Happy Father’s Day and welcome to What Are You Reading?, where each week we talk about what comics and other stuff have been on our reading piles. Today’s guests are two of the contributors to Skullkickers #18, which features several “Tavern Tales” short stories by different creative teams. Joining us today are Charles Soule of 27, Strange Attractors and Strongman fame, and Aubrey Sitterson, winner of the Skullkickers Tavern Tales Contest. He’s also the writer of Gear Monkey for Double Feature Comics and community manager for WWE Games.
To see what Charles, Aubrey and the Robot 6 crew have been reading, click below.
The Bus by Paul Kirchner — This is a collection of strips that originally ran in Heavy Metal magazine back in the late ’70s and (I think) early ’80s. As the title suggests, it’s about a bus, and the middle-aged, balding man that continually waits for it. Kirchner takes a surreal approach to the material, however, playing with the format and expectations. A bus runs over a bug, but then a giant bug squashes the bus. The bus blows a tire, and the entire bus deflates. The man leaves the bus, walks up the stairs into his room and finds … he’s back on the bus. And so forth. What makes these strips work — and they do work, quite well, actually — is a) Kirchner’s deadpan approach, and b) his cinematic, storyboard approach, slowly teasing the action out until the joke becomes apparent. I could easily see these strips being adapted into, say, short cartoons, though I think they work exceedingly well as comics, and I’m glad for the opportunity to be introduced to this material.
Wowee Zonk by various — This is an anthology of Canadian artists published by Koyama Press. The work in here varies pretty wildly from the excellent to the really awful. Among the highlights are a two-page “Blobby Boys” strip by Alex Schubert, a seemingly nonsensical but nevertheless disturbing piece by Adam Buttrick, a lovely examination of Islamic iconography by Andrei Georgescu and a fantasy journey-style strip by Chris Kuzma. These exemplary pieces made the bad stuff easier to tolerate.
Tales Designed to Thrizzle #8 by Michael Kupperman — A pretty solid issue overall, the best and funniest part being the opening segment, a parody of coloring books, this time involving trains that … well, it’s not fit for polite conversation, really. There’s also an amusing Murder, She Wrote parody that paints poor old Jessica Fletcher as a homicidal monster, and the deliciously weird “Moon 69” story, which was serialized on Fantagraphics’ website. The only dud in the bunch is a famous soldier that used his sword like a scythe that really overstays its welcome. Otherwise it’s all good.
I ashamedly admitted in this week’s Food or Comics that I’m a late-comer to the Brian Wood oeuvre, but I’m correcting that with The Massive. I’m a sucker for sea-adventure stories and was especially looking forward to seeing Wood bring his reputation and sensibilities to that genre. As expected, he’s filled his boat with fascinating characters, dangerous pasts and suspicious motivations. The mystery of the missing, titular ship is compelling in itself, but it’s also interesting because these particular characters -– this environmentalist crew, most of them former mercenaries and alleged terrorists -– are so dedicated to solving it. It’s an enthralling, deadly mix. And then the pirates show up.
For his part, artist Kristian Donaldson has created a look for this world that’s every bit as engrossing as Wood’s story. I was hooked by the second and third page spread revealing the detailed, sleek, lethal profile of the Kapital, the main characters’ ship. And those characters are no less sleek and lethal. They’re all gorgeously interesting and believably fit, and I want to spend a lot more time watching them kick ass and distrust each other as they hunt down their lost sister ship.
Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy Planetoid as much, though it includes space pirates; another weakness of mine. It starts off awesomely with the main character’s crash landing on a mysteriously deserted, industrial planet. Writer/artist Ken Garing creates an excellent mood as his grizzled, but hardy main character explores the landscape with limited, but cool supplies and weapons. By the time he was fighting a giant, robotic serpent, I figured I was hooked. It’s too bad that the final seven pages are so exposition-heavy and set up a plot that limits the story’s potential rather than opens it up. I don’t know what Garing’s long-term plans are for Planetoid, but for a while anyway it sounds like he’s going to focus on something I’m not that interested in. I’ll keep my ears open for signs that the series has moved past that and into more exciting territory, but for now I’m going to leave it alone.
