Hello and welcome to Wha Are You Reading? Today our special guest is illustrator, photographer, writer, filmmaker and jazz musician Dave McKean, whose works include Cages, Mr. Punch, Signal to Noise, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth, Violent Cases, Coraline and many, many more. He has a new book with writer Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True, coming out in October, as well as a graphic novel called Celluloid coming out from Fantagraphics in June. Special thanks to Chris Mautner for asking him to participate this week.
To see what Dave and the Robot 6 crew have been reading, click below ...
It's rare that I read a periodical issue anymore, but as I said in this week's Food or Comics? I'm making an exception for Alpha Flight. As much as I hate the nonsensical 0.1 numbering, the introductory issue to Fred Van Lente and Greg Pak's series was mostly what I hoped for. Guardian is worrying, Vindicator's mothering, Aurora's heart-breaking, Northstar's scowling, and Sasquatch is having a grand old time (though he's drawn slightly off-model by Ben Oliver). Snowbird is suitably alien (and has added some cool animals to her usual menagerie of shape-changing forms) and Shaman is calmly confident.
The only characters I didn't recognize as being themselves were Purple Girl (Woman, now) and Marrina. I'm sure that there are reasons for both of those changes though. Purple Woman's violent protest of an election could be an act of desperation motivated by knowledge of the fascist political party that's about to take over Canada. Whatever it is, she's certainly found a cool, new way of using her mind-control power.
We'll have to wait and see what's happened to Marrina, though I'm certain that being murdered by her husband a couple of times and genetically manipulated by the Green Goblin has something to do with it. I miss the innocence of Marrina as John Byrne introduced her, but maybe Van Lente and Pak have a journey they want to take her on and I'll be happy with the end result.
I also recently read the first Secret Avengers collection, Mission to Mars. I've been interested in this team because some of my favorite Marvel characters are on it: Black Widow, Valkyrie, and (not appearing until the next collection) Shang Chi. Ed Brubaker takes them on an enjoyable, high-concept adventure to Mars to fight an evil organization set on getting its hands on the Serpent Crown (a serendipitous objective since I'm also currently working my way through the Atlantis Attacks Omnibus). My complaint is that the plot moves too fast to spend any time on the characters, most of whom could be switched out for any other, similarly-powered hero without affecting the story. That's forgivable in an introductory tale, but I'm hoping that it changes in future installments.
Finally, I read Vera Brosgol's Anya's Ghost from First Second. I might should have led with this one, because it was easily the most enjoyable, surprising comic I've read lately. I expected sort of a First Second spin on the classic manga plot of a plucky, but unpopular girl who learns the true meaning of friendship thanks to a supernatural companion. That's nothing like Anya's Ghost though. For one thing, Anya isn't plucky. She isn't even very likable at the beginning of the story. She resents her Russian heritage to the point of being mean to the one other Russian kid in her school (it brought American Born Chinese to mind, but it's done in a very different way) and her only friend is a smoke-buddy who's just as mean-spirited as Anya is.
Anya's relationship with her ghost is as dysfunctional as the rest of her life. I don't want to spoil anything, so I won't go into detail, but it's darker than similar stories in the genre. Not that the entire novel is dark. Characters change and grow in positive ways, but any positivity at the end is felt more keenly because of what they had to go through to get there. Highly recommended.
So, I read Batman & Robin #23, which is weird because I had promised myself I'd stay away from the Batman books until they've all calmed down a little. But there was something about the variant cover with Jason Todd's clever little smirk and a quick flip through that got me hooked in for some reason. And I'm glad it did, because this issue made sense and my mediocre knowledge of current Bat-Dramas allowed me to enjoy the start of a murderous tale. The Red Hood in his entirety is kind of ridiculous, and there's a nod to that there, Mr. Winick admitting all of this "metaphysical bullcrap" is kind of silly and then delivering on a tale anyways. Comics, be ridiculous, just understand that you are and I'll follow you anywhere.
