October 2018 New Comic Discoveries: Black Mask Makes Complex Comics with Massive Relevance

By Zack Quaintance — First things first: today is the most important mid-term election day of our lifetimes. Go vote...and vote for Democrats. You may disagree with their positions, policies, and leadership, and that’s all fine, I suppose. Just realize, these are not normal times. Flipping the House in 2018 is about reinforcing the checks and balances our government depends on in the face of an executive branch bent on eroding them. Just go do it.

Phew. With that out of the way, let’s get to comics! This month we have a special New Discoveries, tying into today by looking at three titles from one of our favorite indie publishers: Black Mask Studios. Based out of Los Angeles, Black Mask is a hotbed of transgressive storytelling. Their titles are nuanced and complex, rooted in compulsive readability but never so much that it takes away from their relevance. We should also note Black Mask walks the walk: they were registering voters during SDCC, and each issue of Calexit, for example, included information about grassroots organizing for today’s 2018 midterms.

A look at Black Mask’s books is long overdue on our site, and we can think of no better time than this election day to fix this. Without further adieu, let’s check out three comics from Black Mask that we had the pleasure to discover in recent weeks...


Writer: Matteo Pizzolo
Artist: Amancay Nahuelpan
Colorist: Tyler Boss
Flatter: Dee Cunniffe
Letterer: Jim Campbell

Calexit is, arguably, the title that cemented Black Mask Studios as the industry’s premier publisher of political graphic fiction. The book is about a progressive majority of Californians refusing to remain in the union after a fascist autocratic president takes power. Leveraging the vast economy of the state (sixth largest on the planet), activists launch an actual resistance. In the hands of lesser creators, this book might have read as a revenge fantasy (side note: I’m a Californian and certainly could have gotten down with that, but I digress…). Catharsis has a place in 2018 to be sure, but a story based solely on catharsis would maybe fade from public consciousness too quickly.

Calexit is all but certain to linger with those who read it. This is one of the smartest comics on the market today. Writer Matteo Pizzolo (Black Mask’s publisher and face) has put incredible thought into his story, extrapolating the ramifications of an actual exit from the union to logical and realistic extremes. This comic sugarcoats nothing, with Pizzolo’s scripts and Amancy Nahuelpan’s artwork bluntly portraying the grit, struggle, and violence inherent to breaking from the union. The character work and suspense are also well done, with massive set pieces, touches of humor, and colorful characters. The real appeal of the book, though, comes in its quiet moments, human times when people sacrifice for what’s right at the cost of their own interests, moments that stress how pivotal such times are for all of us. Simply put, Calexit is a comic that refuses to let even one American off the hook. We highly recommend both this story and concept.


Writer: Kwanza Osajyefo
Designer: Tim Smith 3
Artist: Jamal Igle
Inker: Robin Riggs
Letterer: Dave Sharpe

Black is, simply put, one of the most poignant takes on superheroics ever produced. Written by Kwanza Osajyefo and illustrated by Jamal Igle, the book has a simple enough premise—what if only black people have superpowers? Much like Calexit, each issue builds a well-crafted narrative that extrapolates its core concept to thoughtful places. There’s also a level of depth to this book that eludes the vast majority of superhero takes. Just look at the story’s villains. My expectation was that the bad guys here would be the usual politicians or corrupt cops. Those folks certainly factor in, but the book is not content to stop with them.

Instead, Black pushes past the obvious, finding true villainy at a conflux of political and corporate interests, deliberately stoking racial tensions in society so as to maintain a generational grip on America’s power structures. This comic fearlessly refuses to dumb down even a bit. Another effective choice in Black is the way those with superpowers behave in order to best serve their mission and interests. They can’t be Superman, publicly launching a simple fight against crime and evildoers. They are, for obvious reasons, more like the X-Men, but even that comparison doesn’t hold, not entirely. In X-mythos, mutants manifested in large numbers in the mid-20th century. In the real world, there are hundreds of years of institutionalized racism that the superpowered characters in Black must also consider and contend with. It’s a really powerful and fresh take on this familiar concept.

Devil Within

Writer: Stephanie Phillips
Artist: Maan House
Colorist: Dee Cunniffe
Letterer: Troy Peteri

Devil Within is not so overtly rooted in the type of transgressive storytelling that powers both Calexit and Black. Devil Within (which we recently talked to writer Stephanie Phillips about) is a horror comic that tells the story of a newly-engaged couple beset by a demonic possession. As Phillips recently told us, “the main focus of the book is actually trust and relationships.” Essentially, the book asks what would it be like to suffer a loss of love while also becoming absolutely terrified of the person you’re sharing a bed with. It’s a different approach for a horror story, to be sure, and I liked it quite a bit.

The script’s use of character moments really makes the relationship between the two leads relatable—even as the artwork and coloring does its best to set an absolutely sinister tone. One technique used multiple times by the artists here is to entirely shade and obscure faces as characters speak to each other. This does a lot of tonal work, adding an almost subliminal level of visual symbolism I found quite powerful. In the end, though, the real question of Devil Within is how well can you truly know another human? And while the plot is primarily concerned with this on a micro level, the subject matter strikes me as tragically relevant amid 2018’s devastatingly unprecedented moment of extreme national discord. This is the youngest book on our list today, and I’ll definitely be following it as its story progresses.

