What Are You Reading?

Welcome to another fun-filled episode of What Are You Reading?, where the Robot 6 team talks about comics, graphic novels and whatever else we've read recently. I'm filling in for Chris Mautner, who is out of town this weekend.

Today's special guest is Scott Wegener, artist on Atomic Robo, which is published by Red 5 Comics, and Killer of Demons, published by Image.

To see what Scott and the rest of us have been reading, click on through, then tell us what you've been reading in the comments section.

Michael May: I'm reading Strongman from SLG. It's Luchador Noir. LuchaNoir? I'm loving the grittiness of it. It's about a former luchador who's asked to stop a ring of organ-peddlers who may or may not be selling body parts to cannibals. I say "may not be" because the main character's sanity isn't exactly assured. How much of this is just in his head? I'm looking forward to finding out.

I feel like I'd enjoy more of the luchador genre in general if I gave it a chance. I can easily embrace the sillier aspects of it, but it's off-putting to me that people in the stories always seem to take the luchadors so seriously. We're asked to believe that the ridiculous masks are badges of honor that command respect. Strongman plays around with that idea and I appreciate that about it. I'll probably do a longer review for Gorillas Riding Dinosaurs when I'm done so I can think it through some more.

Matt Maxwell

Omega the UnknownJonathan Lethem and Farel DalrympleSomething of a frustrating read. Mr. Lethem wanted to play with many of the elements of the bronze-age superhero (crazy costumes, alien robots, freaky bad guys, freakier "good" guys, life or death combat), but it came across as very emotionally flat. It doesn't help that the main character is basically a high-functioning Ausperger's case, but even the humans around him are simply flatly weird or flatly nerdy or flatly streetwise. There's plenty of WTF moments (as there were in what I read of the original), but they didn't come together in a satisfying manner for me. Gary Panter's sequence about halfway through, however, is sublimely raw and flipped-out, cutting loose in a way that the rest of the series never even came close to.

EC Crime Suspense StoriesFeldstein, Craig, Kurtzman, Wood and othersThere was a time that I was stupid and dismissed Harvey Kurtzman's work, probably on the basis of MAD, as "kinda funny, but not really substantial." I was stupid then. S T U P I D. Recent reading of some archival volumes including The Mammoth Book of Crime Comics opened my eyes to this material in a way that made me realize that yes, I'd been stupid. This volume, which I'm barely halfway through, is a pure revelation of the lean (yet at times gloriously excessive) storytelling style at play in EC's absurdly rich back catalog. Kurtzman's style only looks crude, much like I'd once dismissed Jack Kirby's work on the same basis, but I'd misapprehended strength for crudeness. The stories themselves aren't always great, but the ones that are remind you how much you can really do in seven pages if you want to.

Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban PoorGang Leader for a DaySudhir VenkateshNo, you haven't mis-clicked somehow. I started reading the first of these for research, and found it interesting, but very slow going. Pretty dry, pretty formal, very much an academic document. The second of these, however, is utterly compelling reading, a great piece of ethnography from the projects of Chicago and in the life of the Black Kings street gang. It's research, but it reads like a great story. Also recommended on this tip is Freakonomics, where I'd read a very short excerpt of Dr. Venkatesh's work, as well as a bunch of really interesting and counter-intuitive glimpses into modern economics (really, it's more interesting than that.)

Oh, and something like 70 art samples that I'm going through for the third Strangeways book. There's a lot of surprisingly good work coming into my mailbox, stuff that's cutting into my reading time for sure, but business before pleasure, right?

JK Parkin: AdHouse recently published a collection of stories by Mike Dawson called Ace-Face: The Mod with the Metal Arms. The book includes several short stories about the title character, who was born with no arms, so his uncle created robotic ones for him. The stories focus on his life before he became a superhero, when he was the weird kid with metal arms, as well as after his career has ended and he's teaching college. It also includes two Jack and Max strips, about two brothers who constantly squabble about everything. One can teleport, and the other has telekinesis, so when they squabble, humorous destruction ensues.