Speaking of ridiculous, I bought and gleefully took home the X-Men: Age of Apocalypse Prelude trade, which collects the Legion Quest story and several others that end in a big messy crystalline To Be Continued. Man, this story is ridiculously melodramatic, but moves the story quickly when you just understand that people are going to stand arms akimbo or just outright declare expository dialogue, but hey! All of this is going somewhere super-fast so maybe we need to explain somethings on the run? The extras in the back are fun as the house ads for the Age of Apocalypse were pretty compelling. It's old and rough around the edges, but there is totally something to old '90s X-Men comics that I'm just not sure can be replicated in this day and age.
Lastly but certainly not least...ly, I kept having to check the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #661 because it read like an issue of Avengers Academy. Not surprising, thanks to Christos Gage's handiwork, but I also kept having to check my room for listening devices because this is an issue of Spider-Man that might have been stolen from my brain. The first clue was the Peter Parker's longing to return to his teaching days, a plot point I always felt should have had more time in the comics. Next, he's talking with the kids at Avengers Academy, an interaction that is expertly timed for comedy and experience. Yeah, this is Spidey's book but these kids are trained by Avengers. The last was the heartfelt explanation behind Spider-Man's mask that, no matter how scared you are, no matter how many of your fears pile up in front of you, you should always keep fighting. If not for yourself, then you fight for the memory of your loved ones who carry you through the hard times. With a couple of punch-up pages, Christos Gage is my personal hero once more as he has written just the Amazing Spider-Man comic I had been longing to read.
Also, he just ended the idea of Fear Itself, so go home, everyone! And I was so looking forward to that Thing-Hulk-Thor dust-up...
Alpha Flight #0.1: I gave special event comics a pretty hard knock last week, no doubt. So our readers might be confused to see me praise a book spawning out of the current Fear Itself series. The return of Alpha Flight (the original line-up) is only feasible thanks to the last Marvel special event (Chaos War). This point one issue is a prelude to an eight-issue miniseries that launches in early June (CBR previewed the first issue last week). Looking at the history of Aurora, the characters go-to aspect in past writers' approach was to portray her as suffering from dissociative identity disorder. I am pleased to see the current writers (Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente) seem to be moving away from using her as a mental health foil, having sought therapy. It's also pleasing to see Northstar's homosexual life not being ignored in this issue.
The Spirit #14: A solid done-in-one story that indirectly pays tribute to Kirby, Gil Kane and Wally Wood, written by Matt Sturges with art by Victor Ibanez. This is one of those issues where, while I don't normally read The Spirit, I was glad I bought it. Namely, Sturges writes a scene that allows the characters into the sewers of Central City. This mere transition scene allows Ibanez to do a very Eisner-influenced layout.
Thunderbolts #157: Writer Jeff Parker fooled me with the last issue's cliffhanger in many ways. And that's revealed quickly as this issue opens. Normally I don't like being fooled, but the surprises he throws into the mix were entertaining. I am particularly intrigued by the seeds he is planting with Ghost and Juggernaut's character paths.
Zatanna #13: Thirteen seems to be a lucky number for the creative team of Paul Dini and Jamal Igle. As a writer, Dini has struck a great balance of entertainment and adventure for Zatanna. As Dini gears up to take Zatanna up against Brother Night again, Igle is the perfect artist to render this issue's guest star, Spectre. The key to striking Spectre scenes (where he is typically meting out punishment) is an artist with an active imagination, Igle fits that bill. For readers wondering what larger role Detective Dale Colton has in this series, this issue provides a surprising answer.
Heroes for Hire #7: This issue was a tad uneven for me, which surprised me as I usually enjoy the book. It's a shame, as a great deal of elements laid out in past issues came together quite nicely in this issue. The uneven nature is squarely on the odd insecure tendencies that the writers give Paladin in this issue. Hopefully it's a temporary crisis of confidence due to his injuries (and working with someone like Spider-Man). Despite this quirk, I really am happy to see how the creators continue to evolve the role and actions of Misty Knight, who is the backbone of this book on many levels. I hope this series is around for the long haul, because ultimately I think Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning is giving readers another unique strong female lead.
