Letter 44 – Aliens lurk in the asteroid belt, sending Earth into turmoil in this tense graphic novel


On the day of his inauguration, Stephen Blades, the 44th president, finds a letter left on his Oval Office desk simply marked “44.” In it, outgoing President Carroll reveals a dark secret that he’s kept throughout his administration. An alien presence has been detected in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. And the beings there are building some sort of massive and potentially threatening structure.

President Carroll (obviously “inspired” by George W. Bush) has dragged the United States into two protracted wars and nearly broken the back of the country in the process. Now incoming President Blades learns to his horror that these wars were largely a ruse for achieving combat readiness for a possible alien attack. He also learns that, besides there being a deep black ops program for building next-gen military technology for confronting a possible alien menace, a secret one-way mission, with nine astronauts, has been dispatched by Carroll to the asteroid belt and will be arriving at the site of the alien construct soon. “Mr. President, they’re ready for your swearing in.”

And so begins the thrilling and surprisingly complex and tense ride that is Letter 44. Author Charles Soule and artists Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque, Guy Major, and Dan Jackson do an impressive job of creating a rich and layered world within this satisfying sci-fi comic series. The book confidently lays the interleaving stories of the first contact space drama, the cutthroat politics on the home front, and the geopolitical dramas as President Blades tries to carry on with two wars he now knows are shams and to prepare for a potential war coming from the stars. Read the rest

Fear and Loathing – The gonzo classic gets a brilliant graphic novel treatment


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Anyone who's read Hunter S. Thompson's iconic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas knows that the technicolored, bug-eyed, meth-fueled craziness of that narrative is hard to capture in another medium. The Tim Burton movie did an admirable job of conveying the “savage journey” of the book, if sometimes overdosing on the goofballs in the process.

When it comes down to it, the madness of Fear and Loathing is probably best expressed in comic book form (as Ralph Steadman showed in the original illustrations, Gary Trudeau hinted at with Uncle Duke, and Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson's Transmetropolitan paid impressive homage). If Hunter S. Thompson didn't exist, it would be necessary for comics to invent him. And I can't think of anyone better suited to fully render Thompson's warped vision of the American dream (aka 70s Vegas) than Eisner Award-nominated Troy Little. His 176-page comic adaptation manages to effectively distill the roman à clef gonzo masterpiece into a form that feels completely natural, managing to retain and celebrate inspired moments of Thompson's brilliant prose-poetry.

Little's art has the right kind of energy and violence to effectively convey Thompson's unusual subject matter. He knows how to render the drug-amped fear, anger, outrage, and surprise on Raoul Duke's face, his beady eyes forever burning behind gigantic amber-tinted aviator glasses. The book itself is beautifully produced, with a spot varnish hard cover and brilliant, vividly printed interiors that reproduce the colors of crazy in a way that would do Ralph Steadman proud. Read the rest

Explore the history of invention through cool-looking patent models


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What many Americans may not be aware of is that, from the introduction of the U.S. Patent system, in 1790, up until 1880, every submitted patent document required a model of the invention to accompany it. Thousands upon thousands of models were submitted, so many that buildings had to be built to house them all. In 1994, an upstate New York couple, Ann and Allan Rothschild, began collecting some of these surviving models, eventually amassing some 4,000 items. This model collection forms the basis for Inventing a Better Mousetrap, a beautiful and fascinating exploration of these models, the patents they illustrated, and the sometimes profound import these inventions had on the growth and development of the United States of America.

One of the more fascinating dimensions of history is context, understanding the unique circumstances out of which something developed and the impact that development had upon history’s larger canvas. Besides gorgeous photographs and details of each of the models, every chapter (e.g. Steam, Heat, Light & Fire, Leather & Shoes, Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms) provides background on the circumstances that gave rise to the developments it examines. So, for example, in the ATF chapter, we learn about how the 1779 “Corn Patch and Cabin Rights” law, enacted for the Virginia territories (giving settlers 400 acres in what is now Kentucky, if they built a cabin and planted a corn crop), led to massive corn yields in the extremely fertile soil of the region. Read the rest

A graphic novel about a leaf - it's better than it sounds


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Being a fan of wordless graphic novels like Shaun Tan’s The Arrival and Thomas Ott’s The Number, I was eager to experience Chinese artist Daishu Ma’s Leaf. Like those previous efforts, Leaf is rendered in meticulous black and white pencil sketches. Unlike those others, spot colors, namely blue and yellow, are used as a narrative device.

