, although the Peter Milligan and Shelly Bond interview is funny and good read all on its own.Continued below
We also get a comic and record recommendation from Cud bassist Will Potter, which seems like another recurring segment (with a rotating cast of recommenders) and this plays back into the quarterly’s themes of the interconnectedness of music and comics.
Canonball Comics/ ‘Bandtwits’
Probably the oddest original comic to the quarterly, this is given to us as an exquisite corpse style story (it’s a surrealist thing, look it up. It a pretty fun thing to do with friends). You’ll notice the title has two names and that’s because I have no idea which is the true title of this section. The frame that Jamie Coe draws is a comic shop clerk reading a comic called “Bandtwits,” where the characters suddenly come out of the book and are chased by two bank robbers in clown masks.
Coe’s art is wonderful here, making the store feel lived in and warm while making the fight scenes weighty and funny. He uses little commentary notes on different objects and actions in a similar vein to Ryan Browne’s sound effects in “Gourds Have Applebees” and “Curse Words”. It informs us about the characters without breaking the flow of the action as well (we do only have 4 pages). Plus, by having us start with the clerk, who is just as confused as we are, we need less explanation for the world they just came from and just take what information we’re given and run with it. It works and makes for a madcap, fun short story.
The only drawback is that the coming soon at the end makes me wonder which narrative is continuing here. Is it the frame narrative of Canonball comics in which new comics suddenly come to life and act out a quick scene for us never to be seen again? Are they teases of future projects? And if this is an exquisite corpse exercise, then are we going to follow the bandtwits with a different author/artist next time or the canonball comics shop next time? Or were each of these panels outlined by a different person and then strung together?
I have too many questions for this short, 5-6 page story that, while enjoyable, left me more confused than it should have.
So, what’s up with this book?
So. What are we to make of Shelly Bond’s newest experiment? Well, I’m going to argue that, while I may have had issues with it and hoped for a more cohesive experience, it is exactly what it meant to be – offbeat, strange, experimental but also a tease for the future and to get those who want to follow this imprint in on the ground floor.
It’s here to provide something we’ve lost a little since Image became a gigantic player in indie comics: the rebellious, cohesive feel to an imprint, unapologetic for all it’s rough edges. For all its strangeness, there is something holding these comics together, even if it is in a loose, hard to define way. Without this issue, I may not have picked up “Kid Lobotomy” or “Punks not Dead” or “Asssassinistas,” even with all their pedigrees. But now, having been suckered into the wild world of Black Crown, I may just have to stick with it and you should check it out as well.
Final Verdict: 7.0. A weird, not very cohesive quarterly that is more magazine than comic showcase. Still, check it out if you miss the old Vertigo or an imprint with a strong editorial voice and a position.