What are you reading?

Welcome to another edition of What Are You Reading. Our special guest for this week is Chris Butcher, blogger and manager of The Beguiling in Toronto, generally acknowledged as one of the finest comics shops in North America.

Chris is heading off to Japan and taking quite a lot of books with him. What to know what he's packing? Of course you do. Click on the link to find out ...

[caption id="attachment_13372" align="alignright" width="98" caption="Captain Britian Vol. 2"]


John Parkin: The second Captain Britain and MI13 trade has a lot to like about it. Just the existence of a book that features Captain Midlands, a super solider who helps up the local neighborhood watch, makes the world a better place. And the fact that he's helping the MI13 team try and stop an invasion by a duke of Hell responsible for the Mindless Ones, and then you've got Blade being Blade in a way that actually works within the confines of a book like this, and ... yeah. It sucks this book was canceled.

Matt Maxwell: FANTASTIC FOUR VISIONARIES: WALTER SIMONSON v.1Walter Simonson and many others.They don't make 'em like this anymore, but I wish they did. Great graphic storytelling that favors big adventure bursting off the page. There aren't cool pin-ups substituting for story. Simonson's own rendering is minimal, refusing to get in the way of saying what needs to be said and letting the reader do the rest. The non-Simonson illustrated chapters are a little bulky, a lot wordy but still interesting. But when he gets to draw his own scripts, things go into interstellar overdrive, featuring Galactus at the end of time, trying to consume the entire universe. Guest starring Iron Man, Thor and a host of the more cosmic side of Marvel, this is a great read and leaves me looking forward to book 2. There's going to be a book 2, right?

2001: A SPACE ODDYSEY - Treasury editionJack Kirby and...ah hell, who inked this?I paid seven fifty for this. Oversized Kirby in one of his most incredible assignments ever? This is a no-brainer. Jack Kirby and Stanley Kubrick (and Arthur C. Clarke) all together again for the first time. It's only sorta the movie, in that the script the is the same, but the dynamics and power are all Kirby. I can only imagine Kubrick flipping through this and being repulsed, but for a comic fan, this is a real treasure.

SPECIAL FORCES Kyle Baker and only Kyle Baker.To say that this is off the rails and utterly bonkers is to understate in a painful manner. This isn't realistic. This isn't mannered critique of the war in Iraq. This is crazed, frenzied, over the top so high that it achieves Earth orbit. It's like what MAD would be doing if it had any teeth and had totally lost its mind. God bless Kyle Baker and Image comics for putting this out. There are moments that don't really work for me, like the enemies in chapter two, but the stuff that does work? Stand back and have your mind scrambled and sensibilities offended.

DEAD CITIES Mike DavisIn particular, "Ecocide in Marlboro Country", as research for THE LAND WILL KNOW, the third STRANGEWAYS book. No really. Honestly, the environmental decay brought about in the desolate desert west ties into the haunted west of STRANGEWAYS, but I ain't telling you how just yet. See also the photography of Richard Misrach, specifically "Desert Cantos" for a vision of a landscape that's both hell and earth.

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Brigid Alverson: I got the second volume of Faust from Del Rey this week. Faust is an anthology of fiction, essays, and manga, most of it previously published in Japan in an anthology of the same name. I haven’t dug into the prose works yet, but the manga section is quite interesting. It’s mostly short pieces, a few pages each, in various experimental styles, but there’s a really nice set of sketches of “old dudes,” with commentary, by Katsuhiro Otomo (creator of Akira) and Katsuya Terada. I would be quite happy to see more of these, maybe a slim volume on nicer paper.

I’m also reading vol. 5 of Black Jack. This is Vertical’s edition of Tezuka’s classic stories of an outlaw doctor whose rogue operations violate all the rules of science and medical ethics. It’s classic Tezuka, done in an almost juvenile, cartoony style and chopped up into small panels. Each story turns on a single incident, and the side characters are portrayed in very broad strokes—good and bad are distinguishable at a glance. Although the comics look dated, and Black Jack’s childish companion, Pinyoko, is extremely irritating, the stories do pull you in; like O. Henry with a degree in medicine, he puts a pretty good twist on most of the stories. I need to give Vertical a shout-out on the production values of these stories, too. With creamy white paper, sharp print quality, and sophisticated covers, these books feel important, which has the psychological effect of making me take the stories more seriously than I probably should.