I'd recommend the book based on those strips alone, but the ones that I really fell in love with feature Ace-Face's son, Stuart. Unlike the rest of the stories, they don't include anything remotely out of the ordinary -- they're slice-of-life pieces about a guy and his wife dealing with noisy neighbors. They hit particularly close to home for me because I dealt with this exact same situation last Friday night, and the dialogue between Stuart and his wife almost mirrored my own discussions with my wife. In fact, I read it to my wife a couple of nights ago, and she couldn't stop laughing ... hopefully we didn't wake anyone up.

Also this week I received an advance copy of Richard Stark's Parker: The Hunter, the new hardcover by Darwyn Cooke that IDW will release in July. I haven't started reading it yet, but I did want to say that from a design and packaging standpoint, this thing is beautiful. I look forward to reading it this week.

Tom Bondurant: I've been re-reading Fantastic Four from the beginning, partly in order to justify owing all those Marvel Masterworks, and so far I'm through issue #20 (which introduced the Molecule Man). This time around, when I read the Rama-Tut story, I had flashbacks to Avengers Forever; and when I read the Mad Thinker story, I felt better knowing Awesome Andy eventually found a better gig. However, what stood out the most were the digressions. The story would be chugging along nicely, and then it'd stop for the better part of a page while the FF would go off on a Kirby-depicted tangent. "Imagine if X happened! I'd have to do Y! Johnny, you'd be powerless against Z! Ben, not even your strength could stop it/him/them!" Makes me wonder if the Family Guy writers have read these issues.

As for more recent comics, I did like Batman In Barcelona, written by Mark Waid and drawn by Diego Olmos. Essentially, it's a well-done Batman adventure, set in Spain with a little St. George & The Dragon overlay, but hey -- I like well-done Batman adventures. (I especially like the conceit of the Barcelona Batcave.) Waid's terse dialogue is well-suited to the lead character, and he even makes Killer Croc fairly interesting. My only complaint is the ironic use of Bruce's friend to nudge him to do something meaningful with his life. The art is quite good. Olmos' work strikes me as a cross between Phil Hester and Luca Rossi, and thus it too works well for a Batman adventure. Colorist Marta Martinez sets the appropriate moods, from sunny Spanish mornings to a washed-out, rainswept Arkham Asylum. It all comes together nicely on the first page, as the Wayne jet creates a bat-shaped shadow over Barcelona.

I thought the first installment of "Easy Kill," Unknown Soldier's latest arc (written by Joshua Dysart, drawn by Alberto Ponticelli), was very involving. It presents Moses, the title character, with the opportunity to turn global public opinion against his enemies, the L.R.A. Moses doesn't know, though, that the actress/activist he'll have to kill has just arranged to have his wife speak at his memorial service. It sounds very soap-operatic, but it's fairly compelling thanks to the work Dysart and Ponticelli have put into these characters.

Finally, inspired by a comment on the latest Grumpy Old Fan, I'm re-reading DC Challenge and will be discussing it in a future column. So far the miniseries itself is a mess, but the underlying mechanics are pretty intriguing.

Brigid Alverson: I really enjoyed the first two chapters of Children of the Sea, which Viz is publishing online as part of its new Ikki magazine. The art is absolutely gorgeous. The color sequences have a watercolor-like feel, and even in the black and white sequences, Daisuke Igarashi has a real way of bringing you into the scene and making you feel like you’re there, in a seaside village on a summer day. He really creates a sense of place. The story is just starting to unfold, but it obviously has a strong internal logic and I want to know more. This is manga for grownups, and it’s very well done.

In the print realm, I picked up volumes 2 and 3 of Pluto last week, and I’m re-reading volume 1 so I can review all three at once. I love Naoki Urasawa’s books because they set up great characters and promise lots of juicy revelations, although they don’t always deliver on the latter. And I love his art as well—it’s simple but very expressive.

And I just got a review copy of Eric Wight’s Frankie Pickle and the Closet of Doom. This is a very cute hybrid between a chapter book and a comic, with a strong Calvin and Hobbes vibe. Frankie is a junior Walter Mitty; the real-life parts of the book are in prose, and whenever Frankie’s imagination takes over the story shifts to a comic. Wight handles the transitions nicely, and his art is very clean and readable with a bit of a retro style.

