Welcome to another edition of What Are You Reading?, where every week we talk about the comics, books and other stuff we've been reading lately. Today our special guest is Kim Thompson, co-publisher, editor, translator and AutoChatter at Fantagraphics ... and world traveler, as you'll see below.
To see what Kim and the Robot 6 crew have been reading, click the link ...
The best thing about The Horror, The Horror: Comic Books the Government Didn't Want You to Read by Jim Trombetta is the accompanying DVD containing a 1955 episode of the TV show Confidential File, directed by none other than Irving Kershner of Empire Strikes Back fame. The show is all about the evils of comic book publishing (despite the fact that the comics code had by this point already been established) and panders in the most frothy, exploitative way imaginable, with a lengthy scene of young boys reading a batch of horror and crime comics and then tying up and torturing one of their younger playmates. A Current Affair never tried anything like this.
As for the book, it's a bit of a mess. Trombetta seems more interested in psychoanalyzing the themes and subtext of most of these comics than exploring their history and worth (or unworth as the case may be) as literature, and he does so in a rather agonized, tortured manner. More to the point, he seems content to discuss mainly the covers of these comics and doesn't spend much time talking about the stories found within. All in all, it's a bit of a frustrating read, all the more so for the occasional appearances of genuine insight and spot-on analysis.
Appropriately enough, Frankenstein and the Creatures of the Unknown (written by Jeff Lemire, drawn by Ibraim Roberson) continues a concept which refuses to die. Successfully reproducing the fusion of horror and giddy mayhem which characterized the Grant Morrison/Doug Mahnke Seven Soldiers miniseries, this Flashpoint spinoff casts the monster as a Superman-style inspirational archetype, heading up the WWII-era Creature Commandos. In this case, though, after single-handedly defeating Hitler, he runs afoul of the military's next supernatural-soldier project, and ... well, it's just the first issue; it's mostly prologue. Very entertaining stuff, though, as you might expect from the high concept of "monsters fighting Nazis." Now carry that into the present, add a healthy dose of paranoia, and you've got the makings not just of a diverting three-issue miniseries, but most likely of a promising ongoing series come September.
As it happens, another monsters-fighting-Nazis miniseries started this week, the American Vampire spinoff Survival of the Fittest. Written by the busy Scott Snyder and drawn by the fabulous Sean Murphy, it too is a good introduction to what should be a fine four issues. Our protagonist is Felicia Book, able literally to sniff out vampires (among other things) thanks to her late father's encounter with AV's head villain, Skinner Sweet. Her back story is contrasted against that of Cash McCogan, himself the father of a vampire-infected child who wasn't as lucky as Felicia. In turn, they're both part of a secret anti-vampire society that's uncovered some potentially game-changing information. Anyway, this first issue lays out the world of American Vampire pretty efficiently, mostly through Felicia's encounter with a newspaper editor who's been unwittingly drawn into the vampires' plans. AV:SOTF is therefore reliant on its own paranoid perspective, and that almost spoils the plot before it even gets started. (If Felicia and Cash succeed, the series pretty much loses its reason for being.) However, Snyder and Murphy combine for a no-nonsense, tight-lipped, unflinching mood which makes the reader want to saddle up with Felicia and Cash regardless of the outcome.
Finally, I know Birds Of Prey will continue after Gail Simone leaves, and with current regular artist Jesus Saiz to boot, but this week's issue #13 (drawn by Diego Olmos) is solid evidence it won't be the same. This time it's Black Canary and Dove versus Junior, with the rest of the Birds taking on various henchmen, just to get out of Junior's headquarters alive. Like Saiz, Olmos' work is clear but moody, and he has good layout and pacing skills. Naturally, Simone knows these characters so well by now, they spring pretty much fully-formed from her scripts. Whether it's Black Canary trying to figure out how to hold off Junior while still ministering to Dove, or Huntress and the Question playfully renewing their partnership, the dialogue rings true and the plot proceeds from their motivations. If these are the last few issues of Birds Of Prey I read for a while, it'll be because they can't get much better.
I was really disappointed when I read the first volume of Black Butler. I liked the idea of combining an action story, an attractive hero with superpowers, and a Victorian England setting with touches of refinement. I didn't care at all for the execution, though—I thought the art was sloppy, the story was nearly incoherent, and the side characters, three clumsy servants, were so terrible that they really marred the book. Despite what I think, Black Butler has consistently made the New York Times manga best-seller list—this week there are two volumes on the list, vol. 1 and vol. 5. So, thinking maybe I was missing something, I went back and read the last four volumes, which include a Jack the Ripper story arc that is… incoherent and overacted. I guess there's no accounting for taste, but the extreme popularity of this series continues to elude me.
Much more pleasing was Kevin Keller #1, the first issue of Archie Comics' Kevin Keller mini-series. Kevin is re-introduced to the readers, and the fact that he is gay continues to be treated in a matter-of-fact way. This first issue includes his account of how he came out to his parents and his desire to pursue a career in the military. All this is handled in a very idealized way, but that's Riverdale for you. And there's a goofy segment about a pie-eating contest gone wrong as well.
My reading this past few weeks has been heavily influenced by a trip to Scandinavia to attend a Norwegian comics convention.
(1) Jo Nesbø's latest thriller, The Devil's Star, which I picked up in Copenhagen (in Danish; I thought it would be more faithful to the Norwegian original than the American translation) and which succeeded in making the endless flight back (three stopovers) much, much shorter. Creep-out bonus: Two of the characters meet in the Edvard Munch Museum in Oslo in front of the same painting my wife and I had just stopped at just three days earlier.
(2) The first book of the complete works of Jan Lööf, a Swedish cartoonist whose Felix is a great classic, sort of like a cross between V.T. Hamlin and Kim Deitch, which I'd never had a chance to check out before and which is genuinely amazing.
(3) Xeroxes of the entire upcoming volume of new short stories by the Norwegian cartoonist Jason, Athos in America, which he handed me in Oslo and I am now pretty much the only person in the world to have read—the perks of being a publisher.
(4) An amazing book of illustrated memoirs by the great Norwegian cartoonist Olaf Gulbransson (whose life was chronicled in the graphic novel Olaf G., easily one of the best new European graphic novels of the new millennium), given to me by its Norwegian publisher.
(5) Geniet ("The Genius"), a fascinating new biography of Lars Von Trier which I was reading even as that Cannes controversy erupted, and which shows that he is one genuinely fucked-up dude in addition to being my favorite living (although apparently barely) movie director. Skaal!