The Comic Book Club: Dark Horse Presents and Hate Annual

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This is what happens when Techland goes to the comic book store: we end up discussing what we picked up. This week, Douglas Wolk, Evan Narcisse and Graeme McMillan talk about the first issue of the relaunched Dark Horse Presents anthology and Peter Bagge’s Hate Annual #9.

DOUGLAS: I’m really glad to see a new anthology comic on the stands; I’m especially glad to see a fat 80-page anthology like Dark Horse Presents that’s mostly creator-driven, with a bunch of big names associated with it. And there were a couple of pieces in the first issue of the newly relaunched version that I enjoyed a lot. But this is still very, very high on the “what?… why?” factor–in part because there’s barely any sign that this isn’t actually an anthology comic from twenty years ago, and some of this material seems like it might have been considered and rejected twenty years ago.

GRAEME: That’s my biggest problem with this issue: It feels like it’d be an all-star line-up… in the mid-80s. But now, Neal Adams and Howard Chaykin and Richard Corben et al. all seem… I don’t know, not past it exactly, but left behind somewhat when it comes to storytelling these days, even when they bring their A game. And most of the work here is not anyone’s best.

DOUGLAS: The good stuff first: the color Finder story by Carla Speed McNeil is neat if too short, and it’s fun to see what her character Jaeger’s been up to, since the plot of McNeil’s recent Finder graphic novel “Voice” revolves around Jaeger being offstage. (It’s also a hoot to see Jaeger wearing a fluorescent green messenger outfit; this is a story that has to read a little bit differently if you know who the character is or if you don’t.) I like the Patrick Alexander one-page gags; I’m always happy to encounter David Chelsea’s stuff, especially in a context like this. I’m weirdly delighted to see that Frank Miller appears to be drawing a lot of his forthcoming project Xerxes with a snapped-off tree branch.

(More on TIME.com: The Comic Book Club: Uncle Scrooge, Takio and Axe Cop)

Way too much of this issue, though, is trying to tap veins that went dry long ago. That Richard Corben piece is the essence of generic Richard Corben. Neal Adams’ stagnant “Blood” has been in the works since at least 2004 (and a bunch of pages from it circulated in 2005, when he declared that “a lot of it is shooting, killing and punching”), and it’s got all the incoherence of Batman: Odyssey with none of the camp craziness. The Mr. Monster story is four times as long as it has to be, and mostly just makes me wish that Michael T. Gilbert weren’t still plowing the same tiny patch as he was a quarter-century ago. The Concrete story is formally appropriate, since Concrete was in the original Dark Horse Presents #1 too, but far from being one of Paul Chadwick’s finer moments. It strikes me as a category error to include a Star Wars story in an otherwise creator-driven anthology. And what exactly was the idea behind reprinting a terrible Harlan Ellison prose story that’s already been printed elsewhere twice? Is this supposed to be a good comic book, or a celebration of the depth of Mike Richardson’s Rolodex?

EVAN: Yeah, Douglas, I sadly have to agree with most of what you’re saying. Adams’ “Blood” stuff is new to me, and I started off pretty excited. The man can still draw, after all. But as good as the art looks, the little sense it made was made incoherent by his overindulgence. Adams has style in spades, but style actually isn’t always the answer to everything. That one-dimensional focus is a flaw that runs through a lot of the stories collected here, especially with the Gilbert and the Miller pages. The same Corben stuff that seemed edgy and transgressive when I was a teenager sneaking Heavy Metal into my bedroom feels exponentially more pervy, embarassing and nonsensical now. Giant-breasted women and grizzled old warriors in post-apocalyptic wastelands need more of a raison d’etre than looking cool or being what Corben does well.

(More on TIME.com: The Comic Book Club: Night Animals and Batman Inc.)

We’ve grown up as readers, yet the concept of Dark Horse Presents seems to have regressed. The previous incarnation of DHP broke so much new talent back in the day, and when the contributions were by established creators, they used the anthology to take risks. I remember coming across Matt Wagner’s The Aerialist and thinking “this is probably the best place for a story like this to live.” While this issue is a lot of content for eight bucks, most of it feels like underdeveloped inventory material. I adored David Chelsea’s “Snow Angel” story, though. Chaykin’s short was intriguing–if only because I wonder how far he’s going to push the premise–and I always love the thoughtful tone of Concrete, but neither would have me show up for a second issue. And that’s a shame, because every anthology needs an element that brings you back for more.

GRAEME: Chalk me up as another one disappointed by this. It’s especially disappointing, I think, because the last incarnation of DHP, back when it was an online thing at MySpace, was actually pretty good, especially when it came to offering up surprising creators and/or new work. (It launched with Joss Whedon and Fabio Moon’s Sugarshock, which is still my favorite of Whedon’s comic work.) This, though, just feels old and tired. I’ll agree that Snow Angel was the highlight for me, probably closely followed by Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder short, but almost everything else just felt either too slight or far too long (Mr. Monster especially, but I think the Chaykin story was also over-familiar and just plain dull – that it’s part one of many just makes my heart sink). I can’t quite work out who the audience is for this. At $8, it’s not cheap, and it’s also just not worth that kind of money on a regular basis. New fans won’t find anything here to convince them to come back, and old fans have seen it all before. It’s a shame, because DHP as a title and Dark Horse as a company are capable of so, so much more than this, but having this as a flagship book does no one involved with the publisher any favors whatsoever.

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