Welcome, welcome, welcome to another round of What Are You Reading. I am very pleased this week to say that our guest is Jeet Heer, the peerless critic and historian who, when not writing introductions for Little Orphan Annie or Krazy Kat collections, can be found at the Sans Everything or the Comics Comics blogs.
Jeet and the rest of the crew have been reading a lot this week and are eager to share, so get clicking on that link pardners.
John Parkin: Right now I’m reading Peter and Max, an advance copy of the Fables novel coming later this year from Vertigo. I didn’t really have any expectations for it when I started reading it; although I do like the Fables comic a great deal, I wasn’t sure if anything would be lost in the move, so to speak. It focuses mainly on fairy tales characters who haven’t appeared in the Fables-verse yet: Peter Piper, his brother Max and Little Bo Peep. Although it starts out on the Farm, most of the action takes place in the past, when Peter Piper’s world was invaded by the Adversary’s forces, as well as in present-day Germany as Peter looks for his brother. (Bigby, BTW, makes appearances in both time periods, while Rose Red and other Fables staples have cameos).
Quite frankly, I love it so far. Willingham writes really great prose, and I was about to type the line “The characters really translate well to the format,” when I realized how ridiculous and obvious that line was considering the source material. What I’m not sure about, though, is if I would like it as much if I didn’t know anything about the Fables universe. Everything is explained fairly well, I think, in the beginning, but since I already knew the story, I may not be the best judge of that. So my plan is to have my wife read it after I’m done, to see if someone who doesn’t read comics will appreciate it as well.
Typically when I’m reading a prose novel — and I’m a fairly slow reader, I think — I’ll put it down if I have comics to read and let it sit for awhile as I jump into the weekly stash. But in this case the comics have been sitting and waiting.
Before I started the novel, though, I read Dark Entries, the Vertigo Crime novel featuring John Constantine. I really liked the idea of the premise — Constantine is hired to investigate the haunted house where a reality show about fear is being filmed. It seems that the house is really haunted, so the producer sends Constantine in to figure out what’s going on. It’s a fun premise, and was a fun, engrossing read up until the big twist is revealed. At that point, I had to shut the book, because I really hated the twist, at least for a 24-hour period.
The premise of what’s going on in the book changes; Constantine, it turned out, had been tricked, yet again, and … well, I don’t want to give anything away, but at this point I started thinking about past Hellblazer stories where Constantine faced similar situations, and I realized I was coming down on this book because of continuity problems. Which seems like a really silly thing to do for what should be taken as a stand alone Constantine story. But the other thing that grated on me was that from a storytelling standpoint, the twist made everything really easy. It was the obvious way to go, esp. considering the main character, and I would have much rather seen Constantine deal with the situation as it was first presented.
Anyway, I did let that twist sit with me for a bit, then jumped back in. It’s not a bad Constantine story, but it turns into a very familiar Constantine story — I’d probably like it better if I hadn’t read stories by Ennis and Delano and other writers who handled these sorts of stories before.
Tim O’Shea: Fantastic Four 570 marks the first issue of Jonathan Hickman and Dale Eaglesham’s run on the book…and the return on the 1970s cover logo (a fun throwback, but I’m partial to the original logo). I’ve always liked Eaglesham’s art and he’s part of the reason I picked up the issue (after bailing early in the Millar/Hitch run). Hickman is continuing a plotline that Millar had started, where Reed has decided (in one of those “greater good” rationalizations) to lie to Sue. This first issue’s conclusion, involving “The Bridge” has me interested, so I’ll be back. One small question, when did Reed become so musclebound? It’s an odd visual revision of the character, considering how he’s always had a slight build–and the George Michael 1980s beard stubble look for Reed is plum absurd (or possibly another visual clue that things are not what they appear).
The Incredibles 0 features Landry Walker as a co-writer on the new ongoing series. The story is partially about the birth of Jack-Jack. I don’t know who to give credit to (Pixar, Waid or Walker) but I want to see more of the villains Mr. Pixel (kudos to artist Marcio Takara/colorist Andrew Dalhouse for pulling off that character) and Tronasaurus. In fact, I want to go on record, no longer will the craze be talking gorillas, the comic industry is on the eve of worshipping mechanical dinosaurs sporting top hats. You read it here first.