The shaded faces in Devil Within #1 set a horror-tinged tone that emphasizes the book’s core question: how well can you ever really know another human?

Oh and once more, if you’re reading this and it’s still Tuesday, November 6….go vote!

Click here to check out more than a year’s worth of monthly comics lists.

Zack Quaintance is a tech reporter by day and freelance writer by night/weekend. He Tweets compulsively about storytelling and comics as BatmansBookcase. He also writes comics and is currently working hard to complete one.

Five Questions With Creators: Stephanie Phillips

The final order cutoff date for Devil Within is Sept. 10.

By Zack Quaintance — Stephanie Phillips new book Devil Within (out Oct. 3 from Black Mask Studios) caught my attention after I hear her discussing it on a panel at San Diego Comic Con. It’s no stretch to say that 2018 has been a banner year for horror comics, and Devil Within seems to fit squarely into that, while also staying ground in something most readers will surely relate to — a shared romantic relationship.

We recently caught up with Stephanie to ask her about her new book Devil Within. Stephanie is also involved with a pretty diverse set of pursuits outside of comics, ranging from academia to Muay Thai and hockey. We also used this as an opportunity to talk to her about all of that, and how (if it all) it connects with her writing.

Without further adieu, here is this week’s edition of Five Questions with Creators!

1. Okay, so first things first…can I start by asking about your background as a writer? Just from taking a quick look at your website, it seems super interesting and also intellectually diverse…

I have an MA in English and I am a PhD candidate in Rhetoric and Writing (currently dissertating). I also teach technical communication in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University at Buffalo. I have worked as a technical writer, an editor, a journalist, and a writing teacher. Besides my brief stint making sandwiches at a Firehouse Subs in Florida, most of my jobs have centered on writing.   

2. I heard you describe your forthcoming book from Black Mask, Devil Within, at SDCC…and it sounds terrifying. What kind of experience should readers expect when we pick up this comic?

The main focus of the story is actually trust and relationships. I think back to old slasher movies where a couple is in peril and one person has to watch their lover get slaughtered in some horrific manner. Loss of love is terrifying, but I want to explore what it means to lose love while also being terrified of the person you love. What if the monster is sharing a bed with you?

Reveals and jump scares don’t work in comics the same way they might in a movie, so we are definitely going for a more psychologically stimulating scare that calls into question who we trust and let into our lives, while also showing off some creepy creatures. Maan’s storytelling and monsters should definitely make your skin crawl.

Rising comic writer Stephanie Phillips. 

3. The book is also set in the Philippines…what role does Filipino mythology play in the book?

I don’t want to give too much away, but a lot of our creatures are based in Filipino mythology, if not directly taken from mythology. The story also focuses on Filipino cultural practices surrounding possession. As I have said before, DEVIL WITHIN is based on a true story. Using the actual events as a jumping off point, I tried to stay authentic to the experiences of the people who witnessed what they believe was a demonic possession. One interesting thing I learned about Cebu is that a friend of mine who lived in the Philippines actually had a school day canceled on account of possessions. Snow days, hurricane days, possession days… makes sense.

4. So, compared to the academic writing, personal essays, and journalism you’ve done…how is writing comics different and do you have to drastically alter your approach?

This is actually a really tough question. There is absolutely crossover with everything I write, and I would like to think that my degrees, at the very least, qualify me to write a grammatically sound sentence. Pinpointing what bleeds into my comic writing from my time as an academic writer is a bit tough, but I think the biggest takeaway from working in technical communication is how best to work with my teams. Comics are extremely collaborative, and that means communication is essential. When I explain to Maan what I envision for a page, I need to be able to write in a way that allows Maan to clearly interpret all the things happening in my brain without taking away his creative license, but still providing enough detail to where he isn’t left in the dark. It’s actually a super interesting process and I could write an entire dissertation on it… oh wait, I am!

Kicking Ice from Stephanie Phillips and Jamie Jones is coming soon.

5. Aside from Devil Within, what other upcoming comics projects are you currently at work on? 

So much! KICKING ICE, drawn by Jamie Jones, is at the printer and will be out in the wild very soon. I am also working on a short story with Top Cow set in the Postal universe, and three secret projects that I can’t talk much about yet, but I promise they are big and I am really, really excited about them.

+1. So, you’re an accomplished beer league hockey player, and some of the proceeds from your all-ages graphic novel Kicking Ice went to help the National Women’s Hockey League grow women’s hockey…if you weren’t writing, what are the odds you’d be spending even more time on the ice?

Actually, if I wasn’t writing and teaching, I think I would be spending more of my time in a boxing ring than an ice rink! I absolutely love to play hockey, but I was never good enough to reach the level needed to play professionally. As a Muay Thai fighter, however, I had a number of bouts and worked as a trainer at a local gym in Florida. The more writing projects I took on, the less time I could spend training and fighting. I still train for fun once in a while, but I don’t think I will be stepping back in the ring for the time being (my mom is thrilled about this). 

Check out our other Five Questions with Creators pieces and other Comics Lists here!

Zack Quaintance is a journalist who also writes fiction and makes comics. Find him on Twitter at@zackquaintance. He lives in Sacramento, California.