Welcome to another round of What Are You Reading. With JK Parkin in the midst of San Diego Comic-Con madness, I'm taking over the WAYR duties for this week. Our guest this week is blogger, noteworthy critic and Newsarama contributor Matt Seneca.
Find out what Matt's been reading (he's got a long list), and be sure to include your own current reading list, after the jump ...
Tim O'Shea: After discussing the first issue of Batman Beyond with one of our readers, Lockjaw, a few weeks ago, I decided to pick up the second installment in the six-issue miniseries. I should not have been surprised, but DC editorial has decided to inject Hush into the Batman Beyond future continuity. Any appearance of Hush elicits an automatic groan from me, but I have to give Adam Beechen credit for summarizing the convoluted Hush backstory in a succinct manner. Plus I'm a sucker for grumpy elderly Bruce Wayne. I'll likely be back for next issue.
Double shot of Jeff Parker this week. I'm almost too sad about the series' cancellation (and a tad bored by the 3-D Man storyline [sorry Parker]) to enjoy Atlas 3. But note I said "almost." Ken Hale/Gorilla Man is too great a character, no matter what, to not enjoy the story. I am happy to say I enjoyed Thunderbolts 146. In fact, it's likely thefirst time I've completely enjoyed the team dynamics, banter and general plotlines since the era when Kurt Busiek wrote it (yea, it's been awhile since I enjoyed the series).
Dear IDW, I cannot thank you enough for the $2 oversized prelude to The Outfit -- featuring Richard Stark's Parker in The Man with the Getaway Face. Darwyn Cooke is a damned genius when it comes to layout, I could just look at his art and forget the words. But even his lettering style (which combined with the art) evokes an alluring Alex Toth vibe to it, which just absolutely demands my attention and respect. October 2010 cannot come soon enough, in terms of this project.
I never expected Gail Simone to be able to return Welcome to Tranquility, but she has. Considering how the first series ended, I was really thrown (as Simone intended) by how she mixed up the status quo on this series. And she continued to shake things up throughout this first issue, much to my delight. I'll be back next issue to see if what I read was the truth or a major deception. Either way, I'm hooked, again. I just hope the emoticon-faced character upgraded to an iPad ...
Last, but definitely not least, I want BOOM to do more comics like CBGB. The book is a blast to read. I absolutely cracked up with how artist Marc Ellerby handled celebrity likenesses in the story. I know it's unlikely to sell well, but every indie fan who has understandably ignored past BOOM! work should do themselves a favor and check thisout. Here's who is involved: Kieron Gillen (Phonogram), Rob G (Couriers), Sam Humphries (MySpace Comics), and Ellerby (Love The Way You Love). Featuring a cover from Jaime Hernandez (Love & Rockets). After reading Humphries for the first time here, I look forward to seeing more from him.
Michael May: Though you probably know from the title if Super Maxi-Pad Girl is your sort of thing, I’m finding that my opinion about it has softened somewhat since the first couple of issues. Creator Daniel Olson sent me the third one and I’ve either gotten used to the concept enough to relax about it or it’s genuinely less gross. Not that it’s completely toned down. I mean it’s still a superhero metaphor for menstruation, which makes it twenty-four pages of jokes about bodily fluids. But no one gets hit in the face with a used pad in this issue and some of the characters are starting to endear themselves to me. Especially the cute little Papyrus and Cotton, the ancient, sort of Golden Age versions of Super Maxi-Pad Girl who show up in a storyline about time-travel.
Meanwhile, Neal Shaffer and Luca Genovese’s The Awakening is an intriguing mystery, but the conclusion is rushed and leaves too many questions unanswered. It says “Volume 1,” so maybe there's more to come, but it's unsatisfying on its own.
Sean Collins: As I write this it's Saturday evening and my power has been out for three and a half hours. On a hundred-degree day. Beating the heat with comics!
Please click the links for full-length reviews of the books I read this week...
Batman R.I.P., by Grant Morrison, Tony S. Daniel, and Lee Garbett: A blast of a book, with wonderful creepy villains and Batman at his crazy best.
King-Cat Comics and Stories #69, by John Porcellino: A study in what comics do well, using the fewest lines possible.
Scott Pilgrim Vol. 6: Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour, by Bryan Lee O'Malley: The comic of the hour, deservedly so.
Brigid Alverson: Sam Costello sent me the print edition of his Split Lip webcomic, and I'm enjoying it, if one could be said to "enjoy" stories that deliberately induce discomfort. Let's just say they are very effective. It's an anthology of short horror stories, all written by Costello and illustrated by different artists, and the ones I have read so far all rely more on psychology than blood and guts, although insects and spiders have figured largely in the first few stories. The writing does have a few hiccups—there were parts of the stories that weren't entirely clear to me—but the overall effect is very impressive. The stories are available for free on Costello's website, but the book is a smoother read and the large format and lack of distractions help immerse you in the stories.
