Mouse Guard Free ComicHappy Star Wars Day, everybody! Hope you spent your Sunday May The Fourthing it at Fan Expo, buying up anime merch and puzzling over the incongruence of the Grey Cup being the guest of honour.

Seriously gang, is there nowhere in this town you can escape the taint of football?

I opted out of going because I’m feeling a little under the weather and because my only real motivation for showing up would have been to maybe get a chance to corner Kevin Sorbo and interrogate him over that God’s Not Dead bullshit.

As hilarious as that might have been, I didn’t really care enough to bother.

I did, however, drag my carcass to this weekend’s other great nerd event: Free Comic Book Day! My kids and I brought home a pretty impressive stack of free reads which I’m going to review below in case you ever find yourself wondering which all-ages comics are worth picking up and which not so much.

Here they are, in order from my most favourite to my least favourite…

1. Mouse Guard, Labyrinth and Other Stories (Archaia Press): As you can see from the pic above, Archaia put out a hardcover anthology for Free Comic Book Day. This is the second time they’ve done that and once again it’s a beautiful piece of work. All the comics they feature are well illustrated and worth a read but the stand out is, no surprise, the short story that opens the volume, David Petersen’s “Mouse Guard: The Tale of the Axe Trio.”

Petersen is one of the best artists working in comic books and his Mouse Guard books are consistently these gorgeous miracles of comicbook craft. His mice aren’t cute little cartoons but rather serious, noble creatures facing off against much larger terrors. His stories are about bravery, loyalty and sacrifice and while it sounds like pretty heady stuff, my kids seem to love it.

“The Tale of the Axe Trio” scored extra points with my daughter because it features three female protagonists, a rarity for a Mouse Guard story as they can be a little boy-mouse heavy.

As for the other stuff in the anthology, I really enjoyed Sean Rubin’s Bolivar story, “The Golden Door,” in which a dinosaur tells a young girl about how his parents emigrated to America. I also liked the Hammock and Hutchison Will O’ the Wisp tale, “Missy’s Night Out,” which follows a racoon on its nocturnal adventures. The Labyrinth and Rust stories were both fine, although the latter was perhaps too short and quiet to make much of an impression. The final piece in the anthology, a Farscape story, was… well, maybe if you’re a fan of the Farscape TV series you’d have enjoyed it, but it didn’t grab me.

All in all, Archaia once again dazzled Free Comic Book Day.

Avatar Free Comic2. Avatar: The Last Airbender (Dark Horse): Wow. I wasn’t expecting this. For Free Comic Book Day, writer Gene Luen Yang (Boxers & Saints, The Shadow Hero) and artist Faith Erin Hicks (The Adventures of Superhero Girl, Friends With Boys) decided to tackle the whole “fake geek girl” nonsense through a story set in Nickelodeon’s Avatar universe.

It’s really, really good.

For those who aren’t up on such things, Avatar: the Last Airbender was a fantasy adventure cartoon that ran from 2005 to 2008 on Nickelodeon. I can’t encapsulate what it’s about in this short review but trust me when I say that even though it was written for eight to twelve year olds, it’s brilliant. (And it’s on Netflix.)

As for the “fake geek girl” nonsense, apparently there’s this notion infecting some numbskulls in the nerd-o-sphere that there are women who feign an interest in comics and video games so as to appear “cool.”

There’s maybe a little more to it than that but, regardless, it’s fucked up. And Yang and Hicks beautifully skewer the self-appointed gatekeeper dirtbags who’re douching up the comic/gaming/sci-fi/fantasy/anime/etc/etc community.

And the art’s great too. In fact, I think I prefer Hicks’ comic-book style over the main Avatar books which tend to follow the illustration style used for the animation.