Kevin Melrose: I'm a little embarrassed that after I talked up the art of Vasilis Lolos and his guest shot on Vertigo's Northlanders, I somehow forgot to mention Issue 17 in this week's "Can't Wait for Wednesday." It's a shame, really, as it's a wonderful story that showcases the talents of Lolos, series writer/creator Brian Wood and colorist Dave McCaig, as well as the strengths of the series.

Titled "The Viking Art of Single Combat," the standalone tale centers on two champions who battle on a barren beach for the honors of their respective lords, players in a generations-old feud.

Readers have no previous connection with the combatants -- Snorri the Black and Egil the Sledge-Hammer -- something that makes a 22-page fight scene a risky proposition; we're not invested in who wins and who loses. However, Wood uses the concept as an opportunity to educate us about single combat, from the rules of the ritual to the composition and weight of the Viking weapons to less tangible elements, like morality and pride. That, too, can be a bit dicey, as the approach easily can read as if the writer is emptying his notebook, trying to impress us with the amount of research he's done. Wood handles it with great skill, though, using an unnamed narrator to paint a vivid, and savage, portrait of life in this corner of the Viking world.

(I hadn't realized until I was skimming back over the issue just now that while Wood doesn't skimp on details about weapons or combat etiquette, he's purposely vague when it comes to setting: "Northern Europe," "Circa A.D. 790-1100." The lords for whom the warriors fight don't even receive proper names; instead, they're referred to as "the lord to the East" and "the lord to the West." It's an interesting contrast.)

Lolos, with his confident lines and cartoonish-yet-grotesque figures, is perfect for this story. His lone warriors are haggard and fearsome, visibly delighting in the battle yet occasionally wide-eyed in terror. We see the flying sweat and saliva, the shattering teeth and the spray of blood (though not as much of the latter as you might expect). When the Northlanders swing their sword and ax, it's with bold, dark strokes that fill the panels with energy, sometimes breaking violently from the borders. Lolos employs his inks to quieter effect in his landscapes, using splotchy lines to hint at clouds, fog, waves and even crows. They combine to create a sense of desolation.

While Lolos is audacious, colorist McCaig is subdued, using a palette dominated by blues, grays and browns to lend bleakness to an already somber tale. Red doesn't make a noticeable appearance until the final pages, and then with great impact.

It all combines to make what may be the high point for a solid series. I just wish I'd remembered to write about it earlier in the week.

Tim O'Shea: The comics I enjoy reading are more highly valued when I appreciate a moment in a comic. For example, in the latest issue of Incredible Hercules, it was on the opening page, when Athena says to Hercules and Amadeus (who are preparing to go to battle in Hades...through an entrance in a casino...): "The toxins of the Jersey Shore are the strongest potions that I can find to burn away your sins before entering the afterlife." Added bonus, look for an unexpected cameo by Jack of Hearts (and many other dead Marvel characters).

When I was a kid, some of the comics I enjoyed reading were written by Gerry Conway. He left comics to write for television in the early 1990s. And for me, his experience writing episodic television informs his writing--in a good way--as he has returned to comics with the six-issue miniseries, The Last Days of Animal Man. Conway makes good use of Ellen Baker, Buddy's wife, in this story. Ellen and Buddy are still happily married (in this "not-too-distant future" story), and yet they disagree as any couple does. And it's the way Conway structures a disagreement they have that won me over. There are no over the top histrionics, each character just knows how to push certain buttons with their spouse. Here's hoping this series has more family moments like this...along with the expected plot-driving action scenes.

A moment that distracted and annoyed me in a comic this week? And I write this as a lifelong liberal. When writer Joe Kelly had Wolverine fist bump Spider-Man in issue 595 (in a discussion about Norman Osborn), after saying "Patience wins every time...hell, it took eight years t'get the last guy out of office." I understand that many of the event comics at Marvel have been veiled political commentary on some level--fine. But this shot at former President Bush (five months after he was voted out of office) was trite--not a whimsical bit of dialogue--and in fact only served to take me out of the story for a minute--clouding my enjoyment as I read the rest of the issue. Steve Wacker is one of the stronger editors at Marvel, but he did a disservice to the story by not removing or otherwise revising this moment. And am I the only person that, while acknowledging that fist bumps may be sweeping the nation at present, visually finds them unintentionally funny when drawn in comics? In the fist bump's defense, high fives look equally lame in comics.