Back on a positive note, I enjoyed the first couple of issues of Saucer Country and am looking forward to seeing where Paul Cornell and Ryan Kelly take that. I’m a big fan of Kelly already and generally like where Cornell’s head is at, so I have hope that Saucer Country turns into the big, alien-conspiracy thriller that it promises. For the first time in forever I shuddered rather than giggled at a reference to an anal probe, so it’s already changing how I think about the genre. That’s an excellent sign.
Not comics, but appropriately enough for Father’s Day, I’ve been reading Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein. Basically it’s an exploration of all the messages, overt and otherwise, visited upon young girls by “the new girle-girl culture.” This includes things like the Disney Princesses (which initially had to circumvent a particular anti-crossover policy), Twilight, and “Toddlers & Tiaras.” However, there’s also a brief section on superheroes, prompted by daughter Daisy’s summer spent as Wonder Woman. Orenstein tried to see if Daisy would like other superheroines, but both were apparently turned off by Hawkgirl’s too-big (for an action figure, I presume) breasts and by Supergirl’s bare midriff. (“Sometimes girl superheroes show their belly buttons,” Daisy mused. “I don’t know why.”) In a bit of research that didn’t ring true to me, Orenstein also characterized Big Barda as “defend[ing] her milquetoast husband” and “prefer[ring] housewifery to crimefighting.” I can see where she might have gotten that impression, but I would have urged her to dig deeper. To make a long story short, when school starts back up Daisy puts away her Amazonian gear, because all her friends want to play princesses — but of course, as Orenstein notes wryly, Diana is herself a princess. Overall CAMD is a fascinating survey not just of various marketing schemes, but also of different theories and perspectives on what may or may not be helpful and harmful. I’ve got a couple more chapters to go, but it’s already been quite the eye-opener.
However, it means I still haven’t read all of this week’s comics. I did want to mention Amazing Spider-Man #687 (written by Dan Slott, drawn by Stefano Caselli), the conclusion of “Ends of the Earth.” Unlike last fall’s New-York-centered “Spider-Island,” “EOTE” has taken place almost entirely away from Spidey’s usual haunts, has put him in a more high-tech, armored outfit, and has teamed him up with globetrotters like Black Widow and Silver Sable. If this were a Batman story it’d feature Ra’s al Ghul, and it probably would have taken place in the mid-1980s. (In fact, now that I think about it, it reminds me of Mike Barr and Trevor von Eeden’s “Messiah of the Crimson Sun” in 1982’s Batman Annual #8….) So it was already a departure from the regular Spidey model, but I was OK with that. On balance it was a good, suspenseful battle of wits between Spidey and Doc Ock, and it used Spidey’s superhero connections and Avengers membership effectively. Accordingly, my problem with it was the ending, which — SPOILER ALERT — ties into Slott’s ongoing theme of “nobody dies.” Well — SPOILER ALERT, STILL — in this issue, apparently someone does die … but it happens off-screen, and because it’s supposed to affect Spidey more than anyone else, it’s presented almost indirectly. In other words, because Spidey tells us this person is dead, our reaction to it depends entirely on his reaction — and his reaction doesn’t really sell it. Personally, I didn’t buy the inevitability of this person’s death (although, to be fair, things weren’t looking good), and the end of the issue practically cries out for some sort of near-future reversal. I mean, going back to Batman, Stephanie Brown looked a lot more dead, and she got better. I still like Slott’s Spidey, but this one just turned out clunky.