As far as webcomics go, I have been enjoying dipping into the archives of two long-running strips. Teaching Baby Paranoia serves up little vignettes of pseudo-history. Like the false logic of dreams, they are almost plausible—every one is just like the little historical incidents that you run across when doing real historical research. The later strips are heavily annotated, which adds to the surreal feeling. The other comic I’m reading lately is Piled Higher & Deeper, which takes a wry look at the foibles of grad-student life. It’s basically a very topical gag-a-day strip, but because I come from a family of academics, and did two stints in grad school myself, I’m totally getting a kick out of it.

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Michael May: I thought about doing a full review of Skelebunnies, but I think you can go to hell for that. I love Tommy Kovac's work so much that I want to go easy on him and call Skelebunnies "naughty," but that would be a lie. It's offensive and wrong. It's also very funny and disturbingly alluring.

I kept thinking about the book in between readings; wondering what Kovac was going to do next and being kind of fidgety until I could sit down with it again to see. The whole experience reminded me of that SNL skit (I think it had Tom Hanks in it) where this family keeps passing around a carton of rancid milk for each other to sniff. "OH! This is GROSS! Here, smell this!" Only it's just me sitting there, grossing myself out; continuing to sniff away.

I also read Alan Moore's Writing for Comics this week. I like the approach Moore takes. As he says in the book, it's not "How to Write Comics the Alan Moore Way." There's little, if any, practical advice about craft or scripting. It's more of a challenge to spend time thinking about your story before you write it. He doesn't tell you HOW to think, but he does spend a great deal of time on WHAT you should be thinking about. It's not at all a reference book that you'd refer to over and over again, but it is something that every comics writer (or really any writer) ought to read at least once.

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Tom Bondurant: It was a good week for me as far as the superhero serials go. By and large I've been enjoying the "New Krypton" mega-arc in the Superman books, but the various titles have been throwing so many characters and subplots at me I've sometimes had trouble getting attached to any of them. Action Comics Annual #12 (written by Greg Rucka, drawn by Pere Perez) went a long way towards fixing that, connecting a number of dots via the intertwined origins of the new Nightwing and Flamebird. Rucka's use of third-person narration was an added bonus, not only facilitating exposition but setting the proper mood in a way the usual first-person captions wouldn't have been able to. I was unfamiliar with Pere Perez's work before this, but it reminds me of Jesus Saiz, albeit with a thinner line. Anyway, the story skillfully weaves together Brainiac's abduction of Kandor, the "Red Son" arc (which, coincidentally, also involved a couple of Action Annuals), and Supergirl's origin, to build the bond between Chris Kent and Thara Ak-Var. However, it's more than just a continuity quilt -- I thought it worked pretty well on its own, considering I didn't know much about either character going into the issue.

Similarly, Supergirl #42 (written by Sterling Gates, pencilled by Jamal Igle, inked by Jon Sibal) wraps up "Who Is Superwoman?" by pitting Supergirl (who saw her die) against her sister Lois Lane. Other stuff happens -- villains kill people, for example -- but I was impressed with how Gates, Igle, and Sibal justified both Supergirl's defense of her actions and Lois' anger at them. I got the sense that Supergirl knew what she was doing, and considering how the character has been portrayed since her revival, that's saying a lot.

I picked up Power Girl #2 (written by Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, drawn by Amanda Conner) on a whim. I thought issue #1 was a little too talky, and was curious to see if issue #2 improved. I think the issue was decent, but I'm still looking for improvement. This time out, we get the origin of the Ultra-Humanite -- maybe even for the first time, because his real name turns out to be a mash-up of "Siegel" and "Shuster" (his creators, natcherly). Yadda yadda yadda, he's a child prodigy with a mysterious brain disorder, so he's forced to use mad science to transplant his brain into a giant white gorilla. This would be fine, except that it apparently doesn't take into account the U-H's career as a Golden Age villain. Was it really possible to know that much about the brain in the 1920s and '30s? Maybe that's been taken out of continuity; I dunno. My other complaint with the issue is that Power Girl spends most of her part in it bound and gagged, strapped into Ultra's machine and forced to listen to his origin. Thus, I have mixed feelings about the issue: the creative team has executed well, but the story is starting to get a little shaggy.