As for the rest of the comic, it’s fine I suppose. Art Baltazar and Franco provide an Itty Bitty Hellboy story, “The Chained Coughin'” which offers their usual stew of comicbook in-jokes and puns. We have a bunch of Baltazar and Franco’s Tiny Titans stuff around the house — it’s their little kid riff on DC Comic’s Teen Titans. And honestly while I like their books and I respect their enthusiasm for superheroes, I’m not in love with any of their books. Actually, the humour relies so heavily on an intimate knowledge of the canon they’re spoofing that even I feel a little excluded from the fun sometimes. Ultimately, I think their stuff is mainly written for the parents — or, more specifically, it’s written for comic nerd parents who like having an excuse to fill in their kids on every super hero’s backstory. Getting parents to tell their kids stories is a perfectly laudable thing to encourage, I suppose. But for a kid who doesn’t have a mom or dad who’s read every issue of BPRD or memorized the DC Comics Encyclopedia, the Franco and Baltazar comics are going to be pretty forgettable.

Top Shelf Free Comic3. Top Shelf Kids Club (Top Shelf): Some of my favourite Free Comic Book Day comics are the ones that introduce me to titles I hadn’t read before or didn’t know about. And this year, Top Shelf offered a preview of a book they’re putting out in August: Eric Orchard’s Maddy Kettle: The Adventure of the Thimblewitch. Oh man: Steam trains. Floating toads. Spider goblins. Parents turned into mice. Orchard’s stuff is so beautiful. I can’t wait to pick this up.

The other story in this is the first few pages from a book Top Shelf put out a while ago, Rob Harrell’s Monster on the Hill,  which my kids have and like. But aren’t, you know, totally potty over.

Crumrin Free Comic4. Courtney Crumrin (Oni Press): I haven’t read any of Ted Naifeh’s Courtney Crumrin stories before even though he’s been putting them out since 2002 and they look like exactly the kind of book my daughter would dig: girl with magic powers and knowledge of the secret shadow world of monsters and fairies. It’s not exactly an original conceit but when well executed it can be a lot of fun.

As for this… I don’t know. It’s a short story about Courtney Crumrin and a new friend whose motives are less than honourable and while I like the dark, gothy art — and any tale that features a goblin market scores extra marks in my book — I found it all rather grim and humourless. I’m not eager to carry on.

My daughter, however, really likes it and I suspect we’ll be picking up the first volume of stories, Courtney Crumrin and The Night Things, before too long.

Meanwhile, on the back cover, there’s a one-page ad for something called “Princess Ugg,” the tag line for which reads, “Fire. Steel. High Tea.”

That sounds more my speed.

Gossamyr Free Comic5. Finding Gossamyr/Past The Last Mountain (Th3rd World Studios): A few days ago, I read a preview of Free Comic Book Day 2014 on the net in which this Finding Gossamyr story, “Divided Sands,” was highly rated but I was frankly underwhelmed. The problem with these FCBD stories is that sometimes they can be a little too compact, to the point where it’s hard to know what’s going on or why any of it’s worth caring about. I think that’s what’s going on here.

That said, the painted art was very skillfully put together. Maybe if I’d read Finding Gossamyr Volume One I’d be more enthused. But this just didn’t pull me in immediately the way, say, the Maddy Kettle story did, something I went in to similarly cold.

Flip this book over though and there are two stories previewing a comic called Past the Last Mountain (coming out this fall) that I found much more satisfying. They deal with a world where humans have won a war against fairy tale creatures and focus on a goblin, dragon and centaur who escape from some kind of internment camp. The stories take themselves very seriously and are quite sad. They kind of remind me of late 90s Vertigo comics. And that’s a good thing. But, I suspect my kids may find it a little trauma inducing so if I pick up Past the Last Mountain when it comes out, I’ll probably keep it on a higher shelf.

Rocket Raccoon Free Comic6. Rocket Raccoon (Marvel): Zany talking animals in space. With guns. Perfect! Dash loves it!