I’m enjoying Greg Rucka’s writing on Batwoman in Detective Comics 856 — not because of the lead character, but rather her supporting cast, which as of this issue includes Maggie Sawyer. Rucka gives Kate’s father the best line of the issue with: “Faith was proven when I got my first face-full of werewolf halitosis.”
In terms of music, I’m starting to enjoy Regina Spektor’s new release, Far.
Brigid Alverson: I’m up to vol. 4 of Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, and my initial misgivings about the series have been resolved. The first volume felt like it was all setup, but by now I feel like I have a solid sense of what the story is about and where it is going. Of course, you have to willingly suspend disbelief about all kinds of things to enjoy this story, but if you are willing to take that plunge, it really pulls you in. The main character is a guy who is in his 30s and realizes that he has not achieved any of his youthful ambitions. And then, suddenly, he is given a chance to literally live out his most childish dreams of saving the world. So Urasawa takes a really universal feeling (for those of us over 30, anyway) and puts a bizarre spin onto it to turn it into a suspense story. What I love most about Urasawa’s work is the way he draws his characters; even someone who is only onstage for a few minutes has a distinct, clearly visible personality. I’ll be sticking with this one for the duration.
I only recently realized that BOOM! Studios has put some of their titles up as free webcomics on their site. 2 Guns, written by Steven Grant with art by Mat Santolouco, is a nice buddy/enemy story about two guys who rob a bank. Neither realizes at first that the other one is not just a crook; one is a DEA agent and the other is a naval intelligence offers. The plot is fairly twisted and no one is ever what they seem (of course). With plenty of action and banter, it’s a perfect end-of-summer read, a bit of escapism to enjoy before the heavy reading begins.
In the non-comics realm, I’m finishing out my summer with Cheating at Solitaire, by my favorite mystery writer, Jane Haddam. Haddam’s mysteries all feature an Armenian-American detective, Gregor Demarkian, and the denizens of his old neighborhood in Philadelphia, but somehow she manages to come up with a compelling cast of additional characters for every book. She tells the story from multiple points of view, following one character around for a while and then switching to another, which gives the reader a lot of insight into the various characters’ problems and motivations. This particular story is set during a movie shoot on an island very much like Martha’s Vineyard, and Haddam has obviously modeled some of the characters on real actors (Paris Hilton and Patrick Stewart come to mind—now imagine them together), but she throws a bunch of other interesting types into the mix as well. It’s great stuff, much more entertaining than anything on TV right now.
Matt Maxwell: CURSED PIRATE GIRL #2
Jeremy Bastian, ringleader of the madness
This is hitting me just right, and there’s every chance that it might not have done so. My tolerance for fantasy changes on a near-daily basis. Sometimes it’s far too cute and clever for its own good. Sometimes it’s just pastiche of other (better) books that I’ve read years ago. But once in a while, you get the right voice telling the right story, and pretty soon, you find that you’re not getting hung up on what you do and don’t like about the genre and just enjoying the story. This is one of those times. Yes, Mr. Bastian tips his hat to Rackham (and Teniel, it occurs to me, particularly with his doddering twins) but CURSED PIRATE GIRL is so unlike anything that I’ve read recently that I find myself utterly charmed by it, not just for the rendering or the beautiful hand-lettering, but for the way the pages are broken down and the story is presented in a way such that only
comics could present it.
FCBD HELLBOY (from 2008)
This just turned up. I’d probably grabbed it from BEA last year and somehow lost track of it. My fondness for HELLBOY has waned somewhat, though I still follow BPRD in trades. The Hellboy story in this book was somehow just right, not stretched out to take up an entire issue, but too big for a backup feature. There’s a wonderful sense of lightness in it, particularly in Duncan Fegredo’s artwork (something that I think has been lost since I always felt that Mr. Fegredo was being directed to draw more like Mike Mignola, even if there’s no basis in fact for that.) The BPRD story is another great little character portrait with art by Guy Davis (who if you haven’t figured is one of my favorite artists in comics, then I need to work a little harder) that hits the spot. Same for the final story, which is from the historical 1946 spin-off (so far as I can tell), a nice little Lovecraftian chiller by Josh Dysart and Paul Azaceta (who I’d love to see more work from). You know, I’d eat up a bunch of done-in-one stories like this, should they put ’em out regularly. As a sampler for the current Hellboy-related books from DH, this seems to do a pretty fine job.
