Welcome to What Are You Reading?, our weekly survey of your noble Robot 6 bloggers’ most recent reading. This week, our special guest is Jason Thompson, author of Manga: The Complete Guide and The King of RPGs. Jason just wrapped up a year of giving away his surplus manga at Suvudu.com, an experience he wrote about at his Livejournal.
Michael May: Graphic Universe has a series called “History’s Kid Heroes” that I’ve been checking out. So far I’ve read The Snowshoeing Adventure of Milton Daub, Blizzard Trekker and The Stormy Adventure of Abbie Burgess, Lighthouse Keeper. They’re short, quick reads – about 30 pages – and exactly the kind of thing I would’ve checked out from the library as a kid. Each one tells the story of an adventurous experience in the life of a real, historical child.
Abbie Burgess was the daughter of an island lighthouse keeper in the 1850s. She had to keep the place running during a violent storm while her dad was on the mainland trying to get medication for Abbie’s sick mother. It’s a tense, exciting story, but Milton Daub’s was the one that I connected to most because Milton was just an average kid before an extraordinary blizzard hit his nineteenth century New England town. With his dad’s help, he made snowshoes so that he could go to the store for milk for his baby brother. The snow was so deep that he had to leave the house through a second-story window. Along the way, he passed other houses full of neighbors who also needed emergency supplies, so he offered to deliver those as well and spent an entire day making trips to the store. Milton’s independent spirit and willingness to help his community are inspirational, even to someone like me whose kid days are long behind him.
Tom Bondurant: I’ve been reading a lot of fun stuff this week, including the second Hitman paperback, Kate Beaton’s collection Never Learn Anything From History, Empowered vol. 6, and the Jimmy Olsen backup from next week’s Action Comics. I also re-read Dan Slott and Ty Templeton’s excellent Spider-Man/Human Torch miniseries from a few years back, this time in hardcover form thanks to a sale at the LCS. At that sale I also picked up the collected Avengers: The Korvac Saga. I’m only a couple of issues in, and I have a vague idea of how it all plays out, but so far it’s doing a very slow burn. Right now I think I’m in it mostly for the George Perez pencils.
As for the single issues, I’ve generally been a fan of James Robinson’s work on Justice League of America, but he really took a chance with this week’s spotlight on Donna Troy. He (and Donna) seemed to realize that the old “fight mocking versions of your friends” trick has been pretty played out, so the story wasn’t as bad as it could have been. Still, the issue felt rather perfunctory, like Donna’s 10,000-mile angst checkup. Next time it comes around, maybe she can sing “I Will Survive” while punching out those hateful Kid Flashes and Starfires.
Throughout Jonathan Hickman’s run on Fantastic Four, I’ve felt like I’ve been playing catch-up. At some point I plan to read the whole thing in a few big chunks. Accordingly, this week’s issue offered a good spot to stop and assess the storylines so far. I especially like this issue’s team-up, since it touches on older plots from the Chris Claremont and Mark Waid days.
And speaking of older plots, if I were more of a Nick Fury scholar I could better evaluate the continuity issues raised in Secret Avengers #5—but those aside, it was a neat, occasionally touching look at … well, something that might well have been a mere continuity patch.
Sean T. Collins: I’ll look back on this week as the week I read the comic of the year, I’m pretty sure, but I also re-read an elementary-school landmark and checked out a new publisher’s promising debut. Click the links for full reviews…
The ACME Novelty Library #20 by Chris Ware (Drawn & Quarterly): I can count the number of comics-reading experiences I’ve had that were this emotionally intense on the fingers of one hand. I felt physically stunned by this book. The kind of comic the word “masterpiece” was made for.
Scary Stories Treasury by Alvin Schwartz & Stephen Gammell (HarperCollins): Remember Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark? Chances are good that if you ever read this children’s classic, you damn well do remember it—the stunning black-and-white illustrations from Gammell and the chillingly direct prose from Schwartz are nightmare fodder even now.
The Whale by Aidan Koch (Gaze Books): Cartoonist/publisher Blaise Larmee’s new imprint makes its debut with this flawed but lovely look at loss, distinguished by Koch’s fine pencil art.
Chris Mautner: Super Spy: The Lost Dossiers by Matt Kindt.
This is basically the comics equivalent of a bunch of bonus DVD features, containing various mini-comics, sketches, notes and other ephemera related to the first Super Spy book. I haven’t read that yet, so my enjoyment of this book was limited quite a bit, though not so much that I couldn’t see it’s appeal or enjoy some of the stories on their own.
On the Odd Hours by Eric Liberge
This is the third in a series of French graphic novels that NBM has released about the Louvre museum and how awesome it is. This is my least favorite of the three (my favorite would be Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s Museum Vaults). It’s about a young, surly, deaf man who takes a night job at the Louvre where he has to “awaken” the art work by playing various instruments. There’s a lot of metaphors about how art resonates with us on an inner level, etc., etc., but honestly I found the whole thing rather clumsy and obvious and the main character is such an ungrateful churl that it’s hard to generate any sympathy or interest in him.