Finally, I’ve moved into the new volume two of “Knightfall” (yes, more Batman), which reprints just about all of the Jean-Paul Valley Batman stories from 1993-94. It’s pretty entertaining stuff, written by Doug Moench and Chuck Dixon and penciled by the likes of Graham Nolan, Mike Manley and Vince Giarrano, and so far J-P hasn’t gone around the bend. Right now I’m two-thirds of the way through a Catwoman crossover (with the Catwoman issue written by Jo Duffy and penciled by Jim Balent), which is typical of the book in that once Selina figures out it’s not the original Batman under the pointy new armor, she has virtually no use for him. (For his part, J-P finds himself having wet dreams about her and then analyzing them clinically, which is pretty hilarious.) Even the people trying to take the new Batman seriously, like Gordon, the Mayor and Montoya, are having trouble. (Well, not the Mayor, but he’s probably still in shock after “Knightfall” had him tortured by the Joker and Scarecrow.) Bruce Wayne is nowhere in these pages, because he was having his own adventures in other (unreprinted) books, so there’s not much indication he’s ever coming back; and that makes these new, strained relationships even more interesting. In short, there’s a surprising amount of substance in these stories, although it’s not what you might have expected.
Fantastic Four #607: This issue by writer Jonathan Hickman caused me to realize a few things. The writer is running out of steam (or at least he is in this issue) as evidenced by his use of the Black Panther (and the normally interesting dynamics of Wakanda). I mean, when I am reading a story involving Black Panther, Storm and the Fantastic Four, I should not be bored. And yet I was. Also, in reading this particular Black Panther/FF dynamic, I realized that I missed Dwayne McDuffie again. His use of Panther (and Storm) in his all-too-short FF run was exquisite. Hickman’s Black Panther? Not so much.
Dial H #2: It’s the simple things that please me with this project. As my pal Dugan Trodglen pointed out to me the other day, this issue features some great Dial H character names, including heroes like”Pelican Army” and “Hole Punch.” Half the success of those characters are the names (thanks to writer China Mieville), but the deal closer on that entertaining aspect is Mateus Santolouco’s costume designs.
The Shade #9: Much noise should be made for the outstanding artwork produced by Frazer Irving in this issue. But the highlight of the read is when Shade is attacked by multiple villains (almost all whom are easily defeated), and suddenly a group of ninja leap from the ceiling to attack him. Writer James Robinson deadpans the hilarious Shade reaction of “Oh, ninjas.” I continue to appreciate how Robinson injects his humor into this miniseries.
The Last Caress and Other Stories is Sam Costello’s last Split Lip anthology, and he is going out with a bang. Costello writes short, thought-provoking horror stories that are illustrated by different artists. Horror is such a popular genre that you would think there would be no new ideas left, but Costello’s stories are original and usually have a bit of a twist. Sometimes you can see it coming, sometimes you can’t, but either way, they are satisfying. The anthology format is nice because it gives the reader a break‹you can go from the high-key “Cured,” a gruesome story about a serial killer with a twist, to “Straw Gods,” which is more understated and is drawn in a simple, eye-pleasing style (although it has bloody horror at its core too). Costello includes a lot of nice little extras in the book‹commentary on the stories, bits of the script, and character sketches. It’s a nice swan song for a great series.
I also read Harbinger #1, and I have to agree with what a lot of people are saying about the art: It doesn’t reach the level of the story. The backgrounds and settings are fine, but the faces of the characters are off-putting — blobby and formless, with tiny, puckered mouths and dead eyes. Part of the problem is a mix of line art and smooth gradients, something I commented on recently with regard to other comics; the lines and the shading don’t work together at all. This is important because Peter Stanchek, the main character, isn’t particularly likable, and giving him an ugly face makes it worse. Stancheck has the power to control the minds of others, and in this first issue he uses it to steal drugs and money and get a girl to sleep with him (he expresses a bit of remorse for that, but not much). On the other hand, I thought the art in the opening sequence, where Toyo Harada meets the Bleeding Monk, was pretty good, but the writing left me cold — here is this dramatic thing that happens with no explanation whatsoever, and then we move on. Despite these flaws, I’m interested enough in the story to want to keep going with the series for at least the next couple of issues.