BLACKEST NIGHT #0
Johns, Reis, Mahnke
Not my thing, though perhaps I should read more of these to try and get a handle as to why they’re lighting the superhero comics world on fire right now. I wasn’t able to pull much out of this other than two formerly dead superheroes talking about their past funerals and just feeling really, really creeped out by it. Yeah, you’re superheroes, but when you do this sort of thing, you’re basically making the character in-human. Un-human, whatever. I’m sure there’s an audience for graveside chats that take up the entire intro issue, but I’m testing well for that demographic. Though I will say that this book does strike me as being emblematic of DC’s main-line output for most of the 00s, and why I’m not following as much of it as I used to, once upon a time (in 2005).
More DR. STRANGE. That essential volume is taking forever to plow
through, a couple chapters a night before I nod off. But what dreams,
Tom Bondurant: Can I say that I finally watched the Louis Leterrier/Edward Norton Incredible Hulk movie from last summer? It was okay, although it felt too short and I have never liked Liv Tyler’s mutant ability to suck all the air out of a scene. Also, William Hurt was great as Capt. Stottlemeyer. I did like the references to the TV series, and I would like to see what Tim Blake Nelson does in full-on Leader mode.
While looking through the “S Misc.” longbox on another errand, I came across DC’s Silver Age miniseries from the spring of 2000. Headed up by Mark Waid, the “fifth-week event” aimed to tell a retro version of a modern-day crossover. However, it had to fit into current continuity, which meant Luthor was a tycoon, Black Canary was a founding Justice Leaguer, and Wonder Woman and the Silver Age Hawkman weren’t yet in the picture. Naturally, another big difference was the presence of Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps, who got a lot of play in the miniseries. Ironically, though, with all the rollbacks in continuity since then, Silver Age has become an artifact of a different era.
That still doesn’t stop it from being a lot of fun. Waid writes the giant-sized bookend stories, and an all-star cast produces the anachronistic one-shots which tie them together. Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson get the pivotal Green Lantern book, Bob Haney writes a Batman/Metal Men team-up for The Brave and the Bold (drawn, as it happens, by Kevin Maguire), Barry Kitson joins Waid for Dial H For Hero, Marv Wolfman writes Teen Titans and Mark Millar writes Justice League, and a young master Geoff Johns writes Showcase Presents Seven Soldiers Of Victory. With a sprawling yarn like this, though, you tend to notice the little things. The plot involves villains switching bodies with heroes, so (just as in Identity Crisis’ flashback) the bad guys quickly learn whose faces are under the masks. Catwoman makes a pass at Doctor Light, but he says he’s more interested in physics than women. When Green Lantern wields Sinestro’s ring, he finds himself almost overwhelmed by the power within it. Perhaps most strikingly, once the villains achieve ultimate power, they wreak havoc with a set of power rings for each color in the spectrum. (Shame that idea wasn’t expanded upon….) The whole thing wraps up in a monster 51-page final chapter by Waid and Eduardo Barreto, where the Injustice League (wielding said power rings) drives the JLA into hiding. Of course the day is saved, and in fairly clever ways to boot, but I have to say, no one does the horror of omnipotent evil quite like Mark Waid.