The Brave and the Bold #24 (written by Matt Wayne, drawn by Howard Porter) was a fun done-in-one teaming Black Lightning and Static. Actually, it felt more like a Static story co-starring Black Lightning, and I mean that as a compliment. The original Static stories gave Virgil Hawkins a great, distinct voice, and that came through very well here. There is a bit of "first they fight," grounded in BL's "sellout" role as Lex Luthor's Secretary of Education, but the eventual reconciliation doesn't feel forced. I was apparently one of the few people who liked Howard Porter on JLA, so I liked his work here too.

Finally, Streets Of Gotham #1 featured an ambitious lead story and an excellent backup. The lead (written by Paul Dini, pencilled by Dustin Nguyen, inked by Derek Fridolfs) winds its way, Family-Circus-like, through a plot involving Harley Quinn, Tommy "Bruce Wayne" Elliott, a teenage runaway, Firefly, and Black Mask. It has potential, and the art is as good as ever, but for now I'm not sure where it is headed.

Much more focused is "Manhunter" (written by Marc Andreyko, pencilled by Georges Jeanty, inked by Karl Story). It efficiently re-introduces Kate Spencer as Gotham's new district attorney, establishes her relationship to Commissioner Gordon, and sets up her dual role as prosecutor by day, bone-crunching vigilante by night. Her first case, of course, involves finding the old D.A.'s killer. I think Jeanty and Story are new to this character, and their style is a lot less moody than previous Manhunter artists, but it's a good fit regardless -- maybe like Art Adams crossed with Gene Ha...? Colorist Nick Filardi is good too, giving everything a washed-out watercolor look while helping give the figures weight and dimension. Again, the main story wasn't bad, but if it catches up to the co-feature, this could be one of DC's best superhero books.

Otherwise, I'm traveling this weekend, taking along The Complete Peanuts 1969-70, Blazing Combat, the first Hitman paperback, and Fantastic Four Masterworks Vol. 9.

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Tim O'Shea: I agree with Tom's praise of Manhunter, but would hope in terms of dialogue that Kate Spencer never again references herself as DA being like a "red shirt" on "Star Trek". Really, you opt for a line like that in your first press conference as DA? It's a hiccup, in an otherwise strong story, but it really rankled me.

I'm sad to see Jeff Parker and Tom Fowler's Mysterius miniseries come to an end with issue 6. I hope Parker's plea ("It became obvious that most people who knew of this book planned to tradewait it early on, so it’s real life is going to happen in February (I know, I know) when the trade comes out. The inverse math on this boggles my mind -- I think it’s easily one of the best books I’ve been involved with, and easily one of the least read.") is heard and that all you tradewaiters buy the book in February. I want these characters to return--and I agree that it is one of Parker's best efforts to date.

Last, but not least, I am in Stern Heaven this week, with Roger Stern writing one of the stories in Captain America 600 and the 70th Anniversary One-Shot of Young Allies (the latter is also a visual treat with Paulo Rivera on art).

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Chris Mautner: Though I didn't get to go to MoCCA this weekend, I did ask Jog to pick up one or two books for me while he was there, one of which was Pushwagner's Soft City, a book I had raved about in my preliminary guide to the show. It's exactly as good as I had hoped it would be -- a hallucinatory, multi-layered mirror show that trades upon the cliches of cookie-cutter middle class life to create something really extraordinary. You know how when you were at the barber shop or tailor's as a kid, and if you looked at the mirrors the right way it seemed as though there were infinite rooms of you getting a haircut or trying on clothes? Soft City is kind of like that, only with a sly bit of comedy and intelligence showing through.

Unfortunately, the only place you can buy the blasted thing is this site, which doesn't seem to deal in American currency. Either that or you'll have to wait until next year's MoCCA. If you can get your hands on it though, you definitely should.

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Chris Butcher: It’s a little funny that I was asked to share what I’m reading this week, I feel like I’ve read fewer comics in the past few weeks than anytime in the last few years. Y’see, I’m getting ready for a trip to Japan in just a few hours—actually I stopped in the middle of packing to write this—and I feel like all of my time lately has been spent packing, planning, and booking stuff. But, luckily for you reader, I’m not going to bore you with my opinion of the Frommers or Lonely Planet guides to Tokyo. It turns out I have been reading some stuff of interest, and I hope it inspires you to go out and track down some copies for yourself.