Leaf is about a single tree leaf that unexpectedly blows into the life of the book’s young, unnamed protagonist. Where thousands of similar leaves have surely blown by this young man before, unnoticed, this one has an inner yellow glow like no leaf he’s ever experienced. A fascination with his discovery sends him on a journey through the rather dystopian, labyrinthian world in which he lives as he tries to learn more about his pet leaf and then to try and recover it after it gets lost.

You’re never quite sure exactly what is going on in Leaf and the meaning of the story is definitely open to interpretation. Some may find this “openess” in the wordless narrative annoying, but I really enjoy this aspect of such books. Leaf is filled with hundreds of soft pencil illustrations and many of them have a very touching, lyrical quality that effectively captures human emotion, community, memory, and the innocence of youth (as well as the dreariness of the world of Leaf). The artwork and book production are really beautiful and there is a gentle quiet at the center of this work that perfectly mirrors the muffled quiet of fall. Read the rest

Wytches – A terrifying trip into the dark heart of parental fears and malevolent forests


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Scott Snyder's Wytches really worked its creepy magic on me. This trade paperback edition collects the first six issues of the popular comic series, which has received widespread praise and counts Stephen King among its many vocal fans. Read the rest

Golem Arcana – Conjure mighty golems and send them into combat in this hybrid miniatures and computer game


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“The Great Khan is dead.” So begins the rich backstory to Golem Arcana, an exciting new hybrid miniatures and computer game. The world of the game, Eretsu, is thrown into turmoil at the death of its powerful leader as the Khan's Gudanna Dominion attempts to retain its power while the neighboring Durani decide that it's time to try and seize control of a now-fractured world.

The golems in the title refer to monstrous magical constructs that each empire summons to prosecute its wars. Knights ride into battle upon these giant, terrifying creatures. Each of the factions in the game use different substances as the material basis for their golems – bone, flora, blood, stone – and this gives each of them slightly different abilities, limitations, and appearance. The materials also influence the color schemes of the armies (e.g. blood magic-made golems are red, stone golems are gray, etc.). This helps keep the miniatures straight on the board (there are also banners and banner poles that you can use to further identify your forces).

While Golem Arcana is a pretty straight-forward tabletop wargame where you build and field points-based armies, play out various attack and defend scenarios, and resolve combat with percentage dice, there is something very special going on with this game. In addition to the six gorgeous pre-painted miniatures and very lovely game components and terrain tiles, you also get a Bluetooth-connected wand which communicates with a free app you download to your phone or tablet. Read the rest

Game the real world with this deck of social interaction mission cards


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It is perhaps a sad testament to our disembodied lives that we need a deck of cards to coax us into interacting with strangers in meatspace, but that's exactly what Sneaky Cards: Play It Forward are designed to do. And they make their game of social interaction and random acts of kindness surprisingly fun.

Sneaky Cards began life in 2009 as a winning submission, by a 16-year-old kid, to a contest held by Boing Boing and the Institute for the Future. The game became a free online download. You printed and cut out your cards, then played them in the real world. The creator, Harry Lee, described the game as being about “creating fun and creative social interactions,” and for “breaking up the tedium of everyday life.”

This current commercial version, from the wonderful folks at Gamewright, sports all new card designs, new card “missions,” unique card-tracking numbers, and a website where you can register your cards and find out what becomes of them as they circulate. This “Play It Forward” version was designed by Cody Borst, with the blessing of Harry Lee.