I get that this is less a “comic” unto itself and more a shameless plug for Marvel’s upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie (which features the titular Rocket Raccoon). But I’m okay with that if it signals that Guardians will be a super hero film that you can, you know, consider taking a kid to without worrying you’ll leave that kid a wounded, shell-shocked husk. Unlike what would’ve happened had you taken a kid to last year’s joyless kill fest, Man of Steel, that, even though it was a movie about Superman, a character created to appeal to nine-year olds, should under no circumstances be shown to anyone under the age of twentycynical.

Jellaby Free Comic7. The Adventures of Jellaby (Capstone): This also scored highly on that list of Free Comic Book Day comics that lauded Finding Gossamyr but I wasn’t knocked out. It’s very cute and harmless, perfect for really young kids. But I found the art to be just serviceable and maybe even a little awkward.

I don’t know… I don’t want to not recommend this because I could see this being really beloved by some kids. But…

Okay, here’s the thing… the Adventures of Jellaby is about the relationship between a purple dragon (Jellaby, I assume) and a little girl. What bugged me is that in the final story, the girl and the dragon go on an imaginary pirate adventure with one of the girl’s friends who pretends to be a robot. And it’s all presented as an actual pirate adventure. With a robot.

So you have a fantastic creature — the purple dragon — in the real world of the little girl who then accompanies her into her imaginary world of pirates.

Maybe I’m over thinking this but you know what I mean? You already have one fantastic element in your story — the dragon — which turns the girls real world into a fantastic realm. Why do you need to carry that into a separate fantastic realm? You’re folding fantastic realms into each other that way. I’m sure that has to be a paradox of some kind.

And besides, I thought part of the charm of this would be the fish-out-of-water thing with the dragon. But if the girl’s reality is fluid, the dragon isn’t a fish out of water any more.

Basically, I think the story would’ve been much more interesting if instead of rendering it in the panel — Calvin and Hobbes fashion — as an “actual” pirate realm, the artist had just shown everybody in cardboard boxes and makeshift pirate wear. I mean, they already have a real purple dragon. You don’t need a pirate ship.

Look, okay, maybe I am over thinking this. But I take all-ages comics very seriously. Is it too much to ask for a little bit of ontological discipline?

Boom Free Comic8. Kaboom! Summer Blast! (Boom!): Kaboom! — an offshoot of mega indie publisher Boom! Studios — is a serious powerhouse in all ages comics mainly thanks to licensed Cartoon Network properties like Adventure Time. So I was a little surprised by how little I cared for this comic. The one standout was the Steven Universe story. Steven Universe is basically my favourite animated thing ever right now. It’s heartfelt and funny and beautifully drawn and this Free Comic Book Day comic, while short, evokes all the best stuff from the cartoon.

As for the rest of the comic, the Adventure Time story was fine, as were the Regular Show, the Amazing World of Gumball and the Herobear and the Kid stories. Actually, everything was fine except…

Arrrgh. There was this effing Garfield comic and it was SO BAD! It was, in fact, so incredibly terrible I regret bringing it into the house. Someone might see it and think I’m okay with Garfield. I’m not. And this Kaboom! incarnation of Garfield is worse than the newspaper version. Yeesh.

Also there’s a Peanuts story in here that wasn’t written by Charles Schulz and that’s just an abomination.

Teen Titans Go Free Comic9. Teen Titans Go! (DC Comics): Dash loves this comic. Just look at him. Frickin. Loves. It. And I don’t blame him. It’s really good. And the cartoon it’s based on is also very good.

But I’m really, really angry with DC Comics. They aren’t just a misguided and horribly degenerate comic book publisher, they also represent everything that is wrong with the world.

Seriously. The whole frickin’ world.

Someday I’d like to write more on that subject because it’s actually Very Important. But this series of reviews is already much longer than I intended it to be so instead I’ll just link to this essay by Comics Alliance’s Chris Sims that critiques DC’s Free Comic Book Day offerings.

It’s also very good. And watch out! Spider-legged Robot Superman is eeeeevil!