Probably the book I’ve referred to more than any when it comes to finding cool things to see and do in Japan is Cruising The Anime City: An Otaku Guide to Neo Tokyo by Patrick Macias and Tomohiro Machiyama, and published by Stone Bridge Press. It’s chock-full of information on the best places to go and the best things to do if you’re a fan of manga, anime, idols, film, or anything else otaku. Macias and Machiyama are hardcore too, so it’s no light-weight overview like many of the more recent guides being released to market. This thing has floor maps of Nakano Broadway—the shopping mall that’s 4 floors of otaku goods—and a street map of internationally recognized Akhibara: otaku ground zero. It’s funny though, I bought this thing for the maps, the diagrams, the seemingly intricate information on how to pierce the language, culture, and mystique of Japanese society... but as the book ages, those maps become more and more out of date. Instead, it’s the essays about the whys and wherefores of the culture that provide the true illumination. To mangle a metaphor, the maps might show you where the fish are, but it’s the rest of the package that tells you why fishing is AWESOME in the first place. Anyone interested in one day travelling to Japan should pick up a copy of this and read it through, it’s quite good. I might never have found the Ramen Museum without it.

Speaking of Ramen, my current favourites in manga are the Oishinbo volumes by Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki, being published by Viz. This is a 7 volume ‘best of’ edition collecting stories from the over 100 volumes of Oishinbo that have been published to date in Japan, with each volume centered around a different aspect of Japanese food. Of the three volumes released so far, Volume 1 is an overview of Japanese cuisine, volume 2 is a guide to Sake, and volume 3 explains all about Gyoza (Japanese dumplings) and Ramen. I’m a sucker for food-related comics anyway, with Iron Wok Jan and Lucy Knisley’s work being some of my favourites, and Oishinbo is a pretty spectacular series. High melodrama mixed with a detailed history of food, how it’s made and how to eat it; father and son battle for the true soul of Japanese cuisine and inform and entertain along the way. It certainly doesn’t hurt going to Japan in a few days with a much greater knowledge of their food culture, and a huge appetite for the food thanks to the mouth-watering descriptions on the page.

...and it wouldn’t be a roundup of the manga I’m reading without mentioning that Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys and Pluto, both being released by Viz, are probably the very best serial comics being published right now... even though they were originally published quite a few years ago in Japan. If you like serial fiction in general (Comics, LOST or BSG, that sort of thing) and don’t feel like all of your comics need superheroes in ‘em, then get thee to the comic book store and pick up a copy of one... or both... of these great series, you won’t regret it.

Meanwhile, Scott Dunbier at IDW was nice enough to send me an advance copy of Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter, adapted and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke. This one is slugging it out with David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp for the title “the most anticipated original graphic novel of the year,” and with very good reason: it’s great. I have no familiarity with the original material and I’ve got no special affection for the genre (hard boiled crime fiction), but man, is this a great read. Darwyn’s art in this is incredibly fresh, and the storytelling is thoughtful and well-orchestrated. The version I have is an uncorrected proof, and I think I heard that the whole thing is going to be in a slightly different—and slicker—colour and presentation in the final edition. Make sure to keep an eye out for this one in late July.

The last two books I’ve got, I’ve actually been saving for the plane-ride to Japan. It’s 14 hours or so from Toronto, and despite a wealth of electronic diversions for the flight sometimes you just want a good book or two. First up, I got my hands on an early copy of Daisuke Igarashi’s Children of the Sea, coming any day now from Viz. The series is currently being serialized at Viz’s new mature manga magazine website. Even though I don’t mind the interface for their online manga reader, after reading the first chapter online I kinda knew that I was going to want to hold this one in my hands, so into the carry-on luggage it goes. Finally, my friend Stacy King, marketing director for Udon’s Kids Manga Line, picked me up a copy of the much-discussed Stitches: A Memoir... advance copy by David Small. It’s coming this September and the advance buzz on this thing has been huge, I’m quite looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about.

Of course, there are literally dozens of other books lying around the room here, stuff I should’ve been reading, or meant to read, and then haven’t. But I bet after 3 weeks in Japan, surrounded by amazing, mind-blowing comics that I won’t be able to read even a page of, I’m sure I’ll be raring to sink my teeth into some great English-language comics as soon as I get back...!

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