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Look to your own backyard for the fun and frightening

Date: 6/22/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

You might read "Entertainment Weekly" to see who and what is hot right now, but you have to do a little digging to see the up-and-comers.

The next great pop culture star probably may be found in an unlikely place: an alternative comic book show or a horror film convention. They might also come from your backyard.

At the recent annual show presented by the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MOCCA) in New York City, cartoonists from western New England were represented at several of the many tables.

The MOCCA show is not about superheroes. You won't find tables of "Batman" or "Spiderman" back issues and merchandise. Instead, the cartoonists exhibiting there have more in common with the underground stars of the 1970s such as Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton.

The comics are more personal in story and design and can be funny, tragic, whimsical or profound.

"First Harvest," Trees & Hills' first paperback collection of work, made its premiere at the MOCCA show. Trees & Hills is a group of cartoonist from Western Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire that has published several collections of themed comic stories.

Co-editors Dan Barlow and Colin Tedford have put together a collection that is a sort of "best of" or introduction to the group's work. It's a wildly diverse collection and quite entertaining. For instance, Megan Baehr's work is done strictly in pictures with no dialogue, such as a great strip about hiking up a mountain. Anne Thalheimer takes the opposite tact with her story on Florence that is heavy on words and lighter on graphics.

Both approaches are completely valid and the rule seems to be for these creators to do what they want in order to tell their story.

Old comic book pros Stephen R. Bissette and Mark Martin are both contributors, but for the most part the talent presented here is fresh and new.

For ordering information on all of the Trees & Hills books, log onto its Web site at Modern Myths on Bridge Street in Northampton carries the new collection.

Among those newcomers in the Trees & Hills group is Colleen Frakes, who is a graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies (CCS) in White River Junction, Vt., and the recipient of a Xeric Foundation grant to publish her work.

Frakes' "Space Ninja Versus Zombies" in the Trees & Hills book demonstrates her deceptively simple cartoony style. She uses her lines sparingly, but exactly.

This is much more in evidence in her book that also made its debut at MOCCA, "Woman King." Again, her simple style seems right at home telling what appears to be a fairy tale-type story about a girl who is adopted by bears.

There are many more dimensions to the story as well as a surreally disturbing theme that shows Frakes' accomplished grasp on the medium.

If you're someone interested in discovering the potential the medium has beyond conventional comic books, you need to discover Frakes' work.

Another graduate of CCS is Denis St. James (, whose second volume of "Amelia" was also at MOCCA. "Amelia" is a horror comic that has moments of humor, but essentially is a pretty compelling fever dream of a narrative. Centered on a young woman who is trying to make sense of an artifact left to her by her mother, the book is genuinely disturbing in a way that horror fans should appreciate.

The Monster Mania show conducted in Cromwell, Conn., June 12 through 14 was another place where new talent was vying for attention.

While Low Budget Pictures was selling self-produced films such as "Teen Ape Camp," "Deathbone" and "Wet Heat" that flaunted their micro-budgets, there was another independent film at the show that clearly had greater intentions and succeeded in reaching them.

"Ninjas Versus Zombies" ( has one of the most commercial titles I could think of for a horror film and according to the film's press materials, the title and subject matter came from examining what kinds of films and titles seem to pop out from the walls of video rental stories.

The film is a horror action comedy in which a group of slacker friends are magically endowed with ninja powers so they can defeat an army of zombies created by a recently resurrected neighbor.

Writer and director Justin Timpane told Reminder Publications his intent was to make the best film he could and he took the extras step of shooting the entire film in his backyard and basement first as a rehearsal. He then shot the actual feature, screened a first cut for friends and then re-cut and re-shot the film to improve the story and pacing.

He said he wasn't afraid to re-write a character or find a better location in order to produce a better movie.

Timpane's efforts paid off with a fast-moving film that wisely presents a story that doesn't overwhelm its small budget. While there are some missteps the final scene is a bit confusing until one remembers a throwaway line from the climax of the story this is a fun film well worth discovering by horror fans.

The entire process from buying his equipment to receiving the batch of DVDs took from April 2008 to this May. His total cost including setting up his mini-studio was just under $18,000.

His greatest expense was paying for the use of some of the locations and feeding his zombie army.

Timpane said the films of directors and writers Kevin Smith, Joss Whedon and Sam Raimi inspired him, which was pretty clear to this viewer.

Timpane said he is now seeking professional distribution of the film as a direct-to-DVD. His hope is to be the "impulse buy," the second movie people might try when they are renting a big budget Hollywood production.

I think he has a chance.