The Play It Forward deck consists of 53 cards divided up into six different mission categories: Engage (tests of audacity), Connect (finding people and things), Grow (self-challenges and learning experiences), Surprise (hide things for discovery), Care (do-gooder tasks), and Create (socially shared art challenges). The cards come in a handsome and sturdy flip box with a magnetic catch. Read the rest

Explore super-detailing, weathering, and finishing in this gorgeous, comprehensive modeling encyclopedia


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I have always had a great attraction to obsessive hobbies. When I was a teen, I didn't just want to have model trains, I needed the fully detailed train board, with forests, a mountain and tunnel, a town, and a coal mine. I didn't just want to play tabletop wargames with salt shakers and napkin holders for obstacles – I had to build an entire terrain board, with homemade buildings, impact craters, command bunkers, and the like. And when I'm not dabbling in my own all-in hobbies, I'm frequently found online, looking at forums about other people's hobby obsessions. One of these is super-detailed scale modeling.

Anyone who has done any military modeling is familiar with the AMMO brand of Mig Jimenez. Mig and AMMO are known for making the most amazing products for super-detailing models, paints, powders, and effects for painting, weathering, and basing, and high-end how-to books on model painting and finishing. Soon they will also be known for creating this incredible series, Encyclopedia of Aircraft Modelling Techniques.

I got Interiors and Assembly Volume 2 in the five-part series because I was looking for inspiration for interior detailing of some tank models that I'm building for a tabletop wargame. I was not disappointed in what I found in this book. These volumes are crammed with hundreds of high-quality, close-in photographs showing many tried and true techniques for using aftermarket parts, making your own parts, and getting the most out of the parts that came in your model kit. Read the rest

Carry a galaxy in conflict around in your cargo shorts with Pocket Imperium


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Pocket Imperium is a surprisingly big game in a very small box. The “Pocket” in its name refers to its microgame stature, while “Imperium” offers a clue to its galaxy-spanning scale and 4X game mechanic (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate), popular among galactic empire games. The first thing you notice about Pocket Imperium is the quality of its components. The box and art are lovely, as are the command cards and seven main “sector tiles” (the game board). The game also comes with 52 brightly colored wooden spaceship markers in four designs. There's a lot stuffed into this box, and with everything placed on the table, it really makes for a satisfying game spread. But at $40, you do pay for all this.

The rules for Pocket Imperium are deceptively simple. Each player plays three cards (six if it's two players) that contain movement commands (Expand, Explore, Exterminate). These moves are “pre-programmed” before each turn with the cards turned over simultaneously and executed in the sequence of Expand, Explore, Exterminate. So, one player may want to expand first, another explore, and maybe another exterminate. If you're the only player commanding an expansion that turn, you get two bonus ships; if two players execute the same order, they each get one extra ship; if all of the players execute the same turn command, no one gets extra vessels to field. The turn sequence and bonuses are indicated on quick reference cards you can keep on the table. Read the rest

The Divine - a tale of dark magical realism in the war-torn jungles of Southeast Asia


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It seems as though Lord of the Flies-like tales are all the rage in comics these days. Here on Wink we've reviewed several books that feature kids gone wild, namely The Wrenchies and Beautiful Darkness, and there are others. Adding its own unique spin to this trope is The Divine, a graphic novel of magical realism. Inspired by actual events, The Divine follows the fated exploits of Mark, an ex US army military explosives expert who's trying to make a go at domestic bliss, but having a hard time finding a decent job to support his wife and baby on the way. He wants anything but to accept an offer made by a meat-headed former military buddy, Jason. But the job Jason dangles before him – a quick and dirty mine explosives job in the obscure (fictitious) Southeast Asian country of Quanlom – offers too big of a payday to turn down. It seems so easy. Get in, get out, collect the fat paycheck, live happily ever after. The door to hell has well-oiled hinges and easily swings for those who push.

That hell breaks loose the moment Mark steps foot on the matted jungle floors of Quanlom. And we feel like we're right there with him. The art in this book, so gorgeously rendered by twin Israeli artists Asaf and Tomer Hanuka, masterfully uses saturated blocks of color to create a very dense and intense feeling that can be claustrophobic one minute and explosively expansive the next. Read the rest

The Making of Stanley Kubrick's 2001 – An enduring cinematic masterpiece gets a book worthy of its brilliance


“Holy crap! It's a monolith!” After my recent bookworm-o-gasm over Taschen's new William Blake book, I didn't think I'd be having another dreamy out-of-box book experience anytime soon, but I was wrong. The venerable art book publishers outdo themselves again with their just released The Making of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The book was designed by the highly regarded Mathias Augustyniak and Michael Amzalag, together known as M/M (Paris). The duo has created a truly one-of-a-kind experience here, an artifact in book form that's worthy of the iconic artifactuality (Is that a word?) of the source material. (Did I mention: It's a monolith!) 

