What Are You Reading?

As the final days of summer start to waste away and you're looking for something to enjoy before hitting the books for school, there's no better place to find some good stuff to read than right here in our weekly What Are You Reading? column.This week our guest is journalist/blogger Heidi MacDonald, of The Beat and Publishers Weekly fame.

To see what Heidi and the rest of the Robot 6 crew have been reading, click below ...

Tim O'Shea

Welcome to Tranquility: One Foot in the Grave is a fun read for the back story element. This issue opens with a flashback to a 1960s beach party film with Mr. Articulate in his traditional costume (down to 1960s sock stirrups) ... but in swim trunks? Any chance that writer Gail Simone gets to do comedy, as far as I'm concerned, the overall story benefits.

Invincible Iron Man 29: As much as I enjoy Matt Fraction's writing on this book, Salvador Larroca's art is just too antiseptic and stilted for me to enjoy the story. There's a geek scene in which, as dated as geeks can dress, there's no geek that dresses like Alex P. Keaton of 1985. I guess it was an effort by Larroca to go for comedy, it just fell flat for me.

After this month's issue, there's only installment left in the 10-part miniseries of Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba's Daytripper. I hate to see this story end. I'm hoping Vertigo taps this creative team again, if they're interested. If you told me when this series started it would end with the death of some variation of the same character, there's no way I would have imagined I could enjoy the series as much as I have.

If I had any chance of being labeled as one of the hip comic book critics (not likely) it ends today. I'm immensely enjoying JMS's Superman and hope it continues in this done-in-one (while part of the larger Grounded arc) style. I'm sure others can point to large plot holes or character inconsistencies (it's what fuels the Internet), but I don't care. I enjoy this story so much, I can ignore the whole Superman looking like Christopher Reeve mandate that DC editorial seems to be enforcing these days.

Zatanna 4 finds Dini getting into a groove with the book. As a touring performer, Dini is allowed to take the character to different towns for adventures. In this issue she hits Vegas. There's a bittersweet moment for me in this issue, as Zatanna practices escaping from a straightjacket; lamenting that her time was slow and "Lame. Scott Free could do it in twelve [seconds]." Why is that bittersweet? Last I checked Scott Free is dead or missing, along with the rest of the new gods. I'm glad Dini still remembers a universe where Scott Free exists, but I'm surprised DC editorial let the reference slip in.

Roger Langridge is building a unique Marvel universe in Thor: The Mighty Avenger and I'm just happy to be reading it. One has to wonder if Marvel is leaning on Langridge to write an Avengers title in this vein at some point (I sure as hell hope so), judging from the way he effectively works in Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne in this third issue of the series. Artist Chris Samnee and Langridge have constructed one of the most engaging takes on Thor in three issues, it's visually nothing like Kirby but very Kirby-esque in tone. For me, it's the best title that Marvel publishes at present--hands down. (Small aside to Marvel, you might want to check the spelling of Langridge's name on the cover)

This past week on Twitter many folks took a moment to observe G-Day--a day where colleagues and fans remember Mark Gruenwald (who died 14 years ago) and Mike Wieringo (who we lost three years ago). Look to Twitter hashtags #MarkGruenwald and #MikeWieringo for a glimpse of people's reflections. Chris Roberson reposted his essay from a few years back on Gruenwald, which includes this conclusion:

"The current state of superhero comics, with its obsessive attention to continuity and rationalization, line-wide crossovers, multiple realities, and increasing divergence from the real world, resembles nothing so much as a Mark Gruenwald comic writ large. Everything that Gruenwald pioneered, from the late seventies through the mid-nineties, has now become industry standard. And the mainstream superhero comics of today resemble Gruenwald’s Squadron Supreme more than they resemble the mainstream comics of the day."

Brigid Alverson

I read Megan Kelso's Artichoke Tales almost in a single sitting, which is probably a good way to do it. Her characters are deceptively cute and simply drawn, and at first I had trouble telling one from another, but they are full of interesting quirks. This book deals with some standard themes—strong women and intellectual, impractical men, the impulse that leads to war, technology vs. rural simplicity—but none is treated in a standard way. Kelso definitely has a point of view, but she doesn't insult the reader's intelligence, and there's plenty of nuance; she's telling a story, not making a point. Also, it's beautiful just to look at. There's no mention at all of artichokes, though, which was a little disappointing; it's purely a visual thing.

As a former New Yorker myself, I have a lot of love for Julia Wertz's Drinking at the Movies, an unsparing but hilarious account of her life after she left her native San Francisco to live in poverty, squalor, and drunkenness in Brooklyn. Her drawings and descriptions of herself are uniformly self-deprecating—it's like Cathy, only smarter and with a lot more drinking. Too much drinking, actually, and although she cleverly depicts her depression and drunkenness by showing her anthropomorphized brain going off on one toot after another, it's hard not to see something concerning behind the laughter. She's self-aware enough to know that, though, and in the end she does quit drinking, so the story is really a good picture of a functioning, self-rationalizing alcoholic. And it's really funny. Everyone who has ever been 23 should read this book.

And, as I indicated in Friday's blog post, I did indeed start reading Nathan Sorry. I has a great story, and I really like Rich Barrett's clean art (a bit like Cameron Stewart's Sin Titulo) and slightly nonlinear storytelling style—he shifts back and forth in time, revealing a bit of the story at a time. It's very intriguing and I'm looking forward to seeing where it goes next.