Koyama Press debuted a number of books at TCAF the other week. While I didn't get to attend the festival, Anne Koyama was nice enough to send me a couple of review copies.
Lose #3: The latest issue in Michael DeForge's ongoing series that will catapult him to greatness. This issue features a flying squirrel/dog thing that has very poor social skills and makes horrible faux pas and just generally embarrasses himself in front of his co-workers, ex-wife and children. It's wonderful in that sort of cringe-y, off-kilter sort of vein that DeForge mines so well This sort of one-man anthology series is the sort of thing every aspiring cartoonist did back in the 90s in order to get a foothold in the alt-comix world. Now it's all graphic novels and book deals, so kudos to DeForge for keeping it old-school.
Root Rot: This is a rather interesting anthology of Koyama-funded artists and like-minded souls. DeForge did the cover. The most well known name here is probably Dan Zettwoch. The interesting thing about this booklet is each artist is only given two pages to work with, so the book almost takes on the feel of a college-type portfolio/sampler at times. Still, quite a few contributors are able to cram a lot of great work in their two pages, like Zettwoch, Hellen Jo, Joseph Lambert, Angie Wang, T. Edward Bak and Chris Eliopoulos. Enough to make for a worthwhile purchase.
Monster Party by Chris Eliopoulos: A bunch of monsters are hiding in the basement of a little boy's house because he never cleans it up. Then they come out of hiding and a rather gleeful bit of mayhem ensues, but it's all in good fun. A good comic to share with your kids, especially the messy ones.
Cat Rackham Loses It by Steve Wolfhard: An amusing little tale about a cat who loses his woodland home (such as it is) when another cat, with a gun strapped to his back, seizes it by force. No, I didn't mistype that last sentence. Wolfhard draws in a cute, appealing style and has a knack for quiet, wordless humor that makes the comic appealing, even though it is a rather quick read. Recommended.
Color Me Busy by Keith Jones: This is the only comic in the bunch that left me cold. Like the title suggests, it's basically designed as a coloring book, only of nattily dressed, anthropomorphic dogs (or dog-headed humans, whichever you prefer) and various lumpy, cylindrical or phallic objects that litter the page. That's really all there is to it. There's just pages and pages of this ... stuff with no narrative or structure or seeming forethought put into it other than a seemingly obsessive compulsion to draw lumpy bread dough again and again. If this were a little cheaper or printed on actual coloring book paper I could possibly grok it a bit more, but for now I'm just kind of scratching my head and moving on.
It seems like I'm reading a lot of manga lately, and despite the demise of Tokyopop, there's plenty of good stuff coming out. At the top of my stack at the moment is the first volume of Kannagi: Crazy Shrine Maiden, from Bandai. It's like Oh My Goddess lite: A high school student releases a goddess from her host tree (which has been cut down) and gently humorous complications ensue. I'm not finished with the volume yet, but so far the dynamic seems to be that the human male gets bossed around a lot, rather than having his every wish catered to. It's simple, sweet, and funny, and the art has a nice linear style that makes it easy to read.
I also picked up the first volume of Dark Horse's Archie archives and was pleased to see that it starts with the very first Archie comic, which features Betty and Jughead, but no Veronica. This is a really nice way to read these early comics‹the book is the same size as the originals, and the color quality is good. Unlike a lot of archives books, it lacks a scholarly essay to put the comics in context -- there's just a cheery note from Archie CEO Jon Goldwater -- but that leaves room for more comics. And it's fun to see how much, and how little, has changed -- Jughead's "Girls! Ick!" attitude is there from the very first episode, but Archie prefers to be called Chick rather than his given name, and the characters' faces are very different from the modern versions.
I tend to read non-fiction most of the time. At the moment I'm reading The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins and The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life by Bettany Hughes.
The last comic I read was, appropriately, the Lost Girls by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie. I was really drawn into the story, a completely different, and much wordier, view of pornography than my book. The effect was interesting. By the third book, much like the malaise of the times, and the dread of war in the background, I'd really had enough of the sex scenes. I felt over-sated. I'm sure this is what Alan wanted. Very effective.