The book is 6.9” wide, stands 15” tall, and is covered in a lovely light-absorbing (and dust attracting) matte black stock. The book slides out of a glossy 4-sided wrap which contains the full-color cover art and back cover copy. Sliding the thick black slab from the sleeve, you're confronted by four sigil-like icons, representing stages of a Stargate journey, deep-embossed into the black cover board. The title on the spine is in black foil. Black on black. Lovely.

The cover opens portfolio-style (i.e. the cover spine is not glued to the bound pages inside). The cover and spine fold down flat, creating a kind of stage for unfolding the rest of the book. And stage is the right word, because that's what this books feels like: A performance. Many things feel different from a traditional book. Since the pages are so narrow, there are dozens of fold outs, in 2-panel, 3-panel, and 4-panel spreads. Read the rest

William Blake's final drawings given a spectacular send off


The story goes that William Blake worked until the very day he died. His final drawing was said to be a portrait of his wife sitting by his deathbed. Earlier in the day, he had spent his last shilling on a pencil. He'd been commissioned two years earlier by friend and patron (and fellow painter) John Linnell to do a series of illustrations for Dante's The Divine Comedy. Friends would frequently give Blake work to keep him and his wife fed and to keep him creating art. It was these images that he was working on when, on August 12, 1827, he finally laid down his pencil and left his “mundane shell,” allegedly drifting away “signing songs of his own design.”

There have been other published editions of Blake's 102 sketches and watercolors in his Dante series, but nothing has ever come close to this stunning edition from Taschen. We've come to expect impressive art books from Taschen, but the “out of box experience” on this gem was off the charts. First, it's impressively big and heavy, at an outsized 18” x 12” and 324 pages. When I opened the shipping box and found a cardboard briefcase inside, I thought whatever was inside better be something special. Hefting this giant buckram-covered tome from the case and cracking it open soon had me gasping, squealing, and feeling as dizzy as a teenage girl at a Beatles' concert.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a serious William Blake obsession. Read the rest

Olympians Zeus, Athena, Hera, Poseidon, Hades and Aphrodite are each featured in this beautiful 6-volume boxed set


When I was a teen, I really wanted to like Greek mythology, but the complexity of the pantheon and some of the absurdities of the stories lost me rather than sucked me in. I quickly became confused and bored. Over the years, I've gained a greater appreciation and understanding of classical mythology, but I haven't gone back to try and relearn everything I couldn't retain in school. Until now, thanks to George O'Conner's impressive Olympians box set.

The set contains six volumes, Zeus (King of the Gods), Athena (Warrior Goddess), Hera (Goddess of the Air, Sky, and Heavens), Poseidon (God of the Sea), Hades (Lord of the Dead), and Aphrodite (Goddess of Love). Each one runs 85 pages, and besides the origin story (and a few other key tales) for each god, there are also author notes, a summary of the key characters in each book, a recommended reading list, and even a series of discussion questions. The author and publisher definitely designed these books to be taught to young people and I would definitely recommend them to teachers, home schoolers, and students who want to learn of the “august residents of Mount Olympus” (as the back cover puts it) in a fun and resonant way. These books are really beautifully illustrated and produced. Most of the book covers include spot foil stamping. The Zeus cover is seriously cool, with the silver lightning in his hands actually flashing dramatically as you move the cover to catch the light. I dare you to hold this book in your hands and not want to move it around and make thunder sounds like a ten year old (OK, maybe that's just me). Read the rest

Unstick stuck doors, windows, and drawers


When we moved into our house in 1999, it came filled with stuff. There was an old lady who was retiring so she didn’t need to take the weed-whacker and snow-blower to the retirement home, so she just left everything and they were obviously people that loved really good perennial tools. One thing they left was this thing called Door Ease, which is a stick of wax for unsticking drawers ($4.71 on Amazon). I thought, “Oh, that’s cool,” and then one day five years later I had a sticky drawer and I said, “Wait I have the technology!” so I went downstairs and got my Door Ease and it hasn’t stuck since. Read the rest