I’ve been pretty happy generally with the Superman titles, but this was a particularly good week. Superman #691 finished up the four-part “Codename: Patriot” crossover, and the Jimmy Olsen Special #2 featured Codename: Assassin stalking Jimmy (no, not in that way). James Robinson wrote both books, with Renato Guedes and Eduardo Pansica pencilling the Superman issue, Jose Wilson Magalhaes and Sandro Ribeiro inking it, and Bernard Chang drawing the Jimmy Olsen Special. I thought both were pretty suspenseful, mostly because both find our heroes in tight spots and then show things getting worse. Without giving too much away, “Codename: Patriot” seems to be at least as important to the overall New Krypton arc as the infamous “Sacrifice” four-parter was to Infinite Crisis. Its ending is rather unsettling, but on the bright side, we’re only halfway through the World Of New Krypton miniseries. That’s where the Jimmy Olsen Special comes in, pulling together subplots and characters from all around the Superman titles before ending on a very-nicely-done cliffhanger. While I don’t believe for a second that you-know-who is really you-know-what, I had a great time getting there. In fact, these two issues are a fine way to demonstrate the utility of serialized comics. They each give you exactly as much information as their producers want, and leave you to stew for a week, a month, or however long, until it’s time for you to learn more. Glad I’m not waiting for the trades on these!
Speaking of waiting, I’ll have a lot of time to pore over the details of Flash: Rebirth #s 1-4. This week’s issue #4 was five weeks late, and issue #5 (which was supposed to be out this week) is now scheduled for October 14. Still, it looks like the bulk of the plot has been revealed, thanks to issue #4’s infodump. If you remember the issue of Green Lantern: Rebirth where all the metaphysics and pseudoscience behind the power rings was explained, Flash: Rebirth #4 is a lot like that. Most of it is a big fight in the Speed Force which artist Ethan Van Sciver pulls off fairly well, although some of his more dramatic moments — both during the fight and otherwise — seem too posed and static. Regardless, Geoff Johns manages to make Barry Allen the center of the Flash universe without the puffery which characterized issue #1, and that’s a neat trick on its own. (Plus there’s a good scene with Jesse Chambers, who I’ve always thought was criminally underused as a speedster.)
Whaddaya know — I got this far without mentioning Batman And Robin #3 or Detective Comics #856. Huh. Well, it goes without saying that I enjoyed the heck out of both, especially Frank Quitely’s amazing choreography of both Robin fighting and Professor Pyg dancing. I also liked seeing JH Williams III introduce yet another new art style (kind of a shaggy Dan Brereton thing) for the were-creatures, and it was good to see Bette Kane again. Man, if Rucka and Williams end up making Bat-Girl/Flamebird the next sensational character find, is there no end to their power…?
Michael May: I’m checking out the Wolverine “manga,” Prodigal Son. Three chapters in isn’t a lot of time to form an impression, but I’m enjoying it so far. Official Wolverine’s background is so convoluted that I appreciate a simplified version where a secluded dojo replaces Xavier’s and Logan’s just a punk kid. The story’s not very original so far – Wolverine’s “specialness” makes him feel like an outsider to all the other students except for the sensei’s daughter who’s the only person who truly understands him – but there’s still lots of time for that to change.
I’ve also started reading BPRD, Volume 1: Hollow Earth and Other Stories. I’ve been re-reading all the Hellboy/BPRD stuff in tpb and it’s been fun, but I’m a bit disappointed in how a lot of the material is organized. Especially the stuff around Roger the Homonculus’ introduction to the BPRD. If you read the Hellboy collections in order, keeping track of Roger’s story is kind of like watching Pulp Fiction. And even then, you have to skip over to the first BPRD book to pick up a crucial episode. It’s all doable, but I wish it were easier to read the whole saga in more or less chronological order.
Chris Mautner: I managed to make a trip to my LCS the other day and finally got caught up on some pamphlets — mainly Wednesday Comics, since that’s almost all I’m reading in serialized form right now. I’m pleased to find that many of the up-till-now mediocre stories are starting to pick up some steam. Except for the Teen Titans one. That’s still horrible.
Like everyone else, I also picked up the latest copies of B&R and Det. C. The former was still immensely enjoyable; the second .. well the art was immensely enjoyable at any rate. The villain in that story reminds me of one of the characters from the Lucky Luke Jesse James book. In that, he constantly quotes Shakespeare, but only snippets like “Sirrah” and “Tis true.” Same kinda thing going on here, but for dramatic, instead of comedic effect. She looks cool though.