I’ve been on kind of a super-humongo Morrison kick lately–re-reading both his runs on New X-Men as well as JLA via super-cheap digital versions on Comixology–so I recently dove back into the first Seaguy series. I remember reading some of it when it originally came out, but while I remember popping for specific panels and absolutely loving Cameron Stewart’s artwork throughout, the series as a whole left me kind of cold. Since it originally came out, however, I’ve read a lot more Morrison, maybe more importantly, the entire Kirby Fourth World Saga, which, for me, worked as a tremendously effective key to understanding Morrison’s oeuvre, so I’m already enjoying Seaguy a lot more this time around.
I also recently read the first volume of Bakuman and absolutely loved it. I’ve got a tricky relationship with manga, as oftentimes, the pacing, humor and manga-specific tropes just don’t work for me. But even though Bakuman is done by the team behind the massively popular shonen manga Death Note, and certainly has its fair share of over-the-top, teenage melodrama, it gets bonus points for being a slightly meta look at what goes into becoming a manga creator in Japan. While there are massive differences between the path to becoming an American comics creator, it’s still an invigorating work to dive into, especially as an aspiring comics creator myself.
Finally, on the prose front, I’ve been rereading one of my favorite wrestling biographies (yes, I’ve read enough to have several favorites), Brody: The Triumph and Tragedy of Wrestling’s Rebel. The book is a phenomenal look at Bruiser Brody, a guy who was arguably one of the biggest and most popular wrestlers in the country in the late ’70s and early ’80s, but has largely receded from fandom’s collective memory due to the fact that he never worked in Vince McMahon Jr’s WWF/WWE, seeing as he was stabbed to death in a Puerto Rican locker room in 1988. If you have any interest in the history of professional wrestling, this book’s a fantastic way to familiarize yourself with that over-the-top, bizarre, sometimes-dangerous world.
The Massive #1
I’m a big fan of Brian Wood’s work, and when I heard that he was going to be dipping back into the post-decline world he used for his epic series DMZ, but with an environmental spin, I was there with bells on. The Massive sets up a world reeling from a series of natural disasters, apparently caused by mankind kicking the planet’s balance severely out of whack for just too long. The main characters are the crew of a ship with what seems like a militant Greenpeace-type agenda, searching for their lost sister ship, the titular Massive. The world-building is absolutely stellar, with backmatter in this first issue really helping to layer out the world, and Kristian Donaldson’s art is about as perfect as you could want. Plus, they end up in a flooded Hong Kong at the end of the first chapter, and that’s one of my favorite cities in the world. Couldn’t be more on board for this series.
I recently finished this novel from Zack Parsons, a writer I had previously known only through his comedy writing on the website somethingawful.com. He tends to take weird tangents with his articles on that site; it’s not all dick jokes (although he can certainly come up with those when the occasion warrants). He somehow manages to layer in alternate history, technology writing, politics, horror and many other unlikely subjects into the stuff he does for somethingawful, and so when I saw that he’d written his first novel I decided to give it a spin. I read constantly, and I (try to) read everything, and this was honestly one of the most original and affecting stories I’ve found in a very long time. It’s science fiction, horror, noir and old west action all bundled into one (but in a good way – this isn’t Cowboys & Aliens.) Summarizing the plot won’t do it justice, but I’ll say that it’s about a man who learns how to live forever, and all of the terrible and beautiful things that come from that discovery (mostly terrible, though.) Great read.
I also greatly enjoyed Stephen King’s latest Dark Tower installment, The Wind Through the Keyhole, a new translation of the classic 70s Russian sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic, and B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth The Long Death. The title’s a little long, but the story wasn’t — only three issues, and a classic example of lean and mean storytelling paired with SPECTACULAR art. Lots of amazing new stuff to read out there right now.