Dörfler by Jeremy Baum is a hallucinogen in print


Two worlds, a futuristic dystopian city, and a dense, dreamy forest realm with a mysterious stone temple in it. Two reoccurring sigils, an eye inside of a 7-pointed star and a square inside of a square. And three women who seem to leak in and out of each other's dreams. This is the ponderous world of Jeremy Baum's debut graphic novel, Dörfler. You don't so much read this book (the narrative is quite sparse) as dream along to it. I read it once, had no idea what had just happened (in a delightfully disorienting kind of way), read it again, and still had no clearer idea of the point. But whatever Jeremy Baum is selling, I bought it. This is a very lovely and compelling piece that rewards repeated visits without ever completely resolving itself. Like Luke Ramsey's Intelligent Sentient?, this book is a hallucinogen in print. It is obviously meant as a kind of graphical meditation on time, memory, dream states, erotic revelry, and the mysteries of consciousness.

Baum doesn't so much tell a linear tale as frantically point (through the artwork and dream logic narrative) into the dark corners of his world, towards things that seem wildly important but ultimately defy tidy explanation. David Lynch's Eraserhead came to mind several times while floating through Jeremy Baum's dreamtime. Peter Chung's Æon Flux is even closer in both structure and intent to Dörfler. Like that wonderfully avant garde animated series, nearly every frame here seems to ooze equal amounts of sinister intent, dark eroticism, and high weirdness. Read the rest

Keep Fresh Stay Rad with 100 funky typography-themed postcards


I love all of the boxed postcard collections that are being published these days. There's something of a resurgence of interest in mail art, snail mail correspondence, zines, and other mail-borne art forms and these postcard boxes might be a reflection of that. The amazing font designers, House Industries, published a postcard collection of their fonts a year ago and Princeton Architectural Press has recently published the Animal Box of animal-themed postcard art from celebrated artists.

Keep Fresh Stay Rad, also from Princeton Architectural, is a collection of typography-themed cards (many hand-drawn) from Friends of Type, a loose-knit collective of New York and San Francisco artists and designers. I reviewed the group's wonderful Let's Go Letter Hunting notebook on Wink Books. These postcards make a perfect companion to that book. You could have a lot of fun re-drawing the letterforms from the Keep Fresh postcards in your Letter Hunting journal. Everything about this product is lovely, from the colorful and vibrant thick-board storage box, to the theme tabs that organize the cards (with plenty of room for your own cards), to the sweet little typography “zine” inside. And, of course, the 100 funky and fun postcards themselves. The cards in the box are divided into themes, including Salutations, Encouragement, Affection, Strong Language – there are ten themes in all.

One criticism I have of the set is that the card stock is rather thin, not traditional postcard thickness. Also, it's great that the box is roomy enough to store additional cards, but because the Keep Fresh cards are on thin stock, they are already slightly bowed, even with the cardboard spacer that comes in the box. Read the rest

Fill a pocket sketchbook, send it, watch it tour the globe


The Sketchbook Project is a unique Brooklyn-based global arts initiative that's been operating for the past ten years. Anyone who wants to participate buys one of their pocket sketchbooks. You fill the book up with your art, send it back, they scan it and make it available online. It also goes into their collection (now over 33,000 volumes) which the public can access, and there's even a mobile museum touring the collection.

The Sketchbook Project World Tour is the latest collection of the project's sketchbooks. The project now gets submissions from some 135 countries. This 224-page book is divided into six continents with each section including an introduction, interviews with a few of the contributing artists, and numerous examples of the sketchbooks from that area of the world.

The quality and styles of the work vary greatly. I see this as a strength, a sort of anyone-can-play “zine” mentality that I appreciate. But your mileage may vary. If you're interested in the Sketchbook Project itself, you can find out more here.

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The Sketchbook Project World Tour by Steven Peterman and Sara Elands Peterman Princeton Architectural Press 2015, 256 pages, 8.2 x 10.2 x 1.0 inches (paperback) $21 Buy a copy on Amazon Read the rest

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