Sean T. Collins

Two shaky but interesting works bookended a real must-read for me this week. Click the links for full reviews...

Cyclone Bill & the Tall Tales by Dan Dougherty: It's far from perfect, but one of the rare rock and roll mythmaking comics that's more endearing than annoying.

Fandancer by Geoff Grogan: A stunning genre-and-media-mixing meditation on besieged femininity? A bowl-you-over Kirby superheroine tribute? Stop, you're both right!

A God Somewhere by John Arcudi and Peter Snejbjerg: Superhero revisionism from the brain behind B.P.R.D--mostly flawed, still worth a read.

Heidi MacDonald

The PlaywrightBy Darren White and Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf)

The story of a successful middle-aged playwright who lives a celibate life sounded like heavy heavy going, but this book made me laugh out loud several times, even though the comedy is dark throughout. The Playwright lives in a carefully proscribed lifestyle, fantasizing about the girls he sees on public transport, carrying out mental rituals that he developed to protect himself from childhood emotional abuse. But when his mentally handicapped brother comes into custody instead of sending him to a home, he hires a live-in nurse to care for him. That pounding on the door the Playwright hears is Change, and resist as he might, it will come. It turns out that in many ways the Playwright is correct to fight – his success as an author is directly tied to his failure as a well-rounded human being.

Along the way we learn every detail of The Playwright’s phobias and OCD and their origins. (The Nurse’s pathology is also examined and equally screwed up.) While the Playwright lives an outwardly sedate and safely chaste life, inside, like all of us, he’s a stewing cauldron of impulse and longing, which is shown in scatological and frequently hilarious detail.

White and Campbell have collaborated on several graphic novels including Batman. White controlled writing brings out Eddie the Illustrator and the warm, flowing watercolors Campbell uses here – much more inviting than the scratchy pen and ink he uses for more foreboding tales – helps bring these ridiculous characters to life and makes them likable. By the end you may even be rooting for the Playwright.

If you had forgotten that Eddie Campbell is one of the finest cartoonists of his generation, the quiet naturalism and deadpan humor of The Playwright will remind you, big time.

My next two what are you readings are previews, so if I’m a stinker for getting so many advance copies, I apologize in advance.

X’ed OutBy Charles Burns (Pantheon)

This doesn’t come out until October, but some black and white galleys are floating around and even without the final color this book is a spellbinder that you can read over and over. I’m a huge Twin Peaks fan and this reminded me of David Lynch and for once the comparison isn’t unflattering to the newcomer. The story opens with Doug, a young man who is recovering from some kind of head injury. Then his little black cat Inky leads him into another world full of Burns’ patented grotesqueries. But in the meantime, there are shiftless teens partying it up, a misshapen animal guide in the fantasy world, and questions questions everywhere.

X’ed Out is Burns take on Tintin, -- Inky = Snowy, get it? – as a youth explores a world of adventure, only this time the adventure is based in horror, drug abuse, nagging parents, and parties gone bad.

Like Campbell, it’s beyond dispute that Burns is one of the finest cartoonists of his generation. As in his acclaimed Black Hole, Burns starting point is the tropes of 50’s horror films about teenagers who party a little too hard and pay the price at the hands of some supernatural monster. But he’s upgraded those bland melodramas to cover real emotions and sympathetic characters.

Burns art here is as pitch perfect as ever—even the most mundane plate of Pop Tarts is infused with dread and danger. Sadly X’ed out is only the beginning of what looks to be a fantastic epic. I want it all right now!

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or LessBy Sarah Glidden (DC/Vertigo)

Another advance – sorry! – but Glidden’s mini comics version of this is still available here and there. Glidden’s mini comic created such a stir when it came out in 2007 that she was immediately snapped up by Vertigo to produce a redrawn and colored version of this autobiographical story.

I’ve been frank in the past about tiring of the many mundane autobiographical comics out there, but Glidden doesn’t fall into the self-absorption trap. This is the story of her Birthright journey to Israel – a trip that young Jews age 18-26 are entitled to take. The trips are funded by charities to enable younger Jews to bond with Israel and their heritage. Glidden goes on the trip as something of a skeptic with an agenda – she’s most concerned with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and feels sure that she’s going to find the pro-Zionist version of the story discredited.

Glidden’s story function as a travelogue and political commentary. An armed guard has to accompany the group, which gets shown films even their guide identifies as propaganda at various stops. But as the journey continues, Glidden finds out that maybe nothing is as simple as anyone wants to pretend.

For a debut graphic novel, this is a stunning achievement. Glidden uses the 9-panel grid – reminiscent of Burns – and a loose watercolor style – reminiscent of Campbell – showing that she’s studied her comics theory well. Her drawings are simple but packed with telling detail. You get a real feeling for the terrain and country and the people she encounters. Most important, Glidden has a good sense of her own fallibility and isn’t afraid to question. The “situation,” as it is called, is unimaginably complex and tragic with no answers or solution.

Glidden has the eye of a journalist, and those unfamiliar with the history if Israel will learn a great deal from this book. Some will undoubtedly say it favors this side or that, as well, but that seems tragically inevitable as well. Glidden has more projects in the journo-comics (i.e. Joe Sacco) vein planned, and based on this debut, she is definitely a cartoonist to watch.

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