IDW also sent me the first issue of their new Ghostbusters series, Displaced Agression. The story involves the various characters getting displaced in time (hence the title), which is a good idea, but it’s just not very funny. And more than anything, a Ghostbusters comic needs to be funny. Is there really that big a clamoring for more Ghostbusters material anyway? Didn’t the second movie and the recent video game pretty much kill any goodwill the first one merited?
Jeet Heer: Love and Rockets, New Stories #2. The Hernandez Brothers have been producing such consistently good comics for such a long time that I often feel they get taken for granted. But their recent comics just maintain their high level of previous achievement, they also have a freshness and liveliness that any young artist would envy. Jaime’s 100 page superhero epic “Ti-Girls Adventure Number 34” succeeds at pulling off something Alan Moore has often aimed for (but failed at) in series like Tom Strong: recreating the frothy care-free fun of space-age superheroes. The tone is jaunty and insouciant, there are many fine nods to Kirby and Ditko but no musty nostalgia. And amid all the fight-scenes and shifting alliances, there is a healthy moral as well, about the need to cultivate your gifts in a world that encourages you to settle for less: this is what a superhero comic should be. Gilbert’s “Hypnotwist” is an unnerving excursion into dreamland, reminiscent of some works by Richard Sala and the Dan Clowes of Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron. What makes this story so curdlingly unsettling is that it expertly mimics the associational logic of a nightmare, where heat can easily expand into a ballon and you’re always running into your doppelganger. I also enjoyed Mario and Gilbert’s new sci-fi romp Citizen Rex (from Dark Horse), a welcome return to their retro-futurist mode, and look forward to seeing how the story unfolds.
R. Sikoryak’s Masterpiece Comics. These stories are familiar friends: I’ve read many of them when they were first published in magazines like Raw, Snake Eyes, and Drawn and Quarterly, and over the years have often returned to them. Encountering them again in this definitive volume, I remain amazed at how multi-layered Sikoryak’s comics are, which a big reason why they repay many close readings. Each story works on at least 3 levels: as a scarily-precise parody of a classic cartooning style (say the Winsor McCay of Little Nemo or Wayne Boring’s Superman), as a surprisingly faithful (albeit truncated) adaptation of a classic work (Wuthering Heights, Crime and Punishment), and as a echo-rich dialogue between the style and the story (for example, seeing Tubby enact the role of Roger Chillingworth, the relentless persecuting husband in The Scarlet Letter is a comment on Tubby’s vindictiveness when he plays detective and the petty childishness of Chillingworth’s hunger for revenge). Dollar for dollar, this is one of the best investments you can make in a graphic novel, since it offers many hours of pleasure.
Francoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman’s The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics. Full disclosure: I was on the advisory board that Mouly and Spiegelman consulted when they put together this book, but I think that experience gives me an insight into the books production that is worth sharing. Mouly and Spiegelman are the greatest editors in comics because of the time and thought they put into each project. Too many collections of old comics are just slapped together with whatever material is at hand. Mouly and Spiegelman, by contrast, take the job of editing an anthology seriously enough to 1) rigorously define their ambit, 2) search out the best material, and 3) organize the selection in such a way that it makes sense. In this case, they could have easily picked a handful of stories from the big names (Carl Barks, Walt Kelly, John Stanley, Sheldon Mayer) and come up with a passable book. But they aimed to make a definitive book, not just a “good enough” book so they read through the oeuvre not only the four masters but countless other cartoonists, with an eye in every case for the best. The stories selected really are the cream of the crop. Everything about the book (the design, the cover, the introduction, the reproduction, the stories selected, the paper stock) is impeccable. What the book does is define a particular genre focusing tightly on the best material: kids comics, as the book shows, are not just comics aimed at little kids. Rather, kids comics are comics that nurture the culture of childhood, the cocoon-time after toddler-hood but before adolescence when curiosity and imagination run free.
Fantagraphics has been busy in the graphic novels department lately so I have a big stack of their books to read, including The Squirrel Machine, Giraffes in My Hair, The Red Monkey Double Happiness Book, and West Coast Blues. They all look good.