Not Quite Dead: Last Gig in Shnagrlig by Gilbert Shelton
This story—about a rock band that gets sent to a far Eastern, fundamentalist country by the CIA (unbeknownst to them) and ends up causing no small amount of political and social unrest—was originally serialized in Mome and was notable for being the first Shelton story to hit the press in a long time. Sadly, I didn’t care for the story when it was first serialized and I don’t much care for the new Knockabout edition, despite the snazzy addition of full color. Shelton’s sense of satire hasn’t really altered much since his hey day in the 60s and 70s and a lot of the jokes he makes hit the same targets he did in stuff like Wonder Wart Hog. Religious fundamentalists are repressed and stupid. The government is run by soulless, stupid bureaucrats who don’t care who they hurt so long as they don’t lose face. The military is filled with uber-macho idiots. Musicians are gullible and stupid. Cadillacs are great cars. And so on and so forth. I suppose all these targets are still valid today, but the problem with Last Gig is not only doesn’t it seem all that trenchant or sharp, it’s not very funny either.
Brigid Alverson: A graphic novel adaptation of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl seems like a great idea, but the execution of Eric Drooker’s version falls a bit flat. The biggest problem, to my mind, is that it was done as animation sequences for the feature film, and much of the art has that smoothly shaded CGI look, like grownup versions of Jimmy Neutron strung out on heroin. There’s simply a terrible clash between the medium and the message. It’s not all like that—Drooker includes some lovely, painterly passages—but the slickness directly contradicts what the poem is all about.
I found the first volume of Van Jensen and Dusty Higgins’s Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer a lot easier to like, although in this case I thought the art was a bit too rough in places. It’s a really clever takeoff on Carlo Collodi’s original story (with some nods to the Disney version), taking the original characters and story and weaving them into a new vampire tale. It all works really well, and I particularly liked the sequences where Higgins used a woodcut style for the art. In the other areas, however, he opts for a coarse screentone that I found made the art harder to read. I would love to see the art redone with a single color, rather than big dots. Other than that, though, it’s a great comic, and I’m looking forward to diving into volume 2.
Coraline (Neil Gaiman)
Recently I’ve been reading a lot of young adult novels. I saw the film version of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline first, so it was hard for me to get the stop-motion puppets and They Might Be Giants songs out of my head, but the book was an incredible YA horror novel with sparse, lovely, well chosen prose. Some of the imagery, as well as part of the premise—an artificial world which appears to be paradise but which is actually an illusion created to entrap you and suck your soul—reminds me of Ramsey Campbell’s 1980s horror novel Incarnate, a classic which I know Neil Gaiman was influenced by, since he also borrowed from it in the early issues of Sandman. Anyway, I’m just saying this as a nerdy compliment because I like Campbell. Gaiman is a great writer, and the book is oh so creepy and charming and lean.
Twilight (Stephenie Meyer)
Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen (Garth Nix)
Both of these were recommended by friends. Twilight is…well, everyone knows what Twilight is. Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy is a YA fantasy series set in a world which mixes World War I-level technology and necromantic, elementalist magic…or rather, they don’t mix, because the magical world and mundane world are separated by miles of barbed wire and a vast wall. It’s mostly about young necromancers/exorcists who defeat Evil Dead-style beasties which roam the world. It’s a great setting and some imaginative fantasy imagery, so it surprised me to find that I actually found Twilight to be more engaging. The thing is, the Abhorsen books are all very basic quest novels in which a character goes from place to place (as foreshadowed on the map on the inside of the front cover) fighting undead along the way and eventually saving the world from the ultimate evil. There’s virtually no characters apart from the main characters, and no character development apart from “Can I grow into the awesome shoes of the mighty responsibility of my fateful heroic destiny blah blah blah”. On the other hand, Twilight actually has characters, and emotions and plot complications which are character-based, rather than involving physical struggles which are hard to get across in a non-visual medium. Of course, Twilight is also absurdly, pathetically shameless wish fulfillment, and it milks the “girl protected by hot boy” fantasy that I’ve seen in hundreds of manga, Shinobi Life being one recent example. So both of them have their flaws, but I’m finding myself more interested in the trashy two-dimensional love-and-relationship pulp of Twilight than the two-dimensional quest of the Abhorsen books…maybe if I’d read them before puberty I’d have answered the other way around.
Peepo Choo (Felipe Smith)
Smith is an amazing artist and storyteller and I can’t wait to see his next work. Peepo Choo with its sex and violence and gleeful stereotype-deconstruction is a great series, but I also feel his rage in MBQ, which ended up as sort of a sketch comedy of disconnected sequences set in Los Angeles, but is also an autobiographical story of a young comic artist burning with passion to do good work without compromising his ideals. Now that Peepo Choo, his first series for a Japanese magazine, has been well-received, I hope he becomes an international superstar. One thing among many which I like about him is his tremendous ability for facial caricature and exaggerated expressions, which isn’t something I normally associate with manga, where artists tend to draw just a few generic facial types, and where facial expressions in dramatic manga often operate on a “less is more” principle (Mayu Shinjo, Hitoshi Iwaaki, etc.).
Graphic Witness: Four Wordless Graphic Novels (Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Giacomo Patri and Laurence Hyde)
A stunning collection of wordless proto-graphic-novels created between 1918 and 1951. All of them have strong working-class, leftist, social-realist themes. I think it’s admirable to tell stories using as few words as possible—wasted dialogue is a sin—so I love what these artists can do with a few well-chosen images. Lynd Ward’s work is especially stunning.
In brief notes, I recently reread all of Rumiko Takahashi’s Maison Ikkoku, an incredibly funny and sweet romantic comedy series which VIZ ought to bring back in print. (I reread it looking for a quote to read at my wedding.) Lastly, for research, I just ordered a copy of Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of its Enemies by Avishai Margalit and Ian Buruma (who I previously knew through his excellent writings on Japan), and a friend loaned me Karen Armstrong’s A History of God.