Also this week I read the second volume of Twin Spica, a manga about a young girl who dreams of being an astronaut. In this volume, Asumi, the heroine, is 15, and she is just starting her astronaut training course at the academy. This story of young students striving to succeed, complicated by personality conflicts, is a standard mangatrope, but creator Kou Yaginuma really breathes life into it, with characters and situations that feel genuine, and a nicely detailed art style that brings the setting to life. This is a slim volume, but I felt like I got a satisfying chunk of story plus a few bonuses. It ends on cliffhanger, though, so now I can't wait for volume 3.
Matt Seneca: I'm in a place right now where I hardly ever "read" comics if I'm not reviewing them. Unless the book's an utter masterpiece, panel to panel to page to page to cover to cover can get to be a slog for me. Currently I'm finding a lot more enjoyment and reward in "looking at" comics than actually "reading" them. As such I've started to keep a big pile going at all times, maybe a foot tall of hardcovers and magazines and board-and-bagged issues and whatever else. Books cycle in as I acquire them, cycle out as I finish or get bored with them. Sometimes I'll take in one page of everything over the course of a few open minutes. Sometimes I'll take as long as I need to blaze through a book just to have absorbed it and be able to move on. Sometimes something hooks me and I leave the rest of the comics behind until I've wrung every last drop out of it. No matter what, the Pile is always there. I like to think of it as an apartment tower to live in, each floor composed of a new fictional world, a different friend on every level. Let's take a walking tour.
Hands down the biggest book for me right now is Valentina, the Italian maestro Guido Crepax's ode in brush and ink to the beautiful woman who sluices through his panels like honey through open fingers. In my opinion it's absolutely the most important work not to have been resurrected by the Golden Age of Reprints -- lushly drawn, supremely engaging comics that have as much human heart to them as formal mastery. Crepax's art is a kind of proto-Frank Miller looking mix between Jim Steranko, Alex Raymond, and Andy Warhol at his pop-art best. By turns vigorously cartooned and stunningly illustrated with what might be the best ink line the medium's played host to, it's a comic with the stuff of real life to it, whose movements through time and space give off the silent, bright intimacy of great art or dreams. The psychoerotic history of a young photographer named Valentina Roselli, it's by turns action-packed, contemplative, sexy, and difficult -- but always limitless, always pushing at the very furthest boundaries of what comics can do, and more often than not expanding them.
NBM published two English-language volumes of Valentina through their Eurotica imprint a while ago, but Crepax drew hundreds and hundreds of pages of the book (including a lot of the best ones) that remain untranslated. There are many opulent Italian-langauge Valentina hardcovers that the confirmed fan can have pretty cheaply with a little looking; probably not the way to discover the book, but the best for just enjoying it. If you've ever had a really powerful experience with foreign film you'll know what I mean. Looking at Crepax' panels through the watery screen of a language barrier gives the images an almost hypnotic power, a dreamlike resonance that's as close to unforgettable as comics come.
If you want Valentina for beginners, though, a few translated stories were serialized in Heavy Metal magazine between 1981 and '84. By that point in time the bastion of porn-y Eurocomics is generally considered to have passed its prime, but the good issues from the early '80s are still better than just about anything you'll get off the new racks. Along with Valentina you can find formalist shorts from Moebius, the great post-post-Kirby work of Yugoslav master Enki Bilal, achingly gorgeous sci-fi meanderings by Francois Schuiten, Richard Corben comics... and more than that, HM had a real atmosphere to it during this period. It's both bizarre and appropriate to turn a page of Jim Steranko's vastly underrated Outland onto a review of the new John Cale record. You can do a lot worse than digging through the Heavy Metal back issues at your local shop. The stuff is only lost to time if no one reads it.
Of course, that sentence applies to just about any brilliant, uncollected comics series out there -- for example, DC's Solo. You've probably heard of this mid-2000s experiment in art-comics from the more adventurous of the Big Two publishers, but even if you were reading it, odds are you stopped at some point. The book got canned for poor sales with two completed issues left unpublished, one of the greater shames of the last decade in mainstream comics. The quality fluctuates from issue to issue as different artists take the book's reins to do whatever they want with the DC library for 48 pages, but it's between like the four- and five-star levels, with every one offering up bounties worth of eye candy and usually more than one good story to read. I most recently went through Teddy Kristiansen's issue; the Danish painter is a guy who doesn't get talked about a lot, but he's an absolute master of the form, searing his pages with rough, bleak textures, spidery lines, and Cubist forms moving through giant, enigmatic cities. He's a hell of a writer, too, the brusque, emotional self-penned stories collected in his issue showing up even Neil Gaiman's contribution.