Paul Dini wrote this week's Brave & Bold Cartoon Network episode (Legends of the Dark Mite!) in which Batman unwillingly teams up with Bat Mite. He provides a great view of myriad DC villains in service of the overall tale. The best part, however, is when Bat Mite conjures up a comic convention to gauge fanboy reaction to a fight the Batmanwages in the episode. On another level, the scene serves as a response to critics of the new Batman show (in comparison to Dini and company's previous shows). I swear in the comic book convention scene, Bruce Timm has a cameo as Joker, but I could be wrong. Stay tuned until the end of the episode for a throwaway tribute to the old Warner Brotherscartoons.

Scott Wegener: I've had the great pleasure this week of finally reading Madman Vol.1. Thank you Image Comics for collecting this impossible to find series into a fat stack of attractive TPBs. I know, it's borderline criminal that I'm just getting to it now. This book has been on my “I should check that out list” since I was in high school. But I could never find #1, and my one attempt to jump blindly into the book a few years ago was frustrating. It was only Mike's appearance at the most recent Boston ComiCon with his wife and colorist Laura that finally got me off my butt and seriously hunting for some issues. I'd already seen enough of Allred's work to know I loved his style, but it was just embarrassing to have never really read the books.

Anyway -HOLY MOLY what a fantastic book! Obviously, a lot of people already know that. What can I say, I'm always late to the party.

It's all about Frank and the people who orbits around him. Madman enjoys a good strong cast of central characters who drive a lighthearted story that doesn't seem to be in any particular hurry to get anywhere. Toss in aliens, monsters, and any sort of random strangeness that you may care to imagine, and you've got yourself a whimsical and charming book that is a rare shot of FUN in the arm of a comic industry that really takes itself too damn seriously most days of the week.

All to often we hear about great Indie books that we just need to check out, yet a lot of the time we never get around to it. I'm sorry that it took me this long to discover the many charms of Madman -though it's nice to know there are a pile of TPBs waiting for me to read now. If there's a book that you've been meaning to pick up but haven't, take my advice. Do it right now.

Captain Raptor and the Space Pirates, by Kevin O'Malley and Patrick O'Brien, isn't a comic, but it is so weird that I can't not talk about it. I bought both Captain Raptor books for my eight-year-old daughter, and she loves them. Imagine the high adventure of Buck Rogers, (the original Buck, not that disco nightmare from the 70's), and combine it with the art of Dinotopia. I'm not going to explain why I love this book. I'm just going to say; Dinosaurs, spacesuits, rocket ships, head lasers, space pirates, and people with names like “Professor Angleopterous” and “Sergeant Brickthorous.”

I think you get the idea.

I discovered this book on DailyScan while following a Google Alert link for my own book. Sites like DailyScan that illegally post portions of books, comics, etc. to the web should be given medals. Because they don't do it out of malice, but out of love. They do it to raise awareness of the things which they love and want to share with the world. What they showed me inspired me to go out and purchase the entire book, and it's companion book as well. Well done, you interweb rebels. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before some corporate jackass who can't see that you're making money for him has your site shut down.

RASL #4. This book is a such a departure from Smith's work on Bone and just as engrossing and entertaining. Jeff Smith's art is always a treat to lay your eyeballs on, and I am really enjoying the more adult story he's presenting here. My only complain is how fantastically slow Smith is.

I stopped collecting Bone around issues #24, took a 10-year break from comics, and when I came back it still wasn't done! RASL seems to be moving at a similarly glacial pace on the production side of things. Yet I already hear talk of a hardcover edition collecting the first three issues. Seriously? WTF is that all about? How about you collect yourself in front of a pile of bristol board and make more comics, Mr. Smith?! I'm begging you. RASL is a fantastic book, and I demand more!

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