His art also draws a remarkably straight line to the next book down in the Pile: Frank Santoro's epic, big-hearted Storeyville, originally published as a tabloid-sized comics newspaper and given a massive deluxe hardcover by Picturebox a few years ago. This thing never goes back on my shelf for long; it's a primer in a unique, lovely form of comics art, crystallizing a beautiful moment in every panel while still rushing headlong through a full-steam story that reads like George Herriman adapting Mark Twain. Each giant page is like a canvas that talks: there to read as fast as you can the first few times, then to savor the soft colors, the expressionistic pen marks, the compositions of forever more. Both a look back through history into the gritty, pulp-mill Americana that spawned the comics medium and a signpost for tomorrow's cartoonists to follow, it's inspirational in every way a comic can be.
Same goes for Frank King's Walt & Skeezix, a comic that isn't a million miles from Storeyville in tone or execution. The difference is that while Santoro looks back into yesteryear, King's work is yesteryear itself: a great, long-unheralded comic reprinted for the audience of connoisseurs it always deserved. While Santoro gives us a blurred, smeary, half-remembered splinter of the past, D&Q's thick, lovingly designed Skeezix hardcovers are the next best thing to taking a history class. King's warm, wistful, robustly cartooned daily strips chronicle the real-life-speed development of a family around bachelor Walt and his foundling son Skeezix. It's probably the best work of character development in comics history, as King adds an up incident a day for years, creating human beings so fully rounded that before long the reader feels like part of the family too. Walt & Skeezix is much more than a character piece, though: with its massive scope and quiet, observant tone it feels as much about the passage of time itself as the sprawling cast's daily lives. By volume 4, the most recent in the series, a good decade of American history has gone by, and the reader's been shown as much of the world people lived in during the 1910s and '20s as what they ended up doing in it.
Evoking a real world, whether past, present, or future, is the highest goal of comics, and while few succeed in the naturalistic mode of King, many have taken up the challenge of contemporary family drama and tailored it to their own skill set. Witness another D&Q reprint hardcover, last year's mammoth, revelatory Complete Doug Wright. Wright was one of the many forgotten men of Canadian cartooning until this career retrospective reintroduced him to the comics world, but his work has lost nothing in immediacy or charm during its wilderness years. This bountiful, generously sized book reprints enough of Wright's commercial art to double as an impressive monograph, and even includes some top-notch biography, but we're here for the comics -- and the decade of Wright's mischievous-kid strip Nipper collected here does not disappoint. Inhabiting a space somewhere between the minimalist gags of Dennis the Menace and the aesthetically minded Canadiana of comics by Seth (who designed this book), Nipper flies by in passage after passage of mid-century modern design and youthful exuberance. It's laugh-out-loud humor material from beginning to end, but what stands out most is Wright's way with a pen. Inscribing every panel with a perfect blend of detail and simplification, master of a shorthand most cartoonists would kill for, Wright's light, immaculate art stands tall with that of any other master of his time period.
And speaking of midcentury modern, as well as master cartoonists from the '50s and '60s, the constructed, elegant end of Silver Age superhero art finds its answer to Kirby's rough bombast in the work of Carmine Infantino, particularly the Adam Strange Archives. Delicate and so dated they seem genuinely alien, Infantino's space-age collaborations with writer Gardner Fox and inker Murphy Anderson are a strand of hero comics that died with their era, but provided just as much to follow up on as the pathos and slam of the early Marvel stories they sat next to on the newsstands. Fox's scripts are deft and considered, with more thinking and conceptualizing to them than mainstream comics would see again pre-Alan Moore, while the art is simply incredible. Graceful and full of color, Infantino brings as much design and visual imagination to his pages as any pre-Steranko action artist, giving Fox's quaint, Ray Bradbury-ish ideas a sunny beauty and convincing verve while Anderson brushes an illustrative luster over everything. They haven't made hero comics like these in over forty years, but heaven knows why. Hermetically sealed by a history that's passed them by, the best Adam Strange stories are visions of a more beautiful future that sadly never came to pass.
As to futures that still have a chance, you can't do any better than checking out comics by Yuichi Yokoyama, without a doubt the most advanced and forward-looking comics artist working today. Yokoyama draws like a robot, or maybe a Martian who's been told about the comics medium but never actually seen examples of it. His art is all straight black lines, zip-a-toned artificiality, postmodern architecture and jutting angles, with no room for any human warmth or feeling. Even the Japanese characters that form his panels' sound effects double as repetitive design elements. Two things tend to happen in Yokoyama's stories: nothing (men spend 200 pages taking a train ride from point A to point B) or everything (an entire city is destroyed and its inhabitants murdered by a fully-armed "ladder truck"). Either way, something is always in rapid motion through the sterile, imposing beauty of Yokoyama's landscapes, and there is always the prediction of a future for both comics and the world in general, often one too alien to fully understand. If you're interested in the big picture, in what comics will look like in a hundred years rather than twelve months, check out Travel and New Engineering. They may absorb you, they may scare you, they may amuse you, they may even bore you, but you'll be marked by them no matter what.